Title: There's Another Train (There Always Is)
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the world belongs to Whedon.
Summary: In the aftermath of Cordelia's ascension, a new seer has been chosen. 9000 words.
Spoilers: Up to A:tS "Tomorrow" (3.22), and AU from there.
Notes: Previously known as "The New Seer" years ago. You may have noticed I've been turning out my scrap file of late; this is one of those WIPs that's been languishing for at least five years. I decided to rewrite it as a one-shot now, rather than leaving it as an eternally stuck handful of chapters with aspirations toward noveldom. I intend to finish "Primrose Path" first, but there will likely be more of this later; I've wanted to play with the mess that was season four for ages. It's just that I'm only now recovering my motivation after NFA.
"There's only one way to hurt a man who's lost everything. Give him back something broken."
~Stephen R. Donaldson, White Gold Wielder
"Angel's gone, Wesley," Lilah said, standing in the door of Wesley's flat with a manila envelope clutched in her manicured hands. She didn't usually bring work with her when she visited; but he supposed in this case, she hadn't been able to resist the opportunity to gloat. He swallowed back bile, crossing his arms as he listened, telling himself he didn't care.
"Him and his seer both," she continued, "gone where our sources and our psychics can't find them. In case you're wondering, that usually means dead, especially since it's been months since their disappearance. And look: surveillance crews have spotted Angel's son with an old friend of yours."
The gloating in Lilah's voice was unmistakable. So was the identity of the woman in the photo she held out toward Wesley: it was Justine Cooper, the young huntress who had been Holtz's second in command and who had been responsible for stealing Connor from him in the first place. He had intended to capture her months ago; it had been obvious that she had something to do with Angel's disappearance, after Holtz had turned up aged and dead the same evening the last sightings of Angel and Cordelia had been reported. But he'd had other things on his mind in the immediate aftermath of his near-death… and clearly, he'd left it too late.
The fresh wave of guilt that swept over him at the knowledge that his well-meant actions were still reaping such bitter fruit struck like the fabled last straw on the camel's back: he knew even as he felt his defenses crumble that he was making a poor decision, choosing a path based on bitter emotion rather than reason, but he couldn't bring himself to care. Nothing he did could ever restore things back to the way they'd been before; he'd just seen proof of that. He'd not only destroyed everything that meant anything to him; he'd sown the ground with salt as well. So what could it possibly matter what he did with himself next?
The contracts were unrolled on the coffee table; Lilah had brought them with her before, but the ex-Watcher had found enough strength to resist their temptation, then. In Lilah he could find, for a few moments, oblivion; in her law firm, he'd known he would find only Hell. At that moment, however, he could feel the last shred of hope chasing redemption and forgiveness into a place he could never reach. Why fight it any longer?
Lilah handed Wesley the pen, and he made the requisite tiny cut on his finger. Contracts signed in blood were much more potent than the standard kind, after all. He touched the tip of the pen to the wound, gathering a drop of that crucial fluid, and prepared to become in truth what he had been erroneously labeled before:
Traitor. Betrayer. Evil.
In that moment, with Wesley's life poised over a dotted line, the Powers That Were proved themselves as fond of poor timing as ever.
A sudden barrage of images swept through Wesley's mind, unlike anything he had ever experienced. His eyes fluttered shut as a great darkness swept before them, dense and utterly cold, pressing down on him with the weight of ages. A voice, distorted but familiar, moaned incoherently nearby-- he could feel the grief, the loneliness, the overwhelming hunger that voice represented, and knew instinctively who it was.
"Angel," he whispered, opening his eyes once more, raising his hands to his temples with a wince of pain.
The old seer was gone, but the Champion lived. A new seer had been chosen.
Wes had never seen Lilah look quite so startled in all the time he'd known her, nor quite so nakedly avaricious. The two emotions flashed visibly over her face, one after the other, then cleared into her usual slightly predatory, smug expression.
"You saw Angel?" she asked, trying for a casual tone, but he could still see the glee sparkling in the depths of her eyes. "Now, wherever did that bad boy get to?"
Wes looked down at the stack of pages he'd been about to sign, speckled a little with blood where he'd dropped the quill pen. The first half of a cursive W stared back at him mockingly, and the pounding in his temples increased a notch in response.
Strangely, the pain of the vision headache seemed to be clearing his mind, rather than clouding it further. The long slow slide of the last few months had led him through many extremes of emotion and thought, but self-examination and honesty hadn't been very high on his agenda. Now everything was coming back into focus, flooding him with nausea and a sense of vertigo, as though he'd been walking the edge of a precipice for weeks and was only just realising it.
"The same place I imagine he's been for the last three months," he said dryly, in answer to Lilah's question. Then he reached for the pen again.
The earlier flash of greed he'd seen in Lilah's eyes returned with a vengeance, and he couldn't help the bitter smile that formed on his lips. If he'd been a catch for the firm before due to his intelligence, Watcher background, and ties to Angel Investigations, he would be triply to them valuable now. Wolfram and Hart would reward Lilah very well for roping in a seer for the Powers that Be, especially the seer for the very Champion they wished to control, regardless of whether the Champion himself was within their grasp.
Scenes of a possible future flashed through his mind; not a vision, just his own morbid imagination, projecting from this branching of paths. Wolfram and Hart rescuing Angel from the dark place Wes had seen, gloating through the souled vampire's disorientation and hunger as he woke. Lilah, seated behind a massive polished desk in her new, larger office, looking sleek and satisfied as she took down the details of Wes' latest vision and thought up ways to exploit it. Gavin Park, standing in the lobby of the Hyperion with a sneer as he passed on what details the firm deigned to reveal. It rather put things into perspective.
Casually, Wes turned the quill around in his fingers, then exerted pressure with his thumb. The pen bent briefly, then broke with a satisfying snap and fell negligently to the floor in two pieces.
Lilah's eyes widened with shock, then narrowed in anger, and she made a sudden, determined grab for the partially signed contract. "Now, Wes," she began warningly, "we had a deal..."
He snagged the pages out of her reach, tucking them up in his arms; he had no desire to find out what her firm could do with the blood he'd left on that contract, now that he'd decided to live. That was a depth of irony he was most definitely not willing to descend to.
"You and I had a deal," he corrected her, backing away as he fended off her determined attempts to grab the contract out of his arms. "Circumstances have changed. I don't believe the Powers that Be would appreciate inclusion, however peripherally, in your scheming."
She stopped trying to play keep-away with the contract and crossed her arms, frowning as she carefully studied his expression. "So, you're sure that was a real vision? More than that, you're sure it came from the Powers that Be? It could have been a one-off, or from some other source entirely, you know. I'm sure there are a lot of magicians out there-- many of whom hated Angel-- who would love to snare you in with a prophetic scam and then use you to get him back. It could even be your own doing; we're perfectly aware of the problems you've been having with your magic lately, what if it's a simple case of wishful dreaming? There's no reason to void your contract on a maybe; there are so many things we can do for you."
If Wes hadn't seen her face when he had first looked up from the painful barrage of images, he might have listened to the logical doubts she was presenting. He had, however, and he knew her reasonable tone for what it was: a hasty, scrambling attempt to recover ground she already knew to be lost. She'd never have tipped her hand about knowing one of the secrets he'd been attempting to keep from her, otherwise. "But you don't believe it's a maybe, do you, Lilah?" he asked her, shaking his head.
She sighed, unexpectedly, and uncrossed her arms, giving him a rueful smile. "I knew it was too good to be true," she said. "I warned them you still had a goody-goody backbone in there somewhere."
The resigned attitude didn't match what he knew of her, and was entirely unlikely to satisfy those to whom she reported; Wes didn't trust it. He took another cautious step away from her, circling towards the kitchen and the drawer where he kept the matches. "Oddly enough, I find it difficult to believe that you're giving up that easily," he said.
Lilah's smile turned shark-like, and she raised an arched eyebrow. "Oh, this isn't over," she said. "That, you can be sure of." Then she turned on one expensively shod heel and walked out of his flat, hips sashaying in her skirted suit, as though this had been just any other of their encounters.
Wes stared after her, more unsettled than he wanted to admit, then strolled to the door and locked it firmly behind her. Silently, he thanked whatever deity had preserved enough of his common sense to have his locks changed and enchanted on a regular basis, then retreated back towards the kitchen.
Matches were the first order of duty, to burn the contract. In his hands, not fully signed, it was not binding, but there were many things demons or unscrupulous sorcerers might accomplish with it; he knew better than to keep it as a souvenir. Thus, the first task of his new career dovetailed nicely with the last of the old-- if you could count either "seer" or "slide to destruction" as a career-- crackling merrily away in a tray placed on the kitchen counter. A judicious touch of magical energy-- his control might have gone out the window of late in larger matters, but fine enough applications were fortunately still within his grasp-- concentrated it enough to burn the paper completely to ash, while keeping the fire contained within the small space: there would be nothing left for anyone to work with.
His stomach roiled again as he recognised once more just how close he'd come to achieving that self-destruction. Not that he valued his own life altogether much; after all, becoming a human seer was just as much of a death sentence as his deal with Lilah would have been. But there was still enough of the conscientious Watcher left inside-- even after everything he'd done, even after proving himself a complete failure at the job-- to quail at the innocents his actions would have endangered, even without the visions.
Wes reached automatically for a bottle of whisky, intending to quiet the recriminating thoughts that were keeping time with the pulse stabbing at his temples. Then he paused, hefting the weight of it in his hand, blinking at the label. Just how much time and clarity had he sunk in the anesthetising depths of alcohol over the summer? He neither needed nor deserved that softening oblivion any longer. There were things to be done.
Wes set the bottle down next to the tray, still glowing with the fading embers of the legal contract. Then he fumbled in the cupboards for a bottle of aspirin and dry-swallowed four of them. Cordelia had managed through the pain; he could do no less.
That thought brought him up short again. He hadn't questioned where the vision had come from; it hadn't even occurred to him, in the moment, to wonder. He'd just known, as though the sender and means of transmission were stamped onto his subconscious. True, Lilah's reaction had all but confirmed it-- had Wolfram and Hart been waiting to see which of Angel's other associates would be struck with the role of celestial messenger?-- but he would have been certain even without the lawyer's presence.
Perhaps there was more information transmitted in a vision than was immediately obvious? As far as he was aware, no one had ever done thorough research on the effects and nuances of a seer's career. There would be time to worry about that later, however; there were other, more important things to be concerned with.
If he were getting the visions now, that meant Cordelia had indeed gone, most likely for good. It meant Angel was his Champion now, whether they hated one another or not. It meant rejoining Angel Investigations, facing Connor, dealing with Gunn's rejection and Fred's pity, and nobly downing migraine medications in the pursuit of justice. He glanced at the heap of ash in the tray again, momentarily regretting his decision to burn the thing, then shook his head.
"Narrow the gate, Wesley," he muttered to himself. "Bloody hell."
He spent the remainder of his first day as seer systematically cleaning his flat. There were liquor bottles to be emptied and discarded; neglected laundry to be washed; and a refrigerator full of take-out containers and empty fast-food wrappers to be binned. His bookshelves hadn't been properly organised since Gunn and Fred had recovered his notes and journals months before, so he spent another hour or two putting them back in order as well. He thumbed through a few of them, old friends he'd been carrying around since his earliest Watcher days, and breathed in the bittersweet, calming scent of aged leather and paper before moving to the next task.
He had still been hunting demons occasionally over the last few months, resurrecting his pre-Angel Investigations occupation with a little more success than the first time around, so his favorite sword, axe and crossbow were in decent shape. Between the spillover from the Hellmouth and the native populations of predatory demons, there was plenty of hunting available in the city to one who did not care about receiving payment beyond what could be lifted from the prey's pockets or about the wrath such actions might earn from the bigger fish in the city, as Holtz and his vampire-hunting team had discovered before him. The rest of Wes' weapons, however, were due for a bit more care. He sat down on the couch, spreading them all out on the coffee table, and brought out the cleaning and sharpening equipment.
The repetitive motions required for the task soothed the last of his jangled nerves. By the time he had finished polishing the last blade, the idea of returning to the Hyperion had begun to seem only uncomfortable, rather than disastrous. He was going to need Gunn's help, and Fred's, unless he could manage to locate some other personnel to retrieve Angel-- and frankly, he didn't particularly want any of his other still-extant resources knowing about the souled vampire's imprisonment. The few willing to work with him for pay were, by definition, willing to sell their loyalties, and he did not dare risk their selling the information he now had to reveal.
Angel would probably be weak and confused for some while after they recovered him due to the length of time he'd apparently spent without feeding, possibly without much control over his demonic side. He would either appear weak-- a fatal blow to the reputation of the great Angelus-- or unreasonably dangerous, which would likely amount to the same thing. It would be terribly tempting for anyone not previously an ally to turn him over to those who could pay a great deal more than Wes could.
Quickly, before the lingering bitterness and doubts could convince him to put the task off until the next day, Wes collected his keys and shrugged into his leather jacket. He was wearing something out of his rugged "hunting" wardrobe rather than the nicer "investigator" or "Watcher" clothes he still kept from the heydays of his former careers, and he hadn't bothered to shave in several days, but his former friends would just have to accept him as-is. Not that they'd shown any inclination to accept him in any condition over the last several months, but this time they would presumably have no choice.
He scanned the streets from the back of his motorcycle as he weaved through the late-evening traffic, habitually watching for anything that might trip his danger sense. It had grown more perceptive of late-- though still not as sharp as even that of a Slayer like Buffy, whose main gifts lay elsewhere. Vampires and demons were unlikely to be abroad at this hour, given the high volume of vehicles on the streets, but there was always a chance of running into a Wolfram and Hart project, or Connor, or even Justine.
Or Connor and Justine, according to the photograph Lilah had shown him. Wes frowned, considering, remembering the dockyards that the photographer had captured in the background, and something that had bothered him about his vision abruptly made sense. Water. The dark, the cold, the distortion of Angel's voice; they all pointed to an immersion in water, likely somewhere along the coast. The location of Angel's abandoned vehicle supported that hypothesis, as well.
He swore under his breath, scowling as he waited for the next traffic light to change. If Angel was beneath the ocean, finding him was not going to be easy. Couldn't the Powers have provided him with a bit more in the way of landmarks?
The thought hung in Wes' mind like an echo, and he shook off a moment of déjà vu, recalling the many times Cordelia had expressed similar sentiments in his hearing. His mouth curved into a bare smile, hidden by his helmet. There was something very surreal, and not a little ironic, about his situation.
When he reached the hotel, he parked in the same place he always had. Gunn's truck was also there, collecting dust and grime; it looked as though it hadn't been washed in all the time Wesley had been gone. The hotel itself had a similar air of benign neglect, as though the occupants had neither the funds nor the manpower to keep it bright and clean. Wes traced the outline of a rust-red stain on the door handles with a finger, idly wondering if the blood had come from a human or demon source, then sighed and told himself to go on in and get it over with.
A clear, high note rang out in the lobby as he stepped over the threshold, startling him momentarily. Probably a mystical doorbell, triggered by a simple ward. It made sense; with only two people on staff, unless they'd hired someone else, they wouldn't want to be tied to the front desk.
"Chaaaarles!" The familiar Texas accent carried from the direction of the stairs. "Customer!"
"I heard it, same as you did," her boyfriend called back from the direction of the kitchen. Then he began the usual spiel, the sound of his voice punctuated by footsteps as he moved to the connecting doorway. "Welcome to Angel Investigations, we help the..."
Gunn's welcoming expression vanished into a mask of anger as he recognised him. There was a new scar tracing a line along the left side of his jaw, and the stress of the last few months had left him leaner and marked by exhaustion. "Wes. Well. I guess you qualify as hopeless, but we ain't gonna help." He crossed his arms and squared his stance, watching Wes through narrowed eyes. "Never thought we'd see you here again. 'Specially after the way you kicked me outta your apartment the last time, told me never to come around again."
"Yes, well, I hardly expected to be here," Wes replied, mirroring his former best friend's posture. "However, I've come into possession of some information which you might find useful."
"Is that Wes?!" Fred gasped; she must have been standing near the stairwell, listening. "Don't send him away!" she yelled, then came running up the stairs as though afraid he would run before she could reach them.
Gunn's scowl deepened. "Unless you know something about Angel, Cordy, or Connor, we don't need to hear it," he declared.
"Charles!" Fred objected, stumbling to a halt in the lobby. She was wearing soft, colorful clothing clearly intended for exercise, with her hair up in a braid and a sword in one hand. She was a little more muscular than Wes remembered; it lent substance and a healthier glow to her thin frame. "Don't be rude!" she continued, catching her breath, then turned a concerned look on Wes. "I'm sure Wes wouldn't be here if it wasn't important. Right? Did you hear anything about why they're all missing? Or is there something new and disturbing we need to know about?"
Wes smiled faintly at her words. "Actually, all of the above," he said.
Gunn's eyebrows shot up at that. "All of the above? You mean you know where they are?"
"Ahhh... roughly," Wes admitted. "Their exact locations are tied up in that 'something new and disturbing' that Fred anticipated."
Gunn didn't like that answer. "You better not be working for Wolfram and Hart," he growled. Wes' face must have shown some reaction, because he kept going, his tone growing bitterer the further he went. "Yeah, I know all about Lilah's visit to you this morning, and that briefcase she was carrying with her. You been working for her the last few months?"
The accusation wasn't a surprise, but the substance of it was. Wes had no idea that Gunn had been watching his place; he'd assumed the shadow was another of Lilah's goons. What else had he overlooked? He shook his head and answered Gunn in the same acidic tone. "She attempted to seduce me to join her firm, yes, but the situation has grown beyond my self-destructive impulses and any bad blood between you and I. I burnt the contract and sent her away."
Gunn would have said something else, but Fred moved first, laying a small hand on his arm in a calming gesture. "Let's go into the office and talk about this like civilized people," she said, quietly.
He stared at Wes a moment longer, making sure his displeasure was obvious, then turned and stalked off into the office without another word.
Fred watched him go with a sigh, then turned a weary expression on Wes. "It is good to see you, you know," she said quietly, then set her sword on the counter and followed Gunn.
Wes stood in the doorway of his old office, trying very hard to suppress the feeling of having come home. It looked much the same as it had when he had left it; someone had been dusting, and a few books had been moved, but the majority of his things were still where they'd been the night he'd taken Connor and left the hotel for what he'd thought would be the last time.
Except, of course, for the tea set and those few other blatant reminders of his existence that Fred had packed up and brought to him in hospital. If he'd been the one packing, he'd have gone about it the other way round; sad to say, he identified himself more strongly with the prophecies and manuscripts than the knick-knacks.
"Haven't done much researching this summer?" he asked, mildly, glancing over at Fred as he finished his visual inspection.
She glanced nervously around at the shelves, then at Gunn's closed face, then back at Wes. "Well, it's not like we could read most of them," she said, "and we haven't had Cordelia's visions, anyway, so we didn't need to research all that much. The 'Demons, Demons, Demons' website usually had all the information we needed about the things our customers were contacting us to get rid of."
"Get to the point, Wes," Gunn said, glaring at him.
"Strange that Fred should mention the visions," Wes answered, staring back at Gunn. "Since they have apparently found a new host."
"What?" Fred exclaimed. "But that... Are you sure? Who got them? What happened to Cordelia?"
Gunn stepped forward, past Fred, and got a good grip on the front of Wes' shirt before slamming him up against the wall. "Cordy's been gone all summer, Wes. What did you do to her? Why haven't you said anything before now? You got the visions, didn't you? You been feeding the visions to Lilah? That why she wants you so much?"
"I've no idea what happened to Cordelia." Wes' headache was beginning to come back. He'd known Gunn wouldn't take this very well, but this was absurd. "I have never intentionally caused harm to anyone I care about," he said, putting as much emphasis on the words as he could. "You know that, Charles."
"Yeah, well," Gunn answered, growling into Wes' face, "you know what they say about the road to Hell."
"I'm perfectly aware of..." Wes began, then gasped and lost his balance as another vision hit him.
Blood. So much blood. The metallic scent of it was heavy in his nostrils, overwhelming his other senses, blocking out any awareness of the room back at the Hyperion. Muted, as if at a distance, he could hear the angry yelling of a young man and the sounds of fists impacting on flesh; he could see several shadowed forms fighting back and forth in a narrow alley next to a video store, and a broken body sprawled lifeless on the ground. As he struggled to focus on the image, his point of view sharpened a little more, and he abruptly recognised the woman's brassy hair: it was Justine, and she was quite dead, blood pooling on the asphalt beneath her viciously torn throat. Connor stood over her, trying to defend himself against a pack of tall, heavily built vampires, but it appeared that he was slowly losing.
"Shit, English, you're heavier than you look." A strained voice brought Wes out of the sensory flood, and he discovered that he had collapsed against Gunn like a puppet with its strings cut while his mind had been elsewhere.
"Sorry." He got his feet under him again and pushed away from Gunn, then took his glasses off and rubbed futilely at the stabbing pain in his temples. "I apologise; I hadn't entirely recovered from the first one," he said by way of explanation, then started moving slowly towards a chair. More than just his head ached, now; whatever physical mechanism the visions tapped into to channel their clairvoyant effect, it was very draining on the system. Fred leapt to help him, steering him with an arm around his back and a hand at his elbow.
"First one?" she asked, concern clear in her tone. "Your first vision was today?"
"Earlier this afternoon," he acknowledged, squinting carefully up at her from the chair. "It seems that the Powers that Be have decided now is as good a time as any to rescue their chosen Champion, and how silly of me, I thought the two of you might want to be there to assist." He couldn't quite keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
"So Cordy's gone, you got her visions, and Angel's trapped somewhere it'll take more than you to get him out of," Gunn summed up, bluntly. "What about Connor? He with Angel?"
Wes snorted. "No, he's with Justine. Who's apparently going to get herself killed in an hour or so, near a video store six blocks to the west of the hotel. If I could trouble you for some aspirin and the use of a sword, I intend to do something about it."
"Justine?" Gunn raised his eyebrows at the name. "You mean, Holtz's Justine?"
"Yes, Holtz's Justine," Wes rolled his eyes, then winced as the motion worsened his headache. "The same Justine who claimed to need sanctuary from Holtz, then cut my throat when I let my guard down and stole Connor from me, taking him back to the man who had beaten her. I imagine Connor sees her as some sort of mother figure, though I doubt she's very nurturing."
Wes was still quite angry about what she had done, though intellectually he knew that her actions were a consequence of her history. She was hardly the only one in like circumstance; his own personal background could be called difficult, to put it mildly, and had influenced him to take actions that might be considered inexcusable from certain points of view. Gunn and Fred, for example, weren't even aware there was anything to understand; he'd never fully explained himself. Was it hypocritical of him to hate her and not himself?
Gunn and Fred shared a troubled look, and then focused on him again. Fred shook herself and started digging through the desk drawers, presumably looking for aspirin, and Gunn moved to sit on the edge of the desk, in front of Wes. He still looked upset, but there was a lot less anger in him.
"You know, we thought you were taking Connor to Holtz anyway," he said, matter-of-factly. "Not to send him to the Quor-Toth, Justine said you weren't in on that, but..." He shrugged. "We found out about that prophecy, going through your notes; Fred told you it was a trick, right? Sahjhan planted it. Anyway, we figured you took the baby to Angel's enemy to keep safe, and got double-crossed along the way."
Wes sighed. "You never asked," he said. "Angel's anger I expected, but the rest of you... I'd hoped you knew me better than that. Perhaps I should have said something, but I felt I couldn't risk it. You would either have disagreed with me and told Angel, or agreed with me and wanted to help, and either option would have endangered too many people. The simplest solution was to take the responsibility on myself, and try to take Connor to safety."
"And what about the part with you and Holtz?" Fred spoke up, looking up at him as she lifted the aspirin container from a drawer and twisted the top off. "Lorne said he read that from you before you hit him; you were meeting with Holtz behind our backs."
Wes frowned. Well, that explained some of the assumptions; why couldn't Lorne have read any of the pertinent bits? "Information gathering, Fred. I asked questions, made threats; it wasn't pretty. While I was there, Holtz implied that he also knew of the prophecies and that if I didn't take Connor to safety myself, he would. I was determined not to let that happen."
Gunn was silent for a moment, looking down at the ground; then he snorted and shook his head. "You remember that lecture you gave me after my old gang busted up Lorne's club? The one about there being no place for me on the team if I kept secrets? Pot and kettle, man, pot and kettle. You had no right to keep us out of it, risk or no risk."
Wes took three more aspirin from the handful Fred presented him, and tossed them back. "Well, the milk has already been spilt," he said. "And unless you've found a time-travel device since the last time we worked together, I suggest we put it behind us and call a truce. I need your help, and I believe you need mine."
Both men fell quiet, studying each other. After a moment of silence had passed, Fred spoke up, rubbing her hands together. "Okay then. We better get moving. What kind of bad guys are we up against? Vampires? Demons? How many?"
Wes offered a tired smile in her direction. "Vampires. Several. I couldn't see them clearly, but they were overpowering Connor."
She nodded. "Swords, stakes, and crossbows. Gotcha." Then she headed for the weapons case.
"All right then," Gunn finally said, nodding. "You understand, though, that you lost the trust? And Angel's back to being the boss."
"I understand," Wes nodded. It was more than he'd expected, actually. Gunn's belated welcome, as limited as it was, was balm to a soul that had been parched for contact for many months. For the first time since Connor's kidnapping, some fragment of the old understanding between the two men flared to life. Their friendship had been heavily damaged by actions and assumptions on both sides, but perhaps it would be salvageable, eventually.
"Need more aspirin, or are you ready to go?" Gunn asked.
Wes put his glasses back on and stood slowly. His vision headache had downgraded from blinding pain to a throbbing ache, and there wasn't any lingering dizziness; he doubted it would get much better until after the crisis had passed. "I'll be fine," he answered. "Let's get moving."
Wes approached the alleyway cautiously, flanked by Fred and Gunn. The foot traffic in the area had slowed considerably, but not enough that they could risk carrying their weapons at the ready. Early detection would be key. If the vampires had chased-- would chase-- Connor and Justine there on foot, then there was plenty of time to conceal themselves and wait to be of assistance. If, however, the vampires had sprung a trap--
"Intend to spring a trap," he muttered irritably, under his breath. The English language wasn't really equipped to discuss the prevention of events that had been forecast to happen in the near future.
Gunn heard him. He turned his head a little to aim a frown in Wes' direction, then went back to scanning for suspicious movement. "So you think it's a trap?" he muttered back.
"Possibly," Wes replied under his breath.
"It makes sense," Fred chipped in, whispering nervously. "I mean, you said several vampires, right? I'm pretty sure there aren't any nests in this area. We patrol around here pretty often."
"Shhhhh," Gunn hissed. "You want 'em to know we're here?"
Fred shot him an apologetic look. "Sorry," she mouthed at him, nervously fingering a stake tucked into her pocket.
Wes ignored their byplay and entered the alley itself. The geometry of the place, the lines of the walls and the shadowed heaps of garbage, made his nerves vibrate with an overpowering sense of familiarity. For a moment, he could almost see the shapes of the vampires surrounding Connor and the body sprawled on the ground; then he blinked and the image was lost.
"Damn," Gunn said quietly, from behind him. "No place to hide. What now? Go back out to the street and wait for the violence to start?"
Wes frowned, staring down the length of the narrow corridor while running options through his mind. He had no way of knowing how quickly Justine was-- would be-- killed, and if they waited outside of the alleyway they might not be able to save her. On the other hand, if they stood within they would almost certainly be seen before the battle was joined, and they might end up taking on the group of vampires alone rather than assisting the two fugitives. For it was a near certainty Connor and Justine would not join in their defense, should they discover Angel's former team under attack. The odds were not in their favor, in any event. "Perhaps..." he began, still not quite certain what to say.
"Wait!" Fred interrupted him, wrapping fingers around his forearm. "Do you hear that?"
The rhythmic slap of sole on pavement echoed up the alley, still faint but approaching at a high rate of speed. "They're coming," Wes said, unnecessarily, and drew his sword. "Get ready."
Gunn unshipped his hubcap axe from its homemade sheath beneath his jacket, where it hung by the haft between his shoulder blades, and moved to point. Behind them both, Fred fumbled in the bag she was carrying for her crossbow and quickly loaded it. Her aim wasn't quite as good as Wes' was under ordinary circumstances, but these circumstances were hardly ordinary; he didn't want to test his targeting abilities while suffering from a vision headache, and he had more weight to put behind a sword than she did. They were as ready as they were going to get.
The footfalls drew steadily closer, and Wes started, surprised. There wasn't much light in the alleyway, but there was enough to see that this encounter wasn't at all what he'd expected; the vampires were the ones being chased, six of them, and as they approached Wes could see why. The leader of the group had Justine draped over one shoulder, struggling wildly, and from behind the pack they could hear Connor yelling in rage. The vampires didn't seem fearful; on the contrary, they looked as though they were enjoying themselves.
"Wes?" Gunn growled. "I thought you said..."
"Later," Wes snapped back. Why couldn't Gunn have been the one to get the visions, he wondered irritably. It wasn't as though there were any sort of guidebook on 'How to Interpret Mind-Splitting Announcements from the Powers That Be,' any more than there were accurate codebooks on deciphering major prophecies.
The vampires were much closer by the time he'd finished speaking, and Fred let loose with a bolt from her crossbow, swearing under her breath. It flew true, aimed directly at the heart of the vampire to the leader's left, but he slapped it out of the way at the last second. Her second bolt was even less successful, bouncing off the alley wall to clatter to the ground; the running demons didn't even blink. There wasn't time to take another shot after that, and she dropped it to the ground before pulling out a stake and cross to fill her hands.
The lead vampire grinned maliciously as he approached the trio, then suddenly lifted Justine from his shoulder and threw her bodily at them. The alleyway was narrow enough that there was no room to get out of the way, and all four humans went down in a heap as her limp, solid form collided with them. Wes heard Justine's head crack against the wall as she fell, and swore as he struggled to get back up. Hopefully, the blow hadn't been a fatal one; her death was what they were here to prevent, no matter what their personal feelings about her.
On the other side of the group of vampires, Connor had caught up to his intended victims at last, and the three hindmost turned to deal with him. Angel's son was supernaturally fast, skilled and strong from years of fighting demons in the Quar-Toth dimension, but the vampires were much larger than he, and equally gifted. These weren't the usual run of the mill minions one tended to run into on the streets. They all had the look of masters or childer, vampires favored by those who'd sired them and given training and privilege over the long years of their unlife. Angel had left several behind, including Penn and Drusilla, but most vampires were not given to the practice until they were several decades old, at least. That did not bode well at all.
Gunn struggled to his feet first, swinging the axe at the lead vampire in a swift arc, but it did not connect. The vampire jumped back, grinning, then lunged for his shoulder with a meaty fist. Gunn grunted and flew backward over the others, knocking Fred back down as he went.
"Brutus," Wes snarled, staring at the leader as he got to his feet and readied his sword. He'd heard about a new Master passing through town, drawn to L.A. after the rumors of Angel's disappearance had spread. Tall, slender but quite muscular, with dark eyes and shaggy black hair; the descriptions matched. If this truly was he, then their odds of surviving this encounter were slim indeed. There was a story behind his name, after all, just as there was for Angelus' grandchilde, Spike.
The vampire cocked his head to one side, studying Wes. The sounds of fighting still came thick and fast behind him as Connor struggled to fight off his attackers, but he paid them no attention. "You've heard of me, I see," Brutus said, amused. "You're Angelus' pet humans, aren't you? Too bad he's not around to protect you anymore."
"Fuck Angelus," a gravelly voice came from behind Wes. "And fuck you. We took him down, we'll get you too."
Brutus's face registered irritation, then surprise as a glass object came flying over Wes' shoulder to impact on the vampire's cheek. The vial of holy water shattered, spraying over the exposed skin like acid, and Brutus roared in fury as he stumbled backward. The two vampires flanking him took umbrage at that and broke the standoff, drawing knives as they lunged forward.
Abruptly, the narrowness of the alley began to work in favor of the humans, rather than against them. One vampire could have dodged the swing of Wes' blade, but two side by side presented a much easier target; they were in each other's way. The one on the left fell to its knees almost immediately, clutching at a slashed groin, and Gunn stepped quickly into the space next to Wes, aiming his axe at the one on the right. It hadn't been expecting the attack and jerked backward as the axe-blade went through its throat; it fell to the ground in two pieces, an expression of shock on its face before it crumbled to dust.
Beyond them, one of Connor's attackers lost his balance on a stack of debris, and quickly fell as Connor took advantage with a thrust of his stake. The remaining two snarled and dodged backward, standing closer to their master, not as confident as they'd been before.
"Bitch," Brutus snarled, recovering his balance and staring past Wes. The holy water burns stood out on his face, red and angry, contrasting with his pale skin, but there was more cunning in his eyes than rage. "I was planning to kill you quickly, but now I'm angry."
Justine laughed wildly. "You'll have to go through the good guys first," she said. The sound of feet slapping on pavement started up again, but Wes didn't dare take his eyes off Brutus to see where she was headed.
Fred, however, was still behind he and Gunn and free to act. "Oh no you don't," she said. "I heard you say you got Angel, you aren't running 'til we know where you put him." Without further ado, she took off after the woman. Wes couldn't see what she did, but a few moments later there was a brief zapping noise and Justine hit the pavement again with a cry.
"You go, girl," Gunn said under his breath.
Another whoosh of dust sounded in the alley behind Brutus; Connor had only one opponent, now. His face was a mask of fury, and he glared over at the Angel Investigations crew between trading punches and kicks with the vampire. "What did you do to her!" he roared.
Brutus looked startled, then amused. "Ah, now I see," he addressed Wes. "You're not after me, you're after my prey." He laughed. "You fight well, for humans. I think I'll save your deaths for another day." Without further ado, he leapt straight up the side of the building, disappearing easily over the edge of the roof. The wounded vampire followed quickly, just as the last of Connor's opponents fell before his stake.
"Well, that was... interesting," Gunn said, slowly, lowering his axe.
"It's not over yet," Connor said, dropping into fighting stance again as he turned to face them. "You hurt Justine."
Wes braced himself, sword at the ready, and returned Connor's furious glare with all the resentment and self-hatred he'd been harboring for months. He'd sacrificed everything for this child. The moment he'd made the final decision, after suffering through endless days of denial, research, and confirmation of his suspicions-- well, he'd known he would never be forgiven. He'd known his friends would likely be angry with him, that Angel would hunt him down, and that he'd never operate in his chosen field again lest he attract deadly notice. He'd grieved then, stricken with the absolute unfairness of it-- but he'd also believed there was no alternative. Connor's life, Angel's sanity, and the continued integrity of the team had been worth the sacrifices required of him.
He had gathered up his courage, made that sacrifice, left the field of battle... and one last moment of misplaced compassion had reduced it all to ashes. It had all been for nothing. Connor was alive, yes, but he was an innocent no longer, raised in a hell dimension by a man full of hatred and vengeance. Angel was imprisoned beneath the sea, surely losing his mind as he starved in the lightless depths. Gunn and Fred were bitter and beleaguered, trying to fill too many roles as the agency dwindled around them. Cordelia was... gone, in circumstances ominously unknown. And as for Wesley himself...
Connor complained that they'd hurt Justine? He had no idea.
"One good turn deserves another, wouldn't you say?" Wes said lightly, gesturing at the livid scar that marked the skin of his throat. It took all his concentration to remain calm and keep his voice even. "Don't worry; we won't kill her. We only want to know what she's done with Angel."
Connor laughed, an ugly sound full of anger and derision. "And you expect me to believe you? After Angelus killed my father?"
The accusation was a surprise-- though Wes' informants had informed him of the injury to the dead hunter's throat, mystical confirmation had proven the injury to have been inflicted by a metal implement, not vampire fangs, suggesting that some other agency had been at work.
It might not be enough to convince the boy, but-- Wes knew Angel preferred not to kill if he could possibly avoid it; he preferred not to add any guilt to that which he already carried due to his actions as Angelus, and he carried enough guilt on Holtz' behalf already.
And yet-- Wes also recalled the smothering pressure of a pillow against his face, and Angel's voice insisting that Wes recognise it was the souled version attacking him, not Angelus. Yes, Angel could have done it, and thought to use a human weapon to throw off the scent as well. Where his son was concerned, Angel lost all reason.
Gunn made an irritated noise next to Wes. "You know that ain't true," he said, gruffly, refuting the charge where Wes could not. "Angel told us. He went to see Holtz, yeah, but that was it. They talked, Holtz gave him the letter, then he left. No killing. Remember? Holtz said your place is with Angel now."
"Lies," Connor hissed. "Justine was there. She showed me the truth!"
"That's right, Stephen," Justine spoke up, her voice thick and hoarse. "Don't listen to them. You saw the wounds on his neck. Angelus... Ah!"
Her diatribe was cut short by another brief zapping sound, followed by the slap of limp flesh collapsing to pavement. Wes spared a glance over his shoulder and was greeted by the entertaining sight of Fred kneeling on Justine's back, pressing the business end of a taser into the angle where shoulder and neck joined.
"Justine!" Connor yelled, and made as if to charge them. Gunn lunged for the boy's knees, raising his axe at an angle above his head to deflect any incoming sword blows, but Connor saw him coming. He gathered his muscles as he ran and leaped into the air, arcing high above Gunn and Wes and landing lightly next to Justine's unconscious form.
Fred flinched away from him and raised the taser again, but Connor made no move to attack her. He lifted Justine instead, slinging her body over one shoulder in a fireman's carry, then took off down the street at a speed that no human could possibly match. He paused at the end of the block, glancing back over his shoulder with feral brown eyes, and said just one more thing before disappearing into the darkness.
"You'll never find him."
Wes shook his head, staring tiredly after the boy. "He knows, doesn't he? Perhaps even assisted with whatever was done to his father. Justine has him completely under her control."
Gunn grunted. "Maybe we shoulda just let her die."
Fred sighed and gathered her muscles to stand, then tucked the taser back into a pocket. "No. There's got to be a reason the Powers keep sending us visions to save her."
"There's been more than one?" Wes frowned, blinking at her as he resheathed his sword. He couldn't remember Cordelia mentioning anything of the sort before the kidnapping, but there could easily have been one afterward. She'd stopped speaking to him as completely as everyone else had once she'd returned from her vacation with the Groosalug, despite their long friendship.
"It was just before everyone vanished," Fred answered softly, confirming his guess. "Cordy saw a woman at a bar, ambushed by a gang of vampires..."
"Ah." Wes cut her off, suddenly remembering the incident in question. "Yes. I was at that bar." He hadn't thought about it at the time, but it made perfect sense that Angel's appearance had been due to a vision. He could still hear Lilah's voice, whispering promises in his ear: 'I went to a lot of trouble to arrange this little show for you.' It had been the first of many tests that Lilah had thrown his way, and incidentally, his first glimpse of the young man Connor had become. Quite the memorable evening.
"You were, huh?" Gunn grunted, then dropped a knee to the ground and scooped up Fred's discarded crossbow. "Angel didn't mention it."
"I didn't exactly announce my presence," Wesley said, his words short and clipped. He could still remember the shock he'd suffered when he'd realised that no one had chosen to inform him of Connor's return; unforgiven or not, he would have thought the small matter of the reappearance of the boy whose kidnapping had been the single worst moment of his life would have been worth some sort of mention. He could feel his hackles rising at the echo of all that anger and despair, and took a deep breath in an effort to remain calm.
"However, that hardly matters now," he continued, frowning grimly up at the roofline where the surviving pair of vampires had disappeared. "What matters is that we are no closer to finding Angel, and that the master vampire who's challenged his dominion over Los Angeles in his absence is now aware of our identities."
"Brutus," Fred said, biting her lip as she followed his gaze.
"Oh great," Gunn groused. "As if we didn't have enough to worry about." He aimed another scowl in Wes' direction, then handed Fred her crossbow and secured the axe beneath his jacket again. "So what do we do next?"
"Return home?" Wes shrugged.
They both gave him slightly incredulous looks, and he sighed at the disappointed expectation in their eyes. "I may have the visions now, but I certainly don't have all the answers, and it's been a very long day. We can meet again tomorrow and go over what little we know before we begin a new search together."
The silence stretched out between them; Fred laid a hand on Gunn's arm, her face lined with worry, and Gunn stared impassively at Wes for several seconds. The new understanding between the three of them was still as fragile as brittle glass, and Gunn's reactions could make or break it.
"Okay," he finally said, nodding sharply at Wes. "But bring doughnuts. I want to start early." On that less than cheerful note, he turned and headed back toward the hotel. Fred trailed in his wake, and after a tired pause, Wesley followed. His bike, after all, was still parked next to Gunn's truck.
The new bruises on Wes' body sent up a chorus of complaints on the ride back to his flat, throbbing in time with the remnants of his headache. It was all of a piece with his mood, melancholy and raw, and he was unaccountably relieved to open his door at last and find everything still as he'd left it. Somewhere in his subconscious he'd feared that the mess he'd lived with over the last few months would have reappeared in his absence, or that some agency, human or otherwise, would have torn the place apart while he was out. Wolfram and Hart would not be pleased by Lilah's latest failure.
He closed the door behind him, locking it thoroughly, then secured his sword and began shrugging out of his jacket. First things first; a shower, a search through his records for significant mentions of the vampire Brutus, then-- hopefully-- a few hours of sleep. It would be the first time in months he'd attempted it without the buffer of alcohol to smother the nightmares, but... best begin as he meant to go on.
It was strange, how much could change in one day; how drastically meaning could shift, from so small an alteration in substance. None of the players on the grand chessboard of the city had moved one inch from their positions that morning; Angel was still lost, his team divided and struggling in their separate ways to endure, and the various minions of Wolfram and Hart standing atop the heap, sneering down at those below them. And yet--
He stood under the shower a long while as the hot water sluiced down over him, recalling Angel's words after his epiphany:
"If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do."
Wes had forgotten that, over the last months. Perhaps it was time he remembered.