TITLE: All talk
AUTHOR: Katarina "Katta" Hjärpe, head_overheels@hotmail.com
MY WEBSITE: http://www.geocities.com/katta_hj
SUMMARY: Wesley rebuilds his life, Angel keeps losing control of his. Birthdayverse.
SERIES: Sequel to "Distorted Reflections", which was the sequel to "The Reality of Absence".
NOTES: How long will this go on, you ask? There are two answers to that question. One is "indefinitely". I'm sorry, but that's the way it is. Another, fortunately, is that after the fourth story, which is in the works and may come out in a few weeks, I feel that a certain equilibrium has been reached and there is no major suspense. Not sure anyone else will agree.
FEEDBACK AND/OR DISTRIBUTION: I'm not a telepath. Talk to me. :-)


So Wesley talked to Anne, the woman in charge of the East Hills teen centre. She wasn't at all what he had expected, this soft spoken blonde hardly older than the kids she took in. At first, when he saw her standing in the doorway surrounded by young people who had been born tough, he couldn't understand how she even managed the job. But her eyes meeting his were the most undisturbed he had seen since the hospital, and her voice might be soft, but it wasn't meek.

"Hi," she said, and shook hands briefly before taking him inside. "I'm so glad you could come. I was just put in charge and the place is a mess – so if you decide to stay you're highly welcome."

She grimaced as she took her seat in the small office, and for a moment it made her look like a little girl. "Probably not the best advertising I could have done. Please –" She gestured to the second chair.

"That's all right," he said, taking her offer to sit down. Her stress made him feel a little bit better. And he liked the way she treated him. Not a 'Gee, is that sleeve empty? I hadn't noticed' attitude, as if it didn't even matter. Just the slight hint in her behaviour that there might be things that mattered *more*.

Right now she was shuffling through some papers. After a moment, she put them down again. "Uhm... sorry."

"About what?"

"I don't know. My lack of concentration. So, Alonna didn't say much about your background. Do you have any experience of working with teenagers?"

Strictly speaking, the answer was yes. But the complete disaster that had been Sunnydale was hardly a merit. "Not this kind of work."

"Okay." She bit her lip and smiled. "Neither did I when I started here. Apart from being one. But I'm supposed to ask these questions, so... College education?"

"Yes." Of course, that wasn't helpful either. "Mostly antique languages and mythology, though."

"Mythology?" Stressed or not, there was a sharpness in her eyes as she looked up. "As in demons and such?"

So she knew. Well, obviously. The outcasts were always the first to die. "Quite."

"And Alonna sent you *here*?" She shook her head, as if she had too late realised what that sounded like. "I would have thought she'd keep you."

He thought of the girl as she'd given him the address here. No, Alonna wouldn't have wanted to keep him around. She had him classified as a threat to her brother's safety, as if such a safety had existed in the first place. Maybe she had a point, but even if she didn't he wouldn't have wanted her to be the one to let him stay. She might be "just" a sister, but she was still too close to Gunn for his liking.

"Well, she didn't."

"I can see that. Can you cook?"

"Very little." And probably even less with one hand, although it wasn't anything he'd been inclined to try. He was making a lifestyle out of microwave meals.

With an exasperated sigh, she put her sheets down. "This isn't working."

Even though he agreed that he was hardly a suitable candidate for the job, he couldn't help feeling disappointed. He needed somewhere to work, some way to stop himself from going under.

"Forget the questionnaire. Are you a drug dealer, warlock or in any other way unsuitable company for adolescents?"

"Uhm... no?"

"Good! When can you start?"

He'd already been halfway up from the chair, ready to leave. Now he stopped, staring at the girl, trying to figure out what about this catastrophic interview had made her still want to hire him.

"Whenever you want me to."

"In ten seconds or less, then." She stood up, obviously relieved to get away from her desk. "I wasn't kidding, you know. This place needs every pair of hands it can get."

He waited for her to discover her faux pas. When she did, she got a small frown and then shook her head, dismissing it.

"Or single ones, for that matter. Eight dollars an hour, the more hours the better. Is that okay?"

"It's fine."

"Great. I'll show you around."

They left the tiny office and headed out into the main hallway, where a loud group of youths had gathered in a circle. Anne sighed deeply.

"Li, take that outside please."

Li, Wesley determined after a closer look, must be the boy in the middle of the circle, who was leaning his chin and elbow on the ground, his back arched up above his head and his legs split to the side. He gave Anne a cheeky wink, but made no move to do what she had told him.

"Li is a street performer," Anne told Wesley. "Which means he's to perform on the *streets*, not inside. Isn't that right, Li?"

The boy quickly turned himself the right way up and left the room. Wesley gave Anne a startled look, and although the faint whisper itself probably would have been incomprehensible, he could decode it with help from her lips' movements:

"I love it when that happens."


Angel kept talking to make Jhiera stay.

"What are your plans now?" he asked as she was about to leave, causing her to turn back again to explain it to him.

He didn't agree with her methods, nor did he even like her very much, but yet he kept her there all night. From time to time he could see her ridges glowing beyond the slope of a shoulder, but he chose to ignore it.

"So that's what I had in mind for the near future," she said, taking a sip of her coffee. She tilted her head and studied the cup, but made no grimace. "This is vile."

"Sorry. Can't taste it myself."

"Of course." She put the cup down and didn't bother with it anymore. "You never told me why a vampire would care about causes such as mine."

"It's a long story. Centuries long, actually. Starts with a gypsy curse, ends with visions from the higher powers..."

And it really didn't matter if he liked her or not, because she was there, and she listened, through the entire century-long story.

"He always put himself down. Even when he didn't have to. And I knew that was what he did, but I still never thought... From Buffy I might have expected it. Slayers are pretty much born to die. But to have your life in front of yourself and still.."

He licked his lips, lost in thought. He might not be able to taste coffee, but when it came to living, breathing creatures he had an excellent sense of taste, and the memory to match. Some of those tastes he would remember for years.

"And now it's all in my head."

"The visions?"

"It's more than the visions." He'd never explained the rest of it before, and searched for words. "It's like that portal of yours, only inside my thoughts. Letting me see the things on my mind."

She said nothing for a while, studying him carefully. At long last, she asked, "And if there are bad things on your mind?"

"Then I see bad things. But it's worth it."

"I don't understand." She seemed willing to try, though, her entire demeanour bearing witness of deep concentration. "Anyone can go through a portal. What if the wrong person does?" She shook her head. "My people have a better chance escaping their enemies in this world. What's in it for you?"

"I don't care about my enemies," he said. He'd been to Hell and survived, after all. And when you cut down to it, Hell was all about abandonment. "I can find my friends there."

"In your mind. Yes," she agreed.

She still didn't understand. Nobody could understand. And Angel didn't feel like talking anymore.


Alonna had never been in the habit of talking to herself. In her book, that was right up there with pushing your possessions around in a shopping cart. The definite sign that one had hit rock bottom after all.

If she had a problem, she'd talk to Gunn, and the other way around. But this time, Gunn was the problem, and he refused to listen.

He never mentioned Wesley or made any inquiries of his whereabouts. That should have been a relief, iff it had helped at all. But it hadn't – Gunn was more reckless than ever before.

"I don't know what else to do," she confessed to the stake she was carving from an uncooperative table leg. "I tried talking to him. I tried going behind his back. Face it, I've tried everything except possibly tying him up somewhere."

She giggled at the thought.

"And it's starting to look like a good idea."

She had to admit, he was getting too much for one person. The entire gang were like him, or wanted to be. They weren't a bad lot. With the right leader, they could be great, but Gunn wasn't the right leader. Maybe one day he could be. It depended on her shaping him right, and he was getting too damn strong for her.

"He still thinks I'm a little girl," she muttered. "I've got ten times his brains and he won't listen to a word I say."

The stake was sharp enough by now, but she kept carving. "I know, I know, I might have made a bad judgment call. But what the hell was I supposed to do?"

The stake broke. She had carved straight through it without even noticing. Letting out a curse, she dropped it to the floor and grabbed another one of the old table legs. They were made of hard wood, which was great in a fight, but an annoyance when you tried to sharpen them.

"I mean, even if I did go to Wesley, what's to say he could do anything? Or even want to. I mean, look at what he was like last time. All flashing old battle scars, practically egging Gunn on. As if he'd turn it all around just to get in *my* good graces? Please."

Besides, if Gunn wouldn't even take her advice, he wasn't going to listen to anyone else's. At least she didn't think so – or rather hope so, if she was honest to herself. Which she didn't particularly want to be.

"Get over yourself," she said sternly. Her pride wasn't the issue here. Her brother's life was.

"What's up?"

Startled to hear another voice than her own, her head jerked up, and she saw Gunn standing there, grinning at her behaviour.

"Stake's too cocky?"

"Yes," she said with a sigh, putting aside the knife and wood. "Stake's much too cocky. But I think it learned its lesson."


There was a sweet smell coming out of the TV room, and Wesley wasn’t so square he didn’t recognize it. Slamming the door open, he found half a dozen young men and women playing cards, but not a joint among the lot of them. Yet their far too innocent faces told him his nose wasn’t deceiving him.

”What’s up?” one of them asked, a slightly dazed smile showing up on his face. Wesley scowled. They never smiled at him.

”Alright,” he asked coldly. ”Where is it?”

”Where’s what?” That was Manuel, a boy half a head shorter than Wesley, but with enough brains and muscle to make the others follow his lead. It had taken Wesley no more than an hour to learn how little Manuel thought of him, but he wasn’t about to give in.

”The marijuana.”

”We don’t have none of that.”

”Don’t lie to me. I can smell it.”

”You can smell a lie?” one of the girls asked, giggling. She sat on the couch, squeezed in along with three boys. Apart from her, there was just one other girl, sitting in an armchair with the boy called Li. She was supposedly seated in his lap, but Li had squiggled aside and was lying halfway under the coffee table. Not that he seemed to mind the position much, and knowing the way he could bend his body, why would he?

”I can smell the joint.”

”Nose must be playing tricks on you.” That was Manuel again, laying a card on the table. The gesture was nonchalant, but his tone of voice wasn’t, and Wesley was beginning to feel threatened.

”I demand that you...”

Manuel jumped up from the sofa, and Wesley silenced, startled by the boy’s energy. He soon found himself at the receiving end of an unfriendly shove – not a hard one, but serious enough in intent.

”No, *I* demand that you show us a bit of respect! Unless you have some kind of proof we did something wrong. Do you?”

”The smell is quite...”

”I’m not talking about a smell, I’m talking about proof. Do you have proof?”

Wesley looked over Manuel’s shoulder at the people gathered around the coffee table. They all followed the scene with utter interest and no sympathy whatsoever.

”Not in the tangible sense, no.”

”So you should apologise for the accusation, shouldn’t you?”

”I most certainly...”


Manuel was now so close his toes touched Wesley’s. The others remained where they were, but started cheering and shouting, louder and louder, until Wesley gave in.

”Very well. I apologise for my groundless accusation.”

”Good.” A smile tugged at the corner of Manuel’s mouth. ”Now applaud us.”

Through the laughter that followed, Wesley could hear the girl in Li’s lap protesting: ”Oh, come on, that’s just mean.”

The protest would have seemed more genuine if it hadn’t been accompanied by a giggle, but now it was mortifying. And obviously, Anne would pick this moment to show up in the doorway. She didn’t say anything, just watched, but the laughter slowly died as more people noticed her. At long last even Manuel turned around to see what was going on, and he automatically took a step back at the sight.

Anne walked up to the coffee table and pushed it away, revealing a lot of legs and the joint Li had stuck between his bare toes. She picked it up, crushed it in her hand, and looked at him very calmly. He stood up, letting the girl slide off his lap. Soon they were all standing, looking very uncomfortable.

”Anne,” said the girl from Li’s lap, ”if there’s anything we can do...”

”Well, the bathrooms need cleaning. You might want to start with that.”

They left the room, notably subdued. Only then did Anne turn to look at Manuel and Wesley.

”Manuel, if you want to pick up your things before you leave, now would be the time to do it. Now, if you’ll excuse me –” she held up the crushed joint ”– I’ll go flush this away.”


Wesley was so busy trying to slice bread that he didn't notice Anne until she started to talk.

"That's not working," she said, and he spun around, embarrassed.

"I didn't see you."

"Sorry. I was watching." She walked up to the work bench, frowning. "The bread keeps moving. What you really need is one of those things..." She pushed her palms together. "You know. For sawing. But I don't think we have one. Oh! I know."

She dived down to open a drawer, and fished out a grill fork that she stuck in the loaf of bread. Her academic attitude to the problem made it all slightly less humiliating, if not much, but he had absolutely no idea what she was getting at.

"Yes?" he asked, trying to remain polite. It hadn't taken him long at this place to find out politeness was important to her.

"Hold it in your mouth, and carve," she explained with shy triumph.

In his mouth? "But that's so..." Handicapped. Which was what he was, after all. He didn't want to do something like that with her watching, but then he didn't want to let her down either, so he gave it a try. The bread still moved, but not half as much. Good thing it wasn't a crumbly sort.

She smiled when the slice was done, but shook her head a little. "Could be better alternatives, I guess."

Yes. Two arms. But that wasn't what she was talking about, and he did appreciate the attempt. That didn't take the discomfort away, though, and so he changed the subject. "Did you want to speak to me?"

"Yeah." Now she was the one seeming uncomfortable, and he began to regret asking. "Listen, you're doing a great job here, and you're putting in so many hours..."

His stomach went cold. Was she firing him?

"You can't let the kids bully you," she said.

The relief was so great he almost laughed. But she was serious. And right, too, as much as he would like to deny it.

"I try to make them respect me," he defended himself. "They just won't."

"Of course not. I've heard you talking to them, you sound like a high school teacher." She looked downright apologetic as she continued, "That's just the sort of authority they're used to fighting. Keep it up and they'll never respect you."

She couldn't know about Sunnydale, but still he felt his face heat at the memory. Obviously, his failed authority was impossible to miss.

"It's like this," she said, sitting down on the table. "You don't need them. They need you. If they give you any trouble, you can just throw them out."

"I never would," he protested.

"Well, that's nice, but it's not really the point. They're still depending on your goodwill. So stop trying to get on their good side. I mean, you're not like that with me. Just relax, act yourself, and if you get mad at them, get mad."

"You don't understand..."

"Well, no," she said readily, her face colouring a little. "Except I do, a bit. I mean, about putting on an act, at least. And half of them *know* that, because they remember what I was like when I arrived."

"You were one of them?" He tried to imagine her as a waif and succeeded very easily. She was so young, and although she did her job well, there was no question about her being a bit on the undisciplined side. Like someone not quite used to what she was doing.

"I was. I'm not saying it's the same, and I'm well aware it isn't easy, but I don't think it's impossible. And, God, I sound like some lame motivational speech."

"Indeed." He had to smile.

She hopped off the table, sighing a little. "Anyway, I should go get some book keeping done. Or try to. None of it makes the least bit of sense."

"Do you want me to do it for you?" he offered, and she stopped short, grimacing a little.

"Thank you for the offer, but I've got to learn to think for myself. On the other hand, if you want to put that high school teacher attitude to some good use..."

"Just let me finish my sandwich," he said, "and I'll teach you how to do it."

She nodded. "I'll be waiting."


Angel thought he had gotten used to Darla talking to him through his mind, but he hadn't expected her to show up without warning.

"This place is just getting gloomier by the hour," she said, letting the blinds up. He automatically moved to pull them down again – but they were already down.

"What are you doing here?" he asked. "I never entered my mind."

"No," she said very sweetly. "I did."

She walked slowly through the room, moving furniture that moved back at the blink of an eye. "You think I must wait for your permission? Shame on you, Angelus. You don't run the show anymore." She laughed a little. "Neither does Doyle. He never did, whatever you might have told yourself. Seriously, Angelus, you only knew the man for a few months. How much power do you think that gives him over your mind? You just wanted so hard to believe, didn't you? One wrong thought at the wrong time, and you grasped it with everything you had. Turning back reality like you tried to turn back time. Too bad it doesn't work that way."

"Go away," he said, as threatening as he could manage.

"Oh, don't worry." She pushed back a chair and sat down. For a moment he could see it still standing where it had been before. "I wouldn't take away your little playmate. I'm not that cruel." She pondered that. "Actually, I am, but I still won't."

"You're not real." The viciousness in his voice was for him as well as her.

"Of course not. But can you make me go away? Can you make me do anything I don't want to do?" Her eyes glittered with malignant glee. "I don't think so."

"What do you want with me?"

"I have a plan for you." She was standing up now, although he'd never seen her rise. Her hair was different, too – long, curly and in an elaborate style, like it had been when he first met her. "It's a quite beautiful plan, do you want to hear it?"

"No, I don't." He stormed out of the room, down the stairs, where Darla was waiting for him in his bedroom.

"Well, that's a shame." She tilted her head a bit. "You were always such a fine artist."

"You're not real. None of this is real."

"Oh, Angelus," she snapped, "stop stating the obvious. It's so dull when you do."

He should be able to ignore her, sit down on his bed, maybe read a book. But Darla had always been colourful, convincing, impossible to just brush off. In the end, he had been forced to stake her. And now, even that proved not to be enough.

"Do you remember those drawings you used to make? Death in coal." She shook her head slowly. "Of course, you can't have death in black and white. You need the blood. But you came close, so very close. After a hundred years of practice, you almost had it there."

He tried not to think about those drawings, but the memories kept returning, pieces of papers scattered over the room. A death for each paper – but not a paper for each death, there weren't enough of them for that. The people on the drawings were black and white, but instead of coal they were in flesh and blood, limbs slack in death.

"You never would have been as good if I hadn't turned you," she told him. "I gave you the time you needed for greatness."

Greatness? He had wanted greatness once, though it seemed insignificant now. But he'd never wanted a greatness painted in blood.

"Then again, your true talent wasn't in painting," Darla said, reading his thoughts. "I always loved the things you could do with torture and mutilation. You'd think a few hundred years in Hell would only have given you more ideas. I guess not."

She sat down on the bed and bobbed a bit. It was really too hard a bed for her to do that, but she had always preferred them soft.

"Do you remember that couple in Southampton?" she asked, chuckling a little. "Oh, you really knew how to make a rainy day in England more fun." She picked up a page from the floor, waved it slowly through the air to loosen the people on it until their dead bodies fell to the floor.

"But your real masterpiece was Drusilla. Your Mona Lisa. That was when I knew I had trained you well. I couldn't have done something like that even if I had tried for a hundred years."

She smiled, letting the paper go, and it went away along with the others. The floor looked strangely empty without them.

"Won't stop me from trying, of course."

"Now, wait a minute." For a moment forgetting his resolution to act as though he didn't notice her, he stepped up to grab her and tell her just what he thought of what she was saying.

That was when the pain hit, and he had to grab the bed instead, to prevent himself falling to the floor. She leaned over for a moment, and even through the pain and the pictures he could make out her voice.

"Oh, right. There's a family you might want to check up on. Forgot to tell you."

Her laugh accompanied him long after her image was gone.


At first, when Wesley lifted his glance from the vacuum cleaner to see who had entered, he thought Gunn had come to talk to him. But Gunn seemed as surprised to see him as vice versa.

"What are you doing here?"

"I work here," Wesley replied, turning off the vacuum cleaner. He would have expected Gunn to know that. Sure, Alonna didn't like him, but from that to keep his whereabouts a secret... He shook his head to clear the thoughts, just happy they were alone for the time being. "What brings you here?"

But apparently Gunn hadn't reached the point where he answered questions yet. "Work here? As a cleaning lady?"

"As anything needed, actually," Wesley said, trying not to take Gunn's comment as an insult. He wasn't ashamed of what he did. But it stung that Gunn might think he should be. "We don't have enough work force around here to sustain that kind of division of labour."

"And you're happy with that?"

Wesley unplugged the vacuum cleaner, keeping his eyes on the cord as it rolled up. Nothing about all this made him happy. Not the job, even if he was grateful for it. Not Anne's company or the young people he still felt a bit wary of. And certainly not Gunn standing there in all his glory, beautiful and clueless, and damn near *cruel* in his way of showing up just as things had reached some level of normal.

"Delighted. Feels smashing to be doing something again."

"Yeah, but this?" Gunn started walking around the room, touching things. "It's one thing with Anne... I mean, nothing against Anne, but she's... well, it's not like she's got a lot of options."

"And I do?" Wesley looked up, only to see Gunn looking away. Always these games with the glances. He half wished Gunn would just have a good stare and get it over with. This was tiresome and undignified, and it mixed too much pain into the thrill of seeing him.

"You're too smart for this place."

A compliment on the far side of cliché, but Gunn uttered it with such anger it was touching. It showed some lingering confidence in him, even after his humiliating confession of being anything but a hero.

"I don't like being bullshitted." Gunn raised his eyes again, staring straight into Wesley's.

"I can understand that," Wesley said, struggling against his shame to keep eye contact. "And I'm sincerely sorry if I..."

"Don't apologise. Jesus!" The anger seemed to border on contempt now, and Wesley felt like he'd been brought back to Sunnydale all over again. His first impulse was to react accordingly, bring out the Watcher persona in defence. But he recalled what Anne had said about high school teachers and refrained. It wasn't as if Gunn would believe in it, anyway.

"What do you think I should do then, if not apologise?"

"Who cares what I think? It shouldn't matter what I think!"

A teenage boy strolled into the hallway. He quickly retreated again after a look at Gunn's expression, but Wesley knew whatever they said after this would be out all over the centre. Gunn must have suspected it too, because he stopped shouting.

"Is there some place we can talk in private?"

"Around here? Not really. The only privacy you get is in the bathrooms."

"Fine, bathroom it is." And Gunn must be more familiar with the place than Wesley had thought, because he quickly located the nearest and hauled Wesley with him inside. The limited area forced him to downplay his actions a bit, for which Wesley was grateful. There was no mistaking the continued irritation, though.

"So why'd you do it?" Gunn was leaning against the wash basin, putting it in real danger of falling off the wall. If it had been anyone else, Wesley would have told them to stop.

"I suppose I wanted to make a good impression."

"How old are you, fifteen? I'm not your leader. Even if I *was* your leader I'd want you to play it straight with me. And someone your age... it's pathetic."

Wesley pulled down the toilet lid and sat down, although he still kept eye contact. Those disappointed eyes were almost impossible to stand, but that was why he had to meet them.

"I suppose it is."

Gunn bit his lip and looked away, and for a while neither of them said anything.

"I wanted to talk to you anyway. I'd been wondering where you got to. You figured out the plan with the nitrogen, and that was *smart*. It was resourceful. It was the sort of thinking I'd want from one of my own."

"Thank you."

"Shut up."

"Sorry." But there was something in Gunn's voice that inspired hope.

"I got a whole bunch of guys who can fight a vamp and do it good. There ain't one of them knows what to do with a demon he's never encountered before."

Wesley looked down into his lap, not in defeat, but because he felt ridiculously close to laughing.

"I've been thinking some about that, and I guess I could use a guy like that on the team. Whether you can fight or not... and I don't think that's a lost cause either."

Wesley disagreed, but he wasn't so sure of his own incapacity as he had been before he started working. Besides, he'd be insane to argue now.

"Is that what you want? You want to fight with us?"

"I would be honoured," he said. His voice was low, but Gunn evidently heard it, because he sat down so hard the wash basin protested.

"Okay. I'll be happy to have you. But any more of the bullshit, and you're out. I got to be able to trust you. So, can I?"

"Always," Wesley said, looking up. And no matter how embarrassing it was to be told off by someone so young, he saw how happy his answer made Gunn, and it made him happy in return.


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