“Fred.” Wesley looked at me, eyes shifting away from Angel. I clutched the folder a little tighter and fought the urge to do something silly like smooth down my skirt. Him and Angel were standing shoulder-to-shoulder in Wesley’s office, neither of them looking especially happy.
“Hey, guys.” I walked into the room. “I think I have a case.”
“Thank God.” They chorused in unison: I frowned: they certainly seemed eager for a dangerous potential disaster. What had they been talking about?
“Children’s epidemic,” I explained, folding my arms as Angel examined the file. “Seven kids, comatose, each with a semi-rictus of the facial muscles. I haven’t been able to isolate a causative agent.” I looked over at Wesley.
“You think it’s mystical?” Wesley took a half-step forwards.
I did a half-shrug. “Well, I've been down the strictly physiological route, number-crunched all the victims' charts, even had our hospital contacts send over blood samples. I've pulled all their plasma apart. No indicators on the cellular or sub-cellular levels.” Wesley nodded thoughtfully, eyes boring into mine.
The way he hung on my every word was very intoxicating. I’d never really noticed back at the hotel, but here - with so many experts and important clients around - it was obvious just how much attention Wesley paid to my every word. Analysing, considering and responding. It was a miracle that despite this amount of attention, he’d been blind to the signals I’d been throwing his way.
At least, I assumed it was blindness. Hoped it was. Because if the way Wesley felt about me had suddenly, inexplicably changed… I wasn’t sure I was prepared to deal with that. I definitely wasn’t prepared to deal with that.
“TV.” Angel announced abruptly
I turned to face him. “What?”
“Parents said all the kids collapsed between 7:00 and… looks like 7:30 am. And all of them in front of the TV.” Angel read off the folder.
“Huh.” I suppose the risk of focusing on the science was that you missed non-scientific patterns. Still, there had to be some kind of scientific sign. A signal that something was wrong. “That could be something, but I'd still like to get a handle on the pathology.”
“Good.” Angel nodded, then his gaze flicked to Wesley. Then back to me. His eyes lit up, like he’d had a moment of inspiration. “Actually, not good enough.”
“What?” I frowned.
“Seven kids so far, Fred. The science isn’t working.” Angel tapped the folder meaningfully. “Besides, you can’t do any more lab work tonight, the place will be deserted.”
“Then what do you expect her to do?” Wesley asked, and I could hear the frown in his voice. Sticking up for me. Like always. “Shrink down a tiny submarine and voyage inside the children to figure out what’s wrong with them? Science and research… these things take time, Angel. And manpower.”
“I couldn’t have put it better myself.” Angel snapped the folder shut. “And you two look conspicuously not-busy right now. I want both of you to work this case. Together. Right now, this is your top priority.”
“Angel, I… I don’t have any more samples to analyse.” I stammered.
“And I don’t even know where to start looking.” Wesley continued.
“Follow up on the TV thing.” Angel waved one hand. “Go find Lorne, get him to take a look at this. Clear your schedules: I don’t want you two out of each other’s sight until progress has been made.” Angel tossed Wesley the folder, who caught it, looking startled.
“Seven kids need your help.” Angel nodded at the door. “Get moving.” Angel was sure taking this one seriously… Had I interrupted a brooding session?
Wesley blinked. “But… this is my office.”
Angel hesitated. “Right. Okay. Well… just get on it.” He awkwardly walked out of the office.
“Well.” Wesley sighed and rubbed his eyes with his hands. “So much for getting any sleep tonight.”
“Yeah, Angel was acting weird.” I frowned, hiding a smile. This had actually worked out nicely: up until now I’d been planning to use the crappy excuse that my car was in the shop - again - to get Wesley to travel home with me. Instead, I’d now have an opportunity to spend some time with him, lame excuse not required.
“He is a bit jumpy.” Wesley smiled ever so slightly, and it made him look even more handsome somehow. I missed the days when Wesley smiled more often.
Actually, I just missed Wesley. Period.
“He’s realised Nina has feelings for him.” Wesley explained, leaning back on the desk in front of me.
“Well, took long enough.” I laughed. I had a bad feeling it came out slightly nervous. Angel had finally caught on: now I just needed Wesley to have a similar stroke of inspiration. Still, no reason I couldn’t try to help Wesley have one of those. Again. For the fifty-eighth time.
But who was counting?
“Come on.” I smiled flirtily. “Let’s go grab some coffee on the way to Lorne’s office. We can check out Angel’s television lead afterwards.”
“Good idea.” Wesley nodded. “I could do with a cup of coffee.” I hovered for a few seconds until he came round the desk, then we walked out into the open area together. The building was about as quiet as it got: one or two lawyers walking around, a janitor sweeping the stairs and a two-headed yellow demon trying desperately to fit its bulk into an elevator.
I couldn’t keep a small smile off my face: just the two of us, sitting together, drinking coffee and chatting. Just like old times… except without the Jenga. We could relax for a little bit, then go and see Lorne after.
“Say,” Wesley turned to me. “Why don’t you chase up Lorne, get him back over here while I grab your coffee? We can save ourselves some time.”
Oh. I’d kind of been hoping we could just sit for a bit and drink the coffee. “Sounds great.” I forced a smile. “I’d like-”
“Cappuccino, three sugars, and I’ll add a few of the little marshmallows from the side plate.” Wesley chuckled. “I know your coffee order, Fred.”
Of course he did. He knew practically everything about me except the fact that I had blatantly obvious feelings for him!! I managed a grateful smile, then zipped down to Lorne’s office and knocked on the door. “Hi, Fredikins!” He smiled, waving me in. “What’s cookin’, good-looking?”
I laughed. “Hi, Lorne. Wesley and I have been assigned a new case by Angel, and he thinks it might have something to do with TV. We were hoping to draft your expert assistance?”
“Will there be coffee?” Lorne stood up.
“Coffee and the delightful Fredikins? How could I refuse?” Lorne and I began walking back towards Wesley’s office.
“So.” He asked after a brief pause. “How is our favourite Englishman these days?”
“Oh y’know,” I shrugged and smiled. “Same old Wesley.”
“Which one?” Lorne chuckled. “How many versions are we on now?”
“I think this model is the 5.0.” I adopted a thoughtful expression, tapping my chin. “Or did we get a software patch recently?”
“I think so. I remember it happened unexpectedly and came with a bunch of new features. Among them improved density, reduced perception and a strong dose of resignation.” Lorne patted me on the shoulder. “Keep trying Fredikins. He’ll cotton on eventually.”
I snorted. “Hopefully. At this point I’m starting to worry he’s deliberately ignoring me.”
Lorne gave a truly epic snort that put mine to shame. “No, he’s just dense.”
“Who is?” Wesley asked as we turned the corner, carrying two cups of coffee.
“Angel.” I replied instinctively.
“Yeah.” Lorne nodded. “We were just talking about how ignorant he is of all the signals dearest Nina has been throwing his way.” Lorne reached out and took the coffee Wesley had probably meant for himself. Oops. Well done Fred, let Lorne steal his coffee.
Wesley chuckled. “It is quite excruciating. To see a man so possessed of perception and street smarts be ignorant for so long of the obvious attraction another has for him.” He passed me my coffee.
“Thank you, Wesley.” I beamed at him.
“You’re welcome, Fred.” He barely even glanced at me. “Where was I? Yes, Angel really is extremely dense.”
“Yes.” Lorne nodded. “Yes he is. So, what’s this about the idiot box?”
Struggling to contain a laugh, I spoke up. “A bunch of kids all went comatose between the hours of seven and seven-thirty am, all of them in front of the TV. Angel thinks it’s connected. Wesley, would you… thanks.” Wesley had already passed Lorne the file. I passed him my coffee in response and he had a sip, smiling gratefully at me.
“It’s very sweet.” He remarked as Lorne began flipping through the file. “Not that that’s a bad thing.”
“Oh, you know me.” I shrugged and smiled widely at him, looking directly into his eyes. “I like sweet things.”
“Yes, that is a running theme.” Wesley nodded sagely, passing me back my coffee. I just about managed not to tear out my own hair in frustration, hiding my irritated pout behind the coffee cup. Not even the tasty marshmallow brightened my mood.
“Huh.” Lorne frowned. “Not many show runners in town are up to this kind of big league, sinister magic. But if it’s seven to seven-thirty, there’s one obvious candidate.”
“Go on.” I folded my arms. On the other side of Lorne, Wesley had just made the exact same motion.
“There’s a popular kids’ show in the regional market. Correct time slot and demographic…” Lorne fished out the picture of one of the kids, their face fixed in a creepy smile. “It’s called ‘Smile Time’.”
“Yikes.” I muttered. “That’s pretty dark.”
“You’re telling me.” Lorne replied, shuddering and handing back the folder. “Is it okay if I skedaddle? I have a jacuzzi strategy session in a few hours I need to prep for.”
“Go ahead, Lorne.” Wesley closed the folder. “I think we got what we needed.”
“What’s the address of the studio?” I asked. “Just to save us some more digging.” I could see a stakeout coming: Wesley and I, alone in the car. Ostensibly watching out for evil. Sitting. Chatting. Sharing coffee. And over the course of the night, I could slowly run my hand over towards him and maybe thread my fingers through his. Squeeze his hand gently. After a moment of surprise, he’d squeeze back. And the conversation would shift - slowly, subtly, inevitably - to the way I felt about him. Once he was there, with no imaginary excuse for my actions for him to devise, I’d only have to drop a few hints. Then I could lean in slowly, deliberately… and finally after an achingly, impossibly long wait for Wesley to notice how I felt we could-
Lorne rattled off an address. I blinked myself out of my daydream fast enough to see him wave and saunter off.
“Why did you ask for an address?” Wesley raised an eyebrow. “Are you saying we should… infiltrate the premises?”
“I was thinking more stakeout.” I frowned. I felt my pleasant daydream turn to smoke and sighed. “But I suppose an infiltration would be better for getting information.”
“Yes.” Wesley nodded. “I’ll call Angel. He and I can head over there, take a look around tonight while you get some sleep.”
Now I wasn’t even invited? This was even worse! That was one step too far, universe! “Actually!” I interrupted, then stammered trying to come up with an explanation for why Wesley shouldn’t dash off. “Angel did say we should stick together until we knew what this thing was all about. And I’d kind of like to do some field work. Kick it old school, as someone I know once said.”
Wesley flushed slightly red. “Right. Yes. Alright. Let’s do some infiltration.”
“Let’s go be super-spies.” I smiled. “What kind of gear should we grab?”
“Well,” Wesley frowned. “Best to go armed, just in case. Cameras for taking photos of crucial documents. I suppose a phone, in case we need to call for backup.”
“Sounds good.” I nodded. “Can I borrow one of your guns?”
“Sure.” Wesley nodded. “I’ll just go grab my jacket and we can get going. Are you sure you don’t want me to get Angel? I’d hate to keep you up for no reason.”
“Nah, it’s fine.” I grinned. “I’ll just grab another cup of coffee to keep me functional. It’s a time honoured tradition among scientists.” One more cup for us to share.
“Excellent.” Wesley nodded. “I’ll go call one of the drivers, get us a nondescript ride over there.”
Great. Company in the car. Didn’t he know three was a crowd? “Let’s just take my car.” I suggested.
Wesley blinked. “It’s out of the shop already?”
I cursed internally. “Wolfram and Hart can get cars fixed up fast.”
“Oh. Alright.” He nodded, then smiled crookedly. “Should I be worried about it coming to life and trying to eat us?”
“Nah.” I shook my head, laughing softly. “I already fed it a couple of interns today.”
+ + + + + + +
I looked up at the KTCE television building and shivered. Wesley immediately passed me his jacket, which I accepted gratefully. “This place is creepy.” I mumbled as we walked to the side door.
“I concur.” Wesley looked up at the building. “There’s something eerie about deserted public buildings. Like schools.”
“Or hospitals.” I volunteered.
“Or swimming pools.” Wesley nodded, walking toward the door.
“Although,” I said slowly as we walked. “The right company can make anywhere less eerie and more… conveniently empty.”
“Yes.” Wesley agreed, stopping by the door. “Wolfram and Hart are good at clearing out buildings thoroughly: ghosts, infestations…” I sighed internally.
I tried the door: locked. Obviously. “Dammit.” I muttered, looking up: there was an open window! “Wesley give me a boost. I might be able to grab that windowsill!” And if it put Wesley in close proximity to my especially short skirt… so much the better.
“That won’t be necessary.” Wesley flattened his palm against the air a foot or so from the door. A faint green light shimmered across his hand and the door clicked open.
I rolled my eyes, slightly annoyed my idea hadn’t taken off. “So what, you’re like James Bond mixed with Dr Strange? I could get used to that.” Two deliberately flattering comparisons…
Wesley chuckled and pushed the door open. “After you.” And no recognition. Of course. What did he want, for me to carry a neon sign?
I swallowed and walked in, creeping down the corridor. “Okay, this place has to be run by evil demons.” I looked down the fully lit corridor.
“What makes you say that?” Wesley asked.
“They left all the lights on. At night. That wastes money and natural resources.”
A janitor suddenly rounded the corridor ahead, marching straight for us - face set in a creepy, blank and slightly terrifying expression - and I froze. Wesley quickly stepped forward, flattening me against the wall. He twisted his wrist and his collapsible sword shot out. He levelled it at the janitor and said nothing. I could imagine the dangerous, protective glint in his eyes.
The janitor kept shuffling, pushing along his cart. I frowned: how had he not seen us, we were only a few feet away from him! Wesley raised one hand in front of the man’s eyes. He didn’t react at all, and kept going.
“How curious.” Wesley retracted his sword, head turning to follow him. “He appears to be under some kind of spell.”
“Gee, you think?” I raised an eyebrow.
Wesley sagged slightly. “I suppose I was asking for that.” He muttered. Oops. Maybe I should tone down the sarcasm. “Let’s find the Smile Time office.”
“This is creepy.” I muttered, looking around the room: human-size cardboard cutouts of creepy puppets, a giant smiley-sun poster and normal felt puppets everywhere. And a strange humming noise. “Do you hear that?” I whispered to Wesley.
“I do.” He began slowly walking across the darkened room. I followed in his wake: I wonder how he’d react if I grabbed his forearm like all the damsels did in movies? With the luck I was having so far, he’d probably produce a walking stick and give it to me to help with my balance.
The humming led us to the front of a filing cabinet, which was vibrating softly. I felt a small breeze coming from behind it. “A haunted filing cabinet?” Wesley frowned.
“I think there’s a passage behind it.” I moved to grab one end. “Help me shift this thing.” Working together, we pried the cabinet away from the wall: or rather, the hole in the wall it was blocking.
“Bingo.” I smiled, then frowned. “A creepy, dark passage. My favourite.”
“Stay behind me.” Wesley instructed, sword blade clicking out. I drew my pistol and held it carefully. He advanced slowly down the corridor, until a single bulb flickered into existence above a door: a door that said ‘Don’t’ on it in bold writing.
“Always a good sign.” I muttered.
Wesley pushed at the door. It refused to budge: padlock. “Unlock it.” I whispered.
“I can’t.” Wesley hissed.
“The spell only works on doors.”
“Why doesn’t it work on padlocks, it’s the exact same mechanism?”
“I don’t know.” Wesley muttered. “Can you pick it?"
“Of course I can pick it. Shine a flashlight over here.” Wesley obliged and I took out my lock picking tools and began to work at the padlock.
“This was an awful padlock.” I declared less than a minute later, pulling it off the door. I glanced back at Wesley, whose eyes hurriedly snapped away from where my fingers had been nimbly picking the lock a moment ago.
“I’ll take your word for it.” Wesley stammered, staring at the door. Interesting. “Last chance to back out.”
“Geronimo.” I smiled, turned back to the door and heaved, managing to push it open a tiny bit.
I instantly thrust my hand into the dark space between the open door and the wall, acting like I’d been dragged forwards. “Oh my god! It’s got me! It’s got-”
Wesley stepped forward and hit the heavy door with the loudest kick I’d ever heard, shining his flashlight at the space where the monster would be as he lunged forwards with his sword, striking empty space.
He froze, turning back to me. I smiled sheepishly. “Gotcha?” I said awkwardly. Maybe that hadn’t been such a great idea. It had seemed like it would be funny and we could have a nice laugh about it…
Instead, Wesley looked very much like he’d just had a heart attack. His mouth moved wordlessly for a few seconds. He closed it. He opened it again. “Fred,” He said very quietly. “In future, please-”
There was a flash of bright light and I was hurled backwards, feeling my skin searing under a sudden, intense heat. I saw Wesley flying off to the other side, straight into a pile of boxes. I was hurled straight into a concrete corner with a crunch. I felt like I was being squashed down, crumpled up like a can. Meanwhile, my skin felt incredibly, impossibly itchy and I felt…
I felt weird.
I groaned, clambering back to my feet. Yikes. I felt really dizzy: the room looked huge all of a sudden! The door had slammed back shut and the pile of boxes was in utter disarray… Wesley! I dashed over to the pile of boxes - already feeling exhausted just from travelling that short distance - and heard a groaning emanating from the pile. I frowned: the boxes definitely looked bigger but I couldn’t focus on that right now: I had to find Wesley! “Wesley! Are you alright?”
The groaning got louder. One of the boxes shifted over slightly and a hand reached up. I gasped.
A hand made of felt. With one too few fingers. The hand was followed by a head. Definitely Wesley. Definitely a puppet. A really cute puppet!
“Fred!” Puppet Wesley, for he was still unmistakably Wesley, gasped. “What happened? You’re a puppet!”
I looked down and gasped. I was a puppet too! I checked my hands: made of felt, one too few fingers. I seemed to be wearing different clothes than I had a second ago… and the pistol I’d been carrying now looked very much like a water pistol.
“No!” I gasped, throwing both hands over my mouth. “Why am I a puppet? Why are you a puppet? What is…”
“It’s going to be fine, Fred.” Wesley climbed out of the pile, clambered over the few boxes between us and patted my shoulder awkwardly. “You’re going to be-”
I grabbed Wesley and pulled him into a tight hug. I was desperate for physical contact and… and I wasn’t sure why.
“There, there…” Wesley murmured.
“You can stop that.” I mumbled.
I disengaged. “It must have been the light.” I turned to look at the door. That has to be it! We need to get back in there and… and…”
“Fred.” Wesley said gently. “I don’t think we’ll be able to get the door open. And if we did, we’ll probably just be hit by another magic blast. I think we should beat a hasty retreat.”
I tried to swallow, realised I didn’t have a working throat anymore and nodded. “Good idea.”
+ + + + + + +
We struggled against the fire escape door, pushing desperately. “Harder!” I hissed.
“I’m trying.” Wesley muttered. “Felt arms… not designed… for heavy labour!” The fire escape door creaked open and I tumbled through, Wesley dashing swiftly after. It slammed shut behind us.
It had been a very unfortunate few minutes. For a start, we were now very small: now not only did we get tired more quickly, but also we had shorter legs. This meant getting anywhere took a great deal of time. Our strength had also been proportionally decreased, so opening doors was now a challenge for us. Particularly those of the heavy metal variety. I hated being a puppet. I hated being a puppet in front of Wesley even more. I could only imagine how ridiculous I must look.
“Come on!” Wesley’s voice jolted me out of my reverie and we clambered down the fire escape to the ground. We approached my car. “Wesley?” I questioned. “How are we going to drive?”
He hesitated. “Dammit. Hang on, let me use my phone, I can call Angel!” His hand dug into one of the pockets on his puppet trousers and emerged… holding what looked like a toy version of a mobile phone.
“Oh, give me a break.” He muttered.
I withdrew my car keys: the house keys seemed intact, but a set of large, brightly coloured plastic keys now also adorned the ring and the blipper for the car had been replaced by a mock version. “It gets worse.” I jangled the keys.
“How many miles is it to your house from here?” He asked tentatively.
“A couple.” I muttered. “I don’t think I can walk that far.” I gestured at my puppet legs. “I feel exhausted already.”
Wesley turned between me and the road, then sighed. He held out both arms. “Hop on.”
“What?” I frowned.
“I don’t feel tired yet.” Wesley explained. “At all. And you’re so tired you can barely move. Let me carry you back.”
“Wesley, I couldn’t possibly-”
I hesitated, then sighed and clambered into his arms. I felt sleepy. Did puppets need sleep? I rested my head on Wesley’s shoulder. “Wake me up when we get there.” I yawned - why did I even need to yawn - then squeezed my eyes shut. Wesley’s arms were surprisingly comfortable. They made me feel very safe. I went out like a light.
+ + + + + + +
“Fred.” I felt a hand very lightly shaking my shoulder.
I groaned as I woke up. I groaned louder as memories of the night flooded in. “Tell me that was a really weird dream.”
“We’re still puppets.” Wesley said.
“Dammit.” I muttered, opening my eyes and looking around: we were outside my apartment! Well done Wesley.
“I can’t reach the lock.” Wesley explained, pointing up at the door handle, which seemed dizzyingly high up now . “I was thinking I could give you a boost.”
“Sure.” I nodded, scrambling to my feet. Wesley knelt down and kneaded his cute felt hands together. I stepped onto it and was lifted into the air.
“You’re very light as a puppet.” Wesley commented. Then he started stammering. “Not that you aren’t very light as a person, it’s just that-”
“I’m made of felt and stuffing, Wesley.” I muttered, putting Wesley out of his misery and straining for the door handle. “I’m not gonna be heavy. Take a step closer, please. Perfect.” I slotted the keys into the lock and twisted. It clicked open. I leaned in a little further, twisted the handle and pushed the door. It swung open. As it did I tottered, yelped and fell forwards with it.
Luckily puppets bounce. I hit the floor of my apartment and bounced softly onto the floor, face-down but none the worse for wear. “Fred!” Wesley scrambled over to me and I felt his hand touch my shoulder, gently turning me face up. “Are you alright?”
“I’m a puppet.” I nodded. “But apart from that, fine.”
He visibly relaxed. “Okay. That’s… that’s a relief.”
I was suddenly aware that Wesley was knelt next to me, positioned almost directly above me. His face was mere centimetres away from mine. I wondered if puppets could kiss? Did I want to know? Abruptly, Wesley stood up and waddled back to the door then began jumping desperately. On the third jump, he succeeded in pulling the keys out of the door. I stood up and helped him push the door shut again. God, I already felt tired. “Have I mentioned,” I looked over at Wesley. “That I hate being a puppet?”
“Not enough times.” Wesley replied grimly, puppet face grimacing. Aww. He looked so cute. I stiffened: how did I look?
I dashed off into my bedroom, clambered onto the stool and stood up on my dressing table, looking directly into the mirror. I trembled: I looked like a caricature version of myself! For a start, the clothes I’d been wearing were gone. Instead I was dressed in - for some reason - a lab coat and a tight, short puppet-skirt. My figure had been accentuated so I looked incredibly thin: so thin a gust of wind could probably knock me over. I was starving supermodel thin. My brown puppet hair was in pigtails. My eyes were fixed in a permanently wide-eyed expression of innocence, my cheeks were tinted slightly pink so I looked like I was constantly flushing and my lips seemed to be stuck in a permanent pout. I tried to alter my facial expression, with little success. The most I could manage were different levels of pouting. I glared at the mirror. “I look ridiculous.” I muttered. “I wasn’t even wearing pigtails or a lab coat, what happened?”
“I’m assuming,” Wesley heaved himself onto the table beside me. “That whatever magic made us puppets also caricatured us. Case in point.” He gestured to himself: he was wearing a jumper that reminded me of the outfits he’d worn before leaving the group after him and Angel’s disagreement. His hair was messy and untamed, also similar to the way it had been during that period. He reached into one pocket and drew out a toy version of a teabag. From another pocket he withdrew a tiny book titled ‘Reading is Cool’.
“Caricatures.” I muttered, sitting down on the edge of the table. “At least you don’t look like science barbie. You look kinda cute.” This time the pout was fully voluntary.
Wesley sat down next to me and tentatively put an arm around my shoulders. “Fred… I promise you, I will find a way to fix this. I will work out what happened and I will undo this.”
“Thank you.” I smiled shyly at him.
“And, although it’s obviously cold comfort,” Wesley hesitated. “You do look pretty good as a puppet.”
I rolled my eyes. “Sure I do.”
“It’s true!” He protested. “They got the colour of your eyes just right. It’s that lovely shade of chocolate brown, same as your hair, it’s really quite…” Wesley trailed off. There was an awkward silence.
“Thank you.” I rested my head on his shoulder. “Is this the weirdest thing that ever happened to you?”
“It’s certainly up there.” Wesley muttered. “Although being attacked by a cyborg duplicate of my Father probably takes the cake.” That wasn’t a subject I was going to touch with a long stick: with my current luck, I’d end up offending Wesley and he wouldn’t talk to me for a week.
“I wonder which of our bodily functions are intact.” I mused instead. “I can still get tired and sleep. Do we eat? Drink? Go to the toilet?”
“I really hope not. To all of those.” Wesley muttered then said reluctantly. “We should call Angel.”
“Can it wait until morning?” I asked. “It’s stupid but… maybe this will wear off. And I won’t have to confess that silly Fred got herself into trouble again.”
“That’s not what happened.” Wesley sighed. “I messed up. I got distracted when I should have been searching the room.”
“Only because I distracted you.” I pointed you. “Quit blaming yourself for things that happened in the past. Embrace the now.” Hint, hint, hint!!!
“I’ll take that under advisement.” Wesley smiled ruefully. Argh!! How was he so oblivious and infuriating?
“I’m gonna get some sleep.” I muttered, dropping off the edge of the table and pushing the stool over to the bed, then clambering up. “I’ll take the left side. You have the right.”
“That’s…” Wesley sounded panicked. “I’ll just take the sofa, I don’t want to-”
“Wesley.” I cut him off sternly, then turned to face him and put my hands on my hips. Why had I put my hands on my hips? I wouldn’t usually do it but it felt… natural. Somehow. That should probably be worrying. “This bed is currently ultra-ultra king size for us. You are not going on the sofa.”
Wesley hesitated. “Alright.”
I unbuttoned my lab coat and took it off, draping it on the stool. I looked down at my shirt: pink. Of course it was. I glowered and curled up on the pillow. I felt so tiny. “Good night, Wesley.” I called out.
“Good night, Fred.” Wesley replied.
I sighed: I got Wesley to my bedroom and all we could do was sleep. And we were puppets. I hated my life.
+ + + + + + +
I growled angrily, jabbing at the phone. “Stupid felt fingers.” I muttered, messing up the number again.
“Use this.” Wesley came up to where I was perched on a chair on the kitchen, next to the phone. He was holding out a pencil.
“Thanks.” I muttered, gripping the pencil tightly. I began carefully typing in the number for Angel’s office phone.
“CEO’s office, Wolfram and Hart.” Harmony’s voice rang out. I put it on speaker.
“Hi Harmony!” I called down the receiver.
“Oh, hi Fred! How are you?”
“Good thanks, I really need to-”
“Tell me all about it!” Harmony started gushing. “The gossip is all over the building! You and Wesley disappeared off late at night, together, in your car and you haven’t been heard from since. I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about this sooner!! What happened?”
“Harmony,” I blustered. “Just put me through to-”
“Nuh-uh. You tell me now or you’re never talking to Angel.”
I made my best effort to glower at the phone. I had a sneaking suspicion I only managed a slightly angrier pout. “Well. Things got a little strange…” I heard a sharp intake of breath from Wesley and rapidly backtracked. “… but I ended up having a lot of fun.”
“Was he good? He must be really good, right? I get that vibe.”
“Angel. Now!” I yelled, having reached the end of my tether.
“Okay, okay, let me connect you. Sheesh, I thought you would be de-stressed not the other way around…”
“I’d tear out my hair if I was confident it would grow back.” I muttered to Wesley.
He coughed. “Quite.”
“I was telling the truth.” I turned to face him and smiled slightly. “To Harmony. It’s been fun.”
Wesley furrowed his felt eyebrows. “We snuck into a creepy building together and you were turned into a puppet. Why would you have enjoyed that?”
You. He’d asked why I would have enjoyed it. Which meant he’d enjoyed it, but didn’t know why I would have.
“It was us.” I confessed. “We haven’t done anything together in ages. Unless you count being held hostage by a World War 2 submarine vampire.”
“I suppose you’re right.” Wesley nodded. “I was hoping we could start to spend more-”
“Fred?” Angel’s voice came over the line.
“Angel!” I turned back to the phone as Wesley cut himself off, feeling a pang of sadness that I hadn’t got to hear what he wanted to say. “Wow, it is really good to hear your voice.”
“What’s going on?” He asked gruffly, but I thought I detected a hint of satisfaction in his tone. “I thought I told you two to work on this, not go home.”
“We went to the Smile Time office to do some recon.” I muttered. “Then things got… weird.”
“Weird?” Angel questioned.
“Can you send a driver to my place to pick us up?” I pleaded. “Someone discreet? Who doesn’t ask questions?”
A short pause. “Of course, Fred.”
“Then I think we should have a meeting. The whole team. In your office.”
“Are you sure what happened warrants a team meeting?” Angel questioned. “I mean, we’ve been expecting this for a while and-”
Realising with sudden, awful clarity where the conversation was going I interrupted him. “No it’s… not what you think. This is urgent. Please.”
“I’ll send a driver.” Angel replied eventually. “What’s the address?”
“511 Windward circle.” Wesley provided helpfully.
“She’ll be there soon.” The phone line clicked out. I sighed and put down the receiver.
“It could be worse.” Wesley offered.
“How?” I clambered down, frowning.
“We could be wooden puppets.” Wesley replied. “Those are creepy.”
“They are.” I agreed. “But I imagine wooden hands are a lot more use than felt ones.”
“Probably.” Wesley agreed. “But this way you get to be cute.”
“Stop calling me cute.” I muttered. If I was capable of blushing, I’m sure I would have done. “I’m a puppet, I look stupid.”
“Now I know you’re being irrational.” Wesley shook his head and smiled. “You’ve never looked stupid, Fred.”
I couldn’t really stay mad at him. I knew he was trying to make me feel better. “You’re pretty cute yourself.” I brushed some imaginary lint off his shoulder. “Guess puppet characteristics carry over from the real body.”
“You think so?” Wesley asked, sounding nervous.
“I know so.” I ruffled his hair playfully. “You have exactly the same type of sweetness.” And, as you helpfully pointed earlier and must surely remember, I like sweet things!
“I think some kind of warding magic must have done this to us!” Wesley yelped abruptly, shuffling back slightly. All-too-familiar pangs of disappointment. “Or a hex.”
“You’ll know more once you get your books, right?” I asked. Though his books wouldn’t help his total obliviousness.
“Yes.” He nodded. “And once you get your scientists on this, do some analysis, we’ll be peachy.”
“I really hope so.” It would be a truly cruel irony if I finally decided to make a move on Wesley, only for both of us to be permanently turned into puppets, incapable of passion. It was also par for the course, at least in my crazy messed-up life.
+ + + + + + +
The elevator dinged open. Wesley and I walked out into Angel’s office. I felt extremely nervous and - on pure impulse - grabbed Wesley’s hand. He squeezed gently. I frowned internally (surprise surprise, this was represented externally as a pout): my self control seemed greatly diminished as part of my newly found puppet-hood. This just kept getting better.
I looked out into the office. Gunn and Lorne frowned down at us. “I don’t get it.” Gunn announced. “Why did we get puppets that look like Fred and Wesley?”
“We are Fred and Wesley.” I waved. “Hi Charles. Lorne. Angel.”
Gunn blinked. Angel frowned. Lorne raised both eyebrows.
“You’re… you’re puppets?” Gunn said slowly.
“Unfortunately yes.” Wesley replied sombrely. Angel, Gunn and Lorne burst out laughing.
I scowled and stamped my foot. “This isn’t funny!” They cracked up even more.
“Stop!” Wesley demanded, striding up to Gunn. “Or so help me…”
“So help me what?” Gunn guffawed. “Sorry man, but… you’re a cute little puppet. I’m not feeling the fear.”
Wesley pointed his wrist at Gunn and twisted. Something fired out of his sleeve and hit Gunn on the chin: a small foam boxing glove. Gunn staggered back slightly and frowned. “That used to fire wooden stakes, didn’t it?”
“Part of the transformation seems to have caricatured us.” I explained. “Hence my… science barbie appearance.” If I had blood or veins, I would have blushed.
“And my cartoonish weapons.” Wesley muttered. “Angel, would you mind putting myself and Fred on your desk? It’s awkward having to crane my neck so much.”
Angel picked us both up by the scruff of our necks and deposited us neatly on his desk. “How did this happen?” Angel asked, arms folded.
“We investigated Smile Time like you said.” I sighed. “Went over to the building where it’s filmed. Did some poking around. Whole office was under some kind of freaky spell, made the staff act like zombies. And not the murderous kind you usually find in Wolfram and Hart buildings.”
“We found a hidden room.” Wesley continued. “We opened the door, there was a flash of light and then… we were puppets. Tiny… adorable… puppets.”
“Right.” Angel nodded seriously. Then he burst out laughing. Gunn and Lorne joined in, shaking with laughter. I balled my hands into fists, wincing as I realised how ridiculous I looked and snapped. That was it. The last straw.
I started rampaging over the desk, kicking off stationery and files, ripping up pages and tossing things across the room. Lorne, Gunn and Angel were just laughing more. I was quaking with anger now, gripping a pencil with all of my strength and genuinely considering staking Angel.
Wesley touched my arm lightly and pried the pencil out of my hands. “Fred,” He said, voice angry but controlled. “I believe whatever scaled us down into puppets has had a corresponding effect on our stress-response mechanisms. And potentially other psychological aspects.”
That made sense: I never usually got this angry. Or did some of the other strange touchy-feely things I’d been doing over the past few hours. I started breathing slowly. I didn’t need to breathe, but going through the motions calmed me down. Wesley wrapped me in a soft hug and began counting to ten, whispering in my ear. I counted along with him. By the time we reached ten everyone else had stopped laughing and I felt markedly calmer.
Lorne examined me critically. “You know,” He said slowly. “If we don’t reverse this Fredikins, you’d have a stellar career in edutainment.”
“What?” I frowned up at him.
“Educational entertainment! I can see it now.” Lorne nodded, using his hands to frame the desk like I was on a TV screen. “A show for kids about science. An intrepid, brainy female scientist doing experiments and getting the kiddies interested. The kids will love it because there’ll be cool experiments, the parents will love it because it’s science related and progressive and with your winning personality Fredikins, ooh I can see the awards right now!”
I glared at Lorne, folding my arms. “I am not going to present a kids’ science show as a puppet!”
“Wesley would help out, of course.” Gunn struggled to control a smirk. “He can be your plucky assistant.”
“Plucky?” Wesley said, voice dangerously calm. “Did you just call me ‘plucky’, Gunn?”
“Shh.” I put one arm on Wesley’s chest, holding him back. “He’s not worth it. Calm down.”
Lorne whimpered. “Oh, it would work so well! Look at the puppet chemistry! Angel cakes, please let me keep them!”
“Err…” I turned my most vengeful, terrifying glare onto Angel. He swallowed. “Let’s err… let’s try to change them back. But if not your TV show idea might have legs.”
“I hate you.” I grabbed another pencil and threw it at Angel, folded my arms and sat down on the table, adopting a sulky expression. Wesley joined me in a show of solidarity.
“They are definitely more childish.” Gunn muttered. I stuck my felt-covered tongue out at him. “And cute.” He added. I scowled which, of course, ended up being expressed as a pout.
“Alright.” Angel said diplomatically, clasping his hands and looking down at us. “Alright. So. You guys need to figure out a way to reverse your current predicament. What can we do? I’m guessing you don’t want your… condition to be known to the general population?”
“Please no.” I whispered.
“I would kill you.” Wesley said brightly, then frowned. “And possibly sing a song about it afterwards, I’m in that kind of mood. I hate being a puppet.”
“Just…” I paused, thinking. “Get the lab to record a full-spectrum analysis on the Smile Time show. Then have them make the results available to you so we can look at them. Obviously we can’t work in the lab…”
“How do we explain your absence?” Gunn frowned. “Wesley often disappears for hours at a time but Fred… you’re kind of a constant presence in Practical Science.”
“Just leave it to the rumour mill.” Lorne waved a hand dismissively. “It’ll come up with some story so ridiculous everyone will believe they’re at work but out of sight. Trust me, it works every time.”
“Have you been skipping work?” Angel frowned. “And then letting the crazy rumours make me assume you’re still in?”
Lorne hesitated. “That’s beside the point. Listen—”
The door to Angel’s office crashed open. Oh God, someone was coming. “Toy story!” I hissed to Wesley. Thank God, he understood, going limp and collapsing onto the desk. I joined him, staying in a cross-legged seating position.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Spike swagger into the office. “Hey, big guy! Need another car. Afraid this last one ended up in the drink…” He frowned, walking up to the desk. Lorne and Gunn stepped aside to let him through. What were they doing?
“What are these?” Spike bent down to examine us carefully. I was very glad I didn’t have to breathe. “Say, these look just like Fred and Wesley. Did you get puppets made to look like Fred and Wesley? That’s bloody freaky.”
“They were a gift.” Lorne smiled. “From a friend of mine in the entertainment industry. Saw Fred and Wesley during a visit here, sent these over a few days later. Weird sense of humour.”
Spike snorted. “I can see that.” Then he reached out, plucked Wesley off the desk and held him up to head height. Then - affecting a ridiculously posh English accent - he began to speak. “I’m Wesley Wyndam-Pryce and I happen to have once been Head Boy at the Watchers’ Academy. Nowadays I like to brood almost as much as Angel does, and I pine even more than Angel does. My hobbies are drinking tea, reading ancient over-complicated books, and drinking tea.”
Gunn, Lorne and Angel burst out laughing. Angel actually smacked the desk. Spike’s smile shifted to an impossibly wide grin, convinced his impersonation was solely responsible for the laughter. Wesley’s face - out of view of Spike - had shifted into a vicious, downright murderous expression. Spike carefully placed him on the desk, turning to face me.
Then I was being lifted into the air, held there by Spike… who cleared his throat and proceeded to fake an abysmal Texan accent.
“Hey y’all, mah name is Win-e-Fred Burkle! But everyone calls me Fred! I’m a real smart scientist with a heart of gold and a deep, enduring love for all living things! I spent several years in a hell dimension, so don’t let my cutesy exterior fool you: I will happily shank you if you tick me off. My favourite things in the world are doing what’s right, the fawning devotion of all the men surrounding me and science!” Spike faked a giggle. Wesley made a brief sympathetic expression at me.
Predictably, everyone else was dying laughing. I swore to myself that they would all pay for this indignity some day. Still, at least Spike seemed to be out of material so I should be put down. He leaned down to the desk, loosening his grip on me slightly… and picked up Wesley.
Spike began with his terrible Texan accent, slowly moving me up and down as if to accentuate that it was me talking. “Oh, Wesley! You’re so smart and handsome and rugged!”
Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!
Swap to the posh english accent. “Oh, Fred.” Spike simpered. “You’re so kind, and intelligent and beautiful! You’re perfection!”
Spike moved me closer to Wesley, dangling me less than half a foot away from him. “Wesley,” He dropped his impersonation of my voice to a stage whisper. “I know that we are unbearably attracted to each other, that we are a near-perfect match and that the sexual tension between us is obvious to everyone within a hundred miles of us, but can we just be friends?”
“Whatever you desire, my lady.” Spike kept the hushed whisper on the posh accent. “As you request, so shall I reshape this universe.”
“Oh.” Spike’s hand shifted to my face, accentuating my puppet face’s pout. It was too late to reveal myself now. If I acted out now, I would have suffered this torture for nothing. I was not going to let that happen. “Well. It seems we are agreed then. I suppose you should just walk out that door and we’ll go about our lives.”
“Yes, of course. It would be only proper.” Spike turned Wesley around and began miming him walking away. If I needed to breathe, I would have let out a sigh of relief. Spike was finally done.
Then, fast as a cobra, so fast I had no time to react, Spike flipped Wesley round and rammed him into me with the force of a pile-driver. Wesley crashed into my front and Spike smiled gleefully as he smooshed our faces together. I felt my mouth collide with Wesley’s and barely restrained myself from gasping.
Because it turned out that puppets could definitely - somehow, against all reason - kiss and enjoy kissing. Enjoy it very much. My whole felt body was crackling with electricity as an incredible sensation of pleasure crashed over my mind. Wesley was somehow, inexplicably warm against me and I was only vaguely conscious of Spike carefully putting us down on the edge of the desk, placing our arms around each other and closing our eyelids, so intense were the sensations bursting through me.
Everyone else in the room lost it. I heard Angel fall out of his chair and actually start rolling on the floor laughing. Gunn burst into tears as he stumbled into a wall. Lorne let out a truly demonic cackle, which shifted into uncontrolled wheezes of laughter. Spike was of course laughing hardest of all. And I was still stuck on this table, unable to move. Wesley was still pressed up against me, kissing me, and his arms wrapped around me. And it felt very, very pleasant.
I was ready to curl up into a ball and die of embarrassment. As soon as possible.
“Now,” Spike gasped when the laughter had subsided to manageable levels. “How much bloody easier and quicker was that than waiting for those two to get their bleeding act together? I mean for christ’s sake. Wesley’s been pining for Fred for going on two and a half years now, Fred’s been attracted to Wesley for well over a year and a half and she’s been dropping hints like mad for the past several weeks. Bleeding bloody hellfire.”
“I hear ya.” Gunn managed, then started laughing again.
“I tell you what.” Spike said, cackling. “What I wouldn’t give to shrink the real article down into puppets and do that. Might finally convince them to get their bloody act together.”
“We can only hope.” Angel said in a vaguely composed voice. “Sadly, that will… never happen.” Oh, I would take great pleasure in killing them all some day.
“Yeah.” Spike sighed. “Guess we have to wait for Percy to finally clock on to Fred’s advances. So I suppose this’ll be resolved in a few years. Or decades.”
“So,” Spike apparently lost interest in us. “Where are the genuine articles? Should we leave these two on Wesley’s desk as a hint?”
“Oh, most definitely.” Gunn cracked up, and I heard him moving closer. “I’ll do that right now.”
“Fred and Wesley are investigating a case.” Lorne choked on the words. “They’ve gone incognito.”
“Deep undercover.” Angel added.
“They blend in with the furniture.”
“You could look right at them and not recognise them.”
Spike snorted. “Not bloody likely. They don’t do incognito Say, could you get me some of these Lorne? I can only imagine how much fun I’m gonna have messing with those two using these.”
“You want to hold on to these ones?” Lorne offered, voice genuine, still giggling.
Lorne. No. Stop. Stop. If Spike took him up on it… I was going to have to kill him. Or just let Wesley do it. Wesley, who was still smooshed up against me. Oh God, why hadn’t I just told Spike? This was mortifying, it was awful! Wesley was never going to talk to me again. No matter how inexplicably amazing this currently felt. I dimly remembered Wesley saying something about response mechanisms: That meant I had the proportionate response to any stimulus of a puppet my size. Dammit!
“Nah.” Spike replied. Thank God. “Gunn’s idea sounds better. Just make sure Percy finds them eventually. And get me that car.”
I felt arms pick up myself and Wesley - still not moving us apart! - and slowly carry us out of the room. I heard Angel’s door shut behind us - still not opening my eyes - and didn’t move until after I felt myself set down on another surface and Gunn said. “We’re in Wesley’s office now. You two can-”
I opened my eyes and leapt at Gunn, screaming a battle cry. Gunn’s face shifted from an expression of bemusement to mild terror as I rocketed at his head, hitting him with a punch to the face, then gripping onto his head and holding myself there. “You hold him down.” Wesley growled from behind me. “I’ll get my spare pistol from the desk.”
“Make it slow.” I growled, clambering around to the back of his head, shifting one hand over his mouth while I moved the other to his throat. I heaved with all my strength, trying to topple him over.
“You bastard!” I yelled at Gunn, moving my hand off his mouth to rain down punch after punch.
Abruptly, I felt his hands seize hold of me and yelped as I was torn off his head and tossed unceremoniously past the desk. “Fred!” Wesley yelled, and I saw him leap up, catching me mid-air as I rocketed towards him. He was taken along with me and crunched into the window, absorbing most of the blow for me. We slid down to the floor of Wesley’s office, hopelessly tangled up.
Gunn smoothed down his suit and took a deep breath. “I’m gonna leave you in here until you can behave. If you need something call us on Wesley’s office phone, and hit the desk’s panic button if there’s trouble. You have the Source Books and we’ll send the data from the lab to your computer. Be good, you two.” Gunn left the room and shut the door behind him.
There was a brief pause. Wesley slowly stood up and offered me a hand. I took it, getting to my feet. “So,” Wesley said conversationally. “How are we going to kill them?”
“Slowly and painfully.” I said, only-half joking. I could feel the puppet-induced mania wearing off but I was still very, very angry. And impossibly embarrassed.
“Well said.” Wesley began climbing towards his desk. I followed him.
“That was a horrible and mortifying experience.” I commented, scrambling onto the desk.
“Yes.” Wesley nodded. “Speaking as someone who’s had his throat cut, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that was the worst experience of my entire life.”
“I should apologise for that.” I smiled apologetically, wringing my hands.
“Whatever for?” Wesley turned to face me, frowning quizzically.
“Well,” I stammered. “It was my idea to go all Toy Story and then you were waiting for my signal to stop and I didn’t give it because I didn’t see where it was going fast enough and then it all happened really quickly and I really just want to say how sorry I am for screwing up so badly and putting you through that.” I paused. “Not having to breathe is a real advantage for run-on sentences.”
“I should really be the one apologising.” Wesley sighed, turning away from me. “I… I can only imagine how uncomfortable you must have been. Everything Spike was saying and… and the physical proximity.”
“It wasn’t uncomfortable. Just a bit… unexpected.” I frowned, deciding on the spur of the moment to drop a blatant hint. “Whoever knew puppets could kiss? And derive pleasure from it? Lots of it.”
It sounded very much like Wesley was choking on something as he grabbed one of the source books from the edge of his desk and plonked it down in front of him. “Yes.” He said weakly. “That was certainly… unexpected.” God, Wesley was being so dense it was a miracle he didn’t have his own event horizon. What was it going to take? Did I have to leap on him?
“You check the source books.” I advised, doing my best to control my emotions as I switched on Wesley’s computer. “I’ll start analysing the frequency data from Smile Time.”
+ + + + + + +
“Ugh!” I muted the screen and collapsed onto my back, exasperated. “I can’t do this anymore.”
“Do what?” Wesley asked, looking up from his seat - which he practically disappeared into - where he was reading his source book.
“Watch this ridiculous show.” I fumed, irritated by hours of searching for answers in this stupid program with it’s weirdly catchy songs about math and positive life messages. “Have my hair in these silly pigtails! Be three feet tall! Be stuck looking like a stupid caricature of myself with pouty lips and felt fingers and stupid proportionate excitability when all I want is…” To kiss you. To tell you how I feel.
Because I was dying to tell him. I’d been on the verge of doing something drastic when I was human and in full control of myself. As a puppet? With limited self-control and increased excitability, cooped up in a room with Wesley after having been forced to kiss and hug him for a significant duration by Spike? I could barely contain myself! I hated being a puppet! I hated Wesley for being so dense! Because I couldn’t tell him how I felt about him when I was made of felt and about as far away from an attractive, desirable woman as was physically possible.
I felt my puppet face’s natural pout worsening. “… to not be a puppet anymore.” I finished, lamely. Then I felt myself start to shake, softly and uncontrollably. I realised with a start that I was crying, limbs starting to curl in on themselves. Of course I would be able to cry. Of course the universe would let me bawl like a baby in front of the man I…
The man I was pretty sure I loved.
I was crying and sniffling and shaking. “I’m okay.” I mumbled. “I just need to… to…”
Wesley pulled me into a hug. I sniffled, wiping my nose unintentionally on his shoulder. “Don’t worry, Fred.” He squeezed me. “We’ll fix this. We can fix this. We’re not going to be puppets much longer. I swear to you, I’ll fix this if I have to sell my soul to the devil himself.”
“Thank you.” I mumbled. “But considering how much of a pain Angel is without his soul, I’d rather you kept yours.”
Wesley chuckled and I shut my eyes, pulling him a little more tightly against me. I felt warm. And safe. It was nice. “Can we talk about something else?” I mumbled. “Anything else?”
“Of course.” Wesley promised soothingly, stroking my back gently and sending shivers up the spine I no longer had. “Anything.”
And at that point my puppet side took over and blurted out the question I’d been lying awake at night thinking about, dreading, terrified of for weeks. “Do you have someone, Wesley?” It was the greatest act of self-control I’d ever exercised to avoid adding an ‘else’ after the someone, which my puppet side had pressed me to include. “A lucky lady in your life?”
“No.” Wesley said eventually, voice soft. “No. I haven’t been looking.”
That much I knew, dumbass. If you’d been looking, you might have spotted the signs I’ve been throwing at you! The giant neon flashing ones!
“How are you and Knox?” Wesley asked, voice soft. Quiet. “I know you two were starting to… I mean, you’re probably anxious to reverse your current condition so you two can-”
“No!” I yelled, practically screamed into his ear. Wesley stopped talking. I sighed. “Sorry. That was my puppet-side again. Me and Knox… we stopped. Never really started, actually.”
“Really?” Wesley’s voice was low. Surprised. Soft. Dangerous. Intrigued. I felt a shiver pass through me. Had he not been acting because…
“I stopped it.” I announced, wanting to clarify. “He’s been working here too long. And he doesn’t make me laugh at all. He tries, but… he doesn’t really know me.” Knox had been poisoned by this place. I could see it sometimes. He’d been corrupted by Wolfram and Hart long ago, even if it wasn’t obvious. And he hadn’t joined to make the world a better place. Unlike Wesley. And Wesley always made me laugh. Made me feel secure. And happy. And unlike Knox he was never… creepy. I’d caught Knox staring at me a few times recently. It’d given me shivers. And not the nice kind.
“I see.” Wesley’s voice was closer to normal again. A brief pause. “You’re looking for someone funny.”
Oh, God, how was he so dense? How was that what he’d decided was the most important thing to take away from that sentence? I was literally hugging him, pulling him against me, following weeks of flirty compliments and smiling, days of blatant and unmissable flirting from me, I’d told him I’d enjoyed our kiss and now I was complaining to him about my sort-of-ex and he still wouldn’t take a hint? I couldn’t control myself any longer. “A certain kind of funny yes.” I steeled myself, readying myself for the plunge. “But I’m not really looking for someone, so much as already found-”
I heard the door to the office swinging open. “Toy Story.” Wesley hissed and went still.
I cursed internally: who had ruined the moment, my chance to tell Wesley…
“Fred?” Knox stuck his head round the door. Of course. Just my luck. “Mr Pryce?”
I prayed he would leave. My prayers were not answered. He stepped inside and shut the door, glancing around the room as he walked forwards.
Knox snorted, stopping at the desk. “Of course he has puppets. What kind of creepy office is complete without them?”
I felt a pang of sympathy for Wesley and a corresponding surge of anger at Knox.
“What the…” I felt him picking me up and began feeling nauseous. He held me up to head height and frowned quizzically, examining me. I felt my skin prickle unpleasantly. “He has a puppet that looks like Fred?”
He unceremoniously dropped me and I thudded into the floor. Ow. “And… one that looks like him. Which he left in a cuddling position. On his desk. Wow. Creepy. Unsurprising, but creepy.” Oh, why wouldn’t he just leave? And maybe leap into a bottomless abyss?
Knox sighed, walking around the desk. Was he seriously going to snoop around Wesley’s office?? I heard a drawer opening. Apparently so. Wow, that was… pathetic. “A diary. Some mugs for tea. Probably for tea parties with his puppets. Books. Reports. Framed photos… him and Fred, what a surprise…”
Wesley kept framed photos in his desk? Of us? Aww.
I jolted slightly (thankfully out of sight of Knox: this would be an embarrassing situation to explain to anyone, but Knox?) as I heard the sound of a phone ringing. Not Wesley’s office phone: a mobile phone? But it wasn’t Knox’s ringtone…
“Hello?” Knox spoke. I saw him come round the desk, leaning on it just to the side of where I was lying on the floor, holding a phone I didn’t recognise. Did he have two cell phones? Why would he need two? “Oh, Doctor Sparrow. Hi. Listen, has there been any… he did?”
Knox leapt upwards and punched the air, letting out a woop of joy. “That idiot Gunn actually signed the form earlier today? It’s getting out of Customs? Ha! What a tool. Thank you, Doctor. Yes, yes, once the sarcophagus is here you’ll be rewarded more… tangibly. Yes, you can have your own island. Yes, you can do unethical experiments, look… we’re going to be at the right hand of a god! We can have whatever we want! About a week? Great. Yeah, you handle delivery, I’ll watch out for it. Yeah, make sure it gets delivered to Winifred Burkle. I’ll take care of the invoice. Yes, I’m sure she’ll touch it without doing the proper checks, she’s naive. Yeah. Alright. Look, if she looks like she’s gonna do the smart thing I’ll smash her damn head into the sarcophagus so she breathes it in. Yeah. Have a good one. Ciao.”
A terrible chill had stolen over me. What was Knox talking about: Something about Gunn signing a form? A sarcophagus stuck in customs? A god?? Something about me being naive? Smashing my head??? What was going-
Abruptly Knox lunged down and snatched me up, holding me in front of his face. A colossally wide smirk was fixed on his face, as he held me up facing the window. “Oh, Fred.” He chuckled darkly and my heart stopped. How had he known? How had he- “If only I could tell you - the real you, not this puppet - of the honour that awaits you.” I felt a tiny flicker of relief that he hadn’t recognised me, overshadowed by an awful, mounting terror at the things Knox had been saying.
Knox kept talking, eyes burning feverishly, voice ecstatic. “Now that the sarcophagus is free… well. You’ll touch it. You will absorb the essence of Illyria. Then, you will be scoured from this sinful earth! No trace of you will be forced to linger in this sordid, desolate universe. And from the ashes of your vanquished soul shall rise the almighty Illyria, God-King of Primordium! Fred… you will be the vessel for a god.” His gaze turned stern. “I hope you understand the tremendous honour I’m doing you.”
The urge to shake with fear was becoming very strong. I was terrified. I was more afraid than I had been at any point since Pylea. What was he planning? My soul, destroyed? Turning me into a vessel for some kind of supposed god? What was…
Wesley. Over Knox’s shoulder. He’d slowly opened one of the drawers in his desk and had silently removed one of his pistols. Using both hands, he carefully aimed it at the back of Knox’s head. He looked at me and raised an eyebrow. Questioning. But Knox was still looking right at me, I couldn’t move, couldn’t say anything… I just had to hope Wesley would understand me.
I desperately tried to project that I didn’t want him to shoot Knox. That we had to find out what the hell was going on, have Lorne read him, work out whether he was playing some kind of sick imaginary game or… or…
Whether he’d been planning to kill me.
Very slowly, Wesley nodded. He’d understood. Of course he had. Wesley always understood me. (Except when it came to flirting, annoyingly) Wesley crept across the desk towards the other end. Knox’s facial expression had become full-on terrifying. “Oh, Fred.” He sighed, and hearing my name on his lips suddenly made me want to throw up. “Soon? I’ll be able to worship you openly. You’ll be so much more than what you are now. And as for stupid Merlin?” Knox snorted. “And the rest of your pathetic friends? My God will use your body to turn them to dust. But especially Wesley. Man, I can’t wait to see the look on his face when…”
Knox kept rambling, but I wasn’t focused on him anymore, or the increasingly terrifying, disturbing things he was saying. I was looking at Wesley who - with the most simultaneously protective and vengeful expression I’d ever seen - had just pressed the panic button on the edge of his desk. The panic button that linked directly to Angel and Gunn’s offices. He looked at me reassuringly and mouthed ‘You’re going to be alright’. I could have cried I felt so happy. Wesley was here for me. Thank God.
Knox giggled, eyes full of madness. “Oh, Fred.” He sighed and I felt like thousands of insects were crawling all over me. “Soon. Soon you will-”
I heard the door to the office slam open behind me. Knox’s facial expression shifted from deranged triumph to complete terror. “Oh. Hello Mr Angel, Mr Gunn, Mr Lorne…” He dipped his head. “How err… I mean…”
“It’s just Angel.” Angel said calmly and I heard him take a step forwards. “What are you doing in Wesley’s office, Knox?”
“Oh. I umm…” His eyes flicked to me then back to Angel. “I was just looking for Fred. She asked for information about Smile Time and-”
“How about you put down your puppet and talk to me rather than it?” Angel said, slightly less calmly.
“It’s not my puppet.” Knox babbled. “This belongs to Wesley, I found it in here… I didn’t-” Knox swallowed and carefully bent down to put me on the floor next to him. I could have jumped for joy.
“Step forwards Knox.” Angel beckoned.
Knox swallowed loudly and stepped forwards. Once I was out of his line of sight, I leapt up, grabbed Wesley’s outstretched hand and scrambled onto the desk, turning back to look at Knox. “Is there a problem, sir?” Knox asked Angel.
“Sing.” I said calmly. Knox whirled round, eyes widening in horror. He saw me standing on the edge of the desk and next to me, Wesley, gun aimed calmly at Knox’s head.
“What the…” He’d gone white as a sheet.
Wesley calmly clicked off the safety. “Sing, Knox.” He said calmly. “Or I’ll take it as proof that everything you said just now was true and blow your head off. You’ll be scoured from the face of this universe so fast you won’t have time to scream.”
“Fred I…” Knox opened and closed his mouth soundlessly. “I can explain!”
“Sing.” I said calmly. “Now.”
Knox turned very slowly towards the door. Angel was standing much closer to him now, holding an extremely large sword. Gunn was leaning against the doors, making it very clear he wasn’t going anywhere. And Lorne had his eyes fixed on Knox with quiet intensity, twirling an empty glass in one hand.
“Umm…” Knox cleared his throat. “I wish that I had Jessie’s girl, I wish that I had Jessie’s girl-”
The instant Knox started singing, Lorne’s face shifted first into an expression of horror, then disgust, then anger. I’d never seen Lorne look so angry before. The glass slipped from his fingers, shattering on the floor and Lorne took two steps forwards before slugging Knox with the most enthusiastic punch I’d ever seen thrown.
I heard the crack as Lorne’s first collided with Knox’s face and sent the latter spinning to the floor. “He was planning to kill Fred.” Lorne growled. “Use her as a vessel for some ancient demon. She’d die in agony and her soul… her soul would be destroyed. Completely annihilated. He was planning to do it soon.”
Angel lunged forwards with his sword at lightning speed. But he wasn’t as fast as me. Because the moment Lorne confirmed what Knox had said, I’d reached my hand out, slipped one felt finger underneath Wesley’s and pulled the trigger on the gun Wesley had kept trained on Knox. There was a dull bang as the gun fired. I saw the puff of blood as the bullet went through the back of Knox’s head.
Wesley dropped the gun and pulled me into a hug. We stayed there for a few more seconds, until I very slowly disengaged, turning to face the others. Knox, you son of a bitch. “He was planning to kill me with some kind of sarcophagus.” I said. “It had apparently been stuck in customs. He was talking to Dr Sparrow, said something about Gunn signing a form to release it earlier today?”
Angel turned to face Gunn. Gunn looked abashed. Everyone else looked livid. “Explain yourself.” Angel snarled. “Were you… did you…”
“I didn’t know!” Gunn said quickly, shaking his head rapidly. “I made a deal! I was losing my legal knowledge. My skills. The doctor said he’d give them back if I got some old curio out of customs for him. I didn’t know it… that he was…”
“And you just released it?” Wesley demanded. “Without checking what it was? Without telling us?”
“Charles…” I whispered and I felt a terrible hollow space opening up inside me. “How… how could you?”
“I didn’t think it would be one of us.” Gunn hung his head. “I… I treated it like another deal. Like any deal we make here. Someone else pays the price, and we do more good in the long run. That’s how we’ve been operating, I… I didn’t know.”
“Get out.” I whispered. “Get out of here, all three of you. And take what’s left of Knox with you. Track down Sparrow and that sarcophagus and… get rid of it all.”
“I’ll take it all apart.” Angel nodded to me. “I promise, I’ll fix everything.”
“I…” Gunn swallowed. “I found out something about Smile Time. It’s not Framkin that’s in charge, it’s the puppets. They’re demons. They’re the ones to get rid of. They steal life force from their audiences… Framkin is their puppet now.”
“Thank you, Gunn.” Angel said acidly. “We’ll discuss it back in my office.” Angel heaved Knox’s body onto one shoulder and all of them filed out. I sat down on the edge of the desk heavily. Wesley sat down next to me and squeezed my hand gently.
“I can’t believe…” I whispered, feeling numb. “That he’d try to kill me. I… I trusted him. I worked with him. And all this time he…”
“It’s alright.” Wesley said soothingly. “You’re safe now. It’ll all be taken care of. Once I’m not a puppet, I’ll quintuple-check everything. All of Knox’s records, his calls, Sparrow, the sarcophagus. I’ll track down everyone responsible for this and I will hold them accountable.”
“I know you will.” I nodded, and that awful cold feeling I’d had since Knox started talking finally began to bleed away, replaced by warmth. Wesley could always do that to me. “Do you want to know how I know that?”
“How?” Wesley turned to face me directly.
I brought up one hand to touch his cheek. He felt fuzzy. Kind of like how I felt inside. “Because… because…” I took a deep imaginary breath. “I’m yours.”
“Fred,” Wesley looked confused. “What do you mean?”
And I couldn’t wait any longer. I just couldn’t. I didn’t care that I was a puppet or that I’d just been through hell, I had to tell him. Or maybe I had to tell him because of those things. Because I needed Wesley right now more than I ever had before.
“Haven’t you been… sensing anything lately?” I looked at him nervously. He still just looked confused. I kept going. “About me? Coming from me? It didn’t occur to you that something might have changed? That… I’m looking at you in a different…” He still just looked confused. Why couldn’t he just get it? Why couldn’t handsome, sweet, intelligent, thoughtful, constant, funny Wesley accept how I felt about him?
“Oh, screw it.” I bent in and kissed Wesley. A gentle, soft, swift kiss. Unmistakeable. Undeniable. Wesley’s face was frozen in an expression of disbelief. “Umm…”
“That was a signal. Okay?” I whispered. “Is that… clear enough for you?”
Wesley blinked one last time. Then, heart-wrenchingly slowly, he broke into the happiest expression I’d ever seen on his face. I could swear his eyes were sparkling. “Not even close.” He replied softly and pulled me back in for another kiss.
Warmth engulfed me. I was aware of nothing but the pleasant feel of Wesley’s arms around me, the softness of his cheek beneath my hand, the sensation of the kiss. I came to realise just how handy it was that puppets didn’t need to breathe.
“I was planning to do that better.” I said after the kiss ended. I wasn’t sure how long it had lasted? An hour? Longer? Not long enough. “My confession, that is.”
“Better how?” Wesley murmured, eyes tracing over me, hand caressing my neck.
“Well. For a start I wasn’t planning to be lab coat barbie puppet. I was planning on being…” If I could flush, I would have done. “… desirable.”
“You’ve always been desirable.” Wesley whispered.
I kept talking quickly, wanting to say what I had to say before we got distracted. “And… I really wanted to do something romantic, because I know you would have done something romantic, but none of my ideas really panned out and I was getting impatient and I just couldn’t wait any longer…”
“Fred,” Wesley smiled at me. “If you could have made the grandest romantic gesture in the world, I wouldn’t have traded it for a five minute delay to our kiss.”
“Our long-overdue kiss.” I smiled.
“I couldn’t agree more.” Wesley purred. If my skin was currently capable of supporting goosebumps, I would have had lots of them.
I kissed Wesley gently and briefly. He looked momentarily disappointed, but covered it up admirably. I laughed. “Think of this as… extra incentive to reverse our little predicament.”
I leaned in and whispered conspiratorially. “I’m pretty sure these puppet bodies aren’t anatomically correct. Kids’ show and all. I like to think…” I dropped my voice lower, doing my best attempt at a husky voice. It was hard to pull off as a puppet. “…that you’d prefer the warmer version of me.”
Wesley blinked several times. “Right.” He sounded vaguely stunned. “Just to confirm. You’re Fred.”
“Yes.” I smiled.
“And you know I’m Wesley?”
“Yes.” I giggled.
He nodded slowly, then pinched himself. He nodded again, more confidently. “Right.” He stood up and offered me a hand. I smiled and took it, allowing him to gracefully pull me to my feet. “Let’s get to work.”
+ + + + + + +
“You figured out a way to fix it?” Angel raised an eyebrow, sitting on his chair in front of us. “Already?”
“We’ve been quite motivated, as you can imagine.” I gestured meaningfully to my current form, suddenly very happy I was incapable of blushing.
Angel coughed. “Right. Of course. Continue.”
“The broadcast is a very nuanced magical spell.” Wesley explained. “It creates a two-way conduit with direct access to the viewer, allowing the demons to drain life force from their viewers. And judging by the strength of yesterday’s signal, they’re ready to eliminate their entire audience.”
“We think that what caused our… predicament.” I said diplomatically. “Is the repository for the life force. Once we break the binding magic on it…”
“The children should be freed.” Wesley smiled broadly. “And a quick incantation added on to the end of the binding spell will allow us to harness some of the ambient energy to reverse our puppet situation immediately.”
A brilliant last-minute innovation by Wesley, after we’d realised that just breaking the binding magic would cause us to revert back… after several days. I’d done a dramatic sigh, pouted as hard as I could (something the puppet face actually made easier) and experienced a giddy, guilty thrill at seeing how energetically Wesley had thrown himself into the research. He seemed just as eager to get back to normal as I was.
Or… not normal. Human bodies. Not normal circumstances. I had a very good feeling that mine and Wesley’s circumstances had changed quite irrevocably.
“Alright.” Angel nodded. “And you two have the spell ready?”
“All prepared.” Wesley declared, patting the small scroll he’d put in his breast pocket.
“Great.” Angel nodded. “So. Here’s the plan. Me and Spike will go in through the front door, take the fight to the puppets.”
“Yeah.” Spike nodded, smirking. “Angel here wasn’t confident he could take down a couple of stuffed muppets on his own. No offence.” He looked over at us, still looking slightly guilty after what he’d unknowingly done earlier.
I had moved past that by now. Sure, I would get my horrible revenge at some point, but for now it was all in the past. “None taken.” I smiled.
“You mentioned the door was heavy?” Angel asked.
Wesley nodded. “And the handle is high up. We’d struggle to open it alone.”
“Fine, you take Lorne.”
Lorne sighed. “Fine. But if I get turned into a puppet-”
“You can start your own karaoke show aimed at kids?” Wesley said innocently. “I’m sure you’d be a real hit.” I suffered a small fit of giggles: God, I couldn’t wait until I didn’t have the proportionate excitability of a puppet. Lorne chuckled softly. When everyone else was filing out of Angel’s office, Lorne gave me a subtle thumbs-up and a wink. Empath demon. Of course he could tell.
+ + + + + + +
Lorne grunted, shifting the filing cabinet out of the way. Wesley and I marched - well, waddled - determinedly down the corridor until we reached the door with ‘Don’t’ written on it. “So,” Lorne said nervously. “Any tips for not being turned into a puppet?”
“Don’t look inside.” Wesley said calmly. “Keep your eyes on the floor or better yet, watching the corridor behind us.”
“Copy that.” Lorne muttered, and with a tremendous heave, opened the door. For the first time, I actually got a glimpse inside the room: on the wall directly in front of us was a huge black stone, fixed into the wall. “Bingo.” I smiled.
Wesley withdrew his scroll, shook it out with a dramatic flourish and began reading. “Aperi, rumpe, solve, reveni, aperi, rumpe, solve, reveni-”
I heard a crazed tooting noise and spun around to see a giant purple puppet backhand Lorne, then - in a move straight out of wrestle-mania - smash him into the wall. Lorne groaned softly. I raised the pistol I’d insisted on bringing and unloaded the entire clip into the puppet. It staggered backwards, tooting becoming increasingly deranged. Stuffing blasted out of bullet holes in its front, spraying all over me and the room. Trying to ignore the fact I was basically covered in demon guts, I calmly reloaded and walked up to the puppet.
“This is for turning me into a puppet!” I shot it at point-blank range.
“In ridiculous clothes!” Gunshot.
“With pigtails!” Gunshot.
“And a permanent pout!” Gunshot.
I stood there, panting softly. The purple puppet was decidedly still. I made an effort to calm myself, brushing the puppet-stuffing off my clothes.
Wesley continued chanting. “Refer, quod, furatum, solve, reveni, aperi, rumpe, solve, reveni, omnia vinte. Omnia incantamenta fracta. Omnia incantamenta fracta! Fracta, Aperi, Rumpe, Solve, REVENI!”
The stone on the wall was glowing now, casting bright white light across the room. I could hear the cracking noises. Wesley kept chanting: the binding spell was broken. Now it was time for us to take our cut of the spoils. I moved up to stand beside him, took a deep breath and began to chant in unison with him. It wouldn’t be much good if he was returned to normal, but I had to wait a few days.
“Reverti, Restituere, Reformandum, Reverti!”
With a final loud crack and a rush of air, the stone shattered. I closed my eyes against the burning light. When the light illuminating the inside of my eyelids was gone, I opened my eyes. I took a deep breath: I could breathe!
I looked down at myself and clapped delightedly. I was a real girl again! No more labcoat, no more pink shirt or pigtails. I ran one hand through my hair, noting happily it was back to its usual colour and texture. My hands had the correct number of fingers! I was myself again. And now…
I turned on my heel, a broad smile on my face. Wesley was back to normal too. He was gingerly patting himself down, as if to check that he was turned back. I scanned him quickly from head to toe, eyes lingering on his face. Definitely back to normal. My Wesley. Wesley returned the favour, looking nervously into my eyes. I shivered pleasantly.
“And now…” I took a step closer to Wesley, wrapping one arm around his back and standing on tiptoes.
“Wait!” He gasped. I stiffened. “It’s just… you shouldn’t feel obligated because of what happened. You were a puppet, you had proportionate excitability, what you did… it wasn’t your fault and you shouldn’t feel pressured to-”
“Wesley.” I said sternly and put a finger against his lips. “For once in your life, stop thinking.” And I pulled him into a kiss, stroking one hand across his cheek as he wrapped both his arms around me.
It felt a million times better than kissing him when I was a puppet. I was very dimly aware of the sound of receding footsteps as Lorne walked away from us, humming happily.
Unfortunately, Wesley and I now had to breathe. I broke away, gasping for air. Wesley was panting softly. “Wesley.” I murmured, stroking his cheek softly.
“Fred.” He whispered, face caught between awe and disbelief.
“Now,” I pulled myself a little closer against him. “I haven’t eaten in a very long time, I am extremely hungry and it’s about breakfast time. How do you feel about getting some food?”
“Really great.” Wesley smiled, kissing me gently on the lips. I smiled and returned the kiss, buzzing pleasantly.
Now, to convince Angel we needed some time off.
+ + + + + + +
“You took care of all the demons?” Wesley asked, sounding remarkably composed considering how we’d spent the last few minutes. I resisted the urge to smooth my clothing, hoping they’d put the creases and rumpling down to our return from puppet-hood.
“Yeah.” Angel kicked a bit of stuffing across the stage, gesturing around at the listless, zombified camera crew. “Not sure how to get these guys back to normal though. Since you’ve clearly restored the life force, why don’t you two get working on a way to get these people-”
“Actually,” I interrupted, sagging slightly and leaning on one of the cameras for balance. “We’re not feeling so great.”
“Really?” Angel frowned. “Are you alright?”
“I think we will be.” Wesley nodded weakly, taking his lead from me. “Just a bit weak in the knees.”
“Hot and bothered.” I added.
“Confused but euphoric.”
“Brain-addled, in his case.”
“It’s probably a side effect of being reverted immediately, rather than over the course of several days.” Wesley explained. “I can barely keep my eyes off… open. And I’m getting words mixed up.” Sure he was.
“Oh.” Angel looked concerned. “Is there anything to be done?”
“I think Fred just needs a few days off.” Wesley winced, quite convincingly. “I think I should be alright.” Nice reverse psychology.
“Wesley, you can barely stand.” Angel rolled his eyes. “Look, both of you take the next… three days off, alright? I can stay on top of the crises until then. That sarcophagus is already in isolation and we’re working out where it came from and how to get rid of it. The doctor is apparently singing like a songbird and Gunn is following the legal trail. Leave it to us. I don’t want to hear a peep out of either of you, okay? This is an enforced holiday.”
Wesley did a good impression of someone disgruntled. “Fine. Holiday it is.”
“Need a lift home?” Spike offered, looking guilty. “I have a sweet new ride, courtesy of King Sellout here.”
“My car’s right outside.” I explained, retrieving my - fully reconstituted - car keys out of my pocket. “I’ll give him a lift back.”
“Thank you.” Wesley nodded gratefully at me, eyes sparkling with a hint of mischief.
+ + + + + + +
Wesley sat down in the car next to me and offered me a high five. I reciprocated gladly, feeling a dorky grin settle on my face. A grin which widened when he used the high five as an opportunity to entwine our fingers and pull us nose-to-nose. “There’s a great breakfast place near my apartment.” I smiled, reaching out to stroke Wesley’s arm. “Pancakes, waffles, ice cream…”
“Sounds… delicious.” Wesley stroked my neck gently, putting one hand under my chin to tilt my head up, before leaning in for a deep kiss that sent shivers up my spine.
“And after that?” Wesley asked, once we were finished.
I shrugged. “I was thinking we go back to my place, watch some romantic films, play some games and spend the rest of the day kissing.”
“Sounds incredible.” Wesley murmured, his free hand twining in my hair.
“Maybe,” I smiled. “We could see our way to going out for dinner. Somewhere romantic, with candlelit tables…”
“That would be perfect.” Wesley smiled broadly. “You are perfect.”
“I love you.” I whispered to Wesley, smiling nervously.
“I love you too.” Wesley pulled me into a tight embrace. I kissed him.
I decided breakfast could wait just a little while longer. After all, we had the rest of our lives.