Miserere by Starlet2367

 

Summary: A summer-reading post-ep for Tomorrow.

 

Spoilers: Tomorrow, Season Three.

 

Notes: The working title for this story was Leave Tomorrow Behind, which is exactly what I wanted to do after I saw Tomorrow. Frustrated with the way Mutant Enemy threw the pieces off the board, I vowed to do something to fix it. After I finished, I found that, in my attempt to get the characters back to square one, the story had actually grown a theme.

So I changed the name to Miserere.

I like the fact that it means "mercy." It's also another name for the 51st Psalm, which is a plea for mercy, but more, it's a story of forgiveness.

In that Psalm God reveals that forgiveness is a revolutionary form of sacrifice. It requires us to leave the old ways behind. To see ourselves for what we really are: flawed, insecure, righteous, and frail—and to allow that knowledge to humble us in the true sense of the word. Not by making us less, but by showing us our true place in the world.

It's the kind of sacrifice that the main characters in this story are forced (or choose) to make. And though they all give up something precious as a result, what they gain in the end is an expanded knowledge of forgiveness—and love.

T
hanks to my writing coach, Ebonbird, for showing me how much more was possible—and making me work for it. To Tonya and Somogyi whose comments helped make a good first draft into a story worth reading. To Lark for the yeast that made the Challah rise. And to Julie Fortune for reminding me of the story I always meant to tell. This story wouldn't have happened without the proliferation of what-really-happened theories spawned by the Strangers, especially Ebonbird, Prima and Penny Century. Big kiss to Florrie, for giving me the link to the UK football site.

 


Miserere - n. 1, the 51st Psalm. 2. a prayer or expression of appeal for mercy. [L: lit., have pity]

"Kye-rumption.... It's when two great heroes meet on the field of battle and recognize their mutual fate." Fred, Offspring.


***

Fred rolled over and grabbed the shrilling cell phone. "'Lo."

"Hey, sleepyhead," Gunn said.

"Mmm, hey." She curled her body around the sound of his voice. "...Time's it?"

"About eight-thirty. Thought I'd swing by, bring my girl some breakfast." In the background she heard him rattle a bag. "Bet you can't guess what I got."

"Wait, wait, don't tell me." She laughed sleepily. "Um, two breakfast burritos, large, with extra salsa. A, um, donut...no, no, a cheese danish. And a chocolate chip muffin."

"Damn, you're good! What gave it away?"

"Well, it wouldn't be that I gave you the menu last night before you left, would it?" She kicked her legs and stretched luxuriously.

"Aw, man, you got me."

Fred sat up on the edge of the bed and the strap of the white, baby- doll nightgown slid down her arm. "That I do."

"That you do."

She glanced around the room. As usual, it was littered with clothes, take-out containers and books. Through the phone line she heard a car honk. "Where are ya?"

"Comin' down Wilshire. 'Bout to open the courtyard gate--" The hinges creaked. "Hear that?"

Crud. That didn't leave her much time. She hopped out of bed, kicked yesterday's jeans toward the hamper and shoved the empty containers out of sight.

"Uh huh, sure do." She jerked the covers up over the pillow. "That means you're getting close. I should probably get out of bed and make myself decent." The tin of Altoids rattled when she opened the bedside table drawer.

"Not on my account, baby."

"Oh, Charles." She giggled then popped a mint. The phone on the nightstand rang. "Shoot. Can ya hang on a sec? The phone's ringing."

"Let Cordy get it."

"She's probably not here yet. Hang on--I'll be right back." She dropped the cell phone on the bed and answered the blinking landline.

"Hello?"

"Is this Angel Investigations?"

A painted wooden box sat, lid askew, on the nightstand. "Yessir." She peered into the container and started sifting through the contents. "We help the hopeless. How can we help you?" One of her elastic hair bands had gotten tangled in the tines of a small voltage tester. She pulled the band free and slipped it on her wrist.

"Ma'am, this is the vehicle impoundment center of LAPD."

The next trick was finding her hairbrush. She dropped to her hands and knees and lifted the bed skirt. Sure enough, it had gotten kicked under with the food containers and now leaned precariously against Tuesday's Moo Goo Gai Pan.

"Uh huh?" She scooped the brush out and knelt next to the bed, where she began smoothing out the night's tangles.

"Do you own a `67 Plymouth convertible?"

Her hand stilled, mid-stroke. "My boss does. Why?"

Her eyes widened as she listened. "Abandoned? At Point Dume? When?" She tapped the brush against her palm. "That can't be right. He went out there last night to meet--"

"Knock, knock," Gunn called.

"Hang on." She scrambled to her feet and opened the door for Gunn. "Yes," she said, waving him in. "I'm authorized to pick it up. Yes, we'll be there in an hour. Thank you very much." She hung up.

Gunn dropped the brown paper bag onto the dresser. "What's goin' on?" He grabbed her blue flowered robe off the back of the chair.

She pitched the brush toward the bed where it bounced off and landed on the carpet. "LAPD found Angel's car at the Point." She took the robe from him and threaded her arms through the sleeves. As she knotted the sash her eyes widened. "Oh, my God, Gunn."

He put his hands on her shoulders. "Don't even go there," he said, patting her gently. "Probably Cordy had a vision or something and they took off."

"Sun's been up for hours." Panic thickened her voice. "Angel always calls if he's gonna be out past sunrise." She pulled away from him and started pacing.

"Look," Gunn said, and his deep voice went into "soothe" mode. "Why don't I go up and check his room? You never know. He might have had car trouble and had her drop him off here."

"Good idea." She turned back toward the bed and the robe flared like Angel's duster. "And while you do that, I'm gonna call his cell phone."

"Which is probably in his jacket downstairs." He smiled. "Why not start with hers?"

Fred had the phone in her hand, watching as Gunn made his way out the door. "I have a bad feeling about this," she said to his retreating back.

"I'm sure everything is fine," he called as he disappeared down the hall.

Five minutes later, he was back, looking significantly less calm, and Fred had called every number available for Angel and Cordy. "No luck?" she asked, nervously snapping the hair band on her wrist.

Gunn shook his head. "Hasn't been in all night, from the look of it. You?"

"Nothing." They stared at each other.

"Okay, so what's the plan?"

"I'm the physicist, not the strategist."

"Okay. Let's get the car first then drive over to the Point and see what's what. You remember those directions?"

"Yeah." She nodded. "Just let me get dressed. I'll meet you downstairs in ten."

***

Wes woke up wrapped in sheets that smelled like Lilah.

"Oh, God," he groaned, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes.

The clock on the nightstand read 9:24. Sun bore down brightly through the slats of the half-drawn shade.

Wes rolled out of bed, stripping the sheets as he went.

He dumped the soiled linen into the bathroom hamper and turned to the sink. The mirrored medicine cabinet reflected him back, pale and unshaven. His hand appeared, first in the reflection, then on the door handle and the cabinet opened with its usual metal-hinged squeak.

Unthinking, he reached for his razor. Light caught the blade, throwing off a sharp-edged gleam. The razor fell into the sink with a clatter.

That queasy, morning-after feeling intensified.

"Dammit," he muttered. With a trembling hand he picked the razor up and looked at it, then, again, at the scar on his throat.

A tug of war: to shave or not to shave. His face was nearly hidden by stubble, but the doctor said to wait until the scar was completely healed. He set the razor back in the medicine chest and closed the door.

His shoulders slumped and for a moment he stood, braced against the sink.

Then he turned and twisted the knob in the shower. Spray hissed against the plastic liner as he adjusted the water well into the red zone. Slowly, feeling the pull of sore muscles, he stepped over the edge of the tub. The sting of scalding water against raw flesh was a shock. Somehow he hadn't connected the reality of Lilah's nails with what she'd carved out of him.

He lathered his body in the same pattern as always: left arm, right arm; left leg, right leg; face, torso, genitals. Then he stood, eyes closed, arms hanging limply, until the water ran cold.

Finally, shivering, he turned off the tap, got out of the tub and dried himself. He closed the curtain with a lethargic tug and draped the towel over the rod, making sure to line up all the corners. Then he went to the bedroom to dress.

As he pulled on his shirt, he noticed that the knuckles on his right hand were scraped. There was a dull roar in his head, the flash of Lilah's mocking eyes, and the jarring feel of bone meeting flesh.

When he came to he found himself kneeling on the floor wearing only his boxers and unbuttoned shirt.

He looked slowly around the room, noticing the exposed mattress and discarded comforter. Through the open closet door he could see a pair of pants trailing from a hanger. He stood, joints crackling, and focused on setting everything to rights.

At last he slipped into his jeans and shuffled to the kitchen. There he pulled down the teapot Fred brought over that morning in the hospital. His hands clenched on the antique bone china and in its rounded edge he saw her hot, accusing stare.

There was a dull "chink" and the sound of glass shards hitting tile. "No," he cried. The pot--his grandmother's--lay in pieces on the counter top. He scrambled to collect them, ignoring the way the raw edges shaved his fingers open.

"Have to fix it," he muttered. But the pieces kept slipping out of his trembling hands, breaking into smaller and smaller shards. It didn't take long to figure out the pot was beyond repair.

He set the remains carefully on the counter, pulled a couple of paper towels off the roll, and wrapped them around his bleeding fingers. Then he went to collect the paper from the hallway.

It wasn't the first time he'd been unemployed and alone. One would think he should be used to it by now.

***

They pulled into the impound lot and Gunn turned off the engine. "Okay. Guard says we go to the window and tell `em who we are."

They climbed out of the primer-coated truck and walked to the window.

"Hi," Fred said to the uniformed guard behind the glass.

He nodded at her. "You here to pick up a car?"

"Yes, sir. I'm with Angel Investigations. Our company car was impounded last night." She pulled out her license, a copy of the registration, and the insurance papers.

"That'll be three hundred dollars," he said.

"Okay." Fred reached into her bag and pulled out a wad of bills. "I wasn't sure how much it would cost," she said sheepishly, as she counted out twenties.

"You let her carry that much dough?"

Gunn shrugged. "Not much choice," he replied with a smile.

The guard grinned back. "I heard that." He took the money from Fred and stuck it in the drawer then he reached behind him to a hook- covered board and pulled off a set of keys. "I'll drive it out," he said, and he disappeared into the garage.

A moment later the door rolled up and he drove the black Plymouth out into the bright, morning sun. "Honey of a car," he said. "Rides real sweet."

"Should, considering the money we put into it," Fred said. She glanced over his shoulder, her eye caught by a bright flash. "Oh, my God." She grabbed Gunn's arm. "Is that…?" She pointed toward the rows of cars inside the garage. A yellow Jeep sat next to the space vacated by Angel's car.

Gunn skimmed the license plate. "Oh, shit." He whipped around and pinned the attendant with his gaze. "Hey, can you check on something for me?"

"What?" the attendant asked, glancing up from the Batmobile.

"That Jeep," he said, nodding toward Cordy's ride. "It belongs to our other co-worker. Can you tell me where you pulled it in from?"

The attendant shrugged. "You can't pick it up unless you're on the registration or the insurance papers."

Gunn nodded. "I know. It's okay. We can leave it here. We just need to know."

Fred clenched his arm tighter. "Yeah, it'd be real helpful."

The attendant wandered back to the office. "Hang on a minute."

"Thanks," Gunn said. He reached up and tapped Fred's hand gently. She released his arm, slid her hand down, and laced their fingers together.

By the time they made it to the office he was nodding. "Uh huh. Belongs to Cordelia Chase."

"When was it brought in?" Gunn prompted. "Can you tell us that?"

"Oh, sure." He ran his finger down the page. "Uh, about one o'clock. Huh. That's interesting. About the same time as his," he said, jerking a thumb toward the convertible. "I remember his only 'cause we don't get that many in here."

"So you were on shift all night?"

"Yeah, twelve to twelve. Three on, four off."

"Good schedule," Gunn said. "So, if you found his at the Point, where'd you find hers?"

The guy frowned in concentration. "Hang on," he said, glancing at the report again. "Abandoned on the side of the highway." He pointed to the report. "My first guess would be that she ran out of gas, but she had three-quarters of a tank." He leaned on his elbows, his eyes sparking with curiosity. "What happened, if you don't mind my asking?"

Gunn shook his head. "We don't know. They didn't come in last night, didn't call. They're good about checking in."

"Maybe they just, you know," the guy said. He waggled his eyebrows.

"If they never even met, how could they, you know?" Fred asked, voice tight.

The attendant shook his head. "People want to be together bad enough, anything's possible." He held up his hands. "All I'm sayin' is there weren't any signs of foul play at either site, 'cause if there were, I wouldn't be holding the cars in General."

Fred nodded. "Okay. You've been incredibly helpful."

"Hey, it's a quiet morning. Glad to do it." He nodded toward the convertible again. "Hope you find 'em."

"Me too."

Gunn took Fred by the elbow. "Come on. Let's get the car back to the hotel. Then we head to Cordy's, check out her place."

"And after that?"

He shrugged. "Guess we just do what we do."

"What does that mean?"

"Well, we're detectives, right?"

Her face cleared. "Oh, right. We detect."

***

"So, y'all didn't hear anything? Anything at all?" Gunn popped a peanut in his mouth.

They were at a bar on Figueroa that had always been Angel's last resort. The lights were on as the cleaning crew worked. The room smelled of spilled beer and ammonia, and in the light of day, the place looked dingier than it did at night. Which was saying something.

"Nope," the first-shift bartender said as he counted the till. "Not about them, anyway."

Fred pulled the cherry off the little red sword and chewed thoughtfully. "So does that mean you heard something else?" The sword fell to the napkin beside her Shirley Temple.

"Seems like there's a new Big Bad in town," the bartender said, glancing around the bar. He leaned closer, spoke under his breath. "Mosta my clients are of the demon variety."

Gunn nodded sagely. "Which is why we're here," he said, rattling the ice in his Coke glass. "'Cause you're always the one we go to first for news about the demon world." He glanced at Fred. "Always say that, don't we? Need demon news first, go to Jim-Jim's."

Fred nodded. "You bet," she agreed. "So, what'd you hear?"

The bartender glanced from one to the other, obviously not buying their poor attempt at bullshit. "Nothing you couldn't find out anywhere else," he said. "Dude calls himself The Destroyer." He shook his head. "Heard he looks more like Peter Pan, but that didn't stop him from taking the head off a Durstler last night."

Fred and Gunn looked at each other. "Oh, crap."

"You said it," Fred muttered.

The bartender dropped the cash tray into the register and closed the machine with a bright ding. "What, you know the guy?"

Fred pushed away from the bar. "Can't really say." She glanced at Gunn, eyes full of worry and fear. "You ready?"

He laid down enough money for their drinks and a healthy tip. "Yeah. Thanks, man. We'll see you around, huh?"

"I'd stay clear of him," the bartender called. "He sounds like bad news."

"Thanks," Fred replied. They exited into late afternoon. "Holy crap," she said, turning to Gunn. "Connor's the Destroyer?" She shivered despite the heat. "That's crazy."

"Yeah, but it makes sense if you think about it."

"Makes sense, how?"

Gunn slid his sunglasses on. "Well, he was what the sluks were running from, right? Plus, he really likes killing things."

"But what about Angel and Cordy?" She paused, brow furrowed. "Say Connor is the Destroyer, what does that have to do with not being able to find Angel and Cordy?"

Gunn looked up and down Figueroa. The restaurant across the street held a mix of wilting tourists and overly-tanned locals. Normal folks who never had to think about things that went chomp in the night. And it was his job to make sure they never did.

He began turning over options. "Maybe nothing."

"We need help," Fred said. Her eyes widened as an idea struck. "Lorne- -we should call Lorne."

"Why? He split to Vegas."

"Because we need him. We need *someone*," she said. "We can't do this alone."

He put his arm around her and walked her toward the truck. "I don't know why not," he said. "I've been thinking. Why can't we just do a locating spell and find 'em ourselves? After that, we can work on tracking down Connor."

Fred pulled back. "Magic? Us? Charles, that's like asking me to go on TV and impersonate Julia Child. Ya can't just," she waved her hand wildly, "suddenly think you're an expert because you once heated some fish sticks."

He took her hand. "Well, I say let's give it a shot. I mean, we have the books. We know where to get the supplies. I'll even help you do it, okay?"

"What do you mean, you'll help *me*?" she squeaked. "When did I become the spell caster?"

"You *are* the resident genius, right?" he reminded her, opening the passenger door and helping her in.

***

Wesley sat on the couch staring blankly out the window. Sun slashed him across the face and chest, where before there had been only the soft glow of ambient light. Must mean the day was getting on, then.

"Really should get up from here," he whispered, as he rolled the bottle of Glenfiddich between his palms. There was much to be done: organizing his books, catching up on correspondence, giving the place a good, thorough cleaning. Now that he was free, he could focus on anything he chose.

Free. Ah, yes. He tapped his fingernails against the glass, and the flat ping rang through the silent apartment.

He was certainly a free man, now. Free of all entanglements, of all commitments. He could go anywhere, do anything, and no one would care.

He rubbed his chest absently and thought, again, of Connor. In his weaker moments, Wesley had dreamed of finding him and bringing him back safely. But someone obviously beat him to it.

His laugh felt dry in his throat.

Connor fought with a boy's exuberance, spending energy as if he had pockets full. Against Angel's spare, lean moves, Connor was an explosion, a dervish.

And yet the core was there. In those few seconds he witnessed, Wes saw in Connor the makings of a fighter every bit as good, if not better than his father.

Death into life, death made flesh. A chill walked over Wesley's spine.

Was Connor Angel's Shanshu, then?

Wes shook his head. Prophecies. What good were they when they led you down the wrong path? He bounced the bottle absently against his knee. As far as he was concerned, they were near useless. He wondered if he would ever find itself within him to believe one again.

"A crisis of faith," he mumbled. Then he blinked, realizing what he'd said. "A crisis of faith," he repeated. What was the remedy of this sort of crisis, he wondered. Years of church, years of schooling, even years of living in the real world hadn't prepared him for such a loss.

He stared into an abyss so large that it was impossible to see the edges. An abyss whose mouth was opening to consume you as you waited, helpless and unable to fight back.

He lifted the bottle and against his cheek the glass felt cool and dense. Out the corner of his eye, the five fingers of Scotch rocked, waves against a dock. He licked his lips and let the memory of its warm burn and peat-smoke flavor comfort him.

He had promised himself he wouldn't start drinking until five and if he'd failed at keeping the big promises, he refused to fail at the small ones. So he set the bottle on his knee again.

It was so clear now, how Angel and Cordelia had rescued him from a life that was going nowhere. How they'd made room in their tight circle for him. Neither of them knew the wall their connection threw up around them, the way it blocked everyone else out.

Despite that, they'd been a family. Meant for each other. Or so he'd believed.

Cordelia, no matter what she'd said about there being no one for them, had certainly jumped at the chance to pair up with Groo. He'd seen what that did to Angel, who had--sometime when Wes wasn't looking--fallen in love with her.

He stared at his hand, at the fingers wrapped tightly around the long, glass neck, at the fleshy pad of his thumb resting against the cap. His skin whitened when he mashed it against the black plastic, went pink again when he relieved the pressure.

Maybe they'd all just needed to relieve some pressure. Maybe that's why Cordy had been so quick to leave with Groo. After all she'd been through she certainly deserved some pleasure in her life.

Of course, she could have called to check in. Though he didn't know why he had expected it. After all, Cordelia's first instinct was hardly to think of others.

He slapped the bottle down on the coffee table.

If Cordy had been there, none of this would have happened.

He stared out the window, jaw clenched.

And then the anger leached out of him like evaporating steam. He could blame Cordy if he wanted to. But, really, he was the one responsible. If it weren't for him, their family would still be together, and he wouldn't be sitting here alone, waiting for evening to give him permission to drink.

A golden slant of sun fell across his knees. He stared at it until his eyes watered. Then he glanced at his watch. 5:07. The black plastic top unscrewed with a cooperative snick-hiss.

He didn't bother with a glass.

***

Connor and Justine stood back-to-back, surrounded by a ring of vamps.

"Call yourself the Destroyer, do you?" one of the demons jeered.

"With good reason," Justine said.

"Well, come on," taunted another. "Destroy me." He got close enough that his long-armed slap brushed Connor's temple.

Over the pounding of his pulse Connor barely felt the blow. The blood filled him, temples to wrists to ankles. It tasted like a hot blade on the back of his tongue.

Father had trained him to honor its beat. It separated him from demons and carried him in battle.

"Aren't you gonna say anything, Peter Pan? Or maybe I should call you Wendy?"

The vamps laughed, pulling their already distorted faces into something uglier. The breeze danced down the sticky concrete and his nostrils flared at the sour smell of their dead flesh.

It was strange that Angelus had not smelled that way.

Angelus disguised his demon nature well, but that did not deliver him of wrongdoing. He deserved every pain that a demon could feel. Every pain....

The liquid heat of Connor's pulse flashed like Quar-Toth's red lightning. With a cry, he slipped into its core.

In less than a minute, the dust of six vamps wreathed the air. War drums pounded in his head and over them he heard a moan, a human sound, and he remembered Justine.

She leaned against the wall, clutching her side. At her feet lay a shattered stake.

He slipped his own stake into his pocket and went to her. "Can I be of assistance?"

She laughed harshly, and he saw then that she was not injured, merely breathing hard. "Gettin' old's a bitch."

Connor turned toward the sodium glare of the street lights. "Father used to say that."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to--"

"Do you need anything? Food? Drink? Rest?" He looked over his shoulder.

"No, thanks." Her smile was bright, her eyes fevered.

It was a look he understood. Before he could think better of it, he continued, "I feel at home with you."

Justine's eyes widened. "You do?"

He strained against the mouth of the alley, water at a dam. "Are you ready to continue?"

The blood was calling. He forgot to wait for her response. ***

A loud bang rocked the Hyperion's lobby.

"Oh, crap," yelped Fred. "I think we just blew up the table."

"Angel's gonna be pissed," Gunn said, waving away the cloud of crimson smoke. "You think we can fix it?"

Fred leaned down and inspected the scorched wood. "Nope. It's a goner." She sighed. "So's the spell book, the candles and the...." She looked up at him, eyes watering in frustration. "I suck at this."

Gunn walked around the table and rubbed his hand across her back. He could feel the tension coiled in the long, thin line of muscle. "You did better than I would've."

"I doubt it." She stood and leaned her head on his shoulder. "What are we gonna do? They *need* us."

Gunn glanced around the too-quiet office. It unnerved him. He was used to it being full of voices, ringing phones, movement. Now it felt open, empty. Like it should be boarded up and left for the pigeons.

He decided to just spit it out, the fear that had been nagging him all day. "Honey, we don't know that," he said, as he gazed out at the echoing lobby. "They may not need us at all."

She touched his arm, drawing his gaze back to her. "I don't believe that." Her chin trembled. "They're not dead, Charles. I'd know it if they were."

He turned her toward him, massaged her shoulders comfortingly. "I'm just sayin'…."

She slapped the charred spell book. "Maybe I can't do this, but someone can." She ducked out of his embrace and went to the desk. "Someone in here can do this," she said, yanking the Yellow Pages out of the drawer. "And I'm gonna find `em."

***

Wes stared into his drink, watching the Scotch's rich caramel color break down under the melting ice. The Pogues filtered through the speakers, Shane MacGowan's bleeding Irish vocals the perfect background to Wes's sour mood.

On the telly Man U was beating the holy hell out of Chelsea. Normally, he'd have been pulling for Chelsea just because he despised Manchester United, but today he found himself secretly pleased when the camera caught a Man U forward brutally working the heels of Chelsea's star player.

"Is this seat taken?"

His back stiffened. "Yes," he said, not bothering to turn around.

"That's funny." She slid the chair out. "Seeing as how you're one of only three people in here, and the others look as lone-wolf as you."

He sighed. "Lilah," he said, turning to face her. "Once wasn't enough?"

She smiled, a slight quirk of lips. "With you? More than."

He blinked against the whiskey haze. "Why are you here, then?" He tapped his glass absently with his fingertips.

She picked it up and sniffed. "Mmm," she said. "Bartender? Another round for him and one for me, please." She set the glass down. "For a guy who's got nothing left to live for, you sure can pick your Scotch."

He shrugged. "A man's got to have some standards."

Lilah laughed. "Oh, yes. Some."

Wes stared at her sullenly while the match raged on the screen behind him.

"Order up," the bartender called.

She went to the bar, paid, and came back with two tumblers. "Here's to standards." She tapped his glass with hers and took a sip.

Wes went back to watching the match.

"Too bad the ref didn't catch that foul. Chelsea might've had a chance," Lilah commented.

Wes glanced at her, his brow arched. "Showing basic knowledge of my country's home sport, Lilah? If it weren't so obvious a ploy to ingratiate yourself, I'd say I was impressed." He turned back to the game.

"I should get points for effort, though, don't you think?"

"If I give you points will you leave?"

"Poor Wes. Turned out by his family. Nothing to do but drink and brood." She sighed dramatically. "All that education going to waste. It's such a shame."

"Like you care."

She snorted. "Oh, but I do." She ran her finger up his sleeve. "I care a lot about that enormous...brain of yours."

"You're so predictable. You think I didn't see the ad you ran in the paper?" He slid his eyes away from the match. "VP of Research, Lilah? Why didn't you just write my name in the blank and be done with it?"

"There's an ad in the paper by that title? My, my. What were the odds?"

"Oh, please. Quit playing games."

"But, why, when I've finally got a worthy adversary?"

"What, you couldn't get a hit off of Angel, so you thought you'd give me a go?"

"You're hardly second best, Wesley."

"I didn't say I was. I said you were a low-class--"

"Now, now, Wes," she interrupted. "That's not very nice. Especially when I'm just a company girl going the extra mile for my employer." She leaned in, voice low and seductive. "But you'd know all about that, wouldn't you?"

"Would I?"

"Oh, I'd say so. Interpreting prophecies, saving the boy all by your lonesome. Bet you're doing a lot of things by your lonesome these days."

He grunted.

"You know, Wes, I've been asking myself something."

"Why you exist?"

"No, although that is a question for the ages. More like, what do you have to lose? You're already damned. Why not team up with people who can fully appreciate your intelligence and put it to good use?"

"You call working for a company that's the personification of evil putting my skills to good use?"

She rolled her eyes. "Don't be such an innocent. We don't embody evil any more than anyone else does." She tapped a well-manicured nail on the table. "Including you."

He flinched.

"Ah, I see you wondered about that. Realizing you'd played right into Holtz's hands, that'd have to grate."

"You have no idea what grates on me, Lilah. If you did, you wouldn't be sitting here."

She covered his hand with hers and said, in a disarmingly sympathetic voice, "Seems to me that, in your world, the good guy never wins. I mean, heck, the good guy got his throat slit and lost all his friends." She leaned forward. "Maybe, you should give the other side a try."

As she drew closer, the Budweiser sign's neon flashed illuminated the faint traces of a fist-sized bruise on her jaw. Well hidden by make- up, but obviously not more than a couple of days old.

His scraped knuckles tingled and his head filled with a dull roar.

When he came to she was staring at him, eyes as sly as her smirk. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"

He swallowed back a burst of acid and said bitterly, "What do you get when you mix a misinterpreted prophecy, a resurrected vampire hunter, and a baby stolen and returned grown like some sort of comic book character?"

Her smile widened. "The bad punch-line to a cosmic joke?"

Wes flinched. "No. My life." He shoved away from the table, reached into his pocket, and dropped several bills next to his sweating glass. "Well, as much fun as this little chat hasn't been, I believe it's time for me to go."

She watched him out of cat's eyes. "If you're sure." She stood, smoothed her skirt, and smiled deliberately when his gaze followed the movement of her hand. "Why don't I walk you out."

***

Lorne sat at the small, round table in the corner of All Bets Are Off, nursing his drink and listening to a client sing.

"Hey, Lorne," Mickey, the bartender and owner of All Bets, yelled over the din. "You got a phone call."

Lorne laid his hand on the lapel of his lavender silk jacket and made a "Me?" expression.

Mickey nodded. "Some girl. Got a guy's name."

He blinked. "Fred?"

"Yeah. Sounds right." He jerked a thumb toward the office door. "She's been on hold a coupla minutes." He went back to mixing a Caucasian for the line-backer sized demon down the bar.

Lorne slurped the Seabreeze to vapors and left the empty glass on the table. "Be right back."

Mickey nodded. "Take your time."

He walked into the office and picked up the phone. "Fred?"

"Hey, Lorne! How are ya? I'm doin' fine!"

The roar of the bar muffled Fred's voice like cotton. Lorne put his hand over his ear and leaned as far away from the open door as possible.

"Everything here is, um--so you work at a place called All Bets Are Off? That's kinda funny, 'cause the reason.... "

Lorne tried to keep up with her and the singer, who barreled through the second verse of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'."

"...that time Gunn made that bet and was supposed to, um, lose his soul, and, um, Angel rescued him?"

The singer warbled into the bridge, skidded into the high note, and the speakers whined.

"Fred, sweetie, I'm having trouble hearing you."

"Can ya hear me now?"

"Hang on a sec." He kicked the door shut with the toe of his ostrich Stacy Adams and lowered the bar's roar to white noise. "There. God have mercy on us all."

"Huh?"

"Nothing. How you doing sweetie?"

"Fine, thanks. You?"

"Not bad. If you don't mind living with a bunch of drunk gamblers in the middle of the desert."

She giggled, a brittle sound. "I've never been to Vegas but I'd love to see it. Maybe sometime…." She trailed off, until there was nothing left but the humming phone line and the bass reverberating through the closed door.

He leaned against the edge of the desk. "Fred? Everything okay?"

"Um, well, remember earlier when I was talkin' about that time Gunn sold his soul, and Angel rescued us and all?"

"Mmm hmm." He was pretty sure she hadn't called just to reminisce but he was still waiting to pick up the clue train.

"Well, we're, uh, kinda in a similar situation now."

Lorne's eyes widened. "Gunn sold his soul for another truck?"

"What? No! I mean, we're in another one of those situations where someone needs to be rescued. Only this time, it's not us. It's Angel," she said in a shaky voice. "And Cordy."

His fingers tapped the desk in time with the pumping bass. "Crap. I was afraid of something like that."

She sniffled. "You were?" Her voice was muffled by what was probably the shirtsleeve she was wiping her face on.

Lorne winced at the thought. "Yeah. I got a, uh, message right before I left."

She gasped. "You did?"

"Uh huh. Let's just say, the odds of me staying alive in LA this summer? About as good as winning Twenty-One with a two and a three."

"But…but…. What about us?" Her voice rose with panic. "Making it through the summer alive, I mean?"

"You're human, sweetie."

"What does that have to do with--" There was a moment of silence. Lorne could practically see the colors of the Rubik's cube lining up in Fred's gi-normous brain.

"Oh," she said.

"Yeah. Young Connor isn't exactly the most open-minded of raging killers."

"Oh, crap. You think maybe he.... But he seemed to be so thrilled to be home."

"Honey, let me tell ya, the only thing that kid's thrilled about is collecting trophies. And I don't mean of the bowling variety."

"But he's Angel's son. And Cordy purged him of all the ick. You said so yourself."

"That she did. Of the Quar-Toth ick. But not the rest of it. He was raised in a hell dimension by a psycho. There's not a whole lot she could do."

Fred was silent for a moment. "Okay, well that makes my next question even more important than I originally thought."

"Shoot."

"We need a locating spell. To find Angel and Cordy. Without them…."

"No helpless being helped?"

"Not even us," Fred said. "And let me tell ya, I'm beginning to feel pretty darn helpless."

"Okay. Got paper?" In his mind, he could see Connor's aura, filthy with vengeance and hate. Lorne ran his hand over his horns, scratching around the base of the one on the left. It only itched when he got nervous.

"'kay," she said. There was the barest glimmer of hope in her voice.

"Call this number." He rattled it off.

The scritch-scratch of Fred's pen could be heard across the miles. "Okay, I got it. Now who is it?"

"Dame Dorothy. She owns a metaphysical bookstore. Does some dabbling on the side. If she can't do the spell, she knows who can."

"Okay." Fred's voice was stark with relief. "Look, I don't wanna get you in trouble, so I won't keep you."

"It's okay. Management's easy here. Plus, the guy singin'? Sounds like Edith Piaf on steroids."

She laughed. "It's good to talk with you, Lorne. Maybe, if we take care of this, and you know, get everyone back, you can come back, too."

He sighed. "When I can. Until then, I'm thinking about you."

"Me too," she said. "Oh! There's Charles with the food. Talk to ya soon?"

"You bet."

The line went dead. He dropped the handset back on the cradle, and stood, hand on the phone, thinking. "As dear old mom always said, better the Scum Pits of Ur than the canyons of Trelinsk," he muttered.

The bar was dark, hot and smoky when he opened the door. He made his way back to his table, nodding to Mickey as he passed.

"Everything okay?"

"Yeah," he said, scratching his horn. "Everything's fine."

***

They called Dame Dorothy at daybreak.

"She's what?" Gunn asked, not quite believing what he'd heard.

Fred slumped in her desk chair. "On vacation." She waved the phone back and forth. "Message says they're closed for summer holiday. Be back in two weeks."

"Shit." Gunn shoved his hands in his pockets. "What now?"

She sat quietly, chewing on her lip. Then she shoved back from the desk, grabbed her purse, and hustled toward the door.

"Fred?" Gunn called, running to catch up. He grabbed her arm, brought her up short and got a good look at her face. "No. No *way*."

She jerked free and started for the door again. "It's the only way," she said, voice sharp.

He dogged her all the way to the street, where the a.m. commute was already in full swing. "Fred." A garbage truck grumbled into the alley and started backing in. The reverse-warning beeps shrilled. "Fred!" he shouted. "Listen to me!"

She whirled. "No!" She was giving him the full Pylea treatment now: jaw set, mouth trembling and eyes wild. "I tried the spell and blew up the table. We can't get Dame Dorothy."

He zeroed in on her. "Dammit, Fred." The blue-breezy, LA morning faded into the background. "He told me not to ever come back. Any of us."

Fred closed her eyes and her face went tight. "I know," she whispered. "D'ya think I'd go if I thought we had a choice?"

Gunn deflated. Drew her close; thought through the options. "Let me go," he finally said.

She shook her head and he felt the imprint of her cheekbone against his chest. "He'll respond better to me."

"Honey, you bitch slapped him all to hell when he was in the hospital. What makes you think--"

She pulled back and looked at him. "Trust me on this." Her dark eyes were liquid, pleading.

He sucked in a breath. "Y'know how much I hate this, right?"

"What part, specifically? The part where we're stuck here alone looking for answers to questions we can't even articulate?"

He snorted. "Yeah, something like that. Only I'd've said, why are the two non-demon, non-spell-casting folks left to solve the problem?"

Fred's eyes widened. "Oh, my God."

"What?" He shook his head. "What'd I say?"

Her hand flew to her mouth. "Oh, my God," she repeated. "What if we were supposed to be left alone? What if someone's doing this on purpose?"

Gunn's lips thinned. "You know I'm gonna be kickin' some major booty if that's the case."

Fred shuddered. "Before you go booty-kickin', let me see what kind of help I can get from Wes."

"Okay. But I'm driving."

"You don't have to—"

"I'll drive you over and wait in the truck while you go in," he stated firmly. At her look he softened. "Look, I just think we shouldn't be alone right now, just in case."

She took a deep breath. "That's smart." Her eyes closed. "I wish I knew where they were."

Gunn wrapped his arm around her waist and guided her toward his truck. "Don't worry. We'll find 'em."



***

Fred raised her hand to knock then dropped it back to her side. "Now, Fred," she said, pretending her mother was standing next to her. "You just get out there and do it, girl." The familiar words of encouragement spurred her on.

Before she could lose her nerve she knocked. Under her knuckles the door was hard and unforgiving. She waited for a few minutes and knocked again.

"Crap," she whispered. "He's not...."

The door opened.

"...here," Fred finished.

Wes hissed.

Fred stuck her foot in, wincing when the door smashed it against the jamb. "Wes, I need your help."

His jaw clenched. "I told you people never to come back." He blocked the door with his body, and all she could see was the sleeve of a rumpled t-shirt. He was unshaven and his hair was wild. The slice on his throat gleamed angrily against his pale skin.

Fred's lips trembled. "I know you did. And I wouldn't be here if I hadn't tried everything, but I did. But we can't find them," she said, eyes filling against her will. She dashed the tears away with a frustrated move of her hand. "They disappeared."

"Ask me if I care," he said, glancing over his shoulder. "Now leave."

She shook her head and put her hand on the door. "Please, Wes. I know you don't care about Angel. But it's Cordy, too. They're just...gone."

His eyes narrowed. "Maybe he finally shagged her. Got a little too happy and took her down Mexico way. I mean, it'd be a little sunny for the likes of Angelus, but you never know--"

Enraged, she banged her fist on the door. "Goddammit, Wesley, I don't know what happened to you--"

His eyes went to flint. "Shall I replay it for you, little Fred?" he said. "How about all those hours where I lay on the ground bleeding to death? Or the part where none of you came to hear my side of the story...that setting off any bells?" His voice was thick, black smoke. "Or…I know…what about when the man I *thought* was my best friend tried to kill me while I lay defenseless in my.... Hey!"

She shoved hard, forcing the door open and stumbling into the room. "I've had enough, Wesley," she shouted. "Enough of your bitterness and your betrayal and your not coming around. You know, you could have fixed this if you'd just told someone about the prophecy. But, no, you had to--"

"Wesley, did I hear someone?" Lilah glided out of the bedroom, wrapping herself in Wes's long, striped robe. "Oh, hi," she said with a twist of her lips.

Fred's face paled. "What is *she* doing here?"

Wes glared at Lilah, who ignored him, and instead took her time cuffing the sleeves with calculated, graceful moves. "Honey, I know you're still awfully young, but I'd think it'd be obvious what I'm doing here." She smiled at Fred, all bottomless eyes and sex-tumbled hair.

"Lilah, leave."

She blinked. "In your robe? What will the neighbors think?" But, after blowing a kiss at Wes, she left them alone, closing the bedroom door behind her with a soft click.

Wes's gaze slammed into Fred's. "Happy now?"

"How could you?" she asked, voice cracking like a china plate hitting the floor.

Wes shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans. He held her gaze defiantly. "How could I not?"

"I thought better of you," she said. "I thought...." The ice storm of her breath rattled through her. "I can see I was wrong."

She walked through the open door and into the hall. The shiver that ran across her shoulders chased away the numb shock, and left behind a cold, determined fury.

The sound of the slamming door echoed through the hallway.

***

The hot water ran out thirty minutes ago. His skin, pink from the friction of wet terrycloth, stung under the cold needles of spray.

He slapped the water off and yanked the towel off the curtain rod. Who did Fred think she was? Coming into his home and demanding he help her. He dried his hair roughly and stepped out onto the mat. "Thought I'd come crawling back at the snap of her fingers, did she?"

He dropped the used towel on the floor and stalked to the bedroom. The rumpled bed reminded him of Lilah, who had departed quickly once the fun was over. But not without a parting shot.

"You sure you don't want to reconsider that job offer?" Her eyes had sparkled.

His gaze focused on the uncovered bruise. His fist clenched. "Go to hell, Lilah."

She smiled, a sales girl at the perfume counter. "What if I got you the kid?"

The wheels in his mind spun like tires on a gravel road and he hesitated just long enough for her smile to widen. "Get *out*," he shouted, realizing he had, once again, given more away than he should.

Lilah knew when to retreat. "You change your mind, you know where to find me." The door closed behind her, leaving only the lingering scents of Chanel and malice.

Wes pulled on jeans and a clean t-shirt, shoved his feet in his driving moccasins and grabbed his car keys. His skin felt too tight and he knew if he stayed he'd break more than his grandmother's tea pot.

He wove through the morning traffic like a New York cabbie, stomping his brakes and blowing his horn and flipping off anyone who got in his way.

Finally he made it to the PCH, hit the power window buttons and turned up the radio. Cool, salty air pounded through, ruffling his now-dry hair and filling his ears with its roar. KCSN was still playing the news every half hour and, tired of hearing about the rest of the world's problems, he punched the buttons randomly until he found someone playing rock.

The Clash's "London Calling" vibrated the speakers against the console. A non-smile twisted his lips. "How appropriate," he drawled. "Hello, Father," he said, as the imagined conversation spun out. "How kind of you to call." He gripped the steering wheel, acutely conscious of the motion tugging the torn skin of his knuckles. "Just fine, thanks. Why, no, it's all going swimmingly. Except for that part where I misinterpreted the prophecy and got my friend's baby stolen."

He gritted his teeth. A mini-van had pulled in front of him where the road narrowed at Malibu and had yet to reach the speed limit. "Dammit," he said. "Would you go *on*?" He blew the horn.

The way news traveled in their world it was likely his father already knew. And equally likely he was distancing himself from his son more even quickly than usual.

Wes hung his head out the window, saw no one coming, and hit the gas. The Jeep lurched forward and he whipped around the van, glaring at the driver as he passed. "Like the rest of us don't have lives," he growled at the blond behind the wheel. "Like we don't have places to be."

It hit him, then, how alone he really was. And how justifiably angry. If it weren't for him, Connor wouldn't be alive today. Angel had been traveling a path of destruction, fueled by spiked blood and spiraling violence.

Wes willingly sacrificed his own life for Connor's. And none of them saw it. Instead they huddled around Angel as if he were some sort of… of….

Like he was perfect.

"No, he didn't fire us, leave us to fend for ourselves and get shot up by zombie cops. Didn't bang his sire and risk everyone's life because he felt cold and dead. News flash, Angel," he said, whipping out of traffic and onto one of the canyon roads. "You *are* dead."

Ahead the tarmac twisted up and around, and he slowed the Jeep to follow the curving path. The Clash had long ago blended into something less rewarding and he slapped the dial again.

Classical music poured through the car. He let it wash over him, let the fugue build on the speakers and in his head until he had no recollection of driving, until he was surprised to look up and find himself at some sort of dive just off of the 101. The clock on his dash read 11:54.

He pulled into the gravel lot and as he got out, he saw the sea breeze had cleared the sky of the yellow ozone haze. It was a beautiful day, blue and perfect. He slammed the door and made his way into the bar, unable to get out of all that beauty fast enough.

As if it had gotten a good look at the clock, his stomach rumbled. No food since…he couldn't remember when. The bar was dark and even though no one smoked indoors in California anymore, the scent of thousands of cigarettes permeated the building from scarred linoleum floor to dark wood beams.

He slid onto a stool at the bar. "Do you serve food?"

The bartender shoved a menu at him. "Yeah." Her long red hair was slung into a messy ponytail and several strands had slipped free to halo her pale skin. Her coloring and sharp features reminded him of Justine and he had to force himself not to get up and leave.

"Burger," he barked. "Fries. Coke, no ice."

She yelled the order into the kitchen in a voice flattened by too many years in the Valley and came back with his Coke. He sipped the warm drink, felt the burn that only made his urge for Scotch stronger.

Unable to avoid it any longer he replayed the morning's events. He kept getting stuck on Lilah's parting shot. Connor—she could give him Connor. "To what end, though?" he whispered, rolling the glass between his hands.

His intuition fired, the same insight that told him to go after that prophecy. He told himself not to trust it, but he couldn't shake the feeling that there was something important there. Something he needed to know.

The bartender dropped his plate in front of him. He pulled a paper napkin out of the holder, spread it in his lap and took a bite of the burger. His stomach lurched, then settled as the food hit. He closed his eyes and chewed, letting the protein fuel his thoughts.

He needed to research.

When he'd left the hotel, he'd only taken the barest minimum of books. He planned on restocking when he and Connor got situated.

Wolfram & Hart had books. Probably more than he'd seen since his days at the Council.

His heart pounded. Was he actually considering…?

He shook his head and took another bite of his burger. Connor. That boy had the power save or ruin mankind. And if his track record was any indication, the future did not look good.

None of this would be an issue if Angel had-- He cut himself off. Had life with his parents taught him nothing? He set his half-eaten burger on his plate.

Depend only on yourself, his father told him countless times. And then he forced Wes to learn independence by abandoning him.

Those bastards he'd once considered family couldn't teach him something he'd already learned.

He dropped a ten on the bar and stalked into the summer afternoon, slapping on his sunglasses to cut the blue-bright glare. Gravel kicked up under his tires as he pulled out of the lot and headed for the freeway.

If Connor was indeed the Destroyer, he couldn't be allowed to live. But none of the other players would sacrifice him. Wolfram & Hart wanted to maximize his dark potential. Angel wanted to save his son, regardless of the consequences to the rest of the world.

Wes knew what it meant to stand alone, to do the right thing no matter the cost. What if he considered the resources Lilah offered as a means to an end? He could study the boy and the prophecies. If Connor's evil nature showed signs of manifesting, Wes would do whatever it took to stop him. With the fire-power of Wolfram & Hart behind him, he stood a much better chance of succeeding.

Doing so would pit his interests against Wolfram & Hart—and Angel Investigations. In war one must sacrifice the few to save the many. If he had to choose between saving the interests of the other players and saving mankind, he knew which one would win.

***

They came across the girl in the alley, half-drained, the vamp hanging over her like a wraith.

Connor descended, an avenging angel, and dusted the demon before it could lift its head.

The girl lolled against the concrete block wall, eyes glassy and staring. The musty smell of urine permeated the air and from the rip in her throat, blood bubbled, water from a spring.

Justine crowded in next to him and grabbed his hand. She put it on the wound, showed him how to press the gaping edges shut. "Apply pressure," she said. "I'll go for help."

The girl moaned in pain and twitched away, exposing the rip again. He stared uncomprehendingly. He'd seen the demon himself, knew it to be a vamp.

Remembering his assignment he scrambled after her and pinched her throat shut. The warm syrup of her blood covered his hand. He could feel the ends of the wound, nearly as long as the span of his fingers.

She wriggled, drawing his attention back to her.

"Bit...me...." She rasped.

"I know," he said. "The demon is gone now. There is nothing to fear."

The girl's shining eyes sought him out. "...hurts...."

He closed his eyes, unable to look at her pleading face. Behind his eyelids he saw his father, neck punctured, spilled blood stilled by a lifeless heart. "I know," he said, voice breaking. "I'm sorry. Help is coming."

***

Lorne kicked back in his chair and propped his feet up on the table. The bar was empty, which was a good thing, because at nearly 2 a.m., he was ready for a little shut eye.

"So, Mickey, how'd we do?"

Mickey had one hand in the till and the other on an ancient adding machine. He grunted.

Lorne nodded. "That sounded like the grunt of a good night. Otherwise, I'd get the moan. I hate that moan. Heard myself make it far too many times."

There was a rattle at the door and both men looked up.

"Is this where Lorne works?" A woman, probably in her early 20s, stood just inside the door.

Lorne blinked. In this light she resembled Cordy. Or Cordy before the bottle of yellow dye hit her pretty little head. "It is," he called. "I'm Lorne. But we're closed."

She stepped out of the shadows and into the bar. She was pregnant. Hugely. And her aura was doing some really funky stuff.

Mickey tallied a column then glanced up. "Like he said, lady. Come back tomorrow."

Lorne got to his feet. "We'd be glad to call you a cab, though."

Her lips trembled. "No, thanks." She clutched her hands together in front of her. "I'll just…." She motioned over her shoulder with her thumb.

Something about the forlorn look, the sagging shoulders and the maternal vibe got to him. "Look, you really just need to go home, get some rest. You know, get off your feet?"

She rubbed her belly. "Yeah. You're right. Thanks, anyway." She turned and he heard the door slam behind her.

"Go lock it for me?" Mickey asked, sliding money into the night deposit bag.

"Sure." Lorne walked to the door. God, he'd hated to turn her away. But business was business, and if he didn't get some sleep, he wouldn't be much good for business tomorrow.

He walked down the short, narrow hall. When he reached the door, some instinct made him open it instead of locking it.

The girl stood on the sidewalk, leaning against the wall, head back, eyes closed, humming a lullaby. Under her tight shirt he could see the ripples of the baby moving, a swimmer under the water's surface.

He jolted. "Hey," he called quietly.

She opened her eyes, big and brown, and blinked away tears. "Yeah. Hey."

"Honey," he said, stepping out onto the sidewalk.

She shied away like a beaten down dog. "No, really. It's okay."

He shook his head. "I…you know what I do, right?"

She shrugged. "Read people. Help them."

"That's right." He stood over her, a good head taller, and from this close, her distended belly almost bumped right into him. "When people sing. I read them when they sing."

She covered her mouth with her hand. "Oh," she whispered. "So, just then, you…?"

"Yeah. I didn't mean to." Lorne put his hand on his chest, as if swearing the truth. "It just happens."

"I'm sorry. If I'd known, I never would have...."

He smiled. "It's okay. Look, just go home, all right?"

She blanched. "I...."

"Really. You're aura's telling me that you've been out on the road too long. People are worrying about you. They need you."

She laughed hollowly. "No one needs me."

Lorne shook his head, totally focused on the message, as if the Powers were pouring it straight through him. "You're the only one who can...." Then it hit him. This was the same advice he'd given to the last three customers. He closed his eyes as his words sank in. "Who can..." he repeated.

"Who can what?"

"Do what you do." Lorne's eyes opened. "You're the only one who can face your demons, sweetie. The only one who can work your own brand of magic." He put his hand on the woman's arm. "They're not a complete unit without you."

She stared at him for a good thirty seconds.

"Look," Lorne said, "I'm a seer. I just read what you put out there, and what you're putting out there is bright and clear. Go home." He stepped away from her and buttoned his coat.

She blinked. "But...."

"Listen, I'd love to stay and chat with you all night, but I've got a plane to catch."

She shook her head, brow wrinkled in confusion. "Huh?"

"Just taking a dose of my own medicine." He grabbed a twenty from his pocket, stuck it in her hand. "For the road." Then he stepped through the door and locked it behind him. "Mickey!" he called into the darkened bar. "I've got some good news and some bad news."

***

Fred kicked the poof in frustration.

"What am I gettin' us for dinner?" Gunn asked. He sat in an exhausted heap on the floor, leaning against the blue, velvet cushions of the round couch.

"Food's not gonna help," she said.

His eyebrow arched. "Wow. Didn't expect to hear that."

She shook her head. "I don't know what else to do." She sank to the cushions, then leaned over and put her elbows on her knees. Her hair curtained her face.

Gunn reached over and tucked a long strand behind her ear. "Hey," he said quietly. "There's a reason for this, so that means there's a way out. We just have to find it."

"I know I'm not exactly the Cavalry," Lorne said, dropping his bag to the floor with a thump. "But will I do?"

Fred looked up, shock and a wild sort of hope on her face. "LORNE! Oh, my God!" She leapt to her feet and ran to him. Her momentum carried them into a twirling hug.

"Easy, there, little filly," he said. Over her head, he met Gunn's gaze. "Charlie," he said.

Fred scooted out of the way when Gunn rolled forward and stuck out his hand. "Since you're steppin' in to save the day? Gonna ignore the flagrant violation of the nickname rule."

Lorne stepped back. "Sorry, got carried away." As he took off his sunglasses and baseball cap he studied their faces. "From the sour pusses, I'd take a wild guess and say that things haven't improved."

Fred covered her face with her hands. "Understatement," she moaned through her fingers.

"Wes is sleeping with Lilah," Gunn said. "And if that weren't skanky enough?" He pointed to the paper.

Lorne's eyes trailed to the article, face-up on the desk. He scanned the headline, eyes narrowing. "That son of a bitch."

"Now, Lorne," Fred said.

He shook his head. "Sorry, sweetie, it's just--"

"I meant, if you're gonna cuss him, do it right. He's a rat-tailed bastard and being tortured by Helvroth demons would be too good for him."

Lorne blinked. "Oooh-kay." He glanced at Gunn.

Gunn shrugged. "I wasn't there, but she walked in on Wes and Lilah. Kinda changed her opinion of him."

"Wow." Lorne put his hands in his pockets. "And I say again, wow."

"It's been nearly two weeks and we still can't find 'em," Fred said, voice rising.

Lorne put a gentling hand on her arm. "Did it occur to you that....?" He glanced toward heaven, hoping she'd get the clue.

Her gaze followed his. "They're dead?" She nodded. "Of course it occurred to me. But I'm not gonna give up just because...you know...." She swallowed hard. "She's my friend. And he saved me," she said. "He rode in on a horse and saved me." She put her hand over her heart. "And, darn it, Lorne, I'm gonna get `em back."

"Then let's go to work." He picked up his suitcase.

"Let me get that," Gunn said, taking the bag from Lorne. "Look, I've moved my stuff here for now, 'cause I don't think we should be alone. It be okay if I put this back in your old room?"

Lorne nodded. "Home's where the heart is, sweetie." He patted himself on the ass. "And last time I checked, my heart was right here." He turned to Fred. "So, give me the skinny, Skinny." He put his arm around her and led her to the office.

 

***

"Your Connor's making quite the splash," Lilah said. She leaned across the desk and swiped a leaf of Wes's salad bare-fingered.

"He's hardly my Connor," Wes replied, spearing a slice of carrot.

"Yeah, well, whoever he is, he's been tearing up the night. And I mean that literally." She settled onto the edge of his desk and her short, navy skirt rode up her slim, toned thigh. She smiled when Wes's eyes followed the trail of flesh. "You still want me to get him for you?"

"Whatever would I do with him?"

She inclined her head.

He blinked, feigning mild surprise. "Oh, I see. You thought that's why I hired on."

"Wasn't it?" She watched him through narrowed eyes. "Whatever happened to, `You call working for a company that's the personification of evil putting my skills to good use?'" she said in a surprisingly good British accent.

He chuckled and slid his pawn one square further into the Queen's territory. "A man's got to eat."

Lilah stretched her arms over her head in a way that exuded silver- screen star confidence. He knew by now that it was an act. At heart, she might have delusions of glamour, but the fact that she was jumpier than a 12-year-old girl at a horror movie effectively negated them.

He knew better than to underestimate her, though. If he was David to Wolfram & Hart's Goliath, then Lilah was his slingshot. And the first rule of the game was to avoid friendly fire.

"Well," she said, folding her hands in her lap like the proper lady she'd never be. "Putting your motivations aside, I say we track him down and make him an offer he can't refuse."

Wes finished his salad and tossed the container into the garbage can next to his desk. "You do recycle, don't you?" he asked, nodding toward the plastic.

"What?" Lilah asked, following his gaze. "Oh, sure. It's a Number 2, right?"

Oh, Lilah, he thought. What a model citizen you are.

She squinted at him. "You do that on purpose, don't you?"

"Mmm."

She stood, smoothed her skirt. "Well, I haven't eaten yet," she said. "And I have a long afternoon." She examined her meticulous manicure. "One that'll probably turn into evening." Her eyes met his. "Which means I won't be seeing you."

"My heart is broken, I can assure you," he said, reaching for his legal pad and a book.

"Sure you don't want to come?"

He glanced her way. "You mean, to track down Connor?"

She nodded.

"No thank you," he said, returning his gaze to his book. "I've got a date."

"Really." She trailed toward the door. "Anyone I know?"

He tugged one of the long, red ribbons attached to the binding and opened the book to the page he wanted. "No one you've met, no."

She snorted. "Right. Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, international man of mystery."

He wrote a note on the pad, flipped another page. Glanced up. "You still here?"

"No," she said, and she disappeared down the hall.

***

Lorne's contact uttered the final words of the locating spell and the surface of the map wavered, a long strip of asphalt under the desert sun. Finally, the landmarks began to take shape again and a dark point appeared.

"That's strange," Lorne said, leaning over the table for a better look.

"Uh huh," Melissa replied. She was a friend from the Caritas days, an accountant who dabbled in the white arts. She put her hand on his shoulder and pushed him gently out of the way. "Now scoot so we can all see."

"Is he in the ocean?" asked Fred.

"Looks like it," replied Gunn.

Melissa marked a spot with the tip of a Sharpie then leaned back in her chair. The metaphysical marks swirled away, leaving only a standard US map with a black ink spot about 20 miles offshore. "Maybe he's in a boat or something."

"Maybe they weighed him down and dumped him," Gunn said.

Fred glanced at him, her eyes filled with horror. "Oh, God."

"Sorry." He lifted his hands in the air. "Thought we were exploring all the possibilities."

Fred looked at Melissa. "But this means he's not dust, right?"

Melissa nodded. "If he was dust, I couldn't pick him up at all. So this means he's still alive. Well, intact," she said, with a wry glance at Lorne.

"Oh, thank God," Fred said, collapsing in the chair closest to her. Suddenly she went tense again. "But what about Cordy?"

"I got something," Melissa admitted cautiously. She pulled out her Palm Pilot and flipped the case open. "See?" she asked, showing them a series of hieroglyphics. "The results seem to be a vapor trail instead of an actual physical presence."

Fred squinted at the screen. "May I?" she asked, holding her hand out.

Melissa nodded and handed her the Pilot.

"That looks like physics," she said, excitement tingeing her voice.

Melissa nodded. "Kind of. It's the same as any other equation—all you have to do is learn to speak its language."

"Hold up," Gunn interrupted. "So what you're sayin' is that you didn't find Cordy at all, you just found traces of her?" He shook his head. "Obviously not the math geek in the room, but that just don't make sense any way you look at it."

Lorne sighed. "What is it with the merry old month of May?"

Fred looked up from the Pilot, glazed eyes finding focus. "What do you mean?"

"Oh, man," Gunn said, getting it. "That was when Cordy got sucked into the portal last year."

"Actually," Melissa said, leaning on her elbows. The crisp pin- striped sleeves of her suit brushed the squared off corners of the map. "You might be onto something."

"You mean, besides the definite May-sweeps-month feel to our lives?" Lorne asked wryly.

Gunn snorted then sobered. "Say we did find a hot spot, we still stand a pretty good chance of ending up wherever she's not." He crossed his arms over his chest. "Even I don't like those odds."

Lorne caught Gunn's eye. "Well, let's focus on making the odds better, then." He turned to Melissa. "Can you tell exactly where in the ocean Angel's located? Surface or bottom?"

"Oh, sure. Hang on a sec," Melissa said. She closed her eyes, waved her hand over the paper, and chanted a few phrases. The map swirled and reappeared in three dimensions. The dot hovered for a moment on the surface then plummeted.

Fred swallowed. "Guess that answers our question," she whispered.

"Huh," Lorne said thoughtfully. Everyone looked at him. "I was just wondering why the sharks haven't gotten him."

"I'm getting an odd reading," Melissa said thoughtfully. "Could be that I'm just not strong enough to reach that far...or...it could mean that he's in some sort of...container?"

"Let's hope. 'Cause otherwise he'll be lookin' all pruny," Gunn commented.

"Guys," Melissa cut in. "Just thinking out loud, but how are you going to get him out of there?"

Lorne nodded. "She's got a point," he said. "There's no way we can get him out by ourselves."

Fred looked at him. "Sure, there is."

Gunn cocked his head. "How?"

"We'll hire a boat. Get divers to go down and bring him up."

"Us and what money?" Lorne asked.

"Connor's college fund," Fred said. "Cordy wanted to buy a boat with it, right?"

Gunn snorted. "Don't think this is quite what she had in mind."

"On the other hand," Melissa said thoughtfully. "It might not be a bad idea."

Fred nodded. "See?"

"We math geeks gotta stick together." She drummed her fingers on the map. "You know, I just might know someone who can help you." Her gaze honed in on Lorne. "Remember Jack, who used to come into Caritas? He dated that blond-haired demon, Nellie?"

Lorne's eyes widened. "Oh, boy, do I remember Nellie. Bazooms out to *here*," he said, holding his hands way out in front of his body.

Melissa laughed. "Right. The perfect woman for Jack." At Gunn's questioning look she continued, "Jack's an…interesting guy. Besides having an appreciation for all things female he fancies himself the next Mel Fisher."

Gunn arched his eyebrow. "Think he might hunt up some buried treasure for us?"

She shrugged. "Only one way to find out." She glanced at Fred, who was immersed in the equation on the handheld. "Mind if I borrow this for a minute?" she asked, tapping her fingers lightly on the open cover.

Fred jumped. "What? Oh. Oh, sure." She flushed and handed the computer to Melissa. "Sorry."

Melissa laughed. "Not a problem." With a deft slide of the stylus across the screen she pulled up her address book, wrote the number down on a sticky and handed it to Gunn.

"Thanks," he said, glancing at her neat writing. "We'll just—"

Fred grabbed the note from him and ran to the office. "Uh, I guess we'll just go call." He loped off, leaving Lorne and Melissa alone.

Lorne sat down in the chair next to her and leaned in close. "Okay. Now that the kiddies are gone, spill."

Melissa closed the cover on the Pilot and set it on the table. "I'm getting a definite vibe on Cordy. A sort of dark magic vibe." She cast her eyes to the office, where they could hear Fred talking excitedly. "Didn't want to say much in front of them, but if I were you? I'd find her. Fast."

Lorne nodded. "Yeah. Well, we're kinda out of our league. Our primary researcher is sleeping with the enemy."

Melissa packed her supplies in her black leather briefcase. "And your Champion's sleeping with the fishes." She shook her head. "Lord, you're in bad shape. But, hey, Jack'll do nearly anything for a buck. At least that's good news." She glanced at her slim, efficient watch. "Crap, I gotta run. Late meeting."

Lorne walked her to the door. "Thanks," he said. "You've given us a lot to go on."

She stood on tiptoes and kissed his cheek. "Any time," she said, wiping a smudge of lipstick off his green skin. "And, Lorne? Watch your back. I worry." She patted his shoulder. "Gotta go crunch some numbers. I'll be praying for you."

"You do that," Lorne said, closing the door and locking it behind her.

***

Connor was as familiar now with the dark side-streets of LA as he had been with the shadowed canyons of Quar-toth. It was his favorite hunting ground. All the bad things liked the dark.

Justine was a half a block behind. Over the rushing traffic and the sounds of night life, he could hear her boots clomping on the sidewalk as she rushed to catch up. It wasn't hard to pick her out in the crowd; like everyone else, she had her own rhythm.

And for reasons he didn't question it was starting to grate on him.

The hair on his arms prickled. Vamps. Somewhere close. He swung into the alley and found a pack of them pinning a terror-soaked human to the wall. The vamp yanked the man's head to the side and buried her teeth in his throat. Blood spurted, leaving a shiny trail on the brick.

The call and response of Connor's pulse told him to move. He ignored it and stood silently, watching the demon drink.

Justine rushed in behind him. "Steven? What the hell are you doing? Shit!" She rushed forward, staked the drinking vamp and rounded on the others. The man slithered to the ground, trembling.

Connor joined the fight, slaying efficiently, but for the first time not thinking about the kill.

Vamps dusted, Justine whirled, face twisted with fury. "Wait here with him." She sprinted to the street.

Connor squatted next to the man, ignoring the way he scrambled back. "Don't worry," he said, following him deeper into the shadows. "I'm not going to hurt you." He pressed his hand to the long, jagged rip, feeling the edges carefully and superimposing that image onto the memory of his father's punctured throat.

Connor slid his tongue over his canines, his incisors. He raised his arm and bit hard enough to draw blood. Then he compared the indentions in his skin to the wound on the man's neck. The low, awkward light of the alley confirmed what he suspected: Angelus did not kill his father.

Justine's rushing steps called his attention to her. "Help's on its way." She fell in next to him. "You idiot! You could've gotten him killed."

"But I didn't."

"But you could've." She grabbed him by the shirt. "We're here to kill leeches, not look at `em. Next time, dust the bastard. Save the stare- down for one that doesn't have his fangs buried in somebody's throat."

He peeled her fingers off his shirt. "When I want your advice, I'll ask for it."

The whiplash crack of flesh on flesh split the air. Connor raised his hand to his face, stunned. "You hit me."

"Cross me again and you'll get worse."

"C-cold…." The man at their feet shivered.

"Ambulance is coming," Justine replied. She stood. Shadows distorted her face until she was unrecognizable. "I'm gonna go wait on it."

She tramped out the alley, distance shrinking her until he could have crushed her with one slap of his hand.

***

The Typhoid Mary pulled away from the dock, engine churning up a wake not quite big enough to surf. The sun lay down in the water and died.

"How long till we get there?" Fred pulled her gaze from the streamers of sizzling peach and flaming blue and looked at the captain, who piloted the boat lazily. His loose grip on the wheel showed knuckles flattened from street fighting.

"Couple of hours," he said around the hand-rolled, unlit cigarette clamped between his teeth. "Good night for it. `Course, night's good for a lot of things." His eyes slid from her face to her breasts. "You a night person, sweetie?"

She knew he couldn't see anything behind the neon orange life jacket, but she still crossed her arms over her chest. "Sure. I guess."

He nodded. "My boys are too." He hitched his thumb over his shoulder toward the scuba team who were lolling on the benches stern-side. "Do their best work then."

She glanced at them, noticed their bulky muscles and razor-sharp eyes. Tried not to think of what other jobs the night might bring them.

Gunn appeared at her elbow. She jolted. "Gunn!" she squeaked. "There you are!"

He shot her an odd look. "You got your life jacket on okay?" He turned her toward him, gently uncrossed her arms, and started testing the fasteners.

"I'm good, thanks," she said, cutting her eyes to the captain. "Jack, uh, checked me out himself."

Jack laughed loudly.

Gunn's mouth thinned, but all he said was, "That's good. Don't want nothin' happenin' to my girl."

She beamed up at him. "Your girl. I still haven't gotten used to that."

"Well, get used to it." He slung his arm around her shoulders and turned to the captain. "Thanks again for your help," he said curtly.

"Whatever. You paid me enough." He tapped the map in front of him and the glare of the overhead bulb showed fingers stained nicotine yellow. "Haven't been out to the islands for awhile. Do most of our work in Mexico, now."

Fred tried to look interested. "Really? One of our friends went to Mexico a few weeks ago-" About the time Angel's son was taken to a hell dimension, she finished silently. Gunn's arm tightened around her.

Jack's gold tooth glinted. "Ever want to see the real Mexico, you just let ol' Jackie know."

Gunn tensed. "Right. We'll be sure to let you know. Jackie." He hustled Fred down the gangway. "Asshole," he muttered.

"He's not so bad," Fred said diplomatically. At Gunn's look, she lowered her eyes. "Okay, yeah. He's a total asshole. But he's our best bet for gettin' Angel back."

"I can't believe he's Melissa's friend," Gunn said. "Last person I'd expect a girl like her to be hangin' with."

"Well, you know how Caritas was. Drew in all sorts. Lorne was real good about—"

The boat lunged as they picked up speed, cutting her off mid- sentence. Gunn steadied them against the rail. "Speaking of Lorne," he said, shooting a look aft, where they could see him, head over the edge, losing his dinner.

"Oh, no. I thought he was feeling better."

"Said he was gonna turn pink." Gunn chuckled. Fred glared. "I'm not laughing at him," he clarified. "He looks miserable. It's just…pink?"

"I'm gonna go check on him," she said, bumping his hip as she went past. It was a relief to channel the low-grade panic somewhere else. She slid in next to Lorne and put her hand on his shoulder. "Hey."

He groaned. "Hey, Fred."

She patted him awkwardly. "Gunn says you're turning pink."

Lorne laughed. At least, Fred thought he laughed. It could have been another wretch. "Right." He stood and wiped his mouth with a wet paper towel. "That should about do it."

Fred squinted at him. "Why? I mean, how can you tell? I thought seasickness was sort of unpredictable, or, rather predictable in that it--"

"Fred?"

"Uh huh?"

"You're babbling." For a green guy, he sure did look pale. His mouth was drawn into a thin line that changed his normal, friendly face into something almost, well, demon-y.

Fred swallowed. "Oh, right. Sorry. All the excitement must be gettin' to me."

Gunn joined them at the rail. "Yo, man. You're lookin' better."

He smiled grimly. "That's what I was just telling our Fred. Now if you'll excuse me for a moment, I'll just go freshen up."

"Sure thing," Gunn said. He turned and looked out at the sea. The boat bounced over the breakers and turned its nose toward the big waves. "Lotsa water," he said, clenching the rail so hard that his knuckles whitened.

"How do you think Angel's doing?"

"You readin' my mind?"

Because he was still staring out at the choppy waves, she had to lean in close to hear him. "It is kinda freaky, all that water. Makes ya wonder. I mean, if he's not in something waterproof, we're talking fishy corpse. It isn't gonna be pretty."

Gunn nodded. "One thing you can say about Jack is he's used to bringing up strange cargo." He paused, as if considering his words, and turned to look at her. "Are you ready for this?"

Fred glanced toward slowly disappearing LA, unable to meet his gaze. "I think so," she said. "I hope so."

Lorne joined them at the rail. "The bitch is back."

"You look steadier," Gunn commented. He wove his fingers through Fred's, gave her hand a little squeeze.

"Dramamine works fast on me." Lorne took his ball cap off and mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. "Demon metabolism's good for something, I guess." He readjusted the cap and tucked the hankie into the pocket of his khaki pants. "So, what's on the agenda?"

Fred glanced at her watch. "By my watch we're about an hour-and-a- half out. I guess now we just sit and wait." She slipped her free hand into her pocket and fingered the tazer she'd brought just in case.

"Well, it's a beautiful night."

She slid her gaze across the darkening sky. "Yeah. Beautiful."

 

***

Wes found him the second night, an unexpected surprise, considering the skill with which the boy moved through the city. He watched as Connor beheaded a particularly vile N'gahn demon and was struck, again, by Connor's grace and strength.

But something about him seemed off. He was edgy, agitated.

Wes knew the feeling. "You have to bury its hands separately from its body, or it will put itself back together," he said, stepping out of the shadows.

Connor stood, sword in hand, poised over the body of a demon nearly four times his size. His eyes narrowed and his shoulders, already tense, went ramrod stiff. "Who are you?"

Wes slid his hands in his pants pockets. "You don't know me. I'm Wesley Wyndam-Pryce."

Something moved in his line of vision, similar to a flash of light. He didn't realize that it was Connor until the boy was nearly on top of him. Such speed, some cool, reserved part of his mind thought. The other part, the one linked to survival, simply short-circuited.

Connor had the sword at his neck, right up against Justine's scar. "Why do you track me?"

Wes cleared his throat to get rid of the stutter. "You interest me." He raised his hands slowly, put them on the edge of the sword, and pressed.

Connor pressed back and for a few long seconds Wes wondered whether his life was, indeed, meant to end with a knife in his throat. But then the boy pulled away, and Wes stood, feeling dizzy as the blood rushed out of his limbs and back into his brain.

"How do you know such things?" Connor asked, pointing at the demon with his sword.

"I used to be a Watcher," he said in a voice that trembled. At Connor's look, he elaborated. "One who looks after the Slayer. Surely you know of the Slayer?"

Connor nodded. "Yes. My father told me. Why are you here, then?" He looked around, as if waiting for a Slayer to materialize from behind the building.

"I am no longer in the employ of that organization."

Connor nodded, as if he were fitting it all together. "But you still watch."

Wes laughed. "Yes. I guess I do." He pointed to his hip. "I've got a knife strapped to my waist. I'd like to get it so I can cut the demon's hands off for burial. Would you mind?"

Connor looked at the demon, which was starting to twitch, and then at Wes. He seemed curious, as if he wasn't sure Wes would actually do it. "Sure." He stepped aside.

Wes nodded. "Great. Thanks." He pulled out his knife and squatted next to the demon. Its wrists were as big around as saplings, and it took several minutes to hack through the tendon and bone. The severed head groaned once when the first hand fell free and again when Wes severed the second. After that it stayed still and silent.

Connor stood aside, tapping his sword against the toe of his tennis shoe. Wes tried not to let the boy unnerve him, but frankly, he reminded him a little too much of Angelus not to.

From his pants pocket he pulled a couple of the large baggies that he'd gotten into the habit of carrying when searching for evidence. He bagged the hands, remembering suddenly one of the other times he'd dismembered a demon.

He, Angel and Cordy had tracked one into the sewers. Angel killed it quickly, and as usual, left them to finish the clean-up. Cordy pulled her knife from her bag and yelled at Angel's retreating back, "Thanks, Cordy! You don't know how much I appreciate all the hacking and cutting you do for me!"

Angel's laugh echoed through the tunnels.

She glanced at Wes. "Geez. How many times do I gotta tell the guy?"

He peered over the tail he was slicing through. "Tell him what?"

She wrinkled her nose. "Kind of an old joke. Angel killed a demon and left me and Doyle to get rid of it. So I explained to him that it was polite to thank someone for performing a dismemberment for you." She shook her head. "You'd think, being raised in the powdered-wig days, that the boy would have learned some manners."

Wes pushed his glasses up his nose and glanced down the empty sewer tunnel. "He's not the most verbal of people, is he?" he replied, still not sure how to take her humor.

Cordy snorted. "Oh, please," she said, as she hacked off the first of the six eyes. "My horse, Keanu, was a better conversationalist."

Such memories, he thought, zipping the bags shut, and standing. He wiped his knife with a handkerchief and put it back in its scabbard. Connor looked at him, and he thought it odd the way time looped.

If he'd known three years ago that he would no longer be friends with Angel and Cordelia, and that he'd be standing in a stinking alley dismembering a demon with Angel's son, he probably would have quit right then and gone straight back to England. "Well, that's all done."

"You were slow with it. I could have done it in one stroke."

Wes shrugged. "I'm better with books than knives, if you want to know the truth."

Connor smiled. "We each have our talents. My father used to say that a lot."

"Did he, now?"

"Yes." Connor might have been the one to bring up his father, but now that the subject was raised, the edginess, which had begun to dissipate, was back in full force.

"What's your name?" Wes asked, as if he didn't know, in the hope that the subject change would give Connor something to focus on. He didn't want to be on the receiving end of that restless energy again.

"Steven."

Wes blinked, surprised. "Well, Steven," he said, sticking out his hand. "It's nice to meet you."

Steven looked suspiciously at Wes's open palm. "What are you doing?"

"In our world it's customary to shake hands when you meet. That way you know the other person isn't carrying a weapon."

Steven took his hand and shook it cautiously. He held up the sword with his left hand. "But I am carrying a weapon."

Wes laughed, charmed against his better judgment. "So you are. But you're not going to kill me with it, I hope."

Steven looked him up and down, as if he were considering it. Then he shook his head. "I have no reason to kill you."

"Nor I, you." He held up the bags. "How have you been disposing of the bodies?"

Steven shrugged. "I just leave them behind."

"Oh, dear," Wes said, shaking his head. "That will never work." He pointed to his Jeep, parked across the street. "We'll load it in the truck then take it away to bury it."

"But that means I won't get to kill as many demons if I'm spending all my time burying them."

Wes shrugged. "If you're going to do the kill, you have to clean up afterward. At least in this world." He thought how Justine left him, a bleeding mess, in the middle of the park. Obviously one could shoot for the best outcome, but the likelihood was that reality would fall far, far short.

"I don't think I like this world. Too many rules."

"Yes, well, they are rather a pain." He smiled, pleased when Connor-- no, Steven--smiled back.

"You do it."

"Me? What, clean up after you?" He laughed. Oh, the irony, he thought. Haven't I just spent years cleaning up after this boy's father?

"Yes. I'm the Destroyer. It's only fitting."

Wes couldn't stop the gasp. "You're the what?"

"The Destroyer." He puffed up his chest. "Surely you've heard of me."

"Y-yes," he finally got out. "I've heard of you."

"I'm known in many dimensions." He smiled, and his eyes glinted.

In them, Wes could see Angel's laser-beam focus, Holtz's charismatic righteousness.

If Holtz's moral compass was off, it was only because Angel spun the needle. Two men, lives inextricably linked. Fathers to the same boy. And he *was* still a boy. Just because he said he was the Destroyer didn't make it so. Best to take this as a coincidence for now. To watch and wait and only move when he was absolutely sure.

Otherwise he could just as easily be killing the next Messiah.

"I...I'll clean up," Wes squeaked. He cleared his throat and glanced at the huge body on the ground in front of them, suddenly overwhelmed.

Steven cocked his head and peered at Wesley. "You're a very strange man."

Wes laughed, and even he could hear how high-pitched and crazy it sounded. "Yes, I suppose I am."

Steven grinned, a beautiful, flashing smile that would have disarmed Wes had he not known the potential for destruction that lay beneath. "Well, see you around." He tilted his sword at Wesley then vanished into the night.

***

The water, black underneath with a thin sheen of twilight, rocked the boat from side to side. It reminded him of the porch swing at his aunt's house. You could only get so comfortable because you never knew when you might tip out.

"So," Fred said, coming up behind him.

Gunn jumped. "Yeah. We're here."

"Uh huh. Lorne's around back. We should join him."

Gunn and Fred followed the deck around the boat. The first mate adjusted his mask, made sure his tank was properly strapped on, then gave the thumbs up. He fell over the edge and disappeared.

"You sure they know what they're doing?"

Jack lit his cigarette and took a deep drag. "They're pros, baby. No problem."

The other four went in like dominoes.

"How long?" Fred asked, leaning over the rail. Five bubble trails marred the surface then gradually disappeared.

"Depends."

She looked at Jack, who stared down at the water. "On what?"

"How he's staying down." He gestured toward the wheelhouse. "I've gotta go make sure everything's going okay," he said, and he disappeared down the deck.

The boat hung, a cradle in a treetop. The motor rumbled and spewed diesel fumes and the sea rumbled and spewed spray.

Then Jack turned the boat lights on. Fred jumped. "Shoot. I wasn't expecting that."

"We're all a little twitchy," Lorne said. "Stage fright's got nothin' on this."

Gunn looked over the rail. "Where are they? I thought they only had, like, a half hour of air in the tanks."

Fred shook her head. "No, they made sure they could stay down longer."

"Someone shoulda brought a deck of cards. You wouldn't believe what I learned in Vegas."

They let Lorne divert their attention with stories and it worked for awhile. Until one of the divers climbed up on deck.

"Holy crap," Gunn said, knocking his fist against his chest.

Fred leapt up and ran to the diver, who was removing his mask. "What'd ya find?"

The guy shook his head. "Nothing, yet."

Fred's shoulders slumped. "Darn it. I mean, not to imply that you're not doing your job or anything. Just that I'm disappointed, you know, because I'm impatient and...."

"Fred, honey," Gunn interrupted. He put his hand on her shoulder. "He gets it."

The diver rubbed his eyes. "We'll keep looking."

"Thanks," Gunn said. He pulled Fred back over to the bench. "Sit down. We've got time to go, yet."

She bent over and propped her elbows on her knees. "It's just hard to wait. You know? I mean, we've been waitin' an age already."

They watched as the diver disappeared over the rail again.

"Waitin' an age for what, Fred-girl?" asked Lorne.

"For our lives to get back to normal." She toed the plank with her boot.

"Honey, our lives haven't been normal since the ballet," Gunn said.

"Now, now," Lorne commented. "Don't go blaming it all on the Groosalugg."

Gunn shook his head. "Not doin' that. Just sayin', things changed that night. After Fred and I hooked up, and Groo and Cordy hooked up, it seemed like things went downhill."

"Thanks a lot," Fred grumbled.

Gunn took her hand. "You know what I mean."

"I'm not sure I do."

Lorne crossed his arms over the life vest. "I'm not one to regret much, but I do miss Wesley."

Fred's eyes flared. "Don't talk to me about him."

"Just stating a fact. I mean, he was the brains of the team. But more than that, he was family."

"Family don't betray you," Gunn rumbled. "If he was family, would he be off working for the big evil right now?"

Fred sighed. "Yeah. Especially `cause, without Wes, I'm stuck being the brains. I hate being the brains."

Gunn laughed wryly. "Too bad, sister, 'cause you got plenty to share."

"Whatever."

"All right you two," Lorne refereed. "Don't start picking on each other just because you're feeling a little tense."

"You're right," Fred said.

"Yeah. Sorry."

Lorne looked at his watch. "I think I'll go ask Jack what's the what."

Fred nodded. "Please. Maybe he can see something with his sonar thingy."

Lorne waved over his shoulder.

"Did you mean that?" Fred asked.

Gunn looked down at his hands. "What, that things went downhill after that night at the ballet? Yeah."

"No, that things went downhill after we hooked up."

Gunn looked up. "Oh, baby. No." He brushed his lips over hers. "The timing was odd, that's all."

"Because if you want out...."

"No. No! That wasn't what I was saying. All I was saying was--"

"We got 'im!"

Fred twisted her fingers together. "Thank God," she said. "I've gotta tell Lorne."

"I heard, sweetie," Lorne said, bustling down the planks. "And doesn't that just make you want to stand up and whistle Dixie?"

Gunn looked at him. "I never want to stand up and whistle Dixie."

"Right, sorry."

"I'll be back," the diver said, and, taking the crane hooks in hand, he dropped over the edge.

The line spun out, its metallic hiss the high note in the night's dark symphony.

***

"You lost him? Again?" Lilah asked, voice climbing in frustration. "How can you lose the kid who's destroying every demon in a 10-mile radius?" She hit the button on her keyboard and the player on the golf game took her swing. It went wide, landing in the rough. "Dammit!" She gestured rudely at the computer screen. "No, not you," she said, returning her attention to the idiot on the other end of the line. "Look, forget it, I'll do it myself." She hung the phone up, activated the screen saver and pulled on her jacket.

One quick elevator ride later and she was standing in front of Wes's closed door. She knocked. When she got no answer, she turned the knob. Locked. Well, it was after nine o'clock, after all.

She pulled out her cell phone, dialed his number, and waited for him to pick up. Instead she got the machine.

"Wes, it's Lilah. When you get this, give me a call on my cell phone. Thanks." She returned to the elevator, hit the button for her floor and watched as the doors slid shut.

Once in her office she grabbed her purse, buttoned her jacket and locked her door behind her. On the way down to the parking garage, she called her driver. "Meet me on G2 in five."

***

The crane groaned as they pulled the box out of the water. Ocean sluiced off steel in sheets, leaving behind a bulky metal container sheened with wet.

"Bring him in!" Jack called, motioning with his hand. The diver worked the controls from the wheel house, drawing the box high enough to guide it over the rail. He let it down slowly but it still hit the deck with a jarring thud.

Fred grabbed Gunn's arm. "D'ya think he's okay?"

"We'll know soon enough, right?"

Lorne came back with the cooler in hand. "Got enough blood in here for ten vamps."

"Figured he'd be hungry," Fred replied. "Just set it down, please, Lorne."

The divers eased the box, window up, onto the deck, and started wiping the glass clean. Fred moved forward. The inside of the box was in shadow, but the glass was spattered with dried blood and streaked hand prints.

"Step back, please," said a diver, who carried a pickaxe.

"Sorry," she muttered, getting out of his way.

He nodded to the crew, who stepped away, too, and drew the axe overhead. With one long, curving arc, the axe rose and fell, and the point of the pick cleaved the glass with a whump.

Fred let out a shaky breath.

The diver repeated the motion several times until the glass had a fist-sized hole in it. Then he flipped the axe to the flat side, hung it in the glass and yanked. There was a crunch, and a series of pops as the wire gave way, and then the glass crumbled, exposing the inside of the box to the night.

Fred rushed forward. "Angel!" she yelled, leaning over the edge.

He lay still as a corpse, head ridged, fangs extended. The wrists of his sleeves were brown with dried blood. "Angel," she whispered. Her hands flew to her mouth. "Oh, God."

One of the divers pushed her aside and reached into the box. He jerked once, twice, and fell in.

"No!" Fred cried. Gunn grabbed the diver and pulled him out. He stood, swaying, black blood painting his throat.

"Get him out of here," Jack said, thrusting him toward Fred. She rushed him to a bench and covered the wound with her palm. It was jagged, but not too deep, as if Angel were too weak to do much damage.

Or so she thought. There was a shout as another diver plunged into the box. He came up, furious, bleeding, and took a swing at Angel. Angel rose, roaring, a titan from the sea. The look on his face raised the hair on Fred's arms.

Gunn went for his crossbow. "Gunn! Wait!" She grabbed her tazer. "Here!" She threw it at him.

The diver moaned. "It's okay," she said, half her focus on him and half on the melee. "It's not very deep. Lorne went for towels."

He rushed down the gangway. "Here!" He wrapped a long strip of paper toweling around his hand, then ripped them free of the roll and dropped the rest to the deck.

"Stay with him." Fred rushed into the fray. If she could just get Angel's attention, maybe he'd snap out of it. "Angel! Stop! It's us!"

He paused, and for a moment she thought she saw him, the man she knew, walk into the light. But then he faded behind the raging animal.

Gunn snuck up behind him, tazer in hand. He hit him once, twice, and the fizzy odor of spent electricity filled the air. Angel collapsed against the edge of the box, eyes open, staring blankly at the sky.

 

***

Up this far, the wind was strong against his face, like a hand or a harsh mouth. He leaned into it, letting it press itself against him. It fluttered his short jacket against his thighs, slicked his hair back and tickled his scalp.

He heard the whine of tires on asphalt long before he saw her. He couldn't say how he knew it was her, out of any of the other 10 million people in LA it could have been. But he did. His stomach clenched and the nervy, breathless feeling he'd had since her call, expanded and overtook him.

He picked up the glance of headlights on gnarled cedar branches as she made her way up the turns. She was careening toward him, breakneck, the same way he'd come. His eyes widened as he heard the shush of rubber against soft, sandy shoulder.

His mind went spinning out over empty space as he imagined the Jeep hitting the turn wrong and taking flight. But then she rounded the last curve and hit the straightaway, and the fear gave way to relief.

He stepped into the road, breathing in the heat it radiated, left over from a day of baking like a sleeping snake in the desert sun. It wasn't full summer yet, but it was close. It pumped up through him, feet first.

The headlights slammed the first wisps of coastal fog. He didn't blink against her glare even though it was blinding him. She brought the too-big-for-her vehicle to a lurching stop, killed the lights, and sent him spinning dizzily into full night.

Then she was clamoring down, crunch of shoes on gravel, jangle of keys hitting car seat, and coming toward him. The moon caught her, a bow of light against a brighter star. And then she was there.

Here.

"Hey." Her lips trembled when she smiled.

He cleared his throat. "Hey," he said, and from the helpless way his eyes traveled over her, he knew he was giving himself away right up front. "You look...." He made an appreciative gesture to her clothes, something white, that was all he knew, something radiant. God, even when she wasn't glowing, she glowed.

Cordy laughed, and the moon caught that too. "I.... Thanks?"

He laughed with her, a high sort of rumble that felt as if something bubbly was flying up through his chest. "Radiant, I was going to say."

She rocked from heel to toe, surging and retreating, and the motion sent her scent swirling into the breeze, a scarf set free from its wearer's neck. He breathed, long and deep, letting the familiar, moonlight-scent of her body mix with the brisk air and sea salt. His mouth watered, his lips opened and he could taste her on the tip of his tongue.

"So," she said, looking up at him, doe-eyed and twitchy.

"So," he nodded, shoving his hands into his pants pockets. Change rattled, and the hard disks almost felt cool against his skin.

"Um." She glanced out at the waves, and the sharp breeze caught her and yanked her hair off her face. She crossed her arms over her chest and shivered.

Immediately he shucked off his coat. "Here." It brought him in close, cupping him around her. Rounded shoulders filled his palms, then his hands flattened, stroking down the lapel, past the birdcage of her collarbone and to somewhere right around her heart, where he stopped and pulled the edges of skin-soft leather closed.

Holding her was like capturing a coat full of moonlight. He knew he was staring at her, could feel himself doing it, but he couldn't make his eyes move. It was.... She was....

"I'm what?" she asked, tilting her head at him. One corner of her mouth turned up, a slinky, silky, saucy little smirk that made him think of all the flirts he'd ever known.

"Huh?" he asked dimly. His feet took him closer and her sparkle had him leaning in. "I'm sorry, I didn't hear you," he lied.

Under his hands, fisted around leather and over her, he could feel the rabbiting thump of her heart. He closed his eyes, letting it wash over him, the surf within her and the surf without. Salt and water, pulling, sucking, pumping.

"You said," she whispered, and he felt his body shift as she edged up on her tiptoes, "that I was...something." By the last word, her lips were scant inches from his ear and her breath, warm and humid, spread its mist on his flesh.

She stayed that way, hung under his body, mistletoe on a branch. Then she danced, back and down and away.

He followed. "I...." He shook his head to clear the fog. "I...."

Her laugh was a light trill. Then her hands came up and out of the coat, breaking his grip on his lapels and sending his hands flying in opposite directions like startled doves at a hunt.

She caught them, mid-flight. "Walk?" she asked. Her hands were warm, a little damp and so very soft.

"Huh?" He realized he'd been stroking that fleshy mound behind her thumbs.

She opened her mouth again, but her eyes, when he finally looked at her, were glazed. "Angel?"

He watched her mouth, the way it wrapped around the sounds. Lips plush and gleaming, damp from lipstick or her tongue, he didn't know. All he knew was….

"I asked," she finally said in a breathless voice, "if you wanted to take a walk?"

All he knew was that he was entranced by the spirals of breath, the voiced consonants, the unvoiced vowels, the way the air traveled from somewhere deep and dark and came out up here, up here, up here....

"Angel?"

He shook it off. "Yeah," he said. "Walk."

But when he turned toward the bluff-side trail she yanked on his hand. "Wait."

His brow furrowed as he thought back over the last few moments. Sure he'd been a little distracted, but he was convinced she'd said--

"I changed my mind," she said. "Just...let's stay here."

"Whatever you want." He still had her hands, or she still had his, and he noticed that they'd somehow gotten their fingers twined and maybe, even if they'd wanted to, they couldn't have gotten them unknotted.

"I want...." she said breathily.

He went taut.

She pulled him closer. "I want," she whispered.

"You want what?"

She was iridescent, as if someone had dipped a brush in liquid pearls and painted her with it. A rainbow of colors refracted under the luminescence of her skin, tiny vessels filled with liquid life. Pulsing.

Pulsing.

"I...." She inched up, up toward him, feet arching, toes taking weight, calves tightening, he could feel it, feel his own legs responding as she moved.

She unlinked their fingers, trailed her hands over his hands, his wrist bones, lost her when she hit shirt but found her again when she clutched his upper arms.

He took her breath into him. "Say it," he said, ears ringing, head spinning.

"I didn't know," she confessed. "I thought...." Her breath fanned out, ruffling hair and sending flesh jumping. "And then he said...." The tip of her nose grazed his ear, just grazed it, right at the top. "And then I realized...." And her lips were there, on his earlobe, under his ear, soft and sweet and moist and...trailing.

Down his throat, skimming over wind-chilled flesh. He stood, poised. Waiting. His entire consciousness focused on that mouth, on the truth of it, of what it was saying, and what it was SAYING. Not just the words, but the meaning behind them.

What? What was the meaning behind them?

"Cor," he panted. "Don't tease."

She moaned, and he felt the vibration from skull to collarbone.

"As if." And then her hands moved, lightning fast, and fisted in his hair. And then those gleaming lips met his.

He gasped and inhaled her. She went in long and deep, filling him, feet to lungs to crown. He clutched her to him, feeling her strong, lean back and tiny waist under his hands. Not for the first time, but yes, this way, for the first time.

She climbed him like bougainvillea on a balcony rail. He barked, a growling puff against her lips and, mouths fumbling, full, tumbling, he took her back. In two giant, suddenly very focused steps he had her on the hood of the car. It gave a great, groaning creak, and there was the sound of metal popping, giving under their combined weight.

She already had her hands in his shirt. Fast little hands, up and under and through, past the dual layers of cotton, one hard, one many- washings-soft, and she found his flesh.

She stopped as she cupped him, one hand around each side of his body. Pressing. Kneading.

He looped his hands under the back of her knees and pushed, spreading her wide and falling right in.

"Oh, God," she gasped.

He lowered his head into the crook of her neck and settled against her, water on sand.

Her hands slip-slid up his ribs, tickling and sparking. They landed under his arms, where she slowed, waited a long couple of pulses, as if she were finding his essence through his sweat. It was an animal thing to do and he licked her throat and growled to show his appreciation.

She rocked under him, slipped out her hands and clawed his nipples with her nails. He growled again so she'd know how good that was.

But of course, she knew. She knew everything about him already.

He knocked his pelvis against hers. Let me in, let me in, let me in.

She opened wider, pulled her hands free and wrapped her arms around his neck.

He kissed her. It was like going down a well, a long, straight, terrifying drop into wet darkness.

Then he stopped.

"Angel, what is it?"

***

"I got your message," Wes said, opening his office door and brushing past Lilah, who stood in the hall.

"Why didn't you return it?" she asked around a sip of her non-fat double latte.

"Didn't your mother ever tell you not to call after nine? It's rude." He unpacked his briefcase efficiently.

"You were right," she said.

"I'm sorry?"

"Oh, please, Wes. I said you were right. We can't find Connor."

"Oh," Wes said. He pulled out his Herman Miller chair and sat. Before him rested a pot of tea and a small pitcher of warm milk, left, as requested, by the kitchen staff at 8:45 each morning. He poured a cup while Lilah watched him with cat's eyes. "Yes, well, I'm not surprised," he said, taking a sip of the strong brew. "My compliments to the kitchen, by the by."

"You're going to make me ask, aren't you?"

He shrugged. "You're a big girl, Lilah. I can't make you do anything."

She smiled, just a quirk of her painted lips. "You're so right. But I'll do it, anyway, because I want this boy on my payroll. Now," she said, propping her lean hip on his desk. "Where can I find Connor?"

"Where have you looked?"

"All over the city. They either get there right before or right after him." Her eyes went flat. "I'm not in the mood to waste any more time. So, give."

Wes pushed his glasses up his nose. "Knowing his father the way I do, I'd say he'd be drawn to the same sorts of places."

A line appeared between her brows. "I'm sorry, I don't follow."

"The hunter, at some point, becomes the hunted, Lilah."

"Yeah, Hemingway, big deal. Tell me something I don't know."

"Think like a vampire. Or a demon." He raked his gaze from knees to breasts. "Shouldn't be too difficult."

"Be careful, Wes," she said seductively.

He sipped his tea, careful to keep his face bland. "I'm guessing your men have already completed a tour of the known demon haunts?"

Lilah nodded. "Started with those and fanned out from there."

"Any idea where he might be living?" Wes asked, jumping into the game.

She shook her head. "We've got people checking hotels, but no one registered by any of his known names has turned up. I suspect he's on the street, which allows him to disappear pretty effectively."

"I'd say," he replied noncommittally. Thinking fast, he continued, "Let me do some research. I know of a couple of avenues you may not have checked. Can I get back to you this afternoon?"

Lilah got to her feet. "Thanks," she said. "This afternoon is fine. I'm not going after him until tonight, anyway."

***

"Cordy," he said. "Wait. We have to stop."

"Can't," she said, and attacked his mouth again.

He pushed at her, not so gently now, and they parted with a smack of departing suction.

"What?" she groaned.

"Curse," he growled.

"Not a problem." She twisted under him, face going taut, legs wrapping tight.

"Of course it is. I adore you. Look at me. I'm stupid over you."

"You are?" Her smile was a shooting star.

"Isn't it obvious?" He pinned her gently, capturing wrists and hips, falling in love again with the frailty of human bone.

She shimmied away, breathless. "Angel, do you trust me?"

He looked at her. "Of course I do."

"Then trust me when I say that, just this once, the curse isn't in effect."

"How do you—"

She hesitated. "Seer's prerogative."

"Cordy?" He let go of her wrist and turned her face to him. "What is it? Look at me."

She opened her eyes. "It's all right, Angel. Everything's gonna be all right."

Something was wrong, but he could see she didn't want to talk about it. And when she pressed up, nibbling delicately at his mouth, his inhibitions scattered. "What are we waiting for, then?"

"I have no idea," she said.

He dove into her. Found the soft spot between neck and shoulder; rushed his hands over her clothes in search of what was hidden beneath.

"Too many clothes," she muttered, reading his mind.

"What do we do about them?"

"Tear 'em off," she growled. She dived for his belt buckle, hands working furiously.

"What?"

"I have more in the car."

He laughed wildly, not quite believing what she said. But the look of concentration on her face was so fierce that he knew she'd told him the truth.

He took the soft, white fabric in both hands and with one violent jerk he ripped her pants from waistband to crotch, exposing her just as she had exposed him. Her scent was savage, and it tore something loose in him.

Her panties, such as they were, ripped free with one easy yank, just as she got his pants down and around his hips.

Their eyes met. His hands dipped and cupped and drew her near.

In one swift push he was buried deep.

He swore he felt her heart beating around him.

She threw her head back, jaw clenched, eyes screwed shut.

He drove her against the hood of the car, sending the chassis rocking beneath them. Shocks creaked, metal buckled, but Cordy—she took it.

He groaned, finding her hair sweet with sweat. Her hands clenched his back, fell off, clenched again. She was restless beneath him, hot and tight and wriggly and fuck, electric.

She shocked him in so many ways on so many days. But tonight, she struck him like lightning.

In and out, ebb and flow, she rippled around him, muscles telling him the story of their pleasure. It collected at the base of his spine, a ball of heat.

He slipped his hand between them and stroked her with just the tips of his fingers.

She exploded, a fire-breathing dragon, and her body flew up against him as she cried his name.

He bucked into her, diving deep, not even looking for finesse. Finesse was for the second time, or the third, or the fourth. But now, here, this was about immediacy, about taking what he wanted, how he wanted. About not waiting another damn second.

He came, a storm hitting land.

She cried out again and he felt her pulling him deeper, opening up to him from the inside out. It was irresistible, the feeling of her body. Come in, she seemed to say. Come in and stay with me.

He was drawn out by her, drawn into her. Hungry, he'd been so hungry and he hadn't even realized. And then she was there, pulsing, throbbing, burning beneath him.

He buried his face in her neck and breathed her in. "God, I love you." When he pulled away she was crying, laughing, glowing.

Sparking.

"I love you," he repeated, resting his forehead against hers and falling deep into her eyes. The laughter vanished and she sobbed against him. "Cordy?" He wiped frantically at the silver tracks of her tears.

"I love you, Angel. Never forget that."

"I—"

She brushed her hand down his face. "Promise me you'll never forget."

"I—"

"Say it!" She trembled beneath him. "Say it while you're still inside me."

"I love you, Cordy. I'll never forget."

She closed her eyes.

And then she vanished, and he was left alone on the edge of the cliff holding nothing in his hands but moonlight.

***

Justine watched as Steven took the head of yet another demon. He was bathed in blood, his hands slick, but never too slick to lose his grip on his sword. He was that way, focused and determined, often to the point of being as cold and ruthless as she imagined Angelus had ever dreamed of being.

He held the head aloft, laughing happily. He had the look of a child when he laughed, carefree and beautiful. He flung the head down next to the body and wiped his sword on his jeans.

"There you are," she called to him, stepping from the shadows.

Steven turned, slipping the sword in its scabbard. "Justine," he said, turning that flashing smile her way. "Where have you been?"

She felt her own lips curve. "Around," she said, warmed by his response. "Took me awhile to find you tonight."

He pointed at the demon. "Been busy. What about you?" He bounced on the balls of his feet and feinted playfully toward her shoulder.

Justine dodged. "Oh, you know," she said, raising her fists into fighting stance. "The usual." She swung toward his jaw, and her grin widened when he ducked. "You're good," she complimented.

Connor danced around her and she twirled, following him with her eyes. "In the blood," he grinned back.

She laughed. "Your father taught you well."

His smile widened. "That he did."

 

***

Fred watched Angel from the door of his bedroom. He shifted restlessly on top of the comforter, eyelids fluttering behind closed lids.

She looked down at the empty blood bag in her hand. "Only six today," she said to Gunn.

He pulled the door closed behind him. "That's a lot closer to normal. Maybe he's catching up."

"I hope so. I was beginning to worry that he'd drink the whole city." Fred stopped, halfway down the staircase, and looked up at him. "I just wish he'd wake up."

Gunn took the used bag from her. "I know. But all the books say it'll take awhile."

"Maybe if Cordy was here." She glanced at the closed door. "Kye- rumption, and all."

"Yeah."

Fred sighed.

"What?"

"Coming home alone…." She looked down at the straps of her cork-soled sandals. "I know how he feels."

Gunn gathered her close. "You're good for him, too, ya know. No one else can understand this the way you do."

She slipped her arms around his waist and buried her face in his shirt. "Guess five years in a hell dimension should be good for something."

Gunn stroked his free hand down her back. "Guess so. And now that we've got Angel taken care of for the night, I could sure use a breather."

She pulled away and started down the stairs again. "Shouldn't we look for Cordy?"

"We will later."

"I am tired," she admitted. "A break would be nice."

Good." Gunn pitched the empty bag into the garbage can and pulled her over to one of the sofas. "How about a short nap?"

She let him pull her down onto the cushions. "Sounds heavenly."

***

Lilah was beginning to think that Wesley led her on a wild goose chase. Then she came across the boy at the last possible location on the list.

He glanced up when the headlights brushed him. For a moment he stood, perfectly poised, a young buck caught in the sights of a hunter's rifle. Then he moved, muscles rippling like water, and disappeared.

"Go," she said, slapping the glass panel between her and the driver. He followed, but it was obvious, after several frustrating blocks of tracking him, that the only reason she found him was that he let her.

"You're following me," he said, crossing his arms over his chest in a move so reminiscent of Angel that her breath caught.

"I am," she said, stepping from the car. Her hair fluttered against her throat, carried into movement by the early morning breeze.

He leaned against the chain-link fence, eyes dancing to the street beyond. He was never still—she noticed that right away.

She approached him as if he were a skittish horse. "I'm Lilah. What's your name?"

He smiled, a bright, sharp flash that threw back the street lamp's glare. "Depends on who you ask."

A shiver crawled over her shoulders, part thrill, part terror. "I like you," she said. "And I think, if you gave it a shot, you could like me, too."

He laughed and pulled a gleaming knife from a scabbard on his hip. "The only thing I like is killing." He advanced.

Her legs carried her back until she hit the trunk of the limo. "And that's why I'm here," she squeaked.

He stopped two paces from her. The breeze carried his scent to her nostrils: young, green sweat and old, dried blood. Her mouth watered.

"Really?" he asked, and his voice was suddenly simple and childlike, stripped of all affectation.

She wondered which father he got that from, or if it was uniquely his. "I represent a local law firm, Wolfram & Hart." She pulled a card from her pocket and held it out to him.

He reached with his free hand and his fingers brushed hers. His cuticles were stained the color of rust.

He glanced at the card then dropped it to the ground where it fluttered to a halt against the sticky concrete. "I don't read very well," he said. "Maybe you could explain exactly what you have in mind. Lilah."

He drew her name out, making it sound like an exotic flower. Or a death knell. Her better instincts hummed, telling her to run. The others, the ones she lived by, made her reach for his hand. "Come with me," she said, feeling her voice drop into the range she used primarily for seduction.

The corner of his mouth quirked and but for the eyes, she could have been staring into Angel's face.

"You're heart's racing," he said, gliding his fingers over her pulse.

"Why, so it is," she said, sliding into the limo.

She waited only seconds before he followed.

***

"Cor," he moaned. The edges of reality pressed in on him; he could almost see it shifting between the Point and the familiar shape of his bedroom.

He waited for her to come back, to make him real again. He must have reached out because his hand jerked against something. There was an odd, metallic rattle.

He blinked. "Cordy?" Still no answer. He reached again and this time, he recognized the sound. Chains.

"Hello?" His voice echoed through a chamber much bigger than the one he was used to. He took a deep breath, letting the familiar scent of his own things wash over him. "Oh, God," he whispered. "Am I home?"

The last time he felt this way Holtz forced him to drink melted silver. It left him raw, exposed. He could hear the cars on the streets below, could smell the wool of the carpet and the soap in the shower's soap dish. His skin crawled and the scratch of fabric on flesh shocked him to stillness.

He lost himself in the ancient habit of breathing. Gradually the sensory overload lessened.

"Cordy?" He listened for her footfalls to come clear from the white noise. Nothing. The hotel was quiet. He shook his head and the room spun woozily. "Cordy!"

Still nothing. He jerked frantically against the chains. They were wedged around the bed frame and no matter how he moved, they held tight.

He had to get out of them. Now. Had to find her. His stomach swooped, and he tasted the metallic rush of water on the back of his tongue. He was going to be sick, going to….

He stopped, went back to breathing. The nausea receded, leaving him clammy and shaky, but he could deal with that. He could do this. He just had to break it down into steps.

See? No steel cages holding him in, keeping him buried alive. Just light and air and normal things. His things. His cuffs.

His key.

He honed in on the bedside table. The drawer. That's where he always kept it. But when he tried to reach it, the chain brought him up short. "Dammit," he muttered.

He lay back down on the bed and began rocking his body against the mattress. The bed moved by inches, scooting closer to the table with each motion. Soon, he had butted right up against it, though all he could do then was lie still and wait for his system to level.

He had no idea how long he'd been down there—or how long he'd been back for that matter. The most vivid memories he had were the dreams. And of all the dreams, the one of Cordy stood out the brightest.

In her eyes he saw apology and love. And good-bye.

That did it. He reached for the drawer, brushed the handle with his finger tips. Couldn't quite get a grip on it. Reached again. This time, the cuffs gave just enough that he was able to nudge it.

The gap was only about half an inch, but it was enough for him to stick his fingers in and wedge the drawer open. Then he twisted, turned and shimmied, until he was finally able to crane his neck and see in the drawer. Sure enough, there, on top of the latest issue of Swordsman, was the key.

He glanced quickly around the room, looking for something to grab it with. No luck with his hands—he couldn't reach that far into the drawer. But maybe, if he scooted the bed just right, and lay down on his stomach, he could pick it up with his teeth.

The mattress was firm beneath his back, and to his exhausted body it felt warm and inviting. He had to fight slipping back into the darkness; it would have been so easy to slide back under the surface and wait for someone to come and get him out.

But no one was coming. And he had to find Cordelia.

He began rocking again, more with his hips than his shoulders, and the foot of the bed started to angle around. He drew his feet up and under him, and rolled over his knees, landing on his stomach. His shoulders twisted painfully, grinding in the sockets.

His arms quivered as he balanced his chest against the side of the bed and the hard corner of the drawer. He dipped his head in, grabbed the key with his teeth and spat it on the mattress. Then he slid over, picked it up with one, trembling hand, slid it into the lock and turned. One cuff fell free, then the other. He threw the key into the drawer and stood.

The world spun like the arm of a major league pitcher. He collapsed, sucking in air, and waited impatiently for everything to calm down again. Then he braced his hands on the mattress and pushed to his feet. This time, things stayed upright, and he fought his way across the room to his closet.

There he grabbed a shirt and pulled it on then stuck his feet in his boots, though bending over to lace them brought the fireflies swarming. "Come on," he barked impatiently. "Get your ass in gear."

His wallet and keys were where he always kept them, on the table next to the reading chair. He slipped them into his pocket and stole quietly from the room. He had to be quiet or he'd wake the baby. Cordy would kill him if he woke him up after she finally got him down.

Angel shook his head as time lurched back to the present. God, where was he? Beneath his hand the wall was vertical, which helped him remember to be vertical, too. Yes, that was right. He was going to find Cordy.

He shoved off, a boat leaving dock, and made his way slowly down the stairs. Gunn and Fred slept on the couch, curled up around each other in such a sweet embrace that he could only stop for a moment and look.

"Thank you," he said, because he knew that they'd brought him back somehow. That was a story for later. After he'd found her.

And he knew just where to start looking.

***

Angel found him in the parking lot of a 24-hour Walgreen's.

"Connor."

The boy whipped around, sword in hand, foot on the throat of the man he'd been paid to kill. "Angelus?" He tilted his head, squinted in surprise.

"Let him go," Angel said, pointing to the struggling man.

Connor looked down at his victim. "Why should I?" The guy squirmed under Connor's boot. In the harsh glare of the streetlights, his face was turning gray.

Angel gathered his strength and in one, violent burst, shoved Connor aside. The man, freed, gasped twice and rolled, coming up against the tires of a car parked near the dumpster.

Connor whirled, sword flying, and Angel arched back and away. The point grazed his jacket, leaving a long slice in the leather.

Connor smiled coolly. "Welcome back. Dad."

Angel vamped. He had Connor by the throat and against the dumpster before the kid could blink. "Tell me what you did to her." His hand tightened and under it he could feel the muscle and bone grate.

Connor's eyes widened. The sword clattered to the ground.

Angel heard Connor's mark scrabble to his feet and the fading scent of his sweat told him that the guy had made a run for it. Under his forearm, Connor's heart raced, but he had to give the kid credit. Even in a life and death situation, he had a poker face.

Pride flared through him though he pressed his face close, deliberately menacing the boy. "Tell me."

Connor jerked reflexively and the move sent his scent spiraling in the night wind. It was nearly too much, the green-wood smell of his son's body. Like a fingerprint, it had been his since birth.

This child had been his touchstone. He was what kept him from flying off the deep end when Cordy left him for Groo. Angel owed him his sanity. And as his parent, he owed him his protection. And here he was, hand wrapped around the throat of the only child he would ever have. A child who, by all rights, shouldn't even exist.

"Tell you what?" Connor gasped. His eyes were flat, his mouth pulled back into a grimace. He was having trouble breathing, but he didn't give an inch.

Angel rattled him, thrusting the kid's whip-like body against the harsh metal of the dumpster. "What you did to Cordelia," Angel growled. "Did you take her before or after you drowned me?"

Connor's eyes narrowed. "Let me go and I'll tell you," he negotiated through clenched teeth.

Angel shook his head. "Tell me where she is or I'll kill you." It was a lie. But from the way Connor's eyes widened, he knew the kid bought it.

He tightened his hand. Tell me, he thought. Tell me now, so I can let you go.

He ignored the dizziness that crouched at the back of his skull. He'd known coming into it that he was too weak to do this. But he had to save her. He couldn't rest again until he did.

"I don't know, and if I did, do you think I'd tell you?" As if he sensed Angel's weakness, he jerked his arms up, breaking Angel's hold and sending him sprawling on the pavement.

Angel's head knocked the bumper of the car and he saw stars. The next thing he knew, the point of Connor's sword was rammed against his throat.

"I don't know how you got out, and I don't really care," Connor said. His eyes flashed hot in the purgatorial light. "I will tell you this. I didn't hurt Cordelia. I only wanted you." He drove the point of the sword into the flesh, carving out a gouge.

Angel yelped, jerked his head. The crouching dizziness sprang, sending him back, back into darkness.

When he finally came to, Connor was gone, and someone was standing over him, a shadow in the street lamp's glare.

"I see you're back," Wes said. He shifted, and the light caught him, throwing shadows on his face, a noir film come to life.

Through the haze Angel could see his tidy, American-cut suit and open- collared shirt. His glasses were gone and his hair was wind-whipped, as if he'd been outside for much of the night and hadn't bothered to bring a comb.

Rage, hot and thick as hellfire, surged through Angel's chest. He rolled, tried to find his feet, and landed on his knees, instead. "You son of a bitch."

Wes came forward and stood just within striking distance. "That's no worse than what I've called myself in the last few weeks. Believe me." He didn't make a move, either toward Angel or away. Instead, he just stood. Watching.

"What are you doing here?" Angel gasped. He struggled to his feet. The earth pitched beneath him and he put a hand on the trunk of the car. The wound in his throat stung and the grassy scent of Connor's sweat hung lightly in the air.

"My job."

Angel glared at him. "Back with the Council?"

Wes laughed and the sound was raw and bitter as sea salt. "Hardly."

They stared at each other, and years of friendship stretched between them and snapped like an overused rubber band.

Wes turned and walked toward the limo parked at the curb.

It took Angel a moment to realize what that meant. Then it hit, and the betrayal cut deeper than any knife. "You traitor."

He launched himself and the two men tumbled to the ground. Wes fell loosely and Angel pinned him, then got his hands around Wes's throat. The skin under his fingers was hot and damaged and he could almost hear the bones cracking.

"How could you," he raged, spittle flying. "You fucking Judas. Hell's too good for you." He shook Wes furiously, cracking his head on the pavement. The smell of raw, scraped flesh filled the air, igniting blood lust and fueling his fury.

Wes's face turned a mottled red. His lips worked, as if he were trying to form words.

Angel leaned on his right knee and bent his elbows, ready to make the move that would sever Wes's head from his body.

Then he saw his eyes. Bright with righteous anger.

It stopped him cold.

He jerked his hands away and rolled off, cursing his redemption and everything it meant. He couldn't kill Wes. It would be walking through Hell's gate and locking it behind him.

Wes gulped air greedily, then reached up and massaged his abused throat. "That's the second time you've stopped before the deed was done," he croaked. "What are you waiting for?"

"You already took my son. I refuse to give you my soul."

He laughed, a harsh, rasping sound. "If it hadn't been for me you would already have lost your soul."

"What are you talking about?" Angel growled. He leaned back against the fender of the car, looking for any support he could find.

Wes sat up slowly. "You were one drink away from unleashing Angelus."

Angel's lip drew back over his teeth. "Nothing gave you the right to take him. Not even that."

"Someone had to do the right thing." He shuffled slowly to his feet. "God knows, you never will."

"I hate you."

Wes turned toward the limo.

Angel gritted his teeth. "Wesley."

He looked over his shoulder. Rapidly forming bruises left twilight marks on his pale skin. "What?"

"Cordelia."

Wes's fist clenched. "You're the detective."

"Goddammit, Wes. It's Cordelia."

After a moment of taut silence his hand relaxed. "I've heard rumors. Black magic. Senior partners. Even Lilah's kept her mouth shut, which is an impressive feat for her."

"I don't like the sound of that."

"Yes, well, it's not the brightest picture."

"No, I meant you and Lilah."

Wes's lips thinned. "When that becomes your business I'll let you know."

Angel stood in the shadows and watched as the man he once considered a brother drove off in the enemy's car.

 

***

Angel sat in his reading chair listening to the Nocturnes. Only the bedside lamp was on, casting a warm yellow shadow on the bed and leaving the rest of the room in sepia.

It was still his favorite way to pass the time. Cordy would call it brooding, and he supposed she'd be right. But to his way of thinking he had a lot to brood about.

Fred had nearly killed him when he'd dragged his butt home. Claimed he looked like death on toast, which would have made him laugh if he hadn't been so busy collapsing into a heap on the lobby floor.

They hustled him upstairs, got some blood into him and poured him in bed. Now he was under house arrest until she decided he was well enough to go back out. The only thing that kept him here was the fact that he was too weak to move and that Gunn and Fred had promised to follow every lead on Cordy.

He didn't tell them about seeing Wes, though he did mention Connor. Wes was his ace in the hole—an irony that wasn't lost on him. Too weakened by the confrontations, he couldn't afford to burn energy on hatred, so he'd become pragmatic.

He'd use Wes's influence with Lilah and the law firm to beat a path to Cordy's door, wherever she was. Maybe he'd get lucky and Wes would be killed in the process. He'd get Cordy back; he'd never have to look at Wes again. It'd all be good.

His head fell against the back of the chair. In his hand, the glass of blood felt smooth and a little cool. His body temperature, which had been low since his rescue, was returning to normal. That was a good sign.

He took a sip, grateful that Fred had somehow gotten the blood bank to give up the O pos. Pig's blood was nearly as good, but if he wanted to regain his strength quickly, human was the only way to go.

He yawned groggily. "Time for bed," he muttered, realizing he was about to fall asleep in the chair. He set the glass on the table and pushed to his feet.

When he looked up, Skip stood right in front of him. "God!" Angel gasped. He stutter-stepped back and ran into the ottoman.

Skip reached out and steadied him. "Whoa, there."

Angel glared at him. "Don't *do* that! Jeez!"

"Sorry. I kinda thought you saw me." He waved his hand. "This whole dimension-hopping thing…can't ever seem to get it quite right, ya know?"

Angel crossed his arms over his chest. "Right. And now that the small talk is over, what are you doing here?"

"You're a man of few words," Skip said. "I always liked that about you."

"Oh, boy. Knowing you like me? I can rest easy." He raised his eyebrow. "I have to say, if you're here for revenge, your timing couldn't be better."

Skip looked him over. "So I see. Looking a little peaked there." He sniffed the air experimentally. "Smells like you got the good blood workin' for ya, though. That'll get you back to rights in no time. As for the revenge…." He smiled, though it didn't reach his eyes. "Already got it."

Despite feeling almost transparent with exhaustion, Angel lunged toward him. "What does that mean?"

Skip took him by the arm. "You're about to drop. Why don't you sit down? That way I can talk to you without worrying that you're gonna pass out on me."

Angel jerked his arm loose and sank down on the ottoman. "Skip, so help me God…."

"Now, now. No need to invoke any deities," he replied. "I'm just here to deliver a message."

Angel's eyebrow arched. "I thought you weren't a messenger."

His look turned sour. "Yeah, well, things change."

"Sorry to hear that," Angel said.

"You should be. You're the reason it happened."

Angel made a come-on motion with his hand. "The message?"

"Don't go looking for her."

"What?"

"She's in a higher place, Angel."

His worst fears, realized. "She's dead?"

"I didn't say that," Skip said.

"Then what did you say?"

"Just that. Don't come looking for her."

Angel's eyes went flat. "You know I can't make that promise."

"Oh, right. I keep forgetting you only work for the Powers when it's convenient."

"I work for the Powers unless Cordy's life is at stake. Then I work for her."

"Yeah, well, you might wanna rethink that."

"Why?"

"If I tell you will you promise not to go after her?"

"Skip."

He laughed. "Hey, man, I'm just messin' with you," he said, faking a punch at Angel's nose. "Your Seer's got a major role to play in the higher realms."

Angel suddenly remembered his conversation with Wes. "How do I know you're working for the Powers?"

Skip's joviality fled. "You trying to piss me off?"

"I've heard rumors. Wolfram & Hart? Hoodoo voodoo? Ringing any bells?"

"Keep going pal. I can kick your butt from one end of this dimension to the other."

"Yeah, well, until I hear different, I'm not promising you a thing. Tell the Powers--or whoever's paying your fee--that I'm going after her. Even if that means storming the gates of heaven."

"What about the rest of the world?"

"What about 'em?"

"Nice sentiment for a Champion."

"I'm only a Champion if she's with me. I'm getting her back, Skip."

"Yeah, well, good luck with that." He stepped back, started fading. "Oh, hey," he called, almost as an afterthought. "Want me to tell her you said hi?" Then, with a laugh, he melted into shadow and vanished.

***

The blood told him when to move, and it was telling him to move now.

Connor raised his mace high over head, making just enough noise to wake her.

"Steven?" she asked. "What are you doing?"

"You killed my father," he said.

"I...what?" Justine sat up, glancing uneasily at the weapon he held above her. "What? Of course I didn't." She adjusted the neck of her sleep shirt, surprised to see the sun slanting late afternoon rays through the crack in the curtains.

He smiled, eyes arctic blue above his beautiful mouth. "I've seen enough vamp bites, Justine. Do you think I wouldn't put it together? The oddly even holes, the fact that you weren't applying pressure to the wound."

Her eyes widened.

"I see you understand what I'm referring to," he said, eyes glinting.

She scuttled back on the mattress, coming to rest against the wall. "Steven, listen to me," she begged. "He asked me to do it. He said it was the only way.... No!" Her arms flew up to protect her face, but they offered little cover against Steven's rage.

The first impact stunned her and sent her flying out of the bed, where she landed, nose broken, cheekbone crushed, in a heap on the greasy hotel carpet.

***

Angel learned early that a warrior fights best when prepared for anything. Each fight was a song, melody and harmony, point and counter-point, and if you listened hard enough, you could pick it up and it would lead you through.

Once before in recent memory he re-trained his body. Then it had been too many years of soft beds, of living like the human he wasn't. So he returned to those early, hungry days, when fighting was the only way to stay alive.

He recalled the third night after he rose from the grave.

They discovered him and Darla in the barn behind his father's house and chased them with pitchforks into the woods. The biggest men, the sailors and farmers, came after him with ham-sized fists and workingman's boots.

He'd already gotten used to being the strongest and was beginning to hone his skill as a predator. That didn't stop him from hitting the loam ass-first courtesy of a man he'd known since childhood. Who now looked at him with hot-eyed hatred.

Old Shamus taught the young Liam to ride; slipped him bits of carrot to give his horse. The memories made Angelus slow, sluggish and unsure.

He scrabbled for footing on the dewy grass and fell. The smell of night rose up around him—damp, sleeping earth and what he'd yet to identify as the pure scent of moonlight.

It was only when Shamus pulled out a stake that Angelus realized he must get past his human ties and see him for what he was: the enemy, fighting for his life, and willing to fight to the death.

Shamus's arm flew up and back; the point of the stake gained size and heft as it barreled toward him. Angel threw up his arm and the wood went straight through his palm.

The pain ignited a powder keg in him. He roared, ripped the stake loose and grabbed the man by the head. Then he twisted.

There was a horrible crack and the big body crumpled on top of him. He shoved it aside and jumped to his feet. He stood, a walking corpse, over the remains of a person he'd once known and loved.

He looked up at the moon and wondered what was next.

More than 250 years later, he knew what was next. The waiting now wasn't any easier than it had been then. At least when he'd gone after Darla and Dru he'd been able to train. On the other hand, he might now be feeding and napping like a baby, but it gave him the luxury of planning.

He thought again about using Wes to get to Cordy. He could convince him to do it, one way or another—and the "another" was almost tempting enough to go that route.

In the end, he decided to use that as a back-up plan. What he needed was someone who would do as he'd done two-and-a-half centuries ago: give up everything but the fight and a willingness to win.

At all costs.

***

He knew by the way the air shifted that someone had entered the room. And yet he stood, back to the door, watching the last rays of the sun fall below the horizon.

By the scent it was his son. Still, he didn't move, not until the last second. Then, in one fluid motion, he turned, caught Connor's raised hand and twisted the stake to the floor.

"You weren't committed," Angel said, kicking the sharpened wood away with the toe of his boot.

"I let you take me."

Angel dropped the boy's hand and crossed his arms over his chest. "Never make excuses."

Connor lifted his chin. "You're right. A man doesn't make excuses."

Angel nodded. He sensed that Connor was here for a reason beyond the requisite attempt on his life, and so he waited silently while he worked up the courage to say whatever he'd come to say.

Finally he raised his head. The look on his face was nearly enough to bring Angel to his knees.

"I know you didn't kill my father," he said, and despite the ache in his eyes, his voice was full and firm. "I will not apologize for putting you in the ocean. You deserved that for what you did to his first family."

"I deserved that and more," Angel admitted. "What I did to Holtz's family was unforgivable, and I've paid in my heart for it thousands of times." He shrugged. "The thing is, once something's done, it can't be undone."

Connor nodded. "But sometimes other things can be done, as well," he said cryptically.

It took Angel a minute to get it. When he did, his eyes widened. "You killed her, didn't you?"

He answered without hesitation. "She was a liar and a murderer."

"And what are you?"

Connor's mouth dropped open. "What do you mean?"

Angel stepped around him and walked to the refrigerator, where he took out a packet of blood. "What do you think I mean?" He emptied it into a cup, set it in the microwave, and hit 30 seconds on the timer. Then he turned and faced his son. "You grew up in a hell dimension with a man who hated me and in many ways rightfully so." The timer dinged and he pulled out the mug and sipped.

Connor's eyes followed every move. He was testing him deliberately. How far could he go, throwing his vampire nature in Connor's face?

"He made you a fine man and a good warrior. But he also taught you that any action was worth taking as long as it got you what you wanted." He drank several swallows of his meal then set the nearly- empty mug down beside him.

"You have no right to talk about my father." Connor moved, short agitated motions of his hands and feet. Not really pacing, but dancing, a fighter warming up for the next round.

Angel watched his face tighten and he knew he'd pushed too far, too fast. Which meant it was time to push farther. "I need your help."

"What?" Connor looked caught between outrage and intrigue.

Angel picked the mug up, finished the blood, and rinsed the cup in the sink. "Remember Cordy?"

He nodded. "Of course."

"She's missing."

Connor rolled his eyes. "Duh."

Despite the tension in the room, Angel laughed. "Where did you hear that?"

Connor giggled. It was a musical, childlike sound, and he looked nearly as surprised by it as he did by Angel's request. But all he said was, "I get around."

Angel wondered how often he'd laughed in the harsh world he'd grown up in, and damn it, he couldn't afford to get side-tracked on how awful Connor's life had been. He could wallow in his guilt later. After he had Cordy back.

"I need you to help me rescue her."

Connor's entire demeanor changed. It was like watching a plant draw water up through its roots. The shifting, flying boy who had stood before him a moment before, squared his shoulders, leveled his eyes and stilled his hands. "Why me?"

He looked at him without judgment. "I need someone who's willing to win at all costs."

"You have a team. Use them."

"This is too dangerous for them. It's strictly undercover, two men in, two men out. I need someone who can move, who will risk his life, and who I can trust." He cocked his eyebrow. "I know I can't trust you with my life, but I'm pretty sure I can trust you with hers."

Connor crossed his arms over his chest. "She did something to me. She's not human."

Angel shook his head. "No. She's not. This will require you to stretch. To grow. It may require you to let go of some of your prejudices." He held out his hands. "If you're not up to it, I understand.."

Connor's jaw set and his eyes flared.

What a little hothead, Angel thought. He nearly smiled, but knew that he was too close to let pride screw this up.

It was the perfect set-up. If he pulled it off, he'd not only have a seasoned warrior working for him, but he'd also be getting very sweet revenge against Wolfram & Hart. On the other hand, it was a huge damn risk, and one or both of them could die because of it. He wasn't so concerned about himself. But Connor.... "You know," he said suddenly. "I'm not sure if this is such a good idea, after all."

Connor huffed. "What, you don't think I can do it?"

"It's not that." He shook his head. "Connor, I don't want to lie to you about this. Wolfram & Hart may be the ones holding her hostage."

"W-what?"

Angel nodded. "I know you've done some work for them. And on top of everything else--" He waved his hand. "You may be right. Gunn could— and probably should—be the one to help me."

Connor grunted in frustration. "You can't do that! You can't make up my mind for me!" He slapped his chest. "I'm a man. I say what I do and what I don't, and I say I'm doing this. Wolfram & Hart don't own me!"

Angel looked unsure. "Connor, look. I don't want you to get hurt. And Wolfram & Hart could really hurt you." He was playing the boy and he knew it, but in this matter he was perfectly serious. Connor would be risking his life, not just now, but well into the future if he allied himself with Angel. And there was no way he could fully understand what he was getting into.

"They can't hurt me," he growled.

"You're good at what you do. I wouldn't be asking you otherwise," Angel agreed. He waited a beat, as if considering. "Why don't you take some time, think it over?"

Connor was shaking his head even before Angel even finished speaking. "I don't need any time. This woman may be your friend, but she needs rescuing. I cannot let a woman go undefended."

Angel hadn't hunted Holtz for years without learning his soft spots. Obviously he'd passed at least some of them on to the boy. "If you're sure…."

"I am. Perfectly." He put his hands in the pockets of his jeans, and Angel could practically see the warrior's wheels start to turn. "Now. What plan have you made so far?"

***

"So we're just gonna kick back and drink a beer while you and Connor do all the work?" Gunn glanced at Lorne and Fred. "That sit right with y'all?"

Fred, already shaking her head, said, "No way. We found you. We can help you find her."

Angel sighed. "Look, you did a great job rescuing me. But this is different. It requires the strongest warriors available."

"Dog. You sayin' I'm not strong?"

Angel shook his head. "No, what I'm saying is that Connor was bred to fight. He's willing to do whatever it takes to make the mission work."

Gunn opened his mouth.

"I'm obviously not explaining this well." Angel folded his hands on the table. "I need you guys to hold down the fort." Angel turned to Fred. "You and Lorne research. Use his contacts to dig up whatever you can on where she might be. Narrow the field."

"When's this heist going down, Mr. Ocean?" Lorne asked.

"The sooner the better."

"Guess that means you've still got some recuperating to do." Lorne raised his eyebrow. "Not that you're looking at all bad, Angelcakes."

Angel shook his head. "Right. Fred, Skip said something about higher planes. Find out what that means. Lorne, Wes said he heard something about the Senior Partners and black magic. Gunn, you'll be trolling the bars with me. We'll tap the underground, find out the scuttlebutt. You don't lose a Seer without people hearing something."

Gunn's eyes glinted. "I get to crack some skulls?"

"If you think it'll help."

"I might need some more ego-stroking before it's done, but that was a pretty good start."

"Thanks."

"Too bad Merle's dead," Gunn said.

"Little weasel."

"Angel!" Fred gasped. "That's not nice."

"Hey, just because I wasn't friends with him doesn't mean I didn't appreciate his help. Besides, he was fun to pick on."

Gunn laughed. Fred glared. "What?" he said. "He's right." He shoved away from the table. "If this meeting is adjourned, I think I'll start my recon now."

Angel stood. "No time like the present. Thanks, guys."

"You weren't really clear on your timeline back there," Fred said. "It'd help me to know what to shoot for."

"Two days."

Fred squeaked. "That's all? That's not enough--"

"That's all you get."

"Good," Lorne said. He went to the phone. "The sooner we find her the better.

 

***

Fred propped her head in her hand and sighed. "We're never gonna find her." She sat in the floor surrounded by open books and trade journals.

"Sure we will, chickadee." Lorne snagged a donut from the box on the counter and took a bite. "'S juss gonna take more time than we espected," he said around a mouthful of pastry.

Gunn strolled into the lobby. "Any luck?" He leaned his hubcap axe carefully against the round couch.

Fred shook her head. "Nuh uh. You?"

He crossed to the reception desk and helped her to her feet. "Nope. Nada. Nothing. Goose Egg."

"Thanks for drawing us such a clear picture," Lorne said. He popped the last bite of the donut into his mouth and delicately brushed the crumbs off his melon-colored shirt.

"Hey, where's Angel?" Fred asked.

Gunn's brow wrinkled. "He's not back yet?"

"Nope," Fred replied. "I thought he was with you."

"We split up to cover more ground about midnight." He pulled out his cell phone. "I'm gonna call him, make sure he's okay."

"Yeah, we need him here." She glanced at Lorne, who was propped against Cordy's desk shooting her a look. "You did happen to notice the sun's already up, right?" She pointed to the front door.

It opened almost on cue to reveal a dark figure haloed by sunlight.

"Still helping the helpless, I see."

The pen in Fred's hand fell to the floor with a clatter. "Cordelia?" she squeaked.

She stepped out of the light and into the hotel. "In the flesh."

Fred ran across the lobby, Gunn and Lorne on her heels. "Oh, my God! We've been looking ev…." She skidded to a halt. Like Larry and Curly, the other two ran right into her back.

"What?" Cor asked, glancing down at her sleeveless white tunic and leggings.

Fred's mouth opened and closed. Over her shoulder, the guys stared wide-eyed.

"Damn, girl," Gunn sputtered. "What happened to your hair?"

Cor ran her left hand through strands that had gone pure white. It was shaved nearly to her skull, except on top, where it stuck up in 2- inch spikes. "Oh, it's easier to take care of this way." She shrugged and her hand dropped to her side where a long, curved sword hung, blade up, in a black lacquered scabbard.

Fred reached out with trembling fingers and brushed Cor's bicep. "What's that?" she breathed.

She glanced down at her upper arm, encircled by an intricately braided twist of silver. "Oh, that's my medal from when I helped close a Hellmouth outside of Chicago a couple of years ago." She rolled her eyes. "I'd take it off, but the Powers sort of made it permanent. At least it's pretty. You shoulda seen the ones they gave the guys."

She grinned up at them, and when the familiar Cordy-smile flashed, the energy in the room changed. Suddenly she was their girl again, returned home after a long, unexpected voyage. They dove at her in a messy pile-on and a babble of voices rang through the lobby.

The basement door slammed. "What's going on?"

They turned toward his voice. "Angel! It's Cordy! She's back!" Fred bounced on the toes of her feet. "And she's…different!"

Angel stopped so fast the hem of his black duster flared around his calves. "Cordy?" His face took on a fragile, hopeful look.

She stepped out of Lorne's embrace and for the first time Fred noticed the tiny lines that fanned out from her eyes and the long, pale scar slashing her cheekbone.

She moved with the coiled power of a warrior or an empress, and her body, always beautiful, was lithe and sculpted. "Just Cor, now," she said. "How are you, Angel?" Her smile, so easy before, seemed overly bright.

He stood staring. "We've been looking everywhere for you."

The smile died. "I know. I'm sorry. I…it's been…." She looked away.

Angel walked slowly across the lobby and the other three backed away, leaving a clear path between the two of them.

"Cordy?"

She looked up, blinking rapidly, and one silver tear tracked down her tanned skin. "Just Cor," she repeated.

He lifted a trembling hand and ran his finger down the scar, drying the tear.

She shuddered but she held his gaze. "How long have I been gone in your world?" she asked huskily.

"Almost a month."

Her laughter rang through the grand room, the least happy sound Fred could remember hearing since Angel came out of that box. "A month?" She fingered the handle of her sword and glanced around the lobby. "Well, that'd be about right, I suppose. I needed to get here early to stop it."

Angel was looking at Cordy with such stark need that Fred felt her chest tighten. She caught Gunn's eye and nodded toward the office. "Let's go," she mouthed. He reached over and tugged Lorne's sleeve.

"Shh," Lorne said, eyes locked on the couple in front of him. Gunn tugged again and Lorne glanced over in exasperation. "Stop it. I'm getting the wildest vibe here."

Gunn motioned toward Angel and Cor, who were standing perfectly still, staring at each other. "Let's give them a little privacy," he whispered.

"But…."

Gunn jerked his arm again.

"All right, all right. But watch the shirt. It's silk."

They faded out of the lobby.

"Stop what?" Angel asked once the room was quiet.

She fidgeted. "Stop staring, for one thing. You're freaking me out."

His mouth fell open. "Stop staring?" He shook his head. "We've been looking for you for a month, Cor, and suddenly you appear looking like…like--" He waved his hand. "-- and you want me not to stare?"

She closed her eyes. "Right, sorry. It's just…." She caught herself yearning and cut it off. She couldn't afford to let him make her feel this way. "I've been gone more than ten years, Angel."

He blinked. "What?"

"Long story."

He pressed closer. "Shorten it for me."

He was bigger than she remembered and he radiated an eternal power that called to mind the holy mountain she'd lived on in Japan. Her body tightened. "Remember Skip?"

"Sure."

She stepped around him and wandered restlessly through the room. "After you released Billy for me, Skip got fired from his job." Under her fingers, the blue velvet of the round couch was a memory come to life. "Wolfram & Hart pulled some strings, got him reinstated."

Angel's eyes narrowed. "He still working for them?"

The agitation melted away to a warm glow and she nearly laughed. He'd always been her champion. "Wolfram & Hart? God, no," she said with a wave of her hand. "No, the Powers bought out his contract with good old W&H ages ago. But before they did I was one of his projects. You know, the ever-popular kidnap-the-Seer game?"

He jolted. "What?"

"Yeah, the night you got dunked by Connor."

"You knew about that?"

She did laugh now, a sound like rusted metal. "Oh, please. I'm a Seer. I know everything." She glided over to the reception desk, fingered one of the business cards. "The Powers got me out pretty fast, but once they had me, they didn't want to let me go either." She picked the card up, drew the tip of her finger across her name then set the card carefully in the holder again. "I spent the first few years training," she said, turning to him.

He blinked, obviously surprised, by her words or her sudden move, she couldn't tell.

"You laid a good foundation." She smiled. "They just built on what you started."

"I'm, um, not sure what to say. I…how old are you?" He squinted at her in that befuddled way she'd always found so endearing.

"Even where I'm from now, which is basically nowhere, it's rude to ask a woman her age."

He shuffled his feet. "Sorry. I just—"

"Thirty-three." She snorted, amused by him. "I'm thirty-three, Angel."

"White hair aside, you don't look it," he said, shaking his head.

She laughed. "Hey, thanks. Considering all I've been through, I'll take that as a compliment." She leaned over the reception desk and glanced into the open rooms beyond. "Where'd the rest of your crew go?"

He shrugged. "Dunno." He glanced at the door to his office. "Probably in the office eavesdropping, why?"

She turned around and leveled her gaze on him. "I don't want them to hear this."

He stuck his hands in his pockets. "Hear what?"

Her dark eyes went blank. "I'm sorry, Angel," she said quietly. "I'm here to kill Connor."

A line appeared between his eyes. "What?" Under her silent gaze, he stumbled back. "No." His hands came up in front of him in what she knew was an instinctive move to protect his heart.

She, who had learned to face the toughest foe and win, was knocked off center.

"Why come here, then?" He looked wildly around the room. "Why not just go do it?" His gaze honed in on the weapons cabinet.

"Don't bother." Her palm landed on the worn handle of her sword. "I could dust you before you took a step." She stepped toward him, took her hand off the sword and held it out in supplication. "Look, Angel, I'm not even supposed to be here. I just thought you should know."

"What do you want me to say? Thanks? Dammit, Cor, I'm just getting through to him. You can't--" He slapped her hand out of the way and stalked toward the door.

"You're not getting anywhere with him, Angel," she interrupted. "I know you want to believe that, but Connor's path was chosen before he was born."

He was shaking his head. "No. No one's path is chosen fully." He spun toward her. "He still has choices to make, paths to take. You don't know—"

"Forget who you're talking to?" she asked pointing toward her eyes. "Look, if you think this is fun for me—"

"I don't know what to think!" He headed straight for her. "You come to my home, wearing a warrior's medal and a katana—" He flipped the sword. "You tell me you've been gone ten years. And that you're here to kill my son, the child you—" He ran his hands through his hair, spiking his already spiky `do. "Jesus, Cor, the child you *mothered.*"

He towered over her, a black-clad avenger with eyes like open wounds.

A howl rose up in her chest and God, she wanted to let it out. Instead she clenched her teeth and forced the energy to stay in until it boiled in her, water in a lidded pot. "I'm a warrior for the Powers, Angel, just like you," she bit out. "We're fighting for the same thing here." She ran her hands across her head in frustration, mirroring his earlier move, and standing her own hair at attention. "I thought I was doing you a favor!"

"By telling me you're gonna kill my kid? Hey, thanks!" He advanced on her. "Well here's a favor in return." His eyes were cold and level as an iced-over lake. "If you touch him, I'll kill you."

It took everything she had not to let the fire raging in her chest burn him to a crisp. "You really don't want to test that theory."

"Get out."

"Gladly." She whirled, and the katana made a graceful arc around her. "You won't stop me," she said over her shoulder. "I never lose."

"You've never fought me before."

She stopped mid-stride and turned, slow and measured, until she was facing him. Then she raised her hands and pressed them together in front of her heart. She bowed solemnly. "I look forward to it."

The smile was only a quirk of lips, but the scar pulled her face into a death-mask's grin.

Then she was out the door and into the harsh sunlight where Angel couldn't follow.

***

The phone on Wesley's desk buzzed. "Mr. Pryce?"

He punched the intercom button. "Yes?"

"You have a phone call on line two. The caller wouldn't tell me his name, but he says it's regarding Steven Holtz."

Wes put down his pen and stared at the blinking light.

"Mr. Pryce?"

"Yes. Yes, I'll take it." His brow furrowed as he picked up the receiver. "This is Wesley Wyndam-Pryce."

"Don't hang up."

His hand hovered over the disconnect button. "Why not?"

"Because I need you to take Connor to a safe place. Now."

Wes laughed. "That's rich, coming from you."

"Believe me, I'm aware of the irony. I don't have time to explain. Just get him out of here."

"For how long?"

"I don't know a day, maybe two. Just long enough for me to track her down and kill her."

Wes leaned over his desk. "Kill who?"

"Cordelia."

"What?"

"I told you, it's a long story. Just get him out of here. Then call my phone and let me know where."

Wes shook his head. "Ang--"

The dead line buzzed in his ear. He dialed Angel's number from memory.

"What."

It sounded as if Angel were under water. Or underground. "No," Wes said calmly. "You can't just call and order me around. I no longer work for you. And you saw to it that we're no longer friends. Find someone else to help you." The phone clattered in the cradle.

He hit the intercom button. "Patricia, I'm leaving for lunch. I'll have my cell phone if you need me." He grabbed his jacket and walked out the back door.

Angel met him in the stairwell. "I knew you wouldn't do it without some convincing." He smiled with anticipation.

"Vampire detectors," Wes said, standing his ground. "Guards'll be here in less than a minute."

Angel shrugged. "Not since I made Linwood Connor's godfather." He buffed his nails on his untucked black shirt. "So, what do you say we go a few rounds? You can whine about how you don't work for me and then I can rip your head off."

Wes made it halfway to his office before Angel caught him. "Oh, good," he said. "I need to work up an appetite."

"Stop it," Wes said. He gasped, knowing his heart sped more from terror than exertion. "You don't scare me."

Angel vamped. "Oh, please. You're shitting your pants."

Wes ran a finger under his collar. "Fine. You're the big scary vamp. Kill me if you're going to. I'm tired of the threats."

"If I didn't need you, I'd take you up on that. I still may." He grabbed Wes's arm and hauled him the rest of the way into his office. Wes stumbled and fell into his chair.

Angel rolled him backward into the desk then slapped his hands down on the arms of the chair. "Now," he said, and his razor-sharp fangs glimmered, bone-white. "We can do this the easy way or the hard way."

Wes shifted so he could look Angel in the eye. "What's the easy way?"

"You do what I say. I don't kill you. Yet."

"And the hard way?"

"Same thing, only I get to torture you first." He smiled. "I'm really hoping you'll say 'hard way.'"

Wes took a deep breath. "Instead of playing Angelus, why don't you just tell me what happened?"

Angel's eyes narrowed. "I'll give you the Cliff's Notes. Cordy came back. She's a warrior for the Powers. She's going to kill Connor because he's the Destroyer."

Wes's eyes widened. "How does she--"

"Know? Besides the fact that she's a Seer, she's been living in an alternate dimension. Our month has been ten years for her." He stepped back from the chair and prowled from desk to bookcase.

Wes froze. It was true, then. Connor chose the path of darkness and pulled the rest of the world down with him.

Unless he could be stopped. If Angel spoke the truth, then Cordelia was now Wes's strongest ally. "Let me find her."

"Why, so you can talk her to death?"

He shook his head. "Steven's your son. You take him. Let me handle Cordelia."

Angel stared at him. "Why the sudden change of heart, Wes?" His eyes narrowed. "Are you two in on something?" He materialized in front of the chair. "You planned this." He hulked over him, eyes firing vamp- gold.

Wes shook his head. "No, I didn't know anything about it. I admit, I've been watching out for Connor. But I didn't know-- I mean, I suspected--"

"That he was the Destroyer? Oh, isn't this convenient? The little Watcher joins forces with the Big Bad. Did you hope to use their resources to stop him when he turned?"

When Wes flinched, he laughed. "I was hoping to kill you myself, but now it looks like I don't have to." He glanced around the room. "Oh, hey, aren't these offices bugged? Guess what, guys, our little Wesey- boy's got a plan. He's gonna kill your pet project!" He jerked Wes away from the desk and spun him in his chair. "Tell ya what, Wes, you put those Wolfram & Hart resources to use to save my boy, and I'll see if I can get you spared from the White Room or wherever they put traitors these days."

Wes, pale and shaken, stared up at Angel. "You let him survive and he'll destroy the world."

Angel's lips were cool against his ear. "You seem to have forgotten the part where I don't care." He stood, hands on his hips. "We got an agreement? You get Connor out while I find Cordy. After that, we'll talk." He smiled. "If they don't kill you first, of course."

"I can't make any promises. I've only been here--"

"Put that British charm to good use." He walked to the door, his duster flaring around him. "Make sure you call me when you've got a location."

Wes swallowed. "What about Cordy?"

Angel held the door open with his hand. He looked over his shoulder. "After what happened with you she should know not to mess with my kid." The door slammed shut behind him.

Wes stared at the door.

"Mr. Pryce?"

"Yes, Patricia." He cleared his throat to stop the trembling.

"You're back already?"

"Yes, Patricia. And, ah, could you please get Ms. Morgan on the line?"

"Of course, sir."

He laughed, a harsh, rasping sound. "Ironic, isn't it?" he whispered. "I try my damnedest to do the right thing and I screw it up. I do the wrong thing, and I succeed."

He turned the chair until he could see himself in the mirror over the credenza. His first instinct was to look away, but something kept him there.

The haircut and the suit were new. The face the same as always. But it was the eyes that held him.

Oh, God, he thought, as the trembling intensified.

They were his father's.

He clenched the arms of the chair. They felt real and solid in his hand, but it only made him acutely aware that real and solid, flesh and bone, those things were a lie. One slice of a knife or one leap through a portal, and life as you knew it disappeared.

He closed his eyes but still the images came, of his father, hand raised to hit him; of his own face in the mirror, lip split and eye blackened; of his mother, cowering while her son was beaten.

How was Connor any different than he had been?

You can help him, a voice said.

His eyes popped open. How in the hell could he help anyone, trapped in the quagmire like he was?

And then, as he gazed into his own reflection, it hit him. Like Saul on the road to Damascus, he nearly fell to his knees.

He and Angel traveled parallel paths. One, the good man gone bad for the right reasons; the other, the bad man gone good for the wrong ones. They met somewhere in the middle, their common denominator atonement.

Redemption.

What if the Powers never meant for him to kill Connor? What if they meant for him to save him?

"Mr. Pryce?"

He turned slowly toward the phone. "Yes."

"I have Ms. Morgan for you."

"Thank you, Patricia. Please put her through."

 

***

She peered at the small cabin that perched on the edge of the woods. Wes had chosen well. Only two hours from LA, it rested in the foothills of the Sierras. One road in—which meant only one way out— and four guards already stationed at points on the perimeter.

The silver Ducati the Powers loaned her stood hidden next to the road about a mile away. If she needed it, she could get there in six minutes at a full run, assuming she wasn't injured.

And she didn't plan on getting injured.

Movement at the cabin. She raised the field glasses, grateful that the trees shaded her from the sun. The last thing she needed was a glint giving up her location.

The first of the limos parked and Wes stepped out. He wore a trim navy suit that fit too well to be off-the rack. He'd always had expensive taste and it looked as if he finally had the income to indulge it.

Otherwise he looked exactly as she remembered: thin and elegant and bookish.

She was hammered by the memories of high school crushes and mellowing friendships and betrayal. It wasn't the sun's glare on the windshield that made her eyes water, but it was all she'd admit to.

She blinked the tears away and turned her focus to the target.

He'd grown in the last month, was all she could think as he disembarked. They'd cuffed his hands—probably because he refused to go otherwise. Then he turned to face her and her heart rolled in her chest.

God, he had the look of his father, tall and panther-ish. She shook her head. Don't go there. He's not Connor, he's not Angel. He's the Destroyer.

And you're here to destroy him.

She glanced at her watch. Four-thirty. She couldn't take him in broad daylight but she had to do it before Angel got there. Sunset was at 9:24.

No coincidence, she supposed, that this was going down on the longest day of the year.

God knew it felt like the longest day of her life.

The limos emptied out and all but one drove off, leaving behind six more guards. Three followed Wes and Connor into the house. Three stayed outside.

As they took up their positions, she counted carefully. Seven guards outside, three inside, plus Wes. Eleven men between her and the target.

Eleven to one—just the kind of odds she liked. The death-mask smile creased her face.

Until she thought of Angel. Then the smile disappeared

He hadn't changed in the ten years she'd been gone. The mission came second to family. His threat hadn't been idle; he'd kill her if he could. And if he couldn't he'd die trying.

No matter what she said earlier, she didn't want to fight Angel. And if--when--she got past him, she still had to face the target. He was young in this dimension, untested. But he'd already earned the name.

She could get through eleven men easily. She could get past Angel with a bit more work. It was the target who worried her.

He was bred to fight. She had been trained to fight. The difference was subtle, but it was there. And more, she knew him. She'd never killed anyone she knew before.

It was a test of the highest order. One she knew she had to pass or forfeit her life.

The water in the canteen was warm and metallic. She swished and spat quietly, then took a sip.

And waited.

***

"Can't you drive any faster?" Angel barked from his position under the tarp.

"I'm doin' ninety already," Gunn said. "Last thing we need is a ticket."

Angel grunted.

"We'll get there. In the meantime, make yourself useful and navigate." He pitched Wes's directions over his shoulder.

***

The guards found their positions. The sniper on the roof lay on his belly and peered through his rifle's sight. She held her breath as his gaze passed over her. She was so highly sensitized that when something rustled at the base of the tree she glanced down, just a quick cant of her eyes.

It was a squirrel. She felt him sense and tense, heard him run. And then something flashed in the distance, pulling her up and out.

It was the third guard's field glasses. Idiots.

Or they wanted her to know they were there.

***

"Next turn," Angel said. "Go left." He glanced at his watch. "They should be there by now."

"And so should she."

His mouth thinned. "Don't remind me."

"You didn't really think you could catch her, did you? Kinda hard to hunt someone in broad daylight."

Angel went silent.

"Look, I know you're worried—"

He jerked the blanket off and sat up, ignoring the sun slapping the back of his neck. "Right," he spat, catching Gunn's eye in the rearview. "That's exactly the term I'd use, too. Worried."

The air grew ripe with the smell of cooking flesh. "Someone in my family is gonna die tonight, Gunn. And you think I'm *worried*?" He jerked the blanket back over his head and rolled down in the seat.

Gunn shut his mouth and drove.

***

They hit the main road to the cabin half an hour before sunset. Angel sat up and dumped the blanket in the floor. "How close are we?"

"You had the map last," Gunn said curtly.

It wasn't in the seat next to him. He patted his pockets, came up empty, then kicked the blanket aside. The map was a white wad in the mothball-smelling wool. He reached for it, and when he did something caught his eye.

"Stop the car."

Gunn hit the brakes and went for his weapon. "What is it?"

"Wait here." He opened the car door slowly, let his senses take over. He could smell her, faint on the breeze.

The sun's last rays rendered the air a shocking gold. It burned his retinas clean through. "Give me your sunglasses."

Gunn whipped them off and handed them over the seat.

"Wait here." He slipped the glasses on and got out of the car. In three quick, nearly smoke-free steps, he was in the woods. In five more he stood next to her bike.

He ran his hand over the seat, and against his cool palm the leather was warm flesh. If he closed his eyes he could almost feel her thighs clenched around the vibrating machine. His hand fisted. Thoughts like that would keep him from doing his job.

He reached down and stripped the ignition wires. If she made it back here alive, she wouldn't be leaving. Not by this route, anyway. He put the wires in his pocket and stood, listening to the woods' near silence.

And waited for the sun to drop.

***

At 9:22 she slithered out of the tree. Her legs prickled with the haze of pumping blood and she gave up a precious thirty seconds while the feeling to returned to her feet.

A tingle crossed her neck and shoulders. She turned, certain she'd heard something in the forest behind.

He was here. She could feel him.

Angel could track her by scent and his night vision was far better than hers. It put her at a distinct disadvantage.

The sun slid down the sky, a liquid jewel.

She kept to the trees, slipping around the gnarled, ancient live oaks, a shadow in woods that were succumbing to night.

The first guard had his back to her. She leapt silently, took him down too quickly for a struggle. In her hands his head was large and heavy. She twisted, and in one, violent surge, he was dead.

She stood, looked down at the body. Let the image of his red-haired wife, his dimpled, blue-eyed baby boy, wash over her. The Powers gave her these visions, sometimes before she killed, sometimes after, so she'd know that her actions had consequences.

Even the actions she took for them.

For one, reverent moment she stood, breathing in the still, scented air.

Then she stepped out of the woods, and left the body behind.

***

Angel went in on foot. He was fifty yards from the cabin when he found the first body.

The guard lay in a heap, head twisted at the wrong angle. She was as efficient and deadly as she looked, then.

A movement caught his eye. Something on the roof. He went still, let his demon track it. A flash, then a grunt. A body slid silently down the shingles and landed on the ground with a dull thud.

Angel ran.

Death. He could smell it on the air.

He followed her scent through the fear. Clean as moonlight, just like he remembered. It led him to the cabin door.

Through the three small windows high in the door he could see Wes hunched over his cell phone. Connor wasn't with him. Angel edged across the porch and stepped down onto the grass.

A hand grabbed his shirt and yanked. He went tumbling and came up face to face with Gunn.

He jerked his fist back at the last second, barely missing Gunn's nose. "I told you to stay in the car," he hissed.

Gunn drew his finger across his throat. "She got `em all." In his tight whisper was a glimmer of respect.

Angel glared. The light from the window cut a swath across his shoe and reminded him how visible they were. "Get out of here."

"No way." Gunn adjusted his grip on his axe. "I'm not letting you do this alone."

"Boys, are you gonna spend the night talking, or are you gonna turn around so I can kick your butts?"

It was her voice, but so different. Focused. Electric. She stood just outside the light. He could barely see her in the black ops clothes and painted face. But he felt her like a tazer's stun.

Next to him Gunn tensed. "Barbie," he said quietly.

"Gunn, go back to the car. Now," Angel said in a deadly voice.

"Like hell." He raised his axe. Before he got to the top of the arc, she leapt. The axe fell to the ground with a soft thud. Gunn followed.

"Don't worry," she said, less than a foot from Angel's ear. "I didn't kill him." She smiled that wicked smile.

Then, on the night wind, she vanished.

He heard a sound and looked up. Saw her foot disappearing over the edge of the roof.

He followed.

***

The tar shingles smelled of creosote and clung stickily to her feet. She used that to her advantage, climbing nimbly and cresting the summit.

She let gravity take her--falling, rolling--and grabbed the gutter on her way over the edge. Her fingers looped, slipped, held.

She bounced once and the tendons in her shoulder stretched with a sharp pang. Then she hung, one-handed, while she waited for Angel to figure out where she was.

There. He'd gotten to the top. He was more than half cat, but he was also a good fifty pounds heavier and there was no way he could disguise his presence.

Sure enough she heard Wes's voice at the window. "Steven, get into the bedroom! Someone's on the roof!"

Perfect. Now she knew where he was. She let go, fell a story, and landed in a somersault. Rolled up, ran two steps to the porch. Kicked in the door.

Over its ricochet she heard three things, clear as day: Angel hitting earth, Wesley's intake of breath, and the target's delighted laugh.

She drew the sword and its razor-sharp edges sang.

Wes stared, open-mouthed, phone hanging limply at his side. The target was not in sight.

The air behind her shifted. She ducked and came up swinging. The katana caught Angel on the upper arm and the smell of blood hit the air with a metallic tang.

His nostrils flared. "First blood," he growled. Then he drew his favorite broadsword.

"Back off, Angel," she warned, holding her stance.

"Wes, get him out of here," Angel called. He grabbed the hilt with both hands and swung right at her head.

Cor dodged him easily and, sword flashing, cut his shirt to ribbons.

Down the hall a door slammed and locked. Then glass shattered.

They were going out the window. Dammit, if they got to the car....

She took her eyes off Angel just long enough to gauge the distance to the bedroom door. When she looked again he was coming at her like a line backer.

Instinct had her ducking, blending into the wall, and his bulk went flying. He skidded across the planked floor on his belly.

She tore down the hall and let momentum take her through. The reverberation of flesh against wood sang through her, rattling her teeth and sending an aria of pain through her already stressed shoulder. The door splintered and swung open, leaving her staring at an empty room.

The window was a jagged hole on the other side. She hurtled the bed and propelled herself through. Glass caught her hand and the spike of pain brought the hot, hazy night into sharp relief.

Her feet hit the ground just in time to get tangled in the sniper's body. She went down hard. Heard someone grunt--realized it wasn't her, but the sniper. Surprised, she glanced at him, at the scatter- shot rise and fall of his chest. Dammit. He was supposed to be dead.

A sound pulled her attention up. It was the target, resisting Wesley's instructions. She heard Wesley's voice, low and angry. Saw the target jerk away, his white t-shirt flashing in the light from the full Solstice moon. The intense look he leveled at Wes was Angel at his most stubborn.

Her thoughts scattered, marbles on a tile floor.

Tick tock, Cor. Where's your focus?

The pounding throb of blood in her sliced palm ripped her back to reality.

She shoved to her feet and ran.

They were in the car by the time she got there. Wes fumbled the keys in the ignition.

"Get out, Wes," she said calmly. "I don't want to hurt you."

The engine fired and he grabbed the door handle and tried to yank it closed. She blocked it with her hip, reached through the open door and jerked him out. Then she raised the sword and brought the handle down hard on his temple.

"Doesn't mean I won't."

He crumpled into a messy pile next to the car.

The target sat in the back seat staring at her, his hungry, panther's eyes glinting. She knew then—with a stunning, mind-expanding flash— that he'd duped them.

His resistance was an act. He agreed to come to the safe house because he hungered to face her alone.

It threw her off just long enough for Angel's tackle to send her sprawling. She came up with a mouthful of grass. Spat. "Dammit."

"Don't do this, Cor," he said, raising his sword. He stood, an avenging angel, broad-shouldered and dark-eyed.

And in that moment the past caught up with her.

She rolled out of the way of the whizzing blade and sprang to her feet.

"When did you lose the mission, Angel?" She parried, missing his face by a scant inch.

"When did you lose your heart, Cordelia?" He lunged, and the tip of the sword skated past the curve of her waist.

A car door rattled. "Angelus, uncuff me," the target ordered.

In the driver's side mirror, she saw his jean-clad hips, his hands braceleted in silver cuffs.

"Get back in the car, Connor," Angel said, cutting his eyes to his son.

It was all she needed. The spin kick sent him flying across the turf ass-first.

Then she was face to face with the target. He was cuffed--it was hardly fair. But she raised her sword anyway.

He smiled and the glint in his eyes was fevered, pulsing. Then his eyes shifted to something behind her.

A hand twice her size slapped her arm down, sent the sword flying. She turned on Angel in bare-fisted fury and rammed her hand into his jaw.

He shook it off and hit her back.

He hadn't been kidding when he said he held back in training. It was like meeting a speeding car.

It spun her so fast she hit the ground face-first. He fell on top of her and the air left her lungs with a balloon-like pop.

He thrust his hips against her ass and she lay, stunned by the pure charge of sexual energy, until she realized he was digging something out of his pocket. Over her gasps she heard jingling keys.

"Get out of the cuffs and run!" Angel yelled.

She rocked and rolled but couldn't get him off. Her sword lay at her fingertips--if she could just reach it....

"Stop," he ordered. "He's gone."

She struggled, looking for ways to dislodge him. The target—she had to find the target.

His big hand pinned the back of her neck and shoved her face into the grass.

"Cor," he said, riding her bucking body. His voice was harsh and pleading and it ripped through her, a mortar shell through her heart.

She went limp.

He let go.

She smiled. Up and up she came, energy surging through her in a tidal wave.

He flew hard and fast—hit the side of the car with a spine-cracking crash. He struggled to his feet.

And beside him, the target stood, holding her sword.

"Nice blade," he said, swinging it at her head.

 

***

When Gunn came to the first thing he noticed was that there were two moons. Big, round and shiny as new quarters.

Then he blinked and the two became one. That was when he noticed the dull, pounding headache.

Someone must have cracked his skull—again.

"Nice blade."

He unfurled slowly and turned toward the voice. Three figures in a stand-off next to the car, two in black, one in white—so fuzzy it could have been a dream. Beneath his cheek the grass was cool and fragrant. His eyes slipped closed, too heavy to hold open.

"Thanks."

Cordy. He jerked awake gasping. Oh, God. She was here to kill Connor and-- She was the one who conked him. He touched his temple gingerly and the pain crashed into his skull, a sprinter slamming a hurdle.

Girl was good, he thought, as he wiped his bloody fingers on the grass. But he was better.

He struggled and planted his knees, only to be overtaken by the spins. "Shit," he moaned.

That's when he heard Angel. "Don't do this, Cordelia."

In his wavering sight it looked as if Angel was pleading, one hand outstretched, a human barrier between Cordy and Connor. Even from here Gunn could see the determination on his face.

Which only fueled his own. He had to get over there to help.

But then his stomach clenched and sent a wave of clammy nausea spiraling through his gut. He closed his eyes and spat metal-water into the dirt.

Someone shouted, "No!" and the sound echoed so loudly that fireworks went off behind his eyelids.

When he opened them again the figures had changed position. Now Cordelia, hard to see except for the flash of white hair under the moon, stood over Connor, a new blade in hand. Her arm flew up and started in its downward slash.

He saw it then, a hunter's knife, ferociously curved and serrated on the tip. He grimaced, imagining the rip-and-suck of those teeth meeting flesh. Gonna be nasty--

Before Gunn could move, Angel's roundhouse swing brought the flat of his sword across Cordy's shoulders like a paddle.

The momentum carried her into a body slam with Connor, and they went down in a tangle of limbs. They came up fighting, katana to hunter's blade, steel flashing in the short, bright night.

**

Angel stumbled back, back, avoiding the flashing blades. "Connor! Cordy! No!"

Connor had reach and speed and the longer blade but Cordy fought with heart and guts. In her twirling, dancing style he saw remnants of the girl he'd known--the cheerleader, the Homecoming Queen. Proud, athletic, graceful.

He barreled in, sent them spinning in opposite directions. Then she whipped, turned and they were face to face.

"Back off," she spat. Her eyes glowed gold.

"No way." He ducked his head and lunged, plowed the crown of his skull into her shoulder. She went down so hard he heard her teeth rattle.

Connor, where was Connor? He turned, saw his son watching them with narrowed eyes.

"You gonna kill her for me, Angelus?" The look on his face wasn't spite, but it was close.

"If I have to."

"Better turn around then. She's getting up."

The serrated blade ran through the outside of his thigh. He screamed, looked down to see the tip of the blade, black with his blood. Then it was gone, and the sucking wound it left behind felt like a bath in holy water.

She rounded him. "I will kill him," she said through gritted teeth.

"You have to kill me first," he spat. The pain ratcheted through him, red and hot.

"Gladly," she said, rising over him, feet inches off the ground. She slashed the hunting knife at his throat.

His arm flashed up, met her wrist, and the knife went flying. She grunted. He drew the sword back, prepared to bury it in her skull.

She spun, leg flying, and knocked it out of his hand. He watched it go, watched it bounce, watched it land in the grass next to the car.

She beat him to it. Next he saw her she was standing on the hood of the limo, swinging the broadsword in great arcs over her head. Then she leapt and planted her feet against his chest.

He went down like a felled tree.

***

She could feel him in the sword. You didn't make a sword your favorite without leaving something of yourself in the metal. And this one felt like him, hard and sturdy; big and graceful.

Beneath her feet he lay perfectly still. Her toes met his collarbone where the point of the sword now rested.

To be killed with your own sword was either the greatest compliment or the greatest insult. She intended to make it a compliment.

His eyes were glittering, black. "You gonna do it?" His brows settled low over his eyes, his mouth went straight and flat.

Her racing heart stuttered.

She knew that look. Unstoppable. Proud. It was the battle standard that drove her through the hard, lonely, transcendent years.

Before the Zen masters and the weapons experts and the battle tests was Angel. He taught her more than the basics of self-defense. He encouraged her, believed in her, laid the foundation for the life she now lived. In her weakest moments—and her strongest—she drank from his well.

To kill him now would dishonor the gift.

But she had to stop him. So she did the only thing left. She drew on the light.

It flew through her feet, went through him, a knife through his soul. He screamed, loud and long, and his eyes went from black to fiery gold.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, because she knew that this would be worse for a demon than any blade.

But she also knew he'd walk away from it. Eventually.

He fell limp beneath her, and the telltale signs of a purge marked his face. Vacant, staring eyes; open mouth. The demon in him convulsed, knocking her loose, and she stumbled aside.

The she was left, sword in hand, to face the one thing she'd hoped to avoid.

He leaned against the car, eyes wide, katana resting loosely at his side. "Wow," he said. "Is that what you did to me?"

She nodded. "I don't use it often. It's too powerful for most people to survive."

His eyes flickered to Angel, who lay, trembling in the driveway. "What about him?"

"Oh, he'll make it. He'll feel like crap for awhile, though."

"I didn't feel like crap," he said thoughtfully.

"That's because you got purged of something you didn't need." She turned to consider Angel. "His darkness balances him, keeps him focused. Yours was killing you." She looked at Connor. "That's why I'm here, you know."

"What do you mean?"

"What you become, Connor. It's pure darkness."

Defiance flickered in his eyes. "I fight the good fight."

"Holtz corrupted you."

Now it was anger, pure and powerful. "Do not speak of my father."

"He was only doing what he came here to do."

"Turn me into a fiend?"

She nodded. "And it's my job to stop you."

"Then why are you still talking?"

"Good question." She drew herself over the centers of her feet, where she connected with earth. The sword rose in front of her nearly of its own accord, lead by the energy pumping through the live-wire of her body.

She drew in the light, sucked it deep. The thrumming power burned in her belly, incense uncoiling light, smoke and heat. "I'll make it quick," she swore.

He came at her with a driving kick and landed his foot in her belly.

Her breath exploded out and she fell to the grass gasping.

God, he was fast. She whipped to her feet.

But she was faster.

She came at him, a propeller, dancing and spinning, her sword flashing streaks of light.

He ducked, rolled, sprang like a cat.

***

Angel groaned groggily. His insides felt hot, electric.

Laughter, giddy and free, rumbled through him. God he felt amazing. This was like smoking opium without the side effects. Whatever she'd done to him, it was good, good, good.

The sound of clashing steel caught his attention and he hummed along with it. Mozart or something even purer, though it was hard to imagine what that might be. Maybe if the moon wrote music.

Zing, sing, ting.

Without looking he caught the rhythm of the fight, and his fingers tapped on his chest in time with them. Dancing, and God, he loved to dance.

Well Angelus loved to dance; he avoided it like the plague. But maybe now that he felt this way, light and happy and free, he'd start again. He'd buy Cordy something beautiful, maybe red, he'd always loved her in red. And he'd take her...take her....

Cordy, God, no. She'd come to kill his child. His boy, his baby, his miracle. Now the warm golden feeling turned to water, leaving his eyes wet.

Not Connor, too. He couldn't possibly live without them both.

***

Connor bore the katana as if it were his own. He fought as she'd imagined and feared, with such integration that he not only owned the fight he *was* the fight.

The clang of steel meeting steel rang up her arms and sent her skull vibrating.

He was the most powerful foe she'd faced.

Not just by his birthright, but by his birth. Behind his warrior's eyes lay the boy she knew, the baby she loved. The child she had mourned.

Her jaw clenched as memories flooded, memories of how he'd felt in her arms, of how he smelled, sweet and powdery after his bath.

The memories made her slow. Stupid.

He landed a blow and she went tumbling, spinning.

She came up, lip busted, head pounding and went for him again.

***

He rolled, finding his way to his hands and knees. Head spinning, mouth watering, he drooled into the grass just like Conal, the village idiot. He giggled. He'd loved Conal; actually, he'd loved torturing him. Even after Darla turned him, he and Conal had some fun. The hot rush of blood from Conal's smooth, young throat coated his lips. He licked greedily, but still in the grip of Cor's love light, it turned his stomach.

Blood--could he ever drink it again?

Blood. It caught his attention. Someone had spilled it recently. He raised his head and sniffed like a dog. The world spun and spun, and he could only spin with it.

In his peripheral vision he saw them dancing together, so lithe and beautiful. So young, just getting started, really. They had no idea what it meant to live forever, and he prayed they never would. He also prayed he'd go first so he never had to be without them.

Fey and fairylike, straight out of tales he'd heard as a boy. Swords flashing, eyes blazing, mouths set in the same grim line.

Pride wrapped himself around him, a warm blanket. His eyes focused, his heart twisted. His family, they were, and dear God, how he loved them.

He struggled to his feet never taking his eyes off the dancing pair. Getting caught in the dazzle and sparkle of light on blade, of light on hair and skin. Living, pulsing.

***

The memories flashed a second time. Of her sleeping with Angel, this child between them, as night cradled their family in her cool, soft arms.

Her breath caught in her chest and the light dimmed. "I *will* do this," she said between clenched teeth.

With a great, sucking breath, the light expanded, throbbing in her chest as she fought—throbbing and pulsing, and guiding her through the fight.

It was only when her movements synchronized with the target's that she realized he was doing the same, drawing on breath and life to lead him through. His eyes flashed with recognition, and he stopped and stared at her open-mouthed.

Then his fist rammed into her face.

She flew back ten feet and hit the ground with a jarring thump. Her strained shoulder muscles seized and the screaming flash of pain became her entire world. Then she scrambled up, shook it off, and went back for more.

***

He was drawn back to the dream, of him and Cordy, of her--a coat full of moonlight. Now she wasn't simply that girl--she *was* moonlight.

And Connor, he was night. And he held her, the sky holding the moon.

Then she eclipsed him. Angel blinked, startled when his son went down. Where's your balance, boy? Lose your balance and you lose it all.

***

The vision flashed through her, intense as heat lighting.

It radiated from her core, spinning and pulsing, spilling over her edges. She cried out, flung her head back. Saw the stars, spinning, pulsing--felt their ancient, cold light morph into something so hot that it burned her from the inside out.

But she couldn't stay with the stars for long, not when Connor's pulse drew her gaze back down to earth. He stared, wide-eyed and open- mouthed, and she realized then that the vision wasn't meant for her alone.

Together they traveled into the future, to Angel, weeping over Connor's grave. To her, fighting empty and angry and alone in a battle she no longer believed in.

It flashed again, taking them back to a night years before. When she'd rocked this boy to sleep in the chair next to the window. She saw his eyes, blinking owlishly, his rosebud mouth quirking in his secret smile, the one he saved just for her.

She felt him heavy against her breast. Smelled his milky-sweet smell.

Connor's face softened as he remembered being cradled in love.

The memories flooded, water breaking a dam. Her heart gave a horrible, grieving wrench.

And then the vision flashed again and she saw herself lying still and cold, dead eyes staring at the blank night sky.

It was clear as the moon on this cloudless night: his life or hers.

She looked deep into Connor's eyes and let them guide her into her own heart. Turned her head and looked at Angel, kneeling in the grass. Saw in his eyes the same truth she already knew.

Death was a choice. Just like life.

She lowered the sword.

***

Angel's heart, twisted and tense, suddenly relaxed. Because he knew in that moment that they'd won.

His son was safe. His family was safe.

The bliss of her touch washed over him again and he fell to his knees in the grass weeping in gratitude.

***

Gunn's eyes blinked open slowly. Someone had scrubbed the inside of his head with sand.

A flash caught his eye, Cordy, arm high over her head, Connor pinned beneath her foot.

"No," he breathed.

But instead of following through, Cordy lowered the sword. A wave of helpless relief flowed through him. They were safe. Thank God. They were safe.

Then he heard a rustle, fabric on grass, and turned his head toward the sound.

One of the guards, a man he had thought was dead, was rolling onto his belly. The moonlight flashed on something long and gleaming.

A quiet "ka-chunk" rattled his ears.

***

The ear-shattering report of a rifle shot split the air.

The bullet ripped through her shoulder and blew out the front of her chest, spattering blood and flesh in a messy arc.

She blinked in confusion, not quite understanding what had just happened.

Angel screamed "NO!" in a voice that came from under water.

She got it then.

They hadn't wasted any time, had they?

All she could do was laugh.

 

***

"You know how much I hate this astral thing," she bitched at Skip.

They were in the temple on the holy mountain in Japan where she once studied. The priest of the temple, well over one hundred, taught her to use the katana in the yard outside. She remembered the frail- looking man and the freight train of power that tracked from his fist. She wondered idly if he was still in residence, or if he'd already moved on to higher planes.

"If you'd quit trying to die, it wouldn't be an issue," Skip replied, drawing her attention back to the conversation. They stopped to light incense at the altar where a golden statue of Buddha glinted in the pearly light. "You know why you're here, right?"

"Because someone tried to kill me again?" she teased.

"Yeah. Wanna see?"

She shrugged. "You know they're gonna make me anyway. May as well get it over with."

The swirling incense clouded then shimmered and she saw herself on an operating table, chest held open by metal spreaders as the surgeon tried to put her back together.

"Not my best look."

"Hardly," Skip said.

She blinked and the scene shifted. "Oh, my God, Angel!"

He stuck to the shadows in clothes spattered with blood. Hers and his, she could smell it from here. His face was drawn, tired, but his eyes were still lit with the flame she'd burned through him. She could feel it, warming him from the inside, connecting him to her and she knew, intuitively, that he clung to it, wanting to feel her in him for as long as he could.

Wes entered the room, cups of coffee in his hand, and behind him was Connor. White bandages decorated his arms and face.

She ran her hands over her arms, suddenly chilled. "Didn't take `em long, did it?" she whispered.

"What do you mean?" Skip waved his hand and chased away both incense and vision.

"To follow up on their promise."

"What promise?" Skip asked, head tilted to the side, a kid figuring out a math problem.

"My life or his. I chose his."

"Oh," Skip said. And then his eyes widened. "OH." He pointed at the coiling smoke. "So you think that's…. Huh."

"Huh?"

"Huh." He crossed his arms over his chest and looked at her, long and hard. "You know, for someone who sees so much, you can be surprisingly dense."

The wail of a monitor split the air. She jumped. "What's that sound?"

"You're flatlining."

Sure enough, the vision swirled again and the medical team bustled around her, pulling up crash carts and loading stuff into her IV lines.

"So this is it? They're cutting me loose?" Her voice broke.

Skip shrugged. "You could say that."

In the room below the shrilling beep stopped.

The surgeon called time of death.

***

He'd been a doctor way too long on nights like this.

His hands were hot on his face as he scrubbed his cheeks. Grief. No matter how many he lost, he always felt it. Raw and slick, a rocky path in a storm.

And, as always, he locked it somewhere deep to deal with later. He couldn't afford to show his own grief to the family—not over someone he'd only met tonight, even someone who'd died on his table.

These people had lost someone they knew and loved. And now he had to tell them.

He shuffled out the swinging double doors and down the hall to the waiting room. It was a small hospital and they were the only ones there.

The man who carried her in, the tall brooding one in black, stood in the shadows. He leaned against the wall with a preternatural stillness that spoke of exhaustion. His skin was pale in the green of the fluorescents and the doctor wondered when he last ate. And understood that food was the last thing on his mind.

The man's eyes opened as soon as he walked into the room and he was startled by their glittering, gold film. He shook it off, knowing he was just trying to distract himself with inconsequential things.

This was never easy. There was no kind way.

So he put his hands in the pockets of his scrubs, held the man's gaze, and shook his head.

He watched it go in, a rock thrown into a moving engine, and stop him in his tracks.

Someone moaned, a feral sound in the silence.

"Doctor?" One of the men they'd treated for a head injury, the British one, stepped forward.

"I'm sorry," he said. He cleared his throat. "We did everything we could. The damage was too…." He pulled his hand out of his pants pocket and gestured. "There was too much damage," he finished lamely.

The Brit nodded, a brisk twitch of his head. His eyes were fierce and wet, but they were steady. "I'm sure you did your best. Thank you."

The boy stepped forward, a stunned look on his face. "She's dead?" He paled. "No." He turned his eyes to the man in black. "No!"

The doctor nodded. "I'm sorry. She just…. You did a good job of keeping her alive on the way over. But the trauma to her heart was just too much. We did everything we could," he said. He heard his voice break and he turned his head away.

***

Cordy stared open-mouthed at the scene before her. One nurse pulled the clamps out of her chest and began sewing her closed. Another unhooked IV lines and monitors. They were silent, efficient. Her body, once so full of color and life, lay on the table, a wrung-out rag.

"You sure that's what you want?" Skip asked quietly.

She blinked at him. "I don't have a choice now, do I?"

He shrugged. "Always got a choice, Cor. I thought you figured that out back at the safe house."

"What are you saying?"

"Ever heard the old adage, `Fork in the road'?"

She turned back to the quiet nurses who tended her body. "Ever heard the old adage, `Stick a fork in me, I'm done?'" Her eyes traveled the length of her body, taking in every bruise, every scar, every dip and curve that told the story of her life.

As she watched she was reminded of that night when Skip took her to Wolfram & Hart. How she knew with such intensity that everything would work out for the best.

Oh, she'd been so naïve. She thought she'd been passing some sort of test—choosing the mission over love--and she'd failed, miserably.

And now she'd failed again, for choosing love over the mission.

She looked at Skip. "Get me out of here. I've seen enough."

"You sure?"

"Ye—" She stopped, closed her eyes. "Just let me see him one more time," she whispered.

Angel's face, drawn and pinched, wavered before her. She saw him leaving the hospital, saw him standing over an open grave—hers now, not his son's. Saw him trudging through life eternal, broken by her death in a way he'd never been broken by Buffy's.

"Oh, God," she whispered.

"What?" asked Skip.

"Oh, my God, Skip. I love him. Still. And he loves me." She closed her eyes. "Why isn't that ever enough?"

Skip wrapped his hand around her arm, drew her attention to him. "What if it isn't about love?"

She ran her hands through her hair, looked at her face, lax and bloodless. "What does that mean?"

"What does any of this mean?" Skip waved his hand. "It's all just an illusion anyway, right? Hey," he said as if a thought suddenly occurred to him. "Did you ever see Thelma and Louise?"

Cor fumed. "Dammit, Skip, now's hardly the time to talk about movies."

"Hey, now, Susan Sarandon—who doesn't love her?"

She tugged on her hair in frustration, set the white spikes on end. "Okay. Fine. I saw it. Now what's your point?"

"Well, you know, at the end, when they're driving toward the canyon and everyone's chasing them?"

She tapped her foot against the stone floor. "Yes, Skip, I remember that part."

He smiled happily. "That was a great moment in movie history, wasn't it? Where they realize they're either gonna go to jail for, like, ever, or—"

"Or they can make a sacrifice that might end up killing them but preserves the purity of their mission?"

Skip nodded. "Bingo!"

Cordy blinked. "What, bingo?"

"Bingo!" Skip repeated.

She stared at him. "What?" A thought glimmered. "Are you saying I'm…. That what I did was…?"

"Make a sacrifice that preserved the purity of the mission? Yeah, pretty much."

Her mouth opened and closed several times before anything came out. "You're wrong."

"Am I?" He waved his hand and the scene shifted back to that moment where she stood over Connor, sword raised, caught in the grip of the vision. "Looks to me like you made a choice."

"I did. His life for mine."

"Even though you knew he might wind up destroying the world."

She closed her eyes. "I loved him too much."

When she looked at Skip he was shaking his head. "What if that was the whole point?"

***

Jenny, the head nurse, careened down the hall toward him, face glowing with an odd light. He shook his head. She knew he didn't want to be disturbed when he notified the families.

But she kept coming.

"Doctor!"

He looked back at them, all staring as if waiting for him to pop up and say, It's all a joke! "I'm sorry," he said, blanketed by their grief. "Could you excuse me a moment?"

She skidded on her clogs, nearly ran into him. "Could you come with me, please?" Her gaze flickered to the grieving family and when she caught the eyes of the man in black, her smile bloomed.

"What are you doing?" he hissed, taking her by the elbow.

"Just...come with me," she said urgently.

***

Angel sat at Cordy's bedside watching her heart beat on the monitor. It was regular, the same as her breathing, but she was so pale and still that he kept waiting for the beeping to stop.

His eyes closed and he took her hand. Drew it to his face and kissed the smooth skin near her wrist. "Don't leave me, Cor," he whispered brokenly.

"Angelus?"

He didn't turn. "Yeah," he answered, and his voice felt rough and thick.

"The nurse says visiting hours are over. We have to go now."

He shook his head. "Tell her I'm not going."

He heard his son's breathing stop then resume its normal, quiet rhythm. "All right," the boy said. "I'll see that the others get to the hotel safely. Then I will come back and sit with you."

Angel shook his head again. "No, Connor. The morning will be soon enough."

A pause again. And the rustle of weight shifting from foot to foot. "Morning, then," Connor replied.

The door drifted shut behind him and left Angel alone with the sound of Cordy's heart.

***

She was dreaming, wild, fractured dreams. Angel floated above her, his face shadowed and beautiful in the moonlight. The ocean breeze whipped his hair, a lover's careless fingers.

It was an old dream, a soldier's careworn letter carried next to her heart.

"Rip them off. I've got more in the car." The words burned her tongue and lit Angel's eyes.

He slid his hands under her hips, buried himself deep.

They rocked the car on its chassis, shocks squeaking, metal popping.

When she came, she flew out to the stars and hung, wrapped in the soft, black blanket of space. Under her feet Earth twirled, following