Title: Truths Uttered Before Their Times
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the world belongs to Whedon.
Summary: The best things in life come in threes: like friends, dreams and memories. Polyfic; AU; 6000 words.
Spoilers: General A:tS - particularly the latter half of Season 3, and 4.5 "Supersymmetry".
Notes: For lionessvalenti, in the 2012 Not Prime Time exchange. The summary is a Mencius quote. So is the title, from: "Truth uttered before its time is always dangerous." But dangerous is just another word for risky; and some risks pay off.
Wes sighed and removed his glasses, rubbing a hand over tired, gritty eyes, breaking his gaze away at last from the six ominous words of his translation. He'd been sitting at his desk for hours, trying to find some other possible meaning for the phrase, hoping futilely that he'd simply missed a clue or misplaced a key vowel or consonant; but the words stubbornly remained the same as they'd been when he'd first sat down with the Greek commentaries that evening.
He still had some small hope that the commentaries themselves had mis-transcribed the original phrasing from the Nyazian scrolls, but it was unfortunately clear that the Greek, at least, could be interpreted no other way than as he had written. The text unquestionably indicated a paternal relationship, and there was only one such relationship on offer.
There were other commentaries he could check, of course, though none so detailed – but perhaps that very detail was obscuring a greater pattern that would lead him to a more positive interpretation of the prophesied outcome? Wes had to hope that was true. There was no question of informing Angel, not until he was one hundred percent certain, and perhaps not even then. And as for the others...
Footsteps alerted him to the presence of one of those other co-workers, and he hastily shuffled another page over the damning words, dropping his glasses casually atop the paper. Then he reached to close the commentary volume – and started a little as the intruder's hand came down at the base of his neck. The palm was broad and warm, slightly callused; definitely human. But it wasn't Fred, from the strength of the grip: the stroke of a firm thumb up the column of his vertebrae sent his eyes fluttering shut again, and Wes tipped his head back, groaning as tiny sparks of pleasurable sensation shot down his spine.
"Charles," he murmured, grimacing. "I'm sorry; I'd meant to be finished here hours ago."
He heard the sound of an in-drawn breath, followed by the vocal stretch of a yawn behind him. "Yeah, yeah. Whatever; I know how you get." The stroking hand shifted to his shoulder, simply resting now; Wes cracked his eyes open and smiled faintly up into Charles' amused face.
Charles snorted and continued. "If it was up to me, I'd've left you down here and pointed and laughed when you woke up with ink all over your face in the morning, but Fred was wondering where you were at. So I told her I'd fetch you."
"Did you, now," Wes replied tiredly, amused.
"Mhmm," Charles shook his head. "Plus, and I got no idea how considering how much fuel she puts down the hatch, her feet are the coldest damn things in the universe."
"I don't suggest you phrase it to her quite that way," Wes raised his eyebrows, stretching a bit in his chair to restore blood flow to drowsing limbs.
"Nah, that's what you're there for, so I don't have to," Charles chuckled at him. "For a guy with so little meat on his scrawny ass, you're better than a hot water bottle."
The warmth in Charles' voice was as soothing as a fresh cup of proper tea, or the hot water bottle in question. It was a source of endless amazement to Wes that he could inspire that – or, no, not that he could, but that Charles and Fred should have chosen to extend the regard that already existed between them to include him after that catalytic evening at the ballet.
"Perhaps I should add that to my business cards," he replied lightly. "Private investigator, supernatural researcher, and bed warmer extraordinaire."
Charles' eyebrows shot up at that, his grip tightening briefly on Wes' shoulder. "You better not," he scoffed, in half-teasing, half-serious tones. "Only bed you should be warming is the one upstairs with an adorable physicist currently sprawled all over the mattress by her lonesome. Just 'cause she shares you with me don't mean we're willing to share you with anybody else."
Wes chose to follow up on the teasing, rather than the still uncertain groundwork of their relationship; he had not intended to provoke an argument before bedtime. He was too tired, and too mentally worn, to follow that to its proper conclusion at the moment. "The only one? Pity. I do have an apartment, you realise, in an entirely separate building, several minutes away even as the vampire runs, with multiple doors that can be closed between the bedroom and any intruders..."
He let his voice trail off suggestively, and Charles huffed a laugh, shifting his grip to Wes' forearm to tug him out of the depths of the chair. Wes let himself be drawn, well within Charles' personal space; it put the man's bare, muscled chest and soft, clinging pyjamas on much better view.
"The expression on Angel's face." Charles said, bemused. "You'd think the dude grew up in the Puritan era or something. Thought that was Darla's thing, not his." He wrinkled his nose and shifted subjects. "Never mind that, though. You hear Cordy giving him what for afterward?"
"I suspect everyone in the hotel did," Wes allowed. "Though... more the tone than the content, I'm afraid. I believe I was a bit distracted at the time?"
He raised an eyebrow, lifting his hands to trace down the firm planes of Charles' chest and flanks, still marvelling that he was allowed to do so. For all their closeness the year before when Angel had abandoned the team, subsequent events – the rebellion in Pylea, Fred's arrival, and the predations of Charles' former crew among them – had emphasised their differences, rather than what they had in common. They were both quite fortunate, he supposed, that Fred had not been content to be a prize; that she had discovered in herself an appetite for affection as expansive as that for her favourite foods.
Charles' expression heated to something a bit more passionate as he shifted under Wes' hands, reaching to loosen Wes' tie with long, demonstrative fingers. "I think all of us were," he said, humming an appreciative note. "I guess somehow I always thought Fred would be a little more, you know, shy; but damn, that was a spectacular way to start off the day. Even with the interruption."
Wes grinned in reminiscence. He had to agree; though he rather thought Cordelia's apparent supportiveness on the subject had been a reflection of her own frustration levels – and probably the genesis of her direct request, later that day, for two vials of supernatural prophylactic rather than one. Neither she, nor the Groosalug, nor Angel himself had been seen since the close of business hours – and Wes was not at all interested in speculating about that particular coincidence.
"I wonder if a lack of inhibitions is a prerequisite for this sort of work?" he mused in an absent tone, plucking the tie out of Charles' hands to drop on the desk and then reaching for the top button of his own shirt. "Or if the causation is the other way round? It might be interesting to do a study on the subject..."
"We'll show you study. If you can keep up with us, that is, old man." Charles leered, then turned casually back to the desk.
It wouldn't be the first time he'd remembered to retrieve Wes' glasses when Wes had left them somewhere... but it was the first time Wes would have preferred he not do so. He swallowed, smile fading as Charles snagged them by one of the earpieces, nudging the page beneath it in the process.
The shifting paper caught Charles' eye – and the text on the newly exposed page snared it there. "The father will kill the... what?" he blurted, eyebrows lifting. "Is that what's had you down here all this time?"
"Charles..." Wes sighed, taking a step back to pinch at the bridge of his nose.
Charles paused, staring at it a moment longer, then frowned at Wes, his tone deeply suspicious. "You think it means Connor, don't you?"
Wes swallowed as the last of the lovely warmth of anticipation faded from the air, crossing his arms over his chest, leaving the unbuttoning half-undone. "I'm afraid... that is to say..."
Charles narrowed his eyes, glancing between Wes and the translation again with an impenetrable expression. Then he snorted and shook his head, a gesture Wes knew rather better how to interpret: as more or less, you got it all wrong, English. "And you had the balls to lecture me about withholding information," he scoffed.
Wes winced. He'd simply found the prospect of explaining to Fred and Charles incredibly exhausting, and rather counter to his purposes in seeking their company; but that would sound little better. "I had wanted to wait until I had confirmation from other reliable sources," he offered as an excuse.
"I sure hope you're looking for other sources. 'Cause man, in what world does it even make sense that everyone would want to get their hands on this miracle golden child if his sole purpose in existing is for Angel to kill him? Besides, you know he'd have to lose his soul before he'd even think about hurting that kid," Charles declared.
"The, ah." Wes cleared his throat, thinking. Everyone wanted Connor for a great variety of reasons, some wholly unrelated to any prophecy; Charles knew that very well. But there was something to what he said: if Connor was part of the Tro-Clon intended to either ruin or purify mankind, his birth bound up in its arrival, then what point could his immediate death serve? "The text doesn't say. But, Charles..."
Charles frowned, shaking his head. "Don't you 'but, Charles' me. Even if these commentaries got it right. Even if Angel is this 'Father'. Did you read any further? Does it actually say the son's gotta be Connor? Didn't he ever make any vampire kids besides that crazy brunette chick?"
There had been one, at least, Wes knew, recalling one of his earliest embarrassing moments as part of Angel Investigations: suspecting Angel of committing a number of murders that had been the work of a vampire named Penn. Detective Lockley had been the one to wield the stake that had ended the threat – but Angel had been rather, well, intimately involved in the moment. And the timing was intriguing as well: perhaps half a year before Darla's rebirth. He'd have to check to see if that date had also appeared amongst Fred's calculations. If the pruning of Angel's vampiric family tree was as much a part of the Tro-Clon, the confluence of events mentioned in the prophecies, as Connor's birth itself...
"Hey, hey, hold up: you got book-face again," Charles sighed. "Look, can we rewind this conversation a minute? Back to the part where you're taking off your shirt, and we go wake Fred back up? 'Cause this conversation wasn't what I had in mind when I came downstairs." He dropped the glasses back on the desk, obscuring the divisive words again, and reached to tug Wes close, sliding his hands under the plackets of Wes' shirt.
Wes shuddered under the touch, letting his breath – and the tension knotted in his shoulders – out in a rush. "Can we? Put this off until tomorrow?" he asked, wincing at the plaintive note that crept into his voice.
"I think we can do that, yeah," Charles said, burying the words against Wes' neck as he leaned in to scrape his teeth over Wes' collarbone. "Provided you don't let yourself get all lost in your head again."
Wes' body came to attention in a sudden rush of heat and sparking nerves. "Small chance of that, I think," he breathed, arching against the warm body clutching him close, and dipped his fingers just under the waistband of Charles' pyjamas.
Charles hissed, then pulled back, grinning. "Guess even an Englishman can be taught."
Wes kissed the smirk off his face, then followed him up the stairs.
"Fred, who was that?" Wes called, frowning down at the mass of hamburger he was attempting to brown on the stove. Income for three, even as irregular at that tended to be at Angel Investigations, stretched much farther in Wes' apartment than one alone ever had. But even so, given the amount spent on Mexican food in any given week, they had decided to attempt to economise by experimenting with new recipes themselves.
So far, they had mostly learnt not to attempt to cook to taste with bay leaves, that a small quantity of dried, shredded chilli pepper went a long way, and that while healthier meat substitutes were acceptable as an occasional novelty, they did not compare to the original. But if the results were not always edible, the effort always proved worthwhile- in one fashion or another. He smiled as Fred padded into the kitchen and leaned up to lick the results of the latest taste test off his lips.
"Mmmm. Oh, just Groo," she shrugged, then hopped up on the counter to watch him finish cooking. "He came to drop off that sword he borrowed this morning. He says Cordy's got most of Angel's collection clean again; good job with the potion by the way. Took most the day, but the gook from that demon who went bust in the lobby last night's mostly dissolved now."
"Good to hear it. No new cases, I gather?" he asked, smiling up at her.
"'Fraid not," she shrugged. "Just that research project we're waiting on 'til the book you ordered gets here. Wolfram and Hart sent someone by again, but since they still seem to think Holtz got Connor, Angel's not worried. So I guess we'll just have to enjoy the rest of our day off."
"More like week off," Charles sighed. He looked up from the paperwork he had bent over at the table in the living room, scratching behind one ear with the endcap of his biro. "You know, it's nice that business has evened out since ol' Holtz jumped into the portal with the decoy doll and Groo started making a bigger name for himself, but I'm starting to get a little antsy. Not enough work for the muscle."
Wes noted that had not stopped Charles from deciding to officially add his name and Fred's to Wes' rental agreement, however. He shared a conspiratorial smile with Fred, then shot a wry look in Charles' direction. "Well, we wouldn't want that," he replied. "A bit of a patrol over by Anne's after dinner, then? Last time we spoke, she said the neighbourhood vampire traffic is beginning to pick up again."
Charles looked absently pleased at that thought as he checked the last box and scrawled his signature. "Yeah, been awhile since I showed my face around there; good idea, Wes. Long as there ain't no zombie cops still prowling around, we're good."
"Zombie cops?" Fred raised her eyebrows, her expression a curious mixture of disgust and avid interest. "Is this another one of those things that happened while I was in Pylea? Or have there always been zombie cops in L.A. and I just didn't know it?"
Wes chuckled, stirring the hamburger mixture again. "No; it was a recent development. And there shouldn't be, Charles. The spell didn't just run out of power that evening; I found out much later, when Angel asked about the details of my injury, that it was he and Detective Lockley who put a stop to it."
"Really?" Charles snorted. "Why didn't the man just tell us then?"
"Probably so no one would ask inconvenient questions about how he discovered the problem?" Wes suggested, dryly.
"Right. He was stalking us, wasn't he?" Charles rolled his eyes at that. "Cordy would have ripped a strip off of him if she'd found out, and he would have deserved every minute of it. Not that she made it easy on him as it was."
Wes shook his head, reminiscing. "She never has; but yes, she was especially harsh on him, then."
"Wonder how that's workin' out for them now," Charles speculated, folding the papers into an envelope after he finished rereading them, and dropped the pen on the table. "I mean, it's not like he and Groo even like each other half the time. Not like, you know." He shot Wes a warm, suggestive leer. "And it seems like Cordy just eggs it on, dressing 'em alike and sending 'em out on jobs together. If it weren't for the fact that she looks like a cat who fell in a bathtub full of cream, I'd think she was still stringing both of 'em along."
"Maybe she's hoping they'll learn how to get along," Fred suggested, shrugging. "With the prophecies on one side, and kyerumption on the other, well, what girl would want to give that up? And from their perspective – think about it. She's Groo's princess - the whole reason he's even here - and it sure gives Angel something else to brood about, doesn't it? Can't be too careful, even with Cordy's protective potion."
Wes gave her an amused look. "Jealous, are we? Regretting that you're stuck with a pair of insignificant nobodies rather than such fine specimens of, er, demonhood?"
She coloured vividly, swatting at him with a delicate hand. "Wes! You know that's not true! I'm the one who's lucky here, and you know it."
"Let's just agree to disagree on that subject, shall we?" he teased her. Then he stirred the hamburger one last time and inspected its colour. "Ah; I believe it's ready."
Fred reached for a spoon, kicking her feet against the cupboards, and leaned over to scoop some of the mixture up while he turned off the heat. She blew on it, perfect lips pursed in a bow, then popped the spoon in her mouth, eyelids fluttering shut as she savoured the taste. "Mmmm. Think we mighta got it right this time."
It was Wes' turn to lick the taste from her palate as she tossed the spoon toward the sink, and he pulled back with a besotted smile. "I'd have to agree," he said, huskily, staring into her eyes.
"Naw, I'm the lucky one, getting all this to myself." Charles ambled into the kitchen to augment the moment, slinging a casual arm around each of them as he leaned in to sample the flavour second and third-hand. Then he grinned and stepped away, opening the refrigerator to peer in at the contents. "Nice. But it ain't perfect 'til we got all the toppings on. Fred girl, you gonna help me build the tacos?"
"Of course." She shared one last kiss with Wes, grinning, then hopped down from the counter and opened the warming drawer to retrieve the corn shells. "You bought the guacamole, right? And the fruit salsa?"
"'Course I did," Charles grinned at her. Then he began pulling containers out of the refrigerator and lining them up on the counter. "Only the best for my girl."
"And the dregs for the cook, I suppose?" Wes teased, leaning back against the counter to watch them finish assembling the meal.
"Don't pout, English; it ain't pretty even on you," Charles rolled his eyes. "Besides. You know what you bring to our table."
"Oh, hey, that reminds me," Fred said, as she opened the bag of shredded lettuce Charles had handed her. She slipped a hand into her pocket and came out with a business card, which she passed back to Charles. "Groo said some guy named Jenoff sent a messenger for you; Cordy sent him off with a bee in his ear, told him to come back during business hours tomorrow."
Charles stilled, going remarkably grey at the sight of the card. "Oh. Huh. I'd almost forgotten about that guy," he said, staring at the small stiff rectangle as though it might bite him if handled wrongly.
"Is there a problem?" Wes asked, amusement fading as he searched Charles' expression for clues.
"Uh, no, it's – it's nothing," Charles shook his head. "Just some old business, you know. From back in the day."
"From when you had your own crew?" Fred asked, still upbeat; she'd turned back to the line of toppings after handing over the card and was busily assembling a plate full of tacos. "Maybe we can stop in on him tonight? If you don't think he'd mind late visitors, that is. You could introduce us!"
Given the instant alarm on Charles' face at the suggestion, Wes decided that Fred was right; they better had. "That sounds like an excellent idea," he said crisply.
"No, no, you guys don't have to come along – I'm sure it's no big deal. Just catching up," Charles tried to insist, shutting the refrigerator door emphatically.
"Then it should be no trouble at all," Wes insisted in return. "We're not in any hurry."
Fred turned back just in time to catch their exchange of determined looks and come to the conclusion that there was a bit more to the conversation than she'd realised. "No," she said, glancing between them with a furrow between her brows. "No trouble at all," she backed Wes up, then firmed her chin. "Unless you're ashamed of being seen with us?"
Lord, she was quick; Wes almost winced himself as Charles scrambled to answer that one. "No! No, it's just–"
"–That your business is our business now, Charles," he finished the sentence for him. "Or have you already forgotten the speech you gave me when I first discovered the false prophecy?"
"But that's – I mean–" Charles tried to object again, then sighed in disgust. "Damn, Wes; bad enough if there was just one of you, I really don't stand a chance when you team up on me, do I?"
"Nope," Fred replied, brightly. "So. It's settled then?"
"I suppose," Charles said, expression settling into grim lines. "Y'all aren't going to like it, though. Like I said, I almost forgot about it – I went to this guy years and years ago, back when I was a raw kid fighting vamps in my 'hood and didn't figure I had any future to worry about."
"And incurred a debt to him," Wes surmised. He could only guess at the details of the exchange – but what it was almost didn't matter. He'd mortgaged himself against his cause, a noble if short-sighted decision, and that contract was now coming due.
"Yeah, you could say that," Charles said, looking away. His face was a study in miserable resignation.
Fred stared searchingly at him, then glanced back at her plate of tacos, the line of food along the counter, and the pan of meat still cooling on the stove, and sighed. She opened a cupboard, took out a pan lid, and dropped it over the meat; then she snagged Charles by the wrist and pulled him out of the kitchen, toward the bedroom.
"You're right. I don't like it already," she said, matter-of-factly. "But that just means we've got something else to do before we go on patrol."
"What?" Charles spluttered, caught off guard, as he stumbled along in her wake. Wes noted he didn't attempt to stop her, though, despite out-weighing her by a considerable amount.
He shook his head and joined the procession, taking Charles' other wrist in a firm grip. "Reaffirming that you do have a future now, of course," he said. "So you don't get any noble ideas about trying to leave us behind and deal with Jenoff without us."
Charles spluttered again, but his objections grew a great deal less enthusiastic, after that.
For just as in their attempts at cooking, while relations behind closed doors might involve as many missteps – elbows in painful places, misread cues, and awkward timing – as they did perfect results, the rewards usually proved worth the effort.
The meat was cold and the condiments warm by the time the three returned to their meal; but as it happened, the flavour had only been improved by the wait.
Fred paced back and forth in the confines of the office, fingers flexing on the handle of the axe she'd liberated from the cabinet in the corner. "You don't understand," she raged, glancing back and forth between Wes, seated at the desk, and Charles, standing with his arms crossed in front of the door. "He sent me there. To be a slave. And he just tried to do it again. I'm gonna kill him."
"Look, Fred, I understand how you must be feeling..." Wes tried to soothe her, setting aside the research he'd been skimming over when she stormed back from her meeting with Professor Seidel.
"No you don't! How can you?" she yelled, turning to him and gesturing with the axe. "I idolised him, and he sent me to hell. Me and God knows how many others who didn't make it back. So – so, sure! I'll calm down when he's dead!"
"We're not trying to stop you," he continued, getting up from the chair and crossing to within arm's length of her. He didn't try to put his arms around her yet, however; that was unlikely to end well at the moment.
"Sure looks like it from where I'm standing!" she replied, glaring at him and fingering the handle of the axe again as though she wanted to reach out and express her displeasure with it.
She made quite a picture with her eyes flashing and chest heaving – but this wasn't one of their games; in fact, he rather suspected it could be a turning point for their entire relationship. He shared a concerned glance with Charles – and Charles cleared his throat, diverting her attention to him.
"You know we're not, girl. In fact, whatever you choose to do, we'll back you on it – right Wes?"
"Of course," he confirmed, earnestly.
"Just take a deep breath and think about it first," Charles continued. "You know, a few years ago I woulda just done in the guy myself, and never thought twice about it. But–"
"So help me Charles, if you tell me this isn't what we do..." Fred hissed at him.
"Not saying that!" he replied, holding his palms out toward her. "I mean, no, it's not, not when they're humans... but even humans can be monsters sometimes. You think I don't know that? It's just that if you do it this way, when you're still angry... it's like you're taking a step down that same road."
Her ire faded a little as she turned to face him, the axe drooping in her hand, but there was still plenty of steel in her spine. "So what if I do? Who cares? You can't tell me he doesn't deserve every minute of pain I want to give him."
"We care," Wes said softly, resting a hand on her shoulder. "We weren't there to protect you from him then; and you're right, it's your choice what to do about him now. But consider: his efforts caused you five years of suffering. His death – even a drawn out death – would take very little time, in comparison. Wait until the ardour cools, and then plan an equitable response. And remember, you're not alone anymore. Let us support you in this. The last thing we want is to lose you to your regrets."
Vengeful reasoning got through to her where mere calming words had not, and tears welled in her eyes. "You mean that?" she said. "You won't try to stop me?"
"Hell no, girl. You think we'd try and tell you to turn the other cheek?" Charles replied. "I've seen you when Wes takes too long in the bathroom, or I drink the last of the good coffee when you're in the middle of drafting a new article. It's not that I think you need sheltering, or whatever, to protect all your sweetness and light." He snorted. "It's just – you gotta know, if you take this step? It'll change you, too. Just so long as you know that, we'll back you, far as you go."
He threw another significant glance Wes' way at that; Wes nodded in agreement, solemnly, and opened his arms to Fred.
She sniffled, still trying to hold back the tears, then dropped the axe and reached for him blindly. He wrapped his arms around her, gathering her close and burying his face in her hair; then he felt another pair of arms, stronger yet, wrap around them both.
"So, you still want to go kill this dude?" Charles said gruffly after a long moment, relaxing his embrace enough to allow them to breathe freely again.
Fred hiccupped, then cleared her throat and rubbed her wet face against Wes' shirt, but the bout of angry crying had released none of the tension from her frame; she still vibrated with bottled-up emotion. "Later," she said. "You're right, I need to – I need to think about this, I need to plan it just right. But I can't–" She made a frustrated sound, then shifted against Wes again, turning in his arms to press her breasts against Charles. "Distract me?" she concluded, plaintively.
Charles cleared his throat, then shifted gears, transmuting one kind of passion to another with barely a pause. Wes lifted his head and watched as Charles leaned down to capture Fred's mouth in a hungry kiss; she ground against his thigh, brushing her arse against Wes' groin in the process, and wound her arms around Charles' torso.
The kiss went on for some time; Wes' mouth went dry, watching it, and he spared just enough thought to glance at the office window to assure himself the others had not returned yet. Then he dropped his hands to Fred's waist, ruching up her shirt to skim callused palms over the taut skin of her abdomen, and located the fastening of her bra.
She gasped into Charles' mouth as Wes unbuckled the bra, loosening its tight confines enough to slip his palms beneath the cups and tease her nipples into peaks with fingers and thumbs, and whimpered as he lowered his mouth to her neck, sucking gently at her pulse.
"God, it makes me hot to watch y'all do that," Charles said roughly, as he released Fred's mouth; then he reached a hand around the back of Wes' head to pull him closer and kissed him as well.
Fred moaned between them, then started working with slender fingers at the zipper of Charles' jeans; and from there, the action moved with a great deal of alacrity. Wes worked at Fred's shirt as she divested Charles of his; Charles pulled off her jeans and shoes as she turned to help Wes shed at least enough clothing to avoid an unpleasant, sticky mess, then slipped a hand into her panties to tease at her folds; and Wes thrust himself into the welcoming grip of her fingers.
It did not take very long, after that, for the three to find themselves in a panting, cooling heap on the floor before the desk. The scattered leaves of Wes' project – he no longer remembered what it had been - had joined them there as well due to the vigorous activities enacted atop them.
"Feel any better?" Charles asked hoarsely, some minutes later, stroking a soothing hand over whatever bare skin he could reach.
Fred, pressed between them once more, stirred against Wes' chest, idly tracing the scar on his stomach. "Kinda," she replied, honestly. "I was just thinking, if he'd never done what he did, I wouldn't have this now, would I?"
"Nor would any of us," Wes murmured.
"Is it wrong of me to be glad about that? While still wanting to burn him off the face of the earth?"
"Is it wrong of us to be glad we have you? Even though you had to suffer for us to find you?" he replied softly, stroking a thumb over her cheek where tearstains still glittered.
She chuckled wetly. "No."
"Then you got your answer," Charles assured her. "It just makes you human."
She heaved a deep breath, then let it out in a sigh, the last of the nervous energy seeping out of muscle and sinew. "I love you guys, you know that?"
"Yes, Fred." Wes pressed a reverent kiss to her mouth, echoed by Charles', "We love you, too."
Time seemed to have stopped in the hotel office; Wes shifted a little, soaking up the cathartic sense of peace, knowing the world would lurch back into action again soon enough. Idly, he began cataloguing the clothing strewn about the room, identifying which items were his, which Charles', and which Fred's; he rather feared Fred's shirt had been torn in their enthusiasm.
But before he could complete the count, the door slammed open and Angel burst in, a rather worried expression on his face. "Wes, there's a report of a Vynock demon over on – oh, Lord! Not again!"
All three of them jumped, still tangled up in one another, snatching at the pages that had fallen around them to preserve at least the minimum of modesty. "Angel!" Fred cried, startled.
The vampire turned hastily away, sputtering in embarrassed indignation. "Couldn't you guys have picked some other place than the office? It's going to smell of sex in here for days!"
Wes glanced at the other two, currently 'wearing' very little more than a few sheets of yellow ruled paper covered in his own handwriting, then back at their very uncomfortable former boss, and started to chuckle at the absurdity of the situation. It felt almost as good as the earlier release of tension, and just as cleansing. The rage had left Fred's face, and Charles looked as bemused as he felt; they were going to be all right, after all.
"My apologies, Angel," he replied in a choked voice. "We'll endeavour to seek a more suitable location the next time."
"No promises, though," Charles added, a sparkle in his eye as he reached for his shirt and started shrugging it back on. "You know how it is when the mood strikes. Just couldn't keep my hands off 'em."
Fred snorted, worming carefully out from between them and reaching for the box of Kleenex that still stood forlornly on a corner of the desk. "Don't mind them. What were you saying about a Vynock demon?"
Angel cast a quick glance over his shoulder – then snapped his gaze back to face front. "Uh, never mind," he said. "I think I can handle it after all." He reached for the door again, stepping through it and slamming it behind him with a crash very nearly as loud as the one with which he'd entered.
Voices sounded outside – and then another face appeared, briefly, at the office window. Cordelia stared in at them, amusement dancing in her eyes. She gave them all a hearty leer and a thumbs up; then disappeared again, dragging Angel away with her.
Fred giggled at that, clapping a hand over her mouth. "His face! That was almost better than the time he came looking for me to babysit Connor." Then she sobered, smile slipping away. "Seidel almost took that from me, too. Not just my past, but all my futures."
Wes climbed slowly to his feet, bracing himself against the corner of the desk, and began to collect his own clothing. "Then we'll just have to make sure he never has that opportunity again," he told her.
"He likes portal spells so much, how 'bout we find him one?" Charles suggested, busily sheathing his strong, dark legs in worn denim.
Fred glanced between them, a solemn smile curving her mouth, like sunlight breaking through storm-shadowed clouds. "I meant it, you know. You guys are the best thing that's happened to me since I came back."
"Since I left the streets," they echoed her; "since I arrived in Los Angeles."
They left the hotel together, toting a book of spells, a half hour later: walking side by side by side, shoulder to shoulder and hand in hand.
"Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken." - Ecclesiastes 4:12 (NIV)