Days of Darkness, Streets Like Wine
Wesley was cleaning up the desk, gathering the mail he'd sorted through. So far Angel Investigations had avoided getting onto junk mailing lists, but he suspected that would not last for much longer. There was something oddly comforting, however, in the notion of a vampire's detective agency receiving catalogues from Fingerhut and flyers to buy magazine subscriptions to Sunset and Newsweek.
He threw none of it out, himself, as he sorted. Not because he had no idea what Angel himself would want to keep -- Wesley knew very well he tossed ninety percent of the mail as soon as he got it. But it was good for him -- humanizing, if not a redemptive act. Perhaps too symbolic, in that sense: teaching the ages old vampire how to get rid of the innecessities in his life. Pointless or not, Wesley left Angel's mail on Angel's desk. Bills and invoices went to Cordelia's box, and the books and weaponry catalogues went to his own.
Perhaps he was dwelling too much on the meaning of mail, today. He'd gone by a post office nearby, this morning, bought himself a PO box. The mail to his flat would be diverted by the end of the week, so he'd been told. One less thing to worry over.
He looked up as Angel walked over. "Everything's taken care of," he told the vampire, before he could ask. Assuming he'd been about to ask; Angel could quite perplexingly ignore the details for weeks on end, then surprise you by asking and knowing the tiniest minutiae. "All we need now is a client to create more paperwork, give us something else to do."
There was a hint of a smile on Angel's face, but he nodded seriously. "There's never a shortage of people to help." The words were not quite intended to be censure -- they'd done it before, hit the streets in search of someone to rescue. Sometimes all it took was a single question to Gunn, and they were on their way to bloodshed and mayhem.
But Wesley smiled. "Perhaps not. But there is a shortage of paying clients. It's all well and good to save someone's life, or defeat an evil monster, but if you get behind on your bills, no one can save you from collectors." He gave Angel a stern frown, to punctuate the end of his lecture, eliciting another faint smile.
"You're beginning to sound like Cordelia."
"Cordelia has a morbid fear of being penniless. Understandably, really. As long as she can pay her rent, she's fine." He grinned suddenly. "Which should never be a problem. Tell her, next time you can't pay her, that she can move in with you. The hotel is large enough, and up to her standards of luxury -- once we finish cleaning everything."
The look on Angel's face made Wesley want to grin. The long-suffering angst of a tortured soul warring with the urge to laugh made Angel look like he'd eaten something far too sweet to swallow. Finally, Angel got himself under control, and he shook his head. "That's OK. I kinda like my privacy."
"In over a hundred rooms? How can two people in this hotel fail to have privacy?" Wesley countered.
"I'm a vampire, my room's right in the middle of the hotel -- the only way I wouldn't know she was here is if she lived in the basement. Do you *really* think Cordelia would want to live down there?"
Wesley pretended to think it over. "Well, perhaps if you let her paint it--"
"Let me paint what?" Cordelia walked up, and eyed them both. Her curious expression turned to one of suspicion. "Paint *what*?"
"The basement," Wesley said easily, and headed for the front doors. He allowed himself a grin as he heard Cordelia turn on Angel, declaring in no uncertain terms that she was not painting anything and certainly not the grimy basement. Wesley could hear Angel trying to interrupt her, then he was out the door and heard nothing but his own quiet laugh.
(A month later)
He pulled the ballcap down over his eyes, cast his gaze down to the dirty, torn concrete of the sidewalk. He didn't need to see, to avoid the people walking towards him; honed sixth sense, or maybe just one of the five, guided him aside when the passers-by failed to head whatever of their own sixth sense told them to avoid bumping into the disheveled creature.
To be quite honest, he failed to quite measure the standard of the shambling, filthy drunkards who populated this area of town. Clothes clean, as clean as they could be for having been worn every night for a generation or two -- for each night was a lifetime, on these streets, and each morning he thanked whoever it was that had forgotten to watch over him, that he survived. Clean though his hands might have been, showered and sleep-wear of leather and denim set out each morning to dry, his eyes carried the same amount of grime that the most insane of his alley neighbors displayed. Weather and hunger did it every time even if he had not lost all hope for things better, not yet driven into faithless cynicism and despair.
If anyone had asked, he would have proved himself otherwise simply by the tone of his voice. But no one talked to a young man down on his luck, shivering in the doorway of a long-locked building. Graveyard for businesses, where the bones of the workers moved silently in the dark, looking for heat. Warmth was not his concern, tonight. The night air not so cool as to bleed its way through the layers of his clothing. Tonight he sought a different sort of refuge: mere safety.
It was getting colder. Wesley supposed it might have been his imagination -- the televised weather broadcasts gave no real indication of a drop in temperature and god knew the afternoons were still as uncomfortable as always. Winter was a laughable misnomer, here -- but still, as the days wore on, it grew colder. At least at night.
Wesley glanced up from the desk where he sat studying. Angel had brought back a few books from a late night expedition -- some bookstores open only at night, provisioning the denizens who felt safer -- or bolder -- when the sun was gone. Wesley did not know, and little cared, which store these books were from. He was simply grateful that his employer's need to re-stock his library enabled him to borrow such books are he'd never be able to buy for himself. Research, he called it, as such the reason Angel claimed to be buying them as quickly and in such numbers as mortal people bought soda and chips.
Wesley rather suspected it was simply the need to have more books nearby, surrounding oneself with a wall of paper and leather spines, ideas and answers encased in a hundred languages just begging to be spoken. Nothing more than any bookworm would indulge in, nothing more or less remarkable.
Reading gave him an excuse, as well, of being here. The afternoon was dying rapidly, soon it would be evening and dinnertime and dusk, and he would begin to grow self-conscious through his apparent distraction into books. Turn each page, wondering if this time would be the moment Angel chose to come into the room, ask him politely if he were through, would he like to take the book home....
With a start, Wesley looked up to find Cordelia standing on the other side of the desk, wearing an expression that said she'd been talking to him for some time, now. "Er, sorry," he began, not quite certain he needed to explain. Not like it wasn't patently obvious why he hadn't heard.
She rolled her eyes in the way that said she wasn't really annoyed. "It's four o'clock," she said, arms folded and staring at him.
He glanced at his watch. "Er, so it is." He tried to recall if that was supposed to mean anything.
"God, it's a wonder this place doesn't fall completely apart when I take a day off!" She shot a glare across the room; Wesley guessed Angel had just walked in. "As rare as that is."
"Cordelia, you're welcome to take a day off whenever you like," Angel said calmly as he walked into view. Wesley just glanced his way, still trying to remember what had been planned for today.
"Yeah, without pay -- we have got to get more paid vacation," Cordelia groused.
"We don't have *any* paid vacation," Wesley pointed out mildly. "Some of us are lucky to be paid on time. You wanted me to give you a ride to Dreymour's, tonight, yes?" he asked, in order to forestall yet another round of accounting debates.
"Ye-es!" Cordelia shook her head, but she was beginning to smile. She'd asked Wesley to take her to the club on his bike -- something about making a certain type of appearance. How she expected people inside the club to know how she'd arrived, he didn't ask. He'd simply agreed to do so in exchange for the gas money to get her there.
It was telling that she'd given it to him. Argued, whined, and glared first, but eventually just handed over a few bills. Wesley had very carefully not crowed. Long.
"Explain to me again why I can't just pick you up at your place at eight thirty, since you want to be there at nine?"
The look he got for that one made him think he'd just asked why the sun had to go down *every* night, or why parachute pants had come back into style. "If you think I'm going to count on you to not be late, think again, buster. You can just sit on the couch and keep Dennis company while I get ready."
"For four hours?"
"Bring your book."
"I'm going to miss dinner."
"You can make a sandwich. You can make me one, too, as a matter of fact. Now, let's go! I'm losing precious prep-time." She grabbed the strap of her purse and gave Wesley another stern look. It was vaguely reminiscent of being stared at by a mother gorilla. Do as I say or I'll squish you. Might squish you anyway.
Wesley carefully placed a bookmark in the book, asked Angel silently if he could in fact borrow it, then went over to get his jacket when he received a nod 'yes'. A slightly confused yes, as Angel didn't seem to know why he'd bothered asking. Too late, Wesley realized his error -- he'd have the book on him all night, now. Perhaps it would be better to leave it here...then he'd be stuck in Cordelia's apartment with only a ghost for entertainment. No. He'd find some way to hang onto the book for a night.
Perhaps if he left it with the bike, he decided, as he followed Cordelia down to the garage, absently listening to her spiel. Today it was clients who solved their problems by themselves, and thus avoided needing to pay the invoices she had so carefully planned on giving them. Wesley nodded at all the right moments, made appreciative noises, and handed over the bright pink helmet with barely a smirk.
At least Cordelia didn't mind -- it did match her shoes, after all.
"But I am *not* wearing it to the club. I'm wearing yours."
Wesley sighed, but didn't respond. Honestly, he didn't care. Not unless it was a big, bad, brooding vampire he could make wear the silly thing.
At Cordelia's apartment, Wesley wasted no time in parking himself on his sofa with Angel's book. Dennis said a brief hello, which he returned, then he reabsorbed himself into the mysteries of ancient divination techniques, human and otherwise.
He read for half an hour before setting it aside. Cordelia hadn't reminded him he owed her a sandwich, which meant -- hopefully -- he would have time to make two, before she called out for hers.
A quick rummage through her refrigerator yielded enough cold cuts and extras to build four sandwiches. After he set the mustard on the counter he looked around. "Ah, thank you, Dennis." He accepted the floating loaf of bread, then moved aside slightly as two plates came over as well.
He quickly built one sandwich to what he knew where Cordelia's tastes, and gave the Dennis-shaped air a nod as the plate rose, and wafted off towards Cordelia's bedroom. Wesley wondered if she were dressed -- or used to Phantom Dennis invading her privacy when not dressed. Knowing Cordelia, he suspected the former. His suspicions were confirmed when he heard a knock, and a cheery, "If that's my food, come in!"
Alone for the moment, Wesley quickly build three more sandwiches, one similar to the first, just in case. He ate one of the others while he cleaned up the kitchen, then carried the others to the table. He re-opened the book, then, and settled in to wait for Cordelia to decide she was ready.
Dreymour's was nearly half-way across town from where Wesley wanted to be, after dropping off Cordelia. She had smiled at him to show her appreciation -- a genuine smile, which made him think he truly didn't understand how her entrance would be noticed by the right people, but that it would be, somehow.
After watching her sashay towards the entrance, Wesley considered venturing down the street to one of the other clubs nearby, just in case Cordelia ended up needing a ride home. She'd assured him otherwise, but he hated just leaving her here. Granted, it wasn't as if she couldn't simply call if she needed him. And the chances of finding what he needed in this sort of distract were slim.
That decision left another to be made. Did he want to head to a club, tonight? Spend the evening letting some stranger charm him, smile winsomely and hopefully, if things went well, make a quiet offer?
The night was cool, true, and he was tired. It would be nice to sleep with someone tonight, wrapped up in the company of a friendly stranger. On the other hand, he *was* tired. Wesley wasn't sure he was up to playing games -- pleasant though it might be, a warm bed and a willing companion didn't really appeal. Besides, his stomach was full from his large supper, and he'd stolen an orange from Cordelia's kitchen. Not exactly breakfast, but it would certainly do.
Cold, not quite safe, but...easier. Wesley nodded to himself, and aimed his motorcycle back towards the Hyperion hotel. An hour later he had it stashed in the garage, beneath a tarp. He left the book in the saddlebag, locked securely. Then he headed for the back entrance, zipping his jacket up, then slipping his hands into his pockets. He could feel the weight of the orange in the inside pocket.
The night was cooling rapidly when he stepped outside. The neon lights framed the sky, turning the natural blackness into flashes of light and indigo-painted velvet. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen the stars.
He woke with a start, carefully not moving as he tried to determine what had woken him. It was still early, still a few hours until sunrise he surmised; he felt as though he'd only slept a couple hours, yet. He recalled hearing a footstep, and slowly squeezed his fingers around the cross he was holding in his sleep. The stake was mere inches from his other hand, easily grabbed as soon as he began to move.
First, though, he had to verify what it was that had approached. He let his eyes slit open, and peered into the darkness. He was sleeping in the shadows, but the streetlight lit the mouth of the alleyway, several feet past where he lay. There was a figure standing just beyond the edge of the light.
He felt his heart beating still slow as sleep, no rushing tempo to alert a predator to his awareness. He waited for the figure to move closer or move away, so he would know if it were something come to hunt him, or just another madman looking for a place to sleep. He had no proprietary claims to this spot, and the residents of this alley changed slowly, weekly; faces disappearing and being replaced by new, if not identical, ones.
There was a chill, as the night air drifted through the corridor of concrete and trash, making him shiver. Like ice, fingers of doubt and apprehension traced rapid lines down his spine and limbs, stirring him to be ready for action. The figure moved again, and he tensed. Froze, eyes widening as he saw who it was that had come.
They exchanged careful nods, as if neither was quite sure of the other's welcome. In the back of his mind, Wesley could heard the schoolboy's whine, 'why does *he* have to have to be here?'. It made him grin, and the grin made Gunn give him a delightfully bewildered look. Wesley discarded the notion of saying it aloud.
It wouldn't have been appropriate, especially given that Gunn's bewildered expression had gone back to the fierce, what the hell are you doing glare.
"What the hell are you doing?"
Wesley sat up, not yet pocketing the cross but letting his hand fall away from the stake as he shifted the waist of his jacket to give himself room to lean forward without stabbing himself. "Surely, Gunn, you've seen enough of this to know." He was irritated at being discovered, not quite worried. Too tired, perhaps, to realize he should be, he thought.
"It looks like you're sleeping in an alleyway. Are you-- oh, damn," he lowered his voice. "Are you waiting for something? Kill it or capture it?" He quickly searched the area for whatever was lurking in the darkness. "Need any help?" His tone was all-business.
Amused, Wesley shook his head. He yawned, glanced at his watch. Two thirty. A bit later than he'd thought. Perhaps it was getting easier. "I'm not waiting for anything, Charles. I don't need any assistance."
Gunn gave him a dubious look. "You don't, huh? So you're just lying here in a doorway because you like the atmosphere?"
"I'm *lying* here," Wesley snapped, "Because it's the only decent place to sleep. West 4th is crawling with demons and Hyperion Park is full. Do you have any other stupid questions?" He sighed, tried to stamp down his temper. It was hard enough to get any sleep out here, but to be woken by someone who wanted to talk...it made him wish he had gone to the 5120, or the Feathered Cock if he'd been really desperate, and let someone take him home.
Gunn was still glaring at him. Wesley got to his feet, unwilling to continue arguing while sitting on the cold asphalt. They exchanged glares before Gunn said, "Yeah, I got another stupid question. Why are you lying here? They spraying your apartment for vampire roaches?"
"Oh, god, don't even joke about that sort of thing. If vampires could turn cockroaches...." Wesley shuddered. It couldn't be done, could it? He'd heard of the rare occasion when a vampire managed to turn a creature other than human. Hellhounds were descended from vampiric dogs, and there was still supposed to be a tiger roaming the wilds of India, five hundred years after it ate its Sire.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. Think I've already seen 'em, anyway. But you didn't answer my question."
Wesley looked at Gunn, without answering. It wasn't that he hadn't considered that anyone would find him. He had even anticipated that it might be Gunn.
But he hadn't come to any conclusions on what to do, if so.
"Charles...if I told you something that you thought Angel ought to know...would you tell him?"
"I'm assuming it's something you don't want me to tell him."
"Won't know until I know what it is." Gunn shrugged expansively. "If you're gonna say I'm not supposed to tell him you're sleeping on the street -- why are you sleeping on the street? Even if your place is infested with demonic bugs, doesn't Angel have like a thousand empty rooms? He can't let you crash for a few nights?"
Wesley glanced down the alley, saw one of his neighbors lying beneath a pile of papers. Another, farther on, slept sitting up. Perhaps she was passed out; he couldn't tell. He looked back at Gunn. "Do you mind if we walk, while I explain? Now that I'm awake, I find I'm rather cold."
"Nah, come on." Gunn gave him a concerned look, but stepped away, heading towards the sidewalk. Wesley fell into step beside him.
He had his speech prepared -- had had little else to think about for quite some time. He wasn't sure exactly what to tell Gunn, so he simply began. "I've already asked Angel about sharing his hotel. Not directly, of course. But every time I inquire how he feels about it, he's said he wants to live alone. A few days is fine, when Bethany was there he seemed to be all right with it. But only, as he said himself, because she was there temporarily." He glanced over at Gunn. "I asked him about letting some of your people live in the hotel. Get them off the streets. He...apologized for three days, but can't bring himself to allow humans to live in such proximity."
Gunn shrugged. "I asked him myself, once. It's cool. We got places to live--" He gave Wesley a stern look. "It ain't the Hyperion, but it ain't the alleyway, neither."
"Quite." Wesley paused, realized they were walking towards Gunn's truck. He frowned, but continued with his explanation. "The problem, you see, it that it is not for a few days. If it were, I would have moved in regardless -- though I doubt Angel would have refused me permission."
"So who cares? You stay with him for a week or so? So he gets a little grumpy. Isn't it supposed to be good for him, learn to live with humans?"
"It...isn't...." Wesley sighed. He was trying to say as little as possible. It wasn't going to work. He stopped when Gunn began angling them towards his truck. "It isn't a matter of several days. It isn't even weeks. It's going to be months, and I don't wish to impose my presence on him when he very clearly does not want it. Besides, I don't wish to beg charity from him, when he's already--" Wesley forced himself to stop. His job might have been charity, initially. It wasn't, any longer, but it still grated to think of asking for more.
Gunn was giving him a look that said he was beginning to understand. But he said, "Get in."
He jerked his thumb towards the truck. "Get in."
Wesley didn't move. "I am not--"
"Oh, you are. Don't make me call Cordelia and have her throw you into this truck."
For a moment he simply stared. Then he laughed. "You would, wouldn't you?"
"Damn straight. Get in. And keep talking." Gunn walked around to the driver's side door, leaving Wesley to follow.
After a moment's hesitation, he did so. Once he'd shut the door, he found himself relaxing in the seat. It was warmer in here, and definitely more comfortable to be sitting on a cushioned benchseat, than asphalt. He tensed his muscles, to keep himself awake. "I lost my flat."
Wesley gave Gunn a brief glare. "Well, if you'd figured it out, why are you demanding I keep explaining?" He knew it was an absurd question, but he couldn't bring himself to make this easy on the other man. Needling Gunn was...well, it simply was necessary.
"Because you haven't said why you made such a stupid decision--"
"Excuse me. It was not a stupid decision. You might not approve, but it was the only reasonable thing I could do, under the circumstances. It isn't permanent, and I'm quite able to protect myself on the streets at night."
"Right. You and your little cross." Gunn nodded towards the pocket he'd stashed it in.
Irritated, Wesley said coldly, "I was trained from the time I could walk, to train a Slayer to fight. Do you have any idea what that means?"
"That you know how to hold a punching bag?"
"I may not have the strength or agility of a supernatural creature, but I have the skills. How do you train someone if you, yourself, don't know how to fight?"
There was silence, for a bit, while Gunn started the truck's engine and pulled away from the curb. Wesley didn't ask where they were going. Finally, Gunn said, "Fine. So you can kill things that try to eat you. That doesn't make it not a stupid decision. Why'd you lose your apartment, anyway?"
"I simply couldn't afford it." Wesley's voice dropped. "And that's the reason I don't wish you to inform Angel. It isn't his fault, but he'll assume the blame regardless. He...doesn't need more guilt in his life."
"Why would it be his fault? Don't they pay you enough?"
"Not since last spring. It's the Council, you see," he continued quickly. "I angered them, and they've found a rather clever way of expressing their displeasure. When I refused to help them kill or capture Angel, they...concluded that I was in breach of contract. When I became a Watcher, I signed a great deal of forms, agreements to serve the Council in exchange for the training I'd received, the use of Council resources.... Once I was no longer employed by the Council, they felt I should be held responsible."
Gunn glanced over. "They're making you pay them back?"
"Essentially. I imagine the amount was determined arbitrarily. But, four months ago, I received a bill. Payable in installments, which was rather considerate of them. If I fail to pay, I will find someone on my doorstep -- if they can find one -- to either threaten to curse my kneecaps, or hie me off to England."
"So why not ask for a raise?"
"We can't afford to give me a raise. Sometimes we can't-- Angel is already two paychecks behind, from times we simply didn't have enough. The business isn't exactly operating in the black."
"So, ask for a loan?"
Wesley gave him a flat look. "And use what as proof of employment? For references? The only ones who would look twice at my application were loan sharks."
They drove in silence, then. Wesley watched the city go by. Realized he was growing warmer, and sleepier.
"So why didn't you ask me? I got space."
Wesley didn't answer.
"Hey, Wes. I do this all the time -- take people in who got no where to go. Why didn't you ask me?"
He felt himself trembling, and jammed his hands into his jacket pockets. The orange was still there, still had breakfast. As he recognized the area of town they were in, he asked, "Is that where we're headed?"
"You got someplace else you'd rather be?"
"You could help me train my people. All that fancy Watcher training, you probably know even more than I do about how to kill evil slimy things."
"Non-slimy things, too," Wesley said, trying not to think about Gunn's question. He knew why he hadn't asked. He didn't want to find himself saying it.
"Or there's always someone around who needs to be taught how to read. If you wanna--"
"Thank you, Charles," he interrupted. It occurred to him that Gunn was trying rather hard, suddenly. He glanced over, and caught his eye briefly before Gunn looked forward again.
"So that's a yes?"
"Good." He nodded. A moment later, "Told you it was a stupid decision." There was a harsh note in his voice that made Wesley, perversely, want to tell him the truth. Prove it had been the best, after all, possible choice he could make.
The truck turned down a side street, and soon they were parked behind a large building. Gunn's current home, Wesley recognized. Home to a motley collection of streetkids and warriors, banded together to fight for the right to live in safety.
He yawned, and stumbled out of the truck. Gathered himself quickly, woke up by sheer determination and strode quickly towards the door. He was startled when Gunn caught up with him, and tugged on his arm to stop him.
They both stopped, and both stared. Wesley waited for Gunn to decide what he was doing, so he could go inside and find a place to lie down. He realized he could invest in a bedroll, now. Move his clothes from the hotel basement and stop sneaking in and praying Angel wouldn't notice him.
Stop letting total strangers take him home so he could have a night in a bed, and breakfast the next day.
"Nothing. Nevermind. Come on," Gunn shook his head, dropped his hand, and moved towards the door.
As Wesley followed, he tried to decipher the look that had been in Gunn's eyes.