"The origins of the Slayer's power have never been certain." I needn't turn my head away from the train window to know that it's Cornish speaking. Wise, measured, but as always, a bit too earnest for his own good. I used to think we were much alike. "And I've always wondered why we put so much trust in what we cannot understand."
"High time you considered that." Ramsay sets down his tea quickly, so that it rattles on the saucer, and he coughs liquidly into his kerchief. In a younger man, it would be uncouth. "We can never forget the darkness at the heart of every Slayer, or the power it wields over them all. But remember -- the Slayer has been humanity's protector for centuries. How can we not trust that power?"
"You don't trust every helpful magic, though, do you?" I turn at that and see that Vambrace's mouth is puckered in a tart little smile. She thinks she's helping me out, and I'm sure I'm supposed to be grateful. "Take, for instance -- Angel. Years of endeavor for our side of the fight, and it's all Wyndham-Price can do to keep you lot from staking him."
"Angel deserves to be more fully theorized than he has been to date." Oh, God, spare us from Revelstoke. Any Watcher before a deconstructionist Watcher. "The 'vampire with a soul' is the third term that destabilizes the human/demon binary, of course --"
"Enough of that," Ramsay says. "We are not academics today. Our prey is not obscure fact or philosophical truth, but a person, and she is in our grasp. And we must prepare for that task which lies ahead."
"And what task is that?" It's the first time I've spoken to them in a few hours, and they look at me in some surprise. "You must mete out justice for the murders of eight people, including another Slayer. We can't go near a court of law with this. So how precisely do you propose to judge Faith?"
"There's a procedure," Cornish says with an elegant shrug. "We're not meant to question it. But I know you'll be shocked to hear that it hasn't been altered since the 10th century."
I want to ask more; they're being deliberately coy about the procedure, teasing me with the information, trying to get me to beg. It's just one more reminder that I am not a real Watcher anymore.
Vambrace tucks her dark hair behind her ears and draws out a leather-bound journal. No Palm Pilots in the Watchers Council yet, I see. "I think this would be a good time to raise an objection I've had for some time."
I sit up a little straighter in my seat. "You have a question about the charges against Faith?"
"That's it precisely." She folds her hands in front of her and says, "The murder of Buffy Summers is of course reprehensible. But Faith is charged with seven other murders as well, and I question --"
"What? That seven dead people are not a loss?" Ramsay lifts his bushy white eyebrows, preparing for battle.
"The term 'people" can of course --"
"Oh, shut UP, Revelstoke," Vambrace huffs. "These people were members of the Brotherhood of Amesace, a cult whose practices are unvaryingly unpleasant. The highest form of their rituals demands human sacrifice."
"There's no sign they'd ever harmed a person," Cornish interjects. "I've read Wyndham-Price's report; shame about the dogs, but we're not PETA, now, are we? The fact is, there are pockets of Amesace followers all over the world, and we've never run across more than a handful who were more than pretenders. Just amateurs who found Amesace's book in an old shop and thought it would be fun to dress up in robes from time to time."
I remember the first night we found one of the dogs. A silly, fluffy little thing; I imagine its owner put bows in its hair. Alive, it would have been something for Faith to laugh at and mock. But she knelt by its dead body, saw how its killers had taken their time, and she shook. I was moved, too, and ashamed to admit it, though I do not know if I was more ashamed of feeling compassion for the little dog or for Faith.
"I grant you, most of the Brotherhood are amateurs," Vambrace continues resolutely. "But there are those few who are genuinely connected to Amesace's magic, and have tapped into the darkest of powers. They represent the most grave danger. A danger that a Slayer would be duty-bound to confront."
Ramsay shakes his head slowly. "This is all theory, Vambrace. Correct so far as it goes. But the fact remains -- these Amesace were not of the dangerous breed. Wyndham-Price did the search. And was there anything incriminating? At all?"
"Nothing," I said. "A handful of items in a closet -- robes, a few 'sacramental' candles that I suspect were purchased at Pier One. But the items that would have signified the cult's danger --" I know listing them is a schoolboy's impulse, a sign that these people still have power over me, and yet I cannot stop. "-- braids of human hair, bones carved with runes, bronze chalices -- were all absent. They weren't dangerous. There was no need for Faith to do what she did to those people."
They died because I failed with Faith. Because I dared to be a Watcher again and failed a thousand times more spectacularly than I did before. Seven stupid playacting teenagers dead by Faith's hand. That redefines my failure, don't you think?
But no. Buffy's death does that.
Apparently, for once, I'm to be granted the last word on the subject. No more is said about the Brotherhood; Faith will remain charged with eight murders. Meanwhile, the subject drifts to other things: Revelstoke wants to discuss the semiotics of "amateur," Vambrace is coordinating plans for what she calls a "post-trial referendum" but sounds suspiciously like a cocktail party to celebrate the coming conviction, Cornish is assuring me that he'll find the handcuff spell for Gunn, and Ramsay looks as though he may doze over his tea.
I look out the window again; it's a brilliant, sunny afternoon as we cross the plains. There's less snow here, just a dusting, and yet the world has a snowy stillness to it. The main thing I hear is the clacking of the train rails, and all at once it seems to me that they are bearing me back into the past.
Because I've been traveling back in time for a while now, really. I was an apprentice Watcher, uncertain and eager. Then I was a Watcher, overly proud and destined to fail. Then I was a rogue and a loner, though not nearly so much as I dared pretend. Finally, I was a member of Angel Investigations and a loved and trusted friend. Or so I thought.
Then I was a rogue and a loner again, and I did it right that time. Then I was a Watcher again, and I failed on a far grander scale. And now I am back with the Council again, surrounded by my betters, expected to learn from their example.
I try to put all those times together, all the people I've been, all the things I've done. Wearing leather trousers and riding a motorbike through Southern California. Fencing with the late Rupert Giles and being trounced. Having sex with a woman I despised, only to flinch from the acid burn of truth between us. Talking over the meaning of life with Angel as he folded his baby's laundry. And so much more besides.
The acts don't fit together. They don't assemble into one complete, logical, understandable man.
And yet they all belong to me.
I opened the door to see Angel standing there. I was more surprised than I ought to have been. Hadn't I been expecting this all along?
I calculated the distance to my crossbow -- too far -- and to my axe -- just close enough. This was more to steel my resolve than anything else, as I didn't even try to shut the door. No need. "If you're planning on barging in, you'll discover that you've been uninvited," I said, by way of greeting.
"If I were planning on barging in, I wouldn't have knocked," Angel said. His tone of voice was -- reasonable. No more, no less. And that alone was enough to confuse me.
I'd thought about this confrontation a hundred times. More. Sometimes, Angel came to scream at me some more, to attack again. He jumped out from behind corners, was lurking in dark alleyways. I always had a weapon at the ready, a stinging comment that would slice into his soul the moment before my stake slammed into his heart.
Other times, Angel came to say that he was sorry, that he'd been wrong. He admitted that he needed me, that they were lost without me. His speeches on the subject were very fine, very sweet to hear. But the endings then were less definite. Sometimes I turned him away coldly, because he deserved that. Sometimes I went back, because he deserved that. Sometimes I couldn't imagine what I would say at all.
But I never prepared myself for this -- Angel standing in the door, apparently as free from rage as he was from guilt. He'd done the one thing I never allowed him to do in my wishful fantasies: He'd caught me off-guard.
Still, my lines were well-enough rehearsed not to fail me. "I take it then that you aren't here to kill me."
Angel's eyes narrowed slightly at that, betraying -- what? Remorse? Anger? I did not know. "I never intended to kill you."
It was too ridiculous even to laugh. "Really. Funny how I missed that, when the pillow was being held over my face."
"If I wanted you dead, you'd be dead." Angel smiled, and I saw more of Angelus in him in that moment than I did when he attacked. "I didn't want to kill you, Wesley. I wanted to scare you. I know how to kill somebody so that it takes a long time. A longer time than you'd think it could. But there's no death that lasts as long as fear. Play your cards right, and fear can last forever." His eyes flickered in the rough direction of my crossbow; he couldn't see it from where he was, but I knew he'd seen me look for it. I hated him then.
"So you're here for vague threats. Disappointing. You may tarnish your reputation for inventive cruelty. The inventive part, I mean."
Angel closed his eyes and took a deep breath; as Angel never needs to breathe, it's usually a sign of emotion. When he opened his eyes again, he was calm. "We could go on like this forever. It's useless. I'm here to ask you something."
This was a little more like it; the grappling didn't feel useless to me. "Are things not running so smoothly at Angel Investigations? You're not able to manage with the able help of, oh, Gunn's swordfighting skills, or Cordelia's knowledge of Aramaic?"
"We manage well enough," Angel said, some of that calm gone. "We have to hire people to do translations. But at least the people we've hired don't make mistakes."
Mistakes. It was all a mistake. It was all for nothing.
He tilted his head slightly, studying me as a bird of prey might. "How are things running here, Wes? I guess you're out every night, righting wrongs, saving souls." I didn't answer. I couldn't. I knew he could see the stubble on my chin and the wrinkles in the clothes I'd been wearing for two days. I wondered if he could smell Lilah on me, then realized, of course he could. Angel's eyes narrowed. "Funny we haven't run into you on patrol."
All at once, I knew that I was going to have to get rid of him. I needed to -- vomit. Or collapse. Or scream. But I couldn't let him go yet, not until Angel saw that he did not hold the sole ownership of pain. "I'm not interested in what you have to ask me, Angel. I'm not interested in you or your gang of sycophants, any more than you are interested in me. But before you go, I want to ask you something." I stared into his eyes. They'd changed -- the anger was gone -- but the shame I sought wasn't there. "How do you -- you, so deep in sin -- how dare you condemn anyone? How dare you beg the Powers for forgiveness when you won't grant it?"
"I haven't been asked to forgive," Angel said, very quietly.
He puts a pillow over my face and shrieks about my death, and he wants an apology? Bastard. "We had a mission, Angel. We had responsibilities that were greater than your fate or mine -- or even Connor's, whatever destiny he may have. Oh, yes, I know he's back. I saw you two." Angel had gotten back what he had lost, and I never would. I straightened up and continued, "Forgiveness was a part of that mission. It was a part of our most sacred duty. If you've forgotten that, then there's no hope for your redemption. You're only postponing the day you go back to hell."
I ought to have slammed the door right then, but Angel did the last thing I expected him to do. He smiled. As I stared at him, he said, "I'm glad you said that. It makes this a lot easier."
I glanced back at the crossbow and didn't care if he saw me. "What's that?"
"It turns out you are interested in what I have to ask you, Wes." Angel's eyes were gleaming with a sardonic joy, and yet one that had nothing of Angelus in it. "Since you're the expert on forgiveness and redemption and duty, I guess you'll be glad to forgive Faith. She's out of jail, and she needs a Watcher again. That's more important than our problems, isn't it?" Angel grinned. "She's lucky you're such a forgiving guy."
The company of Watchers begins to pall after a while, even for other Watchers, so I begin browsing about through the train cars, looking for better companions.
The sun is still in the sky, at least for another hour or so, and I know I shan't see Angel. Though I know nobody around us suspects this, I find his company less onerous than most of those who surround me. We take our digs at each other, but in the past year this has settled into more a matter of form than anything else. Cordelia smiles and pats our shoulders when she sees that we're able to speak civilly; she has no idea that I've accepted him, or that I despise her.
Cordelia, of all people -- she couldn't speak for me? Couldn't use her powers of persuasion on my behalf? She holds the whip hand over Angel, and she employs it freely, but she did not bother to do so for me. She and I were friends when he was our enemy, and she forgets it all as soon as he strikes her romantic fancy. I was never anything but a loyal and caring friend to her, and when I needed her most, she abandoned me. Angel's wrath had been more terrible than the others' negligence, but at least he had some excuse, however inadequate. I couldn't condone what he'd done to me, but I could understand it. I shall never understand what motivated Cordelia's decision to abandon me at the first sign of trouble. Some mornings, as she chirps at me while drinking her coffee, it's all I can do not to slap her smug, sanctimonious face.
Whereas Angel -- well. At first, I knew myself to be more sinned against than sinning, but I also knew I had sinned. A certain measure of self-blame is bracing; I'd like to talk about that with Angel someday, though I suspect we never shall.
But after Faith's descent -- after Buffy's death -- I know myself to be a sinner on a far grander scale. I failed my Slayers again, and the end was tragedy beyond anything I had before caused or endured. I couldn't claim the moral high ground after that. I hadn't realized how much I needed that high ground until I'd lost it forever.
Angel never blamed me. All the little comments he makes -- so casually, as if I wouldn't catch that mean-spirited bit about "learning from mistakes" -- still refer to the matter of Connor. In this one matter of Buffy's death -- so much more my fault than a damned false translation -- he casts no blame. The perversity of the man.
Yes, I do sometimes still get angry at him. It is strange how angry we feel towards those we have wronged.
"Excuse me?" A young Asian girl is staring up at me, and I realize that I've simply come to a halt in the center of the car, making a fool of myself and blocking the way in the bargain. I murmur apologies and make my way to the restaurant car.
I see them right away. No matter how much time goes by, Fred will always be the first one I see. Connor sits beside her. They each have their feet tucked up under them on the seat, and they both look far younger than they are. Fred's hair is falling loose from the knot she had it up in this morning; her soft curls frame her face, fall in curves that mimic the silver loops in her ears. As I walk closer, I hear her saying, "I spy -- a red turtle."
Connor begins searching the car; his eyes travel over me, and I know he recognizes me, but he doesn't care. He's just hunting for the red turtle, as intently as though he were stalking a demon. His focus unnerves me, at times. Finally he smiles. "On the little girl's backpack. In the corner."
"You're way too good at this," Fred says. Then she sees me and grins, hugging her knees to her chest. "Wesley! Are you hungry?"
"Famished," I say, and I am surprised to realize it's true. "I don't suppose they have much here beyond warmed-over hamburgers."
"The pizza's not bad," Connor offers.
"Take his advice," Fred says. "I tried the burrito. Big mistake. I mean, I don't know why I expected quality Mexican food, or for that matter any good ethnic food, on a train, which is owned by a large bureaucracy and designed to please the widest array of people, which means any cuisine that relies heavily on spices is going to suffer." She hears herself, stops and wrinkles her nose. "Did that make sense?"
"Near enough," I say. "And I'll get the pizza."
By rights, of course, I should be as angry at Fred as I am at Cordelia, or as I was at Gunn before he compounded his sins by helping Faith get away. However, I am not. I have marshaled logical reasons for this -- Fred spoke out when the others didn't, Fred is not a forceful personality and would not be able to best them. Of course, what it all boils down to is that I was -- and am -- in love with Fred, and rightly or wrongly, it makes a difference.
However, in these two years, I have never seen the slightest evidence that she's in love with me. And that makes her company hard to bear for too long. But I can allow myself these few moments, now and then.
"Fred has taught me a new game," Connor says. "It's like a hunting game. It's fun."
The fact that he thinks so is evidence of the pitifully small amount of fun Connor's had in his life, a subject on which I don't want to dwell. "The Council's so bloody cheap," I say. "If they'd chartered us a jet, we could have been back in a matter of hours, instead of wasting two days on a train."
"I kinda like it," Fred says, pulling her sweater arms over her fingers. "I like seeing the countryside. Besides, I need a couple days to gear up for whatever's gonna happen with Faith. And with Charles." Her voice caresses his name, and her eyes are liquid with concern. Gunn threw this woman away for Faith. After some of the things I've done, I can't claim not to understand him, but I can condemn his stupidity along with my own. I've failed to learn so much, but I've become a scholar of mistakes.
She leans forward and puts her hand on mine, an intimate gesture that surprises me so much that I almost don't hear what she's saying. "Cordelia says you're trying to find a way to get Gunn out of that awful cell car. Some kind of spel -- magi -- um --" She tries to think of a way around saying "magic spell" in a public place and falls short. "Helpful thingy?"
"The Watchers are working on it," I tell her. "With misgivings, of course, but they'll have an answer soon."
"Why do the Watchers want to let him go?" Connor says. "I thought they cared about the rules."
"Oh, they do," I tell him. "But they'd rather be guilty of undue mercy than of ignorance. They'd prefer to let Gunn out than admit they don't know how to do it."
"They shouldn't do that," Connor says, which I expected. But then he adds something I didn't expect: "It's not smart, to show people everything you know."
"Charles will be grateful," Fred says. "Of course, he won't show that he's grateful, because he never does at first, and he'll walk around all mad and puffed up for a while, but wait and see. He'll want to talk it out sooner or later."
It's likely to be later, if at all. But there's no point of trying to disabuse Fred of her belief in the man. There's no understanding women's choices of whom to love.
My patrol with Faith had gone well. We did not argue. She did not act inappropriately. A few vampires and one demon were killed. Success.
But those simple words, which could have made an entry in my Watcher's Diary, did not capture the experience, I thought as I cut through the Hyperion's kitchen. (I might have simply walked out from the lobby, but the some of the others were congregated there, and I did not wish to see them.) Patrolling with Faith was invariably an experiment in excruciating uncertainty. I despised her and, though I tried for duty's sake, I could not always conceal it. For her part, she wavered violently between desperate attempts to please me and more of her typical attitude.
We could do our jobs, but we could not do it without suffering the entire time. At first, I had been unwilling to consider leaving her for this alone -- that would give Angel what he would consider a moral victory, and I'd be damned if I would let him have it.
However, in the past two weeks, a new opportunity had opened up for me. Buffy had come to L.A. Another Slayer needed a Watcher -- who was to say that Faith deserved my services more than Buffy? No one, that was certain. I imagined they would be hard-pressed not to admit that Buffy deserved more of everything than Faith. Faith had fallen into the paths of darkness, and I was no longer so young and so naive as to deny the Council's wisdom -- once fallen, Faith could never be trusted again. Her descent was inevitable, and I did not want to be borne down with her.
I thought nothing would shake such thoughts from my head until the moment I pushed open the kitchen door. Buffy stood there, locked in his embrace. I did not know him, but I knew he was a vampire.
She pushed him away savagely, and I thought for a moment she had heard me. But no -- they were too caught up in each other to see me, though I was only 20 feet away. "I'm not doing this," she breathed. "I can't. It was killing me before, and that was before -- I thought it was bad then, but I didn't know. I didn't know anything."
Before? This vampire was already her lover, then. Good God. I'd always imagined her affair with Angel to be something singular, something romantic, however misguided. But apparently she had some sort of bizarre taste for vampires, some variant of necrophilia. I was disgusted, but mostly I was shocked.
The vampire, for his part, was unwilling to take no for an answer. "But -- but it's different now, baby, don't you see?" He had a lower-middle-class accent, hair that showed evidence of having been bottle-blond a month or two before. A lit cigarette was in one of his hands, and from the jittering of its glowing tip, I could tell that he was shaking. "This changes everything."
"Why would I believe you?" Buffy was backing away from him. "You'd do anything to have me, Spike. You proved that."
So that was Spike. I'd heard of him, but this was the first time I'd laid eyes on him. He looked different than I'd expected, though I couldn't quite say how. Spike was Buffy's lover.
He winced at Buffy's words, but held his hands out in naked pleading. The smoke rose from his cigarette as he begged, "I've done my time for that one, pet. And for all the others -- I'm paying my debt to society, wearing the bloody scarlet letter, all of that. You don't know what it's like --"
"Neither do you," she said. "Because you're faking. You're lying."
"Please, baby. I did this for you. Don't tell me I did it all for nothing."
"If you ARE telling the truth -- " Buffy pulled out her stake, and he skittered back. "You're not what I need anymore. Get out of here before I make myself some dust."
"I'll go," he said. "I'll do what you want. But I'll be back." A faint smile hovered around his lips. "I'll come back night after night, show you I've changed."
"Yeah, you never used to hang around alleyways before."
Spike kept backing away, but he was really smiling then, trying to put some swagger in his step. "You'll see, baby. Might have to serenade you outside your window. A guitar and 'Our Lady of Spain,' how would that suit?"
"Get OUT!" Buffy screamed, and he ran away. But he was laughing as he went.
After a few moments of silence, she put the stake back in her pocket. Buffy ran one hand through her hair, sighing. "I sound like Dawn," she muttered as she walked back toward the hotel. Her head lifted slightly, and then she saw me.
We stood very still, staring at one another for a few long moments. I don't know how much of my disgust showed on my face, but I suspect it was enough. Her face kept changing in the streetlamp's glow -- confusion about how much I might have heard, anger that I had eavesdropped, then pure terror. Buffy stepped a little closer, her eyes wide, and we stepped into the kitchen together. Our little secret. "Don't tell," she said. "You won't tell."
"No," I said. "I won't." I meant it. I thought it would be far more pleasant to let Angel find out for himself.
Her face was pained. "That -- with Spike -- I can explain that --"
"You don't have to." I didn't care to hear her rationalizations.
She mistook my reaction for charity, and she hugged me tightly around the waist -- so tightly I thought my ribs might crack. "Thank you," Buffy whispered, her voice tremulous. "Thank you."
I didn't stop her from going back into the hotel. I no longer wanted to ask her to patrol with me. I wanted her to stay by Angel's side, lure him back into her heart, so that it would burn him all the worse when he discovered her other vampire lover. I was angrier then.
Many nights after that, I would wait outside the hotel. I saw her often enough, strolling in the alleyways, or just gazing down from her window. I knew Buffy was looking for Spike, but I did not know whether she was guarding against him or hoping he would appear. In neither case did it matter, for he never came back again.
In the weeks after that incident, her temper grew worse and worse, her remarks more mean-spirited and cutting. Strangely, it seemed the only person she ever had a kind word for was Faith, and then only rarely. More often they fought, as Buffy began fighting with everyone.
Well, nearly everyone. One afternoon I peered into the workout room, looking for Connor, and instead saw Buffy with Gunn. They were laughing and carrying on as they sparred, until she backed away from him and slowly peeled off her shirt. She wasn't wearing a bra. Gunn didn't look away, but I did. I went back upstairs and poured myself a cup of tea with shaking hands.
Even then, at the height of my bitterness, I cared too much for Fred to be casual about Gunn's infidelity. I mean, his first infidelity.
Fred smiles at me as she picks up her coffee. Connor has left us, to do whatever it is he would find amusing on a train. I can think of almost nothing to say to her now, and yet I cannot leave her; I am still greedy for these moments, when I can have her to myself alone, in whatever sense. "You know, I'm feeling a lot better about all of this," she says.
"Resolution is always a comfort," I say.
"Besides, it's not like Faith's up for the death penalty or something," she says. Her lipstick is shell-pink, almost too delicate to see against her pale skin. But traces of it line the cup she holds in her hands. "She's going to Watcher jail, which is some kind of castle, which I realize isn't as plush as it sounds, because after all dungeons are part of castles too, but Faith won't be in the dungeon part, will she?"
I don't suppose there's any point in mentioning that a manor built in 1710 is neither a castle nor likely to be equipped with a dungeon. "No. She'll be suitably housed." After her trial, whatever that might be. I wish I knew what it will be.
"So, any part of a castle that's not a dungeon probably beats the heck outta San Quentin," Fred says. "And they'll get her help, right, Wes? Psychologists? Therapists? A lot of Watchers have degrees like that, don't they? I'm not saying Faith didn't do wrong, but -- there was always something about her that I felt kinda sorry for. I can't really give it a name, but --" She looks off at the horizon, her voice softer now. "-- it was the same thing that always kinda made me feel sorry for Buffy. I mean, besides everything that happened in Sunnydale. I felt sorry for Buffy because of that, but there was something else too, you know? They shared that, whatever it was." If only she knew.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?"
At first I can't even imagine what Fred is referring to. Then I look out the window. The sun is setting; we can't see it, as the train is headed directly west at this point, but the sky is turning brilliant shades of orange and violet that shine on the snowy ground. "Yes," I say quietly. "I suppose it is."
I always wanted to see the world through her eyes, so simple, so beautiful, so full of hope. I know now I never will. Add that to the list of failures.