by Mari

It had been four hundred and sixty-two days since the gods had fallen. If a person were going to look for signs of a dynamic shift among the general populace they would have to seek long and hard, ultimately resigning themselves to the fact that if there were any snags in the fabric they were too small for human eyes to see. People continued to exist in the absence of divinity much as they had in its presence: killing, mating, both praying and preying. A few years earlier Wesley would have found something wholesome and reassuring to say about the strength of human faith, but he was hardly the man now that he had been a few years before.

"Meet the new boss," Wesley murmured against the rim of his coffee cup, taking a sip of brew that had been designed specifically for truckers and was guaranteed to keep a layman jitterbugging all night long. "Same as the old boss."

The waitress, passing by on another round with the coffee pot, caught enough to give him a concerned look. Wesley stretched his face into the appropriate lines to approximate a good ol' boy's smile-move along, ma'am, no insanity here-and she returned it with a more faltering version of her own. Filled his cup to the brim with the real black gold, asking him if there was anything else she could get for him, maybe some pie? Wesley shook his head in soft negation, catching the woman's wrist in his hand as the coffee pot began to waver and helping her steady it. The woman's smile ran from concerned to flirtatious to vaguely nervous in the time it took for a butterfly to beat its wings, and Wesley realized that his grip had become a shade too hard for comfort or safety. He released her and watched as she scurried away, still feeling the heat of her skin across his palm and promising himself that he would leave a generous tip.

"When you crave skin this badly, madness is not far behind." Wesley's lips turned up. "And I don't imagine that talking to yourself is a step in the right direction, either."

The small brass bell above the diner entrance rang, signaling to the waitress that there was another hungry trucker, farmer, or even cowboy requiring her attention. Wesley glanced up as she hurried over, no longer needing to watch windows and doorways but doing so anyway because the habit had become comforting rather than restrictive. He took in the dusty, tanned figure in the faded denim at a glance, dropped his eyes back to his coffee cup, and jerked them straight back up again.

The figure glanced his way, eyes bluer than the sky he had just stepped out from under, and murmured something to the waitress that made her blush and nod. He approached Wesley's booth, sliding in with an ease and confidence that had eluded him even at his most confident back in Los Angeles. Wesley felt himself leaning back, his eyes narrowing and his hands itching for weapons that he had forced himself to stop carrying.

"Wow," Lindsey said, looking him over and drumming a country tune that Wesley could not quite identify onto the Formica with his fingertips. "Didn't expect to see you in this state. Can't say it entirely suits you."

"Didn't expect to see you in this dimension," Wesley replied. He leaned forward again. "Hell offering parole, is it?"

Lindsey's face split into an easy grin that showed how sharply the whiteness of his teeth contrasted with the darkness of his tan. "Never went," he said, and the grin broadened further at the look that Wesley served him. He looked far too relaxed; it was almost enough to be a personal insult. "Funny thing that happens when you're working for the Powers. Get out of jail free cards cease to be an issue."

"Much like working for Wolfram and Hart," Wesley observed, noting that Lindsey's smile slipped for a second before he was able to regain it. Wesley had begun to grip his coffee cup so hard that his knuckles creaked and the scalding liquid made alarming swishing noises. One small flick...

Reading the direction of Wesley's thoughts, Lindsey ceased his drumming long enough to reach across the table and lay his hand over Wesley's. His skin was warm enough to be shocking. "Now, now," Lindsey said. An ice cube had slipped into his voice. "We don't need to be doing anything like that."

"I beg to differ," Wesley said, but he relaxed his fingers incrementally. Lindsey pulled back his hand and with it the heat that he had radiated. His eyes still glittered with a jovial, self-satisfied light. "The very fact that you are here, now, rather than serving as the roasting pig in a demon luau would tend to say otherwise."

"I didn't plan on meeting you here, you know." Lindsey had turned to examining his fingertips where they rested on the tabletop and so missed the stare that Wesley leveled at him. Thankfully he didn't begin drumming again. "How could I? I don't exactly have a line in to all the quirky happenings of the world since you killed my bosses." Lindsey paused a moment to consider. "Both sets."

Wesley felt his lips turning up in spite of himself. He wasn't sure that the smile looked quite sane, was more sure that he didn't care. The quirk of Lindsey's eyebrow would suggest that he was right. "Fate, then?"

Lindsey looked up, grinned. They both knew full well that, with both the Powers That Be and the Senior Partners shuffled right off of their not quite immortal coils (and too many betrayals to count along the way; acid rose in Wesley's throat and he swallowed it back before it could show in his face), 'fate' had been reduced to no more than a meaningless jumble of letters, like 'hero'.

Or 'champion', for that matter.

"Yeah," Lindsey said. "Just like that."

The waitress approached them, long trim legs scissoring hypnotically before they disappeared beneath a skirt that had allowed the notion of feminism to pass it by, and asked Lindsey if he would like to order. Lindsey used his drawl to full effect as he did so, reducing the waitress to a girl of fifteen even though she was into the downward end of her twenties. Wesley felt a faint twinge of astonishment that Lindsey should find it in him to behave so casually, as if the world were still turning in the exact same rotation that it had for millennia rather than adjusting to the most profound shift in its history.

Lindsey caught some of that in Wesley's expression as he turned back. "What?"

"You act as though nothing has changed," Wesley said.

A flicker of the self-confident bullshit smile returned to Lindsey's face, but beneath it rested something cold, brittle. "Nothing has," he said. "People are still behaving exactly as they did before. What does it matter to them if there's nobody left to hear their prayers? There certainly weren't a whole lot of answers trickling down the grapevine before." There was the bitterness that Lindsey had been hiding so well beneath the amiable cowboy shell, still white-hot and sharp enough to draw blood by the mere act of breathing upon it too hard.

Wesley's fingers relaxed around the coffee cup a few degrees more. Where did the damned go when there were no longer any hells to receive them? Apparently, they came to eat greasy food and drink coffee in little diners clinging to the middle of nowhere. "Relics in a museum," he said softly, primarily to himself. "Even though the world has moved on, you find yourself treating them with care all the same."

Lindsey looked at him, an odd emotion lighting up his features. It took Wesley several seconds and a vague sense of annoyance to realize that it was respect. "Yes," Lindsey said. "It's exactly like that." His food arrived and he thanked the waitress with an absent-minded smile but did not begin to eat immediately. "I know why I'm here," he said. "Turns out all that bullshit about never escaping your roots is true. But why you?" Lindsey lifted his hand in a sardonic half-wave intended to include the diner, the motley assortment of patrons within, and the dusty, sun-baked miles of wheat field and asphalt highway which extended beyond it. "Figured you would still be in Los Angeles, living up the high life."

Wesley snorted through his nose. To his own ears the sound was innocent enough, but it caused a start in Lindsey all the same. "Houses built on foundations of sand," he replied. "Or lies, if you prefer."

"Ah." No further elaboration needed. Lindsey went to eating. "And instead you decided you liked Oklahoma?"

"If I hadn't known that there were gods at some point in time, I would think that this state was the greatest argument for their nonexistence that I had ever encountered," Wesley said flatly in spite of the smile that he felt toying with the edges of his mouth, so rare that he had to reach up and touch it with his fingers to assure himself that it was real. Lindsey's burst of laughter, loud and startled, was enough to turn several patrons' heads, and Wesley felt the smile widen further. He must be resembling an actual human being again by now. Curiouser and curiouser.

"Can't really argue with that." Lindsey grinned as he went back to his meal, and from the slight startled note to his voice Wesley gathered that he was surprised to discover that he was enjoying himself as much as Wesley was. "But I gotta tell you, if you were hoping to blend in?" Lindsey gestured with his fork at Wesley's worn jeans and battered work shirt. "Not happening. Any real Okie can spot you as an outsider at thirty feet."

Wesley glanced down at himself and felt that curious smile alight on his face again. "Seemed like a good idea at the time." Lindsey's frank snort said, "Story of our lives," and Wesley found himself studying a pair of faded denim eyes, icy-arrogant and eons away from cynical hazel or trusting brown. Lindsey, a man used to being stared at if there ever was one, caught the look, held it a beat longer than was strictly proper. The touch of skin that Wesley had been missing for so long began to feel like withdrawal's itch.

Lindsey cleared his throat, leaned back against cheap vinyl that crackled as it took his weight. "So," and the world carried much more weight than it would have if spoken even seconds before, "am I to take it that you're just passing through, or do you mean to stay awhile?"

The waitress brought the checks and, feeling a touch of tension that had begun to fill the booth like low-lying smoke, left again quickly, casting a disappointed glance over her shoulder at Lindsey as she did so. Wesley snagged the check before Lindsey could get to it, ignoring the raised eyebrow as he said, "I haven't yet decided. Rather a lack of pressing engagements elsewhere."

"Oh." For someone who worked so hard at friendly nonchalance, the hunger that lit Lindsey's eyes was nearly enough to scorch the table. "Need a place to stay while you work that out?"

"I might." Wesley didn't smile again. He had done enough of that for one day, and more would feel like squandering the gift. He simply paid the checks, allowed Lindsey to lead them both from the diner. As he did, it occurred to him that it would likely be kinder to tell Lindsey that they were the real relics under glass, the dying breed, rather than the oblivious people inside. In the end he kept his silence. It had been quite some time since Wesley and kindness had parted ways.


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