“in your eyes, I saw a future together
you just look away–in the distance–” Tori Amos, “China”
Every so often, he got polaroids.
She doesn’t write much. 108 and rising. Or ugliest male stripper ever. It’s almost a secret code, cramming meaning into captions.
Once, he managed to discover an I miss you scratched out in black ink and covered over in magic marker. And he has come to expect them, polaroids in simple white envelopes with postmarks from all over North America. The polaroids that tell him as quietly as possible that she’s still out there. Alive.
She has dyed her hair candy-apple red.
She is wearing a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and a short blonde wig.
She is an assistant librarian in Oregon.
She is waitressing in a nuclear-themed Tex-Mex diner in New Mexico.
When he finally made his move for Fred, it did not go well. One night in the hotel after dinner at their favorite seafood buffet in Glendale, followed by a movie and carefully escalating touching. Fred, with her long, dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, her arms protectively clasped around herself, shook her head. Fred, with her narrow, disapproving lips disappearing into a bloodless line as she pressed them together, warning him away before he even began. Wesley had fumbled and fumbled badly, and at the end of it, with Fred staring down at him, a cold, dark realization had awakened in the pit of his stomach.
He did not love Fred, and he never really had. Which was an absurdity. Of course he loved Fred. Who wouldn’t? Fred! Fluttering, clever, perennially anxious and somehow–utterly flat. He had always adored her as a shining example of right in the world, but looking up at her with her disdain and her disappointment, Wesley had discovered himself feeling that Fred was.
Fred was boring. Yes, that was precisely the word. And the though ached like a paper cut, the implications far worse than the original notion.
“I’m sorry, Wes,” said earnestly dull and stupidly good Fred, trying to look encouraging in that way of hers that Wesley suddenly found unfathomably irritating. Was this really the same woman he had worshipped for nearly two years? Where was the glamour? The brilliance? The virtue? “I don’t think it could have ever worked out between us. You know? I think that–well, we’re not really suited for it. We’re good friends, Wes. The best. But I don’t feel that way about you and I never did.”
Wesley nodded, stunned with his new realizations. Fred was so small and pale and boring, and Wes hated himself for thinking it, but she was also about the size and shape of a twelve-year-old boy. He didn’t fault her for it; Wesley himself was, too. But how strange! To realize that all of the beauty and depth he had dreamt of was suddenly so fragile and trivial and unreal in the moment.
She is dancing with cowboys in Oklahoma. I was looking for Lindsey.
She is singing Patsy Cline songs in Texarkana on a Friday night, and every last man in the bar is in love with her. Every woman in the bar is breaking their heart for her, because they know from the very choice of song who she is without even knowing her name.
She is at a bar wearing a turquoise necklace and a jean jacket. There are two men with her, wearing bolo ties and shit-eating grins. All three of them are holding beer steins shaped like boots, raising them to the camera.
“It’s all right, Fred,” Wesley said, standing up and trying to smile. “I know it’s difficult to have to tell someone this.”
“Wes, it’s not your fault. You couldn’t help–” Fred rambled, gracious in her victory over him. Wesley couldn’t hear her anymore, not any more of her meaningless platitudes that she was heaping on to reiterate her devotion to their friendship.
No, Wesley could hear her–he simply didn’t wish to, not anymore. There wasn’t a point.
She is somewhere in Chicago last he’d known, sending him pictures from the top of the Sears Tower. I fucking hate cold weather.
“You know, Fred,” Wesley said with the calm that only sudden flashes of realization can give. “It’s perfectly all right if you don’t want to be friends. We’ve never really–”
Fred had never really been his friend. That was the truth and there was no shame in it. Gunn, now, Gunn had been his friend. Wesley knew this for a fact; he and Gunn had shared beers, war stories, amused glances, battles, the lot of it. They had learned to tolerate each other’s quirks. They had bonded over their mutual jealousy of Angel and their awe of Cordelia in her glorious prime. And Fred…Fred had somehow become the woman of his dreams, the symbol of Wesley’s better world, but she had never really been a friend. And for the life of him, Wesley didn’t know how that had happened.
“What?” Fred snapped, suddenly stung into being the harsher, less coddling woman that Wesley knew–had always vaguely known–existed. Wesley preferred to see her that way now; it reminded him that Fred was not to blame for his romantic illusions. It wasn’t Fred’s fault that Wesley wasn’t her friend. “What are you saying, Wes?”
“Nothing,” Wesley said, covering up the mistake. She did not deserve his cruelty. “I simply want you to be comfortable with our relationship, wherever you prefer it to be.”
“I hurt you, didn’t I?” Fred asked, reaching out to touch him. Wesley found himself pulling away from the gesture, thinking of other faces, other places, and so many pictures. “I’m so sorry.”
She is waiting for him to find her. Wherever she is today, she is waiting for him to be just around the corner.
“No,” Wesley said absently, processing all of these thoughts with as little outward energy as he could. “I think you’ve helped me understand something. I think–well, I know that I have more to be sorry for than you ever will.”
“What’s that mean?” Fred asked, softening into someone who could be Wesley’s friend, as close as Wesley and Fred have ever been to friendship. “I think it’d be easier to pretend that we’re friends if you ever told me–or any of us–where you go when you’re like this.”
Wesley nodded and smiled faintly at her. His eyes remained somber as he contemplated telling her his secret, the one he’d kept through the entire apocalypse. The apocalypse had cost them Gunn and had nearly taken Cordelia and Connor–and all of them, really. He had kept his losses private, through the apocalypse and long past that. How long had it been? Really?
The answer is automatic, a calculator function:
Two years, eight months, and four days.
She is in a diner that rattles and hums when the El passes by, wearing a ratty brown chenille scarf that she bought in Des Moines the day she went there to ask about a job.
She is eating runny vegetable soup and her hair is brown again.
She is reading the newspaper, ignoring the way that her fingers are smudged from the ink.
“I’m not sure you’ll understand,” Wesley admitted. “I didn’t understand it until just now.”
His hand was immediately in his pocket, where the stash of polaroids always was, always within reach. Oh, hadn’t he figured it out already? Forty-seven snapshots, always within two feet of his person except for the week he’d spent in the hospital last May. Forty-seven scribbled sentences of various levels of inanity. There were things that Wesley had been keeping to himself, and the idea of sharing them with Fred was painful.
“Try me,” Fred said, reaching her hand out. “I’m not a monster, Wes. I don’t think anything you can show me–oh.”
Wesley’s hand pulled back, leaving the pictures in the grip of someone he’d thought he’d loved. Fred looked over the first one, the only one of them together, and the platitudes clearly didn’t have meaning for her anymore, either.
“I don’t know if there’s anything else to say,” Wesley said ironically, the faintest smile bruising his lips as Fred pressed hers together and began thumbing through the pile irreverently.
She is quietly rubbing her knuckles on the bus ride home. She got so cold even in the mild California weather. Chicago is painful. Chicago in midwinter is impossible.
She is thinking of going west again. She wants to find her mother’s grave, somewhere in the high plains states. She thinks that maybe she’ll find some kind of peace there, alone with herself and the endless sky.
She needs to send Wes another polaroid.
“Oh, Wesley,” Fred finally said, her voice disapproving and understanding and hating and pitying. “Oh, Wes, I–I don’t even know you, do I?”
“No, you really don’t,” Wesley said, not unkindly. “But I didn’t make myself easy to know.”
“Did anyone know?” Fred asked, looking at a pair of very familiar legs framed against the flashy, gaudy background of a sign for some New Orleans nightclub. Wash a girl! Extra if she’s really dirty!
“Angel,” Wes said. “He could smell it. We didn’t precisely tell him.”
The sound of his voice was comforting, the even tone in which he related the factual details of the affair hypnotic. When did it begin? When did you break it off? What happened? When did she start sending you pictures? How often? These were all answers Wesley had, the knowledge that everyone wanted from him.
“When are you leaving us, Wes?” Fred asked, putting the polaroids back into his hands and breaking the spell. “I knew you were going–it’s been really kinda obvious for a while now–but I didn’t know she was why you were going.”
She is pulling the keys out of her pocket as she walks up to her third story apartment with the thin walls and the ancient radiator. They rattle and jingle and she hates keys. In her old life, there were no keys. She didn’t need them. She had access. And that’s all gone now.
She is thinking of what to make for dinner. Meatloaf? One of the Healthy Choice meals she bought two for one at the supermarket? Maybe she will add to that credit card balance and get Chinese takeout. She’s not really in the mood to cook.
Wesley looked at Fred with surprise. “I didn’t realize, myself,” he said slowly. “Not until just now. But you’re right, aren’t you?”
“You’ve been gone for so long now that I’m always surprised when you’re here in the morning,” Fred replied. “Wes–”
He looked at Fred, her brown eyes so full of emotion and real, genuine friendship that he wished that he hadn’t wasted his time and hers. There had been more to find than his idiotic dreams of the perfect Fred that he’d forced to float over the real Fred for all these days, weeks, and months. They’d both lost someone during the Beast’s attacks. Had they been friends, they might have commiserated together, bonded against the emptiness. Now he’d be gone before they could really do much more than understand each other, if that.
“Thank you,” he said softly, putting the polaroids back into his pocket. “I’m sorry. I’ve always been sorry. About Gunn, that is.”
“I know. And–thanks,” Fred said, swallowing, suddenly back to somewhere uncomfortable. “But–Wesley, why are you still here? Don’t you know how short life is?”
She is ten feet away before she recognizes that it’s him. The keys fall to the floor with a clatter that turns his head.
He is wearing a hideous brown sweater (does he let Fred dress him?) and a pair of jeans, looking at each of the numbers on the door to see if he can figure out the right apartment by magic.
“I knew,” she says in shock, her voice as whiskey-velvet as he remembers. “I knew today was the day.”
“Did you, now?” he asks, because she knew no such thing and they both know it. “I didn’t know you were psychic.”
She is clutching the railing because she can’t seem to stand up properly. For some reason, her legs won’t hold her weight. It’s okay; they both are aware that he’ll hold her up when he reaches where she’s standing.
“I–” she says and she was suddenly Wesley, staring at Fred. There it stood. Could he really go? Two years. There were still things to be worked out. He still believed in the mission, in all the reasons why he hadn’t accepted her the first time. There were still lines and he wasn’t entirely sure–
“I can’t go,” Wesley said, tucking the polaroids away. “Not yet.”
Fred shook her head. “Don’t be stupid. You can go anytime you want,” she said. “You’re already halfway there.”
“I know,” he tells her, picking up the keys while she stares at him, slowly recovering from the show. She is holding on tight, barely holding it together, and he curses himself for all the lost days. “Chicago is cold. I’m freezing to death.”
“Wes, I–” and this time she has the words, the words she’s been keeping for him since Los Angeles and her impulse buy of the camera on her original supply run at the Target in Sherman Oaks. “I love you. And if you don’t like it, you can–you can suck on it. I love you. Love love love love love.”
He laughs and puts his arm around her, wondering at the way her body against his feels so natural. Like a homecoming.
“I like that you love me,” he growls into her ear as they walk toward her apartment together. How could he have been so stupid? She is delightfully warm against his body, a thousand times better than the pictures he still has in his pocket. “I love that you love me. I love you.”
She is everything he always wanted, and she is waiting for him. She is waiting and she has faith that he will find her. If not in Chicago, then in Kansas City. If not in Kansas, then in Wyoming. She knows he will find her.
She is still waiting for him as her eyes refocus and the dream fades. She walks to the door.
Way too real. Definitely a Percocet before bed tonight.
There was a brief pause as Wesley stood up awkwardly, looking toward the exit. “I think I’ll go. We have work in the morning,” he said.
“Then go already,” Fred said. “If you think it matters so much.”
“If it doesn’t matter,” Wesley said softly. “If it doesn’t matter, then I’m a damn fool in the first place. And I should have been gone years ago.”
Fred let her silence speak for her, withdrawing with little more than a polite nod.
And Wesley, who had dreamed of Lilah for two years, eight months, and five days, stumbled out of the hotel and tried to imagine what would come next.