Title: Benign
Author: Katta (head_overheels@hotmail.com)
Website: http://www.geocities.com/katta_hj
Archive: List sites, anyone who asks
Summary: Telling good guys from bad guys is a lot harder than it looks.
Rating: R
Disclaimer: Most of the characters belong to Mutant Enemy, not to me, and I mean no copyright infringement.
Warnings: There's het in this story. I'm sorry. It's among the slashiest het I've ever written, but it's still het.
Spoilers: For "The Prodigal", "The Ring", and obviously "Birthday".
Notes: Fifth in my Birthdayverse series. It took me long enough, but here it is.
**********

Wesley cut through the dead demon's skin and then put down his knife to take out the gland. He paused for a moment, turning it in his hand, studying the colours and texture. There seemed to be nothing abnormal about those things. The size was another matter entirely. It was big enough to play cricket with.

"Let me guess," Gunn said, crouching down beside him for the most brief of moments before returning to his previous pacing. "Benign?"

"Supposedly, yes," Wesley said, scowling at the carcass. "You know, its glands are swollen."

"Demon mumps?"

"It could be a disease." Wesley ignored the cheerful sarcasm in Gunn's voice. "All things considered, though, I'm more inclined to believe the source of this chemical imbalance is artificial, perhaps some sort of drug."

"Because all we need is demons on dope."

Wesley smiled a little. Gunn always had such a refreshing perspective on things.

"So, how many of these are there?"

"I'm not sure." Wesley's brow furrowed as he calculated an answer. "We've encountered four so far, but I'm sure that if there were many more we would have heard of it..."

"No, I meant 'benign' demons." The grimace Gunn made at the word clearly suggested that he didn't fully embrace the concept. "How many altogether?"

"Oh. Well, I couldn't possibly estimate the number of individuals most of them stay hidden for obvious reasons but I'd say about a hundred separate species."

That stopped Gunn in his tracks. "A hundred? Are you kidding me?"

"Not at all. Of course, it depends on how you define your terms. A pixie, for example, might not be considered a demon by some people. Of course, I didn't include pixies in my estimation anyway, since they are definitely not benign. In fact, they can be rather aggressive, although a pixie bite is certainly not severe enough to cause any concerns."

He was rewarded with a wide grin. For some reason, Gunn found it amusing when he spoke like an encyclopaedia, and he wasn't reluctant to use that fact.

"So how do we know which ones are which?"

"We don't," Wesley said simply. "If these cases prove anything, it's that you can never be certain when it comes to demons. And if they're out there killing people, I say killing *them* is a fairly good idea."

"Yeah, well, just warn me if there's a pixie killing spree." There was briefly silence as Wesley continued working, but soon Gunn gave a deep sigh. "How long is that going to take you?"

"Well, I'm sorry, but I'm used to doing this sort of examination in a laboratory. It's quite different on the street with a kitchen knife."

"I'll give you a laboratory on your birthday," Gunn said glumly. "After I rob a bank."

"Thank you, Gunn."

The innocence in his voice was met with a growling sound from Gunn that made Wesley's heart tick just the slightest bit faster. Gunn was very vocal about his displeasure with this entire situation, but he hadn't left with the others as he easily could have.

The sound of a cellphone interrupted Wesley's thoughts. He looked down at his slimy hand and grimaced. When he started working, he'd taken off his jacket *specifically* so he wouldn't get it all slimed up. And he wasn't sure demon glands worked well with cell phone circuits.

"Would you mind...?"

"Got it," Gunn said, fishing the cell phone out of Wesley's jacket. "Yeah, what is it?" he asked the caller. "Do I sound like Wesley? He's a bit busy right now. Yeah? What did he do? Okay, fine, what do they think he did? Really? Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Yeah, I'll tell him. No, it won't take long. Okay. Take care."

Wesley stopped working and looked with interest at Gunn, who turned off the phone and carefully replaced it in the jacket pocket. There weren't all that many people who had reason to call him, and "take care" limited the range even more. "Anne?"

"Yeah." Gunn scratched his neck. "One of the kids got arrested. Boy named Li? Seems someone knocked over a convenience store last night, and the cops picked him up this morning. She wants you to talk to the lawyers."

Wesley stood up slowly and almost wiped his hand off on his jeans before he stopped himself. "Of course. But why doesn't she do it herself?"

"She's checking out his alibi." Gunn had a very strange expression.

"Do I really want to know?"

"Apparently, he was at a demon brothel."

**********

Wesley stepped into the police station and spotted the lawyer right away as the only one wearing a suit, and a remarkably classy one at that. He got a glimpse of himself in a reflecting window and blinked at the difference. A green sweater currently well earning its name with its left sleeve pinned up, jeans stiff with demon grime, second-hand leather boots with copper buckles. At least the jacket still looked new.

"You must be Wesley Wyndham-Pryce."

The man's voice, familiar from a few times when he'd answered the phone at the shelther, told him he'd guessed right. He reached out his hand. "Hello, Mr. McDonald."

Lindsey McDonald was younger than he'd have expected, and his smile was wide and casual, showing no surprise at Wesley's appearance. They found a small waiting room, with sunken, worn armchairs and a strange smell but at the very least empty, and sat down. Wesley was the first one to speak.

"So, I understand that the police suspect Chen Li of being involved in a robbery?"

"Not quite." Lindsey's smile was replaced by a troubled expression. "The clerk was shot at the robbery and died an hour ago."

Wesley slowly sank to a chair. "Oh, dear." Although he didn't think Li capable even of robbery, much less murder, the situation was grave whether he was guilty or not. "On what ground was Li arrested?"

"There's an assisting clerk," Lindsey said. "He was outside when he heard the gunfire, so he went in to see what was going on. According to his testimony, he saw a 'Jap boy' in black clothes jump out a window. The window was open already, but it's pretty high up. It would take some agility."

"Which Chen Li doubtlessly has." Li was Chinese, not Japanese, but it was quite likely that the clerk couldn't tell the difference. "Is that all they have on him?"

Lindsey made a see-saw motion with his hand. "They did a line-up, but didn't get anything definite, although he was one of the guys the clerk thought it might be. So the evidence isn't overwhelming, but then, neither is his alibi."

A demon brothel was probably the worst alibi you could have, and Wesley was fairly certain that Li wouldn't try and use it. And, obviously, any false alibi would be a bad one if made in the spur of a moment. "What did he say?"

"That he was with a woman. He wouldn't tell her name, though."

Natural enough, considering what that woman might look like. But something in Lindsey's voice hinted that he knew more than he was saying.

"Well," said Wesley, "such a woman might not wish to show herself in public."

They exchanged glances, and Wesley knew his suspicion had been correct. That didn't exactly ease his mind. Not everyone who knew about demons had a healthy attitude about them and in this case, he wasn't even sure what a healthy attitude *was*. A policewoman walked past the room, and the two men leaned closer to keep the conversation low.

"But surely, even without an alibi he couldn't possibly be convicted on such poor evidence?"

"Probably not. Still, lying to the police and getting caught isn't a good thing."

"What if he was provided with another alibi?" Wesley threw a quick glance at the observation window to see if the policewoman had left. She had, but thinking about her made him half remember something that he had a feeling was important. He frowned.

"Like what?"

Wesley tore away from the elusive memory. This was important as well. "Well, what if I said he was with me?"

There was hardly a hint of change in Lindsey's expression, but Wesley still realized the implications of his suggestion before the lawyer said, "Trust me, this isn't worth losing your job over."

In spite of his heated cheeks, Wesley found it in himself not to stammer. "But certainly people wouldn't assume..."

"He said he was with a woman. Why would he lie unless the truth was worse?" Lindsey's face and voice were both quite serious, but Wesley still felt as if he'd just been exposed to an embarrassing prank. He fought very hard to resist that feeling and the stiffness that went with it. The man had a point. He'd need a better story than that, and for a moment he toyed with the idea of providing Li with a woman. He quickly dismissed it. The only woman among his close acquaintances who might sleep with a teenager for reasons beside money was Alonna, and he could just imagine the look on her face if he were to ask her. No, that alibi had to go. If a new one was to be provided, it might as well be by Wesley. All he needed was a good reason for Li to lie.

"He was helping me," he suggested as the thought popped up. "And I asked him not to tell anyone."

"Helping you do what?"

Wesley's thoughts raced, and he recalled his bedroom floor, overgrown with grime that he'd have cleaned away long ago if the mere thought of moving furniture hadn't scared him off. "Cleaning the floor."

"But why on earth would you...?" Lindsey started, clearly puzzled.

Wesley squared his chin and met Lindsey's gaze, preparing for the realisation he knew would come. And there it was, the slight shift in Lindsey's eyes, the mix of emotions he'd learned to recognise.

"All right, then," Lindsey finally said, grabbing his notebook. "He helped you out and neither of you told anyone. Fair enough. But lying about it to the police?"

"He's not a very bright young man."

Lindsey nodded slowly. "It'll do."

Wesley knew as well as he did that the story would sound unlikely, but he also knew that it wouldn't matter. Neither the police nor the shelter would want to question his honesty on such a matter; not to mention that he had Anne on his side, and to all practical concerns, she pretty much *was* the shelter.

"I'm glad that's settled, then," he said, grateful for the opportunity to rise from the seedy chair. It struck him that he'd have to go clean his floor, and fast, before anyone checked his story. The dread at the thought made his head spin. Just pulling the bed out would be... Asking for help was out of the question. Whatever he had told Lindsey, he would never submit himself to that sort of humiliation willingly. Doing it himself was quite embarrassing enough. "Shall I tell this to the police?"

"Yes, let's. I hope they'll be satisfied."

**********

On the way out of the police station, Wesley suddenly remembered where he'd seen that policewoman, and he turned around so quickly he got bumped by the door. Oblivious to the smart of a new bruise, he hurried back inside, ready to look through every corridor and office he had to until he found her. Fortunately, he didn't have to. She was leaving her office just as he rounded the corner, and he dashed over before she could close the door.

"Excuse me?"

A quick glance down, then back to his face. "Yes?"

"This may sound strange, but some time ago I saw you talking to an acquaintance of mine. A man named Angel. And I was wondering..."

His voice trailed off as he saw her reaction to the name.

"I haven't got the faintest idea what you're talking about."

Her voice was oh so cold, and he couldn't imagine what Angel had done to infuriate her like that.

"Please," he said, not certain why it mattered so much to him. He wouldn't have thought that he'd ever want to meet anyone from Sunnydale again, not after he'd made such a fool of himself there. But for some reason, knowing that Angel was in Los Angeles and *not* meeting him was worse. The thought of perhaps one day bumping into him on a mission or by the shelter, old life meeting new in a manner that could only be humiliating no. Better to take the bull by its horns. "I really do need to find him."

She looked at him for a moment in silence, her light eyes full of suspicion. Then she sighed and let the door fall shut. "Can we take this outside?"

"Of course."

He followed her outside until she halted on the sidewalk and spun around to face him. The sun stung his eyes and he brought up his hand to shade them. It certainly wasn't privacy she wanted, since the street was full of people.

"I don't know who you are," she said, "and I don't care. But I do know that Angel is trouble, and I don't want you to *ever* mention him to my face again. Is that clear?"

"So you do know him."

"Unfortunately yeah."

She was ready to step inside again, but he hurried past her, standing in front of the already opened door. "Will you tell him I came looking for him next time you see him? My name is Wesley Wyndham-Pryce."

"I won't see him," she said, and her voice was convincing enough.

"But if you do, will you tell him?"

"I will."

She brushed him aside without any effort and stepped through the door. Even her retreating back looked offended.

**********

"Please," Angel said, stopping short outside the police station when he saw a shadow come forth from the dark, lit up in the flashes of headlights from passing cars. "Not now."

"I'd have thought you'd be happy to see me." The Irish voice was reproachful in a manner laden with humour.

"Not *now*. At home. Not now."

"Would you prefer me?"

Angel shook his head at Darla, who stood in front of the door in her red dress and with the half-drained body of a coach driver in her arms. He remembered that coach driver. Of course he did. He remembered everyone.

"Not now. I need to explain to Kate." He clung to the one thing he knew. "I need to explain to Kate. Kate... Kate has to understand. It's important. It's important I explain to her."

Darla was laughing at him, and in desperation he turned to Doyle. "Yes. Come in then. Just keep *her* away."

"Of course I will." Then there was no more Darla, and Angel knew that Doyle would keep his promise. He was reliable that way. If the others were stronger than him, he'd say so, not pretend just to calm Angel down.

"Good. It's okay. I'll talk to Kate, and it's okay."

He stepped inside, and with an effort of mind ignored Doyle. It always pained him to do that, felt like betrayal all over again, but he didn't really have a choice.

By now he knew the way to Kate's office as well as he knew the way to his own apartment, and he was also beginning to recognise the vitriol that showed up on her face when she saw him enter.

"Kate."

"Get out."

"Kate, please talk to me." He took a few steps closer, encouraged by a green-eyed wink from across the room. "I tried to help him. If he'd only let me in..."

"Let in a madman?" she asked. "A vampire madman having conversations with an invisible woman?"

He could feel his eyes drifting off to where Doyle was standing. Kate's narrowed.

"Is she there now?"

"No!" The denial came out fierce. At times the thought of Darla alone was enough to bring her out, and he worried that it would happen this time but it didn't. He sighed with relief. "She's not here. Didn't hear us."

Kate gave a snort that was anything but happy. "Angel, listen to yourself! Or better yet, listen to me. You have to go see a shrink or something."

"And tell him what?" Angel asked, wry humour fighting desperation. "That I'm a vampire who have trouble with my prophetic visions?"

Kate watched him for a long time, but evidently she couldn't deny the truth of what he'd said. "It's not just going away."

"I know." And the times when he didn't mind so much were few and far between these days.

"There was this guy asking for you earlier today," she said, and at first his mind tried to make a connection between that and the people in his head, until he realised that she'd said it to *avoid* talking about the people in his head. "One-armed, British looked like trailer trash and talked like Anthony Hopkins."

She clearly expected the description to ring a bell, but it didn't, and he shook his head. "Did he give a name?"

"Yeah, he did, but I can't remember. William? Warren? Something like that, and then a thirty-character surname with a hyphen in it. Young guy, glasses. And human, I checked on that."

The description still didn't tell him anything, although "glasses" and "British" left enough connotations in his brain to suspect that perhaps the council of Watchers were onto him. He had no idea why they would bother, though. He hadn't killed anyone, and he had no intentions of getting back together with Buffy. Most of the time he was fighting demons on the street or in his head and if the latter had increased lately, that wasn't exactly something the Council would know.

"Thanks for telling me."

She didn't respond to that, even with 'you're welcome', and there was an awkward moment when they stood silently on opposite sides of her busy desk, watching each other. There were lines in her face that hadn't been there when they met, signs of aging that he regretted giving to her, and yet he envied her all the same. Living wasn't easy, he knew that much, but it was better. It had to be.

"Go see a shrink," she said, her voice harsh and tired. "Or a witch. Or anyone, as long as it's someone."

"I will."

He figured she knew it was a lie just as much as he did.

**********

Wesley walked slowly across the main rooms of the shelter, looking for Anne. He was aching all over. His apprehension concerning the problem of the furniture had proven quite correct.

Stepping into Anne's office, he soon forgot most of his pains. Anne was sitting in her office chair, which wasn't entirely expected on a Tuesday afternoon, whn she usually had work to do elsewhere. But more importantly, Gunn was sitting on the bed with Wesley's jacket across his lap, and that wasn't expected at all.

"Hey. You took your time."

"I had some business to take care of." He tore his eyes from Gunn and found Anne's looking rather too innocent. "I told you that on the phone."

"Yes," she agreed. "And I told Gunn. I dare say he didn't listen."

Damn the woman, she was having too much fun with this. And he was too tired to be bothered. He sank down on a chair. "I hope Li is all right?"

"He's fine. You just missed him." Anne rose. "Well, Gunn, since you've got your company and it seems I'm not getting any work done in here, I'm gonna return to the living room. Wes, if you feel up to clocking in later, that would be appreciated."

For some reason, that caused Gunn to glare at her, and she held up her hands in a 'don't shoot me' gesture as she backed out from the office. Wesley turned to Gunn, puzzled, but certain an explanation would come soon. Instead, he got a glare rather similar to the one Anne had received.

"What on earth...?"

"You went directly from work to demon hunting last night, right?" Gunn stood up in a swift, nearly hostile motion. "You don't need to answer that, because I know you did. And then this morning you head out to save some punk from prison, and when you finally go *home* you sure don't *sleep*, because quite frankly you look like hell. In fact, if I'm to make an educated guess and I may not have your level of education, but I'm allowed to make those I'd say you've been taking care of that alibi you gave the kid. Pushing about furniture and who knows what. Am I right?"

"Well, yes." Having Gunn towering over him like this was highly unpleasant, but he didn't have the energy to stand right now. "I fail to see what..."

"How fucking stupid are you?"

Wesley barely had time to catch his jacket before it hit him in the face. He adverted the attack and stared at Gunn in shock. "What are you doing?"

"Go home and don't come back until you've slept for at least seven hours."

Part of him found Gunn's bossy attitude very offensive and wanted to remind the young man that he was actually the elder here, and knew very well what he was doing. That part didn't stand a chance, however, compared to the part that delighted in the concern he heard in his friend's voice.

Both parts lost to practicality. "I need the money." He didn't elaborate his answer to include the demon hunting, because Gunn knew as well as he did that it was something he simply couldn't give up.

"You need it so badly you can't give up one day of work?"

Wesley didn't answer that, because obviously he could. Logically, he knew very well that a day or two wouldn't matter, and that he had to take care of his schedule himself, because all Anne did was check that she had someone working every day, and if that someone happened to be him all seven days of the week she wouldn't notice.

Logic made no difference in the middle of the night. He'd been unemployed and broke once and dreaded going there again, handicapped and thus even less likely to get employed. It wasn't as if he was hoarding, just making sure to stay head over water and able to pay his bills even if something unexpected came up. A hospital bill, for example. Lord knew that he'd been inviting them lately.

He'd been able to get a good place and lose some debts with the money from the motorcycle. One day would make very little difference in his ability to pay the rent. But he couldn't bring himself to be idle.

"Forget it," Gunn said, heading for the door. Surely he wasn't leaving already? Wesley shifted in his chair, ready to get up and stop him, but Gunn waved impatiently for him to stay. "Stay where you are. I'll be back in a minute."

That should be comforting, but wasn't because he didn't know what Gunn was about to *do* during that minute. He fidgeted, nervous, and finally got up, weary but determined, to see what Gunn was up to.

Of course Gunn would choose that moment to return, the two of them nearly bumping into each other.

"You're just not taking anyone's advice, are you?" he asked, but his voice wasn't as harsh as before. On the contrary, he sounded cheerful.

"Well, I simply..."

"Whatever," he interrupted. "I talked to Anne. You get three hours pay for getting that kid out."

Wesley's chin dropped. "Huh?" Oh, his teachers should hear him. After all that time forcing him to eloquence.

"She told you to do it. That makes it work, and work you should be paid for." Gunn shrugged. "I know it's not the same as a full day, but it's something. Go home and rest."

"But my shift..." Wesley argued feebly. "I couldn't just abandon her."

"You won't. I'll take your shift." Gunn grinned, presumably at Wesley's expression, which he was much too stunned to keep in control. "What? It's not exactly brain surgery."

"But you shouldn't... not for my sake."

"Sure I should." Gunn's voice was softer than he'd ever heard it, so soft it made his treacherous heart skip a beat. "You're one of mine now, remember?"

And he loved that word "mine", though he hated the plural that put him in among the rest, perhaps higher than Bobby and Rondell if he was lucky, but certainly much lower than Alonna. Someone Gunn would want to help in a way not unlike the way Wesley had just helped Li: out of duty and compassion and even a genuine like, but nothing near love.

Nothing near enough.

And it surprised him that he was so greedy, that this sacrifice small, perhaps, but significant didn't make him fumble and stutter with gratitude but rather demand more, a higher place on the scale, that offensive plural taken away. In his thoughts he grabbed Gunn, pressed himself close to him, caressed that dark, smooth head, and he did it with his left hand so he wouldn't be tempted to try it in reality.

He didn't really want to approach Gunn like that. He wanted Gunn to approach *him* like that. But even in his fantasies, he couldn't bring himself so far from reality. He'd never been very imaginative.

"Thank you," he said, voice low but surprisingly calm. He put on the jacket Gunn had flung at him, recalling in a distant sort of way how embarrassed he'd once been to do that in front of people.

"Go. Now."

If Gunn had just shrugged the thanks off, like a normal person, there could have been some hope for Wesley's mind to keep his heart together, but these impolite, eager words were too much for him. He mumbled a goodbye and headed out, knowing he had to do something about this foolish crush and do it soon. Things just couldn't be allowed to continue like this.

**********

"How come I can kill you, but I can't make you leave?" Angel's voice was laden with desperation, and the sight of Darla's gloating game face made him want to laugh even as his eyes filled with tears.

Those deep red lips curled into a grin. "Now, is that any way to respect your sire?"

She approached him, and he drew back, wary to touch her. But Darla was never one to be put off by such things.

"I'm family, stupid," she said, leaning close to him. "Family doesn't leave. Not ever. Isn't that right, sweetheart?"

If he'd had breath he would have lost it then, seeing the small vampire child standing by Darla, held in the loose circle of her arms. The sight still made him freeze.

"Aren't you glad you found your brother?" Darla asked, hugging the little girl.

"You bitch!" He caught her by the throat, pushing her up against the wall, and then blinked as her face turned into that of a young man. He let go, slowly, trying to figure out if this was real. He had a feeling that it was, that they had been talking but about what? The man was badly beaten. Had he done that?

"Holy shit!" the guy choked.

"I'm... I'm sorry."

"No don't be. That was brilliant. That's exactly what I'm talking about. You'll find my brother in no time."

His brother? Right. The man had come to ask Angel find his brother. Apparently he wasn't the only crazy person in this conversation.

"I don't think I'm the guy."

"Family's important," said his little sister, tilting her head so the neck wounds were visible. "You don't leave your family behind."

"You're not really here," he argued fiercely. "She never turned you."

"She could have. Or you could have." Tears filled in her eyes. "Why did you leave me, Liam?"

"Shut up! Go away!"

"Listen," said the guy, backing off a few steps, though he didn't seem afraid. "I'll leave if you want me to, but I really want to find my brother. He's in trouble, I know it."

"Don't you understand?" Angel was getting desperate. Kathy was making cheeky faces at him, like she used to when she was alive, and he couldn't deal with that and the stranger at the same time. It was too much. All he wanted was some peace and quiet. "I'm dangerous."

"I should hope you are." The guy sat down on the desk, right next to Darla. Angel started forward to stop him did he have a deathwish or something? But of course, Darla wasn't real. Angel knew she wasn't. "This isn't humans we're dealing with. I'm need someone dangerous."

"I can't."

"I heard you go after killer demons. That you're trying to do the right thing."

Angel stared at Kathy, who was reaching her arms out for her new foster-mommy, eager to be lifted up. He watched Darla drinking from her, taking deep gulps with great satisfaction. That had never happened. And still...

"Aren't you trying to do the right thing?"

"God, yes." The answer came without thought, but he watched the vampires - his family - and made up his mind. "Yes. All right. I'll find your brother."

**********

Wesley spiked the fourth onion, peeled it, and was about to start slicing it when the door slammed behind him. He managed to control his urge to jump, and turned around slowly to face Li. If it had been anyone else, they might have received a lecture, but considering the troubles the boy had gone through lately, Wesley decided to go easy on him.

"Some people would consider it unwise to startle a man holding a knife."

"Sorry." Li seemed unusually awkward. "Can I...?"

Wesley nodded at the raw meat lying on the work bench. "Cut it up."

The boy jumped to it, clearly relieved to have something at hand. Wesley understood. All things considered, Li wasn't a bad kid, but he was an impudent one, and they hadn't always gotten along. The idea of being beholden must be as embarrassing for both of them.

Only the chop-chop-chopping of their two knives broke the silence, until finally Li put his down and turned to Wesley. "Thank you for getting me out of that place."

Wesley contemplated how to answer. Definitely not with that impersonal 'you're welcome' or, even worse, 'it's nothing'. This wasn't something he could brush off. "It was the only thing I could do."

"I didn't do it," Li said, a desperation in his voice that surprised Wesley. The brothel story had proven true, so why was he trying to preach to the converted?

"I know. Anne checked your alibi."

"I'd never do anything like that." Now Li sounded about to start crying, and if Wesley wasn't comfortable with his own tears, he certainly wasn't any more fond of other people's.

"Of course not," he hurried to assure the boy, hoping it was the right thing to say.

"I mean, some pot now and then, yeah, and maybe I've taken something in a store once or twice, but not armed robbery, man. Not killing people."

Wesley was about to say 'of course not' again, but then the penny finally dropped. Li had been arrested for a crime he hadn't committed. He wasn't consciously trying to convince Wesley of something they both already knew. This was about policemen scaring half to death a kid who was already wary, for good reasons, of authority. By refusing to believe him, by putting him in a situation where the truth was impossible and a lie would send him to prison or worse.

Wesley had never been arrested, but he did know a thing or two about the anguish when nothing he said could improve his situation in the slightest. He put the knife down and turned to Li, saying what he would have wanted to hear.

"Those policemen weren't interested in the truth, Li. They had a horrible crime on their hands and wanted someone to blame for it. You were convenient because you have a record and no family, but the case was *incredibly* weak. All they had on you was your agility and your Asian descent, and judging from the line-up results, they weren't even clear on what kind of Asian."

"One of them was Hawaiian," Li whispered. "One of the guys in the line-up."

"Hawaiian," Wesley repeated. He didn't understand some people. Surely it couldn't be harder to tell someone Hawaiian from someone Chinese than it was to tell a Kailiff demon from a Lasovic. "Good Lord. Well, that certainly proves my point. They were sloppy and uninterested, and you were convenient. That's all."

"They believed you." It was an accusation, although not necessarily directed at him. "That was a pretty dumb story you came up with, but they never questioned it. Cause you're white and old and talk fancy."

"You forgot this," Wesley said with more than a hint of cynicism, gesturing at his missing arm. If Li wanted to turn this into a time for bitterness and self-pity, he might as well join in. "I think it helped quite a bit."

He noticed, quite amused, that Li was blushing. So he'd won the 'poor me' contest, without even putting in any honest effort. He'd used natural embarrassment to his advantage and to the boy's, and he was more proud than sad about it.

"Well, anyway, if there's anything I can do to repay you..."

"I'll let you know," Wesley answered automatically, and then it occurred to him that there actually was something he wanted from Li. "That place you were in..."

"Madame Dorian's?"

"Yes." Oh dear, this was a highly disturbing thing to ask of an impressionable youth. "Do you think you could give me the address?"

Li's face split into a wide grin. "Sure. That doesn't even count."

To his own surprise, Wesley grinned back. It counted for him.

**********

Whatever he'd expected a demon brothel to be, it wasn't this business-like decadence. The interior decorating clashed terribly with a number of interspecial couples enjoying each other's company in the lobby. Wesley sincerely hoped he wasn't supposed to perform in public the way these people did.

"Can I help you?"

Madame Dorian, in her discreet yellow business suit, wasn't what he had expected either.

"Ah, yes. My name is Wesley Wyndham-Pryce. I... I got this address from a boy called Chen Li. He said..."

"Li?" Her features hardened. "You're not with the police, are you?"

"Oh, no. Not at all. That situation has been taken care of, I assure you."

"Good. It would have been bad for business if the kid told the truth there's always a risk someone would believe him enough to check us out. It was a good thing our lawyers promised to nip it in the bud."

"Lawyers?" Wesley asked, his head starting to snap the pieces of the puzzle together even before she mentioned the firm's name. So it wasn't pure altruism that had sent Lindsey McDonald to Li's rescue. He listened with half an ear to Madame Dorian's rant about how discretion was vital to her clientele, still thinking about other matters.

"So, if that's not why you're here," she finished her rant, "can I assume that your business here is personal?"

"Uh... yes. Yes, that's right."

"Do you have any special wishes?" She sounded like a waitress. He half expected her to bring out a notebook and start jotting down his orders.

His mind went immediately to Gunn, and he pushed the thought away. "A woman. Not too young. Fair, short, perhaps a bit chubby, long hair... on her head, I mean," he added when he recalled what this place was.

"Human-looking?"

"Well... fairly." He was more curious about this demon-loving than he dared admit, but he wouldn't want anyone too startlingly different.

She nodded, her brow furrowed in concentration. "I think I may have someone... what are your feelings concerning backs?"

"Backs?" he repeated like an idiot.

"Do you insist on them?"

He stared at her, trying to figure out what on earth she was talking about. "I've never given it much thought."

"Very well, then." She gave him another energetic nod and left the room, soon to return with a woman wearing a minute cotton dress.

At a first glance, Wesley could tell that Madame Dorian knew her job: this woman was pretty much exactly what he'd been asking for. As his eyes wandered down, he noticed the fox tail that curved along her legs, a darker match to her ginger hair.

"Mr..." Madame Dorian started.

"Wyndham-Pryce," Wesley said, forcing himself to look up into the freckled, smirking face of a woman closer to forty than thirty.

"Ah, yes. Mr. Wyndham-Pryce, this is Elsa. I hope you will find her satisfying. Elsa, show him your back."

Elsa lift up her long hair with one hand and the dress with another and spun around. Wesley blinked at the sight of the large hollow lined with tree bark that went from her shoulder blades to the spot where the tail started. Scandinavian wood sprite, his mind told him, but certainly the illustrations in handbooks on folklore and mythology weren't anything like seeing the real thing. As Elsa spun around again, he noticed that her bosom didn't heave. She wasn't breathing.

"Will she do?"

Well, she certainly couldn't have looked any less like Gunn. "Yes. Thank you."

"Very well. Then I'll leave you two alone. We can make you up a bill after you've conducted your business."

Wesley wasn't entirely pleased to see Madame Dorian leave. He fully agreed that she had to, but it made the situation a little too pressing. Elsa gave him a roguish grin of a kind he'd interpret as friendly if he saw it at the shelter. Here, he wasn't so sure.

"Do you want to proceed in here or should we find a room?" she asked. She had a surprisingly deep voice for a woman so short how could she talk at all if she wasn't breathing? and a heavy accent. Vocally, she resembled a less serene version of Greta Garbo in Ninotchka.

"A room," he replied quickly. "Definitely a room."

"Come on, then." She jerked her head to show the way, and proceeded to a door, through a corridor, past another door, all the time swaying her generously shaped hips in a highly distracting manner. Wesley tried not to look, but felt ridiculous when he caught himself. She was a half-naked prostitute, he was *supposed* to stare at her. Even the way her tail moved was erotic, and Good Lord, that was just a little too close to bestiality for his liking.

But if that was bestiality, what was that back of hers? He wasn't even sure there was a word for people who had sex with trees, and he'd certainly never entertained the thought, not until he saw that hollow surrounded by voluptuous, female curves.

"Here we are," she said, stepping into yet another room. He could see a king-sized bed covered in wine red sheets, but very little else, since she turned around in the door, preventing him from going inside. "So. Wesley Wyn...ah..."

"Wyndham-Pryce."

"Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, do you promise to be good to the forest?"

What a very odd turn of conversation. "What forest?"

"Any forest."

"I promise?" He hadn't meant it to come out as a question, but then, not much in this endeavour had turned out the way he would have expected.

"Lovely!" The grin she gave him this time *definitely* didn't fit a woman of her age. Whatever her age was. He had a suspicion she might be significantly over forty. "Now, let's have sex."

Before he could react, she had pulled him into the room and started unbuttoning his shirt. When she moved on to his pants, he'd collected himself enough to put his hand protectively over the button. "D-don't you think you're being a bit forward?"

"You like me forward," she assured him, pushing his hand aside to get those pants off. He didn't move his feet and she put her hands on his shoulders, prepared to push him. To save himself from the humiliation, he sat down on the bed, and she took off his boots and trousers before jumping up on top of him. In spite of her weight, she didn't harm him in the process. It was surely quite sexy, if one could ignore that he was ridiculously self-conscious of his socks. They were still on, but one of them had slid off halfway and distracted his attention. He let his eyes drift, pretending that he wasn't embarrassed. It was a remarkably nice room, with a dressing table that looked Edwardian, quite a few potted plants and a stone statue of two rabbits in the middle of an intimate act which broke the impression of class quite abruptly.

Elsa was now kissing the spot where his earlobe met his jaw, something he'd long since discovered he found intensely enjoyable. Funny that she'd choose that spot first of all. In his dreams, it had been Gunn doing exactly the same thing.

This was entirely too strange.

"Miss, if you don't mind..." but her lips silenced his. He had deliberately chosen someone as different from Gunn as possible, and yet the experience fitted his fantasies if his fantasies had included a long, furry tail curling up his legs.

Wood sprites seduced men, all sources agreed on that, no matter how much they diverted on everything else. And if all wood sprites seduced men, was it so unreasonable to think that perhaps they shared some trait that made them hard to resist, for example an ability to pick up the men's sexual fantasies?

If that was the case, she probably couldn't help it, and chastising her for it would be pointless. So instead, he let his hand slide up against her back, touching that bark-lined hollow. He was here for the sex, after all, he might as well enjoy himself.

She laughed softly as he stroked his fingers along the edge of the hollow. There were no lungs, and yet he heard the sound. "How do you talk?"

"I don't know." She was kissing his shoulders now. Kissing those scars. Good Lord. "How do you?"

"But you have no lungs... you're not breathing."

She blew into his face, forcing him to blink. "You think too much."

Maybe she was right, but he couldn't give up his thoughts, not even when she guided his cock between her legs. His eyes fell on the rabbit sculpture. It was remarkably lifelike. Almost too lifelike.

And then it struck him with perfect clarity what all the sources also agreed upon. After a wood sprite had seduced a man, she would kill him.

**********

The moment seemed to last forever. This was much more than simple relief, this was his lust drawn from him with force, a mix of pleasure and pain that was too strong for him to stand. He wasn't aware of anything around him anymore, just the feeling that kept going, spreading through him, changing him. His body felt very far away, and yet he could feel with perfect clarity that it was twisting and turning to eventually, when he returned to it, become something else entirely.

A laughing voice tickled his ear, which he had forgotten he even had. "Breathe."

He didn't know how, with the muscles involved in his doing so so very distant, but somehow he managed to obey. Soon he lay on the king size bed, gasping for breath, but still alive, thank God. Elsa hadn't killed him after all. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, glowing. He blinked. Yes. She was glowing. And she looked several years younger than before.

"You can rest as long as you need to," she assured him.

He turned his head to the sculpture. It was two actual rabbits, caught in the act. "This is..." He was much too tired to speak, but tried anyway. "This is where you would kill me, correct?"

"Oh, I'm not allowed to do that here." She gave him a brief smile and moved to a dressing table, where she proceeded to brush her hair. Her eyes were still watching him in the mirror.

"But if you were... I would be stone now."

"Actually, I thought you'd make quite a nice juniper," she said, stopping the swift motions of the brush while she was thinking. The glow was starting to disappear, but she still looked younger than before the sex. "Prickly if you get too close, but with a nice smell." She started to brush again, with long, energetic strokes. "In any case, you promised not to harm the forest. I can't kill you after that."

"You make everyone promise?"

"I'll hold you to that promise, you know," she warned him.

He lay silently for a while, watching her. Demon sex had been quite different from what he had expected, and the thought of what she could have done to him was highly unpleasant, but at the very least it seemed to have worked. His body felt heavy and dull, but the ache in his chest and behind his eyes wasn't there anymore. The thoughts of Gunn were easier on him now, the disbelieving joy of knowing something wonderful, not the painful frustration of having it one step removed at all time.

"This is such a lovely lust," said Elsa, admiring herself in the mirror. "How long has it been for you?"

"About six months," he said, without even having to think about what she might mean. He'd recalled the exact date before making the decision to do this.

"Not more?" It seemed to surprise her, and she touched the skin near her mouth and eyes tentatively. "So strong in only six months is it more than lust, then?"

She turned to look straight at him, instead of into the mirror, but he didn't answer. Didn't know how to answer without bringing that ache back. Yes, Wesley old boy, he thought, you've fallen hard this time. More than lust, I'd say.

"Sorry," she said, turning back again. "None of my business."

He felt an unexpected relief that she gave up interest so quickly. Very clearly, her main focus was herself, and yet she seemed to be so closely connected to the forest that he'd have to become its protector before he could sleep with her. Highly interesting.

"Doesn't it bother you," he asked, rolling over clumsily to fetch his shirt, "to compromise the forest by letting anyone swear to protect it?"

She took a lipstick from the table and began applying it while she spoke, without ever missing her lips. The skill certain women had with make-up was fascinating. "Do I look picky to you? I'm not picky. They do what they promised, and I'm happy." She chortled. "Now, I had a sister who was very picky. She once seduced two men at once, only one of them was short and the other was tall, and that drove her crazy. She made the short one's head lie next to the tall one's, but then of course the feet didn't match, and when the feet matched the heads didn't. So finally she went to fetch an axe to chop off..." Her voice trailed off and for the first time she looked uncertain. "Sorry."

"It's quite all right," he said, trying to find his pants. He wasn't too pleased with her sudden sympathy, particularly since it didn't stop her from staring at his attempts to get dressed. Besides, he was interested in her story, whatever her sister had decided to chop off. "So what happened?"

"She made the mistake of *telling* her victims she was heading off for an axe. They ran off while she was away."

"So the moral of the story is..."

"You can't afford to be picky."

Wesley laughed. He had a feeling he might be coming back to this place just to take notes, even if the ache stayed away and he could look at Gunn without going crazy. Getting off the bed, he found his pants by the foot end, partly under it. Bugger, they were getting filthy.

"Are you done?"

Wesley had to bite his lip to stop his chin from falling down at the stupid question. "No. No, I'm not. I generally like to wear trousers and boots."

A small sigh escaped her lips. "Do you want me to help you?"

His cheeks heated. The suggestion in itself was bad enough, but the way she said it... still, he was reasonably sure she meant no harm. "I'd *really* prefer it if you didn't. Why don't you... put on some make-up, or something. Make yourself pretty."

She stared at him. "Okay, I'm three hundred and fiftysomething years old, so I'm not much of a feminist, but I'm fairly sure that was offensive."

"You're right." He didn't even want to think about who that dismissal would have suited.

Offensive or not, it didn't seem to have meant much to her; she was already preoccupied with a new-looking Cosmopolitan magazine. "Besides, I already made myself pretty. With you."

"You made yourself *younger*."

"Welcome to L.A."

The unexpected sarcasm caused him to chuckle, and he was still chuckling when he'd gotten the rest of his clothes on and headed out of the room. Not until he was waiting for the receptionist to give him his change did the mirth die away, as his eyes fell on a large poster behind her desk. 'ANGEL', in eight inch letters.

He moved closer, ignoring the receptionist's protests that he should stay on the other side of the desk. 'Fight Club' the poster said. 'Introducing Angel the Mad Dog Vampire'. Mad dog? What on earth was going on? He let his eyes drift further down, finding the words 'sponsored by Madame Dorian's House of Pleasures'.

"Son of a bitch," he breathed.

**********

 

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