Even in his dreams, Angel could tell when they held suicide watch. He was known to sleepwalk, coming out of impossible riddling conversations with dust-colored dragons only to find himself leaning out of a window, breathing the city's smoky air. He was known to find slivers of glass and old rusted razor blades in improbable places. Except the city was a corpse, and nothing was improbable anymore.
Sometimes in his dreams there was a woman running, and sometimes he could taste her blood, only it was dark and sweet, the way a siren's song would taste if you could hold it in your mouth like a promise of drowned love. He knew better. There was nothing rich or tempting about blood. They had seen too much of it when the winds scoured the city and reaped its people.
"Angel." The voice woke him, except he was waking already. The old-new panic rose in him: his lungs were working, each breath shallow but distinct, and it made everything wrong. He knew what a lung looked like cut open, red gleaming membranes and branching alveoli, wanted to cut himself open to see if they were as they should be.
"Angel," the voice said again. It was Fred. Angel couldn't see all of her at once, not so soon after waking. Shadowed eyes, glasses held together by duct tape, a tear in her skirt. "You were talking in your sleep again." By her bright tone, Angel knew that she wasn't going to tell him what he had said in his sleep.
"It's not morning yet," Angel said. He sat up, feeling the hollow ache in every muscle. It puzzled the others that he always knew the time, even without a clock, even when they kept him in a room with no windows. It wasn't a prison. He knew exactly how to leave. The long tracks of scars along his arms--and some along his throat--proved that he kept failing to do so. Before he could stop himself, he added, "Where's Wesley?"
Fred's smile slipped a little. "He died in the storm. Don't you remember?"
For a second he saw blue eyes, blue eyes, like falling through ice and a winter of the soul. Someone had told him, someone whose name he had forgotten. But he hadn't been there. "I sent him out to die," Angel said.
"Don't be ridiculous," Fred said. "There's no point blaming yourself for everything that's gone wrong when the storm wasn't anyone's fault. It's just--just nature. The weather gone crazy." She looked away for a second; her eyes glistened behind the lenses.
Angel wanted to reach over and pat her hand, but it might break her self-control. And he was in no position to comfort anyone. "Who's in charge of breakfast today?"
"Charles," she said.
"He should be getting sleep," Angel said. Fred might hold down day to day operations in the Hyperion, but it was Gunn who negotiated with the adjacent neighborhoods over food shipments, Gunn who stared down the militia commanders, Gunn who oversaw their small attempts to rebuild the world in the storm's wake. Once Gunn and Wesley would have stayed up late into the night, arguing over maps and logistics while Fred drew her own flowcharts and plans.
Once Angel would have joined those discussions. It wasn't that they excluded him now. But he was distracted by the Hyperion's ghosts: cages and empty cradles, mirrors that showed every visage but his own. So he sat to the side, head bowed and half-dreaming. The dreams were easier to believe in, swords and demons and sharp bright happy endings.
"We should all be getting sleep," Fred said, very quietly bitter. "But that ain't gonna happen until we fix things."
"I'll help with breakfast," Angel said.
She looked at him sideways, then nodded. They walked downstairs together. Fred and Gunn didn't like him working in the kitchen, with its knives and fires, but it was something he could do to help. Fred might even have been telling the truth when she said she liked his eggs; she had never been very particular about food as long as there was plenty of it. He wasn't sure where she had scared up their chickens, and had decided it was better not to ask.
The Hyperion's lobby was quiet at this hour. False dawn brightened the windows; the light made him skittish for no reason he could identify. A shape moved in the shadows. "Angel," said Kate, rousing from one of the chairs. "Guess what we have for breakfast today."
"I don't know," he said. The topic of food made him awkward. Shortly after the storm he had tried starving himself. Everything had tasted off, too bright--still did, if he was honest with himself--and in the general chaos he had reckoned that it would be better to fade out of existence. Gunn and Fred, busy with other matters, hadn't noticed. But Kate had made her way to the Hyperion after years of absence, claiming they needed her help, and she'd been right; Kate had taken one look at Angel and said, Aren't you feeding him at all? Kate, fellow survivor, knew a suicide attempt when she saw one.
She waved a slightly mangled doughnut at him. "It figures," she said. "We need blankets and antibiotics, and what do we get? Some boxes of doughnuts. Oh, and cans of beans, so I shouldn't complain too much. I don't have the inventory on me."
Fred said, with forced cheer, "We could have more tacos."
"You and your tacos," Kate said. She looked at the doughnut dubiously, then took a bite of it. "Whatever it takes." Her gaze shifted to Fred: Is he better?
Fred shrugged: What do you think?
Angel pretended to ignore the exchange and continued to the kitchens. Sure enough, three boxes of doughnuts rested on the counter. Gunn had already begun making pancakes; the doughnuts weren't going to be enough. "Yo," he said without turning. "How much more of this stuff do you think we have to eat before we run out of maple syrup?" Maple syrup was one of the food items of which they had an inexplicable surfeit.
"We could have waffles instead," Angel said.
"Nah, Fred took the waffle irons apart for--I don't even know what it was for. You'd have to ask her."
Angel was pretty sure that any explanation would go over his head. "I can do that for a while," he said, nodding at the stove.
Gunn passed him the spatula. "Have any good dreams lately?" Gunn asked.
"Not really." He examined the edges of the pancakes and flipped one. It landed with a satisfying sizzle. Crosses, he thought with a flash of dizziness, crosses and smoke and water that burned beyond bearing. But they were only pancakes. He adjusted the heat on the stove. "Gunn, does it ever strike you that there was something unnatural about the storm?"
Gunn eyed him as he began setting out trays. "What do you mean by 'unnatural'?"
Angel struggled for the right words--if only he could draw what was in his mind--"So many people dying. Like all the demons of hell decided to ride the wind." That wasn't right either. Like someone had summoned all the demons of hell, and to what end?
"Angel," Gunn said, "that's why they call it a natural disaster. Only thing to do is bury the dead and keep moving."
He had thought he knew that lesson. They had lost people to stupid shoot-outs (Doyle) and cancer (Cordelia). And the agency continued. It was Angel who had broken.
They finished making the morning's pancakes in silence. Angel wandered out, finding his sketchpad in the corner where he had left it. No one had argued when he appropriated the paper. People emerged from the Hyperion's rooms to line up for breakfast. Anne was helping an older man to a seat while Fred argued with Gunn--they always seemed to be arguing--about water filtration.
Angel leaned against the wall and began to sketch. The pictures that poured out had nothing to do with the scene in front of him. They had fangs, and eyes bright as fire, and they woke in him a strange, sick longing. His hands began to shake; he put his pen down. Carefully, he folded up the sheet of paper, tore it into neat strips, and let them flutter on the ground.
A young man eased himself out of the crowd: Connor. The black shirt, one of Angel's, hung too large on him; it was mended in several places. "Dad," he said. "After all the times you were after me to clean up." He bent and began picking up the strips of paper.
Angel watched him, thinking of a woman with bright hair and eyes sweeter than sin. Why, if she had died giving birth to Connor, did it feel like he had lost her only a couple years ago? "I thought I told you to leave," Angel said. His voice sounded too loud.
Connor's mouth thinned, but he straightened and said, "Not having a good morning?"
"I wanted you to be safe," Angel said, swimming through confusion, to a boy with the same face. Wesley had wanted Connor's safety, too; Wesley had wanted it and there had been some terrible row, betrayals and paths parted and words they had never managed to unsay. "You were supposed to leave."
Connor didn't look mollified. Watching Angel sidewise, he deposited the shredded paper in a trash can. "And here I always thought you hated it when I asked for the car keys."
"What happened to the car?" Angel said. If he closed his eyes, he could feel wind, feel rain, feel fire. She had died in dust, and in rain, and in the light of fires licking ever nearer; must have died only once, the way everyone did. When he drew her, though, it was like drawing different people sharing the same face, Darla in petticoats and Darla in kimonos, Darla with her hair piled in curls and Darla with her head tilted sideways, smiling that wicked smile; Darla drenched and looking up at him as she bled for Connor's birth. Darla with her mouth distorted by a predator's fangs. He had loved her. He had blamed himself for her death. And he couldn't imagine why he would remember her as such a distortion of herself.
"The convertible?" Connor said. Fred was giving him a Do you need me to rescue you? look, and Connor was just as urgently giving her an I can handle it, okay? look in return. "Someone jacked it. We never figured out who."
Angel looked down. The car had been familiar in all the worlds he dreamed. He was the one who didn't fit in. "Oh," he said.
Determined to distract him, Connor told him about the other small dramas to which their world had condensed itself. A woman on the ground floor, a newcomer, had died of a head injury. Another kept everyone up at night with her nightmares--everyone except Angel, apparently. "Can't Lorne do something for him?" Angel asked, only to receive the careful response that no, there wasn't anyone named Lorne, did he know of something that could be done? But Angel didn't.
Breakfast wound to a close. Angel and Connor busied themselves collecting plates and shuttling them to the kitchen. Then Connor said, "I have neighborhood patrol now. Kind of like being a crossing guard, isn't it?"
"Be careful," Angel said.
"Hey, it isn't as bad as it used to be," Connor said, not at all reassuringly. "I'll see you at dinner, okay?"
Angel nodded. Connor was the one person he never drew. He was afraid that his pencil would distort Connor, too, into someone unrecognizable, someone with feral eyes and a killer's hands.
Anne turned down Angel's offer to help wash dishes. "You can't hide in here all the time," she said to him, "and we have to put some of these other people to work." One of the teenagers, who was drying a tray, scowled in Anne's direction. "Go out, talk to people." Remember how to live, her smile, both wry and serious, told Angel.
"If you say so," Angel said. He turned his back and walked out, heading toward the courtyard. He kept his gaze lowered, unwilling to exchange words with the people he passed.
There were few clouds outside. He shivered, stepping into the sunlight. Shouldn't there be more to sunlight than that faint warmth? Few of the plants had survived intact. The jasmine grew sweet and strong. He lingered by it until its fragrance made him unbearably uneasy.
Wesley was buried in the courtyard, in an unmarked grave. Angel knew exactly where it was. He would have given Wesley crosses of marble and words of stone, never-aging. But there had been no time in the terrible first days after the storm.
"I think I even still have a will back in England," Wesley said. "I fancied a cremation, myself. That way there's no uncertainty."
"You're not real," Angel said.
Wesley stood next to the grave. He wore dark leather, which was both wrong and right. "On the contrary," he said, "I am at least as real as you are."
"You shouldn't have died," Angel said, "not like that."
"Really, Angel, is there ever a good way to die?"
"You know the answer to that." Had Angel really expected Wesley to die surrounded by grandchildren? Whatever he had imagined, it had not included the storm. Wesley's body had been broken in too many places to count when they found it in the debris. "You said you'd be back soon. You were so close. And now--"
If only Wesley had stayed at the Hyperion, miraculously untouched, that day--
Wesley said quietly, "I'm still here."
Angel's shoulders hunched. "I'm not who I was, Wesley. There's something I should be doing, something I should be fighting--"
In the lobby, people moved to and fro, carrying out the small necessary motions of living. No one seemed inclined to join the madman in the garden. Angel hoped Kate wasn't around, listening. She didn't think it was good for him to spend so much time mourning Wesley.
He had said some part of that aloud, or more accurately, Wesley, being a figment of his imagination, knew what crossed his mind. "No," Wesley said. "I think you're mourning yourself. There are things to miss even in darkness."
"Darkness," Angel echoed. "I was a sometime private eye who was lucky to have better friends than most. I wasn't even competent enough to save some of them."
"Is that how you see it?"
Angel fell silent. When he looked up again, Wesley had vanished. The gray ache returned. It happened like this each time, all the things he meant to say washed away by the force of his guilt. He couldn't even apologize properly to a figment of his imagination.
He sat in the garden in a little longer, telling himself that in a few moments he would head back inside and talk to people who were real. Instead, he found himself walking away from the Hyperion. He had not lost his instinct for stealth. If anyone spotted him, they did not think to challenge him.
It was easy to follow where his feet led, to pretend there was no road behind him and none before him. He kept to the shadows, to the places where fallen telephone poles and smashed flowerpots and broken window panes made the streets a travesty of themselves. Dogs barked at his passing, but did not reveal themselves otherwise. At several places Angel paused to draw on walls in his own blood, fragmentary sketches: a half-shut eye, a smile becoming something less pleasant, a hand falling open.
After a while, Angel realized two things. First, he was lost. However well he knew the city, the storm had warped its paths. The shortcuts he had once known were gone. Second, someone was singing, a thin thread of sound. He couldn't hear the words, but the melody tugged at him. He caught himself humming along.
"Hello?" Angel said.
The singing paused, then started again. Angel walked toward its source, squinting into the shadows. He hadn't run into patrols or gangs, but that didn't make this a good part of town. The wind was cold against the back of his neck. It made him think of night and things that only moved in the night.
He came around a corner to encounter a woman. At first he mistook her for one of his ghosts. She had long, dark hair and dark eyes in a pale face, and her white dress was grimy. She swayed a little as she picked her way through the rubble toward him. Then she lifted her face and the full force of that dark gaze hit him. "You have to come," she said. "He's hurt." Her accent was English: a tourist, trapped during the storms?
"Who's hurt?" Angel said. He glanced around. The woman looked none too well herself. How long had she been wandering here? He recognized that fever in her eyes. Sometimes he saw it in the mirror.
The woman stepped delicately away from him, as though inviting him to a dance. "Hurry, hurry."
"I'll come," Angel said. "What's your name?"
She cocked her head. "Don't you remember?"
As if he didn't have enough reasons to doubt his memory.
"Naughty, naughty dragon," the woman said, "burning all the names away."
Angel went rigid. How had she known about the dragons in his dreams? He told himself it was a coincidence. "You said someone else was hurt."
"My cousin," she said. "Yes. We must hurry."
Angel followed her through the tangle of side streets and damaged buildings. He wondered if anyone at the Hyperion had noticed his absence yet. It wasn't the first time he had considered leaving entirely. They had Gunn and Fred, Kate and Anne and Connor. They had no need of him.
"William," the woman sang out as they approached what had once been a florist's shop.
A man in a black coat hobbled toward them. "Drusilla, pet, there you are--" Then he spotted Angel. Hope and wariness passed over his face.
"I'm Angel," he said. "She said someone needed help...?" He felt a little ridiculous saying it. Once he had helped people--they still had the old answering machine tapes saying We help the hopeless, the ones with Cordy's voice on them--but it had been so long ago.
"Name's William," the man said. He gestured down at himself. "Think I knackered my ankle." A shadow crossed over his face, and Angel saw how gaunt he was. "Makes it a bit hard to get around. Was just catching my breath when Dru there prances off--"
"It's all right now," Drusilla said. "Daddy's here."
Angel tried to convey, with a shrug, that he didn't know what Drusilla was talking about, even as intimations of blood and silk and broken-eyed dolls passed through his mind.
William said, without lowering his voice, "'S all right. Bird's a bit touched in the head. But we do right by each other, Dru and I."
Angel nodded, accepting this. "Were you headed someplace in particular?"
William shook his head. "Anywhere with a roof. We can work, anything that doesn't require a real keen grasp on reality." His tone was light.
"Let me look at your ankle," Angel said. William didn't object, so Angel carefully removed the shoe and felt around the joint. William grimaced. "I don't think it's broken," Angel said. "How did this happen?"
"Tripped," the other man said, disgusted. "We were trying to get away from some gang or other, but they didn't want to follow us far. Vicious streets you have in this city."
"It wasn't always like this," Angel said.
"No," Drusilla said, "it was worse."
"Was it," Angel said, not at all certain. "William, if I help you, can you keep walking?"
"Only one way to find out, I reckon."
"There's a place I know not too far from here"--he hoped--"where you should at least be able to get your ankle looked at by someone who knows more than a little first aid. You don't know what kind of people might come wandering around here at night."
William exhaled gustily. "Let's get to it, then."
William's ankle must have been worse than it looked, from the way his breath hissed between his teeth with every step they took. For his part, Angel was shocked by his own lack of strength. Hardly a block away from the florist's, and he was already beginning to tire. At least he recognized one of the bent street signs and gained a notion of which direction they needed to go.
Drusilla continued to sing intermittently. At times Angel felt like he was walking through a city of her devising, a place of vast battles and doors into hell. He suspected that if he showed her his sketches, she would recognize the faces. Daddy, she had called him.
He had no daughters, except in his dreams, where they were not daughters but something deadlier, children born by dying. And the woman's eyes told him that she saw dreams all too well.
As they approached the Hyperion, a neighborhood patrol hailed them. "It's all right," Angel said to William and Drusilla. "They know me."
One of them did, anyway. Lindsey detached himself from the group of five and drawled, "Well, look who came back home after all."
"Lindsey, let's not," Angel said irritably. He didn't want to discuss his personal failings in front of these strangers. "How long have I been gone?" The clouded sky made it difficult to gauge time. Or maybe time had started to run amiss after the storm.
Lindsey, of course, had a functioning watch. He glanced at it and said, "Well, Connor said he'd last seen you--six hours ago, now. You really know how to put that kid through the wringer, don't you?"
"These two aren't well," Angel said, wanting to think of anything--anyone--but Connor. "I'll get them home."
As they passed out of the patrol's hearing, William murmured, "I take it you and that bloke don't get along."
Angel said nothing. He would never pretend to like Lindsey, but something about the fact that the man was alive gave him the dizzying sense of a weight lifted, a terrible decision undone.
The Hyperion rose before them, battered but whole, with lights guttering in some of the windows. "Home," Angel said. The word tasted cold and hollow, but if William or Drusilla noticed, they showed no sign of it.
Kate appeared at the door. Her mouth was compressed. Angel was pretty sure that only the others' presence kept her from grabbing his arm and dragging him inside. "Hello," she said in a perfectly neutral voice. "Thank you for finding our resident stray dog."
William, no idiot, heard the undercurrents, even if he didn't understand them. "More like he found us," he said, "and don't think we're not grateful."
"You're limping," Kate said, only just noticing. "Come on. It'll be nice to have an injury we can treat for once." She shot a look at Angel that meant, Don't think you're getting out of talking to me later. Together, the four of them went to the makeshift infirmary.
There wasn't much they could do with the ankle, really, but it seemed to make Kate feel better to be in charge of the newcomers. Angel really didn't feel up to arguing with her.
Gunn poked his head through the door and said, "Heard someone went for a nice long walk. Could you maybe not do that without letting one of us know?"
Angel said, "I'm not in elementary school, Gunn."
Gunn bit something back and said, after a measured pause, "Just help us help you out, man. That's all."
Drusilla, who up to that point had seemed to be ignoring the exchange in favor of examining empty Band-Aid boxes, said, "You're the lawyer, aren't you. But the kitty didn't want to play any more." William looked apologetic.
Gunn snorted. "No, ma'am," he said, "that'd be Lindsey. You a friend of his?"
"Don't mind her," William said. "She doesn't know what she's talking about. We've never met these kind folks before, have we, Dru?"
Drusilla's returning gaze was imperious. "Ask him." She pointed at Angel. "He knows."
"Takes one to know one," Angel said, trying to turn it into a joke. Gunn's brow furrowed; Kate glared. "Never mind." His palms were sweating.
"You have to listen," Drusilla said. Her voice was low and rich and promised things he tried to tell himself he couldn't have. "It's a bedtime story, when the bed's the grave, and the dragon comes with his jaws cracked open to the gates of hell. It's the song in your head and the thorns in your chest. Daddy, Daddy, tell me you know me."
"Drusilla," William said. "I'm sorry. She doesn't usually get so worked up." He caught her arm, gently, and eased her toward him.
"It's all right," Angel said. But he knew it wasn't. "Maybe--maybe I'd better go, if I'm upsetting her."
"Maybe that's best," Kate said, although it was pretty clear she was more worried about the madwoman's effect on Angel.
Angel and Gunn walked out together. "You shouldn't--" Angel began to say.
Gunn rounded on him and slammed a fist into the wall. "I shouldn't what? Shouldn't come check on someone I happen to know very well who's determined to become one more casualty?"
"I'm not dead yet," Angel said.
Gunn said, "Every time you wander off, part of you doesn't come home. You think it doesn't make me worry? Do me a favor and act like a grown-up. Your son has more common sense in his left pinky than you do."
No answer Angel had was going to satisfy him. "I'll be in the kitchen if anyone needs me," he said flatly.
Gunn let him go.
Angel spent the rest of the day in the kitchen, carefully unmemorizing names so that he could pretend he knew none of the people who came and went. If he knew no one, no one would know him, or the dreams he dreamed. At the day's end, he palmed a knife. He welcomed the metal's sleek coolness. Then he went up and down the stairs, up and down the halls, counting and uncounting the rooms.
He dreamed about the rooms, too, or the hallways, or the wide stately space of the lobby. Sometimes there was fire and sometimes there was dust and sometimes great shimmering portals. He dreamed while walking, dreamed in waking. He heard Fred whispering to herself over and over in a thin, scared voice while she sat away from Gunn. He heard himself telling Connor about a cruel world, a world that needed champions; heard himself telling Connor to leave. He heard Wesley humming a lullaby. Empty dreams.
Fred greeted him at the door to his own room. "Hand it over," she said.
Angel crossed his arms.
"Don't pretend you haven't got it," Fred said, "'cause I counted all the cutlery myself, and after talking to Gunn and Kate today, I know it ain't anyone else."
Angel drew out the knife and handed it to her, hilt-first.
She took it and inspected the blade--for rust, for blood, for who knew what else. Then, uninvited, she went into the room and sat against the wall, knees drawn close to her chest. "Angel," she said. Suddenly her voice was quiet and dispassionate, and utterly unlike that of the woman he knew. And thus he knew her all the more, if only he could remember the name--
Angel followed her in, shut the door, and sat across from her. "Are you really Fred?" he said.
"Are you really Angel?" she countered.
"I'm crazy," Angel said. "The new woman, Drusilla. She talks about dragons and thorns. I don't know how she knows it, but it's true. I did something to the world. I thought I was the only one who knew." Fred's gaze remained steady and merciless. "Now you know I'm crazy."
"At last you are awake," Fred said, still in that dispassionate voice. "And being awake, you can choose. Perhaps it is better this way."
His breath caught. "I don't understand."
She turned the knife around and around in her hands. "I know how Wesley died."
"We all saw the body," Angel said.
She wasn't looking at him. "He asked for the lie, so I gave it to him. I had assumed you would want the same thing. But you throw yourself at knives, at high places, at ropes and water and all things perilous. I should have told you from the beginning, if no one else."
His stomach was beginning to hurt. "Fred--" Then he saw her eyes, and for a second he knew, he knew what color they were; knew they were pale and blue and had once known nothing of regret or mercy. "Illyria." The room blurred. "Jesus. No." Heartbeat, breath, heat: human things, human body.
"The threads of our lives have come to this place," Illyria said, clothed in Fred's shell though she was.
Angel said harshly, "How does destroying a city earn me humanity? I thought I'd be done--" He had expected to fall, he remembered that now. One shining moment before the night came to claim him, the inevitable rest.
"Done? Look around this hotel. You think being human has anything to do with being done?" Now Illyria sounded like Fred again, although the drawl was acerbic. "The work's just beginning."
"You're not human," Angel said. But he knew differently.
"Everyone's human," Illyria said, "who chose to be here. You just have to think it through, really. Being human isn't just about your own heartbeat, Angel. It's everyone around you. And that's what we got. Shanshu. The question is, are you going to stay around for it?" Deliberately, she held the knife out to him.
"So there's still a choice," Angel said.
Illyria's nostrils flared. "You could go back to the world where you brought down the apocalypse. Where you're done. You set it in motion; you earned it. If living is so difficult, you don't have to keep at it."
Angel stared at her. Stay here, where every day he would have to look at Fred's face and know that she was really Illyria; where Lorne was gone, really gone, had never crossed over; where for the rest of his life he would see strangers in the faces of friends, and friends in strangers like William and Drusilla.
Stay here, where there was nothing of swords and champions and demons to slay except the ones that lived inside your dreams.
"Keep the knife," Angel said. And then: "So Wesley's really gone."
"He chose the lie," Illyria said.
"We'll tell them in the morning," Angel said.
Illyria bowed her head, then rose. "Goodnight, Angel."
"Goodnight," Wesley echoed softly from the hallway, but if Illyria heard the ghost, she gave no sign.
"Goodnight," Angel said, and turned around to sleep, unwatched for the first time in a long time.