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The following characters are the property of Joss Whedon, David Greenwalt, Mutant Enemy Productions, 20th Century Fox and various other people and entities. They are used without permission, intent of infringement or expectation of profit. This story is set a day or two after the episode "Epiphany," and readers can expect spoilers for anything up to that point. (For BTVS, this story takes place after "Crush" but before the episodes "The Body" and "Forever." I know "Epiphany" and "The Body" aired together, but to me it appears clear that some time has elapsed between "Epiphany" and "Forever.") It is rated a strong PG-13 for language and implied sexual content. You may archive or distribute this as you wish, but please let me know first. Any and all comments are very welcome, so please send feedback to Yahtzee63@aol.com.
I am very much indebted to the great beta-readers Rheanna, Nestra, Shalott, Mariner and everyone at the Angel Fanfic Workshop.
Rating: PG-13
Summary: Just as Angel's putting his life back together, Riley shows up, falling apart.


The Quality of Mercy
by Yahtzee
Yahtzee63@aol.com

Chapter 1: "Force of Habit"

"She said not to worry. That they wouldn't ever hurt us. I don't understand how she could know that. I mean, how do you know? How can you tell if something like that would hurt you?" Riley says, enunciating as well as he can after his fourth gin and tonic.

The woman sitting on the next bar stool seems amused by his words; it's the first thing he's said all night that seems to have made any impression on her at all. Not that it matters, of course. Nothing about her matters, except what she is, and what she can give him.

This bar is like most of the bars he finds the vampires in. It looks perfectly normal at first, if a little run-down: Neon signs advertising various beers gleam red and blue and green in the darkness. Ashtrays that haven't been cleaned out in far too long litter every table. Some crappy guitar band from the 70s is blaring from the jukebox, which doesn't appear to have been updated since Laura Branigan was a going concern.

But stay a few minutes, have your first drink or two, and you begin to sense that something's not right here. The loud laughter that wells up in most bars never rings out here. The bartender isn't hidden behind his usual mask of weary efficiency; he's edgy and uncertain, even though he's mixed these drinks a thousand times before. And the people who sit alone carry a very different edge of desperation than the kind you're used to seeing. They're hungry, but not the way other solitary people in bars are hungry. They're on the prowl for something entirely different.

Riley's been in bars like this many times before. Once upon a time, when he was young and happy and knew no better, he would walk into a place like this wtih friends. After a few minutes, they'd sense that the bar wasn't quite right somehow, though they'd consciously think no more than that it was dull, or cheap, or just not what they were looking for that night. They'd bolt the rest of their drinks, pull on their coats and wander off to someplace more warm and welcoming.

Now, when he finds a bar like this, he settles in. Has drink after drink, going as fast as he can without making himself throw up or pass out. And, sooner or later, one of them finds him.

The girl tonight is beautiful; they so rarely are. Riley doesn't much care what they look like, most of the time. Once their faces change, they all look alike anyway, as far as he's concerned. But sometimes they want more than his blood --the drinking excites them, and sometimes he gives them whatever else they want, too.

He never did that before, when he was with Buffy. Back then, Riley turned them away. He couldn't betray Buffy, he told himself, denying how far he'd already crossed that line.

Now, though, who cares? He doesn't, not anymore. And this woman is lovely enough for him to think that he might actually be able to lose himself in her for a while. That's what Riley wants most of all, tonight.

"She thought she had it -- all under control," Riley continues. "I don't think she did, though. I think she was just pretending it wasn't that dangerous so --so she didn't have to think about it --"

"And you like danger, don't you, naughty boy?" The woman across from him is positively gleeful now. Her large, dark eyes are brimming with delight, and her delicate little mouth has split into a surprisingly wide grin. She's shredding her cocktail napkin with her fingernails, never looking down at the nest of confetti she's making. Her naked, undisguised lust for what's about to happen both excites and disgusts him.

"Yes," he says. "And you're a very dangerous woman."

"Oh, yes," she whispers, giggling as she leans in and gives him a quick, soft kiss on the lips. Her mouth feels warm, at first, and Riley starts; then he realizes it's just the sting of the brandy she's been drinking. It heats his own lips, numbing them slightly. "Now shall we dance?"

Riley likes the English accent, likes her long, dark hair. He even likes the dark-blue velvet gown she's wearing; it looks old-fashioned, almost demure. If he weren't having a nervous breakdown, and she weren't an undead creature of the night, he'd ask her out. The idea strikes him as funny, and Riley starts to laugh, an uneven, broken sound that doesn't even seem as though it should be coming from his body.

She scowls at him, and he shakes his head apologetically. "I'm sorry. I wasn't laughing at you. Let's dance."

He belts the last of the gin and tonic; the bartender starts mixing him another immediately, but Riley shakes his head. As he gets to his feet, he feels the floor shift beneath him; he's drunker than he usually lets himself get. Dangerous, to get this close to losing control. But it doesn't really matter anymore.

Riley takes her hand -- such a tiny little hand, each finger tipped in the ragged remnants of black polish -- and begins leading her toward the center of the bar. Nobody else is dancing to this stupid music, but he's past being embarrassed.

But she begins to laugh. "Not in front of all the big eyes, staring, staring --"

"I thought you wanted to dance."

"Not with our FEET," she says.

He actually smiles at that, and though it's not a true, genuine smile, it comes closer than most of his attempts these days. "Well, then, let's go."


They stumble out together, coats pulled around them against an unseasonable chill. She is hanging onto him, giggling, and he puts an arm around her shoulders; they look just like any guy and girl out together on the town. Nice and normal. Just the way he always wanted it.

Is this the way he always wanted it?

Riley pushes that question to the back of his mind. He's gotten very good at that lately.

Normally, what happens next happens in an alleyway, or the back seat of a car, or maybe a suck house, if there's one close by. He's done it in a bar's restroom before, though that was too perfunctory and unpleasant to bear repeating. Tonight, though, the girl's loveliness and the night's chill conspire to make him spring for a motel room. He wants her to take her time with him, wants to be able to lay his arms and neck bare without shivering against the cold. Riley doesn't want to feel anything except the rush.

"Rooms and rooms and rooms, and everyone fast asleep," she says, as he fumbles with the lock. He has the strangest feeling that the parked cars in the lot are all filled with people, staring up at him, disapproving. He doesn't like the sensation. "Every room has a different treat. Like chocolates in a tin. You have to bite in to see what you've got for your sweet."

So she's a little strange. He's been with stranger.

Riley gets the door open, pulls her within. He shuts the door behind them, but doesn't bother locking it; he doubts anything outside is more dangerous than what's inside. She doesn't turn on the lights, just grabs his lapels and kisses him hard, right away. He finds himself returning the kiss, feels something akin to real passion as she pulls his coat off and begins unbuttoning his shirt.

Normally, if things turn sexual, it doesn't happen until afterwards, when his thoughts and reactions are muted. But this one wants it all together -- the sex and the drinking, and the thought of combining the rush of her bite and the rush of orgasm excites him on a level he hadn't yet discovered.

Deep within him, there's something akin to despair; he thought he'd sunk as low as he was going to go. He thought he'd accepted his slavery to his craving, his need. But this will be better -- even stronger -- and from now on, this is what he'll desire. He hates the knowledge that he is diving deeper still, and yet he welcomes it too.

Riley pulls his mouth away from hers long enough to whisper, "What do you want?"

"Many lovely things." She rakes her fingernails down his now-bare chest, and he shivers.

"You'll have them," he promises. "But I mean -- what do you want for this? For --"

His eyes, and hers, dart over to the arm she is exposing as she pulls his shirt off. The scars of past bites are almost without number, now. Sometimes he tries to remember things he's heard about junkies, about how their veins collapse and they have to inject drugs into their thighs or their feet, just to find a vessel strong enough to take the puncture. He never thought he'd actually need such information.

"Don't want money," she whispers. "I just want you."

And those are the words he's wanted to hear for so long, the words that make him crush her to his chest in an embrace that's almost real. She's not the woman he wanted to hear saying it -- but at least there's someone who wants him, just him, even if it's just for one night, even if it's only for this.

Riley begins kissing her again, reaching around her back to unzip her dress. She unwinds her arms from his body long enough to let the dress fall to the floor; she's wearing a little white slip, all silk and lace, and this excites him even more. They fumble their way to the bed, and he falls, pulling her atop him as they go.

The cheap motel bedspread is scratchy against his back, and the headboard is already clattering against the wall, shaking the aged light fixtures bolted there. Riley tries not to think about that, tries to think only about the beautiful woman astride him. Her skin is as pale and fragile as the slip she's still wearing; she's luminous in the darkness, as though her whole body were made of light, save for the hair and the enormous eyes.

Her hands unfasten his belt, slowly. "Wanted to wait," she said. "Wanted to have a lovely time with you, big strapping lumberjack man."

Lumberjack. He hasn't heard that one before. "We're having a good time, aren't we?"

"Yesss," she hisses, taking the buckle in her palm and pulling the belt free. She slides the tan leather through her hands. "But it is so long to wait."

She takes his wrists in one hand, guides them to the bedpost. Almost before his alcohol-fogged mind can comprehend what's happening, she's wrapping the belt around them, holding him in place. Riley isn't sure how to feel about this --this is kinkier than he usually likes it, and it's dangerous, to say the least.

Then again, isn't danger what he's after?

Her body arches as she rubs herself against him in purely carnal bliss, then she drapes herself on his chest, nuzzles his neck. Riley turns his head to make it easier for her. Force of habit.

"Don't want to wait," she murmurs. Her face has changed now; he can feel the ridges against his skin, hear the lisp created by her fangs. His body tenses in anticipation --

And she bites him, pain and pleasure and degradation and glory and everything else all wrapped into one pure physical sensation. For one moment, Riley is not a disgraced ex-soldier, not a discarded ex-boyfriend. He has no history at all, scarcely even any consciousness. He is only the bliss coursing through his veins, bursting forth with every beat of his heart.

And then it changes.

The dizziness escalates. His heartbeat begins to rattle in his chest. And she only bites down harder, bringing the pain far past the pleasure --

"Wait," Riley gasps. "Stop."

She doesn't stop. Too late, Riley realizes what he's done, what's going to happen, and he is struck with a terror he didn't expect to feel, not when it really came down to this --

The door explodes open -- no other word for it. It flies off the hinges with a crash, and the vampire jumps up. He can see her face wet with his blood as she leaps from his body to confront the intruder.

The intruder isn't surprised to have a vampire coming at him; he backhands her viciously, and she stumbles back, crashing into the mirror on the wall. It's difficult to see, in the darkness, but Riley is pretty sure the intruder is a vampire too. No human would be able to throw her off that easily. This means that his situation hasn't improved all that much. Riley tries to push himself closer to the backboard, to create some slack in the belt that might let him get his arms free. But just the movement makes him dizzy again, almost to the point of passing out.

She springs forward and hits the intruder, hard, an expert blow across the jaw. They begin fighting in earnest then, and Riley realizes in a flash that this woman was no ordinary vampire -- she's got real fighting moves, real strength, a quickness of reflex he almost never ran into in the field. And the intruder's a match for her, coming back at her with everything he's got.

Come to think of it, there's something sort of familiar about it --

The intruder finally gets the upper hand, slams her into the door jamb. She sinks to the floor as a rough voice says, "You shouldn't have come back here, Dru."

The female vampire -- Dru -- looks up at him, and Riley is surprised to see that there are tears in her eyes. "Will you hurt me now? I thought you were done hurting me, my Angel."

Angel.

Son of a bitch.

Angel stares down at her, his face a cold, vampiric mask. "I've hurt you a lot," he agrees. "And I've given you chances I shouldn't have, because of it."

"You do me such nice favors," she says, her voice dripping contempt. And Angel's face changes at that -- it shifts back into human form, into the face Riley's seen and hated in his mind for months. He remembers that face as arrogant, hostile, closed-off.

Angel doesn't look that way now. He is staring down at Dru with something that seems very like guilt. But after a few seconds, he simply says, "I'm not doing you any more favors."

Angel lunges at her, and Riley can see something in his hand that's probably a stake. Drusilla screams as she spins out of the way, backhands Angel brutally. Angel stumbles back, and she hisses at him just like a cat. With one claw-like hand she grabs up her dress and runs into the night.

Angel stares after her for a moment, clearly debating the need to go after her versus the need to take care of her victim, then shakes his head. "Are you all right?" he says, voice gentled, as he turns around. "I know this probably looked really strange --"

Then Angel gets a look at him, sees exactly who it is splayed out on this bed, and all the gentleness and guilt are gone. "You."

"Me," Riley says. He finally gets some purchase on the belt and is able to tug himself free -- a small satisfaction to leaven the shame he feels. To be exposed like this, before Angel of all people, would qualify as his worst nightmare, if he'd ever dreamed of anything so utterly humiliating, which he hadn't. "I guess this must make you feel -- like a big man --"

"What are you doing here?" Angel's face vamps again -- slowly, slower than Riley's ever seen a vamp's face change before. It's scarier that way, he thinks. They should try it more often. "What were you doing with Drusilla?"

"I realize you don't get to have sex that often," Riley spits out, "but I'd think you'd still recognize it."

"How could you," Angel says, and his hand clamps onto Riley's arm like a vise. "How could you do this to Buffy --"

He jerks Riley into a sitting position, and that proves too much: The dizziness overtakes him, and the world goes from dark to black. When he comes to, surely no more than a few moments later, he is actually slumped against Angel's chest. Angel is now holding a cloth -- to judge from the scratchiness, one of the pillowcases -- against Riley's bleeding throat. He has unvamped again, but his expression is by no means kind. "Didn't you know what she was?" he demands. "Haven't you learned how to recognize a vampire by now?"

Shards of the broken mirror are on the floor. Riley can see his reflection in them. It looks as though he is leaning over at an impossible angle, as though he is all alone.

"I knew what she was," Riley says.

Angel looks down at him then, really looks at him for the first time. Riley watches his expression change as he sees the scars on the arms, on the neck. When he meets Riley's eyes again, pity and contempt are warring in his eyes. It's hard to say which one outrages Riley more. Angel says, "You get off on it."

"Don't you?" Riley says, and the reaction from Angel is so stunned that it almost makes up for the fact that he's still cradled in Angel's arms like a baby. He decides to press the point. "You ran Dru out of here. You owe me one. And all the blood's got to be getting to you, right?"

With effort, Riley leans back, exposing his throat to the vampire that holds him. "Come on, then," he says. "Finish me off."

He says it in a tone that spells seduction, with an inflection he'd never, ever in his life thought to use with a man. But he's not using it for seduction --not for sex, not for drinking. He doesn't want either of those things, not now nor ever again. He's hit bottom at last, found the ultimate limits of his addiction and humilation, and there's nothing left but the end. If Angel can give him that end and damn them both to hell in the bargain, so much the better. All Riley has to do is make Angel mad enough to snap, just for an instant; that's all he needs --

Angel meets his eyes for a moment, then looks down to the exposed wound at Riley's throat. Then Angel takes the pillowcase and wraps it back around Riley's neck. He leaves enough space to breathe. The disappointment is so crushing that Riley feels tears springing to his eyes, but damned if he'll let Angel see it.

"You can't stay here," Angel says.

Riley wants to ask why not, but Angel isn't interested in a conversation. He slides off the bed, then pulls Riley forward onto his shoulder.

And as his head falls toward Angel's back, the dizziness claims Riley once more. The darkness lasts for a very long time.


Chapter 2: "The Long and Short of It"

Charles Gunn is not taking any excuses today, dammit.

They give him the run-around. They don't give him what he wants. Day after day, he comes back here -- and day after day, they jerk him around.

Well, today he's dragged his ass out of bed to get here at 8 a.m. Because today he's not listening to their shit. Today, he is going to get exactly what he came for.

Gunn ties a black cloth around his head -- something he used to do a lot more, back in the day, but still tries when he feels the need to get in touch with his inner bastard. He shrugs on his jacket and walks into the place like he owns it, slamming his hands against the door. Little bells jingle. The people behind the counter jump as Gunn says:

"Tell me you are not out of maple-frosted."

The Dunkin Donuts lady stares at him for a moment, then says, "Uh, no. There's -- two left."

"Pop 'em in the box, then," Gunn says, good humor restored. As he gives the rest of his doughnut order -- picking out his favorite and Cordelia's, now that Wesley's has been taken care of -- Gunn slips the rag off his head and gives the clerks a smile. They're either very happy or very relieved to see it.

Now that this errand has been taken care of, Gunn feels good today. A whole lot better than he should, actually. Just two days ago, his entire life seemed shot to hell. A.I. taking on debt like the Titanic took on water, his best friend still in a wheelchair, and a crazier-by-the day vampire out there ticking away like a time bomb.

Today, A.I. is still broke and Wesley's still in that wheelchair. But Angel's laid his fate down at their feet, and damned if that doesn't brighten up the whole day.

On one level, Gunn's satisfaction comes pretty cheap, and he knows it. Angel thought he could fire them and take off on his own, and now he's come crawling back: Nothing quite like that to soothe the bruised ego. But Gunn knows that's just what it is -- his ego -- smiling right now. There's nothing wrong with it, but his personal feelings aren't exactly the main issue here, he figures. He's got to keep the big picture in mind.

Evening before last, when Angel came to them with his offer, nobody knew what to do or say. He followed up on a vision with them, but it didn't exactly feel like old times. Wesley told Angel they all needed a few days to think it over, and Angel accepted that without a word. Gunn saw both Wesley and Cordelia glancing in his general direction. Probably they were wondering what Gunn would say about all this.

Gunn figures they're nervous about how he's gonna react; he was friends with Angel before all this Darla business went down, but not like they were. Cordelia and Wesley -- they had loved the man. Probably they still do, deep down. And they know, by now, what Gunn's temper is like once it gets set off. Probably they think Gunn will pitch a fit if they try to bring Angel back into the group.

But, as much as they all rely on each other now, there are still some things Wesley and Cordelia don't understand about Charles Gunn.

Gunn smiles and shakes his head as he swings out of the doughnut shop and lopes the few blocks to their new offices. When they vote today -- Wesley is a stickler for procedure -- Gunn's voting for Angel, and he has no doubts about doing so. Angel has a dark side a mile wide, no question. He's not going to be on Gunn's best-friends list anytime soon. But he knows stuff about demons and magic even Wesley doesn't know, senses things even Cordelia doesn't sense and, no denying it, kicks more ass in a fight than Gunn does himself. This is somebody you want on your side, if at all possible.

Gunn learned to be resourceful at an early age. Had to, with parents who were more interested in their addictions than in him or his baby sister, Alonna. They were out all night a lot of the time -- which meant they slept through a lot of the day, assuming they'd come home to sleep at all. So if the kids were going to get fed, get dressed, get to school, or have any semblance of a normal life, it was generally up to Gunn to handle it.

And Gunn handled it. He learned the maximum amount of clothes you could stuff in one laundromat machine, and that, if you set the water to "cold," color separation didn't matter so much. (This had been learned through painful trial and error that led to Alonna inheriting a lot of newly-pink t-shirts and socks.) He learned what store owners were softhearted enough to pay him a little cash money to do odd jobs like breaking down boxes. He learned the air-conditioned shops that wouldn't shoo out two unchaperoned children on a blazing-hot day. He learned how to save up cans and bottles for recycling, and where people who didn't need those pennies might throw away their own cans and bottles.

Above all, he learned that you never, ever throw away anything you can use.

Gunn's held on to this lesson ever since, even during those periods of time when it didn't seem like he needed it. When their dad took off, around about the time Gunn was 12, he figured things were headed for the worse; instead, their mother pulled herself together. She married Derris the following year, and they'd all gone to live with Mama Jeane, who cooked wonderful meals and owned a washer and dryer all her own and had considered Gunn and Alonna her grandchildren the very first day they came up her steps. That was the family's best four years, and whatever Gunn knows about being happy, he learned then.

But he never forgot how you should handle yourself when the happy times end. So when Derris died -- October 9, a date that never fails to drag Gunn into a cold, gray funk -- and their mother spiraled out of control again, and poor Mama Jeane was without Derris' income from the garage, Gunn had known what to do. He packed up Alonna, refused to let Mama Jeane give them money (though he was, and is, not averse to stopping by for Wednesday dinner now and again), and headed to the streets. He made do, just like he always had, only he got better and better at it.

When he found out about vampires, those skills had been put to use yet again. Scraps of lumber could become weapons of destruction. Junked-out trucks could become armored vessels of war. Abandoned warehouses could become fortresses. It was all in how you played the hand you were dealt.

As far as Gunn's concerned, Angel Investigations has just pulled a key card from the deck.

He swings through the door at A.I. and proudly holds out the pink-and-white box. "On this day when we celebrate the great democratic process, I thought doughnuts were in order."

Cordelia looks up at him from her place behind the desk. She's wearing her oldest jeans and a blue tank top; obviously, she's not expecting customers, though considering the level of business they aren't doing, Gunn can't blame her. "We have doughnuts just about every morning," she says.

"See? Always something to celebrate." She gives him one of her brilliant grins as he sets the box in front of her. "English? Got some maple-frosted, just for you."

Wesley's begged off eating for several mornings now, claiming that he wanted his favorites or nothing at all. Now, though, he says only, "I'm not terribly hungry." His voice isn't strong as he says it, and Gunn casts a worried look in Wesley's direction. The man was always thin, but now he's downright bony. Today he's slumped over a bit in the wheelchair, and he looks about 15 years older than he actually is. Pain and illness will do that to a man; so will sadness, and fear.

"You better eat something sometime," Gunn says. "Or we're gonna have to tie you to that chair to make sure you don't up and blow away."

"I haven't much appetite these days," Wesley says. The weight of the decision they're all about to make is hanging over Wesley like a black cloud, and Gunn wants to laugh. The man is so damn worried; Wesley can tie himself up in knots better than anybody Gunn's ever known. He's going to be so relieved when they just get it over with. And maybe then, God willing, Wesley will finally eat something.

Cordelia looks somber too -- at least, as somber as anyone can look while chowing down on a strawberry-and-sprinkles frosted doughnut. Gunn sits down and sighs. "Well, we didn't drag our butts in here for crowd control with the customers. Let's stop worrying and vote on this thing."

"All right," Wesley says. He looks a little bit brighter as he fumbles around in a desk, then pulls out a cigar box and some straws, some long, some short.

You have got to be kidding, Gunn thinks. Then again, it's not that surprising. If Wesley can add an extra step to a procedure, he will.

Wesley catches the expression on Gunn's face. "I thought we ought to make the vote anonymous."

"In case it's not unanimous?" Well, whatever. "Which straw means what?"

"A long straw means Angel comes to work for us," Wesley says. "A small one means he doesn't, and we carry on as we are. We'll take turns putting our straws in the box, then open it up and -- and we'll see."

"No fair peeking!" Cordelia says.

Wesley prepares to go first, then stares at the others. Cordelia covers her eyes with one hand; Gunn sighs and does the same. If Wesley had the chance, he'd have set up a voting booth and a ballot and everything, complete with hanging chads.

"Next," Wesley says. Gunn pauses a minute to see if Cordelia will move; he doesn't hear anything and so opens his eyes. Wesley is sitting there, his eyes screwed shut like a little boy playing hide-and-seek. Shaking his head in amusement, Gunn takes a long straw and slips it into the box.

Cordelia goes, and seems to take an inordinate amount of time with it. But finally she says, "Okay. We're ready!" with such forced brightness that Gunn wonders if she's about to cry. When he opens his eyes, she's got her arms folded around her body tightly, as though she were trying to keep warm.

Wesley takes up the box. He pries open the lid just a tad, just enough to swipe his fingers in and pull out -- "One long straw."

Gunn smiles easily, but the grin fades as Wesley pulls out the next. "One short straw."

Who the hell put that in there? He fights the urge to look into Cordelia and Wesley's faces, to see who the holdout is. He's starting to see the sense of this whole cigar-box ritual.

Wesley finally pulls out the last -- then stares at it while saying, very slowly, "One bent straw?"

Gunn and Wesley, as one, turn and look at Cordelia.

"I didn't know how to vote!" she says, running one hand through her hair. "I don't know how I feel about all this, and I'm not gonna know anytime soon, and I was hoping maybe you two would agree so it wouldn't matter, but now you don't, and I totally can't handle being the deciding vote. I really can't."

"Cordelia --" Wesley says, and his voice is cool. It hits Gunn for the first time: Wesley voted no.

Son of a bitch.

Now that he's faced with it, though, Gunn realizes he should have seen this coming. Wesley and Cordelia care about Angel more than he does. That means his firing them hit them a hell of a lot harder, a lot harder, apparently, than they've let on these past few weeks. They're still hurting, and Wesley for one isn't ready to set it aside.

Cordelia's pacing back and forth now, and Gunn wasn't wrong before -- she really is close to tears. "I want things to be the way they were," she says. "Like they were with Angel before. But they can't ever be like that again, can they?"

"I don't think so," Wesley says.

"But the other thing I want is for it to be like it was when the three of us got this place, when it was all fun and exciting. And it's never gonna be like that again, either. Not if we walk away from him. It changes things."

"Yeah," Gunn says. "It does."

That alone is enough to tell Cordelia how they voted, and Wesley shoots Gunn a dirty look. But she's not thinking about that right now. She's just pacing, wearing a rut in the office's cheap little carpet. "I'm not ready, Wesley," she finally says. "I'm just not."

"It's all right," Wesley says, and his voice is softer now. "I don't want this to be any worse for you. Take your time. There's no rush."

"Okay," she says, then takes in a deep breath, lets it out. "Okay."

"We'll just move on to our other business of the day," Wesley says.

Gunn claps his hands. Finally, something constructive to do. "And what is that, oh Fearless Leader?"

Wesley looks a little abashed. "I was rather hoping one of you might know of some."

They sit there in silence for a moment -- client-free, as ever. Gunn notices that every sill is free of dust, every window sparkles, and the faint smell of Windex is in the air. They rarely lavished this kind of loving care on the Hyperion. Seldom had the time.

"Any headaches?" Gunn asks Cordelia hopefully.

She makes a face. "Not until we did that stupid box-straw thing."

"There's always Word-Puzz," Wesley begins.

Cordelia stands up and grabs her purse. "And with that, I bid you all farewell."

"You've been at work for twenty minutes," Wesley says.

"And I feel like I've been here for twenty years," Cordelia said. "In other words, since I was about seven months old. I need to get out of here. I need to think."

"Understood," Gunn says. Cordy's not gonna have anything constructive to add for the rest of the day, he thinks. Besides, he's just about ready to hear Wesley's side of this whole thing. Wesley hasn't said a word, of course, hasn't even so much as thrown a glance in Gunn's direction, but Gunn can tell Wesley's ready to vent.

Gunn hopes so, anyway. Because he'd hate to have to beat it out of him. The man's his friend, after all.

"I have an audition this afternoon anyway," Cordelia says. "So it's not like I was in for the long haul."

"An audition!" Wesley says, too brightly. "That's wonderful! I thought you'd all but given up on your acting, and yet here you are. Back on the horse."

"They foreclosed on my horse," Cordelia says with a frown. "Thanks for the painful memory."

"Don't mind him," Gunn says, reaching out to pat her on the shoulder. "You knock 'em dead."

"Like I wouldn't," she says, with that fake bravado he loves so much.

With that she's out the door, smiling as she slides on her dark glasses. As she walks down the sunny street, she looks for one minute like the carefree girl she ought to be.

Gunn and Wesley watch her go in a silence that stretches out long after she's gotten lost in the crowds. Then Wesley says, slowly, "I never dreamed you'd vote yes."

"I never dreamed you'd vote no," Gunn says.

"It's not anger," Wesley says carefully, so carefully that Gunn knows Wesley's been having this argument with himself for a while now. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't angry, but that's not why I don't want him back."

"So what is your reason?" Gunn says. "I know Angel went through a scary period there, but these days, he's tryin' to live right."

"And he's no good at it," Wesley says. "Angel tries, and he tries. When does he get it right? I don't know that we can survive his getting it wrong one more time."

Gunn opens his mouth to protest -- whatever else Angel did or didn't do, he never tried to kill them. Next he thinks that Wesley's talking about getting hurt, but that wheelchair Wes is sitting in is proof of the consequences they all face, with or without Angel.

Then he remembers the way Angel looked when he came back to the hospital that long-ago night and asked if Wesley and Cordelia were still alive. Gunn realizes the wounds Wesley's most afraid of aren't physical -- whether he realizes that or not.

Being shot takes something out of a man, sometimes; Gunn has reason to know this, given the neighborhoods in which he's had to make his way. Some people are never quite the same afterwards, as though something had been torn out of them, something more than just flesh. He doesn't think Wesley is one of those, but it's too soon to really be sure.

All Gunn knows right now is that Wesley is even thinner and paler than he was before, and that the pain and the worry are wearing on him. "You look bad," he says flatly. "Didn't the doctor tell you to take care of yourself? Or aren't you letting Virginia take care of you?"

He expects Virginia's name to win a smile from Wesley; instead, Gunn sees his friend tense up. His shoulders draw in slightly, as though preparing for a blow. "Wesley?"

"Virginia and I split up," Wesley says, his voice strained by his effort to appear casual. But he's not fooling anyone. Gunn has spent the last few months watching Wesley light up like a fireworks show every single time Virginia called him on the phone, or dropped by the office. No way Wesley ended this.

"What happened?" Gunn says, putting one hand on Wesley's shoulder.

Wesley shifts away, not forbidding the touch but not encouraging it either. Gunn lets his hand drop. "I think Virginia's had enough danger and darkness in her life for a while."

Whether Wesley knows it or not, Gunn thinks, the words hanging there, unspoken, are "and so have I."

"I'm sorry, man," he says. "She's a fine lady."

"That she is," Wesley says. He presses his lips together tightly, but Gunn knows he's not going to be able to maintain that self-control for much longer.

Gunn decides to help him out. "Well, then, we have to find somebody else to take care of you."

"You're not volunteering?" Wesley says, cocking an eyebrow.

"Hell, no. I look like a nursemaid to you? What I'm thinkin' is that it's time to introduce you to Mama Jeane." Gunn grins as the image forms in his head, then starts to laugh. "What are you doing for dinner?"


Chapter 3: "Waking Up Is Hard To Do"

Angel can smell the sunrise.

"Smell" is the only word he has for that ability, which is not like the standard five senses that come with the human package. It's different -- unearthly, something that only arrives after death and cannot be fully described in any languages of the living. But it's more like smell than anything else -- the first, faint hints of it that grow stronger with proximity; the way it just lingers in the background, virtually never becoming overpowering; its capacity to inspire memory in sudden, piercing shafts of clarity.

The sun rose several hours ago, and the scent of it did not put Angel to sleep for the first time in many months. He's awake now, wide awake as he's so rarely been, ever since Darla --

No, he reminds himself. No thinking about Darla. Don't even think about the name.

Angel has told himself such things before, but this time it works, because this time he really means it. He is awake now in every sense of the word, awake and eager to start a new day.

And today, he thinks, today perhaps Wesley and Cordelia and Gunn will call, and they will take him back.

When he got in late last night, his burden draped over his shoulder and his mood again darkened, he had almost lost sight of the possibilities this day brings. Difficult to think about starting over when the past has just lashed out at you again, cut you with stinging words from the lips of a girl who died screaming at your hands. When you see the man who has the love you fought for so desperately and lost all the same, and you see him just throwing that love away, as though it were a styrofoam cup --

That line of thought won't help either, and so Angel, as he did the night before, turns his attention to more constructive matters.

He spares the man upstairs only the time it takes to stand at his bedside and take stock of his condition. Last night, Angel was torn as to whether or not to take him to a hospital; he didn't think either the blood loss or the alcohol poisoning were so severe as to require a doctor, but, in most situations like this, he'd err on the side of caution.

But hospitals want addresses, and phone numbers, and next of kin. They want to know who to call, and Angel only knows one person in the world connected to Riley Finn. Last night, he decided that Buffy would have to learn the truth about this someday -- but not like this, and not from him. Angel still doesn't know if that decision was made out of bitterness or insight or something else altogether.

In any case, Riley is sleeping it off with no worse damage for his night on the town than a fresh scar on his neck and what will no doubt be a wicked hangover. Somewhere out there, though, Buffy must be worried about him. Angel knows how Buffy gets when she worries; she can work herself into a state more effectively than anyone Angel's ever met. And now, undoubtedly, she's all shaken up, that little tremble in her lips, all because of fear for Riley. Buffy is hurting. This man has hurt her. She gave her love to this man, and how has he repaid her? With betrayal, and abandonment, and infidelity with creatures like Dru. Angel looks down at him, feels the anger course through him, clenches his hands into fists.

And then he forces himself to push the anger aside.

This, Angel thinks, is the test -- the test he's been expecting ever since he awoke, gasping in the shock and anguish of self-knowledge -- a few nights ago. He has told himself -- has told Cordelia and Wesley and Gunn -- that he is a new man. He thought he would have to prove that to them over time.

It looks as if he must prove it to the Powers, first.

Angel turns from Riley and goes downstairs. He hasn't really looked at the hotel's lobby in months now -- it's passed before his eyes, but he's never truly allowed himself to see it. To see the dust that has collected on every surface, the dingy condition of the floor. This room smells musty and stale and lifeless. It smells like what it's been -- a vampire's lair.

Angel spends a little while sifting through various drawers and shelves before he finds Cordelia's stash of cleaning supplies, a cardboard box filled with soft rags and sponges and brand names Angel doesn't much recognize. What cleaning he used to do for himself he mostly did the old-fashioned way, with soap and water and brush. These new brand names sound very cheerful, promising better days and lifelong loyalty: Future, Bon Ami, Sparkle, Pledge. The smell of the stuff within the bottles and cans is less promising; the odor speaks of chemicals and carcinogens to Angel, but then, this is not one of his main concerns. Making this hotel fit for humans again is.

He reads the labels, figures out what everything is used for. The windows will have to wait until after dark. The rest of it -- well, it's as good a place to start as any.

Angel strips down to his t-shirt and starts from the top up; he remembers that much about housecleaning, at least. He dusts the banister and the woodwork, sweeps the tiled areas of the floor. A bloodstain behind the counter proves stubborn, and Angel has to get on hands and knees and scrub with a little wire pad for about forty minutes to get that spot absolutely, totally clear. Will he vacuum and then mop, or vice versa? A trickier decision, so he spends a long time thinking weighing the pros and cons while cleaning out the phone cord with a paper towel, meticulously wiping the grime from every single loop.

This is all a very good means of distracting him from the fact that, despite all his wishes and hopes, the phone is not ringing.

Finally, Angel vacuums, then mops, and is left with a sparkling lobby that could accept agency customers -- or, for that matter, staying guests -- without shame. He is also left with a great, empty silence. Cordelia and Wesley and Gunn have not called.

For the first time since his awakening at Darla's side, Angel allows himself to consider the worst-case scenario -- it is too late. He has hurt them too much. They will not take him back.

If he has to go on without them, he will. Angel has started over many, many times, and generally with far less in the way of material and emotional resources than he now possesses. He has never yet gotten it right -- but he's getting better at it, he thinks. After countless reinventions, he is pretty sure he's hit upon the understanding he needs to finally walk one road, stay on it, begin building something that might last.

But he wants this path back, this path he wandered from in his obsession and misery and rage. Angel knew, even as he left it, that this was the best situation he was ever likely to have. Though he could not have romantic love, he could have friendship. Though he could not live among humans, he could work beside them. Though he could not stand in the sunlight, he could get close enough for warmth.

He had decided he didn't deserve those things when all the crimes of his past and the potential failures of his future coalesced before him in the shape of Darla's fragile body and even more fragile soul -- when he saw them both destroyed by the woman who was, in the end, only the evidence of his own powers of destruction. So far as he went, he was right; Angel has spent too much time taking stock of his crimes not to understand that he deserves nothing but pain. But now Angel thinks it's not a question of what he deserves. It's more a question of what those around him deserve -- friendship, loyalty, communication, protection, understanding. They deserve to make their own choices about the risks they take, even those risks Angel brings with him by nature of who and what he is. In other words, they deserved a lot better than what he's dealt out.

He thinks he can make Cordelia and Wesley and Gunn see all this, if he gets the chance. And if he doesn't -- well, he'll just have to do better, next time. He'll eventually find others who want to do the same work, who might be willing to take a chance. And maybe these will be the people he'll never let down. The ones he'll get to keep.

But he can't imagine that they will ever mean as much to him as the ones he so carelessly threw away.

Angel actually gets so far as to begin contemplating other cities in which he might live -- if he has to start all over again, then a clean break might be best -- when he hears the footsteps upstairs. His body tenses, but he forces himself to remain calm as he turns to face Riley.

Riley looks pale, as well he might. One hand grips the staircase railing as he walks downstairs, but otherwise he shows little sign of weakness. He doesn't quite look Angel in the eyes. "Where are we?"

"The Hyperion Hotel," Angel answers. "I live here." After a pause: "I haven't called Sunnydale. But I think you should."

Riley laughs, a small, bitter sound. Angel wasn't expecting that. "What's so funny?"

"No need to call Sunnydale," Riley says as he continues down the stairs. "I haven't lived there in months. And nobody there is expecting to hear from me. You didn't know?"

Buffy and Riley broke up. Angel feels a quick flash of satisfaction -- mean-spirited, maybe, but undeniable -- as well as a great, yawning uncertainty. As much as he'd disliked this man at their one disastrous meeting, he'd at least known, in the general sense, what was going on with Buffy. Now, that one slim thread of knowledge has snapped; she's lost to him again, a total mystery.

Angel can see the scars on Riley's arms and neck very clearly now; the light reveals their lividity, as does Riley's unhealthy pallor. These are not the scars of someone who's just started playing this dangerous game with vampires, Angel knows. These are the scars of an addict. "So you thought you'd make yourself feel better like this?"

Riley knows what he's talking about, but shakes his head. "This started before. This is why we split up. Happy now?"

"You were doing this before?" Angel is astonished. And then, not surprised at all -- those marks were more than a few weeks in the making. Riley's skin is crosshatched with the work of many vampires, many nights. But then a darker realization sets in. "You did this to Buffy. You were cheating on Buffy."

"That's how she saw it," Riley agrees. His face isn't quite so closed off now; he's studying Angel's expression. What is he looking for? "But I wasn't having sex with them. Not -- not then, anyway."

The line between sex and drinking blood can be as broad as a continent or so narrow as to be nonexistent. And if you're paying vampires to suck you off, you're at the thinnest edge of all. "It's the same thing, the way you were doing it. You know that."

Riley laughs again, the same disjointed sound as before. "Buffy knows it too, doesn't she? I have scars from strangers. She has scars from you."

She's still scarred. Angel has only seen the marks of his fangs on Buffy's throat once; he traced them with his fingers, regretfully, reverently, as they lay in bed together on a night that never was. The memories of that night can still pierce him to the core, but worse still are the memories of how Buffy got that scar. "That's not the same thing at all. Buffy was trying to save my life."

Riley stares at him, uncomprehending, and Angel realizes that Buffy never told Riley about the sacrifice she made for Angel, the terrible risk she took. He realizes that Buffy is ashamed of what she did, and he feels it like a punch in the gut. He drops his head, stares down at the can of Bon Ami in the box. Gold foil and white print. Hasn't scratched yet.

Apparently Riley's unwilling to ask Angel to tell him something Buffy wouldn't tell him herself. He makes his way to the bottom of the stairs, and Angel can tell by his step that Riley's still feeling badly. Once again he tries to remember that this is the test. This is what the Powers are asking of him, to prove that he will take care of anyone. Anyone at all. "So, who do we need to call? Your --" Angel struggles for military words that won't be archaic. "Your captain?"

Riley looks away. "I'm not in the army anymore."

"Why not?" Angel says. It's a question he asks by reflex, with no thought as to what Riley might or might not answer. To his surprise, Riley goes even more pale. Even his lips go white, and his heartbeat speeds up as though he were afraid. But it's not fear Angel senses in him, not exactly --

He pushes past his morbid curiosity to the mission at hand. "You could probably use something to eat."

"You keep -- food? Human food?"

He used to. The little mini-fridge used to be stuffed with food: Cordelia's chalky-smelling, utterly unnecessary diet shakes; Wesley's tuna sandwiches on white; Gunn's bottles of Gatorade and half-eaten, rewrapped hoagies. But he has nothing to offer now, except -- "I keep a phone book. So we can call and get you a pizza. Or Chinese, or something. I -- I think I remember that there's a Thai place in the neighborhood."

The mention of Thai food leaves Riley unmoved. He watches Angel in silence for a moment before saying, "Why are you doing this?"

"Helping you?" When Riley nods, Angel says, "That's what I do."

That is what he used to do. And what he means to do again.

And then, right then, as if it's a signal from the Powers themselves, the phone rings. Angel feels the smile even before he gives in to it, wheels around, picks up the receiver with shaky hands. He knows Riley can see his transparent happiness, doesn't care. "Hello?"

A moment's silence. Then, "This is Angel Investigations?"

The voice is unfamiliar -- accented in a way Angel can't immediately identify, maybe Indian. More to the point, it is not Wesley or Cordelia on the line. His heart sinks, and he sees Riley taking in the disappointment on his face.

No matter. One more test. "Yes, it is," he says. It seems more trouble than it's worth to explain that there are, currently, two Angel Investigations. "I'm sorry. How can I help you?"

As it turns out, Angel can help him by casting a ghost out of a haunted store. Riley watches, wordlessly, as Angel jots down notes about the store's history and situation. The owner reacts with some consternation when Angel tells him he will need to close the store for the exorcism. Apparently this store never closes.

"It's that or have your customers see something that's likely to drive them away for good," Angel points out.

After a pause, the owner sighs. "Very well. When can you be here?"

"About thirty minutes after sunset."

If the owner finds it odd to schedule business appointments by the rising and setting of the sun, he doesn't say so. "I will be ready. Do I need to -- do anything?"

"No," Angel assures him. "I'll bring what I need with me."

After he hangs up, Riley makes a move for the phone. "What are you doing?" Angel says.

Riley cocks an eyebrow. "Getting that pizza you promised me. Or was there a time limit on the offer?"

Angel feels more than a little stupid. "Of course not. It's just -- I have to make a phone call first."

With a shrug, Riley surrenders the phone. Angel manages punch in the number of the other Angel Investigations office without trembling, but that's the most he can say for himself.

They don't want him calling until they're ready; he knows that. But surely they'd want to know about a case. He could use the help, too; the best means of performing an exorcism is a Mingus tripod, which conveniently requires four people. And working together once more might go a long way toward showing them that things can be different now -- maybe tip the balance --

It seems as though the phone rings many times before the machine picks up. Angel breathes out a sigh of disappointment, hangs up without leaving a message.

"Who were you calling?" Riley asks.

My friends, Angel would like to answer. "Some people I -- used to work with. I thought they might help with the exorcism tonight."

He waits for Riley to ask why he uses the phrase "used to," why these people don't work here any more. And he wonders what he can say that won't leave him feeling isolated and stupid and humbled before this man, the last person on Earth he wants to be humbled before.

And yet, is that the point? If he will let his pride drop in front of Riley, will that finally prove that his pride is his master no longer?

Angel considers that, sees the truth of it. For the first time, he realizes that he is not working to prove all these changes to Wesley and Cordelia and Gunn as much as he is working to prove them to himself.

"I'll need someone to come along tonight," he says quietly. "Will you help me?"

Riley stares at him; then, to Angel's surprise, he begins to laugh again. For a few moments, Angel just watches Riley as he leans against the counter, shaking hard from more than just the laughter, making that same frightening, broken sound. Finally, Riley gasps out, "You. You need me. There's some supernatural stuff going down, and you believe you need me."

"Yeah," Angel says. He wants so badly to take offense -- does Riley mean this as mockery? But he senses that's not it. He looks at the man anew, wonders about the differences between the person he met before -- unthinking, belligerent, wearing army-issue gear that apparently matched an army-issue brain -- and this person, with scars and regrets and no sense that anybody might want him for anything.

Angel knows that feeling very well.

Something Wesley said to him, right before the end, flickers in his memory. His work is about more than saving lives. It is about saving souls.

"I think maybe I do," Angel says.


Chapter 4: "Unmasked"

"Allison Anders?"

The girl who stands up is a contender, no doubt about it. The golden tan is absolutely real. The boobs aren't, but Cordelia's pretty sure that's not a problem for the casting director. Of course, her roots are showing in a big, bad, serious way, but that can be fixed, given 2 hours' notice and a bottle of Blondesse.

Cordelia is, by now, richly familiar with the fact that most of her auditions don't go well. But this one she'd held out a little more hope for -- they wanted "curvaceous," which she is, a "natural Californian," which is -- well, God only knows, but having been born in good ol' Sunnydale, Cordelia probably qualifies -- and "sensual."

Well, the jury was out on that last one. She doesn't feel it right now, after changing in a gas-station restroom and trying to convince herself that a single strawberry-frosted doughnut is sufficient nutrition for one day. It's probably not Michelle Pfeiffer's daily beauty routine, that's for sure.

"I've got a good chance at this one," she'd said to Wesley and Gunn the night before. They had smiled and acted like they believed her, something they were getting pretty good at. But they had probably known what Cordelia knows now: That particular boast was going into the Greatest-Last-Words hall of fame. Right up there with, "I never shop retail. Off-the-rack gives me hives," or "Xander Harris is the guy for me."

Or "Angel is a good vampire. He would never hurt you."

Cordelia had said that to an uncomprehending, amnesiac Buffy on a Halloween long ago. At the time, of course, she'd thought Buffy was also delusional. Cordy's main concern at the time, beyond getting Buffy calmed down, was sucking her tummy in, the better to look good in that catsuit while Angel could see her. Sure, he was all ga-ga over Buffy, she'd reasoned, but what man in his right mind wouldn't eventually see that Cordelia was prettier, smarter and -- in those days -- a lot less likely to drag you into trouble?

Later that night, after everyone had remembered who they were and things had calmed down, Angel had prepared to walk Buffy home. But just when she thought he was gone, he had come back, taken Cordelia's arm in his hand, sent little waves of excitement coursing through her. Aha, she'd thought; this is more like it.

And then he'd said, "Cordelia? Thanks for what you said back there. It meant a lot."

"Oh, I meant every word of it, Angel," she'd breathed, looking up at him through mascaraed lashes. "What were you talking about, exactly?"

He knitted his eyebrows together in confusion, then replied, helpfully, "What you said about me being -- a good vampire. That's a hard idea for a lot of people to accept -- for me to accept, sometimes -- but knowing that you do, well -- it means that there's somebody who --"

"Wait a minute. You ARE a vampire?"

Angel had stared at her for a moment, then nodded. Cordelia knew her jaw had dropped, and she yanked her arm back. "Oh, my GOD," she said, and hurried away.

Cordelia has thought about this event a lot over the years. It used to embarrass her. Then it amused her. For the past few months, though, she's thought of it as their entire relationship in miniature -- a preview of coming attractions, if she'd only been able to realize it at the time.

First, you think you can trust someone, because he acts like your friend. "Vampire" is an empty word, something that applies to fangs and black clothes and stuff that doesn't really relate to the person inside. And then, when you start trusting someone, he acts all surprised and happy and touched, like it really means something. Seeing that just warms your heart. Does you good. Makes you let your guard down.

Finally, you find out what "vampire" really means, and the fun's all over.

"Barbie Cartwright?" the casting director calls, and the girl sitting next to Cordelia stands up and heads into the audition room. No ass, thin eyelashes, and a tan line where her watch ought to be, which spells trouble for the rest of her. No chance. The casting agents are going in alphabetical order; Cordy's likely to be next. She tries to stop thinking about Angel, to concentrate on the inane script for this commercial.

But it's impossible, and she knows it.

Cordelia remembers the girl she was that long-ago Halloween. She was 17 years old, wealthy, adored. Her parents didn't spend a lot of time with her, but they spent a lot of money on her, and the girl Cordy was then preferred it that way. Guys offered her their class rings and letter jackets, made excuses to hang around her locker, did stupid stunts in gym class to try to impress her. Girls watched what she wore, copied her eyeshadow and hairstyles and hemlines, though not too closely, lest she call them on their lack of originality. The vanity plate on her red convertible read "Queen C," which pretty much sums it all up.

Today, her father is out of work (and only out of prison by the grace of the plea bargain), her mother apparently permanently out of sorts. Neither their time nor their money is dedicated to Cordelia now. The last guy who meant anything to her, romantically speaking, died in front of her eyes more than a year ago. She can't remember the last time she spent any quality time with a girl friend, unless getting bitched out by Kate the Nazi Cop counts, and it doesn't. Instead of standing out from the pack of humanity by virtue of her style or her smile or her sleek red car, her one claim to fame is skull-crushing visions that can leave her weak and tearful for hours.

In short, the one thing that has remained sort of constant in Cordelia's life during the past five years is Angel. And right now, that seems pretty pathetic.

The one thing in my life I can count on, she muses, is the presence of an obsessive dead guy who is guaranteed to wear black sweaters, put me in life-threatening situations and periodically go psycho. Somewhere, I have taken a seriously wrong turn.

Angel's the one constant she has because she can't hold on to anything else, she thinks bitterly. Because she can't keep anything better.

But that's not fair to the people she's closest to now, is it? Wesley, strangely enough, has been a force in her life for two years, give or take a few months where he was off wearing leather. And the camaraderie she feels with Gunn is something real -- more friendly than just about any other friendship she's ever had, a fact that both delights and shames her when she realizes that, two years ago, she would have hurried past Gunn on the street, maybe clutched her purse a little tighter.

Cordelia knows, though, that as much as she cares about Wesley and Gunn, as tight as they now are, their friendships can still all fall apart. She thinks back to the previous summer, when Angel had no home and Wesley had no money; all they had left was their work and each other, and they had all thrown themselves into it with a camaraderie and joy that Cordelia had never known before. She was happy then. It makes her uncomfortable to be able, at age 20, to already identify a time period as "the happiest days of her life." But that's what they were -- these perfect days when she had friendships and purpose that she expected to last her whole life.

But then, all the bonds that she thought would never break broke into a thousand pieces. And Angel -- the Angel who held her hand in the hospital after Vocah's attack, who welcomed her back to the land of the living with tears in his eyes -- is unknown to her now.

Is there anything you can count on? she asks herself, gripping the script pages in her hand. Is there anyone you actually get to -- keep?

The audition lady calls, "Cordelia Chase?"

No more prep time, no focus, no breathing exercises, nothing. Another audition blown before it even starts. Well, crap.

Cordelia exhales, gets up, walks into the room. Might as well get it over with.

This audition room is as small and blank and uninspiring as most of them --posters from past advertising campaigns are on the walls, and the director and casting agents are sitting behind a long table, looking bored. Well, that makes everyone, she thought, half-amused by the futility.

"This is for CocoaLoco Suntan Lotion, right?" Cordelia says, shrugging off her cardigan and revealing the tight little dress underneath. She'd been prepared for them to ask to see her body; just this once, she's going to beat one of life's humiliations to the punch. "Behold the goods," she says, spinning before their surprised faces. "No Wonderbra, no control top. Okay, got that over with."

She strikes a pose -- much more exaggerated and seductive than she'd ever stoop to, normally -- tosses her hair and smiles. "We've gone crazy for CocoaLoco and for the man who wears it. We just can't stop rubbing it all over his body," she says, miming the massage. Funny how much easier this is when you just don't care. "Goes on smoooooth, like a lover's kiss. It's the only suntan lotion good enough for our man. Get into the heat with CocoaLoco Lotion."

Cordelia gives them one last pout, then drops the act and grabs up her cardigan. "That what you were looking for?"

"Uh, yeah," says one of the casting agents.

"I know," Cordelia says. "You'll call me."

She pushes her way out of the audition room, drops the script in a nearby trash can and hurries to the women's restroom she saw down the hall. Cordelia goes into one of the stalls and leans her head against the metal wall. Tears well in her eyes.

The first audition she's had in months, and it's as big a farce as all the rest. She hasn't seriously believed that an acting career was in the cards for a long time -- well, really, since her first round of auditions that terrible, post-Sunnydale autumn. But she keeps dragging that dream along with her, never letting it go, because it's the only other future she can imagine at all. Either she will go on as she has for the past five years -- fighting weirdo creatures of the night -- or she will somehow, miraculously, end up a movie star with gowns by Versace and personal assistants to throw fits if her edamame is frozen instead of fresh. Cordelia isn't even 100 percent sure what edamame is, but she's willing to learn.

Surely there has to be a third option, and a fourth, and a fifth. But Cordelia doesn't feel as though she has the strength to come up with another dream right now. She knows she doesn't have the strength to watch another dream go up in flames, and that seems to be where they all end up.

Stop this, she tells herself, jerking her head back from the door. Hurriedly she grabs up a handful of tissue and dabs her hot, streaming eyes. Self-pity is not Cordelia Chase's style -- at least not the extended bouts, the ones that involve falling apart in Lysol-smelling public restrooms. The uncertainty about Angel's got her in a state, but the best thing she can do is fix her makeup, walk out the door with what's left of her pride.

Cordelia steps shakily out of the stall and goes to the mirror; the fluorescent lighting isn't kind, but she does what repairs she can with a little powder and lipstick. When she's done, and the mask is back on, she stares at the pretty girl in the mirror. She remembers picking up that long straw, wanting to drop it in the cigar box, then bending it as she clenched her hand into a fist.

What Cordelia wants is for things to stop changing. She wants to push her way back into the past and find either those happy days with Angel or the happy days without him, and this time she'll stay there. But that's not going to happen. The future is going to take one of two shapes. Either she will move forward with Angel -- accept that he represents her past and her future, this weird life that somehow chose her -- or she will move forward without him.

But into what?


She makes the drive home through a gloom that the sunny day and the bouncy music on the car radio fails to dispel. Grabbing up her little bag of clothes and makeup, she heads to the door.

It opens for her. Dennis can always tell when she's had a bad day.

"Thanks," she sighs, dropping the bag on the floor. Dennis will see to it later. Cordelia kicks off the impractical strappy sandals and gratefully feels the soft carpet beneath her pained feet. "Why do I do it, Dennis? Why do I even try?"

Dennis can't answer, of course -- not that there's any practical answer to the question she's just asked. But he can respond, and does so wisely by floating a pint of Ben & Jerry's Concession Obsession in her general direction. "That's perfect," she sighs. "Dennis, you are the poltergreatest."

She can't even think about Angel or acting or anything else right now. No, the only thing to do now is to relax, chill out, consume tons of empty calories and, perhaps, watch a little "Guiding Light." But just as she's sinking back into the sofa, the phone rings.

For one moment, Cordelia is torn between frustration -- can't she ever just rest? -- and happiness, because it's got to be Wesley or Gunn on the phone, and A.I. needs a case and the money it would bring in the very worst way. She swings a hand up to grab the cordless as Dennis lobs it in her general direction. "Thanks," she whispers as she presses Talk. "Hello?"

It's not Wesley or Gunn. Instead, a woman's voice says, "Cordelia Chase?"

Cordelia sighs. "I'm actually totally okay with my long-distance provider as it is, but thanks for asking."

Before she can click Off, the voice says, "What? Oh, no. This is Ms. O'Shea. From the CocoaLoco audition?"

"What is it?" Cordy asks, genuinely puzzled. "Did I leave something in the casting room?"

"No, no. I just wanted to tell you -- we thought you were terrific. Just what we're looking for."

The silence goes on for a second, until Cordelia says, "But -- what?"

"But nothing." The casting agent's voice is a little uncertain. "We're filming in two weeks, and if you're available then --"

"You mean -- I got the job?" When the casting agent confirms it, Cordelia laughs out loud, then pulls herself together. "I'll have to doublecheck with my agent," she says easily. "But I believe I'm in L.A. that week." After all, she wasn't Queen C for nothing.

But the minute Cordelia clicks Off, she lets herself scream. "Yessssssss!" she shouts, hammering the heels of her hands on the sofa cushions, shaking her head about so that her hair flies around crazily. Dennis, who has picked up on the fact that things have changed for the better, turns on the radio and pumps up the volume. The fact that Ricky Martin comes pouring out of the speakers does nothing to quelch her good mood. This is the best she's felt in months, maybe ever.

I did it, she thinks in jubilation. I really did it. I got a TV commercial, a good one. I am, for the next two weeks, a working actress. What do you do for a living, ma'am? Why, I am an actress. In Hollywood. You may have seen me on TV.

Cordelia giggles some more as she begins helping herself to the ice cream -- not too much, though, because she's got to look great in a bikini in two weeks. Two weeks! She thought she'd still be sitting in the office, collecting so much dust, in two weeks. Now, though, everything has changed --

She thinks about that. Then thinks about it some more.

Everything has changed. Just in this one instant, it seems as though her whole world has spun on its axis, orbited around so that she's finally facing the sun. She thought that she could be an actress, and now -- in whatever limited sense -- she has become one. She thought that her dreams were all so much dust, and now it seems they can still be fulfilled.

She thought she could not envision a future without Angel in it, but in this moment, she can. Every other accomplishment she's made these past several years, every other significant moment (for good or for bad) can be traced to Angel in some way. This -- this is her own. And just because of that, it feels better than almost anything else.

I can live without Angel, she thinks. I can make my own way, do my own thing. And maybe that's for the best.

Cordelia imagines the cigar box again. She imagines herself picking out a short straw, dropping it inside. She knows how badly it will hurt -- she also knows that this, finally, is her choice.

Ricky Martin is still blaring from the speakers, and the ice cream tastes great, and Cordelia Chase is a working actress, and she is crying as she sits on her sofa. She is crying because she's happy, and because she's sad, and because she hates being confused, and because she knows she's about to end that confusion for good.


Chapter 5: "Haunted"

"I thought you said this was the ghost of a clerk who was shot in a robbery two months ago."

Angel looks confused as he says this, like the big, stupid lug Xander always said he was. Unfortunately, Riley can't feel very superior at the moment, as he, too, is confused by what the store owner is telling them.

And he is angry that, after a solid year of being told by the army he served and the woman he loved that he couldn't help, couldn't understand, and couldn't be trusted, he's being asked to help by the one person whose opinion means the least to him in this world. And scared that even here, even now, he's going to screw up.

He used to think it was all so easy, that it all made sense --

The owner of the Gas-N-Go in what has got to be, absolutely, the worst neighborhood in all of L.A. -- and Riley knows this is saying something -- is shaking his head as he looks around the convenience store. "Not a clerk. It was a customer that was shot in a robbery two months ago."

"I was sure you said something about a clerk getting shot --" Angel begins.

"Yes, yes. But the last clerk who died was shot seven months ago. Not two months ago."

Riley is looking at the doorway. Next to the doors is a painted-on grid that shows the height in feet and inches of anyone standing near it, right where this information can be caught on the security camera. He's seen plenty of service stations with these grids before, but he's never been so aware that this information was definitely being used. He says his first words since getting into the car with Angel half an hour ago: "How long ago did the last clerk who DIDN'T die get shot?"

"Three weeks," the owner says.

"Okay," Angel says quietly, "let's try this. How many people, counting customers, clerks and robbers, have died in this store since you've owned it?"

The owner actually tallies this on his fingers. "Seven."

"Narrows it right down," Angel mutters.

"Can we tell which one is the ghost?" Riley says.

"Not sure," Angel says. "You've got the candle and the bundle of herbs? You remember the incantation I showed you back at the hotel?" When Riley nods, Angel motions toward the back. "We're going to start the exorcism. Mr. Patel, if you want to step outside --"

Mr. Patel takes one look at the neighborhood outside and decides he'll take his chances with the undead. "I -- I will wait in the ladies' bathroom."

Angel frowns. "Why not the men's room?"

"The ladies keep the bathroom cleaner," Mr. Patel says with a shrug, as though the responsibility for cleaning the bathrooms had nothing to do with the station's management. Riley makes a mental note that, no matter how long this exorcism takes, he's going to be able to hold it until later.

As Mr. Patel hurries into the women's bathroom, Riley hurriedly picks up the little pouch on a cord Angel gave him, puts it around his neck. A scapula, Angel called it. He used to see Buffy and her friends with these, from time to time, but nobody ever bothered to tell him the proper name. The scapula smells awful, but he's pretty sure that means something good. Everything Willow kept in her little bundles smelled terrible, as did half of the canisters of herbs Giles kept at his store --

Riley shuts his eyes for a moment as he experiences a piercing, vivid recollection of that shop. Before Giles bought it, he and Buffy had broken in one night. She'd looked up at him, bemused, when he told her there was a better way to get through the door than brute force. All they had to do was call his friends in the Initiative, and they'd slip in the skeleton key, make it easy for her.

Buffy didn't want things to be easy. She kept on smashing through doors and using fists instead of firepower and generally doing things the hard way. Maybe that's why she wanted this undead headcase with the candles and magic spells more than Riley.

In any case, she never did ask for Riley's help.

"This ghost," Riley says, "is it a customer or a robber?"

Angel half-glances over his shoulder as he walks to his chosen location, which seems to be in the vicinity of the Icee machine. "No idea. The disturbances Mr. Patel talked about -- flying objects, cold spots -- they don't offer any clue. It's just a spirit not at rest."

"But we have to know which one it is, right? What it wants, what it's here for?" This is one of those things you have to know. It's not a question Riley ever used to ask, but he has sworn that he will never, ever forget to ask it again. And that he will never, ever stop before he gets an answer --

For a moment he remembers heat, and darkness, and screaming. He remembers Graham grinning, his teeth white in the blackness of night. He remembers how heavy and correct his gun felt in his hands. Riley begins to shake. "We have to know what kind of ghost it is."

Angel is looking at him very strangely now. "What we do is the same," he says, with ill-concealed impatience. "We send the spirit off this plane."

"Where do we send it?" Riley says. He can hear his voice going higher, hates it, can't stop it. "Where? What if we send it to the wrong place?"

"We won't," Angel says, clearly ready to stop talking to Riley. "You wanted to help, right? You can help by getting in position and starting the incantation. That would be a good thing to do right about now."

One time, during basic training, when Riley was both a few years and many centuries younger, he was in combat exercises with Forrest. He remembers Forrest saying something the soliders used to yell in Vietnam: Kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out. Forrest was only joking then.

Don't think about that now, Riley tells himself. Besides, come on, it's a ghost. A ghost, for God's sake. You can't kill it; it's already dead. Certainly it should be okay to get rid of something that's dead --

Angel, the dead guy who saved his life last night, lifts up his candle and lights it. After one more moment's hesitation, Riley does the same.

Even as they do this, the electricity in the store fails. Just in the store --outside, the sign proclaiming the sale price of six-packs is still glowing. Inside, the only light is filtered from outside or from the candles.

Riley catches a glimpse of Angel's face and has to stop himself from reacting. In that first flash, he thinks Angel has vamped out; then he realizes that the play of light on Angel's face can change everything about the way he looks. With the angles of his face outlined in light, he looks older, suddenly -- some of those hidden centuries are visible now, as shadows. The shape of his face is as much animal as human. But his voice is steady as he says, "I shall confront and expel all evil."

"I shall confront and expel all evil," Riley repeats. Evil, the chant says. That means they'll only cast out evil spirits. A good spirit wouldn't be affected --would it?

"Out of marrow and bone --" Their voices overlap now, Angel's growing stronger as, out of nowhere, a breeze begins to blow. Riley tries to raise his voice as the breeze becomes a gale, but he can feel his throat constricting.

Don't, she had said. Yellow eyes shining up at him in the night, a bundle in her arms that might have been anything, anything at all, not necessarily a baby. Her quiet little voice rasped out, Please don't.

"Out of house and home --"

Riley gets out that word 'home,' and the wind goes mad. Displays of potato chips topple over. The stuff on the metal shelves -- BC Powders, packets of tissue, breath mints -- is sliding along, falling to the floor. Rolls of lottery tickets are unspooling behind the counter, curling up like vines. Somehow his and Angel's candles are still burning.

The ghost is fighting them, Riley realizes. But the ghost is losing --

Alone, Angel says, "Never to come here --"

Riley tackles him, hard, cutting off that last word and sending them both plowing into a wall of Dr. Pepper cans. They fall to the floor as the wind dies down to a flutter.

"What the hell are you doing?" Angel yells, all pretense at patience and cooperation gone.

"We can't do this!" Riley shouts over the din.

"You want to tell me why not?" Angel shoves Riley off him with far more force than is actually necessary.

"Because we don't know! We don't know if this ghost is a customer or a client --

"We know it's a GHOST --"

"We don't know if it's good or evil!" Riley finally gets out. "What if it's good, Angel? We can't do that! Not until we know!"

Angel regards him silently for a minute; Riley is very aware that he is shaking, that tears are in his eyes, and he hates the idea that Angel may see his weakness.

Finally, Angel says, "Riley -- the spirit's going to go wherever it was headed in the first place. If it's a good spirit, then we're doing a good thing. We're setting it free."

"How can you be sure?"

"That's the way it works. We can't send the spirit anyplace it's not meant to be."

This sounds reasonable. But all the explanations always sounded so reasonable; Riley was always too quick to believe. "Then why is the spirit fighting us?"

"They always fight," Angel says, his impatience returning. "They never want to move on, even if it's for the best. That's just how it is. Are you ready to help me now? Or can't you get up?"

He's seen the shaking. Bastard. Riley forces himself to his feet. "I can get up."

Angel lights the candles again, and they repeat, in unison this time, "I shall confront and expel all evil -- out of marrow and bone -- out of house and home -- never to come here again."

The wind goes out. That's it -- no incandescent light show, no explosion, nothing. After a moment, the lights flicker back on. Angel mutters a couple words in a language Riley doesn't know, then calls out, "Mr. Patel! I think we're done!"

Done. Just like that. And the ghost is --

"Gone," Riley says. "Just gone."

"Are you all right?" Angel says, and only when he hears it does Riley realize that no, he's nowhere close to all right. His knees are turning to water, and everything he's been running from for the past six weeks seems to be right there, staring at him, wearing a vampire's face. Riley shakes his head --answering aloud is beyond him at the moment -- and Angel says roughly, "Then go to the car. Sit down before you fall down."

Riley crosses the parking lot on shaking legs, slides into the Plymouth's seat, leans his head back to look at the sky. No stars. Just a dull, reddish glow. Far away, he can hear Latino music blaring from a passing car -- trumpets and drumbeats growing closer, then fading away. He breathes in sharply through his mouth, trying to calm himself.

After a few minutes, Angel comes out; he says nothing as he takes his place beside Riley and cranks the car. He puts the car in reverse -- then, before taking his foot off the brake -- puts it back in park. Slowly, calmly, almost as one might speak to a child, he says, "Do you want to tell me what's wrong?"

"Do you care?" Riley says.

"I want to help you," Angel says, which is not a yes. "I think it's important that I help you."

"I'm not your charity case."

"Keep it up, and you'll be somebody's charity case," Angel says. "Or maybe just a dead body. Is that what you're aiming for?"

"You'd like that," Riley says. "Wouldn't you?"

"If I wanted you dead, I would have left you to Drusilla," Angel says. "Are you going to tell me anything?"

What could Riley tell Angel? Many, many things that Angel wouldn't like. Riley would like to tell him what Buffy's like in bed -- really like, now that she's got some experience, some confidence. Angel got one night with her; Riley got one hundred, and he knows things about Buffy's body, her responses, her desires, that Angel does not and cannot know. Maybe Angel should hear about the lingerie she bought to celebrate Riley's birthday -- white silk, bra cups of translucent lace, skinny straps that fell right off her shoulders. Or maybe he'd prefer to know just how long it took her to learn to give the perfect blowjob, a skill she developed through practice Riley was only too glad to offer. That would wipe that sanctimonious, social-worker expression right off Angel's face, wouldn't it?

And if Riley thought that there had been even one of those hundred nights, just one time he'd made love to Buffy, that he could believe she wouldn't rather have been with Angel, he'd tell it all right now.

As it is, he remains silent.

Angel puts the car in reverse, takes them out on the streets. Riley at first thinks he's going to let this journey pass in silence, but finally Angel says, "I know what addiction does to you. I know that better than anybody. I -- I'm still mad about what you did to Buffy, but if you can't stop this, then you're sick. Not evil." Angel is saying all this in a tone of voice calculated to convince somebody, probably Angel himself. "If you want to beat this, you can."

"You think it's about the biting," Riley says dully.

"Isn't it?" Angel says. "Riley, what's wrong? Are you going to talk to me about this?"

Riley feels himself sinking even deeper into the darkness surrounding him, flowing through him. "No. I'm not going to talk."

Suddenly, unexpectedly, Angel smiles. "Have it your way."


Chapter 6: "Washed Away"

If Riley won't talk, Angel won't make him talk.

As he's learned over the past several months, there are better ways of getting information out of people.

"Like a rhinestone cowboy -- riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo," Riley sings, staring fixedly at the karaoke prompter. "Like a rhinestone cowboy, gettin' cards and letters from people I don't even know, and offers comin' over the phone --"

"You've got something very interesting here," the Host mutters. "How'd you come across him again?"

"Long story," Angel says. "You could say we have mutual friends."

The Host snorts. "Yeah, you could. But I'd prefer to say 'you guys have a big, bad jones for the same girl,' because it's just so much more -- what's the word? -- true." He takes a sip of his Sea Breeze as he shakes his head at Riley. "Still doesn't explain why you guys are hanging out, doing the club scene."

"And I dream of the things I'll do," Riley sings, "with a subway token and a dollar tucked inside my shoe --" His voice is better than Angel's, but that's the most that can be said for it, and Angel's keenly aware that's not much. When Angel sings, many patrons in the bar react poorly, to say the least, but most of them are just ignoring Riley. He has one table of fans -- a rowdy group of Velga demons who either love the singer, the song or the dozen-or-so Heinekens they've drunk.

Riley's shoulders are slumped, his eyes dull. When Angel has to sing, he's invariably panicked. Riley just looks miserable. He went on stage without even a complaint; he doesn't care whether or not he's being humiliated. He doesn't seem to care about much of anything.

Angel knows this feeling very well --

He looks away from Riley to see the Host smirking at him. "Counting up the similarities? There's more than you think, babe."

"He's nothing like me," Angel says. "Just because we might -- feel the same way sometimes -- that doesn't make us anything alike."

"No," the Host agrees. "That's not it at all." His red eyes glint at Angel in the darkness of the bar.

"I have to help him," Angel says. "I think it's a test, set by the Powers. If I'll do something for him, maybe that proves I'll do whatever the Powers ask from now on."

"Bullseye on the test," the Host says. "But as for the form it's going to take -- well, you seem to think it's multiple choice. Try essay, big guy."

Some of these phrases are familiar to Angel from listening to Buffy and Willow and Xander fret about their high-school exams, but whatever meaning the Host is attempting to communicate isn't getting through. Angel, used to not catching references, goes back to looking at Riley.

"Rhinestone Cowboy" doesn't come to a big finish; it just keeps repeating the lines about the star-spangled rodeo over and over. Riley looks a little confused about how to handle this, but he gamely keeps going until the backing track fades and the Host stands up to lead the applause. The Velga demons pound on the table. Angel doesn't clap.

"Wasn't that terrific, folks?" the Host proclaims as he steps up on stage and hugs Riley around the shoulders. Riley visibly flinches from the contact. "Nothing says country like songs about misplaced masculinity, huh? Unless it's songs about pickup trucks and beer. Speaking of beer -- two for one special during the break!"

Riley comes back to Angel's table, half-escorted, half-steered by the Host. He says, quietly, "Now I see why you wanted me to do this. Puts all your other problems in perspective." Angel smiles at the joke before he can stop himself.

The Host sits down and pats the chair between him and Angel; Riley takes his seat, looks sideways at the Host. "And you were able to read my mind while I was -- doing that?" He can't quite say "sing."

"I got a peek," the Host says. "Though it's difficult to make out anything in that jumble. You're a regular crazy-quilt of problems, you know that? I haven't seen anybody this mixed up in a while." He jabs a thumb at Angel. "Not since Desperado here came down from his fences and opened the gate."

"I did know that, actually," Riley says. "So, thanks but no thanks for the news flash."

"We're just trying to help," Angel says.

For the first time since the exorcism, Riley actually displays emotion; anger twists his face as he glares back at Angel. "And that makes you a really, really good person. Can we get this over with already?"

Angel feels his own anger sparking into flame, but the Host holds up one hand. "Now, now, lads. Please save the territorial chest-thumping for another encounter. We're here to figure out just why the Powers brought you two together."

"The Powers?" Riley says.

"The Powers That Be," Angel says. "They -- determine things. Shape our lives. They know the future, the past. They choose our destinies."

"You're right up until that last part," the Host says. "We choose our destinies, by and large. I mean, nobody actually chooses to be squashed by a malfunctioning cement mixer -- accidents do happen -- but we live in a world with free will." He sips his Sea Breeze again while looking back and forth from Angel to Riley. "We have choices to make. And sometimes we make the wrong ones, don't we?"

Riley's whole body goes tense; odd, since Angel is pretty sure that last comment is directed at himself. The Host leans forward and says, "Listen, soldier boy. I know you're not big on the idea of sharing your problems with Angel. But truth is, you already share them. The time has come to admit it out loud."

For some reason, Angel is overcome with the urge to spare Riley the agony of saying -- whatever it is the Host thinks he would say -- out loud. Or is it that he wants to spare himself from hearing it? "I already know," he says, apparently surprising Riley, who starts at his words. "I've seen the scars. I know what his problem is."

"You know one problem," the Host agrees. "But that's always been the symptom. Not the disease." He takes the final swig of his drink, sets it down. "I have to call an end to this break before the Velga demons bankrupt me on the cheap beer. So here's the scoop." The Host stands up, puts his hands on the table, leans forward right into Riley's face and says, "Tell Angel why you left the army. Tell him what happened in Belize."

Riley shoves himself away from the table; Angel is shocked to see how white his face is, how wide his eyes. His heartbeat accelerates, and Angel can smell that not-quite-fear that was on him back at the Hyperion. "To hell with you," Riley says, and runs to the side door of the club.

"What are you waiting for?" the Host says. "Go after him!"

Angel obediently gets up, but he does ask, "And do what?"

"Listen."


Angel jogs out into an alleyway that smells like garbage and looks worse. There, at the end of the alley, Riley is leaning against a chain-link fence; his hands grip the fence so fiercely his fingers have to hurt. At first Angel thinks Riley doesn't hear him, but as he comes closer, Riley says, "Get away from me."

"I'd like to," Angel admits. "But I think you should do what the Host suggested. Apparently that's why we've been brought together."

"Oh, right. Our destiny from the higher powers, who guide us through life. Do they carry us in times of trouble? Footprints in the sand?"

Angel has no idea what Riley's going on about, but he understands sarcasm well enough. "Sometimes they do intervene," he says quietly, remembering a Christmas morning when the world was made white with snow. "Sometimes they help."

"And sometimes they don't," Riley says, and his voice is thick now. "Sometimes the most horrible things happen, things you can't even bring yourself to think about, and they don't do anything about it. Do they just not care?"

"I don't know," Angel says as he steps closer. He's wondered about this himself. If the Powers are so interested in him now, why didn't they catch on to him two centuries ago? Why didn't they send his soul ahead of the gypsies, or stop him from being vamped in the first place, or just strike him dead? He's stopped looking for this particular answer. "But when they do send a message, it's usually a good idea to listen."

"And you're these gods' official emissary here on earth? Forgive my disbelief."

"I don't think that's it," Angel says, truthfully enough. He's close enough now that he could lay a comforting hand on Riley's shoulder; he doesn't. "At all. I just -- I don't want to question why. I just want to do whatever it is they want us to do." Because he's learned now, he's better, he will obey the Powers, and they will see that he has changed, and then Wesley and Cordelia and Gunn will call --

"You want to get this over with," Riley says. He turns around from the chain-link fence at last, and Angel is not surprised to see the tears in his eyes. "Fine then. Let's get it over with."

This sudden acquiescence catches Angel off-guard, and for a moment he's not sure what to say. Finally, he comes up with, "Tell me how this all started."

Faster than Angel would have thought possible, Riley lashes out, his fist catching Angel right in the jaw. The force of the blow sends them both falling to the pavement. Every instinct Angel possesses -- human or vampiric -- tells him to hit back, and harder. Instead, he glares up at Riley, who is on his knees, panting, as though that one act took the rest of his remaining strength. "What the hell is your problem?"

"You," Riley says. "It all started with you. No matter how much I loved Buffy --and I loved her so much -- she couldn't ever let me in. Because you hurt her so bad she couldn't stand the thought of letting anybody else hurt her again."

Angel wants this not to be true. Not that he hurt her -- that much is true, how well he knows it -- but that she can't trust again. Buffy is stronger than that, isn't she? He can't have crippled her forever.

"And she wouldn't let me into that world. The demons and the vampires and the curses and the spells -- she wouldn't talk to me about it. She said I didn't need to know."

Riley's breathing is ragged now, but he keeps going. "And see, that's the weird part. Because she always hated the army, hated that I was a part of it, but she treated me the exact same way they did. That's what the officers would always tell me, what Dr. Walsh always told me -- you don't need to know that. You know your mission. You know your duty. Carry it out. And I did. I did what I was supposed to do, and I did it better than anybody, and I was sure that we were right."

He pauses to gulp in some air; Angel pushes himself into a sitting position so that they are facing one another. Riley won't quite make eye contact, but he keeps talking, as if he can't push the information out fast enough. "One night Buffy and I were out patrolling, and we found these demons -- dark blue skin, and lots of black hair, and raspy voices --"

"Poveni demons," Angel supplies automatically.

Riley closes his eyes for a minute. "That's right. That's the name. I -- I couldn't remember the -- anyway. We were patrolling, and we found them camped out in this abandoned warehouse, and I wanted to attack. But Buffy said not to worry, that they would never hurt us. I mean, how can you know? How can you know if something like that would ever hurt you?"

"Poveni are peaceful," Angel says. "They feed off magnetic currents. The most they'd ever do to a human is throw off a compass, and even that would be an accident."

This is still just information, devoid of meaning, something Angel is supplying just to fill in the gaps. But whatever he's just said has been the wrong thing; Riley crumples, slumps over so that his head nearly touches the ground. "Oh, God," he says, the tone of his voice suggesting that this is not an empty phrase; Riley wishes that something, anything, would hear him. "Oh, God, no."

Riley is crying now, and Angel should feel embarrassed or awkward. Instead, he is overcome with the certainty that he must find out the rest of what Riley has to say. "What did you and Buffy do?"

"Nothing," Riley whispers. "We didn't do anything. And she didn't tell me anything more about them. Not even the magnet thing -- why didn't she tell me that? Why couldn't she just tell me that one thing?"

"Why does it matter?"

Riley finally looks up at Angel then, and Angel is startled to see the depth of the misery in his eyes. "After Buffy and I -- after that, I went back to the army. I figured, at least they needed me. At least they'd give me something to do, something worthwhile. And they said there were all these nests down in Central America. They needed people to deal with it. People with experience. So I figured everything I'd been through was worth something after all."

Angel hasn't spent a lot of time in Central America, but he knows plenty of vampires who have. It's warm down there, and less heavily policed than North America or Europe. Good hunting can be had if you want it, and most vampires do. "I'm sure there was a lot for you to do."

"At first it was all just the way it was supposed to be. Just the way they always said it would be. We were a team, and we would find our targets, and we would take them out. Being with my friends again helped a lot. I -- I was able to stop going to the vampires. I had thought I never would be able to stop, but I did. And I thought about how stupid it was, the way Buffy and I fell apart. Her birthday was coming up, and I thought, you know -- maybe I could send her a card or a letter. Just say -- say that I was sorry, that so much of what I said was wrong, that I'd gotten better, and that -- if she wanted --"

Buffy's birthday was almost six weeks ago. Angel doesn't try to reach her on her birthdays, because he can only remind her of the one birthday she would probably most like to forget. But he remembers the day, and imagines her having better times, surrounded by Willow and Xander and presents and cake. It helps. "Did you write to her?"

Riley shakes his head. "A few days before -- we were out on a patrol. In the jungle -- I mean, the depths of it, no villages, no nothing, just vines and trees and snakes. I thought we were wasting our time."

His voice is calmer now, more steady that it has been in a while now. But Angel thinks this is not necessarily a good sign; Riley is staring at him with unnerving eyes. "But we came across this -- nest or village or whatever. With these demons -- Poveni demons?" When Angel nods, Riley goes on, "There were a couple dozen of them. And they were -- they were so scared --"

Riley's hand clamps around Angel's forearm, so tightly it's hard to remember he's merely human. The pressure actually hurts, but Angel doesn't pull away. "They ran. We mobilized, ran after them. They had an underground lair -- I was the one who found the door and pulled it open. I was the one who found them. And I should have called for the others, but I didn't -- I didn't --"

Angel is going numb -- not just on his pressurized arm, but through the rest of his body, as Riley continues.

Because now, at last, he's beginning to realize why the Powers have brought them together.

"They looked up at me, and this one -- a female -- she begged me not to --" Riley is crying now in earnest. "She begged me not to do anything, and I didn't do anything. I just stood there with my gun in my hands and looked at them. And I remembered what Buffy said, but I still didn't understand why, and I -- I didn't trust my judgment enough to come out and call them off. Because I didn't understand enough to do that, to do anything. But then the others found us."

"The members of your unit. The other soldiers," Angel says, in a voice that seems to come from very far away.

Riley nods. His cheeks are shining in the light from the streetlamp. "They came in and they just started shooting. They cut them all down, and it didn't matter that they screamed and screamed. I could feel my gun in my hands, and I knew I was supposed to fire. I couldn't fire, and I couldn't yell for them to stop. So I just -- I just -- I climbed out and I shut the door behind me."

Angel remembers his hands pushing shut the doors to Holland Manners' wine cellar. Remembers the heavy brass lock sliding through his hands.

"I just stood there and listened to them scream, until there wasn't any more screaming --"

Angel could still hear screams as he went up the stairs. They were fading out as he stepped over the just-dead body of Mrs. Manners, but he still doesn't know if that was because Dru and Darla's victims were all dying or just because he was putting so much distance between them. He's pretty sure he stepped over a hobbyhorse on the way out. He'd never thought about Holland Manners having a child. He didn't think about it much at the time, either.

"They all died," Riley finally choked out. "They weren't people -- but they weren't animals, either. They could feel fear and pain, and they died because I didn't do anything. That night I handed in my resignation, and they flew me to L.A. to catch a flight back to Iowa -- but I didn't catch it. I couldn't look at my mother after that. I just wanted to disappear. And I did disappear."

For the past months, Angel has simply not thought about what he did, or didn't do, that night at Holland Manners'. Now, though, there's no running from it; the Powers have spoken to him, using the voice of Riley Finn, and reminded him about what he truly did that night he fell from grace. He knew it was wrong all along -- knew it even as he locked that door behind him -- but he didn't care. And since then he's had too much to think about, too much to contend with, to picture what happened behind the doors.

Why did he think his redemption was only a matter of mending fences with his friends? That long list of crimes he must atone for is even longer now; there are new faces to pass before his eyes as he tries to sleep each morning. Angel would never, ever have thought of his baby sister and Holland Manners in the same way, but now they belong together, eternally tethered by their shared deaths, the shared blame.

For a moment he opens himself up to it, feels a fraction of the pain and loss and hopelessness those people might have felt as he shut the doors. They were part of Wolfram & Hart, and maybe they knew the risks they were taking, deserved that much or worse. But maybe they didn't, and it wasn't Angel's place to judge.

Because he did, they're dead and gone.

Angel puts his face down in his hands, and for a few long minutes, he and Riley are both silent. Riley has stopped crying, and Angel doesn't think he's going to start, though it's a near thing. Probably they look like two drunks who have staggered into the alley to pass out.

Finally, Angel takes a deep breath -- just to clear his head -- and looks up. He is a man too used to guilt to let this destroy him; this is just one of the many burdens he'll be carrying for a long, long time to come. He can't change it now; all he can do is remember it, keep it close, learn from it. He had been in danger of forgetting, before Riley came along.

All this time he'd thought he was supposed to be helping Riley, and it's the other way around.

Riley looks at him for a minute. "What's the matter?"

Angel debates whether it would be better to tell Riley the whole truth or not; would it help him to hear it, or would Angel just be pushing his burdens off on a man who's already burdened enough? He settles for the middle road. "You're not alone, you know. What you've done, I've done."

"Killed people."

"And let them be killed. Both without my soul and with it." Riley's eyes widen slightly at this, but he says nothing. "After you -- wake up -- you don't want to face what you've done. You want to hide from it. You think you can just disappear, that if you don't matter anymore -- maybe what you did won't matter either. But it will."

Riley nods slowly, hearing this, accepting it, even as Angel does. Angel continues, "I used to think that maybe if I suffered the way my victims suffered, that this would help me atone for what I'd done. But the only way to pay off the debts of the past is with a different future -- a future that means something, for you and the people around you. And you have to work to create that. The one thing you can't do is disappear. That would be just one more crime, one more murder. Don't let it happen. You want to finally take a stand, well, take it now."

They consider that in silence for a while. Riley finally seems to pull himself together, to realize that it's Angel he's poured his heart out to, who's been lecturing him. He smiles wryly -- but the sentiment seems to be real. There's no bite to the sarcasm when he says, "You get paid for these platitudes?"

"It's a living," Angel replies in kind. "Which is sort of ironic, if you think about it."

Riley actually laughs at this, and they help each other to their feet, and they go back into Caritas, where the Host beams at them while belting out a killer version of "Last Dance." They drink two beers each and listen to the Velga demons bellow something that might be "My Way" and drive home through a night that is pleasantly cool, though Angel did not notice it before. They say very little to each other, but it is the closest thing to companionship Angel has known in far too long.


Chapter 7: "Oh Happy Day"

"I bet I know what you're thinking," Gunn says.

Wesley makes no reply. This is partly because he's concentrating on holding himself as still as possible; Gunn has made many modifications to his vehicle over the years, but apparently putting in decent shock absorbers was a low priority. And the roads in this part of town do not seem to be in the best repair. Therefore this trip is not ideal for a man still recovering from a gunshot wound.

This is also partly because he's pretty sure Gunn does, in fact, know what he's thinking.

"You're thinking that you are the only white man in a five-mile radius," Gunn says.

"Not at all," Wesley protests automatically, though Gunn is fairly close. The difference that nags at him as they drive past people standing on street corners or leaning out windows -- that's something that goes far deeper than the skin. It's not race, but class, that sets Wesley apart from these people.

Cordelia would laugh at him for this, Wesley thinks. He can just hear her. "Weren't you the guy who lived off leftover hors d'oeuvres for two months? You're not exactly Donald Trump, you know."

But Cordelia is an American, and she thinks that class is a matter of bank accounts rather than breeding. Wesley knows better. Class is more than wealth; it is an entire way of looking at the world, of estimating your worth and that of those around you, of forming your expectations. The last two years have taught him a great deal about poverty, and Wesley does not expect to ever be rich again unless his father, during some uncharacteristic burst of generosity, puts Wesley back in his will before dying. But he will be upper-class his entire life, and upper-class is exactly what this neighborhood is not.

"Have it your way," Gunn says, sunnily enough. He's apparently getting a kick out of this; the man takes a perverse pleasure in taking Wesley out of his depths. If Wesley were any less fond of Gunn, this would be annoying in the extreme. As it is, Wesley just sighs and concentrates on keeping still.

It helps him to keep from thinking about the vote this morning.

Short straw. Wesley chose the short straw, and he has no regrets, he tells himself firmly. None.

It isn't that he doesn't want Angel back -- he does, way down deep, in an almost desperate, craven way. Angel was the one who gave him a chance when no one else would, the one who trusted him and gave him some credit before anybody else. Angel remembers Wesley at his very worst, and yet he chose not to remember that --

Wesley cuts off that line of thinking, forces himself to remember the cold, forbidding figure who barged into their offices to threaten them. To think about yellowing old texts in the Council library that talked about a killer who liked to carve a cross into the flesh of his victims, one final act of pain and defilement before they died.

That is the Angel who has dominated most of the past 250 years. And that is the Angel who must never be near them, not ever again.

Angel's humble, bowed head flashes before him briefly; he doesn't seem to be the same person at all as the one Wesley's so scared of. Gunn's words from before ring in his ears: Angel's trying to live right.

Wesley has no more use for trying.

Gunn cuts the wheels and pulls into a driveway. "Here we go, now," Gunn says, then leans out his open window to call. "Mama Jeane? Who's home?"

The house is tiny, and the roof is low, with shingles that have seen too many years. Each window is covered with scrolling ironwork, twisted into curlicues meant to disguise the fact that these are burglar bars. But the paint is fresh, brilliant sunshine-yellow, and behind all those burglar bars are curtains that gleam white in the twilight. Despite the surroundings, Wesley immediately understands that this is a happy home.

Some clicking behind the door -- the unfastening of locks, Wesley realizes --and suddenly people begin to pour out. Two little children come first, yelling, "Charlie! Charlie!" Gunn shoots Wesley a sideways glance; Wesley is, by now, adept enough in reading Gunn's expressions to know this means the name 'Charlie' is never to be used anywhere else, least of all by Wesley himself.

A teenage girl appears next and waves at them from the porch. "About time! We haven't seen you in a month of Sundays."

"I know it," Gunn says apologetically. "Where's Mama Jeane?"

"Look who's come home," says a soft voice from the doorway. And out steps a old woman -- not extremely aged, but gray-haired and stooped nonetheless. She is leaning on a metal cane, one of those with a four-footed stand at the very bottom. Her housedress is bright with blue flowers. "Charles. Give your Mama Jeane a kiss."

Gunn obeys instantly, shrugging off the two kids who had attached themselves to his Lakers sweatshirt. The children immediately notice Wesley and stare at him. Wesley smiles a bit awkwardly. "Hello there," he says, forcing a little cheeriness into his voice.

It doesn't work. They just keep staring. Wesley has never been much with children.

"I don't know why, but I thought you might come by tonight," Mama Jeane says with that soft voice. "Made your favorite. Turkey and dressing."

"Yes!" Gunn says with fists in the air, winning laughter from Mama Jeane and the teenage girl.

Mama Jeane then looks over at Wesley. "Who have you brought for dinner?"

"This is Wesley," Gunn says, holding out one hand to present Wesley as though he were a game-show prize. "He works with me at the detective agency. Best friend in the world." He tosses the phrase off so lightly that he can have no idea how glad Wesley is to hear it.

Wesley walks to the porch, using his own cane as little as possible, and holds out his hand to shake. Mama Jeane takes it in her own -- her skin is as soft as a baby's -- and keeps it for a minute as she looks into his eyes. Her own gaze is steady, searching, and Wesley is overcome with a feeling he's only had a couple of times in his life -- at Oxford, when first conferring with a fearsome don in the history department, and at the Council, when meeting the Watcher who would choose who entered the training program and who did not. In other words, Wesley is keenly aware that he is faced with a formidable personality and searching intelligence.

But this is the first time he has not been found wanting. Mama Jeane smiles, an expression of such warmth that Wesley feels himself starting to grin in return. "Do you like dressing?" she says.

"Is that stuffing?" Wesley says, completely forgetting all the pleasure-to-meet-you niceties.

"Not quite," Mama Jeane says, bringing her hand up to his shoulder to draw him inside. "But you've got the right idea."

And so it is no more than five minutes later that they are all seated around a table in Mama Jeane's tiny kitchen. The table is lightweight with metal legs, and it would easily slide on the linoleum floor were it not laden down with so much food. Turkey and a pan of dressing are on the table, as are string beans and pecan pie. A few casserole dishes are heaped high with stuff Wesley does not recognize but, from the aroma, is eager to try. Right in front of him is a small gravy boat and a basket of rolls.

Just as Wesley prepares to take the first roll, Mama Jeane says, "Now take hands." Abashed, Wesley holds the hands of those around him -- Gunn on his left, the little girl named Martha on his right -- and bows his head as Mama Jeane prays. "Our Heavenly Father, thank you so for the blessings we have received and the good food on this table. Thank you for keeping us all safe, and bringing Charles back to us this evening. And thank you for letting us have our new friend Wesley with us tonight. In Jesus' name we pray."

Everyone says amen and, with no more ceremony, begins digging in. Wesley has only recently gotten the doctor's go-ahead to eat whatever he wishes, but he hasn't been taking advantage of the freedom. He's had little enough appetite, these past few weeks. But now he starts piling his plate high; the food laid before him just smells too good to even think of passing up. He wonders if perhaps he's being greedy when little Martha stares up at him, but then she says, "You don't talk like we do. Where are you from?"

"I'm from England," Wesley offers, studying the gravy boat for a minute before dousing his rolls with the stuff.

Martha grins. "I never met anybody from another whole country before."

"That's not true, baby," Mama Jeane says. "You remember Mr. Eduardo from the market, don't you? He is from Guatemala." She says this very carefully, pronouncing the country's name just so. "We can look that up in the atlas tonight, maybe."

"So how did you end up working with this fool?" says the teenage girl, Debra, as she nudges Gunn hard in the shoulder.

He nudges back and smiles at Wesley. "It's a long story, ain't it? Why don't you tell the people?"

Wesley would like to glare at Gunn, who has successfully avoided making up a cover story that doesn't include any of the real details of their work. Now it's up to Wesley to come up with a version of events that doesn't involve Angel.

And there he goes, thinking about Angel again. The sooner he can stop that, the better.

Wesley takes a bite of one gravy-soaked roll just to buy himself a moment to think --

-- and in that moment, the gravy hits Wesley's tongue, and he realizes that every bite of English food he has ever taken was a just a pale imitation of what food could and should actually be, but that his long deprivation is over at last --

"Mama Jeane!" protests the little boy, Cedric. "We're not supposed to have our mouths that full at the table!"

Before Wesley can even be embarrassed, Mama Jeane laughs. "Special exception if you're really hungry. And I think Wesley is. Aren't you, honey?"

Wesley nods and keeps eating. Gunn rolls his eyes, but he too is tucking into the dressing with enjoyment. "You're having dinner awful early tonight, aren't you?"

"We have a visiting pastor," Mama Jeane says placidly. "So services start a little earlier tonight. He's supposed to be very deep in the Word, Charles. I'm glad you two will get to hear him."

"We -- um --" Gunn's eyes are a little wide, and Wesley realizes that that this is a trap Mama Jeane has been waiting to spring for a while. Gunn tries to escape. "I'm not dressed for church. Look at this sweatshirt. I mean, c'mon."

"I know it must be comfortable," Mama Jeane says. "But it wouldn't do you harm to try and spruce yourself up a bit from time to time. Your friend certainly knows how to look nice." Wesley feels unduly proud of himself -- a bit like the favorite child, or the way he imagines that would feel.

"Don't worry about that sweatshirt," Debra says. "Luke left a sweater over here that ought to do you just fine."

Gunn tries one last time. "I'm sure Wesley doesn't want to --"

"It's all right," Wesley says. "Thank you for inviting me."

Gunn shoots him a look. Wesley ignores him and digs further into a casserole that has lifted the humble carrot to loftier heights. He has known Mama Jeane for only a few minutes, and he already knows he would do almost anything before letting Mama Jeane down.


An hour and a half later, Wesley is wishing he could have let her down.

What's his problem? Well, for one, he had just felt too upper-class for his surroundings. Now, in this church, Wesley is the whitest white man who has ever walked the face of the earth, and he is sure that he stands out like a spotlight. This discomfort is relatively minor, though. Mama Jeane has attached herself firmly to his arm, despite the fact that his crutch means he is poor support for her. And apparently where Mama Jeane approves, few will disapprove; Wesley's been smiled at more in the past fifteen minutes than he has in -- well, perhaps ever.

The main difficulty is the fact that he has to listen to this sermon. Wesley's entire religious upbringing was an exercise in hypocrisy. His father had said that religion was bunk, a bunch of fairy tales made up for the many who could not bear the darker truths of the supernatural world. They had attended services only as a matter of keeping up appearances, and this they had done faithfully, once a week, every week, until Wesley went to university and put such things behind him. Although Wesley has never shared his father's venom toward religion, he's never had any curiosity about it either.

But then, he's associated religion with the Church of England, and an enormous, cold room with vaulted ceilings and stone floors, and sermons that consist of so much droning. His key memories of church are of pews that hurt his knees and shiny new shoes that hurt his feet and a deep, somnolent silence.

Not this --

"Do you FEEL the spirit deep inside you?" the preacher cries.

The crowd roars, and some people even spring to their feet. They don't just answer the question -- they call to God, they praise him, they are unashamed of their voices or their bodies. They are transported by something -- some feeling that is sadly foreign to Wesley -- and he feels more the outsider than ever because of it.

"You can't feel that spirit when you let hatred inside your heart," the preacher says, shaking his head. Some people shout, no, no. The preacher continues his pacing in the front of the room -- a tiny chapel that, Wesley was astonished to see, was set up in the back of a strip mall. Instead of a small, quiet man with a meek voice and meeker disposition, this preacher is an imposing figure. He is both tall and broad, and he is wearing not vestments but a black suit. He paces the whole time he talks, flipping his microphone cord out of his way as he turns, as though he had too much energy stored in his body to even think about standing still.

"No, you can't. You have to be open to Christ's love to feel that spirit. You have to let GO of all the things standing between you and God. All that hate and anger you got bottled up inside you -- you got to let it go. All that fear you have about what the day may bring -- you got to let it go. All that pride that keeps you from coming before God, telling him your burdens --"

"You got to let it go!" The audience has caught the chorus now, and Wesley is startled when Gunn, Mama Jeane and the kids shout it out too.

"You have to open yourself up to His love!" the preacher yells. "Are you READY for the love of God?"

The crowd is cheering now, and the preacher motions to the choir -- a surprisingly large number of people, all of whom are in brilliant red-and-yellow robes. Debra, who is sitting up front at an electronic keyboard, begins to play a tune Wesley does not recognize. He is apparently the only one, though, as everyone else gets to their feet with the choir and begins stepping back and forth to the beat. The only ones left seated are Wesley and Mama Jeane, their two canes on either side of them.

"Oh happy day -- Oh happy day --"

The choir is amazing, Wesley thinks. They're not only in perfect tune but bringing forth levels of harmony he'd never thought to hear in from amateurs, much less a group in this tiny place. The crowd chimes in, even Gunn with his ragged voice, all of them calling out the words.

"When Jesus washed -- washed my sins away --"

In his ear, Mama Jeane whispers, "Aren't you going to sing, honey?"

"I don't know the words." Besides, it's better just to listen. Not to ruin it with his own wretched singing.

Mama Jeane takes a mimeographed sheet from the empty chair next to her and holds it out. There are the words to the hymn, printed in the honest-to-God purple of a mimeograph, a machine Wesley had thought was all but extinct. "Here you go. Let's us sing together."

The crowd around them cries out, "He taught me how to wash, to wash --"

"I can't," Wesley says, feeling suddenly small.

"Why can't you?"

The crowd sings, "To fight and pray, fight and pray --"

Wesley tries to think of an excuse, then just blurts out the truth. "I can't sing at all, really. I'm no good at it."

"Oh, baby. God doesn't care if you're any good at it," Mama Jeane says softly. "He only cares that you try."

"And He taught me how to live rejoicing, yes, He did --"

Mama Jeane's words run together with the words of the song -- for one moment, it seems as though she is a part of the song -- and Wesley unexpectedly feels a lump in his throat.

All that fear and anger rush out of him, and he is open to something -- maybe it's the love of God, maybe it's just the emotion in the room, or maybe it's something else altogether.

But it is with joy in his heart, and confidence in his future, that Wesley finally begins to sing.

"Oh, happy day --"


Wesley visits at Mama Jeane's for a good hour after the service is over, and it is only after much laughter and many glasses of iced tea that Gunn is able to tow him out to the truck. Mama Jeane waves at them from the porch, a child tucked under each arm.

"You bring Wesley back real soon," Mama Jeane admonishes Gunn. "He could use some fattening up."

"Won't take him long, the way he eats," Cedric says, and it is a measure of how comfortable Wesley already feels with them that he joins in the general laughter.

"We'll be back real soon," Gunn promises. "G'night, Mama Jeane. Love you."

"Love you too, baby. Bye now."

Wesley keeps waving after her until the truck turns the corner. "Ain't she something?" Gunn says, grinning over at him.

"Indeed," Wesley says. "I really would like to come back sometime."

"Name the day," Gunn says. "And, oh, man, someday we gotta spring Cordy on 'em."

Wesley laughs, but already his mind is turning to more serious subjects. "Speaking of Cordelia, did you bring your cell phone tonight? I've forgotten mine."

"I got it," Gunn says, motioning toward the glove compartment. "What? You gonna call Cordy, tell her she missed out on some mean sweet-potato casserole?"

"You're right about the first part," Wesley says, dialing Cordelia's number almost without thinking about it.

She answers on the second ring, and her voice is slightly tinny. "Hello?"

"Cordelia? It's Wesley."

"Oh, right. Yeah. I was hoping to talk to you --"

Her voice is a little strange, but Wesley barely even registers that as he says, "Good news."

She hesitates before asking, "What's that?"

"You needn't worry about your vote. About Angel, I mean. I -- I've changed my mind."

Gunn stares over at him, but Wesley ignores this. Cordelia says, "What does that mean?"

Stupid, to insist on anonymous voting and then forget about it. "Cordelia, I was the 'no' vote. But I've changed my mind. I'm willing to take Angel on."

She is silent for a moment, and Wesley continues, "I know it won't be easy. I know it won't ever be the same. But we just can't let our fears about the past control us forever. I'm still mad as hell, but -- I'm willing to try to remember the good. And maybe we can take it from there. So don't tie yourself up in knots any longer."

"Gotcha," Cordelia says. Her voice is definitely dull now.

Wesley frowns. "Is something else the matter?"

"It's -- it's just that --" She seems to brighten. "I got the commercial."

"That's marvelous!" He takes the receiver from his face, says to Gunn, "Cordelia got the part!"

"Outstanding!" Gunn yells, and honks the horn once in general celebration, earning glares from some passers-by.

"Well, that's splendid news. Splendid. I suppose things are looking up at that."

"Guess so," Cordelia says, her enthusiasm still muted. "I'm glad --"

"Yes?"

"I'm glad the decision's made," she says. "See you tomorrow."

The phone clicks off, and Wesley is pretty sure something's off with Cordy's reaction, but he'll worry about that later. Gunn is shaking his head as he smiles and says to Wesley, "Leave it to Mama Jeane."

"She's quite a woman," Wesley says.

"Yeah, we gotta take Cordy by there sometime," Gunn says.

"Or Angel," Wesley offers. "What do you think Mama Jeane would make of Angel?"

Gunn looks skeptical, but he smiles as he says, "Might be worth finding out."


Chapter 8: "For Her"

Riley stares at his image in the bathroom mirror. Amazing, the things he takes for granted every day -- his life, his heartbeat, his reflection.

He's spent most of the past six months trying not to look too closely at his own face, his own eyes. But he can do it now, and even though he doesn't like everything he sees, he's grateful not to take the ability for granted any more.

The t-shirt he's wearing now is one of Angel's, plain white cotton, exactly what he would buy for himself. Angel insisted that he take it; this morning was all about Angel being in hyper-considerate mode, at least until Riley told him to knock it off. Angel seemed more relieved than annoyed, but he did persist in giving Riley the t-shirt. Although Riley would be fine with wearing what he's had on the past few days, Angel seems quite certain that a fresh change of clothing is in order today.

And maybe he's right at that.

Riley finishes combing his still-damp hair, grabs his jacket up from the chair and heads to the lobby. As he descends the Hyperion's grand staircase, he sees Angel working in the office, pulling out manila folders. "Whatcha looking at?" he calls.

Angel doesn't look up. He would, of course, have heard Riley long ago. "Checking some old files. Trying to figure out how they were organized."

"Aren't files usually in alphabetical order?" Riley says as he walks up to the counter. "Or is that not a vampire thing?"

"It's not a Cordelia thing," Angel says. The name is vaguely familiar to Riley -- someone Xander used to date, maybe? -- but the sadness in Angel's expression keeps him from asking further.

Angel seems to shake off his reverie, takes in the fact that Riley is wearing his jacket, ready to go outside. "Headed out?"

"Yeah. I've got a place in town -- a room in a hotel. It's not much." This is the simplest way Riley can think of to say that he's been living in a dive, and that it's a miracle his stuff hasn't been stolen a long time since. "I'm just going back to grab my stuff, pay up my last week's rent."

"Weekly rents are not one of the signs of a good neighborhood," Angel says. "You were risking your life even when you slept."

No doubt about that. Riley says, "I probably should have thanked you for saving me from that vampire back when you actually did it."

"You were too busy passing out at the time."

"Thanks," Riley says, but he's smiling. The shadow of a grin on Angel's face reminds him a little of the way Graham or Forrest used to tease him, back in simpler days. "I mean it."

"I guess I should thank you," Angel says. "I needed to think about somebody besides myself for a while. I've been trying, but -- it's easier when someone's actually here to be thought about. Is that making sense?"

"Kinda. This is about your friends? The ones you used to work with?" When Angel nods, Riley says, "What happened?"

"I let them down. I stopped doing what I needed to be doing, left them behind so I could chase after --"

The quiet goes on for a long time. Finally, Riley says, "Chase after what?"

"I thought I knew," Angel says quietly. He is no longer looking at Riley; his eyes are focused on something in the distance, in the past. "But now --" A moment longer and he shakes his head, turns back to Riley. "Need anything else?"

"Two thousand dollars in cash, a vintage Ferrari and a rubdown by the Laker Girls," Riley says. "But I'll settle for a ride to my place."

"Bright, sunny day out there," Angel says. "Friends don't let friends drive aflame."

"You keep a phone book," Riley points out. "I was thinking I'd call a cab."

Angel hands over the phone, stands close enough to Riley to supply the Hyperion's address when needed. After Riley hangs up, he expects Angel to ask something basic about when the car will arrive, but he doesn't. After a moment's pause, Angel simply says, "I figure it's up to you, how much to tell her."

"What's that?" Riley has no intention of telling his mother any of this, ever.

"Everything that's happened here," Angel says. "Buffy's got to know at least some of it, eventually. But that's really between the two of you now." The muscles of his jaw are tense beneath his seemingly calm face. "You can decide what to tell her, when to tell her. I'm staying out of it."

Riley stares at Angel in complete disbelief. "You think I'm going back to Sunnydale?"

Angel stares at Riley in complete disbelief. "You aren't?"

"I'm going back to Iowa. To my parents. They've been worried sick. I -- I haven't called much, and when I did --" Riley trails off, thinking about his mom's jittery gossip about his high-school classmates, his dad's too-jovial questions about basketball games Riley's supposed to care about. He's known they were hurting, but instead of alleviating their pain, he's used it to add onto his own. That stops today, too. "Anyway, I'll figure out what to do once I get there. For now I just need a little time to touch base."

"But after that, you'll go to Sunnydale," Angel says matter-of-factly.

"I might end up passing through one day," Riley says. "There's some stuff I should say. Some apologies I'm really overdue for. But if you mean that I'm going back to Buffy -- no. I'm not."

Angel frowns -- not in anger, but just in total incomprehension. Riley realizes, with something halfway between envy and pity, that Angel literally cannot envision a reality in which a man who had loved Buffy could go back to her, but would choose not to. It doesn't compute.

Finally, Angel says, "If you think she wouldn't forgive you, you're wrong. If she could forgive me, then --"

"It's not that," Riley says. "Buffy and I never --" He pauses for a minute; it hurts to admit this to Angel -- hell, it still hurts to admit it to himself --but at this point, the least of what he owes Angel is the truth. "Buffy never loved me. And I don't think I ever understood her, not really. I thought I had her figured out, but the more time that goes on, the more I see I was wrong."

Angel is quiet again, but this time his hands are literally gripping the edge of his desk. Finally, so roughly that his voice shakes, he says, "You're wrong."

"That's what I was saying --"

"No. I mean, about Buffy never loving you. She does love you. She told me so, when she was in L.A. last spring. She told me that she really trusted you, and that she loved you."

The confession spills out of Angel like blood from a wound, and for one moment, Riley feeds off it -- Buffy loves me, she loves me, she told Angel she loves me. It cost Angel to say this, cost him dearly, and for a moment that just makes it all the sweeter --

-- and then Riley remembers Buffy turning away to stare out the passenger-side window, brushing off his questions, rolling over to sleep on the far side of the bed. The truth is stronger than words.

"You guys were fighting, weren't you? When she told you that?" When Angel nods, Riley sighs. "She'll say anything during a fight."

"Yeah, I know," Angel says. "But I don't think she would have said that if she didn't mean it."

"If she'd meant it, she would have said it to me, too, don't you think?"

"But you have to --"

"Angel, no," Riley says. He can't stand it anymore -- the desperate earnestness of Angel's words, the painful echo of his own lost hopes. "I get that you're trying to do the right thing here. But I'm right about this. I was with her for a long time, and if she'd ever loved me -- if I'd even been able to convince myself she might love me -- it would be different. But it's not."

Angel is looking at him sadly now; he believes Riley at last. Riley laughs once, a half-sigh, and says, "You could have her heart, but not her body. I could have her body, but not her heart. Who's got it tougher, huh? Me or you?"

"Neither of us," Angel says quietly. "It's hardest for her."

Riley is surprised by that, by the truth of it. In all his misplaced anger, he's never stopped to think about how confusing and painful this all is for Buffy herself. Angel can't think of anything else.

A couple years ago, Riley read a magazine article about Nelson Mandela that talked about the decades the man had spent in a jail cell. Once Mandela was free, and the president of his country, he could have lived in any sort of place he wanted. But Mandela chose for his room a replica of his jail cell --apparently, after so many years, nothing else felt like home.

Riley has come to think of his memories of Sunnydale, of Buffy, as being a kind of prison he had walled himself into. For the first time, he realizes that Angel has done this too -- but for him, the prison is also a home. He's more comfortable there, with his old memories and old regrets. And Angel will keep that prison ever ready and clean and new, always prepared to welcome another chapter, another day.

But as far as Riley's concerned, one year in jail is enough.

"Then she deserves a fresh start," Riley says quietly. "So do I. And -- and so do you."

It's Angel's turn to laugh ruefully. "I don't get a fresh start."

And, to judge by what Riley's heard of Angel's curse, this much is true. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay," Angel says. "I mean -- I know what you meant."

The cab honks its horn, and Riley shrugs the jacket a little more tightly around himself. He looks into Angel's eyes, but isn't sure what to say. Angel ruined his life and saved it. Angel has wounded him and healed him. Riley never expects to see Angel again, unless they're both up against the end of the world. There's not really a Hallmark card for the occasion. To judge by Angel's own silence, he's similarly stumped.

Finally, Riley says, "Take care of yourself."

It's a simple enough phrase, but for some reason it seems to strike a chord. "I will," Angel says. "You too."

Just as Riley turns toward the door, the phone rings, and he glances over his shoulder to see Angel picking up the receiver. Seconds later, Angel's face lights up in a smile the likes of which Riley had never, ever thought to see on his face. "You're sure? No, no, that's great. I mean, Wes, I'm really -- okay, sure, we can talk about it, whenever -- well, whatever works for Cordy -- okay, okay. Do you want to use your new offices, or will you -- Oh, no. Coming back here would be great. Just -- great."

Never too late to start over, Riley thinks. Not for Angel. And not for me.

He smiles as he walks out into the new day, into the light.

THE END


The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes...

Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
    -- William Shakespeare, "The Merchant of Venice"


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