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In a Handful of Dust

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Dust, and the scouring of dragons, and more dust. Wesley had never hated the act of breathing so much as he did now. His gun had survived worse. So had he. His left hand was a broken thing, stripped of flesh. He could still draw and fire with the other.

He had woken knowing it was too late. The alley stretched out into a vast desolation. Perhaps it was all that remained of Los Angeles. Perhaps it would spiral in on itself. Perhaps it was how Hellmouths were born.

He walked, and there was dust, and a wind like the laughter of fire. He hoped that someone had survived in this wasteland. His shadow by evening, if evening ever came.

I am too tired to fear, thought Wesley. It was mostly true. He walked into the wind. The dust tasted like damnation, or drought. The walls fell away to either side, crumbling into more dust.

Through the jaws of distance, Wesley saw the Hyperion. All the windows were lightless. It had survived, and this troubled him as much as it cheered him. His hand reminded him of its ruin. He stopped, half-gasping, before he could forget the pain long enough to keep walking.

He had to breathe, dust or no dust.

A storm-light came from the sky, with no indication that a human sun or moon moved behind the dust. Wesley found himself searching the shadows for some indication of--of anyone, really. Blood, or an axe's broken haft. The footprints of something older than age. The absence of faces in a rearview mirror, had there been cars. Any voice but the wind's.

This search did not make Wesley careless. He remembered what it was to trip over no more provocation than the sight of a raised eyebrow. He had not let it happen in a long time. When the alley came to an end at the wrong place, and a shape moved sideways at the corner, Wesley whipped up his gun—

"Hardly punctual, are we?"

It was the wrong voice. Wesley aimed for the knee and fired. Four bullets left: that countdown. The question was how many of them he'd have a chance to--

He was taken aback when Angelus—Angel—Angelus--folded and did not, could not get up.

The gunsmoke tasted like dust, too.

"I have a stake," Wesley said, keeping his distance. Angelus was drenched through, in this dry place; dust clung to him and parched his face. He appeared to have no other injuries. Wesley distrusted this. "Where are the others?"

"Oh, they're gone," Angelus said. His face was white beneath the dripping hair. "You. Have a. Stake." He started to laugh, and ended up hissing for breath. The humor eluded Wesley.

Gone. Spike. Gunn. Illyria. Illyria, who had not known and might never know. (Fred.)

Wesley's gunpoint did not waver. Four. There should have been four. "If this is another of your games, Angelus—"

"Come closer and I'll play any game you like." He smiled at Wesley. His eyes were dark, and less mocking as they should have been.

"I can wait," said Wesley. This was no worse a way to die than any other. The game couldn't last--could it?

It took him more waiting to realize that Angelus was still bleeding, and sliding unconscious. Wesley put the gun away, suddenly fumbling, and edged closer. Angelus's hands slackened. The scar on the inside of Wesley's left arm ached.

He would have to drag Angelus. One-handed. But the distance to the Hyperion did not look unassailable. The knee would heal, he told himself, averting his eyes from the blood, and began.

When the wind passed his teeth he felt it like his own breath. Sweat ran into his eyes. He sighted on the Hyperion again and again, willing it closer. They had spent too long away from the empty, empty rooms until they were empty themselves.

The other man's weight made Wesley think of the ocean at midnight and the soft, cold sound of the waves, and of anchors and millstones, tides and heartbeats and sunsets and all things periodic. His back ached. He expected to find himself wrenched off balance and slammed against the weight of earth, or to have his neck snapped. It would be more welcome than smothering in the dust.

There were stairs. There were doors. Wesley abandoned caution. Blind with agony and exhaustion and the night's exigencies, he managed to maneuver Angelus through the doors and away from the dust. Wesley sat next to him. For a time all he did was breathe. No lights, no movements other than his own, nothing but the emptiness of refuge.

It was impossible to guess what circumstance had led to Angelus's return. Wesley was under no illusion that he understood all the rules pertaining to apocalypses large and small. He didn't discount the possibility that the last stand he had been too late to join, the dust and the demons it brought, had fulfilled some desperate personal notion of happiness. Maybe he was projecting.

I wasn't there in time, he thought. And I should not have lied to Illyria. It had made sense at the time. Many things had.

He found it difficult to contemplate that face, so it was even longer before he noticed the flutter along the throat.

"No," Wesley breathed. He had imagined it.

He had not.

Because he could not stop himself, Wesley wiped the sweat and rain and dust from Angelus's face. He did not allow his hands to linger. The skin was clammy. He checked the pulse and found one, steady and tantalizing.

Then, because anything was better than thinking about the implications, Wesley moved Angelus into one of the ground-level rooms. He bound the shattered knee, suspecting that surgery would be required. He twisted the sheets and blankets into ropes, and tied Angelus to the bed with the strongest knots his shaking hand and teeth could remember.

The hotel's plumbing still worked, to Wesley's vast bemusement. At least it meant they had water, if no food, unless Fred had never cleared out her stashes of candy bars.

When had he started thinking of they? Angelus was no one's ally.

He listened for the sound of Angelus's breathing. To make himself stop, Wesley risked taking a shower. He watched the water pass through his left hand, all bone and exposed, blackened sinew, half the carpals fused. The pain—any sensation at all—began not there, but partway up his wrist. He suspected it would never go away.

Cyrus Vail had thought Wesley's magic pitiable, which was true. Wesley had anticipated this. After the long years among books and esoteric artifacts, he had other countermeasures. And he had sacrificed his hand to detonate the spell-grenade that wrested away, for those crucial moments, Cyrus Vail's capacity for altering memories, or any magic at all.

Wesley turned off the water and dressed, resigned to the dust on his clothes. He could wash them out later. Angelus had regained consciousness. The knots appeared to hold. "You're dead," Angelus said with cold certainty. He glanced at Wesley's hand. His mouth curled.

"So are you," Wesley said just as he realized that it wasn't true. He stood near the door; his gaze lingered on the familiar face. He knew means by which a soul might be restored to a human, unless certain bargains had been made. He wasn't sure he could pull them off. "What made you think I was dead?"

"We took the bitch's word for it."

We, thought Wesley. He walked over and struck Angelus above the knee. "Try again." He waited. He was not unreasonable.

"It's only pain," said Angelus. The sweat along his jaw suggested otherwise. "Illyria said you'd died."

Illyria. How had she—

"We didn't think any more about it."

Perhaps Illyria had arrived in time to be caught in the spell-grenade's area of effect. It might have altered her perception in an unpredictable fashion. He wished he knew what she had seen. Wesley said, "I assume you had other matters on your mind."

Angelus surged upwards, straining.

Wesley stepped away in no hurry at all, and smiled.

"Ropes won't hold forever," Angelus said. His mouth smiled back.

"There are other ways," Wesley said, thinking about Justine. He leaned closer and rested his hand on Angelus's thigh just above the bandages. The muscles tensed beneath his touch. "Would you like to walk again?" He didn't know if supernatural healing still applied. He was betting Angelus didn't know, either.

"Fuck you."

"I doubt that's a good idea, in your current condition. How did it happen, by the way?"

"Soul-boy should have known better than to sign," he said. "You thought you'd have him. Instead, you've got me. Some things just don't change."

"Sign what?"

Angelus laughed. "All those contracts. You'd have to be a lawyer to remember them all."

You're only human now, thought Wesley. Cruel words. More cruelly, he said, "Are you thirsty?"

"Are you looking for a few new scars?"

"Blood won't sustain you." Wesley ran his thumb across Angelus's forehead, smoothing back the hair. Rested his thumb on the suborbital ridge. Angelus didn't blink. "You can't change anymore, can you."

"I won't need to." Angelus's voice became smoky. "Too bad you never went further the last time you chained him up." And: "I remember how your blood tasted. All that shame."

"Or perhaps," Wesley said, more loudly, "we're wrong. The prophecy couldn't fix upon Angel and instead acted upon—"

"You can't count the number of ways I could eat you," Angelus said. "You might even enjoy"—he shifted position—"some of them." His gaze upon Wesley's groin was not subtle. "Why, fancy that."

I could enjoy this, Wesley thought, and had trouble coming up with reasons why he shouldn't. "You might like some water."

"Yes," Angelus said. "I'm sure water's something you know all about. Did your live-in girlfriend swim well?—You stank of her hate. Not bad for an amateur. Etymology: amo, amare, amavi..."

Shaken, Wesley left Angelus to his principal parts and conjugations. From a room down the hall, he filled a glass with water, and drank. He refilled the glass. The water tasted nothing like dust or derision, and any salt in it was his own.

He looked out one window, then another, delaying. He saw his reflection, rendered lopsided by some flaw of the glass, and a pittance of light and darkness. And a surfeit of dust.

The world is gone, he thought, and so are we.

He returned to Angelus and set the glass of water on the nightstand. "I'm going to untie you," Wesley said. "I would advise not straining your muscles overmuch. You're probably dealing with exhaustion and exposure in addition to the trauma."

Angelus said nothing. He stayed obligingly still while Wesley sawed awkwardly through the first knots. Angelus flexed his hands when they were freed. Smiled some more.

Wesley handed him the knife and stepped away. "Finish it yourself," he said.

"Do all Watchers have a death-wish," said Angelus, "or is it just you?" He began cutting, far more efficiently.

"You may find it convenient to keep me alive," said Wesley, "unless you fancy rotting here forever. Of course, forever's not as long as it used to be, is it?"

"Serpent's tooth," Angelus said. He straightened and flung the knife.

Wesley blocked it with his dead hand, caught it by the blade with his living one. "Is Shakespeare the best you can do?" His left arm was an endless line of agony. A useful reminder. "Try that again," he said, "and I'll hamstring you." A knife across that pale skin--

"You should have done that first. Getting careless, hmm?"

Wesley slammed the door on his way out. If Angelus came after him, he'd hear the labored tread. And Fred had taught him a few things about traps.

*

They lived a wary, partitioned existence across days unmarked by sun or stars. None of the hotel's clocks kept the same time. Food was strangely unappetizing, possibly unnecessary. Wesley ate, infrequently, out of habit. While trapping his floor of the Hyperion, he discovered caches of candy bars, transistors, coils of wire, and other oddities. It was one more thing he owed Fred, even if she had had a lamentable fondness for caramel.

At times, from downstairs, Angelus taunted Wesley with fragments of Blake or Swinburne, the occasional out-of-tune ballad. Wesley, whose mind pieced together allusions to damnation and cannibalism by reflex, was starting to regret the benefits of a classical education.

For his part, Wesley had covered the walls of three rooms with diagrams and computations. Soul. Shanshu. The isomorphisms of humanity and hell. He wasn't the theoretician Fred had been, but he had instead a thorough background in arcana. Wesley felt her ghost-presence at his shoulder, examining his work.

He had believed worse lies.

The spell he needed to enact in this inimical place, the ritual compensations for artifacts he had no access to, flowered. The diagrams were starting to swallow him. At times, writing and scratching, he forgot about his left hand. The markers, like the water, didn't run dry.

Careful of triggers and tripwires, now part of his geography of motion, Wesley ventured forth. He sat at the stairwell, listening, time after time. Any voice was better than his own. Angelus seemed entirely unperturbed by Wesley's absent responses.

When he lay down to sleep, Wesley heard that voice, needling, coaxing. The hell of it was that he had studied--experienced--Angelus's modus operandi and still he wanted to hear anything but silence, touch anything but dust, or his own starved skin. He came sometimes thinking of the pulse in the other man's throat, the strong, ruthless hands.

He was sure Angelus heard him.

Wesley ran his fingers along the banister, one hand, then the other. Pain and no pain, except in this world nothing came without pain. He had learned that much. He sighed. When he stared at the blank wall, Chaldean inscriptions and tensors blurred in front of him. He had been working too long.

With uncanny timing, Angelus's voice drifted up: "What's the matter, Wes, still hiding in your cell?"

Not hiding, Wesley said silently, not afraid, merely—in progress.

"Maybe it's the self-flagellation." Angelus's tone was bright. "Or are whips out of fashion? What do you have to repent of? Is it a vow of silence?" A beat. "I always did like nuns."

Wesley couldn't help himself. He doubled over, laughing silently, until his sides ached. After a while he retreated down the hallway.

Wesley had to finish his work before Angelus found a way up the stairs, or devised a new way to warp him into something monstrous by words alone. For guilty, scattered moments, he enjoyed what he was becoming. Lately his dreams involved ropes. He was afraid he would dream of whips when he next slept.

When he checked the windows, he thought, for a moment, that he saw a distant figure, waiting in solitude. He blinked and it was gone, if indeed he hadn't imagined it.

*

Wesley laid down the marker and contemplated the walls. The color of the ink did not affect the diagrams' mystical properties, so he color-coded segments for his own convenience. He had never fancied himself an artist, but the effect was like tumbling into the heart of a Borgesian tome. He tried to avoid looking at too much of it at once.

It was done. All he had to do was lure Angelus into the spell.

The view out the window showed neither sun nor moon, nor any intimation of the sea. Who waited out there? How thoroughly had the world forgotten them?

Wesley took a cold shower, eyes closed against the water. Rain and alleys; the sound of waves, his heart thundering, the unsound of blood loss. Angel, he thought.

His face was already wet. Salt made no difference.

He dressed and made his way downstairs. He moved quietly, alertly. He did not expect a swift death. It was cold consolation.

The lobby echoed with absences. Wesley took a deep breath and walked on. He could hear movements, tuneless humming. That voice again. "Finally come for a visit, Wes? Just like your dreams." Lower and lower, seductive. "No one else around to know. No one else to see. Nothing left to fight for, or fight against."

Wesley preferred not to admit how accurate that was.

Angelus had retained Wesley's choice of room. At the footsteps, Angelus said, "Had we but world enough..." He was sitting at the edge of the bed.

Wesley surveyed the room: immaculate housekeeping. He stepped through the doorway. A bright shard of mirror glinted from the bathroom, the single anomaly. "Did we have something to discuss other than scansion?" he asked coolly. "Your bandaging seems adequate. I can't speak for the extent of the injury."

"Do you ever see anything but your own face, Watcher?"

"Shadows," Wesley said, nodding toward the windows. Two reflections, not one. "Dust. That's all." Had Angelus, too, glimpsed a distant figure? "Opening the windows doesn't improve matters."

"We could stroll into the rags of armageddon." He offered his arm. "Let us go then, you and I?"

"I prefer not to be etherized, thank you." They needed to stop exchanging quotes, but it was their most harmless pleasure.

"If there's no escape," Angelus said, "there's no reason not to kill you." His eyes were ravenous.

Wesley kept his hands by his side. "Even Quor'toth"—the name elicited no reaction besides the familiar condescending blinks—"admitted a way out," he said. "This place can't be any different."

Angelus didn't seem to hear the last sentence. "I can't stop breathing. How the fuck do you stop breathing? If I smother you again, maybe you'll remember for me." He whirled.

Wesley sprinted. The pursuing footsteps were swift, if syncopated: healing could take place here after all. He doubted it would save him. Between grasps of breath, Wesley began chanting. He had to reach the focal diagram—hold Angelus within that intersection of circles—

He had conceived sounder plans in his lifetime.

Run. Chant. Don't listen to the voice you know so well it engraves your dreams with blood and chains, and you drown in your own need.

"We're a bit old for hide-and-seek," Angelus said, sing-song, "but I'll play along. Or was it tag, or hopscotch? I forget."

Wesley had trapped himself. He told himself there was no other way. By the sounds of pendulums and falling weights, of projectiles slamming into walls, the cursing and occasional breathless laughter, the traps were serving to slow Angelus down. Unfortunately, the ritual required Angelus to be conscious, or Wesley would have designed the traps accordingly.

He wasn't the trap-setter Fred had been. And he didn't want to damage Angelus permanently.

He remembered the gunshot, the thrill of cold satisfaction seeing the bullet penetrate its target, and knew himself a liar.

Closer—closer—closer—

As Angelus's shadow crossed the threshold, Wesley scrambled backwards, gun steady before him, and said the last words. The window's glass was cold against his shoulder blades.

"Firing blanks?" Angelus said. His walk was sinuous and a touch uneven.

"I haven't shot you yet," Wesley said. Closer. Find the convergence of forces. He could feel the spell's gathering, unstable pressure.

"Poor Wes." Angelus leaned against the doorframe. "So transparent. Something Slayers and Watchers have in common. You think I didn't guess? Your eyes shout it, lover."

Wesley's heart contracted, equal parts pain and desire.

"You want so many things and you won't admit any of them unless you can't have them. I couldn't have designed you better if I'd tried." Angelus shifted his weight. "Can you stop me with your bullets before I snap your neck?"

The spell, unable to grasp its target, was collapsing. Wesley exhaled. He must have mistranslated a key verb, miscalculated that logarithm.

Failure. Again.

Wesley closed his eyes and released the gun. Faster this way, he thought, knowing it wouldn't be.

The gun didn't hit the floor. Wesley's eyes opened. Angelus was holding the gun by the barrel. "My," Angelus said, "is this an invitation?"

Wesley stared at him. Remembered to breathe. "Angelus," he said, not caring what his voice betrayed. "Give me the gun."

Angelus spun and caught it, this time by the grip. "Bullets are such small things." He raised the gun toward his mouth.

"Angelus," Wesley said, desperate, "there's no need."

"I can hurt you so badly you'd shoot holes in yourself to please me." The muzzle grazed Angelus's lips.

I already have, Wesley thought in defeat.

"Come on, Wes. Show me you have the balls to finish what you started. All you have to do is step away. I'll pull the trigger myself." Angelus licked the metal's rim, a slow, dangerous circle.

Wesley reached out and plucked the gun away. He unloaded it against his hip. The bullets falling sounded, in another world, like bells.

A shadow of malice developed in the dark eyes, replacing—what? The thought slipped away at Angelus's next words: "You've developed a taste for sleeping with the enemy." Angelus gripped Wesley's arms. His left thumb drew a small, suggestive circle.

This time the gun dropped. Wesley stiffened but did not draw away. It was too late for that. "Really," Wesley whispered. He swept the bullets away with his foot. "Show me."

Angelus jerked him closer. "Look in the glass, Wesley." His breath traced Wesley's jaw. "Or touch yourself." He let go.

Wesley caught himself against the wall, straightened. Grabbed Angelus's hand and drew it down. There was no resistance. Angelus's hand closed around his groin.

Wesley's heart pounded. They deserved each other. It came to this: guns and broken glass. Ex-vampire, ex-Watcher, exiles. No one else.

Much later, he wondered what arousal tasted like in a mouth newly human.

*

There came dust-light and cloud-light, never daylight. Wesley abandoned the upper floor and its wreckage of traps. Some nights, lying next to the inescapable heartbeat, he dreamed of holding Connor down so Angelus could drink from him. Mornings by their warped clock led to sex, or violence, or lovemaking. Wesley was increasingly unable to tell the difference.

They stood at the window at times and quoted poetry to each other, drunk on nothing more than shadows.

Wesley wondered if Angelus would ever tan.

He couldn't decide whether he first asked Angelus to tie him to a chair, or if they had come to the idea by mutual understanding. He stopped asking himself what Faith, or anyone else, would have made of them. If his cock didn't care, neither did he. (Liar.)

Little things aroused him: water on a fingertip, the trace of warmth on a pillow. Breathing each other's breath.

Wesley found a penknife sharp enough for his purposes. Angelus despised the sight of blood, yet could not stop himself from touching the red lines, or licking the half-formed clots. He lay back, compulsively rubbing the weals, and studied Wesley's good hand, wiping it dry with his own. "I'll buy you a chainsaw for your birthday," Angelus said in a deceptively drowsy voice.

"A what?" Wesley saw the applications. It seemed a crude instrument. He rose and rummaged in a drawer.

"Looking for a stake?" Angelus pulled him back onto the bed and straddled him. "You get sidetracked so easily. Must be that brain. The one that told you bringing me back the previous time was such a hot idea." His hands moved, lifted. Covered Wesley's eyes. "If you could bring him back right now, would you?"

Wesley half-moaned, half-sighed, pinned between answers.

"Would you?" There was an edge to his voice: mockery, contempt, who knew.

"Would you?" was all Wesley could muster by way of response.

Angelus's hands moved to the sides of Wesley's neck. His voice became husky. "We could have a wonderful threesome."

Wesley shoved Angelus away. Angelus let him. Wesley returned to the drawer, breathing hard, shaking. Angelus rolled onto his back and stretched, then stroked himself casually. Wesley's hand found, by touch, a cigarette lighter.

"If you've been holding back cigarettes, I might have to cut your lungs open."

Wesley found the other thing, an iron cross on a chain. He hung it from his fused joints and, after two tries, had the cross dangling in the steady flame.

Now Angelus was the one breathing hard.

"Shall we find out if you're still flammable?" said Wesley.

"Do," said Angelus.

He wasn't.

Neither was Wesley.

*

They started venturing upstairs, to the edge of the hallway and its wreckage. Wesley stepped far enough into the hall to disarm a springal. "I wonder if it's possible to die here," he said, "given the anomalous effect on physiological processes."

He looked for Fred in the shadows, and saw nothing but his own work.

"Like this one?" Angelus gripped Wesley's left wrist. The world went white. "We could find out, in smaller words."

Wesley raised the unloaded gun in his right hand. He couldn't remember drawing it and didn't know why he still carried it. (Failure.)

Angelus laughed, low and harsh and bitter. "Empty threats." He raised Wesley's hand to his mouth and kissed the exposed bone.

Wesley felt nothing, nothing at all, above the wrist.

"And you know it, too."

Wesley thrust the gun into Angelus's mouth. "I think," he said in a voice he could no longer disown, "you don't know me very well."

The corner of Angelus's mouth lifted. He lowered his eyelids and tilted his head back. He was humming, a low purr.

It grew worse from there. Wesley didn't remember how to stop, or why.

They played that game in between others, alongside barbed allusions and metaphysical speculation, ropes and nails and brutal kisses. One night (day), Wesley discovered that a glimpse of the gun's barrel on the nightstand gave him an immediate hard-on. Angelus had only begun to lick the blisters along Wesley's collarbone.

Wesley broke away and, with the dead hand, flung the gun to the floor. The pain shot through him, arousing him further. He fumbled the window open and vomited. The dust choked him; he coughed violently, heaving for air. "I can't," he said brokenly. "I can't." And knew that if Angelus flung him aside, or threw him against the wall, he would give up all pretense of the man who had sat down to orange juice and eggs and companionship, and who carried weapons to kill demons, not create them.

Wordlessly, Angelus handed him one of the Hyperion's identical towels. Wesley was surprised into murmuring a thank-you. The towel smelled faintly of the other man's sweat. He wiped his mouth clean. Why would—

He stared into Angelus's agonized eyes.

No.

"Angel," Wesley whispered before throwing up again. Hands steadied him until his stomach was empty of what little it had held. "Why? Why the charade?" And, because the habits of casual cruelty were too difficult to break, "So the prophecy came to pass, and you returned, and you couldn't tell yourself it was the demon any longer?"

You lied to me.

"Returned?" said Angel. "No. I was here all along." His hands tightened.

Wesley went rigid.

"You saw what you wanted to see. So I gave it to you." His voice held underwater nights and hellstorm days.

"For the love of God, why?"

Angel smiled crookedly. "I thought it would make me happy." A pause. "I thought it would make you happy." He ran his thumb along a scar.

Wesley sank to his knees. After a while, Angel knelt beside him.

"The alley," Wesley said hoarsely. "What really happened?" A chance phrase returned to him. "What did you sign away?"

"The prophecy," Angel said. "In blood, because they told him—told me—I had to."

Wesley blinked dust out of his eyes. With shaking hands, he closed the window. "A prophecy's fulfillment has nothing to do with—"

"I know," Angel said, with Angelus's patience.

"It was the blood, then."

"Yes." He began massaging Wesley's shoulders. "You were always loyal to a fault. It made you so easy to—" He caught himself. "Everything is gone." His voice was dry of emotion. "It's all gone. Even ourselves."

"Everyone died?" Wesley felt hollowed, unhallowed. He believed it already.

"They left us, or the demons killed them. I killed them."

Wesley's shoulders tensed anew. "At least you were there for it."

Hardly punctual, are we?

"Wanna trade? Your guilt, my guilt. We're still trapped."

"Are we?" Wesley said distantly. He leaned back, shifting his shoulders to place bruises under Angel's hands.

"We'll destroy ourselves before we get out." He pressed against the bruises, then stood.

Wesley didn't deny it. He knew the hot-cold pleasure of knifepoint fucking.

"Die fighting—"

"—each other?" Wesley staggered to his feet and drew Angel to him. He tasted the alveolar ridge and teeth and tongue. Bit down.

Pain was Angel's province, too. Wesley had forgotten that.

"No," Angel said, responding to some half-conscious murmur, "it's ours." He smiled another man's smile. "It's always been." He pushed Wesley down to his hands (hand) and knees.

Afterwards one of them wept.

*

Wesley moved into a room down the hall. He turned his thoughts to finding a way out of this dust-world before he and Angel killed each other, in every sense of the word. He had difficulty concentrating. Every inscription was a blister, every sigil a bruise. Illyria's realm, broken by time and absence, filled his dreams.

He and Angel heard each other's footsteps, but never saw any shadows cross the walls but their own.

Wesley was formulating a grateful letter to the manufacturers of Fred's four graphing calculators when he heard water running. Some quality of the sound caused him to peer into the hall. Neither of us would neglect hygiene, he thought, remembering Angel's obsession with order: bookshelves organized by era and alphabetized by author, the geometrically aesthetic placement of weapons on the wall, folders aligned with the edges of the desk.

A little later, it struck him that the sound was water upon gathering water, not water against a wall. A bath, not a shower. Angel (Angelus) had preferred the latter. He forced himself not to think about the other man's skin, the tracks of scars.

"No," he breathed, forgetting caution and their careful, mutual silence (stalemate).

The door was locked.

"Angel!" he shouted. There came no answer.

Wesley, already in the habit of carrying odd tools, had modified most of them so he could use them without contorting himself. As he picked the lock, his hand, miraculously, was absolutely steady. Angel hadn't bothered to wedge the door or obstruct it with a table or a chair. Wesley's shoulder finished the job.

"Angel," he said again. Nothing answered him but water.

The air was moist; Angel hadn't bothered to close the bathroom door. Wesley half-ran through the steam, insofar as there was room to run. His shoes splashed through the water. Nor any drop to drink, he thought inanely, and dragged Angel out of the bathtub, twice losing his grip.

Breathe, he willed Angel. Breathe. The water was starting to overflow. He didn't give a damn. He hauled Angel up. After all this time, he had forgotten the other man's weight.

Angel coughed, sputtered, drew a wheezing breath. Wesley clenched his teeth and dragged him out of the bathroom, then sloshed through the water to turn off the tap and open the drain. Angel was still breathing when Wesley came out again.

"Don't talk," Wesley said. "It's my turn to talk to you while you are incapable of answering." Angel's only response was another wheeze. "Did you think that, after extracting you from the ocean with the help of the woman who slit my throat, I was going to let you drown in a puddle?"

Angel's head was lowered. Wesley couldn't see his eyes.

"And for a suicide attempt, that was remarkably incompetent. If you were expecting someone to come rescue you—which I presume, unless we're both mistaken or you've been hallucinating, is myself—you might as well have left the door open."

Angel had gotten his breath back, and said, "You'd know all about suicide attempts. And self-destruction."

"I learned from the best," Wesley retorted. He wanted to hit Angel. He refrained. After a long pause, he said, "I was working on a way back home."

"What's home, to us?"

Us. "Wherever we are," Wesley said, "but we don't have to remain here."

After a longer pause, Angel said, "I didn't think you'd come." He didn't say: Or care.

"Did I mention three months dredging the Pacific while you were enjoying your private aquarium?"

By the time they stood up, they were drenched. It was only water, but it wasn't dust.

*

Afterwards they walked outside together. They circled the Hyperion. Every missing trash can and sewer drain, every absent street light, hurt like a bullet wound, with no accompanying savor of pleasure. Then they sat side by side on the steps, touching by virtue of mutual warmth.

"There's no one," Angel said in a dead voice. "We knew that."

"I haven't finished that spell."

Angel glanced up. "You want to get out because it's easier not to look."

"At what?"

"Inside." He rested his hand on Wesley's thigh, carefully.

"I know what I am," he said. He drew a cross on Angel's hand with bone and exhaled the dust. "Nothing goes away that easily. Maybe someone survived, even if we haven't. Some small connection. Your blood in the world, if there be a world."

"Wesley," Angel said, "you're the only person I know who would use the subjunctive in casual conversation." He paused. "I remember Latin. But you're on your own with the proto-whatever-it-was."

Photographic memory of the previous spell. "Just Chaldean," Wesley said, "but it would be a different ritual. If I can correlate the geodesic indices with the—"

Angel looked up. "You still remember," he said.

"Chaldean isn't all that difficult after you've studied—"

"Not that," Angel said, more quietly. "You remember being someone else." Someone who fell over his feet and mistranslated prophecies and trusted, because there were people to trust.

Wesley exhaled. "So do you." Someone who forgot to say "please" and read existentialist novels and still had friends.

One friend, anyway. If that was the word.

"Inside," Angel said, because the rest had nothing to do with words, and because they remembered, too, what they were in the here-and-now.

They went through the doors together.

*

The calculations went more quickly. Souls were elusive things. Punching out of a dust-world to their home required less finesse, although Wesley was mindful of interdimensional repercussions. Angel's memory saved them from having to walk from room to room to cross-check derivations.

Angel had an artist's steady hand. Sometimes he practiced the more difficult runes on Wesley's skin. Holding still for the knife wasn't difficult. Angel also sketched on the walls of lower floors, leaving the lobby alone. Wesley walked the halls and discovered inhibitions he would never have thought to define. He abandoned the gun and scattered the bullets in far corners. After that, Angel, taking advantage of the inexhaustible markers, scribbled out all the sketches.

They still had fire and crosses.

They never saw anyone clearly through the windows, but they didn't break the glass, either.

"I hope," Wesley said as they inked the last equations in boustrophedon, "you aren't renting rooms anytime soon."

"Yeah," said Angel, "it'll be one bitch of a paint job." He fell silent. They had filled the rooms with small atrocities and moments of tentative tenderness, if blood and heat were ever tender. "You think this will work?" He wrote the last subscript and capped the marker.

"If not," Wesley said, "we try again. Do you know, I don't remember what the sun looks like."

"I'm sure I never bit you that hard."

"Ha." Wesley looked away. "I'll need your blood."

Angel drew one breath, another. "I know."

"You can draw the knife, or I can."

Angel produced the knife. Hand upon hand they cut Angel's palm. Angel looked ill and avid at once. "Right there?" He nodded toward the empty space at an amphisbaena's line of symmetry.

"Yes," said Wesley.

"I feel like I'm finger-painting," Angel muttered. He pressed his palm to the wall, then removed it. His hands were trembling.

Wesley turned Angel's palm up and licked away some of the welling red.

Then dust came through the walls, and dust filled the dark halls. Dust clouded the light and clotted the water. Everything was dust.

*

Wesley woke tasting the dregs of Angel's blood. He blinked the grit out of his eyes. He was on his back. The Hyperion's ceiling stared back at him.

"Water?" asked Angel, standing over him.

"Quite," Wesley said. It came out as a croak. The world swam in and out of focus.

Angel disappeared and reappeared. He bent over Wesley. The water in his mouth was cold and sweet and tasted nothing like the memory of dust, or burnt skin.

"Well," Wesley said, "something happened."

"Or we're dreaming," Angel said.

"Sleep disorders never bode well around you."

"Then we'd better not be dreaming." Very gently, Angel took Wesley's hand of bone and kissed the underside of the wrist, at the point where sensation began. Then Wesley offered his good arm; Angel took it. They opened the doors.

The wind, sun-warmed, brought in a little dust, but it was ordinary dust. With it came carbon monoxide and cigarette smoke, the smell of stale coffee and rain to come, and other things they had known, once upon a world. They left the doors behind and stood blinking, strangely out of breath.

Standing at the corner was a young man, his expression tired but not empty of hope. Connor. He had not spotted them yet.

"The world's come back," Angel said, shading his eyes to look at his son.

"No," said Wesley. "We've come back to the world."