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The Price Of Control

by LAndrews

[Story Headers]

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock/T. S. Eliot 1917

"Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery...

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed. I parried; but my hands were loath and cold. Let us sleep now..."

Strange Meeting/Wilfred Owen 1919-20

I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying
To make you hear. Your ears are soft and small And listen to an old man not at all,
They want the young men's whispering and sighing. But see the roses on your trellis dying And hear the spectral singing of the moon; For I must have my lovely lady soon,
I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying.

Piazza Piece/John Crowe Ransom 1925


1

Angel closes the door to his apartment behind Fred, and on Gunn's laugh in response to Wes's muttered voice as they weave amiably down the hall. He knows they are safe. Only a small amount of vodka is slipping like seasoning through their veins. They are more drunk upon relief than on Lorne's cosmos, on the re-establishment of their bonds, on the sheer relaxation they all allowed themselves tonight. A few moments to let down their guard, though they were still careful, still feeling for the boundaries of dining and sleeping and trying to live sanely in enemy territory.

He turns and leans against the metal. It is cool to the touch. He wants a wooden door with a steel core and files that request away for tomorrow. On the far side of the massive floor to ceiling window across the room, the LA lights twinkle and bloom. As one goes out, others come on, the pattern random and mysterious. He misses the sound of the traffic and smell of the world and, tonight, the dry, hot Santa Anas brushing over him. The rooftop here is sterile and uncomfortable, so he remains where he is and lets his eyes follow the lights for awhile.

After a minute or a day, he becomes aware of the leftovers littering the low table between the window and the couch. He has chased them out without letting them help him clear, insisting they make it to their own places before midnight. Unable to sleep for long, Wes will be in by four or five, anyway. Angel makes another mental note. Talk to Wes. Try to ease him without giving up the game. How bad would it be? If Wes remembered? A small sliver of ice penetrates his diaphragm. Bad, he thinks.

He sighs and makes himself move. He clears the table, taking the paper plates and high-ball glasses first. He brings a garbage bag back from the kitchen and loads in the leftovers. Most of the cartons are empty or almost so. The next to last one seems full and Angel opens it. Cashew Shrimp. For Cordy. Angel's knees let go, and he slumps onto the couch. There hasn't been time, really, to mourn.

Angel sits up and pulls his shoulders back. Not that there's a need. She's not dead. She never came back. He places the Cashew Shrimp gently in the bag with the rest and goes to wash the glasses.

"I'll dry," Spike says from just behind him.

Angel trips through the doorway in surprise, spinning awkwardly.

Spike holds up his hands, wiggling his fingers. "Oh, yeah. Can't. I'll just watch."

"Go away, Spike."

"I'm bored. Lurking just isn't much fun like this."

"Go away."

"What- and leave you to brood yourself into another lifetime?"

Angel holds the trash and his ground and the glare he's practiced for a couple of hundred years.

Spike shrugs. "Guess you never were one to bubble and squeak."

Angel holds the trash and his ground and the glare.

"Well, then... can you put the telly on for me? In your office. Just call down," Spike says. He raises both brows at Angel's continued silence. "Please?"

Angel sighs. "Yes."


Angel likes washing dishes. If there are enough of them, it feels like meditation, like tai chi. Just enough physical effort to require focus, so his thoughts don't skid off into memory, but not so much that he can't let go and let himself wander a bit. Giving off a pleasant warmth beside him, Cordelia dried that night. Her fingers brushed his as she took each dish or fork or glass from him.

She was quiet, tired it seemed, from her earlier vision, and Angel knew her head probably hurt, though she didn't complain. Glad the others had traipsed off to begin piecing together the clues to Cordy's vision of wholesale slaughter a week past, Angel wanted to settle her like she often settled him- by moving slow, acting with purpose, and trying his best to bring the evening to a quiet close. He didn't feel very successful. She grounded him like he was nothing but a random electrical spark without her. The current that gave him purpose flowed through her. It was killing her. He dunked the next glass, watching the sponge in his hand slide over the rim.

Why would the Powers torture Cordy with a vision of something that happened a week ago? She never seemed to feel completely well until he'd done his job, but he couldn't fix something already finished. His scrotum scuttled up, and he felt the smallest rush of blood to his cheeks. Good thing he hadn't fed much. They had a thick stack of closed files tucked away under June, July, and most of August. Angel rinsed the glass and handed it to Cordy, sliding his gaze sideways.

She had strong, capable-looking hands. Although they still looked cared for, they weren't pampered anymore, and the wear showed in her blunt cut, uncolored nails. With her loyal bookends, Gunn and Wes, Cordy spent all summer doing her best to get to where Angel was needed, in time and with the right weapons or knowledge to get the job done, and he... He had just left her standing there while he abandoned her. Again. Cordelia couldn't take a break, couldn't just hand off the ball to trot halfway around the world for a little spiritual rejuvenation. Angel set a bowl from the counter into the sink and attacked it with his scrubby.

He couldn't even claim ignorance as an excuse since it wasn't like he hadn't proven that to himself already. Angel doubted she realized he was trying to protect her, do her a favor even, when he let her off the hook and released her from her duties as his personal career guide. Fired her. And, damn, it'd be funny that he thought he could, if it didn't still scare him senseless how hard he fell afterward. Faster than he could light a match, the newly twined rope of his short redemption jerked him to a spinning halt and let his own demon noose break his fledging humanity with the clean, resounding snap of Holland's brass lock kicking home. He still heard it sometimes, in the dark. And in his nightmares, the howling whistle of the wind past his ears as he plummeted from Wolfram and Hart's office tower. And Musak made his skin twitch.

Swinging low enough that he could feel the fires of hell warming his soles, not to mention his soul, he'd kicked and writhed and generally acted the ass until Darla, of all people, saved him. His stomach flipped a lazy loop as he thought of what he so desperately wanted when he bedded Darla. And what had the Powers done through the many weeks of his temper tantrum? Let Cordy suffer. Shit, they let Wes and Gunn suffer, too. Maybe he should apolo... But no, he wasn't about to bring it up now, not after leaving them to the fucking Powers all over again.

How alone he'd felt- as he stood beaten and bruised, in that miserable little office on Figueroa and tried to apologize. The three of them seemed so united by their anger. Still trying to grasp the concepts breaking like sun rays through the fog of his incredible denseness, Angel had watched as Cordy began to vision, waiting to see if one or both would move to catch her. He wondered if they realized the lengths he went to dampen his vampire traits except when absolutely required. He rarely used his speed. It left him buzzed, and... stretched, like stretching his arms up fully to the sky. Dropping off his human, a jacket too snug across the shoulders, felt good.

And it felt good that night, moving as he never normally allowed himself, to catch Cordy as she visioned. Only then did he fully awaken to the fact that the visions, regardless of his desire to help or not, were relentless and redemption not an accruing reward he could trade on, but a process. He wasn't human. He wasn't Wesley or Gunn. And Cordy was most definitely not his tool, not his to hire or let go. Angel was hers, for her to command as the Powers saw fit. If he could help it, Angel remembered promising himself as he caught her, her head would never hit the floor again without his hand behind it.

For months after, he suffered vivid dreams of Cordy's third eye- although he hadn't arrived in time to really see it. It blinked rapidly, tearing as Wesley dropped powder in it, his strident voice explaining, 'it's the visions, you see, the visions that were meant to guide you'. Those days, he woke drenched in cold sweat and Gunn's furious fear and the sharp tang of Wesley's healing wound remained with him, tainting the still air of his room long after he rose. He spent a lot of time watching shadows cross his walls; waiting until dusk flattened and condensed the light and he could tread with a heavy step down the stairs at a time of day when they expected him. The Powers had a hand in that, both the timing of her vision at Figueroa and the dreams; he felt it clear through the marrow of his bones.

Cordy's hands closed on the bowl he held. Angel stared down at her fingers lying over his and couldn't look at her. He let go of the bowl and she drew it away. He thought, then, of how Cordy looked at the Grooselug in Pylea, her eyes soft, her face... clear. Luminous. He had imagined that moment over and over during the summer, still confused about the jumbled mix of fear and shocked sort of joy he felt when she yelled, "Don't hurt him! I love him!" during his brutal battle to the death with Groo. And the quick spurt of jealousy when she ran to help Groo from the ground. But the look she gave the Grooselug as she told him good-bye was one he recognized. And Angel knew exactly what he felt at that point; humbled and ashamed and profoundly relieved she chose to go home. With him. That lasted right up until they walked through the doors of the Hyperion, and Angel... god. God- he'd been so happy to be home!

He forgot.

Looking at Willow, failing to shield himself from absorbing her grief, Angel forgot it all- the lessons hard learned, the promises made. He couldn't deal. He forgot those standing right behind him, to his left and to his right, as they closed ranks around him. He saw only Willow there in front of him. He stood blind and deaf and destroyed by losing someone forbidden to him anyway. Well, forbidden to him in that first lifetime, anyway. Angel frowned, looking at the plate in his hands. He scrubbed the center again, and then flicked the faucet on and watched the water sluice over it. Guess it was the second, actually. But apparently they weren't going to be anything more than star-crossed would be lovers in this third one, either, though he wasn't quite ready to admit that. He'd take Buffy alive and estranged over yet another announcement of her death any day, thank you very much.

Angel's biceps throbbed, thinking of the weight of the courtyard doors when he flung them open. With more grace and acceptance than Angel could manage even now, with his someone restored and just a phone call away, Cordy had passed through the portal from Pylea into Caritas and then followed him without a backward glance into his shadowed, run-down hulk of a hotel, giving up, possibly, the love of her own life, her Buffy. And her cure.

For the visions. For his "redemption". For him.

Cordy gave up her fucking cure and he just walked off like... Maybe his Da was right when he said Angel would never learn. He snorted softly and Cordy tilted her head and smiled at him. Glancing at her, hands working over the next dish, he wondered why Sri Lanka seemed such a good idea. And why they had ever expected his return, or wanted his arrogant self back again. But he was here now, somewhat renewed, ready to accept his mission, and the Powers pull thi...

Crushing the dishrag to her face, Cordy screamed, jerking forward. The next instant, she flailed over backwards.

Freshly reminded of his vow, Angel just managed to get his soapy hand behind her head before it hit the floor. His fingers broke as they were driven into the hardwood floor. He sucked his breath in deep at the shock, locking himself up. For the first time in years, his lungs forgot they didn't need to breathe any more and screamed suffocation.

Cordy rolled her head over his shattered knuckles, and the fresh pain snapped his brain back to doing. He snatched her off the floor, kicking and writhing, and stumbled into the bedroom. When he dropped her on the bed, she stopped struggling but laid stiff, panting, heart pounding, with the heels of both hands thrust hard to her forehead. Angel pried a couple of her fingers from the dishrag and tugged it loose.

"...gah...sto...puh..."

His face inches from hers, Angel watched her eyelids flutter. "What is it, Cordy?"

"My head."

"What'd you see?"

She nodded without opening her eyes, tears leaking out from under the lids.

Angel licked his dry lips and resisted the urge to lap her cheeks. "Cordy. What?"

"A baby, lying in the rain." Cordelia shuddered. "I can't... I can't see."

Angel's skin bristled, the hair standing up and his fingertips gone cold. His thighs and belly and shoulders drew taut.

Cordy opened her eyes. Angel blanched and stood up fast. Her eyes were white, blind. She rolled onto her side, away from him.

"Demon. It's a demon? I'm a demon?"

"Don't smell like one," Angel said, regretting it even as it popped out.

She laughed with a stifled sob. "God, Angel, it hurts."

Quelling his nerves, Angel sat again on the bed and laid his good hand on her shoulder. She was shaking. He never felt more helpless than when she called him to arms. He always wanted both to stay with her and flee. To leap into the fray helped him forget that powerless squeeze of his heart; let him lose his doubts in strength and mindless, shredding violence. But to comfort, that was harder. When he tugged slightly, she rolled, sitting up, and came into his arms. He caught the flash of her troubled brown eyes as she turned.

Relieved, he hugged her close, rubbing her back, and she burrowed against him. "Shhhh... it's okay, Cordy, I'm here," Angel whispered.

With a small shudder, she sighed. Her warm breath seeped through his shirt and spread goosebumps across his shoulders. A heavy, wavering breath escaped her and she began to cry in earnest. Every muscle strained, and her fingers dug into his arms. Angel raised his broken hand, uncertain. It landed cupped against her head. Her hair, soft and damp from his wet hand, ensnared his fingers. For an instant he could feel her hair wrapped around his naked back, tangled around his legs. He knew the exact path of her tongue upon... Angel tightened his hold on Cordelia, enfolding her in his arms, and banished the vivid waking dream to the darker depths of his being.

Cordy was hot. Crying with her mouth wide open, her teeth sharp against his clavicle, she fought for every harsh, gasping breath. Angel pressed her head to his shoulder and rocked her. He closed his eyes and soaked up her warmth. Om mawi padme hum. Om mawi padme hum. Om mawipadme..."...humommawipadmehum.Ommawipadmehumommawipadmehumommawipadmehumommawipadmehumommawipadmehumommawipadmehumommawipadmehum..."

Hearing his own hushed chant when she subsided to hiccups, Angel shut up and stroked the hair from her face, tucking it behind her ear.

"What was that?" she said. "What you were saying?"

"Just something I learned... it's not important. When?"

"I think... not now. Later. Weeks, maybe. Crying..." She took a deep, hitching breath. "...doesn't help. My head. It doesn't... the vision- it doesn't feel like it's related to what I saw before. Earlier, tonight. What are they doing, Angel? The Powers? Why?"

"I don't know," he whispered. With a very careful slowness, he shifted on the bed, drawing up both legs. Keeping his arms wrapped around her, he leaned back on her mound of pillows. When she didn't struggle, he reached up with one hand and adjusted the top pillow, settling his head comfortably. Cordy's scent rose like summer. She'd like Sri Lanka, he thought. She'd like the high steppes with their deep meadows drowning in fragrant grasses and the exquisite blooms of the Ceylon tea bushes and the Frangipani trees.

Even though she was silent and still, Cordy held herself rigid, her muscles tight. Trying to hold her head still, he guessed. He was breathing; slow, deep breaths to calm her, but stopped now. Her shoulders dropped by increments.

"Thank you," she whispered.

Angel started to rub his thumb along the base of her skull and she flinched away. He persisted, trapping her against his chest, and after a moment she relaxed and let him knead her neck, pressing his fingertips down in hard little circles. "It's worse, isn't it? The pain? I thought maybe it was just Lilah's... game, but it's not."

"No."


Moving through the dark, Angel lets his nature take over and moves silently. It's not hard. He's only practiced making noise and stirring the air ahead of him the past seven years or so. And only portions of those years, if he's going to be honest about it. There are only security lights burning down here on the middle floors at three in the morning, and he can no longer hear the grim whap of the stout rain pounding the windows above. He's still not sure how many floors total there are here in the LA branch, but he figures not all of them lie in this dimension alone, so why bother asking? No one will give him a straight answer anyway, of that he's certain.

He's surprised to see Files And Records still sitting at her desk. She makes his skin crawl. She has no feel at all, nothing organic anyway, and no hum of machinery. She's something of a black hole. He decides to simply skip the preliminaries and stretches mentally into that deep spot that lets him move nearly unseen. She follows him unerringly, her eyes tracking him even as he tracks her attention.

Oh, well, when in Rome... He stops cold, with a tingle of vibration, and yells back to her across the football field space separating them. "Nyazian scroll."

"Which one?"

Okay, yeah. Hadn't thought of that. No Connor. "Related to the Tro-clan. Um, concerning events supposed to take place in early 2002?"

"File cabinet 62314. Drawer 3. Folder NYZ-782."

He strolls like he's out on the Piazza San Marco until he is out of her sight. After fifteen minutes at a somewhat brisker pace, and a couple of wrong turns, he finally finds the right section and locates the scroll. Some idiot has desecrated it with a yellow highlighter, but otherwise the scrap of scroll looks the same, and appears genuine. Sorting through the translations, he finds Wesley's original notes in his distinctive scrawl. Another translator has written "Geshundi pronoun" across the notes in purple ink. Angel shuffles, looking for purple ink, and finds the final interpretation.

FOR SURELY IN THAT TIME, WHEN THE SKY OPENS AND THE HEAVENS WEEP, THERE WILL BE NO BIRTH, ONLY DEATH.

Only death. A thought is spinning in his head. It feels like spun sugar twirling 'round and 'round. He will have to capture it on a rolled paper cone if he wants to examine it. He's not ready yet. He needs to be away from here before he can let it stick. He needs his lair, dark and ... not silent, he couldn't bear it just now. He hopes the rain hasn't boiled away into the desert air just yet. This thought he can't quite catch... he's afraid it will cut like spun glass.

When he passes Files And Records, she swivels in her chair. "Is that all, Mr. Angel?"

"Yes."


Angel likes rain. He always liked rain. His particular spot as a boy was the north end of the barn loft, where the gutters converged and water poured into the cistern. The rain on the bare wooden boards of the roof hushed the world down to just the corner he sat in, the flutter of the restless wrens dozing through the storm, the muted daylight on his closed lids wavery and golden.

Later, in the cities of his death, the light was only a reflection of the moon and the halos of gas lamps. The rain washed the air clean, letting him inhale scents that saturated his very being. He loved to hunt after a storm. In Los Angeles, he used to savor the rare thunderstorms, reveling in the feel of the fast changing pressure, letting the hair rise on his neck. He liked the Hyperion's roof, the sharp smell of ozone, the breeze snapping his coat back. It seemed like it should mean something that his son was born whole into the purifying rain.

It was Fred, that night, who kneeled as witness in the rain while Angel cried. The one with the least at stake in the drama that ended there in the Caritas alley became his defender against the elements. When he thinks on it, he sees her as a hooded angel, one of those solitary carved stones that sit in the borderland between life and death, bowed in solemn contemplation over the dead in cemeteries all over Europe. She had as much or as little to do with the ending and the beginning she protected as they, but who knows what unseen power they wield? On the heels of this thought always trots the image of Fred extending her blood-soaked hand in offering. The scent is overwhelming. His snarl of need reverberates upon his inner ear. Who better than Fred, an experienced witness to his monster and his tears?

He was lost, so unaware of what came next. There was nothing but the rain and Darla's cold hand, which he could hardly tell from his own flesh. He had no intentions, did not even know why he cried. From some ruptured place deep inside, the tears ran, over his lips and across her hand, draining sorrow and regret and a horrid, wretched thankfulness for his long, long life.

Fred paid witness. In silence, without judgment, her tears a simple empathic reflection of his pain, she waited, patient as stone, until he and Darla were done and the baby they made lay orphaned, naked to the stinging rain. She waited while he gathered his shattered pieces of self. But when he moved to lift his son from the alley of his birth, Fred moved. She came to his side and his aid and his heart.

Holtz aimed his crossbow directly at them as they stood. Light glinted off the racked bolt. Should Holtz loose it, the bolt would pierce them all. Standing at his elbow, Fred did not so much a shiver, as Holtz wrestled with his decision. Strength radiated off her. She seemed ten feet tall. Angel half-turned toward Holtz, realizing as he did that he wasn't sure if he was turning as her protector or seeking protection.

Working to make his eyes look black and flat and dead, Angel stared at Holtz and waited for him to make his decision. Motor grumbling, the GTO splashed to a stop beyond Holtz, but the man didn't turn, so they all stayed frozen in place. The baby wriggled and whimpered. Darla fed on Cordy's blood, fed his son on it, and Angel could smell it still. She lingered there, at the back of his tongue, a delicate dark aftertaste as he drew his son's scent in, learning it, encoding it on every cell that might remember it. In a rush of soul-deep desire, Angel, cold, afraid of dropping his son, aware that Darla's ashes were streaming by his boots to wash through the filthy sewers he traveled daily, wanted Cordelia.

Holtz lowered his crossbow and Angel, feeling the strength in his muscles like it was new, feeling it wrapped around the hollow core of him and the jelly quiver of his soul, knowing it would finally be tested in defense of this tiny boy he held, that he would be found either worthy or wanting, strode out of the alley. Both doors of the GTO stood open, with Wes and Gunn standing sentinel and Cordy just a dark shadow in the rear seat. Once past Holtz, he found her eyes. They never left his as he crossed the wet pavement to her and safety. He saw the recognition there, of the baby in the rain, of the vision she had shared with him the night the Powers failed. The night, he thought, feeling twisted and sick inside, when the consequences of his past actions caught up with him, producing first Billy Blimm, then Darla.

Heat enveloped him as he slid into the back seat. He sat cloaked in human steam, his legs tangled with Cordy's. Within minutes, the vibration and hum of the motor lulled his son into sleep. He spoke the name into his head, the one he'd harbored in his secret heart for longer than he cared to think about. Fred's breasts pressed into his arm as she examined his son, reaching to pet his head in wonder. Cordy's hand rested on his thigh. Angel curled around Connor and stiffened his elbows a bit to discourage them. He closed his eyes to concentrate, to block them from his senses so he could learn him, this creature that was his, learn his beat, his snuffling breath.

It was all his fault. Trying to rid himself of his soul, he'd created this little... being. Connor. This boy who might bring the human race to its knees. Or might save it.

"You're shaking, Angel, let me hold him," Cordy said.

"No."


2

Angel rolls over and leans up to snap on the light by his bed. Squinting in the immediate bright glare, he sighs and turns it off again, dropping flat on his back, his hands resting on his chest. He stares up at the ceiling, thinking of nothing in particular. After a moment, or a minute or a month, he feels her there. She sits in silence, but he thinks maybe he can hear her heartbeat, and smell the sea on her. He can smell smoke and hair dye and Groo, too, but he ignores those more bitter scents, and sifts for salt and the coconut lime fragrance carried to him on her body heat.

This is grief, he thinks. Manacles and heavy chains of lassitude that hold him down more surely than any made of iron. A weight so heavy upon him he can not move. This is failure. Dirt under his nails and ground into the knees of his pants, and streaked across his cheek from the last ground to bear witness to the passing of his son above it. This is guilt. But he has no words for that, only a wailing chant he maybe half remembers hearing. It echoes from ancient Irish rock, rolls across the fog bound moors of his soul, gutters out somewhere in his throat, so that he has to swallow it. And swallow it again.

His throat stops working and he can't... he can't. His eyes burn and well and tears slip free, rolling unchecked into his hair line. His hands lay useless upon his chest. He is powerless to help her, he tells himself. Ugly whispers of her image, whole and unbroken, and her full, lush taste and the possibility of her creation rise like bubbles of fermenting theory, half-formed hope. Orbs of Thesselah aren't hard to come by. Not for the first time, the image of Buffy as an ensouled vamp forms on his inner eye. Spin, kick, all that slayer power, all that immortality.

'Course the sun would be a problem. Day raids would be out. And Buffy loves her coffee... and ice cream, and chocolate, and sushi. Angel's musings tangle and drift and then he's dreaming.

When Cordy plunges her fangs into his vein as Buffy kisses him, he sits straight up, clapping one hand to his neck. His room is silent and dark. An overwhelming wave of longing for the pounding of his heart knocks him flat. The air conditioner kicks in with its click and hum and the light sweat that coats him begins to evaporate. His skin prickles.

The phone rings. Angel startles again, coming nearly to his feet before he recognizes the sound. He grabs at it, fumbles it onto the bed and is reduced to digging for the handset in his balled-up sheets. A voice is saying, "Mr. Angel? Mr. Angel, are you there, sir?"

He finally gets hold of it and lifts it to his ear as he untangles himself and settles on the side of the bed. "Yes."

"Sir, Mr. Gunn has requested your presence at Olive and Fourth in Burbank. Mr. Wyndham-Pryce is on his way to you now. Should I have a car brought around?"

Angel's first thought is 'why?'. Only long habit keeps it from leaving his lips. They don't need me in the field. My only purpose here is approval or denial. Sign this. Sign that. At what point did they accept him again and put him in back in charge, or at least not protest as he usurped Wes's authority?

"Sir?"

Those first few nights after his return from Sunnydale, he'd done nothing but sort and filter through his memories, both the real ones and those constructed by whomever Lilah hired to change reality. Images of Dawn cruise through his forebrain once again. She's been front and center more than once the past few weeks. How seamless those memories of her childhood are to him. Visceral and immediate. He hopes Lilah's contractor was as good as the monks and that the others never dream of a different existence. For him, the altered memories of last spring and summer feel dreamy, filmed with a fogged lense. The emotions are there to accompany them, but muted. The original ones lay below the surface, intense, full-color, most often rising in his nightmares.

"Sir?"

The phone goes dead and Angel absently replaces the handset on the cradle in his lap. He scruffs his hand over his head, dredging. He thinks maybe on his return from Sri Lanka. That first day, while trying to deal with yet another of his long line of mistakes, storytelling kind of placed him as the center focus of the group. Then Lilah forced him to the front again, sending him to release Billy Blimm. He remembers how his chest closed, how parental he felt, when he refused to let Wes go with him. After a moment, Wes had drawn himself up, squashing his buoyant enthusiasm, and let Angel dictate a plan. How could Wes lead when Angel made so many decisions based solely on his vampire abilities?

Then Blimm's legacy took Wes out of the picture altogether, driving him away from the group in bits and pieces and into Lilah's arms until he was well and truly gone. Angel shakes his head. No. Not originally. It's weird and almost cruel, how the fake memories slide in so naturally, like greased ball bearings in the sticky wheel of his desires. He has to struggle for the real ones. Not being the ones he really wants for the most part, they are harder to hold on to. But he does remember. He does. Wes stayed until he took Connor, trying to protect him from Angel.

He clenches his teeth to keep the unexpected rage that rockets up like bile from spewing as a guttural, wordless scream he knows would destroy his festering veneer of calculated indifference. Like I'd hurt him. But then there's the feel of the knife in his palm. The ridged grit of Connor's trachea across his knuckles. The scream dies in his throat and all he feels is tired. Angel flops backwards on the bed. God, how he wishes they'd taken Connor from his brain! No, no, no. Only sometimes. Only times like now.

The phone rings. Angel closes his eyes, banishing the feel of baby Connor's velvet cheek beneath his fingers and tries to stay on track. After Blimm? Cordy's birthday. In the carefully constructed overlay laced through his mind, he thinks this is where Jasmine took advantage. That day was the day Cordy became part-demon. Did she have a single legitimate vision after that? He doesn't know.

With no Connor though, it seems the natural point to send her back pregnant with Jasmine. Immaculate Conception. He has a sudden Technicolor vision of Groo fucking Cordy into the sand of a deserted beach. It's late, after the crowds have deserted to the dance floor. Moonlight glints off Cordy's oiled shoulders and thighs and ankles. The blue and yellow trapped between their bodies is her sundress, pulled down and pushed up. Her head is thrown back and she's screaming, but her legs are wrapped snug around Groo's hips, her feet crossed, and she is giving as good as she's getting. Angel picks up the handset, cutting the phone off in mid-ring.

"Mr. Angel? We were disconnected, sir. Would you like a car brought around?"

"Yes."


Angel likes driving. He drives with conviction. There is no grey to worry about, you are either driving or not. That night, it was Wes beside him as they left Connor's doctor appointment. Thank you, LA, for pediatricians with evening hours.

Wes needed yet another obscure reference to decipher some phrase regarding the Nyazian prophecies. In the long run, losing the scroll was proving more a hurdle than a brick wall. The Watchers Council consisted of fools; Wes knew his job. He was silent the whole trip over, distracted and pre-occupied by whatever thoughts were rolling through his head. Angel didn't mind, was glad of it in fact, since he felt more up for brooding on Connor's future needs than tome-hunting, anyway.

"Do you think she'll be all right?" Wes said, his voice sudden and loud.

"Who? Cordy?"

"Yes. You know, don't you, that she had visions while you were gone? Sometimes as many as two or three a week."

A flash of irritation tightened Angel's jaw. Yes, he did know that. But since he'd been back, she hadn't had many at all. Barring the fake ones Lilah sent her weeks ago, he could count them on one of Connor's little human hands. Of course, the one on her birthday more than made up for the lack by knocking her into a different dimension. "You know, Wes, I'd really like to pay Skip a visit."

"Skip?"

"I can't believe he made her part-demon. She could have..." Angel cleared his throat, surprised and not surprised that there was no grey left in his feelings for Cordy. He was as black and white about her as about driving just at that moment. Either you love the girl or you don't. "She could have had a normal life. A replacement. They could have sent someone else, someone like Doyle."

From the corner of his eye, Angel saw Wes cock his head, a considering look on his face. When he glanced over though, Wes looked away. "I rather think they did, Angel."

"What?" Angel said, hitting the brakes harder than he intended as the light ahead turned red.

Wes hit his belt hard, his head rocking back as he rebounded into the seat.

"Sorry." Angel glanced down at Connor, sound asleep, riding backwards between them in the front seat. Huge hood for maximum crumple zone, no air bags, no one snagging him out of the back. Angel patted the dash of the GTO, feeling warm inside. And then it dawned on him. "You mean Groo? He's a little late."

"Aren't we all," Wes muttered.

Angel wondered what the hell that meant. Surely Lorne wouldn't have leaked to Wes about his feelings for Cordy. Then again, they all took an avid interest in anything that might bring Angel perfect happiness. If any of them had been parents, they would have staked him the minute Connor was born. They didn't know, though, those moments that scared him, and Lorne... What the hell did he mean?

"I simply mean," Wes said as if reading his thoughts, "Groo might still receive the visions if they, um, comshuk; regardless of the potion. We don't really know much about it."

"Cordy'll still be part-demon."

"Maybe we can change that, if Groo gains the visions. We don't know exactly how it was accomplished. Perhaps Giles, or even Willow..."

Wesley was scared for her, that was it, of course. Angel was scared for her, too. "Wes."

"... might have some thoughts. Giles says she's become quite..."

"Wes."

Wesley stopped talking just as Angel made the left hand turn into the alley where there were three small spots for parking at Ray's. He cranked the big car into a spot and a half and shut off the engine. He looked at the steering wheel. "I told her to go."

Far, far, away, some hapless tourist walked across his empty grave. Angel pressed his hands flat against the wheel, sitting up straight, and pressed the cold chill from his spine into the worn leather of the seat. It creaked in protest. He relaxed and ran his hands up the smooth curves of the wheel until they met at the top. "I needed... them... to go. Away." He licked his lips. He traced the worn edges of the horn. "But she'll call us if she needs us. She hasn't exactly been cranking cases out lately."

After a long silence, Wesley made a sound that Angel thought might be a chuckle. "Flyers," he croaked.

"Website," Angel said, looking up.

They grinned at each other.

"She'll be fine," Wes decided, nodding his head. "She deserves a vacation, even the Powers can see that. She won't need us."

Angel thought of Groo with his muscles bulging out all over, his short hair and black pants and graceful prowess under pressure. He looked down, not wanting Wes to see whatever might show in his eyes. "No."


Angel and Wes tense and shift as the car slows and angles into the curb.

"Mr. Gunn, sir," the driver says as the car slides to a halt so smooth, it's barely detectable. He sends the rear, curbside window down and Gunn leans in. "One of our clients jumped bail two weeks ago. Doesn't happen much at Wolfram and Hart, so one of my guys did the follow up with Special Ops. Turns out he disappeared in a club in West Hollywood. Ops sent three agents in to it. Two I had to have staked for feeding on humans and the third just went poof. Wilson called me an hour ago and said they have proof our client's inside."

Relief spreads through Angel like warm syrup. So I'm not the only one offing employees, that's good. Gunn gives him a confused look and Angel wipes the smile off his face as Wes turns to look at him, too. He opens his mouth and lets words roll off his tongue, hoping some part of him has processed Gunn's words. "Why are you using vampires?"

"It's a dance club. Population's fifty-fifty human, vampire. Out front maybe half the humans know what's standing right in front of them, but in the back, they all know and they like it."

"Dinner club," Wes muses. The darkness that crosses his face like a moving shadow sharpens his cheekbones. Angel hates it.

"Yep. Complete with willing addicts. Does it really feel that good?"

They both look at Angel. He shrugs. "No dirty needles involved."

Gunn makes a face. "Riiight. Good point."

Angel hears '... and ewww.' hanging in the air but no one says it out loud.

"Anyway," Gunn continues. "We, um, we own the club."

"We what?"

"Wolfram and Hart, the LA branch, is majority owner. Silent. Here's the problem- the client's brother, Antonio Marsalis, runs the club. And he's not taking our calls. I'd go in myself, but apparently there's some pretty strong mojo keeping the party going non-stop in there. And I'm thinking vampire to vampire might be the way to go here."

"What's the charge?" Wesley asked.

"The usual. Felony drug possession with intent to sell, six counts of manslaughter related to OD, tax evasion."

Angel crosses his arms. "Can I just stake him?"

"No. Scat traded up a couple of centuries ago. He's a demon lord of something or other. Little brother Antonio got himself vamped before Scat could claim him. And Marsalis guaranteed his bail of eighteen million against two hundred human souls being held in bond. Standard immortal death clause gives the bail bondsman the right to collect in the highly unlikely event of Scat's death. I can get him off and he's already offered the souls as our payment. I just need him to actually show up in court tomorrow. Another continuance ain't gonna happen."

Angel sighs. "Can you get me in the club?"

"There's an awning. We can block the building to traffic and put security on the doors after you go in. There's also underground access to a covered garage, and Ops is already set up there."


Angel knows they've hit the mother lode the minute he steps into JJ's Rawkin, Gunn and Wes right behind. It glitters under rotating strobe lights, the music is loud and hard, more bass and drums than anything else, and half the crowd doesn't breathe. The other half doesn't seem to notice. Assaulted by the riot of odors, Angel almost misses the trace of fresh blood. Not bottled or bagged. Not enhanced or preserved. Not menstrual. An opened vein. He surveys the writhing crowd. Probably lots of them.

He fed heavily before leaving his apartment, but the hollow bloom of hunger opens wide and sways, drinking in the atmosphere. The pulsing beat doesn't help. He is always hungry now. Harmony chronically under heats his blood. If he complains, he ends up with a blistered mouth on the first swallow. He hasn't had a satisfying meal since Jasmine encouraged him to feed upon her followers. She delighted in choosing for him. The first night he tapped a languid, long-limbed blonde, on another, a dark haired, sloe-eyed boy verging on manhood. At the start, his control was tenuous. The girl died. But the boy- feeding on him only unburied other desires. Jasmine let him play, her presence a trickle of streaming whispers driving him on. Angel's belly rolls and his cock thickens.

"Damn," Gunn says, his voice a caress twining itself over Angel's left shoulder. "I want to dance."

"Me, too." Wes's voice is harsh and low, heavy with misgiving and desire. "We'll wait outside, Angel."

They draw away, taking the warmth at his back with them. Angel thinks he should probably wait outside, too. He takes a deep breath and conjures up the pictures Gunn showed him as a focal point. Find Scat and get out. He can do that.

Angel slides through the dancers. He closes his eyes as seeking hands and sinuous bodies stroke his shoulders, chest, arms, thighs. Strongly reminded of several months spent gorging in the rich, sensual stew of the primitive Ivory Coast, Angel keeps his hands to himself but lets the blood lust rise to a simmer.

He tracks the fullest of the threads of blood scent to a wide threshold at the back that opens into a foyer. Two brawny, ebony bouncers standing to either side of a curtained alcove size him up. They are a matched pair in three piece suits. Red ties. One of them twitches the black velvet curtain aside in unspoken invitation.

The room beyond is deep and as wide as the club in the front. It is lit only by torches and candles in sconces along the walls. At random angles to each other, plush pillow beds and deep loveseats are scattered throughout. The dark, textured fabrics alone make Angel aware of the vast amounts of his skin that go untouched and underappreciated day after day. But that's not all.

Filtered by the block walls, the music here is muted, though still insistent. The heat is physical. The humans are sweaty and flushed. None of the engaged couples or threesomes look up at his entrance, but all the singles do. The room's intense blend of incense, blood, and both raw and spent desire is intoxicating. Angel is drawn in without thought.

He weaves among them, still tracking the widest scent, and the lovers reach for him as he passes. A man is splayed, face to the wall, in chains mounted to the back wall. Angel admires the taut lines of his back and arms. He's wearing black linen slacks, but they are torn and blood soaked from the striping of a whip. Angel's glad the man's a vampire, or he might have felt inclined to try staking his way back to the entrance. Vampires have been the bane of his existence, he thinks. When the thought finally settles at the base of his skull, he frowns.

His hand is encased in warmth. Angel flinches. Rubbing him like a cat, the woman slinks around to face him and places his hand upon her naked breast. She's hot and her heart beats into his palm. He rubs his thumb across her nipple and it hardens as she sways into him, raising her face to be kissed.

Red, furrowed scars mark the left side of her throat. She's smart not to risk both jugulars to clots. There must be rules in place here. Don't play along and you're probably dust before you can make it halfway to the door. Not trusting his voice, Angel shakes his head and the woman pouts. Tugging him along by his captured hand, she heads for an empty loveseat. He's hard everywhere already and then his simmering bloodlust boils into his veins like lava.

He bolts.

The bodyguards are good. They block him across his chest and belly with one massive arm each, catching him like a red rover. Understanding he's in danger of staking, Angel pauses, but doesn't look back. He imagines the woman he's stilted waving them off. Before he's even come to a full stop, they release him and he stumbles forward, struggling to regain his footing.

One of them leans towards him, reaching out to help if necessary. He smells made of cinnamon and malt. "You okay, man?"

Angel nods. As okay as a vampire living in denial could be after experiencing that, anyway.

"Not many turn that down." He shrugs. "Unless you into the chase. Pretend just don't feel the same. You go see Miss Cherie if you like that. Safer than wild-caught and she takes care of the evidence as part of the package. Ask for her at the bar."

His twin grumbles and fires up. "Shut up, Malcolm. Obvious he likes it just fine in there." He looks hard at Angel. "ATM's in the restroom, man."

"Thanks," Angel says. His belly is a mass of red embers, but he feels better out here, even with the scents of the room still curling around his head. He looks around and Malcolm points him back to the dance floor.

"Past the bar, second door on the right."

"How long have you been here?"

Malcolm looks at his watch.

His twin rolls his eyes and says, "A few weeks. Glad you found us."

"Yeah, we thought for sure we were done for after... y'know..." Malcolm adds.

Angel raises one eyebrow and Malcolm's twin steps in again. "Luckily, the mass hysteria from the gas leak over the summer had some lingering effects. Woke some people up to a whole new world, if you get my drift."

"Gotta lot of new vamps coming in?"

"Some, man," Malcolm says. "No turning allowed in here, though. Way too many fledglings to feed already. They'll get themselves staked, even things out. I meant the human clientele. They've found a whole new addiction."

"Lucky for us," Angel says. He feels steadier as he slides on his CEO persona.

Malcolm's twin just nods and looks uncomfortable.

"I'm looking for Scat."

Angel gives him kudos for not glancing at Malcolm before he answers. "Don't know a Scat. No one's big on names, here." He leans forward, getting confidential. "Time for you to leave, man, you're wearing out your welcome."

Raising his hands, Angel backs off. Picking a fight in a dinner club with two hours of bright daylight to burn and plenty of doors to be shoved through doesn't seem the wisest of choices. Of course, neither does running an evil law firm. The business cards in his jacket pocket are lead weights dragging his hands down. He could end this charade right now. Save two hundred souls with the flick of his wrist.

He turns and ducks back through the doorway onto the dance floor. Tucking himself to one side against the wall, wedged in behind four or five guys sitting at round, bar-high tables, Angel tries to block the beat of the drums and learn the club.

Tables and stools sit unevenly all along the dividing wall he's standing against. The lusting crowd stretches an impossible way before fetching up against the L-shaped bar to the far right. More high tables and stools along the wall to the left of the entrance, with low tables, loveseats, and armchairs staggered out into the dance. In black shorts and glittery silver sleeveless tops, the bargirls slink between the tables and the dancers with reptilian grace. Angel can't imagine they are human, but the glamours they bear are effective enough.

He also can't imagine being overheard, even if he needs to yell for Gunn to hear him. He digs for and flips open his phone. Covering his other ear and leaning into the wall for shelter, Angel waits for Gunn to pick up.

"Yo, Angel, you okay? We had to retreat a block to shake it off."

Angel considers saying 'no', but rejects it as Gunn starts talking again.

"Did you find Marsalis?"

"No. I need you to call and ask for Miss Cherie at the bar. After you get her, explain who you are and tell her I'm waiting for Antonio on the back wall of the dance floor. Tell her I'm not patient."

"Gotcha."

Less than two minutes later, a bargirl slides up with a shot glass of whiskey and blood and a frosty mug of something dark and frothy. Angel nods to her, shoots the whiskey and waves off the beer. Malcolm and twin appear and shoo a group of four vamps and two girls from the nearest table. Their curiosity is palpable, but in seconds they are absorbed into the dance, spreading out from one another to cling to others like errant electrons. As the chastened bouncers stand impassive on either side of him, Angel watches the pattern change and devolve and shift. A living kaleidoscope.

A stocky, dark Mediterranean vampire, complete with sun-kissed tan, pops out of the crowd, slicking his hair back. He holds out a hand, which Angel declines to take, and then wipes it on his designer slacks. "My apologies, Mr. Angel, I wasn't informed you'd be in-house tonight. It's an honor to meet you."

"Unanswered calls are bad for business, Antonio."

Antonio ignores him. "Would you like another shot, perhaps?"

Angel does, in fact, want another shot. He wants a lot more than one, and there's other things here he wants more. "Disappearing clients are bad for business, too."

Spreading his hands, Antonio scans the club. "We take precautions, Mr. Angel. No one simply disappears here if they have a life. Our business is safe pleasure, designed not to interfere with human justice. Much. Besides, Wolfram and Hart are our silent partners. As long as you receive your cut, I don't see a problem."

Angel stands and is gratified to see Antonio step back. "Two hundred souls is a problem, Antonio."

"Scat can afford it."

Angel smiles. Bloodlust swells his energy. He keeps it corralled, lets it form a shield he pushes out into Antonio's space. It feels good, it feels right, swirling there. The smaller vampire bristles and holds his ground, but Angel can see he's about to vamp in anticipation. "No, he really can't. We have new policies in house at Wolfram and Hart. Scat lets those souls go to the bondsman and we'll turn LA and whatever other dimensions we need to over rock by rock until we find him." Angel pauses. The dramatic pause, a useful tool. "Then Scat, and twenty of his closest relatives, get one-way tickets- courtesy of whatever evidence we need to manufacture- to a human prison, where they are then taken back into custody by us. And they won't like where we put them."

"You're bluffing. Scat's a prince. You'd start a war."

"Try me."

Antonio shakes his head, looking way too much like a stubborn toddler for Angel's taste.

"Look- Tony," Angel says, softening his face and spreading his hands in the body language of compromise. Adrenaline cools his face as he settles into the game. "Scat shows up tomorrow, clean and sober, our best lawyers get his case dismissed, he releases the souls to us. In and out in forty minutes, an hour at most. Saves us all a lot of time."

Still shaking his head, Antonio deflates. He gestures to a chair, and then sits. Angel rolls his eyes and follows suit. The bargirl materializes with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a pitcher of blood. "Scat knows the easy way out, Mr. Angel, and he actually likes strutting around down there at the courthouse with all the cameras trailing along behind him. He's sloughing."

"He's what?"

"Sloughing, he's sloughing. Kinda like molting, but slimier. Caught him unawares." In a choreographed routine Angel bets Antonio could do blindfolded, he flips two clean shot glasses over and pours whiskey with his right hand, while the left dollops in the blood.

"Understand you frown on human consumption. We always keep a little exotic on hand for the big boys. This is lion's blood with just a touch of Russian," he says.

He places one drink in front of Angel and considers the other for a long moment, working up his courage, obviously wondering if he's making the right move in daring the CEO of Wolfram and Hart to break his own rules. He slams it.

Angel pretends not to hear the Russian part and tips his back. He lets the flavor explode at the back of his mouth, and can't help closing his eyes as it flows with rare smoothness down his throat and lights his belly up again.

When Angel opens his traitor eyes, Antonio's gaze is steady and knowing; his lips twist in a Mona Lisa smile that just manages to avoid the label of smirk. Angel stares him down. When Antonio licks his lips as he looks away, Angel raps his glass once on the tabletop, demanding Antonio's undivided attention.

"I've always liked Russians." Angel's comfortable. He could string this out all night. He really needs to be out of here. Now. "I still need your brother."

Antonio squirms and reaches for the bottle again. Angel grips his wrist to stop him. "Your brother will spend the night in our accommodations, and he will accompany his lawyer into court tomorrow morning at 9 AM. I can find him by torching the place right now, or you and I can collect him and I'll be on my way."

"But he's sloughing! He's unformed!"

"Unformed?"

Grimacing, Antonio waves his hands around. Angel sees the movement blend into the greater chaos beyond. The drums are mesmerizing. With great effort, he focuses on Antonio, the peacock blue of his suit, the fine lines in the linen of his shirt. Below his full lower lip, a thin, curved white scar stands out against his tan.

"Y'know, big chunks of flesh missing... no nose, no lips, no... fingers! It's gross. He can't go out like that."

"Let's go," Angel says. He thinks he has even managed to say it out loud. He stands and bulls Antonio towards the dance floor.

A massive, restraining hand lands upon his shoulder. "Sir," Cinnamon and malt says.

Damn, he forgot the bouncers. Angel rips away and spins. He locks his elbow and angles up with a straight hand, aiming for Malcolm's neck at whiplash speed.

Malcolm bats his hand away, not bothering to mount any other defense. "Sir," he says again. "The back exit may be easier."

"Oh."

His twin has Antonio by the upper arm.

"Thank you, Malcolm."

Ops has the back door covered and Angel hears the trigger guards click off as Malcolm exits ahead of them into the sunlight. "Your boss needs transport," he says, the embodiment of calm. His heart, their hearts, don't beat, even out here, where the drums are only background. Not human. Not vampire. Not any demon he knows by sight or scent.

The words have not faded from the air before the black limo rips into the lot. Wes throws open the door and scrambles out into the bright light, blinking rapidly. Angel can see movement in the limo as Gunn shifts positions. An Ops agent unrolls a sheet of black nylon and hands it to Malcolm.

Returning to the doorway, Malcolm drapes the sheet over Antonio, who's developed a tremor but is keeping his mouth shout. He and his still nameless brother hustle Antonio out and tuck him into the limo. Wes confers with Malcolm. His twin trots back to Angel, the nylon sheet in hand.

"What's your name?" Angel asks.

"Silas."

"Thank you, Silas. Is Scat here?"

"Yes, sir."

"Make sure he takes Antonio's call. We shouldn't be any longer than an hour or so. If I leave a unit here, can you get him outside?"

"Yes, sir."

Angel nods, takes the sheet from Silas and walks to the limo. He tries to saunter for Antonio's benefit, but he's hotter than in hell, literally, by the time he nears Wes. He leaps the last four feet and slides into the backseat, trailed by the wispiest of smoke. Wes taps on the roof and crowds in, his door swinging shut as the limo surges forward.

Antonio's eyes are Red Riding Hood round, but his mouth is still shut. Thank god for small favors. Gunn is grinning like the big, bad Wolf, and Wes is frowning. In this mood, vamped deep, where it doesn't show, Wes smells enticing, powerful, and Angel has to swallow before he speaks. He looks at Gunn.

"Can you call Lorne? Scat's sloughing. We need to convene an emergency makeover."

"Sloughing?"

"It's gross," Antonio squeaks.

"Clothes. Maybe a glamour," Angel says as Gunn dials. He cocks his head, leveling a sneer at Antonio, his greased back hair and flat nose, the just-this-side of disco suit. "Maybe something more."

Antonio decides the floor is interesting.

The phone clicks and Angel can hear the frenzied welcome of Lorne's assistant. Gunn's eyes glaze over and slide to Angel's shoes. "Gunn. Give me Lorne."

Staring at the seat across from him, Angel tunes out. He listens to the motor and the steady hush of the tires and imagines the pavement rushing along beneath them and the blips of the white line counting off the distance from the club. He can leave that... that... (hunt, maim, drink) behind him. White line. White line. White line.

"You okay?" Wes says. His voice is soft. Concerned.

Angel glances at him, drops his eyes to Wes's arm, the sleeves rolled up. The scar is faint. Wes probably doesn't even know it's there. And if he does, doesn't remember why, just thinks of it as something picked up along the way.

Angel nods. He watches sunny LA stream past the tinted windows. He listens to the white line. "Yes."


Angel likes human blood. He can't truly remember a time he didn't. His memories of the half-life he spent human are tainted with the taste of it. Even his one fucking day. Chocolate and peanut butter? The echo on his tongue is Buffy's blood. He's spent more than one lifetime indulging his tastes and more than one lifetime resisting them. That night. Well, that night it was just him. Wesley coated his tongue. And his blood felt like mercury, beading in slow motion through his starved system, joining his tissues, seeping silver globules clotting and running and shifting from hurt to hurt to hurt, trying to moisten and feed him. Lying there in his half-forgotten room, staring up at his half-remembered walls, the sheet pulled half-way up his half-fed body, everything seemed so distant. His hands lay so far away.

It took forever, half the night it seemed, for the thought to filter through his brain.

The half-filled mug of pig's blood reeked. Something sweeter lay somewhere near. Closer than it felt.

He might never have discovered it, but his knuckles itched. Right hand. When he finally thought to raise his hand and look, he knew something sweeter. Sucked Connor's blood from his knuckles, eyes closed. Powerful blood. Ran his tongue over the salty flesh, across the tight tendons, and the hills of bone until he half-choked on thick, half-formed tears that tasted like regret.

Connor's the empty space in his chest and down the hall. He's Fred's shallow, wet breath and Gunn's murmur of reason. He's O-positive in need of cinnamon. Cordy understood. He only let her buy the blood bags during that first summer. He never felt ashamed of feeding on human blood from bags or bottles. Not until Buffy. The dry odor of old cement, burnt motor oil, the tickle and sense-blanking clouds of exhaust in an enclosed space. That incredulous look on Buffy's face in the hospital garage. Just why did she think he knew that blood bank deliveries were made on Mondays and Thursdays?

Cordy, though, she never questioned his taste. Never asked his preference, though he'd not indulged until she stocked it for him without asking. He drank it. He needed it. Although better than a year had passed, he wasn't fully recovered from his sojourn to Hell until she fed him O-pos and cinnamon. And she didn't require explanations when he changed the menu to pork. If Cordy were here, he'd ask her for O-pos.

Half-awake, and only half-aware, he didn't notice Gunn at the half-open door until the sting of the half-light made him close his half-open eyes. Damn, he felt half-dead.

"Angel? You need more blood?"

Where's Cordy? If Cordy were here, he'd ask for O-pos.

"Angel?"

"No."


3

Angel sits quiescent at Cordelia's side. He doesn't think she looks natural, like she's sleeping. In sleep, her limbs sprawl in languid grace, her hair falls over her face in disarray, her mouth hangs open. No, she reminds him of a sarcophagus he saw once in a stone wreck of a church in France. A reclining lady of marble adorned the coffin, her dressing robe spilling over the lid to fall in folds down the sides and nearly to the floor. A deep green moss filled every crevice. On each palmful of breast, so obviously molded to the perfect fit of the sculptor's hand, her nipples rose as if she felt the winter cold and responded to it yet.

Angel thinks of how he ran his thumb down the column of her neck, sanded to caressable splendor, feeling for the slight rise of the jugular, and although it wasn't there, although the marble appeared polished and smooth, he could still feel the texture of the rock beneath his finger tips. The finest of sandpapers still left character behind. With his fingers, he wrote his name across the stone lady's chest, her throat, her face, in drug-induced meditation.

Darla and Connor. Cordy. Probably Wes and Gunn and Fred and Lorne since he's committed them without their knowledge. Lots of innocent Angelinos. Lots of evil ones, too, though. How many deaths have been added to the red ink of his roster?

FOR SURELY IN THAT TIME, WHEN THE SKY OPENS AND THE HEAVENS WEEP, THERE WILL BE NO BIRTH, ONLY DEATH.

The line has rolled through his head a hundred thousand times, its shattered edges razor his guts with a hundred million cuts. No matter what you do, a prophecy always finds its vague and winding way. The sword of free will, it seems to him, is a much sharper weapon than dull, unchanging fate. Someone or other can always claim victory if a prophecy is properly built by the Powers That Be. Connor dragged death in his wake, and Angel should have killed him as a wet and wailing babe. This way or that, Connor's part in the Nyazian prophecy would have been fulfilled, but there would be a lot more people still standing in the world if Angel had sacrificed his own. His own son... his own role, maybe. Maybe himself. He doesn't know.

Leaning forward, Angel tucks his hands between his knees and watches her breathe. She is not dead. She is not some tortured artist's work. He can see Cordelia's jugular pulse. Her hollow heart beats blood through it like it always has, oblivious to that fact that she no longer lives there. No need to touch to find what's been left behind. No need.


Angel likes art. Paintings and sculpture and dance. Whatever. He finds some sort of pain in most anything he finds beautiful. He likes that, too. The necklace is no exception and on the night he first took note of it, it seemed the perfect irony. He wanted to feel the sharp multi-cut edges of the clear, blue sapphires on his skin, but didn't dare. The simple silver crucifixes hanging from the apex of each stunning stone combined to create a charge that ran in waves along the skin of his arms like a thousand angry millipedes.

Gunn was still up the street, haggling with a Prothis demon over the price of a black knit turtleneck for Fred. And they still needed aerosols and some computer gadget. Angel fingered the slip of paper in his pocket with the exact model number written on it. Going covert to Hudson's was nibbling into the little bit of money the three of them had scraped together since Angel's return. He had another small stash of artifacts and a couple of gold bracelets left in the city, but that was it. After that it was a road trip up the coast to Cayucos. He hadn't been there since '58, though, so there was no guarantee the coins and rings he'd left tucked into a scooped out bit of earth beneath the foundation blocks of St. Joseph's parish would be there. He did know the church still stood. He'd looked it up on Google a couple of years ago. His lips twitched up before he felt the smile bloom inside. He counted on Cordy and Cordy counted on her paychecks.

What had Denza said? You have so much more to lose. Like what, he wondered. Cordy was gone, Connor might as well be. Wes... Wes was lost himself. Fred and Gunn had each other. Lorne had Vegas. Sunnydale was a closed door. He had no connection to the Powers That Be. He couldn't pay on the Hyperion much longer. Yeah, he wasn't eating rats and sleeping in warehouses, yet, but he could see it in his future. He needed the Axis of Pythia. He needed Cordy. He needed his mission or he was nothing.

The necklace, a choker, flickered with the light as shadows walked past him, each dragging warmth across his back. When he got Cordy back, he'd come buy it for her. A celebration, a reward for suffering through her forced relationship with him. Kidnap. Dementia. Migraines. Someone brushed by him then, and he stepped forward for balance, bumping into the glass of the jeweler's wide window. His hand actually clutched, deep in his jacket pocket, as he thought of smashing the glass and just taking it. His palm itched for the burn like his throat itched for the perfect burn of live heat.

Angel pressed his hands down, hunching his shoulders against the memory. Yeah, he'd been groggy and whipped, sinking down on the couch in the Hyperion, but also sated and warm. How many times in the last few days had he woken trembling and hard, the taste of Cordy in his mouth? Why her, after months craving the strength of slayer blood, tasting Buffy as he dream-fed from Cordelia? He doesn't even know the taste of Cordelia, not really. He wants too, though. And it hurts, this wanting something sweeter. Staring at the necklace, Angel tried to capture and hold Cordelia's brilliant smile against the currents in his head. It felt like throwing a shredded net into rough seas.

And then Gunn caught up, crowding into his shoulder to see what had captured Angel's interest. "Nice ring, man! We've got a few minutes, want to go in?"

He had to find her.

"No."


4

Damn fucking papers were animate- he would swear it in any court. They never stayed where he put them, and he could never sign one without referring to ten or twelve or thirty others- which gave them a chance to run and hide. Standing, Angel picks up the stack nearest his mug, gripping them with the required forty pounds of pressure to keep them in hand while he rifles through another stack.

"Need help?"

Angel jumps. He keeps his feet on the ground, though.

"Sorry, didn't mean to startle you," Gunn says in that smooth voice that seems deeper than before.

"I knew you were there," Angel hears himself say, which is patently untrue, but damn it, no one needs to know that. "I can't find the Reptatok property transfer."

Pointing, Gunn nods. "Right there, under the blotter, the cream colored linen."

"Oh." Looking down, Angel contains his exasperation to a downward dip of his lip. Sure enough, three different documents peek out from under the edge, thumbing their double-spaced noses at him. He drops into his chair, rips the transfer out, signs it and hands it directly to Gunn. Gunn looks grim.

Angel takes a deep breath and leans back, stretching his legs. He can hear Fred and Wes moving down the hall, heading for his door. "What's wrong?"

"Antonio Marsalis is dead."

Angel doesn't find that in the least distressing. He raises his brows.

"Scat apparently missed his wedding day."

"He wasn't so much a demon lord as a prince," Wes adds as he enters with Fred and, surprise, Spike. Angel thinks, I knew that, at the same moment he remembers not telling them the details of his conversation with Marsalis at JJ's Rawkin.

"An AWOL prince," Gunn says. "The higher ups were not happy."

Angel has a bad feeling. His bad feelings are always cold, like chunks of frozen pond water dropping into the abyss of his gut. "And our payment?"

Fred shakes her head. "They were gone when we got there." She waves a little metal box with rheostats and blinking lights. "I was ready, Angel, but they were gone. No trace to follow."

"The souls weren't Scat's to give. When Gunn..." Wes's eyes flick to Gunn in a way Angel finds interesting. "... persuaded... the bondsman to share his contract with us, we found the pertinent clause. Obviously, the bondsman's not fluent in Ad'waty."

Angel wants to say "obviously" in the worst way, but his own cold, twisted soul is a raging dust devil drying his throat. He wants to throw the desk over and pop Wesley and Gunn both upside their heads, tear Spike into tatters of wisp, and put every precious relic in the room through the necro-tempered glass. Oh, and maybe smash that useless, high-tech, thousand dollar soul non-tracer to pieces, too. He locks his muscles instead and forces himself to remain sitting.

As if she's channeling him, Fred moves the tracer behind her back. Spike walks forward, his brow creases and his lips twist towards a snarl, but then he blips away. Angel frowns at the empty spot. The tracer beeps.

"I, um, I'm gonna go back to the lab," Fred stutters. The tracer beeps again.

Afraid his voice will trigger his other muscles into motion, Angel waves his hand at her.

Wes is already turning on his heel. "I've got a meeting. I'll keep digging, Angel. Gunn?"

"Right behind you," Gunn says, but he doesn't move to follow, just watches Wes leave.

Angel watches Gunn and wraps fat strips of heavy, grey duct tape over the mangled mental box holding his violent tendencies so he can talk again.

"Where's Scat now?" Angel asks once Wes is gone and Gunn's attention is focused once more on him. Angel's somewhat certain he can handle the answer.

"Not where he wants to be, I'm sure."

"How'd Marsalis die?"

"At the pick-up, after we knew the souls were gone." Gunn glances down, but before Angel can react, he looks up again, right into Angel's eyes. "Wes staked him."

"Good." It comes out sounding edgy and mean, but his desk and window are still intact, so Angel lets it hang there in the air by itself.

Gunn holds up the Reptatok contract. "I'll file this today."

Angel only nods.


5

Where is Cordy's soul? Angel thinks. Not here. Not in her body lying there. If Fred dialed Cordy into the tracer, would it beep at her bedside? Would he believe it if it did? Everywhere he looks, he is reminded of her. Thinks, oh! Cordy'd like those shoes. That jacket. Would have laughed at him for doing that. Would've frowned over... this... this brooding. He stares at the necklace, laid out on its velvet blue mount shaped like the base of a woman's neck.

It would lie just so, resting at Cordy's collarbone, almost a choker-length chain. The fat crosses dangling along three-quarters of its length would lie across both her jugulars. Two or three might cross her shoulders, protect her from behind. Even the unadorned sapphires merging into the clasp are large and brilliant. He can't quite see the clasp, but suspects it, too, will be a silver cross patee. A larger one to balance the front, sitting at the nape of Cordy's neck. He thinks it should be a hidden Latin crucifix, its elongated tail extending down her spine, the added Christ figure will be cast flat, for her comfort. He will have it made.

The back falls away from the display in a disorienting swoosh and a face peers out at him. The girl's hand is already swooping out to snag the necklace before she registers his gaze. When she does, her mouth falls open just a bit and Angel doesn't miss the shiver that makes her straighten her shoulders before smiling at him. She takes the necklace, along with the bracelets and four or five rings displayed alongside it, bares her teeth in another wary gesture of friendliness, and retreats.

Angel turns his back on the window and surveys the busy street before him. Rodeo Drive. Different street. Different window. But Angel is certain the necklace is the same one he saw all those months ago. He shakes the feel of Denza's bruising fingers from his shoulders. By the pricking of my thumbs, Angel thinks. Something wicked this way comes. Bradbury was no fool.

It's nearing ten, but the Beverly Hills shops are still doing a brisk business thanks to the restaurants nearby. Angel can remember when all the stores on the street were privately owned and their hours nearly as exclusive as their clientele.

A bell rings behind him, and then the girl is there, laying a hand on his arm. "Sir?"

She looks like Buffy, honey-blonde hair, long patrician nose. Taller, though, and fear wafts off her in small bursts. Nervous. He looks down, bending to the right a bit to accommodate her. She wears a St. Andrews cross, a single uncut ruby adorning the center.

"Sir, would you like to come in? The necklace is one of a kind, and very old. Mr. Corbin would be happy to speak to you about it."

"No." His voice is harsh, he hears it. It's been hours since he could speak in anything but flat tones. The tape on his box is frayed but holding. Gunn and Wes and Fred managed to stay out of his way until the sun released him from Wolfram and Hart's paperwork hell. He split most of those hours between attempting to calculate incomprehensible consequences before signing off on anything and wishing he could take back every one of his actions in, oh, the last ten years or so.

The girl turns to go inside. Watching her walk away, as he has watched Buffy walk away so many times, Angel's stomach cramps and his throat dries out. The last time Buffy walked away from him, her tears were still drying on his fingers. Heaven, she'd said. I was in heaven and I didn't miss you anymore.

He never should have gone to New York. Never. Should've stayed buried in the sewers of Philly, but no, he just had to see Brancusi's exhibit. Romanian sculpture. What was he thinking? And then the museum declared the Jaguar E-type modern art, and he couldn't fucking leave before seeing it installed in the design collection, could he? No. If only. His afternoon's refrain as he'd sorted and stacked and signed on Wolfram and Hart's letterhead all afternoon. If only. If only I hadn't gone. If only I hadn't stayed. If only I hadn't been so fucked up when Whistler...

Stop it, Angel tells himself. The gossamer web of momentary silence that fills him finally snares the vital thought eluding him.

Buffy was in heaven. Maybe Cordy is, too.

"Wait," Angel says. Glancing over her shoulder, the girl holds the door for him. He sketches a wave at the Wolfram and Hart Mercedes that has shadowed his walk down Rodeo. The passenger tilts his head. Angel wonders if it was Eve or Wesley who ordered them to follow.


The inside of the shop is like walking into crushed velvet. It's plush. Swallowing the soft light emanating from somewhere above, every surface begs for the touch of his fingertips. As Angel follows the girl to the back, he gives in and runs his hand along the polished mahogany that frames the long, old-fashioned display cases. His chest aches.

She opens a heavy, six-panel oak door into a dim room. The walls sparkle. Diamonds and sapphires and amethyst. The dark glow of large rubies. Flash of topaz and moonstone and shimmering opal. More stones than he can name, enclosed in gold and silver and platinum. Fistfuls of iridescent colors in ziploc bags. Floor to ceiling, wall to wall. The girl directs Angel's attention to the right. An old man wearing sagging, burl wood skin and cream-colored Armani stands behind a table draped in black cloth. The necklace lies upon it, glittering under the harsh glare of a gooseneck lamp. Angel registers the door closing as a draft on the back of his neck, but a fierce, predatory need rivets his attention to the staged tableau. It scorches his throat like hunger but hollows his belly like desire.

The image that comes to him scalds. He recalls opening the narthex doors, ashamed at leaving a faint smear of Jasmine across them from his gore-encrusted hands. At the far end of the nave, upon the altar, as if lying in state, Cordelia lay veiled in white. Sacrifice, he thought, no, relic. The relic of a martyr- except there is the slow push of her chest and the barely detectable beat of her blood and his reaction to her. Angel felt pummeled and done, heavy and weary, filthy and evil both inside and out, shadow to her light. He made it down the aisle, but couldn't bring himself to enter the sanctuary. Instead he shuffled to the right and sat in the foremost pew.

He did not pray.

Palm up, the man beckons him forward with four fingers. He has only a withered stump for a thumb. The movement breaks Angel from his trance. No, he didn't pray. After he sat, he didn't think anything at all in that sacred silence, shut away from the sirens and the screams. He only felt. And what he felt was this same heat: hunger and lust and shame. Day after day throughout her short reign, Jasmine refused him Cordy. Thank God. He looks down and takes a deep breath. It's just the day he's had, the shuffle of papers that mean more than he can foresee, the loss of two hundred souls he already considered saved. It's unbalanced him. He squares his shoulders, picks a neutral spot of black cloth to look at and steps forward across the narrow room.

When Angel is standing directly before him, the old man grinds out, "Lost it to the village guard a long, long time ago." Smoker's voice, deep and strangled.

Lost what? Angel swallows and looks up into rheumy eyes. He remembers. Reality punches through the flimsy constructs. Angel despises the fact that Lilah's fucking, false memories always come to mind first. The church- he doesn't even know where Wolfram and Hart pulled that one from, and Kate was his last meal. Really only a sip. And Buffy was his last... The man is unusually warm. He heats the air between them with every moist breath. Wrapped in warmth, his head heavy, hunger coursing three layers down and rising to the top- Angel knows this feeling, too.

He tore Wes's wrist with blunt teeth. How can he not keep that one centered in his brain? Some nights, Angel craves his flavor still. Most of the time he remembers why. The weak influence his constructed memories have on his immediate reactions has been fading away, but just now he's as confused as the first five minutes. The man in front of him smells rank beneath his veneer of civility. Angel inhales, concentrating this time. His scent is straight off a human battlefield- acrid gunpowder, wood smoke, burnt fat, fresh blood, murky terror, and lovely, complex, anxiety ridden death. His heart beats slow enough to conjure images of snakes and lizards. And the giant sea turtles that stirred Angel's endless thirst as they passed. No wonder hunger is riding him hard.

Angel eases into coping mode. "You're not human."

"Not anymore. Corbin. And you are... ?"

"Angel."

"Ah."

That 'ah' has a whole world wrapped up inside it and Angel knows he needn't explain his new position to this man.

"This necklace. It can only be purchased with human currency."

"Good," Angel says, patting his pocket to see if he's remembered the card Harmony insists he carry. Standing outside he hadn't even let himself consider using Wolfram and Hart funds, but in here, it seems efficient and practical. He needs to get out of here.

Mr. Corbin holds both hands up to stop him. Scars like stigmata mar the parched smoothness of his palms. "No paper, no coin, no metal, no stones. Humans only."

Angel frowns as he repeats the statement to himself. His eyes widen. "Oh." He attempts to conceal his surprise, but realizes his eyebrows are raised. He glowers instead and clears his throat. His hands drop to the table, but that unpleasant, electrical sensation he felt through the store window is more pronounced without the glass as a barrier and he removes them just as fast.

"The necklace," Mr. Corbin says, inclining his head.

"I... can't." Angel licks his lips, wishing he'd stayed outside. He's practiced avoidance and denial for better than a hundred years. He just... he just won't slip up again. Ever. He won't go to Cordelia anymore. "I can't pay that price." He doesn't know if he's talking to Corbin or himself. He glances at the jewelry surrounding him. "Maybe something else."

Mr. Corbin chuckles. "And sure, you being a master vampire and all, anything can stop you."

Angel's upper lip twitches as he fails to fully suppress the sneer that ambushes him. Terms like 'master vampire' unnerve him. They make him want to strike the speaker down and stomp hard until they beg forgiveness for their ignorance. The appearance of blood is good. Bones or organs better. Corbin laughs out loud and steps out from behind his display, clapping Angel on the shoulder as he gimps past.

Angel turns, uncertain of his dismissal, but Corbin doesn't reach for the door. He takes a large crucifix from the wall, spins on his toe, and throws it at Angel. It hits him in the chest hard enough to bruise and drops to the floor. Corbin is already aiming the next. Driven by instinct, Angel reaches out and catches the open-link chain supporting a platinum Latin cross, emeralds mounted along both bars. It is followed by a graceful crucifix atop a doughnut of jade strung on a rope of gold. And another. And another.

Closing his fingers at the last second, Angel lets a flat length of several linked crosses hit him and drop to join the crucifix. Corbin keeps lobbing them. White gold, silver, tin, diamonds, garnets, pearls, chains, chokers, hoops. Angel holds them all in bewilderment. A few lay splayed across his shoes and the large crucifix. His hand smolders in three places where crosses touched. He's a dumbass for catching any of them and doesn't know how he's lived this long.

"You think just anyone can own that piece? Nine years that choker be sittin' in one window or another without a single inquiry. Those others out there." Corbin tips his chin at the door leading back into store. "All thems that aren't you. They see it all right; if you set it right down in front of them. They cluck over it's craftsmanship, the quality of the stones."

"Not one of them desires it," Corbin says as he returns to Angel. "But you."

He stoops to pick up the crucifix and necklaces at Angel's feet, and then takes everything Angel is holding. He slides back between the table and the wall. Without looking at Angel he begins to lay them, one by one, with careful reverence, upon the black cloth. "You desire it. You, " he says, "need it."

"No, I don't." The need pulsing through Angel is a thrumming energy he can almost hear. It's distracting. It pisses him off. But it's mostly the thirst Corbin's scent has roused in him. What I desire is to find Cordelia Chase. Desire is not a need, he reminds himself. He can control his desires. He does not hunger for Cordy.

Finished with his arrangement, Corbin looks at him. "Now give me your hand, the burned one."

Angel thinks through the command, decides there's no harm in it, and holds his hand out. Corbin takes it. His grip is firm, his skin dry. He is hot to the touch, a virtual cauldron. It's calming and Angel takes a deep breath and relaxes.

Corbin picks up a silver chain. A simple cross pendant sways over Angel's palm. Angel watches it as he might a hypnotist's prop. As Corbin lowers it, Angel starts to draw his hand away. Corbin tugs it back.

"Do not move."

Angel sighs and braces himself. Corbin places the cross and Angel's skin ignites. In seconds, white smoke is curling up from beneath the cross. Angel grunts and closes his fingers. He stares at Corbin, allowing anger to harden his face, and hopes it's billowing into his eyes just like the smoke escaping his clenched fist. Corbin just smiles. Disgusted, Angel jerks his hand away and flings the cross to the table. Only it sticks. And god damn, it hurts. Faster than Angel can, Corbin captures the swinging chain and pulls. The cross falls to the table.

His eyes stinging, Angel shakes his hand. Corbin makes a lucky grab and traps it between his own. The pain ceases just like that. Corbin releases him and Angel turns his hand over. There is no burn. No burns at all. He can't say thank you; it was Corbin's fault in the first place. Angel shifts his feet. He is torn between wanting to leave and needing to stay. "So?" he says.

"Both hands." Corbin says. He wrinkles his nose in distaste as he pries the silver cross from the black cloth with his yellowed fingernail. The charred, bloody flesh burnt to it leaves a dark spot behind. He smoothly stows it and the sapphire choker of Angel's desire somewhere beneath the table, and then pats the top of it as Angel hesitates between leaving and staying. "Come on, both hands, palms down. What you got to be afraid of? I fixed you, didn't I?"

Irritated by Corbin's theatrics and the peculiar lilt of his unplaceable accent; annoyed at his own curiosity, Angel slaps both hands down flat. Fine, but I'm leaving after this, he promises himself.

Pursing his lips, Corbin chooses only the jewelry sporting multiple crosses, maybe six of the fourteen or fifteen pieces left on the table. Layering them so the crosses hang more or less in a line, he brushes them across Angel's hands, from his fingertips to his wrists. Angel catches himself leaning away and straightens his stance. He grits his teeth and waits. Corbin repeats the move in the opposite direction, letting the crosses drag a little more, trailing smoke. On the third pass, he lets some of the chains slide. Several of the crosses sit on Angel's skin while the others crusade, branding Christian epitaphs across the landscape of his flesh.

Angel shrugs, rolling his shoulders with elaborate calculation. Concentrating with ferocious effort, he holds his hands still and paints indifference across his face. He's had a lot of practice, but it's hard. "So?"

Lifting the crosses away, Corbin shakes his head. Angel has the distinct feeling he is being obtuse, that he should already understand Corbin's objective in this bizarre demonstration. Corbin is as good as his word. Scowling, he passes his energy-filled hands over Angel's and the pain fades away.

"You are not afraid? You are calm, no?"

Not knowing what is expected of him, Angel chooses silence.

Corbin pats the spread of chains on the table. "These all be 'something else'. They can be purchased with whatever it is you carry in your breast pocket."

Angel nods and withdraws his hands.

"No, no. Put them back. I show you."

With a flourish of showmanship, Corbin produces the sapphire choker. Angel flinches. The shower of cold adrenaline that sweeps from the crown of his head clear through to his toes contracts every muscle so hard it hurts. His chest knots. He presses down hard on the table to keep from punching Corbin for keeping him here. The wood gives, but doesn't break. It is just a necklace, Angel tells himself.

Corbin drops the choker on his hands. Lightning bolts into him. Angel yells as he vamps and whips his hands off the table. He reels backwards as the numbness in his fingers transforms into excruciating rods of pain extending though his forearms and into his chest. His heart thumps once, a painful twist, and dies, dropping him to one knee. He lurches up when his arm muscles cramp. Shit. He nicks his lower lip with one fang as he snaps his mouth closed.

Better than any smelling salt, the stale blood clears his brain before he can act stupid. Planting his feet, Angel freezes. He is bent at the waist, holding his arms tight across his chest. He opens his fists, and then clenches them. Again and again. No good. He plants his right elbow against his hip bone and pushes his right hand fingers back hard with his left forearm until his muscles release, and then does the left.

Afraid he may cramp again, Angel inches up until he's standing more or less upright. Looking at the scuffed toes of his boots, he shakes himself and takes inventory. He's panting and his hands are trembling. He takes a deep breath, then another, and another. He focuses inward, searching for his deep spot, and then allows the ripple that brings his human face forward. His temples are tight. He finally looks up.

"I'm most impressed at your control," Corbin says. "I underestimated you. Still, this piece is quite powerful, is it not?"

Angel can't disagree, but speech is way beyond his control at the moment. He regrets not knowing what sort of demon stands before him. If he knew- if he could even guess- he might right now be destroying him.

"Come now, you are too old for anger. Let me not offer you control, then, since I can see you are so skilled already. This is..." Corbin considers the choker he holds in one hand. "...extra security."

Angel remembers Fred's feverish desperation as she ran every marker he bought for her dry as she wrote on her walls and waited for the click, the one that she would hear fall like tumblers in her head as the door to the real and normal world swung open to admit her. The clunk echoing in his head feels more like the door to normal and real slamming shut, but at last he finally grasps the reason he has not left this room yet. Cordy just might be in heaven.

Corbin slides a folded, yellow post-it from his pocket and holds it out at arm's length between his third and fourth fingers. When Angel steps in and takes it, he notices the charred patches across his knuckles where the crosses on the choker hit. They sting. Corbin continues to hold his hand up in offering, but Angel simply takes the note and retreats. Nothing but his pride and his heart to hurt if he lives with a valuable reminder of the choker's power the next few days.

He reads the note. "An entertainer?" Angel says in disbelief.

"Past life grievance. I'm patient."

Sensing an opening, but not expecting an answer, Angel asks, "How patient?"

Corbin opens his gnarled hands once more, and lays them upon the table for Angel's inspection. The thick scars in his palms are fissured and ridged. When he flips them, Angel sees the backs clearly for the first time. Punctured through and through. Something rough and round, at least an inch in diameter. The tops are wider. He was hung by his hands. "Sixteen centuries."

"Ah." Angel says. Sixteen centuries. God save me from eternity. "How many times?"

Corbin grins. "I appreciate a man who understands revenge. I like you, Angel. Thirty-four." He rubs his hands together. "Thirty-four times I've claimed his life."

"Can the necklace be physically altered?"

"You purchasing?"

Angel hesitates. A soul today, a soul tomorrow or two or two hundred. How many souls can he usher on to different fates before he breaks again? Who will pay the price if he disappears beneath the streets of Omaha or Chicago or Philly because he decided the fate of one too many? Connor, for sure. Wesley. Gunn. Fred. Lorne. He has no doubts Wolfram and Hart will rescind their agreement if Angel opts out. What did he tell Jasmine after he pulled the plug on world peace?

Corbin produces a velvet box and lifts the necklace from the table. Alone in the spotlight of the lamp, it sparkles. The sparkles feel like shards of glass on Angel's skin.

Her price was too high, he told her. Our fate needs to be our own, he'd said, meaning human fate.

Corbin, who, like Angel, hasn't been human for a very long time, closes the lid and offers Angel the box.

Jerking his head in quick negation, Angel looks away. How did he end up in charge?

"No?" Corbin sounds amused.


6

The alley sports one working floodlight high above a metal door doubling as a billboard for the tattoo parlor behind it. Angel is a study in distracted motion. He's made a show of it the last hour or so and isn't going to give it away now. He keeps his head down, his shoulders hunched and his feet moving at a steady, rhythmic pace. He's large and in charge. He is CEO of Wolfram and Hart, LA. He is a vampire with a conscience. He has a lot to think about.

With a low throb, the transmission in the Mercedes rounding the corner behind him revs and clunks into a higher gear. Angel rolls a quarter across his knuckles, sets it up like a ninja star, draws his arm back, and throws it at the flood light. Just a ping of sound, and the alley joins the night. Angel listens to pieces of glass hit asphalt like rain. He stands immobile as his car drives past.

The brick buildings on either side rise six or seven stories high; too high to jump to either roof. Some innate abilities he shuns because they can only be utilized fully by changing and changing ramps him up. But he's already restless and unsettled and he thinks he might lose it if he has to feel the cold, weighted gaze of his guards between his shoulder blades for even a minute more. Angel vamps and scuttles up the grimy brick to his right. At the parapet, he swings his legs over and sits for a moment, searching for the car. It's pulled to the curb three blocks down. Angel puts his back to it, crosses the roof, and leaps. He peddles in the air, lands running and keeps right on going.

Miles later, Angel trips over an air vent. He sprawls face-first, skidding across the round gravel until he fetches up hard against a stairwell entry. He rolls and crouches. His fingers find the abraded skin of his brow and nose before he feels the pain. He winces. His nostrils flare and his belly tightens. Scooping up a fistful of the offending gravel, Angel flings it at the damn vent. The plinking rattle produced does little to satisfy his mood. He wants... he wants more. He wants to stop hearing his own vicious voice in his head. He wants the kind of oblivion he can get lost in without losing himself. He wants a fight.

If Sunnydale still existed, he'd head into the fight and leave this brain game behind to others more willing to play it. Only he knew he wouldn't, and that only fueled his anger. Patrol, maybe, but not shirk all his responsibilities and abandon his... Them. He wouldn't abandon them. God damn it! 'Patented burst of violence' Cordy termed his approach, and it's what he really wants right now. Wes worries him. Gunn's not himself. Fred and Lorne are rabid. In less than a month, Angel's indulged himself on Wolfram and Hart employees and clients about to their limits and he needs to find another way.

He explodes into a round-house kick, smashing the air vent. Releasing a pitiful groan, the thin aluminum crumples in on itself without hesitation. Frustrated at its immediate surrender, Angel kicks it again and then stomps to the edge of the rooftop. He peers down on the middling to fair crowd milling along both sides of the four-lane below. Damn. Sunset Boulevard. West Hollywood. He shoots his cuff to glance at his watch and something like pride skims the surface of his bad mood. He's a damn good vampire when he wants to be.

He sees his hands hanging limp between his knees as he breathes in the flat, dead, ozonated air of Cordy's room and listens to her heart beat. His black mood barrels through the image like a tornado on crack. The crowd carries a frenetic energy that seems made for him tonight. There's plenty of attitude strutting around waiting to accommodate his desire to punish. His fist just needs to find the right one. Angel drops feet-first from the roof.


At the fourth bar, Angel realizes he's hunting and adjusts his perceptions. He figures he'll know what he's hunting when he finds it. For the time being, he's content to sip his drink in the dim corner of a local hangout. He doesn't remember even looking at the name when he entered, but it's pub-like, dark wood and leather, TVs tuned to silent sports, vaguely Celtic-type instrumentals turned down low. He's in the back, at the bar, but in front there are two large rooms filled with couples and groups kicking back at low tables and suede, brass-studded armchairs. One room has a wall lined in hardback books no one ever opens and the other boasts a massive stone fireplace. Actual, honest-to-god logs are laid, with three or four more stacked to one side, but none of the tan fire bricks at the back have ever seen smoke.

The place defines "mellow" and Angel is anything but right now. His energy is collapsed in a tight little ball riding low in his belly, just above his cock. He's contained it as best he can, but no one is sitting within striking distance and the bar tender has decided to favor the far side of his territory. Watching the archway between the rooms, Angel takes a healthy swallow of his Jamison's and then sucks on his bruised knuckle. One lousy, drunk frat boy he wouldn't let himself kill. Shit, the girl didn't even say thanks.

When the skin breaks along one of the swollen folds and seeps cooled blood onto his tongue, he forces himself to stop. He spins his glass instead. After too long, the little vamp girls he followed in return through the doorway at full giggle and seat themselves halfway down the bar. Angel returns his attention to the hockey game and they all settle into waiting for the other to make a move.

It's been a while since he's patrolled, and even longer since he's been anywhere near Sunset at night, but Angel's still faintly surprised that the traffic is overwhelmingly human. Granted, most of your garden-variety demons couldn't pass. Still, he's seen seven or eight, and three or four of them saw him. So where are the vampires? Courtesy of Wolfram and Hart, he's only lately become aware of the statistics. With three percent of LA's population undead, you'd think that more of them would be living it up. Except these two, the few he's seen steered clear of him.

The girls titter and drink their martinis. The leggy brunette flips her hair, makes sure he's watching, and sucks her vodka-soaked olives off their wooden toothpick in a lascivious manner she must think will tighten his groin. He looks back at the game just as LeMieux misses his only shot at the goal so far. Angel lets out a dismayed yelp along with half the room and pounds his fist on the bar. From deep in her throat, Cheekbones conjures a low sound of disgust, gulps her vodka and stands, pulling leggy brunette with her. Angel lets them get a head start, drops a ten on the bar and stalks out after them.


By two a.m., Angel's shirt has seen more vamp dust than all the previous six weeks- which isn't saying much. He has to think of some colorful excuse to give Wes and Gunn for slipping his keepers; staking four pot-smoking vamps just doesn't cut it. Silence, of course, is a sure way out, and he's not above using it. Cordy won't make him talk.

His edge is starting to wear. Still unsettled, he's tired at least; not with the logy mental fatigue he's suffered from for months, but with the pleasant, achy soreness of working unused muscle. The girls are on the defensive now, staying half a block or more ahead. He's sure they regret encouraging him. Looking up the block, he recognizes the club ahead and feels his lips stretch in an unholy grin he can't quite control.

Cheekbones glances over her shoulder at him while Legs negotiates with the front door bouncer at JJ's Rawkin.

He moves faster than they can talk and places his hands at the small of their backs. "Stay right with me or pay the price," he whispers.

They both glare at him, but don't dare move away. It's obvious the staff's been briefed as the bouncer's eyes widen and he stutters a welcome in the same moment he pulls the door open for them.

Angel ushers the girls inside. Switching his grip to their upper arms, he pulls them close to him. "Enjoy," he says and releases them. They head right into the throbbing bass and he turns left. Cherie has already spotted him and a bargirl glides with smooth precision to a stop two inches from hitting him. He nods at the retreating vamp girls. "Anything they want." He thinks to add- and don't let them leave- but doesn't. He suspects no one leaves JJ's until they are escorted out.

"Yes, sir. And you?"

The whiskey he's absorbed everywhere he's been tonight warms him, but his body craves what it really needs. He shakes his head and retreats to the darkest corner. The drums are his pulse and he stiffens his willful, selfish anger with every measure of pain he can recall over the last few months. Some of the memories aren't really his, but what the hell. He lets it beat in him until he couldn't shake it off if he wanted to- and Angel doesn't want to anymore. It hurts so good. He watches his prey entwine themselves with the captive dancers. They slip into the spell with hypnotic grace. Angel has to fight to keep his eyes from straying into the madding crowd.

Immersed in the vivid, waking dream of JJ's Rawkin, it seems to him he can see their souls tonight. All of them. Each of the human souls writhe about their incarnate flesh like living silk in colors unimagined in any natural place on earth. The vampire flesh is colored in steam and fog and storm. Their lost and stolen souls drift high above, among the exposed pipes and black lights and Dolby speakers, untethered, pale yellow, pale blue, pale red. Angel wonders what the two hundred souls he lost today look like and where they float tonight.


7

It's five and the sun is coming, relentless and cruel. Angel shadows Cheekbones and Legs to a spot near the arched opening into the back foyer. Silas and Malcolm appear unsummoned. Angel nods to them and heels the girls through and past them, right out the door before they realize they are being herded. When they turn, their eyes are glazed and their mouths soft. Angel strokes Cheekbones arm and she steps into his embrace.

The kiss is deep and good. Angel sends them into a slow spin, so that her back is to the club. The small back lot is dark and deserted, and there's not yet even the faintest glow of daylight in the air. She runs her hands over his back and down his flanks and then pulls on his hips until he rocks up snug against the cradle of her pelvis. Legs decides three can play and crowds his back, reaching around to stroke her girlfriend's breast. Her other hand drops to knead Angel's right cheek in a firm grip that makes him gasp. He breaks the kiss and licks Cheekbone's neck, trying to re-gain his focus. She giggles. He nips her shoulder, which makes her laugh harder.

Kissing his way back to her mouth, Angel walks Cheekbones back three steps until she is lodged against the club's brick wall. She works her hands up under his shirt and strokes his quivering belly. Angel is starving. Insatiate. Empty. Cheekbones unbuckles his belt as Legs kisses his ear and reaches between them to cup his balls. She squeezes and Angel bucks. Cheekbones drives back. Angel captures her mouth, pins her to the wall with one arm across her collarbone, and slides his other hand into his jacket. He wraps his fingers around the stake hidden there. As Cheekbones moans into his mouth, Legs rubs her hard nipples across his shoulder blades. Angel whips the stake up and out and down, through tough flesh and atrophied heart until the point hits unyielding brick.

Cheekbones looks down and opens her mouth. Legs screams right into Angel's ear.

Deafened, he shakes his head, already in reverse motion. He throws himself away from the wall as dust explodes over him, reaching over his head to grab Legs. He gets the back of her shirt and a great handful of hair and flips her over his shoulder, turning her with his other hand as she lands. She's vamped. Angel responds in kind and rushes her. Lifting her from the ground, he presses her into Cheekbone's dusty imprint on the brick and forces his knee between her legs until she gives and wraps them around his waist.

He pauses, his fangs resting against her throat. He still holds the stake, his hand tangled in and trapping Leggy's long, brunette mane. He stares at it, seeing Cordy throwing her hair over her shoulder as she turns to toss the stake to him. It's sharp. It was sharp. She sharpened it last. That's why he carries it. He's blunted the end of it tonight. The brick didn't help. Unintentionally protecting Leg's back, the sharp scent of leather a warning of the damage his coat's sustained, his other arm is taking the brunt of that rough surface. He's got her back.

She's hot. She's fed all night. He can feel her moist heat right through the heavy cotton of his pants. He knows she can feel him, is responding to his lusty hardness as only a little demon girl can after witnessing her girlfriend's death. He's knows. He knows she's not Cordy. Angel laughs, a sharp bark that scares him a little, but she rolls her hips and runs her tongue across his temple. He lifts his head and kisses her. Her tongue glides over his and explores his fangs. She pricks her tongue. Angel closes his eyes and sucks.

He lets her slide his zipper down and continues their breathless kiss while she squirms into position. He thrusts right past her soaked thong, relishing the harsh rub of the cloth binding on every stroke. He takes no care. She's not here. He opens his eyes, pulls his arm free and leaves Legs to scrape against the brick and mortar as he locks his hands on her hips, his fingers digging into the straining muscles of her ass, and forces her to his rhythm. She locks an arm around his neck to anchor herself.

When Angel comes, he's as deep as possible. Legs is pinned hard to the wall, her mouth is open and she's riding his pubis, her heels dug into back. He drives into her one last time and she moans as she feels him go. Instead of releasing, his body strains for more, a painful shudder building. Legs tries to move, wants him to move. It hurts and his lips lift as he squeezes his eyes shut and clenches his teeth against the talon of ache gutting him. It subsides without breaking over him, a wave that never crests.

"You fucker!" Legs shouts, and hits him

He considers her for a long moment as she digs her nails into his shoulder and undulates against him, trying to force him to continue. His knuckles and her shoulders and bottom are raw from the brick. Her blood adds a sweet human undernote to the porcine bitterness of his own.

Inching away from the wall, he shoves her hips up and away, giving her no choice but to release him. Her high heels twist and slide on the asphalt of the lot and she stumbles, her arm still over his neck. He steadies her. He loosens his grip on Cordy's stake, lifts his cramped fingers one by one and lets them roll back down again. Before she can move away, Angel leans into her. "Shhhh..."

He kisses her, a small gentle kiss. "Stay..." he says. He shifts and kisses her jugular. She tucks her chin down, not ready to forgive, but her fresh desire betrays her as it pools in the space between them. Angel brings his free hand up to stroke her face, while the other follows the curves of her bare thigh and hip. His forearm fits just so at the small of her back. Tenderness overwhelms him. This beautiful girl. Who was she before?

He draws her closer. She softens. Her hand roams his chest. He applies pressure to her jaw until she looks up at him. Her game face makes her look slightly puzzled. Her gaze is wary and inhuman. Her lips. Angel likes her lips. They are full, bee-stung, and expressive. He licks them, tasting olive and vodka and blood, Cheekbones, and himself. Relenting, she kisses him. When he draws back, she nuzzles her smooth cheek into his palm, presses her roaming hand flat between his shoulder blades, and closes all remaining space between them. She tugs on his neck, encouraging him downward, and tilts her head for him.

He licks the long line of her throat. Her skin is flavored by the scents of the club. She is oak and smoke and the musk of twenty different dancers. He fists his hand in her hair. She moans, and wrapping one leg around his thigh, thrusts against him. Her skirt rides her hips. There is only wet cotton between them. She is swollen, fevered, wanting. He wants to knead her breasts, feel her underneath him. The blood in Angel's body shifts and surges like a pulse as it rushes to fill him. Her hand smooths flat the hard plane of his back, catches on the loosened waistband of his trousers and slides around to grip him. Her fingers wrap around him like his fingers are wrapped around Cordy's stake. She squeezes. Angel yanks her head to the side and strikes. He tears halfway into her windpipe. She gurgles.

He's empty. He's empty. He swallows with hard convulsive jerks of his throat. Legs bucks against him, but doesn't let go. She actually hugs him harder. He can feel the strain of her bicep on the back of his neck. Towards the end, he pulls too hard in the same instant that she begins to fight and her neck breaks. The bones pop his palm, but the snap crackle barely penetrates the rush in his head. He draws hard to drain the last of her and stakes her the moment his fangs leave her sour flesh. The sudden release from her clutched fist and the cool rush of night air triggers his second orgasm. Angel's head drops back and moonlight bathes his face. His single, guttural cry rips the dying night as he shudders hard, knees locked, arms straight and stiff, and spills his anger and regret onto ashes and asphalt.

He stands dazed. When he opens his hands, dust drifts from one and the stake drops from the other. It sounds like a sonic boom when it finally hits the blacktop, but it rolls away soundlessly. Angel swipes the vampire's blood from his mouth. After a long, blank moment he feels that transitory tingle tickle across his face and over his scalp and down his neck, but has to lick his lips, passing his tongue over blunt teeth, before he believes.

Stepping back from the ashes already beginning to drift and spread, Angel zips up his pants and buckles his belt. There's nothing he can do about the blood on his shirt or the raw sex in the air. It's Malcolm, he thinks, who walks around the corner of the wall from the alley, a cool breeze chasing him. It sets Angel's coat aswirl. Malcolm scoops up the stake. Angel is surprised to find his cheeks are wet. He sniffs reflexively and wipes his eyes. Turning away from Malcolm, he finds Silas, arms crossed, blocking the door into the club. Malcolm comes up beside him and holds the stake out. Angel takes it without looking at him and tucks it away.

"Sir?" Silas says.

"Burn it at sunrise."

"Yes, sir."

"Mr. Gunn will see that you receive severance pay. Personnel can place you anywhere in LA."

"No, sir. No offense, but we have other options," Silas says. "Marsalis?"

"He's dead."

Malcolm clears his throat. "Mr. Angel?"

He's dead, too, he almost says. Angel licks his lips and nods instead, still unable to look either brother in the eyes.

"Ms. Cherie?"

Cherie. Malcolm is so carefully neutral, Angel has no clue what to say. "No more providing for the hunt. I'll tell Gunn to send her pay to you."

"Yes, sir."

Relief? Angel thinks he hears relief in Malcolm's voice.

"Your driver is in the garage, sir, shall I have him pull around?"

Angel sighs. Of course his driver's in the garage. Getting lost is an option he doesn't have anymore. He's forgetting something important, he just can't think what it might be.

After a moment, Malcolm withdraws, backtracking into the alley.

Silas opens the door to the club. Its music, those mind-freeing rhythms woven on threads of suggestive melody, its very essence, the soul of JJ's Rawkin, slithers out into the dark, as captivating as a charmed cobra. Silas sets the lock on the hinge to hold the door open. Right. He should have told them that. Prop the doors. Give people a chance to get out. Headlights cut across his impassive face as Angel's car enters the lot.

Malcolm walks past Angel and opens the rear door, making an elegant little after-you gesture. Angel bows his head and slides in. As Malcolm pushes the door to, though, Angel stops him. "There's underground access, right? And a covered garage?"

"Yes, sir."

"Block those."

"Yes, sir."

Angel looks from one to the other. They are vortexes of silence, and carry no odor of their own, only adopted scents. "What are you, Malcolm? You and Silas?"

Standing next to his brother now, it's Silas who answers. "Help when you need it most, Mr. Angel," he says, and shuts the door.


Angel likes the comforts of drivers and servant girls and people to clean up behind him. It had been his right since childhood. He's moved up another level, but thinking on it, he's appalled how naturally he re-assumed entitlement. From the moment he expected Whistler to help him acquire clothing to the moment he signed away the past and future of his closest friends without their consent, he had acted not as leader but as lord. Now the streetlights lit the face of a servant who didn't even know his master's voice. The driver was Angel's to command only at the bidding of the Senior Partners. It felt familiar.

At the bidding of another, how many times had he ridden behind a driver, through the dark, towards the sunrise? In the phaeton to church, his father a black hulk blocking him from the coming light; in the sturdier van to Dublin on overnights; in fancy barouches with Darla and Dru and a midnight feast to boot. Scummy public cabriolets or droshkys through the dregs of London and the ghettos of Warsaw. Pain and pleasure. Pleasure and pain. His twin addictions, learned at his father's knee and Darla's whim.

Angel tilted his head, reconsidering. Darla's quim. Sweet pleasure tempered by the sting she delivered with each lash of his savaged father's belt. He couldn't decide if that memory was good or bad. His belly warmed, but his chest sunk under the weight of it. He slid his eyes back to the window. Made of false memories growing stronger by the hour that endless night, the new belt across his back wouldn't ever wear into a pliant, fraying strip better suited to binding than lashing. Angel suspected his soul would bleed far more, an ocean more, maybe, than his back ever did in all the years and tortures of his existence.

The streetlights were brighter now. Every decade they multiplied, and transportation evolved, so they flashed by faster and faster. But after all the years, they could still lull him into a half-state of being, his memories and half-memories and mostly forgotten dreams projecting within each flash just like old kinetic scope pictures- only these pictures triggered mortar bursts of emotions he could neither capture nor release. God knows he tried. In lorries and rail cars and cabs, he'd tried to learn to hold one image close, to feel the exquisite slide of tongue on tongue or recall the exact flavor of an innocent's blood. Alternately, he tried to close his mind and heart to them, to play rock in a cold mountain stream. Eventually he just learned to drive himself, to concentrate on traffic lights and pedestrian crossings and the car in his blind spot. But not that night. That night he didn't even try, Angel just let the images and emotions wash over him. For the time being, those memories were his.

After the limo passed beyond the last of the streetlights, at least for awhile, the worst of his guilty pleasures clung to him, rode him on into the darkness, defying his desire for solitude. They crowded his back and shoulders, and knelt on the floor to trap his legs. Their heads and hearts and hands pressed like millstones on his chest and belly and groin. He wanted to drive. Being chauffer driven felt wrong, too close to soulless, especially with the driver leaking fear. But he'd signed his soul away already hadn't he? In triplicate. In blood. And that thrilling agony of anticipation that kept him rooted in his seat? Addiction. Of course, the ghosts didn't help.

They blew husky breath into his ears and nibbled his neck and made his lips tingle. Darla's raw, tea-stained silk whispered along the worn leather of his coat. He wasn't sure he liked brown, but he would buy brown leather tomorrow. He needed a line between Hyperion Angel and whoever he was now. And the black coat, for all that it seemed whole and intact now, had been soaked in his son's blood not six hours earlier. He was done with it. Darla's silk slid as easily across his palm as his mortal humanity slid down her throat, as easily as he slid into her. For a hundred years, she had always come to him in silk.

And there, the cold, pressed cotton that billowed against his cheek, and then the nape of his neck, now there, upon his thigh. Angel cannot be anything other than her center, the gravity that kept her upon this plane long past the lifetime he took from her upon a scarred and ancient altar, stained with the blood of Christ, wet with her innocence. His fists closed. The driver glanced in the rearview, his gaze roaming blindly and away. Angel must have made some small noise as the delight of laying her down upon that surface hit him. No matter how long he lives or how sincerely he seeks redemption, his acts against Drusilla will forever damn him from spiritual peace.

At that thought, Buffy intervened. Maybe she thought she should be the only one to damn him. Her energy stroked his skin without touch, familiar cobwebs across his face. God, it was storm wet Buffy. Slick, wet skin under his fingers. Wet hair. He remembered that hair, how he smoothed it back against the perfect slope of her skull in the first moment he knew for certain he forever-loved her, and again in the first moment of their loving. She was rain and thunder and the blinding flash of lightning fast soul loss all twisted up together in one hell of a slayer stake carved especially for him. How could she know, sitting there in her Sunnydale graveyard all unbaked and smelling of Spike- all metal manacle and chain and blood-bled earth and how he hated how his stomach clenched when he felt Spike there watching him- how could she know how she held his soul still? How she always would, no matter how far he ran or how long he tried to re-claim it? It was hers and he could almost hate her for that.

The limo swept around a wide curve, the headlights sweeping across old-growth pines. The salt air finally managed to infiltrate the filters and invade the back compartment. Down the old coast road, back to LA and the unknowable future. Angel decided he wouldn't return to the Hyperion at all, he was done with that, too. He pressed his hands into his thighs and wished the streetlights back faster, because at least in their motion his thoughts flipped and flipped and flipped, too fast to focus on and he could try again to transcend the many textures of his guilts, float his half-state into meditation. Angel found it soothed the savage beast, even if that was a clich. He closed his eyes. Darla pressed her silk across them; the tatted edge tickled his throat. Buffy trailed rain across his lips. Angel let them, as he tried to resist the alleyways that led into the very large chunks of time in the past few weeks when neither he nor the savage beast had been in any need of soothing.

He needed soothing now, he felt more anxious than the driver smelled. To stay alert through this transition, this bizarre change of circumstance, of fortunes, of... futures, literally- Angel's throat swelled and a cold drop of sweat trickled past his ribs- he needed to be still, to sleep without dreaming, to brood. His body though, the bunched coil of fight between his shoulders, the powder keg explosion waiting in his thighs, the corded punch within his arms, it wanted to prowl, to hunt, to hit. Always, this contradiction, need versus desire. Was that a reflection of the impossible duality of his existence or the truest expression of his compromised humanity?

Was his decision to spare his son based on actual need or wanton desire? Angel didn't know. He didn't really care. Cordy chose that moment to stroke his chest and he nearly reached out physically to stop her.

But he didn't. Mindful of the driver, Angel held himself a little tighter and a little stiller in the plush Italian leather confines of the left rear passenger seat of his worst enemy's best limo and let Cordy touch him. Rocks don't react. They wait. And Angel could wait, too- be the colder, harder version seeping into the shadows, leaving little girls to bake and ignoring the blood-scent of his goddess-damned son rising from his skin. Despite scrubbing, like an onion, he could still smell it when he moved. In his head, always, he's running through the dank maze of LA's sewers to some unknown chamber of Quartoth horror to strike and slash and pummel anyone who stands between him and his son.

She's the one, he thought, maybe. The one he could have given his soul to for safekeeping, the one who could maybe hold it without risk of loss. His friend. His tether. She's leather, butter-soft doe-skin or whip-cord thin rawhide at all the right moments. Was leather- now she's 1000 count Egyptian Pima or coarse hospital gown green. He doesn't know for sure which, but he will, now that he's seen Connor into the safe keeping of a well-spun lie and delivered... well, he doesn't know what exactly, either the First's destruction or its salvation. With Wolfram and Hart it could go either way. Cordy flattened her hand over his heart and he had to close his eyes. He should know, shouldn't he, if he had just traded Buffy for Connor?

He couldn't let his mind end up so twisted he couldn't find the way out. He'd been there before, paralyzed by fear and indecision, driven by the bright light of memory into the dark, the alleys, the roach-infested boarding houses where the furtive groans of human misery and despair boomed through his every pore. His crew- his ragtag, grieving, Wolfram and Hart dazzled family- they needed him.

What Cordelia wore now, stroking him, was Connor's scent. A wild swirl of hysteria coaxed laughter from his throat, but he bit it back. Swallowed it. Pressed the irony of both the women he loved remaining far too innocent of his touch for the ways in which they dared touch him, yet smelling like the get he's sired at the beginning and end of his life through his hands, into the muscles of his tense thighs and out his feet onto the white line uncoiling on and on behind him.

I can't get lost tonight, he thought. Cordy's not here.

He wasn't sure now if she ever was.

It is the end of his life. If that's the one thing he knew in that moment, that was it.


8

The stone beneath the soft leather soles of his boots is uneven and cold as he walks between the confessionals and the great, carved columns from which the scowling, pious saints watch his progress. Their steady gazes bore right through his heated flesh, skewering the squirming fingers of dark ascending from his roiling depths to wrap themselves around his heart as he passes beneath them. Might as well send a bee to stop a bull. He's heard the wailing creak of the doors sound her entry; she's coming.

Her blonde hair falls over her shoulders, swinging wild and free to her hips. Her breasts swing, full and round, the rosy nipples hard. Moonlight gives her skin a milky glow as she runs naked through the nave. Her feet fall soundless on the ancient tile. She stops abruptly before the altar, her hair still in motion. It flies over her shoulder to rest upon her collarbone and feather across her chest. Her bare back is lit by the colored patterns from the stained glass in the windows surrounding the vast, silent sanctuary. She throws her arms wide, palms up, a cross, a pale wraith like the crucified Christ above her, his face turned down to her, as she looks up to him, then past him, letting her head fall back, an offering.

Stepping from the sacristy, Angel goes to her, gathers her into his aching arms and lowers his lips to the hollow beneath her ear. "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned," Angel whispers into her skin.

He stops and takes a deep breath, looking up into the gloom of shadows that hover beneath the unseen ceiling. There are angels of layered oil there in the dark above him. They cavort within the perfect blue and white of heaven. Angel hugs himself. He is so alone. "A girl comes to me, unbidden; I can feel the heat of her flesh, the silk of her hair, the fullness of her build. Her muscles melt to mine, but strength emanates from her very being!" Out of breath, he stops, shaking. "I've seen her face in the market."

His father's voice resonates in a low rumble through the screen of the confessional. "Where does she come to you?"

"She stands beneath the altar, offering herself. She says she is seeking something." Angel stops.

Father waits patiently for him to continue, like he did when Angel was just a boy. Angel doesn't want to irritate him, but he can not seem to speak. When one minute of silence has stretched to two, Father sighs, then asks, "And what is she seeking?"

"She does not know. She consumes me; my every thought contains her."

"Angelus... it is only natural that at some point you will feel lust for a congregant, especially while you are young and have only just committed to celibacy. Even without much ... experience, it can be a difficult sacrifice. As you study and give more of yourself to the church in the service of the Lord, you will find that such bodily needs pale in comparison to the saving of souls. They are a distraction. You will be consumed by the desire to meet the needs of our Lord and Senior Partners."

It hurts; his father has forgotten his name. And his celibacy is born from fear. "She is not a congregant. She comes naked, and I have held her."

"This cannot be, Angelus! When does she come?" Father stands, kicking over the low stool in front of the fire. His fair face is red. His eyebrows draw down fierce, his brow furrows, he lifts his lips and snarls. He is a vampire.

Angel cannot believe his father has kept this fact from him. He is afraid, but remains on his knees upon the rug his mother braided the winter she lost her fourth baby, his hands clasped behind his back. He knows his knees will be bruised, but better that than a raw backside if he complains.

He feels compelled to answer. The words scratch and tear at his throat. "At night. When I am sleeping. It seems a dream, but it is not! I have seen her face." He remembers... moonbathing with her. He remembers her hand upon him. She prowled up his body and settled herself. Her hips bones were a gentle curve of bone cupped within his palms. Yes, he has seen her often. And he has seen her grave. She saved the world. A lot.

Father rights the stool and sits back down. He leans forward, his hands fall open between his knees. Angel has never noticed before how long and strong his fingers look. Father licks his fangs. "Perhaps this is a test of your commitment." He grabs up the poker, a fat two-headed axe and stirs the flames. Ash falls from the logs and rises in a cloud as he pokes and pulls at the wood.

"Ring around the rosie, pocket full 'o posies." Holding hands, a string of little girls in white eyelet muslin winds through the small room. They are Asian and Indian and English. Irish and African. One is undoubtedly Balinese; he would swear it although he's never been anywhere in the world. They are slayers. They pass between Angel and his father.

He tries to warn them. "Monster!" he shouts, but nothing comes out, and they look to him, ignoring his father.

Their dresses smell of sunshine and lye. "Ashes, ashes," they sing, voices sweet and oh, so very young. The last one in line turns her head to watch him as she passes. She raises her clawed hand and slashes him across the cheek.

"We all fall down," she snarls.

When Angel slings his head back up, blood splatters her dress. All the girls have collapsed to the floor. His stomach sours. The rug is rock and when he glances down, he sees it's a gravestone he kneels upon. The writing on it has faded over time, but he can make out the L, the I, the M.

The room fills with the odor of fresh-turned grave dirt. It fills his mouth like she did, her kisses and her living flesh.

The girls are fragrant, dissolving mounds of white. They soften and spread, cover the stone of the chapel floor in seamless, endless, awful white. When Angel tries to stand, his knees slide. Reaching to steady himself, he finds his hands bound and can't stop his slow topple onto his side. Footsteps echo behind him and he kicks, struggling to turn himself. He finally manages to flip onto his back. The shift and rub of his rough woven breeches has only increased his arousal.

His father looms over him. He closes his eyes, inhaling slayer and earth. Blood drips over his parted lips, seeps onto his tongue. "Father... forgive me, Father. Holy Mary, mother of... "

"I believe I have just the thing for you," Father says. He nods and taps his chin. His feral eyes sharpen. "You must repent with hard labor, and redouble the strength of your prayers." He grabs hold of Angel's shirt and hauls him to his feet. "Locked in the white room, you can pleasure the Lord, hang the village girls upon the crosses of their sins. Young Charlie, bless him, is taking kibble to the monks. He will watch over you, and see you safe into Lucifer's keeping."

Father places his hand upon Angel's head. It is a most reassuring weight and Angel is glad for this kindness. "Try not to glut yourself, son, you know how your mother gets when you track entrails through the kitchen. Now let us pray."

Angel bows his heavy head and prays fervently for forgiveness. He does not like the white room. He doesn't want to go.

Cordy shakes her head and laughs at him as he stands in the doorway between his office and the lobby. As she spins to answer the phone, turning her back to him, he watches the tender skin of her unmarked neck. She does not offer. She has never offered. He feels it when she snatches up the receiver, already knows what she will say even as she inhales breath to speak.

"Wolfr... "

He vamps and leaps, knocks the phone halfway across the room, crushes Cordy to the ground. She hardly peeps, though he can hear the others shout around them. Stretched full-length beneath him, she's supple and strong. Her heart ker-thumps through his chest. Rain damp soil and fresh-mown grass and corpulent rot waft up in a scent cloud that surrounds them as surely as Sunnydale's humid, salt tinged air and the echo of Buffy's toneless voice, "Do it."

"Angel."

Angel. His father remembers his name. Cordy's sitting on him. Butterfly punches flutter over his head and shoulders. But he can't... He can't let her go. "Forgive me, Father."

"Angel, wake up."

Concrete on his lungs, water distending his chest. He tried, tried, tried so hard to remember not to breathe, but when he slept, he dreamed...

An animal, a demon, writhes upon the dirty, plank floor. Angel lifts his sword. He can't find the head. It rolls toward him, over and over, in the chittering light. He aims for the middle and strikes, cleaving it in two. It's Cordy. Opening her flaming eyes, she grins at him. Connor pulls himself from her and stands, blood flowing from his hands. He holds them up, smiling. "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned."

And shoves at Angel, hands flat on his chest, pressing, pressing... Angel charges and swings both hands up, boxing Connor in the shoulder and ear.

"Christ's sake," Spike mutters, from somewhere in the dark.

"Spike," Angel growls as he weaves on his feet, uncertain.

"Yeah, you wonk, you were dreaming."

Spike reaches out to tap Angel on the chest, but Angel sinks away from him, not wanting to feel that shock of nothing and falls back onto the edge of the bed. He crouches, elbows on knees and holds his pounding head in both hands. "Damn."

Spike laughs. "You were damned a long time ago, Angel."

"Why, exactly, are you here?"

Spike shrugs. "Truth? Got lonely, thought I'd camp on your couch a bit." His voice turns mocking. "Forgive me, Father."

Drywall shatters beneath Angel's fist before he is even aware he has moved. The impact vibrates right through his shoulder. It feels good. He swings his left fist, letting his back go, feeling the power ripple underneath and relishes the sharp pain as his knuckles meet the wooden studs framing his high-rise prison. He batters the wall again and again until his fists, slick with the blood stolen from Legs, cry mercy.

"Human," Spike says in a fading voice as toneless as Buffy's just moments before. He is still standing under Angel's fists. A perplexed look crosses his face and then he's gone.

Angel stares at the blood smearing the splintered wall. "Yes."


9

Gunn is eating and reading what appear to be legal briefs when Angel enters his office. He doesn't want Gunn to know he's there yet, and therefore Gunn doesn't. He continues to spear a forkful of salad, and then a forkful of fish. Angel watches him. Salad, fish. Salad, fish. An unbroken rhythm. He looks good. Solid. He's maturing some, growing into his face. He carries his shoulders differently. Angel wonders when he last picked up a dagger or a short sword. He slides a Huguenot dirk with a jeweled handle from the scabbard that lies lengthwise across his lower back.

With a practiced ease that feels right, makes him feel he hasn't lost everything within these eyed and evil walls, Angel flicks the knife out hard, giving it a spin that dampens its arc so that it flies straight and true. It hits Gunn's fork mid-lift, spraying lettuce and drops of dressing across Gunn's briefs. Gunn closes his mouth, shoves his chair back and is crouching, ready for Angel's punch when it comes.

Angel pulls it, barely brushing Gunn's shoulder, but also has to draw his stomach in to avoid the knife Gunn stabs forward. He grabs Gunn's wrist, stopping short his underhand thrust, and twists his body, drawing Gunn's arm with him. Halfway around, he plucks the dagger from Gunn's hand and lets go. Gunn staggers one step, finds his balance, and draws a stake from his waist at the same time that he slaps at the corner of the desk. An alarm blares.

Nodding, Angel backs away. Gunn grins and tosses the stake at him. Angel snatches it out of the air, but it's fire-brand hot when it hits his palm and he lets it go. It hits the carpet with a soft thunk. Angel stares at his hand.

"Consecrated and soaked in holy water. Don't know why we didn't think of it sooner."

Angel looks up.

Gunn is still grinning. He steps forward and chucks Angel on the shoulder and then scoops up the stake, tucking it neatly back into place. "Even if you miss, it hurts like hell."

Two uniform guards burst into the room. Guns drawn, one ducks left while the other goes right. A third man stands just outside blocking any exit with a three prong taser held in both hands. Eyes wide, their heads swivel and bob. Angel thinks he would take Taser Boy first, with a snap of his neck, and then let the others come to him. No contest.

"Thanks, boys, just a test," Gunn says. His eyes never leave Angel's.

They back out, the first two sliding out around the door blocker. He slowly lowers the taser. "Mr. Angel. Mr. Gunn."

Gunn finally turns. "Mr. Swanson."

Swanson frowns, but holds his tongue. He closes the doors.

Waving at his lunch, Gunn returns to his seat. "Want anything?"

Angel shakes his head and sits.

Gunn picks up his fork, hands Angel his dagger, and dabs at the spots of dressing spattered across his papers. When he's done, he leans back and looks at Angel... with regard, Angel thinks.

"Thought maybe I was getting soft?"

Angel nods.

"You been to see Cordy, haven't you?"

Angel nods.

"You okay?"

It scares him how fast the lie forms on his tongue. "Yes."


Angel stalks Lorne. He is a glittering, multi-colored magpie in silk Armani, but Angel thinks he is the least adjusted. He's not cut out for weighing and influencing the scales of justice. And he has not been the same since Jasmine made the world one big Caritas. But then again, none of them have, he supposes, despite the memory retrofit. He really does remember how peaceful he felt in her presence. He misses it. She had a way of bringing the knowledge of joy in all things to the forefront of each moment. Fresh from his outing, even his demon was overwhelmed into quiet acquiescence.

Lorne has that ability- to find the positive in most situations. Cordy had thrown him, though, clouded his gift and poisoned his mind. Angel feels sure Lorne harbors self-doubt, and he knows how that small, niggling maggot can fast grow into a confidence-eating moth swarming through every good intention until a soul is left tattered and torn. Lorne looks frayed around the edges. Angel watches him fidget and dial and talk with a carnie-man's patter and a crocodile grin that never lights his eyes.

He waits until Lorne has wandered back into his office. He hovers outside until he hears a pause in Lorne's incessant chatter, and then he pounces. "Lorne!"

The office is empty. "Lorne?"

Angel listens. Lorne is in the bathroom. He emits a slight groan and Angel frowns, but then the water is running and before he can decide what he should say or do next, Lorne is coming out. Pale looks odd on Lorne. Angel steps forward, reaching out to help him.

"I'm okay, honeybun," Lorne says with what Angel thinks is maybe supposed to be a smile.

He shuffles to a chair and sits, waving at Angel. Angel stands, not sure he should do what he intended.

"No, Angelcakes, that color doesn't look good on you at all."

Angel stuffs his hands in his pants pockets and tries to look innocent. "What."

A low buzz fills the air between them. Lorne reaches up and flicks off his headset.

"Are you gonna answer that?"

Lorne cocks his head. "Are you going to sing for me?"

Angel takes that as a no. He shrugs and sighs. He had hoped to catch Lorne off-guard. "I need a favor."

"And you don't think I'll do it."

Dropping his eyes, Angel kicks at the carpet. "I just need you to make a call."

"I'll do it."

"You will?" Angel blurts, but Lorne is leaning forward, gauging his reaction and Angel's surprise morphs into suspicion.

Lorne stands. "I don't want to know what it is I'm doing, Angel. And I don't want to find out later, either."

"Okay." Angel pulls a torn slip of paper from his pocket and hands it over. He's written a name and a paragraph of dialogue for Lorne to follow. "You have the number?"

Lorne nods.

A bleak emptiness, as familiar and comfortable as the torn, soot stained coat still hanging in his closet, steals around him, robbing Angel of his wariness. As his body loosens, his motivation ebbs. Lorne is going to help him. "Why?"

"Why am I helping you? You already know that, Angel, or you wouldn't be here." Looking down, Lorne flips the paper end over end. "This is about Cordy. Why?"

His stomach drops a bit at her name, but it's Lorne, and he can't bear it alone anymore. Angel draws breath and hums. The Irish lullaby brings tears to his eyes and he quits before he's really started, wishing he could stake himself and be done with it.

"I... I won't," he says to Lorne's shocked silence.

"But you want to."

God, yes. Maybe just to claim victory, to say he's found her, to pull her from wherever it is she's existing. Maybe so he can tell her... so he can tell her. But I won't, Angel thinks. He says it stern in his head, hard and loud. I won't. He wishes he could snatch his moment of weakness from Lorne as easily as snatching Gunn's stake. He turns to leave.

"Angel."

Lorne's tone is fire-hardened steel and hooks Angel up short in the doorway like he's been struck. He presses his tongue along the back of his incisors and counts to ten. Far from hollow now, he is filled with a sullen resentment that Lorne would pressure him to light a torch on the darkness of his need and profound relief that someone among them will. It is a strange mix. It feels like hunger. He pockets his hands and drops his head before turning again to face Lorne, who hasn't moved, is standing still with the traitorous scrap of paper held in front of him.

"I won't do it, Lorne."

"But you want to."

Angel clenches his fists, concentrates on the cut of his pockets across his wrists, and tries to think of the fabric of his pants as restraints. "I want to know where Cordy is."

Lorne narrows his eyes.

Angel scrunches his shut against the acid hunger gushing from his belly and roaring through his chest. It swirls into his throat. He sways and Lorne moves across the room to reach him. Angel holds one hand up to stop him, choking on his thoughts. He knows he can't be touched. He couldn't bear it. "Fuck you, Lorne."

"You want to."

Of course, God damn it! Yes. I want to. Jesus, I want to fill myself to bursting on her fucking life. Fresh, rich, hot. Angel can almost feel the liquid slide of her. He focuses on the working of his throat, pretends the wrenching hunger is the heat of her. He wants to feed her, feel her take from him everything he'd give her if he could. It hurts. She takes until it hurts. He wants to chant Romanian curses and call her back. He wants her eyes wide open and looking at him. He wants to rage and curse and hurt her. He wants her next to him. He wants her to whine, and bitch, and swing her sword beside him. He wants her loving him. Only him.

Lorne takes his life in his hands and grabs onto Angel's shoulder. Angel clamps his hand around Lorne's wrist. God, he's so rigid, he's shaking. It hurts. It has to. He can't do this.

It is Lorne, who is about to order a hit on Angel's orders, and Angel can't lie to him, though he thinks wringing his head right off his neck right now might not be so hard to do. Angel swallows. He corrals his emotion in the hollow of his chest and opens his eyes. His stomach burns. "Yes," he says savagely. His voice is hoarse. "I want to."

Lorne's eyes are flint. For an irrational second, Angel fears the anger sparking there will ignite his skin. Then he hopes it will. The burning ember of fevered thirst that has spent weeks hunkered down tight upon his withered heart is torture. In the flare of the light Lorne has forced upon him, Angel understands his desire is less for Cordy than for his need to wrest control of her from Wolfram and Hart. He still wants her blood pulsing upon his tongue, though, and to see her soul rise in her eyes.

He doesn't ignite. Doesn't even flush.

Lorne's attention flickers down to the note and back to Angel again. "Will this stop you?"

Maybe. He's never faced this particular challenge, never not taken someone so accessible whom he wants so badly. "Yes."


Now that he's set everything in motion, Angel waits. He's learned so very much about the politics of corporate life as he's traded and paid off and threatened his way to this moment. He better understands the game that is Wolfram and Hart. He can ask anything, and be answered. The answer may mean anything. He can demand anything, anything at all, and have it handed to him, done for him, done to him. So can others. This sometimes creates conflict.

'Conflict' and 'Compromise' are just words meaning he has to think up a different way to get what he wants.

He nicknames the LA branch of Wolfram and Hart 'the Hotel California'. He thinks he'll keep that one to himself.

He walks the halls, sifts through his paperwork, pretends to read. He drinks. He lurks. One night, he spends three hours standing in the shadows of Fred's lab, watching her through the glass walls of her office as she sleeps at her desk. Spike is in there with her, at least part of him. Angel can only see him if he doesn't look too hard. He's tucked in the corner, his back to the lab, staring out the window at the lights.


Wesley strides into the office with a brown paper-wrapped package tucked beneath his arm and a serious look on his face. Angel sets his pen down and settles back in his chair. I won't look at it, he thinks, as he looks at the package. He watches intently as Wesley sets it in the middle of the desk, close enough for Angel to touch if he wanted. The skin of his fingers tingles, and his palms itch.

A faint odor of cinnamon wafts from the paper, a trace of something both acrid and sweet, burnt gunpowder and blood. Something slow and dark turns inside him, some connection he should make, but he refuses it the light. He's not brooding on it now. Now is what he needs to focus on, and the moment after now, and the moment after that. There are ink stains on the inside edges of Wesley's index fingers and a nasty gash across the back of one hand. Angel looks up into his face with its three-day growth.

"Expecting this?" Wes says.

Angel clears his throat and shifts to stretch his legs out in front of him. "Yes."

"Angel..." Wesley begins, but Angel looks away. He can't watch Wesley's face and not dissolve with shame.

Wesley stops. Angel studies the building across the street and waits for Wesley to go on. He can imagine the pinched frown drawing Wesley's brows down in the middle, the slight confusion in his eyes, and the flicker of hurt before the shades of withdrawal close them to Angel's own shuttered gaze. Angel has borne enough of that and refuses to witness it now. He is too close to the surface of his own confusion to not want to help Wes from his. He closes the hand lying closest to the package to keep himself from touching it.

Wesley steps back from the desk. "The Troskar rose just where you predicted. We lost Conti and Saunders, but Gunn stepped in and de-capped him before he could do any real damage. He was human, until he rose, some celebrity, Gunn said. And appeared unwilling, although we didn't arrive in time to stop the rising. I... that is... I recognized several of his acolytes. They were ours, from Ritual Sacrifices, I think."

"Whiskey?"

Wesley sighs and collapses in one of the two leather chairs across the wide expanse of wood between them. Or maybe just the wide expanse between them, period. "Bourbon."

Angel hefts himself out of the chair that has molded itself to his shape and crosses to the bar. He pours two shots of Woodford Reserve. The bourbon is Kentucky made, a beautiful vintage, just the right shade of amber, with a sharp bite that clears the way for a sweet, mellow aftertaste that Angel knows he can't fully appreciate. He likes to watch Wes, though, as Wes swallows and closes his eyes, the tension draining from his face for a minute.

Standing there at the bar, Angel throws one shot back, and pours again, letting the glow of the Woodford soothe his throat before carrying both glasses back across the office. He hands one to Wes and watches as he takes a healthy sip and his eyes close. Angel settles against the desk. Rolling the glass between his palms, he lets his bourbon breathe and waits.

"It was a good call, Angel," Wesley finally says, sounding weary. He waves his glass at the package, "Is that worth the price?"

"Yes."


Angel likes strength. He likes strong weapons, strong whiskey, and strong women. He doesn't revel in his warrior mentality, but he can't deny it either. Sometimes Angel wishes he could believe in Lilah's fine fiction, but between the two competing memories of what he thinks may be the last he saw of his Cordelia, the one who brazenly took control of his office and his mission and his life, one memory is stronger than the other. One Cordelia is stronger than the other. And then, of course, there's always Connor. His presence is the gold standard of memory authentication.

"I'm fine. I'm part-demon,' Cordy said that night, shaking her head, her voice full of wonder. "But I'm fine. Better than fine. I haven't felt this good in forever."

*"I can't believe it, Angel. I haven't felt this good in, like, forever."*

The story she'd related to them had a campfire feel, and even Wes had left feeling spooked and rubbing his left arm. Angel had insisted on tucking Cordy back into his bed. God knows he wasn't about to let her find out the cost of her decision with only a ghost to depend on. He felt guilty enough already.

The concrete bench was rough under his thighs, and he knew it must be cold. Cordy didn't seem to feel it, though, as she leaned back on her hands and stared up at the stars hovering lifetime after lifetime after lifetime away, an endless unfolding of possibility beyond the tiny courtyard of the Hyperion.

Sitting beside her, propped up against the headboard with Connor blinking like a fat, featherless owl in the crook of his elbow, Angel licked his lips, nervous.

"Cordelia."

"Fred found this... after... under the weapons cabinet."

She responded, turning her face towards him, her lips turned up in a little half-smile that branded itself upon his soul, but her eyes remained distant.

Angel pulled her birthday gift from the folds of Connor's blanket and held it out to her in his open palm. "Happy Birthday."

He held out the small gift he'd bought for her birthday. "Fred found it while we were cleaning up the lobby."

She squealed, and Angel let it buoy him into happiness. He grinned as she ripped the paper off.

Cordy focused on him then, finally, and really smiled. She plucked the present from his palm. "Thank you," she said. A teasing lilt colored her voice bright.

"Oh, Angel," Cordy breathed into the small box as she opened it. "They're beautiful."

"It's... they're just rubies. They're not even cut." Angel said, his voice husky. If he'd known the choice she would make for him on her birthday, he'd have bought her diamonds.

Mock-frowning, Cordy smacked him on the shoulder. "Stop it, they're beautiful. Thank you."

Turning the earrings out of the box, Cordy pulled the backings and had the earrings on before his skin stopped stinging. The silver Celtic knots shone in the dim

moon

light.

The uncut rubies at their centers kindled flames that danced and spun as she turned and tilted her head, modeling them for him. They looked just as he had imagined they would when he bought them.

"Cordy."

She smiled at him and he thought he might combust. The sun couldn't set him afire as fast as Cordy's smile. "I... I couldn't do this." He spread both hands, unable to articulate this life, this purpose his life had become. "Without you. Thank you."

She looked down, but reached out and took his hand. "There's something I didn't tell you, Angel. Something you need to know."

She looked up. Angel leaned back, away from her. She was angry. "I heard you."

Cordy looked up then, her eyes flashing, but he knew what she was talking about. He hung his head. Catching his uneasiness, Connor twisted and kicked.

"I'm not weak. I'm not just a little rich girl from Sunnydale playing superhero." She jumped up and spun to confront him, hands on her hips. Angel thought he'd never seen her look so gorgeous. Touched by the moon, she made him long for the feel of charcoal on his fingers, the brush of textured paper beneath his hand.

"You need to know it in your heart, and remember it. I heard you."

"I wanted that life. It was... I was happy. Fulfilled. It was everything I ever dreamed."

"I was so mad, Angel, and hurt, and I wanted that life for so long. I told Skip I'd take it." Cordy reached out and took Connor from him. She hugged him, and then settled him on her lap and handed him the little velvet box to drool on. "I was standing on stage and the audience was clapping, and... it was fantastic. It really was for a minute. But I walked off and I felt so lonely. I was missing something."

"But then I saw you in that life. I wanted to stay, but I came back for you." She stamped her foot. "I came back to you."

"Once I knew- once I saw you. You can't imagine, Angel, what it was like for you. You're human as far as damage to your brain goes. You can only heal so fast. One day your skull was gonna blow out but that wouldn't stop the visions, not for you. I listened then, to what I hadn't understood before. I heard how much you love me. I heard how much it hurts you when I'm in pain."

Before he could react, she grabbed his shirt and then he was standing.

Angel didn't want to hear anymore.

He closed his eyes.

He closed his eyes.

His lips tingled when they met hers. They were so warm. Her mouth opened and he dropped into her heat.

His skin tingled as she ran her fingers across his temple and down his cheek. "Look at me, Angel."

The ache in his chest and throat was sweet agony. She rubbed a thumb lightly over his closed lids. He took her hand and kissed the palm before opening his eyes.

"I love you, too, Angel, but I didn't keep the visions for you. I have purpose in this life. I kept them for me. I made the choice. It was my decision." She squeezed his hand and let go. Lifting Connor, she kissed his cheek, holding him tight.

"I would have kept them even if they killed me," she said in Connor's ear before kissing it. "This is better, though."

Angel wanted to wrap her up in his arms, wanted to hold both Connor and her against him, and turn his broad back on the world, on her purpose and his redemption, and anything else that might strip this moment from him. Instead, he leaned over and kissed his son.

Breaking the kiss with a gentleness Angel knew he was nearly lost to, Cordy traced his lips with her tongue before withdrawing completely, her hands on his chest. "Can we ever be more than just this?"

"You know there'll be a price?" he whispered.

"No."

"Yes."


10

Cordy is still, her mouth is soft, her eyes closed. Her hair has grown out. It curls upon her cheeks and pools across her shoulders. The strength of her choices are written into the curve of her cheek and line of her neck, through the sweep of her torso, and the long, toned muscles of her thighs and knees and calves that mold the sheet she lies beneath.

FOR SURELY IN THAT TIME, WHEN THE SKY OPENS AND THE HEAVENS WEEP, THERE WILL BE NO BIRTH, ONLY DEATH.

The line has rolled through his head a hundred thousand times, its shattered edges razor his guts with a hundred million cuts. But Angel thinks maybe the sword of free will cuts through bone and flesh as easily as the bullshit of prophecy. Payback's a bitch.

If Angel tilts and shifts his head, the necklace sparkles in the sunshine pouring through the plain glass of the window near her bed. He stands in the darkest corner of the room, hands in his pockets. He's pleased the necro-tempered glass has been replaced so fast. He has given orders that the necklace never be removed, that warding spells be placed every evening at dusk. They mean nothing to him, really, but might cause him second thoughts should he waver late one night. He is being careful, feeling for the boundaries of dining and sleeping and trying to live sanely in enemy territory, in this game that might be Lilah's, yet.

He breathes Cordy in, sifting for that dark thread he tastes in his dreams and adding in memory, until it is Connor's scent that swirls through the air between her bed and his corner. Angel wants to write his name upon her skin. Connor's name or his own? He doesn't know.

How many deaths have been added to the red ink of his roster? Thousands.

She is not dead. He can see Cordelia's jugular pulse beneath the silver patee crosses. Her hollow heart beats blood through it like it always has, oblivious to the fact that she no longer lives there. No need to touch to find what's been left behind. All that's left behind is him.

He can hear her in his head, the real her, he's pretty sure, and repeats the words to himself over and over. They are another hurdle he must cross if he intends to call her soul back to him. 'I made the choice. It was my decision.'

"There you are," Eve says into the room, her voice spraying discontent upon his skin.

I will shower and wash it off, Angel thinks, before it can change my mind.

The light frames Eve in the doorway. Her eyes sparkle, which just seems wrong somehow. With a jaunty step, she joins him and links her arm through his before turning her gaze to Cordy. "She looks good. Oh! What a pretty necklace. Did you wipe the blood off first?"

Angel bites his tongue. He needs to finish this, has thought about what he wants to say to her. He stares across the room at Cordy's folded hands, lets his gaze roam to her neck. He likes the flat clasp he knows is there under her, a flat Latin crucifix. Cordy would like it.

He is lying on his side, on his bed, in his room, in his hotel. Cordelia faces him, smiling, her eyes half-closed as she bottle feeds Connor, who is fat and content and mostly asleep between them. He reaches out over Connor and brushes a fallen lock of her silky hair back behind her ear. She smiles at him. He lets his hand drop and curls his fingers loosely over Connor's chubby little human thigh. I am thy roots that grow deep. I am thy trunk that grows strong. I am thy branches that grow high. I am thine own. I love you, he thinks and lets them go.

Angel lets his breath go, too, and doesn't take another. He realizes he is leaning into Eve's warmth. He straightens and allows the cold that lives inside him to seep through and freeze his bruised emotions.

"I've scheduled a meeting in your office," Eve continues brightly. She tugs on his unresisting mass and gets him moving toward the door. "You, my friend, have a budget problem. Are you ready to find out what running a multi-dimensional company will cost you?"

Yes. Yes, I am.


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Fandom:  Angel
Title:  The Price Of Control
Author:  LAndrews   [email]
Details:  Standalone  |  R  |  gen  |  154k  |  07/29/05
Characters:  Angel POV, ensemble
Summary:  Angel discovers that resisting Wolfram and Hart's subtle lure into the dark side will come at an ever increasing price when he must decide if human murder is a fair exchange for control over his darker impulses.
Notes:  Dark, Season 5. Not C/A, but does have canon C/A friendship - A is unattached, B/A is pondered
Disclaimer/Other:  Not mine- thanks to Whedon, Greenwalt, 20th CFox, et al./ The flashbacks are mid or post-ep scenes from: Billy, Lullaby, Loyalty, Deep Down, Ground State, and Home/Chosen.

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