Wesley took off his glasses. He had no idea how long he had been staring at this scroll, but there wasn’t a damn thing coming into his brain. He rubbed his eyes, then glanced at the legal pad where he had written a column of words: “Destiny? Champion? Trout?” He wasn’t even sure if those were supposed to be the same word or different ones, and none of them were going to come together until he could get his hands on the Moringean Codex. Of course, the Codex would have to wait at least until Twelfth Night, since the shamans who supervised the local archive operated strictly on an Eastern liturgical calendar. Meanwhile, this text had long passed the Fun Puzzle stage and progressed to Someone Stab me in the Eye with a Fountain Pen Before I Give in and Do It Myself. Something, anything. . .
A light tap sounded on the door of Wesley’s office, and he almost jumped. “Don’t do that!” he gasped.
Looking up, he saw Charles Gunn. “Sorry, Twitchy Smurf. You seen Fred around?”
“I. . .” He thought back. That must have been hours ago but, yes. . . “I believe Cordelia took her shopping.”
“Fred? Went shopping? Like out to the mall? With people? And. . .her bestest friend, Cordelia?”
“Yes, Cordelia said she was going to re-introduce Fred to the world of post-holiday sales. It was very sweet.”
Gunn raised an eyebrow.
“All right, I told them. . .asked them. . .convinced them that Angel needed some things for Connor. What he really needs is time alone with the boy. But the girls, for all their good intentions, have been hovering a bit. And honestly, I think they really needed to take some time for themselves. Ever since that business on her birthday, I’ve practically had to kick Cordelia out of here to keep her from scrubbing the floors all night. It seemed they had a very long list, though, so they may be some time. Did you want to leave a message for Fred?”
“Nah,” Gunn shrugged. “I’ll see her tomorrow at breakfast, same as always.”
“Right.” Wesley plastered on a smile. “Great. Of course. That’s very nice that you do that for Fred.” He tried to mean it. It was good to see Fred taking an interest in life outside the hotel, and Charles was a big part of that. Wesley tried not to let it hurt too much that she didn’t show similar interest in spending time with him. Well, it’s not as though you ask her. Of course, there is the little detail where you tried to kill her when you were under a spell. But then, Charles did too, and it doesn’t seem to get in the way of their friendship.
“I was just gonna check if she wants to go to a movie.”
“Oh. . .” Wesley looked down at the pile of scrolls. “Movies are. . .I’m sure she’ll be sorry that she missed the opportunity. Cordelia will probably want to go home when she gets back. Angel is with the baby, and I won’t be very good company as long as I’m. . .” The prospect of a long night staring at ancient Moringean rose up and made his head swim.
“Wes? Do you want to come to a movie?”
He dropped the papers, and jumped up to get his jacket. “Dear God, yes. Anything particular? You weren’t thinking A Beautiful Mind were you? Because considering Fred’s recent troubles. . .”
“No,” Gunn said firmly. “I don’t do Russell Crowe. No freaking way. I was thinking Ali, actually, but I’m not sure that would be your speed.”
“The new Michael Mann thing?”
“The new Muhammad Ali thing.”
“Directed by Michael Mann. The one with the Fresh Prince?”
“OK, Wes? This is clearly not your speed. For one thing, you can’t say ‘Fresh’.”
“Yeah, well. . .” He shrugged. “You can’t say ‘wanker.’”
A smile played at Gunn’s lips. “Wanna bet. . .wanker? And speaking of things we can’t. . .English people and boxing?”
“English people,” Wes protested, “invented boxing! The Marquess of Queensbury established the modern rules as a humane alternative to the deadly Irish Code Duello. That is to say. . .the historical evidence is conflicting, but certainly it was promoted by the class of English gentlemen that were prone to duel, and. . .” Seeing Gunn’s narrow-eyed There-He-Goes-Again look, Wesley raised his fists into a combat stance. “Not to brag, but. . .” Feigning a small punch, he said, “I did a little fighting of my own when I was at school.”
Gunn raised an eyebrow. “Yeah? I guess you were bantamweight? And by the way. . .” Gunn moved into a sparring stance of his own. “Bantam means chicken.”
“No no. Featherweight back then. And these days? I’d be at least a welter.” He launched a right hook at Gunn, stopping right before he made contact with jaw. “And don’t call me chicken.”
“All right, all right.” Gunn laughed, ducked, then threw a punch at Wes. He would have pulled it, but didn’t have to, because Wesley dodged out of they way. “Float like a butterfly,” Gunn approved.
“Sting like a bee,” Wesley answered, almost making contact with Gunn’s shoulder.
Together they purred out, “Rrrrrrumble, young maaaaaan, rumble!”
“Oh yeah,” said Gunn, “Let’s go see that flick.”
The movie, as one of Wesley’s former teenage charges might have put it, rocked. Wes had known it would. He’d long considered re-runs of the old cop shows that Mann wrote for -- Police Story, Crime Story, Starsky & Hutch and of course Miami Vice -- to be a semi-secret, well, vice. He watched the DVD of Heat at least once a month, and also owned L.A. Takedown, the TV movie it was based on. He considered Manhunter a better Thomas Harris adaptation than Silence of the Lambs, and he’d loved The Insider, in spite of Russell Crowe.
But there was something more going on with this film: from the opening credit sequence, set to the strains of Sam Cooke’s devastating “Bring it on Home” – the best lover-come-back song ever for Wesley’s money – to the final sequences of a victorious Ali raising his hands to the chanting crowd. There was an energy to the story that went beyond just the considerable skill of the directors and actors involved and came straight from Ali himself. A real-life hero and. . .Wesley couldn’t help smiling as the word came to him. A champion.
Besides, watching Will Smith’s performance as young Cassius-turned-Muhammad, with all that youth and energy and defiance, reminded him a bit of Gunn. It was probably a bigoted thought, and as soon as it occurred to him, he tried to beat it down but. . .it wasn’t a matter of race, he convinced himself. Something else. Something in the way he moves, Wesley thought, then cast an eye at his friend and couldn’t help a sheepish smile. He was thinking about Charles Gunn in terms of George Harrison lyrics, God help him.
After the film, as the crowd spilled out into the theater lobby, Gunn was literally bouncing on the balls of his feet. The comparison to the young boxer came to mind again, and when Gunn aimed a shadow punch at him, Wes dodged out of the way. Then Gunn grabbed his shoulder and pulled him close to whisper in his ear. “You feel like killing something right now?”
“Oh yeah!” Wes socked his arm and started the chant again: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. . .” Gunn joined in on, “Rumble young maaaan, rumble.”
“We start doing that next time we run into some nasty-ass demon?” Gunn laughed. “Can you just see the look on Angel’s face?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Wes answered. “Angel would know Ali. He’d remember these fights.”
“Remember, yeah, but. . .” Gunn cocked his head. “Would he get it? He’d be all, What’s he jumping around like that for? Rocky Marciano, that was a fighter.”
Wes laughed and, deepening his voice to sound more or less like Angel’s, said, “There hasn’t been a real boxer since Max Baer.”
“No no,” Gunn slapped his chest. “Jack Dempsey.”
“Gentleman Jim Corbett.”
“Peerless Jim Driscoll.”
“All right, now?” Gunn grabbed Wes and pulled him into a headlock. “Now you’re just showing off.”
Wes laughed, pushing against his friend. He thought about his teen years, the easy camraderie of organized sport that was difficult to recapture off of the field. At the same time, he felt himself getting a little charge off the touch. Just the contact, flesh to flesh, and as stupid as it seemed, he tried to remember the last time he had really touched anyone.
He had held the baby of course. Still, that wasn’t the same. He cared about Connor, but the child was too small to know the difference between one person and another. It wasn’t like having another human being reach out and touch you, on purpose, because they wanted to. There’d been a little bit of post-breakup pity-sex from Virginia, over the summer. A very little bit. Since then, the last thing he could think of was holding Fred, protecting her, that bad night at Caritas. The evening had ended with his warning Gunn off; it was probably also the first time that he realized how much he liked holding Fred, how much he wanted to keep it going.
This was different. Very different. But sometimes. . .well, a man or a woman, a friend or a lover. Touch was touch, and he didn’t realize how much he had missed it, until he felt Gunn’s hands, casual and easy, against his body.
“Let me go!” Wes laughed, pushing away at the same time. “Get off me.” He managed to wriggle out of Charles’ grasp, shoving against him with one elbow. Gunn lost his balance, and almost fell into another man. This middle-aged white guy was coming out of different movie, and he was clearly not suffused with the giddy energy that sprang from watching The Greatest, up there on screen. The man shoved his hand into Gunn’s back, and glared over him at Wesley. “Hey, keep a leash on your boyfriend there.”
Wes froze and felt himself flush. Looking down, he started to stammer. “I’m sorry, we got carried away, and. . .”
Gunn recovered, quickly, and sprang to his feet. Wes wasn’t sure what to expect . . .Would Gunn hit the guy? Were they going to fight for real? Wes found he didn’t entirely hate the idea, but he was surprised to see an amused smile cross his friend’s face. Gunn stood upright, swung his arm over Wes’s shoulder, and stood side to side, hip to hip with him. “You got a problem with that?” Gunn demanded. Then he put his hand on the side of Wesley’s face, pushed his head down, and smacked a kiss on Wes’s cheek.
Wes almost choked with surprise. But standing by Gunn, still full of the young fighter’s defiance . . .Rumble, young man, rumble! . . . Wes let a smile cross his face and found himself channelling – of all people – Buffy Summers. “Nobody,” he said, squeezing Gunn tightly, putting an edge of menace into his voice, “messes with my boyfriend.”
All three men stared for a long moment, then the other guy spread his hands and backed away. “Hey, ain’t none of my business what you do.”
“That’s right,” said Wes.
“Why don’t you just be moving along?” said Gunn.
They stood there together, until the guy moved away. Then Gunn let go of Wes and doubled over in laughter.
Wes straightened the sleeve where Gunn had held him, then looked down at his laughing friend. “Are you all right?” he asked, fighting off a wave of laughter himself.
“Oh, it’s just. . .” Gunn straightened to his full height and looked around. A few people in the crowd were paying attention to them. But not really. This was L.A. “Oh, I’ll tell you later. For now – mortal combat?”
“Well. . .He was a bit of a prat, but a fight to the death does seem excessive.”
Gunn jabbed his thumb toward the video arcade on the side of the theater. “I’ve got some quarters if you want to play Mortal Kombat.”
“Oh, sure, of course.” He shrugged. “Why not?” He wasn’t getting anything translated tonight, anyway.
But the line at all the good games was long. Gunn kept bouncing on his feet, and then he said, “I have better stuff at home anyway.” Wes shrugged, and Gunn said, “You wanna go back to my place?”
“I – Is it nearby?” Wes asked, vaguely embarrassed that he didn’t even know. “I mean, of course. If you’d like. It’s just that you’ve never asked. . .”
“Well, I’m asking you now,” Gunn said.
Wesley tried to hold back a smile, as he said, “Now that I’m your boyfriend.”
Gunn cuffed Wes on the arm, “Don’t push it, English.”
“Never,” Wes said gravely.
They had driven in Gunn’s truck, and he stopped on the way home to pick up some beer. Getting back behind the wheel, he handed Wes the six-pack of Anchor Steam. “We’ll just go home, play some games, drink a few cold ones. Stay up all night, if you want. When’s the last time you stayed up all night?”
“I’m frequently up all night. Last month, when I got the annual updates Reinhardt’s Compendium. . .”
“When there wasn’t a book involved. Or a monster.”
Wes shook his head and smiled. “Now there you have me.”
“You can crash on my couch,” he offered. “Then in the morning, we’ll meet Fred for breakfast.”
“Oh, Gunn, I don’t. . .That’s your thing that you do with her.”
“And I’m asking you now. So tomorrow it will be a thing the three of us do.”
“Sorry,” Wes responded.
“Don’t be sorry.” Gunn frowned at him. “Something up, English? Spill.”
Wes sighed. “Of course, not, I just. . .I appreciate it, it’s only, being the boss now. . .lately it feels like I’m responsible for so much. It shouldn’t feel odd for us just to. . .”
“But it does,” Gunn sighed. “Yeah, I do get it. Don’t get me wrong, I like our little family being a little bigger.”
“Still, when you first came on, and it was just me and you and Cordelia working out of her place. . .”
“Because Angel wigged out on us, and we didn’t have enough money to pay the rent, much less the electric bill.”
“And then I got shot.”
They smiled together and shook their heads. “Good times,” they said at once, and then Gunn punched Wesley’s shoulder.
“Ouch,” Wesley grunted.
“Oh, don’t be a bantam.”
Gunn’s block was fairly clean, but the building facades didn’t look much different from the warehouses where, Wes remembered, he used to squat before joining the AI team. Gunn pulled out a ring of keys, and went through several locks before pulling up a grating that led to a hallway that led to the apartment. Just as they were ready to enter, a crash sounded behind them. They both stiffened into combat positions. Gunn signaled to Wes and took point, looking around the corner with his hand held out. Wes mentally swore that he hadn’t brought a stake. Standing in the dark with no weapon of any kind was not an ideal position. He raised his hand and straightened his glasses, then stepped up behind Gunn.
Then Gunn darted around the corner and came back holding a wriggling figure by the collar. “What the hell you doing, Boo?”
“I didn’t do it, officer, I was just minding my business and. . .” Wes saw that it was a kid, probably not more than thirteen.
“Boo!” said Gunn. “You know me, you fool.”
The kid’s eyes widened. “You a cop now, Gunn?”
“No,” Gunn answered. “Why would you think . . .?”
The kid pointed at Wes. “If you ain’t a cop, why you got a partner?”
Gunn’s mouth twitched. He looked over at Wes, who just waved at the kid. “This is my friend, Wes, all right? We work together.”
The kid still looked suspicious. “He your boss?”
“As a matter of fact, I am,” said Wesley. “But we’re not working now.”
He gawked at Wesley’s voice. “What country you from, man?” He turned to Gunn suspiciously. “He some kind of secret agent?” He stepped closer. “You some kind of secret agent?”
“Yeah. This my boss, James Bond.”
“You kiss your momma with that mouth?” Gunn cuffed his shoulder. “Speaking of, does she know you out here?”
“Yeah, man, she sent me out for a pack of cigarettes.”
“I bet,” Gunn answered. “I call her, she gonna tell me that?”
Boo shrugged, “I dunno what she gonna say, man. She don’t always remember so good.”
Gunn pressed a hand to the kid’s back and shoved. “Go on now, I’ll give you a ten minute head start. If you’re home when I call?” He reached in Boo’s pocket and took out a pack of cigarettes. “I won’t say anything about these.”
Wes helped Gunn pull the grating down behind them, and watched after the boy. “You really know his family?”
“Yeah,” Gunn answered. “This is more or less the neighborhood I’ve been in since I quit school.” He shook his head. “Some of those kids pretty much grow up on the streets.”
Wes shook his head and murmured, “Tragic.”
Gunn stiffened a little. “I turned out okay.”
“Indeed you did.” Wes couldn’t help smiling.
“And don’t you forget it.” Gunn grinned back as he pushed open the door to the apartment. He stepped back and let Wes walk in before him. The living room wasn’t a large space, and the furniture didn’t match, but the plaid-striped couch looked cozy. It stood right in front of a decent-size TV. There was also, as Gunn had promised, an Xbox and a pile of kick-the-other-guy’s-ass kind of games. Wes picked them up and started to go through the stack. “Soul Caliber 2,” he murmured. “Halo, you have Halo? Lord, Gunn, you’ve been keeping this place to yourself, just so you don’t have to share your games!”
“You got me,” he grinned, then sobered a little. “You noticed that out there?”
“What, the kid?”
“The ‘hey, officer.’ It’s the same thing as with that asshole back at the theater. That’s what I thought was so funny.”
“Oh yeah, your little secret joke? What was that about?”
“Guy like you and a guy like me? You see us together and maybe we’re army buddies. But mostly likely, people are gonna think either we’re cops or we’re fucking.”
Wes looked up from his crouch by the pile of games. “Why can’t we just be friends?”
Gunn shook his head and flopped back on the couch. “Dunno. This city? This country? But it’s true. Easier to believe that you want a big black stud, and I want a pretty little white boy.”
“Hey!” Wes straightened. “I’m over six feet tall, and I think we established that I’m at least a welterweight. And I’m not pretty.”
Gunn grinned “Little bit.”
“Well. . .so are you. And, and, why would you assume that everybody would assume that you’re the. . .”
Gunn lifted an eyebrow. “Top?”
“Right,” Wes said. “Exactly.” Half-unconsciously, he whistled a bar of You’re the Top, thinking “You’re the Louvre Museum.”
Gunn smirked. “Maybe because I’m not the one singing Cole Porter.”
“Oh,” Standing, Wes found himself facing Gunn’s DVD collection, and he started flipping through them. Assault on Precinct 13, Shaft, Malcolm X, Clockers, Do the Right Thing. Then he had a thought and turned back to Gunn. “And how do you know it’s Cole Porter?”
“I was in show choir for a semester in junior high. All right?”
“Oh, come on. I’ve seen you onstage at Caritas. You cannot sing.”
“I said for a semester! My voice changed early. They were desperate for some baritones. Plus? Hot girls in the show choir. What did you sing, English? Alto?”
“Bantamweight.” He grinned. “Really, Gunn, I wouldn’t have been caught dead in a show choir. I had a certain reputation to maintain if I wanted to be head boy.”
“Oh. How’d you get that job?”
“Lot’s of hard work,” Wes deadpanned. He thought of a time he would have given that answer in earnest, but instead of the usual cringe those memories brought on, he found himself smiling. This is good, then. I grew out of it, I survived.
“What?” Gunn demanded, looking at his smile. “What’s your secret joke?”
“Not a joke,” he answered, “Just. . .happy to be here.” And for the moment, he realized he was. And on that night, it was enough.
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