by Jennifer-Oksana (firstname.lastname@example.org) rating: R
website: http://www.imjustsayin.net/jennyo spoilers: Sleep Tight
summary: In the near future, Angel decides to change the mission in light of Connor's death and the miserable state of his friends. Will they agree to help him? Gunn/Fred, A/C UST. archive: lists; regular suspects; others by permission. disclaimer: Mutant Enemy, Joss, Tim, FOX, et cetera, owns the characters. Some of the concepts are borrowed from Garth Ennis' excellent Preacher comic book series. notes: Thanks to Loa and Kate for the beta; note this is something of an AU, but is more like a futurefic and the first of the Backlash Series.
Fred had decided that the courtyard needed work. While everyone else was numb and silent with grief and rage, she buried her hands into the dirt to find her way. Pulling out weeds, testing the soil for its pH, adding mulch, watering the seeds that wouldn't bloom until fall--she put her heart and soul into it, all the while singing songs that had been popular in the mid-nineties.
Only Wesley--when he was sober enough--recognized them.
Angel was incommunicado. Had locked himself in his room after it was obvious that Connor was dead with a bucket of pig's blood and a case of Jack. Nobody could get him to open his door and after a month, nobody tried. Cordelia had been the last one to give up, and it had broken Fred's heart to see her finally stop knocking, walk down the stairs and look at them, a new iciness in her eyes.
"He's not coming out," Cordelia said. "So I guess we'll deal."
After that, there had been a steely, hateful glimmer in Cordelia's eye and a vicious determination that left poison in the air every time she spoke. She kept the agency running by forcing Gunn and Wesley--when he was sober enough--to investigate anything that came their way. Demon possession or philandering wife, she didn't care as long as they had the money to pay her newer, higher rates. Only the people she saw in visions were given help free of charge.
Strangely--or perhaps not--the new rates seemed to bring in more business. After all, they were the only place in town that handled the supernatural in a town that terminally needed the help, as Cordelia reminded them over and over.
Things continued fairly quietly for a while, the resentments and madness buried under the heat of a globally-warmed California summer. If it weren't for the heaviness of the quiet and the absence of Angel, things could have even been said to be going fairly well. At least at first, anyway. Wesley drank too much and Cordelia was unbearable, but it was okay. They were making record amounts of cash and everyone was functional. They were surviving--and that was good.
The illusion of good was shattered bright one Monday morning in August. Everyone was hard at work--Fred was updating the website and answering phones, Gunn was polishing the weapons, and Cordelia was doing the books. It was quiet, but then it was usually quiet, especially if Wesley wasn't around. Which he wasn't.
The phone rang. Fred picked it up, smiling at Gunn as she did. He smiled at her and went back to polishing a broadsword.
"Angel Investigations," Fred said cheerfully. "We help the--what?"
Gunn and Cordelia looked up.
"What?" asked Cordelia. "Who is it?"
"It's the police," Fred said calmly, turning back to the phone conversation as though the police called every day. "He's WHERE? Oh, dear. What happened? What did he--oh, I see. Oh--no, I see. Yes, officer, we'll be there. Yes, sir. Well--oh, of course, officer. Yes, sir. I--no sir, we're more than happy to--WHAT? Oh--no, no I didn't know--oh--oh dear--"
Cordelia looked at Gunn, who made a face back. She mouthed the word "Wesley" and Gunn nodded. They both sighed and looked back over at Fred, who was calmly reassuring the police officer that they'd have the money for bail, of course. Of course. Finally, after many more nos, ohs, and sirs, Fred put the receiver down and rubbed her temple fretfully, meeting their curious gazes.
"He was in a bar fight," she said flatly.
"Oh God," murmured Cordy. "Drunk?"
"As the proverbial lord," Fred said flippantly, pulling out the petty cash box. "He's not even awake yet--fortunately no one's pressing charges--"
"Yeah, that's great," Gunn said, putting the half-polished pile of weapons back into the cabinet and locking it. "Remind me again why we haven't sent his ass to rehab?"
"Because he told us to fuck off," replied Fred, slipping the money into her purse with tired resolve. "At the top of his lungs until he passed out. And because he was--is--fine when he's sober. Sorta."
"Well this time we ain't gonna take no for an answer," Gunn said, nodding seriously. "This is messed up and it's gonna kill him. And maybe us if we don't do something. Right, Cordy? Cordy?"
Cordy hadn't said anything. She was still sitting at her desk in front of the books, her head tenuously supported by her hand. She stared at them silently, blinking furiously.
"Cordy?" Fred asked nervously. "Are you okay?"
More silence. Then sobs. Slow painful ones that shattered the silence into a million sharp-edged pieces. Gunn and Fred stared at each other, too surprised to speak. Cordelia didn't cry. Cordy hadn't cried when Buffy died, or when she'd broken up with Groo, or when Wesley had been nearly killed, or when Connor had died, or even when she'd realized Angel had stopped talking to her forever.
"I'm--" Cordy hiccoughed-- "I'm fine. I just--" she gulped and the sobs became louder, became wails-- "Need a minute--"
Without another word, Cordelia buried her head in her arms and started crying at the top of her lungs. Gunn moved to go over and comfort her, but Fred shook her head impassively. Gunn looked at his girlfriend anxiously, trying to figure out what she wanted him to say to Cordelia, if anything at all. But there was no hidden message in Fred's face. It was blank, quiet, and peaceless.
"Fred," he said, looking at Cordelia. "What are we going to do?"
Fred hefted the purse over her shoulder and looked at the door. Gunn's eyes widened.
"We have to get Wesley," she whispered. "He's alone and he needs us."
Gunn stared at her. "We can't leave Cordy like this."
Fred looked at him solemnly and Gunn was stunned to see the harshness around the corners of her lips and eyes. She had always seemed younger--younger than him--but now she was every day of twenty-eight. An old twenty-eight, too.
"Cordy's stronger than that," she told him. "And she had to do this."
"Admit that everything's wrong," Fred said, walking toward the door. "Now we can move on."
"Move on?" he said. "To what?"
"Anger. The rest of our lives," she said, pulling the door open. Gunn followed her outside, leaving Cordelia alone with her grief.
Too many days had started out this way lately. Blinding sun, puddle of drool, nagging sensation in the back of Wesley's head that he'd drunk away any coherent memory of the night before. Everything felt like it was made of concrete and pain.
Two months of this and he wasn't dead yet. Amazing how much the human body could take before giving up.
He needed to stop. But what was the bloody point? If he stopped, he'd start thinking, and when he thought, he needed to drink. And why not drink? It was a time-honored solution to avoiding problems without solutions.
"Hey, you," someone said. Wesley looked up--and realized the someone was a middle-aged Latino cop and that he was almost certainly in the drunk tank. Again. Dammit. Not again. "Your friends are here for you, smart guy."
Friends? "Oh," Wesley said, blinking wildly. He pulled himself to a sitting position slowly, wiping his mouth. "Thank you, officer."
The cop narrowed his eyes and punched Wes directly in the gut. Wesley bent double, his entire world a sparkling firework of agony.
"Next time you say something like that about my mother, smart guy, it'll be your balls," said the cop. Wesley sighed. Not again. "And I don't want to see you in here any more. Get some damn help before your smart mouth gets you killed."
Whereupon the cop offered him a hand up. Wesley, slightly baffled, took it and struggled to his feet. Did he know the man? Probably--but right now he could barely remember his own name, let alone anyone else's.
"Thank you," Wes said tiredly, blinking back the sun as he found his glasses and slipped them on. "I'm terribly sorry."
"Yeah, you should be," the cop replied, walking him down an institutionally beige hallway lit by flickering fluorescent lamps. "You're a fuckin' loudmouthed drunk, no mistake. Do you even remember the shit comin' out of your mouth last night?"
"Not really," admitted Wesley, yawning apologetically. "I don't remember much after the woman walked into the bar. I didn't--I didn't hurt her, did I?"
"If you had, I wouldn't be walking with you right now," the cop said. "You busted that other guy's nose real good, though. But I heard what he said to the lady from a dozen witnesses--and that saved your ass. If you hadn't have hit him, someone else would have. So we kinda convinced him not to press charges."
"Thank God," said Wesley, the world slowly coming into focus. "So it's not her who's here to pick me up, is it?"
"Not this time, Romeo," the cop said. Wesley felt slightly embarrassed. They must have spoken before but he still had no idea who the man was. "It's your friends from work, Mr. Gunn and Ms. Burkle."
Wesley almost stopped cold. But through a strict outpouring of stiff-upper-lipped Britishness, he managed to keep pace with the cop. Fred and Gunn were here. Right. This was going to be comedy, wasn't it?
"I see," said Wesley. "Well, it was good of them to come."
The cop laughed--and the nascent hangover lying dormant in Wesley's skull suddenly exploded into its full glory. Really, it had been quite obliging to wait for so long. Wes smiled weakly at the man, trying not to vomit.
"You're a weird one, man," the cop said. "But I'm serious. Clean yourself up. I'm sick of seeing you--and not just cuz you and your friends saved my girl from the incubus."
"Of course," said Wesley with another wan smile. He was glad to have the mystery cleared up--pity he still couldn't remember the man's name, but--
Fred's voice could shatter a damn window. Wesley did not manage to smile this time as he looked over to see Fred and Gunn waiting at the desk. They both stared at him. Wesley looked away at the floor. It was dirty, linoleum, and also a shade of beige.
The cop nudged him.
"Fred," Wesley said, feigning--something. "Thank God you two came."
"Save it for Cordy," Fred said sharply. Wesley blinked. "What the hell were you doing?"
"Being a very gallant drunk, I believe," Wesley said. Fred raised a disbelieving eyebrow.
"No, really," the cop said. Gunn did a double take and broke into a smile.
"Hey, man!" he called, sounding almost cheerful. "Is that you?"
"Yeah," the cop said. "You guys gonna keep him outta the tank?"
Gunn nodded. "I think our boy Wes is due for an intervention."
"Overdue, I'd say," Fred said snippily. Wes almost glowered at both of them, but managed instead to divert his gaze to the floor in faux repentance. To hell with her. To hell with both of them.
God, he needed a drink.
"Stop crying," Cordelia whispered to herself, willing the tears to stop rolling down her cheeks. "Come on, Cordelia. Wes is fine. We're all gonna be fine. Just--deep breaths. Stop--stop--stop--"
She couldn't stop crying. But she needed to stop crying. What if someone came in? What would they think? Oh yeah, go to Angel Investigations, everyone. That's the detective agency with the crying girl who slobbers all over your paperwork. Right.
She had to stop crying.
"This is ri-ri-ridiculous," she told herself between sobs. "I am NOT doing this. I have a mission from the--"
More sobbing. God, any more tears and she was going to be ready for an All My Children audition. That was enough to make her chuckle through the non-stop sniffling.
"I have a mission," she repeated shakily. "I'm helping the helpless. I'm doing what the Powers w-w-want me to do."
"To hell with the Powers," said Angel. "What about you? Why do you care what they think, anyway?"
"Because, hello, forces of Good and oh my God, ANGEL!" Cordelia cried, turning around. Nope, not a hallucination. Definitely Angel. "Angel! You're--"
It was too much. She started crying harder and Angel held out his arms.
"Cordy," he said as she stood up and fell into his arms, wetting his shoulder with her tears. "Shh--Cordy, it's gonna be okay--shhh--"
"I thought you were never coming out," Cordelia sobbed. "And I can't--
"I wasn't going to come out," said Angel. "But then I decided something. Something important."
Cordelia pulled away from him, the tears gone as fast as they had come. Angel bit his lip. That had been the wrong thing to say somehow.
"You weren't, huh?" she said acidly. "Oh, that's great."
"Yeah, well. I don't see you guys doing that much better down here," he replied, folding his arms across his chest. "What about the day you told Wesley he 'needed help?' I thought I was going to have to call the cops."
"Yeah? Well, the cops got him anyway," she said, her arms just as folded and eyes just as narrowed as his. "He's hurt, Angel. And I don't know if he's ever going to get better."
Angel looked her down, months of pain raw in his eyes.
"Good," he said quietly. She glared back at him angrily, her eyes scorched with the remains of her crying fit.
"No, Angel," she said icily. "Not good. And you know not good."
He stared at her impassively, lips set.
"Dammit, Angel!" she cried. "I know. He screwed up. I know that. You know that. You want to know who really knows that? Wesley does."
"He did the best he could," said Cordelia very quietly. "And you know what? I don't know if telling you could have changed anything."
Angel stared at her silently for a moment and slowly--very slowly--his expression softened.
"I know that," Angel said finally. "But it's not an easy thing to forgive."
Cordelia's eyes, which had been getting flintier and frostier, suddenly relaxed a few degrees, but the anger was still there, sparkling just under the surface.
"I know," whispered Cordelia. "This whole thing--I don't get why the Powers would do this. Or why anything would do this to you. To us."
Her eyes met his again, bright red and stinging. There was so much raw emotion crackling in the air that Angel almost looked away. But he couldn't bring himself to move and instead kept looking at her, watching the way her lips twisted as she tried to speak.
"For a while I decided that I didn't believe in the mission," she admitted quietly. "I felt like it was a big joke the Powers were playing on us. I pretended that it didn't matter, that we were fine without you. Without the mission."
"Doesn't sound half-bad," Angel replied. "Except for the pretending that everything was fine part."
"Huh?" said Cordy.
Angel broke eye contact and looked around for a place to sit down. Then, looking almost anxious, he sat down in one of the big smooshy chairs, gesturing at Cordelia to sit down in the one across from him. Feeling confused and slightly suspicious, Cordelia sat down, wondering just how long it took to bail a drunken limey out of jail.
"I told you that I made a decision," Angel said mildly, watching Cordelia's face closely. She finally stopped looking around for the backup that wasn't there and stared back at him unflinchingly. "Remember?"
"It was five minutes ago," she said. "I think I remember."
"Good," said Angel, trying to smile. "It went like this: I'm tired of working for the Powers that Be."
Cordelia blinked. "Okay. Me, too. And?"
"No, really," Angel insisted. "I'm sick of the Powers. At first I thought that I'd rather work for Wolfram and Hart. But then I thought, you know, the Senior Partners? They like to mess with their people as much as the Powers like messing with us."
Cordelia stared at him, clearly not making the connection.
"Are you saying that you're a Powers-free hero?" she asked. "Help me out, Angel. You've done beige before and that tends not to end well for you or for anyone else."
"I'm saying that I made a decision," repeated Angel. Cordelia rolled her eyes dramatically. He had to be so damn Angel, even with the decision making. It was kind of good to have him back, though. Kind of really good.
"I got that," Cordy answered sardonically. "Could you explain what the decision is? I'm missing it and I think you want me to get it. Right?"
Angel opened his mouth, ready to explain once and for all what he meant--and the door suddenly flew open with almost gale force.
"Yo, Cordelia! Pencil in an intervention today, because me and this man here need to have some--Angel," said Gunn, who was supporting a sodden, sullen Wesley on his shoulder. Cordelia stared at the trio, unable to speak for a moment as her eyes almost bugged out of her head.
"Oh, good God," she finally snapped. "Did you actually pull him from the gutter?"
Wesley lifted his head just far enough to give everyone a good look at his scar. Then he sneered viciously at Cordelia, his eyes as bloodshot as hers and twice as tired.
"At least I'm having fun on my way down to rock bottom," he said, coughing violently. "Who's up for a drink?"
"Not you," said Angel mildly, standing up and turning around. Wesley shut up immediately. "Gunn, put him on a couch or something. Fred, let's get him some water and Advil, huh?"
"Wait!" Cordelia said shrilly. "Wait! Angel, what--did--you--decide?"
Angel turned back and looked at Cordelia. Her face was very unattractively swollen and she had a pleading look in her eyes. The months he'd spent convincing himself that she didn't matter had disappeared in the space of a second. Everything that mattered in his world stared at him from her dark, puffy eyes and he knew that he was just as much in love with her as he'd ever been.
"I'm going to find the Powers that Be," he told her. "I'm going to hunt them down and make them take responsibility for the sorry state of the world down here."
Silence. He couldn't even hear anyone breathing and without looking, Angel knew they were all staring at him--even Wesley, who looked ready to find a rat hole and die already. He didn't care. He looked at Cordelia, whose face was blank.
It hadn't sounded so bad in his head.
Finally, Cordelia had to laugh.
Hunt down the Powers!
She didn't say anything. She simply fell back into her chair and started to laugh, pounding her thigh with her fist until it started to hurt. Hunt. Down. The. Powers.
He wasn't joking. She knew him. He didn't know how to tell a joke that funny--and Cordelia kept laughing, dimly aware that she was hysterical, that she was going to be sick if she didn't stop laughing.
Fred figured it out first, maybe two seconds before Angel did, and she moved fast when she wanted to. All of the sudden, there was a lot of dark hair and thin hands on Cordy's arms, Fred shaking her as hard as she could to make the hysterics stop.
"Cordy, stop it," Fred said. "Stop it!"
Cordelia couldn't stop laughing--and then she could. Suddenly she was choking and coughing and through the curtain of Fred's hair, she could see that Gunn had stuck Wes on the nearest couch and was on his way over, looking sad and worried. Poor Gunn, she thought. If it weren't for us, he'd probably be much, much happier.
"So when do we sign up for Wolfram and Hart?" Wesley asked, his voice hoarse and mocking.
"About two weeks after the Apocalypse--or when you sober up," Cordelia choked out, pushing Fred away from her. "And I was going to say--now that Angel's back with the good fight again, let's deal with you, but now--"
Angel, who had by now figured out this was not going to be his afternoon, rubbed his temple.
"But now what?" he said.
"Now I have to agree with the drunk," Cordy said. "Hunt down the Powers? Give the universe to the bad guys? Are you NUTS?"
Cordelia was big with not-getting-it. Angel shook his head and wished that he hadn't stopped speaking to her for a month. Or was it two?
"I don't think the Powers are necessarily good," Angel explained. "At least, not in the sense that you and I are good."
"What?" Cordelia said, her disgust shining through for him to see in the curve of her neck and angle of her eyebrow.
"The Powers are supposed to be all-powerful, right?" asked Angel, trying to keep his calm and remember why he'd made the decision in the first place. "But they're not. They're fallible and they have to work through us. After all, Skip told you the Powers hadn't meant to give you the visions, right? And then YOU had to come up with the way out of the situation."
Cordelia's disgust softened a little, though her eyes flashed anxiously.
"Right," she agreed. "But I don't see how fallible Powers means hunt down the Powers." She narrowed her eyes again. "Explain it to me, Angel."
"Um--it goes like this--" Angel began defensively.
"Angel's suggesting that if the destiny that controls ours is fallible, how can we have proof that they're good?" Fred piped in, her eyes clear and bright with--excitement? Angel shook his head. Fred was a mystery, even at the best of times.
"Right," he said. Fred shook her head and he shut up.
"Anyway," continued Fred. "If you're to use the classic verse of New Testament dogma, 'by their fruits shall ye know them' as a basic evaluator of the Powers' orientation, though I admit that's sort of easy but why not?--Angel seems to have a point. The Powers refuse to even explain why they're making things difficult--and they seem to have a jones for punishing people for asking simple questions. After all, you wouldn't trust a human who wouldn't talk to you straight. Why trust the Powers?"
"Thanks, Fred," Angel said gratefully. She ignored him, clearly lost in her own tangent.
"Of course, being ineffable and all, we can't really be sure who hates us, but you get the point," she said distractedly.
"Except that if you're going to use the argument that free will is the reason why the Powers play hands off, I have a lot to say about that," said Angel. "They let US know they exist--and it looks like our free will is out the window, no matter how much we should quit. Of course, the free will thing only matters with a benevolent God who wants to get you to do good. And this isn't the case here. I don't think the Powers are ineffable, good deities. I think they're power-hungry monsters that are using our dimension for their amusement."
Fred looked at Angel, nodding. "You've thought about this."
"I locked myself in my room for two months," he replied. "There wasn't too much else to do."
Cordelia gaped at both Fred and Angel, half-trembling with surprise and anger. When had this become a theological discussion? Especially when this was just one of Angel's ways of venting frustration about his horrible, horrible life?
"What about the visions?" she asked, folding her arms across her chest. "We use those to do good. The Powers WANT us to save those people. I mean, by process of elimination, I--"
"That's a logical fallacy," Wesley said. "In fact, your argument is serving to prove a point. Now we're working for the least bad guy?"
"Shut up, Wesley."
"Just trying to be helpful before my head explodes," he replied.
"Okay, wait," Cordelia said suddenly, springing to her feet. "How did this become rag on Cordelia day? Why isn't this confront the two Kings of Pain who have inflicted their issues on us for months now without deigning to let us mere peasants try to help day?"
Angel was standing up as fast as she was, suddenly as angry as she was, too.
"Cordy, this isn't--this isn't about you!" he said. "If you don't want to do this with me, that's fine. That's your decision."
"Don't," Cordelia said raggedly. "Don't do this to me, Angel."
Cordelia walked the long three steps and got into Angel's personal bubble, her eyes brilliant with a strange mix of emotion that could have been passion or righteousness or despair. The skin around her eyes was less puffy now, and Angel could see the lines carved into the skin, the slight sallowness in the skin tone that screamed danger danger danger. Despite this, he stood his ground, looking back at her calmly.
"I'm not doing this, Cordelia," he said. "I didn't want to come to this conclusion. You think I wanted to decide to hunt down the Powers? You think I wanted to admit the mission is a waste of time and that we're better off making those--those--bastards face up for what they've done?"
"I think you did. I think you do," said Cordelia viciously but quietly. "This is cathartic for you. This is a vengeance thing. This is you getting out all the things you won't get help for. Ooh, Angel, can't admit his heart's broken, but he can go hit the Powers. We'll tell the helpless you were having a mental health year, okay?"
"This is not a vengeance thing," Angel replied. "If I really needed some vengeance, I wouldn't need to go that far afield. Would I?"
He flicked his gaze over at Wesley. Cordelia looked with him and her eyes went diamond hard.
"Fine," she muttered, lips tight and clenched at the corners. "Do what you want. I'm going to finish my books and do what I have to do. Isn't that how it always is?"
She turned away and walked toward the table and her rickety metal folding chair and her pages and pages of invoices that told Angel louder than her clicking shoes that yes, she could survive without him. Cordelia flipped to the next page of invoices so loudly he could almost hear her getting paper cut.
Kyrumption hurt, dammit. It was always a special torture. He was ready to wring her neck for being so damn stubborn and at the same time, he wanted to change his mind. For her. To make her smile, even if she broke his heart with every word.
Angel wondered if she felt the same way.
Meanwhile, Gunn looked over at Fred, lifting an eyebrow. She smiled at him and rolled her eyes. He smiled back as she stood up and shrugged, walking away from the fight. And she would be lying to herself if she didn't admit the urge to tell everyone off wasn't almost unbearable. Instead, she strode over to Gunn and slipped her arm around his waist.
"I love you," she said. "Let's go to the garden."
"Now?" asked Gunn, still not quite sure he believed what he had just seen.
"Yes. Definitely now," she replied, smiling at him. Gunn nodded and so they wandered out of the lobby arm-in-arm into the courtyard.
"That is some messed-up shit in there," Gunn said with a loud sigh as soon as he was sure they were out of earshot.
"Well, duh," Fred replied, sinking down onto a bench. Gunn realized her hands were shaking. "It's all so funny and so sad and--"
He knelt next to her, taking both of her hands in his. "It's okay," he said. "We don't have to be brave for them out here."
Fred blinked and there were suddenly tears. Not a lot; not even as many as Gunn had been expecting. But there were still tears. He reached up and wiped one away as gently as he could.
"I love you," said Fred again, smiling bravely for him.
"I love you too," he replied. "So what are we going to do? I don't know if I'm down with Angel going after the Powers. And I sure as hell ain't down with it if Cordelia's not. And then we still have to send English's skinny white ass to AA or rehab or something and--hell."
"What?" Fred asked, slightly alarmed.
"I was supposed to meet with this guy who did an ill love charm and ended up making his ex-girlfriend's dog fall in love with him," Gunn said.
Fred leaned down and kissed him on the forehead.
"Charles," she said. "It's okay."
"Really?" he asked. "Cuz it's looking kind of not to me."
"I know," Fred said with an almost inhuman calm. "But it always works out. One way or another."
"Yeah," said Gunn reflectively. "But--I dunno. It's different this time. I don't think Angel's changing his mind. And this time, no Darla to screw the messed-up out of Angel. And I don't even know if Angel's wrong."
"Angel's totally not wrong," Fred replied. "I think the Powers that Be suck. I think if this is the best they can do, they need a good solid kick in the ass and I think Angel's the one to do it."
Gunn's head snapped up and he stared at Fred. "You're serious?"
"As serious as a theologian in Texas," she replied. "I don't believe that the Powers are truly good. They're shifty. They--"
"Get away from me, Angel!" screamed Cordelia from inside the hotel.
"Don't do this, Cordy," Angel replied. "I want to talk about this."
Gunn and Fred looked at each other and sighed.
"Do you really think that's all about the Powers thing?" asked Fred. "I mean, I think all of us are a little sympathetic toward the idea, even if we're not sold on it."
"Yeah, she's pissed at him for a lot of reasons," Gunn agreed, nuzzling his head in her lap. "He didn't talk to her for a month."
"And they're in love," Fred said, rubbing Gunn's neck absently. "I never could get why they didn't figure that out."
"Please," Gunn said. "Those two?"
"You don't see it?" Fred asked, moving her hands to his shoulder. "Total and complete love. But they're all about the bigger destinies when they should be making with the happy."
"Though if you're right, that's a problem right there," Gunn pointed out, stroking Fred's knee. Fred giggled.
"Charles, do you ever feel bad that we're so happy when everyone else is going to hell?" she asked with an adorable little sigh.
"If it's bad, I'm right there with you," Gunn replied. "Why don't we get out of here? At least for now. That fight ain't gonna be over anytime this week and we can say we're going to talk to that client."
Fred gave him a mock-severe look that reminded Gunn of a third-grade teacher.
"We'll go talk to the client," she said. "Then we'll go to your place. With maybe a stop at Del Taco in between."
Gunn laughed. "Always hungry."
They stood up, taking a good look around the courtyard. Compared to the mood inside, the slightly smoggy air and mostly unsprouted garden outside seemed like heaven itself.
"Ready for the Little Hotel Lobby of Drama Queenery?" Gunn asked finally.
"No, but as long as you're with me, I'll deal," Fred said.
They walked into the lobby. And of course, in the interim, things had all gone to hell.
Wesley really needed a drink.
At first, the drinking had been to forget, to numb away daily awareness of his responsibility and failures when they got to be too much. He had been smart, and drunk only enough to feel better.
Now he was craving the drink itself. The sharpness of the alcohol as it burned his tongue and throat before the transition to a smoother, edgeless waking dream. Forget the dream. He needed to burn away the day and the embarrassing knowledge that his arrest record was no longer a secret.
"You're being unfair," Angel was telling Cordelia, trying very hard not to sound like a lunatic. Cordelia seemed unconvinced.
"Unfair, hell," Cordelia replied, stomping away from him. "Stop talking to me! I'm not listening!"
Pretty soon she'd have her fingers stuck in her ears. He'd turn over to see that, because it would be sheer comedy and a sad, pathetic bastard like himself needed a laugh now and again at the expense of others.
When did you stop caring, Wesley? the little voice in his head asked melodramatically. That voice usually shut up after he gave it enough whiskey. Or it would say better things, like, why don't you get laid more often, Wesley? Or, I bet you can't bag the attractive blond, Wesley.
He needed a drink. Oh, how he needed a drink.
"Um," Fred said, tapping him softly. It felt like a nail driven into his skull.
"Well, now--you're the wrong little voice," Wesley said, sitting up and blinking again. "What do you want? I'll get help--tomorrow. Right now have a headache, so to hell with that."
"Do you want a ride home?" asked Fred. "Home meaning home and not that scuzzy little bar on Sepulveda where you have a stool."
"You're leaving?" Wesley said. "It's a little early to close up--"
"Fuck off!" screamed Cordelia, slamming the door to his (former) office. "Just fuck off, Angel!"
"Ah," Wes said. Going home wasn't a bad idea. His bed was there. Plus, he had half a bottle of Jack black at home anyway. And possibly pizza that wasn't yet moldy. Maybe the smell had cleared out as well. "I see."
"We really need to talk about the booze," Fred said. "We all understood at first, but--"
"Now that there's an arrest record, I'm no longer a functional alcoholic, I guess," he said with a hopefully sheepish grin.
Fred made a face at him, hands firmly on hips as she looked down at him. Typical. They were always looking down on him no matter what he did. Poor, stupid, also-ran Wesley.
"When did you turn into such a self-pitying jerk?" she asked. "Because it's not looking so great on you."
"I don't know," Wesley said. "When everyone decided I was, I suppose."
Fred shook her head and walked away. Her wedges tapped a high staccato beat to counterpoint Cordelia and Angel's shrill shrieks.
"Okay, fine. See you later," Fred said, actually waving as she ditched him. Wesley saluted her with a genteel mockery and she smiled back. Strange, strange woman. But he understood. That was his tragedy--he always understood, but it never made things any easier.
Angel came thundering out of the back, his face a small dark raincloud. Wesley froze, turned to stone the way he always did when he was near Angel now. There were no words. There were never any words.
"When did you become a drunk?" Angel asked, looking at Wesley's comfortably worn and slightly stained outfit.
"I don't remember," Wesley said, trying not to laugh or scream. "Two months ago? Maybe three? Still not dead, in either case."
"I was hoping you'd try heroin," Angel admitted. "But then I remembered you were such a wuss that the needles would turn you off."
Wesley shrugged. For once, being numb to reality was a good thing, even if he knew he was one menacing glare away from pissing himself. Still, there was something about hearing Angel almost say it that was chilling. Even now.
"Heroin's out this season," Wesley heard himself say. "Besides, the set I run with are fairly retro--fags, booze, and girls."
"Yeah, and I'm sure you're quite the ladies' man in your dumpster chic," Angel replied evenly.
Wesley bit his lip. Angel didn't need to know that dumpster chic was actually fairly effective when it came to waking up not alone. Angel didn't need to know anything that would push them over the edge.
"A man can dream," he managed to stutter. "Cordelia--she missed you. think you broke her heart when you wouldn't talk to her. So I would--might take her temper tantrum with a grain of salt, I might."
Wes gulped back the lump that kept rising in his throat. Why had he been so rude to Fred? He could be comfortably passed out in Gunn's truck right now if he weren't such a damn wanker.
Angel looked at him--and for a second, Wes thought he saw pity. But it was immediately replaced with that blank hardness that Angel wore so well--and that he, Wesley, eminently deserved.
"I missed her," Angel said. "But I didn't want to get drawn back in. And that's what she wanted. She wanted to push me back into the work. I couldn't do it, Wes--I couldn't."
Wesley took off his glasses and polished them. "Of course not," he said. "Of course not."
"You're not trying to apologize, I see," Angel said. "I thought maybe you would."
"It was unforgivable, Angel. What's the point of apology besides trying to make myself feel better?"
"You should have told me," Angel told him quietly. "About the prophecy. I don't understand why people never warn me. Jenny Calendar, you know, she might be alive. If she'd warned me."
"And again I say, it was unforgivable," Wes said dryly. "I know. I've thought about this as many times--or more--than you have. And I still can't come up with a coherent reason why I didn't tell anyone. I wasn't sleeping, true. I was a mess about Fred and Gunn, true."
"You almost killed yourself without Justine's help, from what the doctors said," Angel said. "But you managed to tell Holtz about the prophecy. don't get it. It's not you, Wes. Sometimes you keep your mouth shut--but it was stupid of you. It was damn near fatal of you. I don't get it."
"Neither do I," Wesley admitted. "And that's the part where you may have a point about abandoning the Powers That Be."
Angel laughed. "It would be easier if it were about getting revenge, you know," he said. "I would just do something to you."
Some quadrant of Wesley's brain felt that all the way down to the lizard-level roots. It reverberated dully and processed slowly.
"Yes," he said, while the little alive part of him screamed. "I suppose so. Do you think Cordelia's ever going to come out?"
The door to the back office slammed.
"Probably not," Angel said. "Do you have a cigarette?"
Wesley blinked. "Are you quite serious?" he asked.
"I need a cigarette, Wes. If you have one, give it over. If not, go to the store and get us a pack--and don't pretend you don't smoke. Remember, superhuman sense of smell here," Angel said.
Wes sighed and pulled out the pack of--oh, good God, Marlboros?--kept one for himself, and tossed the rest to Angel.
"These are truly awful, you know," Angel said, pocketing the pack. "Waste of money. And when did you start smoking?"
"I didn't buy them," Wes said, lighting up his cigarette and throwing the Zippo to Angel, who caught it perfectly. "And I took up smoking to relax."
He took a long drag on the Marlboro and slowly exhaled as if to prove his point. Angel smirked.
"When did you get so tense?" the vampire asked, lighting his own cigarette.
"When I took up smoking," Wesley replied, forcing himself not to smile at the joke. This was a truce, not a peace. This was tolerance, not forgiveness. And the point was driven into his skull when Cordelia almost literally flew out of the office in the throes of a vision.
"Vision," Cordelia informed them redundantly, her eyes wide as she looked at Wesley and Angel smoking cigarettes in the very non-smoking lobby. "We have to get downtown. Fast. And what the hell are you doing smoking in my lobby?"
"I thought we weren't speaking," Angel said.
"We're not," Cordy replied. "I'm talking to Wesley. And where the hell are Fred and Gunn?"
"They decided to go home," Wes said, taking a drag off his smoke. "And downtown's impossible to get to this time of day. Where are we headed?"
"So 101? For fuck's sake, Cordelia, why don't we just walk? It'd be faster." Cordelia glowered at him. "All right, all right," he said. "Should we call Fred and Gunn?"
"Not if you can swing a weapon," Cordelia replied. Wesley stumbled over to the weapons cabinet, picked the lock, and pulled out an axe. He made a few dramatic passes with it and gave Cordelia a wry look.
"You'll do," she said, refusing to look Angel-ward. "Let's go."
"What about me?" Angel said. "You trust him over me?"
"It's eleven-thirty in the morning," Cordelia pointed out. "And you're currently insane. So why don't you--I don't know--earn the trust back and then we'll talk about why I'm taking Wesley with me and not you."
Wesley gulped nervously. It was all well and fine for Cordy to make big pronouncements, but Angel moved fast and his broken neck was something that neither of them could take back after they made up. He clutched the axe tightly, knowing that it wouldn't save him but pretending anyway.
"Shall we?" he asked Cordy, inching toward the door. Angel watched him, feeling a little ashamed about the obvious fear Wesley was showing. There was something almost forgivable about Wesley's utter guilt and utter refusal to beg for mercy. But there was also Connor's body lingering in the back of his head, which was not forgivable. Ever.
"We're gone," Cordy replied in a flat voice with a flat gaze that met Angel's and looked through him. Wesley reached the door and they were gone--light, the door's noisy closing, and suddenly silence.
"Thanks for trying to get me killed," Wesley said, the sunlight revealing that yes, he was in fact paler than Angel these days.
"No charge," Cordy replied, half-marching them to the car. Angel's car. Which Cordelia said was way too expensive in the upkeep, Wesley half-remembered as he got in the front seat and watched her try to keep it together.
"You're certain I shouldn't call Gunn and Fred?" he asked. "And what was your vision, by the way? Unless you're planning to kill me and bring my head home as a trophy for Angel and I can't know."
Cordelia snorted and started the car. "No, we don't need Gunn and Fred, my vision involved what appeared to be humans doing vicious psycho killing things, and when I decide to kill you, you'll be the first to get the memo. Okay?"
"That's all I ask," Wes replied. "So--humans? Regular humans?"
Cordelia bit her lips. "Not sure," she said. "They looked normal--but the feelings were weird. Like, crazy, but not the usual sort of crazy. Like maybe the crazy thoughts were right."
"What sorts of crazy thoughts?" Wes asked insistently.
Cordelia sighed and got on the onramp for 101. "Like--God's kind of telling me to do this thoughts," she confessed. "Which, usually, means psycho with delusions, right? But this guy--he might be right. And it's freaking him out."
Wesley didn't say anything. He sank into the seat instead, looking at the lovely lunchtime traffic. There was probably something he could say about LA traffic that was original, but it wasn't worth the effort. Instead he let Cordy maneuver into the mess and wondered just what Angel's response would be when they returned.
The sirens were the first clue that things were not going to be all right. A jungle of red lights and screeching sounds emanated out toward Wesley and Cordelia as they turned toward the street where Cordelia had seen the murder.
"Stupid traffic," Cordelia muttered under her breath, double-parking as close as she could to the barricades and leaping out of the car with impressive agility. Wes, who was a little sore yet from hangover and beatings, gingerly got out of the car and followed as Cordy rushed up to the cop trying to turn away the looky-loos.
"I'm sorry, ma'am, this is a police scene," the man was telling her as other gawkers kept trying to get a first-hand view of whatever gruesome death was being shaded from view. Wes remembered, very dimly, an old tutor of his talking about public executions and how people simply couldn't get enough of them.
"Great entertainment, you know--a family affair," the tutor had told him with great passion. He had smelled of peppermint and tobacco and now that Wesley thought about it, had probably been a cousin of his. Wesley had far too many cousins, all extremely British, most Watchers or clients of Watchers, and all far too involved in magic for their own good. "They should bring it back. Human savagery, you know, hasn't changed--"
"WESLEY!" Cordelia shouted. Wesley snapped back into reality and looked up.
"Come over here and help me figure out what's going on," she snapped. He nodded and proceeded to walk her way, avoiding the cop as far as he possibly could.
"When did this happen?" Wes asked. "Were you able to get any information?"
"No," replied Cordy. "Very much no."
"It's been three hours," someone else said. Wes and Cordy's heads snapped around to see a tired-looking young man sitting on the curb with a bag of donuts and a tray of coffee. "I just want to get back to my job. They probably think I was the guy who opened fire--advertising assistant runs amuck, that sort of thing."
"Three hours?" Cordy said. "Not possible."
"I'm serious," the young man said. "I was up at Starbucks getting my boss his triple skinny mocha latte, light foam, soy milk, almond biscotti--and then some girl ran in screaming 'oh my god oh my god, there's this guy and he's gone crazy! oh my god oh my god!' you know?"
Cordelia stared at him. "At nine? Nine this morning?"
"Look, lady, I've been sitting here looking at my watch for three hours," he said. "I know what time it happened, all right?"
Wes stepped in then with a smile. "Thanks," he said. "We're just a little taken aback."
"No problem," the guy said. "My boss is gonna have a fit about the coffee, but this isn't my fault. I mean, how often does a guy say God told him to gut a girl in the middle of North Hollywood and then proceed to do it?"
Wesley gulped and flicked his eyes over toward Cordy, who half-nodded that she had indeed seen just that.
"That's--rather gruesome," Wesley said mildly. The other man nodded vigorously.
"You're tellin' me," he said. "Whole world's going to hell, man. Someone should do something."
Wesley managed a weak smile at the comedy of that. "Yes," he said. "Someone should. Well--thank you so much again."
"Hey, no problem," the guy replied, staring down at the recyclable paper cups at his feet with a glum expression. "You guys with the press or something?"
"Not exactly," Wes said, turning away and trying not to hurry too fast so the man didn't see him find the nearest trash can and get briefly, violently ill. Cordelia, who had gone back to the police line the moment she could break away, was still there when he looked up, craning her neck to see--what? Proof?--and proof of what, exactly?
He wandered over to Cordelia, who was trying to peer through cracks.
"We should go," he muttered.
"No," she said, barely paying attention to him. "I need to see him."
"Who?" asked Wesley even as he realized. "Cordelia, you're not serious."
"I need to see him," she replied, pushing him back. "Why don't you go buddy up to coffee guy? You two seemed to get along just fine."
Wesley shrugged. "I'll be in the car if you need me," he said, resigned to not sleeping. He'd be lucky not to get sick again.
Cordelia let him go. He was getting to be worse than useless anyway, she half-thought as she tried to peek through the barricades, the uniformed bodies, the tarps as the vision replayed in her head over and over.
Three hours. Wasn't possible. Didn't make sense. Why would she get a vision like that? She had seen the man who'd put the knife in his eye. Was it something like that? Had to be. Wolfram and Hart were playing with mind control, maybe. Of course, it seemed ridiculous to use random guy in the street rather than say, Angel, but maybe it was a test.
He'd been so afraid. His muscles wouldn't do what he wanted them to do. They were holding a knife--where had he gotten the knife--and there was the girl and God was talking in his head--a big booming voice--he wouldn't do it. He wasn't the one moving his hands--and he really hadn't been, Cordelia realized. She had felt it, too.
Wasn't him. Hadn't been him.
"Miss, you're going to have to move back," someone told her, pushing her back. Not hard, just in a please-move-back sort of way. Cordelia moved back, clinging by her fingernails to the edge of the opening barricade. She had to see.
"Cordelia, they're going to tow the car," Wesley hissed in her ear suddenly, smelling like cheap cigarettes, cheaper booze, and plenty of nice free sweat. "I need the keys."
"Purse," she said, eyes fixed on the opening gap, feeling him fumble into her purse and take the keys. Hopefully not her wallet. She didn't think he would, but she never thought in a million years that Wesley would be in jail for a drunken brawl.
Alcoholism. Guilt. Bad combination.
Suddenly she couldn't breathe. There was an ambulance. Ambulance. Obviously the body bag was in the ambulance and probably the guy who did it, too. The guy who was in her head, the frightened guy.
Cordelia's brain was on fire. The vision over and over again and she didn't even get to SEE--to prove that the guy was nuts. Or possessed by Wolfram and Hart. Not the Powers. The Powers had--the Powers had done something good. Warned her about this. Whatever THIS was.
He had been terrified. Not able to move. This thing in his head telling him to stay still even though he didn't want to, telling him he would stay still, telling him like the Voice of God.
Sirens again, screaming hollering things and Cordelia's fingernails were dug into the thin blue line, straining to see him. Things were getting jumbled, too much noise too much anxiety and then everything got much worse--the ambulance door flew open.
He was taller than she thought he'd be and his eyes were fire-red like Wesley's, like hers had been crying for Angel an hour ago when the girl this man's hands had killed was already dead.
"I can't go!" he screamed, struggling against the orderly-cops who were trying to drag him back in. There were streams of dried blood on his face, and if Cordelia wasn't wrong, cuts, too. "She hasn't seen me yet! I have to witness to her before they'll let me go! Don't you know! She has to see me! The witness! She has to--"
No. No no no no.
Cordelia found herself stuck where she'd wanted to be. Staring at him staring at her, the tip of his nose touching hers. Blue eyes, big pupils. He'd clearly gone crazy, but who wouldn't if the Voice of God was forcing your hands to cut some girl into ribbons?
"You're late," he said. "They told me that you'd come sooner."
The orderlies were trying to pull him away, but they couldn't. Nothing like a little divine intervention to make a guy strong.
"Didn't get the message until an hour ago," she stammered. "There was traffic on the 101."
Which had to rank as the single stupidest thing said ever, but Cordelia had gotten pretty good at forgetting the stupid things she said in bad moments.
"Oh," he said, clearly deflated.
"Who did it to you?"
"God took my hands and did the devil's work to save her, save us all," he said, being slowly drawn away. "There was something in her heart. A demon. She didn't know. Nobody knew. They made me. It took me over and made me. No one will ever know. I didn't know. I couldn't move. I couldn't even cry."
Cordelia wanted to put her hands over her ears. She couldn't. It would be spitting in his face not to listen.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"Not your fault. You're the messenger. Not the rebel. Deliver the message. Things can be easier or things can be harder. You know how that is. Deliver that message. It'll be fine. Something will come right out of this."
Why hadn't the cops shot him yet? Not that she wanted him shot. But this was LAPD, after all, and this was a man who had disemboweled someone and was raving at a woman he'd never seen before. Things worked a certain way in LA and KCOP should be talking about his arrest, his detainment, his resisting arrest--the inevitable response of LAPD.
Strange. All of it so strange. Maybe the seer thing was rubbing off. Suddenly there was blood blossoming from his stomach and a strange smile on his face. Cordelia watched him tumble away and turn into a corpse. It was eerie--like a nightmare she wasn't ever going to wake up from.
As the slow-motion dream started to turn into fast-motion reality, Cordelia Chase made a decision. She reconsidered twice before the body of the man (whose name, she'd later discover, was Barry Luther, a forty-one-year-old machinist from Covina with neither an arrest record nor a history of mental illness) hit the asphalt. And reconfirmed her initial decision.
No one turned her into a messenger girl.
No one used the universe against her for Angel.
And no one who had the power to use the universe against her should ever use it like that.
The universe started moving in real time again. Cordelia took a deep breath and steeled herself against what would come next.
"So that's it then," Angel said. He and Cordelia were sitting in Fred's renovated courtyard, the last flickers of sunset turning the sky some sort of blue-green. The first stars were starting to pop out. "Except for the four hour interrogation by the police."
A month alone and he'd forgotten so much. For example, why they clung to the Powers in the first place. There was so much hopelessness that even making a tiny dent seemed better than nothing at all. It was a sense of purpose, at least.
He had a new purpose, though--and so, he suspected, did she.
"More or less," Cordelia replied. "I took Wesley home after the cops finally stopped questioning us. He says he's going to sleep for days. We'll see."
He looked back at the messy lobby, the dirt and grit clinging to her face and hair. Cordelia's jeans had a huge worn out hole in the left knee and her hair was greasy. Her cuticles were ragged and dirty and Angel suddenly realized that he was as responsible for that as he was for everything else.
Responsibility. That was what this whole thing was about, in a way. That was what he would have to take now without the convenient excuse of the Powers behind him--and now he would be personally involved in making things right.
"What are you going to do now?" he asked her.
Cordelia regarded him quietly. "I'm going to find the person responsible for that man's death. Then I'm going to pull out a gun--" and she produced a small, sleek thing that Angel looked at with near-horror-- "And ask a few questions."
"And if you don't like the answers?"
"I've seen the mouth of Hell, Angel," she said, sliding the gun back into her purse. They had to talk about the gun. Another time. A less charged moment. "If that also happens to look like Heaven, well? That's how it is."
She zipped the purse shut, jaw set stubbornly. Then she covered her face with her hands. And did not cry.
In the Next Issue: Lilah discovers Angel's no longer playing with the Powers. A bizarre seduction and an ancient manuscript rock AI's world. And the true horror will be revealed--the rebirth of smooth adult demon contemporary.
"When I run over in my mind the various commonwealths flourishing today, so help me God, I can see nothing but a conspiracy of the rich" -- Thomas More, Utopia http://www.imjustsayin.net
If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to Jennifer-Oksana
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