Armadillos and Salsa
Content: C/A, F/G, Fa/W, C/C mentioned, Fr/W mentioned
Disclaimer: So not mine.
Summary: The gang heads to Texas to heal.
Spoilers: Up to Calvary and future speculation on known spoilers after that. Also, speculation on future Buffy episodes.
Setting: After the Apocalypse and Angel getting his soul back. Faith is still here too.
Distribution: Nothing Fancy of course and anyone else is welcome to it, just tell me where.
A/N: This fic is me being a dork (imagine that!). I love road trips and I couldn't resist the challenge Joss's Girl put, or the prospect of writing something post-apocalpyse. Thank God for my much abused Rand McNally atlas though. Dedicated to Jossy, who cleverly thought of this challenge as way to drive me mad. I just know it. ;)
Feedback: I'd love you dearly!
Chapter One: Eight People in a Winnebago
"I'm gonna kill him!" Faith declared and then launched up out of her seat. Wesley managed to catch her around the waist, hauling her backwards and almost falling over the small table attached to the floor. Gunn shrank back, avoiding the Slayer's flailing limbs as she attempted to maneuver her way out of Wesley's grip. "Let me go Wes!"
"You can't kill him Faith!"
"Why not? Huh? Anyone got a good excuse?"
"Because...he's...well..." Wesley struggled for a good reason, glancing at Gunn, who just shrugged. Fred's eyebrows rose and she glanced at the demon in the corner, obviously not wanting to get in the middle of the fracas.
"He's our friend?" Cordelia suggested over her shoulder.
"That's right, little Miss Prison Break! Neener, neener, neener!"
"That is so it!" Faith wriggled out of Wesley's grasp and darted forward again. He managed to loop a finger in the belt of her jeans, but her Slayer strength got the upper hand and she dragged him forward the three steps between herself and the demon.
"Okay! Enough!" Angel exclaimed, stepping between the Slayer and the demon. He pushed Faith backward into Wesley. "You, take a time out! And you...no more show tunes! We've had enough fighting."
Lorne had the decency to blush a darker green. "Sorry. I just loved Chicago so much!"
"I hear one more word about 'he had it coming' and that's what I'm telling the coroner!" Faith pointed a finger at the demon as Wesley tugged her backward.
"Come on Faith. Time out time." Wesley pulled her past the little kitchen, swaying as Cordelia passed a station wagon. Angel watched them disappear into the cramped "bedroom" in the back, the curtain swinging shut behind them.
"Everything okay back there?" Cordelia called, her face appearing in the rearview mirror, as Angel looked her way.
"I think everyone is all settled. Unless you two wanna fight again?" Angel asked, turning on Fred and Gunn, who were seated across from each other at the tiny booth, stacks of activity books and board games spread out before them. Both of them glanced at each other and then shook their heads. Angel nodded. "We're good!"
"Alrighty then. Now would you mind getting me a Coke? Dying of thirst up here!"
"Yeah, sure. I'll--"
"Cordy! The road!" Connor interrupted, grabbing the wheel and jerking it towards Cordelia. The motor home veered back onto the road with a screech of tires and a heavy sway. A horn blasted as a Mack truck went by, narrowly missing them as Cordelia righted the motor home. Gently, Connor let go of the steering wheel, and then looked back at his father with a grin. "Did you see? I saved all our lives."
"Gave me a freaking heart attack in the process!" Cordelia exclaimed, smacking him on the arm. "I would have gotten back in the lane. Eventually."
"Why don't I believe you?" Connor mused, propping his feet up on the dashboard.
In response, Cordy stuck her tongue out at him.
Angel fought a grin as he swung the tiny fridge open and plucked out a Coke. Steadily, he picked his way back to the cabin of the Winnebago, where Connor scooted over, letting his father settle on the edge of the seat. Night settled over the road before them, the eastern sky turning a dark twilight blue, the shadows long and inviting.
"Thanks." Cordelia said, hesitating as she took the can from his hands. He watched her in silence as she popped it open and took a long drink.
Looking at her made his heart ache. Her familiar face, dipped in gathering shadows, was whole and real and lined with pain. Despite the pleasant front she was showing to the world, he knew she was uncomfortable sitting here with all of them. He couldn't believe the past year had happened. Or that something had taken over her body--her familiar, loving body--and had tried to take over the world.
But, they got her back. He got her back and now she was here and whole and...changed. Haunted, he would say. The brightness of her eyes had dimmed a little and that knowledge caused an uncomfortable ache in his gut. But she was here.
And he still hadn't told her what Willow did...
He glanced into the back of the motor home, at the rest of his family. Lorne was sprawled on the couch along the wall, while Fred and Gunn sat across from each other at the little booth. No one was talking much and he knew they were still fighting. At least Fred and Gunn were. He just wished, not for the first time, that things would heal between the two of them. He knew they still loved each other, if only they'd realize it too.
His gaze went to the closed curtain across the back of the motor home, eyebrow lifting. He didn't even want to think about what was going on in there. Faith had insinuated herself in the group somehow, along with Wesley. How the former boss of Angel Investigations had managed to gain all their trust again was still debatable, but he had. And Angel was more than glad to have him in the group again. Now they were whole--with Faith, they were a real family.
Complete with bitter arguments and love triangles. He still wasn't sure how that had ended up. It was one of those big questions and sore spots that had yet to be healed. And that was why they were all heading eastbound on I-10 in a borrowed motor home. They needed to heal and regain that sense of family they'd lost. Angel blessed Lorne for his good sense and planning, and Trish Burkle for her generosity. If he were Fred's mother, he wouldn't want a tribe like his descending on his home. But he was glad she'd invited them.
"Now leaving California." Cordelia read as they passed the big sign on the side of a bridge that jutted out over the wide expanse of the Colorado River. "You sorry we're leaving?"
Angel forced a smile. "Not on your life."
"You okay? I didn't hurt you did I?" Faith asked as she shut the blind, the Colorado River disappearing behind them. She winced at the brightness of the setting sun and looked up at her former Watcher, noting his haggard appearance. She was stretched out on the hide-a-bed, her bare feet kicking in the air.
"No, but you were going to hurt Lorne."
"Naw, just me foolin' around. Green guy knows I dig him." She replied, rolling over so he could sit down next to her. He sat and plucked at the old comforter on the bed, a shaft of the dying sunlight falling on his fingertips.
"I know. I just..."
"Just what, Wes? Is this the moment where we have a heart-to-heart about what I said before I left?"
"Unless you don't want to have it..."
"Might as well. So, you start and I'll attempt to get in touch with my inner psychologist." She closed her eyes and screwed up her face, a thick line between her eyebrows a moment before she sighed and looked back up at him.
"You are such a bitch, Faith." A smile tugged at his lips, as he looked her over.
"It gets me through the day. Now shoot, before I get in touch with my inner psycho." She punched his arm and laid back, her dark curls tumbling across the old bedspread. He shifted uncomfortably and then started, not quite sure what to say.
"I took your advice."
"About giving up on Twiggy?" She said as he visibly flinched.
"Because you were right. She doesn't love me, despite what she wanted to believe there for a while. I'm not even sure I...maybe it was just the chase..." He trailed off into his own world and pulled a long snarl of thread from the cover. "Well, whatever the case, I'm not "skirt-chasing" any longer, as you so aptly put it."
"So I actually made sense? Marvel at the possibility. And that other thing?"
"Yeah. 'That'. Soo...?"
"I'm working on it." He laid down, his chin in his hand, his elbow grazing hers.
"Good to hear."
They fell into a comfortable silence, listening to the sounds of the road, the desert night descending on them with an early June chill. From the front of the 'Winnie, they could hear Connor and Angel talking, their voices muffled by distance and hum of the wheels beneath them. Finally, Wesley broke the silence, touching her arm.
"Not quite ready yet, Wes."
He nodded in understanding and fell back into silence with her. High above Interstate 10, the full moon came out, shining like a brilliant orb. She took a breath. He took a breath.
"Who wants to play Mad Libs?"
Faith laughed as Fred's voice shot through the motor home. "Come on, Watcher-man." Wesley stiffened as she crawled over him and walked out of the tiny room. He took a deep breath.
"Steady on, soldier."
"'Angel and Gunn went to Tahiti and ate black satin sheets on a Viking ship. It hurt, but Gunn moaned, "Oh this feels so outrageous! I will put butter on my clitoris!" Angel said, "Yes, then I must fart on a nun and masturbate in Wal-Mart!" Gunn replied, "No! You must try the marmoset. It leaks really naughty on your coconut! Angel mounted the marmoset and shouted, "Oh how plentiful! Come on, we should go garden!'" Fred read out loud and then collapsed into giggles, her face pressed into the lapel of Lorne's blue jean jacket.
"Why did I have to be the one mounting the marmoset?" Angel sounded slightly put out as he looked into the rearview mirror, his hands on the steering wheel at two and ten. Phoenix glittered before them, lighting up the road, the moon pale and tiny in the dark velvet of the sky.
"At least you didn't put butter on your clitoris. A million times no." Gunn looked horrified at the latest round of Mad Libs, the booklet spread out on the table before Fred and Lorne. Wesley was scrunched into the booth next to him, while Faith sat on his leg. Gunn's eyes bulged at that one, but he didn't comment.
"Hey, at least you got to fart on a nun. Call it a perk." Cordelia piped up from the front seat next to Angel, her body curled up in the seat.
"I liked the masturbating in Wal-Mart part. It reminds me of this one time--" Faith started to say, but Cordelia interrupted her.
"Please don't finish that story."
"Oh, come on, C! You know you're curious." Faith laughed and shifted on Wesley's leg. He smiled tight-lipped at Gunn, who just raised one eyebrow, a smile playing at the corners of his lips.
"I know I am." Lorne commented, leaning into the light the tiny overhead lamp cast on the table. Cordelia threw an empty Coke can at his head, which missed by a mile.
"Are we there yet?" Connor's voice piped up from the berth above the driver's cabin, one thin arm dangling over the edge.
"No!" Everyone chorused for the fiftieth time that day.
"Okay, then can we eat?"
"Mmm...food!" Gunn grinned at the longing sigh and the faraway look in Fred's eyes.
"I made some brownies before we left and some sandwiches just in case--" Cordelia stopped as everyone groaned. "What?"
"I think we should stop. I'm not above stretching my legs and fresh food sounds really good." Wesley said, avoiding the glare Cordelia was sending his way.
"I gotta piss too." Faith said in an urgent voice. Wesley shifted underneath her and grinned as she turned on him, her brown eyes huge. He didn't want to say anything, but he had to go too. Angel had refused to allow anyone to use the on board facilities, claiming it would stink up the place and he was the one with the superhuman senses and not them. Wesley couldn't really blame him.
"I'm with you." Connor said, sitting up in the berth, his back bent to avoid smashing his head against the low ceiling. There was a chorus of positive replies. Angel pulled off at the first exit, the only open restaurant in sight being a small Mexican cantina that looked like a Taco Bell rip-off.
"Looks like it's the only thing open this late." Angel explained, gesturing to the other restaurants grouped near the exit to the Interstate. The McDonald's and the Wendy's were dark humps in the thin light of the moon.
"That's fine with me! I could use some something spicy." Gunn said as he scooted out of the booth after Wesley and Faith.
"Charles, you know how Mexican food makes you gassy. Maybe you shouldn't." Fred said, touching his arm as he walked by her. Everyone else filed out of the RV, stretching and rubbing their stomachs.
"Since when do you care?" He replied before he really thought about it. Fred's face fell and a flicker of hurt showed in her eyes. She let go of his arm and dropped her head.
"I do care." Her voice was soft and full of emotion. A spasm of guilt went through his heart.
"Sorry. I didn't mean...look, I'm sorry."
"No, it's okay. I don't have any right to...let's just go inside with the others."
"Wait, Fred. I'm sorry. I don't want to fight anymore, okay?"
"I don't want to fight either, Charles." Fred said with a grim smile.
"Good. Then are we friends?"
"That's all, I guess." Fred frowned and then walked toward the door and down the steps, leaving Gunn behind, cursing under his breath.
Two hours later, they were leaving Phoenix behind, the lights bright in the side view mirrors. Angel was behind the wheel again, with Gunn sitting next to him in silence, the lights dim. The girls were in the back bedroom, claiming the big bed for themselves, leaving Connor to the berth above his head, Lorne to the narrow couch across one side of the motor home and Wesley to the floor, which was nicely carpeted, but smelled like old feet.
"God, I love the open road." Angel commented, passing a car with ease.
"Never traveled much, but it doesn't suck. This is a nice Winnie' Lorne found."
"Except for the smell, yeah." Angel replied, changing lanes again. A snore shot through the cabin and Gunn glanced over his shoulder at Lorne, who was curled up on the couch, his thumb tucked into his mouth.
"Now that's disturbing." Angel glanced backward at Gunn's comment and grinned.
"You learn a lot about people when you travel cross-country with them."
"Yeah. Guess so." Gunn said as he rubbed his gurgling stomach.
"Stomach ache. It's nothing."
"I meant...you and Fred."
"That would be a 'no', then?"
"A big fat one. You and Cordelia? How's that going?" Gunn asked as he folded his hands behind his head, staring at the glowing red taillights of the car ahead of them. He glanced over at Angel and saw the vampire's jaw working, the muscle twitching with agitation. "'Nuff said. I'll drop that subject."
"So um...Wesley and Faith, huh?"
Angel's mouth twitched as if he were fighting a smile. "You noticed that too?"
"Stevie Wonder would notice that, man. She's practically begging him to--"
"I'll ask you not to discuss my non-romantic life, thank you." Wesley's sleep-threatened voice mumbled from the floor. His disheveled head lifted from the darkened floor as he glared at them. Gunn shifted in his seat and shot his friend a cautious smile. Angel held his breath, waiting for another fight to break out.
"Thought you were asleep, bro."
"I would be if you'd both shut your mouths. But since I'm not, let's talk about you two!"
"Rowr! Catty!" Lorne said as he sat up, shaking his horned head and rubbing his eyes. "I wanna be in on this too."
Angel managed a grin as he listened to his family talk. The past year melted away in an instant--the fighting, the grudges, the romantic tangles. It was over and done with and they could deal. As long as Wesley and Gunn kept civil tongues in those stubborn heads of theirs.
"So, what about us?" Gunn challenged as Wesley sat up, his sweat pants twisted around his legs.
"Well you're both complete idiots for one. Cordelia was clearly flirting with you in the restaurant, Angel. Fred clearly wants to make amends for...well...you know. And you're both ignoring them completely. You're both bloody morons."
"Oh, he said bloody!" Lorne commented with glee as he propped himself up on his elbow and stared at them from the couch.
"What about you and Faith? Or you and…you know, for that matter? What's going on there?" Gunn asked, his face darkening.
"You know my status with you know who and no, nothing whatsoever is going on there. Neither of us are interested, Charles. You know that." Wesley said forcefully, feeling that old anger welling up in him. Gunn sighed and looked back at the road.
"And Faith?" Angel asked, an arch in his voice. Silence met his question and he swore he could actually feel Wesley blushing. "Well then..."
"So, is everyone going to couple off on this trip? Wow. That just leaves me and the sprout by our lonesome." Lorne said with a dirty laugh, ignoring the glares shooting his way.
"I am not dating you." Connor piped up from the berth overhead. His shaggy head suddenly lowered into view, his hair a halo around his lean face. Everyone looked up at him, surprised that he too, was awake.
"Wasn't going to go there." Lorne threw up his hands with a chuckle.
"So we're just a bunch of gossipy hens, huh?" Angel commented with a warm feeling in his gut. There was a round of manly grunts in agreement.
"I wonder what the girls are doing?" Gunn wondered out loud, his eye on the light outlining the heavy curtain across the entrance to the back room.
"Probably talking and braiding each other's hair. Maybe some pillow fights or the comparing of breast size. Possibly with demonstrations and nudity..." Lorne's voice trailed off and all the guys shifted in their seats, lost in the Technicolor visual. There was silence for a moment until Connor's innocent voice interrupted their thoughts.
"What's a clitoris?" They all dissolved into very unmanly giggles as Connor exclaimed, "What?"
"You're not brushing my hair, so back off!" Faith said defensively as she stretched out on the hide-a-bed beside Cordelia. Fred looked fairly put out as she held the brush.
"But it's tangled!" Fred protested, waving the brush at the two women on the bed.
"Down Fred! Faith's been in prison for the past three years, do you really want some girl-on-girl action with her?" Cordelia said with a chuckle as Faith bopped her with a pillow.
"Well no...but isn't this what girls do at slumber parties?"
"Well, we're not slumbering as such and it's not a party. Not when the room smells like old feet, which is probably because Faith has her shoes off." Cordelia grinned and sat up, drawing her knees against her chest.
"Don't start on me C. I could make your life a living hell!"
"Oh really? Like how?"
Faith peered at the Seer, her eyes narrowing. "Angel!" A grin spread as Cordelia jumped, her cheeks coloring. "I knew it!"
"You're about to jump him, that's what!"
"I am not. We've barely talked. I don't know what you're talking about so...so...shut up!"
"I saw you in that restaurant. 'Oh Angel! Please, please...pass the...SALSA!'" Faith exclaimed, her voice breathy as she grinned. "It was like I was watching When Harry Met Sally for sobbing out loud!"
"She's right you know. I thought you two were playing footsie under the table there for a while, but I couldn't be sure. Are you...you know?" Fred asked, sitting down on an empty corner of the bed, tossing the brush down in front of her.
"I don't know. Things are still weird. I mean, hello--demon in my body tried to destroy the world! Not something you just forget about the next day." Cordelia frowned and twisted a tendril of hair around her finger. She sighed, shadows haunting her face and a pain shooting across her heart.
"Not to mention screwing Angel's son."
"Yes, thank you Faith! I'd almost forgotten about that!" Cordelia moaned and fell back onto the bed, staring at the ceiling of the motor home. "Connor still gives me these looks like I'm going to suddenly jump him and he can't wait. At least he's not all territorial about it anymore."
"And he's getting along with Angel, which is a miracle."
"Well, Angel did save him from my--its--clutches. You can't really hate a guy after that. But...Angel's just...I don't know."
"You're gonna hook up though, right? For real this time?" Fred grinned as Cordelia rolled over onto her side and glared at her.
"Enough about me, let's talk about you, Winifred Burkle a.k.a. Femme Fatale extraordinaire. Who do you have your eye on?" She glanced at Faith and bit her lip at the dark expression crossing the Slayer's face.
"Someone, I mean no one! It's...let's not talk about me!" Fred exclaimed, nervously jerking at the hem of her shirt.
"Wesley or Gunn? Spit it out. I know what happened between you three, so spill! No need to be shy!"
"It doesn't matter. He's not interested anyway. I just want to have a good time at home, okay?"
"It's Wesley isn't it?" Faith said, her fingers fisted in her lap.
"No, it's...it's...Charles." Fred's face fell and she took a deep breath. "I ruined it and now…he just wants to be friends. Nothing else. I think he hates me."
"He doesn't hate you Fred. Trust me, I know. He just needs some convincing on how you really feel." Cordelia patted Fred's hand as the older girl sighed. "You'll work things out."
"Especially if you stay away from Wesley." Cordelia and Fred just stared at Faith, eyebrows lifted in question. "What?"
"What is going on with you and Wes?" Cordelia asked in amusement, leaning forward as Fred grinned at the Slayer.
"Nothing. We're friends." Faith said in a rush as she hugged the pillow to her chest.
"Friends with lusty wrong feelings?"
"No!" Faith exclaimed in agitation as she pulled her fingers through her tangled hair.
"Yeah, and sitting on his lap during an arousing game of Mad Libs was just you being friendly. God, you're such a slut!" Cordelia laughed and ducked the pillow as Faith flung it at her.
"I think it's cute, for what my opinion is worth. I'm not jealous." Fred piped up, meeting Faith's dark gaze with a smile. Something passed between them for a moment and Faith nodded, then picked up the forgotten brush and thrust it at Fred.
"Yay!" Fred exclaimed, dropping down behind the Slayer and pulling the brush gently through her hair. Cordelia sighed and watched the two of them, her mind on other things.
She just wanted everything to be the way it was before everything went to hell. Everyone together and as a family. It was a simple request, right? At least everyone was trying to get along; there was hope for them yet.
Then there was Angel. Angel who flinched when he looked at her, as if he was still picturing the things the demon had done with her body. She couldn't blame him, but she just wished he would sit down and talk to her, instead of avoiding any intimate setting where they could be alone.
Maybe she could make him talk to her…
"Maybe you'll get him alone when we get to San Antonio?"
Cordelia snapped out of her thoughts with a confused, "Huh?"
"I was talking to Faith...who has passed out." Fred gestured to the Slayer, whose head was dropped down on her chest. Fred yawned and put the brush aside. "It looks nice."
"I could use some serious winkage myself." Cordelia agreed, her mind heavy with sleep and other thoughts. Fred turned the light off as Cordelia nudged Faith into semi-consciousness. The hum of the engine and the whir of the huge wheels was a calming lullaby as the girls settled into the bed. Cordelia sighed once and then blissful darkness slipped over her.
El Paso, Texas
They passed through New Mexico in slumber, Angel in a state of peace as his family slept around him. Before dawn, he roused Gunn, who took the wheel and drove into the sunrise as Angel bed down in the berth with Connor, avoiding the rays of sunshine that drifted across the walls of the motor home. It wasn't long before someone was awake to keep him company.
"Beautiful sunrise, huh?" He said, glancing over at Fred, who was yawning and stretching. She rolled the window down and took a deep breath, wind flowing through her hair and tangling it in brown knots.
"Good to be home, huh?"
"You have no idea. It's been so long, Charles. I feel like Dorothy waking up in her bed. And everyone she loves is there." She looked in his direction, a smile playing on her lips.
"Yeah. Everybody." Gunn said, glancing at her before sighing. "So...sleep well?"
"Not really. I'm too excited to really close my eyes. Plus Cordelia and Faith were all clingy. It kinda freaked me out." She glanced at Gunn, who was smiling widely. "What?"
"Huh? Nothing. Just imagining the clinging."
"Pervert." She giggled, drawing her feet up underneath her. She glanced behind her, her eyes lighting on Wesley's sleeping form. "Charles, I think we need to talk--"
"Is it morning already?" Connor asked, dropping down into view. Angel's hand fell into the open air, sizzling as it met the sun. Connor watched it smoke for a moment and then tucked it back into the blankets with a smirk. "Hey."
"Hi sweetie." Fred smiled and then sighed. It would have to wait. "Sleep well?"
"Yeah, except these guys wouldn't shut up about this thing called the cli--"
"So! Connor, how would you like to learn to drive?!!" Gunn interrupted loudly, glancing at Fred, who had a questioning look on her face.
"Okay!" Connor said, his face lighting up at the chance to drive the big vehicle.
"Don't tell me you're actually letting him drive? With me in the moving death machine?" Cordelia's voice called as she stepped over Wesley's sleeping form. "I don't think so."
"Hey, I bet I'm a great driver!"
"I don't actually care to find out." Cordelia said, crossing her arms over her old t-shirt. Her hair was sticking up on one side and there was grit in her eyes.
"Co-ordy!" Connor protested in exasperation.
"No! This thing is way too big to practice on. You could hit a...a...baby or something!" Cordy said, clearly putting her foot down.
"Why would a baby be on the interstate?" Gunn asked, stifling a yawn.
"That's beside the point and I'm sure your father would agree if he were conscious."
"You're not my mother!" A hint of anger flared in Connor's eyes and he glared at the Seer, who only glared back.
"I can't actually argue with that point, but you will do as I say young man!" Cordelia exclaimed, sitting down at the booth.
"Or what, you'll try to destroy the world again?"
"Try me and find out! What Cordy giveth, Cordy can taketh away, buster!"
Connor just glared at her, a myriad of emotions playing across his features. Finally he just sighed and sat across from her at the booth, snapping sarcastically, "Fine. Mom."
Cordelia smiled and reached out to ruffle his hair. "Glad you see things my way. Now who do I have to kill to get a cup of coffee?"
"There's a gas station up ahead if you want me to stop." Gunn offered as the sign went by with a whoosh.
"Sure, I think we could all use a good freshening up." Cordelia responded, rubbing her eyes.
"Are we in Texas yet?" Lorne said out of nowhere, jerking fully awake and nearly falling on top of Wesley.
"Just entered El Paso a few minutes ago man." Gunn answered, changing lanes
"Oh goody. Now stop so I can do an Ozzy and pee on the Alamo." Lorne said with a chuckle, straightening his bright gold robe.
"The Alamo is in San Antonio, Lorne." Fred piped up with pride.
"Thanks for the geography lesson kitten, but I know all I need to know about Texas. It's full of cattle, rich oil tycoons named Ewing, belt buckles as big as my head, armadillos and salsa. What more is there to know?" Lorne said and Fred could only giggle.
"You all are freaking loud, you know that? I've slept through prison riots quieter than you people." Faith grumbled as she walked out of the back room.
"Sorry." Connor said, scooting over to let Faith sit down. She ignored him and let her gaze wander to Wesley, who was still snoozing on the floor.
"I guess Wesley can sleep through anything, huh?"
"And he's in the way. Maybe we should move him?" Cordelia said, tilting her head to peer at Wes's unshaven face.
"Yeah, we could do that. Or..." An evil grin crossed Faith's features as she disappeared into the back room and came out with a can of shaving cream in her hands.
"What are you doing?" Fred asked, her eyebrows rising sky high. Faith grinned at her and bent down, shaking the can and then popping the lid off.
"Just having some harmless fun!"
She lowered the can and squirted a big pile of fluffy white cream into both of Wesley's limp hands. She waited a second, studying his face for signs of movement. When he didn't move, she bent down and tickled his nose with the ends of her hair. She stopped again and watched as he wiggled his nose. He lay still again and she tickled his nose with her hair once more. His shaving cream filled hands twitched and she held her breath, waiting for him to scratch his nose.
He lifted one hand toward his face and she grinned, only to get a face full of shaving cream a second later. She sputtered as Wesley grabbed her head in his messy hands and smeared the fluffy white mixture into her hair. They fell into a tumble as everyone erupted into laughter. Faith managed to smear Wesley's face with the cream too and soon they were nearly covered in the white stuff.
"Okay! Okay! Truce!" Faith gasped, smacking Wesley in the arm. He winced, but didn't let her up, his hands tangled in her hair.
"Maybe next time you'll wake me politely?" He asked as she lifted a hand to wipe a clump away from his eyes. They smiled at each other for a moment and then Lorne coughed.
"Well, I need a cold shower now. Anyone else?"
Wesley let go of Faith, his face filling with color. The Slayer grinned and glanced at Cordelia, who was only staring at the two of them with wide, amused eyes.
Suddenly, the vehicle screeched to a stop as Gunn pulled up to a gas station. Angel snorted awake, sitting up and bashing his head on the low ceiling with a grunt. Everyone turned to look at him as he rubbed his head, noticing the pain in his slightly sunburned hand. He blinked and then his gaze landed on Faith and Wesley.
"I don't even wanna know."
Gassed up, groggily awake, somewhat clean and full of Little Debbie snack cakes (everyone refused to eat anything Cordelia had brought along), they all settled in for the last day on the road. Texas stretched out before them, dusty and rolling. They passed sprawling ranches, oil fields, scrub covered mountains and plateaus that seemed to stretch on forever.
While Angel avoided the sun and Gunn tried to stay awake at the wheel, everyone else managed to pass the time. Surprisingly, they were getting along even better than before. Angel was too happy watching them all talk, joining in the conversation from the shadows when Cordelia would draw him in. Around noon, she climbed the short ladder and worked her way into the dark berth beside him.
"What are you doing?" He asked as she laid her head on the pillow next to his head. Everyone else was too busy playing Clue and talking to notice them.
"I don't know."
Silence fell over them as she lifted a hand to touch his face. He drew his head back and captured her fingers with his own. She smiled as he kissed her fingertips and closed his eyes.
"We should talk." She managed to say as she curled up next to him, warm Texas air flowing around them as Fred threw open a window.
"No, no talking right now. Just..."
"Faith said things are weird between us. Are they weird?"
"Yeah, but that's why we're here." Angel responded truthfully, his hand in her soft hair. "We're a family..."
"Do you think they blame me?" He knew she meant someone in particular, but he wasn't sure whom she meant.
"Does it look like they do?"
"I'm not sure."
"Well I am. No one blames you Cordy. We're just all very glad you're back, whole and perfect and non-evil. We missed you." He stroked her cheek, a smile playing on his lips. "I missed you."
She smiled and cuddled up next to him, not caring if things were weird or wrong or about the past. They were here now and she wanted to make it last. She just wanted everything perfect, even though she knew it never would be again.
"I missed you too. Now shut up. I didn't get a lot of sleep last night. Faith and Fred were way clingy. It was creepy."
Angel managed a laugh and drew the covers up around them. Together, they fell asleep in the shadows, warm sunshine seeping through the air as Texas stretched before them. Lorne looked up from his game and smiled at the sight of them curled up together. Then he glanced at Fred and Gunn sitting up front, talking in hushed tones and Wesley and Faith who were playing Travel Clue against him and Connor, their heads bent over the checklist in conspiracy, eyes meeting every two seconds.
Lorne's grin got wider, his plans falling into place. "It won't be long now..."
Chapter Two: Barn Talk
San Antonio, Texas
Texas passed in a blur of small towns and long, dry Interstate. Gunn had nearly fallen asleep at the wheel twice and only gave it up after the third time he nodded off in the warm sunlight. Wesley took over and drove into San Antonio just as the sun went down. Fred called her mother to tell her they were almost there as Angel took Wesley's place and followed Fred's directions toward her family's ranch just outside the city limits. They passed Brooks Air Force Base and turned onto a tiny side road, gravel flying out in a wave behind them.
"It's the next turn on the right Angel." Fred said, her face nearly pressed against the windshield as she tried to get a good look at her homestead for the first time six or so years. When Angel made the turn, she actually squealed and thrust her hands in the air. The squeal tore through the motor home and everyone winced.
Pulling up outside a wind-worn two-story farmhouse, they were immediately greeted by a familiar pair on the front porch. Fred barely waited until Angel stopped the motor home before she bounded out of the passenger side door and leapt at her mother and father.
Everyone piled out politely behind her, waiting as Fred hugged and kissed her mother and then did the same to her father. Gunn's grin was wide and happy. It'd been a long time since he'd seen her this carefree.
"Sweetie! Oh, look at you, you're skin and bones! Are you eating enough?" Trish Burkle exclaimed, holding Fred at arms length and examining her in the porch light with an appraising, motherly eye.
"Mom! Yes!" Fred said, exasperated, a grin on her face.
"Well, you're gonna get gain a few pounds while you're here and that's final!" Trish said and then turned to the large group standing in her driveway. She appraised them all for a second and then smiled.
"Angel!" Angel stepped forward and she gave him a peck on the cheek. "Are you still a vampire?"
"Yes, ma'am." Angel lowered his head and looked at his feet.
"Good. I slaughtered two pigs yesterday and I don't want all that blood to go to waste." Angel fought a grin at Trish's offhand manner. She smiled and moved down the line, hugging and greeting all the old faces. She stopped at Faith and Connor, appraising first one and then the other. "Lorne told me you put Angel in a box and sunk him to the bottom of the ocean."
"Uh...well...yeah." Connor stammered, glancing at his father on how to answer. Angel gestured to him to go on. "I mean, yes ma'am. But I...won't do it again."
Trish nodded and turned her attention on Faith. "And you're the murderer?"
"What of it?" Faith immediately challenged. Wesley put a hand on her shoulder, as if he could restrain her.
"We believe in the death penalty in Texas, ya know." Trish said coolly, one eyebrow arched as Faith bristled under her glare.
"Mom, Faith is a good guy--she saved the world n'stuff." Fred spoke up, taking her mother's hand.
"No, let her speak, Fred. We gonna have a problem?" Faith's face was hard and careworn as she looked over the aging woman before her.
Trish suddenly smiled. "If Winifred is your friend then I don't have a problem with you. After all, she brought a vampire, a former higher being and a demon with her. A convicted criminal actually puts me at ease."
"Just don't be gettin' any ideas though." Roger Burkle spoke up in his easy manner, eyeing Faith. He wasn't nearly so trusting. Faith opened her mouth to say what he could do with his ideas, but Wesley pinched her arm.
"Yes sir." Faith answered, tight lipped. Trish appraised them all again and then sighed.
"Well y'all can just come inside right now. I've had dinner warming since Fred called us. I hope you like fried chicken."
"Hell yeah!" Gunn exclaimed, his stomach rumbling. Everyone filed into the house and looked around at Fred's home as Trish got dinner ready. Fred was running around like mad, looking at things she hadn't seen in years and exclaiming over the newest additions with the wonder of a child at Disneyland. Cordelia personally thought they'd have to tranquilize her before she would sit down and be still for a minute.
The house was homey and warm, the walls painted an off-white that complimented the polished wooden floors. The furniture was worn and overstuffed, with homemade doilies strewn over the backs of the couches and chairs. There were many pictures on the walls. Everyone stopped before a large picture of a much younger Fred, who was grinning at them widely.
"What the hell did you do to your hair?" Faith asked, glancing over at Fred, who blushed scarlet.
"And what were you wearing?" Cordelia added, a look of disbelief crossing her features, her eyes wide.
"That's...I was ten and...and I was very into Dolly Parton okay. It was a phase!" Fred said, flustered, her hands fluttering in the air. Gunn smirked at the picture, noting the huge, hair sprayed helmet of hair, the turquoise cowboy hat, the beaded dress with the fringe and the huge grin that displayed two missing teeth. "We've all made fashion mistakes, okay!"
"Yeah, just look at Cordelia's hair!" Lorne exclaimed, pointing fingers.
"Freddikins I think you look darling!" Lorne went on, ignoring Cordy and kissing Fred's forehead as he walked by. "Don't let the ugly stepsisters tell you different. And Dolly is a peach."
"This coming from the guy who watched Best Little Whorehouse in Texas twenty times before we left. And knew all the songs." Cordelia said, fingering her chin-length brown hair. She thought it looked cute like this...
"Burt Reynolds is the man!" Lorne exclaimed over his shoulder as he entered the kitchen after Fred's mother.
"He's completely delusional." Cordelia said sourly. Angel looked over at her and smiled.
"Well, Burt Reynolds was kind of cool back in the day."
"Not about Burt Reynolds, dumbass! My hair!" Cordelia said, smacking Angel's arm. He shied away from her and then touched her hair with one hand.
"I don't know...the blonde wasn't the best look ever. I prefer the brown." Angel said, pulling the silky strands of hair between his fingers. Cordelia sighed and let a contented grin ease over her face.
"That is the exact right thing to say." Cordelia said with another sigh. Angel opened his mouth to something, but Trish's voice stopped him.
"Oh thank God, I was about to eat Wesley's arm!" Gunn said, tearing his eyes away from the photograph of Fred.
"You wouldn't want him anyway, Gunn. He's all stringy and bitter." Faith said, glancing at Wesley, who was studying the books on the shelf in the corner.
"As the owner of said arm, I resent that remark!" Wesley said, glancing up and meeting Faith's grin. He put a book back on the shelf and followed everyone into the dining room.
Two tables had been pulled together to accommodate the Burkles and their eight guests. Gunn's eyes went wide as he looked at the plates of chicken, mashed potatoes, beets, spinach, green beans, bright yellow ears of corn, biscuits, gravy, salad, and deviled eggs.
"Wow, mom. This is too much..." Fred said as she pulled up a chair and sat down next to her father.
"Oh please, you know how I love to cook." Trish said with a snort.
"No, really Mrs. Burkle. This is lovely. Thank you." Wesley said as everyone else sat down too.
"Thank you Wesley. Lorne, dear, I love that suit."
"Thanks Trish." The two exchanged a look for a moment and Trish grinned in conspiracy, glancing around the table. Lorne did too, noticing that Angel and Cordelia were sitting together and so were Fred and Gunn. They hadn't even noticed. Both of them watched as Faith pushed Connor out of the way and sat down next to Wesley. Connor gave her a scowl and sat down between her and Lorne with a thump.
Trish and Lorne kept glancing around the table as the meal went on. Angel sat back and watched everyone eat before tasting bits and pieces of everything. His stomach rumbled for something more liquid-y and red, but he obliged Mrs. Burkle, who was sitting next to him, as she piled mashed potatoes on his plate. She leaned toward him and whispered, "I've got a big glass of pig's blood in the fridge. You can get it whenever you want."
"Oh...um...thank you." Angel stammered as Trish just smiled and went back to her meal.
The meal passed in peace and polite conversation. Roger was really excited to have extra hands on the ranch for a few days and Trish was dying to take them all around San Antonio to see the sights. Everything was going great until Roger asked about the Apocalypse.
"So...big Beast, huh?"
"The biggest." Lorne said with a grimace.
"We were really worried about y'all when we heard it on the news. Between Iraq and the space shuttle blowing up, it was a little much to take in. I can't imagine what it was like for y'all, living there."
"It was rough, that's for sure. We lost a few, won a few." Gunn said around a mouthful of biscuit. Connor nodded in agreement, his eyes on Cordelia, who was studying the pool of gravy on her plate with interest.
"Actually, we'd like to...focus on other things while we're here if you don't mind. It's kind of tough to talk about." Angel said, noticing the paleness of Cordelia's face.
"Oh, of course."
The conversation immediately turned to a much lighter topic and soon, dessert--sugar cream pie--was brought out. They all ate as much as they could, bellies full to bursting. When Connor was ready to nod off, Trish looked at the clock on the wall and exclaimed about the time.
"What am I thinking keeping you up like this? I bet you're all exhausted from your trip."
"We didn't get much sleep, mama." Fred said apologetically, as she stood up and started stacking the dishes.
"I understand. Now, I've pulled out the couch bed in the den for you girls since we're still renting out Fred's room, but I'm not sure where I'm going to put the fellas here..."
"We can sleep in the motor home." Gunn offered with a smile.
"Yes, it's quite cozy..." Wesley said as he stood up.
"Despite the smell." Angel finished, poking Connor awake with his finger. The younger boy shot up and looked like he was going to kill someone if they came near him.
"Smell?" Roger asked, his eyebrows shooting up in question.
"An Innit demon was living in there for awhile. They give off a rather--pungent--aroma when they're in heat. It tends to linger. That's why I got it so cheap." Lorne said with a guilty shrug as he picked up the rest of the dishes and quickly walked into the kitchen after Fred and Trish.
"Now he tells us." Gunn groused as Faith made a face.
In the kitchen, Fred stacked the dishes next to the sink and reached for the dishrag. Trish slapped her hand away. "You're practically asleep on your feet. I'll do these while you go get the boys some extra blankets."
"But there are so many dishes, mom!"
"I'll help her." Lorne said, reaching for a dry towel. Fred sighed and then gave her mother a kiss. Trish shooed her out of the room and turned back to the green demon standing at her sink.
"So...how were things on the ride here?"
"Therapeutic, I'd say." Lorne mused, remembering Cordelia and Angel asleep in the berth and everyone else talking and laughing.
"So, how much work do they need?" Trish asked with a gleam in her eye, her voice a whisper as she dipped her hands in the hot soapy water, cleaning one dish after another and handing them to Lorne, who rinsed and dried them.
"Fred and Gunn have a lot of issues--mostly Wesley. We get them past that and they'll be fine. They're both still so in love it's blinding me."
"My little girl has grown up so much." Trish said with a sigh and then frowned. "What about...you said Wesley is a big issue for Winifred, right? Well...what is he doing here?"
"He's family, same as everyone else. And let me tell you something, he's got more on his mind than Fred right now sweetie pie."
"Like that convict with all the cleavage and the attitude?"
Lorne chuckled at the accurate description. "I didn't see it coming, but I don't think we'll have to worry about Wesley interfering with what we have planned. Those two crazy cats are ready to jump each other."
"Well then that works out nicely. I feel like some teenager with all this plotting."
Lorne laughed again and studied Trish's face. "Your daughter is a lot like you. I know if she wasn't one of my targets she'd be in here helping me get everyone else together. She's got the same plotting, scheming, romantic streak in her. I mean that in a good way."
"That's how I took it. Okay, now what about Angel and Cordelia?"
"Oh that's a hard nut to crack. They want to be together and he's all big with the guilt about being a vampire. That used to work fine for them; only now Cordelia is big with the guilt too. There can't be two broody people in one relationship--it just doesn't work." Lorne said, looking over his shoulder as he stacked the clean bowls on the counter.
"So what do we do?"
"Work them through it, I guess. We'll have to be really careful Cordy doesn't sniff us out; she's not stupid. Angel can be dumb as a post sometimes though, so he'll be easy to manipulate. It shouldn't take much. Just a little nudge."
"I wanna help." They both whirled to see Connor standing in the doorway to the bright, homey kitchen, a half-empty glass of milk in his hands.
"Connor! How long were you there?"
"Long enough. You're going to make my father and Cordelia get together, right?" Connor's blue eyes were shadowed. "And Fred and Gunn?"
"Well I wanna help."
"Why?" Lorne exclaimed. "I figured you'd be the last person to want them together..."
"Maybe. But...let me help."
Lorne looked him over for a few seconds, seeing the sincerity in his eyes. He shrugged. "Fine. Come in here and grab a towel. Join our pow-wow little man." Connor smiled, grabbed a towel and listened intently as Lorne went over The Plan.
"I say we kill it." Connor said shortly the next morning, eyeing the huge beast before him. Gunn chuckled and studied the creature with interest.
"I think we're supposed to milk it." He said, bending over to get a look at the underside of the huge creature. It stamped impatiently in place and looked back at the two men standing beside it, doleful brown eyes blinking in the dim light of the barn.
"How do you do that?" Connor asked, tilting his head to stare at the smelly creature.
"How the hell should I know? I grew up in the hood! The only thing I know about cows is they taste good with A-1 sauce." Gunn exclaimed, reaching out a hand to stroke the cow's short brown hair. The cow gave a plaintive moo and stamped away from Gunn's hand. "How about that? Even the livestock hates a brother in Texas."
"So...how should we milk it?" Connor asked again as he crouched down in the trampled hay and dirt. Gunn thought a moment, studying the underside of the cow with shrewd eyes.
"Well, I think you grab those dangly things right there and pull really hard."
"Okay, so...pull em." Connor nudged Gunn forward.
"Yeah, maybe I will. It ain't like it's hard, right?" Gunn said as he tentatively reached forward. He grabbed an udder in his fingers and tugged it downward. Instead of the expected warm stream of milk, he was suddenly drenched in warm, yellow liquid. He sputtered and fell backward. "What the hell?"
"I don't think it liked that."
"Shut up Connor!" Gunn growled as he pulled off his shirt and wiped the icky warm liquid off his face.
"Whoa, what did we miss? And why is Gunn shirtless?" Faith asked she and Fred walked into the barn. She looked Gunn over and smiled. "Scratch that. Gunn should always be shirtless. But why is he covered in piss?"
"He pulled too hard." Fred said with a giggle, walking over to the cow and petting it. It stayed in place as she scratched it behind the ears. "When you milk a cow, you've got to be gentle. Or they'll let you know."
"Can't they just moo really loud?" Gunn said with a scowl as he walked splashed water from the trough on his face. Fred grabbed a tiny stool and set it down next to the cow. She reached for a bucket and placed it under the udders, then petted the cow, her tone soothing as she talked.
"Watch, Charles. It's pretty easy once you get the hang of it." Everyone leaned down and watched as Fred took two of the udders in her hands and tugged them gently. Milk shot out of them and hit the bucket with a metallic ping. "See? Easy-peasy."
"That's just about the dirtiest thing I've ever seen. And I've seen a lot of shit." Faith commented with a disturbed expression on her face.
"Fred the Milkmaid. I'm in a wrong place, mentally." Gunn said with a smile. Fred turned her head and grinned at him.
"You wanna try? I promise you won't get peed on again."
"Uh, I'll catch the next cow, thanks. You take this one." Gunn offered, tucking his soiled shirt into the waistband of his old jeans. Fred sighed and went back to milking the cow. She looked around the barn, smiling at all the familiar stalls and the old leather horse tack on the walls. Nothing had changed in all the time she was gone. Not even the manure pile outside the wide barn doors.
She breathed in, the cow's flank soft against her cheek. The smell of animals and hay filled her lungs. She was sharply reminded of Pylea, but this was a familiar scent. This was home.
She looked up to see Gunn watching her, a smile on his face. Her heart did a familiar pitter-patter in her chest and she tugged too hard. Instead of a shower of warm liquid, she got smacked in the face by the cow's tail.
Just then, something smoky barreled into the barn and they all turned to watch as Angel stumbled to a stop and yanked a blanket off his body. Cordelia came in after him, followed by Wesley and Roger.
"He always has to make a showy entrance." Gunn commented as Angel shot him a dirty look. The vampire looked around, his eyebrows drawn up in concern.
"See, I knew I'd get you in here in one piece. You're such a worry-wort, Angel." Cordelia said, waving away the smoke with a grimace.
"I don't know...I get real nervous in barns. I'm always afraid someone is going to knock me out and steal my horse." He said, stepping over a stinky pile of dung on the ground.
"Oh look. Horse poo." Cordelia said, looking around with distaste at the dirty barn and all the animals. "Reminds me of Pylea. Let's leave."
"At least its not demon horse poo." Fred said cheerfully, avoiding another swing of the cow's tail.
"Thank God for small favors. Will it bite me?" Cordelia asked, approaching the cow Fred was milking. When Fred shook her head, she reached out and petted the chewing cow. "Now this is the kind of cow I like. Well, I like em better on my plate, but I can handle em like this."
"I never thought I'd see the day when Cordelia Chase was in a barn." Angel said, studying her as she petted the cow.
"I'll have you know I had a barn at my huge mansion in Sunnydale--complete with my own horse!" A shadow fell over Cordelia's face. "I miss Keanu."
"What? You named your horse Keanu?" Angel exclaimed, his eyes going wide. "Why?"
"No reason." Cordelia said, glancing around with huge eyes.
"That could explain why she has a copy of every Keanu Reeves movie known to man, including Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. That's just unnatural." Gunn said with a grin as Cordelia smacked him on the arm.
"Let's drop it okay? I was fourteen when I got him and Speed was still really popular at the time. Drop. It."
Gunn threw up his hands in defeat as Angel eyed Cordelia, a scowl on his face.
"So, English, what are you doing?" Faith asked, walking over to him, where he stood, a bit away from everyone else.
Wesley looked up from his study of one of the horses in the stalls, his fingers between it's ears. "Looking at Mr. Burkle's horses. Beautiful, aren't they?"
"You seen one stud, you've seen em all, I guess." Faith said with a shrug as she eyed the horse and the man petting it. It stamped around in its stall and tossed it's head as it preened for the visitors. Wesley laughed and reached for the currycomb hanging on the post beside the door.
"There ya go Rufus." Wesley said, combing the fat horse's shining russet coat.
"How the hell do you know so much about horses?" Faith asked as she hopped up on the stall and sat on the edge. Wesley looked up at her with a smile.
"Equestrian lessons were required courses at the academy I attended as a boy. My father also had his own stables and I was allowed a horse if I kept my marks up." Wesley said, his eyes far away. Faith sensed the bitterness just below the surface of his voice.
"What did you name it?"
"Nothing as exciting as Keanu, I assure you."
"Come on, tell me."
"Godiva." Wesley said with a sigh.
"Godiva? What kind of a pussy name is Godiva?" Faith snorted as Wesley furrowed his brow at her.
"Godiva is a historical figure--"
"I know, she rode on a horse naked. I'm not stupid! It's just a pussy ass name."
Wesley glared at her. "I didn't ask for your opinion."
"Hey, whatever young Master Wesley wanted to name his pussy ass horse is none of my business. I'm just surprised you didn't grow up to be some fa--"
"I'm not talking to you." Wesley sniffed and turned on his heel. Faith jumped down and followed him out the door. Connor watched them go with a frown.
"You don't think they're going to go kill each other do you?" He asked his father, who was busy trying to wipe horse poo off his boot.
"Huh? What?" Angel asked as he looked up from his work, confused.
"Wesley and Faith." Connor prompted, peering out the barn doors in the direction the two of them took.
"No, they're probably going to go fight some more and let the sexual tension mount." Cordelia said sarcastically as Fred laughed against the cow's flank. "So Fred, what's on the schedule today? We've seen the Burkle family homestead, and now the wonders of the barn. What's next?"
"Ah don't know. Daddy, what's goin' on today?" Fred called, giving one more gentle tug on the cow's udders, a warm stream of milk landing in the half-full bucket with a ripple. She let go and felt an ache go through her hands that told her it had been way too long since she'd done this.
"I thought I'd take y'all out ridin', if you want. Chores are almost done and it's a beautiful day." Roger said as he picked up a bag of feed and prepared to go out and feed the rest of the cattle.
"Oh." Fred said, casting a guilty glance in Angel's direction. "But Angel can't..."
"It's okay Fred. I've had enough horse riding to last me a few centuries. You guys go on ahead." Angel said with a small smile. Cordelia frowned and glanced at the horses with longing.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, go ahead. I'll just stick around here and...not burst into flames."
"Okay, if you're sure." Fred said and then turned back to her father.
"Alright. Well, here comes Grayson. Tell him to saddle you up while I feed the rest of the cattle, okay?" Roger said and then walked off, leaving Fred to gasp out loud, her hand at her throat.
"Fred? What is it?"
"Grayson! Grayson Wells?!" Fred screeched, knocking over the little stool and spooking the cow.
"Yeah, he's the guy who rented out your old bedroom. I heard your mom talking to your dad about it this morning at breakfast. I think he works around the ranch too. Why?" Gunn said, watching Fred's face as she smoothed her hair down nervously.
"Winnie?! Is that Winnie!?" A low male voice called from the doorway. Everyone swiveled to face him, eyebrows raised in surprise. Gunn glared at the tall, muscular man with floppy blonde hair and tanned skin. He was wearing a worn brown cowboy hat, tight jeans and a faded Tim McGraw t-shirt with the sleeves cut off.
Gunn immediately hated him.
"Grayson? Oh my God!" Fred exclaimed, her mouth open wide enough to catch flies.
"Gal, you'd better get over here and give me a hug!" Grayson said, holding out his arms. Fred launched herself at him and hugged him tight. He let go, holding her at arms length, his light green eyes appraising. "Look at you Winnie, you done gone and growed up on me!"
"Winnie?" Cordelia asked, eyeing Fred, who ignored her and stared at Grayson with huge eyes.
"Grayson...I...it's been so long. How are you?" Fred asked, clearly flustered, her face red.
"Can't complain. Sorry I wasn't here last night to greet y'all. Had to go down to Corpus Christi for your dad, but I hurried home when I heard you was back." Grayson said, slinging an arm over Fred's thin shoulders. Connor glanced at Gunn, seeing the scowl spread over his features even more. "These your friends?"
"Oh yeah...this is Angel. That's Connor over there and that...is Charles." Fred said, pointing to everyone in turn. Grayson said hello to everyone. He stopped in front of Gunn and stared him down.
"So you're Chuck, huh?" Grayson said with a lift of his eyebrow.
"Call me Gunn." Gunn said with barely contained rage. They were both about the same size, but Gunn was beefy where Grayson was wiry. Cordelia glanced from the two of them and back again as they tested each other. She expected them to butt horns any second.
"Wesley and Faith are around here somewhere and so is Lorne." Fred said, breaking the tension with a nervous laugh.
"Green fella? Already met him. He's an interesting sort, ain't he?" Grayson said with a charming smile as he turned away from Gunn and let his gaze trail over to Cordelia, who was still petting the cow with interest.
"You don't know the half of it." Angel said with a tight-lipped smile.
"And who is this charming little thing? Winnie, you ain't introduced me to your other friend here." Grayson said, taking Cordelia's hand and kissing it.
Angel hated him on the spot.
"Grayson, this Cordelia. Cordelia, Grayson." Fred's smile faded and she hung back, watching her childhood friend and Cordelia. Cordy smiled and glanced at Angel, who was glaring at the blonde man holding her hand. Gunn nearly sighed in relief and stepped closer to Fred. He seemed much more at ease now that Grayson's attentions were elsewhere.
"Nice to meet you." Cordy said and then pulled her hand out of his. He flashed her a dazzling smile and tipped his hat at her.
"The pleasure is all mine. So, what are y'all doin'?" Grayson asked, clasping his callused hands together as he tore his gaze away from Cordelia's face.
"Daddy wanted to take us riding. Would you start saddling us up while I take the milk in to mom?" Fred sniffed, gesturing to the pail of milk. Connor immediately stepped forward and grabbed the pail.
"I'll do it."
"Thanks Connor." Cordelia said with a smile, surprised to see him so helpful. He nodded and took off toward the house as Grayson started getting the tack down. Fred helped him, talking in low tones so that they couldn't hear her.
Angel glanced at Gunn, who was pulling his dirty shirt back over his head with a jerk. "You okay?"
"Yeah. I'm gonna go find Wes and Faith. I don't want to be stuck riding alone with Rhett and Scarlet over there." Gunn's snapped as he walked past Cordelia and Angel.
"Good idea." Angel said darkly.
"You two okay?" Cordelia asked, watching Gunn go and then sizing up Angel, who was glaring at Grayson's back. Angel glanced at her and nodded, his face dark. Cordelia went back to watching Grayson pull down the tack. She looked back at Angel and saw him frown. "What?"
"Is Keanu Reeves cuter than me?"
Cordelia could only groan.
"Trish!" Lorne exclaimed as he looked over at Trish, who was leaning over the engine of a huge yellow school bus that was parked next to the house, her arms greasy to the elbow as she fiddled with car parts. Lorne was sitting on the edge of the porch a few feet away, watching her.
"Sorry...but well, shit. I didn't think about Grayson at all."
"I just thought I should tell you." Connor said, glancing backward at the barn in the distance. "He was giving her that look, you know?"
"That 'I want to be more than friends' look?" Lorne asked as Connor nodded and set down the pail of milk. "How was Fred looking?"
"Like she was going to pass out. But that guy wasn't looking at Fred like that--he was looking at Cordy."
"Shit. This complicates things quite a bit. But no matter! I never fail. Grayson, in all his yummy cowboy splendor, is going to wish he'd never looked at my--I mean Gunn's--Fred. Or Cordelia." Lorne exclaimed, lifting his hand in the air and shaking his lime green fist at the sky.
"Lorne, don't do anything to him; he's a good guy." Trish protested with a sigh as she swiped at her hands with a dirty towel.
Lorne's eyes were far away for a moment and then he refocused his attention. "Don't worry, Trish. We're just going to make sure he doesn't make Gunn jealous--that will only make things worse. No, I know another broody guy who thrives on jealousy and who needs a kick in the ass. This could work well."
"As long as you don't hurt Grayson in the process. He's the best cowhand around."
"I know, and did you see his ass? That was a nice ass. Don't you think?"
Connor and Trish just stared at him.