TITLE: Parallel Lives
AUTHOR: Roseveare, t.l.green@talk21.com
SPOILERS: End season 4.
RATING: PG. I'm so very gen lately, it's starting to worry me.
SUMMARY: "Look, kid, do you want to save the world or not?" So your dad's a vampire, your foster-mum's in a different dimension, and you're living in a world where somebody did a Sam Beckett on the timeline. It's tough being a Teenage Champion of the Light.
NOTES: Book of Days challenge, Autumn 2003. Requirements - Connor, Wesley, no rape or character death.
DISCLAIMER: Not mine, no profit, yadda, yadda, yadda...

Parallel Lives

"I want two," Buffy chirped. "Can I have two? I'm injured." She pointed to a scrape on her arm that oozed blood lazily.

Kate's mouth twisted up at the corner as she eyed around the others, and down into the packet in her hands. Uncle Wesley held up two empty palms and shook his head. "I'm not hungry."

"I want two," Connor said. He put his foot on the table and rolled up the leg of his pants to show off a scraped knee. "I'm injured as well."

Kate snorted. Dad said, "I'm not giving up mine."

"You can't even taste it properly."

"That's not the point. It's the principle. I fought, I get donuts."

Lindsey walked back into the room at that moment in a change of slime-free clothes, and must have overheard the argument because he rolled his eyes and said, "I bought plenty for everyone."

"Get your feet off the table, Connor." Buffy leaned over to push them away and there was the usual contest of Slayer-strength against whatever freak of nature was behind his own. Buffy won.

Kate handed round the donuts and Uncle Wesley took one after all. Connor took one in each hand and bit them in turn, and Buffy called him a pig.

"You can talk."

"Connor..." Angel began warningly.

"She eats more than the rest of us put together."

"And she still looks thin as a stick," Kate muttered around a donut carefully torn in half.

"Hey! Slayer metabolism. Just think, it could've been Faith who decided to come back to join the LA team. Then you'd be flat broke by now."

Connor perked up at the mention. "Is Faith gonna come visit again anytime soon?"

"No!" Angel and Buffy said in chorus.

Lindsey, grinning, finished his donut and picked up the spare half of Kate's. He pointed out to Angel, "You were his age once."

"It was nearly three hundred years ago. I'm grateful to have mostly forgotten." He ducked as Buffy took a swipe at his shoulder. "Hey! That hurt!"

"Aw, diddums."

When Angel launched a tickle-attack, Connor pulled a face and looked disgustedly away.

Buffy had come back from Europe about two years ago, not long after Fred and Gunn had retired to Texas to have their baby, and when she appeared Angel was... weird, but kind of happy, in a spazzy up-and-down dad sort of way. But Connor still remembered Cordelia.

He got up and walked out of the kitchen, leaving his second donut half-eaten on the table.

He knew who'd followed him by the uneven drag of their gait, even before he stopped at the top of the stairs and turned around to wait. He would've known without the clues of scent and sound. It was always Uncle Wesley who followed.

There was no surprise in the old man's eyes when he turned up the last corner on the stairway and found Connor waiting.

"Sorry," Connor said, sliding down the wall, hunching up and crooking his elbows over his knees when his butt reached the floor.

Uncle Wes held out the half-eaten donut. "You didn't actually do anything wrong," he noted. "Which - yes, you're quite correct - should rightly come as a surprise to us both, this once."

"It's not that I don't like her. I mean, she's great... kinda annoying sometimes, but she's cool, and she watches dad's back in a fight like I know nobody else can, but..." He stopped and swallowed. Not that this was a conversation either of them were unfamiliar with already.

"She's not a replacement for Cordelia. You know that, Connor."

"I know." Connor rocked a little, back pounding the wall on each swing. Wesley got tired of holding out the donut and absently took a bite out of it. "Hey!"

Wesley apologetically surrendered it.

"I miss her. It's hard to see them together. I know it's been years."

"You were very young."

"She isn't dead. I know she isn't dead. But sometimes we all end up talking like she is. Acting like she is."

"She isn't coming back." Wesley sighed. "Maybe it would be easier, if we knew she was dead. The fact that she's... up there... out there, somewhere, perhaps it makes it harder to let go."

"Dad said she changed into an Angel. A real one. I know it's a lie, though."

"Your father has a strange way with metaphors at times," Wesley muttered, laden with irony. "And a perverse sense of humour. But I suppose he's more or less correct. It was demon blood that did it. Her grasp on this plane was growing thin for a long time before she finally let go. She wanted to see you grow up."

"Dad says she's still watching."

"Perhaps that's true as well." Connor felt Wesley's eyes on him as he stuffed the last of the donut into his mouth. "You don't resent that Buffy makes your father... 'kind of happy'."

"No. I guess sometimes it's hard to tell, huh?"

"Sometimes. But I think he knows."

"But you tell him anyway, right?"

Uncle Wesley smiled and moved his head in a fashion that might have been a nod. He leaned heavily on his cane as he reached down to pull Connor to his feet.

***

"The world is wrong," said the demon in the bathroom mirror. When Connor turned around, it wasn't there. When he turned back to the mirror, it wasn't there. Only shapes in the shadows and edges of perfectly ordinary things.

It wasn't the first time his imagination had played such a trick. Maybe he ought to tell dad and Buffy, but Uncle Wes had so much mystical protection on the house that if it was real, they ought to know already. If it wasn't real and he told them, they'd laugh, and that would be worse than anything. He wasn't in a rush to be the kid who wanted to fight demons so much he invented them.

The morning was crisp. He stole biscuits and crammed them into his pockets as he ran out of the house, shouting a goodbye, skateboard tucked half-hidden under his arm. He crunched the biscuits as he raced along the path. Out of sight of the house, his wheels skidded on damp leaves. The day felt good. Maybe he'd even go to school.

But as he moved away from the broad leafy avenues of the well-to-do and passed the street which led down to a less frequented part of the sea front, he smelled on the wind all the things that reminded him of her, and he turned instead down into that uneven backstreet squalor.

He hung his board over his shoulder to climb over walls, jumped down into the concrete yard of a house that looked derelict, and threw pebbles up at her window. "Amanda!" Blinds hid any sign of activity inside, even from his sharp eyes.

"Hey." It was a ground floor window that had swung open, and she was already climbing over the sill. She followed his nervous gaze up to the second floor windows. "Asleep. C'mon, let's go someplace more fun than this."

Out of view of the house, the skateboard was exchanged back and forth, its wheels conquering kerbs and steps and potholes until they reached the old fairground on the boardwalk that was closed now, and not just for the season, this year or last. Connor gave Amanda a leg up over the wire mesh of the padlocked gate, and then followed, twisting and falling lithely, sneakers slapping against the cracked concrete of the other side. They disappeared quickly into the jungle of disused stalls and rides.

"My dad says this place closed down because nobody cares about the real world any more. Then he complains about video games junk that went out years ago."

"Mine's the same. Plus, he doesn't know how anything works, so he won't let me buy stuff 'cause it makes him look dumb. It's kind of sad."

"Your dad was born in like the sixteenth century," Amanda said dismissively. "Mine's got no excuse about being some three-hundred year old bloodsucking fiend. Hey, they let you in on their whole demon fighting thing yet? You said you were gonna ask again."

He winced. "Couldn't get a word in at the 'we saved the world again' donut party last night. Not that they'd have said yeah anyway."

"Still, they'll let you one day, right? That's really cool. It's like a purpose."

"Their purpose," Connor said gloomily. He swung up on the back of a carousel horse, one leg hooking around its pole, his foot resting on a worn down ear.

"Better than being groomed for Walmart."

"You won't have to do that. When they let me in, you can be my partner. And if they won't have you, well, I'll threaten to run away and become a lawyer or something."

Amanda didn't say 'but you have to study to be a lawyer', or any of the obvious comebacks. She climbed on the back of a peeling monkey in an orange hat and jacket and stood on its saddle, her hand resting lightly on its post. Easy balance. She had a mean left hook, too. Connor knew she'd be just great at saving the world.

She shook her head, finally. "You know your family can't find out about me, Connor. I don't want them to stop us meeting."

"They wouldn't do that. I told you, Uncle Charles, he lived on the streets for years. They don't care about that stuff."

"I mean it, Connor. Please don't tell them."

"Okay, I won't. But you're still wrong."

Amanda jumped down from the monkey, the landing bouncing her curly hair. Other parts of her body bounced too, but Connor tried to be a gentleman and not notice.

Upon landing, something in her face shifted to unease. "Your folks wouldn't follow you, would they?"

Connor turned a shrug - he wouldn't put it past Angel - into a more reassuring, "No..."

"You think there're vamps around here?"

"Too light," Connor said. "Too early. And I'd smell them. It was probably a rat."

"Or something like a rat."

"Your brother wouldn't follow us either, huh?"

She giggled, and it was forgotten. Connor slid from the Carousel to race with her through the broken-down stalls, and he deliberately didn't look back.

He didn't want to confirm what he thought he'd seen for a moment, indistinct in the shadows - the demon from the mirror.

***

Coming home, it was drizzling rain and the day was moving toward an early dark. Connor stepped into the shelter of a thin clump of trees, skipping over the low fence that marked it part of somebody's garden. Somebody who had hell of a lot more garden than most of the rest of the world could afford to share a bit for a few minutes. "I know you're there," he said.

A slow, lazy clapping preceded the demon out from behind the tree. "You're good, kid."

"Don't pretend you didn't mean for me to find you."

The demon shrugged. It looked extraordinary on that bulky, armoured shell. "You're still good. You ask me, your pop's losing out."

"What do you know about that?" Connor demanded, forcing his feet not to start backing the rest of him away.

"I knew pretty much everything," the demon said simply. "Should do. I've been watching for a long enough time."

"Watching me?"

"Watching you, kid. Since diapers. Talk about pulling the dull assignments."

"Hey! No, wait - watching me? Why?"

"Oh, come on. You know you're special. Always have, I'll bet - no, that won't have been a difficult one to figure out. Child of two vampires, an impossibility even before you were born. How's it feel trying to live up to that hype, huh?"

Swallowing hard, Connor made himself breathe and think. "You're real, then. I thought you were just in my head."

The demon grinned. It wasn't the most comforting expression. Connor shifted his skateboard under his arm, started a wheel spinning. It kept on spinning. "I'm as real as you are. Just not always in the same dimension."

"You're from another dimension?" He felt his heart quicken.

"You could say, yeah."

"Cordelia-- Is this about... did she send... do you know how I can find her?" It came out in a breathless rush, a rushing in his head to match that shut out all other concerns.

But the demon clicked its tongue and said, "No can do. Sorry. Different department. Our paths don't cross. Oh, they did once, a long time ago - before your time. But never mind that, Connor. Didn't come here to exchange small talk, fun as it's been. The fate of the whole world's in danger, and guess what? Right now you're looking like its best line of defence. That's right, kid, you got the jackpot. Welcome to Champion City." A flourish finished off the speech. "Oh, come on. We both know it's what you've been waiting for."

Connor laughed, the sound made more flat and bitter by the damp air. Rain battered down on the leaves overhead, drops forcing through the canopy to splash his nose. "You got the wrong one. House full of Champions back at home, take your pick. Me, I never did anything like that. They won't let me near it. If you've been watching me, you should know that much."

"That doesn't mean you're not born to it. Just that Angel's skull's not getting any less dense with age."

Connor crushed his impulse to smirk. "That's my dad you're talking about."

"Sheesh. So I apologise. The guy's a regular Einstein. Anyhow, the fact of the matter is, the world's all wrong. That's by no means a good thing. You've seen Star Trek, right? All that stuff about the space-time continuum and the perils of changing history, yadda, yadda, yadda. Well, somebody hasn't been keeping up with the voyages of the old Starship Enterprise... see, this wiseguy decides to play Captain Kirk and screw with the world at a point some fourteen years back. Now, that kind of damage to the fabric of reality takes time to accumulate but, kid, that overload's coming our way soon. Unless somebody does something about it pretty damn quick, at any rate. 'Course, you wouldn't be interested in hearing about anything like that."

"No, I--" Connor clamped his jaw shut and asked the obvious question. "Why can't Angel do it?"

"Matter of the right place at the right time. Destiny, whatever. Fact is, there's only two people in the world could stop this, and the other... let's just say he's not about to try after all the trouble he took to put it this way in the first place.

"As for why you, why do you think? Like I said -- you know it. You've always known it."

"I'm special," Connor said, and despite the bite of his sarcasm, excitement sang in his veins.

"You got it." The demon caught hold of a tree and jauntily spun around it. "Be ready, kid."

Halfway around its circuit, precise instant invisible from where Connor stood, the demon vanished.

***

The evening's council of war was going on in the kitchen when he got home. Dad was debating with Buffy, Kate, Lindsey and Uncle Wes over coffee and a coffee-ring speckles map of Los Angeles that entirely covered the table.

In theory, Angel Investigations ran from a shop front in downtown LA, and Kate and Lindsey shared an apartment of their own. But mostly everything could be boiled down to arguments around the table of the big house in its sunny suburb where Connor had spent most of his life. He couldn't even remember the last time Uncle Wesley had gone back to his own apartment - Angel had kept a spare room at the house for as long as Connor had known.

"Last night we tracked them here," Angel was saying. "I still say that's our best shot. It's a likely area, we've found nests there before."

"They were leading us by the nose last night," Buffy insisted. "They disappeared far too quickly - too convenient. That's where they want us to search."

Lindsey ran his finger down Kate's wrist under the table.

It was usually dad and Buffy who fought. Once they started, everyone else kept out of it. Until it looked like coming to broken furniture, at which point Uncle Wes would very gingerly step in. Connor figured that for them arguing was like foreplay, and the fighting... well. He'd put a few things together about dad's curse that Angel and Buffy probably didn't know he knew.

Uncle Wesley's eyes followed him with suspicion as he crossed the room from the door, as though he knew Connor was thinking about something he shouldn't. He cleared his throat, attracting everyone's attention and even silencing Angel and Buffy. Connor hunched his shoulders, expecting the worst. Maybe the school had phoned.

"I think," Wesley said, "That it's time we should talk about training Connor."

"What?" Angel said, in almost precisely the same instant Connor did. Except Angel carried on. "No! It's too soon."

"Well..." The attention turned onto Buffy, who instantly looked like she regretted it. She shifted and shrugged her thin shoulders. "I don't know, Angel... he's as young as I was. About as strong, too. I'm not saying we should send him out to fight demons, but yeah, we could probably start training him, if that's what he wants."

"I don't want him in danger."

"He's always been in danger, just being your son. We've always known that. If he's old enough to fight, it can't hurt that he learns to fight for himself. Properly, before he learns too many bad habits trying to take things into his own hands."

"You trained young girls to fight demons every day for ten years. I don't want my son to grow up with a sword in his hand."

"And he hasn't." Buffy took a breath, and for a moment Connor saw her reputation hang on her in real power, a tangible aura, and for the first time he really could believe it. "I trained young girls to fight demons every day for ten years, Angel. The only difference between him and them is that he's wearing pants."

"I don't want him to grow up like--"

"Pretty soon it'll be a matter of what Connor wants," Uncle Wesley interrupted, his voice taking over the air of the room. "And we've been given... ample clues to divine what that is. The younger he starts, the better he'll be. The better he is, the less he'll ever have to fear."

"Wesley." Dad's voice broke saying the name. "Not yet." He looked back at Buffy with the same plea in his face. He looked at Connor, and he looked baffled as though he'd forgotten Connor was actually in the room. Connor didn't need to look around the other faces present to chalk up another victory for dad.

"I hate you!" he shouted. He slammed the door, and bashed his heels hard into every step on the way up to his room.

***

The house creaked and groaned as though it bore an age beyond its twenty-or-so years. Outside, wind and darkness; outside, somewhere, dad and Buffy and Lindsey and Kate, and whatever they were hunting or was hunting them tonight.

Inside, there was Uncle Wesley sitting in the pool of a desk lamp surrounded by books, and the waiting. Being used to the waiting didn't make it any easier.

Connor had lost count of the times in his fourteen years that they'd come back with open wounds gushing, or in a flood of panic from some mystical injury, or the times the phone call had come from the hospital in place of their return. At some point when he was around eight or nine they'd given up the part of the routine that included hustling the kid out of the room before he saw too much. He always saw too much anyway - or if not saw, heard the moans and hushed discussion from his room, smelled the blood harshly infusing the air in the house. Waiting put a familiar heavy lump at the back of his throat. He wondered if Uncle Wes felt it too, sitting at his father's desk.

He crept around the house jumping at shadows and thought about asking.

"Are you quite all right?" Wesley asked distractedly, about the fourth time he'd ghosted through the back of the study.

"Yeah. I'm fine."

But there was something else on the air tonight. A scent, like the demon he'd spoken to earlier. Noises that... he didn't think were the house's usual rhythms. A sense of being watched. Static twitching in his hair.

"I'm worried about dad," he told Wesley. It was the kind of statement that always seemed to mollify him. And it was true in that same way it always was. And as always, there was little honest reassurance that could be made.

"Why don't you watch the television?" Wesley suggested.

"It's boring."

Connor wandered out of the room and left Uncle Wes to his books.

"Are you ready, kid?" the demon asked as he passed it in the darkness of the hallway on his way upstairs. Connor kept walking, though his eyes sidled back. The demon wasn't there any more.

It was at the bend in the stairs. "You ever hear of manners any more than you heard of switching the lights on, kid?"

"I can see in the dark," Connor muttered.

It was waiting when he reached the top. "Thought we had an understanding, kid."

"You talked a lot."

The demon followed him into his room and sat down on the tower of giant encyclopaedias dad had thought were a great birthday present, while Connor flung himself full-length on the bed and crossed his arms behind his head. "You've got a real attitude problem, Boy Wonder, you know that?"

"Been mentioned."

The demon made a disgusted noise and dismissed the topic with a rather camp swipe of its clawed hand. "Why do I get all the good jobs?" it muttered under its breath. "Teenage Champions of the Light - what next?" And louder, grouchily, "Look, kid, you want to save the world or not?"

Connor prodded a small hole in the plaster above his bed, making it spew dust onto the sheets.

"I guess."

"Not that your upbringing's made you at all blase about this or anything. Maybe you'd stop feeling so reticent if you knew what a temporal paradox felt like from the inside - because, you know, I could show you that..." The low growl at the back of the demon's throat could've been inaudible to anyone else. The growl was suppressed, replaced by the hiss of a sigh let out through a large nose instead. "If you're doing this, then it's now. Fourteen years ago tonight, the world changed. This is the last chance to change it back before the damage mounts up to critical."

"Who changed it?" Connor asked, sitting up.

"Nobody you'd know."

He grimaced. Nobody ever wanted to tell him anything. He bounced to his feet, stressing the springs of the mattress. "I get to pick my own sidekick, right?"

***

"I'm really not sure about this," Amanda said. She clutched her jacket around her in the chill and clung to the shadows while Connor climbed through the broken window, past the dangling remains of the board he'd forced aside. "People don't even squat in this place. It's supposed to be haunted."

"My dad's one of the bloodsucking undead," Connor reminded. "Plus, he used to own this lease. Pass me the bag."

She stood on her toes to stuff the sack through the gap in the window. "Did you live here?"

"I don't remember it - I was about two years old when they left." The bag clunked as he tossed it to the floor, and he hoped that funny bowl with the burnt marks on it hadn't broken. "Gimme your hand."

He pulled her up without much more effort than it had taken to lift the bag. One of the advantages of being the kid of a vampire. If only dad would see that his abilities could be of use instead of some crummy demon who wanted him because of some stupid coincidence of fate. He eased Amanda down inside the old hotel, and tried not to get too distracted.

Amanda picked up the bag and shook it. "What's in this anyway?"

"That's what we need to do the spell."

She rummaged inside. "...Is this an eye?"

Connor narrowed his eyes at the rounded lump in the jar. "Yeah."

"Ewww." The kind of stretched-out awe in the sound made him grin. "Where did you get this stuff?"

"Dad keeps it in the cupboard under the sink in case they need to do any magic. The demon told me what to bring."

"See, that's something else I don't like... I know about your dad, that's cool, but I don't know if we should just start trusting..."

"Cordelia was a demon, too. And there's been a few my dad knew... this guy Lorne that's a singer in Vegas now... this other guy Doyle who worked for the Powers That Be. This one says it works for the Powers That Be, too."

"I just don't know that it's a good idea to go around trusting every demon that says you need to do some spell that'll change the whole world."

"I..." Connor hesitated. "I can feel it, though. What I don't know if I can explain it, but it's like it's... in me. Things weren't supposed to be like this. The world's been altered. What this demon says... I know it. Like I was born to it. And unless things are put back to how they should be..."

"We don't even know how that is! We could be dead. We could have never met. All kinds of things could've happened. You say the world's been changed - it must have been done for a reason. What if everything's so terrible in that other... place, that there was nothing else to be done?"

"It wouldn't matter. I know about this stuff."

"Maybe you do, Connor. But maybe it's this crazy life your folks lead talking. You talk about the end of the world like you'd talk about... a movie! You're not even thinking about what could happen to you!"

He stared at her. "That's because it's not--"

She stamped her foot, making the floorboards shake and dust gush up in a cloud. "I don't want you to get hurt, you idiot!" Connor blinked at her. "I know you'll do what you have to do, just like your folks always do, because that's who you are. Like the demon guy says, you're born to it. But I'm not, and I still can't really believe this is happening. I mean, I know about this whole other world, but this isn't the same as staking a few vamps on a slow night!"

"Amanda--" His hand was on her face, cupping her cheek, and he blanched, but reversed his impulse to retreat and made himself meet her eyes. She looked just as startled as he felt, but her upraised hand held his wrist, and didn't push it away. "I'll look for you - if I can, if I remember anything at all - I promise."

"Are we done?" an impatient voice interrupted. Connor and Amanda jumped, pulled apart; he heard her intake of breath at the sight of the tall, armoured demon.

"It's all right," he told her, glaring.

The demon looked him up and down. Its jaw worked - it was chewing gum. Connor could smell a strawberry tang on the air. "I see you brought everything. That's great. Looks like we're finally ready to get down to business."

"He doesn't sound like an agent of the Powers That Be," Amanda said, joining Connor in glaring. "You don't sound like an agent of the Powers That be," she told it.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Like I never heard that one before."

"I actually think a lot of them are more or less like this," Connor said apologetically. "My dad's told me about meeting a few."

"Oh."

"Thank you," the demon said, heavily sarcastic. "Come on, kid. We need to be in the lobby, and we don't have a lot of time."

They climbed through the debris of an old laundry room and emerged at the back of a cavernous chamber that must have been an impressive foyer once upon a time. Amanda hung onto Connor's sleeve and relied on his eyes. The demon seemed just fine.

"Okay - Candles, bowl, herbs, bits of dissected mammal--" something landed heavily on the floor at his feet. When the dust cleared, Connor saw an ancient book, stained pages already open. "Ancient mystical tome. Do your stuff."

Amanda pottered around gratefully lighting candles to fill the abandoned gloom of the old hotel with a circle of their light while Connor squinted at the writing in the book, trying to make out all the words beneath the stains on the ancient pages. He mentally tested pronunciations in a language unfamiliar to him.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, enough candles already," the demon broke in impatiently. "C'mow, we gotta do this now. C'mon!"

Connor sighed irritably, dumped the spell components into the bowl and kicked it into the centre of the circle.

"Hoo-kay." The demon unceremoniously picked up a candle and tossed it into the bowl with the rest. Connor expected it to go straight out, but it didn't - the contents of the bowl caught quickly, eagerly. Burning, they gave off a foul stench. "You're up, kid."

Out of the corner of his eye, Connor saw Amanda retreat from the circle, coming to rest standing well outside it and yet well removed from the impatient figure of the demon as well. He found his eyes lingering on her, trying to seal her in mind. 'Don't let me forget, don't let me forget, don't let me forget...' Would it be worth it, really worth it, if he dropped the book and walked away now? How long would the world have left? Almost a year perhaps, until the next anniversary day the demon apparently didn't believe they'd reach. Was it worth it for a year?

Then he thought about the other things that might be different in that other world. The things that might be better--

Unsteadily, he read the first line.

The words felt clumsy and ineffective, falling off his tongue and falling, it seemed, uselessly upon an indifferent world. How could he ever change it? How could he ever change anything?

He reached the end of the page, turned it over, and stared at the ragged edges of the torn-out void.

"Uh-oh, there's a point," the demon muttered, and began patting itself down. Since it didn't have pockets, Connor decided he really didn't want to know where it pulled the two mangled pages from that it frantically smoothed down, then lay in front of him. "Sorry about that. Carry on."

Connor lifted the torn sheets, angling them to the light. They were badly stained - much worse than those still in the book - and he wondered what had happened to make them so. Dark stains, almost as dark as the ink, almost making them impossible to read. Almost, but not quite.

Bringing the pages closer to his eyes, his keen nose caught the scent of the old blood on them. For a moment, thought froze, and his body with it. Then, he slowly lowered the pages, unfolded his body from its crouch, and backed out of the circle. "You're right," he said to Amanda, "I don't think we should be doing this."

"Aw... kid!" the demon snapped explosively. "What, for cryin' out loud, is the matter now?"

"I am." The voice was harsh; familiar for all that Connor had never had occasion to hear quite so much steel in it before. White light flared, and he turned to see that it emanated from an orb Uncle Wesley held in his hand. His other hand held a sword instead of his customary cane. "Get out of here," Wesley told the demon.

It was impossible to tell whether its flash of expression was a grin or a grimace. "So you know me. Even though we've never met in this world. Makes me wonder how many worlds you have in that decaying grey matter of yours, old man."

"Quite a few." Wesley's voice was a low rasp. "Enough to know you'd be along in this one, too, one day."

"Yeah, well, sorry to rain on your parade, but all this happy families mush? It's boring. Not to mention, you uprooted more than a few plans when you decided to Sam Beckett the timeline."

Wesley's grin was a stretched mask, terrifying in its way. "You want the original world back, Skip? Why? Do you actually imagine that you won?"

The demon - Skip??? - loosed a snarl. "You're full of crap, Wyndham-Pryce. Do yourself a favour and let the dice fall as they were meant. Heck, must be a real pain, balancing all those histories inside your head all these years, holding it all together, avoiding the pitfalls."

"Pain? You don't even scratch the surface. Nonetheless, Connor isn't going to perform the rite. Neither am I. And since that leaves you without much other option, I suggest you do leave." The orb's light fluctuated in his hand. "You know what this could do to you."

The demon eyed it cautiously, then shrugged. "Shucks. Well, there's always next time. See you in the second round. Say, maybe we should do lunch sometime, you know?"

And in the space of a blink, the demon was gone.

Wesley wrapped the orb carefully in a handkerchief and placed it in his pocket before he looked up. The sword scraped the floor in place of his cane as he crossed the floor. It was only when Connor followed his gaze downward that he realised the book and the pages that had been at his feet were gone, too. The pages - the blood--

"Hmm," Wesley said. "I don't know how Skip got hold of those. Rather worrying, really."

His gaze fell upon Amanda, and he smiled. "I don't believe we've met. Connor always has been remiss about inviting his friends home... for a while we even wondered if he had any. We shall have to redress that, now... if we can just clear up all of this mess, we can be going. I could certainly use a bite to eat."

"But, I..." At his protest, the line of Uncle Wesley's back straightened, and the old man regarded him seriously.

'The blood...' Connor thought

"You changed things," he said. "You - it was you. Your blood, your scent... but what about consequences? I remember you said--"

Wesley shook his head. "You don't have to worry about the consequences. Not now, not ever."

"How can you know?" Connor half-shouted, hearing the raw edge in his own voice. This man who'd been almost like a second father to him, who was he really? What had he done? He could feel his world collapsing into uncertainties.

The sword scraped a rhythm on the floor that perhaps spoke of nervousness. Slowly, Wesley moved close enough to place a hand on Connor's shoulder. It was not quite a comforting gesture - Uncle Wesley had never been given to those. But perhaps it was meant to be. He said, with a certain caution, "I came into possession once, in a world wholly different to this one, of a great deal of knowledge and resources. In that world... let us say that I had made mistakes, mistakes which only gradually became clear to me. But in the time it took to come to full realisation, I had already learned no small amount. Enough to ensure that the consequences of my actions could be contained in myself if I were to choose to mend those mistakes."

Connor stared at him, taking in the decay, the arthritic joints. It struck him, for the first time, what he known without ever connecting for a long time already... that when you added up the numbers, Wesley wasn't much older than Kate.

"I--" He looked down at where the book had been, the twist of regret in his chest. "But you're... look at..." He swallowed, trying to break past the lump in his throat. "And, I... I thought that maybe, in another world, Cordelia..."

"Cordelia." Wesley's sigh gave texture to a stretched silence. "She had longer here than... No, Connor, you won't find a better world than this one," he said quietly. "I know... I've looked."

END