RATING: R for violence, language, and mild sexual content.
LENGTH: 77,000 words
SUMMARY: A novel about Wesley in the alternate universe of 'Birthday'. Mild slash.
DISCLAIMER: Not mine, just borrowing, no profit, yadda, yadda, yadda.
NOTES: This is a complete novel about how that damaged Wesley of the birthdayverse survives in the months following the loss of his arm. It isn't an exhaustive catalogue of his journey in that universe; Gunn does not appear, Angel's decline is not yet greatly apparent - these things remain in the future. I originally intended to write more, and I doubt this will now happen; however, nothing left hanging was not already a part of the mystery of the backstory in 'Birthday' and it isn't, after all, as though we don't all know how everything turns out in this universe.
FYI: I originally posted this back in 2002-2004, for a while under the title 'Two Years in the Life', and it remained unfinished for a long time. I have tidied up those first 8 chapters, though they remain essentially the same, and added the final 2. Many apologies to anyone who was reading the original and has had to wait this long for the conclusion.
THANKS: To the beta readers who helped me to put this together back when it was first written. They include Kattahj, Catecumen, Mike Dewar, Minim Calibre, and Magpie, and I am sure others who ought to be mentioned and have been cheated by my bad habit of only sporadically crediting betas on the chapters of the original posting.
1. Still Life
The ticking of a clock was the first thing to pierce Wesley's awareness. Not pain, despair or embarrassment, but mere time.
He didn't even register that it was a hospital clock and he was in a hospital room until he'd lain there for hours, oblivious and numb, listening to it tick, aware occasionally of presences around him, hushed voices speaking over him. He thought there were times when they'd spoken to him, could vaguely recall answering questions, though he remembered neither the questions nor his answers.
There were no presences or voices when his state of comfortable semi-consciousness began finally to retreat, abandoning him to the dubious mercies of the world. There was only silence and the unrelenting clock.
It hurt to open his eyes. The last thing he remembered was darkness. A dark hotel room, a dingy lobby, hugging the patches of shade on a sun-soaked street, and it was fair to say that he hadn't seen a lot of the daylight recently.
He wasn't seeing so much of it now. The room he was in had a window, but there were blinds drawn over it and only a crack of sun sidled in at the far edge. The assault on his eyes was largely artificial, strip-lighting on the ceiling. He was stopped uncomfortably short when he raised an arm woven through with monitoring wires and drip-feeds in an attempt to shield his eyes. He got no response at all when he tried to raise the other.
Wesley lay under white sheets staring up at a hazy ceiling. Eventually, his drugged mind produced the word 'hospital' and his chin jerked in satisfaction. He was in a hospital. This was not unfamiliar. It was not surprising. Indeed, it was only reasonable that anyone engaged in the dangerous trade of a rogue demon hunter would require medical aid every once in a while.
He blinked around, wishing he could reach for the glasses which were blurrily discernable propped on the small table beside his bed. Remembering the unresponsive limb of minutes before, he craned his neck around to study the bulk of padded bandaging at his shoulder, half-obscured beneath sheets that were pulled high, brushing his chin and catching on unshaven stubble.
He wanted to pull them away, but didn't dare risk interrupting whatever solutions were being pumped into his uninjured arm. Instead he lay quiet, waiting for his memory to return in full, waiting for a doctor or a nurse who could offer up information that might help it to do so. Who could at least tell him how long he'd been there and give him an assessment of the damage.
When a blur of tired face above white coat finally did appear, it was to perform a brisk check of the readings on his instrumentation, make "hm-hmm" noises over some notes on a clipboard, and exit before Wesley could wrap his parched and painful throat around a question. But the doctor's footsteps halted outside the room and there were distant-sounding voices. He managed to raise his head far enough to determine that the door was ajar and the voices, raised increasingly in debate, were coming from just the other side. A flash of white coat followed by a flash of black interrupted his view of the slice of wall visible through the gap.
"I don't know that he's physically or psychologically prepared for visitors," the doctor's was saying, "You--"
Another voice, which he recognised from somewhere despite its being reduced to little more than an angry growl, responded. There was a slam that sounded less than comfortable for the recipient.
"But since you ask so persuasively, and the LAPD waiting to ask him about the armoury of medieval weapons found in his possession wouldn't indicate his mental health too great anyway, be my guest," the doctor snapped.
And the door pushed inwards to admit a black-clad figure who paused to close it behind him before turning a featureless pale face to Wesley.
His lack of success forcing his vision to focus proved not to matter an instant later. Recognition was not dependant on sight or sound alone, and this stranger's presence was itself distinctive.
The last person - if 'person' was even an appropriate term - he'd expect to visit his hospital room on a sunny day in LA.
Angel. Souled vampire, Buffy's ill-advised paramour, one-time Scourge of Europe. His last sight of Angel had been in Sunnydale, while being carried on board an ambulance destined for another hospital.
When Angel ventured closer, Wesley frowned at his strained features and had to remind himself that vampires did not physically age. Even so, Angel still looked at least a decade older than his recollection and the reminder only jarred.
"Angel," he said again, because the vampire hadn't said anything and didn't seem about to. His voice this time was less of a tortured rasp but still nowhere approaching normal. "What are you doing here?"
"I found you. Remember?"
"Oh." He didn't. He swallowed. "When? I mean, how long--?"
"Almost thirty-six hours. The doctor said you were in surgery. You were sedated, but they said you'd been out of it a while now."
Silence stretched over the seconds that followed, and was already a long way past the boundary of 'uncomfortable' before Angel's breathless throat jumped and he spoke again. "Actually, that's what I wanted to know from you. What you were doing where I found you, I mean. It could be important. That place was connected with some people I was trying to track down."
The words sounded haunted, nervous. Wesley squinted hard, wishing he could see Angel's face better.
"I was hunting. That's what I do now." He couldn't strike the relevant posture lying flat, but succeeded in raising his chin and squaring it a little. "Since I left Sunnydale, I've taken up the lonely, demanding, dangerous life of a rogue demon hunter."
The colours shifted in the shadows that marked Angel's eyes. A blink. Two. Three. More silence. Odd. He wasn't unaware that reactions to his new vocation tended towards amusement. The vampire shifted on his feet, ended up sidestepping awkwardly to avoid the streak of sunlight that sidled in past the edges of the blinds.
"Right. Rogue demons. That's what you... do. Well, what I do now is I... help people. The other day this demon, Barney, came to me, and told me someone was chasing him. I went to check out his place and found you there half-dead."
"And you quite probably saved my life. Thank you." Wesley tried not to show too much surprise, but his dealings with the vampire in the past had not gone especially well.
Angel shifted his feet again, grunted when his hand caught the sunlight. "Well, like I said, helping people. It's what I do."
"Even demons?" Wesley asked curiously.
"Well, you know - not all evil," Angel said rather pointedly.
He grimaced, experiencing a certain feeling of foreboding. "What did your demon - Barney - what did he look like?"
"Actually, I think it's your turn to share information."
"All right." With grim expectations, he said, "As a matter of fact, I was hunting down the demon renting that hotel room. A fearsome creature responsible for a trail of carnage across half this continent and which assuredly--"
Angel waved a hand at around upper-chest level. "About yea high, ruddy complexion, horns?"
"Certainly not." He described the creature he'd seen in Phoenix. "That's not your demon?"
"No, that's not my demon. And I wouldn't worry too much about Barney, either. I mean, he did try to scoop out my eyes, a bit later."
Wesley frowned, opened his mouth to speak, but found himself instead fighting off a wave of weakness that threatened to drown him. He gulped breaths, forcing them into some pattern resembling regularity, and finally opened his eyes to look back at his companion with only the familiar blur of short-sightedness marring his gaze.
Whatever he'd been going to ask before had been sent scurrying from his thoughts. "Angel. I don't suppose... if you wouldn't mind... my glasses." He jerked his head towards the frames.
"Oh. Of course. I'm sorry, I should have--"
Whatever's the matter? Wesley wanted to ask. The vampire's whole demeanour was odd, but Angel was tip-toeing around him as though he might shatter.
As the spectacles were slid onto his face, he noticed how much Angel's fingers were shaking. He could see well enough through the scuffed lenses to catch the details he'd missed previously. Did vampires' eyes get so hollow? Should an undead fiend of the night be sweating?
If he hadn't known better he'd have guessed Angel was ill.
Not so impossible, he reminded himself, remembering those last days in Sunnydale. Angel had been poisoned then, had needed help. Perhaps he needed help now.
A brief brush of fingertips wasn't enough to ascertain whether his skin was warm or cold, dry or clammy, especially with Wesley's own temperature so unsteady. He wanted to reach out and catch the vampire's arm as it withdrew, but lay still and distracted himself from his enforced motionlessness by studying the room anew.
The blinds on the windows were old and stained. There were cracks in the ceiling, cracks in Angel's leather coat.
His gaze returned to Angel's face. "What's happened to you?"
"Nothing. Nothing's happened to me." The vampire turned his face away and stared fixedly at the closed blinds on the window.
The drug-hazed darkness was threatening again to return, and he was aware, even as he wrenched the next question from his throat, that he couldn't hold it off very much longer. But this, he needed to know.
"It's Buffy, isn't it?" Despite the fact the girl had never had anything but scorn for him, she had been his responsibility once.
"No." Angel looked surprised, then smiled briefly, as though finding consolation in his negation. "Buffy's all right. It was... somebody else. You didn't know him."
"Me too." He gestured vaguely towards Wesley, and something in his eyes shifted, became much harder. "You know what kind of demon it was, that attacked you?"
"I'd need to research, to pin down the species." He brightened at the thought that, even bedridden, he could still serve.
Angel shook his head. "You're in no condition. In fact, I should go. I've been here too long. I'll try to talk to the police about that whole thing with the weapons, and I'll leave my address with the hospital for if anything comes up." He turned, and Wesley opened his mouth to protest that he didn't have to go even as the vampire paused, looked back. "You'll be all right?"
And what could he do but to crack a smile, to put on a brave front, to say, "Oh, certainly. Absolutely. We're made of stern stuff, we rogue demon hunters - can't keep us down for long. I'll be right as rain in no time. Out there, fighting the fight." He flopped his hand, fingers curled into a loose fist.
A smile flickered across Angel's features, but it vanished as quickly. "I've underestimated you in the past, I can see that now."
Then, with a grim respectful nod, Angel was gone, and the swinging door had stilled before Wesley, with sudden clarity, looked down to the bandaged mound of his shoulder and registered the wrongness in the fall of the sheets over where his left arm should be.
/A hallway, dark and enclosed, the lights interspersed along the corridor illuminating nothing save the patch of wall above them, excepting the faulty one that gashes the darkness in lightning flashes every few seconds, setting his nerves on edge. He's not going to panic.
Doors on either side of him, no light escaping their edges. He hears movement from one room, its door ajar, but the sight of a maid's trolley through the crack jump-starts his heart once more.
Steps in front of him; seven, eight of them. He climbs. The electrical fizz of the broken light seems to increase its volume tenfold when he tries to listen for telltale demonic noises. Behind him, the maid pushes her trolley out of the doorway and rumbles it along the corridor the way he's just come, casting back at him the customary distrustful look that matches the motorcycle leathers. He takes the look as consolation that the sudden noise didn't make him tremble so visibly as he'd feared, and carries on.
Yellow residue on the frame of the door adjacent to him. He's not afraid. He's told himself he shouldn't be so often that the fear has worn itself out. He feels tired now, and cold. The crossbow isn't shaking anymore in the grip of the hand tucked covertly inside his jacket.
He waits in the hallway outside 206 until the maid has rumbled out of sight and there's nobody there to be inadvertently drawn into a confrontation, nobody to answer his cries for help should he fail. He clenches his jaw and pushes open the door.
A lamp is lit; somebody's here. He steps over the threshold, eyes scouring the room - takes in bed, television, settee, shelves, table, suitcase, far too many closed cupboard doors. The bathroom door's ajar and there's faint blueish light coming from the other side but no noise. He still can't hear anything but that broken electrical fizzing that sounds like insects. Shouldn't have thought that. He's not fond of insects and now he's shivering again under all his leather.
Crossbow at the ready, he's sidling towards the bathroom when he feels the viscous liquid drip onto his shoulder and a crushing, heavier weight follow it before he can react.../
He tore at the smothering weight that restricted his movement and pinned down his limbs. Loud, rasping breaths close to his ear and he fought to free himself, to get away from the creature--
Fear choked a scream out of him an instant before he realised, too late, that the breathing was his own, the weight only pressed white hospital sheets splattered now with the red of his own blood where his struggles had pulled out the IV.
Hospital personnel appeared to fill the void left by Angel's departure. He didn't manage to stop his panicked babbling before the doctor acted upon his threats to sedate him again.
He wasn't sure how much time passed before the police turned up, in the form of one Detective Costas, a dark, grim-voiced man in a rumpled suit that carried a rather ripe scent from the heat of the day outside. He'd slept, and waked, and dozed, and even when he had his glasses on to see the clock he could never remember what time it had read on previous instances to stretch his brain to calculation.
His shoulder ached. He could remember more than one occasion when the pain had mounted to the verge of unbearable before a doctor had shown up with a needle to take it away just as he was ready to crawl out of his own skin to escape it.
The hospital staff had been concerned in a vaguely distrustful way which suggested he was still considered dangerous. A few days ago he might have found it flattering. Now, it wasn't even funny.
There had been time enough that he was in a sufficiently lucid state to realise he had to get through this interview with the police neither deciding to prosecute him nor make any serious attempts to hunt down his attacker, a balance it would be difficult to strike when his persuasive skills were at their best, and they were far from that.
The red-haired nurse - Celia, or a name very like it - had removed his glasses so that he could sleep, and he hadn't had opportunity since waking to ask anybody to replace them, but he preferred anyway for the form of the police detective stalking up and down the narrow length of the room to remain blurred. The detective's aggressive footsteps cut sharp, decisive scars through the stale hospital air.
"Let me run through this again," he said, click-click-click. "You're a mercenary. You were looking to track down the guy who rented that hotel room." Click-click-click. "So you break in there with your crossbow and your bag of tricks, and someone jumps you and attempts to spread your body parts around the decor."
"Ah... more or less."
"You got a name for this guy?"
Wesley remembered a hazy conversation with Angel that might or might not have been an hallucination and dredged up, "Barney?"
"I... don't know, I'm afraid, Detective Costas."
"You don't know your mark's full name?"
"I can't remember," Wesley said quickly. "Ever since the attack, I've been having... memory gaps." Well, that was true enough, at least. "I'm sorry."
Costas nodded into his notebook but continued to emote a distinct lack of conviction.
"Oh, come on, man," Wesley urged, his patience beginning to thin. Annoyance focused his brain, cutting through the daze. "You must have had time by now to dig into my background. Even if you had to request information from England, you've had time. You know I haven't any kind of record."
"All I know," the detective said, "Is that you've never been caught. Got some family connections, I noticed. You come from money. Must be nice, that. Come in useful for hushing up your troubles."
"That's not--" Wesley began angrily. He tried to sit up. The IV pulled him back down. A white-coated figure passing the door hesitated a moment on the threshold, then walked on without interfering.
"But daddy seems to have lost interest these past few months, doesn't he? Something to do with being fired from your last job?" At Wesley's surprise, his smile spread and he nodded slowly. "Yeah, I did my checking. "What'd you do, Pryce? Steal from your employer? Is that why you got canned?"
"No, I - I'm - I just - I didn't do anything like that. I - I--"
"What?" Costas barked.
"I wasn't very good at it." He snarled the words out, feeling himself blush from head to foot. "All those years of training and yet - I tried - I tried my best, but it wasn't good enough. It never was. I failed to do what was expected of me, and so they fired me. But I did nothing, nothing underhand."
He'd raised himself from the mattress to deliver the tirade. Now he slumped back, drained, to find he was shaking and couldn't stop.
He'd said more than he'd meant. It contained more truth than he'd ever allowed himself to admit.
Costas seemed almost hesitant when he next spoke, the movements of his indistinct figure awkward. "The area you were found - the clothes you were wearing. These are not elements in your favour, even without the weapons and your self-confessed profession."
Wesley wanted very much to explain that he'd been hunting down a demonic murderer and creature of pure evil, but had no doubts as to where such an assertion would get him. He pressed his lips together.
He felt bloodless, and wondered if it was possible the medical staff had miscalculated the amounts when they transfused him, because he felt like he was still missing half his supply, his arteries carrying no more than a trickle around his body.
He sighed, closed his eyes. Somewhere in the middle of surrendering consciousness to the haze of the drugs, logic kicked in.
He forced his eyes back open. "Detective," he said, trying to speak with culture, reason, clarity - the things that Los Angeles policemen had no cause to expect from leather-clad ruffians being questioned for involvement in violent disturbances. "You have, I believe, a case consisting of a broken up hotel room containing no recognisable blood but my own, an archaic crossbow - unfired, I might add - and a bag of other improvised weaponry that is, so far as I'm aware, not in itself illegal and that I'll freely admit to owning as a collector. I'd suggest you concentrate your energies upon finding my attacker, as you have very little case with which to hold me."
Costas went very still, and stayed that way a full ten seconds - Wesley counted them off as the clock ticked - before he said, "I'm just doing my job, Mr. P... Wyndham-Pryce."
"I know. I'm sorry--" Abruptly ashamed of his hostility, Wesley stammered, falling over himself to try to reinstate some politeness into the encounter.
Costas waved him into silence. "I know there's some weird shit goes down in this city, I'm not blind. I know the yellow goop we found all over that hotel room didn't come from anything human. But I still gotta fill out the forms that say I followed this up."
He raised a hand and rubbed it across his forehead, a gesture of defeat. "Do you know how many cops have been pulled under by this shit?" he rasped. "Do you know how badly we could use some information - real information - to work on?"
Detective Costas approached the bed, and Wesley saw the grey marks of tiredness under his eyes, the sickly shade of the complexion under the tan, the lines that dragged his features into an alignment that looked haunted and worn. He leaned down closer to speak, and Wesley felt guilty for noticing, amid all the rest, that his breath wasn't pleasant.
"I think you're involved in all this stuff in some way. I don't know how. Maybe it was something your da said." His face scrunched up in a distaste that Wesley could well understand. "Maybe it's the fact that whatever left that slime crushed your arm with the kind of force the staff here claim more consistent with a high-impact collision, because there isn't a man alive strong enough to cause that kind of injury in a fight, and yet you're still lying there calm as can be, not ranting on about demons and monsters." He shrugged, straightened, scribbled in his notebook and tore out a sheet he then dropped onto the table next to Wesley's glasses.
"Call me when you get out of here," he said, "If you feel more like comparing notes."
He swept out of the room and Wesley was left frowning at the scrap of paper he couldn't pick up to read.
/He's in the hotel room and he knows he's bleeding. It's felt like hours and he knows he tied off the mangled arm; too tightly but nothing short of that could have extended his life this long. He's concentrating on staying still and staying conscious. Slow breaths, almost like sleeping. Mustn't sleep. He's staying alive, a second at a time.
He thinks the other has been in the room for some time before he became aware of them. He's staring up but he can't see anything more than a blur. His glasses were lost in the fight - if that disastrous mess could even be called a fight. They could be in reach, for all he knows, but he hasn't looked. Movement would excite the blood flow, could undo the good work of the coagulation that's been able to take place. Movement would probably kill him, and sight isn't worth that right now. Not when maybe - possibly - help is here.
Help, or the demon back to finish him off. But he thinks the face hovering over him is Caucasian, not demon-grey-green.
Was that his name he heard on the shadow's lips? Impossible, surely. Nobody here knows he exists. He'll die a John Doe in this appalling country unless the police manage to trace his movements back to his hotel room. He's carried no identification with him.
"Wesley?" the voice asks again. "My God..."
It couldn't be him. The voice he thinks he recognises must be somebody else. He couldn't be here in LA, he was left behind with Sunnydale. And, come to think of it, the voice isn't quite the same...
He manages to mumble that he can't be moved, that his Samaritan needs to call an ambulance, and quickly. The effort's too much, and the rush as consciousness spirals away into oblivion feels like the rush of being on that motorbike and jamming the pedals down hard, letting go, the air rushing away, the world retreating to background, fear and pain and failure forgotten in the face of the inevitable crash.
He welcomes the darkness he's fought so hard to avoid, not expecting to wake up./
Woke up in the room they'd moved him into not long after Detective Costas' visit - private, still, a necessity on the grounds that it wouldn't disturb other patients if he woke up loudly panicking, insensible of where he was - and smiled tightly (shakily) and waved on the nurse who poked her head around the door.
He'd taken with relief the move, the sign that at least he was out of the woods. As he did each piece of monitoring equipment removed from his bedside. Even if the memories held little sway over him when waking, he looked forward to the day when he would no longer be at the mercy of fussy doctors who didn't seem capable of understanding how little he wanted to sleep.
And he was trying hard not to think about the mounting costs as the days stretched on, having no doubt that they would join the other horrors populating his nightmares, given chance.
"You're looking better than when I last saw you," the dark voice said.
He hadn't heard its owner come in and surprise made him fumble the book he was reading. With only one hand to catch, he almost didn't reclaim it in time to stop its slide onto the floor. He rested it carefully down, flattening its opened pages into the sheets, and blushed when Angel stared at the cover's lurid presentation of a melodramatic period-dressed couple and the words 'Furious Passions' emblazoned across the spine.
He had discovered that an English accent was a marvellous tool with which to cajole small kindnesses from the nurses, and even if their definitions of good reading matter did not match his own, it was at least something to do. He never could stand inactivity.
He stammered as much to Angel, who almost smiled. "Of course."
Nervously, Wesley smoothed the sheets that lay over his chest, the motion tugging on the drip that still led into his arm, though loosened somewhat for greater ease of movement. The covers felt like a flimsy shield, and he felt exposed before Angel's gaze, the vampire the only person save the medical staff and the police - who somehow didn't quite count - to see him so helpless. His last encounter, he hadn't even been aware, and had barely been coherent enough to form sentences.
"I half thought I hallucinated you, last time," he said, "and even if not, I didn't think you'd come back."
"I meant to come back before now." Angel approached the bed and sat down in the chair next to it with a lack of grace that seemed odd on him, and Wesley could hardly tell him that he wished he wouldn't. "I was hunting your demon. It took much longer than I'd expected. The trail had grown cold."
"You... hunted down the demon that did this?" Wesley asked, astonished. "Why?"
Angel's expression was also strange. "It was a change from hunting down football-headed demons?" he suggested, with something that approached his old dry humour, and something else as well that was much more bitter. "I told you, I help people. And I owe you one for trying, that time with the cure for Faith's poison, even if it didn't come to anything."
"You already saved my life, Angel," he said gently. He had the curious feeling, watching the man, that of the two of them, Angel was the more fragile right now. And that was worrying, given how fragile he felt, given the vampire's alter-ego whom weakness on Angel's part might release.
"But I was too late to save your limbs."
"That's beside the point," Wesley spluttered in protest, scandalised by the blunt statement. "That wasn't your fault."
Angel scowled and shook his head, then abandoned the chair to stand and pace. It was a relief to be reprieved from that intense gaze. Wesley relaxed somewhat, punched the control of his medication with shaky fingers. "It's funny, you know," the vampire said, rounding on him. "I had this... thing that happened, when I was on my way to check out Barney's pad, and if it hadn't happened, I would've been at that hotel room a whole lot sooner. Maybe I would've been in time to - but I wasn't, because of this thing. And the weird part... the weird part is that this thing could be called pretty much the definition of divine intervention."
"You're saying you were prevented from saving me? That you weren't meant to get there in time?" Wesley asked, latching onto the one thing in Angel's admission he understood.
"I'm sorry, Wesley. I don't know why. I mean, it makes no sense--"
"It makes perfect sense." Wesley stared down morosely at his hand. "I failed the Council - two Slayers in my care, and I failed them both. One evil and as good as dead, one a renegade who'd rather listen to my predecessor. I'm not surprised the Council fired me--"
"They fired you?"
"I'm surprised they didn't do more! It isn't as though they have any shortage of deeply unpleasant disciplinary measures. But fate has intervened for them in any case. No, you weren't meant to save me. I was meant to pay for my failures."
"Wesley." Angel's voice was sharp. "That's not true. You tried. That's more than a lot of people. You didn't do anything to deserve this."
He shrugged, one-shouldered, set his jaw and met Angel's gaze. "And what about the demon? Did you kill it?"
He could've sworn the vampire flinched as he replied, "It's dead," but he didn't question, only nodded.
Angel paced a few times more, before again achieving rest. "How are you now? Are you in any pain?"
"I'm fine." He gestured towards the device for pain medication on demand. "There is, I assure you, no need to terrorise the staff here over any inadequacies with their care."
"And someone's bringing you books to read." His voice was light, pleased, at least temporarily, and Wesley bit his lip on repeating his earlier correction.
"The doctors say you're doing well," Angel prompted, after a moment.
"Yes... yes, they tell me that as well." He laughed. It sounded as affected as it was. "I'm sure it won't be long before I'm out of here." He hesitated, swallowed, and plunged on. "Angel. Your... mission here in LA. To help people. It wouldn't require, perchance, an experienced researcher of all things demonic and occult? You see, I find myself at present somewhat at a loose end - that is to say, somewhat unemployed, and--"
"No," Angel cut in, his tone sharp. "We're not doing this, Wesley."
"Why ever not? Surely you can see the value of a competent book-man at your back. I research the evil, you destroy it--"
"No." The vampire's face had closed off. "I've already lost one partner. Doyle died because he fought at my side. I'm not going to let that happen to anyone else."
Wesley winced, and said sympathetically, "Your friend had his own mind and made his own choices. You're not responsible for them and you can't blame yourself for them. He chose to fight at your side. That's not something you have a right to question. For myself - surely you understand that it's my purpose to serve in the battle against evil. It's what I was raised to do. And as I no longer have a Slayer to assist, it would seem a capital arrangement to assist you instead."
"No, Wesley." Angel's closed demeanour was quickly transforming into anger. "Look at yourself. You can't do this anymore. You're damaged already, it wouldn't be long before you ended up dead. You're not strong enough - even Doyle had demon blood - and whatever you may think, you're not like me, you don't have anything to atone for. You can still go make yourself a life. I'd suggest you do that."
"Why, you arrogant--" He choked on his protest, fury leaving him spluttering and unable to dredge up words to respond. He took several grim breaths, and glared up at Angel. "What right have you to dictate my choices? This work is my life."
"Only because you don't know anything else. You should get that Council indoctrination out of your system before it gets you killed."
"Indoctrination?" Wesley snapped. "Since when is it indoctrination to have a meaning to your existence? To be in a position to make a difference? Do you imagine for one second that, with all I know about the dark things existing in this world, I could ever turn my back and go live a 'normal' life? That I should be so selfish as not to at least try to use all those years of training?"
"Yeah, that's exactly what I imagine. You could and you should. Come on, Wesley! You know you're really not equipped to fight the fight."
"You undead bastard..."
He saw it in Angel's face as the vampire snapped, but the advance warning was useless when there was nothing he could do to stop Angel lunging forward to wind a fist in the front of his hospital gown, yanking him up almost out of the bed. His features were twisted, human but just shy of turning, and only an inch from Wesley's as he snarled, "If you don't turn your back on this you're going to die. You're going to screw up like you've always done and you're going to die."
Wesley recovered enough to try to break his grip, but with one hand against vampire strength it was no contest. He gripped Angel's wrist, trying to take at least some of the weight from his throat.
"You want to know how I know this? That Kungai demon that put you in here - I hunted it down, yeah, but I didn't kill it. It was already dead. Had been for days. It was dying when you encountered it. It wasn't one of Barney's ring, it was one of their victims. So yeah, I know. You're a screw-up, Wes, and I'm not going to watch you get yourself killed."
Wesley stared, breath forgotten. He couldn't hear his heart beating. "That's not true. You didn't mean that. You're trying to discourage me."
Angel stared back at him, and the rage had transformed itself into a kind of vague horror as he slowly loosed his grip and backed off, but his gaze was level and unrelenting.
"Tell me that was some fabrication to discourage me."
He could barely hear his voice. The back of his throat was tight. He felt faint. Sick.
Angel said, "Go home, Wesley. Give it up and go home."
He bent to retrieve the paperback novel, where it had fallen to the floor, and rested it back on top of the skewed covers. Its pages were bent out of shape, and Angel gave up his efforts to straighten them.
He turned his slumped back, walked out.
The door gradually slid closed, and softly clicked to.
In the emptiness that followed, Wesley tried to calm his desperately hitching breathing, tried to absorb the things which Angel had said; ended up simply lying back listening to the clock on the wall tick the seconds away, placing ever more space between himself and Angel's words.
Eventually he picked up his book and found his place again. There wasn't anything else for him to do.