Charles Gunn is not taking any excuses today, dammit.
They give him the run-around. They don't give him what he wants. Day after day, he comes back here -- and day after day, they jerk him around.
Well, today he's dragged his ass out of bed to get here at 8 a.m. Because today he's not listening to their shit. Today, he is going to get exactly what he came for.
Gunn ties a black cloth around his head -- something he used to do a lot more, back in the day, but still tries when he feels the need to get in touch with his inner bastard. He shrugs on his jacket and walks into the place like he owns it, slamming his hands against the door. Little bells jingle. The people behind the counter jump as Gunn says:
"Tell me you are not out of maple-frosted."
The Dunkin Donuts lady stares at him for a moment, then says, "Uh, no. There's -- two left."
"Pop 'em in the box, then," Gunn says, good humor restored. As he gives the rest of his doughnut order -- picking out his favorite and Cordelia's, now that Wesley's has been taken care of -- Gunn slips the rag off his head and gives the clerks a smile. They're either very happy or very relieved to see it.
Now that this errand has been taken care of, Gunn feels good today. A whole lot better than he should, actually. Just two days ago, his entire life seemed shot to hell. A.I. taking on debt like the Titanic took on water, his best friend still in a wheelchair, and a crazier-by-the day vampire out there ticking away like a time bomb.
Today, A.I. is still broke and Wesley's still in that wheelchair. But Angel's laid his fate down at their feet, and damned if that doesn't brighten up the whole day.
On one level, Gunn's satisfaction comes pretty cheap, and he knows it. Angel thought he could fire them and take off on his own, and now he's come crawling back: Nothing quite like that to soothe the bruised ego. But Gunn knows that's just what it is -- his ego -- smiling right now. There's nothing wrong with it, but his personal feelings aren't exactly the main issue here, he figures. He's got to keep the big picture in mind.
Evening before last, when Angel came to them with his offer, nobody knew what to do or say. He followed up on a vision with them, but it didn't exactly feel like old times. Wesley told Angel they all needed a few days to think it over, and Angel accepted that without a word. Gunn saw both Wesley and Cordelia glancing in his general direction. Probably they were wondering what Gunn would say about all this.
Gunn figures they're nervous about how he's gonna react; he was friends with Angel before all this Darla business went down, but not like they were. Cordelia and Wesley -- they had loved the man. Probably they still do, deep down. And they know, by now, what Gunn's temper is like once it gets set off. Probably they think Gunn will pitch a fit if they try to bring Angel back into the group.
But, as much as they all rely on each other now, there are still some things Wesley and Cordelia don't understand about Charles Gunn.
Gunn smiles and shakes his head as he swings out of the doughnut shop and lopes the few blocks to their new offices. When they vote today -- Wesley is a stickler for procedure -- Gunn's voting for Angel, and he has no doubts about doing so. Angel has a dark side a mile wide, no question. He's not going to be on Gunn's best-friends list anytime soon. But he knows stuff about demons and magic even Wesley doesn't know, senses things even Cordelia doesn't sense and, no denying it, kicks more ass in a fight than Gunn does himself. This is somebody you want on your side, if at all possible.
Gunn learned to be resourceful at an early age. Had to, with parents who were more interested in their addictions than in him or his baby sister, Alonna. They were out all night a lot of the time -- which meant they slept through a lot of the day, assuming they'd come home to sleep at all. So if the kids were going to get fed, get dressed, get to school, or have any semblance of a normal life, it was generally up to Gunn to handle it.
And Gunn handled it. He learned the maximum amount of clothes you could stuff in one laundromat machine, and that, if you set the water to "cold," color separation didn't matter so much. (This had been learned through painful trial and error that led to Alonna inheriting a lot of newly-pink t-shirts and socks.) He learned what store owners were softhearted enough to pay him a little cash money to do odd jobs like breaking down boxes. He learned the air-conditioned shops that wouldn't shoo out two unchaperoned children on a blazing-hot day. He learned how to save up cans and bottles for recycling, and where people who didn't need those pennies might throw away their own cans and bottles.
Above all, he learned that you never, ever throw away anything you can use.
Gunn's held on to this lesson ever since, even during those periods of time when it didn't seem like he needed it. When their dad took off, around about the time Gunn was 12, he figured things were headed for the worse; instead, their mother pulled herself together. She married Derris the following year, and they'd all gone to live with Mama Jeane, who cooked wonderful meals and owned a washer and dryer all her own and had considered Gunn and Alonna her grandchildren the very first day they came up her steps. That was the family's best four years, and whatever Gunn knows about being happy, he learned then.
But he never forgot how you should handle yourself when the happy times end. So when Derris died -- October 9, a date that never fails to drag Gunn into a cold, gray funk -- and their mother spiraled out of control again, and poor Mama Jeane was without Derris' income from the garage, Gunn had known what to do. He packed up Alonna, refused to let Mama Jeane give them money (though he was, and is, not averse to stopping by for Wednesday dinner now and again), and headed to the streets. He made do, just like he always had, only he got better and better at it.
When he found out about vampires, those skills had been put to use yet again. Scraps of lumber could become weapons of destruction. Junked-out trucks could become armored vessels of war. Abandoned warehouses could become fortresses. It was all in how you played the hand you were dealt.
As far as Gunn's concerned, Angel Investigations has just pulled a key card from the deck.
He swings through the door at A.I. and proudly holds out the pink-and-white box. "On this day when we celebrate the great democratic process, I thought doughnuts were in order."
Cordelia looks up at him from her place behind the desk. She's wearing her oldest jeans and a blue tank top; obviously, she's not expecting customers, though considering the level of business they aren't doing, Gunn can't blame her. "We have doughnuts just about every morning," she says.
"See? Always something to celebrate." She gives him one of her brilliant grins as he sets the box in front of her. "English? Got some maple-frosted, just for you."
Wesley's begged off eating for several mornings now, claiming that he wanted his favorites or nothing at all. Now, though, he says only, "I'm not terribly hungry." His voice isn't strong as he says it, and Gunn casts a worried look in Wesley's direction. The man was always thin, but now he's downright bony. Today he's slumped over a bit in the wheelchair, and he looks about 15 years older than he actually is. Pain and illness will do that to a man; so will sadness, and fear.
"You better eat something sometime," Gunn says. "Or we're gonna have to tie you to that chair to make sure you don't up and blow away."
"I haven't much appetite these days," Wesley says. The weight of the decision they're all about to make is hanging over Wesley like a black cloud, and Gunn wants to laugh. The man is so damn worried; Wesley can tie himself up in knots better than anybody Gunn's ever known. He's going to be so relieved when they just get it over with. And maybe then, God willing, Wesley will finally eat something.
Cordelia looks somber too -- at least, as somber as anyone can look while chowing down on a strawberry-and-sprinkles frosted doughnut. Gunn sits down and sighs. "Well, we didn't drag our butts in here for crowd control with the customers. Let's stop worrying and vote on this thing."
"All right," Wesley says. He looks a little bit brighter as he fumbles around in a desk, then pulls out a cigar box and some straws, some long, some short.
You have got to be kidding, Gunn thinks. Then again, it's not that surprising. If Wesley can add an extra step to a procedure, he will.
Wesley catches the expression on Gunn's face. "I thought we ought to make the vote anonymous."
"In case it's not unanimous?" Well, whatever. "Which straw means what?"
"A long straw means Angel comes to work for us," Wesley says. "A small one means he doesn't, and we carry on as we are. We'll take turns putting our straws in the box, then open it up and -- and we'll see."
"No fair peeking!" Cordelia says.
Wesley prepares to go first, then stares at the others. Cordelia covers her eyes with one hand; Gunn sighs and does the same. If Wesley had the chance, he'd have set up a voting booth and a ballot and everything, complete with hanging chads.
"Next," Wesley says. Gunn pauses a minute to see if Cordelia will move; he doesn't hear anything and so opens his eyes. Wesley is sitting there, his eyes screwed shut like a little boy playing hide-and-seek. Shaking his head in amusement, Gunn takes a long straw and slips it into the box.
Cordelia goes, and seems to take an inordinate amount of time with it. But finally she says, "Okay. We're ready!" with such forced brightness that Gunn wonders if she's about to cry. When he opens his eyes, she's got her arms folded around her body tightly, as though she were trying to keep warm.
Wesley takes up the box. He pries open the lid just a tad, just enough to swipe his fingers in and pull out -- "One long straw."
Gunn smiles easily, but the grin fades as Wesley pulls out the next. "One short straw."
Who the hell put that in there? He fights the urge to look into Cordelia and Wesley's faces, to see who the holdout is. He's starting to see the sense of this whole cigar-box ritual.
Wesley finally pulls out the last -- then stares at it while saying, very slowly, "One bent straw?"
Gunn and Wesley, as one, turn and look at Cordelia.
"I didn't know how to vote!" she says, running one hand through her hair. "I don't know how I feel about all this, and I'm not gonna know anytime soon, and I was hoping maybe you two would agree so it wouldn't matter, but now you don't, and I totally can't handle being the deciding vote. I really can't."
"Cordelia --" Wesley says, and his voice is cool. It hits Gunn for the first time: Wesley voted no.
Son of a bitch.
Now that he's faced with it, though, Gunn realizes he should have seen this coming. Wesley and Cordelia care about Angel more than he does. That means his firing them hit them a hell of a lot harder, a lot harder, apparently, than they've let on these past few weeks. They're still hurting, and Wesley for one isn't ready to set it aside.
Cordelia's pacing back and forth now, and Gunn wasn't wrong before -- she really is close to tears. "I want things to be the way they were," she says. "Like they were with Angel before. But they can't ever be like that again, can they?"
"I don't think so," Wesley says.
"But the other thing I want is for it to be like it was when the three of us got this place, when it was all fun and exciting. And it's never gonna be like that again, either. Not if we walk away from him. It changes things."
"Yeah," Gunn says. "It does."
That alone is enough to tell Cordelia how they voted, and Wesley shoots Gunn a dirty look. But she's not thinking about that right now. She's just pacing, wearing a rut in the office's cheap little carpet. "I'm not ready, Wesley," she finally says. "I'm just not."
"It's all right," Wesley says, and his voice is softer now. "I don't want this to be any worse for you. Take your time. There's no rush."
"Okay," she says, then takes in a deep breath, lets it out. "Okay."
"We'll just move on to our other business of the day," Wesley says.
Gunn claps his hands. Finally, something constructive to do. "And what is that, oh Fearless Leader?"
Wesley looks a little abashed. "I was rather hoping one of you might know of some."
They sit there in silence for a moment -- client-free, as ever. Gunn notices that every sill is free of dust, every window sparkles, and the faint smell of Windex is in the air. They rarely lavished this kind of loving care on the Hyperion. Seldom had the time.
"Any headaches?" Gunn asks Cordelia hopefully.
She makes a face. "Not until we did that stupid box-straw thing."
"There's always Word-Puzz," Wesley begins.
Cordelia stands up and grabs her purse. "And with that, I bid you all farewell."
"You've been at work for twenty minutes," Wesley says.
"And I feel like I've been here for twenty years," Cordelia said. "In other words, since I was about seven months old. I need to get out of here. I need to think."
"Understood," Gunn says. Cordy's not gonna have anything constructive to add for the rest of the day, he thinks. Besides, he's just about ready to hear Wesley's side of this whole thing. Wesley hasn't said a word, of course, hasn't even so much as thrown a glance in Gunn's direction, but Gunn can tell Wesley's ready to vent.
Gunn hopes so, anyway. Because he'd hate to have to beat it out of him. The man's his friend, after all.
"I have an audition this afternoon anyway," Cordelia says. "So it's not like I was in for the long haul."
"An audition!" Wesley says, too brightly. "That's wonderful! I thought you'd all but given up on your acting, and yet here you are. Back on the horse."
"They foreclosed on my horse," Cordelia says with a frown. "Thanks for the painful memory."
"Don't mind him," Gunn says, reaching out to pat her on the shoulder. "You knock 'em dead."
"Like I wouldn't," she says, with that fake bravado he loves so much.
With that she's out the door, smiling as she slides on her dark glasses. As she walks down the sunny street, she looks for one minute like the carefree girl she ought to be.
Gunn and Wesley watch her go in a silence that stretches out long after she's gotten lost in the crowds. Then Wesley says, slowly, "I never dreamed you'd vote yes."
"I never dreamed you'd vote no," Gunn says.
"It's not anger," Wesley says carefully, so carefully that Gunn knows Wesley's been having this argument with himself for a while now. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't angry, but that's not why I don't want him back."
"So what is your reason?" Gunn says. "I know Angel went through a scary period there, but these days, he's tryin' to live right."
"And he's no good at it," Wesley says. "Angel tries, and he tries. When does he get it right? I don't know that we can survive his getting it wrong one more time."
Gunn opens his mouth to protest -- whatever else Angel did or didn't do, he never tried to kill them. Next he thinks that Wesley's talking about getting hurt, but that wheelchair Wes is sitting in is proof of the consequences they all face, with or without Angel.
Then he remembers the way Angel looked when he came back to the hospital that long-ago night and asked if Wesley and Cordelia were still alive. Gunn realizes the wounds Wesley's most afraid of aren't physical -- whether he realizes that or not.
Being shot takes something out of a man, sometimes; Gunn has reason to know this, given the neighborhoods in which he's had to make his way. Some people are never quite the same afterwards, as though something had been torn out of them, something more than just flesh. He doesn't think Wesley is one of those, but it's too soon to really be sure.
All Gunn knows right now is that Wesley is even thinner and paler than he was before, and that the pain and the worry are wearing on him. "You look bad," he says flatly. "Didn't the doctor tell you to take care of yourself? Or aren't you letting Virginia take care of you?"
He expects Virginia's name to win a smile from Wesley; instead, Gunn sees his friend tense up. His shoulders draw in slightly, as though preparing for a blow. "Wesley?"
"Virginia and I split up," Wesley says, his voice strained by his effort to appear casual. But he's not fooling anyone. Gunn has spent the last few months watching Wesley light up like a fireworks show every single time Virginia called him on the phone, or dropped by the office. No way Wesley ended this.
"What happened?" Gunn says, putting one hand on Wesley's shoulder.
Wesley shifts away, not forbidding the touch but not encouraging it either. Gunn lets his hand drop. "I think Virginia's had enough danger and darkness in her life for a while."
Whether Wesley knows it or not, Gunn thinks, the words hanging there, unspoken, are "and so have I."
"I'm sorry, man," he says. "She's a fine lady."
"That she is," Wesley says. He presses his lips together tightly, but Gunn knows he's not going to be able to maintain that self-control for much longer.
Gunn decides to help him out. "Well, then, we have to find somebody else to take care of you."
"You're not volunteering?" Wesley says, cocking an eyebrow.
"Hell, no. I look like a nursemaid to you? What I'm thinkin' is that it's time to introduce you to Mama Jeane." Gunn grins as the image forms in his head, then starts to laugh. "What are you doing for dinner?"