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Closing the Cupboard Door

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They were all in the library when the call came through, researching the pages Willow had gleaned from the Books of Ascension, Oz still holding her hand as if he feared she might be snatched from him again and Xander hovering close. As the machine was there they let it pick it up and – as it turned out to be not an anxious parent but Wesley – they let him go on talking to the machine, at least for a little while:

“…Hazranak…five-clawed, not three-clawed.... Giles, are you there…? You need to write this down. Five-clawed Hazranak, a witchfinder, so make sure Willow...with Buffy or Angel.... It’s very strong.... I think the mayor must have.... So he knows about the pages.... I think there are sanctuary spells but I can’t remember.... You have to call Willow.... You have to protect her....”

“So, now he wants to protect Willow?” Xander demanded. “I seem to remember that a few hours ago he was the guy who wanted to give her up to the Mayor.”

Oz frowned at the phone. “Does Wesley sound a little…weird to anyone else?”

Angel was already heading for the phone, as was Giles, the vampire snatching it up first. “Wesley? What’s that about a Hazranak?”

“It’s a witchfinder. Summoned. Very, very dangerous – and strong. I think the Mayor may have.... You have to find Willow....”

“She’s here,” Angel told him. “She’s safe. Wesley…? Are you…? Is something wrong with you…?”

Buffy looked up at that. “Where to start...?”

They all heard something that sounded like either a giggle or a gurgle and Wesley’s mild, strange: “Yes…pretty much everything according to my father. Are you in the library? It will be able to track her. You can’t kill it with an iron blade unless you anoint the blade with twice-blessed sage and something else…damn…something ordinary.... I can’t remember.... Lemon juice...I think it’s lemon juice....”

Giles was already getting the ingredients, adding over his shoulder: “Tell Wesley to lock himself in until this creature is dealt with. If he tries to come over here he’ll just risk getting in its way.”

“And ours,” Buffy added darkly.

Angel said urgently: “Wesley…? Where are you…?”

“Did I tell you about the twice-blessed sage? You mustn’t leave Willow alone until this thing is dead....”

“Wesley?” Angel shouted. “Wesley!”

“What’s wrong?” Giles demanded.

“He’s not breathing right.” Angel held out the phone. “And he’s still connected but he’s not speaking. There’s definitely something wrong with him.”

“Do you think he’s drunk?” Buffy asked. “If I was Wesley and had to be alone with myself a lot I’d probably need to drink.”

Giles gestured at her to keep it down, pointing to the still open phone-line and she rolled her eyes.

“Wesley…?” Angel tried again but there was nothing more than the sound of breathing on the other end. He cradled the phone and looked across at Giles. “There’s something wrong but if a Hazranak is really on its way here, it’s going to take all of us to deal with it.”

Giles handed the twice-blessed sage and a lemon to Willow and pointed to the swords he’d stacked on the table. “Would you mind anointing…? Thank you, Willow.” He crossed over to where Angel was still holding the phone and took it from him. “Wesley, are you there…?”

There was a long pause before they heard a faint: “Yes....”

“Do you need help?”

Something that definitely sounded like a giggle. “Oh, I think I’m beyond help, don’t you? My father would.... Don’t tell my father about Balthazar, please, Giles…? Please…?”

Angel murmured to Giles: “I’ve smelt the whiskey on him a few times but....”

“Do you want me to come over?” Giles asked Wesley quietly.

“No! Willow.... You have to protect…she re-ensouled Angel, must have a lot of power.... Don’t want to give it to the Hazranak. All those schoolchildren.... It’s so cold here, isn’t it? I thought California was warm....”

“I’m going over there.” Angel was heading for the door when it was abruptly ripped off its hinges and thrown at him, a slavering demon, eight-feet tall and with five claws like steel talons, hurling itself into the room with the speed and savagery of a hungry lion.

It was terrifyingly fast and it made a beeline for Willow, smacking Oz to the right and Xander to the left. Even Buffy barely had time to snatch up an anointed blade and drive it into its side as its claws were reaching for the red-headed witch. It snarled and roared, yanking out the blade and hurling it at Buffy who barely ducked in time. Giles grabbed Willow’s wrist and pulled her up out of the demon’s reach, while Angel threw off the door and charged at it. The blade he grabbed had evidently not been anointed as it simply bounced off its scaly grey flesh. The Hazranak raked Angel across the chest, making him vamp out furiously. He threw himself at it as it made to leap after Willow, and slammed it down onto table at which they’d been working, reducing it to shards of broken wood and scattering the swords across the floor like spilled matches.

“Which swords are anointed and which aren’t?” Xander demanded.

Willow grimaced. “I don’t know now!”

Buffy grabbed the blade the demon had thrown at her and stabbed it hard in the back, the sword penetrating gristle before it jarred against bone. It roared with pain and anger, and reared up, barely giving her time to pull the blade back out with a sickening sucking sound. Oz snatched up a sword and tossed it to Giles who had Willow pushed behind him and was ducking the Hazranak’s flailing claws with difficulty. Xander tried hacking at the beast but the sword bounced off as if it were made of rubber, while Angel punched it repeatedly in the stomach to distract it from springing at Giles and Willow. It raked Angel across the chest again, leaving a threadwork of crimson across his skin as Buffy drove the sword into it a third time. Roaring with rage and pain, it seized Angel by the throat and hurled him away then sprang at Giles who met it with the point of his sword. The blade went deep into its heart and it roared and flailed at him, yanking the sword from his grip. Giles ducked and pulled Willow away, while Oz snatched up another sword and tried to hack at its legs; the blade bounced off and it spun around to slash at him, its roars blood curdling in the confined space. Xander pulled Oz out of the way and tried to block its raking claws with a hastily snatched up sword; claws met blade with a metallic screeching that was worse than any chalk on blackboard. Xander was still wincing from the sound as the beast snarled furiously and knocked the sword out of his hand. As it turned once more to go after Willow, Buffy yelled at it to distract it and, as it swung at her, sliced two-handed with all her might. A second later its head was bouncing across the room and its body crumpling to ooze greenish blood onto the library floor.

Panting and winded, they staggered to their feet and looked at the wreckage. Angel was bleeding from its raking claws and everyone except Willow had bruises or cuts of one of kind or another.

Buffy snatched a breath and wiped off the blade. “A little more warning would have been nice, Wesley.”

“Without Wesley at least some of us would be dead,” Giles pointed out. “I didn’t know that five-clawed Hazranaks couldn’t be killed by a conventional blade.”

“He probably wrote an essay on them at the academy when he was swotting for his top marks in every single subject.”

Willow looked up in reproach. “Hey, what’s wrong in getting top marks in every subject?”

“Nothing,” Buffy said hastily. “Not when it’s you, Will. It’s just creepy and sad when it’s Wesley doing it.” Giles gave her a quelling look and she sighed. “But, I will say ‘thank you’ to him next time I see him, I promise. And no cracks for…a day at least.”

Angel staggered to his feet, blood running from his scored chest, and turned back into his human face. He lifted one of the Hazranak’s horny forearms and smelt its blood-stained claws then sprang for the door.

“What is it?” Giles demanded.

“Wesley isn’t drunk.” Angel was out of the door and running so fast that it took Buffy a second to realize his meaning and then they all exchanged horrified glances.

“Guilt trip leaving this station,” Willow gasped.

Buffy snatched up a sword and ran after Angel, face grim and set. Willow grabbed the first aid kit and ran after her, with Giles, Xander and Oz in hot pursuit. Giles ran back for a flashlight and then headed after them, fumbling for his car keys as he did so and wondering what exactly they were going to find.

 

With the rest of them following him in Giles’s car, Angel tracked the Hazranak to the park opposite Wesley’s apartment, then sniffed the air, swore under his breath and sprinted to a patch of muddy ground underneath a bush. In the light of Giles’s flashlight, they all saw one very good patent leather shoe, then a stockinged foot, then stained cloth shredded by the diagonal rake of steel-sharp claws, a once-good woollen suit rent and torn to mud-stained bloody rags. Then Wesley’s face, skin clammy and horribly pale. His hair looked black against the pallor of his skin, eyelashes thick and dark in a face that looked unexpectedly young. “Wesley…?” Angel bent his head to Wesley’s face. “He’s breathing.”

Buffy saw the phone that had evidently fallen out of the man’s hand and snatched it up, breaking the connection and then breathlessly calling for an ambulance.

“No time.” Angel was already lifting up the unconscious Watcher, the man’s head lolling limply against Angel’s shoulder. “We have to get him there now or he’s not going to make it.”

“Let me help.” Xander hurried to take Wesley’s feet while Angel took him under the arms. As they lifted him up, Xander winced and Willow looked at him anxiously.

“What is it?”

“He doesn’t weigh enough. Is that because of the blood he’s lost? Giles…?”

“Let’s just get him into my car, Xander.” Giles hurried ahead to clear the back seat and to snatch a blanket out of the boot of his car. Angel slid in first, carefully manoeuvring Wesley onto the back seat, propping his head onto his lap and gesturing to Xander to cover him with the blanket.

“Hurry,” he said tautly to Giles, but the man was already in place and turning on the ignition.

“Check that Wesley’s place is locked up and then make your own way home,” Giles told the others as he pulled out into the empty road and stepped on the accelerator.

Angel fished the keys out of Wesley’s ripped jacket pocket and tossed them to Buffy through the window as they sped away for the hospital.

Willow shivered, obviously very close to tears as Giles drove away at breakneck speed. “Do you think he’s…?”

“I don’t know, Will.” Buffy wrapped her arms around herself to ward off a sudden chill.

Oz took off his coat and wrapped it around Willow’s shoulders. “We didn’t know and we came as soon as we did.”

Willow looked up at him. “I didn’t say....”

“Just cutting to the point where you do.”

“I thought he was drunk.” Buffy gritted her teeth. “Angel said something was wrong. He said....”

“Hey, Oz already covered that.” Xander, noticing Oz’s action, hastily gave her his jacket. “We didn’t know. We came as fast as we could get here. We’ve done everything we can. Let’s go and find his place and lock it up.”

 

They found Wesley’s front door open, the floor scattered with reference books and something that seemed to be a diary open on the desk. The apartment was bare and, apart from the books, entirely impersonal. He had unpacked his clothes and stacked his suitcase neatly under the bed, but that seemed to be it. There were no photographs around, no diplomas or certificates on the walls. There was one opened and one unopened letter on the desk, both were addressed in the same neat old-fashioned handwriting to ‘W. Wyndam-Pryce Esq.’ The opened one had some of the letter protruding and Buffy saw the words:

…terrible disappointment to all of us who had such high hopes of…
…considerable investment in time, money and energy that you have…
…finally do something to show you are worthy of the family name….

She winced. “Creep.”

Willow looked at her in shock. “Buffy, he’s in the hospital.”

“Not Wesley. His creepy father or uncle or guardian or whoever wrote this to him.”

“You’re reading his mail?” Xander looked at her in disbelief.

“It was open. I saw. I wasn’t peeking.” Buffy sighed. “Okay, maybe I peeked a little, but it’s right here.”

“He wasn’t expecting anyone else to be reading it and I don’t think we should.” Willow looked around at the books. “Should we tidy these up? I think Wesley probably likes things to be tidy.”

Oz bent and looked at the open pages. “He’s researching Ascensions here. Original demonic forms.”

Xander looked at another one. “And this is one is open on pan-dimensional demonic forms. Here it is – Hazranak Major and Hazranak Minor. It’s written in a language I don’t understand. Something squiggly.”

“So, he was researching the Mayor when he saw the Hazranak.” Buffy bent and looked at his open notebook. He had written: ‘Hazranak? Major or minor? Not native to this dimension. In Aramaic called ‘the Witchfinder’. Threat to Willow? Summoned by Mayor? Must identify species. Inform Giles of appropriate measures.’ “He must have tried to follow it and it got scent of him.”

“He was trying to help me.” Willow gazed at her own name written in Wesley’s scarily neat handwriting.

“Why didn’t he call an ambulance?” Xander looked up in confusion.

“Wesley’s not the most flexible guy in the world. I think he was still doing this.” Oz pointed to the notes. “‘Must identify species. Inform Giles of appropriate measures’. He hadn’t written himself a note about what to do if it ripped him to pieces.”

Willow winced. “Don’t.”

“Do you think we need to take this in to show it to Giles?” Xander held up the books. “Maybe there’s some kind of antidote or something?”

“To being used as a demon chew toy?” Buffy countered. “I think not getting clawed in the first place is the only antidote to that.”

“It can’t hurt.” Willow started to gather up the books and then grimaced at Xander. “Just be careful with them. I think Wesley likes his books to be handled carefully.”

Buffy said gently, “Willow, you do know it’s not your fault that...?”

Willow looked back at those neatly handwritten notes. “I know.”

“He owed you,” Xander said tautly. “He was ready to give you up to the Mayor when it suited him.”

Buffy looked at the open notebook on the desk.

…apparently impossible for those schoolchildren to grasp that one must occasionally sacrifice the people that one loves for the greater good. And yet why should they? They weren’t trained for this. Even Buffy, who was born to it, was not trained from birth as some past Slayers were. They are modern teenagers with no concept of the idea of sacrifice. And yet they risk their lives every day out of what…? I still don’t know. Perhaps, simple friendship. And yet I have to believe that they do understand the concept of the greater good. I don’t think anyone hangs out in a graveyard every night with a good chance of meeting an untimely death for the adrenaline rush. I’m just so tired of being everyone’s whipping boy; of having to be the one to say what must be said, advocate doing what must be done, because no one else is prepared to face up to the unpleasant reality of the current situation. If the Mayor ascends thousands are going to die, including these schoolchildren.

She closed the notebook and picked it up. “Let’s get to the hospital.”

***

As he paced in the hospital corridor, Giles went over the scene again, trying to think of something else he could have done. Wesley was pedantic, pompous, socially retarded, and annoying. He was also a fellow human being who was currently undergoing surgery to try to replace the blood he’d lost attempting to do the right thing. A flawed, frightened, unprepared and occasionally ill-advised fellow human being, but still someone of the world of the living who should not yet be joining the world of the dead.

One of the undead seemed to be sharing Giles’s thoughts as he also paced restlessly. “I should have known. I should have....”

“Angel.” Giles looked across at him wearily. “You’re the reason he even has a chance right now. He should have called himself a bloody ambulance. I still don’t know why he didn’t.”

Angel sighed. “It was probably the next thing on his To Do list.”

Thinking about the way Wesley functioned, Giles winced. “It probably was.”

“Or he was trying to atone.”

“For being prepared to sacrifice Willow for the Books of Ascension?”

Angel shook his head. “No, I imagine he still thinks we’re wrong about that. To atone for giving into cowardice.”

Giles thought of Wesley being prepared to give up Angel in exchange for his kneecaps and cringing in fear when that vampire attacked him. Most people would have at least have thanked him and Angel for their intervention but Wesley hadn’t even managed that. “He didn’t seem too upset about it at the time.”

“He stank of shame.”

Given Wesley’s abject terror of Balthazar Giles wondered if that hadn’t been urine Angel had smelt. Aloud he said only: “Well, he didn’t make the best showing in the world, I admit, but it was his first time in the field and he was horribly under-prepared for the reality of being a Watcher. The Council should step outside and smell the blood from time to time instead of concentrating all their energies on rules and regulations, traditions and rituals.”

Thinking of blood, he remembered the feel of Wesley’s seeping into his shirt cuff as they carried him into the emergency room, shouting for a doctor as they did so. Even allowing for Angel’s vampire strength, the wounded man had felt horribly light. He supposed that was Wesley all over; the appearance of a competent adult but underneath someone entirely insubstantial – except that a lack of moral fibre or backbone or the ability to stand up against oppressive authority shouldn’t actually make you weigh less. It had been another of those jolts he’d kept feeling. Looking down at Wesley’s face, he had seen again how young he looked; something that in the past had exasperated him beyond measure – this boy dressed up in man’s clothing, pretending to be an adult, telling Giles what to do, but now suddenly the realization that Wesley’s youth and inexperience weren’t just annoying to Giles, they were something Wesley was ashamed of, something he had been trying so hard to conceal. Suddenly he was looking at a pale bleeding vulnerable young man and his protective instincts could not help but be engaged. The lightness of the body he and Angel carried had also struck him in a different way, not another of those annoying deceptions Wesley was carrying out on everyone, by pretending to be so much more adult and substantial than he was, but a realization of fragility. Wesley’s wristbones were half the size of Angel’s; that didn’t come from a lack of experience in the field. There was something fundamentally…breakable about Wesley that Giles had never noticed until now.

With a pang of guilt Giles realized that in the weeks since Wesley had arrived from England he had not once invited him over for dinner or asked Joyce if she would be so kind as to do so; had not suggested they went out for a drink or asked how he was liking life in Sunnydale. He had tried – he really had – to be patient but he had also enjoyed the fact that Buffy did not like his replacement, and had not wanted him replaced. He thought his behaviour had been entirely human – certainly not inhuman, but he could perhaps have been a little less inclined to treat Wesley like the enemy just because the man had been sent to replace him.

“How is he?”

Giles turned around in shock to find Buffy, Willow, Xander and Oz all gazing at him anxiously. They were all carrying books or notebooks of some kind. “He’s in surgery.”

“Is he going to be okay?” Buffy asked.

“He’s in critical condition,” Giles admitted.

“What does that mean?” Buffy pressed.

They both knew that she knew what it meant; she just wasn’t ready to hear it in conjunction with Wesley. He wondered why it should somehow feel like more of a shock that someone they didn’t really like that much should get himself ripped open by a demon. Or perhaps it was just that Wesley hadn’t seemed the tragic type. He was slightly ridiculous and very annoying and a little pathetic. Definitely not the type one expected to find bleeding to death in the mud.

“It means he may die, Buffy.” Giles gazed at her levelly. “And it’s no one’s fault. Not even Wesley’s. He was just trying to do his job.”

“His job isn’t to get himself sliced up by huge killer demons,” she said shortly. “His job is to…be annoying somewhere safe where there are books and cups of tea.”

“We brought his books.” Willow proffered them. “Just in case.”

Giles restrained the urge to ask ‘just in case of what?’ but Angel looked around in surprise. “I don’t think there’s anything mystical about what that demon did to him, it just....”

“Sliced him open with its razor sharp talons, yeah, we saw,” Xander said grimly. “We just wanted something to do.”

“Well, it never does any harm to be research a problem.” Giles tried to give them an encouraging smile but his face seemed to have forgotten the actions. They piled the books on the seat next to him, finishing with two notebooks and two letters. He frowned at those last items. “I don’t think we need to read Wesley’s private correspondence.”

“You should read this.” Buffy held out the letter.

“If the worst happens I’ll inform the Council. I’m sure they have Wesley’s next of kin on file.”

“Don’t you think you should send for someone from his family now?” Willow pressed. “So when he wakes up there’s someone here who…likes him?”

There was a painful silence after her words. Angel grimaced and looked across at Giles who sighed. “The doctors already told me that they advised contacting his next of kin, but if this surgery doesn’t save him then no one in England would be able to get here in time to say goodbye and if it does, there will be plenty of time to inform them afterwards.” As they all looked at him in mute reproach, he sighed. “I doubt Wesley’s parents are in the first flush of youth and I don’t really want to frighten them unnecessarily.”

“You should read the letter.” Buffy’s face was blank, grim.

“Buffy, I’m not comfortable with invading Wesley’s privacy unnecessarily. The Council will have any telephone numbers that....”

She took the envelope from him, yanked the letter out and shoved it at him. “You should read it.”

For a moment his feeling of distaste at invading another’s privacy almost overwhelmed every other emotion but seeing the look in her eyes, the intensity which he couldn’t quite categorize or yet understand, he felt he owed her the respect of knowing she would not ask him to do such a thing lightly. He took the letter out of the envelope and began to read:

Wesley,
I’m sure I don’t need to remind you what an honour the Council has done you in entrusting you with such a task. Two Slayers under your care. I wish I could convince myself that you were in any way equal to the job appointed to you, however your past record of weakness, inadequacy, vacillation and emotional immaturity leads me to conclude that in your case the Council has mistaken academic diligence for actual leadership abilities. I trust I don’t need to remind you how bitterly disappointed your mother and I will be if you let us down and bring the family name into disrepute?

Giles recoiled from the letter to look back at Buffy and realized that the expression in her eyes was a slow burn of rage.

“Did your father talk to you like that?”

“No.” Giles thought of his own father, a grave kindly man, always talking about honour and responsibility and how important it was that he carried out the task appointed to him, but never suggesting in the same breath that he was incapable of doing so. “Certainly not.”

Angel looked around with a frown. “Something wrong?”

“I don’t think Wesley wants to wake up to Daddy’s smiling face, do you?” Buffy’s tone was clipped, her gaze still holding Giles’s.

Giles abruptly remembered Wesley’s voice on the other end of the phone: Don’t tell my father about Balthazar, please, Giles…? Please…? “No.” He folded the letter carefully and put it back into the envelope. “I don’t think he would.”

“It goes on like that for two pages.” Buffy obviously needed to channel her anger somewhere and Giles supposed that Wesley’s absent unfeeling father was as good a person as any. “You should read all of it. Wesley…kind of makes more sense when you do.”

Oz put another notebook onto the pile of books. “He was researching the Ascension. We think he must have seen the demon through the window. Went out to get a better look and....”

Xander gritted his teeth. “Don’t they teach ‘how to stalk really big scary killer demons without getting yourself ripped to pieces’ at Watcher school?”

“If they did, Xander,” Giles said quietly. “They probably wouldn’t teach it very well.”

“He was head boy,” Buffy put in, still holding Giles’ gaze, seemingly wanting him to put something right that they must both know he really couldn’t. “Of that stupid Watcher’s school he went to. Apparently there couldn’t have been much competition that year.”

“Buffy....” said Willow reproachfully.

Buffy looked across at the redhead. “Oh, that isn’t my opinion. That’s his father’s. Apparently ‘no one was more surprised’ than him when Wesley ‘informed him of his achievement’. He could ‘only conclude Wesley must have shown considerably more character and concentration at school than he ever did at home’. Oh yes, and that ‘distinguished’ grade he got for mystical studies class? Must have been a fluke because you know when Wesley was seven he completely messed up the resurrection spell he was attempting and ‘never showed any true aptitude’ for....”

“Buffy, that’s enough,” Giles said sharply. “If – as we all hope he will – Wesley pulls through this, he won’t want you either reading his private correspondence or passing on its contents.”

“You know when I asked Wesley if he has any human parts? I’m thinking if he does, he didn’t get them from his father.”

“Wesley’s father sounds a lot like mine,” Xander admitted.

“And mine.” Angel grimaced.

“Seven?” Willow looked up wide-eyed. “Wesley was doing spells when he was seven?”

“Apparently not very well,” Buffy said tersely. “Basic errors of Latin pronunciation that could have been had the most disastrous consequences. Proof that Wesley should never disobey those older and wiser than him blah blah blah. Oh yes, and when he was eleven he wrongly conjugated a Hebrew verb before visitors in a way that was painfully embarrassing for his poor old dad. That kid was just one headache after another by the sound of it.”

“Buffy....” Giles held her gaze.

She took the letter from him and slammed it down on top of the books, or as well as one could slam something as limp and yielding as blue airmail paper. “People shouldn’t be allowed to do that to their children, Giles. Why is it okay for someone to do that to his child?”

“It’s none of our business,” he reminded her quietly. “This is all between Wesley and his father and I don’t want it discussed any further.” He didn’t add that they both knew her anger with Wesley’s father was just a smokescreen for the anger she was feeling at herself because she had been unkind to Wesley and about him when he was bleeding to death in that park after using his last few gasps of consciousness to try to save someone she loved. No doubt Wesley’s father would not be winning any parent of the year awards any time soon but that had nothing to do with the rage Buffy was feeling right now, and the longer she kept passing the buck the harder it was going to hit her when she admitted with whom she was really angry.

Giles looked from Buffy’s set angry face to Willow’s pale anxious one, Oz not quite as inscrutable as usual and Xander undoubtedly shaken up, and was reminded that they were all very young and had done as much as they could do. “There’s no really point in you being here. You should go home and get some rest.”

“What are you going to do?” Buffy asked.

“Angel and I will wait here.”

“Why you two and not us?”

Angel looked across at her. “Because we’re older than Wesley.”

It wasn’t the answer Giles would have chosen but when he thought about it, it was the one that made the most sense. Wesley was younger than they were and that meant they were on some level responsible for him in a way that Buffy and the others were not. It probably was how Angel felt. With Giles it was more complicated, something to do with the man being a colleague and a fellow Englishman and perhaps especially a fellow Watcher, not to mention a vague sense of having failed him.

“There’s really nothing more you can do for him tonight,” Giles added. “The doctors are doing all they can. Why don’t you get some sleep? Oz, Willow looks very tired. Xander, why don’t you take my car and drive everyone home? You can bring it back in the morning.”

“You’re letting me drive your car and I’m not supposed to take that as a sign that either the apocalypse is coming or else Wesley is....” Xander looked at Willow’s near-tearful face and didn’t finish that sentence. “Okay. I’ll drive everyone home.”

They trooped away, looking pale and dishevelled and upset, Buffy giving Giles a last look over her shoulder that was half angry teenager displacing her guilt, and half just wanting him to make everything all right, to wave his magic wand so that none of this had happened or at least ended well.

He sighed and looked up at Angel, thinking again how bizarre it was to be alone with the outward appearance of the creature who had killed Jenny and tortured him, and yet to find him subtly comforting.

Angel said, “There’s nothing more you could have done, Giles.”

Giles picked up Wesley’s notebook. There were two of them, one red-bound, one blue-bound, they appeared to be his official notebooks, the ones that would be passed onto his replacement if anything happened to him; these, at least, Giles was breaking no confidences by examining. He opened the book and tried to get the print to come into focus while still seeing those terrible rents in Wesley’s good suit, the one he always wore; with a jolt Giles wondered if it was the only one he owned. He noticed that his fingers had dried blood on them, saw Wesley’s face so pale and with that thick fringe of black lashes that made him look so absurdly young. He swallowed hard. “I know. I know that.” He turned the page of the notebook and began to read.

Arrived in Sunnydale where I met the man I was replacing, Rupert Giles, and the two Slayers who will be under my command. Buffy Summers is wilful insolent and undisciplined while Faith seems even more wayward. Mr Giles is evidently not a disciplinarian. I also see no evidence of either Buffy or Faith ever having studied the Slayer’s Handbook and I suspect that giving them a copy now will be a futile gesture....

Giles sighed. Just what he’d expected. Dry, self-justifying, pompous. Still, it was hard to believe that Wesley had managed to fill two notebooks already. That was anally retentive even for a Watcher.

He opened the red notebook and scanned it briefly then stopped and read every word:

...believe the Council are asking me to assess the competence of the man I’m replacing. How can that possibly be a fair or unbiased system? I have been born and bred to be a Watcher. How likely is it that I’m going to give a fair report on Rupert Giles when it is only his dismissal that has made it possible for me to carry out my hereditary duty in the first place? The truth is I think he is too emotionally connected to his Slayer and that his affection for her and her tribe of friends does indeed cloud his judgement. I think he has lost his sense of perspective and has become incapable of seeing the bigger picture or what needs to be done for the greater good. However, I also can’t deny that I have been here several weeks and I have entirely failed to win the trust, respect or affection of anyone here. I may be the best Watcher in the world and Giles the worst but if Buffy thinks I’m a cowardly incompetent idiot and Giles everything that is wise and worthy then which one of is the most likely to get the best out of her?

I really have done my best to be a good Watcher to Buffy and to Faith and the end result is that Faith has defected to the other side and Buffy despises and dislikes me. She ignores my advice and refuses to listen to my suggestions – I can hardly call them ‘orders’ as she certainly doesn’t follow them. Buffy is here to guard a Hellmouth, a chasm between this world and the demonic dimensions below. Sunnydale is a place from which all manner of fiends are regularly disgorged and the only protection for the people here and the wider world beyond is Buffy. So which is the greatest handicap to her efficiency – a Watcher she believes in whose judgement is faulty or a Watcher whose judgement may not be faulty but whose experience is so much less than hers that she seems incapable of taking him seriously? In the long term perhaps I would be a better Watcher to Buffy as I really can’t see myself ever becoming too fond of her to see the big picture. In the short term I am a disaster. Perhaps Giles should have been dismissed but he and Buffy made a team that managed to keep Buffy alive and the world a safer place for two and a half years. I’ve been here two months and have achieved precisely bugger all. I think the Council just want to pass the buck to me so that if they have to admit they’ve made a mistake and reinstate Giles they can say I was the one who told them he wasn’t competent, and – despite the opinion of everyone here – I don’t really see myself as a mindless Council stooge.

I’ve returned the assessment form to the Council with a note saying that I don’t consider myself equipped to comment on my predecessor’s competence and if they are contemplating making further changes I suggest they send in an independent assessment team. As I have no doubt that any independent assessment team would decide that I am indeed the complete waste of space everyone here believes me to be and Giles everything that is efficient and wonderful I have probably just shot myself in the foot but I think the guidance of the only Slayer left on the side of Good is a little too important to be decided by office politics and personality clashes....

“Something interesting?”

Giles looked up guiltily to find Angel gazing at him curiously. He cleared his throat. “I think Wesley kept two different diaries. An official one and an unofficial one. The unofficial one appears to give a rather fuller picture of his true state of mind.”

“Oh.” Angel frowned. “Does he mention me?”

Giles flicked through the pages until he found Angel’s name.

One of the most extraordinary allies of our very unsecret Slayer is the vampire formerly known as Angelus. This is another area where I feel Giles is entirely failing to do his job to the best of his ability. Angel – as Angelus now prefers to be known – is a unique and fascinating case study, a vampire with a soul. He may hold the key to so much about the nature of vampires that we have never understood before. He remembers being human and – rather traumatically for him as I understand it – also remembers being the soulless killer he became when sired by Darla. Cursed by gypsies to have his soul returned to him he was haunted with remorse for decades before deciding to fight on the side of Good. He could no doubt tell us how it feels to be a vampire, how much of the previous personality exists within the demon, and crucially, what the function of the soul actually is. He is the answer to a philosopher’s dream and yet as far as I can tell Giles has asked him precisely…nothing.

Even though the Council are aware of Angel’s presence here they don’t appear to be taking much interest either, and yet, surely this is an entity every bit as important as the Slayer? Surely something so extraordinary and unique as a vampire with a soul could not come about without there being some higher purpose intended for him? So many Council members have been turned into demons over the years, so many Watchers made vampires so that the Slayer is forced to take their unlives when perhaps re-ensoulment should have been considered as a possibility. There are questions, certainly. Every human serial killer has a soul so one cannot claim the soul as a brake to all antisocial behaviour, yet it did prove enough to turn Angelus from one of the most sadistic and bestial of monsters into a self-sacrificing hero of the defenceless. Is it conscience or remorse that has worked this alteration? In other words if Angelus had killed no one would Angel now be such a useful tool for the powers of Good? If his soul had been restored to him as he arose from the grave, before he had claimed a single human life, would he simply have become an ordinary vampire of neither great evil nor great good? It would be nice if someone asked Angel these kinds of questions but apparently everyone is too worried about hurting his feelings to do so. Ironic that I’m the only person here who doesn’t care about his feelings but I’m also the only one too afraid of him to ask him anything, including the time of day.

I was at school with Neville Taylor. We were on the same cricket team. I remember how proud he was of getting that position in Bulgaria. He was captured and tortured by a nest of vampires who turned him after four days of torment. The Council staked him three weeks later. I used to think that was the best they could do for him, now I’m wondering why there is no record in the Council library of the gypsy spell Willow used to give Angel back his soul. It should have been recorded for a century and it was comprehensible to a seventeen year-old girl. Why didn’t we know about it? Doesn’t anyone want to know if something of the human a vampire once was survives? If the vampire has their memories and their bodies and the soul contains their conscience, that spark of humanity that makes us something other than demon, what does that make a vampire with a soul? Isn’t it something with the memories, appearance and conscience of a human trapped inside a demon’s physiognomy? Because holy water will always burn him does that really mean that Angel is eternally damned?

He was sent back from Hell. Why? Doesn’t anyone want to know? All he seems to be in Sunnydale is Buffy’s somewhat problematic boyfriend but am I the only one who thinks that he was perhaps destined to be something rather more significant even than the tragic love interest of the Slayer? I don’t even know what Angel thinks his purpose is and I’m too afraid of him to ask. I know the Council would disapprove of his presence here but I can’t help feeling that an opportunity is being wasted here to improve our understanding not only of vampires but humanity as well, and the spark of humanity that does indeed appear to be trapped within that intangible thing that gypsy curse managed to identify and separate as a ‘soul’.

Giles held out the notebook. “He thinks you’re a fascinating case study and the key to unlocking the philosophical significance of the human soul.”

Angel took the book and read the entry with a frown. “Wesley’s afraid of me.”

“Wesley’s afraid of everything, particularly looking foolish,” Giles sighed. “But if he spent a little less time worrying about looking like an idiot he might not actually do it so often.”

“Difficult not to be self-conscious when your self-esteem is down by your ankles.”

Giles looked at Angel in surprise. He didn’t expect insight from a vampire about the human condition, but of course Angel had been alive for two and a half centuries. He conceded the point with a sigh. “His father seems to like it there.”

“I remember how that feels. Needing to be loved unconditionally, doing everything I could to make my father prove to me that he would love me whatever I did, only to find that he didn’t. Except, ironically, I think he did. He was just trying to stop me wasting my life. Just didn’t feel that way at the time – it felt more like all he wanted was to make me feel bad about myself.”

“I think Wesley’s approach was somewhat different.” Giles thought of that letter from his father. “As was that of Wesley’s father.”

Angel looked at the letter on the notebooks. “May I?”

Giles sighed. “I don’t think Wesley would want you to but I can’t exactly stop you, can I?”

Angel was already reading the letter. After he’d finished, he put it back in the envelope and tapped it against the stack of books. “Yes. Wesley turns cartwheels to try and make his father proud of him from the day he was born, does everything he’s told, never answers back, gets made Head Boy, qualifies as a Watcher, gets given care of a Slayer, and his father tells him he’s a useless failure who’ll never amount to anything. Heads Wesley loses, tails his father wins.”

“I must confess that Wesley is making rather more sense to me right now.”

“Why do fathers do that to their sons anyway? Do they resent them getting a second chance they’re not going to have? Do they hate seeing their own faults reflected in someone else?” Angel looked towards the operating theatre. “My father was always telling me I’d go to hell and all he did was buy the ticket to send me there. I hadn’t even tasted ale until I was seventeen and yet from when I could crawl he was telling me that boys were useless drunken sots always whoring and cursing and defiling their bodies and their souls. It wasn’t until a hundred and fifty years after he was dead that I even realized that he loved me. A little on the late side by then.”

“I was furious about being given a sacred trust that I didn’t ask for and didn’t want. I had other things I wanted to do with my life that had nothing to do with vampires and Slayers.” Giles shrugged. “I suppose I can understand both the need to rebel and the need to conform. And I also suppose I should have realized that while someone as annoying as Wesley must indeed be compensating for something that knowing that really isn’t to know everything about him. I should have asked why he felt the need to compensate instead of just reaching that conclusion and stopping.”

“Why should you?” Angel countered. “Wesley is your replacement, not your responsibility.”

“He’s still a fellow human being. And one who doesn’t understand this place any better than I did when I first arrived here. I could have at least offered to show him around the town or suggested that we went out for a drink, asked him if he was settling in all right. Something other than sighing with irritation every time he arrived and feeling that I was exercising extraordinary patience in not actually saying most of those snide little remarks he always makes me want to voice.”

“So, even English people find English people annoying?” Angel concealed a smile with difficulty. “Who knew?”

Giles narrowed his eyes. “Shouldn’t you be brooding about your mythic destiny around now? I don’t really see little quips as part of your whole dark avenger personae, Angel.”

“People change,” Angel shrugged. “Sometimes even long after they’re dead.”

Giles reached across and plucked the notebook from his fingers. “Some of us would prefer to stay this side of the grave.” He looked at the operating theatre again. “And would prefer others to stay that way also.”

 

“Giles…?”

He woke with a jolt to find a vampire whispering to him urgently. That was definitely not supposed to be part of the whole Watcher package he’d so reluctantly signed up for. Ex-Watcher package. He hadn’t really taken that in until now, this very moment. It was reading Wesley’s notebook that had done it. All those references to what a Watcher was meant to be, how important it was to do it well; practically able to taste the painful desperation from Wesley because this was what he was – all he was – and he wasn’t doing it well enough. The fear of being fired like the carbine scent a bullet left in the empty chamber, because it had happened to Giles and could happen to him, and that would be the most crushing terrifying failure ever, because if he wasn’t a Watcher, he wasn’t anything.

He had read it with a combination of exasperation and pity, that Wesley could have so resolutely put all his eggs into one such fragile basket. But was he really any different? He had thought he had taken being fired so much better than Wesley would because he was stronger, better balanced, had other things in his life, but wasn’t the truth that he had taken it so well only because he had continued to be Buffy’s Watcher? Wesley’s youth and inexperience had made it possible for him to simply wait the man out and still be treated by everyone else as if he were still the one who Watched for Buffy while Wesley had to put up with it. Wesley had made a few half-hearted attempts to convince everyone that Giles had been supplanted certainly, but he simply didn’t have the authority to make it stick. So, Giles was still Buffy’s Watcher in everything but name and wages. No one was going to show that kind of loyalty to Wesley if the Council fired him. He’d be sent home in disgrace to some lowly research position in the Council library; a failed Watcher; something his father could mention in front of relatives at every family gathering. Giles shuddered at the prospect. Perhaps after all there was something very reasonable about Wesley’s fear.

“Giles…?”

He forced his eyes open again, realizing he had cricked his neck painfully falling asleep in this uncomfortable chair.

“He’s out of surgery.”

He sat bolt upright, reaching for his glasses as he did so. “What? How is he?”

“Still alive. Not out of danger yet. But at least he’s made it this far.” Angel looked as he if he actually cared and Giles realized that Angel must still be able to smell Wesley’s blood all over both of them. He wondered which was the stronger feeling it elicited in Angel – pity or hunger? That would be one of those crass questions that no doubt Wesley thought they should be asking Angel.

“What time is it?”

“Four a.m.”

Giles frowned. “You need to go. Get home before the sun comes up.”

Angel looked in the direction of the wards. “I just want....”

“He’ll make it or he won’t, Angel. There’s really no more you can do. I’ll stay.”

Angel looked back at the room. “I wouldn’t want him to wake up and think....”

“No one in Sunnydale gives a damn about him?” Giles nodded. “No, I wouldn’t want him to think that either. Which is why I’ll stay until he’s out of the woods or....” He decided not to finish that ‘or’.

“I’ll be back this evening.” Angel rose to his feet, looking annoying uncrumpled despite a night spent on an uncomfortable hospital chair. “Tell Wesley I told him to hang in there.”

“I’ll tell him.”

 

Wesley looked small and lost and horribly young in that Intensive Care unit, tubes in and out of him, wired up to machinery that bleeped a rhythmic beat presumably in time to his heart.

Pneumonia, the doctor said, not unusual after that kind of physical trauma or a long operation. In the meantime the good news was that the infection in his wounds was responding to treatment, the bad news was that he had a high fever.

Giles looked at the label they had put around Wesley’s wrist. It had slipped down almost to his elbow, his arms so thin he realized at last why the man always did up the strap of his watch so tightly above his wrist bone, because otherwise it would be halfway down his arm. He had never realized how padded the shoulders on that one good suit must be because Wesley was far narrower than he had ever realized; just skin and bone really; unexpectedly fragile, painfully vulnerable. He had bandaging around his scored torso and gauze pads on his forehead and around his arms, the lesser scratches had been left uncovered in the hope that they would heal faster; there shouldn’t be any scarring on his face, the doctor had said, as if that was what mattered now, when the poor fool was hovering somewhere between life and death. And inside the cuts and bruises and stitched up tears in his skin and flesh there was his fever-heated blood which was now be turning everything inside Wesley’s sleeping mind to multi-coloured confusion. A delirium within a savaging. No, this really wasn’t the way things were meant to be for pompous annoying little twerps; this was the way things were meant to go for heroes. And what was someone who was bleeding to death in the dark and yet used his last gasp to try to save the life of an eighteen-year-old girl if not a hero? When is a hero not a hero? He could almost hear Buffy answering him: When it’s Wesley.

“How is he?”

He turned to find them in the doorway: Buffy, Xander, Willow and Oz. He presumed they’d slept a little, as they had changed their clothes, but Willow looked just as pale as the night before and there were smudged shadows under her eyes.

“He made it through surgery.”

“Is he going to live?” Buffy pressed.

Giles tried to give them an encouraging smile. “He has a better chance now than he did a few hours ago.”

“Can I touch him?” Willow asked.

Giles had to admit to being surprised by the question. “Yes, I think so. Try not to breathe on him, I presume he’s very susceptible to germs right now.”

Willow immediately pulled a chair over to Wesley’s bedside and took his hand in hers. It was limp, of course, the fingers unexpectedly long and delicate, more suited to a pianist than someone who battled demons. Willow curled her fingers through his and said softly: “I wanted to thank you, Wesley, for saving my life. That was very brave what you did – going after the Hazranak in that demon-hunty way. I’m so sorry it hurt you. I hope you can hear me and that you wake up soon so I can thank you properly.”

Oz said quietly to Giles, “She kept waking up saying she hadn’t thanked him. I thought it was better if she did that right away.”

“Yes.” Giles looked across at the slender redhead. “Probably better for her to do that.”

“You look so tired,” Buffy said gently. “Let me get you some coffee.”

“Thank you, Buffy.” Giles realized that he was indeed utterly exhausted; emotionally and physically.

Xander said: “How’s he doing?”

Giles looked across at Wesley. “I don’t know. I just think someone should be with him.”

“We can do that.” Xander looked across at the bed and the unconscious man. “Why don’t you go home for a few hours? Get some sleep.”

Oz nodded. “You do kind of look like hell, Giles.”

“We’ll stay with him.” Xander handed Giles his coat and nodded to where Willow was holding Wesley’s hand, still talking to him quietly with a smile on her face, evidently telling him something cheerful and probably a little…adjacent.

Giles knew that if he left them here they would probably read Wesley’s notebooks and that letter from his father but suddenly he didn’t think it mattered if they knew that adults were also riddled with insecurities and doubts and felt lonely and useless and unfit to face the tasks ahead of them sometimes; perhaps it was something everyone needed to be reminded of from time to time.

“…so, I thought when you were better that we could show you some of the places where we hang out – only not the Bronze because I think the music would probably be a little too loud for you, or any of the cemeteries, obviously, and I was thinking maybe the zoo except for the evil hyena spirits, and then I thought of the museum but there was that whole Inca Mummy problem, but actually as a Watcher you probably find evil hyena spirits and Inca Mummys pretty darned interesting, so maybe we could start with those....”

Oz looked across at Giles. “He’s going to know there’s someone with him, Giles.”

Buffy came back in with the coffee but held it out of Giles’s reach. “I can give you this, but I think we both know it would be a better idea if I kept it and you went home and got some sleep.”

Giles looked across at the bed, still trying to make this person look like Wesley; he did and he didn’t, but mostly, without his glasses, or his padded suit, or his tie, or his brylcreemed hair, he looked like a very pale ill thin young man who had been savaged almost to death by a demon.

“We’ll take care of him.” Buffy handed the coffee to Xander, while still holding Giles’ gaze. “I promise.”

Giles nodded and walked out of the room, when he paused in the doorway, Willow was still talking to Wesley brightly about all the exciting things they were going to show him in Sunnydale as soon as he was better; given the way she was smiling one might have thought his recovery was in no doubt at all, except for the tear tracks on her face.

***

It was eight hours later when he returned to the hospital. He hadn’t meant to sleep for so long; hadn’t expected to sleep at all, despite being exhausted, but as soon as his head hit the pillow he was out for the count and if he dreamt of demons and bleeding Watchers it faded as soon as he opened his eyes.

He showered, shaved, and dressed in a strange state of disconnection. It felt as if his life was on hold until he knew whether or not Wesley was going to live, and yet it wasn’t as if the man was a bosom friend; it had nothing to do really with his feelings for Wesley – which were mild annoyance most of the time – just a very strong feeling that if Wesley were to die now then his would truly be a painfully wasted life.

When he reached the hospital room he paused in the doorway. Buffy, of all people, was sitting by Wesley’s bedside, with a damp cloth in her hand actually mopping his brow. Of all the sights Giles had been expecting to see this year, Mayor’s morphing into demons, vampires turning to dust, and possibly the world being swallowed into a hell dimension as everything turned to fiery Armageddon, had all seemed like imminent possibilities, but Buffy mopping Wesley’s fevered brow had definitely not featured anywhere.

Wesley was turning his head from side to side, murmuring something, while Buffy said a little helplessly: “Wesley, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t understand you. Do you want me to get you a priest?”

Giles stepped closer and understood why she was making the connection with the Catholic church, but he wasn’t saying ‘in nomine Patri, et filii, et Spiritus Sancti’ although it probably sounded a little like it to Buffy’s resolutely modern ear.

“He’s conjugating Latin verbs, Buffy,” Giles said quietly. He went closer and winced at the truly feverish rapid murmuring, breaths snatched in between, anxiety in every word. “He seems to be particularly worried about the passive plural in the pluperfect subjunctive.”

He bent over Wesley as the man muttered: “… abstinuissem, abstinuissémus, abstentus essem, abstentí essémus. Abstinuissés, abstinuissétis, abstentus essés, abstentí essétis. Abstinuisset, abstinuissent, abstentus…abstentus....”

Giles winced at the desperation in the man’s tone. “Abstentus esset, Wesley. Remember? Abstentus esset, abstentí essent.”

“Giles....” Buffy said reproachfully.

“What?” he looked up.

“Why aren’t you telling him to stop…conjugating?”

“Because I don’t think it would work. And if he can’t move onto the next thing before he finishes this one....”

As Wesley began to conjugate another verb and Buffy gave him a begging look, Giles grimaced. “How long has this been going on?”

“Hours. Oz took Willow to get some coffee. She was getting upset. He gets so panicky when he can’t remember one of them.”

He tentatively took Wesley’s hand in his. “Wesley? Can you hear me? It’s Rupert Giles. You’re not in school any more. You’re in the hospital. You’re not taking Latin right now.”

Wesley opened his eyes and looked at him for a brief instant when Giles thought he might have got through to him, and then gasped and began muttering again. Different words now but the same panic behind them.

“What’s he saying now?” Buffy looked at Giles anxiously.

Giles sighed, shoulders slumping in defeat. “It’s Hebrew. He’s translating something: ‘ma’owr’ – shining lights, ‘me’uwrah’ – long ago....” Wesley twisted his head away, still murmuring rapidly but Giles could only make out the occasional word: ge’ah – pride, mo’zen – scales, ga’ah – triumph, habal – act foolishly, hagah – expelled. Giles shook his head. “It’s a passage of some kind but I don’t recognize it.”

“Willow said he was trying to remember a spell earlier. She recognized some of it.” Buffy mopped Wesley’s brow again. “I knew Wesley was nerd of the century, but isn’t this a little…crazy even for him?”

“He seems to have been a very conscientious scholar, but....”

Wesley twisted away from Buffy’s forehead mopping and gave Giles an imploring look. “I’m sorry. I’ll do it again. I’ll get it right this time. I was stupid. I wasn’t concentrating. Please, don’t.... Please, I’ll do it again....”

Giles felt cold and tightened his grip on Wesley’s bony hand. “Wesley, listen to me. You’re not in school or –” he glanced briefly at Buffy but felt there was no hope of sidestepping this, “at home. You haven’t done anything wrong and you’re not going to be…punished.”

But Wesley was already crying in what seemed to be sheer fear. “Please, father, please, I don’t want to go in there.... Please....” Then Wesley flinched and looked around with a helpless blankness that made Giles wince inwardly. He whispered: “I’ll be very quiet and then they won’t hear me....” as if he were talking to himself.

“Wesley...?” Buffy took his hand in hers. “Listen to me. You’re not anywhere…horrible. You’re in a nice clean shiny hospital with all the lights on. And there are people with you, and we’re not going to leave you, okay? You’re not by yourself.”

Giles snatched a deep breath. “Does this happen…?”

“Pretty much every hour on the hour.”

At the sound of Xander’s voice, Giles looked up to see Xander, Willow and Oz in the doorway.

Oz was gazing at Wesley expressionlessly as he handed Buffy a Styrofoam cup of coffee. “We think it was dark. Wherever he was. He shuts his eyes when he’s in there.”

“And then we can’t reach him.” Willow went to stand by Oz who put a comforting arm around her shoulders. “I think when he’s outside that place that he can hear us sometimes, but once he’s in there....”

“Any idea where he is?” Giles smoothed out Wesley’s disordered sheets while Buffy sighed and went back to mopping his brow. Before, Wesley had been twisting restlessly in the bed, feverish and confused and yet with a horribly self-destructive logic to his madness, but now he was very still, eyes closed tightly, head ducked, body language tense and small.

“Somewhere he doesn’t want to be.” Xander looked unusually grim. “Somewhere his father used to put him.”

“We don’t know that.” Willow looked distressed.

“Yes, we do, Will,” Buffy sighed. “He always asks Daddy not to just before Daddy obviously does.” She looked up at Giles, eyes hard. “I’m really not liking Wesley’s Daddy very much.”

When Wesley started to cry, very still and almost silent, the tears just trickling down his face, in what seemed to be sheer terror, yet too frightened to make any sound, Giles found himself not liking Wesley’s Daddy very much either.

“Wesley…?” Xander grabbed his shoulder and gave him a little shake. “Snap out of it. You’re not in there. You’re safe in the hospital. Wesley…?”

The man gave a gasp and then started muttering feverishly in Greek. Xander rolled his eyes. “Great. He’s out of the bad dark place and back in detention.”

“I don’t imagine Wesley was ever given detention.” Giles gratefully accepted the coffee Xander handed to him. “He probably just took a lot of extra classes. You can do that at the Academy, if you want to. Ancient languages. Demonic languages. Spellcasting. History of Magic. Every teacher wants the best pupils for their classes, obviously, so they’re not always as conscientious as they should be about ensuring students don’t over-enrol. And, of course, as a Watcher you can never exactly know too much. Everything could come in useful.”

“I don’t think he’s remembering the Academy.” Oz tightened his grip on Willow. “I think he’s remembering being at home before he went there.”

Buffy grimaced. “I can imagine Wesley’s father making him conjugate Latin verbs for hours and hours and hours. Isn’t there some kind of law about doing that to a little boy?”

“Not that I’m aware of, Buffy.” Giles looked down at Wesley restlessly turning from side to side as he translated a passage out of the Iliad in halting nervous Greek. “Although perhaps there should be.”

 

Giles had needed all his powers of persuasion to get the children to leave, Willow in particular had looked as if nothing was going to move her from that bedside. She looked up at him aghast when he said firmly that they really needed to go home now. She was holding Wesley’s hand and had been murmuring to him quietly every time he started work on another spell that they weren’t doing that one today; a few times she had managed to head him off into something easier, but sometimes it just seemed to derail him in the direction of the ‘bad dark place’.

“I don’t want to leave him.”

Giles sighed. “Willow, your mother is going to be worried and you can’t stay here all night. Why don’t you go home and get some rest, and Angel and I will watch over him tonight.”

“Giles is right,” Xander told her gently. “You need to get some rest. We can take over tomorrow.”

Willow looked at Wesley anxiously. “You’ll keep telling him he hasn’t done anything wrong?”

“I’ll tell him.”

“And don’t let him finish the spell. It’s for resurrecting dead things and I think it might be dangerous. Also, I think something horrible happened to him when he was trying to say it so it’s good if you can distract him from that one. And there’s a passage in Hebrew or something that upsets him. And he makes a mistake in the Iliad and that makes him cry and....”

“I know.” Giles squeezed her shoulder gently. “I’ll tell him he hasn’t done anything wrong.”

“Pity his father didn’t try that technique.” Xander gazed at Wesley, face grim. “But then Wesley wouldn’t be the guy he is today if Daddy had done that, would he?”

“Some people ought to be able to put their parents up for adoption.” Buffy put the damp cloth in Giles’s hand. “I don’t think it makes much difference to the fever but it helps with the whole…feeling useless and not knowing what else to do thing.”

He more or less shoved them out of the room, Willow still gazing back at Wesley anxiously, while Oz gently urged her away, and Giles thought how odd it was the way Wesley had gone from unwanted Watcher to…not friend, perhaps, but at least injured pet.

It was a little less chaotic without them, although Wesley was still murmuring quietly to himself, and tossing and turning in the bed. The next cycle of the resurrection spell caught him by surprise and he wasn’t quick enough to head it off, the words spilling from Wesley’s mouth in a panicky tumble before he flinched and cowered at what seemed to be a violent interruption.

“Wesley, it’s all right.” Giles tried to take his hand but Wesley thrust both hands behind his back, flinching as he did so, one shoulder raised, head ducked. “It’s all right, Wesley. No one’s angry with you.”

“I’m sorry…I’m sorry…I’m sorry.... I knew I shouldn’t but I didn’t know what else to.... I promise I’ll never.... I won’t ever....”

Giles had that cold feeling flood through him again, sure now that the man had hit Wesley or at least laid angry hands upon him with such violence that Wesley had thought he was going to be struck. He mistrusted the way Wesley thrust his hands out of sight every time he made a mistake. There certainly hadn’t been any corporal punishment at the Watcher’s Academy. It was stuffy and backward and hidebound but it wasn’t impossibly Victorian. The way Wesley tried to protect his palms suggested that he had been caned or strapped across them at least once. Perhaps for some particularly grievous transgression for which shutting a frightened little boy into some dark cubbyhole was not considered a severe enough punishment?

“What did you even have a bloody son for?” Giles muttered as he coaxed Wesley’s hand out from under the sheets and held it gently.

“Duty?”

Giles looked up to see Angel in the doorway, the vampire gazing at Wesley compassionately.

Giles shrugged. “Perhaps. It certainly didn’t seem to be out of any overpowering paternal instincts. He seems to have taken Wesley being a child as a personal affront. As if Wesley only didn’t know everything an adult would know to be annoying.”

“Some fathers are like that.” Angel put his palm across Wesley’s forehead. “His temperature’s dropped a couple of degrees.”

“It has?” Giles looked at Angel hopefully.

Angel nodded. “He’s a little better than he was. Wesley must be tougher than he looks.”

They both looked in silence at the fine bone of his wrist, the thin arms, the impossibly narrow bump under the covers that was the rest of his body.

“I presume he was sent to bed without supper rather too often,” Giles said grimly.

“There wasn’t any food in his place.” Angel looked at the chart on the end of Wesley’s bed, although Giles doubted he understood it any better than the rest of them did, but he looked grave and imposing when he read it, rather than confused and anxious like the rest of them. “Not much money in his wallet either. I think he may have blown his budget on that suit.”

Giles wondered who spent hundreds of pounds they clearly couldn’t afford on having a suit made to measure to disguise one’s true size rather than budgeting for the food that might do something about that size – and then realized that someone as insecure about his ability to inspire respect in others as Wesley would do exactly that. Had Wesley thought that those few extra inches of breadth across the shoulders would make the difference between success and failure? How could someone who had never been allowed to take a day off or apparently to be a child, someone so relentlessly trained from birth to be a Watcher, a whole Watcher, and nothing but a Watcher, be so ill-equipped to deal with the task?

“I went through his suitcase, but he only has the one good suit. The other clothes look at least two sizes too big for him. I guess he wears layers underneath to look bigger.”

Giles was surprised by the lack of judgement in Angel’s tone. He would have thought that being immortal, not to mention having the kind of physique that Angel possessed, would make it very easy to sneer at some skinny Englishman with delusions of biceps; but Angel’s expression was entirely compassionate as he looked at Wesley.

“I suppose we all have our coping mechanisms.” Giles got to his feet. “Would you mind…? Just while I get some coffee.”

“You can go if you like.” Angel sat down next to Wesley as if it were the most natural thing in the world for the vampire to keep watch over the Watcher who had been instrumental in him being bludgeoned and trapped in a net. “I’ll watch over him.”

“No, I’d like to stay a little longer.” Giles could not exactly have explained why; some residual sense that only he could really understand Wesley’s delirium, having been trained in something of the same way – although, not, thank god, by the methods Wesley’s father had employed.

He could hear the Latin as he reached the room, coffee trying to burn its way through to his fingertips through the Styrofoam.

Calm quiet Latin, this time. Angel prompting Wesley gently in a way reminiscent of kindly old Latin masters from Giles’ childhood lessons:

“‘Flamma fumo…’?”

“‘Est proxima’,” Wesley said quickly.

“Very good. Okay, next one. Are you ready? This is from the Bible. ‘Margaritas ante…’?”

“‘Porcos’!”

“Well done, Wesley. Right, more Plautus: ‘Aquam e pumici…’?”

“‘…nunc postulas’.”

“ Good work. ‘Vanitas vanitatum…’?”

“‘…et omnia vanitas’.”

“ Perfect. ‘Timeo Danaos…’?”

“‘…et Dona ferentes’.”

Giles sat back and watched as Angel fed Wesley the first half of easy Latin proverbs and phrases that even a seven year old, raised as Wesley had been raised, would have no trouble finishing correctly, praising him warmly each time he answered. Wesley’s eyes were closed but he looked calmer than Giles had seen in a while, Angel’s voice evidently reaching him through the tangle of his fever dream in a way that was lucid and comforting. After a few more Latin questions, he drifted into what seemed to be the closest he had come to normal sleep. Angel sat back.

“Well done,” Giles said quietly.

“It was Willow’s idea. I met them on the way in. It occurred to her that if he were given easy lessons to do he would be too busy doing those to remember the ones he’d got wrong in the past. I promised her I’d try it out for her.”

“She really is better than any of us.” Giles exhaled. “Of course, I suspect that Wesley’s fever would not be taking such a direct route to his past self-esteem issues if we hadn’t all done quite such a bang up job of shredding his self-confidence.”

Angel shrugged. “All Watchers probably make mistakes when they start off. They’re just not usually having to make them in front of a hostile public. He was expecting to just have Buffy and Faith to deal with, not…all of us. Of course, Buffy and Faith would always have eaten him for breakfast, but....”

Giles nodded. “I take your point. I just wish I could trust Wesley’s judgement, but the fact is I can’t and even if I could, Buffy doesn’t. I could leave the country and let him just get on with it, but I think it would be a very bad idea, not least because I have so far managed to prevent Buffy from completely dismissing him out of hand. I shudder to think what would happen if I’m not there to referee.”

Angel glanced back at the man on the bed. “I imagine Buffy and Xander would probably bury the body under the library and hope no one noticed he’d gone.”

Giles gave him a look of disapproval. “Angel....”

Angel shrugged. “Just being realistic. Buffy isn’t going to accept Wesley as her Watcher any time soon, Giles. Not while you’re around and probably not if you were gone. Wesley’s been trained to deal with a little girl and she’s more grown up than he is. He really needs a chance to do the same.”

“Do what?”

“Grow up. Be allowed to screw up in a supportive environment where he isn’t expected to be perfect.” Angel looked at the man on the bed again. “Or allowed to go off and do his own thing for a while. Work out who he really is. Who he wants to be.”

“Well, he probably could have done with a gap year but I think it may be a little late for that now.”

“It’s never too late.” Angel straightened Wesley’s sheet with a gentleness that was almost paternal. “He can make it in Sunnydale if people are willing to help him. Or he can make it somewhere else. I have a feeling we haven’t even met the real Wesley yet.”

Giles frowned. “What do you mean?”

“All he’s done since he got here is react to situations he didn’t expect and can’t control. He’s still trying to find a way the world makes sense viewed through the…appendix to the Watcher’s Handbook. He has to start dealing with the world he’s actually living in as himself, not what he thinks he ought to be or his father has told him to be.”

Giles thought of Wesley’s disastrous essays into the field so far. “Are we sure that’s a good idea?”

Angel picked up the cloth and dabbed it across Wesley’s forehead. “Lot of evil out there and Wesley’s been trained since he could crawl in ways to deal with it. So far it’s all academic but it’s a waste of a potential resource not to find a way to get all the useful stuff in Wesley’s brain being used for the greater good. He’s an asset, he’s just not been realized yet.”

Giles looked at Angel in dawning comprehension. “He doesn’t annoy you, does he?”

“Not particularly. I don’t expect every human I meet to be perfect.”

“Cordelia doesn’t annoy you either, does she?”

Angel looked surprised at the question. “She’s a teenage girl, Giles, who’s been spoilt rotten since birth. Of course she’s going to be a little shallow. Doesn’t mean she’s not a good person underneath.”

Giles sat back in his chair. “Sorry, I just need a moment to digest the idea that there could be someone in the world who doesn’t find Cordelia or Wesley annoying.”

Angel half-smiled and shook his head. “They’re children. It’s difficult not to make allowances.”

Giles wondered if this was a superhero thing, that Buffy was a grown-up because she was a Slayer, whereas a girl the same age as Buffy and a young man eight years her senior were both paternally dismissed and excused as ‘children’. He looked back at Wesley and wondered how he must look to Angel, for the vampire to be so resolutely unbothered by him. “What about him taking Faith?”

“Misguided, ineffectual, not at all the right thing to do for Faith, but kind of brave – given the fact I scare him spitless but he did it anyway.”

“He did it because the Council told him to. I suspect if the Council told him to go jump in a lake he’d do that too.”

Angel shrugged. “Well, his father didn’t exactly seem to encourage independent thought, did he?”

“I wonder if the Council would give him a grant to study you.” Giles sipped his coffee innocently. “Going by his notes, he’d love a chance to ask you hundreds of deeply personal and entirely tactless questions about all your worst experiences....”

Angel grimaced. “He has a folder on me already. Everything I ever did when I was Angelus. He must have sent for it when he found out who I was.”

“I have a folder on you too.”

“I know.” Angel looked at him sideways. “You should do. We both know what the demon inside of me is capable of.”

“You do realize you were probably the bedtime story used to frighten Wesley off to sleep every night?”

“I know. Makes him stealing Faith even braver really, doesn’t it?”

“You really think Wesley can overcome his inherent cowardice?” Giles automatically lowered his voice so Wesley wouldn’t overhear.

“I overcame wanting to rip people’s throats out and drink their blood. I’ve always thought the first time Wesley really got hurt we’d find out what he was made of. He’s never really been hurt, that’s pretty obvious, and he’s scared of the unknown. Now he knows, it may never be as bad again. He did the right thing when it mattered over that demon. Under all the posturing and the fear of looking stupid, I think there’s someone who wants to do what’s right.”

It struck Giles for the first time that Angel would have been a good father. Something he could never be now, of course, but there was a terrible irony that this vampire was prepared to make so many allowances for the very human Watcher on the bed, while the humans who had been spending time with Wesley for the past few months were nothing like as tolerant.

“Why didn’t you say something to him? Something…nice?”

Angel looked surprised. “He’s afraid of me, Giles. I can smell it on him every time we’re in a room together. Anyway, I’m not the one whose approval he needs.”

“I don’t think Buffy is going to....”

Angel shook his head. “Giles, you’re the one whose approval he wants.”

“He’s my replacement and he’s made it very clear that he thinks the change was long overdue....”

“He still needs you to pat him on the head and tell him he’s doing a good job.”

Giles sighed. “If he’d just do something right, I would.”

Angel nodded at the bed. “Well, he did something right, and Willow’s still alive because of it. So, when he wakes up, there’s your chance.”

As Angel went off to get something that Giles thought could possibly be blood but that he hoped was coffee, it struck him again how very strange it was that the Irish-American vampire was the one amongst them with the most tolerance for the very English, very human Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. He suspected that he was never going to understand Angel or the way his mind worked. Wesley, however, in the light of his father’s clearly very harsh treatment and impossible demands was starting to look more and more explicable. And yes, in this case, to understand was definitely to forgive. Or as no doubt Wesley’s father had made him write out a hundred times on more than one occasion without ever appreciating the irony: Errare humanum est.

***

Wesley opened his eyes, was stabbed by blinding light, and swiftly closed them again. He wondered why someone had been so unkind as to sandpaper his throat while he was sleeping and then to go to the added unkindness of sticking a skewer in his brain and giving it a good twist. Ill. He’d obviously been ill. He remembered days in a dark bedroom, feeling thirsty and sick while his father snapped: “Don’t coddle the boy!” at his mother downstairs because she had dared to suggest he might like some more honey and lemon. His father had always resented any of Wesley’s mother’s attention being focused on anyone but him, and particularly resented it being directed at Wesley. He had treated her spending time with her son the way the other husbands treated infidelity; a traitorous betrayal of his trust and affection. Childrearing was his department, he was the Watcher, he was the one who understood the sacred duties, and that was what Wesley was to be, a Watcher, something about which she knew nothing at all, as he never tired of reminding her. Wesley had a sacred duty to uphold. He knew the best way to prepare him for it. He would not have her ruining all his work. He had never actually come right out and forbidden her to love her son, but he had come perilously close on occasion; he had certainly made her seem selfish and shallow for daring to think of Wesley as her child, when he was the child of his duty, the child of the Council who needed him to be trained exactly as he was training him now.

Wesley remembered Sunnydale and groaned inwardly. He was sure Watching wasn’t supposed to be like that; the Slayer with an entire gang of schoolchildren all knowing about her calling and chipping in with their own opinions whether asked for or not. Not to mention the Slayer’s previous Watcher still hanging around to criticize and dismiss everything his replacement said. He felt a sudden pang of homesickness that was all the stronger for having no real direction. He missed England in specific and unfocused ways. No particular place that he wanted to return to just a general sense of rain and earth and the smell of new grass, and of wanting to be somewhere that he recognized. Some place where there was at least a hope of him feeling at home; but not his true home, of course. He had certainly never felt at home there. School had been an escape from that. School, perhaps, the preparatory and then the academy, had both been welcome escapes from the unhappiness of being at home. No one punished him for things he didn’t know he’d done there. He was given tasks to accomplish that he understood and was able to perform. He was given praise when he completed them. If no one had loved him there at least they hadn’t seemed to hate him either. He knew it was still in him, that desperate hunger for praise, to see genuine pride in another’s eyes at something he’d accomplished. In some ways he feared he was the child that Mr Giles seemed to perceive him as; an incompetent, cowardly, annoying child at that. Odd, that without any conferring with his father, Mr Giles seemed to have exactly the same opinion of Wesley Wyndam-Pryce.

“Wesley…?”

That was Giles now. As everything hurt he had probably done something wrong. Something stupid. Something he was going to be sighed at about or made fun of for. He opened his eyes reluctantly, wincing at the light.

“Wesley…?” Giles’s expression was one of overwhelming relief. His tone very gentle as he said: “Good to have you back. How do you feel?”

“Did I go somewhere…?” His voice came out a hoarse whisper and he put a hand to his throat, then noticed the bandaging on his arm, the short sleeve of some kind of…gown. He blinked and took in his surroundings. Bright pale walls, smell of antiseptic, pain, a dull faded throb of it and that stinging itch across his chest of healing wounds. He tried to swallow around the granite in his throat. “What happened…?”

“You were attacked by a demon, Wesley. A five-clawed Hazranak…”

Memory hit him like shrapnel: outside the window, looking up to see Grendel’s ghost, echo of a hundred boyhood nightmares after being introduced to Beowulf too soon – (‘Never mind the story, boy! You need to translate the text!’); huge, terrifying, scaly, Hazranak. A bell ringing insistently in his mind that the number of claws was of great significance. Grabbing a reference book while trying to keep one eye on it through the window, trying to make out the claws and failing, scurrying outside to try to get a better look, thinking all the time that this could not have arrived here naturally, that it must have been summoned and if it had five claws that meant it was a witch-finder which meant it was after Willow, who was a child, when all was said and done, and although he would unwillingly forfeit her life to save a thousand others, she was also undoubtedly one of the innocents he had vowed to protect. Hurrying after the demon, noisy and clumsy, wondering why he’d never learned to move quietly as other boys could, thinking of the way Angel, who was twice his breadth, could move as quietly as a sigh of envy. Following the Hazranak into the park, twigs and leaves crackling deafeningly under his feet, and then losing sight of it, spinning around, heart thumping so loudly he could hear nothing else, and then that sudden savage charge, and roar, a gasp as the claws sliced into him before and then the pain, bright and brain-slicingly clear, blood spilling so fast from those gashes across his chest, falling back and seeing the Hazranak’s talons, counting the claws automatically, and then as it turned away, reaching for his phone on a kind of automatic pilot.

“Willow!” He tried to sit upright and Giles caught his shoulders and steadied him, gently pressing him back down onto the bed.

“Stay still, Wesley.”

“No, you don’t understand. It’s coming after Willow…!”

“You warned us.”

He focused on Giles properly and realized the man was unshaven and subtly dishevelled-looking. He looked incredibly tired.

“Is she dead?” Wesley whispered.

“She’s safe and well. You phoned us. Do you remember? You warned us the Hazranak was coming and you told us how to kill it.” Giles gazed at him intently and Wesley noticed for the first time that his eyes weren’t blue at all, but green. He’d just assumed they were cold and blue and imperious. But in fact they were green and unexpectedly kind. “It was very brave of you, Wesley.”

Wesley wondered if he’d heard that wrong. He felt confusion wash over him, looking around for some proofs of unmistakable reality.

“Wesley…?” Giles, still gentle and prompting, but he was confused now. Giles never talked to him like this. He surreptitiously tried to pinch himself to see if he was awake. He winced as he found he was.

“Wesley!”

He jolted guiltily at that exclamation from Angel and then the vampire was running across the room, shoving a cup of coffee at Giles as he did so and then bending over Wesley. “You’re awake.”

“Apparently....” Wesley wasn’t entirely ready to commit to that as a fact but he was edging tentatively towards it.

Angel looked a question at Giles who said, “He only just woke up, Angel, or I would have called you.”

Wesley frowned. “Why?”

Angel gazed at him intensely, brown eyes unexpectedly kind. “We were worried about you.”

“Did I…?” Wesley looked down at himself. “I remember the Hazranak. It had five claws. Is it…?”

“Dead,” Giles assured him. “Angel smelt your blood on its claws and tracked you to the place where the Hazranak had attacked you. We brought you here. You’re in the hospital. You’ve been here for three days.”

“Vampires can…?” Wesley automatically reached for the pen in his pocket and then realized he didn’t have one and was in any case wearing a hospital gown. “Track? Tell one blood scent from another? That’s very…disturbing.”

“Or useful when they’re on your side,” Giles pointed out. “And the only reason why you’re alive right now – given that you entirely failed to call an ambulance for yourself and would have bled to death if Angel hadn’t found you in time.”

“Giles....” Angel gave the man a reproachful look.

Wesley winced at the criticism, trying to think of a way to justify it and then realized that he couldn’t, as it had just been stupid. “I wasn’t.... I don’t know why I....”

“Because you were too busy saving Willow to worry about yourself,” Angel put in. “Which was very brave of you, Wesley.”

“Yes, yes, it was,” Giles said quickly. “Very.”

That was the second time Giles had told him he was brave and it didn’t sound any more likely in the re-run. “She’s really all right?” Wesley felt too tired to try to pretend to be cleverer or bigger or more authoritative than he really was today. Talking was an effort, keeping his eyes open was an effort. And the pervading feeling that he’d been backed over by a very large truck was hard to ignore.

“She’s absolutely fine, I promise you.”

Wesley looked at Giles again. “You just look so…wrecked.” His eyes widened in realization. “It got Buffy, didn’t it?”

“No, Wesley, it didn’t get anyone. Except you.” Giles sat down next to the bed. “You gave us all quite a scare.”

“Yes, I’m sorry about that, but I really couldn’t see how many claws it had, and I’m not really as bad at tracking as I probably appear to be, I just didn’t know the area very well, and it must have got my scent and....” Wesley realized belatedly that he wasn’t being told off. Awkwardly, he added, “I wasn’t trying to do anything…clever. I just needed to know how many claws it had to identify it properly, because of the different…methods to dispose of the different…varieties. You’re not angry with me?” He looked between Giles and Angel in confusion as it dawned on him that no one was actually criticizing him.

“No one is angry with you, Wesley,” Giles sighed in that familiar exasperation and it was almost comforting. “Miraculously, you didn’t actually do anything wrong.”

Angel sighed rather more pointedly, which was odd as he didn’t actually need to breathe. He gave Giles a rather stern look. “That would have been so much more affirming without the ‘miraculously’.”

“Yes, but now he knows it’s really me.”

“Wesley!”

That cry from Willow jolted him half out of his skin. Wesley felt an overwhelming urge to duck and cover as a melee of schoolchildren flowed into his room, loudly and clumsily.

“Gently....” Giles cautioned them. “He’s only just woken up.”

But then Willow was rather inexplicably throwing her arms around Wesley’s neck and hugging him. He was simultaneously aware of the fact that he had no idea what he looked like as he was presumably unshaven and uncombed, that he was wearing a very scanty hospital gown, and that Willow smelt of honeysuckle and her hair was the softest thing that had ever touched his face. He swallowed awkwardly as she reluctantly released him, and he looked in shock at the tears in her huge green eyes.

“I thought you were going to die,” she explained, wiping a hand across her eyes. “You looked so.... How are you feeling? Thank you for what you did.”

He looked at her in confusion. “Getting savaged by a five-clawed Hazranak?”

“She was leaning towards the saving her life part of the activities,” Oz explained.

“We’re not so grateful to you for the nearly getting yourself killed part,” Buffy added.

“Although we are very grateful for you not dying,” Willow wiped her eyes again and smiled at him.

“Yeah, good work with that,” Xander nodded.

Buffy offered him something with a straw in it. “We’re going to let you off the getting yourself ripped half to pieces just this once. But don’t do it again.”

“I don’t suppose that’s iced tea, is it?” Wesley looked at it longingly.

“No, but it could be.” She gave him a warm affectionate smile that he had certainly never expected to see on her face when she was looking at him. “Iced tea coming right up.”

Willow sat on his bed and beamed at him as if he were a new puppy someone had just given her. He swallowed awkwardly and tried to straighten his hospital gown. “Um…it’s very nice of you to.... Why are you here…?”

Willow’s face fell. “To see you. Don’t you remember anything?”

“About the Hazranak?”

“About the last three days. We’ve been watching over you. Giles and Angel the most because they’re…the bossiest and kept sending us home. But we’ve been here too, every day. You don’t remember?”

She looked so disappointed that he felt a pang of guilt and as her words sank in was really rather touched. “No, I don’t remember.” As he face fell even further, he added gently: “But I really wish I did. It was very…kind of you all.”

“Hey, least we could do for totally-saved-the-day-guy,” Xander assured him.

“And my Latin’s much better now,” Willow added brightly.

Wesley frowned in confusion. “Because you…studied it while waiting for me to wake up?”

“No, because you conjugated lots of verbs I didn’t know when you had a fever.”

“Oh.” Wesley tried to make conjugating Latin verbs in one’s delirium seem anything other than anally retentive and had to admit defeat. “How very…studious of me.”

“Not just Latin,” Willow hastened to assure him. “There was Greek too, and something Giles said was Hebrew – oh and Aramaic and something else.”

“Sumerian,” Oz supplied helpfully. “That was particularly cool, I thought.”

“Oh yes, I liked that one, too. And a spell for resurrecting things. But we tried not to let you finish that, on account of the whole time at Buffy’s house with the mask and the dead cat and the zombies. What was it for? Was it a pet that died?”

Wesley wondered why in all the training that they gave one at the Academy to do with the support and training of Slayers they never mentioned how quickly teenage girls liked to talk. Did they not need to breathe like ordinary people? But he could remember the scene so clearly abruptly. Working at his desk, a winter’s day and the air so cold in the bedroom he could see his breath, trying to translate a passage from the Aeneid and having no end of trouble with it; then that sudden frightening ‘bang’ as the bird flew into his window. Hurrying to open the window and finding it lying on the stone sill, still warm but with its neck hanging at an angle, picking it up so gingerly and carrying it into his room, laying it on the desk and feeling all the time that heat from its fragile feathered body; willing it to breathe, flutter, its chest to move, and then remembering the resurrection spell he had seen in his father’s study the last time he was in there; reading it while the man scolded him to try and muffle some of the sting of his words. Are you listening to me, boy? Yes, Father.... Running downstairs to the study, down all those flights of dark wooden stairs. You never slide down the banisters, do you hear me, boy? Yes, Father.... Heart in his mouth, thumping anxiously, peering into the room, finding it empty, seeing the spell in its parchment roll where it had been for the last scolding, snatching it and running back upstairs with it, beginning to incant it over the cooling corpse of that neck-snapped sparrow, the air beginning to sizzle, only to have his father burst into the room furiously, the parchment dropping from his properly nerveless fingers, and then that anger breaking over him, the cutting words and the cane across his palms. Hold your hands still, boy! Tears streaming down his face and being struck harder for being a snivelling little nancy boy; then the shadowy maw of the under-the-stairs cupboard and the lock turning, and his palms stinging and stinging while the darkness closed in around him and swallowed him whole.

Wesley snatched a breath and looked up to find them all gazing at him. Buffy wordlessly held out the iced tea.

Willow said rapidly: “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. It really doesn’t matter. I don’t even want to know.”

With a sense of shock, Wesley realized that his face was wet and reached up in confusion. He touched the dampness on his skin and then tasted it curiously; salt. Crying again then. Some things obviously never changed. He took the tea and swallowed hard. “A bird flew into my window and broke its neck. I was trying to bring it back to life. My father interrupted me – which was probably a good thing. He did point out the dangers of my having raised a zombie bird that would probably peck out my eyeballs. It was the first spell I ever attempted and I didn’t get a chance to finish it, but I expect that’s why it stuck in my mind.”

“Angel was my first.” Willow smiled at him reassuringly and then grimaced. “That came out wrong.” Oz’s mildly raised eyebrows confirmed the wrongness although Wesley noticed he heroically forbore from comment.

Xander grimaced. “You did say yours was a forbidden love.”

Wesley looked up at Angel, who, standing by a hospital bed gazing at Wesley kindly, was looking particularly souled that day. “Your first spell obviously went rather better than mine, Willow.”

“Well, I was seventeen, not seven,” she admitted.

There was an awkward pause in which Wesley opened his mouth to ask her how she’d known how old he was and then read it in the guilt on their faces, her gasp and mouth cover with a ridiculously small hand. He looked past them to the pile of his books stacked on the plastic chairs in the corner, the notebooks, the letters. He closed his eyes and let it wash over him; the sense of abject failure and humiliation and exposure.

Buffy said tautly: “Wesley, please don’t.”

He looked up at her in surprise. “Don’t what?”

“Beat yourself up because we know who you really are and not what you pretend to be.” She took his hand in hers and he thought again how small and clean girls’ hands were, with their shaped little painted nails, all pink and pale and unscarred. “We like who you really are. We’d like to get to know that guy better.”

Wesley looked up at her in confusion. “Who do you think he is?”

She kept gazing into his eyes, really looking at him in way that didn’t involve contempt or dismissal or a scathing retort about to bubble to her lips. “He’s the guy who saved Willow with that phonecall. He’s the guy who is so smart he doesn’t have to pretend to be anything he isn’t. Wes, do you know how clever you are? You know languages Giles doesn’t, and Giles knows…everything. Why didn’t you tell us you could do spells?”

“I’m still learning,” he admitted.

“You think I’m not?” Willow demanded.

“Didn’t you get an ‘A’ in mystical studies?” Buffy pressed.

He sighed in resignation, things had slipped away from him somewhat while he’d been unconscious and could not now be retrieved. They had seen him as some ripped apart bleeding person in the park; were now seeing him as some healing person in a hospital gown. They had apparently mopped his brow through various stages of delirium. There was a sea change in their perception of him that was not going to be solved by more starch in his shirt collar or the purchase of a new silk tie. It was almost a relief to be found out, in some ways, as fallible and human and rendable. “You read my school report?”

“Only because....” Willow broke off. “Um… because… We knew we shouldn’t do it but we did it anyway.”

“We didn’t know it was your school report at first either,” Buffy explained. “It was in a black notebooky sort of thing. We thought it might be important.”

“So, now you know the terrible truth that I once only got a ‘B’ minus in History in my mocks.”

“But the teacher said you’d been ill that year,” Willow put in hastily. “And that he was sure you could make it up to an ‘A’ by the time the real exams came around. I know how sucky it feels not to get an ‘A’ though. It always makes me feel sick all the way down to my shoes.”

Wesley looked at the strange little redhead with a sudden flowering of kinship. “Yes, that’s it exactly. Like failure just seeped all the way into your toenail parings.”

“Can you two not affirm each other in your neuroses, please?” Xander pleaded. “Some of us here get excited by a ‘B’ minus. Some of us would think of a ‘B’ minus as a huge step forward in our intellectual development. Please tell me that just once you got a ‘C’ in something? P.E? Chemistry? Domestic Science?”

Wesley looked at Xander with a kind of awe. “I don’t think I could actually have survived a ‘C’. I think it would probably have had the same effect on me as sunshine to a vampire.”

“They’re really not that bad,” Xander assured him. “Take it from the guy who gets a whole boatload of them most years.”

“The children are right though, Wesley, you really should be developing your mystical talents. In a controlled environment, of course.”

Wesley glanced up at Giles and saw that the man wasn’t laughing at him, but with him; inviting Wesley to share a joke they both now understood, because Wesley had stepped through the looking-glass and was now also residing in Wonderland. Wesley thought of the Council and the Academy and how utterly alien it was, how remote from the reality of life on the front line of a Hellmouth, and did smile then. “I believe someone told me there was no danger of me finding those here. I think he was absolutely right.”

“It would be nice to have someone to do spells with.” Willow leant close and whispered – quite loudly – in Wesley’s ear: “Giles doesn’t let me do the interesting ones, but he couldn’t really stop you, could he, and if I was helping you…?”

Giles said coolly, “I may appear to have one foot in the grave to you lot, Willow, but I’m not actually suffering from geriatric deafness just yet.”

Wesley looked at the redhead’s sweet and unexpectedly friendly face and smiled back at her, lowering his voice to whisper in her ear: “Well, there is a spell for revealing demons that I’ve always wanted to try but you can’t do it by yourself....”

Buffy looked at Giles in concern. “Do we think this is a good idea? Unleashing the Willow-and-Wesley witchathon on an unsuspecting public?”

“Wesley can’t be a witch because of the whole wrong gender thing,” Willow told her smugly. “He’ll have to be a warlock.”

“I think we’re just called apprentice magical practitioners at the Academy,” Wesley admitted. “But I do freely admit that warlock sounds a lot…cooler.”

“Does detention with extra trigonometry homework sound cool to you?” Buffy demanded. “Because I’m allowed to set that. You’re not playing around with magic. It’s dangerous. There could be accidental raising of zombies. Or…someone think of something that isn’t zombies?”

“If I’m technically your Watcher I think I’m actually automatically excused any trigonometry homework you try to set me.” Wesley sipped his iced tea in triumph. “I think you’ll find it’s in the appendices to the annotations of the commentaries of the Slayer’s Handbook. No doubt you know the passage I mean?”

Buffy narrowed her eyes. “I can confiscate that iced tea and don’t think I won’t do it.”

“I’m still trying to think of something that isn’t zombies,” Xander admitted.

“What about spontaneous combustion?” Oz offered. “Or herring raining from the skies.”

“I like herring,” Wesley countered. “I would have thought a spell which made herring rain from the skies would save considerably on one’s food bills.”

“But think of the damage to the environment,” Oz countered. “And what if you grew tired of herring?”

“That’s true,” Willow conceded. “I think someone could quickly tire of herring. But – oh a spell that made it rain chocolate, that could be very good.”

“Again with the ethical issues, Will,” Oz observed. “What if the chocolate was made in a way that exploited the cocoa growers? Or was an offshoot of a cocaine cartel in Columbia?”

“Or was American chocolate,” Wesley pointed out. “And therefore inedible.”

“Hey!” Willow looked up at Xander wide-eyed. “Wesley dissed our chocolate. Can he do that?”

“Well, someone ought to,” Giles observed. “If Hershey bars and Twinkies aren’t proof of demonic forces at work I don’t know what is. Haven’t you people heard of Cadbury’s?”

“I was thinking peanut butter,” Oz observed. “But in or out of the containers? And if it was outside – how would you collect it? And if it was in the containers how would you stop them from breaking?”

“Plus the liability issue,” Buffy pointed out. “The people concussed by the rain of peanut butter containers could sue for personal injury or emotional trauma. Or possibly both.”

“I’m not sure that one could have a spell that had a side-effect involving peanut butter,” Wesley pointed out. “On account of the whole anachronistic issue. As there would almost certainly have been no peanut butter in the culture of the people who devised any spell we would be using, I don’t see how it could be a factor. Chocolate, however, was in use by the ancient Mesoamerican races, although it would probably be a rather bitter variety that was used for drinking chocolate rather than say...a Mars bar.”

“Congratulations, Wesley.” Xander held out a hand. “You are truly one of us now.”

Wesley half-smiled as he shook it. “If I’d known the ability to converse indefinitely about absolute rubbish was a requirement of joining I could have been one of you weeks ago.”

Buffy shrugged. “We can’t just tell people about the membership requirements, Wes, or else everyone would want to join.”

He looked around at them all and realized they really had never looked like this before; not just looked at him like this: gentle and smiling and relieved that he was conscious, but never looked liked this to him either; like people he knew and actually rather liked. “Thank you,” he said.

“For what?” Angel asked quietly.

“Watching over me while I was ill. It was kind of you. I appreciate it.” Glancing back at Giles, who had taken off his glasses to clean them, Wesley realized that the haggard and the unshaven and the shadows under his eyes ensemble Giles was currently wearing were all for him; not Buffy or Willow or another of the children; but for him. It occurred to him that no one in his entire life had ever lost sleep over him before. “I really do appreciate it.”

He was a little surprised but not at all upset when Willow hugged him gently again and then kissed him on the cheek. “You’re so welcome.”

He looked up at her and saw that she had tears in her eyes but as she was somewhat blurry realized he must have as well. For once he didn’t even care. “I’m glad you’re safe, Willow,” he said quietly. “We still have the Mayor to defeat, of course. And no real plan for how we can do that. But, I’m sure we can cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Buffy took the empty cup of iced tea from him. “Hey, there are seven of us and only one of him. He’s toast.”

“I really think Wesley needs to rest now,” Giles said gently but firmly. “We don’t want to wear him out again. As Buffy says, we’re going to need his help in the coming battle so we’d better give him some time to recuperate.”

There was more clamour from the children, a brief nod from Oz that was unexpectedly kind, a tentative pat on the shoulder from Xander, a squeeze of his hand from Buffy and a beaming smile from Willow, and then he was alone with Giles and Angel.

The vampire said quietly, “I’m glad you’re feeling better, Wesley.”

“Thank you again.” He looked up at him. “I didn’t expect you to.... The business with Faith....”

Angel shook his head. “That’s in the past. Next time we’ll liaise with one another a little better – see if we can’t come up with a strategy we can both work with.”

“That’s very....” Wesley swallowed. “Decent of you.”

Angel just smiled at him gently. “Get some rest, Wesley. Like you said, we’re going to need all hands on deck for the showdown with the Mayor.”

After Angel had left the room, Wesley turned to Giles. “I didn’t know vampires did that.”

“Fought on the side of good?”

“Mixed their metaphors.” Wesley held Giles’ gaze. “You look tired.”

“I am a little.”

“I seem to have been something of a nuisance.”

“Yes, you were rather.” Giles smiled at him. “But as you didn’t actually die, leaving us all with a burden of guilt in the process, I’ll let you off just this once.”

“It would hardly have been your fault if I’d died. At no point have you told me to blunder after any demons that should happen to pass my window in a manner likely to alert them to my presence.”

Giles opened his mouth and then sighed. “When you’re feeling better, Wesley, would you like to go for a drink? And perhaps come and have dinner with me? I think Willow has actually earmarked all the places of local interest to show you but I do have some books you might find interesting.”

Wesley felt a tightness that had been in his chest loosen a little, that sense of homesickness fading slightly. “Thank you, I’d like that very much.”

Giles smiled again. “That’s a date then. Now, try to get some rest. I’ll be just outside.”

“You don’t need to wait,” Wesley said.

“I’d like to,” the man assured him. “We can talk later. Okay?”

Wesley lay back down, the exhaustion telling him he would be asleep within moments, for some reason finding it disproportionately comforting that he wasn’t alone in this strange hospital in this strange town in this strange country, but had a fellow Watcher waiting outside his door. “I’d like that very much.”

Giles’s expression was gentle and kind. “We should have talked before. But, luckily, I’m getting a second chance to make up for lost time. Thank you for giving me that, Wesley. I really am exceedingly grateful to you for not dying on me.”

“It was nothing,” Wesley assured him, closing his eyes and letting the warmth of his very comfortable hospital bed take him. “Well, nothing that the intervention of a vampire, a Watcher, and a group of American schoolchildren couldn’t fix anyway....” And then he was asleep and this time he didn’t dream of zombie birds or the cupboard under the stairs but a rain of peanut butter in brightly coloured jars that landed neatly on the pavement without a single crack.

The End