“God knows I never think about morality when power or ambition’s involved,” she’d said a little fondly, touching the stubble on his cheek. “You’re going to forget to shave, aren’t you?”
“I’m thinking of having a rebellious phase,” he said, looking at the overfull SUV with the tired, cranky four-year-old waiting impatiently for Mommy and Daddy to get on with it. “Don’t get killed, all right? I’d be quite put out. And don’t trust Brent. He’s after your job.”
“I know,” she said with one of her wicked grins. “I’ll keep an eye on Angel, too. Just in case.”
“Don’t fuck him, either,” Wesley said. “Because that would be–”
“The worst idea ever?” she replied sardonically. “I know, Wes. It’s okay. I can take care of myself.”
Lisabeth screamed. “Daddddddddddyyyyyyyyyyy–”
He kissed Lilah’s cheek hastily. “I know,” he said. “Good luck.”
“You too,” she said, smoothing down a flyaway. “I’ll be up at the end of the month to visit Liss, okay?”
“We’ll be waiting,” he said, hustling for the car. “See you then.”
Lisabeth was whining, slightly tear-stained, with her cheeks red from all the yelling. “Why can’t Mommy come?”
“Mommy’s staying in Los Angeles,” Wesley said. “You and I are going to San Francisco to live. She’ll be up to visit us a lot.”
“Why can’t Mommy come?”
He didn’t want to explain it. Besides, there was no explanation that he could give to a child. Certainly not one about boyfriends, power games, and Angel looking none-too-happy that his archenemy and former friend had set up housekeeping in Pacific Palisades. The marriage had always been something of a sham, and both Wes and Lilah had been worried about what would happen if Angel had ever gotten too resentful.
“Because it’ll be better this way,” Wesley said, putting their land zeppelin in reverse and heading out for the 101 and a city he’d never imagined he’d end up in. “Shh, honey. Mommy will be coming at the end of the month.”
He’d found a new routine almost immediately. Up at six, almost an hour to himself after the shower doing translation work or the books or whatever needed to be done, wake Lizzy at seven and get her ready for the carpool to Pre-K at seven-forty-five, and then he took a brief walk to the corner coffee shop for a cafe au lait and half a bagel. Then, depending on the night he had, he’d go back to sleep until noon or work on whatever new cases his receptionist had for him. Emily the Nanny brought Lizzy home at one, and nine days out of ten, he was there to greet them before heading for the office.
It was all very orderly, very comforting, and didn’t allow him to get close to anyone beyond the office staff, Emily the Nanny (who occasionally dyed her hair purple, listened to one-beat rave music, loved Faulkner, and thought he was the weird one), and his two next-door neighbors, Mrs. Caldwell (who made pie. Lots of pie), and the Hernandezes (two kids about Lizzy’s age, were not yet friendly).
But Wesley had scheduled himself not to feel lonely. If he missed Lilah’s radiant dark form next to him nights, he didn’t miss the two hours it took her to emerge from the bathroom, or the sinking feeling of realizing there was a half-bottle of scotch simply gone without explanation and strangely rumpled sheets in the bedroom. He swore to himself that soon enough, he’d have time to have a social life–establishing a detective agency was hard work, and raising a daughter full-time–he would. Soon enough.
Still, had it not been for the exploding pen, Wesley Wyndam-Pryce could have spent the rest of his life without the proper happily-ever-after, scheduling a full enough life to make up for it. But there had been the exploding pen, and because of it, things were quite different.
It had been a Thursday morning. Thursday the 11th of April at six-forty-nine in the morning. He had been working on an extremely difficult translation, a third-rate Latin translation of a Sumerian document–it was either Sumerian or Akkadian, he wasn’t sure which, and he was fairly certain the Akkadian had been a translation of some demonic language–for a research consortium in Marin County. He’d been chewing on the end of his fountain pen absently, trying to figure out if it was an ablative or a dative clause when the bloody thing exploded.
There was really no other word for it. One moment, Wesley was listening to Radiohead and struggling with his declensions and the next, he was covered in black ink from head to waist, the pen in his hand weeping liquid all over his copies of the translations–Wesley, while occasionally lazy in his scholarship, had learned from the masters that one did NOT get near a manuscript with a pen–and his jeans.
“Bloody–hell–” Wesley said, flinging the pen toward his wastebasket. Unfortunately, Emily the Nanny had moved the wastebasket to the smaller table yesterday afternoon so that she and Lisabeth could cut up construction paper stars without making a mess, and so the pen fell on the landlady’s prized Persian carpet and rolled four feet, leaving a hideous, security-deposit-ruining black trail.
“Shit,” Wesley grumbled, grabbing the pen, which continued to silently weep its black tears, and depositing it in the wastebasket. “Just what I needed.”
“Daddydaddydaddy!” Lisabeth suddenly squeaked, deciding this morning was a morning to wake up before he woke her. “I’m hungry hungry hungry hippos!”
She came hurtling down the hall, arms open for a hug, despite his extremely bedraggled appearance. Before he could warn her, she grabbed his legs, putting her head on one of the larger ink stains. Wesley sighed, and was not at all surprised to see his daughter’s besmudged face look up at him, completely uncomprehending of why he didn’t pick her up.
To make a long, rather domestic story shorter, Wesley ended up in one of the classic bad mornings of working mothers since time immemorial. After dropping Lizzy off at Pre-K, leaving his ink-stained clothes at the cleaners, and fighting his way through traffic, all while haggling with a professional carpet cleaner for the price of stain removal of a faux Persian rug, he decided he still deserved his coffee and bagel. Certainly, he was going to be there at nine-thirty rather than eight-fifteen, but what was an hour and fifteen minutes?
“Nothing important,” he said, striding into the Daily Grounds and breathing in the aromatic coffee stench before getting into line behind a tall black man who was studying the menu intently without moving to the cashier. “Excuse me, sir–”
The man turned about to look at him. Wesley forgot about his coffee, forgot about the carpet cleaners, forgot about everything.
“Hell,” Charles Gunn said, as companionably as possible after eight years. “What’s up, English? Am I in the way?”
“You’re at my coffee shop,” Wesley said dumbly, unable to process that it was Gunn standing in front of him, Gunn looking much as he had back in Los Angeles. A little older. A little heavier. But then again, weren’t they all? Even Angel. “What are you doing here?”
“Your coffee shop?” Gunn asked, an amused flicker in his eye. “I didn’t notice this place was called Wesley’s.”
“I mean I–I come here. Every day. Usually at eight-fifteen, after I get Lizzy off for the day,” Wesley said, his brain slowly starting to function. Gunn was at his coffee shop, and he was still Gunn. And Wesley, who had buried his feelings for Gunn along with the last great Apocalyptic battles of 2003, found himself almost as stunned as if they’d only been separated a day.
“Hey, man, I don’t need to know what you and Mrs. Evil America do–and where the hell did you get Lizzy out of Lilah?” Gunn said, pulling Wes aside, to the great relief of the customers behind him and the anxious salesgirl. Wesley laughed.
“Lizzy’s my daughter,” he explained. “Lilah and I–well, we’ve been through for six months. More or less.”
“More being the weekends she’s up here and less being the rest of the time?” Gunn asked humorously. “I don’t know about you and that woman, Wes. She gives you a come-fuck-me look and you’re a slave for her.”
“We have a connection,” Wesley said with a diffident shrug, looking at an empty corner table. “Shall we sit down? My morning’s already completely shot, so I’m free until one, when Liss and her nanny get back from school.”
“Good to know that you’d give up a shot morning for me,” Gunn said, nodding. “Get the table. I’ll get us coffee. You still all about triple espresso?”
Wesley shook his head. “Cafe au lait. Half a sesame bagel with cream cheese.”
“Goin’ soft, man,” Gunn said with a grin before getting back in line. “I shoulda guessed.”
Wesley snorted and went back to the corner table. He couldn’t help but smile as he went.
“We live two blocks away from each other,” Wesley repeated for the fourth time. “It’s unbelievable. It’s something out of a bad melodrama. Two friends, separated for years, reunited one morning out of the blue by–well, the exploding pen is almost as bad as the sudden rainstorm or the flat tire, isn’t it?”
Gunn snorted. They were each on their second or third coffee and Wes was on his third bagel. It had been comfortable. It had been more than comfortable, the two of them giving life summaries, sharing photographs, and handling the difficult bits gracefully.
“At least the power love ballad ain’t making its first appearance,” Gunn replied. “Sung by whatever-the-fuck pop singer’s got the love right now. Or Sting. And it could be worse. Your plucky-yet-lonely daughter could have run into me after wandering off or some damn thing and innocently reunited us after all these years.”
Wesley snorted. “Lonely, my arse,” he said. “Lizzy takes after her mother. Every little boy at the preschool’s in love with her. They’re trying to make her an Elsie, but she’s very emphatically not having it. Doesn’t mind being a princess, though.”
He had his favorite picture of Lisabeth out on the table–a lovely mother/daughter candid at the Palisades near sunset–which Gunn kept looking at with a question in his eyes. Wes wished he’d just ask it and get it over with.
“Girl’s gonna be a basketball player, homeboy,” Gunn said. “Between you and her mom, she’s gonna be right around six feet tall, isn’t she?”
“Probably. Though I don’t think Lisabeth has ever touched a basketball,” Wesley said. “So–Charles–are you going to ask or aren’t you? I think we’ve made a considerable amount of small talk.”
Gunn smiled, and the look in his eyes made Wesley’s knees tremble just a little. Eight years. It should have been enough to calm whatever he’d felt–the love, the lust, the intense need–but it wasn’t.
“What the hell I was doing, staying with Lilah,” Wesley said bitterly. “I’ve gotten used to the question. Everyone’s asked me once or twice. Usually at the top of their lungs before severing ties.”
Gunn looked at Wesley for a full minute before answering, and Wesley found himself trying to remember every contour of the other man’s face, just in case they never met again. He could feel the pain of that–never seeing Gunn again–in parts of his stomach he hadn’t felt for a full decade.
“Naw, man,” Gunn said calmly. “I get that. Doesn’t mean I like it, but I get it. You and her, you had–probably have–this thing. And you two were serious enough to have a kid and all. Plus, man, I gotta give the Bitch Queen her props.”
Wesley’s brow wrinkled. “For what?”
“For keepin’ your ass alive long enough for me to realize I was a dumbfuck for ever lettin’ you out of my sight,” Gunn said. “And I just said that out loud instead of in my head, didn’t I?”
The air was caught in Wesley’s throat. “Yes, you did,” he managed to croak. “I–I don’t know what to say.”
“Well,” Gunn said awkwardly. “You don’t have to say anything. I mean, what, we run into each other at a coffee shop after eight years and I’m professing my thing for you after forty-five minutes? It’s clearly all the hippie communication shit getting to me.”
“No, I mean–I–I feel–I’m glad you said it,” Wesley managed to sputter. “I mean, yes, it’s a little sudden. But I–yes. Sudden. Almost too sudden. But I saw you and I–do you remember?”
Gunn nodded, his eyes still looking down at the table more than at Wesley. His hands were shaking a little, which made Wes feel more than a little better. It wasn’t just him that was scared out of his head to feel this so intensely and so suddenly after so long an absence.
“Fuck yeah, I do,” Gunn growled suddenly, looking up at Wes through what had to be interpreted as come-hither eyes. “Back of the truck. Where the hell were we that night?”
“Wherever Lorne’s club used to be. In the hills. North Hollywood? Universal City, maybe,” Wesley said with a hitch in his breathing. “It was madness. We were bloody lucky the police didn’t catch us.”
“Yeah, we were young and dumb and–goddamn, you look at me like that again and I’m gonna have to molest you in the bathroom,” Gunn said quietly, trying not to share the conversation with the study group at the next table. “You know what I’m talking about.”
“I do indeed,” Wesley said, aware that he was going to embarrass himself if the conversation went any further. And that there was definitely going to have to be some adjustment going on. “Come on. Let’s get the hell out of here. We’ll go to my place.”
Gunn narrowed an eye. “Why your place? What, you think my place isn’t so nice?”
“I’m sure your place is fine,” Wes said sincerely. “But I’m afraid we’ll get distracted and I won’t be there when Liss gets home. And I’d like you to meet her.”
“I’d like that, too,” Gunn said. A slight shadow suddenly darkened his expression. “You heard about Fred, right?”
“Not recently. She was in Detroit with Dawn Summers, last I heard,” Wesley said distractedly, wondering if there was a shortcut back to his home. “That was about three years ago. Is she all right? She’s not–”
“No, she’s not dead,” Gunn said, standing up. “She’s sick, though. Her and Dawn both aren’t doin’ so good. It’s something about interdimensional travel that messes up your cellular structure. I dunno exactly what. She’s working her ass off with her physics friends to find a way to stop it. I asked what it was, but you know me. Not the best with subatomic particles and stuff like that.”
Wes, the mood slightly killed, shivered, trying to imagine what could be wrong, and finding himself with images out of comic books and bad sci-fi movies. He tried to think of something to say, and found himself without words.
“It’s okay, man,” Gunn said. “It’s movin’ slow–painful, but not fatal. It’ll be at least five years, we think, if they don’t find something. And Fred’s smart. She’s not gonna let some subatomic particle stop her.”
He nodded, slowly getting up. “Not our Fred,” Wesley said. “She’s a fighter. And too good for both of us.”
“You’re not wrong,” Gunn said awkwardly. “So–you wanna go?”
Wesley swallowed. Tried to make himself feel that it would be wrong, knowing that Fred was ill. Knowing that they were being selfish and that if Gunn walked into his flat, they’d end up fucking. Just like old times. He tried.
And he failed.
“Quite a lot, yes,” Wesley said. “So. Let’s go.”
He’d forgotten the carpet cleaners.
And that Lilah was due someday today to visit Lisabeth and discuss things before going to a meeting on Saturday in San Jose. And that Lilah delighted in showing up with just enough time for some serious sex before Lisabeth came home with Emily the Nanny, who did not fully approve of Lilah. Then again, no one did.
“I’m not Mrs. Pryce!” Lilah snapped at the determined-looking man with a bill. “And I’m not paying you two hundred dollars because you cleaned his carpet. I pay enough in alimony and child support to support a small African nation already.”
“And do let’s broadcast that to the block,” Wesley said acerbically. “I assume you’re with Quick-and-Easy Carpet Cleaning. Good. Let’s see the carpet and we’ll settle the bill.”
Gunn was tensed up nervously, and Lilah looked as surprised to see him as he was to see her.
“So,” she finally said. “When did you and Wes meet up again?”
“Two hours ago,” Gunn said. “Why are you here?”
“My daughter and my ex-husband,” she said, sharply but not unkindly. “How about you?”
“Wesley invited me,” Gunn said, the two of them ignoring Wesley’s conflict with the carpet guy, which looked like pure comedy. “You’re looking’ pretty good. How’s evil treating you?”
“So-so,” she said, sitting down on the front steps. “Evil minions suck, but I get to screw celebrities and do cool evil things. How about you? Still doing the good fight thing?”
“More or less,” Gunn said, sitting down next to her. “Your little girl’s really pretty. I was telling Wes you two should turn her into a basketball player.”
“I was thinking volleyball,” Lilah replied. “We still don’t like each other, right?”
“Oh, yeah, we’re still enemies.”
“Good to know. Don’t want to add you to my Christmas card list,” she said breezily. “So. You two. Apparently, it’s back on?”
Gunn shrugged. He didn’t even ask how she knew it had ever been on; all the answers would just freak him out or piss him off, and it wasn’t like Lilah was going anywhere. She endured. Like the Dude or Britney Spears.
“Could be. You jealous?”
“Please,” Lilah said, holding one hand up. “Ex-wife. Mother of his child. Even if we stop with our on-and-off post-divorce affair so you two can be all Mr. and Mr. Monogamy, I’m still in his life, and that’s fine. I’ll just glower at you when we’re forced to be in the same room. Which’ll be often. Just FYI. We didn’t break up because the sex was bad or we hated each other. It was more–the marriage was pr, the divorce is, too, and Liss is safer this way.”
“Understood,” Gunn said. “So, we good?”
“We’re good,” she said. “Make him less lonely, okay? You know how Wes is. He pretends he’s okay, but it’s only because he’s working eighteen hour days and doesn’t have time to be.”
Gunn nodded. “You’re still in love with him,” he accused quietly.
“Until the day I die,” she said unreservedly. “But it’s complicated, as you well know. It’s really better this way. Wesley–he’ll never love me the way I love him. This way, I can still love him and he can still love me and we don’t have to–well, you know. There’s Lisabeth to worry about, too. And it’s complicated.”
She looked at her shoes, scowled, and rubbed a smudge off with her thumb. Gunn managed to contain the snort. Still vainer than a pack of pop stars. But she had been good for Wesley. Kept him on his toes, kept him looking good, and kept him from veering into despair.
The carpet guy pounded down the stairs, almost tripping over Lilah, who said something obscene to him in Spanish before standing up and smoothing her suit casually. Gunn looked up and Wesley did walk to her first, the way he must have for all those years.
“It’s fine. I should have more alone time with her anyway,” Lilah was saying. “She should get used to the part where we’re not together anymore. And I’ll take Emily along with and talk to her.”
“Don’t scare her off,” Wesley replied, fixing something on her jacket before looking down at Gunn. Gunn smiled at him. Wesley smiled back, and hoo boy. Wesley, damn him, was giving him a good old-fashioned eyefuck before his ex, the neighbors, and God almighty, and Gunn couldn’t help but like it.
“Your life’s too fuckin’ crazy,” Gunn said as Wesley addressed last-minute instructions to the womenfolk in his life and they all headed off for museums and lunch with a largish wad of Wesley’s money. “But this is a nice place.”
“Nicer than yours?” Wesley teased, going into the kitchen for some damn thing or other.
“Actually, no, but it’s nice in a single dad with evil women in life way,” Gunn replied, following him into the kitchen. “And I didn’t even notice the mess with the carpet. And hey, those pictures are cool.”
Wesley laughed, looking at his old friend/lover/guy and marveling. Time had so clearly passed, because they wouldn’t have been able to do this the last time they spoke. The last time they had spoke, it had been tense. And mostly about Fred.
“We went driving in the summer, the three of us,” Wes said, wishing suddenly that Cordelia could have met Lisabeth. Cordelia would have enjoyed the irony of Wesley having a child, and she’d like the little girl with no particular power beyond that of irresistible cuteness. “Two years ago. The camera was crap, but I think the pictures are nice.”
The pictures were more than nice–they were beautiful. Slightly overexposed, the desert sun at a weird early morning angle, and Gunn wanted to kick himself for spending so many years by himself, without anything like what Wesley’d gotten for himself. Fred had left him–left them, really, and good for her–and Gunn had pulled an Angel and brooded. Fought the good fight, sure. But there was no reason it should be Wesley impressing him with the pictures and the strange grown-up life and not vice versa.
“We should do that sometime,” Wes said, looking at Gunn. “I haven’t really gotten up to the Napa Valley or anything north of here, and I’ve been told it’s really quite beautiful.”
“Yeah, it’s all right,” Gunn said. “Wes?”
“Yes?” Wesley said, not looking at the pictures or the excellent view or the left-behind coats that lay on the foyer table with little or no excitement. His attention, every scrap of it, was focused on the man who was standing three feet away from him.
Gunn’s mouth found his, the distance grown close, the three feet turned into six inches turned into none, and Wesley could taste him, taste the coffee and sesame seeds, smell that distinct Charles Gunn-smell that is skin and demon leftovers and fast food and aftershave. Without considering, Wesley had put his hands all over Gunn, feeling for a convenient place to stop.
“It’s gonna be complicated,” Gunn muttered huskily into Wesley’s ear.
“We might not be able to pull it off,” Wes agreed, groping Gunn’s ass with careless abandon.
“You’re probably going to fuck your ex-wife a few more times,” Gunn said, biting Wesley’s earlobe. “And I really don’t like her, Wes.”
“Possibly sometime this weekend, even,” Wes said, pressing his hips into Gunn’s. “And I’ll always care for her.”
“We got some nasty history to deal with,” Gunn whispered, his hand on Wesley’s waist, where there was finally the beginnings of a love handle. Nice.
“We’re in a dangerous–good God!–business,” Wesley replied, his back suddenly arching under Gunn’s touch. “What if Lisabeth doesn’t like you?”
“What if we get dead?” Gunn snapped.
Wes licked Gunn’s neck. “We could always die slipping in the shower. I’ve heard that it’s twenty thousand times more likely than death by apocalypse. And forty-five thousand times more likely than winning the lottery.”
“True that,” Gunn replied, capturing Wesley’s lips with his mouth and pushing his tongue against Wes’s teeth. Fuck, but he did love this skinny English bastard.
“We can at least try,” Wes murmured when the kiss ended, running his hand over Gunn’s scalp. Gunn smiled at him, the worry in his eyes turning bittersweet and warm and lustful again.
“I think that’s the plan,” Gunn agreed, leaning in for another kiss.
Wes thought, when he was able to think, of what would happen next. They would go driving (hopefully Gunn’s car was less of a suburban land zeppelin than Wesley’s distinctly unpopular beast), and he’d force Lilah to take Lisabeth back to Los Angeles more often. They would go to Detroit and visit Fred, make their peace with her, do what they could to help because that’s what one did; one gave up the grudges and came through for the people who mattered.
Or quite possibly, they wouldn’t make it. They would have a brief affair and keep in touch, or not. Either way, it would be all right, because they would make up the old, unburied history, and move ahead, and that was enough.
“Wes,” Gunn murmured into his ear, reminding him that he was thinking far, far too much. “Maybe we could head for the couch. Cuz your kitchen’s real nice, but it’s kind of small–”
“And full of dangerous implements,” Wesley said, thinking of the contents of upper, locked cabinets. “Let’s try the living room instead.”
Wesley’s couch was a modern marvel, exquisite European craftsmanship and the finest technological improvements in fiber so that even the most stubborn of child stains wiped away with a little soapy water. It had cost Wes and Lilah eleven hundred dollars and the bitterest debate of the break-up was who got to keep it. Wesley had won by cheating, and Lilah still called it the sex couch when she deigned to refer to it.
Gunn, upon falling onto the couch, thought, ooh. Nice couch. Goddamn, Wesley’s still hot.
Wesley, upon falling on top of Gunn, thought, it really is the sex couch. Dear God. Mmm. He still does the thing with the hips.
The sex couch protested a little about the weight of two men hitting it at that velocity, but it soon gave up and only squawked in indignation once or twice.
For the next fifteen minutes.
At that point, Wesley and Gunn decided the bedroom would be more comfortable really, just in case the museum trip ended early or if someone had forgotten their coat or any of the multitudes of inevitable domestic problems that happened in lives like theirs. Because they were going to try. What else could they do?
And so, respectfully, there’s only one way to end the story, which is thus:
They decided to live happily ever after, for as long as that happened to be. And so they did.