The front door buzzer startles Wesley. He didn't expect the delivery this quickly. He'll have to check the order carefully, make sure it's not someone else's.
Perhaps they've begun anticipating his daily order of basil beef and shrimp pad thai -- though he's never had any display of recognition from either the woman who takes his phone order, or the bored teen who brings it.
The sound of footsteps in the hallway is as light as the delivery boy's, but less certain. Feminine, from the sharp staccato. Wesley slips his credit card back in his pocket, reaches for the dagger resting on the hall table, its blade wiped down with holy water.
His visitor's knock is more confident than her tread. Wesley peers through the peephole, greeted by a glimmer of blonde hair and a face he doesn't know.
Opening the door a crack, he says, "If you've come about my salvation, I assure you I'm not interested."
"Actually, Charles Gunn sent me. He thought you might be able to help me."
That means Gunn -- or someone at Wolfram & Hart -- has kept track of him. He'd said he was getting away for a few days, and that had been the actual plan, evidenced by the travel brochures scattered throughout his flat. So this visit is in fact regarding his salvation -- it's just that this girl doesn't know it.
"I'm Anne Steele. We met a few years back, but you were a little distracted by bleeding nearly to death."
"Of course. The shelter." He remembers the flowers she'd sent to his room in ICU, too; he'd had to ask perhaps a dozen times through the morphine haze who'd sent them, but it finally stuck. It had been quite a dramatic arrangement. Wesley replaces the dagger, steps back and swings open the door. "Please."
She steps in, taking in the airless, lightless room and the clutter on every surface. "Have I come at a bad time? Seems like you're in the middle of something."
Isn't he always? In the middle of the epic string of failures that is his life. In the middle of dealing with the memory of emptying a gun into his father's body -- well, not dealing, precisely. Punishing himself. "A break is always welcome." He clears off a chair for her. "What is it I can do for you?"
"There's a man who's been hanging around the shelter. I'm pretty sure he's homeless. He's definitely mentally ill. Most of the kids I serve are pretty tough, but he's scaring them."
"I can scarcely think why Gunn thought I was necessary. The police should be able to take care of it."
"I'm not so sure. I think there's something supernatural involved."
Wesley perches on the arm of his sofa. "What makes you think so?"
"He keeps raving about Sunnydale."
Interesting that she knows there's something supernatural about Sunnydale's disappearance. "Still. Schizophrenics can often seize upon some recent event, shape it to fit whatever form their madness takes. I think the police would be your best bet."
Anne shakes her head. "He's not just fastened onto some random event. He paces the sidewalk outside the building, raving that I should be there, that Sunnydale wants me back." A sudden shiver overtakes her, and she rubs at her arms, looking a bit sheepish. "Sorry. That really creeps me out. He means me. Whenever I come or go, he follows me, saying the same kind of stuff."
"No doubt he says the same things to anyone who passes by."
Another shake of the head. "The kids have told me he looks them over really closely, and then he says, 'Not you, not you.' Some of them have started sleeping in the street again rather than pass by him. He's affecting my ability to do my work."
"He's fixated on you for some reason, that much is clear. But just because he speaks of Sunnydale, that doesn't mean there's anything supernatural at work here."
The downstairs buzzer rings again, startling them both.
Wesley rises. "I'm sorry. I don't believe I can help you."
"Wait. There's one thing I haven't told you," Anne says. "I really am from Sunnydale."
The delivery boy peers at his signature on his card, checking it against the receipt as if they haven't performed this ritual ten times in as many days. Wesley wonders if he really is that invisible, or if the kid just relishes this one small show of power. He tips the boy in cash and closes the door behind him.
Though he has no desire to share his meal with her, Wesley turns to Anne and makes the invitation. "Shrimp pad thai?"
She smiles. "Thanks, but no. Shellfish allergy. You go ahead. "
"That's unfortunate," he says. He's not quite as sincere when he adds, "There's basil beef. You're welcome to that instead."
Her acceptance upsets the routine he's developed -- the beef was intended for tomorrow's lunch. Then again, everything about this intrusion has thrown him off balance. He rummages in the cupboard for plates, sweeps aside the scattering of brochures on the table.
"Tell me," he says when they've settled in. "Have you spoken with this man?"
Anne is shoveling in the beef like a trucker. "No. That's the odd thing. Homeless people, even the unstable ones, don't scare me. I treat them like people, but I won't tolerate them scaring off my kids. I kind of have a reputation, so I rarely have trouble anymore."
"Yet this man--"
"He freaks me out. He's intense. He paces and gestures like a TV preacher, with a large side of crazy. But it's not so much that as the Sunnydale thing. I'm not even using the same name I did then. How would he know with such certainty that I come from there?"
"It's the fact that it's Sunnydale that makes you believe the supernatural is involved?"
She nods. "I guess you wouldn't know unless you'd been there. The town's -- it was, I mean -- a hotbed of weirdness. I got mixed up with some vampires when I was a stupid kid. I heard lots of other rumors. Or maybe it's me -- it's not like life's been that much quieter since I came here. Maybe I'm some kind of demon magnet."
"I very much doubt that," Wes responds. He struggles with the pad thai, but the sticky noodles aren't made for graceful eating. Fine for solitary dining, but.... "But its destruction could have been a natural phenomenon."
Anne shakes her head. "Something sucked that town right into hell, I'm convinced of it. If there really is an actual devil, he's probably choking on it."
He likes that she's firm in her convictions. "You're right. Angel was there shortly before its destruction. Things were heading toward a considerable battle."
Her laugh is without humor. "I'd hate to see the other guy."
He squeezes lime onto his noodles. "I spent a little time there myself. Hardly more than a month or two."
"Enough to catch the general vibe?"
"Most definitely. I can't say it was a very happy time in my life." Then again, when has been?
"I'm not surprised. I'd hate to meet the guy who spent the best years of his life there."
Or the thing, Wesley thinks, but he decides to keep that sunny thought to himself.
Anne's teen center, it would seem, is one of the few places in L.A. where parking isn't at a premium.
"People around here have come to realize I won't tolerate vandalism from my kids," Anne informs him, "so it's all due to this guy."
As Wesley pulls the SUV into a space, "this guy" is sitting on the shelter steps, long legs splayed to take up maximum real estate. He's hunched over a small book, fingers wound through his lank hair, rocking slightly. He's much younger than Wesley had expected, his dark hair not yet threaded with gray. The surplus army jacket and pants hang on him.
Wesley signals to Anne to remain in the car and slips out, leaving the door ajar. He approaches as quietly as he can, drawing closer to the steady stream of muttering.
"Should be someone I love, right? I mean, that's obvious. But that's the trap. The answer's never obvious, it's always obscure. It's obvious, but it's selfish. What's the right answer, then? Why do I have to be the one? I'm not smart enough for this. Anyone with half a brain can see that." He sniffles and draws the back of his hand beneath his nose. "They picked me, so it's my choice."
Abruptly he looks up, directly at Wesley. The eyepatch gives Wesley a jolt. Between that and the cut that slashes down his right cheekbone into the scruffy beard, it's clear Anne's visitor has had a rough life.
You wouldn't know it from the smile that suddenly lights the young man's face. Or the white, perfectly cared-for teeth. "Hey, lookie what Annie brought me. Do you count? Yeah, of course you do, or she wouldn't have picked you." He flips through the pages of the book -- Wesley's close enough now to see that it's a blank-paged book for sketching, bound in black -- then digs in a jacket pocket for a stub of a pencil. He writes something in precise, remarkably tiny penmanship, then snaps the book shut. "If I were you? I would not mention the Chantarelle thing. She doesn't want anyone to know."
Wesley casts a glance at his car. Anne is cautiously easing herself out, keeping near the door, ready to dive to safety.
"Annie, Annie, Annie," her madman says. "Clever girl. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya, tomorrow. You brought me a substitute. I don't know if that's allowed. I'll have to consult the rules."
"We'd like to help you," Wesley says.
"Is that 'help' as in chain me up and lock me away? I probably don't get the free trip to England, though. Council couldn't give a shit about me, I'm sure."
Wesley's jaw drops. Anne's clearly right; this is supernatural. How could he possibly know--
"Really want to help? I'm looking for Cordelia. She's dropped off the screen. She goes on the list, but I have to find her first."
Cordelia. Of course. Christ. Now he sees beneath the facial hair and the grime. They'd broken up before Wesley had met them, trading hostile little potshots at one another, but at one time Cordelia and this young man had dated. Wesley struggles to come up with his name.
He rises abruptly, causing Wesley to take a startled step backward. "I'll see if this is doable. I'll get back to you."
Before either of them can react, the madman sprints into traffic.
They scramble for Wesley's SUV, but he's lost to their sight by the time Wesley pulls into traffic. They drive slowly down all the streets surrounding the shelter, but he's somehow melted into the landscape.
"Okay, that?" Anne begins. "That has the hairs standing on the back of my neck."
"He knows me," Wesley tells her. "He knows both of us. He said I shouldn't ask you about Chantarelle."
"That's way back in high school."
"Yes. He was Cordelia Chase's boyfriend for a time. One of Buffy Summers' friends, but his name escapes me."
Anne sucks in her breath. "Xander Harris."
"That's such a shame. I never really knew him that well, but he was a decent guy. Joked around a lot, in that way that I know now covers a lot of anger." She falls silent, troubled.
"For what it's worth, I don't believe his was a long, slow slide into madness. If he'd been on the street any length of time, his teeth wouldn't look as good as they do. Whether it's supernatural or everyday psychosis, I'd say it's sudden and recent."
"So how do we help him?"
He glances at her. "I thought you just wanted him away from your clients."
"Buffy saved my life. A couple of times, actually. If one of her friends is in trouble, then I do something about it. But I can't help him at the shelter. I don't have the resources to cope with mental illness, and he's past the age set out in the bylaws. Any ideas?"
"Find him, of course." Or, says the voice of his father in his brain, so much stronger now than it's been in years, you could simply not have lost him in the first place. "Until then, we should talk to some people who know him better than you or I do." He turns the SUV toward Wolfram & Hart.
He forces down his rising tension by asking Anne, "So what did he mean, don't ask you about Chantarelle?"
"Hey, wait a second," Anne protests as Wesley waves his ID at the card reader screen and proceeds down the ramp into the underground parking garage. "What are we doing at Wolfram & Hart?"
"Didn't you say you'd spoken with Gunn?"
"Sure. What's that have to do with it?"
"He works here now. As does Angel. As do I."
"That's the craziest thing I ever -- okay, clearly not. Not even the craziest thing I've heard today. But it's a close second. The first time I met Angel, he told me Wolfram & Hart was full of cheats and crooks -- and then there was the bad element. And he was right, they tried to steal hundreds of thousands in donations from my shelter. You're telling me they offered Angel a job and he took it -- you all did?"
"Actually he runs the L.A. branch."
"I don't beli--" She abruptly stops as Wesley glides his car into the space marked W. Wyndam-Pryce.
"Gunn didn't tell you?"
"We barely spoke at all. He sounded very rushed, and half the time we spent on the phone he was barking orders at people in the room. He gave me your address, said just go, don't call ahead."
Wesley exits the car and comes round to the passenger door, but she's let herself out by the time he reaches her. He ushers her into the express elevator just off the VIP parking area.
"I think I liked your grungy little storefront a lot better," she says.
It's not until his ears pop from the fast ascent that Wesley pauses to think about his appearance. It's not how he'd have chosen to come back after everything that happened. It's been at least three days since he shaved. At least he's changed clothes slightly more recently.
How very amusing that he thinks he can help a raving madman.
Wesley hopes Anne doesn't see him flinch as the doors glide open to reveal the lobby. He gestures for her to precede him.
This was a terrible idea. He's not ready for this.
But Wolfram & Hart has forgotten all that happened, or at least moved beyond it. Men and women -- and the occasional demon -- in suits bustle past them, intent on their own business. (He tries not to think what that business involves.)
Lorne is descending the stairs, chattering on his cellphone. "I know, Liza dumpling, but it would be a lot less costly finding yourself a vengeance demon -- hold on a sec." He lowers the phone. "Wes, how divine to see you. You look -- er, like you've taken full advantage of your time off. And who's this scrumptious cupcake?"
"A friend. Anne Steele. We're hoping Angel can help her with a problem."
"Good luck. When I say he's in a snit, I mean inhabiting it fully, moved in with his piano and 56" screen TV."
Perhaps so, but Angel swallows most of his impatience when he sees Wesley, displaying relief at first, and then a bit of concern. Wesley deflects his scrutiny by offering up Anne and the problem she's brought to him.
"So Harris has gone daft, has he?" says a voice from behind them. "How can you tell?"
Wesley's growing beyond weary of Spike's haunting of Wolfram & Hart. Perhaps he'll look up a few of the 5,739 exorcism spells indexed in the library. Except -- Spike leans against the doorjamb, his arms crossed over his chest, quite corporeal. His leather duster looks rather the worse for wear. Wesley turns back toward Angel, about to express his shock, but Angel's already speaking.
"I have to say, I never liked that kid. But I've been through a near apocalypse or two with him. He's a soldier we want on our side. Whatever resources you need to help him, they're yours."
"Oh, Jesus god," Anne breathes, standing so abruptly she nearly tips her chair. "That guy is a vampire."
"Well, yeah," Spike says. "Not exactly a news flash." He doesn't even budge from his post at the door.
"It's all right," Angel says. "He works with me."
"He tried to slaughter me and a group of my friends."
That brings Spike to attention, both feet on the floor, hands on hips. "I never! I've never gone fangy in L.A. Even if I cared to, I doubt the quality would --"
Anne looks from Wesley to Angel, both men still lounging comfortably in their chairs. "This was a mistake. I'll handle this problem alone." She plunges her hand into her cheap leather handbag and comes up with a stake. "Let me out."
"Hey, now!" Spike protests. "Been in L.A. barely a month now, and was a ghost up until a few days ago."
"I'm talking about Sunnydale." Her grip tightening on the stake, she casts a fleeting glance toward Wesley, then back on Spike where he blocks the door. "I can't believe that you -- that's it. You're not who you look like. None of you. I should have known that wasn't Gunn, he sounded nothing--"
"Anne," Wesley says gently. "You're safe here, I assure you. Spike, go -- go have a nooner with Harmony." This much he's picked up, despite his absence. "Anything. Just go."
Spike, looking startled and vaguely insulted, backs out of the door. "Got a soul now, don't I?"
Wesley's head aches. "Go." He rubs his temple. "Anne, you're free to leave whenever you wish. But I hope you'll stay. I'd like very much to help you help Xander."
Gazing into the hallway where Spike disappeared, she jerks backward as Lorne flashes by again in his vermillion suit and lime green shirt. "Can we not do it here?"
Wesley rises. "Of course. We'll get some supplies from my office. Angel, thank you. When we know what's needed, I'll call on you." He ushers Anne out of the corner office and toward his own.
"Hey, head boy."
Wesley is half inclined to turn round and stake Spike himself. He keeps walking, as if he hasn't heard.
"For what it's worth, Harris wasn't crazy when I saw him last." His voice, as serious as it ever is, makes Wesley pause and look back. "That was the day Sunnydale caved in. Not saying that couldn't have driven him round the bend, but he was right in the head when we got the whole mess started."
"Thank you. Every bit of information helps."
Spike shrugs. "I've been crazy. Don't wish it on anyone. Another thing." He jerks a thumb back toward Angel's office. "Corporate wanker. Resources. Time comes you need help, I'll help, not call my bleedin' people and mobilize my resources. Understand?"
"Yes." He thanks Spike again, then shepherds Anne on to his office, intent on facilitating her escape from Wolfram & Hart.
"There are calls I must make," Wesley tells Anne as he pulls the SUV into a space in front of the shelter.
"You're welcome to make them from here. I've got two lines; I thought I'd check some of the adult shelters and soup kitchens in the area."
Wesley stammers an excuse about having left his address book at home, dropping Anne off with an invitation to contact him any time, night or day, if Xander reappears. Then he stops at his neighborhood liquor store for a bottle of single malt. One glass for before, and after --
Well, as many as it takes.
He breaks the seal and pours a finger, knocking it back as if it's some no-name brand from the well. A sin, really, but it's one he'll make up for later.
Then he searches the pages of his tattered address book until he finds the most recent entry for Rupert Giles. He pours another glass and sets it before him, the smoky amber a promise, an incentive.
He sighs and begins dialing the long string of numbers.
His father planted the seeds. Inadequacy. Shame. The certain feeling that he was a fraud just heartbeats away from being found out and exposed to the world.
Though it wasn't very long that Wesley knew him, Giles carefully tended every seed his father had planted. Wesley can't imagine more abysmally bad timing for a conversation.
Of course, he's forced to jump through hoops before Giles comes on the line. How very comforting that some Council traditions survive, even in the new order.
Though he knows full well that someone's told Giles who's on the line, he identifies himself.
Giles's response is a cool, "Yes."
He reminds himself that he's not a supplicant here, that he's trying to help a man who, last he knew, was Giles's friend. He squelches the urge toward meaningless, polite inquiries after Giles's health, and plunges in. "I'm calling about Xander Harris."
"What is it you want? He's in Africa. I'm afraid he's out of touch at the moment." The tone of his voice indicates that he wouldn't put Wesley in contact with him even if he could.
"I agree with your second point," Wesley says, "but you're very much mistaken concerning his whereabouts. He's currently in Los Angeles. I'm sorry to say he's quite insane."
If it weren't for the news he's bearing, Wesley would feel almost inclined to gloat at the shocked silence on the other end of the line.
"Surely you're mistaken."
"I've seen him myself. He's at least living on the fringes, if not on the street. He's been raving about Sunnydale, according to the woman who asked me to step in and help. When was it you last spoke with him?"
"He checked in from Mombasa some--" Wesley hears the rustle of pages -- "six weeks ago."
"Did anything seem unusual then?"
"He was more keyed-up than normal, but nothing that raised a red flag."
"Did he speak of anything in particular?"
"Just that he was glad to be in a city again. He'd found an American bar with hamburgers he approved of. He said he was going back that night for the third night in a row. It sounded entirely in character. In fact, I thought he sounded better than he had in a while. The work there's been difficult for him."
"Yes." There's definitely a tone there. Wesley can't quite read it, but he doesn't like it. "He's been seeking out the new slayers."
Right. The infection, his father called it. He believes that spell will mean the eventual destruction of the slayer line. Wesley's not sure what he believes himself.
"He's been in the field, so we only have contact when he can get to a phone or internet connection. How long do you believe he's been in the States?"
"I can't say. I came into this because he's been seen around a youth shelter, and he's scaring off the kids. Anne didn't say precisely how long he's been around, but she's not one to let her work suffer very long. I'd guess a week at the outside."
"Where is he now?"
Wesley closes his eyes, suppressing a sigh. "I don't know."
"You let him get away?"
"We conducted an extensive search. He's remarkably good at--"
The sigh comes from Giles's end. "Never mind. I'll be there on the earliest flight I can arrange."
"No,"Wesley says abruptly. "I can't recommend it."
"And why not?" The icy tone is a perfect echo of his father's.
"His madness is centered around Sunnydale. He grew more agitated when he recognized me, and that's what prompted him to run off."
"You're certain it wasn't you specifically? I doubt he has the happiest associations with the events surrounding Faith."
It's a cheap shot. It's also the truth. He proceeds as if Giles hasn't spoken. "It's too great a risk. I believe we need to handle him with utmost care so we don't lose him completely."
There's a long pause on Giles's end. "I want a daily report. In detail. And I reserve the right to come there, if I deem it necessary."
"Yes, of course." He hates the whipped-dog tone in his voice. The voice of the unloved son, the perpetual disappointment.
When he replaces the phone on its cradle, his hand is shaking. He rises, leaving the scotch untouched. Instead he walks into the bedroom, opens the door to the spare closet.
He's dismantled the cage that was there, which had held the girl who'd banded together with a demon and trapped Angel at the bottom of the Pacific. Though it's been a year since he'd freed her, he can feel her fear and despair so strongly in this tiny space that they almost have a sense of presence. A curl of nausea unfurls in his belly.
It makes him feel very much at home.
He closes the door and settles on the bare floor, knees pulled up to his chest.
He sits in the dark as he did when he was ten, replaying in his mind a litany of his failings. He stays until his back muscles are afire, and then he stays another hour for good measure.
When he comes out there's no father to find and present with an apology, but he says it anyway.
"I'm sorry, father." He reaches at last for the glass, but first he fills it almost to the brim.
It's another two days before Xander Harris turns up again.
Wesley takes one last day to (indulge himself in useless brooding) complete his leave of absence. Americans' fondness for wallowing in their feelings is one of his father's favorite themes. He always makes certain to drop into the same conversation the observation that Wesley has become thoroughly Americanized.
At least he'd approve of the single malt Wesley uses in place of a therapist.
When he makes his official reappearance at Wolfram & Hart, Wesley is better groomed, if hung-over. He pulls the blinds and, for lack of anything more productive to do, begins a search for prophecies regarding the closing of a hellmouth.
It's past quitting time when the phone drills a hole in his skull. He snatches it up, presses the blinking button that corresponds with his private line.
It's Anne. "He's back," she says simply.
"Have you engaged with him at all?"
"Believe me, I'm not in a big rush. He's just sitting on the steps. The few kids who had nerve to pass him and come inside said he asked if they'd come to be sorted."
"Wait until I get there before you approach him. If he has anything new to say, I want to be there to hear it."
"I have no problem with that."
"I'll be there as soon as traffic will allow."
By the time he arrives, Xander is up and pacing the sidewalk, gesticulating. Not the wild, uncontrolled gestures Wesley would have expected of a madman, but the same expressive movements he'd used as a teenager, choppy, yet somehow graceful. Wesley had forgotten that about him.
He signals Anne on his cell, then steps out of his vehicle. "Xander, I'm glad to see you again. We've been quite worried about you."
Xander laughs. "Worried about me? That's funny. I'm under protection, you don't have to worry about anyone screwing with me. I came to see Anne. You're involved, sure, but it's her I need to talk to."
"I'm right here," she says from the top of the steps. "Who's protecting you?"
"Can't say. It's not allowed. So look. I can't get an answer about the substitution. Not until I find Cordelia. Her name has to be in the book before I can talk to them. I have to see her before I can write her name." He whirls toward Wesley. "She hasn't been swallowed by the wolf, has she? I can smell them on you, the wolf, the ram and the hart. But she's outside of that."
"She's elsewhere, yes."
"Her name has to be in the book. I have to see her before I can write her name."
"Tell me about the book," Wesley says in a tone of casual curiosity.
"You're in the book," Xander says. "Don't need to worry about that."
"Could I take a look at it?"
"It's not finished." He slaps his hand over one of the cargo pockets on his jacket. "Can't show anyone until it's finished. I'm the keeper of the book, have to follow all the rules."
"I see. I work with books," Wesley says soothingly. "You remember. I completely understand."
"There are rules." Xander rakes his hand through his hair.
"Please let me know if I misstep," Wesley says. "I respect your rules, but I don't believe I know them all. I do know you can't finish it until Cordelia's name is written down."
"Written down, maybe crossed off. They haven't told me that part."
"Ah. Where do you go when you need to find them?"
"I don't find them." His voice is edged with contempt. "Can't believe you don't know that. I don't find them. They find me."
"Yes, of course." He hears the echo of his submissive murmur to Giles.
Xander stabs the air with his finger. "'Yes! Of course!' What would you know about it? I have to do this alone, so don't act like you know." He whirls toward Anne. "He's a Watcher, Annie. I don't know if you knew that. They act like they know things, but you can't always trust what they think they know."
"He wants to help you, Xander. We both do."
Wesley takes a gamble, hoping this isn't a dreadful mistake. It wouldn't be the first time. "I can help you find Cordelia," he says softly. "I might be able to take you to her. You'll need to clean up a bit before you can go. And perhaps you'd like a good meal. How long since you last ate?"
"Do you think that matters?"
"You have a mission, I understand that. But you'll need strength to carry it out properly."
"Sometimes I eat, sometimes not. I'm given all the strength I need." Suddenly his attention shifts to someone behind Wesley. "You can't be here."
Wesley turns to see a figure swaddled in a ratty wool blanket. His first thought is that it's another homeless person, infringing on Xander's territory. Then he realizes --
Christ. It's Spike.
Xander makes a chopping motion with his hand. "Who brought you here? Who made the exchange? This is not right, it's not going to work. The book --" He gives his head a tight shake. "That's it, I have to go."
Once again he turns and sprints into the street.
But Spike tears off after him. "Come back here, you stupid git!" They both dodge traffic with a raw grace that's almost beautiful.
Spike tackles Xander at the far side of the street, sprawling him on the sidewalk. As Wesley makes his own far more hesitant crossing, he sees Spike rear up, something clutched in his hand, unmindful of the slanting sunlight as his blanket slips. He stabs downward at his struggling captive, and Xander roars with pain and rage.
Wesley fumbles in his jacket pocket for his stake, but Spike turns toward him with a pleased smirk and a hypodermic in one smoldering hand.
"That ought to hold him."
With Anne's help they get Xander bundled into the back of the SUV. Spike, standing in the long shadow cast by the shelter, lowers the blanket. "Thought
you might need some help."
Wesley squelches the urge to stake him, which is probably a carryover from last week's Don't feel bad, I killed me mum pep talk. "Spike," he says in the most reasonable tone he can muster, "I didn't need help until you showed up."
"Well, you saved time then. At least if you stop arsing about. Where we takin' him? Back to Wolfram & Hart?"
And install him where? In the cage where Nina resides three nights a month? In the lab, where he can be studied by that certain sociopath, Knox? (Or Fred -- but he's not yet ready to approach her.)
"We aren't doing anything. Thank you, Spike. Have a wonderful evening."
Anne returns to the car with an armload of clothes, a blanket and pillow. "These should fit. My talent for sizing by eyeball is justifiably famous."
"Too young for the PTA," Spike says speculatively.
Anne looks at him quizzically.
"Didn't really go in for the mass killing scene when I was evil. There was only a time or -- oh." He suppresses a snort, rather unsuccessfully. "You were one of them. The Lonely Ones," he says in a theatrical tone.
Anne's mouth quirks up wryly. "Bye-bye now." She closes the passenger door. Settling herself in and arranging her seatbelt, she turns to glance at Xander. "Out like a light, but he's still protecting that book."
When he looks back, Wesley sees that Xander has gone from his boneless sprawl to a tight fetal position, his body curled around the pocket bearing the black notebook.
"You must be dying to know what's in there," she says. She flicks a look at him. "He's gonna be out for quite a while."
"To say I'm tempted may well be the understatement of the year. But I won't try it. That would completely destroy any degree of trust that may be left after Spike's stunt."
"Tell me again why he's on the no-stake list."
"Believe me, sometimes I wonder myself."
"He said he's got a soul?"
"Yes. Apparently he underwent a series of trials to have it restored. Afterward, he helped Buffy avert an apocalypse."
"The Sunnydale thing?"
"Indeed." He wonders how to describe Spike's redeath and resurrection, decides it's unnecessary.
Anne shakes her head. "Can't tell the players without a scorecard. Especially with everyone switching teams." She aims a pointed look in his direction.
"Not teams," Wesley says. "We're just playing in a different ballpark. And I'm dropping the sports metaphors now because I loathe them. But I assure you, Anne, we're doing the same work, we just have world-class resources to help us do it."
She doesn't look convinced, but their conversation takes a more logistical turn as they approach Wesley's flat. Removing Xander from the SUV is exponentially more difficult than getting him inside had been, and by the time Anne and Wesley manhandle him into the apartment, they're nearly disheveled as Xander and wringing with sweat.
"Are you sure you want to do that?" Anne asks as Wesley opens the fold-out sofa. "He's not going to know the difference if he sleeps on the floor. It's just as comfortable and probably safer than where he's been."
Wesley shakes his head. "Whatever's done this to him, whether it's supernatural or not, it's very likely a result of fighting demons. I'm not about to have him sleeping like a dog in my home." It's not as though he's ever had a guest to use the sofa before this. Not even Lilah ever stayed the night.
"Let me run to the car and get the bedding first. We get lots of donations, direct from the makers. You can pitch it out once you're finished."
As he waits for her return, Wesley regards Xander, curled on the floor. She's right, it's not as if he'd even be aware of his surroundings, not until the sedative wears off. But Wesley would know. This is not a life that's generous with its rewards. The least he can do is show the respect of a fellow soldier.
You can't save everyone. He knows that. But the least you do is give as much human comfort as you can.
As Anne predicted, it's a long time before Xander wakes. Once he resettles himself on the mattress to curl his body around the book, he remains perfectly still.
Anne stays on for a bit, and Wesley makes tea. For the second time in a few days, they sit together at the small table by the window. She kicks off her shoes and tucks her bare feet under her, telling him what she remembers of Xander in Sunnydale.
"What was that Spike said? Something about lonely ones?" She'd evaded his earlier question about Chantarelle.
"Can I get around answering that by just saying I was incredibly stupid when I was in school?"
"All I can grant you is a postponement, I'm afraid." He feels a distant sense of surprise. He's never had any facility for flirting, but he gets the sense this may be how it goes. But as most things he tries do, it goes somewhat astray.
"Speaking of which," Anne says, "I'd better get back. It always gets a little nuts in the last hour before curfew."
Wesley insists on calling a car for her. He starts to dial the livery service Wolfram & Hart uses, but abandons the call and finds another company in the phone book. Paranoia, perhaps, but as unattractive personal traits go, it sometimes has its uses.
Once she's gone, he watches Xander sleep for a while. His face is almost completely obscured by his long, unwashed hair and the hand curled on the pillow almost touching his skin. His thumbnail is visible, a pale oval edged with a half-moon of black.
Wesley wonders what the past few weeks have been like for him. How had he gotten here from Kenya? The Council had no record of his travels since Mombasa. Had he undertaken the journey while mad?
The thought of the Council reminds Wesley to notify Giles that Xander's been found. He realizes that it's worry that makes Giles so abrupt, but it comes across as superciliousness, and Wesley parts with the least information he can. "We don't know yet. He's under sedation for the moment, we won't learn anything new until he comes around. I assure you, he's been well taken care of -- not," he says yet again, "at a Wolfram & Hart clinic. It's a private facility. I'm sorry, I have to go." He hangs up on Giles's order -- more an entreaty this time -- to report in when he has more information.
"You can be one passive-aggressive mother when you want to be," he can hear Cordelia say. She's noted this more than once.
Cordelia. He thinks of this broken man's desperation to see her -- why her, in particular? How will he react, Wesley wonders, when he sees that she's broken as well? It took a god to break Cordelia; what has done this to Xander?
He turns to his books, though he doesn't expect any answers. The act provides some comfort, and helps him stay awake. At the last, however, he finds himself nodding off over the books, so he rises to make more tea in his small kitchen. Once he's filled the kettle, he turns and gasps to find a hulking figure filling the doorway.
It's Xander, the blanket draped over his broad shoulders. The ruin of his left eye is no longer covered by the patch. Wesley finds it impossible to look away.
"Nice magic trick, Wes. I didn't know that was a hobby of yours." His speech is slower than the rapid-fire patter of before, and slurred. "Now you see it, now you don't. What did you vanish, Wes? Hours? Days? Where did they go? In the closet with the lady?"
Wesley nearly drops the kettle at this.
Xander gestures clumsily, skinning his knuckles on the door frame. "Let's have a hand for my lovely assistant, Carol." He weaves on his feet. "Lots of things have vanished lately. Mostly they don't come back." He blinks, gives his head a shake. "Have you seen it? The crater? Something's gotta be done."
And then he crashes to his knees on the kitchen floor.
He leans over Xander, brushing the lank hair away from the eye with his fingers, murmuring soothingly. Xander hasn't displayed any violent behavior to this point, but Spike has escalated matters with his sneak attack. Wesley feels vulnerable, this close to a raving madman, but there's nothing to be done about it. "You're right, Xander. Your eye does need immediate attention. Let's get you into the bathroom where the light is better."
Xander doesn't fight him, but he doesn't provide much help. After a struggle, Wesley hoists him to his feet and helps him stumble to the small bath, sitting him down under the glare of the over-the-mirror lights.
Wesley's lost count of how many bullets he's dug from Angel's cold flesh. But this is different, sickening. What he's looking at goes beyond damage to destruction. The eye is never going to repair itself, and if Wesley doesn't do something, it's never going to heal. "Xander, I don't like the look of this. I'd like to have a doctor take a look." Wesley knows one who'll make house calls, if the circumstances warrant and the triple fee is in cash. Wesley has sufficient money on hand, stashed in his go bag.
"No doctors, no drugs. No more shots." Xander rubs below his shoulder, where Spike had plunged the needle.
"Yes, well, I'm sorry about that. I didn't know Spike would do that; I hadn't even told him where I was going. I intended for you to come here of your own free will."
Xander laughs. "Free will, yeah. Free Willy. Fun for the whole family. Not so free, though. Gotta do tricks for the people. Jump through hoops. Make the people go aaaah, and get a piece of fish. No doctors."
"I understand. But the eye socket is inflamed. If it becomes infected, you'll be in danger of becoming quite ill. You do understand what I'm saying? The infection would very likely reach your brain."
"Can't have that. Poison running around the brain," Xander says.
"Exactly. You'd be much too ill to carry out your mission."
"Wouldn't want to lose my missionary position. You do it. No doctor."
Wesley sighs. "I'll do the best I can, then. I've done a fair bit of field medicine, working with Angel." What he really hopes, however, is to regain Xander's trust and get a doctor in here. This is really beyond him. "What I'd like to do first is get you cleaned up. That'll go a long way toward cutting the risk of infection. I'm sure you'd enjoy a hot shower after these last few weeks."
"No. Can't let go of the book, can't get it wet. No shower. No doctor, no drugs, no shower."
"I promise nothing will happen to it. We'll put it in a plastic bag, zip it shut, and you can put it on the ledge there where you can see it the entire time. It's completely out of the spray, but right within sight."
Xander clutches the book through the cloth of the jacket pocket, pressing it against his belly. "Can't let it go, can't get it wet. There are rules. I've told you this."
"All right, we'll try something else. I can help you wash just a bit at a time, here at the sink. You can keep the book with you -- we'll still put it in plastic, so it doesn't get splashed."
"Can't get it wet."
"We'll be quite careful. I must insist. It's absolutely vital that we keep your eye and the area around it as clean as possible. Look at your hands." Wesley has a sudden inspiration. "It'll keep the book cleaner, too. I'm sure that's been difficult to do while you've been living rough, but it'll be much easier now."
Xander smiles. "You're very skilled at this, Wes. That's something new." He sounds perfectly lucid. "The thing about skill, though -- it's obvious to anyone who looks." He shrugs. "Sure. Let's do it."
Wesley releases a breath. "I'll just get a plastic bag, then. Don't move."
He makes it as quick as he can, grabbing the whole box instead of taking time to extract one Ziploc, but when Wesley returns to the bathroom Xander is on his feet, rummaging through the medicine chest.
Xander turns toward him, Wesley's straight razor in his hand. The blade gleams in the too-bright light. "Think you could use this on another man?"
The box slips from Wesley's grasp, clattering on the tile floor. His heart hammering, he tries to think of a calm, measured way of telling Xander to hand him the razor, but words are beyond him. He finds it difficult to breathe.
Xander flicks his gaze downward, just below Wesley's face, then upward again. "Maybe not. Could have a slip. Slips are dangerous, I can see you know that."
Wesley recovers himself, holding his hand out, palm upward. "I can help you shave, if that's what you're asking."
Taking the blade between the thumb and finger of his free hand, Xander offers Wesley the razor handle, just as they teach in Boy Scouts. "No slips," he says, still holding the blade.
"No," Wesley echoes, and Xander releases the razor.
Wesley doesn't quite know how to set about washing another person one part at a time. It seems to make sense to begin closest to the affected area, then his hands, and work his way from the neck down.
He's never washed another person's hair. It requires some logistical planning. The kitchen sink is larger and has a spray attachment, which would surely make the task easier, but Wesley resists the idea of scrubbing such filth off Xander and down his kitchen drain. There's bound to be splashing. As he's considering, Xander busies himself with the box of Ziploc bags (which Wesley will remind himself to bin when this is over). Once he's gathered his supplies -- shampoo, antibacterial soap, washcloths and towels, a small plastic basin -- he turns to find Xander has wrapped his book in at least four layers of Ziploc bags. He clutches the sketchbook so tightly Wesley can see his knuckles shining white even under the layer of grime.
"Your book is quite safe. You're safe here as well." He lays a hand on Xander's shoulder. Xander flinches slightly.
"No Spike," he says. "No spikes. No slips."
"None of those things. We'll get you cleaned up, then find you something to eat. Off with your jacket and shirt, and we'll get started."
That first stage is complicated, of course, by Xander's refusal to turn the book loose for even a moment. Wesley tamps down his impatience, even as he wrestles with the dirty jacket and the thin cotton T-shirt beneath. The lines between filth-caked skin and merely dirty are demarcated by the jacket; the shirt marks the borders between sun-browned skin and the pale. A medallion of some sort rests just below the hollow of his throat, suspended from a blackened leather cord. Under the grime, it's not quite apparent whether it's tarnished silver or pewter. The design is difficult to make out. A dragon, perhaps.
"Perhaps you'd like to put this aside until we've finished."
Xander gives a hard shake of the head. "It never comes off. Cheerleader Cordy gave it to me. Golden girl. Before everything vanished for her, too. She was my girl for a little while, did you know that?"
"I did." Odd. Even in her less acerbic days, he can hardly picture her doing anything but dismiss the medallion as a "cheap, hippie-dippy piece of crap." He lets the thought go, turning on the taps and gesturing Xander over toward the sink.
Strange to think that washing another person's hair is the most intimate thing he's ever done, but somehow it seems true. To be so close he can feel the heat of another body. There's a peculiar vulnerability involved -- especially in Xander's case, but surely it must always be present at a moment like this. He wishes he'd shared this with Lilah.
He draws the wet strands through his fingers, lathering them four times before he's satisfied, while Xander holds a washcloth to his damaged eye to keep the water and soap out. Xander seems agitated at first, muttering under his breath words that Wesley can't make out, but the warm water and rhythmic movements of Wesley's fingers seem to calm him. When they're finished, streaks of grey water track down the sides of Xander's face like tears.
"Let's see what's under there, shall we?" He takes extra care washing Xander's face, making certain to use a light touch around the injury, and that no contaminated water runs into the socket.
The closer he works to the ruined eye, the more visible Xander's effort to contain himself. He practically quivers under Wesley's touch as Wesley takes the washcloth from him. "Tell me about your travels," Wesley says. "Mr. Giles told me you were in Africa. You must have seen a great deal of beauty there."
In response, Xander murmurs what sounds like a series of names. If they're place names, they're too obscure for Wesley to recognize. "Most of them aren't going to make it," he says softly. He stares off past Wesley, his gaze thousands of miles away. "So little I could do."
"In the end you always feel that," Wesley says. "No matter where your slayer lives. In the end that's always true." He's come to recognize that the Council -- and the tradition that came before it -- is a juggernaut that crushes watchers as surely as it does slayers.
Wesley suppresses the useless anger this realization always produces. He turns to the sink, pulling the chain on the drain plug to let the black water swirl away. Rinsing out the basin, he fills it again with warm water. He takes a clean washcloth from its wicker basket.
"Give me your hand," he says.
Hesitantly, Xander loosens one hand's grip on the book and offers it to Wesley. The touch of it surprises him. It's the rough hand of a laborer, callused palms and split nails. So different from the hands of the watchers and trainees Wesley knew. It's Xander's hands that have borne the brunt of the life he's been living since he returned from Africa, black as a chimney sweep's, abraded and crisscrossed with cuts. Wesley envisions him picking through dumpsters and streetcorner trash barrels, searching for scraps of food or something worth selling. Anything he's managed to find to eat, he's handled with these filth-coated hands.
It takes several sinkfuls of hot water, a nail brush and one formerly white bath towel to see pink on the palms of his hands. Wesley's back is beginning to protest, but he's barely begun his task.
"You've hurt your hands," he says, to break the silence. He works the lather up Xander's right arm.
"Slips," Xander mutters. "Can't avoid them. Nobody can, not for long."
Wesley takes a gamble. "You had quite a serious mishap with your eye. Did that happen in Africa?" Giles hadn't mentioned it -- did he know?
"Mishap," he repeats, as if there's something amusing about it. "Not a mishap. A slip. Not Africa. Sunny, sunny California."
"Garden spot of the state. You know what happens in gardens, don't you? Talking snakes and girls who don't know any better. Not a good combination."
He hadn't heard. He wouldn't have believed that the rift between the Council and Angel's people was so irreparable that Buffy wouldn't have shared this news with Angel. "What happened?"
"Thumb of a preacher man, yes it was, it was, ooh, yes it was. But enough about me. Show me your slip."
"Give me your other arm."
Transferring the book to his other hand, Xander presents his arm. "It's a secret, then? You can say. I'm good at secrets. Everyone knows. Tell Xander a secret, he'll die before he lets it out."
Wesley feels a fleeting urge to confess himself, telling Xander about the bizarre experience of gunning down his own father -- and then discovering he hadn't at all. Not an encouraging indicator of mental health, this impulse to bare his soul to a madman.
"You'd rather die too. Too bad they've got their quota. Otherwise, they'd recruit you for sure."
"Tell me about them, Xander. Who are they?"
"You weren't listening. The secrets stay inside." He proves what a reliable keeper of secrets he is by refusing to talk further. It's nearly two hours more before Wesley finally finishes his task. His back is on fire, his legs are numb -- and every last bath towel and washcloth he owns is in far worse condition than the disposable blanket and pillow Anne had sent along.
He has to tug the old clothes out of Xander's hands. "Anne sent you some new things. These are ruined." Once he pulls them away, he stuffs them into a black bin liner. His own clothes, plastered to him by vile black water, are just as unwearable.
"I'm keeping the jacket."
"Xander, you must keep your eye clean. You cannot touch that jacket and then put your hand to your face. Here --" He thrusts the pile of donated clothes toward Xander. "There's a pair of cargo pants. They have a pocket for the book. Perfect size, as if it's made for it. We'll find a new jacket tomorrow, as well. But you must give that one up."
Gradually Xander relaxes his grip on the jacket.
"I understand," Wesley says. "It's been your protection. But you're safe for now, and the jacket can't shield you from anything, only increase the chances that you'll become ill. We'll find you a new one tomorrow."
Xander lets it go, and Wesley stuffs it into the bin liner with everything else.
"Wash your hands again, and then you can get dressed."
While Xander's occupied, Wesley walks to the trash area with the black bag. Mrs. Rosario, who misses nothing, spots him in the hallway, taking in his own grime-smeared skin and clothing.
"Just a little DIY project," he tells her. "I'll keep the noise to a minimum."
"There won't be hammering, will there?"
He hopes to god not. Making an excuse, he hurries back to the apartment, where Xander shambles, clothed but barefoot, from the bathroom.
The book has vanished from sight, but Wesley sees a telltale rectangular bulge in the cargo pocket. Anne has given him a polo shirt the color of the high California summer sky. The sleeves are shorter than he's been wearing, and bands of pale skin are visible on his arms. It makes him look more vulnerable somehow.
"Do you keep your promises as well as you guard your secrets?" Wesley asks.
"No slips. That one time with Anya, but that was necessary. I keep my word."
Wesley extracts a promise that Xander will stay inside the apartment while he makes a swift cleanup of the bathroom, finished by a shower. "Then I'll examine your eye, and we'll see what can be done."
When he emerges, skin pink and sensitive from hot water and scrubbing, he finds Xander sleeping on the sofabed, atop the clean blanket Wesley had supplied. The book is tucked beneath his leg, safe in its pocket; his hand curls loosely around the medallion.
He looks at peace. Wesley decides to let him sleep. They both could use the rest.
He finds himself staring at the dark hollow below Xander's left eyebrow. What had he called it? Not cavity.
The word makes him shiver. It's more accurate, in a way. Cavity doesn't begin to suggest the damage here, the violence that caused it.
Wesley wants to have the full story, but he's not likely to get it from Xander, not in a way he's likely to comprehend.
Giles, no doubt, can tell him.
He imagines this conversation for a moment, then he carries the phone into the kitchen, thumbs in a number he knows by heart.
"Harmony. This is Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. Find Spike. Yes, I mean now."
He waits by the window, watching for the Viper with the necro-tinted glass. It's full dark now. The assignment he'd given Spike had required it. When he sees the car pull up in front of the building, Wesley slips out of the apartment to let Spike in before leans on the buzzer and botches whatever progress Wesley's made with Xander.
"Into the hallway," Wesley says as Spike appears at the front door. "I need to keep an eye on my flat."
"The hallway," Spike says, affronted.
"He's sleeping at the moment. It took an enormous effort to regain his trust after your brilliant maneuver." It's safe to conduct business in the hall; Mrs. Rosario is always in church at this hour.
"Right, but you wouldn't have him here so you could whinge about his trust if I hadn't bleedin' captured him for you."
"He didn't run until he saw --" Why is he bothering to argue with Spike? He can't imagine a more fruitless activity. "Did you get what I asked for?"
"I came, didn't I?" He hands over a white paper bag with the logo of a local pharmacy. "What'd he do, go and get himself a dose over there?"
Ignoring the question, Wesley rummages in the bag, sorting through the large pharmacist's bottles of various antibiotics, bandages and fresh eye patches. "I thought we should get an assortment of drugs, in case it turns out he's allergic to any of them." Wesley hopes to god Xander can tell him if he is. "I'm afraid that eye is going to become infected. What's this?" He fishes out a huge bottle of OxyContin.
Spike snatches the bottle away. "That's mine. What? I wanted it to look like a real burglary."
"It was a real burglary."
Wesley decides not to think about what that grin signifies, though he suspects Spike will not be hurting for cigarette money for a while. "Were you in Sunnydale when that happened? The eye?"
Spike's self-satisfied smirk drains away. "Yeah. I was right there. Christ. It was during the build-up to what happened to Sunnydale. We were fighting this thing that called itself the First Evil."
He remembers this from Giles's diaries. "Buffy encountered it once before. Just before I came to Sunnydale."
Spike shrugs. "It came back, then. It had a lieutenant. Minion. Whatever you want to call him. Wore a priest's collar and called himself Caleb." He reaches into his coat for a pack of cigarettes and Wesley doesn't stop him. "Wouldn't guess it, seeing what a stringy little shit he was, but he was strong. Nearly beat Buffy down, a time or two. There was a battle, and Caleb killed a couple of the potential slayers, who'd started making their way to Sunnydale -- I don't know how much of this you know."
"We saw Willow when this was beginning to come to a head. But we had our own apocalypse brewing."
"Right, you'd think the gits could coordinate their efforts." Spike takes a drag on his cigarette. "So yeah. Battle. Dead baby slayers. Xander went back to help one he'd knocked about, and Caleb got his hands on him."
"How was he after that?"
"Not crazy. He and Buffy went through a bad patch, but he wasn't the only one. Even her sister broke with her over it. Wasn't long before he was back fighting beside her again. Whatever made him like that --" he jerks his head in the direction of Wesley's flat -- "came after I went up in flames."
"When you heard me telling Angel how I'd found him, you said something like, 'How can you tell?'"
Spike gives a dismissive wave of his hand. "The usual shite I say about Harris. We have a long history of pissing matches. Stopped being anything but words, toward the end. He was thrown by what happened, but he was sane."
Wesley nods. "Unless his friends were completely oblivious to his mental state, it had to be something that happened in Africa."
"Plenty of the ancient and dark magic there, I can attest." He drops his cigarette end and mashes it beneath a boot.
Before he can say more, a strangled cry issues from Wesley's flat, and they head toward it at a run.
When he feels the thin mattress dip beneath her weight, he doesn't ask how she found him. It doesn't occur to him to wonder. She found him in Mombasa, when she made him hers. She's found him all these times since, even in the squat near Chantarelle's shelter.
He gasps at her beauty. It's so much more than his mind can hold, each time he sees her is like the first. He does better with her name. It's beyond the capabilities of his tongue, but it sings in his mind. It's driven out a lot of things that used to be there, but he doesn't miss them.
He worried whether he'd angered her, letting himself be taken in by the Watcher, but she gives no sign one way or the other.
Or maybe this is the sign:
She rides him the way she first did in Mombasa, straddling him, her hands pinning his shoulders to the mattress. He's never shared anything like this with another woman. It's wilder, more intense, yet time seems to stretch out forever. She never brings him to release, but she leaves him trembling with exhaustion, every nerve ending buzzing.
She has two gifts for him, she tells him. One will come to him from one of her servants -- he'll know when the time arrives. Once he has that gift in hand, the other will be possible.
It's an intricate Celtic knot of a gift. It is something he will give to her, but it will circle back around and be a gift for him, too. He'd thought at first he would only be given one, but now she tells him he has pleased her, that ultimately there will be five.
He never speaks in her presence -- he doesn't need to; she knows his heart. It's even more of a relief at this moment -- he's so overwhelmed he wouldn't know what to say.
She touches two fingers to his lips, then presses her own lips to the medallion he wears.
When she draws away from him, her absence is so painful it makes him cry out.
Spike reels back from the doorway, shaking his head to clear it. Wesley shoulders past him and inside the flat, closing the door on his muffled protest.
Xander lies sprawled on the sofa bed, his head thrown back, his breathing ragged.
Gingerly, Wesley reaches out to touch his shoulder. "Xander, it's all right. You're dreaming, that's all."
Xander gives his head a shake. "Light went out. "
Wesley had left a low-watt lamp on in the corner of the room, but had turned off the others as Xander slept. He switches on the closest light. "No, it's all right."
"She goes, she always goes, and I'm not ready."
"Who goes? Tell me," he urges gently.
Xander grows still for a moment, a crafty, shuttered expression crossing his face. "Anya. She died in the crater, you know. Never, never coming back. Just in dreams."
Wesley vaguely remembers an Anya. Surely he's not speaking of that one.
"I'm sorry. Why don't I make you some herb tea. It will help settle you. I need to attend to your eye."
"Herb tea." He says it as Wesley had, pronouncing the H. "Don't want to ask."
"It's just chamomile. It'll help you sleep."
"Maybe she'll come again if I sleep. No. It's too soon. She always goes, and I'm never ready." He fingers the medallion at his throat.
"What's that?" Wesley says sharply.
"What? It's nothing. Nothing here, nobody home."
"At your throat. It looks like a burn. Move that aside, please."
Agitated, Xander closes the medallion in his fist, drawing it up toward his face. On his skin where the medallion had been is a perfectly round mark, raised and reddened.
As if Xander had held the medallion in a flame, and then clasped it back at his throat.
Xander submits to Wesley's examination, even agreeing to take some antibiotics to ward off infection. Lost as he is, Xander manages to respond to Wesley's questions that he's allergic to penicillin, which gives Wesley some hope that he's not going to blunder and kill his patient.
He also tends to the burn mark at Xander's throat. "Perhaps you should take the medallion off for the time being. Give this a chance to heal."
"It never comes off. Told you that."
"Yes, I remember. I'm just concerned that --" He suddenly realizes that the medallion itself is now bright and untarnished; the leather cord, while weathered, has gone from black to brown. "Do you know where this came from?"
"Told you that. Anya gave it to me."
Wesley frowns. "When was that?"
"Do you know where she got it?"
He shrugs. "Magic Shop probably. It's for protection. I'm breakable, she said. He said it first. Her ex. But she said so too. Little too often."
"But Cordelia --"
"I need to see her. Her name belongs in the book. Especially now."
"Why is that? What's changed?"
"You ask too many questions. Even worse than lectures all the time. Watchers." He shakes his head. "You said I could see her."
"It can't be done tonight. There are visiting hours, procedures that must be followed."
"Firm believers in the rules, you watchers. Why?"
He stammers a moment. "Rules ensure that things run smoothly--"
"Not that." His voice is on the edge of contempt once more. "Cordy. Why visiting hours, why procedures? Nobody tells Cordy when to do things."
"No," The note of sadness Wesley can't keep out of his voice makes Xander look at him sharply. "They never could. She's in hospital right now," he says, as if there could ever be a day when she's elsewhere. "She's been ill."
Xander slaps his hand against the bathroom wall. "Cordy. Doesn't. Get. Ill."
Wesley's heart thumps, but he works to project calm, to absorb Xander's anger without making him feel threatened. "Yes. That used to be true."
"Just that one time. I staked her. She fell, it was an accident, but it was my fault. She wouldn't see me then, but I have to see her now. Her name has to go in the book."
"I'll take you to see her tomorrow."
"No matter what she says."
Wesley's breath catches at this. Looking away, he fusses with the first aid supplies. "Yes. No matter what she says." He closes the door to the medicine cabinet, gets an unwanted look at his own face. "I'll make the tea now."
The Watcher says the tea's supposed to help him sleep, but it does nothing. It tastes like boiled grass.
The truth is, he never sleeps after she comes to him. Not for days.
But he pretends for his host's benefit, so he'll finally give in and sleep himself, instead of sitting in a chair and watching him.
He lies perfectly still on the fold-out couch, the book tucked in its pocket beneath his leg, while his mind races.
In some ways, this unexpected gift simplifies the choices he has to make. Yet at the same time, it complicates his part in things.
But she chose him because he can handle it. He knows this with the first utter certainty he's ever felt about himself.
He will bring her the five, and receive his five-fold gift.
Sometime before dawn, Wesley shifts suddenly from a dream to complete wakefulness. In the filtered orange glow of a streetlamp through the filmy curtains, he slips out of bed to check on his guest.
Xander stands at a window, one scarred hand drawing the curtain aside no more than two inches or so. Gazing out at the street, he remains as motionless as he had been curled up in sleep. Though he gives no other sign that he's aware of Wesley's presence, he says, "Not a nest, just the one."
"Viper. Nest of vipers. You know that phrase. This one has one tiny red eye, winking on and off."
Damn Spike. He's going to bollix this up yet. "It won't hurt you."
"No. Crawl off to its nest soon."
"Why don't you come away now. Let me look at your eye."
"It doesn't hurt."
"I'm glad. I'd still like to see it."
Xander lets the curtain fall closed, turning toward Wesley.
Switching on the light, Wesley asks, "How do you feel?"
Xander smiles. "Five by five."
Funny how that phrase can send a thread of nausea uncurling in his stomach.
"She marked you too," Xander says. "I heard that. After she was Buffy. Did she make you hard before she hurt you? Or maybe during? She did me. She specializes in that, you know. She could make a good living."
Wesley knows this. He's paid money for it himself, that exquisite blend of pain and pleasure. He'd thought perhaps it might erase the shame he felt over his body's response to the memory of Faith squirming on his lap. It hadn't worked out that way.
"Come into the bathroom. I want to look at that in the light."
Xander complies, saying nothing more. To Wesley's relief, the tissue around his eye looks healthier, and he seems less feverish than last night. He delivers this piece of good news.
"Now all I need is the blade," Xander says. "Sharp and shiny. It's the one last thing. Cordelia hates beards."
Wesley lets out a relieved breath. "Yes, I can help you with that."
There is a strip of terra cotta-hued tiles running down the center of the corridor on Cordelia's ward. As many times as he's walked this way, Wesley has never noticed it until now.
Xander treads only on these, nearly heel-toe fashion, like a tightrope walker. His loose-limbed grace has deserted him, tension evident in his every step. Uncharacteristically silent on the drive here, he now counts softly under his breath.
He smells of soap and shaving cream. Wesley walks close enough to be aware of it, close enough to tackle him if necessary, to use the hypodermic Spike brought with the other supplies last night.
He hopes this isn't a terrible mistake, the latest in a very long line. "It's just ahead," Wesley says quietly, pointing to a door on the left.
"Thirty," Xander says, and for a moment Wesley has the strange thought he's offering an accounting of Wesley's mistakes. That number would include only the most major ones. "That's six times five."
"Yes," is all he can think to say.
"Thirty doors," Xander says impatiently.
"Oh. Of course."
Xander turns toward the door, but his feet remain on the center strip of tiles.
"Are you ready?" Wesley has warned him, in the most gentle terms possible, not to expect the Cordelia he remembers.
Xander makes no reply, but his breath has quickened. He fingers his book through the cloth of the cargo pocket on his upper leg.
"We don't have to do this."
"We don't. I do. Her name goes in the book. I can't write it until I see her."
Wesley nods. "Whenever you're ready."
Xander looks down at his feet, neatly aligned at the edge of the terra cotta tiles. Taking a breath and squaring his shoulders, he steps off.
Lightly touching his elbow, Wesley guides him to Cordelia's bedside. He speaks in a tone of false cheer. "Cordy, I've brought an old friend to see you. Xander Harris is here." He turns to Xander. "It's all right if you'd like to take her hand."
Xander gives no sign that he hears. His hand clutches the metal bed railing instead. After a moment, Wesley takes her hand himself, rubbing a thumb over the papery skin below her knuckles. Despite the attentions of the staff, her skin is so fragile, and her hair, always so phenomenally shiny, looks dull and lifeless.
"Xander's done quite a bit of traveling. He's recently come from Africa."
"Spike," Xander mutters. "Who made this happen?"
"Spike had nothing to do with it, Xander. She's been like this for months. Well before he turned up again."
"It's obvious. Living death for an undead life. Any idiot could see."
"No," he insists. "Spike was in Sunnydale. Cordelia -- she was used as a vessel for the birth of an ancient god. It was too much for her. I'm sorry. I know you had feelings for her once. And I grew very fond of her these last years." So much so that he's sorry he brought Xander here. Until now, his visits have been private occasions. He talks to her, speaking of Wolfram & Hart and this strange restlessness that comes over him. He massages her scalp, or smoothes moisturizer onto her hands. Sometimes he plays music for her, or brings in a portable TV and VCR to play one of her favorite shows. The nurses encourage him, but now, in the presence of a madman, he feels like an utter fool.
"This can't happen. Not this way. There are rules. She can't go in the book now."
"Tell me why," Wesley says as casually as he can. "I'd like to understand more about the book."
White-knuckling the railing, he speaks while looking at Cordelia, not at Wesley. "There's nothing in there."
"But I've seen you write in it. There was writing on the pages."
"Not there," Xander says angrily. "Here. Nothing inside her, nobody home. You think she's some fairy princess under a spell? Is that why you come? Think the prince can kiss her, bring her back? Talk and talk and talk all you want. The princess is long gone. She doesn't belong now." He slams the heel of his hand against the railing, then stalks off to the window. There's no view but a brick wall.
Wesley had thought of that wall as a metaphor. That Cordelia was walled inside a body that had failed her. Not that he's been holding out any hope -- he's believed for some time that she's as trapped as Dennis was behind his own wall.
How stupid to feel her loss so much more acutely now. To feel it as he had in those first days after the balm of Jasmine's presence had been taken from him. He strokes her hand one last time and transfers his grip to the railing, holding on as if otherwise he will fall and never stop falling.
"We should go now," he finally says. "Let her rest."
Xander makes a faint, derisive sound, but he turns from the window, accompanies Wesley out into the hallway. He doesn't, as Wesley does, pause for one last look.
Neither man speaks in Wesley's SUV. Xander is a jittery presence beside him, transferring his tension to Wesley. What, exactly, does he do with his guest now? What had he hoped to accomplish by taking him to see Cordy? Had he hoped to give Xander something, or take yet another thing from him? He'd hoped to learn something, this much he knows is true, but isn't that what the vivisectionists say?
Wesley is worse than a fool.
A thought which is reinforced as the car idles at a left-hand turn light. Xander slips the seatbelt and bolts out into traffic a split second before the light goes green, darting through cars to the righthand sidewalk. Before Wesley can even react, he's cut off by two lanes of fast-moving cars to his right, assaulted by horn blasts from the vehicles behind.
Rattled, Wesley floors the accelerator, making a sloppy left. By the time he can reverse his course, Xander is nowhere in sight.
When she came to him, she never said anything about this. He'd understood the book was his and his alone. If the plan had changed, wouldn't she have told him?
The Watcher would have him believe it's entirely random. Does he think Xander is stupid? No one from Sunnydale believes in coincidence or chance.
"Intelligent design," he says to a woman waiting at the corner for the light. "Malignant design, that's the usual." She decides to cross the other way, where the light is already green.
He sees the Watcher's SUV up the block, headed his way. He cuts toward the umbrella-dotted terrace of the Starbucks. There's an empty table littered with an abandoned drink and half a pastry. He settles himself on the chair. As long as he's washed and dressed in clean things, he fits in. As long as they think he's paid his money, he fits in.
The Watcher fed him well this morning, but his weeks on the street have taught Xander not to waste an opportunity. He tears pieces off the abandoned crumb cake and delicately pops them into his mouth.
He pulls out his book and bends over it. Everyone has a book here, or a computer like Willow's, or a pen and paper.
He fits in.
He pages through his book with its neat script and complex system of symbols. "What now?" he mutters, but he quickly looks around, aware that he can't talk to himself, or he won't fit in.
Does Spike count as one of the five? Not the first five, he knows that. Even walking around, he is dead. No one dead can be in the first five. But is he walking around because he's in the second five?
Spike's not who he'd pick. Xander didn't mind him so much by the end, but there are others he'd choose first. And it was his to choose, she'd told him that.
She'd bestowed this favor on him. Nobody else.
He will still make it five.
Stuck at a traffic light, Wesley calls Anne's shelter on his cell. Once he's reached her, he says, "I thought I should give you fair warning. Xander's roaming around loose again. He may come to find you."
"How is he?"
"Quite agitated. I suspect I made things worse."
"Whatever's making him worse, if he is, is inside his head," she says. It's hard to believe that a woman this wise is a contemporary of Buffy and Xander. "Can I help somehow?"
"I'm just driving around looking for him. Two sets of eyes would make that easier."
"You know where I am."
"I'm approximately ten minutes away," he tells her. "I'll see you then. And thank you."
He knows who will be first, of the second five. He's thought long and hard about this.
It will be Jenny Calendar.
For Giles, because he's never asked for anything. Because that summer when Buffy had run away, he never let them see that he was mourning what else he'd lost. That's what he did, shoved his own troubles far into the background and took care of "the children," as he used to call them.
So Xander can follow his lead, just this once.
Second, though, will be Anya. Because he's not as good as Giles, and never will be. Because, after all, he loves her. Because she earned it.
Third and fourth keep switching back and forth in his mind. He's finally settled on Joyce for the third. Because he can make both Buffy and Dawn happy with the same choice. Because he misses her too, more than his own mother.
Fourth is Tara. Not because it will erase what Willow did, but it will ease some of the damage she did to herself. Because of Tara's soft eyes, the grace they could pour onto him when she felt his hurt. Because of the charm she gave him that year on his birthday, which he still wears around his neck. Because her death made the world a more fucked-up place.
Last is purely selfish. Jesse. No one seems to miss him the way Xander does. His parents moved two years after he disappeared. Willow never mentions him, and Buffy barely knew him. He was Xander's brother, his mirror, his better self.
The second list, which is actually the first, is much harder.
Because he knows the torture will be finite, Wesley calls Giles on the drive to Anne's and admits, in not so many words, what an ass he is. "I'm searching for him now. At least he's clean and fed, and he's had some attention paid to his eye. He needs his antibiotics, however, or he'll be in worse shape than before."
"Explain to me what happened to Cordelia."
"Nothing. Nothing recent. She's been in a coma since spring. I'm fairly certain she's not coming out of it."
"And it never occurred to you that her friends here might care to know that."
No. It hadn't. They'd all been thinking of their own loss. It's not as if her Sunnydale friends had kept in touch with her. "You're quite right. Because you'd have been the first to let us know if one of your key people had -- oh, I don't know -- say, been half-blinded in the line of duty." There's a silence, and Wesley knows he's scored a point. Which leaves him only several hundred points in the minus column. "I haven't much time," he says. "I called to ask about a medallion Xander wears around his neck. I can't help thinking it could be significant. He says he's worn it for a long time, but he's given me two different stories about where he got it. Do you remember it? He says he's never taken it off."
"Not that I recall. Can you describe it?"
"It's silver. Approximately the diameter of a quarter, though it's thicker. And the design --" There's a vagueness that slides across his mind, as the shadow of a cloud moves across the landscape. It's an almost unpleasant sensation, causing him to shiver.
"I've quite forgotten," he finally says. What's one more humiliation after so many?
There's a brief pause from Giles's end. "That's not like you at all. Not the Wesley I remember. Do you think there could be a ward or a glamour of some kind that's preventing you from getting a closer look?"
Wesley blinks. In his past interactions with Giles, he can't recall any occasion on which the other man had given him the benefit of a doubt. That's not like you at all. "I -- That could be the case. It hadn't occurred to me."
"It wouldn't. Not with a well-made ward." He gives Wesley the name of a text that depicts a great number of amulets and charms. "Perhaps it'll prod your memory. I'll put in some research on my end, and ask Xander's other friends if they've had any odd communications from him recently. There may be a key in all his ramblings."
"I'd appreciate hearing anything you can find out."
"Of course. And I'd ask the same in return. He's very important to us." Giles makes a gruff goodbye and rings off.
Wesley can't quite say why there's a tightness in his throat as he phones Anne to say he's a block away.
That's not like you at all.
It rings in his mind almost like praise.
The second list -- which is actually the first -- makes his head ache. There's a smaller pool, for starters, and it's scattered far and wide. Scattered like the stars.
There are correspondences, too, that have to be taken into account. The lists have to balance. Thus the need for the system of symbols. He doesn't want to make a mistake.
The first rule is this: no one's name can go in the book unless they've spilled their blood in Sunnydale.
The Watcher, blowhard that he was, never shed his blood in battle, but Xander has a crystalline memory of him appearing in the library with a tiny piece of toilet paper pressed to a shaving cut. Stuffy man in a stuffy suit, made ridiculous by a scrap of white with a red-brown dot. Made even more foolish by his embarrassed reaction to its discovery.
Always brought down by a tiny detail, that's the Watcher with the two last names.
His carelessness with a razor, a minor injury long forgotten, earns him a place in the book.
Chantarelle's a girl, and lived in Sunnydale far longer than a month. Her name belongs too, no question.
Finding the correlations, that's the tricky part.
Suddenly restless, he stands and tucks the book back in its pocket, along with the pencil stub. He carefully buttons the flap closed over the book, finishes the last bite of crumb cake, and sets off for the park.
Something is there for him, he feels it.
He brushes his fingers over the warm metal disk at his throat. He feels her love for him, the one she's chosen.
She has a gift for him.
Anne's presence doesn't really help -- Xander's far too good at fading away on the streets -- but it makes Wesley feel less alone, less of a bungler.
She's noticed the medallion as well, but she can't describe it. "I think you're right, though, that it's worth checking out."
"There's a library at Wolfram & Hart. I'll find the text I need there. Would you be willing to come too? Perhaps you might recognize the insignia if you saw it."
Anne hesitates, but finally agrees.
"I understand your reluctance," Wesley says. "I know you've had experiences with Wolfram & Hart that make you wary."
"I've had experiences with Angel that make me wary."
He forgets, sometimes, that there are clients in Angel's past who don't view him as a savior. "Ah. You must remember, he was going through a dark time at that point." Wesley's not sure why he feels the impulse to make excuses.
"How do you know he's not going through a dark time now?"
Wesley has no answer to that.
She touches his arm as they wait for the parking garage gate to open. "Listen, I don't mean to sound so argumentative. I spend so much time fighting for my kids, it's getting to be my default mode."
He smiles at her. "It's not a problem at all."
Once they've reached his office he settles her on the sofa. She contemplates the soda and mug of tea Harmony has brought in to them and says, "If you wanted to reassure me about this place, having Harmony Kendall as the first person I see when I walk in the lobby isn't the best way to go about it."
Startled, he asks, "You know Harmony?" Harmony had given no sign of recognition.
"Sure. I went to school with her. She was in Cordelia's little clique."
"I keep forgetting you have that connection. Neither one of you mentioned it back when you came to us -- well, to Gunn -- for help."
"She wouldn't have recognized me from my high school self. I'm not even sure I was on her radar anyway. And she'd changed too. Not just the hair and clothes, but the whole vibe she gave off. It didn't click right away who she was."
Selecting one of the templates from its shelf, he murmurs the name of the text he seeks. He sits close beside her on the sofa. "The amulet we're looking for -- there's a good chance it's protected magically. I've seen it up close, but the details refuse to stick in my mind. So I want you to tell me if anything you see sparks any sense of familiarity at all. Even a faint glimmer. Or a powerful feeling that it's notthe one we're looking for. If you feel any reaction at all, be certain to tell me about it."
She nods, and Wesley settles the enormous book over both their laps. She is close enough that he breathes in the scent of her hair, feels the warmth of her body next to his. If their task wasn't so urgent, perhaps he wouldn't mind that they pore over hundreds of pages with no result.
"I can't even focus anymore," she finally announces. "I think I need a break."
"I'm in the same state," Wesley says. He turns a page and inserts an index card to mark their stopping point. "Why don't we get up and stretch a bit?" Carefully he lays the text on the coffee table, and they rise and look out over the city, lights winking on as dusk falls.
"I'd better call the shelter, tell them they'll need to handle things without me."
As she borrows his phone, he heads for the nearest break room to get more soda and tea. He sets his mug down to steep next to the cold tea he'd abandoned, and hands Anne her glass where she stands admiring the pink streaks beginning to tinge the western sky.
"I'm not exactly known for my imagination," Anne begins.
"I don't know," Wesley says. "Many people would see a group of street youths as slackers and thugs. You see kids who need help, young people with potential."
She smiles. "That's more about memory than imagination. I was one of those kids. Anyway, what I was going to say, when you brought that book over, it seemed like the words and drawings just flowed onto the page out of nowhere."
Nodding, he says, "The book -- all those, on that shelf there -- are magical templates. You speak the name of the book or scroll you require, and the text appears. Wolfram & Hart owns thousands of resources in their library, but this way they're always at hand."
"So these things belong to Wolfram & Hart too."
"And you trust them? I mean, how do you know that the entire book is there? Or that it's not changed somehow, to skew the information you need? Angel told me years ago, Wolfram & Hart is pretty much the home office of evil here on earth."
Wesley feels as though he's stepped out of his floor-to-ceiling window. Falling, falling, falling into the darkness below, with nothing to catch onto.
How can he have never contemplated this?
There's a market set up in the park. Ponytail-wearing Birkies selling organic vegetables to the SUV crowd. Not really a market. A real market has live chickens squabbling underfoot, children calling out like crows, begging for his coins or his attention. A real market is rows of ratty blankets spread with imperfect fruits and vegetables, teetering stacks of baskets, piled with more blankets.
A real market feels like a fever dream, noisy and dusty, with colors made sharp and painful by the relentless African sun.
A real market has an old witch-woman.
The same old witch-woman in every village, he'd almost swear it. The first time, he'd talked to her, hoping she'd present him with a slayer.
Her talk confused him at first. She spoke of a girl or woman. No name, just she. He asked for more in his halting Kiswahili until his guide roughly tugged him away from her.
"What? I couldn't understand."
His guide wouldn't say, but Xander persisted. It had never occurred to him until then that a black man could blush.
"What did she say?"
"Bad things. I don't have the English."
The hair pricked up at the back of his neck. "You can tell me." He could consult with Giles next city he reached, see if it was a curse or something.
"Fuck you," the guide said, fast and low.
Xander's jaw dropped.
"That's the only word I have. She say that, and more. Disgusting things. That she will fuck you, make you hers."
His head whipped around, though the witch woman was already out of sight. "Her?"
"No. Some other. She say she. Not I."
He laughed and said he'd have a story to tell back home, but he knew and the guide knew that he was freaked out.
After that, Xander steered clear of old women at the markets. They always seemed to look like the first. After the third market, the third old woman, Xander's guide found other employment.
This is not a real market, and he's a little bit glad.
He passes a man with a guitar (He thinks of Giles, the gift he's planning to bestow on him), a table covered with handmade bracelets and earrings (He remembers how Cordy scorned glass beads), another table piled with fruits and vegetables. The woman behind the table is turned away, packing away things she hasn't sold for the trip home, and because he is washed and dressed in clean clothes (He fits in), he can sneak a couple of plums as he walks by. He keeps his walk slow, casual, and no one even notices.
He drifts until he is nearly at the far edge of the park. There at the end of the row is a blanket spread half on grass, half on sidewalk. It is covered with bad carvings, mass produced African masks made in China. A man sits in a canvas chair, bored, reading a fat paperback. His face looks like a bad carving, his cheekbones too sharp. He looks up. "I've got something I think you'll be interested in."
Looking over the Pier 1 knockoff masks, Xander doesn't think so, but the man turns away from the blanket, rummages in a battered duffel. He comes up with a bolt of cloth, a kente of reds and golds and greens and black. Something makes it hard to breathe even before the man folds back a corner of the cloth to reveal what's protected there.
The hilt of a knife. Its surface is carved, too, with the same insignia he wears around his neck.
The man peels back more of the cloth.
The blade is bright and shiny, yet covered in intricate script. The characters writhe and dance in the flat sunlight, swarming like ants on the silver surface.
Xander drops the plums into the dust.
"I've been seduced," Wesley says. "We all have. And they knew just what it would take, for each of us."
"So what now?"
Now he decides whether he walks away from everything he ever wanted. From his work. His friends.
What is there to walk to?
Now is not this minute, however. "For now we continue looking for the amulet. I'll check whatever we find against a source I can trust."
"That makes sense."
They return to their places on the sofa and Wesley settles the book back on their laps. After they've browsed through another five or six pages, something occurs to Wesley. "You said you couldn't focus anymore."
"I'm fine now. Keep going."
"I just realized. I felt it too. Complete fatigue, inability to concentrate."
"You're still too tired?"
"No. That's just it, do you see?" He flips back several pages, and suddenly he's hit with overwhelming weariness.
"Wow," Anne says.
"It's the ward." There are four illustrations on the page. "Can you see one you recognize?"
"No," she says quickly. She's not even looking at the page.
"If you could just try --"
"It feels bad." She pushes the book back at him, slips out from under it.
Bad is a beginning. His palms are clammy and his heart races unevenly. He forces himself to look.
One of the four looks right and yet wrong. He makes himself concentrate, until he's forced to shove the book aside and bolt for his private washroom. After he's emptied his stomach, he splashes water on his face, and that's when it comes to him. It's not the image on the medallion he recognizes, but its reverse, the pattern burned into the flesh below Xander's throat.
He's still covered in a cold sweat when he emerges from the washroom.
Anne rises from the sofa. "Are you all right?"
"I'll be fine." He hopes this is true. Wesley bypasses the phone on his desk, flipping open his cell. Once he's put through to Giles, he says, "I think I've found the amulet. The copy I have of the text, however -- there are reasons I'm not certain I can trust it. I'll need your help."
"You have that, of course."
Fighting nausea, Wesley finds the page once more. He reads the inscription, then slams the book shut before his stomach revolts again.
"Bloody hell," Giles murmurs. "Not another ancient unnamable."
Wesley hears the riffle of pages on the other end. He closes his eyes in the hope that the room will stop whirling.
"All right, I've found the page."
"If it's the same version, it's the upper left--"
"Christ Almighty," Giles says.
"What? I can't make it out, the ward is too strong."
"Christ, this is bad. It's a hyena."
He walks out of the park carrying the kente-wrapped knife and a slip of paper, both given to him by the carved face man.
The square of memo paper has the name of a hotel printed on it. A room number is neatly written in black ink on the cream-colored paper. Though the paper is passed to him without a word, Xander knows who waits in the room.
Though she mostly comes to him, she brought him to her once before.
His third night in Mombasa. He'd seen her twice before this, both times at the American bar.
The first time he caught sight of her across a barroom jammed with people. It's bad to stare, but he found it hard to look away from her. He'd never seen a woman this beautiful. One time that night her gaze swept over him, that's all, but that moment burned in his mind all night long.
The next night when he went back, he edged his way through the crowd toward the men's room and found himself near her. She smiled and said something about seeing him twice in a row, and he said he came for the American hamburgers. She asked what else he missed.
"My friends. Long hot showers. I'm not sure in what order."
She laughed, and it flowed through him like a cool, soft breeze during the heat of the day.
He had to step back to let a party of drunk men pass, and when they had gone, so had she.
The third night he came back. One last hamburger before he went back into the field, he told himself. But when she didn't show, he found himself lingering until last call. It wasn't until he was making his way from the men's room that he saw her standing in the middle of the deserted barroom. Relief tore through him, stronger than any he'd ever felt: stronger than hearing that Cordy would survive her fall and impaling; stronger than seeing Willow alive and unvamped; stronger than seeing Buffy again after those long months after Glory.
He said something inane, like "Nice night, isn't it?"
"I don't have a shower," she said, "but would you like a long hot bath? I have a private bath house that's fed by a hot spring. It's the least I can do for an aid worker, I think."
It didn't occur to him not to accept. Still, the situation was so odd that he could only imagine himself submerging for ten minutes or so before feeling he should dress and join his hostess.
Things didn't turn out that way. The water was hot and uncommonly silky against his skin, stinking slightly of sulfur. He settled back into its liquid embrace in the massive clawfoot tub, time completely forgotten. When he finally roused himself, he discovered his dusty clothes had been taken away. Shrugging, he put on the white cotton shirt and pants that had been left for him.
"Sorry to be so long," he said once he emerged. "I must have fallen asleep."
She smiled. "The waters will do that. Lithium is one of the substances that occur naturally." She opened a bottle of water and poured him a glass. "You should drink."
It cleared his head a little. He wondered about getting back to his hotel. The streets of a port city are never a good bet after closing time.
She approached him, an ornate jar in her hand. "I find this helps, too." She dipped two fingers into the jar, smeared something on his forehead. Though he expected nothing at all, he suddenly felt sharper, more awake, yet weirdly things also felt hazy. "Come," she said, and led him to another room. There was a bed there as large as his entire hotel room.
She opened his shirt and touched another two fingers of stuff from the jar to his chest. "Give me your hands."
Without speaking, he presented them. She smeared them with the oily stuff from the jar. Its scent now seemed to fill the room. Keeping her grip on his right hand, she led him across the layers of ornate rugs to the bed.
"I think that--"
She gently pushed him until he sat on the edge of the bed, then lifted his feet, one by one, to anoint them too.
Then he was lying in the middle of the bed, naked and erect.
And then she was getting naked. "Your mind, your heart, your hands, your feet. You have given them to me. To my will."
"Wait, I--" The words drifted into smoke before they even reached his lips.
"I called you a long time ago. This only seals it." Then she straddled him, surrounding him with her heat. As she moved atop him, he had a fleeting memory of Faith.
After about five seconds, he had no more thoughts at all.
After he finishes the conversation with Giles, Wesley stands and stretches. "Mr. Giles is following up," he tells Anne. "He'll be in touch when he knows something more. What would you say to the notion of getting out of here?"
Anne turns from the window, where she's been admiring the blood-red sunset. "Something on the order of yee-haw."
He smiles. "Somehow I get the feeling those words have never crossed your lips before."
"Good guess. Probably never again." She looks around for her handbag, which Wesley finds and hands to her.
"Could you possibly eat?"
"Actually, I'm starving. Once you put that book away, I was fine."
Wesley nods. "My experience exactly." He suggests a local hangout known for comfort food, though he's aware that American comfort food is worlds apart from its British counterpart. Her eager agreement, however, makes it worth his sacrifice.
He watches her tucking into her meatloaf, pausing only for a small dissertation on the importance of swaddling the meatloaf with catsup. "It has to be baked on, like this, not just poured on after. So gravy is just wrongness."
"That much is completely obvious to anyone," he deadpans.
Anne's mouth quirks up. "Go ahead. Make fun. How's the mac and cheese?"
"Perfect." Why, he wonders, hadn't he looked Anne up after the shooting, stopped by to thank her for the flowers? "Mr. Giles, the friend of Xander's I was talking to, told me about an incident in your school some years ago. I was wondering if you might remember."
"I left before my senior year, but if it happened before, I might recall something. What is it?"
"He told me the school principal was attacked. The official story was wild dogs."
She actually pauses, her fork hovering over her mashed potatoes. "Poor Mr. Flutie. I haven't thought of him in a long time." She gives a ladylike snort. "Wild dogs. Typical Sunnydale official story if I ever heard one."
"Do you know what really happened?"
Shaking her head, Anne says, "My money's on the supernatural, though."
"There was a group of students who were possessed."
"The whole Satanic bit? I'm surprised I don't remember that. I was a little more aware of the Sunnydale vibe than most, being a goth girl."
"No, not possessed in that sense. In this case they were possessed by the spirits of animals. Hyenas, Mr. Giles says."
Her mouth twitches a bit. "Hyenas. As in laughing hyenas."
"Perhaps it sounds ludicrous to you. But these students killed and ate your Mr. Flutie."
Her fork clatters onto her plate. "That's -- Jesus. I never knew. I never believed the dogs thing, but I never really thought about what did happen. We all had a knack for not really thinking, goths or not."
"Mr. Giles told me Xander was one of the students."
"Oh, god. He ate--"
"No, no. He was proven to be elsewhere when that occurred. I was wondering if perhaps you could search your memory, come up with any details about the others. You've heard Xander talking about this book, about writing names in it. Giles says the amulet represents a hyena. Perhaps it's these other students he's trying to find." He's not completely convinced, however. Cordelia wasn't in that group, yet Xander had been dead set on adding her name.
She leans back in the booth, lost in thought. "I was a sophomore that year. I was never in his circle, never even near it, but I usually had a bead on the social land mass. Continental drift, seismic shifts, your occasional Krakatoa sliding into the sea." Cupping her chin in her hand, Anne stares out the window at the street. "Xander broke off from his friends for a short while that year," she finally says. "Things weren't quite stable anyway. His best friend had disappeared earlier in the year, and Buffy transferred in, and she joined their little clique." A fleeting smile. "A little like my clique, a clique of outsiders. But we were different sorts of uncool, so we didn't really cross over. Anyway, he started hanging with this group of mean kids." She starts tying her straw wrapper into knots. "That wasn't really like him. He could be sharp-tongued now and then, but this group went out for the flat-out vicious. God, they were creeps. They'd do something cruel -- as publicly as possible -- and then they'd swagger off, laughing like a bunch -- oh. Yeah."
"Any idea what happened to the others?"
"Now I remember, there were all these rumors flying after Mr. Flutie died. Not connected at all, but three of them just disappeared. One of the girls was supposedly pregnant and went off to live with a relative. One of the boys got shipped off to a mental hospital, I heard. Kyle -- he was the ringleader, always the instigator -- was the one who stayed behind. He was kind of a ghost after that. You'd see him in the hallway, but he never spoke up, never was seen with any friends, never even gave anyone a hard time after that. Sometime during junior year, he shot himself. The last one, Rhonda -- they said she ran away, and I thought I saw her in L.A. She looked really different -- which is a long story that's completely unrelated -- but I thought I recognized this beaded necklace she always wore. I called out her name, but she just said, 'I'm nobody' and kind of scurried off. So maybe it was her, maybe it wasn't. Wow. That explains a lot. How do you come back after doing something that crazy? Even if you were made to do it."
"Precisely," Wesley says softly, and Anne shivers.
"We'd better find him, then."
It feels less like a hotel than a palace, with vast marbled lobbies where he'd have felt out of place even when he was a builder in a suit. Though he knows he'd have been arrested just days ago for daring to cross the threshold, he walks in without fear or hesitation. He is her servant, her chosen one; there's no place in this world he doesn't belong if she sends him there.
The entire top floor is hers, the elevator opening into a private lobby. She answers the bell herself, and he falls to his knees in her presence. He was too ignorant to pay her such respect the first time she summoned him, but now he knows.
She holds a slender hand out to him, drawing him back up onto his feet. She wears no jewels on her hands, at her throat. He can't imagine any gemstone that wouldn't look squalid in the light of her beauty.
She favors him with a smile, pleased at his thought. There has been no need for words between them since the night in Mombasa when she first took him, marking him as her own.
Before she can sanctify her gift and make it truly his, he must bathe and be anointed. The water cascading into the tub doesn't have the overpowering odor of the hot spring water in her homeland, but she spills a vial of scented oil into the waters.
She caresses his cheek as she turns back from the tub, and it takes all his strength not to fall to his knees again. She whispers her name into his ear and then holds her hand out for the book. He fumbles to unfasten the cargo pocket, then reverently places the book within her hand.
After she withdraws, he doesn't know how long he stands there, her name singing in his mind. The waters are just warm when he finally thinks to shed his clothes and step in.
Her name is still shimmering inside him when she calls him into her presence. He dresses in the things which have been laid out for him and walks out to meet her.
He offers himself to her to be anointed. The salve she touches to his forehead, chest, hands and feet has a different color and scent this time, a fact she chooses not to explain.
She unwraps the kente cloth, takes the knife into her hands, the blade flat between her palms. Then she presses the flat of the blade against the paler skin at the inside of his right forearm.
He feels nothing but a faint sensation of warmth. When she takes the knife away, its shape and the words engraved on it are branded onto his flesh. She tells him without speaking that now the knife is consecrated for the use of her priest.
Next she returns the book to him. She has worked out the correspondences for him, calculated the necessary balances. He has done well in trying to work this through on his own, she assures him, has earned the answers she is now giving him.
The book falls open to the first list, which she has filled in for him. As he holds the book in his right hand, the knife branded on his arm points directly at the list.
He sees the names she's written there and is jolted out of the communion they share. Pain flares along the synapses of his arm, and he nearly drops the book. "This can't --" he says out loud.
The contact between their minds is not severed, however. These are the ones I require, she tells him, the message riding on a wave of love for him. You are the one I've chosen. You can do this.
His correspondences are all broken down. Giles cannot be on the first list, because then the second makes no sense. The same is true of Dawn. And Cordelia --
"This -- I can't."
My reasons are not your reasons. You are my priest. She touches her fingers to the place on his forehead where she anointed him. She not only reads the thoughts there, the protests and reasons. She draws them out and consumes them. In their place she leaves his mission, her name.
She touches her lips to his, something she has never done before. He drowns in the soft heat of her mouth, the electric touch of her fingers on his skin. When she steps back to lead him to her bed, he nearly cries out, bereft.
She makes him her priest.
She rides him, as she has done before, but for the first time she does more with her hands than pin him to the mattress. For the first time she allows him to touch her with his own hands.
She takes him to a place where he can't tell if his mind is unbearably full or completely empty. Her touch is like ice and like fire. She says his name and it sounds alien, harsh. When she commands him to repeat it, the only name that will come to his tongue is hers.
She is pleased.
She rides him as she always does, to the quivering edge of release, drawing away just as he would tumble over the precipice. This time he does cry out, reaching toward her.
This time is different. She seizes his legs, pulling him toward the edge of the bed. She pushes his legs up, shouldering into them, raising his hips just off the bed. Her fingers glistening from the contents of another ornate jar, she reaches between their bodies and makes him ready.
Holding his gaze, she enters him.
There is nothing in this that surprises him.
Thrusting inside him, she bids him again to repeat his name back to her, but once more, her name is all he can utter.
She lets him climax then, for the first time in all their couplings. It rolls through him and through him, wave after wave, like the sound of thunder in a tropical rainstorm. He soaks her up like the rain, he's been so parched, so cracked and dry and withered.
When she withdraws from him at last, he feels like drought has come upon him again. She lies beside him (another thing she has never done before), and he touches both her breast and her prick. She laughs at this, and he takes this to mean she is still pleased with him.
She rises then, allowing him to rest as she prepares a tray of food for them. He can barely eat in her presence. Her silk robe falls open as she leans forward to offer him a piece of fruit. She makes no move to close it, and he sees her body is now the way he remembers, wholly female.
She promises him more of this, once he has accomplished his mission. She wants him to come with her to her city.
Of course he will go. He's her priest.
Bathed and dressed once more, he takes his leave, the book once again tucked in its pocket, the knife concealed beneath the long black trenchcoat she gave him.
He stumbles as he leaves her suite, tripped up by a pile of newspapers at her door.
An entire week of the Los Angeles Times.
Wesley stands at his office window, watching the sky streak with red and orange, threaded with purple.
He'll miss this view.
He'll miss having unlimited access to any rare text or scroll he's ever wanted. Miss the shaky, adrenaline-tinged exhaustion of an all-night search through the library. But Anne's right. How can he trust these texts, knowing their source? Especially when he's seen the type flowing like water onto blank pages. How reliable can these be?
Wesley tries to imagine the kind of damage that could result from a prophecy that was skewed, or even made up from whole cloth.
He should have known better than to sit down to play cards with Wolfram & Hart. They have so many inventive ways to stack the deck, so many reasons. A smart man knows when to walk away from the table. Wesley may not have won, but his losses are few.
"I heard you was doin' this," a voice says behind him.
He turns to face Gunn, who's eying the last of the boxes, sitting half-packed on his desk. "Yes. Harmony would be the soul of discretion, but for her complete lack of a soul."
"You haven't been around much lately."
No. He's been busy exhausting all leads trying to find Xander, who's gone to ground. He's even been to the city morgue twice; who'd have thought L.A. was so well supplied with one-eyed transients? "I've had projects to work on," he says.
"My friend Anne, did she look you up?"
"Yes. We've been working together on her problem."
"That was supposed to get you back with the program," Gunn says irritably. "Not send you spinning off on your own."
"Gunn, have you ever stopped to consider how perfect this place is for each of us? How it offers us everything we could possibly want?"
"Damn straight I have. Me, I'm in the praise be and hallelujah camp. While I'm thinking you're about to lay some Calvinist buzzkill on me. Beware of snakes offering me the knowledge to choose my own destiny."
"It's an apt analogy, and you know it. We've all made a devil's bargain."
"You think I'm giving it up, going all Flowers for Algernon at this stage, take another guess."
"For Christ's sake, Charles! You are not mentally challenged."
Gunn shrugs. "So I'm 1 for 2 in the analogy department. Does it matter? I like who I am. Why should I go back to who I was?"
"Because I'm not sure you can trust what they've given you. It was your friend Anne who pointed this out to me."
"She's smart about street kids, maybe. Wolfram & Hart is a whole different league."
What is it about Wolfram & Hart that brings out the sports metaphors? That alone is a definitive indicator of evil.
"C'mon, Wes. Stay with the team." Irritation crosses his face. "What's that laugh about?"
"Nothing. I'm sorry." He sees the wariness that shutters Gunn's expression, though, and realizes it's exactly this insecurity that has driven him to make this bargain. "Anne and I had a joke about sports metaphors, that's all. Come with me, Charles. We can go back to what we were in that little storefront."
Gunn turns his face aside. "We can't never be what we were. We had Cordelia then. I'm not even talking about her access to the Powers That Be. We lost our heart."
"Would she want--"
Gunn sweeps the unsealed carton off Wesley's desk. "Don't you fucking start with what she'd want. Do whatever you want, but don't you use Cordelia." He spits a curse, then turns on his heel and stalks out of the room.
Wesley stands for a moment regarding the empty doorway, then kneels to right the carton and begin repacking it.
"I guess Charles has been by to give his opinion on matters."
It feels like such a long time since he's heard Fred's voice. A moment passes before he can look up from his task and offer her a smile. "Fred."
"I should have come to find you long before this. I thought you needed time, after everything that happened." She comes in and plops onto the sofa, all knees and elbows and awkward angles. "You have to remember, Wesley, that I spent my best years in a cave. Sometimes I miss things."
His throat tightens, but he forces the words out. "Not at all. It's just -- well, I can't overlook where all this is coming from. Not anymore."
She cocks her head. "The old 'lie down with pigs' thing." She blushes furiously, flutters a hand. "God, not that I meant --"
Lilah. He'd have never made that leap, if Fred's apology hadn't made it for him. Someday perhaps he'll find this amusing. But not for a long while.
"It's all right. Fred, I'm afraid I have to keep at this. I'd like to get this all home tonight." He must not only pack the SUV but unload it tonight. He's set to collect Xander's friend Willow at the airport in the morning. It was very nearly the whole lot of them, including Giles, but for an apocalypse brewing somewhere on the continent.
"Can I help?"
"I'm fine." He does this. Pushes her away, even as he wishes to be closer to her. It's a pattern he can't seem to change.
"Oh." She sounds so small and waifish. "I'll get out of your way, then."
He wants to stop her, but he doesn't.
He stacks the boxes on a chair, thinking about calling for one of the porters to help him carry them to the freight elevator and on to his SUV. But there's an appeal to the symbolism of carrying it all out of there himself.
Symbolism or wank. It's so difficult at times to tell the difference.
Later, as he lifts the last two cartons and elbows off the light switch, his cellphone rings. It's Anne.
"I'm afraid I don't have anything new to report," he tells her. "One of his close friends is arriving tomorrow. She may be able to reach him."
"I have something to report," Anne says. "He's here. And Wesley, I would never have seen how I could possibly say this, but he's so much worse than he was before."
It occurs to him this might be a good time to collect on Spike's offer of help. He finds the cellphone number Spike scrawled on his month-at-a-glance calendar on the desk and dials as he strides through the halls.
Quite a few office lights are still blazing. Associates hoping to make partner. Perhaps they still fear the infamous Wolfram & Hart purges. The break room light, not surprisingly, is out. The break room is not where the go-getters are.
As he passes, he hears the insistent ring of a cellphone, curiously synched with the sound from his own cell, buzzing as his call to Spike goes unanswered. Wesley pauses and retraces his steps, flipping on the light in the break room. Before he turns his head, he gets a quick glimpse of leather coat, a pair of shapely legs draped over the shoulders. A highly improbable -- make that improbably high -- pair of shoes.
How disturbing is it that the feminine moan is immediately recognizable to him as Harmony's voice?
Wesley reaches between the legs and grabs a handful of collar, yanking backward.
He drags Spike out into the hallway. "I believe your phone is ringing, Spike."
"You could let a bloke finish."
"Yeah," Harmony calls out after them.
"Xander Harris has turned up again. I may need your help subduing him."
"Violence for the higher good. Now you're talking. Two cars or one?"
Much as he'd like to keep an eye on Spike, the notion of two vehicles makes sense. "Two. Not the Viper, he know that one." He punches the elevator call button, and steps in when the doors glide immediately open. "And do please wipe off your face."
Spike's tongue flashes briefly at the corner of his mouth, as if chasing after a last bit of cupcake icing. Then he wipes at his face, with his shirt tail.
Definitely two cars.
On the interminable elevator ride, Spike asks, "So what's the latest on Harris?"
"Anne says he's turned up at the shelter. Even crazier than before."
"Rupert hasn't come up with anything?"
"He's got an apocalypse on his hands at the moment. And when you're looking through indices under Ancient Beings, Comma, Unnamable, you have to sift through a great deal of dross." It annoys him that it's always Rupert come up with anything yet? whenever Spike drops in for a progress report. He's done plenty of late nights himself, primarily with his own texts, but a time or two he weakened and consulted the templates for a rare scroll. He'd of course have sought an additional source if he'd found anything there, but information of any kind has been elusive.
Wesley leaves all of this unspoken. Once he starts justifying himself to Spike, he really is in trouble. The elevator doors glide open at the garage level and they split up, each headed toward his own car.
He's halfway to the shelter when his cell rings. "He's taken off," Anne informs him. "I tried to keep him here, but you know how slippery he can be."
"I'll swing by. We can search together."
"I'll be out waiting."
He calls Spike then, tells him to cruise the neighborhood around the shelter. A moment later he's pulling in front of the shelter. Anne rises from her perch on the steps, flanked by two rather large young men. They walk with her, one of them opening the door of Wesley's SUV and taking a glance around inside, including sizing up Wesley himself.
"It would be a good idea to keep her from getting hurt," the youth says.
"I have every intention."
"And so do I," Anne says pointedly. The youth steps back to let her into the car. "Thanks, Benny. Rico. It's getting close to curfew, why don't you go settle in."
As he pulls away from the curb, Wesley says, "They care about you."
"They do. I'd be happy if it were a little less Must-protect-helpless-female, but you can't have everything." She points east. "He went that way, like before. He had on a long black coat, like those trench coat kids. He's had access to soap and water, so he'll blend in a little better, at least until he opens his mouth."
"What did he say? Did you have direct contact?"
"Oh yeah. One of the new kids let him inside. I guess he sounded normal for at least that long, or else I've got a kid with no survival skills at all. One of the others came and got me then." She points again. "There's always a crowd of kids hanging around outside that club. Let's take a slow cruise by. So when I got to him, he said, 'You're not required anymore. I thought I should tell you.' Um, what else? Something about how he'd thought it was just blood, but now he knew there was more. Power. 'You and me, Chantarelle,' he said, 'we've never had that.' It was like machine gun fire. It was hard to catch everything."
"Try. It's crucial."
"The number five kept coming up. That part really made no sense. First five and second five, and six fives. Something about she, a couple of times, then he switched it to they. Like he'd said something he hadn't meant to, like he was covering a slip."
"The first time I saw him here, he kept talking about Them."
"So maybe it's been She all along. He's more paranoid now, but less guarded, if that makes any sense. His filters aren't working as well."
"That may help us, if we can decipher what he's saying. Is there anything else you can remember?"
Anne considers. "All the five stuff. He got more agitated when he got to six fives."
This sounds vaguely familiar to Wesley, but he can't quite place it. "Six fives. Thirty." He feels a rising dread, but he can't put a name to it.
"Right. There was a string of babble, and the six fives kept coming up, then he said something about thirty. Then he bolted. Thirty something. Thirty doors."
"Hang on," he says, and executes a U-turn in the middle of the avenue.
Anne starts to release her hold on the dashboard as the SUV straightens out of its turn, then thinks better of it as Wesley floors the accelerator. "Okay, something in all that made sense to you. I just can't figure out what."
"Thirty doors. I took Xander to see Cordelia at the hospital. He counted the doors to her room. Thirty."
"That doesn't sound good."
He flips open his cell, hits redial. "Spike. He's on his way to Cordelia. We have to stop him." He gives the address and her room number. When he's broken the connection, he says, "Something's changed. When he saw her condition, Xander said she couldn't have her name in the book. What does he want with her now?"
"Well, he said it wasn't just blood, but power. I don't know what the blood thing meant, except we've all got five quarts or so. Does the power part make any sense to you?"
"Cordelia spent some time on another plane. She was, you could say, a higher power. Hang on." He blasts the car horn as he speeds through a yellow left-turn arrow.
"Wow," Anne says. "She always kind of acted like she thought so, when I knew her in high school. I never would have thought--"
"What in Christ's name was I thinking, taking Xander there?"
"He's on foot," Anne says. "You'll make it in plenty of time."
Wesley makes another hard left into the "exit only" opening to the hospital parking lot. Abandoning the SUV in the fire lane, Wesley runs full-tilt toward a side entrance, Anne's trainers slapping the pavement behind him.
They burst into the corridor in front of a nurse wheeling an old fellow on oxygen. Despite her scolding, they dodge the pair and keep running. As he runs, Wesley pulls the prepared hypodermic from his pocket, pulling off the cap that covers the needle.
The door slams against the wall as Wesley crashes into Cordy's room. Xander stands at the far side of her bed, a wicked-looking knife in his hand. He has just, it would seem, drawn the blade across the skin of his forearm. "First one of the first five," he says. "You can't stop this."
Then he switches his grip on the knife, raising it high over Cordy's still form.
Wesley goes for Xander the most direct way possible, lunging across her bed. He stabs the hypodermic into Xander's thigh just as the blade plunges down.
Liquid fire races through Wesley's shoulder and back. His own shout of pain and rage mingles with Xander's. Distantly he hears the knife clatter on the tile floor.
"The knife!" Wesley gasps, and Anne dives after it as he clutches Xander with all his strength, which is waning -- at a slower rate, he hopes, than Xander's.
"Ow!" he hears over the sound of his own struggle. "Fucking hell! Invite me in!"
"Come in!" Wesley and Anne shout simultaneously.
"Invite me in!"
Christ in a sidecar. This room is Cordelia's sole residence now; she has to be the one who invites him.
"Take this!" Anne shouts, and slides the knife across the floor, sending it skittering into the hallway. Then she tackles Xander from behind, pulling him off of Wesley. His reactions are slowing now, and he staggers backward, toppling into Anne and sending them both crashing to the tile.
Wesley pushes himself off Cordelia, dizzying as well. Blearily he checks Cordy over, tubes, monitors, breathing. The monitors chirp monotonously, and she seems completely unaffected by the mayhem literally on top of her.
Xander struggles to regain his feet for a moment, then collapses. Anne wrestles her way from beneath him before Wesley can even make his way to the foot of Cordy's bed.
"Oh dear," he says faintly, and crashes to the floor himself. He's fuzzily aware of a rich assortment of curses streaming from Anne's pretty lips as he's seized by the ankles and dragged to the threshold. He leaves a bright red smear behind, rather like a child's fingerpainting.
That's the last observation he makes for some time.
Wesley comes to briefly as he's slung into the car like a sack of potatoes. His forehead makes contact with something blunt.
"He's going to feel that in the morning," Spike notes, rather too cheerfully.
"Feel it now," he mutters. A Harris sized sack of potatoes is pitched in on top of him and the SUV roars off, becoming briefly airborne, it seems, before screeching onto the pavement. They barrel though a wall of sirens before making a nauseating zigzag through the city streets.
"Where do we go?" Anne asks. "Xander's gotten away from us three times, we need some way to contain him."
"My flat," Wesley says, but the comment is muffled by a large amount of drugged Xander.
"Christ, I dunno. Wolfram & Hart's got cages, but--"
"No," Wesley says, as loud as he can manage. "My flat. There's a cage."
Faintly he hears Spike say something about hidden depths before a roaring in his ears drowns out the rest and he slips under again.
He's never unconscious for the most painful parts. This seems to be a constant of his demon-hunting career. The fire in his shoulder rekindles with a vengeance as Anne struggles to help him out of the SUV.
Another disturbing constant: He always seems to find himself bleeding to death anytime he's in Anne's presence for very long.
He must have muttered some part of this without being aware, because Anne says, "You are not bleeding to death." The SUV chirps as she locks its door, then she slings his good arm over her shoulder and they stagger toward his building. Wesley is still rather lightheaded. "Xander twisted away as you got him with the needle, and the knife caught your shoulder blade. You'll have a nasty long scar, but it didn't go very deep."
"Wouldn't want that. Nasty knife scar."
"One's sort of rakish. Two is maybe overdoing it."
What a strange thing to say. "I'll take that under advisement. Lovely evening, Mrs. Rosario."
His neighbor glares at him as if accusing him for the loveliness of the evening. "There is a person standing outside your apartment with an unconscious person over his shoulder."
"Ah, yes. Bachelor party. Not to worry. We'll have the groom's penis dyed blue and turn him loose in no time at all."
That sends her back inside her flat with a bang of the door.
Wesley fumbles for his keys.
"Spike has them, but he can't get inside the apartment."
"Yes. Quite. For god's sake, man, go in." By the time Wesley makes it inside after Spike, the room is whirling. He can't say it's much of an improvement. "Do make yourself at home. I'll be right with you."
It's true what they say. There's nothing like crashing unconscious onto your own floor.
A great deal of fumbling occurs (some of it quite painful) before Spike and Anne think to switch tasks. Spike settles into stitching Wesley's knife gash, while Anne reassembles the cage in the bedroom closet. Xander lies unmoving, sprawled on the sofa.
Wesley winces as Spike draws the thread through his flesh. "You're quite adept at this," he says once he catches his breath. "Considerably gentler than Cordelia was."
"It's making me a bit peckish, if you must know." Trust Spike to derail anything approaching a heartfelt moment. A stitch later, however, he says, "Shame about the deb. Barely had any contact with her, but she was a fiery one, what little I saw."
"Yes. Cordy became quite a remarkable person. Surprising what people can make of themselves, when given a chance to flourish. Hidden depths," he adds drily.
Spike doesn't seem to pick up on the reference. "Like that one in there," he says quietly. "Five years ago she was a silly twit. Lucky she's alive, she was so stupid. I came damn close to eating her myself."
"Hard to imagine, seeing her now." He thinks of his own stupidity of five years ago, and it becomes a bit easier to envision. Still, she's obviously traveled miles beyond him.
Once Spike finishes closing and bandaging his injury, Wesley pours them both a generous glass of the single malt. "It's not blood," he says apologetically.
Spike samples the scotch, and Wesley witnesses his own elevation in Spike's opinion. "Best thing in existence that isn't blood." Spike casts a glance at Xander, then raises his own glass. "To our fallen."
The word our surprises Wesley a bit, but heartens him too. He touches his glass to Spike's, and they drink without further comment.
Anne emerges from the bedroom before their glasses are drained. "It's pretty solid," she says, "but I think it could use a go with another pair of hands. Make sure everything's tight as it can be."
Spike nods and goes to see what he can do.
"I probably don't want to know what sort of nasty thing you had locked in there," Anne says.
Wesley smiles painfully. "I think not." At any rate he doesn't want her to know. "We were having a bit of medicinal scotch just now. Would you like to join us?"
"Not this minute, but thanks. How about Xander? Did anyone treat the cut on his arm?"
"No. I hadn't bloody thought."
"I think you can be excused, considering. It's probably stopped bleeding long ago; it didn't look that deep. Left or right, do you remember?"
"Right." His shoulder throbbing, Wes stands uselessly by as Anne struggles to free the arm curled beneath Xander's body.
She pushes up the sleeve of the black trenchcoat and the white linen shirt beneath it. (Where, Wes wonders, did those come from?) "I don't know if I'm going to be able to get at it -- wow. Come take a look at this."
Emerging from Xander's sleeve is an intricate design worked in reddened flesh -- a burn like the circular one just below his throat.
"It's like he's been branded," Anne says.
Spike returns from the bedroom and has a look. "Same design as the knife, yeah?"
"Please, Spike," Spike says. "If it wouldn't be too much trouble, Spike."
"Don't be a prima donna." He holds out his hand for the knife.
Spike hands it over. "What are the chicken scratches, then? Demon language? Your everyday dead language?"
"Nothing I recognize," Wesley says. "But I'm certain the library holds -- bugger."
"Anne has rightly pointed out that we have no reason to trust the texts the Wolfram & Hart library makes available to us." He rummages for a blank sheet of paper. "I'll make a hand-drawn copy, scan it and email it to Giles. I'll check my own sources here, too."
"Should we get Xander squared away first?" Anne asks.
"He should be out for some time yet," Wesley says. "On the other hand, when he does rouse, he seems to do so suddenly." Still he hates the idea of caging Xander. Justine was one thing, but Xander can't help what's happened to him. Yet they can't afford to let him escape again. "Take the sofa cushions first. I don't want him sleeping on the floor."
Spike gets him repositioned so Anne can take the cushions, and once she returns from the bedroom the two hoist Xander onto his feet.
"Just a moment," Wesley says. As long as he's committing one act that makes him feel utterly sick, he may as well add another.
He unbuttons the cargo pocket on Xander's right leg and withdraws the precious book.
"All tucked in for beddy-bye," Spike says as he and Anne emerge from the bedroom.
Wesley understands the attempt to lighten the mood, but it makes him feel worse.
"What's in the book, then?"
"Everything in its own time. I need to get these markings off to Giles so he can start researching, if it's nothing he recognizes. I want you to find some texts for me. I've put in a call; the owner will meet you here." He hands Spike a scrap of paper with an address written on it. "Please, Spike. If it wouldn't be too much trouble, Spike."
Spike takes the piece of paper. "Can't believe you're not at least tempted, after all this trouble." He makes a feint for the book on the table.
Wesley snatches it up. "The shop owner's waiting."
Spike bangs out the door, whistling a tune down the hallway for the benefit of Mrs. Rosario.
Wesley regards the black-covered book in his hands. Spike has no idea of the temptation he's battling at this moment. But Wesley knows himself too well. From his childhood on, there's been no browsing through a book or reading a chapter before bedtime. Of all the offenses that got him locked beneath the hallway stairs, how many had involved being discovered with a book and torch when he was supposed to be sleeping?
He must get his information to Giles before he loses himself to the pages of Xander's book.
As he works on the drawing, Anne sets herself to making tea. Then she begins rummaging through the refrigerator, which leads to hunting up the bin liners.
When he calls her over to inspect his handiwork, she pulls off a pair of Playtex gloves as she approaches. "Sorry about your collection of Thai food. I hope the Guinness people have already been here to authenticate your claim."
Heat rises in his face. "Anne, you didn't have to--"
"I know, I know. I feel more like I'm being rude than helping. I have ... kind of a refrigerator thing. Like OCD, but specialized. Sorry."
"Don't be." If anything, it makes him like her more to see a chink in her armor. "This needs to be completely accurate. If you could check it over, that would be most helpful."
"The two sides are different."
"Do you think it's significant which side is branded onto Xander's arm?"
"God, yes." It's an awkward job getting access to Xander's right arm through the bars, and determining which side of the knife made the raised markings isn't easy. Anne makes a notation on the drawing.
Wesley gets it scanned and emailed, then makes the call to Giles. The previous calls he's made reluctantly because of the ugliness of their history, and the associations it brings up with other relationships. This time his reluctance is due to the news he must bear, that Xander is so far gone that he would have butchered Cordelia had he not been prevented.
The silence on the other end of the line is so heavy that he can close his eyes and see Giles's lost look, the slump of his shoulders.
"I am sorry," Wesley says again.
"Were you injured?"
"It's minor." He hurries on to the research he plans to pursue when Spike returns, so they don't duplicate their efforts. "And I have his book. I'm about to delve into that."
"Please let me know if you find anything of significance there." Giles sounds so tired, so very much older than he had just moments ago.
They express some hope that Willow's presence will make a difference, but neither of them feels it. After an exchange of promises to call with anything vital, Wesley hangs up.
Anne has gone back to scrubbing out the refrigerator.
Wesley retrieves the book, Xander's constant companion through these weeks of madness. If he were a praying man, this might be the moment when he'd send up a plea.
He opens the book.
The first page is covered in a hand-drawn grid, small squares bounded by thick pencil lines. Within each square is written a lower-case a, in a neat, impossibly small script.
Wesley turns to the next page, and the next, then he rapidly flips through the pages.
Every single page is covered in this same grid.
Every single square is filled with a neat letter a.
He hadn't quite realized how much hope he had placed in this slim sketchbook until it withered so completely.
Wesley is a man who works by teasing sense out of puzzles, piece by piece. He feels as though he's been handed a box with one thousand intricately cut jigsaw pieces, all in the same flat shade of black.
"You've gone very quiet," Anne says from the kitchen door. "You must've found a lot to work with."
Without a word he extends the book toward her. Peeling off the gloves again, she comes out to have a look. She's perhaps five pages in when she plops onto the sofa beside him. "Wes, this -- I can't imagine. You think he's still in there at all?"
"I don't know."
She flips to random pages in the front, middle and back. "Look how meticulous. Every single letter, every single square, so carefully made. Jesus, it's heartbreaking."
Wesley can't even form an answer to that. She lays a hand on his forearm, stopping just short of a reassuring squeeze. She smells like cleanser.
"I'm glad you're here," he tells her, thoroughly surprising himself. He's never been known for saying the right thing at the right time. Or anything at all.
"I'm glad too." She turns her gaze on him, so clear and direct that he manages to smile a little.
He touches the hand that still rests on his arm, and then they are leaning into a kiss. It lasts barely longer than a heartbeat, all sweetness and no heat, in recognition of Xander's suffering. "I never thanked you for the flowers," he says softly.
"When I was shot."
"I can't believe you remember them."
"I remember them very clearly. They were extraordinarily dramatic. The birds of paradise combined with the morphine gave me quite interesting dreams."
She smiles. "That's the one area where my dramatic streak still gets to run wild. Why A?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"The book. Why the letter A? Just because it's the first letter of the alphabet, or does it stand for something? Or is this the first in a 26-volume set?"
"I certainly hope not." He picks up the book again, and browses its pages, feeling the pull of this mystery, the compulsion to solve a puzzle. He describes this to Anne, tells her of his earlier discouraged thought about the black 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
"They make those, you know. They're for people who don't get enough of a challenge from the pretty picture kind. Does that description remind you of anyone? So the first thing we do, we find where the edges are."
This woman, barely twenty-four, never ceases to surprise him. Wesley is leaning in for another kiss when a blood-curdling yowl rises up from the bedroom.
Xander has seized the bars of his cage, tearing at them with the whole strength of his body, snarling curses that barely sound like words. It's almost as if being caged has worked a transformation in him, erased the human and brought forth the animal.
"Xander." Wesley approaches the cage, still keeping his distance. He shows his hands, empty and relaxed. "Xander, you're safe here. You're among friends." He wishes this were truer from Xander's point of view. Neither Wesley nor Anne has been more than a bit player in Xander's history.
Xander scrabbles toward the back of the cage, kicking at the front bars.
"I'm sorry about the cage. We have to keep you from hurting yourself or anyone else."
He kicks out again. "Not yours to save. Hers."
Wesley crouches to his level. "Tell me about her." His voice is calm, soothing, as it has been since he entered the room. "I'm very interested in her."
Both feet pound against the bars. "Doesn't want you. That's all you have to know."
"I understand the devotion you feel toward her." He does. He remembers how it fills one with a sense of purpose, a certainty that one is known and beloved. "Tell me what she's like."
"Fucking Watcher. Gather data, that's what you do. Doesn't matter what you learn. You can't hurt her." Again his feet slam the bars.
"That cage is very secure," Wesley tells him. "You'll only hurt yourself."
"She'll come for me. Cage won't stop her. Just because she doesn't want you, doesn't mean she won't take you. I'm hers. She'll come."
Wesley has no doubt. He just hopes by the time she does, he'll have some notion of what to do.
Wesley startles to hear Anne's voice behind him.
"Do you remember me, Xander?"
"Chantarelle." He stops his assault on the bars. "Still up to your ears in bullshit?"
Anne laughs, quite genuinely. "Only about half the time now. You always did make me laugh. I used to hide it behind my hand, though. Bad for the goth image."
"She'll come. Go home."
"I'm staying. Wes and I want to help you."
"No Wes and I, Annie. Watchers make their own plans, but they don't share. You'll get hurt. Go home."
"Wes is in this because of me. I'm not leaving him on his own."
"Perhaps he's right," Wesley says.
"The Me protect little woman crap I'm used to from my boys, but it doesn't fly here. Xander, I came in to see if you're hungry or thirsty."
"Nothing I need." He reaches for the cargo pocket, the one thing he does need. His fingers encounter the unbuttoned flap, the empty pouch.
Though he expects a reaction, Wesley's startled by the shriek that tears Xander's throat. Xander lunges at the bars, his arm snaking between and straining toward Wesley, clawing the air.
Wesley struggles to keep his reassuring tone, while raising his voice to be heard. "Your book is safe, Xander. It's in my care."
"I work with books. You remember. It's in good hands."
"My hands. Nobody else's." Xander pounds the side of his fist into the bars. "My hands!"
Anne flees the room.
"Foul everything you touch," Xander spits. "The knife. The book. Nothing sacred to you, to any of your kind."
"That's not true," Wesley says, but he hears the falseness of his own words.
"Spent years with Giles. He trained me. To believe, yes. Never to honor. You destroy faith." His gaze sharpens on Wesley, and he smiles. "She tried to return the favor, didn't she?"
Wesley tries to keep his expression neutral, but Xander clearly sees the effect he'd been aiming for.
"Give it back," Xander says in a quiet tone that sounds at once utterly reasonable, completely mad. For a strange moment, Wesley feels as though he's the one enclosed in the cage. The moment pops like a soap bubble as Xander hammers at the bars with the heels of his hands. "Giveitbackgiveitbackgiveitback!"
Anne hurries into the room, kneeling before the cage, too close for Wesley's comfort. "Xander. It's here, it's safe." She extends her hand toward him. In it is the black-bound book.
Before Wesley can react, Xander has snatched it and scrabbled to the back of the cage.
Wesley seizes Anne's arm and jerks her back from the cage, uncertain whether it's protectiveness or anger that drives the impulse. "Anne, for Christ's sake!"
She turns on him. "For Christ's sake, he's suffering. You've gotten as much as you can from it. Let him have that much." She gets to her feet and stalks from the room.
He glances back toward Xander, who has tucked the book into place. Xander settles himself into the corner of the cage, the leg with the pocket pressed against the back wall.
Wesley sighs and follows Anne into the other room.
"Look, I know you're pissed off," Anne says. "I'm sorry. I just couldn't see any reason for it. He's suffering enough just being in the cage, just being ... how he is. It's like tearing the wings off of flies."
Wesley's surprised at how much this stings. "It wasn't just random cruelty, Anne. I wanted to study it. You said yourself, it's part of the puzzle."
"There's nothing to study. It's not the puzzle -- it's one piece. By itself, it's meaningless."
"I'm not certain of that yet. There may be some sense to it, something I'm missing."
"How can you even believe that?"
"Because there is always something I'm missing!" Wesley blinks, shocked at himself. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to shout."
"It's -- it's all right." She seems a little stunned herself. "Well, look, I did scan a few pages. In case you wanted to email them to your friend. I did sample pages from the beginning, middle and end. I know you want to see a pattern, and I understand why. But there's none there, not unless you're as lost as he is."
Funny. He'd thought he was lost, after he'd gunned down the replica of his father. Xander had come to show him what lost truly was. (To show him how much farther he could fall.)
He's become consumed with the effort to save Xander.
Wesley knows that deep down, he believes to do so will give him some small hope of saving himself.
Wesley follows Anne's suggestion and sends the pages on to Giles, while Anne goes back to rummaging in the kitchen. He's surprised she hasn't chosen to leave.
She emerges with a cookie sheet he wasn't aware he owned, bearing two bottles of water, and some cheese and crackers in a plastic take-out container she's rescued and washed. There's also a scattering of fortune cookies in their cellophane wrappers.
He's about to remark on the peace offering (though he's hardly stupid enough to call it that) when she says, "I thought I'd see if I could get him to eat."
"He said --"
"I know. But god knows how long it's been since he's had anything to eat. I was careful -- there's nothing here he can hurt himself with, or anyone else."
"I suppose it's worth a try." As soon as the thought emerges from his mouth, he hears how -- what would Cordelia call it? -- how wishy-washy it sounds.
She makes no reply, carrying her makeshift tray into the bedroom. Wesley moves toward the doorway, where he can see Anne but Xander can't see him. If he'll trust anyone, it would be her, but a glimpse of Wesley would no doubt destroy any inroads she might make.
She sits on the floor, again closer to the cage than Wesley would like. "I thought you might be hungry, Xander," she says. "I know I am. Cheshire cheese, the wrapper says. I had a nibble, it's nice. The crackers are something called Table Water Crackers, which just sounds like three random words to me. And some fortune cookies. They're probably stale, but aren't they always?"
"Nothing I need," Xander repeats, but this time he sounds less adamant about it.
"That's fine. I'll just sit here with you, then." She takes a cracker and a slice of cheese for herself, pushes the container within his reach. "How about some water?" She doesn't wait for an answer, but cracks open the cap of one of the water bottles and sets it within reach.
She must do this a lot, caring for the wary and reluctant, children who've seen a lot of abuse in their homes and in the places they've escaped to. She's quite good at it. Xander has clearly responded, because she raises her own bottle and says, "Cheers." She nibbles on another cracker with cheese, more as encouragement, it seems, than out of hunger. Wesley's seen her when she's hungry. "I'm glad to see your eye looking so much healthier," she says. "Has she been helping you take care of that?"
The answer, if there is one, is lost to the sound of a thump at the apartment door.
Restlessness surges through him, a desire to batter himself against the bars. The mark on his arm, though healed, throbs. He realizes it has hurt since he dropped the knife in Cordelia's room. It feels like a limb is missing. The knife is a part of him, he can't fulfill his destiny without it.
Why doesn't she come? He is still hers, he feels that in his blood. Why has she abandoned him?
He made a slip, let them stop him.
So she allowed them to take him, allows them now to hold him captive, cut off from her. It's agony. The only thing that makes it bearable at all is knowing she will come for him in her own time.
He grabs a handful of the cheese and crackers Chantarelle has brought and retreats into the corner of the cage.
"She'll come," he mutters to himself. "She hasn't forgotten me. She'll come." He repeats these words, trying to cover the ache of separation, but it's not working. He tries to remember being with her in Mombasa, in the hotel here in the city, but the memories are like smoke. She has denied them to him because he does not deserve them. He rubs at his arm. Hurts so much. "She will. She'll come."
"That's right," Chantarelle says. "She'll be here a little later this morning. Willow's on her way."
His breath catches. She has sent Willow to him, to read her name in the book. This is a sure sign her favor is still with him, that she will help him fulfill his destiny, and Willow's.
A little later.
He promptly curls up on the cushions to sleep, the pocket with the book tucked beneath him.
He must be ready when she arrives.
Spike balances an armload of books, a bag of take-away and another from the liquor store, with a last brown paper bag in his teeth.
"Cutting it a bit close, aren't you?" Wesley comments. He's already heard the newspaper delivery woman clomp down the hallway on her rounds.
Spike rolls his eyes and thrusts his burden toward Wesley, who manages to relieve him of the liquor and the take-away, which smells like curry. Dumping the books, Spike removes the bag from his teeth. "Had a sniff of your refrigerator. Thought you could do with a change of pace."
"Where on earth did you find curry at this hour?"
"I have my ways. The real miracle would be finding chips and curry in the same shop. How's the patient?"
"Anne's coaxing him to eat something, I believe."
"He's awake? You didn't get that whole hypodermic into him?"
"Should've put a rhinoceros out for days. I brought more, for whatever it's worth." He dives into the bag he'd held in his teeth, brings forth several hypodermics, already prepared. "Buy a little time, if things get dicey." He fishes out a bag of blood. "You do have a microwave, don't you? You know what I say, start every day in an O positive way."
As Spike tends to contaminating his kitchen (At least Anne's here, he thinks inanely), Wesley sorts through the texts Spike has brought. These should help him translate the markings on the knife. He feels the pull of the texts, but before he surrenders to it, he must collect Willow at the airport. He glances at his watch. There's just enough time to check in with Giles. Wesley's surprised he hasn't heard from him by now, but perhaps he's immersed in his own research.
He's not sure how much later it is when Anne emerges from the bedroom to find him with the phone still to his ear.
"He's sleeping again," she murmurs before she notices the phone. Sorry, she mouths.
"It's all right," he says automatically as he hangs up the phone, still buzzing on his end as the call goes unanswered. But he doesn't think things are all right, not at all.
"I can't reach Giles." He thinks of the layers of bureaucracy he must penetrate to reach Giles on a normal call. "In fact, no one answers at the Council."
Wesley waits just past customs, spotting her red hair flashing like a bright tropical fish as she darts among the slower-moving passengers. When she spots him waiting, she puts on a final burst of speed.
He reaches for her bag, but she says, "No, I'm good. This is all I brought, so we can head straight back."
Under normal circumstances, Wesley would feel awkward in her presence, considering their early history. But it seems he never encounters her under normal circumstances. Events give them plenty of grist for conversation in the traffic on the way back to the city. The difficulty is knowing where to begin.
The most urgent subject, to his mind, is what's become of Giles and the Council. "Giles told me you've had an apocalypse brewing there, one of the times we spoke. What was the situation when you left London?"
Though his attention is on the traffic, he senses her bristling beside him. After all, she's the one who's traveled a great distance, and it's news of Xander that she wants.
"It's not good," she deigns to say. "Two of the older hellmouths are seeing a lot of activity, and it looks like a new one may be opening in Spain. Giles has been running himself into the ground trying to figure out what's going on. It's killing him, not being able to come here himself. He and Xander have grown so close."
"Really?" he asks before he can stop himself, and he feels her irritation even stronger than before.
"Really. Why would you question that?"
"Xander's had quite a bit to say about Watchers and their failings. True, there's been no love lost between the two of us, but I've hardly been on his radar screen for the last several years. So I thought perhaps something had happened between them." He bullies his way into the righthand lane in anticipation of his exit. "He didn't get into specifics when we spoke. How much had he managed to uncover?"
"Xander? I haven't talked with him since he got back from--"
"No, I mean Giles. This apocalypse."
"Wes, forget that for now. I came here for Xander. Tell me what's happening."
"In a moment. You should know something first. I tried to raise Giles on the phone this morning, just before I left for the airport. There was no answer. I don't just mean Giles; I'm talking about all the channels I normally have to go through. The Council Headquarters seem deserted, if not destroyed again."
"Oh, god," she says softly. "Giles is gone?"
"Everyone." Without realizing it, he'd harbored some ludicrous hope that Willow would provide an innocent explanation. Office picnic, field trip, scheduled fire drill, something. Anything. "Tell me what you can," he says gently.
"I will. Just -- tell me about Xander. We've all been so worried."
"It's very bad," he says. No use encouraging her to hang onto false hope. "Something has driven him quite mad. We prevented him from murdering Cordelia, but just by the skin of our teeth."
"-- murdering? Not Xander. I don't know what you saw, but --"
"He's not Xander, not anymore. That's just it. Anne thinks there's a kernel left of the man he was, but I'm not convinced."
"Whatever you saw--" she begins again.
"What I felt was a knife blade in my back. He would have plunged it into Cordelia, if I hadn't thrown myself across her." He softens his voice. "He's very ill. You'll see. As near as I can make out, something may have happened to him in Mombasa."
"Do you think it's mystical?"
"I believe so."
"Could it have anything to do with what's happening in Europe?"
Wesley sighs. "I very much doubt it. As Spike says, these end of the world wankers never seem to coordinate their efforts."
"Spike?" There is no mistaking the shock in her voice. "What do you mean 'Spike says'?"
"Spike's alive," Wesley says gently. "He's never made that known to you?"
"Buffy saw him just before he died. We all saw the hellmouth collapse on him. Whoever this is, it's not Spike."
"He was dead, that's true. He was brought back. We're still not certain how, or for what purpose."
"The First Evil can take the form of anyone who's died. It drove Spike crazy after he got his soul. It's doing the same to Xander."
"That's a possibility, I suppose. But Spike isn't part of it. We saw him brought back. He came from an amulet -- on fire, at first, and then not. Angel is convinced it's him, and I have no reason to doubt."
"Spike would have told Buffy."
"I don't know why he hasn't. At any rate, he's here. He's been helping."
He hears a strange noise, and when he looks over, Willow is weeping. The sound tears at his heart, but he doesn't know what to do. He hardly thinks she'll accept an awkward pat on the shoulder from a man who once would have forfeited her life for a box of overlarge insects.
"I don't know why that's the thing that set me off," she says once she's honked into a tissue.
"You're jet-lagged and overloaded with bad news," he says kindly. "It's completely understandable." He turns the SUV onto his street, slowing. "My building is just ahead. Would you prefer to stop somewhere and compose yourself? There's a donut shop two blocks up."
"No. I need to see Xander. And if he's as bad as you say, there'll be more crying anyway. Just so you know."
"Fair enough. And just so you know, Spike is probably in there. And Anne as well."
"Who's this Anne? You mentioned her before."
"She's a friend. She runs a youth shelter here in the city. Xander was scaring off her clients and she asked me to help." He wonders if he should mention that she's from Sunnydale. Anne might appreciate the opportunity not to have her sillier youthful moments precede her. Spike or Xander will no doubt mention it soon enough. He puts the car into park. "This is it."
"It seems like a nice neighborhood," she says, because this is what you say when you're on etiquette autopilot.
"Are you ready?"
She twists her tissue in her hands. "No. But I won't get any readier. Let's go."
Wesley retrieves her bag, and together they walk up the path to the building entrance.
After a thorough inspection by Wes's neighbor, Willow trails behind him to his apartment. "I'm sorry about that," he murmurs. "Some buildings have guards and electronic surveillance, we have Mrs. Rosario."
Willow doesn't respond. Wes was right. She's jet-lagged and overloaded, saving every last scrap of energy for Xander. She pulls her jacket around her though it's a warm day. She got cold on the flight over, and can't seem to warm up.
Wes works the key in the lock, obviously an old and tricky mechanism from the elaborate ritual he goes through. He pushes the door open and gestures her inside without speaking. Funny how that habit dies hard, even though they've just walked through the bright sunlight together.
The first thing she sees in the dim lamplight is Spike, or whatever's masquerading as Spike. He's hunched over a book on the sofa, a cigarette burning in a saucer. He looks up as she enters. "Hullo, Red."
She walks over without returning the greeting, thrusting a hand against his shoulder. He's solid as he ever was, which surprises her.
"Corporeal," Spike says. "It's the new look for fall."
"So you're not the First. Who are you?"
"Same Spike who had ... performance issues that night in your dorm room. Same Spike who punched your girlfriend and proved she was human. Same Spike who closed the hellmouth, yeah?"
Maybe. He's not an immediate danger, so she looks around for Xander.
"I took the liberty of peeking," Spike tells Wesley. "I think I've found your text."
"Where is he?"
Wesley gestures toward a door. "In there. But Willow--"
She doesn't wait for more hand-holding. She's as prepared as she's going to get. Steaming ahead through the door he'd indicated, Willow stops, confused. A blonde woman lies on the bed, napping next to an opened text as if she'd fallen asleep in the midst of a research session. Xander's nowhere in sight.
Until she hears a noise behind her, and turns to see a figure crouched in the back of the bedroom closet, pushing long dark hair back from his eyes. Willow blinks. She's so woozy from the jet lag it looks like --
"For the love of God," Willow snaps. "You locked him in a cage?"
"He's a danger to himself and others," Wesley says from the doorway. "And he's gotten away from us no less than three times."
"Christ." Her eyes well again, as much from rage as grief. What could have possessed her to believe Wes was any different now than five years ago?
The girl on the bed rouses, murmuring an apology and gathering her book.
Willow has no interest in her. "Go," she tells them both. Once they've retreated, she sinks to the floor in front of the cage. "God, Xander," she whispers.
"Waiting for the lion now," he says.
"What lion? Tell me about it, Xander."
"The lion, the lion," he says impatiently. "Already have the witch and the wardrobe." He laughs at his joke, then abruptly sobers. "Can't go through the back, though. All caged in. The Watcher stuck me, then he stuck me here. No Narnia for boys who slip up."
"Honey, you didn't slip up. This isn't your fault."
He shakes his head. "My slip. She's gone, checked out, she can't read her name. Not sure what to do then, I took too long, and they didn't let me take her."
"Who, Xander? Who's gone?"
Rolling his eyes, he snaps, "Can't say it now. Her name's trapped in the book because she can't read it, because they wouldn't let me gather her."
"Book?" This conversation is moving much too fast for Willow.
"Don't worry, you're in there. She brought you to me. That's good, that's good. I'm still hers. Can't slip up again, though. Don't want to disappoint her. She picked me, you know."
"Xan, I'm getting dizzy from the pronoun confusion. She wouldn't have a name, would she?"
"I can't tell it, only she can. Her name would break you if you weren't ready. Has to make you hers first. She won't, though. There's only one."
"And you're the one." The one who was broken by her name, no matter what he thinks. Tears threaten to spill again, and this time she doesn't think she'll be able to fight them back.
"She made me hers. Left her mark on me." He slides his sleeve up a little, giving her a glimpse of an angry red mark on his arm, something like a brand, that comes to a point near his wrist.
And that's all she can take. She scrambles to her feet and flees into Wes's living room, sobbing.
He hates it when Willow cries, never could take that sound. It makes a physical ache in his chest, a bottomless sadness. He's never been any good at comforting her when she's like this.
Never been any good for anything.
Not until she made him her priest.
He's nothing if he can't fulfill his destiny.
The bone-deep ache in his arm reminds him of this. A piece of him is missing.
He kicks out at the bars again, but it's no good. He recognizes a well-made thing, and this cage is solid.
He settles back into his corner, trying to settle his mind by thinking on her name. It usually fills him up, but he can't quite bring it forth, just jagged pieces of it.
This is how it will be if he can't fulfill his duties.
Set apart from her.
He slips the book from his pocket, paging through it.
She'll tell him what to do.
True to her prediction, Willow flees the bedroom in tears. After a quick assessment of the crowded state of the living room, she makes a dash for the kitchen.
Anne looks up from her reading, then glances at Wesley.
"Let's give her a few moments," he suggests. "It's been a long journey. She's exhausted and overwhelmed."
"Is that from the Watcher's Bible of Blindingly Obvious Statements?" Spike asks, but the snark seems more a reflex than anything else. He, like Anne, browses through another text while Wesley works with the one Spike had pointed out to him. It's promising, but so far nothing matching any part of the inscription on the knife has turned up. He loses himself in the work, and doesn't notice when Anne rises and retreats to the kitchen.
Willow mops her face with a paper towel, about to emerge into the living room, when the blonde girl comes in, bearing a couple of cups.
"I'll get out of your way," Willow says. Her voice is thick with tears -- ones, she suspects, still have yet to be shed.
"Actually, I came in to see if I can do anything. How about some tea?"
Willow thinks about facing Wesley and Spike just now. A stranger seems easier. "Sure. Thanks."
The blonde gestures with the cups she's carried in. "I'll have to wash these. You can tell he doesn't get much company."
She sets about putting the water on to boil and then washing out the cups. She's adept at negotiating the cramped space.
There's a strange little pause as the girl cocks her head, regarding Willow. "Anne."
"How long have you known Wes?"
"I first met him three or four years ago, I guess. I didn't get to know him well at all, though. Not till now. A friend thought he could help me out with..."
"I'm not sure anything can help him," Willow whispers. "He's so far gone." If Giles were here he wouldn't let them lose hope. He's always so assured there's an answer in a book somewhere. He's always right. Is he dead now? Fighting something unspeakable boiling up out of a newly-opened hellmouth? Sucked into some demon dimension?
"He's not completely gone," Anne says. "I don't think so, anyway."
What does she know about Giles? Willow thinks for a brief moment, then she realizes Anne's talking about Xander. And again, same question. "What makes you say that?"
"He can still make a joke, still plant a barb inside it. Doesn't that seem like the essential Xander is still in there somewhere?"
Anne's trying to offer hope, Willow realizes that, but she can't contain a flash of irritation. "You talk like you know him."
"I do know him. I know you." The kettle comes to the boil and Anne hurries to remove it from the fire. Its whistle is ear-splitting in the small kitchen. "I'm a little surprised Wes didn't tell you."
"How could you know us?"
"I'm from Sunnydale. I sat right behind Xander in tenth-grade English. Math, too, but it was words, not numbers, that got his wit really revved up."
Willow sharpens her gaze, looking her over. Anne, surely aware of her scrutiny, methodically tends to making the tea, unfazed. "I have a good memory for faces, and yours isn't familiar at all."
Anne laughs. "I doubt you ever saw my face. Back in the day, I wore more makeup than Tammy Faye. I was a stupid little goth girl who was done speaking up in class once I'd said present at roll call."
"Not stupid," Willow says. Because this woman seems whip-smart, capable.
"Well, no. Extremely lacking in confidence." She stirs the leaves in the pot, then replaces the lid. "Xander's recognized me from the start, and he made a joke about me a little while ago that was just as quick as he ever was. It almost seems to me that he's quicker than ever. It could be whatever's made him crazy has speeded him up so we can't even follow what he's talking about. Maybe what he says isn't as crazy as it seems. What if each one of us wrote down everything we could remember him saying, and we all sat down and looked at all of it? Like pieces of a puzzle."
Willow feels a small glimmer of hope. "It can't hurt."
Anne pours tea into both cups and hands one to Willow. "That's what I'm thinking. Maybe the answer's not in books, maybe it's scattered among all of us."
By the time Anne and Willow emerge from the kitchen, Wesley's head is reeling from the effort of trying to make the symbols in his text make sense in relation to the ones on the knife.
When Anne begins to lay out her plan, the most startling feeling of deja vu hits him. Actually, it's more a sensation of memory, but disjointed, hazy, curiously distant. He remembers lying stretched out on a battered sofa, aware that he was very likely dying, while this same competently commanding voice directed the bustle around him.
The memory brings up that same cottony sense of disconnection and passivity, which he fights.
"He's had plenty to say all along," Anne is saying. "It all seems so crazy that we've been disregarding it, but maybe there's more sense there than we've realized. Or at least some kind of clue to what's happened to him and whether there's a threat. So let's categorize what he's told us. One topic per sheet of paper. We can pass around each sheet, I guess, until everyone's put down everything they can remember. Wes, do you have another legal pad?"
Wesley shakes off the memories and the mood. "Index cards," he says. He rises, rummages in a desk drawer until he finds what he's looking for. "They're a much more flexible method of organizing our data. One color per category." He passes out piles of cards.
"Perfect," Anne says. "What's he talked about? The book. This she. Sometimes it's they, but I'm fairly convinced that was a smokescreen for this she, because I don't think he's mentioned them for a while. What else?"
"Names," Wesley says. "Usually in relation to the book, whose name is or isn't there. The number five."
"All right," Anne says. "Let's start there. Use the white cards for anything that seems random. If we get a lot of those, we'll take a look and see if we've got another category or two."
"Right," Spike says. "He's said sweet fuck-all to me."
"But he's spoken about you," Wesley points out.
"Fine. I'm another category. But there's not much I can add to the colored card party. What else've you got?"
"Use my laptop. Check the news sites, particularly UK media," Wesley says. "Something's happened at the Council, or is happening in London. See if there's any information. Once we've got some material to work with here, I'll try to raise Giles again."
"That's great," Anne says. "Let's go, then."
The room goes quiet, apart from the scratch of pens and the soft click of the keyboard and mouse. Apart from Spike, who contributed one card before beginning his news search, Willow has the least to write. Wesley's aware of her as she drifts around the apartment, hovering near the bedroom door, but unable to bring herself to enter.
"Sorry," she says as she catches Wesley watching her. "I'm trying to stay awake."
"I have a job that might help," Anne tells her. "Make a list of everything starting with the letter A that might have some association for Xander."
"Who needs a list? It begins and ends with Anya. It's not been six months, I know he's still grieving. Or he was, when he was still himself."
"He's mentioned her a time or two." Wesley reaches for a couple of index cards in a new color. "That she died at Sunnydale. He also said she gave him the amulet he's been wearing, but he's also given a completely different story about where it came from. I don't think I believe either. What else can you tell us about her?"
"She was a demon. Vengeance. Xander was in love with her. They were going to be married, but he left her at the altar."
So she was the Anya he remembered. Proof that he should never rule out any possibility, no matter how strange. "Because he found out she was a demon?" Wesley asks.
"No, no. He'd known that all along. Besides, she was human most of the time we knew her. She and Giles were even business partners. The whole wedding thing blew up maybe a year and a half ago, but she and Xander were still in love when she died. She was killed in the big battle before the hellmouth closed."
"So is she the she Xander's been talking about?" Anne picks up the pile of yellow index cards they've started.
"He told me he can't say her name, that it would break me to hear it," Willow says. "Clearly that's not a problem we have with Anya. So what made you ask about the letter A?"
"Xander's book," Anne says. "When we finally got a look at it, every page was covered by a grid, and every square had a letter A in it."
"I scanned it," Anne says. "Here, I can show you. Spike, can you let us take over the computer for a second?"
"May as well. I'm finding fuck-all here." He slides the laptop over to give them a better view.
Anne finds the folder she'd created for the pages. "Here we go."
"Oh god," Willow breathes.
"You should have shown me. Why didn't you tell me my name was in here?"
The next thing Willow knows, everyone is crowded around her at Wes's laptop.
"All I see is what I saw before,"Wes says. "A grid filled in with the letter A. Anne?"
"Same as you and Annie here. A is for A lot of nothing."
"Are there any other names here?"
"No. Just mine. This is part of the book? Xander told me my name's in it."
"Tell me what you see," Wes demands. "Is there text surrounding your name? Can you read that as well?"
"There's text, yeah. It's more of a column than paragraphs of writing."
"It's handwritten, then," Wes says. "Not type."
"Right. Sort of like calligraphy." She keeps to herself how very beautiful it is. Luminous. Wes has such a scientist's passion for information that he forgets to step back and see the beauty of the objects he would dissect. Willow doesn't want to describe it to death, she just wants to take it in, to think how much more astonishing it would be if she were not seeing a scanned replica. "Where is this book?"
Anne makes a little noise of disgust. "Xander has it. He won't give it up without a fight. I didn't think it would make sense to anyone since it didn't make sense to us, so I let him have it."
Willow can imagine Xander having it wrenched away from him, that source of light torn from his hands, leaving him alone in the dark. "No, you did the right thing. I mean, given the information you had to work with, it must have seemed a harmless bit of comfort."
"That's all you can tell us about this page? Just a column of writing, including your name?" Wes just keeps pounding away, dragging her attention from the one thing that matters most.
"Yes," she says impatiently. "There are more pages?"
Anne calls up the next one. Willow's breath catches. There's nothing here that makes sense to her, but the mystery of it is enough. The characters shimmer, almost seem to pulse with energy. It reaches out for her, this energy. Makes her feel alive in a way that nothing has since Tara.
"What do you see here?"
"Paragraphs." Her voice sounds distant even to her, an echo of a whisper. "The same writing, but it's nothing I can read."
"So the question is," Spike says, "can she see this because she's a badass powerful witch, or because her name's written down here?"
"That's an excellent question," Wes says.
Their voices are like sandpaper. Willow's fingers itch with the urge to shut all of them up. Spike glances up at her, then clicks the box that closes the page she was gazing at. A spell crackles at her fingertips, but before she can hurl it, he speaks.
"Come back to us, Red."
She blinks, lets the spell die uncast.
"What happened just now?" Wes asks.
"Nothing happened. I was trying to see if I could make something out, that's all."
Spike closes the laptop. "Lot to ask from a girl with jet lag. Maybe you should rest before you tackle this again."
The funny thing is, Willow doesn't feel jet-lagged at all. The talk still grates on her nerves, but she's wide awake.
"Here's another question," Anne says. "We sent this to Giles, too. What, if anything, did he see?"
Wesley goes straight for the phone, dialing the Council. Again, the phone rings on and on, unanswered.
"Maybe the coven would know something," Willow suggests. "Giles has worked closely with them in the past. If something really big is going on, he may have gone to them."
"Are they in London?" Wesley asks.
"They're in Devon."
Wesley releases a breath. Perhaps they've escaped whatever is happening with the Council. "Have you any way of contacting them?"
Willow smiles impishly, and Wesley suddenly recalls her as she was when he first met her, Giles's eager little shadow. "I do. It's called the telephone."
Her smile fades after a few moments on the phone. The first bit of news she hears fills her with relief, and she relays it as if it's the beginning of a long report. But this is the entirety of the information they'll pass on -- that Mr. Giles is safe, that the Council has dispersed to deal with the threat at the active hellmouths and the emerging one.
"Where is Giles?" Willow's voice rises in pitch, betraying her tension. "Is he with you? I need to talk to him. He needs to know about Xander." As she listens, she grows more agitated. "Would you at least get a message to him, ask him to call Wes as soon as he can." Nothing in her expression indicates she's having any success. "I -- of course. Thank you."
Willow thumbs off the talk button and extends the phone at arm's length toward Wesley, as if it's a dead rodent.
"He's safe. That's what they say, anyway. That's all they'll tell me. The vibe I'm getting--"
"You don't believe them?"
"It's not that. It's like they don't want us to know. Like they don't trust us."
Wesley wonders if the taint of his association with Wolfram & Hart has extended as far as Devon.
"I wonder--" Willow begins, then stops herself.
"What?" Anne asks.
"Well, I came here prepared to do a locator spell to find Xander. What if we used one to find Giles?"
"This coven," Wesley says, "how trustworthy are they?"
"Completely," Willow says. "They brought me back from a really dark place. Of course, anything could have happened within the last year. I lived with them, and this felt like I was talking with someone I didn't even know."
"Let's perform the spell," Wesley says.
It takes some creative substitutions, but Willow sets up the spell, insisting on making all the preparations herself. Wesley watches her as she unpacks her candles and herbs, noticing the reverent way she handles them, and how this seems to settle her.
She lights the candles, closes her eyes for just a moment, and then begins.
The spell has barely fallen from her lips when a sound like a thunderclap tears the air in Wesley's flat, snuffing the candles and flinging Willow across the room as if she's a rag doll.
The force of it slams her body into the front door of the flat, where she slides onto the hardwood floor, quite unconscious.
He feels the magic crackling in the air, buzzing on his skin.
She wants this, yes.
To redeem another of the names she has set down in the book. To find him and bring him to Xander so he can do this for her.
She found Xander in Mombasa. It's nothing for her to do this.
A concussive sound slaps at him, rocking his head back into the bars.
The coppery taste of blood blossoms in his mouth.
A thread of blood trickles from Willow's nose as she struggles to sit up.
Anne kneels beside her, along with Wesley. "Just lie still."
"No, no, I'm perfectly--" She puts a hand to her forehead. "Whoa." She sinks back down and closes her eyes.
Anne disappears for a moment, returning with a dampened washcloth, which she places on Willow's brow.
"Thanks," Willow says weakly. After a moment, she adds, "Wow. Something really doesn't want Giles to be found."
"The trick is knowin' if it's protecting him or threatening," Spike says.
"Exactly," Wesley says.
"I got nothing," Willow says. "Except for the mother of all migraines." She sits up again, much more slowly this time.
Wesley hands her his handkerchief, still folded into its neat square from this morning, for her to dab the blood from her nose. "It looks as if we're cut off from Giles and the Council, at least for now."
"We'd best get on with it, then," Spike proclaims. "Start sorting through The Lunatic's Little Instruction Book here. Except for the head boy, I think he's got some translation homework to do."
Bad enough to be faced with a task that refuses to make sense, but to endure insults-- Wesley bites back a retort. Letting Spike know his barb had reached its mark would only make matters worse.
Spike's attention is elsewhere, anyway. Offering Willow a hand, he pulls her to her feet, steadying her. He installs her on the sofa despite its lack of cushions, letting her stretch out, and fetches her a throw pillow. Then he settles himself on the floor, gathering up the colored index cards as Anne seats herself too. "Right, then. Let's make some sense of this shite."
Wesley has the same thought about his own task as he takes up his text and Xander's knife. Clearing off a space at his desk, he opens the book, sees he's got it downside up, then rights it.
Wesley gasps, then rotates the book 180 degrees again. The text doesn't make itself clear, but it shows him where he's gone wrong. "Of course," he murmurs.
It's not the surface of the knife that he's meant to read, but the marks it made on Xander's flesh.
All he needs to make the markings on the knife connect with those in the text is a mirror.
Though he hears the soft murmur of voices around him -- sometimes rising in pitch and volume -- it seems to have no connection to Wesley. Once he's found his way into the puzzle, he's fully engaged, lost to anything else. The only time he speaks to the others is to ask one of them to fetch one of the other texts, or some fresh paper.
The other things they bring him -- a sandwich, a mug of tea -- go unheeded as he works.
By the time Anne pulls him away, his notes cover half the pages of a yellow legal pad. (A limitless supply of these is one of the unanticipated benefits of his association with Wolfram & Hart.)
He attempts to cover his irritation. "What is it you want?"
"It's Xander. I've been checking on him. He's asleep, he has been for a while. But -- I don't know. He doesn't seem well. I think something's wrong."
She did come to him, but not in the way he'd expected. He woke to find her crouching in the cage with him, hovering over him.
Shame coursed through him. She'd made him her priest, and what had he done for her? He'd failed at everything he'd set out to do, let himself be locked up like an animal. He'd made so many slips.
She put her hand to his face, assuring him that he still belonged to her. That he always would.
When she lifted her hand away, his face was damp, hot.
She straddled him, her hips teasingly close to his own, her hands invading beneath his shirt. His skin blazed where she touched him. He gasped, but the sound was lost as she pressed her lips to his.
Her fingers splayed on his chest.
Reaching deep within him, drawing forth the poisons in his heart.
They burn on his skin, even after she's left him.
Left him, still caged.
She trusts him to do what is needed, but he's not so sure.
He shivers in the bone-chilling cold she's left in her wake. Though he never sleeps after he's been in her presence -- never even feels the desire to sleep -- he sinks into a strange, fevered tangle of dreams.
"I'm sure he's running a fever," Anne says as she walks with him into the bedroom. "He's curled up in the back corner, so I can't get a good look, but his eye seemed fine earlier. There's any number of things he could have caught living on the street. There's a bad strain of TB out there now, and when kids don't stay up with their meds--" She shakes her head.
Wesley crouches by the cage, observing. As Anne said, Xander is curled into a tight ball, his back turned to the front of the cage. He shivers, arms wrapped around his body, and his breath rasps.
"I don't like the sound of that," Wesley murmurs.
"No. It's come on so fast, I'm thinking maybe pneumonia."
Wesley raises his voice. "Xander, can you hear me? Can you move closer to me?"
No response -- not that he'd expected one.
"You know that's not going to cut it," Anne says. "If we're going to take care of him, we've got to get him out of there."
Wesley regards her for a moment. "It's risky," he says, knowing that she knows this.
"Pretty much everything I do is risky," she says. "That's why it's called 'taking a chance on someone.'"
"Have you ever been sorry you did?" This is less about swaying her to his point of view than learning more about her. The sort of thing he'd ask on a date, if he ever did such things anymore.
"No." She grins. "But I have been shit-scared a time or ten."
"You're a remarkably brave woman."
"I had a good example when I needed her, that's all." Anne looks away, back toward Xander. "So. That's my vote, that we take a chance on him. This whole enterprise has been full of risk. You brought a crazy man into your home. Why go faint-hearted now?"
Wesley often thinks of himself as a man who calculates every risk and takes very few he doesn't have to. This view of his actions surprises him. "I know you've already thought out how to minimize the risk," he says. There are reasons, after all, that she doesn't regret any of her risks.
She smiles again. "We keep someone with him at all times, of course. I nominate Spike. He doesn't need to sleep, from what I can tell. He's strong, probably more than a match for Xander. And he likes Xander, but he's not so close to him that he loses objectivity. I don't know if I could say the same for Willow. She's out cold, anyway."
Wesley looks at her sharply.
"Jet lag, mostly. That and whatever it was that knocked her cross-eyed. She's fine, though."
"Absolutely. She contributed plenty to our information-pooling session. I guess you were pretty engrossed."
"Yes." He answers her unspoken question. "I'm making headway, but there's much more to do. We should get him settled."
"I'll get Spike."
Wesley insists on entering the cage himself, because it's the most dangerous part of this operation. He waits until Spike is in the room; he's not a fool.
Xander doesn't stir at all as Wesley seizes him at the armpits and tugs him back toward the opening. It's an awkward and laborious process, and Wesley breathes a profound sigh of relief once he himself is outside the cage. Spike shoulders him aside then, reaching into the cage to drag Xander the rest of the way out. Using the two-man carry, Spike and Wesley get him deposited on the bed.
Wesley hears a sound behind him and turns to see Anne by the closet. She's swung the cage door closed, then the closet. "Sorry," she says. "Creeps me out a little."
"Anne, I'd like you to go on home now. If you could take Willow, I would --"
"You're kidding, right?"
"It isn't safe."
"Someone's got to nurse him, that's the whole point of getting him out of that thing. You need to be translating, Spike's concentrating on guarding him. If you don't have enough people for the job, the job becomes a whole lot iffier. Anyway, just look at him."
Xander's curled himself up again, as always lying with the book tucked beneath his body. Fever-sweat glistens on his face, plasters his dark hair against his forehead.
"He'd have to get a lot better before he's a danger," Anne adds. "Go on, get back to your translating. "You're just wasting time that you could use working, trying to think of ways to talk me out of this. Just lead me to your medical supplies, then get back to your work."
Gently Anne takes Xander by the wrist. He makes a small noise of protest as she peels his arm away from his body to check his pulse, the first such sound he's made since they began moving him.
Wesley pushes back the white linen sleeve, gazing at the lurid red markings on Xander's arm.
As often happens when he allows himself -- or is forced -- to step away from his work, he makes a leap, sees something he hasn't seen before.
A word jumps out at him. Priest.
It doesn't have a good ring.
While Anne and Spike watch over their charge, Wesley works at the translation. As often happens, one word falling into place unlocks others. When he was in school, he always loved these times, when the tedium of the work gave way to discoveries and connections. The thrill of progress in this case is dampened by the darkening picture.
Gradually Wesley becomes aware of movement nearby, and he pulls his attention away from the translation. This is something, he believes, that he's learning from Anne -- not to forget that people come first.
Willow has awakened and pulled herself upright, flexing and stretching to work the kinks out.
"I'm sorry about the sofa," he says. "We appropriated the cushions for Xander."
"No, I'm good," she says. "At any rate, I think it was getting knocked across the room more than the sleeping arrangements." She struggles to her feet, still quite stiff. "How's that coming?"
"I'm making progress, but it's not encouraging." He spreads his notes before her as she approaches. "According to the parts of the inscription I've been able to translate, the knife belongs to a great priest, and it's meant to be used to prepare the way -- for what or whom, I haven't determined. Something, I'm guessing, of very great power."
"So that's what's doing this to Xander. He found this priest's knife -- maybe even stole it, if he realized what it was -- somewhere in his travels, and there's some kind of spell or curse that's making him crazy --"
"No," Wesley says gently. "I don't believe that's it."
"The priest -- I believe it's Xander himself."
"A priest," Willow echoes. "But he's crazy."
"If we could decode what he's saying, it might make a kind of sense. Clearly, his worldview is complex and dynamic. It's just built around facts that are a mystery to us."
"And he'd seem totally sane if only we knew," Willow says tartly.
"No. But we are operating without vital information. By the way, I believe the knife came into his possession after his return from Africa. He didn't have it on him when I first brought him here. He disappeared for a week, and when he emerged, he had the knife."
"He could have had it hidden somewhere."
"That's very true. That's beside the point, really. The knife belongs to Xander." He takes up the knife, shows her the hilt. "It matches the amulet he wears. And there's the mark on his arm, kind of a brand--"
"I saw it," Willow says flatly.
Wesley softens his voice. "It was made by this knife."
The stiffness leaves her posture. "Priest." A note of fear has crept into her voice. "Priest of what?"
"That's what I'm working on now. That and what's involved in these preparations."
"Have you looked at the index cards? Anne took some notes, as we talked, too --"
"I did. It's filled in the picture somewhat. But as Xander told me, he's quite adept at keeping secrets. There's no hint, in all his ravings, of who or what Xander serves, of his mission. One of the last times I spoke with Giles, he told me the amulet was connected to an ancient being whose name wasn't recorded. The kind of power that suggests --"
"I know." Willow drops into a chair. "We faced a hellgod once. From the time before recorded history. I hate to think -- "
Wesley has his own hate to think scenario. Jasmine had said there were others like her. Had another of them found a way to enter this realm? He remembers Jasmine's first days on earth. Would Xander's madness be healed once he'd fulfilled his destiny? Once he'd prepared the way, would a second reign of peace and happiness spread over the world?
If it happened that way again, Wesley wonders, would he have the strength to resist a second time?
He's not so sure.
He dreams of Sunnydale. It rises up out of the pit, like a replay of that day, only in reverse.
At least that what he thinks at first. He sees the buildings he remembers (some he helped build), but then they keep on rising.
He finds himself in the center of a shimmering city. He stands at the heart, on the steps of the temple.
Her temple. But it is his as well.
The city is his.
It doesn't matter to him. All that matters is her. He is grateful to be her priest, but he'd be happy to be her servant.
She emerges from her temple (distantly he recalls its previous incarnation, the movie theater where he and his friends spent so many Friday nights), and everything in her city comes to a halt.
His own breath stops for a moment. She is so much more than she was in Mombasa or any of the other places where she came to him. She has come into her full glory.
He kneels before her and offers up, in both hands, the knife he used to make these things come to pass.
Smiling down on him, she takes the knife.
The dream dissolves as a fit of coughing overtakes him.
He burns with fever.
"I keep thinking about Giles," Willow says after a time. "About all of them." She's tried telephoning Buffy, Dawn and Faith -- all the others -- to no avail. Since then she has been working her internet contacts to find information on ancient and unnamed powers, and occasionally refreshing her search for news of London or Devon.
"Maybe I should try another locator spell--"
"Absolutely not," Wesley says.
"Not Giles this time. Buffy. She gave me a lipstick of hers to carry one night that we went out; I still have it. The spell should work better this--"
"I can't allow it." He sees the anger flash across her face, no doubt triggering her memories of Wesley during his worst moments as a Watcher. It can't be helped. "The result of your first attempt -- what if that was merely a warning? Another attempt might provoke an actual attack."
"We can't just sit here doing nothing."
"We aren't. We're learning everything we can about what's happening here."
"That's just terrific, if they happen to be connected in some way."
"Willow, I understand your frustration."
"I really don't think you do." Abruptly she slaps the laptop closed. "I want to go sit with him a while."
"By all means." Spike is on guard; there's no reason to deny her this. Wesley rubs at his aching neck as he watches her go, then he turns back to his work.
Willow used to have patience for the research sessions -- used to believe, along with Giles, that the answers were there, waiting to be teased out. She's seen so much these last few years, though.
She's startled to find they've taken Xander out of the cage. He's curled on the bed, Anne sitting close by him dabbing at his forehead with a damp cloth.
"He popped up with a fever a while ago," Anne says. "God knows what he could have caught living the way he has. Wes knows a doctor who makes house calls. He couldn't reach him, but he left a message."
"Could I --?"
"Oh, sure." Anne rises, gesturing with the washcloth. "I'll just go run more cold water over this."
"How're you feelin' , Red?" Spike asks. He'd been half-sprawled in a chair when she'd walked in, joking with Anne, but now he's sitting upright, sober and alert.
"I'm good. Sleeping helped a lot." Getting knocked across the room, in fact, had helped, lifting the weird fog that had settled over her earlier. She sits on the edge of the bed, takes Xander's hand. "Hey, Xander," she says softly, though she doesn't expect him to know or respond.
He stirs a little, eyelashes fluttering. "Will." He drifts off again.
Willow puts her hand to his forehead. His hair's gotten so long. "He's burning up."
"Should see it, Will," Xander mumbles. "Didn't know how much I missed it."
"Missed what, sweetie?"
"No one else understands. Annie didn't stay. Too lonely without the lonely ones. The others came and went. Wait till you see, Will." He coughs, and it sounds deep and painful. "See what she does to the sun." Any further comments are erased by a coughing spell that lasts so long Willow fears he'll never catch his breath.
Anne reappears at her side, offering the washcloth.
"You really think that's going to help? We need to get him to a hospital."
"He's not safe enough to take to the bleedin' hospital," Spike says. "Not unless you want to see him strapped into restraints."
The coughing subsides and Xander takes in a deep, rasping breath. "Here." He pants and gasps for a moment. "No hospital. Here."
"Honey, you need medicine. We can't help you here."
"She'll make it better. All of it."
She sees him battling his exhaustion. "Sleep, Xander. Let your body work on healing itself."
"Keep this for me." Xander fumbles with the button flap on his cargo pocket.
"Red, don't let him--"
Xander presses a small black book into her hand. "Keep it safe."
"Shh. Sleep now."
He's asleep before the words even fall from her lips.
"Why don't you let me keep that for you?" Spike says, all soft-voice-of-reason.
"He trusts me. I'm not going to endanger that."
Spike makes a small noise of disgust. "Someone always says that, just before the shit hits the fan."
"I promise I'm not going to open it. I realize it's dangerous." But she feels the power of it blazing beneath her fingers, and she knows as she speaks that she's telling a lie.
Wesley remembers this part from his school days, too. The times when the text turns into a snarl of black threads, with no sense to be teased from it.
Every sound from the hallway and the street shatters his concentration, every almost-formed connection snaps before it reaches anywhere.
He scrawls on the legal pad. Opening? Entry? Passage? He's trying to determine the context when Willow returns from the bedroom, agitation swirling in her wake.
Pulling off his glasses, Wesley rubs at his eyes. "How is he?"
"Asleep for the moment. I'm worried, though. Anne said you'd called someone?"
He nods. "But perhaps I should try again."
Willow leans a hip against his desk, picking up a page of his notes to read. This is one of his peeves -- more feral than pet -- but he forces himself to say nothing.
She asks, "Has he ever mentioned anything about the sun? He just said something like I should see what she does to the sun."
"Could he have meant son, with an O?" Wesley suggests.
"Maybe. Whose son, though? He said 'the son,' not 'his' or 'her'. Would that mean a son with a famous parent?"
This feels like an enormous distraction to him. He's about to say so when Willow blurts, "The president. He's a famous man who's the son of a famous man. He holds the fate of a lot of people in his hands. Maybe she would align herself with him. Or against him."
"Perhaps," he says gently.
"You're humoring me." She puts the page of notes down on top of the knife.
He resists the impulse to straighten his desk to his liking. "No. I'm sorry, I'm anxious to get back to the translation, that's all. The time we spend in speculation on whether it's sun or son, and whose son --"
"All right, I get it. Here, I'll grab a few blank index cards and go sit in a corner, amusing myself with my pointless speculation." She does in fact flounce off to a chair in a far corner.
Wesley wonders if he should attempt to placate her, but he's too irritated to put forth the effort. This flat is much too small for five people. For two, if one of them happens to be this touchy. Saying nothing, he turns back to his work, but before he can even rearrange his papers, someone's pounding at the door to the flat. "Because what this place really needs is six people," he says under his breath.
Willow's already absorbed in whatever she's doing, so with a sigh Wesley pushes his chair back from the desk and rises to answer the door. He's surprised that Dr. Ricemiller didn't phone first.
He has two more surprises waiting in succession.
The first, when the act of swinging the door open brings sudden, irrefutable sense to the tangle of threads. Opening that which was closed.
No. Not closed. Sealed.
The second surprise is standing on his doorstep.
Wesley steps back from the door without comment, grateful to have an excuse not to force words of welcome that he doesn't feel. Faith's changed, of course he's known that for some time, but there's more than enough unpleasant history in this flat without adding theirs.
Faith favors him with a grin. "Good to see you too, Wes." She drops a battered leather satchel by the door. "Willow. Been too long." She directs a nod past Wesley's shoulder, and he turns to see Willow hovering by his desk again.
"It's been thirty six hours."
Faith smirks. "Longest of my life." She drops onto the sofa. "Ow. Shit, Wes, what happened to your fuckin' couch? Been pawning it piece by piece?"
"Can you give us any news about the Council? We've lost contact."
"Hellmouths are jumpin' and the cotton is high. Croatia. Killarney. A new one in sunny Spain that's trying to open up. And Wes, you wouldn't believe all the watchers whose panties are damp at the thought of bein' there when it happens. Personally, I think they're all out of their minds."
"What about Giles?" Willow asks. "Is he there too?"
Faith shakes her head. "Coven's taken him in. They're guarding him like he shits gold bars."
"Why?" Willow asks.
"You tell me. What I heard, it's something Wes sent him that set him off."
"Set him off?" Wesley asks.
"He started acting peculiar. More so than usual, I mean. Started packin' his bags to head out here. Ravin' about some book. All right, that part's not so unusual. So what the fuck did you do to him, Wes?"
"I sent him a piece of a book Xander's been carrying with him. To some of us it's gibberish, but it seems to have an effect on others. We knew nothing of that when we sent it to Mr. Giles." Wesley clears his throat. "It sounds as though there's enough action even for you in Europe, Faith. What brings you here?"
"I've been having some crazy-ass dreams. Thought maybe I could be some use here."
"Well, I don't know. Have to wait and see if they happen, won't we?"
"Why don't you describe one to me instead?"
"Is there anything in the world more boring than somebody droning on about their dreams?" Faith makes herself at home on the sofa, stretching out and propping her feet on the armrest. "If there is, I'd rather not have to live through it. The Cliff Notes version? They're bloody, some of 'em. Others, well, our boy gives new meaning to gettin' some strange. Not that I blame him. Hell, I'd do her myself."
He tries not to dwell on that mental image. "You've seen her?"
"Flashes of her. I couldn't sit down with one of those police artists and come up with a sketch. In some of the dreams I've been walking the streets in Sunnydale. Only it's not the Sunnydale I remember." She shifts, tucking her legs beneath her. She flicks a glance around the room, then returns her gaze to Wesley. "Wes, I'm thinking we've got another hellmouth wanting to reopen, just a few miles up the road. And I'd put money on Xander as the guy who plans to do it."
Faith and prophecy. That's a laugh.
All Faith knows is now. All she understands is what she wants this minute. All she cares about is herself.
What Willow can't figure out is how Faith's offer to help serves her own purposes. What's she after?
Ultimately, it's not important. What matters is why Willow's here. She's come to help Xander. Look out for him, the way they've always done for each other.
She gathers her energy, which is still a little shaky since the coven's ward knocked her across the room. All she needs is a low-watt glamour, nothing too complex.
She takes a breath, summons her power. She crosses unnoticed to the bedroom door.
Spike has resumed his slouch, one ankle crossed over his knee as he talks with Anne. "'Course we romanced ourselves up. There's two kinds of vampires. The ones who make ourselves into the heroes of our own larger-than-death story, and the poor sods who are too stupid to do anything but live from meal to meal." He doesn't look over as Willow enters; his posture stays relaxed. "Not that stupidity didn't play a part in my gettin' turned. Almost always does."
Anne sits with a hand on Xander's shoulder. "It certainly would have in my case. It's more due to pure luck and Buffy that I'm here."
Willow aims a subtle nudge in her direction.
"He seems quiet enough," Anne says. "Watch him while I take a bathroom break?"
"Sure. Find out who was at the door while you're at it." As Anne slips out of the room, he sits up, putting both feet on the floor.
Willow sends another subtle wave in his direction. He's attuned, you can't overdo it with someone like Spike.
Xander's more sensitive to it than she remembers. As she sends out the little push toward Spike, his eye opens.
She offers the things she brought Xander. The book. The knife. As his hand closes around the hilt of the knife, his fever falls away.
"Faith's here," she says softly. "She came because of her name, didn't she? It's in the book."
Xander shoves the book back at her. "Let her see it. Then keep the watcher out of the way."
"We'll have to be quick. Spike's going to sense when I juice up the glamour."
Xander switches the knife to his other hand, making a shallow cut across the blade's imprint on his forearm. As the blood wells up, he says, "Now."
Wesley knows he's beyond weary, but he must be falling into little spells of microsleep. It seems as though one moment Willow's not there, and then the next she's standing in front of Faith, her arm extended toward her.
"Faith, you need to see this."
Knocking Willow's arm aside, Faith scrambles to her feet. "Get that shit away from me."
Willow persists, thrusting something at her. Xander's book.
"Fuck off with that, I mean it!" Shouting, she sends Willow spinning away from her -- and opens herself wide to the knife-thrust from Xander.
-- The sound it makes --
Then her little grunt of surprise, followed by "Fuck!"
Wesley breaks through his paralysis, seizes Xander's arm. There's a trick to it, digging the thumb into a pressure point to induce him to let go of the knife. If Wesley tackles him, the contact would most likely gut her.
She stumbles back, sprawling on the sofa, crying out as the knife bites deeper.
"Faith, don't pull it out," Wesley commands.
Xander twists out of Wesley's grip, viciously elbowing him in the head and hurling him against the nearest wall. A picture slips from its anchor and shatters on the floor next to him. He desperately gasps for air, the breath driven from his lungs.
"Balls!" Spike tackles Xander and they sprawl in a heap onto the coffee table, which splinters.
"It's not finished!" Xander shouts. He clips Spike in the head.
Spike gives his head a shake to clear it. He jabs a hypodermic needle into the meat of Xander's arm. "Yeah, it is, mate."
But Xander surges up, shaking Spike off as if he's wrestling with a small child. He delivers another disorienting blow to Spike, and a second sends him down.
"Christ, no," Wesley wheezes, scrambling to his feet as Willow turns from the sofa. It's too late. Blood glistens on the knife blade, and blood wells between the fingers of the hand Faith has pressed to her side.
Willow waves a hand in Wesley's direction and he's slammed back against the wall. She extends the knife toward Xander. "She's so close. I can feel her."
He takes the knife in his left hand, draws the blade across his right arm, next to a mark already oozing blood.
"She's so close," Willow whispers. "You can finish this now."
He doesn't need Willow to tell him she's near. Her presence sings in his mind, in his blood.
It's as if he's only sensed a shadow of her until now.
She doesn't appear, but she speaks to him. She has rewritten the book. The slayer's blood has given her immense power, and it no longer matters that one of the five is being prevented from bringing his gift. Each person here has shed blood in Sunnydale; each is capable of honoring her, except for Spike, who is dead and therefore unclean.
He turns toward the watcher, who's just regaining his feet. The former watcher following his former charge -- she shows him the rightness of it.
He is beginning his knife thrust when a body slams into him from his blind side.
Spike and Xander tumble to the floor again as Wesley looks on. He moves to come to Spike's aid, but Willow hurls another blast of magic at him, flinging him back.
Xander's free hand scrabbles beside him among the pieces of the broken coffee table. As if guided, it falls on a shard long enough, sharp enough, and his fingers close around it.
"Spike!" Wesley shouts. Willow looses another assault, and the warning will not form on his lips.
Again Xander shakes Spike off, pinning him to the floor face down with a knee in his back. He raises the stake to drive it home.
"He's got a stake!" Faith manages to say, her voice sounding very distant.
Spike reaches back, clawing at him, but there's no strength behind the attack from his awkward angle.
"Fuck!" Faith cries, but it sounds more like a cough.
Desperately clawing, Spike's fingers find the leather cord around Xander's neck. He jerks as hard as he can, the cord slicing the soft flesh below Xander's jaw before the tough leather snaps and Spike has the amulet in his hand.
Xander howls and brings down the stake, but without the protection of the amulet, he's hit with the sedative's effects. When it makes contact with Spike's back, the stake slips through Xander's weakened fist and clatters to the floor.
A heartbeat later, Xander sprawls beside it.
Willow lunges for the knife. Though Wesley's not certain she can finish the ritual Xander began, there's no question that she can kill whomever is at hand -- and that would be Wesley.
Spike anticipates her and dives for it himself. As they struggle for possession of the knife, Wesley hears the too-familiar sound of a splintering doorjamb, and Anne shoulders her way through the bathroom door.
It doesn't take her long to assess the situation, or to seize a lamp as she strides into the living room. She swings the lamp, sending Willow collapsing beside Xander. "I think we'd better be calling an ambulance."
"We're gonna be doing a helluva lot of explaining from jail," Spike says.
"No, we won't," Anne says firmly. "Faith, you were in the park across the way. Some random street person attacked you with a knife, and you came here looking for help."
Faith grimaces. "Don't think I'm gonna be tellin' no tales."
"Nonsense." Anne marches to the kitchen and returns with a clean dish cloth, which she hands to Wesley. "Pressure." In her other hand is one of Spike's bags of blood.
"Poor timing for a snack," Spike notes.
"Stage dressing." She thrusts the cordless phone at Wesley, who's already pressing the cloth against Faith's side. "Call. Response time around here Saturday nights is almost ten minutes sometimes." She runs out of the flat without another word.
"Surprised no one's called already," Spike says as Wesley punches in the numbers.
"It's an old building. Thick walls. That's why I--" The 911 dispatcher answers, and he gives a terse account of their official story. "Please hurry. She's very badly injured." He breaks the connection once he's confirmed the address. "Stay with me, Faith," he says. "You'll be all right. You don't know how strong you are."
Though her eyelids are fluttering, that brings a small smile.
"Christ on a crutch!" Spike exclaims. "He's stirrin' already."
"I think we need to destroy the knife and amulet."
"And how in the bleedin' hell do we do that?"
"Fire," Faith mutters, so low Wesley can barely make it out. "Living. Ya think, Wes? Might work."
"Save your strength, Faith."
"No, flame. That's it. Living flame."
"Bugger," Wesley says softly. "Why didn't I -- Spike, I need you to take over here while I find some supplies."
"Better get Xander under lock and key first."
Spike and Wesley have just exchanged places when there's a frantic pounding at the door. Wesley rushes to admit Anne, who's left a cluster of bloody fistprints on his door and others, along with some smears along the hallway. "I'm pretty sure no one saw me."
"We have to get them in the cage," Wesley says. "Hurry."
The two of them drag Willow and Xander to the closet, somehow managing to stuff them both in the cage. Wesley slams the closet door shut. "Christ, Anne, you're all bloody." He feels a surge of panic.
"Of course I am. I've been trying to help her."
Right. Right. "I need a large bowl from the kitchen. Could you bring that out? I have some things to hunt up."
He ransacks the hall closet for his wooden chest. Most of the things he needs for this spell are basic. If his supplies are in good order, this should be possible.
Wesley's begun chanting, and the flame flares up green as he hears the sirens approach. Anne has busied herself with clearing up the debris from the fight. In the midst of this, the phone starts to ring.
As he drops the book, the knife and the amulet into the flame, there's a great rending sound, and Wesley, for what he hopes is the final time tonight, is hurled against a wall.
When the police and paramedics arrive, there's nothing to show for the spell but the blackened pieces of the ceramic bowl, which Anne has hidden in the kitchen trash.
Spike heads to the street to lead the paramedics to Faith without delay.
Wesley holds her hand, which seems very cold. "They're just outside, Faith. Do you hear them? Just hold on."
"What I hear ... goddamn phone ... have to do everything?"
This, more than anything else, gives him a bit of hope. "Anne, could you--?"
Faith moves her fingers beneath his. "Who'da thought, huh, Wes?"
"You'd better not be planning to finish that with 'end this way,'" he says sternly.
"What, gonna punish me?" Her eyelids are fluttering, but she manages to curl her cold fingers around his thumb. "Promise?"
He forces a smile. "I promise." It's been a very long time since he's said a prayer, but Wesley offers a silent one for her as the paramedics shoulder him aside.
"He's right here," Anne says into the phone, then holds it out towards Wesley. "It's your friend. Rupert."
He drops into a chair before relief makes his legs give way. "Pryce here," he says faintly.
"I'm sorry to be abrupt, but this is most urgent. If Xander attempts to show you his book, it's imperative that you get it from him, but you mustn't look at it. Even if you've looked at it before."
A pair of police officers appears at his door, and Anne ushers them inside.
"Giles, I can't tell you how good it is to hear your voice," Wesley says. "I'll have to ring you back, I'm afraid. I have some guests at the moment."
"That's exactly why I must --"
"I'm afraid I dropped his book in the bath, and it's quite ruined. Terribly clumsy of me. We're hoping he'll get over it, but you know how he can be. It may take time. I'll let you know the moment I hear." Aware that this bland message must be maddening to Giles, he breaks the connection and greets the officers.
In the midst of the controlled chaos centered on her, Faith remembers her part. "Park. Fucker came ... outta nowhere," she tells one of the officers. "Crazy as shit." The paramedics work with practiced efficiency, and after a few moments she's bundled off to the ambulance.
Anne quite smoothly takes the lead from there. The officers clearly know her, and though they don't seem particularly fond of her, they seem to trust her version of events. Of course, the trail of blood leading from the park across the street put them in a receptive frame of mind.
Wesley contributes his account, sticking closely to the story Anne established. Even Spike manages to rein in his creative impulses.
One of the officers checks with the first-floor neighbors, who are alarmed to discover bloody fistprints on their doors. Even from inside the apartment, with his door open, Wesley can hear Mrs. Rosario in the hallway. She insists, of course, that she heard no one pounding on her door, as do the others. The officer returns shaking his head and muttering about Kitty Genovese.
"Probably that sumbitch from a couple years ago," says the officer who's stayed with them. "Remember? Some nutjob slit a guy's throat, ear to ear. Right across the street here."
"Hell yeah, I remember that," says his partner. "Never did catch the guy. Bet you sure as hell remember," he says to Wesley. "Living right across the street and all."
"Yes," Wesley stammers, though his recall of such a crime is hazy at best. "Terrible thing."
"You want to be careful," the first officer says, mostly to Anne, "till we get this bastard off the street."
"We will, thanks."
"And please -- keep us posted on the girl's condition," Wesley says. "We're very concerned."
"If she makes it, she's got you three to thank."
Once the officers are gone, the three of them let out a breath.
"Remarkable work, Anne," Wesley says.
She smiles. "You'd think I was a born criminal." She sobers again. "They don't think she'll make it."
"They don't know her. She's an extraordinarily strong young woman. A slayer, like Buffy." He hopes there's some basis for this optimism.
Spike's at the window, where he flicks the curtain aside to make certain the officers are really departing. "Peelers are gone. What do you say we check on the Butcher-Priest and his little friend?"
This is the moment he dreads. Because he's done everything he could, severed the connection between Xander and whatever had driven him insane. Now is when Wesley learns whether there's still a strand left that connects Xander to reality, or whether he's trapped where this she left him.
Wesley looks toward Spike. Despite the flippancy of his words, he looks like the same worry occupies his mind.
Wesley nods and leads the way.
"Dunno who worries me more," Spike comments. "Xander or Red. Knife's been destroyed, but a pissed-off witch can do a lot of damage."
"But Giles seemed unaffected during our conversation."
"Plenty you couldn't see. Plus Red had her moments when she seemed all right, after this coven knocked her on her ass."
Wesley nods. "True. But we can't leave the two of them locked in the closet."
"I have a feeling Willow will be coming around a lot sooner than Xander," Anne suggests. "If he's not being propped up anymore by ... whatever that was, he should be down for a while."
Wesley's relieved at the prospect of dealing with them one at a time. "Anne, I'd feel a lot happier if you were elsewhere when I open this door. If she unleashes a blast of magic --"
"You're going to need a hand with them, even if they're harmless."
"The other room, then."
For a moment she looks poised to argue, then she says. "I'll call the shelter, see how things are going without me."
Wesley puts a protective spell in place before he reaches for the door, but he knows it's like setting a mousetrap against a kungai demon.
Wesley and Spike exchange a look, then Wesley opens the closet.
He's not quite prepared for what he sees.
Both Xander and Willow are still out, but they've managed to curl up together like small children. Wesley can't help thinking of the way they were when he first met them, childhood friends just beginning to discover their adult selves. He'd envied them this, he suddenly realizes, the easy intensity of their friendship. He envies them now, in a way, having this physical comfort to fall back on. He's never had this closeness, this ease.
"I almost hate to separate them," he murmurs.
Spike rolls his eyes and holds his hand out for the key. It's awkward extracting one completely inert person from a cage too small for two occupants, but he manages to get her out. He lays her on Wesley's bed.
Again, Wesley can't help thinking of the girl he'd known back in Sunnydale, sweet and eager and insecure. How had she become so powerful? (How had Giles let it happen?, the Watcher in him can't help asking.)
"Close the door," he tells Spike, gesturing toward the closet. "I'd like to limit contact between them until we have a better grasp on the situation." He settles Willow more comfortably and examines her head with gentle fingers. "She has quite a lump on the back of her head, but it doesn't seem to explain why she's still unconscious."
"Maybe it's the coven."
"Could be. Or maybe they saw their chance when Annie popped her, decided to keep her out of the action for a while."
Willow makes a small noise and begins to stir. She seems so diminished now. (He wonders why a voice deep inside him warns that a woman can be most dangerous when she seems vulnerable.)
"Wes," she says, as if surprised to see him here.
He inwardly braces himself, though he suspects it won't count for much if she decides to hurl him against a wall. Offering a smile that he hopes looks sincere, he says, "How do you feel?"
The throbbing in Willow's head drives out everything else at first. "Head hurts." She reaches a tentative hand to the back of her head, finds a smooth, round lump. "Wow. Feels like I was clocked but good."
"Lamped, actually." Wes flicks a look toward someone else, wariness written on his face.
Willow thinks about turning her head to see who the someone else might be, but her initial movement in that direction makes her queasy. She squeezes her eyes shut for a moment. "Is Xander okay? Where is he?"
"He's safe. Sleeping for the moment."
"Safe." What does that mean? Unable to harm anyone else, or still in (mostly) one piece, or truly whole? She wonders about whole. "She's gone."
"Faith? She's in hospital by now. She's badly hurt."
"No, I meant -- she almost came through. I could feel her. He needed more, but we were all gathered." She catches the look that Wesley directs at the other person. "I'm not making sense. There were five names. He needed all five before she could come through, but I could feel her when he stabbed Faith. How close she was. Now -- there's just nothing."
"He would've done you too, Red, if he'd had the chance." Spike. He's the other. "You said yourself your name was there."
"I know that," she says softly. She doesn't try turning toward him. "I knew it before. I didn't care. She was all that mattered. If Giles saw his name -- the coven must have sat on him hard."
"I'm not following you," Wes says. "You said we were all gathered. Everyone Xander needed."
"I know, I'm sorry. I think -- I think she changed the book. Once he'd stabbed Faith -- Wes, she's immensely powerful. I've never felt anything like that."
"'She changed the book' -- Giles hinted at something like that, as well. That's all he --"
"You heard from Giles?" Willow sits up -- much too suddenly, and for a moment she's afraid she'll throw up on herself, Wes, and the bed. "He's safe?"
"He sounded like himself, yes. The police were here, so I had to put him off. But he had time to say not to look at the book, even if I'd seen it before. He seemed to believe -- yes. The phone began ringing even before I finished the spell. Once his name was gone, he must have been released."
"Where is it now? The book?"
"Slow down, Red. You made a pretty good show of bein' on our side after the coven thumped you, but you sure as fuck played helpful little altarboy to our priest there. Why should we trust you now?"
She gets a sudden, sickening memory of tugging the knife out of Faith's belly, the bright blood that gushed out of the wound and dripped off the blade. Bile surges up in her throat, sour and boiling hot, and then she is vomiting, into a small wastebasket Wes has hastily snatched from somewhere. "Oh God. Faith." Wes hands her a tissue and she wipes off her mouth. "She's bad off, isn't she?"
"She's survived worse." He doesn't sound as hopeful as he surely wants to.
She tries breathing deep, but it just brings her own sour smell back to her, and she vomits again. As she pants, eyes closed, considering another round, she hears footsteps, and someone nudges a glass of cold water into her hand. She takes a sip, rinses her mouth and spits; the thought of putting anything in her stomach makes it rebel. "Thanks, Spike," she rasps.
"Spike--" Wes says.
"The book -- it did something to me. I saw my name, and got sort of ... entranced with it." She pushes the wastebasket toward Wes, and he moves it away. "I think I'm okay. So when the coven shoved me away, it broke that spell. The fog lifted almost completely, until I touched the actual book, then it sucked me in worse than before. It's dangerous, Wes."
"It's gone," Wes says. "It's been destroyed. The knife and amulet as well."
She lets out a breath. "That's it, then."
"Is it?" Spike asks. "What about Harris?"
Willow shakes her head, and is instantly sorry. "I don't know. She's been inside him." She's not even sure how she knows this, or what, exactly, she means. "Where is he? Did you put him back in that cage?"
Neither man answers, but Wes's face tells her all she needs to know. "Please don't let him wake up there. I don't think I can bear it."
Anne breaks in to offer tea, and to inform them she's made up the sofabed.
Wesley says, "Willow, I think it would be good if you'd settle in out there, now that you're feeling a bit better."
"I should be there when Xander wakes up."
"I'm not certain that's a good idea."
Spike notes, "It's a good idea the way someone just gettin' over the Spanish influenza nursing someone just gettin' sick with it is a good idea." Such a strange point of reference -- even the word influenza has become archaic. It reminds him with a jolt that Spike is more than he seems, and that it's wise never to forget that.
Willow's too wobbly to protest effectively, so Wesley and Anne get her installed on the sofabed with a mug of tea. She's fast asleep, however, before she's taken more than three sips.
"I meant that for you," Anne says softly.
"There's more, isn't there?"
"The bed, not the tea. How long has it been since you've had any rest?"
"There'll be time for that later. I intend to be on hand when Xander wakes."
"What do you think we can expect when that happens?"
"I wish I knew." He's afraid to hope for much. "You needn't stay until then. I know you have work of your own. How were things at the shelter when you checked in?"
Anne smiles. "Funny thing. All this time I thought I was making myself indispensable, apparently I was setting things up to run pretty smoothly without me. I can stay. If you want me."
"I do." He returns her smile. "You've done a fine job of making yourself indispensable around here. I'm still most impressed with how you handled the police."
Shrugging, she says, "It's that dramatic streak in me. Why don't we get Xander settled, then we can sit and have some tea ourselves."
Anne's not fooled by Wesley's request for her to keep watch over Willow, but she agrees. He and Spike repeat the awkward process of extracting Xander from the cage and getting him to the bed.
"They never told us at the watcher's academy that transporting the inert bodies of our comrades would be one of our most useful skills," Wesley remarks. He looks up from arranging Xander's limbs more comfortably to find Spike fixing him with a look. "What is it?"
"Don't think you've ever joked with me before."
This floors him for a moment, but then he remembers back to his days in Sunnydale, how effective humor could be in excluding him from Giles's circle. "Ah," he says, flustered. "I don't think you've missed much. I'm not exactly known--"
"Fuck me blind!"
Which is not precisely the response he'd expected. Before he can react, Spike reaches across him to adjust Xander's eyepatch, which has slipped a little during the transfer to the bed.
But Spike doesn't replace the patch. Instead he lifts it. "Fuck me," he says again, without the blind which is indeed very much the wrong word.
Because there under the patch, where there'd once been the ruin of an eye (crater, Xander had said in his ravings), there is a normal-looking eyelid with a normal-looking bulge beneath.
"Jesus god," Wesley says softly. Gently he nudges the eyelid upward with his thumb. He spies a quarter-moon of normal-looking eye before Xander restlessly shifts away from his touch, and Wesley releases his eyelid. He removes the eyepatch and places it on the nightstand.
"Any notion when that might've happened?" Spike asks.
"None. I don't believe I've seen him without the patch since he emerged after his disappearance."
"Right." Spike shakes his head. "Like Red said, whatever he's been into, it's bloody powerful. I'm glad as fuck she won't be droppin' round for a visit."
Wesley doubts he's ever agreed with Spike quite this fervently. Except, perhaps, when he goes on to suggest that now might be an excellent time to resume that postponed chat with Giles.
"What in god's name were you talking about, 'dropping the book in the bath'?"
Wesley recognizes this type of indignant explosion as intense relief, and grins in spite of himself. "Yes, well, I'm sorry to be so maddeningly vague. There were police officers in my flat, and I couldn't quite say 'Don't worry, I've disposed of the knife.'"
"Tell me now. What were the police doing there?"
"Faith was stabbed. I'm afraid she's badly hurt. We haven't had a report yet; I suspect she's still in surgery."
"Stabbed," Giles repeats. "Was it Xander?" Suddenly he sounds so very exhausted.
"So he's in the hands of the police now."
"No. We made it look as though she was randomly attacked in the neighborhood, and stumbled into my building looking for help. They never even saw Xander."
"Where is he now?"
"He's here. We dropped him with a tranquilizer, and he's still sleeping it off. I believe the large-scale danger has passed. The knife and book and amulet are destroyed. Have things quieted on your end? I've been suspecting a connection between our problems and the activity on the European hellmouths."
"Yes. Everything's calm again."
"Giles, when I emailed those pages to you, I had no idea what their effect might be. What I saw was an entire book filled with a carefully drawn grid, each square filled in with the letter a. Gibberish, and nothing more. Willow saw a handful of pages, and that's the first we knew they were something more."
"She saw her name."
"Yes. From what Faith has said, you did too."
"You destroyed it, you said. How?"
"Living flame. It consumed everything, the knife and amulet as if they were paper as well."
Even over the transatlantic connection, Wesley can hear the breath he releases, the relief conveyed by that sigh.
"Faith is the one," he begins to say, but suddenly there is a tightness in his throat, and he can't say any more.
Giles gives him a moment, then asks, "Were you able to discover anything further about the nature of the thing you were fighting?"
"Scraps of information. We had our hands rather full."
"She was a goddess. So ancient I haven't yet uncovered a name for her. All the texts speak of her immense power, well, what ancient text doesn't, after all; it's practically boilerplate. But I could feel her for a time while the book consumed me. Immense barely begins to cover it."
"So I gathered. She --" He's not quite sure how to say this, so he plunges on ahead. "She's restored Xander's eye. He was acting as her priest, and I believe he meant to open the Sunnydale hellmouth."
There is a pause that stretches on for some time. "Of course," Giles finally murmurs. "She'd want her priest to be physically perfect."
"Why choose Xander at all? Why not someone who was already physically whole?"
"I suspect there's a combination of factors. Xander was born and raised in Sunnydale, and he was there when the hellmouth was closed. There was the hyena possession I mentioned before. She is associated with the hyena, and though the creature is generally reviled, it's a very powerful symbol of the transformation of dead things. It may be his travels in Africa, however, that brought him to her attention. I'll learn more, of course, when I come out there."
Wesley feels the stirrings of old roles -- the disappointing son, the failed Watcher -- and the subservient responses they engender. He squelches them. "I'd like you to hold off, if you would. I have some experience of this type of overwhelming possession. I believe he'll need time to come to terms with the things he's done, things he was willing to do. Sometimes, I think, it's harder in the presence of the people one loves. I'm a fairly neutral figure for him, yet I do have my experience with Angel and my training as a Watcher." He waits for Giles's dismissal -- whether casual or weighted with contempt -- of his presumptuousness.
Instead, he hears another sigh. "Much as I feel the need to be there, you make a very good point. Xander's needs are what's paramount. I trust you'll keep me informed, and let me know as soon as the situation changes."
"Yes, of course." This time he says it not with the whipped-dog tone he hates in himself, but the ready consent of a colleague, an equal. "We've had a very long day here, and we still have to see if we can find any news of Faith. I'll be in touch the moment I can tell you anything."
He sits for a moment, the cordless phone still in hand. Anne gently takes it from him, settles it on its cradle. "You look so tired. Why don't we have that tea now?"
Wesley's so tired he keeps forgetting to drink his tea. Every now and then Anne takes a sip of her own, and it reminds him about the cup cradled in his hands.
They've already called the hospital, but Faith was still in surgery. He pretended he was a relative phoning from the UK so the staff would relent and give him information over the phone.
They told him, in as bland a manner possible, that it might be a good idea to make the trip to California.
He's failed her, yet again. Denied her the chance to see where her path might lead. Cut short her constant striving for redemption. (Perhaps she wouldn't need to redeem herself if he hadn't failed her so badly the first time.)
He's failed Xander, too. If Wesley had been quicker, more decisive, perhaps he could have spared Xander the knowledge of Faith's blood on his hands. The fact that he was driven mad will make no difference, if Wesley's own experience is any indication. The memory of how he'd stalked Fred -- the things he'd said to her -- had poisoned his hopes for a relationship with her.
(A voice deep within him warns he's being over-optimistic to think Xander will emerge undamaged enough to suffer for his actions.)
"Whatever you're thinking," Anne says softly, "stop." Gently she takes the tea mug from him, sets it on the table. Then she settles herself onto his lap. "There's a definite lack of enough seating for five people in this place." She feathers her fingers over his lips, smiling at his indrawn breath.
No woman's ever sat in his lap before.
(Except Faith, cheerfully explaining her philosophy of torture.)
(Except the women he'd paid, once, twice, to remind him.)
His cheeks burn as his body responds not to Anne, but to memory.
"It's all right," she whispers. She touches her mouth to his so softly it feels like a breath. "You have the most amazing eyes. You must have heard that a billion times, but there you have it, I'm not very original."
"No," he stammers. "I don't believe I've ever heard that."
She laughs, a little silvery sound. "Then I guess I'll have to say it a few hundred million, get you caught up."
She kisses him again, her tongue teasing his lips apart. Her hand cups the curve of his jaw.
"So sweet," he murmurs as she withdraws again. And this, he realizes, is what he's needed to erase the shame of that night of Faith straddling him, grinding against him. Not a safe dosage of the same, but an equal measure of sweetness.
Brushing her fingertips over the skin below his jaw, Anne frowns slightly. "Wow," she says softly. "This is -- it was you they were talking about, wasn't it? How weird did that feel? Listening to them, I mean."
Wesley has no idea what she's talking about. Perhaps he'll ask. Later. He reaches to stroke her face, draw her toward him for another kiss.
A soft cough sounds from the doorway. "Sorry to interrupt," Spike says. "He's just beginning to stir a bit. Knew you'd want to be there when he wakes."
Spike leaves him to go in on his own, expressing his intention of raiding the blood supply in the fridge.
Xander still lies in the position he assumed early on, curled on his right side. Protecting the cargo pocket, now empty. Wesley feels a wave of pity for Xander, then warns himself against falling into the trap of overidentification. Yes, Wesley was once in a similar situation, but it's dangerous to assume Xander's feelings and reactions will be the same as his.
He wonders if this might be the most dangerous situation he's ever faced. It's certainly the most unpredictable.
Xander shifts slightly, flicks a hand up toward his left eye, as if being bothered by a mosquito.
Wesley draws up a chair, settling in to wait.
She was a goddess, Giles had said.
Wesley wonders. She may be cut off from this world, but he doubts she's been destroyed. Whether she'll find a means to try again in their lifetime is uncertain -- he wonders whether it's worth the risk of pursuing her, or whether it would mean jeopardizing more than his own life. Is there a thread, however slender, that still connects Xander to her, and if so, can it be exploited? Should it?
Xander flings his hand up again, swatting the air by his face. He mutters something that sounds like words, but none that are intelligible to Wesley.
Darkest place he's ever been.
The Sun isn't going to rise again.
Sunnydale will never become a shining city.
All it is is a tomb, a place of death.
People he loves are sealed in here. Anya. Joyce. Jesse.
Sealed in with the others: demons, Bringers, the powdered bones of the Master, so many more.
She will never bring them forth now.
Seal him in, too.
It's all he deserves.
He'll never be transformed, never be able to walk the streets of his (her) risen city.
He's just as cold and empty as this place.
All he is is a tomb.
Airless, lightless. People he loves are sealed inside him, contaminated, defiled by the things he has helped kill.
He retreats into the dark Nothing, pulling it around him like a blanket. But his fingers can't hold onto it.
It slips from his grasp.
The light burns like acid.
Xander's limbs move restlessly, his hands flexing and grasping at the air.
His whole body shudders, and a moan escapes him.
"Spit me out," he whispers.
Things come back to him in a rush:
His first glimpse of her in Mombasa. Pacing outside Annie's shelter, jabbing his finger toward skittish street kids as he talks. The sulfur-stink of the waters he'd bathed in for her, like silk against his skin. Counting doors, to Cordelia's. Thirty of them, all the same. Blank. Lying to Giles on the phone (lying to himself) that he kept going back to that bar for the American food. The watcher washing his hair, so careful not to let the grimy water run into the ruin of his eye. The touch of her fingers on his forehead, his chest, as she anointed him that first night. Spike appearing out of nowhere, wrapped in a battered blanket, like some kind of --
-- fuckingderangedhomelessguy --
when he should be dead.
He is dead.
The weight of her amulet against the hollow of his throat as she fastened it around his neck. The sound of her name as she whispered it into his ear.
Like water pouring into a vessel, overflowing the sides. She was too much for him to hold, but he wanted more, wanted the pouring never to stop.
He's a cracked vessel now. She's run out, leaving nothing of herself behind.
Her name, which shimmered in his mind, is now lost to him.
He reaches for her amulet, the reminder of who he was, what he almost was, that he once had her favor.
It has vanished along with her name, her presence.
He rakes his rough and split fingernails on the skin at his throat.
The watcher seizes his wrist, pulls Xander's hand away from his own neck. Begins to murmur empty comfort, then halts as he sees what Xander has seen. The imprint of the knife, reddened flesh that marked him as her priest, has disappeared as well.
A sound he doesn't know how to name escapes Xander's throat. "She spit me out," he says again.
The watcher grasps Xander's hand in both of his. "It's all right. You're safe here. You're with friends."
What would the watcher know about it?
He lets himself fall back into the black emptiness of the tomb.
Wesley sits for a long time with his hands wrapped around Xander's. It seems necessary somehow, that without someone holding him here, whatever dark current is tugging at him might sweep him irretrievably away.
The danger, he thinks, is that Xander wants to be taken in that undertow. The hand Wesley holds is lax, unresponsive, as if Xander has no ability or interest in clinging to the self he was before all this happened.
Perhaps the last spark of that self has already been extinguished.
He'd never known Xander that well during his brief time in Sunnydale. Most of what he knew he'd learned from Cordelia, who wasn't exactly the most unbiased source at that time. As she'd softened over the years, his name had come up occasionally, with a shade more fondness.
His own reaction toward Xander had often been irritation. The boy was flippant when he should take matters seriously, he was a bundle of jittery motion whose presence was not conducive to concentration. He had, of course, immediately aligned himself with Buffy and Giles. Against him. So Wesley had taken a narrow view of who he was.
Wesley lets himself think of that night he'd walked into the library and admitted that he'd taken Faith from Angel and then lost her. He remembers the bruises around the boy's throat, the way he'd pulled in on himself, instead of his usual habit of taking up all available space. Xander had gone to Faith not to defeat her, as Wesley had, but to coax her back into the fold. To offer to stand with her through whatever trouble she was facing. This was the Xander Wesley had never gotten to know.
Wesley is not going to let this Xander disappear without a fight.
Wesley has lost track of time when Spike enters the bedroom. He sees Spike take notice of Xander's hand in his, but Spike makes no comment, and he makes no move to disengage.
"How is he?"
"He emerged for a brief time, but very quickly retreated."
"Can you tell--?"
"Not yet. Apparently he's no longer linked to her in any way -- the marks at his throat and forearm have even completely faded. But I've no idea if she's left anything behind."
Spike nods, but doesn't speak for a moment. "Annie called the hospital again. Faith's out of surgery, and they said they'll move her to a room shortly. She thought she'd go 'round for a visit if they'll let her. I'll stay out there with Red while she's gone."
"That's a fine idea, yes."
Spike lingers for a moment, something clearly left unsaid. "Buffy and her lot fought a hellgod once. Glory. She could stick her fingers inside a person's head, feed off them. Drove 'em batshit crazy. She got Red's girlfriend, did that to her. But once Glory was dead, Tara came back, just the way she'd always been." He eyes Xander, lying so still. "Just like a light switch bein' flipped on."
Wesley nods, but he's thinking about Fred and her long struggle to overcome the madness she'd descended into on Pylea. He thinks of Cordelia, an empty husk.
He realizes Spike is waiting for some sort of answer.
"Yes," he manages to say, but they both know it's a meaningless syllable.
Spike informs him he'll be right outside if he's needed, and withdraws from the room.
A moment later, he hears Anne's departure.
The darkness refuses to hold him.
He wanders a long time, calling for Anya. This is who he should want. The woman he loved (loves), the woman who gave up more than one life for him. The first time she had followed him to a new life, given herself wholeheartedly to the causes he'd embraced, the friends he'd chosen, even though they didn't always welcome her. Then she'd given up that life, too, and gotten nothing at all. A mass grave at the bottom of a crater.
Anya is who he should want.
But the name he'd like to call out in the darkness is Joyce's. He wants comfort, wishes to be a child. He would never have told her, but he'd often wished Joyce had been his mother instead of the one he'd gotten. And though he said it was Amy Yip at the water park who featured in his Anywhere But Here games, it was Joyce at the kitchen table he longed for most. A mother who ruffled his hair and asked him how his day had been.
He wishes he could wish for Joyce. But he knows this would be disloyal to his lost girl. So he keeps calling for her, stumbling through the dark until he finds himself moving toward a glimmer of light.
He doesn't want it. He turns away, back in the direction he'd come from. The light is growing there as well.
The darkness has spit him out, too.
"No," Xander mutters. He jerks his head to the side, as if flinching away from something.
Wesley rouses himself, tightens his grip on Xander's hand. "You're safe. Your friends are here. You're all right now."
Xander's fingers flutter within his grasp. "Looking for her."
Wesley's heart sinks. He'd hoped perhaps her grip on him would have lessened.
"Tried to find Anya," Xander murmurs. "Gone, she's gone."
Relief washes through him. Whether Xander's found his way back to some part of the self he was, or merely transferred his despair onto someone more manageable, it seems a hopeful sign.
Funny that he should know that. How very much more manageable grief for a lost lover is than that for a lost goddess. Which kind of loss is worse, Wesley wonders: having your goddess torn from you by force, as Xander had, or having your eyes opened to what she really is?
Gone, she's gone.
There is nothing Wesley can say to this. You're safe. Your friends are here -- he knows how very little that matters in the midst of this kind of grief. Ultimately, he's alone.
Wesley says nothing, but tightens his grasp on Xander's hand. Briefly Xander grips his in return, then he slips his hand out of Wesley's, turning onto his back to gaze up at the ceiling.
More pieces come back to him. Jagged.
The faint sensation of warmth when she had pressed the knife against his forearm. The searing pain came later, that moment when he looked at the pages of the book that she'd rewritten, and wavered for just that little bit.
(It aches now, like a phantom pain, except the arm is still there.)
Scavenging in Dumpsters for food. The night behind a bakery he'd found an entire trayful of discarded bagels, still attached to one another, a rectangle made up of circles. He'd stuffed his pockets and left the rest.
The lady who lives on the steps of the vacant department store, who paints bright orange makeup circles on her cheeks. He tried to give her a bagel (circle), but she waved it off. She smiled, waggling her loose front teeth with the edge of her thumb by way of explanation. The gesture was weirdly lewd, a come-on. He couldn't get away fast enough.
The witch woman. The same lewd speculation in her expression as she sidestepped his questions about young slayers. She'll fuck you. He hears it now directly from her, without his guide's reluctant translation. She'll make you hers.
Her. The times she rode him. (Made him hers.) Mombasa. The tramp steamer that brought him back. The squat near the teen shelter. The fold-out couch in the watcher's living room. The grand hotel suite where she took him for the last time. Shuddering, gasping, crying out.
Inside the watcher's cage. When she crouched over him, kissing him with fever. When she put her hand to his chest, reaching deep inside him and drawing forth the poisons in his heart. (He gasped, shuddered.)
Faith. No time to let her see her name. He just rammed the knife and its words deep into her. How easily the blade cut through her flesh. The jolt as the knife sank in up to its hilt. She gasped. Cried out.
He's killed her.
He has become a thing he would never have foreseen. This is no gift, no sacrifice, but murder.
He groans, covers his face with his hands.
The watcher doesn't speak or touch him, but Xander feels his steady presence beside him.
He opens his eyes, his hands still over his face.
He sees both his palms.
Carefully he explores with a finger. Instead of encountering ravaged flesh, a socket, he feels the curve of a normal eye.
He gasps, sitting bolt upright and scrambling back against the headboard of the watcher's bed.
He cries out.
Wesley sits by the bed and watches (still in the job description, isn't it?) as awareness gradually dawns in Xander. Who he is, where he is, what has happened.
What he has done.
Difficult as it is, he keeps his peace. There will come a time when Xander will need Wesley's counsel (maybe even want it), but he's not ready for that. And though murmured reassurances might sink in now, Wesley knows they'd be meaningless.
He holds his silence until the last realization hits Xander. There's no question when it does. He scrabbles to the head of the bed, huddling against the headboard, arms wrapped around himself. A thin wail of grief and horror pours from him, and he seems as broken as he did when he'd drawn himself into the back corner of the cage.
"God, I can't, this is too -- oh, Christ, I can't, I can't."
"Xander," he says firmly. "Xander, listen to me. I know you're -- I realize this is overwhelming."
"No no no no, don't want it. Nothing from her, can't keep it. Can't have any part of her."
"You accepted the loss of your eye."
This pulls Xander out of his panic enough to look at Wesley as if he's being willfully stupid. "That's different."
This is the first actual response Xander's made to him since his emergence, and Wesley feels a surge of relief. "The details are very different. The basic truth is the same. You encountered an adversary who overwhelmed your ability to fight."
"I didn't fight. I joined her side, I killed for her."
"Faith? She's still alive."
Xander shakes his head emphatically. "You're lying. I know what I did."
"She's a slayer. You know how strong she is."
Xander seems about to speak, but he jerks his attention from Wesley to something behind him. Cautiously, Wesley spares a glance and sees Spike in the doorway.
"Trouble?" Spike asks quietly.
"Love trouble, don't you?" Xander spits. "Drawn to it. Good as opening a vein, isn't it? Tapped a keg for you, Spike." He holds out his arm, blue ropes of veins visible on the inside of the forearm, now bare of her mark. "Drink it down, go nuts, make yourself sick."
Wesley draws breath to tell Spike to leave, but Spike speaks first.
"Been where you are now. You remember, you were there. Shiny new soul couldn't stop it. So you lost the first part of the battle. You give up on yourself now, and the terrorists win."
Xander lets his arm drop to his side. "What self?"
"You got enough to ask that question, then you've got enough to fight for." The phone shrills in the next room. "Thank Christ, because I'm not cut out for this motivational speakin'." Spike leaves the room.
Xander sits against the headboard, his arms wrapped around himself.
Wesley's relieved to note that he does seem less agitated. "Spike's right," he says softly. "You managed to preserve your sense of self even under her onslaught. I'm not sure many could do that."
Xander makes a dismissive noise.
"Anne even commented on it."
Again Xander's attention is diverted to the doorway.
"Speakin' of Annie, that was her, from the hospital."
Something in Spike's manner makes Wesley uneasy. "What is it?"
"Don't know how else to say it. Faith's gone."
That thin, strangled sound of grief rises from Xander's throat once more.
"Christ's sake," Spike mutters in disgust. "You both know me better'n that. If she was dead, I'd say so. When I said gone, that's what I meant. She's buggered off."
"That's impossible," Wesley stammers. "She was in no condition--"
"Think someone snatched her?" Spike asks. "This goddess must have fanclubs all about the place, if there was so much goin' on at the other hellmouths. Maybe some of them went after Faith."
"Bad habit of Faith's," Xander mutters. "Wandering off from her deathbeds."
Strangely enough, this option seems less farfetched to Wesley. "Do you have any theories?"
"Words. I put them in her. Power you can't imagine. Mixed with the blood of a slayer? Who can say?"
"D'you think they made her ... like you an' Red got?"
"I got the words through hearing. With Willow, it was seeing. The words went inside Faith. Into her blood, her flesh. That's different."
This makes Wesley uneasy. Xander's speech patterns aren't all that different from when he was insane. It's hard to determine just how much credence he should place in his words. Still, he must gather every piece of information he can. "What will the words do to her?"
"I don't know. It matters, but it doesn't. She's still trying to get here."
"This goddess, you mean," Spike offers.
Xander nods. "The hellmouth has to open, and she'll come build her city. Her door was slammed shut, but she'll do it however she can."
"So whatever happens," Spike says, "happens in Sunnydale."
Xander's shaking his head now. "What she needs isn't there. She needs the five."
The bloody five again. "Tell me about the five."
An exasperated sigh gusts from Xander. "The five sacrifices. She can only use ones who've shed blood in Sunnydale."
"That's everyone in this flat," Wesley says.
"Plus Annie," Spike says, "and she's on her way."
"So Faith will no doubt be coming to us," Wesley says.
"Maybe not right away," Xander says. "Who's the easiest?"
Irritation flashes across Xander's face. "Who can't fight?"
The realization hits Wesley with sickening force. He finds himself on his feet, without being aware of rising. "Oh god. Cordelia."
Wesley slings on his jacket, checking the pocket for one of Spike's hypodermics, then goes to his cache of weapons. He hopes to Christ he won't have to use them on Faith.
"You're not plannin' on going after her alone, are you?" Spike demands.
"Someone has to stay here." He makes a slight movement of his head to indicate the bedroom and Xander.
"What's going on?" Willow asks sleepily.
"I'm thinking maybe we need Red along. Someone who can unleash some serious mojo."
We need? "We don't know for certain--"
"Certainty's a luxury sometimes, innit?"
Willow abandons the sofa bed. "What's happened?"
"Faith's walked out of the hospital. Grab your broom, Red. Harris thinks the goddess is going to make another break for this world."
Wesley turns from the cache. "It's too risky."
"No, this is risky: We take Harris, too."
"Have you lost your mind?"
"He knows her best of any of us. Time's wastin'."
Christ. How did events slip this far out of his control? "All right, but be quick."
By the time Wesley's finished speaking, Xander already has snatched up his shoes and is halfway to the door.
There's little time, but Willow manages to raise the coven on the phone during the drive to the hospital. It's impossible to know what aid to ask for until they see the situation firsthand, but she tells them everything she can, even as they're running down the hallway toward Cordelia's room.
Thirty doors to Cordelia's.
He has to count fast.
It's really about containing his fears, making them more manageable.
The watcher has been pushing him for guesses on the way over, how he thinks she might open the hellmouth now that her priest and her knife are lost to her.
"I don't know. She needs the blood, but she needs the words." He doesn't see how another knife will do, not without the words.
Just past the twenty-ninth door, they find a hospital gown in a heap on the tile floor.
They all push through the thirtieth door, the watcher in the lead. What they see brings them to a dead halt.
It's Faith, but it's not Faith.
She is naked, but she's not. She is garbed in words, deep black against her skin like fresh tattoos. The same words that were engraved on the knife -- that were imprinted, when he was hers, on the skin of his arm.
She stands by Cordelia's bed, her hand on Cordy's forehead. (Words to flesh.) In her other hand, still by her side, is a knife. Plain, unmarked.
She is more beautiful than Faith has ever been, shimmering with power. Yet she is not what she was in Mombasa, or any of the times she has come to him here. Confined to a human body -- even a slayer's body -- she is diminished. Even though he is still awed by the sight of her, he doesn't feel her presence as he always has.
Even though he knows they must stop her, he can't help feeling saddened. To see her made smaller, forced to act as her own priest.
As her gaze falls on him, Xander sees the same emotion in her.
She shifts her attention to the watcher. "How dare you? You defile my priest, then you bring him here to witness what he cannot share." Xander would swear there are tears glimmering in her eyes. She turns her glance back to him. "They took my protection from you. I will make your city rise, I promise you that."
She lifts her hands high above her, and begins to chant. The words seem almost alive on her skin as she speaks them.
Willow steps forward, raising her own hand. She braces her feet and speaks a word that means nothing to Xander.
The sound of the chanting stops, though She/Faith still moves her lips. The words on her skin begin to run like raindrops down her arms, her legs, her breasts. Though the room is silent, the air feels thick with unseen words. Willow raises her other hand and pushes them toward her adversary.
She resists, fighting to push her words back toward Willow, to bring them forth into the room. Willow begins to tremble with the effort of containing them.
She/Faith spins on her heel, back toward Cordelia's bed. Words or not, she raises the knife.
With an inarticulate cry, Spike hurls himself at her, but she swats at him as if he's a mosquito. The watcher raises his crossbow--
Xander wants to call out to warn her, but his words are bound up with all the others in the air. They are right to stop her, but he can't bear to watch her die.
Willow is faltering, barely able to hold her arms in the air.
Then in the blink of an eye, there are two more people in the room, a man and a woman, standing on either side of Willow. Startled, the watcher shifts his focus from his target. The pair grasps Willow's hands, raising their free hands to push with her, to slam the words back to the place they came from. The power in this room takes his breath away.
They push, and the air is suddenly empty of words. She/Faith is lifted off her feet, hurled against the wall like a rag doll.
When she crumples to the floor, there is only Faith.
He falls to his knees, cradling the arm that once bore her mark. He weeps for what he has lost. Her. His risen city.
He barely notices that one of those who come to his side is Giles.
For a long time, he thinks the spell has taken away his ability to speak. All he can manage is near-silent tears, from such a deep place he can't even put voice to them.
The others don't seem to be affected. Distantly he hears their voices, scraps of conversation: a phone call that summons Anne, introductions, murmurs of reassurance to Faith, discussions of what comes next.
Almost as distant is the sound of Giles's voice. He feels it in his body more than hears it, because Giles has enfolded him in his arms, kneeling with him there on the tile floor. It'll be all right, he murmurs. I wish I'd known earlier. I wish I'd seen.
For a long time, he just lets Giles hold him. He is like a rock with a covering of lichen. The other man touches him, but does not reach him.
Then things change. The memory of Kingman's Bluff, stored deep within his body, comes forth in his mind. Holding Willow, murmuring into her hair that he loves her, no matter what.
It had been a pretty big what.
He remembers her grief, the wild tears. But he also remembers the relief that prompted her to her lean into him, that allowed her to cry with such force.
He realizes that Giles is saying, in his British way, the same thing Xander himself had said up on that bluff.
He gives in.
To his grief. To tears and snot and inarticulate cries.
To Giles's love, which he knows is tinged with guilt. (What love isn't?) To the urge to clutch at Giles's shoulders as he shakes with sobs. Let it out, son. It's all right.
To the relief that shudders through him.
When it's over, he finds his voice again. He squeezes Giles's arm. "Giles," he says. "You came all the way from Devon."
The others, he realizes, have cleared out. Only Cordelia, untouched by all that has happened around her, still remains.
"Of course I came."
He's not sure if it's good or bad that the first thing that comes to mind is a joke, and that he says it. "Did you bring me anything?"
From the laughter and relief that light Giles's face, Xander guesses it's a good thing.
Wesley waits for the kettle to boil, He should be reveling in the calm, but he's too restless to stand still. He gazes into the fridge, empty except for three bags of O positive, a half-empty jar of chutney, and three bottles of stout.
Anne has opened her home to Willow and Giles's travel companion from the coven, Gwynneth, and to Faith, who was profoundly shaken but physically unscathed after the goddess left her. They'll all return in the morning.
Spike went his own way once things settled down, and Giles and Xander came back with Wesley. They're having a closed-door debriefing in the bedroom. Wesley understands; Xander's bound to feel more comfortable with one of his oldest, closest friends. Still, if he's honest with himself, he must admit it stings to be shut out.
The kettle whistles, and Wesley pours some water into the pot to warm it. He dumps the hot water, spoons in some tea leaves, then pours in a fresh potful of water.
Of course he's an afterthought. He'd flailed about without much effect, until rescue had arrived literally from the blue. It doesn't matter, he tells himself. Faith is alive, Xander is alive, and Giles seems to believe a return from the nightmare Xander's been living is possible. His own role isn't important; he's just glad of the outcome.
A rhythmic thump at the door of his flat rouses Wesley from his thoughts, and he goes to peer through the peephole.
Surprised, he swings open the door. "Spike."
Spike nods a greeting. "Thought you might like me to clear the blood out of your fridge."
He pushes the door open wider. "Please. Come in, Spike."
Surprise flickers on his face as he steps inside.
"If you'd like some now, I can heat it for you. I'm just waiting for my tea."
Spike blinks. "Suppose I can stop for a bit, yeah. How's Harris?"
"He was quiet on the way here, but much less agitated than he's been these last weeks. Mr. Giles is with him now." He fills a mug with blood and sets it in the microwave. "How long?"
"Ninety seconds usually works."
Wesley starts the microwave, then turns to pour his tea.
Spike sniffs. "Queen Anne. Always liked that."
The microwave beeps, and Wesley retrieves Spike's mug and hands it to him.
The strangeness yet everydayness of this moment strikes him, and Wesley smiles. "Sorry, but I haven't any bickies." Spike laughs softly.
They sip at their mugs, then Wesley gestures them out into the living room. "I've decided to leave Wolfram & Hart," he says as he settles onto the sofa, now with its cushions back in place.
Spike leans against a wall. "Can't say I never saw that coming. What'll you do, then?"
"I thought I'd go back to the small agency idea," he says. "A reopening of Angel Investigations, except under another name." Though they'd had a previous incarnation as Angel Investigations without Angel, it's too painful now, with Cordelia gone. And Gunn -- well, Gunn has made his choice, though Wesley will probably ask again. "I've been wondering if you'd be interested."
Smirking, Spike says, "Might even be amused."
Wesley sighs. "I mean, would you like to join us? You're no longer tied to the Wolfram & Hart building."
The surprise on Spike's face provides Wesley with a little amusement of his own. "Who's us, exactly?"
"I'm not altogether certain," he admits. "You're the first I've asked."
For a moment Spike's attention is taken with rubbing an invisible speck off the lip of his mug. Then he looks up and says, "Then I'll be the first to say yeah."
There should be some part of Wesley that quails at the thought of what he's done now. Instead he feels lighter than he has in quite some time.
Spike has left long ago and Wesley's turned his attention to the knife translation (he can't bear leaving such work unfinished) when Giles finally emerges from the bedroom.
Wesley remembers at last to stretch his upper body. He rubs at his neck. "How is he?"
"Sleeping, at last. The time ahead promises to be difficult for him; I'm glad to see him getting some rest."
Wesley nods. "Seemed he was going without, much of these last few weeks."
"Yes." Giles drops onto the sofa and removes his glasses, rubbing at his eyes.
"Can I bring you some tea?"
"Thank you, but I believe I'm too knackered even for that. This teleportation business..."
Another reminder of experience that Giles has that Wesley does not. "I've never attempted it, myself."
"It's not for the casual traveler."
"No." Wesley can't say whether Giles makes this sort of comment on purpose, or whether he himself reads too much into innocent remarks. Certainly there were enough non-innocent remarks between them when they first knew one another. Wesley's pointed-remark detector is now set at a very low threshold. He turns the talk back to Xander. "He seemed more himself once we left the hospital."
"He's a resilient boy -- young man, I should say -- but it's going to take some time to recover fully from this. To have done things which go so much against his nature --"
Wesley nods. "You begin to question whether those things are within your nature after all."
Giles flashes him a startled glance. "Someday you and I must trade war stories."
While this invitation feels like a significant shift in relations between them, that particular story is one he plans never to share -- except, perhaps, with Xander. "I'd like that very much. Though I'm sure what you want most now is rest." He starts to rise. "I can make up the sofa bed for you--"
"There's something I must say first." Giles speaks quickly, as if he must do so before he loses his nerve.
Wesley seats himself again, bracing himself internally.
After the initial rush of words, Giles pauses for a long moment. "I don't know how I can thank you," he says at last. "That boy has been through a terrible ordeal, but I can only imagine how much worse it would be if you hadn't done so much to help him."
"Oh." Wesley seems to have nothing further to say for a moment. "I had so much help myself. Spike and Anne. Faith and Willow. They all risked themselves to do what they could for him."
"You took a knife to the back to protect Cordelia. To keep him from carrying that burden."
"It was just a few stitches. It could have easily been one of the others."
Giles smiles. "Do you know who you remind me of? Xander. There's no praise he can't find some way to deflect. He doesn't know it, but he has the heart of a lion."
"Yes. You can see that in how far his friends were willing to go to help him. Even Faith, with their troubled history. Even Anne, who barely knew him."
"Even his enemies, I think, are drawn by his heart. Certainly his goddess."
Wesley isn't sure he'd count the goddess as one of Xander's enemies, even considering the damage she'd done him. He changes the subject. "I'm glad you've gotten beyond whatever happened between you."
"You and Xander. I gather there's been tension in the past."
Giles stiffens, and Wesley realizes he's made a misstep. "What makes you think that?"
"Forgive me. I misread--"
Giles gazes at him, waiting.
"In the throes of his madness, he kept speaking of watchers," Wesley stammers. "That they have their own agenda, and can't be trusted. I thought -- well, I know he hasn't a great deal of fondness for me, but I can't believe I'm important enough to him that he'd have such definite opinions regarding me."
Giles relaxes -- slumps, in fact. "No. I believe he was referring to himself. He found himself troubled by the conflicting needs of the council and the young women he found on his travels. I tried to reassure him when we were in touch, but we had such sporadic contact--"
"You can't blame yourself for what happened to him. What he's been through is not a job stress issue."
"No, but perhaps it made him more vulnerable."
Wesley shakes his head. "She chose him. Because he was from Sunnydale. Because he'd been linked to her through the hyena possession. Based on what happened to Willow, and I gather to you, she would have overwhelmed him no matter what."
Giles's chin sinks toward his chest, the jerks up again. "I'm sorry, what?" He looks as if he'll fall asleep again before Wesley can answer.
"It's not important now. Give me two minutes, and I'll have the bed made up."
"Yes, all right," Giles says, then promptly falls asleep, head tipping back against the sofa.
Wesley goes to him and gently prods him till he stands, then sends him in the direction of the loo. It's not that Wesley's such a top-notch host. He'd just planned to sleep on the sofa cushions, instead of directly on the floor.
He considers making a quick call to Anne to see how everyone's faring, but a glance at the clock tells him it's much too late. He'll see her in the morning, then, and the only knives that will be wielded will be butter knives.
Once Giles is snoring on the sofa bed, Wesley settles in his makeshift bed. He thinks again of Anne, and cannot suppress a smile.
Wesley wakes not long after dawn, as a spear of light from a gap in the curtains reaches his eyes.
One of the sofa cushions has slipped from beneath him in the night, depositing him half on the floor. Reminding him immediately just how off-kilter last night -- these last few nights -- have been.
Giles snores softly from the sofabed. Xander, he presumes, is also still sleeping, considering his ordeal. Wesley rises to check on him, pushing open the bedroom door, which was left ajar overnight.
The bed is vacant, barely rumpled. Xander stands beyond the foot of the bed, gazing into the closet. He stands so completely still that he could be carved of marble.
"I'm looking forward to dismantling that damn thing again," Wesley says.
Xander doesn't respond or turn away from his former prison. It's as if he hasn't heard.
Wesley persists. "Is there anything you need, anything I can get for you?"
"I'd really like a shower." His voice is barely audible. "Then maybe the greasiest cheeseburger in the western hemisphere. The big, fat kind, not fast food."
Xander laughs humorlessly. "Except, that's exactly what got me into this fucking mess."
"How do you mean?"
"She asked me what I missed. In Mombasa, the first time I talked with her. I went back again the next night. Then I went with her. Sold my soul for a chance to take a hot bath."
"I don't believe for a moment you've lost your soul."
"Rented it out, whatever. Least I got a pretty new eye out of the deal."
"It wasn't something you sought, Xander. Hating yourself for being whole isn't going to do you or the world any good." Wesley could have used someone to say these same words to him, but he doubts he'd have listened any more than Xander is.
Another bitter laugh. "You think I'm whole?"
"The sun'll come out tomorrow," Xander spits, and Wesley gets an eerie flashback to the first time he saw Xander on the steps of Anne's shelter. "Except this is sunny California, so it's out today, too. You ever wonder why vampires come here and not, say, Portland? Portland, they could be out all day. Shit, they could even pass. It would be the all-you-can-eat blood buffet out there. So why is the hellmouth in California? Why is this vamp central? I get Angel, bigtime masochist, but what about your garden variety vamp? Jesus, it hurts."
"I believe what I said. It will lessen with time."
"I'm talking about my fucking arm."
Wesley now notices that Xander's cradling his right arm again, has been all through this conversation. "Did something happen at the hospital?" Everything had happened so fast. "Were you injured?"
"It's hurt since the mark went away. Since you destroyed the book and the knife."
"Let me see."
"There's nothing to see." Xander offers his arm anyway. What he said is true; the skin is deeply tanned but unblemished.
Wesley runs his hands over the forearm, but nothing seems amiss. "What kind of pain is it?"
"Sharp and an ache at the same time. Like it's in the bone. I've had my arm broken a couple of times, and it's more like that than a sprain or something. Except not exactly."
"We could take you for x-rays," Wesley offers.
Xander shakes his head. "What are they going to show? I think I'm just going to have to get used to it. At least the arm still works. So, does this thing come in handy in your line of work?"
Wesley's thrown for a moment, until he realizes Xander means the cage. "No. There was one case. As I said, I can't wait to dismantle it again."
"Giles had a little lockup in the library. I've been in there, too. He wants me to go back with him."
But the library is gone. Sunnydale is gone. "Back--?"
"England. Devon, I guess. At first. He says it's all grass and rolling hills and horse riding and peace and quiet. Willow loved it there. I think I'd die. The quiet scares me right now. Why am I telling you this? You want to be my therapist, my priest, and let me tell you, being a priest isn't all it's cracked up to be. Why do you have this urge to help me?"
"Because I think I can. I've been through some times like this."
"Well anyway. I can't take a lot of nothing right now. I need a city."
"There's London. You could still go with Giles. The Council's there, and many of your friends."
"I can't be around them. Not now."
Wesley knows this feeling intimately. What he can't decipher is whether Xander means not anymore or not yet. There's a good chance Xander doesn't even know. "Well, there's Los Angeles." He'd have people he knows, but doesn't love -- a measure of safety without those pressures. Wesley doesn't say anything further, however. When you're this vulnerable, it doesn't take much to feel like you're being strong-armed. "How about that shower now?"
As Wesley sets out the towels and a fresh bar of soap, he feels a slender thread of optimism. But that doesn't stop him from double-checking the medicine chest to be sure the straight razor's been safely hidden away.
Xander allows the witch to touch his arm, too. The one from Devon, who came with Giles. He's not ready yet to let anyone he cares about touch him, or even to emerge from the bedroom.
He has to. Soon. He knows that.
Her touch is gentle as she lays her palm on the place where the mark used to be. Gwynneth closes her eyes and breathes deeply. Xander follows her lead, and something inside him calms a bit.
She leaves her hand on his skin and it grows hot beneath her touch, hotter than the mild warmth he'd felt when the goddess had burned her mark onto the arm. Just as it starts to grow too uncomfortable to endure, it fades suddenly.
Gwynneth remains there with her hands on his arm, her eyes closed, for another full moment. "You're right about the source of the pain," she says when she finally opens her eyes. "It's an after-effect of the spell that destroyed the goddess' means of entry into the world. It's benign; there's no damage that I can sense. But I fear you're right about another thing: the pain may not go away. It could lessen with time, or you may simply grow accustomed to it. But it can't harm you unless you let yourself believe you're not as capable as before, or if you try to drown it with drink or other substances."
May not go away. The strange thing is, he's almost relieved. There should be some reminder of what he's done, some penance. "What about the eye?"
"It's bothering you?"
He laughs. "You might say that."
Understanding dawns on her face. "You might want to sit down."
He perches on the end of the bed, and Gwynneth moves her hands over his face. Though he tries not to flinch as her fingers come near his eye, he's not completely successful.
"Willow was so distressed when this first happened," she murmurs.
He keeps forgetting that Willow spent months with this woman, when she was away in Devon. Weird to think she has a history with people that Xander doesn't even know. That's not how it used to be. "She told you about that?"
"Of course she did. You're very important in her life. She wanted ... to help."
"She wanted to give me a new eye. I wouldn't let her."
"You're very wise for such a young man."
"Except now I've got a crazy goddess eye instead of --" he yelps at the sudden flash of heat in his face. Again, it fades suddenly, leaving him quivering.
"It's just an eye," she tells him. "There's no reason to fear or distrust it."
He nods, but secretly he believes that will take a while. "So did you run the diagnostic on Faith?"
Gwynneth smiles. "She's unharmed. Both physically and mystically. Maybe you'd like to see her?"
Maybe he'd like to set out on an expedition to the South Pole first. See her -- see everyone -- after he gets back. He rubs his arm. "I guess maybe so."
She strokes the left side of his face one last time. "I'll send her in to you."
As he hears her footsteps approach, he leaps up from where he sits at the end of the bed. He back-pedals toward the window, almost stumbling in his haste to put distance between himself and his visitor.
A quick knock and she slips into the room as Xander perches on the windowsill. She closes the door behind her, but hovers near it, seemingly as ill at ease as he is. "Gwynnie said you wanted to see me," she says. There's an echo of the sass he associates with her, but it seems put on.
"Yeah," he says, but he doesn't seem to have anything to add. After a long, uncomfortable pause, he adds, "Gwynneth told me you're okay. That she didn't hurt you. That I--"
"Me, I'm right as rain. Though what the hell that means, I don't know. Nothin' I hate worse than a rainy day. Anyway, knife wound's fixed right up. In fact, I don't even have the scar from when B stabbed me. Which, I've gotta admit, is weird, but I guess not half as weird as it must be havin' two eyes again."
"I guess I got really lucky," he says, but he doesn't mean the eye. "Faith, what I did-- When I think-- If she hadn't decided to use your body for a last-ditch attempt to force herself into the world, you'd be dead."
"You don't know that. I'm damn hard to kill. Could you just get the fuck out of the window? I'm squintin' into the light and talkin' to a big dark shape, which is startin' to annoy me."
He really doesn't want to move from the window. The only other places to be are near the closet or near the bed. He chooses the closet. It's harder to do this without a place to sit, without a lap for his hands to rest in. He wraps his arms around his body; his fingers pull at his shirt. Faith sits at the end of the bed, but she doesn't sprawl. She sits with her feet on the floor, her heels together.
"I'll say it straight out," he says. "I'm sorry."
She nods. "Guess I owed you one."
"Faith, goddammit, I'm trying--"
"You have. It's enough. God knows, it's more'n you got from me."
He lets it go then. Faith has let him say as much as she's going to. "Why'd you come? It seemed to me like one minute you weren't there, and the next you were."
"Haven't learned any fancy teleportation spells, no. I followed Red out. Thought I was needed here, y'know?"
"Why'd you think so?"
"Kept having these slayer dreams."
"That was her. She needed you here."
Next thing he knows, she's on her feet, and he's taken a step back. "Fuck that shit! I came here of my own free fuckin' will. I came here because I knew bad things were coming, and they were aimed at you. I came because I owe you, and because I respect you for the way you stood beside Buffy. I came to stand beside you. Nobody -- not even you -- gets to fuckin' take that away from me."
He just looks at her for a moment, until he realizes his jaw has dropped. He closes his mouth, trying to salvage what little dignity he's got left.
"When I fuck up, it's all Faith," she spits. "I got no problem with that, because it's true. But I'll be goddamned if I let people write it off when I try to do right. I know I shouldn't give a shit about getting credit, and mostly I don't, but when it's you--"
"Yeah, you. Because you're the first one tried to help me, when I went wrong. Because you're the one I hurt. Because you're the one I try to be like."
"Me?" he says again.
"That's one way I am like you. We both try so hard and think so little of ourselves."
"Just do us both a favor and shut up a minute. Maybe we got a chance to change that. I had a goddess in me." She grins. "So did you."
"Jesus, Faith!" His face burns hot.
"She cared for you. I know that for a fact. She wasn't just using you."
"I don't know--"
"I do. So we both have a destiny. I think it's time we grab it with both hands, instead of thinking we're riding somebody's coattails. What d'you say, Harris?"
All he can do is stammer.
Wes and Gwynneth question Willow and Giles about the book and its effect on them, but it's mostly Giles who answers. Willow can't keep herself from casting glances at the bedroom door.
It's petty, she knows that, but it still stings that Xander wanted to see Faith first. And that they've apparently had so much to say to one another.
Faith issues. Willow keeps telling herself they're ancient history, but the truth is, they're simmering just under the surface.
Or maybe what's really at work here is Xander issues, which Faith definitely brings up. Willow remembers -- much too clearly -- her seventeen-year-old self, sobbing her heart out in the girls' restroom after she'd found out he'd lost his virginity to Faith.
Why had that hurt her so much? She'd already chosen Oz.
It was unfair to him, but on some level she expected him to stay the same for her, encased in amber like some tiny creature from millions of years ago. Even now, some part of her can go out in the world because Xander's always there for her, always will be.
She's not sure whether to honor this part of herself that knows what it needs -- inner child has been ruined for all time as a concept, but that's it, the piece of her that long ago found a way to get what her parents could never give her -- or to chide herself for being incredibly selfish.
Xander's always there. He stood between her and the end of the world; he stubbornly refused to let her lose herself. She'd come out here meaning to do the same for him, but she hadn't been much of a success at it. If not for Giles and Gwynneth --
The bedroom door opens, and Faith emerges. She pulls the door to, but doesn't close it. "He's getting there," she says in response to their questions. "A lot less squirrelly. He's almost ready to come out, but he wanted to see Red first."
Willow leaps up before Faith even finishes the sentence, yet finds herself pausing at the door. You're here for him, she reminds herself. Not the other way around.
He's standing at the window as she enters, gazing outside. He steps away, out of the glare, as she approaches. "Hey, Will," he greets her. For the first time since all this started, she doesn't have to look hard to see something of Xander in him. He's right there -- a little jagged around the edges, but he's there, he's back.
Her eyes fill with tears. "Hey yourself." She goes to him and pulls him into a hug.
Xander's not sure he's ready for this -- Willow's arms so tight around him. Faith may be prickly, but somehow that's so much easier.
"I'm sorry," he says into her hair. "For putting you in such danger."
She pulls back. "Hey, I came to you, you know."
"I know." He steps backward to a more comfortable distance, hoping she doesn't notice, and cradles his arm. "I appreciate you doing that for me. More than I can say."
"Honey, how could I not?"
"Still. Even if you came because you feel you owe me, it's huge."
"That didn't even enter into it," she says. A little hurt, it seems.
Jesus, he'll never get this right.
"I mean, I'll always be grateful for what you did at Kingman's Bluff, but I would have come anyway. You're my oldest and best friend. That's reason enough."
This time it's Xander who initiates the hug.
"Tell me how you are," she says when they step back again. "Is there anything I can do to make this easier?"
"Magic?" he asks, a little alarmed.
"No, honey, no. Just as a friend." She perches on the bed, catching his hand and drawing him down beside her. "I can listen, or just sit with you." That's not easy for her, he knows. She's always wanted to fix things.
"It's hard," he says. "I keep thinking about Sunnydale."
"What she was going to make of it. I saw it, rebuilt. Shining and beautiful -- I didn't realize before that, Will, but I'd been grieving. For my town. Not as much or in the same way as I mourned Anya, or Jesse or Tara. But it was like a death. My whole childhood. All the things we did together, whether it was averting the latest apocalypse, or seeing the latest piece of shit movie the Friday it opened."
Willow blinks. "You should see what she does to the sun," she murmurs.
"You said that to me when I first got here, in the midst of that fever. We drove ourselves crazy trying to figure that out. You meant the theater, the Sun."
"Home of Proven Hits," he says. There'd been a fancy mosaic on the lobby floor, and that's what the inscription was. "She was going to rebuild it as her temple."
She reaches for his hand and he lets her take it. "I'm sorry. Not that she didn't come through, but --"
He nods. He feels the same way, but he can't put it into words either. What it is he's sorry about. Things turned out as they should, but he still grieves. "I think it started in Africa. You start to get homesick, then realize there isn't a home. It's like a double whammy." He grieves, in a subtle way, for the five, too. The ones he'd meant for her to restore to life. It had seemed so right, when he was caught up in that craziness. The idea that they would be transformed as surely as Sunnydale.
"You'll feel better after you get to Devon, Xander. It's just so beautiful and peaceful there. They're all just as terrific as Gwynneth. They'll let you take whatever time you need."
He rubs his thumb over the back of her hand, his gaze directed downward. "I know," he says to their hands. "But I'm not going."
"And then after you feel better -- you what?"
"I'm staying here."
"For now, yeah."
"It feels like what I need right now. Movement. People. Out there, not so close. That'll change, I know that. But for now--"
The door buzzer rings, and Xander jerks, gasping as if he's been shot.
"It's all right, it's all right," Willow assures him. "It must be Anne. She went out for food."
"Anne," he repeats stupidly. For some reason, the name won't connect.
"Wes's friend who runs the shelter. He told her you said you're dying for cheeseburgers, so she's cooking. She swears the early success at getting kids into the shelter was due to her hamburgers. She also claims she went to Sunnydale High, but I don't remember her at all."
He thinks of Chantarelle back then, silly and fragile and kind-hearted. Maybe she'd prefer not to drag that discarded self along with her, as if shackled at the ankles. "She was kind of quiet," is all he says. He gives Willow's hand a final squeeze, and stands. "Why don't we go see if they need help in the kitchen."
It does Wesley's heart good to see Xander leave the bedroom with Willow, his fingers threaded through hers. He's still skittish, but he still manages to sit at the crowded table with his friends, to endure the force of their affection.
"Stop doting," Xander says to Giles and Willow before he starts in on his second cheeseburger. "These things are too messy to eat with you two doting. And by the way, Anne, these are amazing. If I ever went back to Africa, I'd have dreams about your burgers. Thanks. And I mean for everything."
"Oh. Well. My initial thought was just to protect my kids. It feels like such a gift that we could actually help you at the same time."
"I'm sorry about all that. I hope I didn't hurt your work."
"Nothing that won't come back, sad to say. I mean, I do this because there's a need. Anyway, you've given me an idea. I'll have a couple of burger nights, and that should bring the kids back."
"You're not goin' back, then," Faith says to Xander.
"No. I hate that I'm not -- it feels like I failed. But there's a lot of nuances in all the different societies there. It takes someone a lot more attuned than me to navigate all those currents. Giles, I'd seriously be looking for some watchers from different parts of Africa. Save a lot of stumbling around."
"Don't sell yourself short," Faith says. "You're pretty damn attuned."
Xander ducks his head, but Wesley doesn't miss his pleased expression.
"What are you planning to do?" Willow asks. Ah. There's no one quite like a well-meaning friend to undercut those moments of satisfaction.
"There's no need to worry about that now," Giles says. "As I told Xander last night, Gwynneth has extended the coven's invitation. He can stay until he's ready to decide what's next."
"He didn't tell you?" Willow responds. "He's not going. He wants to stay in L.A."
"And why are we all talking about him as if he ain't here?" Faith demands.
"Xander," Giles says. "I hardly -- are you sure you feel that's wise?"
"Like I told Will, I don't think I'm up for all that peace and quiet."
"But such a large city--" Giles protests.
"I've had an invitation here, too," Xander says. He casts a sidelong glance at Wesley. "At least I think it was an invitation."
"It most certainly was," Wesley responds, and as he expected, Giles bristles a bit.
"What's he--" Willow stops herself. "What are you going to do? Cities are expensive."
Xander blinks. Wesley can imagine him wondering what he might be fit for, because he's felt that same sense of panic himself.
Anne steps in to the silence. "I know the shelter could use the services of a carpenter. Faith tells me you're really good with a hammer."
"Aw, hell no," Xander blurts. "I've scared the shit out of those kids. The last thing they need is me around."
"They saw a guy with a beard and an eyepatch, all grime and long hair. They'd never know it was the same man. I could give you a haircut that would make you look like a Mormon missionary."
Xander manages a smile. "No thanks."
"Let me guess," Wesley says. "You're justifiably famous for your hair-cutting skills, too."
Anne has quite a raucous laugh for such a small woman.
"I have another proposition, Xander," Wesley says. "I'm leaving Wolfram & Hart to reopen Angel Investigations. Under another name, of course, but the same type of work: demon hunting, exorcisms and the like. Perhaps you'd be interested."
"Me? You need another refrain, Jack," Faith says. "Do it. You know you'd be great."
"I hardly think that's what he--" Giles starts.
"The quiet life is overrated," Faith says. "Big, gray building or lush, green hills, it's still a snore. He's -- what's Angel always saying? A champion. Champions get back on the horse."
"I suppose I should tell you," Wesley says. "Spike has already joined me."
Wesley doesn't expect Xander's laughter. "At least you can keep the web address VampireWithASoul.com." He sobers. "He's a good fighter. A lunatic, but who isn't? He saved the damn world. Okay, I'm in."
"Good," Faith says. "Things'll be more interesting around here."
It's Wesley's turn to blink. Is she saying what it sounds like she's saying? "Faith?"
"My resume ain't exactly stellar," she says, "but I work pretty damn hard. That is, if you've got room for a slayer."
This is the tipoff, Wesley thinks, that these last few weeks have actually been an elaborate dream fueled by shrimp pad thai. May as well go with the flow, however. "I'm certain you'll be an asset to the team, Faith." He laughs, feeling a bit giddy. "Anyone else?"
"Well," Anne says, "I was going to mention it later, but since you bring it up -- could you use a part-timer? I guess I need a challenge, if things at the shelter are going to run so well without me. How's two days a week? Maybe more, during apocalypse season."
Another laugh escapes him. "This is unbelievable."
"That a yes or a no?" Anne asks.
"A yes. I'm delighted."
Beaming, Anne goes to tend to another round of burgers, and Wesley thinks about handing her the task of finding them a headquarters.
When Wesley goes to Wolfram & Hart to round up the last of his books, he's rather surprised to find he doesn't have to check in as a guest down at the security desk. On second thought, though, the firm has a long reach, and they know it. On the long elevator ride, he thinks of Lilah and her contract.
The lobby is bustling, as usual. Wesley makes his way across, dodging and sidestepping harried associates and downtrodden paralegals. He'd forgotten how oppressive the atmosphere here could be. He pauses at Gunn's door, weighing whether to repeat his invitation, but Charles is shouting into his telephone. When he spots Wesley, he holds up a finger to waitaminute, but the minute turns into several, and Wesley decides to come back later.
As he continues down the corridor, Angel comes bursting out of his office, hand on the shoulder of a hulking demon, clearly concluding some kind of deal. "Just have your demons call my people, and we'll get those details worked out. Wes!" He catches Wesley by the arm. "I never heard from you on that Harris matter. Do you need anything?"
"No, no. Everything's fine. He's fine. A bit of trouble adjusting after his return, but he's back on track."
"Good, good, glad I could lend a hand." He steams on down the hallway with his client.
How manic he seems.
Wesley takes a last look around his office. Much more posh than the one he's got now. Or will have, once Xander finishes the renovations. The first priority there is the living space above the storefront, modest apartments for Xander, Spike, and Faith. Buying the building had pretty much wiped out Wesley's signing bonus from Wolfram & Hart, but bought him a bigger vote on the name issue.
He admires the view of the city one last time, then pulls one of the templates from its place with the others. He names the most obscure text he can think of, just to watch the inky scrawls appear on the blank pages.
Anne's right. It's not to be trusted. Reluctantly, he closes the book, reshelves it.
Stacking the last two cartons, he lifts them and turns to go. He's startled to find Angel in the doorway. "What's going on?"
"I'm leaving. I miss the agency; I thought I'd go back to that."
"Wes, I can't do this without you."
The question, of course, is what is this? Wesley doesn't know the answer, but he doesn't like the hints he's had. "You already have been."
"Is there anything I can offer you that will change your mind?"
Wesley shakes his head. "Be careful, Angel." He sets the books down and offers his hand.
"Sure. You know me." He crushes Wesley's hand in his own. "You take care, too."
Wesley manages a smile. "You know me."
He sets the boxes by Harmony's desk and makes a quick run to the lab level to see Fred. He spots her through the plate glass, sitting with Knox, completely engaged in their conversation. The way they lean toward one another, knees touching, tells Wesley all he needs to know.
He leaves without saying goodbye.
Once he's retrieved his boxes from the reception desk, he heads toward the elevators, humming an unfortunate earworm he's picked up from Xander.
The sun'll come out tomorrow...
"Well, I'll be damned." Lorne's voice is so filled with warmth and wonder and affection that it nearly makes up for the sight of Fred and her new lover.
"What? What have you read?"
"The latest People. Sexiest Man Alive issue. Personally, I'd have gone with--"
"Lorne," he chides.
"Nothing. I just didn't know you could sing, that's all."
"I can't." And you're lying.
"Just let it unfold, my little chocolate babka."
Wesley takes in his smile, the lightness he hasn't seen in Lorne for a while. He nods.
"I'm available for consultations," Lorne adds.
"I'll remember that." He shifts the boxes to a more comfortable grip, and resumes his course for the elevators.
He can't stop himself from humming more of that damned song.
Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya, tomorrow--