By Minim Calibre
Notes: Gunn/Wes, prompt “looks like freedom but it feels like death/it’s something in between I guess.” Spoilers through Salvage, AtS 4×13. Thanks to Deborah Grabien for the beta, JennyO for accidentally infecting me with ideas, and las Bitcas for putting up with me. And to Leonard Cohen. Because. PG.
In retrospect, it’s obvious he became something of a Bedlamite after Lilah’s death. Everything—his fling with Faith, falling into an ill-starred and ill-advised relationship with Fred, pummeling Lorne into unconsciousness when the demon had the misfortune (not to mention poor taste) of telling a lawyer joke while he was in the room (it took Connor, Gunn, and Angel five minutes to pull him off of Lorne, and he quit the agency shortly thereafter)—seemed to re-enforce the idea. Lord knows, Fred told him as much when she broke things off after a long couple of torrid (yet curiously tepid) months. She also told him he might as well be married to his guilt. She’s probably right.
It’s time—long past time—to put Lilah’s demise behind him. Demise. Such a quaint, clean word to associate with such a harsh, messy end. He’s not sure why he uses it. It’s not a term he associates with any of his other lovers who have shuffled off this mortal coil. George, best of friends while they were at the Academy, briefly something more when they were through with their training and at loose ends, dead when Headquarters blew up. Virginia, the most utterly bland and banal of deaths—car accident in Berlin. She’d been speeding. Faith, the unlikely savior, dead alongside Buffy. No fancy words to slip around the reality of it, they all simply died.
But Lilah gets demise, and passing, and any number of polite obfuscations, and it’s been two years to the day since he found her (found them, entwined like lovers in flagrante delicto and he the cuckold, and yes, thank you, he does feel cheated), two years since he—
Wesley doesn’t drink very often anymore, and never to excess unless the occasion warrants it, which this does. He pours a glass of scotch (not his brand, not tonight), defiles it with ice cubes (three of them: no more, no less), and then opens the box on the table, removing the items within slowly, one at a time. Each withdrawal is followed by a large swallow of her scotch, a melancholy ritual he repeats until the box is empty and the glass has been refilled a good half-dozen times.
Hairbrush, toothbrush, lipstick, one stocking. Those were the things that were left here, unclaimed by anyone until he gathered them together in the first wave of grief. One picture—grainy, and not the best angle—stolen from the A.I. files when he left the team for the last time. A box he wishes he hadn’t found, salvaged from the contents of her makeshift bunker, still sealed, the implications of its presence amongst her things enough to rattle him even now.
Little props left over from a black comedy of errors, its ending either tragic or an especially farcical bit of poetic justice, depending on how much one has had to drink. He’s had quite a bit, and he’s still vacillating between the two.
He’s almost to the final scene, almost ready to remove his wallet and place the last prop amidst the rest, when he hears a knock on his door. He jumps at the noise, sloshing scotch over his hands and soaking the cuffs of his shirt. The reverie snapped (like a twig, or a neck, or perhaps his sanity), he pushes himself away from the table and goes to answer it.
It’s Gunn, which doesn’t make much sense, and he wonders if he’s drunk enough to be seeing people who aren’t there. Of course, he never sees the living, so it has to be Gunn, choosing to stop by for… for what?
“Fred called me,” Gunn says as he lets himself in. “Told me what day it was, that you shouldn’t be left by yourself in case you did something stupid.”
That’s right. Fred was here for the first anniversary. He doesn’t remember much of what he said or did, but he does remember that most of it was ugly, and that Fred decided it was the last straw. So his ex-girlfriend has called their mutual ex-boyfriend to help him deal with the anniversary of his ex-lover’s demise. There’s that word again. The pendulum has swung back to farce. Really, how can it be avoided?
Gunn glances around, takes in the half-empty bottle and the tidy arrangement of personal effects. “Looks like you already did,” he mutters.
Wesley waits for the disgust, the blame, the usual barrage of accusations, but none of it is forthcoming. Gunn just looks at him, his face troubled. Wesley knows from experience that it’s possible for them to just stand and stare each other into exhaustion. Theirs was a fragile peace, upset by Fred and never fully put to rights. He hasn’t spoken to Gunn in… it must be six months, give or take. That would be the last time professional needs overcame personal dislikes. Sad, really. All of it, and suddenly, he’s too tired to play this game again. He wanders over to the sofa and sits down, considering his response carefully.
“Thank you, Gunn.” He’s aware that he must look a mess. He’s also aware that he’ll be fine come morning, if slightly worse for wear. He doesn’t need help, or supervision, or company. “I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself, no matter what Fred thinks.”
“Fred thinks you’re going to spend the night beating yourself up again. You telling me that’s not what’s going on?”
“However masochistic it may seem, it’s not something that requires the presence of a nursemaid.”
“Might require the presence of a friend.”
“Is that what you are? You have a funny way of defining friendship, Gunn.”
Gunn doesn’t answer. In fact, he leaves the room. When he comes back, he’s carrying a glass of water and a plate of dry brown bread.
“You eaten today?” he asks.
Wesley thinks for a second, and shakes his head. “No, not really.”
“Didn’t think so.”
The plate gets set in front of him, and the water gets pushed into his hand. Apparently, he has a nursemaid in spite of his objections. Typical of Gunn to not take him at his word.
“Angel wants to know if you’ll come back to work for us.” The abrupt change in subject takes a moment to process. So Gunn has ulterior motives. It’s not the first time Angel has requested he return to the agency, though it is the first time he’s used a middleman.
He’s thought about it. He’s not certain how he managed to stay there for as long as he did, but the crisis forced them all together, and the settling of dust in the aftermath took some time. Every single time, he reaches the same conclusion.
“I can’t do that.” Too many memories, too much blood (literal and figurative, on Angel’s lips and Wesley’s hands, no matter that it’s not what happened, it’s still what he saw, still what he feels), and not enough time nor enough space.
“Yeah. Didn’t figure you would. Can’t blame you. If I was in your shoes—”
“I have been.”
“Alonna. But it’s not the same, not really. Alonna was turned. Lilah wasn’t. Alonna was good, or at least fighting for it. Lilah wasn’t. Alonna was worth grieving over. Was Lilah?”
“Are you asking me?” Gunn raises a brow, and looks ready to answer.
“No. The question is rhetorical.” It isn’t. It’s just part of what he’s been trying to sort out for himself for the last couple of years, and he doesn’t need to hear all the arguments against it from someone else’s lips.
“Fine. You want to just keep on hating yourself, go right ahead.” Gunn’s pacing around the place, looking uncomfortable and jumpy. “I told Fred I’d make sure you’re okay, told Angel I’d talk to you, so I guess I’m…” he stops in front of the table, stops talking mid-sentence and turns to look at Wesley, guilt and accusation and question in his eyes. “Shit. Fred didn’t mention—”
“Fred didn’t know.” They didn’t really talk about Lilah. Or about anything personal. Just books and theory and all the things she couldn’t, or chose not to, share with Gunn. “I didn’t tell her.”
“Typical.” Gunn’s back to familiar territory, all the easier to lash out with. “You keep all this crap to yourself, expect us to read your mind.”
“Fifteen minutes,” he says quietly.
“It took you all of fifteen minutes to find a way to assign me the blame.” It’s not really fair of him to point this out, but it’s his home, and it’s his loss, his guilt they’re talking about, and he doesn’t especially want someone else’s input on either. Besides, it’s not like he asked for company, so he doesn’t need to be polite.
“You shut me out first, Wes.” There’s an exhaustion in Gunn’s voice he hasn’t heard before, a quiet matter-of-factness to it. He gestures at the table. “Did you know when we found her?”
“Not until I went back for her things. Knowing Lilah, she wouldn’t have bothered to tell me.” He leans forward and grabs a piece of the bread, pulling it into smaller pieces and worrying those into little balls.
“That why you went off the deep end?”
“Part of it. If that’s why she stayed… I told her to go underground, to go somewhere safe. If she stayed because of me, because of us, because she might have been… then I’m the one responsible for what happened.”
“Right. Because the rest of us don’t have free will.” Gunn lets out a mirthless laugh. “I’m remembering why it is I dumped your ass.”
“I wasn’t talking about us, Gunn.” He sets the mutilated bread back on the plate, and starts in on the next piece. “I’m not sure why you’re even bringing it up. Or why you’re still here, for that matter.”
“Maybe because I still love you.”
That isn’t the response he was expecting. Maybe the ulterior motives weren’t what he thought they were. When he looks up, he realizes Gunn looks just as shocked at what he said as Wesley was to hear it.
He sighs and stops his fidgeting. “It’s a bad habit. Loving me, that is. It has an alarming tendency to end in fatality.”
He thinks he can hear Gunn’s eyes roll at his words, the action is that exaggerated. “Do I look dead to you?”
He doesn’t. Gunn looks like he always has: strong, stubborn, vital. Everything about him clashes with the muted blues and greys of Wesley’s living room, just as so much about him clashes with the blurry greys (steel or gunmetal, tinged red around the edges) of Wesley’s self. Just another reminder of what he can’t be and what he can’t have. He shakes his head.
“Didn’t think so.” Gunn crosses the room and the sofa lets out an aching groan of protest as Gunn flops down next to him, long limbs sprawling like he owns the thing. He leans forward and picks up Wesley’s discarded bread, flattening a slice between his palms and attempting to fold it as if it were origami paper. He gives up quickly and sets it next to Wesley’s more artistic mutilations. “Stop blaming yourself.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Not your fault, so quit acting like it was.”
“Is this the part where you give me an inspirational speech, I turn my life around, and you go back home feeling like the better man?” He hates the tone of his voice, the clipped lilt of sarcasm. “Pat yourself on the back and tell everyone you’ve performed your good deed for the week? Don’t you dare presume to tell me how I should feel, Gunn. Lilah’s dead, and I might as well be the one who killed her.”
He’s used the word. Nothing really feels different, there’s no sudden sense of closure snapping into focus, but he’s used the word. Dead. He supposes that’s something.
“Yeah, well, last I checked, she’d have been dead with the rest of Wolfram and Hart if you hadn’t gone and dragged her evil ass out of there.” Gunn sighs. “If I smacked you upside the head, would it beat some sense into it?”
“She liked to watch Judge Judy and provide a running commentary on how Wolfram and Hart would handle the cases. She’d sneak in while I was away and do my laundry, then rearrange my dresser drawers so that I’d find socks when looking for my trousers. She had excellent taste in everything from clothing to books to armaments, and appalling taste in popular entertainment. How do I reconcile that woman with the woman who nearly got the lot of us killed any number of times for the sheer joy of it?” It’s the most he’s ever said to anyone about Lilah.
Gunn sinks into the corner of the sofa and folds his arms across his chest. “Same way I reconcile the fact that half the time I want to kiss you, and the other half I want to kick your ass? Loving someone don’t make them good or good for you.”
“And I, I assume, am neither.” It’s almost a relief, knowing that even if Gunn confirms that he thinks the worst of him still, it doesn’t appear matter anymore. There’s a question that Wesley can’t help but ask; if it comes out wrong, he’ll blame the alcohol. “Which is it right now?”
“Which what?” Gunn looks wary, his shoulders stiffening slightly, arms still crossed.
“Which half of the time?”
He thinks for a minute that it’s gone very badly indeed, that he’s made another miscalculation, and then Gunn smiles ever so slightly and uncrosses his arms. “Little of both, but mostly kissing. Not tonight, though. That wouldn’t be fair to you or me. I get through shoveling Bloody Marys and scrambled eggs down your throat tomorrow? Whole new ball game.”
It’s an unexpected lifeline. “You promise?”
“Promise.” Gunn has the stubborn look on his face that says he’ll keep that promise if it kills him. It’s the same look he had when Wesley was in hospital after taking that bullet, when Wesley told him to go and get some rest and he refused.
Wesley gathers up some bedding and cedes the sofa to Gunn for the night. He has no idea where—if anywhere—any of the evening’s revelations will lead them. And if he’s honest with himself, he doesn’t really care. The mere possibility of mending what seemed unmendable is enough for now.
Tonight he’ll say goodbye once more, put her things back in the box, and try to accept that he cannot change the past. Tomorrow, if he feels up to it—and Gunn’s probably correct in assuming that Wesley will be more than a little hung over—he’ll take most of the contents somewhere and give them the decent burial that she never got. He walks back to the table and stares at her picture for a moment, then raises the glass of melted ice and silently asks for forgiveness (from whom, he’s not sure) before putting everything away.