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Metamorphosis

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With the money Wesley's making now, he could afford to live somewhere nicer. Somewhere with good air conditioning, a view of the sea, even a pool. Somewhere quiet, without the constant traffic and the occasional gunshots.

On his coffee table he's got a tower of glossy advertisements, picked up from every real estate office and newspaper box he passes. Pages are dog-eared, details circled, phone numbers written out neatly on a notepad. Not that he's made any calls. All the pictures look like film sets, not like homes. He always lets it wait another day, and then another.

Sometimes he thinks about the Hyperion. It's empty now, its graceful art deco lobby given back to dust and mildew. When Angel bought it, Wesley helped renovate. He stripped and waxed the floors, painted the trim, cleared mouse nests from the cupboards. Cordelia even made him look at furniture catalogues (ignoring his opinions, naturally). Later, he scrubbed blood off its walls more than once. But he's never lived there, except for those few bizarre weeks this spring. It's important to have a place of one's own.

Now, however, Wesley imagines going back. There are over a hundred rooms in the Hyperion; he could pick one without associations, on the top floors they never got round to sprucing up even when the place was crowded with Jasmine's devotees. He could rattle around in all that empty space like the ghost of Angel Investigations.

This is not, of course, a serious plan. Wesley knows his own masochistic fantasies by now. He observes them, birdwatcher-fashion, checking shapes and colors, noting the types, tracking as they roost or fly away. After all, everyone needs a hobby.

A serious plan, a reasonable plan for the life he's got now, is to buy a condominium. Perhaps sell it on in a few years, if property prices go up, and they always do. Build equity, that's what one does in upper management.

Earlier today, on his run to the dry cleaner's, the liquor store, and the supermarket, Wesley picked up some new brochures. Beer in hand, he settles down to an evening with Upscale Living in the Heart of the City, The Luxury You Deserve, and A New Beachfront Lifestyle for the Twenty-First Century. But he's hardly begun reading when there's a knock at the door.

It's Gunn. He's in a suit, so either he was at the office on a Sunday or he's taken to wearing them all the time. "Hey, Wes. Can I -?" He extends a hand, fingers reaching just past the doorframe. It's a way to ask permission while showing that it's safe to give it. An old gesture, dating back from the time--Wesley thinks of it as an era, like the Cretaceous--of being buddies, hanging out, having the special handshake. After that, seeing each other only at work, they didn't use it. And of course there was no need a few months ago, when (still another era) they lived at the Hyperion.

Wesley steps aside to let him in. "Of course."

"I brought some Scotch," Gunn says, giving him a carrier bag with a bottle inside. "Hey, you moving?" He points at the stack of real estate advertisements.

"Maybe." Gunn's Scotch is a Talisker. Not Wesley's favorite, but very good. He pours two glasses and gives one to Gunn, who's still standing near the door. "What brings you here, Gunn?"

"I gotta have a reason?"

"No." Wesley can sit on the uncomfortable leather armchair he never uses, or the sofa. He chooses the armchair. After a moment, Gunn takes the near end of the sofa, just opposite him. Like a well-behaved boy in church, Gunn sits very straight, planting his beautiful shoes squarely on the rug. Once, he would have sprawled low and loose on the cushions, knees comfortably apart. Only his fidgeting--he tilts and rolls the heavy glass in his hands--is unchanged. He never could sit still. "But I imagine you do have one. Especially since you don't drink Scotch."

"I do now. See?" Gunn sips, appreciates theatrically and self-consciously, smiles. "The upgrade sorta came bundled with extras."

"I thought that was just Gilbert and Sullivan."

He shakes his head. He's been letting his hair grow. It makes him difficult to recognize at a glance or from behind. "I didn't exactly tell y'all everything. People were freaked enough."

Freaked, Wesley thinks, is too diluted by slangy understatement. The word ought to have a literal meaning, Kafkaesque and dire. To be freaked: to become freakish, transformed, strange to oneself and others. To wake up one day as a giant insect, as a Wolfram and Hart executive, as a legal expert with a new taste for whisky and operettas. These days, Wesley is well and truly freaked, and so is everyone he knows.

Still without saying why he's here--without saying anything--Gunn finishes his drink. Wesley pours him another. The lamplight makes Gunn's fingerprints shimmer on the glass. They're the same arches and whorls, Wesley supposes, that Gunn had before the upgrade, just as Wesley's are the same he had before Los Angeles, before America, before the Watchers, before everything. Fingerprints form in the womb and never alter. Fingerprints prove identity. Of a sort. Once there was a baby having his fingerprints and footprints inked onto a hospital card. Now there's Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, Head of Research and Intelligence for Wolfram and Hart. Only by a legal fiction are they the same person.

Gunn takes another swallow, too big for connoisseurship, and his face twitches as though he's stopping himself from wincing. "Wes." Putting the glass down, he slides forward, elbows on his knees, hands hanging awkwardly in the air. If there were a line down the center of the coffee table, his fingers would reach just beyond it. "You ever miss . . . you know. How it was?"

"When?" Wesley isn't sure if his own question is genuine or not. There is, in theory, more than one how it was that Gunn might miss.

Gunn half frowns, the way he does after a fight when he's stretching out the aches. "You know." He runs his hands over his hair (a new habit of his, and Wesley wonders if he, too, feels freaked), then rests them on his knees again. "Jasmine."

Which part should he miss? Having his mind controlled? Memorizing every word of the monster's sermons? Shepherding worshippers up to her rooms, and taking their clothes away afterwards to give to the homeless? Hunting poor, terrified Fred?

But none of that, he knows, is what Gunn means.

Topping up his own drink, eyes safely on the bottle, Wesley says, "That wasn't real."

"Bullshit."

"Of course." Wesley caps the bottle tightly. On its neck, there's a sticky place where a price tag was scraped off. He rubs it, bringing up specks of glue, and then brushes his finger clean. "But it seems strangely impossible to live a bullshit-free life."

"Wes. Wes." He looks over, and Gunn's holding out his hands again. "At night I roll over and you're not there and it wakes me up. Every damn time. 'Cause it feels wrong."

That doesn't happen to Wesley. It's when he's going to bed alone, undoing all those buttons and zips by himself, lying down in underpants and t-shirt instead of bare skin already glistening with Gunn's kisses. That's when he wishes Fred had never come back with her disillusioning blood, with her bloody, filthy, rotten truth.

Now that Jasmine's gone, he remembers that he loves Fred. He loves her again, almost like he used to. Every day, he works to forgive her.

"We can't go back," he says, and walks to the window so he won't have to look at Gunn's face. In the Hyperion, in Jasmine's temple, he used to find Gunn's face among the crowds and wait for him to notice, to smile. Then, he knew Gunn the way he knows this flat. Knew by living there, by experience turned to instinct. Now, he knows Gunn like Euclid's rules or the English monarchs from the Conqueror to Elizabeth II. He needs mnemonics, closed eyes, concentration, and at best it's only something he studied. "Everything's changed."

"Not everything," Gunn says, from just behind Wesley's right shoulder. Their room at the Hyperion faced the garden; sometimes they'd stand at the window, Gunn's arms around Wesley's waist and his cheek to Wesley's hair, looking out at the jasmine that gave the god her name.

When Wesley says nothing, Gunn moves the last six inches. His hands settle over Wesley's ribs, slip warmly around to his belly, and Wesley rests his forehead on the dirty windowpane and doesn't pull away.

"I miss this, Wes," Gunn whispers. The breathy esses tickle Wesley's ear. "Miss you."

The glass is fogging, turning the sign for Sally's Takeout (Subs, Chicken, Chinese, Seafood) to a green-and-yellow smear. It's not much of a view at the best of times. Looking down, Wesley sees Gunn's fingers spread over his red shirt, as though Wesley's been gut-shot again and Gunn is holding his intestines in place. As though Gunn is trying to save his life.

Wesley lets his head tilt back against Gunn's. "Yes," he says, and feels Gunn take a deep breath, his chest pressing against Wesley's shoulder blades. "Me too."

It's like missing Macavity, his old cat. Or the pub his used to go to as a student that burned down years ago. Or the thrill of a full stocking on Christmas morning. These things die and fade and can't be resurrected.

Wesley doesn't say that, though. He doesn't say anything as he turns and lets Gunn kiss him. He works the knot of Gunn's tie, licks his ear, and doesn't say that though he misses all this, Gunn's lips and hands and the sound of his voice, it doesn't matter. They have the memories, yes, they have the same bodies, the same skins, the same fingerprints, but what they remember happened to another Gunn, another Wesley, and it's already too late.