The Assistant


by
Witling



Part Ten

Riding in the elevator with two vampires, one of them unsouled, is more than a little claustrophobic. To his credit, Xander is clearly making every effort to seem harmless, to the point of pressing himself against the far wall and staring at the floor between his feet. Or maybe it's not for Wesley's benefit; maybe he's just that demoralized. Coming out of the cage, he almost tripped over his own feet, he was in such a hurry.

Spike stands holding the end of the Xander's chain, watching the numbers light up on the panel above the door. As if he does this kind of thing every day.

For the first time, it occurs to Wesley that Spike is handling things very well. Better than Wesley is himself. Especially considering...well, everything. He has a flash of Spike tearing into him outside the library, half-yelling into his face. It still stings, but at least it makes better sense.

The elevator comes to a halt and dings gently. Wesley's crossbow finger is starting to cramp.

When the doors open, Spike walks out and Xander falls in behind him without hesitation. There's slack in the chain, as if they've already worked out exactly how to do this. Wesley allows himself a moment to feel extremely odd, then follows them out.

They walk single-file to the library, Xander in the middle. Spike in front, the crossbow behind. Xander's still barefoot, Wesley realizes. He forgot to find shoes, when he went up to Xander's room.

"Right," Spike says, as he opens the door to the library and walks in. "Ground rules. First of all, nobody bites anybody. First person to bite gets a nice piece of wood right through the heart. Understood?"

Xander says nothing. Spike looks at Wesley, then back at Xander.

"Wesley understands," Spike says. "Do we all understand?"

"Yeah," Xander says, staring a hole through the floor. "Yeah, I get it."

"Good. Don't think I'm joking, Harris."

Xander lifts his hand to scratch his nose. The chains clank.

"Well," Wesley says, laying the crossbow carefully on the table, "perhaps I'll get back to what I was doing."

"Rule number two," Spike says, looping his end of Xander's chain around the leg of the long table and taking the padlock out of his pocket. "No funny looks. No threats. No eyeing anybody's jugular. You get hungry, you tell me and I get you a bag. I see you thinking about drinking from the source, I drop-kick you right back downstairs."

Xander sits down slowly in a chair, and nods. He seems strangely subdued, almost preoccupied. He hardly seems aware of the fact that his hands are bound at the wrists, or that he's chained to the table. He doesn't even watch as Spike snaps the hasp home.

"Any other rules?" Spike asks, and Wesley takes a moment to realize that's directed at him.

"I suppose there's no point asking him not to use anything he hears against us."

Spike gives Xander a considering look. "Want to go back downstairs?"

Xander looks startled. "No."

"Then don't use anything you hear against us."

Wesley purses his lips and turns away. "Thank you."

"Read a book," Spike says, skimming a volume of Bufwulder across the table at Xander, who catches it automatically. "Make yourself useful."

Xander doesn't open the book, but sits with his hands on it, studying the room. His eyes are shadowed, and everything about him seems troubled and tentative. It's the room Angelus attacked him in, Wesley realizes suddenly. The room he was taken from.

"Perhaps Xander would be more comfortable in the offices," Wesley says quietly, catching Spike's eye.

Spike gives Xander a quick look, and shrugs. "Not safe to leave him alone. He'll get over it."

Wesley hesitates, then goes back to his end of the table and starts thumbing through pages. Spike opens his own book and props his head on his hand.

Xander scratches his nose again, and his chains clank.




Four hours later they're no further ahead than they were, and Wesley is beginning to recognize signs of exhaustion in himself. His eyes won't stay in focus, and his mind is wandering. It's foolish to keep on, so he shuts the book and stands up, wincing at all the aches.

Xander and Spike lift their heads in eerie unison, like dogs catching a distant whistle. Wesley clears his throat.

"I'm...I need a few hours of sleep. Will you be all right without me?"

Spike shrugs. "I could use a kip, too." He leans down, unlocks Xander's chain, and starts unwinding it from the table leg. "You should eat something. When's the last time you had a sandwich?"

Sorting papers, Wesley doesn't realize Spike is talking to him for a moment. Then he can't think of the answer to Spike's question. Suddenly his stomach is a black and bottomless pit.

"You're right." He pauses, not sure what the social niceties are in this situation. "I'm sure Xander could use a meal, too."

"Cooler's in the hall," Spike says, wrapping the chain around his fist. "You going to throw it at anyone this time?"

Xander gives Spike a steady look that could not accurately be described as remorseful. Spike twitches the chain, which clearly means stand up. Xander stands up. It's disturbing.

"I'll be back here by ten," Wesley says, and walks out.

He goes to the break room and takes a cup of dehydrated noodle soup from the shelf above the sink. It takes less than a minute to microwave, while he draws a glass of water at the tap. He carries it all down the hall to the security room, and sits down wearily in front of the screens.

Angelus is sitting on his bunk, whistling Danny Boy. There's a dark spray on the wall behind him, which it takes Wesley a minute to recognize as the blood Xander threw at him. While he watches, Angelus reaches a hand above his head and casually tests the strength of the crossbar. He pulls hard enough to lift his body slowly off the bunk. The bar holds. He lets go and examines his fingernails, still whistling.

With a shudder, Wesley checks the other screens. No movement on any of them, except for the one in the hall outside the library. Spike's standing watching, holding the end of the chain, while Xander sucks blood out of a bag. There's already one bag lying empty on top of the cooler. Spike's got a lit cigarette in his free hand, and an unlit one tucked behind his ear.

With a strange sense of guilty fascination, Wesley rests his forehead on his hand and watches them.

Xander finishes the bag and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. Spike leans over and thumbs Xander's neck critically. He's saying something, Wesley realizes. He reaches for the volume, hesitates, then turns the dial.

"--looking better." Spike turns Xander's face to the side and inspects the throat wound, simultaneously dragging on his cigarette. "That scar'll be gone in a couple of days."

"Great. I can wear scoop necks again."

"You done?"

Xander folds the top of the blood packet neatly over on itself, drops it on top of the cooler, and nods. Spike takes the unlit cigarette from behind his ear and holds it out. It's strange to see Xander take it, strange to see him lean into the flame of the lighter and blow a stream of smoke toward the ceiling. Even with his wrists chained, he does it absently and comfortably. Wesley wonders if he picked it up in Africa, or somewhere else along the way.

"Come on," Spike says, transferring the chain to his cigarette hand and hoisting the cooler onto his shoulder. "We'll chuck these in the fridge and get to bed."

Wesley leans back in his chair, rubs the heels of his hands into his eyes, and drifts for a couple of minutes. The room is so dark it's like being in a velvet-lined coffin. It's restful. Finally he sits up again, picks up his fork, and starts in on the terrible noodles.

Angelus is walking the perimeter of his cell, inspecting the bars. Spike and Xander are in the elevator, heading upstairs. There's no sound in the elevators, but they don't seem to be talking anyway. They're standing on opposite sides of the car, the chain strung between them in a black arc. Spike is watching the numbers light up. Xander is staring at his feet.

They get out on Spike's floor, and walk down the hall to his apartments. He keeps hold of Xander's chain while he unlocks the door. Then he gestures Xander inside, and looks back over his shoulder, directly at the security camera.

For a moment, Wesley has the strange impression that Spike is looking straight at him. He leans back in his chair, heat flushing his face.

Spike goes into his apartment and closes the door behind him. Inside, he's long ago shut the cameras off manually. Nothing but black screens from those feeds.

The noodles are mealy and oversalted. Wesley drops them in the rubbish bin and leaves, the back of his neck hot and his palms damp.





Part Eleven

Sleep is a bully, knocking him down and holding his head under until he breaks free with a violent jerk. The alarm is beeping placidly, and must have been for some time. He set it for nine forty, and it's past eleven. He's covered in cold sweat.

Chewing ibuprofen tablets in the shower, he remembers vague details, like distant contrails floating apart from their centers. Angelus leaning over him. The lonely, depressing certainty that he deserved whatever he got.

He dries off in a hurry, wipes a clear strip in the mirror with his forearm, and studies his stubble and bloodshot eyes. He looks like death warmed over. It's appropriate, really.

It's strange to walk into the library and find Spike and Xander already there, hard at work. Spike gives him a cursory glance and goes back to his book. Xander's eyes latch onto him and don't let go. He looks better--more alert, less overwhelmed. There's gauze taped over his throat wound, which is a relief. The bruises on his face have faded almost completely. He doesn't look pleased to see Wesley, but he doesn't look hostile, either. He looks...interested.

"I'm sorry," Wesley says, going to his chair and pulling it out. "I overslept."

"You're exhausted," Spike observes, making a note on a piece of paper beside the book he's using. "Might as well go back to bed for a few hours."

"I'm fine." There's a cup of cold coffee on the table in front of him, untouched. "Is this for me?"

"If you like it two hours old, yeah."

With a sense of complete surreality, Wesley picks it up and tastes it. It's cold. "Thank you."

Xander is still watching him in silence. Wesley feels a faint prickling along the back of his neck, and tries to ignore it. He sits down and pulls over the nearest sheet of paper with Spike's handwriting on it. "Any luck so far?"

"Lots. Mostly bad, though."

"Hm." Wesley skims the list of counters Spike's made. In fact he seems to have made quite a bit of progress. There are several in the list that Wesley might not have thought of. "This is very good--the Hausa funerary rite is a very good idea."

"That was Harris." Spike nods sideways without looking up. "Not as stupid as he looks, apparently."

"Oh, well--" Wesley pauses, a little unnerved by the dark stare Xander is still giving him. "Thank you, Xander. That will be very helpful."

"No problem," Xander says flatly. Spike glances at him, frowns, and sits up, pencil in hand.

"You want to go back downstairs?"

Xander turns his flat gaze on Spike. "No."

"Then stop looking at him like that."

A faint smile touches the corner of Xander's mouth. "Sorry. Daddy."

Wesley freezes with the coffee cup halfway to his mouth. Did he just hear--?

"Cut that out," Spike snaps. Xander makes a moue of affected apology, widening his eyes and pursing his lips.

Wesley puts his cup down carefully and steadies himself with a deep breath. Again, he has the feeling that he's an intruder here, the tolerated child or village idiot. He's too literal, he has to keep reminding himself that Xander has no soul now, that everything has shifted. He's briefly, fervently grateful for Spike, who's keeping things under some kind of control.

Then he notices Spike's throat.

"That's very funny," Spike is saying grimly, while Xander bats his eyelashes. "You done now?"

"Sure." Xander drops his gaze back to his book, discarding the coquettishness suddenly, as if it's become boring. Spike looks back at Wesley.

"Sorry, he's a bloody--" Seeing Wesley's face, he stops. "What?"

Wesley looks down. "Nothing." There are bite marks in Spike's throat.

There's a pause, and then Xander chuckles. Wesley hears a sharp clank and a thump. "Fuck, ow!"

"You shut up," Spike says, his tone darker than it was before.

Wesley keeps his eyes on the page in front of him. The library is silent.




On the security screen, Angelus is a silent lump on the bunk inside his cage, no more than a bundle of very large clothes. Even evil sleeps, Wesley reminds himself, gripping the crossbow a little tighter in the elevator, heading down. Still, he's ashamed of how unnerved he feels. They have everything they need for the counters, and Angelus is locked safely behind bars. There's no reason for the cold sweat that's dampening his palms and upper lip.

"Seriously," Xander says, "just tie me to the table, I swear to God I won't go anywhere."

"No," Spike says, for the third time. He's got Xander's chain in his hands, and he's staring at the elevator doors, like an overtired parent. "You'll be fine, just shut up and do what I tell you."

"This is ridiculous." Xander rests his head sideways against the wall, then gives a sudden involuntary shiver and looks at Wes. His face is an open appeal. "Wes, come on. This is ridiculous, right?"

"It's the best we can do," Wesley says, glancing at the back of Spike's neck for support. "I'm sorry."

"Stop whinging," Spike adds. "I spent twenty-something years with the bastard, you think I like doing this?"

"He didn't spend three days cutting vents in you."

"Sure he did."

"Nobody likes this," Wesley says, as the elevator comes to a stop. "We're going to try to get it over with as quickly as possible. Xander, do as Spike tells you. And stay out of the way."

They walk down the hallway the way they go everywhere now--Spike in front, Xander in tow, Wesley bringing up the rear with the bow in his hands. Wesley wonders if he could bring himself to use it, if Xander did something violent or unexpected. He's slightly more than halfway sure that he could.

"Great timing," Angelus says, slipping off his bunk and coming to meet them at the bars of his cage. He's always taller than Wesley remembers. "Breakfast, right? I am starving."

"Take Xander back there," Wesley says to Spike, nodding at the cage Xander used to occupy. Spike nods and starts back that way, but Xander plants his feet. The chain draws tight.

"I'm not getting back in that thing," Xander says. "No fucking way."

Spike yanks the chain, and Xander's wrists jerk up, but he doesn't move his feet. "Harris, if you don't get over here right now--"

"Lovers' quarrel," Angelus says fondly to Wesley.

Wesley ignores him. He sets the crossbow carefully down on top of the metal folding chair, then takes the folded paper out of his pocket.

"I don't need a menu," Angelus says. "I'll have...let's see, I'll have the eggs with two strips of bacon, and a side of that sweet blue vein you've got running up the side of your throat, Wes. The one that throbs when you're excited."

Wesley starts the first counter, making the hand motions as well as he can with the paper still in his fingers.

"Like now," Angelus says, grinning.

"Omnia," Wesley concludes, and there's a pop in his eardrums, like being in a plane losing altitude. Angelus frowns and steps away from the bars of his cage. He seems just a little smaller now. Maybe just a little less self-assured.

"What was that?" Spike asks, still negotiating with Xander a few feet behind Wesley.

"That was Jagdash Neel's third ward, disintegrating."

Angelus rubs the back of his neck and says nothing. Wesley chances a look back over his shoulder. Both Spike and Xander look impressed.

"Spike," Wesley says, "I really don't care how you do it, but please get Xander back to a safe distance."

Spike tightens his mouth and yanks the chain so hard that Xander is jerked almost off his feet. Advantage gained, Spike drags him back to the far cage and chains him to it.

"Thank you," Wesley says, when they're done. He turns back to Angelus.

"You see those holes in Spike's neck?" Angelus asks, working back up to a smile. "What do you think those two were up to all last night?"

Wesley looks back down at the paper, and raises a hand in the formal gesture of undoing. "Utinam ne id accidisset."

Angelus grips the bars of his cage, and pulls hard. They don't move.




Forty-five minutes later, Wesley's voice is starting to fail, and he's having trouble concentrating on the words in front of him. There's a smell in the air, like ozone. His eyes may be exhausted, but he thinks there's also a faint fog accumulating. So much casting in such a small space, with no reprieve. It's not wise--the aftereffects can linger and interfere with each other. And the caster can become too depleted to be useful.

Still, he's accomplished a great deal. The wards are like clothes. It's as if Angelus has dressed himself up in a hundred different shirts, each one offering him anonymity or protection from something. Wesley's managed to peel half of them away, and now Angelus is just sitting on his bunk, smoldering. He isn't trying to provoke anymore; he's not amused. In a way, he's becoming more frightening, the nakeder he is.

"Omnia erant agenda nobis," Wesley intones, and there's a tingle in his forearms and groin. Angelus straightens slightly, as if someone has poked him with a pin. He gives Wesley a look of unconcealed hatred.

"I'm going to wrap your guts around your throat and pull hard," he says quietly.

Wesley realizes that the paper in his hand is fluttering; his hands are shaking. He folds the paper and puts it back in his pocket, then takes his glasses off and pinches the bridge of his nose.

"You okay?" Spike is suddenly beside him, slipping a hand under his elbow and pulling him back a step. That's intelligent; if he's going to faint, he shouldn't do it in reach of Angelus's cage.

"I'm fine," Wesley says, waiting for the world to right itself beneath his feet. "Just a little tired."

"Take a break." Spike hooks the chair with his ankle, scoops the bow up off it, and helps Wesley sit down. He's very thoughtful, for a vampire. For a few seconds, Wesley just sits still and tries to order his thoughts.

"Getting tired, huh?" Wesley can hear Angelus get up off his bunk and walk to the bars. "That's okay, Wes. I'm still ready to go. You just keep tossing those spells at me, and when you're done, you know what you're going to find?" Wesley looks up blearily; Angelus is smiling at him, with just a hint of fang. "Me."

Spike shoots him.

It happens too fast for Wesley to even understand what's happened at first; one moment Angelus is grinning, the next he's snarling, game-faced, and there's a dull brown shaft protruding from his shoulder. He yanks it out and snaps it in his fist, turning on Spike with a basso growl.

"I'm getting really tired of you," Spike says, letting the bow fall to his side.

"You," Angelus says, "I'm going to keep around for a while. You and your boy toy. It's gonna be fun, kicking you around." His eyes flash yellow, demonic inspiration. "Hey, maybe I'll break your back again, and you can watch like you used to with Drusilla. You like watching, right, Spike? I bet you'd love to see me bend that pretty boyfriend of yours over--"

He stops short, staggers back a step, and grabs his throat. His expression changes from fury to panic. His whole body convulses.

Baffled, Wesley turns on Spike. "What did you do?"

Spike's shaking his head in confusion. The bow is still lowered at his side. "Nothing."

"What's wrong with him?" Wesley stands up and starts for the cage, but Spike grabs hold of his arm and keeps him back. "What's going on?" Angelus is making choking sounds, but that's impossible, a vampire can't choke.

"It's a trick," Spike says, dragging Wesley back. "He's trying to get you in reach--"

"I'd like to leave now!" Xander yells, his chains clanking nervously. Angelus coughs, and flecks of white foam hit the floor.

"Spike, something seems seriously wrong--"

"One of those spells, then. Something backfired--what did you cast?"

Clumsily, Wesley paws the paper out of his pocket again. "A lot of things. Thirty, forty different counters. But none of them could do this to him."

"Any time!" Xander yells.

"Shut up!" Spike yells back.

Angelus isn't choking anymore; now he's wheezing, sounding like a man whose airway has closed down to a pinhole. A man who's gasping desperately for breath. He stumbles back and sits down hard on the bunk. One hand clutches at his throat; the other makes a fist and slams into the bars beside him. Blood flies.

"He's going to--" Wesley starts to say.

Then the wheezing stops, as suddenly as if a finger has come off a valve. Angelus's hands fall away from his throat, from the bars.

"What the hell?" Spike raises the bow again, warily.

Angelus lifts his head and gives them an astonished look.

"Wes?" He looks around. Lifts his bloodied hand and studies it. "What's going on? Why am I in here?"

Wesley sits frozen, staring. Angelus looks at Spike, opens his mouth, and then doesn't say anything. A shadow crosses his face--the look of a man remembering.

"Angelus?" Wesley hears himself say.

Angelus looks at him, his eyes widening in horrified confirmation.

"That's not Angelus," Wesley says numbly. "That's--"

"We're leaving," Spike says, and hauls him out of the chair before he can say another word.





Part Twelve

"That's Angel," Wesley says dully, staring at the security screen.

"That's what he wants you to think." Spike leans forward and drops his cigarette end into an old cup of coffee with a hiss. "You go back down there and open the door, he's going to say thanks Wes, how about we go up to the White Room together and sort all this out?"

"I'm not an idiot."

"Neither is he."

Silence. Wesley studies the body slumped on the floor of the cage. He started out on the bunk, then seemed to slowly melt to the floor, like a man under an intolerable, invisible weight. Now he's half-lying against the bars, one leg sprawled bonelessly out in front of him, the other tucked under at a strange angle. He appears to be staring at his own hands. He may or may not be in tears.

"You can't tell?" Wesley asks, for the third time. "You can't sense whether the soul's in place?"

"I can tell he's a big fucking vampire with a lot of spells on him and some nice sharp teeth in his head."

"Do you think Xander could tell?"

"Before or after he wets himself?"

Wesley rubs a hand across his mouth and stares at the screen some more. Angelus is turning the crossbow bolt over and over in his hands.

"All right," Wesley says at last. "We'll rest a little while longer, then go back down and start the counters again. We'll proceed as though it's Angelus, to be safe."

Spike raises his palms in a thank God gesture, and shoves his chair back from the desk. "Good."

"How's Xander?"

Spike is already halfway out the door; he pauses to glance back. "He's dead, soulless, and chained to a refrigerator. I'd say he's had better days."

"I mean how's he holding up?"

"He's not the one who looks like he's been sucked through a jet engine. Take a nap, will you?"

"That's a very good idea."

Spike lingers a few seconds longer, as if he's going to say something else, then leaves.

Wesley goes back to staring at the man in the cage.




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