The Consequences of Survival
Wesley sat on the edge of the hospital bed, waiting. He was fully dressed and had received his discharge papers and instructions an hour ago. He could leave any time, just call a cab to get him home, but he had promised Gunn that he would wait for him.
So here he sat, waiting, resisting the urge to slink off home and lick his wounds in private.
Ever since he had woke up Gunn, Fred and even Lorne had been...hovering. Wesley had braced himself for their anger and disdain. And yes, there had been anger, but there had also been other things as well: relief that he was alive, understanding about how he had got to such a dark place, and most surprising to him, they had all offered him forgiveness even before he had been able to manage a stuttering apology.
Lorne, surprisingly, had been the easiest for Wesley to deal with, despite the shame that had filled him at the bruises mottling green skin -- bruises he had been responsible for. But Lorne had apparently had read more than his intent to take Connor during his little lullaby humming. Lorne had gotten everything else as well -- the fear and the growing sense of isolation, and the horror the prophecies foresaw in the future, a horror that his attempts to stop might end up bringing into being.
When he had come to see Wesley, Lorne had calmly detailed what he had sensed, before stating that he understood because, for that one moment, he had felt it all too. Then he had offered forgiveness for the beating Wesley had given him in one breath, while threatening to make Wesley sing for him every day so he could make sure things wouldn't reach that point again.
That last had made Wesley smile, one of the few times he could remember doing so since he'd regained consciousness in the hospital.
After that, Lorne had treated him the same as he always had, a piece of normality -- or what passed for it in Wesley's life -- that Wesley had hung on to gratefully in the mess he had made of all their lives.
Dealing with the others he was finding more difficult.
Fred was... Fred was acting around him a bit like she had when they first got back from Pylea. Perpetually in motion, shifting and fidgeting even as she tried to sit still, each movement brought to mind some small creature ready to bolt at the first sign it sensed of a predator.
Her words refused to settle any more than her body did. She kept jumping from subject to subject, often in mid sentence as he mind caught whatever shiny thought had been contained and followed it wherever it led her.
It was all very energetic and chaotic, and rather tiring to a mind that was struggling in the mire of pain, guilt and depression like Wesley's was.
But in the midst of all the chatter and movement there had been a moment where Fred had stilled, seeking out and holding Wesley's gaze. "I know what it's like to feel alone," she had told him quietly. "Hiding in a cave may feel safer, but you miss an awful lot of living."
"I'm not hiding in a cave," he had responded, trying to sound assured, though there was something about Fred's frank stare that was unnerving.
She had smiled sadly. "Not all caves are physical."
Then she had changed the subject, going back to jumping from tangent to tangent.
But her words stayed with Wesley, and it was one of the reasons why he was still sitting here waiting, no matter how much he wanted to go home.
Another reason was the person coming to pick him up. Gunn.
Wesley didn't quite know what to make of what had been happening to their relationship the last few months. He still wasn't certain how their friendship had gone from the easiest and most comfortable connection that he had ever experienced to the strained, hyper-competitive, angry and almost openly hostile interaction it had seemed to become in recent weeks. It had hurt, feeling like he didn't have their friendship anymore to rely on or confide in, and had contributed greatly to his growing feeling of isolation.
That had all changed again when he had awakened in the hospital. Gunn had been by his bedside, just like the last time he had been seriously injured, and just like that their connection, their friendship was back stronger than ever. Oh, Gunn had been just as angry as the others and hadn't been shy in expressing it to Wesley or to anyone else, but it hadn't been the kind of anger that made Wesley flinch.
Perhaps because at the same time there were other feelings expressed alongside the anger, in every look, word and touch. The protectiveness and affection so displayed didn't wipe out Wesley's guilt and failure, but it did make it -- marginally -- easier to deal with.
But it also brought up feelings that Wesley had been doing his best to repress and ignore for a very long time. Feelings of want: for their connection to be even closer, for the belonging to be more...tangible. Fantasies and dreams that he dared not think about, much less speak of. He couldn't risk his feelings slipping out through the cracks in his self control. If that happened he risked not only ruining their current friendship, but tainting everything that had come before.
Despite that fear, he couldn't keep Gunn at an emotional arm's length. Wesley found himself not only taking comfort in the other man's presence, but needing it, craving it like a drug.
And Gunn, on some level, seemed to sense that, because he had been spending more time at the hospital than he even had when Wesley had been shot, and when he did leave, he always made sure to tell Wesley when he'd be back.
Wesley couldn't keep from soaking it up; Gunn's constant supportive presence, in spite of the old dreams it had rekindled, was a balm to his battered soul, the one good thing that had come out of this whole mess.
And that was the problem.
He didn't deserve anything good -- especially out of this mess. Because of him, Connor was gone, lost in some dark dimension with a man who was obsessed with his hatred of Connor's parents. All Wesley's fault. If he hadn't taken Connor, none of this would have happened.
He should've found another way -- shouldn't have let the prophecy freak him out like he did. He should've looked for reasons why Angel would do something so out of character instead of just blindly assuming he was because it was fated.
And his friends were absolutely right -- Wesley should have told them.
But he hadn't and now he was responsible for sending to Hell a completely innocent and helpless life, a life whom he loved.
They should've let him bleed to death.
Wesley sighed, staring at his haunted reflection in the window, superimposed over the darkness outside. Whether he deserved to be or not, he was still here, still alive and mostly whole. And no matter how much he may hate himself, he wasn't going to do anything permanently self-destructive -- he owed his friends better than that.
Though he thought that some of his friends wouldn't shed any tears over his demise.
The others had all been to see him, but not Angel. The others hadn't even mentioned Angel at all -- save when Gunn had told him what had happened to Connor.
The one time Wesley had gathered enough courage to haltingly ask about Angel, it had been to Lorne. Lorne had shook his head and quietly answered, "He's doing as well as could be expected," and then firmly changed the subject.
No one had mentioned Angel's current feelings toward him, but Wesley could guess. How would anyone feel about the friend who betrayed their trust and took the most important person in their life from them?
Anger and hate would be too mild of descriptions.
He suspected that at best, Angel wanted to hurt him, maybe even kill him. At worst...well Angelus had a well-earned reputation of torturing his victims.Soul or not, Wesley suspected that Angel wouldn't mind exercising those skills on him.
And Wesley couldn't blame him one bit.
Wesley raised a hand to the dressing that covered the wound at his throat, fingers worrying at the edges of the bandage, an action that was quickly becoming a nervous habit.
It was going to leave a scar, the doctor had regretfully told him. A permanent reminder of all the pain his actions had caused that he would see every time he looked in the mirror.
But it wasn't the worst scar, the deepest scar, the one that hurt the most. There were other scars his actions had inflicted, scars that couldn't be seen, scars that cut deeply into not just his soul, but his friends' souls as well. Scars he knew would never completely heal.
Wesley would much rather bear the pain of a thousand physical scars like the one on his throat than have to look in his friends' eyes -- especially Angel's -- and see the pain he had inflicted there.
He suddenly became aware that he was being watched, that someone had come into the room behind him without his noticing.
Hoping his face wouldn't give away too much of what he had been thinking, Wesley locked his feelings away and turned to face the door. Assuming it was Gunn, he started talking before he'd fully turned around. "I was starting to wonder if you had changed your--"
Wesley's voice died. It wasn't Gunn standing in the doorway.
It was Angel.
For a moment Wesley froze, staring at the motionless silent vampire. He couldn't read the expression on Angel's face, but his body tensed and his mind raced, filled with a list of reasons why Angel had come and an even longer list of what he might do to him. There were times when a vivid imagination was not an asset.
But as the seconds ticked by and turned into minutes, Angel didn't move, didn't speak. He just continued to stand and stare at Wesley with that blank expression.
Angel stared, and Wesley stared back, feeling the tension in the room building with each passing second, until it pressed down on him like a heavy weight threatening to steal the oxygen from his lungs.
It got to the point where Wesley couldn't take it anymore and had to break the silence.
"Don't." If Angel's expression was blank, his voice was anything but. That single quiet word was so full of pain, grief, anger, menace, that it froze Wesley once again, his heart racing in terror.
Angel moved into the room towards him and Wesley tensed, every subconscious and primitive instinct he possessed insisting that he was being stalked by a predator and would he please make a decision between fight or flight.
He did neither, remaining frozen in place, staring at Angel as he advanced on him.
"Don't," Angel repeated. "Don't apologize, don't give me explanations, don't speak. I don't want to hear it." He halted directly in front of Wesley who felt another skittering of fear along his spine as he had to tilt his head to look up at the vampire.
Angel fell silent again and went back to staring, albeit from a much closer distance. Wesley was beginning to feel like a mouse in the hawk's gaze.
Though he doubted any mouse had ever provoked the hawk so badly as he had Angel.
"I've been thinking about what to do when you were finally in front of me," Angel began, his tone conversational, though Wesley was sure it wasn't gong to remain so. "About how I could best repay you for your...actions."
"Angel--" Wesley began again, needing to apologize even though he knew it would never be accepted.
"Don't speak," Angel ordered once again, voice sharp. "This isn't a conversation. I don't want to hear your voice." The anger in the look that accompanied that look made Wesley close his mouth so fast his teeth crashed against each other rather abruptly.
"I trusted you. You were probably the one I trusted the most. I trusted you with *him*. And you..." Angel's voice broke, trembling with emotion, grief or anger, Wesley couldn't tell.
He began to pace. "I've been betrayed before, hell I've done my share of betrayal over the centuries. But this..." Angel stopped and fixed Wesley with his gaze again. "This is right up there with the worst I ever did."
Angel resumed pacing. "As I said, I've been thinking about what I should do to repay you. My first inclination was just to rip you limb from limb, but that would be over too fast. Then I thought maybe suffocation -- it's slower, can be drawn out almost indefinitely if you know how. But," Angel shook his head regretfully, "Somehow it's just not satisfying -- not enough blood." He turned back, eyeing Wesley -- and the bandage at his throat -- speculatively. "I could always go with a theme -- a knife can be almost as slow as suffocation if done right. And it has the added benefit of, once started, the pain doesn't stop. It just keeps building until -- well. Until I decide to let it stop."
Wesley sat frozen, listening to this conversational recitation of torture methods with a kind of horrified fascination. It was an eerie echo of the time Faith had had him. Another person he had failed. Her enthusiastic cataloguing of the tortures she intended to inflict on him had featured prominently in his nightmares ever since.
That time he had been physically restrained -- tied to a chair and gagged. This time it was only his own guilt that held him in place, but its bonds were stronger than any rope could ever be.
Angel had stopped pacing and was once again standing in front of him, staring. "But that's not enough. I don't know what could ever be enough -- and I won't know until I know what's happened to my son." Dark eyes full of pain and anger caught and held Wesley's with a burning intensity. "When I have Connor back, when I know what he's been through, then I'll know what needs to be done to make things...even between us."
"What's going on here?"
Wesley tore his eyes from Angel to see Gunn standing in the doorway, expression wary, body language clearly telegraphing that he was braced for trouble.
Wesley's gaze darted back to Angel who was still staring at him intently.
"Nothing's going on," the vampire answered Gunn, still not looking away. "Wesley and I were just having a chat about the future."
Neither Gunn's expression or stance changed. "That true, English?"
It took several tries for Wesley to find his voice to answer. "We were...talking."
Gunn didn't lose the suspicious expression, but he also didn't press the point. He did, however, move to stand next to Wesley, the action blatantly protective. "Well, if you're done 'talking,'" he shot Angel a look, " we should get going."
"We're done for now. Wesley and I understand each other, don't we?" Angel's eyes once again bore into his own and Wesley heard the threats inherent in the question.
He couldn't get his voice working to answer, couldn't even manage to nod while that gaze held him in place.
And then Gunn was stepping between them, staring down Angel. "I think you've made yourself perfectly clear." Gunn's tone was soft, even caring, but also determined and commanding. "Why don't you head back to the hotel and let me see about getting Wes *safely* home?"
For a moment Wesley thought Angel was going to argue, but Gunn just kept staring at him until he finally stepped back and nodded.
Angel headed for the door, tossing a vicious smile over his shoulder as he left and a, "Be seeing you soon, Wes."
As soon as he was gone the tension crashed down on Wesley like the proverbial ton of bricks and he found himself shaking and unable to stop.
It was very noticeable and put an alarmed expression on Gunn's face. "Wes, are you-?" he began worriedly, reaching out to clasp Wesley's shoulder, but stopping before he made contact. "Should I get a nurse?"
Wesley shook his head and forced a smile. "I'm fine, just give me a moment," he said, sounding anything but convincing. It was difficult to maintain the illusion of being fine when even his voice was trembling.
Gunn swore and reached out for him again, again stopping before he made contact. INstead he turned and started pacing, with the same restless energy that Angel had, though with none of the menace. "I'm sorry about that. We told him to stay away, but..."
"It's all right," Wesley replied, voice stronger as watching Gunn move about the room began to calm his racing heart. "He didn't say anything I didn't deserve."
Gunn snorted in disbelief. "Yeah, right. Someone should tell Angel he doesn't need to beat up on you because you're already doing such a great job of it yourself."
"Angel has every right to hate me." Wesley closed his eyes wearily as a ghost of the exhaustion he'd been operating under for the past few weeks made itself felt. "I deliberately stole his son from him -- I took Connor from his arms and walked out, planning on never bringing him back. I knew as I was doing it that Angel would hate me for it -- that you all would hate me. I knew what I was sacrificing." He laughed humorlessly, the sound almost shrill as all his emotions threatened to overwhelm him. "You've got to appreciate the irony of it all -- I took Connor because I was trying to *save* him. I didn't think Angel could protect him from himself. Turns out I was the one he needed protection from."
It was the first time he had been able to bring himself to speak of his decisions, and his guilt. Now that he started, he found he had to literally bite his tongue to keep from continuing, to keep from pouring out a veritable encyclopedia of self-loathing. He didn't need to be subjecting Gunn to his indulgence in self-castigation.
Silence rang in his ears when he finally managed to dam up the words, and Wesley became acutely aware that Gunn was staring at him with the strangest look on his face.
But Gunn didn't say anything other than, "Let's get you home," reaching a hand out to help Wesley up.
Even that simple gesture was enough to almost push Wesley over the edge emotionally. He swallowed hard against the tears that threatened and reached up to take the offered hand.
Gunn pulled him to his feet, but didn't let go until Wesley looked up and met his gaze. He wasn't sure what he saw there, not exactly, but it wasn't anything bad. The icy panic warmed a little under that regard, and the shakiness began to subside.
Wesley gave Gunn a nod, acknowledging whatever it was that he'd seen in his eyes, feeling like he'd been given the key to the universe, but that it was in a language he didn't speak.
Gunn nodded back -- acknowledging his acknowledgement -- then clapped a hand to Wesley's shoulder, steering him toward the door.
Glad to have somehow escaped the usual obligatory wheelchair ride to the curb, Wesley kept silent and followed Gunn down the hall to the elevator. A wheelchair would've been a bad idea right then. He needed to be moving under his own power, Wesley was tense and getting tenser with every step he took further away from his room.
He wondered, as they stopped and waited for the elevator to arrive at their floor, if this was how Fred had felt when she had first gotten back: exposed, like any second something was going to leap out and grab him. He wanted to put his back against the wall so he didn't have to worry about things sneaking up on him.
Maybe Fred had been more right than he'd given her credit for when she'd mentioned hiding in a cave. The only difference was the thing that had been her reassurance was the thing he had the most to worry about: Angel.
The elevator arrived with a loud ping, and Wesley almost jumped out of his skin at the noise.
Gunn was shooting him worried looks so he did his best to calm down as they stepped inside. Giving in to instinct, he wedge himself into a corner and closed his eyes as the doors closed.
It wasn't like Angel's feelings came as a surprise: Wesley had assumed from the start that his actions would more than cost him Angel's friendship. The fact that Angel wanted to hurt him wasn't a shocker either -- he hadn't expected the vampire to react any differently when he'd allowed himself to think about it.
But knowing something and being confronted face to face with it were two different things.
Because even though he couldn't blame Angel for his feelings, even though he agreed that Angel had every right to hurt him in whatever way he wanted, that still didn't stop his heart from racing with fear at the thought of it actually happening.
Even in his self-imposed darkness, Wesley could feel Gunn watching him, worrying about him. It gave him the strength to open his eyes and straighten his spine, and even drudge up something akin to a smile. "I'm fine," he said for Gunn's benefit, willing the words to be true.
Gunn looked at him even more closely and Wesley felt like he was seeing straight through to his rather tarnished soul. "No you're not," he finally said, but then gave him an approving nod. "But you'll do."
Somehow that did make him feel better, bringing back memories of past friendship and acceptance. He was no longer surprised that such a small gesture could affect him so much, not when it was from Gunn.
Wesley returned the nod and moved forward to stand by Gunn's side.
When the elevator opened and they headed out for Gunn's truck, Wesley's senses were still on hyper-awareness, but he no longer felt like he was on the verge of panicked bolting.
He wasn't alone.
To be continued...