Charles rubs his eyes and turns his blank gaze back to the television in the waiting room. The rhythms of pain and suffering go on around him, people getting moved on to exam rooms after varying waiting times, new people coming to take their place. A woman who reminds him of a dimly-remembered church auntie asks each newcomer what they're here for. "I bet it's gangrene," she responds cheerfully at least twice. "My cousin had it. Dropped dead just like that." She snaps her fingers.
"An absolute ray of sunshine," Cordelia says as she settles next to him. "There you go. Strong, hot and black." She offers a cardboard cup of coffee.
"Thanks for noticing."
"Very funny." She sips at her own cup, makes a face. The coffee, which tastes like battery acid, gets a reaction, but she doesn't seem to notice the blood that's turned her white sweater a dark rusty color. There's layers to this white girl. She's got some attitude, like she's used to snapping out orders to a maid or something. But there's the way she was with Veronica, calm and at the same time urgent. Wasting no time doing what had to be done.
Stay with me, Veronica. Focus on me, I'm right here.
"Shouldn't she be out of surgery by now?" he mutters.
"Vascular repair is a bear," Cordelia says. "You want them taking their time."
Charles eyes her.
"We put in way too much hospital time here in the Scoob--"
"Angel Investigations." She concentrates on sipping her coffee like it's a skill she's just learned, but Charles keeps his gaze on her until she finally returns it. "When I was in high school I spent time with people who did the same sort of work we do. One of our dorkier members named us the Scooby gang."
She says it with affection -- grudging, but it's there -- and Charles smiles. "Dorkier than David Nabbit?"
"Oh god no. But the thought of those two in the same room together --" For a moment her brow unfurrows and she laughs.
It makes the knot in his chest loosen just a fraction, and he wants to hear it again. "Maybe you're a dork magnet."
"Oh heaven forbid." She gives him a sly look. "Or are you trying to tell me something here, Gunn? Hidden deep beneath that tough exterior there's a big ol' dork?"
"Ouch. Tell me, is there anyone gets the better of you?"
"Not many. And don't you forget it."
Just then the emergency entrance doors slide open and an ambulance crew hustles a stretcher in and straight into the treatment area, as hospital staffers race to meet them.
"Looks like a bad one," Charles says.
Cordelia nods. Her lighter mood has slipped away. "Who's Alonna?"
"Coy is not a good look for you, Charles. You slipped a while ago and said Alonna when you meant Veronica. Who is she?"
He gives the information grudgingly. "My sister."
"Something happened to her."
Thinks she's entitled to an answer, to any of the details of his life she requests. Just like the cracker-ass people on the TV, giving up their private griefs and grievances to the camera and the studio audience, he's supposed to tell her what she wants to know.
Entertainment on demand. He gets to his feet and drops the coffee into the nearest trash can.
He knows he's not being fair, even as he thinks these things. The rust-colored stains on her sweater remind him she's more than that. But he cannot talk about this to an outsider.
The doctor finds them then, reporting how the surgery went. Veronica's going to be all right.
When he comes back to visit her the next day, there are flowers by her bedside. Veronica can't stop talking about them.
Same hospital, same waiting room, same TV shows flickering on the screen. For all Charles knows, it's the same crackers screeching about their problems.
But this time it's Charles who has blood on his clothes. Wesley took that bullet for him. This man is a friend of mine. And just like that, his blood is spilling between his hands.
Wes didn't know to be wary. How could he?
"If he hadn't come after me..."
Cordelia tightens her hold on his hand. "Knock it off." Her voice is as steely as her grip. "There's no way he wasn't coming after you. That's who he is. That part is not your fault."
"Then you know why I had to help Annie out."
She doesn't say what she's thinking, but that's only because she's said it already. More than once. You didn't have to do it in such a moronic way. It's only dumb luck that all of you weren't killed.
"You keep that passion for helping fired up. Wes is going to need us to be there for him, and stay there. Gut shot -- even if he's lucky, he's bound to have a long road back."
Charles tries to keep the smirk off his face, but he's not sure he succeeds. "Voice of experience here."
"You've been gut shot? Things are tougher in 90210 than I thought."
"Not shot, smartass. Impaled. Rebar. Right here." She aims two fingers at her belly. "Through and through."
"You're damn right, damn."
"This happened to you demon fighting?"
There's just the whisper of a pause, then: "Yeah. Not here, though. In Sunnydale."
"I'm supposed to know where that is?"
"No, Mr. Don't Know Much about Geography. It's a fairly small town up north of here. Demon capital of the state."
Charles can't suppress a snort. "Right."
"You have no idea. The town is sitting right on a hellmouth. It's like a magnet for vamps and demons and if you miss one near apocalypse, check the bus schedule, cause there'll be another one right behind it. That's where I met Wesley."
"You knew him before L.A.?"
"Oh yeah. We go way back. Well, two years now. Before his rogue demon hunter phase, he was a watcher."
This is the man who nearly died for Charles. This man is a friend of mine. Yet Charles hardly knows anything about him. "Watcher -- what's that?"
"Well, there's this ancient line of Brit stuffed shirts called the Watchers, who act as teacher/trainer/researcher/dom to the Slayer. Have you ever heard about her? Angel ever talk about this?"
"Angel's a pretty tightlipped man, except on the need-to-know basis."
Cordelia rolls her eyes. "You've been fortunate. So there's this girl. There's one in every generation, the one girl in all the world who's born to slay the vampires, fight the demons, yadda yadda yadda."
"What, is she Angel's mortal enemy?"
She snorts. "Worse. She's his tragically doomed love. Buffy Summers."
"No, their love affair is. For obvious reasons. Though now that I think of it, the Slayer gig isn't exactly the road to longevity."
"And Wesley was this girl's watcher?" There is no way in hell he's saying "Buffy."
"No. Yes. Well, for a while, but it didn't exactly take. He replaced her original watcher when he got fired, but she'd already imprinted on Giles, so she wouldn't have him. Anyway, he was in Sunnydale for a few months, and I knew him then."
Charles wonders if everything is so impossibly complicated in Sunnydale, or it seems that way from the crazy-ass way Cordelia tells things.
"The thing about Wes is, he's easy to dismiss at first as a lightweight," she goes on. "Well, not at first at first, when there's the accent and the faintly James Bond aura, especially when he's in a tux, because he is seriously hot in a tux. But once all that wears off, you think, 'Wow. Total lightweight.'"
It's the way Cordelia tells things, he decides.
"But he's not. Because he saves you from a psycho empath demon, or walks into a bullet for you, or you get little glimpses of what his family life was like, which makes you think maybe his superpower is being able to get out of bed in the morning. Don't ever tell him I said any of this to you."
"He tries so hard. It's his failing and his saving grace, I think."
And just like that, there's the clear and simple truth out of that big tangle of words.
"I had a boyfriend back in Sunnydale," Cordelia goes on. "He was a lot like that too. The one who's a dork but not as big a dork as David Nabbit. You could take him for a big zero, and I did for several years. But when it came to a demon fight, he'd be in there swinging away with nothing in the way of superpowers or even manly abilities. Usually he was the first to wade into a fight. Believe me, it scared the crap out of me, but I had to admire that."
"What happened?" Charles braces himself for the answer.
"He acted like a jerk and I dumped him. What? Jeez, not everybody dies."
"How'd he get into demon hunting?"
"Fell into it. No, that's not true. He plunged in headlong. His best friend got turned."
Cordelia eyes him closely. "It is. I think it was the worst thing that ever happened to him. Xander is the one who staked him. He didn't talk about it, but he never really got over it. I always thought that's what made him so crazy reckless. I always --" her fingertips brush lightly over Charles' hand -- "I always thought it would be better if he'd talk about it."
"Nothin' makes a thing like that better," Charles says flatly.
"There's wounds that heal and wounds that fester, and maybe that's the difference, and yuck, some metaphors really don't bear much thinking about." She leaves a conversational opening big enough to drive a truck through, but Charles isn't entering. "How about coffee?" she finally asks.
"That nasty stuff from the machine? Thanks, but I'll pass."
"No, the good stuff from across the street. My treat."
Charles lets out a breath as Cordelia goes. She talks a lot, that girl. Digs a lot. People who never had to worry about day-to-day survival -- and he's not talking about survival from demonic things -- have the luxury of thinking about their every feeling, talking about it to people they hire to listen and care. Then they start thinking everyone cares.
He does care, he realizes. She looks like a spoiled rich girl, but she's earned it. Charles remembers her calm tenderness with Veronica. Remembers watching over Cordelia before he even knew her, standing guard against another attack from that demon that struck her down. She'd looked so small and defenseless, chased by demons in her mind. She was a champion too, Angel had told him. That's why she'd been attacked. Didn't look to him like anyone could come back from that, but she had. Gotta respect that.
Charles gets sucked into watching Judge Judy handing down the smackdown on a courtroom of screeching rednecks. There goes his theory on airing your problems being a luxury of rich folks.
Cordelia settles in next to him and offers him a tall cardboard cup. "Drink up."
This is so far above the sort of coffee he usually has that it doesn't even seem like the same drink. "How much does this stuff cost?"
She waves him off. "I told you, my treat."
"No, I mean --" How's he even going to explain it? A sixty-cent cup of coffee is a rare treat for him, and this is no sixty-cent cup. They don't make their own down in the squat, because the smell would draw all kinds of attention, human and not. "Thanks. This is good." He lets himself concentrate on the taste, the buzz that the caffeine sends through him, until there's about a quarter cup left, growing cold. "Alonna was my sister," he says, as though that conversation was just five minutes ago. "She got turned."
Cordelia makes a soft noise, but says nothing. What can you say? She puts a hand on his wrist.
"She came to me, offered to turn me too. It was like she'd hit the lotto, or found religion. She was gonna share that with me." He turns toward her. "I staked her."
Without a word, she touches her hand to his face. Charles isn't sure if it's desire to think about anything but Alonna or just desire, but attraction buzzes through him like the caffeine. He leans toward her, half expecting her to pull away, shoot him down with a sarcastic remark. But she doesn't, instead leaning in to him, turning up her face.
Their lips meet, and it's so soft and slow, like nothing he's known before. An exploration. He's had kisses -- had more -- down in the squat, but things were rushed and secretive and frantic. Here they are in a well-lit room with maybe two dozen strangers, with fast food commercials playing on TV, kids squalling, doctors being paged.
And the soft clearing of a throat, directly beside them. A doctor in scrubs stands waiting for their attention. "Are you the next of kin for Mr. Pryce?"
Next of kin. Those words never have a good sound. Cordelia's face goes slack, and she says, "Yes. I'm his sister."
"Oh." The doctor's head cocks. "He has a British accent."
She sucks in a breath. "He's talking? Oh, the accent. It's a terrible affectation. He's talking, he's awake?"
"He's in and out, but he's said a few words. I'm Dr. Chaudhury. Your brother came through surgery without any complications, and his vitals are good. He's still in the post-op ICU, but you could have a few moments with him if you'd like."
Getting to her feet, Cordelia takes Charles' hand, pulling him up with her. "I think Charles should be the first to see him."
"We usually allow only family in the ICU."
"It's all right, Cordelia," Charles says. "You go."
She's not having it. "Wesley took a bullet for him. I'd say that makes him family."
Dr. Chaudhury has the good sense not to cross her. He gets Charles into Wesley's room. Wes is awake enough to exchange a few words, feeling no pain. He drifts out again in the blink of an eye, but Charles stays until they throw him out, holding Wesley's pale hand in his own.
When he's shooed back into the corridor, Cordelia's got her fierce on.
"Angel," she says, all tightlipped. "I told him not to let the door hit him in the ass on his way out."
"Remind me never to piss you off."
"Never piss me off, Charles. How is he?"
"Livin' in a happy little morphine world for now. He managed to come up a while and talk, but he's out of it again. Nurse just said it'd probably be a few hours before he comes back up."
"Maybe we should get some rest ourselves."
"I'll drive you home."
"It's totally far away from your neighborhood. Ooh. That didn't sound --? y'know. Mouth-brain filter, it doesn't always work that well."
So he's noticed. "What it sounded like was pointless argument. Because I am takin' you home."
There's a lot of quiet in the truck as he drives out to her neighborhood. After a while he asks, "What do you think it means that Angel came?"
"I don't care what it means. Guilt, curiosity, whatever. It's not enough."
"What did he say?"
"'I heard about Wesley.'"
"That was the point at which I told him to piss off. Dammit, he thinks coming around looking all broody and sorry is gonna get him off the hook, and I have to hand him a big steaming bucket of no. Turn left into this alley."
"I can't just drop you off out front?"
"You drove all this way, the least I can do is save you the drive back. The sofa's pretty comfortable."
"Your neighbors --"
"Didn't even notice an exorcism."
"Your ghost --"
"Well, he's a little on the protective side. But he knows you."
"Did I not say 'sofa'? Instead of arguing out here by the garbage dumpster, we could be sleeping. More to the point, I could be sleeping." Cordelia leans in toward him and treats him to another long, slow, coffee-flavored kiss. When she pulls back, his ignition key is dangling from her hand. "Guess you've gotta stay now."
He watches her exit the truck, smiles to himself. "I guess I do."