The building used to be a hotel, filled with visitors, maids, bellboys; the large desk was at the center, the focal point for the sea of humanity that flowed around it. The visitors and bellboys are long gone, dead and buried, but the desk is yours. Life still flows around it -- unlife in some cases, but you've learned not to be picky where loneliness is concerned -- and you take full advantage of your position.

Carefully turn your head, look over the left shoulder..... Wesley is tapping his fingers unconsciously against the Big Chair as he reads. You used to threaten his life for the constant drumming, but now you only notice when it stops. When he frowns and leans forward, his forehead wrinkling as he reaches for a second book... That's when your stomach sinks and you reach for the computer, starting to mentally cancel dates. Or, lately, when he just stares out into space, forgetting to pretend he's reading, trying not to look at Fred, with this expression in his eyes that you never thought Wesley could have... That's when you want to go to him, to hug him or hassle him until he smiles again. Until he's Wesley again. But he's reading now, so all is right with his world.

Move your head back, shift your weight to the other hip, lean forward just a little.... Gunn is still at the weapons cabinet, checking and sharpening and sometimes just stroking, dreaming of what he'll kill tonight. Or what will try to kill him. You make a mental note to get him a life for Christmas, along with that wine-red shirt that will look gorgeous on him. You've been making that mental note for months, with no success so far, but hope springs eternal. You can still feel the heavy weight of a body in your arms, feel the heat of a kiss and the screams that followed it... More than enough ghosts here already, thanks.

Lean back in your chair, stack the bills you've been paying, sigh heavily.... Fred jolts a little, looking up from where she's huddled on the lobby floor between the couch and a table. She's moved since the last time you looked, slouched down so only the top of her head is in sight, but you've already seen the circles under her eyes that she never mentions in her endless streams of chatter. She was 'helping' Gunn for a while (picking up a weapon to hand to him, then forgetting and gesturing broadly with it as she babbled, until he gently took it away and asked for the next one). Then the switch no one else can see suddenly flipped -- she moved silently away and she's been absorbed in her physics book ever since. She left that book on the desk once and you opened it in idle curiosity, then slammed it shut again when it was unintelligible even for someone who once tested well. But considering Fred still has problems answering the phone, and almost blew up the coffeemaker yesterday, you can live with that. Mostly.

Lean forward in the chair, rest your elbows against the desk, stare out at nothing as you lay your head to the side.... Angel's there. He could be a statue, a minimalist painting -- Silhouette Against Darkened Stairs, some portrait in an expensive gallery that you can't afford to touch, much less buy. But then, Angel always did come at a price. You've never been quite sure what he gets from you, brain-tearing visions aside, and you wonder sometimes what will happen someday when you don't have anything left to give. If you'll run then, or stay and let him drain whatever traces of you are left.

Everyone accounted for. You press your lips together, staring down at the bills and paychecks, pretending the letters aren't all blurred. You look up again to clear them, and catch Angel's gaze shifting away from you. He comes the rest of the way down the stairs, making enough noise that everyone else looks. Gunn gives a sword one last polish and racks it, Fred bounces to her feet with a huge smile that says that knight in shining armor thing is still hanging around, Wesley comes out of the office holding his book, already expounding on something weird and gross. But you're the one Angel looks at first, tipping his head to the side in a quick, silent inquiry. You smile at him reassuringly and something in his stance loosens as he smiles back.

You wonder sometimes what Angel sees in that moment every day when he stands on the stairs, thinking no one knows he's there yet, and he can watch them without giving anything away. You wonder if he knows that Wesley's never *that* lost in a book, that Gunn's shoulders tighten at the first footstep, that you can feel his eyes on you before you ever see him. And then it doesn't matter, because everyone is around the desk, and the endless fight over which take-out menu to use for dinner has begun, and soon the sun will be down. Check-out time: weapons are chosen, patrol duties are argued, and maybe this will be the evening before the night before the day when you look around from the check-in desk and find someone missing.

Their faces blur like the numbers on the bills, and you close your eyes until they're clear again. Then you stand up so you can lean over the desk, and put in your vote for House of Hunan loudly enough to silence any opposition. It never works, but it's fun when Gunn and Wesley argue back. Angel's smile widens as Fred's shining eyes dart from one side of the argument to the other, and your voices ring off the walls of the lobby of a building that used to be a hotel, but is now more of a home.

But the desk is still at the center of it all, and will be as long as you sit there.


As I said, I'd intended To Wake and Be Real to be a stand-alone, but for no apparent reason, I started typing and this came out, in the same tense and obviously in the same reality as Fred's little bit. Sometimes, you just gotta channel Cordy. And I infinitely prefer her to the third one...

comments to

triptych | angel | seanachais | neon hummingbird