Although Fred and Wes had only been into work a handful of occasions over the last few months, those, and the times Angel had met them socially, revealed a healing process at work. To begin with, one or both of them had looked drawn, as if sleep was hard to find, but as the weeks passed they became settled. He'd had to wait until they were ready; now he couldn't stall any longer. It would be done today.
The source book lay closed on Angel's desk, as it had for the past ten minutes. He worked on a letter, involuntarily stealing glances at the red volume.
"Hey." Gunn entered the office, briefcase in hand. "We all set?"
"Just finishing up a few things." Angel covered what he'd been writing with some papers. "You haven't brought more work, have you? Please tell me you aren't the bringer of work."
In one movement, Gunn sat and opened the case. It looked like the performance of a slick lawyer. Was this that self-confidence he'd been showing lately, or was it something Wolfram & Hart had programmed into him? That was the kind of question they'd all ask themselves from now on.
And yet. Every time Angel awoke he felt a weird mixture of elation and panic. It had taken weeks for him to realise that this was because the future had a big question mark hanging over it. He'd thought last May he understood what the world was and what his place in it meant (or didn't mean). Now he was both blessed and cursed with options.
"There's this one thing." The attorney produced a document from his case. "That matter you wanted looked into?"
Part of the future came back to Angel. He stared at the parchment on his desk – the Shanshu Prophecy, made worthless by his signature. "The Shanshu." His eyes met Gunn's. "Is there a way?"
Angel steeled himself. It was probably something with tests and guardians, and possibly catacombs. Actually, catacombs seemed likely.
Taking out a pen, Gunn drew a neat line through the signature. Angel could sense a familiar smell. "You have a pen already filled with blood?"
"Had that set up my first week here. I got a blood stash in my office. Saves me having to jab myself every time I sign something." He wrote, "Witnessed by Charles Gunn, Attorney at Law" and his own signature before pushing the Prophecy over to Angel. "Initial here to confirm the alteration, please," he said in a formal voice. In his normal tones, he added, "Why, what do you do?"
Angel took out his own blood pen and, glowering at Gunn, stabbed himself in the hand before writing the letter "a" onto the Shanshu. "Thanks for sharing. What happens next?"
Gunn raised his palms. "That's it."
"You're now fully Shanshu-covered."
Go easy, come easy. Redemptions or rewards weren't needed, but that didn't mean they weren't welcome. Sometimes it was even possible to arrange one for a friend. Angel felt a small, unguarded smile on his face, the hope that he would one day return to humanity. "I thought it would be more… involved."
"It was." Gunn's glance held something understanding as he got to his feet. "Anyway, is everyone meeting in the motor pool?"
"Give me ten minutes or so." Angel carefully rolled up the Prophecy and put it in his safe.
After Gunn left, Angel completed the letter. He read it through a couple of times then almost signed it in blood before he realised he'd picked up the wrong pen. Maybe that wouldn't have been such a terrible mistake. This was a kind of contract, after all.
Spike poked his head through the door. "Time's wasting." His eyes moved over the desk. Fortunately, they didn't rest on the letter that Angel quickly folded and pocketed, but on the source book. "Any more prophecies about me?"
The fact that he'd just been looking at the Shanshu made Angel sit in silence for a beat. "I was reading a dictionary of saints."
Frowning and smirking simultaneously, the other vampire said, "Are you the world's first Catholic vampire now?"
Angel allowed himself a little smile. "It was something you said about soul mates, how they can meet in more than one life, how they can be family."
"Any two close people. What about it?"
A good question, one he felt like talking about, and for some reason Spike seemed like the right person to talk to. "In the old country, people never shut up about saints. There was saint for everything. I didn't think much of the stories about them. But, who knows? Maybe some of them were slayers, magic users, champions."
Looking slightly confused, Spike moved closer to the desk. "Maybe."
"What do you know about Saint Winifred?"
Eyebrows rose then lowered in surprise and puzzlement. "Winifred's was a home for orphans in London. That's all. Are you going to tell me she's the patron saint of ex-Watchers with father issues?"
"Winifred's a patron of virgins."
The expression of glee on Spike's face crumpled before it completely formed. He could probably see this wasn't going to be funny.
"And a patron of abused children," Angel said.
Spike stared at him, unreadable. He dropped into a chair. "What's Wini's story?"
Angel rose and walked to the necro-tempered glass. The sunlit world outside had never felt closer. "She lived in Wales in the seventh century near her uncle, Beuno. He's a saint, too. They were very close." He studied the city's millions of windows. "One day, this guy came onto her. She told him to get lost, but he wasn't taking no for an answer."
"He forced himself on her?" The voice Spike used was surprisingly upset, making Angel glance back before he continued.
"He tried to, but she wouldn't let herself be taken. So he cut her head off."
Spike whisper-whistled, long and cheerless. "Sad little story."
Angel turned around. "The story doesn't end there. Winifred was miraculously restored to life, by Beuno."
"What, Uncle Beuno just stuck her head back on, did he?"
"More or less. He didn't do it alone, though. Some friends prayed with him." Remembering the account he'd just read, Angel became thoughtful. It had said that Winifred carried the scar on her neck for the rest of her life. "There's a shrine to her over there in Britain. Guess what it's called."
Spike shook his head.
There was a period of quiet. The other vampire laughed uneasily, and Angel shrugged, breaking the moment. "Forget about it; it's just a coincidence. Let's get going."
- - -
Spike wandered through the airport with the rest of them. Quite a hectic place, this. Not a place for strolling. People were hauling carts laden with suitcases and bags. People were rushing by, looking at their watches and not at the other watch-watchers coming toward them. People were barmy, sometimes.
Angel had insisted on carrying the cases, bags, and Fred's jacket. Lorne and Gunn chatted away comfortably with Fred and Wes. Spike felt on the margins. They all made him welcome these days; even the boss was only insufferable half the time. No, the problem was that he had something difficult to do this evening, and small talk and pleasantries grated on him.
They finally got near to customs. While Angel took everything but the jacket and hand luggage to be checked in, Lorne stood forward, showy. "We have presents."
"Presents?" Wesley looked embarrassed. "Really, there was no need-" He broke off and smiled as Fred let out a whoop.
"We're only goin' for ten days." She whooped again.
"I know that, Fredkins, but the gift I've got you for you? It's just too good to pass up." Lorne passed her a kitsch-yet-tastefully wrapped package. Most likely he'd paid someone a fortune to parcel it up like that. Fred tore it open in about half a second; the demon's smile became a bit fixed-looking.
Inside the paper was a wooden box, and she got that open in record time, too, pulling out a black sphere about two and a half inches across. "A magic eight ball," she said, and now her smile was the one that seemed stuck-on. Then that spark inside her crackled. "Is this one really magic?"
Moving to her side, Lorne laid an arm over her shoulders. "Not exactly. Let me show you how this works, my little taco belle." He took the ball from her and started to shake it gently. "Ask a question about the future."
"Will I win a Nobel prize?"
Lorne upturned the eight ball, and Spike leaned over to see what the answer would be. The little window on the toy stared up at him. After a moment, the words "HOW THE HELL SHOULD I KNOW?" floated to the surface.
Spike's eyes swivelled derisively upward. The crowd laugh politely and it's into another song – he should be onstage, that green bloke. Fred seemed over the Moon, though.
Gunn produced two conservatively-wrapped boxes, which turned out to contain a pair of antique reading lamps, small and neat. Again, the gifts were eagerly accepted, but Spike was too anxious to pay much attention to the smiles and kind words. It was his turn next.
Alright, be a brave boy and get it over with. They'll never know – how could they even begin to guess? He sauntered over to Wes and handed him a slim volume. "A bit of light reading. If either of you get the time." Hell, this was hard. "Sorry it isn't wrapped or anything; I've only just picked it up."
Surprised, looking the title over, Wesley read aloud, "A Ballad." He skimmed immediately to the publication information. "The poet is unnamed, but this was published by the Left-Hand Press. That's familiar."
Lorne piped up, "They're a subsidiary of Wolfram & Hart."
Spike bored his gaze into the demon's. Lorne's own eyes widened. "Sorry," he mouthed.
No one seemed to notice this exchange, but Spike was worried. He saw Wes thumbing curiously through A Ballad while Fred leaned around him to look, her eyes like an owl's: warm and wise, but also hinting at the single-mindedness of a predator. Those two brainiacs could work almost anything out, given the time, and Spike didn't want them to know. At least, he thought he didn't.
"This is good," Wes said. "Thank you."
Well. There you are then. Feeling absurdly pleased and awkward, Spike tried to think of a response. He was still doing this when Angel, moving in that slightly guilty way of his, returned. "Gifts, huh?"
"Yep." Fred raised her eyes from the poem to look at him expectantly.
Smiling back, Angel held out empty hands. The human's wouldn't notice, but there was a hesitation there, though the face held no reason for it.
"I don't have it on me now," Angel said. "You'll get it when you're there."
Strange, since it had been his idea to have going-away presents in the first place. Spike analysed Angel's body language. Was it just him, or did the other vampire seem more guilty than usual?
Goodbyes were said; hugs and handshakes were exchanged. That was that, and they were on their way. It was a good thing Fred and Wes were getting a little time out of LA. Seeing them go, in high spirits, was almost enough to make a jaded old vamp cheerful. So why didn't Angel look at all glad? The muscles around his eyes hardly twitched, but that was enough for Spike to see a touch of melancholy that shouldn't have been there.
- - -
This was a day for gifts, it seemed. It hadn't been easy to find the pendent, impossible, in fact. He'd finally had to see a master jeweller to have it crafted – a tiny butterfly, made from spun filaments of white gold. Fred gazed out of the limousine's open window and Wesley fastened the clasp for her, touching her neck with the backs of his fingers far more than was necessary.
At first, things had been difficult for both of them, mostly because of the nightmares. Sometimes he'd wake, almost overwhelmed by panic, certain he would find Illyria with him. On other occasions it was Fred's sleep that became troubled, dreams of pain, fear, and suffocation making her claw at the air. One bad night both of them had woken at roughly the same time, terrified. They'd clung on to one another, weeping with relief and with sorrow at the other's hurt.
After that night, and the day of words and lovemaking that followed it, the bad dreams began to lessen. Already they had become rare and vague for Wes. Fred's nightmares reverted back to her years in Pylea. It distressed him that she sometimes had to re-experience those days, but, as she told him, they were a part of who she was.
Holding up the pendent, her eyes bright, Fred said, "Are you always gonna do these things for me?"
Wesley smiled. "The plan is to spoil you rotten for several decades." The presumptuous implications of what he'd just said began dawn on him; before he felt any discomfort she lifted a hand and stroked his face.
"That's a great plan. Kiss me."
He leaned toward her and she closed her eyes, but a sudden desire for mischief made him continue past her face until he brushed his lips against her ear. "I'd be delighted. Where would you like it?"
She pushed him away, face a picture of suppressed mirth. Her finger pointed to a mouth that struggled not to laugh. The mirth broke free, and he held her, feeling and hearing her life.
"You know how I really like to be spoilt," she said eventually, grinning.
Wesley grinned back. She was the only person he knew who could make him smile like that. "I have an idea, yes."
Fred eyes became brighter. "And what might that be?"
Very slowly, he rubbed the top of her foot. "I thought I'd start by kissing your toes, and then work my way…" After allowing his hand to trail higher over her ankle and her calf muscles, Wes paused to leave a lingering caress behind her knee. He was about to continue this delightful journey when he saw her eyebrows draw together. She looked disappointed and sheepish, and she sighed unhappily.
"The spoiling might have to go on hold for a while."
"Mom's putting us in separate rooms, remember?"
Oh, dear. He'd almost managed to block that from his mind. Wesley glanced out at the moonlit Texan farmland scrolling by. He turned back to Fred.
She stared at him then burst into laughter. "Your face! This is one of those I-wish-I-had-a-camera moments."
There was tentative relief. It was faintly possible she'd been teasing him about the sleeping arrangements. "So it was a joke?" Hope, that was the thing.
She gave him her most puppy-dog eyes, although the glint of her laughter remained in them. "Are you mad? You can tell me."
His thumb smoothed tenderly over her eyebrow, cheekbone, and jaw line. He'd discovered this was something she particularly liked, and her expression became searchingly passionate. Wes touched his lips, gossamer light, to her forehead. "I'm furious," he said softly. "You're in a lot of trouble."
Unmistakeable arousal shaped her eyes. "Am I?" One side of her mouth lifted. "That's gonna give me something to think about when I'm lying in bed, in my room, all alone." She smiled sweetly.
Laughing, Wesley twirled a lock of her hair around his finger. "Minx." He took another look out of the window, feeling a twinge of both frustration and ironic humour. "We're here for ten days, Fred."
"I know." A look of mutual commiseration passed between them.
"Perhaps," he began, trying to make his smile as guileless as hers had been, "perhaps we might visit each other." He cleared his throat. "You know, after lights-out."
She did a very good job of looking shocked and jabbed a finger at his chest. "There's gonna be none of that, mister." The finger relaxed and slipped, meandering, into his shirt. "We'll have to go on long walks." Fred sighed again, and then sat up straight. "We'll be there in a few minutes. Would you pass my jacket? It's getting cold."
"I think that comes from driving through the night with the windows open," Wes said with no special emphasis.
Amused eyes narrowing deliciously, she snatched the denim from him and pulled it on. "I just wanted to see the old places by the road. It's not my fault this car has stupid black windows. Black windows! Windows you can't see out of!" She snuggled in beside him and thrust her hands into her pockets. "Oh," she said, tugging out an envelope. "I didn't put that there."
As she turned it over in her hands, Wes saw that it was addressed to both of them. "That's Angel's handwriting."
Frowning slightly, she opened the envelope and took out two sheets of paper. Though he was intrigued, Wesley wouldn't be so ill-mannered as to read over Fred's shoulder. This was a good excuse to watch her face instead. Initially a smile played around her lips, but it abruptly collapsed into anger. "What the hell?"
Worry stabbed through him. "What is it?"
She raised a hand, intent on the letter. As she read, her emotions shifted again, becoming calmer. By the time she finished and handed it to him, she was smiling again.
Wes began to read.
Dear Fred, Dear Wes,First of all I just want to say how happy I am that everything has come good for you two (don't panic; I'm not too
happy). You both deserve it.
That kind of brings me to the purpose of this note, and you might not like it. Here goes. You've both taken early
retirement. Full salary and benefits package.
Please don't think I want to get rid of you – it's not like either of you are replaceable, and I'm hoping you'll still be
a part of the team. This is an honourable discharge, with full honours for valour. You've done enough. For you, the
fight is over, at least on the front line. Consider this your going-away present.
I want to revive Angel Investigations so we have somewhere independent of this place. I bought the lease for the
Hyperion as soon as we started at Wolfram & Hart, though you might prefer somewhere nicer. I see you both leading
from the back. I don't want either of you in the field again. Maybe you think that's paternalistic, but sometimes it's
hard not to be when you're over two hundred years older than someone.
If you don't like that idea, my contacts have told me the new Watchers' Council is opening an academy in California.
I bet they'd snap you both up for the teaching staff. Of course, you might just decide to spend your time catching up on
your reading. It's up to you, and that's the point.
of us are bound together, anyway.
I was thinking of a name for the team. What about Circle of the White Thorn? I'm just kidding. I wouldn't be that
Wesley stopped reading at that point, trying to assimilate it all. While there was some sense of grief and anger, there was considerably more freedom and release. After all that had happened, this felt right. He reread the last paragraph and thought that it wasn't a bad name. Gunn would love it. "The wood of the whitethorn was traditionally used to stake vampires," Wes said, not fully realising he'd spoken aloud until he felt Fred kiss his cheek. He glanced over to see her smiling affectionately.
"I love you." She kissed him again. "Read the rest." When he didn't move, she giggled and physically turned his head back to the letter.A world of unhappiness, of perpetual and hopeless conflict, is a world where the Senior Partners have already won.
If that's all there is, then what are we fighting for? While there's some happiness, the bad guys lose.
I think the tide has turned.
Fred looked into Wesley's eyes. They sat, talking without speaking, until the limousine pulled to a stop. Outside, Wes could see a beautiful house with lights burning, like an oasis in the night. Fred shifted over to the limousine's window, bouncing in her seat. He half expected her to jump out of the car and run to the house, but instead she turned, sliding back across to him. She was sharing her joy at coming home, welcoming him into it.
He held her hands. How could someone so complex be so uncomplicated? "Nunc et semper ego te amo, anima mea." I love you now and always, my anima. This last word couldn't properly be translated into English. The feminine form of animus, anima was wind, breath, life, soul, mind, and spirit. To Carl Jung it was the part of a man's unconscious that represents his ideal woman.
"Wes…" Her fingers curled around his. "Wes…" She nestled against him in an embrace that tightened until he could feel her smile press against his shoulder, feel her breath as she whispered. "Weslius carus meus in aeternum. Sol unus meus es." Forever my beloved Wesley. You are my only sunshine.
The future was a mystery; what their lives might bring was uncertain. But Wesley knew that, when those lives were over, there would be no final partings, no incompleteness, gaps, or holes. For Fred and him, there really would be an ever after.
- - -
"You did what?" Spike had jumped to his feet, pushing his chair over onto the lush carpet of Angel's office.
Before Angel could answer him, Lorne murmured, "He fired Fred and Wes." The demon was openly stunned and looked like he would be unable to leave his seat even if he'd wanted to.
"I haven't fired them."
"No?" Now Gunn stood, flanking Lorne with Spike. "That's good, 'cause I got quite the case of déjà vu."
"Amen to that." Lorne looked pensively to one side as he spoke.
Angel had intended to tell them about it carefully, but Spike smelled something was up and had gotten the truth out of him. So now, on the fly, Angel did his best to explain his reasons. He told them Fred and Wes had earned this. He said that sometimes people won their corner of the fight, that sometimes winning and fighting were the same thing. Spike's, Gunn's, and Lorne's faces changed as he talked. The anger, at least, passed.
"I thought the fight was never over for anyone." Gunn's brow lowered. "I don't get it, Angel."
Seemingly lost in thought, Spike turned a quarter circle on his boot heel, staring into the distance. His voice, when he spoke, was an answer to Gunn, and almost the sound of someone saying the obvious. "Sometimes there has to be a happy ending."
Nodding, Angel got up himself. "Let's see how many more of those we can manage." They were pondering this as he left them and made his way to the stairwell, distractedly answering greetings from the night staff. Climbing steps, he contemplated the state of things. The apocalypse still reigned, and evil acts were commonplace. You didn't have to look far to see claws of hopelessness reaching out to pull everything down. At the top of the stairs, he opened a service door and walked out onto the roof, watching Los Angeles as it shined in the night. Who could say what miserable stories were playing out behind those countless lights? One light at a time, that would change.
It started to rain gently, and Angel smiled, thinking of growth and new life. He couldn't say it made him feel glad to be alive. Not yet. He was working on that.