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Last Virtue, The

by Yahtzee

     Subject: ATS, "The Last Virtue" by Yahtzee PG-13
     Date: Sunday, December 29, 2002 4:36 PM

The characters herein are the property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy and various others. They are used without permission, expectation of profit or intent of infringement. Spoilers can be expected for anything up to the ATS Season Four episode "Apocalypse Nowish" or "Rain of Fire," whatever it was called. This story is rated PG-13 for language. I do not include character-death, relationship or other spoilers in my headers; you read the story, you take your chances. Feedback about the story, whether positive, negative or in-between, is gratefully received. However, bashing of any series, season, actor, character, relationship, plotline or episode should be posted elsewhere. Err on the side of caution.

This is a response to a challenge I set myself on the ACAngst Yahoogroup: the holidays, 2002, accepting all onscreen canon as fact. I said that people could do Christmas, Hanukkah, the Solstice, New Year, Kwanzaa, whatever. Then I thought, "Like anybody would actually do Kwanzaa." And then this happened. Be careful what you challenge. All thanks to Rheanna and Corinna for the encouragement, as well as everyone at the Angel Fanfic Workshop.

by Yahtzee

Part 1: Unity

"You have got to be kidding me," Gunn says.

Mama Jeane gives him the look that means, not only is she not kidding, but he better not start either. Therefore Gunn is forced to keep a straight face.

On the coffee table is a candleholder that, at first glance, Gunn took for a menorah. But the candles are red, green and black. A kente-fabric runner is beneath it, and a matching cloth is laid out over the dinner table. He tries to keep his voice halfway respectful as he says, "We're doing Kwanzaa?"

"I thought it might be nice for the children," Mama Jeane says, nodding at Martha and Cedric, splayed out in front of the TV. They both appear far more absorbed in the tape of "Monsters Inc." than in African history.

Pseudo-African history, Gunn thinks sourly. He's always considered Kwanzaa severely suspect, a fake holiday that has less to do with being black than it does with selling crap like the kente-cloth table runners. In darker moments, he thinks it's probably the result of an evil collaboration between Al Sharpton and Hallmark. He thought the rest of his adopted family felt more or less the same. So far as he knows, Mama Jeane has never given the holiday a second thought until now.

What the hell is the point of starting a new tradition this year? Gunn thinks. Fire rains down on the world more nights than it doesn't. Earthquakes shake them weekly. Omens and portents aren't whispers reported to Lorne in back alleys anymore; they lead the Nightly News. The anchormen don't know how to spin this. Their faces are uncharacteristically uncertain and open. Gunn thinks Tom Brokaw has started drinking. He wouldn't be the only one.

The world's ending. Everyone knows it. Everyone, that is, except fools, children and Mama Jeane.

Christmas was yesterday, and it was as completely depressing as Gunn had thought it would be. Nobody's in the spirit for even the traditional holidays, the ones that mean something, or at least used to mean something. Debra is tense and withdrawn, entirely unlike herself. One of the house's new residents -- you never know when Mama Jeane is going to add to her family, or whether the additions will be for a day or forever -- is Anthony, a man just a few years older than Gunn himself. His wife died when his house burned in the first rain of fire. He's still in shock; when Anthony walks around the house, he bumps into the furniture and the doorjambs, like he can't quite see where he's going. His daughter, Brandy, is a little more than a year old. She's bouncing on a sofa cushion on the floor, staring wide-eyed at the flickering colors on the screen. Brandy, Martha and Cedric are the lucky ones.

Mama Jeane takes her place at table, leaning her cane against the wall and carefully lowering herself into a chair. At this unspoken signal, Debra gets up and starts hustling in the kitchen, preparing to bring dinner to the table. "Charles, come sit by me," Mama Jeane says. "It's good to see you. I'm glad you've been visiting us more lately."

Guilt punctures Gunn's shell of despair. He makes himself stop brooding and smile. "I'm sorry, Mama Jeane," he says as he takes the chair next to hers. "I oughta visit y'all more."

"Of course you shouldn't," Mama Jeane says, looking at him sternly. "You're a young man. You have better things to do than hang around with an old woman and little children. I had better things to do when I was your age, believe you me."

Gunn has seen an black-and-white picture of Mama Jeane in the 1950s, with a tight sweater and pedal pushers and a smile on her face that almost turns the photo into color all on its own. He smiles ruefully. "I don't doubt it."

"I'm always glad to see you, baby," Mama Jeane says. "But I'm wondering if maybe you're here more these days because you don't want to be somewhere else."

The Hyperion Hotel is Gunn's office and home and fortress and prison. He's forgotten how to live anywhere else -- who he would have to be to make that happen -- and so he doesn't know how to deal with the fact that the walls are closing in on him, a little closer every day. A place that big shouldn't feel like that. Gunn can't say this to Mama Jeane, not straight out, so he answers as simply as he can. "Things are tense with my friends at the agency." Tense. Gunn knows he's never had much talent for understatement, but maybe he's picking it up.

Mama Jeane folds her hands in front of her, a sign that the questioning has only just begun. "You and Winifred haven't split up, have you?"

He's glad she asked it that way. "Me and Fred are still together."

"Good. I like that girl." Mama Jeane has doted on Fred ever since the day that Fred became the very first person to polish off every serving of food Mama Jeane could press on her.

"I like her too," Gunn says quietly.

"So what is it that's making things so hard for you all?"

What is he supposed to say to that? He could tell her that Wesley, his one-time best friend, loves Fred too and is after her bad. Wesley gave Fred the tools to make herself a murderer, knowing it would drive her mad. He's even counting on it, because her madness would send her tumbling out of Gunn's arms.

He could tell Mama Jeane that he killed a man to save Fred from madness, buying her sanity at the potential cost of his own. Gunn doesn't like knowing what a human's spine sounds like as it breaks. He hears that sound a lot now, when he dreams and sometimes, terrifyingly, when he's awake.

He could tell her that Fred may keep her sanity and still ditch Gunn, because on one level, she hates him for taking that burden from her. She probably would have hated him for not doing it if he hadn't; Gunn is becoming very aware of the many facets and permutations of the no-win situation. Fred loves him, too -- loves him a lot more than she hates him. But he's afraid the balance is shifting.

Finally he could tell her that for the past few years, he has been fighting to save the world itself, and he has finally, irrevocably, lost.

Of course, Gunn isn't going to tell Mama Jeane any of this. Instead he blurts out something else that's been freaking him out: "Cordelia slept with Angel's son." The idea of those two together weighs on Gunn's mind a lot. Too much, in Fred's opinion, but Gunn has lost track of the last time he did something right in Fred's opinion.

Mama Jeane draws herself upright. "Is this the boy who --" She pauses as Debra comes into the room and sets down the sweet-potato casserole. Once Debra's back in the kitchen, she continues, "It this the boy who was a baby last year? Who came back older?"

Gunn's never told Mama Jeane word one about the supernatural. He has no idea how much she knows or suspects. But when he tells her the bare-bones outlines of their lives -- "Cordelia has amnesia," or "Wesley kidnapped Connor" -- she never asks the inconvenient questions. "Yeah, that's the one. Cordelia used to fix bottles for him, and now she's all hot and heavy with him."

"I thought you said she and Angel were quite the pair," Mama Jeane says. Angel came to the house a couple times and passed inspection with flying colors. The word "vampire" has never been spoken in Mama Jeane's presence, but Angel is the only houseguest she never offered food to. "He must be torn up."

"You ain't lying," Gunn says. "He's a wreck. Cordelia and Connor don't come around anymore. You got that much unhappy under one roof, ain't nobody happy." So far as it goes, this is the truth.

"Lord bless him," Mama Jeane says. Gunn wonders if she has any idea how unlikely that is. "See if you can get him over here one night."

There was a period of time, right after he saw them together, that Angel didn't get out of bed for two days. "I'll try," Gunn says. "It might be a while."

"Well, then, bring Fred by here first," Mama Jeane says. "Sunday night would be just fine."

Gunn had forgotten how good Mama Jeane is at laying traps. "We'll be here," he sighs, wondering if they'll make it.

Debra finishes setting out the dishes and, over protests, shuts off the tape. Martha and Cedric sulkily come to the table, though they cheer up at the aromas of the food. Anthony picks up Brandy, puts her in her highchair and fiddles with her bib, all as slowly and uncertainly as though he were sleepwalking. They all say the blessing, but when Gunn gets ready to drop Mama Jeane's hand, she holds on tightly. "Now, children, this is the first night of Kwanzaa. Each night we celebrate one of the traditional virtues of African culture. The first night is dedicated to unity," Mama Jeane says. "How we all try to love each other and work together, no matter what."

Gunn sees Debra roll her eyes. He tries not to laugh. Martha and Cedric are mostly interested in the ham.

Part 2: Self-Determination

"Happy Kujichagulia Day," Fred says as Gunn comes downstairs. She's smiling at him very sweetly, which almost makes up for the fact that she slipped out of bed long before Gunn woke up. Again.

"Happy Kajagoogoo Day to you too," he replies, scratching his head as he comes toward her. He grins back at her; Fred's good moods are too rare these days to waste. "What is it we're celebrating?"

"It's a Kwanzaa day," Fred says. "I looked it up on the internet, so, you know, when we go to Mama Jeane's, I'll kinda know what's going on. Today's about kujichagulia -- and I have no idea if I'm pronouncing it right -- but it means self-determination."

"Great," Gunn says, trying not to be sarcastic. He is thoroughly sick of being polite about Kwanzaa, and it's only day two. "You want to grab some breakfast?"

Her smile fades a little. "I, uh, already ate." Gunn keeps his own smile on his face through some effort. Fred never used to let a little thing like one breakfast stop her from having another with him. Quickly she adds, "Besides, the phones are already going nuts. Apparently that tremor last night got the demons out and running. Lorne managed to get Angel out of bed so they could go after some Cuzfau beasts, and I'm going to try and get some Tuipi demons out of this lady's basement."

Gunn would like to protest that she shouldn't go alone, but he can't: A three-year-old with a Nerf football would stand a decent shot against a few Tuipi demons, which are pretty much identical to those things in "Gremlins" before the whole feeding-after-midnight screwup. "That's got me on the phones, huh?"

"Nope," Fred says, handing him a note pad with a few jotted notes; fortunately, he's learned to decipher her scrawl. "Universal Studios is having a problem with Velga demons. Apparently they're nesting in the Jaws tank."

He sighs. "Guess I gotta go make the world safe for the Terminator ride."

Fred laughs, and Gunn's heart leaps at the sound. It's been so long since he heard her laugh. The moment's gone almost as quickly as it came, but he feels better all the same as he starts locking up the place, waves goodbye to her and sees her wave back. At least she was watching him as she went out the door.

It's Gunn's first trip to Universal. Alonna used to want to go, when they were young, but the tickets were $25 each. They would have needed bus fare, too. The little money Gunn could make doing odd jobs had to pay for things a lot more important than amusement parks -- shoes, raincoats, Sucrets. Gunn doesn't feel any particular pain about this memory: On the list of things he failed to give Alonna, Universal Studios ranks pretty low. Besides, from the look of things, it would have been a let-down anyway.

Instead of happy little children and Japanese tourists, Gunn sees a bunch of Velga demons running around, mostly going after the vending machines. Wrappers litter the ground: Baby Ruth, PayDay, Butterfinger. So, he thinks, these things have a sweet tooth. Gotta remember that later on.

Then he remembers there's not going to be a later on, and there's nothing to do but start killing stuff. The Velga demons don't fight hard; these days, the demons don't fight much. They just run, because there's so many opportunities to strike that they don't care about any one place, any one victim. Angel Investigations is now largely a group of people who shoo demons away. Gunn only manages to take down about four before they take off, headed back for the ocean. They live to fight another day.

Gunn knows he should probably go back to the office, take more calls, Help more of the Hopeless, but if he goes there, Fred will probably be back. Things were nice between them when she left, and he'd like to savor the moment a while longer.

So he instead heads for the beach, telling himself it's a patrol. These days, it's as good a place to patrol as any. But he doesn't seriously count on finding anything dangerous.

Of course, he does.

Gunn's eyes narrow as he recognizes the figure standing at the water's edge. To anybody else, that boy looks like any other young man in his late teens, wearing faded jeans and a battered corduroy jacket, with hair that needs cutting. But Gunn knows that this is Connor, aka Stephen, aka one punk-ass son of a bitch.

"Where's a tidal wave when you need one?" Gunn says. He's standing several yards away and the wind is blowing, but he doesn't raise his voice. He knows he doesn't have to.

Connor half-turns so that he meets Gunn's eyes. Gunn's expecting to see belligerence. Instead, Connor looks -- not afraid, not that exactly, but uncertain. He looks like he'd like to run, but he also looks like he'd like to talk. Gunn remembers that expression too; he saw it every once in a while, last summer.

Suddenly, it's July again. Fred's laying out like she's tanning while coated in SPF45 sunblock, for reasons only she could name, while Gunn teaches Connor how to play volleyball. Connor's spiking it within about five minutes, and Gunn is running and sweating and cussing and generally getting his ass kicked, and the only person laughing more than Fred and Connor is Gunn himself --

Gunn forces himself back into the here and now, takes a deep breath and walks over to Connor.

"Why are you here?" Connor says by way of greeting.

"I was killing stuff in the neighborhood," Gunn says. "Thought I'd drop by. Why are you here?"

Connor shrugs, his response to any four out of five questions. "There were demons here. I killed some. Others will come." Gunn doesn't know how Connor knows this, but he doesn't doubt that he's right.

They stand together for a while, looking out at the water. It's a warm enough day, but it's windy, and the breezes coming in off the waves are cold. Connor shivers, and before he can stop himself, Gunn thinks, We gotta get that boy a coat.

Though nobody talks about it -- not Fred, not Angel, not Connor and especially not Gunn himself -- there was a period of about four months when Gunn was the closest thing Connor had to a father figure. Gunn held his head when the boy came in, throwing up and miserable, from his first experience with alcohol. Gunn taught him the slang he needed to get by; he remembers grinning the first time Connor said, "Cool." Gunn even tried to teach him how to drive, but they were only one lesson in when the truth came out.

A chill goes through Gunn as he looks out at the waters. The truth about Connor has that effect on him.

"So, Cordy wise up and throw you out on your ass yet?" Gunn says.

Connor's body goes rigid, and the vulnerability that flickered across his features a few moments ago is gone now. "Cordelia and I live together," he says. "We don't care what you think. Tell him we don't care what he thinks, either."

Like Gunn would tell Angel one damn thing about this. But he can tell his words struck a little too close to home -- Cordelia may still be living with Junior, but he's apparently not feeling that welcome around the house. Gunn knows how a man acts when he feels that way, sees it in Connor, uses it. "Only a matter of time," he says, shrugging. "Cordy's gonna figure out what you are, sooner or later."

"What are you talking about?" Connor says. Those words affected him more than Gunn had anticipated. His eyes are wide, and the anger seems almost lost in fear. "Figure out what?"

"That you're a liar," Gunn says. "That you'll say anything to anybody to get what you want, and as far as I can tell, what you want is mostly to hurt people, Angel more than anybody. Is that why you're screwing her? To hurt Angel? Good way to combine the two things you get off on."

Gunn says it expecting -- maybe even hoping -- to make Connor even madder. He'd love to punch this kid in the mouth; Connor might be supernatural, but Gunn's willing to bet his teeth aren't. Instead, Connor's shoulders sag as he sighs. What Gunn said, in some weird way, was a relief.

Why a relief?

"Or maybe she'll really figure it out," Gunn continues, his voice low. "Maybe she'll figure out that the only prophecies that tell us jack shit about what's going on are the same ones that talk about the son of a vampire being the end of the world. Cordy's a smart girl, Connor. Sooner or later, she's gonna figure out -- you're evil."

Connor smiles at him, the tightest, angriest smile Gunn's ever seen. "Cordelia says I'm not. She says what's happening doesn't have anything to do with me."

"What the hell would she know about it? Most of this year, girl ain't even known her own name. And that suited you just fine. Her ignorance is your bliss, huh?" Gunn half-punches, half-shoves Connor's shoulder. "Cordy got her memories back. She's gonna get her sense back, too. And then she ain't gonna want to have a damn thing to do with you ever again. Count on it."

Now, now, NOW, Connor's going to punch him, and it's going to feel so damn good to hit him back, and it doesn't even matter if Connor beats the shit out of him. Gunn's been wanting a good fight for too long, and shooing Velga demons away from Universal Studios doesn't cut it. He bounces on his heels in the sand, waiting for the blow.

It doesn't come. Connor's mad, but more than anything else, he just looks bewildered. "What do you care?" he yells. "Why does it matter to you who Cordelia's with?"

This is a pretty damn good question; Gunn doesn't like seeing Angel so depressed, but that doesn't explain the fury boiling inside him. It doesn't explain why his fists are clenched and his stomach is churning. It doesn't explain the fact that, out of all the shit that's gone wrong for Gunn and everyone else in the world this past month, the thing that's tearing him up is something that Connor and Cordelia did in their own bed.

He doesn't much care about the explanations, though. He just repeats, "You're evil. And she's gonna know it."

"I'm not," Connor says. "I don't have to be. It doesn't matter what the prophecies say, or, or, or what happened with the Beast -- it doesn't matter. I don't have to be evil if I don't want to be."

The waves lap over Gunn's feet, so cold. Angel was in that box for four and a half months. The taser burned Fred's skin, so badly she'll probably have a scar forever.

"You can't escape destiny," Gunn says. "Nobody can." He turns his back to Connor and stalks off, expecting at any second to be attacked from behind. But Connor lets him walk away.

Part 3: Collective Responsibility

"Ah," Wesley says. "It's you."

At any time before last March, this would have been a very cold and angry way for Wesley to greet Gunn at the door. As matters stand, though, this is an improvement: Wesley's being borderline polite, giving his guest a half-smile, and Gunn nods quickly before coming inside.

Wesley's apartment, once a model of orderliness, invariably pine-scented and lemon-fresh, is a dingier place these days. Gunn notices that the floor hasn't been swept in a while, that the newspapers are all over the coffee table and the sofa. He doesn't usually notice stuff like this -- Gunn's own housekeeping skills leave much to be desired, as Fred was inclined to point out even during the good times. But he's watching Wesley carefully now.

"You've got the tablet?" Wesley says, businesslike and quick.

"In the bag," Gunn replies, swinging the heavy backpack from his shoulders and unzipping it. The tablet is pure silver; it burned Angel's hands a little when they first found it in the rubble of one of the quakes. What's written on it has got to be important, which does make Gunn wonder why the Powers wrote it in proto-Bantu instead of English. Fred can recognize proto-Bantu now, but she can't read it, which is why Angel called Wesley. The original plan was for Fred to bring it by. Gunn said he'd do it instead. Fred stomped upstairs. Angel was too zoned to notice the tension in the room, which Gunn thinks is for the best. Like the man needs any more stress.

"Hmmmm," Wesley says. "This is a very particular dialect. I'll need a while with this one." Gunn recognizes the tone in his voice -- it's puzzled and enthusiastic at the same time, the sound of Wesley finding a fat, juicy mystery to sink his teeth into. Apparently even the end of the world hasn't killed Wesley's interest in his books and languages and arcana.

"'A while' as in, I should get comfortable for a couple hours, or 'a while' as in, I should come back next week?"

Wesley almost smiles at that; Gunn sees him catch himself, try to look official. "I won't know until I've looked a little closer. Until then -- ah -- feel free to stay."

Gunn knows Wesley's half-hoping he'll walk on out of there -- but only half. So, awkward as it is, he stays.

When the Beast rose and brought the first rain of fire, that first night when they knew the world would end, he and Wesley fought side-by-side again. It felt good; Gunn's not very good at denial, so he just has to accept this. When he came to after the fight, bruised and bloodied, his arm was draped over Wesley's shoulder. They staggered through the streets together, taking in the sight of Los Angeles aflame. They spoke of Fred only to wonder where she was and worry for her. Jealousy and betrayal and loss -- those things hadn't mattered that night.

Since then, though, it's become apparent that the world is ending by degrees. No one cataclysm will wash them clean; they have weeks or months or maybe even years to watch the demons claim the earth. Their truce has held; everyone involved agrees that their personal problems have to take a back seat to the work they're doing. If this world has a chance in hell, they can't afford to waste it over a kidnapping or a suffocation, much less over a girl.

But jealousy and betrayal and loss all seem real again.

Betrayal works both ways, and Gunn knows it. The day they found out that Wesley had taken Connor, Gunn believed in Wesley's motives, totally and completely. When he saw Angel go berserk and try to kill Wesley, helpless in his hospital bed, Gunn used every bit of his strength to pull Angel away. Only later, after they emptied bottles of formula out of the fridge and pretended not to see Angel's hands shaking and had to tell Cordelia about it while she sobbed -- only then did he get angry.

What if he'd stuck with his first instinct? What if he'd heard Wesley out from the beginning? Gunn is still really, really clear on the fact that Wesley should have told them about the prophecy, and even clearer on the fact that Wesley's not telling them revealed some pretty ugly things about Wesley's opinions of them. With the world on fire, however, Gunn's closer to believing that they should have defied those opinions instead of confirming them.

It would be easy to pin it all on Angel, to say Angel was the one who threw Wesley out. As far as the agency goes, that's true. But for all his fury at Wesley, his refusal to even have Wesley's name spoken in his presence, Angel never forbid the others to see him or speak to him. He never even suggested it -- maybe only because it would have involved saying Wesley's name, but the fact remains, he didn't. Gunn and Cordy and Fred could have called him, gone by, written. They didn't. That's on nobody but them.

What happened to all of us -- it's everybody's fault, Gunn thinks. He's known this for a long time, deep down. Accepting it is easier than he would have thought.

Gunn watches Wesley, bent over his books, tongue in the corner of his mouth as he fiddles with a tricky word or two. He remembers that expression well. It makes him smile a little.

As if he senses the attention, Wesley looks up. Gunn doesn't stop smiling. Wesley looks uncertain, but not exactly displeased. "I think this is going to take a couple of days," he says. "You might want to come back tomorrow night."

Before the rain of fire, Wesley would have offered to bring it by, the better to get a chance with Fred. Now he's inviting Gunn over instead. "Might be late," Gunn says. "We're having dinner over at Mama Jeane's."

"Mama Jeane," Wesley says. He looks uneasy and wistful all at once. "Is she -- how is she?"

Gunn took Wesley to Mama Jeane's for the first time not long after Wesley had been shot. Wesley had taken antibiotics and done physical therapy, but it wasn't until Mama Jeane offered her own medicines -- food, church and affection -- that Wesley really seemed to recover. "She's great," Gunn says. "Still cooking up big meals. She's even making us do Kwanzaa this year."

"Kwanzaa?" Wesley looks down at the silver tablet, probably wondering if this is a proto-Bantu word he'd missed.

"Black people's Christmas," Gunn says.

"I thought that was Christmas," Wesley replies.

"See, that's my point exactly." Gunn's glad to see Wesley smile. Should he invite Wesley along? He's still not easy about the thought of Fred and Wesley being together, but Mama Jeane's house is Gunn's turf; he feels safe about anything that would happen there. And Mama Jeane sees into people in a way Gunn has never mastered. She'd know what the deal was with those two instantly, and she'd tell Gunn, and then, good or bad, he'd finally know.

Beyond that -- Mama Jeane would like to see Wesley, and Wesley would like to see Mama Jeane, and maybe that ought to be an end to it.

Wesley's clearly thinking the same thing. He says, very carefully, "I suppose when you say 'we,' you mean you and Fred -- and Angel? Has -- has Cordelia perhaps returned?"

Wesley has no idea how wrong that picture is. Angel didn't get back to the hotel until long after Wesley had left. He was beat-up and bloody, an open wound gaping in his neck. Lorne and Gunn had watched, exhausted and horrified, as Angel staggered to the trash can and threw up. Gunn had gone to his side and seen the blood in the trash; of course, blood is all Angel would ever throw up, but it still looked awful. Angel blurted out what he'd seen, and Gunn and Lorne had said all the cuss words they ever knew, and that had been it for conversation for a few hours.

What would Wesley think if he did know? Gunn is seized by the sudden sure knowledge -- Wesley would laugh. He might wait until Gunn left, but he'd laugh all the same. The truce is on the surface; the bitter runs deep, and it's the bitter side of Wesley who'd be perfectly happy to see the people Angel loved -- the ones he loved more than Wes -- cut him even deeper than Wesley did.

This shit with Cordy and Connor -- that's Wesley's fault too, Gunn thinks. The fury is building inside him again, making his temples pulse and his muscles tense. If Wesley hadn't let that boy be stolen, then he woulda grown up with Angel and Cordelia, and none of this would've happened.

Responsibility shifts again, and as soon as it had let go of Wesley, it has him back up in its claws again.

"Just me and Fred," Gunn says shortly. "That's all."

"Ah," Wesley says. "I see."

The silence that follows doesn't last that long, but it's still too long. "I'll send somebody over for the tablet," Gunn says, going to the door.

"You do that," Wesley says distantly, the moment before Gunn shuts the door behind him, hard.

Part 4: Cooperative Economics

Fred puts on makeup he bought for her at the drugstore. He's learned what to get her -- the palest foundation Cover Girl makes, the palest powder, the clear mascara. She says regular mascara burns her eyes. Fred doesn't cover up her face much, doesn't do a lot to her hair; what once seemed like refreshing honesty and naturalness now seems to Gunn like pure lack of effort. But she's still pretty. That doesn't change.

They drive to Mama Jeane's with gasoline Fred put in the truck earlier that day. Gunn was out patrolling late, her cue to get up in the morning, restock the stake cannon, refill the tank. The patterns of their relationship still hold true, even now when silence hangs between them like a curtain, heavy and opaque. Gunn and Fred have learned to live together in all the practical little ways that usually come a lot later in the relationship -- she balances his checkbook, he buys the tampons that come in a blue box, and neither of them really thinks about it anymore. Earlier this morning, when Fred made the mistake of asking once too often about his trip to see Wesley, they had a blistering fight while making up the bed, their hands folding hospital corners in perfect concert as their voices got louder and louder.

The mood is better now. The prospect of dinner at Mama Jeane's appears to have cheered Fred up a lot, and that means Gunn can relax a little. Fred made some banana pudding and balanced the tray carefully in her lap during the drive over; now, as Gunn opens the truck's door for her, she holds it out, an offering. "I hope you didn't make too much dessert!" she calls by way of greeting.

"I was just thinking we needed more," says Mama Jeane from the porch. Gunn knows full well that there are probably two pies and a cake in there waiting on them, but Mama Jeane's beaming like Fred's banana pudding is all she could have hoped for. "Come here, girl. Give your Mama Jeane a hug."

Fred's arrival seems to shake the household from its earlier gloom. Martha and Cedric like Fred, who will sit on the floor, Indian-style, and play as many board games as they can drag out of the hall closet. Debra is always tense when Fred is over, but her animosity is directed at Gunn, not Fred: Gunn is the one who is dating a White woman and betraying his Black sisters. Debra has opinions about this. Fred's willingness to help in the kitchen and general good humor has earned her Debra's politeness, and perhaps even some reluctant liking. Gunn's not sure, because he's never really dared to raise the subject. Brandy attaches herself to Fred almost immediately, wraps her teeny hands around the ends of Fred's long braids. When Fred asks the silly questions people ask about babies -- is she walking, is she talking, isn't she big for her age? -- Anthony manages to rouse himself from the stupor of grief and answer. All in all, this is the liveliest, most relaxed night at Mama Jeane's in a long time, and the best time Gunn and Fred have had together in even longer. When Debra tells a long story about her work at the salon and a permanent gone horribly wrong, Gunn joins in the laughter and realizes his cheer is genuine. Maybe Mama Jeane had the right idea with this Kwanzaa thing after all, he thinks.

"So what's tonight's virtue?" he says as he helps himself to some barbecued chicken. "Gotta know what we're celebrating before we celebrate."

Fred raises her hand, just like the overeager girl she probably was at school. Mama Jeane laughs. "Why don't you tell us, baby?"

"Today's virtue is ujamaa," Fred recites. "It's about cooperative economics."

"Cooperative economics?" Gunn decides to have a little fun. "I don't know, Mama Jeane. That sounds like communism to me."

Mama Jeane frowns, her gray eyebrows knitting together. As Gunn well knows, she retains a lively, Eisenhower-era suspicion of communism and all its works; in the closest thing to mean-spiritedness he's ever seen in Mama Jeane, she still roots for the Eastern Bloc figure skaters to fall. "I'm sure it's not communism," she says. "They wouldn't put that in a holiday."

"Sure they would," Gunn says, winking at Debra as she passes him the mashed potatoes. "The guys who came up with Kwanzaa weren't all into the white-bread American way, you know."

"It might be communism," Debra says solemnly. Apparently she's willing to help him needle Mama Jeane. "I'm not sure this is a patriotic holiday. Maybe Americans should think about this more carefully."

"Y'all stop prepping," Mama Jeane huffs. "You are just trying to stir up trouble."

"What's communism?" Cedric says through a mouthful of roll.

"It's a very bad thing," Mama Jeane says solemnly. "Chew with your mouth closed, baby."

As Mama Jeane launches into a slightly warped history of the Cold War for Martha and Cedric's benefit, Gunn whispers to Fred, "Way she carries on, you'd think Nikita Kruschev was gonna climb outta his grave and come back to get her."

Fred smiles, then looks worried. In all seriousness, she says, "He hasn't, has he?"

"I HOPE not," Gunn says. The absurdity of it -- of their lives, where absolutely anybody might show up at any time, dead, Red or both -- makes him start laughing, and Fred giggles too. She looks so pretty, so happy, that it's all Gunn can do to stop himself from kissing her right there at the table. Fred's cheeks are pink from laughing, and her eyes are bright as she looks at him. For the first time in way too long, Gunn thinks there's a chance they might do more in bed tonight than pretend to sleep.

Fred might be thinking the same thing; she's blushing a little bit as she ducks her head away from him. She wants to talk about something else at the table and casts around for a subject, for someone else to talk to. "I can't get over how big she is," she finally says, looking at Brandy.

Anthony realizes the words are meant for him, smiles with a shadow of a new father's enthusiasm. "She's growin' like a weed."

"Just past a year old?" Fred says. Anthony smiles a little more; Gunn's not sure why every parent is thrilled that a baby's bigger than it's supposed to be, but they always are. He's glad Fred's drawing the guy out; no doubt Anthony needs it. "When was her birthday?"

"November 16," Anthony says. "We had us a nice little party." His face clouds over, perhaps remembering his wife holding a cake with one candle.

November 16. November 16. There's something about that date, something Gunn remembers --

And then it hits him. November 16 is Connor's birthday too. He stares down at Brandy, who has a mixture of mashed potatoes and gravy all over her face from her clumsy attempts to eat with her hands. She's still in diapers. She and Connor are the exact same age.

All Mama Jeane's good cooking churns uncomfortably in Gunn's stomach, and he leans away from the table, the better not to even have to smell it. Fred looks uncomfortable -- she's remembered Connor's birthday as well -- but when she recognizes Gunn's disgust, it makes her angry. She doesn't say anything, doesn't do anything besides start eating her corn, but Gunn can tell.

They don't talk about it until later, when the two of them are doing the dishes and can hiss at each other beneath the sound of the rushing water. "Don't tell me I'm weird for thinking it's gross. I'm not weird. It is gross," he says, scrubbing furiously at a casserole dish.

"Yes, it's gross," Fred says, drying a plate. "I don't like thinking about Connor and Cordy either. That's why I don't dwell on it, Charles. I guess it's normal to wonder why -- I mean, why in the world -- but the way you're brooding about them is just weird. I swear, I think Angel spends less time freaking out about it than you do, and it happened to him, not you."

Technically, it happened to Connor and Cordelia, but that's kind of beside the point. Gunn keeps scrubbing, welcoming the bite of the Brillo pad against his skin. "Excuse me, but I have been up and dressed and washed and making conversation every day since," Gunn says. "That puts me way ahead of Angel."

"He's doing way better," Fred insists. "He was only scary those first couple days. I think he's trying not to think about it. Why can't you?"

The truth slips out before he can stop it. "I'm trying not to think about something else."

Fred's lips press together, blanching them. She tosses her dishrag beside the sink. "I'll let you finish up," she says, disappearing into the living room.

So much for sex tonight. Gunn sighs and starts on the glasses.

By the time he's done with the mountain of dishes, he's calmed down some and hopes Fred has too. Sure enough, when Gunn goes into the living room, he sees her sitting on the floor, happily playing Memory with Martha and Cedric on the floor. Brandy has been given a couple of the cards to chew on. Anthony, Debra and Mama Jeane are all watching the tape of "Monsters Inc.," apparently not fully realizing that the children's distraction has set them free to look at something else for a change.

Fred flips over a card. "A tulip," she says. The flower is brilliant pink in her hand. "Now, I know I saw that other tulip around here someplace --"

She knows where it is. Gunn doesn't doubt that. He has learned what a fine, strong thing Fred's mind is. When she works on the agency's books, she multiplies four-digit numbers together in her head. She can read a long novel in one sitting and have half the dialogue memorized before she closes the cover. When she looks at Gunn, she is analyzing, comparing, categorizing, all the time. She can't stop herself. Gunn loved that about her, back when she liked what she saw in his eyes.

Her hand hovers over what is no doubt the correct card, then reaches over to scoop up a different one. "A teapot?" she protests as Martha and Cedric start to giggle. "Oh, no!"

Fred flops sideways onto the floor, kicking her feet in mock despair. She's wearing her oldest blue jeans and a green T-shirt, her hair yanked back in braids, and for one instant, she is again the most beautiful woman he's ever seen.

Gunn loves her still. He thinks he will love her always, no matter what. He can't imagine living without her, and before he can stop himself, he thinks that if the world has to end, it should get a move on. He doesn't think he can handle Armageddon and breaking up with Fred both.

"That Sully needs to get himself together," Mama Jeane says, shaking her head at the TV screen.

Part 5: Purpose

Angel ends up being the one to go pick up the tablet and its translation from Wesley. Fred gives him a couple of oven mitts to handle the silver, and Angel is attentive enough to thank her before he goes out the door. Gunn sort of feels like somebody should be with him -- they've tried not to leave Angel alone any more than he insists upon -- but calling attention to Angel's mental state is probably a bad idea. All the same, Fred, Lorne and Gunn all walk out to the sidewalk and watch Angel start the car, back out, drive off.

Lorne claps his hands together. "Well, I think we can pronounce Lambchop well on the road to recovery," he says. "Another five or six decades, and he'll be right as rain."

"I need food," Fred says with a sigh. Gunn doesn't know if her melancholy is for Angel's plight or the fact that she's not going to see Wesley herself. "Can we go get some food?"

Gunn doesn't answer. At the moment when the silence would become awkward, Lorne jumps in. "Fab suggestion. What do you say we make a Taco Bell run? I haven't seen you put away a half-dozen enchiladas in at least a week."

"Do you want something?" Fred doesn't exactly look at Gunn as she says it. Her hands are tucked in her pockets, her arms bent, her shoulders in a perpetual shrug. She assumes he's not going to go with her and Lorne, and she's right.

"Enchiladas would be great," he says, turning to go back in the hotel. "Y'all hurry back." He doesn't look over his shoulder, just closes the front door behind him.

Gunn doesn't get the Hyperion to himself much, what with four permanent residents and no end of visitors. For the first couple of minutes, this seems like a pleasant luxury -- he can go to his room and turn the stereo up full blast, Outkast blaring from the speakers with nobody to object. Then he realizes he's not in the mood for Outkast, or really for any music at all, and the empty, quiet hotel quickly begins to seem a little creepy. He makes himself feel both more secure and more useful by going to the weapons cabinet and selecting a few swords for sharpening. They need to do this more often, these days.

He works for a while -- it feels like a long while, though he's engrossed enough to lose track of the time -- until he hears the door open. "'Bout time you got back," he says, trying to be more cheerful than he was when they left. "I'm starving."

"It's me." Gunn looks up to see Cordelia standing there, shifting uncomfortably from one foot to another.

Cordelia's hair is pulled back in a clip, awkwardly and unattractively, the way girls will to wash their faces. She doesn't seem to have on any makeup, and her outfit is loose enough that Gunn can't be sure, but he also thinks she might have gained a little weight. Savagely, he wishes Angel were here, that he could see her like this. All Gunn's ex-girlfriends have an annoying tendency to show up thinner, happier and better-dressed; it would have soothed his spirit considerably to see even one of them in this condition. He knows he is a vengeful man.

"What do you want?" he says. He doesn't say it to make her feel uncomfortable; he literally can't imagine what she's doing here. Then a possible answer occurs to him. "If it's a vision, tell me and get gone. In the future, just call."

"I haven't had a vision," Cordelia says. "Not in a while. I just -- I came to see Angel."

Of all the damn nerve. "Angel's out," Gunn says. When her eyes narrow, he adds, "Search the hotel if you don't believe me."

She sighs heavily. "I believe you. Is he -- will he be back soon?"

"Don't think so," Gunn says. The lie sounds more plausible in his voice than the truth did. "Far as I'm concerned, that's for the best. Cordy, he doesn't need to see you. I think he's seen enough already."

Her cheeks flame scarlet, and Gunn doesn't look away, doesn't spare her a moment of it. Angel's description of events didn't include any particularly gory details -- thank God -- but she doesn't know that. Then again, she has other, simpler reasons for shame.

She doesn't act ashamed, though. Cordelia tosses her hair, looking for an instant like her old, prideful self. "Excuse me, but first of all, this is none of your business. Second of all, if Angel had explained to you what I explained to him --"

Explain. Yeah, you could explain something like that. Uh-huh.

"-- then you would understand, even if Angel --" Her voice catches for a moment, and Gunn thinks she won't be able to keep it up. Instead she squares her shoulders. "Finally, it's not like it's the worst thing anybody could ever do. Angel's done worse -- and I don't mean back in the creepy-evil-knee-breeches days. I mean, two years ago. Or what about Wesley last year, with the kidnapping?"

"We didn't cut those guys a whole lot of slack either," Gunn says. "Why should I treat you any different?" They're quiet together for a while before he adds, "I'm waiting for a reason."

Cordelia bites her lip for a moment. She doesn't give him the reason; she doesn't have one. She just says, "Things between me and Angel -- they don't have to be like this."

"Shoulda thought of that before," Gunn says easily, turning back to his work. Metal scrapes against metal as he adds, "Say, did that nasty diaper rash of Connor's ever clear up? Guess you're in a position to know."

Cordelia sucks in her breath, so sharply he hears it over the grind of metal. Gunn looks up to see her blinking back tears. He knows he ought to feel bad for humiliating her, but he doesn't. She sits down heavily on the circular sofa, as if her embarrassment has robbed her of the ability to stand.

After a moment, she blurts out, "I don't know who I am anymore."

That makes two of us, Gunn thinks. But he doesn't say anything, just stares at her, hoping she'll get uncomfortable enough to leave.

Instead, she keeps talking. "I used to know. I was Vision Girl. I saw the future, and I told Angel what was coming, and he went out there and stopped it." Gunn's part in stopping evil does not appear to be worthy of mention. "I was Angel's best friend, and he was mine. It felt like nothing could stop us if we were together. Like we were two halves of one whole. All the stupid stuff I'd ever done -- the stupid person I used to be -- it didn't matter, you know? And now I'm never going to get that back."

"If you think talking to Angel is going to help," Gunn says, "It won't. What happened has happened, Cordy. You can't erase it, much as I wish you could."

"The world is ending," Cordelia says quietly. "I don't want the last things Angel and I say to each other to be, well, what we said. I never wanted to hurt him, and I hurt him -- so bad --" She gulps down a sob and keeps talking. Gunn can tell she's counting on him reporting this to Angel later. She's betting on the wrong horse, yet again. "I can't sleep. I can't eat. I feel like hell, and if I go on another couple days like this, I'm gonna die. I just want to talk to Angel. Just talk. I don't know if that's going to make anything better, but, God, it can't get any worse."

"And just what do you want him to say, Cordy?" Gunn lays the sword down, giving her his full attention at last. "Yeah, it was great, glad you broke my heart into a thousand little pieces? That oughta set everything straight."

She shakes her head. "What's happening around us is bigger than what happens between me and Angel."

"True." Gunn doesn't like granting her the point.

"We have to be able to fight on the same side. If there's any way we can still fight and win -- then we're going to have to be in this together. What I did ruined too much already. I don't want it to cost us the one chance we might have left."

Dammit, he hates that she's making this much sense. He glances surreptitiously at his watch; if Angel doesn't linger at Wesley's, and Gunn can't imagine that he would, then he will be back in a half-hour or so. Maybe Gunn should tell Cordelia she can stay. Even let her go upstairs and take a shower, because from the look of things, she could use one.

Cordelia senses the shift in his mood, presses her luck. "I need Angel," she says. "I need to know how I can help. I need to feel like I've got a reason to be here again. Then maybe I can finally figure out what I'm supposed to do."

Something snaps. Gunn stands up so quickly that Cordelia shrinks back. "I can tell you what you're NOT supposed to do," he says. "You're not supposed to be in love with one guy and fucking another guy. How did that one get past you?"

She wants to get mad at him, but she's too mad at herself. Cordelia only manages to say, weakly, "Gunn -- don't."

But he has to. "If you ain't in love with somebody, then screw whoever the hell you want to. Ain't nobody's business but yours. But if you're in love with somebody -- then you owe that person something, don't you? Don't you owe 'em -- just the truth?" He doesn't know why Cordelia doesn't understand this. He doesn't know if Fred understands it.

And finally, at long last, Gunn realizes why Cordy and Connor gets under his skin so bad. He has told himself, over and over since last February, that he's the one Fred really loves, because he's the one she chose to be with. He's the one who goes grocery shopping with her, who listens to her music in the mornings, who sleeps beside her every night. In the end, love is an intangible thing -- you know it only by its tracks, the patterns it creates in the world around you. Fred chose to live her life with Gunn, and he has taken this to mean that she loves him.

Now here he is, looking at one woman who loves Angel desperately -- and he has never doubted for a minute that Cordy loves Angel -- but is going home to share her bed and her body with somebody else. Cordelia is the proof that Fred's place in Gunn's life may mean nothing, nothing at all.

"I'm going," Cordelia says. She's desperate to get away from Gunn, not that he can blame her. Not for this, anyway. She smoothes her hair back with one hand, as though it could possibly look better in its present state. "Will you tell him I was here?" She's not asking Gunn to do it, just wondering if he will.

Gunn shrugs. "Depends on how he is."

Cordelia's eyes are dark as she pauses at the door. "Gunn, is Angel -- is he doing okay?"

It feels better than it should to tell her the truth. "No."

Part 6: Creativity

New Year's Eve. When they rang in 2002, they were all together, laughing and happy, in the Hyperion's lobby. Fred had a glittery cardboard tiara in her hair, and at midnight she'd pressed her lips to Gunn's cheek. Cordelia wore a short little satin dress and hung on Angel the whole night. Angel had a sleepy Connor in his arms; they all called him Baby New Year. Wesley popped the cork, sending a flume of $5 champagne into the air.

Tonight, Fred went to bed at 10:30, claiming she was too tired to stay up. Angel's holed up in his room, his standard operating procedure these days. No telling what Connor or Cordy or Wesley might be doing. Gunn figures only one of them is likely to have a good time tonight --

"You can only rent tuxedos for so long, you know?" Lorne says, smiling at his reflection in the windows of the weapons cabinet. "Buying one is an investment. Particularly since the world is about to end and take my American Express balance with it."

"You look great," Gunn says. Truth is, he does; the green skin is a nice counterpoint to the black-and-white of the tux. He wonders if Mr. Blackwell has ever pondered this. "You gonna be back before dawn?"

"Not if I do it right," Lorne said. "Days of auld lang syne are pretty much all we've got left, compadre. I intend to make a few memories before we go."

"Got a hot date, then?" When Lorne waggles his eyebrows, Gunn asks himself the usual question -- then decides the time has come to finally ask it out loud. "Lorne, this date of yours -- not meaning to be personal --"

"Of course you do," Lorne said. "But ask away. We have no secrets, more's the pity."

Gunn sucks up his courage and says, "Is this date a she or a he?"

Lorne shakes his head sadly. "See, you ask that like it's an either/or question," he says. "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio." He's swung an opera cloak over his shoulders and gone out the door long before Gunn's sure what that means.

Eleven-thirty p.m. on New Year's Eve, and the woman Gunn loves is in bed, hoping he won't join her. Nobody else he knows would welcome his company. And yet he can't quite bring himself to spend what promises to be his last New Year's Eve alone. So he goes to Angel's door, knocks quietly. If Angel ignores him, he'll leave.

Instead, Angel says, "Come in."

Angel's propped up on the bed watching television -- in itself odd, because Angel still seems to think of television as some newfangled fad whose day will soon pass. He has his back against the backboard, his sketch pad propped against his legs. A bottle of Scotch is open on the bedside table, a glass by Angel's side, but he doesn't seem to be drunk. Thank God. Gunn's not good at dealing with Angel when he's out of control.

"You staying up for New Year's?" Gunn says.

"I'm staying up," Angel says. He doesn't expressly invite Gunn in, but when Gunn comes in and sits on the foot of the bed, Angel pours him a glass of the Scotch.

Angel is watching Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve. It's inside Madison Square Garden this year; Times Square fell prey to one of the early rains of fire, and it's not really in any shape for partying. Neither are the crowds, it looks like; they're more frenzied than happy, shrieking at the camera with faces that look angry behind their glittery 2003 novelty glasses. If Angel's thinking of last year's party at the Hyperion, how happy they all were, how pretty Cordelia looked in her little short dress, he doesn't say. He watches the screen glassily as Dick counts down the Year's Top Hits. Gunn sighs: It figures the world wouldn't end before he had to hear that damn Avril Levigne song again.

At a commercial break -- even at the brink of Armageddon, Bill Gates is pretty sure somebody else will want to sign up for MSN -- Gunn figures he ought to try and make some conversation. "Whatcha drawing?" he says.

Angel hesitates, then holds out the sketch pad. Outlined in pencil is the face of a woman Gunn doesn't know. She's pretty, but there's something in her eyes he can't define -- something that can look loving or deceptive, by turns. Her mouth is partly open, as though she's about to speak, but there's no telling what she might be about to say. It's an expressive portrait of whoever it is. No way this is just a drawing -- this is a picture of someone real. "What's her name?" Gunn says. "Looks like you two have a story."

After a moment, Angel shakes his head. "I can't draw her anymore," he says. "I always could. I could have done it in my sleep. And now I can't."

Gunn looks down at the sketch again, turns it slightly, realizes with a shock that this is a picture of Cordelia. The shape of the face is wrong, the tilt of the eyes, the cut of the hair -- he can see it now that he knows, but only now.

"Her face changes," Angel says. "I try to remember it, and I can't."

"I'm sorry, man." Gunn hasn't said that before. Now it seems like something he should have said a long time ago.

"I try to remember why I'm here," Angel says. "What I'm supposed to be doing. I'm supposed to be fighting to save the world, but I can't. Nothing makes a difference anymore. There's nothing left to fight. Nobody left to care about. Just -- nothing."

Angel's words scare Gunn because he thinks they're true.

Gunn always figured that if you broke Angel, really broke him, that demon would come crashing out, destroying everything in its path. Back two years ago, he saw some shadows of that when Angel lost it -- the demon was close to the surface then, and Gunn has lived with the memory of what that was like, even in the good times. But he never counted on this possibility -- that if you broke Angel, you wouldn't be left with anything but a broken man. Because that's all that's staring back at Gunn now: a broken man, his spirit even deader than his body. He knows Angel feels rage, betrayal, fury. He knows some part of Angel wants to lash out -- and that wouldn't even have to be the demon. Given what happened, it could just be the man. But the demon's down deeper than it's ever been; it's wrapped inside so many layers of suffocating, immobilizing despair that it can't ever break free.

The sight of Angel like this unnerves Gunn more than he would ever have guessed it could. It unnerves him even more now that he's figured out why.

Gunn's sunk pretty low in his own day. He's been homeless. He's been hungry. He's taken his one shower a week at the YMCA. He watched his sister be snatched away from him and murdered, and he staked the thing that wore her face when he saw it again. He sacrificed the best friendship of his life for love. Then he sacrificed his moral code -- the one thing he always had, when he didn't have a house or food or a second pair of shoes -- for love too. Finally he realized he was probably going to lose that love anyway.

But in the back of Gunn's mind, there's always been this one fact: Angel's sunk even lower. Gunn took one life for a reason that at least seemed good at the time; Angel took thousands of lives for fun. Gunn knows he may yet lose Fred, but he is pretty damn sure he ain't gonna lose her to his own son, less than a year out of diapers. Gunn knows what Wesley's friendship meant to him, but even if Angel never got as close to Wesley, he somehow thinks Wesley's friendship meant even more to Angel. A vampire doesn't make that many friends. And at least, whatever happens in the future, Gunn had nine months with Fred -- days of fun and freedom and hungry-man skillet breakfasts, nights filled with passion and tenderness. Angel never even got one night with Cordelia, and he wouldn't ever have, even if she hadn't gone ho-bag on him.

("Let me get this straight," Gunn said, as they drove along Melrose in his pickup truck. "You can't ever have sex with a woman you love as long as you live."

"Right," Angel said. The ash from the vampires they'd slain was all over his jacket, and Gunn was drinking a Big Gulp while Angel had a beer. Angel was listening to Snoop without complaining, and Fred had held Gunn's hand for the first time earlier that day, and everything was right with the world.

Gunn said, "And you're gonna live forever."

"Right," Angel said again.

Gunn shook his head. "Man, it sucks to be you." And the night was so good that, somehow, Angel laughed.)

All these years, Gunn's known -- no matter how bad he had it, Angel had it worse. Despite all that, Angel was making it. And if Angel could make it, Gunn could too. Wherever rock-bottom was, Angel hadn't gotten there yet, so Gunn couldn't even be close.

Angel's not making it anymore.

The ball -- or, at any rate, a recently constructed facsimile -- begins dropping into the center of Madison Square Garden. The crowds shriek, Ten, Nine, Eight. A new year is beginning. The last year of all.

The ball drops. 2003 lights up in neon. Confetti drops. Happy New Year.

Angel and Gunn look at each other. Angel sighs, then tries to smile. "I'm not kissing you."

Gunn thinks about that for a moment, and the next words slip out before he can think better of it: "It would serve 'em all right if they saw THAT through the window, huh?"

Angel stares at Gunn. Just as Gunn opens his mouth to apologize, Angel starts to smile. Then Gunn thinks about it, really thinks -- Fred and Wesley and Cordy and Connor, all slack-jawed in horror as he and Angel make out --

They burst into laughter at the same moment. Gunn grips the side of the bed, guffawing so loud he's probably waking Fred up, and who the hell cares? Angel's not making any sound, but he's clutching his gut, shaking throughout his body, grinning for the first time since the rain of fire.

Gunn finally gasps, "You -- you ever see that -- then you KNOW the world is ending."

"Not one minute too soon," Angel agrees, and they keep on laughing.

Part 7: Faith

On the first day of what promises to be the last year of his life, Gunn camps out at Mama Jeane's. He sits at the kitchen table and polishes off a helping of black-eyed peas. If you eat black-eyed peas on New Year's Day, you'll have good luck.

Luck. Gunn sops his cornbread in the gravy, wondering what luck is, how the hell he'd recognize it if it even came his way.

"I want to watch Sleeping Beauty!" Martha insists. She's finally gotten sick of Monsters Inc. Cedric hasn't, and the ensuing battle is loud and long. Brandy wails throughout -- whatever's troubling her isn't her diaper or her strained apricots or desire to nap, because all Anthony's efforts to soothe her fail. Debra takes herself off to the corner store early, and she doesn't return.

As for Mama Jeane, she's in one of her rare bad moods. She doesn't snap at them or yell; that's not really her way, unless you push her, and nobody in the house is fool enough to do that. But she's critical of the cooking, worried about sounds outside. She insists that Gunn check the burglar bars. Her reedy voice has an uncertain, querulous sound to it: Mama Jeane sounds like an old woman, and it's both so appropriate and so wrong that it drives Gunn up the wall.

But he keeps his peace. He's quiet and respectful. No point in making trouble. God knows that none of the stuff that's going wrong is Mama Jeane's fault.

Angel's down patrolling in the sewers today; the man can't expect his new year to get any better than his day today, fighting monsters alone in raw filth. Fred was hung over this morning. Gunn was shocked to realize that she'd gotten into bed and drunk herself insensate. It's so unlike her. But who knows how anybody's supposed to act, these days? When Gunn left the hotel, Lorne was still passed out on the circular sofa, his cummerbund missing and a very strange smile on his face. At least somebody had a Happy New Year.

Gunn looks at the wall: He's seen it hundreds of times, so often that he almost doesn't really see it anymore. But he does now. There's Derris, for too brief a time Gunn's stepfather, in his high-school football uniform. He's trying to look stern in his shoulder pads and #52, but he can't quite repress a grin. There's a picture of Gunn, Angel and Wesley, taken on the front porch, an artifact of another time. There's Debra's senior photo, a white-lace drape making her look unexpectedly elegant. There's Cedric, age three, chubby hands in the air as though he's cheering.

And then there's Alonna. Seventh grade. A purple T-shirt, her best, something Gunn had managed to buy for her new instead of at the Salvation Army. He never bought his own stuff new, but sometimes he splurged on pretty things for her. Her hair is up in braids, the way she liked then. Seventh grade was the year she broke two of her fingers in gym class. Gunn had to splint them up himself; by that time, he knew how. What he didn't know was how to fix her hair in those little braids. She couldn't do it herself with a broken hand, but when she went to school with her hair unfixed, the other girls made fun. Gunn is well-versed in cruelty, and he knows plenty of monsters who don't have anything on little girls. He and his sister would get up early in the mornings, and Gunn would carefully, patiently braid Alonna's hair, try to weave in the beads the way the other girls did. Alonna would sit very still, both of them prayerful that their efforts would look right, that Alonna would be safe from teasing for one more day.

Her braids don't quite look right in the photo, but they look okay, and Alonna's face is alight with her little crooked grin. Her big brother helped her out. She could trust her big brother to take care of her.

"Charles?" Mama Jeane's voice is plaintive and needy. It makes Gunn shiver like fingernails on chalkboard. "You come here and help me."

Robotically, Gunn gets up and joins her at the hall closet. Mama Jeane has one hand on her cane, the other up high on a shelf, trying to pull down a milk crate. In it, Gunn can see the candleholder, the kente-cloth table runner. "You puttin' this stuff out again?" he says.

"Of course I am," Mama Jeane says, still tugging at the crate despite Gunn's availability to help. "This is the last day of Kwanzaa. We have to do it up right."

"Do it up right? Hell, Mama Jeane, do you even hear yourself?" Gunn is yelling -- yelling at Mama Jeane, something in its way more unthinkable than the end of the world. She's staring at him aghast, but he can't stop. He can't stop. "What the hell does it matter what we do? The whole world is going to hell, for REAL, and the damn candles and African crap doesn't change that. It doesn't change anything! Instead of facing facts, you've got us all here celebrating what has got to be the goddamned stupidest holiday in the whole goddamned world --"

He runs out of breath at the same moment he runs out of anger. Mama Jeane's eyes are wet with tears, and Gunn is left with the pure horror of having made her cry. He turns on his heel and walks out of the house. Tears fill his own eyes, and he can't drive yet, so he just sits on the edge of the porch.

Quiet night in the neighborhood. Ironically, it's been safer here since the rain of fire. The gangs declared a kind of cease-fire, and the low-rent petty criminals kinda figure there's not much point. Gunn's alone outside, looking at darkness that city lights don't do anything to dispel.

Inside, Martha and Cedric continue fighting. Brandy continues crying. It seems like none of that will ever end.

Then the screen door swings open, and Gunn doesn't even have to turn around to know that Mama Jeane is coming outside. He hears the soft rubber pads of her cane against the concrete porch. Aware that he richly deserves the lecture that's coming, he squares his shoulder and makes himself ready.

At last, Mama Jeane says, "It's not THE stupidest holiday." After a moment, she adds, "That's got to be Groundhog Day. What's that about? A rat down a hole."

"Okay," Gunn says. "Groundhog Day is worse. At least with Kwanzaa, we get to eat."

"Glad we got that straight," Mama Jeane says. She doesn't sound hurt -- if anything, she sounds wryly amused. Sure enough, when Gunn looks over his shoulder, she's smiling.

He says, "So, you know this whole Kwanzaa thing is crap."

She shrugs. "Christmas didn't quite feel right this year. And so many things are going so wrong, Charles." Mama Jeane looks up at the sky, as if searching for fire. Many people look upwards like this, these days. "I wanted us to have one more celebration together as a family. If Christmas didn't work, I thought maybe this would. We had seven tries. At least a few of them turned out okay."

Why didn't he understand this? At this point, Gunn ought to know to at least give Mama Jeane credit for some sense. "I'm sorry," he says. "I shoulda tried harder."

"These are hard times," she says. "I don't pretend to understand what's happening, but I know it's nothing good."

Nothing good. All the good things Gunn's ever known -- Fred's love, Wesley's friendship, Angel's struggle, Cordelia's humor, Alonna's crooked little smile -- they're not just going. They're already gone.

"What's the matter, baby?" Mama Jeane's weathered hand is soft against his scalp. "I know it's frightening. It is for all of us --"

Gunn laughs, a broken sound. "It ain't that the world's ending. It's -- it's thinking that maybe it needs to end."

"Charles, don't you talk that way." She sits by his side, old bones creaking. "This world is God's creation, both the good and the bad of it. It's hard to love what you don't understand, but that don't change the fact that it's your job to love it anyway."

"What if you do understand it?" Gunn says. "What if that's the reason you can't love it? Because you really do understand it?"

"You have to try," Mama Jeane insists. He doesn't know if her words are the wisdom of a good woman or the blindness of a fool. He's not sure if there's a difference anymore.

"We oughta set the table," he says. "We feed those children, and they might stop crying."

"That would be a mercy," she says. She's still studying his face, and he knows she senses how much pain is still lurking there, how many secrets he still hasn't told. Mama Jeane looks frightened. She looks old. She is the one true power Gunn's ever known, and she's as lost as he is. When she doesn't ask him any more questions, he starts helping her back up to her feet.

"What's tonight's virtue?" he says, just to have something to say.

Mama Jeane smiles at him softly. "Faith," she says. "The last virtue is faith."

Despite her fear, her understanding of what's going on around them, Mama Jeane still has her faith. Gunn would give anything to be able to share that with her, at least. But when he digs down deep, trying to answer her faith with his own, he finds nothing.


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