Rent in Los Angeles being what it is, Wesley considers himself blessed to have an apartment at all, let alone one he can afford. Granted, it makes the tenement in The Blues Brothers the height of luxury. Still, he would still be living out of the saddle bags on his motorcycle if Cordelia hadn't spoken up and put her strap-sandaled foot down. True to form, Angel made some token grumbles while filling out the paperwork, prompting snarky comments from Cordelia unfavorably comparing him with Jack Benny. This only resulted in a further disgruntled Angel, who protested she was nowhere near old enough to make such a comparison and besides, he had met Jack, at an RKO premier benefit back in the day and who was she to judge, anyway?
Such was life in the big city, Wesley muses as he sets about brewing tea. His single financial indulgence, it's also a careful and calming ritual, prepared each and every morning. Proper teatime, of course, was the first sacrifice when one adhered to an unpredictable schedule. Working for a vampire then further complicated matters. And not only one with a soul, but veritable mountains of emotional baggage that included mass homicide, given the proper trigger.
Fortunately, today is Thursday. He'd actually fought for a regular day off, emboldened by Cordelia's example of workplace solidarity. Now Wesley intends to spend the next eight hours eating unhealthy food and watching BBC Sport, and Heaven help anyone, man or demon, who gets in his --
The discordant jangle of the telephone rudely yanks him from his reverie, as well as forcing a startled and unmanly squawk from his throat. His cheeks are still burning as he fumbles the receiver to his ear.
"Wes, can you come in?"
"It's my day off." His automatic protest is a feeble one. A hearty snort echoes down the line.
"Oh, right. You really sound like you've got the Swedish Bikini Team locked in your closet."
"You didn't even wait for me to say hello." He sips his tea with a grimace. A proper cup would still be warm. "If this is another fashion emergency, I must insist --"
"Angel's acting weird."
"Oh?" This gets his attention. Cordelia doesn't sound in a panic, but one never knows just what might cause his employer's soul to go on holiday. "How so?"
"He rearranged all the furniture." Cordelia lowers her voice to a near hiss. "Before I came in."
"I've seen this before," Wesley sighs. "The caffeine will wear off -- just give it time. And if you value your ears, do not let him start reminiscing about what things used to cost back in his day."
"I don't think it's the coffee."
Wesley pinches the bridge of his nose and prays for patience. "And what leads you to that conclusion?"
Cordelia's sarcasm, always a deadly weapon, fires the killing blow. "Call it a hunch."
The office is empty when he arrives. Wesley follows the faint but unmistakable sounds and vibrations to their origin in the downstairs apartment, only to find Cordelia peeking round the edge of the doorway, eyes wide as saucers as she watches their employer methodically, not metaphorically, destroying the heaviest of his heavy punching bags. Long accustomed to vampiric speed and strength, Wesley finds himself staring as well; Angel is moving about his target so fast he's nearly a blur, rocking the bag this way and that with punches that slam it into the ceiling, kicks that threaten to snap the chain. He doesn't realize he's holding his breath until a monumental blow does just that, sending the bag flying into the wall and sliding to the floor, leaking sand from a gaping fist-sized hole.
Cordelia claps one hand over her mouth, stifling a shriek. Angel turns to them with a look of sheer bewilderment.
"See what I mean?" Cordelia quickly straightens, wearing her sunniest smile. "I mean -- morning, boss!"
"I feel great," Angel insists, in his usual hapless pleading tone. "I really don't know what all the fuss is about -- Wes, what are you doing?"
"Merely suggesting a nice soothing cup of tea." Wesley takes hold of Angel's elbow, gently steering him away from the weapons cabinet. "Perhaps some hot chocolate? With the little marshmallows --"
"You guys are acting really weird." A flicker of irritation crosses Angel's face as he shrugs Wesley's hand away, grabbing the nearby duster slung over the back of a chair.
"Where are you going?" Wesley utterly fails to sound at all casual. Cordelia sends a condemning glance in his direction, which he mostly ignores.
"I'm going to go see if Mrs. Letham's check cleared." Angel's impatience is verging on outright annoyance. "I'm sure you'd like your own paychecks to do the same."
"Yes --" Wesley coughs. "Well. I'm sorry if not wanting to literally live at my place of work strikes some people as odd, but I like to think I at least retain the illusion of independence to some extent --"
"I wasn't just trying to save money! It was a genuine --" Angel throws up his hands. "Forget it. Cordy, see if we have enough toner to print out more flyers. I should be back around three."
"Excuse me?" Cordelia stares at the closing door, one hand on her hip. "Did I just get blown off as a secretary?"
"I'm quite sure that's your actual job title." Wesley strives to sound apologetic as Cordelia turns her glare upon him. "I've seen the tax papers."
"You watch yourself, buddy." Cordelia musters all of her moral authority. "Unless your papers are perfectly in order, I wouldn't be casting any stones."
"If you're referring to my green card status, then no, I am no longer employed or sponsored by the Watcher's Council. However, I have applied for extension and am in full compliance with all of the relevant statutes." Wesley levels Cordelia's glare right back at her. "Now shall we continue to engage in this pissing match, as entertaining as it is?"
"I can multitask." Cordelia shoots this over one shoulder as she pulls open the fridge. "Didn't he say that the hospital cut him off? And all three of the blood banks?"
"Now that you mention it --" Wesley frowns. "Yes, of course. He was concerned about ethical sourcing. As any careful consumer would be, these days."
The usual rows of plastic bags are gone, with only a single bag on the top shelf, its contents half-gone. The bag itself is innocuous enough in appearance, apart from the resealable valve and lack of any identifying label.
Cordelia hefts the bag, raising a single rhetorical eyebrow, and Wesley weighs their options. With limited access to equipment, the pitiful scraps of a library back at his apartment, the odds of learning anything useful aren't in their favor.
Not unless he narrows things down a bit.
With more than a modicum of regret, Wesley opens his thermos and dumps his tea down the sink.
"You know, when I said look me up anytime, I was more thinking of you asking me out on a date." The young woman in the lab coat holds up a vial and funnel, squinting as she decants blood from a thermos. "And usually, we handle the drawing part ourselves."
"It was an emergency." Wesley fumbles about for a moment, endeavoring to keep his lies straight. "I didn't want to risk the results being known. In case anything, well...untoward should happen to pop up. If you know what I mean."
"Yeah, you did strike me as a total party animal." Her eyes twinkle. "Maybe it's all an act, and you just go around pretending to accidentally spill cappucinos on innocent college girls. Small talking 'em with that sexy English accent, force them to give you their phone number..."
"I really am sorry, Jennifer. I honestly meant to call sooner, but --"
"I'm just busting your balls. Forget it." The mellifluous chuckle puts Wesley somewhat at ease. Jennifer locks the vial into place and engages the centrifuge, sending a look of warning his way. "But you owe me. Big time."
Wesley heaves a sigh. "I wouldn't dream of disappointing you."
"And how exactly did you get this tested under the radar?"
"I had to promise to record an audiobook for her." Wesley engages in a bit of tepid throat-clearing, feeling his face grow warm. "She likes the sound of my voice."
"Oh -- oh." Cordelia exhales with a shake of her head. "Well, who can fathom the depravity of the female mind."
"I'll pretend I didn't hear that." Wesley tears open the folder and dumps its contents on the desk, closely scanning each sheet. Cordelia leans over his shoulder, and it's a sign of how preoccupied he is that he's only half as distracted by her breasts as he normally would be.
He follows her pointing finger. "Pluripotents. Undifferentiated stem cells, as I recall. Now what on earth..."
His brow furrows as he peruses further, muttering to himself, then falling silent. At some point Cordelia brings him a cup of coffee, only made drinkable by virtue of actual cream, nothing powdered or artificial.
"Bless you," he mumbles absently.
"What are friends for?" Cordelia's snarking tone is offset by her hand on his shoulder, giving a friendly squeeze. "Keep reading. I'll watch out for El Jefe."
"Honestly, there's not much here." Wesley tries to make sense of the data before him. "Apart from the pluripotents, it looks very much like normal human blood. Only...better."
Cordelia's frown of distaste and puzzlement is her version of confused. "Better how? Stronger, faster?"
"More efficient, certainly. I suppose for a vampire, it might be akin to high octane fuel." Wesley goes back to the first page of the printout. "It's also compatible with anyone -- a universal donor."
He points to the figure circled in red.
"But the stem cells are the most obvious anomaly. They're only one step below the most powerful transformative sort -- capable of becoming almost any other kind of cell. Except a placenta or embryonic cell." He allows himself a small smile. "One still needs two to play the game of life, as it were."
"So where'd he get this?" Cordelia spreads her hands in a flourish, looking baffled. "Some secret demon drug dealer place where they only have the good stuff?"
"I hardly think Angel would avail himself of anything he considered tainted. Regardless of good it made him feel. Particularly," he adds in afterthought.
"No doubt." Cordelia shudders at the prospect of an Angel made to feel too good.
"Still," Wesley continues, steepling his fingers. "It behooves us, as Angel's employees and friends --"
"Mostly friends," Cordelia interjects.
"-- to fully investigate anything that might affect his judgement, mental health or physical safety. To that end, I propose --"
"Oh for crying out loud, Wesley!"
"Point taken," Wesley sighs, rubbing his ear with a sour expression. "I suppose it's time I did what Angel would do."
Cordelia appears at least somewhat mollified. "Brood?"
Wesley gives her what he hopes is a confident smile.
"Talk to my informant."
"Dude, you've been following me all day and it's really gettin' kinda creepy, y'know?" The demon walks a little faster down the sidewalk, pulling its flapping overcoat tighter against the chill wind. "Nothin' against you human types, but -- I got a reputation to uphold."
"I understand it may be inconvenient for us to be seen in public together." Wesley pitches his voice low, eyes peeled to both sides. "Especially in this part of town."
"Dude, this is my side of town. You're the one who doesn't belong here, capisch?"
"Then why are you the nervous one." Wesley doesn't state it like a question. "I'm simply asking where a vampire would go to get blood in this city? If they didn't want to hunt humans?"
"Not a lot of those places left."
"Precisely my point," Wesley agrees. "So you see my dilemma."
"Dude, if I work for anyone -- and I'm not sayin' I do -- I work for your boss." The proud, insistent voice is somewhat muffled by the demon's head retreating further into its coat collar as he continues to hunch and curl in on himself.
"All the more reason you should cooperate." Wesley smiles. "Really, Merl. I'm quite pleased at your perspicaciousness."
"I'm not even gonna ask what that means," the demon mumbles. "And why exactly should I cooperate?"
"Because of the beating Angel would no doubt happily bestow upon you, should he learn that you failed to assist him in his time of need."
"Oh, that kind of cooperation! Why didn't you say so?" Merl laughs a little too loud, looking guiltily around the street. His voice falls to a hush. "Okay, maybe I heard a little something about these demons who aren't really demons? Mutants, maybe?"
Wesley tries not to sound overly impatient. "Which is it?"
"That's just it, man! Nobody knows!" The demon cackles, baring an uneven row of jagged teeth. "It's all mysterious like that, y'know?"
"I see." Wesley doesn't hide his skepticism. "And where might one learn more about these fascinating creatures?"
Merl looks around again as his words drop nearly to a whisper. "The Dead Zone."
Wesley frowns. "I assume you're not referring to the metaphysical."
"It's an abandoned section of the city." Merl rolls his eyes at the human's level of obtuse. "Feds locked it down after too many industrial accidents. You name a toxic waste, they're contaminated with it."
Wesley's brain spins like a centrifuge, distilling hypothesis. "But these...mutants -- are immune."
Merl shrugs. "I sure as hell ain't."
"Ick." Cordelia shudders as she clicks through another webpage. "You weren't kidding. This place makes Chernobyl look like a gas leak."
"Is that the official statement?"
"Says they declared it a Superfund site...just over ten years ago." Cordelia flips to another tab, nearly too fast for him to see. "A few homeless had been living there, but the city convinced most of them to leave. Then nothing in the headlines until..." She squints at the screen. "God, do not tell me I need contacts."
"Barbaric practice." Wesley shudders.
"The four-eyed peanut gallery heard from -- there." Cordelia points in triumph. "Reports in mainstream media say there have been signs of habitation in the so- called Dead Zone -- just one month after all those rumors about that secret government facility in Wyoming being blown to smithereens."
Wesley looks as confused as he feels. Cordelia rolls her eyes.
"Hello? Am I the only one who opens the mail around here?"
"Since it is your job, I would expect so." Wesley's dry tone remains unruffled.
Cordelia puffs out a bit of air that tosses her bangs aside. "You do remember that big electromagnetic pulse that took out the entire Eastern seaboard? Nearly tanked the American economy?"
"I do read the papers." Wesley stands a little straighter. "Wasn't that also roughly ten years ago?"
"Oh yeah. And there were already a ton of rumors about mutants in the sewers. Usual tabloid stuff. But after Wyoming, they really took off." Cordelia rubs the bones under her eyes, suddenly looking very tired. "So basically, the Dead Zone?"
She meets his haggard gaze with all the sensible fear of the unknown.
"It's where even the demons are afraid to go."
Wesley mulls this over for long moments. He's about to ask Cordelia what she thinks when Angel walks into the office.
"Hey, guys." It's like a gift how Angel can manage to sound both sheepish and troubled. "I think there might be something going on. Uh, with me."
"Really." Cordelia drawls out the syllables, leaning back in her chair with a knowing look. "What tipped you, Einstein?"
"I ate four cheeseburgers."
Angel holds up the greasy, crumpled remains of a paper sack, wearing a look of supreme guilt.
"With onion rings."
Wesley views the tiny gadget in his hand with all the suspicion of a Watcher born. The Council had been dragged kicking and screaming into the modern age when Buffy forced their hand, and by all reports were even now still coming to grips with the current state of technology. Which, of course, was constantly in flux. One had to follow events every waking hour of the day, it seemed, in order to stay on top of things. Angel's looking at him with that anxious expression a dog wears when sitting, waiting for approval.
"It looks --" Wesley finally locates the word. "Expensive."
The wince on Angel's face is one of genuine pain. "She wasn't going to let me have it until I gave her some of my gold coins for collateral."
Wesley blinks. "How much?"
"Uh, fourteen doubloons? I forget how much they weigh, but --"
"In current value." Wesley manages to keep from raising his voice too much.
"Um --" And now Angel looks embarrassed. "About ten thousand dollars."
"Whoa." Cordelia regains her equilibrium with barely a moment's notice. "And you're waffling over paying enough to cover our rent?"
"Guys, this is hardly the issue." Angel's frustration is clear. "I need to find the source of that blood, so --"
Cordelia's eyebrows rise. "You can drink all you want?"
"No! I mean --" Angel sighs. Wesley watches as Cordelia stands there, hands on her hips.
"I don't know," he continues, quieter. "I need to know it's not being taken from someone against their will. I can feel it doing all these things to me inside, and it's starting to wear off, but -- it's not like a drug, I swear. It just makes me feel --"
"Alive." Wesley nods, drawing a scowl from Cordelia.
"Hello? Vampire? Be dead, drink blood, feel alive?"
"This is different." Wesley looks Angel over with a more critical eye. "Give me your hand."
Angel holds out his right hand, palm facing up. Wesley turns it over, looking closely at the ends of the vampire's fingers.
"As I thought." He gestures, inviting his friends to see. "Your nails have grown out. And I would suspect your hair, as well."
"My hair?" Angel touches his head, looking painfully self-conscious.
"Don't worry," Cordelia reassures him. "It just needs a little more product. I wasn't going to say anything, but --"
"In any event," Wesley smoothly interrupts. "We must know more. If it may in fact be possible for this blood to regenerate your entire body."
"You mean --" Cordelia looks back at Angel with wider eyes and dawning awareness.
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves." But Angel is practically vibrating with excitement, bouncing on his toes. "How's this go on?"
"Let me get it -- there." Wesley steps back and takes a critical look. "Almost invisible. And it should stay in place well enough, unless someone actually takes hold and pulls."
"It itches." Angel's fingers move toward his ear, shying away when Cordelia raises a threatening hand of her own.
"Don't worry. We'll be able to hear everything." Wesley claps him on the shoulder. "And we can stay in touch the entire time."
He parks the car well away from the perimeter of concertina wire, casting a worried glance at the pristine finish before sighing and turning his back on it. All good things must pass. Only reason he's still here.
It shouldn't be a crime, feeling good. But because he is who he is, any joy in his life must be ruthlessly controlled; stamped out lest it become too much of a good thing. It's the way of the world, and no use crying over it.
"I'm going in."
The fence is easily vaulted with a running leap that springboards off a pile of junk. He lands in a crouch, light as a feather, before standing and brushing his coat with a grimace. Really, the prudent course of action will probably be to burn all the clothes he's wearing tonight before daring to return home.
He snorts as he looks about, judging the safest route through the rubble. As if a near-empty rented office, a basement efficiency with a fridge full of blood and a rather large collection of weapons, qualified in any way, shape or form as a home. Liam had destroyed his own home, the night he became Angelus. There was no coming back.
Except there had been the Mohra demon. He still remembers it even if nobody else does; holds that thought of Buffy closer to his heart than any other, so recent in his own memory yet perfectly absent in everyone else. His heart had beaten again, his lungs filled with air that smelled almost clean to his dulled and human senses. And he had given it all up, in order to continue to fight the good fight.
Why, he wonders, is he torturing himself? And the answer comes without delay.
Because I'm so good at it.
A sibilant hiss brushes just under his left earlobe.
Thunder meets the back of his skull.
Cordelia's ripped the headphones off, rising from her chair when Wesley's left hand meets her shoulder, pushing her back down. She's ready to unload on him at full volume when she stops at the look on his face.
Without a word, Wesley motions with his eyes, down toward his hand, resting atop the mute button. Her eyes widen in understanding as they look at one another and nod.
Wesley waits for her to retrieve her headphones. Then he turns up the volume, taking great care to keep the microphone disengaged.
Together, they listen.
"I think he's coming to."
"That was quick." The voice sounds impressed. "Want to hit him again?"
"Don't want to mess up that face." A wry chuckle seeps into his ears. "She does like her pretty boys."
Angel remains limp as they carry him through a door, inside some sort of building. He can hear the echoes of their footsteps, feel the changes in the air that give him a mental picture of tall ceilings, concrete walls and floors. The hands on his arms, the smell of their bodies all seem human enough at first whiff until he breathes deeper, catches the undercurrent of something stronger. It oozes out through their pores, pressing against him like a lover, setting his teeth on edge.
"Let me do the talking." That's the first one. "You know how she can get."
"Don't remind me." The reply is both amused and mildly irritated. Possibly even disgusted.
Despite their scent bringing him nearly to tears of hunger, Angel focuses on pretending to breathe as they enter what seems to be a long hallway. Assuming he's human may be enough to give him a crucial advantage over them. Kate's earpiece is still wedged in tight, and he can only hope Cordy and Wes are still tuned in. Not as though they'd arrive in time to save him, even if they could have entered the Zone without hazmat gear.
The floor, sloping gently downward since they entered the hallway, flattens back out. Angel extends his senses outward, trying to ascertain the expanse of empty air. Another large room, with a substantial group ahead; he can hear the thump of their hearts, the whisper of their mortal breath. More human than his captors, anyway; for underneath their unremarkable scent is another, like the sweat of a drunk saturated with alcohol.
And surrounded by them, another.
"We have brought him as you commanded," intones the first voice, deliberately formal. The crowd's nervous fidgeting increases as the hands lower him to the floor, both men backing away.
Angel lets out a groan, trying to sound weaker and more confused than he is. The first thing he sees when he lifts his head are dark, sunken eyes staring back at him in unblinking assessment. The group are young, of mixed sex, not quite gaunt to the point of emaciation; pretty enough, or would be with a proper bath and a bit of light in their life. Despite their ragged condition they move like predatory animals, sniffing the air as they move forward.
Then the snap of fingers jerks them back as if on a leash. As one, the group run back to the elevated dais, falling to their knees before the woman lounged upon its makeshift throne.
"I cannot recall the last time anyone entered my domain without having tasted me."
Even seated she's a tall one; stretched out sideways, head thrown back so her hair brushes the floor, long legs on full display. Not overly muscled, just enough curves to look appealing for her height; not too slim, not too thick. Skintight black leather stretches from her neck to her ankles, an ensemble of pants and a zippered jacket two sizes too large, her bare feet at the bottom sporting wildly patterned nails and multiple toe rings. Along with her gothic eyeliner and rat's nest of rainbow hair, it's like Death had a wild one-night stand with Delirium. Even her throne is colored to match, an enormous upholstered recliner covered in spatters of spray paint, sporting what look to be occasional Christmas ornaments and other baubles.
Angel pushes himself up to his knees, still feigning weakness. "I don't feel so good."
"Don't let him deceive you." The first voice is still deferential, but with a hint of rebellion. "He is more than he seems."
"Only those under my protection may enter the Zone." The woman sounds bored, but her eyes are sharp and glittering as her gaze falls upon Angel. "Why are you here?"
Angel sighs internally and takes an unnecessary breath before rising to his full height. "I need to know where my food comes from."
A rush of murmuring runs through the crowd of sycophants before they once more fall silent.
"I have heard of you. Of those like you." And now the woman seems amused. "I think I knew one, once."
"What are you?" He can smell the blood coursing within her, so much stronger than the rest. The blood of a Slayer had been liquid light, but this was lava, smoking in her veins; something that held the power to incinerate him in a single nonexistent beat of his undead heart.
She spreads her arms wide. "A god of the new age."
"Bullshit," Angel growls, before he can stop himself.
"As you are of the old." Her smile is almost sympathetic.
Angel grits his teeth. "What have you done to these people?"
"Nothing they did not beg me for." Her smile fades, her mien growing serious. "It would be most amusing of you to attempt to claim the moral high ground."
"Don't tell me these people are here of their own free will." Angel shakes his head. "Because this is all looking just a little bit too familiar. I've seen this before."
"You know nothing." The weight of her judgment is like a slap in the face. "Without me, these lost children would be doomed. It is my strength alone which keeps them alive in this place."
"Longer, healthier lives. As addicts and slaves." Angel returns her contempt in equal measure. "Talk about a devil's bargain."
Her eyes flash silver. "I grow weary of your impertinence."
Behind him comes the sound of a footstep, the grip of hands on his arms. Angel throws his head back, feeling the crunch of cartilage, and a howl erupts as he slips out of their grasp with a grim smile.
"Maybe you should take a nap."
"Kill this fool." The woman's eyes narrow to slits. "And bring me his head."
"Not gonna happen." Angel turns his back on her and her throne, gaze flicking between the two men who had brought him. Nondescript jeans and dark jackets, with sleek and wiry builds that don't so much bring to mind chess nerd as they do an Olympic gymnast. One of them wipes a smear of blood from his nose, a look of murderous intent on his handsome face.
Angel offers a winning and photogenic smile. "You might have gotten the drop on me once."
"Come closer." The wounded man smiles back, exposing crimson stains on perfect teeth, raising his hands in a fighting stance. "I'll do it again."
His grin has barely time to disappear as Angel becomes a blur in the dim light. The impact sends him sprawling on the floor, skidding nearly all the way to the far wall before coming to a stop. Angel turns and squares off against the other man, who's reflexively raising his fists, wearing an expression of outright shock.
"Don't think so."
"You traitor!" A hiss of rage comes from the woman on the throne. Angel realizes it's directed at the man he just laid out as the man scrambles backward, his confident features consumed by sheer terror. She sits fully upright, gripping the arms of her recliner. "You couldn't leave it alone, could you? After everything I've given you?"
"Marrow!" The man rushes the dais, stumbling as he prostrates himself before her. "I'm sorry! I beg you --"
"Enough." Her cold dismissal cuts him off at the knees, raising his face in horrified realization. "You were forbidden. And in your greed, you chose to defy me."
"Wait a minute." Angel holds up his hands, striving to comprehend. "That was your blood?"
The man hangs his head and remains silent.
"As if you could ever hope to compare yourself to me." Scornful sarcasm drips from Marrow's words, her mouth twisting in disgust. Her gaze rises to Angel, and her anger seems somewhat mollified. "But you --"
Her nostrils flare as she leans forward in her seat.
"You are mighty even without my power. Imagine how high you might fly, given wings."
"Save the speeches." Angel shakes his head like a dog dislodging water from its ear. "I gave at the office."
"I hear your body." Marrow's lips are spreading slowly, into something resembling a smile. "It cries out to me."
"Oh yeah?" Angel flounders for a moment. His trademark snappy patter always seems to desert him at the most inconvenient times. "Uh -- what's it say?"
"It screams to bathe in me."
Her tongue caresses her teeth, her eyes ablaze.
"To live again."
Cordelia's hand is clamped tight over her mouth, she and Wesley staring at one another. Paralyzed, unable to intervene, they can only listen.
The pounding of their combined pulse is a roar in his ears, not quite drowning out the quick shuffle and squeak of shoes on cement. The additional speed and strength is fading still, almost fled from the husk of his body, and Angel's mind goes blank as he falls forward, feeling the whip of a fist through the space where his head had been. He rolls on his shoulder, coming about to see his opponent charging at him full steam, very nearly upon him.
With a brief prayer, Angel plants his feet and turns, putting the whole of his body into the punch. The man's limbs flail like overcooked spaghetti, his feet flying out from under him as he smashes headlong into the floor, face first. A groan comes from the man's partner, his face screwing up in sympathy for his companion's plight.
"Nice." He nods approvingly at Angel, eyeing the limp body stretched out on the concrete. "Let's see if your luck holds out."
Angel groans inside, but his face remains a mask. "I'd say the odds are with me."
The man freezes in his tracks at the sound of his master's voice, then backs away with an air of frustrated resignation.
Angel turns to see Marrow rising from her chair in a most majestic fashion to reveal the full extent of her height. Her legs don't even seem to move as she glides down the steps, coming to a stop inches away, tall enough to look him right in the eye.
"You would come into my home." Her tone is one of wonder, as if awed by his presumption.
"This city doesn't belong to you." He tries to sound reasonable. Nonetheless, she bristles with indignation.
"They made me!" With a supreme effort, she regains possession of herself, unclenching her delicate hands.
"They made us," she continues, gesturing to include the two men. The one lies unconscious, his partner standing quite still, intently observing Angel for any sudden moves.
"They made us, and they threw us away." Again she spreads her arms wide, open palms facing the heavens. Angel struggles to keep his eyes above her plunging neckline. "Just as they tried to do with this entire part of their city of angels. Do you see any here to contest our claim?"
"This is a federal hazard site." Angel puts some emphasis on the F word. "You might have scared off the locals, but Uncle Sam has nukes. And that's just for starters."
Marrow throws back her head, laughter echoing from the walls and ceiling.
"Oh, you poor naive dead thing." She shakes her head, gazing upon with the fondness one reserves for the truly feeble-minded. Angel bristles despite himself.
"At least I used to be human."
"Now I know you don't believe that." Marrow's smile is sweet and sarcastic. "As I said. I have heard of you."
"Then you know I'm not big on small talk." Angel stretches his spine to the utmost, ekeing out every last millimeter of height advantage. It doesn't help.
"I could taunt and goad you until I turned to dust, and still you would not kill me. Yet if I threaten an innocent --"
The knife is in her hand at threaten, leaves her fingers at the start of innocent. Except Angel's hand is slamming into her arm between the words, deflecting her aim, sending the blade past the face of her human target to embed itself in the wall. In the blink of an eye he's upon her, taking her down to the floor.
Her eyes narrow, and she glares over Angel's shoulder, shaking her head.
"Very good, Rachel." Her words are directed to her almost-victim, whose face has gone pale as death. "I knew you would not flinch."
"Enough of your sick little games!" Angel snaps.
Her voice drops to a husky murmur. "But I have hardly begun to play."
His tongue is dry and thick in his mouth as her head lolls back, exposing every luscious inch of her neck.
"Please." Far from begging, the word is a clear invitation. "We both know you want to."
Angel's eyes clench shut as he swallows hard, takes another one of those damned unnecessary breaths. He's on the brink of dropping her, or perhaps something more gentle, when she seizes him by the shoulders, pulling them tight together.
"Tell me you don't want this." Her commanding tone drops to a near whisper, and Angel shudders at the warmth of her body beneath him. "Say that you would deny yourself even the possibility that you might one day rise from the dead, and walk once more in sunlight. Only say it, and I will let every one of my servants go, and you as well, though I would love --" She bares her teeth, tongue flicking over the edges. "-- to never let you leave."
Angel shakes his head, his empty face a desert of despair. "You know I can't."
Marrow no longer whispers, but her voice is soft, almost tender. "And if it is a gift, freely given?"
Angel's reflection stares back from her eyes, his haunted, haggard gaze conveying hundreds of years of unlife.
"Your fear is ludicrous." She doesn't say it in a mean way as her bare foot pushes aside his overcoat, stroking up and down the length of his thigh. Angel bites back a whimper.
"You may be of the undead, but I am no mortal. Nor some cheap knockoff cloned on an assembly line." She breathes into his ear, stroking his hair, running her nails over his scalp. "My brother and I were hand-crafted by the father of all Manticore, down to the last detail. Give me ten liters of water every twenty-four hours, and I can supply enough blood to keep an entire platoon transfused and fighting. I have fed the pitiful needs of these children and my disciples' hunger as well and still felt myself near to bursting so that I was forced to drink my own excess, do you hear me, vampire? I am the Marrow, and your thirst will be my salvation."
Her hand presses down, forcing his open mouth against her flesh.
Angel plunges his fangs into her carotid with a groan of ecstasy, the gush of her blood slamming into the roof of his mouth, bathing his tongue in sweetness. An explosion of energy goes off in his brain and sets off a chain reaction all the way down, into his gut, all the way to his balls in a shuddering jolt. His shriveled heart swells with joy and stolen blood, his stomach is already near full and still he opens his throat to her, swallowing mechanically until the force of her flow begins to ebb. The strength in her grip remains almost to the last, fading only as he pulls away with a gasp, drooling uncontrollably as her arms fall to her sides.
Her guard is hovering over them, cloaked in fear and wrath alike. "If you've hurt her, I swear --"
"No --" And Marrow raises a weak hand, waving him back. She gazes up at Angel with affection and hunger as she places her hand on his chest, feeling the thump of his dead heart beneath her fingers.
"I can sense..." She giggles, sounding tipsy. "That this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship."
But Angel shakes his head. And even as she looks at him in confusion, the sluggish beating in his chest begins to falter, slowing to a crawl, and finally comes to a halt.
"It was a nice thought." He gathers her in his arms and rises to his feet, ascending the dais; depositing her gently on her reclining throne, his hand resting on her forehead.
Her face falls, and her hand finds his own. "I'm sorry."
"Don't mention it."
He takes her chin in one hand, lifting her face to his.
"But we have to talk."
"And you got her to back off on enslaving humans?"
"As long as I visit once a month to, quote, give her a good draining."
"Tee em eye!" Cordelia busies herself straightening the documents on her desk, making room for General Tso's chicken. Angel has always found Chinese food to go a long way in maintaining employee morale.
Wesley frowns. "You do seem to be getting the better part of the deal."
Cordelia closes her eyes and smiles as she sniffs the box of rangoons. "Hey, at least she wasn't a blonde."
Wesley turns to Angel, his air of authority somewhat diminished by the noodle hanging from the corner of his mouth. "And did we happen to learn anything from all this?"
"That I'm not a vegetarian." Angel holds up something wrapped in plastic. "Who wants my fortune cookie?"
"As long as you're satisfied with where your food comes from, I suppose I have no objections." But a hint of doubt remains on Wesley's face.
Angel looks around the room, hoping and praying for some kind of consensus. "I know it's weird, but -- everybody's happy. Right?"
Cordelia just looks at him over her fried rice.
Angel sighs, resigned as ever to fate. "But not too happy."
Cordelia beams and cracks open her second fortune cookie. "That's the spirit."