Sweet Charity fic for amystar--post-"Not Fade Away," G, ~2,000 words.

 Feedback more than welcome.



TIME'S ARROW


Here amid the night's howling winds and the debris of battle, the last thing David Nabbit had expected was a diner. It was made of sheet metal and dubious prefab parts. Its windows were mazed with stress fractures and it creaked in the wind. But someone had rigged up a neon sign in blasphemously cheery orange, and the sign said, unmistakably, DINER.

He smelled a tantalizing whiff of fried bacon. His stomach rumbled. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had bacon. All right, part of that had been because his diet had alternated between canapés at $200-a-head catered functions and Saturday night beer-and-pretzels at Dungeons & Dragons sessions, rather than the apocalypse. Still, shouldn't there be a line of people outside, clamoring for bacon? Maybe it was a trap.

Don't be ridiculous, he told himself. Few people remained in Los Angeles. Most had died in the storm that had broken over the city, with its parade of warriors out of hell. Others had fled into the strange flickering portals that had manifested for weeks, reckoning any escape better than life amid the city's wreckage, the demons that tore the night with their terrible hunts.

Nabbit could have taken a portal, but he had no idea what was on the other side, and despite the rumors, he knew of no survivors. Besides, when all was said and done, the city was his home. An apocalypse didn't change that. Taking his very survival for a sign, he had gathered what supplies he could and headed from survivors' settlement to settlement, seeking some way to unmake the wasteland L.A. had become.

In the back of his head, Nabbit knew better. Cities were complex beasts requiring the pulse of commerce and the guiding hand of government. Cities required people and people required hope. And time's arrow only went in one direction; you couldn't unwreck a world. But even shorn of his fortune, Nabbit had to do something.

He still had some cash, although God only knew what legal tender was worth here. Some settlements accepted it, others didn't. Surely he could afford coffee? Or had it become rarer than bacon?

One miracle at a time. Nabbit walked toward the diner, blinking grit out of his eyes, and knocked on the door. No one answered, but now that he was closer, he could hear voices from within. He braced himself and pulled the door open. He ended up half-sprawled on the inside of the diner, which had flickering overhead lighting--electricity? he wondered again, remembering the neon sign--and an absurdly clean floor. Inside, it smelled of grease and orange juice and things he had thought forever lost.

"Close the door, would you?" said a slightly aggrieved female voice. "We can never get rid of all the dust."

Nabbit got up, but another customer beat him to it. Nabbit smiled nervously as the door slammed shut, and looked up at the menu. It was written in a strange combination of old-world cursive and block letters on a chalkboard mounted behind the counter.

"All we have for dinner is bacon," the woman said apologetically. She had a thin, sweet face and spoke with a drawl. "Our suppliers are a mite erratic."

Nabbit wondered how badly he wanted to know who those suppliers were. "Bacon's fine." He fumbled in his coat for money; at least, the prices on the chalkboard were in dollars. The woman had already turned away to shout the order to the kitchen.

There were five other customers already eating. Two of them were visibly nonhuman. Nabbit sat next to the smaller demon. "Hello," he said.

"Save it," she said.

Nabbit wasn't sure whether he felt more relieved or disappointed. The demon turned back to her drink, which looked and smelled like cheap tea.

"Oh, I forgot," the woman said, noticing Nabbit's look. She blushed. "Did you want something to drink?"

"Water," Nabbit said. "No, coffee, if you have it." He knew better. He should be saving his money. The world didn't have many ways for a software engineer or a businessman to make a living anymore. But--coffee. And he was starting to realize how cold it had been outside, how tired he felt. Even wandering was work, the kind of work he'd never encountered while sitting in board meetings. Simulated dungeon crawls with dice rattling in hand were no preparation at all.

"There's only one rule, you know," the woman said.

Of course there had to be a catch. But the illusion of shelter was nice, and he could hear the bacon sizzling.

"It's kind of an advertising thing," the woman said. "Go out and tell people about us. That we're here."

Someone called from the kitchen, "Let the man get his dinner before you start on him, Illyria."

Nabbit froze. He knew that voice. "Excuse me," he said to Illyria. "Is there any chance I can--" He swallowed. "I think the man in the back might be an old friend." He tried not to sound too excited.

The woman's demeanor became guarded. For the first time, Nabbit wondered if she were human herself. "Well, you can imagine he's a little occupied right now--"

A man came out of the kitchen, bearing a plate laden with bacon. "It's all right," he said. "I know him."

Nabbit had been right. It was Angel. He wore an apron over a beige shirt, but it was Angel. It took Nabbit another second to see the scars and the exhaustion in the vampire's eyes.

Angel set the plate down in front of Nabbit, then added a fork and knife. He looked uncomfortable. "I didn't think you had survived," he said at last. "You're thinner. Here, eat up."

It was likelier that Angel hadn't thought of him at all. Nabbit was painfully aware that he wasn't the sort of person people tended to remember, money or no money. He'd had some good times with Angel Investigations, but when all was said and done, they had people to help and a city to save, and he was just a geek-turned-billionaire.

"I didn't think you'd be in a diner," he blurted out. "Although it's a very nice diner"--as post-apocalyptic accommodations went--"and I really want to know how you manage the electricity."

Illyria said, "Well, it's not hard if you set up a generator to capture the dimensional flux and--"

Angel gave her a look. She fell silent.

Nabbit peered around Angel, or tried to. "Where's Cordelia? And Wesley?"

Angel's face became shuttered. Illyria said, "You will not speak those names." There was no warmth at all in her tone.

For the first time, Nabbit felt the world spinning out of control. Sure, people died, but--Cordelia? And Wesley? They hadn't been his friends, exactly, but they'd been kind to him. He couldn't imagine a world in which Angel let his partners die.

"I'm so sorry," Nabbit said. And said it again, for lack of words. He'd never been good at words.

"It happened," Angel said, as though it had, in fact, happened to strangers.

Nabbit stared down at his bacon, no longer hungry. "But how?" he asked, meaning the diner, the deaths, the apocalypse, all of it.

"You deserve to know," Angel said, although it wasn't clear that he meant Nabbit specifically. The other customers had that look about them of people who were listening while being careful not to seem like they were eavesdropping. "You've heard of Wolfram & Hart."

"Hasn't everyone?" Nabbit said. "You mean it's true that--"

"Yes," Angel said. "They made me their CEO." His laugh was soft and bitter.

Nabbit had read the press releases, even done a little digging around on the company website. But he had thought it was some elaborate sham. Or that Angel had gone into it to take them down in some power play beyond Nabbit's comprehension.

Illyria drifted into the kitchen and came back with coffee. Numbly, Nabbit drank. The coffee scalded his throat all the way down. "Why?" he asked.

"Cordy was in a coma by then," Angel said. "We couldn't do anything for her. And there were--there were other considerations. Maybe we thought we could do some good." After a pause, he added, "You might say we thought the cost-benefit calculations were in our favor."

Nabbit tried to quell a crushing sense of disappointment. "Were you?" This wasn't how the story was supposed to go. He had always thrilled to tales of paladins with bright swords and white horses, quests for improbable treasures and battles against impossible odds. Angel might be a creature of the night, but he was supposed to be a paladin. A hero. Not a businessman.

Not someone like David Nabbit.

"So you fought them," he said, desperate in the face of the vampire's stillness. "So the apocalypse came and you fought them."

"No," Angel said. "It's the other way around. We fought them and the apocalypse came."

Before he or Nabbit could say anything more, the door slammed open. A fine-boned man with bleached hair sauntered in, carrying an oversized duffel bag as though it weighed nothing. "Security's gone to rot around here," he said. "Who's always going on about watching the perimeter?"

"Spike," Illyria said, "you are interrupting a confession."

Spike looked searchingly at Nabbit. "Doesn't look like a priest to me."

"I'm David Nabbit," Nabbit said, confused. "Pleased to meet you. Maybe--maybe I'd best be going."

"But you haven't even touched your bacon," Illyria said imperiously, and at the same time Spike said to Angel, "Iodized salt, canola oil, ten tins of stale biscotti, and you can inventory the rest yourself."

"Spike," Angel said, "he's a customer. A friend."

"Friend?" Spike scoffed. "You, have friends?" But something about Angel's heavy expression stopped him. "Right. David Nabbit. Do I know you from somewhere?" He hauled the duffel bag into the kitchen, then emerged without it, looking as pleased as a cat that has brought home more than its daily quota of mice.

"I don't think so," Nabbit said.

Spike shrugged. "What'd you do to get Angel here all confessional?"

"I didn't mean to," Nabbit said. All he'd wanted was a taste of hope.

Spike turned away from him. "Met some real nasty customers--er, the other sort of customer--down south," he said. "Spoiling for a fight, the lot of them..."

As Spike spoke, Nabbit felt he was watching the fight he described: demons with great curving claws and crescent-moon smiles, demons who lurched dizzyingly in his field of vision as they advanced upon a group of travelers and then the floor came crashing up to meet him and his head was filled with throbbing pain and there was the sound of a cup shattering--

When he was able to see clearly again, Nabbit found himself steadied by Illyria's arms. Apparently Spike wasn't the only one with unnatural strength. "Are you all right?" she asked.

Nabbit said, "I saw more of them, down by a street sign bent in half..."

Angel was staring at him. "You saw the demons? On your way here?"

"I don't think so," Nabbit said, still dazed. "I saw them just now, like in a dream. Or a movie."

Spike said, "You can't possibly believe this bloke is having visions like that fellow Lindsey was impersonating--"

"Doyle," Angel said. His eyes were alight. "His name was Allen Francis Doyle. Just tell us what you saw, David."

Nabbit described what he had seen, blurry as it had been. "Visions?" he asked. "I don't have any history of magical powers."

"Sometimes," Angel said, "sometimes it doesn't work that way." And then, by slow seconds, the light in his eyes began to die.

"Tell me what's wrong," Nabbit said. "You can save those people; I know you can."

Illyria looked at Angel. "You will have to inform him."

Angel's gaze was steady and too, too dark. "David," he said, "the last two people who had those visions of people in danger--Doyle and Cordy--the visions led them to their deaths. It's only a matter of time."

"That wasn't what I wanted to know," Nabbit said, although he felt a chill. "Will you save those people?"

"Yes," Angel said. "Yes, of course."

"Will I have more of these visions?"

Angel closed his eyes. "Probably. It looks like the Powers That Be have more work for us."

"I want to help," Nabbit said steadily. "Whatever it takes." He'd always wanted to be part of the good fight, even if this wasn't what he would have had in mind.

But the good fight came to you, and you did what you could, whether it meant building a diner that was the only place of cheer for miles around, or having fatal visions.

"Well," Illyria said, "you can start by helping me mop up the floor."

Nabbit looked at the spilled coffee, then at her. She wasn't smiling, but he sensed her approval.

You couldn't unspill coffee, either, but you could always clean it up. Maybe time's arrow wasn't the point after all.

"Where's the mop?" Nabbit said.

Angel handed it to him. "Spike and I will be out taking care of business," he said. "I hope you know how to fry bacon, if anyone else comes in."

"He'll learn," Illyria said.

Nabbit began to mop the floor, watching as Angel and Spike left. "We help the hopeless," he murmured to himself, and smiled.

END


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