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Inertia

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The ticking of a clock was the first thing to pierce Wesley's awareness. Not pain, despair or embarrassment, but mere time.

He didn't even register that it was a hospital clock and he was in a hospital room until he'd lain there for hours, oblivious and numb, listening to it tick, aware occasionally of presences around him, hushed voices speaking over him. He thought there were times when they'd spoken to him, could vaguely recall answering questions, though he remembered neither the questions nor his answers.

There were no presences or voices when his state of comfortable semi-consciousness began finally to retreat, abandoning him to the dubious mercies of the world. There was only silence and the unrelenting clock.

It hurt to open his eyes. The last thing he remembered was darkness. A dark hotel room, a dingy lobby, hugging the patches of shade on a sun-soaked street, and it was fair to say that he hadn't seen a lot of the daylight recently.

He wasn't seeing so much of it now. The room he was in had a window, but there were blinds drawn over it and only a crack of sun sidled in at the far edge. The assault on his eyes was largely artificial, strip-lighting on the ceiling. He was stopped uncomfortably short when he raised an arm woven through with monitoring wires and drip-feeds in an attempt to shield his eyes. He got no response at all when he tried to raise the other.

Wesley lay under white sheets staring up at a hazy ceiling. Eventually, his drugged mind produced the word 'hospital' and his chin jerked in satisfaction. He was in a hospital. This was not unfamiliar. It was not surprising. Indeed, it was only reasonable that anyone engaged in the dangerous trade of a rogue demon hunter would require medical aid every once in a while.

He blinked around, wishing he could reach for the glasses which were blurrily discernable propped on the small table beside his bed. Remembering the unresponsive limb of minutes before, he craned his neck around to study the bulk of padded bandaging at his shoulder, half-obscured beneath sheets that were pulled high, brushing his chin and catching on unshaven stubble.

He wanted to pull them away, but didn't dare risk interrupting whatever solutions were being pumped into his uninjured arm. Instead he lay quiet, waiting for his memory to return in full, waiting for a doctor or a nurse who could offer up information that might help it to do so. Who could at least tell him how long he'd been there and give him an assessment of the damage.

When a blur of tired face above white coat finally did appear, it was to perform a brisk check of the readings on his instrumentation, make "hm-hmm" noises over some notes on a clipboard, and exit before Wesley could wrap his parched and painful throat around a question. But the doctor's footsteps halted outside the room and there were distant-sounding voices. He managed to raise his head far enough to determine that the door was ajar and the voices, raised increasingly in debate, were coming from just the other side. A flash of white coat followed by a flash of black interrupted his view of the slice of wall visible through the gap.

"I don't know that he's physically or psychologically prepared for visitors," the doctor's was saying, "You--"

Another voice, which he recognised from somewhere despite its being reduced to little more than an angry growl, responded. There was a slam that sounded less than comfortable for the recipient.

"But since you ask so persuasively, and the LAPD waiting to ask him about the armoury of medieval weapons found in his possession wouldn't indicate his mental health too great anyway, be my guest," the doctor snapped.

And the door pushed inwards to admit a black-clad figure who paused to close it behind him before turning a featureless pale face to Wesley.

His lack of success forcing his vision to focus proved not to matter an instant later. Recognition was not dependant on sight or sound alone, and this stranger's presence was itself distinctive.

"Angel?"

The last person - if 'person' was even an appropriate term - he'd expect to visit his hospital room on a sunny day in LA.

Angel. Souled vampire, Buffy's ill-advised paramour, one-time Scourge of Europe. His last sight of Angel had been in Sunnydale, while being carried on board an ambulance destined for another hospital.

When Angel ventured closer, Wesley frowned at his strained features and had to remind himself that vampires did not physically age. Even so, Angel still looked at least a decade older than his recollection and the reminder only jarred.

"Angel," he said again, because the vampire hadn't said anything and didn't seem about to. His voice this time was less of a tortured rasp but still nowhere approaching normal. "What are you doing here?"

"I found you. Remember?"

"Oh." He didn't. He swallowed. "When? I mean, how long--?"

"Almost thirty-six hours. The doctor said you were in surgery. You were sedated, but they said you'd been out of it a while now."

Silence stretched over the seconds that followed, and was already a long way past the boundary of 'uncomfortable' before Angel's breathless throat jumped and he spoke again. "Actually, that's what I wanted to know from you. What you were doing where I found you, I mean. It could be important. That place was connected with some people I was trying to track down."

The words sounded haunted, nervous. Wesley squinted hard, wishing he could see Angel's face better.

"I was hunting. That's what I do now." He couldn't strike the relevant posture lying flat, but succeeded in raising his chin and squaring it a little. "Since I left Sunnydale, I've taken up the lonely, demanding, dangerous life of a rogue demon hunter."

The colours shifted in the shadows that marked Angel's eyes. A blink. Two. Three. More silence. Odd. He wasn't unaware that reactions to his new vocation tended towards amusement. The vampire shifted on his feet, ended up sidestepping awkwardly to avoid the streak of sunlight that sidled in past the edges of the blinds.

"Right. Rogue demons. That's what you... do. Well, what I do now is I... help people. The other day this demon, Barney, came to me, and told me someone was chasing him. I went to check out his place and found you there half-dead."

"And you quite probably saved my life. Thank you." Wesley tried not to show too much surprise, but his dealings with the vampire in the past had not gone especially well.

Angel shifted his feet again, grunted when his hand caught the sunlight. "Well, like I said, helping people. It's what I do."

"Even demons?" Wesley asked curiously.

"Well, you know - not all evil," Angel said rather pointedly.

He grimaced, experiencing a certain feeling of foreboding. "What did your demon - Barney - what did he look like?"

"Actually, I think it's your turn to share information."

"All right." With grim expectations, he said, "As a matter of fact, I was hunting down the demon renting that hotel room. A fearsome creature responsible for a trail of carnage across half this continent and which assuredly--"

Angel waved a hand at around upper-chest level. "About yea high, ruddy complexion, horns?"

"Certainly not." He described the creature he'd seen in Phoenix. "That's not your demon?"

"No, that's not my demon. And I wouldn't worry too much about Barney, either. I mean, he did try to scoop out my eyes, a bit later."

Wesley frowned, opened his mouth to speak, but found himself instead fighting off a wave of weakness that threatened to drown him. He gulped breaths, forcing them into some pattern resembling regularity, and finally opened his eyes to look back at his companion with only the familiar blur of short-sightedness marring his gaze.

Whatever he'd been going to ask before had been sent scurrying from his thoughts. "Angel. I don't suppose... if you wouldn't mind... my glasses." He jerked his head towards the frames.

"Oh. Of course. I'm sorry, I should have--"

Whatever's the matter? Wesley wanted to ask. The vampire's whole demeanour was odd, but Angel was tip-toeing around him as though he might shatter.

As the spectacles were slid onto his face, he noticed how much Angel's fingers were shaking. He could see well enough through the scuffed lenses to catch the details he'd missed previously. Did vampires' eyes get so hollow? Should an undead fiend of the night be sweating?

If he hadn't known better he'd have guessed Angel was ill.

Not so impossible, he reminded himself, remembering those last days in Sunnydale. Angel had been poisoned then, had needed help. Perhaps he needed help now.

A brief brush of fingertips wasn't enough to ascertain whether his skin was warm or cold, dry or clammy, especially with Wesley's own temperature so unsteady. He wanted to reach out and catch the vampire's arm as it withdrew, but lay still and distracted himself from his enforced motionlessness by studying the room anew.

The blinds on the windows were old and stained. There were cracks in the ceiling, cracks in Angel's leather coat.

His gaze returned to Angel's face. "What's happened to you?"

"Nothing. Nothing's happened to me." The vampire turned his face away and stared fixedly at the closed blinds on the window.

The drug-hazed darkness was threatening again to return, and he was aware, even as he wrenched the next question from his throat, that he couldn't hold it off very much longer. But this, he needed to know.

"It's Buffy, isn't it?" Despite the fact the girl had never had anything but scorn for him, she had been his responsibility once.

"No." Angel looked surprised, then smiled briefly, as though finding consolation in his negation. "Buffy's all right. It was... somebody else. You didn't know him."

"I'm sorry."

"Me too." He gestured vaguely towards Wesley, and something in his eyes shifted, became much harder. "You know what kind of demon it was, that attacked you?"

"I'd need to research, to pin down the species." He brightened at the thought that, even bedridden, he could still serve.

Angel shook his head. "You're in no condition. In fact, I should go. I've been here too long. I'll try to talk to the police about that whole thing with the weapons, and I'll leave my address with the hospital for if anything comes up." He turned, and Wesley opened his mouth to protest that he didn't have to go even as the vampire paused, looked back. "You'll be all right?"

And what could he do but to crack a smile, to put on a brave front, to say, "Oh, certainly. Absolutely. We're made of stern stuff, we rogue demon hunters - can't keep us down for long. I'll be right as rain in no time. Out there, fighting the fight." He flopped his hand, fingers curled into a loose fist.

A smile flickered across Angel's features, but it vanished as quickly. "I've underestimated you in the past, I can see that now."

Then, with a grim respectful nod, Angel was gone, and the swinging door had stilled before Wesley, with sudden clarity, looked down to the bandaged mound of his shoulder and registered the wrongness in the fall of the sheets over where his left arm should be.

 

***

//A hallway, dark and enclosed, the lights interspersed along the corridor illuminating nothing save the patch of wall above them, excepting the faulty one that gashes the darkness in lightning flashes every few seconds, setting his nerves on edge. He's not going to panic.

Doors on either side of him, no light escaping their edges. He hears movement from one room, its door ajar, but the sight of a maid's trolley through the crack jump-starts his heart once more.

Steps in front of him; seven, eight of them. He climbs. The electrical fizz of the broken light seems to increase its volume tenfold when he tries to listen for telltale demonic noises. Behind him, the maid pushes her trolley out of the doorway and rumbles it along the corridor the way he's just come, casting back at him the customary distrustful look that matches the motorcycle leathers. He takes the look as consolation that the sudden noise didn't make him tremble so visibly as he'd feared, and carries on.

Yellow residue on the frame of the door adjacent to him. He's not afraid. He's told himself he shouldn't be so often that the fear has worn itself out. He feels tired now, and cold. The crossbow isn't shaking anymore in the grip of the hand tucked covertly inside his jacket.

He waits in the hallway outside 206 until the maid has rumbled out of sight and there's nobody there to be inadvertently drawn into a confrontation, nobody to answer his cries for help should he fail. He clenches his jaw and pushes open the door.

A lamp is lit; somebody's here. He steps over the threshold, eyes scouring the room - takes in bed, television, settee, shelves, table, suitcase, far too many closed cupboard doors. The bathroom door's ajar and there's faint blueish light coming from the other side but no noise. He still can't hear anything but that broken electrical fizzing that sounds like insects. Shouldn't have thought that. He's not fond of insects and now he's shivering again under all his leather.

Crossbow at the ready, he's sidling towards the bathroom when he feels the viscous liquid drip onto his shoulder and a crushing, heavier weight follow it before he can react...//

He tore at the smothering weight that restricted his movement and pinned down his limbs. Loud, rasping breaths close to his ear and he fought to free himself, to get away from the creature--

Fear choked a scream out of him an instant before he realised, too late, that the breathing was his own, the weight only pressed white hospital sheets splattered now with the red of his own blood where his struggles had pulled out the IV.

Hospital personnel appeared to fill the void left by Angel's departure. He didn't manage to stop his panicked babbling before the doctor acted upon his threats to sedate him again.

 

***

He wasn't sure how much time passed before the police turned up, in the form of one Detective Costas, a dark, grim-voiced man in a rumpled suit that carried a rather ripe scent from the heat of the day outside. He'd slept, and waked, and dozed, and even when he had his glasses on to see the clock he could never remember what time it had read on previous instances to stretch his brain to calculation.

His shoulder ached. He could remember more than one occasion when the pain had mounted to the verge of unbearable before a doctor had shown up with a needle to take it away just as he was ready to crawl out of his own skin to escape it.

The hospital staff had been concerned in a vaguely distrustful way which suggested he was still considered dangerous. A few days ago he might have found it flattering. Now, it wasn't even funny.

There had been time enough that he was in a sufficiently lucid state to realise he had to get through this interview with the police neither deciding to prosecute him nor make any serious attempts to hunt down his attacker, a balance it would be difficult to strike when his persuasive skills were at their best, and they were far from that.

The red-haired nurse - Celia, or a name very like it - had removed his glasses so that he could sleep, and he hadn't had opportunity since waking to ask anybody to replace them, but he preferred anyway for the form of the police detective stalking up and down the narrow length of the room to remain blurred. The detective's aggressive footsteps cut sharp, decisive scars through the stale hospital air.

"Let me run through this again," he said, click-click-click. "You're a mercenary. You were looking to track down the guy who rented that hotel room." Click-click-click. "So you break in there with your crossbow and your bag of tricks, and someone jumps you and attempts to spread your body parts around the decor."

"Ah... more or less."

"You got a name for this guy?"

Wesley remembered a hazy conversation with Angel that might or might not have been an hallucination and dredged up, "Barney?"

"Full name?"

"I... don't know, I'm afraid, Detective Costas."

"You don't know your mark's full name?"

"I can't remember," Wesley said quickly. "Ever since the attack, I've been having... memory gaps." Well, that was true enough, at least. "I'm sorry."

Costas nodded into his notebook but continued to emote a distinct lack of conviction.

"Oh, come on, man," Wesley urged, his patience beginning to thin. Annoyance focused his brain, cutting through the daze. "You must have had time by now to dig into my background. Even if you had to request information from England, you've had time. You know I haven't any kind of record."

"All I know," the detective said, "Is that you've never been caught. Got some family connections, I noticed. You come from money. Must be nice, that. Come in useful for hushing up your troubles."

"That's not--" Wesley began angrily. He tried to sit up. The IV pulled him back down. A white-coated figure passing the door hesitated a moment on the threshold, then walked on without interfering.

"But daddy seems to have lost interest these past few months, doesn't he? Something to do with being fired from your last job?" At Wesley's surprise, his smile spread and he nodded slowly. "Yeah, I did my checking. "What'd you do, Pryce? Steal from your employer? Is that why you got canned?"

"No, I - I'm - I just - I didn't do anything like that. I - I--"

"What?" Costas barked.

"I wasn't very good at it." He snarled the words out, feeling himself blush from head to foot. "All those years of training and yet - I tried - I tried my best, but it wasn't good enough. It never was. I failed to do what was expected of me, and so they fired me. But I did nothing, nothing underhand."

He'd raised himself from the mattress to deliver the tirade. Now he slumped back, drained, to find he was shaking and couldn't stop.

He'd said more than he'd meant. It contained more truth than he'd ever allowed himself to admit.

Costas seemed almost hesitant when he next spoke, the movements of his indistinct figure awkward. "The area you were found - the clothes you were wearing. These are not elements in your favour, even without the weapons and your self-confessed profession."

Wesley wanted very much to explain that he'd been hunting down a demonic murderer and creature of pure evil, but had no doubts as to where such an assertion would get him. He pressed his lips together.

He felt bloodless, and wondered if it was possible the medical staff had miscalculated the amounts when they transfused him, because he felt like he was still missing half his supply, his arteries carrying no more than a trickle around his body.

He sighed, closed his eyes. Somewhere in the middle of surrendering consciousness to the haze of the drugs, logic kicked in.

He forced his eyes back open. "Detective," he said, trying to speak with culture, reason, clarity - the things that Los Angeles policemen had no cause to expect from leather-clad ruffians being questioned for involvement in violent disturbances. "You have, I believe, a case consisting of a broken up hotel room containing no recognisable blood but my own, an archaic crossbow - unfired, I might add - and a bag of other improvised weaponry that is, so far as I'm aware, not in itself illegal and that I'll freely admit to owning as a collector. I'd suggest you concentrate your energies upon finding my attacker, as you have very little case with which to hold me."

Costas went very still, and stayed that way a full ten seconds - Wesley counted them off as the clock ticked - before he said, "I'm just doing my job, Mr. P... Wyndham-Pryce."

"I know. I'm sorry--" Abruptly ashamed of his hostility, Wesley stammered, falling over himself to try to reinstate some politeness into the encounter.

Costas waved him into silence. "I know there's some weird shit goes down in this city, I'm not blind. I know the yellow goop we found all over that hotel room didn't come from anything human. But I still gotta fill out the forms that say I followed this up."

He raised a hand and rubbed it across his forehead, a gesture of defeat. "Do you know how many cops have been pulled under by this shit?" he rasped. "Do you know how badly we could use some information - real information - to work on?"

Detective Costas approached the bed, and Wesley saw the grey marks of tiredness under his eyes, the sickly shade of the complexion under the tan, the lines that dragged his features into an alignment that looked haunted and worn. He leaned down closer to speak, and Wesley felt guilty for noticing, amid all the rest, that his breath wasn't pleasant.

"I think you're involved in all this stuff in some way. I don't know how. Maybe it was something your da said." His face scrunched up in a distaste that Wesley could well understand. "Maybe it's the fact that whatever left that slime crushed your arm with the kind of force the staff here claim more consistent with a high-impact collision, because there isn't a man alive strong enough to cause that kind of injury in a fight, and yet you're still lying there calm as can be, not ranting on about demons and monsters." He shrugged, straightened, scribbled in his notebook and tore out a sheet he then dropped onto the table next to Wesley's glasses.

"Call me when you get out of here," he said, "If you feel more like comparing notes."

He swept out of the room and Wesley was left frowning at the scrap of paper he couldn't pick up to read.

 

***

//He's in the hotel room and he knows he's bleeding. It's felt like hours and he knows he tied off the mangled arm; too tightly but nothing short of that could have extended his life this long. He's concentrating on staying still and staying conscious. Slow breaths, almost like sleeping. Mustn't sleep. He's staying alive, a second at a time.

He thinks the other has been in the room for some time before he became aware of them. He's staring up but he can't see anything more than a blur. His glasses were lost in the fight - if that disastrous mess could even be called a fight. They could be in reach, for all he knows, but he hasn't looked. Movement would excite the blood flow, could undo the good work of the coagulation that's been able to take place. Movement would probably kill him, and sight isn't worth that right now. Not when maybe - possibly - help is here.

Help, or the demon back to finish him off. But he thinks the face hovering over him is Caucasian, not demon-grey-green.

Was that his name he heard on the shadow's lips? Impossible, surely. Nobody here knows he exists. He'll die a John Doe in this appalling country unless the police manage to trace his movements back to his hotel room. He's carried no identification with him.

"Wesley?" the voice asks again. "My God..."

It couldn't be him. The voice he thinks he recognises must be somebody else. He couldn't be here in LA, he was left behind with Sunnydale. And, come to think of it, the voice isn't quite the same...

He manages to mumble that he can't be moved, that his Samaritan needs to call an ambulance, and quickly. The effort's too much, and the rush as consciousness spirals away into oblivion feels like the rush of being on that motorbike and jamming the pedals down hard, letting go, the air rushing away, the world retreating to background, fear and pain and failure forgotten in the face of the inevitable crash.

He welcomes the darkness he's fought so hard to avoid, not expecting to wake up.//

Woke up in the room they'd moved him into not long after Detective Costas' visit - private, still, a necessity on the grounds that it wouldn't disturb other patients if he woke up loudly panicking, insensible of where he was - and smiled tightly (shakily) and waved on the nurse who poked her head around the door.

He'd taken with relief the move, the sign that at least he was out of the woods. As he did each piece of monitoring equipment removed from his bedside. Even if the memories held little sway over him when waking, he looked forward to the day when he would no longer be at the mercy of fussy doctors who didn't seem capable of understanding how little he wanted to sleep.

And he was trying hard not to think about the mounting costs as the days stretched on, having no doubt that they would join the other horrors populating his nightmares, given chance.

 

***

"You're looking better than when I last saw you," the dark voice said.

He hadn't heard its owner come in and surprise made him fumble the book he was reading. With only one hand to catch, he almost didn't reclaim it in time to stop its slide onto the floor. He rested it carefully down, flattening its opened pages into the sheets, and blushed when Angel stared at the cover's lurid presentation of a melodramatic period-dressed couple and the words 'Furious Passions' emblazoned across the spine.

He had discovered that an English accent was a marvellous tool with which to cajole small kindnesses from the nurses, and even if their definitions of good reading matter did not match his own, it was at least something to do. He never could stand inactivity.

He stammered as much to Angel, who almost smiled. "Of course."

Nervously, Wesley smoothed the sheets that lay over his chest, the motion tugging on the drip that still led into his arm, though loosened somewhat for greater ease of movement. The covers felt like a flimsy shield, and he felt exposed before Angel's gaze, the vampire the only person save the medical staff and the police - who somehow didn't quite count - to see him so helpless. His last encounter, he hadn't even been aware, and had barely been coherent enough to form sentences.

"I half thought I hallucinated you, last time," he said, "and even if not, I didn't think you'd come back."

"I meant to come back before now." Angel approached the bed and sat down in the chair next to it with a lack of grace that seemed odd on him, and Wesley could hardly tell him that he wished he wouldn't. "I was hunting your demon. It took much longer than I'd expected. The trail had grown cold."

"You... hunted down the demon that did this?" Wesley asked, astonished. "Why?"

Angel's expression was also strange. "It was a change from hunting down football-headed demons?" he suggested, with something that approached his old dry humour, and something else as well that was much more bitter. "I told you, I help people. And I owe you one for trying, that time with the cure for Faith's poison, even if it didn't come to anything."

"You already saved my life, Angel," he said gently. He had the curious feeling, watching the man, that of the two of them, Angel was the more fragile right now. And that was worrying, given how fragile he felt, given the vampire's alter-ego whom weakness on Angel's part might release.

"But I was too late to save your limbs."

"That's beside the point," Wesley spluttered in protest, scandalised by the blunt statement. "That wasn't your fault."

Angel scowled and shook his head, then abandoned the chair to stand and pace. It was a relief to be reprieved from that intense gaze. Wesley relaxed somewhat, punched the control of his medication with shaky fingers. "It's funny, you know," the vampire said, rounding on him. "I had this... thing that happened, when I was on my way to check out Barney's pad, and if it hadn't happened, I would've been at that hotel room a whole lot sooner. Maybe I would've been in time to - but I wasn't, because of this thing. And the weird part... the weird part is that this thing could be called pretty much the definition of divine intervention."

"You're saying you were prevented from saving me? That you weren't meant to get there in time?" Wesley asked, latching onto the one thing in Angel's admission he understood.

"I'm sorry, Wesley. I don't know why. I mean, it makes no sense--"

"It makes perfect sense." Wesley stared down morosely at his hand. "I failed the Council - two Slayers in my care, and I failed them both. One evil and as good as dead, one a renegade who'd rather listen to my predecessor. I'm not surprised the Council fired me--"

"They fired you?"

"I'm surprised they didn't do more! It isn't as though they have any shortage of deeply unpleasant disciplinary measures. But fate has intervened for them in any case. No, you weren't meant to save me. I was meant to pay for my failures."

"Wesley." Angel's voice was sharp. "That's not true. You tried. That's more than a lot of people. You didn't do anything to deserve this."

He shrugged, one-shouldered, set his jaw and met Angel's gaze. "And what about the demon? Did you kill it?"

He could've sworn the vampire flinched as he replied, "It's dead," but he didn't question, only nodded.

Angel paced a few times more, before again achieving rest. "How are you now? Are you in any pain?"

"I'm fine." He gestured towards the device for pain medication on demand. "There is, I assure you, no need to terrorise the staff here over any inadequacies with their care."

"And someone's bringing you books to read." His voice was light, pleased, at least temporarily, and Wesley bit his lip on repeating his earlier correction.

"The doctors say you're doing well," Angel prompted, after a moment.

"Yes... yes, they tell me that as well." He laughed. It sounded as affected as it was. "I'm sure it won't be long before I'm out of here." He hesitated, swallowed, and plunged on. "Angel. Your... mission here in LA. To help people. It wouldn't require, perchance, an experienced researcher of all things demonic and occult? You see, I find myself at present somewhat at a loose end - that is to say, somewhat unemployed, and--"

"No," Angel cut in, his tone sharp. "We're not doing this, Wesley."

"Why ever not? Surely you can see the value of a competent book-man at your back. I research the evil, you destroy it--"

"No." The vampire's face had closed off. "I've already lost one partner. Doyle died because he fought at my side. I'm not going to let that happen to anyone else."

Wesley winced, and said sympathetically, "Your friend had his own mind and made his own choices. You're not responsible for them and you can't blame yourself for them. He chose to fight at your side. That's not something you have a right to question. For myself - surely you understand that it's my purpose to serve in the battle against evil. It's what I was raised to do. And as I no longer have a Slayer to assist, it would seem a capital arrangement to assist you instead."

"No, Wesley." Angel's closed demeanour was quickly transforming into anger. "Look at yourself. You can't do this anymore. You're damaged already, it wouldn't be long before you ended up dead. You're not strong enough - even Doyle had demon blood - and whatever you may think, you're not like me, you don't have anything to atone for. You can still go make yourself a life. I'd suggest you do that."

"Why, you arrogant--" He choked on his protest, fury leaving him spluttering and unable to dredge up words to respond. He took several grim breaths, and glared up at Angel. "What right have you to dictate my choices? This work is my life."

"Only because you don't know anything else. You should get that Council indoctrination out of your system before it gets you killed."

"Indoctrination?" Wesley snapped. "Since when is it indoctrination to have a meaning to your existence? To be in a position to make a difference? Do you imagine for one second that, with all I know about the dark things existing in this world, I could ever turn my back and go live a 'normal' life? That I should be so selfish as not to at least try to use all those years of training?"

"Yeah, that's exactly what I imagine. You could and you should. Come on, Wesley! You know you're really not equipped to fight the fight."

"You undead bastard..."

He saw it in Angel's face as the vampire snapped, but the advance warning was useless when there was nothing he could do to stop Angel lunging forward to wind a fist in the front of his hospital gown, yanking him up almost out of the bed. His features were twisted, human but just shy of turning, and only an inch from Wesley's as he snarled, "If you don't turn your back on this you're going to die. You're going to screw up like you've always done and you're going to die."

Wesley recovered enough to try to break his grip, but with one hand against vampire strength it was no contest. He gripped Angel's wrist, trying to take at least some of the weight from his throat.

"You want to know how I know this? That Kungai demon that put you in here - I hunted it down, yeah, but I didn't kill it. It was already dead. Had been for days. It was dying when you encountered it. It wasn't one of Barney's ring, it was one of their victims. So yeah, I know. You're a screw-up, Wes, and I'm not going to watch you get yourself killed."

Wesley stared, breath forgotten. He couldn't hear his heart beating. "That's not true. You didn't mean that. You're trying to discourage me."

Angel stared back at him, and the rage had transformed itself into a kind of vague horror as he slowly loosed his grip and backed off, but his gaze was level and unrelenting.

"Tell me that was some fabrication to discourage me."

He could barely hear his voice. The back of his throat was tight. He felt faint. Sick.

Angel said, "Go home, Wesley. Give it up and go home."

He bent to retrieve the paperback novel, where it had fallen to the floor, and rested it back on top of the skewed covers. Its pages were bent out of shape, and Angel gave up his efforts to straighten them.

He turned his slumped back, walked out.

The door gradually slid closed, and softly clicked to.

In the emptiness that followed, Wesley tried to calm his desperately hitching breathing, tried to absorb the things which Angel had said; ended up simply lying back listening to the clock on the wall tick the seconds away, placing ever more space between himself and Angel's words.

Eventually he picked up his book and found his place again. There wasn't anything else for him to do.

Chapter Text

Another nightmare woke him tangled in sheets another 4am morning. His struggles stoked flares of pain from the healing scar where his left arm had been, but his panic was such that it was several minutes until he calmed enough to stop fighting the bedclothes, and another several of deep meditating breaths before he picked his way out of the knotted sheets and sat up.

Shudders still racked his body and it was only now he registered he was not in the white space of the hospital, and the events of the previous day began to filter back into his mind. The LA morning newspaper. Signing himself out after arguments with doctors who didn't argue too fervently, knowing he lacked the money to pay more than a fraction of the bills he'd already chalked up. The hurried fixing of his accommodation.

With difficulty, Wesley extricated himself completely from the bed, although his head reeled so much from the movement and the stretched pain of his shoulder that he had to sit back down on the edge of it immediately. From there he slowly pulled on socks, then pants that bagged loose around his waist and swamped his ankles. The shirt and sweater - a battered inelegant thing emblazoned with the name of some sports team he suspected, but wasn't certain, might be basketball - were not much better a fit, and they scraped against the wound as he pulled them over his head.

He resented the borrowed clothes; the charity-case they labelled him. The charity-case he was.

Sheila, the red-haired nurse who'd brought them for him, who'd been so expansively helpful that he awkwardly suspected she harboured something of a crush, had also arranged his current living quarters. She had mentioned her brother leased out rooms and might have vacancies she could swing free of charge for him, for a time. She hadn't said anything about quality - the room was dirty in a manner hinting at the collected grime of years rather than weeks or months, and so full of abandoned belongings that he wondered uneasily about what fate had befallen its previous occupant - but at present he was rather lacking in the way of options.

In any case, he had a bed and a kettle and some rather ominous shared facilities lurking at the end of the dingy hallway outside, all of which was merely echoing the dubious comforts of his life since leaving Sunnydale, and one did not, after all, need anything else to get by. The ephemera of the previous occupant were, if anything, a godsend, as his own possessions numbered precisely nothing until he could reclaim his motorcycle and whatever else had found its way from the clutches of the motel proprietor to the police.

Wesley shoved his feet into the shoes that at least were his own, and stumbled, dogged by the loosely flapping laces, across to the small kitchen.

A white rectangle standing neatly amid the inherited mess on the worktop caught his eye and he blinked in disbelief at the familiar handwriting in black ink across the envelope - which most certainly had not been placed where it now sat the previous evening.

Father must be utilising the Watchers Council's alchemists for private correspondence these days. He didn't want to know what the letter said, and his unwillingness to face its presence and irrational fear of other spells attached kept him from picking it up to throw it away.

Avoiding the envelope with both hand and eye, he set himself about preparing a cup of tea, which proved one of the tasks less arduous to his altered physical situation.

He took his tea to the living room, which was a generous description for the half of the apartment's main room which contained two scruffy armchairs and a coffee table as opposed to the half containing the bed with its vile smelling mattress. He sank down on the edge of the better of the two chairs and it responded via the slit in the upholstery along the arm, with a grin full of orange foam. Something small and black moved within. He took a gulp of his tea, which proved too hot and burned all the way down, though he was only distantly aware of the overshadowed pain. He gulped again, and set the mug on the ring-stained table to wipe his sleeve across his mouth.

Life was too linear with one hand. Tedious pattern of finish one thing, set down, on to the next. A frustration. His hand got tired trying to read. Another frustration. He glared down into the teacup and considered casting aside reserve in a trade-off for the satisfaction he'd get out of hurling it to shatter into pieces against the wall.

He didn't. He didn't have enough mugs to spare and, clumsy as he'd always been with two hands, he suspected he'd be needing the spares in the near future. Besides, he was much in need of the restorative powers of even such a lousy cup of tea as this.

Once it had cooled a little he used it to wash down the tablets the doctors had given him (no alcohol, strictly no exceeding the stated dosage, and absolutely no driving - the latter had made him laugh although the mystified medic hadn't intended it as a joke) and frowned at the sleeve that swung empty over the swell of bandaging he was yet to shed. He looked away from it as quickly.

Outside his window - and one of the few things this apartment could boast was its view; a large chunk of LA splayed out between the roofs of the warehouse and diner opposite - a pink dawn was just beginning to break, its light swallowing the scattered illuminations of the city.

He contemplated the day ahead as the drugs took effect, removing some of the sharpness from the ache in his shoulder.

There had been much he'd intended to do yesterday, after he saw the article in the paper, but it had been swamped by the practicalities of removing himself from the hospital and finding a base of operations that would keep him from the streets. By the time he was set to go, he'd been too exhausted and hurting to do anything besides slump into uneasy sleep, injury and bedridden weeks taking their toll. Now, though, a new day had come about and he had work to do. He needed a plan of action.

He'd missed the report on the first killing, but as soon as he read the second he knew he had to act, despite the bitter memory of Angel's words - and what irony they represented, now. There could not be many people in LA who would recognise the pattern of Angelus at work, and assuredly none other who would be prepared to set out to stop him.

"A rogue demon hunter has to do--" he whispered to himself, and choked the rest back at the hollow sound of the words bouncing off the thin walls of the apartment.

After silent seconds, he began to laugh. At his silliness, his pretension, the whole ridiculousness of him, sitting here with one arm and a body that could barely move for attacks of damnably inconvenient dizziness, preparing to take on Angelus, the Scourge of Europe himself.

The mirth, too, came out wrong.

***

Wesley deposited his cup in the sink, ran cold water over it and left it to drain. The sight and scent of the congealing dishes left by the previous tenant made him feel sick and he searched around for a rubbish sack to have done with the whole noxious collection. Even if he'd wanted to face eating from them at any point in the future, he didn't think he'd be able to clean off ingrained dirt of that order one-handed.

That served as the most uncomfortable reminder he could imagine that he was going to have to eat sometime today, while at the same time establishing he was certainly far from being able to face any of the canned meals Sheila had stocked his cupboards with (showing him proudly how she'd picked out items with pull-rings in the lids so he wouldn't have to struggle with a tin opener).

He dumped the clanking rubbish sack under the worktop.

Back in the living room, he collected up the thin wad of paper, news cuttings and notes he'd managed to compile between yesterday's infuriating practicalities. It wasn't the most professional or expansive of case files to work from, but he determined to improve it forthwith. He folded the papers clumsily and thrust them into one of his borrowed trousers' baggy pockets.

Outside his window, dawn was giving way to full daylight, and another victim could have met their end while he stalled about the rituals of waking and pampered to his own weakness.

Lacking a comb (something his red-haired guardian had failed to consider) or anything resembling a mirror, he ran his fingers through his hair until he was at least fairly certain it wasn't standing on end, if not overly optimistic for its chances of looking anywhere approaching decent. He made a one-handed bodge of his shoelaces that he wasn't too sure he'd be able to unpick when he came to take the shoes off. He pulled on his jacket, wincing at the crispy feel of the stains set into the lining, demon pus and his own blood intermingled.

The empty sleeve swung against his shoulder as he turned back in to the kitchen to pick up his key from the worktop. Next to the key lay the stake he'd broken off a damaged length of the skirting the previous evening, almost forgotten.

His father's letter, which had never really ceased its worrying at the back of his mind since he'd first lain eyes upon it, leaned unopened against a half-empty jar of instant coffee. He stared intently at it as though the force of his not wanting it to be there could make it vanish, then snatched up the key and the stake, shoved the stake inside his jacket, and turned his back.

The key moved reluctantly in the lock and resisted granting him exit. Outside on the landing, he could hear the couple in the apartment across the hall arguing noisily. Every word of the abuse they railed at each other rang clear through the thin walls. He shelved his intended supplication after a light bulb for the shared bathroom as he locked the door behind him, and instead walked straight on down the stairs.

The staircase, narrow and dark, its condition as dilapidated as the rest of the building, comprised forty-seven steps down from his fourth floor hovel and he felt the jar of every one travel up from his feet through to his shoulder as though the surgeons had strung a cable of nerve tissue as thick as his wrist to connect them, sometime while he'd been unconscious.

Halfway, dizziness halted him, threatening a trip down the stairs that would probably land him right back in hospital at the bottom. Leaning raggedly against the wall, he reflected that the doctors had been right, in their half-hearted way; he should not be walking around. But there was nobody else to do this. He could not call the Watcher's Council. He could not call the Slayer - even if he had her number, she had never seen and never would see with impartiality where Angel was concerned. And the police--

Wesley dredged his determination back to the surface, battled the thready grey cotton wool in his brain, and forced his feet onward, one before the next. Walking was a terribly simple procedure really, and did not require nearly so much drama as this...

Yet the lack of the weight of a whole arm demanded a readjustment in balance that he hadn't quite managed yet, sending him veering off to the right every few steps if he wasn't careful. He made himself approach the task of calculating his motions and resetting his body's instincts with an academically removed kind of interest. It was merely a puzzle, after all, one of weight distribution and balance, and he'd always been good at puzzles.

The exercise carried him down into the lobby. The front door was heavy and fought his grip, but the coolness of the early morning air roused him from his stupor a little. A bag lady who'd been sleeping in the deep cavity of the doorway bid him an alcoholically genial "good morning".

Lacking the money for cab fares, he wondered as he started walking whether it would ultimately save time if he were to first see about reclaiming his motorcycle from the police. The amount it had cost, he should be able to sell it for enough to pay off some of the hospital's bills and keep him a few months at least.

His brief sense of well-being dissipated when he reached the newsstand on the corner, where a third murder stared accusingly at him from half a dozen front pages. The world reeled around him after the effort of walking even so short a distance, and unconsciousness threatened convincingly enough that he had to pause again. The moment made a decision for him. Innocents would not die to salve his pride.

He dug out the scrap of notepaper from his jacket and squinted down at blurring numbers written in a strong, angular hand that had scored deep grooves with each strike of the pen.

When his senses recovered sufficiently to move, he shakily scooped the meagre change from his pocket and went to find a telephone.

***

The cafe was a cheap, pitiful venue with plastic tables and battered crockery and one big store-front window that gaped out onto the street. Its only distinction was of being the first place to catch Wesley's eye as he'd slumped in the phone booth across the road. He sat now at its most secluded table, in a corner offset in an alcove at the side of the window, close enough to offer an adequate view out onto the street, and hunched over the coffee he had bought as a pretext for remaining.

The dregs left were cold. Well, they were unlikely to be anything else when it had been almost two hours since he'd made his telephone call. Outside, the sun was well on its way to its full daytime blaze, but he shivered in his plastic seat. The world felt as glacial as the drink in his hand, and everything he encountered seemed to set the chill in deeper.

People's stares made him cold; the casual first glance that caught on the empty sleeve, the double-take and quick closer study, the gaze that slid away in faint apology or embarrassment as though it was somehow their fault he was missing an arm. And it had sunk in, as he endured the stares, settled deep and chilled to the bone, that probably nobody was ever going to look quite 'normally' at him again. He thought he'd accepted the physical permanence of his condition back in the hospital, but he discovered now that there were other readjustments he had yet to take in.

He caught the waitress giving him a pointed look, but she glanced away quickly when he turned his head. It was about the fourth such instance in the past half hour.

Given how little change he had remaining, he didn't want to have to purchase another coffee in order to remain, though the thought of waiting until they actually demanded he buy or leave made him want to crawl out of his own skin in anticipated embarrassment. He cast another desperate glance out of the window and was relieved - although also more than a little fearful - to see Detective Costas heading down the sidewalk towards him. Costas saw him, but gave no more acknowledgement of it than a quickening of pace and flicker of grim recognition in his eyes.

Then the cafe door was swinging open, the bell on it sounding in a noise too cheerful and bright, to Wesley's mind, to be anything other than discordant in these surroundings. Costas entered in a swirl of grubby trench coat and a faint odour of sweat.

"You sure know how to pick a classy joint," he said, stopping at Wesley's table, apparently uncaring of his volume or the hostility the comment engendered in the waitress's glare. But his assessment of the cafe didn't stop him from proceeding to ask "You eaten yet?" and, upon extracting a negative response, hollering the waitress over and ordering the breakfast special so vaunted in the peeling posters on the cafe walls. His heckling and cajoling somehow managed to pry from Wesley a reaction that was construed as an agreement to join him in eating, though Wesley for the life of him could not recall agreeing any such thing, however many times he ran the conversation through in his head as Costas argued with the waitress at the counter.

Two more coffees appeared almost instantly and Costas swaggered back to the table with them, allowing Wesley to push his stone cold mug away with a faint, grateful sigh. Costas finally seemed to tire of looming over him and sat down. "I guess you've been here a while, huh? I got here as soon as--"

"I can't pay," Wesley interrupted bluntly, too busy wrestling tiredness and an annoying touch of double-vision to bother with courtesies.

"You say?" Costas looked blank, and sipped at his coffee with an experimental air.

"For the food," Wesley expanded. "I don't have the money. I can't pay."

Costas waved a hand and resumed his critical examination of the coffee, finally setting it down to the verdict of a grimace. "You said you wanted to share information. If you've the kind of information I've been looking for these two years past, I can stretch to a breakfast special and a lousy coffee and you're welcome to it."

"Thank you." Embarrassed, he stared out of the window to avoid meeting the detective's gaze.

"And if you haven't, you better have a good explanation to hand for calling me out here."

There was a pause. Wesley felt... grey. He concentrated fixedly on the flashing advertisement in a travel agent's across the street. Skiing holidays. He'd never go skiing.

Costas shook his head. "If you don't mind me saying - which you probably do, but mind I'm saying it anyway - you look like shit, Pryce. Worse than in the hospital, which is really something. What the hell are you doing out? I didn't even know they'd released you until you called. I thought you were supposed to be in at least another week. Don't you know I could drag you in for trying to vanish without leaving a forwarding address? There's still an open case caught up in all this."

"I didn't realise--" He stopped, and made himself breathe, edge away from the defensive, find a different approach. "It slipped my mind," he clipped, delving back to his father's lessons and example. "I wasn't anticipating signing myself out yesterday. A situation came up. Everything happened very quickly. There was no time to think of such details. And for your information, I'm feeling considerably better than when we met in the hospital... and that would be Wyndham-Pryce, please. Or 'Wesley' will suffice if my surname bothers you."

Costas scowled consideringly at him over the lip of his coffee, faint disbelief mixed in with the irritation. "All right. Wesley. And my point, that got buried somewhere in the procedurals, was that you look like hell. As my mother would say, you need to be fed up."

Deflated, but amused despite himself, Wesley resisted the obvious comeback. "Thank you for your concern," he said, "But please don't worry. I'm quite all right."

"And speaking of being fed up." Costas looked immensely pleased as the breakfasts arrived, and was practically stuck into the meal before the waitress had set down the plate. The girl made a fast retreat. Costas glanced up briefly from his demolition of the breakfast special to nod expectantly at Wesley.

The proximity of food only made him feel ill, but obliged to at least put up a show of eating, Wesley picked up his fork and poked runny fried eggs around the plate with it.

The detective's attitude had set him a little off-balance. He'd anticipated meeting the man again with something like dread, after the encounter in the hospital, but here Costas seemed willing to approach him, if warily, with considerably more casual amity than before. It was also possible that Costas really didn't want his only lead on LA's supernatural and demonic element to run off or - which might seem equally likely to him at the moment - drop dead on him. And he supposed his swift disappearance from the hospital could have looked suspect in a number of ways.

"I didn't expect you to call," Costas said after a while.

By that time, Wesley had massacred his eggs into a mangled mess and moved on to the thin strings of bacon. When the detective spoke, he looked up, automatically raising the fork to his lips. He swallowed from reflex, and discovered as the food hit his stomach that he was in fact extremely hungry. He devoured half a dozen more bites before remembering that Costas had spoken.

"No?" he queried distractedly.

"No." Costas was grinning - at what, he couldn't fathom. "You get to recognise the look of a suspect who'd rather go down than talk."

Wesley was briefly delighted to contemplate himself capable of any such look, and wondered what his father would think - what Buffy and her people would think - what Angel would think - if they heard Costas' opinion. He wiped the idea from his mind as he realised its inanity. "I didn't intend to call." He gulped down several more bites, then set the fork down carefully - his hand was still trembling a little - and dug the newspaper clippings from his pocket. "But there are lives at risk. It's about this recent spate of murders."

Costas dashed through the clippings in a second two-handed, then returned to absently forking the remainder of his food into his mouth with his left hand. "You know something about these?" he asked, waving the pages in illustration. "I mean, hell, it's not my case, but if you've got anything--"

"I do." Wesley discovered his hunger had evaporated, and pushed his half-eaten meal aside. Costas shot him a frown, then swapped it for his empty plate and continued shovelling, not seeming to care about the mangled state of the remaining food. "I'm familiar with the modus operandi. It belongs to a very particular killer."

"You've got a name?" Food was forgotten in an instant. Costas dragged out the familiar notebook and leaned keenly over the table.

Wesley, feeling crowded, hunched back. "Angel... Angelus."

Costas looked annoyed, shades of the persona Wesley had encountered in the hospital returning. "You've got a real problem with these last names, Pryce. How am I supposed to find an 'Angel' in Los Angeles. You have any idea how many cheap male models and rent boys go by these sorts of tags?"

He choked at the image that pulled up. "He's certainly neither of those things. And... I know where he lives. I can take you to him. Right now."

The detective ran a sceptical eye over him. "I'd be surprised you could stand up straight right now. No. Give me the address. I'll call in some backup, make the arrest."

"No," Wesley said, rather too quickly.

"No?" Costas' expression froze as the penny dropped. "This is something like the last case, right? What is it you're not telling me?"

Wesley stared long and hard at him, hoping he was prepared to hear this. "Very well, Detective Costas. Angel isn't human. I need you to help me kill a vampire."

Costas was quiet a long moment. Then he nodded slowly. "Bite marks. Right. Figures. You know how many corpses I've seen brought in like that, drained of blood? After a while you get to thinking, maybe these aren't just ghost stories."

"No. Not ghost stories. They're very real. Flesh and blood - dead flesh, borrowed blood, granted. Have no doubt about it, detective, ghosts exist, magic exists and there are real monsters out in this city as well as the human ones you've been accustomed to dealing with."

Despite his casual air and assurances, Wesley couldn't miss the freaked look sitting just behind Costas' eyes. But there was little time to wait for the man to acclimatise himself.

"We need to go," he said. "Now, while it's daylight. There's a chance he'll be sleeping and even if he isn't, the sunlight will trap him and give us an edge - not to mention an escape - we wouldn't have at night."

Costas stared back at him levelly. "I meant what I said. You're not coming. You're still a hospital case, Pryce, and I'm not going to be responsible for getting you all the way killed."

"Well, it's unfortunate, then - because you can't do this without me." Wesley leaned back in his chair and caught himself just shy of the crossing of his arms that would have been automatic, several weeks and a whole different life away. His head spun as his worldview suffered another minor jar. "I know this world. You don't. And as I'm not telling you the address, the only way you're going to get there is if you let me show you."

***

The abode of the vampire Angel turned out to be a large, ominous brick building that looked like it might have been converted from a warehouse. It squatted glowering over a wide and relatively quiet street.

"Not exactly a castle," Costas observed as they exited his vehicle - a blue Lexus that singularly failed to fit in with the rest of his image. He lit up a cigarette as they stood regarding the building, and remained oblivious to the pointed message behind Wesley's responding cough.

Wesley leaned against the car, the noxious smell of the smoke almost hallucinogenic, mixing with the painkillers in his system to spread out a wave of warm numbness from his midsection. His senses spun giddily and if the car hadn't been there he would likely have ended up recumbent on the sidewalk.

"You all right?" Costas asked, an irritable weariness in his tone that seemed to anticipate becoming an 'I told you so' any moment.

"I am, indeed, all right," Wesley said, nodding and smiling. He filed the discovery that nodding was not wise at present; wrote it up in his brain on a fluorescent stick-it note he pinned on the inside of his forehead right between his eyes. He heard a terribly manic- sounding giggle and swallowed abruptly and straightened when he realised it had been his own.

"You are insane." Costas punctuated each word with a stab of the cigarette that spilled bright embers onto the concrete. With the final stab, the dwindling cigarette chose to disintegrate altogether and Costas crushed its messy corpse under his boot. "Ready, Pryce?"

"Wyndham--"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah..."

Wesley bit down on another protest as he realised the detective was already halfway to the door of Angel's building, and struggled to catch up.

Inside was a dingy hallway and mailboxes proving that, contrary to appearances, there were in fact operating businesses run from the offices on at least two of the upstairs floors. The uncollected mail in one of the boxes was addressed to 'the occupier' of the basement which seemed the building's only residential apartment.

"The crypt," Costas deadpanned. He shoved the mail back. "Some of this is postmarked yesterday. Maybe he hasn't been home."

"I suppose it's possible." Wesley's hopes sank at the thought of how that would complicate matters. He had no clue where he might start looking for Angel in a city the size of LA. Would Costas arrest him for wasting police time? He threw the thought aside resolutely. "On the other hand--" he drew the stake out from his jacket and extended it to the detective. "You'd better carry this." Even if the unlikely did come to pass and he had a chance to stake Angel, he currently lacked the strength to drive the weapon deep enough to pierce the heart.

Costas took it with an air of scepticism, and his fingers brushed the holster hidden by his bulky brown coat in indecision.

"Your gun won't help you, detective. I explained that. Bullets won't necessarily even slow a vampire down. A stake through the heart, decapitation--"

"--fire or sunlight. Yeah, I got the rote." His grip around the stake, more sure than it had been, gave lie to his flippancy. Wesley nodded approvingly; saw spots and cursed his mental note for becoming unstuck and fluttering down into the detritus of the rest of his thoughts.

They took the stairs in lieu of the elevator, since Costas claimed it would be easier to approach without forewarning their quarry that way, although Wesley rather thought his clumsy invalid's movements would make the point moot. But nothing stirred in the apartment as they descended the last few steps. The lights were out except for that of the kitchen, which stood a small oasis of glow across an open-plan expanse of antique furnishings, many of which looked the worse for wear. In the faint illumination, Wesley made out bookshelves over-laden with thick, ancient volumes.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Costas hissed.

He glanced guiltily back, and only then realised he'd pushed past the detective and was standing in front of the shelves. He stole another intent glance at its contents, recognising titles. Thought that, well, if Angel was going to have no need of these...

He turned from them abruptly. "I'm sorry. I don't know what I was thinking."

Costas' narrowed eyes suggested he agreed with that wholeheartedly. "We need to check the rest of the place out. Then you can overindulge on the bookworm thing."

"Of course."

He stayed a pace behind the detective as they headed for a doorway half-open to reveal a slice of bedroom furnishings, and collided with him when Costas halted on the threshold, staring incredulously at the large, elegantly metal-framed bed. He pushed past him to see--

"Oh, dear lord."

Whatever Wesley had been expecting to find, it was most certainly not this.

"What the--?" He heard Costas give up on attempting to articulate anything but curses, at length, behind him as he hurried to Angel's bedside and studied the chains, discovering his current anger with the souled vampire did not preclude the extension of compassion for the obvious suffering of another living - well, animate - being.

"I thought we were here to kill him?" Costas' eyes were wide and his knuckles had whitened around the stake. His other hand again hovered close to his gun.

"Don't be ridiculous." Wesley pointed to Angel's wrists, scoured raw by the chains; how they were scabbed and beginning to heal in places while broken open anew in others. "He's been here like this at least a day. He couldn't possibly be responsible for last night's murder. It's somebody - something else."

"In what possible way could that matter? You said he was a vampire. You've just spent the journey here telling me what evil fiends they are." Wesley presumed with ill temper that the inflection the detective placed on that remark was intended as a mimic of his own. "Now we're supposed to be all pro-vamp because he didn't eat these specific LA citizens?"

"He has a soul. Usually. He was cursed by... but never mind that now." He leaned over Angel and cautiously shook his shoulder. "Angel? Are--" He leaped back with a small cry as the vampire convulsed awake within the chains. He couldn't be sure if the hands were reaching out for him when the chain pulled them short after only inches, but the scare and the quick movement brought back his dizziness and nausea, and he slumped against the wall.

Through misted vision he saw the wildness leave Angel's eyes and a measure of clarity seep in in its stead. For several heartbeats - his own, obviously, so loud in his ears he could hear nothing of the words he suspected Detective Costas to be saying - he and Angel regarded each other in silence. Then the vampire's tongue ran over his lips and a cracked voice emerged. "Wesley?"

"Yes," he agreed, saturating the word with as much irony as he could produce. "Angel, the keys to the chains. Where are they? Who did this to you? Was it the mur--"

"No!" The chains rattled madly, joining in the violent negation, causing Wesley to wince. His shoulder jarred against the wall and he slid a further inch or so down it, and if he didn't re-stabilise his balance soon he'd be on his knees. Angel said intently, "You can't let me loose. I've been killing again, Wesley. The demon's breaking loose... in my sleep."

"In your sleep?" Wesley spluttered. He managed to straighten his back and step away from the wall's support. He gasped as the next thought struck him. "You did this to yourself."

"I've been having dreams," Angel said with difficulty. "Killing dreams. Just like... I stalk them, cut them, feed off them... and the fear, it tastes..." With shock Wesley recognised a kind of dreamy languor in his eyes as he reminisced. It was replaced by despair as the vampire repeated desperately, "You mustn't let me loose. Wesley, you - you know what you have to do. You're a Watcher, or you were. You can--"

"So now I'm good for something," Wesley said. "That's terribly encouraging. Really. Thank you, Angel." He almost spit the last words out, and both Costas and Angel seemed to find his vehemence jarring. "You're not a killer again. Another victim died about six hours ago. What did you do with the damned key?"

Angel's breaths slowed from their panicked rasp as he absorbed the information. Until the breaths stopped completely, alarming Wesley a moment. He watched the tension drain from Angel's bound form and relief overtake his face.

"I didn't dream..." he laughed weakly. "Well, I guess I didn't, you know, actually sleep. Huh. The key--" He pointed with his chin. "I threw it over there somewhere."

Wesley moved to retrieve it, but Costas brushed past with a, "Stay put. I'm not carrying you out of here." So he stood back and watched the detective search the floor on hands on knees.

A thought occurred to him. "Don't unlock him yet," he told Costas as he departed the bedroom. He returned a minute later with an armful of bags from the refrigerator, and couldn't help but notice how Angel perked up in interest at the sight.

"It's for our safety as much as your comfort," Wesley said. He struggled with one of the bags. Costas wandered over and took it off him, stabbed it efficiently with the key and handed it back.

"Feed your vampire."

With Angel looking on, Wesley bit back his annoyance and held the bag, a little embarrassedly, over Angel's mouth, letting the contents drip out. Angel made a small noise of frustration at the process's tedious slowness and he squeezed the bag in his fingers, transforming the drip to a stream that splattered Angel's jaw, though the vampire didn't seem to mind.

The first bag finished, he awkwardly handed Costas a second, endured the other's eye-rolling, and repeated the procedure.

"Enough?" he asked, as he scrunched up the plastic and discarded it on the nightstand.

"Enough." Angel nodded. "Thanks. Wesley, I--"

"Don't bother." He turned away. Without looking back at the souled vampire, he said, "We need to find out who's behind these killings if it isn't you. Obviously you have a form of connection to them somehow. Do you know what it might be? If there's anything at all you can tell us..." He took the key Costas held out to him and clumsily unfastened the chains, still not looking up.

"There's nothing," Angel said, a little too quickly. He sat up and the chains slid off the bed to land on the floor with a clamour. He wiped a hand across his face and performed a quick double-take with regard for his guests, pulling the hand back from his mouth to wipe the blood off onto the bedclothes instead, looking every bit as though he regretted the waste. Wesley noticed how he eyed the last plastic packet, untouched on the nightstand.

"You're lying," Costas said bluntly. "Look, pal. Vampire or - whatever, you've a citizen's duty to help put this guy away. Either with a stake or with the law."

Angel blinked. "Citizen's duty."

Wesley almost laughed at the flat sarcasm. It was easy to overlook Angel's rare humour, when so often it seemed he had none at all.

"I'll deal with it," Angel said after an uncomfortable pause. "He's dangerous--"

"He? Then you do know who's behind this."

"Wesley--" Angel sighed. "I used to have a connection with those I sired. It's possible - it would mean he's close. Penn--"

"Penn?"

"He's dangerous, Wesley." Angel swung his feet off the bed and stood up, and caught himself as he almost fell over again. Despite the fact Wesley had an inch or so on him in height, the vampire's bulk was imposing and he found himself retreating. But Angel just walked past into the kitchen, where he ran water and splashed it over his arms and face. Costas followed, so Wesley reluctantly did too. "He's powerful, and insane. He loves to kill. Likes to make an art of it. You can't take him on. Leave him to me."

"The police can--" Costas began.

"The police can't handle this. Wesley, take Detective Van Helsing here away and stay away."

"Very well. As we're clearly not welcome, we'll go." Angrily, Wesley caught Costas' arm and pointed him towards the door. "But I'm not going to stand by while a supernatural killer roams loose. You're not the only one with sanction or inclination to fight the good fight."

He'd meant the words as a challenge and he'd hardly anticipated the magnitude of the flinch they produced in Angel, the way his whole body rocked as though he'd been struck.

Wesley hesitated, but as it quickly became clear that Angel was going to stand and silently glare until he and Costas made themselves scarce, he acquiesced gladly. Of all the arrogant, jumped up...

His anger carried him on its wave up in the elevator to the dark, draughty lobby, but when he stepped out his legs collapsed beneath him and weakness broke through him in a veritable tsunami.

Strong hands caught him, under his arm and around his waist. The warmth of another body so close wasn't something he was accustomed to and it briefly overwhelmed his senses. Then the warmth shifted and he felt a solid, flat surface beneath his back, the arms still supporting him from the front but their distance rather more ordinary. A hand brushed his hair aside to feel his forehead.

"Jesus," Costas said. "Hang the investigation, I'm taking you home right now and you're gonna rest before you kill yourself. And that's not optional. Hell, Pryce - Wesley - I can see you want to stop this guy, but you've gotta rest up and let yourself heal, too."

"I'm not going to wait for it to grow back," Wesley retorted, though his irritation emerged a frail mumble.

"Say what?" Costas blinked at him. When the words sank in, he let out a guffaw and cheerily clapped Wesley on his good shoulder. "You're a hell of a wit, Pryce. I can't tell a lie. Whatever else you might be, you're a hell of a wit."

While being one hell of a wit had been far from Wesley's intentions, he could muster neither the energy nor the inclination to slap down the amused comradeship with which the detective supported him back to the car.

***

Lulled by the smell of suede and sweat and the rhythm of the engine, he zoned out in the passenger seat, and only returned to full consciousness as they pulled up in the street outside his apartment.

Costas made unimpressed noises as he accompanied Wesley inside and helped him up the dingy staircase to the third floor. On the landing he glowered at the neighbouring apartment door still emanating raised voices as Wesley struggled to fit the key to the lock with shaking fingers.

After being outside, the atmosphere inside the apartment seemed all the more unpleasantly stuffy. The air conditioning, if it was functioning at all, wasn't functioning well. Costas deposited Wesley in an armchair and, swearing, walked around yanking open windows despite the heat of the day - only midday, still, barely 1pm, Wesley reflected with depression; he'd managed all of five hours. The air wasn't moving much, and Costas' efforts didn't make much difference to speak of. Dust floated lazily in the beams of sunlight that seemed to pass through the rooms without touching them, like they might be besmirched by any contact. Their aloofness kept it dingy. Costas flicked on light switches, and swore at the ones that didn't work.

"It's really not necessary to--" Wesley began.

The detective waved him into silence. "You're going to sit there and I'm going to get you something to drink and you're going to drink it, damn you. I did not bargain on spending today looking after some cripple with a goddamn death-wish. There are crimes being committed in this city."

Wesley blinked, absorbed the word, and set his jaw. "I may well be a cripple," he said stiffly, "But the shoulder will heal. In a few weeks, it will heal. It will be better than this. I don't want to die. I'm just trying--"

"Shut the hell up a second and fucking listen instead of talking for once!" Costas roared. The faint sounds of argument breezing through the walls ceased momentarily in shock at being outmatched. "I don't know what drummed into your stupid thick skull that you had to prove something to the world this bad, but don't waste it on me. I don't want to hear it. I've had enough of your bullshit. Now, sit."

He shoved Wesley down in the chair as he tried, in his outrage, to stand, and stomped off into the kitchen. Wesley perched rigidly on the edge of the chair, gripped by indecision, listening to Costas abusing the crockery and the hissing of the electric kettle. After a minute, he sagged back and let it all wash over him. His shoulder ached with a rising insistence that reminded him it was probably time for more medication.

Costas re-emerged as he was hunting down the side of the bed for the tablets. He held up the plastic container to forestall whatever new torrent the detective had opened his mouth to vent, and returned to the armchair, where he accepted the tea and used it to gulp down fresh pills, oblivious to its temperature. The fact it was stronger than he liked and had too much sugar didn't register until minutes later, by which time Costas had brought another mug from the kitchen and perched on the arm of the spare chair.

"What was it?" he asked after a while, tipping his head in Wesley's direction. "That did that to you?"

"A demon." Wesley grimaced. "Angel said it was a Kungai. I didn't recognise - I'd never seen one before close-up. Plus, they're supposed to have a very distinctive horn," he added snippily.

Costas laughed dryly. "And you; you know about all of this shit precisely how?"

"I was trained. I used to be... well, it doesn't really matter what I used to be. But I can help you, detective. To fight these creatures. I can tell you what you need to know. Vampires are only a fraction of the evils out there."

"So you said." Costas stood and paced restlessly, swigging the tea with an aplomb more suited to pint glasses. He spotted the envelope on the worktop and picked it up before Wesley could warn him. A brief spark and the detective's curse later, Costas was holding a scroll with his fingertips as though it'd bitten him, and the mug was a heap of broken fragments in a lightly steaming puddle on the floor. "What the hell?"

Wesley didn't have the energy to prevent him running his eyes quickly over the content. "Jesus, Pryce, your dad's a real charmer."

"I don't want to know."

"I wouldn't, either." Costas threw the letter back onto the worktop, scrunching his face up like he'd caught a bad smell. He glanced down at the mess on the floor. "Aw, hell. I'm sorry about the mug."

"It wasn't mine," Wesley said. "Nothing here is." He watched the detective busy himself clearing up the shards and the spillage, and remembered something. "I, ah, don't suppose you could look into returning my belongings... chiefly a motorcycle... I mean, obviously it isn't any use to me now, but I thought I could sell it--"

"I'll look into it." Costas paused and appeared to consider a moment. "Look, my brother owns a parts shop, sells a few second hand vehicles. I'd bet he could find you a buyer easy. We can sort that out later. Meantime, there's a few bits and pieces in evidence that were found in that motel room with you that I can probably get released to you now, though you might have to give up any hopes for the weapons. And maybe I can spot you a loan until you've sorted out the bike."

"That really isn't necessary," Wesley said weakly, then caught the detective's glare. "...thank you very much."

Costas nodded sharply. "Don't you forget it." He bundled the remains of the mug in plastic and tossed them into the waste sack under the worktop. "You get some rest. I'll come by tomorrow, we can see where we are with this vampire thing. In the meantime I'll try to get in on the case - oh, damn it to hell."

"Whatever's wrong?"

"The case is wrong. It's Lockley's. Man, I swear, you do not know what you're asking here. This is not going to be pretty." Downcast, he stomped to the door, but hesitated. "You got a phone?"

Wesley shook his head. Costas reached in his jacket, pulled out a cellphone and made as if to toss it over, then changed his mind and crossed the room to place it into Wesley's hand. "That's mine. If my ex-wife calls, tell her - I don't know, make something up. You've got my station extension."

"Thank you. I - I don't know what to--"

"Don't bother. You're my one lead on getting a hold on what's really going down in this damn city. Which means you're worth more to me than gold right now." And with that, he slammed the door behind him and was gone.

Wesley stood and moved to lock the door. On his way back to the chair, his father's letter seemed to watch him from the worktop and he reluctantly allowed guilt to nudge him in a detour to pick it up. He took it back with him and, leaning into the worn padding of the chair, regarded the scrawled black writing through slit eyes.

Upon reaching the line, 'to reiterate, I have no son. Your cousin Eustace is, needless to say, exceedingly pleased in receiving this news', he crumpled it in his fist and let it fall to litter the stained carpet.

Chapter Text

The ringing on the other end of the line finally halted with a click as somebody picked up. An irritable growl strangled the words "Rupert Giles" through the receiver.

Wesley, taken aback, withdrew the cellphone from his ear and frowned severely at it, wondering whether the infernal item was faulty. That hadn't sounded at all like...

The growl repeated itself, loud enough that he heard it clearly even with the cell two feet removed from his earlobe, and he hurriedly reunited them. "H-hello?" he ventured.

"Who the hell is this?"

With some effort, he scraped together his composure and took a steadying breath. "Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, Mr Giles. Good Lord, man, where have you been? I've been trying to contact you since yesterday afternoon!"

"Well, I'm very sorry I don't tailor my life around your - Wesley?" There was faint disbelief in Giles' tone, and then almost audibly he pulled himself together and reattached the veneer of snippy politeness Wesley had always associated with the man. "Wesley? What in God's name does the Council want from me now? I'll have you know Buffy has a lot to contend with already at the moment and I'm certainly not going to--"

His heart gave a little jump in his chest at the confirmation that Giles didn't know. He stammered, "It's not, in fact, strictly speaking, Council business. That is to say..."

"Do stop blathering and get on with it."

"If you wish," Wesley said. In truth, the familiarity of Giles', well, irritating familiarity was something of a comfort. "I have a rather knotty research problem on my, uh, hands, and I wondered if you might assist. There's a murderer on the loose in LA - of supernatural origins, needless to say - and I appear to be missing any access to the necessary informational resources."

"The Council has its own researchers." For a moment, it seemed he was going to slam the phone down, but when Wesley raised a quick and no doubt 'blathered' protest he sighed instead. "All right, Wesley. Explain to me why you're phoning me at... oh, dear God, is that the time? Never mind. What's this all about?"

"About? Aside from the fact still more innocents will die unless I stop this fiend?" He made efforts to calm himself and said, in more measured fashion, "You know the Council bureaucracy. By the time I pry the information I need out of their system, it could be too late. Far quicker to obtain it from an independent such as yourself..." He paused, unsure of whether that could be construed as rubbing it in, though he certainly hadn't intended it in any such way. His thoughts recoiled from the idea of setting Giles to rights on the matter and admitting his own humiliation. "And I thought that you and I... well, we'd established a certain rapport, I felt, by the summer... perhaps it would be preferable to come to you."

"A rapport." He could visualise Giles groaning and rubbing his head from the long-suffering tone in his voice, and winced because all evidence pointed towards Mr Giles' opinion of him being every bit as bad as he'd feared it might be. "Very well, Wesley. Make it quick."

"Certainly. And thank you. And - my sincere apologies for disturbing you so rudely. Terribly improper of me, I realise now." Giles had probably been asleep, resting after a night of battling the forces of evil in service of the Slayer who still wanted him around, and with that realisation Wesley felt appropriately guilty for all his cursing of the man over the last - good grief, almost twenty-four hours it had been since he first tried to call.

"Wesley," Giles said firmly.

"Sorry." His thoughts had always been apt to wander, but he was starting to suspect his prescribed painkillers weren't helping the issue. "It's a vampire named Penn. Of Angelus' particular infamous brood, or so I'm told; the Order of Aurelius. I'm working with the police here in LA, where this individual has embarked upon a killing spree of especially sadistic proportions."

"Aren't there research facilities available in LA?" With a distinct air of 'is that all?', the other Watcher abruptly became very snippy indeed. "I can give you the contact numbers and addresses of some private libraries and stores where I'm sure you could find what you're searching for."

Wesley hesitated. All things considered, he would prefer to undertake his own research, much as he respected Mr Giles' abilities in the field. Yet in his present state, as he'd demonstrated to himself yesterday, even travelling across town to reach them would prove such a draining task he'd be useless by the time he got there. And he certainly wasn't about to send Detective Costas to do the research for him, even if the man would agree to any such arrangement.

"I'm... afraid I'm somewhat incapacitated at present," he admitted meekly.

He heard a distinct snort. Of course, he could hardly blame Giles for his scepticism, recalling with painful acuity the fuss he'd been making the last time the man had seen him 'incapacitated'.

"As you say, Mr Giles." He very much did not want to go into the details of the situation with his fellow ex-Watcher. "But I should greatly appreciate your research assistance in this matter."

Giles' response was an unexpectedly long pause that was beginning to worry before he finally said, with great and very apparent reluctance, "This... sounds like you could use more help than just research. I know I said Buffy had a lot to handle at present, but if things are bad, she and I could be over there by the early evening--"

"No!" Wesley all but shouted, making himself jump. He tried to snatch a quick recovery. "I mean, really, it isn't at all necessary. As I said, I'm working with the police. The assistance I'm providing is more in terms of knowledge and contacts than anything else. They will, I'm sure, be able to deal with the subduing and termination of the vampire."

"There's no need to jump down my throat." Giles sounded more relieved than annoyed by the outburst, though. "If my direct help isn't required... very well, I shall undertake the research you need. Though I must say, isn't it rather unusual for the Council to overtly take a hand in helping the authorities?"

"It's more a few particular police contacts than the police per se," Wesley said evasively. "And, well, truth be told, it's more... a particular Watcher than the Watchers Council, per se, as well--"

He was interrupted by a bark of laughter. Utterly confused, he blinked at the cellphone. "I beg your pardon?"

"I always knew there was a human being in there somewhere," Giles said. Wesley could hear his smirk. "Just don't let on to the Council about your side projects. Remember what happens to those Watchers who let themselves become emotionally involved."

The trace of mocking irony in the remark wounded - probably completely unintentionally, but that didn't mean he couldn't feel its bite. Giles, of course, didn't realise just what had been the price of remaining behind against orders in Sunnydale to provide his near-useless contribution to the Graduation Day battle.

But, because there were other things he was guilty of, for which he fully deserved Giles' chastisement, he said, "It's... not easy, I realise that now. To... Watch, and not become involved. Emotionally. Physically. I said things to you, before, that I believe I find myself less than proud of now, and I must apologise for that."

Giles was quiet again a moment before he said, his voice softer and more sincere than it had been throughout the preceding conversation, "We were all taught to stand back and send others into the front lines. It isn't your fault that you ended up being what you were trained to be."

"Perhaps not." He could not help but reflect a little bitterly that it would have been nice if he'd been shown more of that willingness to understand at the time. If he'd found any kind of acceptance in Sunnydale - why, he might not even be here now like this.

Getting angry with Giles would not help his case.

"At any rate, I should thank you - profusely - for agreeing to this favour, given our past--"

"I thought we had a rapport?" Giles put in, fairly humourlessly.

"Ha ha," Wesley said, shifting in his chair with discomfort. "Well. You'll call me back, then, when you find something?" He read out the number of Costas' cellphone.

"I will indeed. Goodbye, Wesley." Giles spoke the last very firmly, and just before the phone clicked... was that a woman's drowsy voice that he could hear in the background?

Scandalised, Wesley switched off the cellphone and stared at it long and hard, trying to figure out the chances that, given the strength of his pain medication, he'd just hallucinated an entire conversation.

Really. So much then for taking time out from helping Buffy save the world and protect the innocent.

***

 

Wesley set the cellphone down on a rickety side table and leaned back into the armchair. The place where his arm had been did not ache notably less than it had the previous day, though he tried to insist to himself that it must be healing, improving. It would not tie him down for long. He would not be relying on Costas and mobile telephones and all this damnable sitting and waiting forever.

The last twenty-four hours had been occupied by the need to get in touch with Giles - ever since it had occurred to him that Costas' provision of the cellphone meant he could actually take action of his own, even bound to this room as he was by illness and injury.

He'd had to ring Cordelia first, to try find out what Giles' number in fact was (irritated with himself that somehow, he'd managed to keep the girl's, despite that disastrous parting kiss, but had lost that of his fellow Watcher, which there was actually some practical function to retaining) only she had relocated herself. The woman who answered, who he assumed to be her mother, had sounded rather intoxicated, but had nonetheless dug out Rupert Giles' number at his request. He had been forced to put the phone down shortly after, as her initially subtle drunken innuendos became shockingly lewd.

Cordelia apparently was also in LA. She had an acting contract. She was going to be on television. Wesley, not so very naive as all that, vaguely wondered what she would be advertising. He might even buy it to reminisce, even if the bubble was now long burst. It had felt wonderful to be a hero in somebody's eyes, if only for a brief time.

The final completion of the telephone call left him aimless, robbed of its multiple diversionary values: fretting about Giles, about what he would say to the man, whether he would agree to help, the embarrassment if he knew about Wesley's own changed relationship with the Council... the mounting frustration as hours passed and still more hours passed while he kept trying to ring. In the end, all things considered, the call had gone well. Giles had been civil, if not enthused, to hear from him, and he hadn't asked about Council business or, God forbid, his father, and he hadn't had to explain his current pitiful state of affairs. For all of this, he could be grateful.

In a near-empty apartment, he was stranded again with the undisturbed contents of his thoughts. Yesterday's failures. His continuing frustration at his trapped status and his helplessness.

Trying to drive the ghosts from his mind with activity, he got up and proceeded to do what he could to tidy his living space until dizziness forced him back to the armchair. After another half hour of sitting, he repeated the process over again.

It was shortly after he'd sat down the second time that he heard the voices start up across the hall, raised once more in debate, and shortly after that when there sounded the sharp rap of knuckles against the door.

He'd barely turned the key in the lock and touched his fingers to the handle when Costas impatiently shoved it open and pushed his way through. Wesley almost closed the door on the woman trying to follow him inside, and he stammered a rattled apology as she entered rubbing her shoulder and grimacing. Her eyes narrowed on him, their gaze uncomfortably shrewd and judgemental, then she apparently dismissed him and moved on to survey the apartment, which fared little better in her esteem, before zeroing back in on Costas.

"All right," she said, in a smoky voice with a sarcastic catch to its drawl. "We're here. You said you'd talk, so talk. Now what the hell's going on?" Her eyes darted back to Wesley and away again. "And who is this man?"

He avoided the sporadic scrutiny by turning his back and taking his time to lock the door. Costas and the woman continued the sniping he suspected they had been carrying on for quite some time, and he realised then that it had not been his neighbours he had been listening to these past minutes.

"This is the guy with the answers," he heard Costas say.

"Answers about what? Vampires and demons? Ghosts and ghouls and things that go bump in the night?"

"You're the one who's sitting on a murder case involving three victims drained of blood from bite-like neck wounds. You tell me."

Three, Wesley thought. Then, there had not been another murder that night, while he was forced to rest, useless. He wondered if that was Angel's doing. If Penn was already dust, or if Angel was.

"That's very funny, Jack. Is this a new game? Encourage all the cranks and send them over to Lockley?"

"There's nothing crank about this, Kate." Costas turned his attention to Wesley, wincing covertly in gruff apology. "Pr-- Wesley, Detective Lockley is the officer heading up the murder investigation. I think I might've mentioned her yesterday."

The look the woman targeted at his oblivious back made it clear she was well aware of the kind of terms under which she had indeed been mentioned. She flicked her blonde hair back from her face as she raised her head, squaring her chin and staring Wesley in the eyes. She took his proffered hand with a minor hesitation, shook it firmly, and nodded when he introduced himself, "Wesley Wyndham-Pryce."

"Detective Kate Lockley." She withdrew her hand and wiped it on her pants less than surreptitiously, and he cringed realising his palm was most likely unpleasantly clammy to the touch.

"Guy's just got out of the hospital," Costas offered up randomly, looking out of the window. His hands toyed with a box of cigarettes that Wesley sincerely hoped he wasn't intending to light up

"Gee, I couldn't tell. What does this have to do with my case?"

Wesley managed to drag together the threads of his late authority, pushing the increasingly familiar knot of humiliation roughly aside - he had neither time nor patience for it now. He turned on Costas and pitched his voice to override Detective Lockley's. "What in God's name is going on here? I thought we had an understanding--"

"Oh, we have an understanding, do we?" Lockley said.

"Ms Lockley, please--"

"That's Detective--"

"Wesley, Kate--"

"What connection does your one-armed English boyfriend have with my goddamned case?"

Polite formality shattered, everyone glared at each other. Wesley leaned heavily against the door at his back and shot an unnerved glance at Costas, who lit up a cigarette, the hiss of the lighter loud in the silence. Lockley bunched her hands into fists.

Much as he certainly did not want to introduce another outsider to a world where demons walked the Earth, it was very clear that the lady detective was not about to leave until she received her answers. It was also clear that Costas had already given away too much information for a lie to be a viable option.

Wesley exchanged a look with Costas and saw him nod very slightly, his mouth twisting in an unhappy curl.

"It has a great deal to do with your case, Detective. We happen to ourselves be attempting to track down the perpetrator of these terrible crimes - who is, by the way, not human, nor any kind of creature with which I imagine you are accustomed to dealing."

She stared blankly at him, glared at Costas, glared at him again, threw up her arms and demanded, "Do you people have a radar homed in on me? Do I have a subliminal sign over my head that reads 'Bring in the Kooks'? I am so tired of this bullshit--"

"It isn't b-- that is, I'm telling the truth. I can prove it - or I could, given a few hours to hunt around this city late night." And the energy and health to do so, he didn't add. "Vampires aren't only real, they're not precisely scarce either. Working for the police, you must have come across any number of corpses drained of blood."

Lockley wavered at that, giving an unsure glance around the room, not meeting his eyes for a full ten seconds. "I've seen bodies. Yes."

Costas was nodding. "It's real, Lockley. I mean, I'd been suspecting this freaky stuff was going off a while, but yesterday I met one - an actual vampire. Blood drinking and all."

"Really?"

"Sure. Hey, Wesley, maybe we could take her to meet him."

He winced. "I don't think that's a good idea. Angel isn't what you might call precisely a--"

"Angel?" Lockley said sharply. "Big guy, spiky dark hair, tendency to brood and speak in monosyllables?"

"Y-yes," Wesley said, astonished.

"How the hell did you know that?" Costas demanded.

"I know him. How the hell do you know him? And... what did you say he was?"

"Angel's a vampire." Wesley stopped. "Wait. You know Angel? And he didn't tell you what he was?"

"No." Her voice shook, a denial rather than an answer. "No. Damn it, I don't know what the hell you're talking about. I don't know what to... this is all fairy tales and monster movies. I don't believe you."

She spun and practically ran to the door, jolted as she hit her shoulder on the jamb in her haste. She fumbled at the handle.

"Ms. Lockley, wait!"

"Kate! Damn it, what do you think you're--?"

"I'll get the answers from him, that son of a bitch."

"Kate!" Costas snapped.

The door slammed decisively behind her as she left them both gawping in her wake.

"Jesus Christ in a cartoon," Costas said. "That's all I fucking need."

"Really, detective, is that any way to speak about a lady?" Wesley asked weakly.

"It's not a lady. It's a force of freakin' nature. Like a cyclone. Earthquake. Forest fire..."

"Yes, yes, all right," he curtailed quickly. "But if I might ask, what on Earth possessed you to bring her here?"

"I didn't bring her here. Like the saying goes, the bitch just followed me home. I was trying to get in on the case, look up the files at the station - next thing I know I'm on my way up to your apartment and she jumps on me outside the door demanding answers."

"Oh. I see." Wesley sighed. He wandered over into the kitchen area and clumsily filled the electric kettle and set it to boil. Costas grunted acknowledgement when he offered tea; the policeman slumped in the spare armchair and watched him going about making it. Wesley felt as though he were under assessment and was relieved that none of his bouts of dizziness chose to emerge.

He didn't feel light headed until he took Costas his cup of tea, returned for his own, and sat back down. He said, as distraction, "Lockley. She seems very... focused."

"Yeah. Well, she's from one of those families. Father a cop; his brothers, his father. Big tradition thing. Whole little police dynasty of their own. I don't think her old man ever forgave her for being a skirt, and don't we all get to feel it. She's been all out to drive over anything in her path to prove herself to him so long, I don't think she even consciously knows it."

Wesley felt the back of his throat tighten, and nodded understanding. "And you?"

"Me what?"

"Your family." Awkwardness crashed over him and he wished he hadn't asked.

A laugh. "I was the black sheep. My dad didn't speak to me for a week after I first joined up. Think he intended to keep at it for years, not that it lasted. After that, they just used to talk about it in whispers." He grinned crookedly, the expression oddly boyish in reminiscence.

Hesitantly, Wesley tried smile back, but wasn't yet quite up to it, too many things weighing the corners of his mouth down. "And she knows Angel."

"Uh-huh. Who'd have thought the ice bitch would be all friendly with your vamp guy." Costas stood and paced the length of the room, his forehead creased like he was racking his brains over something. "Now you come to mention it, I think I saw him with her once. Had it in the back of my mind the guy looked familiar - thought maybe he looked like someone on TV or something. But no, it was at her old man's retirement party. Someone spiked the punch, made it kind of an evening you don't forget in a hurry. Your guy, Angel, he was her date there. They were all over each other. But then, that could have been the spike. Most of the guys around the precinct always figured she swung the other way and only dragged a guy out every so often to pacify her dad."

"Oh dear."

"Really? I thought it was kinda--"

"That's not what I... never mind." Wesley blanched and waved the implied question off, not feeling especially like explaining the specifics of Angel's curse. He reassured himself his initial concerns were likely unfounded, since Angel knew quite well the dangers and if he'd shown enough responsibility to chain himself up the previous night, surely he would not risk letting another romance progress far enough to endanger his soul. "Did you manage to get any of the information about the case? I suppose if Detective Lockley was on your tail you won't have had chance."

"Wrong." Costas leaned forward in his chair to hand over a sheaf of papers. "Look over them now while I'm here and make notes, because I'm returning them straight after. Kate may not know I took these, but I wouldn't put it past her to report me even if she's convinced by your vampire friend."

"He's not my--" Wesley abandoned the protest as he flicked through the papers. "Hmm. Would you pass over the notebook and pen from the table, please?"

Costas did so. As he turned his concentration to the misappropriated files, Wesley was marginally aware of the man retreating over to the other side of the room, where he stood in front of the open window and chain-smoked. Then, when next he emerged from his cocoon of concentration, his tea was stone cold and Costas was sprawled across the bed - with his shoes still on, no less.

Wesley's mouth was dry, so he drained the cold tea anyway. He asked Costas the time and spluttered upon hearing the answer. He'd been buried in research more than two hours.

"I believe I've done as much work here as I can," he said. "You had better get these back to the police files. I shouldn't like you to get into any trouble over this." He balanced his notebook on the arm of the chair and awkwardly pulled the mass of loose paper together one-handed, returning everything to what he hoped was a semblance of its correct order. One really needed two hands to handle papers efficiently, he reflected, and that was going to be exceedingly bothersome in the future. He stood, cursed as the pen shifted and rolled off the arm of the chair onto the floor - but chose to ignore it for the present, crossing instead to where Costas sprawled. He held out the papers.

"Right." The detective swung off the bed, only grinning as he caught Wesley's disapproval. "Anyone ever tell you you're a real prissy leather-clad biker demon hunter?"

He felt his face redden, imagining the image would look even stranger on him now. "Until just about a year ago, I was principally a researcher and translator."

Costas blinked, taken aback by the frosty tone, and Wesley couldn't blame him. He was taken aback himself. "So. The files. That's your thing, then. So did you find anything?"

"I'll need time to look through the details to form any kind of hypothesis. So far, mostly all I've accomplished is a great deal of factual notation."

"Hypothesis, eh?" Costas pulled on his jacket and stuffed the papers inside it.

"Indeed." He unlocked the door for the detective. "My contact should be ringing back sometime this evening."

"I'll call back later, then. For now, better return these and work some cases that're actually assigned to me." For an instant, Costas looked distinctly hassled, and Wesley remembered with clarity first meeting the man in the hospital. If he'd been tired and overworked then, how much more so now that he'd added extracurricular demon hunting and playing babysitter for a maimed ex-Watcher to his daily itinerary? Wesley determined he must pull himself together, and quickly, and give the man space to breathe. As soon as his arm completely healed and he could go back to working by himself--

"Good luck," he said, trying to smile encouragingly.

But the glance Costas returned him as he backed out into the hallway was only distrustful.

***

 

His notes stretched across the surface of the bed in front of him - a sprawl of facts, spidery diagrams and brainstorm charts. Method, location, remembered historical parallels. His memory was good, but not eidetic, and he battered at its limits for information that wouldn't come when recalled. Even so, the memory of the photographs of the victims, scared dead eyes and fear-twisted bodies, stared back at him from between the uneven lines of his own handwriting, and he had no trouble visualising those.

Buffy craned over his shoulder, chirpily pointing out his mistakes; expanding upon them until he thought he'd go mad from the sound of her voice. When he turned around to demand she be quiet, it was his father standing there with a raised fist he used to provide punctuation as he repeated Buffy's diatribe in angry shouts, and Mr Giles lectured in the background, his voice a sensible drone.

The sound of the blows falling became louder and louder, and he woke with a choked cry to find himself sprawled across his bed, face pressed into the hard spine of the notebook, pages of his notes littered all around him. His head ached dully. In the background, the knocking sound started up again, louder than before.

He lurched up from the bed and lost his balance out of the lingering asinine expectation that he had two arms to support him. His glasses flew off as he landed face-first in grubby sheets... cut-off-shoulder-first against the edge of the mattress. The pain dwarfed that of his bruised knees and only the smothering bedclothes pressed into his nose and mouth swallowed his scream.

The knocking continued.

He made it more slowly to his feet, breathing regular breaths. Movement peppered his vision with sparks. He almost passed out fumbling around on the floor for his glasses. Slipping them on at least brought the room back into focus, and he registered the sky outside the window darkening with the first touches of evening. He cursed himself for falling asleep and hoped he hadn't slept through the cellphone ringing with Giles' return call.

Whoever it was outside bashed on the door again. Wesley finally reached it and engaged in the familiar battle with the lock. He found Kate Lockley standing outside, her obvious trepidation in stark contrast to the brusque manner with which she had earlier pushed her way in.

"Detective." Even when he stepped back in his surprise, she lingered doubtfully beyond the threshold, shifting her weight from foot to foot.

"I want to talk," she said.

"Detective Costas isn't here anymore. He went to--"

"I don't want to talk to Jack. I want to talk to you. You're the guy with the answers, he said. Said you told him about all this stuff. Said you know about these creatures... that you hunt them."

"Ms. Lockley, I frankly don't understand why you'd come here to me. We don't know each other. We met for about fifteen minutes, most of which you spent shouting I might add. You could easily talk to Detective Costas, with whom you're obviously better acquainted. As a fellow officer, surely it would be more practical for you to approach him."

She visibly sucked in a breath, paused with her mouth half-open to let it go. Continued in more measured tones, "I don't want second-hand information. And I don't want to just solve a case. I need to know about this. Angel's shutting me out. Don't you join him."

"Angel probably doesn't want you hurt." His chest tightened painfully as he registered his own words, and he pulled the door wide with a sigh. "Please."

When she stepped inside, he awkwardly touched her arm, but she shook off the gesture of comfort, he thought more from the habit of keeping her distance than any specific disdain for himself. "Would you like a drink? Tea? Coffee?" he asked, from his own habit of courtesy.

She shook her head and the first rays of the sunset seeping in through the window bounced fiery red off her hair. She sat down on the arm of one of the chairs, her legs straddling it in a way that was masculine rather than sexual, but nonetheless reminded him a little of Faith. Wesley moved papers out of the way and sank down opposite her on the edge of the bed. It was after he'd already sat that he realised how dark the apartment was - he could barely see the details of Lockley's face - but he didn't feel like getting back up just to switch on the lights.

"What did Angel tell you?" he asked.

"He showed me his face. The other one." She glanced down, and her hair fell forward, obscuring what little he could discern of her expression. When she threw it back again her mouth was stretched into a grimace with pretensions towards being a grin. "I guess I'm not having any trouble believing in this stuff anymore."

"I'm sorry."

She frowned at him. "How is it this is all so easy for you to accept? Monsters and vampires and whatever the hell else?"

"I was raised to it."

There was a pause while she waited for further explanation he wasn't willing to give. He did not know her. She had forced her way in here, been atrociously rude to his one ally, and now acted as though an explanation was her due. Finally, she said, "Then what about Jack? He didn't look to be exactly falling to pieces to me."

Wesley laughed a little. "No. But I think he suspected rather more before than you did yourself. He came to me first, in the hospital, and I contacted him later. And I don't think he's having as easy a time of it as perhaps it seems." He frowned, and asked with concern, "Do you consider yourself to be falling to pieces?"

Her own laugh was raw. "I don't know. I don't have time. I have a murderer to catch, and he's not even human." She hesitated, then said slowly, "Angel told me he fought the guy - Penn - last night. Stopped him from taking another victim, got himself skewered like a colander, which he seemed to take great satisfaction in showing me when I told him he was full of shit, but Penn got away. He'll be hunting again tonight. The state Angel's in, vampire or not, I don't know that he's in any condition to stop the guy, even if I was prepared to walk away and leave this all to him."

"I see." Wesley's throat was dry and his voice rasped.

"I need to know how to fight these things. I mean, I've seen the movies, and I figure if Angel can survive the kinds of injuries he showed me then bullets aren't going to kill them either. So are we talking like garlic, sunlight, stake through the heart?" She mimed what he presumed to be a cartoonish Dracula flinching from the sun.

"Garlic won't stop them. A Christian cross can repel them but it isn't infallible. You can kill them by--" He ran through the things that he had told Costas the previous day, barely noticing he'd slipped into the rote of lecture he'd never had chance to deliver to a Slayer, since both of his own had been hand-me-downs with more experience than he.

"You remind me of a Math tutor I had in school," she said dryly when he'd finished, her voice very quiet. The comment irked him until he reminded himself that he'd probably told her just enough to go out and get herself killed, and that Ms Lockley had just received a shock to her worldview of epic proportions and was most likely falling back on frivolous sarcasm as a defence mechanism.

Or perhaps he was simply far too accustomed by now to excusing other people's mocking, having grown so adept at it in Sunnydale.

With impeccable timing, the cellphone rang even as he formed the thought.

The shrill noise surprised him and he almost fell off the bed again. Kate Lockley visibly tried not to look amused as he hunted around, unable to remember where he'd left the device this time and clumsily swiping papers aside in his haste. She awkwardly sprang up to help when full realisation of his plight tugged at whatever heartstrings the woman possessed, and it was she who finally dug the cellphone out from the depths underneath the bed where he must have knocked it earlier, tossing and turning while he slept.

"Wesley Wyndham-Pryce." His voice came out sounding quite as flustered as he felt. Lockley perched on the bed beside him, close enough to touch, and he was perfectly aware that she did so as an excuse to listen in.

"Wesley." Giles' impatience was almost tangible. "I have the information on your vampire. Do you have a pen and paper handy?"

"Just a second." The cellphone held to his ear, he looked around for the notebook, spied it just beyond Detective Lockley's denim-clad knees, made to reach for it. And stopped. "Bugger."

The sounds of Giles choking greeted the curse. "Wesley?"

"I... ah, oh I do apologise. One moment... sorry. Sorry." He fumbled, tried to balance and wedge the tiny phone between his shoulder and his ear, waved his hand towards the notebook. Lockley interpreted the gesticulations correctly and passed it over, complete with pen. He balanced the book on his knee, open at a fresh page, and poised to write. "Right. Yes. I'm ready. Please go ahead."

The cellphone slid off his shoulder and down into his lap. Mouthing silent curses, Wesley balanced the pen a moment to retrieve it. Lockley took it somewhat delicately from his fingers and held it to his ear, thus introducing him to brand new depths of crushing humiliation. But Giles was talking, relating valuable information, and what was the more important issue here?

"I'm sorry, I missed that. Could you--?"

"What on earth's going on?" Giles demanded.

Wesley admitted to dropping the phone and brushed the matter aside. "Please, tell me what you've discovered. The likelihood is Penn will kill again tonight unless we can stop him."

A sigh carried over the connection. "All right. I did a good deal of research on the vampire, and additionally asked Willow to use her computer skills to look for information about the murders. It very much looks like this fellow Penn has been doing this a long time. He's even been in LA before."

Giles related historical data, information from numerous textual sources including the Watcher Diaries that he quite frankly should not have access to anymore (and Wesley reflected a little bitterly on the fact that it had never occurred to him to make copies, and wondered if there was any possible reason he could think up to get Giles to send copies for himself without letting slip his unintentional charade), as well as old newspaper reports and the police reports that he'd already had access to (he hoped Detective Lockley couldn't overhear too much, and tried to heavily hint that Giles skip those). Squinting in the dim light, Wesley wrote down the hotel names and locations of murders from Penn's previous tenure in Los Angeles. When Giles' information eventually ran down to a halt, the cellphone was hot against his ear, Lockley had switched hands countless times and looked to be in some discomfort as well as extreme impatience, and his hand ached clutching the pen.

"That's everything?" he asked wearily, abandoning his notes and taking back the phone. Lockley stood up and walked around the room, wincing as she stretched her limbs.

"Everything," Giles confirmed hoarsely. "Now if it's all very well, Olivia happens to only be in town a few days and I'd very much like to get back to spending some time with her."

"I really am terribly sorry to have troubled you," Wesley began.

"No." The other Watcher sighed. After a pause, he added, "I've been unnecessarily sharp with you. It's I who should apologise. It isn't your fault that the timing of this is inconvenient. You're trying to do a good thing, and you're not personally responsible for my grievances against the Council. I need to remember that. Look, if you need help again, you only have to ask. Let me know how things work out. Good luck, Wesley."

"Thank you," he said, astounded. He stared blankly into a distance that was much removed from the stained wall of his apartment, the cellphone still held to his ear for a good many seconds after Giles had rung off.

***

 

After he'd put down the phone and awkwardly thanked Detective Lockley for her assistance, he studied the notes he'd made while intermittently breaking off to answer more of the woman's questions. After about half an hour there was a rap on the door, and Lockley rose unasked to let Costas in before he had chance to protest her presumption.

"Jack. Wow, you look like shit."

"What the - what are you doing here?"

"Working my case."

The snap had a silencing effect and Costas warily sidled past her, shucking his jacket off his shoulders and tossing it onto a chair. Wesley noticed that Lockley's brusque observation wasn't far wrong. The man looked tired, if you knew how to look for the signs behind the casual front. As he was learning.

"We... appear to have acquired another ally," Wesley said weakly, flapping his hand towards Lockley. "She did return with useful information about Angel's efforts to deal with Penn last night, however."

Costas massaged his forehead with his fingers and looked pained. "Yeah. Okay. Fine. Just... get on with it."

"As you say." Wesley proceeded to outline the information he'd gathered together while Lockley shifted restlessly and Costas smoked. The latter interrupted when he was going through the details of the previous murders and investigations.

"Those are the same hotel."

"What?" Wesley said blankly.

"The Clover Wood Apartments and the Regent Garden Hotel. Same place, different name, different decades. My grandfather worked there for twenty odd years after it reopened as Clover Wood in the fifties. He used to tell dozens of stories. It's the same damn hotel."

"Right." Lockley was nodding, catching onto whatever had excited Costas judging by the sudden light in her eyes. "Serial killers, they'll often follow a pattern, and even if this one's a vampire, he's sure got pattern - I mean, same rough demographic in the group of victims, going right back to the original family. So if our guy's in LA again, and this place is still open for visitors--"

"He could be there," Costas finished.

The two cops looked at each other. "Are we gonna do this now?" Lockley asked, taking her gun out and checking it with the air of a decision already made.

Costas nodded. "We got about six hours before it gets to the timeframe the other victims were killed in. We can still stop there being a number four."

Watching them together, Wesley felt himself dwindling into the background, a feeling all too familiar. He had patterns too, set and established in Sunnydale, and it tore inside to realise that he was the outsider again now. He stood abruptly, snatched up his leather jacket and shrugged it on over whole and cut-off shoulders alike. "Yes. We should go now."

"Not you," Costas said. "Not this time. You're damn well staying here. I'm not carrying you home again. Especially not in a body-bag."

"I'm coming with you." He glared at the detective. "I'm the one possessing the knowledge about these creatures. I've barely had time to tell you a fraction of the things you need to know. I'm not sending you in to fight blind without me."

"You're not sending us anywhere," Costas snapped. "You came to me to pass on information. I don't remember any part of that that included giving me orders. You're a civilian, and you're staying here."

"I'm not going to wait around here like some useless piece of baggage!"

It was perhaps just as well Lockley interrupted before he got to hear Costas' poised response to that. "He's right. He should come," she said. Her eyes fixed to his, and he recognised the look in them. "He has a say in this. We're not leaving him behind. Just... stay out of the way if it gets rough, Mr. Wyn-- uh, Wesley. Whatever."

"Wyndham-Pryce," he filled in quietly, nodding slowly as her gaze of understanding lingered. "'Wesley' will suffice, though."

"You--" Costas shifted his anger between the two of them for several incoherent seconds, then sighed and gave up. "Great. Just... freaking... fucking... great." He spun and marched for the door.

Wesley, snatching together those papers he thought might be useful, reflected to himself with satisfaction that, as Giles had singularly failed to see, he had stopped being a Watcher when he stayed behind to help fight the Mayor... and in more ways than one.

He had involved himself, and involved he would stay. It was already too late to back out. Involvement had already taken of his flesh.

He wondered how much an arm weighed. A good deal more than a pound, for certain.

Chapter Text

The hotel was surprisingly upmarket, though no longer the grand establishment it must have been in its early days, the polish beginning to wear from its once-smooth facade. Wesley could sympathise.

With a quick getaway in mind they left the car (Detective Lockley's) out front in the street rather than in the hotel's ill-lit underground lot, and Lockley led the way inside a lobby more airy than Wesley had expected, its decoration plush without being expensive, a homey place indeed for a killer to select as his abode.

A woman was on duty in a small office adjoined to the lobby via a large window. She had dyed blonde hair and a low-cut blouse too young for her, and her preoccupation viewing a flickering television screen did not suggest the newly-reopened hotel was conducting a roaring trade. She jumped when Lockley tapped loudly on the glass, jumped again when Lockley pressed her badge to the window, and hurried across.

Wesley did not catch more than a few words of their low-voiced conversation, but the woman alternately nodded and shook her head in response, and at one point broke away to check a computer, typing fingers fumbling clumsily. Lockley nodded sharply to whatever information was passed on and motioned for them to follow as she moved purposefully towards the stairs at the back of the lobby.

Costas brought up the rear with ill grace, herding Wesley before him. Wesley, annoyed to be shielded like something breakable, nevertheless experienced a spark of amusement that at least he wasn't the only one feeling supplanted.

The stairs were broad, and their decorative woodwork was clean though it could use repainting. Beneath the thick carpeting, old floorboards creaked. At the top of the stairs, Lockley halted a moment to check room numbers before selecting a corridor.

Shadows lurked around arched supports interspersed at regular intervals along the pale green corridors. Each arch ran square columns down the sides of the passage to create a multitude of alcoves where a killer might conceal himself. Wesley shivered in air still warmed by the lingering heat of the day, and felt something trickle delicately down his forehead. Suddenly, the texture of the darkness was too familiar; the contours of the corridor twisting and shrinking, metamorphosing into another space, another time. It took everything he had to keep his feet moving, to stifle what could only be described as a whimper behind tight-pressed lips and gritted teeth.

Lockley and Costas were almost supernaturally silent, and Wesley took his cue from them, not voicing his fears about the demons which were not, in fact, waiting around the next corner. Lockley's breaths came quick and shallow, the only sign that her nerves suffered any strain. Costas' moves seemed a little more careful and measured for silence than his norm, but betrayed no special displays of unease.

Wesley could not help but remember his own failures of nerve - falling to pieces faced with Balthazar; the physical trials for the Council where he'd shaken and stammered; his father cursing the deficiencies of his fencing with the derisive verdict that he was too afraid of his opponent to ever be an effective duellist. He still had the scars carved into his flesh by the subsequent lessons, as though demonstrations of what a sword cut felt like could acclimatise him to it, somehow build up an immunity. Father cherished strange theories.

He tried to dig deep for whatever semblance of courage had found him in those months of hunting demons, alone on the road with just a motorcycle, leathers and a bag of weapons. It had not all been failures, though undoubtedly there had been some very close calls indeed. And Father had been wrong because, though he might never be any expert with a foil, he'd passed the Council's final examination in the end, and all of the others too.

He had not failed. He had faced his fears, and come out alive if not intact on the other side. He had only to remember it.

Determinedly setting his jaw (his teeth, in defiance of his resolve, still wanted to chatter), Wesley moved after Detective Lockley with renewed purpose, and just managed not to plough into her as she stopped in front of a door.

When she turned to glance over her shoulder, Costas exchanged her a brief grim nod and silently waved for Wesley to move back. Lockley rapped hard on the door with knuckles bunched in a fist around a stake. In her other hand she held a gun.

Costas too had a stake and a gun. Wesley registered his own unarmed status (wincing at the cruelty of the inherent pun) simultaneously to the noises of footsteps closing on them from the other side of the door. The sudden feeling of vulnerability jolted him despite his prior conclusion that he was equally little use at present with a weapon or without one.

Costas evidently tired of his quiet, frantic signalling - which, Wesley realised, he'd been watching blankly for some seconds - and reached out to shove him back into the shelter of the corridor with a hand placed just below his breastbone.

The touch sent electrical tingles through a body too accustomed to distance. He acquiesced through surprise as much as anything, falling back as the door began to open inwards.

Lockley did not afford the suspect any benefit of the doubt. As soon as the lock clicked she'd had a foot planted against the door, and now she kicked out to speed it on its way. It jerked violently inward, its edge hitting whoever had opened it.

Lockley charged in, and Costas followed.

There was no gunfire, so obviously they weren't so confident as all that about the suspect, who had been knocked reeling by the door - a short fellow, with spiky blond hair, wearing a snugly tailored black and red suit.

Penn, if indeed he was Penn, was already straightening up. The man removed the hand he'd clasped to his face and looked down at the blood on it in faint annoyance.

He looked back up as Lockley snapped out, "Hands in the air where I can see them. If I see one move I don't like, don't think I won't shoot."

Wesley sincerely hoped never to be on the wrong side of Detective Lockley in an arrest situation.

From his vantage outside the door, he could see a thin slice of the room, and he watched through the gap as Penn, smiling, slowly raised his hands with an obliging air. He looked like a youth, angelic and bashful, a saintly choirboy. Wesley had to remind himself that this was simply a smiling demon wearing that dead boy's smile. Angelus' nomenclature came prominently to mind.

He realised, with a rush of chill that swept down his spine, that he had not told these people enough, had not drilled into them sufficiently what it would mean to be facing a supernatural foe. Yes, they were trained professionals, but professionals had reflexes, in this case the wrong reflexes, as likely to get them killed as anything. Of course, he had not had much time to educate them, but still his was the failing.

Detective Lockley was too used to dealing with human criminals, and Penn - he should by no means be giving in so easily as it might currently appear. Wesley opened his mouth to deliver a sharp warning--

Penn moved almost too quickly for a human eye to follow. His hands, half-raised, snapped out even as he stepped forward, grabbing Lockley's gun hand and effortlessly, ruthlessly, twisting it. With an appalling balletic grace, the move wrenched her around in a full circle, bringing her in under his raised arm, the gun dropping from her fingers somewhere amid the circuit.

One could almost believe them to be dancing, were it not for Lockley's gasp and the fear in her face as the arms of the killer wrapped around her and he pulled her tight against him. One hand was around her waist and the other across her throat, still enclosing her twisted wrist.

Costas had his gun levelled, but he hesitated, fearful of shooting his fellow officer, though Wesley would have risked the shot.

"Shoot him," Lockley said, choked and furious. Wesley, his fingers gouging the wood edging of the doorway as he watched helpless, couldn't have agreed more.

Penn laughed and hugged her closer. For all that he seemed to be exerting no effort to justify their being so, her feet were hanging above the floor. "You don't want him to shoot me," he cooed into her ear. "It won't kill me. But I can kill you." The fiend pressed his face into Lockley's neck and visibly breathed her in. She shivered in his grasp and her jaw bunched, mouth closed into a tight line that said she wasn't going to scream.

Wesley couldn't see Costas' face, but it wasn't necessary to view his expression to sense the anger radiating from him in waves.

"Shoot him," Lockley said again in an almost nonexistent hiss of a voice forced through her teeth.

The gun in Costas' outstretched fist trembled with what might have been anger. As Wesley watched, breath forgotten, he heard the hammer click back with purpose.

Penn raised his head from Lockley's neck, making a quick teasing biting motion against the stretched skin as he did. She gasped as he drew blood.

Halfway, the fearful sound transformed into a grunt of effort.

Then she was pulling away from Penn, not quite managing to get clear before his furious shove sent her reeling face-first into the wall. Her clawing hands ripped pinned-up newspaper articles, tearing them off in scraps like confetti on her way down. She fell to one side and out of his view. Wesley blanched, imagining he recognised pictures and fragments of headlines, too distant to know for sure.

Penn staggered back a step and wrenched the stake out of his stomach--

(Wesley analytically supposed that, aiming backwards, Lockley hadn't had a good angle on the heart. And the wound looked too shallow; she hadn't had the necessary force either. But it was not a bad effort for a first attempt to stake a vampire, under not exactly ideal conditions and without the strength of a Slayer.)

--in time for Costas to adjust his aim and empty the clip into him.

Or at least, presumably that was the plan. Though two or three bullets did hit Penn, the vampire was in motion before the remainder could impact. Again, he proved impossibly fast. He slapped the gun from Costas' grasp and it flew across the room, hitting the blinds drawn over the window in the far wall, making them shake wildly with a plastic rattle that continued in a slowly dwindling cacophony. Penn seized the detective by collar and belt and hurled him after it. Possibly it was down to the wounds sapping the vampire's strength that Costas fell short, hitting a glass-topped table with a splintering fanfare before coming to a halt against the base of a recliner.

He made no move to get up again.

Wesley was in the doorway now, half inside the room, unsure precisely when he had moved and oblivious to the risk of being spotted, frozen there by the knowledge that there was nothing he could do if he stepped in. He could smell blood but wasn't sure whose it was, the heavy scent clogging up the air and probably the only reason Penn hadn't sensed him even in his distraction. Small trails leaked from the holes left by stake and bullets in Penn's chest, their flows already stilled without a pulse to propel them.

Pulling out of a brief, hunched-over, gasping convulsion that proved even the strongest of vampires would feel the strain of indulging in the aforementioned manoeuvre with three or four holes in his undead corpse, Penn swung back around to Lockley. She was raising herself to her feet. She'd reclaimed the stake now christened red, and pushed off from the wall holding it high, lunging to take him out and hopefully shortcut another round of posturing and threats.

Penn caught her shoulders as the stake grazed his chest, stalling her just that little too far away to complete the thrust and stealing the leverage she needed to drive the stake any deeper.

"You have to love that 'try, try again' attitude," Penn remarked, laughing, positively exuberant all things considered. "People are such fun." He frowned, pried her hand aside so the stake pulled clear, then leaned forward to sniff at her throat again. "Did Angelus send you? I can smell him on you. He should know better. Oh, not just the making friendly with the food - I understand that. Gypsies, curse, soul. Whatever. But to think that his pet humans could take me down, when he failed himself?"

He shrugged, threw Lockley back into the clippings-shrine wall and shook his head. This time, Lockley didn't get up, her eyes open but dazed as she slid down to half-sitting with her shoulders barely propped against the wall.

Wesley backed off again, stifling a cry, huddling into the door jamb and the shadows of the corridor. Within the room, Penn headed over to where Costas had landed, and out of view.

It struck Wesley that the vampire hadn't seen him, and casting his mind back over the last few minutes - and dear lord, it really had been so short a time - he could not recall what he had been expecting would happen to himself when Penn finished with the others. It was a miracle he had remained unseen this long, and surely Penn would hear his steps if he tried to retreat along the corridor. But he had to at least try, to go find help before... That was, he had to call in the police... no. Perhaps if he called Angel then the souled vampire could...

No. It was a fiction, and he should at least admit it. Penn was injured. The vampire needed to replenish himself. He'd be hungry. By the time any help Wesley called could reach them, even assuming the help would, firstly, come at all and, secondly, be effective, the two detectives would be dead. Costas very likely only had seconds of life remaining.

This was his failure, his short-sightedness. They should not be the ones to pay for it.

Drawing in a shuddering breath, Wesley put his best foot forward and stepped into the room, crossing to Lockley's side, making a tremendous effort not to shake, controlling the impulse to hurry, to panic. Cool and calm were key, even if the vampire would anyway be able to hear the frantic beating of his heart. A treacherous little ruck in the carpet almost pitched him down face-first.

He crouched in front of Lockley and made a cursory examination of the semi-conscious detective, whose eyes barely tracked him. Not good. She might not recover her senses enough to be useful until long past too late. But he had no choice.

Slipping Costas' cellphone from his jacket to hers as he completed his study, he realised that he had not switched off the ringer. His stupidity could have betrayed them at any moment. There had been a reason Lockley had abandoned hers in the car. For an instant, his hand shook, and he knew he could not possibly do this, was insane to believe he could pull this off.

It was already too late to back out, he scolded himself. Pushing doubt aside, he let out a considered "Hmm" as he stood up.

Penn was leaning with one hand gripping Costas' collar, staring, his mouth open in astonishment. Wesley wondered if the two-hundred-year-old vampire serial killer knew quite how ridiculous that looked.

He wondered how he could afford time to think such ridiculous, pointless things when he was likely about to die.

He brushed his knees down. Dusty from the floor - the Council would not tolerate that, and certainly Father wouldn't. "You think the Watchers Council would sink to working with the demon Angelus?" he questioned dryly. Dry. His mouth was a desert. The words scraped the back of it raw. He sounded like his father.

Penn released his hold on Costas, and the detective dropped back to the floor with a thud.

"The Watchers Council," he repeated slowly. "You?"

"Indeed." Wesley held his chin up and dusted off his jacket with casual flicks of his hand, abruptly aware of his own shabbiness to a degree he had not been in months.

"The Watchers Council," Penn said, seeming to take immense pleasure in enunciating the words expansively and precisely, "are in England. The Watchers Council don't care to pursue my kind themselves. The Watchers Council send children out to do their fighting." He took a step forward, and Wesley almost flinched back, but Penn only moved a few paces, before turning and re-treading them back in the opposing direction.

"Things change." Wesley stood straight - very likely it just came off as 'stiff' - and forced himself to also stand firm. "Look at me and tell me again you don't believe the Council send agents out into the field." He paused, enduring the vampire's study. "So you've dealt with one team." A one-armed shrug. "Well, congratulations. There are any number more."

"The Council are hunting me?" Penn had begun to pace in an arc, circling Wesley, examining him up and down in a manner that was decidedly unsettling.

"Hmm. Strength and speed may indeed be a problem, but at least we won't have to worry about your piercing intellect," Wesley noted.

It was difficult not to cringe anticipating Penn's reaction, as he realised perhaps he'd gone too far. But the vampire only laughed, a genial sort of fellow for a demon. "You know," he said, "I don't make a habit of conversing with the food, but it seems you and I could have a lot to talk about."

His pacing was drifting rather too close for comfort, and Wesley shifted too, trying to make it look casual, probably failing, sauntering further into the room, along the far wall where Costas' gun had fallen. It took a second and an indrawn breath before he remembered that all its shots had already been fired.

"Of course," Penn added, "You'll probably do about as much screaming as you will talking." He gave a wide shrug, hands splaying out in a theatrical gesture. "I suppose it depends how tough the Watchers Council are training them these days."

Wesley forced his facial muscles into a smile. "Tough enough. But I'm tempted to make a point here about counting chickens."

"Yes," Penn agreed. "Because you might escape." Raising his fingers to poise them before his pursed lips in pondering pose - a born comedian. "You might defeat me. Honourable combat, single-handed..." He laughed aloud. "I apologise. That was crass. I daresay also rather unoriginal."

"I daresay." Scratch up a count of one, the first of many if he wasn't to die here.

"I met a Slayer once," Penn said, with a certain confiding air. "I think it was 1957. Pretty. Blonde. She chased me for three weeks, but in the end, she let me walk away. My charm. Or possibly the two broken arms. Such a sweet girl... I don't suppose you know what happened to her after? Name was something like... Cara? Sara? I always wondered--"

Wesley didn't recall a Slayer of any name like that, or a direct encounter with Penn mentioned in the diaries, but he would be most disinclined to discuss the information even if he had. He was watching the meandering zig-zag of Penn's paces, calculating. His fingers, reaching behind him, connected with thin cord and one, two, three more steps and he pulled--

The blind furled up to reveal darkness, the last of the sunlight reduced to the tiniest reflected orange strip at the brink of the horizon.

Penn put his hands together in a lazy, sardonic round of applause. "Interesting plan. Poor timing. Not without merit, though. Now--" Abruptly the vampire was not eight feet from him and relaxed in a casual and even chatty stance, but was inches from him, grasping his shirt collar in both hands and lifting him off the ground, shaking him, thrusting him back against the window so his shoulder blades hit the glass, sending a shockwave of pain and dizziness out from his cut-off arm. "Time for you to stop playing me. You've had your turn. Next game's my choice."

Wesley was barely conscious of the action as he yanked again on the cord in his hand. He jerked backwards as the blinds sprang down, striking Penn across the eyes with a fleshy *slap*. The vampire's grip loosed enough for him to break free and he dived for the door, slamming it after him. Out in the corridor, he turned without thought of the best direction to go. Only away - he had to get away. Distraction was the key. If he led Penn a chase...

He was, he reminded himself most severely - staggering into a wall while turning a corner, picking himself up with the aid of a small table bearing a vase of flowers, dragging it out into the corridor, overturning the flowers, and running on - in absolutely no condition to do so. Already the edges of his vision were greying with the exertion, the grey threatening to overwhelm.

For a moment, he thought Penn wasn't following him, and for a moment, he was even relieved (coward, said the voice in his head; coward, failure), but then he heard the crash as the vampire turned the corner and ploughed through the table and Wesley knew that, yes, he was still going to die.

But Lockley and Costas, who had so much more to live for and who could do so much more good than he, might yet live if he could just do properly this one thing.

His heart beat frantically in his chest as though it was trying to escape, and he couldn't blame it, trapped in the body of such an imbecile as himself, and this was surely the most stupid scheme he had ever tried.

The corridor disappeared into a flight of stairs in front of him. He had no choice but to run down them. Every step sent a jolt through his shoulder, advancing the grey. If he passed out so early as this, they were all dead regardless. Time was what was needed, time for Lockley to call backup, for her and Costas to recover enough to escape or to track down Penn for another round.

The stairs ended in more pale-green corridor to the left, and to the right, descending, more stairs. And this had to be a service staircase, he thought, noting for the first time the rougher decoration on the flight he'd come down. Such a staircase might conceivably lead to an exit, unlocked rooms and more opportunities to confuse a pursuit. He took the new flight, gritting his teeth against the pain and, by the time he reached the last few steps, staggering from wall to wall and barely able to stay upright on his own steam.

On his knees at the bottom of the staircase on cold tiled floor, unsure how he'd got there, he was aware that those sounds of running feet were only at the top. He rolled over to stand, and thereby missed being caught on the receiving end of Penn's flying leap and tackle by means of dumb luck alone. The vampire had jumped from-- Wesley gaped in disbelief and then cajoled his shaking knees to take his weight again, dragging himself up and away while Penn untangled himself from the heap the foiled dive had landed him in.

He was in the service area of the hotel, storage, cleaning equipment and lockers around him. A corridor to the left, and at the end, kitchens, perhaps at the back of the hotel's small bar. He heard the noises of clanking pots, shouting staff, smelled the scent of cooking on the air. He could not lead Penn that way and risk involving innocents to save his own skin. To his right were a series of storerooms he barely had chance to glance in as he passed, but which he was sure were only dead ends, quite literal ones in the circumstance. Then, drawing close on his left, another staircase led down, and he remembered viewing the hotel from outside, the gaping hole leading into the underground parking lot.

He moved too quickly, his foot slipping on the second step, balance disintegrating. He skidded down four steps before catching himself on the rail, and consoled himself giddily that he'd probably not live to feel the full force of the bruises it would leave down the backs of his legs.

He had no time to cosset the limbs shaking from reaction. He turned a corner - more steps. Skidding again, the length of the last half dozen, he ended up sprawled on grey concrete in semi-darkness. And Penn must be close behind him, but he could not run any further. His breath was coming in gasps, the grey inside his head had almost conquered the last vestiges of clarity, and the pain from his shoulder was intense enough to remind him that, on top of all else, he was probably due more medication. He shook all over.

There was a forest of parked cars around him. He half-crawled, half-staggered, and lost himself among them before falling against the side of one. Deciding it was fate giving him a polite pointer, he sagged with the fall and crawled underneath the vehicle upon reaching the concrete.

Lying there with his nasal senses overwhelmed by the aroma of petroleum, with his face pressed into the gravel, trying not to breathe or at least not to breathe audibly, he supposed that he could have broken into a car, hotwired it, driven away... If he'd known how to do so, or been in any condition to do any of those things.

Instead he lay and listened to Penn's footsteps as they took their lazy foray up and down the lot.

"Where are you?" the vampire called, mock-plaintively. "You know you're not playing fair here. I was to choose the next game. It wasn't going to be hide and seek."

Wesley knew, with cold certainty, that he would be found. Penn could surely smell him, sweat and blood and fear and leather providing a powerful beacon to track by. He was probably only dragging out the chase with the casual ease of the playful predator.

Two feet, ankles elegantly encased in tailored black suit trousers, stopped beside the front of the car. A knee descended.

Wesley rolled, struggling to crawl flat to the ground with only one arm and with two legs containing all the strength of jelly. Knees and elbows scuffed on the concrete, and he lurched upright and fell against the bonnet of another car, reeled away and started again to run, awkwardly picking his way through the maze of parked vehicles.

He risked a glance back, only to wish he hadn't when he caught sight of Penn's easy vault over the car he'd been using to hide.

Already running beyond the limits of his energy, Wesley saw little option when the attendant's office loomed up in front of him other than to fall through the ajar door into the unknown. Which turned out to be a thankfully empty small, square room. He registered a desk patterned with coffee-ring stains, a chair, a shelf with thick manuals on it and an electrical kettle balanced on the top. There was a sink to the side. Tool boxes piled, crammed into a corner. No other exit, but he was beyond running any further. All he could think, as he slammed the door behind him and slid two large bolts to, was of gaining another few vital minutes.

He sagged down at the base of the locked door, heart pounding, gasping breath, almost convinced he was about to die from exertion before Penn ever got to him. Almost hoping for it. Well, Father, a voice inside his head demanded bitterly, I swore to dedicate my life. Even if the Council washed their hands of me, I never took back that oath. Are you happy now?

Snapping out of it, he forced himself to act. He should at least look around for weapons. Penn would break in here after him, and he ought to put up something of a struggle. He clumsily opened tool boxes, scattering their contents, seized up a wooden-handled file which was weighted almost like a knife, reasonably balanced and just possibly sharp enough to deeply penetrate flesh if thrown hard. The next instant, Penn crashed through the door, flimsy wood and glass no match for an enraged vampire, and there was no time to second-guess his weapon choice. Wesley drew back his arm and threw.

The file thudded home. Penn didn't even acknowledge it as he marched forward, seized Wesley by the throat (not helping his current breathing problem) and hurled him into the wall. Consciousness departed momentarily and when he blinked his eyes open, he was slumped on the floor, wedged in the corner and pinned by walls on two sides.

Penn had pulled the file from his shoulder and he tossed it away to land among the debris of tools with a clatter.

"Enough of this," he said, his smooth tones for the first time giving way to a growl that was truly demonic. "Not a bad chase. Better than I've had in a while. But you're just lucky, not good. Luck's run out, Watcher."

"I'm glad you feel confident enough to grade my death scene," Wesley said, his voice sounding not at all like the defiant irony he'd been aiming for.

"Who said anything about death scenes? We have things to discuss, remember? You know, compare meditations on life and death, the weather, LA traffic, the deep dark secrets of the Watchers Council... what the British Brigade has planned for me..."

"You think I'd tell you--" He didn't have to worry about conveying the proper shock; his outrage was quite genuine. To think he would betray... even if he were not technically a part of the organisation any more, he had sworn a blood oath once. "That's not going to happen. No. No. I won't break..." His voice was already doing so.

"It's never--" Penn knelt down, and reached out for him. He tried to scoot back, but whole and cut-off shoulders alike hit the two walls pinning him in, and the pain was dizzying... "A good idea--" Penn slid an arm under his waist, curling it around the small of his back. He gripped Wesley's arm tightly at the elbow with his other hand, and the hold would have been immobilising even without Wesley's senses still teetering on the edge of consciousness. "To challenge--" Penn gathered him in, hauled him up the wall with a frightening care until he was trapped full length between it and Penn's body. "Me," the vampire finished, morphing into his demonic visage with a casual shake of his head.

And tore back Wesley's sleeve to sink his teeth into his wrist.

Wesley was too surprised by the move to make any sound. He experienced a tugging sensation, the giddy numbness of a too-fast blood-loss, a sense of his energy being pulled towards and then flowing out of the wound.

Then Penn raised his head, and with a flash of horror Wesley realised himself to be gasping, wide-eyed and shaking, reduced so easily to 'victim'. He would have fallen had not Penn been holding him up with that same proprietary touch he'd used to control Detective Lockley. For all that the draining had lasted only a second, his veins felt empty - inside him, a void.

"Was that good for you, too?" Penn quipped, sounding immensely chipper. He licked red from his lips and made a deliberate slurping sound. "A light snack. A sip. A taster, even. I can do this maybe eight, maybe ten times before you start to die from blood loss. I've had a lot of practise. So tell me. This plan of yours. Ready to share the details?"

Wesley choked and shook his head to clear it. This should be ideal, a better stall than any other he'd thought up. Penn was playing right into his plans... But his thoughts were in fragments, a steady, constant screaming buried somewhere inside, echoing in that newly hollow space, and he couldn't do this, couldn't face it--

"Well, then," Penn said, "I was still hungry anyway. And you know, whatever medication it is in your bloodstream - really tasty. Adds one hell of a kick."

He bit down again, and Wesley's internal scream staged a violent breakout.

"That's more like it." He raised his head and stretched his bloody lips in a smirk. "Fear. You can't begin to imagine how sweet that tastes. Half the humans I take, their hearts stop from the fear before the blood loss can ever kill them." He placed a hand on the left side of Wesley's chest. "Boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom," he mimicked. "A little quick but, hey, I guess your heart is stronger than the rest of you."

"Please..."

"Begging?" Penn grinned exuberantly, showing off his fangs. "Begging's good. Never the same without the begging. And, gee, a Slayer now and a Watcher?" He clicked his tongue. "Personally, I would have hoped for better from the appointed defenders of humanity." He yanked Wesley's wrist up to his waiting mouth again.

"Please don't..." Wesley choked. He was falling, falling, a cascade inside his head, and something gave and snapped. He saw a flurry of images - the Kungai demon in front of him, the blow that crushed his arm and reduced his existence to a pulped mass of blood and bone and agony... the bleak hours lying drifting in and out with his arm tied up, slowly seeping life, collecting toxins, and knowing in his still-trained half-delirium what that would mean should he survive. "Please. I'll... I'll t-t--"

"Talk? I'm almost disappointed. I'd been looking forward to draining you dry and making you drink. A vampire Watcher would be a delicious irony. And you'd talk your little unbeating heart out as a demon."

"No! Really, you - you don't need to. Please, it's not even necessary!" The floodgate was opened, the cascade rushing through his head and dribbling off his tongue and he couldn't face this, couldn't face talk or hurt, betrayal or pain, becoming a monster... "It was all a ruse... a fake... not real, none of it..."

Then he was babbling frantically about being fired, not working with the Council anymore, the people upstairs being police officers working with him independently... The Council weren't looking for Penn, of course they weren't, why on Earth would they care enough to break out of their stupor and intervene now when Penn had been killing for two centuries all but unhindered? It was all just him, buying time--

--for Costas and Lockley, dead now if they hadn't recovered enough to make their escape, because of his cowardice, because Penn, his face stretched by fury, was any second going to snap Wesley's neck and go back for them--

Then Penn's face disappeared altogether, and Wesley slid down the wall to the floor, coughing amid a cloud of dust. A clatter echoed as the stake hit the floor.

He was afraid to look up, shaken to the core, twisted and mangled inside. With his brain on autopilot, he focused his eyes on the black boots and followed them up black-clad legs to the top of the dark form.

"Wesley," Angel said, flat and without inflection. His eyes were empty: trying not to show judgement, Wesley thought, and oh God, he'd seen, he knew...

"Kate called me. I came along as quickly as I could."

Angel did not look to be in the best of condition either, his face bruised and spots of dampness that must be blood on his dishevelled clothes. He bent down and tore a strip from his shirt that he proceeded to efficiently wrap around the bite on Wesley's wrist. It bled sluggishly now, Penn having avoided the major arteries.

"You'll be all right," Angel said, still toneless. "He didn't take enough to require a transfusion."

"How can you--?" Wesley managed to ask, academic curiosity as ever the one thing that could unfailingly overcome fear, embarrassment, and being shattered into a thousand tiny pieces.

"I can hear the force of it in your veins," Angel said slowly, standing up, pulling Wesley up with him, offering no help beyond that other than to make sure he was propped steady against the wall before turning away. "I can hear your heart, still beating strong."

He shoved the wreckage of the door back and walked through. "You'll survive."

And Wesley, left to numbly watch his retreating coattails, wished he could believe Angel's assessment correct.

Perhaps he just wished that he wanted to.

Chapter Text

He opened the door to find Costas waiting outside, and would have closed it again except that the first thing the detective did was to thrust a roll of bank notes towards him. "My brother sold your bike. I figure you're probably running low on cash about now."

Wesley had to let go of the door to accept the money, and Costas took the opportunity to push his way inside. Scrunching the notes up in his fist, Wesley sighed, closed the door, and turned around.

"Don't worry about what you owe me, I already took it out."

He could see Costas taking in the state of the apartment, and it was a shock for himself to look at it anew through a visitor's eyes. The mess and the general aura of abandonment broadcast far too many things that were all too personal.

"Good to see you haven't let the old place go," Costas offered dryly.

Embarrassment would require too much in the way of feeling and effort. Wesley delivered his one-shouldered shrug and feebly offered tea. Costas eyed the begrimed state of the kitchen and the stacked pots, and declined.

He registered, finally, Costas' physical state; the bulky padding pushing out the line of his shirt and the care with which he moved, the strapped-up fingers on his right hand, the long, already half-healed gash across the side of his forehead.

"Detective Lockley told me you'd be fine," he blurted, guilt gaining a foothold where shame could not.

Costas shot him a steely look that wasn't particularly amiable. "And I will be. Right now, though, I'm on medical leave, thanks to the efforts of your vampire and a glass lounge table." He pulled his shirt up with an air almost of bragging and pointed out the strips taped around his midsection, peeled one back a little way to show the corner of what must have been a pretty deep cut. "Three of these, plus the cracked ribs, and the concussion. Oh, and the fingers." He waved them in their strapping, and winced.

Wesley realised himself to be unconsciously holding his arm across his chest, pressing the fading bite marks on his wrist against his own ribs even though they were already hidden beneath his sleeve, and he made himself relax, hand falling back to his side.

Costas lowered his shirt to cover his bandages, and looked back at Wesley a long time in silence. "What the hell happened?" he asked finally.

"What happened? I distracted Penn. Detective Lockley called Angel. Angel staked Penn." He turned away.

"No." The irritable dismissal surprised him enough that he turned back. "That's not what I meant. I mean, what the hell happened afterwards? You remember, when you fucking disappeared once you knew the two of us were gonna be okay? Kate said one minute you were standing there looking pale and shaking like a leaf while the ambulance people disentangled the last bits of me from the last bits of the damn table, the next she looked back and you were gone. Hell, I didn't think you could have been in any state to make it across town to this shithole without collapsing, let alone after leading Penn on some wild chase around that hotel."

"I'm here and in one piece aren't I?" he responded. "Well, no less of one piece than before, at any rate."

"Do you know how worried I was when I woke up in the hospital and they told me nobody knew where the hell you were and nobody could get in touch with you? I know I probably look like an ass saying this now, considering, but I let you go in there with us, and if something had happened..."

Wesley laughed wryly despite himself. Who was the innocent civilian here, in any case?

"Even Kate was worried." Costas dug a slim handful of what appeared to be envelopes from his jacket and threw them down on the armchair that stood between them. "You haven't even been checking your goddamn mail."

When he didn't move, the detective bent down and sifted through the catalogues and envelopes with advertisers logos on them and pulled up two with handwritten addresses. "She returned the cellphone to me, and she's hardly had time to come over in person, but she told me she'd written you twice."

Reluctantly, Wesley stuffed the folded money into a pocket and accepted the letters from Costas. After a moment considering, he gripped them with his teeth to tear them open. The pages that fell out were short and brusque, their message along the lines of 'drag yourself out to a public phone and check in, damn you, before I send a squad around to your apartment'.

"See," Costas said. "She was worried."

"If you say so," Wesley agreed dubiously.

"What do you expect?" Costas snapped. "You saved her life - you saved both our lives - and then you just disappear and we don't know if you're hurt, we don't know anything. Kate says Angel won't tell her a damn thing about what happened except that you distracted Penn and he dusted the bastard. Did you think we wouldn't be concerned?"

"I really didn't see you thinking about me one way or another," he said flatly. "It's done. Penn's dust. It's over. He didn't hurt me." It was, essentially, the truth. A little blood, a lingering ache at his wrist. Nothing, compared with the damage Penn had inflicted on Costas, if somewhat inadvertently. "I'm all right. You can go now. Forget about all of this. Get on with your life." He shoved the junkmail aside and sat down in the chair, directing a blank, expectant stare at the detective and the door.

"You're backing out on our deal?" Costas' agitated body language had gone very still.

"What deal?"

Costas leaned over him, gripping the chair's two arms. Wesley flinched away, ending up pressed hard against the backrest. "We talked about an arrangement," Costas said. "You were going to tell me all about these creatures, the vampires and the other stuff, give me the information I need to hunt them."

"We never agreed that. We talked about it. I believe I must have missed the part where we signed anything in blood. Besides, it didn't go so well last time."

Unexpectedly, Costas backed off with a low sigh. Wesley took the chance to scoot out of the chair, unwilling to be pinned down again. "I know. Look, I didn't mean to let you down. He was just - I hadn't expected the speed, and--"

"Don't." Wesley heard his voice crack, almost unable to bear hearing the detective accept the blame that was entirely his own. "It wasn't your fault. I should have prepared you both better, and I didn't."

"Bullshit," Costas said. "Some things you can't just tell. They can only be learned the hard way. You tell me a vampire has super-strength and speed, my brain registers a vampire has super-strength and speed, but it takes seeing one to make my reflexes do the same. I'll do better next time."

"There isn't going to be a next time," Wesley said angrily. "It's finished. I'm not doing it any more, and neither are you."

"The hell we aren't." Costas grabbed hold of his wrist, yanking him around, fingers pressing into week-old bite marks. "I don't know what's wrong with you, but last week you were all out to do this - you were the one pushing me--" He caught sight of Wesley's expression and his diatribe dried up, confusion evident in his eyes. "What?"

"Let go of me," Wesley hissed, oblivious to the pain as he tried to pull loose.

Costas dropped the hold as though it burned him, hands flying up into the air in classic stand-and-deliver stance. "Okay, Jeeze, you don't like being touched, I get that. What the fuck is this, Wesley? You managed to get a total personality transplant in the space of a week?"

Wesley blinked at him, holding his wrist to his ribs, feeling the damp trickle from re-opened scabs, then looked down unable to meet the accusing, mystified gaze. "I'm sorry. I didn't intend to snap."

Costas waited several breaths, fidgeting as though he didn't know what to do with his hands, until he aggressively shoved them both in his pockets, with a double-take at the last moment to negotiate the strapped-up fingers rather more carefully inside.

"He rang back," he said then, abruptly. "That English friend of yours. Guy you ran up hell of a bill on my phone asking about the research on Penn. Giles. Rupert Giles. And I thought 'Wesley Wyndham-Pryce' was one hell of a curse."

His eyes were stony and Wesley felt the back of his throat constrict as he tried to work up to a response but couldn't even make a comeback about the slur on his surname.

"He wanted to know if we got the killer. If everyone was all right. If you were all right," Costas emphasized darkly. "Said you'd told him you'd let him know how things went, and when you never called back..." He shrugged. With his hands in his pockets it made his entire jacket jump on his frame, rattling loose change.

Wesley felt the depression and resignation setting in deeper. If Giles and Costas had spoken, Giles would know now that he had lied about his position with the Council to salve his own dignity. Costas would know that he had lied to Giles. And he was glad - because he deserved their disgust, and because maybe then the detective would go away and leave him in peace. He raised his eyes to meet Costas', unflinching. "Well?"

"Well, nothing," he snapped. "I told him we got the guy. That I thought you were okay but you'd been pretty sick already and I hadn't heard from you. I told him you were probably lying low and recovering. But, damn it, take a minute and call the guy, for fuck's sake, because he sounded a decent enough guy - for a Brit - and from what I've seen I'm guessing you can't afford to alienate any of the friends you actually still have right now. And because normal people worry, and they don't deserve to have to when it isn't necessary."

Wesley did not miss the meaningful delivery of his words, even if he was battling his conflicting emotions after the spectacularly anticlimactic failure to unmask his petty deception.

His lack of response elicited a sigh from Costas, who finally gave up on trying to keep his hands imprisoned in his pockets. "Wesley," he said, an odd drag in his voice. "I didn't come here to yell at you." A soft, raw laugh. "Believe it or not, considering that's all I've done since I walked in here. You saved my life. Kate's, too. I said I didn't want you there, that you couldn't be any use, but I was wrong. What you did..."

He stopped, shook his head, searching for words. "Cops get medals for that kind of thing," he eventually said.

Wesley recoiled, and almost tripped over the edge of the bed. He stepped around it, backing off, placing distance and the armchair between himself and Costas, stopping by the window when it occurred to him if he backed away any further he'd be turning circles round the room. "You're wrong," he said, shaking his head. Appalled to discover he was trembling. His voice, too, mangling the words almost beyond recognition.

"I'm not. And I owe you - a whole lot of things, but most of all an apology. Look, before, I thought you were this kinda awkward, weird, too-earnest English guy. You probably gathered I wasn't taking you real serious. I was wrong. What you did last week, that was some amazing thing. You could have died - you must have known you couldn't fight him--"

"No," Wesley insisted sharply. He pressed back against the side of the window, hugging his wrist to his chest hard enough to aggravate the blood flow. Stopped when he realised if he aggravated it much more, it would start to soak through and Costas would see. Plus, he really hadn't enjoyed trying to dress it using his feet and his teeth and various contortions he'd never imagined the human form, let alone his own, capable of. "You're wrong. It wasn't like that. Don't try to build it up. You were right about me the first time."

"Fine. Then you're the idiot so ready to prove something to the world you wanted to go up against a killer vampire in the aftermath of a major limb amputation."

"Well, now I have to face reality." Wesley heard the snarl that came from his lips and snapped his teeth down on it too late, swallowing hard.

"All right." Costas' body language had all the aggression of a bare fist fighter rolling up his sleeves. "You want reality? To be honest, I thought you were a jumped up jerk who seemed to consider himself a hell of a lot more imposing than he was, but I wouldn't have agreed to work with you if you hadn't had something... that crazy drive... despite all the rest."

Wesley stared, unaccountably hurt despite having known the thinness of his front. Apparently his one virtue was that he was stubborn, and what of that now? He heard bitter laughter; registered it his own and grinned at Costas because his choices seemed to be either laughter or tears. "I'm sorry. So sorry. I just... I can't..."

Costas was developing the beginnings of a worried, hunted look that suggested he wasn't too comfortable with what must at present appear the all-too-likely prospect of somebody having a major breakdown in front of him, and Wesley caught a breath, shocked back to his senses by the cold shower of remembering Costas' own state of injury and exhaustion right now. The man had indicated he'd only left the hospital yesterday himself, and Wesley recalled acutely how bad he had felt a week ago. And in any case, he was supposed to be trained, above this (a joke, but he forced the emotion back down anyway. He could not abide feeling so exposed).

Costas negotiated the chair between them, then caught himself, stalling just feet away, flexing at his sides the hands he did not reach out to offer sympathetic touch. "Wesley, don't shut me out like this. I know what this is about."

"You do?" he asked fearfully.

"Yeah. I know you picked up one hell of a battle scar, there, and maybe it's only just starting to sink in, but it's not like your life's over. What the hell do you think last week was if not all the proof you ever need that you can still make a difference? I've seen cops wash out of the force with disabling injuries and if I take anything from what I've seen them go on to do after - security agencies, PI work, sitting at home watching TV all day, or spending their retirement in an alcoholic slump - it's that it's not about what's out here." A vague indicative gesture encompassed his own form; then he tapped the side of his head. "It's about what's in here. My dad used to say that the world doesn't make or break you, you make or break yourself, all the rest is bullshit."

Wesley regarded him quietly, and wondered what he'd think of what really happened with Penn - not the ultimate proof he could be useful, but all the proof he'd ever need that he was built to crumble under pressure, as he always had. He'd only managed to fool himself a little while.

Costas offered up, with an air of reaching, "Nelson lost an arm."

"I know."

"You saved my life. I'd be dead if it wasn't for you. That has to count for something. Look, I'm not asking you to fight beside me. I just need your direction to learn to fight on my own. You were the one that started this. I can't go back to living in ignorance now I know. You have to finish." He gestured around the mess of the apartment. "And look at it this way - what the hell else are you going to do?"

Wesley had no answer for that. All he was, all he'd ever done, all he'd been prepared for, was wrapped up in the mission he knew he no longer had any capacity to fight, if indeed he ever had. Costas effectively wanted him to be his Watcher, and given his previous failures in the role, he was sure to make mistakes again, and Costas would likely be the one to end up dead for it.

But most of all he knew he couldn't face another encounter like the previous one. Remembering the feel of himself crumble, though at least he supposed he no longer needed to worry about the memory gaps that had concerned him so much about his encounter with the Kungai, since Penn had recalled them for him in all their Technicolor detail.

He looked over at Costas and shook his head. "I don't know," he admitted bitterly, resenting the detective for backing him into another corner. "I don't know."

Costas sighed and turned away, his own head shaking, exuding frustration. The quick movement provoked a wince, and Wesley saw the hand that went to his taped ribs. He wondered which one of them was the more healthy now - the site of his amputation was all but healed, and that feeling of weakness and the dizziness that had plagued him had almost disappeared the last few days.

"Come on," the detective said suddenly, spinning on his heel with a snap of decision and marching toward the door, face grim-set, hiding any pain the motion caused. "Let's get the hell out of here. I'm sick of this apartment after half an hour, I'm guessing you're sure as hell sick of it after a week."

Wesley gaped at him a moment, not sure he was serious, but evidently he was.

He absolutely did not want to go out. But... he'd never felt so alone as he had this past week. He badly felt the need to talk to another human being, even if it was the persistent detective who'd no doubt try to coax him around on their still-unresolved argument, even if it was short, stilted, awkward conversation as he tried to avoid the subjects he did not want to talk about.

He nodded slowly and picked out his jacket from the mess on the floor.

"Damn it," Costas said explosively as he slammed open the door, all but yanking Wesley out after him. "I knew you hadn't been out of here all week."

***

"I still can't believe you brought us here," Wesley half-shouted, trailing in Costas' wake through the crowds.

The detective jerked his shoulders without turning around. "I can't drink. I can't drive. Not a lot I can do, with the damn medication and the whining English guy in tow - but I haven't seen a whole lot of the open air this last week and damned if I'm not gonna see some today."

Stumbling on the wooden boards underfoot, catching himself barely, Wesley shaded his eyes from the blazing mid-afternoon sun and apologised and excused himself to the people he pushed by to catch up with Costas, forging on ahead.

"...place is nice. My sister brings her kids here some weekends. I used to hang out here myself as a kid. And anything to try get you to lighten up already."

"I hardly think that's--" He sighed as Costas stopped to shoot a glare back at him. "All right, so we're here. What in Heaven's name are we going to do here? Eat pink fluff on a stick and attempt to win a giant purple... whatever those stuffed creatures at the back of that stall purport to be?"

"Yeah, if you like. Most people call it cotton candy." He squinted. "They're either bears or mice. Anybody's guess why they're purple."

Wesley pondered on the idiosyncrasies of the life which had led him to be here like this, his feet skidding on the polished boards of a sun-drenched pier, the noise and agitated humanity of a funfair assaulting his senses, bullied by an LAPD detective he was beginning to suspect not entirely rational at present.

Amid the clumps of families, mobs of teenagers, and twenty-something couples dressed in bright summer colours and chatting happily away in the sunlight, he rather thought that he stuck out like a sore thumb in his borrowed clothes and battered jacket. Costas' apparent obliviousness only compounded his embarrassment, and the urgent feeling that he needed to go find a small dark hole in which to hide for, oh, about a decade.

He angled his body to squeeze past two inordinately fat people, jarred one of them in the process and delivered a breathless "I'm so terribly sorry", then felt his face redden as the woman gawped openly at his cut-off shoulder. He hurriedly strutted after Costas, protesting, "You do realise I've spent much of the past week avoiding being around large crowds of people?"

"It's not like they're gonna hurt you." A quality in Costas' voice sparked a suspicion that possibly the choice of location for their afternoon foray had other motives from those to which the detective had confessed.

Certainly this was just about the most exposed place Wesley could imagine. He had never felt quite so visible before.

"They probably think I'm one of the attractions!" he said, pointing out a freak show exhibit. A fat lady not much different in girth from his recent adversaries waved and blew him a kiss. Still ruffled from the previous encounter, he stuttered and stared like a fool.

"So? Charge them," Costas responded, stopping briefly to herd him onward with a shove in the small of the back. "You were the one saying you needed a new direction, since you're giving up the demon hunting."

"There's no need to be snippy. And I'll thank you not to play head-games with me, detective."

"Jack. It's Jack."

"Excuse me, I thought I'd just established one of the many reasons why we're not friends?" His steps sharpened; his hand bunched into a fist at his side.

Costas stopped and swung around, causing people to bump into them a moment until the crowd readjusted to the obstacle and began to flow around them. "You're a freak," the detective said, stabbing him in the chest with a finger. "And it's got nothing to do with the arm. I tell you my name's Jack, not 'detective', not 'Mr Costas', I figure I'm pretty much saying my name's Jack. Who said anything about friends? It's not like you didn't tell me to call you Wesley practically the moment I met you."

"Well, it's not my fault that the rest of the world barring my family has a problem with 'Wyndham-Pryce'," Wesley returned.

Costas, very distinctly, sniggered. He started moving again, easing them back into the flow of people. "Anyway, unless you were planning on shutting yourself away forever, you were gonna have to face the world sometime." The remark was almost casual - almost. "Besides, they're staring at me too. Are you surprised? We look like two extras from some old war movie."

"They won't be staring at you forever," Wesley insisted, then gulped as he replayed the remark in his head. "Er... are we heading towards anything in particular here?" he asked, gratified for a change of subject as he noted the focused nature of the Costas' path.

"Food," the detective supplied succinctly. "Seems hours since breakfast, and I'm guessing you haven't eaten yet today."

Wesley grimaced. He did not much like to imagine what culinary delights would be available for their enjoyment anywhere in this place, and had little trust in Costas' palate to assuage the concern.

And he was right, because it saw them, presently, sitting on a low wall close by a hot dog stand dining on a meal of grease served with a side helping of onions, the one significant attractive feature of it being the ease with which it could be eaten one-handed. After the first bite, though, he barely noticed the grease.

"All right, so I'm guessing you haven't eaten much at all this past week," Costas said sarcastically.

"Not much at all," Wesley agreed, repeating the words given him out of sheer laziness, finding it difficult to care for evasion. But he could very much care to devour another of...

"You want me to--?" Costas began, digging his wallet out as Wesley stood up.

"No, no." He patted his pocket. "I'm not destitute any more, as you recall. I'm sure you've subsidised me quite enough."

Costas waved his wounded ego aside with a flap of his hand, causing onion to drop from the hot dog he happened to be holding in it, promising, "I'll get you addicted to these yet," as Wesley headed back to the vendor.

Wesley pondered the remark as he queued, paid, and ambled back to where the detective sat. It was quite clear his insistence that his arrangement with Costas was very much over was simply not sinking in.

The bricks of the wall were warm, saturated by sun, and it soaked through his clothing when he perched back down there. The sun warmed his skin and caught at stray strands of hair fallen over his eyes - growing out of its cut and steadily approaching 'too long' after the weeks in the hospital and since - turning them almost blond, until he awkwardly brushed them back and out of his sight. The hot dog was in theory vile but in practice his hunger made it acceptable, and he had to at least admit to himself that for the first time in a week he felt... almost alive.

He crumpled the empty wrapping up and tossed it over into a nearby wastebasket.

"Nice shot," Costas observed (Wesley could see his own papers crumpled up on the ground at the base of the wall). "You ready to move?"

"Yes." He stood and brushed down his clothes. "Seriously, det-- ah, that is, Jack... why a funfair?"

"Why the hell not?" Costas asked as though offended.

They pottered around the fair a while, looking at the stands and rides, not speaking much. Wesley asked about Detective Lockley, and received a roll-eyed long-suffering look he was beginning to recognise as Costas' 'Lockley expression' and the information that the woman had spent the past week running around like a headless chicken trying to wrap up the remnants of the Pope case in some sort of order that made sense in the records without actually possessing a body to prove the perpetrator dead.

"She wasn't injured, then? I thought perhaps she wasn't being entirely honest when she told me - and the ambulance crew - that she was fine," Wesley queried.

"Sprained wrist. Ended up not going to get it sorted until the day after. She said she thought it was just twisted. She was probably bruised all to hell, but I'll never know since she covers herself up like a nun."

Wesley was amused by his evident disgust at that latter fact.

As the afternoon drew to a close it found them sitting on the edge of the pier, beyond the last of the stalls where people were anyway starting to drift off home, legs hanging down over the sea, handing a bag of donuts back and forth. At Costas' side was the large purple... mouse, as it had been lengthily debated and finally concluded, that they had acquired from a shooting gallery with brightly coloured targets that Costas had proceeded to miss with remarkable efficiency until finally swearing a lot and prodding Wesley into trying. "Beginner's luck," he'd concluded irritably, the purple creature wedged under his arm as they walked away, and; "My niece will love it, I'm sure."

Wesley took another donut, and distractedly said, "Is your plan to ply me with junk food until I agree to continue this alliance?"

"Pretty much." Costas grinned.

He shook his head. "It won't work. My mind's quite made up on the issue, I assure you. I almost got you and Detective Lockley killed."

"But you didn't. And a whole lot of people that would've ended up Penn's appetisers will live, now. And you don't seem to get that, for Kate and me, it's what we do. It's what we chose to do. Protecting the innocent, and all the rest."

"Why? - I mean, why did you become a police officer? You said before that your family didn't want you to."

Costas was quiet a moment, and Wesley was ready to apologise for prying when he said, "A couple of cops arrested a friend of mine when I was seventeen. Turned out he was innocent of any charge, but he ended up with three broken ribs and a broken nose. Coincidence, of course, that he happened to be black. I figured things needed to change. I also figured... you have to be in the system to change it." He shrugged.

Wesley nodded slowly, and offered the last donut to Costas.

"You can have it."

"No, no. You paid for them."

"Plying you with junk food, remember? Besides, you did save my life. I figure it's worth at least a donut."

"I'm sure it's worth considerably more than that," Wesley said, and took the donut.

Costas waited until he'd finished and licked the sugar from his fingers before climbing awkwardly to his feet, flexing his limbs and wincing from too long sitting still. He said, "What the hell. Let's go get a damn drink."

"I can't drink," Wesley protested, scandalised. "I'm still on medication. And so are you - you even said so yourself, earlier."

The detective rolled his eyes; there was a fiendish spark in them. "First thing I did when I got home last night was empty a couple of cans. Hasn't done me any harm yet. Come on, let's go find a bar."

Wesley glared at him. "You--" He sighed, shook his head, and let it go. Today had been a better day than the seven preceding it, and on balance, that did count for a great deal. He shifted clumsily, trying to climb to his feet with only one arm for leverage. Costas extended a hand almost nervously, as though half expecting to be bitten, and Wesley supposed with a guilty start that he had in fact done much to foster that caution. After a moment's consideration during which he calculated that, yes, he could manage on his own if he took an extra moment, he clasped the offered hand. Costas' palm was warm, fingers sticky with sugar. The detective saw him on his feet before loosing the hold.

Costas wordlessly clasped his shoulder before turning to lead their way back up the pier. Wesley stared down a moment at his empty palm, before jolting himself back to reality and following.

***

It was getting dark when they drew up outside his apartment building in the taxi. A little unsteady from the alcohol which was mixing uneasily with his pain medication, Wesley helped Costas - somewhat more unsteady - out of the back.

Drink-saturated grimness lined his thoughts and a deep ache his limbs. He didn't hurt so much as he had after the chase the previous week, though he still had some of the bruises from falling down all those stairs, but still, today had included significantly more activity than he'd been accustomed to seeing of late. He had done nothing with his time to try to combat the drag of inactivity on his body, or reclaim his physical fitness.

The fact that he was rather appalled with his own apathy, thinking on that, unnerved him. Being numb had kept his heart beating since Penn had destroyed the rest of him. He wasn't sure he was going to survive starting to feel again.

Wesley left Costas propped against the side of the taxi a moment and hurried around to the driver's window to pay. The driver was eying the street nervously, visibly judging the neighbourhood and finding it ominous.

"Please, keep the change." He missed exactly what the driver said in response, but suspected sarcasm. He managed to remove Costas from his slump against the bonnet just in time as the vehicle started to move. "I still think we should have taken you back to your place," he told the drunk detective.

They had in the last several hours toured around rather more of LA's less reputable drinking establishments than Wesley had ever wanted to experience. None of them, apparently, were Costas' usual haunts, which was a source of some relief, and in one of them they were almost lynched when the detective made a carelessly loud reference to his occupation, but Costas did not seem to much care.

Wesley distinctly did not want to get beaten up or knifed and left in a back alley somewhere. The minor confrontation had sent him into a cold sweat and he'd had to sit down on the sidewalk after they'd made their exit - passing the episode off to Costas as a bout of pain from his truncated shoulder.

Throughout somewhere in the vicinity of a dozen bars, he had endeavoured to do no more than sip the drinks Costas had pushed upon him. Even so, as he attempted now to steer the detective across the street to his apartment building he began to suspect he had imbibed more than he'd thought. Or possibly it was the reaction with his medication that threw him off-balance and made the world turn circles. He had not been drunk enough times in his life to be certain.

"God, no," Costas groaned, and he had to rack his brain a moment as to precisely what he'd said that this marked a response to - ah, the question of taking him home. Costas' next line was indistinct, but the word 'wife' and the shudder with which he punctuated his speech carried over quite clearly.

"You're married?" Dear Lord, the poor woman would have his head for allowing her seriously injured husband to troll around half the seedy bars in LA.

"Divorced," Costas said succinctly, and yes, he remembered hearing reference to an ex-wife a few times before, and allowed himself a partial sigh of relief.

With the painstaking aid of many small and detailed questions he managed, in a slow, tedious process as they mutually staggered through the hallway and up the stairs, to extract the information that the ex-wife was in fact currently staying with Costas (apparently they still got along well enough) in order to see him all right for his first day or so out of the hospital because the doctors had been concerned about his being alone. Costas had left that morning promising her he would be gone only a few hours.

Wesley swore steadily under his breath as he fumbled for his keys on the landing, noting with intense irritation that his neighbours had taken a brief hiatus from their arguing in order to have violent, noisy sex.

"It's a curse," he groaned aloud. He jerked the keys and twisted to bash the door below the handle with his elbow, and it clicked open.

"Curses too, huh?" Costas said.

"No, I didn't mean--" he said, flustered. "Although, yes, there are curses too. But I didn't mean that I was literally cursed. Just figuratively." The last word took several attempts to get right. It sounded like he was trying to gargle with it.

They fell through the door, Costas' shoulder hitting the jamb first attempt and the detective feeling around the shape of the doorway with both hands before proceeding again. "Goddamn," he said, flinching at the sight of the apartment, and reiterated, "How can you live like this?"

The sight of the apartment, and the smell, Wesley thought, reassessing as he entered. He blanched and staggered through the debris to open the window wide. "I don't - I didn't realise it had become quite this bad. I... I didn't notice."

"I mean, you've got that English, classy thing going, for a start. Shouldn't you kinda have a whole private mansion or something, with that accent?"

He turned, to see Costas had shucked off his jacket onto the floor and slumped back in a chair. He barked a bitter laugh at the remark. "Oh, my family has some properties." Though probably less grand than Costas was thinking, he allowed. "But I don't believe I'll be seeing any of them again anytime soon."

Costas looked uncomfortable at that, and Wesley remembered he'd seen the letter.

"But you are right. I ought to be doing better than this." He stared fixedly down through the window to where a gang of youths were enthusiastically climbing on a dumpster at the mouth of an alley across the street. He bit his lip, and looked back to the detective, his mouth suddenly feeling very dry. His head ached and he felt very, very sober. He recoiled, in the end, from voicing his thoughts.

"You'll help me," Costas said for him, as he worked his throat and no sound came out.

He nodded. "Yes," he said finally, a bare whisper. He rested his hand on the window frame, ran his fingers down the edge, stared out into the dark as a viable alternative to meeting the detective's gaze. "I'm no use to myself or anyone else like this. I should - I have to do something. Even if I have to make myself... I... But you should know, I've failed before, more than once. It's unlikely it won't happen again."

"Wesley." Costas sounded tired. "I don't think there's many people in the world couldn't say that of themselves if they were being honest."

"Most of their mistakes haven't endangered lives."

"That might be true - but most of the ones I know are cops."

He drew in a sharp breath. Not relief; a different kind of fear. The prospect of not giving in contained more dread than hope. Even so - he knew, logically, that there were ways even a coward could serve.

Costas stood up from his chair, then, and Wesley noted that he was looking rather grim.

"What's wrong? Oh, good lord--"

The detective dived out of the apartment, his steps crashing along the landing towards the shared bathroom.

Wesley contemplated following, then decided it would be less of an embarrassment for all concerned if he did not. He sighed and sagged against the window sill, trying to pick threads of coherent thought from the misty strings enveloping his brain. Outside, the youths had moved on, leaving the dumpster overturned in their wake and its contents strewn over half the street.

Costas' cellphone had spilled from the jacket on the floor. He left the window and picked the phone up, switched it on, then hesitated and set it between his teeth while he fished in his pocket for his wrist watch. Too late, probably, to ring Giles now, he decided guiltily. He would do so in the morning.

He bent to replace the cell and it beeped shrilly in his hand. Startled, his limbs jerked wildly, and the cellphone flew from his fingers. He made several quick grabs which would surely have looked embarrassingly cartoonish had there been anyone there to see them and finally forestalled its dive. Gripping it in his fingers, he stabbed at the keys with his thumb and raised it to his ear.

"W--" he began.

"Jack, you asshole, where the hell are you and why the hell has your phone been turned off all day?" a female voice demanded, almost causing him to drop the phone all over again.

"I--"

"Do you know how worried I've been, waiting around for you to show up? Do you know how many of your friends I've called around, trying to find you? I practically had them put a fucking missing persons out, you bastard--"

Wesley determinedly took a breath and cleared his throat loudly to interrupt. "This is Wesley Wyndham-Pryce speaking," he said. "Ah, can I help you?"

There was a brief, surprised silence on the other end.

"Oh, God," the woman said faintly. "I'm so sorry. I thought--" Suspicion crept into her voice and some of the volume and aggression returned. "Wait a second. I know I punched in the right number. Where's Jack? Is he there? Is he all right?"

"He's, uh, fine..." Wesley said hesitantly.

"Has he been drinking?" came the next sharp query. She seemed to take Wesley's silence as all the answer she needed. "Damn you," she all but spat. "Don't you know he's on medication?"

"I--"

"Where are you?" she asked in a tone that brooked no argument. "I'll bring the car around and pick him up."

Wesley pondered making a stand in Costas' defence, but he had in any case been wondering how he was going to get the detective home, so he stammered out his address and was left feeling like he'd been knocked down by some large armoured vehicle when she cut the connection. He stared at the cellphone in faint horror for a minute before replacing it inside the jacket, picking the jacket up and folding it over the back of the chair, and venturing after Costas.

It was with some relief that he found the man already making his way back across the landing.

"Better," he filled in with a nod of his head before Wesley could ask, sounding rather more sober.

"Your wife - or so I assume - rang."

"Fuck. Irene?"

"So I assume," he repeated.

Costas winced. "Fuck."

"She said that she'll be coming here to pick you up in the car."

A groan greeted the information. "You gotta be kidding me."

"I'm sorry."

A sigh. "Doesn't matter, I guess. At least it means I don't have to spend the night sleeping on the floor of this dive. No offence." He waved a hand, dismissing the issue, and the motion put him off balance, making him stumble. "Hell. I gotta sit down before I fall down."

"Yes, I think perhaps you may have overdone it." The faint noise of something breaking carried through the wall and he shot a glare at his neighbours' door as they went back inside the apartment.

While they waited, he somewhat ashamedly started to tidy the place into a kind of order. The idea of the very strident woman on the cellphone walking in on the place in its current state disturbed him considerably. Costas watched and made occasional comment, too drunk for subtlety, and Wesley wished he wouldn't, intensely self-conscious as he filled the sink and approached the dirt-encrusted pile of plates and cups with the sort of grim foreboding one might approach a battle.

Predictably, the knock at the door came before he could finish.

The woman he opened to was tall and markedly thin in a way that made him want to check for a pulse, her ash-blonde hair very short cropped and an overall impression of harshness about her. She wore pale colours, in businesslike cut. She blinked at Wesley, then extended a hand as though forcing herself to courtesy.

"Irene Danner. Mr. Wyndham-Pryce?"

"Yes." She was the first person in a long time not to trip over his surname on the first attempt, and for that alone he managed a smile. Her handshake was very firm, all bony edges. He welcomed her inside.

"I didn't realise you were... injured," she said, still staring. "Are you a police officer?"

"He's freelance," Costas said, standing up straight and visibly attempting to salvage some dignity. "Irene, I'm sorry."

Irene's thin eyebrows climbed her forehead as her gaze meandered over to her errant husband. Her eyes narrowed and a faint smile crooked her lips as if to agree with that assessment. Costas was thereafter temporarily removed from consideration while she turned back to Wesley. "I should apologise for my behaviour when you answered the phone."

"It's perfectly all right, Ms. Danner," he assured her.

Awkwardness out of the way, she smiled efficiently and moved on. "Let's get you home," she said to Costas with a little 'huff' of long-suffering despair. Her annoyance, hard on the surface, had an undercurrent of rote, and there was much undercurrent of familiarity and affection. Barring her irritation over the worries of the evening, it was obvious their estrangement was not a bitter one.

"No." Costas pulled away from her grip and contemplated Wesley narrow-eyed. He nodded to himself in some kind of decision. "You. We're moving you out of this place. Right now."

"W-what?" Wesley stuttered, caught off-guard.

"No friend of mine is living in a dump like this when I live in a house that has at least three rooms I barely ever set foot in. Get packed. You're coming back with me."

"I most certainly am not," Wesley retorted. "I'm perfectly fine here. I don't need your charity."

"To hell with charity. Don't you know I risk my life every time I walk down this street? And how did you get this place? That little redhead nurse took some shine to you, right? You're living on charity now. At least you agreed to help me out, and can consider that help your rent."

"He's right," Irene said, impartially droll, looking between the two of them with some amusement and considerably more doubt. "This place is appalling."

"He's drunk," Wesley said. "I hardly imagine he'd be suggesting this sober."

"I am not drunk," Costas insisted. He tried to scrape up a pile of Wesley's belongings in some attempt at enforcing the removal and almost fell, swaying as the motion set him off-balance. He glared around, defying anyone to comment. "And I was already thinking of it earlier. Right now we both need some watching. This way we can watch each other. Irene can go back to work and stop fretting over her deadbeat ex. I'd say it works out pretty good all round."

"Quite," Irene said.

"I... I really couldn't," Wesley insisted, his voice quavering between anger and a humiliating squeak of fright. Bloody hell, at least in this place he had some privacy to be hopeless in. Nobody had to know how long it took him to get dressed, cook a meal, complete the most simple, pathetic tasks of everyday life.

"I'm not leaving you... here... like this alone," Costas said sporadically, lurching in ungainly fashion around the apartment, gathering things up which he returned periodically to pile into the arms of his bemused ex-wife. "Not for anything like... this last week... to happen again. You need someone right now." He paused and straightened to deliver with more force, "Call it a fucking intervention or whatever the hell you will, but you're coming back with me. It doesn't have to last. Just till you've got your feet on the ground again and we've sorted out..." He cast Irene a sideways glance. "The other stuff."

Wesley opened his mouth to repeat his protest, then closed it.

He could not muster the energy to combat the detective's drunken determination. He wasn't sure he wanted to. He was tired, in a way that went bone deep and settled there in a constant, incessant ache. Tired of living like this, tired of being alone. He sighed and gave a one-shouldered shrug of acquiescence, letting himself surrender.

What Costas suggested was logical enough. And he had little else left by which to live.

Chapter Text

Rain had fallen that evening in a brief, rare cloudburst. Now, in the dark, the puddles still lingered in the potholed and unevenly paved back streets and alleys of Los Angeles, where disreputable things gathered for nefarious purposes and road maintenance was demonstrably far from anyone's thoughts.

Water sloshed underfoot, soaking through Wesley's shoes and carrying the uncommon chill of the night in with it. Shivering, he hugged his jacket tighter across his chest and missed his left arm with a chilled, morbid intensity.

Heaps of garbage lined the edges of the alleyway around him, much of it from the club to his left. Further down, the stripped corpse of a car offered one possible explanation why some of the puddles smelled of petrol, and also made Wesley suspect that they would be very lucky if vampires were all the danger they encountered tonight. The high brick walls hemming them in made the space seem narrower, and although by an unusually generous turn of fate he'd never been claustrophobic, he had no trouble at all imagining them pressing in.

The noises of blows echoed along the alley, reverberating from wall to wall, their sound made metallic by the moisture in the air and on the ground, punctuated abruptly by a thud and a harsh grunt as Costas slammed the vampire back against the brickwork.

"Good. That's better," Wesley offered with approval, watching carefully as the vampire shook itself, growled, and swung at the detective. Costas blocked and retaliated. Wesley frowned. "Your left arm's falling a trifle too low, especially in the blocks... yes, that's it. Much better. Excellent, in fact."

The dazed vampire (youngish, with leather paraphernalia and some dated punk-style trappings Wesley dismissed as an affectation - this was a fledgling of half a dozen years at most) managed to duck under a blow and stagger clear. Backing away, darting edgily from side to side as Costas moved after him, he succeeded in staying just out of reach.

"What the hell is this?" the vampire asked in a voice far removed from 'fierce undead creature of the night' and, in fact, verging on a petulant whine. "Does he have to be here? I mean, it's kind of annoying. How am I supposed to concentrate with the British guy doing the running commentary in the background?"

"I know exactly how you feel," Costas muttered.

"I resent that." Wesley straightened stiffly, his spine crackling audibly, and stood to his full height, drawing the attention of both man and monster to his position. He wilted a fraction under their glares. "I'm merely endeavouring to prepare you for the field as requested. The least you could do is be gracious. Now, please, let's practise that staking manoeuvre."

"I want to vote we practise some other manoeuvre," the vampire piped up, eyes shifting between the two of them.

"No," Wesley said.

At the same time, Costas said, "Shut the hell up."

They exchanged glances. Wesley huffed and jabbed a finger towards the creature. "Just stake the vampire, please. It's being... rather distractingly vocal."

"I guess you just can't get quality evil these days." The vampire shrugged and set his head on one side, then sprang suddenly, barrelling into Costas. "I guess we'll be going with practising the 'you die in horrible bloody fashion and I get a two-for-one happy meal' manoeuvre."

Costas stumbled, almost went down under the tackle. But even as Wesley automatically stepped towards the affray, the detective recovered his balance. His elbow jerked back and then plunged forward in a smooth motion with all his body weight behind it. The vampire's surprised features held their shape for an instant in the dust before it cascaded over the alley floor. Costas staggered, caught himself against the wall, straightened and brushed down his coat. "You can come out of hiding now," he said dryly, looking across to Wesley.

"A little prudence never hurt." Emerging from behind the stack of empty packaging crates, a position safely removed from the action while offering sufficient view, he picked his way across the damp debris, through puddles clogged now with grey-black dust that adhered to his shoes and gave a slimy texture underfoot.

"I thought that went terribly well, considering," was his verdict, given in somewhat preoccupied fashion whilst trying to scrape vampire off his shoes with the pieces of broken crates scattered about the alley floor. He noticed Costas rubbing his upper arm, face scrunched up as though the area was tender. "Not more than bruised, I hope?"

"Just bruised," the detective confirmed. "I guess even the bargain basement rejects of Evil would still have to have super-strength."

"Ah, yes. Hardly the most spectacular example of a vampire ever," Wesley agreed, with a click of his tongue and a chuckle.

Costas tossed his stake in the air, letting it revolve lazily, and caught it with a deft snap of the wrist as it passed his dangling hand. He twirled it once in his fingers and slid it back inside his jacket.

"Is it really necessary to - indulge so?" The move reminded him rather too keenly of Buffy's penchant for frivolity.

The remark earned him the sort of hard look he'd learned to associate with Costas' displeasure at a certain tone the detective claimed best suited for chiding a misbehaving child. Wesley sighed, gave in. He stomped his feet, trying to get rid of the last of the sodden ash. Stopped, one foot half raised in the air, his balance wavering, as he saw Costas' gaze drift beyond him, saw the detective's eyes widen.

There was the faint noise of something cracking under a light footfall.

Reaching for a weapon, he spun. The realisation he had nothing struck home as he saw the second vampire and every joint in his body locked.

The vampire smiled and pretty features framed by blonde curls twisted to the aspect of a demon. She looked at his shoulder and pouted. He could imagine her mentally deducting a pint.

Costas, unseen, had retreated into shadow.

"Hello," she purred, getting close enough to Wesley to touch, and promptly touching. Her fingers trailed down his face and neck, followed along his tight-fastened jacket collar to the front, where they ran down and popped the buttons all the way to his belt. She pushed the jacket back, baring his throat, snaring his arm. "Did we not play so nicely with Danny?" Her toes flicked the saturated dust, splattering it across the alley. He felt globs hit the legs of his trousers. She shrugged and leaned into Wesley, her arms curling around him in almost an embrace. A fierce movement knocked them back against the wall, divesting him of breath, transforming the loose curl of her arms to a forceful cling.

Her face fit neatly in the hollow between his neck and chin, and he felt a nip at the skin of his throat. She giggled at the flinch that ran through him. He stared blankly at the opposing wall. "He was a stupid fledgling. Those of us who've been around longer wouldn't--"

"Thank you!" Wesley said, the squeak of his voice loud on the empty air as he frantically brushed dust from himself. He babbled further extrapolation on the thanks until finally forcing himself to stop and breathe. Costas was putting a crossbow away. "I'm sorry," he said, trying to reinstate composure. His voice shook, but was at least back to a normal pitch.

"So that was one of those vamps with the mesmerising ability," Costas said.

"With--?" Wesley flushed and stuttered weakly. "Ah, no. No. No, it was not. But I... there was nothing I could do in any case."

Costas stared at him. "Yeah," he said sarcastically. "Why don't we stand still and let them eat us? Damn it, I know you know the moves, you've been showing them to me. One arm or two, you can try. Why the hell didn't you--?"

He stopped.

Wesley was shivering - uncontrollably and, he dared say, very visibly.

"Come on." Shaking his head, Costas placed a hand on Wesley's shoulder, guided him into movement. "Let's get home and get some rest."

***

He'd never minded mornings before waking became a process of realisations. In his subconscious he still had a whole body, a position, a mission. He was not sure he would ever grow accustomed to arriving at consciousness in a borrowed bed in a borrowed home, hopeless, worthless, scarred and maimed, sleepily rolling over onto his left side where actuality blasted through his senses and jolted him to awareness.

He rose with slow, agonised care and headed into the bathroom to take more of the painkillers that had worn off while he slept, came back still half in a daze to tug the bedclothes up off the floor onto the bed, going through the tedious routine of tidiness in case Costas should look into the room.

After that, he returned to the bathroom, where he let the shower wake him fully while avoiding looking at the lump of reddened flesh that ended his shoulder.

The gentle fall of water upon the still-tender scar tissue was soothing, beneath the faint sting, and he leaned into the wall, closing his eyes, blocking the absence from his thoughts, feeling the water wash away the sweat of his nightmares.

He was not doing so badly. Better, certainly, than he'd ever thought possible again in that long week after Penn.

While in training with the Council, it had been a possibility, always, underlying every lesson, that he could end up crippled by his calling, if not dead. There had been enough scarred soldiers around the academy - researchers, teachers, their stories whispered rumours among the students. As a youth he had shivered with the imaginings, unable to fathom how he would cope should they come to pass. Now, he woke to start another day.

The perception of 'normality' could change so astoundingly quickly, and he supposed it must be the same for Costas too, dealing with vampires and demons on a daily - nightly - basis.

For himself, Wesley found it hard to imagine growing up in a world where the demons were mere fairy stories.

Once upon a time, the boy he'd been had dreamed of the hero he'd be once he left the shadow of his father and the strictures of the Watcher's Academy. He would not fail them; would prove the responsibility they entrusted him with to be justified. The possibility of failure did not apply to him - no, because he was going to show father he was good enough, he was going to show them all. Doubts? He did not admit such things as those. (No, he pushed them aside and buried them deep, so they could claw up and choke him at every wrong moment.)

He towelled dry and avoided looking at his cut-off shoulder as he pulled on clothes. He didn't like getting dressed. Had never been exactly fond of his naked form - too thin, too pale, paper-white skinny body, ribs and stringy muscles too much in evidence - but he'd not flinched from the sight before.

The amputation itself was neat and surgical, not very ugly, but still he hated the way it looked. In priority, he pulled on a dark green shirt with a sewn-up sleeve, hiding the scar from sight, and hiding with it the bruises from the previous evening's encounter, themselves hopelessly swamped within his regular cocktail of pain.

He recalled briefly the decision that finally saw him give up on suits when attempting to purchase a new wardrobe. The absence of an arm was all the more obvious against crisp, tailored lines, the ugliness of his new lack of symmetry a mockery of the formality. He'd settled instead for loose, bulky, casual wear that bagged on his thin frame - thinner even than it ordinarily was, still in the aftermath of sickness - obscuring the damage as best he could, though he could never hide it.

Putting on trousers one-handed was a torture he would not willingly have inflicted on the worst spawn of Hell. As for shoelaces... well, he was very glad of his room's adjoining bathroom, that Costas did not have to know how long it took to make himself presentable to the world, or the contortions he had to undergo to do so. Finally, he reached for the watch on the cabinet, pulled it onto his fingers, and tugged the elasticated strap over his hand with his teeth, working it around so its face nestled neatly at his wrist.

He had been back to the hospital a few times and they had been more or less satisfied with how the healing had progressed. The first such visit, the doctor had tutted at him for discharging himself, berated him for not taking care of the wound so well as he ought, 'hmm'ed at the remnant of Penn's bruises on his skin. Lord knew what the man thought he'd been doing. On the second visit, his painkillers had been reduced to a milder alternative whose effect he'd noticed immediately in his shoulder's increased, wrenching ache day and night - and in the decrease of the terrifying, lurid, hallucinatory quality of his dreams. His mind seemed to work sharper, his senses clearer, and on the whole he was content with the trade-off. His concentration span returned to almost normal and research considerably eased.

Finishing in the bathroom, Wesley ventured down the light, airy staircase. The sun streamed through an uncurtained skylight at the top to bounce down the pale walls and flood stairwell and hallway alike, seeping into his eyes through scrunched lashes.

Through the glass door of the porch, he could see the pile of morning papers. He stuck his head outside, still blinking at the day, collected them up, and carried them through to the kitchen under his arm. He dumped them on the breakfast table. "Good morning."

Costas was glaring intently into a cup of coffee. "Morning. Yeah," he acknowledged after several seconds' delay.

Wesley found no second cup of coffee waiting for him, which irked him, but was mostly a blessing considering the detective always made it far, far too strong for ordinary human consumption. He'd been half-contemplating testing for any demonic heritage in the man's background, utterly baffled how Costas appeared able to not only digest but to savour it.

He took his time preparing the coffee in his linear fashion, one eye on Costas, who was not a morning person, idly picking at a newspaper. A couple of slices of bread in the toaster would suffice for breakfast; he need only struggle to spread them with margarine while they led his knife a chase around the plate.

He took the toast to the table and set it down; came back for the coffee. He sat and extricated the newspapers from Costas, who seemed largely interested in folding the corners into a messy breed of origami. He scanned the front page, then folded it back to display the second and arranged it on the table top to read while he ate and drank.

He read, ate, occasionally turned the pages, listened to Costas' silence. Every so often, picked up a pen and circled an article. When he'd finished the first paper, he moved on to the next. He'd almost finished the pile by the time Costas came to life.

"Find anything?"

"A growing number of 'muggings' and 'attacks' reported in an area rumoured to have recently gained a high vampire population. There's likely a nest somewhere. We might do well to check that out. If we compile information on the attacks, perhaps it would be possible to pinpoint its location, although I'm not certain the two of us ought tackle--"

Costas snorted.

"All right," Wesley said snippily. "I'm not certain you ought tackle a nest. But perhaps if we're clever... a daytime attack could work, if planned sufficiently well..." His brain pounced on options, letting them roll off his tongue even as they crystallised.

A loudly cleared throat stemmed the flow of his thoughts. "I am not," Costas said, "A seventeen-year-old girl. You want to know how many police raids I've taken part in? Armed sieges, perhaps?"

Wesley felt himself flush, the line of his mouth harden, the muscles of his jaw bunch in annoyance. "I was merely--" The clock on the wall caught his eye and he released the rest of the breath. His teeth snapped closed audibly. He said archly, "Aren't you going to be late?"

Costas looked at the clock and cursed as if by rote, leaving the impression that this was not news to him and that if Costas felt like being late he'd damned well be late. The attitude was very like the detective; the apathy was not. Wesley's irritation was replaced by concern.

"Are you feeling quite well? No injuries from last night that you're hiding away?"

"No. I'm good."

Standing, the detective drained his coffee with a gulp and a wince. He transferred his jacket from the back of his chair to his shoulder, car keys jangling, and headed for the door. He looked back as he stepped over the threshold. "You all sorted for today?"

"Absolutely. Plenty to be getting on with. Don't worry about me. Please do remember to keep your cellphone switched on this time, though."

"Goddamn it, you sound like my wife. You have no idea how disturbing that is. Call if anything comes up, then. I'll do the same."

Then he was gone, the door clicking shut in his wake, the day begun for real.

***

Wesley did not like to be alone in the company of his thoughts, miserable comrades as they were at the best of times, and he did not linger over the remnant of breakfast once Costas had gone. He stacked the dishwasher and returned to the newspapers. Briefly, assessing, he flicked back through the pages of each, gauging the density of pencilled circles within their pages. Less than yesterday, and many would be duplicates. He pushed them away from him, stood back from the table.

Restless, very much not wanting to sit back down, he wandered the house. As always, Costas' absence made him feel deeply uneasy. He was an interloper here. He'd not wanted to come, had tried very hard to avoid it until Costas' argument and logic wore him down. And... the atmosphere was strange, in this place. A cast about it of loss, of bereavement, although he knew nobody had died.

The house itself was a tasteful, well-sized property. Costas lived in incongruous comfort amid a neighbourhood of families with pets and children. The money had apparently been Irene's, and she'd taken it with her, though she hadn't wanted anything of the house. Costas seemed to possess no special desire to sell it and move on.

The light, airy decoration of the hallway was a continued theme throughout, but cracks and chips in the paintwork and yellowing smokers' stains spoke of the age of the influence that had placed it there. Irene had liked creams, beiges and yellows. Muted green. A blue so pale it was almost icy white. Contrast indeed to Costas' less subtle influences, more sparsely littered around the house. The expansive television set and sound system downstairs. The games room upstairs, with its slot machines and pool table. Uncompromising, bulky, modern.

Perched against the arm of a chair in the small lounge downstairs, Wesley watched the slow movement of trees dispersing the sunlight flooding in to the room via the window looking onto the back garden. Through the window, an unremarkable vista. Half-tended flower beds and a relatively tidy lawn. A white outdoor dining set, rusting, and a long yard shaded towards the bottom by the building at the end of an adjoining street.

This had meant to be a home for a family, he reflected. And now... now, it was mainly a home for ghosts, stray shreds and little pieces of dreams still wisps on the edge of thought. If you turned your head to the side, you'd maybe catch an obscure glimpse - but there was nothing real here. Costas had invited him in to live among a myriad of other dead hopes. Maybe they weren't so oddly matched after all.

It did not make him feel any less of an intruder that he understood why Costas had been so ready to bring a stranger into his home.

The sunlight shifted on his face, making him blink and avert his eyes. The piano in the corner of the rarely-used lounge slid into his line of sight.

He'd wondered about it before. Had meant, countless occasions, to quiz Costas about it. Was it his? Did he play? Wesley found it hard to visualise the detective sitting on that piano stool, broad hands spread out across the fine instrument. Indeed, the image had something comedic about it. Yet surely Irene would not have left this, if it had been hers?

He paused in front of it several moments before reaching down to lift the lid from the white and black keys which, uncovered, grinned up at him challengingly. Almost of their own volition, his fingers descended and crawled across the keys in a slow, awkward melody, caught in the distant memory of childhood lessons.

He walked his fingers along in a scale, let them wander. As the moments stretched, a tune started to emerge. He reached out with his other hand to form the chords--

And slammed the lid back down with a force that shocked himself and knocked the flash of anger clean from his brain. Worriedly, he bent to the piano, examining the finely worked wood for scratches and blemishes he might have made. Raised the lid again to ensure he had not damaged its underside, or the keys beneath.

There was no harm that he could find, and he'd never been of particular musical talent, the lessons a mere pretension of parents who considered them part and parcel of raising a child in the same way nappies were, but in any case the incident had shaken him out of all urge to meander around the empty house. He returned to the kitchen, where he set the kettle to boil and then tea to brew before resuming the tedium of cross-referencing the newspaper articles, grouping by incident and area, comparing with those of previous weeks, sipping at the tea periodically and feeling it scald its way down his throat.

While the fact the morning's crop of possibly supernaturally-connected reports had been unusually sparse was assuredly a good thing for the citizens of Los Angeles, it was very much the opposite for his wandering concentration. Muggings, attacks, one stolen artefact from a city museum that could conceivably have a mystical past, and he really needed something more substantial to occupy his mind.

Dinner claimed that role for a short while, though he neither tasted the food nor possessed any real appetite for it, chewing and swallowing by rote and necessity, and feeling overall that the meal had hardly been worth the effort of its preparation. His infrequent, unwilling bites slowly registered as his subconscious trying to waste time. He had work he ought do if only he could bend his mind to it. He swallowed the last scraps down hurriedly, cleared the utensils into the dishwasher. A miracle of modern appliance, indeed.

Returning to the table, he sat down again and stared at the page. Let the figures on it blur before his eyes as he presently gave up trying to draw them towards pattern or sense. Another while later, and he was staring over at the shapes made by the cracks in Costas' beige kitchen tiles, and not at the pictures at all.

Wesley jerked out of his stupor as the surgeons knife (its blade exaggerated in false memory to the approximate size of a machete) grew to fill his view, hovering over a whole left shoulder and incongruously undamaged arm.

He shuddered, trying to shake off the last threads of the unlikely re-enactment as he bent to the floor and scraped his papers back onto the table from the disarray into which his shocked awakening had tossed them.

Then, he headed for Costas' telephone.

***

He gathered the files he'd need into the slim shoulder-bag he'd taken to carrying. A more casual relative of a briefcase, he'd discovered it was ideal for his purposes, allowing him to carry a surprising quantity of heavy papers and books and suchlike, yet leaving his arm reasonably mobile.

He hadn't long to wait until the blare of a horn drew him outside. He pulled on a light padded jacket (its bulk disguising enough that people often didn't look twice at him passing), swung the bag over his shoulder, and went out to meet the taxi. He remembered at the last minute to retrieve his own, newly acquired, cellphone from where it was recharging next to the refrigerator on the way. A necessary purchase - they had needed some way to keep in contact.

"Mr Wyndham-Pryce?" the driver, half-familiar from a handful of other such runs, greeted him with a bored drawl and a grimace. "Library, wasn't it?" Blunt fingers tapped on the wheel, in time with strains of melody from a radio turned so low Wesley could barely catch them.

He climbed in the back with little thought for small talk, though, and reached over his own body, twisting to slam the door shut. He carried the upper section of the seatbelt harness around the back of his neck so that it wouldn't rub against his bad shoulder. "Yes. The library."

He'd needed to visit the library anyway - had the details of two particular demon types to research for an old case Costas had dug open again on the theory that it might have an otherworldly solution. He'd been considering putting the visit off, despite Costas' grouching about a superior who anticipated results (Lord knew what Costas had told the man). Much as he disliked the long days alone in the house, he disliked leaving it more, but there was only so much he could do without the appropriate research tools.

The cab pulled out into the street and the driver guided it efficiently down the block, avoiding the occasional child running or meandering into the road.

Wesley watched the hands on the wheel with envy and familiar frustrated calculation. He could probably still drive a car. An automatic gear shift would be easier, but no, driving would not be out of the question. He would have to re-learn, quell numerous habits (the dislocating moments when he'd be surprised, wondering why his fingers failed to connect) but it certainly should be possible. All he had to do was try.

His gaze was caught by another group of children pushing and shoving each other on the sidewalk. He shelved the thoughts - to reconsider, he told himself, some other time.

The taxi rolled slowly into the city, the hour not a good one to be negotiating LA traffic. Streets he and Costas had patrolled through by dark looked less ominous in the day. It was almost comical to think of how they'd made his heart quicken and his head ache with strain last night. That he'd taken that signpost to be a figure, had jumped as that wire hanging loose down the side of the building on the corner rattled in a breeze.

They drew up outside the library. Wesley paid and got out, walked smartly up the steps and engaged in his ritual struggle with the doors.

He was known here, too. The staff greeted him, if not by name, certainly with a smile of familiarity, a vaguely pitying understanding, and an apparent tolerance for anything he might request of them. Three weeks, and already a fixture. There was a desk half-hidden in a corner that was becoming somehow 'his'. He festooned desktop and chair with books, papers and coat while he left to scour the shelves for the material he'd need.

The thick carpeting muffled the sound of his footsteps, pretty much the only sound in the room, almost empty in the early afternoon. Staff talked in hushed whispers if at all.

He wondered what they thought of him; the crazy one-armed man who came in to research obscure volumes on mysticism and demonology. He wondered if they whispered behind their hands when his back was turned. Then he came down to reality, and doubted that he merited any such attention at all.

The library had an astonishing array of mystical texts for a public place. He'd been appalled at first, being of the opinion that many of them should be locked away from the possibility of misuse by ignorant innocents or enthusiastic hacks. Still, such irresponsibility was admittedly his good fortune. He could little afford to purchase more than the most basic texts for his personal collection.

He awkwardly flicked through volumes he wedged between the span of a shelf and his contorted hand; placed the books he selected into the open bag he'd hooked back over his shoulder.

He returned to his corner, and a stretch of time later, measured in the dull ache in his back and the twinge behind his eyes, he slipped outside, leaving his things as they were. On the sidewalk just beyond the library entrance, he took out his cellphone and called through the information about the first of the demons.

Costas sounded hassled. He rushed through the exchange with a disinterest that rather left Wesley feeling he'd wasted the last few hours.

Wesley returned to immerse his thoughts in the books. This was his strength, after all, the filtering and compiling of information. The next time he paid the exterior world any heed, it was due to the ringing of his cellphone, and irked glances were being directed at him by a number of library browsers who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere since last he'd bent his head to the page.

He snatched up the cellphone. "Yes?"

It was hardly any surprise whose voice responded when there was all of one other person in the world who had his number.

"Got a case for you." Supposing his own tone hadn't been much better than Costas' aggravated reply, Wesley took a deliberate, calming breath as the detective continued, "I think you'll want to come over and see this."

"See what?"

"A corpse."

Wesley winced. "Bite marks?" The attempt to lower his voice to a covert hiss was in retrospect a mistake, only resulting in him having to repeat himself louder.

"Kind of... They're putting it down to some large carnivorous animal attack at the moment. Freaking about bears roaming the streets of LA. I figure you've got more chance of recognising what kind of creature could make this mess than either the forensics people or I do."

He was right. Wesley reluctantly gave up any hopes towards finishing off the research on the second demon that day, let alone looking into the origins of that stolen artefact. "Very well. Where are you?"

Costas outlined directions detailed enough for someone still relatively new to LA to follow and Wesley, who couldn't write them down, hoped he'd remember accurately. "How soon can you get here?"

"I'm at the library. It shouldn't take me long." He considered. "I'll probably see you in about half an hour."

"You do that." Costas rang off.

Wesley tucked the cell away again, slid his jacket on, and reluctantly returned his research material to the shelves. He happened to glance at the time as he was leaving and it hit him like a gut-punch. Almost six o'clock, another day all but passed with him hardly noticing, and maybe he was doing too good a job of keeping his mind too occupied for thought.

He hurried out and down the street, money considerations convincing him, despite LA's pedestrian-hostile environment, of the need for a brisk walk rather than a taxi in the busy traffic.

***

The alley - garnished with police tape, topped off by a fan of police cars splaying out over the main road, accompanied by a morgue van and far too many interested spectators - could almost have been the one in which Costas had killed two vampires the night before. The thought that it could have been their bodies some itinerant discovered today made chills run through him. The official personnel on the other side of the tape gave him much the expected bother when he tried to talk his way past. Even when he explained Costas had called him in as a consultant they refused access until they'd brought Costas over to verify him in person.

The detective, as was becoming very much par for the course of late, treated it as though it was through some fault of Wesley's own that he'd had to be summoned. Although there was perhaps a small trace of consolation to be found in the fact he was just as short with the young officer who had blocked Wesley's path. If Wesley was feeling inclined to take such consolation.

"There's really no need to be so testy," he berated Costas' back as the detective led the way under the tape and around a skip of waste material from construction on a building nearby. Wesley had noticed the workmen sitting bored in their truck on the other side of the police tape.

"Careful where you step," Costas said.

It was necessary to pick their way through an array of refuse sacks that presumably someone had dumped in the alley prior to the attack, many of which had split to leak less-than-savoury items out over the floor of the alley. Wesley did his ungainly best not to tread all over the evidence, stepping in Costas' wake using the odd few clear patches of ground like stepping stones.

The body was tucked around the back of the skip, half-buried under more rubbish, a photographer already there taking pictures from a variety of angles. Wesley didn't catch a full look until the photographer stepped back, and he grimaced, unprepared despite the natural fifty-fifty chance that the corpse Costas had described as in so messy a state should be that of a woman.

Fortunately, he was inured enough against the sight of spilled human blood and entrails not to embarrass himself or Costas with any unfortunate displays, although he imagined it wouldn't be the first they had seen that day. The woman had almost literally been gnawed to pieces and, yes, he mused, peering closer, those were definitely teeth marks on the wounds, distinctive even from six feet away.

Costas was looking at him expectantly, as were a couple of other plainclothes individuals who might be the detective's peers or something other. Wesley moved in closer and squatted down on his heels next to the dead woman, trying to keep any of his clothing - whether it happened to be flush with his body or the trailing wings of his jacket - from touching the garbage, mixed this close to the body with a soggy mass of human blood and other tissue matter.

Balance was awkward in that position, and for a moment he thought he was going to keel, but then he felt a steadying presence at his back and a steadying hand at his shoulder. The latter lasted only a second, but the detective pressed close enough that Wesley's back touched his leg and that was sufficient support to keep him upright. Costas might have been of inexplicable ill-temper lately, but the instinctive sensitivity to the needs of others that the man had apparently still lurked beneath the brusque exterior.

Wesley leaned over to examine the torn flesh. The smell, so close up, was overpowering. "The teeth marks are massive," he said, mostly to himself, partially to Costas, and with all too much awareness of the other law enforcement and emergency services personnel looking on unwelcome. He wobbled on his heels and was embarrassed to have to grab Costas' knee to avoid tipping over. He righted himself and patted a kneecap in apology, then felt himself redden even further as the action registered. Very definitely not looking up to see Costas' expression, he endeavoured to return his attention to the corpse. "These wounds certainly weren't made by any ordinary creature."

"Alligators?" suggested someone who might have been from the morgue staff.

"No. The bite marks aren't even remotely the right shape. The wrong shape for a bear, as well. Too large for dogs, even wolves." He was already running through numerous other possibilities in his mind, but none of them that he could share in the presence of anyone save Costas. "I don't believe we'll find a match for any known carnivore that might have escaped from any theoretical nearby zoo," he added in sarcastic tones that came from the depths of his Council training.

Someone loosed a bark of laughter; he ignored them.

"I don't believe its sole purpose in killing was to feed." Wesley would rather have liked to inspect closer inside the wounds, but lacked any surgical instruments to poke around and indeed the permission to do so. "Much of the tissue that has been removed from the body seems to be, ah, still here. Around." He flapped his hand weakly to indicate the piles of rubbish. "So presumably its mauling after feeding was - what? Rage? Playing with the food? Perhaps it was even extracting a particular part."

He stood up. Costas caught him with a hand either side of his ribcage and guided him around through the debris until he was safely several feet away from the body. A number of their little group of bystanders were looking green. Costas was looking at Wesley as though he'd had some expectation confounded.

"What?"

The detective shook his head. "Just that I'd never have pegged you to be the one guy here not desperately trying to keep his dinner down."

"I did tell you I was trained in autopsy." It had been considered very outre back at the Council, theirs one of the first years of students who would be backing up their demonology expertise with the analytical tools of hard science.

"I know. But I didn't think you meant - never mind." Costas swiped a hand through the air as if batting the subject away.

"You're very strange lately," Wesley said, annoyed.

The detective snorted with unmistakeable reciprocation. "So what did you really find?"

"Well, I can make a pretty good guess at the shape of the demon's jaw and a number of its habits in making a kill and, ah, devouring its prey. I should be able to narrow it down to a handful of species and then we may be able to map where it's chosen as its hunting ground and find whatever it might have of a lair. It would be immensely helpful to find out if there are any internal organs missing."

"It's definitely a demon, then?"

Wesley blinked. "Oh, yes. Definitely a demon. Nothing animal could have done that - and certainly nothing human could have falsified it, if that's what you're wondering."

Costas nodded. Wesley realised for the first time that his complexion was looking a little fragile.

"They found her driving license on the corpse as identification," he said, "Though it'll probably be necessary to double check with the dental records. The picture..." He shrugged as his voice disintegrated, and pulled it back together to say only, "Pretty girl."

"I'm sorry," Wesley said as it struck him Costas was watching closely for his reaction. "I was taught to disconnect."

"Useful."

"I take exception to your implication. I am not, in fact, unaffected, and I hardly meant..."

"Why am I not surprised to find you here?" interrupted familiar smoky, sarcastic feminine tones. Wesley turned around to find Kate Lockley there, addressing Costas. She saw him and her brows raised in surprise. "And the conquering hero, too."

Wesley flinched and flushed. "Please don't call me that."

Lockley frowned. "All right." She glanced between them both a moment, and summed up her observations succinctly: "You two look like shit."

"Thanks," Costas responded with irony. He apparently chose not to point out in kind that Detective Lockley also had dark rings under her eyes and a significant pallor.

"How is it that whenever I get assigned a case that looks - shall we say 'particularly interesting' for arguments' sake - you two come sniffing around?"

"One precedent does not make a habit," Costas shot back. "Besides, I thought he might stand a chance of knowing what it is."

She turned to Wesley. "Well - do we know what it is?"

"Demon," supplied Wesley.

Detective Lockley rolled her eyes. "Like I couldn't work that one out. Not that you didn't help before, but I do suspect your consultancy value in this case to be nil. And, Jack - this is not your case. If it was your case, it would have been assigned to you. How about you do me a favour and move on out, huh? Take the... the Armless Wonder with you."

Wesley had no time to force a retort to that past his incoherent spluttering, courtesy of Costas planting a hand in the centre of his back and propelling him away in compliance with Lockley's request.

The detective craned his head over his shoulder to shout back, "We'll give you a call if we find anything."

Lockley's response was silent, and Wesley suspected it involved strategically raised fingers, although he did not turn around to see.

"So she says go and we jump at her word?" he said archly.

"Pretty much." A moment later he apparently felt the need to add to that, and did. "She's got seniority."

"Really?" Wesley mused, pitching his voice higher than its norm.

"Shut the hell up."

"Are we really going to share whatever we find?"

"No. Yes. Maybe. We survived the last time at least partly because all three of us were there. Probably."

Wesley saw something vaguely familiar move in the darkness under a scaffolding affixed to the adjoining building, and he narrowed his eyes, replaying the flash of a wing of black trenchcoat in his mind. But it was gone now, however much he scoured the shadows until he wasn't entirely sure he'd ever seen it at all.

But he said, "I get the feeling she has her own supernatural help."

"You too, huh?"

They exchanged a fairly amiable moment of mutual recognition - of the fact that neither of them was so stupid as the other often thought them, Wesley strongly suspected - before glancing away again and falling back into the abrasiveness that was becoming a way of life.

Costas' car was parked at the end of the road, recognisable amid the mass of midlife-crisis-mobiles that represented the other plainclothes police personnel present, and they headed slowly toward it.

"You think she really likes him?" Costas asked, glancing back again, his voice pained. "'Cause, you know. Dead guy."

"I couldn't say." Wesley grimaced. He hoped not, though probably not for the same reasons. "He seems to have, ah, displayed a certain appeal to the female of the species in the past, lack of a pulse and certain necrophilia issues aside."

"Don't tell me he has a thing for blondes?"

Wesley pressed his lips together and remained obediently silent.

***

On those evenings they did not patrol, Costas liked watching police television dramas and nitpicking. Wesley rather liked when they finished and he shut up. Despite much cajoling, Costas categorically refused to watch game shows, but had at least surrendered all sports matches not absolutely essential (by whatever criteria Costas judged this), albeit not from consideration but the claim he 'couldn't hear them for Wesley's bitching anyway'.

Costas sprawled out in the chair closest to the television set, the remote control and a can of beer on the table next to him. His shirt was loosened, his hair disarrayed, shoes kicked aside to display worn patches in the socks underneath. His eyes fixed on the hard-talking detective interviewing a suspect on the screen.

Wesley perched at a desk pushed up against the wall, as far removed from the television set as it was possible to be and still remain within the room. Surrounding himself with papers and books, he tried to shut out the background noise and Costas' "The damn lawyers would never let him get away with that".

He'd made a multitude of notes on their carnivorous demon's characteristics, and mused for a time on the diagrams of his estimates of the approximate shape and size of its mouth and jaw. Many demon species that could provide a potential match he knew from memory, and before long he had drawn up a respectable list of unusual suspects. However able his memory, though, he would need to double-check at the library tomorrow.

The evening wore on through two more possibilities and one elimination as he studied in more detail the data on where the body had been found and the likely time of death (Vitnuks ventured out only very rarely at any time other than sunrise and sunset, and never to feed); wore on through NYPD Blue, a movie so bad even Costas admitted its lack of quality, and something from the seventies that Wesley didn't recognise.

As the credits rolled over jarring, spiky music, Costas eyed the clock and said, "Time to kick back from the books and have a beer, Wes."

"I need my concentration," he responded wearily. It was not the first time, that evening or any other. "I don't want to relax. I have to do... I have work to do."

He knew there was something underneath the casual appearance of Costas' shrug as he turned back to the television, and though Wesley spared him a brief frown over the top of his glasses, neither of them vocalised their thoughts. Wesley sighed, concentration broken, and thrust the list of demons aside in favour of once more casting an eye over his observations from that morning.

The suspected vampire nest certainly merited checking out the next available evening, if no progress had been made regarding their demon. If Costas' bruised arm was recovered sufficiently by tomorrow, he thought, then they would go. He noted it down so he would not forget.

He worked on. His vision blurred and multiplied, and he sifted through doubles of every word.

"Wesley?"

Costas was standing over him, the television blank beyond his form, the table lamps dim, Wesley's own desk lamp the only oasis of light remaining in the room. "Yes?"

"I'm going to get some sleep. Don't forget to switch everything off when you go to bed." A pause, then, "Don't forget to go to bed."

Wesley laughed a little, the sound skittering in and out of registers and silence. Really. It had only happened the once. "Of course. Good night, Jack." He offered a faint smile.

Costas nodded, releasing a huff of air from his nose. Turned, still nodding, and headed out of the room, closing the door behind him.

Wesley listened to the slow passage of footsteps diminish up the stairs before bending his head back down to his work.

Chapter Text

The clash of metal on metal rang around the pastel yellow walls. Wesley felt the muscles of his face stretch to a shape not experienced in all too long a time as he blocked, parried and slashed, his breath already coming in quick, harsh gulps that he tried to control, exertion no longer a familiar feeling and giddiness making his head spin. But the moves still came; instinctive, smooth, skilled. With practise... with practise, maybe he could bring back into them the strength and balance that illness and lassitude had robbed.

He blanched, fluffed a block, and felt a hot slice along his wrist as he flinched back; fell against the pool table and desperately tried to throw an arm out save himself as he felt it start to fold under his weight--

Costas caught his elbow, deftly avoiding the sword in his hand and the line of red seeping through his sleeve. Wesley blinked up at the detective, and felt his expression returning to the delirious grin of moments before entirely of its own accord. "That was bracing!" he exclaimed, a giddy laugh bubbling just under the words.

"That was..." The detective shook his head, speechless. After several seconds, he looked down at the cut and his practicality kicked back in. "Sorry. I thought you'd block. You seemed..." He shook his head again. "I didn't know you'd be good at this."

"Not good." Wesley set his balance to rights and extricated his arm, put the sword down on the pool table, and observed critically the dilemma of how he was to examine, clean and dress the small wound. He added with breathless geniality, "Just trained. I very much imagine you'd laugh if you could have seen how long it took for my tutors to drum it all into me."

Costas, tossing his own sword to the floor with a carelessness Wesley observed with disapproval and made a note to address at a more appropriate moment, took his arm and held it fast this time as he stripped the sleeve back up to the elbow and cursed at the mess of blood that greeted him.

"I don't think it's bad." Wesley eyed it critically. He suspected he'd be feeling less inclined to such dispassion if he hadn't already dosed himself rather heavily with painkillers for his shoulder, which had been acting up earlier that morning. "Messy, bloody, yes - but I don't think it's deep. I'll slap a bandage over it, and we'll continue."

"I'd like to see you try," Costas said, with an assessing sweep over the light shirt-sleeves apparel in which Wesley felt unreasonably exposed, knowing it emphasised his one-armed status. "I'll go get some water."

There was already a first aid kit lying in anticipation in the corner of the games room with the spare weapons. While Costas was out of the room, Wesley tugged it up onto the surface of the pool table, and took out the things they'd need, lining them up and trying not to drip on them.

They had appropriated the games room for training, a logical choice - despite Costas' vehement arguments against it - for its cushioned linoleum floor which would wipe easily clean and take more wear than any carpeting. Its contents - table football, a couple of battered arcade machines and the centerpiece of the pool table - had been shoved aside against one wall, leaving a large open space that was adequate, if not ideal. The swords themselves had been purchased the previous week after much debate about the weapons they currently had versus to the kinds of weapons they would need if they wanted to stand any chance against a truly large and fierce demon such as whatever had recently taken to chewing up the inhabitants of LA.

Costas returned with the water and some towels, which he placed over the pool table after minutely examining for damage the area where Wesley had dumped the sword. Wesley privately opined that he'd never seen the man quite so fussy.

"What's this?" the detective asked, when he'd cleaned away the blood that masked the cut, turning Wesley's wrist around to gaze at the puncture scars on its outside.

"A vampire." Wesley went cold at the sight of Penn's marks.

Costas' gaze went to his neck, and clouded with vague puzzlement when he found nothing there.

"It was playing," Wesley elaborated.

"Oh."

It was with some relief that he watched Costas drop the issue and return to carefully dabbing antiseptic along the length of the cut, wrapping white bandaging to hide both it and the scars from view.

"Thank you." He bent his fingers back, trying to pull his cuff back down over it, not quite able to do so, and awkwardly laughed and thanked again when Costas did it for him. He flexed his wrist a few times, feeling a twinge but nothing too restrictive of movement, reached down and picked up the sword from the towels on the pool table, made a few experimental passes. "Are you ready for another round?" he asked, striking a challenging posture he suspected to look fairly ridiculous, but was fast getting out of the habit of caring.

"Are you sure?" Costas had retrieved his own sword and was wiping Wesley's blood onto the towels. "I've already cut you once. I'm not good enough at this to judge when I need to pull back."

"But I should be good enough to eradicate that concern." He swished the weapon through air a few more times, irritably. His arm felt weak. The cut didn't help. He was still a little breathless. "You're right, though. I'm too out of practise. Next time, it might not be me who gets injured, and you we need in good shape right now. Very well - for the moment let's practise some more of the basic manoeuvres. No more sparring for a few days."

"All right." Costas sounded relieved, and Wesley watched critically as the detective massaged the small of his back, kneading with his fist.

"You should have told me you were having back pains."

"I'm not - it's just - it aches. It's nothing."

"Nonetheless, it's important that I know." He swung the sword around in a balanced arc, and Costas followed his movements. Wesley paused to correct where his left arm ought to be and speculate with some annoyance that perhaps they needed to find a book to show everything correctly.

"Maybe later," the detective said. "Let's try manage for the moment with what we have."

"I suppose." He frowned, and demonstrated an elaborate block and parry. It was difficult to adjust the careful balance of swordplay to the absence of the left arm as counter-weight, but he was enough used to making that adjustment in every small action he took by now that it was not proving so great a problem as he'd thought it might. Certainly nothing he couldn't overcome... but that way led to the kind of distracting thoughts that had almost got him skewered before. "I wouldn't want to ask you to fight if you weren't in reasonable condition," he picked up. "I'm hardly aiming to get you killed. So if there's anything... then I do wish you'd tell me about it."

And there was quite a lot of ammunition there, should Costas choose to take it up, about the things he himself tended to neglect to mention. But the detective merely shrugged the issue aside with a casual lack of concern in which Wesley had no faith whatsoever.

"In any case," he said, taking the sword through another manoeuvre and frowning crossly at Costas' smirk when he lost his balance and wavered a little in the middle and the detective faithfully copied him. He repeated the action more smoothly and continued, "The better I can train you, the less the danger... are you quite finished?"

"Sorry. That one wasn't deliberate," Costas said, righting his balance with a slightly embarrassed grin.

Wesley sighed and shook his head, and was about to begin another demonstration when he heard a faint noise that sounded distinctly like the door opening downstairs.

He and Costas exchanged glances.

"Shit. It must be Irene."

Wesley rolled his eyes. Costas was frantically surveying the mess of the games room, the swords in their hands, the assorted weaponry in the corner - his eyes finally zeroing in on the blood on Wesley's shirt. "Shit," he said again. He snatched the sword from Wesley's hand and threw it together with his own down the narrow gap between the wall and the side of the pool table. He tossed the heap of towels over the weapons on the floor, then cursed again and rearranged them so none of the bloodstains were visible. He looked back at Wesley. "What are you doing just standing there? Put something the hell on over that shirt before she sees the blood."

"Jack, this is really..."

"Just shut up and do it, okay? I do not want Irene to know about this shit. I don't want her worrying." He caught up Wesley's sweater from where it hung off the top of a one-armed-bandit and flung it.

Wesley fielded the garment and heaved a sigh as he slung it over his head, shoved his arm through, belatedly realised it was the pinned sleeve and backed off to whisk it around the right way. He was tugging the sweater the rest of the way into place when Costas impatiently yanked it down his spine with enough force to almost bend him over backwards and pull him off his feet. "Do you mind--?" he spluttered.

Irene's voice yelled up the stairs; he didn't quite catch the words. Costas still had a hand twisted in the fabric at his back and used it to tug him out of the games room. The detective shut the door behind them and waved his protests into silence.

"Up here, Irene," he said, starting towards the stairs. Wesley huffily followed.

She was coming up to them, but Costas barrelled his way down, forcing her to back off in a not-terribly-gentlemanly fashion, and herded her into the kitchen in reverse. And if her suspicions were not roused by that, Wesley reflected, then she was a good deal less sharp than he was almost certain she was.

"Coffee?" Costas breezed, going straight to the counter.

"Do you have anything else? I'm trying to cut down on caffeine."

Costas pointed like an accusation. "He drinks tea."

"All right." Irene looked momentarily amused, but it was quickly subsumed. She was looking between them in a fashion Wesley found unsettling, analytical and puzzled and faintly shocked. "Jack? Is there... something you have to tell me?" she asked with a rather gallant effort towards light humour.

Costas frowned at her and discovered the nature of the way she was examining himself and Wesley, their rumpled state, and the general sweatiness they were exuding after their weapons practise. "Oh, Jesus, no," the detective blasphemed heartily. "For fuck's sake, Irene--"

The language turned her expression frosty.

"You of all people know I'm not gay," he said, sticking to his guns with characteristic belligerence.

"We're not sleeping together," Wesley confirmed, feeling his face redden, although he was... a little amused, if just as much put out, by the fervency of Costas' denial. "Or... anything else, I assure you."

Irene, recovering from her shock as she carefully examined their denials, pressed her lips together and the side of her mouth twitched. Wesley watched her efforts to still it, which turned out to be in vain. A giggle escaped that was far too girlish for her staid exterior. She patted Wesley's arm with her hand, words obviously failing as she shook her head. Costas glared at her. She managed to control herself and gasped for breath. "I'm sorry. It's just - I really thought - for a moment there--"

"Very funny, Irene," Costas said sourly.

"Why are you all sweaty?" she demanded, all mirth gone.

The two of them appeared to enter some form of old-husband-and-wife staring contest that shut out the rest of the world, and Wesley, feeling intensely awkward, sidled around the detective to finish making the tea and coffee while they so occupied themselves.

After a considerable amount of silent glowering, Costas broke first, as had surely been inevitable from the start. "Wesley-was-giving-me-fencing-lessons," he mumbled, running the words together like a mischievous four-year-old.

Irene blinked. Wesley unhappily cleared his throat and placed a cup of tea in her hand. He nudged a coffee across the counter to Costas.

"Wesley gives fencing lessons?"

"Not as a rule," Wesley said. He heard himself, winced, and made an effort not to sound quite so much like Costas just had. "It's... it used to be a hobby, but I hadn't tried it since... We bought the equipment, thought we'd try to pick it up again together."

"Oh." She looked like her emotions were riding a seesaw from amusement to anger. "You don't get enough of the threat of death or serious injury every day at work? You have to bring it into your spare time as well?"

Costas definitely winced. Wesley rubbed his hand over his forehead in an attempt to hide his face.

"For Christ's sake, Irene, it's just a hobby!" Costas exploded.

Wesley, who had seen them row before, edged out of the way, made it around the breakfast bar, and felt somewhat happier to have three feet of polished wood between himself and the two of them.

"It's not dangerous..." Wesley hesitated. "Well, a couple of cuts and bruises, inevitably; accidents do happen, but..."

"Shut up." Her tea slammed down on the counter, slopping over the sides of the mug.

Only a very brave man or a very great fool would challenge that glare. He knew he was not the former, and hoped he was not the latter. "Yes. All right."

"It's not," Costas insisted roughly. "Besides, what business is it of yours anyway? I think you pretty much signed away any part you had in my life decisions since you fucked your boss in the back of my car."

Wesley blinked, and looked at Irene, anticipating a denial.

And Irene deflated. "I thought we had an agreement," she said, waspish. "You weren't going to throw that at me any more."

Costas deflated equally. "Yeah. Damn, I'm sorry. I didn't... Hell." He reached over and pulled her into a loose, awkward hug. "We're cool. You know that. I didn't mean to bring up all that old stuff."

"I know." She slithered out of his grip, looking as though the proximity was not doing any great wonders for her olfactory senses. "I didn't intend to come here to shout at you, either. I just came to see how you are. Of course it's your business if you want to take up... fencing." She eyed Wesley in a fashion that suggested she hadn't completely discounted the original theory either. "I just do worry, that's all."

"You don't need to."

Costas lied very well, Wesley noted for future reference.

"Don't be ridiculous," Irene said. "You risk your life every day."

"Guess so," the detective allowed.

"I like knowing you're still around."

Wesley was immensely touched by this admission, which Costas seemed to dismiss with a grunt, and he wished himself elsewhere, feeling very much that he ought not be a part of this exchange. But the conversation chose to turn next to Costas' Aunt Susie with her bad knee and the baseball scores for a game the previous night that Costas griped he had missed because of Wesley, and it was with some relief that he allowed himself to tune out the small talk.

Leaving them absorbed, he went back upstairs, where he pulled off the sweater that was slowly roasting him. He made efforts to tidy the mess made in Costas' haste to keep Irene in the dark about the training, and took care of the swords properly as the detective refused to believe they needed ("But you hit things with it. That's the goddamn point, right? So it's not exactly a delicate instrument.").

He was making more practise strokes, watching his form reluctantly but intently in a full-length mirror, when he heard the sound of the front door again. Shortly after, he heard Costas come back up the stairs and stomp into the room.

"Everything all right?" Wesley asked, distractedly.

"No," Costas said. "My wife's fucking scary."

***

 

The maps and papers had grown far too voluminous for either Wesley's work desk or the larger kitchen table. They now covered the floor of Costas' little-used dining room. In the centre of it all, the Los Angeles city map was spread out to the full, many areas highlighted. Wesley crouched in the midst on hand and knees, tracing patterns over the expanse, squinting through his glasses at the smaller print.

"The earliest attacks all seem to be concentrated around this area here," he said, shifting to indicate the extent of the chosen area, trying not to tear through the paper, and blinking as the pattern finally registered, dates and times clicking into place at last in a design made logical by geography. "We missed it before because many of the bodies were not discovered, of course, until much later - especially those where there was barely enough left to precisely call a body."

Costas grunted, but his eyes betrayed interest. Wesley shuffled back across the map to allow him to venture in close and examine for himself: little crosses in fluorescent orange marker, each one of them representative of a gnawed corpse. Most human, a few larger domestic animals.

"The pattern widens afterwards," Wesley continued. "But at the same time, there seems to be more connections. The pattern splits off, deaths becoming concentrated in a number of diverse areas." He looked up into Costas' grim gaze, and said soberly, "I very much suspect we may be dealing not with one demon here, but several."

He caught up a bright yellow marker and scooted back across the map, causing the detective to leap out of the way in his enthusiasm. "Here," he said, biting the lid from the pen and spitting it across the room out of the way, trailing the pen to mark out a more or less circular zone in its wake, "is one distinct area. You see?"

"Uh-huh. The analysts aren't stupid. They got as far as identifying that the killings could be separated into a bunch of different geographical groups."

"How many?" Wesley asked with interest.

"About four." Costas knelt down and ran his fingers over the map, indicating boundaries with a hesitancy symptomatic of his aversion to paperwork.

"Ah." Wesley nodded, feeling a little smug that he did, after all, have something to add. "Not the case. You see, this large area you indicate here? I suspect there may be two creatures in this area. There is some overlap, it's true. But this victim here--" he indicated "--was the one found all but untouched, not chewed up like the others. A transgression occurred - one demon crossed the boundary of another's territory. I would hypothesize that it was probably chased away before it could make any use of the prey it had killed."

He pointed elsewhere; a blue fluorescent cross. "This is where we found those traces of demonic substance last week. It was injured."

"Killed?" Costas suggested hopefully.

"No, I don't think so. There's an attack well within the bounds of what I'd deduce to be its territory a few days later. That's been the only one since, though. It may be that it was injured badly enough to be forced to survive on smaller prey, like birds and rodents."

"Well, I suppose that's something." Costas eyed the map, tracing the areas with his gaze as Wesley carefully defined several more vaguely circular territories. "It shouldn't be as difficult to track and kill... how many of these things did you figure out there were?"

"Somewhere between five and seven. This area here could be two territories, but it could also be one creature stronger and more wide ranging in its hunting than the others. It's possible this area here is a smaller territory, or one of the demons could have made a foray outside its main hunting ground and then returned. It may be another we don't have to worry about too much. The last killing there was over a week ago. It may have died."

"Died?"

"Hit by a car? Another fight with one of its fellows? Or - do you remember the report of the citizen who said he shot at a wolf with a hand gun?"

Costas nodded and almost grinned. "So they can be harmed, at least." He patted the holster at his hip. "So - what, then? We set out and do some tracking? If we start with the injured one, that should give us an easy target first-off. And nab a specimen so you can work out what these things are and what their weaknesses might be before we have to go up against a healthy one."

"A commendable plan of action." Wesley slapped his hand down sharply on the paper in illustration. "But I believe I already know what they are."

"You do?"

"A theory, in any case. You see, I searched for any reports of other strange activities right before the time of the earliest attacks. Did you know that about a dozen women disappeared from their homes at around that very same time? A number of them weren't reported until days later, but their last reported sightings by friends - or rather acquaintances, since all of these women seem to be suspiciously lacking in family or close friends... well, that day could possibly have been the catalyst, and these events linked."

Costas was staring down at a missing persons report uppermost on a pile of other documentation and looking very much as though he had significantly little desire to find out precisely how these events were linked. "And this helps us find out what they are exactly how?"

"It helps because they were a part of the trigger. If I can figure out the trigger, I can figure out the demon. And I think I know what it was that happened. A number of women of... loose character, it seems, reading between the lines of the reports of those listed missing... suddenly disappearing... I think we have on our hands the spawning of a Haxil demon."

"Haxil demon," Costas repeated dryly. Then, going rather pale, "Spawning?"

"A Haxil demon reproduces by implanting its spawn in human women. Don't wince quite so, Jack, it uses a human proxy to do so and I've no doubt all these women were quite willing... at the time. The wretched souls did not have any idea what they were getting themselves into." He flinched from that thought himself. "Our problem would therefore logically follow as being the progeny of that mating."

"This is being done by baby demons?" Costas asked in appalled disbelief.

"According to my books, the Haxil young are birthed insanely ravenous. In the first few days of their life, they will double their body weight many, many times over. After the initial hours of feeding frenzy, we're already looking at a creature half the size again of a large wolf. It fits with all the information we have."

"Hell. I really wouldn't want to meet the daddy."

"I very much imagine that's true." He rose to his feet, sparking pins and needles in his legs, and bent aching knees to cross the room to retrieve a book abandoned on a chair. He presented the picture depicted on the opened spread of pages for Costas' perusal.

"Hell." For several long moments, the detective just stared. Wesley reflected that the image of a person added for scale would have given the whole thing an effect rather daunting enough even without the added flourish of what the demon was portrayed doing to the figure. "I don't like the way the word 'impervious' seems to keep cropping up in this," Costas said finally.

"Don't worry," Wesley breezed, hoping his dismissal to be justified. "That's just the parent. Given that I haven't heard any reports of a twenty foot tall invulnerable demon wrecking the city lately, I would imagine it to have returned to some sort of dormant state, probably hiding out underground. These things aren't exactly easy to lose among the human world. It probably won't emerge again from its slumber for another century or two. And its spawn, I do believe, are rather more vulnerable to attack in their youth. The first millennia of life, give or take a century."

Costas gave a low, off-key whistle and shook his head. "How old does it have to be before its daddy gives it the key to the car?"

"It's hardly a joking matter. Haxil spawn at this stage are likely deadly, vicious, and unpredictable, running entirely on newborn instinct. There's nothing to hold them back from a full-fledged massacre - they haven't the intelligence yet to know that they would be hunted down and destroyed should they shout out their presence to the authorities. We have to find them all and stop them before anything on such a scale can be allowed to happen. What they've already done is... appalling." Wesley suppressed a small shudder.

Costas was rolling his eyes, but only said, "Right. So we stop them. You got any great plans as to just how we stop them, sensei?"

 

***

"I did not pencil in my plans for this evening as 'drive around every lousy abandoned property in goddamned Reseda," Costas grumbled, coaxing the Volvo around another sharp corner of the rundown industrial area.

Wesley craned his head out of the open window, watching their surroundings carefully as they drove by. Costas' words took a few moments to register and he pulled his head back in briefly. "This is the epicentre, so to speak," he said, trying to keep one eye on his search. "And so long as we have no more accurate leads, this is probably the best place to start. It's a perfectly logical search pattern."

"I don't even know what you're looking for."

"Possibilities," Wesley threw back airily as he resumed his position hanging out of the window. It unfortunately coincided with the passage of a car travelling in the opposite direction. As he flinched back, jarring the seat in its fixings, he heard Costas mutter under his breath. Something about 'losing the other one'.

"Thank you for your contribution, detective," he said acidly as he turned his back on the man and tried again.

The play of the air moving over his face was oddly relaxing. He felt it muss his hair, a transgression that might have irritated had he not been so focused upon the task at hand. Scenery slid past him as they slowly proceeded; flat concrete expanses and blocky structures with all the charm of fifty-foot high shoeboxes; more complex creations of piping and geometry which nonetheless made him think of something erected on Blue Peter from straws and egg cartons.

"Stop," he said to Costas.

The car drew obediently to a halt. The detective said nothing, but Wesley could see the questions in his face.

"I thought I saw something. I'd like to take a closer look."

Costas frowned out at the empty industrial sprawl, no other human figure anywhere in sight. Wesley knew what he was feeling, that ominous shiver of fear. It might be weeks before anyone found their bodies out here, too.

"I'll bring an axe," the detective said.

"I think that would be an excessively fine idea."

Wesley climbed out of the passenger seat, and the slam of the door behind him seemed to echo around the empty air, surely alerting anything for miles around to their presence. He had no doubt there were demons in this place, somewhere. It was ideal ground for them. But would there be any clues about the demons they were looking for?

He stepped out into the crumbling road, heading for the debris of concrete chunks, masonry and twisted fragments of metal that clustered against the tattered wire fencing on the left. Gravel fragments crunched under his shoes and scattered away from his toes when he drew to a halt. The fence loomed over him, seven feet high, diamond-shaped mesh stretched between posts maybe ten feet apart.

The tears in the mesh were small, the largest only about a foot in diameter, wire curled and twisted outwards at the edges. Costas walked past him and, after cautiously testing its ability to hold his weight, tossed the axe over the other side and used the holes as hand and foot holds to swing himself up and over. Wesley grimaced and then determinedly reached up. He grasped and climbed in awkward, jerking motions, almost falling over the top and down the other side. Wordlessly, Costas caught him and set his balance right before retrieveing the axe.

"Come along," Wesley said, in a tone that aimed for brisk but came out hollow, and led the way back, following along the line of the fence. He heard Costas' steps slow a little and the click and hiss as the detective lit up a cigarette.

"Yes, why don't you advertise precisely where we are?" he said as Costas came to a halt beside him and the smoke assaulted his nasal passages.

Costas glanced at the cigarette as though it had committed the infraction of its own accord and didn't stub it out. His eyes returned quickly to front, though. His booted foot toed the carcass before them over onto its back.

"Is that--?"

"I do believe it is." Wesley knelt down. There was little left of the cat other than bone and chunks of fur, but teeth had scraped marks into the larger bones. He judged their width measured against his fingers. "The jaw seems approximately the right shape and size." The carcass hadn't been there long. A day; two at most. A shiver ran down his spine as he straightened up. There had still been activity in this area on his map. He'd known it when he brought them down here.

He stared around. Lingered on the distant buildings across the concrete expanse. In one of those structures, one of their killers might be waiting, and possibly worse things too.

"Wes," Costas said sharply, tossing the cigarette away with a jerk of his fingers.

Wesley turned. The detective reached out and grabbed him roughly, stopping him taking that extra step. His protest dried in his throat as he caught sight of what Costas had been trying to indicate - the thin dust layering over the cracked tarmac and the prints in it, faint but forming a distinct trail. Five pad impressions and four small scratches, stretched in a trail of opposites off from the corpse and, it looked like, over towards the nearest of the buildings.

His breath catching, Wesley bent to look closer and saw dark smudges, blood traces, on the nearer impressions. He looked back up at Costas, aware his mouth gaped open unattractively. "I think we have our demon."

Costas nodded and his fingers unconsciously tightened upon his axe. He turned toward the building, shielding his eyes, assessing. "We're going in?"

Wesley's mouth was dry. "Yes."

The day was just starting to fade. Maybe an hour or two of light left, Wesley judged as they trudged across the concrete to the industrial plant. Despite the fact their hunting was often done in the night-time hours, he found himself also thinking they were cutting things rather fine; that this would not be a good place to be caught after darkness fell.

Costas' knuckles were white around his axe. Wesley carried nothing with him except for the clothing on his back.

They followed the footprints as far as the building's unhelpfully blank wall, then around, losing them occasionally where they backed and re-tracked, and where there was less dust cover on tarmac clearly far more regularly used, a trail in itself. It took them around the perimeter of the building, and where they were almost at the point that progressing further would entail completing a near circle, they found the entrance.

They could hardly mistake it. A tear four feet high and maybe seven wide had been torn through the fabric of the wall. Visible claw gouges scored the edges. Wesley could not resist reaching out and touching his fingers to them in amazement.

Costas blasphemed with predictable force and length, and looked at the axe in his hands with disillusionment.

"There might not be anything here anymore," Wesley rasped under his breath, wishing he could exorcise the nervousness from his voice. "I very much suspect this was where it began. I don't think any of our creatures could do this alone, however strong. I should imagine this was where they collectively gouged their way out, the night the very first of those people died."

"I hope you're right," Costas retorted hoarsely back. After a second he added, "About the strength, I mean. I guess I should be able to handle one of these things. I'm not... because that's what we came here to do, after all."

"It is." Wesley slowly stepped across the threshold into the darkness.

"Here." Costas handed over a flashlight pulled from the interior of his bulky coat.

Its hollow click awakened a thin beam of light so fragile Wesley suffered a moment from the delusion that the force of the dark pressing in from all around might compress it down to nothing.

He tried very hard to stop the beam from shaking quite so much as he advanced through the darkness, Costas walking a half-step behind at his side. To their left was a tangle of pipework, masses of pipes of varying sizes, some of them in early stages of corrosion. To the right were about ten feet of concrete ending in a featureless wall. Above, light reflected from a grill several feet over their heads that turned out on closer inspection to be a walkway, and thin linear blocks of black along the shadows higher up suggested several more levels of such between themselves and the ceiling. To front and back, most worryingly of all, was just space and blackness the beam could not reach far enough to illuminate.

Even the auditory stimuli were like something out of the worst of the horror movies the Slayer's little group of friends had seemed to enjoy mocking so much in their downtime, back in Sunnydale. From several places, he could hear the drip-drip-drip of leftover fluid from the pipes, or perhaps it was rainwater that had seeped in through the roof. He tried to convince himself that, logically, the creaks and groans must be from the metal of the pipes contracting as the heat of the day cooled to evening. Perhaps the small sounds they themselves made bounced back at them by hollow tubes acting like amplifiers. It was demons they were hunting here, and no demon made a sound so mournful and so softly eerie.

"I think I saw the movie," Costas said, echoing his thoughts, then looked at Wesley a moment and snickered. "Don't worry. The amputee survived."

"I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about."

"Yeah, well. You're culturally deprived."

"I beg to differ."

"We should get you a sawn-off shotgun."

"Yes. And I'll stop in the middle of battle to take my shoes and socks off to load it with my feet." He played the torch over the featureless gloom in front of them and finally achieved contact - with a large cylindrical vat into which a number of the pipes ran, towering up beyond the range of the torch beam towards the ceiling. "Would it perhaps be possible to keep relatively quiet so we stand some chance of hearing the demon creep up in the dark to eat us?"

"Why do you need so many words to tell me to shut up?" Costas griped back half-heartedly before acquiescing with silence.

They rounded the curve of the vat. A broad opening in the wall led into another chamber, wreckage of a big sliding corrugated door hanging off one side. Though no windows were visible, this room was lighter, illumination coming from somewhere up close to the roof. Wesley paused to switch off the torch and when he looked up Costas was several feet ahead. He started sharply forward, but a wave of dizziness surged static through his senses. He lurched back against the wall, fighting off unconsciousness.

Contrary to the theories of Buffy's friends, he'd never fainted for no good reason in his life. He leaned there, blinking, gathering his senses, feeling weak, trying to figure out what on Earth--

"Over here, Wes." Costas' voice sounded strange, a cracked mumble, and he repeated himself, louder, stronger. "We've got something. You need to see this."

Wesley forced his vision to focus. Whatever it was, the detective was clearly not feeling any desire to see it himself. His face, his whole form, was angled away from whatever it was in utter revulsion. The fist he clenched around the axe was pressed to his mouth. The axe blade obscured much of his expression.

"What is it?"

Costas just shook his head dumbly and waved his pointing hand in emphasis.

Wesley extracted his weight from the wall to place it back onto his legs very slowly, and pushed off to take a shaky step towards the detective. To his relief, the steps got easier and the worst of the weakness passed. He drew up alongside Costas with his limbs still trembling, convinced his skin must look the colour of paper.

So it didn't make much difference to his physical state when he saw what Costas had found.

There was a sunken octagonal bowl in the floor, its purpose no doubt having been part of some kind of cleansing process when the plant was in use. Its current fluid level was several feet below the top of the bowl, possibly only inches of liquid remaining, but that wasn't all that was there.

A sea of bone glistened whitely back at him.

"Oh, Lord," Wesley said.

After a few seconds, he reached for the short ladder down into the pit.

Costas clutched his arm. "Don't."

"I need to ascertain whether or not they're human." He stared down into the mess, sincerely not wanting to, then swung over the side and began to descend as precariously as he'd climbed the fence. A second later, Costas caught his hand in a firm grip and lowered him down, letting his feet negotiate the steps.

He couldn't reach for the bones without stepping down off the ladder, even with Costas to help.

His legs sank almost up to the level of his knees. The sensation was foul and reawakened his desire to pass out, but the thought of falling in the midst of such a horrific cocktail helped him fight it off again.

Tentatively, he picked through the bones. A stripped human skull rolled over and glared emptily back at him. He gulped and the air caught at the base of his throat almost choked him before he could cough it away.

Human. He was standing amid the remains of what must have been, just weeks past, at least a dozen human beings. Many of the bones were broken, filled with marks that ranged from pinpricks to the recognisable indentations of variously sized teeth.

Other bones, too. Smaller, misshapen, definitely not human. Little crunched fragments of skulls. It only increased the horror when he realised what they meant.

"Oh, God." A floodgate had opened up inside his head and the world rushed in, threatening to sweep him away. "Oh, God." He was going to be sick. He blindly struggled to climb up the pit's nearest side, too irrational to head back for the ladder. He had to get out--

Costas caught him under his right shoulder, flailed against the absence at his left - Wesley was too distracted even to flinch at the touch - before curling a fist in the material of his shirt at the waist. Wesley gripped Costas' arm in return with a force that had to hurt as he was lifted up and out. He collapsed to shiver, damply and wretchedly, on his knees at the side of the open mass grave. Its stench clung to his soaked trouser legs for him to carry away with him in reminder, and it made him want to tear the damp cloth off at the knees to get rid of the feel of it against his skin.

Costas was standing over him, face drawn with concern, too much white around the man's irises, looking as freaked as Wesley had ever seen. "Is it--?"

"I... I should think so. The missing women. They..." He swallowed.

The muscles bunched at the edges of Costas' mouth. "Tell me later. We don't have to do this now. Later." He pulled his cellphone from his jacket, and his hands were shaking almost too wildly to hit the buttons. He stopped and visibly had to compose himself. "I need to call the department. Demons or no, I can't leave them here like this. Probably best keep it anonymous, given the trespassing and--"

"Don't use your cellphone," Wesley said dully. "A payphone..."

Costas stopped dead, then let out a flustered, embarrassed snort. "Come on." He extended a hand, waiting for Wesley to grasp it. "I don't want to still be in here when it gets dark."

"No." Wesley let himself be helped up, but stopped and held back after only achieving so far as his knees. "They ate their way out." He heard the words emerge hushed, terrified, plaintive. "They ate their way out and then they started on each other, until only the strongest were left..."

"At least that means we only have to deal with a handful of these things," Costas offered sickly.

He nodded. "There would have been hundreds..." He met the detective's eyes. "This all happened weeks ago, Jack. Weeks. We missed it. The missing women... it should have clued me in. Some of them were reported. I knew about the Haxil's mating habits. I missed it. This is my fault. What happened to those girls... if I'd looked hard enough, looked in the right places... all of this could have been prevented."

"That's bullshit." Costas angrily hauled him the rest of the way to his feet, apparently so he could grab him by the collar and shake him in rough punctuation. "I've been a cop over ten years. You can't save everyone. You can only catch a killer after he's - it's - already killed. By definition, Wes."

Wesley wrenched out of his grip and away from the less-than-gentle reassurances, turned his back and started to march away. He was still unsteady enough that it came out a lurch, and when he was struck by realisation of the intense idiocy of walking off alone in a fit of pique in this place, he stopped and leaned forward heavily against the giant vat, resting the palm of his hand and his forehead against the smooth, cold surface.

"What is it?"

The awareness of Costas' presence behind him caused him to jump. The detective had been silent in his cautious approach.

He shook his head. In the gloom of the industrial hell around them, he was aware of oddly shaped shadows that played at the limits of his vision, and he had not forgotten the possibility that one of the Haxil brood could yet remain in the place, but he found himself unable to muster much concern.

He laughed aloud at the irony of the thought.

"I always thought I had a mission," he said, slow and low enough in his throat to be barely audible, enough so that Costas stepped in closer to hear. "No, more than that. A calling. The mission." He shook his head. Another bitter crack of laughter escaped him. He could not fathom how he could be laughing, when his eyes stung and were becoming embarrassingly moist. He blinked several times in quick succession.

'Allergy'... he thought of saying, and didn't.

"How ridiculous." And that giggle was even less sane than the laughter had been.

"What is this?" Costas rasped. "You're talking nonsense and you're fucking freaking me the hell out, and at the moment more of that is just what I don't need. You've helped to kill a lot of bad things, saved a lot of people. I was there. Penn--"

"Forget bloody Penn!" His voice echoed metallically amongst all the yards of metal and piping. "Don't you see, it was never about the mission, never about helping people. What I was trained for... my great purpose."

"Rubbish. You didn't even want to do this. I dragged you back into it. You were ready to quit."

Wesley felt his face stretch into a deathly grin and Costas' protest died as he apparently realised that wasn't a defence that was about to help.

"You've worked yourself damn hard," the detective argued. "I've lost count of the number of times I've told you to ease up."

"You don't understand." He clenched his hand into a fist against the curved metal. "It wasn't for them."

Costas was silent, and it was impossible to be sure whether his silence was a sign that he understood or that he didn't.

"I've been such a fool."

"Yeah, you're a jerk," Costas responded pissily. "You didn't need a goddamn morbid epiphany to find that out. I've known since I met you, would've said so for free if you'd only asked."

Wesley jerked around a hundred and eighty degrees at the sheer injustice of the remark. "Excuse me? You did say so--" He caught himself before he stamped his foot. "On at least fifty different occasions. Often with detailed elaboration, footnotes, and sub-headings--"

Costas' mouth concertinaed into tight folds of largely faked bemusement. Any moment, he was going to say, "I did?" and crease his forehead to match the crumpled line of his mouth.

"Oh, for Heaven's..." Stopped, glared narrowly at Costas, gulped and seethed, in no mood to be mollified. "Fuck this." Wesley shoved the detective aside, and this time adrenalin and anger was enough to carry him back the way they'd come and out into the open air, feet punching the tarmac as he stamped back to the car.

Running steps behind him, another hand on his shoulder, and he was so bloody tired of having to rely on this man's hands...

"Let go of me." He tried to shove the detective away.

"Don't be such an asshole."

Wesley set his jaw determinedly, rolled back his shoulder, and swung his arm around in an arc that ended dead on-target with Costas' cheekbone.

"I said, let go of me."

Costas fell away with a muffled curse and he swung back, continuing in the direction of the car, not entirely sure what he was going to do when he got there.

The hand on his shoulder spun him again after a few steps. There was a blur and then red confetti filled his vision.

"Shit. Shit, shit, shit, shit..."

And he was sitting on the ground staring up at a swearing Costas with his senses reeling and something distinctly unpleasant registering in the area around his chin as the initial numb shock faded. He reached up fingers that flinched from an already swelling jaw and an exceedingly split lip, spat the blood pooling in his mouth from where the lining had broken against his teeth.

"Damn it, I'm sorry," Costas was saying. Or other variations thereof. Rather more times than necessary.

Wesley frowned as his head cleared somewhat, then wished he hadn't and ruled out all facial expression as an option for the next week. "I don't see why you should be," he interrupted, recalcitrant. "I believe I hit you first."

"But--" Costas started to protest, then turned the word into a growl of frustration and strangled whatever he'd been about to say.

"Good old Jack doesn't hit cripples," Wesley filled in.

"Damn you." The detective moved as though to help him up, then backed off, unsure. "You're like a fucking minefield. Whatever I do, I'm gonna step on something that explodes. What the hell am I supposed to do to keep us both intact that doesn't involve doing nothing? Tell me. Tell me what I'm supposed to do!"

Wesley looked down at the ground. Greyish evening on its road to dark surrounded them. He balanced awkwardly to reach out and snag his glasses, connected with them on the second attempt, and put them back on his face. The frame felt a little loose, but the world crystallised. He watched the detail of dust playing over the cracked ground; traced back patterns and guilt.

"I'm sorry."

"What?" Costas, if anything, sounded more freaked than before.

"You didn't do anything wrong. I'm glad you hit me. You had every right to hit me. I'm very sorry."

"You are so insane it's--" he broke off. "What?"

Wesley supposed it was unsurprising that his eyes reflected what they had just registered so plainly. His muscles froze, gaze locked beyond Costas. "Jack?" His voice squeaked out of existence entirely. He managed to raise his hand to point.

Costas spun around, gave a pause so brief that it made the movement almost a pirouette as he continued through three hundred and sixty degrees, and dived to haul Wesley to his feet unceremoniously and shove him back towards the car, previous concerns forgotten. "Run!"

"What--? We came here to--"

"I left the fucking axe inside the plant! Run, damn it!"

There was no time for the utter incredulity and verbal chewing that such a confession required. Instead, Wesley did precisely as asked, hearing shots ring out as Costas turned to fire his gun (from what Wesley knew of his marksmanship, very likely hitting nothing if he was doing so as he ran).

He reached the fence, still hearing the reassuring pound of Costas' feet behind. Threw himself at the wire and pulled himself to the top in three desperate, jerking grabs, and more or less somersaulted over the crest. He landed on his back in the road, rolled over gasping for breath, sat up.

Something hit him in the chest and he automatically caught the car keys Costas had thrown over the fence. He surged to his feet, fell against the hood, crawled around the vehicle using it for support until he reached the driver's door. Wrenched it open, got in, and stared blankly between the controls in front of him and the sole hand in his lap.

The sound of an impact and a movement in the corner of his vision wrenched his head up. He was in time to see the Haxil spawn, a creature the approximate size of a pony and much like the image of the adult creature he'd seen in his books apart from a slightly elongated snout and the fact it seemed happier walking on all fours, snatch Costas from the top of the fence. It brought them down in a tangle of struggling limbs, still on the opposite side.

Costas was strong, but by no means could he wrestle such a demon into submission bare-handed.

Well, not bare-handed. Somewhere in the struggle, the detective apparently managed to draw his gun and at point-blank blew a chunk out of the demon's side. The gun must have been lost, then, as no more shots were fired. Watching from behind the wheel, Wesley saw Costas break clear from the Haxil and leap back onto the fence, moving like an acrobat in his urgency.

The Haxil, not so damaged it was ready to abandon its prey, crouched in preparation to pounce.

Wesley twisted the key, slammed his foot down, and wrenched at the steering wheel. Just as he closed his eyes, he saw Costas register what he was doing and throw himself back off the fence again.

Forward momentum, dizzying; a sudden, brutal jar - more pressure on the accelerator; another jar, harder, slamming him forward, his face mashing into the steering wheel, his arm against the dashboard--

--please, not the other, no, not broken, not damaged, please--

--his foot shaken from the pedal, and the sound of breaking glass, some massive shadow blocking out the windshield, dominating even through the closed lids of his eyes; then nothing but aftershocks, near-stillness, near-silence...

He opened his eyes. And yelped in what, he would allow Buffy's friends just this once, was indeed a manner very like a womanish scream. On this occasion, he felt perfectly happy to plead extenuating circumstances.

Inches from his own face, the maw of the demon gaped, its body sagging over the hood of the car, its jaw pressed against the last shards of glass still clinging at the base of the windshield.

Wesley gulped as he realised it was still breathing, awareness still alive and angry in its nasty onyx-black eyes. Then, he let himself breathe with relief as its chest rattled and stilled, the surface of the eyes glazing.

"Wesley!"

He jerked back in his seat and turned at the sound of Costas' voice, grateful when his arm moved freely. As did the rest of him, though he'd likely have bruises and possibly whiplash.

Costas surveyed the dead demon with disbelief, then turned his appalled face to Wesley. "Jesus, Wes. What the hell have you done to my car?"

Chapter Text

Costas somehow managed to waste almost an hour of the afternoon in the repairs garage, walking around the Lexus in critical examination with a mechanic following nervously at his heels, poking at alleged seams and dents that Wesley couldn't see even when he set his nose to the surface of the bodywork, and asking - nay, demanding - questions in a tone that barely concealed threat below its surface.

He listened with his own jaw firmly shut as the mechanic made valiant attempts to rally in the name of consumerism.

"--but the structural damage was severe, and your decision to forgo the cost of replacing large sections of the bodywork seriously limits how much we can do. Another week would double the cost, which you've already raised issue about as it stands. Perhaps you should consider a new vehicle. This is hardly the latest model, and we have several very reasonable offers--"

The detective's glare could have struck him dead on the spot. "This is my car. I don't need a new one. I want this one. And your prices are a fucking travesty."

"Then this is the best we can do."

Wesley had a great deal of respect for the courage of the wiry mechanic standing up to that fury. Five seconds passed. Ten. Fifteen. No movement or sound infringed on the standoff. Twenty. The edges of Costas' eyes twisted ever so slightly, and Wesley was convinced he was about to see murder committed. He wondered whether he ought interrupt to at least mention that if they didn't take the Lexus back today they would be stuck with the hire car that had been slowly stifling them with its defective air conditioning over the past week.

Costas spun and swung a punch into thin air. "Screw it. I'll take my fucking car," he mumbled.

"Excuse me, sir?" the mechanic asked.

"We'll take the car," Wesley said quickly, and was quite certain that the foolish man had heard the first time and he'd just saved another life.

A cheque was written out for the car, submitted to the mechanic's examination, and then pushed back into Costas' hands for a reluctantly coaxed-out signature. Then the mechanic hurried away and the two of them were left in the lot regarding the car, Costas still very much with a critical eye .

"It looks good as new to me," Wesley ventured cautiously.

"Shut the hell up."

"I'm just saying that it really does--"

"Wes. Shut... up. I said I forgive you for wrecking the damn car. Hell, given that you saved my life in doing it and given that I nearly broke your damn jaw, I figure we have to be even, but just... don't talk about the car. Because when you talk about the car, it makes me mad, and that makes it hard to remember that I'm not holding this against you. All right?"

Blinking, Wesley attempted to follow through the logic of that, and in the end simply nodded dumbly.

Costas opened the front passenger door and held it there. "Get in the car." He slammed the door after and marched around to the driver's side, got in and slapped Wesley's fingers away from their fiddling with the radio, the settings of which appeared to have been changed during its interment in Casualty.

"Ground rules," he said. "You don't touch the car. You try damn hard not to even breathe on the car. And, most specifically of all, rule number one on the Jack Costas list of vehicle commandments, the klutzy one-armed goof does not get to fucking drive the car. Clear?"

"Quite," Wesley said huffily. He observed with a vague disbelief the way the detective ran his hands over the steering wheel and dashboard in what could only be described as a caress before he turned the key in the engine and manoeuvred them out of the lot, giving a last glare and just possibly a hand gesture Wesley didn't quite catch (he only saw the flicker of movement at the corner of his vision) towards the mechanic who was watching them leave from the shadows of a doorway.

"I know it's hardly my place to ask... and I respect that you don't want me to talk about, well, you know, but... if it's not too much... I really am curious..."

Costas' glower told him to get on with it.

"Why does this car mean so much to you? I mean, as the fellow said, it's not exactly a classic, and--"

The detective sighed, punched the steering wheel (but not too hard), and growled, "It used to be Irene's car."

"Oh." Wesley abruptly remembered what Costas and Irene had said to each other in the most recent of their rows, and winced. "You mean that's true?" he near squeaked. "That she - and this - and - oh, good grief, then this is the car she--?"

Costas growled, "Shut the hell up."

"Of course. I'm so sorry."

A sideways glance, then a relenting huff of air escaped Costas' lips. "No, this wasn't the car. She only went and borrowed mine that night because this one was in the shop. When I found out I told her that she could damn well keep it for the memories because I sure as hell didn't want it any more with those attached, and she said, 'screw you then, I will,' and flung the keys of this one at me."

"Oh." Wesley gulped, hard. "And does she still have--?"

"She sold it and bought a Mercedes."

"Oh." He guiltily tried to look in any direction that included nothing of this vehicle symbolic of a marital break-up. "I'm sorry I pried. And about..."

"Stop apologising for saving my life. It's just a damn car, and I'm not sorry to still be around."

Costas slapped a hand on the switch for the radio, effectively ending the conversation. Country music blared out at an obscene volume that had Wesley cowering back into his seat and Costas shouting curses as he frantically grabbed for the dial and the Lexus swerved all over the road.

***

The car behaved apparently satisfactorily the rest of the day and as evening drew into night found itself resting outside a dry-cleaners in a rather off-the-beaten-track part of West Hollywood, while Wesley and Costas made their way down the road and turned off into a back street.

"This is the place?" Wesley asked, looking around.

"This is the area in the report."

He rubbed eyes kept open only by the power of half a dozen very strong coffees ingested that afternoon as he caught up on his research while Costas went off to return the hired car. "It seems a little exposed. If there was a demon hiding out here, wouldn't someone have... noticed?"

"You think?"

A low, roughened croak sounded from the shadows, causing his muscles to lock up, his throat to turn dry, and his stomach to perform several giddy somersaults. Then his eyes registered the source of the noise and he blanched at the idea that he was standing in the dark next to a Detective Costas armed with enough heavy ironmongery to kit out a medieval army and there in front of them--

"I said, are you the young men from Animal Control?" asked the old woman again, speaking very slowly and loudly. She leaned on the railing of an ancient second-floor balcony of the residential block they were passing, her slippered feet just a few inches above the tops of their heads.

"Ma'am?" Costas was trying to edge the large axe out of sight behind his back.

"It's a very shy dog," the woman continued, her concern clear. "We've had hardly a peep out of him since he settled in there, a few weeks ago now. Really, no trouble at all. Heard him howl once or twice, or maybe sniffing through the trash. I put meat out for him when I can."

Costas cleared his throat uncomfortably.

"Ah... have you... seen this canine?" Wesley asked. "That is to say, would you perhaps be in a position to describe it to us? Its breed, its condition, its... general temperament?"

"Oh!" she wrung her hands happily. "I went to England for my honeymoon. Lovely country. I had such a wonderful time. Let's see, that would have been nineteen sixty--"

"The dog? Ma'am?" Costas intervened.

She shook her head. "I've only caught a glimpse of his back once or twice. Not that it would do much good, I'm afraid I can't see much apart from blurs and shadows any more. I saw him quite close, one time, slinking past here. Big, grey. One of those specialist breeds, I think. He might be a pedigree. Probably lost. Maybe his owner wants him back.... Short-haired. I couldn't tell anything more." She looked between them, her gaze not quite focusing. "You... you won't hurt him, will you? You'll take him somewhere he'll be looked after and find him a good home?"

"We'd only use force to subdue a dangerous animal," Costas said, nodding in reassuring fashion and nudging Wesley in the ribs with an elbow as he turned to go. "Thank you, ma'am."

The old woman, in her ill-sighted faith, called after them. "I named him Trevor. He doesn't answer to it yet, but he might recognise it... Of course, I'd look after him myself if I could, but the rules say no pets, so there's really nothing I can do..."

"Still think this might be a mislead?" Costas asked dryly as they drifted out of range.

The narrow street was backed onto on both sides by massive old apartment blocks. The space between the blocks was spanned above by a walkway connecting the scaffold skeletons of the fire escapes that clung like rotting ivy to the brickwork on both sides of the street, narrowing above them into a vertigo-inducing infinity that might have been spawned by M C Escher. The quiet was disconcerting.

Costas demonstrated his unease by poking into an open dumpster with the head of the axe, rattling tins and glass within. "Trevor... Come on out, Trevor..." It was just that little bit too muted to be a shout. He waited for the noise to clear, then waited long into the utter silence that replaced it. Bashed the axe head against the side of the dumpster several times, glaring fiercely around. "Maybe we should've brought some dog biscuits. The critter's probably developed a taste for them."

"I suppose it's no worse than the people who swore they'd seen a puma stalking the streets," Wesley allowed. "The poor woman's half-blind. And she's extremely lucky to be alive."

"Maybe not. Some predators don't prey in their own back yard."

"True enough, but I would imagine these creatures still a little new to the world to be quite so cerebral in their hunting."

"What if it just doesn't have a taste for mutton? None of the victims have been very old."

Wesley blanched at that particularly macabre bit of pragmatism, and fell silent as they moved further along the street.

Costas kicked at the few items of rubbish astray in the road, swinging the axe as he walked, and whistled loudly. "You want to walk out in front? Make like helpless easy prey or something."

"Thank you," he responded sourly, "and no. I categorically refuse to be bait again. Last time, I almost ended up as lunch, in case you've forgotten."

"But you didn't." Costas swung the axe to and fro with unconscious, lazy rhythm.

"Yes, Jack, and I'm very grateful you saved my life after endangering it in the first place." He avoided an empty cardboard box discarded at the edge of the street, stopped and stared up and down. The whole length of the street was visible from where he stood and, other than the dumpster at the end, there was nothing that could conceivably hide a large, dangerous animal, let alone serve as any kind of permanent den. The buildings were none of them derelict, he had checked beforehand, all occupied and well kept. His head ached with a fury and persistence that seemed to have been steadily mounting in the course of the last week.

A small metal dish of diced meat and biscuit caught his toe as he swung around, and he drew his foot back to deliver it a kick that sprayed its contents out over the nearest wall. "This is flagrantly ridiculous. There's no demon, no puma, and not even any stray dog here. The beast probably has a pedigree a yard long and belongs to some prize pillock who lets it wander the streets scaring his neighbours half to death. Imbecile. You'd think it would occur to him to lock the thing inside if the newspapers are full of reports of animal attacks--"

From above, something gave a low, rumbling growl.

"Oh, bloody hell."

***

Crouched on the rungs of a fire escape at least a dozen feet overhead, teeth bared, back legs tensing preparatory to attack, for an instant the beast remained still and eyed himself and Costas as they returned its regard. Slightly smaller than the other Haxil spawn they had so far seen, though God alone knew how anyone could still mistake it for either a dog or a Puma. Wesley, in between the terrified trembling, marvelled anew at the abilities of humanity at large to deny the existence of the supernatural.

"I think you pissed it off," Costas said unnecessarily.

A line of slather descended lazily from the beast's maw, then dripped suddenly, causing Wesley to leap backwards with a cry.

The Haxil moved as Wesley did, and there was a blur of activity that found him seconds later blinking stupidly on the floor, half-sitting, cradled by the wall at his back, his breath still resisting any efforts to force it to return after being ousted by Costas' shove. He tried to clear his vision to focus on the activities of Costas and the Haxil, a flurry of limbs, snarls and curses and the regular interruption of glistening light catching the head of the axe.

Wesley edged his way up the wall, relying on it for balance, feeling sore and weak, though the latter was nothing new - he could not remember the last time he'd felt steady, no ache deep in his gut or living inside his skull, no tremor in his fingers or in his knees. He did not think he could blame it on the amputation.

Costas scored a passable hit on the Haxil's front leg, dodged its angry retaliation with panache, and Wesley felt a warm glow at the proof of his improvement and smiled despite himself. Another hit across the demon's ribs that surely sliced deep enough to grievously wound sent the creature into retreat. It turned and darted - in a rather lopsided definition of the word that encompassed a severe limp - up the metal stairs of a nearby fire escape.

Costas spared a glance back to Wesley before shifting his grip on the axe and giving chase to the beast with nothing approaching its quiet animal grace. The crash of boots carrying thirteen stone of slightly overweight detective and the breaths laboured by too much junk food and too many cigarettes echoed around the alley, fading gradually as Costas ascended further. Then the detective turned a sharp spiral in the staircase and was lost among the rusted maze and darkness overhead.

Alarmed, Wesley staggered into the centre of the street, craning back his head and straining his eyes. But he caught nothing more than a hint of motion on a shadowed balcony that seemed rather too distant from where he'd lost sight of Costas. He could still hear, faintly, the sound of footsteps stressing old metal, their falls less regular now, and slower.

He wondered with concern whether the ancient aerial networks were sufficiently well-maintained to withstand such heavy treatment - nothing he had taught Costas in the past weeks would facilitate him against a thirty foot descent ending in hard pavement - and for a guilty instant he let that thought hold him to the spot before angrily shoving the fear aside and following up the fire escape.

The structure rocked beneath him, swaying a balance already precarious with only one hand to catch the rails and support him on the smooth, narrow stairs. He was sent reeling drunkenly from side to side, fingers snatching for a purchase all too often achieved by an extremely narrow margin.

At the point where he'd caught his last glimpse of Costas, he made the mistake of looking back. Vertigo seized him - it wasn't so much any problem with heights as the delicate state of his senses that did it. He leaned, breathing hard, the rail pressing into his stomach, his hand feeling welded to the metal from the force of his grip. When he tried to regulate his breath and to ease backwards, to slowly take his weight from the rail, something snapped and jarred.

The jolt had the equivalent effect on his senses of a bucket of ice cold water. He was standing bolt upright on a shuddering mass of iron trying not to touch anything, move even the slightest fraction of an inch, or generally weigh anything at all.

The stillness that followed as the frame finally ceased its motion allowed him to register the silence all around.

"Jack?" He sent his voice up into the dark uncertainly. "Is everything... quite all right? Jack? Can you hear me?"

He waited, but no response came save for his own echo, which seemed only to mock. He shivered a little - possibly from cold, the temperature had dropped - and the fire escape shivered with him. He looked up the next stretch of steps, made a decision, and continued, slower and more carefully than before.

Clunk-clunk-clunk, the stairs rattled underneath him, shaking the fixings which held them flush to the wall of the apartment block. Every so often he paused to listen, trying to determine where Costas had gone, growing steadily more fearful for the safety of the brusque detective. Two storeys, three, ascending to four--

"Wesley!"

The sudden shout almost knocked him down those four storeys by means of his jump of fright. He blinked toward the voice and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust before he could pick out the paler blur in the shadows that must be Costas' shapeless brown coat.

The span of the street separated them, the detective leaning over a rail of stairs attached to the apartment blocks of the opposing row. Wesley craned his head around and saw the walkway, a few feet above the level of his head and some way to the left. A stretch of iron balcony scarred by rusty decay and with some of its sections missing seemed to be the only route by which it might be reached from his own position, short of heading all the way back to the ground to climb up again at the other side.

"How in Heaven's name did you get over there?"

"With one hell of a lot of difficulty," Costas yelled back. "But I lost the damn critter, and I don't think there's much chance you're gonna be able to get across to me, not with one arm. Meet up on the ground, all right? It's wounded pretty bad, but I don't like being separated like this."

Wesley contemplated the tedious route back without enthusiasm, but he opened his mouth to pass on a reluctant acknowledgement.

Something landed on the steps behind him. Near-soundless, but its impact sent the whole fire escape back into its merry dance.

The Haxil flowed down the intervening steps as though untroubled by its injuries. Wesley, trying to cry out, produced only a choked squeak as his back hit the rail and he was almost tipped over. Distantly, he could hear Costas shouting, but his mind was too busy informing the rest of him he was a dead man to pay it much attention.

Then another shape descended, between Wesley and the Haxil, this one dark-clad and humanlike, lithe and so light on its feet as to barely shake the floor under them.

"Angel?" Wesley stammered.

The vampire glanced back over his shoulder and the meeting of their gaze felt like a freeze-frame for a few seconds, the spectre of their last real encounter tainting the air. Then Angel switched his attention to the Haxil's attack, and Wesley was left pressed nervously against the less-than-secure rail with a frenetic explosion of vampire and demon limbs, fists and claws less than three feet from him.

The fire escape shuddered and groaned and wailed as though its stressed frame was about to fall off the wall entirely.

"Oh, dear..." Wesley felt sick. "Angel!" he shouted urgently. "I really think that--"

Angel slammed into the rail, just missing Wesley. The creature slammed into Angel a second later, jaws stretched and aimed for the vampire's throat. It was caught up short with a squeal that did almost sound like that of an injured dog, and Wesley glimpsed, in that split instant as it fell back, light catching the long blade in Angel's hand.

In what followed, though, he had no concentration to spare. The rail at his back cracked and creaked under the double impact, and before he could move away he felt it begin to give. Angel, faster than he, had already spun out of danger, turning back now with his face twisting in shock and denial.

"No! I was supposed to save your life--"

He was already falling, and the vampire too late to pull him back. The last thing he expected was for Angel to leap out from the rail after him...

The tackle in mid-air had force enough in itself to stun, and he was only partially aware of the hands wrapping around his waist, of Angel turning them, somehow, so that he was the one underneath in the second before they hit the ground.

Even with the cushioning bulk of the vampire, it felt as though the fall had broken every bone in his body. He gasped in a breath that was closer to a long, loud sob and felt himself roll and bounce off to the side, gravel and tarmac grazing his face and hand, shrieking against the frame of his glasses. He lay face-down and dazed, realising slowly that the sensations he had felt of things breaking had not come from his own body, but rather transferred through the undead flesh in such close proximity.

"Oh, Lord... Angel? Angel!" He made it to his knees and crawled to the vampire's side. A fall of that magnitude would not kill a vampire but it didn't mean it couldn't cripple it. Angel was twisting and writhing on the ground.

Wesley was aware of footsteps running, of someone shouting his own name, but set that momentarily to one side.

"Angel," he repeated, deeply horrified. "Are you all right?"

The running footsteps came to a halt behind him, and someone yanked him from Angel with a wrench on the back of his collar and a shove that almost sent him sprawling again. "Get the hell away from him," said Kate Lockley's voice. "He doesn't need your help."

"Detective Lockley, I protest this--"

"Kate... Wesley... I'm all right." Angel gasped and shuddered, and managed to sit up. Wesley quailed at the imagining of how much had been pulped and broken inside his body by the fall. His black clothes, in the dark, made it impossible even to tell if he was bleeding anywhere.

Costas arrived then, coming to rest behind Lockley and leaning over with his hands on his knees to take heavy gulps of air. His eyes were firmly on Wesley. "Jesus Christ, don't do that to me. I thought you were dead for sure. Are you injured?"

"I don't think so - nothing serious. Angel took most of the impact."

Angel proceeded to wave off both his concern and Detective Lockley's, succeeded in pulling himself up to standing and then limped around in a painful, circular pacing that couldn't be so much helping his vampiric physique to mend as discovering the best ways to force it to move in efficient fashion compensating for whatever damage it had suffered.

Costas recovered his breath and his attitude at around the same time. "What the hell are the two of you doing here?" he demanded, looking between Lockley and Angel.

"Saving your buddy's life?" the latter suggested, a painful hitch still in his voice. "Is that all right with you? 'Cause, you know, I can go ahead and promise never to do it again."

Costas swallowed whatever he'd been going to say and instead watched with suspicion as the vampire limped over to the wall. He leaned there looking ragged. Lockley flickered her cool gaze impassively around all those present. She must, Wesley surmised, have seen Angel smashed up as bad and worse on far too many occasions by now for much novelty or worry to remain.

Angel looked at Wesley, a strangely fixed regard, partially obscured by the shadows across his face, seeming to drag on for a highly uncomfortable stretch of time as Wesley looked back, and tried not to quiver.

It was not so very cold a night. Maybe the chill exuded from Angel, he entertained briefly, as though vampires were capable of giving off cold like the human body radiated warmth. How else could he explain his own body's urge to shiver? Angel just stood, a figure wrapped in expressionless gloom. Wesley wondered if the circumstances of their last meeting were as vivid in Angel's mind as they were in his, and he thought that he was becoming very tired of being saved by one of the bloodsucking undead.

"Wesley," Angel said finally. "You're... you seem better. Than before. That is... the arm's healed all right, hasn't it?"

"It's fine," he responded, feeling numb, motivated largely by instinctive politeness. "Thank you."

"And you... Detective Van Helsing."

"It's Costas. Jack. And, yeah, I healed good too." Costas still had the axe in his hand and he stabbed it at the ground in temper. "I asked you a question. What the hell are you doing here? Yeah, you saved Wes, that's great, fine, much appreciated, but that's still not an answer. What I want to know is how you knew he was gonna be in need of saving."

"Indeed," Wesley added, backing Costas up in Angel's silence. "I also can't help wondering how you could possibly have arrived here so precisely 'in the nick of time', so to speak."

"I haven't been following you, if that's what you're implying." Angel cast a sideways glance at Lockley, who looked stonily elsewhere, and Wesley wondered briefly if she had ever done just that.

"On the fire escape," he said, remembering. "You told me you'd come here to save my life. You knew... somehow, you knew I was in danger."

Angel nodded. "I saw it. I saw you die. I saw it tear you apart."

"Saw it?"

"Oh, come on," Lockley snapped impatiently. "Short version: Angel has visions. Angel - can we please go? I do have other things to attend to this evening."

"Visions?" Wesley asked in disbelief. Lockley, who'd been turning to leave, noticed that Angel hadn't caught her lead and didn't look as though he had any intention of doing so, and she rolled her eyes and stood a short distance away, all but tapping her foot. "Angel, what on Earth happened? Are you sure? I've heard about Drusilla, of course, but she was a Seer before she was turned. A vampire doesn't just--"

"Doyle... had them." The vampire shifted as though he'd like to disappear into the wall, crawling backwards through the cracks in the bricks.

"Your friend," Wesley filled in, enlightened. "Your friend who died."

"Doyle saw things. Things I was supposed to prevent. He said they were messages, from the higher powers, sent to help me to help people."

"Divine intervention." He began softly, but by the last syllable his voice had hardened. "Oh, dear Lord. That day... you had a vision... that's what it was, that day in the motel. You had a vision when you were on the way to me--"

Angel was nodding, his gaze downcast and nothing visible of his face but shadows. "Maybe I would have saved you otherwise." His words near-jammed in the back of his throat and it jumped, as he visibly tried to clear them. "This time... it was for you. I saved you. This time."

He looked up, at that last, and his eyes burned. Something in there wasn't totally sane.

"I know," Wesley said, and though he did try, his voice remained just as hard as it had been.

Costas - and Lockley, though she seemed to be attempting to maintain an air of extreme disinterest - looked between them as though harbouring a suspicion they were both losing it. Well... Wesley couldn't imagine that to be far wrong. "What the hell are you two talking about?"

Wesley swallowed, and pulled slowly away from the look in Angel's eyes. "History," he said. "It's history."

He blinked hard, took a breath, and tried to focus on something more constructive. "Visions from the higher powers, then? That's very interesting. I've certainly heard of instances, though no other vampires. I'm afraid I don't know very much, myself - the larger part of the accounts of the gift in any real measure have tended to be unverified and unexplored. Nobody's ever done a thorough investigation into--"

"And they're not going to start now," Lockley said. "He's not some kind of laboratory animal for you to prod at your leisure."

"You know that isn't what I meant," Wesley began.

"Whatever. Angel?" She had her arms folded and leaned slightly back on her heels; body language of not wanting to be there.

"Not yet." The vampire peeled himself from the wall. He appeared to have tired of his staring; now he avoided looking at Wesley at all. "They've been hunting these creatures just as we have. We need to compare notes. There's no point working blind when we don't have to."

Costas gave a bark of laughter. "We thought someone else might be working this. Even thought of you. So you've put down a few of these things?"

Lockley said, "Sure. See, some of us are actually supposed to be working this case, Jack."

"They're Haxil Beast spawn," Wesley put in, glancing between Lockley and Angel to see if the name sparked any recognition. It didn't. He experienced a stir of satisfaction that he felt rather guilty for.

"It wasn't like anything in any of my books," Angel said.

"No. Most of the entries I found were on the full grown adult. It's very rare these creatures spawn. They have to utilise human women to do so, there are no females of the particular species..."

"Can we concentrate on the important questions, please, and less about it's goddamn mating habits?" Costas griped, at the same time as Lockley cleared her throat with loud intent and pulled a folded wad of paper from her jacket that she spread out into a city map.

"Right. Jack - you killed some more of these things. Where?"

Costas squinted at the map, his finger hovering uncertainly over a few areas, then after a moment he turned and pulled Wesley forward in his place. "He'll remember."

"Here." Wesley placed a fingertip over the plant, noticing as he did so that more or less the same zones he'd marked off himself were here marked as well, only a few major differences. This had been a case assigned to Lockley, after all. She must have received information from the police investigation that perhaps Costas had not been able to get his hands on. "This was the source. We found bones there, too."

Lockley nodded. "I got that report. They're still comparing dental records. Anonymous, huh?"

"Uh, that would be the case." He examined the street plan again. "There was one in an abandoned warehouse, here. One living in the sewers, around this general area."

Both she and Angel were nodding, now. "When the killings stopped," Angel said. "We figured something was going on... though I'll admit I thought these things might be a little tough for the two of you."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Costas said disgustedly.

Angel frowned, deer-in-headlights fashion, as though wondering what he'd said wrong. Social skills never had been one of his strengths, as Wesley recalled. "You're human," the vampire said simply. "I didn't mean - you've done remarkably, fighting them alone." He edged a slightly apologetic glance at Wesley the implication of which was clear enough.

"Wes killed the first one," Costas said, with more angry bite than Wesley would ever have anticipated.

"Uh--"

"No. You were right the first time, Angel. I don't fight." If nothing else, he could at least banish all pretence. "I..." With all their eyes on him, he faltered into silence.

"Where did you kill yours?" Costas asked, swiftly changing the subject.

Lockley rested her finger upon two points on the map, and Wesley ticked off another two of his hypothesized Haxils. He calculated. "Which leaves only one more possible demon. Excellent."

"Plus," Angel said, managing what for him passed as a smile, "We happen to know where it is. In fact, we were going to go over there to hunt it down tonight, until I had the vision." He looked at Lockley. "Let's go do this."

"No, wait," Wesley protested. "You mean to still go? Now? Injured as you are?"

"Well, yeah. You know - vampire. Can't actually be harmed much short of dust."

"We should come with you."

He regretted it almost the instant the words had left his lips - because, of course, spending more time in the company of the one person who knew exactly how much he had been broken was just what he wanted to do - but he couldn't take it back, and moreover, he was certain he shouldn't. If Angel failed due to his current condition, Detective Lockley could be left to face the creature alone, and that he could not allow to happen.

"No," Angel responded immediately. "I didn't just save your life to get you killed a whole different way."

"The hell you say! We've faced three of these demons already. We can most assuredly be of assistance. And you were incapacitated saving my life. I absolutely insist." He tried to cross his arms and was rather afraid he came out looking somewhat silly for it. He changed the motion into a rub at the aching scar on his shoulder.

"He's right," Lockley said. "Now, please, can we go?"

"What's biting you tonight?" Costas queried in such a way that, coupled with his sideways glance at Angel, it could have been an innuendo.

"I have to go sort out something for my father," she said shortly, tight-lipped.

"Oh?" Costas perked with genuine interest. "How's he getting along since he retired? I hear he was on-scene again the other day in the subway. You need to get that police scanner off the man, Kate. Even retired, seems he can't be kept away from the job."

Her unblinking stare held for slightly too long before she turned away, not meeting his eyes again. "I know."

Angel loosed a huff of air that for a vampire was clear affectation. "All right. So we're all going. How about we hurry this up so that Kate can get to her appointment, guys?"

***

In deference to having to search the open ground of a sizeable - for LA - stretch of parkland and to the fact that not all their party had the night-vision of a vampire, Wesley had retrieved the flashlight from the back of the Lexus. And in deference to the fact that he would likely be making very little other contribution to the fight ahead, he led the way with it, following the trail of prints embedded in now dry mud that they had picked up searching the southernmost edge of the park.

"So how is it you figured out the critter was here anyway?" he heard Costas address Angel - or more likely Kate - behind him.

It was Angel who answered, nonetheless. "I followed it yesterday. Lost it somewhere around here, but then saw the tracks. The dawn was coming, though, and I had to get out of the open."

It was true, Wesley reflected, that this place would be a death-trap for Angel when the sun arose. Lucky then that much of the night still stretched ahead of them. "It seems an unusually tranquil hideout of choice, in comparison to the others we've seen."

"Maybe it just crossed the park and it's holed up somewhere nearby," Kate suggested.

"Or maybe it's just wild about horticulture," Costas said.

The grass crunching underfoot, the ache in his limbs from the shock of the earlier fall making every crunch an effort, faded the voices into background. The park was an expanse of gentle green slopes and the occasional scatter of small trees, bushes and shrubs clearly planted and tended. Squinting into the darkness beyond the reach of his meagre torch beam, it looked as though it was one of these areas of vegetation they were heading toward, probably better named as a shrubbery than a thicket. Trudging on through the dark, he became aware the others had fallen silent as they drew further from the city streets. The noise of the night traffic seemed more distant than it was, and Wesley was conscious of the footfalls of each of the three behind him; Costas' loping shamble, Lockley's no-nonsense stride, the hitching mess that the fall had turned Angel's gait into.

"I think we're heading into the trees," he shared, though they were close enough by now that probably the telling was quite redundant. The company surprised him by forgoing the opportunity to say so.

Probably they were approaching this with a similar apprehension to his own. The vegetation wasn't bunched thickly together, but in the dark it would be difficult to navigate, with far too many places where a demon might lie in ambush.

"Wesley--" Costas pushed to the front, reaching out to take the torch.

"I'll lead." Lockley grabbed it from Wesley's outstretched hand before Costas' fingers could connect, her gun already drawn and levelled in the other. She forestalled his protest with a glare. "I'm a better shot than you are, and Angel and Wesley are in no condition. You take the back."

Costas nodded reluctantly, and so Wesley found himself stuck between Lockley to the front and Angel behind as they pushed forward. Much of Lockley's attention was commandeered by the tracks they followed and the branches she had to find a path through and the ground made uneven by the small plants their passage crushed underfoot, so Wesley tried to keep as much of his own attention as possible upon the shadows around them.

The crunch and crackle of their steps, especially the heavier steps of Costas and Angel, made any attempt to go by ear an impossibility. The distraction of the branches springing back into him after Lockley's passage made it very difficult to go by eye. He angled his body right-side-to-front, and still found himself unable to quash the odd squeak of pain when a branch raked the tender scar tissue of his left shoulder. Angel's hand caught a particularly large branch and snapped it off an instant before it connected.

Then Lockley stopped so abruptly he barrelled straight into her. The torch beam did a wild dance among the bushes as she staggered, trying to recapture her balance. He set his hand on her shoulder to help and she shook it off and pushed away from him.

Wesley saw then why she had stopped. The torch still bouncing in her grip revealed the ground in irregular flashes, showing the tracks to end at what presumably functioned as a maintenance shed for storage of tools and equipment. The small structure stood a little lopsidedly, in obvious need of repair for more than just its battered-in door. When he examined the area around them further he discovered a much better defined path than the one they had just followed led from its door and out to the left.

It did not seem a very secure or private hideout for a large, growing demon, and nor did the shed look especially spacious as a home for one. He whispered as much, keeping his voice down to little more than a textured breath.

Somehow, it ended up being the incapacitated Angel who was first through the door, pushing it open on its broken hinges to the accompaniment of a shrill squeak that earned a wince from all present.

"There's nothing in here," Angel said. "It's empty."

"Oh, dear." Wesley sighed. "It must have gone out already to hunt. Another victim we're too late to prevent--"

"No." Angel was shaking his head. "I mean, there's nothing here - no sign that it's been living here, even." He shoved the door fully open and stood back, indicating for Wesley to come and look for himself.

Lockley beat both him and Costas to it and he heard her curse. "Another damn mislead."

"But the tracks end here," Wesley insisted. "It must be around here somewhere."

He pushed inside the shed as well, and Costas followed, despite it being by now distinctly overcrowded. The detective ended up standing on a lawnmower, knocking a cascade of tools off their hooks. "Fuck." More items fell, cascading down. "Jesus Chr--" His voice dried up.

Wesley gaped. At the back of the shed, an already skewed swathe of netting hanging from the end wall had come completely unfixed, revealing below it a jagged rent that had split the dirt floor.

"Damn," Lockley breathed.

"I think we have our demon lair," Angel said.

Wesley edged around them to crouch down next to the hole, examining its edges. No demon's claws could have torn open the ground in such a fashion, surely - at least, no earthbound demon, and certainly not the Haxil young that they were currently hunting.

Wordlessly, Lockley relinquished the torch back to him and he leaned over the hole to shine it inside, peering within and trying to pretend that it wasn't damnably hard to balance just so without a spare arm to catch his weight.

"It looks like there's a lot of space down there... a cavern, even, you might say... I should imagine it's some kind of fissure generated by earthquake activity."

"Yeah," Angel said. "There were those big tremors a month or so back. That could've caused something like this. I mean, this looks relatively recent, and any older and surely it would've been discovered before now."

Nodding agreement, Wesley was struck by a thought and he looked nervously around the small space with the four of them crammed inside. Alarmed, he said, "For goodness sake, don't anyone make any heavy movements. It isn't, perhaps, the best of ideas for us all to even be in here. The ground's probably unstable beneath us, and the weight--"

"I get you," Costas agreed, feelingly, shifting his feet and then glancing down, evidently thinking better of it, and standing very still.

"Shit. Half the park could be riddled," Lockley reached for a radio that wasn't at her waist and flapped her hand helplessly when it failed to connect. "Hell. I have to report this--"

"It'll wait." Angel touched her arm reassuringly and she didn't shrug him off. Costas jerked and looked away. Wesley turned away from them both; stared back intently down the fissure.

"I should imagine less people are likely to die of a possibility of subsidence in the middle of a park in the middle of the night than if we don't finish this creature now while we have the chance." He frowned, squinted, gestured for silence and listened intently. Logic clicked in a little late in the day and he yielded his position to Angel, letting the vampire set his head to the opening and apply undead senses to the problem.

"Anything?" Costas asked.

Angel just shook his head.

"We don't know how deep down there it might be," Lockley said. She grabbed something from a hook on the wall, and when she turned Wesley saw it was a thick length of rope. She handed one end to Angel and tied off the other around her waist. "Lower me down?"

The question was not requesting whether he would but whether he was in good enough shape to handle the weight. Wesley caught Costas' eye before the detective could offer protest and Angel nodded, planted his feet, and gripped the end of the rope nearest the knot.

Detective Lockley took a breath and set her feet down over nothing but air, placing more trust in a vampire than Wesley found it credible to imagine, even if that same vampire had saved his own life four times already. She hung waist-deep in the hole supported by nothing but Angel, drew her gun again and took the torch back before nodding sharply and prompting the vampire to reel out hand-over-hand another six feet of rope that saw her swallowed up entirely.

Costas was shaking his head and swearing under his breath.

The rope, Lockley, and the torch beam, spun lazily down through the well of darkness as Angel played out its length. After about another ten feet, Wesley couldn't see much more than the thin beam of light. A few feet more, and the rope gave a jerk and Angel stopped, the remainder coiled in his arms. A shout up from the dark was mangled by a distorting echo, but made its meaning clear enough.

Wesley regarded the hole with trepidation as the slack rope was hauled back up and Angel looked to him.

"Send me next," Costas said.

Wesley was fairly sure it wasn't for his sake that the detective had chosen to speak up, and Angel nodded, apparently in agreement that Lockley ought to have more immediate backup than a failed Watcher.

So Costas was sent down, clumsily trying to balance his axe in his hands as he was lowered, and Wesley found himself regretting he had not argued the issue, uncomfortable to be left as good as alone with Angel. He tried to look anywhere other than at the vampire, but was drawn involuntarily to meet his gaze when Angel unexpectedly asked, with a gravity that surprised, "Are you all right?"

Wesley opened his mouth to respond with the usual automatic "of course", but this time it caught in his throat, and he realised that in any case Angel was not about to let that answer slip by as Costas might. Angel saw... straight through him, really. The vampire knew uncomfortably more about Wesley Wyndham-Pryce than anyone else on this Earth, a coincidental witness to all of his most spectacular failures.

"I'm surviving," he said, in a voice that barely made it past his lips.

"That's good. I - Penn--"

"History," Wesley reminded, sounding raw to his own ears but at least recovering enough measure of grit to forestall whatever Angel had been about to say and save himself from further embarrassment.

The rope in Angel's grasp jerked and loosed as he reeled it back in. When the end came up in his hands, he tried to offer it to Wesley, who smiled wryly and pulled his hand back, raising his arm to offer his waist. Angel stuttered and apologised, ridiculously awkward for a two-hundred-year-old-plus fiend of the night.

"It's all right," he said, annoyed. "I've accepted by now that I literally couldn't tie a knot to save my life."

Angel's fingers fumbled at his waist in a way that suggested he was hindered by damage from the fall in that, too, and the eventual knot was a collaboration between the vampire's two shaky hands and Wesley's one good one, but he was fairly sure it would hold. Taking a breath and nodding to Angel, he slowly eased down into the fissure, keeping a tight grip of the rope higher up.

He spun leisurely downward, not envying Angel his current task considering the vampire's condition, and he wondered whether Detective Lockley had quite grasped the fact that just because it would mend did not therefore make Angel's pain immaterial, or indeed not painful.

His feet touched ground before his thoughts had been exhausted and he had chance to be nervous. It was too dark to make out anything but the faintest of shadowy outlines, and the torch beam was some way distant, bobbing far to his right. A small amount of light filtered through from above, and when he craned his head back he saw cracks in the earth, where the fissures emerged out onto the surface. Lockley was right - the park was riddled. He could see stars glittering through branches.

Arms caught him and slid to the knot, unpicking it as he could not easily do.

"Thank you," he said, his courtesy as automatic as the detective's aid. The rope slithered up away from them, startling him when the end brushed his face on its way past.

The distant torch explained the absence of Lockley, and Wesley was a little surprised that Costas had been there waiting for him. He was about to remark they go after her at once - Angel would be all right - when the gunshots sounded. Echoing hollowly along the thin, stretched length of the fissure, they prompted debris to scatter down from the fresh rock faces around them and seemed to shake the ground itself.

"Kate!" Costas shouted like her name was an expletive, and hared off toward the faint light with blind abandon.

"Jack--" It only took a few steps for Costas to be lost from view, and in the narrow confines his body blocked the guiding beam of the torch from Wesley's line of sight.

Wesley tried to follow, tripped and went sprawling. He slapped his palm down angrily against the rock, pushed himself back up from it, scrabbling to regain his feet. Behind him, he was aware of a heavy dark shape descending the rope. Somewhere in front, the sounds of a fierce scuffle interspersed with cries so distorted by the acoustics it was impossible to determine if they were cries of pain.

He hauled himself upright, but his senses were spinning. Angel shoved past him, rough in his urgency, and he was slapped into a wall that veered so far from vertical it could barely be called such. He was no longer sure, in the curtain of blackness, which way was which. Up and down did somersaults, swapping their positions, his sense of gravity entirely deserting.

Then darkness descended in a manner far more thorough.

***

"Wesley?"

A voice stretched thin to breaking, almost unrecognisable, the crack in it another fissure that went deep, hints of scarring far below the surface.

"Wes? Wake the fuck up and tell me you did not just faint."

That voice he knew anywhere. Gruff-mellow tones of friendship and knowing and no bullshit accepted. He rose up from the depths to meet it.

There was dirt in his mouth, the taste of grit on his tongue. He wrenched up, spitting, and was caught by something warm and soft and entangling as his head spun and almost sent him back into unconsciousness. There was a patch of pain at the back of his neck where it sloped down into his left shoulder blade. He must have twisted when he fell, his brain supplied muzzily; grazed himself against the wall and landed on his face.

He touched his hand to the back of his neck, winced and pulled it away again with sticky fingers. Blinked his eyes open to look and realised it made little difference.

"Wha-- what?"

"Shh." A cool hand rested on his forehead, accidentally brushing over his lips and eyelashes on the way. The skin of the fingers was rough, hard-working skin, its scent savoury, tainted somewhat by blood but he breathed it in. Shifting a little, he became aware of the pillow of warm human flesh he rested on.

"Jack?" He raised his hand to meet familiar fabric and curled fingers in the shabby lapel of Costas' trenchcoat. "It's... really bloody dark."

"The goddamn flashlight got broken." A brief silence, then the gruffness exploded into anger (though the arms that wrapped his shoulders remained as gentle and sure). "You stupid bastard. Shit... I cannot believe... You idiot. I told you to fucking look after yourself. Food, sleep, the essential ingredients of life. Just..."

He shook his head, and though all Wesley could see was the faintest impression of motion in the dark, he felt the vibration carry down through the detective's body.

He had no energy. Boneless, with a sick sensation clawing at his gut and a brain full of static that chewed at any thoughts he tried to form and buzzed in his ears. He sagged into Costas' embrace.

"Why the hell did you do it?" the detective asked. "Shit, I should've known - I should've pushed harder. It was why I damn well hauled your ass home with me in the first place. For fuck's sake! But you clammed up so fucking tight--"

"It's hardly your fault," Wesley mumbled. Costas felt comfortable and he buried his face in the rough fabric of the detective's coat and found he did not mind at that moment that it could badly use a wash. He rather suspected that he would be embarrassed later about the way, entrenched in his semi-conscious stupor, his fingers insisted on playing with Costas' collar despite his efforts to restrain them.

"It was my responsibility--"

"It was not!" He tensed within his friend's grasp, fingers abruptly clenching and ceasing their uncontrolled motions as the anger gripped him. "I don't need looking after. It's wholly my choice, if I choose to--"

"Kill yourself?" Angel's low, gravelled interruption came unexpected; he'd forgotten there was anyone else present. The vampire rode over Wesley's poised protest, leaving him with his mouth half-open. "Give up?"

"What the hell do you mean?" Costas snapped. He felt the detective's body tense. "He never gave in--"

The angle of Angel's head - that shadow that was presumably Angel's head - did not shift from Wesley. "Giving up on yourself - on any chance to make something of yourself - to have any kind of a life--"

Wesley stared at the patch of textured darkness that represented the vampire. Costas had fallen into silence.

"I've a little experience with that, too," Angel said.

"I didn't--"

"No. You didn't." Angel sighed and Wesley heard rather than saw him turn away.

"So how did the fight go? I missed--" Something occurred to him. "Ms. Lockley. She isn't--?"

"Kate's fine," Costas said. "Stomped off somewhere already, saying she had things to do." The rustle of a by-now-familiar shrug he could see in his mind's eye. "Demon's dead. Big bastard, too, and fierce - fiercer than the rest. It took all three of us to take it down. Good thing we all met up tonight, because I sure as hell couldn't have taken it down alone--"

There was a silence that stretched, interspersed only with the shuffles of Angel's feet, until Costas drew in an unsteady breath, Wesley felt the arms encasing him tighten briefly, and what felt like the bumpy profile of a face rested a moment against the top of his head. "Shit. Sorry. I'm sorry."

"Why?" Wesley laughed, the last of the anger draining out of him, leaving him with limbs full of liquefied bone and no inclination to do anything more than just quietly drift as he was, thought or movement meriting neither effort nor enthusiasm. "It's true."

"It might be true," the detective said after a pause. "But it's not fair. You've done more than that. We both know it. You must know it."

"Yes. I wrecked your car."

Costas swore. "You saved my life. And against Penn."

Wesley would be terribly happy if nobody would ever mention that name to him again, but he nodded against Costas' chest and let it by. It was true, after all, if not the whole truth.

"You've never failed in the crunch."

"You haven't known me very long."

"You've never failed me in the crunch."

In the background, Angel cleared his throat. "You guys want a lift out of here before the people Kate called arrive? I'd suggest now being a really good time to go."

"He's right." With some reluctance, Wesley groggily struggled to extricate himself. "Particularly considering we can hardly dispose of the demonic corpse, I'd suggest we not be here to be asked to provide the explanation."

Costas caught him and set him on his feet, fingers sliding along ribs as he let go. Wesley wavered but remained standing, aware of the proximity of the detective at his back, but still enough out of his senses to miss the more tactile support of human touch.

"I can't believe I'm agreeing with a vampire," Costas said to Angel with more than a little resentment. "But you're right. Let's go."

Chapter Text

When the Lexus pulled up outside Costas' house, Costas slammed the driver's door and came around to the passenger side to help Wesley out like an invalid.

"I'm all right now," he insisted rather irritably as he emerged, swaying but upright, onto the sidewalk, trying to obscure with his body the manner in which his fingers whitely clutched the edge of the doorway for support. He was not, in fact, all right, as he was quite prepared to admit to himself at least, but he had reached a state recovered enough to feel acutely embarrassed about the whole thing, the mellow sensation of being less than half conscious having dissipated to leave only wretched weakness in its wake.

Costas caught him as he relinquished his grasp on the car to slam the door and his legs almost failed.

"Sure," the detective said.

"I can stand." Costas' arms were around his waist, and he again felt the absence at his left side acutely as he tried to remove them. "I'm feeling better. I can walk. And if you don't mind, I'd like to try--"

The detective frowned at him, then eased his support away. Wesley took a step, stayed on his feet, and promptly marched off toward the house, swinging back the gate and getting so far as to rest a foot on the clean flagstones of the path across the tidy lawn, where he paused as it pierced his awareness that Costas was not with him, and that perhaps his agitation had caused him to move a little too enthusiastically. He leaned on the gate and watched the detective finish locking up the car. After a moment his senses cleared enough for him to resume progress to the house, where he waited for Costas in the shadow of the porch half-hidden by a straggly climbing rose. Costas arrived jangling keys, but the noise was muted, not the usual negligent swing to produce a careless cacophony. Muted too were his movements through the dark; muted and unsure, as though the rules had changed on him and he was left still trying to process and catch up.

Wesley asked, "What is it?"

"What's what?" Costas blinked at him, faintly guilty, yet his bafflement not entirely false.

Wesley sighed, said, "Nothing, I'm sure," and looked away into a distance that, in the darkness, was composed of precisely that - and Costas brushed past him, accidentally prodding him in the ribs with an elbow as he turned the key in the lock, vibrant and alive and whole as Wesley himself had not felt in a long time.

"Come on." Another, deliberate touch woke him from a stupor paused this time not by weakness but by thought.

"You saved me, really," he said, and only afterwards realised he'd said it aloud, faced by the other man's blank stare. "When you made me come here, to live with you... I shudder to imagine where I'd have ended up if you hadn't. In all seriousness, I very much imagine you saved my life, or as good as."

The detective turned away, one shoulder sloping a little in the barest fraction of a shrug, as though he was made uncomfortable by any frankness he hadn't had to exert his familiar bluster to extract. He shrugged off his coat and hung it on a peg; reached expectantly to take Wesley's.

"It's all right," he said, sliding it from his shoulder (the problem was more in making the garment stay on without an arm threaded through each sleeve). "You don't have to say anything. I know you--"

Costas swung around and snatched the coat in a move bordering on violent, so much so that Wesley almost thought he was going to hit him again, and was surprised into falling back against the door. He caught himself there, fisted hand driving against the wood.

"What brought this on?" Costas demanded, his voice a match for the body language. "You almost commit fucking suicide and suddenly you decide you're gonna act like a human being for like the first time ever?"

"I didn't-- I wasn't--"

Costas slung the coat at the hooks and stomped off through the kitchen, out into the hallway, oblivious of the coat immediately sliding off and dragging several of its fellows down with it. Wesley tentatively bent to pick them up, but bending invited back the dizziness and so he abandoned them and settled for merely checking the door was locked before he ventured after Costas.

In over two months living close-quarters with him, he was well acquainted with the man's anger. This... was subtly off-kilter from the norm, in a manner he couldn't even attempt to place, and it worried him because, on the whole, Costas could not be described as a man of subtleties.

He found him hunched in an armchair in front of the television in the living room, a ball game switched on low.

"Jack?" Hesitantly, he stepped closer. The lines of Costas' body were stretched tautly in such a way as to point his focus solely upon the flickering screen, but the set of his eyes, tracking none of the movement that occurred, gave the lie to his concentration. Wesley wearily crossed the room and switched the television off. He sank down on the edge of the armchair next to it. "I'm sorry. I..." He wasn't entirely sure what he'd done. Costas looked up at him as he faltered, and the ignorance must have been blatant from his face.

The detective's mouth twisted, but he only said, "Your vampire friend's losing it. He looks that strained now, what happens when he cracks? You think we're all in for a dose of that Gypsy curse you were telling me about?"

Wesley thought about Angel. "No. I shouldn't think so. And, well, Angel is, in a sense, the curse. Angelus appears only when the curse is broken... and you're changing the subject." Costas certainly knew by now there was nothing like misrepresenting the facts to earn himself a lengthy lecture and Wesley's distraction.

Costas looked up and for a moment there was something naked blazing in his eyes, then before Wesley could even try to discern its identity he watched it replaced by a gruff humour. "Yeah. I am."

He paused and grimaced. "And I'm fucking hungry. Let's order in some pizza."

***

Wesley was unable to shake feeling uncomfortably under surveillance as every so often Costas (presumably he thought surreptitiously) glanced up from his own meal to make a note of Wesley's progress. But, really, he was rather beyond caring. At least the detective seemed to have gotten over his earlier anger and tension, whatever had caused it, and sprawled now loose-limbed in his chair, legs extended with shoes removed to display thinning socks.

He was in shirt-sleeves, unfastened and shoved up past his elbows to show the bunch of muscles along his arms. The body beneath the jeans and the blue plaid was considerably trimmer than it had been only months ago. His jaw was solid with the strength Wesley would never have, though he reflected that he had not done a bad job, this time, in mustering it in another. He frowned and tried to turn his thoughts away, never liking to catch himself crediting Costas as a personal achievement.

He had changed since Sunnydale. For whatever it was worth.

It was in an equally loose sprawl that Wesley relaxed, his circulation humming through his limbs and tired eyes dragging shut every so often, threatening a deeper respite. He could not remember the last time he had just... stopped, outside of being forced to a collapse by exhaustion.

The monsters he had anticipated did not come, no demons of a differing and far more deadly ilk to those they hunted daily seizing his mind in the absence of distraction - no images of Penn, or of rabid, wounded-unto-death Kungai invading his thoughts that he could not put from them with but a little effort of will... and this, this was what he had been so afraid of, for so long...

Living.

It felt like he'd woken up - like he'd been fighting to breathe against a crushing weight for so long he'd grown accustomed to it as normality. Only without it could he finally recognise just how constricted he had been. He paused his eating a moment to pull air in, air out, in and out, enjoying the ease of the breaths.

Costas looked at him in disapproval.

"I'm eating," he said quickly, picking up the penultimate slice of the rather sizeable pizza that the detective had ordered him and seemed ready to force-feed him if he showed any intention of shirking even the smallest portion of it. He wondered vaguely if he could get away with picking off the last of the anchovies.

On the television, Cary Grant paraded the monochrome world of some old movie he knew he'd seen before yet couldn't recognise sufficiently to put title to. Costas seemed more distracted by it than engrossed, directing the screen an arch glance every so often, more involved in his own pizza and cans of weak beer - one empty, one just opened, and four sitting in waiting on the table next to his chair.

Wesley refrained still from alcohol on the grounds that he had drugs in his system many days that didn't react overly well with it, and he hardly needed to embark on establishing any habits that would become a curse when his arm went through a bad spell and left him temporarily reliant on the medication. He still got the distinct feeling that it was a caution of which Costas quite heavily disapproved.

When he turned his head even a little aside from the screen, he was aware out of the corner of his eye of the darkened edge of the room where his research desk languished, stacked high just now with, still, the mess of papers cleared off the floor and hastily dumped prior to their earlier departure on the final Haxil-hunting expedition. The corner looked hard and uninviting from this point of view, and in fact when he searched his memory this was almost the first instance he found of actually having viewed the room from an angle slumped easy in the embrace of one of the big, padded chairs. It gave a strange, disorienting slew to his perspective of these last months and, thinking about it, it struck him that it had been a kind of limbo, suspension in a barely feeling state of focus so narrow that the world today looked frankly enormous by comparison.

He set the remnant of his pizza aside and met Costas' consequent glare unflinching. "I am not force-feeding myself for the sake of assuaging your conscience - though Heaven knows why my appetite should be of any such great concern."

"I've taken your word far too often on whether you've eaten or slept. For Christ's sake, you collapsed in the middle of a battle. And you didn't have to see how freakin' awful you looked right after, either. Hell, the vampire looked more alive."

"Thank you so much," Wesley said dryly. He kicked his shoes off to draw his legs up; curled them under him in the chair, and looked frankly across at the detective. As weightless as he felt right then, the distinctly unhabitual posture seemed natural. "I still don't understand, though. You've seen me ten times worse - you saw me after I'd just lost a bloody limb, for goodness' sake."

Thinking, 'you saw me after Penn', and there really hadn't been anything else in his life to come close to comparing to that meltdown.

"This is different from before. Those things happened to a stranger." In an abrupt, harsh motion, Costas snapped to his feet. He cleared the room in a few strides and jabbed the button on the television, silencing it. "They didn't happen to my friend."

Wesley blinked, eyes stinging a little at the clarification. "Oh," he said, his voice so small as to be barely a voice at all. It seemed to him, after a long moment stricken beyond all speech while Costas paused and wavered on his feet, looking at a loss in the centre of the room, that he ought to say something in return. "I... thank you, Jack. It means a lot that you regard me as such."

Costas snorted, trying to assert some level of brusqueness on the emotional depths becoming exposed, but too obvious and insincere to convince. He spun, but instead of walking away he completed a full 360 degrees and ended precisely as he'd begun, something of anguish in his face.

Wesley was ill-used to seeing him looking so awkward.

"I meant what I said earlier," he added slowly.

"Yeah," said Costas, finally breaking his silence. Another hesitation, and he had the air about him of determinedly steering himself onto a subject not quite the one in his thoughts. "We've been friends. Pretty good friends, I guess - and I couldn't say that I've had all that many of those. Who'd have credited it, with how we started off? I guess you never can tell."

"I guess you can't."

Wesley remembered the frustrated helplessness of blinking up from a hospital bed at the blur of a tallish, solid-set man in a baggy coat too warm for the LA heat. Hard drawl of lazy noir in a voice he'd learned since was far more natural touched with humour and compassion than the harsh notes of suspect interrogation. The first stranger not associated with the hospital to witness his altered circumstances.

He didn't remembered Costas flinching and looking away from the absence of his shoulder that day, but then drugs could deaden a lot of sensation.

"I don't want you to die," the detective said eventually, standing still as he had been, his posture curiously rigid. "Even if you want to yourself. I can't believe you - you've got to have some reason to want to live."

"Jack. I've told you before, I don't want to die. I just got... caught up." He didn't want to discuss it.

"Fine." Costas turned on his heel, taking abrupt offence, marched back to the television and reached out to switch it back on.

"Whatever's the matter?" Before he knew what he was doing, Wesley was on his feet and grabbing the detective's hand before his fingers could connect. "Wait--"

And it was the angle he'd caught - his perfect, perfect aim, less than appreciated for once, as his fingers slipped in the gaps between Costas', intertwining their hands in a fashion that, whatever it started out as, finished up something entirely other. He felt the contact jolt up his arm, hissed in a breath at the shock of it.

"No." Costas pulled back from the contact as if it burned, eyes wide and appalled. "No. This isn't - I'm not gay. Not even a little bit. I never--"

"What?" Wesley; stressed, distraught, off-guard, and wondering how the hell... "Jack? I never - I would never - not if you're not--"

Costas was staring at him. "You're - you've--" The meaning of his hands' illustrative gesture was unmistakable.

"Slept with men?" He tried to level the humiliating squeak of his voice. "Y-yes. Albeit only one since my schooldays, and - and nothing you could precisely call a serious relationship. That is to say, not that I've... there've been women as well. A few women." That voice still screaming inside his head - how had he known?

"You're a switch-hitter."

Wesley was by then familiar enough with the less formal of Costas' vocabulary to just nod in response, yielding only the slightest of pauses to jog his memory.

"But you'd do me, right?" the detective's agitated state was given away by the faint waver in his voice. Anger in there too and, damn it, he'd known the man had hang-ups, had known there was a bloody good reason he hadn't told his friend everything about himself, held back even in their most frank discussions.

"Jack. You're my friend, and of course I've wondered... if it might not be possible that we could be more. If there might be a chance. It doesn't mean I'm not aware that there isn't. It doesn't mean I would ever act upon that, and if you didn't want to--" He shrugged his lopsided shrug, feeling his heart strain inside him at the revulsion in Costas' face. "I couldn't exactly take you by force, now, could I?"

He started to turn away. "Besides, it isn't as though I'm not quite well aware I'm nobody's prize even if they did happen to be possessed of the correct orientation. You think I don't know how few people would want this?" He flailed his one hand feebly in an encompassing gesture across himself, shoulders to midriff, as he completed his turn.

He all but dashed for the door, not quite sure where he was going after that, only aware of the strong need to be elsewhere.

Behind him, he heard Costas softly but vehemently curse. A hard grip landed on his shoulder and spun him around. Unexpectedly, he found himself drawn up close against a chest not quite hard as rock but on a potential route toward it. An arm slipped around his waist, crushing him in, bumps of fingertips and knuckles prodding the small of his back through the fabric of his shirt. More at the back of his neck pulled his head forward to meet the clumsy mouth that planted over his. The strength of the grip, powered by anxiety and desperation, held him trapped - otherwise shock and habit alone would have made him attempt escape, and he'd have cursed them for success.

He felt the whimper gather in the back of his throat when Costas didn't pull back from the initial rough contact and it dawned that he wasn't going to. Instinct scraped up enough of his scattered wits to return the kiss.

Costas grew gentler as it seemed to register that kissing a man wasn't notably different from kissing a woman, something he'd presumably had sufficient practise in before. His mouth caught the whimper and sucked it in, dragging Wesley's tongue - and breath - along with it. His hand traced from the back of Wesley's head forward to his jaw, a movement almost a caress.

Seconds later, he broke off and stepped sharply back. Wesley swayed, bereft, and caught himself by planting his hand on the back of an armchair.

"I feel like I'm standing in a hole." Costas waved his empty arms as though he didn't know what to do with them. "I'm not used to not having to stoop in order to... Hell, you're taller than I am. I'm gonna get a crick in my neck."

"Jack?" Wesley said uncertainly, beset by confusion and a terrible fear that they'd shattered what they had between them for the sake of a thing that could never work.

Costas released a shuddering breath and stepped closer with visible effort, still not quite touching. "It... wasn't repulsive," he said.

Wesley tried to look anywhere else.

Fingers reached out and touched his face. One set retreated instantly, his glasses with them as hostage. The others... traced their way down, lingering over the eyes he closed before trailing the dampness down from them over the ridges and valleys of his cheeks. Tapered off the end of his chin then retraced their path to brush his lips. He let his mouth fall open slightly, tasted salt on the alien skin before they withdrew.

"Wes." The voice sounded dry and hoarse, and not much like the Costas he was used to. Afraid, even, he would have said. "Shit. Wes, my relationships... they don't end well, you know? I'm not sure I ought to do this."

Wesley had no words to express his mire of feelings, but possibly it was just as well Costas spoke again to break the silence, before he could scrape some together.

"But I think I might want... to try."

"Oh." Wesley's gulp almost swallowed his tongue, which still tasted of Costas - at present largely pizza and the probably ever-present tang of nicotine that, in fact, he would be happy to endure becoming accustomed to. "Do you mean it? I mean, I really never thought that you were--"

Costas grimaced. "I suppose sometimes we don't find out these things about ourselves until they kick us in the teeth. Maybe I just didn't want to admit it. Maybe I just didn't know how to see it... Look, I could be wrong. I don't know what I'm feeling right now - I don't think I'd even know a coherent thought if it bit me on the ass. When I saw you hurting, I wanted to - to do something to stop it. I don't know. It didn't feel any different to kissing Irene... well, not in a... you know what I mean." A brief hesitation that encompassed nonetheless a fair few of Wesley's rapid heartbeats. "I loved Irene."

"Oh."

"You don't usually have this much trouble finding something to say."

"I just--" He stopped, and determinedly took the forward step that the detective held back from. This time, it would be he who initiated the kiss. He grasped Costas' neck, curling his fingers against warm skin dusted with soft brown hairs, and leaned forward to snare his mouth, aware of the hum of his body on the verge of response; aware that very likely it was going to have to hold that thought for the time being at least, until they could work past Costas' hang-ups - little expecting the hand that reached down between them as their lips closed again.

He could not hold back the groan that escaped him at being touched by someone else. Wanting to reciprocate, he battled a stab of frustration and grief that one arm was not really enough, and this wasn't a disadvantage of his situation he'd had much call to previously expend much thought on...

"Long time?" Costas barely paused, his voice muffled, lips stretching and twisting into a grin that Wesley felt against his own.

"You could say that."

The shrill ring of the telephone caused them both to let go their hold and leap guiltily apart.

"Shit!" Costas spat.

"Don't--"

The detective had already leaned across and lifted the receiver. "What?" he said into it sharply, pulling uncomfortably at his pants with his free hand. His expression darkened. "Why the hell are you--?"

Wesley watched the contortions of his face as the fellow on the other end replied, changing from irritation to concern and resignation.

"All right," he said finally. "All right. I'll come. Right now. Yes."

He set the phone down more softly than was merited, stared at it in its cradle a moment, leaning heavily against the table it rested upon, eyes closed, and swore softly.

"What is it?" Wesley asked.

"Your vampire buddy's in one hell of a panic." Eyes opened, conflicted. "It's Kate. She's missing. And by the sounds of things, up to her eyeballs in some serious shit. He thinks she's gone and done something stupid. I'm kinda thinking to agree."

He fumbled in his pocket and produced Wesley's glasses, which he almost dropped handing them back to him.

He didn't look at Wesley as he turned and headed out into the hallway. Car keys jangled a moment later... the sound of the door clicking open... and it seemed there was to be no debate on this, after all.

Wesley unfolded his glasses with his teeth and shoved them back onto his face before following.

***

"I still don't think you should have come," Costas insisted, with short temper. "Shit, a few hours ago you collapsed on your feet. You still look like - well, like a slightly more minor circle of hell, I guess, but you still look like hell."

"I'm fine," Wesley said distractedly. "I can always stay in the car." He pressed buttons on Costas' cellphone and cursed when they again failed to achieve result. "This isn't the right number."

"What? Of course it is." The detective leaned over to watch Wesley key it in a third time. "No, no, no - that's a three, not a five," he said irritably, snatching the phone and near giving Wesley heart failure by taking his hands from the wheel to punch in the edited version. He tossed it back ringing.

Wesley glared at the piece of scruffy paper - the back of a petrol receipt - the number was written on. "That's not a three. It doesn't look anything like a three." A tinny sound emerged from the cell and he raised it to his ear. "I'm terribly sorry?"

The rather unsure voice that responded on the other end of the connection was thankfully familiar. "Angel. Yes, it's Wesley. Where are you now?"

Angel related his position - San Vincente, about a mile of labyrinthine traffic system from their own - and Wesley responded, "No, nothing yet," to his inevitable query, the brief exchange extended considerably by tedious static and a quantity of raised-voiced repetitions as the Scourge of Europe struggled to come to grips with the intricacies of mobile telephone technology.

In the background he was aware Costas was talking to the station again via the police radio, checking for any sightings of Lockley's car.

"What on Earth possessed Detective Lockley to go gallivanting around after demonic crooks on her own anyway?" Wesley asked with irritation. He ached, with tiredness and frustration both, and wanted nothing more than to go home and crawl into bed, preferably with company for the first time in close to two years.

"It's not like - she was acting strange earlier. I thought something was wrong, did some checking up, and it's... this thing with her father..."

He listened with dawning understanding to Angel's stumbling explanation of just what he'd discovered Trevor Lockley was caught up in. Wesley had heard enough about Lockley's troubled relationship with her father from Costas, and could certainly sympathise with her for being less than rational where the fellow was concerned. "Yes, I see," he said, dry-mouthed, recalling the certain kinship he had felt with Lockley that day they went to face Penn, himself too confident, too proud, so determined he would not fail. A feeling it was almost funny to remember the essence of, now. "Well, we shall certainly endeavour to help as best we can. I understand that you had no choice but to call on Jack, with his police resources - no, Angel, it's perfectly all right. Yes. I'll call back if we find anything."

He switched off the cell. Costas was still talking into the police radio. He wound up and put the speaker down with a "damn it" as Wesley watched.

"Nothing?"

"Not yet." Costas slammed a hand into the dashboard. "Stupid bitch - why the hell did she have to choose now, of all times-?"

Wesley quite shared the sentiment. Indeed, he would have preferred to keep Costas far removed from any thought of Kate Lockley for the near future and, given the confusion now evident in the detective's eyes every time he looked at Wesley, would have been right in his caution. But in the name of fair play he felt compelled to repeat the details Angel had related to him.

"Her old man's a bastard," Costas said explosively when he'd finished. He gave Wesley a sideways glance, and looked as though he might be about to say something, but didn't. He relented a while later with a sigh and the admission, "I'd never have thought he was crooked, though."

Wesley heartily wished that Costas had never picked up that damned telephone.

Los Angeles sped by them, a blur of lights and noise even so late into the night. It was evidently the hour many of the clubs and bars turfed out their clientele, resulting in the presence of a number of people around, hailing taxis, making the sidewalks untidy and the driving precarious, LA's night-life packing up to go home and sleep. The rhythm of the engine and the blur of lights threatened to lull him to doze, and he shook himself back to wakefulness.

The radio crackled and Costas picked up again. A long static-filled burst of noise ensued that the detective somehow managed to discern words hidden within. At least, his lips compressed with a grimness that implied understanding. "Right. That's it. I'll check it out." He slammed the set back into place, grabbed the wheel hard in both hands and spun the car around with a blatant disregard for road safety, turning fully in the centre of the road like the officers in Hollywood action movies. He stomped hard on the gas and sped them back the way they'd come, but took an unfamiliar turn to the right a short way down.

"She's been spotted?"

"Her car has. Parked up right outside an auto business downtown - Kel's Exotic Auto. Somehow, I'm thinking that's a front."

Wesley thought it over as he fumbled with the cellphone; paused with Angel's number already keyed and ringing, cell raised halfway to his lips. "Oh, dear. But then that means--"

"That she's already gone in without backup. On the button, Einstein." Costas kicked violently at the pedal as Angel's voice buzzed minutely, for the time being ignored, out of the cellphone. "Won't this fucking hulk of junk go any damn faster?"

***

Angel pulled up outside the parts shop only seconds after they themselves had, skidding the car to a halt with a screech that must surely have alerted any villains inside that something was afoot. Wesley compounded this by slamming the car door after him in his nervousness, but Costas seemed too distracted even to notice he wasn't abiding by his half-promise to remain in the vehicle. Angel, vaulting from the convertible to join them, cast him a glance that seemed on the verge of comment, but didn't actually ask if he was all right.

Which, admittedly, suited Wesley fine. He was sick to death of being handled with kid gloves, and there were more important things at issue here.

Kel's Exotic Auto was housed in a large building of corrugated grey with the all architectural flare of a shoe box. A handful of steps led up to a side door into the office.

"We need to check out the security. This drugs ring - it's a large-scale operation. There could be guards. Even electronic security. I suppose not all demons can be so hopelessly outdated as those we normally encounter--"

Angel walked straight on past him to the door, a muttered "Screw that" hanging in the air in his wake. Costas took a moment to raise his brows at Wesley before he grabbed an axe from under the front seat of the Lexus and followed.

With a sigh, Wesley trailed behind them.

But inside, the parts shop was quiet. Quiet in every ominous sense of the cliche. Eerily, chillingly too-quiet. They had entered close to a small office station, a paper-strewn desk with a moderate expanse of clear space around it. The further parts of the interior comprised dingy shadows containing a scattering of parked cars. The room was lit by bluish fluorescent lights - light enough to see, when he looked down as he felt the crunch underfoot, that he was walking through a patch of thick, grey-black dust.

Light enough to see other patches, when he looked around. To see, also, the huddled still form of a body slumped on the chill concrete of the floor, and the other crouched over it almost as unmoving, but announced alive by virtue of its balanced posture no corpse could have maintained.

"Get away from her." Angel was already lunging forward to snatch at the shoulder of the crouched figure, evidently able to discern a few seconds prior to Wesley in the darkness the fall of blonde hair identifying the recumbent figure as Kate Lockley, the thick-set body and harshly cut, thinning near-white hair that marked the other a stranger.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" The crouching man slapped Angel's hand away, and Angel flinched and backed off, recognition in his reaction. The stranger was brisk, his voice a rasp, something desolate underlying.

Costas beat Wesley to Detective Lockley's side, his shaking hands reaching to feel her neck for a pulse. They yanked away again before even connecting, Costas falling back with a choked sound.

Wesley could see why. Nothing human with its head at such an angle could be living.

"Mr. Lockley." Angel started. Detective Lockley's father, Wesley thought, feeling light-headed again. "I..."

"I found her like this. Came here to meet the guys..." Mr. Lockley took in Angel's reaction and grunted. "Huh. I figured you knew. She must have found out I was involved in something. She said she wanted to talk to me. Meet up... somewhere else. She never came. It was - it must have been - a decoy. She came here to shut them down... she was protecting me. When I got here everyone was already gone. Nothing left. Just... a corpse. A corpse and a whole fucking lot of goddamned dust.

"She's dead."

Angel, who could hear a human heartbeat at a hundred paces, had assuredly already known this... but it was as though nothing yet had made it real to him. Wesley fought sickness and touched his fingers to Costas' rigid shoulder, ran them down it hoping to ease that stricken, horrified posture, that tight-wound tension.

Costas shook him off like an irritation.

"She's dead," Wesley confirmed, because it seemed that nobody else was going to.

"Oh, God." Angel backed away until his shoulders hit the wall and he seemed for a moment to try to back impossibly further, to sink into the brickwork itself. His legs gave beneath him and he slumped down, knees drawing up, arms gripping tight around them. He was mumbling things that Wesley could not quite hear.

"This is your fault," Costas said harshly, catching the back of the kneeling old man's jacket and dragging him up and around so they were brought face-to-face. "She came here because of you. Something you were mixed up in."

"You think I don't know that?" Mr. Lockley broke the grip and shoved the younger man away. A solidly built old man, not frail, his retirement of course only recent.

"You got her killed."

Mr. Lockley's eyes flared with anger. "It was all for her. All of it... everything I did. All so that she could have a future." His eyes returned to, then his head turned sharply from, the body on the ground. "All for nothing. You think I wanted this to happen?"

"You bastard." Costas seemed beyond mere fury and Wesley could not recall seeing him so frighteningly angry before. "You couldn't have shown her a scrap of affection instead, just once in all those years? I saw you together often enough; the way she'd look to you for your approval, the way you never gave it. I remember what happened at your damn retirement party."

"You're talking nonsense." Mr. Lockley's voice was flat, only very briefly uncertain, and angry enough to make Wesley fear he was about to see a fist fight. Then the moment passed and the old man stood there with bunched fists just a few moments further before he turned and knelt back down at the side of his daughter's corpse.

Wesley watched him take her limp hand in his own. "Katie knew how I felt about her. She knew that. She was all I had." His voice was so rough the words were almost impossible to pick out from the gravel. "Now go away and leave us alone." His expression was devoid. His fingers stroked minimally the dead hand. No tears, no breakdown, no outpouring of grief... but Wesley did not think he had ever witnessed anything quite so wrenching.

"Fine," Costas snapped. He turned on his heel and was already at the door before he stopped and glared back at Wesley. "Are you coming?"

"What? Coming where?"

"To put a stop to the people who did this."

"Oh, don't be rid--" Wesley choked on the absurdity of it, but forced himself to take stock. He breathed. "You're not rational. Your friend just died, I understand that, but we can't just go dashing off blind. For a start, we haven't even the first idea where to look!"

"We don't."

Wesley followed his hard gaze and grimaced. "Jack, no. The man's just lost his only family. We're not going to--"

"No." It surprised everyone when Mr. Lockley spoke up. "You don't have to bring out the thumbscrews. You want to get the people that did this? Be my guest." He reached inside his jacket and after some fumbling, produced a small rectangular object he threw to Costas with angry force. "That's everything I know. I didn't trust these people. I took notes. Vehicle registrations, places they mentioned, dates and times... anything else I overheard. Habit of being a cop thirty years."

"Right." Costas' eyes blazed and he snapped the notebook shut after a quick flick through. "Wesley?"

He stood, wavering in his indecision. "I... Jack, I really feel this isn't the time. Angel... Mr Lockley... Revenge can wait. They can't use this place again, their operation's shut down, possibly enough of their number died to break it up permanently..." There are too many shattered people in here, and I'm beginning to suspect you're one of them. "We need to pick up the pieces here before we--"

"Fine," Costas said again, angrily, and then he was out of the door.

"Jack!" With a last guilty glance to Angel and Lockley Senior, Wesley ran in pursuit. "Please, let's not do anything rash!"

He burst out of the parts shop in time to see the Lexus pull away and speed off down the block in a screech of tyres. Ran after it, shouting, until it was out of sight and his knees were shaking, and it registered Costas was too locked upon revenge against Lockley's killers right now to come back for him even if he'd noticed.

"Oh, God." He leant over in the road, trying to catch his breath, right hand on right knee, a little unbalanced for it. Costas had abandoned him. That had never happened before, he thought, his sick feeling intensifying, churning inside. How had it been that he'd never realised how reliant he was on the detective?

He snapped back to the reality of the situation sharply, There were two broken men waiting who somehow needed to be dealt with. He was the only one there to do so.

When he ventured back inside, neither occupant registered the long, loud creak of the opening door.

Angel was still huddled in his corner, guilty confessions of murders over a century old and grief for friends and victims much longer dead and gone than poor Ms. Lockley spouting from his muffled lips. Wesley had learned of how, after the curse, Angelus had spent a century wandering all but insane. It had been Buffy who ended those years... his connection to the world, his forbidden love, and Wesley blinked his eyes closed upon the sight of the dead blonde woman. Had they been in love too, or had their connection been one more platonic? And what of Doyle, the friend whose demise had broken Angel before, not so very long ago?

Instinct told him that Angel hadn't been right for a long, long time. Buffy... Doyle... Kate... his stability always had been a thing imposed from without.

He remembered how the vampire hadn't wanted him, and went cold again inside. When he knelt in front of Angel, the shake he delivered his shoulder was harder, less understanding, than he'd intended. "Angel! Snap out of it, damn you."

"Damned... yes. Blood. Death. So much death... I killed them all. Damned..." He raised his head from his mumbling in a brief clarity. "Everything I touch dies."

Then the madness had returned and Angel flinched back, pressing himself against the wall, a high keening whimper at the back of his throat. "Don't touch me, Wesley... please... don't touch me!"

"Bloody hell." Wesley straightened too fast and nearly passed out. He'd almost forgotten his own fragility - cursed it as he forced the black from the edges of his vision and crossed from Angel's side to Mr. Lockley's.

He skirted around Kate Lockley's body, trying not to look at the angle of her neck. He'd seen messier corpses, but none of them that he'd shared significant conversation with at any time before they became such. He knelt to set his face on a level with that of her father, and met the man's eyes across her body.

"Who the hell are you, anyway?" The manner he asked suggested he didn't much care.

"No-one important." He was careful not to touch the body, noting Mr. Lockley's wary possessiveness. "I work with Jack Costas... after a fashion."

"Oh." Uninterested, the man turned his eyes back down, showed Wesley the crown of his balding head.

"Mr Lockley..."

"I want to stay with her." He didn't look up, and Wesley could see there wasn't much to be achieved.

"Of course. I'll... call the police. There'll be people here soon, to take care of things. But in the meantime... you should have a little while. We'll go, and leave you in peace." He stood and retreated quietly.

His own cellphone was back in the house, and Costas' on the dashboard of the Lexus. Angel's was in the vampire's coat, and he had to fight off flailing hands accompanied by a frenzy of pleas that he not touch. A lucid Angel could have snatched his wrist and effortlessly held him helpless. As things were, he retrieved the cellphone with only a minor bruise or two.

He made the call to the police, tried and failed to reach Costas, who wasn't answering, and dumped Angel's cell in his own pocket for the time being, little wanting to repeat the performance he'd just been through in order to return it.

Wesley looked down at Angel. "We have to get out of here. The police are on their way... Bloody hell, I'm talking to myself, aren't I?"

How the hell he was going to move significantly more than his own body weight of vampire currently engaged in a minor psychotic episode was a conundrum indeed. He swore, reached down and grabbed Angel by the collar half-expecting to be thrown fully across the room, and pulled with all his strength. "You have to come with me, Angel. I've called the police. If you stay here you'll be arrested... with a distinct possibility of being dumped in a cell with a grand view of the sunrise... no, never mind that. You're already touching me! You can't do any more harm now. Come on and move, damn you!"

To his utter astonishment, the vampire shambled to his feet.

Wesley, hardly accustomed to having any order he gave obeyed, wasted a moment gawping before he hustled Angel outside and into the back of the convertible. More time was wasted encouraging him to hand over the keys, and in the shaking of Wesley's fingers trying to turn them in the ignition, causing them two false starts before the engine stirred into life. By the time he'd pulled out and made the end of the next street, he could hear the approach of sirens.

He eased the car slowly through the sparse traffic to Angel's building, constantly having to clumsily twist across himself to operate the convertible, concentration not helped by Angel's mumbling in back.

Pulling up in one piece outside the old offices, he cut the engine and took out the cellphone to try Costas again. A tinny female voice informed him the number was unreachable at present and he should call again later, and thankyou and goodbye. He lowered the cell to his lap, switching it off with his thumb, and stared at it, feeling very afraid and alone.

He only registered Angel's more lucid silence when the vampire finally broke it, his words shaky but at least coherent. "You can keep the phone. Take it with you. I won't need it anymore."

"You only carried it because of her," Wesley said quietly. He didn't turn around. He sagged back in his seat and stared at the absence in the rear view mirror. "Angel, I'm sorry. I would have... we would have saved her if only we could. You know that."

"Yeah. Yeah, I know. That's... what you do. And I'm sorry, too. About the interruption."

"What?" Confused, Wesley did turn, and froze with his hand rested on the back of the seat and Angel's eyes unnervingly close to his own when he remembered the acuity of vampire senses and realised exactly what Angel of course referred to. "I--" He shook his head and turned away, let go an embarrassed cough of laughter. "It doesn't matter. It wasn't even real. He's left me to chase after a dead woman." A high-pitched giggle on the verge of hysteria burrowed out under his defences, and he clamped his jaw down and resolutely pulled himself together. He would not inflict his own insecurities on a man - a being - whose sanity was hanging by a thread.

"I'm sorry," Angel said again.

A breath. "That's quite all right. Please... it's just as well we were there. You need to go now, though. I have to find Jack. I..." He realised that it was, in fact, Angel's car. But - he bit down on his lip, clenched his teeth hard enough to meet through the soft tissue; tasted copper. Forced his voice harsher through the small pain. "I'll return the car. Unharmed, I promise you."

He must have sounded convincing, for the objection he'd expected was not forthcoming. He briefly disembarked to help Angel out, disliking the feel of cold dead skin as the vampire clasped his hand.

"You'll be all right?" Wesley was unsure why he cared, enquiring with a compassion he suspected more habitual than heartfelt. "You can make it back inside alone?"

"Yeah." Angel's gaze held a dark cloud of gloom the size of a small country. "I can do that." Some element there, too, of bitter sarcasm; of considering himself patronised. Given their history, Wesley patently refused to feel any guilt for it, and regarded it as, at least, a sign the vampire was recovering his faculties.

He didn't linger for long beyond watching Angel reach the double doors across the street and vanish inside.

He had a friend to find, and a whole city to search.

***

As little as four hours ago he had briefly possessed far more hopes for the night than one-handed driving through the streets of LA in a convertible that had earned him no less than half a dozen solicitations when he halted at lights and intersections (only one of which had been swiftly rescinded as the solicitee noticed he was missing an arm, and two had seemed positively enthused by the novelty). The hour was so late now that most of the drunks had long gone home or bedded down and the world was slowly coasting around again toward a dawn he fancied he could almost pick out on the horizon.

It made no sense that he shouldn't have heard from him by now unless something had happened...

Some time earlier he had pulled over on one of the less-ominous stretches of road and had expended an undue amount of time and effort navigating the LAPD's switchboard system to track down Mark Roman, the one close police friend of Costas' whose full name he could remember. By good fortune the fellow was still on duty and recognised Wesley's name in return, lauding him with rather short informality as "that crip friend of Jack's".

When Wesley explained about Costas, all trace of flippancy disappeared. They knew already about Lockley, obviously, the death of one of their own reverberating around the ranks with the expected thunder and outrage, but her father had apparently not mentioned that himself, Costas and Angel had been there, let alone that Costas had set out after those responsible for her death.

Wesley had only told him that he and Costas had found Mr. Lockley with Kate's body, and that Costas had exited in vigilante fashion, and that he had gone after Costas. His differences with Angel aside, he did not want the souled vampire to end up arrested and disintegrating to dust in a cell or being prodded by curious scientists should his non-human status be discovered.

The call had unearthed the information that Costas had checked in over two hours ago to run a license plate and, having received that information, had not checked back since. Roman would not give Wesley the information Costas had received.

Roman had not called back yet, which presumably meant nothing had been found to report yet, although it could equally well mean that he didn't see any earthly reason why Wesley should be informed about LAPD business. At least he had the reassurance of knowing that others with better resources at their fingertips were also searching. Still, in the back of his mind was a nibbling doubt that all he'd done was panic in a fashion that would inevitably land Costas in trouble later.

He shivered in the night air as he guided the convertible around another corner. He had not put the top up because, aside from being entirely disinclined to struggle with it one-handed, it would impair his current three-hundred-and-sixty degree uninterrupted field of vision.

Not that he wasn't in fact aware of how supremely small his chances were of just stumbling across Costas like this. He had no leads, no trail, not even a vague clue which area he should concentrate his efforts in. Just this fruitless searching.

At least the chill of the passage of air over his body, blowing his ill-trimmed hair inconveniently into his eyes, kept him awake.

Wesley had lost count of the times he'd pulled over to ring Costas. Costas' cellphone remained unreachable, and the answer-phone caught his calls to the house, playing Jack's voice back at him on audio tape, tying his stomach in clenched knots with the familiar tones.

He should have heard by now... he should have heard...

Eventually, with the litany running through his brain and one hand on the wheel, even the chill of the breeze washing over him proved ineffective to combat the drag of exhaustion. Clumsiness and half-shut eyelids almost landed him straight through the window of a shop when alertness failed him at an intersection. At the last moment, rocked by the jerk of the car bumping up onto the sidewalk and veering alarmingly over to its right side, he wrenched at the wheel and barely managed to save himself from collision.

After that... there was no real choice but to return home. Probably he had just as much chance of finding Costas while idling at home as he did wandering a city with a population over three million, and it was time to admit it. This search was about nothing more than assuaging his own restless nerves. Possibly Costas was even already back there while he panicked ridiculously, and sleeping in bed.

There was no sign of the Lexus outside the house and Wesley slowly drew Angel's convertible into the parking spot it usually occupied. The street was dark, no windows lit, Costas' house no exception. The dawn was a thick strip of faintly pinkish yellow.

Inside, the house was silent. He walked from room to room switching on lights. Exhaustion fostered in him a peculiar paranoia that had him checking every room in case Costas should be sitting there, in the dark. Quite obviously, he was not.

Wesley tried ringing the cellphone one last time before he staggered upstairs and, hating a dead woman, shed his glasses and shoes and crawled full-dressed into Costas' bed.

The phone call woke him at 7.36 am.

Chapter Text

//"It's a dangerous business, of course," Costas says, absently chewing and muffling his words, a half-eaten apple held loosely in one hand. "Liable to get you killed any day you go out carrying that badge."

He's sitting cross-legged on grass a green so bright it could be reasonably described as 'lurid'. The early afternoon sun catching in his hair sets mud-brown dancing with colours Wesley never even suspected hidden there. A light breeze tousles the hair and takes a decade of years off the man.

"And that would be without the extracurricular pursuit of all things demonic," Wesley muses, trying to angle his head in such a fashion as to shield his eyes from the sun as he jots a theory down; a pen is in his fingers and paper in front of him. Well, when was that ever not the case?

"Hell, I'm surprised every time we come back from that alive."

Costas chomps down on the apple again, and the messy bite sprays juice so wide it reaches the edge of the faded old plaid blanket Wesley is sprawled upon, creating little spots where the red and blue darken almost to black.

Wesley sets down his pen and shifts awkwardly a body made ill-equipped for leverage while lying down, worming around until he can reach the papers nearest that edge and remove them from danger. He resumes his previous position. Notes Costas rolling his eyes.

He feels concentration pull his forehead into creases as he contemplates the detective.

"Perhaps we shouldn't. Go out, that is."

"Yeah. Perhaps we shouldn't. After all, only crazy people would do this gig." He finishes with his eyes pointedly on Wesley.

Who blinks and stutters, and raises his hand to shield his face and pretends it to be from the sun. Pretends it is the weight on his chest from depriving his sprawled position of an elbow's leverage that constricts his words. "I swore once... I told you... I swore to dedicate my life to these pursuits."

"And so did I, you know." Costas says. Wryly, he tosses an easy shrug to the world. Two-shouldered, open-armed, no grounding wrench of pain as scar tissue stretches and protests to drag him back. "After a fashion."

Beyond the fence, two children run laughing down the street in pursuit of a third, also laughing, shrieks of high mirth amid a litany of "Can't catch me!" Wesley watches them go, thinking on the inanity of sitting in a tidy yard on a bright afternoon debating life and death and the Good Fight with the world obliviously at play around them. Costas' battered cords and an astonishingly dire bright shirt, his own cheap grey suit pants and button-up-collar T-shirt not precisely the mail of champions.

He pushes his glasses more firmly on his nose, squints through them at the near-albino disc of the sun in the blue, blue sky.

"But what if we just - stopped?"

"You're not getting cold feet over one failure?"

"Far more than one, Jack."

Costas finishes the apple, a stolid meeting of his teeth through its flesh. He swings his arm back and hurls the core into the bushes, to rot under cover of their spread. Leaves scatter and branches reverberate slowly back into stillness, and Costas delivers more dialogue he's heard before. "You know I couldn't do this without you."

"You're wrong. It's I who couldn't--" Wesley begins.

"In any case," Costas states, "What the hell are you wasting time moping over this for? Goddamn it. Don't you know we could die tomorrow?"//

***

The kitchen was stripped to a skeleton, white and cold, blank walls and clean tiles. Wesley's chair and the table at which he sat marked the only remaining furnishing apart from the fittings.

There used to be a clock on the wall, just there, just so, a simple white face with black hands and numbers, not numerals, and the absence of its ticking was conspicuous, adding to the void. Next to it, that space was a glossy calendar, twelve months of the year according to Formula One, defaced with a myriad of pencil scrawlings in two distinct hands. There were postcards and photographs on the cupboard doors, there - Costas with Irene, Costas' family, distant cousins and their offspring; cards from Spain and Crete and Paris. He missed what had been of this room, the things that had filled it when somebody lived here

At times, the silence was oppressive, but occasionally faint voices drifted down to him, and more often than that the odd thuds and noises of feet and movement. Their acoustics echoed around the walls of the near-empty house.

The chair was hard and dug into his back and buttocks, grating against his bones as though his skin had stretched to the thinnest of membranes and the slightest pressure crushed and mangled unprotected nerves barely below the surface. His shoulder added to the tight cacophony - it had been aching with a vicious, wrenching intensity for the past two days.

As he shifted again in his seat, he heard the sound of movement intensify from above. It carried across the ceiling and metamorphosed into a repeated, irregular thudding descending the stairs.

The noises crystallized into two over-muscled gentlemen in stained T-shirts carrying with them an unwieldy large wardrobe and a rather grievous odour. For politeness' sake, he tried not to wince when they passed. Although the glances they gave back did not pay him the same courtesy in return.

Irene ghosted into the kitchen in an echo of their path as they vanished through the door.

Wesley had been there several hours now, sitting numbly the a debris of an existence. Little pieces of a life, torn down and moved out, Irene setting about the operation as though it were of military import, commanding the two men who cast odd sideways glances at Wesley or notably avoided looking at him at all.

Irene had boxes stacked in her arms like a skinny packhorse, and wore an expression appropriately mulish, a pattern not dissimilar to previous form. She had walked through the kitchen any number of times already, but this time she did not carry on past when she saw Wesley still there. Instead, she paused and set her load down on the table. It came within a hair of a heavy landing on Wesley's loosely curled fingers.

She said decisively, "You can't stay here. You know that."

Wesley knew that. He'd known it even before he'd spent the morning watching as people shifted out what remained of the life that had never, in the end, been his at all.

He just stared back at her. She responded again before he could dredge up any words. "I am not going to let you make me keep this house."

Wesley blinked. "Of course not," he said, surprise breaking the lock on his jaw.

"I've wanted to get rid of this place for years. Jack never would. But I... I didn't want the memories."

And no, Irene did not keep memories. She had spent the last few days throwing them out, methodically erasing the paraphernalia of Costas' life. Irene was no sentimentalist. Wesley had claimed the swords, a few other weapons that were of use to a one-handed fighter, though he wondered vaguely why he bothered at all. He had received thin looks for claiming as little as that. He did not dare speak up for the sake of sentiment alone.

"I wouldn't think to complain," Wesley stuttered quickly. "You've been more than generous, allowing me to remain here these last two days while everything went through the legalities. I couldn't expect more."

"Perhaps. But you were Jack's friend, and he didn't have many. I know... I know that he wanted very much to help you. To get you out of that awful apartment. I'm sorry that I can't continue to do so. That..." She flapped a hand helplessly.

"You don't know me," Wesley filled in. "Really. It doesn't matter. I'll find - something." And he trembled inside at the thought of what.

"I have a life of my own. I can't be looking after my ex husband's strays just because he was stupid enough to get himself killed by some vampire cult gang." There was a tremble in her voice, a shudder that at one point almost stressed it to breaking. Then she looked away, and when her gaze returned her composure had returned with it. "I'm sorry. That's a dreadful thing to say. I know really nothing about you. Please, forgive me."

Wesley said, "It doesn't matter."

"And please don't pretend I'm not turning you out onto the streets."

Wesley snapped his teeth shut and regarded her warily as he said nothing at all.

"Of course." And the icy, efficient woman... stumbled over her words. "I could have left it until next week. The week after. Longer. But... I'd still have it to do, and I couldn't stand..." She got a grip over herself finally. "Besides, it wouldn't help, would it? We both know you have nowhere to go, period. It would be for both of us only a putting-off of the inevitable."

"I do understand," Wesley said into the brief pause. "He's not coming back. And you need to move on."

Her hands were like those of a statue, stone at her sides. "Yes. We do need to move on. I don't know anything about your problems - Jack could be a tight-lipped, stubborn bastard when he wanted, and for some reason he wanted about you. I don't know what that means. I don't know for sure what your relationship with him was. Whatever it was, though, you know that relying on Jack wasn't an answer to your problems. He just provided a stay from having to find an answer. Maybe he would have done that forever; it still doesn't make it an answer." Her voice was shaking by the time she finished, and her posture was no longer controlled and still.

Wesley clumsily stood up, scraping his chair back across the floor. The wood of its legs screeched on the linoleum. He caught Irene's arm and awkwardly guided her toward the chair. "Please--"

"No." He felt her retreat, the stringy muscles of the limb beneath his grip tightening in strain, before she gave in, relaxing into the chair with a soft sigh. Her hands rose, fingers crooked and clawed to cover her face from his view. Her elbows planted on the table as her head bowed forward. A barely perceptible convulsion rocked her shoulders.

"Irene." Expelling the name hurt his throat. The tenderness came out harsh.

She wasn't listening anyway. Her shoulders shook again, more violently. An undignified half-squeak half-sob whistled from behind her hands, despite her reserve and the iron grip of control he could tell she was trying to reassert. "Please, Irene--"

He ventured his hand again, to rest it on her shoulder in an attempt at comfort, but she stiffened under his touch. "Don't."

She caught his hand, though, as he tried to withdraw it, her head jerking up. Her fingers brushed through the gaps between his, her skin smooth and dry and chalky with thin dust from the removals. She explored his hands, feeling the calluses from holding a pen. "You don't have the hands--" a brief pause, then a dismissal of all etiquette "--of a vagrant."

"Well." Wesley swallowed, feeling insecure and annoyed. "No." He wrenched his fingers free, repulsed. It wasn't that it had never occurred to him to contemplate how Irene and others of Costas' acquaintance really saw him, but he had never experienced it so blatantly demonstrated.

Irene turned her eyes down to where her hands had retreated to curl softly on the table.

"We were nineteen," she said then, startling him, serious and determined and unexpectedly collected. "And neither of us knew a damned thing. He didn't smoke then, or drink, or at least those times when he did it didn't matter because I did too. The police training... he was passionate about the job, but at the start it wasn't like it later became. We knew how much it would shape our lives. We thought we had enough... enough love, enough energy... to stay together."

She looked up slowly.

"Irene." Wesley found himself unconsciously backing off, another step further from the table. "You don't need to tell me these things. Really you don't."

"Don't tell me to shut up."

"I--" The croak stuck in his throat.

"Were you ever married?" She asked it like an accusation, changing focus with a speed that left him dizzied. "Is there a Mrs. Wyndham-Pryce left out there somewhere? Children?"

"N-no. Irene... Ms. Danner... I don't see what purpose this could possibly serve."

"It serves--" She stopped. Another turnaround. She looked away again, but this time she didn't try to hide her face as the half-coughed sob broke through. "I knew him since we were children." There was confusion in her face, a puzzlement, as though the bereavement had until now been only a vague abstract that hadn't completely registered. As though she was only now face-to-face with the idea of a world without Costas in it. "Can you believe that? We used to play together when we were five, rolling in the mud and feeding scraps to the caged birds in my aunt's back yard. I can barely remember now, that was so long ago... but... I knew him even then..."

***

//Wesley rolls onto his side under constricting sheets that entangle his body, tricky and clutching like a straight-jacket, for a one-armed man. The soft prison shifts against his skin, against uncovered scar tissue and pale, unmarked flesh alike, teasing nerve endings that already feel alive with a giddy, static buzz. The movement brings him up against the warm bulk of the body sharing the bed with him, tight slab of muscle carrying a discernable hint of flab. Wesley nuzzles his face into the solid arch of a shoulder-blade; rubs his forehead and the bridge of his nose, without spectacles as naked as the rest of him, into the faintly sweaty skin, across the slope of the shoulder and down the length of a whole arm.

One hand is little use for embracing. Holding, stroking, caressing become frustration, even humiliation. He has not the leverage, not the limbs to spare, and lying on his bad side to free his good arm puts pressure on a scar that's still tender and might always be.

But he tries nonetheless, embracing the form next to his with the whole of himself, curling around it to wrap it in as much of his skin as he's physically capable of.

In response to the affection, Jack groans his way to wakefulness. Wesley is well-placed to feel the changes in the rhythms of his partner's body, the heart rate increasing, the breathing quickening, the little shifting motions as consciousness descends, and Wesley, embarrassed, pulls back from his impersonation of a blanket, distancing himself from the warmth of the embrace.

Jack rolls over. Two arms gather Wesley back in before he can distance too far and crush him, like a teddy bear, into the big chest. Still only semi-awake, Jack mumbles something unintelligible. Wesley tries in vain to loosen the grip enough to allow himself to breathe with ease. Ends up struggling within the embrace until Jack wakes up enough for realisation to descend.

"Sorry." Jack is laughing, in his drowsiness, embarrassed little chuckles that shake his chest, and Wesley with it.

He bends his head down to capture Wesley's mouth. Early morning breath and fuzzy tongues don't make it the most polished of kisses, but since both sides have enthusiasm enough, the fact goes largely unnoted, except by that cold little block of objective cells in the back of Wesley's brain that seem to note everything, always.

Wesley's body is sore in what is right now a vaguely pleasant way, but that he knows from almost-forgotten recollection he'll be cursing before the day is out. The surface of his skin feels tight and itchy and hot - although that latter could be from Jack, who seems to give off the heat of a furnace - and it hums with the electro-static aftermath of exertion even now.

He catches Jack's lower lip in his teeth, teases it with his tongue. Jack cheats with his advantage of two hands, distracting him enough to loosen the grip and teases out an embarrassingly puppyish yelp, which Jack's mouth half-smothers even as he's drawing back from the kiss.

Wesley rolls over to take the pressure off scar tissue that's starting to ache, feels the coolness of the air on it, as their movement has pushed down the sheets to waist-level. He trails his hand over Jack's chest, and then away as he collapses onto his back and his knuckles hit, instead, sheets unwarmed by the collected body heat in their immediate portion of the bed.

He lies, staring up at a canary-yellow ceiling with yellower sunlight flooding across it. He says slowly, as fingers roam over his chest and make a dusting of hairs stand on end, "This isn't real. Wasn't. This didn't happen. It never... never would have happened. Would it?"

"Shh," Jack says. "I won't tell if you don't."

The voice is next to his ear; it's followed by a dampness in the shape of a mouth which fastens onto the base of his jaw, makes him gulp, bouncing his throat underneath its attentions as it works its way down the side of his neck. A sigh escapes from him as it crawls down to his shoulder, so close to the scarred nub that he has to screw his eyes shut abruptly in an instant of repulsion at the very thought.

But it's only the briefest of kisses Jack plants before moving on.

Wesley knows this isn't real. None of it is real. He will make love to a dead man, and wake up soaked in sweat and other of his body's substances in an empty bed. Wake up with the emptiness and frustration so tightly packing his insides that they might just split the skin of this encasing shell and tumble out, unchecked, to join the stains already marring the sheets.//

***

Irene had handed him the keys as they left. "The car," she said awkwardly. "You can have the damn car. I don't want it, and prudish as he was about the thing, I'm sure he'd want you to have it more than he'd want me to sell it."

Wesley was not so sure, "You don't touch my car!" still ringing inside his head. But the keys rested now in his pocket, an irregular lump of discomfort against his hip as he struggled with the box of items that numbered almost the remainder of his current possessions. His own few belongings mixed with those small things Irene had allowed him to take or had not realised weren't his. The box was neither very heavy or large, but it wasn't easy to carry wedged between his hand, his chin and his chest. His satchel, stuffed full of his own clothes, swung behind his shoulder, the two swords jammed with a small hand-axe under its buckles, poking out precariously the excess of their lengths at either side and gathering scratches from the unkind treatment.

He reached the end of the path and the box shifted as, kicking the gate open and carefully manoeuvring out, he lost the wedge-grip with which he'd held it under his chin. He clung on with his fingertips, and with energetic squirming and contortion managed to balance the load against his chest once again. But then the strap of the satchel slid down his shoulder to hang at his elbow, making the endeavour a lost cause. A second later he was half-kneeling on the sidewalk six feet from the Lexus, surrounded by the scattered ephemera of another lost life.

Cursing, he fell the rest of the way to his knees and scrabbled to gather the items, tossing them back into the box - the books with their spines strained and covers bent, the creased papers and battered files. A loose sheet meandered across the sidewalk and he moved in pursuit.

It was caught upon two booted feet. A large, pale hand reached down to the paper. A black-clad arm extended, holding the paper out to Wesley as he raised his eyes.

Angel.

He must have been lurking in the trees at the end of the path but Wesley, distracted, hadn't noticed anything of his presence until that moment.

Angel's hand wavered in the air, and Wesley's balance wavered, still over-extended, frozen as he'd reached out. His limbs hummed with the strain, but speech and movement seemed to have become alien concepts.

Angel looked the worse for wear, physically more battered than Wesley had ever seen him. Apparently the demon-hunting business was being none too kind all around. He withdrew his hand when Wesley didn't take the paper, and it hung loosely clasped at his side, fingers relaxing and tightening by turn. Crinkles erupted and spread out across the page.

"I heard about your friend," Angel said awkwardly, stilted. "I'm sorry." A pause. Wesley heard his own heart beat in the silence. He almost imagined he heard Angel's. "I... I shouldn't have called, that night."

"It wasn't your fault," Wesley said. It came out rougher than he'd anticipated.

"If I hadn't called, he'd be alive." Doubt flickered across Angel's face, though, even in the saying, and so it might. They both knew there were no such sweeping certainties. "Well. He might be."

"You only did what you had to do," Wesley said angrily. "It might have saved Detective Lockley. It didn't, but it might have done. You weren't at fault."

Angel met his gaze intently, and for all that they were exhausted and shocky and a little wild, Wesley was unnerved by the force of personality behind his eyes, the years and experience within them. "But you are," the vampire said slowly; low, intense.

Wesley's heart juddered and fluffed a beat.

"Isn't that it, Wes? Are you so in love with your mistakes that we really have to make a competition of our guilt, as well?"

"It's my fault they were both involved in this world from the start. I introduced them to the creatures that killed them."

Angel didn't respond for long seconds, not in movement, and not in words, and this conversation of silences was making Wesley's skin itch and shiver.

"You told me something once," Angel said eventually. "About guilt. And about choice. I thought about it a long time. I knew you were right." His voice cracked. More than that, it splintered, raw and bloody in the air. "I wanted to tell you that I knew you were right. It was their choice to make."

"But it doesn't take the pain away," Wesley snapped. "It won't bring him back."

"Nothing can do that."

"They only had that choice because I placed it in front of them. Jack... Kate... they weren't a part of any great mission. This wasn't their destiny. They weren't chosen by their forebears or by any higher powers. They were just... sacrifices to my failure. I brought them into this to do what I couldn't. Because I was afraid to try myself. Because I thought I could train soldiers - thought I could hone people into weapons and send them out to die. That was my destiny, after all, wasn't it? The Slayer, the Council. I've been trained all my life for just that. Wouldn't my oh-so-gracious peers among the Watchers be proud of me now, to see how proficient I've grown? A little late, more's the pity, but never mind." He finished on a sneer. It twisted the insides of his throat and strangled his voice into silence.

Angel's eyes fell shut with the heavy finality of a theatre curtain and his mouth thinned into a line of pain. "I should have accepted your offer, back at the hospital. I know that now."

"What? Because then things would have happened differently? Because then the world would have been a better place?" Wesley slammed papers and books back into their box, needing to be elsewhere, needing not to hear any more. His unsupported knees wavered his body awkwardly with the quick, angry motions. "We'd still have found a way to screw it all up, you and I. It is the one thing we commonly seem to do exceedingly well."

"Perhaps that's true. But... those weren't the reasons."

Wesley continued shovelling books. He did not ask what Angel meant.

"There was... another reason, as well... that I came here, today," the vampire said, eventually, when enough time had passed to make Wesley's lack of interest blindingly clear even to a socially inept fiend of the night.

"What was that?" Wesley demanded bitterly, straightening in a sharp motion that jarred his spine for his pride, the box clutched in a bruising vice between forearm and stomach. The car keys jangled in his awkwardly twisted fingers. The satchel butted against his thigh, weapons spinning and clanking under the straps and threatening to escape their hold. "Did you come here to tell me that I need to pull myself together? To get over what's happened, put to one side the fact I got my friend killed, and move on? To learn how to stand on my own two feet?"

At least he still had two of those, if they hadn't seen such a great deal of use. He snorted laughter.

"No--" Angel protested, strained.

"Then you're wrong."

The world narrowed to a tiny point of focus, and then--

He remembered clearly turning his back after his fierce declaration, and afterwards only knew that somehow he'd negotiated unlocking and opening the car. The box and bag were slung over the back seat and sliding off - the box emptying again, this time onto the floor in a cascade as he started the engine. The buzz of anger and adrenaline in his veins blanked out feeling and thought, left in their wake only instinct and reaction.

And Wesley was putting his foot down in the driving seat of a dead man's car, watching the bonnet eat up the tarmac of the road ahead and watching Angel, a dark, deceptively man-shaped blot fading into distance and shadows in the rear-view mirror, crumpling the forgotten sheet of white paper in his fist and letting it fall, mangled, to the ground.

***

//The blade scythes through the air, testing the limit of Wesley's defences, alarmingly close to his ribs before he succeeds in turning it aside.

"Nearly dead," Costas says, circling the centre of the games room warily, his own weapon held with a superior confidence and proficiency.

His eyes are like Father's; his stance, his moves, the way his knuckles contort around the hilt of the sword. A shiver travels down Wesley's spine and settles in the small of his back. Costas attacks with a move that plagued him through his training years and he's unnerved enough, this time, to make a hash of the block.

The sword point penetrates, as he tries instinctively to twist aside. Metal pulls through flesh, dragging a raw gasp from his lips. He staggers back with a deep gash across the soft flesh of his belly, bleeding out into his torn shirt.

It's more discomfort than pain at first. Then the wrench and the pressure crystallise and he's familiar enough with blinding agony by this time to anticipate an instant prior just how it's going to be. As a consequence, when the pain lands it just rocks him, rather than knocking him off his feet; leaves him swaying like a skinny tree in high winds. The sword shakes in his hand like it's trying to dance a merry jig.

"Had enough already?" Costas sneers.

"I--" Wesley has no breath left to speak; can only concentrate on his next block as another attack hits, lurching out to catch his opponent's sword on his own, leaving himself badly over-reached. It almost kills him. Instead, by a hair, it stops the blade and extends his life a handful of moments longer.

If he had the hand to spare, it would be clutched over his stomach to stem the bleeding. Instead, he's doubled up over air, gasping and wheezing and shuddering around the wound. The sword seems to have trebled its weight in his hand and he holds it and moves it like a club, precision and skill a memory.

Costas' blade swipes in to slash across his face down from the top of his cheekbone to bisect his upper lip, whipping him around in a half-turn as he flinches and manages to recapture his balance just in time to turn aside the next swipe, aimed at his right thigh, so that it cuts shallow instead of cutting deep, missing major arteries and inflicting only sting.

"Jack--"

This isn't Costas at all, and appeals won't work.

"You call this a fight? Come on, damn you. Put some effort into it."

He's heard those words before, been here before. Though Father never cut him almost in half to prove his point, this is all far too familiar. He tries to stop all the old reactions from flooding back.

"I can't--"

He does, trying to surprise his phantom opponent - almost succeeds. But when Costas moves late to block, it's still almost casual, with a skill Wesley only remembers seeing in one man, who used it all for show and never himself ventured out to confront the darkness.

There is blood seeping down to soak the waistline of his trousers where it cinches in. He isn't sure of the wound's severity; daren't look down.

He tries to focus everything on his opponent.

"Fight."

Costas swipes past his guard again and draws a thin line up his collar bone and across his shoulder with the tip of the sword; is thankfully forced to draw it back in order to deflect Wesley's frantic stab, attack as defence, before the blade can drag across and reopen the scar tissue beneath the pinned arm of his shirt.

"Fight!"

Costas slaps the edge of the sword across his upper arm - his only arm - and drags forward, splattering blood as he scrapes the blade's length through the wound. Wesley screams - can't help it - even as he's turning again, turning his body away from the blade.

"Fight!"

Costas' sword slams through his, dashing the weapon from his weakened grip and skittering it across the floor of the practise room to chip the skirting where it's stopped short. Costas' face contorts with a curious focus that's almost impersonal as he drives the weapon home. Wesley feels the intolerable pressure of three feet of steel passing under his ribs, grating past bone to exit at the base of his back.

Costas is close enough to hold him as his legs collapse, and for a moment does, the warmth and sweat of exertion suffusing from his body into Wesley's chilled one. Wesley's blood absorbs into his clothing by way of exchange.

He wrenches the sword out as he pulls away.

And Wesley is on the floor, a mess of spilled blood and limp bone, the real world fading into focus around him.//

***

"I keep dreaming about you," Wesley told the car, squatted on his haunches on the edge of the kerb with his knees drawn up against his chest. "Damned ridiculous thing to do, I suppose." His arm hugged his right knee, while the left slipped asymmetrically out of his admittedly asymmetrical body's near-foetal curl against the night's chill. He'd parked in a lay-by off an industrial area of locked up offices and factories. Their concrete car parks and meandering roads provided an open, lonely expanse, far from human traffic, where it probably wasn't best to linger alone on a late evening.

Such conversations ought properly to be held at a graveside, but there wasn't a grave yet to stand beside, and who knew how long before there would be, with an enquiry on the murder of a police detective under way? So instead he talked to the car, which had to be imbued with Costas' spirit if anything was.

"Last night, you killed me. The night before that--" He trailed off, unable to finish the thought. "And there've been other dreams. Harmless dreams, stupid, innocuous, pointless dreams. Sometimes it seems I just close my eyes and you're waiting there."

The empty concrete landscape sent him no reply. It left him with silence, feeling small, fragile and unnoticed, hearing his noises emerge muffled as though he wasn't really there at all. The pools of streetlamps dotted about the concourse dazzled his eyes. He blinked and found their sunspots imprinted on his retinas. Costas, this one time, was a silent ghost.

Wesley gazed self-consciously over the sea of wire and road, bends and intersections all unsignposted, unmarked, leading in circles, doubling back, vanishing into dead ends. A miniature cosmos, punctuated with neat, empty sidewalks.

He remembered his words to Angel. That defiance, wrapped up in anger and scorn, had carried him for an hour of aimless slogging through traffic, the streets a haze of red in his eyes. Until he'd returned to himself sufficiently to realise just how aimless, and had glanced down at the fuel gauge to register that, even if it was half-full, he had almost no money to replace it when the arrow ran down to zero. That was why he'd pulled over here, where he hoped there would be no-one, at night, to come shift him out if he slept parked in Costas' car. But he didn't feel like sleeping. In truth, his body had seen little of the phenomenon in days, and that which it had seen plagued by the dreams.

He turned his head and the streetlights left phantom trails before his eyes. He was aware of the intensifying sensation of his legs cramping from stillness and awkward posture, destroying any air of ritual he might have hoped for. This wasn't working.

"I'm sorry," he whispered to the ghosts. "I'm sorry." But Costas - Costas had, at the end of the day, killed himself. Had been looking for answers before he found Wesley, and would have kept looking elsewhere if Wesley had not come through with them. Such stubbornness usually won out in the end. He could not apologise to the dead man in any way that would have meaning, and really there was much else more real requiring apology of him. Weakness, indecision, cowardice... he could hardly be said to have acquitted himself well since waking in that hospital room.

He felt a stab of guilt over Angel, the vampire a dejected dark blur in remembered shadows as he drove away. Angel had nobody now either, and there had been an offer there he'd been all too willing to make himself all those months ago. He could still recall the sting of its decline. But what he'd said had been right enough. He hoped that Angel would be okay, but for himself, he would not substitute Angel for Costas. He had to learn to live without a left hand.

He would do this himself, or not at all. All of himself was bound up in this fight and he would not lose himself again, letting another manage his surviving for him; letting focus and purpose be imposed from without and detachment from the world quiet the images in his head (the Kungai as it crushed his arm and reduced his world to pain that hadn't ceased to be a constant since, Penn's teeth sinking into his wrist and draining what the Kungai left of his courage and resolve... Costas' care no less a leech, though far more well-intentioned).

Weakness had been his excuse, the arm a crutch for his fear, but it hadn't been the arm that crippled him.

So long as he was a cripple, he wasn't expected to act. So long as he couldn't fight, he didn't have to (the feel of the sword in his hands and the giddy exhilaration settling in his bones again; the sheer excitement of 'I can do this!' after far, far to many weeks of 'I can't'). So long as he couldn't live a whole life...

Yet it had not been he who died.

It would not be much of a legacy to take from the man who had tried in earnest to help him if he lay down now and spent whatever was left of his life wishing that it had.

The streetlamps blurred in his gaze, and glittered dually, the lenses of his glasses ghosting them at the edge of his vision. The hint of moisture dried up a mere glaze on the surface of his eyes as its presence registered with his brain and turned the emotion cold inside him.

A rogue droplet plopped down onto the sleeve of the tattered leather jacket he'd bought in the bike shop back in Sunnydale, all those months ago and a whole world removed. He watched it work its way down the grooves and channels worn into the leather. Others followed, the beginnings of a rain shower, and he was going to catch pneumonia if he didn't move soon.

Wesley slowly stood, gathering reluctant feet beneath him.

He rounded the car, its smooth frame cool in the night air where he ran fingers across the metal to the handle. A disarray of unclosed case files all but tumbled out as he opened the back door. He bent to gather them and stray sentence fragments caught his eyes, notes he hadn't thought about in too many days prompting the analytical part of his brain to whir into gear. The suspected vampire nest in Redondo... the demonic slave ring working its way up in profile on the underground rumour mill... a peculiar murder case featuring a victim missing his head... the esoteric Amulet of Amest, stolen from the city museum months ago, still unrecovered.

Disturbed by his fumbling, a sword slid down with the papers. There was a brief instant of dizziness and speed, his head reeling and his senses crystal sharp, narrowing as he caught it before it could hit the ground.

He watched the reflection off the blade as he turned it this way and that in the sparse light. After months of training Costas, the weapon did not feel so very heavy in his single hand.

There were, obviously, a host of different reasons not to fight. He'd already been crippled by it; his ineffectiveness proven time and again; he had no reason to believe he actually could succeed alone; and he was afraid. Only one reason, as always, to fight - because he could. He was one of the few in a position to know about the evils existing in the dark corners of the world. The Watcher's Council might not want him, but that had never freed him to just... walk away. He thought about Kate and Costas; thought about Buffy's friends, of whom he had once disapproved so severely. And perhaps they were all not so different.

No. Not only one reason, Wesley reflected as his thoughts turned back to Costas. His friend was dead. He would have to sell the car, would not be able to attend the funeral, and there was, anyway, always, only one way to properly honour him.

There was still plenty of work out there to do.

 

END