"And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonor, and emulating one another in honor; and when fighting at each other's side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world."
-- Plato, The Symposium
It wasn't the sound of combat in the alley that caught Wesley's attention, but the deep growls and shrill cries accompanying it. Nobody in the local street gangs had those voices.
He veered his motorcycle into the dark crevasse between what had once been respectable hotels, dodging dumpsters and overturned trash cans, and hoped he wasn't too late. "Why do they always have to fight in the dark?" he muttered to himself. "Couldn't the damned demons take it out on each other under some nice street light, so I could see to aim?"
He was just in time. A squealing vampire and a Carpathian swamp demon, in its predatory phase, had pinned someone into a corner and were taking turns at him. Their target was putting up one hell of a fight, but seemed to be tiring; it appeared that the battle had been going on for some time, from the spatters of blood on the ground, some of it red, some in less attractive colors.
Wesley rode the bike up to the wall and jumped off, neatly spiking the vampire on the way. The cloud of dust made him sneeze. It was embarrassing. He should have gotten used to it by now. Unfortunately, no reputable allergist was willing to deal with an allergy to graveyard dust, so he had to rely on over-the-counter remedies that either didn't work or made him sleepy.
The growling demon, a burly gray-green type he'd seen before, with the orange zebra streaks of mating season on its shoulders, took a step backward at the dissolution of its partner in crime, which gave Wesley time to check the condition of the man next to him. The man wore black -- leather jacket, jeans, boots -- just as Wesley did, and appeared to be about his own age, but his eyes were dark with pain and anger and his mouth was tight in a grimace. He swung at the demon again, and Wesley realized that he was seeing a hook instead of a hand at the end of that left arm.
"Allow me," Wesley said, and fired a crossbow bolt that pinned the demon to the side of the dumpster. As it thrashed and growled and gnashed its teeth, he finished it off with the sword he carried. Its teeth kept moving for quite a while after it had been beheaded.
The demon's erstwhile victim straightened, painfully. "Fuck. What were those things?"
"You're welcome," Wesley said, not without sarcasm. "Are you hurt?"
"I'm fine, damn it." He started to sag against the wall in exhaustion, the hand with the gun pulled across his abdomen as if to hide pain.
Wesley caught him on the way down and felt surprised at how little he weighed. "You need to get those scratches looked at. They can turn nasty quite easily."
The man tried to struggle free, but appeared too weak for it to work. "I've been through worse." He looked pale, too pale. Wesley checked his pulse. No, this one was still among the living.
"Probably so, but you need rest and food." He didn't look too dangerous in his current condition. "Do you need help to get home?"
The man groaned. He shoved the empty pistol into a jacket pocket and tried to straighten his legs. "Not -- I'm not from here."
Wesley sized him up: thin, mid-thirties, weary and torn. He considered his available resources for healing, and for defense, and decided to take the chance. "If you don't have somewhere to stay, you can come home with me."
Dark eyes searched him, as if cataloguing his weaknesses. Wesley stiffened and glared back. "Impulsive." One flyaway eyebrow rose quizzically. "How do you know I'm not more dangerous than they were?"
Scrupulously honest, Wesley replied, "I don't. However, you're human, which has to count for something."
At this, the man in his arms gave him a faint, sweet smile that made Wesley feel as if the sun had just come out. "You'd think so, wouldn't you?"
"Look, you're hurt and it's not safe to stay here. You were just lucky to run into only one vampire instead of a pack. There's a sizeable group that considers this block part of their territory."
"Vampires." The man snorted. "Right. And you're the fearless vampire hunter, like in the movies?" His gun had disappeared into his jacket, but it was clear that he'd been injured; he was bleeding from a dozen scratches and cuts that had gone through his shirt.
"Something like that. Are you coming?" Wesley urged. "I'd rather not hang around. For one thing, he's starting to smell." He indicated the beheaded demon.
"Can't argue that. Fuck." A cascade of emotions crossed the man's pale face. His eyes looked almost black in the dim light. "Okay. Your place. I sure as hell don't want to sleep with that."
"All right." Wesley picked up his bike, turned it around, and started it again, and helped the man on behind him. "Hold onto me." He couldn't help a wary glance at the hook and hoped it hadn't been noticed. One wiry arm around Wesley's waist held his guest on as they sped off to the tiny studio apartment he'd rented. A few minutes later they were upstairs, and Wesley was unlocking the door as his guest watched.
"You don't even know who I am." The man leaned against him, as they made their way through the door in a room with a table and two chairs, a bed and a tiny kitchenette. A door beyond the ancient refrigerator showed what had to be the smallest bathroom in the entire metropolitan Los Angeles area.
"Introductions, then." Wesley waited for him to take off his jacket, which he did, slowly, and steered him to a chair. As he hung the jacket next to his own, in the minuscule closet, he noticed the diagonal slice that the demon's claw had slashed through the leather on the back. "My name is Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, and I'm a rogue demon hunter. No, don't get up. You're looking dizzy again."
"When's the last time you ate?"
"Day or two. I've been busy." Alexei writhed in the chair as another shudder rippled through his body. When it ended he glanced around the mundane apartment with frank curiosity. "Rogue demons? Vampires? I'm supposed to believe that?" He unbuttoned the frayed remains of his shirt with one hand, carelessly.
"Believe what you will. You faced both tonight; you tell me if they were real. Allow me." Wesley gently pushed Alexei's hand away from himself and wiped the variety of scratches on his chest with a cotton ball dipped in an herbal mixture that he'd gotten from a friendly Wiccan at a craft fair a few months earlier. It worked far better than antibiotics against unusual wounds. The Wiccan had told him she'd had it blessed by seven Druids; he knew he could use all the blessings he could find.
Alexei looked over his head as he worked, ignoring him as much as possible, but occasionally wincing as the cotton touched a sore spot. Wesley found himself marveling at his composure; he had to be in severe pain anywhere the demon's slime had touched him, not to mention the bruising that would show up later on. Alexei certainly must have led an active life. His upper body was crossed with silvered scars, and the scratches inflicted by the demon had torn across other wounds that weren't completely healed. Wesley daubed and wiped, and bandaged the cleaned scratches. He gave more attention to the unhealed places, and Alexei sighed with relief as they were bandaged. "What were those from, if I may ask?"
"Some people don't like me much."
"Apparently they do like to hit people with chains." Wesley shook his head, his lips pursed. "Turn around, please." Alexei dropped the remains of his shirt and turned his back to his rescuer. His back muscles were tight. Wesley laid a gentle hand on Alexei's shoulder blade and started to wipe up the blood that still dripped from the slash across his back, but his hand kept running into the leather harness holding the prosthetic arm.
"Oh, shit. You might as well get the full effect." Alexei's voice was strained. He unfastened the arm with its steel hook and dropped it on the floor. It thumped on the rug and rolled a little, until it rested against the leg of the chair. "Feels like there's something wrong with the harness."
Wesley suppressed a wince at the sight of the horribly scarred stump of arm that remained, and tried to focus on tending more recent wounds. "Ah. Yes. I think you're going to need another strap for your harness; it looks as if that's all that saved you from a bone-deep slash. As it is, you have a truly nasty gouge, and you'll probably have some interesting bruising in a while." The wound still oozed, cleaning itself; he dabbed at it and tried to be even gentler as Alexei's muscles tensed again with discomfort. "Have you dealt with anything like this before?"
"Yes and no. I've seen some strange things." Alexei stared off into space, his jaw tense. "What were they?"
"A rather garden-variety vampire, not terribly high up in the hierarchy as vampires go, but this one looked quite hungry. It must have been new in town; most of the older ones tend to steer toward Hollywood. The other was a Carpathian swamp demon: normally, rather sedentary, but this one was in its predatory phase. They like to gorge themselves preparatory to laying eggs in what's left of the body of their prey."
"Fuck that," Alexei snorted. "I'm not the nanny type."
"Neither am I." Wesley brought the edges of the gouge together with butterfly bandages and laid a soft, larger bandage lightly over the wound. "Almost done here. Do you have any other scratches?"
"I think you've gotten them all." Alexei's eyes met Wesley's for the first time since they reached the apartment, and Wesley realized they were a deep, leafy green. When the gaze broke, Alexei leaned down to run a finger across the slashed leather. "Any good leather shops around here?"
"There's one a few blocks away. You might want to replace your jacket as well; it's not in the best of shape. Here, you'll get cold." He dug into the beat-up dresser and handed Alexei a green sweater, one of the few he'd kept from his old life as a Watcher, and, after another glance at him, poured a double shot of brandy into a glass and handed it to him. "For shock. You need it."
"No shit, Sherlock." Alexei's lips turned up at the corners in an almost-grin that didn't reach his eyes. He lifted the glass. "Za vashe zdorove!"
Hmm. Russian, and no foreign accent. Wesley's mind sorted through categories ranging from gulag escapee to illegal alien to refugee from a fishing boat, and rejected them all. The man had no accent in English, either -- at least, he sounded like an average of the Americans Wesley had met in California. Anything was possible, except that he might be another of the undead; he was breathing, and bleeding red, and he hadn't set off any of the wards Wesley had placed around the apartment building, so that was out.
Wesley poured himself a smaller drink, but wrapped his fingers around the glass to hide the amount. "Indeed. To your health as well." He tossed it back. "What would you like to eat?"
"Whatever doesn't eat me first." Alexei paused and blinked, taking stock of his surroundings again, and of Wesley standing, one hip leaning against the kitchenette counter, observing him. "Sorry," he said, with an effort. "I appreciate what you're doing for me." Wesley nodded and continued to observe, attempting to replicate Giles' ability to obtain information from sheer personality. It seemed to have no effect. Alexei finished the glass and held it out for a refill, but sipped this one more slowly, his face shuttered. "Vampires. Demons. They're real?"
"Unfortunately, yes. Many varieties of each. Not all are either evil or predatory, but it takes some time to learn the differences." Wesley turned to the fridge and surveyed his available supplies. He really should have gone to the grocer's this week, but the last time he'd gone he'd run into a slime monster in the produce section, which hadn't been a delightful experience. Ah. Something with eggs would be the best bet. "How about an omelette? Scrambled eggs?"
Alexei nodded. "How do you know about them? Are they everywhere, or just around here? And I'm not talking about Hollywood agents."
Wesley felt his lips turn up into a smile. "They're not restricted to California, if that's your question, but they do tend to congregate in certain places where there's an intersection with other levels of the cosmos more suited to them." In the small mirror over the sink he caught a frown from Alexei, and held up the eggs; plainly, they came from chickens. Alexei nodded, his relief evident. Wesley busied himself with cracking eggs and dicing leftover cheese and ham. "The darker side was my chief study for many years. Ham and cheese?"
"Fine." Alexei blinked. "Recreational demonology?" He leaned carefully against the back of the chair, sideways. His eyes looked almost the same shade of leaf-green as the sweater. Wesley felt his heartbeat stir, and an answering pulse lower in his abdomen, and turned back to the task at hand.
"Not exactly recreational." Oh, what the hell. Who was he going to tell? Nobody outside Los Angeles would believe it, anyway. Certainly not anyone in Sunnydale, the place he regarded as the location of all his disasters. "I was trained to be the Watcher for a vampire slayer." Alexei nodded, as if, given the fact of vampires, a slayer was a logical conclusion. Or perhaps he was humoring him. What the hell. "Unfortunately, there were certain problems with the slayer to whom I was assigned, and I had to find myself another way of life."
"I know what that's like." Alexei's voice warmed. "No matter what you ask them to do, they do the other thing. You can't teach them and you can't protect them, and all you can do is try to deflect the bullets and stay above ground." As soon as the words were spoken, Alexei's face closed again; it was as if he'd regretted letting anything out of what he evidently considered private territory.
"That's an excellent summation of the problem." Wesley's eyebrows rose. "Should I know you? I dealt with the Watchers Council in Britain; were you associated with a similar group elsewhere?"
Alexei shook his head. "I used to work for the government." He looked as if he was about to say more, but shut his mouth with a snap. "Did yours try to kill you?"
Wesley stared at the frying pan, and concentrated on keeping its contents from burning. "The one I was officially assigned to, no. The second Slayer, um, wasn't that discriminating. I don't think she cared who she killed." It occurred to him that Alexei hadn't said which government he'd worked for.
"Been there. Wore out the commemorative shirt."
Wesley's eyes strayed to Alexei's missing arm. "That wasn't -- "
"No." As if the words were being dragged out of him, Alexei said, "A mob of peasants. He escaped. I didn't." Alexei flexed his shoulder, moving what was left of his arm. His lips tensed. "You think your vampires or demons or whatever are the only evil, you're more naive than I think."
Wesley felt as if he'd jabbed a knife into the man. "I'm sorry. It was none of my business."
"'s okay." Alexei shrugged. "Interesting, though. I mean, that we have this in common. I wouldn't have expected it."
"Nor would I." Wesley served the enormous omelette onto plates, giving his guest more than half. He hated to think of the mistakes he'd made with Faith, most of them in the name of following protocol. "But I do feel that I can talk to you, and I haven't felt like that in a long time, with anyone."
"Common ground, more or less." Alexei abandoned discussion in favor of eating, and went after the omelette as if it had been attempting to escape custody. Wesley, watching him, rose from his chair and brought out the last of the bread, a dark pumpernickel, and sweet butter.
"If you like," he said, diffidently, "I'll fix this for you."
He almost missed the wary strain in Alexei's eyes, but he kept his own resolutely calm. "Shit," Alexei said thoughtfully. "Yeah. Fine." He went back to eating, but the muscles of his shoulders and neck looked looser.
Wesley nodded, as if buttering bread for a disabled refugee were an everyday occurrence. "There are days when I come home, after a night of hunting, when all I want to do is scream at the heavens and break things." His smile was ironic. "You wouldn't think it, of course, looking at me, would you?"
Alexei's eyes traveled over him, measuring. "Yeah. I would. We're the same." He finished the last bite of omelette and sat back in his chair, reaching for the buttered bread. "Sorry. Left my manners with my other arm, in storage. It's hard to manage some things with a hook, other than defense." He grimaced. "I'm not looking forward to having to clean that thing."
"And my sword. Oh, yes." Wesley pushed aside his half-finished meal. "I should have thought of that before. If you'll trust me, I'll do it for you right now. Some of that demonic blood is, um, corrosive, to say the least. I wouldn't want you to have problems later on, especially if it gets into the mechanism."
Alexei's smile was definite this time, and charming. "I don't trust a lot of people." Somehow a narrow throwing blade was in his hand, one that Wesley knew he didn't own. Alexei moved his hand and it disappeared again. "Why not?" he said slowly. A speculative glance surveyed Wesley's unfinished dinner. "Would you mind if I --"
"Go ahead. I'm afraid I haven't much of an appetite right now." Wesley pushed the plate over to Alexei, and set about cleaning unspecified green and gray material off the hook, and the same thing off his sword. He glanced up, a few minutes later, to see Alexei watching him with much the same expression he'd turned toward the food. It should have made him nervous, but it didn't. "No permanent damage, though there's a slight bit of pitting in this one spot on the outer curve. I should have gotten to it sooner. But none of it got into the moving parts, so you shouldn't have any problems." He rubbed a small cut from the blade; it seemed he couldn't do anything these days without acquiring cuts and scratches, but this one had bled only a drop before he saw it. He rubbed a little of the herbal lotion into it, and relaxed when it stopped the bleeding.
"Good." Several expressions crossed Alexei's face, too quickly for Wesley to identify them all. He seemed to be considering something, and making a decision. When he got up, went to the stove and picked up the empty coffee pot, Wesley knew the decision had been made. He felt a nerve in his throat pulse, waiting. "I can't say I'm terribly sleepy right now. You got any coffee? I've been known to make a decent pot."
The relief he felt shouldn't have come as such a shock. "Upper left cabinet, second shelf."
Alexei made the pot of coffee with the focus of a man who has had to learn, perforce, to do one thing at a time. As he did, Wesley cleared the table and washed the few dishes. They moved carefully in the narrow space, never actually touching each other though they were close enough that Wesley could feel the heat of Alexei's body through the old green sweater. He brought out the oversized mugs he had saved from his Watcher days, the ones that held half a British pint each, with the crest of the Watchers Council embossed in blue on the off-white stoneware.
"Impressive." Alexei filled his mug three-quarters full, added some milk, and only a touch of sugar. "Ahh. Thanks."
"You're welcome." Wesley said slowly. He didn't know where this conversation might go, but he felt his back and legs loosening with relaxation. Whatever was happening didn't feel dangerous.
Alexei's green eyes glittered with some private emotion. "Tell me more about yourself and this vampire demon stuff."
"How long are you going to be in town?" Wesley asked.
"Don't know." He winced, then relaxed again. "I wasn't planning to be here now; things just worked out that way."
"All right," Wesley said, and started to relate what he privately called 'Vampire 101,' the basic rules for dealing with the undead. By the time he segued into 'Undead 102,' a cursory survey of demons of the greater Los Angeles area, Alexei looked thoroughly bored.
Wesley paused. Turn about was fair play. "You haven't said why you're here."
"You invited me."
"You know what I mean."
Alexei shrugged with his good shoulder and wrapped his hand around the mug a little tighter. "I fell off a trawler from Mother Russia at the wrong time," he said in impeccable Russian. It wasn't clear whether he expected to be understood or not, but Wesley decided he was tired of playing it safe.
"As you say," he replied, with a Moscow accent. When Alexei raised an eyebrow, Wesley added, quite reasonably, "You don't exactly seem like the typical illegal alien."
He wasn't prepared for Alexei's snicker, which grew into a full-scale laugh and died out quickly. "No," Alexei agreed. "They're generally taller, and darker, except for the ones that are shorter and have big eyes and six fingers on each hand."
Wesley stared him down. "You don't have to lie to me. I don't care, as long as you're human." A beat. " Are you?"
"It's in my best interests, isn't it?" Alexei snapped. Before Wesley could reply, he said, in a more conciliatory voice, "Yes. I'm human. Born in Vladivostok. Parents moved to the U.S. when I was a child, and I've lived everywhere since then. Or do you want a blood sample?"
"Already have one, from earlier." Wesley watched Alexei's expression shift into to full comprehension of what he'd said. "And if you weren't, I wouldn't hesitate to take you out."
A smile crooked in the corners of Alexei's lips. He leaned back in the chair and the smile grew broader. "Always nice to know where I stand."
"I might be able to help you." Even if Wesley wasn't in Sunnydale any more, Giles was, and he still had a myriad of connections. "If you're in any trouble --"
"No." Alexei's chair clattered to the floor. "Tell anyone you've seen me, and you're dead. There are people out there as dangerous as your demons, who would kill you for knowing anything about me." His lips twisted. "What's worse is that they'd probably send me to do the job, and I'd rather not do that."
Wesley couldn't help noticing the change in Alexei's accent, from the tinge of Russian in the gutterals to the midwestern American newscaster voice. Perhaps a shade of something else. Canadian? Not British. But as he noted this, he realized that with his last words Alexei had told him more truth than he had expected.
Accentless, faultless in two and probably more languages, on the run, in hiding. And he used to 'work for the government.'
How many facets did the current gem of realpolitik boast? He'd be willing to guess that at one time or another the man across the table had worked for, or against, all of them. And he was plainly near the end of his endurance: hungry, bone-weary though fighting it, and so paranoid that allowing Wesley to cook eggs or butter a slice of bread for him appeared to require the lowering of several cautionary drawbridges.
Wesley studied Alexei's face, the emotions on it naked for him to read now that he knew he understood the language in which they were cloaked. "You're a double agent. Or triple. Possibly more than that." Alexei's eyes burned into his, and he nodded slowly. "And it's killing you." Another nod. "And you need to find a way to get back to where you want to be without dying in the process."
"Careful. You're turning into the man who knew too much." Alexei's voice was a throaty whisper, intimate, deadly cold.
"Who would I tell? Even if I did, who would believe me? Nobody."
"Tell no one." Alexei shifted restlessly in the chair. "I don't want any more deaths than necessary."
Wesley's eyes narrowed. Confirmation. He nodded once, briefly. "This is almost like Truth or Dare."
Alexei looked interested. "You play?"
"Faith did. The second Slayer. It was one of her games, one of the less lethal ones."
"Tell me about her," Alexei invited, warming a little. "She sounds like my kind of girl. How old was she?" He turned sideways in the chair, hooking his short left arm over the back and leaning into the curve of the old padding. The loose fabric below the stump fell over the chair back like a banner.
Suddenly the stresses of the last week of hunting caught up with Wesley. He didn't care that his guest was probably a murderer several times over. He didn't care that he might be playing a life-or-death game that could result in his own demise. He wanted to reach out across the table and put his hand up that loose, dangling sleeve to touch the truncated arm it hid.
He shifted in his own chair, growing hard and grateful for the table's presence. "About eighteen, now, wherever she is. The last I heard, she was in a coma in Sunnydale, north of here, but I don't expect that will hold her down much longer. Slayers have remarkable powers of recuperation."
"You keep using that word, slayer. It's a job? Poking sticks into vampires and watching them go 'poof'?"
"More like a calling, a vocation. Some are born to it, such as she was. When one Slayer dies, another is called to take her place." Wesley's lips twitched, and the twitch echoed lower. He shouldn't have had the brandy. No, he should have had more. It didn't matter; it was almost dawn. "Usually there is only one at a time. This time, though, there were two. Buffy and Faith. Buffy had her own Watcher, but the Watchers Council decided to replace him with me. It didn't work. I ended up trying to supervise Faith, which was worse."
"Personnel management is such a bitch." Alexei shook his head.
Wesley sipped his coffee, which had grown cool. "I should have been able to control the situation. I was, after all, trained for it. However, I'd had relatively little experience in the field, and I underestimated how important that might be."
"Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn't. You'd be surprised." Alexei shrugged, wincing only a little. When Wesley leaned forward to offer something more for the pain, he shook his head. "I'm okay." He pushed the mug aside and flung out his hand. "Look, I've had far more field experience in the past decade than I want to think about. You get to a point where the only thing that works is just to go with whatever you can do and get out of the way of the explosions afterward. At least you know what side you're on." He pressed his lips together, and Wesley watched the inner struggle, fascinated. "Does it help you to know that I just want the humans to win?. Can you understand that?"
A crack in that tempered steel surface.
"More than I can say." Wesley leaned back in his chair, letting his legs stretch under the table. "I gather you're not dealing entirely with humans, then."
"You believe me."
"Of course. We're in the same business, more or less -- making the world safe for humanity."
Alexei laughed, without humor. "This is rich. You may be the only person who actually understands."
Wesley reached for the coffee pot and divided the rest of its contents between their two mugs. "You inferred that you protected someone. Can you tell me anything about him, or her? It might help me understand where I failed."
"I'm not saying this." The words were a disclaimer, not refusal. "The one I protected was likely to jump head-first into a volcano, without hope of rescue, on the chance that there might be information there."
"Neither of mine were that scholarly, I'm afraid. Faith hadn't even completed high school."
"Another child of a dysfunctional home?" Alexei's voice sounded brittle.
"No real home at all. I underestimated her, and I underestimated the effect her past had on her, and it nearly killed us." Wesley drew a breath, fighting to stay unemotional as he spoke of the one thing that had hurt him most in the world. "The difference between you and me and Faith is that for us -- and for Buffy, the other slayer -- killing is a job. For her, it's a pleasure. She delights in pain."
"You're too good at this," Alexei said softly. "You almost sound like a psychologist I know, a profiler. Are you?"
"More of an historian, if anything. It can be much the same thing at times. You watch for patterns, try to figure out how to change them."
"Yes." Alexei's eyes seemed darker now. "I know that one person, in the right place, can make all the difference -- but I'm not the one."
"Yet without you that person may not be able to make that difference, because you're keeping him -- or her -- alive."
"Not that it's noticed."
Alexei shrugged. "And you kept your Slayer alive and well, as long as you could. You should take some credit for that."
Wesley felt himself hunching over his rapidly cooling coffee, defensively. "I did very little. The other, older Watcher did much more, and Buffy did the most. Even a vampire understood Faith better than I did. She was psychotic, pathological. I can't be sorry that she's been put out of action," he admitted. "I can only regret that I couldn't have done more."
"A vampire helped you?" Honest confusion clouded Alexei's face. "Vampires have double agents?"
"So to speak. Angelus was cursed with a soul, and though at one point he lost it and became evil again, I must admit that he has done his part to help stem the tide of darkness pouring through the Hellmouth." Wesley shook his head, eyes closed, as if shaking off the memories of what he'd seen. "I dread the day I meet him again, for he can be either the greatest ally or my worst nightmare."
Neither of them spoke for a while. Wesley drank his coffee, his thoughts lost in the failures of the past.
"I think," Alexei said slowly, "if you go up against him, you will survive."
Wesley looked up from the swirling coffee, to see Alexei's hand reaching across the table toward him. "How would you know?"
"Because we're the same." Alexei beckoned. Wesley reached across with his own hand, and felt it gripped hard, felt the firm muscles and the calluses on fingers and palm.
He felt as if a wave had washed over him, making him realize how tired he was of solitude, how weary of having contact only with cold demonic flesh instead of warm humanity. When Alexei stood, a little wobbly at first, he stood as well, moving around the table to come face to face with him, his own dark eyes gazing steadily into Alexei's green ones. Alexei's eyes had a flare of gold around the pupil that seemed to grow and ebb with his emotions; perhaps that accounted for the way they seemed to glow and darken. Nevertheless, they were purely human eyes, shaded by long dark lashes, gentled by the few lines at their corners that betokened laughter and emotion. He did not resist when the eyes came closer, tilted at a slight angle, and Alexei's mouth found his own.
Warm lips, firm and soft, testing him, teasing him a little. He knew what to do with lips like these; it had been a long time since Cordelia had surprised him with her practiced, eager kiss. He'd known for many years what bodies could do, how they could please and surprise; it was only that the bodies with whom he had learned these things had not had soft breasts or lush curves.
Alexei's arm went around his waist, holding him firmly. One of his own hands went to brush through Alexei's soft hair, at which Alexei gasped and opened his lips further. The other hand found its way behind, along the shoulder and down the long, lean back to its rounded end, to rest there in a caress. He felt an unexpected pressure and realized that Alexei's truncated arm was along his own, doing its best to hold him as well. The trust in that movement shook him.
The first rays of sunlight came through the window to pool on the floor.
Alexei broke the kiss first, breathing hard. "Your choice."
"Yes." No hesitation. Oh, it had been so long.
"We're safe now, aren't we?" Alexei's smile was as sweet as it had been earlier. "I knew you were waiting until daylight for a reason."
Wesley nodded. "This building isn't connected to the underground tunnels; during the day, it's as safe as it can be, considering where we are."
"How safe do you want to be?" The words breathed into his ear as Alexei ran the tip of his tongue around its edge.
"In terms of what?"
Alexei sighed. "Playing. I have nothing you can catch."
Wesley slid a hand down Alexei's chest, lower, past the snap at the top of his black jeans, to the warm bulge beneath that grew solid under his touch. "Truth or Dare isn't my game."
"We don't need games." And Alexei's mouth came down Wesley's neck, seeking and finding that place near the tendon that always set him off. He felt the blood rush through his veins, seeking refuge, seeking an outlet, and his hand on Alexei tightened as he felt himself harden, lengthen until the zipper on his leathers felt tight. Alexei sucked once more, and slid his mouth across the jawline to anchor himself in a searching kiss.
As he drew back, if only to gather breath into starved lungs, Wesley spoke. "Bed."
It was a matter of two long-legged strides to reach the bed with its disheveled covers and pull them open once more.
Oh, God, it had been such a long time. He'd forgotten how much he'd missed that feel of sleek skin over firm muscle, the scent of a man's musk and the sensation of kissing someone else who needed a shave. It felt so different from kissing Cordelia, when he hadn't known where to put his hands. With Alexei, there was no question about it.
"Yes," Alexei murmured into his ear, nibbling at his neck, hot breath floating over his skin. His one hand caressed Wesley's hair, slid down his neck, across his arm, down his back to pull him closer. When Wesley's hands slid around Alexei's hips, he made a sound between a sigh and a moan. "Anything."
It was a matter of two minutes to peel Alexei out of his clothing, hindered only by the break in kissing that had to occur for the sweater to find its proper place on the floor next to the jeans and the worn boxers, and the boots and socks. Wesley's own clothes hit the floor a moment later. Sleek skin on sleek skin, warmth touching warmth, they fell into the bed together, rolling over and back, sliding on each other, all in the loving touch of the sunlight streaming through the apartment's high window.
And oh, but Alexei was talented at creating pleasure with touches and nips, with hand and mouth. He moved lower on Wesley's abdomen, until he was lying watching the moonstone drip of Wesley's risen cock. His hand held it still while his mouth came down onto it, kissing and caressing, sliding his lips around the head and his tongue under the foreskin, playing it out of hiding.
Wesley's head went back on the pillows, and one hand went above his head to grip the iron bar of the headboard. Breathe, he reminded himself. Breathe. His other hand slid from Alexei's hair to his back, to his hip, whatever he could reach. He couldn't reciprocate in this position; Alexei had him pinned with his torso and his arm. All he could do was lie back and promise to return the pleasure.
Alexei's hand slid further down, caressing his balls, rolling them back and forth gently like Chinese exercise balls, and he spread his legs wider to offer anything his guest might want. He'd thought, at first, that he would come just from the pleasure of naked skin touching skin, but now that he was here, in bed, his hand grazed the bandage on Alexei's back and he felt the glimmering in his mind: how lonely his life had become, and how, in a day or so, Alexei too would be gone.
"You're thinking." Alexei's eyes were watching him, the one hand back to his cock again, keeping it warm. "I must not be doing my job very well."
"I've been alone too long."
"You're not alone now, and neither am I." Alexei's voice had dropped, deeper and rougher. His mouth came back down to kiss and caress Wesley's cock, but he moved his head back so Wesley could see what he was doing -- and started to suck. He slid his mouth up and down, licking, slurping, tasting, with his hand marking counterpoint in a sliding firm grip, the calluses on the palm rubbing and teasing.
Was it the heat of the sun in his face, or the fireworks Alexei had set off in his lower back, trickling down his spine, the charge accumulating beyond overflow until release came in a rush that brought his hips up off the mattress in an arch? He felt as if someone had lit bonfires all over his body, brush fires, wildfires in the hidden mountains and valleys of his being. He lay in the golden light, panting, as Alexei swallowed and licked, gently, taking the last of the tension out of him, and moved back up to lie against his shoulder with the strong fingers of that one skillful hand intertwined with his own.
Wesley reached across to pull Alexei up onto him for a kiss. Their eyes, meeting, startled him. "This wasn't just a thank-you, was it?" he asked.
"Yes, it was." Alexei's eyes reminded him of forest pools he'd seen in England, green and brown flecked with gold, with no way to gauge their depth.
"You're welcome." Very welcome, he thought. He pulled Alexei down to him again, reached a hand down to the warm round mounds below his back and slid a finger down into the cleft, testing. Alexei's long-lashed eyes closed, then opened again.
"Yes. What's your recovery time?"
"Not soon enough, I think." He felt the length of Alexei's cock hard against him. "Not fair to make you wait."
"I'd want a shower first, if that's possible; trust me, you'd prefer it."
"We both could use one, but I doubt we'd fit." Wesley was beginning to grow sleepy in the sunlight, but he struggled to stay awake. "I don't want to leave you hanging."
He didn't expect Alexei's sudden brilliant grin. "At least this time it's not from the seventeenth floor, with handcuffs. No, don't ask." Alexei rubbed himself against the soft spot inside Wesley's hip. "A hand job would be wonderful. And more kissing."
Alexei slid off him onto his right side, and put his arm under the pillow and around Wesley's shoulders. Wesley's hand fitted around Alexei's rampant cock as if it had been created for it. He let the pad of his thumb glide over the head, and caught Alexei's sudden inbreath. Alexei's eyes went deeper, unfocused, and closed as he pulled Wesley close and their mouths met.
Alexei moaned into the kiss, opening his mouth wider, and Wesley let his tongue tease the mobile lips. The kiss moved from friendly to curious to passionate in a breath; Alexei arched his back, throwing a leg over Wesley's thigh to pull himself closer. His tongue dived into Wesley's mouth, seeking, finding, and dancing, until he stiffened in Wesley's hands and came, in short rapid spurts, panting and sweating.
Sweating. Wesley touched his forehead and felt the heat rise from it.
"You're too hot. I'm getting you some aspirin."
"At a time like this you want me to take aspirin?"
Wesley gripped his good shoulder. "You've been injured by a swamp demon. I can't be certain that I got to you in time, and I don't want you to die here. Swamp demon slime can be very dangerous."
"Did you know," Alexei said languidly, "that there aren't any swamps in Carpathia? I've been there. Mountains all the way."
"I know." Wesley gently wiped Alexei down with a towel, got a glass of water and the bottle of aspirin and made sure he took two of them. "They're not originally from Carpathia; they were first documented there in 1397 during migration from an area in Siberia north of Lake Baikal. Or was it Yakutsk? We really don't know where they're from, and at the moment I don't care." He wiped himself down, crawled back into bed next to Alexei and pulled the covers up over both of them. "Now go to sleep."
"You're the one with the energy."
"Not any longer."
"Okay." Alexei smiled at him, like a peaceful child, and went to sleep before his eyes.
Wesley, only slightly more awake, checked the bandages to make sure they hadn't reopened any of Alexei's wounds, tucked the covers up around both of them, and fell asleep as well.
When he woke, in mid-afternoon, he was alone in the still-warm bed. The splashing water in the shower explained his guest's location, and so did the occasional swearing. Alexei might have been trying to be quiet, but it was a very small apartment.
"Would you like some help with that?" Wesley asked. He stood in the doorway, the only place in the room that wasn't getting wet. Perhaps he should have fixed that shower nozzle earlier in the week, either before or after buying the food he hadn't bought. On the other hand, the walls were finally becoming clean, not that it made them look a better shade of brownish-greenish- gray.
Alexei's head swiveled, and he stiffened for a moment, then relaxed. "Didn't mean to wake you." He sighed and gestured to the wet bandages. "Care to re-assemble me?"
"I'd be glad to rebandage you, but you don't need to be assembled. You're not missing anything." Wesley chose the words deliberately, waiting for a reaction.
Blazing eyes met his, as if Alexei were a hawk staring at him from its distant perch, remote and beyond human thought. Or, perhaps, too human. Was that a tear at the corner of one eye? No, it had to be a splash from the shower.
"What are you doing out there?" Alexei asked. "The hot water won't last forever." His voice both challenged and purred, rough-edged.
In answer, Wesley stepped behind him, into the space between Alexei and the wall. "Watching your back." He ran his hands across Alexei's shoulders and down his ribs, and, as gently as possible, started to peel away the sodden bandage. "Brace yourself. This isn't going to feel good."
"You going to kiss it and make it better?"
"I might." Wesley carefully worked at the adhesive, and it released, but the bandage had gotten stuck to the wound. "Turn around a little; we've got to get some water on this."
Alexei leaned forward against the wall, his forehead against his arm. As the water streamed down his back, he shivered. "I don't suppose you'd consider distracting me?" He slid himself backward -- it only took an inch or so -- until Wesley's cock was rubbing against him, rising and stiffening.
"Not in here." The bandage was almost off.
"Pity." Alexei shivered again. "I wouldn't mind a bit of hard fucking right now; it would take my mind off other things."
"You can either get fucked or have me wash your back. There isn't room in here for both," Wesley said firmly.
"How does it look?" Alexei tried to turn to look at Wesley's face.
"Hmph. Hold still." Wesley muttered. "Damn it, the light in here is nearly nonexistent."
"If you'd put in something stronger than a 40-watt bulb --"
"The landlord would remove it, citing the dangers of overloading the wiring." The wound wasn't oozing any more. He'd have to apply more butterfly bandages to pull it together, but it didn't seem to be going bad. When he sniffed it he smelled Alexei's skin, nothing else. "You appear to heal pretty quickly yourself. I don't suppose there are any vampire slayers in your family?"
"None that I know." Alexei pushed back insistently against Wesley's cock, and was rewarded with a smack on the ass. He wiggled his ass. "Ooh. Do it again."
"Not -- in -- here." Wesley told his treacherous cock to cool it. "Did you --"
"Before I got into the shower. Don't ask."
"It's still daylight." Wesley grabbed a towel and dried what he could reach on Alexei, handed it to him and took another for himself. "I should go and buy groceries while it's still safe outside. We're very low on food. Unless you want to hit a restaurant or diner?"
"Probably not a good idea for me." Alexei turned around and put his arm around Wesley's neck. Their cocks dueled, below their bellies where warm skin slid wet on warm skin. "After?"
"Bandaging first; sex afterward."
But it was bandaging and sex play first. When Wesley, breathing deeply, complained that being played with didn't make it easier to apply first aid, Alexei told him, "It itches. This doesn't, and it takes my mind off it." Alexei's hand was stroking Wesley, exploring him, tracing the curve of his hip, the indentation of his navel, the soft sweep of dark hair down his belly.
"Turn around," Wesley said firmly. Alexei did, but leaned forward again, his hand on the table, his ass jutting out. "You'd be well served if I did push you down onto the table and fuck you."
"Yes. I would be well served." Alexei's voice reminded him of velvet. "Or should I do as your English public-school headmaster would want, and ask for six of the best? Please, sir, can I have some more?"
"You're conflating Tom Brown's Schooldays with Oliver Twist. Don't they teach literature in American schools?"
"I majored in independent study." Wiggle.
"That's no surprise. Hold still." Wesley peeled the last butterfly bandage and set it in place. "I'm half inclined to let it air, as long as you don't abuse your back."
"Well, I can't abuse my back if I'm on my stomach, can I?" Wiggle again, more slowly. "Please."
"I shouldn't. You're still running a low fever."
"Then think how hot I'll be for you, and dose me with aspirin afterward." Alexei's feet edged further away from each other, and he leaned down on the table, presenting himself.
"Has anyone ever told you how impossible you are?" Wesley asked. He'd never realized before how easily he could shift from exasperation to full sexual readiness. Perhaps he would have dealt better with Faith if he'd realized that sooner; she'd gone out of her way to provoke him. But not as well as Alexei was doing, with his head leaning on his arm and his ass in the air and his strong feet braced and ready. And he'd never wanted to pin Faith to the table with his body.
"Everyone. I never listen when they're underestimating me. It's a bore." Alexei turned his head and smiled. "You aren't."
Wesley ran his hands down Alexei's sides again, slowly, and across his ass, and watched as the muscles in Alexei's back tightened and released. He ran a fingertip across the pucker, and found that it was already greased, waiting for him.
"If you've used the last of the butter -- "
"Lubricant. In your medicine cabinet. When's the last time you cleaned that out? Some of those things are older than I am."
"I've got a medicine cabinet?" Wesley blinked. "I've never used it. No idea how old that stuff is."
"Well, the condoms looked fresh. I left a few on the side of the sink."
Sure enough, there was a medicine cabinet behind the mirror above the sink. Perhaps it was enchanted; there was certainly no sign that any power of darkness had ever been involved with it, other than the one who'd probably designed the bathroom in the first place. Wesley picked up the condoms along with the lubricant, noting that both were new, and grabbed his last spare towel. "Put this under you, on the table."
"You think of everything."
"Almost. And take these." He held out aspirin and water to Alexei, who straightened with a sinuous move to swallow his medicine and then went back down into position.
"You're such a top." Definitely a purr in the voice.
"That's what you want, isn't it?"
"Will you shut up and fuck me?" Still a purr, though more than a trace of exasperation as well, which made Wesley smile. He smacked Alexei on the ass again, in the same place as in the shower, and noted with satisfaction that Alexei immediately went back to wiggling, sensuously and slowly. Wesley started to trace his way down Alexei's back with his lips, his hands rubbing that tempting ass.
"If ... you ... don't ... like ... the ... way ... I ... play ... too ... bad. ..."
Alexei moaned, deep in his throat, and slid back into him. Wesley smacked the other side of his ass and he held still, crooning. Alexei's cock hung free but it was tight, brushing his stomach, and his balls were pulled high and ready.
"You ... wanted ... a ... top ..."
"Yes, damn it!"
"When ... I'm ... ready." Wesley, at the base of his spine, licked the flat triangle above the rounded muscle, and Alexei shivered. He nipped at the muscle on both sides but ignored the pucker, enjoying the way the man under him writhed. He slid lower and nipped at Alexei's balls carefully, bestowing a few licks on the base of his cock before moving back and up to stand behind him.
"Yes. Exactly." Wesley amused himself by playing with the backs of Alexei's thighs, stopping only for a moment to pull on the condom and lube it. He lined himself up and slid slowly, inexorably, into him. Alexei froze, motionless until Wesley was inside him to the hilt, his balls brushing against Alexei's ass. Then he sighed, and moved just a little, settling himself on the table with his head on the towel and his hand grasping the opposite side of the table, and relaxed, and Wesley slid in even deeper.
He couldn't help moving. He was held in fire, and it wrapped himself around him and urged him onward, out and in, bathing him in the heat of pleasure.
Alexei writhed, under him, moaning and whispering, " ... please, sir ... fuck it, give it to me, damn it ..."
And he did. He wrapped his hands around Alexei's hips and lifted them, just a fraction, into a better position, and Alexei's legs immediately responded and moved into place. This time, when Wesley slid in, his own pelvis tilted, Alexei's head came up off the table. Wesley grabbed Alexei's cock with a firm hand.
"No. Not yet."
Alexei groaned, his eyes unfocused. Wesley's fingers ringed Alexei's cock at the place that he knew would slow orgasm, holding it tight, as he pumped in again and out, fast, hard, three times, then almost all the way out and back in slowly, so slowly, and watched Alexei curse and plead in Russian under his breath. Sometime, later, he'd have to dig out his dictionary and look up what a "mulderi" was. Wasn't a "lesetsa" an animal of some kind? Later. Not now.
One more slow, excruciating move out, and in, twisting a little as he moved. Then he loosened his hold on Alexei's cock and brought his hand back up to clutch Alexei's hip, and gave himself over to movement, and speed, and depth, and the heat of his blood calling to Alexei's and Alexei's answering him. He had enough presence of mind left to make sure his hands were firm on Alexei's hips, so he wouldn't be bruised by the table, as he wrapped himself in Alexei's heat and pounded into him, until the dam broke and everything he was rushed from the base of his spine and out his cock, into the pulsing vibrating cauldron that lay under him, panting, on the scratched formica table.
"Are you all right," Wesley whispered, when he had breath again.
Wesley laid his head against Alexei's back. It was wet, and Alexei's dark hair was soaked and clung to his head. "I think your fever's broken."
He slid slowly out of Alexei and dealt with the condom. Alexei straightened, his back creaking a little, and walked to the bathroom with a slightly bow-legged gait. When he emerged, he said, "I think it's all catching up to me."
"Get some sleep. I'll go out for groceries," Wesley saw the wariness in Alexei's face, "and be back before dark. I promise."
"And you always keep your promises." Alexei was already back in bed. "Wesley -- "
"Nothing. If you'll push my clothes into reach, I'll be able to reach my throwing knives."
"How are you going to have strength to throw them if you can't get out of bed to reach your clothes?"
"Prick." Alexei lay on his stomach, his arm dangling. "Watch." He flicked his wrist, and a narrow blade vibrated in the door frame.
"All right. I shouldn't be long." Wesley finished dressing, put on his jacket and pulled the knife out of the wood. He brought it back to Alexei and dropped it on top of his clothes. "Behave yourself."
Alexei's eyes slitted with laughter. "Yes, master."
Wesley snorted. But he couldn't help smoothing the covers over Alexei, and he didn't resist when that strong arm pulled him down into a searching, searing kiss.
Wesley managed to remember his wallet on the way out the door, and realized, as he wandered through the market, that he hadn't asked Alexei what kind of food he liked. It didn't take long to choose enough of a variety that he could work around most food sensitivities, and he hastened back to the hotel, climbing the stairs as the sun set behind the city's skyline. He felt glad that his corner apartment was high enough up that the light would still suffuse it when he got upstairs.
He let himself in, groceries in hand, half expecting a flying steel greeting. No knives materialized. The pile of clothing was gone from the floor and the bed was empty.
Without a thought, he dropped the groceries on the counter and dashed into the bathroom: empty. The closet, too, held only clothes. But when he turned around, Alexei stood next to the bed, in the green sweater and Wesley's spare gray sweatpants.
Wesley crossed the room in two long paces to grasp him by the shoulders. "How did you do that? Where were you?"
"Trade secret," Alexei said, looking absurdly pleased.
"Show me." Wesley's curiosity grew.
"You couldn't do it." Alexei buffed his nails on the chest of his sweater.
"You couldn't." And, to Wesley's annoyance as Alexei demonstrated, he couldn't. There was no way for him to fit underneath the bed and slide out so easily. The gain or loss of an arm wasn't as important as the few extra pounds he had.
Alexei looked good in the sweater; the metal of the prosthesis gleamed, so it was almost possible to consider it an ornament at the end of a sleeve instead of a substitute for a hand. "You had a visitor," he informed Wesley.
"I haven't memorized your social calendar. Male, humanoid, about six feet tall, brown hair, well built. He wore workmen's coveralls, with a logo on the back from an electronics repair company. Picked the lock, came in, looked around, and left again." Alexei cocked his head. "Anyone you know?"
"No." Wesley frowned. "Dark brown hair? What color were his eyes?"
"Medium brown. I didn't really see his eyes. I don't think he took anything, and he didn't notice me. He checked out the bandages in the waste basket, but the green slime apparently threw him off."
"Well, that's good to know. It means he's probably human and unaware of the demonic races in the area. But I'll take care of that right now." Wesley bundled the trash and, after checking for onlookers, made a quick trip down the hall to the garbage chute. He saw nobody during the trip.
Alexei was poking through the groceries, putting things away, when he returned.
"I didn't know what you like to eat."
"Almost anything." Alexei's head tilted. He seemed to be considering the possible combined tastes of the last several cans he'd put on the shelf. "I'm not fond of slimy food. Seaweed. Escargot. Squid ink."
"Then you should be pleased with what I've bought. How are you feeling?"
"Okay." Alexei started to make a pile on the counter, a flatbread and things that could go on it to make pizza, mostly vegetarian. He was frowning, as if he had to think hard about what it should taste like. Wesley moved in next to him and surreptitiously touched his hand, checking to see if his temperature had dropped to normal.
"Am I all right, mommy?" Alexei murmured, with a twisted smile on his lips.
"Oh, you're feeling better."
"I could feel better than this, you know."
"What, no appetizer?" Green eyes met brown, crinkling at the corners. "I need my protein."
"How do your friends stand you?" Wesley muttered.
"Then what am I, chopped liver?"
Wesley acknowledged the truth of that with a nod. "That's all?"
"Isn't it enough?" The green eyes widened, the crinkles ironed out. Alexei's hand caressed Wesley's face. "I didn't mean only physically."
Wesley felt as if he should draw a deeper breath. Surely there wasn't enough oxygen in the room; they must have used it all up. "Tell me again what the intruder looked like."
The hand dropped. "You do know how to spoil a moment."
"I thought you were interested in safety." Wesley stowed the remaining supplies in the cupboard and the fridge. "You said tall, with brown hair. How heavily was he built? Did he look like this?" He took a pencil out of his jacket, smoothed out the brown paper grocery bag, and drew a reasonable likeness of Angel.
"No." Alexei's voice was certain. "That wasn't the man." He frowned. "Draw me an outline of a face with a square jaw, and let me fill in the rest." Wesley started the sketch and handed the pencil to Alexei. "Steady the paper for me. See, hair like this, not too dark, and eyes like this, more or less. Different shoulders, different stance." He handed the pencil back.
Wesley stared at the sketch. "I think I've seen this man, but he's nobody I know, either. Wait a minute." He picked up the newspaper he'd bought and flipped through it. "Is this him?"
"Yeah." Alexei scanned the front-page article, shaking his head. "What is this, all the killers come to you for help?"
"I don't know anyone named Kimball. Do you?"
"No." Alexei shrugged. "It doesn't matter. I doubt he'll be back. He didn't seem to find what he was looking for." He dropped the newspaper on the floor, and his hand came up along Alexei's face again, gliding over cheekbone and jaw, drifting down his neck to linger along his shoulder and throat. "And if he does come back, I'll protect you. It's the least I can do."
"Thank you," Wesley said gravely. It was getting hard to breathe again. "You know, I'm not certain that you're entirely well. I think I should check you over again."
"Really. You think I still have a fever?"
Fingertips drew lines down his throat, up across his chin, outlined his lips. "I ... think you're very hot ... right now." The fingertips stopped for him to kiss them, then slid inside the kiss. Wesley licked them slowly and watched the motion raise goose bumps on Alexei's arm.
"You could be right." The fingertips were removed and replaced by Alexei's mouth, his tongue inquiring, insistent. Alexei's hand slid down his chest, tarried at his nipples until they were pointed, then dived straight for his crotch, where it rubbed until Wesley was hard and wanting. "I want to taste you, appetizer." Alexei murmured in his ear as he unzipped Wesley's jeans. "Aperitif. Hors d'oeuvre."
Wesley leaned back against the counter, steadying himself with one hand. The other hand steadied Alexei as he knelt at his feet and looked up, wearing an expression of knowing innocence. Alexei bowed his head and nuzzled Wesley's crotch, breathing through the cloth, until his fingers could slide Wesley's cock free of it. As he gazed up at Wesley, he started to lick him, slowly, as if he were the newest flavor of ice cream in town, up the shaft on one side, up on the other, around the top, and over again, until Wesley's hand was flexing against the counter. Wesley's other hand found its way into Alexei's hair, playing with the texture, toying with the rim of an ear, the shape of an eyebrow, cradling the tender back of Alexei's skull as he felt his cock slide into Alexei's molten mouth.
Wesley's back arched, and his hips began their own rhythm. Oh, the air was thin on this mountain, so close to the volcano. So hot. So dangerously hot. But volcanos make diamonds, and that was what he felt like, a shaft of diamond forming in a boiling caldera, roiling around him until he became the volcano, until he exploded in a rush of lava and steam and boiling water, dripping with sweat, shaking with the tremors of geological faults.
Alexei swallowed, again and again, and licked him, and let the soft cock slide slowly out from between his lips. His expression could have been patented as the canonical example of smug. "I told you I needed protein."
"How good of you not to insist on adding it to the pizza," Wesley said without thinking.
Alexei's face crackled into a genuine grin, and he started laughing so hard that he lost his balance and fell backward, off his knees. After a moment's shock, Wesley joined him in laughter, as he reached down to pull him to his feet. Alexei's eyes glowed; he wrapped his arm around Wesley's shoulders and kissed him thoroughly, searchingly.
"Oh, you're feeling better," Wesley said when the kiss ended. "You have entirely too much energy. Perhaps you should make dinner."
"You'll have to open the cans, or else clean this again." Alexei raised the hook, and Wesley realized that he hadn't paid attention to it in a long time because until now it hadn't been near him.
"I do own a can opener."
"Good, then you'll never starve."
"You're quite the prick when you're recovering, aren't you?"
Alexei's smile twisted at the corners. "You'll find out later."
"I don't doubt it." Wesley opened, in turn, tomato paste with herbs, artichokes, anchovies and a plastic package of grated cheese. "Is there anything you won't do?" He spread the paste on the flatbread and handed Alexei a fork.
"Seriously?" Alexei arranged artichokes and anchovies on the pizza. "I'm not into blood or water sports. I want to feel good, but that means almost anything." His eyes slitted toward Wesley. "What, did you want to tell me I was a bad boy and spank me? Isn't that the British kink?"
"I can tell you, being bent over the prefect's desk for caning never got me off," Wesley said drily. "There's nothing romantic about getting beaten for coming in after curfew." Or getting the strap afterward, at home, he thought.
"Not even if you're the top, and I'm the one with my ass in the air?" Alexei seemed curious. "You didn't mind it earlier."
"I wasn't thinking of it that way." Wesley frowned slightly. "Were you?"
"Fuck, yes. Why not? I was in position, and you were the top. You could do anything you wanted." Alexei distributed grated cheese on the pizza and stepped back from it, leaning one hip negligently against the counter and watching him speculatively.
"I didn't want to hurt you," Wesley said slowly. "You'd been hurt enough; you were already in pain. Why should I add to it? Besides, you hadn't done anything that needed punishing. Not to me, at least."
Alexei watched him put the homemade pizza into the oven. As the oven door closed, he said, "Some people would say that my still being alive would be cause enough."
Wesley took a beer out of the fridge, opened it and handed it to Alexei, then opened another for himself. "Have we gone from Truth or Dare to Twenty Questions? I told you, I don't play that kind of games."
"No, you don't. That's so rare." Alexei tipped his head back as he raised the bottle to his lips, and Wesley watched the play of muscle in his throat as he swallowed. "Don't worry, padre, I'm not asking you to hear my confession or absolve me."
"Good, since I'm not ordained as anything." The pizza was done. Wesley took it out of the oven and set it on the counter.
"Shit. You're fighting evil and you don't have a blessed damn on your side." Alexei shook his head sorrowfully. "No wonder you're so fucked up."
Wesley's head whipped around before he could stop himself. He glared at Alexei, the pizza forgotten. "You have no right -- "
"Sorry." The beer bottle dropped, to splash on the counter, fall to the floor and roll under the table. "Fuck it, I'm sorry. Now, put the knife down." For the first time since the alley, Alexei's eyes showed genuine terror. "Please."
Alexei stood, bone still, staring at Wesley's hand.
It took a moment until Wesley realized that he'd raised the chef's knife he planned to use for slicing the pizza and had it aimed at his guest, who was turning to protect his remaining arm with the rest of his body.
The knife clattered to the counter.
"That's -- "
"Oh, fuck." And Alexei, his face green, stumbled into the bathroom. Wesley could hear him, the sounds echoing in the tiny chamber, and he rubbed his hands over his face and wished, for once, that he wouldn't screw up everything in his life. Then he picked up a kitchen rag and went into the bathroom to see if anything needed cleaning.
Alexei was on his knees again, but with his arm across the toilet seat and his head resting on his forearm. It was a mockery of the position he'd had on the table earlier, though probably unintentional. He refused to look at Wesley, but spit repeatedly into the toilet.
Wesley dampened the rag and handed it over, and Alexei wiped his mouth, folded the used section onto itself and dabbed the towel at the back of his neck and along his face and throat.
"I'm sorry," Wesley whispered.
"You didn't know."
"I should have guessed."
"Don't. Don't do this." Alexei's voice sounded flat. "Don't tear yourself apart. I've been hurt worse before, for less."
"That's not the point."
"What the fuck is the point, then?"
Wesley crouched next to Alexei, on the old linoleum floor that he couldn't make clean, no matter what he did, and put a hand tentatively on his shoulder. Alexei stiffened, and he felt for a moment that he shouldn't touch him, but instead of taking his hand away Wesley started to rub Alexei's shoulder and back, very slowly. For a long time no words passed between them.
"The pizza's getting cold."
"Heresy. Can't have that." Alexei came to his feet without help, turning tightly in the narrow room, until he was face to face with Wesley again. He glared into Wesley's eyes, the hawk gaze returning, and said fiercely, "If you apologize again, I'll make you beat me."
It was absurd. It was ridiculous. Alexei's system was still battling the effects of demonic slime, and both of them knew it. He had reflexes, he could throw light knives accurately, but he had no real strength. But Wesley knew that Alexei wasn't exaggerating.
"Never," Wesley said softly. "You're forgetting."
"What?" Alexei snapped.
"If I'm in charge, I don't have to give you a choice."
The glare faded. "First sensible thing you've said in a while. Let's eat."
Neither of them spoke as they ate. Wesley cut the pizza into easy-to-maneuver triangles that could be eaten by hand, and they stood at the counter and wolfed it down. It fed them but not overly full; Wesley knew he could have eaten more but he doubted that Alexei's stomach could have taken anything additional.
After the dishes were washed, the silence became awkward. Alexei, who had seemed to turn in upon himself as they ate, looked up from the section of floor that he had been studying. He walked over to stand in front of Wesley. "I think it's time that you started to see who I am, and not who you think I am."
Wesley said nothing, waiting. Alexei raised his left arm, and stroked the steel hook against Wesley's face. The tiny rasp of the bristles of his unshaven skin against the metal sounded loud. He stood motionless, allowing Alexei to do what he wished. The hook slid across his adam's apple and down to the hollow of his throat, where it rested, point out, gliding back and forth across that indentation. Alexei watched, his face expressionless, his eyes jade fire. Wesley tilted his chin up, his head back, and returned the gaze.
The hook went lower, the pressure of the rounded metal against his chest more pronounced through the black sweater. It grazed his nipple, never stopping until it slid down and came to rest cradling his balls through his jeans.
Alexei cocked his head, his lips open only enough for the tip of his tongue to flick out. He brought the hook higher, more firmly against Wesley's hardening cock, a cold brand harder than what it held.
Wesley felt his balls drawing up tight to his crotch, and the muscles in his back both lengthening and tightening as his weight shifted. He breathed -- had he forgotten to breathe? How long had it been since he'd felt air enter his lungs? -- put his left hand behind Alexei's head and kissed him ruthlessly, harder than he'd ever kissed anyone, accepting him, owning him, allowing him.
The hook wrapped around Wesley's right wrist and pulled him over to the bed. This time it was Wesley who sank to his knees and whose fingers freed a hardening cock from its cotton cloister. It was Wesley who felt the hard cold steel against his jaw as he sucked and licked, and who pulled Alexei's jeans down further so he could hold that firm ass with both hands as he moved on that long, hard cock. It was Wesley who felt the steel at the back of his neck tremble as he tongued Alexei's sweet spot, and who knew a wild triumph in his heart when the hook fell away from him as his finger slipped into the cleft and Alexei gasped in orgasm.
The hook grazed his face again, trembling, as Alexei tried to regain control. Wesley swallowed, and licked tentatively but the reaction from Alexei was clear: too much sensation. He let the softened cock slide from his mouth and watched as the hook rose again. Something ripped, and Alexei swerved, pushing him away with his good hand. As Wesley sprawled backward on the floor, the hook fell, too fast, and buried itself in the mattress.
Wesley stared, wide-eyed. Had that been meant for him? What invisible border had he crossed?
"Shit." Alexei's mouth trembled between emotions. "The harness really is fucked now. Think you could help me with this?"
Ah. No border crossing at all.
"Of course." Wesley scrambled to his feet and stripped off Alexei's sweater. "I should have checked the leather shop today, but I didn't think I had time. Tomorrow, we'll go there." The harness had broken completely, the guiding strap split. It would hold the prosthesis onto Alexei's shoulder, but not tightly enough to give him any control over its movements.
Alexei leaned against him, his head on Wesley's shoulder. "I've ruined your mattress."
"No, just the sheets. They can be sewn." Wesley reached around Alexei to unfasten the remaining straps and slide the contraption off him. "It's all right. You weren't aiming for me."
"That'd be a pretty poor reward for what you were doing." Alexei's head shifted, and his breath stirred the hair by Wesley's ear. "And you haven't had your turn yet."
"I can wait." It was almost a lie, and Alexei knew it. He was still hard, though the slashing hook had startled him. Perhaps he'd spent too long with flashing metal weapons, ones wielded by Slayers against demons, for the threat of cold steel to slow his libido. It was a survival reflex, he told himself.
"If you're going to wait, the least you could do is pull up my jeans. If not, take them off," said the whisper in his ear.
Wesley pulled the hook out of the mattress and dropped it by the side of the bed. "Do you ever think of anything else?"
Alexei's hand strayed up Wesley's back, and down again to rest at his hip. "Is there anything else to think about?"
"Any number of things." Wesley's hands stopped on Alexei's shoulder blades. Alexei's skin felt warm under his hands, muscle and bone and tendon beneath his touch.
Alexei shivered. "Don't ask me to do that. My life is less pleasant than you think."
"As you wish." The light was fading outside. He put Alexei aside briefly while he drew the window shade, and when he turned back, Alexei's eyes were dark and unreadable. He had pulled his jeans up but left them open, and he stood with his weight on one leg, his shoulders a little hunched. He looked cold and remote and Wesley knew, without a doubt, that this was one of the ways Alexei wanted the world to see him.
And he knew it was a lie, unless ice could form over an open volcano.
"You should put the sweater on again, or get back into bed. This apartment isn't terribly warm."
"Warm me up."
"No," Wesley said softly, and Alexei stiffened. "It's my turn to give the orders around here. Get into bed." He nearly spoiled the effect by adding 'please' but caught himself in time.
"Are you going to make me?"
"No, I'm going to watch you shiver and feed you hot tea and fuss over you."
Anything remote in Alexei's face had fled. "You'd do that, wouldn't you? I'm not sure I could take much more fussing."
"Then get into bed, with or without your clothes, and I'm going to get the aspirin again."
"Yes, sir," came the mocking reply.
Wesley didn't dignify that with an answer. When he filled a pot with water and put it on the stove, a little of it splashed over the edge of the sink onto the newspaper. He picked up the newspaper and his eyes moved routinely over the lead story that he'd skimmed before. Prison escapee, convicted murderer, armed and dangerous. Nothing new. Wait, there in the third column, near the bottom: "Kimball said he saw a one-armed man leaving the house and claimed that this man had killed his wife."
Alexei looked across at him from the bed. "What?"
"Have you ever killed a woman?"
Alexei frowned. "What are you getting at?"
"You said you didn't know anyone named Kimball. He's escaped from prison, and there's a good chance that he did so to search for the one-armed man whom he says killed his wife."
"What? Let me see that." Wesley walked the paper across the room and handed to Alexei, who sat up and read it carefully, frowning. When he came to the end of it, he looked up at Wesley. "This isn't me. I didn't do it."
"It's just a coincidence, then, that you're here and he's looking for a one-armed man?"
"Yes. It's a fucking coincidence. I don't suppose you'd take my word for it."
"I used to, but I've heard too many lies." Wesley's eyes narrowed. "Tell me where you were and what you were doing when she was killed, and maybe I won't call the police. I may live between the light and the darkness here, but I won't harbor anyone who'd hurt and kill someone like that." He pointed to the smaller article that detailed the death of the wife of Dr. Richard Kimball, in all its appetite-reducing detail.
"Shit. You do know how to kill a mood, don't you?" Alexei's face was a mask, hastily worn. His voice betrayed him, grew rough-edged as he spoke. "Two years ago, I was working with a Fibbie on an investigation --"
"FBI agent. It took us to Siberia; we were captured as spies and imprisoned and used for experimental medical procedures. I had connections; I managed to get out and I was working to get the agent out, but things went wrong. He escaped, but some of the locals got hold of me and --" Alexei shrugged. "I spent the next six months recuperating, mostly in St. Petersburg. I can give you my doctor's name if you want to check."
"Can you show me any documents that would prove you were there?"
"Papers can be faked. If you treat all your lovers this way --"
"No wonder I have so few. Very good. Teresa of Avila would be amused at how you've rephrased her complaint to God. Papers, Alexei."
Alexei sighed. "In the jacket. Left side seam near the pocket. I'll get them out if you'll get a razor blade from your bathroom; somehow I doubt you'd trust me with one right now."
Wesley took the jacket from the hook by the door and draped it over his arm. The medicine cabinet did, in fact, contain single-edged razor blades; he took one from the package and went back to the bed.
Alexei was sitting up, the pillows supporting his back. He crossed his legs under the covers to give Wesley room to sit down. "Cut this seam, about four inches." He pointed at the narrow seam behind the zipper, just inside the edge of the jacket. It didn't even look like a seam at all, but like a fold in the leather. Wesley slid the blade down the crease, and heard the soft pfft of thread separating.
"That should be enough." Alexei reached into the opening, the movement of his long fingers visible through the soft leather. "There. See for yourself."
Wesley unfolded the packet. The first paper was a letter of authorization from a Russian ministry whose name he'd never seen before, with a photo attached. It was clearly Alexei, though the name under the photo was Valery Arntzen. Next came a Russian passport, in the name of Valery Arntzen, but under that was an American passport, in the name of Alex Krycek.
"Notice the dates," Alexei said.
Wesley checked the letter of authorization and the passport; sure enough, both were issued during the time when the Kimball murder took place. The Krycek passport was a couple of years older, and the face on it looked younger, not more innocent but more open to possibility than the worn, tired face on the Arntzen passport.
"I apologize. I jumped to conclusions." Wesley knew the words were inadequate.
"It was a reasonable conclusion." Alexei's mouth twitched. "But you're apologizing again. You're going to have to beat me."
"I think I already have." Wesley weighed the papers in his hand. "I'm sorry. Do you want me to sew it up for you? I can do that."
"It can wait. I should probably find a better hiding place for them, but I didn't have much time on this trip." Alexei leaned back against the pillows. "Maybe your friend at the leather store would be able to do it." He put his hand on Wesley's arm. Wesley didn't look up. "Stop it. I'm not blaming you."
"I know." Wesley was still thinking about the implications of two passports and a letter of authorization. "We're both on the same side. I don't think I realized, until now, just how large that side might be."
"Don't think they're all on my side, either. The man who gave me this," Alexei flicked a finger at the letter, "owed me a favor from years back. He doesn't care what side I'm on as long as he doesn't have to deal with me."
"But the passports are real?"
"Not exactly dual citizenship, I'd guess?"
"You'd guess right." His hand on Wesley's arm moved, soothing. "The teakettle's whistling."
"So it is." Wesley met Alexei's eyes fully. "Where do you want me to put these?"
Alexei turned the jacket at an odd angle on the bed and took the documents from Wesley. He put his hand into a pocket, moved it again and brought it out empty.
"Double pockets, a little innovation I really like. It keeps me from leaving a trail of breadcrumbs when the first seams break. Go make the tea. I'm getting cold."
Wesley busied himself with the teapot, to keep from thinking. Although Alexei had said very little in a direct way, much could be deduced from it. He'd acknowledged being a double or triple agent already; the paperwork merely supported that, as did his admission that he'd worked with the FBI, though it was unclear whether that work was voluntary or not. He certainly hadn't wanted to be turned over to the police, but Wesley didn't know if he'd really have done Perhaps that was what Alexei had bargained for, with his easy sexuality -- but even with that in mind, Wesley had a hard time thinking of his guest as that kind of killer. He could see Alexei as an agent, as an unacknowledged soldier in a hidden war, who killed to survive or in the service of a greater power or need -- but not as a man who could rape and kill a woman in her own home and allow her husband to be convicted of the crime.
Alexei had called his time with Wesley a sanctuary; did it matter from what he was hiding? Wesley couldn't call himself an innocent; he'd taken demon life often enough, and had learned to distinguish good from evil on a playing field that was everlasting twilight when compared with the night and day he'd been taught by the Watchers. Surely there were other kinds of twilight, other shaded arenas in which a man could find himself forced to choose a path among unclear alternatives, hoping to survive to the next day.
When Wesley turned around, the hot mugs in his hands, Alexei lay on one side under the covers, watching him. He tried to school his face to hide his thoughts, but abandoned the effort when he realized it wasn't working; Alexei could read him too easily as it was. "I've made gunpowder green tea this time; it's a good antioxidant, good for what ails you as my grandmother used to say."
"Appropriate, too." Alexei seemed to have collapsed; he looked more frail than before, more still, as if stillness would conserve his energy. He pushed himself up, wrapping the sweater around his shoulders. When he took the full mug from Wesley, he sipped it as if it were a lifegiving potion. "If I didn't have those papers, would you turn me over to the police?"
Wesley sat on the bed, cradling his mug in his hands. "I don't know." He stared at the opposite wall, at the narrow cut in the door frame. "A while back, when I was in Sunnydale, I found myself working on the same side as Angel -- the vampire with the soul that I mentioned before. I never trusted him, but others did. He fought for us, and he saved many lives. But he'd been turned to the forces of darkness once that I knew of, and I knew that if he were to return to darkness again I would kill him without remorse. It would be the only answer."
"And now?" Alexei watched him over the rim of the mug.
Wesley found that, try as he might to avoid it, he had to meet those dark eyes in order to say what needed saying.
"I won't violate your sanctuary here. I still believe we're fighting the same battle, only on different fronts. But if I'm wrong about that, I'll be in the same position I would be in were I still in Sunnydale." Wesley spoke more slowly. "And I would hate to have to kill you, but I'd do it."
Alexei nodded slowly. "I won't hurt you. I promise, for whatever that's worth."
Wesley took a long drink of tea, which tasted leafy and acidic in his mouth. He swallowed it slowly, letting it trickle down his throat as if it could wipe out the taste of the past half hour. He felt unutterably weary.
"Tell me a little more about your demons," Alexei invited. "Are you sure they're not extraterrestrial?"
"If they did come from another planet, it would have to have been centuries ago; I have accounts of them that go back to medieval times and earlier." Wesley waved a hand at the narrow bookshelf in the corner; it was filled to bursting with old volumes whose spines had been worn so much they could only be distinguished by size and shape, and perhaps by color, instead of by title or author. "They're not in the best condition, but they're what I could salvage for myself. Mostly duplicates of what Giles -- the other Watcher -- had, but no less valuable for that."
"They're not new, that's for sure." Alexei cocked his head. "Looks like some of them went through a fire."
"Explosion, really. We had a bit of excitement during the high school graduation."
"Guest speaker lost a lit cigarette?"
"Actually, the guest speaker -- who happened to be the mayor of the city -- was transformed into a giant snake and ate the high school principal." Alexei's jaw dropped; he caught himself and glared. Wesley felt the slightest bit of satisfaction at having surprised his oh-so-blase guest. He continued, soberly, "A horde of vampires attacked, and the Slayer and her friends led the defense. Oh, and the Slayer made sure that the snake followed her into the library, where it was destroyed in the explosion."
"Shit. And I thought my high school was rough." Alexei's eyes sparkled, but the line of his mouth said a different story; he didn't believe a word of it.. "The Slayer lived through it?"
"Oh, yes. Nothing seems to kill her, not for long, which is good, everything considered."
Alexei shook his head as if to clear his mind. "Why the library for the explosion? I mean, if I were going to blow up a giant snake, I'd get it into the gymnasium."
Wesley sipped a little more tea. "Two birds with one stone, really. The library was located over the Hellmouth, which the mayor had planned to open to allow more demons out under his reign. Exploding it to block it seemed the best solution."
"Librarians are supposed to lead such quiet lives." Alexei flashed him a swift grin, gone as quickly as it had come. "Do any of your demons dissolve into puddles of gunk?"
Wesley shook his head. "Usually, it's more like large chunks flying through the air of something you don't want to be hit with. Terrible mess to clean up."
"Have you had to deal with any ..." Alexei's voice trailed off, as if he wasn't sure he wanted to say the next word, "shapeshifters?"
"Well, there are several kinds of shapeshifting demons in the literature. I assume you're not talking about lycanthropes?" Wesley felt himself shift into the academic mindset. It wasn't as easy as it had been before he took to the streets and a more active life.
"No werecritters." Alexei handed the empty mug to him and dropped back against the pillows.
"Ah. Other than 'werecritters,' as you call them, I seem to recall several types of shapechangers, but none of them looked particularly human at any time. Why?"
Alexei's hand grasped Wesley's arm, surprisingly tightly. "If you see someone who looks human and not demonic, who shapechanges, who bleeds green, spike him in the back of the neck with a stiletto. Right there." Wesley's hand went to the back of his own neck, and Alexei nodded firmly. "Yes. That's all that will save your life."
"Are all of them deadly?"
"No. Some are healers, supposedly, but their blood is just as lethal if it touches you. It doesn't hurt to be prepared."
Wesley nodded firmly. "Got it. Any other words of wisdom?"
Alexei's eyes narrowed, and his knuckles turned white. "Any time you see something that looks like black oil coming from what you call a demon -- or a rock, or unexpectedly from anything or anyone else -- run. Get away from it."
"What does it do?" The scholar in Wesley knew he had to ask.
Alexei hesitated. "You would call it a kind of possession." His voice sounded so ordinary. "The only thing that will kill it is fire."
"You know this for sure." It wasn't a question.
"Yes, goddamn it." Alexei's face didn't move, but his eyes became wells of pain, beyond words.
"All right." Wesley found himself patting Alexei's hand, trying to find a way to comfort him. "I'll make sure to carry something that can be made flammable, so I can torch it. I promise."
"You do that." The grip eased.
Wesley stared at Alexei's hand on his arm, at the thorough normality of it. It was just a hand, male, tanned, strong, attached to someone who he was beginning to see as the least ordinary person he'd ever met.
Somewhere outside a clock chimed eight times.
"I'm starting to get cabin fever." Alexei said, withdrawing his hand to push at the covers. "Any chance your friend with the leather shop is open late? I'd like to get things fixed."
"Are you up to it?"
A wry grin pulsed on Alexei's face. "I'm up to a hell of a lot more than you give me credit for."
"You can be up to that later. I'm talking about street fighting."
"I can hold my own as long as I have my knives."
"All right." Wesley stood, getting out of the way. "He's a few blocks away. We'll take the bike. You're right. We should go tonight."
Alexei, in the midst of pulling on his clothes, cocked his head toward Wesley. "You're that eager to be rid of me?"
Reality couldn't be that false, that simple. Wesley picked up the prosthesis from the floor. "This isn't just a tool for you. It's a weapon, a defense." he said carefully. "I don't like to think of you being unarmed." He hesitated. "So to speak --"
Alexei finished fastening his jeans. He took two steps, slid his hand behind Wesley's head and kissed him thoroughly. "Finally," he said, when he broke the kiss, "finally a man who understands me."
"Hardly." But he helped Alexei into the harness, and the sweater over it, so he could put the hook into his pocket and not stand out against the streetlights, and his boots, and they left, locking the door behind them.
Nothing came out of the shadows after them as they wove through the streets and alleys. Wesley took a more winding path than usual to throw off pursuit, should it occur. When he pulled up in the half-open garage behind a row of storefronts and shut off the motor, the lack of noise wrapped around them like a lover's caress. Alexei's boot heels clattered on the pavement as he dismounted the bike, and Wesley felt the chill of damp air on his back as if it were a blow.
He knocked, Alexei behind him, and the door swung open easily. The man who waved them into the small shop could have fitted nicely into any Western as the bartender at the town saloon: small, round-bellied and balding. He smiled at Wesley and nodded genially to Alexei as they entered.
"Hey, Windy, long time no see. Those boots I fixed for you work out all right?"
It looked, at first glance, like any leather clothing store that could be found in a shopping mall. At second glance, it appeared that some of the clothes might have been cut to fit a slightly different body shape than normal. The hats were a give-away; most makers of finer headgear did not have the foresight to tailor holes for the wearer's brow horns, should the wearer be a demon who wanted to impersonate Clint Eastwood.
"Terrific, Rick. You do the best leather work I've ever seen," Wesley told him. It wasn't an exaggeration; Rick was an artist with a touch for leather. "My colleague here has a couple of repair jobs for you, if you're not too busy." He took in the rest of the room: two customers, one fingering a pair of deep burgundy suede pants while the other tried on hats. Both were human. "Special needs, if you please."
"Ah. No problem. Cecile! You mind the counter, while I take care of these gentlemen?" Cecile, a petite blonde in a lace-up doeskin dress, nodded as Rick showed Wesley and Alexei through the door to the back, turning on the light and shutting the door behind them. "Now, what can I do for you?"
The room could have doubled as a dungeon-master's paradise. Whips hung in coils from the ceiling, restraints were draped on the walls in artistic arrangement with a display of leather paddles and straps. A trio of mannequins were arranged to demonstrate a flogging, with a variety of instruments. Alexei blinked.
Wesley ignored the setting. "My colleague here had a run-in with a Carpathian swamp demon yesterday, and he's suffered some damages. I hope you might be able to help him."
"A Carpathian, you say? Is it still around?" Wesley shook his head. "Good. Those damn things are absolute hell on fine leather goods. Let me see what you've got."
"This is the easy one, I think." Alexei shrugged his way out of the jacket and handed it to Rick, who stroked the leather and nodded, pursing his lips. "There's the slash on the back. Oh, and I need to have this seam resewn. I'd prefer to watch you work on it."
"Of course." Rick seemed amazed that Alexei would question that. "My workbench is right here. Feel free to watch all you want. Though, I'll tell you, it's a pity to have to put a seam right across the back here. Ruins the cut of the garment. Hmm. Hmm." He tested the strength of the leather with broad fingertips. "I could make you a deal on a different jacket, if you give me this one in trade. I have a customer who needs something especially tailored in that area -- it's so hard to fit a dorsal fin into conventional clothing -- and it would be easier to refit this for him than it would be to repair it suitably for you." Rick looked up, his expression shrewd. Wesley noticed the way his light-brown eyes were narrowing, and waited. "Depending on what the other job is, I might be moved to make you a direct swap for this jacket, one for one."
"And why would you be moved to do that?" Alexei stepped forward, his face shuttered.
"Look, I'll be honest with you. Repairing this will cost you a few bucks, not as much as a new jacket. However, I can make more from retailoring this one and selling it to my special customer than I would from the repair job and any new jacket I sell you. Besides, I owe Windy, here, a big one and I'm feeling generous. So, what've you got?"
"I need a new strap for this." Alexei brought the hook out into the light for the first time. "Damn demon sliced it."
Rick's eyes lit up. "The back balance strap, right? So, you want strength, not just softness. Hmm. Hmm. Cowhide? Might be too heavy. Maybe sheepskin, but not lambskin or pigskin. Not enough strength. Hmm. You take off your harness, if you please, sir, and I'll step over here and bring out my samples so you can choose what feels best to you." He bustled over behind the mannequins to a door half-hidden by spiked leather bustiers and sheepskin-lined handcuffs.
Alexei shook his head. "And I thought I was broadening your horizons."
"You are, believe me." Wesley helped him slip out of the harness and slide the sweater back down over the truncated arm. "I don't routinely bring people home, you know."
"I figured. What did you do for the guy?"
And Rick was back, an assortment of leather strips draped over his arm, all of them far closer to Alexei's skin tone than he might have expected. After ten minutes of shopping, Rick took the arm and went back to his bench, leaving Alexei and Wesley to wait as he made repairs.
Wesley had wandered over to the side and was inspecting an array of quirts and riding crops with a critical eye when Alexei joined him. "Thinking of adding to your weaponry?"
"Not exactly." Wesley shrugged. "So much of dealing with demonkind is playacting and bluff; it's often a matter of appearing as they don't think you'll be." He plucked a crop from the wall and flexed it, letting it snap back at the air. "Lovely. I might want this if I need to play a martinet, but without a horse in town it's fairly useless for regular life."
"Oh, please, sir, I'd like some more," Alexei whispered, a wicked grin on his face.
"No." Wesley viewed him with speculation. "Why?"
"Yes. Why are you asking for it?"
Alexei ran his fingers over the strands of a bouquet of suede floggers. "Sometimes pain helps me deal with the nightmares better than anything else."
"Better than pleasure?"
"Believe me, with some of the things I remember, almost anything would be more pleasurable."
"Oh, I'm sure. But are they bothering you so much right now that we'll have to deal with them?" He put the crop back on the wall and picked up a flogger, running the long, soft tails over his fingertips.
Alexei's gaze felt like a kiss, but his voice was rough. "You don't want me to leave, do you?"
"I don't think it's a question of what I want, is it?"
"Do you know what you want?"
Wesley didn't look up. "A world where people don't have to live in fear."
"What *you* want."
Their eyes met. "What I want, or don't want, isn't important in the larger scheme of things, is it?"
"Bullshit." Alexei's hand closed over Wesley's, still holding the strands of suede. "Fuck the larger scheme of things for the moment."
Wesley shook his head. It had been so long, so very long. He felt the corners of his eyes dampen, and bit his lip to distract himself -- and realized what he was doing. His voice went harsh. "Don't ask that. I've learned not to make plans."
"That doesn't keep you from wanting, does it?" Alexei's hand caressed his fingers. "It's never stopped me."
"Given the choice --" Alexei started.
But Rick was back with the harness, the back strap replaced by a new strip and balanced by a small strap elsewhere that kept it from getting uncomfortably stuck under Alexei's shoulder blade when he moved the hook in certain ways.
"I took the liberty of adjusting the cup as well; I thought this might be more comfortable for you."
Alexei shrugged both shoulders; the prosthesis moved as a mirror of the live arm. "It's a fucking miracle."
"And so, about the jacket -- if you would be interested in a trade?"
"Let me see what you've got," Alexei said, his eyes still bright. "It's not an ordinary jacket."
"Oh, I realize that, sir. I've seldom had the opportunity to see workmanship like that. You acquired it outside this country, I'm sure -- no, no, I won't say where or by whom it was made. That would invade your privacy. Here, let me bring in the selection."
"Where did you get it?" Wesley asked in an undertone as Rick bustled away again.
"Off the rack in St. Petersburg, second-hand."
"It apparently has a pedigree."
Alexei grunted. "Probably a better one than I do."
"Clothes make the man."
"Oh, shut up."
Rick displaced half a dozen harnesses and set hangers with black leather jackets in their place. At first glance, they all looked alike and unremarkable, but as Wesley ran a hand over them, he noticed that they were all different types of leather, all soft, and all with some kind of inner construction that he hadn't seen before. Alexei shrugged himself into and out of all of them, some more than once, before he settled on a jacket that seemed no more remarkable than something he could have gotten from a shopping mall.
"An excellent choice. I'll leave you now, to empty your old jacket, and when you're ready come out and we'll finish the transaction." And Rick went back to the main display room, a smile on his pursy lips.
"All right, I give up. What's so special about this jacket?"
Alexei's eyes were lit with an unholy glee. "I'll show you. Hand me anything. That hat."
"That's a hat?" But he took the oddly-shaped leather concoction off its display and handed it to Alexei, who put it into his pocket where it ... disappeared. No lump. No sense of strain in the leather. Intrigued, he handed Alexei the metal tabletop hat stand, and watched it vanish into an inside pocket on the left side, without a trace. "How are you doing that?"
"I don't know, and I don't care, as long as it keeps happening." Alexei was jubilant. "I could hide a Soviet tank in here, as long as I could get the pocket to stretch around it."
Wesley walked around him, staring. The new jacket fit Alexei as if it had been custom tailored for him. It glided from his shoulders to his hips with no suggestion that it held anything but a wiry, muscular body. "I don't sense any magic, of any color, here," he said slowly. "Did your old jacket do this?"
"I had one working 'deep pocket,' and two shallow ones. Here, all of them are deep." Alexei pushed one of the mannequins aside and all but pranced in front of the mirror, preening.
"Give me back the hat; Rick will be back soon. And you've got to empty your old jacket."
"Yeah. Okay. Here." Alexei handed back the hat stand and the hat, in that order, and took off the new jacket as Wesley rearranged the hat on its stand in a semblance of its original display. The new jacket he draped over the back of one mannequin, the one with its purple suede shorts draped around its knees, and the old one he hung over the nearest shoulder of the upright mannequin with the paddle in its hand. "This will go faster with some help," he said over his shoulder. "Let me just hand you things, and organize them later."
"Right." Wesley received, quickly, the packet of documents, half a dozen throwing knives retrieved from various places, worn maps of the United States and Russia, a slender book of twentieth-century poetry, a black scarf that seemed to grow to enormous size as it was pulled from the back seam ("Silk. It compresses well and it's warm," Alexei murmured), a piano-wire garrotte from the waistband ("I've really got to clean more often. That thing is useless."), a metal mirror, a small shaving kit with a safety razor, a dented metal cigar case that held paper and a pencil, another metal case with wooden matches, several strips of leather that could have been shoe laces, a switchblade, a gravity knife, a Leatherman multi-purpose tool, two unidentified vials, an assortment of newspaper clippings in a plastic envelope, a half-eaten sandwich in a plastic bag that was turning blue ("Damn. It was a good sandwich last week. Caviar and cream cheese, or whatever the local equivalent was in Sibir."), and three 9mm pistols with ammunition.
"Anything else?" Wesley, who had given up holding it all and started stacking it on a nearby table somewhere around the garrotte, raised an eyebrow.
"I think that's it." Alexei picked the old jacket up and shook it one last time, and two pair of gloves fell out, one leather and one latex. "Always carry spares," he said. "Now, start handing it all back to me."
A knock came from the door. "Are you gentlemen doing all right?"
"Just a minute or two," Wesley called back.
"No hurry, no hurry at all. Business has picked up a bit; come out whenever you're ready." Rick's voice seemed strained.
Wesley's eyes met Alexei's, and they moved the assortment of what Wesley privately considered survival gear into the new coat. Alexei put it on for the last few items -- the weapons -- and was done within five minutes. "I'll make some adjustments back at your place."
"Absolutely." Wesley stood by the door, ready. Alexei draped the old coat over his prosthetic arm and put his hand into his pocket where, Wesley knew, he had easy access to six throwing knives and a loaded pistol.
Wesley opened the door slowly but casually, as if he expected Rick and Cecile to be busy with other shoppers and didn't want to disturb them as he entered. On the first careful scan of the shop, he saw nothing unusual. It took a moment for the presence of the tall man in the soft brown leather jacket to sink in. With a small smile, he stepped out into the room, followed by Alexei, who glanced casually about with his hand in his pockets -- probably fingering his knives, Wesley thought.
"Here it is." He gave the torn jacket to Rick. "How much do I owe you for the other work?"
"We'll call it even." Rick smoothed the worn leather as if it were the finest, softest fur. "Next time you come through town, I'll charge you double. Okay?"
"Okay." Alexei relaxed enough to give Rick a small but genuine smile, but stiffened again as Wesley moved toward the man in the brown leather jacket who was earnestly surveying the leather bustiers and decorative bondage gear. The man, his glasses sliding down his nose, tested the strength of the leather with one hand as he pushed his glasses back into place with the other, and appeared to be contemplating the choice of cerise, ultraviolet, or chartreuse garb.
"I don't think that's quite your size," Wesley said from behind his shoulder, and the man spun around, startled. "I could be wrong, of course."
"Wesley!" The man's jaw dropped; he recovered with an effort. "Of all the people to run into here -- I mean -- I didn't expect -- how are you? You're looking well."
"I'm fine, Giles. You look quite well yourself. Looking for something for Buffy?"
"Um, well, actually, yes." Giles cleared his throat apologetically. "I was thinking that some of the more, um, structured garments might be useful for a sort of informal armor in certain situations. With some modifications, of course."
"Of course." Wesley couldn't suppress a certain amount of glee at seeing his former colleague so discomfited. "I didn't really think that cerise was your color."
"Ahem, thank you." Giles appeared to notice Alexei, who was looking through a rack of vests behind Wesley's left shoulder. "And you're doing what, these days?"
"A bit of hunting. Rogue demons. Nothing in the same league as Buffy, of course, but one does one's poor best." Wesley shifted his weight, hoping he looked a bit more dangerous than he had in Sunnydale. Apparently the effort paid off; Giles did look impressed. "I'm somewhat busy these days, but we should get together if you're in town for a while. Compare notes on how the Slayer's doing, and all that."
Giles took off his glasses and wiped them with a handkerchief he pulled from inside his jacket. "Well, actually, the Slayer doesn't need a Watcher any more. She's going to university; she wants to be on her own."
Wesley felt shocked. "No Watcher at all? I realize I wasn't, um, all that could have been expected, but -- "
"You were fine." Giles gave him the sort of kindly glance that Wesley thought had been reserved for Buffy or her friends, and put his glasses back on. "I grant you, that wasn't the usual situation. Um, well, good luck in what you're doing, whatever it is." He looked past Wesley toward Alexei, who had moved closer. "I think someone is waiting for you?"
"Oh. Yes." Better to get it over with. "Giles, this is my friend Alexei. Alexei, this is my colleague from Sunnydale, Rupert Giles."
Alexei put on an expression of scholarly equality and shook hands. Wesley was relieved to see that the hook was hidden in his pocket. "Very nice to meet you. Wesley has said good things about you."
"Really? I'm flattered." Giles studied him a moment. "You're not British, are you?"
"No, but I visited there when I was a student. I was in the area for a few days and thought I'd catch up on old times with Wesley." Alexei nodded politely, managing an appearance of innocent inquiry that made Wesley wary. "He's showing me the sights."
"Oh, well, good. Excuse me, I think I'd better get back to my, um, shopping." Giles nodded to them both again, and moved toward a display of useful-looking boiled-leather breastplates and improbable costume versions of suede armor.
Once outside, Alexei broke into a grin. "See, I can be good."
"That was you being good?"
"You *are* showing me the sights. And we're catching up on old times."
"Oh, anything before the last five minutes would count."
"Right." They got back on the bike and Wesley cranked the motor. "Since you're here, any sights you want to see?"
It took a while, in the traffic, but as they slipped through West Hollywood and the cars around them thinned Wesley could see that they were being tailed by a man in a brown Ford.
"We've got company," he told Alexei, who leaned forward to glance into the rear-view mirror. "And it's not one of mine. Anyone you know?"
"Maybe the guy who broke in while you were out." Alexei snorted. "If he had to steal a car, couldn't he have found something less crappy?"
"You're making an assumption. You don't know he stole it."
"Would you drive that thing if you didn't have to?"
Wesley ignored the jibe. "I think it's time we asked our ghost back there just what's going on." He steered the bike around the block and through an alley that he knew, from experience, wouldn't be large enough for the Ford to maneuver; it was partly blocked by dumpsters, with only enough room for the bike to exit -- the car would have to back out. Once in the alley, he told Alexei, "Hold on," and zipped through the exit, whipped back through a parking lot at speed (endlessly thankful that the keep-away-cops spell he'd put on the bike was still working) and pulled to a stop in the entrance.
With the light of the street at his back, Wesley pulled his crossbow and cocked it, dismounted the bike and walked steadily toward the stopped car.
"Don't be a fool," Alexei snapped. "He could back up and level you."
"And ruin his car on my bike, and hence his getaway? Don't be absurd."
Alexei shrugged, far more effectively than before. "Just what I needed. Another Mulder."
What's a mulder? Wesley thought. He'd reached the trunk of the car and stopped there. "You in the car; I want to talk to you."
The car door slowly opened, to allow its occupant out. He unfolded slowly, until he stood with his hands up, a rangy six-foot stranger with rumpled hair, who wore stained coveralls. "I'm unarmed," he said in a low voice.
"Yes," Alexei hissed.
"Why did you break into my apartment?" Wesley said. "You searched it quite thoroughly today. What were you looking for?"
"The one-armed man. Someone told me they saw him going there."
Behind him, Alexei was swearing violently in Russian, under his breath.
"I just want to talk to him. If you know where he is, please, tell me."
"Mr. Kimball." At Wesley's voice, a shudder rippled through Kimball. "I know who you are, and I know why you're looking for the one-armed man."
"Then help me, please. I didn't kill my wife, I swear it."
"I believe you." Wesley lowered the crossbow. "But I don't know the man you're seeking."
"How do you know?"
"I'll take this one," Alexei said softly. He walked around Wesley and moved into the one beam of light that fell directly into the alley. "Am I the man you were looking for?"
Kimball stared at Alexei. He walked closer, his hands dropping slowly, and looked him over. "N-no. You're not him. He's broader in the shoulders, he's older, closer to my age. I had one good look at him, that's all, but I know you're not him."
Wesley felt tension loosening in his own back but saw it still present in Alexei's stance.
Alexei's voice was soft. "I'm very sorry about your wife, and about your problem, but there's nothing I can do." Kimball nodded. "Who told you to look for me there?"
"It's kind of strange," Kimball said. "A man walked up to me on the street as I came out of an alley, and told me to look for a one-armed man at that address. He said you'd be there for at least another day."
"What did he look like?"
Wesley whipped his head toward Alexei so quickly he felt his neck crackle. He hadn't imagined the tightness in Alexei's voice.
Kimball shrugged. "I don't remember that much; I haven't eaten in a while."
"Is that your price for the information?"
Kimball's hands went up, palm out, warding off misunderstanding. "No. No price. I'm just saying I don't remember much."
"I'll get you some food," Wesley heard himself say without thinking. "Just tell him what you know." He watched the line of Alexei's spine stiffening and loosening as he breathed.
"He's in his sixties, probably. Good charcoal suit, gold signet ring. I don't remember which hand. The one with the cigarette, I think."
"Fuck," Alexei said. "No, not you. Him."
Kimball nodded, as if that made sense.
"We can't go back to your place, Wes."
"It's that unsafe?"
Alexei spat drily into the darkness. "The longer we stay in any one place, the less safe it will be for you. Is there anywhere else you can go?"
Alexei's intention was blindingly obvious, given the pronouns, but Wesley rejected it. "No."
"What did you say?"
"I'm not going to ground alone. You're in as much danger as I am."
Alexei's hand gripped Wesley's arm. "You idiot. You're in danger because of me. You can't protect me from these people."
"You don't have anywhere else to go."
"I've got a thousand bolt-holes to hide in, alone."
"Oh, twist the knife while you're at it."
Kimball interrupted with a cough, and Wesley jumped. "Guys, it's really not safe for me to hang around here. If you'll move your bike -- "
"Wait a minute." Wesley went past Kimball and past the car, and hammered a fist on the dumpster. "Giovanni! You got a minute? I need you to move somehing."
"That you?" Giovanni's voice sounded deep enough to have come from hell.
"Yes, and I'd like to have you move a couple of things for me, if you would."
"Yeah, sure. Not doing nothing right now, anyway." The lid of the dumpster creaked, and Giovanni clambered out, jumping down to the pavement and into a splash of light from the street. Alexei stared, and Kimball took a couple of steps backward. Wesley knew that it was purely an accident of birth that Giovanni's bone structure takes after his father's side of the family, the side that painted bison and aurochs on the Lascaux Caverns in France. The man had no demonic blood at all. "What'd you want moved?"
"Nothing much, a couple of dumpsters. My friend needs to get his car out."
Giovanni shrugged. "No problem." He put a shoulder to his own double-sized dumpster and shoved it back about ten feet without breathing hard. "Both of these?" Wesley nodded, and he shook his head. He tested the other with a cautious one-handed push, then shoved up on the welded loop on the end and walked it backward, out of the way. "Enough space now?"
"Wonderful. Thank you." Wesley smiled at him, conscious of the probable mental commentary behind himself. "Can I bring you anything?"
Giovanni shrugged. "Next couple books in that series, maybe, or some batteries."
"I'll bring them tomorrow, for sure." Wesley waved a farewell as Giovanni shrugged himself back into his dumpster. He turned to Kimball, who had managed to pick his jaw up off the sidewalk. "I believe you'll find that you can drive out quite easily now."
"Wh-what was that?"
"Giovanni's a friend of mine," Wesley said. "You'd better get going."
"Yeah. Um, thanks." Kimball turned to open the car door.
"Wait a minute -- " Alexei interrupted. "You dropped this." He handed Kimball a small packet. "It's what I've got on me right now."
Kimball thumbed the bills, startled. "Hey, thanks. You don't have to do this."
Alexei's smile was bittersweet. "I've been on the road myself."
The money stowed safely in a pocket, Kimball hesitated, as if searching for words, then got into the car and drove off.
"You didn't have that much."
"I"ll get more." Alexei turned hot green eyes on Wesley. "You've got to get out of your place for a while. Go away. Stay with someone."
Wesley felt his own lips tighten at the corners. "You don't think I can take care of myself?"
"Against one or two, or three, demons or whatever, no problem." Alexei pushed him toward the bike. "I know I'm paranoid; it keeps me alive. I want you to stay alive too." He leaned in to kiss Wesley, a hard kiss turned desperate with longing and knowledge. "Just stay alive."
"I don't make promises." Wesley gripped Alexei's soft new jacket in his fists, holding him close. "Did you leave anything at my apartment?"
"No." But his voice sounded uncertain, so Wesley turned the bike back toward his building, spinning through alleys and back streets.
They picked up the tail about a third of the way back to the apartment. It was long and black, shining like the wet pavement under the streetlights, but quiet, as if it ran on air or magic and not an internal combustion engine. Alexei noticed it first, and tapped Wesley on the shoulder, and Wesley skidded the bike into a long succession of alleys and one-way streets, dodging, ducking under low overhangs, sliding into narrow passages between dumpsters and walls, winding through the detritus of the city.
It didn't matter how much they dodged; the tail stayed behind them as if they had it on a leash. It didn't matter how wretched the alley they ducked into, or how winding the passage, for the limo was there, half a block behind them, wherever they emerged.
"Shit," Alexei muttered. "They must have put a finder on us while we were in the leather shop." He twisted around on the seat. "I don't see anything."
"Probably underneath. Careful! You almost fell off."
"Maybe you should let me. I'm the one they're after."
"Don't be too sure about that." Wesley turned his head to catch Alexei's eye. "You're not the only one with enemies in this town."
"How many demons drive stretch limos?"
"In L.A.? More than you'd guess."
They kept running. The black limousine stayed behind them like a lost Hound of the Baskervilles, anxious not to let its master -- or its prey -- out of sight..
Wesley muttered under his breath as he rode, trying to renew the wards on the bike, but the wards didn't seem to have been affected. He'd never activated the truly powerful wards he knew, as wards that interrupt electro-mechanical processes had been proven not to mix well with gasoline engines. Even so, the two of them, on the motorcycle, shouldn't have even been a blip on anyone's sidereal vision. They shouldn't have been anything more than a shadow in the dark, quickly forgotten if noticed at all.
By the time they hit the traffic light, Wesley knew that Alexei was starting to feel frantic. He could feel the shift in body weight behind himself as his rider pulled the handgun from one of his infinity pockets, holding it down close between them just in case a police car should be near.
The light, at a well-lit intersection in the now-deserted business district, went red too late for them to slide through against the long-haul truck in the cross-street. As the limo pulled up in the next lane, the passenger door exactly opposite the bike started to open. Alexei started to pull his gun.
Wesley reached for his crossbow, his mind speeding ahead of his muscles. Of course, he thought frantically, who's going to look at people in a limo pretending to have a Chinese Fire Drill? This is the city of lost angels, where black limos are sand on the beach and can be rented by flaky, wealthy, irresponsible teen-agers any time they like.
By the time he had the crossbow lined up, two men had jumped out of the limo. One of them clubbed him across the head, a second blow smashing against his wrist, and shoved the bike off balance. The other man dragged Alexei off the back of the bike by his jacket, knocking the handgun away and fending off the hook arm as easily as if Alexei were a child being taken off for a nap after playtime.
Alexei fought hard, swiveling to aim the gun over his shoulder, but the man holding him pressed a tranquilizer injector into his neck and the sweep of the hook went wild and faltered. Wesley fought back, but his assailant struck him again, ending by clubbing him with Alexei's dropped gun. The men pulled Alexei into the limo and slam the doors. Alexei's hand, flexing and releasing, and the look of horror on his face were the last things Wesley saw, though he heard the roar of the limo as it swerved out of sight until its motor was lost in the sound of the city.
How long had he been unconscious in the middle of the street, under the overturned motorcycle? Wesley shook his head, carefully, and felt the disconnected sense of unreality that he usually only encountered in the midst of a demonic attack. But this hadn't been demons who had taken Alexei away, only humans. Perhaps he should have ignored his long practice of not killing humans. Wesley groaned as he pushed the motorcycle upright again; he would have been prepared if they had been demons. He would have known what to do. Instead, he'd been overwhelmed without even a chance to strike a blow in his own defense.
And Alexei was gone, as if he'd never been there.
Something gleamed on the pavement, a glassy reflection where Alexei's hand had faltered.
The streets were as empty as if Wesley had imagined the raid, as if he'd imagined the past two days, except for a small vial that rolled toward him from the edge of the next lane. He picked it up and let it roll across his scraped palm.
It wasn't impressive, like the hand of an armored demon or a worn, leather-bound text of ancient incantations and protection spells. It was just a small glass tube with a sealed cap, containing what looked like water with a small black chip at the bottom.
Wesley clutched it in his hand, ignoring the ache of gravel in his skin. It had to be important, for Alexei to have left it for him; probably something Alexei wanted him to keep safe from the people who had snatched him away.
It was also the only thing he had to remember Alexei by.
He put it into the inside pocket of his jacket, over his heart, where it felt like a bullet, cold and hard.
It took only a few minutes to traverse the empty streets and reach the apartment. Wesley knew as soon as he opened the door that it had been searched, hurriedly and unsuccessfully from the number of books that appeared to have been tossed about at random. Thoughtfully, he went into the bathroom and opened the cabinet. There, under a small tube of lube, sat a note.
"If they come for me, take care of yourself. Be safe. Stay alive. I'll come back."
He hadn't seen that handwriting before, but it didn't need a signature.
It took only a moment for him to throw anything he'd need for a month into a travel bag he could strap to the bike, grabbing a few books -- including the rest of the series Giovanni had been reading -- and his emergency stash of ready cash as well as spare weapons and clothes. He slid the key under the door downstairs on his way out. He'd done this before, and the landlord knew not to disturb his apartment, or worry about the rent. He'd be back, too, as soon as he found what he was looking for.