The world was safe again. When they returned to the building, they felt traitorous as they unpacked and cleaned themselves up, as if they were just completing a client-paying mission. Giles and Willow tried his best to reorder things around; he cleaned the weapons while Willow made a valiant effort to pick up fallen books or chairs and return some semblance of normalcy to the reception area. If the AI team noticed their help, they didn't say anything. Each went their seperate ways into the old hotel. Fred to her room, Gunn to the showers, Cordelia to Wesley's office and Angel ... he was wandering about. Nobody knew where he was.
Giles and Willow exchanged sad looks and returned stoicly to their work.
Wesley appeared before him clad in the clothes Angel best remembered him in: the starched shirt and pants, the tie and his ever-present glasses. His hair was civilly cropped, his smile the familiar tolerant smile Angel was used to - not the sardonic one of recent months.
"Cordelia said that if I didn't forgive you, it would be ..."
Wesley gave him a small smile. "Bad?"
Angel could only stare at this figment of his imagination silently. Just a memory, not real. The real Wesley lay rotting - or most probably, in ashes - in the still-burning warehouse in Avarice.
"You couldn't stop this from happening," Wesley explained in that reasonable way of his. "What did you think I would do if you helped me instead? Did you think I would stop and be reasonable?"
"You could still be alive."
Wesley shrugged nonchalantly. "You can't stop fate."
Angel ignored what he said. "If I had helped you earlier you wouldn't have opened yourself to the Elements ..."
"Could you really? Help me?"
"You wouldn't have opened yourself to the Element if I hadn't driven you to it."
"Why do you think it always has to be about you?" Wesley rocked on his heels, and shot him a wry grin. "Don't you think I can make up my own mind? Maybe it was my fate."
"Maybe it was my destiny," Wesley said, his voice teasing.
"Stop reasoning with me."
"You mean, stop justifying your actions?" Wesley shrugged. "Sometimes, you can't stop fate," he said.
"Screw fate," Angel hissed. "I'm sick of The Powers That Be. I'm sick of them dictating-"
Wesley sighed theatrically. "That's what you always do when things go wrong. You blame. You sulk. And brood. What is that going to accomplish? What would 'what ifs' accomplish? Stop moaning and help your remaining friends."
Angel looked sharply up at the apparition. Wesley looked at him seriously. "Don't do to them what you did to me. Don't wait until your friends destroy themselves."
Then there was nothing but the empty room and the carcass of memory.
"You're not going anywhere."
Startled, Willow nearly dropped a book she was shelving. She found Cordelia staring up the stairs, her face unreadable.
Fred stopped in mid-step, then slowly placed her foot on the step below. She stared at him for a long time, her red-rimmed eyes inscrutable. Then she just said one word: "Why?"
"Because I'm not going to let you destroy yourself."
It was Angel, suddenly at the stairs behind her. He had said the words in what he hoped to be a strong, firm voice despite the shakiness he felt inside. Then he added quietly, "...like I did Wesley."
She shifted her teary eyes away from his, blinking back tears. "Look Angel, you didn't kill him. It's not your fault."
"And it isn't yours."
She looked down. How many times in the night had she tried to convince herself that? And how many times had she failed in that exercise?
"You were tricked. We were tricked," he said firmly.
"No, you don't understand. I stabbed him in the back!" she cried shrilly, her tears falling now. "He bled to death because I believed that bitch Lilah when I should've known better! I should've known that Wesley would never do anything evil, or hurt innocent people or do anything without a reason! I betrayed him!" she sobbed, covering her face.
"You want someone to blame?" Cordelia's voice rang out sharply.
Stunned, they met her stony expression.
"We are all guilty," she snapped, her voice hard.
Fred looked crushed.
"All of us. For shoving him aside and letting him do this to himself. I was busy being a divine being, Angel was busy grieving for Connor - we were hurt and we let our family fall apart when it should've stayed together. But you know what? It's never going to bring Wesley back." Her face fell, and her calm façade wavered. It was as if, after uttering the damning statement, Cordelia realised the gravity of what had happened.
"He's gone," she said softly. "And Angel's right. We're going to stick together now."
Fred looked uncertain, meeting Angel's eyes briefly. Then she dropped her suitcase and came down the stairs - walked straight to the exit and then turned back briefly. "I'm going for a walk."
The doors closed behind her.
"Angel?" Willow asked uncertainly. "Where is she going?"
Angel and Cordelia's expressions were hard. Cordelia was the first to break, looking down at her trembling hands. In a shaky voice, she whispered: "She's turning herself in."
"And you let her?" Gunn cried out. He rushed down the stairs, gave Cordy and Angel a sharp glare and ran out of the exit to go after Fred.
A long silence before Angel murmured: "He won't make it."
Then he turned away, heading upstairs.
"It's the craziest thing," said Detective Frankfurt. 20 years on the force, and he had never seen it happen before. This stuff happened only on TV. Like on CSI, NYPD Blue or something.
"Tell me about it," murmmured Sandra Lokeman, his partner. She shook her head and spied the woman as discreetly as possible from the corner of her left eye.
"You think she's legit?"
"Hard to say. Then again, she brought in the murder weapon."
"Wrapped in newspaper."
"You think she's covering up for a boyfriend or something?"
Frankfurt sighed dramatically. "Hell, it's been a couple of weird few days, ain't it? We have the wrong side of LA burning up and crime rate dropping to nearly zero. Criminals scared shitless about some glowing bogeyman burning people up. She-" he pointed at the woman. She turned to look at him, her face expresionless. "-is the most normal thing I've seen so far."
"Calls herself Fred."
"Ah. Well, let's process her."
And the two detectives got up to begin their day.
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