Chapter Twenty: Aftermath
"The future is made of the same stuff as the present."
Wesley ran one finger across the titles on his bookshelf, relying more on texture than sight to tell him what he was touching. He was still lost in images of what they'd found at Wolfram & Hart, the sheer volume of darkness and chaos that an unstable Hellmouth could bring.
The police had arrived two hours after the first earth tremor, and the fire department shortly afterward. Whatever demonic creatures hadn't escaped in the first twenty minutes or so were already dead by then, either killed by the Chosen and their companions or else trapped and crushed in the collapse of the burning building.
The destruction hadn't been so heavy when Wesley and the others first arrived, although the structure had been obviously damaged. The lawyers apparently hadn't considered the fact that a Hellmouth typically created a deep wound in the Earth, and even in its unanchored state it was taking the form it always had. More worrying were the noises that could be heard coming from the interior of the building, and the grotesque shadows of beings disappearing into the dusk.
It seemed that the man in charge of the Hellmouth project hadn't been content to have the portal and the powerful evil aura it emitted under his control; he'd cracked it wide open. Wesley paused a moment in his remembering to imagine Linwood Murrow being questioned by the Senior Partners for this oversight, and allowed himself a slight smile. If Linwood hadn't been so greedy, and of course if the ritual had been done properly in the first place, 'Hell's Own Law Firm' would have had a perpetual dark energy source under their direct control. Instead, they had suffered a painful loss.
Of course, he was only guessing about Linwood's involvement, as none of the Thirteen had made it down to the basement to be certain. They'd attempted to fight their way in and retrieve anyone still living, evil or not, but all they had encountered were corpses, many of them mangled beyond recognition, and all manner of demons roaming the halls.
Cordelia had applied her new glowing power, but it exhausted her with every use and its range dropped drastically as she tired, leaving her weak and dependent upon Groo to even walk. The vampires, along with Wesley, Faith, and Buffy, had fought hard, but some of the creatures that had come from the open Hellmouth were strong enough that it took all five of them to put one down, and there were just too many. The remainder of their group had been guarding the exits with crossbow, axe, and magic, but they also were hard pressed.
Finally, Angel had called retreat and gathered the full group back together on the street. There was nothing to be done but to choke the open Hellmouth with rubble, then attempt to find a way to close it again before it moved onward. Ethan had known an appropriate spell, fortunately, and together with Jonathan and Wesley had further weakened the supports inside the structure until it collapsed inward, lit from beneath with flickering flames.
There was no way to tell if any of the Wolfram & Hart employees or other prisoners had made it out alive. There was still a Hellmouth to close and a city to cleanse of the demons who had escaped. And yet, the problem that kept returning to Wesley's mind was none of the above ... it was the fact that he had *enjoyed* that battle more than almost anything else in his entire life.
The strength, the speed, the adrenaline, the triumph of destroying their opponents, and the rush of fighting back to back with his Slayer and matching her blow for blow had been intoxicating. More than that, he'd been able to sense the aura of the Hellmouth itself -- and had been both disturbed and excited by the contact. Even now, if he concentrated, he could tell it was there, pulsing at the edges of his awareness.
Wesley sighed and blinked back to the present, pulling the volume he'd been looking for from the shelf. As Buffy had said earlier, now was not the time to worry about his destiny, or their choices. They had more urgent duties to perform.
He turned to the doorway, book in hand, and flinched as he came face to face with Angel. The souled vampire was leaning against the doorframe, hands in his pockets and a pensive expression on his face.
"Hey, Wes," he said, quietly. "How are you doing?"
Wesley blinked at him, then gestured with the book. "I've, ah, found the reference I was looking for. I'm fairly sure there's a suitable method of closing the Hellmouth detailed within. After that ..."
"I asked, how are *you* doing," Angel said, patiently.
Wesley sighed. "It's all ... very difficult to absorb. So much has happened ... it will be weeks before it all sinks in, I think. And there are still choices to be made ..."
"You *aren't* evil, you know," Angel assured him. "Trust me. I've *been* evil. So you found out there's a lot more darkness in you than you're comfortable with. That doesn't have to mean anything. Listen to Faith ... you're not the only one with shadows, Wes."
"Fatherly advice?" Wesley summoned up a faint smile. "Don't worry, I won't make any rash decisions. There is much to be done, and I plan on taking things one day at a time."
Angel nodded. "Probably a good plan." He dropped his eyes towards the floor again, but paused as he caught sight of the book in Wesley's hands. "Um, Wes? I didn't know there were rituals in 'Modern British Poetry'."
Wesley glanced down and colored slightly. Same color, same shape ... wrong volume. "Ah, there aren't..."
Angel quirked a grin and clapped Wesley on the shoulder. "Don't worry about it. Buffy's still trying to get ahold of Giles, and Cordy's in the shower; you're not exactly holding up the meeting. Oh, and that reminds me." He raised his eyebrows and examined Wesley's blue shirt, stained with sweat, slime, and ash from the day's activities. "What was with the matching ensemble today? You and Faith, I mean."
Wesley smiled back. Now, that was one part of the week's strange events that he did not regret in the least. "She picked it out for me this morning," he said. He didn't bother to spell out what that meant; Angel would be able to smell that nothing had 'happened', after all, but a little light-hearted teasing felt good after the heaviness of recent events.
Angel just shook his head. "Be careful, Wes. Relationships with Slayers tend to be pretty difficult."
((This is not Mission Difficult, Mr. Hunt ...))
Wesley's smile widened. "Yes *Dad*, I'll be careful."
Now it was Angel's turn to look embarrassed, in a pleased sort of way. "Right." He cleared his throat, and ambled back out of the room.
Wesley had just turned back to the shelves to locate the book he'd really meant to take, when he heard another footstep behind him, and a dry British voice.
"Hullo, Wes. Am I free to go yet?"
"Ethan." Wesley sighed. "Why not ask Angel? He's the one who threatened you. Or better yet, Jonathan." He really wasn't in the mood to deal with the chaos mage. The man had been helpful during their battle at the Hellmouth, but his loyalties were capricious, at best.
Ethan shrugged, his expression shuttered. "I thought you'd be easier to convince. Besides ..." He paused, thoughtfully. "I was jailed for two years, under repeated mental and physical torture. I'm still rediscovering what it is to be Ethan Rayne, and my little session as a guest of the law firm didn't help. I think ... given time, I will return, but I do need time."
Wesley stared at the older man, frankly surprised that he'd even suggested returning. He knew that Ethan had some idea of making a protege out of Jonathan, but he knew the boy had refused the offer more than once. "You plan to come back?"
"Oh, don't sound so shocked," Ethan said, and his full, mischievous grin came out to play. "You lot have got a balance demon messing about with your destinies, and you don't think the Chaos Mage wants a chance to help you turn up your collective nose at him?"
That surprised a chuckle out of him. "Ah, now there's the Ethan Rayne I remember."
Ethan's expression sobered. "Have you ever wondered what might have happened, had you not turned me in that day in the Council library?"
Oh, had he ever; for one thing, he'd never have met Halfrek and made that confusing wish. Wesley swallowed. "I was only eleven; I had no idea what trouble I was getting you into."
Ethan sighed. "I liked to pretend I was tempting Ripper back to the streets, but in truth, he had just as much chance of luring me back to the Council. Perhaps better; he was always more stubborn than I, but you shut the door on that possibility for good."
"Wait, you were going to be a Watcher?" That was news. "Do you mean to tell me you're one of *those* Raynes?"
Ethan nodded. "I rejected the family calling much earlier than Ripper did, of course, but we'd met at Council activities before that. That's how he knew where to go in London when he rebelled."
Wesley narrowed his eyes. There was something else going on here, beyond the whole ex-Watcher thing. "Why are you telling me this, Ethan?"
The sorcerer put his hands in his pockets and looked back over his shoulder towards the lobby, where the sounds of Faith and Dawn sniping good-naturedly at each other could be heard. "I'm not sure yet," he said, quietly. "Let's talk more when I return, shall we?" He tilted his head, questioningly, and Wesley realized he was still tacitly asking permission to go.
"I may regret this," he answered, "but ... all right."
Ethan gave him a terse nod, then turned and left.
Curiouser and curiouser, Wesley thought. I wonder if he spoke to Jonathan about any of this? And ... Well, speak of the devil ... I wonder if *everyone* intends to parade through my office before the evening's out?
He took a step back, settling on the edge of the desk before greeting his latest visitor. Might as well get more comfortable. "Yes, Jonathan?"
"Hey. I, um, saw Ethan come by? And I just wanted to tell you, well, I haven't reconsidered." The boy took a deep breath, then continued before Wesley could think of an appropriate response. "I mean, I'm not going with him. I'd like to stay here, with you guys, no matter what you choose to do. If he happens to stop by ever again, I'm not against getting to know him a little better, but ..." he shrugged. "That is, if it's okay for me to stay?"
"Of course," Wesley reassured him. "I thought we already made that clear."
"Um, not so much spelled out," Jonathan said, scuffing the toe of one shoe against the floor. "You know, this is going to sound kind of silly, but when Spike was driving me back here last night I had the strangest feeling, like my destiny was waiting for me. I know I'm pretty new at the White Hat thing, or grey hat, or whatever you guys are, but I don't think I'm going to backslide. I really want to make it work."
"You will," he responded, with as much conviction as he could.
"Thanks, man." Jonathan turned to leave, looking a little more at peace with himself.
Wesley thought he heard another footstep outside the door, and smiled wryly. "Oh, and do send in whoever's next," he called after the boy.
"Hey, how'd you know I was out here?" Faith playfully jostled the confused Jonathan in the doorway, then squeezed past him and strutted forward until she stood right in front of Wesley.
She was close enough to touch. He cleared his throat, trying to sound nonchalant. "A good guess, it would seem."
She smiled, and reached out to touch his grimy shirt. "Hey, look, we still match," she joked. Her clothes were just as filthy as his, but somehow she still managed to exude a dangerous sort of beauty that was as intoxicating to him now as it had been alarming a couple of years ago. Of course, it helped that she seemed to have grown up during that time; enough, anyway, that he need not fear for his life, and that what he was beginning to hope for no longer qualified as statutory rape.
He winced at the reminder of the difference in their ages, and Faith shook her head at him, smiling wickedly. "Hey, I must be doing something wrong if I got a reaction like that. Hmmmm. Let's see if I can fix it."
She leaned forward abruptly, gripping his shoulders with Slayer-strong hands, and molded her mouth to his. Instinctively, he dropped the book he'd been holding, sliding his hands up under the edge of her shirt to rest against the warm skin at her waist.
"Mmmmm. I knew this would be good," she mumbled against his mouth, and pulled away just long enough to slam the door to his office shut.
Unnoticed on the floor, the book Wesley had accidentally chosen fell open to a natural crease in the spine. Much-read words faced up at the ceiling, words that had fortified Wesley's spirit in the past and would again, when he remembered to pick the book up. For the moment, however, it could wait.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
~by William Ernest Henley
OUT of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *