Summary: Fred, Gunn, and Wesley are called together to learn something that has been hidden from them. Thirteenth story in the "Slayer Central" series.

Disclaimer: All of these characters remain the property of their owners/creators. . .I'm just tying up some loose ends before the grand finale.

Rating: PG-13, for themes

Time Frame: About two weeks after "Requiem For The Fallen," and following the post- "Chosen" events described in "Slayer Central" and the following stories in the series. (spoilers)

Archiving: Be my guest, but e-mail me (eilandesq@hotmail.com) to let me know. . .I like to know where stuff I write ends up and I might want to see what else you've got.

PULLING BACK THE CURTAIN

Buffy walked down the main staircase of the Hyperion--she was in a relatively good mood. The resolution of the Drusilla situation--together with her new understanding with Angel--had taken a great deal of stress out of her life, which was definitely welcome given the large number of new responsibilities that had fallen into her lap.

Fortunately, she was discovering that she had a lot of new resources as well-- quite apart from the assets of the old Watchers' Council (which Giles had pretty well gotten control of) and the contacts and data sources of Wolfram & Hart, Los Angeles (which were largely--by Buffy and Angel's agreement--largely focused on making sure that the senior partners weren't pulling the strings behind the scenes, and to quietly eliminating some of the more lethal clients of the firm without tipping off the rest). Buffy was used to thinking of Slayers as teenaged girls with little in the way of inherent skills or resources other than what their birthright gave them-- very talented, but not terribly useful for running what amounted to a large, multi-national corporation. The Spell had changed the situation completely, however. As a group, Potentials had substantially higher than average intelligence, ambition, and willpower--as well as a much higher than average occurrence of other valuable talents. For the ones who had made it into their twenties and later without being Called, that meant that there were a disproportionate number of trained professionals, scientists, and artists among their number. Being empowered had somewhat disrupted their lives, but they were also quick to understand that learning to control their power, and using it to destroy the forces of darkness that would be arrayed against them, would make their lives and the lives of those they cared about better. That reaction hadn't been universal, of course: a few had been rather disgruntled. Fortunately, even those had agreed to come to the Hyperion for at least a short debriefing before going back to their lives. Buffy was worried that those few might come to harm on their own, but she forced herself to be content with leaving contact information with them, and hoping they would come back into the fold. In the meantime, she had private detectives keeping tabs on them, just in case one decided to play for the other side.

Plans for the East Coast branch of Slayer Central were progressing nicely-- Helen had proven her talents for management with flying colors, and Buffy had not regretted designating her as the CEO of the new enterprise, in spite of the presence of three MBAs within the ranks of the new Slayers. She had no problems developing relationships with the other Slayers-- momentary jealousy at her apparent interest in Xander aside--and Buffy knew that she'd have no problems finding personnel to go east with her. Willow had noted that Kennedy was expressing some interest in going to the new branch--Buffy felt a pang of impending loss at the idea that Willow might choose to follow her. * Still, Willow has to follow her heart--and it's not like all of my friends are leaving. Faith is happy here, and Xander-- Xander wouldn't leave, would he? *

Buffy was shaken out of her musings by the sight of Dawn walking across the lobby, apparently lost in thought. Buffy looked at her closely and noted that she looked strangely. . .rumpled. She raised an eyebrow and walked towards Dawn--and her sharp eyes spotted an additional piece of evidence that almost caused her to chuckle out loud. She cleared her throat and called out, "Hey, Dawnie--what's up?"

Dawn blinked, turned to her sister, and smiled faintly before replying, "Hey, Buffy--just going to talk to Angel and Willow about something. Nothing exciting."

"Mmm-hmm," murmured Buffy, studying Dawn carefully. "Does this have anything to do with whatever has caused you to forget everything that I-- not to mention Cordelia--taught you about grooming in the last five years?"

Dawn frowned, and didn't bother to correct Buffy by pointing out that she'd never really *met* Cordelia. "Look, I woke up late and I was in a hurry to get to where I was going--nothing to get nasty about."

Buffy smirked, and suggested, "You might want to look in the mirror before you stick with that story, Dawn."

Dawn glared at Buffy, then walked over to a large mirror hanging on the lobby wall. She looked herself over, starting with her jeans. When she reached her neck, she squinted, stepped forward, and gasped. She blushed crimson and turned back to Buffy slowly, the age-old defensive comment on her lips: "I can explain."

"Don't bother." Dawn cringed slightly at Buffy's words before noticing that her tone was amused, not angry. The Slayer walked over and glanced at the unmistakably shaped bruise on Dawn's neck, adding, "I'm just glad that there aren't any fang marks." Dawn relaxed, and Buffy scowled at her and whispered, "Just be careful--I've got enough on my plate right now without worrying about becoming 'Aunt Buffy.'" She reached into her bag and pulled out a container of makeup, handing it to Dawn. "Here--Willow brewed this up for me a couple of years back: hides bruises--and hickeys--like a charm." She shook her head in mild annoyance and walked off, and Dawn took a moment to feel mild irritation of her own before heading back to her room for some quick repairs.

* * * * *

Gunn frowned. He had just finished a long day at the office, tweaking the surveillance setup for an upcoming concert of a major rock star who just happened to be a marrow-sucking demon. The concert would be the only place where he was vulnerable to attack, and Gunn had planned the assault with great care--it would go down in five days. He was ready to call it a night and get some sack time, but Willow's message had said "Urgent," and he knew that the witch didn't use that word lightly.

The door to the Hyperion Lounge was closed, and Gunn entered quietly--only to be surprised when he saw that Willow was not there, but that Wesley and Fred were. Both of them were at the bar waiting quietly, and had turned at the sound of the door opening. Gunn blinked, and asked, "Did Willow leave you a message too?"

Fred shook her head. "Dawn told me to come by--said there was something important to talk about."

"Angel told me to come here--said that he couldn't explain why just then," added Wesley, as Gunn walked into the lounge--letting the door close behind him--and pulled up a chair at one of the tables.

Gunn scowled. "If we were anywhere but our headquarters right now, I'd say that we'd all been given phony stories to lead us into a trap--and even with us being here, I'm a bit suspicious." He pulled out his cell phone and muttered, "Maybe Willow can give us an explanation--"

"Don't bother." Angel had opened the door, and Willow slipped in behind him, looking somber. Fred glanced at the door, but Dawn did not follow. Willow took a seat at the bar next to Fred, and Angel walked to a point on the floor in front of all of them and waited a moment before speaking again. "I know you're wondering why you're all here."

"That would be a reasonable guess, Angel," Wesley replied, folding his arms and looking at the vampire. "We all received more-or-less identical summons, from three different people--only two of which have joined us. Since you could have easily called all of us or emailed, it does make one wonder why you used such elaborate procedures to gather us here."

"And why Willow is here? Don't get me wrong: she's one of my favorite people and someone I'm pretty happy to have on my speed dial when it's time to start throwing nasty magic around." Willow smiled at him, and Gunn winked at her and added, "But this looks like a reunion of Angel Investigations--minus Cordy--and Willow's not part of that little group."

"I asked Willow to come here as a consultant--and as a facilitator, if we agree on a particular course of action," replied Angel, noting the puzzled looks on the faces of his friends as he spoke. He blinked, and the other four occupants of the room were taken aback by the sadness on his face as he said quietly, "I did something that I thought was right at the time--but I may have done an immeasurable amount of harm by doing so."

"Oh no--you didn't sleep with Buffy again, did you? You were so upset about Dru, and one thing could have led to another, and--" Fred stopped as she noticed Angel glaring at her, Wesley and Gunn smirking, and Willow murmuring, "And people say *I* babble," with a subtle smile on her face. She flushed crimson and whispered, "Sorry."

Angel smiled involuntarily--the absurdity had taken a little of the unpleasantness out of what he was about to say. "It's all right, Fred--but if Angelus was back, he'd make sure Willow was dealt with somehow first. He's really sick of her kicking his ass." It was Willow's turn to blush, and Angel nodded to her before saying, "No, it's something that has to do with us, and the last couple of years. . .and the whole thing began before we rescued Fred from Pylea." He paused and slipped behind the bar, pouring drinks for everyone. When he had finished, he sat down at a table across from them and spoke for ninety minutes.

To Gunn, Fred, and Wesley, it was like hearing a childhood story that they had last heard when they were three--some of the details were familiar: the skirmishes with Darla, the grim struggle with Holtz, and the vicious battles with the invincible Beast and Jasmine the prior year. But woven in and out of those well-worn topics were entirely new elements that none of them remembered in the slightest, and it was only Angel's intense expression as he spoke that kept the three of them from interrupting him multiple times. Angel reached the moment when Lilah had come to tell them of Wolfram & Hart's offer, he paused, and waited for a reaction.

Fred spoke first. "Angel. . .that can't be right. There's so much there-- how could we have possibly forgotten all of it? Nobody's ever mentioned you having a son--and Wesley would never--"

"I might--if I truly believed that Angel might kill his own son, and the only way I could see to stop him was to flee with the child," commented Wesley, polishing his glasses and putting them back on. He looked at Angel and said bluntly, "But I don't believe that you'd try to kill me as I lay helpless in a hospital bed, Angel." Angel's face twisted in guilt, and Wesley added bluntly, "That's not consistent with the man I've known over the past five years--even under extreme circumstances."

"Why did you leave, English?" Gunn whispered, causing the others to turn and look at him in concern. "You just took off for six months, and we only saw you in emergencies. I'm trying to remember why, and I can't make sense of it."

"I--" Wesley paused in mid-sentence, and was at a loss for words. Looking back at the past few years as a whole, separating himself from Angel Investigations and becoming involved with Lilah seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to have done--but when he tried to reconstruct the sequence of events which had caused it to happen, it was as if he was looking directly at something which had seemed real in his peripheral vision, only to see it vanish. The scar on his neck--which had obviously been a nearly fatal wound--did not seem to have come from any fights he remembered being in. He shook his head in bewilderment, and looked at Angel with ferocious curiosity and said simply, "All right--I'm ready to accept that we might not remember how things actually happened, but I'd very much like to know *why* we don't remember."

Gunn and Fred nodded in agreement, and Willow came up beside him, squeezing his shoulder. Angel looked at her gratefully, then began to speak again: "Lilah made us the offer, and we all went our own ways inside Wolfram & Hart. I was still dead set against it--I knew they had some kind of angle they were trying to pursue with us, even though I could see the positives, too. After a while, Lilah turned on the TV, and Connor had taken a department store hostage. He had lost all hope, and was going to take a lot of innocent people with him when he went. I negotiated a deal with Lilah, and went to the store. He had wired himself and the hostages with explosives--and Cordy was there too, ready to be blown straight to hell with the rest."

"Oh, god." Fred whispered. Wesley reached out and squeezed her shoulder comfortingly.

"He wouldn't back down, and I couldn't see how to stop him. . .so I killed him." The room was deadly silent as Angel spoke, and remained so until he continued, "His death triggered a spell that Lilah had arranged with the Senior Partners--removing the memory of Connor from everyone on Earth except for myself, Lilah, and the Senior Partners, and giving Connor the memories of a new life with a new family somewhere else. He has no idea who he is, and--except for the ones I just named--no one else does, either." He looked around and amended, "Until today."

Gunn recovered first, and asked, "OK, so why is Willow here, then?"

"That's where I come in," interjected Lorne, who had just slipped in quietly. "Angel-cakes here hasn't been exactly in a musical frame of mind since we moved into Wolfram & Hart, but he and Xander made with the melodies to have that meet with Cordy a few months back, and while I was a bit preoccupied with the ritual I was in the middle of, I definitely got a sense that *something* was rotten in the state of California--and I'm not talking about Arnold's schnitzengrubel." Five pairs of eyes fixed on him with annoyance, and Lorne decided to leave the dead joke where it lay: "Anyway, I've been getting little glimpses of things since then, discombobulated as all heck, and I finally put enough of it together to confront the Big Guy about it. He came clean, and asked me to help solve the problem."

"What about Willow?" asked Fred.

"She met Connor while she was here--so did Faith," replied Angel. "Except for people who just met him in passing, or people who might be hostile to him--such as any survivors of Holtz's people--that's everyone who really knew him who's still alive. I figured that Willow could handle the shock more easily than any of you, so we brought her in and briefed her, then asked for advice and help."

"Memory charms are tricky--and even though reality's been tweaked a bit here, that's what this is: a very powerful memory charm." Willow's voice was matter-of-fact, and the others listened carefully as she continued, "I've identified the spell as it is operating on my memories as well as those of Lorne and Faith. It's working on everyone else, too--but at a far lesser level, since for them it's just a matter of removing the memory of someone they've never met or met only casually, and who isn't important to them." She looked sympathetically at all of them, and added, "It'll be a lot bigger jolt for all of you if you want it taken away--Angel's told you what happened, but *knowing* it's true is different from being told it's true."

"Have you already tested the removal spell on yourself and Faith?" asked Wesley.

Willow nodded. "It didn't faze her much at all--she wasn't all that close to Connor, and the memories weren't altered all that much. I was a bit more wigged, but I've got an aversion to memory-altering spells for personal reasons." Her expression darkened, and she whispered, "But Angel thinks you have a right to know, and I agree."

Gunn frowned. "Isn't us regaining our memories going to screw up the whole deal with Connor having a new life? Wasn't it a package deal?"

"No," replied Angel, looking away as he spoke. "Obviously, to make it work I needed *most* people to have their memories altered, but I could have left yours alone, and made sure you all knew what was happening to avoid slip-ups. Your memories were altered because I chose to have that added to the spell."

"Why, Angel?" asked Fred, walking around Angel and forcing him to face her. "I can't *feel* it right now, but from what you said we all cared about Connor very much--as difficult as he made it for us at times. Why would you take those memories away from us? Didn't you trust us to protect him?"

"Why should he?" commented Wesley, looking worn and beaten. "You heard him- -I kidnapped Connor and ended up delivering him into the hands of Angel's worst enemy. You went after him with a taser when you found out what he had done to Angel. We failed in protecting him, and he ended up a basket case. Why should he risk our knowledge of what happened ruining Connor's new beginning?"

"No!" Angel shouted, walking around until he was facing the others again. "That isn't it at all. You all did your best--mistakes and all. I'll always be grateful for that, even though it turned out badly." The others watched him in silence, and Angel closed his eyes and composed himself before continuing, "I began with that night with Darla for a reason--and not just because that was where Connor came from. I made so many stupid decisions from that night on, and you bore the brunt of them. I endangered all of you repeatedly, and often for no good reason. Connor turned out to be a relatively ordinary child until Holtz stepped in--he just as easily could have been an unstoppable monster from the get-go, like Jasmine. I tried to kill Wesley, got myself captured and out of touch just when Cordy was having her crisis, and I know that having Wesley gone from the Hyperion helped screw up the chemistry at Angel Investigations, particularly with Cordy gone too. I just. . ." He paused, sighed, and concluded, "I just hoped that if you didn't remember Connor, or the ways I had harmed you as a direct result of Connor having come here, things would return to normal. Along with Connor's new life, that was the consideration that caused me to accept the Senior Partners' offer."

"But things didn't make sense without the memories of Connor," Lorne said quietly, slipping behind the bar and mixing himself a Seabreeze. He shook his head sadly and added, "It's a big tapestry, Angel-cakes. Pull out one thread, and the whole thing unravels, or at least looks like cheap crap for the tourists. We all had issues with each other from what had happened, but couldn't remember some of the events that could help us get past them-- all we remembered was that we were angry."

"We've grown apart in the last six months," Angel said softly. "It might have happened anyway: the new arrangement has us busy, and we've made new friends. Maybe it was destined that we'd drift apart--but I didn't want it to happen without seeing if it was what we all really wanted, and finding out meant the truth, regardless of what it might cause you to think of me."

Wesley nodded silently, and turned to Willow: "So what are our options?"

Willow blinked, and replied, "You have three choices. One--I can lift the effects of the spell from all of you--you'll regain all your memories of Connor and the events that related to him. Two--you could choose not to have the memories restored, and rely on Angel's description of what happened. Three--"

Willow hesitated, and Fred saw her expression twist in disgust. She walked over to her friend and looked into her eyes as she whispered, "What's the third choice, Willow?"

The redhead closed her eyes and turned away from Fred in silence for a moment before replying, "I can remove the memories of everything that you've seen and heard tonight, and replace it with the memory of a quiet evening in the lounge. Things will be as they were before you came here tonight."

"I'd never ask you to do that, Willow." Gunn had walked over to Willow, and squeezed her hand. They had been playing chess three times a week for four months, and a number of secrets had changed hands in that time. "I know what that sort of magic represents to you."

"This is an important issue, and we should discuss it thoroughly," commented Wesley, walking over to Angel and looking him in the eyes. "However, I believe it would be appropriate for you to absent yourself from the discussion, Angel."

"Wesley," Willow interjected, throwing off her sense of revulsion at the option she had just mentioned and looking at her friend reprovingly. "That's a bit rude--"

"No it isn't, Willow--and I think the others agree with Wesley." Willow blinked at Angel's quiet reply, and she knew he was right from what she saw in the eyes of the others. The vampire looked at the others in the room, and just stood there for a moment before whispering, "I'll be waiting in my office." He walked out, and Willow watched him go before going to the bar and fixing an iced tea with lemon. She sat down and said simply:

"Go ahead and talk about it, and let me know what you decide."

* * * * *

Angel was busy with paperwork that he gave even less of a damn about than usual when Willow appeared in the doorway--with Dawn following behind her. They entered Angel's office and closed the door, and Willow said quietly, "It's done."

"What did they choose?" asked Angel, not knowing what answer would be worse.

Willow smiled wistfully. "They chose the truth, Angel. They may regret it for a while, but they chose reality over convenient amnesia. I wish I had made that choice the first time I was faced with it." Dawn reached out and squeezed Willow's hand, and the witch smiled briefly before sobering and saying, "They'll all need some time to deal, Angel--give them plenty of room."

"I know--they're welcome to it, and anything else I can do. Thank you for giving them back what I took from them, Willow." Willow smiled in acknowledgement of the thanks, and Angel sighed before looking over at Dawn. "We kept your name out of it, Dawn--your situation is one little piece of reality that they can do without."

"Everyone but Lorne, anyway--remind me never to hum when I'm walking through a hotel lobby again. The poor guy nearly walked through a wall from the reading he got from me." Dawn smiled and shook her head before looking at Angel and saying, "Thank you for letting me know what you were doing here, Angel--it bothered me a lot that you were dealing with this alone, and that your relationships with the others were screwed up by it. You did the right thing to tell them." The teenager smiled wickedly and added, "Besides, for once I know something interesting that Buffy doesn't."

Angel winced, and Willow cleared her throat. "C'mon, Secret Girl. Let's let Angel get back to work." She smiled at Angel, and opened the door, nudging the reluctant Dawn along. The door closed after them, and Angel heard a last comment from Willow: "So--Buffy's been lending you the makeup, huh? Smooching or socking?"

Angel heard an embarrassed grunt from Dawn as he winced again. * Whatever it is, I really don't want to know. * He went back to the paperwork, hoping his friends would forgive him and that things would return to normal- -such as it was.

As always, comments are welcomed and desired.