Time will tell
I've heard it say
time and time again
and time is a great healer
when only time remains
time and tide will never wait
as time has proven true
the time has come
the time has gone
time for something new.
Charles M Moore.
American airlines flight 730 was late, and Xander wanted to give up and bribe the stewardess of the first flight out to Florida. Instead he had to be noble and continue to wait. Damn his nobility, it got him in so much trouble. He was sitting in the baggage claim under the sign for incoming flights, and had been for the past three hours, as the flight he waited for was delayed and delayed and delayed again. Every once in awhile he got up and checked the time on the TV above his head, but mostly he just slouched deeper and deeper into the plastic chair while watching the hall to the terminals with his one good eye. Just as he was about to nod off a loud speaker sounded over the waiting area exclaiming,
"Attention passengers, flight seven thirty from London is now arriving in gate ten. We apologize for the delay."
"Yeah, apologize my ass." Xander grumbled, hauling himself out of the badly form fitted chair and wincing as his spine cracked. With a grunt he picked up the cardboard sign that'd been scrunched up in the chair with him and shuffled over to the lines of poles marking the exit area. People started walking down the hall toward him, old, young, family members and business men. Xander pulled his checkered pullover tighter around himself and held up the wrinkled cardboard with the name CONNOR RIELLY scrawled in messy magic marker.
He wasn't sure if Connor would recognize him, or visa versa. They'd never spent much time together. By rights, Xander thought, I shouldn't even be here, Buffy should. But Buffy had left for the hospital before he got home, obviously forgetting the note he'd written her on the fridge, again. Very little got through to her these days. She'd gone out for another visit to Giles' doctor. Giles had taken one too many bumps to the head over the years and the damage had finally taken. Giles wasn't book man anymore; he wasn't much of anything but a vegetable since the Blue Wonder Woman came to Rome with the armies of Wolfram and Hart on her heels. Buffy changed after that too. The Watcher's council would have been proud of her if they were still around. She'd finally gone slayer solo.
After awhile he saw his target come down the ramp toting a black backpack. Connor walked past the crowd of other passengers, casually looking about. He looked a little healthier than the last time Xander had seen him, more filled out, more lucid. All good things in Xander's eyes. Or eye as was more accurate. He scratched a little at his eye patch while he raised the sign and waved it half heartedly in front of him to catch attention. Connor's eyes flicked over to him and he immediately slid through the crowd to Xander's side.
"Hey," he mumbled. Xander nodded and jerked his head in the direction of the baggage claim.
It took a long time for the right luggage to come up. They stood side by side, apart and not touching, watching the unclaimed bags roll round and round while other people chatted and hugged and kissed.
"Long flight?" Xander ventured, his voice a little lower and rougher than normal; probably from lack of sleep or the booze.
"Yeah," Connor responded. Another few minutes passed while more luggage came up the shoot, and Connor looked around over his shoulder at the crowd, then back at Xander who was fixated on the turning bags.
"Where's the rest of the gang?" he asked.
"This is the gang," Xander grumbled still staring ahead at the baggage. "Buffy had an appointment with Giles' doctor tonight, she couldn't come."
"Oh," Connor nodded then perked up when a familiar brown lump came up the baggage shoot. He and Xander pulled his bags from the ramp, a couple of thin, lumpy Salvation Army duffels, and each shouldered one before heading out.
Xander pulled his hat further down on his head and zipped his pull over up to the collar as the airport doors opened and they were blasted with freezing air. Connor cursed besides him and huddled into his over large coat, buttoning it up as his followed Xander over the crosswalk.
Tiny dots of snow drifted past their faces in the black sky lit up by the parking lights. Shivering together in equal misery they quickly chucked Connors bags into the back of Xander's sliver Honda, now blackened, dented and cracked with tape holding up one window. After the bags were stashed they hurried to tuck themselves into the car as well. Xander reached into the glove compartment and handed Connor the extra hat he now kept there, then rubbed his gloved hands together while they waited for the engine to heat up.
"So… how is everyone?" Connor asked as he rummaged through his back pack, pulling out scarf and gloves with numb fingers. Xander shrugged and rubbed his hands harder.
"Oh you know, fighting evil, turning evil, same ol same ol," Xander muttered. "There's still no word from Willow, and Buffy was thinking of mounting a rescue mission sometime soon. Only we wouldn't know where to send it."
Connor pulled on his gloves and finished tying the scarf. He stuffed the ends under his jacket and eyed the radio, but after a quick glance at Xander's worn face left it alone. Instead he looked out the window and admired the falling snow. It was beautiful. He remembered when he used to appreciate beautiful things just because they were beautiful, not because he saw them as having been spared. He rubbed the end of his cold nose with the back of his glove and hugged the straps of his pack tighter to his chest as he tried to hide his grimace.
"You must be glad to be out," Xander's voice came from beside him. Connor shrugged and spoke into the window,
"I guess. They gave me a clean bill of health, whatever that means," he muttered. In the drivers seat Xander glanced over at the pack that Connor had sitting in his lap. The top front pouch was open and he could see several orange pill cases sitting in easy reach. With a small frown he reached over and picked one out. Connor snapped away from the window and snatched it out of his hand, stuffing it back into the pouch and zipping the flap before Xander could read it.
"Clean bill huh?" he asked. Connor glared sideways at him, and stuffed the pack down by his feet, saying
"I think the car's warmed up."
Xander eyed the kid for a moment, almost ready to say something, venture an opinion or a friendly shoulder like he would've in the old days; but he didn't. He turned back to the front and shoved down the handbrake.
It wasn't any of his business, he wasn't a friend of the kid's, he wasn't sure the kid had friends anymore. Connor was Buffy's, one of her charity cases that'd she'd left by the wayside along with everything else in the past few years, leaving good old Xander to pick up the mess. Besides at twenty two Connor wasn't really a kid anymore, though he still looked it, and it wasn't Xander's place to treat him so. Let him do what he wanted.
Connor stared out the window as they drove down the freeway, watching the fuzzy blur of night traffic among the haze of snowflakes, and listening to the squeak, squeak of the windshield wipers. It was strange being back, or out, whatever you'd call it. He looked at Xander's reflection in the glass. Very strange indeed. He supposed it'd been silly to hope Buffy herself would come to get him, she'd ceased caring about anyone. Still he'd expected there to at least be a bit of the gang left, anyone but Xander. Not that he didn't like the man. Xander was nice enough, he had a good heart. Connor could still appreciate that no matter what ghastly memories swirled up in his brain, pooling over like gunk from an over used pipe.
It'd gotten better since he'd entered the institution, the memories and the hazy fugues they brought on. He'd self admitted himself a year and a half ago, when he found himself falling apart over simple tasks, and wandering off, waking up in strange dives under barstools or scrunched up in sewer pipes.
He was quickly diagnosed as Dissociative. Some days were better than others. Every once in a while he'd have a really bad day, brutal, where he didn't know where he was and everywhere he looked he saw red skies and monsters in the corners. The hallucinations took on the most bizarre and morbid imagery. But those days were rare now, and manageable.
The fugue states dissipated with time. The memories he'd been given by Vail slowly faded, like a worn out film reel. At first they had acted as a sort of filter against his life in Quortoth which he saw only as a dream. But he supposed with Vail dead and Angel's contract with W&H void, there just wasn't enough of the spell left to keep it that way. Now, he could barely remember life with his second family, only the first two years of college remained clear. With the nightmarish life before it growing ever more real, and then consuming him like a delusion he clung the memory of there faces and there love. He been shocked when Angel's face became one he clung to as well in his fugues.
Doctor Avery had made a lot of speeches about "The importance of a loved one" and "dealing with grief," and while he respected the man, that was a whole other barrel of worms. One he wasn't ready to open. He was only glad the fugue states were gone… mostly. The drugs helped with that. He glanced down at his backpack a bit guiltily. He supposed to be getting off them now. His doctor had said it was time, that his mind could start taking care of itself now and filtering his memories on its own. But he wasn't ready to leave them yet. They were his last safety net now that he was out of the ward. Although he might be "better" now, in some small way he wished he could have stayed behind those safe white walls. He would have had to come out and face the world sooner or later; a world without Angel, without a home. Still he wished it had been a little later.
With a harsh rub of his freezing nose Connor pulled himself from his depressing thoughts. Outside they passed by iron fences and monuments he didn't recognize.
"Xander? Did you take a wrong turn?" he asked, looking out the window. Xander glanced over at him then back up front.
"No. I promised to meet a friend after I picked you up, shouldn't take long." Xander reached into his front pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. He tried looking at it as he drove, but soon gave up and handed it to Connor.
"Here," he said. "Read that address for me will you?"
Connor took the paper and read off the address at the bottom of the page. Then out of curiosity he silently read the top, and his hand holding the paper grew cold followed quickly by the rest of his body. He reached down and unzipped his backpack's front pocket, pulling out a similar piece of paper with very similar writing on it. Holding the two next to each other he tried to keep his voice strong and steady as he asked,
"Xander. Do you know who Doyle is?"
Xander shook his head without looking away from the windshield, still squinting through the snow.
"Not a clue. But when you get a message claiming to be charging you with some higher calling it bears investigating. This friend of mine got a similar note and Buffy wasn't let into the invitation party which to me screams giant government conspiracy, but does anyone listen to me? No."
He risked a glance away from the road at his passenger. Connor was looking down at the note and another paper, and blinking periodically as if he thought the notes were playing tricks on him.
"Why?" Xander asked. Connor shrugged and made a 'I give up logic is hopeless' face.
"I got the same thing in the mail just after the board approved my release."
"Huh." Xander frowned and looked back at the road. "That's creepy."
"Then I found out someone named Doyle had petitioned for the early release. I should still be in there," Connor added softly.
"…well," Xander whispered after a moment. "That's even creepier."
"…yeah." Connor whispered back and leaned into his seat.
They drove through a couple of shopping mall lanes and finally after a few wrong turns and arguments over directions, pulled up in an empty plaza. Xander got out first, quickly followed by Connor who shouldered his backpack and read off the next set of directions.
"Fifty paces to the clock tower."
"Fifty paces? What is this, a kid's treasure hunt?" Xander griped and stomped off towards the small wooden clock tower dominating the shopping center. They walked past the Supercuts and the Radio Shack, staying under the eves of the store's and out of the snow.
They rounded the corner of the darkened Pizzaria and saw a bench sitting in front the clock tower with a thin figure in a long white coat and a brimmed hat hiding their face. An umbrella was unfurled over their head with a cap of snow on top as they hunched over a steaming cup of Starbucks coffee.
Xander strode straight forward and Connor followed behind a little more cautiously, eyeing the huddled figure with narrowed eyes. He wished he still had his knives. He stayed in the shadows of the Pizza place, feeling comfortable playing backup and staying out of sight and mind while Xander marched forward and slapped the stranger on the back. A stranger who stood up and after shaking Xander's hand and lifting the tip of his hat turned out not to be so strange after all. Connor's stomach did a funny flip in his gut.
Lorne smiled broadly at the man in front of him, his mottled green skin seeming to turn a brighter shade with his good mood.
"Xander! Muffin! I was starting to think I'd have to wait out this cold all by myself. Now tell me truthfully, mysteries in the dark, clandestine meetings and promises of magic to come, don't you just feel like Lucy coming out of the wardrobe?"
"Not really," Xander replied, reaching out at taking a sip of Lorne's coffee and smiling at the demon. "I'm feeling more of the Indiana Jones Temple of Doom kind of thing."
"Oh now sweetie is that any way to enter an adventure, which from what little I can gather from our very cryptic invites, it's sure to be?"
"You're unusually chipper tonight."
"Well I'd have to be to combat the cloud of gloom your carrying around. Looking lovely in plaid by the way, but besides that how many opportunities do you get to change the world?"
"Too many." Xander groaned and slumped down onto the bench where Lorne had been sitting.
"Change the world, muffin, not save it," Lorne replied and took a small liquor flask from his coat pocket. "We've all had our share of that grief," he whispered and uncorked the cap, taking a quick swig.
Xander eyed his green friend over the tip of the steaming coffee lid. He really liked Lorne. There weren't many people left he did like, most were gone somehow, dead or worse, and Xander seemed to have lost the knack for making friends after Sunnydale. Could be the eye, put people off, but he knew it wasn't. It was just him. Lorne was the only friend he'd made since.
They'd met in a bar cliché as it sounded. Xander had been drowning his heart in beer, then scotch. He hadn't drunk much before Sunnydale's collapse, hadn't even liked liquor that much, preferring a nice soda pop. Afterwards though, without any intention, there always seemed to be a bottle lying around. Some mornings when he looked in the mirror he swore he saw his father looking back at him, which usually had him skipping breakfast. The night he met Lorne he thought he'd had way too much to drink when he saw a green demon get up on stage and start singing The Doors "People are Strange". Afterwards he didn't know why but Lorne had joined him for a drink, and they'd gotten smashed together talking about a "better world"
"Well sure I'd go for that," he said. "There's a lot of things I'd like to change," he whispered. Then shrugged his large shoulders and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. "But I think you're reading too much into those line spaces, only so much can fit in there. I mean what are the chances we were 'chosen'," he made little quote marks with his fingers over the coffee. "Versus we've been lead into a none to clever trap," Xander asked. Lorne waved his hand in a dismissive way.
"It's all in the staging me amigo and the attitude. Midnight approaching, strange characters brought together for a common purpose," he said holding his silver flask up to his shoulder and looking over Xander's head at the blackened windows of the Pizzeria.
"Some stranger than others," Lorne mumbled. "Why not ask your shy friend in the shadows to come join us Xander, we're all friends here" he suggested, throwing his voice so it would be heard across the sidewalk. Xander blinked and turned around on the bench, realizing Connor hadn't followed him out. He sighed and rolled his eye and head as one.
"Connor, quit it, you're skulking around like some B-rated horror movie killer." He called and gulped the coffee again. Lorne straightened a little as Connor came out from under the store shadows and into the streetlight, arms crossed and hands hidden under his armpits for warmth.
"Oh." Lorne whispered, tipping his hat. Connor stared back, keeping his distance. He barely remembered Lorne, except as a slightly blurry green face sliding in and out of his memories and a feeling of…shame? Sickness? maybe hurt? It was the first time he'd seen Lorne since that day at Wolfram and Hart when he got a new set of memories exploded into his head, or old ones depending on your point of view. That had been three years ago. He shivered a little in the cold. God had it really only been three years? He didn't know what he expected to happen. Lorne smiled gently as if sensing his confusion, not hard probably given the psychic thing, and nodded at him saying
"Hello young man," in a perfect imitation of his first words the day Connor entered the hotel.
"Hey," Connor nodded back. He couldn't tell if Lorne remembered him or not, and he didn't want to know. He was beginning to really wish he hadn't gone through with his release.
The three of them stood under the clock tower, Xander and Lorne passing the coffee back and forth, Xander even offered Connor a sip. The snow was still coming down lightly, each flake lit up in colored halos from the stop lights. Xander and Lorne caught each other up on what bleak news there was and Lorne tried to get them to sing Christmas carols, even though it was January, and they all slowly began to feel like frozen fools for waiting out in the snow like this.
When the clock struck midnight the waiting ended. The ground started to shake and a thunderous rumbling followed by a horrible scraping of stone on stone came from behind them. The three spun around, Connor nearly jumping out of his skin, and Xander off the bench.
Behind them, in front of the base of the clock tower, a huge three chaired stone throne rose out of the ground where moments before no hole had been. On each throne sat a red robed judge with half veils drawn across their faces. Lorne's mouth slowly fell down as the structure rose up, and when the thrones settled he looked like someone had stretched his mouth open with pliers.
"The Tribunal" Lorne whispered in something bordering reverence, or fear.
"These are your champions?" the middle judge spoke, looking out over the threesome's heads as if there was some invisible giant standing behind them. His voice was deep and calm like the undercurrent of an ocean and all three men felt small shivers shimmy up their spines. They looked askance at each other then back at the tribunal in confusion.
"Does anybody else feel like we were just passed over for air?" Xander whispered out of the side of his mouth. Lorne opened and closed his own mouth, as if ready to offer an explanation and then finding none there. Xander set his shoulders back and stepped forward, about to start demanding an explanation, or maybe considering their hosts positions beg for it politely,
"Uh hi," he said, and then cleared his throat when the judges continued to stare out at space as if Xander wasn't even there. "Excuse me," Xander tried again a bit louder. "I realize you're all probably very busy… men, but I got this letter," he fished the crumpled paper out of his pocket and opened it up. "We were supposed to meet here?" one of the judges on the side glanced down at him briefly and then returned his gaze to the air in a clearly dismissive gesture. Xander held up his hands and backed up, nodding to the unearthly trio above him. "Okay then, probably just a wrong number. So we'll be on our way."
"Very well," the middle priest spoke again to the air above their heads. Xander blinked
"Uh, okay," he said, then jerked his thumb at himself and the others. "Was that Okaying our exit by any chance?"
"The ruling is closed." the Judge continued speaking to the sky. "They will be sent on but should they fail their futures are forfeit. Do not bring this before us again."
"Whoa, whoa," Xander cut in. He turned and marched back right up to the stone dais holding the thrones and knocked it with his fists. "Who's sending what where? What is this? What do you mean the future is forfeit?"
"Xander," Lorne whispered stepping forward, Connor right behind. Three identical red veiled heads looked down at Xander at the same time and Xander took a step back from the base, stuffing chilly hands into his pants pockets.
"The trial has ended. Your party was victories and has won the right to a change of prospect. As his chosen champions you will go to do what you may in his stead."
"A change of what?" Connor spoke up, cocking his head slightly up at them.
"I don't remember agreeing to go anywhere," Xander added. "If this is a court shouldn't we be asked to sign some document in blood or something?"
"He's right," Lorne added, stepping up besides Xander and motioning to three of them under his umbrella. "We have the right to accept or decline any…"
"Your acceptance is not relevant in this case," the right hand judge interrupted. Then, as Lorne stuttered in his argument, the three judges reached into the folds of their robes and pulled out three bits of white paper, neatly folded, and held them out.
"Here is your charge. Bear it well" they said, three voices rumbling together like an execution's drum roll. As Xander opened his mouth, ready to tell them what he thought of that, the three papers flashed.
A burst of white light filled their vision, like a strobe going off in front of their noses. Each of them reeled, bits of afterimages overlaying each other on their eyes until everything blurred into one big sea of white. Bits and pieces of sounds and smells filled up their senses, and broken Irish brogue none of them recognized skittered about in broken sentences. To change it for the better… they shouldn't have died like this… not like this… their missions…
Xander shook his head and reached out blindly for Lorne's shoulder which he knew had to be somewhere on his right. His head started to ache with children's laughter and the sound of someone saying a funeral speech. Lorne wobbled under the sudden dizziness and flinched when he felt the cold kiss of snow as the umbrella swayed in his hand. Connor backed up into Xander's side and shook his head, blinking continuously as if that would shake away the white sheet of light blinding his eyes.
Just when the flash had faded enough for the scene around them to come back into focus everything changed again.
Connor's eyes widened as the scene around them slowly came back into focus. The first thing he saw was a brilliant red scarf dropping from the wrapped fingers of the middle priest, and everything around him slowed down as he tracked the cloth floating to the ground.
On his right Lorne looked up, his head moving as slow as molasses. The clock face above them, in contrast with the slow-motion affect of the world, was spinning around like a wind up toy that'd been let loose and even stranger, it was spinning backwards. Lorne's stomach made a funny lurch and jumped up into his throat. He quickly clamped his mouth and eyes shut against the nausea surging up inside.
Xander kept his grip tight on both Lorne and Connor, and stared fixedly down at the ground, which began to jiggle like the image of a badly held home video camera until it was moving so fast it hurt to watch and he too closed his eyes. The wind picked up and swirled around them in a howling cone, sending the snow reeling. There was a moment of blackness and a feeling of terrible velocity, then nothing.
It all stopped as suddenly as it'd begun, like a switch had been flipped off, and everything was still.
The first thing they noticed, and they all noticed it at the same time, was the heat. It beat down on their backs and Lorne shivered at the sudden change in temperature. Cautious and not half expecting to find himself facing a Pylean hillside again, he cracked an eye open. He blinked in shock as his red gaze flowed over the scenery.
He stood on a grassy hilltop looking over the expanse of a sleepy looking little town. Way off he could see the blue haze of an ocean. Down below there were lines of traffic, houses with windows open for the breeze, and just off to the right on the edge of the hill was a little brown sign read "Sunnydale City Park."
He felt Xander and Connor slowly walk up behind him.
"Oh Hell," Xander's hoarse voice choked, and Connor whispered,
"I knew I should've stayed in that ward."