"So is this it?" Wes asked as Angel pulled the car off the highway onto a bare dirt road. Broken down and faded signs announced it as the entrance to a mine.
"It's the beginning, yeah," Angel said, glancing over at Wes with a tiny smile. "There's still some hoops we've got to jump through before we get inside."
As Angel had assured him, it hadn't taken long at all to get here from Caritas. Of course, that was partly because most of the journey had been passed in discussing Angel's son. Or, more accurately, the journey had been passed by Wes listening to Angel go on and on about Connor.
It hadn't been boring, though; on the contrary, Wes had found himself fascinated with this new facet of Angel. It was clear, once they'd got past the awkwardness of that first mention and explanation of Connor, just how much love and pride Angel carried for his son.
Wes now had a mental picture of Connor as a bright and talented kid, even taking in a certain amount of fatherly exaggeration on Angel's part, and Wes was looking forward to meeting him. Mostly at least. Aside from the small bit at the back of his mind that was worried about what would happen if Connor didn't like him, if that would affect whatever this was that was growing between him and Angel.
He was distracted from that incipient worry by the telltale tingling of passing through some wards, like those that had been breached at the hotel in Las Vegas, only much more powerful.
"That's what we call ringing the doorbell," Angel explained with a tiny grin. "Makes it pretty hard for anyone to get too close without us noticing."
"What happens if they don't recognise who's doing the ringing?" Wes asked, curious.
"Pretty much everything gets locked down until they go away." Angel shrugged. "Doyle's not big on unnecessary violence."
"And if they don't go away...?" Wes wondered.
Angel grinned. "Then the violence wouldn't be unnecessary.
"Not that it's ever come to that," he continued, steering the car up a dirt track that hinted it might some day grow up to be a road. "When we go into lockdown, pretty much the only thing people out here are going to see is an old abandoned played out mine. Our first line of defence has always been camouflage and so far we haven't needed any stronger... discouragements."
"But you have them if you need them?"
"Yeah." Angel's answer was short, almost curt and Wes realised that his questions might be intrusive and inappropriate for someone who was still essentially a guest making his first visit here and so changed the subject.
"What happens when we get inside?" He figured that was a slightly safer topic.
It seemed to be because Angel was more relaxed when he answered. "First off, Doyle will want to see us." He grinned again. "For several reasons. Then, when he's done grilling us, thought I could show you around the place and... things."
"Like introduce me to your son."
Angel's grin got wider and also turned a bit shy, if that was possible. "Yeah. He's a great kid. You're going to love him."
"I'm sure I will," Wes said, returning the smile. "If anything," he continued, watching as Angel drove their car directly into the mine's mouth, "I'm more worried about what his reaction to me will be actually."
"What?" Angel glanced over at him in disbelief, then quickly back ahead as he manoeuvred the car to a careful stop. Turning his full attention back to Wes, he asked, "Why would think that?"
Wes shrugged. "I know it's important to you that Connor approves of our... relationship. And I've not had all that much experience with children or, well, people in general. I rather fear I'm going to make a bad first impression," he admitted.
"You made a pretty good first impression on me."
Wes' lips curled up into a slight wry smile. "I held you at gunpoint and threatened to kill you. That's making a good first impression?"
"I was trying to take some of your books," Angel pointed out. "The gunpoint thing was understandable."
"I'm much better at getting along with books than with people," Wes observed, not without humour. "If it was a book instead of a teenager you wanted to introduce me to I'd be perfectly confident... and that has to be possibly the most absurd thing I've ever said."
Angel gave him a small smile and leaned over and kissed him, an action that Wes had already concluded was always a good thing. "You'll be fine," Angel told him when he pulled back. "Just pretend he's a first edition. That talks.... He's a talking book. And you're right, it doesn't really work as an analogy does it?"
"I appreciate the effort nonetheless," Wes said, reaching out and patting Angel's arm. He looked out the windshield at the rock wall in front of them. "I take it we're not driving any further?"
"Not driving, no," Angel replied, opening his door, then pausing to give another small grin to Wes as he grabbed one of the bags of books they'd brought from Los Angeles. "Come on."
Getting out of the car, Wes hefted the other bag of books from the back seat and followed Angel to the wall in front of and just to the left of where they were parked.
As Wes watched, Angel pressed what looked to be a slightly loose stone, which then retracted. It revealed a small keypad with a narrow slot below it. Angel slid a card into the slot, then punched a series of numbers on the keypad, each button making a soft beep when it was touched.
There was a low rumble of machinery and Wes turned to see a wall lowering behind the car, blocking them in. The matching rumble came from the wall Wes and Angel were standing in front of and Wes turned back to see it rising, revealing an obviously man-made corridor behind it.
"This way." Angel gave him a grin and started down the corridor, Wes following just a step behind.
As they walked Angel finally explained a bit about where they were. "This used to be a secret military research base -- of the they'd track you down and shoot you if they even thought you knew about it kind of secret. Apparently this was the main base where the military concentrated all its research on magic and demons.
"The people in charge weren't discriminating -- they captured and brought all kinds of demons here, both dangerous and not, sentient or not, even some humans if they were deemed to possess abilities or powers that could be useful. The whole point of this place was for the scientists to learn enough that they could invent ways of using magic and demons and what they could do as weapons. They didn't care a whole lot if their experiments hurt or killed their subjects either." He glanced sideways at Wes. "When the Burning happened, nobody died here that didn't richly deserve it."
They turned a corner and came upon a row of lifts. Angel pressed the button in middle of the row and the first one on the left opened. Gesturing Wes into the lift, Angel followed, continuing his explanation of where they were as the doors shut and the lift began to descend.
"After the Burning, the inmates took over the place. Most left, but a few stayed on, turning this place from a prison into a stronghold to retreat to in between forays into the world. Then, a few years later, when Doyle and I ran into a couple of them, Doyle did what he does best and convinced them that the place could be better put to use as a refuge. A place to start building a new kind of world. And that's what we've done."
The lift slowed to a stop and the doors opened to reveal a large open area where people and demons of all kinds moved about purposefully, busy with a wide assortment of tasks. The part that truly struck Wes though was that there was no sense of the fear or suspicion that so permeated every place and almost every person Wes had met since the Burning.
These people, humans and demons mixing freely, were cheerful. More than that they were secure. They felt safe. Content; Wes' brain supplied the word to describe the state of being he was observing, one that he doubted he'd ever experienced himself, even before the Burning, and one that he suddenly found deep inside a yearning for.
Angel's hand dropped to Wes' shoulder and Wes turned his head to look at the vampire, who was gazing at him with complete understanding in his eyes.
"This..." Wes began wonderingly, then shook his head. "It's all true, isn't it? All the stories?"
"Maybe not all the stories," Angel replied, "but it is a good place." He smiled. "Welcome to Unity, Wes."
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