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That Lonelier Place

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Gunn is the only one of them who didn’t come around to threaten him or express his sense of the unforgivable, and somehow that felt like the worst sting of all.

Angel tried to kill him, true, but really, Wes had been expecting that; in his own dim, morphine-dampened way he’d expected the pillow, the rage, the utter lack of forgiveness in spite of the soul, perhaps because of the soul.

If Angel had been Angelus he wouldn’t have felt the betrayal so sharply, now would he.

And Fred’s sense of betrayal he could understand, her broken faith in his abilities as an expert, his fallen professionalism as though no one had ever been fooled by a forged prophecy before. It hurt, but he understood.

And Cordelia’s silence he’d understood since childhood, a priori, like a mathematical formula. She was like the sister he’d never had. There is no forgiveness in family. Ergo, of course she would never forgive him.

Gunn, though.

The one face he’d expected to see when he emerged from the endless black in a world of hospital sheets and humming machinery - the one person whose forgiveness he’d never questioned his right to - had never visited.

Neither to berate nor to show support.

Nothing.

Having to take a taxi back to his empty flat, lacking any name to give to the well-meaning doctor, knowing in his darkened soul that his mistaken attempt at heroics had left him with no one.

Gunn had called him one of his own, had said I’ve got your back in a way that Wesley had assumed wouldn’t end. He’d seen the betrayals excused by Gunn, seen his former gang turn against him and Gunn react with a regretful frown not because he hated them but because a part of him wished he could go back. It was like instant forgiveness, it was stronger than family because Gunn had fought with these people, trained them, defended them, loved them.

And somewhere along the line Wesley had come to believe he shared the same bond with the younger man, had come to believe that his any action would be forgiven because hadn’t Gunn forgiven so much more in the others?

That hatred hurt worst of all, burned in him when Fred’s recriminations only stung and Cordelia’s continued silence remained expected and understood. Gunn’s hatred burrowed into the growing lonely places that seemed almost eager to fill him in the dark nights, in the space of days after his release from the hospital, perhaps not too soon if he’d anyone at home to care for him, a stretch of empty time in which he barely moved and hardly bothered eating, every action a burden because really, he’d never had anyone but these people, and he’d never had a closer friendship, and he’d been doing the right thing.

He had thought (continued to think) he’d been doing the right thing.

Justine’s knife beneath his skin didn’t hurt worse than the knowledge of his own failure, couldn’t possibly hurt worse than knowing it had all been a lie. It filled him, as he grew harder, and leaner, and tried his damnedest to stop caring about it all, to stop caring that even in the end, when he’d thought he was dying and thought that were he to survive they would understand, that in what he’d thought was his lowest point his only concern had been for Connor, and Angel, and his only need had been the need to explain his actions.

In that lonelier place he could admit his arrogance, his hubris, his naïve self-assurance that of course forgiveness would come, that of course they would understand.

That Gunn would still hold him a friend, and defend him as such. He was able to see the lies inherent in his earlier assumptions.

Everything had seemed so much clearer then, with the protestations of friendship lying in the metaphorical dust at his feet. But then Gunn had come to him. Not for himself, or for the team, not to renew a friendship or offer forgiveness, but for Fred.

And he thought that might have hurt worst of all.

~~~~~~~~

His third day without sleep (he would stop counting beyond four, unable or unwilling to mark the endless stretches of time) marked the first occurrence of the dream that would become typical, common, consuming: he walks into the lobby of the hotel, looking down at a text (important in the way that dream-things are always important but likewise always unnamed and unreadable) open to a lithograph of a Kubari demon, his mouth opening to speak to Angel who is as always standing over the bassinet when he hears the noise, the wet, sticky *swallowing* noise and he frowns and looks up just in time to see Angel red-mouthed straighten up from Connor’s side, and smile.

That first time, as he had every time thereafter, Wesley bolted upright, shoving his chair back from the desk with the force of the move, eyes going wildly to the door where whatever woke him from his too-brief slumber awaits.

That first time, it was Angel, reassuringly clean-mouthed and too late to catch Wesley’s desperate attempts to waken. Still gasping, heart beating a little too rapidly but calming, and there is a book open before him, so Angel assumed that he had been startled, and asked, “Here early, Wes?”

And fresh from the dream, the horrible prophecy-inspired dream, he simply nodded a lie. “Yes,” he breathed, mouth dry, voice low and rough with sleep. But Angel is distracted by a low cry from the bassinet in the lobby, and he just nodded, and left without hearing the rest of Wesley’s explanation.

Once Angel’s flaring coat cleared the door, Wesley allowed his shoulders to slump, curling in with exhaustion so inborn it’s almost painful, and very casually pulled a series of manila folders atop the open book.

His first reaction had been disbelief. It was impossible, it was a mistake, he’d translated it wrong again. Then had come denial, so very like disbelief but so much more firmly-rooted, so much longer-lived, a months-long search through every tattered scrap of old parchment he could lay his hands on, months of questioning demons in back alleys and temporally shiftless bars, months of terror and secrecy and no sleep and feeding the denial like a favored pet.

By the end of it he’d dropped thirteen pounds his already thin frame could ill afford, his flat had become a place where he stored books and clothing, little more, and even his ability to be a friend had atrophied and gone the way of his attention to food and personal hygiene.

Already soaked in regret like old whiskey for things not yet accomplished he planned, and plotted, and caused his own ruination.

That was the first time.

~~~~~~~~

When he left the hospital he knew it didn’t matter. Or, he left the hospital because he knew it didn’t matter. Everything spirals down into the black. Nothing matters in the black. The black is where nothing lives, alternatively. Weeks and days and long seconds passing at first with the ticking clock that he quickly destroyed with a thrown empty bottle of Wild Turkey. Vile stuff, really, went down like sugar but more importantly it was cheap and sold in quantity.

Wound healed, became a hot gummy seam, stitches out, then a scar, red and brutal, then pink and thin-stretched like all the others. Knew he didn’t matter. Or, felt it, a body-knowledge in the death of his heart. Empty, hollow, we are the hollow men but he’d never liked Eliot, kept drinking, filling a void he didn’t want to believe in.

Beer was what you had with pizza, with friends, stout or lager or a pale ale fizzing in a frozen mug or served warm at one of the faux British pubs near his flat.

Rum was something hidden coyly in mixed drinks, iced in the blender and served with little paper umbrellas and forced upon him by Cordelia. Gunn had never been coerced into sampling a daiquiri.

Vodka was for dancing, for knocking back in frozen shots unmarred by ice or flavoring, for the quick rush, the instant disorientation of Grey Goose or real imported Stoli, Kremly, Thor’s Hammer, the names that roll off his tongue like old friends, the acid-wash of dizziness that precluded self-consciousness or even good sense.

Scotch was for regret, and things left unsaid, and the bitter drunkenness that ended inevitably in tears, whether his own or someone else’s. Scotch was for all night, and for blackouts that lasted days, and for that instant of complete amnesia that accompanied every hangover.

In the four months after they left him to die, he pickled his liver.

It seemed appropriate to no longer care.

That was also the first time, though it counted as the second or perhaps a time in between as the entire period had been lost to magic or mercy or to that damn W&H contract.

~~~~~~~~

It would have been better not to remember.

She would have explained that memory is nothing but electricity, would have anticipated or at least understood Ilyria’s lingering static sparks, and never would have guessed that his mind would immediately and inevitably follow that thought to the more obvious applications of ECT.

The other She paced his office like a lion. A cerulean lion, anyway, pontificating through rationalizations of her Fall, incomprehensible though it is to her the force of those dire arms. Irreconcilable to her grand foe (though spoken of as ‘our’ grand foe, the royal We still threading her speech patterns), the Wolf, the Ram, the Hart, powerless beings in her time, but now triumphant in the excess of joy sole reigning over heaven, or hell, or whichever name she chooses to give this earth on this day.

He watched and in reply waxed poetical through her increasing impatience. Laughing at it somewhere inside where it still had the ability to hurt, where he still had the ability to bleed.

“The essence is there, you see. The essence is essential, something of it must remain or it isn’t it any longer. A bench is a bench, essentially a bench, accidentally a heavy wooden object or something covered in green paint.” He was muttering, tried to speak louder but heard his own voice as from the bottom of a lake.

She cocked her head, stepped forward.

He smiled beatifically. “We never describe things by their accidentals, Illyria. When we say what it is we do not say white, or hot, or three cubits long, but a man or a god. Aristotle made that particular observation. Wise man, Aristotle. He was right, you know. Bench is an adequate answer. An assemblage of sticks painted green, we consider freakish.”

She watches, perhaps curious though he is aware that it would be a mistake to attribute human feelings to a god, even to a fallen god.

Grief heavy as a blow just waiting for her arrival, pain so sharp it couldn’t be felt, not really, not until days later and then over the course of weeks, pain stretched into a long disbelief and a longer acceptance like hollow, purposeless regret. He is aware of slowly going mad.

It was worse that there wasn’t even anything he could have done. Worse that nothing could have changed it.

If there had been something, if he’d only done something wrong, he’d at least have himself to blame.

~~~~~~~~

She killed him.

He remembers.

She blew a gasket, according to Angel’s more colorful phraseology, and lost everything of herself in a brilliant explosion of color and light and timespace.

The last is only a guess, but he distinctly remembers dying, falling into the light of her death only because something was different this time. This time he opened the portal straight away; this time she knocked him aside without killing him but disabling the machine, creating a crack in its engine block; this time she concentrated on dusting Angel and Spike before worrying about the two weaker beings, both the demon and the human. This time her explosion caught the edge of the wounded, wavering portal.

This time he woke up in Hell.