Summary: Wesley talks to Gunn about Buffy, and thinks of what might have been. Follow-up to "Residual Duties" and "Talking Points."

Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters portrayed here, they remain the property of their respective owners/creators.

Rating: PG-13, for themes.

Time Frame: Several hours after the last scene of the second season finale of "Angel." (spoilers for that and for "The Gift.")

Archiving: Be my guest, but e-mail me (eilandesq@aol.com) to let me know. . .I like to know where stuff I write ends up and I might want to see what else you've got.

Note: Thanks to Krissy, who made the initial suggestion that led me to write this story.


DISBELIEF


Wesley sat quietly in his office, deep in thought and looking absently over at the wall across from him. He failed to hear the soft footsteps coming up to his door and blinked in surprise as Gunn called out, "English? Did you want to be alone, or can I come in?"

Wesley smiled gently, then turned to his friend and replied, "Come in, Gunn. . .and close the door behind you." Gunn complied, and pulled up a chair across from Wesley as the former Watcher asked, "Is Fred settled in?"

Gunn smiled briefly, then responded, "She's fine. . .after living for five years in a cave, I got the impression that she thought the accommodations were rather spectacular." He sobered, then added, "She asked if there was anything she could do to help."

Wesley blinked, then shook his head slowly and replied, "No. . .she'll need time to re-adjust to life here. . .she doesn't need to deal with the consequences of our grief."

Gunn looked down for a moment, then asked, "Wes. . .Angel, Cordy and Willow are still in his office. . .why don't you join them? You all knew Buffy a lot better than I did, and I know better than most that having friends around at a time like this is a good thing."

Wesley looked down, then shook his head again and responded, "No. . .at any other time, I'd be glad to help them deal with their grief. . .but there are substantial negative associations concerning Buffy and myself in the minds of Angel and Willow, and I can't inflict my presence on them just because it would help me with my own pain."

Gunn considered Wesley's reply, and for a long moment there was silence in the office.


* * * * *


It had been silent in Angel's office as well, and it took a moment before any of the three solemn figures in the room noticed the familiar voices. Cordelia frowned, then asked, "How come we can hear what they're saying?"

Angel shrugged, then replied, "The acoustics in buildings this old can be funny." His eyes widened as he heard Wesley explain why he wasn't going over to Angel's office, and he rose, commenting, "I should let him know that we can hear him-"

"Don't." Cordelia and Angel turned in surprise at Willow's interjection, and the young witch hastened to explain, "Wesley's carrying around a lot of guilt about his time in Sunnydale, and a lot of it is connected with Buffy. If you tell him we can hear him he'll just clam up and never deal with it. . .I'm past any bad feelings I had toward Wesley about his time in Sunnydale, and I'm pretty sure Buffy was too. . .if we hear what's bothering him, we can let him know we're OK with it." She turned to Angel with a determined expression on her face and asked, "Are you with me on this, Angel?"

Angel blinked, and he took a moment to consider any lingering animosity he had for Wesley from his time in Sunnydale. There was a touch of bitterness, but much of it had been exorcised by the whole incident with Faith last year, and whatever remained was greatly overshadowed by the affection and respect he had for his English friend. He turned to Cordelia, who nodded, then turned to Willow and smiled, replying, "Could I ever say no to your resolve face?" The three friends smiled at shared memories, then turned to listen to what Wesley and Gunn were saying.

* * * * *

Gunn sighed, then looked at Wesley and commented, "All right, then. . .I'm here. . .unload already."

Wesley sighed, then began, "I'm sure you remember what I told you about my time in Sunnydale, about how my preconceptions and arrogance helped push Faith over to the side of evil." Gunn nodded, knowing just how much guilt Wesley carried around about that particular subject. Wesley continued, "However, the harm I did didn't begin and end with Faith. . .it went far beyond that, and the foremost victims of it were Buffy and Angel."

Gunn nodded again, and Wesley described the major events of his time in Sunnydale, in great detail and not sparing himself in the slightest. Some of it--such as the story of how Giles had been fired for his closeness to Buffy--Gunn had heard before, while some of it-such as how Wesley had urged that the Box of Gavrok not be turned over to the Mayor even if it cost Willow her life-he had not heard. Gunn could tell that Wesley was becoming increasingly upset, and at length he spoke up: "English. . .getting stuff out is good, but this is really getting to you: maybe we should take a breather."

Wesley smiled at his friend, then shook his head sadly and replied, "No. . .I need to finish this. . .and the most important part is yet to come." He sighed, then told about how Faith had poisoned Angel, and how the Council of Watchers had flatly refused to help cure him, in spite of Wesley's impassioned pleas about Angel's usefulness to the cause, and the likely effect that Angel's death would have on Buffy. They had ignored him, and Wesley had been forced to give Buffy the news. . .with results that were quite predictable in retrospect. Buffy had quit the Council, defeated Faith, cured Angel at almost the cost of her own life, and defeated the Mayor without any further help from the Council. Wesley had volunteered to help in his own right, only to be ignominiously disabled early in the fight and relegated to a hospital bed at Sunnydale Memorial Hospital, where he had still been three days later when the Council sent him a cold note informing him of his firing. Wesley paused, then buried his head in his hands for a moment and shuddered before looking up and concluding bitterly, "So there it is. . .the career of Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, Watcher. . .quite a sorry spectacle."

Gunn looked at Wesley with compassion and commented, "Wesley. . .we've had talks about this before. . .Angel's clearly over it, and I didn't see Willow giving you any nasty looks. . .she knows that you feel bad about what you might have done wrong in Sunnydale. As for Buffy. . .I don't know, Wesley. . .you knew her a lot better than I did." A recent event nagged at him for attention, and Gunn thought a moment before asking, "English. . .Willow told us about how and why Buffy died, and it stuck in my head. Just yesterday, you were telling me about how sometimes people had to die in a war, and that trying to save everyone would cause you to lose everyone. How is what you told me then different from you being willing to sacrifice Willow to stop the Mayor?"

Wesley sighed and looked over at his younger friend, realizing that he was still trying to resolve his own conflicts about the price one pays as a leader in a dangerous environment. He met Gunn's eyes and replied, "Gunn. . .those men were in the process of slowly being massacred by their enemies when we encountered them, and our plans would have put all of them in immediate danger of being annihilated by the head priest in the blink of an eye. We didn't have magic, our best fighter was tied up fighting theirs. . .and--most importantly--we just didn't have any more time. If I could have come up with a plan that would have been likely to succeed that would have cost fewer of their lives, I would have implemented it. . .but there wasn't one, and the men knew it." He shook his head sadly, thinking of the waste of life, then continued, "With the Box of Gavrok, we were operating without much information: we knew it was important to the Mayor, but we had no way of knowing about whether the Ascension could take place without it, or any number of other important facts. . .what we did know was that someone who had fought well for the cause for over two years, and who was a dear friend to everyone present except for myself, would be killed if the trade was not made. . .and that in any event the Ascension would not take place for weeks, giving us time to think of another way to hinder the Mayor." He shook his head again, then concluded, "Gunn. . .sometimes the loss of life, even innocent life, is a necessity to avoid overwhelming catastrophe. . .but it must be the absolute last resort, and if there is time to consider other options, that time should be taken and the gravity of the action fully contemplated. . .without that, we lose that which makes us better than what we fight. . .sadly, the Council has lost sight of that truth in recent years, and so had I when I was in their employ. . .I am grateful that I have regained proper perspective on the matter."

Gunn nodded, and commented, "Yeah. . .and Buffy figured out a way to fix this whole thing without killing any innocents. . .this whole thing had to be ripping her apart."

Wesley closed his eyes, then looked down and commented, "From what Willow has said, the monks must have substantially tampered with her mind in establishing the illusion of Dawn's past in her memories. . .I strongly suspect that her warnings to Willow and the others were meant to as much protect them from her as to protect Dawn from them. . .if she had perceived a threat to Dawn from one of them in a moment of confusion or panic, there might have been unfortunate results. I think that in her own confused way she was trying to protect them from herself." His jaw set, and he hissed, "Damn those bastards for doing that to her. . .Buffy's been through so much over the years, and then for those fools to uproot her entire sense of reality. . .it's extraordinary that she managed to hold on as well as she did."

Gunn saw the fury on his friend's face, and reminded him, "They all bought the farm when Glory caught up with them. . .and they did think they were doing what they had to in order to save the world. . .their methods sucked, but from what I've heard from you guys, if I had something or someone I wanted to keep safe, I would have wanted Buffy to do it."

Wesley looked up at Gunn, and the anger faded away as he nodded and replied, "She was extraordinary. . .she will be missed by all who knew her, and many who never will."

Gunn saw the change in Wesley's expression, and he remembered an incident from a number of weeks back that had been nagging at him for a while. He coughed self-consciously, causing Wesley to look at him as he began uncomfortably, "Look, Wesley. . .you can tell me it's none of my damned business if you want to. . .but Cordy was so damned sure that something had happened between you and Buffy, and you did seem to be acting differently around each other by the time we left for L.A." Wesley's expression tightened, and Gunn added quietly, "I'm not asking to get cheap thrills, Wesley. . .I'm just trying to figure out if you're mourning a lost friend and ally. . .or someone even more important to you."

Wesley relaxed, and was silent for a moment before looking up at Gunn and replying, "Nothing happened, Gunn. . .well, nothing earth-shaking in any event." In a quiet voice, he told Gunn about how he and Buffy had talked for some time in her room, and how a muscle cramp had led to a massage, which led to a rather long kiss before Wesley had reacted in fear and Buffy had recoiled. As Wesley described Buffy's panicked apology, an odd sound echoed through the office. . .it sounded like a squeak. Wesley glared up at the air vent and commented, "I'll have to ask Angel about bringing in an exterminator. . .we seem to have a mouse problem."

Gunn shook his head and replied, "Yeah. . .damned mice."


* * * * *


Cordelia glared at Willow, who was holding her hand over Cordelia's mouth to prevent her from calling out. Willow stared at Cordelia, then took her hand from Cordelia's mouth as she whispered, "The sound probably goes both ways, Cordelia. . .do you want them to hear us?"

Cordelia glared for a moment, then whispered back, "No. . .but I was right, damn it. . . There was something going on between them." Abruptly, both women flinched, as they remembered there was a third person in the room, and turned to look at Angel. Cordelia gave Angel an apologetic look and whispered, "Sorry, Angel. . .I didn't mean it like that."

Willow and Cordelia were surprised to see the serene expression on Angel's face, and even more so at his calm response: "It's all right, Cordelia. . .now, let's listen to the rest of it, all right?" He went silent, and Willow and Cordelia followed his example.


* * * * *

Gunn turned away from the vent and urged, "So what happened next?"

Wesley nodded, and quietly recounted the rest of the conversation between himself and Buffy. Gunn was fascinated, and didn't interrupt once until Wesley concluded by explaining that he and Buffy had decided to remain friends for the present, and how Buffy had gently kissed him and left him alone with his thoughts. Gunn shook his head and commented, "Damn, English. . .how much sleep did you get after that?"

"I slept remarkably well. . .admittedly, the brandy helped." Wesley made his reply with a self-deprecating expression on his face, then added, "I think my ability to stay as calm and restrained as I was during the whole encounter was largely rooted in disbelief. . .deep down, I never really accepted the idea that she would choose me, and it made it easier more me to refuse her for her own good. . .now I wonder if I did the right thing."

Gunn blinked in confusion, and Wesley amended, "I don't mean that I should have let her seduce me right there. . .I mean I could have consented to pursuing things at a slower pace. . .perhaps a date or two." He looked down and whispered, "She was trying to find whatever comfort that life could give her in the midst of constant stress and pain. . .what right did I have to say no to that because of my own doubts? Perhaps I could have lessened her burden somewhat. . .I owed her that much, didn't I?"

Gunn frowned, then replied, "Wesley. . .it isn't as if you two lived close together, or had a lot of free time lately. The only reason we were there in the first place was to keep some major demon from chowing down on half of Sunnydale, and the chances are pretty good that with the whole Glory thing going on, it would have taken something even bigger to get her attention after that." Wesley nodded, and Gunn continued, "It's not like you laughed in her face or told her that it was never going to happen. . .you were worried that she might not be thinking clearly and told her why. . .then let her know that if she decided she really was into you that you'd damned well be interested, and in a big way. I haven't been running in the same crowd as you most of my life. . .but it seems to me that most women I've known would be pretty flattered by that, not hurt." Gunn was silent for a moment, and when Wesley looked up Gunn locked eyes with him and concluded, "It just wasn't meant to be, Wesley. . .and I'm sure she never blamed you for it."


Wesley was silent for a moment, then nodded absently before replying, "I'm sure you're right. . .in any event, she knew that she could count on me for help if she needed it, and the fact that she thought me worthy of that means more to me than any romantic connection between us ever would have." He sighed, then commented, "Working with Angel has allowed me to do great good and to redeem myself, and-recent setbacks aside-I am eternally grateful to him and to Cordelia and you for that. . .but even more than Angel, Buffy has been the one who has always seemed able to pull victory from the jaws of defeat. . .often at horrible cost to herself, but she kept coming through when needed. . .I still can't believe she's gone. It's beyond grief, beyond pain. . .just simple disbelief."

Gunn saw the desolate look on Wesley's face and nodded grimly, responding, "I know. . .it was out of left field for me, too." He stood up and walked over to Wesley, urging, "Come on, English. . .let's go over to Angel's office and see if anyone wants anything to eat. . .you need to get out of here."

Wesley looked at him for a moment, then nodded and stood up, walking to the door of his office and pulling it open while looking back at Gunn. When he turned to face forward again he was startled to see Angel's office door standing open and Willow, Cordelia and Angel standing right outside Wesley's office door. Willow was in tears, and as Wesley stood there in confusion, she threw herself at him and hugged him fiercely as she cried. Wesley automatically reached down and squeezed Willow's arm to comfort her as he exclaimed, "What in the world--?"

"Mice." Gunn's comment was sardonic, though the expression on his face somewhat belied his tone. Wesley blinked, then looked over at Cordelia and Angel with a mildly accusatory expression.

Cordelia flinched a bit at Wesley's expression, then shrugged and commented, "Funny old building acoustics. . .who would have thought it?" Wesley's expression softened somewhat, and Cordelia carefully turned away to examine a nearby section of wallpaper.

Wesley smiled slightly, then sobered as he looked over to Angel and stated quietly, "There are undoubtedly things that you will wish to say to me, Angel."

Angel nodded slowly and replied, "Yes, there are." Wesley steeled himself against what he assumed would be a flood of accusations, and was startled when Angel continued quietly, "Buffy told you that if you had been the man you were today when you first came to Sunnydale, she would have been wrong to reject you as she did. She was right. . .and we certainly could have used you there instead of the man who still had a lot to learn. . .but in a way I'm grateful that you weren't that man yet, because if you had been you would have remained there to this day. Wesley. . .the deck was stacked against Buffy this time. . .I doubt that any amount of assistance would have saved her life. . .but I can't imagine doing the work we've done here in the last year and a half without your help, and doing what we do here every day is the best tribute that I can think of to Buffy's memory. . .because none of us would be here today without her." Wesley stood silently in shock, and Angel nodded sadly at him and added, "As for the other matter. . .Buffy's choices were her own to make, and I can't think of anyone I would rather have seen her find happiness with. . .since circumstances are what they are, and blaming either of you for them would have been inexcusably petty of me."

Wesley nodded numbly, then looked down at Willow as she looked up at him with tear-filled eyes. He met her gaze with concern and asked, "Willow. . .I'm sorry-"

Willow shook her head emphatically and replied, "Don't, Wesley." Wesley waited silently as Willow visibly gathered her composure, then continued, "You did good, Wesley. . .and Gunn was right. . .Buffy wouldn't have blamed you for any of it. . .it was all just too much for her, and one night in her room or a candlelit dinner or two wouldn't have made much of a difference, though I'm sure she would have treasured the memories." She paused, then added, "All I have to say is, if you don't keep in touch and visit more in the future, you're going to have one cranky witch to deal with."

Wesley saw "resolve face" and nodded involuntarily in agreement to Willow's implied demand as Cordelia looked back to him and commented bluntly, "Weren't you about to suggest that we get some food?"

Wesley saw the tears glittering in Cordelia's eyes, betraying her actual mood, and he chose to ignore them as he nodded to Gunn and commented, "I believe our guest upstairs is in the mood for tacos. . .does anyone else have a preference?"

The somber mood noticeably lightened as the friends began planning the food run, and Wesley directed one more grateful thought to the friend who couldn't be there before diverting his attention to the admittedly minor problem of the moment.



As always, comments are welcomed and desired