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What It Feels Like

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"What does it feel like?" people ask. Cordelia, the doctors and nurses, random passers-by in the hospital. Usually they ask how Wesley feels first, but deep down everyone's curious. It's funny, in a way. In this city, where shootings are barely even newsworthy, it's almost strange that there are people who haven't been shot. Who don't already know how it feels.

Gunn doesn't ask. Wesley's glad of that, because his only answer is, "It feels like I've been shot," and people think he's being sarcastic. Which he isn't, not all the time. It's just that there are no words for some things.

Even now, days later and back home again, it hurts. When he moves, every tiny stitch sinks its teeth in and tugs. His flesh shifts inside, massive slow movements like continental drift. The geologic pressures in his body create faultlines and earthquakes, push up mountains and seething volcanoes of pain. He's become an unfamiliar, hostile terrain that changes at every moment.

Wesley has seen the bullet they dug out of him (it lodged near his spine, and the doctors couldn't stop saying what a near miss he had). It's small. He'd never have imagined that such a little thing could rearrange him so completely.

His doctors gave him a long list of things he can't do yet, thou-shalt-nots to rival Leviticus. He mustn't move too much. Try to stand. Raise his arms over his shoulders. Lift anything. Take a proper bath or shower. It's lucky that Gunn's staying for a while, because Wesley is helpless. As though he's suddenly grown old, or regressed back to infancy. Manhood has slipped through fingers that were always too weak to hold it. When he can move again, maybe he'll be able to pick it up. If it hasn't shattered.

Virginia rings every day, but she hesitates, searches for words, and never has time to talk long. She hasn't come to see him since a brief visit to the hospital. A bright smile didn't hide the way her eyes kept returning to the bandages and the monitors and the IV drip. Before she kissed him, she arranged the flowers carefully in the vase, and then Wesley knew. It hurts, but he can't blame her. She's not wrong to be afraid; when he thinks of the risks Gunn and Cordelia face, he's afraid too.

He hurts, a lot, but there are compensations. The drugs are among the finest pleasures he's ever known. In hospital, morphine glowed through him and it was heavenly. It felt like sunlight, falling golden and rich and almost tangible. Like giggly untroubled contentment. Stillness of mind, easing of jittery nerves, a green thought in a green shade. Detachment from his wounded, alien, incomprehensible body, and far more pleasant than living in it ever was.

The painkillers don't send him to that self-annihilating nirvana, but they make everything easier. Not just the pain in his body, but everything. When he takes them, he's not timid anymore. He's loopy, talkative, unembarrassed. He tells jokes without backtracking or forgetting the punchlines, and Gunn laughs, although Wesley doubts the jokes make sense.

It helps that Gunn is here. It feels wonderful, precious, having a friend like him. Gunn stayed with him the whole time in hospital and even held his hand. Gunn talked him through the bad moment after his father's telephone call, when he wished he had died. Now he sleeps on Wesley's couch and looks after him. Gunn's a real friend, a true friend. Not like Wesley's school friends and university friends and Watcher friends, who all, sooner or later, forgot him.

Not like Angel, who didn't even come to the hospital, who hasn't so much as rung. When Wesley thinks about Angel, the pain gets worse. It's like turning up the volume on a stereo, louder and louder until his bones throb with it. So Wesley tries not to think about him. Gunn's a better, more trustworthy man than Angel, and Wesley's ashamed that he didn't realize it sooner.

It feels safe, having a friend he can rely on. A friend who understands him. Gunn helps Wesley in and out of the wheelchair, which he can hardly bear to sit in. His grandmother had a stroke at sixty-three, and she spent four years twisted and drooling and barely able to wheel herself about. After every rare visit, Father said, "She'd be better off dead," and Wesley couldn't help but agree. When he thinks of how close he came to being paralyzed, he has to close his eyes and take deep breaths.

Gunn doesn't seem to mind the extra lifting that Wesley's hatred of the wheelchair causes him. He makes it seem easy. His big strong hands catch Wesley under the arms, pull him gently up, settle him onto the couch or into bed. Not once, even at the beginning, has Wesley ever feared Gunn would drop him.

"You'll give yourself a hernia," Wesley says sometimes, or, "You'll put your back out."

Gunn laughs and says, "The day I can't lift your weight, I know it's time to retire." Wesley knows he's a lightweight in every sense, but Gunn's jokes don't bother him. Nothing Gunn says makes him feel bad, ever. Gunn likes him and wouldn't do anything to hurt him.

Gunn cooks for them both, mostly breakfast food no matter the time--eggs, sausages, bacon, pancakes, fried potatoes. He's not a very good cook. The pancakes are oddly salty, the eggs frazzled and brown at the edges, the bacon limp and half raw. But it makes a change from pizza or Chinese or Indian or any of the twenty other cuisines that Wesley can have delivered. "That stuff can't be good all the time," Gunn says, handing him another mountainous plateful of food. "Too much MSG and shit. You need real food in you. Now eat up, skinny boy." One of Gunn's meals is more than Wesley usually eats in a day. But he does his best, because Gunn looks hurt if he doesn't clean his plate.

It's pleasant, having company. Until now, Wesley has never minded being alone in the flat, but he's glad Gunn stays. Every evening, Wesley thinks Gunn might go out to check on his people, but he never does.

They watch television together. Gunn's not much for reading, and when Wesley tries, the words waver and melt and slide across the page. Neither of them has had much time for television, so they discover programs together. They watch comedies, mostly, and mindless action films on HBO where men squabble and kill together and bond. "That's us, English," Gunn says, and laughs and slaps Wesley's shoulder when he flushes red with delight.

If there's nothing on TV, they play cards. Gunn teaches him how to play poker, which is nothing to do with the cards and everything to do with watching your opponent. Wesley is learning to understand Gunn's every gesture. When he's got a good hand, his eyebrows lift just a fraction. A bad hand makes the corners of his mouth tighten. Still, Gunn almost always wins. It seems he can read Wesley even better.

It feels like having a brother. No, better than a brother, because they've chosen each other. A true friend is a second self. Cicero wrote that, and Wesley read it at the age of eight. In Latin, translated painfully with the aid of a dictionary he could barely lift, so it's stuck with him. That's what Gunn is, Wesley's second, stronger, braver self. The missing bits of him. He'll never say it, it's embarrassing even to think it, but that doesn't make it less true.

Besides poker, Gunn's also teaching him a new, private handshake--"You're part of my crew now, one of my people." The words make Wesley duck his head and look away, and he knows they're only a fraction of the truth. Wesley's seen Gunn with his people, and he doesn't do the handshake with them. And Gunn doesn't stay with them anymore; he stays with Wesley. Gunn's face is one of the last things Wesley sees at night, one of the first he sees in the morning. As he falls asleep, he listens for Gunn's breathing from the living room, and he can almost hear it.

There's nothing they won't do for each other. Gunn helps him dress and undress, easing shirts over his shoulders and sweatpants over his hips, careful not to strain the wound. He's relaxed about it, unhurried, and that lets Wesley relax too. If he blushes anyway, and he fears he does, Gunn doesn't comment.

When Wesley can't stand the greasy feeling any longer, Gunn washes his hair at the kitchen table. "My momma used to do this when I was little," Gunn says, rubbing shampoo into Wesley's scalp. The massaging fingers feel good; Wesley tilts his head a little farther back into Gunn's hands. "The shower didn't hardly work, so she'd wash my hair in a pan of water." It's rare for Gunn to talk about his childhood. Wesley's just been given a memory that no one, he thinks, has shared since Alonna died.

"You know," Gunn muses as he rinses the soap out, "I never touched a white person's hair before. I didn't know it felt so different." Wesley hasn't really thought about race lately, Gunn's or his own, though it used to make him tongue-tied and nervous. He's pleased that Gunn can mention it so casually. That Gunn trusts him in a way that can't be easy for him.

He wishes Gunn would let his own hair grow back, because he'd like to know how it feels. Tiny, wiry curls, he imagines, though he's never touched a black person's hair either. Probably it wouldn't feel at all like he imagines. Nothing he's ever imagined has prepared him for Gunn, for the best friend of his life.

Being with Gunn feels like having a home. And that's worth a bullet, worth a dozen. Worth ten times the daily pain, worth the wheelchair, worth the memory that he worries will never fade. Some nights he dreams about the gun raised towards him, sees the bullet come at him in a slow, ugly arc. Infinite time to watch his death approach. He wakes up whimpering, sweat-soaked, terrified. And Gunn comes in from the living room, sits on the bed beside him, holds his hand like he did in hospital.

Each time Gunn stays a little longer. Holds Wesley's hand a little tighter. A night is coming when he won't go back to the couch. Wesley knows that, and he's sure Gunn does too. Every time they laugh together, every time they catch each other's eye, every time they touch, that moment comes closer.

There's a word for what this feels like, and before long, they'll be able to use it.