The Assistant


Part Thirteen

"I do not dig this," Xander says, watching the numbers light up in descending order. He's standing with his back in the corner of the elevator, instinctively guarding himself. In just the couple of hours since Wes last studied him, he seems to have healed more and taken on a leaner, more predatory look. His teeth seem very white, his eyes very dark. It's unsettling.

"Nobody's asking you," Spike says, without turning around. "Your job is to shut up and keep out of the way."

"So leave me upstairs, I'll be out-of-the-way-guy in the extreme."

"What part of 'shut up' do you not get?"

"I'm just saying--"

Spike turns around and hits Xander hard in the face. It's so fast Wesley barely sees it, although he startles and half-raises the crossbow in automatic self-defense. Xander's knocked back against the wall.

"Shut up," Spike intones, his tone so low it's almost a growl. Xander glares up at him, his teeth beginning to lengthen into fangs. Spike sees it, and wraps the chain around his fist an extra time. "Try me."

Wesley finds himself pressed back against his own wall, the crossbow tight in his hands, his heart beating double-time. For the first time, Spike seems to be fraying. For the first time too, Xander seems prepared to challenge Spike's authority. It seems like a very bad moment to be in a small metal box with the two of them.

The elevator stops, and the bell dings. Spike doesn't break Xander's gaze. For a little eternity, while the doors open and wait patiently for them to exit, they all stay where they are.

Finally Xander drops his eyes and wipes his lip with his knuckles. There's no blood, Wesley notices with relief. More blood seems like a bad idea for everyone.

"Right," Spike says, rocking back onto his heels and settling his shoulders. The little hairs on Wesley's neck lie down flat again. "Let's go."

They walk down the corridor in single file, Xander in the middle. It's silent except for their footsteps. Spike stops at the first cage and threads Xander's chain through the bars, then locks him in place. Wesley continues on to the end.

Angelus is still on the floor, still in the same awkward, disjointed position he's been in for over an hour. His head is lowered, but he lifts it when Wesley nears the cage. His face is pale and puffy and expressionless.


Wesley stops and tries to decide whether he can hear anything useful in that tone. After a moment, he decides he can't. He hooks the metal folding chair with his toe and drags it back until he can put the crossbow on it. Angelus watches him do it. Then his gaze shifts, to just over Wesley's right shoulder.


Spike doesn't say anything, just walks up and stands there with his left hand hanging down more or less near to the crossbow. Angelus studies him, studies the crossbow, then drops his eyes back to his hands. He's turning the bolt over and over.

Wesley pulls the paper out of his pocket again, glances at Spike, and begins.

"Mihi parendum est--"

"The Verran Cycle," Angelus says dully, staring at the bolt. "That's the big one."

Wesley pauses. Again, he looks at Spike, who's looking back at him narrowly. "Pardon me?"

"The Verran Cycle. That's the biggest ward; if you counter it, the others should break on their own."

Wesley lowers the paper. "You cast the Verran Cycle on yourself?"

Angelus presses the bolt against one fingertip, and nods. Spike's shaking his head, but Wesley ignores him for the moment.

"The Verran Cycle is an extremely powerful ward," he says. "One of the strongest. Countering it can be dangerous for both the caster and the subject."

Angelus looks up, a hopeless smile at the corner of his mouth. "I know, Wes. I'm sorry."

"Handy, that." Spike lets his hand rest casually on top of the chair. "Too bad for us if the Watcher gets his teeth knocked out, I guess."

"If there was any way to make it safer, I'd do it."

"There isn't." Wesley folds the paper neatly over on itself, and creases it hard between his fingers. "But you know that."

There's a clank behind them, and they all look back at Xander, who's watching them intently from the far cage. He's half in game face, Wesley realizes--it gives him a disturbing, distorted look. He seems unable to control his features while he's around Angelus.

Seeing them all looking at him, he says quietly, "I really think this is a bad idea."

"Noted," Wesley says, and turns back to Angelus. "Why are you telling me what wards you've cast on yourself?"

Angelus gives a hollow laugh and latches a hand through the bars above his head. Slowly, as if he weighs a ton, he pulls himself to his feet. "Wes," he says, leaning on the cage like an exhausted man, "you know why."

"I don't."

"You know who I am."

Wesley pauses, then wets his lips and says, "I don't."

Angelus lifts his head and looks at Wesley. He looks awful. He looks like a man in the last stages of a terminal illness, one who's given up his hold on life and is simply waiting for his body to do the same. He seems past grief. Though not, perhaps, past pain.

Wesley drops his eyes. "If I counter the Verran cycle, will Xander be able to sense whether your soul is in place?"

"I don't know."

"I'm not sensing any souls, here." Xander calls helpfully.

"Shut up," Spike says.

"If countering the cycle injures me, you'll have gained an advantage."

"Not really." Angelus's expression softens slightly. "Wes, it's me. Angel."

"Angel would understand why I can't believe that."

"Yeah. But think about it, Wes. I just told you how to break the wards--why would Angelus do that?"

"Because you're stuck in a cage," Spike says.

"Angelus would bide his time. He'd bait you and try to force your hand. He wouldn't help you expose his weakness." Angelus turns his head and studies Spike. "He taught you that much, didn't he?"

Spike rolls his eyes. "Angelus taught me to never trust Angelus."

"If you counter the cycle," Angelus says, turning back to Wes, "I'm still in the cage. But the wards will be gone. You can cast whatever you want on me. And you'll know I was telling the truth."

Wesley stands still, trying not to betray anything with his expression. His brain feels overloaded, thrust into fifth gear at a crawl. There's a flaw in the logic somewhere, he's sure of it, but he can't see it. He looks sideways to catch Spike's eye.

Spike sees him do it, and his own eyes narrow in frustration. "Conference." He turns, grabs the crossbow up off the chair, and stalks back down the hall toward the elevator. Wesley follows.

When they pass Xander, he raises his hands and pulls the chain taut. "Hey, whoah, where are we going?"

"Stay," Spike says, walking past.

Xander's eyes widen and turn gold. "'Stay'? Where the fuck are you going?"

Spike ignores him, and slaps the button for the elevator. The doors open, and he steps inside. Wesley does the same, and when the doors close, Spike turns the key.

"Fuck this," he snaps, as soon as the doors are shut. "This is bloody ridiculous."

"Yes," Wesley agrees, pulling his glasses off and rubbing his eyes. "I agree, the situation has been well out of hand for some time now. But countering the cycle may help in one major respect."

"What, in getting your head ripped off?"

"Determining whether that really is Angel in the cell."

Spike laces his hands suddenly behind his head and pulls hard, as if he can't stand to be still. "I'm not keen on being the only one left standing with a soul."

"If the counter goes wrong, it probably won't kill me. It may knock me out temporarily, but as long as I'm at a safe distance from Angelus, that won't change anything."

"You said 'probably'."

"There are two cases on record of a Verran counter turning fatal, and in both of them, the caster was an underprepared junior."

"As opposed to you."

"I'm not a junior, Spike. I've studied casting since I was in training at the Council--"

"Studied it. Not done it."

Wesley shrugs and puts his glasses back on. "The difference is academic. I can do this, and I can probably do it without getting anyone hurt." As he's speaking, he's relieved to feel their course of action become clear to him. "We have to try this. If it works it will be a huge step toward putting things right again."

"It's going to bring Harris back to life and give him his soul back?"

Wesley says nothing. After a second, Spike grabs his own hair in fists and pulls from the scalp. "Sorry."

"I'll need your support," Wesley says, reaching past Spike to turn the key. The doors slide open. "It's relatively simple to set up, but you may need to help me after it's done."

"Help you how?" Spike asks, following Wesley out and hesitating when Wesley turns right instead of left. "Where are you going?"

"To the refrigerator. I need blood. Go back and make sure Xander is securely chained, please."

Spike's feet pause a moment longer, then go the other way down the corridor. Wesley goes to the refrigerator and pulls out a bag of blood at random. It's like carrying a dead spleen back down the hall toward the cells. Slick and cold and heavy. He notices it with the part of his brain that remains devoted to minor physical details, while the rest of his attention is on remembering the sequence of the counter. Every first-year student learns the Verran cycle and its counter; it's a classic. It's strangely reassuring to hear the sequence in his head, as if he's back in school and is going to be tested. He always liked being set tests. He always did well at them.

Xander stares as Wesley walks past, his face more human now but his hands twisting uncomfortably in the chains. "Did I already say this seems like--"

"A bad idea," Wesley says, without breaking stride. "Yes, you did. Please don't interfere."

Spike is standing by the wall with the crossbow cradled in his arms. He's moved the metal folding chair out of the way, leaving a wide bare stretch of floor in front of Angelus's cage. It's dramatic, but unnecessary. The circle only needs to be big enough to encompass the caster's feet. In this case, Wesley plans to make it very small indeed.

"Be careful, Wes." Angelus has moved back to the middle of the cell, and he's standing with his hands dangling loose at his sides, watching closely. "Don't make it big, okay? A small circle works just like a big one."

Wesley pauses, the blood bag held out in front of him. Angelus looks slightly embarrassed.

"Sorry. Go ahead."

"Thank you." Wesley has a pen knife in his pocket; he takes it out and uses the tip of the small blade to puncture the bag. Blood wells out, and he balances it carefully so it doesn't fall, while he wipes the blade clean and puts it back in his pocket. "Vereor ut amicus venerit." He takes a deep breath and glances at Spike, who's straightened up and has the crossbow pointed more directly at Angelus. Good.

Wesley turns the bag and lets the blood fall to the ground. "Timeo abire. Tibi impero ut venias. Venite mecum." He moves the bag to the left, counterclockwise around his body, undoing. Blood patters to the floor, drawing a solid uneven line. In the back of the room, Xander's chains clank. "Tu, quicumque es. Antequam finiam, hoc dicam." He transfers the bag from his left hand to his right and continues the circle behind his back. There's a strange sinking sensation in his feet and legs, as if he's being pulled down into the floor. "Mihi parendum est."

The circle is complete now, and he turns the bag over in his hand, neatly stopping the flow. He looks up; Angelus is still standing in place as if he's rooted there. His mouth is downturned in a scowl of pain or fear. In the corner of Wesley's eye, Spike is at full attention, clearly wanting something to shoot.

Wesley lifts the bag. "Verere." He twists his wrist sharply, and flicks blood through the bars and into the cage. It hits Angelus across the face and chest. He's already closed his eyes in anticipation.

For a second nothing else happens. Then Wesley recognizes the heat building in his stomach. He braces himself; accounts say the stronger the cycle, the greater the heat. He won't be burned, it's not that kind of combustion. He tells himself that several times--it won't burn him, it's not real.

It feels real. In a few seconds it's white-hot, like a shovel of coals in his gut, climbing into his chest. He feels himself stiffen, feels his eyes widen and his hair lift. The circle holds him in place; it's a safety. Through the wash of tears in his eyes he can see Angelus straining inside the cage, suffering the same effects.

It isn't real, he tells himself again, as the fire spreads down his arms and legs and up into his brain. It's not real heat; from the outside he looks like a man having a seizure, nothing more. He isn't smelling his own guts charring, he isn't going to faint, he isn't going to die. He just needs to stand it for as long as it lasts. The stronger the cycle, the longer it lasts.

It goes on for hours. He arches up on his toes, trying desperately to get away from it, step out of the circle, anything, but he can't move. That's why the safety exists, because no one would complete the counter without it. He'd give a million dollars for it to stop. He'd give years of his life for it to stop. He's being roasted in an oven, burnt from the inside out. He can't think, can't see. All he feels is pain and terror that he's been foolhardy and wrong, that he's going to die.

Then it stops, and he hardly feels the floor when he hits it.

He loses track of things for a minute. When he comes back, he's lying on the concrete in front of Angelus's cell, covered in blood from the burst bag. Spike is somewhere, yelling. For some reason, there's a large hole in the bars of Angelus's cell. It's the first thing Wesley sees, even before he sees Angelus slowly picking himself up off the floor in front of him.

He has a sense of movement, something approaching him fast from behind, and with a last feeble effort, he rolls to face it. It's Xander. He's in game face, leaning over, grabbing Wesley's arm. It's like a dream of being taken by monsters. Wesley tries to yank himself free, but he's made of lead and he's sinking.

"Hey," Xander says, and then Wesley has the sense of being lifted easily, like a sleeping child taken from its bed.

Part Fourteen

He comes to with a disorienting sensation of weight traveling down his body and centering in his feet. He's in the elevator, he realizes. They're going up.

"What--" He finds strength in his legs, and reaches for the wall to support himself. Someone's holding his elbow, keeping him upright. "What happened?"

"Fucked if I know." That's Spike. Wesley turns his head and finds that Spike is standing beside him, looking taut and holding the crossbow. "The building's still sealed, yeah?"

The building... Wesley realizes he can't feel his hands or feet. He's beginning to shiver. The wards sealed the building as soon as Angelus entered. The only person who can remove them is Wesley, and they're still in place, but for some reason it's freezing in the elevator. His blood is turning to ice. He's going to faint.

"Wesley." Spike sounds very far away, and angry. "Is it still sealed?"

He thought he'd said so. He nods.

"Fucking hell...Watcher. Is it sealed or not?"

He didn't nod; he only meant to. He's floating inside his own body, unable to make the connections work. It shivers on its own. He can hear a quick clacking sound, like teeth chattering. Suddenly, he remembers the hole in Angelus's cage. But the building is sealed, he can't get out.

Something smacks him in the face, which brings things back in a roar. He opens his eyes and finds Spike standing in front of him, the elevator doors open behind him, everything blurry and familiar.

"It's sealed," Wesley gasps.

"I know," Spike says, looking concerned. "You said that."

"Then why did hit me."

"You wouldn't bloody shut up about it."

Wesley blinks dumbly. Spike's gaze moves from his face to a spot over his shoulder. "Come on."

"Where are we--what--" Wesley tries to make his legs work, without success. He's shivering so hard he can barely speak.

"And don't be stupid," Spike says, walking out of the elevator and down the hall. "Or I'll drop you down that shaft and let Angelus have you."

Wesley turns his head. Xander is standing behind him, holding him up by his waist and elbow. It doesn't appear to cost him any effort to do it.

"Jawohl, mein Fuhrer," he mutters, and glances at Wesley. "Nice job, Wes. Way to liven things up around here."

"Where I can see you!" Spike yells from the hallway. Xander rolls his eyes and hauls Wesley out of the elevator before he can say anything to defend himself.

They go to the security room. Spike flips switches until everything's online, then stands back and studies the screens. Xander drops Wesley into a chair and goes over for a look.

"Where's the basement?"

Mutely, Spike points at the screens. Xander frowns. "They're dead."

"I see that." Spike tries the switches again, then shrugs. "He killed them. Or they went out when the Watcher blew everything up."

Blew everything up? Wesley tries to ask, but his mouth still isn't working. Spike looks over at him anyway, his expression assessing now.

"You going to live?"

Wesley concentrates on making his mouth work properly. He's getting some feeling back in his fingers and toes. Pain, mostly. "Yes."

"Good." Spike looks back at the screens, running a finger over them in rapid sequence, then coming to a sudden stop. "There--what the hell is he in, a service elevator?"

"That is some crappy reception." Xander leans in and studies the screen, then runs a hand nervously over the back of his head. "So, we're leaving, right?"

Spike gives him a you idiot look. "The building's sealed."

Xander stands up fast, his whole body tensed. "Wait, whoah--you mean nobody can leave?"

"We need weapons."

"We need to unseal." Xander turns to Wesley, his face a little askew, his eyes wide. "Wesley, hey, how about a little unsealing? For old time's sake?"

Wesley wraps his arms around himself and squeezes, for warmth and to make the shivering less obvious. He's covered in blood, he realizes. From the bag he used to counter the cycle. It's wet and cold, and it stinks. "I can't."

"Weapons," Spike says again, starting for the door.

"Fuck weapons!" Xander snaps. "You already shot him once, and notice him enjoying the Muzak. Wesley--" He turns and leans over to give Wesley a direct, pleading look. "Come on, Wes. There's gotta be some way to do this."

Even Spike seems to pause, listening and hoping. Wesley shakes his head. "It doesn't work like that. I'm sorry."

"Don't be such a nance," Spike says to Xander. "Come on. And bring him."


"The training rooms." Spike's halfway out the door. Xander grabs Wesley under his arm and starts to follow. Wesley forces his jaw to unclench enough to let him speak.

"No--the library."

Spike and Xander pause. Spike raises an eyebrow.

"There are...weapons there. A few. And I need books." His fingers are cramped into hooks against his ribs. He has no idea how he'll turn the pages.

"Nice thought," Spike says, mind-reading. "But you're not in any shape to do more mojo."

"Xander's right. Weapons won't help."

"They will if we use them right."

"Spike. We don't have time."

They stand looking at each other, Xander holding Wesley up, glancing anxiously back and forth between them. Spike looks worse than Wesley's ever seen him. He supposes he must look about the same.

"Okay," Spike says at last. "But you'd better have some really good books."

They run. Xander carries Wesley, awkwardly but with no indication of difficulty. Spike makes slightly better time, carrying only the crossbow. As they pass the door to the training rooms, he pauses long enough to bend the handle into a silver tangle.

"What the hell--?" Xander stops short, staring at it.

"You want him in there, picking and choosing?" Spike starts off again, full tilt. Xander lingers a moment, Wesley dangling off his arm.

"We have to go," Wesley says. Xander gives a single, full-body shudder, like the one he gave in the elevator a millennium ago. It feels like a horse, shaking off a fly.

"If this doesn't work," he says, turning his head and meeting Wesley's eyes, "I'm going to try to kill you, okay?"

Wesley swallows. "Xander--"

"Yeah, thank me later."

They set off again.

The library door is standing open; as soon as they cross the threshold, Spike barks, "Shut that!"

"Shutting! Jesus." Xander kicks the door closed, slaps the deadbolt on, and heads for Spike, who's rifling the drawers of Wesley's desk. "Where to, Wes?"

"German, fourteenth century." He tries to nod at the shelf, but Xander's already walking. Of course he knows the floor plan. It seems like years ago that he worked here, but it was hardly more than a week. "The Schwarzhund girdle book."

"Check." Xander lets Wesley fall into a chair, and continues on to the shelf. Wesley feels himself sag inward, like an old man propped up and abandoned. The pain in his hands and feet is the pain of feeling returning after frostbite. It tingles and aches. He's still shaking, but his mind feels more orderly now. The girdle book has an offensive that might work, if he can make the gestures properly. He's not sure he can. He tries flexing his fingers, and the pain brings tears to his eyes.

"Here." There's something shiny in front of his face--a flask. Spike's found whiskey in the desk. Gratefully, Wesley takes it. "Got a blanket around here anywhere?"

He shakes his head, then tips the flask up for a drink. Whiskey spills down his chin, but some goes down his throat, half-choking him. His sinuses feel scalded. He coughs, wipes his mouth on the shoulder of his shirt, and waits. Warmth blooms in his belly. Better.

"There's a coat--" He gestures vaguely at the wall behind the desk. The closet there has a few leftovers, mainly things of Fred and Gunn's that he's never had the time or heart to throw away. Spike roots through and comes back with the heavy old pea coat. It was Gunn's, once upon a time. Spike helps Wesley get his arms into the sleeves.

"Schwarzhund girdle book, who gets it?" Xander slides the book onto the table in front of Wesley, and undoes the leather ties with fast, trembling hands. "Okay, Wes. Work your magic."

"Turn to the diagrams--" Wesley reaches out, but Xander's already flipping.

"Not going to blow up again, is it?" Spike's keeping a wary distance, still holding onto the crossbow. Wesley looks at him.

"What happened down there? What did you see?"

"You went spastic, Angelus went spastic, then suddenly there's a big hole in the floor and everyone without a soul gets out of jail free."

Wesley frowns. "I don't understand."

"Harris's chains fell off, and the cage blew up."

"Blew--" Wesley stops short, realizing.

"Um, not to interrupt." Xander's pushing the book at him. "But could you maybe get on this?"

"It was the blood," Wesley says. "The blood is the key, it creates the breach."

"Uh-huh." Xander inches the book closer. "Casty-cast, yeah?"

"There was blood on the bars of Angelus's cage," Wesley says to Spike, already turning to consult the diagram. "From the bag Xander threw. The counter uses blood to break the ward. The bars must have broken as well."

There's a pause. When Wesley looks up, Spike is giving Xander a narrow look. Xander is studying his feet.

"If we get out of here in one piece," Spike says heavily, "We're going to have a little talk about impulse control."

"There must have been blood on Xander's chains," Wesley says, going back to the book. "From his wrists, or..." He trails off, absorbed in the offensive. "I need your lighter, Spike."

Spike drops it onto the table without asking what it's for. Wesley fumbles it up with numb fingers, and strikes the flint experimentally. The first try doesn't work, but the second one catches. Good enough. He needs--

"My knife. In my pocket. And a bullet, I need a bullet."

"In my desk," Xander says, heading for the smaller desk against the opposite wall. "I had a few in the drawer."

"You had bullets in your desk?" Spike asks, rooting through Wesley's pocket without hesitation. "What the hell for?"

"They were cool." Xander jerks the desk drawer open and rummages through. Then suddenly he stops. His head lifts, and he looks toward the door. The skin of his face rumples.

At the same time, Spike draws his hand out of Wesley's pocket and stands up. He puts the pocket knife quietly down on the table, and picks up the crossbow. His eyes are trained on the door.

"Sorry, Watcher," he says. "Looks like you're not going to get your chance after all."

Wesley swallows. In the thin space between the floor and the base of the door, he can see a patch of darkness.

"Get over here," Spike says softly, and Wesley realizes he's speaking to Xander. "Get the Watcher behind me."

Xander doesn't move. Wesley forces himself to put his hand out and pick up the pocket knife. It's small and heavy, warm from his own body heat. That's strange, when he feels like he's freezing.

There's no possible way to complete the spell in time now, but he bends his head anyway, and starts making the gestures.

There's a knock at the door. Three solid taps. Xander jumps.

"Get over here," Spike hisses, taking a step forward. "Harris. Xander."

Xander whimpers.

Beyond the door, Angelus says, "Hello?"

That starts Xander moving, back across the floor to where Spike is, dropping the bullet on the table in front of the book. Wesley tries to ignore both of them. He's halfway through the gestures, and he can feel the building energy.

"Wes?" It sounds like Angel. He ignores it. "Wes, the door. I'm not...I'm not Angelus. I'm Angel."

"There's a stake in the Watcher's desk," Spike mutters. "Get it."

Xander gets it and comes back.

"I don't know what's going on," Angelus says. "I don't know what happened. I'm sorry. I can't even... Wes, I don't know what happened. I swear to God, it's me."

It's distracting, and he can't afford to be distracted. He glances at the door. It's just wood; Angelus could have broken it in by now. Why wouldn't he? Why would he stand in the corridor, begging for entrance, when he knows they must be laying plans against him?

Wesley's hand pauses, and he stares at the door.

"What?" Xander's voice is rough, demonic, fearful. "What's going on, why are you stopping?"

Wesley frowns and picks up again. "I'm not." It's hard to make his hands do what he tells them to. The coat helps, but he's still freezing. He might be botching it anyway, the way he's shaking. No point in thinking like that, though. "Give me the lighter."

Spike reaches down and hands it to him. Wesley takes it on the gesture of supplication and strikes it neatly, miraculously, changing weakness to strength. Then it's useless, and he drops it. "The knife."

He uses the knife to cut the air in the direction of the door, three times each direction. Little precise strokes, amazing if you know how little he can feel his fingers. Behind him, Xander shifts anxiously.

"Wes. I don't know what I can do to convince you. I told you it was the Verran cycle. I don't know why the bars broke. I didn't plan it. I swear to God."

"The bullet," Wesley whispers. Spike gives it to him. Wesley puts it in the air, pointing at the door. It hangs there, building force.

Now it's just a matter of a few words, a final gesture. Wesley takes a deep breath, glances up at Spike, and calls, "Angel?"

There's a long pause. The air seems to shiver.

"Wes." He sounds defeated, exhausted. "Please. Let me in."

"I'm injured," Wesley calls. "I can't move. Break the lock."

Xander gives a low, bubbling snarl. Spike smacks him in the back of the head, and he stops. The doorknob turns, then stops.

"Okay," Angelus says. He sounds like a man who's accepted the terms of a long, damning contract. "Okay, Wes. Whatever you want."

The doorknob turns again, and keeps turning. There's a loud crack. Then the door opens with a jerk, and Angelus is standing on the threshold. He looks at Wes first. His face is white, drained, miserable. He looks at Spike, then at Xander. The sight of Xander seems to give him intense pain.

Then he looks at the bullet, hovering in midair. His expression changes to something like gratitude.

It's Angel. Wesley knows it is. But he can't know it is, not really, so he says the final words and makes the gesture, and the bullet becomes a blinding spear of light, hurtling into its target.

Part Fifteen

It takes three days for Wesley to recover full feeling in his hands and feet, and another week to lose the deep ache in his bones. Still, he recovers faster than Angel. The offensive gouged matching black circles into Angel's chest and back, so that at first glance he looked as though he'd been impaled on a red-hot spike. Effectively, it cooked him from the inside out. No one but a vampire could have survived it, and there were a few bad moments, in the first couple of days, when it seemed as though not even a vampire could.

Angel survives, but he spends almost two weeks in limbo, drifting in and out of consciousness on an infirmary bed with dampened sheets. The door to the room is kept double-locked, and Wesley and Spike are the only ones with keys.

Wesley visits when he can. He sits on a metal folding chair and studies the man lying in front of him, trying to decide how to feel. The first couple of visits are simple; he feels mostly numbness and panic, alternating as Angel's condition swings up and down. Then Angel begins to heal, slowly but steadily, and to sleep instead of simply fainting. Wesley begins to feel more complicated emotions. Anger is chief among them.

He's angry without focus until the Council finally sends a cautious, oblique email inquiring about possible difficulties on or around the eighteenth of May. Wesley spends two days on the phone with a series of increasingly highly-ranked Council bureaucrats, forcing himself to speak calmly. Yes, there were difficulties. Yes, the difficulties concerned Angel's soul. Yes, the difficulties were serious. Very serious. Extremely goddamned serious.

No one has clearance to tell him what's happened; instead, he's transferred steadily, relentlessly up the line until he's speaking to people who rank higher than his own father. His fury builds to the point where he keeps a box of pencils by the telephone, and snaps them methodically in two while he talks. Spike comes in a few times, sits on the corner of the desk, shakes his head, and leaves. He has Xander to worry about.

Finally, on a conference call with six of the highest-ranking Council administrators in the western hemisphere, Wesley gets the full story. Tunbridge Wells, de-souling research, stroke, momentary mayhem. By this time he's worked some of it out for himself. He sits stroking an index finger down one of the last pencils left in his box, feeling a momentary vacuum of emotion. On the other side of the Atlantic, he can hear six uneasy silences.

"What about Xander Harris?" he asks at last. They know about Xander's turning. Wesley supposes that it's one of the reasons he's got such relatively prompt answers.

"The situation is under review," Taszio says. And that's it, for a good long time.

Sitting by Angel's bedside, watching him moan and mutter in his nightmares, Wesley feels highly focused anger. Downstairs, in the basement cells, Xander waits to hear what they're going to do with him. Wesley's already decided that he won't obey an order to stake. Re-souling isn't out of the question. And there are other options too, ones he's devising in his off hours in the library, between visiting Angel and conferring with Spike and running Wolfram & Hart. There are spells that could be altered for the situation.

"You all right?" Spike asks, on a rare occasion when he drops by Angel's room and finds Wesley there. Spike doesn't visit often, Wesley knows. He appears to have come to terms with whatever pain Angel is suffering, and to have ranked it lower on his list of priorities than Wesley can do. It's hard to blame him, really.

"I'm fine," Wesley says, his eyes on Angel's sleeping profile. He isn't, really--he's barely holding himself together and he knows he doesn't hide it well. But he doesn't want to have a conversation about it.

"You look like shit." Spike pulls his own chair up, sits down, and produces a flask. He drinks and holds it out. Wesley takes it with a nod.

"How's Xander?"

"Getting very good at Scrabble." Spike pulls out his cigarettes, and props his feet carelessly on the edge of Angel's bed. "Is 'qat' really a word?"


"Bugger." For a couple of minutes they sit in silence, Spike smoking his cigarette moodily. Angel jerks and frowns. In all his nightmares, he's never gone to game face. Wesley wonders if that's usual, or if even in his delirium, Angel is too afraid to let the demon show.

"Poor twit." Spike rubs his temple thoughtfully and blows out a stream of smoke.

"I find," Wesley says, still staring at Angel, "that I hate the Council of Watchers more than I ever hated any of the demons they fight against."

Spike lets that sit. Wesley remembers he's still holding the flask, and passes it back. He hasn't drunk from it.

"If it's any consolation," Spike says, "I ate half a dozen of the bastards in my time."

"Good," Wesley says, without remorse.

Wesley visits Xander, too. Not as much as Spike, who spends the better part of every day in the basement now, but as often as he can. He takes the elevator down with an eerie sense of déjà vu, carrying small token gifts with him each time. Blood bags, cigarettes, comic books. It's like visiting someone in prison, he thinks. In fact, it is visiting someone in prison.

Spike is usually there, inside the cell, reading a book or leaning over a Scrabble board propped on a folding chair, with Xander leaning in from the other side. They play with casual intensity, mocking themselves and each other but paying close attention to each new tile laid down. It would be amusing, Wesley thinks, if the circumstances were different.

"X-Men, cool." Xander takes the comics out of the bag, fans them out on the bunk, and nods. "Thanks, Wes."

"Not at all." Wesley stays outside the cell, for all of the obvious reasons. The metal folding chair is still there, and he takes it gratefully. He tires easily now, and his legs ache if he stands for too long.

"Geek." Spike's head is bent over the board, and he has a cigarette burning between his fingers. It looks as though it's been burning for a long time without movement.

"As long as there's no judgment in the relationship." Xander props his chin on his hand and yawns. He's cross-legged on his bunk, wearing an orange T-shirt and jeans. The marks on his neck are gone now; he looks like himself again. "Are you planning on playing, ever?"

Spike chews his lip, frowns, and takes several tiles carefully from his rack. He lays them down on the board and sits back to stretch. Xander peers at them.

"It took you twenty minutes to spell 'cheese'?"

"Took me twenty minutes to block out your fucking yammering and think straight."

"God, I hope the attention span doesn't run in the family."

That's a little disturbing for various reasons, and Wesley shifts and clears his throat. "I thought you'd like to know that Angel's doing much better."

The temperature drops a sharp thirty degrees. Xander sits up straight and turns to look at Wesley. His expression is flat and hostile.

"Fantastic," he says, and turns back to the board.

"He's awake," Wesley says, persevering despite the look that Spike is giving him. "He may be able to walk in a day or two."

"Good for him." Xander grabs a couple of tiles and drops them onto the board almost haphazardly.

"What's your point?" Spike asks.

"My point is," Wesley says, "that Xander and Angel will encounter each other sooner or later. I thought Xander would like to know that the time may be getting nearer."

"Right," Xander says. "Because I'm pretty much on display whenever he's ready, right? It's not like I can go anywhere."

"If you don't want to see him, I'm sure he--"

Xander reaches out suddenly and flips the Scrabble board off the chair. Tiles fly. Spike jumps back in his chair, almost dropping his cigarette.

"Game over," Xander says, leaning sullenly back against the bars.

"You're fucking picking that up," Spike snaps, brushing ash off his forearm. Xander ignores him, staring at a spot somewhere up the middle of the far wall.

Wesley leans down and retrieves a fallen S from the floor beside his feet. Standing up makes his thigh bones ache.

"I'm sorry," he says, placing the S on the crossbar of the cage. "I didn't mean to upset you."

Neither Spike nor Xander acknowledges that, which Wesley takes as his cue to leave.

"I don't get it," Angel says, staring at the sheets over his knees. "How could they do something like that?"

"Stupidity," Wesley says. "And foolhardiness. The Council has always had too high an opinion of its own abilities."

"I killed Xander," Angel says, and the statement is so bald it's almost funny, in a hysterical, desperate kind of way.

"You almost died," Wesley says, to restore perspective.

The look Angel turns on him is easy to translate: I should have died.

Wesley turns away and pours another glass of water. Simple tasks, he's found, are the polestars of overwhelming grief.

He goes down to the basement with a bag of otter blood and a double espresso, peace offerings. Some part of his brain notices the faint sounds coming from the direction of Xander's cell, but he hasn't slept in thirty hours and he pays no attention. He gets almost to the cell before he realizes what he's walked in on.

They're both in the cot, Spike on top of Xander, a pile of clothes on the floor beside them. Xander's head is tipped back, his throat on display. There are marks in it, little dark holes with petals of blood running out. His eyes are closed in ecstasy. Spike's head is bent, biting or kissing.

Wesley stops short. Spike raises his head and looks at him, heavy-lidded. There's blood on his mouth and his hips are moving slowly, rhythmically, beneath the blanket. Xander's eyelids flutter.

"Get out," Spike says, without embarrassment or anger.

Wesley sets his gifts down on the floor where he's standing, and leaves.

Angel checks himself out of the infirmary and retreats to his old apartments. He's weak, barely able to walk, and mentally he's still far from well. Wesley continues to run the company to the best of his ability, putting off whatever he can and having Harmony cancel everything possible. The ship is drifting, but it's still afloat, and that's what matters. They all have more important problems.

A packet arrives from England, addressed to Wesley, with a return address of the head Council office in London. He opens it at his desk with the door closed, the security camera turned off. Inside there's a terse, formal letter from the Director, apologizing for the recent difficulties without actually accepting any blame. There's also a packet of official instructions for dealing with "the current conditions of Alexander Lavelle Harris."

Wesley takes the elevator up to Angel's floor, and walks down the hall with the packet in his hand. It takes Angel a long time to answer the knock on his door.

"Wes." He looks awful, as if he hasn't slept in days, which is probably the case. Wesley is torn between pity and impatience. Life goes on, after all. Things remain to be done.

He holds up the packet, making sure Angel can see the return address. After studying it for a second, Angel holds the door open and lets Wesley in.

They sit in the deep, soft armchairs in Angel's living room, Wesley staring out the window at the tops of the buildings, Angel reading through the packet. When he's done, he slides the papers back into the envelope and rests them on his knee. The knuckles of his right hand are raw and scabbed, Wesley notices.

"Spike should be in on this," Angel says, tapping the packet.

"Yes." Wesley pauses, wondering if he needs to mention what he walked in on, and decides he doesn't. Angelus knew how things stood there, so Angel must know too. Angel remembers everything Angelus said and did, after all. It's one reason they're both sitting in a darkened apartment right now, instead of downstairs where business proceeds as usual.

"It's an interim solution," Angel says, as if he's trying to convince himself of it. "We'll get him souled."

"Of course," Wesley agrees, standing up and accepting the packet back. "It may take some time, but it will happen."

"Good." Angel doesn't make any movement to stand up, so Wesley turns to go. Halfway to the door, he turns back.

"I know you're not ready yet, but when you are, we need to discuss regular business matters."

Angel just looks at him. His eyes are dark and stony, like a reptile's.

"When you're ready," Wesley says, and leaves.

"Fucking pathetic," Spike says, dropping the papers onto the table and shoving his chair back violently. "Harris lost his fucking soul and they want to put a leash on him and call it good?"

"Nobody's calling it good," Wesley says, as gently as he can. "It's not a permanent solution, it's only to keep him in check until we can retrieve his soul. It will mean he can leave the cage, at least."

"It's the same as the bloody chip--he's going to want everything a vamp wants, but he won't be able to do it. It's like torture."

"He won't be able to hurt anyone, Spike. Surely that's what we're most worried about?"

"I'm worried about his soul, actually."

"Of course, but in the short term--"

"Fuck the short term!" Spike barks that, then gets hold of himself suddenly and sits back in his chair, his jaw jumping. "All I'm saying," he says carefully, lining his fingers up along the edge of the desk and squeezing, "is that a magic zap every time he tries to bite someone is a pretty shitty solution when you think about how he got to be this way."


There's a tense pause. Spike examines the tips of his fingers. Wesley collects the papers, orders them, and slides them back into the packet.

"I want to talk to him first," Spike says grudgingly, and Wesley nods.

" this going to hurt?" Xander's standing in the middle of his cell, his hands in his pockets, looking forcedly casual. "Because if it is, I'll just drop to my knees now and get it over with."

"It won't hurt," Wesley says. He holds up the packet of herbs and tries to smile. "In fact, it's designed to feel quite pleasant."

"Oh." Xander looks nonplussed. "Okay, good."

"Just do it," Spike says. He's leaning against the bars of Xander's cage, studying the floor. He's clearly not happy with the arrangement, but then again, none of them are. Wesley opens the packet and spills dried blossoms into his palm. There's a faint smell of mint and cypress, with an understory of guano that he decides not to think about too closely.

"Ready?" He holds the herbs in front of his mouth and meets Xander's eyes. Xander nods. Wesley takes a deep breath and blows the herbs through the bars. They cover Xander in a fine chaff. He stands very still, as if he's bracing for impact.

Wesley lowers his hand and brushes flower dust off his palm. Spike frowns.

"Now what?"

"Nothing," Wesley says. "That's it."

Xander blinks. The corners of his mouth have turned up in a slightly dopey smile. He takes his hands out of his pockets and rubs them over his face, then laughs. "I'm--whoah. Hey. Wow."

Spike raises an eyebrow at Wesley. Wesley folds the paper packet carefully over on itself, and slips it into his pocket.

"There may be some...side effects," he says, stepping back from the cage. "Euphoria, mainly. Also, occasionally...arousal."

"Arousal?" Spike repeats the word as if he's never heard it, then suddenly looks into the cage. Xander's dropped onto his bunk, and he's lying on his back, running his hands over his chest and belly. His smile is blissful.

"I'll be upstairs," Wesley says, starting to beat a hasty retreat.

"Don't you want to make sure it took?"

"Later," Wesley calls, heading for the elevators.

Standing in the elevator, he hears the creak of the cage door opening, and the happy, unfamiliar sound of Xander laughing.

"This may not be a good idea," Wesley says for the third time.

"Not our decision. Harris wants to do it, so we do it." Spike hangs up abruptly, and Wesley stares at the receiver for a moment, then puts it back in its cradle.

Spike's less tense and angry these days, now that Xander's out of the cage and up in the apartment with him, but he can still be a pain to deal with. He's become remarkably single-minded in his protection of Xander, for one thing. Considering Xander's condition, it's hard to blame him, but it's still irritating at times. Now, for instance. Angel's only recently emerged from his apartment, and Wesley's fairly certain he's not ready to confront Xander. But if Xander wants it, Angel will do it. If Xander wanted to set the building on fire, Angel would probably do it.

Few things are less rational than survivor guilt, Wesley has learned.

They all defer to Xander in varying degrees, so now they're all scheduled to convene in the main board room. It's been two months since Angelus walked into the library and dragged Xander out of the world. The two of them haven't seen each other since Wesley roasted Angel alive in the same room a little over a week later. Wolfram & Hart is a big place; there are plenty of ways for them to avoid each other, and that's what they've done. Until now. The board room is neutral territory, but walking down the halls toward it, Wesley feels more than a little nauseated.

Angel is already there, sitting not at the head of the table but at one of the chairs down the side, as if he's trying to fade into corporate anonymity. He looks up quickly when Wesley comes in.

"Hi, Wes." He looks better these days. He's taking care with his appearance again, and he's lost some of the haunted look in his eyes. It's not as hard to face him across the table as it was a few weeks ago. But he still looks ready to jump at sudden movements, and that fear and uncertainty have translated into a beseeching look he never used to have.

Wesley sits down and smiles as well as he can. "Hello. Do you mind if I ask you about the Li Po suit? There are a couple of points I'm not sure about--"

He came with the topic prepared, in case of exactly this scenario. Angel jumps in gratefully, and they talk about insubstantial details as if they were urgent matters of company welfare, while the clock ticks on. Xander and Spike are late.

After fifteen minutes, Wesley glances at his watch and raises his eyebrows. "Perhaps we should--"

Angel looks at the door, and it opens. Spike walks in, expressionless in dark blue jeans and a white Oxford shirt. He nods at Angel, neither friendly nor unfriendly, and sits down in a chair on Wesley's side of the table. Behind him, Xander stands unmoving in the doorway.

"Xander." Angel glances at Wesley as if for help, then half-stands up. "Hi."

Xander stays where he is. He's in khakis and a T-shirt, like a college student. His hair's getting long. Overall he looks almost exactly as he looked when he first turned up, fresh from the Sayvu, sent by the Council to help stop the end of the world.

"Hello, Xander," Wesley says, to help fill in the silence. Xander still hasn't said anything. He's studying Angel with a look of fascinated disgust, the way he might study a bug on a pin. As Wesley watches, his forehead ripples and his right eye flickers gold.

"Not unless you want a headache," Spike says casually. Unlike the chip, the spell covers not only humans, but demons as well. It was a safeguard, from the Council's point of view--they wanted to ensure that Xander couldn't attack Spike or Angel. It was hard to argue against the logic, but even now, feeling his shoulders rise around his ears, Wesley feels sympathy. Until they find another solution, Xander is literally helpless.

"I know," Xander says, still staring at Angel. Angel meets his gaze for a few seconds, then looks aside. Xander frowns. "Don't you want to say something?"

Angel's jaw clenches. "I'm...sorry."

Xander laughs and walks into the room. "Right. Okay." He pulls out a chair and sits down on the edge of it. "I'm sorry too."

"If there's anything you want," Angel says, "I'll do it. Anything, Xander."

"I want to deep-fry Angelus's balls. But he's kind of left the building, hasn't he?"

Angel stares at the conference table in silence.

"You look like him," Xander goes on, leaning forward and clasping his hands between his knees. "But you're not him. You're just a sorry excuse in a big suit. You're nobody."

Angel says nothing.

"I just had to see for myself," Xander says, and stands up. "I'm done now."

He starts for the door, and Spike gets up to follow him out. Halfway there, Xander turns around again.

"I almost forgot. I don't want to run into you, Angel. I don't want to see you. If you want to tell me something, tell somebody else or send a carrier pigeon or something. Okay?"

Angel swallows and nods. "Okay."

Xander stares at him a moment longer, then flicks a wave at Wesley and walks out. Spike follows. The door falls almost shut behind them.

Angel puts his hand over his eyes. Wesley stares past him, out the window, at the blue sky dimmed by smog. Far down the corridor, he can hear a telephone ringing and ringing, with no-one there to answer.

The End

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