Mortal Coil
(the Second Time Around Remix)
by Aadler
Copyright April 2012


Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.

This story is a remix (done for Remix Redux 10) of "Take Two", by Soundingsea (with further inspiration from that same author's "What Is and What Should Never Be").


Their blades touched, and in the first moments of the exchange it was clear that Giles was still the better swordsman. Wesley's wrist strength had increased since their first … their first first meeting, and his understanding of combat was far less academic now and based far more on hard experience. If anything, that only made Giles' mastery all the more apparent, for he was taking his opponent seriously this time, where 'previously' he had not. His movements were precise, fluid, almost leisurely; Wesley couldn't even tell if the other man had superior speed, for Giles had no need to rush, his awareness was so complete that he was countering or forestalling each of Wesley's moves almost before it had begun.

They were using rapiers, rather than modern fencing weapons, for why train with a sporting toy? Wesley hadn't bothered to test the sharpness of the blade, knowing that of course the Man On the Hellmouth would keep any serious implement ready for immediate use. Neither of them was wearing so much as a padded vest (very unlike the punctilious former Wesley Wyndham-Pryce!), nor was such protection necessary: Giles' blade would not touch him except deliberately, with perfect control, and Wesley — it was obvious — would not touch Giles at all.

It had been worth exploring, but the result was not especially surprising. While Wesley had fought much over the last several years, it had been with heavier and more robust weapons, his classical form all but lost to disuse. Even if he had continued rigorous training, however, no amount of practical experience would avail against an adversary who could foresee every attack …

Not with a sword, at any rate.

Wesley overextended with the next lunge, and Giles turned the wavering point easily, leaving the younger man stumbling … well inside his guard, and Wesley turned as he straightened, standing up smoothly and swiveling to face the other Watcher. Giles was already stepping back, but Wesley had seen, and saw that Giles had seen, that he had made it within hand-strike range, could have driven an elbow into the other man's face during the turn. He would not be able to bring off such a move again — Giles was no fool, and had been alerted to this unexpected weakness — but the point had been made.

Wesley, too, stepped back, and raised his rapier in salute. "Thank you," he said. "It was courteous of you to oblige me in this matter."

Giles returned the salute, and Wesley laid his weapon on the table they had pushed to the side to allow a bit more maneuvering room. Giles retrieved the rapier, and returned it and its mate to its secure place inside the 'rare books' cage. Then, turning back to face Wesley, he observed, "I had been under the impression you were younger."

A surprise, that: so Rupert Giles had in fact known at least a bit about Wesley before his arrival in Sunnydale. "My journey here was, er, eventful," Wesley replied, with a faint smile. "What you see is the effect of harrowing experience." The lightness of his tone masked just how true the statement was, but he added, with a bit more weight, "It would, of course, have been quite shortsighted and irresponsible for the Council to have sent someone unprepared for such a demanding station. I learned what I could of your service here, and hope to learn more now that I may work with you directly."

The smile from Giles had an edge to it. "I am to be working, then?"

"There are two Slayers here," Wesley said, his eyes steadily meeting those of the other man. "Now they have two Watchers. Whatever Quentin Travers' official ruling, I am not so foolish as to believe I can simply walk in and take over. I hope we can work together; if not, at least without direct conflict."

Giles was nodding, thoughtful without committing himself, but before he could reply, one of the double doors at the library entrance swung open, and he turned to greet the person who came in through it. "Ah: hello, Buffy."

Wesley moved up to stand next to the other man. "Miss Summers," he said to her as she came to a stop before them. "It is indeed a privilege."

Her eyes had found him even while Giles was speaking, and this time Wesley was aware of just how complete was the searching assessment there. To Giles she said, "New Watcher?"

"New Watcher," Giles agreed.

Wesley waited, knowing what would come next. Sure enough, "Is he evil?" she asked Giles.

"No more than most," Wesley said to her. Was that the right tinge of humor in his voice? "Less so than many."

That prompted a slight tilt of one eyebrow, but she simply repeated, "Is he evil?"

"Too early to be certain," Giles returned, with a quick glance toward Wesley. "But it doesn't yet appear so. There is even some evidence that he might be … competent."

"Gwendolyn Post was competent," Buffy answered darkly. "Still not good news."

"Mrs Post, yes." Wesley nodded acknowledgment. "That caused no end of embarrassment back in the home offices, though of course they'd never admit it to you." He shook his head. "Mr Giles has comprehensively inspected my credentials, and directly phoned the Council as well. You would be justified in wishing for more reassurance than that …" A shrug and a brief smile. "… but it's all we can supply at the moment, I'm afraid."

"Yay," Buffy muttered, as if determined to be disgruntled.

"In the meantime," Wesley went on smoothly, "if you happened to encounter anything on any of your recent patrols, I would be very interested in observing how you report such things to your Watcher."

Her face went hard. "You?" she asked in a voice that dripped ice.

"Mr Giles," Wesley corrected. "I'm fully aware that I'm 'new to the team' here, if that much. And I am sincere about learning whatever I can. So: any recent experiences of note?"

"There was something last night," Buffy admitted. "You know: vampires."

"Whom you doubtless killed," Wesley agreed. "Was it a matter of routine, or was there anything unusual about the incident?"

"Couple of things." Buffy frowned. "First of all, there were three of them, and they were dressed alike. These, like, vest things … well, not vests actually, more like, uh …" She stopped, looked to Giles. "Gherkins?" she ventured.

"Jerkins, you mean?" Giles pursed his lips doubtfully. "Sleeveless, close-fitting, light-colored leather?"

"No, not close-fitting." She shook her head. "And not leather, more like heavy cloth, with … okay, so not a jerkin. Tunic or doublet or surplice or something out of RenFaire. Anyway, Faith and I took out two of them, but there were footprints that made me think somebody had been watching, so I followed them. And Guy Three, dressed just like the other two, he pulled out swords."

Giles looked up. "Swords?" he repeated.

"Pointy and everything," she said in elaboration. "With, I don't know, jewels and stuff."

"Swords, as in two swords? Hmm." Wesley reached into one of the boxes he had brought to the library, extracted a particular book. "One long and one short?"

Buffy nodded, and Giles said, "That sounds … vaguely familiar."

"Quite right." Wesley had found the proper page (easily, of course, given the circumstances), and passed it to Giles. "If this is indeed them, I wouldn't have expected to encounter them in Sunnydale. But, of course, this town seems to specialize in the unexpected."

"El Eliminati," Giles read. "Yes, yes. Fifteenth century duelist cult … well. Much reduced, apparently: increase in anti-vampire activity, an excess of unproductive dueling …" He looked up. "And, it would seem, later becoming acolytes of a demon calling himself Balthazar."

"Who, according to the source material, was killed more than a hundred years ago." Wesley looked to the two of them. "I don't suppose we can have much confidence in that, can we?"

"Not in Sunnydale," Giles said. To Buffy he added, "The swords, I don't suppose …?"

"Gone," Buffy said. "Don't know if he had another buddy there to cart them off, or if it was some kind of mystical fade-out. Sorry."

"It's a small matter." Giles was still studying the volume Wesley had given him. "Balthazar was said to draw power from an amulet of some sort, which seems to have become the property of, and buried with, a landowner named Gleaves." He looked back up. "I believe the Gleaves family crypt is still in the cemetery where —"

"— where Faith and I were doing our deal last night," Buffy finished. "Yeah, I remember seeing that name. So I should check out the crypt, see if I can find this amulet?"

"If the Eliminati do still exist," Wesley said, "and if they want the amulet, I would agree that we probably don't want them to have it." He paused a moment, then added, "It might be prudent to do such a search in daylight. Depending, naturally, on what your schedule will allow."

"Makes sense," Buffy began, but the library doors swung open again — both of them, this time, as with a gunfighter entering a saloon — and Wesley looked up to see the second Slayer enter. He had been expecting this, waiting for it, but the sight of that face was still an impact he had to make sure none of them saw.

She likewise stopped at the sight of him, taking him in with the same sweeping glance Buffy Summers had given him. "New Watcher?" she asked Giles and Buffy.

"New Watcher," they replied together.

"Screw that," she said, and turned to walk out.

"I can't command you to trust me," Wesley said to her back. "But the purpose of a Watcher is to support the Slayer. I hope you'll allow me to do what I can."

She checked at that, for just a moment … then, with a dismissive flick of her hand over one shoulder, she was out the doors again and gone.

There was a silence of several seconds; then Buffy shifted uneasily and said, "I'll, uh, I'll see if I can get her back —"

"I would appreciate your filling her in on what we discussed," Wesley said to her, "but you needn't attempt to convince her to return." Buffy and Giles both looked to him with some wariness, and he went on. "If she accepts me, it will be because she is willing to do so. I would venture, however, that none of us could compel her in that regard."

"No, she doesn't much like anybody telling her what to do," Buffy agreed. "Okay, I'll pass the word. Maybe she'll be in a better mood tonight." She started for the door, saying, "Later, guys."

And that was that. Giles, then Buffy, then Faith. Wesley did not deceive himself that he had won them over … but he had at least avoided alienating them straight out the gate.

This time.

~ – ~ – ~

His mental picture of Faith, dancing, had always included a loud, fast beat and frenzied motion. When Wesley saw her at the Bronze, however, the music was slower, sultry, and that was how she was moving. Still blatantly sexual, almost threateningly so, but — on this occasion, at least — lazy and languorous and self-satisfied. So different from the memories … but, of course, he had known her for only days before everything in her life had taken a turn for the worse, due in large part to his own poor choices, so he was now seeing a Faith not yet fully warped by the darkness ahead.

That was a thought that called for tossing back the remainder of the gin and tonic, and wondering how much he would have to pay the bartenders at this dismal establishment to put in a proper measure of actual liquor.

When he looked up again, she was approaching his table. Wearing the knowing smirk that seemed expressly designed to annoy, but otherwise without any apparent hostile intent. He watched, saying nothing, as she pulled out a chair and seated herself across from him. "So," she began without preamble. "You say a Watcher's purpose is to support the Slayer. You know that's Buffy, right?"

"Buffy appears to be adequately supported already," Wesley replied, keeping his voice even. "I will do what I can to further contribute to that, but — to the extent you allow it — you would be my primary focus."

"Uh-huh." The Southie accent, too, was stronger than he remembered. "Well, I know what 'support' looked like from my first Watcher, and I can see Giles does it different with Buffy. So what d'you figure to offer?"

Well. An overture, perhaps, even if presented like a challenge. "To begin with," Wesley said to her, "I would hope I could get you out of that dreadful motel where I'm told you're staying." He regarded her steadily, seeing the defensive mask slip over her expression. "I understand you are trying to economize, stretch out the funds you were able to retrieve from the joint account Professor Dormer set up for you. If that is where you wish to remain … well, I certainly can't force you to do anything you're unwilling to do. The apartment I leased, however, has an adjoining twin, currently vacant, with a connecting door. If you agree, I can arrange for you to move in there, so that we may coordinate our schedules at greater convenience."

"Connecting door," Faith repeated. Her face went sardonic. "So you maybe figure on comin' over now and then to tuck me in at night?"

Wesley smiled, thin-lipped. "The door has a sliding bolt on either side. Mine, of course, would remain open, for I want you to be able to reach me at any time. You, however, would be in charge of your own privacy." A shrug. "Along with improved living arrangements — or independent of them, if you would prefer to remain where you are — I would of course supply you with a stipend for your personal expenses."

Now her expression went sullen. "I been watching out for myself since I was fourteen. I don't need anybody payin' my way, thinkin' they own me."

"There is no question of owning," Wesley told her firmly. "You are neither a servant nor a possession, but a valued asset, and deserving of far more than I can provide for you. We brought you into a war, and you have embraced your duties with … alarming enthusiasm. Our duties are to see that you can operate with at least a minimal amount of comfort, and certainly more respect than the rush of events have allowed till now."

Faith weighed the words. "So I won't be livin' like a Spartan, huh?"

"How you live," Wesley replied, "how you train and operate, are all matters we shall have to work out together. I knew on the moment of meeting you that you were not one to be commanded; I will offer whatever I can, in regard to support and advice and education, and you will accept it or not according to your own decision. I can't imagine you would have it any other way."

"We'll see." Though she kept her voice neutral, Faith was unconsciously nodding. "Yeah, I guess we'll see. So whadda you got on tap for tomorrow?"

Wesley sat back in his chair. "Well, based on information in one of the texts I brought with me, Buffy went to a particular crypt this afternoon and retrieved an amulet reputed to be the lost property of an unusually dangerous demon. The amulet's existence here, and the fact that the vampire cult that once served him are seeking it, indicate a distinct possibility that this supposedly deceased demon may be present and active. If you could find time tomorrow, I would hope the two of us could discuss some plan of action with Mr Giles and Buffy."

"Plan of action?" Faith stood up. "My idea of a plan, if I even go that far, is Find, Kill, Party." She shrugged. "But, okay, I'll be there. See how it goes."

"Very well." Wesley looked up at her. "And should I make preliminary arrangements regarding the apartment?"

She frowned slightly. "We can talk about that tomorrow," she said. Already her foot was tapping, impatient with the urge to be moving, doing something, doubtless seeking reckless action of some sort, on the dance floor or not. "I got no problem jumping into a fight, but some things I don't wanna rush."

"Tomorrow, then," Wesley agreed. She nodded and left without further word, and he raised his hand to one of the servers, to signal for another drink.

~ – ~ – ~

The following morning, Wesley and Giles together studied the retrieved amulet, and Wesley observed thoughtfully that, since certain elements of the supernatural underworld seemed to be aware that the Slayer operated out of the school (and, more specifically, the library), it might be incumbent upon them to find a more secure place to keep a potentially dangerous artifact. Giles agreed, and said he would contact a trusted ally to see if something could be arranged.

While the others were seeing to their lunch, Wesley took the opportunity to drop in at the local demon bar, making careful inquiries of the weaselly individual who owned and operated the place; though he'd heard any number of stories about the Alibi Room, he'd never actually gone there during his first sojourn in Sunnydale. He learned nothing from Willy the barman — nor had he expected to, nor was he genuinely attempting to — but the visit gave plausible cover for how he might have come into possession of certain information.

Unable to remember the precise location of the warehouse where Balthazar would have situated himself, Wesley was nonetheless able to narrow the field to an area that could be quickly reconnoitered. He and Giles together checked the possibilities during the early afternoon and, shielded by daylight, were able to confirm the demon's presence without being accosted or, so far as he could ascertain, detected. A raid was quickly planned; they couldn't bring Angel in to take part (and neither Giles nor Buffy had yet chosen to confide to Wesley that their 'ally' was a vampire himself), but with two Slayers, two Watchers, and two eager volunteers — Xander and Willow — their party hit the warehouse before sundown, smashing the windows to keep the Eliminati confined to bands of shadow that the sun couldn't touch. Warned by Wesley that certain non-textual rumors had imputed limited telekinetic abilities to their principal enemy, they had all brought crossbows, and half a dozen quarrels dispatched Balthazar in short order. After that, the Slayers rampaged through the demon's minions with only occasional supporting fire being necessary from the others.

Effecting a less prejudicial introduction to the main players in Sunnydale had been Wesley's first objective. His second had been to deal with Balthazar quickly enough to forestall Faith's accidental killing of the city's Deputy Mayor. He had accomplished that with a full day to spare, and so was ready to move on into a longer-range and less specifically delineated set of plans, including but not limited to making an earlier start at preventing the Mayor's impending Ascenscion.

That being so, the morning newscast, two days later, was something of a jolt to him.

~ – ~ – ~

"We definitely should investigate this," Giles said. "The murder of the Deputy Mayor … it might mean nothing, but we ought to be sure."

"I'm not much for investigating," Faith answered with a shrug. "You need hack, slash, stab, even burn, I'm your girl. Investigating … how's that work, exactly?"

"The investigation would be to see if there was anything supernatural about the killing," Wesley said. The dark Slayer seemed unconcerned, but did that mean anything? In the other history, she had killed Allan Finch in the heat of combat, a mistake; he had got a jump on events, and preventing the circumstances of that accidental killing should have been enough to prevent the killing itself. Was there some malignant fate at work here, forcing preordained results? or had Finch fallen afoul of some other lethal circumstance? "I've researched this town's history to some depth, but I've not lived here as long as the rest of you have, so I lack the … the feel, for the shape and nature and rhythm of daily life. How much non-mystical violence, especially death, takes place here in the ordinary course of things?"

"Good point," Buffy said. "This town, you hear hoofbeats, you think fire-breathing, demon-possessed ghost-zebras. We'll check it out: maybe get Willow to hack the morgue records, maybe see if we can sneak a look at the body ourselves."

"Whatever," Faith said with another shrug. She followed Buffy from the library, and Wesley watched her departure with an unease he did his best to conceal. How could he know? How could he know? Her behavior told him nothing, offering not even a clue.

Nor did the morning's newspaper. "Even for Sunnydale, this is remarkably uninformative," Giles mused, again studying the article beneath the front-page headline. "Much speculation, but no details. Testimonial from the Mayor regarding his colleague's sterling virtues, acknowledgment that this death is unusual only in the relatively high profile of the victim, but nothing in regard to circumstances, where he was found, cause of death … they are, however, definitely treating it as a homicide —"

"Don't let me interrupt," a new voice broke in. "Or, wait, let me interrupt, I'm in a hurry here."

Wesley barely heard Giles's reply, he was doing his best not to stare. He had forgotten, oh God, somehow he had actually forgotten. Cordelia Chase, a high school senior, neither marked by the trials she would yet undergo nor grown into the remarkable woman she would someday be … but, already, so strikingly beautiful. The unforeseen blind spot was understandable, in a way, for his deepest regard for her, and their battle-comrades' knowledge of one another, had developed after the both of them had departed Sunnydale; even so, to have entirely forgotten …

Now she was looking directly at him, and smiling. "Check out Giles, the Next Generation. So what's your situation?"

He wasn't ready for this, couldn't remember: had she been 'in the know' at this point? Surely she must have been, she couldn't have fallen in so smoothly with the rest of them otherwise. "I … um, that is to say —"

"New Watcher," Giles supplied.

"Oh." She studied him with a new glint in her eyes. "Not evil, I hope."

"That …" Wesley cleared his throat. "That actually happens quite a bit less often than everyone seems to believe." He thought of offering her his hand, chose instead to incline his head in a small bow. "Wesley Wyndham-Pryce."

"Two last names," Cordelia noted approvingly. "Classy. I'm Cordelia."

"Ah. And … you're a student here?"

"For three more God-awful months. Then I'm free." She looked to Giles. "Books?" she prompted.

The other man was already stamping them. "There you are," he said.

"All right." Cordelia went to get the volumes she had requested. Then, looking at Wesley, she smiled again and said, "Well, welcome to Sunnydale."

He did not fail to note that, on her way out, she took some care to put precisely the right amount of swing into her hips.

"I have a bottle in my office," Giles observed. "Care for a drink?"

"Yes, thank you," Wesley said. "I'll, ah, I'll be with you in just a moment." The moment it would take him to return Giles' copy of Arkham's Dimensional Rifts to its accustomed place. And surely there would be other sources to consult as well …

In the office, Giles poured each of them a measure of amber liquid, then loosened his tie and sat back before beginning his own drink. "Remarkable young woman," he said to Wesley. "Remarkable in her beauty, her shallowness, and her self-absorption. But, of course, one principally notices the beauty."

Wesley took a considered swallow. This was how Giles had regarded Cordelia Chase, back in the time before she had relocated to Los Angeles? "You didn't mind telling her of my status," he said levelly. "If she is one of your … inner circle, she must surely have more to offer than you indicate."

"Not quite sure how that happened, actually." Giles studied the glass he held before him. "The situation here has been … complicated, lately." He looked up to Wesley. "When you arrived here, I expected you to have orders for me to return to London. Work visa suddenly about to expire, all that."

"I was given a certain leeway as to how I chose to proceed." Wesley lounged back in his own chair. Whiskey … not his favorite, but it would do. "For myself, I wanted to be sure I was thoroughly familiar with the situation before making any major decisions."

Giles took another sip from his own drink. "And now?"

"We've made a fair beginning," Wesley said. "But the situation with the Deputy Mayor disturbs me. For that matter, we've never fully considered the implications of how an entire city, even a relatively small one such as this, could remain determinedly oblivious to the fact of living on a Hellmouth. You've indicated a certain tendency for city officials to … airbrush their reports, to preserve the illusion of normalcy and order. I begin to wonder if it might go deeper than that."

"Hmm." Giles frowned slightly, his fingers drumming the surface of the desk in front of him before stilling to lie flat, while he swirled his drink with the other hand. "I always thought of it as the natural self-serving tendency of the standard bureaucrat, but it might bear looking into." He looked up. "Or, the Deputy Mayor's death might be exactly as ordinary as they wish us to believe."

"It might," Wesley agreed, studying the other man's hand where it lay on the desk. "It very well might. Matters … are not always as they appear." He stood unhurriedly, took another swallow from the glass, then sat on the edge of the desk. "At the moment, I'm curious about one thing in particular." He put his glass down, picked up a letter opener … and, leaning toward the other man, he asked genially, "Would you mind telling me who you really are? and more importantly, how you took the place of the real Rupert Giles?"

~ – ~ – ~

"I am the real Rupert Giles." Wesley had been prepared for outrage, bluster, coolly reasoned counter-argument, and likewise prepared to beat down or brush away any attempt at defense. Instead, the other man seemed calmly resigned. "I'm simply not the one who belongs here."

Wesley made a small gesture with the letter opener. He had the advantage of position (and, of course, weapon): he could act well before the imposter made any attempt to rise, and both of them knew it. "Go on," he said.

"How did you know?" the other man asked.

Your fingers are straight, Wesley could have answered. They show no sign of the damage Angelus inflicted when he tortured you. Instead he said, "As you may have noted, I am the one asking the questions. And you have yet to provide the explanation I requested."

"I smashed the amulet," 'Giles' said. "No, not Balthazar's amulet; coincidence there. This was from a being named Anyanka, her power concentrated into a physical object. I picked up a paperweight and used it to smash her amulet, and … I was here."

Temporal translocation? That truly would be ironic. And yet … Careful to maintain his watchfulness, and to make it clear to the other man that he was doing so, Wesley asked, "Here from where?"

"From another reality," the seeming Giles replied. "Perhaps I created this reality when I broke Anyanka's power-center. Or perhaps mine was the contingent reality to begin with; before she died, Cordelia spoke of having 'changed things' with a wish, that's what brought me to summon Anyanka in the first place —"

"Died?" Wesley interrupted. "Cordelia died?" In your reality, too —?

"Bloody everyone died," Giles said with sudden, unexpected bitterness. "The town was a charnel house. Cordelia, Nancy, Jenny … Xander and Willow, God, do you have any idea what it's been like to work with them? pretending to an intimacy I don't remember, trying to ignore my own memories of their being two of the deadliest, most vicious and sadistic creatures I've ever encountered?" He gestured with the glass. "They killed Cordelia, the pair of them, right out there in the main room, grinning at me all the while. She was an idiot, vain and petty and superficial, but she didn't deserve that."

"Can you prove any of this?" Wesley pressed. He believed more than he was willing to admit at this point, but there was nothing to be gained by showing it, not yet. "You tell an ingenious story, but you've no corroboration."

"Corroboration? From a reality that doesn't exist anymore, or exists in an elsewhere I couldn't locate and don't want to?" Giles stopped, visibly regained control, and then went on more quietly. "Fingerprints and retinal scans will show me identical to the Rupert Giles this world knew. Various forms of magical testing will confirm that I'm not a changeling, shapeshifter, altered homonculus, custom-shaped golem, or anything else of the sort. I could have tried to bluff you out, you know, because I am Rupert Giles. But … I'm just so … utterly tired of putting on an act …"

"Very well," Wesley said. "Letting that go for the moment, you say you broke this Anyanka's amulet and found yourself in another reality. Another version of Sunnydale, according to your account. How did you know it was, in fact, a different reality?"

Giles looked at him with an odd defiance. "When Anyanka vanished, and the bloody desk vanished, and the momentum of the paperweight I was still swinging crushed the skull of the man sitting in a chair that hadn't been there in my sitting room, and I turned him over and saw my face? You could say that was my first clue."

"You are saying," Wesley said carefully, the letter opener steady in his hand, "you are explicitly admitting, that you killed this world's Giles?"

"By accident," the other Giles said. "Before I even knew he was there, or where I had found myself. But, yes, I killed him. And buried his body in Breaker's Woods, and went to the library and read through his Watcher's diaries, learning all I could of how this world differed from the one I had known." He spoke as a man who had surrendered, and at the same time was relieved at the chance finally to speak of a burden he had long carried. "And I'm dealing with people who …" He faltered, shook his head. "I think that other Giles loved them," he said. "I don't even know them — except, in certain cases, where I knew entirely different versions of them — and I'm trying to do my duties in a world transformed around me, trying not to shudder whenever Willow smiles at me with that face, or Xander slaps me on the back and makes some inane joke in that voice …" He broke off again. "I'm in hell," he said to Wesley. "Except hell is what I escaped from. It's … deeply disconcerting. I've been drinking more than usual lately, in my efforts to adjust."

~ – ~ – ~

So. Two months.

The drink now was his preferred gin and tonic (a murmured request, a generous tip, and a steely glance had been sufficient to ensure that his liquor would not henceforth be watered down), and the activity at the Bronze was somewhat more lively than in his previous appearance. It jarred on his concentration, but still was preferable to the alternatives. The dockside bars were simply too … unappetizing, and the more hardened and experienced Wesley Wyndham-Pryce might be capable of holding his own at Willy's bar, but the vigilance necessary meant it wasn't a place he could relax and consider his thoughts.

The other-reality Giles had been in Sunnydale two months now. Wesley? Less than a week. All told, Wesley thought he was doing better … but then, he had found himself in a city — in a time — that he recognized and remembered, whereas Giles had to deal with one that was largely familiar but strikingly different in important ways.

And, of course, there was the fact that Wesley hadn't killed his own counterpart.

Another difference was that Giles actually knew what had brought him here, while Wesley could only manage to guess. Deeply informed, highly intelligent guesses, but guesses all the same. Cyvus Vail hadn't merely altered memories; at least some of the changes he sometimes wrought included physical rearrangement of the past, however delicately done. In the clashing of magicks during their final duel, some of Vail's retrochronic energies must have mixed with Wesley's own essence, like electrical ions shifting from one pole to another, possibly interacting with some previously unknown after-effect of Wesley's prior exposure to the shattering of the Orlon Window, so that the final desperate blast hurled him out into …

… into the train running from Los Angeles to Sunnydale in 1999. The very train Wesley had originally taken, with Wesley sitting in the same seat, wearing the same suit and bearing the same luggage. The wound that would have killed him was gone (because it had occurred, perhaps, after his contamination by Vail's energies?), but he himself was otherwise the five-years-older Wesley Wyndham-Pryce of 2004.

His own past. He had endured so much, bungled so much, lost so much, and now he had the opportunity that men throughout history would have sold their souls to possess: a chance to do it all over again, make it right.

It wouldn't be possible to solve every problem, he knew that already. The simple fact of altering some things would alter other things. He had no intention of exchanging yearning glances with Cordelia this time through, for instance, which could shift things enough that she might not go to Los Angeles at all after graduation, or get involved with Angel if she did; even if those things did transpire, it would probably be with various differences. Those differences might be enough to shade other things so that Charles Gunn chose not to ally himself so directly with Angel Investigations. The sequence of events that originally drove Angel to a self-destructive, despairing coupling with Darla? those would follow a distinctly different path in a reality that was already changing — unless the Powers That Be intervened to make it happen, which was far from impossible — so Connor's conception might well never come about.

He couldn't solve every problem. He couldn't change everything. But he could change some things. And one of the things he could do was study dimensional rifts, the various means of searching out and penetrating alternate planes of reality … if necessary, he would go directly to Professor Seidel himself and torture the information from the man. Find where Fred Burkle had been sent, and retrieve her from that terrible place of torment and isolation a year ahead of the rescue that had finally come to her. And never, under any circumstances, allow her to study any unidentified sarcophagi —

"Hey, New Watcher." The voice yanked him from his thoughts, he hadn't seen Faith approach, she straddled him on the chair and gave him a grin suffused with sin and challenge and danger. "Tryin' to get the lay of the land?"

It wasn't possible to physically resist her, but Wesley sat unresponsive, face empty, his drink still gripped in one hand. "Watchers aren't physically intimate with their charges," he told her coolly.

"What, never?" She wriggled against him, the laughter in her eyes showing she could feel the effect she was having on him. "Bet they don't go evil or die at the hands of vampires, neither, least not in a perfect world."

"I assure you," Wesley said, struggling to maintain an even tone, "we aren't inhabiting one of those."

Though he hadn't intended it as such, Faith apparently interpreted that as acquiescence, for she took his face in her hands and kissed him forcefully, taking possession, claiming power, her tongue darting into his mouth. She tasted like cigarettes and bourbon and ruin, and in a lightning-flash instant of realization Wesley knew he could have her. Not just that she was making herself available, that much was undeniable, but he could do this. Her position astraddle him was obscenely reminiscent of another time, himself trussed and helpless and humiliated and bleeding, and instead of dashing any possibility of passion, it ignited in him a roaring lust for retribution. He could do it, he could drive her to his flat or just walk out to the nearest alley with her and take her, no preliminaries or endearments or gentleness. She would laugh, the most violent and savage sex he could subject her to would affect her no more than a stammering schoolboy patting her hand, he couldn't hurt her without a knife or a bullet, but an ugly, hating part of him would darkly rejoice at having symbolically taken the vengeance he hadn't even known he craved.

He could do it. After Justine, after Lilah, he knew full well that he wasn't above behaving in such a fashion. And oh, how sweet it would be …

No.

She felt it, felt the change in him, and she pulled back. Not angry or disappointed, perhaps not even done trying yet, but she had proven her power over him and it might be that was enough to satisfy her for the moment. "You got some grit to you," she noted approvingly. "Giles ain't the veddy proper Watcher he pretends to be, but he tries real hard to sell the act. You, not so much." Her fingers drifted from his face, caressing down his jawline and stopping at his neck, tracing the scar there. "How'd that happen?" she asked.

Wesley took another swallow from his drink, cleared his throat. "Someone I made the mistake of trusting," he said.

Her eyes could see more in the dim lighting than would have been the case with a normal person, for she touched another scar that started at his collarbone on the other side, undid the first buttons on his shirt so she could follow it down his chest to the point where it joined others. "And these?"

You, he didn't say. "Someone … who once might have trusted me, if I hadn't shown myself unworthy of it."

"Wow. Tragic, mysterious past." She moved again on his lap. "I could work with that."

He came to his feet so abruptly that he almost spilled her to the floor; for all her strength, she was still lighter than he was, and she wasn't prepared to resist the unexpected motion. Suddenly heedless of her, of anything except his own need, he broke for the door, shoving almost blindly through the milling patrons. He had to get out, outside, he had to find room to breathe …

He was nearly a block away before he regained control, and slowed to become aware of his surroundings. A chance to do it all over again, to correct the appalling cascade of failures; but there was such a multitude of them, and so many conflicted with others, and the weight of his own limitations was mounting to a level that he sometimes could hardly bear. He would have to do better than this, because the road he had chosen stretched so far ahead and the duties and complications would only increase. He would find a way, if only because failure was intolerable.

Then failure was upon him, onrushing and inexorable, because vampires were closing on him from three sides with terrifying speed, and he was alone and weaponless. He was about to die, defeated, ruined, having accomplished nothing. Black, bitter despair bore down on him with the death he could not escape, and he sprinted in the only available direction, desperate for a few more seconds of life, for a miracle, for anything —

Deliverance came in a shrieking cyclone, Faith exploding among Wesley's attackers like a thunderbolt of fury and hate. Her rush smashed one of the vampires aside — Eliminati, all of them, there must have been a few away in other duties during the team attack on the warehouse, and there were five, not three — and she snatched up the fallen warrior and heaved him above her head with impossible quickness and power, and hurled him into the midst of his fellows, bowling them in all directions. Characteristically impetuous and violent, it was also a desperate expedient, for they all had swords and she was armed with nothing more than a standard complement of stakes … but she grabbed hold of a three-inch pipe and tore it completely clear of the wall, and rushed them with the improvised club. One maddened Slayer against a quintet of trained and dedicated duelists, and Wesley seized a discarded crate from the alley where his flight had taken him, smashed it, and rushed to her aid with the makeshift shards of splintered wood.

It was a kaleidoscope of chaos, blood, screams, snarls, slashing and crushing and stabbing and darting-weaving-lunging desperation. Wesley struck one of the Eliminati from behind, driving splinters into his own hand and the wooden dagger diagonally downward through the vampire's neck and deep into his chest to pierce the heart. Faith kicked through the instant fall of dust to blast Wesley away and clear of a cleaving slash, powered in to attack with such awful force that the duelist's sword shattered, and his skull beneath it, then she was swinging the pipe in a looping oblong to drive back two others who were charging her from either side. Wesley was her weak point, and they knew it within the first seconds, they went at him draw her in, and he fled and dodged and reversed course to distract them, she broke a neck in that instant of inattention, he stabbed and missed but his crude stake tore the arm of a foe, and Faith smashed that one down and speared him with her own stake. Now the odds were two to one, and her berserker onslaught carried the momentum, she killed another one and the last Eliminati struck in the perfect moment, his longsword piercing her just beneath the ribcage and driving through … and she pushed forward to move UP the sword, dropped the pipe to seize his throat with her free hand and slammed her stake through his heart with the other.

It was over, and now they had to deal with the aftermath.

With a shorter weapon, Wesley would have left it in, but the longsword was impossibly cumbersome. He pulled it out, her only response a hiss as the steel slid from her flesh. She looked like exactly what she was, a crazed warrior who had thrown herself against impossible odds and obliterated them by sheer power and savagery. He feared her in that moment, a gut-deep fear he had thought long burned away, but he couldn't leave her. He got her to his car, took the wheel, and drove.

For minutes he didn't speak, and when at last he did, his voice was forcefully controlled. "We have two options," he told her. "The first, most obvious, and clearly superior would be to take you to the nearest ER and get you professional medical care."

Her mouth twisted in a silent snarl. "I don't do hospitals," she gritted out.

"So I suspected," he said. "You are showing no major blood loss; that, and the direction of the wound, tell me your liver wasn't compromised. However, for one as ferociously proud as you to show any pain at all, it must be excruciating; that tells me the sword struck your kidney. Additionally, if the peritoneum or any part of your intestines was pierced, you face immediate danger of life-threatening infection."

"I don't do hospitals," she repeated with savage intensity.

"Then, as an alternative, I can take you to my flat, blast you with the most powerful multi-spectrum antibiotics in my possession, and monitor your condition. Slayer healing is capable of dealing with almost any non-lethal wound, so your recovery is likely or I wouldn't suggest it. However, I will tell you from the beginning: if you lose consciousness or spike a hard fever, I will deliver you to critical care and tell them which sedatives in which doses will keep you comatose" (he almost stumbled over the word) "until you have received enough treatment to save your life."

"And Door Number Two it is," she said through clenched teeth. "And you try that other thing and I'll rip out your liver, barehanded."

So he took her to his flat, and did as he had said … and, treacherously, sedated her anyway, and watched while she slept, taking her temperature and blood pressure every fifteen minutes and struggling inside himself with two imperatives that warred against one another.

~ – ~ – ~

After just under five hours, her eyes snapped open without preliminaries and focused on him. Her first words were lucid, clear, and hard: "You bastard."

He nodded agreement. "On the upside," he observed, "as you can see, you're not at Sunnydale General."

"How long?" she demanded.

"It's almost dawn." He rubbed at eyes that felt rimmed with pumice. "And, once again, Slayer healing lives up to its reputation. But I had to quiet you in order to give your body a chance to work."

She studied him, anger clashing with a warrior's piercing assessment of a potential adversary. "Di's determination," she said. "Giles' brains, and Gwen's guts. You could be a keeper, if I don't wind up taking you out."

And there it was again. Had she, he wondered with unnatural detachment, somehow wound up killing the Deputy Mayor anyhow? Or had that death come about through entirely unrelated causes? In the end, Wesley suddenly realized, it didn't matter. In either case, she would have to be handled carefully. Allan Finch's death had been a precipitating event in the history he remembered, but the potential — the darkness — had already been there in her, waiting to be triggered.

He wouldn't let anything stop him from saving Fred. Faith's downfall, however, was another failure for which he could … must … atone.

"Faith," he said. She heard the difference in his voice, and her face went wary and unreadable. "There's something I very much need to say … and, while I recognize that you will find it unwelcome, I need you to hear me out, for this is a matter of enormous import. For the both of us."

That removed just a bit of the stiffness from her expression, but her eyes remained guarded. "Ahright, I'll listen," she agreed. "C'mon, hit me with your best shot."

"I am supposed to be responsible for you," he began. "That is a serious matter, and I take it very seriously indeed. A few nights ago, I told you that you deserved better from the Watchers than you had received." He sighed. "Unfortunately, you also deserve better than I can give you."

"Oh, shit," Faith said flatly.

"This is not a dismissal," Wesley corrected her, more force in his tone than he might have ventured in another time. "You deserve someone who puts you first, who makes you the unwavering focus of his attention and his dedication. Unfortunately, through no flaw of yours, I came to this town with an agenda of my own. One that predates my meeting you, one that claims precedence over all else." He saw that his fists were clenched in his lap, and relaxed them with an effort. "Something more important to me than you. More important than anything. If I died in achieving it, I would count that an acceptable cost." He raised his eyes to meet hers. "You deserve better than that … but, if those are the facts, you deserve to know them. Without any attempt at excuse on my part."

Faith took it in, controlled, hiding all her reactions. At last she said, "So you're gonna be leavin'?"

"Not at this time." Wesley moved his chair closer to her bedside (or, to be completely accurate, his). "What I must accomplish involves my staying in Sunnydale, at least until … probably until graduation. Three months." He looked to her. "After that, I may need to go to Los Angeles. Or there may be researches that take me elsewhere. There may be a considerable period of back-and-forth travel for me. But, when it comes time that I leave for good, I won't depart without telling you."

Faith had been nodding through the last parts of that. "So," she said. "I finally got another Watcher of my own, only he ain't exactly totally mine. Or any part mine. Sorry, Faith, nothin' personal, but you got stuck with hind tit one more time. Tough luck, but you oughtta be used to it by now." Her eyes were hard, and — beneath it — hurt. "So you tell me I don't come first. Great. At least you didn't bullshit me about where I stand. But you're askin' me to be okay with it?"

And Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, looking down at the deadliest creature he had ever seen or ever would see, incredibly, smiled. "No," he said. "Actually, I was thinking of asking you to help."

She looked to him, doubtful, hopeful, not understanding, wanting to believe. He began to speak, intense and forceful and determined, and she listened with a savage concentration never previously seen in her. Her defenses were strong, hard, deep-driven and immovable, but a part of her yearned for something else, something different … a need that didn't match his, but might — might — be able to parallel it. He spoke, on and on, with a quiet and growing passion … and, gradually, tentatively, the ghostly foundations began to be laid for what might be an entirely new reality.

For the both of them.

end