All the Tea in China
By Gwyneth Rhys
He found Wes in his office, as always, poring over some text or other with pictures of sacrificial goats and alarming hieroglyphics. At times Spike wondered if the bloke ever slept; he seemed to always be here, or on one of Angel’s ridiculous missions. Since the thing with his father there had been something off-balance about him, indefinably damaged, but that was something Spike got on a basic emotional level. That English struggle for rectitude and reticence, the need to hide the gaping holes left in you like exit wounds when all you wanted to do was wave your arms above your head and run round in circles, screaming. Instead, you waved one hand casually and said, no, really, I’m fine. Only to anyone except the casual observer, Wes wasn’t fine.
“I see that corporeality hasn’t improved your lack of manners,” Wes said into his book, chin on his doubled-up fists.
“Manners, schmanners. Door’s open, you could hear me coming, so why stand on ceremony?”
He held a bandage over a bleeding arm wound, which Wes homed in on immediately. Spike gestured melodramatically and said, “You should see the other guy.”
“Yeah. Big, nasty snaky thing. Bit me, though. Fucker had some wicked bite to its bite.”
Without moving anything except his left arm, Wes reached down, opened a drawer, and then tossed a bottle of something that was likely the underworld equivalent of hydrogen peroxide at Spike, who caught it mid-air. He dumped the luridly magenta liquid on the gash, heard its familiar hiss and bubble, and increased pressure on his wound as the stinging spread through gristle and vein. Wes was looking at him now, finally taking his eyes off the text, and there was something about the glance that felt disturbingly intimate.
“In the short time you’ve become solid again, you’ve had, how many demon fights is it now? Including the one with Angel? And yet you no longer have the chip.”
“Just like it, I suppose. There’s a... a legacy to carry on.”
“That would explain why you’re still here, then?” He lifted his head, turned a page, and then dropped it down to the same position. There was something vaguely tragic about seeing Percy so disaffected, but Spike didn’t feel like attempting to figure why.
Instead he plopped himself down on the big chair opposite the desk. “Mind me asking a question?”
“If it’s about shagging either of your parents, having a go with Harmony, or anything to do with my father, then yes.” Wes sat up and stared at his guest in challenge.
“None of the above.” Although he did still want to know about the father. “But every time I come round in the wee hours, you’re here. I’ve no place else to go, not right now, but you do. Why stay here? None of you like this place, except Shaft. But you never go home.”
His arm throbbed now, the purple poison spreading up to the elbow. This one would take days to heal.
Wes closed the book and rubbed at his eyes. “There’s a lot to do.”
“Bollocks. You were hiding from something before, and you’re still hiding.”
Taking a sip of what was probably cold coffee, judging by the look on his face, Wes shook his head. “You think you’re so clever.”
“You’re hiding the cleverness where? Under layers of moronic, boorish yob and that stupid coat?”
Spike only smiled at him. Grace under pressure. It wasn’t that they’d become any friendlier since the robo-father; but Spike had grown more intrigued by Wes since that night. It would take a much tougher man to do that deed than the one Spike had seen before, and he wanted to find out where that toughness came from. Never could stand a mystery.
After a time, Wes smiled back, but it was tinged with bitterness. He wasn’t a man prone to grinning. Wes got up and went to a sideboard, took out a bottle of excruciatingly, magnificently old single malt, and tossed it to Spike. He let the peaty fire flow down his throat, a nearly orgasmic joy at experiencing this thing he’d loved so much after being denied it so long.
After wiping the lip, he passed the bottle back. Wes took a swig, then perched on the edge of the desk, facing Spike.
“So what is it?” Spike asked. “You hiding from whatever put that scar on your throat? Or just living up to Dudley DoRight’s example?” In the before, he wouldn’t have cared the least bit about what motivated Wes to do anything. But after the events of the past weeks, he’d changed his mind, a lot. A bit of digging had led him to some very interesting histories for Angel and Crew, especially the trail Wyndham-Pryce had taken from fop to fighter. Something in that resonated with Spike, made him want to pay attention. This was the first person in a long time Spike had no real sense of.
Wes absently touched the scar. Spike had noticed this after he’d got used to being here, the strange way people reacted to reminders of the past few years. Clearly something significant was veiled within a fog of memory: either through denial or trauma, they seemed unable to recall their own ancient history. Spike wondered if it had something to do with Cordelia’s coma state, but that topic was off limits with everyone, especially Angel.
“This line of work...” Wes took another drink, and gave it to Spike.
Spike suddenly had a rapid flash of understanding: Wes was hiding behind life, as if simply slogging through existence could shut out everything important inside him. And that was a little too close for comfort; Spike sat up, jolted by the understanding of how aptly that described him, corporeal or ghostly, and for a moment he fought the shudder that was working its way up his spine.
“I’ve a feeling it’s not about the work.” As Spike said it, Wes blinked, then looked down at the desk. “Given the choice, wouldn’t you do something else? No more risk, no more pain...”
“Not for — well. What does it matter? There’s no going back.” He fixed Spike with a steely look. “And you wouldn’t either, would you? Soul or not. That’s what all this fighting’s about.”
“Too right.” He raised the bottle up, said “Cheers, mate. Here’s to two of a kind. Only thing missing for a matching pair is you bleeding all over the landscape for your great lost love.”
The shy grimace said it all. So that was it, why the Miss Lonelyhearts here every night. Broken heart. Oldest story in the book.
“You’ll get over her, in time.” Spike meant it as a comfort, but Wes flinched. He stood straight and went back to his chair, safe behind his desk. He and Angel did that a lot. Must be some sort of subconscious significance to it; he’d have to ask Lorne later.
That grey flicker of doubt crept across Wes’s face, the same one Spike had seen before, after Wes had killed the man he’d thought was his father. “How is it that you do that, precisely?”
Spike blinked. “Do what?”
“Be one thing, then another, in an instant. The idiot, then the fighter, then you turn round and play the hero, sacrifice yourself for another... most peculiar of all, the insightful sage. One could get whiplash trying to follow your personalities.”
The dry, disengaged way he said it left Spike wondering if he was being complimentary or insulting; it was difficult to tell. “Apparently I’m not insightful enough to understand what you’re getting at.” He flexed his hand, feeling the sweet burn spread up his arm. He could feel the bruises on his face now, the other cuts flaring all over his body.
“You play at this rude boy act, your sarcasm and disdain for everything Angel stands for, yet here you are, still. You mock and denigrate me, yet you keep popping round my office, asking questions and starting conversations. You blame your interest in doing good on Buffy. But that’s not it at all, none of it.” He motioned for the bottle, took a gulp, and added, “And you remind me far too much of myself before I started all of this: wanting to belong, utterly lacking social skills or maturity, but needing — and eventually finding — a purpose.”
Spike cocked his head and stared at Wesley for a long time. He’d misjudged the man, very badly. “Learnt the hard way, didn’t I? Wanted the wrong things, the wrong person. We learn best from our mistakes.”
There was such a gravity in the way Wes eyed him that it actually made Spike feel sorry for the bloke. “Yes, I suppose we do.”
But Wes couldn’t understand what it was like, to love someone that wrong. To let it choke you to death, suffocate you with its crushing need. The breath of cinder and ash, filling your lungs, burning your heart till there was nothing left. Not even a shell of what you once were left smoldering where you'd stood.
“Who was she? Not Fred, you’re still carrying that torch loud and clear. So it’s got to be someone else.”
That got a bitter smile from Wes, and once again his hand moved to his throat, the gesture reflexive, mysteriously unconscious. “The wrong person, at the right time.” Wes’s face went slack, his eyes focused on the middle distance. Spike watched him for a while. Maybe they were alike in some ways. Both changed — hardened — by time and experience. Broken by their pasts, hopelessly hopeful of the future. Foolish and clever.
“Thanks for the medicine,” Spike said, waving his hand. “And this medicine, as well.” He took another swig from the bottle, and plonked it down on the desk. “Good stuff, I should be wanting more of that.”
Wes tilted his head to the side, and gazed at him with such disfavor it made him laugh. “It’ll be under lock and key from now on.”
Spike mimed a punch. “Vampire, remember?”
“How could I forget?” He paused. “Spike, don’t go nosing around in things that don’t concern you. Some things are better left alone.” But there was no conviction in his voice, and Spike wasn’t certain if he was saying it to protect himself, or to protect Angel.
As he turned back to his book, Wes said, so low that Spike almost didn’t hear him, “Angel never really had much of a choice when it came to this. You’ve had choices all along, and yet you’d make them again, even knowing how badly they’ve turned out.”
Spike raised his eyebrows and shrugged. “Afraid you white hats are stuck with me, mate.” He belonged here now. Meant for something larger, just like this lot. Even if he’d made all those choices for the wrong reasons, even if love for the wrong person had killed off everything he once was, Spike had never been one to sit and ponder the outcomes, or look back with regret on roads not taken. Neither, he thought, was Wes, not anymore. Maybe the hiding was over for both of them. “Anyway. Can’t give it up now, fun’s just started.”
As he walked out into the hallway, he heard Wes close the book, and the soft snick of the light being turned off.