The cat was watching him again. Angel ignored it, focusing on sifting through the pile of scents for his prey. A rank wet fur smell was stronger in the left corner of the dumpster.
Carefully, he eased to that corner and struck. The rat squealed as he lifted it up out of its hiding place. A deft twist, and the struggles stopped.
Shaking the rotten lettuce and potato peelings off the dead body, Angel lifted it to his lips. His face morphed to reveal the demon within, and his fangs plunged into the plump body.
Over the filthy gray fur, Angel saw that the cat was still watching him. Perched up on the edge of a bricked up window, the black and white cat eyed him with eyes almost as yellow as his own.
The tom had been following him for several days. Most animals avoided him. He confused them. He looked human, but he wasn't. He was a predator; they just weren't sure what kind. More than one dog had started to trot up to him only to stop dead in its tracks and back off.
Some animals – Angel looked at the cat again as he finished off the rat's musky blood – saw him as an intruder in their territory. A few dogs, and cats – once a crazy squirrel – had occasionally challenged him for a section of an alley or a spot under a bridge.
Licking the blood off his lips, Angel held the dead rodent up by its tail. The squirrel had tasted better than rats. He started to flick the rat back into the dumpster when he saw the cat sit up. "Y – "
Angel cleared his throat. He rarely spoke anymore. "You hungry?"
The cat's eyes tracked the swinging gray body. Hunkering down, he inched forward slightly, but experience had taught him that big and slows were not to be trusted.
"Here." Angel tossed the dead rat across the alley. The cat immediately jumped down from his perch, grabbed the carcass, and ran. "You're welcome."
A rustling in the dumpster drew his attention, and he went back to searching for his next meal. Hunger was always gnawing at his belly, and it took a lot of rats to ease it even the slightest bit.
Angel had just drained his fourth rat when the cat came back. "Done?" He tossed the body towards the tom. The cat grabbed it as he had the last one and bolted behind a stack of crates.
Dawn was coming, and Angel started out of the alley. He had a safe, dark place where he could sleep the day away. Sleeping helped him ignore the hunger. He was always hungry; even if he had fifty rats in a day, he'd still be hungry. Human blood was what he needed. Human blood was what he denied himself.
Ignoring Angelus' suggestions that he kill the hookers and homeless people he passed – and that he fuck himself – Angel walked slowly down the street.
His leg still hurt from the beating he'd taken two nights before. Animals weren't the only ones who were territorial. Angel rubbed at the ache in his thigh; the bruises and cuts would normally have healed by now – if he were on a normal diet.
A diet of rats and the occasional squirrel had weakened him, and he'd gradually lost strength and vitality; he had steadily lost weight until he was a shadow of his former self. Once, a vamp he knew from back in the day had gone past him without a second look.
Not that he couldn't have defended himself against his attackers – they were only human – but it gave the other homeless people time to run and hide. And it wasn't like he didn’t deserve it for all the things he'd done.
Pulling aside the grafittied plywood, Angel crawled into his hiding place, carefully putting it back over the opening. There were times he'd thought about leaving it open and sitting to watch the rising sun, but self preservation was too strong to fight.
Lying down on the pile of rags that he used for a bed, he carefully lit the candle stuck in an old beer can. A cinnamon scent filled the air. It had been part of a Christmas centerpiece someone had thrown out a few days ago. He'd had to shoulder aside Loud Harry to get it, but he needed the candles.
Loud Harry had shoved the Duchess down, so it wasn't as if he didn't deserve a little payback. Angel had given the greenery and small sparkly ornaments to her so that she could decorate her "winter palace". She had graciously accepted them and said that her servants would bring him his reward later.
Opening his book, Angel sighed, both at his life and at his reading material. Last week he'd found a sack of books in a dumpster he was hunting in. Elated, he'd torn the bag open to find that they were romance novels. He'd been disappointed, but anything was better than nothing.
As much as he would have liked to go to sleep, feeding, sparse though it had been, had roused Angelus. The demon was not happy to be living in squalor and feeding from rats. Whenever possible, he tormented Angel with visions of past torture and murders drenched in the memory of hot, sweet human blood.
An hour or so of reading and Angelus would fall silent again. One good thing about his reduced diet was that Angelus was in a somnolent state most of the time. Angel found his place and began reading to see if Rance would admit to himself that he loved Charity or if he would let her marry Blake.
"What'cha got?" Myers held out his hand.
"Penthouse. Big 'Uns." Angel handed over the magazines to him.
"What's them others?" The man took the offered girly magazines and pointed at the other magazines tucked in Angel's coat pocket. "You holding out on me?"
"Not your kind."
"I'll be judging what's my kind!" Myers glared at him.
Reluctantly, Angel pulled the magazines from his pocket and handed them over. Part of him wanted to see the reaction but part of him was too hungry to care.
"Don't you be holding out on me – trust is all we got – Jesus H Christ!" Myers' eyes widened as he opened one of the magazines to see glossy pictures of naked men. Naked men being affectionate with each other. Extremely affectionate. "What the hell – "
"Told you." Angel shrugged. The letters and articles in the magazines – straight and gay – were something he read only when there was nothing else. Like the back of a cereal box. He had intended to toss the magazines back into the trash for someone else. They weren't something he could trade, and if he'd realized they were tucked inside the Wall Street Journal he'd found, he'd have left them in the dumpster. He hadn't been shocked as Myers had been, but they weren't his kind of thing either.
"Fucking perverts – ruining the damn industry with their faggoty crap!" Shaking his head, Myers handed the magazines back. He reached deep inside his own coat and pulled out two small boxes of matches and three matchbooks. "Found a lighter, but the damn thing didn't work."
"These are good." Angel put the matches into a small plastic bag he carried in his inside pocket. Matches today weren't as good as they used to be. More safety concerns and less effective.
"Where did you get them anyway?" Myers ran his fingertips over the bow covering the crotch of December's pet.
"People throw them out." Angel had found a dumpster behind an apartment building that yielded up a steady supply of both rats and girly magazines. He wasn't about to tell Myers where he got them. Matches were hard to come by and he needed to be able to trade Myers the magazines he wanted to get them. Myers got matches by asking passersby for something to light his cigarettes. Since he didn't smoke, he had a nice little racket going.
"Hey!" Myers hollered at Angel as he walked away. "I know who you might could give those to."
Angel stopped and turned to look at him.
"Brock, down by the bus station. He's one of them kind."
"I don't go near the bus station." There were too many people around, even at night, for him to safely hunt and feed.
"Don't blame ya." Myers looked Angel over. He wasn't a queer, but he could see that Angel was attractive under the dirt on his face. "I can trade 'em for you. I'm going down thataway tomorrow. Got me enough to visit Sharise."
Sharise was a cheap, obviously not discriminating, hooker that Myers went to any time he had the ten dollar selling price. Angel handed the magazines back to him. He was going to throw them away anyway, so why not see if Myers could get something for them?
"What'cha want for 'em?" Myers put the magazines into his ancient backpack. "Same as from me?"
"Yeah." Matches, candles, and books were really the only things Angel felt he required. Rats provided all the food he needed – generally – and he wasn't as affected by the weather as the humans living on the street were. Cold – extreme cold anyway – would make him sluggish, but it wouldn't kill him.
"Good deal then." Myers picked up his bag and headed back to his spot. The magazines would keep him occupied for awhile.
Angel had a series of dumpsters he visited. He alternated his hunting pattern to keep the rats from getting nervous and abandoning their feeding grounds, and to keep anyone from noticing that the guy scrounging through the trash was also chowing on the rats.
He was on his third dumpster and his tenth rat when he saw the cat. The tom trotted down the alley and jumped up onto a pile of milk crates a few feet away.
"Here." Throwing the drained rodent the cat's way, Angel went back to searching through the trash for another one or for something he could trade.
Deep in the refuse he unearthed a James Michener book he'd never read and a partially eaten halibut steak. Lifting them out, Angel turned to see the cat chewing on the dead rat. He tossed the fish down.
The cat looked up and licked blood from his whiskers. Cautiously, he approached the fish. After a cursory sniffing, he bit into it, growling softly lest the Strange One try to take it back.
It didn't escape Angel's notice that the tom had decided he wasn't a threat – or at least not enough of a threat to worry about while he ate.
The dumpster yielded up no more rats or salvageable items, and Angel wiped his hands on his coat. Walking carefully around the cat, respecting the animal's personal space, he left the alley. Dumpster number four waited.
It was getting late, by day walker standards, and Angel detoured to where the Duchess lived in her "winter palace". The "palace" was a refrigerator box which differed from her "summer palace" by the foil and paper bags over the "bay window".
The Duchess sat just outside, on a milk crate, carrying on a conversation with her invisible courtiers. Angel waited politely for her to notice him.
"Oh, it's my gallant knight." She set down her imaginary teacup. "Did the royal courier bring you your reward?"
"Yes, Your Grace." He took her hand as she held it out and bowed over it. "You were far too generous."
"Nonsense." She giggled coquettishly.
"I have a present for you." He handed her the plastic shopping bag he'd found earlier.
"A present? For me?" Eagerly, she opened the bag. "And such exquisite paper! I do hate to tear it – oh! A most wonderful gift! News from the other kingdoms!"
The National Enquirer and other scandal sheets were as important to the Duchess as the Michener book was to him. Only he didn't make up stories about the people in the book and think they were real. At least, not yet.
"For such a gift – I have just the reward – " She got up and crawled into the refrigerator box. After a moment, she came back out with a small sack. "Here we are."
The sack held several small votive candles. "Thank you."
"Ah, it's a mere trifle." The Duchess let him help her to her feet. "Next time you visit, I'll have something for your charming kitty as well."
"My – " Turning, Angel saw the black and white tom sitting a few feet away. "He – uh – "
"Oh, I know others give you gifts, my dear." She sat down as regally as possible on her "throne". "Others can see what a brave and good soul you have."
For a startled moment, Angel wondered if she knew he was a vampire and cursed with his soul. Immediately, he dismissed the idea. She didn't even know what country she was in. "Yes, he was – a gift."
"Go now. I know you have things to do." She flipped open the cover of the Enquirer. "Be careful, rumors come to me that the peasants are revolting."
"Yes, Your Grace." The peasants are revolting, all right . Angel thought as he walked away. We're all filthy and stinking.
The cat jumped to one side when he walked past and then fell in behind him as he limped down the street to the next gourmet city rat meal.
Behind the Sue Bee's restaurant was a good hunting ground. Primarily a place for the health conscious, the dumpster was always filled with lettuce, carrots, sprouts, and other things that rats and dieters loved. The cat ran past him and leaped up on the top of an overflowing trash can and then onto the edge of the dumpster.
"Hey!" Angel frowned as the cat stepped down onto the garbage. "You're going to scare off dinner."
Ignoring him, the cat pawed at one corner of the rotting trash. Two fat rats burst out from under cover and raced away from the tom's sharp claws and straight toward Angel. Vampiric reflexes, even reduced by near starvation, allowed him to catch the rats by their long tails. A quick flick, and the force traveled up their spines to snap their necks.
The tomcat watched while he plunged his fangs into one of the dead rodents and suckled down the musky, rank blood. Dangling the drained carcass, Angel tossed it onto the trashcan lid. Immediately, the cat jumped out of the dumpster and bit into the hot meal, shaking his head and growling softly.
The second rat was drained just a quickly as the first, and Angel tossed it down next to the feeding animal. One black socked paw quickly scooped the dead rat closer.
Angel scrounged through the table scraps and restaurant trash. Another rat met a quick end, neck snapped and drained far too quickly. The cat was munching on the second rat and barely glanced up as Angel dropped the next entrée down to him.
There was a half a book of matches that went into the plastic bag in his pocket, along with two stubby candles he found. The supply catalog he flipped through and then tossed back. Not much to be found in the way of reading material in a restaurant dumpster.
Finished with his dinner, the cat jumped back into the dumpster, delicately picking his way across the debris. Stopping at the corner opposite Angel, he began to dig furiously.
Rats squealed and bolted up out of the rubbish, running from one predator, not realizing a more dangerous predator awaited them. Angel caught two of them and cracked them into the metal rim. Their skulls caved in with a meaty crunch and he dropped them to grab a third.
While he fed on the rats, his hunting partner jumped down and licked his paws clean.
There were two more dumpsters on his route, and he'd already had more than he was used to. On a good night, he'd catch two or three rats per dumpster before he'd spooked them off for the night. Getting six from one dumpster was like snow at Christmas.
He dangled the carcasses in front of the cat, but the tom was obviously full and turned his nose up. Angel buried the dead rats under a layer of lettuce, napkins, and sprouts. One dead rat and nobody notices; four or five and people get curious.
"Hey!" The back door slammed open and a waiter came out with a stuffed trash bag. "Get outta here, you bum!"
Angel ducked his head down and began walking quickly toward the street. He'd been hit with more than one bottle or broken pot.
"And take your flea infested cat with you!" The man bent down and picked up a chunk of brick that had fallen from the building's old façade and threw it at the tom.
The brick hit the side of the trash can with a loud crash and the cat jumped down and raced past Angel.
"Get a job!" He hollered at the retreating figures. "Worthless bum!"
"At least I can hit what I'm aiming at." Angel told the cat.
The Michener book was better than he'd expected, not surprising given the amount of research the man had done, but this was one book he'd always avoided.
Reading about a sun drenched paradise wasn't something he enjoyed. There were days when the desire to see the sun rise and to feel the warmth on his skin was so strong that he would weep in frustration. And Angelus would mock him for his weakness.
Angel sighed and closed the book. He was weak, always had been and always would be. He even lacked the courage to kill himself and end his miserable existence. Suicide was a coward's way out and he was too cowardly to manage it.
A scratching sound brought him to the top of his pity pool. The sound came again. A scritching, scratching sound along the plywood door.
Snuffing the candle, he closed his eyes and let his features shift to his true face so that he would be able to see better in the darkness.
The scratching came again, along with a questioning meow.
Getting up, Angel went to his makeshift door and slid it open a few inches. A black paw immediately reached inside, pushing at the edge of the wood.
Pulling it open wide enough to let the animal in, Angel allowed his face to change back. "Come on in, add to my inadequacy."
The tom padded around the small area, finally settling on a spot against the rough concrete wall not far from the opening.
Setting the plywood into place, Angel went back to his bed. "Rule number one – no using the bathroom in here."
The cat curled his tail tightly around his body and closed his eyes.
"Can't even scare a cat anymore." Wrapping up in his coat and a ripped sheet that passed for a blanket, Angel went to sleep.
Hunger woke him as it always did, rousing him from dreams of warmth and comfort. Blinking away memories of his mother's beef roast, Angel rolled over and sat up.
The cat was crouched by the makeshift door and turned yellow eyes on Angel before giving his attention back to cleaning his paws.
"Good morning to you, too." Angel got up and went to the plywood covering the opening. Sliding it back a few inches, careful not to let his fingers get burned by the sun, he watched the cat get up and stretch before padding outside.
After sliding the plywood back, Angel returned to his bed. It was early afternoon, and he had a few hours to kill before he could go out. Closing his eyes, he tried to go back to sleep.
He was beginning to get past the hunger gorging itself on his backbone when he heard scratching on the wooden door. Getting up, he tugged it open and the cat walked in as if strolling down the red carpet. "Reduced to doorman."
Avoiding the single beam of sunlight, Angel laid back down on his bed of rags once again. He watched the cat settle itself in the watery winter sunlight. A soft purr rumbled from the tom as he began to groom his fur.
"At least we've got rule number one down." His eyes grew heavy, and Angel let himself drift back to sleep.
"Here." Angel dropped a drained rat at the cat's feet.
The tom bit into his dinner, eagerly tearing into the soft gray belly.
Angel went back to digging through the dumpster. He'd already fed on enough rats to keep the hunger at bay for awhile, but he knew other treasures were hidden in the rubbish. "Myers would kill to know this is where I get his magazines."
Looking up, the cat meowed before dipping his head back to his meal.
"Big 'Uns… another Big 'Uns… what's – oh, Jugs. Someone likes big boobs." Tucking the magazines into his pockets, Angel pawed deeper into the trash. "Polaroids of two – no – three people in some very interesting positions. She's very limber."
The cat sat back and licked his whiskers. Satisfied his face was clean, he got up and rubbed against Angel's leg.
"Sorry, no tuna." He reached down and scratched between the cat's scarred ears. "Maybe when we get to Travetti's. It's a classy place; there might be some seafood."
Suddenly, the cat's head swiveled, looking toward the end of the alley. Strolling casually past was another cat.
Angel caught the telltale scent and laughed softly as the tom bolted after the female. The old boy was scarred and battle worn, but like any other male, he couldn't resist a female in heat. "I'll leave the door open."
The past week had seen him better fed than he had been in years. No doubt the same was true for the cat. They made quite a team, the tom flushing rats out for Angel to catch and drain before giving the bodies back to the cat to eat. Between the two of them, they managed to catch more rats together than either had alone.
Angel started back to his hiding place; he'd decided to call it a night. His stomach was full enough that he could sleep without the hunger waking him till past midday at least.
Patting his pocket, he smiled. And he'd found three new books – granted one of them was a Goosebumps book he could finish in under an hour, but it was still reading material. That plus the girly magazines and the fat candle he'd found made for a successful night.
A car cruised by, then turned and came back. Angel hunched his shoulders into his ragged coat and tried to look Not There.
The car pulled alongside, matching his speed as he walked down the street. "Hey! Hey!" The driver yelled out the open window.
Ignoring him, Angel kept walking. Not too slow. Not too fast.
"Why don’t you get a fucking job?"
"You dirty freak!" Another voice called out. "Sucking down welfare while we bust our ass!"
Yeah, I'm living the American dream. Angel walked a little faster.
The driver goosed the car and jerked it up onto the sidewalk in front of him, blocking him off. "You ignoring me, freak?"
Angel jumped back as the front fender just missed grazing him. The car doors opened and he backed up, holding up his hands. "I don't get welfare. I don’t have any money."
"Are you mouthing me?" The driver was a big man, probably a football star in high school and pissed off that in life he was an average joe. "You mouthing me, you fucking loser?"
Make up my mind. Angel thought. Do you want me to answer or not?
Four other men got out of the car, fanning out in an attempt to box him in. Angel was about to turn and run; he could outdistance them easily, even weakened as he was. Then he saw Calvin sitting in the doorway of the storefront a few feet away. He was trying to be invisible, harmless, small – you don't see me , his body language screamed. One of the men looked his way.
Angel stopped moving and let the men surround him. "I wasn't mouthing." He knew talking would draw their attention back to him. And away from Calvin who was still trying to be Not There.
"We work our asses off everyday." One of the men shoved Angel in the chest. "And scum like you suck up our taxes because you're too lazy to work!"
One of them pushed him from behind and for several moments they shoved him back and forth like he was an oversized ball. He pretended to be dizzy and frightened as any human would be.
The blow, when it came, wasn't a surprise. He'd seen the tire iron in the chubby one's hand, caught the glitter of street light on metal. Now he caught the metal with the back of his head.
Angel grabbed his head and fell to his knees. He didn't have to fake his cry of pain; that was real, as was the blood that dripped between his fingers and down his neck.
He'd learned to fall and cower, and the beating would be over more quickly. Half the fun of tormenting someone was their struggles to protect themselves, the wonderfully pathetic attempts to ward off blows, and the cries of pain between pleas of mercy. Angel knew because he'd been on the giving end of such torment more times than he cared to remember, though Angelus was always happy to remind him.
A kick caught him in the ribs, and he grunted; rolling onto his side, Angel curled his arms over his head. They couldn't beat him to death, but brain damage wasn't something he wanted to have to recover from.
"Dirty bum!" Another sharp kick to his ribs.
Chubby began raining blows on his shoulders and arms with the tire iron like he was Pete Rose.
Biting down on his tongue, Angel kept the cries trapped in his mouth as one of the men stomped on his knee. Relax and it'll be over soon. Angelus had other suggestions, but he ignored them. A boot found its way up past his guard and snapped his head back, bouncing it off the sidewalk.
"Fucking – dirty – bum – " The driver kicked him in the head again. Then in the ribs and back. "Fucking – scum – "
A boot filled his vision and Angel's world went white hot and black.
Each step made his knee and ankle shriek in agony. Each gasp of pain made his broken ribs grind in protest. Each lurching move made his vision spin and twist insanely.
Angel pushed himself on, using the pain to keep from collapsing. The sun was already rising and peeking around the tall buildings. His skin itched and crawled as the dim light hit him. It was winter and the sunlight was weak and wilted, or he would have already been smoldering.
He had awakened long after the men in the car had tired of beating him and found himself alone, Calvin having run away somewhere during the abuse. For a moment he had considered lying on the sidewalk and letting the sun set him afire and end his suffering, but as always self preservation and Angelus' voice in his mind drove him to seek shelter.
Covering his bleeding fingers with his coat sleeves, Angel grasped the edges of the plywood that covered his hiding place. Blood attracted predators and he was too weak to defend himself if someone decided to try and force him out of his spot.
It took all of his strength to pull it open enough to get inside. Crawling to his bed, he curled up, keening softly until the pain shoved him back under.
The Strange One was hurt. Padding over to him, the cat sniffed him cautiously. Blood – Strange One's not the fast feets' – was all over.
Careful not to wake him – Strange One might show his fangs – the tom nuzzled at his face. Cool like always. After a moment to ponder the situation, the tom gave Strange One's cheek a lick before he trotted back outside.
A fat fast feets would be good for Strange One. Knowing that the fast feets liked to go under in the daylight, the cat slipped through the storm grate and into the sewers.
The sound of claws scratching and chittering drifted to him, and he stalked carefully toward the sound. The under was full of others – some like the Strange One and some all fang and claw – and he kept an ear cocked for them.
Two big fast feets were fighting over a piece of food. Crouching down, the tom gathered his legs under himself and leapt onto the closest one.
Squealing in surprise, the rat tried to run, but the cat's fangs sank into his head. The rat shuddered into a quick death.
Climbing back up to the above, the cat trotted quickly back to the Strange One's lair. There were shrieks from the big and slows as he ran past, but he ignored them.
Reaching the lair, he found the Strange One still asleep. Dropping the dead fast feets by his head, the cat waited for him to wake up and eat the juice.
After a long time – he'd cleaned his paws and legs and even his chest – Strange One still slept. Worried, the tom nudged his cheek. Hunting had been good with Strange One, and he didn’t want him to go still.
The memory of his mate, lying panting and hurt, refusing to eat until she went still forever came back to him, and he mewled at the old pain.
Meowing louder, he butted his head against Strange One's face. Anxious now, he raised a paw and scratched at the furless cheek. A bit of fang would be a good sign now. Strange One moved and made a pain sound, and he scratched at him again.
Pain tore along the warm cocoon Angel was wrapped in. He didn’t want to wake up; the pain was out there, and the memories, better to sleep.
The tom nipped at Strange One's face, jumping back as a loud growl erupted from him.
Angel opened his eyes and found the cat staring at him. The scent of blood teased him, and he turned his head to see a dead rat lying next to him. Reaching for it, he cried out as the broken bones slid over each other.
Picking up the rat, the cat brought it closer, laying it against his face. Angel brought his demon face to the fore, sinking his fangs into the rodent's body.
It was awkward, but he suckled the cool blood, feeling a few of the smaller aches and pains fade. All too soon, the rat was empty and he let his head fall back, exhausted and as drained as the dead rodent, without even the strength to force his human face back on.
A warm, rough tongue licked at his cheek, and he turned his head again to look in the cat's yellow eyes. Another lick across his forehead and the tom turned and ran back outside.
It took four rats before Angel could drag himself upright. The cat settled down next to him and began eating while he took inventory of his injuries.
Broken ribs and fingers, his left ankle was twisted – Angel winced as he tested it and added it to the broken list. There was a spot on his head that ached, and he suspected he had a concussion at the very least. His vision was blurred, his right eye barely working, and things tended to slide around if he moved his head too quickly.
Angel leaned back against the rough concrete wall and watched the tom as he ate the dead rats. The cat was battle scarred, with one ear missing a tip, and his fur was patchy down one side where deep claw marks had healed.
Not that he was anything to look at, either. Angel lay back down and closed his eyes. A wounded, cursed vampire and a scraggly, old tomcat. Hope and Crosby they weren't.
Finishing his meal, the cat curled up against his side and began grooming himself. Angel reached down and carefully rubbed the cat's head. He fell asleep to the raspy purr.
It was dark when Angel woke again. The cat was gone, but there was a warm spot along his side where he'd been.
Pushing himself upright, Angel stretched slowly, unknotting his sore muscles. Getting to his feet presented a bit of a problem. With his broken fingers, he wasn't able to push himself up and with a broken ankle, he couldn't just stand up either.
Maybe he could roll onto his knees – his broken ribs gouged into him and he slumped back against the rough wall. Or not.
It appeared he'd just sit and wait for enough of his body to heal before he got up. At least he didn’t have to worry about starving to death. If the cat didn’t bring anymore rats, he'd just have to wait –
As if summoned by the thought, the cat trotted in through the opening, dragging something that was almost as big as he was.
"What have you got?" Angel eyed the white furry thing the tom was bringing to him. "Did you jump a Pekinese?"
The cat dropped his kill and rubbed against Angel's knee, purring loudly.
Gingerly scooping up the dead animal with his injured hands, Angel examined it. "A rabbit?" The white, fluffy rabbit was probably someone's pet that had gotten loose or they had gotten tired of it and dumped it.
Eagerly, Angel plunged his fangs into the plump body and guzzled the still warm blood. The rabbit's blood was cleaner and healthier, still tasting fresh and without the gamey taste rats had. He whimpered as the bones in his fingers began to knit back together.
After he'd drained the animal as much as he could, Angel used his fangs to tear open the soft belly. The cat's ear's pricked up and he lifted a paw to Angel's knee.
"One second and it's yours." Rooting inside the rabbit's body, he found the heart and tore it free, popping it into his mouth and chewing it to get the hidden stash of blood there.
Laying the ripped open carcass on the ground, he watched the tom dive face first into the exposed entrails.
Angel leaned back against the wall and licked the blood off of his fingers. Carefully, he flexed and straightened them, finding them sore but useable. It would take more blood and time to heal completely, but it was a start.
Angelus reminded him that there was a fresh cat dinner at his side, and Angel reminded Angelus that the cat had been helping provide food. The demon reminded him that it was his own fault for letting himself be beaten.
Sighing, Angel refused to follow the argument to its usual conclusion where he reminded Angelus that if not for the gypsy girl – and Darla – neither of them would be in this mess.
Instead, he tore some strips from one of the rags he slept on and began wrapping his ankle tightly to support it. Luckily, he didn't have to worry about cutting off the circulation as he pulled the cloth taut.
Finishing his task, Angel got up and hobbled a few steps back and forth. The ankle would hold up as long as he didn’t have to walk too far.
The cat had finished his feast and was licking his face and whiskers clean. He watched as Strange One leaned down to pick up what was left. Growling, he swatted at his hand, but with claws sheathed, only as a warning.
"Sorry." Angel pulled his hand back and watched as the cat dragged the carcass off to the corner and covered it up. "Just thinking that his fur might make someone a nice bed."
Satisfied that the rabbit would be there for later, the tom followed Angel as he hobbled out into the night.
Angel healed more quickly from this beating than he had the last, due in part to the increase in his diet. Together he and the tom had formed a good team. The cat would flush the rats right to him, he'd drain them and the cat would chow down on the bodies.
The rabbit fur did make for a warm bed, after Angel had cleaned and stretched it. Probably not the best tanning job ever done, but the cat didn't seem to mind. He was happy to roll around on the soft fur at night.
A vicious ice storm hit in early spring, bringing sheets of ice and bitter cold, and the cat huddled on the fur, mewling occasionally in misery until Angel picked him up rabbit fur and all and tucked him inside his own tattered coat. The tom had never allowed more than the occasional pat and though he slept against Angel's side every night, he did not like to be picked up.
Safe inside the fur lined shelter formed by Angel's coat, he'd changed his mind. Angel fell asleep, sluggish from the cold, with the cat purring and kneading his chest.
The weather turned, and the Duchess removed the foil and newspapers covering her window to reveal her "summer palace". Loud Harry had frozen to death in the ice storm and she announced to everyone that he had been plotting to steal her throne and she'd had him beheaded.
Angel and the tom began to roam farther at night for food and it was apparent they'd hunted out their current territory. Success had its drawbacks, it seemed.
One warm night as they left their hiding place and began making their rounds, the cat trotted past the first dumpster they normally would have stopped at. It wasn't unusual for the tom to occasionally go in search of female companionship, and Angel stopped and began rummaging through the dumpster.
The cat stopped and meowed at him. Angel looked up. "What? Go have some fun, get a little extra for me." Instead of leaving, the cat walked back toward him, meowed again, and walked away.
Angel watched as the cat stopped once more, looking over his shoulder and swishing his tail. Ignoring Angelus' snide Lassie comment, he wiped his hands off on his pants and abandoned the dumpster.
Rubbing against his leg for a moment, the tom then padded off down the sidewalk. "Just as long as you're not expecting me to save little Timmy – I'm up for sightseeing."
They didn't walk far, less than a mile, but in terms of territory, they might have been in another city or even another country.
Other homeless people eyed Angel suspiciously as he walked by, and a group of street walkers made a show of turning their backs on him and laughing. Snubbed by common whores who would have begged for the chance to touch him if they could see what he really looked like – the demon inside him snarled and raged at the insult.
Angel didn't care. They were the dregs of their class. Old and worn – no doubt diseased as well. Even those times when he'd paid for sex – he'd never lowered himself to using women such as they.
They were close to the river; he could smell the muddy wetness on the breeze. It had been years – twenty? thirty? – since he'd been down on the river here, but he remembered a row of restaurants, and restaurants meant dumpsters and rats.
"Maybe a change of scenery would be good." Angel followed the cat as he turned off the attractively lit street with its ornate old fashioned street lights and down the dim alley. "Just remember we need to go visit the dumpster with the girly magazines. Myers keeps us in matches."
Behind the fashionable restaurants were fashionable dumpsters – fashionable in the sense that they featured overfed and under hunted rats.
After the tom flushed several plump rodents to him, Angel dug through the trash in search of a treat for his hunting partner. Unearthing a pile of shrimp, he sniffed carefully to be sure they weren't cooked with garlic. It would probably give the cat gas and burn the crap out of his fingers. One encounter with shrimp scampi was enough to teach him to be cautious.
Garlic free, Angel scooped up the shrimp and set them on the pavement next to the cat. A loud, rough purr rumbled up as the tom pounced on the feast.
When they were full, they went back through the unfamiliar territory to their hiding place. Angel pulled the plywood over the opening, leaving just enough room for the cat to slip out during the day.
"Tomorrow, we'll have to find us someplace closer." Angel stretched out on the pile of rags and lit a candle. He only had a few more chapters left in his book, and he was rationing it out until he could find or trade for another. "Unless you like walking that far?"
The tom looked up at the questioning tone and meowed, then went back to chasing the flea that was nagging him.
"I'll take that as a yes." He reached out and scratched behind the black and white ears.
There had been a fire a few years ago, and many property owners had simply boarded up the burned out buildings rather than rebuild. Homeless people had quickly moved in and set up their own communities.
Angel found an empty place in the basement of one such building not far from the river and the restaurants where he and the cat had found easy hunting. Knowing that simply moving in would cause problems, Angel asked around until he found out who "owned" the building and what it would take to buy his way in.
Myers told him Griffith had a sweet tooth, and Angel parted with five dollars to buy a box of assorted chocolates – crèmes only – he knew from past experience that humans who loved candy had bad teeth.
The candy hadn't cost five dollars, but the store clerk had made him wait outside and brought the box to him. When he held his hand out for the change, the man had laughed and said thanks for the tip. Angel had had to listen to Angelus rant and rave during the entire exchange, but that was nothing new.
He met Griffith in what had been the waiting room of a doctor's office. Two big men stood guard, nasty looking tire irons resting on their shoulders.
It was a twisted echo of the past; back in the day, he'd known people who had wanted nothing more than to be at court and be presented to nobility.
Nobility, such as it was, accepted the candy and allowed him and the tom to move into the basement. Moving required untying the bundle of rags and spreading them out in one corner.
After setting his beer can candle holder on an empty box, Angel sat down and pulled the rabbit skin from his pocket. "What do you think? A few rugs, couple of chairs, maybe some curtains?" The tom finished his inspection of the room and padded over to curl up on the soft fur.
Reaching down, Angel rubbed the cat's head.
"The Duchess should be happy with these." Angel patted the stack of magazines he'd been saving for the past two weeks. "We'll hit the dumpster with the girly magazines – should be about time for the nasty ones Myers likes."
Beside him, the cat was unimpressed, then he stopped in mid stride, lifting his head and sniffing the night air. A hot, spicy scent drifted to them.
"Didn't you just get some?" Angel smiled slightly.
The tom rubbed against his legs, butting his head into Angel's shins before trotting off down the street in search of the tantalizing scent.
"Don't do anything I wouldn't do." Angel called after him.
Continuing down the street, he went in search of the books to trade to Myers for matches.
Luck was with him, Angel found several of the raunchier type of magazines, which he handed over to Myers for three disposable lighters, a handful of matchbooks, and a can of Sterno.
Winter was several months off, but he wanted to be prepared. The tomcat had to be getting up there in years and the Sterno would make the cold easier for him to bear.
After he dropped off the Duchess' scandal sheets, he'd head back to the new place and get started on one of the books he'd found tonight. Fantasy wasn't his usual choice of reading material, but beggars couldn't be choosers – a fact he'd come to realize a long time ago.
Angel heard the laughing and scuffling before he reached the alleyway the Duchess lived in. He slowed, not wanting to get in the middle of what was happening.
It wasn't uncommon for homeless people to be harassed. Teenagers with nothing better to do, men who'd been drinking and decided to prove their manhood by beating up someone they saw as worthless. At times one homeless man saw the piece of concrete another was using as his, and fought for it.
Angel was turning away, not in the mood to take a beating, when the Duchess' quavering voice rose above the harsh laughter.
"Stop – help me – guards! Oh, where are my guards? Help!"
"Crazy old bitch!" There was a grunt of pain and then the sound of a fist striking flesh.
The old woman's cry of pain pulled Angel back around. Ignoring Angelus' protests, he ran to the alleyway. Three young men were pushing her back and forth between them, laughing at her attempts to get away.
"Leave her alone."
One of the men turned at the soft voice. "Who the fuck are you?"
"Just leave her alone." Angel walked slowly toward them.
"What are you gonna do about it?" One of the men, his long hair scraggling out from under a Cardinals ball cap, sneered at him.
"He thinks he's Batman!" The first one laughed. "Guess he lost the Batmobile in the recession."
The Duchess scrambled away from her tormentors, going to Angel and clinging to him. "At last you've come! They've destroyed my palace!"
"Get out of here." He pushed her away. "Go on."
"Of course, I will leave the fight to you." She stepped away from him. "My brave champion."
"I'm nobody's champion." Angel walked slowly toward what remained of the box that had served as the old woman's home.
The men surrounded him, like jackals around a wounded lion. They were wary of his size but confident that they could take him.
"Jesus, you're filthy!" The one with the ball cap shoved Angel. "Maybe we oughta throw you in the river?" One of the other men caught Angel as he staggered. "Let's have some fun first." He shoved him to his friend in the black t-shirt.
Angel was spun about to meet the fist that introduced itself to his face. Spots leapt up into his vision, but the pain wasn't as bad as some he'd felt before. A fist rabbitted into his kidneys, and he grunted. They were only hoodlums – true torture was beyond their ken.
He could hear the old woman screaming for help that wouldn't come. Why the hell didn't she run? Angel closed his eyes as a pain shot up his spine. One of the men slipped his arms through Angel's and locked his hands together behind Angel's head, holding him in a classic full nelson.
Ballcap stepped in and began hammering punches into Angel's exposed stomach and ribs, his friend in the black t-shirt urging him on.
They were laughing and cursing as they beat him. When Ballcap's arms grew tired, Blackshirt took his place, grunting as he threw punch after punch into Angel's body.
Angel ignored his own instinct for self preservation – and Angelus' snarled commands to defend himself – focusing instead on past victims. Dru, her family, the nuns of the abbey she had taken refuge in – he deserved the punishment and pain.
His baby sister's face was wavering behind his swollen eyelids when he heard a new sound mixed with the grunts curses laughter the old woman's cries – a hissing and snarling.
"Son of a bitch!"
"It's just a fucking cat."
"It bit me!"
Angel opened his eyes to see the tom darting in and swiping his claws down the back of Blackshirt's leg. The cat's fur was on end, and his tail was puffed out to three times its normal size. He bared his fangs and yowled, a black and white furball of fury.
"Not so goddamned funny now, is it?" Ballcap kicked at the cat, but he leapt nimbly out of reach, side hopping and hissing.
The man holding Angel let go, allowing him to slump to the ground. He joined the other two in trying to catch the cat. It was almost comical, three grown men chasing a scratching, biting cat, cursing as fang and claw found soft flesh.
Angel struggled to his feet as Ballcap managed to catch the cat. "No – don't – "
"Son of - ow!" Picking up the cat wasn't the smartest thing he'd ever done. Ivory fangs sank deep into his hand while four sets of claws ripped into his arms. "Damn cat!"
Turning, he pulled the cat's claws loose and flung the snarling animal into the wall. An agonized yowl burst from the cat as he struck the bricks.
"No!" Angel pushed the men aside and fell to his knees next to the cat. The animal was still and limp. "No…"
His hearing told him that the cat was badly injured. The small heart was beating erratically and there were liquid, oozing sounds within the furry body. Tears burned his eyes.
"Aww… Look at him – crying over his poor pussycat!"
"Probably his only friend – who else could stand him!"
The cat had only wanted to help him; this was his reward. Angel ran a hand over the soft fur. "I'm sorry – sorry – " It was his fault – always his fault.
"Hey, we should skin it and cook it!"
Laughing, Blackshirt grabbed Angel's shoulder. "Yeah, he can have a home cooked meal!"
A loud roar echoed in the alley. The three men jumped back as Angel lurched to his feet and spun to face them.
Gone was the complacent man they'd been abusing. In his place was a demon. Amber eyes flashed below the ridged forehead and fangs gleamed as he roared again.
"Holy – " Blackshirt staggered back, his hand going to his chest, covering his racing heart.
Angel grabbed the man and threw him headfirst into his two friends. The men went down in a terrified heap.
Kicking and shoving, Blackshirt struggled to get out from under his friends. Strong hands clamped down on his arms, pulling him up off the ground. He screamed as he was suddenly nose to nose with the monster.
"What's the matter?" Angel bared his fangs in an evil grin. "Aren't we having fun anymore?"
"Let me go – please, just let me go!" He sobbed as the sharp fangs dipped closer.
"All in good time." Twisting the man's forearms outward, Angel waited for the splintering and cracking of bone.
Screaming, Blackshirt sagged to his knees. Slowly, carefully, Angel applied enough torque to break the man's arms while denying him the mercy of unconsciousness.
The other two men had gotten to their feet and Angel turned his attention on them. "Leaving so soon?" He shoved Blackshirt away, drawing a fresh shriek of pain from him. "But the fun's just getting started."
Ballcap worked up the nerve to turn and run but found Angel blocking his way. "You can't – you were behind – "
"I'm really quick on my feet."
"What – what the hell are you?" The man stumbled back.
"Gosh, there's just so many ways to answer that." Tapping his chin, Angel pretended to think over the possibilities. "Not human… more than human… your worst nightmare…"
Rushing Angel, he tried to push past him. Laughing, Angel grabbed him and held him up in the air. "No, no! You get to go last." He tossed the man across the alley and onto a pile of boxes.
The third man stood petrified and unable to move. His lips quivered as Angel walked over to him, but no sound came out.
"Now you… you're just… nobody, are you?" He circled the terrified man. "Those two at least did something, you just stood there and held me up for them. You're too weak to do anything else, aren't you?"
As he completed the circle, Angel looked down into the man's eyes. "You don't even rate a name for me to keep track of which asshole you are."
A rank smell drifted from the man and Angel looked down to see the wet stain spreading down the front of the man's pants. "I think you just earned one." Grabbing the man by the throat, he lifted him up off the ground. "Did you get off on my being helpless?"
Twisting in the cruel grasp, he clawed at the cool hand locked around his throat. Air was cut off and his lungs began to scream and beg for mercy, but his cries couldn't get past the iron grip. Black spots slid past his vision, gathering and covering everything. There was a whisper in his ear, faint and far away. "How does helpless feel?"
Dropping the man at his feet, Angel waited until the man had sucked in enough air to be aware of his surroundings once again. "Put your hands out."
Looking up, the man could only wheeze in air. He held his hands up.
"On the ground." Angel snapped, reaching down to slap the man's hands down. When the man laid his hands out, Angel stepped slowly and casually onto one of them. A cry of pain made Angel smile. "Finally, he speaks."
"P – please – please – " The man sobbed as the bones in his hand snapped. He pushed at the large boot, sobbing in relief as it moved. Relief that was short lived as the boot came down on his other hand and crushed the bones in it.
"See if helpless is as fun from the other side." Angel turned away from the crying man and went to where Ballcap was dragging himself out of the broken boxes. "Now, it's your turn."
"Stay the fuck away from me!" Ballcap pulled a knife from his pocket. "I'll kill you – I swear!"
"Oh, a knife, help me, help me, oh I'm so scared." Angel deadpanned. "I'm already dead, moron."
Lunging, Ballcap slashed at the demonic face. His wrist was caught in a crushing grip and the knife fell from his limp fingers. "What the hell are you?"
"Didn't we already cover that?" Stepping back, Angel jerked the man around in a circle, pulling him off his feet. He turned around, watching Ballcap spin around him by his wrist. "Can you fly?"
"W – wha – " His stomach was shoving its way up his throat. For a moment he was reminded of his father swinging him around like this when he was a child.
"Of course, it's not the flying – " Angel let go of Ballcap's wrist. "It's the landing that hurts."
For a moment, the man defied gravity, arcing up and across the alley. His achievement in aeronautics was stopped by his impact with the brick wall on the far side. A meaty slap and crack, and he slid down to rest limply on the ground.
"See how you like it." Angel turned away and went to where the cat lay. The tom hadn't moved, though its eyes were open now. "Just lay still, you'll be okay."
Letting his face change back to human form, he went to what remained of the Duchess' belongings and picked up a tattered pillowcase. The old woman was screeching mindlessly and he walked to her. "It's all right now, you're safe."
"Monster!" She scrambled back away from him. "You're a monster! Get away! Get away!"
Stung by her reaction, he lowered his hand and turned his back on her. You were expecting something different? Going back to the cat's side, he knelt and tore the pillowcase apart and tied it into a makeshift sling. Taking the rabbit fur from his jacket pocket, he laid it in the sling and carefully lifted the cat into it.
The mewl of pain made his heart ache and he settled the dying animal into the soft fur as easily as he could. "I'm sorry. You shouldn't have tried to help me, I'm not worth it."
Slowly and carefully, Angel got to his feet, adjusting the sling so the cat was resting snugly against his chest, he started out of the alley. Other homeless people had gathered, curious as to what the Duchess was screaming about. In the distance sirens wailed, proof that someone had heard all the noise and called the police.
"He's a monster!" She grabbed Myers. "An evil monster!"
"Sure he is." Myers shook her hand off. "You okay, Angel?"
Ignoring him, Angel walked past. The old woman was still screaming about him being a monster; luckily, everyone was used to her wild stories and dismissed it as one of her fantasies.
"Stop him! He's a fiend – a monster!" She turned to the others. "We must stop him and turn him over to the guards."
"Yeah, we'll call them." Myers snickered.
"Foul, evil thing, living among us and pretending to be a good and gallant knight!" Her voice trembled with righteous indignation. "How dare you deceive us this way?"
Stopping, Angel looked her in the eye. "You're an old lady living in a box in an alley. Who's deceiving who?"
The Duchess gaped at his retreating back.
Angel wandered for several minutes, not sure of where he was going. He could go back to their new hiding place. The cat had water there and – he stopped. The cat was dying, and there was nothing he could do.
Wandering the maze of concrete, he found himself at the river, the fresh air blowing across the water. For a moment he stood and stared at the flatboats moving slowly down the muddy river.
"Have you ever been out of the city?" He looked down at the cat; the yellow eyes opened and then closed again. Gently, Angel rubbed between the black and white ears. The cat had probably never seen more than the occasional patch of grass in his entire life.
Turning away from the river, Angel began walking.
It took two hours of walking before he began to see trees and grass. Another two hours and there were pastures with cows and horses. Scenting the coming dawn, Angel cut across a field toward a stand of trees. They were thick enough to protect him from the coming sunlight.
He found a nice grassy spot in what would be out in the sun once it rose. Kneeling, he carefully untied the sling and laid it on the grass. Immediately, he missed the cat's weak heartbeat against his chest. "Here, this is a good place. Lots of grass and there's some flowers and it smells good, doesn't it?"
The tom's eyes opened and he meowed softly, his sides rising and falling shallowly.
As the sun crept up across the grass, Angel backed away to sit in the shade.
The cat raised his head and meowed weakly.
"It'll be all right, just relax and enjoy the sunshine." He watched as the cat struggled to roll over. "No, what are you doing?"
Whimpering and keening in pain, the cat nonetheless forced himself over on his belly and began to crawl toward where Angel sat in the shade.
"No – damn it – " Angel rushed out of the shade and into the dim morning light. It made his skin itch and crawl as he gently scooped the cat up. The tom dug his claws into Angel's arms and meowed frantically as he tried to lay him back down on the fur. "Come on, it's going to be nice and sunny here."
The sun was singeing his skin now, and Angel tried once more to put the cat down. The claws dug deeper and he was forced to retreat to the shade with the cat in his arms.
"Why don't you want out in the sun?" He sat back down in the shade. "You had your rabbit fur and you know, the sun is nice, as I remember."
Pulling his claws free, the cat relaxed against his chest. It dawned on Angel suddenly that the cat didn’t want to die alone. Holding the cat, he decided to go out and get the fur, it would feel a lot better than his old coat did. Getting back up, he hurried out and grabbed it, getting back before the strengthening sun could scorch him.
Angel cradled the tom against his chest, wrapped in the soft fur. Gently, he ran a hand down the cat's side. A weak purr rumbled through the cat and vibrated within his own chest.
The day passed with the cat occasionally stretching a paw up to pat at Angel's face and chest. Butterflies danced on the flowers out in the sunshine and birds sang up in the trees.
Toward midday, the purr began to falter and finally stopped as the tom ran out of strength. He began to pant and shiver and Angel held him closer and let a purr of his own out to comfort his dying friend as best he could. Finally the struggle to live ended and the cat went limp.
Keening softly, Angel let the tears out that Angelus was there to mock him for. It was only a stupid cat, but the cat hadn't turned on him and had defended him at the cost of his own life.
Eventually the sun went down, and Angel wrapped the tom's body carefully in the rabbit fur and the torn pillowcase. He dug a deep hole at the spot where he had first tried to lay the cat down, and lowered him inside of it. For a moment, he couldn't bear to think of covering his friend with dirt, but he knew the soul was gone and free.
Covering him and setting a large stone over the freshly dug spot, Angel wiped his hands off. Standing up, he looked back toward the city. No, a change of scenery was past due.
Angel walked eastward.