Hell is a strange little place to behold.
It's exactly like life, truly.
Wesley is unsurprised.
They call it a "standard perpetuity" clause.
He ponders this term. It conveys a sense of to preserve, to endure. There's something hopeful about it, thriving in the absence of hope. Very Wolfram & Hart.
Wesley doesn't feel particularly hopeful these days. He doesn't feel anything. Can't. He'd blame the incorporeality, but the reality is that there's hardly a distinction.
(Wesley Wyndam-Pryce does not live in fantasy. Not now. Not anymore.)
The reality is that there is an endless line of nothing days ahead of him, and he feels nothing about it. He was alive; now he's dead. Truly, there's nothing new here.
He doesn't see Lilah as often as he'd like. They're in different divisions. Working in different parts of the same war, as always. Some things remain constant. (Because nothing changes.)
A good day comprises of meandering to the employees cafeteria and finding her seated on a table surface, legs crossed, feet swinging, a bright red apple in her hand; she'll greet him with a flash of teeth and bite into it, the picture of sin itself. Everybody else will fade into the background. (They always did.) If they were alive, he'd think it ridiculous, and tell her as much, perhaps smile in that tolerant yet patronising way he was always admittedly rather good at doing.
Here and now, he can only find it endearing. He doesn't feel much, but on these days, with her… there's something. Brief pangs in his hollow chest. Some emotion he associates with life. Guilt, or regret—something muted and buzzing, like bursts and snatches of music in radio static, all the more distinct in their lack of clarity. What does he feel? It nags at him. But it's a comfortable nag. He gets used to it.
One day, the Senior Partners call him in. This isn't unusual, of course. This is Wesley's job--which is unusual, but usual for him.
(At times, he catches himself staring down at Los Angeles through the firm's plexiglass windows. Everything looks very normal. Then he remembers what he is, and where he's standing.)
What's unusual about this particular meeting is that they call for him in the middle of the night. He assumes it's an emergency of some sort—only to find that he's been called in for a job that won't occur for another week. Not that he needs sleep (he doesn't need anything), but this disturbance of routine is odd. (Naturally.) It's not the change; it's the fact that it means something. He doesn't know how to take that.
The job is Faith Lehane.
"Why me?" he muses.
Lilah crunches her apple. "Who better? What with the history you two have…"
"Yes, that's precisely what I mean. She’ll never be receptive. Not now. Not to this. And especially not to me."
She laughs, a tinkling sound. Like wind chimes. (Everything about her is grace.) "Wes. That history is something you have that all the other people in this building don't. It means something." She pauses, almost imperceptibly. "You mean something."
He doesn't say anything. He doesn't know what to say.
Lilah drops her gaze to the cut apple slices on her dish, impales one on her fork, and slides it delicately into her mouth.
"Why is it always an apple?" he's compelled to ask.
"You ask me that every time, Wes."
"And you never give me an answer."
She spears another slice. "Business as usual, lover."
They lapse into silence, avoiding eye contact. She does that, she does. Calls him by their old affectionate endearments, even though they don't ring true anymore. Not because anything's changed (nothing has changed), but because nothing holds the same meaning things used to.
He supposes this is the point of death.
He can't touch her. It's odd. Their relationship was always intensely… tactile. This new one, built entirely on words and gazes, on "how was your day" and "see you in a few weeks", feels peculiar in its lack of urgency.
They have all the time in the world. They never anticipated this.
She'll forget occasionally, reach out a perfectly manicured hand, meaning to brush an imaginary speck of dirt off his shoulder. Then, seize up, for just the briefest of moments; her fingers will do a little dance, almost whimsical, and not at all floundering in the empty air. Her hand will return to her side, or to fiddle with a button on her blouse, or to unnecessarily tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. Wesley will feel that pang again, but do nothing about it. They will both pretend that nothing happened, like nothing happens every day, and go on like normal.
(But he doesn't know what that is anymore.)
On the morning of the day, Wesley gets up at the stroke of dawn, after a restful night of no-sleep. Stands before his mirror to needlessly check his appearance. He looks exactly the same as he does every day. He is clean, and whole, and transparent.
(Five by five.)
When the elevator doors slide open to reveal her, he is right in front of them, waiting. The high-pitched ding announces her arrival, and Wesley stands up straighter.
Faith is a vision, refreshingly out of place in a black tank and khaki pants. Passing employees stare curiously.
Her gaze is smoky and suspicious, and she nods at him slightly. "So it's true.”
He moves the corners of his mouth upwards, in a rough facsimile of a smile. "Every word."
They face each other in a meeting room. She leans against the desk, arms crossed, five lean foot of out-of-place defiance; he stands before the double doors, hands behind his back, feet planted shoulder-width apart.
"So what's the deal, Wes?" she asks, in a way that is supposed to be hostile and indifferent, but comes out concerned and uncertain.
He wonders if she is making allowances for him. Perhaps this is why the Partners chose him.
"The deal is a job offer," he tells her, shifts in his stance a little.
She lets out a puff of air between her lips. "Don't fuck with me, Wes."
"Couldn't if I wanted to," he says mechanically.
Unbidden, the image comes into his mind. How long has it been, this incorporeality? He wonders if he misses being able to touch, to feel. It's an interesting thought. It's a pointless thought.
He takes a step closer, recites the words he’s supposed to say: "It's a good offer. Wolfram & Hart will take care of your team, your expenses, everything you could possibly need."
"And sign my soul to the devil."
His mouth quirks. The response is somehow heartening. "Not quite." A vivid memory comes to him then, of Dante's Inferno, of slit throats and signed bills. If this is the lowest circle of hell, he couldn't ask for better company.
She shakes her head a bit, looks off to the side. "Forget it, Wes. Never happening."
He nods. "All right."
Her gaze snaps back to him, as sharp as a blade. "What?"
"The Partners evidently deemed it was worth a shot. But you're free to go."
She stares disbelievingly. "What, you don't wanna try any bribes or blackmail first?"
He takes another step toward her. "Would you like me to?"
They appraise one another. She studies him with interest; the tightness in her frame gives way. Behind her, the sun is dipping behind a cloud.
Finally, she lets out an audible breath. Unfolds her arms, and pushes off of the desk. "Guess I'll show myself out."
She gives his figure a visible berth on her way out the door.
Then, pauses. Turns noiselessly.
"I'm sorry. About Angel. And… the others."
Through the partially open door, the low hum of office activity wafts into the room, fills up the space between them.
After a moment (which may have been long, or short, it doesn’t matter), she slides out, lithe and slight. The door clicks audibly, and then room is silent once more.
He stands alone, as still and voiceless as a tombstone.
"I've got a message for you and your Slayer," Lilah announces over yogurt.
"She's not my Slayer."
Lilah smiles tolerantly. "Whatever, Wes."
There's an edge to her voice, something he used to be able to recognise. Anger? Envy? Maybe it's just the yogurt. He glances at the tub in her long fingers. Pear-flavoured today. He wonders what that means.
"The message is that you need to keep her in check. She's been snooping round the records." She leans in, smile widening. "Just like someone else we know."
He furrows his brow. "There must be some mistake."
She leans back in her seat. "I don't make mistakes. There are no mistakes here. Mistakes are only for up there." She points her spoon in the direction of the ceiling and flashes a winning smile.
"Mistakes are for the bio lab."
She rolls her eyes, in a way that is insouciant and irritated and charming all at once. (Everything about her is grace.) "You get what I mean."
"Why would Faith break in to the records room?"
Lilah shrugs, an elegant motion that draws attention to the shape of her shoulders in her black sweater. "Your problem. Not mine." The edge is there again, mixed with something like weariness. It's been a long day. (Every day is the same length.)
The scrape of her chair drawing back is loud and harsh in the near-empty room. In the corner table, a man with three eyeballs glances up briefly before returning his attention to his beef ravioli. Faint classical music drifts from the radio atop the microwave.
Lilah dumps her half-empty yogurt in the trashcan. The thud as it hits the bottom sets off a wave of irritation in Wesley. At what, he couldn't possibly say. It just seems a shame to waste perfectly good yogurt.
"I won't be back for a while," Lilah says from the sink, back turned to him as she washes her hands.
The irritation vanishes. "How long?" he asks.
She turns off the tap, snatches a paper towel. "Few weeks. Maybe more." She still doesn't look at him.
They have this exchange at least once a month. It always goes the same: She'll announce her future absence, and wait for his response; he won't know how to respond, and so say nothing much at all. A shadow will cross her face. Their goodbyes will be stiff and cold, and bitter from things they choose not to say. In a few weeks—maybe more—he’ll come here and find her waiting for him. Her smile will say everything he doesn't know how to.
The shattering of a plate nudges him out of his reverie. It's the three-eyed man in the corner, cursing and kneeling on the floor over his ruined lunch.
Wesley ignores it. Returns his gaze to Lilah, who's turned to face him now, hands pressed together at the height of her ribcage. It's the pose she always makes before they part.
He draws in an unnecessary breath. "Goodbye, Lilah." A pause. "I'll miss you."
Her mouth parts in an expression of surprise. This isn't their usual script. He doesn't say this. She doesn't know what to say, so purses her mouth instead, and swallows. He watches her with a curious anticipation.
Finally, she smiles wryly, fingers clasping together. "I'll miss you too, lover. But don't be thinking about me too much when I'm gone."
"I always think about you when you're not here," he murmurs.
Her smile stretches, slow and warm; he's reminded of the light of dawn stretching across an inky horizon.
(He could swear for a second that they're both alive.)
"I'll be back soon, Wes," she promises.
He nods, slow and trusting as a child with a playmate.
(She doesn't come back.)
The records room is as dark and silent as Wesley remembers. He almost has a mind to brush his hands along the heavy cabinet surfaces, gather dust particles and germs on his whimsical fingertips.
Of course, he can’t do that. Doesn’t know why the thought occurred to him, even. He’s here for business.
A large “W” announces the section he’s seeking, tacked onto a row of cabinets in the corner. Finding the relevant cabinet, he hovers. Clears his throat. Feels horribly and inexplicably awkward.
His voice comes out feeble and fearful. Fearful of what, he hasn’t a clue. He doesn’t like this place. It’s nothing like he remembered. (It’s exactly the same.)
For an excruciating moment, nothing happens, save for the gloom seeming to settle heavier around him. He swallows. Practically hears the gulp and movement of his Adam’s apple in the oppressive stillness.
A stillness that is harshly interrupted by the clanging of metal as the drawer in question shoots out.
On instinct, he takes stock of his surroundings—to make sure he is alone, and that nobody heard him. Of course, both are true, as far as the eye can see, though he knows that there are indeed eyes on him. The Partners will know about this. The Partners know everything. But it’s fine. He isn’t doing anything wrong. He is, in fact, doing his job.
Drawing closer to the cabinet, he surveys the row of files, organized in a precise alphabetical order. He recognizes the names of co-workers, some banished, some he just saw this morning. Feels vague admiration for Wolfram & Hart’s organizational system. Some poor chump must spend hours putting all of these in order. Everything is exactly where it should be.
Where the file for “Wesley Wyndam-Pryce” should be is an empty space.
It’s odd indeed.
Wesley thinks this as he hovers above his desk chair and watches the warm orange glow of the sun disappear below the horizon. Through the door he’s left slightly ajar come the sounds of employees packing up and going home. He should be doing the same. But he feels no great urge. The puzzle he’s faced with can be contemplated anywhere.
Why Faith would take such a thing—never mind how—is a matter that arouses his curiosity. He hasn’t been curious in a long time. Perhaps never. Not since life, at least. (They are the same thing.)
Faith. His former pupil. His one-time torturer. Those broken-glass scars healed over and faded long ago. How long, he can’t say. Time means nothing. It’s funny how a pain that was once so tangible has now entirely dissipated into the ether.
He supposes he is relieved. (If he is to feel anything.)
Faith comes back exactly when Wesley expects her to.
He is waiting for her. (He is always waiting for her, he supposes.) In the musty dark corner of the records room, he is poised, ready and alert. Ready for what, he can’t fathom. She has always eluded him. They are blind mammals in the dark, banging at each other gracelessly.
The sound of shifting weight on linoleum is the only thing that signals her oncoming approach. There is a scuffing of feet, the dim light of a torch, and then there is her face, wary and determined in the gloom. “Wes?” Her voice is incredulous, as though she has the right to be surprised at how things are playing out. “The hell are you doing here?”
He assumes the tone of a strict Watcher. “My job. I might ask you the same thing.”
She shakes her head a little, as if to change the direction of the conversation. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
“Why are you here, Faith?” There’s a rising edge in his own voice he doesn’t care to place.
They face one another for a long, frustrating moment, in which Faith’s eyes flick around the room, as though looking for an escape. It serves to frustrate Wesley further. He couldn’t stop her leaving if he wanted to.
Finally, she reaches behind her back. On instinct, he takes a step back, wildly expecting a gun, or some other weapon that would be useless in harming him.
But the thing that Faith removes is a file. His file.
Wesley blinks. Faith meets his gaze frankly.
“Why do you have that?” he asks, eventually. His voice comes out stiff and edgy, like a dance partner forgetting his next step.
“I took it for you, Wes.” Her tone is unusually cautious and alert, as though she were stroking a bomb. In this situation, he is the bomb. He wonders when that happened.
The response begs for a flood of further questions, but instead he opts for the practical one. This is a business meeting, after all. “How did you even get out of the building with that.”
“Got a witch on my side.”
He frowns. “More powerful than our sorcerers?”
This makes him pause. It’s an interesting thought. He has grown wholly used to the unyielding, mechanical, indestructible force of Wolfram & Hart; anything else seems foreign. Feral. There are wolves outside these four walls. There are wolves inside here too, but at least he knows them all.
(He supposes he knows Faith too. Like a terminal patient knows their recurring disease.)
“What are you up to, Faith?” he asks, and his voice is weary.
“I can get you out,” she says, plainly.
Silence stretches between them. Then,
“What.” It’s a croak of a reply. It’s the only word that comes to mind.
“We can do it, Wes. We can break your contract. You’ll be free. You can be at peace.”
His lip curls. “And who is ‘we’?”
“Me. Willow. Us. The team.”
“Why would you even think about doing that.”
She makes a sound of disbelief. “Come on. Are you for real? Nobody deserves this.”
“We all get what we deserve.” It’s a response he knows off by heart.
She exhales loudly. “Wow. They’ve really fucked you over, Wes.”
He says nothing. Something is seething inside of him; his mind is a violent reel of how dare she. He never asked for her. She’s like a splinter in a vein, her erratic movements only deepening the wound that he has waited so long, so long, to leave him. There are broken-glass scars all over his chest; there’s another one at his throat. He doesn’t feel them because he doesn’t feel anything.
(It’s the absence of pain, not the healing of it.)
“You should have stayed in prison.” His voice comes out low, and hoarse, and venomous. He hasn’t sounded like this since the unendurable days after his throat was slit.
Her face shows a split-second of surprise. She didn’t expect him to be cruel. Her mistake.
Abruptly, she raises a hand, and he wonders if she plans to strike him.
There is an odd, suspended moment where she holds the hand out, fingers spread in empty air at a midpoint distance between the two of them.
Then she makes a fist. Purses her lips. Brings the arm back into her body. “God, I wish I could touch you, Wes.”
He blinks. This is an odd thing to say. Lilah never said such things.
(But Lilah is not here. Faith is.)
“Why?” he hears himself asking, mild and somehow child-like.
“Huh?” Faith says crudely. Waves her hand about, as though to wave the question away. “Don’t ask stupid things, Wes.”
He says nothing. They disagree. No question is stupid. And he’s not as knowledgeable as he used to be. She has advantages he does not.
“Look.” She holds the file up in a pacifying gesture, places it on the top of a nearby cabinet. “It’s up to you. Okay? We’re working on helping you. You can let us. Or you can tell your bosses all about this, and be stuck in here forever. Your choice.”
Your choice. What a ridiculous, giddy concept. Too absurd to be real. There was once a time he believed in making all the hard choices, where he believed the power of his own will to be stronger than any cataclysm fate had in store. That man was young, and arrogant, and reckless, and he was punished rightly. Now he’s lost.
Faith shifts uncertainly before him. “I’m… gonna go now.”
He meets her worried gaze. She hovers, as though waiting for some response, some sign of affirmation that she is doing the right thing. Wesley remains stock-still. There is nothing he can do for her. Nothing he has ever been able to do for her. The air is choked with things they are too impotent to express.
Eventually, Faith retreats, a hunter letting go of their stubborn prey. Wesley listens to her soft footfalls fade away. He stares at the hard, sharp-edged shape of his contract, out of its place.
It’s been an odd day. Not like the others. There has been no day like this one, and for that Wesley is…
He is unsure as he floats through Wolfram & Hart’s maze of corridors back to his office. Various employees pass and through him on his way. None register his presence; he does not register theirs. He is preoccupied. The image of Faith’s hand, clutching at thin air, nags at him, like a memory half-forgotten. Or something he was supposed to do, something he forgot. The problem is he doesn’t know what.
He returns to his office, stands as still and erect as an effigy before the windows; in the place where he and those long gone once stood, to look out over the city together, over the domain they ruled.
He’s all that’s left. There’s nobody else.
It’s as simple as that. It’s a truth that settles like a familiar shroud. He’s known it for as long as he can remember, and he will know it again, with every same day that passes and every radiant sun that rises and sets. Maybe there was once a point he didn’t, and would have hated the thought. But he knows it now. He doesn’t feel anything about it. He was alive; now he’s alone. Truly, there’s nothing new here.
He stands at his window. Watches the light of dawn emerge over the horizon. Waits for something to happen.