All About Spike

Ophthalmology
By glossolalia

Part I: Wes.

He stares at himself in the mirror. Terrible, being reduced to such cinematic stunts, searching his face for signs of what he's lost. His eyes are blue, and would be quite pretty on a young girl. In this haggard face, spiky with stubble, however, they are the biggest question mark of all.

Nothing has felt right since Angel left them in the W&H lobby to visit a man named Conor. O'Connor, perhaps?

The world tilted perceptibly then, the quality of light shifted into a brighter register, and something slid away.

He has tried to ask Angel about it since. He needs to suss out whether Angel feels it, too, but the words refuse to form. They hang heavy and bitter in his throat, figs gone rotten in the sun, and his tongue will not obey, will not move to bring them out.

*

His life is a waking dream, filled with ordinary detail and mundane events, utterly boring but for the shaky edges to the oddest things. When he catches sight of Angel, his chest will clutch for half a moment as he steps carefully to the side, feeling himself teetering and never knowing why.

Everything is as it always has been, if on a larger, brighter scale in vast new premises. He is still surrounded by those he loves and feels loyal to; still committed to a fight that will never end.

So whence this dread?

*

When he opens his closet door in the morning, his head throbs as lightning forks horizontally across the scar on his throat.

*

His dreams are awash with terror and the keening of captured vermin. A woman staring up at him with dark, dull eyes. The rocking of a boat on the sea, harsh enough to make him vomit as she laughs shrilly.

In his dreams he runs up and down anonymous, endless corridors, wheeling around a corner and slamming against the bars of a cage. But he is not the victim, not an innocent, not prey. He rushes around, hunted by a predator as he hunts the innocent.

A small, glaring cloud descends over him, and he goes blind, chokes, beneath it.

Until he wakes, and then everything is as it ever was.

He searches his face, convinced that there is guilt there, if he only looks carefully enough, but misses it, day after day.

*

"English," Gunn calls across the parking garage. His voice echoes against fluorescent walls. "Yo, Wes!"

"Charles. What a pleasure." He has missed his friend, hasn't he?

Gunn lopes over, keys jangling in his loose fist. "Man, where have you *been*?"

"Here and there. You?"

"Bermuda, Haiti, St. Croix. You know, basic full-Caribbean tour of duty. Hard-knock life, I'm telling you. Check this out--" Gunn dangles his keychain, showing off a loop of shark teeth. "Sharp, huh? You okay?"

This is his best friend, braver and stronger than he will ever be, more trustworthy than anyone he has ever known. Wes nods slowly, as if musingly, considering his answer. In fact, he simply needs the time to still the tremors stealing over his skin and flooding his throat. "Just fine. Thank you. A tad busy, of course."

Gunn slaps his shoulder. The white brick walls across the garage bay swell with light, disengage, and start to slide in around his friend. Gunn does not seem to notice as Wes backs up. "Feels great, don't it? Finally have something to *do*."

"Precisely."

And he flees, lies sweet in his mouth.

*

He is alone, and he should be alone. He knows he cannot be touched, that he despoils everything he glances at, brings trembling grief and shrieking pain to what he touches.

What sort of knowledge is it, however, that can be so certain in the face of an utter lack of evidence? Coworkers and subordinates and friends: they have only the best to say about him, praise for industrious work habits, awe at the unflagging energy he can bring to research, gently humoring smiles at the way he pinches his nose, seeking relief for burning eyes. He is a good man, and there is nothing wrong with him.

Knowledge that is certain but hollow. Such a thing goes against everything he has ever been taught, absorbed, and believed. Its very incongruency, however, is its best recommendation.

Something tells him that he deserves this solitude.

This despite the other dreams, soaked with saliva and semen, tangled limbs and endless, exhausting thrusts. Another set of eyes, bluer than his own, colder, glaring at him. He wakes up hard from these, mouth dry, whip-cord tense with the urgent certainty that he needs to exact revenge.

*

He has a scar on his arm, and while he can catalogue the derivation of every other knick and wound on his body, save the one on his throat, he has no idea where or why he was slashed there.

*

At the greenmarket, net bag slung over his shoulder heavy with herbs and fruits, he hears a baby squeal and start to cry somewhere behind him. He turns to see it struggling helplessly as its young mother tries to soothe it. Wes's breath rasps against his throat. He watches its fat, pale hands claw emptily, then swell and brighten monstrously as the edges of his vision darken with the seepage of blood.

*

Wesley stares at himself in the mirror. This face has seen things. This body has done things. Horrid things that shimmer just out of sight, out of mind.

Yet his eyes are blue and free of guile.

*

He attempts every detection, every tracing, every half-cocked New-Age occult promise to reveal magic laid against him.

He spends weeks naked and shaking with fear, undergoing every conceivable reading, but there is no spell. Nothing beyond the usual charms and security glamours laid by the firm; since he cast many of those, he has no reason to distrust them.

Magic is not the thing honing his sight to such an unbearable degree.

*

He catches Fred leaving Research Bay #12 on her lunch hour. After a moment of quizzically searching his face, as if they had been introduced at a cocktail party a long time ago, she smiles.

"Hungry?" she asks, and takes his arm. "Come keep me company."

He clutches a black coffee as she twitters with news over an immense salad. He knows Fred, knows she cannot hide her thoughts the way other people can, and she has not changed. She is happy.

"Something wrong?" she asks at last, her tone light and disinterested. The coffee is long cold in his grip.

"No, of course not," Wes tells her. Lies as easily to her whom he loves, or loved at some point, as the urn dispensed his coffee. "Quite busy, of course. You?"

Fred sets aside her fork. "You have no idea! You and your books, you have it easy, mister! The other day, this message came down from Angel--"

His jaw trembles under the tension. Teeth scrape against each other in the effort to swallow.

Silhouetted against the window, Fred is a shard of flesh, no volume to her at all. He could blink, and she might disappear. He cannot let on, cannot show the restless anger and sorrow squatting in the center of his chest, lest he worry her. Lest she tell Angel.

*

He researches disease.

This is what he does when something is wrong: Having noted and collated the symptoms, he turns to books, trusting that the solution will come.

Nothing matches, however. Retinitis pigmentosa starts with a cloud at the edges that thickens inward, graying out the sight. Keratoconus is a pulling of the corneal tissue out of its healthy ellipse into small peaks that distort the vision. It is not uveitis, nor is it papilledema.

It must be something neurological, then. Brain tumor, some growth on the optic nerve that sharpens his vision so unbearably. Edges to everything gone finely honed, depth perception vanished so that everything he sees rises in layers before him, shallow and harsh.

As if Bosch attempted to follow the dictates of Piranesi. There is no perspective, no depth, only a caul of terror drawn across the ordinary.

*

Far past midnight, though he has been in bed for only two or three hours at most, and the knocking on his door is insistent enough to require attention but soft enough to qualify as a dream.

Through the spyhole: a stranger slumped against the doorjamb, a slow, cruel grin on his dirty face.

Wes opens the door anyway, just as far as the three deadbolt chains will allow. Odor of ashes and mud on the stranger as he raises his head.

"Wes."

His eyes are bluer than Wesley's own.

"Wes?"

And then it's as if he is in the optician's chair, face thrust into the medieval half-hood of metal, testing prescriptions: The lenses clink down into place, a new clarity is granted, and he feels himself smiling back at Spike. His Spike.

Chains undone, door flung wide, body slumping heavy into his arms. Half-carry, half-drag him to the couch.

"He told me you were dead." He knows that he knew this; his memory, now, sharpened at the sight of his lover, offers up something newly familiar.

He was called into that strangely bright office, Angel dark against the windows; then the clutch of Wes's fear slid into a flood of cold grief. Somehow all these shards of knowledge occupy his memory, laid out side by side like scalpels in a metal tray, contradictory yet coexisting: Spike is dead, Spike is here, he has never met Spike before this moment.

"Truly dead, that is," he amends.

Twitch of a smirk that would like to stay, but the cheeks are too hollow, much more hollow than Wes has ever seen, to hold it for long. Spike shakes his head slowly, lowering himself back against the cushions.

"He doesn't always get what he wants, does he?" He draws a trembling finger down Wes's cheek and cups his chin.

"I don't know about that."

*

It proves more difficult to track his symptoms with Spike here.

His lover is ill, has somehow survived a cataclysm that not only burned him to ash but shook meters of rock and earth over that ash. He will not speak about it to Wes, says only that he is glad he made it here. His ability to pretend that nothing is wrong is remarkable, rivaling only Wes's own capacity.

Living with the dead seems fitting, present circumstances considered.

The reportedly dead, that is.

Around the time Wes lost control of his sight, it seems, Spike revived beneath a crater, awakened by the thunder of his heart beating.

He is human. Wes knows this as easily as everything else he has taken to believing. He knows as well that this, above all else, cannot be shared, nor broadcast.

*

They take their brunch out on the balcony on Sunday morning, and it occurs distantly to Wes that he should be disturbed, seeing Spike like this, in the full sunlight, eating ravenously and talking around his food. He is better these days, eating more, the worst of the gauntness filled in.

Wes misses the night terrors. The hours spent coaxing him to eat. The bathing and bandaging of his bloodied, blistered feet and torn hands.

Now that he is better, it appears, Spike would like to resume relations. Wes feels himself being watched with greater attention and urgency.

He cannot lie to this man.

*

"--as if she had a clue!" Spike finishes with a flourish of the hands, gasping for laughter. He drains his third nightcap.

Wes nods politely. It was an amusing anecdote, but he cannot, will not, smile. He would like to close his eyes and feel the thrill of fleeing again, but Spike would notice. Instead he swallows the dry bile gathering in his mouth and tries to look away.

"Joke, pet. Remember those?" Spike captures one of Wes's hands in his own, and grins like a child.

Wes shifts, hearing the leather squeak and sigh beneath him, and retrieves his hand. "Tell me about the Harris boy again."

Spike drops his empty hand and sits back in his chair. "I can't," he says flatly. He scrubs his palm over his forehead, down his jaw. "You know that."

"Please?" Wes can hear the begging and wheedling in his voice. "What did it look like? His face? The blood?"

Spike is silent. The longer he slumps there, lips tightened into a pencil-thin line, the faster the urgency grows in Wes to hear, to see, to be distracted by the tale. If he himself cannot feel anything, he reasons, it might be almost as good to draw vicariously on someone else. He will not be made a fool.

"Afterwards, then. What did the doctors say?"

*

In the sun, late at night, on his lunch break, in the dawn glimmer: It does not matter, at any moment Wes is liable to be slammed off-guard.

Knocked to the ground, thrown against a wall, slit from sternum to testicles, all with a glance or the memory of a glance. All it takes is a sidewise glimpse of Spike, hair curling against the pillow, an unexpected break to the timbre of his voice, the bird-thin bones of his hands, and Wes is brought to the verge.

Teetering, almost wishing for the fall.

He is in love. And this cannot be.

*

One more night, yet another tentative ghost of a caress on his back.

Spike no longer asks him for anything. He is a smart man, after all, and even the densest person will eventually learn from rejection.

His touch, as light as baby's breath, is all he says.

Wes rolls over to face him. He sees the shock on Spike's face, the barely-controlled instinct to yank himself away.

"You want this?" Wes whispers as he kicks off the sheets. Naked, he spreads his legs. He traps Spike's face between his palms, turning it downward to show himself.

"Wes--" His voice is breathy, disbelieving, kept soft as if he is afraid to wake up.

"Do you?"

"Yes. Please--" He watches Spike's eyes flicker as he nods, licking his lips. "Need you. Miss you."

"Take it then," Wes tells him. "Take it all."

"What?"

Wes pushes at Spike's shoulder, urging him down the bed, while he turns his body and goes up on his elbows and knees.

"Make it hurt," he hisses. "Make me scream, Spike."

A hand comes to rest on the small of his back as the other trails up the back of his thigh.

He needs to feel this. After everything, despite everything, this is something he can feel. He pushes up against the hand, dislodging its gentle touch, and twists his head around.

Spike appears as a thin gray slice of light near the bottom of the bed, a pale patch of light adrift on veils of shadow that threaten to swamp him. Wes blinks, but Spike's figure only sharpens and lightens, never resolves.

He raises his ass higher. "You know what to do."

Spike reaches for him again, and Wes shrinks back, knows he will flinch if the touch is any way kind, or gentle.

"Hit me."

*

When the first slap falls, Wes drops his head into the pillow.

They rain down on him, quickly timed and carefully placed until his skin is burning, flattened and singing with pain. All he can hear is the hisses escaping his nose and the resounding claps of skin hitting skin.

It isn't enough.

Well-aimed, far too rhythmical, this is a parody of punishment. He dodges and wriggles so the hand catches the back of his thigh. Jumps for the next one, and it lands in the small of his back.

Wes moans, and hears Spike chuckle behind him. "Playing hard, then?"

"Belt."

"Erm?"

When Wes doesn't answer, Spike slides off the bed with a sigh. Wes hears the closet door open and the rattle of hangers.

He tunes it all out, concentrating instead on the images seeping across his mind's eye: boat, girl, blood, baby. Looming, laughing demon. Screams. A sword, a corpse, plastic. Faith. Blunt, then hot.

He deserves this.

*Crack*. He feels the leather sting across his buttocks just before he hears its whistle in the air, another crack, and then the slap again.

No longer rhythmic, the motion speeds up, then slows, and he starts to lose count in the rush of his panting and the hiss and crack of leather on flesh. The bed dips behind his knees as Spike leans in. Wes tugs himself up, reaching for the headboard, draping himself over it.

"That's a good boy," Spike whispers, and the belt connects again, across his shoulder blades. Wes jumps and collapses, holding his head down with an arm across the back of his neck. "So pretty."

Over his back, up his back, down his thighs, until he is no longer panting or gasping but wheezing, weeping. Agony like a snake, slithering, breaking open just beneath his skin. A snake's birth, live and lithe, spreading over his back and legs, painting him red with blood from the inside out.

Dry tears burn his eyes and flood his mouth with sympathetic fire, as he hears himself begging senselessly. His ass is wrenched open with hands curled into claws, then breached with two fingers just barely wet enough.

Wes seesaws between weeping and groaning as Spike works himself inside, drawing nails along the welts on his back, urging him to loosen in guttural whispers.

The burn of being cleaved like this, far more concentrated and greatly focused than the fire of the beating, sends his head spinning away from feeling, away from imagery, until all he knows is the twin fires, the sound of the voice above him and the hoarse pleas falling from his own throat. The crush of one hand on his hip hauling him back, the other on one shoulder, pushing him down.

Thrusts that crush and rip something too deep inside to have a name, and his cries, begging for release, joined by others as teeth rake up his spine and close on his neck.

Sand-dry tongue laving his throat, noise sobbing into his ear. "Please--please--make me stop, stop it, please--*Wes*--"

Wes drops himself flat on the bed, working one arm back around Spike's waist, pushing him deeper, the other around his neck, dropping his head for a bite, until another layer breaks, some retaining wall gives way, and as he floods the bed, the tears fall at last.

And he's so sorry, so very sorry. The guilt flickers and flames for an instant, before he passes out.



Part II: Spike.

He'd thought it was a game. He had wanted it to be a game, something so unbelievable, so over-the-top and glorious, that it had to be a gift.

*

He had tunneled through the wreckage of an entire town without any sense of time or hunger, his ripped and bleeding hands driven forward only by the beat of his heart and the thought of blue eyes in a lean, intelligent face. He walked and stumbled the miles and the days it took to reach the city, and in his less sane moments, he actually believed he was coming home, that he would find Wes and find peace at last.

Instead he is locked in an apartment with a madman who remembers him less often than he does not. He cannot go out, lest Angelus catch wind of his presence. He has beaten bloody, nearly raped, the only person he loves, and cannot even hold him to comfort him. This is some terrible parody of expectation, getting everything he wants but inside-out, upside-down, buggered six ways to Sunday.

Because Wes shies away, flinching from any sound or touch, and Spike is growing far too used to the sound of his own heart.

*

Wes sits in an armchair drawn to the darkest corner of the living room. It is late enough at night that some (bakers, newspaper printers, police) act as if the day has already begun. Wes's face is slack and impassive, eyes closed, as he replays some horrific film loop in his mind. Posture rigid, hands locked into fists hard as rocks.

Spike can only stay still, watch from the door to the bedroom. He can only guess and guess again how to help. Tension radiates electrically from his lover. Tension, fear, and the strangest sense of absent guilt.

Insincere guilt: He'd always assumed Angelus had cornered *that* market.

Wes opens his eyes and stares blindly in Spike's general direction. He is at Wes's side in an instant, kneeling before him, cautious not to touch but to be close enough should he need to.

"I don't know what to believe," Wes whispers. He is still staring at, searching the dark doorway.

It's the worst possible idea, but Spike reaches forward anyway, draws the tip of his index finger across the fist nearer to him. "Don't worry," he singsongs, "don't, don't, don't--"

No flinch, no movement away at the touch; no relaxation, either, but he can live with that.

"I'm scared."

Spike shifts infinitesimally forward and strokes the fist with two fingers. "What've you got in there, Wes? Diamonds?"

Wes glances down. "Don't know."

"Squeezing hard enough to make diamonds, y'know." Keeping it light, conversational. He's had more than enough practice with this.

"Yes."

"You want to show Spike? Show what you've got hidden?"

No, that went too far. Wes shrinks back against the chair, arms going to his sides, fists buried in the seat cushion. Wes shakes his head vigorously. "Can't--"

Spike sits back on his heels and raises his hands, palms out. "All right, Wes. It's all right, okay?"

Wes leans forward, bending double over his knees, bringing his face right to Spike's ear. "Can't open them. Want to. Can't."

*

Sometimes Spike wakes alone in an empty apartment.

Those are the nights he finds Wes curled up on the cement floor of the balcony, head turned to the sky. There are no stars to see, nothing but flat, dirty clouds reflecting back the city's own grime and lights, but Wes watches with the eyes of a child on the night of a meteor shower. Scared and fascinated, unwilling, unable, to blink.

Spike lost the duster to the collapse; he's not so sure he'd want it any longer, except for this. He tugs off the old blazer of Wes's that he's grown embarrassingly attached to and spreads it over the still figure. He allows himself a moment to marvel at just how small Wes can draw himself when he's cold before he slides down the wall to join him.

*

Wes goes to work every day and returns late, well after dark. He'll pause unsteadily on the threshold for several moments after opening the door, waiting for Spike to join him. Waiting for a hand extended to draw him into his own home.

"No one's said anything?" Spike asks over dinner. "They haven't noticed?"

Wes shakes his head. "What is there to notice?"

*That you've gone round the bloody bend?* "That you...you've been--"

"Crazy as a jay?" Wes sets aside the plate and wanders into the living room.

"I was going to say ill," Spike says, following him.

Wes tips his head against the window and looks down at the traffic crawling stories below. "No. No one's noticed."

"How is that?" Spike risks an arm around the alarmingly thin waist, holding his breath, but Wes doesn't move. He allows himself a shiver of relief at the contact. "They must have."

"Oh, I lie quite well, you see." Wes speaks as if this were the most obvious thing in the world: I live in Los Angeles, I have blue eyes, I lie like a master. "Born to it, you might say. And I'm getting even better at it."

His stomach drops and twists, and it's not the height.

*

Spike wakes one morning to gray, drizzly light and the sense of Wes looming just before his face. Yes, right there.

"You're a killer," Wes whispers as soon as Spike opens his eyes. "You know."

"Yeah," Spike says carefully. He stretches sleep-thickened limbs, but Wes does not move away. "Savior, too, it seems."

Wes's exhalation blooms sour and warm over Spike's cheeks. "No, you know what it's like. No one else does."

Spike hitches in a breath and closes his eyes. This could be a dream. He levers one lid open, but Wes is still there, still staring. He sets aside thoughts of Wes as a killer for another moment, a later, safer, one, and addresses the easier question. "Not entirely true, pet. Some do."

"Who?" Wes demands. "No one knows."

Spike shifts onto his elbow and touches Wes's bare shoulder. The knob of bone is sharp under his fingers. "I'd venture to say you've got a boss who knows quite well."

Squeezing shut his eyes, Wes rolls away, off the bed. He stands shakily, exhales, and stalks out of the room.

Spike collapses back on the pillow. It could have gone worse. It can always get worse when it comes to *him*.

*

Right, might as well get this over with then.

Spike steps out onto the sidewalk, shocked as ever by the warmth and light he can now survive, endure, and even enjoy.

He's not getting out, not really, never permanently. He couldn't do that, would never do that. He is not escaping but yet again seeking help, answers, cures.

Taking a wander into the wasp's nest and the belly of the beast, Orpheus on one more fool's errand: This is just what Spike *does*, dead or alive, every single time.

Despite himself, for him.

*

"You've got to be kidding me." Angel tilts back in his chair and crosses his arms. "You're not here."

Spike looks down and checks himself. "Seems like I am. Maybe you're dreaming?"

"No," Angel says slowly. "Can't be. I don't dream about you."

"Feeling's mutual, sweetheart." Spike skirts Angel's desk and raps on the window. "Nice set-up you've got here. Fake sun and all. Moving up in the world, our Angel is."

"Something's not right." Angel swivels around to face Spike and leans forward. Spike never could read the bastard all that well, and in this office, him in that ridiculous suit? He's going to have to press his case.

"You think so, too? 'Cause that's what I was gonna say. Then again, you always got the best lines and first call on everything, so-- Not surprising, is it?"

"What's this about, William?"

Spike grimaces and fishes in the blazer's chest pocket for his cigarettes. "I'll let that one pass," he says, tapping out a smoke. "This time."

Angel sighs, and Spike could have gone for two or three millennia without having to hear that sigh again, so full of wounded patience and forbearance rapidly wearing thin.

"So," Spike says, lifting himself up to sit on the edge of the desk, legs swinging, banging, against the drawers. "You going to tell me what you've done? Or is it going to be the usual sparring, then some drawn-out mutual violence across several counties before we give up and go our separate ways?"

Angel studies him. Spike knows this look almost as well as the sigh. He wears it when he's drawing, all concentration and patience for the muse. But he also gets it when he'd prefer that no one notice the wheels turning in his mind as he sorts through options and parries, any potential jabs.

"Just spill it, will you? Strangely enough, I don't feel like the usual," Spike says. "Rather just get my info and get the hell out of this place."

Angel nods to himself, an entirely grim smile on his lips. "Shanshu."

"Eh? What the hell are you on about?"

"What I said. Don't tell me you don't know."

"Look, I don't care what namby-pamby Oriental dialect the great and wonderful Angelus is picking up these days. Just tell me what you did, and I'll get out of your magnificently styled hair."

He's pushed up against the window, Angel's hand at his throat, legs dangling uselessly before he can finish. Just like the bad old days.

"What did *you* do, Spike? Huh?"

Spike shakes his head, feeling the grip relax enough for him to speak. "Should knee you in the knackers for that," he hisses. "Too bad you never managed to grow--"

*Shit*. Tendons crackling in his throat, and he does need oxygen these days.

Right, what was that again? Control temper, find out what's wrong with Wes, leave. That was the plan, and it was simple enough that even Spike should have been able to follow it. But his asshole of a sire always manages to muck everything up, doesn't he.

Spike squeaks, he hopes, placatingly. The clasp on his throat relaxes fractionally, and he sucks in breath like it's going out of style.

"Sorry?" he croaks, avoiding Angel's eyes. "Er, do-over?"

Angel shakes him a couple times like a ragdoll rapidly losing its charm and interest. When Spike looks up again, Angel is frowning in incomprehension. "Do over?"

Spike squeezes Angel's wrist, asking silently for a yet looser grip. After a moment, it comes, and he can breathe almost normally. "Yeah," he says, running a hand through his hair. Xander would say that--*C'mon, fangless, do over? Have a heart*--every time Spike kicked his ass at whatever kid's game they were playing that night. "Y'know, start over? Try again? Wipe the slate? Do-over."

And they say *he's* mad? Angel drops him, collapsing back into his chair, choking on his laughter. Tears well out of his eyes as he shakes with sobbing, stomach-churning giggles. Spilled out on the floor, Spike edges carefully along the wall until he's snug in the corner, knees drawn up to his chest, taking in one of the more bizarre sights he's ever been treated to. Mighty Angelus, reduced to wracking, hysterical laughter.

Looks like it's not going to stop any time soon, either, so Spike lights the cigarette still between his fingers and takes a minute to pull his thoughts together. Get the info, get the cure, get out.

If only Angel would stop -- what is he doing now? Crying?

"For Chrissake, Angelus, what's wrong?"

Angel lifts his head, peering blearily at him, and can only shrug. "Do-over," he gasps, and then he's off again.

This is going to take a lot longer than he thought.

*

Sun's setting by the time Angel finishes the explanation. Probably took so long since he kept interrupting himself to ask why he'd be telling Spike of all people. Then he'd laugh again for several minutes at the fact that Spike now counts as people, mutter something about poetic justice and arse-fucking irony, and eventually Spike realized that the question was rhetorical. He managed to keep mum after that.

Now Spike is pacing. Every fucking nerve in this human body is screaming contradictory impulses to his brain: fight--flee--believe--call-the-bastard's-bluff, and he can't stop wearing the rich carpet down to the fibers.

"What?" Angel finally asks. "Don't believe me?"

"You can't do it, man." Spike can take anything Angel wants to throw at him, grandiose lies or engine-block fists, but when he hears himself sound so calm, that's when he gets scared. "Can't fuck with people like that."

"I didn't fuck with anyone."

Spike finds himself across the room from the television, which would look a hell of a lot better with his foot through it, but he settles for the nearest decanter of whatever expensive whisky Angel's into these days. He hefts it, cocks his head, and lobs it as hard as he can at the opposite wall. Somehow, the shatter and spill, spectacular as they are, don't help.

"He's going mad," Spike says, and there's that calm, sad voice again. Where the hell did it come from? He sounds like a bloody Watcher, reviewing the facts of the case without a single emotion ever leaking in.

"He'll be fine." Angel leans forward over the desk, hands clasped like Reagan announcing nuclear winter. "Although I'm surprised it's taken him this long to adjust."

"Adjust? Is that we're calling it?"

"Just give him some time. Wes will be fine. Better than before."

"Of all people--" Spike halts in the middle of the carpet, and turns so fast his eyes swim. He needs to get that calm voice back again. Deep breath. "You know what it's like. Time was, you couldn't shut up about it. Woe is me, I killed, I was a bad, bad man. I can see their faces, Spike, all their faces! See them, every bleeding throat and hear them, every scream of terror. The guilt! The guilt!"

Angel nods. "Exactly."

He needs to lean against the wall, otherwise he's going to pitch himself out that vamp-proof window. Might not be so bad, let in a little real light, let Angel feel something. But then he'd be a stain on the sidewalk, and Wes--. Well, Wes wouldn't be able to come into his own apartment, for one. "Exactly what, motherfucker?"

"I couldn't do that to Wes. Not to him, not to anyone."

"Because you're the great soddin' Guilt Machine? Only your shoulders are big enough for the weight of the world, is that it? You get all the guilt, and the rest of us get to be happy little lobotomized morons?"

Angel rubs his forehead. How does he manage to look so tired? He's not the one going to age. "Not in so many words. But, yes."

"You're never going to change, are you?"

Angel cocks his head, mimicking Spike, and somehow that gesture is nearly as infuriating as the stunt he pulled on Wes and everyone else. "You won't change," Spike says slowly, working it out as he goes along. "Soul, no soul, Batman loner or C-E-fucking-O, you'll always be the same."

Angel chuckles dryly. "Well, yes. As usual, you've managed to strike the nail on the head with utterly bizarre accuracy. Since you managed to shanshu, guess I will."

Spike's fingers itch for another cigarette and his throat's starting to close up as if he's on the verge of tears. Angel's voice makes him want to scream or weep, he's not sure which, unless it's both. It takes tremendous effort, a strength on the scale of his former power, to remember Wes's face, to see the face and swallow, find the calm he always expects from that face.

He wishes briefly, insanely, that Angel had simply poisoned Wes, because then all he'd need to do is shove his fingers down Wes's throat and bring it all back up. Metaphysical ipecac, that's what he needs, and he's not going to find it here.

"Just tell me why," Spike says. "Looking for another credit in the redemption column, that it?"

"I did it for Connor. For Connor, and Wes. You."

Spike snorts.

Angel rubs the back of his neck; even from here, the crack and pop of knuckles is loud. "I wanted my friends back. Failing that, I wanted them happy. It didn't have anything to do with me."

Spike's hand is on the doorknob before Angel gets to 'happy', and the door is closing behind him as Angel reaches the end of his denial.

*

"C'mere, love," Spike says as he opens the door. He'd like to believe that Wes doesn't hesitate quite as long as usual on the threshold, but there's no way to be sure. He takes the briefcase from Wes's hand, slips off his jacket, and leads him to the balcony. He's Laura Petrie now, is he? Should have had a martini waiting for the hard-working man of the house.

Spike slides behind a motionless Wes, arms around his waist, and pulls him down with him until they're sitting. He rests his chin on Wes's shoulder.

"How was your day?" He can't invoke that horrible calm in his voice, no matter how mundane the question.

"Just fine, thank you," Wes murmurs. He tilts his head back against Spike's shoulder and sighs. Spike inhales the soft scents tangled in Wes's hair: old paper, flaking parchment, iron-gall ink, flat digital chill of the plastic computer cases.

He slips one hand crosswise against Wes's chest, hugging him more tightly, draping his unprotesting body against his own. They breathe together for a moment while a siren ends its wail and the beat of a helicopter throbs overhead. Spike watches the play of light and shadow over Wes's face, watches as his lips tighten and form silent words, then relax. A frown flits across his face, tugging his brows down, darkening his eyes, before he sighs softly. Wes is nothing in his arms, fabric enclosing brittle bones and a fallible heart.

Of course, Spike's not much either, not any more.

"Your day?" Wes turns so his face nuzzles into Spike's neck. "What have you been up to?"

"This and that," Spike says.

"Such as?" Wes's lips are dry along Spike's jaw, his voice whispery. "Do tell."

"Wanna hear a story?" Spike kisses him lightly along his hairline and strokes the front of Wes's shirt, smoothing out the wrinkles. "It's a doozey, I'm warning you."

Wes leans his forehead against Spike's cheek, lashes brushing his skin. "Tell me."

Spike laces his fingers through Wes's and tilts his head back against the wall, feeling Wes's face slip down to rest in the hollow of his neck. "Best close your eyes first."

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