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Termination

by Yahtzee

From: <Yahtzee63@aol.com>
Subject: ATS: "Termination" by Yahtzee NC17 Date: Thursday, March 06, 2003 7:22 PM

The characters and situations herein are the property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, 20th Century Fox, etc.; they are used without permission, intent of infringement or expectation of profit. The following story is male/male slash and is rated NC17 for language and violent and sexual content. If you are underage, uninterested in homoerotic content, easily disturbed and/or my friends Rodney and Jesse, you should read no further. This episode takes place just before, during and immediately after the Season Four episode "Calvary" and contains spoilers through that point.

Constructive comments about the story are very welcome. Character-, relationship-, season-, plotline- or show-bashing are not. Err on the side of caution. Please send comments to Yahtzee63@aol.com. All thanks to those who read and gave advice: Rheanna, Corinna, Deepa and everyone at the Angel Fanfic Workshop. This is for Karen, the Fabulista, who loves ATS, calls me screaming happily after the credits roll and is in all other ways a joy.

Summary: "Good question," Lilah replies. "The only answers I have for you are that it's big, it's got horns, and it's fond of gouging out your intestines while you're still alive. And guess what's best of all, Lindsey? It's coming after you."


TERMINATION
by Yahtzee
Yahtzee63@aol.com
http://www.thechicagoloop.net/yahtzee

Part One

I used to have one hell of a view.

One hell of an office, really. High-backed chair. Desk made out of mahogany. A coffee table with only a few marks from the time Faith used it to bash Lee Mercer's head in. They offered me a new table, but I said no. You want to remember the good times.

But the view -- that was the beauty part, the part that made it all real. Firm like Wolfram & Hart, they can afford all the fancy desks and leather chairs in the world. They had nice stuff down in the mailroom, even. The downside of working there was substantial enough that the bosses understood the importance of perks. Still, even with all the money in this world and all the demons in the next going for you, you can only afford so much window space, and they gave a big slice of the sky to me.

Whenever it got to be too much, whenever I stopped for a moment and thought -- whenever the names in the files in front of me started to feel like actual human beings -- I could swivel that high-backed chair around and look at the city lights. I was above it all, controlling the world the city knew and the world it ignored. I felt powerful then. Like I was using, instead of being used.

Darla loved the view too. She said the city was splayed out under us like a whore, and I guess she'd know. But I'm glad I don't have to hear what she'd have to say about the office I've got now.

HIV Legal Action is in an industrial park. Two doors down, there's this insurance company that's fixed up nice enough; I get a look at it when I walk down there to buy myself a soda, 55 cents, and don't think I'm not counting even that much, these days. The insurance company proves you can make the offices here look okay if you've got the money. However, if you're a nonprofit, you don't have the money. I have an office about the size of my coat closet at Wolfram & Hart. No windows. Guess I could knock a hole in the wall, get a panoramic vista of the telemarketing company next door, and there are days when I think about doing it with my fists. Or my head. Today is one of those days.

"Bryan is going to be upset that I gave the sofa to Tandy," Mr. Graham says. He's been worrying about this for a while; this is the fourth revision I've done on his will. You'd think the sofa was Louis XIV, not some piece of shit from Ethan Allen that was worth $400 ten years ago.

I don't say that, though. I just say, "You felt like Tandy needed it more."

"She does, she does." Mr. Graham nods, reminding himself of this. He's a timid, uncertain man by nature; I know this in the way he stands, the way he holds his hands, the slump of his spine. You learned to read stuff like that, at Wolfram & Hart. He's also got AIDS-related dementia coming on fast. I try to remember that second vulnerability, try to ignore my instincts to pounce on the first. "But Bryan will be hurt. Tandy wouldn't be hurt if I gave it to Bryan."

When I took this job, I thought I'd be fighting the good fight: facing off against hospitals who wouldn't treat the sick, landlords who wouldn't rent to people in need, insurance agencies who wouldn't pay for treatment to help the dying. You know what I do here? Wills. The clients are all poor, and they're all dying, and they want to make out their will, to dispose of every last bit of their junk. Instead of vanquishing evil, I spend my days deciding who gets the Crockpot, the beanbag chair, the particleboard bookshelf. There are multibillionaires who divide up estates on four continents with less time and trouble than a charity case spends on a will that takes care of two rooms' worth of crap.

I pull out the file folder with the previous version of the will in it. "We can still leave it to Tandy. It's up to you. But -- we just gotta decide this thing."

Mr. Graham isn't getting any healthier. He knows it, but from the way his face falls when I say it, he'd managed to push it away today, until now. I ought to feel worse about that than I do. I open my mouth to apologize, but then the phone rings, and I scoop up the receiver, grateful for the escape. "McDonald."

"Lindsey?" The voice is whispery, pitched low on purpose and forced out through ragged breaths. It takes me a good thirty seconds to realize it's Lilah.

Lilah Morgan. I try to make it make sense -- try to hear her voice, as round and rich and cultured as Noritake pearls, in this shabby little room with industrial-grade carpet laid on concrete and white-painted paneling on the walls. These things don't go together. It's as surreal and jarring as the first time I saw a vampire. More, maybe.

"Lilah," I say evenly. "Thought we had this worked out --"

"I'm not calling on behalf of the firm," Lilah says. "There IS no firm, not anymore."

It's like she's not even speaking English. I stare at the receiver, stupidly, like that's going to make this make sense. "What?"

"Have you not been paying any attention to the news? The fact that Los Angeles is going up in flames?"

"Yeah, I saw it," I say. "Looked like your work."

"Thanks for the compliment, but no. Not mine, not the firm's. Wolfram & Hart is over. Done with. Dead and buried -- well, not buried. Lying around rotting, waiting for burial or cremation or the rats, whatever comes first." Lilah's voice is cracked, but she doesn't sound insane. "Dead, though, definitely."

"The Senior Partners," I say, not caring that Mr. Graham is in the room, looking at me strangely. If he repeats any of this, he'll just have his dementia diagnosis moved up a few weeks.

Lilah laughs a little. I hear a soft thump on the other line - her head, up against the wall or door of wherever she is. "Nope," she says. "Something else, Lindsey. Something worse."

"What could possibly be WORSE?"

"Good question," Lilah replies. "The only answers I have for you are that it's big, it's got horns, and it's fond of gouging out your intestines while you're still alive. And guess what's best of all, Lindsey? It's coming after you."

"Why me? You give him my name, Lilah? For old times' sake?"

She laughs, deep and throaty this time, more like herself. "I would've if I'd had the chance. But the Beast -- that's his name, catchy, huh? -- he doesn't need the help. He wiped out the offices first; I'm the only one who got out alive, I think. But since then -- Lindsey, he's hunting down everyone. The temps. The guys who were on vacation that day. The nighttime cleaning service. The fucking Xerox repairman. And don't think the Beast stops at the Orange County line. I've heard reports from Bucharest, Sunnydale, Aberdeen, you name it. All of us, Lindsey. He's not going to stop until he's killed us all."

Mr. Graham is looking down at the latest version of his will. He's gonna die very soon -- within a year. This is the first time I've looked at him and figured he was likely to outlive me.

I say, "We can stop this thing."

"What a vote of confidence," she says. "I'm moved by your faith."

"Very funny. You wouldn't bother calling me unless there was something I could do for you. Ergo, you think there's something we can do."

"What? You don't think I'd give you a chance to make your peace with God?" Lilah snaps. "I need your help. It's in your interest to give it to me. I don't know if it's going to do any damn good, but I figure it beats waiting to die. Are you in or out, Lindsey?"

"I'm in," I say. Like there's any other answer I could give.


Yeah, I'm still an employee of Wolfram & Hart.

I walked out of their offices that day with a stolen hand and a new attitude, and I never have walked back. I haven't gotten another paycheck, haven't contributed to the 401K, haven't sacrificed anything at the vernal equinox or any other time. The firm hasn't -- hadn't -- told me what to do in a really long time. Any other job, you'd say I quit almost two years ago.

But Wolfram & Hart's hooks sink a little deeper into the flesh. You don't walk away that easily; they don't let you.

They put it to me nicely, with the piano wire still a good four inches from my neck. I'd now be an independent contractor for the firm. My job description would involve staying away from any champions of good (one in particular) and keeping my damn mouth shut. My payment would be my continued pulse. Sounded good to me.

We could have made the same deal without my being an employee, you'd think; there are plenty of people the firm pays -- paid -- hush money to without employing. But being an employee of Wolfram & Hart means something substantial, something that matters to them on levels that go a lot deeper. I count as one of their minions in a tally I don't care to imagine. I told myself it didn't matter, as long as my soul was my own again.

Guess it does matter after all. That, or my soul was never mine to begin with. Probably both.

I told Carole I needed a couple weeks off. Personal reasons. Her face crumpled in like kneaded dough, all flour and sympathy. She didn't pry --Carole's into respecting privacy -- but she gave me a big, patchouli-scented hug and told me she'd water my plants. I only have plants because she gave them to me. She thinks I need nurturing, and ever since I fucked up and let on that I play guitar, she thinks I'm artistic. For months, she's been trying to get me to read The Tao of Pooh. As bosses go, she's better than Satan, but not by much.

Next up I took myself off to Chicago to get the book Lilah thought might help us. You couldn't buy it in Chicago, of course; it's not exactly the kind of thing you find across from the croissants at Barnes & Noble. But one of the few shamans who can reach through dimensions to get it lives there, and we worked something out. I spent my own money, almost everything I'd managed to save up; I figure I can get half out of Lilah later.

One of the other shamans who could've done the job lives in L.A., which you'd think would've been the quicker solution. The obvious way to go. But from what I see in the papers, and what I read between the lines, L.A. is not a good place to be these days. If there was anything in this book that might help stand between me and the Beast or whatever the hell it was that wanted my hide, I wasn't going there without it.

Besides that -- well, I could've gone back to Los Angeles any time in the past two years, and I didn't. One of the things my continued employment with Wolfram & Hart required was that I not come into contact with any duly designated champions of good, and I'm pretty sure there's no way I'm gonna make it very long in Los Angeles before I go straight to the first one they warned me about.

I'm not under the pathetically mistaken belief that Angel's missed me. I bet I haven't crossed his mind twice. When I drove out of town, jackass sign on my truck, Angel wrote my name down on the List of the Saved I know he keeps in his head. Then he turned the page, closed the book. As far as he's concerned, our story's over.

As far as I'm concerned, it never began.

I'm driving toward Los Angeles now; I-10 is packed on the eastbound lanes, headlights shining on bumpers, over and over, mile after mile. My truck's the only one headed west. Would've been faster to take a plane, but the airlines don't fly into LAX anymore. "Unstable atmospheric conditions," they say. No shit. So I drove all the way to Chicago, and I'm driving all the way to Los Angeles. Lilah was expecting me days ago, but I figure she can take care of herself.

In the passenger seat is a duffel bag with some extra T-shirts and boxer shorts; it's been a few years since I needed my power suits, and I damn sure won't need them here. Instead I've got a crossbow, a .45, a few stakes and the book that cost so much, the one that's supposed to save our necks. That's pretty much all the protection I've got against the Beast, the demons and the vampires.

The evil vampires, I mean. Nothing's going to protect me against Angel, or my own stupidity when I see him again.

Sometimes I wonder if he knew I wanted him. Everyone else seemed to know --Holland's offhand comments about keeping a clear head; Lilah's sly, sideways smile every time I said Angel's name; Darla's outright contempt. ("It's not me you want to screw," she said in my ear, her crotch against mine, and when I told her she was right, she smiled and kissed me again, hard, the way a man kisses.)

I didn't understand it myself then, not really. I knew how he looked, and I knew that I liked it, but I was just young and arrogant enough to think that was all there was to the story. I thought the reason I wanted to beat him was because he'd beaten me once. I thought the reason I was jealous of Angel and Darla's connection was Darla. I circled him for a year and a half, and I told myself I was a shark smelling blood, not a moth drawn to flame. I lied to myself a hell of a lot better than I ever lied to anyone else, and that's pretty damn well. Everybody else saw through me, so maybe Angel did too. And vampires -- they know that kind of thing. They can sense it, taste it, smell it on you. No matter how hard you try to play it cool, they know.

But there's vampires, and then there's Angel. He talks himself out of every good idea he has, doesn't trust what he sees right in front of his eyes. Given his fucked-up history (files and files of it, late-night reading for twisted insomniacs such as myself), can't say as I blame him. I could strip myself naked, hold out some lube and kneel at his feet -- a daydream that's come into sharper focus over the last couple of years -- and Angel would convince himself it wasn't about sex at all. I can't imagine what the hell he'd decide it WAS about, though I wouldn't mind watching him try to explain it away.

I don't even let myself wonder what it would be like if the man finally, for once in his unlife, accepted the obvious. And acted on it.

When I saw the news, saw the shaky video-camera images of fire raining down on L.A., I figured the firm was responsible. After that, I didn't think about the firm at all. I only thought about Angel, looking up at that fiery sky. I knew all hell was breaking loose, literally, and I knew Angel was fighting it. I didn't want him to win. I didn't want him to fail. I just wanted him --muscles working beneath black leather, the way he swings a sword like it's a part of him, the darkness in his eyes just before he strikes. That's all I imagined, all I wanted to see.

A gas station up ahead has one of those signs with an arrow made of lights, crooked black letters that spell out LAST CHANCE GASOLINE BEFORE L.A. I try to decide what's worse: that sign or the fact that it's pitch-black at 2 p.m. I decide the worst part of all is that, if I were driving in the other direction, I might not care.


Lilah told me I should meet her at this one abandoned subway toilet the firm used to use for the occasional payoff, the even more occasional electroshock persuasion. I'd been there often enough to know it was the place slime goes when it dies, if it's led a bad life. I expected Lilah to be standing in the middle of it, her lips pursed, counting off the seconds she had to put up with this gunk on the soles of her shoes.

Instead, I walk in and find her sleeping on the floor.

On the floor. On THIS floor, which was probably last washed during the Johnson administration. I mean Andrew. There's puddles of stagnant water every place the tiles have fallen out, which is a lot of places, and you can see mouse tracks and droppings on the floor. The urinals on the walls were cleaner when they were being used more often. I don't even want to look at the toilets. You wouldn't expect to see a wino sleeping here; even winos have standards. But there's Lilah Morgan in a sleeping bag.

Then I wonder if she's sleeping, or if she's -- "Lilah?"

She's out of the bag in an instant, crouched on the floor like an alley cat about to pounce. Her eyes rake over me, razor-bright; as she recognizes me, her face changes. She doesn't know whether to be more relieved or ashamed. "Took you long enough," she says, straightening up slowly. "I figured the Beast found you on the way."

"Not unless the Beast is a highway patrolman in New Mexico who's way too literal about the speed limit," I say.

"Long time no see. How's that evil hand working out for you?"

"So far, so good." I hear something move in the corner and flinch -- but it's something small. Rodent-sized. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Staying alive."

"Doesn't look like you're doing a real good job of it." Lilah has shadows on her face that could be dirt or bruises. Probably both. Her hair is lank and stringy; she's washed in the last week, but not the last couple of days. Her shirt has lines of dried blood in the middle of her abdomen, and I remember what she said about gouging with an answering cramp in my own gut. And her fingernails are dirty. Lilah used to get manicures every Tuesday; I know, because I made it my business to know everything she did, every place she went. Somehow the fact that her nails are grimy and cracked makes this more real than anything else.

"I'm doing a better job of it than anyone else who used to work for Wolfram & Hart," Lilah says. "Plenty of them would give a whole lot to be in this luxury suite, instead of where they are."

"Six feet under," I say.

"Assuming anybody was left to bury them," she says. Lilah tosses her hair, and I can tell she's over her initial shame. At first, she was embarrassed that I saw her like this, and to me it seems like she ought to be. But she's proud. She thinks she gets the gold star just for being alive. I don't like the idea that she might be right. "Wow, it's been fun catching up on old times, Linz. I hate to bring business into our lovely chat, but give me my fucking book."

I raise an eyebrow. "Your book? Seems like I'm the one who paid in the high four figures to get this thing shipped in from whatever dimension it was."

"Excuse me. Give me YOUR fucking book." She smiles her smile that looked so dangerous and hot, back when the lips were painted scarlet instead of chapped and pale. "I know you've got it, Lindsey. You wouldn't have dared come back to California without it."

"There's one thing you've got to do for me first."

"What? Pay you back?" Lilah goes to one of the sinks, the one that's least moldy. She pulls out a battered bag that might once have been made by Coach, fishes around in it and throws a handful of cards at me. "Master Card. Visa. American Express. Diners Club? You like to eat out? Oooh, hey, Neiman Marcus. Save that for the holidays. Take them ALL, Lindsey. Max 'em out. I don't care. Just give me the book."

The cards all fall at my feet, and I don't bend down to pick them up. Yet. She does owe me for half of the book, but we'll get to that later. "Your desperation's showing."

Lilah grimaces as her composure falters, for just a moment. Then she says, slowly, "It can show a lot worse than this."

That's the girl I remember. I laugh a little. "Chill out, Lilah. I'm gonna give you the book. I didn't drive halfway across the country to play mind games. But I told you, you've got to do something for me first."

"And what's that?"

"Fire me."


Part Two

Lilah stares at me for a long moment, then starts to laugh. Then she laughs harder. She grabs at her side and winces -- it's hurting her to laugh -- but she can't stop. The sound is a little grating as it echoes off the tiles. At last she gasps, "Of course. Fire you. Because if you're not an employee of the firm anymore --"

"-- then the Beast leaves me the hell alone. Takes care of my half of the problem. And you get the book to help you with your half of the problem --along with my best wishes, of course."

"Of course." She shakes her head, dirty hair swaying heavily. "As many times as I wanted to kick your ass to the curb -- and the one time I get my chance, I can't do it."

"You're gonna," I say through clenched teeth. I'll beat it out of her if I have to, and I won't even pretend not to enjoy it.

Lilah holds up her hands. "I'm not just being obstinate, for once. Lindsey, I really can't fire you. Once you became a, what was it, 'independent contractor,' you moved out of the control of the Special Projects Division. I moved up the corporate ladder after you left, but I never quite reached the center square. I couldn't fire you any more than I could give you a raise." She laughs once more, a short, bitten-off sound. "You thought you could drive out here and end all your problems just like that. Nice thought. But it doesn't work that way."

I realize she's telling the truth. She can't fire me. There are other ways I could stop being an employee; I didn't spend $45K on law school not to learn how to read the fine print. I could sacrifice an infant to one of the demigods who's aligned against Wolfram & Hart, or a pregnant woman to one of the demons aligned with them. I haven't exactly made Eagle Scout since I left the firm, but I can't do that. I could commit suicide through a specific ritual that takes a really long time and hurts worse by the second, but frankly, I'd be better off letting the Beast get me. Oh, or I could accept employment with another law firm within 100 miles of Los Angeles. You think Wolfram & Hart would leave out the standard noncompete? But to judge by the fact that half the buildings in L.A. are on fire, there are corpses in the streets nobody's gotten around to burying and a demon swallowed the sun last week, I kinda doubt anybody's hiring.

Were there other ways out? I don't know. I didn't go beyond the limits of my own contract. I told myself it was because it didn't matter; the firm had let me go as far as it ever would, as far as I needed to go. If I pushed away any harder, there was every chance they'd cut off my head and leave it in the lobby as a cautionary tale.

So I didn't bother getting another answer, a final termination of employment, and where has it gotten me? I'm in a Los Angeles that looks worse than the worst hells the firm ever described. The thing that did all this wants me dead, and I just spent days driving cross-country to get closer to it. All to help out Lilah.

Shit.

Lilah says, "I think this brings us back to the book."

I hand it to her without a word. She grabs it so hard she's got white knuckles. As she starts flipping through it, I tell her, "He's on page 177 or so. Looks pretty run-of-the-mill to me."

"He's not," Lilah says. She gets to the right page and holds it up to me. "Objects in this illustration are larger than they appear. And significantly more invincible."

"Nothing's invincible." That's the one and only thing I ever learned from Darla. I learned it the moment she appeared in the crowd, five seconds from destroying a Senior Partner.

"Nice theory," Lilah says. "I'd prefer some proof. Is there anything in the book?"

"Not that made any sense to me. But there's probably people out there who could do more with it." I've been in Los Angeles for -- I check my watch --two hours. That's longer than I thought I'd go before suggesting this. "Have you gone to Angel?"

She gives me that sly, sideways smile again. "Wondered when you'd bring him up. I don't think he's really in lifesaver mode right now."

"I know he hates you. He's got that much sense," I say. "But there's no way Angel's not trying to stop the Beast."

"He was, up until a couple of days ago." Lilah pauses, waits for me to ask.

The words burn in my throat. I hate that it hurts to say it. I hate that I'm such a stupid fuck that it could hurt me. "It killed him."

She laughs again, and I think I'm going to punch her lights out for it until I see her shake her head. "No, no. Then he might have had some dignity for once. But those idiots he works with -- Lindsey, they removed his soul."

"Angelus." The name isn't something you say lightly. Even at Wolfram & Hart, he defined evil. Pain. Carnage. Destruction. The hell I just drove through would be his idea of a high old time. "How the hell is that supposed to help?"

"Don't know." She shrugs, the movement still elegant despite her filthy clothes and surroundings. "They don't exactly CC me on their interoffice memos. I know he's not out on the streets, so they must have him chained up or something." Angel in chains. "But they had to have done it on purpose. What are the chances the guy would find perfect happiness in the middle of this?"

I hate it when Lilah makes sense.

Angel's -- gone. Just like that. And in his place is the only guy I ever fantasized about more. Angelus.

They're the same guy, and they aren't. I spent months trying to figure out the answer to that one, before I finally realized there wasn't an answer. All I know: They share one body, one set of memories, and more desires than Angel ever liked to admit. Angelus just doesn't let anything get in the way of what he wants.

I like the sound of that. And I know how fucked-up that makes me.

"You're right about getting help with the book," Lilah says. She's frowning down at the pages. "This is -- well, archaic would make it sound too fresh. Wesley, um, Wyndham-Price, who worked with Angel, you remember him? He could probably make some sense out of this."

Wesley. Skinny guy, glasses. Lilah's voice is weird as she mentions him. Don't know why, don't care. "This the same brain trust who let Angelus out?"

She glares at me, ready to bite my head off for God only knows what reason. "It's the end of the world. It's not like the situation's going to get much worse."

Back up a sec. "Wait -- the world is ending?"

"Where were you during orientation?" Lilah jabs one finger toward the ceiling, toward the black and fiery sky above. "I'd think you'd remember the signs. They were all in the handbook."

"Yeah, they tell you about it, but really seeing it -- that's different." I expect Lilah to mock me for that, but she doesn't. Something flickers in her eyes that might almost be understanding, but as soon as I see it, it's gone. "You didn't think this was worth mentioning before?"

"What's the difference? I don't have to pretend that I'm doing all this for the greater good to make it seem worthwhile. I'm out for myself. If the rest of the world gets saved in the bargain, I'll bill them later." Her eyes light up. "Lindsey, there's only one reason they could have let Angelus out."

"They thought it would help." I say, supplying the obvious answer for her. "The question is, Why? I really don't think the good folks at Angel Investigations are going to be in a hurry to tell you. It's been about two years since I tried to kill any of them, but I bet I'm not on their buddy list either."

Lilah looks tired all of a sudden. I can tell she's asked herself just that -- would they tell her? -- and she doesn't know the answer. It bugs her that she doesn't know, too much, as far as I can tell. Living down here must be taking it out of her. She says, "They might not tell us. But Angelus would."

Why does she think Angelus would do us a favor when that crew wouldn't? Then I get it. "You want to let him out."

"If that's what it takes," she says. "I'd rather make him think I'd let him out, then leave him hanging. But I'll let him out if I have to. It's not like there's a lot left in L.A. for him to destroy." She tucks the book in with her belongings, and I realize she means to go there right now.

I should probably go with her. Not for her safety, about which I still could not care less. My own safety's still pretty high on the priority list, though, and if Lilah could get out of this by selling me out, she'll do it.

Truth is, I don't think she can get out of this. I don't think I can either.

"I'm going to the firm," I tell her. "There's some shit I want out of there before the cops go through the place."

"The city's on fire, and all you're worried about is your paper trail." Lilah looks like she wants to argue more, but she doesn't. "You can get in. The wrecking crews broke through the emergency frame a couple days ago. They were looking for survivors who didn't exist, not evidence of your sordid past. I don't think the cops are really focusing on white-collar crime these days."

I don't either. But if Wolfram & Hart is really gone, I have to see it for myself. It won't be real until I see it. "I'll be back here by this time tomorrow," I tell her. "Or I'm not coming back at all."

"I'll be waiting breathlessly," she says dryly. "Who knows? I might have company."

I don't know whether to hope that she will or pray that she won't.


I remember drunks and addicts, homeless people and whores, human litter on the streets. The smell of exhaust, heat radiating up from the pavement for hours after the sun sets. Billboards of Angelyne. On its best days, Los Angeles still bears a strong resemblance to hell, and this isn't one of its best days.

The sky is dark -- not the normal nighttime dark of L.A., where the sky is slightly red from electric light and smog. Whatever's hanging above us now is blacker than black, but you can kinda tell it's moving. The streets are almost deserted; the few cars darting around my truck drive fast, without any more need to worry about pedestrians or cops. Some buildings have been burned to the ground, but instead of being set off with yellow tape, they're just abandoned. Whole city looks like somebody crumpled it up and threw it away.

Every now and then, I drive by a packet of activity -- usually a few people gathered around what used to be an apartment building or place of business, and is now just so much rubble. Some of them carry sticks or bats or guns, defending the perimeter. Others grab whatever junk they think is worth risking their lives for. It's hard to imagine what that could be. Any fool who'd come out in this for some baby pictures deserves whatever he gets.

The President sent in the National Guard a couple weeks ago, or so the news said, but you don't see them here, not in the mean streets. Bet every multimillion-dollar house in Malibu or Beverly Hills has its own private guard division. The inner city gets to fend for itself, and from the looks of things, it's not doing so hot.

As I get near Wolfram & Hart, I enter a part of the city that doesn't have power back on yet. My truck's headlights are the only illumination for 300 yards in any direction, so maybe that's why I don't see it at first.

Then I squint through the darkness and realize -- no, that's it. That's the firm.

The building's made of bronze glass in black stone; I've seen it reflecting light outward during the day, absorbing the glow of the spotlights at night. It's not illuminated at all now, and it looks duller. Smaller. I can see the metal that wrapped itself around the building to protect everyone inside, when really they were just the bars on the jail.

Jail. I've called Wolfram & Hart a thousand different obscene things over the years, but that's all it boils down to: jail. I wasn't inside the bars when they snapped shut, but from the sound of things, I might still be locked up, waiting to die.

From not too far away, I hear a scream. A crash. Another scream. My hand goes to the crossbow on the passenger seat. I tell myself I ought to drive toward the sound, investigate, help out. Then I tell myself that I'm probably too late already. Then I call myself a chickenshit bastard, and I drive over there. I don't see anyone. There's a pool of blood on the sidewalk, but there's no telling how old it might be, or what it might be from. Nothing left for me to do here. I tell myself it's okay to feel relieved.

"Hey -- hey, mister?" The voice makes me jump. Embarrassed and alarmed, I look around to see a young girl, maybe 16 or 17, Latina, with dark curly hair pulled up into a ponytail atop her head. A few other people are half-crouched behind her, at the corner of a building. They look too scared to be vampires. In the past couple of weeks, they've probably figured out -- along with the rest of L.A. -- a lot they didn't know about vampires.

"Yeah?" I say.

She jerks her chin up toward the building. "Me and my friends, we gonna get in my aunt's place. We don't know if she in there or -- well, she got food, a couple guns. We cut you in on the food if you help us watch out."

"I don't need food," I tell her, though I wonder if, in a few days, that will still be true.

The girl shifts on her feet. Apparently she's figuring out that talking to me isn't worth the delay. But they must want help pretty bad, because she blurts out, "Fifty bucks. Take it or leave it."

"Keep your money," I tell her, like I'm doing her a favor. I don't look after them in the rearview mirror as I drive off.

When you've got a truck, everybody thinks you're going to help them move.


I get back to Lilah's about three hours after I left. She's not back yet. I wonder just how she decided to bribe Angelus for information, and for one second, I'm so envious I want to kick something, preferably Lilah's head. Whatever. She'll get back here, with or without him.

Then I realize -- she's been back and left already. A crate that was next to the wall is out in the middle of the floor, the book is missing, and both the credit cards and her purse are now out of sight. Damn. I wouldn't have minded taking what she owes me out of the Neiman Marcus card.

Is she gone for good? I wouldn't put it past Lilah to promise cooperation, get me all the way out here with the book, then take off with it and leave me stranded. If I were her, that's probably what I'd do. But no. She left her sleeping bag, and she left her box of granola bars, a backpack that looks like it's stuffed with socks and underwear. I get the feeling this stuff is worth more than it used to be; Lilah wouldn't have left it. She's coming back. The only question is when, and with whom. The world might be ending, but until she (they?) get back, there's not a damn thing I can do about it. Might not be a damn thing I can do about it anyway.

After about an hour, I make myself "comfortable." I help myself to one of the granola bars, read a little of the battered paperback novel by her sleeping bag. The novel's no good. Who would've figured Lilah reads this softcore girly crap? It's all country houses and love confessions, with everyone's outfit described in detail. Maybe she didn't have a lot of time to make her selection. That, or Lilah's actually got a sentimental side.

The idea of Lilah having a sentimental side is good for a laugh, and that keeps me entertained for a while longer.

After about six hours, I start to worry. Well, not "worry," exactly. If Lilah's dead in a ditch somewhere, the number-one problem with that picture is that I didn't put her there. But I'd damn sure like my book back. Plus the credit cards. Plus some idea how the hell I'm going to get out of this mess.

Do I go to Angel Investigations or not? I know that's where Lilah was headed, and if I want to find her, and more to the point my book, that's the place to start. Then again, the conversation might have to go something like this: "Hey, guys, how've you been? Remember that time I tried to kill Wes and Cordy? Those were the days. Oh, Lilah let Angelus out? Yeah, I knew she was going to do that and I didn't stop her. By the way, I've come to you for help." Champions for good or not, they'll rip my throat out long before I stoop to asking them to save me.

After about ten hours, the waves of panic have gotten narrower, and the waves of exhaustion have gotten wider. I've probably been awake for two days straight, and the combination of mortal terror and driving takes it right out of you.

It can't be safe to sleep here -- but it must be, or else Lilah wouldn't have made it as long as she has. I leave my shoes on as I slide into the sleeping bag. I take a stake in each hand and cross them over my chest like a dead man. If Angelus comes in here and finds me, at least he'll appreciate the irony.

The Beast? I get the impression he's not an irony kind of guy.


I sleep as deeply as I have in months, and for God knows how long, but I still jolt upright the moment I hear voices.

Breath shaking, I strain to hear past the heavy thudding in my ears. The voices are far away, but coming closer -- female and male --

But not Lilah. And not Angelus.

They've already stopped talking, but I can hear their footsteps now. Moving as quickly and quietly as I can, I get out of the sleeping bag, step closer to the entryway. Their feet echo in the tunnel, and I'm so out of practice that I can't tell if it's just two people or more.

Two against one: still bad odds. I step backward, look for any other way out of here. Sure enough, there's another door. I pull it open slowly, praying the hinges won't squeak, praying to nothing. They don't squeak, not so a human would hear. If they're vampires, they've heard my heartbeat already. I clench the stakes harder, let the door close behind me just as slowly.

The door leads to what must have been an emergency exitway. Even though it's almost pitch-dark -- the only light is the pale, flickering stuff that leaks in through the edges of the door -- I can tell I'm in a narrow hallway, and the musty smell is thicker here, like it was never used regularly, not even years ago. I think about Roman catacombs, and the passageways in the pyramids, and then I wish I'd never taken that fucking archaeology class because all that stuff does is distract you when you need to concentrate like your whole life depends on it. I'm pretty sure it does.

I hear their footsteps in the bathroom. Only two. I want to sigh with relief, like that makes any sense. Then I hear the woman speak. "She was living --here?"

Southern accent. Unfamiliar. And she's talking about Lilah in the past tense.

"I don't know how long she stayed here." That's Wesley's voice. He sounds --older than he used to. More than two years older. "But whatever she has here, I wanted to -- if she had the book, she might have other things that would help us." A pause. "It wouldn't have been unlike her, to have more information than she was telling."

Okay. Lilah's dead. I don't feel glad about it. I don't feel upset. I know I'm not surprised. The main question is, Do I poke my head out and say hi or not? I decide to wait and hear more.

"Wesley --" The Southern girl hesitates, then blurts out, "It's okay, you know. To want her stuff just because it's her stuff. I mean, I don't understand -- I don't pretend to understand why you --"

"Fred, she -- I mean, you shouldn't --" Wesley's voice thaws for a moment, then freezes again. "We haven't time to discuss this now. We should hurry." I hear a few things being picked up, the sleeping bag being bundled into a ball.

I can pick up on subtext as well as the next guy. Wesley and Lilah? Now I know it's the end of the world. I remember the crappy paperback novel, wonder if maybe she didn't have a lot of time to choose on the sex front, either.

Wesley was screwing Lilah. Therefore, he's not in automatic kill-and-destroy mode for members of Wolfram & Hart. Therefore, if I walk out there and make my case to Wes and this Fred person, I'm probably going to live long enough to explain. These are the best odds I've had in a while. I'll take them.

I take both stakes in my left hand (the original), and put my right hand (the loaner) on the doorknob, ready to push it open. And then cold fingers close over mine.

I jerk my head around. Behind me stands Angelus. He's smiling at me, lips closed, eyebrows raised, his entire face lighting up with glee. The hand over mine on the doorknob crunches down so hard I swear I feel my bones crack. With his other hand, he brings a finger to his lips.

Shhhhh.


Part Three

I have maybe half a second to save my life.

I slam up toward his chest with my left hand -- the one with the stakes. But my angle's awkward and Angelus is too damn fast. He's got my wrist in his iron grip in an instant, forcing my hand away from him, behind my back. The pain of it arcs through me like an electric shock, wrist to elbow to shoulder, and I gasp. Angelus clamps my other hand over my mouth, forcing me to silence myself.

"What was that?" The girl's voice. Fred's.

"I'm not sure," Wesley says. They are quiet for a moment, and Angelus looks over my shoulder, smiling delightedly. It's Angel's face, but it's not Angel's smile. Slowly, he pulls our hands away from my mouth, rests them, clasped, against my chest. My heart is pounding so hard it's got to be knocking against his palm. He raises an eyebrow, questioning.

If I want, I can yell for help or scream like a woman, and right this second, I'm not too proud to do it. But if I do, Wesley and Fred will open the door, and there won't be anything between them and Angelus. I don't know exactly what would happen after that, besides the fact that somebody would get killed. But there would be a lot of fighting, a lot of confusion. The chance I could get away in the middle of it all is pretty damn slim, but it's way better than my chance of getting away if I keep quiet.

But if I keep quiet, Wesley and Fred live, at least for now. That's the choice Angelus is forcing me to make. What Would Lindsey Do? I only learn the answer when I clench my jaw shut.

"Must've been a rat," Fred says.

"No doubt," Wesley says. "All the same, it's not safe here. Let's -- not dally."

They do the rest of what they have to do quickly, almost silently; I just hear the scrape of their shoes on the tiles. Angelus is laughing, silently, his chest shaking against my back.

"This duffel is full of men's clothing," Fred says. She sounds like she's pleased about that, like she's trying to pretend she's not. Wesley sighs heavily, and Angelus thumps our hands against my chest. He's still laughing as his tongue, cool and wet, traces around the curve of my ear.

I used to jerk off thinking about his tongue doing that, as well as a few other things. It's not sexy now. It's -- cold. It's dead. I still have time to scream. I don't.

Wesley and Fred leave, taking Lilah's stuff and mine. I hear their footsteps get quieter and vanish. Angelus remains silent and still for a few moments. The skin on my neck prickles, supersensitive, waiting for the fangs. I should be so lucky. It should be that quick.

I feel his muscles shift, just a little -- then I'm thrown, hard, into the door and through it. My face slams against the metal, then the tile of the floor. My stakes clatter onto the ground, out of reach. I scramble for them for the one second I have before Angelus' hands clamp around my shoulders. He shoves me against the wall, and the bastard's still smiling.

"This," he says, "is my lucky week. One toy surprise right after the other, but I thought for sure the highlight would be Wes and Fred taking themselves off to the one place in the city where nobody could EVER hear them scream. I was going back and forth -- kill Fred in front of Wes? Or kill Wes in front of Fred? Can't have your cake and eat it too. And each option had so much to recommend it. But then I pick up a third scent -- my long-lost pal Lindsey, come back to say hello. Unbelievable! It must be my birthday."

"You're gonna kill me," I say. My voice is steadier than I'd hoped. "Do it and get it over with."

"Lindsey. I'm hurt. I thought you knew me." Angelus cocks his head, smile faded, eyes wide in a perfect mockery of emotional pain. "Since when did I get just 'get it over with'? You know better than that. Don't you?"

All those files. All those murders. All those details. I read them all. Sometimes I read them for fun.

"You should have screamed," Angelus says. He leans forward, putting his whole weight on his hands, on my shoulders. "What profiteth it a man, to gain his soul and lose the world? Tell me, Lindsey, how does it look from the other side?"

My soul. All of a sudden, it's funny, and I start to laugh, right in Angelus' face. As he stares at me, I choke out, "You think I saved my soul. No, no --you think YOU saved it. Don't you?" He's gonna kill me anyway, so what the hell: I add, "You stupid fucking idiot."

Angelus draws back, just a little bit; he's smiling again, but differently now. "You let Wesley and Fred live," he says. His eyes are boring into mine now. Just for the moment, he wants answers more than blood.

"Maybe I just didn't want to give you the satisfaction," I say. "Not everybody falls for your little mind games. I'd rather die straight out than play a role in one of your melodramas. You know, you would've had a big career in soap operas. You ever write to 'Young & the Restless,' let 'em know you were available?"

Angelus laughs in what sounds like genuine amusement, until the moment his fist slams into my gut.

Gagging, I slump against the wall, fall to my knees. As I gasp in a breath, he says, "You were always entertaining, Lindsey. I'll grant you that."

His belt buckle is on a level with my forehead, and he's about six inches away from my face, and he's hard.

He murmurs, "I guess I could see my way to keeping you alive for a while." His hand, broad and cool, curves around the back of my neck. "As long as you entertain me."

If I punched him in the groin, hard, right now, there's every chance he'd break my neck and kill me instantly. But even as the idea flickers into being, my mind seems to go dim, short-circuited by the black fire that's flowing through me, cock to gut to brain. This is turning me on.

Not the part where I'm getting raped before I die. I'm screwed-up, but I'm not that screwed-up. No, it's the part where I'm about to die. I've been in enough life-threatening situations -- demon attacks, vampire stalkings, performance reviews at the firm -- to know that this is instinct, hardwired in the human body. Before you die, you want to fuck. Your last chance to pass on your genes, your last chance for pleasure, I don't know what it is. But it's real, and it's taking me over. I let it.

I grip his belt in my hands, slide the leather from the metal buckle. Angelus keeps one hand at the back of my neck, not shoving my face into his crotch, but not letting me move away either. He doesn't get it yet; he doesn't realize I don't want to move away. Not anymore. This is my death. This is the last humiliation of Lindsey McDonald. It feels like a celebration, just because it's the last. As I unzip his pants, Angelus braces his other hand against the wall.

Goddamn, he's huge. It's enough to give a guy a complex, or a hard-on, or in my case both.

His cock is thick and heavy in my hand, the veins pulsing slightly against my hot, damp palm. A human's cock -- mine -- would be flushed dark and hot with blood, but his is cool and pale. Hard like marble.

Slowly, deliberately, I draw back his foreskin, revealing the glistening tip. Seeing that he's turned on by me, by having me here on my knees, just makes me crazier. I reach out my tongue, flick across the head, just enough for him to feel it. His thigh muscles tense beneath my hand. I remember -- Angel or Angelus, this guy probably hasn't gotten any in about two years. I feel a thrill, the illusion of power, for one instant before he rams his cock between my lips.

So much for finesse. He wants me to suck him off, so I suck him hard. He's cool in my mouth, and he tastes like salt, and I take him in deep, so deep I have to fight not to gag, and it still doesn't feel like it's deep enough. Angelus helps me out, pumping into my mouth, slow and deep at first, then faster, shallower, faster again.

I grip him at the waist, feel the hard curve of his pelvic bones. It's not enough. I grab his ass, moving with him, helping him fuck my mouth. His hand slides from behind my neck to my jaw, angling me just the way he wants me, just the way that lets him thrust deep and fast at the same time. Fumbling, I slide one hand down to my jeans, peel open the fly, grab my own straining cock in my hand. I'm working myself as best I can, and it doesn't take much, not with Angelus in my mouth, his salt and my saliva thick in my mouth, spilling onto my chin, making slick, wet sounds as he rams into me again, and again, and again --

I come, so fast it's on me before I know it, a jolt of hot semen spilling through the fingers of my clenched fist. Angelus laughs -- one short, breathless bark -- then grabs my face in both hands and thrusts his cock down my throat. His come is cold. I drink it down; I lick him clean.

Angelus pushes me away, hard enough to knock me against the wall, not hard enough to hurt. He staggers back, off-balance in post-orgasmic haze. He's staring down at my open fly, at the white foam all over my hand. "You," he says, almost admiringly, "are one sick little bastard."

I don't have anything to say to that, so I just wipe my hand on my jeans. That is, I start to -- Angelus grabs it up before I can finish and licks my fingers clean. My cock pulses once; it's too soon for me to get hard again, but another two or three minutes, and he'll have me there. I guess this is what they call going out with a bang. I don't fight it anymore. I just let myself feel his cool tongue slipping over the skin of my fingers (right hand, the loaner, the one he cut off, back when he had his soul.) I breathe in deeply, sucking in air while the mildew and filth is drowned out by the smell of sex.

This is the part where I expect to die. But Angelus doesn't move to kill me, or even hurt me. He's staring down, his eyes sharp. I realize that he didn't expect me to get turned on by that, which is fair enough, seeing as how I sure didn't expect it either. But I also realize -- by giving in to the guy, I've done the one and only thing that could guarantee he wouldn't kill me right away. I've made him curious.

I should've just punched him in the groin when I had the chance.

Angelus tucks himself back in, but he doesn't refasten his pants. We're not done with the sex, then. I try not to be glad. "How long has it been, Lindsey? Two years? I think we have a lot of catching up to do."

"We feel pretty caught-up to me."

"That's not catching up. That's making up for lost time, and we're not even close to making up for all of that." His voice is low, deep, deliberate. "You'll be working that off for a while now. As long as you still enjoy it, and then a hell of a lot longer. Right now, though -- we ought to talk."

"Do we have to?" I raise an eyebrow. I'm gonna die anyway, so what the hell? "Maybe you're a cuddler, but I'd just like to get some sleep. Maybe watch the game."

"Boy, you are the game." A slow, lazy smile spreads over Angelus' face. "Let's see. Where were we, when our story left off? That's right. You left Wolfram & Hart, because they were just too darned evil. Didn't bother you for a long time, and then it did, and so you left L.A. to lead a good and virtuous life. Am I right? Or did I miss a chapter?"

I remember driving out of Los Angeles that day. Felt like every bad thing that had ever happened to me was falling away, falling behind, not able to keep up. I was that dumb. "That pretty much covers it."

"And here you are. I don't guess you found this little penthouse at random, so you must have come to help Lilah. By the way, you were a little late."

"You have fun killing her?" I don't really care, besides wondering if he fucked her too, before the end.

Angelus chuckles. "Assumptions. Don't they teach you to avoid those in law school? I didn't actually have the pleasure." When I frown at him, disbelieving, he shrugs. "What, you think I'd lie about it to protect my reputation? Believe me, I would have loved to break that bitch in half. Didn't get the chance."

I start to ask who did do it, and then I think about the wasteland that L.A. has become. It could have been anything, anyone. I don't guess it matters anymore. "I didn't come here to help her," I say. Might as well clear that up. "I came here to help myself."

"Now, that's the first interesting thing you've said tonight," Angelus says. "Or today. I can't tell the difference anymore. So, you needed help. But you were working with Lilah, so it was something she needed help with too. Common cause. What would that be? Couldn't be our mutual friend the Beast, could it?"

I don't say anything.

He keeps talking, slow and steady. "I was in Wolfram & Hart right after the end, you know. Bodies everywhere. I had a soul at the time, so I tried real hard to be sorry. But I have to tell you, it was a beautiful sight. I thought the whole wine-cellar thing was a work of art, but I'm man enough to admit when I'm outclassed."

"I went there earlier," I say. "I saw."

"It is the Beast you're worried about, then. You think he's out to get you, too." Angelus' eyes glint with discovery. "Not that the Beast is all that picky about his victims, but he was concentrating on the L.A. area. So if you thought he were after you in -- where did you end up? Well. You'll tell me eventually. That could only mean one thing. You thought he'd be after you because of the firm. All that do-gooder energy, and it turns out Lindsey McDonald is still connected to Wolfram & Hart. Am I right?"

"I never went back." I don't know what the hell I'm trying to prove to Angelus, but I say it anyway. "I didn't take orders from them."

"But you never shook them off, not completely. Why not, Lindsey? Isn't that the whole reason you left Los Angeles in the first place? Didn't the saga of your brand-new hand teach you the error of your ways?"

"They didn't tell me what to do," I insist. It's harder to look at Angelus now, so I stare at the muddy floor. I look at my hands in my lap; my right one is a little darker than the other, the wrist thinner, the hair on that arm more coarse. "That was enough."

"If they still wanted you, they wanted you for a reason." Angelus steps a little closer, raises his voice a little more. He doesn't like that I'm not looking at him. And I thought Angel had an ego. "Wolfram & Hart didn't have decent reasons for -- well, anything. You were off trying to do good, but you were still on evil's speed dial. That make sense to you?"

His questions hit me like his fist did before -- in the gut, hard, throwing me off balance. I want him to stop. I don't care why he stops, but I want him to stop. "Aren't you due to rape me again right around now?"

"First of all, that wasn't rape. It would've been, but you avoided that by giving in," he says. "Second, I'm not done talking. And you're not done answering. Where did you end up working, Lindsey? What did you end up doing with yourself? What cause was noble or worthy enough to make up for all the shit you'd done for the firm?"

"I'm still a lawyer."

"Bet we're not talking about a corner office. Or a view. Speaking of views, remind me to fill you in on Darla sometime soon. You're not gonna BELIEVE that story." Darla went back to him. A hundred nights I spent wondering if she'd come through my door, what I'd do if she did. But it's Angel she returned to, in the end, and I was a fool for ever thinking it could go down any other way. "If I had to guess, I'd say -- something for charity. Something nonprofit. Are you representing battered women? Child-abuse victims? Maybe migrant workers. Habla espanol?"

"Wrong," I say. My voice is too hard.

"Okay, I'm wrong. But I'm close." Angelus paces slowly in front of me. He has on the heavy black boots I remember from Angel, from other times. "You don't make a whole lot of money doing that, do you? You're not in it for the money anymore, I know, but I bet that doesn't mean you don't miss it, now that it's gone. You always had nice apartments, Lindsey. Sophisticated, in a black-lacquer-and-glass kind of way. Lorne says you always went for the premium-brand liquors. You don't like living cheap. But that's how you live now. Cheap."

In Austin, I have a one-bedroom apartment in a complex on the edge of town. I have a concrete balcony, two feet by four feet, that looks out onto a parking lot full of Hyundais and Camaros. I haven't tasted Absolut or Tanqueray in a long time. I could do with either one right now.

Angelus keeps talking, softly, almost sing-songing as he finds a pattern, lulls me into it. "Funny thing about helping the less fortunate: They always seem to be less fortunate for a reason. Admit it. When they're sitting across from you, in their Wal-mart clothes and their Supercuts hair, you don't feel bad for them, do you? They dug themselves into their own pits of poverty or drug addiction or whatever the hell it is you're supposed to help them with. They keep on digging, getting in deeper and deeper, the whole time you're trying to tow them up again. And they don't feel good about you, either. They see you as a rich man. A lawyer. They know you're not in as deep as they are, and they hate you for it. C'mon, Lindsey, you know it's true. You know it."

Mr. Graham, taking up hour after hour of my life that I'm not getting back, all so he can get rid of his fucking threadbare couch. How hard is it to wear a goddamn condom?

"Maybe, just maybe, you kept in touch with the firm for a reason," Angelus says. "I think maybe you wanted to leave your options open. I think you wanted to come back. Wanted to come crawling back on your belly, right back into the arms of Wolfram & Hart."

He's right. I've always known it, but hearing it out loud hurts worse. The cheap, flimsy decency I've built for myself over the last two years collapses faster than a house of cards. I try to hide my reaction, but it must show, because Angelus starts laughing. I hate him for it, but I hate myself more.

"There's hope for you yet," Angelus says.

"Doubtful."

"Try a little denial. Makes it all go down smoother." Angelus steps closer to me, and I know without looking up that he's hard again. "You've just been waiting for somebody to tell you what to do, haven't you? To give you a reason, or just something to fill the days. I think I'm going to have plenty for you to do, Lindsey. But let's start with what I already know you're good at."

I don't fight him. When his cock's between my lips once more, and I feel myself getting turned on all over again, I don't fight that either.


Part Four

"In my opinion," Angelus said, "Detroit forgot how to make quality cars in 1968."

We are driving along the streets in my truck. Angelus is in the passenger seat, smoking a cigarette he took from the body of a dead man on the curb. My jaw hurts, my knees ache and my gums are raw; he was on me for a long time. I didn't think he'd ever get tired of me sucking him off. He got tired of it before I did. One part of me is in physical pain, is scared and humiliated and angry, is desperate to try and get away, for what little good it might do with the Beast out there. The rest of me is wondering when Angelus will take me again. Waiting for it. Anticipating.

I guess it's too late for therapy.

"The '68 Falcon Futura -- that was a nice car," Angelus says. "Still had a little fin to it. Mustang looked good that year too. But the '70s were coming on fast. I knew the first time I saw a Volkswagen Beetle, cars were about to get completely castrated. Glad to see you feel the same way." His fingers stroke the dashboard almost tenderly. "You know, every once in a while, I used to think about bringing that up to you. Classic cars. Something we had in common. I thought --" He's laughing now, but not at me. "I thought it was a way we could bond. God, a soul is a pathetic thing."

Angel wanted to talk to me. He wanted to reach out to me. I tell myself that means less to me than the fact that he never did. Doesn't matter. Right now, nothing seems to matter -- not the too-black sky, not the pain in my jaw, not the broken turn signal, nothing.

Angelus peers over at me, his eyes unreadable in the dim glow of the dash. "Turn left. Right here." He keeps watching me as I turn, waiting for my reaction as we pull into a parking lot that's empty of cars. But it's not empty. A gang of vampires are fighting here -- maybe a dozen of them. The only human beings in this lot are a couple of dead bodies lying, already forgotten, on the pavement. And me. A few of the vampires turn toward us, their eyes illuminated in the headlights, flat circles of reflected glare.

I gave up on the idea of surviving this the moment Angelus threw me to the bathroom floor; the will to live flickers now, in dim fits and starts, kindling that can't quite catch flame. Yeah, I just drove into a nest of vampires. Doesn't matter. An apocalyptic demon and one of the worst vampires of all time are already lined up to kill me, so I don't guess my situation's gotten any worse.

The vampires let their battle go for the minute, start coming toward the truck. They're smiling, delighted and surprised and stupid, unable to believe their next meal drove right up to them.

To my surprise, Angelus reaches in his coat pocket and takes out the stakes I dropped before. He tosses one to me, his victim-to-be, who's sitting just a couple feet away. I say, "I thought I was the suicidal one."

"Like you're fast enough to stake me. No, our targets are out there. These --things -- don't even deserve to be vampires," Angelus says as he flicks his cigarette out the window. His lip curls, and for a moment he looks a little like Holland used to when he tasted an inferior Chenin Blanc. "Their median age is probably five days old. They have no idea who made them. No idea of serving anything besides their own appetites. In other words, they're not very different than they were as people. Mindless, ravenous fools. And they're taking over MY city? Not a chance. They haven't heard of me yet. I intend to change that."

"And I'm supposed to help you," I say. "What are we, some kind of S&M Batman and Robin?"

Angelus shrugs. "Help me or don't. You won't fight me for your life, but I'd like to see you fight, Lindsey. I want to see if there's anything left of a fight in you." The vampires are getting closer, and Angelus holds the stake up between his fingers, as though he were flipping them off. "If not -- don't worry. I won't let them kill you." He smiles, making it clear that he means nothing's going to stop him from killing me himself.

He's out of the truck in an instant, just as the pissed-off vampires charge him. Most of them, that is. About three of them are headed around to the driver's side.

Fight or die? It would be a lot easier to just give up now. But as one of the vampires pulls open the door, instinct takes over, and I punch out with the stake, dusting him instantly.

One of the others shrieks, "How did you do that? How did you do that? We're already dead!" Stupid bastard doesn't even know about getting staked. Out of the corner of my eye, I hear another vampire shrieking as he turns to dust, see one more tumbling through the air bonelessly.

"I did it like this," I say, staking the panicky one in an instant. The third one finally catches on, crouching just out of arm's reach.

More shrieking behind me. Clouds of dust are blowing across the hood of my truck. Angelus isn't wasting any time. He'll be done in a minute, and if I could hurry, if I could kill this vamp right here, right now, I'd have a few minutes to run like hell. I probably wouldn't get away. If I did, it would just be a matter of time before the Beast found me. But isn't it worth a try?

The third vamp says, "Okay, is that, like, a magic stick or something?"

"Something," I say, feinting right. He ducks left like the amateur he is, right into my waiting stake.

I look over at the other side of the truck. Angelus still has three vamps on him. If you didn't know it was him, you'd think he was in trouble. I have time to run. But once I run away from Angelus, it's just a matter of time before I get killed by the Beast. I wonder which of them would kill me faster.

Then I realize -- I want Angelus to do it. Not because I want to die, which I damn sure don't, but because at least if it's Angelus, it would be because of who I am, what I did. If it's the Beast, it's because of Wolfram & Hart. The firm swallowed up every other bit of my life; I'd like my death to belong to me.

Of course, I could off myself. But if I had the guts to do that, I would've done it a long time ago.

Instead, I go sliding across the hood of my truck, slamming my stake into one of the vampires fighting Angelus. I can't see them for the dust, but I can hear Angelus laughing as he kills another. Then he grabs the last vampire and slams her head into my truck again, and again, and again.

"Hey," I say, feeling the strongest emotion I've had in a few hours: annoyance. "Cut it out! You're gonna dent the door."

Angelus cackles in delight -- at his victory or at me, maybe both -- as he tosses the vampire to the ground. He twirls the stake in his hand, then puts it back in his pocket. "My name is Angelus," he says to the vampire, who's retching on the ground. "Tell everyone. You can fight me and die, or join me and rule this city. It's your choice." The vampire looks up at him, her eyes moist with pain and wonder. Angelus waves her off. "Go."

She runs away. Her sneakers blink red on every footstep. For the first time I realize she's probably no older than thirteen.

Thirteen. Jesus Christ. That's -- junior high. Or not quite. I remind myself that she's not a kid anymore -- not anything human anymore -- but it still hits me in a way I thought it wouldn't. In a way I thought I couldn't get hit anymore.

"And here we are, just you and me, beneath the stars," Angelus says, grinning at me. He twirls the stake in his hands like a six-gun. "I always wanted to fuck someone in the middle of the street, but the cops have a way of raining on your parade. But no cops around here."

I don't look at him, not exactly. I'm still trying to deal with the fact that I killed vampires for Angelus, with the fact that every vampire on these streets was a person, just a week or two ago. The unreal haze that had settled over me -- it's thinner now. Reality's closer. Too close.

Angelus, sensing the shift, sighs impatiently. "What, are you too virtuous for me right now? BOR-ing. I mean, we can do the whole rape thing, sure, but there's something really hot about seeing you give in without a fight."

This is my traitor body's cue to start getting hot for him again. Doesn't happen. I'm still confused and scared; right now, it seems like the only real thing in the whole world is my truck, the cold metal beneath my hands. Angelus still has power over me, unyielding as steel, but in this moment, it's not sexual. It's something else, something worse. "This isn't the way things are supposed to be," I say, inadequately.

"Oh, I get it," Angelus says. "You're on a little nostalgia trip. You miss those days when you thought changing your life would change your soul."

"You are way too into hearing yourself talk," I say.

"You want to get nostalgic? We can do that." Angelus steps up beside me, crooked grin on his face.

Then the smile's gone. His eyes get wide. His posture shifts -- the shoulders draw in just a little, the head a little further back. His chin drops just a little. Hesitantly, he says, "Lindsey?"

He doesn't look like Angelus. He looks like Angel.

I suck in a breath, almost reeling. Angelus doesn't react -- at least, not like Angelus. He slowly puts one hand on my shoulder, as if uncertain of my reaction. As if he'd run away from me at the slightest rejection. Even his grip is different -- more tentative, more comforting.

I choke out one word: "Don't."

"I know I hurt you," he whispers. "When you came to me, that first time you wanted out of the firm -- I was just so damn angry, Lindsey. So many things had gone wrong for me, and I didn't trust you. Maybe it was reasonable for me not to trust you. But it wasn't right. I know that. I always did."

"You aren't him," I say. "You can't even pretend to be him."

But he can, he can, and he's perfect. It's Angel standing here in the parking lot with me, Angel who's moving just a little bit closer, Angel who's pulling me down under this warm tide. Doing what Angelus couldn't. "Do you know how many times I wanted to tell you I was sorry? How many times I wanted to let it all go? I felt like you never gave me a chance to do that. But maybe I'm the one who never gave you a chance."

This isn't Angel. This isn't really the way Angel felt, the way he thought. What went down between us was as much my fault as it was his -- okay, way the hell more my fault than his -- but what he's saying now is better than the truth. It's exactly what I wanted to hear, all that time. Angel knew it all along. Those memories are spilling out of Angelus now, my cue in a play I wrote myself.

I look into his eyes, and I could swear I see the soul staring back at me. Angelus is too good at his games.

He tilts his head, just a little, the way dates did in high school to hint that they wanted a kiss. I reach out to him with the hand that's my own, trace around the edges of his jaw. He closes his eyes, as though just the touch of my skin against his is almost too much to bear.

His eyes still shut, he whispers, "Give me a chance, Lindsey."

Our mouths meet awkwardly at first, as though he really didn't know what to do. I'm the one who nudges my tongue between his lips; he responds slowly, gently, feeling his way. His mouth is cool and strangely sweet, as though he'd just had a glass of wine. But I'm the one who feels drunk -- heady and warm. This is our first kiss.

I slide my hands up to hold his face close so he can't let go. He puts his arms around me tenderly, in a lover's embrace. I can feel his fingers tracing along the lines of my back, outlining my waist, my shoulders, my spine. I pull him even closer. I wish I could pull him inside my skin and keep him warm.

He pulls his lips from mine to start kissing my face. My eyelids. My jaw. As he begins working his way down my throat, he whispers, "I won't hurt you. I wouldn't."

I'm coming alive again, not in the black, burning way I did when Angelus first attacked me. This is better. This fire wouldn't char me to ash; it would keep me warm. If it weren't a damn lie, that is. But I'm about past caring.

I run my hands down his chest, then up again, beneath his shirt. His muscles tense, and his nipples are hard beneath my fingertips. I move against him, feel his cock brush against mine. We both stiffen at the same moment, going thick against each other, and that makes the blood rush into my head so fast I feel dizzy.

"In the truck," I gasp.

His hands slide into my jean pockets, cup my ass. "No room to maneuver in the cab," he whispers, teasing in a voice that doesn't seem as much like Angel's. Or does it? Maybe this is how Angel sounds, when he's turned on and enjoying himself. All at once, I know that's how he sounds.

"I wasn't talking about the cab." I pull down the hatch of the truck, hop up into the flatbed. He raises an eyebrow, surprised and amused, then slides up beside me. The shocks squeak, and the metal is cold beneath us. I don't care.

I lie back, pulling him over me like a blanket. His face blots out the roiling, unnatural sky; I can only see his eyes, dark and soft and sincere. So sincere I'd mock him for it, if it were real --

I push away the thought, kiss him again. We start making out -- no other term for it. We're like teenagers, kissing and touching and kissing again, ravenous for something we don't dare to take. I feel him hard against my thigh. I know he can feel my pulse against his lips as he kisses my throat.

And my pulse is strong, I think stronger than it's been in years. My mind is ablaze, alight with possibility and intensity I haven't known in too long. I had been starving for so long I'd forgotten how to feel hungry, but I'm hungry now, so hungry I'll never get enough. Is it the lie that's brought me back to life, the idea of Angel making love to me? Or is it the truth -- that this is Angelus, that I am surrendering my soul, that I am finally, completely giving in to the evil inside me?

I'll figure it out after I come.

He moans into the curve of my neck, as if desperate with longing. I know he's going to wait for me to make the move. I take his hand and move it slowly down to my cock. He touches me for the first time, his square hand strong even through my jeans. Oh, godDAMN, that feels good. I arch up into his palm, and he grasps me as best he can through the denim.

"Touch me," I say. I try to make it sound like I'm ordering, not pleading. It doesn't really work.

Very deliberately, he looks into my eyes as he slowly unfastens my jeans. I feel his fingers, first through my boxers, then finally against my cock. I yanked myself off so many times today I thought I wouldn't ever be able to feel anything again, but I was wrong. Just his fingertips, cool and strong and sure, make me groan and push into his waiting fist. His hand is strong, stronger than a human's, and the pressure is almost as good as being inside him.

Oh, shit, I thought about it, I thought about being inside him, and just the idea of it -- his ass against my thighs, buried in him up to the hilt, sends me spiraling out of control. I pump into his hand again, and again, feeling the pressure of his hand and my cock, hardness on hardness, the beat of my blood within his cool flesh, again and again --

The world goes black, and something crashes inside me, and I can hear my own shouts echoing off the buildings around us as I come. His hand is hot and wet now, and he's still gripping me as I shake.

He whispers, "I want to make love to you."

I open my eyes to see him looking down at me tenderly. He says, even more quietly, his voice as warm and soft as candlewax, "Only if you want. Only if you're sure."

If I asked him to stop now, would the masquerade be over? I know the answer. I don't let myself think about it. "I want you to," I gasp. "I'm sure."

He tugs my jeans down, exposing me to the cold night air. That's not why I'm shivering. He kisses me once more, gentle and deep, then rolls me onto my side. I push one knee up for him, make it easier for him to get his hand where he wants it to go. His fingers are still warm and wet with my come as he pushes two of them inside me. He takes it slow. He knows how to make it not hurt. "Lindsey," he whispers, as though my name alone was everything he could ever want to say.

I breathe out the name. "Angel."

He pushes his fingers in deeper, then deeper again, then begins tracing circles with his fingertips. I feel myself opening up, relaxing, pushing back against him to get even closer. His fingers press against that one place, that place that makes your balls go tight and your cock get hard. When he slips in a third finger, I start to groan, making sounds like something in heat. It's so good, and it's still not enough.

Then he shifts his weight, pulls his hips up behind mine, and I feel his cock sliding slowly, slowly into me. It still hurts -- he's too big, and my own come isn't enough lube, not for him -- but I don't care. The pain just makes my nerve endings come alive. My whole body's electric as he pushes into me, splitting me open, digging deep.

He takes his time. He's gentle. He kisses the back of my neck softly as our bodies lock together.

Then he's in, as deep as he can go. He clutches at my shoulder and my waist, pulling our bodies closer together, thrusting slowly at first, then faster, then faster again. He's cold inside me, thick, so thick. I want him in deeper. I want him to tear me in two.

I move with him, making it harder, making it faster. It's hurting worse now, and he makes a hungry sound; I think he can smell my blood. I grab one of his hands and pull it down to my cock. He's not working me with his hand, but he grips me tightly, and I can thrust into him at the exact same speed he's thrusting into me --

He comes, cold in the depths of me. One more thrust and I come too, body shaking, mind numb.

We lie there for a couple of minutes, wordless, motionless. I pretend that we're lying in bed, not the flatbed of the truck. I pretend that the Beast isn't after me, that the world isn't ending, that the sky above us is just a sky.

Then he says, "You are a piece of work."

Spell broken. I look over my shoulder and see Angelus, who's shaking his head in what looks like disdain and amusement. I say, "Yeah, I'm the psycho in this picture."

Angelus pulls out of me, and now the pain isn't drowned out by anything. I wince as he shakes his head. "Just when I think you've sunk as low as you can possibly go, you fall through this trap door I couldn't even imagine."

"I got what I wanted," I tell him. It's a lie, and we both know it. His eyes narrow, and whatever twisted admiration he had for my insanity is gone for an instant. He hates me for being weak, and I hate myself for knowing he's right.

But then he relaxes and smiles at me, his eyes narrow and content, like those of a cat. "I think you're going to work out fine," he says.

I realize then what he wants from me, why he's kept me alive, why he's tested me as his lover and his fighter and even his goddamn chauffeur. "You're going to turn me," I say, and I can't control the shiver that goes down my back.

"I need someone to work with," Angelus says, leaning back against the side of the flatbed, his arms spread against the cab, as though he owned it. "Somebody I can make in my own image. Just between you and me, I was going to go with Lilah. She would have had a talent for it. Hell, she was practically a vampire when she was alive. When she met her untimely end, as opposed to the timely one I had planned for her, I was kind of at a loss. Cordelia, now --" A faint smile plays on his lips. "She would be brilliant. I mean, amazing. I can always tell. The Master himself would have wanted her turned, and damn, the two of us would have had some fine times. But somebody with that kind of talent -- they get greedy, Lindsey. They don't want a piece of the pie; they try to take the whole damn thing. So Cordy's out. I was just about to settle for Gunn when you came along."

Turned. Made a vampire. The one thing Wolfram & Hart promised never to do to you, the one promise they always kept. For a long time, it was the only thing left that frightened me. Then one night, in a wine cellar, with Darla's cool hands on either side of my face, it became the only thing I wanted.

I remember how bad I wanted it. I remember the hungry way she looked at me. I remember hearing Holland's body hit the ground, heavy and wet.

"No," I say automatically. I don't have any idea if I mean it or not. I feel the cold of the metal more than I did before, and I struggle into my clothes.

Angelus smiles at me, cocky and confident and smooth. "Don't worry," he says, beneath a sky that's shot through with jagged red bolts. "I'm not gonna do it against your will. Turning you, I mean. Fucking you against your will, sure. But turning -- we'll make a deal, right here and now. I won't do it until you ask me to." He casually reaches out, tucks a strand of my hair behind my ear. "And you will ask me to."

I want to tell him he's wrong. But I don't. I can't. Something's waking up inside me, something I thought was dead instead of just sleeping. I felt the shadow of it the first time I saw Angelus. But now it's on me, swallowing me up.

Purpose, evil and twisted and wrong but real, crackles through my brain like black fire. For the first time in two years, I'm hungry, I'm angry, I WANT. Everything I've done between leaving the firm and this very second was so much killing time. This, here, now -- this is real. No matter how much I don't want it to be.

They say that evil is only the absence of good, but they lie. I feel it now, settling back over me, and it warms me in a way I haven't felt in way too long.

I turn away from him, trying to shake off the cloud that's surrounding me. Angelus laughs, long and loud. "What's the matter, Lindsey?"

I don't want to love this feeling, this dark intensity of purpose. But I do. It feels like I've cracked through the dry white bone of my existence and found marrow: bloody, dark and rich. Why this? Why does Angelus' voice do to me what two years of charity work couldn't do? I dig deep into my reservoir of witty banter. "Shut up."

"You hate yourself for the things you want, don't you?" Angelus says. He's behind me now; I'm bracing my hands on the very back of the truck. "You hated yourself for wanting to leave the firm when you were in it, and you hate yourself for wanting to go back now that you're out. Sort of out. Whatever."

"I won't ask you to turn me," I say, trying to convince myself a lot harder than I'm trying to convince him. "If that's what you're waiting on, you might as well go ahead and kill me now. Not like you to waste this much time."

"You'd like me to make it that easy for you," Angelus says. "Not gonna happen. You're more delicious now than ever, right now. All that guilt you're giving off -- some people find it damn sexy. I ought to know."

I look at the faint yellow paint on the concrete, the spaces drawn out for cars that will never come back. I wonder how many yards I could run before he took me down, which space would be the one where I'd die.

Run, I tell myself. Just run like hell. Angelus would catch me, and he'd kill me, but that would be it. The end. No turning. No more asking myself if I would ever let him do that to me.

I vault out of the truck, fast enough that it catches him off guard. I make it to the ground, feel the pavement slam into my feet, start running like hell. Behind me, I can hear Angelus swearing -- but he's laughing. He knows he can catch me. I know it too.

But even as I run, I hear a commotion ahead. Yelling, fighting. More vamps, from the sound of it. Shit, shit, shit, better Angelus than some damn idiot who believes in magic sticks --

I skid to a stop at the entrance to an alleyway, just short of the shadows of some fighting. Several vamps are ringed around one figure, a man -- no, a boy. Someone young, anyway. But by the way he moves, he doesn't even look scared.

Angelus slams into my back, and I gasp as he hugs me from behind. "Oh, perfect," he murmurs in my ear. "I'm glad you guys are going to get acquainted."

"Is it the Beast?" I ask that too quickly.

"A teenager?" Angelus rolls his eyes. "Trust me. When the Beast shows, you'll know about it. Shut up and watch."

One of the vamps charges the boy, and he sidesteps the vamp smoothly, stakes him in one fluid motion. Dust rains softly down onto the concrete. The kid is intent -- too intent to even notice us, standing there in the shadows.

"That boy," Angelus whispers. "You're gonna help me kill him."

"No," I say. I mean it. I have to mean it. "I'm not helping you kill anybody."

"I seem to recall you killing for me a few minutes ago."

"Those were vampires." This kid, whoever he is, kills vampires. Does he do it because he's a Good Guy, or does he have other reasons, like me? This isn't a question I can afford to ask.

"If we don't kill him, he'll kill us."

It grabs at me -- death by an anonymous stranger, versus death by Angelus. Why does it matter to me? Dead's dead. Angelus pulls us forward into the dim halo of a streetlight, and I can see rhe boy's eyes go wide. I feel Angelus kiss me on the cheek, and I'm more aware than ever before that I'm not exactly pushing him off me. The boy whirls away from us, concentrating on the vampires around him again, but now there's no doubt -- "He's coming after us," I say.

"I hope so," Angelus said. "Let's make him work for it."

He pulls me into the building next to us -- a warehouse -- and quickly we ascend the stairs. I try to get my head around all of this; too much is happening too fast. This kid is coming after us. This kid might want to kill us. This kid is not a vampire.

As though he can read my mind -- and maybe he can -- Angelus says, low and smooth, "Don't you want to know who he is?" He flings open the door to the roof, draws me out on it. As one we go to the very edge, look down on the boy, fighting vampires -- fewer vampires -- below.. "Did it ever occur to you that I might actually have a really good reason for wanting him dead?"

"No. Why would it?"

"Fair enough." In my ear, he whispers, "That's the son of a bitch who killed Darla."


Part Five

Darla. Hair like cornsilk, eyes like the night. She would stare out my windows for hours. She said she'd never realized how much more beautiful a view could be, in the sunlight. She hummed music by Mozart, Bach, Chopin. I spent a month tending to her with all the devotion I'd never given anyone or anything in my life, while she lied and plotted against me. I wanted her despite that. I wanted her because of that. I wanted her only a little less than I wanted Angel.

I look at him, and the question must be plain in my face. Angelus mock-frowns, comically distraught. "Stake through the heart. In a back alley like this one, in the rain -- behind the garbage, Lindsey. She spent her last moments as trash out beside the dumpster. Smelled like spoiled food and catshit back there. Darla must have wanted to gag from it. I don't know; she didn't get a chance to tell me. I was so stupid that I felt bad for her. I tried to save her. But nothing could save her from Connor."

Connor. Her killer has a name. It slices into me, a flick of the blade. Connor.

He keeps talking. "Darla was mine. And I was hers. You think I don't wish she was with me right now? She wanted me to come out and play again so bad." He makes a face that would be grief in someone who could feel grief; on Angelus, it's grotesque. "My girl missed her chance. And Connor's gonna pay."

"She was a vampire," I say. I don't add, because of me. She had kissed me. She held up her bleeding hands after she broke all the mirrors. I don't know if she ever trusted me, but I know she wanted to. Of all the things I did for Wolfram & Hart, there's nothing that cuts at me like making Darla be turned into a vampire again. I turned her from the woman I thought I cared about into the monster I deserved. "If Connor killed her, he was only doing his job."

"He wasn't thinking about being a do-gooder at the time; that I can guarantee," Angelus says. He is smirking down at the alley, where the young man -- Connor -- is still fighting, so skillfully that it's obvious he's only toying with the vamps before dusting them. "He tells himself that's what he is -- a white knight, somebody right out of one of Holtz's fairy tales."

Holtz. The name's vaguely familiar. As I hear it, I can picture myself looking down at notes in a file folder. I can't remember the context. I know the folder was green; thanks a lot, long-term memory. "So he's just killing vampires for fun?"

"He's up there killing vampires because they remind him of me. And when I say 'me,' I mean Angel, souled version. That's the one Connor hates more. He welded me in a box and dropped me to the bottom of the ocean for four months. Total sensory deprivation -- the perfect torture. Hallucinated every physical or psychological hell my brain could come up with, and I can come up with a lot. At the time, I was seriously pissed off. Now I'm impressed AND seriously pissed off."

"You're lying," I say. I don't actually think he is. It scares me to think that I believe him.

Angelus lifts up three fingers. Scout's honor. "Every single word I've just told you is the truth."

"Last time I checked, you didn't need my help to kill people," I say. "Gone soft in your old age?"

"Going soft is not one of my problems, as I think I've proved to you the last few hours." Angelus' eyes rake over my body, and my skin shivers in remembered pleasure and pain. "Getting close to this guy is. He has a vampire's senses of smell and hearing. I don't want to take him out in a fight. That's all over too quickly. This -- this deserves time. Effort. Planning."

If this Connor killed Darla, I can't fault him for it. She was a monster. I made her one. His motivations don't really enter into the equation; once I did that to her, she had to be destroyed. But if he tortured Angel for four months, then he isn't a good guy, no matter how many vampires he kills, or why. If he's not a good guy, then maybe he has to be destroyed. Maybe my motivations don't enter into the equation. Maybe I can get revenge for Darla. For Angel. And to tell the truth, after days of being pretty sure I'm about to die, I have a real strong need to beat the shit out of somebody. Anybody.

But I still remember: All I have for this is Angelus' say-so. I believe him, but I think the evidence of the last several hours suggests that my perspective might be a little skewed right now. If Connor comes up here to kick my ass on guilt by association, he's right.

"I can't trust you," I say, in the understatement of the year.

Angelus sighs; I've started to bore him. "I tell you what," he says. "We'll try a little test. If Connor passes it -- then you can hide out up here with him, wait for the white hats to come home and hunt me down with a stake someday. Until the Beast kills you, of course. Minor detail. But if he fails -- then you'll know, Lindsey. Then you'll know he's evil."

"What kind of test?"

He tells me. Sounds straightforward. Sounds fair. It doesn't seem like there's any way for it to be a lie or a trap.

The last vamp is staked. Connor doesn't even look upward as he runs into the warehouse. Angelus waggles his eyebrows delightedly, then steps to the edge of the roof. "Let me know if you're running into trouble," he says. "G'night."

And with that, Angelus drops over the edge and leaves me alone on a rooftop, waiting for Connor. The murderer.

Darla stood in my doorway, burned and bloodied, flesh hanging from her in strips. "Help me," she said. And I will.


The door swings open with a clang. Connor's head whips over toward me, his shaggy hair flying. "Where's Angelus?" he says. His voice sounds young, but it still sounds like the voice of a dangerous man. "Who are you?

I hold up my hands. "I'm -- I just want to talk." Not the answer to either of his questions, but it's a start. He's asking questions instead of just skipping straight to the killing.

He squints at me. His stake is still gripped tightly in his hand. "Where is Angelus?"

"He jumped off the roof. Left me here." As far as it goes, it's accurate.

Connor breathes in, and at first I think it's a sign of emotion, though I can't tell what emotion it is. Then his eyes widen, and his face clouds in disgust. "I can smell him on you," he says, quiet and queasy, like a seasick man.

I don't have time to deal with teenage homophobia right now. "I did what I had to in order to survive," I say. "If you're gonna give me shit about that, get it over with. I've been through enough today."

"Sorry," Connor says sulkily. But for one moment his eyes are less predatory, and my trust in what Angelus told me about him -- which wasn't exactly rock-solid to start with -- wavers. If this kid is willing to try and understand about me screwing Angelus, then he's ahead of me. "Why didn't he kill you?"

"He was just about to get to that," I say. Amazing how well the truth works as an answer.

Connor goes to the edge of the building and peers down, looking for Angelus. There's no sign. I know what this kid doesn't know: Angelus hasn't gone far. Sighing, he slumps a little. He is wearing a big, floppy T-shirt and jeans, a wooden cross hanging from his belt, and somehow he seems younger to me than he did a moment ago. Sadder. And I know: He's not going to kill me. He didn't go judge, jury and executioner on me just because he saw me with Angelus, knows we're lovers. Not the homicidally insane juvenile Angelus was describing, that's for sure.

The test. It's time for the test. It's too simple to be a trap. Even Angelus couldn't make a trap out of something this simple. And if this kid isn't what Angelus says he is -- or if he is -- I want to know.

"We have to stop Angelus," I say.

"Yeah," Connor says, in a tone of voice that makes it clear he'd rather say something like, Of course we do, you jackass. "It isn't easy. He's strong. But I'll kill him soon."

Here we go. "I know a way to stop him," I say. "Not to kill him. To put his soul back in his body, to bring Angel back."

Even in the unnatural night, I can tell that Connor's gone pale. "How can you know that?" he demands.

"I used to work with a lot of black magic practitioners here in town. I'm not proud of that, but it's true. Some of them know about this kind of shit. They can change him back. Put his soul back in, so we have Angel again."

Connor is silent for a moment. A story or two below us, I know Angelus is listening. Connor smells him on my body so strongly that he must completely miss the fainter signs of Angelus on the ground.

Could this kid have killed Darla? Could he be evil? Could Angelus actually be telling me the truth? I find myself rooting for Connor, God knows why. Say yes, I think, say yes, you want to save him. Prove Angelus wrong.

At last, Connor's mouth twists into a snarl. "No," he says. "Angelus doesn't deserve a soul."

Holy shit. Angelus has been telling me the truth. It's the final slap of unreality that sends me reeling. I say, slowly, "He said you tortured him. He said you buried him at the bottom of the ocean for four months."

"He told you about me?" Connor says. "Why was he talking about me?"

"Mostly because he loves to hear himself talk," I say. But Angelus isn't the one I'm mad at anymore. I remember Darla in a hotel room, crying as I sent Drusilla to take her life. "Did you do that?"

Connor lifts his chin. "Yeah." He's proud of it.

Angel, in a box for months, hallucinating and in pain and afraid and unable to get out -- and that's probably what it's like for him now, for his soul, anyway --

I'm not turning this kid over to Angelus to torture and kill. I never intended to, no matter what that smug bastard thinks. If Connor had wanted to save Angel's soul, I would have walked away. I would have let what happened to Angel and Darla go.

But now -- I'm gonna kill this kid myself.

I walk a little closer. If this kid is as strong and fast as I think he is, surprise is pretty much my only shot. But Connor's a teenager, full of himself and probably underestimating the bruised-up fag with a vampire's smell on his jeans. "Where did you learn to fight?"

Connor says, "My father taught me." After a moment, he adds, "My REAL father." Whatever that means.

"You're pretty good," I say. Nothing takes defenses down like flattery. Amazing how quickly the Wolfram & Hart training kicks back in. Haven't used it in a while, but it's not even rusty. "Wish I'd run into you earlier." The better to kill him before he did what he did to the two vampires I was idiot enough to care about.

"You got away alive," Connor says. He sounds begrudging as he adds, "I guess you know what you're doing."

He's so far off it's not even funny. I try to make myself sound admiring as I step closer yet -- a half-second's swing from his jugular or his heart. "I heard what you did to Darla."

Connor frowns at me, wary and confused in a way I hadn't expected him to be. And then he says, "How did you know about my mother?"

Mother. Darla. I stare at Connor, and he stares back at me, and there's something in the set of the mouth that I realize is hers. There's something familiar about Connor's eyes, too -- but they aren't Darla's.

Darla. Angel. My mind layers their images over one another, and the face staring back at me is Connor's.

"Oh, God," I say. "Oh, shit."

"What?" Connor's angry now, angry and confused, and I don't have anything left in me to care. "Did you know my mother? What did you think I did to her?"

Did I know his mother? Do I know his father? I don't know anything. Vampires can't have children. Angelus said, He has a vampire's senses.

"He THINKS you killed her." Connor and I both whirl around to see Angelus, standing at the far end of the roof. He doesn't look remotely amused. "And he's right. By the way, Lindsey, this was not the plan. But I guess you know that."

"You lied to me," I say.

"Whoa, there's a shocker," Angelus says, walking closer. There's a swagger in his step, and his long coat sways slightly from side to side. "Actually, everything I told you was true, but maybe I left out a detail or two."

Connor glares at me, his stare as white-hot as -- as his father's. "You were helping him," he says. "You let him do that to you." No question what he means.

This kid tortured Angel. He wouldn't give back Angel's soul if he had the chance. He is Darla and Angel's son.

"Yeah, Lindsey here helps me out in all kinds of ways." Angelus keeps coming closer, and Connor's focused anger slides away from me. It's Angelus he's watching. "See, I know how to make friends. How to get my lovers to come back for more. Skills you haven't quite mastered, have you, boy?"

Connor's face pinches up in anger and pain. "It's all going to be different after I kill you," he says. Then, as an afterthought, he says to me, "And you."

"Oh, no, you don't," Angelus says. "You can't kill me. And I'm not going to let you kill Lindsey. He's mine."

"No," says a third voice, deeper and louder than thunder. "He's mine."

We all turn around to see, on the next building over, a figure that's about eight feet tall, horned and scaly, his golden eyes blazing as he looks at me. It's the face I remember from page 177.

The Beast is here, and this is the hour I'm going to die.

In one powerful leap, the Beast vaults over the alleyway and lands on our rooftop. The concrete cracks beneath his cloven hooves. Connor suddenly looks like the teenager he is, and even Angelus seems to be at a loss for words. All I can feel is the cold sweat that's covering me.

As one -- by instinct -- Connor and Angelus run toward the Beast.

The Beast doesn't even flinch as their blows land on his body, and he throws Connor aside easily. As the kid tumbles across the roof, the Beast rumbles, "It is not too late to join me, Angelus."

"I don't know what you heard," Angelus says, landing a savage kick on the Beast that seems to faze him not at all. "But I do NOT hire myself out as a henchman."

"I have gone to great trouble to find you," the Beast says. "Together we could rule." And then he tosses Angelus a dozen yards away.

Connor jumps the Beast again, and then it occurs to me -- what the FUCK am I doing standing here?

I run through the door, run downstairs, three steps at a time, more of a controlled fall than anything else. I know one or more of them is going to catch up with me, and soon, but goddamn if I'll just sit there and wait to see which one. I want it to happen fast, when it happens. I want it to be Angelus, but I lost my chance to choose. If I ever had a way out of this, I blew it.

It hits me: This is the last thing I'm ever gonna do. I'm running for the last time. I've seen the sun for the last time. My last meal was a granola bar. The T-shirt and jeans I'm wearing are the clothes I'll die in. This stairwell suddenly seems more real than anything I've seen in my life, the avocado-green paint on the cinderblock walls, the metal railing, the echo of my feet on cement. I can't say any of it's beautiful, but all of a sudden it seems like it's worth seeing.

When I slam against the door and run out into the street, I don't hear fighting upstairs. No crashing, no yelling. Battle's over, then. My murderer, whoever it may be, is probably coming after me right now. No matter which one it is, I can't get away. But I keep running. This is the last thing I'll ever do, and I don't want to stop.

I round a corner, and there's a group of people there -- yes, people. Not vamps. They're trying to load up stuff from an office into a van. Shit, they're gonna get killed too. "You have to get out of here," I say, trying to weave around them.

"We know," mutters a guy. "You want to help us out here? We could use it."

I open my mouth to say no, and then I read what's on the side of the van.

JAILBUSTERS: ATTORNEYS WHO CARE.

I hesitate, turn it over in my head once. "Offer me money."

The guy breathes out, frustrated. "You know, we've got enough trouble in this city without people trying to gouge people more desperate --"

"Offer me anything!" I yell. "Ten bucks! Five! One! Anything!"

He stares at me, then fishes in his pocket and holds out a twenty. "I'm not cheap," he says. I grab the bill in my hand, and in the next moment, the Beast comes around the corner.

The Beast roars. The ground beneath us shakes, and the Jailbusters group starts to scream. I feel panic clutch at me, but I force myself to step forward. In my left hand -- my own -- I hold up the twenty, and I try not to shake.

"Having accepted money to perform services for a law firm based within 100 miles of the main office of Wolfram & Hart without first securing a waiver, I am in violation of the noncompete clause of my employment contract," I say. "I am therefore no longer an independent contractor of Wolfram & Hart, and I am entitled to none of the rights and privileges thereto. I acknowledge their right to sue me in a court of law and in the venue of their choosing, and I accept that this means the permanent termination of my employment."

The Beast stares at me. Then he stares at the twenty. Then -- it's like he stops seeing me. His eyes unfocus, then look somewhere else. He stalks off, his heavy hooves pounding against the concrete. The pounding gets quieter as he walks father and farther away. And he's gone.

Whatever vengeance spell or curse was put on the firm, it was only put on current employees. Severing the contract breaks the spell completely. Some days, I really love that I went to law school. I want to laugh, but all I can do is stare at the empty place where the Beast was standing. I close my fist around the money.

"What the hell was that?" says the woman behind the wheel of the Jailbusters van.

"These days, who can tell?" says somebody else. "Let's move before it changes its mind and comes back."

I help them load up, quickly and efficiently. I am a very good employee.


The parking lot looks deserted. The dead bodies are still lying there. My truck is parked right where I left it. I slide my hand down to my front pocket, finger my keys.

For the first time in days, it seems like I could actually get out of this mess. The Beast is done with me, now and forever. But Angelus is still out there, somewhere -- somewhere close. Plus I just made a brand-new enemy named Connor who seems like he's, oh, maybe just a little bit better in a fight than I am. Can they smell me? Can they hear me? Angelus could be close, right now, listening to my heart beat faster --

No time for that shit. I have one chance to live, and it's sitting in the parking lot, and it takes a while to warm up, so I have to MOVE.

I run across the parking lot, not caring that my footsteps echo off the concrete. All that matters is getting to the truck, now, now, before they hear me, before they can find me. I slam into the side, pull open the door --

And there's Angelus, lying across the front seat, trying to hot-wire my truck. He glances up, looking pleasantly surprised. At least, as close as he gets to pleasant, which is not that close. Flash-quick, one of his hands wraps around my wrist, holding me in place. "I had you figured for the Beast's lunch meat," he says.

"The Beast isn't coming after me," I say. "Not now, not ever." But I'm still going to die. My hopes about staying alive scatter into the wind, ashes above a campfire.

"You got the Beast off your tail? How did you manage that?" Angelus looks royally pissed.

"That's my secret," I say. "Speaking of yours, where's Connor?"

"Limping home, wagging his tail behind him," Angelus says. He's stretched out, as comfortable as if he were about to take a nap. "What's got you hacked off about him? The fact that Darla had my baby? Or did you want to be the only one I'd ever fucked?"

"You said he killed her." Before I get killed, I want to know this one thing: "How did Darla really die?"

"He did kill her, in a manner of speaking," Angelus says. "She had to stake herself to give birth to him. You remember that morning she came crawling back to your place after screwing me all night long? That's the night Connor was made. I knocked her up and sent her back to your place to shower. Couldn't you have convinced her to douche? Would've saved me a world of trouble."

"That's bullshit. It couldn't have been then," I say. "I kinda noticed he's a teenager."

Angelus actually sighs. "That, Lindsey, is a long story. I don't really enjoy telling it, so it's gonna cost you a few teeth. Still want to ask questions?"

"Never mind." Darla staked herself? To have a child? That doesn't seem like the woman I knew and wanted at all. Then I realize -- it wasn't her, not exactly. She must have been so different, at the end. The Darla I knew wouldn't have given up her life for anyone or anything else. But she did.

I think of the alleyway, and the rain, and I see her pregnant and frightened. I see Angel with her, imagine what he felt, losing the woman he'd tried so hard to save, gaining a son he couldn't ever have thought he'd have. It's only my fantasy about something I didn't witness, but it feels like the one and only time I ever got close to them at all.

"I wasn't lying when I said Connor was evil," Angelus says. "You heard him for yourself. He's hanging out with Cordelia and the rest of the gang now, pretending to help them. But it's only a matter of time before one of them lets him down too hard, too often, and then he's going to start killing them off too. I can sense it." He's smiling. "He's like his old man, that way. You'd have been doing them a favor if you'd given him to me."

"I'm getting out of the favor business," I say. "Hope you enjoyed it while it lasted."

Angelus smiles mirthlessly. "You're talking like a bad-ass because you got the Beast off your back," he says. His hand clamps down harder on my wrist. "But you're not going anywhere now, are you? You know you belong to me."

He leaps from the truck in an instant, his arms slamming into my chest as we fall to the ground, hard. I make one desperate swing at him, but he pounds my fist back onto the pavement. I yell out in pain, but then his mouth covers mine. Angelus kisses me savagely, and I can feel his fangs graze my tongue.

I open my eyes to see the vampire staring down at me. He's grinning. "You belong to me," he repeats, and then he sinks his teeth into my neck.


Part Six

Angelus is drinking my blood. His body is heavy atop mine, heavy and cold. The jab of his fangs in my throat should hurt more -- but my strength's going, and I'm too lightheaded to hurt too much.

I feel the damp pavement cold beneath my back. My neck hurts, and I'm getting dizzy, and ten minutes after I thought I'd saved my life, I'm going to die. I thought it was inevitable, I thought I wanted him to do it, but now that it's come I want to fight him. I push against him, but he's too strong. My thoughts are scattered, sharp-edged, without meaning or emotion. They're like shards of a broken bottle. Everything is spilling out.

I'm dying.

Walking past Carole's office in the morning, hearing Joni Mitchell singing from computer speakers. That time it snowed, and Dad drove around to four neighbors' houses to get us enough pailfuls for a little snowman. Lilah and I smiling at the guests at the firm's charity ball. DZK pledge week, all porn videos and pushups. My mother's old gray cat, Chef Pierre, licking his paws on the windowsill. Darla smiling up at me from my sofa, swaddled in blankets and my own robe. Angel standing beside my truck, telling me goodbye.

"No," I gasp, pushing against Angelus, but he's as heavy and cold as stone. He shoves my hands down against the pavement, clamps down harder, drinks deeper. I feel his body move against mine, grinding into me, a mockery of sex. His cock presses against my hip, hard and insistent. My own body is responding, but it's pure instinct now, the loss of the blood, the closeness of death. Most men come at the moment they die, and it looks like I'm going to be one of them.

I tell myself I won't drink. It's a lie. In the end, everyone drinks. I know that too well. I watched Darla drink. Angel cried when he watched her. I smiled. Turning's no more than I deserve.

Who wouldn't want to get rid of a soul as screwed-up as mine?

Angelus is sucking at my neck, his lips no longer cold against my skin. Our chests are pressed against each other; my heartbeat is getting slow and strange, thumping weirdly inside me and against him. My skin prickles, white-hot and cool at once, and the pain is changing into something deeper and better, and everything in my body is tensing as I start to go.

I'll belong to him. I will be, finally and forever, evil. A flash of that black fire, that deep and terrible and beautiful purpose, flashes through my mind. It's the only warmth left in the world.

Angelus pulls his face from my neck and kisses me. His tongue delves deep. I can taste my own blood. I kiss him back.

Then he rolls off me and sits up.

I lie there for a moment, unable to do anything but wait for him to come back and kill me. But he's licking his lips, straightening his shirt. I try to push myself up on my arms, but it's like they're filled with water; they wobble, and I fall back.

Angelus glances over at me. "Need a hand up? Whoops, no, you already found a spare."

"Aren't you -- going to kill me?" I ask because I'm too confused to say anything else.

"Maybe," Angelus says. "Probably, eventually. But not tonight."

"Didn't -- feel like -- not tonight," I gasp.

"A preview of coming attractions," Angelus says. "You still have time to grab some popcorn before the show."

I manage to roll over on my side. My neck's still oozing blood, but slowly. I could faint or vomit, maybe both, but I try to hang on. "You're wasting time."

"You're in one hell of a hurry." Angelus raises an eyebrow, rests his back against the side of my truck. "Lindsey, I gotta admit it -- I'm procrastinating. Sometimes you run into a human who's just a little too much fun to hurt. You find one of those, you stretch it out, play it for all it's worth. Buffy was like that. Drusilla, now, she was the ultimate in that category. Even better than Buffy. However, the Russian and French judges are awarding you the bronze."

"You turned Drusilla," I point out. The black fire that had given me purpose for a few desperate seconds is already fading into so much smoke. But I don't want him to turn me. I don't. I can't.

"When I was ready, and not one second before. You, Lindsey -- you're the biggest snarl of guilt and perversion I've run into in the better part of a century. And it all flows right out of your twisted soul. When I suck that out of you, your torment goes too, and believe me, it's your best feature. Turning you is gonna be like throwing a Goya on the bonfire. It's a damned shame, but -- sometimes you need to stay warm."

"But not yet," I say. I think maybe I can sit up now. I try it, and my head reels, but I can manage. He must have stopped after a couple of pints.

"Not yet," Angelus says. "I'm not nearly done with my fun. And neither are you."

"This isn't my idea of fun."

"Tell it to somebody who hasn't got your come all over his clothes." Angelus frowns down at his black pants. "I bet there's not a dry-cleaners open in this entire city. Shit."

I look up at the black and roiling sky. I try to imagine driving out from underneath it, seeing the sun again. It feels like a cheap fantasy, something I'd laugh at in a movie. Something that doesn't happen to real people. "So what are you gonna do? Drag me around with you for weeks? Keep pretending to be your better half?"

I want to make love to you, he said. Angel's voice. Angel's face.

"Probably, eventually. But not tonight," Angelus says again. "You wanted me to turn you, Lindsey. Don't deny it. I felt you getting hard. I felt you kiss me back. And you hate what you're doing, back in Abilene or Knoxville or Baton Rouge or whatever backwater hell you've dragged yourself off to. You don't have anything left to lose except your soul. You're ready to lose that too. But giving in isn't enough for me, Lindsey. I want you to ask me for it. I want you to beg. When are you going to beg me?"

"Not tonight." That's the best answer I can give him. That's all I have to say for myself or my soul.

Angelus laughs, his face upturned, grinning in anticipation of victory. "Oh, Lindsey, we're going to have some good times turning you. Before, during and after. That I can promise. Until then -- hey, honey, let's go for a drive."

He scoops one arm beneath mine and hoists me up. I can't avoid leaning against him as he half-walks, half-drags me back to the truck. He slides me across to the passenger side and holds out his hand. "Keys. Unless you want me rummaging around in your pants some more, which isn't a bad idea --"

I hook the keys and toss them to him. He starts up the truck, grins approvingly as the motor grumbles into life. Angelus works the stick shift like a pro, steering us through the streets of L.A. I lean my head against the side window, trying to pull my head together. I'm still dizzy, still weak. I tell myself that's why I'm not fighting him.

Then I realize -- this neighborhood looks familiar. This street. And then Angelus pulls up right in front of the Hyperion Hotel. When I stare at him, he kills the motor and smiles. "All ashore who's going ashore."

"You're -- letting me go?" I expect him to laugh at me, then reveal some other labyrinthine plan of murder and revenge. Instead, he nods. Impossible. "You're lying."

"If we're going to spend the next several decades together -- and we are --you might as well learn this up front. I never lie when the truth will do." Angelus shifts closer to me, his face so near mine he must be able to feel my breath. My blood is still on his lips. "I told you that I wouldn't turn you until you asked me to. I won't. And you will."

He kisses me again, hard. I don't respond this time, even though my heartbeat rattles harder inside my chest. We can taste ourselves in each other's mouths. I wonder what it would be like to belong to him. To have all that doubt and fear and guilt gone forever.

Angelus pulls away just slightly, then licks my neck once, one last lap of my blood. Then he leans past me and opens my door. "Go on, Lindsey. Try to do all the stuff you told yourself you'd do if you got away. You've been dropped off right at Good Fight Central. No two-week old vampires are gonna pick you off the street; you're safe. Clear. Free as a bird. Nothing can fuck you up now except you. But 24 hours from now, if you're still in town -- when you're still in town, I'm going to find you. I'll know what you want, and by then, so will you. And then the fun really starts."

He climbs out of his own door and saunters off down the street, without looking back. He's that sure.

The Hyperion Hotel doesn't look quite as well-kept these days. Our surveillance agents used to report that Cordelia was out gardening a couple days a week, and about once a month she'd either break down and do the windows or get that Gunn guy to do them for her. Nobody's done any of that in a while. I guess if volcanic dust is raining down every day, tidiness becomes less of a priority.

I still feel like hell. I need to eat something, drink some juice, sleep for about three days. Will they let me? Fortunately, pretty much any shame I had left has been beaten and screwed out of me in the past day. Otherwise, even I wouldn't have the gall to walk in Angel Investigations and ask for help.

It would be different, if I hadn't been dropped off at their doorstep by my demon lover. I'd be sure of my welcome if I were going in there to take up arms. The world's ending, I could say. I'm here to fight with you. Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country. They'd eat that up; they love that kind of shit. But I'm not. I'm going in to beg them to keep me safe, and then, when they give in -- because they pretty much always do -- I'm going to lie there and decide if I'm ready to become a vampire and turn against them forever.

Even by my standards, this is low. If I didn't feel so much like I was about to pass out, I might not do it. But I'm going to. Hell, why should I stop taking advantage of other people at this late date? I might need to get back into practice.

The street looks clear of vamps. I take a couple of deep breaths, get out of the truck and walk as fast as I can to the front door. Wouldn't do to get killed or pass out right now. Much less to change my mind.

I go inside. I didn't come here but once. I didn't remember it being quite this big. Nobody's in the lobby. It feels -- empty. Emptier than it ought to. I realize that I imagine Angel in this place -- like even after everything I just went through with Angelus, Angel would still be in here, looking up arcana in his books, waiting to help the hopeless. The thought of him behind that counter stings more than I would have thought.

"Hello?" I say. "Anybody home?"

"Somebody," says a voice from the top of the stairs. "The others are on patrol. It's just me."

I look up and see Cordelia. She cocks her head, birdlike, as she stares down at me. Her hair's shorter, and she's gained a little weight. Amazing how much people change. "Lindsey McDonald," she says, more like somebody trying to recall your name at a cocktail party than somebody facing down an old enemy. She starts coming down the stairs, confident and regal, like the beauty-pageant contestant she undoubtedly was a time or two. "I didn't expect to see you here. Honestly? Never expected to see you again, period."

"The feeling's mutual," I tell her. "I had some business to clear up here after the firm got exterminated. Lilah had a plan to get us out of it. Came too late for her."

"So you're the one who helped Lilah get that book," she says as she draws closer. "Do we have to go through the whole fake-condolences thing? Because I'm pretty sure you're not sorry she's dead. I know I'm not."

"No point," I say. I wonder if the A.I. group pretended to be upset when the firm was slaughtered, or if they threw a party. Probably acted sad, drank toasts to the Beast in private. That's what I would have done in their place. Maybe they're better than I am. I guess I'm about to find out. "I ran into Angelus. Heard you guys let him out on purpose. If you don't mind me asking -- what the HELL were you thinking?"

Cordelia sighs. She looks tired all of a sudden. "It seemed like a good idea at the time." She walks right past me, pausing only when she reaches the weapons cabinet. As she braces one hand against it, she says, "Why are you here?"

No way to say this without swallowing my pride. What the hell: I've swallowed enough today. "Angelus walked off with a couple pints of my blood. I need a place to crash. You guys have a forgiving philosophy -- and a couple dozen spare rooms."

To my surprise, she looks amused. "You think this place is still in the forgiveness business, Lindsey? Excuse me for going, 'Shuh, RIGHT.'"

It sounds so weird, to hear her say that. Not that Cordelia ever struck me as the most warm-and-fuzzy of the crew. But then I realize -- she never would have said that, if Angel were here. Angel would have listened to me. Angel would have let me take advantage of him --- not without bitching and moaning, but he would have. He's still in this room, somehow; it's like I can hear him and Cordelia can't.

"What exactly changed around here?" I say. I have a feeling it changed before Angel's soul got snatched out. Bringing back Angelus -- that's hard and cold, not something they would have done before, not the way I remember them.

She gestures at the window. "You might have noticed that it's the end of the world out there. Anybody who thinks they can fight that with hugs and heart-shaped boxes of candy? Not with the program. Hard times make hard decisions. I think everyone here has learned that by now -- in other words, I finally got it through their thick heads."

Okay, Cordelia is now officially a hard-case. With Armageddon happening outside the door, I shouldn't be that surprised. This brings us to the begging portion of the evening. "I don't need much," I say. "And maybe --maybe I could help out. I got that book, so maybe there's other stuff I could do here."

I've moved straight from begging into outright betrayal -- promising to help out while I figure out if I'm going to Angelus. It stings. Not because Cordelia's looking at me with wide, dark eyes. Because I imagine Angel hearing it, believing me. Letting it go, walking me upstairs, talking about classic cars just to have something to say.

Cordelia pretends to stare into the weapons cabinet, so she doesn't have to meet my eyes. How awkward do you have to feel to stare at a double-edged axe instead of the person you're talking to? I remind myself: I deserve to catch some shit from these guys. And I need them. As much as I hate it, I need them.

At last, Cordelia shakes her head. "I don't think anything you could do here would really be helpful to me," she says. "Wesley knows as much as the team needs to know. I'm sure he'd agree."

He probably would. No question that hothead Gunn wouldn't give me the time of day. Fred doesn't know I saved her life or anything else about me, and Lorne probably remembers that I skipped town without settling my tab at Caritas. As far as I know, that only leaves Connor, and I kinda think I know how he would vote.

I swallow the last bit of dignity I've got left. "This place used to be about giving people a chance."

Cordelia looks at me almost regretfully. "All I can tell you is, if you'd come here before you left Wolfram & Hart, back when it mattered -- well, Lindsey, things would have been a lot different between you and me. But you didn't. And basically, all I need you to do is get out. These days, we can't afford a lot of dead weight."

Dead weight. Angelus' body on top of mine. Anger and humiliation crackle through me, and at a distance I can feel that black fire again.

She goes behind the counter and rummages around quickly. Then she pulls out a money bag and tugs out some cash. This plus my $20 from Jailbusters should give me enough cash to get to Arizona -- or to check into a hotel, leave the door unlocked and wait for Angelus to return. Cordelia says, "Go. Get gone. Keep yourself safe. And don't come back here again."

The only reason I can think of for her to give me this is that she remembers -- down deep -- what this place used to be about. Like Angel gave her a nudge. I wonder if his soul is trapped in this building now, influencing people without them knowing. I wish like I hell I could stay. I find myself imagining that hotel room with the unlocked door again -- but it's Angel I wish would come through the door, look at me the way he did in the back of the truck, but this time for real. Won't happen. Can't ever happen. But for the first time in too long, I know: That's what I really wanted.

"Goodbye, Cordelia," I say. And then, because I have to say something -- "I hope you win."

"I will," she says, and she smiles so confidently that it takes away some of the sting as I go out the door.

I get to my truck and start it up; Angelus left the keys in the ignition. The engine grinds gears a little as I start driving off. There's hotels close by. There's also signs that will take me to the highway, if I follow them long enough.

Finally, I know what I wanted, and it's something I can never have. Figures. The question is: What do I want now?


When I come in on Monday morning, I see Mr. Graham waiting for me. The note Carole left on my kitchen counter told me he'd be there, and that I'm over watering the ficus.

Same old industrial-grade carpeting. Same painted-paneling walls. Same yammering Mr. Graham. I'm not glad to be back. But I'm back.

Tandy will get the sofa. Yes, he is sure. He is really sure this time. Mr. Graham puts his pen to the paper, then looks up. "Just one thing --"

"Yes?" I say politely. I am, at this point, prepared to give Bryan my own sofa if it will finally shut this man up.

"When I was a teenager-- well, there was this girl, and we -- I have a daughter. We gave her up for adoption, and it's not like I've ever seen her or even tried to. We don't have to include her in the will, do we?"

I count to ten in my head, really slowly. "In Texas, a child given up for adoption retains inheritance rights from her biological parents, unless the adoption decree states otherwise. We've got to account for that."

"I knew I should have mentioned it before," Mr. Graham says. He crumples up the will without my telling him too. Just as well. It's worthless.

The end of the world is probably coming -- and soon -- and I'm not drinking champagne in Paris, making all Waltons-nice with my family, doing any of that big, bold, spectacular stuff. Instead, I'm counting off gray hours in a small room, doing work that is Good but feels like nothing. That's what I've done -- jumped straight back into this world of nothing to await the end.

They say that evil is only the absence of good, but they lie. Evil is real, tangible, intoxicating and beautiful, in its way. It eats you alive, it tears you up, and you don't even care. So maybe it's the other way around. Maybe good isn't anything real at all. Angel could have told me, if I'd ever asked him. I wish I'd asked him. I think about what it must have meant to him, to spend a century writhing in the memory of that black fire. Once he beat it out, Angel must have felt so -- quiet. So still. Maybe that's all he asked anymore, that quietness.

Maybe good is just the absence of evil. Or the absence of evil is as close as I'll ever get to goodness. As close as I'll ever get to Angel again.

I'll take it.

THE END


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