Los Hombres Roboticos
by glossolalia (glossolalia_01 at yahoo.ca)
Spoilers/Time Setting: Takes place between the episodes "The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco" (5x06) and "Lineage" (5x07).
Notes: Thanks to KindKit for amazing beta-work. The Wes Slash Contest coincides nicely with Sheila's birthday. This is for her.
Summary: "Nobody remembers the good stuff."
"All I'm saying, Wes, is that there are no heroes," Angel says over lunch. He takes a long sip of blood and stares back at Wesley, eyes narrowed, the desk a wide gulf between them. "Number Five showed all of us that."
Wesley folds, then unfolds, his paper napkin. "I wasn't there, of course, but I hardly think -"
"No, you weren't. You were back here, playing with your books and prophecies."
"That was -" Wesley grips his fork and focuses on the blade of the axe hanging behind Angel's desk. "Uncalled for."
"You know what I meant," Angel says.
Perhaps; he does know that he ought to have done more.
Wesley dearly wishes he had been able to contribute more to Angel's work with Number Five. He should have participated more, in some way, contributed something and learned a little. That there were champions in the past he knew, but to have been so close to one and never known it: He's disappointed in himself, to say the least.
There was so much he could have learned from Number Five, so much that he might have added, through interviews and less- formal conversations, to the firm's vaults of knowledge. To his own vault, nestled inside his skull.
The gap between knowledge and experience has widened and contracted throughout his adult life. Sunnydale he counts as one of his worst periods. He barely knew *about* experience, except as an irritant and allergen, embodied in Rupert Giles and Buffy and all the rest of them. But since encountering Angel again, joining him and fighting loyally at his side, Wesley had thought he was closing that gap. Bridging it at the very least, experiencing highs like their Pylean campaign as well as lows like their battle against the Beast.
Surely a man who beheaded his dead lover can claim *some* sort of experience?
"I don't think I do know what you mean," he says now, and watches Angel shift uncomfortably. "Of course there are heroes. There were heroes in the past, there are heroes now."
"Maybe," Angel replies. "I guess - it's just. Just not relevant, not here. Not any more. Doesn't seem like it is."
"The disconnect, yes." Wesley waits, and, eventually, Angel nods in agreement, however reluctantly. "Relevance, Angel, defines connection. You have to work for it at times, certainly, but it can be found."
Angel studies his palms.
"If it's any comfort," Wesley adds, "we're all - at least I am - still finding our sea-legs here."
Wesley would like to say something more, but nothing comes to mind. His talents, though useful, are limited. A few days ago, in the midst of the Number Five affair, when Angel asked him if he knew anything about the devil's robot, hope and confidence flared within his chest. His knowledge of history, his command of the past, these could be useful. Yes, of course, he said. El Diablo Robotico.
Flared, then winked out more quickly than a snuffed candle. Angel did not need a history lesson nor a discursion on the metaphorical import of the warrior's heart.
Wesley was sidelined, more an obstacle than useful, bothered more by Angel's lack of heart than anything else. Distracted and a distraction.
So he returned to his desk. Sought comfort in his books, just as Angel charges. And now, now he cannot stop thinking about the robot.
El Diablo Robotico: It is a story his mother had told him many times, borrowed from his father's experience. It was a misnomer, firstly; no robotic devil, not as far as Wesley can tell now, but rather a robot controlled *by* a demon. Possibly *the* demon, though he doubts it. Better to call it El Robot del Diablo, or, even, El Robot Diabolico. But people persist in using the wrong names; mythology takes on its own language, however inaccurate and frustrating to the scholar.
A fantastic story, really: One bright Los Angeles weekday afternoon, an enormous robot lumbered its way from Brentwood across Sunset Boulevard. The citizens of the city treated it as casually - that is to say, as cruelly and banally, unthinkingly so - as they did anything else. Most attributed its appearance to a studio's promotional campaign for a space opera. Others, outraged at how it snarled the already- unbearable traffic and trailed gaping onlookers, tossed litter, then rubbish bins, at it. The robot moved on.
In its wake, it left - nothing. Nothing that Wesley has been able to discover, at least.
Where it came from, what it was meant to do, where it ended up, no one ever knew. There was a brief fad - a few months at the most - for robot-related curiosities, tin toys and salt and pepper shakers, women's hairstyles upswept into doubled antennae (*horns?* he has scrawled in his notes), paint-by- numbers canvases of the spectacle. The pages torn from *Life* and *Look* are yellowing, slick paper gone mottled and flannel-soft. Wesley has turned them over and over, looking for more information, but beyond the fad's all-too-brief lifespan, there is nothing.
The source books are no help, nor are the files in the storage room. He has searched, but came up empty- handed each time. Things are forgotten more and more quickly than ever; now that Numero Cinco himself is dead, there is no link to the event, no way to know what actually happened. It was not important enough for the company to keep any records about, and in both the popular imagination and the local headlines, the robot was soon replaced by the unfolding saga of the Hollywood Ten.
Meanwhile, he has the champion's amulet in his desk drawer, its chain tangled in a ballpoint pen's cap and the amulet itself rattling along with his small change.
"Maybe you need some fresh air," Angel suggests. "Hear that's good for what ails you."
"Thank you," Wesley says, bowing his head to concentrate on stabbing only penne with his fork and leaving the strange bitter greens untouched. "I appreciate your, ah. Concern. But I'm not ailing."
"Weren't you the one going on and on about getting our hearts into the work?"
Wesley glances up and then stares. Angel's leaning across his desk, an expression of real concern on his face. "*Your* heart, I meant. My heart -"
Angel shrugs. "Is elsewhere. Said so yourself. Don't think no one's noticed. *Eve* said something about it."
"So it must be true."
"No, just -" Angel pushes away his travel mug of blood and cracks his knuckles. Wesley has always been taken by how *visibly* Angel thinks, so physically, with such determination. "I worry," he says in a small voice and will not look up.
"When did she say this? It wouldn't happen to have been behind that couch, would it?"
Angel frowns, still looking at his desk blotter, smoothing the invisible wrinkles on its surface. "Yeah."
As it always does, Angel's discomfort is beginning to affect Wesley. He shifts in his seat and places his fork beside his plate. Straightens it, then sighs. "I don't believe my work has suffered." Angel looks up, frowning even more, until his eyes are completely shadowed. "Which is not to say I'm casting aspersions. Suggesting that your work has. But if you're worried, then by all means, I'll get out. Grab some rays, breathe some smog."
Angel smiles then and sits up. "Okay, then. Good."
Wesley returns his smile. Angel really is quite easy to please. "This afternoon all right with you?"
"Huh? Yeah, sure. Whenever, Wes." Angel is already absorbed in a sheaf of papers from his inbox and he barely looks up as Wesley stands and removes the remains of their lunch.
He stops by his office and pockets the amulet. It is no heavier than a pound coin, but its weight is comfortable against his thigh.
Wesley will never return to England, not permanently; the quality of light there is no longer comforting, nor familiar. It is far too dispersed, silvered like old steel or paper through a rainy window. Besides, his family is there.
Los Angeles, however, possesses a striking, glaring light that he cannot seem to grow accustomed to. It is all angles, glittering office towers and low pseudo-Spanish tiles, vortices of clouds and unpredictable vectors off which the light bounces and careens.
He wanders a little through one of the less-trafficked neighborhoods, teetering between shiny gentrification and genteel artistic shabbiness. The tiny shops are either crammed with strange junk or deliberately, severely bare; in both, he feels off-balance. There is either too much to look at or nothing at all.
The stock is also shockingly overpriced. Wesley is comfortable these days, and has made good use of the firm's full opthalmological and dental coverage, but he remains careful with his money. Although he frequently misses the freedom he had when it was just him, a few stakes, and his motorcycle, he has no wish to experience again the sort of persistent hunger he had in those days. Nor the scarlet- throbbing headaches it brought with it.
But if there are remnants of the robot's parade, then surely they will be here, in one of these shops. Somewhere.
He is in the last shop on this particular block, right on the corner, and one of the alarmingly overstuffed ones. Everything crowds in on him: Toys large and small, lunchboxes plastic and metal, little nametags from petrol stations for men named *Butch*, *Bob-O*, and *Jesus*, 1950s pinups so luscious they would be candidates for stomach-stapling today, clicking bead curtains and tall smelly candles in glass decorated with shoddy pictures of martyrs above half-literate accounts of the saints' deeds and the aid they can offer.
He's a bit dizzy, to tell the truth.
Wesley grips the edge of one display case and peers inside. There are toy robots in there, hundreds of them, but he can't be sure if any of them are El Diablo Robotico.
"Hey," the employee behind the counter says.
"Yes, I wonder if you could help me. I'm looking for -"
A soft sound, barely a snort, hardly a cough. Wesley looks up. The face is familiar. Despite the lurid neon swirling over it - spangles from the toy-sized lamps arrayed around the cash register - he recognizes that face. Porcelain-pale, sleepy-hooded eyes that are nevertheless sharp and bright, a long nose and ironically curving mouth.
He knows the face, but it takes a moment and a half, the space of two heartbeats, to retrieve the boy's name. "Oz?"
"Hey, Wesley." He speaks softly and casually, as if they haven't seen each other for several weeks rather than years. As if, to boot, they were good friends. He smiles gently and shakes Wesley's hand. "What can I do you for?"
"Hmm?" Studying Oz, reacquainting himself with the boy's slight hunch and wide green eyes, is distracting Wes. The afterimage of his hand, broad and strong, yet delicate for all that, tingles over Wesley's palm. "What are you doing here?"
Oz taps the cash register. "Working. You?"
"Doing the same, actually. Researching."
"Kitsch 'n Kurios?" Oz asks, repeating the shop's name between what Cordelia used to call 'air-quotes' and pronouncing the abbreviated *and* as a short, propulsive gulp. "Never figured you for the type. You look good, by the way."
Wesley smiles nervously and runs his hand over his dress shirt. "Thank you. As do you, of course."
Oz does look - perhaps *good* is not the best word. Very nice; unchanged, even. He does not seem to have filled out much since his days in Sunnydale, but Wesley likes that. The bulk that Angel and even Gunn sport, admirable as it is, tires him when he thinks about it; he much prefers a tighter, leaner frame. Both Fred and Lilah are - *were* - coltish.
Oz smiles and his brows lift and slant. Surprise? Wesley wonders, or simply amusement? "Thanks." He leans on the counter, arms folded, and tilts his head. If Wesley didn't know better, Oz's posture would suggest that he is flirting. "Left the whole monster game, huh?"
"What? Not at all. In fact, that's what brings me here -" Oz holds up his hand and turns to help a middle-aged woman select just the 'silliest, most outrageous' shirt for a costume party.
It takes a while; Wesley studies the robots in the display case, then crouches to flip through a crate full of old magazines. He watches as Oz listens patiently to the customer, pointing to a narrow rack of garish nylon shirts and nodding along with her chatter. Oz catches his eye at one point, returning Wesley's gaze, and Wesley knows, if only for a moment, that the interest is mutual. Oz squares his shoulders, lifts his chin, and his brows tighten as his gaze lingers on Wesley.
It's ridiculous, or would be, were it not happening. One of the Sunnydale children, puckish and slight, eyeing *him*. Wesley smiles and Oz, charmingly, ducks his head.
"Sorry," Oz says when the beads around the door clatter behind the departing customer. He wipes his hands on his dark trousers - green tapestry, Wesley notices, better suited to an antimacassar than clothing - and touches Wesley's shoulder as he straightens up. "About to have lunch. Join me?"
"It's -" Wesley checks his watch. "Nearly five."
"Yeah," Oz says, sliding his hand down Wesley's arm, leaving a trail of effervescent tingles in its wake. "I start at one, though, so."
He does not bother to complete the sentence; he simply turns and Wesley follows him into the back room - more clutter, no attempt at artful or engaging arrangement, and the smell of mold is much stronger here - and then out a fire exit to the alley.
Oz props open the door with a wedge of wood and turns over a none-too-clean milkcrate for Wesley to sit on.
"What do monsters have to do with overpriced junk?" Oz asks, opening a small brown paper bag.
Wesley tries to explain the Number Five affair while he watches Oz prepare, then eat, his lunch. Two boiled eggs, sliced thinly and sprinkled with salt and pepper from small twists of paper, a piece of dark bread, pale crumbly cheese, and a spread of something that smells just like Marmite.
"It's extraordinary," he says. "A robot, or something that looked like a robot, walking the streets of Los Angeles. And no one remembers it, no one seems to care."
Oz leans forward, dusting crumbs from his lap, a smile deepening the corners of his mouth. "You're kidding. That's pretty amazing."
The benefits of a Sunnydale rearing, Wesley supposes: he could tell Oz just about anything, and the boy would not be fazed. In fact, he seems almost as excited as Wesley himself.
"It was massive, from what I've been able to gather, and in the end, defeated only by a band of - of -" He stumbles over how to describe Los Hermanos Numeros. "A band of masked wrestlers, you see, of a sort, Mexican wrestlers -"
Smiling more broadly, Oz nods rapidly. "Luchadors. Sure."
"You've heard of them?"
Oz taps Wesley's hand, then the face of his watch. "Stick with the ancient stuff. Modern pop culture's all mine."
"I -" Wesley says, and then cannot think of anything to say. Confronted with evidence of his ignorance, he tends to stumble and prevaricate; Gunn used to laugh delightedly and clap him on the back. He leans back a little, but Oz continues to lean in, kindly, interestedly. "Yes, all right."
"So you're looking for the robot?"
"In a word, yes."
"*Cool*. Let me ask around. See what I can come up with."
Wesley swallows the last of the seltzer water Oz had shared with him. He's merely entertaining himself, humoring Angel, following up a bedtime story; he certainly didn't expect - nor does he particularly *need* - help from one of Sunnydale's prodigals. Even one as loose and charming as Oz.
It occurs to him he doesn't even know Oz's real name, let alone what happened to him.
"Oz, really, it's -"
Oz pats Wesley's knee and shrugs. He has been touching Wesley constantly, sharing his food, removing a stray thread from his cuff, simply resting his hand on Wesley's arm. He is reminded, pleasantly, of a small, affectionate monkey, acquainting himself through touch.
The look they shared in the shop returns, dense and sharp, to Wesley's mind. He swallows air and leans in slightly.
"Want to," Oz says. "If that's okay."
"I can't stop thinking about it," Wesley admits. "El Diablo Robotico." "Well, it's pretty awesome. I mean, a mecha driven by Satan? Can't make that up."
"Big roboty body thing, controlled by a pilot. Could be inside, driving, or outside with remote-control." Oz's voice sounds - masterful, Wesley would say in any other context. As if he is quoting some authority with confidence.
"Ah," Wesley says. "I think, though, that it was a robot, an actual one. Moving under its own power."
"Point of looking it up, though, right?" Oz asks. "To find out."
"I suppose so, yes." Wesley smiles at him; he was happy to escape the office, but he could never have predicted that the escape would bring with it an interesting boy with a surprising enthusiasm for Wesley's pet project. "Research does bring its own rewards."
"Yeah, exactly." Oz's hand remains on Wesley's knee, his lacquered fingernails plucking out an unknown tune in the pleat of his trousers. "What're you doing tonight?"
"You can get information that quickly?"
"Nope. Asking you out."
Oz smiles again. He seems to have a thousand and one smiles, each of them subtly different from the others, all of them low-key and difficult to interpret. "Thought I got a vibe. If not, cool."
"No -. I mean, yes -" Wesley says hastily, then clamps shut his mouth. Oz regards him patiently, brows slanting, eyes steady. A vibe, he thinks, recalling the mutual gaze, savoring the light touch of Oz's hand. That's exactly what this is. "I'd love to. I have more research to do, of course, but - Yes."
Oz stands, brushing off the seat of his trousers. Wesley looks up, startled, mouth opening to ask what's wrong.
"Know I should, like. Drop everything and join the quest Right the Hell Now," Oz says, then shrugs. "But my break's almost up and my manager's an asshole."
He offers Wesley a hand up, then pulls him in close, kissing him with warm, open mouth, hand on Wesley's neck. It's been far too long, Wesley realizes, because he has forgotten how a simple kiss can feel like the center of the world, alpha and omega, how it sets his skin to tingling and murmuring. Oz kisses well and thoroughly, lets Wesley push his hand through his hair and sweep his tongue around Oz's lips before moving inside, insistent and exploratory.
"See you later?" Oz asks as he steps away, trailing his fingernails down the center of Wesley's chest, over the placket and buttons. "Close up at nine."
"Mmm," Wesley says. Nods, because he has nothing else to say and does not want to disturb the throbbing in his mouth, over his skin. The vibe, spreading like ripples in a pond, alternately warming and chilling. "Nine."
He makes his way back to the office and spends a restless half hour turning over papers and signing reports. Angel sticks his head in, assures himself that Wesley is looking "looser", and then Wesley escapes home.
He hasn't been on a date in years. His meetings with Lilah were hardly dates, exhilarating as they always proved to be. Before that, there were one-night stands. The benefits and premieres to which he accompanied Virginia were dates, but once in a tuxedo, with a vivacious woman on his arm, he had nothing to worry about. He was the escort, presentable and worldly; he played the role exceedingly well until he was shot.
He ought not to have worried. His date with Oz is nothing like the awkward dinners one sees in films, nor is it the tempest of overweening passion one sees in *other* sorts of films. They eat Mexican, share two pitchers of margaritas, and it is all - comfortable. Oz touches him quite a bit and Wesley realizes, halfway through the pitcher, that he is returning the touches. Small swipes of his fingers over the fine ginger hairs on the back of Oz's hand, idle toying with his clutter of bracelets, lariats, beads.
The fact that Oz is a werewolf is invisible but unforgettable. His curse is nothing so obvious as a vampire's - no blood at their meal, only tammales and grilled shrimp - but ever-present. While Oz describes the various part-time positions he has held since arriving in the city, Wesley listens but cannot help recalling the corpse of the wolf that bit Nina Ash. Stretched out on a metal table in the lab, its pelt peeled back, its jaws spiked with teeth, it was revolting, horror at its most naked. Faint disgust, reminiscent and reflexive more than anything, peppers Wesley's current ease with Oz, his interest in the boy.
Facts are transparent but unassailable, plate-glass that, violated, will rip one to shreds. Razor-wire, delimiting boundaries. It is difficult, but not impossible, to look at this boy and see the monster. Wesley cannot ignore facts, but he can catalogue them, keep them separate.
"- but I'm not temp material," Oz concludes and when he blinks, his face is a lovely, angular mask, an ancient's depiction of humanity. He smiles and is a young man again, touching the nape of his neck. "That much's clear."
Whether it is the touch or simply the tequila, Oz flushes quickly. The pinkness in his cheeks accentuates his youth, despite the shadow of stubble over his jaw. Wesley wonders, not at all idly, how far below his collar that flush extends.
It darkens a little and Oz's eyes narrow when Wesley insists on paying. He says, "I'm working for a multinational, possibly multidimensional, conglomerate. You're a shop assistant. Let me."
Oz pulls out his wallet and says flatly, "Asked *you* out."
Oz pulls his hand out from beneath Wesley's and shakes his head. "Hate dates. Like the company, but hate this."
His voice is soft, almost hoarse, and Wesley takes his hand again. For one so self-possessed and casually unconventional, Oz seems to take the oddest bits of etiquette seriously. He is upset, frustrated, and Wesley knows just how that feels.
"I like the company, too," Wesley says, and realizes that it's true. "Thank you."
The discomfort passes in the time it takes Oz to give him a slight smile.
"Think you're looking in the wrong places," Oz says in the cab back to Wesley's flat. Their hands are entwined on the seat between them and his leg is slung over Wesley's knee as if he always sits like this. "File-rooms? Archives, that sort of thing. Robot's probably elsewhere."
"Well, yes. Since it's not there."
"True. But - you're in LA. Ever occur to you to look at what made this town?"
Wesley pays the driver and unhooks Oz's leg from his, already missing its weight as he climbs from the cab. "Citrus agriculture and unionbusting?"
"Again, true," Oz says. "But no. Think, Wes."
They are in the flat and Oz wanders a little, inspecting the books on the shelves and hefting the laptop. From the settee, Wesley watches him, admiring Oz's easy grace, and even when he realizes that he is staring, he can't seem to summon any reason to stop.
"Hollywood," Oz says finally, dropping his hands on Wesley's shoulders and settling lightly, then more heavily, into Wesley's lap, straddling him. "Ground zero of the culture industry."
"I don't think -" He wants to say he doesn't think Hollywood has anything to do with the robot, but the phrase he managed to speak is true on its own. He can't think, not with Oz in his lap, fingers flexing and digging into the knots in his shoulders, bright eyes levelled right at him. He smells like the margaritas' limes and of mole sauce, citrus and dark chocolate, and he smiles again when Wesley shifts forward and slides an arm around his waist.
So many facts and personae, incommensurable but coexisting: hot skin against Wesley's own, a flush that begs to be licked, a Sunnydale boy, witness to some of his greatest gaffes, a werewolf, a potential comrade.
"Might not be an accident, it appearing here," Oz says, then sighs, long and languorous, when Wesley presses his mouth against his throat. He wants to taste the flush, feel its heat on his tongue, and Oz drops the rest of his weight against Wesley's groin as he works one hand through the back of Wesley's hair. "But then again -"
"Sssh." Wesley kisses his way along the sharply angled jaw to Oz's ear and smiles when Oz shivers and sighs again, fingers tightening in his hair. The significant facts now are only the weight and pressure of Oz, the heat of his flush, Wesley's own spiralling hunger and interest; the rest retreat into irrelevance.
"Quiet time, huh?"
"Something like that," Wesley says, working Oz's shirt free from his waistband and shivering himself when Oz drops his head and kisses the base of his throat. "Though if you're noisy -"
He feels Oz's smile spread against his skin, just over his pulse-point and shivers again.
Oz is not exactly noisy, nor overly aggressive, but he is eager, skilled and hungry. He twists under Wesley's hands, surprises him with nipping licks in the oddest places - inside of his elbow, nape of his neck - and asks for more, always for more, giving as much, more, than he receives.
Wesley shouldn't be surprised; he hates it when people voice their shock at his own talents in bed. As if a quiet demeanor should betoken chilly, anxious passivity, should promise a fervent acceptance of anything anyone deigns to grant him.
He isn't surprised, he thinks, hours later while Oz fixes something to eat and Wesley lies on his back in bed, still catching his breath, the oily-bleach scent of sex and musk hovering around him, clinging to him. He's delighted.
"Gunshot," Oz says.
Wesley starts awake. "Hmm?"
He must have dozed off; Oz sits crosslegged next to him, drinking from a bottle of water, his free hand on Wesley's chest. He taps the scar on Wesley's belly with his thumb. "Gunshot wound."
Oz twists and drops his shoulder. "Got one, too."
"Hazards of the trade, I suppose," Wesley says, caressing the small scar on Oz's upper arm, then pulling him over. He'd never be so thick as to suppose that Oz is in any way effeminate, but he does like the boy's small size. Easy to pull and tug him over his own body, cup his skull in both hands, and kiss him.
"What trade?" Oz asks, breathless, breaking the kiss a long while later.
Wesley squints against the dark. "Oh, you know. The good fight. The eternal battle. Dark versus light. That one."
Oz laughs, low and throaty, and moves against Wes. "That's your gig. Not mine."
Oz is silent, brows knitting, and he starts to pull away, but Wesley wraps his arm around the small of his back.
"Oz." He hardly knows anything about Oz, where he has been, what he's doing here; Wesley needs to remember this. "Oz."
"Yeah, Wesley?" A tone Wesley hasn't heard before, patient but strained; it reminds him, unpleasantly, of Angel.
Oz sighs. "Can we fool around some more? Or sleep? Maybe I should get going."
Wesley rubs his back, damp with sweat, enjoying the smooth tautness of Oz's skin, how perfectly it stretches over narrow muscles and thin bones. "I apologize."
Oz kisses the side of Wesley's mouth and rocks his hips a little. Spent and aching as he is, Wesley still hardens slightly, and catches Oz's tongue in his teeth.
They don't talk after that; Wesley loses himself in the downy secrets of Oz's lower back, the ever-changing taste of his mouth, and rolls them over, pinning the boy and grinding against him until Oz laughs and opens his legs. Pulls Wesley in and down.
Facts are manifold, wolf and boy, danger and enthusiasm, and Wesley has to trust himself enough to keep them all simultaneously in mind.
Wesley looks Oz up as soon as he can.
The information is there, thanks to Nina Ash, but Oz is absent.
Nina had arrived in the firm's lobby one Monday morning aflame with enthusiasm. She was still deeply shaken by the wolf bite, convinced that only Angel and Wolfram and Hart could help her survive - triumph over - her affliction. She proposed, with Angel's indulgence and Fred's help, to gather information on all the lycanthropes in the greater metropolitan area.
"For their own good," she had said, "so none of us are *alone*." Angel noted - whether dryly or sincerely, Wesley could not tell - that solitude was certainly overrated.
Fred nearly vibrated with glee, her face alight as she grinned. She was eager to use a new "POO" protocol for the recordkeeping. "Post-object-oriented," she said, severely, when both Gunn and Angel started to laugh. "Really, guys. Grow up."
There is no trace of Oz anywhere in the records, not in the final database, nor in the queue of potential monsters. Certainly not among those werewolves who had already received the tracking chip. The chip was modified from something used at the Humane Society and Nina is, of course, Patient One.
Wesley doesn't entirely understand why the chip is necessary nor why a werewolf would agree to its insertion. Nina spoke mostly of the comfort of knowing one is not alone, while Fred listed all the research potential. "Pack behavior, mating habits, rate of bite incidents," she said, counting the items off on her fingers. "Stuff we can't even imagine now."
"Control, neutralization, behavior modification?" Spike asked, appearing, as always, out of nowhere. Fred had nodded, grinning, about to agree, but Spike interrupted her. "Really going all out," he said, rubbing his temples in a curious moment of apparent thoughtfulness before straightening up, making to stride through the nearest wall. "Well, it's your funeral. Your concentration camp, whatever. Cheers."
Wesley even performs a search by image, thinking that Oz, were he to appear, might be under a false name.
He hates such searches; the keywords for photographs are never broad enough, or are so broad - male, Caucasian, redhead - as to be absolutely useless. Yet he scrolls through screen after screen of photographs, searching through anonymous face after anonymous face. These are just a fraction of the city's monsters, and his eyes burn. No Oz.
It's with some puzzlement, perhaps a trace of pride, then, that at their next meeting - crabcakes and root beer at the piers - Wesley says, "You're undocumented, you know."
Oz touches the skin behind his left ear. "Unchipped, too. Fear me. Grr."
Wesley finds himself smiling. It's absurd, really, to imagine this slight, self-sufficient boy requiring - let alone submitting to - the kind of bureaucratized controls Nina and Angel have been attempting to erect.
It's a strange feeling; he ought to feel the spirit of Nina's pet project, share Fred's uninhibited enthusiasm. Knowledge comes from information. He's always known this. Collection of facts and induction from those facts are the bedrock of research, of rational thought, and thus of progress. From Aristotle onward, enumerative induction has preceded all conclusions. Logic, the enterprise of reason itself, would be dismantled if one could not infer that separate predications about an individual member of the class can be predicated of the class as a whole.
Perhaps Oz is just the necessary exception. A sport, singular and unique.
"Just seemed kinda fascist," Oz says and hands Wesley a napkin. The day is overcast, but even beneath clouds, his hair ruffled by a slight breeze, Oz seems slightly luminescent. As if his skin carries its own low-voltage light, dispersed and warm. "Told them to come back, my roommate wasn't home."
"And they've left you alone?"
Oz smiles around the lip of his soda can. "Nah. They're pretty insistent. But my friends aren't getting listed, either."
Wesley hears 'friends' and knows what it means. "So you do have a pack."
Oz sets his can down carefully on the bench between them and takes a breath. "You chatting or researching, Wes?"
"I'm not sure, to be perfectly honest."
"Don't have a pack," Oz says. "We're just friends." He smiles then, more widely than usual, and touches the back of Wesley's wrist. "Which sounds like bullshit. But it's true."
"All right," Wesley says, turning Oz's palm and stroking his thumb. He is not sure whether he believes Oz, at least not fully. He knows so little about the boy - where he has been, what exactly he is doing in the city, why he's thrown himself into Wesley's research with such fervor - but he reminds himself to take a breath and relax. Oz is not the subject of his study; Oz is, rather, or so Wesley would like to think, becoming his friend.
"Given any more thought to the Hollywood angle?" Oz asks. "Thinking the studios might be the way to go with the robot."
"It's an interesting proposal," Wesley says. "I believe I've dug up everything I'm going to find using the firm's resources."
Oz nods, his face tightening in what Wesley is coming to recognize as his thinking expression. Intent and alert, if utterly quiet. After a few moments, he leans over and withdraws a small notebook from his knapsack. It is wider than it is tall and bound with a garish Hindu cartoon on the cover. Wesley recognizes Kali and Ganesh amid the clutter of bright-green foliage and slinking tigers.
"See, though, I looked at both editions of _Hollywood Babylon_," Oz says, paging through his scrawled notes, "and came up dry."
Oz grins slightly. "Borrowed a video dub of Anger's _Fireworks_, too, since it's about the right era. 1947, right?"
Wesley nods. "Yes, near as I can tell. Anything of interest?"
"Cool flick. Lots of stuff on sexual violence." Oz draws his finger down the center of one page, squinting. "Guy had some major phallic issues."
"None of this has anything to do -" Wesley breaks off as soon as he *hears* himself. He sounds impatient, the needs of research outweighing simple politeness and friendship.
Oz shrugs and shades the page with his hand. "Probably not. Interesting, though."
Research, the accumulation of knowledge, has its own physical laws; Wesley has often thought of information as having both weight and volume. Correctly assembled and arranged, knowledge should press out the solution, bring all its dense weight to bear on producing the answer.
Oz's facts, however, do not arrange into anything resembling solutions. They merely present shifting, cycling constellations, shapes with fairytale meanings of analogy and suggestion.
"Is there anything," Wesley asks, schooling his voice and concentrating on the faint peachfuzz, illuminated in the strong sunlight, on Oz's forehead, "about our mystery?"
"About the robot? Nada."
"So we're back where we started. Where I started."
"Didn't say that. Got a tip from a guy who works my corner to follow up the lucha libre angle."
Wesley blinks as he tries to sort through the bizarre elements that compose Oz's last statement. *Tip-works the corner-lucha libre*. It is a jumble of sound without any sense.
"Hustler," Oz says, and Wesley knows his confusion must have shown on his face. "Name of Hank, sometimes Enrique. He suggested the luchadors might be the way to go."
He'd like to know how Oz is on a first-name basis with the local hustler population, but Oz has found something else in his notes.
"Did you know Anger was only fifteen when he made _Fireworks_? Not even his first movie, either. Cool, huh?"
"Quite interesting," Wesley says slowly, wondering what possible relevance *this* can have.
"Don't know anybody who did anything important like that when they were fifteen."
"Well, you *did*," Wesley points out. "Once."
Oz strums the corner of the pages with his thumb for several moments. Without looking up, he says, finally, "Yeah."
They are silent, Oz consulting his notes, Wesley watching him and wondering how to apologize. Wondering, moreover, what he would be apologizing for. Oz's reticence about Sunnydale is frustrating; while it was what brought them together, every time it is mentioned, their conversation falters.
Oz's neck curves like something carved, a buttress or the fluting atop a column, the shadows of clouds catching in the valley above his shirt-collar as they pass overhead.
Wesley's pager rings, startling him, although Oz does not stir. Checking its text display, he sees that Eve is reminding him of a one o'clock conference call.
"I am sorry," he says, rising, grasping Oz's shoulder. "But -"
"S'okay," Oz says, looking up, still squinting. "I'll see what I've got on luchadors and stuff. Can I call you?"
"Of course." Oz's politeness surprises him; everything about him, from his loose posture to casually unconcerned touch, suggests that Oz should not even be aware of etiquette, let alone follow its dictates. "Call. Or drop by, whatever you like."
Oz nods once, nearly solemnly. "I'll call."
Wesley worries; guilt is nearly implacable, though he has gotten better over the years at recognizing it for what it is. Guilt is his father's voice, the authority of the Council, every soul on earth convinced of his worthlessness.
Guilt is not, necessarily at any rate, *true*. He tells himself, repeatedly, until it becomes something of a mantra, nearly as impenetrable as a koan, that he is all right.
He is both distracting himself from the tedium of work *and* endeavoring to contribute to their knowledge of the past, of demonic activity, of idiosyncratic local history. He is not neglecting his work.
He could easily become obsessed with unravelling the story of El Diablo Robotico. He *knows* himself, knows just how tenaciously his mind can cleave to questions and mysteries. This tendency of his is best reserved for important matters, translation and the shanshu prophecy and the like.
The obsession, however, is already building; hence the guilt.
He can blame boredom at work, alienation from his colleagues, even what seems to be a burgeoning infatuation with Oz. Whatever the cause, he cannot stop wondering about the robot. That history has evaporated, the recent past vanishing as irrevocably as the dying words of a medieval peasant, seems impossible. Certainly *wrong*.
The amulet is in his pocket wherever he goes. He needs no reminder that heroes can be recalled, that one should still care about duty and destiny, but he has grown used to its presence.
He isn't certain, still, ever, why *Oz* should care.
Oz cares about smaller things, the quotidian and the transient. Even in the full flush of desire, when he's marbled white and pink, his mouth hanging open and legs wrapped tightly around Wesley's waist, he is precise, attending to the small scale, the immediate.
"Why?" Wes asks him that evening. "Why are you -"
Oz kisses him, hands on his neck, thumbs just under his chin. "Let's just say - got a thing for bespectacled ex- Watchers."
It's easy to smile around him, and Wesley does so now. 'Bespectacled' hardly sounds like a natural part of Oz's vocabulary, which only reinforces the implicit, startling association of the boy with Rupert Giles. The fact disturbs Wesley in a deep way, one which he cannot precisely name; Rupert is everything Wesley once feared becoming, soft and aged and prone to sentimentality, while Oz is fresh, young, hopeful but still pragmatic.
He draws his hand down Oz's narrow chest and shakes his head. "No, I meant - why this? The search?"
"Oh," Oz says. "Dunno. It's interesting?"
"Yes. There is that."
He wishes, just for a moment, that he, too, could be satisfied like that. That he could do something simply because it interests him. He would like to ask Oz *how* he does that, how he seems to exist without much concern for the future.
The oddest part of it, Wesley knows, is that if he could find the words, Oz would probably answer him. But Oz, citing an early workday, leaves the flat soon thereafter and Wesley sleeps alone, tangled in questions.
He dreams of El Diablo Robotico, watches a vivid Technicolor spectacle as it marches toward him, looming, heaving one immense blocky foot at a time. A ridiculous, leering grin is painted across its face. A silver wolf trots alongside the robot, the corpse of an infant lolling bloodily in its jaws.
Wesley does not have prophetic dreams. He is not a Slayer, not Angel; he isn't even a Watcher. His dreams, like his self, are incidental and meaningless. Knowing all this, however, only partially forestalls the clutch of anxiety as he wakes the next morning.
"Haven't seen you around much," Angel says. He hovers in the doorway while Gunn slips into Wesley's office, pulling up a chair next to the desk and dropping a sack of food between them. "Everything all right?"
"Quite all right." Wesley makes room for Gunn and untangles plastic forks from the handful of straws at the bottom of the sack. "I've simply taken your advice. Gotten out of the office."
"Oh." Angel looks surprised and confused simultaneously. He offers Wesley a smile. "That's going well?"
"Better'n well, I'd say. Looky those pink cheeks." Gunn knocks Wesley's elbow and ducks theatrically out of the way of retaliation. "You working out, Wes?"
Wesley feels himself smile. Oz's energy is a wonder; he'd never have suspected quite so much resided in that small, quiet body. Nodding gravely, he says, "You could say that."
Gunn's grin spreads slowly as he claps Wesley's shoulder, then grips it hard. "*Dog*. Whatever it takes to raise that heartrate, huh?"
He understands that Gunn understands - subtext, and male- bonding, and sexual conquests - and for the first time since they moved into these offices, Wesley feels all the ease and comfort of their former fellowship.
A few days pass, and Wesley finds himself wondering where Oz might have got to. He considers dropping by the shop, but he's unsure of when Oz works there; Oz seems to have at least three different jobs, all under the table, all part-time. He cannot call Oz, as he never thought to ask for his phone number.
He doesn't recall giving Oz his email address, though it's easy enough to figure out, he supposes: w.wyndam- email@example.com. Only that can explain how he receives a characteristically terse message from Oz just as he's about to chuck in propriety and drive to the shop.
*w - got some stuff. meet me tomorrow morning at cafe society. o.*
Wesley can be every kind of fool; he *knows* this, but it doesn't stop him from rereading the message countless times, nor from finding its pseudo-Cummings lack of initial capitals and the utter absence of specifics - time, details on just what the 'stuff' might consist of - anything but terribly charming. He could be meeting an assassin, his drug dealer, an arms runner, anything, given the message's vagueness. It's disconcerting as well as rather exciting.
After checking in at the office, he makes his stealthy escape. This must be how schoolchildren feel, slipping away from the group, running out as truants. After much wandering up one-way streets and down boulevards, finds Oz sitting outside the tiny cafe, shoulders hunched, hands wrapped around a tall paper cup of coffee.
"Morning," Oz says when Wesley sits next to him. He nudges a paper bag closer to Wes. "Bear claw?"
"No, thank you."
Oz sounds croaky, and he looks nearly as tense as Angel does these days. When Wesley touches his hand, trying to loosen the grip he has on his coffee, Oz nearly flinches. He recovers in an instant, blinking rapidly as he attempts a smile. "Sorry. Long night. How're you? What's up? New? Old?"
Wesley takes a moment. To swallow, to absorb the gentle barrage of questions, to assure himself that Oz really is all right. "I'm fine. We seem to be in something of a valley, work-wise. Everything's fairly quiet. I'm -"
Oz is nodding slowly as he listens. The sun behind him lights up his mussed hair, every strand and spike flaming, the ginger stubble brightens along his jawline, and his eyes, shadowed in their sockets, glint slightly.
He looks exhausted and perfectly lovely.
When Wesley pauses, Oz's expression does not change, but his eyes seem to widen.
"It's good to see you," Wesley says finally. Slowly, as slowly as he would unfold an original document, he reaches across and strokes his knuckles down Oz's sharply-angled jaw. Rasping stubble, boysmooth skin: Wesley is beginning to think of Oz not only as a sport but as something nearly dialectical, a synthesis of opposites in almost every way.
Oz not only allows the touch, but his eyes close briefly and a sigh's soft gust passes over Wesley's hand. "Yeah, you, too," Oz says, opening his eyes and smiling. A true smile this time. "Thanks."
"If you'd rather go back to bed -" Wesley starts to say, then hears himself and coughs. "That is -"
"I'm okay," Oz says and rolls his shoulders before taking a long sip of coffee. Wesley watches his adam's apple rise and fall and wishes, suddenly and intensely, for something to do with his hands. His palms burn and itch. "You ready for some legwork?"
"You don't seem to be in any condition -"
Wesley swallows once and says, as gently as he can, "You look like hell."
Oz snorts and pulls back. "Thanks."
"Let me take you home. Errands can wait."
Slumping a little, one arm wrapped around his waist, Oz appears to have lost five pounds he can sorely afford. "Don't you have work? Evil to vanquish, people to save?"
"I'll check my calendar," Wesley says lightly and Oz smiles wanly. "But first I'm taking you home."
On the way to the car, they pass a Korean-Japanese restaurant and Oz stops. "Going to grab some soup and bulgogi. You want anything?"
Without thinking, Wesley takes Oz back to his flat, sits him on the couch and fetches utensils and a plate for him.
"How was your night?" In the kitchen, Wesley had consulted the calendar; just as he'd suspected, last night was the full moon. No wonder Oz has inhaled nearly all the shredded beef. He spilled some down his shirt and Wesley hands him a napkin.
"Fair to middling." Oz daubs at the stain, succeeding only in widening it. Wesley thinks his hands might be shaking. "Had worse."
"I recall Rupert Giles telling -" He hesitates on the pronoun; Rupert always spoke to Cordelia, never to Angel and rarely to Wesley. "Telling us that you'd mastered the change."
"Something like that." Oz twines his string of wooden beads around the middle finger on his left hand. When he looks up and sees Wesley waiting, he sighs. Oz's discomfort is nearly palpable and Wesley regrets having mentioned Rupert and, by extension, Sunnydale. "More complicated than that. It's -" "No need to tell me," Wesley says as he sits back. It's none of his business, after all, the boy's past, his present problems. Of course he wouldn't want to talk about the lycanthropy with a Wolfram and Hart employee.
"No, it's -" Oz rolls one shoulder and narrows his eyes. "I guess, see -"
Wesley removes the plate from the coffee table and shakes his head. "Really. None of my business."
"Oh," Oz says. He appears to deflate, just fractionally - a dip of the shoulders, slight downward tilt of his face. "Okay."
Wesley realizes that he's hurt Oz's feelings, and the thought brings him up short. "I didn't mean to cut you off. I'm sorry."
"S'okay. Just - guess I *wanted* to tell you. Or something." Oz laughs a little, as if he can hardly believe his own statement. "Weird, huh?"
He is coming to know Oz's body. The changing textures of his skin from hip to knee, fingers to neck, the scent of his hair and rhythm of his breathing. The rabbit-skitter of his pulse. Wesley has been inside Oz, felt him contract and heard him groan, and it doesn't matter how often he has fucked since he was seventeen, it's always half a miracle to feel someone from the inside, from all the slick and secret places.
What's more, Wesley thinks now, he is coming to know Oz's mind, how strange it is, foreign and bright as the night sky below the Equator. But knowledge and experience have only taken him so far.
"Weird, perhaps," he says, setting down the plate and joining Oz on the couch. "Nevertheless, I'm glad."
Very glad, he thinks, as Oz curves against him, immensely and surprisingly glad.
He once told Angel that he trusted him: the first time, lowering themselves into the sewers while the Council's operatives surrounded the building and Buffy went after Faith. He is certain that, to this day, Angel does not understand quite what it took for him to say that. Trust is an illusion, delicate and foolhardy as kissing your own reflection. It is one of the first illusions separated from truth, then shredded and destroyed, by Council training. Wesley, of course, stopped trusting long before he officially joined the Council.
He does trust Oz. He suspects that he has always trusted Oz, that Oz somehow supplies trust through his pores, through the air he breathes, on the sweetness of his tongue.
Oz wants to trust him in return, Wesley is coming to understand. He does not know *why*, however. Whether it is because of the dispute over whether to rescue Willow from the Mayor, or his status as Watcher (however manqué), or, most likely of all, his present allegiance to Wolfram and Hart, the boy has every reason to distrust him.
"How's a guy like you become - *you*?" Oz asks the next morning. Wesley had managed to convince him to stay; he'd thought it would take bribery and wheedling, but the mere question and mention of a diner breakfast had done the trick.
Wesley sits up against the headboard and reaches for his glasses. "Nearly preordained, I think. Family, Watchers, tradition -"
"But that's not *you*," Oz says, bending over to retrieve his boxers from the floor. He glances over his shoulder, catches Wesley admiring the twist of his spine, and smiles. "That's them."
"It's me as well."
Oz wriggles backward as he pulls on his boxers and then rests his head against Wesley's knee. "So say you were you but, like, switched at birth. Would you still have joined the Watchers? Or would you be a professor somewhere?"
"Ah, but I wasn't. Or if I was, then nurture is fate."
"Okay," Oz says. "What about me? That preordained? The wolf, meeting Willow, all of that?"
Wesley slips his hand into Oz's hair, stroking the hot scalp and smiling down. "I expect those were accidents."
"What gets to count?"
That, Wesley cannot answer. He cannot think of Oz as evil, but he is tainted. The wolf lives in his marrow and his mind, inextricably entwined with whatever it is that makes us human.
It takes a curse, arcane and difficult, to lock Angel's soul to the demon; Oz's curse is deeper, more natural - if one can speak of nature and evil together - and it suspends him permanently between man and beast.
Something in Wesley responds to Oz's predicament, recognizes itself in that suspension. There are very few flawless people - Fred, of course, and he would haave included Gunn in that group, once, before his intellectual upgrade - and the majority of the others are as troubled and riven with problems as Oz and Wesley are.
In the prolonged silence, Oz twists away and resumes dressing. Wesley coughs, and apologizes, and sees Oz shrug.
"Not a big deal."
Oz has his shirt buttoned halfway, but the barbecue sauce he splashed down its front the previous evening appears to stop him. He picks at it with his fingernail, then indicates the closet in the corner. "Could I -? I wouldn't ask, but I've got work later."
"Of course," Wesley says, reaching for his watch. "Help yourself."
The thought of Oz, skinny and boyish, swamped in one of Wesley's own shirts, is more than attractive. It sweeps out the tension between them, restores the light, affectionate flirting he realizes he has come to depend on. He sits on the edge of the bed, watching as Oz flips through his clothes; the muscles in his hips stretch and bunch like vines as he moves.
"What're these?" Oz asks, reaching into the back of the closet and pulling out Wesley's old leather trousers. "*Nice*."
"A relic from my entrepreneurial days." Wesley has kept the trousers for nearly five years now, out of both nostalgia and self-recrimination. They constitute a reminder of sorts, memento vitae of foolish choices and misguided arrogance. "The motorcycle is garaged."
"Left Sunnydale on a hog, huh?"
"A Triumph, actually."
Looking down at the trousers, Oz says quietly, "I drove a van. Not nearly so cool."
Their respective exiles, their failures on the Hellmouth, are, Wesley understands now, at the core of what's brought Oz to him. Kept him here, despite their differences and antipodean outlooks. "Leaving was the important thing."
Nodding, Oz holds the hanger to his waist and meets Wesley's eyes. "Good point. Like to see you in these."
Laughing, Oz makes a show of checking the clock. "Nah. Rather have enough time to, you know. *Appreciate* them."
Wesley drops Oz off at another shop - architectural and design books - before going to the office. Waiting for the elevator, watching the numbers descend, he wonders how Angel can bear to live in the same place he works. Being able to come and go, to leave the office behind, to see Oz and conduct his research in private seem, suddenly and forcefully, to be precious facts.
When something cold and sharp pinches the back of his neck, he starts and controls the urge to whirl around. Instead, he turns slowly and finds Fred grinning at him. "Morning, Wesley. Little jumpy?"
"As ever," he says. Her presence makes Wesley feel as if a small, vivid songbird has become trapped in his ribcage, a sensation at once wonderful and highly disconcerting. "How are you?"
"You look great," Fred says. Her lipstick is a bright pink today, worthy of Harmony, and he wonders why she feels the need to paint herself. "I'm so happy, you look a million times better -"
Wesley hasn't been able to look her in the eye since the Halloween party. Fred is good, proof that physiognomy can indeed reflect one's soul. He thought, while under the influence of Lorne's hysteria, that he might share himself with her.
He is such a fool; this feeling around Fred, crystalline anxiety, ridiculous optimism, and schoolboyish stuttering, none of this is at all like him. "Thank you," he says now, smoothing down his shirtfront as they enter the elevator. "Keeping busy?"
"Oh, you know, it never stops." Her voice is liquid and silvery, and although Wesley has never been to Texas, he imagines that the birds must sound like this, calling to the sunrise. "Grind, grind, grind. I love it."
"How goes Nina's database?"
Fred pushes her glasses up and grins wryly. "You try translating seers' prophecies and reports into a standardized protocol. If it wasn't for this XML schema Knox found, I don't know what we'd do. He's the prince of metadata, he really is -"
As they walk toward the lab, her technical language spills over him and Wesley simply nods. Perhaps this is how Gunn and Angel feel - vacant, frustrated - when he himself starts talking about demonology.
"Sorry," Fred says, linking her arm through his and slowing her step. "It's just so *neat*, when you get down to it. Wrapping all these mystical notes into something machine- readable. Preserving them so the field teams can go out and -"
He thinks of Oz answering the door and finding one of those field teams. In his imagination, Oz had probably been awakened from a nap, flushed with sleep, scratching his chest as he yawned and told them to go away. Fred pushes open the door to her office and gestures excitedly for Wesley to sit down.
"So the seers predict where the werewolves are?" Wesley asks. "No other details?"
Fred nods. "And then we go out and get the details - vital stats, driver's license number, all that. It's the *coordination* that's getting me here, mystical and ordinary and making them interoperate. When it comes together, it's going to be like this big shiny explosion of gestalt!"
"I'm sure it will," Wesley says. Her eyes are shining, beautiful and childlike. He thinks again of his Halloween hopes, the impulse to touch her, whisper to her, confess and be forgiven. He still doesn't know what he needs to confess. Coughing, he leans forward and says, "I wonder if -"
Fred sits back and adjusts her glasses again. "Sorry. You can't possibly care about this. What can I do for you?"
"Robots," Wesley says. "Old ones."
"That's Charles' hobby."
"Actually, robotics. Technology, its history, that sort of thing."
"I'm not sure," Fred admits. Her mouth twists slightly in frustration. Like Wesley himself, she hates not knowing the answer immediately and guilt at bringing the frown to her face pierces Wesley's chest. "Maybe Knox could -?"
He doesn't want to talk to that grinning cretin if he doesn't have to. "Perhaps, then, you could answer a fairly straightforward question?"
Grinning with obvious relief, Fred relaxes. "Shoot."
"Late 1940s," Wesley says. "The technology surely hadn't advanced enough yet for a true robot to walk the streets on its own? Navigate, make decisions, that sort of thing?"
Fred frowns, clenching her hands as she always does when concentrating. "No," she says slowly. "The microprocessors hadn't even been invented yet. Nope. Only way that could happen is if someone was sitting inside, driving it -" "A mecha," Wesley says, quoting Oz.
Her eyes widen in surprise. "Yes, like *BattleTech*. Was Charles playing that when you two - when -." She takes a breath and twists her pencil in her hands. Wesley observes her discomfort, but knows that to reassure her will only make Fred more nervous. Still, he would like to - touch her silky hair, hold her against his chest. "That, or something mystical. Kinda like a metal golem, maybe?"
"I see," Wesley says carefully. Without quite knowing *why*, he doesn't want to tell her that he thought the same thing. Golem or mecha, the very idea that El Diablo Robotico was controlled by something else is discomfiting. "Thank you for indulging my curiosity."
"Late Late Movie, huh?" she asks, bending over her keyboard, jabbing at it with an unfolded paperclip. "Stupid dust."
"Like something on the late-night movie," Fred says. "I love those."
A metal golem. It's a disgusting concept. "Yes," Wesley says, rising. "Absolutely."
Oz calls him shortly after lunch. "So. Got a couple leads. People to talk to, maybe an old-timer who remembers our buddy El Robotico. You game?"
"As I'll ever be," Wesley says.
"Cool." Oz sounds much better than he did, even, this morning; the old, comforting irony has returned to his voice and Wesley smiles at the phone. "Today?"
He looks around his office, then out through the blinds. It is as quiet and eerie as ever here. "Certainly. Shall I pick you up?"
Oz waits for him on the edge of a planter outside the bookshop, scribbling madly in his notebook. Wesley watches him for several moments before clearing his throat.
"Hey." Oz scrutinizes him, brows rippling, before smiling with half his mouth and accepting Wesley's hand up. There is recognition in that smile, fondness and acknowledgement that Wesley knows is mutual. If he is constantly off-balance and anxious around Fred, driven toward her by impulses he cannot name, with Oz he approaches and appreciates. Not driven, he wanders. "Thought we'd try Hoppers first," Oz says. "You want to drive?
"I could if I knew where Hoppers was." Wesley shakes out his jacket, fumbling in the inner pocket for his Greater Los Angeles Area roadmap. As he unfolds it, squinting against the sun, Oz knocks his elbow lightly.
"How long have you lived here?"
"Really," Oz says. Something like disbelief in his tone, but his face is as smooth and composed as ever. "Okay, then."
"I do know the sewers," Wesley says. "Navigate them quite well, in fact."
Oz's hand remains on his elbow. A light, sure grip, natural as the sun falling on his face. "Been hanging out with Angel a lot, huh?"
"Yes, I suppose so." Wesley smiles and refolds the map. "Why don't you navigate?"
"Hoppers is out in Huerta," Oz says. "On the way to Santa Barbara. Visit a *bruja* I know, then take it from there."
Oz directs him through a tangle sidestreets and secondary boulevards, then onto one access road after another until they hit a freeway they abandon not five minutes later for another, wider one. Throughout the drive, Oz is quiet, his elbow propped on the window as he massages his temple and jaw. His directions are short and quiet, like all his comments, merely "take a left" and "Exit fifteen".
The bruja's house is on an ordinary, weatherbeaten block, identical to the rest of the tract bungalows stretching up and down the treeless street. Up two cement steps to a narrow porch and Oz raises his hand to knock just as the door opens.
Through the screen door, he can see that she is a handsome woman, or *was*, once. Although she can't be older than Wesley himself, she seems, even as she pushes open the screen, ancient at first glance - gaunt through the face and prominent collarbone, her brilliant black eyes shadowed and her shoulder-length hair lank and thin.
She clasps Oz's hand and kisses his cheek, and when she smiles, she is beautiful.
"Isabel Rubens," Oz says. "Wesley Wyndam-Pryce."
Her hand in his is cold, although the house is not air- conditioned. Fans in the windows and on the floor churn the dark, dustladen air and Wesley feels his skin prickle nervously. She rarely entertains visitors - nor, he expects, does she often step outside. He recognizes all too well the pallor beneath her coppery skin, the birdlike precision of her movements, the pervasive scents of solitude and anxiety.
While Oz helps Isabel fetch some drinks, Wesley examines the small living room. A desk, bare save for a typewriter, several brick-and-board shelves crammed with paperbacks, icons, and candles, and a frail rocking chair: the effect is of some strange hybrid of graduate student and native mystic, A shallow brass dish crammed between copies of _Aylmayer's Folly_ and _The English Patient_ is filled with dozens of baby teeth.
"You have quite a literature collection," he says as Oz and Isabel return, Oz carrying a small tray crowded with glasses and a pitcher of cloudy lemonade. "I haven't read Conrad in years."
"My husband was a professor." Isabel hands him a plastic glass and waves him to sit down. She turns to Oz. "Now. You're looking for a toy?"
Oz tells her about the robot, and the five brothers, and Isabel nods, pushing the hair out of her face, as if the stories are already familiar. She knows no more about the robot than they do, but she recommends that they visit an old- timer, Augusto Morales, who has lived in the city since well before the robot took its walk.
"He remembers everything," Isabel says to Oz. She has been watching, listening to, only him, but she turns now to Wesley. Her eyes glint in the gloom and her voice sounds faded. Tense. "And you. You want to remember, but it is not this robot you are seeking."
Nothing in her face changes when she tells him this; the fans continue to turn and Oz sips from his glass, but Wesley is arrested. Suspended, hanging in a sudden cold gust that does not end.
Isabel lifts the pitcher, offering him more lemonade.
"No, thank you," he manages to say. He leans forward, the room tilting vertiginously around him. "What - what am I seeking?"
His memory is excellent, it always has been, and this question of El Diablo Robotico is a lark. Something to occupy a quiet period of work, a bit of intellectual entertainment more than anything else. So why does he feel so *frozen*, still and distant from everything around him?
Setting down the lemonade, Isabel lifts her head, moving the hair out of her face. Her smile flickers for a moment, then vanishes; he fancies it has been stolen by the black energy of her eyes. "You'll find the old robot. Talk to Augusto."
Although he feels himself smile, hears Oz chatting with Isabel, even stands and shakes her hand and thanks her, Wesley is not in the room, not anymore. He follows Oz to the car and sits in the passenger seat, hands clasped loosely in his lap, and attempts to work out why he feels so alienated. Locked very far inside his skin, his body gone to cement and steel, the sunny street reduced to smear and Oz's presence beside him barely noticeable.
"These are not the droids you're looking for," Oz says, breaking their silence. He glances at Wesley, smiling. When Wesley does not reply, Oz's smile fades.
"Star Wars, yes," Wesley says. Words taste like coins in his mouth. He shivers and shakes off the worst of the anxiety. "I know."
"Izzy's pretty whacked," Oz says. Apologetically, as if Wesley requires comfort and reassurance. Perhaps he does; at the moment, he does not feel at all capable of judging that. "But her heart's in the right place."
"Yes," Wesley says. "I'm sure it is."
Señor Morales suns himself in his postage-stamp sized back garden, a plate of watermelon slices balanced on his belly. Wesley nods, smiles, and retreats; best to let Oz do the talking.
He listens to Oz's rapid, idiomatic Spanish and to the old man's slower but no less slangy replies. The language is nothing like Wesley's own Real Academia Spanish, nor the colloquial tongue he picked up on Ibizan holidays.
Under the glaring sun, Oz looks especially pale, all white skin and deep eyes, perched on the edge of the tiny bench. Wesley envies his ease with strangers, his comfort with himself.
"Hey, Wes?" Oz glances up and gives Wesley a real smile. Unbidden, unnecessary, and terribly kind.
"How do you say 'fertilizing the rose garden' in Russian?"
Wes starts to ask why, but thinks better of it. Oz waits patiently, hands in his trouser pockets while his interlocutor picks seeds off his guayabara. He supplies the answer and returns to his silent watching. Oz repeats the Russian phrase and the old man nods enthusiastically.
In the car, Oz is loose, slightly excitable, and it helps dull the most immediate prickles of anxiety over what the witch said.
"Got an address," Oz says. "He's an awesome guy. Major lefty, like old-school Red, not my parents and their hippie liberal friends. Really awesome."
For a moment, Wesley is gratified to hear that Oz, too, categorizes people. Then he realizes that their respective approaches are diametrically opposite; Oz draws from his experience, creating the group categories from characteristics of the people, while Wesley puts the group foremost and fits individuals into preexisting slots.
"He saw los hermanos take down the robot. Gave me an address of some guys who helped."
"That's extraordinary. And the Russian?"
Oz twists in the passenger seat, folding his leg beneath him. "Yeah, weird stuff. He's from Mexico City. Says the robot was there, too. That it killed Trotsky."
"1940," Wesley says, merging onto the southbound freeway. "That's - that has to be a mistake. Ramon Mercador killed Trotsky. On behalf of Stalin."
"Mr. Morales says not. Says el robot was smaller then, but otherwise just the same. Ramon worked for Stalin, yeah, but he didn't bury that axe in Trotsky's head."
When confronted with the unbelievable and the impossible, Wesley habitually draws a deep breath and lets the information filter through his lungs, then out into his bloodstream. He needs, first, to assimilate the strange, and only later to think it through consciously and analytically.
"What's this address?" he asks. Oz really is extraordinarily patient; he waits quietly while Wesley filters and absorbs.
Oz checks the paper in his hand. "Pacific Palisades. Place by the name of, um. Grand Hôtel Abgrund. Couple German guys lived there, the ones who helped los bros."
"Let me see that -" He glances at the scrap of the paper; he hadn't trusted Oz's pronunciation, but there it is. "The Great Hotel Abyss. Have you ever heard of it?" Oz's brows raise just fractionally and Wes sighs. "Nor I."
He becomes lost three times in the twisting Palisades canyons, then, when they find the correct street, thinks that they must be lost again. There is no hotel on this narrow residential street. He can't help but picture the Hyperion, squeezed between the bungalows and early ranch homes.
There is no hotel here, nor, he doubts, was there ever room for one. At the exact address, they find only a handsome, two-storey bungalow, its porch crowded with rose and hosta bushes.
"Mr. Morales may not be in his right mind," Wesley says.
"He seemed so sharp, too." Oz sounds dejected.
Wesley reaches over and squeezes Oz's shoulder. "Could I buy you lunch?"
"Nah. Work," Oz says. He tips his head against Wesley's hand and closes his eyes. "Sorry."
He would like to tell Oz that this is how research works, that false leads and dead ends are far more frequent than miraculous resolutions and serendipitous discoveries. But Wesley feels rather low himself, disappointed and still terribly unsettled by Isabel's words.
Wesley doesn't want to be alone, he realizes, watching Oz walk away from the car, down the sidewalk toward the kitsch shop. So he stops at a taqueria and buys too much food, enchiladas and soft tacos, giving himself an excuse to stop by Gunn's office.
"Way to a man's heart, that's for sure." Gunn opens the first sack and inhales deeply. "You proposing to me, Wes? What's the occasion?"
"None," Wesley says, unwrapping a burrito. "Slow day, thought you could use the company."
"Not slow over here. Got contracts coming out our ears, litigation so knotted-up it makes even my super-duper head hurt, and to top it all off, Miss Thang wants me to file my expense reports through her."
"I see," Wesley says, though he does not. "You mean Eve?"
"None other." Gunn upends a conainer of hot sauce over his enchilada and spreads it around. "How 'bout you?"
"I went to Hoppers this afternoon." He reaches for a cup of sour cream, but Gunn stabs his hand with his fork.
"Watch it. You know me and my cream."
"Of course." Wesley picks at his food, enjoying Gunn's obvious pleasure in it more than the flavor. "But - Hoppers. Have you ever been? Extraordinary, really. Something like an entirely different world - except *not* separate, not at all, of course, which is the truly extraordinary thing."
Stirring the oily, bright hot sauce into his rice, Gunn says, without looking up, "Yeah. Both been there, remember? Forshawk demon guru guy? Tentacles, three eyes."
"Yes -" Wesley says. "Yes, of course. You sliced off the center tentacle while I did the containment incantation."
Gunn nods, his mouth full of noodles. Wesley remembers the night quite clearly; the summer after Buffy's death, when Angel was in Sri Lanka and he and Gunn worked together, responding to Cordelia's visions.
"I had no idea *that* was Hoppers," Wesley adds while Gunn chews and swallows. The fact that these missions took *place* anywhere special has never occurred to him; he supposes this is because there was never the need to think beyond saving those in trouble. They are like assassins, dropped into situations, accomplishing their ends, then departing. The goal is always the same, and it is everything; where the fight happens, even who they are supposed to be saving, is unimportant.
"That was Hoppers." Gunn digs in the last bag. "Taquito?"
"No, thank you."
Every place looks the same in the dark. Wesley has been all over the city, but he never knew.
"That was a good summer," Wesley says.
Gunn dunks the taquito in his sour cream. "Yeah, we did all right. Nothing like this place."
"No, nothing like this."
The next day, Oz calls him just after lunch to give him directions for that night's meeting. "Got some good leads," he says excitedly. "Really good."
"Can't you come here?" Wesley asks. He has sunk into the near-languor of research, the comfortable extent of his desk and the archives all within easy reach. Besides, he thinks, Oz might really get a kick out of the company's labs and facilities.
"Nah," Oz says. He always refuses Wesley's invitations to visit the offices. "Meet me there at eight-thirty."
Wesley changes at home, selecting a snug shirt he would never wear to the office and his old leather trousers. He cannot suppress a smile at the thought of Oz's reaction.
Despite the intricate muddle of Oz's directions, which Wesley clutches above the steering wheel, glancing up and down between them and the street signs, he arrives early. Even after checking the street number three times, he finds only an overgrown parking lot, the weeds that sprout from cracks in the asphalt nearly reaching the car's hood. He pulls the car around a rusty chain and forward into the well-shaded gloom.
This place was once a drive-in movie theater. The screen is gone, but its skeleton, tall iron bars, still frames the sky, and the little call-boxes that summoned girls on roller- skates with trays of rootbeer floats and cheeseburgers still poke up from the asphalt at regular intervals.
He cuts the engine and sits back, hands on the wheel, trying not to feel completely ill at ease. There are ghosts here, past activity and cheer clinging to the weeds and the struts.
Eventually, just fifteen minutes late, and thus nearly on time for him, Oz strides across the lot, rubbing his bare arms against the chill. He looks almost exactly like a ghost, nearly as pale and insubstantial as the Studebakers full of heavy-petting teenagers he has passed the time imagining. Slight and so pale, Oz raps on the passenger-side window and Wesley opens the door.
"Hell of a ride," Oz says as he slides in. "And leather pants? You look -"
Embarrassed now, Wesley dips his head. "My car's in the shop." Wesley feels ridiculous driving this bright-orange muscle car, all testosterone and noxious emissions. "Angel lent me one of his -"
Oz strokes the dashboard, nodding. "Beautiful. Evil's got its perks, huh?"
"Not evil, Oz, it's -" He doesn't know how else to explain what he is doing at Wolfram and Hart, what they are *all* doing there. Only Spike has a reason - loathed and resented as it is - to be there. "Complicated. Not evil."
Oz shrugs and leans back against the squeaking leather upholstery. "Your word, not mine."
That's right; Oz doesn't believe in evil. Wesley doesn't expect to ever know quite what to make of that statement, so he looks around at the ghostly drive-in. An empty lot, bordered on one side by more empty lots and on the other by single-storey trailers and a U-Stor-It! facility. No access roads beyond the one Wesley had taken, yet Oz had come from the side. And on foot.
"How did you get here, anyway?" Wesley asks.
"Bus," Oz says, leaning over the gearshift and kissing him.
Another thing Wesley knows nothing about. There are city buses; he knows that, of course, has gotten stuck in traffic behind their wheezing, tremoring hulks more times than he can count. And there was, he is fairly sure, a Hollywood film about a runaway city bus. But he doesn't know anyone who actually *rides* the buses, let alone anyone who can decipher what are, most likely, utterly Byzantine routes and schedules. Gunn, of course, could and probably still can, but Wesley has added Gunn to the list of his mysteries.
"Ever done it in the backseat of a car?" Oz asks, breaking the kiss.
"No," Wesley admits. "Which is not to say -"
Oz frowns. "You're experienced, I got it, not uptight -"
"I meant that I'd love to rectify the oversight," Wesley says.
His words bring up a smile on Oz's lips, twisting, shimmering in the gloom, and it's quite beautiful. He can still see it as Oz gets out of the car and pushes forward the passenger seat, climbing into the back. "American tradition. Drive-in, muscle car. Leather pants are a bonus."
"Yes," Wesley says, joining him, pulling Oz halfway onto his lap, pushing his hands under the thin fabric of his shirt. Oz's skin is hot under his mouth, tasting like soap and boy, and he squirms as Wesley tugs off his shirt. "It's almost a stereotype."
"Archetype?" Oz whispers.
"Love this," Oz murmurs, kneeling over Wesley, unbuttoning his shirt and drawing his fingertips lightly down Wesley's arms. "Love how you feel. Looking like this, all half-dressed and straining."
They wrestle, every time they're together, slide around and over each other, reaching and fighting dirty. They wrestle for control, with a slippery scale of submission and power, wrestle until they're breathless with it. The tension keens inside Wesley's bones, heats up his chest, torn as he is between giving over to Oz's hands, their surprisingly strong grip, his teasing eyes and roving, restless mouth, and pushing the boy onto his back, hand on his narrow throat and knee pushing apart his legs. Holding him there until the flush brightens Oz's paper-pale skin and his eyes close as his hips push up. He'll melt in a flash, brushfire and sugar, mutter groans and twist into Wesley's touch, so strong yet so swept away by need that Wesley is dazzled.
Afterward, they rest, tangled together. Near to Oz, his fingers toying with the beads on the boy's wrist and his face pressed into his neck, Wesley realizes that he has forgotten one might feel this way. Interested, definitely attracted, but not overwhelmed, not swept away and nearly erased by emotion. He supposes this happens all the time, to normal, ordinary people, this absence of grand passion and, in its place, affection and subdued care spiked with wonderful sex. Desire, loosened from love and other equally strong passions, has restored Wesley for the time being to himself.
With Oz, he is one version of himself, a person he has not been for a long time, and comfortable. Comfortable, if slightly unsteady: It is a feeling Wesley associates most with Gunn. He doesn't think it has anything to do with gender; he was comfortable with Virginia, too. There have been men who exhilarated and infuriated him nearly as much as Lilah often did, men who were both acquaintances and lovers.
It exhausts him at times, the role and place he has chosen, or has had chosen for him. Everything - all thought, activity, hope and need - keyed toward redemption and apocalypse, neither state directly involving him. Here, with Oz, he feels rested. Reprieved, however temporarily.
"Shall we -?" he starts to ask.
Oz shakes himself out of his doze and nods. "Hotass car, but bed would be nice. If that's cool?"
"Yes," Wesley says and laughs. "Very cool."
He drives them home and fixes drinks while Oz showers. There is something eerily domestic about the quiet, about how easily Oz moves through Wesley's space, about how adaptable he is.
Wesley meets him in the bedroom, and Oz is bright-eyed and spiky-haired, looking all of eighteen.
"Didn't you say you had some leads?" Wesley asks, loosening the towel from Oz's waist.
Oz's skin is damp, fragrant with Wesley's own soap, and he trembles a little as Wesley pushes him back onto the bed. "Yeah, about that -"
"No leads?" Wesley kneels, hands on Oz's knees, and attempts to wear Rupert Giles' sternest face.
"Nope," Oz says. "I just -"
He is cold suddenly, shivering in place, and Wesley breathes with effort. "You don't need an excuse to see me, you know."
Oz sits up, looping his arms around Wesley's neck. "No?"
"No," Wesley says and it is the truth. "And you know what they say about the boy who cried -"
Oz kisses him hard, pulling him forward, swallowing the word.
Two nights later, and he is in the midst of updating his journal on their lack of progress when the phone rings. Angel, Wesley thinks, because there is no one else who would call him this late.
"Wes -" Oz says before Wesley can get a word out. "Your buddies are on their way back. Think I can come over?"
"My -?" He pinches the bridge of his nose, effortfully switching his focus from the page to the urgency in Oz's voice. "I'm sorry, what?"
"Wolf guys. Think I could -"
"Yes," Wesley says immediately. Nina's people, he understands now. "Shall I pick you up?"
"Halfway there. Just - thanks." Oz sounds embarrassed as well as rushed and Wesley wishes he could reassure him.
"Come right up. I'll let the doorman know."
When he arrives, Oz is drawn in on himself, the skin of his face tight and papery. He paces the living room while Wesley perches uncomfortably on the edge of the sofa.
"Let me talk to them," Wesley says.
"No. That's not gonna help, that's -. No."
"You're different, you've mastered the change."
"Of course it matters." Restraining the urge to grab Oz, to shake some sense into him, he jams his hands into his pockets, feels the amulet against his fist. "You're not like them. You're no threat to anyone. Angel -"
"Wesley," Oz says, the two syllables as sharp as Wesley's father always made them sound. "It's okay."
There are exceptions to every rule; the world is never as logical as Wesley would have it be. Angel has a soul, and now Spike does, too; Oz is not a monster and should not be treated like one.
"I just want to help," he says finally.
Oz comes to a stop and, sighing, runs his hand through his hair. "I know. It's just - it's not a big deal. I got scared, that's all."
Wesley wants to believe him. There is nothing, factively, to fear from the database, although he doubts the field teams are at all gentle. Registering, even receiving the chip, are just like any other activity in the world, applying for a credit card or a driver's license.
"Really," Oz adds, joining Wesley on the couch. "I freaked. Sorry I took it out on you."
"Yeah," Oz says. "I'm sure."
Whether it is the frustrations of research, the fact that they know hardly more than when they started about El Diablo Robotico, or Oz's sudden arrival, or the combination of all this, Wesley does not sleep at all well that night.
He dreams of the robot again, even catches glimpses of a broad-shouldered man piloting the thing, but the images shred and vanish, replaced by the standard slate of nightmares, of claustrophobia, of Lilah rising from the grave, of abandoned hotels teetering on the edges of the abyss.
He opens his eyes to the watery light of dawn and finds Oz curled on his side, his back to Wesley. He does not stir when Wesley draws his hand down his back, from shoulder to the edge of his ribs, nor when he presses down, feels the boy's heart beating against his palm.
Fear, he thinks, is a form of energy, just like light or electricity. Like the paranoia that fed the Thesulac. It sparks and flows, consumes us and powers us. It is as transient as the nightmares it crafts, however, and when the sun rises, it can be dispensed with.
He swallows and pushes back the covers. Lilah hated these particular sheets, hated their pinstripes and texture. Told him he deserved better, that if he came to work for her, he could afford 'real' sheets.
Oz stirs and Wesley wonders how long he has been awake, how long he has felt Wesley's hand. He turns over, face flushed and wrinkled from the pillow-case. Touching Wesley's hand, Oz asks, "What's up?"
It is too early to edit his thoughts; looking at Oz, feeling the weight of his eyes on his own face, Wesley does not want to edit anything. "The last person I woke up with in this bed died. I -" He scans Oz's face; of course Oz is listening, attentive and still as a saint on a postcard taped to a cab's dashboard. "I cut her head off, actually."
"There was that possibility."
"You loved her," Oz says, so quietly that Wesley has no hope of making out the tone, if there even is one.
Lilah's burgundy lips, her strong hands and terribly delicate ankles. The appendectomy scar on her belly, always several degrees cooler than the rest of her skin. The shadows in her eyes while she thought; she was always thinking. How cruel mockery could slide, whiplash-quick, into something he might have called, coming from anyone else, tenderness.
"Yes," Wesley says, "though it took me ages to use that word. And then only to myself."
Silence settles around them, light as Lilah's perfume, still as Oz's eyes.
"Not always enough, though," Oz says at last. He pronounces the word as if he's tasting a delicacy, sour and raw. "Love."
"No," Wesley agrees.
Oz does not resemble Lilah in the slightest; but like Lilah, he is unlike anyone Wesley has ever known.
"Sometimes too much, too," Oz says. "Not enough, way too much. Tricksy word."
"I was - obsessed with her. Loathed her and wanted her in equal measure."
"I was foolish enough to think she could be saved."
"What about you?"
"What about me?"
"Think you can?" Oz sits up and faces Wesley. "Be saved?"
"I've devoted a great deal of effort to -" He was going to say, *to ensuring that I don't need to be saved*. But that isn't the truth, or only a rough approximation. "I don't matter."
At first Wesley understands Oz to mean that no one matters, but then he thinks the question over again. *Who* does matter? "Angel does, and Fred. Lilah, and Cordelia."
"Because they've been hurt. Because people shouldn't be tortured, and they should have a chance to make right the wrongs they've done."
Oz is silent, and Wesley rehearses the question once more. Perhaps his original interpretation was correct. Perhaps Oz honestly believes no one deserves to be saved; if he doesn't believe in evil, how can he understand salvation?
Wesley walks two fingers down Oz's spine, captivated all over again by the contrasts inherent in this boy. He's not a boy, for one - his body is small and neat, delicately-boned and smoothly-skinned, but his eyes are complex and his thoughts even more so. Old thoughts, far older than, for example, Angel's or the Council's simplistic chessboard view of the world.
"What do you think?" Wesley asks, realizing that the question resembles one of Oz's own, as large or as specific as you would like to make it, open-ended and free. Oz rolls his head on his arm, then faces Wesley again.
"Think you're right about pain. Think there's no deserving. And that there's a hell of a lot of pain out there." He pulls himself up and rests his hand on Wesley's stomach, covering the scar with his palm. "Think you're as hurt as anyone else."
"Hardly -" Wesley tries to laugh but tastes only the bitterness of his own mouth. "I don't recall living in a cave for five years, nor signing a contract of eternal damnation. Suffering a coma -"
Oz rubs his hand up Wesley's chest. He remains silent, resting his cheek on Wesley's arm, and Wesley knows that Oz will not argue. He will listen, ask questions, even talk if he must, but he does not argue. What Wesley once took for laxity, even immaturity, he is starting to see as one kind of wisdom. Abiding and patient.
Too facile, however, to think of Oz as someone otherworldly, some pacific and old-eyed guru. It is tempting to do so, of course, but facile. Ultimately arid and derelict. The boy has his own pain - Wesley cannot forget the exhaustion and tension lining Oz's face the morning they went to Hoppers, nor is anyone quite *this* quiet without far too much occupying his thoughts - and yet, he talks to Wesley as if Wesley himself matters.
Kindness. Other than a few moments, a long time ago now, with Virginia, and Gunn, and Fred, Wesley has never known much kindness. There is little room for it in this world where things and events are pitched so high - redemption, salvation, evil. There are "the innocent", of course, to whom all this work is dedicated, but they are an amorphous bunch, a faceless and distant mob.
Wesley is exiting another interminable meeting with Eve, one that consisted of being hectored and lectured and whined at, when his mobile phone rings.
"Funville," Oz says. "Soon as you get off work."
"Is this an actual lead?"
He hears Oz laugh, low and quick. "A real lead. A really *good* one."
He has to look the place up on a tourism website; Funville is an amusement park downtown, near the old Bunker Hill neighborhood, hard-by the present Skid Row.
He meets Oz at the gate. The park is long-abandoned, shadowy bulks of rides and confusing, criss-crossing shadows, cluttered with litter both large and small.
Oz stops suddenly enough that Wesley knocks against his side.
"Look," Oz says. "*Look*. It's him."
The thing looming over them certainly could be what is left of El Diablo Robotico. Beheaded, legless, only a massive barrel-shaped chest. Its arms are raised up, two rickety Ferris wheels dangling off its wrists, and it resembles nothing more than a tent-revival preacher, head thrown back, screaming hallelujah.
Metal does not rot, but rusts and settles instead. Layers of paint - most recently, white - peel back from long, jagged streaks of rust and Wesley thinks of the stain on Oz's shirt. Mole sauce, blood, rust: It all becomes the same, shit-brown and implacable. The rust on this carcass matches Oz's stain, magnifies it grotesquely.
Wesley stares at it, at once exhilarated and terrified.
"Think it's our boy?" Oz asks. His voice is a little higher than usual, with excitement or anxiety, Wesley cannot tell.
Wesley licks his lips. "I couldn't say. The dimensions seem right. If we knew when this ride -"
"When the Demon's Whirlwind was installed -"
"1948," Oz says.
The correct year, Wesley thinks.
They speak with the hushed voices of visitors to a wake, standing close to an open casket. Except the robot is not dead; metal does not die. The past does not die. Memory persists, even as it rusts.
"It must have been magnificent," Wesley says, gazing upwards.
Beside him, Oz is silent. In the corner of his vision, Wesley can see him watching. Frowning a little, thoughtfully.
"Let's go in," Oz says.
"What?" He knows he heard correctly; Oz sounds like a child, daring another to come explore the haunted house. "I don't think -"
But Oz is already walking toward the narrow doorway at the side of the robot's hulk, and he is straight-backed and quick. Wesley hurries after him.
Inside, it is darker than it ever grows at night in this city; the nape of Oz's neck glimmers somewhere before him. Wesley takes a breath full of rust and staleness. So dark, the walls might be a foot or ten yards away. It is impossible to tell and he wills away the claustrophobia clawing for purchase at his skin.
Cabinets and punishments, both earned and undeserved, attempt to close around him, slow him to a stop, lock him up. He focuses on Oz's neck, then the flash of his pale sock as he starts to climb a steep spiral staircase.
"Talk to me?" Wesley asks. "So I can follow your voice, that is."
"'kay. What do you want to talk about?"
A shower of rust and splinters, shiver of the staircase, and Wesley restrains a sneeze as he makes his legs continue their climb. Oz sounds as calm as ever and, despite everything, Wesley smiles slightly. He grips the loose handrail and steps further upward into the dark.
"Prophecies," he says, naming the first thing to come to mind.
"Weird things," Oz says. "What are they, anyway? How do you know which ones are bogus? Which ones come true?" "They all come true. One way or another."
"Not really," Oz says. Wesley hears him stop climbing, hears the shuffle of his feet on a landing. "Halfway there. So we're where? Spleen?"
"Cool." Oz's hand appears out of the dark, hovering like a deep-cavern fish. "Missing a step. Need to jump."
Grasping the hand, Wesley pulls himself up. They're standing very close together, Oz's arm around his waist now, and Oz suddenly kisses him. Gently, lightly, a leaf on the breeze, before twisting away and lifting himself up to the next step.
"What did you mean, not really? Prophecies tend to come true. It's in their nature."
Oz's voice filters downward on the clouds of dust. "Meaning doesn't come from the outside. Not like, if you just look long and hard enough, all the patterns get revealed. Or you find some book that tells you what's going happen. No patterns in the first place, no book like that."
"There are destinies. Powers and -" Another missing step and Wesley's foot dangles in the dark for a terrifying instant before he rights himself.
"Maybe. Pretty arrogant, though. Thinking *you're* the one who's going to discover them. Isn't it?"
"I'm not -"
"Chill, Wes," Oz says. "Just thinking out loud here."
This interminable climb resembles, superficially at least, all those visits to church bell-towers and monuments during the countless educational daytrips of his childhood. He was never taken to a carnival, and now that he is here, everything is dark, close, threatening.
"You okay?" Oz calls. He sounds farther away than ever.
Nodding - not that Oz can *see* him, unless the wolf has enhanced his vision? - before taking a series of rapid breaths, Wesley calls back. "Just fine. Thinking. Did you like carnivals as a child?"
He climbs, and Oz talks to him, tells him about the local firemen's carnival, the county fair, Knott's Berry Farm and Disneyland. He has ridden enough roller coasters and 'vomit comets' for ten people his age, it seems.
"Never thought of you as quite so adventurous," Wesley says when he meets Oz on the next landing. If they were near the stomach earlier, then surely this is the heart. Certainly the upper thorax, and he rests his hand lightly on Oz's shoulder, catching his breath.
"Oh, I'm chockful of thrills," Oz says.
"So it would seem."
They shift to accommodate their bodies to this narrow perch, at once side by side and angled slightly, Oz's right leg in front of Wesley's right.
"What's that?" Oz asks, leaning precipitously forward. The railing creaks and Wesley bites back an admonition. Instead, he wraps his arm around Oz's waist and peers over his shoulder. He sees only more dark. Layers of it, Cubist and abstract, maws and caves.
"I don't know -" He tightens his hold, feeling Oz's shirt ride up as he leans farther forward. "Can you see?"
"Yeah. Plaque. About the size of my hand -" Oz reaches around and closes his hand around Wesley's elbow before pushing forward.
"S'okay. Good balance. Says, um. Project R-A-N-D, that's all capital letters, under the aegis of - what's aegis?"
"Latin for shield. Means overseer, funder."
"Aegis of D-R-I - all letters - and W-and-H L-A."
His hand slips on the smooth skin of Oz's hip and Wesley struggles to keep his balance as he hauls Oz back.
"Are you sure?"
This close, he can make out the tense, thoughtful expression on Oz's face. "Sure I'm sure."
"W and H?"
Oz nods, just once; he has not released Wesley's elbow and his grip burns. He looks grave, nearly solemn, and Wesley's sense of balance veers again, just for a moment, as his breath catches in his throat.
On the way back to his flat, Wesley is glad for the car's massive engine; even if it does not actually get him home faster than his Jeep, the noise of it is reassuringly energetic. He grips the steering wheel and floors the gas, letting the jumble of acronyms bounce around his mind, tentative connections and alliances beginning to emerge. He is close to the solution, he knows that; he can feel the sparkling thrill of resolution beginning to shine, just at the bottom of his skull.
"RAND I've heard of," Oz says when they reach the flat. "And yours. What's DRI?"
"Demon Research Initiative," Wesley says absently as he thumbs through his files. He keeps AI's old files at home; until tonight, it hadn't occurred to him that keeping them away from Wolfram and Hart meant anything at all. Cordelia's handwriting on the folders is round and bold, sweeping loops of red and purple ink. Ghosts are everywhere. He traces the downstroke on a capital "G" with the edge of his thumb before adding, "Government agency -"
"I know it, yeah."
Wesley is concentrating on the question of just how the firm might have been involved in the robot's walk, so he takes several moments to mentally compose a list of possible corporate contacts to look up in the archives in the morning. He only looks up when he hears the deadbolt unclicking.
Oz is at the door, the collar of his corduroy jacket flipped up to his cheekbones. He gazes back at Wesley.
"Need to go home," Oz says flatly. "Call you - tomorrow? Soon."
To save his place, Wesley inserts his thumb in the middle of the second folder of a five-folder file on Wolfram and Hart. "Now?"
"Now," Oz says. "Got some thinking to do."
He looks down at the folders spread across the table, then back to Oz. He'll be occupied all night, and he could use the help. "Surely you can think here?"
"Need some time alone."
Oz's voice is steely, scalpel-sharp and cold as anaesthetic and Wesley's free hand curls into a fist. He wishes for the amulet, needs to rub his thumb across its face, find a center of calm.
Oz stares at him as if Wesley is a stranger.
"Is it Wolfram & Hart?" Wesley asks. "Its involvement?"
"Among other things. Look, I just -" Oz slaps the doorjamb and shakes his head. "Need to get out."
There is no stopping him, and Wesley has work to do. "All right. Thank you for all your help tonight - without your superior vision, we'd still be lost."
"Every dog's got his day. Night, Wesley."
He's flipping through invoices and scrawled notes on Lindsey MacDonald's various attempts at going straight when the door clicks closed. Too late, he calls, his eyes on the page, "Goodnight."
Two hours later, and his eyes burn from the strain, and Wesley is shaking a cramp out of his hand as he comes to the end of his notes on the night. A Watcher always keeps his diary, even when he's been off the Council for four years, and Wesley is unwilling to be the exception. He has transcribed the plaque just as Oz read it, and as he works his thumb into the knot in the center of his palm, he reads over the acronyms again.
RAND. The country's first defense-industry think thank, home to satellite technology, packet-switching, and systems logic.
W&H. His own company now, ridiculous and improbable as the fact still seems.
DRI. 'I know it,' Oz had said. Of course he did, Wesley remembers now, bringing Oz's history into contact with the present. With the research before him, acres of paper and hours of intellectual labor, Wesley knows absolutely nothing.
He knows too much - languages, history, demonology - and he has even been tortured, had Faith settle on his lap and grind like a stripper with a shard of glass in her hand. But that was not systematic torture at the hands of the government. His was pain clawed out by a mad little girl; Oz's was crafted and applied by the latest in military and scientific technology.
He calls the two phone numbers he has for Oz, a friend's mobile and the one on Oz's floor of his rooming house. The mobile goes straight to voice-mail - 'hi, this is Lana, leave me some love!' - and the floor phone rings endlessly.
He calls every five minutes for an hour. He cannot explain himself to Oz, but he can apologize. After an hour, he sets the phone down and goes to bed; he will try again in the morning.
In the morning, the phones continue to ring. Wesley limits himself, sensibly, to one call every half-hour. He has a pile of personnel files from the 1940s to sort through, and has only reached the C's, when Fred knocks on his door to tell him that Emil the gunrunner can meet tonight to look over the sniper rifles.
Wesley sets aside his pet project and organizes their meeting. He calls Oz once more that afternoon while organizing the outline for his diary's official version of El Diablo Robotico, then sets off with Fred to meet Emil.
Emil is attacked by robot, Fred is injured, and Angel, the next morning, is none too happy about anything Wesley's done. He retreats to his office and finds his fingers dialling Oz's number. Numbers and patterns calm him, as does Oz's voice.
Oz ducks Wesley's fumbled apology with an evasion worthy of Angel. "Don't say you're sorry. I'm sorry."
Wesley bites the inside of his cheek. "No, you don't understand. I was thoughtless, and I need to apologize."
"Nothing to be sorry for," Oz says. "Guess I freak out a lot."
"Bad memories can be very difficult to shake."
"Yeah. Sorry I bitched at you, though. Kind of a coward sometimes."
He draws the amulet from his pocket and cradles it in his palm. He would like to give it to Oz, string it around his neck, give him proof that he is far from cowardly. But Oz does not take praise well, and, anyway, they are on the phone.
Wesley curls his fingers around the amulet. He'll go to a jeweler during lunch, find an appropriate chain for it.
"No, you're not," he says. "Far from it."
Oz chuckles slightly. "So how's the research? Solved it?"
"It's astonishing," Wesley says. "Contract to DRI, funnelled through RAND, but RAND itself is a fully-funded subsidiary of Wolfram and Hart operating under a non-profit license into perpetuity. It's the world's most productive tax shelter. What's more, the civilian comptroller at DRI was a Wolfram and Hart executive -"
"So it's all one big happy incestuous family."
"Yes, *yes*." Wesley would much prefer to have this conversation in person; he would like to be able to see Oz's face right now, eyes widening as he smiles. He can *hear* the pleasure in Oz's voice, knows that Oz is happy, but he would, he realizes with a small, strong charge, like to experience that pleasure. Share it, see it, feel it. "Can you meet for lunch? We should celebrate."
"Sure," Oz says. "I'd like that."
He'll buy the chain on the way. Or perhaps Oz would like the coin itself. Wesley relaxes, thinking - of all things - of an oenophile, holding a mouthful of a rare vintage on his tongue, letting its taste and texture and scent intertwine and build. Savoring. "Wonderful," he says, and Oz treats him to one of his short, quiet laughs. "Wonderful."
Through the blinds on the window overlooking the corridor, Wesley catches glimpse of the impossible. His father, here, striding past. *Here*. Vinegar in his throat, the walls tilting over his head, Oz's chuckle fading into a staticky growl, then silence.
"I have to go. I - he - my father's here."
"That's not good."
"No." He has never told Oz about his childhood; there is no possible way Oz could know just how bad this is. Yet he does. The receiver slides partway out of his hand, Wesley fumbles after it, and it clatters off the desk onto the floor.
When he looks out the blinds again, there is no one visible. He could have been imagining it; he might need more sleep. He decides to go visit Fred in the infirmary.
Somewhere across this hellish city, he realizes at Fred's bedside, Oz could be holding his own receiver, speaking Wesley's name to dead air at the same moment that Wesley was imagining Roger Wyndam-Pryce gliding into his domain, an insipid smile on his face. Wesley sees both, everything, fragmenting into jagged, grinding shards.
Silly, of course. Ridiculous. Oz would hang up and his father is in Cheshire.
Then it is night. Dark brings terror and reckoning, and he is hollowed out by exhaustion and guilt.
When he hears a soft rap at the door, Wesley does not look up from dialling his parents' number in London. Fred must be there, anxiously checking on him just one more time while Knox waits impatiently. "Really, I'm quite -" Someone coughs discreetly and he replaces the receiver in the cradle. "All right."
Oz stands there. Waits on the threshold to Wesley's office. At the sight of him, pale and slightly hunched, Wesley feels a sudden tingle spread across his face and outward from his palms, up his arms, to his chest. It is something like fear, like pleasure, and he rises.
"Oz. What are you doing here?"
Oz nods, checks over his shoulder, then steps inside and closes the door behind him. "Heard something went down."
The heat resembles sunburn, only felt after you've come inside, Wesley's skin prickling and pinching, making him squint. Looking entirely out of place - too casual, too innocent - Oz moves forward slowly, almost carefully, as if he's wary, and Wesley tries to smile reassuringly.
He fails, clearly, because Oz stops in the middle of the room and toes the carpet. His eyes are narrow and Wesley wonders for half an instant if Oz can smell the blood on his hands.
There was no blood. Just shorting wires and a death-grimace over steel. No heart to pump out blood.
"Sit down?" Wesley asks. He's surprised to hear that his voice is hoarse. "Everything is -"
Oz touches the armrest of the nearest chair but does not sit. Instead, he moves toward Wes, around the desk, stopping just at the corner and reaching out. "Not fine. You sit."
Easier to obey than quibble; Wesley's knees tremble and ache. He sits, grateful for the permission, and then can't bring himself to look up. "How did you know?"
"Word gets out," Oz says and leans against the desk. This close, Wesley can see the worn knees of Oz's corduroy trousers, the ragged end of one lace in his brown trainers. "Vague word, anyway."
"I killed him." He can say it as many times as he wishes; the words still sound hollow and false. Wesley looks up a few inches and sees Oz's fingers gripping the edge of the desk. Tender-pink cuticles, ragged from chewing, and scraps of lacquer on the nails. "My -"
"Yes." Another few inches, and he can see the flaking decal on Oz's t-shirt and the frayed collar of his overshirt. Blue and white today; when it was new, Wesley might have worn it himself. "A reasonable facsimile thereof, at any rate."
Oz's hand moves, resting for a moment on Wesley's shoulder before grazing his cheek, then turning his chin. "Did he deserve it?"
Blinking away the sudden bleariness of exhaustion, Wesley nods. Oz's face is a smear, glue puddled on ink, kind but unrecognizable. Wesley's eyes clear, though his face will not stop burning. "I should say so."
"Then," Oz says, his hand sliding around to cup the back of Wesley's neck as he lowers himself to his knees, "what's the problem?"
"I killed my father."
"Yeah," Oz says, rubbing Wesley's neck. He is patient, and young, and very good, and Wesley was foolish to ever think Oz could be tainted by the wolf.
Their positions are reversed now, Oz looking up at him, and Wesley has to close his eyes. Just momentarily, just long enough to see his father - that *thing* - both impostor and truth - holding the gun to Fred's temple. "He had Fred. Angel. And I didn't even think."
"No time to think, sounds like."
"Did what you had to."
"I suppose so." Wesley wants to pull away, retreat to a corner. But Oz's hand holds him still, and the memory of his eyes, dark green and complex, brings the confession from the depths of his mind. "I *wanted* to, which ought to be the worst thing."
"I killed someone once," Oz says and Wesley opens his eyes. There is that grave face, eyes darkened in the shadows, lips slightly chapped at the corners. "Had to, wanted to."
"Was your victim a robot? The grandson of what we've been looking for?"
"She was - not human."
"Did she bleed?" The question is urgent, tipped with thorns, shredding his lips as Wesley asks.
Oz's lips twist and he closes his eyes. "Arterial."
Wesley's spine buckles and he tips forward. Oz catches him in strong arms and pulls him in close. This is not guilt that is crippling him, nor, exactly, grief. Rather, Wesley trembles and clutches at Oz, shaking with relief, with the ecstasy of liberation. Los Hermanos Numeros defeated the robot and celebrated, he is sure, for days, with leggy women and free-flowing tequila; Wesley celebrates fearfully and amateurishly, in the arms of a young man far more kind and patient than Wesley could ever deserve.
Oz holds him for a long time, head tipped into the curve of Wesley's neck, not saying a word. Just his breath and the strength of his arms are all Wesley can bear right now, and everything he needs. His own fingers curve like claws into Oz's shirt and he cannot breathe regularly, no matter how he tries to match Oz's gentle, certain rhythm. Against his mouth, Oz's pulse beats in time with his breathing, a rhythm that is primitive and reassuring for that, something animal and infantile. Pure.
It is a long time afterward, long enough that the lights in the hall are on, welcoming the cleaning staff, long enough that he can hear Oz's stomach rumble, when Wesley finally pulls away. His back has cramped and he is stooped over, still breathing raggedly, when he notices the tiny white bandage behind Oz's ear. It is circular, bull's-eyed with red in the center. He reaches for it and Oz takes a breath.
"What's this?" He knows what it is, knows why Oz is finally in the building, knows how Oz heard about his father. "This isn't -"
"Chipped and ready to heel," Oz says, taking Wesley's hand.
His stomach twists sourly and Wesley's skin flashes cold. "No, you -" He wrenches his hand from Oz's, desperate to touch the bandage, reassure himself impossibly that it is not real. "You didn't, you couldn't -"
"Everyone's got to do something," Oz says. "Catches up with you eventually."