"Cordelia? Pass me the valerian." Angel stared down at the pottery bowl he held. "And hurry. I think –" He squinted at the glutinous, pale-green mixture. "Yeah, it's trying to escape or something."
"I don't think so," she replied, sliding a small packet along the table to him, "but thanks for the warning; I'll keep my distance."
"It's ready," Angel said a moment later. "Three clockwise stirs, right?"
"Yes," she said, picking up her purse. "Right. I'll just, well, I'll –"
Angel glanced up and frowned. "Umm, Cordy, I kinda thought that you'd stick around and help out?"
She gave him an uneasy smile. "Help? Out? Doing what?"
"Well –" Angel gestured at what was cooling in the bowl, solidifying into an ointment of sorts. "I suppose Wes'll want to put it on himself, but he might not be able to reach –"
Cordelia slipped her arms into her coat. "Angel, you know I love – well, maybe not love him... Wes and I, we're friends – good friends, and yes, he's saved my life and you know I'd do anything –almost anything – but we've moved beyond that crush we both had, and for the sake of our working relationship –"
"Cordelia." Angel fixed her with his best patient look. "You're doing that thing where you babble and my head starts to ache."
"You have to put it on him," she said with a guilty look at him. "It's mystical, which accounts for the smell, I guess, and it's really clear in the spell that it'll only work if the person who makes it applies it. Three times, an hour apart, starting at midnight. Which would be you, and you've got twenty-five minutes to get up there and start with the daubing."
"And you found this out when?" Angel said ominously.
"Too late to take it up to Wes so he could mix it himself," she assured him. "Really."
"He's not up for that anyway," Angel said tightly. "If he hadn't passed out, I'd probably have knocked him out just to spare him." He shuddered. "He was trying so hard not to scream –"
Cordelia came over to him and gave his arm an awkward pat. "I know," she said quietly. "And I really didn't read ahead that far until you'd already started. And if I didn't think it'd freak him out more if it was me doing it, I'd say let's make some more, but it would, we don't have time, and that was the last of the lungwort anyway."
"What makes you think Wes is gonna prefer me doing it?" Angel asked. "I've got a working relationship with him too, you know!"
Cordelia shook her head. "Not the same. You're both men – well, you're both these repressed, able to pretend-nothing-happened types anyway, unlike me who's easily traumatised. It'll be fine. You'll heal him, we'll avoid mentioning it tomorrow, promise, and God, look at the time! Tick-tock, Angel. Give Wes my love, and tell him he's very brave and if he ever does anything that dumb again, I'll color in the pictures in every one of his books."
Angel smiled, giving into the inevitable because anything else might look suspiciously like protesting too much. "Yeah, that should strike terror into him."
He watched her go and then picked up the bowl and headed upstairs to his room, where Wesley was – not lying on the bed. Angel stood still, listening to the sounds the rushing water of the shower couldn't drown, and winced. The pitiful, hoarse exhalations of pain were disturbingly familiar. He'd been the cause of them too many times not to recognise them now; breaths snatched back from being whimpers by a strength of will that was fading fast.
"Wesley, you idiot," he murmured, not for the first time that night.
He'd told him. Warned him even: stay away from the demon's tail; it's got suckers on it like an octopus' tentacle and they're slimy. Get it on you and it won't be pretty.
So what had Wesley done? Attacked it from behind – when Angel was flat on his back and the demon was doing a damn fine job of trying to chew his arm off - and got that tail wrapped around him in three slashing strikes that left him screaming as his clothes melted onto his skin.
Wes. Screaming. Which had made Angel wish he'd had time to hurt the demon more, but with that sound bouncing around inside his skull, he'd settled for making it slice n' dice time and scooping Wes up before the demon's head had finished bouncing off the alley floor.
Angel pushed open the door, took in the small heap of shredded clothing on the floor, and figured out that Wes had gone into the shower still wearing most of what he'd had on, which meant it was stuck to him.
Wesley's body was a wavering, indistinct shape behind the clouded, steamed-over glass door. Angel stood watching it for a long moment, and then remembered that they didn't have much time. He cleared his throat and said, "Wes? You doing all right in there?"
The water shut off and Wesley said, "Angel? I'm fine. Really. I'll just be a moment." He sounded exhausted, Angel thought, his voice a hoarse rasp.
"Got that antidote mixed up," Angel said, looking around for a clean towel. "Cordy says we have to get it on you three times; midnight, one, two... Don't want to rush you, but it's nearly twelve now."
The shower door opened and Angel shoved a towel into the outstretched hand – then yanked the door open wider and caught Wesley as he fell forward.
Wesley didn't look good. Well, yeah, he did, all long, lean legs, and stronger than he looked dressed, but there were three broad, raw slashes across his body and in places the remnants of his shirt and thin cotton shorts were still clinging to him, melted into his flesh.
"Thought I'd try soaking it off," Wesley said weakly, clutching at Angel's arm. "I'll just- God this hurts!" He set his teeth and straightened up, grabbing for the towel, a flush spreading over his face. "I trust you exacted a suitable revenge on it for ruining a fairly new shirt?"
"Way to go with the stiff upper lip, Wes," Angel murmured, helping him out into the bedroom. "Yeah, I took care of it for you. You can go back and kick the corpse if it's still there tomorrow."
"Might pass on that actually," Wesley said, groaning as Angel lowered him to the bed. He draped the towel modestly across his lap and glanced over at the bowl Angel had placed by the bed. "Oh, thanks. Should do the trick I think." He waited, and then, when Angel showed no sign of moving, said gently. "I think I can take it from here?"
"I have to put it on, Wes," Angel said. "Or the charm won't work."
"What?" Wesley frowned at him, looking a little dazed still.
"Cordelia didn't realise until it was too late." Angel gave Wesley an apologetic smile. "We were both kinda in a rush. Worried about you."
"So worried you neglected to read the spell in its entirety?" Wesley demanded indignantly, sitting up quickly and screwing up his face in anguish. "Angel, that's unforgivably careless!"
"Yeah, well, deal with it!" Angel snapped back, taking refuge in rudeness. "And we've got to get it on you real soon, so ditch the towel, lie back and bite down on something, because this is gonna hurt."
"What is?" Wesley said. "Be more specific. I'm in agony already."
Angel pushed him back. "I can't get this on your skin if it's covered in what's left of your clothes. And you know we can't risk the wounds healing with them still on you."
"Angel, this is going to be difficult," Wesley said. "What's still adhering to me is pretty firmly stuck, I'm afraid."
"No," Angel told him. "It's going to be easy to tear it off. It's just going to hurt." He took hold of a piece of tattered shirt and pulled at it carefully. "I'll try not to..."
Wesley moaned, biting down on his lip. Angel was close enough to hear the catch of his breath at the new pain he'd hoped would distract him from the old, close enough to smell the blood as it rushed up to well out of the tiny, ragged cuts on Wesley's lip. He hastily let go of the edge of Wesley's shirt.
"Not your fault," Wesley said breathlessly. "Has to be – oh Good Lord that hurts! – has to be done."
"It really does," Angel told him. "Look, would it help if I made it quick? Got it over and done with?" He didn't add that he had to, as midnight was nearly on them.
Wesley blinked up at him. "I'll scream."
"Like a girl."
Angel winced. "Hope not. I've heard Cordy scream and she's, well, it's painful. You'll scream like a man, trust me."
"I don't want to scream at all," Wesley said, with some asperity. "I just thought I should warn you that it's a distinct possibility."
"I'll take it slowly then."
"No." Wesley shook his head. "The longer it takes, the worse it will be. Just – oh, just bloody do it!"
Wesley didn't scream as the final shreds of cloth were removed, but Angel almost wished he had. The tortured, stifled groans were harder to bear.
"Done," he said finally. "How are you holding up?"
"Just don't tell me it hurt you more than it hurt me," Wesley said weakly, "because, trust me, it didn't."
Angel glanced at the clock. "Minute to go."
"I'm sorry," Wesley said, turning his head to the side.
"What for?" Angel asked, picking up the bowl and staring at the congealed contents with a dubious frown.
"Putting you through all this."
"The way I remember it, you were trying to help me when you got hurt," Angel told him. "Don't worry about it."
"But you didn't need my help, did you? Not really." Wesley waited and then nodded when Angel couldn't come up with a convincing lie. "I thought so. And now you've got to –"
"Help you," Angel said gently. "It's what I do, Wes." He smiled. "And I'm a vampire: you're not the first naked body I've seen."
Wesley's brow furrowed. "I don't really see how the two are connected," he objected, "although I'm sure, yes, in two and a half centuries of indulging yourself in every depravity possible, the odd naked male body came your way, but it doesn't make me feel any less – oh!"
Angel worked the cream into the first slash, ignoring Wesley's reaction. It ran across his chest, two fingers wide and dotted with drops of water, tinged pink with seeping blood. Wesley's skin was fever-hot and the light scatter of hair across his skin clung damply in dark whorls.
"Does it feel –"
"Helps," Wesley said tightly. "Just hurts when you touch –"
Angel swallowed and dipped his fingers into the bowl again, bracing himself. The second mark was lower, running upwards at an angle from Wesley's right hip, across his stomach and then curving around his side.
"I'm going to have to just roll you over a little," Angel said hesitantly.
Wesley shifted position obediently, giving Angel a glimpse of his backside and the shadowed hollows of his spine. A tantalising glimpse. "Is that – can you reach it all?"
"No," Angel lied, slipping his arm under Wesley to brace him. "Roll over just a little more." Shame at the sudden impulse stopped him from staring at Wesley's ass – no more than a swift look anyway – and he dabbed the cream on well past the end of the gouge to cover up his subterfuge.
Wesley eased back to his original position and gave Angel a tentative smile. "I think it's starting to work," he murmured.
Angel nodded. The two marks he'd treated were already closing up, the skin around them regaining a healthy pink glow.
"One more to go," Wesley said, with a forced cheerfulness. There was a pause and then he said softly. "Angel –"
"Wes, just shut up, OK?"
Across the top of Wesley's thighs, across his cock... had to have been agonising and it was sympathy and fellow feeling that let Angel dip his hand a third time in the ointment without flinching.
He worked his way along the wound steadily, not allowing himself to look upward to Wesley's face, concentrating on making certain that every inch was coated with the healing cream. When the muscles beneath his hand tensed up he kept his face blank; when he used his free hand to hold Wesley's cock in place as he smoothed the cream into the shaft, swelling slightly as he touched it, he pretended to miss the involuntary, tiny lift of Wesley's hips, the whisper of his own name emerging from Wesley's parted lips.
And when he'd finished, he rose without a word and went to wash his hands, scrubbing at them fiercely, staring at nothing in the mirror and knowing even if it had shown him his face, it would have shown no expression.
When he returned to the bedroom, Wesley was struggling into the robe Angel had left draped across the end of the bed, his face showing that he was still in some pain.
"Want a hand with that?" Angel asked.
Wesley gave him a quick smile. "No, coping fine, thanks. Amazing how quickly it works. Like magic!" He chuckled at his own joke and then gestured at the robe. "I hope you don't mind me borrowing this."
"Of course not," Angel said. The deep red of the heavy silk accentuated Wesley's pallor and Angel sighed, forcing himself to sound natural. "You should rest. Try and sleep."
"You said – we have to do that again?" Wesley asked hesitantly.
"Twice more, yeah."
"Then there's not much point in trying to rest." Wesley looked around the room. "I'd better not do anything too energetic but perhaps there's a book I could read?"
"Or we could talk...."
"Cards!" Wesley nodded in satisfaction. "Not for money of course, not between friends, but we could use imaginary stakes... Oh, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to –"
"We can play cards if you like, Wesley," Angel said, cutting him off.
By the time one o'clock came, Angel pretty much owned Wesley, who was playing with an utter disregard for the rules and a charming, if unfounded trust that his luck would have to turn eventually.
"And that makes, oh goodness me, you now own my bike, my books and my salary for the next fifteen years." Wesley stared down at the cards spread out between them and said in a small voice. "I'm not exactly a challenge am I? More of a walk-over really."
"Your mind's not on the game," Angel agreed, gathering up the cards and shuffling them with an absent-minded expertise. "Doesn't matter. It passed the time."
"Oh." Wesley gave the clock a nervous, sideways glance.
Angel reached for the bowl and nodded at the robe Wesley wore. "You're going to need to take that off."
Watching Wesley slide the robe off him, baring his body to the waist, left Angel with nothing to do but stare. They were so close that he could feel the warmth of Wesley's body pressing against the air, feel the speeding-up heartbeat as though it were beating in his own chest.
Wesley was clutching the robe in his lap, staring back at him with wide eyes and Angel lost his patience. Reaching out, he took hold of the robe and pulled it out of Wesley's grip. "Lie back, Wesley. You're just making this –"
"Harder?" Wesley suggested, with a flash of humour. "Sorry. You have to admit it's awkward though."
"Yeah. It is. So don't make it even more difficult than it already is."
Wesley's eyes narrowed at the harsh tone in Angel's voice, a tone he regretted, but God, this wasn't easy and Wes acting like a fluttering fucking virgin in a room still redolent with his blood was bringing back way too many memories. "Very well."
He lay back, hooking his hands behind his head and spread his legs slightly. "Is this better?"
Angel set the bowl down and looked away. "Wesley, so help me, if you don't want me to lose it, you're going about this the wrong way."
Wesley sighed and reached out to touch Angel's knee, getting his attention. "I'm sorry. I'm on edge and I'm over-compensating by making a bloody fool of myself as usual. Just do it."
Without answering Angel scooped up a dollop of the cream. Spreading it across almost-healed flesh was both easier and more difficult. Easier because Wesley wasn't biting back whimpers of pain; harder because it was so tempting to let his fingers linger, enjoy the feel of someone else's – Wesley's- skin under his hand.
And this time he rolled Wesley onto his stomach when he dealt with the second mark, not even pretending that he needed to, swiping his fingers roughly across the inch or two of reddened skin on Wesley's side and then placing his hand in the small of Wesley's back, pinning him in place.
If Wesley had said a word... stiffened in surprised protest... he'd have released him, he really would have... but he didn't. Instead, Wesley relaxed with a sigh of relief, as though once the decision had been taken and the line had been crossed, everything had become easy.
Which it hadn't, but that stopped mattering to Angel at the precise moment that Wesley repeated that almost imperceptible, wanton shift that spread his legs an inch or so wider, inviting a touch that Angel couldn't waste time on, not yet.
"That's gonna have to wait, Wes," he said, whispering in Wesley's ear just so he could get his mouth close to his, so close that when Wesley turned to look at him their lips brushed in a kiss by default. It was enough to make Angel's cock harden to the point of pain because Wesley followed it with a quick, had-to-be-calculated lick of his lips.
He didn't growl. Not really. More a frustrated groan as he tugged Wesley onto his back and smeared the cream across Wesley's upper thigh, stopping just short of his cock, now erect, jerking at every brusque touch from Angel's fingers. Angel lifted his hand, dealt with the tapering line extending across Wesley's other leg and then looked up at Wesley.
Who was propped up on his elbows and staring down at Angel, lips parted, chest rising and falling rapidly. "It hurts," he said.
Angel didn't take his eyes off Wesley as he closed his slippery fingers around the shaft of Wesley's cock, feeling where the smooth skin was marred by the welt left by the demon. "Don't come," he said warningly.
"Why not?" Wesley panted, writhing as Angel's hand tightened and then moved slowly on his cock. "I don't think it would affect the healing process."
Angel let go of him. "Because I told you not to," he said, going back into the bathroom to wash his hands. This time he didn't linger in there.
In even that short space of time the effect of the second application was plain: what had been deep gouges were now thin, faintly red lines, looking like scratch marks, no worse.
"You're going to be fine," Angel commented. "That's good. Does it still hurt?"
Wesley shook his head. He hadn't dressed again but he was sitting with his knees pulled up and his arms resting on them. "More the memory of it. The shower helped to wash off the residual amounts and the cream took care of the rest of it. Angel –"
"What, Wesley?" Angel didn't sit back on the bed, choosing instead to lean against the wall where his face was in shadows as the room was lit only by a lamp in the corner that cast enough light on the bed for his eyes to be able to see Wesley perfectly well.
"You know what. Or do you want me to pretend this didn't happen, the way –" Wesley swallowed and then carried on resolutely, "the way we've been ignoring things for the last year?"
"Wasn't aware we'd been doing that, Wesley," Angel said. "Want to give me a for instance?"
"No," Wesley said coldly. "I don't." He reached for the robe and Angel crossed the room before Wesley's fingers touched the silk.
"You even try and get dressed and I'll tear that into so many bits you'll think it snowed blood in here."
"Angel, that's a rather disturbing image, and I'm not comfortable sitting here naked for the next hour until we can get this over and done with."
"And I'm not comfortable being dressed with my cock this hard," Angel told him, "but I'm dealing, and you can deal with being naked."
"Why should I?" Wesley being stubborn wasn't new but it didn't usually make Angel's temper flare.
"Because I want to fucking look at you naked and it's the only chance I'll ever have."
Wesley stood up and got close enough for Angel to see nothing but the blue dazzle of Wesley's eyes. "You only had to ask, Angel. For the last year, that's all you had to do."
Angel closed his eyes because Wes' mouth was right there and he wanted to kiss it again. "I'm asking now."
"No, you're ordering me. There's a difference."
Angel opened his eyes. "Wes. In an hour you can get dressed and Cordy's given strict instructions that we all pretend you never tangled with a Trethkin demon and I never had to do – this. Tomorrow we'll be back to normal."
"I admire the self-control you both possess," Wesley said coldly. "I, on the other hand, prefer to retain my memories, good, bad or indifferent and shan't be attempting to expunge this one from them."
He sat down on the bed, and with a defiant glare tugged the cover over him.
"What does it come under?" Angel asked. "Me. Touching you. Good, bad...?"
Wesley averted his head. "I think I answered that with an erection, didn't I?" His head jerked around and Angel got treated to a bitter smile. "Or was that as inadequate as everything else about me?"
Angel rubbed his hand through his hair. "Pretty impressive, actually, but if you think that surprises me, you're wrong. Wes, you're not – you're part of the team, okay? I trust you, I like you and I'm not blind; I can tell you've got – feelings for me."
"Ones you don't share."
"You know I can't."
"Your soul's not at risk with me," Wesley said quietly. "You don't love me. You just feel – flattered and mildly amused that I've become – that I want – God, why is it so hard to talk about this?"
"Because we've spent a year looking the other way?" Angel said. "Wes, you, me – not going to happen. Not. I can't be that vulnerable, I can't let myself care. But I'm not made of stone, though God knows my cock feels like it is right now, and yeah, being around you, the emotions you give off, the way you look, the – God, this <i>is</i> hard." He gave Wesley a desperate look. "I don't want to hurt you, Wes. In any way. Don't want to piss you off; don't want to lose you as a friend."
"I don't think you could. The latter, I mean." Wesley smiled a little sadly. "I think you could do the rest, but I'm sure you wouldn't do it intentionally."
"Wes, in half an hour, I'm going to have my hands all over you again."
"Yes, yes you are," Wesley murmured. "Am I allowed to feel a certain anticipation or is that forbidden too?"
"Anticipate what, Wes?" Angel decided to use blunt. "I can get this gunk on your cock fast enough that you won't even notice, if I want to."
"And will you?" Wesley asked staring at him directly. "Or will you take advantage of the chance to get a good look at my arse again – and don't even try and tell me that was necessary – and give me something so close to a hand-job it's indistinguishable from the real thing?"
"I'm going to get the job done, Wes," Angel said.
They sat in silence until the clock ticked around to the hour and then Wesley threw back the cover and nodded. Without speaking, Angel came over to him and spread the last of the cream into the marks, which faded as soon as he touched them. He tossed the empty bowl in the trash and headed for the bathroom.
When he came out Wesley was already half-dressed, having borrowed a shirt of Angel's and some trousers. The trousers lay on the bed; the shirt was in the process of being buttoned.
"It doesn't smell that badly," Wesley said, clearly trying to bridge the awkward moment. "Why are you in such a rush to wash it off?" He gave Angel a tired smile. "Do I have, er, cooties or something?"
Angel hesitated and then shrugged. He held up his hand, where the angry blisters were starting to fade. "One of the ingredients? Holy water. Felt like I was dipping my fingers in acid if you really want to know."
Wesley gave him a long look. "And you didn't tell me because you knew –"
"You'd make a fuss, yeah." Angel shrugged again. "Wouldn't have stopped me, but I'd got enough to deal with without that."
Wesley took a deep breath and straightened up. "Deal with what?" he asked brightly. "Good work on dispatching that demon, Angel. Nasty little bugger, but I think we were more than a match for him. I'll be going now; see you in the morning."
He paused as if waiting for something and Angel gave it to him.
"Yeah, Wes. See you in the morning."
When you'll look at me with those hopeful eyes, grateful for even a word of praise, when you'll make jokes Cordy doesn't get and doesn't even pretend to laugh at and I think they're kinda funny and cute and I don't laugh either because if I did ... if I did... what if I did?
He caught up with Wesley at the lobby door.
"Tonight I saw you naked."
Wesley turned and looked at him.
"I was hard from the moment you fell out of that shower. I still am now and I'm going to be every time I think about the sound you made when I touched you. I'm going to sleep in a bed that smells of you and I'm going to be jerking off until my wrist aches and I'm still not going to be able to forget the way you looked spread out on my bed. On my fucking bed..." Angel stepped back. "I won't forget it."
Wesley cleared his throat and nodded stiffly. "I – thank you." He pulled the door open and said quietly. "If you ever do – forget, I mean – I'd be more than happy to refresh your memory."
The door swung closed, leaving Angel hearing Wesley's final words echo in his head.
"You just have to ask."
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