The Assistant


by
Witling



Part Four

Angelus calls three more times over the next five days, and each time Wesley puts Spike on to listen for clues. Angelus knows they're doing it--he can tell when Spike's on, because he can't hear Wesley's breathing anymore. Each time he calls, he lets Spike hear that Xander is still alive. But nothing else, no way of knowing where he is. It's agonizing.

On the third call, all he says is, "The Pair-a-Dice Motel, Wes. Just outside Reno, on 80. I'm leaving you boys a little something."

Xander is curled under the sink in the bathroom, in a blood-soaked T-shirt with the neck ripped open, a pair of stained and torn khakis. His feet are bare. His skin is chalky. His blood has pooled against the edge of the bathtub, because the floor isn't even. To Wesley's first glance, it looks about an inch deep.

He's already lowered the crossbow--fatal mistake if Angelus is still here, but as it turns out he isn't, he's on the other side of the state by now--and taken a step into the bathroom. He should check for a pulse; there's still a chance. There's a first aid kit in the car. But the color of Xander's skin exerts a freezing power, and after that first step Wesley just stands there, staring. No one alive can be that pale.

"Get back," Spike says, pushing Wesley aside and half out of the room. He kneels down in the blood and pulls Xander's right eye, the good one, open with his thumb. It strikes Wesley as a grotesque, unnecessary gesture.

"What are you doing?" His tongue feels numb and clumsy.

Spike doesn't say anything. He studies Xander's eye--white, off-angle, staring--then lets the lid go and pats him gently on the cheek. Xander's face is bloody and bruised, but not unrecognizable. It's what Wesley finds himself staring at, instead of the throat. The room smells strange, he realizes. Like an abbatoir.

"Come on," Spike says, still patting.

"Spike," Wesley says, saliva rushing into his mouth. "Stop it." He's going to throw up.

"Come on," Spike says, and slaps Xander once, on the cheek.

"For Christ's sake," Wesley says, and then Xander rolls his head to the side and lifts his hand. Carefully, woozily, as if he's just coming out of a long, drunken sleep.

The pieces assemble in Wesley's brain, and for a brief moment he wonders how he could possibly be so stupid, after all this time. Then he thinks, I really am going to throw up.

He walks quickly out of the room and does it in the little white gravel bed by the parking lot. It only takes a minute. Then he wonders if he's going to fall down, because the world is dark and weaving, full of the rushing of cars on the freeway and the fat battering of moths against the lamp above his head. He stands there with one hand braced against the rough stucco, trying to catch his breath. It seems to take a very long, lonely time.

Finally he feels able to go back in without disgracing himself, and he does it. Spike is sitting on the bed, alone. There's blood on his hands and knees. The bathroom door is open, and through it Wesley can see that Xander's still in there, lying on the floor.

Spike looks pensive, as if he's trying to do a very difficult maths problem in his head.

"I'm sorry," Wesley says, wiping his mouth with his free hand. He's still got the crossbow in the other. "I...I don't know why I did that."

"Because you're not a monster," Spike says, but it doesn't sound like much of a compliment.

They stand there in silence. After a moment there's a faint sound of movement from the bathroom, and Wesley's stomach heaves again. He swallows hard.

"What do we do?" he asks.

"I don't know," Spike says.

They look at each other, obliquely. It's ironic, Wesley thinks. He's spent so many years becoming independent, becoming someone who can run things competently and without supervision, who can make decisions and call the shots. And now, when he knows exactly what has to happen next, he can't make himself say it out loud.

Absurdly, he misses Angel.

"I can--" he says, but that's not the way to say it. He lifts the crossbow and takes a deep breath. "I'll do it."

"Hang on," Spike says.

Wesley stands there with the crossbow lifted, waiting. Spike stares at the floor between his feet. After a minute he starts sorting through his pockets--the old, familiar hunt for cigarettes. It's irritating, at a time like this.

"What?" Wesley asks. "You know what we have to do."

"No," Spike says. "I don't." He finds his cigarettes in his back pocket, pulls one out of the packet, and frowns because it's bent. It takes him a couple of seconds to straighten it out, rotating it gently between his fingers. Wesley watches him, frozen like the tin woodman.

"You want to use that?" Spike asks, nodding at the crossbow. Wesley glances at it and grimaces.

"For God's sake, Spike, how can you ask me that?"

"Seems like you're pretty ready to, that's all."

"Do you think he'd want me to do anything else?"

"I think if you go in there and ask him if he wants a piece of wood jammed through his heart, he's going to say no thanks." Spike pulls his lighter out of his jeans and strikes the flint, lights the crumpled cigarette, and drags deeply. As an afterthought, he holds the packet out to Wesley. "Smoke?"

Wesley stares at the packet. Spike waggles it. "Take the taste of puke out, at least."

With a sense of things becoming rapidly more surreal, Wesley takes a cigarette. His hand is trembling. Spike has to dance the lighter around to catch up with him.

They smoke for a couple of minutes in silence. In the bathroom, there's a soft dragging sound.

"The important thing," Spike says, with greater force in his tone, "is not to do anything stupid. Angelus's playing us."

"I'm aware of that," Wesley says dully.

"Right, so we play him back. Don't do what he expects."

A tide of frantic disbelief is rising in the corners of Wesley's mind, and he recognizes it as hysteria. He's a hair from breaking into yelps of laughter, or just yelps. Grimly, he forces it back down.

"I hardly think," he says, "that strategy figures in to this situation."

"That's where you're wrong," Spike says, pointing a finger at him. "With Angelus, strategy always figures in. He expects us to stake Harris. So I say we don't."

"And do what instead?"

Spike takes a long drag of his cigarette and regards Wesley narrowly. "Take him home."

Wesley forces himself to look at the bathroom. Xander's managed to pull himself a few inches further in, as if he knows what they're talking about and is trying to escape.

"I can't believe we're discussing this," Wesley says, standing up. He has to do something--if he doesn't do something he's going to yell, or hit Spike, or throw up again. "He's been turned, Spike. The conversation is moot."

"I was turned too," Spike says. "I think that makes it pretty bloody far from moot."

Spike was turned too, and so was Angel, and for centuries they murdered and pillaged and brought agony to innocent people. But here he is in a substandard motel room, outside Reno, Nevada, smoking a cigarette with William the Bloody. And somewhere out there, Angelus is still at large. Doing God knows what, to God knows who.

"He might be able to help us," Spike says, as if he's had the exact same thought as Wesley, at exactly the same moment. "And frankly, I think we owe him one."

Wesley stands there holding his crossbow and his cigarette, feeling sick, wishing for home.

Spike loads Xander's unresisting body into the back of the car. Wesley wipes up the mess as well as he can, with the hotel towels. No point in traumatizing the housekeepers.

They drive for L.A. with the needle holding steady at ninety, and by the grace of God, they aren't pulled over on the way.





Part Five


There are holding cells in the basement of the building, designed for demons of various sizes and strengths. They put Xander in one. Spike carries him in, folded over his shoulder like a sack of oats, and lays him carefully down on the bunk.

"We should give him some blankets," Wesley says numbly, from the door of the cage. He's got the crossbow ready, in case of surprises. Xander's barely moved since Nevada, but he's conscious now. When Spike puts him on the bunk and steps back, he lies there for a few seconds, then lifts a hand and slowly feels his own face.

"He needs blood," Spike said, studying Xander with a critical eye. "If we want him to talk, he needs to eat first."

"I'll see what's in the stores." Wesley trudges off to the refrigerators, some part of his brain still stuck on repeat: I'm getting blood for Xander Harris. Xander Harris is a vampire. He's passed through several kinds of shock on the drive home, and by now he's well into self-blame. Xander Harris survived to adulthood on the Hellmouth. He lost an eye to evil, and a tongue to stupidity. Who knows what he saw in Africa, what made him give up the field and ask for a desk. And after all that, he still died. Because he was using the library. Because he was there late that night, instead of Wesley.

It's pointless to think about it, and so of course he does, over and over, from different angles. He's still weeks from learning about the incident in Tunbridge Wells, the bizarre non-reason for Angel's transformation. Taking two pints of blood from the refrigerator and checking their dates, he wonders what he missed. There must have been a portent of some kind. Souls don't just go missing.

He takes the blood back to the cages, and finds Spike sitting on the bunk with his back to the door, a hand on Xander's shoulder. Xander's eyes are open, and he's staring at the ceiling. It's a scene from an emergency room--the friend comforting the injured party. But in this case, the injured party is well past dead, and there's no comfort to be offered.

"I found these," Wesley says, hesitating at the door to the cage. For some reason it feels intrusive to enter. Perhaps because he's the only one here with a heartbeat.

Xander's eye rolls sideways and down, until he can see Wesley standing there. He blinks.

"Hi," he says. His voice is paper-thin, barely viable. It's disturbing to see the throat wound move when he speaks.

"Hello," Wesley says. Then there's nothing else to say, except I'm sorry. But it would be the demon he'd be apologizing to--Xander himself is gone. So there's no point.

"Let's have it, then." Spike turns halfway and holds out a hand, and for a moment Wesley thinks he's been crying. Or close to, at least. That's surprising, and he tosses the blood bags without thinking. Spike catches them and turns away. "This bit's not going to be pretty. I'll come find you when we're done."

That's an uncommonly polite dismissal, and Wesley frowns. "I don't think it's safe for you to be alone here."

"I'm not alone," Spike says.

"With him, I mean."

"It's safe," Spike says.

"How do you--"

"Angelus's still running around out there, isn't he? Better go do some research."

"Are you sure?" Again, Wesley has the strange sense that he's an extra, an uninvited guest. That's absurd, given that he and Spike are now the only two people who can bring Angelus to bay.

"I'm sure," Spike says. He lays one of the blood bags down on the floor, and raises the other to his teeth. "Off you go."

Wesley lingers a moment, then walks alone down the darkened hall to the elevator.




"Did you find the surprise?" Angelus asks.

Wesley sits gripping the phone, seeing nothing, his mouth clamped shut. Somewhere in front of him, Spike is smoking a cigarette. He can smell the smoke. Shouldn't do that in the library.

"The crackerjack surprise," Angelus says. "The gooey center of the Tootsie Pop. Did you get it?"

"We got it," Wesley says. His throat is dry, it's hard to make words. He can see again now; Spike's standing up from his chair, his face fixed, reaching for the phone. Wesley frowns and doesn't hand it over.

"What'd you think? Pretty great, huh?"

"I think you're a sadistic fucker."

"Wes!" Angelus laughs. "Language, Wesley. I'm shocked."

"I can't imagine why. It's what you want to hear, isn't it?"

"Can't say I'm disappointed, that's true. But it's not really the language I'm after, Wes. I'm more interested in the way you breathe when you're really wound up, like right now. Sounds like...well, it kind of sounds like how you sometimes get when you remember you're in love with me."

"We're going to find you."

"I love to hear that little pitter-pat, you know? It's a great feeling, being the object of unrequited affection."

"You disgust me."

"When I'm not turning you on. So tell me, what'd you kids do with the piñata? Or should I ask, who got to whack it with the big stick?"

"This conversation is over," Wesley says, and hangs up.

Spike's still standing there with his hand out, a look of faint disbelief on his face.

"Keep looking," Wesley says, going back to his book. Spike sits down slowly and goes back to his pages.

After a minute Wesley picks up the phone and checks the call registry. It wasn't Angel's cell this time; its battery must have died. It was an L.A. number.




Down in the basement, there are two flattened blood bags on the floor of the cell, looking disturbingly like organ meats. Xander lies on the bunk on his back, one hand over his throat, staring at the ceiling. He needs a bath, Wesley realizes. A change of clothes. It's not humane to make him lie there in the clothes he died in.

"Did he say anything else?" Spike asks, rolling his forehead against the bar in front of him. He hasn't been without a cigarette since they found Xander's body, it seems. The one dangling from between his fingers now is almost half ash. The smoke is a blue thread to the ceiling.

Xander rolls his head from side to side on the mattress. When he swallows, the throat wound makes a wet clicking sound and Wesley flinches. "I don't...remember."

"Nothing about where he was going? Did he mention anyone he wanted to see?" It was hard to imagine who Angelus might want to visit, but any lead was a start. The phone number had been a dead end, unlisted. Probably a cell phone he'd stolen. Wesley tried to stop thinking there.

Xander rolls his head again, his eyes still on the ceiling. As Wesley watches, Xander frowns and seems to concentrate--his face slowly melts into demon. He blinks at the ceiling and tests a finger against his own fang. Then the demon subsides, and he's just Xander again. Covered in blood and bruises, but Xander.

"Please stop doing that," Wesley says. Spike looks at him.

"Why?"

There's no good answer to that question, except that it's making Wesley ill to watch it. So he turns his back, taking a careful step away from the cage bars.

"If you can think of anything at all," he says to the empty cage along the far wall, "it could help us. Did he have any maps? Did he seem to be on any kind of timeframe?"

"No." Xander swallows again; Wesley hears it, and winces.

"He's going to go for the White Room again," Spike says. "We know that much."

"He must know he hasn't got a chance. I doubled the protections as soon as we knew what happened." Wesley pauses. "We'll discuss that later."

"Discuss what later?"

"I don't think it's wise to talk in front of...Xander." It's strange to call him that--it feels as though he should say something else now. 'The demon,' or 'that soulless monster masquerading as our friend.'

Spike is giving him a sharp, unfriendly look. "Why not?"

"Why not what?"

"Why shouldn't we talk in front of him?"

Wesley stands there with his mouth ajar, trying to order his thoughts. "Spike, Xander has been turned. Angelus is his sire. There's every possibility that he would betray us and use whatever he learns here to help Angelus."

There's a brief pause while both Spike and Xander look at him. Xander actually lifts his head an inch off the mattress to do it.

Then Spike gives a sharp, barking laugh, and drags hard on his cigarette, knocking its ash to the floor.

"Oh, that's rich," he says. "That's brilliant. God, sometimes I wonder how any of you lot ever make it past Go without getting your head staved in."

Xander lets his head drop back onto the mattress, and fishes with his free hand for the deflated blood bags on the floor. Wesley watches blankly, not sure what he's supposed to say.

"Angelus," Spike says, very slowly and very clearly, "spent three days torturing the poor bugger, then ripped his throat out."

"I'm aware of that. Thank you."

"Hey, Harris." Spike doesn't take his eyes off Wesley, and for the first time Wesley notices that there's something knife-sharp in Spike's gaze. Something more than just grief and anger for a friend. "Angelus shows up here tomorrow, you going to give him the keys and show him around, bring him a nice canapé platter?"

There's a ghastly wheezing sound from the bunk; after a moment, Wesley realizes Xander is laughing. Bitterly, miserably. His fingers find one of the spent bags, and lift it slowly up to his mouth. He stops laughing to suck out a few last drops of blood.

"Still hungry," Spike observes, dropping his cigarette and crushing it with his heel. "I'll go see what's left."

"Angelus tortured Drusilla," Wesley says, knowing it's a bad idea but needing to make his point. "He drove her insane, then turned her, and she never wavered in her devotion to him. He tortured you, too."

"And I hate him."

"How do we know Xander will be like you, rather than Drusilla?"

"You could ask him," Spike says simply, and walks away.





Part Six

"There's a great deal I don't understand about this process," Wesley says later, when he and Spike are sitting at the long table in the library with the bottle of whiskey between them. Library rules are a thing of the past--Spike smokes over ancient manuscripts and Wesley doesn't blink. Somehow he can't bring himself to care about sole copies anymore. And they both need the whiskey.

"There's almost nothing you understand about this process," Spike corrects him, but his tone is muted now. They're both exhausted, which is part of it. But they've also had some time apart, a few hours to shower and eat and think in private about what's happening. Wesley's abandoned a few more of his certainties, and Spike appears to notice and appreciate that. It makes things easier.

"Xander's weakness," Wesley says, as a for-instance. "Why isn't he stronger?"

"Half-starved. And still leaking when we found him. He'll be better tomorrow, with that blood in him."

"Will he be hostile?"

"Would you?"

"What I mean is, will he be dangerous? Is it safe to keep him in the cage?"

Spike shrugs. "Don't go walking in covered in shaving cuts, but he should be all right. The cage'll hold him."

Wesley thinks about that for a while--Xander testing the cage, trying to escape from it. It's a bizarre, horrible image. Xander still looks like a friend, after all. You can't see the demon unless he lets you.

"Why isn't he bound to Angelus? I thought that when a vampire sired a person, there was a...link of some kind. Like family."

Spike gives him that level, blue-eyed gaze, the one that says, You are not very bright. "You get along with your father, Wesley?"

Wesley purses his lips. "I understand. But...I have obligations to my father. Don't you?"

"Don't have a father." Spike smirks without enthusiasm, and spins his glass with his thumb. "But if I did, I might consider that my obligations ended when he ripped my throat out."

"Indeed." Wesley takes his glasses off and rubs his eyes. "He seems...well, he still seems very much like Xander Harris."

"Bingo," Spike says. "But from now on, you don't go near him unless I'm there too."




At four a.m., Wesley admits his limits and goes to bed for a few hours. At seven he wakes up in a cold sweat. He goes to his office and checks the security cameras. Nothing is amiss. They've cut the staff to skeleton, in order both to keep prying eyes out and to protect as many people as possible if Angelus returns. The cameras show empty hallways and cubicles.

The camera on the cage shows two bodies in the bunk, spooned and still.

Wesley studies the image in silence for several minutes. He's not sure what to make of it--he can't shift his paradigms fast enough to keep up. A week ago, the sight of Xander and Spike in bed together would have been laughable, inconceivable. But there it is in front of him. Idly, his brain wonders whether he's seeing simple comfort, or something more. Idly, his brain tells him that of course it's something more. It's whatever dead men have in common, once they've passed through that gate and met on the other side.

Finally he turns away from the computer and goes to find a cup of coffee, because his brain is still idle but it won't shut up, and he doesn't want to hear any more about the twain never meeting.




"And then what?" Wesley is sitting in a metal folding chair, the crossbow discreetly laid behind him on the floor, trying not to feel sick. He could use a cigarette, but he's the only one here whose lungs still actually need to function, so he's the only one who doesn't get to smoke.

"Then he beat on me some more." Xander takes a long drag on his own cigarette, as if he knows what Wesley is craving, and wants to rub it in. "Messed up that carpet something fierce."

"Arizona," Spike says, just to clarify. "You're sure."

"Saw the phone book on the bed, yeah."

"Why the hell was he in Arizona?"

Xander shrugs. "Voted number one state to be a bug-fuck psycho asshole in?"

Wesley frowns. "He was buying time, that's all. Drawing it out."

"Or that," Xander says mildly, flicking ash to the floor. "He got some pretty serious joy out of calling you guys up every other day."

"Like I said," Spike says. "He's a psychopath."

"And he's loose," Wesley reminds them. "Xander, anything at all that you can remember--"

"About being tortured, murdered, and turned into a vampire? Let me plumb a little deeper, yeah."

"Don't be a dick," Spike says.

"I'm a dick? Me? I'm the guy who got abducted doing his homework, remember? You want to talk about a dick, let's talk about the guy I worked for, who left me manning the desk alone with a psycho on the loose--"

Spike reaches over and smacks Xander across the mouth with the flat of his hand. It's not that hard, but it's sudden and sharp, and Xander shuts up. He sits giving Spike a sullen look, one hand massaging the corner of his lip.

"And don't be a poof, either," Spike says. "Barely touched you."

"Dick," Xander mutters. Spike ignores him.

Wesley realizes he's sitting on the edge of his chair, his muscles tight and strained, his hands in fists. It bothers him that Spike's in the cage with Xander, even though he has no doubt that if Xander tried anything, Spike could easily squash him. The blood's brought Xander around a great deal, but he's still weak. He's also a brand-new vampire, and Wesley knows from experience that new vamps are mostly show. So it's probably safe enough that Spike's in there, but it still makes Wesley nervous.

He has the distinct sense that of everyone in the room, he is the one with the least understanding of what's going on. It's not a pleasant sensation.

"We may have to accept," he says, "that Angelus left no clues. Or at least none that Xander can provide us with."

"So, what?" Spike leans back in his chair and puts his feet up against the edge of Xander's bunk. He's acting, Wesley realizes, as if nothing has changed. As if Xander is still a mutual friend, a colleague, a drinking partner. No, he's not. He's acting as if Xander is something more than a friend. Something far more familiar and intimate than a friend. "So we give up looking?"

"If we have no clues," Wesley says, "we have no way even to begin looking."

"Locator spell?" Xander says. "Hello?"

"We tried that immediately. When he took you from the library, he also took a codex with a large number of wards in it. He must have used one."

"Shit." Xander smokes moodily, still thumbing the corner of his mouth. "Where's Willy when you need him, huh?"

"Too right," Spike says, and the two of them share a brief, rueful smile.

It's ridiculous for Wesley to ask who Willy is. It's also ridiculous to feel left out of Spike and Xander's conversation, when it so clearly doesn't figure. In fact, it's ridiculous for him to be there at all, so he picks up his crossbow and goes back up to the library and tries again to find the answer. To anything.




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