On The Road Towards Reconciliation Chapter Six: A Touch Closer, A Touch Apart
Disclaimer: the author does not claim ownership to the characters or plot development mentioned from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or "Angel". These properties expressly belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Greenwolf Corporation, 20th Century Fox Television, WB Network, etc. Any other characters contained in the original story are the author's.

Season One Historical Note: The action in this story takes place after "To Shanshu In L.A."

Author's note: Wiseblood, who's been stealthily co-reading, provided extra-tremendous help with this chapter.


ON THE ROAD TOWARDS RECONCILIATION
by Evan Como



Chapter Six





Etrix March squinted through her kitchen window into the bright July morning and remembered. She remembered how, the instant she and Roland had first stepped into this room, they knew they'd found their home. It had been a typically unsunny Seattle winter day then, but the gloominess hadn't clouded over the possibilities they both felt in their hearts. They had held one another in front of the windowed wall, gleefully shivering as arctic air blustered in through the broken glass.

She'd wept and he'd kissed her tears. They'd laughed themselves delirious.

Trixie chuckled to herself. At the time, the Queen Anne-styled house had been in such derelict condition that she and Roland practically moved in for free. Her late husband had been good with his hands and even better at making friends. Although it had taken nearly a decade, with the aid of his fellow weekend handymen at the Postal Service, everything wrong eventually got righted. By June of 1962 their home had become a showpiece.

A vast, empty showpiece.

"I guess we really don't *need* a six-bedroom mansion just for the two of us," Trixie admitted aloud one afternoon to Roland while he picked apples in the backyard.

Resting his arm in front of him, he lowered a branch just enough to peer over.

Nature helped picture her recollection. Filtering through the leaves, September daylight intensified the blue of Roland's eyes and the straw blonde of his crew cut. It dappled his cheeks -- the color of the Spartans in her bushel -- and glimmered the shallow smile concealing the depths of his aplomb.

"Then I guess we'll just have to start filling it, Trix," he replied. And, as collectedly as he'd accepted her otherworldliness, Roland began filling five of those bedrooms with children. Mining the Emerald City of its waifs, by one-at-a-time or by three-, Roland assembled their family. That the children were only under their temporary custody didn't matter; they extended their arms -- their hearts -- with boundless devotion.

Anticipating a child returning to his or her natural caregiver didn't make the separation any less painful, however, no matter how often it occurred. Etrix still mourned a departure as deeply as she'd celebrated an arrival. "Gretchen will be just fine," Roland had murmured against her cheek, barely brave enough to avoid falling apart, too.

"But it's like a little piece of me breaks off every time we lose one," she'd sobbed against the chest of his tear-soaked shirt.

He'd clipped her nose with the crook of his little finger. "Imagine that, Trixie! No matter where you end up or how old you get, to be able to reach inside and find a morsel of someone's love!" He cradled her even more tightly. "I think that's just grand!"

She lifted her head just enough for him to bend over to nuzzle her nose. "Like you're inside of me?" she sniffled.

Roland's lips were warm on her forehead. "Like we've always been inside of each other..."

Seated on a boulder by the Quinault River with his hiking clothes in tatters and his arms dripping blood, Roland had said to Etrix and her Warrior, "Life is certainly full of interesting experiences." From that very first day until the final one when his unselfish heart wore out, Roland made sure there were splendid experiences a-plenty for the people he loved.

Her blink nipped a tear in its duct. Suspending her attention from Tibo seated in the back yard and engrossed in his trembling meditations, Etrix searched the singular presence of her mind. Even after half a century, she was still achingly aware of her separation from the Gift. She had accepted the perpetual silence in much the same way she had resigned herself to imposed infertility -- that no matter the cost, she'd made the right decision to leave the forest, to walk away forever beside the man who had claimed her heart.

But, oh... The caress of a child's first breath, to account for miniature fingers and toes, to place her lips against a downy newborn head...

She stared at Tibo, entranced. He was her natural nephew. And, surrounding her were two Warriors, another Messenger, and a young man formerly of Council. A month prior, when a gruff little male -- his obtrusive demeanor set off by a sporty hat and an imitation leather coat -- rang her doorbell and introduced himself, Trixie's breath had caught in her throat.

Fifty years without so much as a visitor from The Powers That Be and suddenly she didn't have enough room for them all!

A voice behind her shrieked "MINE!" bringing Trixie's attention back to the room and to her nine hungry wards. She turned and rejoined the activity in her big, bright, wonderful kitchen.

"Bong," Trixie admonished while calmly driving two Hot Wheels off the oak tabletop and into a pocket of her apron, "no toys while you're eating." The 10 year-old narrowed his almond-shaped eyes and opened his mouth but after Trixie tossed "Anyone else got toys?" into the air with a juggler's flair, he fell silent.

The other children took renewed interest in their plates.

"How come Gale gets to drink soda for breakfast?" Chandi asked while her discontented nose crinkled above a plastic glassful of milk.

Gale looked up, wide-eyed and red-handed. Sweeping past, Trixie snatched the still unopened soda from her hand and set it back into the refrigerator door. "But, I've been wanting a Coke since last night when you said I couldn't have one, Trixie," Gale argued.

After shoving a glass of milk in the Warrior's hand, Trixie affectionately ticked the tip of Gale's nose with her bent pinkie finger. "You can have one this afternoon after the kids are gone."

"Yeah, and I bet you'll probably figure out some way I can't have one then, either," Gale burbled into the liquid while dragging her feet and disgruntlement to the window.

"You're taking the kids out?" asked Angel from the safety of the one spot in the kitchen that was morning-sun free. He counted to ten; the ten little discs he'd flipped over were golden brown and identical in size. The same couldn't be said for the children in the lively room, each of varying heights and personalities but still sharing one exact trait.

Ravenous hunger.

Kevin, age four, wasn't tall enough to see onto the stove's griddle top, but that technicality didn't deter his interest. He waited patiently to inspect the latest stack of pancakes Angel lifted onto the serving plate. "Is that ten?" he inquired.

Angel nodded. His face was as serious as his diminutive overseer's. Satisfied, Kevin smiled brightly and gave his best thumb's-up.

While receiving the platter, Trixie playfully pinched Kevin's pudgy cheek. "The kids are going to the Discovery Center with a few of my former Foster kids," she said in response to Angel's question.

"Do you think that's safe?"

Taken aback, Trixie sighted the vampire, cross-browed. "Safe?"

"You know," Angel dipped out another 10 pancakes, "sending them off with other people without you there."

Keeping the tone of her voice below the sizzle of the batter on the aluminum grill hardly subdued Trixie's umbrage. "Barring a force majeure, Angel, they'll all be fine. Lynda, Kent and Gretchen have been adults for years, with good jobs and families of their own."

"Still..." Angel met the woman's eyes, her brown irises glowing coppery with anger. "You need to be careful. They're just little kids."

A nod of her head brought with it, understanding. Her consideration smiled down upon Kevin. "They're *modern* little kids, Angel. They're smart and they all have instructions to stay with one another. Even with Lynda, Kent, and Gretchen -- whom I trust implicitly."

He glanced over the plate to the table of children before accepting Trixie's experienced decision. "How many more pancakes?" he asked, smoothly changing the subject.

Trixie patted his arm with her free hand and offered a heartening, "We'll know that when they stop eating."

Relieved that the friction between him and Trixie had been successfully negotiated, Angel regarded his assistant with a smile. "I bet you're hungry, Kevin," he suggested. But the child's reply -- two arms tightened above Angel's right knee, soured the taste of accord. Kevin's unguarded heart laid siege; its gentle meter volleyed an unwitting pizzicato upon Angel's dormant peroneal artery.

"-- in here!" Cordy shouted, pushing the kitchen's swinging door open wide.

The door sounded "ooof!" on its hinges and had nearly closed before Wesley nudged it inward with his shoulder. While walking his and Cordy's plates to the sink, he coolly readjusted his glasses.

"Angel! The pancakes are the bomb and a half!" Cordelia exclaimed. A flick of her wrist banished several brown curls behind her shoulder. "And it looks like you made a friend," she added, plucking at Kevin's soft golden locks with her fingers.

After Kevin buried his face in Angel's thigh, Cordy tugged on his ear. The little boy's blush disappeared into his collar.

"How come you're looking like that?" she asked, returning her attention to Angel.

Angel bent his eyes from the pancakes, down at his clothes. He frowned. "Don't I always look like this?"

Cordy poked his waist and shook her head. "Like this," she said. Squinting hard, she leveled hazel-eyed intensity at the cooktop. "How come you're looking at the pancakes like you're afraid they're gonna run away with the spatula?"

"Hey!" Angel attacked the griddlecakes, flipping them over with preternatural speed. "You have to turn them over at the right time or else they get too brown or not brown enough. I almost ruined these, Cordelia," he griped. Just to make sure that wasn't the case, he tapped at a few with the tip of his finger.

"Guy, Angel. Just when I thought I've already seen you at your most anal, you surprise me. Who knew pancakes? What else you got up your sleeve to obsess about?" she teased, peeling back his unbuttoned cuff. Her faced conveyed immediate appreciation. "Check you out! You're finally wearing that silver bracelet I got you. Who needs art supplies when there's so much fab jewelry in the world?"

After double-checking the clasp, Cordy twisted the heavy links once around. Angel self-consciously retrieved his wrist and smoothed his sleeve in place.

"Cordelia, sweetheart, would you mind getting more syrup?" Trixie asked, presenting the empty platter for the next serving.

"No big!" Cordy consented, sprightly proceeding to the open pantry.

The hostess offered an encouraging smile. "One more serving and I think you'll be finished, Angel. It's been a treat for the kids not to have to eat hot cereal, although --"

"Cordelia?" Angel murmured. The spatula tumbled from his grip and clattered onto the griddle. "CORDELIA!" he shouted, whipping around. His impulsive step spilled Kevin into the flood of the vampire's natural enemy.

Pandemonium manifested. Kevin's frightened wail was a siren pitched high above Trixie's call for "TIBO!" and Angel's demand for "WESLEY!"

Snapping to attention, Wesley heeled away from chatting with Gale at the window to see a panicking Angel trapped behind the barrier of sunlight. Warrior and Watcher quickly accessed the situation -- Wesley bolted for the small enclosure off the kitchen at Angel's direction, Gale yanked the cord on the window shades.

From inside the pantry, came the thunderous rattle of avalanching boxes and cans. Everything within the kitchen followed suit -- glasses dropped onto the table, eating utensils rained down into plates, the bank of blinds clacked shut against the panes, effectively snuffing out the cheery aura.

Tibo raced in through the door, throwing it closed behind him and, in nearly the same motion, snatched Kevin off the floor. Herding the children, he stampeded them into the next room.

Powdered with sugar down the side of one leg, Wesley appeared at the pantry alcove with a very disoriented Cordelia crooked by his arm. Angel met them and took over, catching Cordelia just as her knees buckled. She lost the last of her wobbly balance before reaching the table.

Wesley, Gale, Trixie, and even Angel held their breaths while waiting for Cordelia to recover. Her entire face wept; perspiration streamed from her pores. Her breathing was shallow, as if the effort would cause her to burst.

"Cordelia?" Angel whispered after one eternal minute.

Cordy barely opened her eyes. She winced. "Any kids?" she choked. The four heads shaking 'no' gave her the permission she needed to puke.

"Oh, God," Gale petitioned almost too softly for Angel to hear. Pale, nervous, and cloaking their mouths with their hands, she and Trixie eerily resembled Cordelia's post-Vision condition.

The door swung open on a good-natured laugh. "Gretchen and Kent got here just in time, I guess. All the kids -- " Tibo stopped mid-sentence, finally noticing the stricken facial expressions.

"Vision," said Trixie, crossing his path on her way for the mop.

Tibo approached quietly. Avoiding her splatter, he knelt at Cordelia's feet and bowed. He placed his forehead to her knees. "La'am," he rasped, awestricken. "They Who Speak have spoken to you."

While Wesley relayed a glass of juice from Gale, Cordelia seemed oblivious to his intensive scrutiny. He looked to Angel for an answer, only to find Angel looking to him for the same. He shrugged and, without thinking, reached for Cordelia's cheek; but a conscious thought stayed his hand. "Don't try to speak, Cordelia. Just relax," he soothed.

Cordelia sipped. She scrunched her nose. "This tastes like a matchbook," she royally complained.

Wesley swallowed his smile, but his dimples eked out nonetheless. Angel took that as a sign to relax, further relieved when Cordelia reached for his palm.

And spread it across her forehead.

Recovering more slowly than usual, Cordy leaned with both elbows behind her. "Did I happen to mention 'ow', already?"

"I believe we all caught the inference from your prior upheaval," Wesley joked, taking a seat by her side. Adjusting the notepad on his knee and uncapping a pen, he smiled to himself, then at Gale.

Angel cleared his throat and raised his brows, signaling for the presentation to begin.

"So, what's this about a matchbook?" Wesley prompted, dismissing the indistinct unease he detected in Gale. The Warrior had refused to glance in his direction, preferring to stare at Cordelia as if past experience could fathom the Vision from the depths of the young woman's head.

Cordelia batted her drowsy lashes. "Like when you light a match?"

"Sulfur," Wesley said, writing the word simultaneously.

"And she's burning up," Angel intimated. Despite the circumstances, it felt nice to have Cordelia exchange his one palm for the other. The chill-depleted hand he covertly balled into a fist beneath his long shirttail.

Tibo rested back on his heels. "You *saw* your vision," he hushed, his voice quavering. But his adoration was curtailed by a pinch that pulled him sideways.

Leaning against Tibo's ear, Gale sneered, "You ever think that's, maybe, why they're called *visions* in the first place?"

"Cave," Cordelia interjected. She stopped short of taking another swig of juice, unwilling to risk intensifying the flavor on her tongue.

Trixie offered a plastic bottle. "Children's aspirin is all I have in the house. Maybe just take an extra one?"

Cordy chomped four instead. "Mmmm. I remember these. Orangey, not sulfuric!"

"Well, well," Wesley said, tapping the pen against the pad with each word. "Adjectiving with chemicals. Someone's feeling better."

The Seer coughed at Wesley's comment and, after he flinched aside, she grinned wickedly. Unfortunately, the fake-out sapped her strength. A lazy blink later, she inspected Wesley's handwriting. "Six people, I think. Hard to count."

"You might not be able to see them all," Etrix ventured, unable to repress the undertones of her jealousy. The desire to be a vessel for Those Who Speak, to be a source of comfort for Cordelia, riled the ex-Seer's emotions. Worthless to assume either task, Etrix took to cleaning up instead.

As Trixie reached for a plate, Cordy offered "thanks" with her glass. Concentrating, she continued, "Maybe seven? Big and little jackets. Not all the same size."

Gale came around and leaned over Wesley's shoulder, flipping the pad back to the previous day. "That could be one of the camping parties," she said directly into the top of his head. When his chin tilted up, she expanded, "The teenagers in one of the families."

Cordelia sniffed. She rubbed her sleeve under her nose.

Its purpose spent, Angel reclaimed his hand and took a turn with, "Smells like?"

"Like that janitorial supply closet at Sunnydale High."

"Mildewy." Wesley nodded. Insulted by Angel's wide-eyed inquisition, he defended his deduction. "It was a rather quite pronounced odor, Angel. And as many times you visited that campus, you can't tell me that *you* couldn't smell it."

"Hey, I wasn't making accusations..." Angel yielded.

"Cave. Sulfur. Hot. Location-wise that would give us... A mineral spring?" Wesley asked, hoping someone would answer. Even projecting his gruffest deportment couldn't combat the look on Angel's face. It was a wonder how such blankness could express so much emotion. There was a well of affection in those deep brown eyes; restrained humor tipped up the corners of those quirky lips. And to make matters worse, Cordelia sat there attempting her version of the same. Wesley swore at himself for possessing the thoughts that Cordelia's present debilitation left her unable to do much more than present the faintest of smiles.

Alone, Angel and Cordelia had formidable personalities; together, their tag-teamed adorability could pummel Wesley's reserve.

"Lo'woroo," Trixie interrupted, sponging crumbs off the table and into her hand. "Sacred to the Monya who migrate from the tundra during the winter and settle in the mineral caves near the rainforest."

"Used to migrate," Gale corrected, forking scraps from one plate onto another. "The Monya were annihilated a dozen years ago."

Trixie ceased her activity out of respect, sadly recalling, "But, they were so peaceful."

"Peacefulness is what got 'em killed, Trixie," the Warrior-in-residence replied matter-of-factly. After stacking the last of her plates, she straightened up and yanked on the hem of her tee-shirt. She strode past Tibo and grazed him deliberately. "Looks like this assignment is all yours now, Angel," was sniped on her way out of the room.

Strong enough to assist her nephew to his feet, Trixie was unable to hold back his retaliatory pursuit.

"So, we'll get to Lo'woroo and do this," Angel asserted. He stood and took Cordelia's elbow.

Trixie explained, "But, this isn't someplace you can drive to. You'll have to hike and it won't be easy."

After assisting Cordelia to her feet, Angel steadied her. "Just show me where," was met with a pat on his arm. The Seer tapped her forehead in reply.

Within the span of one moment, all of Angel's supernatural fortitude had been vanquished. The vampire crumpled to the bench. "Nooooooooooooooo." Shaking his head, in the throes of a disagreeable fugue, Angel moaned against the portents of the summons.

Cordy tugged his ear, assuaging, "It's OK, Angel. I've led us before; I can lead us again. After all, practice can only make me more perfect!"

Trixie laid a consoling hand on the vampire's shoulder. Grateful for a role, she told Wesley, "I'll start making the arrangements."

-0-

Cordelia just wanted to sleep and Wesley had helped her upstairs. The Vision had left her so exhausted she'd climbed between the covers without removing her shoes. She didn't stir as he untied her laces and tucked her toes away. While exiting their room, he spied Angel in the half-shadows of the staircase leading up to the attic. The faintest rustle of fabric and the slightest click of the door, before Wesley had fully turned away, informed him Angel had slipped inside.

To keep watch.

Descending the stairs, Wesley heard the Warrior and her Messenger shouting in anger. Each step closer to the library brought the calamity of their situation to bear.

"THERE HAD TO HAVE BEEN VISIONS LEADING UP TO THIS ONE, TIBO!" Gale screeched.

Tibo, immobile as a stone sculpture, stood resolute against the tempest of Gale's accusation. Except for the insolence he wore with smug satisfaction, he was unemotional.

"Aren't you the least bit embarrassed that the Powers That Be gave *your* Vision to Cordelia?" she taunted.

The tirade made Tibo turn inward and he took on the aspect of someone upon whom great wisdom had been bestowed. With his head bowed respectfully, he scathed, "Obviously less so than you are to have your assignment delegated to Warrior Angel."

The thunderous clap of Gale's hand across Tibo's face unharnassed the storm of their contention. The Messenger lurched at his Warrior, but Gale pivoted out of his direct onslaught. As he stumbled past, she slammed her clasped fists down onto the base of his spinal column. Tibo lost control of his motor skills and thudded onto the floor.

"Gale!" Wesley wrangled her backwards. Upon realizing how easily he'd accomplished that feat, he knew he'd done the equivalent of interrupting an archer. Gale had been a weapon at the ready, set to release, and he hadn't considered the stupidity of positioning himself in front of her target.

Shaking, she shied away from Wesley and struggled with her reflexes. While watching Tibo slink away, she pelted him with her thoughts. "I think..." She stepped to the window but couldn't see past the water spots dotting the glass. "I suspect that Tibo's been holding onto his Visions."

Alarmed, Wesley rushed her. His authoritative mien was diminished somewhat by the concerned tilt of his head. "Can he do that?"

Gale nodded. "I used to."

Repulsed by the connotations of her confession, he moved away. "Dear God. Surely Cordelia's not -- "

"No! No!" Her hand waved vehemently. "It's different with demons, Wesley. The Powers that Be just snatch you and make you this... This THING and then they pair you with some piece-of-shit cretin who only has one basic thought process." Uneasiness shaded her unspoken designation of that single-mindedness as "kill."

"And was there no other way you could voice your dissent?"

The disdain in his voice cut deeply. She cocked an accusatory thumb at herself. "Demon of Discord, remember? For one thing, I HATED being fixed in this dimension; but they needed my hard copy to retain the Gift.

"So, I blew off that first... Year." She snorted. "What Tibo and I are doing? *Nothing* compared to me and Werlo. I finally got him killed," she said, astonished by the self-satisfactory tone in her admission even after 156 years. She dashed the relish from her voice to continue, "The PTB upped the pain-factor but they must have forgotten I'd been a Slayer. FUCK pain! And then, one day, I got the message. Boy, did I get the message."

At his core, Wesley found her actions reprehensible. With one hand against the window frame for support, he listened in profile. "Corporal punishment?" he presumed.

"Death Vision."

She had paused long past the point of awkwardness, but Wesley didn't know what to ask. He knelt into the window seat and sat back against the framing, shifting sideways across the fluted wood in an effort to rub out his anxiousness.

Gale used Wesley's movement as an invitation to join him. Seated as if to occupy only the cushion's corded edge, with her elbows on her knees, she hunched forward.

There was a haunted aura about her, like the sheen of her immortality had finally begun to erode. For someone who had always been accomplished at twisting together the worst things to say, it wasn't so difficult to imagine that she'd have a difficult time forming thoughts with a vocabulary light on delicacy. "Sometimes, if you just begin with something basic," Wesley recommended.

Or, when in doubt, return to the basics. "I guess I should thank Cordelia for reminding me how glad I am to *not* be a Messenger anymore."

While waiting for her rancor to subside, Wesley sighed at the view. "If I'm understanding you correctly, you're saying that the Powers That Be are punishing Cordelia." Her sorrowful eye-contact denied his assumption and he exhaled, grateful.

"I do think the Vision was meant for Tibo, though."

"Hardly making the situation any less worse, especially if Cordelia witnessed these campers being killed."

"Slaughtered." To allay his horror, she rubbed his knee. "Nine times out of ten, this many victims would be slaughtered, Wesley. But, Cordelia's recollection was too vivid. I think that she may have seen -- but still hasn't seen -- the aftermath."

"The bodies would have been stacked, hence her inability to make an accurate count," he said, disgusted with how clinical his reasoning sounded in his ears.

Gale stroked the drapery. "She's amazing though, Wesley. When I finally settled down, it took years to pick up the details that she manages."

Proudly, Wesley accepted the compliment for his associate. "After having her mind seized by the Forces of Darkness, Cordelia was imprisoned by a series of unremitting Visions. The crash course must have done wonders for her ability because, since recovering, she's been incredibly focused."

"But she'll still never be able to relate to you or Angel everything she receives." To Wesley's perplexity Gale expanded, "Most of what a Messenger sees is inexplicable."

-0-

Tibo, perched on the porch stoop, pulled a hydrangea's bouffant cluster apart cup by cup. "Cordelia is incredible," he said as his Da'ur took a seat beside him. "The Gift lives within her."

"She saw their deaths, Tibo," Etrix snapped.

Puzzled, Tibo stopped his activity and faced her. "The Powers That Be do not send such messages."

With her sandaled foot, Trixie scuffed the maimed petals aside. "They do, Tibo. And, they did. I don't know if Cordelia saw them die, but she knows that they're dead."

Pausing, he mulled over the connotations of her statement before replying, "The Prism did not say that they were dead; so, I will not believe you."

"You stupid boy -- "

The fingers on Trixie's throat crimped any further comment. Locked jaw notwithstanding, Tibo's words were clear. And hostile. "You are still dear to my father, but that gives you no right to speak to me in this way."

Striking off Tibo's grasp, Trixie retaliated with a verbal drubbing, "Six years, Tibo, and you've yet to have a complete Vision? You can fool your elders, you can fool my dear brother, but you cannot fool me or Gale. The Powers That Be aren't talking *to* you, idiot; they're speaking *through* you. But, you're too pig-headed to listen and learn from those more experienced."

Rearing back, he cackled, "Listen to you or Gale? Both of you whores and with your Gifts reassigned?"

Quaking lower teeth forewarned a tremulous flush. Trixie, already glowing rosy, blazed fuchsia. "How dare you say such things! When you have *no* understanding of either situation."

"I know what I see so I do have sight, Da'ur." His bottom lip peeling from over his upper enraged Tibo's normally placid features. "I will fulfill the direct wishes of the Powers That Be and They will reward me. Perhaps even allow me to serve with the Warrior Angel."

Shaking her head in disbelief, Trixie laughed cynically. "You've admitted your distaste for humanity to me any number of times, yet you aspire to cling to a vampire, Tibo? Your double-standards are insane."

"He is more than a vampire, Da'ur," Tibo said, his eyes respectfully hooded. "Through him, the Messenger Doyle achieved Har'a'un."

Howling, Trixie swiped tears from the creases of her eyes. "Martyrdom? Is that what you're angling for?"

Without warning, she took a fistful of hair on either side of his head and yanked him to attention. "If you want to be a martyr, Tibo, I think that Gale would be more than happy to oblige you. But first, that would mean you'd have to present a full Vision, wouldn't you?" she scoffed.

He shoved the matron away, stomped upright, and regarded her with contempt. "You mock me, Da'ur, fine. But one day soon you will have to honor my success."

-0-

The tufted cushion in the projecting bay window provided seating for a half-circle view of the hillside neighborhood where the more prominent, modern homes abutted the few remaining Queen Anne Victorians. Still, what the older homes lacked in numbers, they made up for with eccentricities -- steeply pitched roofs with scalloped gables and castle turrets, an asymmetry of windows mounted into fish-scale siding, all with elaborate brickwork -- finished-off with a chimney totem or two.

Beyond the authentic colors of sienna, hunter, and ochre and the more brightly painted houses of periwinkle, coral, and plum, Puget Sound shimmered light blue and the apricot tones of the false sunset sky. Mount Ranier's summit rose above an ermine ruff of clouds, topped with a snowy crown glinting silver and gold.

The last of the commuter ferries criss-crossed the harbour like busy, hive-bound bees, their ribbon wakes chopped to bits by knifing waves. There was something nostalgic about the activity; the vessels could be conveying horses and carriages as easily as automobiles. Sea-commerce cities were fascinating places to be, especially when one had a vantage as spectacular as the one Wesley shared with Gale. He'd been to the Port of Long Beach and he'd visited San Pedro Harbor, but compared to a city where the populace used waterways for day-to-day travel, Los Angeles' industrial seaports possessed little charm. He smiled to himself and said a silent prayer -- that the City of Seattle would never find the term "chunnel" worthy of exploration.

Far-Northern summers meant everlasting sunsets and, unlike the sun's morning appearance when she burst on the scene fully radiant, she took her time shedding vibrancy in the eve. Wesley's few favorite childhood memories were of magickal hours-long dusks in his Grandfather's garden before, in the blink of one eye, twilight fell like a thief.

Melancholy triggered his lips.

She waited. And watched him. The ten minutes he'd been silent felt like an hour. Wesley sat in the window with his right leg drawn to his chest, his cheek resting on his knee. Gale wanted into his thoughts, but he hadn't extended an invitation. So she waited. Waited.

And watched him. Engaged by his long, dark lashes raising and lowering; endeared by his chest drawing in and out. It was summer and he was even paler than he'd been in the spring. It worried her to imagine him disregarding the privileges of humanity to mete out the requirements of associating with a vampire.

He seemed more fragile than ever -- almost sickly. The idea of him lying in a hospital bed filled her with dread. But Wesley was here; close enough to touch the way she wanted to. And, on that impulse, she crept to him.

As if he'd been waiting all along for her to make their decision, his arms opened wide. He enveloped her limb after limb, twining his legs around hers, securing her back against his chest.

"That's why you can never go home after you've romanticized every other place you've ever been," Gale said, settling comfortably. "Every city reminds you of where you'd rather be."

His chin, adrift, floated along the fall of her mane. "Like every person reminds you -- " he spoke against her nape.

Unsure, she froze for a moment until warmed by the familiarity of his touch -- cautious then frenetic inquisitions traveling the length of her arm, his left forearm slithering around her waist. Making presumptions, his fingertips ducked beneath the hem of her shirt and traversed the bungee-corded waistline of her shorts. His hands reintroduced themselves to her form. Politely or with ravishing tenacity, tentative or subtly demanding, Wesley thusly plied claim.

Removing his glasses, he tucked them into a corner of the window-box for safety. There were no sights to be seen except her; no view except the landscape of her flesh washed with sunglow. This female in his arms... He knew her body before the first sensation of her flesh beneath his touch. She was supple and she was intense. Abruptly, his arm clinched tight across her midriff.

She gasped. His swollen familiarity pressed insistently against her spine. Her hand drifted to his face, cupped his cheek. He set his lips to her wrist, traced her palm with his nose, explored the whorls of her fingertips with the grooves of his lips.

His thumb gently stroked the under swell of her beast until his fingertips, picking aside the petal of bra, plucked its tender bud. His insouciant mouth suckled the tip of her littlest finger and puckered up and down the line of her throat.

"Seattle is so pretty. Do you like it here?" he murmured. Looping a few strands of hair away from her ear, his finger nearly slipped free of its noose before he relooped. He slipped and relooped again and again.

"Living here?" Gale asked, arching her back as he nudged aside her outseam to caress her hidden curves. "Maybe if I wasn't so alone," she ventured, teeth punishing her lip for allowing the remark to escape.

His tea-tinged breath in her ear -- and its irregularity, so him. The scent of his masculinity -- pungent and warm, enhanced by the library aroma of stability and wisdom.

"Hmmm?" she murmured, lightheaded and soaring like an osprey above the shore. She ground between his legs with her shoulder blade cleaving the center of his chest. Bringing her face to his, her lashes whisked his chin.

Perspiring, Wesley paced his breathing. His mouth lingered on the crescent of her cheek, his moistened lips parted for conquest. He bent forward to whisper --

"Hmmmm?" she moaned, fingering his teeth. Tasting the back of his hand until it had traveled far too low -- Oh! far too low -- to kiss.

The slivers of his nails, traveling the length of her elongated throat. Her lips, so near. He whispered again...

Gale turned on her hip and lifted her mouth to meet that lilting voice. His "What time will the children be home?" was hers to consume. The moment -- their moment, his breathing, her breath nearly one. So near to being one...

Routed by the course of a deafening cry.

Even before Angel boomed his name from Cordelia's room, Wesley had reset his glasses and jostled Gale aside. Fluidly, he rose without hesitation and hastened up the stairs.

Deflated, Gale sat up on her knees, waiting until even Wesley's sound had disappeared before she moved. "I'll find Cordy a sedative," she sighed.

-0-

Nightfall was oppressive, as oppressive as the atmosphere inside the room where Angel had claimed the edge of Wesley's bed to focus on Cordelia. It didn't matter that there was barely anything outside to see; Wesley stared into the immense black void and followed a lone freighter's progress towards Bainbridge Island. His hard swallow washed the last flavor of Gale down his throat.

Outside the door, children galloped after one another in the hallway. Giggling, they waited nearby before racing back from whence they came.

Wesley cast his eyes at the floor and, before turning around, made a mental note to pick up all the gold-leafed pasta Angel had picked off a wall-piece. "She's been quiet for hours, Angel. I think we should both get some rest," he suggested.

Angel's eyelids were clenched. "We were watching TV and she screamed like that, Wesley."

Wesley threw his eyes to the ceiling. Returning to the window, he discovered the vessel had powered away that quickly. No doubt, he thought, in fear of Angel's retelling.

Making a taffy-pull of the pillow, Angel kneaded and stretched and punched. "Yeah, I figured, adulterous transvestite makeovers is really stretching it for programming content, even for Ricki. But Cordelia wouldn't stop shaking and -- "

Unconfined down sifted from his fingers onto the floor. "Did you bring the Scroll?"

With his forehead cradled between his middle finger and thumb, Wesley rubbed at his temples. "An aftershock of her earlier vision doesn't require the Scroll, Angel."

Springing to his feet, the vampire paced to the door. "And what's taking Trixie so long with the arrangements? We need to get this over with and get Cordelia out of here."

"Angel? Stop. And, please, just sit down." Relinquishing his lookout, Wesley kicked goose feathers and pasta under his bed and removed his second pillow for safety. "Trixie doesn't have to hurry. I told you, the campers are dead. If you don't remember hearing me the first time, please listen now."

Angel stilled. He twisted violently and leveled his irritation at the ex-Watcher. "Good. Then we can leave."

"Did you just hear yourself?" asked Wesley, abhorred.

Tipping an ear toward his chest, Angel listened. "Still silent," he reported.

Irate, Wesley flung his pillow at the headboard. "You joke, Angel; but we're here for a reason."

"Pardon my lack of insight if I haven't figured out what that's supposed to be. Visioning dead rescuees, well..." Two fingers tapped Angel's temple. "At least in L.A., that's not the way the program works!"

Wesley reached over the clock-radio and flicked the lamp to its night bulb. "It's late, Angel. And, I really don't feel like arguing with you. Tomorrow, I'll make a map of our route and, I'm assuming that Trixie is trying to get us gear for however long we'll be in the forest."

With the room dimmed, it took on an unhealthy ambience. Regretting his dousing decision, Wesley returned to the window. "You realize, Angel," he finally spoke, blind to his own reflection, "that with Cordelia in the lead, this entire excursion is going to have to occur during the day."

Taking the foot of Cordelia's bed, Angel proclaimed, "I can manage." It was the fervid roll of her head giving him niggling doubts of just what he was capable of handling...

...

He couldn't catch his breath. Wheezing, he couldn't stop stumbling. His brother had taken hold of his arm and was practically dragging him across the pasture.

"C'mon, Liam!" said he. Launching forward, he gripped the yew's first branch, swung his legs up and over and promptly fell back to offer his arms. "This first one's the hardest, but you can make the rest of the way on your own."

Liam stared at the upside-down boy whose dark brown curls were springing in all directions. He wanted to say 'no', but all Liam could do was gasp. He couldn't even protest after his brother snatched him up by the underarms.

Coaxing, "Take it, Liam," after Liam placed his tiny hands onto the gigantic limb Middle Donn reached down. Grabbing Liam's waistband, he hiked the much smaller boy into the tree. "Ready?" he asked.

Liam coughed once, twice, and began to follow.

The older boy made it seem so effortless. Taking each branch, finding a foothold, he had memorized each knob and outcropping. Every so often -- not to make sure that his brother was following because that was a given -- he lent a hand upwards.

Liam sat on the highest branch with his eyes closed and his arms barely hugging the massive trunk. He was tired -- so sleepy, breathing open-mouthed and sweating beneath his woolen pullover. His yawn and a swallow interrupted his panting.

At long last, he opened his eyes. Yawning again, he looked around...

The tears were involuntary.

"Liam. What?" His brother's concerned face hovered nose-close.

Liam's hard blink blurred his vision. "S... s... sc... ared," he stammered, sealing his eyes and grinding his face into the bark. "Too hi-igh!" he sobbed.

Graced by meadow song, the silence between them lasted too long. The frightening thought that faeries had arrested his brother for trespassing bolstered Liam's eyes wide.

But his brother had never left his side. With the corners of his mouth tipped -- one high, one low, he was considering The Bens. "I'm sorry, Liam. I thought... " The look on his face encouraged Liam to follow his determined gaze seaward. Up on his knees, one arm bracketed his little brother. He whispered, "Do you see? The Indies, Liam. And beyond them, the Americas."

With his courage faltering, Liam squinted and shook his head. "I see a schooner with her jib all in tatters. And the island." He looked into his brother's face for approval. Impulsively, he smoothed the soft, freckled cheek, confessing, "I can never see as far as you get to see, Athairín."

Smiling mischievously, the older boy's teeth snagged his lower lip. He tilted Liam's head past an evergreen branchlet. "Maybe you're still too small, but I know you can at least see to Scotland. You can see that far, can you not?"

Liam, loathe to disappoint, nodded his head affirmatively.

Pleased, his brother plopped back without looking. Fearlessly straddling the limb, his long legs swung to and fro. "So, first you'll visit the Scots and then who will be next?"

Liam shrugged. A brisk wind chilled the moisture on his skin and he shivered violently. His still-streaming tears felt like snow on his face. "First I want to go home," he cried.

Carefree hands pushed the hair out of Liam's eyes; gentle kisses blotted the torrents from his cheeks. A voice reassured, "I keep forgetting that you're not nine, too. And, I'm sorry."

"But, I am getting bigger," Liam argued, more afraid he'd start being left behind.

"You are getting bigger. You're almost bigger than me!"

"That's not true!" Liam sniffled. He pinched the toe of his boot. "See, I still got wads of stuffing!" But his brother didn't see; he'd scrambled onto a branch.

"C'mon, Liam, you wee mouse. The view is grand from this one. Look!" he shouted, swinging his offered hand to point into the distance at the advancing dark speck. "It's Da's surrey."

Through ceaseless tears, Liam shook his head vigorously. He looked into the boy's dark brown eyes sparkling with daring. Adamantly holding onto the tree's trunk, Liam complained through his chattering teeth, "Too high and too far out. Come back. You might fall if you stay." Then, timidly, he unwrapped one arm from his support and held out his tiny hand, even though he knew they weren't close enough. But, still...

"Liam!" The reproach was lilting, as laughter bubbled from deep within his free-spirited core. He was always laughing, this one, as if life could hold such charm.

The wind howled across the field. It tickled the yew, spiriting a few black-green needles away.

"Pleeeeeeease!" Liam pleaded. Wiping away tears with the heel of his palm put something in his eye. Relentless terror wouldn't allow for a breath.

A laughing shush, "Liam." In response, the tree jiggled.

"Come back!" Liam wailed.

A tremor. A simple snap. With gaping eyes, the older brother turned to the younger.

"No. No. No," Liam chanted. "No, no -- "

A creak became a long, pitching moan. The limb croaked the first notes of a Bean Sidhe's lament.

"LIAM!" his brother shouted over the yawing ruckus. "LIAM!"

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" Little fingers strained to be long enough, but they weren't. Not strong enough to hold the shearing limb to the trunk, he reached out as far as he could. "Please, please," Liam whimpered --

And then, silence. Nothing. No wind. Not the sea, nor the hooves of a horse. The tree held its caterwauling and waited...

Waited...

Liam's brother faced West. "Promise me, Liam, you'll sail?" His features, so handsome, were serene. So mature. "I'm so glad you were mine," he whispered sincerely, will all the love in his heart. All the love in the world. He flicked a kiss from his lips and smiled the way he always had smiled, just for his brother.

Within the beat of their hearts...

One pattered no more.

The smiling boy, with his arms open wide and heavenly gaze deeply hollow, lay upon his wooden raft, adrift on an emerald sea. Continuing to offer his 6 year-old palm, Liam was amazed to find it suddenly large enough to cover the entire odd lay of a body...

...

Shay's voice faded in and out, carried on the breeze. Cold words. Daytime fading, it was so cold. "Best you get home with the little one, Donn. I saw the Sister pass over an hour ago. It should have been you with the news for your wife."

His father's chin was so hard on the top of his head. But, he didn't know that he was hurting his littlest boy. And, his breath wasn't right -- or else that was the smell brought out by the heavier drizzle on his sunny-day -- not his rainy one -- woolen coat. They weren't warm; the coat wasn't warm. They were wet and they were shivering. And his father's chin hurt his head.

"What if..." the faint voice wasn't familiar, "...everything we've been doing?" His father's hold began to loosen, one arm less sturdy than the other. He struggled to bind his son to his chest, wringing the lapels around them both. But he was trembling like the tree had trembled. And his teeth were making the same kinds of sounds.

"Let me have Liam, Donn," Shay hushed, reaching inside in an attempt to pull the boy away.

Thankfully, Shay's request was refused. Liam was too weak to hold onto his father's neck; his weary head sloshed against the reeking shoulder. Water dribbled off his father's untidy hair. Their steamy sighs were stale.

Liam recognized some of the faces in the field (his brother would have known everyone's names). All of them were far better dressed when they went to church on Sundays. The men stood in a circle, shaking their heads and taking turns drinking. There was a magnificent rug on the grass that someone had forgotten to smooth the lump from under. The men were all pretending that the lump wasn't there.

"GOD!" The haggard man gasped and smacked the palm of his hand to his forehead. Staggering away, his footsteps were jarring.

Shay kept pace at a trot. "Where are you off to?" He tried speaking casually, but there was a worried catch in his voice. He took hold of his friend's shoulder and finally got him to stop. "Donn!"

Deep lungfuls of air came out as a roar, "OUR INHERITANCE IS TURNED TO STRANGERS, OUR HOUSES TO ALIENS!" He shuddered and moaned. "What, dear Lord? Why? Why? Be this Your will?"

"Donn..." Shay cautioned.

"All we've done, Shay? Be this a sign? Bedding with the English -- "

Shay's massive hand clamped off the uncertainty. "Keep your voice low, Deartháir. These men," he flung a head of red curls at the workers, "would sooner garrote you than thank you for the food on their tables. To them, any contact with the English is pure treachery. What we do, we don't do lightly; we don't do for ourselves. You know that and that God of yours knows it, too."

"But what it is we do... Our moral purpose..." Slumped against the tree, he lost purchase on his grief and nearly his son along with it. His head bowed penitently. "*His* will, Shay. Not ours. Not us to judge, nor us to punish."

"Nor us to deliver?" The shorter man stroked away the sodden strands of hair screening the set of woeful, brown eyes. "I don't prescribe to your God any more than I prescribe to Mohammed or the Sidhe. What we do, we do for the good of the land and I refuse to believe any supreme authority would deem that as wrong."

Eyes dropping to his Liam, his brows knit in confusion. "Then, why take my son?" he slobbered into the child's hairline.

Shay's arms encircled the pair. "Take my words a heartless thing to say, but consider it better that your God took the buachaill now rather than the English, later."

-0-

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Angel's Journal