The celebratory air was muted, but there. Muted, because it was only the third time Angel had gone with them as a member of the agency -- member, and not boss. There, because they had every reason to celebrate. They'd saved the woman from her demonically possessed garden, even if they had been forced to destroy the lawn gnome which had been running across the yard screaming about cattle and doilies. They'd figured it to be a drunk lawn gnome, and shattered it when the spell to reverse its animation failed. Afterwards, in the aftermath of a battle which had left fertilizer scattered everywhere and potted plants heaved onto the rooftop, they'd vanquished the demons.
Then they'd been paid.
Wesley was still staring at the cheque as if it were about to sprout legs and a little red cap and run off down the street. There had been no muss, no fuss, no argument, just the simple opening of a chequebook and clicking of a ballpoint pen. Cordelia had been in ecstasy.
Wesley looked up. Correct that: was *still* in ecstasy, staring at the piece of paper in his hand with a mixture of triumph and disbelief. "Mine, thank you," she said smugly, reaching to take it from him, but Gunn got there first.
"Hey, now, I think everybody deserves his chance to smell this baby." He passed it under his nose and sniffed appreciatively.
From the doorway, Angel cracked a faint smile. "My turn?" he asked after a moment.
"No, we can smell you from here," Cordelia said, holding her nose. "Did you have to bring the *entire* bag of fertilizer back with you on your shoes?"
"I was trying to save--" Angel retorted, in that half-annoyed, half-humble way he'd adopted lately. Wesley spared him a glance, wondering if humility would wear off sooner than later.
"A rake," Cordelia interrupted.
Angel hesitated. Then, "I thought it was Mrs. Worthington."
Charles snickered, and waved the cheque under his nose again. "Man, only thing that smells better than a cheque, is a good cheque. Who's gonna be up at 8am to deposit this baby, as if I have to ask?"
Wesley looked at Cordelia. She looked innocent. "Me? Awake at 8 o'clock?" Then she grinned. "D'uh!" She grabbed the cheque.
"Good, because there are some things I won't do to make it up to you guys, and bursting into flames on a morning bank run is near the top of that list," Angel said, trying for humour, and coming fairly near. At a quelling glance from Cordelia, he added meekly, "It's a short list."
Cordelia sank happily into one of the two comfortable chairs in the office -- the other one Wesley was seated in -- and kicked her shoes off. "Are footrubs on it? Because, and I'm just saying this to anybody who happens to be in the immediate vicinity and *wants* to get back into my good graces, this girl would not say 'no' to one right about now."
Angel, Wesley, and Gunn exchanged glances. None of them moved right away, and from the other two's expressions, Wesley guessed that neither was any more eager than he to take her up on the...offer.
Cordelia glared at each of them in turn. "Excuse me? Was I too subtle?"
"Um, Cordelia? It's not that we don't love you," Angel began.
Cordelia beamed at him, even as she continued frowning.
"But could you wash your feet first?"
Her frown vanished as she sniffed. "I thought that was Angel."
"You got into the fertilizer, too," Gunn pointed out.
"And no one *told* me?"
The three men looked at each other again. "Er..." Wesley began, then thought better of what he'd been about to say. Since it had involved admitting fear of retaliation, which would, just by his mentioning it, put the thought of retaliation into Cordelia's head. "We thought you knew?"
"Oh, yuck. God, I wish this place had a shower." She made a disgusted face, and Wesley couldn't help but agree with her. He hadn't escaped entirely unfertilized, himself. Beyond that, it would be nice to come back to the office and step under a hot spray, just letting the water soak into his tired muscles, without having to drive the twenty blocks home to his flat.
"Be glad we got the toilet working," Charles complained.
Wesley noted, with some pleasure, that Angel didn't take the opportunity to suggest they move the office back to the hotel. He'd been waiting for it, or some something like it, ever since Angel had returned.
He professed to be willing to work for them, but Wesley knew that once the Boss, always the Boss. It would only be a matter of time before leadership was gently wrestled away from his hands, and back into Angel's. He didn't mind so much, really. Normally -- when not possessed or obsessed -- Angel was a good leader.
But Wesley was enjoying the turn of the head to him, the patient waiting for *Wesley's* opinion, and the agreement when he finally made his decision. Not so overt that they called him the boss, or even failed to argue with him over certain matters. But still, it happened now as it had never happened when Angel was in charge.
"You want me to swing by on my way home and check to see if the road crew managed to get that forsythia bush out of the traffic signal yet?" Gunn asked him. Ever concerned, as they all were, about the chance of someone coming back at them for damages they had been unable to avoid.
"I imagine it will fall from the wires on its own, unless it decides to take root up there," Wesley replied seriously. "Don't go out of your way."
"Besides, they can't really prove it was us," Angel added. This time the easy tone was there, and no one had to force a smile in reply. The tiny smile that almost appeared on Angel's face in return was encouraging.
"I suppose we should be heading out," Wesley began, recognizing the signs of everyone wants to go home, but no one wants to leave. Post-case wind-downs weren't quite so comfortable here, but no one's flat was close enough to make it reasonable to invite everyone over. Perhaps, one day, they *would* go back to the hotel.
"Yeah. I need to get up early!" Cordelia grinned again, snapping the cheque.
It was on the tip of Wesley's tongue to tell her not to tear it. Then there was a rumbling, growling sound from the doorway.
"Angel, there's blood in the little fridge in the back room. You don't have to be invited to go get it, you know," Cordelia said without looking up from her worship of the cheque.
"That wasn't me," Angel replied, turning around, and Wesley looked as well, knowing what he'd see even as he denied it.
"No..." Then, stronger, a last chance at sounding in control before his confidence and most of his sanity fled, "No, it wasn't." Then he stumbled backwards, mind casting frantically about, checking himself, checking his surroundings. Was there anything that would provide instant disapproval? Besides, of course, the fact that he was here.
Angel was stepping out of the doorway as an expanse of smoke appeared, coalescing into a form. Three demonic forms: red skin, horns, glowing yellow eyes -- and all well-dressed, two behind the one now standing right beside Angel. Angel and Gunn were turning to face them, hands going for weapons and only restraining themselves when the persons who'd appeared only stood there, as if calmly, looking for all the world to be clients in search of help.
Wesley dropped to his knees, and pressed his face to the floor.
"Master," he whispered, the one word of greeting that he was permitted to speak, the acknowledgment that he was waiting. For orders, for punishment, for death. For whatever the figure in front of him felt like doing with him. Polishing his shoes, perhaps, since they were standing in something that had dropped from Angel's.
"Wesley, have you lost your mind?" Cordelia spluttered.
He didn't answer. Couldn't answer. It wasn't his place to answer. He could feel the silence, could imagine the looks being traded from one to another of his friends...the demanding, now-angry looks being sent towards Master Arelain.
"What's going on?" Angel asked, and Wesley could hear everything he couldn't see on their faces. It warmed him, and grieved him that as soon as Master Arelain spoke, his place here would be over.
"I have come to re-claim my property. It went astray."
He could hear the anger, could read the voice as well as he'd ever been able to read languages of human or demon. He might escape with death.
Likely not. Punished for an audacity that could not be redeemed....
Cordelia stood up. Bare feet on the floor near Wesley's face, pink-painted toenails, fertilizer-scent and all, and he had never been so happy to have her standing near him, if only for a final few moments. "Well, we'd be happy to find it for you, if you can give us a description. We do charge for expenses, but it's on a case-by-case basis, and I think you'll find our services to your satisfaction." Familiar patter, probably not nearly as comforting to Cordelia as it was to Wesley at the moment, because she could obviously tell that these *weren't* potential clients.
"I have no need of your services, whatever they might be. I only wish my property returned to me." Master Arelain's voice was calm. Reasonable. Dealing with creatures not quite on his level, but still somehow classified as part of polite society. Just.
His anger would be reserved for when they returned. When he had the moment to spare his errant property, to see that matters were dealt with. Would he perform punishments himself, or hand it over to Roelin, standing there at his left? Or was there a new overseer, in the few years since Wesley had been gone....
"What property is that?" Gunn was asking in a quiet, hard voice. They could not have missed his whispered greeting, his one word spoken. They had to know, though they could not be able or willing to admit they knew. Not yet.
"My slave. I sent it to a servant of mine, over twenty years ago. He was in need of a replacement for a child he'd killed. I sent him one of my slaves and now I come to find the slave was released from service...and yet did not return to me."
The sound of that voice made him shiver. The shock, the anger, all so quiet and calm -- it would never do to lose one's temper in front of outsiders, away from the safety of one's own home, where one could mete out punishment and boredom.
He'd been foolish, he knew. Not to go back when Master Wyndham-Pryce had told him he was released from service, two years ago. But he'd thought he'd not be missed. One slave, out of the entire household. One chance to become something else, something that lived in the sunlight of this world and bowed to nothing save necessity. Something that need not live in constant fear of pain, of humiliation, of every breath he took and move he made being controlled by someone else, and nothing he could do about it.
He had hoped. Lived in that personal torment that he had inflicted upon himself by not returning where he belonged, because of that hope. If he was quiet. If he behaved himself. If he was good, then he might not be found.
For naught. He had been found, and was left even without the hope now, that he might be killed and spared some pain.
"You sound like you're trying to say Wes belongs to you." Gunn sounded deceptively calm, deceptively just a bit confused. He could hear the whiff of metal on skin as Gunn twirled the ax in his hand.
"Its name is not 'Wes'. That was the name of the child it was sent to replace." Master Arelin still sounded calm. As if discussing the racing forms, before heading on his way.
"You're saying you own Wes?" Angel repeated.
"I am saying I own this slave, who was sent to replace the dead human named Wesley Wyndham-Pryce. This one has no name. It has never had a name, it is simply my property."
There was a thump on the floor. Gunn's axe-handle, hitting hard, punctuating a step forward. "Maybe you're new to this reality, slick. Because 'round here, we haven't had slaves since 1863."
"I am not from this reality," Master Arelain agreed. "And that document was written by humans. For humans. It applies neither to myself, nor my property."
There was silence, once more. He... no, it -- and it should get back into the habit so it would not slip up and refer to itself as 'he' and gain even more punishment-- worried for his...its friends.
"If you're so all fired about reclaiming it, what took you so long?" That was Angel, and the tone of his voice was hard to read. Couldn't tell if there was anger, or disgust in there.
Or the lack of concern that it sounded like.
"I was not aware it had been released from its master's service," Master Arelain replied. "Wyndham-Pryce died a week ago, and came into servitude in my realm... at which point I discovered the slave I had given him was missing."
That his father... that its master had died, was news both welcome and abhorrent. If it could allow itself the luxury of hatred for any Master, it would have been Wyndham-Pryce the Elder. Arelain, Roelin, any of the overseers, were simply existing, doing what they had all been born to do. The Masters to rule and use and punish, the slaves to serve and be used and accept punishment. The man it had called his father had grown up in a world where such was not the case-- and he had enjoyed his mastership. Had abused and killed his own child, a free being, then bought or bartered another to take its place.
Then treated it as harshly, taking a horrid kind of glee in the fact that there would be no recompense for what he did. As long as his substitution was not discovered, so long as no one found out about the body, spirited away to a ring of Hell, where it was studied and used to fashion another, this one's own.
"So if Wes was released from service, how can you just show up and re-claim him?" Cordelia was asking. Still standing in front of itself, and it was grateful for the presence between Master Arelain and it. Futile it was, but comforting, in these last few moments.
"Because it belongs to *me*." There was a hint of impatience that even humans could hear. "Ownership reverts to the rightful Master -- there is no such thing as a free slave."
"Wanna bet?" That was from Gunn. It smiled, faintly as it dared.
"Who said he was free?" That was from Angel.
The slave that used to be Wesley wished desperately that it could see Angel's face. To know what was happening. But raising its head from the floor would make things go even worse when it was back in its rightful place at Master Arelain's feet, in their own special ring of hell. It dared not even hope that Angel's words were the precursor to something that would change that 'when' to an 'if.' It dared not, but it longed to look, and it dared not do that either.
"There is another claim?" A rare hint of surprise, perhaps mixed with amusement, in his Master's voice. Its. Its Master's voice. If it cocked its head like the RCA dog at its Master's voice, would Arelain appreciate the humour, before cutting that head off?
"Well, no one else had a claim on it, so I did. Finders keepers -- that's legal even in Hell." Angel sounded amused, vaguely. It wanted to creep over to Angel, even if that brought it closer to Master Arelain. It had not been given permission to move.
"It's yours?" Master Arelain was surprised.
"No one else seemed to want him. I can always use help around the office, you know?" Casual, as if discussing the colour of the carpet.
"And I am supposed to believe this?" This was the tone it had only ever heard before some unfortunate, or stupid, slave was destroyed.
"I heard him say it," Cordelia piped up. "'I am your faithful servant', he said. More than once."
"Did it?" Master Arelain asked thoughtfully. "Well? Did it?" Now it was being addressed. It knew by the change in tone, by a certain ring that perhaps only it could hear, or recognize. Nothing it could answer would make things worse now-- or so it could hope.
"Yes. It..." But an explanation had not been requested, merely an answer. And hope did its tantalizing dance in its head. "Yes, Master Arelain."
Silence, silence for moments in which whole empires could be bought and sold in Hell. Or the fate of one useless, erring slave decided.
"No matter. We are not bound to contracts with humans, unless they are formally witnessed, as was the bargain with this one's former Master. We recognize no implied agreements with the natives of this world."
"I'm not a native." There was no sound but the slight lisp it hadn't even known it would recognize, that signified there were fangs in Angel's mouth. Gold in his eyes, and a vampiric visage staring at Master Arelain's.
Another pause. It had no idea what would happen next. Kept itself still and waiting, through long practice, certain knowledge that moving would make things worse, even if such were impossible.
More silence. If only *it* could see. It could imagine the looks on Cordelia and Gunn's faces. Questioning. Wondering if this was going to be a battle to end all battles, in the middle of the office, or if....
"Very well, then. My apologies, please enjoy your...find."
There was the sound again. The rumble and growl, and it could not look up. Could not rise from the floor to see if what it was hearing meant that its Masters... were no longer its Masters. It simply waited, forehead pressed to the threadbare carpeting. Waited.
"Wesley, come on, get up. They're gone." That was Cordelia, and that meant everything...but it was not Wesley, and Cordelia was not its Master, so it waited, still.
"Wes?" Gunn had moved closer, but it did not respond. There was the absent-sound of Angel crossing the floor, and it was aware of Angel's movement only because it had to be. Hidden dangers of being owned by something you could not sense approaching... It tensed as Angel stopped, in front of it.
"You can get up," Angel said. It rose, then, to its feet. Kept its eyes downcast. "You can look at me," Angel told it. Gunn gave a surprised 'huh?' as it lifted its eyes to meet Angel's, unsure of what it would find there.
"Wesley, what's wrong? You're free," Cordelia asked, putting a hand on its shoulder. It didn't move to shake that hand off; it had not been told what to do, and Cordelia was a friend. Of its Master's.
Nor did it answer.
Gold eyes, before it, shadowed in demonic folds, then shifting and melting into a familiar brown. Someone he had once called friend, when he was still a he. It... had lost track of the proper pronouns, which was a punishable offense. Anything was a punishable offense. Or nothing.
So it waited.
"I'm going to try to explain this to you, but if you are ever uncertain about something I want you to ask."
"Angel, man, what are you doin'?" Gunn had grabbed Angel's arm, but if he'd tugged on it, it was't going anywhere.
Angel looked at the other man. "Legally, I own Wesley now," he began.
"Yeah, and *legally* I can still slay your ass. We don't own folks here." Gunn was growing angry.
"Gunn, if I don't own him, *that* guy does. That guy who was just here. And if you think what they told you about Angelus was nasty...they make him... make me, look like David Nabbit."
Gunn didn't sound convinced as he gave a small growl that was purely human.
"I said *legally* I own him." Angel's voice was calm. Not subservient, exactly, or timid, as it had been when he had stood in the doorway, unsure of his place. "Your name... was he right, you have no name?" Angel asked it.
"Slaves are not named," it replied. It was not sure if it were safe to explain how it *had* been named, in the tradition of a people kept slaves for thousands of generations. It saw Cordelia frowning, and Gunn's startled look.
"What would you like to be called?" Angel asked.
It did not answer. It *could* not. It understood what its Master was asking. Continue the pretense of freedom, to keep its place in this world, in this society. But...if it erred....
Gently, very gently, Angel told it, "There is no wrong answer. I am asking you for your preference. It's not a trick."
"This one..." It stuttered. Something that had been in character for the human it had pretended to be for the last two decades. Something born of uncertainty and fear in the slave it had once again become.
"Wesley?" Gunn asked, but it could not answer. Could not give in to the temptation to look in response to the name that it had known for so many years.
"This one has no name," it responded dully. Softly. Safely.
Angel simply nodded. "Then since we're used to it, we'll name you Wes. If you decide to change it, you can."
It nodded its head. "Yes, Master."
Gunn exploded. "No, no, fucking no - I'm not gonna *listen* to--"
"Gunn!" Angel shouted, and it flinched. Gunn stopped, and looked at Angel, glaring, still ready to get in the vampire's face. Angel turned to it. "How long were you a slave to Arelain?"
"All of this one's life. Four hundred, thirty one years."
Gunn and Cordelia were gaping at it. Angel even looked surprised. But he turned to Gunn, and said, "He can't unlearn all that in ten minutes."
Now Cordelia was shaking her head. "No. No, he's Wesley, he reads too many books and rides a motorcycle because he thinks it'll make him look less stuffy, and he laughs at Celebrity Deathmatch when he thinks nobody's looking. He's our *friend*. He knew how to do all those things an hour ago, what's different now?"
"Everything," Angel answered. Gunn seemed about to argue again, and Angel threw up his hands. "Fine. You think it's that easy." He turned to it. To Wes, because that was the name it had been given. "You are Wesley Wyndham-Pryce. You're a man. You like imported beer and hate kleenex without lotion, and you have devoted your life to making things better for other people. The fact that I own you is a fiction. A legal pretense to keep you free. You are free. You belong to yourself. Do you understand?"
It nodded. "Yes, Master." It didn't smile, even if a part of it was amused at the exchange. Cordelia and Gunn were both looking uncertain, glancing from it, to Angel.
Cordelia took hold of its arm and pulled at it. It did not look towards her, even when she said "Wes!" sharply. It knew what its Master wanted her to understand, but the reflex was already there. Keeping it trained on its Master until released. "You're joking, right?" Cordelia asked. But it could hear her uncertainty. "Angel?"
"Just give him time, Cordelia. He knows." Angel tapped its head. "But it'll take a while for him to understand." And Angel tapped its heart. Where its human heart resided. It wondered suddenly if it were meant to retain its human body. Did Angel suspect that it could be ordered to return to its true form? Would it be betraying its Master if it didn't tell him?
"Wesley, I know you don't believe all of those things I said. I know you can't. But for now, I want you to act as if they were true. Can you do that?"
It nodded. "Yes, Master."
"Wesley Wyndham-Pryce would never call me Master. He would call me Angel."
"Oh god, that's creepy," Cordelia said. "It sounds exactly the same."
It could see its Master's eyes. There was sorrow in them. That startled it. Enough that it thought -- if what its Master were saying was true, then it would be all right to tell him. "Angel?"
Of course, if it were wrong....
"Yes?" When it didn't reply right away, trying frantically to re-think its decision, Angel continued, "Wes, there's one more thing I need to tell you. I'm not going to punish you. For anything. Even if I get mad at something you've done." The sadness was still there, and it wanted to believe...that it was there for it, for this slave. Named or not. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"That this one shall not be punished, no matter what it does," it said easily, the answer was clear. But a moment after it spoke the words, it understood.
"Why does he keep referring to himself as 'this one'?" Cordelia looked at Angel. Then she glared at it. "You're not an 'it', Wesley. So stop it!"
It looked to its Master-- to confirm. Just to confirm, that the statement was true. That it was not a trick, or a trap, and there was nothing on Angel's face to say otherwise, so it turned to Cordelia. "This one will try." It should have been able to do anything requested of it. But it knew it could not promise to be perfect....
"Oh, my god," she said softly. As if she finally understood. That everything really had changed.
"What were you going to tell me, Wes? It's okay. You can say whatever you want." Angel corrected himself: "Whatever you feel is necessary for me to know."
It looked back to Angel, and said, "It-- I...was..it...." It stopped, and took a deep breath. "It can change forms, back to its original. If its Master wishes."
Cordelia's grip on its arm tightened, but she didn't say a word. She leaned her head against its arm, briefly, looking at Angel. It could imagine the beseeching expression on her face. She wanted Angel to fix things.
"Change forms? What--" Gunn stopped, and asked, more seriously, "What kinda demon are you, anyhow?" Cordelia's grip loosened immediately.
"It... this one is not exactly a demon. Its kind are slaves to demons. They have no choice. No alliance to good or evil, only to the Masters." Only to its Master, now, who was a demon of another sort entirely.
"You... do you want to..." Angel shook his head. It could understand his dilemma. Angel wanted to let it have its own will. Angel wanted to know, but didn't want to tell Wesley to do it. But it had no will of its own.
"This one... is. Is your faithful...servant," it said, on its own. Knowing, as Angel had said, in its head, that it would not be punished, but only hoping, in its human heart. Then it changed.
The transformation was easy, something it had not done at all since it stepped into the house of Master Wyndham-Pryce. But its own form was always there, in its body, in its blood and bones. In all the times it had re-formed itself, or parts of itself, at the command of its Master, it had never held itself in another form for so long until being sent to Earth.
Changing back was almost like breathing again. It stretched its legs a bit where it stood, not moving from its spot. Legs longer than a human's, a tad more slender, and with feet that were longer, more agile, and more resembling a tree-dweller's than a ground-dweller. Its arms were shorter by a few inches, and its hands long, tapered. Difficult to see their strength in apparent fragility. Its face and torso remained human-like, through narrower, and its eyes had changed, lost the iris and turned back to a speckled blue that resembled broken mosaic.
"You look like an elf," Cordelia said, and she sounded astonished. It shook itself out, as if it were shaking off water. "With bat-wings."
It opened its wings. Spread them out, so the iridescent membranes could glitter even in the dim light of the office. Gazed with its natural sight at the vampire before it, a human-sized figure with an aura like a double-shadow, demon and soul entwined, and waited to be told what to do.
"What do you see?" Angel asked it. Asked... dare it begin to think of itself as him?
"I see you, Angel." What other answer did he wish? If he would tell Wesley, then it, he, would try to give that answer, but....
"I just meant... how are your eyes different from human eyes?" But Angel had caught the personal pronoun, and gave an approving smile. It was trying. Trying to act as if.
It wanted to try to give the answer its Master wanted. His...Master. But what did-- "I see your soul."
"You--" Angel looked down at himself, as if he could see what it did. When he looked back up, he was smiling. "Cool."
"You can see souls?" Cordelia was back, holding its arm, looking up at it with an expression it knew.
She wanted to display it, perhaps as decor in her apartment. It was not sure if it were heartened by her appreciation for its form. But it answered, "It can see auras. Angel's soul is part of his aura."
She surprised it. When it was a he, when it had known that it was a he, she had done so more than once, but this was a different sort of surprise. "Can you see my soul?" she asked. As if she were unsure whether she possessed one.
"No. Your soul is inside you. It can see your aura, though."
"Oh." A small frown, then the familiar expression returned. "What color is it?"
It thought briefly of trying to describe what it saw, then it simply said, "It matches your eyes."
"Really?" Cordelia looked down at herself, and it heard Gunn laugh. She glared at him, and it glanced over quickly, feeling more certain that it would not be punished for allowing its attention to wander from its Master so much. Gunn was grinning.
It liked how Gunn's aura rippled when he smiled.
"Figures that even the girl's *aura's* color-coordinated," Gunn chuckled.
"Hey, when you've got it, you've got it," she said, sniffing.
It was familiar. Whether they were simply reverting to their usual behavior, after the stress of the Masters' visit, or whether they were knowingly trying to calm it, soothe it, such was the result. They were not precisely acting as if it were the man, Wesley, as if nothing had changed, but neither were they treating it as some strange creature that had replaced their friend.
"Wesley, would you feel more comfortable staying in this form for now, or would you prefer to return to your human form?" Its Master asked the question, and it tried to form an answer that would please, yet still convey the fact that it *had* no preference, no right to have a preference... "I'm sorry," Angel corrected himself. "Please return to your human form, for the moment."
It nodded and did so. It caught the glance which Cordelia and Gunn sent to its Master, and wondered if their attempts to act normally weren't just momentary forgetfulness. But how they could forget, when it had stood here in its true form.... It wished its Master would tell it what was expected of it. But it knew it could not ask.
"Wes?" Cordelia said its...name, and touched its arm, lightly. It looked over and found her staring up at it, worriedly.
It had no idea how it would reply to what she wanted to say. It could see that she wanted to make it feel better -- reassure it, somehow, of things it knew were not true.
"Mine was the prettiest, right?" she asked.
It stood by the door. Waiting. Waiting for its Master to finish explaining things to his friends. Waiting for some idea of what was to happen to it. To him.
"I'll take him home with me, for now," Angel was saying.
"I don't get it," Gunn said in response. "He still remembers where he lives, right? How to ride his bike, how to dial 1-800-collect, how to file his taxes. Right?"
Angel nodded patiently. "Yes. He still remembers, but he doesn't feel like he has any right to do any of those things without being ordered to. And he's... vulnerable, I guess you'd say. He's a servant, now. He can't stop thinking of himself like that. Not overnight. And if we let him go off by himself... There are people who can pick up on that kind of vulnerability."
"So, basically you're saying that he can't be trusted without a babysitter at the moment, and you're the best choice, because you're his..." Gunn had some trouble spitting out the word, "Master?"
"Gunn, I'd send him home with you if I thought he'd feel better with that." There was pain in Angel's voice which triggered the need to...do something. Serve its Master so he would be pleased.
"Wes, you wanna come home with me?" Gunn asked.
It held itself very still, and looked at its Master. "Gunn," Angel said quietly, "Can't you see that giving him more freedom than he can deal with is scaring him?"
Gunn took its arm, and tugged, wanting it to turn away from its Master, and face the other man. It did not, until it saw the barely-there nod of Angel's head. Permission granted, needed or not, it turned towards Gunn.
"Is that true?" Gunn appeared somewhat shell-shocked.
It tried to frame an answer. Tried to please its Master, and its Master's friend. "It... this one... I..." And the word felt wrong, wrong on its human tongue, like a presumption, even though it had been told it could speak so of itself. "I require direction. It is this one's purpose to serve. Without purpose, this one has no knowledge of what to do."
"But you *know*. How to be you. All that stuff. How to read and write and make tea, right?"
It nodded. "It has that knowledge. But it has no reason to do so, unless it has been told to."
Gunn looked at Angel. "But you told him to act like he was Wesley. Isn't that the same thing?"
Angel nodded. A bit sadly, to its practiced eye, who had known Angel in moments of moroseness that far outweighed this one. "He could act like that, yes. But he wouldn't be free, then. He would be a slave to being Wesley, without ever knowing if that was what he wanted to be."
There was silence for a moment. Then Cordelia asked, "You mean, maybe you don't like tea?"
It shrugged -- it had never given the matter any thought. It suddenly realised that was what Angel was trying to say.
"Hey, cool! Maybe you're a beers and monster trucks kinda guy. You and me can go hang." Gunn was grinning, but it could read the human's eyes. There was as much pain in them as in Angel's. Pain it had caused, simply by being.
Perhaps it should simply pretend that it was Wesley, and pretend it wanted to be.
It glanced at its Master, who seemed to read the thought on Wesley's face. "No. You can't do that. Even if it hurts you to have to learn to be free, going back to what you were before is the one thing you can't do."
It looked back and forth now, trying to think of something to say that would ease the confusion, the sadness on the faces around it, but it couldn't think of anything. "This one does not know what it *should* do."
Angel reached for its arm, and it stood still. Its Master had every right to touch it. To do anything with it. Angel simply placed a hand there, however. "We'll teach you," his Master said.
It bowed its head. Then it nodded quickly, once. He. He nodded again.
It was afraid. That was familiar, at least. It had always known the fear of being wrong, being taken by its Master and punished or used for no reason other than a Master's whim. It was used to never feeling safe from its Master's infinite reach. Even at night, when the Master and his people were asleep, or when it was outside surrounded only by other slaves -- there was always fear.
The worst part was trying to understand what its Master wanted, so it could try to predict what would happen to it. Its Master now, Angel, said it expected it to learn how to be free. Its Master had said it would not be punished. Games a Master was allowed to play, if he wanted to lure a slave into a false sense of well-being.
Yet it knew Angel. Or rather, the person that it had played when it had pretended to be free knew Angel. Thought that Angel would not do such things. Was not a cruel man, and would not be a cruel Master.
Master Wyndham-Pryce had played such games, though. Wesley, come out of your room. I'm sorry I was cross with you. Everything will be all right. And it had been. For a time. Long enough to convince the slave who had become a boy that he was speaking the truth-- until the next time. Angelus was a creature far older and far more cruel than the monster who had lurked behind Wesley's father's face. How long could that demon wait in hiding, letting his servant think that it would not be punished?
It was shocked to find its Master's hand on its chin. Trembling that it had missed some command of its Master's, it allowed its head to be held, turned its attention back to its Master, who was smiling at it, sadly. "You don't have to believe me right now. I know that. But I'll tell you again -- I'm not going to punish you. Even if you intentionally make me angry, I'm never going to punish you. This isn't a game; this is your life. And I'm going to give it back to you."
It tried to nod, again, let its Master know it had heard, and understood. It felt the hand brush its cheek before its Master's hand dropped.
"What would make you feel safe, Wes? Is there something I can give you? Something I can do?"
It could not speak. Not that its Master was asking it a question it could not answer -- but it did not know how it should answer. When had it ever felt safe? How could Angel re-create that, if it had? Yet it could not fail to answer. "It does not know," it said softly. "It has never felt safe."
It was glad, just then, that it could not see Cordelia's aura, because it was certain that the color would not match the muddy shade that her eyes had become. When she noticed it looking at her, she turned away. Only for a moment. When she turned back, her eyes were clear again. Determined. "So we make you feel safe. If it takes me sleeping at the foot of your bed with a stake in my hand, and Gunn at the door swinging an axe."
"Maybe you could stand at the door, and I could sleep at the foot of the bed?" Gunn suggested. "I mean, just 'til you wash your feet."
Cordelia stuck her tongue out at him. And... it did feel, if not safe, then safer. Something familiar. Yes, it was the familiarity that had come with its old life, but no matter how much it had changed in a few minutes, these people had not. They were still friends, to each other, to its Master, and, whether or not it was quite able to accept the fact yet, to it. To him.
Even if they could never make it feel safe, with axes and swords, or sleeping at its feet. Though it felt warmed knowing she would offer such. Offer, or threaten to do so anyhow. It-- He, he glanced at Angel and found his Master smiling.
"That won't be necessary," he began, and it was somehow easier to think it, now, in the face of these humans' teasing each other. In the face of their determination for *him*.
Cordelia crossed her arms, and gave a look -- and was interrupted by Gunn, who said, "Oh, you better believe it's necessary. Maybe you lost your sense of smell when you reverted to slavery, but she is *definitely* washing her feet."
"Just for that, *you* are sleeping in the *hallway*."
So what had been a distant possibility, the three of them forgiving Angel, trusting Angel, enough to return to the hotel, became a simple matter of fact, neither discussed nor debated. They felt that he would feel safer with all of them there, nor did Cordelia and Gunn entirely wish to see him left alone with his Master, so they all tramped out of the office, and piled into Angel's car. The hotel did, if nothing else, have plenty of room for all four of them.
Angel didn't seem put off by the other two's insistence that they should be there, to help. Surely they didn't mean to protect it from its *Master*, which they couldn't really do, if Angel truly wished to hurt it. But...but it was tired of trying to understand why. Before being sent here, to the humans' world, there had been little enough reason to think beyond 'what does my Master want' and how to survive to the next day. Being Wesley Wyndham-Pryce had allowed him to learn new skills, devote his energy to learning things beyond survival. It had learned to think about things not related to its Master's pleasure, and now, after so very few years, it had grown less able to devote its entire being to doing so again.
It wanted to rest, to sleep and not think about anything beyond waking in the morning.
Of course, nothing was quite that easy. There were rooms a plenty in the Hyperion, but only one was truly ready for anyone to sleep in it, and that was Angel's. Angel insisted that he have it. Gunn insisted that he have it. Cordelia, after much frowning and glaring at the floor, insisted that he have it. But it wasn't right for it-him to take what belonged to its Master. Finally Angel once again saw its dilemma, and set up bedding for all four of them in a place that belonged specifically to none-- the lobby.
It was strange, for all of them, and that in its own way was a comfort to him. Enough so that when Cordelia at last returned from her shower and lay down near him, stake, indeed, in her hand, and whispered, "Good Night, Wesley," he was able to close his eyes, and greet the darkness behind them, drifting into sleep.
It opened its eyes and found the darkened lobby taking shape. Only enough light for a vampire or demon to see clearly; if it changed forms, it could see. It considered the need to change, listening and watching, and only some moments after coming wide awake did it wonder what had woken it.
It listened again, and heard the rustle of sound repeated. More than the movement of someone still asleep, shifting amidst a dream, but the motion of someone rising from their bed. Not yet coming closer, still just rising, attempting to remain as quiet as possible.
Not his Master. He -- and he was pleased that it came more quickly this time, especially when 'he' had only just awakened -- listened and recognized Gunn, slipping from his pallet to sneak away.
In the last three nights they had slept here together in the lobby, trying to give him a feeling of safety with their presence, he had not told them he slept more fitfully. Alert to any sign that he would be needed, he came awake a dozen or more times each night.
He could not tell them, nor, if he was developing any sort of ability to feel want, did he want to. He did not wish to cause them distress, and this attempt of theirs to make him feel secure was at least making *them* feel secure. And that was a way to serve, without even being asked. The sort of service he had been *allowed* to provide without being told, once: knowing his Masters' needs and supplying them.
Now, he simply stared into the darkness, waiting for Gunn to return. Waiting to see if there was something he could do, though there never was. He heard the footsteps come nearer, then stop, standing close to him instead of moving to Gunn's pallet, which was, as promised, near his feet. "Wes?" came the whisper. "Are you awake?"
He sat up. "I am awake, Charles."
There was a softly muttered curse, then, "Come on." Gunn headed away from the lobby once more. It rose to its feet instantly, and followed, reaching Gunn before he could get more than a few feet away. It followed Gunn into Angel's office, where it waited. Gunn shut the door quietly, then turned on the lamp on Angel's desk. Then Gunn stared at him.
After another minute, Gunn whispered, "You're just waiting for it, aren't you? I ain't your master, and I ain't gonna be ordering you around. Except when you need to be told to duck outta the way of a Whothuthiwhat'sitcalled demon ax."
"Whuthuthian," it supplied.
Gunn gave it a look that it was coming to know more readily than its former master's look of wrath. For a moment, it wanted to smile. "Yeah, that thing you nearly got decapitated by a month ago," Gunn said. "Wes--" He stopped, his frustration clear.
It waited. It could, just, prompt him, but prompting him would be something on the order of, "Yes, what may I do to serve you," and that would not please him at all. Wesley knew this, and so kept silent. Waiting.
Gunn slammed his fist against the desk. "Dammit!" When it reacted neither in fear nor surprise, Gunn looked apologetic. Even ashamed. "Sorry. I just... Is this for real, Wes? For real, real?"
"Is what for real?" it asked. Noticed it had slipped back into calling itself 'it', with the habit of serving, waiting to serve. It wanted to say it did not understand, but those words always made these three angry. Perhaps it was just the word 'it'.
"You're really doing this? This is really you?"
An answer was required, here. It knew that -- but, as always since Angel had become its Master, it did not know what answer to give. It waited, and Gunn waited, until finally it whispered, "It does not understand what you want."
Another slam of the fist on the wood of the desk, another apologetic look. Frustration. It did not wish to frustrate, but it had been asked to answer questions honestly, not trying to come up with the answer that would most please, and the only honest answer to the question was its own confusion.
"I want," Gunn said slowly, trying to phrase the question in a way that it could answer something else, anything else. It could sense this, as easily as its true form could sense the sparks of light in Gunn's aura when he made someone else laugh. "I want to know if this person, this... servant that you seem to be, is really you. Nobody's put a hex on you, nobody's switched you for a clone when we weren't looking, that's really the guy I know in there. Thought I knew."
It knew what Gunn wanted. He wanted the person it had pretended to be. It looked away, and tried to tell itself it should answer. Respond, somehow, take the risk that they were all telling him -- that it was okay to be honest, to speak without fear of reprisal. The words almost didn't come out, as he spoke them. "What if I am not?"
There was silence. Gunn made no move, made no sound, and it began to think it had said all it could, and perhaps it should return to its bed, return to its Master's side, and wait.
"What if... you're not saying you're someone else, right? You're saying you never were the guy I thought I knew." It thought it recognized something like understanding, finally, in the softened voice, and it nodded.
"That is what I am saying."
Gunn shook his head. "I don't believe it."
It was silent. What could it say to that? It was not lying, it was not trying to please him, or only insofar as it had tried to please him by speaking the truth.
Gunn came closer to it. To him. "I believe that you believe it. But I wanna tell you something." Staring at him, searching for something in his eyes that he-it could not convince Gunn he wouldn't find there. "I saw you. Saw you do things for no other reason than that it was the thing to do. Saw you save people."
It nodded. Gunn required an explanation for why it had done that, when it was Wesley, the escaped slave in hiding. Still playing the part. "This one was taught to serve the wishes of the Council of Watchers. To serve those who wish to maintain the light in this world."
"Were you taught how to laugh? How to relax and watch basketball with somebody in the afternoon, and try to actually understand the point? How to stand up to the Council when they came back and tried to take Faith away? 'Cause that was all you, and I don't think they told you to do that. I think you learned to do it on your own."
Gunn had not been present for that last. They had been talking about him, then. It had known that they would, that they did. That they had discussed what he had been, away from his hearing. Did they truly wish for that person so much? Perhaps he should, after all, try to return to that, if it would please them. Perhaps.
Except, some part of him did not want to. He did, however, want to try again to let Gunn understand. "I was told to be a Watcher. A Watcher's son, raised to be a proper Watcher. I was told to study, told to learn how to fight, to fight evil, to fight vampires. Told to learn languages and weaponry and demons, told to learn magic. I was told to be a student, to be a Watcher, to be English. To be human. It was told everything, and it does not know what it *is*."
It's voice had risen slightly as it spoke, and it shivered, wondering if it had overstepped its bounds. Gunn was staring at it, eyes wide. It did not think it had spoken loudly enough to awaken its Master, but it listened. Waited. Blinked, when Gunn smiled. What had it done?
"That's a start."
It did not understand, entirely, but it understood that it had done something which pleased Gunn, and it smiled. Involuntarily. Also, perhaps, a start.
Gunn opened the door, motioning him out, and they moved quietly back to the center of the lobby. Still early, still tired, and still waiting for GUnn to tell him to go back to sleep. A reflex. He was not expecting to see two forms near his empty pallet, both heads propped up on elbows. Waiting. Saying nothing to him, giving no orders, asking no questions, only waiting for him to lie down again.
He stood there for a moment, surprised, and feeling yet again at a loss. Not an uncomfortable one, this time, which was curious. He wondered how long they had been awake. If there had been any whispering, while he and Gunn were talking. The thought made him want to laugh -- an urge quickly, and without thought, stifled.
"Damn, we didn't bring back snacks for everyone," Gunn said. Wes looked at him in bewilderment.
"Then you just march right back and get them," Cordelia said sternly.
"I've got snacks," Angel pointed out.
"Oh, no you don't" Cordelia returned, and there was a movement, obscured by the darkness, then the sound of a pillow striking something.
At Wesley's continued look of confusion, Gunn whispered, "He means us. But don't worry, I'll protect you." The other man stooped and grabbed a pillow, launching it at Angel's head.
Wesley stood. Merely watching, something he knew how to do quite well, though he didn't know how to participate in this thing that was happening in front of him, this display of ease between equals.
A flying sack of cotton-covered down flew at him from Angel's direction, and he allowed it to hit him in the chest and fall to the ground. When no one moved or breathed, and all bodies turned so that they must have been looking at him, he breathed deeply. Asked softly, "Was this one... was I supposed to catch it?"
"Or duck," Angel said with a casual tone. "Preferably grab it and hit Cordelia with it." Then his Master was ducking again, using his vampiric speed to avoid the pillow Cordelia had sent his way.
He bent at the knees, keeping an eye on the other three, who were trading blows, and pillows, as if he weren't watching. Picked up the pillow, and held it.
It knew it would never strike at them. Even in fun, even if told. Beyond what could not be done, it could never be done. But...he could appreciate their effort. He held out the pillow when Gunn tried to duck behind him, giving Gunn ammunition to replace the pillow he'd lost.
Gunn took it without a word, but with a smile, and sent it sailing straight for Cordelia. Touched him lightly on the arm, and nodded. Said again, "It's a start."
"Okay, now try this one." Wesley obediently opened his mouth, and Cordelia filled it immediately with his eighth flavor of ice cream in half as many minutes. He carefully allowed it to melt on his tongue. Trying, as he had been asked, to form an opinion.
"This one is...different, from the last one. There is more chocolate, and less banana."
Cordelia rolled her eyes. "That would be because this is double-chocolate fudge ripple, and that was banana cream pie. The question is, do you *like* any of them. Or *not* like any of them."
He tried, very hard, not to like one. It wasn't working. "I... think I like all of them."
Her eyes brightened. "Well, that's a good sign. Hmm. Maybe we should try the control flavor. Open wide."
Blinking, he did as requested, and his mouth was filled with a taste that was... not really describable, beyond... eccch. The man he had been would have said so, anyway. He screwed up his mouth reflexively.
"I take it you give lemon-persimmonberry a thumbs down?" Cordelia asked with a smile.
"That was disgusting," he said, and looked around for the glass of water Cordelia had provided earlier. Something about cleansing the palate, which of course she hadn't given him the chance to actually *do*. He took a long drink, then another, then a third until the taste was washed out of his mouth.
"OK! So, we have 8 yes votes. I think we should try something on the other end of the spectrum -- give you some contrast, to narrow down which ones you *like* and which ones you *love*."
"There's a difference?" he asked, and wondered why the question made her stop and look at him. But she just went to the freezer, and put away the fudge ripple, and took out two more pints.
She held them so he couldn't see the cartons, had he tried -- but he'd been told not to look. He waited until she pried a lid off, and held out a spoonful of something bright pink.
He could smell it from where he stood, and his mouth watered. His body had an opinion, at least. "Whatever that is smells very good." She waited, and at last he took the spoon, and tasted the ice cream. "This..." he said around a melting mouthful.. "This is wonderful." He didn't ask if he could have more, though he wanted to. At least he wanted to-- a month ago he wouldn't even have dared to have that desire. Cordelia took pity on him at last, and handed him the carton.
"Don't eat it yet. Try this one first."
She held out the other carton, and a clean spoon. Wesley looked back and forth between the two. He really only wanted to dig into the one he was currently holding, but she had *told* him to try the other one first... He hesitated another moment, then set the carton down and accepted the one Cordelia was handing him. He took a spoonful, and caught the fleeting expression of sadness on her face. Ah, then he'd been meant to say 'no'. Sometimes it was hard to tell when he was meant to learn something, and when he was meant to assert himself.
He took a bite, anyhow, of the second carton. This one was a faint green colour, and much lighter than the others. It tasted all right, more pleasant than the banana. But he still wanted the pink one. He realized Cordelia was waiting for his report. "I enjoyed the flavour of this one, as well."
He wondered if the pink one was melting.
She raised a delicate eyebrow at him. "And?"
Another moment of testing, he supposed. Wherein he was supposed to guess not what she wanted him to say, but what she wanted him to want to say. He stared at the container of pink ice cream. She stared at him.
It was *definitely* melting now.
Carefully, slowly, he said, "I... would like that one, please."
"Bubblegum? Okay, you have no taste, but at least you have... no taste. As opposed to no opinion." She smiled as she put the green ice cream away.
Bubblegum? He looked at the carton, and found that it was indeed 'bubblegum'. He took another, small spoonful, and ate it. The same, wonderful sweet flavour. Extraordinary. He savoured it, let the ice cream melt all over his mouth before swallowing. He found Cordelia watching him, as she walked over with one more carton of ice cream in her hands.
"Oh, no, you don't. This one is mine," she held it close, and he could read 'choco' on the label, between her fingers.
"I wasn't going to," he said quickly. She gave him a doubtful look, but settled in her chair with a spoon. He took a third spoonful, then stopped. "Cordelia?" It was still difficult to ask a question, but he felt confident this one would be inconsequential.
"Is this what bubblegum tastes like?"
She frowned at him. Perhaps not so inconsequential. "You've never tasted bubblegum?"
He shook his head. Something else for her to feel sorry about? "It wasn't allowed in Mast... in our house. And it was never a part of what I was taught to be, as an adult."
She had become adept at picking up the look of distress on his face when he was worried about having displeased one of them. Or having disappointed them, or made them feel sad. She moved her head slowly, not quite a nod or a shake.
"It's not quite the same thing. Just like the grape sherbet doesn't taste like real grapes." Simply answering his question, though he could see her filing it away in her little mental drawer, under D, for deprived childhood. Forgetting, for a moment, that it was not his childhood at all.
"Oh! We didn't get to that one." She looked at the carton in his hands, and grinned. "We'll finish the taste test later... if you still have room."
"I don't think one pint of ice cream will fill me up," he said carefully. He wasn't exactly sure why he felt trepidatious, once more, unless it was simply that he'd sat here for an hour, so far, and had a rather pleasant time.
Perhaps it was that. That he could classify it as a pleasant time. Give it a subjective description. He had enjoyed this time spent with Cordelia, on its own. Had pleased her with his answers, yes, and had enjoyed the feeling of having served, which had been bred into his people for generations, but he had simply and separately enjoyed the moments. Himself. The ice cream. The company.
Utterly apart from any pleasure it might have given her to watch him pick and choose. It was... selfish. Dangerous. Tempting. He dug further into the bubblegum ice cream, letting the taste soothe his senses. Giving himself, for a moment, over to that temptation, to do something just for himself. Just for Wesley.
He even closed his eyes briefly, so he couldn't see her face.
He continued to eat the ice cream, matched by Cordelia, spoon for spoon.
The office was tidy, and quiet. It preferred the office like that, not only from long trained habits of cleaning up after, but something inside it seemed to feel calmer, when things were tidy. It would not last long, wouldn't last much longer than it took the others to arrive. But for now, the office was cleaned and straight. It felt as if it could settle in a chair, perhaps read something...and think to itself clearly, the word 'I' and 'me'.
'I' am reaching to the table and picking up a copy of Ms. Magazine. 'I' am putting it down because it is utter tripe. 'I' am making do with Newsweek because the new issue of Entertainment Weekly hasn't arrived yet.
It wished there were a decent newsagent nearby. 'He' had discovered through much experimentation on Gunn and Cordelia's parts that he *liked* television. Almost all television. Wesley the Watcher had had very distinct opinions on American television; opinions that coincided with it-his current feelings towards Ms. Magazine. Now, however, he was developing a fondness for things that even Cordelia turned up her nose at. JAG, for instance. And repeats of 'The Waltons.'
He was thinking perhaps he should ask his Master about it, however. The way Cordelia was starting to look concerned, even when she encouraged him whenever he told her about another new show he found he'd liked. She hadn't quite got any farther than saying, "You actually watched that? More than once?" but he suspected he might be behaving too...well, too something for her. Going overboard? Or was he acting...too alien?
They never said they were worried about what he would turn out to be -- who he would turn out to be. But he could see it. Especially from Gunn. Whenever the man thought Wes wasn't looking, or forgot or didn't know just how far away his true eyes could see, he would grow worried, and his aura would display tiny, dark, broken jags.
Wes didn't have to wear his true form to see the colours pulsating around them. A quick blink of his human eyes, he had discovered, and merely exercising his...will, strange as it felt to even think the word, and he could see. It was strange, and frightening, like everything else. To be allowed, even expected, to make choices about himself. His own form. His own body. The things Gunn watched him decide to do, and worried about.
True, most people didn't wake up every morning and decide whether the shirt they had laid out the night before would be utterly ruined by the addition of wing-holes in back. He was not, however, most people. He was simply discovering what it was to be *any* sort of person. It was, he almost dared think, rather fun.
There was a sound outside the door, and he glanced over, tensing slightly as he felt himself react, ready in case it should be a client, or Angel. The door swung open, and he saw Angel come inside. Wesley stood up and started towards him, and only managed to stop after he'd taken several steps.
"Angel," he said, and as always he had to stop himself from kneeling and waiting.
"Wes. How's it going?" Angel gave him a smile, but Wesley saw the expression in Angel's eyes that said he'd seen something he didn't like.
"It..." It was unsure. It knew its Master wanted a real answer, but at moments like these, even though the urge to please, to serve, was what was causing the unhappiness, it still felt the need. Still fell back to the safety of anonymity. Still worried in circles that whatever it had done today, it would not be quite right.
As usual, Angel sensed its distress. As usual, it sensed his disappointment in that distress.
"It is fine. *I* am fine," he answered. Fighting, and succeeding, just, to think of himself as he. "Cordelia has been teaching me how to play Minesweeper. It seems like a rather silly game." There. An opinion, and one that he actually possessed, himself. Staring at the patterns on the computer screen tended to leave gridblocked figures dancing in front of his eyes for hours afterwards. "And we've been shopping."
Angel looked purely sympathetic, now. "Shoes?"
"No, furnishings for my room." She had finally convinced him that the room *was* his, that he needn't sleep in the lobby any longer-- but that if it would make him feel safe, they would *still* camp out at the foot of his bed. He had not told her that being alone in 'his' room was something of a relief. She took it as independence, and perhaps it was becoming so. He certainly preferred the blue draperies over the dusty rose ones that Cordelia favoured.
There had been some discussion, some of which he had been present for, some he had not, concerning whether he should return to his flat. Wesley had known Gunn and Cordelia were ready to return to their own homes, and he had been ready to say he would return, so that they might be able to.
Angel had repeated his offer to give him a room upstairs, and the thought of returning to his flat, alone, had been more than he could accept. He might have said it frightened him, had fear been something he should avoid. Following yet another debate concerning his well-being and his freedom and a dozen other things he wasn't sure he even understood the relevance of, he'd agreed to move into a room in the hotel.
That had led to moving his things out of his flat -- an event which had lasted for two days, as Cordelia insisted on asking him 'did he want this' for every item he had, before she'd let him pack anything. It had been a good idea, in retrospect. He had no use for some of the things the former Wesley had collected. Obscure nineteen eighties pop records. Suits that simply did not...suit...him. But at the time, he had been more concerned with simply getting it over with. Not thinking of each item as a major life-decision that he had to make, right at that instant.
"Find anything interesting?"
Angel himself had no interest in interior decorating; he was simply trying to draw Wesley out, and Wesley knew it. But this was something humans did. It was small talk. Politeness for the sake of politeness. Nothing that could specifically be described as Angel testing him, or treating him with kid gloves.
"There was a nice bookshelf. I'm thinking of putting my Harry Potter books on it."
"Who's Harry Potter?"
"A book I found at the library last week. Yesterday, Cordelia took me to the bookstore and we...well, they're quite interesting. Purely fantastical, not a drop of truth in them, which I find...." He couldn't think of exactly the word. Or the feeling. He just knew that reading the books he'd picked out, made him not think about things.
"Ah, is that where you two were all day?" Angel said, still smiling.
A flash of tension ripped through him, before he could stop it. "This one did not know you required it yesterday," came tumbling from his lips.
Angel sighed. "I didn't require you. I just wondered where you were. You're free to come and go as you please."
The smile disappeared, and it knew that it, that he, had once again disappointed his Master. He felt the need to explain, though such things were beyond explanation, and Angel had heard all of them anyway. Had provided many of them. "I...know that. But sometimes I forget."
There, unexpectedly, was the smile, again. Because he had said he knew? It was not a lie, exactly. Perhaps it was better to occasionally forget that he was expected to try to be free, than to not be aware of it at all. "It's OK, Wes. I know this is hard. It's hard for all of us."
That surprised him. "It is?"
"Of course." Angel looked surprised. "Wes...despite all the times I've reassured you that you *don't* have to obey me, I know that if I say or do something, you might take it as an order and I could undo all your hard work." Angel looked away. "I kinda wonder if it wouldn't be easier if I left you alone for a--"
He stepped forward, not speaking, not reaching out. He response was undoubtedly clear enough, without those. "Please," he said, because asking was always allowed, and begging sometimes the purpose.
Angel put a hand out to touch his shoulder. "No? You don't want me to?"
He couldn't answer, could only nod, slightly. Saying no was next to impossible for him even with Cordelia-- although he had heard Gunn say, out of her hearing, that it was like that for most people, so he shouldn't feel bad about it. With Angel, he was unable to even consider it.
But he didn't need to, this time. Angel was nodding. "All right. If you want me to, I'll stay."
"Thank you." That was easy, as well. Accepting what was given, graciously -- even when it was what he wanted. He stopped, and thought that again. What he wanted. He suddenly realized Angel was smiling at him, again, and Wes discovered he himself, was smiling as well.
"Feels kinda nice, doesn't it?" Angel asked.
"It does. Yes. It is difficult to get used to, though. I remember... I remember that we were once concerned that you didn't want anything. Not even a donut."
A grin. "Then somebody who shall remain nameless attacked Cordelia and blew you up, and I discovered I did want something. My friends, safe."
Friends. They were Angel's friends, Cordelia and Gunn, and the man who Wesley had pretended to be. Now he was trying to learn what that meant, beyond what he had been taught that friends do.
He understood that they cared about him. Not why, but perhaps that was something none of them knew, for when he had asked Cordelia, she had given him the muddy-eyed look again, then said simply, "Because," and filled his mouth with double-chocolate fudge brownie walnut ripple. When he had asked Gunn, he hadn't received any sort of answer at all. The man had just stared at him for a moment, then walked out of the room. Hours later, he had returned, and had once again tried to get Wesley interested in going out to a monster truck rally. The question wasn't mentioned again.
At least not to Gunn. "Angel?" he asked, hesitantly.
He realized that yet again he did not know how to broach the question. It was easier with Cordelia and Gunn, even when it was very, very difficult. He understood why Angel thought it might be easier if he weren't around. Cordelia and Gunn were not his masters.
"I do not understand something," he finally stammered, looking at the floor and accepting the fact that eventually he would overstep his bounds and he may as well as the questions they kept telling him he could ask.
"What don't you understand?" Angel asked, in a very gentle tone.
"I do not understand why I upset Gunn so much. He says that he understands what I am doing, that he wants me to become whatever it is I want to be-- but he is sometimes more disappointed when I express a preference than when I do not."
It had confused him, the first time he noticed it-- he had been standing in the men's section of a department store, with Gunn, and had reached for something that had caught his eye. A bright red t-shirt, with a pocket in front. Just something simple. Gunn himself wore similar things all the time, but when he had seen Wesley reach for it, something had passed across his face that Wesley still didn't understand.
"I do not know what he wants from me."
There was a look on Angel's face he did not recognize. "He doesn't want to lose you," Angel said.
That wasn't an answer he'd expected. Perhaps he had missed something important, in this freedom thing. Or was it a human thing? He'd only been one for a few years, and Master Wyndham-Pryce had often told him he was a poor excuse for one.
"How is he to lose me?" he asked, disturbed by the words, and the thought that threatened, behind them. "Because it is a slave?"
"No," Angel said quickly, moving forward and putting his hands on Wes' shoulders. "Not because you were a slave. Because you're discovering who you are, and he thinks you'll become someone who doesn't like him anymore."
Wesley considered this. Not like him? He didn't like or not like any of the three who were the center of his life, now. He didn't dare form a preference about them. He tried not to serve them, he tried to please them only by accident, he tried to remember how to want to be with them or not be with them, but there was no question of like, or not like. He had feelings about them, but he couldn't explain them, define them. It was hard enough to say that he didn't like pistachio ice cream.
"I still do not understand. Why he cares, if I like him."
"Because he likes you."
The way Angel said it, made Wesley think that was the entire reason. Only it didn't make sense. If Gunn liked him, did it matter if Wesley liked Gunn? "How does choosing a shirt or a movie or a flavour of coffee reflect upon whether or not I like *him*? He isn't any of those things."
He tried to understand why this conversation was beginning to cause so much distress. He glanced up to find Angel looking amused. "Never thought I'd be the counselor type," he said, which only confused Wesley more. "But I'll give it a shot. Gunn liked you, liked who you were and what you did. Now, some of those things are changing. You don't wear the same clothes, or read the same books, and you eat *totally* different foods. None of those things make you who you are, though. You can change all of those things, and still be Wesley."
Wesley nodded, though he wasn't quite sure he followed.
"He's afraid that you'll start changing other things, the things that *do* make you, you."
It didn't take any consideration, to decide not to do such. He was sure that he had kept his expression the same, listening, slightly bewildered. But Angel glared at him, anyhow.
"Wesley, you can't just decide not to change, because it would upset Gunn. I don't mean that as an order, I mean you're not able to. The whole point is that there are things none of us can change about ourselves, because they make us who we are. Just because you don't know what those things are, doesn't mean they're not there."
This was getting more confusing than usual. "But Gunn thinks that I *will* change those things?"
"Yeah, well, Gunn's just--" He stopped, and again had the look Wesley couldn't identify. "You should probably ask him about that part. I just want you to realize he doesn't want you to become something you're not. None of us do. Gunn...may just need a little reassurance that you're still gonna be you."
"And how do I do that?"
"I don't know that you can." Angel shrugged. "Just be patient with him."
Wesley smiled, just a bit. "That I can do. If nothing else, I have always been patient."
Wesley tapped his foot against the soft red carpet-- until he noticed he was tapping his foot not remotely in time with the music. Then he stopped. It really wasn't possible to tap one's foot in time with this music. One could possibly get one good tap in, but the next time anything resembling a beat appeared in the score might well be just before intermission.
He looked over at Gunn, a bit anxious that he not have noticed Wesley's boredom-- only to realize that the man's head was nodding, and he was unlikely to notice anything. A piercing note from the coloratura soon jerked that head back up, and Gunn looked wildly around for a moment, before glancing sheepishly at Wesley.
"Sorry, man. Not the company, really. Just didn't get a lot of sleep last night."
Wesley was about to respond, when there was a disapproving "shh!" from behind them. They both flinched, and turned towards the stage once more. Wesley thought about trying to read his program again, just for something to do -- but he'd read it four times, now, and even reading the libretto to understand just what was happening on stage didn't offer any distraction. He resisted the urge to look at his watch, knowing that it couldn't possibly be more than five minutes past the last time he'd looked, surreptitiously.
The good news, though, was if Gunn's nap was anything to go by, they could escape this thing at intermission.
He tried to amuse himself by trying to decide just why Gunn had brought them here, at all. To kill an otherwise boring Saturday evening at the office? Unlikely. At the office there was at least a television, which would offer more satisfying fare than lay before them now, even if Gunn did roll his eyes when Wesley asked to watch Dexter's Laboratory.
It couldn't be because Gunn had an interest in opera. Unless he was trying to discover something new about himself. If so, he was failing miserably.
That left the obvious reason-- that this was another attempt to see whether Wesley liked something. Which he didn't, but he had no desire to tell Gunn that. Oddly, the idea that the two of them were both bored was rather amusing. He liked being able to be amused, especially by concepts like that. Being able to appreciate the humour in irony, instead of noticing it because he was supposed to be clever.
Much as he wanted to continue enjoying the humour, and Gunn's company...he wasn't fully convinced they couldn't do so elsewhere. Perhaps at intermission he would simply tell Gunn he didn't like it, and they could go get coffee -- or ice cream. He knew of a parlour not too far off, that sold bubblegum ice cream. It even had those delicious cones, which he had yet to figure out how to consume without the ice cream leaking out through the bottom. But he...liked trying.
He'd told Cordelia that yesterday, and she'd laughed. She laughed a lot, when he used those words. 'Liked.' 'Disliked.' Sometimes he said them just to make her laugh and smile.
As the intermission drew nearer, he found himself checking his watch more and more often. Unfortunately, he had apparently become less surreptitious about it, because Gunn caught him just as the soprano began her final pre-intermission wailing fest. A look, questioning. "You got someplace to be?"
Wesley shook his head. No, there was no place he specifically *had* to be, and the ice cream parlor was merely a fancy, not a necessity.
Then the other look. The one he had learned to recognise on all three familiar faces. "You don't really like this stuff, do you."
He opened and closed his hands on the programme. At a loss. Finally he nodded. "I...don't find it very interesting. I know you thought I would. I'm sorry."
Gunn shook his head, and Wes saw his mouth move, but could not hear what he said. They sat silently through the final aria, both facing forward, Wesley rather tensely. When the curtain finally was drawn, Gunn stood up. "Come on, let's get out of here."
Wesley stood, and preceded him out of the aisle, apologizing quietly to those they had to squeeze past. He left his program at the doors in the box marked 'return programs', and went out into the lobby.
Gunn was following, still silent. Wesley didn't glance back until they'd exited the theatre proper. Gunn was closed in on himself, obviously upset. Obviously trying to control himself. Wesley stopped, and waited.
And waited. Finally, when it became obvious that Wesley didn't know what to say, Gunn said quietly, "You shouldn't do that. Or.. no, dammit, I'm not supposed to be telling you what you should or shouldn't do. But you shouldn't... I don't want you to go places, do things, just 'cause you think I want you to."
Wesley fingered his bow tie. "I was not..." He didn't know how to explain. He had come along because Gunn had proposed the idea. He hadn't known in advance that he wouldn't like the opera. He tried to tell Gunn this, tried to explain, but there was the frustrated face again.
"But you need to tell me-- when you're not having fun. I don't want you to stay someplace where you don't want to be, either."
Wesley began to feel the same frustration he saw on Gunn's face. "But I wanted to be here. I didn't know I wouldn't like this opera until I had seen it. Or seen part of it."
Gunn shook his head. "And that's why you spent twenty extra minutes not saying you didn't like it?"
Wesley controlled the frown he felt. "You said nothing, either."
"Man, that ain't the point! I knew *I* wouldn't like it--"
"Then why did you ask me here?" Wesley was feeling more confused.
"Because I *thought* you'd like it." Gunn wasn't yelling, quite, but he was speaking to him as though Wesley were stupid, as well as...whatever he was. He was supposed to use the word 'inexperienced'. He wanted to use the word 'lost'.
"And I *wanted* to like it. I'm *sorry* I didn't like it."
"But I don't want you to want to like it!"
He was trembling, a little, trying to answer, trying to come up with something that wouldn't start the whole frustrating cycle over, and the look on Gunn's face was as unhappy as Wesley felt and it... it... "It did not mean to cause you distress."
And that was worse. So much worse. That was Gunn facing away and resting his head against the wall and saying softly, "No. No, no, don't do that, Wes. Please don't do that."
"This one is... I am sorry."
Gunn straightened. Faced him, something in his eyes that Wesley couldn't fathom, not the disappointment or the frustration, but something else. Something that still made him feel unhappy, and not know what to do about it. "No. There's nothing to be sorry about. It's not your fault."
It wanted to ask what it had done wrong. But that had been so rarely allowed, and it was certain it would not be welcomed, now.
"Come on," Gunn said with a faked calm. "I better take you home."
Hearing those words made it feel worse even than it had -- worse than disappointing Gunn, worse than causing the frustration in the first place. It wanted to ask if they could go for ice cream, instead. Or coffee, or beer and pizza which it knew Gunn liked.
But it said nothing, and followed Gunn to the truck. Sat quietly, staring out the window as Gunn got in and drove them away, and it knew nothing that it could do, but sit there.
Gunn did not address it at all, on the drive back to Angel's hotel. When they parked in front of the Hyperion, it waited. Having been given neither instruction to leave, or instruction to wait until Gunn acted or spoke, it waited. Finally Gunn seemed to realize what it was waiting for, and he growled, "Go on, then. I'll see you tomorrow at the office."
It opened the truck door and slipped out, feeling as though it had been whipped. It didn't stay to watch the truck drive away; Gunn wouldn't want that. It simply entered the hotel and tried to get to its room. Thinking that it could lose itself in sleep, at least. Halfway through the lobby, it saw its Master sitting in a chair, reading. Angel looked up, and it was all it could do not to get down on its knees. Something familiar. Something in its own way safe. It felt like it was on its knees already, anyway.
"Wes? What's wrong? Aren't you supposed to be at the opera?"
It shook its head, slowly, then finally sank down. Not exactly to its knees, just... down. To the floor. Sitting there. It wasn't exactly subservient, but... it was a good place not to fall from. When Angel bent to look at its face, it did not look down. Still the Master, and one did not look away from the Master. "This one... did not like the opera," it said softly.
Its Master looked confused. When it did not continue, its Master asked, "Was it *that* bad?"
It shook its head. "Not...it was not the opera. It was... it angered Gunn. And it does not know why. Gunn explained, but this one must be stupid, for it did what it was told and it still failed."
It had known Masters like that. Masters who changed the rules, or pushed their slaves into attempting things that could not be managed -- just to see the slaves fail. For the enjoyment of seeing them fail, or the excuse then had to mete out punishment.
"He wasn't happy because you didn't like the opera?"
"This one did not tell Gunn soon enough, that it did not like the opera. Then...then it is not sure. It tried to explain, and it made things worse."
"Can you explain it to me?"
It was not sure. It was sure of nothing, but it would try. "This one was thinking--- that perhaps we could go somewhere else. It did not know how to say so to Gunn, but it might have. It does not understand, though. Why Gunn was so upset. He did not like that this one did not like the opera, he did not like that this one did not want to make him unhappy by telling him... Is it wrong? Not to want to make someone unhappy? To wish to please someone? Don't humans do that as well?"
"Yes, of course. Everyone does it, to some extent." Angel was smiling a bit, now, and it wanted to move closer. It felt safe here, it suddenly realized. "Did you ask him to go somewhere else, instead?"
It shook its head. "It...had angered Gunn, before it had a chance."
"Wes...why didn't you tell him you didn't like the opera?"
It sat very still. It had not had a chance to consider that part, yet. It had only known it did not want to. It had thought it was doing the right thing, doing what it wanted. Rather than what was expected. It whispered, "It did not want to leave. It did not enjoy the opera, but it enjoyed...everything else. It did not want to leave." As they had done, after all. Left Gunn's company earlier than they would have, had they stayed. It had endured far worse than incomprehensible singing and over-done costuming.
Why had it said nothing, and pretended to enjoy it?
Angel looked at for a moment, and it waited. There was nothing else to do, but wait. It had told its Master everything that it knew, everything that it understood. Finally Angel slid to the floor. Sitting beside it. Which felt wrong, so wrong, made it want to prostrate itself so that it would be lower. It knew this was silly, in its head. They had sat in chairs at the same level before, and it had been uncomfortable, but not unduly alarmed.
This, though... it felt as if this meant that its Master was as confused and disturbed as it was-- and that did not make it feel safe at all.
Angel didn't look upset, though. Just a little bit... sad? Tired? Rueful? It was hard to tell, on that face. "You didn't do anything wrong, Wesley," he said at last.
"Then why did it upset Gunn?" it whispered, still fighting the urge to lower itself. Could it scrunch down a bit, even, to get its head lower than Angel's? Angel would notice, and he would probably not be pleased. Although if it were supposed to do as it wished and not behave solely to please its Master.... It suddenly felt very tired, and very frightened. "What did this one do?" it repeated.
"Nothing," Angel repeated in a firmer voice. Angel reached over and put his hand on its chin, held its head still for a moment before dropping his hand to its shoulder. It supposed that was meant to reassure it. It wasn't sure it did. "Wes, I think...and don't take this as a command, but just a suggestion." There was a regretful tone to its Master's voice, as if Angel suspected it would do so, anyway. "I think you should tell Gunn why you didn't tell him you weren't enjoying the opera. If you want help -- want me to make sure he stays and listens, I'll be happy to do so."
That-- no. But 'no' was something it could not say. Not to Angel. Not even when Angel had told it that he was making a suggestion and not an order. To try to explain, again, to Gunn, to feel itself shrinking once more into the nameless thing that had pressed its forehead to the floor before Master Arelain... that was almost how frightened it had become, now, and it could n ot say no, but it could shake. It could most definitely sit there next to Angel on the carpeted floor and shake. It was quite good at shaking, in fact. It could, if Angel wished to hire it out, shake for a living, it thought mindlessly.
It did not notice -- and it felt the flash of fear at that realization, for a second dwarfed by what it did notice, a second later -- when Angel reached over and pulled it towards its Master. Angel was whispering in its ear, and holding it tightly, and making no move or word or sound at all that said it had done something wrong. Held instead like its own elders would, at times, when it returned to those places where the slaves lived when their Masters did not need them, held or whispered to or touched, reassured that there was comfort to be had.
Receiving that from its own Master was enough to shock it out of its trembling.
It could not process what it was hearing, however. It could hear just fine, but could not accept that its Master was telling it everything would be fine, that it could relax, that it would be taken care of and protected and helped.
No matter that it had been said before, by Cordelia, by Gunn, even by Angel, in similar words. It was not the same. This was its Master *holding* it. Whispering it. This was the sound not of disappointment, or sadness, in Angel's voice, but simply comfort. It did not make sense. There was more fear and confusion, though it wanted to give in and be comforted. It did, truly. Its Master wanted it to take comfort, and... Again into the circle of should it do what it wanted or what it thought Angel wanted, and what to do when those two seemed to be one and the same?
"It doesn't matter," it heard Angel saying. "It doesn't matter." Confused, it tried to understand, focus on what its Master had been saying.
With surprise, it realized it had asked its question aloud. It was losing its control, losing its ability to remain aware and waiting solely for its Master to act. Master Arelain would have had it whipped for such faltering. Master Wyndham-Pryce would have locked it up for hours, chastised it loudly for hours after.
Angel was holding it.
It almost believed it could afford to relax. It listened to Angel, again, as it heard him speaking.
"This isn't about you doing what's expected of you, Wes. It isn't about you doing what's right. It's about *you* deciding. Whether you want to please yourself or please others, it's always going to be your own decision. Always."
Uncertain, still, it voiced the question that rose unbidden to its lips, unhappy with the shake that was present even in the words: "What if... what if this one does not know how to decide? How will it decide, when there are so many choices?" The question that had plagued it for months, now, in one form or another.
It had never dared to ask quite so directly before, and it wanted to hide its errant tongue away somewhere inside its throat, when Angel turned it face to his, and smiled. "That's what it means to be human, Wesley. None of us know the answer to that. Not me, not Cordelia, not Gunn. We just take every choice as it comes, because that's the only thing you *can* do.""
It thought about that, wanting to accept Angel's words at their face value. But it could not, when the risks could be so high. "What if it chooses wrongly?" it felt emboldened enough to ask.
"Then you think about choosing differently next time," Angel said easily. As if he did not even realize the import of his words.
It thought about remaining quiet. Taking the comfort as given, and gathering itself to crawl out of its Master's arms and regain some form of dignity. "It...will not be punished?" it ventured hesitantly. Knowing that Angel had said it would not be, it still could not make itself *remember* that, every time.
Angel sighed, and rubbed its back. "Sometimes the consequences of a bad decision can feel like punishment. But it's the universe that metes it out. Not me. It won't ever be me."
It sat there for a while. Taking in what had been said. Trying to see how much of it could be believed. The feeling that Angel was telling the truth was strong, but there was always that uncertainty. Still. Breathing was a little less difficult. When it thought it could ask without its voice shaking at all, it did. "Is this one... am I, very tiresome to you? It thinks sometimes that it must be."
"No, you aren't," Angel answered instantly. It could hear the note of pleasure in Angel's voice.
If it were not supposed to behave solely to please Angel, then why did it feel so right to have done so? Was that mere habit, something to be unlearned? It did not explain why displeasing the others -- his master's friends, its...his own friends -- felt so wrong. It did not explain why the opportunity to redress what had happened tonight, to Gunn, made it afraid all over again of causing more displeasure.
It was not certain that it could explain, if asked to do so. It knew simply that it did not wish to. That he did not wish to. If it was the wrong decision, perhaps the universe would be kinder to him than his former Masters had been. Perhaps even as kind as his current one.
The problem was, however, that it still wanted Gunn to be happy.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Gunn asked, holding the door open for Wesley. Did he realize he was doing that? Wesley instinctively wanted to take hold of the door and hold it for Gunn, but he knew that would only complicate the conversation, and there were people behind them.
"Yes, Charles. I'm sure."
"'Cause if you don't, we can always do something else. And if you don't like it, you gotta let me know, okay?"
Wesley nodded. He wasn't sure *how* he would let Gunn know, if such became the case, because he was quite certain that he would have the same feelings he had had the last time: a desire to keep his mouth closed even if he was not enjoying the activity, because... If he could not explain to himself why, how on earth could he begin to explain to Charles? Perhaps he had best simply hope that he did, indeed, like what they were about to do.
They walked into the building, which was smoky and loud. There were people moving about, people of all ages and types -- all human types, but there was apparently little segregation of class. Working class, students, families, and more. He looked around, wondering again just what it was they were about to do.
Gunn had explained it all, describing the activity before they ever arrived -- all the while asking 'Does that sound okay?' and 'Do you think you'd like to?' Gunn's nervousness had rubbed off, until now, finally here, Wesley wasn't sure that they weren't both so determined to enjoy themselves that they couldn't possibly.
Gunn was leading him over to a counter, and a moment later turned with a smile. "Damn, glad I called for a reservation. Our lane's just come open, waiting list is almost an hour long." He grinned, and told the woman their shoe sizes.
Wesley found himself frowning. If there were others, waiting, it was not proper that it go ahead of them. Gunn could, of course, but he could take three of the others, instead of dragging it... Wesley gave himself a mental shake. *He* was going to do this. With Gunn.
They walked to the lane assigned to them, and Wesley sat down. He stared, for a moment, at the shoes. Did he *like* these shoes? Gunn noticed his dilemma.
"They're bowling shoes, Wes. They're *supposed* to be ugly. You just wear 'em so you don't slip on the lane."
That did make a certain sort of sense. "Oh, good. Because they are... not very attractive." He slipped his own shoes off, and began to lace up the two-toned red-and-blue shoes.
"They fit all right?" Gunn was a little too nervous, still, and it made Wesley shake, just a bit, but he held on to his 'him'-ness, and nodded.
"They seem to."
"Good. Come on, let's find you a ball." Gunn led him to a long rail-like shelf, where sat several black and multi-coloured balls. Wesley wondered if he were intended to chose by colour -- despite Cordelia's attempts, he had not yet been able to form a preference for colour -- except for not liking the rose she had tried to decorate his room with.
"Pick one up, see how heavy it is. You gotta pick 'em by whether it's light enough for you to roll down the lane, but heavy enough to knock the pins down." Gunn had come up beside him, and was picking up and hefting various bowling balls.
Wesley nodded, and began to do the same. There were certainly a great many different sizes and weights of ball here. He picked one up that seemed to be about the same size Gunn was holding, and tried the same rolling-but-not-letting-go motion. It really wasn't very heavy. If the point was to knock down all the pins, surely he would want the heaviest one there? Which was a very large, bright red ball with pearly waves embedded in the plastic. Wesley stared at it for a moment, his human eyes seeming to see beneath the surface. Then he picked it up.
"That might be a little heavy for you, Wes," Gunn warned him.
"The purpose is to roll the ball down the lane at a velocity high enough to knock those --wooden?-- pins down, correct?"
For a moment Gunn didn't answer. Wesley looked over to find him looking at Wes, a soft smile on his face. "Damn, you... sound like yourself."
Disconcerted, as well as pleased, Wesley tried not to say anything which would make that look go away. "That is the purpose of bowling?" he prompted after another moment.
"Yeah, yeah, that's the point. But that ball--"
"Then this one should be sufficient. I will have to test it, of course."
"Of course." Gunn said it dead-pan, but when Wes looked over again, the smile was still there.
He smiled back.
Stepping onto the actual walking-space of the lane, Wesley watched the woman in the next lane roll her ball. Studied the walk, the swinging back of the arm, the slight bending of the knees, the release. It seemed simple enough. He followed suit.
Gunn joined him as he stood at the edge of the lane, feet not quite touching the Line That You Must Not Step Over. "Wes?"
He turned to look at his friend. "Did I do something wrong?" Gunn shook his head very quickly. Used, by now, to reassuring Wesley that whatever he had done this time was perfectly fine. Wesley sighed. "Why are you looking at me like that, then?"
"I've just never seen anybody actually knock the head off a pin before."
"It achieved the desired result?" he asked, frowning a bit. Several people nearby were staring, and pointing.
"Yeah, sorta. You want the ball to stay on the lane, and knock 'em over by hitting the pins in the base," Gunn explained in a tone of patience he had been hearing a lot from Angel, and Cordelia.
This was the first time he had really heard it from Gunn. He was able to nod, and say, "I see. Should I try again?" without succumbing to the irresistible urge to apologize.
"Yeah, you get two throws -- er rolls, I mean *rolls*, each turn."
Wesley nodded again, and waited for his ball to return from the contraption next to their seats, before rolling once more. This time his ball rolled neatly down the edge of the lane, knocking seven pins down with a loud clatter. He stared down the lane for a few moments, and again Gunn said his name.
Wesley pointed down the lane. "I didn't get one of them."
Instead of the patient explanation he expected, that it was all right, no one was very good on their first try, Gunn chuckled. "Nine out of ten ain't bad, slick. Trust me."
He nodded, finding it easy to do so. He moved away from the lane, sitting in one of the hard, uncomfortable seats while Gunn took his turn. He watched closely, studying the way Gunn moved, the way he swung his arm back, the way his legs bent, the way he leaned forward as he bowled.
Wesley decided he liked bowling.
As Gunn walked back after his second throw -- knocking down seven pins, Wesley noted -- he decided not to say anything, just yet. Not for the same reasons he didn't say right away when he disliked something, or thought he might. But he wanted to be sure he liked it. He might simply be happy because they'd stopped and had bubblegum ice cream, beforehand.
Gunn had told him, in strict confidence, that he liked the unnaturally pink stuff, too, and Cordelia could keep the double chocolate fudge swirl stuff.
Then he was taking his turn again, trying to aim better, now that he knew what he was supposed to be doing. It was clear there were several places he could impact the pins in order to knock them all down. The trick was apparently in striking one of those spots properly. He bowled, then stood at the edge of the lane. An easy trick, as it were.
Gunn gave him the oddest look as he walked back to the ball-return. Not one of the usual 'Wesley's done something cute/embarrassing/saddening' looks, but something between suspicious and amused. "What?" he asked, realizing as he did so that he had asked with no fear of what the answer might be. None.
"You hustling me, man?"
"I'm not sure what you mean." He knew what the term 'hustle' meant, and he assumed Gunn was referring to the practice of telling someone that one was a novice at something, when one was actually an expert-- and not the unspeakably disturbing dance he had seen on a late-night disco-music commercial. But Gunn knew he had never bowled before, even in his life as a 'free' rogue demon hunter.
"You said you couldn't bowl." Gunn was still looking amused, and Wesley was struck by the urge to...enjoy himself.
"I said I had never bowled before. I never said I could not bowl." He kept his face impassive. Innocent.
"Uh-huh." Gunn's eyes narrowed, and he walked over. Reached down and picked up Wesley's hand, and studied it.
Wesley suddenly felt as if he should not move.
"You do something to your hand?" Gunn asked quietly, still sounding amused.
Wesley was unsure again, just for a moment, as he nodded. "I... the holes were very far apart, and the ball was rather heavy for the way my hand usually is. It seemed silly to choose a ball that was less suited for the job of hitting the pins, when I can change myself, to suit the ball. Did I do something wrong?"
The question slipped out before he could clamp his teeth on it, because he knew it he had asked it once already, and more than once was likely to elicit one of the looks that Gunn *hadn't* been giving him tonight.
But there seemed only to be curiosity in the steady brown gaze. "So you made your arm muscles stronger?"
"I...changed them back more closely to my original form, though I did not want to change the exterior too greatly." He hadn't wanted anyone staring at his hands, not here in what Gunn had assured him was an all-human alley. There was another alley which catered to non humans, but Gunn couldn't have gone bowling there without Angel, Cordelia, and a small army along as protection.
Cordelia had already been teasing them about needing a chaperone, and Angel had offered to come along, to help make Gunn listen to whatever Wesley needed to say. Wesley had almost taken his Master up on the offer, if only to see the vampire bowl.
Instead they had come here, and Gunn was holding its hand like...like.... "Should I change it back?"
A slow shake of Gunn's head from side to side, and a transformation of the expression on his face, but unlike what Wesley had done to his own arm, this change was outside Wesley's ability to decipher. "No. It's just fine the way it is."
Wesley was unsure of the expression on his own face. He *felt* as if he were smiling, but it was a strange sort of smile. At last Gunn let go of his hand, suddenly, and backed away, picking up his own ball.
"Gonna have to remember I'm playing with a superhero, though," he said, his back turned as he walked toward the lane proper, already moving into bowling stance.
"Super--" He stopped, startled, but not wanting to...what? He asked himself, and spent several moments thinking about why he was thinking about it. What he was trying to figure out, when all he wanted to do was sit down and watch Gunn bowl.
He did so, even though he was feeling more confused than relaxed. When it was his turn once more, he knocked nine of the pins down on the first attempt, and managed a smile when Gunn congratulated him. Was he feeling this way simply because every time he began to relax and enjoy himself, he expected things to go wrong? Or because last time he and Gunn had spent time together, they *had*? Terribly wrong, such that it had taken him three days to stop thinking of himself as 'this one', again.
He recognized the cycle that he seemed to be trapping himself into -- his very fear of not having a good time causing him not to, which in turn might make the experience worse as Gunn reacted to his discomfort -- but he wasn't sure how to break the circular pattern of his thoughts. As he rolled his second ball, and this time hit the tenth pin, he could feel Gunn watching him. Anxious, no doubt, to see that he was either enjoying himself, or about to tell Gunn otherwise.
When he turned around to walk back, Gunn was standing up. Walking over as if to get his own ball, but he stopped beside the ball-return. "That was great, Wes."
Wesley nodded, still half-trapped in his own uncertainty. "Thank you. I think..." What did he want to say? That he enjoyed the game? He was almost sure that he did.
He stood still, not sure how to continue, and Gunn put a hand on his arm again. "Wes, are you sure you're not just doing this because I *want* you to have a good time?"
"I..am sure," he managed. "I am enjoying this." It was said haltingly, but apparently honestly enough. Gunn's smile returned, spreading out across his face. Wesley gave in to impulse and changed his eyes, just for a moment, and watched the swirls of Gunn's aura.
When he changed them back, he found Gunn still watching him. There was more amusement than worry in his expression, now. "You know your eyes just did that thing?" he asked, and Wesley couldn't tell if the casualness was faked, or if he were being teased. He waited as Gunn took his turn, waited patiently as Gunn knocked the remaining pins down on his second throw, and turned back to him with a smirk. "Now who's the superhero bowling man?"
Wesley smiled. "I am. You've just done this before." His voice wasn't as strong or confident as he wished he felt. But...it felt right.
"Yeah? You sayin' *I'm* a hustler?" Now he was definitely being teased.
He... dare he attempt to tease back? "Can you?"
Gunn frowned, but only in confusion, so far as Wesley could tell. "Can I what?"
"Do the hustle?"
The look on Gunn's face was worth having to wear the ugly shoes. It was worth having to wear *twelve* pairs of ugly shoes. At the same time. He kept his face quite carefully impassive, still. Not laughing, not yet, because it would distract him from watching Gunn react. Watching the grin break out, the twitch that led to laughter, then smoothly churned into a shake of the head and the cool man of the street was heading towards the seats. "Go bowl, man."
Wesley dutifully did so, but only because he wanted to.
It was growing cool by the time they headed outside for the truck. Night had fallen an hour ago, but the weather hadn't quite turned into hot summer nights. Wesley ventured to think he might prefer this temperature, though he couldn't quite remember caring enough about it, before now, to recall if he truly didn't like summer heat.
Perhaps the cool air was just cool, and his pleasure at stepping outside was an escape from the smoke and noise. He wasn't sure, and he felt himself slipping into the mode of analyzing everything he did, and everything he felt.
He glanced over at Gunn. "Did I do all right?" he asked.
Gunn rolled his eyes. "Bowled a 280, twice, and asks if he did all right."
He hadn't really been asking about his bowling skill. More about the entire night. Had he done all right. Had he made Gunn feel that Wesley had been enjoying himself. Had *Gunn* enjoyed himself. He didn't know quite how to explain, though. "I just meant..." He shrugged, the words not coming to him.
A look of concern, now, which was not what he wanted at all. "You did fine, Wesley. But you shouldn't worry about how you look to me. Just about whether you had fun or not. Did you?"
He nodded. But it didn't erase his concern. Remembering what Angel had said -- suggested, not ordered, but it seemed more like something he ought to do. He stopped beside Gunn's truck, and when he made no move to get in the cab, Gunn stopped as well and looked at him.
Doubt crossed his face. "You did have fun, right?"
"I enjoyed bowling," Wesley said quickly.
"So what's wrong?"
He still had no idea how to say this so that he wouldn't upset Gunn all over again. They hadn't mentioned the night at the opera, beyond implicit references each time Gunn encouraged him to speak up if he weren't enjoying himself. "Charles...."
"Yeah?" The slight scowl and suspicion hadn't dimmed, at all.
"I...it wouldn't have mattered."
Gunn was radiating suspicion *and* confusion, now. In fact, when Wesley let his eyes transform for a moment, trying to see what his human self could not, as if the answers were there in Gunn's aura, he noticed dark streaks of something he couldn't quite identify. "What wouldn't have mattered?"
Wesley breathed. Just breathed, for a moment, then answered. "It would not have mattered whether I enjoyed the bowling."
Even Gunn's eyes had darkened, and Wesley feared a repetition of the previous experience, if he could not explain himself better, this time. "Wes, I told you--"
"It would not have mattered," Wesley dared to interrupt him, and was shocked at his own bravery, with the part of his mind that was not focusing on what he had to try to convey, "because I enjoyed being here."
"The bowling alley?"
Welsey shook his head. "No. I would have enjoyed being wherever we were. Even if we had gone back to the opera."
"You didn't like the opera."
"I did not. But...I did not dislike being there." He was struggling to explain, though at least now Gunn appeared to be listening, and not getting angry.
He was still confused, though. "You didn't like the opera, but you liked going to the opera?"
"What the--" Then he stopped. Stopped speaking, stopped moving. Might have stopped breathing, except Wesley changed his eyes once more and saw the sway of his body that meant his lungs were moving. Then there were those swirls again, tiny, flickering almost faster than he could watch. The smile that accompanied them took his attention away from the aura. "Yeah?" Gunn asked, shyly.
Wesley nodded slowly. Wondering what he had said, or if he had said it right. It seemed, whatever it was, that he had. "I just liked... do you understand?" Wesley asked. Still not sure what the next words should be. "Just to be, spend time..."
Gunn's hand on his, just for a moment, the lightest touch, stopped him from babbling, stopped him from constantly reaching for the next way to say something he had no idea how to say. "Yeah, I understand. You... yeah." Another smile, this one softer, but somehow Wesley liked it even more than the first one. "I like you, too," Gunn said. "I'll even sit through La Traviata with you."
"But not awake?" Wes teased, amazed at his audacity. Giddy was perhaps a better word. Relieved that things were not going terribly, after all.
He felt fingers in his hand, again, and closed his own around them. Lightly, gingerly, and wondered...what now.
The radio was playing in the office. Tuned to a sixties retro-station that only Wesley openly liked, though he sometimes caught Angel tapping his toes to the Supremes. The four of them were scattered around the room, just relaxing after an evening of work well-done.
The staff of Angel Investigations, not the Supremes.
It hadn't been a difficult caper -- searching for a lost magical icon, which the wealthy owner didn't want anyone, mostly his wife, to find. The icon was carved into the form of a nude female, though its magical properties were about stabilty and home life. He'd been afraid to explain it to her, regardless.
They'd found the object in the shed, after only an evening of searching. The housekeeper had found it, and hidden it. Why, they hadn't asked. They'd returned it, collected a cheque, and left before anyone could say why. A small job, but the sort they all hoped they could get a few more of. Easy, paid for jobs where no one got hurt or slimed or kidnapped or turned into a raging lunatic.
Wesley was sitting at his desk -- *his* desk, they'd insisted he keep it, and he was getting used to calling it such, again -- reading his mail. Mostly junk mail and circulars, but he found them fascinating.
"Are you sure I can't order something?" he asked, flipping another page of the Fingerhut catalog. The *things* they offered.
"I know I said I wouldn't order you around," Angel began.
"I will." Cordelia looked at him. "No."
Wesley nodded obediently, then looked up again. "Why not?"
"I *told* you why not," she said patiently. "Because those catalogs are actually demon-spawn. If you order from even one of them, five more show up the next morning on the doorstep. They can smell a sucker all the way from ..." she glanced at the back of the catalog. "Pueblo, Colorado."
"But if I don't order something, this might be the last catalog I ever receive," he said, just as if he were actually serious.
"Good! That's the point, " Cordelia explained. She sounded as serious as she had when she'd explained the difference between sugar bubble gum and sugar-free. "You want them to never find you. Change your name, if necessary."
"Change my name?" He acted surprised. It made him think, though. He hadn't done anything about his name, since being claimed by Angel. Hadn't thought much about it, at all, until now. He could. He had no idea what he would change it to, but...he could.
Cordelia was pulling the catalog out of his hands, and he tightened his grip. "Give me the catalog, Wes!"
"I haven't looked at the special deals pages yet." He frowned at her.
Gunn walked over. "Give her the catalog, man. It'll be OK."
Wesley looked from him to Cordelia. In the process he caught Angel's face -- and saw the laughter his owner was trying to hold back. "No," he said proudly, trying it out now, for the first time. In a safe place, over a silly thing. "I need to see if the goose and goslings paper towel rack is still available. It was a limited-run item, last time."
"Trust me, Wesley," Cordelia began. "It's for your own... did you just say no?"
He nodded. "I did."
If he were looking at her with his natural eyes, he would undoubtedly have seen a lightshow, assuming her aura always matched her own eyes. But what he saw on her face was enough. Quite enough. Then Cordelia nodded back. "That's wonderful." She reached for his hand, and patted it-- then, as he relaxed, pleased that he had made her proud and aware that it was all right to be pleased about that, she snatched the catalog from his grasp. "You still don't get to keep this, though."
"I can't order the ceramic pig paperweight set?" He gave her a mildly stricken look.
"No." She smiled. "See how easy it is?" She took the catalog over to the weapons chest, and began rummaging through it. "Didn't we have matches in here?"
Welsey turned his look on Gunn, who patted his shoulder. "You'll be OK, man. It hurts at first, but soon you forget all about it."
Wesley was about to say that he wouldn't, because Fingerhut was already delivering catalogues to Angel's hotel, when the phone rang. Angel picked it up. "Angel Investigations. We help... Oh. Hi." A tone in his voice that Wesley had not heard for ages. Something that rang of the past. Quite which part of his two-and-a-half-century past, Wesley didn't know, but Cordelia turned a sharp look in the direction of the telephone as well. "Yes, we can do that, I guess. We'll be here most of the night. Do you need directions?" Now all three of them were watching Angel as he gave the address and directions from the freeway to whomever was on the other end of the line. "Yes. That's right. Third storefront from the corner. We'll... yeah. We'll see you then."
When he put down the phone, Angel glanced first at Wesley. Did it mean something? A new client? Something that required his research skills-- or perhaps even the talents of his other form, for there had been a case like that. A chance for him to actually spread his wings, somewhere out near the beach, and fly in to rescue a child who had been trapped in a rockfall. He waited expectantly, now.
"Giles, Buffy, and Willow are coming down," came the unexpected words.
Gunn didn't seem fazed, but Cordelia smiled. "Wonderful! Um, it is wonderful, right? Or is this bad? What's wrong?" She frowned at Angel, who was watching Wesley.
Who was having trouble moving. Giles, Buffy, Willow. Here. Tonight. "What...services are they in need of?" he asked. Maybe he could go home, or sneak out to the cafe down the street and wait for them to be gone again. No doubt they were here to see Angel.
"They need something translated. Giles said it was urgent, and too fragile to scan and e-mail down. So they're coming down so you can take a look at it. Giles said you can read proto-uwgandian?" Angel looked at him closer. "Wes? What's wrong?"
He wasn't sure what was wrong, except that it was *wrong*. That those people should not be coming, that it would not be happy with those people here. That... "Th... This one can read that language, yes."
Cordelia looked at him more sharply than she had been glaring at the phone. "Wesley, what's wrong? Snap out of it."
And for a moment, at least, the sound of her voice, with the direction in it that was not a command, merely a concerned request, did snap him out of it. "I...don't know if I will be able to speak to them. To see them."
"Why not?" Angel and Gunn asked, together. Gunn's tone a touch sharper, Angel's a touch more confused. He looked from one to the other, unable to tell which was more concerned.
"They'll know... find out what I am." Whether he meant not human, or slave, he couldn't have said.
"So, we don't tell them." Cordelia shrugged.
If only it could be that simple. Wesley looked down, at the floor. Very nearly the spot he had fallen to, in supplication before his former master. Would they be able to tell? Read it in his eyes or his aura, feel it in the air? See the indentation in the carpet where he had knelt....
He was on the verge of thinking of himself as it again, and it was wondering if it could hide in the walk-in closet in its room with a cup of cocoa and a blanket, and have the scroll or book or whatever it was handed in to it, so that it could read it with a flashlight and Cordelia could take dictation. Badly.
But neither he nor it had that luxury. It would not be serving if it did that, and he... would not be making his friends proud of him. "It will... I'll try. I just want you to know, in advance, that it may be difficult."
"Why? Isn't proto-ugwhat something you're fluent in?" Cordelia asked, and he suspected she knew that wasn't what he was referring to.
Still, he answered her. "They...once they know, once they find out... They did not care for this...me, when I was a Watcher. They saw me fail...when I was fired, and disowned." It was a struggle to control his words, fighting against the urge to abase itself and let its Master send it away. Safely.
Cordelia put her hand on his arm. When he met her eyes, they were an odd mix of muddy brown, and glittering determination. "We don't have to tell them. They don't need to know, and if they thought that you were a failure, they wouldn't be coming to you for help."
"They might be desperate," he replied, though her words warmed him.
"Everything's always desperate," she reminded him. "That's what we do. Save the world and come home in time for Wheel of Fortune. Or those late-night dial-a-psychic commercials in Angel's case. If they're coming to you, specifically, it's because they think *you* have what they need."
"I don't call those psychic lines," Angel protested mildly.
"I meant you get home in time for them, since if you were out when Wheel of Fortune comes on, you'd be a big mousse-covered dustbunny," Cordelia said.
They were trying to comfort him, and it was working, to an extent. So why was it Gunn's steady gaze at him from a few feet away that was doing the most to keep him calm, when he hadn't said a word beyond that first question of what was wrong? But he had to press. Had to know what would happen. It was new enough in itself, that he needed to know. For so long he only waited, took what came. Now he needed to know, so he could prepare. Make it change. "What if...I make a mistake? If...I say something and they know?"
"They don't have to know." Gunn walked closer. "So what if you say something and they wonder what's up? They want a translation. You give 'em their translation and they go home. Simple as that."
Wesley wanted to believe him. He wondered if pretending he did would work as well as it used to.
They managed to keep him calm, and distracted, for the next few hours. First they sat in the office and talked, then they turned the television on. At one point Angel went out and came back with ice cream, but Wesley hadn't been able to eat much of it. He had had a chance for a quiet conversation with Angel -- asked him to please be the one to explain, if it came to that. Bad enough they should find out, he knew he couldn't bear to explain.
Angel had simply nodded. Said of course. Of course he would explain, be the go-between to people who had mixed feelings towards him at best. He had been willing to help explain things to Gunn, he was willing to explain to Buffy. Wesley didn't know if Angel's calm assurances made him happy that his Master was really his friend, or sad that after this long, he still needed them.
Now they were all sitting around, pretending not to be waiting. Every vehicle that drove past made at least one of them jump...then suddenly a car pulled up to the curb outside. They all turned, watched as the headlights went out, then dark forms moved from the vehicle and thumps were heard, as the car doors were closed.
Wesley wanted to leave. Tell them he knew nothing, had forgotten all his languages. Even as he thought it, the fear settled in him and he knew he would do as he was told. Felt himself falling into the very habits he wanted to hide away.
Watched as first Willow-- who didn't disturb him so much, since she had always been rather friendly, even if that kindness was never specifically aimed at him-- then Buffy, and finally Rupert Giles walked through the office doors. When the Slayer took a step toward him, determination written on her face, he began to feel much smaller than even the height of his human body. Began to wonder if down on the floor in that unmarked spot on the carpet was not the best place for it to be after all.
Greetings were exchanged in that perfunctory manner that had always seemed to float around the meetings between the two groups. Honest hugs between Willow, Buffy and Cordelia. Awkward hello's between Angel and everyone except Willow, who had a smile even for Gunn, who was half-glowering as he was introduced to the crowd. He was also standing very close to Wesley, something that gave Wesley an unexpected jolt of him-not-it-ness. Through it all, Wesley breathed, slowly, and tried to speak as little as possible.
"So, here's the scroll," Giles said, instantly to business as soon as the round of greetings and introductions were over. He handed a small, tightly wrapped piece of parchment to Wesley, who took it and had to stifle the need to bow his head as he received it. He tried to not notice the looks he got from Buffy and Giles -- Willow was trying to chat with Cordelia, who was talking and keeping an eye on Wes.
As Wesley unrolled the scroll carefully, spreading it out on the desk, Buffy asked, "So, what have you guys been up to?" Her tone was casual, directed at anyone who cared to answer.
"Oh, the usual. Finding naked women, killing stone giants," Angel replied, a bit too quickly to sound truly calm.
But perhaps they would believe it was nervousness over seeing Buffy. Wesley tried to concentrate on the scroll, but it was easy to read, simple to decipher if one had spent a decade serving one's Master's cousins as they received new servants from the souls of dead Uwgandians.
"Sounds fun," Buffy was saying, and Wesley wondered if he looked up, whether he would find everyone watching her, or watching him.
He was writing things down. He had a pencil and a legal pad, and he could write an English translation without ever having to make a decision about whether to use the masculine or the neuter pronoun to refer to the translator. He could concentrate on the faded markings of the scroll, the calm, familiar, sunny yellow of the legal pad, the blue lines on which he was writing out the translation in a neat, printed hand that was only slightly shaky.
Until his pencil-lead broke, of course, and he had to look up to ask someone for another, and the nearest person wasn't Gunn, only because Gunn was standing between Wesley and Giles, blocking the older man's view of him. The nearest person was Buffy.
He looked back down. Perhaps there was another writing utensil at hand, even though he knew there wasn't because he'd had to search for the one he now held. He looked, anyway, and only stopped when Buffy asked, "Whatcha need?" She sounded cheerful and friendly.
He opened his mouth twice, before he was able to say anything at all. "A pencil," he said in a near-whisper. Concentrating so hard on not saying anything wrong, he had nothing left to make sure he spoke loudly enough to be heard.
"Here," Angel said, suddenly standing in front of the desk, holding out two sharpened pencils. He ducked his head, unable to say 'thank you'.
Soon enough, it was over. Soon enough, although writing down a page and a half of information seemed to have taken as long as his entire period of servitude to Master Airelain. He was aware of the real time passing, as well as the unending moments of silence that seemed to fall in the space between each second of actual time. At last he looked up, to find Angel still near him, and he handed the legal pad over. Would it be required that he speak? He had written the translation very clearly, and the results were hardly open to interpretation.
"This is it?" Giles asked, accepting the paper from Angel. He looked at it, frowning slightly. It was over -- they would take the translation and go. He would let his friends make him feel better-- "You're sure this is correct?" Giles asked.
"It is," was out of his mouth before he meant it -- then realized they would misunderstand what it had said.
"Cool! Thanks, Wes," Buffy grinned. Wesley inclined his head, hoping they would leave, now. Waiting, impatiently for them to do so.
"That was rather quickly done," Giles said. "No references... are you certain about this passage, here?" He pointed to a line of text.
Yes, he was certain. He had been thinking of nothing else but translating the passage perfectly, so that these familiar strangers would leave and allow him to collapse in peace. But the question jarred Wesley, so badly that the stutter slipped out, and with it the habitual slip of self-awareness. "It is certain."
Buffy looked at him questioningly. "It is certain?" she repeated, playing its own speech patterns back at it like a recording. "You sound like a Magic Eight-Ball."
"He does not," Cordelia countered instantly, then faltered as she apparently tried to think of a reasonable explanation.
"Was there anything else you needed?" Angel asked, almost smoothly, into the expectant silence. Everyone who had been staring at Cordelia, now stared at Angel.
"No, this was... everything," Giles said. He shot a curious look back at Wesley. "Is there something...." He trailed off, sounding uncertain that he really wanted to know.
Wesley's friends all gave Giles totally innocent looks. Buffy's eyes narrowed.
"Why are you all standing like that?" Willow suddenly asked. "It's like you're trying to protect Wesley from...us?" Her eyes widened.
Cordelia's widened just as much. "Who, us?" Similar expressions of determined 'We don't know what you're talking about and we're not *going* to know what you're talking about no matter how much you talk about it' graced Angel's and Gunn's faces.
Buffy's eyes narrowed even further. It should have known. Should never have expected that the Slayer who had seen it fail, perhaps its greatest failure in its long life of servitude, would not see it failing again. Failing to hide what it was, failing to be free instead of just trying to act free.
"Look, if that's all you need..." Angel had stepped forward again, standing between Buffy and Giles. "Shouldn't you be heading back to Sunnydale now? Don't you have something urgent to do with that scroll?" Unfortunately, it could see that its Master's attempts to distract them, only served to intensify their suspicions.
"Wesley? Is there anything wrong?" Giles asked carefully.
It shook its head. Looked at Angel for reassurance. Their visitors caught its glance, however, and suddenly it was surrounded by the Watcher, the Slayer, and a pissed-off witch.
"Wesley, do you want to come with us?" Buffy glanced over her shoulder at Angel and Cordelia. Giles was glaring at each of Wesley's friends, and giving Wesley a concerned look.
Go with them? Why on earth would it want to go with them, back to Sunnydale, away from its friends and its life and its bubblegum ice cream and the fact that it could watch a professional ice fishing tournament with Gunn and still have a good time? It recognized the concern on its former colleague's face, could see that they did not wish it harm, but was not made more at ease by their behavior. It looked around at its friends again, then, slowly, shook its head.
"You don't have to ask their permission, Wesley," Willow said quietly, casting uncertain looks at Wesley's friends. "Whatever they did to you--" She stopped and smiled at Angel, who was standing right beside her. "Not that I'm saying anyone did anything. But, maybe we could continue this conversation elsewhere?" She glanced at Wesley, again.
Wesley did not answer her. "Angel?"
"I think you can leave now," Angel said to their visitors, though his eyes never left Wesley's.
"Not until we know what's going on," Buffy countered, and the threats in both of their voices matched almost perfectly.
Gunn stepped a bit closer to her, as if he didn't know the power inherent in the Slayer's diminutive form-- or didn't care. "What's with you people? Nothing's going on, and Wes is just fine right where he is. Unless you folks got a job offer for him or something?"
"Which explains why you don't want us to stay? Won't let us talk to him? Why he keeps looking at Angel as if asking for permission before he says anything?" Buffy glared back, and for a moment no one moved. "If I didn't know you were human, I'd--"
"You'd what? Lady, I don't know where you think you get off coming in here and..."
They were toe to toe, Gunn glowering down at Buffy, the Slayer holding power in check that could throw Gunn across the room, if she let go, and Wesley did not want to see this any longer. Did *not* want this to be happening. Did not *like* this.
"Please stop," he said softly, and when they continued to glare at each other, he repeated it. Louder.
They stopped, and looked at him. Buffy was still confused, but the expression on Gunn's face.... Gunn was smiling. Surprised, but there was that tiny smile of pride on his face. Wesley allowed himself to be distracted by it, for a moment.
"Fine, then tell us--" Buffy began. Wesley knew what he had to do -- had to explain, so they would stop...trying to rescue him. Which was exactly what they were doing, he realized.
He glanced at Angel again. Buffy stepped in front of him, so he could not see its Master's eyes. "Tell us what's wrong. Something's wrong."
Wesley forced himself to look into determined blue-green eyes that... What would a Slayer's aura look like, he wondered. He had never seen Faith's with his natural senses--nor, he suspected, would he want to-- but Buffy's... But he could not. He had to explain, and...
Perhaps, though, that would be the simplest way. "There is nothing wrong," he said as calmly as he could, as he held on to 'he' with everything he possessed inside himself. "But things are not as you thought they were. *I* am not what you thought I was." And he looked.
Her aura was filled with stars.
"Your eyes just went all funny," Buffy said.
"Oo, they did -- are you the possessed one?" Willow asked, tilting her head to one side. "Because we can do something about that...I think...."
He turned his head slightly towards Angel, since the vampire could not read the direction of his gaze when his eyes were this way. Angel nodded, recalling his promise to be the one to say these difficult words, and asked, "Would you like to show them the rest?"
Wesley bowed his head slightly, gesture of the slave he was, but nothing that would get him frowned at. As he let his body flow into its original form, he looked at the others.
Willow was surrounded by a dark green aura, pulsating gently to the rhythm of the earth. Giles' was sharp and clear, with a hint of blue, and it reflected the light of his Slayer's stars. They all reflected confusion.
"This is what I am," he said simply. Then he corrected himself, at a look from Gunn. "This is part of what I am."
With even his friends looking stunned, perhaps at his ability to use the word 'I' while standing here in this form in front of these people, he began to explain.
"But... why didn't you tell any of us? Ever?" Willow said slowly, still looking at him as if she was certain *someone* in the room were possessed.
The others had finally sat, or perched on the edges of desks or other furniture, while he had spoken. He was still proud to have never called himself 'it' or 'this one' during the entire story. "How could I? At first, I had no permission to do so. I'd been instructed not to let *anyone* know. After... I thought I was free. And," he felt his heart stammer, once, and continued, "And you were not my friends. I had no need to tell you."
The three from Sunnydale exchanged guilty glances. They didn't try to object, though Buffy muttered, "Yeah, well, you *were* kinda annoying," as if to excuse their behavior.
Willow still looked hurt, and Cordelia spoke up. "Hey, he only told *us* a few months ago, and we're his best friends." She gave Wesley a flash of a smile.
Which he returned, even though the sight of his natural smile made Giles blanch, slightly. "I can't help but feel..." the newly reinstated Watcher said slowly, "that we wronged you somehow. And yet the role you were being asked to play was someone who did his best make things impossible for us in Sunnydale."
"I...should apologize," he said, not entirely sure he wanted to, but able to acknowledge how they must see it. "I had no choice." His friends were giving him their sad looks, again. He wanted to make those expressions go away.
"No, you needn't apologize," Giles was saying. Wesley returned his attention to his former colleague. "You did as you were told. We were the ones...well, we had choices."
It was Buffy, surprisingly, who nodded. Who placed her hand on Wesley's arm-- Wesley's transformed arm. Buffy, who he would have expected to hold a grudge the longest, no matter her concern for his welfare, based on the last time he had seen her, when she was condemning Angel for deciding to help Faith. "I can't take back what went on back then, and I don't know if I should. But... things have changed. For all of us. I just want to know if this is what you want. If you're happy here. " The starlight in her aura pulsed, slightly, and he wondered if Angel had seen it, or something like it. If that was why.
"I..." He stopped, and considered the question. It would be easy enough to say 'yes', and they would accept his answer, and go. He looked at his friends once more. "I am almost happy."
"Almost?" from several in the room.
He nodded. "There is one thing I need to...settle. Then I believe I shall be happy here."
"What's that?" Buffy frowned.
"Do you have a Fingerhut catalogue?"
The others were a little shocked, he supposed, when Cordelia bounced it off his head. "Willow, you were right. He *is* possessed. Do you know of a spell to cure consumer suckerism?"
Willow's mouth was open in a little round O. Then it finally snapped shut. Finally, finally, she grinned. "A subscription to the Sharper Image catalog? It worked for Xander. Just looking at all those expensive toys he couldn't *possibly* afford made him disgusted with the cheap stuff."
"Sharper Image?" Wesley turned to her. He saw Angel groan.
No one said much of anything, after Buffy, Giles and Willow finally left. There was a general air of relief, of 'glad that's over with', even though things had gone rather well, all told. Wesley was glad to be alone with his friends, once more -- glad he'd spent the entire evening thinking and speaking of them as 'his friends' and not 'his master and his master's friends'.
He'd only started to call Angel 'Master' once, and had caught himself before anyone besides his friends noticed. He'd gotten more sad looks, then, but they were all gone now.
Perhaps it was the ice cream they'd taken out of the freezer, and were now trying to bully Angel into tasting.
"It's only banana cream, it won't kill you," Cordelia was saying.
"You don't know. It might. There might be holy water in it," Angel said, backing away from the spoon.
Wesley read the ingredients off the carton. "Milk, sugar, cream, natural banana flavoring. Polysorbate 80. No holy water."
"And what exactly is polysorbate 80? I've always wanted to know," Gunn deadpanned. "I mean, were there really seventy-nine different polysorbates before they settled on whatever's in that ice cream?"
"You're really increasing my inclination to taste that stuff," Angel informed them.
"Oh, go on, Angel," Wesley said, and from Gunn's reaction he guessed he once again 'almost sounded like himself'. "I tried it, myself."
Angel looked doubtful. "Did you like it?"
Wesley hesitated. Then he turned to Gunn. "Do you know if I could get a custom bowling ball made?"
"You're thinking maybe you can beat my ass even worse, if you have a heavier ball?"
"No, actually, I was simply thinking that I might like one with my name on it. I saw several like that the last time we were at the bowling alley, and it would certainly make it easier to remember which one is mine when they come back up from the ball return."
"You didn't answer my quest..." Angel began. Then he smiled. "You want one with your name on it?"
"I--" He stopped. He hadn't actually meant anything by it, just wanted to tease Angel by ignoring his question. But...the thought of putting his name on his own bowling ball.... He smiled, a bit shyly. "I'm afraid my name wouldn't fit."
"'Wesley' wouldn't fit on a bowling ball?" Cordelia asked.
"No, my...um. My real name."
Cordelia looked confused, as he had expected she would. They all did. Gunn, though, said quietly, "I thought... thought you didn't have a real name. Before."
Wesley breathed. "I... did not. Officially. Slaves did not have names. Did not need names. Were not different, one from the other, to the Masters. But among ourselves, there were... things that were not spoken, anywhere else."
"You're saying...you have a name?" Angel asked. He didn't sound upset at having been misled. Rather, he sounded as if he were holding his breath...if he breathed.
"Not as such--" he began. Then he nodded. "Yes. In...the tradition of my people. We were not allowed to name ourselves, even...amongst ourselves. The Masters forbade it. Said we were things, and as such 'slave' was enough to label us all. But we knew we were individuals. Even with no rights of our own. Instead of names, we referred to each other by where and when we were born."
They all looked at him, varying expressions of surprise on their faces. Then Cordelia's face screwed up, a bit. "Wouldn't that get redundant? 'Born in his mom's bed on June 3rd' -- how many kids get that name?"
He smiled at her. "In fact, our children are not born in beds -- birthing mothers make a point to go outside, someplace unique so that the child can have its own, unique name. At times it becomes necessary to rearrange the grounds...."
"You move stuff around so kids can get named?" Gunn nodded. "That's cool. Hell of a thing to have to do," he added as his eyes and aura darkened. "But cool. So what's your name that won't fit on a bowling ball?"
"Translated, my name is 'third rock by the fourth blue lander tree at the height of the day's sun'."
Gunn repeated the name to himself, then smiled. "Yeah, that might be hard to fit on a bowling ball. Unless you got a really big one."
"It's pretty," Cordelia said. "Hmm. Maybe it would fit if you didn't translate it?"
Wesley smiled, and repeated his name in his own language.
Gunn laughed. "Is that with three Q's, or five?"
"Maybe I should simply stick with 'Wesley'," he suggested, enjoying the way Gunn laughed. His aura fragmented and spun like a child's top.
Angel spoke up. "No, we can...there's gotta be a way we can call you...um...."
"We could shorten it?" Cordelia suggested.
"Third rock? Make him sounds like a tv show." Gunn shook his head.
"Rocky?" Cordelia suggested with a suppressed laugh, singing a bit of the theme to "Dunt duh duh duh duh dunt DUH duh duh duh..."
"Does that make you Janet?" Gunn asked. "'Cause I *ain't* Brad. Or Frankenwhoosit."
"Wrong movie," Cordelia told him.
"It was not--" Gunn began.
Angel looked at Wesley. "What if we call you 'Blue'?"
"Ba ba dee ba ba," Gunn sang. Then he nodded. "Yeah, I like it. It fits, what with the eye thing."
Gunn was looking at Wesley's eyes, when he said it. He was still looking at Wesley's eyes when Wesley nodded. And when Cordelia said, "Blue. That would be a great color for the new carpeting in your suite, too." He was still looking at Wesley's eyes when Angel rolled his at Cordelia's suggestion.
Surely Gunn had memorized the color by now? Apparently not, because he was *still* staring distractedly at Wesley's-- or should he be thinking of himself as Blue?-- eyes after several minutes, as the conversation turned to other things. Or at least Cordelia's and Angel's did, as Angel finally opened his mouth to taste the banana cream ice cream. Wesley was still watching Gunn watch him. Or perhaps he was just watching Gunn.
"So, Angel, you think you might wanna mosey on down to the cafe with me? See if they have any blood flavoured cappuccino?" Cordelia's loud voice startled him, and he glanced away from Gunn's watching him watch Gunn watch his eyes. She shrugged. "You two seemed busy."
"We weren't doing anything," he protested. Not that he'd minded. At all. He glanced back at Gunn, and caught his eyes again.
"Uh-huh. So, Cordelia. Um, 'blood flavoured cappuccino'?"
"Hey, it's LA. Anything's possible."
Blue had never noticed that Gunn's eyes changed colour, before.
"Cafe Hemoglobin?" Angel was saying. Or something like that. And Cordelia was saying something back. Something that was no doubt very witty and cutting.
Something that he should be laughing at, if he wanted to stay in Cordelia's good graces. But he could always offer her a footrub, later. Something she had finally accepted that he did merely because it pleased him to make her happy. But he wasn't thinking of footrubs, at the moment, not really.
But he did feel happy. It didn't seem to have anything to do with Cordelia, or making her happy. It seemed to be more about the fact that Gunn was smiling, now, in the way that meant he was trying not to laugh out loud. He wanted to ask why he was laughing. Or not laughing, as it were. Instead he watched.
Found himself wanting to laugh, as well, though he had no idea why. Nor had he any idea why he was suddenly nervous. Perhaps he should look away, ask Cordelia and Angel if they wished company. Only he couldn't hear them anymore.
Until finally Cordelia tapped him on the shoulder and said loudly in his ear, "Are you gonna kiss him, or what? Because all this googly-eye stuff is making me want to either heave, or curl up with a nice Harlequin Silhouette and a bowl of double chocolate chocolate with chocolate chocolate on the side."
"Do they make that?" Angel asked doubtfully.
"They'd better, because I'm going to need some." She narrowed her eyes at them. "That is, unless someone chickens out again."
She nodded, exasperated by something Wesley-- Blue didn't quite understand. Gunn, however, had a sheepish look on his face. "Again. As in, in addition to last week while we were watching the Sound of Music, in addition to this Tuesday over the raisin toast, in addition to this morning when somebody whose initials are C.G. thought no one was watching him watch Wesley-- I mean Blue-- opening the mail. And chickening out as in..."
"We get the point, Cordelia," Gunn said with a scowl.
"I don't," Blue said. Controlling his smile with ease, he merely frowned a bit. "Have you really been watching me?"
Gunn fidgeted a bit, before nodding. "Maybe, but I--"
"Attempting to...drum up the courage to...kiss me?"
"I wasn't chickening out," Gunn insisted. "I just didn't think you'd want me to."
"I told you we should have forged love letters," Angel said.
"That would have been quite dishonest," Blue chided him. Realized he was chiding his Master, and smiled. Smiled wider when Angel smiled back at him.
"But faster than this. Geez!" Cordelia said. "Are you guys gonna smooch, or what?"
Blue looked at Gunn. Who was looking back at him. "No," he replied firmly.
"Really?" came the disappointed rejoinder. Only it was from Angel, which was a little surprising.
"No," replied Blue, once more. Not really answering the question, but it was a nice thing to be able to say. "Not until you leave," he finally clarified.
"We have to leave?" Cordelia sounded disappointed.
Gunn was smiling, again, and his aura was doing something *very* interesting. It made Blue want to reach out and touch it. Then he didn't have to reach out, because Gunn had moved forward. Close enough to touch, close enough to kiss. He stopped, almost an inch away. "I don't hear nobody leaving."
There was grumbling, and Cordelia said, "I can't believe we have to miss this, after all our hard work."
"Cope and deal," Gunn said softly, from even closer. Not quite close enough, but almost.
"This is the part where we pretend to leave so they can pretend we can't see them," Cordelia whispered loudly to Angel.
"No, this is the part where you leave, so you can't see us," Blue corrected her.
"Come on," Angel said. Then his voice lowered. "We can watch through the window."
Gunn's eyes were still boring holes into his own, and the flickers in Gunn's aura were touching Blue's. He was ready to say to hell with it and kiss him anyway.
Then there was the sound of the door, opening. Closing. Gunn leaned back quickly and took hold of his hand. "Come on." He pulled Blue into the back office, away from the line of sight through the front windows.
He followed, willingly, and stopped when Gunn turned, faced him -- then kissed him.
For the third time. As in, after the raisin toast had been burnt and Angel and Cordelia had left the room because they couldn't stand the scent of charred bread. As in, after the mail had been opened and Cordelia had left the office to attempt to hide Wesley's new Fingerhut catalog. As in...
"You know your eyes go clear when you do that?" Gunn asked him.
"Do they? Every time?"
"Don't know. Maybe I'd better check." And they kissed, again. "Four out of four. Is that a good sample?"
He shook his head. "For a proper sample, you should have at least a hundred trials."
"A hundred? Damn... that could keep us busy all night."
Blue smiled, and leaned against his lover. "I believe that is the point."
Gunn's hand was soft on the back of his neck. Searching his allegedly clear eyes. That old look back, for a moment. "Are you sure this," and a hand indicated... What? The room? Himself? Both of them? Everything? "Is what you want?"
"I believe," he said carefully, as if testing each word before he spoke them. Which he wasn't, because he'd already done so, in private. He just wanted to make sure he didn't forget any. "That I like this, very, very much."
"You do, huh?" Gunn said, sounding amused -- except for the hitch in his voice.
"Would you like to know why?" When Gunn nodded, Blue leaned back in to resume the kiss, about which there was no doubt of liking. "Because it loves you."
Another kiss silenced both question and answer-- or perhaps served in their place.