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Some Say in Ice

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Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

~Robert Frost

Entropy (Angel)

Angel revels in savagery. He makes no attempt to bridle his killing edge. He needs it. The blood painted on his skin drives him. The cloying scent of death collecting in the back of his throat keeps him fierce.

He knows he's doing the right thing, even as Gunn's broken body is trampled by the first wave of demons, even as Illyria is bisected by a blade, and her corpse is thrown asunder, even as Spike's ashes run into the gutter, swept into eternity by the rain. Angel knows he's doing the right thing as he blocks and parries and stabs and swipes. Wesley, Gunn, all of them, knew going into this battle that death was nipping at their heels. Angel considered them consenting adults, and he doesn't have time to mourn.

The horde in the alley is mostly broken bodies, now, and he thinks he just might win this thing, though he's saved the hardest beast for the last. The dragon screams in the distance. Angel thinks he sees a plume of fire through the sheets of rain, and doubt encroaches, but he shoves it away.

He makes it to the end of the alley. His axe is gone, but all he needs are teeth and will, and he has both in abundance, because he's doing the right thing. He must be.

The Powers That Be sent him the memo. He's crippling the evil in his city. In the world. He's fighting the Apocalypse tooth and claw because he still hopes for the better, and he wants that for his son. For Buffy, no matter who she's with. For Cordelia, no matter where she is. For all the gawkers at their windows, watching now in frozen awe, their heartbeats a clamorous thunder. For everyone.

He's also fighting to prove a point: that there can be victory, even in losing, even if the fight never ends, because there isno winning or losing. It's all a matter of perception and perspective. He's learned that, now.

The last demon in the alley draws its last, pained gasp, and Angel permits himself a bloodstained, feral smile. A brief one. He isn't done, yet. He pulls a longsword from the lax fingers of the demon he just killed, and he turns. He blinks water out of his eyes.

The building at the mouth of the alley falls to rubble. The dragon perches on its newest conquest and roars. The cacophony makes Angel think his breastbone might diffuse to dust, as surely as if he were staked. He's deafened, startled out of violence and thrill, and plunged into frigid clarity.

He stares at a concrete graveyard. A swath of razed buildings stretches as far as he can see behind the one that just collapsed. He sees a maze of broken traffic lights and telephone poles, tangles of smashed cars, glittering broken glass, and a gas station in flames. People scurry for cover. They scream. A baby cries from somewhere distant, but there's a metal crunch, a horn honks for too long, and the wailing chokes into silence. He has no idea how many innocent people died while he fought lesser minions, but he knows the count is no small sum.

The dragon burned the forest to ash while Angel hacked at trees.

In that moment, Angel's conviction crumbles.

He is entropy. He is death.

He was duped.


The dragon leaps into the air and lands on the wet street, mere feet away. The ground shakes with the impact, and Angel almost loses his footing. Hot, fetid breath laves his skin as he rights himself. Razor teeth clack inches from his face, and Angel is afraid.

He's killed all the villains on his list, he's killed thousands of innocents in a matter of minutes, and he's killed his dearest friends. He supposes that's what the Senior Partners wanted all along. A power vacuum, mass casualties, and no one to pick up the mess.

He's sinking. He will be judged. Why didn't he see it before?

The dragon cocks its head and peers at him with reptilian eyes. A forked tongue snakes into the air, testing, tasting. Wisps of fire flicker from its nostrils as it breathes. It shifts its weight from left to right, claws scraping the pavement, but it doesn't strike.

For a moment, Angel wonders as he stands there, a bug before an oncoming windshield, why the delay?

He's not prepared for the killing blow.

The dragon's clubbed tail swipes him with the force of a rocket. Angel is flying. His longsword falls from his nerveless fingers. He has a moment of giddy weightlessness before the pain from his shattered ribs and sternum grinds his giddiness to dust. A strident roar shakes the earth. An unfurling blast of hellfire chases him through the air, but he slams into a wall before the fire catches him.

Brick crumbles. He slides to the ground. Flame pits the broken wall above his head, singeing his hair. And then the world snaps from the blue-black of rain to riotous red.


He can't move. He's confused. He's dizzy. He might vomit. Painful, white-hot flashes of color dance beneath his eyelids. His ears ring.


Sound goes in and out. What little he can hear is distorted like he's listening to the ocean in a conch shell, and the voice is carrying on the wind from the beach. Something warm touches his cheek.

"-on, Angel. Wake u-"

He should worry, but he can't. He can't anything.


The world goes away for a while.

When he flounders back to consciousness, another piece of himself comes with him this time.

"A-?" a disembodied "she" says.

He thinks of Buffy. He doesn't know when or how she might have gotten here. He doesn't know why he's hurt, what hurt him, or where he is. He doesn't care. But with a little imagination, he can answer one question. Who.

Buffy makes him feel safe.

He needs that feeling. He doesn't know why.

"Ang-!" she pleads.

Buffy. His nose is the only thing in his body that works, and he would recognize her anywhere. Dewdrops and roses, both thick and heady under the strawberry scent of her shampoo. A cocktail of scents that is unique to her.

She's not a figment. He didn't imagine her. She's real.

"Angel, pl-," she says. "-ort of sign. Anyth-"

He smells her fear. He smells death. She's clutching at him, shaking him. He hurts. He thinks his head might be in her lap. He manages to squeeze her hand. Sort of.

"Oh, thank g-"

Not a figment. Real.

"-open your eyes?"

No, he can't.

"Ca-," she continues, but he can't make out at least half of it. "-eak?"

His head is spinning, and all he can see is a kaleidoscope that shouldn't be there, even with his eyes closed. He moves his jaw a millimeter, trying to say something to appease her, but pain punishes him for his audacity, and he stills. The colors in the kaleidoscope sharpen as he suffers. His insides churn, and he really thinks he might be sick.

He lies still, lips parted as he scents her. Her thumb traces his mouth. He doesn't know why she's here, but he revels in the irrefutable evidence. He's crippled, but he's safe, and he lets himself drift.

When he gains enough sense to understand complete sentences, she's not speaking to him, anymore. She's not holding him. He hears a pounding that repeats over and over, like the ringing of a church bell. The sound isn't the same as the horrible pounding in his head.

Smash. "Stupid rubble," she mutters between blows. Another smash. "Stupid demons." Another smash. "Stupid kamikaze vampire who thinks." Smash. "He's." Smash. "Invincible." Smash. "When." Smash. "He's so." Smash. "So." Smash. Smash. Smash. "So not."

The pounding stops. She's panting. Her boots scuffle as she moves across glass and other broken things. She plops down next to him with a frustrated sigh. The heat of her body presses against his cold skin.

"Bu-," he manages. Lightning lances his jaw. A strangled growl clots in his throat, and pain seizes him.

"Hey," she says, relief flooding her voice, but he blacks out.

The next time he's awake, it's only long enough to roll onto his side and vomit.

His eyes work. Sort of.

A black halo pinches the edges of his vision, and even when he holds his gaze still, things wander to the left like they're spinning around him on a turntable. If he didn't feel so wretched, he might enjoy the novelty of this experience. He can't recall an injury ever wreaking havoc with his senses this much.

A buzzing fluorescent light flickers overhead.

She's dragged him away from the bloody mess he made in the other corner. The scent of it arouses his hurting body, and his demon stirs, all while his stomach churns. Her heartbeat thunders in his ears. He needs blood. Blood will heal him. Blood will make the world stop spinning. The very idea of blood makes him feel like throwing up again. He can't remember ever being so singularly enthralled and repulsed all at once.

Buffy kicks at a pile of rubble that may have been, at one point, a doorway. She kicks over and over. Bits and chunks of concrete, insulation, and sheet rock fall down to the floor with each strike. She pauses every few minutes to clear away the refuse she's loosened. She stops when she hears him growl, and her entire demeanor changes from Slayer-who-gets-things-done Buffy to the Buffy who wrapped his hand after Spike had stabbed him through with a knife. Her hair is wild, her shirt is torn, she has a black eye, and her skin is covered in bloodstained grime, but he thinks she's beautiful.

"Angel," she says, her tone a mix of reverence and worry. She slides to the ground next to him.

He stares, unblinking.

A spiderweb of cracks lashes out from a circular epicenter on the wall near where he lay before. He thinks that might be where the dragon threw him into the side of the building. Something fluid drips from a pipe beyond their prison. A demon's corpse is pinned where the ceiling has crashed into the floor at a slant. He and Buffy are trapped in a small triangular space that feels like a cave. This doesn't seem like the side of a building in an alley. He's pretty sure he hit brick on his fall, not sheet rock, so the cracks in the wall puzzle him, but a lot about this situation puzzles him.

Her fingers brush through his hair. Over his scalp. She avoids the half of his face that's throbbing. The gesture comforts him.

"You're really messed up," she observes. Her eyes are wet, and they glisten in the flickering light.

"Yes," he agrees through gritted teeth. Fangs, he realizes, as they press against his lips and break skin. He tries to relax and make them go away. He doesn't like to show them to Buffy. But he hurts, and he's nauseated, and he can't conjure the box in his mind that he likes to put them in, or the lock and key that he uses to keep them there. They're stuck in place. Blood pools at the corners of his mouth. He thinks about licking it off, but his stomach roils, and he can't stop thinking about it fast enough.

She must see the craving cross his gaze. "Are you hungry?"

His feelings on the matter are too complex to explain in monosyllables. He's learned that moving his jaw is agony. He thinks, maybe, it's broken or worse. Pulverized. "No," he says, only his tongue and lips moving. "Sick."

Her gaze softens. "I noticed that part," she says, equal parts wryness and sympathy.

He loves her for that. He loves that everything can be falling down around their ears, and she can still crack a joke and comfort him all at once. The world is spinning, but he holds on to the merry-go-round with all his might.

"You get .…" He winces. "Dragon?"

She gives him a funny look. She points at the demon crushed by the ceiling. "The Kevlar thingy is dead," she says.

"Kreplar," he says. He doesn't remember Kreplar demons in the alley.

She rolls her eyes. "Thanks, Giles," she says, but she's smiling.

"Drag-?" he says again. The last syllable falls off in a rasp, and her smile fades.

Her nose scrunches up in that cute way it does when she's perplexed. A shadow of suspicion crosses her face. "Angel, do you have any idea where you are?"

"No," he says, and this is the first time this worries him.

"But you know who I am?" she prods.

"Bu-" He swallows thickly. "Buffy."

A fleshy blur appears in front of his face. The predator in him feels the air shift. He knows innately that prey is within striking distance, not that he can do anything that resembles pouncing. Not that he would. Not that she'd let him, anyway.

"How many fingers am I holding up?" she says, but he doesn't know.

He can't focus on the space that close to his face. He can't focus much at all. His neck hurts. His head feels too big. He shuts his eyes, because the fluorescent strip snapping overhead is like a whip cracking against him over and over.

"Killed them," he mumbles.

"My fingers?" she says, her tone helpless and confused.

He curls into a fetal position, trying to shut some of it out. The light. The dizziness. Her enthralling, comforting, nauseating heartbeat.

He feels her staring at his back. She rubs her hand in a soothing path along his bruised spine. "I'm gonna keep working on this doorway," she says, and the pressure on his back shifts as she makes some gesture he can't see. "You just … rest for a bit." He can tell she struggles for the right words. "Okay?"

Her hands leave him. She shoves to her feet. He hears her brushing plaster off the knees of her pants.

He sleeps.

For some reason, whatever's happened to him allows him to perform complex math. He can add two plus two and get seven, and it all makes sense. Using this kind of thought process allows him to get the idea that he can stand and help her move rubble out of the way. He's strong, and the two of them together might make faster progress. As theories go, it's not his worst one.

He doesn't get much beyond sitting up. He moves like some sort of logy sloth, and by the time he's upright, he thinks he might be sick again. He rests with his undamaged cheek pressed against the sheet rock.

"It's okay," she says between kicks. "You can provide moral support."

He's still sitting up and staring blankly, legs curled underneath him, when he hears a heartbeat that isn't Buffy's. More than one, actually. On a good day, dealing with lots of people at once can still be a trying experience if he's not in the right mood. On a bad day like this, though, it's torture.

The living are a screaming chorus that he can't shut out, and the awful duality of hunger and queasiness nearly bowls him flat. He presses the back of his hand against his fangs, sinking his teeth into skin. The predatory need to bite is assuaged, and he feels better, not that better is good. He's disgusted with himself, but at least the thought of killing them all is buried by this empty satisfaction and the agony in his jaw. He keeps his fangs sunk into flesh as a coping mechanism. He trembles.

"B!" calls a familiar voice through the rubble. There's a distant tapping, scraping sound. "You in there?"

Faith came to Los Angeles, too, he realizes. He's torn between joy and shame. He wonders if the other heartbeats are other slayers. The squeezing in his gut says yes. One slayer is hardly noticeable unless he's paying specific attention, but bunches of them in the same spot are uncomfortable.

He wonders if they all came to help. All of them think he's evil. He can't disagree anymore. They wouldn't help him perpetrate destruction, but he imagines they'll help him repair it. If they don't stake him, first, that is.

"Here!" yells Buffy. "We're in here! We got the demon!" Her shout echoes through the claustrophobic space, and it makes Angel cringe. Everything in his skull is still pounding, even after she's stopped kicking the debris in the doorway. He bites harder into his hand. The whole side of his face is screaming at him. Blood he can't afford to lose oozes down his wrist.

"We?" Faith says. "Are you with the big guy, too? We've been lookin' all over."

"Yeah," Buffy replies, "Angel's here, but he's hurt, so he's not talking much."

Somebody snorts with laughter, and Angel thinks it sounds familiar.

"Hey," Buffy says, scowling on his behalf. "At least he usually makes sense. He's totally not doing that right now."

She turns to him with a hopeful, teasing grin that fades when she sees what he's doing. She stares at Angel's bloody hand. He doesn't think he's ever acted this subhuman in front of her before. There's no horror or disgust or judgment loitering in her gaze, but if he were human, his cheeks would flame. He can't let go, even with her staring. He needs it. He's got his hand in a death grip like a lion strangling a gazelle, and he needs it. A growl of pain he can't seem to stop vibrates in his throat.

"How many of our girls are out there?" Buffy asks, unperturbed.

"The whole cavalry, why?" Faith says.

Buffy shifts her weight. "Angel's all wiggy. Send some away."

Nobody asks what Buffy means. There's mumbling discussion on the other side of the debris pile, and then the sound of retreating footsteps. The thundering heartbeat chorus beyond the door eases to a quartet, and the warning tingle of nearby slayers recedes.

Angel can almost think again. His jaw throbs. The skin on the back of his hand is ragged as he shakily drops his arm into his lap.

"Sorry, A," Faith says. "You guys had a lot of people worried."

"How long have we been missing?" Buffy asks.

"Twenty hours, give or take," Faith says.

Angel is floored. He can't think of a time he's been unconscious that long without being drugged.

He closes his eyes as people start banging on the rubble from both sides. What sounds like crowbars and swords and other screeching, scraping metal things on one side, Buffy kicking on the other. Between two slayers and a host of digging tools, they level what Buffy didn't already have clear. Angel has no doubt that Buffy alone would have gotten them out in another six hours or so, but he's grateful for the intervention.

People rush into the tight space, and Angel is overwhelmed. He presses against the wall, his eyes closed. He smells fresh blood, and no amount of nausea can stop him from reaching for the thermos dangling in front of him. It's plastic. His fangs make funny clanking noises as he tries to bite it before he remembers to sip, and then he's chugging so fast it's gone in a matter of seconds.

The blood is pig, and it's not fulfilling. He wants more, but then he doesn't want more. The heartbeats in the room cease their siren call, becoming only background noise. There's no duality, now. He only feels sick.

Someone takes the thermos from his trembling hands. He looks up.

Cordelia smiles down at him. "You're so lucky I had a vision, buster."

He can't think of anything to say.

She looks to the man standing next to her. "I'll get his left; you get his right?"

Wesley nods. "Yes, of course."

They both move to grab Angel's arms when Gunn intercedes and takes over for Cordelia. Angel is pulled to his feet before he can form a coherent thought. Vertigo yanks on his legs like an undertow. He's not supporting any of his weight. Wesley grunts, and Gunn stumbles. Cordelia reaches out to help steady them all.

Angel shakes, not sure what's going on. He inhales through his teeth, expecting what he smells to tell him a different story than what he sees, but when their scents rush across the back of his throat, he knows unequivocally that they're all real. They're all here. And they're all living.

He thinks, for the first time, that his brain is well and truly banjaxed.

He's lying somewhere in that alley where the dragon smashed him, and he's dreaming up all his favorite people. He's fantasizing, and he's so far gone, he doesn't know he's fantasizing. Or he does, but he doesn't care, because he loves what he's made up for himself. At the same time, he's sinking, because he knows, now, that he never left the alley, Buffy never came for him, and Faith is back in Rome, too.

"You're all dead," Angel protests, confused and trembling.

"See," Buffy says. She's leaning on Faith. "He's not making a lot with the sense."

"He does seem rather bell rung," Wesley says, his tone more than a little worried.

"Howdy, understatement," Cordelia adds.

Angel wants to respond. He does. But he's barely keeping himself conscious, and he wants to be conscious. A hand waves in front of his face. He's so discombobulated that he snaps at it. His fangs click closed over empty air, and he snarls.

"Hey!" Cordelia shrieks.

"Yo," Gunn says. "Let's not taunt the injured, starving vampire. I wanna keep my neck intact."

"I wasn't taunting him," Cordelia protests, and the look on her face shifts from indignation to horror. "He wouldn't eat you!" She makes an impolite gagging sound. "And anyway, yuck!"

"Cordelia," Wesley says calmly, "I think it's safe to assume he's not quite himself. Now, shall we?"

Angel tries to walk. They pull him through the doorway they cleared and out into dark sewer. This isn't the alley where he fought the dragon. Rubble is strewn everywhere. Things have collapsed.

"The earthquake messed up some of the tunnels, or we would have gotten here sooner," Cordelia says, answering the question he didn't ask.

Waste sloshes at his feet. The stench is overwhelming. He makes it less than an eighth of a mile before he can't make himself go anymore, and all they're doing is dragging him.

"The tunnel to the hotel is blocked, B," Faith says as they stop near a ladder. The paint is chipping and rusty metal shows through. She points to the ceiling. "The van's parked up there."

"Any thoughts on getting this two-hundred-twenty-five pound deadweight to the top of that?" Gunn says, peering dubiously at the long climb.

Angel wants to help. He wants to climb, but he knows he'll make it two rungs before the dizziness claims him, and he falls. Maybe, not even that far.

He loses track of himself as they discuss their options. Their conversation is a comforting murmur. His eyelids are heavy. His neck hurts, and his head is throbbing. The blood he drank roils in his gut.

He drops his face, the good side, against Wesley's shoulder, and Angel can hear a beautiful thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump through the soft cotton collar of Wesley's t-shirt. The cadence of it numbs the pain. Wesley. Alive. Angel makes a rattling noise.

Gunn jumps an inch and almost lets go. "Since when the hell does he do that?"

"Um," Buffy says. She clears her throat after several nonsensical false starts. "Sometimes. Just .…"

"Vampires purr?" Wesley says. "That's fascinating."

"Kinda wicked," Faith says. "Like a big, evil cat."

"Jus' don' pet me," Angel slurs.

"Dude," Faith says with a hearty chuckle. "You made a joke," she continues, punching him lightly in the arm. Even as light as it is, the impact makes him sway precariously. "Right on."

"Joke?" he manages, the word faint like it came from miles away.

Faith snorts. "Never mind."

He wonders if he'll be adding swooning to his list of novel experiences for the day. He's been knocked out before, he's felt like crap and lain down, and he's been woozy enough to fade in and out, but he doesn't think he's ever just collapsed. He swallows, pressing his face against Wesley's shirt as he forces the subject sound of their conversation to cease.

His legs are boneless. His whole body is shaking. From strain. From trauma. From shock. He wishes they would let him lie down in the muck if they're just going to stand here and snark about his embarrassing bodily functions.

"So, affection, huh?" Cordelia says with a doubtful tone.

"Not like sex," Buffy rushes to say, and Angel almost thinks he prefers the idea of fainting, because then he wouldn't be working so hard on standing, or listening, for that matter. "Just … you know. Friendly."

"Then how come I've never heard it before?" Cordelia wants to know.

"Well, he's usually in his right mind," Buffy says. "Wait. That came out wrong."

Gunn laughs. Somebody smacks somebody else.

"Canwego?" Angel says, three words becoming one. The world around him feels like it's pulsing. "Please." He blinks, and for a fuzzy, weightless moment, he's not sure he'll open his eyes again. "Orlemmesit."

The conversation veers back to the problem at hand. Something is said about a rope.

Angel drifts.

He knows none of this can be real, no matter what his nose and his ears and every other sense is telling him. He lets himself enjoy the hallucination while it lasts. It's better than dying alone in an alley. At least this way, he has some company on the way to hell.

He has no idea they're tying the mentioned rope around him like a harness until he's lifted off the ground. Buffy has her arm around his waist as she climbs the ladder beside him. Faith is pulling at the top. Wesley pushes Angel's feet from below. The rope grinds into his armpits as Faith pulls him upward, adding a new sentence of discomfort to his novel of pain.

Once he gets used to this, he spaces out again.

It takes them a long time to move him up the ladder.

Faith yanks him through the manhole by his shirt collar. A searing bath of sunlight gives way to primal terror. He's mindless. He feels the fire burbling underneath his skin as his body begins to boil. He tries to back away, but Buffy's there, holding him in place, and then Faith is there, too, trying to keep him from bolting. No matter how strong he may be when he lets the demon win, he can't fight off two slayers when he can barely find the presence of mind to walk.

"Sorry, sorry!" he hears Buffy say. She's crying. "Get the blanket!"

His insides squeeze as he senses another unknown slayer in the area. "Got him!" the stranger yells as he's tackled. He falls over with the impact, and he doesn't move as he's smothered in a thick cocoon of cotton. The third slayer climbs off of him.

The army of heartbeats from before converge - more slayers - but he's too traumatized to do more than lie there. They pick him up as a unit, and they settle him into the back of a van that smells like WD-40. He's content to lie there while his head spins, and his stomach churns, and his skin slowly stops burning.

Buffy sits on the floor next to him. He feels the warmth of her hand soak through the blanket. The engine rumbles. Doors slam. Seat belts click. The van creeps forward, and everyone chatters happily.

He doesn't want to sleep. He doesn't want to lose them all again. He sleeps, nonetheless.

He wakes up in the shower. He's propped up on a plastic chair. Buffy's leaning over him, and she's wiping blood away from his face with a teal-colored washcloth. She dabs the wet fabric like she's afraid to touch him for fear of causing hurt. He wants to tell her he's already hurting so much that a little more won't matter.

"What-?" he says, blinking. He realizes he's naked. She's naked, too.

This can't be real, but he sees. He hears. He feels.

She smiles at him. "Welcome back," she says. "Feeling better?"

The water spiraling into the drain is dark with dirt and gore. The spray is warm and beats down on them like rain. The air is thick with steam.

He touches his face. He feels normal teeth and a normal brow line until midway across his left eyebrow. It's not misshapen, but it doesn't feel solid, and the pain when he touches it is excruciating. Spots form in his vision as he blinks. He yanks his hand away.

"No more game face," Buffy says, confirming his observation without judgment. "You fixed it about an hour ago."

He doesn't remember. He's not hungry at all. He doesn't remember feeding enough to sate himself, either, but he knows he did because he's full, and it's not sitting that well.

"Your jaw is looking a lot better," she adds.

He opens and closes his mouth experimentally. There's still pain, but it's an ache, not a knife stab.

The water pelts them. He stares at her. She had a black eye before, but she only has a yellowing skeleton of a bruise, now. She has beautiful eyes. They speak a million words to him, even when she says nothing at all. She loves him. She hurts for him. She's worried about him. She doesn't judge him. She doesn't mind the demon. He doesn't understand how she can look at him like this after he was such a monster, but seeing her staring at him without revilement is something that he needs right now.

"Buffy," he says.

"Yep," she replies. "That'd be me."

"Why aren't you in Rome?"

She blinks. "I'm gonna go out on a limb and say you're still broken."

Water plinks against the shower basin.

"I don't understand what's going on," he whispers, barely audible above the rush of water. His voice breaks. "They're all dead. I killed them. You're not here."

"Angel, you hit your head with a very hard wall," she says slowly. Her tone is soothing. "Your skull on the left side of your face is mush. I know this is really confusing, but you're okay, and I'm okay, and everybody is okay."

He gets the feeling she's assured him of this several times before. "Cordelia and Wesley-"

She presses her index finger to his lips. "They're both okay. Gunn is okay. Fred is okay. You didn't kill anybody, Angel. You just hit your head. Stop with the power freaking, already."

He senses no deceit.

She stoops and wraps her arms around him before he can ask another question. He lets himself sink into her embrace. She's so warm, and he hasn't seen her, not all of her like this, in years. He doesn't know why this moment with her is happening or how, but he can't bring himself to lodge more than a token protest. Her fingers run through his wet hair. She kisses him. He kisses her.

And then he can't participate anymore, because his head is spinning like a top, and he's nauseated again. He doesn't think he'd still be upright if it weren't for the chair. She turns off the water and wraps a fluffy towel around him.

Together, they hobble out of the steamy bathroom to a bed. His sense of balance is still in shambles, and Buffy does most of the work to move them across the plush carpet. He recognizes the décor in the room. It's not his penthouse at Wolfram & Hart, but he's too sick to care about it right now. She takes the wet towel away and helps him lie down. She pulls a blanket over him.

"Don't go," he says. "Please."

"Wasn't planning on it," she replies with a yawn as she crawls into bed next to him.

The ceiling is moving at a slow tilt like the sky on a horizon, and he's glad he doesn't have to stand or move or be sentient anymore. She rests her head on his shoulder, and he wraps his arm around her. She's a puzzle piece that fits. He can't comprehend how he survived five years without her. He has no idea why she's here, why she's loving him when, mere days ago, she was happy on another continent with the Immortal, but he can't say no, and he's unwilling to call it wrong, even though he knows it is.

"Mmm," she purrs. "This was a long day."


"Hey." She punches him playfully in the arm as she looks up at him with doe eyes. "You were asleep for most of it."

"You'd be dead if we traded places," he says.

Her fingers scrunch against his skin. She kisses him. "I know."

He listens to her breathing, and he imitates it. Her skin is hot, and he soaks it up.

"I guess I should thank you," she adds. "You know. For taking one for the team?"

"You're welcome," he mumbles. He's drifting. He's not all there when he says, "I love you," but he still means it, and he falls asleep hoping furiously that this isn't something he's imagined.

Deep in his heart, though, he knows he's still in the alley with the dragon.

He's still dying.

He's still alone.

Chapter Text

Angel sleeps forever.

Not even the prospect of eating entices him back into the land of the un-living.

The sum total of Buffy's conversation with him over the course of three days consists of her prodding him awake to see if he's hungry, him squinting blearily at her and muttering a raspy, "No," in response, and then her frowning at him as he buries his head under his pillow again. He's easy enough to wake, though, which must mean his extended slumber is for healing purposes, rather than a freaky coma brought about by a freaky head injury. Well, she hopes that's what his napathon means, at least. Still, her worry snowballs the longer he hangs a vacant sign in his mental window.

On day four, she decides to see if blood might do a better job at convincing him to be awake than a nebulous, "Hey, are you hungry?" that lacks visual aids.

She brings him a steaming mug of B-negative from the hotel kitchen, only to halt midway through their suite. The bed is empty. Only rumpled sheets and scattered pillows remain. She frowns, but before snowballing worry can cascade into an avalanche, she hears a soft, flat, "In here," carry from the darkness to the left.

She sets the mug of blood on his nightstand and pads across the rug to join him in the adjacent room. She and Angel put a chair, a desk, some bookshelves, and a small floor lamp into the space to convert it to a den. Instead of utilizing the furnishings, though, Angel's sitting on the carpet in a puddle of moonlight. His back rests against the wall, and his knees are gathered to his chest.

When she flips on the lamp, his eyes snap shut, and he flinches away.

The left side of his face is a horrific tapestry of bruising that ranges from yellow to mottled black. The discoloration continues down his neck, underneath the collar of his robe. After seeing him naked, she knows it goes down to about mid-thigh. Still, the damage on his face looks far better than it was when his brow felt spongy to the touch.

She remembers the gruesome crunch of the impact after the Kevlar demon picked him up and threw him. The side of his head hit first and hardest, and then inertia carried his shoulder and then his hip into the wall. She wonders how he only broke his head.

Angel tries to adjust to the lamplight, but after twenty seconds, he winces, his hand wanders to his face to shield his eyes, and he says, "Can you turn that off? The lights bother me."

She frowns. Angel can see in darkness better than he can in daylight, but she's never known normal lighting to physically hurt him before. She flips off the lamp and slides down the wall beside him. She can still see in the dark, just not as well.

"We repainted this room after the fire," Angel says as she settles. "Why is it the old color?"

Her frown deepens. "Huh?" she says. This room has been the same color as far back as she remembers. And, anyway, "What fire?"

He looks at her. His eyes narrow for a heartbeat before his face relaxes into a neutral expression. Not an absent, distracted kind of neutral, but a schooled kind of neutral that hides wars underneath the surface. This is the kind of theater Angel is a master at. Not giving his hand away.

"When I lost Connor," he says slowly.

"Again, I say, 'Huh?'" Buffy replies.

Angel's eyebrows knit. A first crack in his aloof facade. "You know," he says. "Connor?"

She shrugs. "Angel, I don't know any Connor unless you mean Sean Connery's sidekick guy on Highlander," she says. And given Angel's utter lack of pop-cultural orientation, she thinks the chances of that are low. Her snowball of worry threatens to roll off into infinity. "Want to give me a bit more of a hint?"

The silence stretches for a long moment.

"Angel?" she prods.

"I knew this was wrong," he decides. He shakes his head, staring into space. "They're alive, and I knew they shouldn't be, but I was hoping .…" He swallows.

"Hoping what?" she says, humoring him, though tension pulls at her every sinew.

"I don't know," he says, but he won't look at her, and she knows he's lying.

He knows.

But Angel can probably read her coiling anxiety like a book, and now he's shutting down.

She puts her hand on his arm and rubs him wrist to elbow. "Angel, who's Connor?"

For a long moment, he doesn't reply, and she thinks, maybe, he just won't. Getting Angel to talk when he doesn't want to is a bit like trying to get the sun to rise before dawn. So, in essence, it only works during an apocalypse, and sometimes, not even then. She bites her lip, not quite sure what to do.

"Angel, who-?"

He blinks, and his perfect poker face crumbles to dust, leaving a forlorn wasteland behind. "He's my son," Angel says.

"Um …." Her jaw drops, but she picks it up. "What? He's your what, now?"

"My son," Angel repeats. As though parroting nonsense might somehow make it not nonsense. He turns his gaze to her, searching and searching and clearly not finding. "I knew this was wrong, but I wanted …." He trails away into silence, leaving his wish a mystery.

The nonsense is piling on nonsense, now, but the weirdest part about all of this is that he doesn't seem addled or foggy or irrational like most people with head trauma. Just distraught. And she's not sure how to handle this.

What does one do with a memory-impaired vampire?

She puts her hand on his shoulder. He doesn't budge. She slides her palms across his body and pulls him against her. He's large, and she's small, and it's awkward, but she needs the contact as much as he probably does. For all his insistence that things are wrong, he sinks into her embrace, a willing captive, though his face has returned to stone. She allows herself a moment to collect her thoughts.

"Angel," she begins, trying to stay calm, "I believe that you believe what you're saying, and I want to help you, but you have to remember that only a few days ago, you took a really bad blow to the head. There's bound to be some wonky side-effects."

At first, he doesn't even give an indication that he's heard her. His ear is pressed against her clavicle. He breathes in time with her, a shallower, softer echo.

"I like to listen," he says. "I only ever got to do this once."

A lump forms in her throat. "Angel .…"

She remembers the first night they spent together. She sees it reflected in her mind's eye like a painting made of mirror glass. She doesn't think back on it often, because of the horrors that came after, and because she has so many new memories with him to choose from, now, but he's acting like he has none. Like, to him, that first night is all there ever was. Something inside her breaks when she realizes the true extent of the damage he's endured.

"Angel, you do this all the time," she says. "You listen all the time."

He pulls back and looks at her baldly. "I haven't, Buffy. I'm not from here. I shouldn't be here."

There's a lot of things that are wrong with his assertions, but only one thing that threatens to carve her up like a blade. Yes, you should be here! Buffy wants to snap. She doesn't like her world when he's not in it. But she breathes in and out, and calm returns to her like a tide. "You hit your temple," she says instead. "I looked it up online with Willow. One of the potential outcomes of damage there is impaired long-term memory."

He shakes his head. "I have all my memories, Buffy. They're just not of this."

"So, what? I'd say that's pretty impaired," she says, feeling helpless. She tightens her grip around him when she connects his dots. "You mean you think you're like Vampire Willow in the wrong universe or something?"

"Maybe," he says.

She can admit it's not impossible, but that's as far as she'll go. "If that's true, then where's my Angel?"

He takes a long time to answer, and he doesn't look at her when he says, "Dead, probably, if we traded places."

She chills to the marrow of her bones at his quiet assertion. His idea's not impossible, no, but she refuses to believe him. She can't. She wonders what the hell kind of world he thinks he remembers where he has an impossible son, where he and she never found their way back together, where all his friends are dead, and so, imminently, is he. Her mind races. She closes her eyes and thinks and thinks and thinks, and then she has it. She knows he's wrong, and she can prove it, because she saw him in the shower when she was cleaning him up.

"Do you have a jagged scar just under your lowest right rib bone?" she says.

His eyes narrow. "No …," he says, and she has him dead to rights.

She pulls away from him. "Open your robe, Angel, and look."

He peers at her for a moment, frowning, but he does as she asks, and he finds a jagged pink scar where she said it would be. His expression is one of unadulterated shock before he schools it back to stone.

"You got that six weeks ago from a magic sword," Buffy says, though her eyes are watering, and her throat feels scratchy and full and painful. "If you traded places with another Angel, how do you still have that?"

He stares at the scar, tracing it with his fingertips, and she can see she's scored a massive blow to his certainty.

"Your brain is playing tricks on you," she adds as her coup de grâce.

He pulls the silk tie on his robe shut again. He's silent for a long, long time.

"I want to help you remember," she says, but he still says nothing.

Sometimes, Angel needs time in his own head to sort things out, so she doesn't try getting him to talk anymore, not now that she thinks she's gotten through to him. She shifts onto the balls of her feet, intending to leave him to his thoughts.

"I'm tired," he says before she can take a step. The words are raspy, and he sounds old. Old, and frail, and careworn. She's always known how old he is, but rarely does he seem it. Not like this. Then he blinks, and a single tear crashes down his cheek.

She's dumbfounded.

"Angel," she says, not sure what else to say. This isn't the reaction she expects, and it isn't one she understands.

He looks away as he hobbles to his feet. She gets the impression that if he were healthy, this would be one of those mysterious, supernatural moments where he disappears in the space of an eye blink, but he's not healthy. His retreat is slow and shambling, and he never disappears.

He shucks his robe. The griffon on his back seems to tremble with strain as he pulls at the blankets, and he crawls into bed with his back facing her. The mug of blood that she brought him is still on the nightstand, though it's not steaming anymore, and it remains untouched.

She doesn't know what to do, so she decides that doing nothing, for the moment, is probably best.

She picks up the dirty mug and leaves in silence.

Things don't get better in the days that follow.

Wesley and Giles are arguing as she enters the office. The sound of combat wanes as she closes the door behind her.

"It's bloody well Gushundi, man!" Giles says as he circles around the desk. He whips out a magnifying glass and leans over.

"I'm well aware," Wesley says, "but you're translating it with the incorrect noun prefix here." He stabs his index finger at the torn scroll, then winces, and yanks his hand back, like he thinks, maybe, he shouldn't be touching something older than England with his bare skin. "Here and here, also," he says, waving his hand nondescriptly in the air above the yellowed, crumbling papers. "The wrong noun prefix changes its meaning."

The musty smell of old books tickles her nose as she plops into the chair across from the executive desk. It's Wesley's desk, technically, but Wesley and Giles now share so they have somewhere more quiet to work on the brain-y stuff, like translations and research. A busload of slayers makes a lot of distracting noise on a regular basis, and the acoustics of the old hotel make it worse. She thinks Giles got tired of saying, "Do be quiet!" over and over and over again when he worked behind the desk out in the lobby.

Neither of the two ex-watchers look up from their hot debate. The floor is littered with off-kilter stacks of books and papers. Artifacts are strewn like dice in a game of Yahtzee. Two forgotten cups of now-cold tea sit on an antique tray, far away from the scroll.

Giles folds his arms. "Well, what do you suggest this means?"

Wesley squints. "I think this middle word conjugates to purification."

"You blind fool; it clearly means ruination."

"You've made an understandable error," Wesley adds meekly.

Giles glares. "I'm not making an error."

She leans forward to see what they're going on about. They do this often. Their long hours debating the grammar and diction of dead people doesn't interest her until they tell her she needs to kill something, but with Angel so messed up, she wonders if, maybe, they're working on something to do with him.

"Are those the Abercrombie Scrolls?" she asks.

Giles leans back on his heels. The glasses come off, and he cleans them with the wrinkled hanky he keeps in his pocket, so she knows she's gotten something wrong before he corrects her. "Aberjian Scrolls," he says.

"Right, that one," Buffy says. "Is it that one? The one that talks about Angel?"

"No, Buffy," Wesley says. "These are the Nyazian Scrolls. We used some of the school's funds to acquire them from a broker. We haven't translated enough to say what they're about. Something about the purification-"

"Or ruination!" Giles interjects.

Wesley looks pouty. "Of mankind," he finishes.

"Oh," Buffy says. She frowns. "You know, as far as minor translational differences of opinion go," she adds as she looks back and forth between them, "that's not one. Ruination of mankind?"

"Or purification!" Wesley says.

"Do I need to kill something, yet?" Buffy asks.

Giles sighs. "Goodness, no. For all we know so far, this was written by some proselytizing nutter."

Wesley nods. "Yes, prophecy writers can be rather .…" He pauses to ponder his next word. "Colorful," he decides.

"And it may not be current, regardless," Giles adds. "Not everything is prophesied to happen today."

Both watchers are nodding, now, and she can hardly tell they were fighting moments ago.

Giles clears his throat. "Yes, well. Was there something you needed?"

She pauses for a moment. She can't quite decide how to broach the subject. She opts for plunging into the deep end. "I want to know if it's possible for a vampire to have a permanent brain injury. Is it?"

Wesley looks at her with sympathy. "I'm certain Angel just needs some time to recuperate."

She's not offended he's jumped from her hypothetical to Angel, because she's too worried, and to be honest, it wasn't much of a leap. More of a tiny hop.

"But it's been over a week," she protests. "All he does is sleep, and when he's awake, he's not all there." She's not ready to tell them that Angel thinks he's in the wrong place. She doesn't mention that the few times Angel has ventured out of their room, he stares at things like he sees ghosts. She debates whether to mention Connor. She doesn't want to misrepresent the problem, and while she's pretty worried, she's not worried enough yet to breach Angel's privacy. She opts for the more mundane evidence of injury. "His memories are Swiss cheese, and he doesn't say so, but I can tell blood still makes him a bit nauseous."

"Buffy," Giles says gently as he winds his way around book minefields to place a warm hand on her shoulder. She sighs as he gives her an affectionate squeeze. "Buffy, he received a blow to the head that would have killed a human. He's made remarkable strides in a very short time. People can take years to come back to themselves after a traumatic brain injury, if ever."

"It's the 'if ever' part I'm worried about!" Buffy snaps. "Vampires can get scars. Spike and Angel both have them. Vampires can lose limbs, and they can't grow them back from nothing. Remember the one-armed vamp I fought a few months ago?"

"True." Giles nods. "However, Spike also broke his back, and he healed from it, suggesting vampires are capable of healing damage to the nervous system."

"Yes," Wesley says, nodding as well. "Yes, I wouldn't worry."

"Angel's hurt," Buffy grouses, "so, I worry."

"I understand. We all do," Wesley says, "but I really don't think there's cause for concern, yet."

She sighs and stands up. She turns before she reaches the door. She doesn't want to ask, but, maybe, she can make her question sound innocuous. "Hey, did …?"

Wesley raises his eyebrows. "Yes, Buffy?"

The clock on the wall fills the silence with a maddening tick, tick, tick.

"Did Angel …?" Her brain is tangled, and she can't quite spit the words out. "I mean did Liam …?" She knows this was Angel's name before, but it feels weird on her tongue. She can't picture him as Liam. "Did he have any children? A son?"

Giles takes the question in stride. Buffy has shown various degrees of curiosity about Angel's past over the years, and Angel is too reticent for her tastes, sometimes. "If he did," Giles says, "the child didn't survive Liam's turn. Angelus … well. You know."

"But you're not sure," Buffy says.

Wesley frowns. "The records are very spotty. It took Angelus several years to build a reputation that made him worth chronicling, so any texts concerning his turn would have been retrospective."

She sighs, her hopes for an answer quashed. She thought Angel might be mixing up memories in a blender, somehow. If the people he thinks he killed were in actuality Angelus's victims, and if Liam had a son, that would be a simple answer to a complicated question. She supposes it was too much to hope for. She's left feeling hollow and unsettled.

"Are you all right?" Giles asks.

"Peachy keen," she grumbles, and she leaves them to their translation wars. She tries to let their certainty assuage her fears, but it doesn't work.

She walks through the lobby and into the courtyard where Vi, Rona, and Faith are having a three-way spar session. Several other slayers are sitting along the wall, watching, laughing, offering tips. Angel helps the slayers with sparring quite often. His hand-to-hand skills and insight into the vampire mindset are both invaluable for training purposes. He's nowhere to be seen, however. Buffy isn't surprised, since, on top of the fact that it's day, she thinks right now that even one of the beginners could knock him on his ass without breaking a sweat.

"Hey, B!" Faith says as she tumbles backward to avoid Vi's roundhouse.

Buffy needs to hit something. She doesn't ask to join. She jumps into the fray.

Faith knocks Buffy flat before she can get her bearings, and then the dark-haired slayer gives Buffy a come-hither gesture with both hands. Faith's sultry, loving-danger, bad-girl grin is infectious, and Buffy smiles back.

The four of them dance, giving ground and taking it, trading kicks and raining blows, and Buffy relishes the chance to release some steam. Rona and Vi cry uncle, and head off to take a shower, but Buffy and Faith continue. They don't always get along, but Faith is the only other slayer who can make Buffy feel challenged in a fight, and Buffy needs a challenge to release the pent-up emotional roller-coaster grinding its gears in her head.

"How's the big guy?" Faith says as she punches. "Haven't seen 'im much."

"Oh, you know," Buffy says, panting as she flips away from Faith's fist.

"Lurk-y and monosyllabic like always?"

Buffy snorts. "That's one way to put it."

"Had a good roll in the sack, yet?" Faith says, swinging wide.

"Faith …," Buffy says, dodging. She leaps, but Faith rolls out of the way.

"Just sayin', B," Faith says with a knowing smile. "When you get that distant feelin' .…"

"If you say sexual healing, I will beat you," Buffy says.

Faith winks. "Try."

Buffy vaults at her sister slayer, but Faith shifts out of the way, and all Buffy gets is a handful of shirt that she loses her grip on. The fight continues, going until Faith needs a breather. Buffy still wants to break things, but nobody's in the mood to take her on. Everyone seems to understand how tense she is, and they give her a wide berth.

Reluctantly, she heads back to her bedroom to shower and change. She finds Angel huddled in his big wing-back chair. Angel's hair is mussed and his gaze is bleary, like he's been yanked out of bed from a sound sleep. Supporting that theory, Cordelia sits across from him on the floor by the coffee table while she sets up a game of Scrabble.

"Cordelia," Angel says. His expression is haunted. He's seeing ghosts again. He says hello to Buffy with his eyes, and Buffy smiles at him as she heads to her chest of drawers. "It's the middle of the day. I'm tired. Can we-"

"Nope," Cordelia says, interrupting him. "You have to. This will be good for you."


"Hi, Buffy!" Cordelia says, faux-cheer dripping from her tone as she pointedly ignores him. "Wanna play Scrabble with us?"

"I'll pass," Buffy says as she rifles through her top drawer. "I was sparring. I need to take a shower."

Angel rubs the bridge of his nose. Most of the bruises on his face have lightened. There is no more black or dark blue, only fading pinks and yellows.

"I think this will help him get his neurons to behave," Cordelia says. "But he doesn't believe me."

"My neurons are fine," Angel grumbles.

"Really?" Cordelia says.

Angel nods. "Really."

Cordelia throws a tile from the letter bag at him. It bonks into his forehead before he reacts, but the part that makes Buffy's worry come rushing back like a zebra stampede is when he reaches into the air to catch something that's already landed on the floor and bounced across the carpet. Him. A vampire who can pluck an arrow out of thin air if he hears it in flight before it hits.

"Yeah," Cordelia says wryly. "You're totally fine."

"That wasn't fair!" he protests.

Cordelia snorts with amusement. "Okay. I'm going to throw another letter at you. I'll be aiming for cheek this time."

"Cordelia!" he snaps, but this doesn't stop her from making a big show of reaching into the bag and tossing another tile. His reaction isn't quite as delayed, but he still doesn't manage to swat the tile out of the way. It hits his chin, and he smacks it like it's a mosquito that just bit him. The tile falls into his lap. "Stop throwing things at me."

"I will when you stop being an idiot," Cordelia says.

He folds his arms over his chest and doesn't respond. Buffy picks up the Y tile that bounced near her feet and drops it into the letter bag. Angel looks exhausted, and though she agrees with Cordelia's point, she opts to rescue him, anyway. She leans over the chair to kiss him. He's glowering, and he seems stiff and unyielding and distant, at first, but he relaxes after a few seconds.

"Truth be told, I'd rather do that," Angel says, a dazed look on his face as Buffy pulls away. He licks his lips like he likes the taste of her on his skin.

"Lord, get a room!" Cordelia says.

Buffy smirks. "We're in a room already." She gestures at the suite. "Our room."

"Fine," Cordelia says with a sigh. "Fine, but don't think you're getting out of this altogether just because Buffy wants monkey sex."

Angel closes his eyes and slumps as Cordelia leaves. "Thanks," he says.

"No problem," Buffy says. She slides into his lap. He startles, like he wasn't expecting her to breach his personal space to that degree, which is a laugh considering she just kissed him, but he doesn't protest, either. She brushes her fingers through his hair. He looks sort of like he's stuck his fingers in a light socket. The strands of his hair bounce back into place, all haywire and crazy. She thinks it's funny that a master vampire has problems like bedhead, but he hasn't commented about how sweaty and gross she is, so she doesn't comment about his silly hair. "She does have a point, though."

"That I'm slow?" Angel says. "I knew that already."

"I just mean think-y stuff like that might help you, that's all." She kisses him. "Do you want to talk?" she adds, not at all with the subtle. "You know. About … things?"

He doesn't open his eyes. "Buffy .…"

His tone says no, even if he doesn't say the word outright. She could press him, but he's going ashen as she watches. Whatever demons he's fighting in his head, she sees that they terrify him. She wants to know. She yearns to know. But she also knows that pushing him too hard before he's figured things out to his satisfaction rarely gets her anywhere.

"Are you still hurting?" she says, instead.

The fact that he doesn't answer right away is answer enough for her. "Just headaches," he says, which in Angel-speak probably means migraines complete with flashing lights and nausea.

"Do you have one, now?"

He swallows. "Yeah."

She frowns. "I wish they made Tylenol for vampires."

"They do," he says, "it's just called elephant tranquilizer."

She laughs and nuzzles him. She likes his sense of humor. She always has, and she doesn't understand the people who think he has none. She lets a long moment pass, simply enjoying being in his space, knowing he enjoys it, too.

"I love you," she murmurs.

"Mmm," he says. His eyes are still closed. She thinks he might already have dozed off. He does that, lately. Another disturbing remnant of his injury.

He doesn't stir as she gets up and wanders to the bathroom. Though Angel is a predator, he also knows her body and soul. Knows her heartbeat and her scent. A pin drop could wake him up, but she rarely disturbs him unless she means to.

She likes this. She likes such an overt, tangible display of trust. She supposes this is a good example of why she finds it so mind boggling that he won't open up about what's going on in his head right now. Maybe, he can't, she thinks. But that's an even more scary prospect than won't.

Chapter Text

Somewhere over the course of a few hundred years, Angel's gotten used to being stealthy. He skulks without trying. His footsteps are inaudible unless he wants them not to be. He wears shadows like a warm winter cloak. But, while these natural behaviors all assist him in his many clandestine endeavors, the true source of his stealth is the fact that his body is animated, rather than alive.

His autonomic nervous system is … incomplete. Some sounds of life, like a heartbeat, he can't hope to replicate. Other sounds, like breathing, he can make when he wants to, but he needs to think about doing so. As a result, unless he applies conscious thought to the state of his body, he's silent. And, unless he's moving with purpose, he's still. Cordelia's told him that he makes a great approximation of life most of the time, but that his illusion falls apart when he's still, and that it's "major freaksome."

The last thing he wants is to be the walking embodiment of the uncanny valley effect for the hotel's inhabitants. So, he tries to remember to shuffle his feet when he walks. Barring that, he tries to remember to do little things like blink and fidget and clear his throat. And he always tries to breathe.

Maintaining this collection of conscious-thought behaviors for any length of time is a lot of work, though, and the fact that he lives with humans makes it worse, because it's not a once-every-other-Tuesday-while-he-visits-his-friend-in-Sunnydale sort of thing. It's an all-the-damned-time thing.

He can't work that hard for hours on end. It's not possible for anyone.

And this inevitably leads to lapses in his well-intentioned ruse.

Lapses where he walks up behind someone, only to be greeted with a squeak or a shriek and a heart pounding like thunder.

While he can't say he doesn't enjoy the reaction his mistakes engender - fear is a primal, necessary component of the hunt, and it entices his demon whether he wants it to or not - he rarely sets out to scare anyone. Not anyone he likes, anyway. Xander doesn't count. Still, despite all of Angel's efforts to avoid any vampire-induced coronary events amongst his mortal friends, he can't count the number of times he's startled someone, anyway.

Which is why it's bizarre, now, that he can't startle anyone.

Whatever that blow has done to his head, he's not moving quite right anymore. He's slower, less lithe, and he shuffles a bit even when he's not trying to make noise. The alternations to his movements are enough to change the way people perceive him.

No matter where he moves in his giant hotel, someone's always greeting him or waving at him or doing something else friendly, which isn't bad in and of itself - he likes that everyone is friendly - but it makes him feel dissonant. He's gotten so used to going unnoticed or being shrieked at that when neither is happening anymore, he feels like his shirt is too tight, or like there's a rock in his shoe. He's not comfortable.

"Deadboy," Xander mutters without looking up from whatever he's reading as he meanders back to his room.

Angel stops short, a few inches behind Xander's left shoulder. Damn it. Angel nods. "Xander."

This just isn't normal.

He can't even startle someone when he's trying.

"GACK!" Xander yelps when Spike appears in front of him like a wraith. Xander's book goes flying, smacks into the wall, falls, and lands in a helter-skelter heap by the molding. "Damn it, Spike, you did that on purpose!" Xander's heart pounds like a drum as he bends down to pick up his book.

"Course I did, mate," Spike says with unrestrained glee. He gives Angel a pointed look. "Someone has to pick up the slack."

Angel glowers. Spike has been avoiding Angel for the most part. Angel is unsure of their dynamic in this universe. He tries not to think of Spike's ashes falling into the gutter.

"Guess I missed a bloody good row by the looks of it," Spike continues.

"Define good," Angel says. Xander rises to his feet.

"Only kind better would be if you'd popped your clogs," Spike says with a shrug.

Xander frowns. "Popped a what?"

Right, then. Dynamic: hostile with a side of hostile. Business as usual.

"Don't test me right now," Angel replies in a dangerous tone. He feels like shit, and doesn't need help in that arena. A muscle twitches behind his left eyeball.

Spike regards Angel for another moment, and then presses down the hallway without replying. He adds over his shoulder, "Shame the demon didn't flatten that Cro-Magnon brow of yours into something more presentable. I woulda liked to see that."

Xander chuckles. "Good one," he mutters under his breath.

Sighing, Angel continues down the hall. He's too tired too fight, and he has mountains of other shit to worry about. Like how in the hell to locate his son.

Angel finds Willow relaxing alone in the room Angel's team made into a den. She's sitting on the floor, her back to the careworn orange-suede couch that Gunn had dragged in from a yard sale years ago, and she's watching the giant widescreen television Cordelia made Angel get, So, you can plug up your pop-cultural-sieve brain with reality show sludge, and absorb something of current cultural relevancy, for once. Duh. Her words, not his. The antique coffee table where Willow's water glass sits is Wesley's contribution to the room, and the throw pillows with mixed plaids and prints on their faces are Fred's. Angel sees some things he doesn't recognize, too, like a cherry-stained bookcase and a shag rug covered with green, black, and white circle patterns.

The room is, frankly, a decorator's nightmare. The décor is a heinous mishmash of decades and colors, and none of the individual pieces are to Angel's taste, but he secretly liked this room before for the sentimentality. Now, it makes him uncomfortable.

The whole hotel makes him uncomfortable. Everywhere he walks, everything he touches, all the things he sees, each person he interacts with. He doesn't live here, anymore. He shouldn't be here. The building is a tomb for a chapter of his life that he already closed. Except, now, the chapter's inexplicably open again, and everything is different than he remembers.

The discrepancy isn't like visiting someplace he once knew, either. Nostalgia is a different emotion. A different thing. No, this is … like an optical illusion that he can't figure out the mechanics of. There are people here who can't be, but are, like Cordelia, Wesley, Spike, Fred, and Gunn. There are people here who should be, but aren't, like Connor. And then there are people here who could be, theoretically, but wouldn't, like Buffy.

And it's just … wrong.

He's not sure what's wrong, though. He's ruled out going back in time, because the date is correct. Wolfram & Hart is still standing, according to their perky receptionist, whom he talked to over the phone. He thought what he'd done with Wolfram & Hart since taking over as CEO might now be undone, but that wouldn't explain Cordelia's resurrection. He tried calling the Reillys, too, but they have no idea about anyone named Connor. He's running out of things to follow up on that don't require legwork.

Angel's startled from his musing when Willow turns to him, her television trance broken, and offers him a chirpy, "Hi, Angel! Are you feeling better?"

Sunlight makes Willow's red hair pop with color, yanking at his attention as though it were a rope. She pulls a chip from a crinkly bag and pops it into her mouth while she watches him. The crunch scrapes his eardrums. The raucous applause that follows from the show on the television adds another scrape. Pressure builds behind his eyes, and he's sure he's got a pained look on his face.

He doesn't have a chance to collect himself or answer her question before she jumps to her feet. "Oh, the light!" she says, and then she's dashing for the shades. He tries to tell her that it's not necessary, but the room is dark, and the multicolor Tiffany lamp Cordelia put on the end table is turned on, before he gets a word out of his mouth.

"Did you want to watch something?" Willows says. And then she frowns. "What do you watch, anyway? You seem like more of a book person, and by more of, I mean only." She brightens and snaps her fingers. "Oh, I know! History Channel?"

She pushes a button on the remote, and her noisy game show turns into a documentary about Vikings.

He's been spotted, greeted, and accommodated before he's even entered the room, and he gets that tight-shirt feeling. He's not quite sure what to say, and he starts to lose his nerve.

She pouts at him. "Aw, don't do that thing .…"

He'd raise his eyebrows, but doing that still hurts. He clears his throat. "What thing?"

"You know, that thing," she says, shrugging. "That thing where you disappear under the cloak of night."

"It's day," he says, his tone wry.

She grins. "So, you won't do that thing?"

"I won't," he says, and despite all his natural instincts telling him to leave because he's been spotted prematurely, he makes himself walk to the couch, and he settles uncomfortably next to her.

At first, she smiles with satisfaction, but the smile fades into a look of quiet panic, like she's so used to him doing "that thing" that she has no plan for what she'll do when he doesn't do it. They both stare at the television instead of at each other, and a thick silence follows that Angel can't quite figure out how to fill. He's not good at smalltalk, and it doesn't help that his head is starting to feel like someone's stuck it in a vise.

"So, um …," Willow begins awkwardly, "are you feeling better? You never said."

"Better than before, yes," he says.

She looks at him, eyes narrowing. He can see the wheels turning in her head. Before, he was unconscious, so it doesn't take much to do better than that. "Which isn't good?" she prods.

"I'll heal," he says, and her eyes narrow further. "Other things are more important."

She considers this. "What things?"

"I'm not …," he begins, and then he sighs, giving up on easing into his request with anything resembling friendliness, because his head is starting to throb as pressure gives way to pain. "I need some help, and I don't want anyone else to know."

"Well, what kind of help?" she says. And then she blinks, and her eyes widen in panic. "Keep a secret? Angel, I'm bad at keeping secrets. I'm a bad, bad-" Her nose wrinkles. "I'm bad at it. I crumble under pressure!"

Angel rubs the bridge of his nose. The lamp is too bright. His eyes water. "You don't have to keep it a secret if somebody asks. I just don't want you to advertise it, either. I just, uh …." He loses his thought for a moment to the throbbing in his head. "Hmm."

The cushions squish as Willow leans across him to turn off the light. She's warm and alive and well within his personal space, but her proximity is the last thing on his mind. He can vaguely see her picking up the remote, and then the television screen winks out, plunging them into darkness. It helps a little.

"Is this what you need help with?" Willow whispers. "Buffy told me you've been having some monster headaches."

He shakes his head and regrets it.

He hates this. He hates that he has a potentially time-sensitive problem to solve, and a condition that keeps rendering him useless to solve it. He tilts his head back and rests the base of his skull against the sofa cushion. With his eyes closed, when he's not moving, he feels okay enough to form thoughts and speak words, but his headache is still an avalanche waiting to happen.

"Can you detect if magic has been cast?" he says. Snaps. He snapped, he thinks. He didn't mean to snap.

"Well, sure," Willow says, her voice hushed, like she knows noise is a knife in his ear. "Like what kind of magic?"

"Can you tell me if I belong here? In this universe?"

She's silent for a moment, but he doesn't open his eyes. "I'm gonna need some context before I can answer that," she says.

He grits his teeth. "Before I hit my head, I remember something different."

"Different than what?" she says.

"Please," he says, his voice breaking. "I just need to know if I belong here. Can you tell me that?"

"If your memories are screwed up, it's probably not magic, Angel," Willow says, and though the words are gentle, they cut him. "I mean you do kinda have a massive head injury. What's that saying about hearing hoofbeats and looking for zebras?"

The world turns red. His bones shift. A snarl rends the air as he loses himself.

"My son is real!" he snaps through gleaming fangs.

Fear laces the air, heady and thick like well-aged wine. It's not until he hears her hiccup with a delicious helping of panic that he realizes what he's doing, how undone he's come. He's so raked raw, he can't act human. He looks away while he pulls himself together. Seventy-six long seconds crawl in tense silence before he can put his demon back in its box. It screams and pounds on the locks, but he keeps it imprisoned. Another forty seconds pass before he looks blearily in Willow's direction. She's blinking back tears, and he feels like a fucking bastard.

"I didn't mean …," he begins lamely, but he can't finish the sentence. He doubts she cares what he did or didn't mean. He doesn't think he's scared her like this since he lost his soul. His head pounds. He curls over his knees. "I'm sorry," he mutters, though there are lots of things that saying sorry is inappropriate for, and he's sure this is one of them.

"It's um .…" She wipes her face with her hands and takes a deep breath. "It's okay," she adds a little too quickly. "You're hurting."

They don't speak for a few minutes. He waits for her to flee, but she doesn't. She stays, and she thinks.

"It's possible," muses Willow, the words quiet. "I mean we did get a visit from my evil twin."

Helpless desperation claws at him. "You'll help?"

Nausea crashes into him before she answers, and he swallows. He needs to lie down, except now he's not sure he can make it back to his own bed without collapsing in a dizzy heap. Before he knows it, she's pushing him down on the seat cushions, and she's pulling a blanket over him.

"I'll close the door so nobody comes in," she says.

He thinks he mumbles thanks.

"I'll help," Willow whispers. She squeezes his shoulder. "I need some time to do some reading, though. You just relax for a bit."

As if he can relax when there's brutal, brilliant fireworks going off behind his eyelids, and he may have lost his child all over again. But he knows what she means, and he appreciates it. She leaves him to rest in the dark.

The first thing Willow wants to try is the same unveiling spell that Buffy used to reveal Dawn's true nature. Willow warns him that he might have trouble entering the trance because of his head injury. The spell requires centering oneself, which Angel isn't sure he can do right now.

He shambles back to his room, wrapped in an afghan. He turns out all the lights. He puts in the earplugs he uses on occasion to drown the cacophony that living with humans produces, and he sleeps. He doesn't know for how long, though from the scents on his skin when he wakes, Buffy slept beside him for a nap or a night, and then left again. He's lost all sense of time. He's not even sure if the sun is up or down, which drives home a sense of unwellness more than anything else could.

His head still hurts.

Even through the earplugs, everything is still so noisy. Slayers fighting. People talking. Telephones ringing. Televisions blaring. He takes Buffy's pillow and presses his nose against it. He parts his lips, allowing the scent of her to sweep against the back of his throat, drowning everything else out. The thrumming dangerdangerdanger tension of living surrounded by dozens of slayers he doesn't know relaxes some, and he drifts back to sleep.

Angel wakes to the clink of a teacup shifting on a saucer. Wesley, he groggily thinks at first, and his heart swells. When he opens his eyes, though, he's greeted by Lorne, who's wearing a purple and yellow suit that hurts Angel to look at. Angel swipes an earplug loose, but he lets his eyelids slide shut.

"What?" he says.

"Angel Cake," Lorne murmurs. China clinks, and the mattress squeaks as weight redistributes. "Try some of this. It does wonders for migraines."

Vampires are woefully drug resistant. Not impenetrable. But resistant.

"Maybe, for people, it does," Angel grumbles.

"Oh, just give it a shot, you big sourpuss."

Angel sighs. "You're not going to leave until I try it?"

"What do you think?"

The tea is hot, but not scalding. It's not blood, so it has no taste, only texture and temperature. Angel likes how coffee and tea heat him from the inside. They make him feel warm, help him perpetuate his illusion of life when people touch him. People like Buffy. Today, though, the warm tea sits like noxious magma in his stomach. The feeling lasts for a moment that stretches. Sweat dots his brow. He swallows once. Again. A third time. Then he loses the box, lock, and key for his demon and brings the tea back up, all over Lorne's boisterous suit.

Unperturbed, Lorne shrugs off his sport coat with a wry frown. He inspects the garish lilac-colored shirt he's wearing underneath, but there's nothing on it. He makes no comment about the mess. He clucks with sympathy. "Oh, sweetie," he says, "that's quite a visceral interpretation."

Angel rolls away and drags Buffy's pillow over his head. He doesn't have the energy to look for the box, or the lock, or the key, or to figure out Lorne's riddles. His head is starting to pound again.

"You want to sing me a verse or two, lemon drop?" Lorne says, his voice muffled through the pillow and the one remaining earplug. "Your aura is screaming at me like Alice Cooper."

Angel thinks if he tries to sing, he might start heaving again. He doesn't want to sing, anyway. He's thought about going to Lorne several times over the past few weeks, but every time he comes close to buckling, something on the precipice stops him. Your brain is playing tricks on you, he hears Buffy say, a distant echo. He clutches tents of sheet in his fingers. He doesn't want Connor to be a trick. Connor isn't a trick.

"Something easy," Lorne says. "Maybe, Twinkle Twinkle, or Happy Birthday?"

"No," Angel says as he thinks about the scar below his ribs.

The scar he doesn't remember getting. Buffy says it's from a magic sword. To leave a mark that large and puckered, he would have to have been impaled, and having been impaled several times in his life, he knows it's not something one forgets, and yet … he has. He has forgotten. He can't say it never happened, because the evidence is a long, pink runnel in what used to be unblemished skin.

He stands at the precipice again.

"You could hum," Lorne says. "No need to open your mouth for music or other projectiles."

Angel shakes his head. He thinks of Lorne crooning to baby Connor, and he thinks of his son swaddled in blue blankets, giggling at his demon's evil, toothy grin. His true face. The one his dead human shell camouflages. The face he can't seem to find the wherewithal to hide right now, because something in his mind is broken. And then he can't think anymore.

He stands at the precipice, but he's backing away.

"Please, Lorne," he begs. "Please, go away."

He feels Lorne watching him for a long, long moment, and Angel thinks he might have to beg more, but his worries crumble when the Pylean sighs and stands, pulling his soiled coat into his arms as he rises. "I'll be here when you change your mind," Lorne says, and then he leaves, taking his coat and his teacup with him.

After Angel brushes his teeth to get rid of the taste of bile and replaces the earplugs to mute the aural storm around him, he burrows underneath the covers and hibernates. Again, he loses all track of time, and again, when his eyes drift open, he's unsure whether it's day or night, but this time Buffy is here, lying next to him, tracing the demonic lines of his brow with her fingertips. Everything he sees is sharp and tinted with heat. So close to him, Buffy is a supernova, and for a second that lasts too long, all he sees is prey.

He flinches away from her, and she yanks her hand back like she's been stung. "Sorry," she says, sounding perplexed.

"I can't make it go away right now," he says, trying to explain. He puts his earplugs on the nightstand.

"So, what?" she says. "You know it doesn't bother me."

The only time he's ever felt human while wearing his true face, Connor was in his arms, blowing spit bubbles at him.

"It bothers me," Angel says, but he can see from the look on her face that she doesn't know why. She must liken his vampire visage to a hat, but it's nothing like that. He gestures vaguely to himself. "This is what I use to hunt and kill. It helps me .…" He swallows and runs his tongue along razor sharp teeth. He breaks skin like it's paper, and blood pearls on his taste buds. He still feels too queasy to swallow, though. "It helps me do those things."

Rather than look appalled, Buffy sits up and scoots closer to him. "You actually see things differently?" she says, nothing but curiosity in her tone.

"Yes," he says. He can't meet her eyes.

"What do I look like in vamp-o-vision?" she says.

Shame makes it hard to speak.

She sighs. "Angel, come on. Talk to me."

In the five years he was separated from her, he forgot how she lays him bare. Everyone always jokes about how taciturn he is, but, with some persistence, she can strip that facet of him away like she's unwrapping a present. She hadn't figured that out, yet, by the time they'd split up in his remembered life, and the times she did it before were happenstance.

"Come on, Angel," she says, like in this universe, she's beyond happenstance and well into merciless calculation. "What do I look like?" He makes the mistake of a furtive glance in her direction. Her hopeful brown eyes are like soul traps, and he can't look away. "Please, tell me?" she says.

Hook. Line. Sinker.

"Like food," he admits.

"Well, what does food look like?" she says, relentless, and he crumbles.

"Bright," he says. "Bright and hot and loud. Like a sunburst when the rest of the world is gray."

Buffy nods. "I guess that explains why vampires like red."

"You're really not bothered by this," he says, amazed.

She shrugs. "Really not. It's kinda helpful, actually."

"Helpful," he echoes doubtfully.

"Angel, to me you're like a big old book written in Shakespearean English. The words mostly make sense individually, but it's nice to have an interpreter putting them together to make pretty pictures. Helps me avoid brain strain."

"Oh," he says.

"Like The Merchant of Venice," she babbles onward. "It's actually got some really dirty bits when you understand the humor."

He cracks a toothy grin despite himself. "Are you calling me a dirty old man?"

"You're older than the United States," she deadpans.

"And when did you read The Merchant of Venice?" he says.

She shrugs. "An assignment for English 101. Had to write an essay about verbal and dramatic irony. Giles turned fuchsia when he tried to explain some of the innuendo to me."

Angel laughs. "I might have, too, if I could blush."

She wraps her arms around him. "I guess you're lucky I only called you about that paper on the Jacobite risings." Her nose crinkles. "Not many sexy times in history texts about Scottish rebels."

He remembers that call. He lived through the third Jacobite rising when he was still human. Though the risings occurred in Scotland, rumblings of political dissent spilled across borders. Much of his human life is like a vague dream he can't quite remember, but he does recall the tension in the air like a living, breathing thing. He spent hours on the phone with her, trying to nurse a very frustrated Buffy through a complicated political web.

He wonders when his memories and this universe diverge, but Buffy is warm and relaxed, vampires are excellent mimics by design, and he can't help but be warm and relaxed as well. Worries slough away like an old snake skin. He rests his chin on her shoulder, taking respite in her scent. He opens his senses, gauging the world around them. Silence wraps around them. He can hear Buffy, her breathing, her heartbeat, but nothing else, not even the rumble of traffic coming in from the street. It's like snow has fallen.

He frowns. "Where did everybody go?"

"Nowhere," Buffy says. "Willow cast a bubble thing around our room."

"A bubble thing," he repeats dumbly.

"She and Wesley and Giles and Lorne and Spike all put their heads together for a while and figured out you might be getting bombarded. Like you damaged a filter in your brain or something." She kisses him. "It will last for a week or two. If you're still having trouble then, Willow said she'll renew it."

"Spike actually helped?" he says.

"I asked him to," she says with a shrug. "He helps when I ask."

Angel closes his eyes and thinks for a moment. The box and the lock and the key pop into his mind's eye. He feels his bones shift, and his vision dulls. The lights are off in the hotel room, and though he can still see quite well, the room no longer looks like its bathed in daylight, and Buffy is no longer the sun. He blinks.

Buffy gives him a radiant grin. "Feeling better, then?"

"Yes," he says, "thank you."

Buffy presses her lips against him. The sheets rustle as she scoots even closer. He can't help but kiss her in return. She smells of roses and dewdrops, and he drinks down her scents with a soft chuckle.

"You're going to make me lose it all over again," he says.

"That's kind of the idea," she purrs against his ear. "I miss you," she adds. "Do you miss me?"


She's kissed him many times since he woke up in this world, and he's kissed her, but there's always been an innocence to it. Like she knows it can't and won't go further because he's a stranger. Or, maybe, he's been kidding himself. There's no hint of innocence, now. Underneath all the scents that tell him Buffy, Buffy, my Buffy, he smells sex. Tastes want. Hears need.

"Do you want me?" she says.


He comes undone. He's never been good at saying no to her. He knows this is wrong. That this Buffy doesn't belong to him. That he shouldn't. But he's seen his city crumble and all of his friends die. He's spent weeks in pain. He doesn't know where his son is. He's not in the right place.

Her love is a balm for his broken soul.

"Buffy," he whispers, "I'm not supposed to be here."

"Shut up," she says, the words playful and throaty, but stern.

She pulls at his shirt, and he lets her. She pulls at his boxers, and he lets her. And then she touches him. The world stills, and the edges of his vision haze. It's been years. He doesn't have any fortitude. A noise rumbles in his throat. Not a growl. Something utterly human. A moan tortured by need.

"Buffy," he says, lost.

What she's doing saps the reason from him. His worries fall away like petals off a dying flower. He lets her touch and toil until she has him at the top of a very tall peak, ready to fall. He wants to fall. He wants to lose himself. He has no worries left, save but one that struggles to remain cogent despite his desperation.

"Stop," he manages, the word so strangled it's barely understandable. He pulls away from her.

She's looking at him, eyes wide. "What?" she says. "What's wrong?"

He wonders if he's ever told her to stop and meant it. Probably not, from the look on her face. Definitely never in flagrante delicto before.

He's dizzy. He can't quite think straight, but she's not touching him anymore, at least. He bites his lip so hard it bleeds, even with his human teeth, all while she watches in horror.

"We can't," he says between useless gasps. "We can't; we can't."

She looks at him like he's not speaking English.

"I'll lose it," he clarifies.

Her confused look doesn't abate. "You said that already," she said. "That's the whole point, isn't it?"

"Not my control," he snaps, boggled at how she could be so dense. "My soul."

She blinks. Silence stretches. He needs a cold shower. No, he needs a frigid one. No, he needs Antarctica. Stat.

"You can't lose your soul, Angel," Buffy says, each syllable glacial and protracted like she thinks he can't understand the words. "We bound it months ago."

He barks with hopeless, wry laughter as he pushes away from her, out of the bed, scrambling across sheets. "You're lying. I'd remember."

"I wouldn't lie about that," she says, hurt suffusing her expression as her eyes water and spill over. Her tears sparkle like glass. "I would never risk .…" She can't even finish her sentence.

"How?" he says, demanding.

Buffy shrugs. "Willow did it. The magic was so strong it made everybody sick, Willow got a nosebleed, and you were out cold for six hours."

"I don't remember," he says, eyes narrowing.

She laughs, but it isn't a happy sound. "I can see that."

He stands naked in the middle of the room like a lost lamb and doesn't move. She approaches him like she thinks he'll bolt. He supposes he might. She presses against him, and pulls him into an embrace. He doesn't know why he lets her, but he does, and he doesn't want her to let go.

"I'm not lying," she says, but she sounds far away. "You can taste a lie. Do you taste one, now?"

He doesn't scent the air. He stands, mute and adrift. "I'm not allowed to be happy," he says, staring into space.

Her grip tightens. "Yes, you are," she says. "We are."

"I just killed everybody. I destroyed Los Angeles. How can this be real?"

"I don't know, but it is," she insists. She takes his hand and presses his palm against her naked skin. Her heart pounds underneath her breastbone. "You can't tell me this isn't real."

She's right. He can't.

He doesn't know what to do. He wants to believe her. He wants to believe he can be happy, that all the people he's lost can be found and whole again. He wants to believe that he's supposed to be here, that this past nightmarish year was an actual nightmare caused by an unfortunate head wound. The thing that keeps stopping him from surrendering to want is Connor. Connor is real. He knows it. He needs it. He can't lose his son again. Not ever. And certainly not for the sake of his own happiness. If he can find Connor, the rest of this reality disconnect is okay. But if he can't ….

He swallows. "I really need to find my son," he says, the words a desperate whisper.

Buffy follows his non sequitur without blinking. "I want to help," she says instead of telling him he's crazy. "How can I help?"

The problem is he doesn't know. He needs to center himself so he can try the unveiling spell, and Buffy does many things for him, but she doesn't center him. She keeps him tumbling off his axis at the edge of the world.

Chapter Text

A crash echoes through the dark office building, a strident reminder that Buffy is behind him. He freezes and turns around with an irritated look. She looks at him apologetically as she picks up the pencils she's knocked loose from a mug. "Oops," she says, a wry and guilty whisper. "They kinda … jumped out of the cup, there."

The administrative office at UCLA has been closed for hours, and Angel can hear the only security guard shuffling through the grass outside. He's on the south side of the next building over, far away. The guard's pace doesn't change, and his heart continues at a steady, plodding beat. He whistles a tune Angel doesn't recognize.

"It's okay," Angel says, relaxing. "Nobody heard."

Buffy nods, not questioning how he knows. She's wearing black clothes and a black knit cap to hide her golden hair, and in the car on the way to campus, she'd hummed a tune she gleefully informed him was from a movie called Mission Impossible. When he'd looked at her with his brow raised askance, she'd gasped like he'd committed a crime, and informed him that they would be having a movie night as soon as bright colors didn't give him "the mondo-sized headaches."

They find the registrar's desk in moments. Buffy marked up a campus map with a pink highlighter before they came. She settles down at the desk and switches on the computer. The fans in the case whir, and the computer beeps as it boots.

He hands her the neatly folded gas receipt where he's written the password.

"How did you get this?" she says.

He frowns at her. "I'm a private detective, you know."

"But you suck at the detecting part."

"I do not!" he says.

"You suck at the not-supernatural detecting," she amends, and he can't quarrel with that.

He glances at the receipt. This was a password bought with $20 and a favor owed. He sees now, though, that this purchase was a pointless one, because the same word is written on a sticky note that's affixed to the monitor.

"Why didn't you get Willow to hack this, anyway?" Buffy asks.

"She says the database is offline, and she can't get into it. Something about it being on an intranet, not the Internet." He shakes his head. "Whatever that means, anyway."

Buffy looks just as mystified, which makes him feel a little better about his technological ignorance. Keyboard clacks and mouse clicks fill the quiet as she navigates through trial and error to the student registry. He rests his palms against the back of the big executive chair where she sits. He could have come alone, maybe even should have, but he likes having her along, even though she makes skulking a bit more challenging. The computer beeps as the program starts, and she looks up at him, eyebrows raised.

"Connor Reilly," he says. "R-E-I-L-L-Y," he spells, just in case she hears the last name and thinks of Riley.

She doesn't type. She bites her lip. "Is that your last name? I never knew it."

"No," he says. She waits, looking at him, and he feels compelled to keep talking. "The Reillys are," - were? - "Connor's adoptive family."

She nods, but she still doesn't type. After a long march of seconds, she says, "Angel, what's your last name?"

The silence stretches, and she doesn't blink as she keeps her doe eyes fixed on his. She's playing him like a violin, and he knows it. He sighs. "I think it was Rourke."

Her forehead crinkles in befuddlement. "You don't know for sure?"

"I haven't used it in a long time, Buffy. The Watcher Chronicles probably know more about mortal me than I do."

"But you have an indented memory."

"Eidetic," he corrects absently. He thinks back on his human life. Most of it is fuzzy, like the abstract details of a dream that fades upon waking. His most vivid memories are of his father, and none are fond. "Only since I was turned."

"Oh," she says. "So, that's a vampire thing, not an Angel thing?"

He feels the urge to shift nervously on his feet, but he tamps it with an iron will. Truthfully, it's an Angelus thing, but he doesn't want to tell her that. "Yes and no," he says.

She doesn't seem satisfied with his answer, and she grumbles something he can't quite hear about a bowl of cryptics for breakfast, but she doesn't continue to grill him, either. She types in the name he's given her. The student registry pops up an angry error message at them - no such student exists - and she looks at him helplessly. "He's not in here."

He clenches his teeth. "What about Steven Holtz? Steven with a V."

The keyboard clacks. An angry beep follows. "Nope."

"Maybe, just search for Connor?" he suggests, and she does. "He'd be a freshman," Angel adds, which narrows the search. She prints out the addresses of two different boys named Connor. One lives on campus. The other lives in Pasadena.

"Let's hit up Campus Connor first," Buffy suggests as she stands.

Angel nods, and they press onward.

He knows before they've even knocked on the door that the Connor in the dorm is not his son. The smell is all wrong, and the heartbeat of the room's occupant has an odd murmur that sounds like a never-repaired congenital defect. Still, Angel hopes, and Buffy squeezes his hand in encouragement. Angel tries not to make a face as a greasy young man with black hair, one who probably hasn't showered all week, opens the door. Not Connor. Not even remotely.

"'Sup?" the man says, his voice an octave too low to be Connor's.

"Sorry," Angel says, "wrong room."

They have a similar experience in Pasadena, but this time, it's a woman who answers the door. She says that Connor isn't there. Buffy spins a half-decent, rambling yarn about how she needs a picture of Connor for her art class. The woman gives them a picture of a lean man with wispy brown hair, blue eyes, and an angular face.

Angel's hope swells until he focuses on the eyes.

The boy in the photo and his son are similar, but not the same. Still riding on a glimmer of maybe, maybe, maybe, he sneaks into the boy's room while Buffy distracts the girlfriend, and he can tell, then, that Connor doesn't live here, either. Again, the smell isn't right - it doesn't have that supernatural edge Connor has always possessed - and the hair tangled on the comb by the sink in the bathroom is the wrong color brown.

"I'm sorry," Buffy says as Angel slumps behind the steering wheel in his Belvedere. It's another odd experience, driving this car again. He misses the Viper a little.

He has one last idea that he's reluctant to try, because it's his last. He doesn't remember where the Reillys live. He was too lost in thought to pay full attention when the Wolfram & Hart limo took him there last year. Buffy looks up Laurence and Colleen Reilly in a tattered phonebook they find by a pay phone at a gas station. The couple lives at an address in Malibu.

"How do you know them?" Buffy asks as Angel pulls the Belvedere quietly up to the curb near the Reillys' driveway.

"They were chosen for me," Angel says.

"Like by an adoption agency?"

"Sort of like that," he says.

Again with the cryptic? he can almost hear her whining, but she doesn't voice that opinion. "So," she says instead, and then she adds with a flat nonchalance that Angel pegs as fake, "Colleen's not the mother?"

He swallows. "No. His mother was … someone else."

"Do you love his mother?"

He grips the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles would turn white if he had circulation to interrupt. "I used to think so."

"But you don't, now?"

"No," he says. "What we had wasn't love."

"Where is-?"

"She's dead," Angel says, answering her question before she can finish asking it. He doesn't want to talk about Darla. Not because he doesn't want Buffy to know – though if he's being truthful with himself, he really doesn't – but because he's riding on a razor edge of worry, and he doesn't think he can handle a discussion about his jagged rock bottom right now. He's not being secretive, he tells himself. He's being pragmatic. "She died giving birth."

Buffy's eyes widen, and her line of questioning fades into a soft, "Oh," that's full of gravity. She's quiet for a moment, thinking, and then hazards a cautious, "Angel?"

"What?" he says.

"Maybe, we should try to find her, anyway." She points at the house. "I mean, if we don't find Connor here."

Angel clutches the steering wheel, fingers tightening to the point of pain. "No."


"No," he snaps, and Buffy sighs. He rubs his temples and deflates. "Sorry," he mutters. "I'm sorry. I'm-"

"Freaking out?" Buffy replies softly. She puts a warm hand on his shoulder. "It's okay. I get it. I'd go postal if Dawn disappeared and nobody believed me."

Angel swallows, trying to get a grip on himself. Logically speaking, he should try to find Darla. Assuming she's even alive, she'd be able to tell him pretty quickly if he's going crazy. Emotionally speaking, though, he's clinging to the end of his rope, and Darla would likely take that rope and hang him with it.

"Connor's mother and I …," he says, trailing away into silence. He searches for the right way to characterize Darla. "She's … not good for me."

"Oh," Buffy says, nodding. "Like Nancy to your Sid?"

He frowns. "Who?"

She sighs. "We really need to catch you up on the major cult classics."

"I liked Soylent Green …."

Her nose wrinkles. "Is that the one where they eat algae, but it's really people?"

He snorts. "Now, who needs catching up?"

They step out of the car in comfortable silence, but the night is its usual symphony. Crickets sing all around them. An owl hoots in the distance. A rattlesnake hunts, slithering in the grass. Though Angel makes no noise as he walks, gravel crunches softly under Buffy's feet.

A cloying whiff of estrogen hits him before he moves more than a few strides down the driveway. The odor is so strong that the smell would paint itself on his face in a grimace if he weren't already somewhat acclimatized. He is, though, courtesy of living for the last two weeks in a hotel full of nubile slayers.

Angel looks at the house in the distance, nostrils flaring. Connor doesn't live there. Underneath the one, two, three punch of woman, he detects the faint hint of man, but an older one not caught in the hormonal explosion of youth.

"Connor's not here," Angel says, the words thick and low.

Buffy turns to look at him. Her hazel eyes glitter in the moonlight. She puts her hand on his leather coat and squeezes his arm. "Let me check," she says, and then she stalks off into the darkness.

He knows she won't find anything, but he doesn't try to stop her.

Buffy breaks in through the back of the house, snapping the foot lock on the sliding glass door in the kitchen like it's kindling. Beyond that, he loses all sense of her. He can't focus.

Numb, he slides back into the driver's seat of his Belvedere. He can't think. He hasn't been able to center himself to do the unveiling spell. Detective work was all he had, and now he has nothing.

He can't see. He stares blankly through the dirty windshield, and he loses it. Not in a loud way. In the quiet, catatonic way he did when he lost his baby the first time.

He doesn't see Buffy return. He doesn't hear her, either, but he's too far gone from things to be startled when the door beside him opens, and Buffy leans into the car. "You're right," she says, a whisper against his skin. "I'm so sorry." Her arms wrap around him. Her warmth presses against him, but all he feels is cold and dead and alone.

"Angel, you're shaking," she says.

"I can't find my son," he says. "I can't find him."

The logical conclusion after all of this is that Connor isn't and wasn't ever real, just like Buffy insisted before she realized how badly Angel needed this to be truth, just like Willow suggested as well. But he clings. Maybe, Connor isn't his name anymore. Maybe, he's hidden with another family, living another life, far away from here. Maybe, he's still in Quor'toth, or, maybe, he never went there at all, and he's still a baby somewhere, all alone and helpless.

Maybe, the unveiling spell will work, and will show everyone that Angel isn't in the right place. That his world did burn, that his friends are all dead, and that he doesn't have Buffy, but at least he has Connor, still.

He wonders, maybe, if he did die, after all, and this is hell, having everything he's ever wanted for a price that makes none of it worth having.

He can't.

He can't think or function or do anything.

All he can do is cling.

He doesn't remember four days.

It's more than a week before he feels like he can even try the spell.

With Willow guiding him, he sits down on the carpet in front of his bed, lights his candles, and makes a messy, jagged, not-quite-circle of salt around himself. Willow assures him that any continuous shape that encloses him is fine, so he doesn't worry that his circle is lopsided.

"So, this should rule out whether someone brought the wrong universe to you, like how Dawn was inserted into Buffy's life," Willow says. "But it won't rule out whether someone put you in the wrong universe, like if you're the Dawn in this scenario." Willow frowns. "I'm still brainstorming how to test for that. I suppose we could send Buffy under, next, so she could take a look at you, but if your trip here was a physical one, like hopping on a bus, this trance wouldn't show her anything. It'd only work if you're really a mystical ball of energy turned corporeal, which … wouldn't that be a plot twist? I mean-"

"Willow," he says gently.

She shakes her head. "Right." She sighs. "Sorry."

The process makes his skin itch with potential energy.

The air around him crackles with static.

Willow tries to be quiet, but she's in his sanctum, inside the dampening bubble she created for him. Her rushing blood is a raging, whitewater river in his ears. Buffy, who's trying to offer subtle moral support, but not being at all subtle about it, is lying on the bed, reading a magazine, and every time she flips a page, the moving paper booms like thunder.

Angel tries to focus. He does. He's used to tuning out of this living morass; he wouldn't be able to function in society otherwise. Before he hit his head, it would have been simple. But however in the past he's picked and plucked the individual strands of awareness he's interested in - a peculiar sound, a pungent scent, a vivid sight - he picks and plucks, now, and comes away with a tangled spaghetti clump of sight-sight-taste-smell-sound-sound-sound-sight-smell-sound ad infinitum that's impossible to sort. There's just too much going on for him to be able to fixate for any length of time on any one thing.

He rubs his eyes. He's weary and frazzled, but he keeps trying.

He tries for hours, and nothing happens.

"You're sure this is something I can even do?" Angel says, frustrated.

"I did it, and I suck at magic," Buffy offers, but what she probably hopes is helpful encouragement isn't helpful, nor is it encouraging, and he feels empty.

The fact that he's dead and coexists with an evil demon interferes with a lot of white magic that requires untainted living essence to work. While he's a lightning rod for black magic and necromancy, and he can perform magic that pulls from the earth or other reagents for fuel, much of what Willow can do in her sleep, he can't even attempt.

Willow shrugs apologetically from her perch on his big wing-back chair. "Everything I've read says Tirer La Couverture is about mental discipline. It's not an inherently good or bad spell."

"But you're not sure," he says.

"I'm totally hoping!" she says. She bites her lip.

"And you really can't do it for me?"

Willow shakes her head. "It's kind of an introspective thing," she says, and he slumps. "You're the one who knows what you're looking for, and you'll know it when you see it."

He nods and takes a deep breath out of some old, mortal habit that he's never shaken. The air does nothing to cleanse him or invigorate him or center him. It fills his lungs, and then it leaves him.

Willow goes back to reading an old, dusty tome. He listens to her heartbeat. To Buffy's heartbeat, too. Then Willow's heartbeat fades out of his awareness, leaving only Buffy's. His body listens to him, for once, and the joyous beat becomes his world in that moment.

Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

Another hour passes, and he stops wondering about whether the spell will work or not.

Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

He sinks into a tired, blurry daze. His thoughts are monotone.

Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

Reality shifts like a snapped ripcord, but in slow motion. His favorite heartbeat fades somewhere into the emptiness behind him. He blinks and stands up. He feels like he's wading through molasses.

Willow says something, but it's a garbled mess, and he can't understand the words. She's a bright, flickering light, like a flame dancing on the wick of a candle, and for a moment, he knows. Willow is wrong. Then Buffy speaks with taffy words. He turns to face her, only to find her alight as well, though less so than Willow. Buffy's more of a warm glow than a fire. So, Buffy's wrong, too. Everything is wrong, and he didn't make Connor up. He didn't, and this is the proof.

Except ….


He looks around the room, walking through molasses from the bed to his nightstand to his dresser. He runs his fingertips along the smooth grain of the polished wood. None of the inanimate objects in the room glow like Buffy or blaze like Willow. He's not supposed to live at the Hyperion anymore. All of his furniture should be dust, buried under tons of rubble with the rest of Wolfram & Hart's Los Angeles branch. Which means all of his possessions should show signs of magical tampering, too. And, yet … they don't. He circles back to Buffy's side of the bed, to the picture of her and her sister that she keeps on her nightstand. The image of Dawn winks in and out like a nighttime star, just like Buffy told him it would.

So, the spell is working.

He peers at Buffy and at Willow, thinking.

Realization sinks in. Willow isn't wrong. Willow is a witch. She's magic incarnate. And Buffy's riddled with the power of the first slayer. Of course, they'd both appear magical in a trance meant to reveal the influence of magic, and neither one serves to prove his assertion that something is wrong.

He moves on.

He heads into the den that should be the former nursery and scrutinizes everything. The paint on the walls hasn't been altered, at least not by magic. The bookshelves, and the chair, and the desk, and the lamp - all solid and firmly ensconced in reality.

He wades through an ocean of air to the door at the front of his suite. Somewhere far away, he's aware that Buffy and Willow are following him, talking at him, but he can't care. The door swings open, a slow yaw fit for a horror movie, though there's no accompanying creak.

Wesley's out in the hall, frowning and stern. He's the first unadulterated human Angel's run into who shouldn't be here, and so Angel stares. Nothing is odd about the former watcher. Not a damned thing. He's just … Wesley. Wesley, who has no ugly scar bisecting his throat.

Voices rumble by Angel's ears. Talking. Everybody is talking, and no one makes sense.

He leaves them to their babble and pads down the hall toward the stairs.

He finds Cordelia in their crazy-color recreation room. She's watching some sort of soap opera on the television. The colors bleed everywhere, hurting his eyes, and the sound is an orchestra of nonsense.

When she turns to face him, though, he gapes. Her eyes are a conflagration even brighter than Willow's. Her pupils are the color of hot, liquid metal.

She frowns at him. Her lips move, and light pours from her mouth like water. She asks him something multisyllabic, but the meaning is lost to him.

"What?" he tries to say, but even his own voice isn't using understandable words, and he's not sure he's even spoken. Staring at Cordelia is like staring at the sun, and he has to turn away before he blinds himself.

Why is Cordelia magical?

Buffy's hand is on his arm. The touch feels like a lightning strike. He glances at his triceps. The little hairs that dust his skin are all standing on end like he's been shocked. He pulls away. She lets him go.

He wants to find more.

He wanders the hotel, slow and plodding. The farther he ambles, the louder the splitting ache in his bones becomes, and he knows he won't go much farther. Magic takes energy, and he's running out of it.

Gunn is normal. So is Fred. Anya doesn't flicker, either. Nobody fully human does, and neither does Lorne. Spike has a soft aura around him similar to Buffy's, but vampires, unlike most demons, are only possible via magic, similar to the way slayers exist, so Angel doesn't put much stock in the revelation that Spike is affected by magic in some way. To confirm, Angel looks down at his hands, and he sees the same soft glow.

Dawn doesn't look like the supernova that is Cordelia, or the fire that is Willow, or the glow that is Spike and Buffy and the rest of the slayers. Dawn blinks in and out of existence before his eyes, exactly like her picture does. He runs his hand through the space where Dawn should be standing, and the air feels like ice. No one else flickers like Dawn, and the flickering, he realizes, is how the spell tells him something isn't "real."

Willow, Spike, Buffy, the other slayers, and Cordelia may be affected by magic in some way, or bolstered by magic, but they aren't comprised of magic, not in the sense of Houdini making a rabbit appear out of thin air, anyway. And that's the distinction Angel's looking for. Things that came out of thin air.

He keeps looking around the hotel with this in mind, but he can't find anything other than Dawn that doesn't belong. Not a single thing.

He walks outside to check his Belvedere where it's parked by the busy curb. Traffic is a bright cacophony, but not even his beloved car is flickering, despite the fact that he remembers the night he totaled it. He runs his finger along the cold metal frame. Buffy is saying something again, a loud garble that could be words. He turns to her.

"Aaaaaanggelll?" he hears from some direction, and he blinks.

The world in front of his eyes is soup. He thinks he might be falling, but he's not sure. He looks up. A bright carpet of stars dots the sky, which is black as pitch. He feels like he's lying in the wet moors outside Galway. The grass smells like rain, and the sea cracks and crashes against the jagged rocks below.

Liam, are yeh daft, boy? Come back inside this instant!

He has no idea how he's gotten home.

He blinks and blinks and blinks as a shooting star streaks across his vision. He blinks until he closes his eyes, and they won't open again. He's falling through nothingness. The stars remain for an age, even with his eyes closed. Like all the things he touches, though, they, too, fade to black in the end.

For a while, he's in a cold place, unaware, lost.

"That was really weird," Willow says from somewhere far away. "I mean, wasn't that weird?"

"There was weirdness, and it was here," Buffy agrees.

"You didn't collapse when you did this, did you?"

"No," Buffy responds. The words are sounding closer, now. "Things were trippy, and then they weren't trippy, and I was fine."

Quiet, cold, detached becomes loud, hot, painful as his body reconnects with his brain. His mouth tastes like sawdust. His bones ache deep into their marrow. And his head has been split open by an axe.

"Ow," he says, the word more a wheeze than speech. He manages to blink, but the light is like a knife being stuck into his eyes. He's lying on the floor in the hotel lobby, but that's all he can tell. Slayers are everywhere, and he wants to curl into an over-stressed ball, but that would require moving.

"Angel," Buffy says, her tone cut open with worry. "Can you understand us, yet?"

No. Yes. Sort of. "What … happened?" he croaks.

He smells blood. Cordelia's familiar warmth soaks into his hip as she sits on the floor beside him, and for a moment, his head stops pounding, and the thought soup in his skull solidifies into gelatin.

"You know those ads where it's all, 'this is your brain,'" Cordelia says as she tries to hand him a mug full of heated blood, "'and this is your brain on drugs?' You know, the ones that show a picture of fried eggs for the drugs part?"

He has no idea what she's talking about. He pushes the mug away. "I'd prefer water," he rasps.

"Still fried eggs, I guess," Cordelia snarks, but she retrieves a sport bottle and fills it ice water for him, instead.

He gulps it down. His throat is so dry that the cold fluid almost tastes better than blood. Almost, but not quite. At the very least, it doesn't churn in his stomach like butter in a mixer. All in all, it's a step up from the O-positive Cordelia keeps stocked in the mini fridge in the office.

A slayer approaches. Panic blossoms. He tries to stand, but he flops like a fish instead. A hand pushes his chest.

"Oh, hell, no," Cordelia says. "You are not walking right now. Friends don't let friends drink and walk."

"What's goin' on?" a voice with a Boston lilt says, and he calms when he realizes who set off his danger sense. "He was acting stoned." A pause. "Still, kinda is."

"Just a spell that didn't behave like we thought it would," Willow says.

"Why does it always worry me when you say things like that?" Xander quips from somewhere across the room, out of Angel's field of view.

"She hasn't tried to suck the world into hell in several years, you know," counters Anya, whom he can't see, either.

All Angel can see when he squints is a blazing, bright section of ceiling and the back of the couch, which is so red to him it could be arterial blood. He presses his face against the foot of the sofa, trying to find darkness in a room where it doesn't seem to exist. The fabric smells musty, and he lets the earthy scent overwhelm everything else. The one loud sensation drowns out everything else, centering him somewhat.

"Faith," Angel rasps, several paragraphs behind.

"You got me, boss," Faith says as she crouches next to him. "What's up?"

He opens his mouth and closes it. He's not sure what he was going to say. He blinks. The light stabs less, now, but still the lobby is still too brilliant. "Ow," he repeats, squinting, and Faith offers a sympathetic smile.

"So, what did you see?" Willow says from her perch on the couch, her tone eager. Her hand against his shoulder is life, burning. "Anything?"

"Your head was … on fire," he says, disconnected still.

Willow stares at him. "Okay, then. Maybe, we should get you to bed for a bit." Then she looks at the crowd that has gathered. Buffy, and Cordelia. Anya, Xander, Wesley, Giles, Faith …. "Anyone want to help lift?"

"No, I'm .…" Angel's voice trails away. There's a weird aftertaste on his tongue, and he makes a face. He takes another sip from the water bottle, but there's nothing left, and useless slurping noises fill the tense silence. He sits up slowly this time. His hands are shaking as he grasps the back of the sofa, trying to support his weight with his arms because his core is failing him. "It didn't work."

"Well, it sure did something," Cordelia says.

"It worked," he amends. "I mean, I didn't see anything unexpected." He frowns. "Except you."

Cordelia blinks. "Me?"

"Yes, you."

"Well …," she says, eyes narrowing, "what about me?"

He struggles for words to describe what he saw. "You're … running on magic like a car runs on gas."

Cordelia frowns for a moment, considering, and then she rolls her eyes. "Well, duh, Captain Obvious!" She gestures to herself. "Hello! I'm Vision Girl."

Oh. That's true.

Any hope for a real lead dissolves, and he slumps. His head is pounding again, and he squeezes his eyes shut.

"I still don't understand what you intended this spell to accomplish," Wesley says.

Silence stretches, and Angel puts his face against his palms. Not to avoid the question, but because he feels like he might retch. Magic hangovers suck. He could kick himself for letting that trance run itself to exhaustion. He wonders if he really saw stars in the end, or if the sparkles were like the lights people see when they're dying. Neurons firing and shutting down as they starve themselves. He'd been an idiot. But he'd wanted ….

"It worked fine, Willow," he says. "I just let it go for too long." He swallows. "I was hoping .…"

"You mean if I hadn't stopped that trance when I saw Dawn, I could have ended up like this?" Buffy says, upset.

"No," Angel says. "You probably would have passed out much faster since you need air."

Buffy blinks. "Passed out?" She glares at Willow, and then at Anya, and then at Giles. "Passed out?" she repeats, a bit more shrill. "Why did no one mention to me the possibility of passing out?"

"Pshh," Anya says with a dismissive wave of her hand. "You found out about Dawn, didn't you? I'd say that was a success."

"And we did say it was a serious spell, Buffy," Giles adds.

"Serious and passing out are whole different realms!" Buffy protests. For a moment, her expression blazes with inner fire, but … after a mental ten count Angel can almost hear, she seems to realize this is neither the time nor the place to fight about things that happened years ago. She hugs Angel instead of yelling more at Giles and Anya. "Please, don't do that again," she tells him. "We'll find some other way to figure this out." She interjects a pointed glare. "Something that doesn't have risk of gross bodily harm."

"Sorry, Buffy," Willow says, a shamed frown overwhelming her as she looks at her shoes.

"Some other way to figure out what?" Wesley asks, relentless. "Would someone please explain to me what's going on?" He folds his arms. "Has it occurred to anyone that I may know a solution?"

"Not really," says Cordelia. But she frowns. "A solution to what?"

Angel swallows, unnerved. Thanks to his long life and his wealth of experience, few things remain that can unnerve him. But Wesley is dead, except he's not dead. Cordelia, too. Angel's talking to ghosts. There are so many ghosts in this hotel, and it's wrong. "Before I hit my head," Angel says, "everything was … different."

"He thinks he's in the wrong universe," Willow clarifies. Then her eyes widen, and she claps her hands over her mouth. "I'm so bad at secrets!" she moans through her fingers.

"It's fine," Angel says flatly. He struggles to his feet. Buffy is the only thing that keeps him from toppling like a dead log. Everybody is staring at him.

Wesley's gaze sinks from confusion into sympathy. "Angel …," he says in a gentle tone.

"Just don't," Angel snaps. "I know I hit my head. I know nobody believes me. And I know that Willow and Buffy are only humoring me."

"I am not," Willow protests. "You could totally be evil Angel. I support you!"

Xander frowns. "Wills … evil Angel is someone we like to stake."

Willow sighs. "Alternate Angel. Whatever. Like vampire me!"

"Who was evil, just to be clear," Xander says.

Angel can't deal with the snark brigade right now, not when he's barely found syllables and meaning again. He needs the silence in his room. He needs it like Buffy needs air.

"I need to lie down," he says.

Buffy nods, and they hobble through the crowd, toward the stairs. He tries not to flinch as he brushes past warm skin, a chorus of heartbeats, and veins rushing with blood. He feels slayers, too - so many of them that his nerves jangle with disquiet - and he tries not to grip Buffy so hard that she breaks. He manages that, at least. Either that, or she's been taking poker face lessons from him that he can't remember.

"I'm not just humoring you, Angel," Buffy says as she helps him back into bed. "I believe you."

"Except you don't," he says as he sinks into the mattress. The 600-thread-count Egyptian-cotton sheets are a soothing, muted sort of bliss against his rubbed-raw nerves. "You believe that I believe, and for that, you're willing to follow me down the rabbit hole, but that's not the same."

"I'm trying," she says, "but what am I supposed to think?" She touches his temple where he got hit. The touch doesn't hurt anymore. "If I slammed my head into something so hard I nearly liquified my skull, and then woke up talking about how everyone was dead, and I had a teenage kid somewhere that I'd never once mentioned before, what would you think?"

He grits his teeth. "I don't know!"

"Yeah," she says, "and having kids isn't even a physical impossibility for me. I've got some extra hoops to jump through over here. Buffy Land is an obstacle course. Give me some credit!"

He can't think of anything to say to that.

"I'm trying," she says. The words break. "I'm trying, and if you don't believe that, at least believe I want to help you. I love you, and I want to help."

He's tired, and frazzled, and lost, and watching her cry does him no favors. He feels like an asshole on top of everything else, because … she's not wrong. She might have her doubts, but she's been his stalwart, anyway. He blinks, and his vision blurs. "Buffy, I'm sorry," he says around the lump in his throat, not sure what else there is to say.

A soft knock at the door snaps him out of his descent. Lorne shuffles into their suite, waving a little white handkerchief like a peace flag.

Angel isn't laughing. "Not now, Lorne," he says tiredly.

"You're still not ready to sing?" Lorne replies.

"You'll tell me I belong here, and that this other universe I remember got pounded into my head when my skull broke on a wall," Angel says. "I don't need to hear that from somebody else. I can't handle it right now."

Lorne sits on the mattress by Angel's hip. "Why would I tell you that?"

"That's what everybody else thinks," Angel grumbles.

"That's not what I-," Buffy begins, fight renewed, but her words snap into silence when Lorne shakes his head at her.

"You do belong here," Lorne says, the words soft and calm. "I don't need you to sing for your aura to tell me that."

A growl slips loose before Angel can stop it. "I said I don't need to hear that!" he snaps.

"No, no, you don't understand," Lorne says with a shake of his head. "You do belong here," he insists, "but you're not from here. Something shoehorned you in."

Buffy gapes. "Come again?"

Lorne shrugs. "He's in tune, and he sounds good, but he's a third violin in a string quartet." At Buffy and Angel's uncomprehending looks, Lorne adds patiently, "There are only two violins in a string quartet. Beethoven would have a stroke if you showed up to his party." Lorne shakes his head. "Can you imagine Große Fuge with three violins?" He grimaces. "I mean, yikes."

Silence stretches.

"So … he's not my Angel?" Buffy hazards with a tiny voice. She blinks like she's trying not to burst into tears again.

"Oh, he is," Lorne says. "Like I said, he belongs here. He's still a violin, at least."

Angel frowns. "I …. What?"

"I'll throw in a, 'Huh?' for $600, Lorne," Buffy says, expression as confused as Angel feels.

"I mean that your soul has a green card, sweetheart," Lorne says, looking at Angel. "You're a visitor with a license to work. So, relax, would you?"

Lorne's words offer a small comfort at first. Comfort, because it means Angel is vindicated. Things are wrong. There was another place. Connor is real. The comfort is murdered by dread, though. Connor is real in the other place, so, it stands to reason that he'd be real here – everybody else important in the recent history of Angel's long life seems to be, even the ones who should be dead. So, where is Connor? Why is only Connor gone?

Angel closes his eyes for a moment, and everything blanks. "Who did this?" he says.

But Lorne can only say, "I don't know."

"Am I dead?" Angel says.

"Angel, what are you talking about?" Buffy says, but he hears it underwater. Muffled. Unreal.

"You're not dead," says Lorne. He grins. "Nobody is. I get the impression that's the point."

But if nobody's dead ….

Things snap back into place like a rubber band. Angel grabs Lorne by the lapels of his shirt. The world sharpens, but Angel doesn't care that he's lost his box, lock, and key. He doesn't care whether he's in hell. He deserves to burn for the things he's done. What he can't fathom is the possibility that his son is suffering somewhere for all of Angel's wrongs.

"Tell me my son is safe," he says, almost a snarl. "Tell me that much."

"Angel, stop!" Buffy says. She gives him a shake like she thinks that might snap him out of his free fall into mental anarchy, but the assault only loosens his hinges. He gives her a hiss for her trouble, but it doesn't have the intended effect. She's not scared. She rolls her eyes at him. "Oh, don't even try that with me," she snaps.

"Then don't touch me," he says with a growl. He has no hold on the demon whatsoever beyond preventing physical harm. He turns to Lorne once more. "Tell me Connor's safe. Wherever he is."

"You'd have to sing for that," Lorne says, like he isn't being threatened by a feral, hulking vampire, like he doesn't have a pair of razor canines strong enough to break bone inches from his face.

Angel belts out, "Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream!" His fangs give him a lisp. Spittle flies. He's not sure he's found the right key, or notes of any kind, either, but it seems to be enough.

Lorne nods, peering at Angel with a gaze that sees through things.

"You know where he is, now?" Angel says, a desperation tinging his tone. "Is he safe? Is he okay?"

"I still don't know," Lorne says unhelpfully, "but you're not dead, Angel. And you're not imagining any of this."

"Then what possible explanation is there for me being here?" Angel says through gritted teeth. "I was dead. My friends are dead." And hell is the kind of place where things like this happen. Wants and needs are teased and then taken away. Over, and over, and over again. "The only person I know without a shadow of doubt who should be alive and in Los Angeles isn't here!"

"I don't know," Lorne says.

But Angel needs to know before he can rest. He needs to. He mentally runs down his list of contacts, old and new. He's a man in a massive hay field, searching for a needle. There must be someone who can help him.

Buffy takes a deep breath and blows it out, sending loose bangs flying. "Angel," she says. She puts her arms around him. "We'll figure this out. Stop catapulting from zero to sky-is-falling with nothing between."

But Angel is numb to her attempts at rationalization. "If this is real, and I'm not dead, then how am I here?" he says.

"No idea, fruitcake," Lorne says.

"Well, what do you know?" Angel snaps.

"I know that you belong," Lorne repeats, "and I know that you can't go back, because there is no back."

Angel freezes mid-snarl. Any semblance of optimism, any idea that Connor is safe, just somewhere else, falls to his mental floor and shatters like glass.

"You're lying," Angel says. "If this is real, there has to be a way back."

"Well, this is certainly real," Lorne says, "but there still isn't any way back."

A growl rumbles in Angel's throat. "Then where did the other place go?"

The look in Lorne's eyes is distant, like he's watching a movie in his mind's eye. "Don't you know?" he says wryly. "A dragon burned it down."

Chapter Text

Buffy has no idea what to do.

The curtains flutter in the balmy night air. The space on the bed where Angel sat three seconds ago is now empty. He leapt off the balcony into nothing, melting into darkness before he hit the ground. He might not be feeling well, but somewhere in his immense reserves, he found his "Certified Stealthy" button and ran with it all the way to ludicrous speed. Darth Helmet would be proud.

"Well," Lorne grumbles, "that went about as well as Ashlee Simpson lip syncs," but it's the far off buzz of a fly, and Buffy barely hears.

Her mind races.

She tried to ease Angel gently into accepting the fact that he had a broken brain making him a parent via revisionist history. In a stellar bout of whiplash, she's now trying to accept the fact that he is a parent - not just a sire, but a real parent - and that he's really from somewhere else. Somewhere horrible. He's also potentially convinced that he's dead. It's a lot to swallow in a short amount of time, and instead of chasing after him, since it's not like she has any idea which way he went beyond "out the window," she permits herself a few seconds to process the holy freaking crap of it all.

Allowing herself to think about what's happened, though, only makes it worse.

She sits at the edge of the bed and replays in her mind what Angel has told her over the last few weeks. He's not from here. He's in the wrong place. And the conclusion she's been staving off for weeks sinks in like a stone, drowned by cold reality. He's not from here. He's in the wrong place. The Angel she's been worrying about is a stranger.

Just like he's been telling her over and over for weeks.

I'm not from here. I shouldn't be here.

She still worries for him, because he's still Angel, stranger version or not, and she can't help but love him. He's just not her Angel.

And she has no idea where her Angel is.

Dead, probably, if we traded places, the stranger said.

She swallows. Her hands shake as and a chill drips down her spine like an ice cube on a water slide. She blinks, and tears jag down her face, leaving stinging lines of salt on her skin. "Where is my Angel? Is he h … hurt? Is he …?"

Lorne glances at the open french doors. Another breeze billows through the room. The curtains saw at the air, and through Buffy's blurry perception, they seem smudged and otherworldly. The room feels like taffy. Everything is slowing down. He's dead, he's dead, he's-

"Your Angel is halfway to the Oracles, unless I missed my read on the last 'boat' note."

She rubs her face with furious, desperate hands. "What?"

Lorne gives her a sympathetic look. "Oh, sweet pea, he's not dead." He takes from his coat pocket the white handkerchief he used earlier as a peace flag, and he proffers it to her. "There, there." He pats her on the shoulder.

She takes the silk cloth and wipes her face. She's probably smearing mascara and foundation all over her skin. Black and cream-colored splotches stain the handkerchief like it's an impressionistic watercolor. But ….

"I don't understand," she croaks. She's pretty sure she would have noticed if two different Angels were walking around the hotel. He's … an imposing figure, even on good days, and even when he's trying to melt into the scenery, she can't imagine not noticing him. When he's there, she just … knows. "If my Angel is still here, then … where has he been?"

"I think you're misunderstanding me," Lorne replies.

She frowns. "Didn't I literally just say that? Buffy no understand-o."

She clutches the hanky so hard it makes her knuckles hurt. Her eyes won't stop burning. She waits for Lorne to elaborate, but rather than explaining, he says, "Want to give me a verse, so I can compare notes?" instead.

Her confusion burgeons. She's willing to play ball, though, if it means she gets an answer, and, while Lorne may be the most circuitous demon she knows, he's not one to leave a girl hanging. She tries to continue where not-her-Angel left off.

"Merrily .…" Her voice croaks to a halt, and she clears her throat. Damn it. Damn it, damn it, damn it. Her eyes are still leaking. She brushes her face with the back of her hand. The blur sharpens. Only briefly. "Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream," she sings like it's a death march, barely able to punch the words out with her diaphragm.

"Mmm-hmm." Lorne nods, like she just confirmed his suspicions. "Thought so."

"What?" Buffy says, muscles tensing. "Thought what?"

Lorne squeezes her shoulder. "That was lovely, by the way," he says. "You remind me of a young Whitney."

Buffy's not sure how he can even attempt levity right now. Her throat aches, and she can hardly speak around the grapefruit-sized lump in her throat. "Please, where is my Angel?" she says. "My Angel. Not the one who just Batman-ed it off the balcony."

"Batman is your Angel."

Buffy takes a deep, shaky breath. "But you just said that Batman Angel is from somewhere else."

"He is," Lorne says. "But so are you."

Her jaw drops. "Wait. What?"

Lorne shrugs. "There was no here until he woke up from Dragon Bowl 2004."

"There was no here," she echoes flatly.

He shakes his head. "Nope. Nothing."

She's trying to understand this. She's trying so hard. "As in … three weeks ago … this place didn't exist?" She gestures to the hotel room surrounding them.

"I believe the word is Bingo, sugar plum," Lorne says with sympathy in his tone.

Buffy blinks. No way …. There's just … no way. "You mean my memories are the fake ones?"

"No," says Lorne.

She heaves an exasperated sigh. "But you just said-"

"I know," Lorne says. "I know this is a lot to take in. Believe me, it's just as difficult to see these criss-crossed auras. I mean, yikes. Plaid is not a good color on souls."

Buffy growls in frustration. "Can you, maybe, explain this in Buffy-compatible sound bytes, like stake, and vampire, and apocalypse, and we're-all-gonna-die, or some combination thereof?"

Lorne thinks for a long, long moment, and then says, "We're not talking alternate universes; we're talking this one universe that we're in right now." He looks at her, eyebrows raised.

She nods. "I'm following so far."

"Okay." He looks up at the ceiling, considering. He takes a breath. "Think of it like a book." He grabs her copy of Fantasy Lover from her nightstand without even giving the title a sidelong glance. "This is the universe." He cracks the book open along the spine. "Someone edited it."

"Edited it?" she says.

"Yes," he replies, nodding. "As in, someone looked at the plot, saw they'd written themselves into an inescapable hole where plot goes to die, and decided to rewrite the pages that were bad." He makes an imaginary cross-out and mimes writing over it. "So, the original draft is now gone."


"The characters are all the same, though," he rushes to say, "and all the new stuff written into the earlier pages is now part of the current narrative, which, theoretically, still has room to go somewhere other than oops-half-of-the-main-protagonists-died-in-a-bath-of-hellfire."  He pauses to catch his breath.  "So, your memories are real," he says, "and so are your beau's.  It's just that they don't represent the same draft.  Make sense, now?"

Lorne sets the book back onto the nightstand. The glossy, bursting-with-pecs male model that adorns the front cover shines under the lamp like a scarlet H. For Harlequin. He seems unfazed.

She, however, is way, way, way fazed. This is … a lot. This is a lot to wrap her brain around. "So … since it's all just written over …," she says slowly, "there was no here until a few weeks ago, when the timeline assassins got all edit happy, and now there's no there, because it got edited out?"

"That's about the size of it," Lorne confirms with a nod.

This is … unreal.

"And … Batman is my Angel, and I'm his Buffy - even though he thinks he's not my Angel, and that there's some other Buffy - and no Angels or Buffys were harmed in the process."

Lorne claps his hands. "Now, you have it!" he says with a nod. "Round of applause for Goldilocks. Isn't she a peach?"

She frowns. "But how can you tell stuff got edited? I mean, how do you know Angel didn't just jump here from somewhere else?"

"Well, I admit, I was hedging at first," Lorne says. "When I read Angel's aura, things seemed a bit fishy. Kind of like when you hear a plagiarized song, but aren't quite sure it's plagiarized, you know?"

She really doesn't know. But she urges him to continue, anyway. "Okay, and?"

"And, now, I've read both your aura and his," he says with a shrug. He shudders and makes a face. "So much plaid. Gives me a headache like you wouldn't beli-"

"Lorne," she snaps and waves her hands in front of his eyes. "Focus! Universe? Altered by maniacal editor demons?"

He sighs, still cringing. "Right, well, when you've read both versions in quick succession, the editing is obvious. I can even see where they've missed fixing a couple of things. Not many, but a few." He cups his hand over his mouth, leans in, and whispers, "Someone clearly needs a beta reader."

She frowns. "Like what edits did they miss?"

"Well, that building on Crenshaw. The collapsed one."

"What about it?"

He peers at her. "Do you have any idea why it collapsed?"

She thinks for a long moment. "Um …." The building had been fine when she'd gone out with Angel and chased the Kevlar into the sewer, but it'd been dust when she'd brought a very damaged Angel home the next day. "I thought it was the earthquake."

"Please," Lorne scoffs. "With California building codes? For a measly 6.1?" He shakes his head. "I'll give you structural issues and cracks, but not outright collapse, unless we're talking epicenter, which we aren't. That was in Reseda."

Her frown deepens. "So … what are you getting at?"

"That building was dragon food," he replies. "Except, now, there's no dragon, but it still collapsed. In fact, I'd wager that the 'earthquake,'" he says, putting the word earthquake in green air quotes, "was just a narrative catch-all for anything they might have missed." He snorts. "Talk about revisionist history."

Buffy shakes her head. "But … how?" she blurts. And who could even do something like that? On this scale? That's crazy. And, "Why?"

"Those are the things I don't know."

She closes her eyes, and she breathes. In and out. In and out. It helps keep her level. "How much got changed?" she says.

"Two years, at least," Lorne replies.

"Give or take like twenty?" she quips, thinking of Connor.

Lorne shakes his head. "At most, three. Beyond that, you guys read identically. The last two years are where the differences are the most radical, like Nine Inch Nails versus Aretha. Before that, we're talking Bon Jovi in his head and Poison in yours. Different sets of pipes, but it's still all hairspray and power ballads."

Buffy nods. Though she has no idea who Poison is, she gets the general drift. Three years different, she thinks. Connor is supposed to be in college. He shouldn't be missing, then. Unless something happened to him ….

"Why does Angel remember the old draft, but everybody else got revised?" she says.

"I don't know," Lorne replies.

She's not sure how to feel about all of this. According to Lorne, she had a whole other life with a whole other outcome, but now it's gone. Taken without her consent. She thinks she should be angry, but it's not that simple.

She has no idea what her other life entailed. Whether she was happy. All she knows from Angel's hints is that she wasn't his girlfriend, she was living in Rome, and half of the people living at the Hyperion are, for some reason, dead. Or something.

The facts she knows? They don't sound that great. And this other life? She can't see, taste, touch, hear, or smell it. It's nowhere in her head.

It's like trying to be furious about a discussion regarding String Theory. She thinks maybe a physicist could be furious about a discussion regarding String Theory. Fred could be furious about a discussion regarding String Theory. But to Buffy, String Theory is pure gobbledygook, and what's the point about getting bent over a discussion about gobbledygook?

She's not even sure who or what to be angry at.

Angel didn't choose this. He seems just as unsettled by the destiny jockeying as she is. No, she amends. He's distraught. He's never been a why-god-why drama generator. He's been quiet about it until now, inward about it, but he's suffering.

Her heart hurts when she thinks of him shaking silently in the car at the Reillys' house. The only time she's ever seen him behave like that before was when he first came back from hell.

Am I dead? he echoes in her head, and dread circles around her mind's eye like a shark.

Buffy wipes a fresh deluge of tears away from her stinging eyes. She remembers a conversation track she hasn't chased yet. "Who are the Oracles? You said he was going to find them."

Lorne shrugs. "They were conduits to the Powers."

"Were?" she says.

"They're dead, now," Lorne says. "He's not going to get any help, there, but he'll try."

"I don't think Angel really cares about getting back, per se," Buffy says, considering. "I think he just wants Connor."

Which brings her back to the earth shattering, holy crap of it all. Angel is a parent. Angel has a child. Angel will pull himself out of exhaustion to take care of Connor until he can't get up anymore, because that's what parents do. They worry about their children. To help them, they try desperate things that they know won't work, because what if they do work, and what if they do help?

With Angel, she realizes, this is a dangerous recipe. His standard plan of attack when he's upset is pretty much attacking with no planning, and damn the consequences, because he's invincible. Except he's not invincible. It's been three weeks since he got his head smashed, and "Certified Stealthy" button aside, his body still isn't working quite right.

She needs to find him before he gets himself killed.

She closes her eyes. She has a mountain of problems to sort through. Find Angel. Find Connor. Find out how and why the hell this has happened, and who the hell did it.

Buffy decides to begin with priority one. Finding Angel. Existential questions can wait a moment while imminent doom is addressed and kicked to the curb.

"Lorne," she says, "I need you to gather everybody in the ballroom for a Scooby meeting in two hours. Don't let anybody blow it off. Tell them it's an emergency." She hopes she can find Angel in two hours. "I might be late, but don't let anybody leave."

Lorne nods, standing up. He brushes off his indigo-colored slacks. "You got it, muffin."

Buffy picks up the phone on the dresser and dials Angel's cell phone as she watches Lorne leave. She doesn't expect Angel to answer, both because when he's upset, he's not exactly Mr. Talk-y, and because he's a bit of a technophobe, and it's a miracle if he even has the stupid thing charged, let alone remembers how to answer it. Today does happen to be a miracle, because his phone is charged, but doubly disappointing, because it rings from within the bowels of his nightstand drawer. She would laugh if the situation weren't so serious.

She's pretty sure he won't be at the Oracles by the time she catches up with him. She needs something to bolster her pursuit. She runs to the bathroom, next.

Angel is meticulous about cleaning up his refuse. He leaves no stubble stuck to the sink basin. His razor is clean. She can't find a single hair tangled in his comb, forgotten on the rim of the sink, or coiled in the weave of his washcloth. Normally, his fastidious nature is something she finds refreshingly pleasant. Riley was a stubble factory who left abrasive hair forests ringing the drain, and she's seen the bathroom in Xander's suite. She's not sure she would use it, even with a hazmat suit.

She claws at Angel's towel, desperate for something - anything with DNA - that Willow could use to find him, but there's nothing. Nothing at all.

Then she remembers.

This towel may be clean, but she knows of something that isn't, and she thinks what she'll find might be even more useful than hair.

Luckily, things have been so crazy the past three weeks that she hasn't had time to bother with laundry, and Angel's been too sick to chip in with chores. More often than not, Angel sleeps naked, and he's been doing quite a lot of sleeping lately, so there aren't that many of his things in the hamper. There's no overflow. She digs past clots and clumps of her own dirty underwear and shirts and socks and pants. All the way at the bottom of the hamper, she finds the washcloth she used to clean Angel up with after their ordeal in the sewer. The cloth is dry and crumpled into a stiff, crusty ball, but it's still splotched with an unmistakable, rust-colored stain.

It's not Angel, she thinks, but it's a good start.

Willow's glowing Tinkerbell light takes Buffy all over Mid City and Hollywood like a fly that's gotten lost.

First, the light leads Buffy into the bowels of the post office. The basement is paved with marble and lit with torches. It's all very medieval. She finds an archway over a space that looks like it should be a doorway, but the space is bricked over. There's strange lettering over the arch that Buffy can't read, though she thinks Giles and Wesley probably could.

The little ball of light spends a long time hovering indecisively near the bricks in the not-doorway, long enough for Buffy to wonder if the not-doorway is a gateway of some sort, one that Angel has passed through. She'd bet money that she's found the entrance to the Oracle's sanctuary. Lorne wasn't able to tell her where it was beyond a general "it's that-a-way" that pointed toward the 101.

After what feels like too long, the little light makes up its mind that Angel didn't go through the not-doorway, or that he did go through, but came back out. The light continues onward, zipping out of the post office.

She follows it down the street until it finds a drain pipe on the side of a dilapidated building, and its journey continues in a vertical fashion all the way to the gutter that runs along the edge of the roof. The roof is several stories higher up than she can count in the brief moments she has, and much higher up than she can jump or climb quickly. She may have superpowers, but she can't do vamp-y stuff like leap up drain pipes or do cartwheels along roof gutters. Well, she hasn't seen Angel do cartwheels – that would be amusing if it happened – and she allows herself a chuckle at the thought, because if she doesn't laugh, she might cry.

The light spends a lot of time racing dangerously along roof lines, and Buffy struggles to follow it from below on the pavement. The sphere of light is small, perhaps the size of a cheese puff, and it's difficult to see from dozens of feet down. The only saving graces of this pursuit are that it's occurring at night, so the light stays visible from farther away, even against the purple, light-polluted sky, and that, except for downtown, L.A. doesn't really have skyscrapers.

Thankfully, Angel's rooftop sojourn was cut short when he ran out of tall buildings, and the light drops to the ground like a stone in its chase. Angel's covered an extraordinary distance, and Buffy is panting hard when Tinkerbell pulls her into the sewers.

They wind through dark, fetid tunnels, until the light makes a left turn, and both Buffy and the light run into a thick wall of nothing that sends Buffy careening backward, and the light skittering off in an uncontrolled spiral.

A lightning strike of pain bolts through all of Buffy's muscles at once, and she shouts at the shock of it. She can't help it. Water splashes as she wobbles around, trying to relocate her sense of balance. She falls against a sludge-y wall. Grime and gook and other gross things scrape off the slimy bricks and get stuck underneath her fingernails. The air is noxious and makes her stomach churn. She picks herself back up with a grimace and tries to move through the tunnel more slowly, hands outstretched like a blind woman, searching.

The unseen wall is a glacier that hurts her it's so frigid, and she can't pass. Her skin crawls. She knows something is watching her, and her neck hairs stand on end. Her muscles shake as adrenaline bathes them.

Tinkerbell buzzes at the wall, spinning and shifting, like it aches to move forward, but can't go that way, either.

"Dead, dead, dead," Buffy hears, a faint female-sounding whisper, thick and old like the earth. "You're not dead."

"Uh .…" Buffy swallows. "Nope. Not dead." Nor did she want to be.

Silence stretches, and no one replies.

"I've been dead several times, though," Buffy offers. "Does that count?"

There's a long pause. "I cannot have you," the voice says.

The invisible ice wall becomes cold, solid stone before Buffy's eyes. The feeling of being watched recedes. She has the strangest feeling that she's just stepped out of a supernatural mousetrap.

"Guess not," Buffy says to the newly formed wall.

She stares at the Willow's light, which has fixated on the wall, bobbing up and down.

Dots connect.

"Hey," Buffy says, frowning. "You mean like really dead, dead. Like ghosts. Not like magical vampire undead. Right?"

Silence replies.

Buffy swallows. Her insides squeeze. She can't stop from thinking that this mysterious mousetrap snared Angel, somehow. He wouldn't be thinking straight, and he'd probably be an easy mark. She wants to call Giles, but she has no reception in the tunnels. She decides to leave the confused, stuck ball of light behind.

The light catches up with her as she's climbing the ladder to the street.

"Hey," Buffy says. She exhales shakily with relief. "Changed your mind?"

The light says nothing. It zips down the alley while Buffy is still struggling to pull her body through the manhole. She stumbles onto her feet and slips into a sprint to catch up as soon as she's out of the sewer.

Her relief that Angel is on the move and not stuck in some crazy necrophiliac sewer witch's snare is short-lived, however, because that's when she starts to find them left behind in alleyways. Here and there, like discarded laundry. Bodies. Bloody, dismembered demon corpses, guts spilled in plain sight for any Joe Public to find and panic about.

She's been running so long, she has a hard time keeping her breath. The light doesn't have the courtesy to pause for her. She can't do emergency cleanup while she's chasing Tinkerbell, so she calls Spike to help her. Spike is fast and agile and will never run out of oxygen, just like Angel. She wonders, maybe, if she should be doing cleanup, and Spike should be doing the chasing, but it's Angel. It's Angel, and she can't delegate when it comes to him.

She can't.

She keeps running.

Every time she finds a new body – if one can call the splatter she usually finds a body – she calls Spike on the phone.

"Got … another one," Buffy says without preamble as she trots tiredly after Willow's magical light. Buffy's lungs burn, and she has trouble speaking. She glances at the street markers. Sweat drips into her eyes, making it hard to see. She swipes stringy, wet hair away from her face. "7th and … South .…" Ugh. She coughs. "South Kingsley."

"Bloody hell, Slayer," Spike snaps. She hears a muffled thump on his end. "I'm not done picking up the last one! And I'm not Angel's bloody janitor. Bugger this, what is Peaches doing?"

She swallows. Angel is killing. Everything. He's killing everything.And most of the remains are so savaged that she has no idea what they were, except not human. Which is …. She shakes her head. She can't think about what it is, right now. She just needs to find him. "I …." Another cough. "I don't … know."

"Call someone else for the next one," Spike says. "I can't bloody well keep up."

"Spike," Buffy hears through the line, a female voice that's distant and masked with static. "Where should I put this piece?"

Buffy blinks. "Did you … take Dawn with you? To pick up … corpses?" She glances at her watch. It's hard to read while she's running. "At two-thirty … a.m.?"

"You asked me to clean up the Pouf's massacre, Slayer. You didn't say who I could and couldn't do it with." And then he hangs up the phone.

Buffy rolls her eyes and continues onward, chasing after Tinkerbell. Her boots clop on the pavement. Each footfall is becoming a knife stab. Her eyes burn with dripping sweat. She's too worried right now to make a big issue out of Dawn being out this late on a school night. She'll make Dawn catch the bus on time. That should be punishment enough, having to slog through classes on zero sleep with the smell of gore still loitering in every pore like secondhand smoke. Buffy knows it sucks, because she can't count the number of times she had to do it when she was growing up.

A homeless man pushing a shopping cart looks at Buffy with an off expression that, to her, means he's a couple cards short of a deck. He doesn't seem to notice the dancing light bobbing along the sidewalk.

"Oh, you know," she says. She'd laugh, but she can't stop sucking down air long enough to do it. "Silly me. More worried … about my little sister … being out late … than the fact … that she's picking up pieces … of dead things."

The homeless man nods like he's understood every word. "I like pie," he says.

"Who doesn't?" Buffy replies over her shoulder between noisy breaths, and she continues onward.

The first time she sees the unmistakable spread of vampire dust on the pavement by a convenience store, she starts to feel a little sick. The pain of exertion and worry is piling up as fast as Angel's victims. If Angel were to get himself killed, would she even know? A calm breeze would blow away any evidence that he ever existed. She's not even sure thatthe ash pile by the convenience store isn't Angel, but she reasons herself out of abject panic. Tinkerbell hasn't stopped or winked out, so Angel must still be on the move, and therefore still not-breathing. Somewhere.

Or the light is boggled by the concept of death, and now it's gone rogue, she thinks, as it zips down another street and darts into an ominous, dark alley.

A lump forms in her throat.

She doesn't call Willow to ask what will happen if the subject of a location spell dies while the light is in transit to find said subject. She doesn't want to know. She can't deal with knowing. She'd rather run herself to death.

As her not-merry chase brings her close to Rosedale Cemetery off of Venice Boulevard, she hears the unmistakable sound of flesh hitting flesh, followed by the unmistakable sound of flesh hitting a gravestone. She's a slayer, so she knows both sounds quite well. The familiar cadence of a voice she's heard every flavor of, from desire to languor to disquiet to hate, carries on the breeze. She doesn't understand the words, but she'd know him anywhere.

He's yelling, and he's hurt, and he's pissed, but at least she's found her missing piece. "Angel," she whispers. A telltale wholeness falls into place, bolstering her.

Her lagging, tired trot becomes a breakneck sprint again. She leaves Tinkerbell bobbing along like a drunken firefly behind her. Her boots pound over grass that's slippery with nighttime dew. She weaves in and out of grave markers, around statues of angels, over bushes. Her pants catch on a rosebush, and she curses as the thorns pierce her burning thigh, but she keeps going, keeps pushing, using the last of her reserves. The sounds of a brawl burgeon as she closes the gap.

"Angel!" she shouts, tension threatening to snap her body in two.

Angel has a smaller blue demon with little white horns pinned against the wall of a crumbling mausoleum. Cracks like spiderwebs line the mossy stone, and Buffy isn't sure if the fight has caused them, or if they were there before. She skids to a stop and struggles for her breath.

Angel snarls. The rattling growl ratchets down her spine in a discordant jangle that makes her bones hurt. His back is to her, so she can't see anything but the state of his shirt, which is sliced into ribbons like something raked claws down his back. The black cotton is wet and sticky-looking, and it shines like glass in the moonlight.

Angel has his arm across the blue demon's throat, and the demon sputters. Angel snarls again, fangs precariously close to Blue's face. Blue trembles. "Angsty teenager," Angel says, more a growl than words. "Brown hair, blue eyes." He holds up his hand to ear height. "About yay high. Kills demons like you. Seen him?"

Angel lets up his arm, but only enough to give Blue a quick gulp of air.

Blue coughs. "I swear, I ain't seen nothing!"

Although Buffy's first instinct is to help - to play good cop to Angel's sinister, like she's done so many times before - she remembers the breed of demon that Angel has in his clutches. A Bantu, she thinks. Booty? Bunko? Something like that. She sucks at demon names, but she knows demon faces.

Bunkos are harmless. They don't hurt people. They don't even hurt animals. They couldn't digest meat even if they wanted to. Instead, they eat mold and fungus - two things Buffy thinks the world could do with less of - and the one Bunko she met in Sunnydale baked her cookies, once. A thank-you-for-not-killing-me baker's dozen, still warm and gooey on delivery. They were yucky fungus cookies, but Buffy appreciated the thought, at least.

She steps closer. She's still trying to catch her breath. A stitch of pain pulls underneath her ribs.

Angel's hulking, aggressive frame almost blocks the Bunko from Buffy's view.

"Go home, Buffy," Angel snaps without looking at her, his voice dark and dangerous. He presses down on Blue's throat again, so hard his fist shakes with strain. Blue chokes.

Tinkerbell catches up, buzzing like a fly next to Angel's face. He swats it so fast Buffy doesn't see much more than a shimmer of movement, and it splatters like a broken paintball when it hits the mausoleum wall. A few moments after impact, the little light fades away, and only darkness remains.

"Surely, then," Angel continues as Blue's eyes bulge from lack of oxygen, "you've heard something."

"Nothing! Nothing, I swear."

"Where is he?" Angel snaps.

"I don't know! I don't know who you're talking about!"

Buffy isn't sure what to do. "Angel, stop," she says. She puts her hand on his shoulder. The muscles underneath his shredded shirt are cold and unyielding like steel, and he's wet with blood. "Angel," she repeats, trying to get through to him, "these guys don't hurt people."

He shrugs her off violently. His fangs gleam in the moonlight. "I said go home!"

"No!" she snaps back, just as vicious. "Angel, what the hell do you even think you're doing?"

He whips around in the blink of an eye, and Blue tumbles to the ground, gasping and wheezing and twitching. Buffy has never seen this look on Angel's face before. He's cold, and furious, but as upset and hurting as he is, there's the unmistakable gleam of fun and sport in his eyes that makes her stomach turn. Oh, she's seen him let his demon loose willingly before - she's even encouraged him to do it for the odd, dire circumstance - but she's never seen this. It's like he's made a truce with Angelus, and they've decided to share for the night, equal parts mayhem for monster and man. Blood carves a runnel from the corner of his lip to the chiseled tip of his chin, and she can't even tell if the blood is from an injury, or if it's the drooling leftovers of a feast.

"I'm trying to find my son!" he says, his voice thick and low and growly.

"Yeah, well, torturing helpless herbivores for kicks isn't a good way to do it," Buffy replies with a glare.

She puts her hands on her hips. Her muscles tremble with stress. As far as things that go bump in the night, Angel on an oops-I'm-evil day is one of the worst she's met. She wants to be terrified, but she won't let herself. Not of him. Primal instincts are a hard force to curb, but she can do it. She can do it when she knows that not doing it will only wind him up more than he already is.

"Angel, listen to me," she says. His eyes are feral, and she's not even sure if he understands, anymore. "Angel, this isn't right. What you're doing isn't right."

He stares at her, unmoving and otherworldly, and she suppresses a shiver. When he's his usual gentle, quiet self, it's easy to forget, sometimes, however much she loves him, that he keeps a vicious demon on a leash inside his mind. She thinks, perhaps, that the leash has frayed and snapped in two tonight. Too much mental strain and, oops, there goes sanity. This Angel seems … less resilient than the one she remembers, and again she finds herself wondering about the world he says he came from.

"I know you want to find Connor," she says, hoping her voice will have an impact, "but you can't do this."

His tongue slides along his lip, and he licks away some of the blood. Other than that, he's motionless.

Fighting Faith is a challenge. Buffy loses about four times in ten. Fighting Angel is so much worse. When Angel doesn't hold anything back, he can be a better fighter than Buffy. Not always, but often enough to make sparring with him feel like playing a table at Vegas. His body is still a little broken, but she doesn't want to place any line bets when she's just run a marathon or seven.

"Don't make me put you down, Angel," she threatens, hoping mere threats will be enough. Her eyes water. "I'll do it if I have to. I don't want to, but I will."

"And then what?" he says, his voice a velvet murmur.

She can hardly breathe. If he calls her Buff instead of Buffy, she thinks she might fall apart. "And then what, what?"

"You'll lock me up?" he says, his tone terrifyingly innocuous. "You'll try to fix me?"

She blinks. "Well … yes?"

He makes a disturbing noise she thinks might be laughter. "What if there's nothing to fix?"

"Angel, please," she says. "Please, listen. You're not Angelus. Don't let yourself be him when you have a choice. Take back the reins."

Time seems to stretch. Something in her tone must be getting to him, or he would have done something by now instead of just standing there like a statue. At least, that's what she's hoping.

"Please, Angel," she repeats. "You have a choice."

His bares his teeth, but it's more of a grimace than a threat. He glances at the crumpled demon, who is still trying to catch his breath. Angel's hackles lower. Just an inch. His presence is still daunting, his aura still scary, but Buffy no long struggles with the overwhelming heebie-jeebies of seeing Angelus ignited like a flame in her lover's golden eyes.

He swallows. "No one will help me," he says, and the cracking words break her heart.

"I'm here," Buffy says. "I'll help." She thinks of the impending Scooby meeting. "Everybody will. I'm sure of it."

Blue scrambles to his feet and jets into the darkness. Angel tracks the fleeing demon with a hungry stare. He doesn't move, but he wants to. She can see it. His body tenses like the drawstring of a bow as an invisible hand nocks an arrow. His lip twitches, and she sees a flash of fang again. A throaty, dangerous growl rumbles deep in his chest. The sound is barely audible it's so far into the bass registers, and it sets her teeth on edge.

"Angel," she says, changing tactics. She splays her hands against his cheeks. He flinches like he wants to pull away, but he doesn't. He lets her. "Angel. Look at me."

It takes him a while, but he does.

"I need you to focus," she says, "and I need you to come back to me. Can you do that?"

He swallows, and his gaze twitches back to the fleeing demon. His nostrils flare. The moments tick down like a bomb is set to go off, and she holds her breath.

"Yes," he says thickly in that evil, velvet murmur, but he doesn't change out of game face right away.

He closes his eyes. She listens to the crickets and the distant shhhhh sound of fast-moving traffic carrying over the air from the 10. He's silent for almost five minutes before he gets himself under some semblance of control. The wicked face of the demon melts away, and she sees his soft, troubled brown eyes. He stares into space, and he shakes, like the transition back to human-looking took a piece of his soul and crushed it.

She slides her hands underneath his shredded shirt, and she hugs him, holding him in an iron, slayer grip. She wants to show him that she means it, that she's there for him, yes, but she also-

"Most of it isn't … mine," he says faintly as he trembles.

"You're not hurt anywhere?" she asks, just to make sure, not that she thinks he'll tell her. He's really crappy about that. She runs her fingertips along the muscles of his back and across his sculpted chest. He has a few shallow scrapes and lacerations, but nothing that would make a vampire bleed enough to explain the mess on his shirt.

She touches his lip, next. He flinches away. The skin is split, which means that of all the blood all over his body, at least the stuff near his mouth is his. She wilts with relief, but not just for her. For him. He would hate himself in the morning if he .… She doesn't even want to entertain that idea anymore, now that she's proven to her satisfaction that it didn't happen.

He collapses against her, dropping to his knees, and soon her embrace becomes literal support instead of figurative. "Buffy," he says.

She's shivering and shaking, too, now that the tension is leaving her. She's not sure when she started crying again, but she's having trouble seeing, and her eyes burn. "I'm here," she says around the horrible lump in her throat.

"I'm … not," he mumbles against her stomach. He leaves a streak of drying blood on her shirt. He's the temperature of the cool night air. He blinks like his eyelids are sticking together. "I'm so tired, Buffy."

She pulls her cell phone from her pocket. The LCD screen glows green in the dark. "I'll call for a ride," she says.

His faltering grip around her waist tightens. "No."

"No?" she says.

"I need … a minute."

He sounds like he needs more than just a minute. She slides to the ground to sit beside him. They rest their backs against the cold stone of the old mausoleum. "Okay," she says, sniffling. "I can wait."

They don't talk about what he's done. From the look on his face, he already knows how bad it was, and she doubts that conversation would be constructive, anyway. She takes a deep breath and blows it out, shaking as a dump truck full of adrenaline leaves her body in a slow, receding tide. She rests her head against his shoulder, and she listens to the crickets while her tears dry.

It's been a lot longer than the two hours Buffy was shooting for when she's able to make it to the ballroom for the meeting she called. Her hair is still wet from her oh-so-necessary shower, and her body is one big throbbing sore.

Angel slinks behind her at a distance that reminds her of a shy cat, one that peers around doors and stares for a little while before running away to hide under the bed. He's still shaky and quiet, and his eyes have this watery look, like he's inches from exploding all over again. He finds a cloak of shadows in the back of the ballroom, melting into the darkness so thoroughly, she can't tell he's there except for the wholeness she feels when he's around.

She's not sure he'd even be here if he could think of someone else to hit for information, but she also gets the impression he's not thinking much of anything anymore. He's just … holding on. He's a grieving parent, she thinks, and she's struck dumb all over again.

Angel is a parent.

With a missing child.

Which is why she doesn't make a crack about his attack of the antisocials.

When Buffy slogs wearily onto the stage in the ballroom, the disco ball is already turning, and seven rows of chairs in front of the stage are crammed full of people. Lorne sits on the stage by the podium in a folding chair, nursing a drink in a crystal tumbler. A Sea Breeze, she thinks, judging by the orange-y pink color of the liquid, and by the slice of lime hugging the rim of the glass. He looks like he should be on the beach, not attending a meeting pertaining to the fate of the world.

The crowd chatters at a breakneck pace, made only more dizzy by the swirl of lights dancing around the room. Buffy hates the disco ball. It's hard to have meetings about stopping apocalypses when the discussion happens under a blanket of sparkles. Removing the ball is on Xander's to-do list, but he hasn't gotten around to it, yet. The Hyperion is an old hotel, and lots of things need maintenance.

Buffy taps the microphone, and the thunder of voices becomes a murmur becomes silence like a receding tide. Most of the senior members of the crew are sitting in the first two rows. The newly minted slayers fill up the back rows. The dazzle of the disco ball and the blaring podium lights make it difficult to see any farther than the last row of chairs, though the palatial room extends well beyond that.

Buffy clears her throat. The microphone screeches, and she waits for the aural assault to cease before she begins. "Long story short," she says. "Angel's not bonkers. The universe got rewritten. Angel has a son who's missing. We need to help Angel find him." For a long moment, she sees only dropped jaws and hears only silence. She feels compelled to add, "Questions? Comments? Concerns?"

"I guess it must be Tuesday," somebody in the back of the room quips.

A shared chuckle passes through the crowd like a wave, and then silence resettles.

Cordelia, who sits in the center of the first row, right in front of the podium, is the first to stand up. She gives the room a radiant smile and a wave worthy of the red carpet. The pinprick lights from the disco ball make her seem bright and happy. "Hi, Buffy," Cordelia says, smile widening, but then her demeanor abruptly shifts. The light sucks out of her gaze. "Angel has a son?" she belts. "You mean a vampire like Spike, right?"

Spike makes a dismissive snorting sound from the second row. "Peaches would have to be bloody legless to call me his son." He takes a drag on his cigarette. A plume of bluish smoke expands around his head, making the air seem hazy.

Wesley, who's by the aisle, sitting next to Giles – Buffy swears they're work-married or something – stands up, next. "Come again?" the younger watcher says.

"Drunk," Spike clarifies. "Pissed. Hammered."

"I bloody well know what legless means, thank you," Wesley snaps at Spike. He turns back to Buffy, eyebrows raised askance.

"I said Angel's not bonkers," Buffy says.

A loud crunch fills the tense silence. Buffy's gaze twitches to Fred, who's stuffing a taco into her mouth. The Taco Bell bag in Fred's lap crinkles as she leans forward to catch a falling blob of sour cream and cheese. When Fred realizes she's caught Buffy's attention, her shoulders curl, and she hunkers down in her seat as if she thinks she can disappear into the floor. Her hair falls like a curtain against her cheeks. "Sorry, y'all," she says, looking guiltily over her shoulder.

Giles blinks. "Yes, well …" He clears his throat next to Wesley. "I do believe Mr. Pryce means the … ah … the other … other thing."

Buffy bites her lip. "The universe got rewritten?"

"Pfft, screw that," Cordelia, who never sat down, says with a dismissive wave. "That happens all the time. Nobody cares about that. You know what doesn't happen all the time? Vampire babies. Again, I say, Angel has a son? Like an immortal vampire kid that he bit?"

"No, like a mortal human kid that he made with another woman," Buffy says to appease her.

"Told you," says Spike. His leather coat squeaks as he shifts backward in his chair and sinks into a haughty cowboy slouch.

"With who?" Cordelia says, ignoring him. "When? Not that Angel doesn't have a certain sex appeal, but-"

"I'd do him," offers Faith.

Cordelia rolls her eyes. "You'd do anything with a pulse."

"Which puts the big guy pretty far outside my usual comfort zone, doesn't it?" Faith ripostes.

Buffy sighs. "Can we maybe talk about the bigger problems? Like anything other than vampire parentage? Like how about the fact that the universe has gone all wacky?" She squints out over the crowd. She wishes she could see Angel in the back. He's already a wreck. Assuming he even has the presence of mind to be listening right now, she doesn't need him to be embarrassed on top of everything else. He gets so discombobulated when people flirt with him. He may have been a lecherous Casanova in his youth, but that's all gone, now, unless he's inebriated or evil. "And Angel is sitting in the back, you know. He can hear all of this."

A few people turn around, trying to spot him, but all that's visible beyond the rearmost chairs is an abyss, and, of course, the disco ball sparkles. Faith, at least, looks chastened, but Cordelia isn't the least bit deterred. "A vampire baby is pretty much a treatise on wacky universe, isn't it?" she says. "I mean talk about proof positive. Aren't a vampire's swimmers kinda dead?"

"Yeah," says Xander, frowning, "don't they shoot blanks?"

"One of the many benefits, mate," says Spike, puffing on his cigarette. "No glove, still plenty of love."

Several of the slayers in the back giggle, and Buffy rolls her eyes.

Giles glances at Cordelia and then to Xander. He ignores Spike. "Well, yes, quite. I do believe Angel having blooded offspring deserves mention, as well-"

"Because, hello, impossible!" Cordelia snarks.

"-but …," Giles continues, "ah … I agree with Buffy that we may wish to focus more of our attention on the universe being … ah. Wack .…" He grimaces and gives his glasses a good scrub, like he thinks the word is grossly inappropriate, but he can't come up with a better one in the middle of being British and flustered. "Wacky."

"Yes," Wesley says. "The universe has been rewritten how, exactly?"

Buffy shrugs. She slouches over the podium. "I was gonna let you guys field that one, cuz I got nothin'. That was literally next on my to-do list. Let watchers field existential universe questions."

Anya raises her hand. "How do you even know all this?" she says without being called on. She's sitting next to Spike. She flips loose hair out of her face.

"Lorne," Buffy says, nodding to the green demon seated to her right on the stage. "Splainy."

Lorne, who's been quiet except for a slurp here and there, sets his drink down on his chair arm as he stands up. He does as she asks, repeating what he's learned from his reads of her and of Angel, though the metaphors and band names change. She's not sure who Lesley Gore is. Or Bob Seger, for that matter.

"Perhaps a vengeance demon …," muses Wesley.

"Nah, can't be," Gunn says, shaking his head. "Ya heard what Angel said in the sewers, right?" Gunn splays his fingers and paints a circle in the air with them. Wax on. Wax off. "We all be dead in this other universe, and I don't know about you, but if mass resurrection is vengeance, then I'ma go whip out my vengeance pompoms."

"Well, I suppose we might first consider for whom this could be vengeance, before we try to discern how it could be vengeance," Wesley says. His gaze shifts to Anya.

"Hey," Anya says. "Don't look at me."

"I reckon you have the most experience with vengeance," Fred says. "No offense."

Anya shrugs. "My universes ran in tandem. They didn't replace each other. And besides, you broke my best one, anyway. I have no idea what could have done this."

"Still," Wesley says, "I think, perhaps, that vengeance is our best lead. Do we know of anything else capable of altering the universe on this scale?"

Cordelia clears her throat. "Well. Actually .…"

Giles peers at her. "Yes?"

Cordelia coughs. "ThePowersrewoundtimeforAngeloncebefore," she says in a rush.

"I … beg your pardon?" Wesley says.

Cordelia sighs impatiently. "Time. They rewound it before. For Angel. I think that would count as alteration of the universe."

"I would concur, if it's true," Wesley says.

"Of course, it's true," Cordelia blusters. "Would I lie?"

Wesley slumps. "Flagrantly embellish, perhaps," he grumbles.

Cordelia rolls her eyes, though she doesn't retort. "But, anyway, I thought they had universe-rewriting rules," she says. "Don't they only do do-overs in twenty-four hour increments? So, they couldn't have done this do-over. Right?"

"I think it's rather clear that none of us was aware they did do-overs to any degree," Wesley replies in a wry tone, "let alone know the rules for said do-overs."

"Well, Angel knew!" Cordelia insists. She frowns. "I mean, didn't I just say that?"

Lorne knocks back his tumbler and takes a hearty gulp of his drink, finishing what's left. "I've never heard of a Power-sponsored mulligan," he says after he swallows. "Granted, I've never heard of a not-Power-sponsored mulligan, either."

Angel appears like a wraith beside Buffy. Even she startles at his sudden appearance, and a murmur of surprise undulates through the crowd. Spike rolls his eyes. "Bloody dramatics," he says as he takes another drag.

Angel ignores Spike. "I made a mistake, once. They let me … take it back. It's … possible."

"Take back what?" Buffy says.

Cordelia makes a rude sound. "So, the universe got redone, and you still don't know what happened?" she says, looking at Buffy. "You'd think if the Powers were doing this to fix everything, they'd have fixed that nonsense. I mean what man in his right mind – granted, Angel? Not the most stable manpire I know – screws that up twice in a row?" She glances at Angel and frowns. "You should have told her, this time."

"Told me what?" Buffy demands.

Angel's lower lip twitches, but that's his only movement. His only reaction. If anything, he grows more distant, staring at nothing far beyond the stage. Sparkles dance across his face from the disco ball, and the dance of lights is incongruous and wrong against his paler-than-usual skin. Buffy takes his palm and squeezes, but his hand is limp in her grasp.

He's gone.

She's sure of it.

He's not in the room, except in body.

She's seen him disconnect like this before, more times than she'd like in the last three weeks, but even before that. It's never good. Am I dead? she hears him say again in her head, and it chills her.

"What did you take back?" Buffy says.

"Something I never should have had," is all he says in reply, and the words are flat and distant.

Buffy grinds her teeth. Again with the freaking cryptic. She looks at Cordelia for some help.

Cordelia shakes her head, though, folding her arms over her chest. "Oh, hell, no," she says. "There's no way I'm stepping into the middle of that melodrama bomb. Never mind."

Angel swallows. "Cordelia …," he says in a choked voice, the first glimmer of emotion, but Buffy's not sure how to read it.

She's getting scared, now. He's not behaving normally. She nudges him with her elbow. "Angel, maybe, you should go to bed."

He ignores her.

"This is bollocks," Spike says. "We're seriously entertaining the idea that Peaches screwed up and got a redo for his trouble?"

"Well, it's happened before," Cordelia says. She folds her arms. "Got any better ideas, Billy Idol?"

"I'd wager the screwing up has happened aplenty, before, but a redo?" Spike flicks glowing ash from his cigarette. It lands on the Vegas-style floral carpeting, and he stamps out the embers with a booted foot. "If Angel gets a redo, what do I get?"

"Would you cut that out?" Xander says. "I already have to find a new light for this place. I don't need to add rug repair to my list."

Spike doesn't look like he cares. "I'm doing you a bloody favor, mate. The carpet's godawful."

Buffy takes a deep breath and counts in her head. One, two, three. She makes it to seven. "What do you want a redo for, Spike?" Buffy says. She's not that mad about the carpet. Spike is right. It's pretty awful.

"Try this whole bloody section of my life. It was Sunnydale or Cleveland. Dru and I couldn't decide on a Hellmouth, so we flipped a bob."

"Boy, did you pick wrong," Xander says.

"My point exactly, mate," Spike replies. "Coulda gone a whole different way."

Cordelia frowns. "What's a bob?"

"A shilling," Giles and Wesley answer on top of each other.

Buffy hears another giggle in the back of the crowd. She squints, trying to see beyond the sparkles. "Are you seriously texting?" she says. Gretchen, one of the newest slayers, has the decency to look apologetic as she flips off her iPhone, and the white glare of the screen winks out. Buffy looks out over the crowd. "You guys get that the universe is rewritten, right? Somebody didn't like the first run, so we've gotten a do over. You get that, right? It's kind of huge."

"But this isn't really a do-over in the truest sense of the word, is it?" Wesley says. "There is no doing anything over if what Lorne says is true. It's done already. Chosen for us." He gestures to Angel. "For example, I don't think Angel even had the option to do something differently with regards to the previous redo."

"Good point, man," Giles says with a sage nod. "Good point. Perhaps there were limits to what could be done."

"Like the twenty-four hour limit on the full redo?" Cordelia says.

"Precisely," Giles says.

"Or, maybe, they just didn't want Captain Caveman to bugger it all up again," Spike grumbles. "I mean, that's the only thing he seems to be good at."

Buffy rolls her eyes. She hates playing referee for the bicker brigade, and Angel is more than capable of defending himself. But one glance at him confirms he's still acting like his plug got pulled from the wall. "Spike," she snaps. "Cool it."

Spike glowers.

"Hey, no offense, B, but loosen up a little," Faith says.

"Loosen up?" Buffy snaps. "Loosen up?"

"I'm not trying to diminish the fact that the universe is in a bit of a jumble, but stuff like this happens every week," Faith says, unintimidated.

A lot of the younger slayers nod. Heat flares in Buffy's chest. She grips the sides of the podium. Her knuckles turn white.

"Well, what do you suggest we do, Faith?" Buffy says.

Faith eases back in her chair, legs spreading wide. "I'm just sayin' that dire comes with the territory, is all. Take a deep breath and relax."

Buffy clenches her fingers. Do people have any idea how irritating it is to be told to relax when one is stressed? Like she's stressing because she sat down one moment and decided to be stressed? Yeah, right. She doesn't take a deep breath, and she doesn't relax.

"So," Buffy says through clenched teeth, "we're thinking Powers or vengeance?"

"Sounds about right," Xander says with a nod.

"Maybe, we should tally up who's dead in the other universe," Anya says. "That might help us understand the possible vengeance aspects. You know. Like maybe Curly would wish Larry and Mo alive, but Larry might only want Mo around, and-"

"Maybe, we shouldn't," Angel snaps. Anger. It's the first identifiable emotion he's injected into his speech since he appeared out of nowhere onto the stage, and he makes it scary. Tense silence stretches, with only coughs and shuffling noises to fill it. Angel doesn't seem to realize or care about what his presence feels like to the other people in the room right now.

"Yeah," Buffy says, trying to drag attention away from him as much as support him. Something is wrong. He's acting wrong. Not like the cemetery earlier. Just … wrong. She hedges, "I don't know if that would be a good idea."

"The purification of mankind," mumbles Wesley as Buffy drums her fingers on the podium.

"Beg pardon?" says Giles.

Wesley turns to Giles. "The Nyazian Scrolls," the younger ex-watcher says. "The purification of mankind. Rewriting is a form of purifying, is it not?"

"I suppose a rewritten universe could also be considered ruination," Giles says.

"Which would make both of us right!" Wesley says. "We must finish the translation!"

"Those scrolls are about my son's birth," Angel says. "They aren't about … this."

Wesley blinks. "How-?"

"You translated them already, Wesley," Angel says. He swallows. "Almost three years ago, now."

The flummoxed look on Wesley's face would be comical if it were occurring on any other moment of any other day. As Wesley recovers, he blinks like a flash bang grenade just went off in his face. "Might we compare notes? The scrolls could still be quite relevant, considering your son is missing."

Angel's hands are shaking. Buffy's not sure anyone else can see it from the audience.

"Well, this is excitin', if you ask me. Redoin' what's already happened," Fred says obliviously, her voice muffled. She's still eating her tacos, and her mouth is stuffed and bulging like a chipmunk's, but she's being quieter about chewing, at least. Or perhaps the shells have gotten soggy, and there's no crunch left to be had. "Someone must have found a way past the limits of three-dimensional space."

"Huh?" says Buffy.

"Time is the fourth dimension," Fred explains. "You gotta be able to fold it to move forward or backward in it. It's why we can't go faster than the speed of light, yet. We haven't gotten past the x, y, z axis of it all."

Buffy frowns. "Again, I say, 'Huh?'"

Fred shrugs, slouching in her chair again. The empty taco bag slips off her lap to the floor.

"I don't think it's a redo," Angel says, words strained, his expression haunted, bare. Hurting.

"Why?" says Buffy.

"It doesn't feel like a chance to fix things," he says. "It feels like .…" Punishment, he doesn't say.

She reads the word in the pinch around his eyes that makes him look a million years old. In the defeated slouch of his shoulders. In the way he's shutting down, like he thinks mentally checking out is the only way to survive.

And then it hits her. All the pieces fall into place. Hell. He thinks he's in hell. He thinks that he's back in hell, or that he never left, or .… She can't decide. Either way, she aches.

Am I dead? he says, a desolate, echoed whisper in her head.

Buffy wraps her arms around him, trying to show him warmth. "You're not being punished, Angel. And even if you are, it's a mistake, and we'll fix it," she says. "We will."

He looks away from her. "I don't think you can," he says.

"We can," Buffy says, punching her words full of certainty. "We'll find a way, and if there isn't one, we'll make a way. We always do."

Angel doesn't reply. He doesn't believe her, and she has no idea what she can say to convince him otherwise except to find Connor and deliver him wrapped in a pretty bow. She sets her jaw, determined. If that's what she needs to do to fix this crazy mess, then that's what she'll do, and she opens her mouth to tell him that, but he's gone.

He's just … gone. Again with the "Certified Stealthy" button. She sighs.

She knows he's in the hotel somewhere, or somewhere nearby, so she doesn't feel the need to chase him down. Maybe, he just needs some space. Space and sleep. She's always at her most dire when she's exhausted. It stands to reason that he is, too. She glances at her watch with a yawn. She's been up all night, and the sun is rising.

"Well, let's all think on this, okay? I need to sl-," Buffy has time to say before the double doors at the back of the ballroom swing open, and Willow runs down the center corridor.

"I've got something!" Willow says, waving a paper about in the air like it's a winning lottery ticket. The paper crinkles. It's covered in weird symbols Buffy doesn't understand. "I know how we can see what happened! It's simple, too." Willow opens her mouth and closes it, and her happy expression grows more worried. "Well, not so simple," she amends. "It involves some chanting, and some candles, and then there's this whole thing with blood .…"

"Wills, what is it?" Buffy says.

The witch shrugs. "All we have to do is look."

"Look," Buffy says flatly.

"Yes," Willow says with a nod. "Look."

"It's not evil, is it?" Xander says. "It's not like raising .…" He looks at Buffy, but he doesn't finish his sentence.

Willow winces at the unspoken reference, but she answers in a calm voice, "No, it's not evil. It's earth magic. But I need to gather some supplies, first."

"Well then," Xander says as he stands up, brushing off his jeans. "How about you write down your shopping list and give it to the Buffster? Seems like we have the world's biggest whodunnit on our hands."

Chapter Text

Sunlight streams through the windows, highlighting a slanting column of swirling dust motes. Angel watches the patch of light at the column's terminus as it creeps across the rug.

He sits in his chair, tired, yearning for silence, but Cordelia is relentless, and she won't leave him alone. The others, Buffy included, have been scouring the city for days, searching high and low for a specific kind of magic candle imbued with the blessed urine of an albino ox, and Cordelia has assigned herself the needless duty of keeping him distracted.

He doesn't want distraction.

And he doesn't want her here.

Of all the friends who've mysteriously returned from the dead, he finds her presence to be the most haunting. But even without her proximity nudging him along, he's losing himself, and he wants not to think at all. When he thinks, his mounting worries fold and bend on themselves like origami, until he's a twisted paper crane of dread.

He wishes she would let him sleep the world away.

"His mother was Darla, if you really must know," Angel snaps as he lays down all seven tiles to spell V-E-T-C-H-E-S. He rubs his tired, burning eyes.

Cordelia stares at the Scrabble board. Her eyes widen, and he tenses, ready for some sort of lecture. He remembers her reaction in the other timeline when she heard the news about Darla. You slept with her? He has no desire to repeat that experience right now - or ever - but he's wilted after three days of unending pestering.

"Your vocabulary is too damned big," Cordelia says, and he blinks with surprise.

"I'm sorry?" he says, flummoxed. What about Darla?

Cordelia doesn't answer him. With a sigh, she counts up his score. "Do you ever not play seven tiles? And, for that matter, what is vetches?"

"Not really, no," he says. "It's the plural of vetch."

"What's a vetch?"

"A type of legume," he says.

Between the fact that he's played his word over two double word scores, used all his tiles, and placed the first E, the T, the C, and the H adjacent to other tiles that have already been put down on the board, he earns triple digits worth of points in one word placement. She glowers as she writes down his new point total, which is more than quadruple hers. Given that she dragged him out of bed what felt like only minutes after he'd dropped, exhausted, into it, and then she harassed him for more than an hour, trying to get him to talk, he feels little sympathy.

She sighs and looks up at him. "Darla, huh," she says, though it's not exactly a question.

"Yes," he replies, staring at her, daring her to object.

She doesn't. She gazes at her letter bank and puts down four tiles. S-K-A-N-K, she spells. She plays off his S and uses a wildcard for the second K. His eyes narrow as she counts up her points.

"Don't you evil eye me," she says. She drops her pencil and folds her arms. "It's what I had letters for and is unrelated." The corner of her eye twitches. "Mostly unrelated."

"Sank, sink, sunk, scan, swan, snap, snag, snark, shank, snack, sneak, snake, slank, spank, stank, and swank, among others, with that wildcard," he says, eyebrows raised, "but you picked skank. And it's mostly unrelated?"

She goggles at him. "How do you … do that? You're like a scowling dictionary with fangs."

"Eidetic memory," he says with no inflection. "Lots of books. Centuries to read them all."

She sighs under the weight of his incredulity. A small, squeaky sound of protest escapes her lips, but it segues into, "Okay, I admit it. You got me. It's totally related. Happy?" He folds his arms, but she isn't cowed. "Of course, you're not happy," she adds with a grumble. "You're only happy when you're unhappy." She shakes her head. "So, how in the hell did that happen?"

Again, not the reaction he expects. He opens his mouth. Closes his mouth. Er ….

"Jeez, you big fuddy-duddy," she says with an eye roll before he can come up with a coherent explanation. "I don't want the groin-y specifics. I understand that part, which … ew. And .…" She stares into space for an uncomfortably long moment, expression overtaken by increasing disgust as the seconds crawl. "Ew." She shakes her head. "I just meant, weren't you a lice-ridden hobo living on rats back then?"

He scowls. "I did not have lice .…"

"Yeah, they probably couldn't stand the smell, either," she says almost absently as she stares at her letter bank and rearranges her tiles.

He adds the letters J, U, D, and G before "mentally", which is a word he played earlier off an M. "There," he says. "I didn't play seven."

She gapes for a long moment, and then looses a sardonic chuckle. "Subtle," she cracks. "Really subtle."

"I don't know what you mean," he replies, deadpanning.

She adds more points to his burgeoning score, ignoring him. "So, what," she says, "did you bump into her at a homeless shelter soirée or something?"

"No," he says. "This happened about three-and-a-half years ago in March, not in New York."

Cordelia thinks about this for a long moment. He can see the dates and calculations tumbling past her eyes as she stares upward at nothing. Eventually, she snorts, covering her lips with her hand. "Please, please, don't tell me you conceived during your 'epiphany.'" She puts the word epiphany in air quotes, using the index and middle fingers of each hand.

He stares at her, eyebrows raised.

"Oh, my god, you did," she says with a barely contained laugh, and he bristles as she plays the word G-R-I-N-D on the board. "And this makes even less sense, now. How-?"

"Look, it was a mystical pregnancy, written about in a bullshit prophecy," he snaps, interrupting her as he loses the last frayed thread of his patience. "There was a hell dimension involved. Can we, please, move on, now?"

Her eyebrows knit together. "Jeez, fine," she says. "Mystical pregnancy. Check. Bullcrap prophecy. Hell dimension. Check, check."

He thinks this conversation is done at last, and he closes his eyes. The sunlight inching across the rug hasn't hit him, yet, but he can feel the radiating heat of it closing in on his left shoulder. He turns to face the light. With his eyes closed, he can imagine he's standing in the sun on clear day, and it's an island of hopeful calm in a choppy sea of worry. The one - and only one - thing he misses from Wolfram & Hart is the necro-tempered glass that let him feel daylight on his skin without subsequent spontaneous combustion.

"What's with you, anyway?" Cordelia says.

"Nothing's with me."

"Right," she says. "You're so morose lately that you make morose people seem manic."

"I'm playing Scrabble with you like you wanted," he counters. "How is that morose?"

"It's grumpy, begrudging Scrabble," she says. "And you're not even Cordelia-ing me when I've irritated you."

He frowns.

"See?" she says. She pushes the game board aside. The letter tiles all slide a bit to the left. "C'mon, Angel. You're not fooling me, or anyone else for that matter."

"I'm supposed to be cheerful when my son is missing?"

"I didn't say that," she says. She folds her arms. "You're deliberately being obtuse."

He opens his eyes, leaving behind his imagined idyllic day. He glances at the rug, feeling something crushing in his chest when he has to scoot his chair over to get away from the encroaching patch of light. Cordelia leaves her seat on the sofa and sits on the arm of his chair. Her warm hand is an unwelcome fire against his shoulder, and he looks away.

"Angel, I can't help you when you're all bristly and grr like this."

"Maybe, I don't want help," he says, but his throat is constricting.

"Well, it's my job to help you," she says, "and even if you don't, I take it pretty seriously."

She's a ghost. She's a ghost, and he remembers so many times she's done exactly this. Been there for him while he was bleak and lost, and then pulled him back to clarity. Sometimes with a kind word, sometimes with a snarky one, sometimes with both, sometimes without saying anything at all. But she's been there. Time and time again, and the recollections become a trickle become a flood. He remembers the last time he saw her.

I'll be seeing you, she said.

She's a ghost in this time as much as she was before.

One for the road?

He remembers the press of her lips against his. The salt of her skin. The floral smell of her shampoo.

Oh … and you're welcome!

He remembers her smile, and the feel of her palm on his chest, fleeting, as he pulled away to answer the phone.

Ms. Chase died this evening at 8:32 p.m, the hospital administrator said. I'm sorry for your loss.

A tsunami of bereavement crashes over him, drowning him. One of the curses of immortality: outliving everyone who matters to him. Human lives are ephemeral. Painfully so. The longer he lives, the more quickly they leave him, and the older he feels. Older, and wearier, and wondering when his final end will come. Hoping, idly, that it might arrive sooner, rather than later, because the thought of enduring makes him crumble like old stone. His mind isn't built for existing forever. And seeing her ….

She's a ghost, and he's bereft all over again.

A lump forms in his throat. "How are you … here?"

"Um …," she says, frowning, "I walked?"

Her voice is enough to yank him out of the undertow, though he can still feel the sand eroding underneath his feet as the waves recede. He shakes his head. "No," he croaks. "I mean …." He swallows and clears his throat. "You never met a demon named Skip?"

Cordelia thinks for a long moment. "I … don't think so?"

Angel blinks away the sting in his eyes. "Trust me; you'd remember this guy."

"Then, no, why?" she says with a shrug.

"How did you fix your visions?" he says.

"Fix my …." The skin between her eyebrows crinkles. "Huh?"

"The visions were killing you," he says, "and then …." Skip. Skip had fixed it.

"The pain went away on its own," she says. "More than two years ago."

Angel frowns. The timeline fits with Skip's first visit. "It just … went away?"

"Yep," she says with a nod. "Poof!" She makes a gesture miming an expanding cloud of debris with her hands. "That's not the kind of gift I question, so I didn't. And don't think I didn't notice you dodging my question, mister."

He doesn't have the heart to ask her if they ever tried anything in this universe. If they ever met at Point Dume and had a happily-ever-after, even for a night. It's clear to him that, even if they did, in this timeline, it didn't work out in the end, and he just … doesn't want to know. If he doesn't know, then their relationship is Shrödinger's Cat. It is, and it isn't. And he doesn't have to think about the implications of having and having lost, or the promise of not having, yet, but, maybe, having someday, because it's both, and it's neither, all at once. It makes things … less complicated. Particularly in light of Buffy.

"Angel," Cordelia says. She waves a hand in front of his face. "Yoohoo …."

He sighs. "What …?"

She rolls her eyes. "What's. With. You?" she says, enunciating every word.

"I think I'm in hell," he blurts, not looking at her.

She's silent for a long time. Her soft exhalations brush against his skin as she hovers over him, and he can't help but imitate her rhythm, though his miming is quieter and less distinct. In and out. In and out. The useless tumble of oxygen does nothing to relax him, and listening to the symphony of vibrant sounds that are uniquely Cordelia only makes him feel the crush of loss again. Her palm touches his cheek, and she pulls on his chin.

"Angel," she says, forcing him to look at her. "That's ridiculous. You're alive. Well. Alive-ish dead. Un-undead? Whatever. My point is you're fine."

She doesn't understand. Buffy doesn't, either. He looks at his lap, hoping Cordelia will get the message for once and go away, but she doesn't, and his hopelessness grows. She sits there on the arm of the chair for a long moment, thinking.

"I'm dead in this other universe," she says. "Right?"

I can't stay. This isn't me anymore.

He blinks. "Cordelia, I'm so-"

"No need to get weepy or guilt-ridden," she says, cutting him off. "Just answer the question."

The lump in his throat returns several sizes larger. "Yes. You died."

"So, if you're in hell right now, that means I'm in hell with you," she says. "Do you think I'm supposed to be in hell?"

She still doesn't understand. She doesn't understand a thing.

"Pfft," she says when he says nothing. She brushes his cheek with her palm. "Hello, of course, I'm not. I'm Vision Girl. I'm Power-sponsored. Ergo, you're being a moron." She smiles, her expression warm and genuine, and seeing it loosens another avalanche of memories, bright and wonderful and serrated like knives all at once.

He's never tried to explain this. Not to Buffy. Not to anyone. Not to another living soul.

"They trick you," he says to his knees.

Cordelia frowns. "Huh?"

"They dangle things you want in front of you like carrots, but once you take a bite and realize how delicious they are, they take the carrots away," he says. "Over and over and over again, until you lose a piece of yourself. And then they do it again, and you lose another piece. And another. And another. Until there's nothing left, and all you do is want, but you have no idea what you're wanting, or why you're wanting it anymore, and you're just this mindless, slavering, desperate … thing."

He recalls only bits and pieces of the weeks after he came back. What he does remember is his perilous grip on sanity slipping over and over as though he were trying to walk barefoot on a frozen lake. Even after he relearned how to string words together to make sentences, he didn't trust in reality for … too long. Every time Buffy would smile, or say a kind word to him, he fought a war not slip and fall again. He'd had unexpected, unwanted intrusions of how-can-this-be-real for years before they went away.

"Angel .…" Cordelia sounds horrified.

He looks up at her. "That's what hell is, Cordelia," he says. "People think it's whips and chains and fire to create eternal misery, but it's not. Physical pain is easy to tune out, either through practice or the biology of simple shock. Why do you think I like to unravel the mind, first, when I kill, rather than go for a quick bite?"

She shivers, and she makes a noise deep in her throat that titillates a part of him he wishes he could turn off, but he can't. He's disturbed her. Whether she'll admit it or not. And a part of him gets a thrill out of it, even as the other part is caught in a crushing vise of heartache.

She's silent for what feels like eternity while she gathers her thoughts, and to her credit, she doesn't try to correct him, to tell him he's not Angelus. She knows better than anyone who and what he is.

"Angel," she says softly. She clutches his shoulder. He wants to grab her hand and never let go, but he doesn't. He can't. "By that logic, shouldn't Connor be here, so they can take him away?"

He swallows. "I don't know. Maybe, they've already taken him. Maybe, that's why he's gone."

She's silent for another stretch of time, an eternity in a moment. "Say I'm dead. Say I'm in hell with you, as Loony Tunes as that idea may be. Do you really think I'd let the bad guys use me to torture you?"

He can't help the ghost of a smile that crosses his face, though he feels empty. "No."

"Well, there you go," she says. She beams at him, but he knows she's forcing it for his sake. "Have a little faith, wouldja?"

He nods, not meaning it, and returns his gaze to his game tiles. She slides back into the seat across from him, appeased. That's the crux of the problem, he supposes. He can't have a little of something he has none of anymore. He's had the rug pulled out from under him one too many times.

D-E-S-P-A-I-R is the next word he places on the board, and their game continues.

Nothingness stretches before him. White, endless nothingness. There is no sunlight in th e void, but he ' s never set foot in a brighter place. He feels comfort like he's only known before in Buffy's arms.

An oracle he's never met stands beside him. Her eyes are gleaming azure like cut sapphires, and her hair is a waterfall of black ringlets that remind him of rain, though he's not sure why.

"Warrior, you are troubled," the Oracle says, her voice earthy and full. "Let it not be so."

She peers at him, puts her hand on his shoulder, and he knows he's not alone. He knows hell is a place that's far from here. He knows.

Angel blinks. "I'm dreaming."

"No," the Oracle says. She tilts her head. "And yes."

"Why are you here?" he says.

She lays her palm flat against his chest. "You deserve far more than we have the capability to give."

"I don't understand," he says.

"There are rules, you see," she says. "Rules we cannot break." She tilts her head again. "There are also rules we can ignore, though, to do so is most unwise. I ignore one, now, for us to speak in this time, in this place."

"… Rules?"

Her expression twitches with amusement. "Yes, Warrior. For the creators are also created. We have uncrossable boundaries, as do you."

He swallows. "What are you trying to tell me?"

She smiles at him. Her hand thump-thumps against his chest, and he fills with her warmth until he's hot to the touch, almost feverish. He feels as though he were living, but he isn't. He feels, and he is whole.

"You know," she says, nodding at him.

"What does that mean?" he says. "Shanshu? I signed it away .…"

She stares at him. "Yes," she says, eyes full of promise. "And … no."

And then he snaps awake.

Angel stands in the courtyard in the moonlight, sliding through the basic twenty-four forms of t'ai c'hi ch'uan, trying desperately to look inward and relax. He makes it through Commencing and Part the Wild Horse's Mane, but falters again and again on White Crane Spreads Its Wings, and he must start over, again and again. His balance is off, and he keeps tripping on transitions. His ankle is turning wrong. His body is not a tool his mind wields without effort, not since he hit his head. He knows he looks anything but graceful, and as his feet shuffle across the dusty flagstones, he's anything but quiet.

"Should we do this here in the lobby?" Buffy says.

"I don't think that's a good idea," Willow replies. "This spell is … powerful."

"The makes-you-wanna-hurl kind of powerful?" Buffy says.

"I'll consider us lucky if hurling is the only side-effect," Willow says.

Buffy sighs. "I guess that means Giles should stock the vomit bags."

"Er ... yes, quite," says Giles.

"There's also the issue of privacy," Willow continues. "I mean we're basically putting a can opener to Angel's recent memories and turning the crank."

Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, Wesley, and Cordelia are having a mini pow-wow in the lobby. Angel can hear everything from the courtyard, and he knows he should be participating. They're doing this for him, scrounging up expensive, rare supplies, trying to figure out the logistics of an ancient spell. But after his dream, Angel's not sure what to think anymore. He's not sure if the dream was real, or if it was wishful thinking. And even if the dream was real, the question of its veracity still remains. He feels like he's dancing on the edge of a razor. If he balances, he finds salvation. If he falls, he finds truth in his worry that he exists in perdition.

He makes it through White Crane Spreads Its Wings and shifts into Brush Knee and Step Forward, followed by Playing the Lute.

"So, I guess we make this need-to-know only," Buffy says.

"Yes," Giles says, "I concur."

"I'll pass, if you don't need me," Xander says. "I don't have a burning desire to be in Deadboy's head."

Cordelia sighs. "I'll pass, too. I get the impression I make him uncomfortable. I'm … I don't think he'd want me there."

Angel trips, and the ball of his foot scuffs on the pavement. He looks toward the lobby. Cordelia's far more perceptive than he gives her credit for, sometimes. The lump is back in his throat. He can't seem to get rid of it, anymore. He closes his eyes and tries to re-center.

Commencing ….

"Dare I ask how this works?" Wesley says.

"Angel remembers the old universe," Willow says. "I'm hoping we'll be able to use his blood kind of like a window into what was. We should see everything he saw, and from there, we can navigate to other points of view. As long as Angel saw Connor sometime during the section of time we'll be looking at, we should be able to hop from Angel to Connor, or to anyone else Angel saw, for that matter. We do need to decide on a window of time, though."

"What's the minimum number of people we need?" Buffy says.

"Five, including Angel," says Willow. "One for each of the four points on the circle, and Angel for the center."

"So, we have exactly enough," Wesley says.

Reverse Reeling Forearm. Left Grasp Sparrow's Tail. Right Grasp Sparrow's Tail. Single Whip. He fails at Wave Hands Like Clouds, and he must start again.

Commencing. Part the Wild Horse's Mane. White Crane Spreads Its Wings.

Eventually, he'll finish.

He must walk the razor.

He's made it to Fan Through Back, Fan Penetrates Back when Buffy comes to retrieve him from the courtyard. Her proximity alone is enough to make him botch the next transition, and he halts his forward motion before he tumbles to the ground. When he looks up, eyes sliding open, he finds her wincing at him.

"Oops," she says. "Sorry."

He shrugs. "Doesn't matter."

She frowns, but doesn't argue. "So … we've got everything set up," she says.

He nods. He hasn't told her of his dream. He's not sure what he would say about it.

"Are you ready to do this?" she says.

No. "Yes."

She hands him a fluffy beige towel and his t-shirt. Her hand lingers on his shoulder. Her touch crackles with energy, and he can't help but respond. He pulls her into his arms, and he kisses her until the world around him swims.

"Wow," she says, looking up at him with a drunken grin. "What was that for?"

A million possible responses flit through his head. I love you. The sky is blue. Just in case you're not real, and you're gone, after this. I don't know. Why not? Because you're the most ephemeral of them all. All of his options are true, but in the end, he speaks none of them. He feels like a clock is ticking down to zero, but he has no idea what happens when the clock stops, and he's … unsettled.

Her gaze softens when he can't decide on anything to say, and she blinks her big doe eyes at him. "This is going to work, Angel. We'll find Connor." She rises up on her tiptoes to kiss him in return. Her breath is warm against him. "You're not being punished. You'll see."

They walk hand in hand to the office, where Willow, Giles, and Wesley wait for them.

The clock is ticking. 5. 4. 3. 2. 1.

Chapter Text

Connor wants to stay and fight, but Angel refuses him.

"Go home," Angel commands. "Now."

Connor shakes his head. "They'll destroy you."

"As long as you're okay, they can't," Angel replies. A pylon crashes to the ground, and the building shakes. Angel peers at the destruction. "Go," he says.

They share a look.

Angel knows he's going to die.

Certainty is painted on his face for Connor to read like an open book.

Connor's memories are jumbled and out of order, but he remembers things. He remembers living a vicious, hard life in another place. A dark place. A place with violence and with blood. He remembers Angel fighting for his life when Connor jumped him by surprise at … a beach? Someplace sandy, with rough, foamy water. Connor remembers that he used a knife. He remembers Angel's grunt of pain as the knife slid underneath his ribs, piercing an unneeded lung. Connor remembers the blood thirst, and the anger. He remembers knowing that he didn't belong in the world, and that he was a freak of nature and a mistake. He remembers … a woman. He can't think of her name, but he knows Angel loved her, and Connor bedded her, anyway. He remembers blaming Angel, too. Every day. For everything.

Connor remembers many things, disjointed, disconnected, disorganized.

He knows his new life is the only reason he isn't still living a war with the kaleidoscope pain and death he only half-remembers. He has a new father, and a new mother, a new family whom he loves and who loves him in return. He had a childhood that was whole and happy. He has new memories that aren't a synonym for misery.

He doesn't know the specifics, but he knows his new state of being is because of Angel. Because Angel has given up something … immeasurable in exchange.

This is why, when Angel tells Connor to go, Connor listens. He's never given Angel obeisance before. Not once. But he sort of feels like he owes it, now.

So, he runs.

He runs even knowing he's leaving Angel to die, even though the very thought of doing so makes him feel sick inside.

Los Angeles shakes as he flees, and its people are starting to panic. He can feel something in the air. Ominous. Uncomfortable. Hot. He feels it, and he knows. He needs to collect his car from the student parking lot, and he needs to go. Now.

He took a bus to Wolfram & Hart, but he doesn't want to wait for one to return. He grabs a pedal bike from the rack outside the building, carelessly snapping the lock on the chain, and he flees, pedaling for all he's worth. Traffic is a nightmare, and he's thankful for the bike, because it lets him race between stopped cars. He's almost back to his dorm room when his cell phone rings with a familiar tone. He skids to a stop and leaves the bike behind by the curb.

He runs.

"Connor!" his new father says when Connor picks up the phone. A hiss of static slices the next few words to senseless ribbons. "… circuits overloaded … okay?"

"What?" Connor yells into the receiver.

"Are you okay?" his father repeats.

"I'm fine, Dad," Connor says. "Are you?"

More static. "… All fi … oming to get you … ay in your dorm."

"No!" Connor snaps into the phone. "No, don't come get me. It isn't safe here! Go North! Get away from L.A.!"

But the line goes dead, and Connor can't call back. He tries over and over and over again, but he can't get through. He can't get past the thousands of other people who are also trying to reach their loved ones.

A streak of lightning cuts through the sky, followed by the rumble of thunder. Freakish, out-of-season rain bursts from clouds that weren't there forty-five minutes ago. Connor thinks he hears a roar in the distance. Like an actual roar. Like Godzilla or something. He wonders what in the hell Angel called forth from the abyss.

Connor waits in his dorm room as instructed, pacing, despite the urge to flee that sings in his bones. People are dashing down the halls, shrieking and crying. The building shakes again, and books fall from shelves to the floor. His computer monitor topples and breaks. The glass in all his picture frames shatters.

He wants escape with his classmates, like Angel instructed him to do. He wants to be far from here. Every sense in his body screams that the End is coming. He can feel it in the back of his throat. It tastes like ash on his tongue. Dread hums in his veins, and he feels like a tuning fork for disaster.

Every moment that passes, the worse he feels, until all he can hear bouncing around in his skull is run, run, run, run.

But he can't.

He can't run.

His family is coming to get him, and he can't leave. He doesn't want them to waste time searching for him when they get here, and they will, if he flees.

He flips on the news. Nobody knows what's going on. There are reports from Newport Beach to Thousand Oaks of fire and explosions and earthquakes and mayhem, of rioting and looting. The news stations wink out one by one like a cascade of dominos, until all he finds is the whine of an emergency broadcast signal on every channel, and then even those fade to static. After that, the power in the building winks out, plunging Connor into darkness, and he tosses the remote away in frustration.

He gets another call. "… arking lot!" his mother manages to shriek before the static-y call is dropped by the faltering, overloaded grid.

He slams into his father in the hallway as he's running to find his mother.

"Dad!" he exclaims as he rights himself and helps his father up.

"Come on!" his dad says, grabbing Connor's hand. "We're leaving. Right now." And they jet for the stairwell without another word.

They're spilling out of the emergency exit with a gaggle of straggling students when something overhead screams so loud the earth shakes. A blast of heat sucks the moisture from the air. The parking lot lights on fire. The flames dance sky high in a deadly, shimmering wall of heat. Everything for hundreds of feet is cinder.

Connor sees a sweep of leathery wings against black sky. There's another discordant, unearthly scream, followed by a pillar of fire streaking from the sky to the ground like a lightning strike. A plume of flame erupts in the next parking lot over, and the next, and the next.

He doesn't know where his mother is parked, but his dad loses it. Absolutely loses it. "Colleen! No!" Something hollows out Connor's insides, and he feels sick. Numb. Things seem to blur, and all he can hear is his dad wailing.

Another roar bisects the air. An explosion billows on the horizon. One of the buildings on the distant skyline crumples to the ground.

They don't have time for grief. Connor shakes himself out of a stupor and pulls his dad's hand. "Come on!" At first, his father won't budge. "Dad, come on!"

Though it takes his dad a moment, he manages to pull himself together enough to move, and he lets Connor yank him along.

Connor has no idea where to go. "Where's Krista and-?"

"In the car," his father replies, lip trembling. "W-with your mother."

Connor feels it like a kidney punch, but he doesn't let himself stumble. Doesn't let himself stop. He still has his dad. He can't stop, now.

People spill out onto the streets like ants, running, screaming, crying, flailing. Earthquakes tear the pavement apart. Cars skid and topple. Fire plumes everywhere.

Los Angeles is a dry, hot tinderbox in the summer. All it takes is one lit match to set the tinderbox ablaze, but this time there's a winged creature the size of a house dumping fire on the ground by the lungful, and there are broken gas lines by the dozen, spilling combustibles into the air. Not even the pouring rain is enough to stop the conflagration from clawing its burning fingers down every street and into every building.

And, still, they run.

They've been running for twenty minutes when a man in hysterics who's wearing only a hospital gown runs straight through them, slamming into Connor's outstretched arm. Connor's hand separates from his dad's. He turns around, frantic, as his dad is swept away by the panicked crowd.

"Dad!" he shouts so hard that the word tears his throat. "Dad!" Smoke and heat make his eyes water. He coughs. "Dad!" he croaks.

Connor loses his father for less than thirty seconds.

A squeal of tires followed by a metal crunch and the shriek of breaking glass deafens him. His ears ring. Things slow down, like time is stretching. For a few moments, the world is still, and silent, and then reality snaps back like a rubber band.

His father is pinned between the hood of an accordion-ed car and the crumbling brick wall of a pillaged grocery store. His eyes are glassy, and he isn't moving. He's dead. The driver is dead.

Everybody is dead.

Connor blinks, and he falls to his knees beside the twisted wreckage.

His lower lip trembles, and he clenches his fingers. His whole family just died. If they hadn't come for him, hadn't driven into the heart of a city on fire …. If they'd hopped into their Lexus and sped up Highway 1 toward Oxnard instead of .…

Tears stream down his face. Everything he touches turns to ash.

In his life, he's had three fathers, and they've all gone to ruin one by one. His family just died for him. They wouldn't have done that if Angel had never used magic to make them into Connor's family. And Angel never would have used magic to make them into Connor's family if .…

Connor closes his eyes as he hears the distant rumble of another building coming down.

"I wish I was never born," he says, the words tormented. He coughs. Smoke burns his eyes. His throat aches. "I wish I was never. Fucking. Born!"

A woman he doesn't recognize materializes next to him. He's too wasted with anguish to be surprised, or to care. She smiles at him, but it's a wicked smile that adds nausea to his grief. She puts a warm hand on his shoulder and squeezes it. Her necklace glows, a blue, cold fire in the hot, awful blur.

"Done," she says.

And with a snap of her fingers, life as Connor knows it disappears.

It is the End.

Chapter Text

Angel comes back to himself like a dripping faucet, a gradual drip, drip, drip that restores his sense of self. Somewhere in the procession between nothingness to overload, he realizes the drip, drip, drip, is his blood, which seeps from gaping, self-inflicted slashes along his ulnar arteries, into a large silver bowl filled with chopped sage. He has no heartbeat. With only gravity assisting, the blood trickles, not gushes.

His stomach churns like an ice cream maker, but for once the nausea has nothing whatsoever to do with his fading head injury. The air is thick with the stench of magic and burning incense. His trembling body hums with dissipating energy, and it feels like bugs are crawling on his skin.

The room is sharp and tinted with heat. Heartbeats crowd around him like bodies packed into a too-small elevator. His demon sings.

Kill them. Kill them. Kill them all.

There's a low-pitched rumble filling the small room. It takes him far too long to realize that the noise is emanating from him. He's growling. Deep, and dark, and quiet. It's the kind of growl meant to frighten attackers, not to threaten victims, and it's born out of fear. A not so subtle touch-me-and-die. The sound rattles in his throat and won't stop.

"Oh, dear …," someone says.

The sound of retching fills the room.

Willow sits on her knees across from him, clutching his hands so that his wrists drain into the bowl. She's pale as moonlight. Her gaze is a distant, thousand yard stare, and she's panting like she just had amazing sex. She's also falling over, and her grip is going slack.

He doesn't think about the spell's result, yet. He can't.

His first conscious act is to reach for her, and he steadies her as he slides around the spell circle on his knees to support her. Boneless and drooling, she melts against him with an airy giggle. Her slender neck is inches from his mouth. Her pulse jumps underneath her skin.

Hunger snatches his mind away from him, and his mouth waters. He looks elsewhere. At the floor. At the intricate chalk runes Wesley helped Willow draw on the tiled floor. At the red wax candles that have all burnt to the ends of their wicks. At the people surrounding him.

He can't stop trembling, and he can't stop growling.

He's never felt so unsettled in his life.

"W-Willow," he manages through chattering fangs. When she doesn't respond, he gives her a gentle shake, trying to jolt her back to her senses.

All she does is slide out of his arms to the floor with a dopey smile on her face, a garish incongruity with the apocalyptic vision her spell just conjured. Her green eyes are misty, and the deep black of her pupils shows endless fathoms.

"Wooow," she slurs, the word slow and oozing like it's made of molasses. She stares at the ceiling. "That was …. Mmm." She licks her lips. "Wow."

Angel imagines breaking her neck. The thought is sudden, as though it were a semi driven through his head. The sound of snapping bone echoes joyously in his mind's eye. With a disturbed blink, he pushes the inappropriate fantasy aside.

He still doesn't think about the spell's result.

Giles hunches over a paper sack, heaving, but the overwhelming explosion of sage and incense in the air drowns out most of the scent of bile.

Wesley wipes his brow with an embroidered handkerchief. He trembles, too, and his skin is pasty.

Beads of sweat dot Buffy's forehead. She looks sallow, almost chartreuse. She reaches for a vomit bag and hovers for a moment, like she thinks she'll lose her stomach contents. She doesn't, though, and she sets the bag back down.

No one seems to know what to say.

"T-that was …," Wesley begins. He looks at Angel, frowning. A parade of words crosses his expression before he chooses the wholly inappropriate, "Bracing."

Giles peers over the lip of his vomit bag. His body sways, his knuckles are white, and his hands shake. "If by b-bracing, one means dreadful," he says before retching again.

"Angel …," Buffy says, but her voice breaks apart into speechlessness. Angel can't name the emotions on her face, but none are good, and her disquiet makes him feel sicker than the spell has. He shifts his gaze away from her, unable to process her feelings when he can't even process his own. He doesn't know what to .… He doesn't know.

Stop, he tells himself. Stop growling. Stop it.

He squeezes his eyes shut.

He feels like something's going to jump out of the woodwork and kill him. His sympathetic nervous system is convinced. Except fight or flight, in this instance, has become hunker down mid-room and snarl at everything like the subhuman beast that he is.

I'll consider us lucky if hurling is the only side-effect, Willow said.

He licks his lips and takes a deep breath. Beyond incense, beyond sage - scents that are slowly dissipating - he smells sweat, and sickness, and urine. He smells fear. Buckets of it. Enough buckets to capsize a boat. Trepidation pours from everyone but Willow, who's acting stoned out of her gourd, and he can't take delight in the fear because he's swept up in it, too.

He's not scared because something tweaked his baser, demonic side. He's scared because the spell generated terror in human and vampire alike. Somehow, the solidarity helps. His throat closes. He forces the awful, upset growling to cease.

Finally, they have silence.

Wesley seems to have read Angel's mind. "It would … s-s-seem that watching the world b-burn to bloody cinder around us … causes rather intense f-feelings of-"

Somebody bangs on the office window, and Wesley shrieks.

"Jeez, Wesley, what's your trauma?" says Cordelia through the glass, her voice muffled by the barrier. She rolls her eyes. "So, what happened? Vengeance or Powers?"

"Hang on … a minute," Buffy says faintly.

As the spell's aftereffects continue to dissipate, Angel's first interpretive thought beyond threat assessment is one of simple denial. Willow did the spell wrong, he decides. She must have.

He grabs the spell book from Willow's lap. The pages smoke, and the edges are charred like they, too, were set on fire by the dragon. He flips through the book, but the act is useless. Reams and reams of a dead, pictographic language he can't read blur before his eyes.

His second interpretive thought is still denial, but more complex. Willow did the spell right, but the results were falsified. By what, or by whom, he doesn't know, but Angel has a list of enemies a mile long, and he's sure some of them can forge a spell.

His third interpretive thought is still very much denial, but it's on the order of conspiracy. Despite what's now a mountain of evidence to the contrary, he is in hell. None of what he sees now is real. This is all some twisted mind game created to fuck with him.

As soon as his thought process starts to creep past denial into scarier prospects, it's like he hits a brick wall, and he can't think anymore. He doesn't want to. His throat constricts. He sets his jaw and shambles to his feet. The blood loss makes him stumble into the doorjamb. His knees buckle, but he wins the desperate fight with gravity, hanging on to the door like a barnacle.

Angel swallows. Mind-numbing anxiety and blood loss have combined to wreck his fortitude. He's ravenous, but everyone is staring at him. There's a cooler with some pig's blood sitting along the wall by the desk, because no witch in her right mind would perform a blood ritual involving a vampire without keeping some replacement plasma on hand, but Angel can't.

He just can't.

He's too raw to drink in front of witnesses right now. There's no way he'll be able to keep things civilized like he's drinking a soda, not in his current state. All he'll need is one mouthful, and everybody watching will know that he's drinking an orgasm.

He swallows, salivating at the mere thought.

The slashes on his wrists hurt. His hands shake. He leaves a streak of blood on the white moulding of the doorway.

He doesn't speak. He won't eat. He can't think.

The clock on the wall ticks, filling the damning silence in the room.

He rests his forehead on the doorframe and peers woozily at them.

"We should try to locate that vengeance demon," Wesley says. "Maybe, we can reverse the wish."

Giles blinks, wiping his mouth as he straightens up. He folds the top of the paper bag closed with a look of disgust and dumps it in the trash can. "But you'd be dead, man. So would …." His gaze wanders to Cordelia, who's peering through the glass at them, eyebrows raised like she's just asked a question and expects an answer.

"Yes …," Wesley says with a frown. "I suppose that's … rather a problem."

Giles thinks for a moment. "Perhaps … perhaps there's … ah … a way to … ah … exchange features of a wish without canceling the whole thing?"

"We should speak to Anya," Wesley agrees with a clipped nod.

"Or, maybe," Buffy says, finding her wits, at last. Her face screws up like she's sucked a lemon. "We could pause for a brief and resounding, 'What the hell was that?'"

"Well," Giles says. He taps his glasses against his chin in a ponderous fashion as he steps away from the magic circle. "Quite … ah … quite clearly, our initial suspicions were correct. The universe tampering was the result of vengeance."

"No," Buffy says, shaking her head, "I mean what the hell was that?" She turns to Angel. Her eyes blaze, and Angel feels like the floor is dropping out from underneath him, and his stomach along with it. "Since when do the Powers want you to raze a city of millions?"

Angel swallows. "They sent me a vision," he says. The words are faint and useless.

Buffy gapes. "And you believed it?"

This is a horrible, sinking moment of hindsight that he already had, moments before the dragon killed him. "I did at the time."

"Now, now," Wesley says. "Let's all calm down, shall we? Clearly, there must have been extenuating circumst-"

"-yes," adds Giles. "After all, hindsight is twenty-"

"For god's sake, Angel, why?" Buffy says, ignoring both watchers. "Why would you believe that?"

Angel grits his teeth, and his fangs cut into his lip - the first stirrings of anger shaking loose from his moorings. He knows he made a horrible mistake. He knows it. But he's not the village idiot. "The targets were evil, Buffy. The worst on this plane."

Buffy crosses her arms over her chest. "So, what?" she demands. "You're saying that the means justify the fiery, explode-y end?"

His chest tightens. "That's not what I-"

"Even then," she says, barreling onward, "what, did you think, 'Oh, hey, I'll pick a fight with a nuclear bomb today, because the Powers said so!' Really?" She scoffs, "I have a bridge I'd like to sell you."

"The Powers don't give a shit about people," Angel snaps back, unraveled, undone. "They don't give a shit about you or me. We're all expendable pawns in their apocalyptic war games – you know that – and I thought they were asking me to .…" Die. Die for them. His words break to pieces, and he can't finish. He clears his throat. "I thought .…" He doesn't know what he thought, but he never expected to see Los Angeles burn. He never expected to kill more people with his soul intact than he ever had without it. He never once expected Connor to-

Angel hits the wall so hard he puts his fist through it, splitting his knuckles open in the process. Giles flinches. Plaster rains to the floor, and Angel shuts down all over again.

Wesley puffs up like a peacock. "Please, can we discuss this in a rational-"

"What kind of moron coach, god or not, intentionally sends an MVP on a suicide mission that won't accomplish anything but ten-billion-fold retaliation?" Buffy says like Wesley hasn't even spoken, pelting Angel with reasoning he knows he should have thought of before the point of no return, but didn't.

Angel trembles. This is too much. He can say nothing further in his defense, because he has no defense for himself. She says nothing he hasn't already flagellated himself with a million times since the dragon clubbed him into the wall and killed him. She offers no revelations, no new insight, only a chilling, bitter echo of his own remorse, made worse by disgust he's never heard from her before, except on a hillside in the dark behind his mansion, once, when he prepared to meet the sun. Nothing justifies what he's done.


"What the hell's happened to you, Angel?" Buffy says.

She's a terrible mirror he doesn't want to look at right now.

He swallows once. Twice. Again. Ugly things burble in his chest, and his vision blurs. "I don't know," he says, a bare, desolate whisper.

Then he stumbles away.

Angel's not in hell, but he thinks, having now seen reality, hell is where he'd rather be.

He sits on the roof of the Hyperion, perched on a ledge that overlooks the city. Lights twinkle on the purple, smoggy horizon. The distant sounds of traffic well up from the streets below, and the reek of exhaust loiters in the back of his throat. He clutches a half-empty blood bag. A pile of empty bags rest in a heap on the floor beside the ledge.

He doesn't normally drink human blood, but after Willow's magic-induced parade of death, Spike came to him with a backpack full of expired plasma packs he'd swiped from the hospital. It helps when the cravings get so bad you want to rip someone's throat out, Spike said. Freely donated. Headed for the biohazard bin if you don't drink it, so don't piss and moan about how I filched it from someone else who needs it, because I bloody well didn't.

Angel takes a slow sip from the bag in his hands. Loath as Angel is to admit it, Spike is right. Drinking human blood, even expired and cold, cuts the edge off in ways no amount of pig blood ever could. The longer he drinks, the easier he finds it to hold onto his human guise, until he's back to a deluge of Connor, Connor, Connor, and his mind is a skipping record that can't move forward.

Human life is a fleeting, ephemeral joy. From the moment of his son's first screaming breath, Angel knew that he would see his son die, someday, if not to nefarious interference, then to the omnipotence of time. Angel also knew that time as a cause of death would likely be the long shot in a lifelong game of supernatural Russian roulette. Regardless, by old age, or by disease, by cruel accident, or by violence, Connor would reach his end, and Angel would have to witness it.

Except it is the end, but Connor isn't dead.

Every time Angel approaches this precipice in his head, he blanks, and he can't step his thoughts forward anymore. One blink, and he's back to the beginning, thinking the same things in a different way. Stop. Skip. Repeat.

He was raised Catholic, raised to believe eternal salvation lies beyond the mortal coil. He remembers nothing of his own death. To him, the transition from living to undead was like going to sleep, and the transitions between soulless and ensouled and back again were only painful, disorienting, rapid shifts in moral imperatives.

He knows from Buffy's stilted, halting words on the subject, that there's something beautiful that follows the cessation of life, so beautiful it defies description or a name. He's accepted that he'll never know firsthand what Buffy has experienced, not because he thinks he'll never die – he knows he will – but because he isn't good or righteous. The idea that those he loves inevitably will know it, though, is what makes losing them in his procession toward eternity somewhat bearable.

But Connor isn't dead.

Connor isn't.

Wasn't ever.

And there will be no afterlife for him.

Stop. Skip. Repeat. Stop. Skip. Repeat.

Angel doesn't shift his gaze from the horizon, not even when he hears the door to the roof open and close. It's not Buffy. Buffy is in the basement hitting hapless punching bags until they burst apart. He can hear her. Barely. The slam, slam, slam, slam of her fists is a crackle at the very edge of his senses. He's not sure Buffy will speak to him again.

Cordelia lugs a dusty, pollen-covered lawn chair over to the ledge with him. She drops something into the chair – a magazine, he supposes – and then she plops down next to him on the ledge. She clutches a small first aid box.

"Let me see your wrists," she commands.

He grips the blood bag in his right hand and proffers his left wrist to her. The gash cuts him all the way to the bone and still weeps blood at a glacial trickle. His body is still processing the blood he's drunk, and there's a long way to go before the jagged interruptions in his flesh will be healed. He needed to cut deep, or he wouldn't have bled enough for the spell to succeed.

She squints at the damage, leaning close. "Jeez, Angel," she says. She looks up at him. "I'm glad you're too dead to die, because this would have offed you for sure."

She dabs the deep cut with unnecessary antiseptic, and then wraps his wrist in soft gauze. She finishes her masterpiece with a small strip of surgical tape, which she strokes into place along the seam of the gauze. Her touch is a thousand warm memories, and he finds himself watching her instead of the horizon.

"Switch," she says.

He transfers the blood bag to his left hand and gives her his right wrist. The first aid process repeats. She completes the job with a satisfied pat on his bandaged wrist.

"All done," she says.

She picks up the copy of Cosmopolitan she brought with her, and then she slides off the ledge into the lawn chair. She flips through the pages of the magazine, peering at them with the same discerning interest he applies to books like Crime and Punishment.

Stop. Skip. Repeat.

"Wesley filled me in," she says after several stop-skip-repeats, but it's a statement, not a question. She doesn't try to make him talk. She simply offers company. "I'm just here," she says.

His déjà vu is so strong, so disconcerting, that it marries his stop, skip, repeat confusion with a mind-numbing sense of loss he's already experienced. The union is too much for him, and it shakes loose things that he doesn't want to let go of, yet – precipitates in a saturated system. The world blurs and duplicates itself as his eyes lose focus. An aching softball gets stuck in his throat. He blinks, and his eyes are wet and burning.

He sniffs and looks without seeing at the distant skyline. In his mind's eye, the buildings are burning to the ground, and it's his fault. His son is crying in the wreckage, alone, wishing himself out of existence. That's Angel's fault, too.

"Cordy," he rasps, "I don't know what to do."

She sets down her magazine and peers at him. Her gaze is sympathetic, not condemning, not how-could-you, not you-ginormous-idiot. "You don't have to know or do anything right now," she says.

He wipes his wet face with the back of his hand. "I really fucked up."

"Yeah," she says with a dismissive shrug. "You really kinda did." She brushes a loose lock of hair out of her face. And then she pulls him into an embrace.

He bristles at first, but he's so fucking tired, and she's warm, and he's falling apart. He doesn't have the energy to pull away. He doesn't have the energy to do anything. The blood bag he hasn't finished slides out of his slackened fingers and hits the ground with a liquid slosh. He's a passive captive.

She doesn't tell him they can "fix it," or that they'll figure things out. She doesn't promise him that Buffy is overreacting and will come around. She doesn't insist she'll get Connor back for him. She doesn't assure him that it's okay.

Cordelia offers no platitudes. She does offer him truth, though. She always has.

"This is a crap catch-22 if I ever saw one," she says, and despite everything, a wry, upset laugh cracks loose from his hurting throat.

"Yeah," he says.

He presses against her and puts his nose in her hair, soaking her in. She has her own unique scent. Cocoa from her lotion. A hint of lilac that's almost buried under an earthy burst of fresh rain. He wanders to the pulse point in her neck, rests his face against her skin, and breathes, in and out and in and out, letting her smell wash into the back of his throat. He keeps his body flush with hers, clutching her, breathing, letting it sink in how solid she is. How warm, and how alive.

She doesn't shun his closeness, doesn't slap him away. She gets what he's doing, what he needs - or she fakes her understanding well enough to fool him - and she doesn't begrudge him her personal bubble for it. He takes his time, and as the moments pass, he lets himself believe.

"I've missed you," he says. The words are choked.

"Well," she says, "here I am."


She rubs his back in long, soothing strokes, and he lets himself sink into tired non-thought. Into simple numbness. Into nothing.

She gives him a break from the noise in his head, and it's a gift he cherishes.

Stop. Skip. Repeat.

After Cordelia leaves him alone on the roof, he spends he-doesn't-know-how-long staring at the skyline, watching the lights while his thoughts hiccup on Connor blinking out of existence. Angel still can't seem to get beyond this point. Connor isn't. He just isn't. Except every time Angel thinks this, the numbness recedes a little, and heat takes its place, until he's burning like he might breathe fire, and he needs … something. The needing spreads like wildfire, and it drives him off the roof in a tired, fixated daze.

He stumbles down the basement stairs, each step creaking because he's graceless with his weight. The throb of bass pounds against his ears, louder and more earsplitting the farther down the flight of stairs he goes, until his head is ready to explode. The pounding weaves with the heat he feels, and he's shaking by the time he finds Faith dancing in the wreckage of their gym.

Wincing, he turns the volume dial on the stereo down to a point where he's not in pain, but his mind is still inferno. Connor isn't. He isn't, he isn't, he isn't.

Faith looks up at Angel and grins as she bounces to the rhythm of her music. "Hurricane B," she says with a sultry smile, gesturing at the broken punching bags piled on the floor. She's pushed heaps of beans - formerly stuffing - to the sides of the room with the deflated bags, and she's converted their basement gym into a one woman dance studio. She twirls. "But I still needed a workout." Her skin glistens with sweat, and her hair hangs in damp, disheveled strings. Her breaths escape in a noisy chuff, chuff, chuff that says her workout is a good one.

The room smells of dankness and dirt. Her aliveness is a lit match, and his veins are full of tinder. He turns to leave, because if he doesn't leave, he'll lose his last cogent thought that isn't "Connor isn't," and he'll ignite.

"Oh, come on," Faith says as she wiggles her hips and gestures at him to join her. "Don't they know?" she sings along with the music, "The speaker is about to explode!"

"I don't dance," he says, his voice rough with disuse and suffused with grief.

"Don't they know?" Faith sings, ignoring him. "This building is about to blow!"

"I don't-" He deflects her foot with his injured wrist when she spins into him with a roundhouse kick.

She dances in place beside him as he shakes off the impact with a wince. "Yes, you do," she says. "Hit me." She flips, but he ducks. Her boot flies past the space where his face was moments earlier. Her somersault takes her to the stereo, which she turns up to ear-splitting levels.

He squints at her. The aural assault is disorienting - which he assumes is why she's turned up the volume in the first place - and she's already almost disabled one wrist.

"Sky high, sky high. Here we go, about to fly," she warbles, slightly off key, and he dodges a flying fist with less than an inch to spare. "C'mon, A," she taunts. She mock punches her jaw with her fist. "Right in the kisser. Gimme a good one."

He glares at her as he eases into fighting stance.

"Nah," Faith says, "this ain't practice. No stances. Just hit me."

The piping over the boiler-room-turned-gym makes the space seem claustrophobic, and the sound of the music is a crushing mess of echoes that yank at his attention and make it hard for him to predict what she'll do. She circles him, her feet moving to the beat. He steps in time with her, arms up, ready to deflect.

She's close like a lover in the hot space, and she moves with feline grace. Her shoulder brushes his. She jams her elbow into his solar plexus. If he breathed, that kind of blow would end the fight as he collapsed in a pile of seizing lungs and spotting vision. Instead, the impact explodes from the ganglia by his diaphragm into lightning streaks of pain, electrocuting all his nerve endings.

He loses his tenuous hold on his human face. He shows her his fangs with a snarl, and then he's gone. Gone from himself. The fire is devouring.

The gloves are off, and she laughs, and laughs, and laughs, like he's just given her a winning lottery ticket. She goes for his groin. He pulls her hair, hyperextending her neck. She gets her fingers into the belt loops of his pants, and she throws him. He jams a knee into her left kidney. She gouges his eyes. The fight is a push and pull, a rapid-fire trading-post of hurt where the only rule seems to be no killing, so he doesn't bite, and she doesn't stake.

"Faith," he growls. It's the only word he can find in his head that's not already burned to ash. He launches at her.

She ducks away, but he shifts his trajectory with preternatural speed. She rolls right into him. He catches her arm with his good hand and twists until her shoulder pops out of joint. She shouts, but the exhale of pain ends in a bloodthirsty grin. "That's the spirit!" she says, giving him a nod of approval. And then she clocks him in the ear so hard his vision fuzzes, and he stumbles.

The war is on, vicious, no holds barred, and he loses himself in a whorl of painful sound and thrilling violence. Anger fills him like lava, burning him out from the inside. He hits and kicks and swipes. Connor isn't, he thinks, and each blow he lands on Faith is a sledgehammer of frustration and fury.

"Yeah," she encourages, panting. "Go on." She spits blood at him. "Get mad."

Their clash is relentless, unrestrained, without mercy. The space between them is timeless. They fight until neither of them has any fight left, until he's too exhausted to feel sad or guilty or like he's a shitty father or a bad leader or a horrible man, until he's hitting like a drunk, and she's not much better off, and it would be stupid to continue, but they continue anyway. They fight until all they're doing is trading mindless blows like battering rams, and they're not even trying to dodge anymore. They fight until they fall over.

In the end, they're side by side on the ground, exhausted and bruised and hurting. Faith's energetic playlist runs out, plunging the room into blessed silence. His ears ring, and his body is burning out. He listens to Faith panting. He is silent.

"Better?" Faith says.

He swallows as his demon face melts to human. "Not really," he says. His eyes are wet again. Fucking idiot, he thinks. He loves his son, but he hates him. He hates himself, too. He wipes his eyes with bloody, torn knuckles.

Faith turns to him, both eyes ringed with black and blue. Her lip is split. Blood drips from her hairline, and bruises mottle her skin from head to toe. He's sure from the state of the skin he can see on his hands that he doesn't look much better.

"I get it, you know," she says with a funny-sounding wheeze that speaks of a broken rib. "I can respect it."


"The whole blaze of glory thing. B's just … being B."

But it wasn't a blaze of glory. Maybe, it started that way, but that's not how it ended. When he closes his eyes, he can still see the fire behind his eyelids, and he can hear the rumble of skyscrapers tumbling down, the shriek of the dragon, heartbeats ceasing in massive clots of death.

I wish I was never. Fucking. Born!

Connor echoes in Angel's head like a wrecking ball. Angel's fault. All of it.

"I'm sorry about the kid," Faith adds. Her brown eyes are soft and warm. "Giles told me."

"Yeah," Angel says, the word a croak.

They lie in the basement on the cold floor for several minutes, staring at the low-hanging lights dangling from the pipes overhead. They rest, and they heal a little. Both are content with silent company.

Connor isn't.

The thought strikes like another knife stab, leaving ruin behind.

Angel finds Buffy in their room, sitting with her back against the headboard of their bed. She's reading a book by the soft glow of the lamp, which illuminates her hair like hot metal. He stops on the threshold of their suite. The night is young. It's too early for him to sleep, but he can't imagine staying awake right now. He doesn't want to be a part of the world.

His eyes burn with exhaustion. His whole body is solid ache. He is a wasteland. He stands there with his eyes closed, swaying, empty, dripping blood on the carpet.

He's not sure what to do.

Buffy makes a sport of avoiding things she doesn't want to deal with. He expected to sleep alone in a bruised, throbbing heap, while she took some space, but she's here. She's here, she's not avoiding, and she's an unexpected cryptogram he can't solve when his brain is a giant wound. He thinks she might want to fight, but he can't handle a fight right now. He can't handle … anything.

"Do you want me to sleep somewhere else?" he says.

"Nope," is her brief reply.

He thinks about leaving anyway, because her tone is hostile, and he wants to preserve what little he has left that's unbroken. He looks at Buffy, who's not looking at him. The idea of going somewhere else takes his burned out emptiness and threatens to make it a frigid abyss. He is alone, and he needs her. Even if she's not speaking to him in greater quantities than monosyllables.

Her gaze ticks upward and meets his own for the first time. Her eyes widen. What the hell happened to you? He can see she wants to ask, but she quickly looks away without speaking.

He peers at the title of her book. She's reading some sort of bodice ripper, but that's all he can discern with an unobtrusive glance. Though she bites her lip and stares at the page in front of her, her eyes have stopped twitching left to right. She isn't reading anymore. She's not seeing, either.

He takes a shower. All he does is stand there while the hot water swipes away the blood and sweat with stinging, wet needles. When he shambles out of the bathroom in a billow of steam, Buffy is still staring at nothing. She stays on the same page the entire time it takes him to stumble out of his wet towel, hobble to the bed, and drop like a stone beside her.

He bunches up a pillow under his left ear and rolls away so that his back is facing her. Only a few minutes pass before she sighs and slams her book onto her nightstand. She flips off the lamp, and the room plunges into darkness. Their bed shakes as she settles with the grace of a fish on land, and he can hear soft curses on her breath.

"I'm sorry," he whispers, but the words choke him, and he can't say more.

She doesn't reply. He closes his wet eyes and listens to her. Her breathing is choppy, and he smells salt. Her heartbeat thrums against his eardrums. She's doesn't sleep. She lies there in the dark, her warmth inches from him, thinking a torrent of things he isn't privy to. She tosses and turns, back and forth, but he doesn't want to poke a hornet's nest, so he leaves her be.

Connor isn't. He takes this thought with him into nightmares.

He wakes up shaking. An un-uttered yell sticks to the back of his throat.

The heat of Buffy's body is flush against his back, and she's wrapped her arm over his waist. With her every exhale, warm air flows against his trapezius muscle, where she's pressed her nose into his skin. Her heartbeat is a calming thunder in his ears.

He sleeps, this time undisturbed.

"I'm not mad," she says, clutching him, and his eyes drift open.

He squints at the clock beside the bed. It's 3 a.m. Exhaustion is a leach, and his body thrums with discomfort. He drifts when she says nothing else. He drifts until he's lost.


3:30 a.m.

"Please," he says, his voice rough and breaking, "I don't want to fight with you right now. I can't."

She swallows. "Oh."

Her embrace tightens.

3:45 a.m.

"Angel, I'm not mad," she says, yanking him back into the conversation from a mindless, bruised doze. "I swear I'm not. I don't want to fight, either. I'm just .…" She doesn't finish her sentence. She sniffs, and it's an ugly sound of grief that makes his heart squeeze.

He doesn't want to fight, but he thinks maybe he can talk. He swallows, turning over. He's nose-to-nose with her.

Willow's bubble holds, and in this space, there is only him, and only her, and the symphony of the senses that makes her Buffy. Her golden body. Her scent. The soft gurgle of her stomach. The steady tympani of her heartbeat, and the hypnotizing rush of her breath and her blood.

She traces his eyebrows and his cheeks and all his cuts and bruises with her soft fingertips as she gazes at him. Her hooded eyes glisten in the darkness. The moonlight makes her glow. Minutes pass before she composes her thoughts.

"What happened to you?" she says.

"I needed to hit something."

Hit is an inappropriate word, he thinks. Destroy. Ravage. Eviscerate. Annihilate. Those are appropriate words. She seems to know it, too.

Wry, upset laughter burbles from her chest. "A demonic pile driver with claws?"

He tries to turn away, but she won't let him. She grabs his shoulders before he can roll, and her nails dig into his flesh, leaving crescents behind when she does release him. "No, no, I'm sorry," she rushes to say. She bites her lip when she sees the marks she's left on his skin, but she doesn't say anything about them. She rubs her thumb across one as if she can smooth out the runnel with touch. "No fighting. I'm sorry." She kisses him. "I'm just .…"


"I'm worried," she says. "About you. You've been acting like .…"

"A vampire?" he says, the words grim.

She puts her hand on his chest, right over where his heart would beat if he had a beating one. "No," she insists. "That's not what I mean. It's …."

He waits for her to compose her thoughts. The clock ticks down the minutes.

"Angel, four weeks ago, you went on a suicide mission," she says. He bristles, but again she doesn't let him pull away. "I'm not going to fight with you about it," she assures him. "I'm just saying that you did it." She raises her eyebrows. "Can you tell me I'm wrong?"

He swallows. "No."

"Last week," she continues, "you let that unveiling spell run you into collapse without knowing what would happen. You went into Dinza's lair, fully realizing there was a good chance she wouldn't let you out again. And then for the cherry on top, you picked a fight with half of Los Angeles's demon population."

"I was only trying to find-"

"What about the part where you showed Angelus to me, Angel? Me. A slayer. And you were flagrant about it. What did that have to do with finding Connor? How was that not a game of chicken with me?"

He can't answer. She strokes his cheekbone with the tip of her finger. Her touch is gentle, but the bone is chipped, and agony hammers through his eye socket, straight into his head. He flinches. "And this?" she says. "You were hitting something that hits back. Hard."

"Faith," he says quietly.

Buffy goggles, but she doesn't yell. She takes a deep breath. "I know you love her, and for some crazy reason I can't begin to fathom, she's your friend," Buffy says, "but she's not exactly a poster child for stability, and I know you know that, too." She puts her hand on a bruised rib as if to prove her point, and he winces. He can't stop himself. "This was fire, Angel, and you were playing with it."

She doesn't understand. His throat tightens, and he swallows. "I needed .…"

"That's my point," Buffy says before he can find his words. "You don't need this. You're acting like you have a death wish, like you want someone to put you down like a bad dog or something, and it's scary. You're scaring me."

He stills. Of all the things she could say to him, he thinks that might be the worst. He doesn't want to be scary to her. Not physically. Not emotionally. Not at all. Not ever. A lump forms in his throat.

"I'm sorry," he says.

She takes a deep breath like he's frustrated her, but she polices herself in seconds. "I don't want you to be sorry," she says, the words gentle as she strokes his face in the darkness. "I want you to talk to me. I want you to not have a death wish. What happened to you in the other place?"

He's silent for a long time. His turmoil is a living, breathing, unintelligible thing, and her intent gaze almost breaks him. If he ever doubted that she loved him, her fiery look would slay the doubts and leave them bloody on the ground for the wolves. He aches, wanting to give her what she's asking for, but he doesn't have any idea how.

"How can I help you not have a death wish?" she says when he can't fill the silence.

"I don't know," he says, three words of brutal honesty laid out like an offering. He blinks, and then he can't see because the world is blurring.

Silence stretches between them. She bites her lip. "Angel, please. Throw me a bone, here."

"I don't know," he repeats, frustrated.

He can't swallow because his throat hurts, and he can't see because he grieves. Connor isn't, he isn't, he isn't. The awful thoughts Angel managed to beat into Faith's face burst back into flame like relit embers. He wraps his arms around Buffy and pulls her close because it's the only thing he knows how to do right now, and her living, solid warmth is a thing that he needs.

Again the silence stretches. She traces meandering lines down his forearms as she toys with the soft hairs on his skin. She takes his larger palms in her smaller ones.

"Why don't you tell me about Connor?" she says. "Start to finish."

Except he's not even sure how to do that much.

She bites her lip. Her eyes are red, like she might cry any moment. "Angel, I want to know these things," she warbles. "I want to know you. I've been trying to keep up with all the changes, but …." She sniffs. But I can't keep up, and I don't want you anymore, are words she doesn't say, though he expects them like one expects a knife to the gut in a blade fight."So, tell me about your son," she prods. "Please, tell me about him." She laughs, but it isn't a happy sound. "Hell, you could tell me about his favorite Saturday morning cartoon. I'll take anything, at this point."

He swallows around the lump in his throat. He's not sure what to say. It's not like he's cryptic or laconic out of spite. "I don't know if he has one," Angel says, the words rough.

"You don't know if he has one what?"

"A favorite cartoon," Angel replies, though he thinks … probably not. Not unless Wolfram & Hart planted one in Connor's head when they worked their magic.

Buffy frowns.

His eyes burn. "Buffy, I …." Words leave him again.

She stares at him, silent, expression practically begging him to continue.

"I didn't get to see his childhood," he admits. "He was … taken."

She blinks, and tears streak down her face. "Angel, I'm sorry," she says.

He shrugs. What else is there to say? Tragedy is the way life works for him.

"Can you … tell me about that?" she says cautiously.

She'll never understand without context, he thinks. His life is a goddamned soap opera, at times, complete with a revolving cast of nefarious characters - enemies from years before popping out of the woodwork to heat up the drama pot to a boil again. So, he starts at the beginning, with a vampire hunter named Daniel Holtz.

"I killed his family," Angel admits.

She spares him the usual but-it-wasn't-you assurances that would only make him feel worse. She doesn't condemn him, either. "Keep going," she encourages.

He finds it surprisingly easy, treating his own life like a case file full of facts. Connor was born in the rain in the alley outside Caritas, three years ago when Darla staked herself. To Buffy's credit, she skips the part about Darla without so much as a jealous squint and fixates on something else, instead.

"But I thought Connor was in college?" Buffy says.

"He was," Angel replies, and then he finds himself explaining Holtz in the present day, and Wesley's betrayal, and Quor'toth.

Facts. He can do facts. As long as Buffy doesn't stop him, which she doesn't - she only pushes him to keep going. As long as he doesn't have to explain how all this stuff makes him feel, because he has no fucking clue. He can spill words like he's reading a nonfiction book about the history of the Tudor dynasty.

He gives her a summary of his summer underwater and all the death that he's endured. He tells her of Wolfram & Hart and why he crawled into bed with them. He tells her of his Shanshu, signed away and why.

She's silent for a long time when he finishes, processing all the who, what, when, where, why. She kisses his chest and snuggles closer. He presses his nose into her hair. He likes the smell of strawberries in her shampoo.

"Do you want to try to undo Connor's wish?" she says, tone neutral, as he rubs her shoulder with his thumb.

He closes his eyes. "I don't know."

"If that's what you want," she says, "I'll move heaven and earth to get it done, Angel. I hope you know that."

He does know that, and he's grateful. But he's paralyzed again, and he can't answer her. Connor isn't, Angel thinks, and his mind is a sinking ship.

The next time Angel snaps awake, his nightmares breathe fire, and he's still burning.

When he first kisses Buffy, she squeaks like she's surprised, but the longer he lingers at her lips, the more she relaxes. He's given her nothing, he realizes. For weeks, he's taken and taken and taken from her, and because she's Buffy, she's willing to give until she's bankrupt.

"You're so beautiful," he says, pushing his fingers through her flaxen hair.

She looks at him like she thinks he's nuts. "But I've been crying all night, and I have bed head."

He shrugs. "I don't care," he says. He kisses her. "And I didn't mean your body, anyway."

He presses his nose against her skin and breathes her in. Dewdrops. Roses. Her scent is a vivid, burning memory, ignited in more than just his mind. His lower body tightens. He hasn't lain with her since the day that wasn't - too long - and the need to rectify his absence is a bonfire in his heart.

He puts his hand on her knee and slides his palm against her inner thigh. She's already wet. The discombobulated sound she makes when he cups her is divine. He drinks the sound with a kiss.

"I've missed you so much," she says, looking up at him. Her eyes are full of stars.

He licks his lips. "Yes," he says, because it's a response that encompasses everything. He's missed her, too. He loves her. His world is ending, and ended, and he needs her to make it begin again.

The covers rustle as he rises to all fours and slides back on his knees. He puts his palms against her belly, fingers splayed by her navel. And then he drops lower. And lower, still.

He presses lips to lips, opening her like a gift.

And the fire burns.

He makes love to her in a way that's frantic, and fleeing, but also seeking, and she meets him like she's in the fire with him, dancing naked in the flames. He doesn't find a perfect moment – how could he? – but he finds his "better" in a whorl of Buffy, Buffy, Buffy, and all else falls away.

They crash and roll like waves to rocks until the blaze is ash.

Predawn is his favorite time of the day, because it's the closest to sunlight that he ever gets. He lies still and spent, wrapped in a tangle of sheets and a tangle of Buffy, while darkness becomes dusky light. Shadows bend and twist. Connor isn't, Angel thinks, but in this moment, the idea doesn't make his mind a logjam.

The physical wounds faded overnight while he lay in Buffy's arms. He aches, still, but these pains lie underneath the surface, invisible and private, like the churn of guilt, anger, and grief in his head.

Not everyone eats breakfast at the Hyperion, but many do, enough that in this reality, the industrial kitchen is in working order, and the dining hall isn't a graveyard for dusty skeletons of rotting furniture and torn cobwebs. Instead, the room is home to polished wood and pristine place settings. Wesley sits at the end of the long table with mussed hair, a cup of tea, and a notepad. Willow, pasty and hungover, sits next to Xander with her eyes closed, head propped up against her closed fist like that's all that's stopping her from face-planting on the table. Faith is there, and Spike. Cordelia, too. Fred. Several slayers Angel hasn't cared to get to know, yet, and a black man who Angel thinks he remembers Faith calling Robin.

Angel slips like a wraith into the empty seat between Spike and Faith. Neither Spike nor Faith jump. Willow looks like the walking dead, and Angel thinks she wouldn't startle if a fog horn went off by her ear. Wesley is so engrossed in his work that Angel doubts the man comprehends anything outside the eight-inch bubble surrounding his notepad. But Cordelia drops her fork with a loud clank, maybe-Robin flinches, Fred makes a gagging noise around a big mouthful of pancake, and Xander looses a delightful, "Gah!" as he almost tips out of his chair.

"Jesus, don't do that," Xander says, scowling as he rights himself.

Angel doesn't let himself smile. "Sorry," he says with no inflection.

"Right," Xander says. "You think you're so stealthy."

"I am stealthy," Angel says.

"He is kinda stealthy," Faith agrees.

Xander sighs. "One of these days, you'll try to surprise me, and I'm going to unload a can of silly string in your face. We'll see how you like stealthy, then, Deadboy."

Spike chortles. "I'd pay twenty bucks to see that."

"I'd pay twenty bucks if you can somehow manage it," Angel adds.

An eyepatch covers what used to be Xander's left eye, but his right eye narrows as he meets Angel's gaze. "Challenge accepted," Xander says, the words haughty and fierce. He points a dirty fork at Angel. "I'll be earning forty dollars sometime before I die. Just you wait."

Angel's lip twitches, but it's the only expression he'll allow. "I have time."

Cordelia gets up from her chair once she's recovered from her startlement. "You want eggs?"


"I could put some blood in them," Cordelia says, undeterred.

"No," Angel says a bit more forcefully.

"Bloody Weetabix isn't bad," Spike says, looking down at his bowl. Two oval-shaped loaves of grain sit soaking in a pool of unmistakable red. "I mean Weetabix mixed with blood. Not … hey!" He waves his spoon in the air. "Bloody Weetabix! The bugger!"

One of the slayers Angel doesn't know makes a face. "That's disgusting."

"Really, mate," Spike says, ignoring her. "Gives the blood a good texture. You ought to try it."

Lots of the girls at the table groan. Spike takes a big, crunchy bite of his Weetabix, chewing with his mouth open, so they can all see the blood and the grain mix together into pulp as he masticates. Within moments, everybody seems to be too busy wincing and looking elsewhere to criticize.

Cordelia appears next to Angel with a small, steaming mug full of coagulating blood. She's put cinnamon in it again, from the look of it. Or … oregano? Angel's nostrils flare. Yes, oregano. He thinks oregano might be even more unpalatable than cinnamon, but he can't care.

He stares at the mug as memories come alive, bursting in his mind's eye.

He thinks he'd eat oregano plain and by the spoonful if it means Cordelia is alive, and she is. She's so alive. He can hear her blood rushing in his ears. The only lovelier sound he's ever heard is Buffy's doing the same. And Connor's, a small thought interjects, but Angel shoves it away before the idea raises a stake to slay him. Horrendous ache remains, but he listens to Cordelia's babble. To the clank of Spike's spoon as he eats his grossly bleeding Weetabix. To Wesley's pen as it scratches the page of his yellow notepad. To Fred, and her laugh that reminds him of ringing bells.

"Thank you," Angel says, meaning it, though his tight throat makes the words creak.

"No problem," Cordelia says. "Where's Buffy?"

Angel shrugs. "Went out for a jog."

"And you're .…" Cordelia twirls her spoon in the air, looking at him like she wants him to finish her sentence.

He blinks. "Not … jogging?"

"Eating breakfast," she says with a nod. "With everybody. Despite the fact that nobody dragged you here. You even smiled."

His eyebrows knit together, and he frowns. "I didn't smile."

"Your lip moved," she counters. "It counts. And, now, you're chatting. With words."

He swallows. "Is there chatting that doesn't involve words?"

She doesn't take his bait. She folds her arms, instead. "I don't have to chain you to the chair, do I?"

He's lost this conversation's track. He's not sure how or when, but somehow, they seem to be in Alaska when he thought they were on a cruise in Mexico. "What?" he says.

"You're not going to go jogging with Buffy in the very. Deadly. Sunlight?"

You're acting like you have a death wish, like you want someone to put you down like a bad dog or something, and it's scary, Buffy echoes in his head. She's apparently not the only one who's put a label on his behavior, however wrong or right it may be.

"That wasn't on my to-do list, no," Angel says.

"What about holy water baths? Suicide by Godzilla or whatever creepy-crawly with teeth you can dig up?"

He frowns. "Um. No."

Cordelia stares at him for a long moment. He's not sure what she's looking for, but she seems to find it. Her eyes narrow, and she nods again.

Chatter resumes at the table in fits and starts before becoming a steady stream, and he sips his oregano blood with a grimace while he listens. The horrid taste of the herb and the fact that the blood is pig is enough to suck the ecstasy right out of the affair, and he doesn't think he's ever been more comfortable drinking his sustenance in front of them. There's no precarious ledge of humanity for him to plunge from. He's ensconced in his disguise with little effort, and he lets himself drift, listening to the rise and fall of conversation. To the relaxing cadence of their company.

"Why are you still working on that?" Faith asks Wesley, pointing at his notepad. "I thought A said it was pointless."

Wesley looks up, a glazed expression on his face. "Hmm?" When he sees the disaster he's looking at, his eyes widen. "Dear lord, what happened to you?"

Bruises cover Faith's skin, though they've lightened. Her naked wrist has a yellowing handprint on it that matches Angel's grip. He remembers grabbing her before she could ram the heel of her palm into his nose. Slayer healing is a fabulous thing, but it holds no candle to how fast a broken vampire knits back together.

Faith glances at Angel. A sly smile crosses her face. "Tried to pet an evil cat," she says with a shrug.

Wesley shakes his head, eyes creasing in bemusement. "Yes … right," he says, though he sounds unconvinced.

Faith points again to Wesley's notepad. "So, what's with the research?"

He looks down at where she's pointing. "Oh, the scrolls," he says. Angel looks down, too, and he recognizes some of the scribbled translations that Wesley has crossed out and rewritten and crossed out again. A whole new ache of memory mushrooms in Angel's head.

The father will kill the son.

"I didn't say it was pointless," Angel says. "It's just not about .…" He swallows. He can't finish the sentence. Connor isn't, he thinks, and he closes his eyes, pressing his palms against his face. He wants this thought to stop repeating. He needs it to stop.

"You okay, boss?" Faith says.

No. "Yes," he says, dropping his hands. Both Faith and Cordelia are staring, though, and he has nowhere to look but his mug to avoid their scrutiny. "I will be," he adds, hopelessness cutting his tone like a razor, but they seem more satisfied with this answer, and they stop tearing into him with worried gazes.

Wesley takes a thoughtful sip of his tea, but winces, and the cup can't seem to leave his hand fast enough. "Oh, that's dreadful."

"That happens when you let it cool for over an hour," Cordelia says with an eye roll Wesley doesn't seem to notice.

"I can't put my finger on it," Wesley says, staring with a frown at his notepad, "but there's something about this translation …. Something I'm missing."

"Yeah, sounds thrilling," Cordelia says with a dismissive wave, but then she brightens. "Say, does anyone want to go to the spa today? I think today is a spa day. My pores could use an avocado cleanse."

Several hands shoot up in the air - all slayers Angel doesn't know - and conversation wends toward planning.

Angel tries not to stare as they chat, but he finds his attention lingering on Cordelia, Wesley, and Fred in particular. Cordelia, of course, preens with the scrutiny, and lets him gaze at her all he wants. Wesley is oblivious. Fred's cheeks bulge as she stuffs pancake after pancake into her tiny frame. She looks at Angel through her eyelashes every time she catches him watching her with rapt amazement, but she doesn't give him grief for his fixation, only a bashful smile.

Gunn stomps into the room a few minutes later, carrying the homemade hubcap axe that, in Angel's memory, is destroyed. The axe is in pristine shape, now, though, either reforged or never broken. Gunn's lip is split, and the blade of his axe is flecked with black demon blood that smells faintly of vinegar.

"Found the lair we been lookin' for," he says without preamble.

"More Kreplars?" Angel says.

Gunn nods. "I need some help cleaning it out."

"Ugh," Willow moans, her first word of the day. She pulls her fingers through her shaggy, unkempt hair, grimacing. "You don't need magical backup, do you?"

Gunn grins. "Naw. I think brawn'll get it done jus' fine."

"Oh," Willow says. "Good."

The slayers in the room rise one by one, along with maybe-Robin.

"Can I help?" Angel says. "I mean, it's not sunny, is it?" Though Spike is rising, too, and the last Kreplar Angel fought was in the sewers, so Angel thinks he knows the answer to his question already.

Gunn cocks his head, and his eyes widen a little. For a moment, Angel thinks the man might say no thanks, but he doesn't. "More fang never hurt," Gunn says with another grin, "but try not to get your head cracked on a wall this time. I ain't luggin' yo' heavy-ass, deadweight carcass back here again. Got it?"

"Yes," Angel says.

Gunn nods to the door before exiting through it, followed by a line of slayers. Angel trudges after Spike. "Bye, guys," Cordelia calls after them. "Have fun killing things. Call if you get horribly stabbed or something."

Connor isn't, Angel thinks desolately.

But he'll try to live his life, anyway.

Chapter Text


"You really need to talk to your dental hygienist," Buffy says with a grimace as she dodges the growling Kevlar demon. Yellowed, bloody, crescent-shaped fangs arc over its lips and chin like a sabertooth cat. "I mean, hello, halitosis. And I think I'm seeing some plaque issues on those canines. How often do you brush?"

The Kevlar dwarfs her. Hell, it dwarfs Angel, and Angel's not a small guy. She deflects its foot-long claws with the metal trashcan lid she turned into a makeshift shield. Black blood gushes from a slash mark on its abdomen, and the air reeks of vinegar. The demon is weakened, at least, and it's stopped moving with its former alacrity.

"I got it, B!" Faith says from somewhere behind the hulking mass. Buffy hears boots scuffing the pavement.

She grits her teeth as she fends off another crushing blow. The trashcan lid vibrates so hard with the force of the impact that it makes her hands hurt. "Anytime, now!"

"I got it!" Faith says again.

The Kevlar snarls at Buffy with gusto. The sound, much louder than anything a vampire can utter, chock-full of six extra helpings of menace, takes her gut and squeezes and squeezes. She gasps and blows the air out through her teeth, trying to vent a sudden, primal explosion of terror.

"When?" Buffy snaps to her sister slayer. "Sometime tonight?"

"I got it; I got it; I got it," Faith repeats in a breathless litany.

Another blow, and the trashcan lid feels like a gong in Buffy's hands. Her teeth hurt. Her hands hurt. Her elbows hurt. Her shoulders hurt. "Faith," she growls.

The Kevlar's snarl ceases as the bloody point of a gleaming sword exits through its open mouth. The hulking creature falls to the ground, leaving Buffy staring at Faith.

Faith's hair hangs in wild disarray, half of it clawed loose from her ponytail holder. Her shirt is torn. A mosaic of different-colored bruises runs up her left bicep to her shoulder, crosses her chest, and disappears into her cleavage, like she got shoved into a wall and crushed.

"See?" she says, giving Buffy a blood-stained, feral grin. She pants as she claws some sweaty strands of hair out of her face. "I got it." She cranks the sword handle a quarter turn. Bones snap, and then she yanks the blade loose from the demon's skull.

"Thanks," Buffy says, exhaling as the adrenaline settles. She drops the trashcan lid, which hits the pavement with a clank, and she brushes off her pants as she looks around. "Where's-?"

Angel crashes into the alley, a guttural shout pealing from his lips as he grapples with Kevlar number two. Buffy has a sick moment of jaw-clenching almost-panic when the Kevlar manages to hoist Angel into the air and toss him like a rag doll. A fleeting ghost in her mind's eye, she imagines him cracking his head into mush again, but reality snaps into place, shoving the image away.

Angel is oriented vertically this time, not horizontally, and he's not as vulnerable. Something snaps - bones? metal? - as momentum jams Angel's back into unforgiving brick. He drops his sword with a grunt. Before Buffy can think about running to help, though, there's a shimmer of movement she can't quite see, and then Angel is in a different place, facing the Kevlar's back. The Kevlar turns. Angel grabs its arm, and he whips his own weight toward the pavement, using momentum - formerly an enemy, now a friend - to hoist the larger demon off the ground and launch it head first into the opposite wall. Bone cracks when it hits, and then it slides to the ground in a limp pile.

"See how you like it, Wolverine!" Angel snaps. He grabs the broadsword he dropped and decapitates Kevlar Two, separating its head from its neck before it can recover from its forced trip to La La Land.

"Wicked moves, A!" Faith cheers. She grins at Buffy. "Hope he's not that fast in the sack."

Buffy rolls her eyes and doesn't dignify that with an answer.

A soft, nighttime breeze rolls through the dirty alley, stirring up plastic bags and empty cardboard boxes. A lone plastic cup rolls down the pocked road until it falls into a pothole. Otherwise, the space is silent. Kevlar Three is a savaged mess further down the alley, tag-teamed to death by Buffy and Angel, and Kevlar Four was in three pieces around the corner, courtesy of Faith.

"Okay then," Buffy says, wrinkling her nose. The whole alley reeks of vinegar, rotting trash, and old urine. She doesn't want to know where the urine smell is from. She calls Gunn on her cellphone to see how the second team is doing two blocks over, and finds out that there's nothing left for them to kill.

"They need help?" Faith says.

"Nope," Buffy replies. "Everything is dead."

"For a week, maybe," Faith grumbles. "I swear these things are breedin' like cockroaches."

"Giles says mating season is over in early January."

"Gee," Faith says with an eye roll, "only three more months of wholesome, blisterin' fun."

Buffy nods. "All I want for Christmas is no more of these stupid things." She glances at Angel, heart squeezing. "And, maybe, a happy boyfriend for a cherry on top."

Angel hasn't rejoined them. He's leaning against the wall at a slant, facing away from them. Buffy squints. It's hard for her to tell at a distance whether something is wrong. His black leather coat makes him meld with the thick darkness, and it's almost impossible to distinguish where he ends, and air begins. Also, Angel doesn't pant when he's injured unless it's the kind of injury he wouldn't still be standing after, so his body is motionless, though he hunches a bit like he might be in pain.

"Angel?" Buffy calls, but he doesn't respond.

"I think he's a little grr," Faith says. "I thought I saw some fang."

Buffy nods. Sometimes, Angel needs a few minutes after a fight to calm down. She leaves him be, giving him a wide berth while she and Faith light matches to the four demon corpses on the ground. Though unsusceptible to flame while breathing, dead Kevlars poof into dust without much more than the vague threat of fire. All it takes is touching the lit match to skin and whoosh! Instant dust bunnies. Easy cleanup.

Buffy likes the demons that dust.

"Angel?" she calls, frowning after the fourth Viking funeral. He still hasn't moved.

When he doesn't reply, she risks breaching his personal bubble. She puts her hand on his shoulder. He doesn't tense or flinch away. He looks at her. His eyes - a rich human brown - glisten in the darkness. His face is unblemished and pale in the moonlight. He doesn't look hurt .…

"Hey," she says in a soft whisper, "are you injured?" Because asking if he's okay seems silly and tactless. He lost his child, and he's dealing, sometimes well, sometimes not so well, but he's not okay by any stretch of the imagination.

"No," he says. He moves away from the wall with his usual fluid grace, no limp, no slouch, nothing.

Her eyes narrow, but she doesn't press him with more questions. She's grieved for her mother and for Tara and for Angel. She's been around grieving people. But she's never dealt with a grieving Angel before, and it's a new experience for her. She's finding it to be a yo-yo she wishes she could put away, but can't.

He lashes out. Not often. Sometimes. He's got a vicious streak that he wields like a whip. She chalks it up to his demon, because it's so incongruous with his typical quiet demeanor, but even then, lashing out seems like part of the normal emotion puree for anyone dealing with loss. What's not normal - what she's never seen before - are the random shutdowns.

Every once in a while, he gets … odd. Distant. Like he's lost somewhere in his own head and doesn't know how to get out, or … like he ran head first into something he wasn't emotionally equipped to deal with right then and bam. He's off in mental Timbuktu for an African vacay.

The triggers are all sorts of random things. Certain places. Certain sounds. Certain scents. Certain words. Predicting when one of Angel's space jumps will happen is so far from a science, she's given up trying to prognosticate and prevent, and, instead, her management of this brave new yo-yo world consists of only reactive care.

"Wolverine, huh?" Faith says as she approaches.

Buffy frowns with confusion until she recalls Angel's earlier taunt. He called the Kevlar Wolverine. An apt comparison, given the length of the serrated claws extending from its knuckles, though when she thinks on it, she, too, is surprised that he knows anything about comic book characters. She's pretty sure he's only familiar with Batman because Cordelia kept comparing them, and the comparisons stuck, and now everybody at the hotel uses them as a running joke.

"Since when are you down with Marvel, A?" says Faith.

Angel's staring at nothing. The tail of his coat drifts in the soft breeze. "I'm not," he says with no inflection. He turns and walks to the car, the tip of his broadsword dragging on the ground behind him with a metal scrape - a weapon care faux pas he'd never allow to happen if he were paying even an ounce of attention.

Another shutdown.

Faith's grin leaks into a frown as she follows his retreat with a worried gaze. "Damn. That's not getting any better, yet?"

Buffy sighs. This has been going on for a little over two months, now. "Nope. He'll be fine, and then wham. Mopey space cadet on a mission to Mars. I wish I knew how to help."

"Time, I guess," Faith says with a shrug. She bites her lip. "Maybe, the kid liked comics?"

"Maybe," Buffy says, slumping.

All she can do is speculate. Getting Angel to talk about Connor is like yanking teeth out of a hungry lion with nothing but pliers and a prayer.

She understands his grief in an academic sense. She does, and she doesn't begrudge him his right to be sad.

But on the flip side, he's hurting, and she hates to watch it helplessly.

Things are so much easier when she has a flesh and blood demon to kill, rather than a figurative one.


"So, where are they?" Buffy says to Gretchen, Naomi, and Bella, the newest slayers.

The three girls look wildly around, eyes wide. They stand in a dark parking garage full of cars parked for the night. The garage is silent, save for the distant sounds of traffic carrying in on the air from the street below.

"That's the moral of this story," Buffy says when they can't answer her. "You can't find a vampire in the dark. Not one that doesn't want to be found."

Angel and Spike step out of the shadows mere feet from the girls, and all three of the newbie slayers shriek. Spike grabs Gretchen, pulls her to his chest like a lover, and tips her head, positioning her for a bite. She struggles and kicks and screams, but she's too new, and she doesn't know anything but basics - certainly nothing that would help her throw off a vampire Spike's age with Spike's skills.

"And, now, you'd be lunch, pet," Spike says, his voice a quiet, velvet murmur.

Angel offers no similar demonstration of a mock bite, but he does grab Bella, overpowering her in less time than it takes to blink.

"How the hell are we supposed to handle that?" Bella says, almost spitting as she pushes away from Angel, who lets her go without a word.

"You don't," Buffy says. "If you're in a situation like this where you're not in control of the field, you leave, or you die. The only way to deal with being stalked by a vampire is to draw it out when and where you plan for it. At the very least, keep your back to a wall."

The three slayers nod, wide-eyed, and Buffy lets them go. The lesson was a short one tonight, but she's found that Angel and Spike are an excellent way to compact instruction into tiny chunks. It's a lot easier to demonstrate how scary a vampire can be when you have friendly scary vampires at your disposal.

Luckily, most vampires don't make it as long as Spike has, let alone as long as Angel has, and most don't have training in hand-to-hand. When you're blessed with slayer powers, killing the newbie vamps is more like shooting fish in barrels. Still, she likes to prepare the girls for the worst.

Spike disappears, claiming he's got a pub to visit, but Angel remains to walk back to the hotel with her. He's quiet as they amble along. The night air is cool, and Buffy presses up against him. He wraps his arm over her shoulder, and within minutes he's absorbed her heat and offers it back like her own personal radiator. It's a nice trick she's discovered, and she readily abuses it.

The comfortable silence lasts for a block. When they stop at the intersection to wait for a Buick with a busted muffler to turn the corner, she looks at him. "Are you okay?" she says.

His lip slants in a crooked smile, a rare expression she doesn't see on him often enough anymore. "I'm okay today, Buffy," he says. "I swear."

She stands on her tiptoes and kisses him. He runs his fingers through her hair. His touch is soft and searching, and she sighs, leaning into him. "Good," she says. "I like it when you're okay."

"Contrary to popular opinion," Angel says, smile widening, "I do, too."

She laughs, and he laughs with her. She likes the sound of him when he's happy. They walk home in companionable silence. Every time she looks at him, he gives her that slant-y smile of his, and she smiles back.

It's nice.


He's been in the shower for almost forty-five minutes.

She thinks, perhaps, he's having some "alone" time, which is fine. People do that. She does that, though usually not in the shower. She's never really thought of Angel doing it, for some reason, but … whatever. He's allowed.

That, or he's crying. He doesn't cry often, and he never does it if he thinks she'll be around. On the roof, sitting alone in his car, and out prowling by the pier: three times in well over two months, she's found him sniffling, and each time has been a not-so-happy accident.

Either way, she doesn't want to intrude, so she tries to leave him alone.

She starts to worry at the hour mark, though, which is what spurs her to rap on the bathroom door with the back of her hand. He doesn't tell her come in, but he doesn't tell her to go away, either. The only sound that greets her is the rushing, gentle shh of the water.

"It's just me," she says in quiet voice as she slips into the room, though her greeting serves as a silence filler, more than anything else. Of course, he knows it's her. He can peg her identity by scent from blocks away.

She frowns. The black shower curtain obscures her view of him. She can't hear him moving, and he doesn't speak.

"Angel, are you …?" Her frown deepens. Fog blankets the mirror. The steam is so thick she could cut it with a blade, and it's difficult to breathe. "Angel, is everything okay?"

The room feels … wrong. Cold, despite the heat. She shudders.



"I'm coming in with you, okay?" she says.

Again, nothing. He's had ample chance to tell her to get lost. She strips out of her yoga pants and purple tank top in a methodical manner, dropping them to the floor on the bath mat, and she steps out of the pile when she's finished. She drags the shower curtain outward and climbs over the lip of the tub. His naked back is facing her. He's looking into the spray.

She steps closer.

The curtain of water is a blanket of pain.

She yelps and scrambles past him in a graceless rush to turn down the temperature. She misses the shower knob on the first swipe, her naked skin squeaking against the metal fixtures as she scrabbles for purchase. She resorts to grabbing his too-still arm to help her stay upright. At last, she gets the temperature dial and turns it counter-clockwise, sighing in relief as boiling rain becomes pleasant heat.

And that's when she has a chance to look at him from the front.

She pulls her hand away from his forearm.

He stands in the pelting spray, staring at nothing in particular. His skin is pinker than usual, but not red like a lobster like he should be – he has no real blood flow to speak of, so his body's natural compensation for temperature extremities is muted, at best. The fact that he's changed color at all is testament to the swelter he's been punishing himself with.

For an hour, she thinks, eyes pricking. He's been punishing himself for an hour.

She wishes she'd come in sooner.

"Angel?" she says.

He's not moving. Not blinking. Not breathing. Not anything. He's a standing corpse with glassy, lifeless eyes. For the first time in her not-so-long life, Buffy understands why Cordelia finds him doing this so freaky, and why she's so quick to smack him with a magazine whenever she catches him. It's never sunk in before how hard he has to work to blend in, but it sinks in like a rock, now.

"Angel," Buffy says. She squeezes his slick shoulders and gives him a shake. "Snap out of it. You're giving me the wiggins."

He blinks, reanimating, and he looks at her, but he's not looking at her. He's looking through her.

"What's wrong with you?" she says.

He takes a shambling step into her space, pressing against her. He wraps his left arm low across the small of her back, and his right arm becomes a vise, trapping her shoulder blades. The embrace is far too tight to be called a hug. Instead, she feels strangely like a teddy bear being clutched for comfort.

"Angel," she says.

No response.

She can't back up, and she doesn't want to drop him flat – he's not hurting her or anything, nor is she scared – so she cranks her neck back to look him in the eyes. He's returned to staring at nothing in particular, some fascinating, soap-scummy tile behind her head or something.

"Not that I mind this kind of hello," she quips, "but could you, maybe, try using words?"

He blinks. The shower thunders around them, and the air billows with steam.

"You could start with something like, 'I,'" she prods. "It's monosyllabic - right up your alley of communicative expertise, even."

"I'm cold," he replies, the words flat, so soft she can hardly hear him.

For him, he's burning. "You feel really toasty to me," she says, giving him a watery smile.

She wraps her arms around his waist and presses her cheek flat against his breastbone. There is no thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. He stands unmoving in her arms, hanging on like he's fallen off a cliff and she's the ledge, like he's desperate.

"Please, tell me what's wrong," she says as the water thunders in her ears. "Are you thinking about Con-"

"No," he says, and then he kisses away her words.

She moans into his mouth. Her legs turn to jelly, but he doesn't let her fall. He's like a tide coming in, and what starts as a slow, searching query becomes a demand as she invites him in, parting her lips to let him taste her. His grip is strong. He presses her against the tile at her back, trapping her in a sandwich of the wall's shocking cold and his delicious, borrowed heat. The dueling sensations make her shiver.

The spigot cuts into her thigh, but she can barely feel it.

All she can hear are the soft sounds of her panting, and the rush of the water hitting the shower basin. She pushes her knee against his hip, and he shifts toward the shower curtain, giving her space to wrap her legs around him. His skin is wet and slick, and she drags her nails down his back. He makes a throaty, rumbling, not-quite-human sound of need that tightens her insides like a screw.

The sound is a familiar one. A primal one. It's the one he uses when he climaxes. She digs her nails into his biceps, marking crescents on his arms, and the rumble deepens.

She wants, and she takes, and she has.

He tastes faintly of mint. His tongue is-

No. Damn it, no. The voice of reason whispering from behind her massive brick wall of want is tiny. She barely hears it over the yes, yes, yesssss that's so much louder. Damn it, he's had nearly three-hundred years to turn prowess into artistry, and he's not playing fair. At all.

"Stmmmmph," she manages, but he drinks her protest down before she can form a real syllable that makes a real word.

A not-small part of her wants to let him have his way. But, no. No, no, no, no, no. He can't do that.

With every last inch of will that she has, she ignores the more more more screaming in her head, and she pulls back. He chases her with his mouth, but she manages to squeak, "Stop," before he plunders her again.

He halts millimeters from her skin. He's so close she can taste him, taste the mint on his lips, though he and she are not quite touching. Her heart pounds, and she can hardly catch her breath. If she had any doubts about what this riptide of sexual aggression was, though, she can see it in his eyes, now. He loves her, but he isn't lusting. He's in pain, and he's trying to bury it, and she hates that he's resorting to distraction because he can't or won't find words.

He places her on her feet. She wobbles at first, but she regains her footing in the space of a dazed blink. He's still, like he's waiting for some directive from her. She rests her forehead against him, panting, giving the world a chance to stop spinning, and he stands with her in silence, not pressing her for anything she doesn't want to give. There's no irritation in his gaze, either, despite the fact that she egged him on in the beginning, despite the fact that he's visibly aroused. The rock-hard evidence pokes into her belly.

When she locates her composure, which is cowering in the back her brain under a mental rock, she takes a deep breath, and she cups his face with her palm. "Angel, I want to stop," she says in a kinder, less desperate tone.

He licks his lips and pulls back. "Sorry," he says in that same flat tone he used before.

"I want to know what's wrong," she says.

He closes his eyes and turns away. He steps out of the shower, leaving her alone. She turns off the water and chases after him, though she doesn't have far to chase. He's just standing there. Naked. Dripping on the bathmat. Staring at the mirror that doesn't show his reflection.

He puts his palm on the glass and swipes away the fog, but the only person reflected by the mirror is she. He blinks at the nothing he sees. Water droplets slide down his skin. His hair drips. He hasn't even bothered to find a towel.

She does it for him, grabbing one of the black towels off the rack. Her fingers shake as she dries herself off and then him. He stands there, passive and still, like he's checked out of the room again.

This isn't a space jump.

This is a space marathon, side-trip to Jupiter included.

"What happened?" she asks, unable to keep the exasperation from her tone.

"Nothing," he says. Steam drifts between them.

She blinks. "How in the hell is this nothing?"

His temples dance as he clenches and unclenches his jaw, but the anger bleeds out of him as fast as it arrived, and he's dead again. Cold and dead and not talking. The wet air makes it hard to breathe, so she grabs his hand and drags him out of the bathroom. He doesn't resist, doesn't make a single sound of protest. He follows, meek and silent.

They dump out into the suite, accompanied by an unfurling cloud of steam. The air outside the bathroom feels glacial, and she shivers as she adjusts.

Angel is still.

That's when she spots a scroll sitting on their kitchenette table.

She missed it before.

A tassel hangs from the lid of a cylindrical container, which anchors open a piece of parchment that would rather stay furled. Words sprawl across the parchment - some black, some red - but they aren't English. Pictures and charts intersperse the text. There's an unopened book sitting on the table as well. Proto-Bantu for Dummies. She frowns at the title.

"What is that?" she says.

"A book," Angel replies.

"Not the book, smart ass," Buffy says, flicking a glare in his direction. "The scroll."

"Nothing," he says, looking down at the rug. "It's nothing."

From his tone, there's some pretty huge subtext she's not getting. Like Angel thinks the scroll should be something, not nothing, but it's not. It's not anything. And this is causing him … distress. She stares at the scroll for a long march of moments until it clicks.

"That's your shoe shine prophecy, isn't it?" she says.

"Shanshu," he corrects, but he spits the word out like it's a piece of gum that's run out of flavor.

She walks to the table and looks down at the scroll. The paper is soft and yellowing and old, and she thinks with too much more handling it might disintegrate. There's a red scribble in the margin on the lower corner. No, not a scribble. A signature. His name. Angel. Written in Angel's neat, looping script. She runs an index finger across the word. The writing is slightly raised, and she feels the bumps pass along underneath her skin.

She frowns. "Why were you writing on it?"

"I wasn't," he says, the words choked, and then it's like a dam has burst. "Please, Buffy, I can't .…" He shakes his head and wipes his eyes, which are red and wet.

"Can't what?" she snaps. "I'm getting damned tired of the cryptic right now, Angel. I really am. Would it kill you to talk to me?"

He looks stricken at that, like she's slapped him, and she almost feels guilty. Almost. But she's so sick of trying to connect his dots for him when he won't even give her the damned dots. She loves him, but he's the most frustrating man she's ever known.

"I keep dreaming about her," he says, and she resists the urge to roll her eyes at his ambiguous pronoun. At least he spoke, which is a step up.

He sits on the edge of the bed in a dejected heap. She sits next to him. "Who?"

"An Oracle. She tells me all these nonsensical things. And I thought she meant I hadn't given up my Shanshu, but .…" He looks across the room at the open scroll. "My signature is still there." He blinks. His eyes are rimmed with red, and he sniffs. "She's not real. Just like the vision I thought Powers gave me. None of it's real."

Buffy doesn't know what to say. She rests her head on his shoulder and grabs his hand. She presses her fingers into his knuckles. His grip closes over hers. He's still warm from the shower. She pulls his fingers to her lips and kisses him. His skin is damp, and he smells clean, like soap.

"There's no point to any of this, is there?" Angel says.

"There is a point," Buffy insists, looking up at him. "You have to believe that. 'Nothing we do matters; all that matters is what we do?' What happened to the Angel who said that?"

He stares into space and doesn't answer.

"We fight because it helps; because it makes us more than we were to start with," she says. "We don't fight to win."

He looks at his hand in hers. "I don't need to win," he says. "I just want to stop losing. Every time I think I have things figured out …."

His hopeless tone wrecks her. From what he's told her of the other universe, she can fathom why he's in this headspace, but she can't think of anything to say, and she's not sure how to help. She's not sure there is help for him, other than the passage of time, other than knowing he's loved. She can at least let him know that he's loved. She wraps her arms around him, and she presses her lips against his.

"I thought you didn't want to," he says.

She nuzzles him, sliding her palm up his chest. "I changed my mind."

They tumble and shift in a tangle of limbs. The comforter on the bed crinkles as they move across it. She grips his hips with her knees. He hovers over her, looming. She splays her fingers, pushing them back through his hair. He dips down until they're nose to nose, until there is no separate space for him or for her – they're in a bubble together – and he kisses her.

"You'll never lose me," she says.

His eyes search hers, and he looks … sad. "I don't get a Shanshu, Buffy. Losing you is inevitable."

Her heart squeezes. She can't refute him. She looks up at him, feeling helpless. "Love me in the meantime?" she says.

"Always," he replies, the word a rough croak.

They kiss in the damning silence.

She finds Wesley in his office, poring over the same set of notes he's been poring over for weeks on end. She steps around book piles and over strewn papers. He's leaned back in his chair and has his feet up on his desk. He sips from his teacup, eyes gazing upward in thought, and then he returns to reading, mouthing words as his eyes dart back and forth across the page he's holding to the light.

"I know there's something," he mumbles. "Bugger, what is it?"

"Hey," she says. She drops the scroll case on Wesley's desk, and he makes a high-pitched sound of distress. He pinwheels, kicking his teacup off the desk in the process of flailing, and it cracks on the floor.

She grimaces as he rights himself. "Sorry!" she says, wincing.

He pushes his glasses up his nose. He clears his throat and straightens the coat of his suit. "Quite all right," he says. "Quite all right. I wasn't paying attention." He looks at what she's dropped on his desk. "What were you doing with the Scrolls of Aberjian?"

"I wasn't doing anything," Buffy says. "Angel was looking at them."

"Oh," Wesley says. He slides the scroll gently from its casing and unfurls it. "What did he want with it? Surely, he knows I can answer any questions he may have .…"

Buffy points to Angel's signature.

Wesley frowns. "That wasn't there before."

"When was the last time you looked?" Buffy says.

"Months, I'd say." Wesley shrugs. "I truly don't recall."

"So, is it actually possible to sign away your destiny with a pen?" Buffy says. "Frankly, that sounds like a bunch of bull to me, but Angel is completely and morosely convinced."

"I .…" Wesley blinks and pulls out a magnifying glass to inspect the signature. "I have no idea." He leans forward and sniffs the paper. He frowns. "Is this signed in blood?"

"Wesley," Buffy says, "the ink is not the point. The signature. That's the point."

He shakes his head. "Yes. Yes, of course. I'll look into it."

"Thank you," she says, and she leaves him to his knowledge orgy.


Since Willow's here's-how-the-world-ended spell, Angel seems to hang at the periphery of every social gathering in the hotel. He doesn't participate much, but he watches, and he listens, and he gets this strange wistful expression on his face, like he wants to be a bigger part of things, but doesn't think he should be allowed that luxury. If he were anyone else, Buffy would call him a wallflower, but he's Angel. Wallflower on the Angel Scale of Human Interaction means he's brooding somewhere in the same building that a social gathering is occurring, rather than Mr. Doom and Gloom-ing it somewhere else, population 0. The orbital clinging is a giant upgrade from wallflower. Hell, it's almost extroverted.

"Oh, come on!" Xander yells at the television, hands raised like an offering at an altar. "She's being an idiot!"

Buffy snickers as they watch Drew Barrymore's character blubber and sob into the phone. "You know, Xan," Buffy says, "I think that's kind of the point of these movies."

Willow, Faith, Xander, Buffy, and Angel sit in a cramped row on the orange couch in the multicolor den. Angel had hovered by the doorway, drawn by the sound of the television, and Buffy managed to get him to sit down, albeit only at the very edge of the couch. Still, she's marking even small successes like this as major victories, and she snuggles under his arm and rests her ear against his chest. A pleased smile - incongruous with the viewing material - creeps across her face.

"Why are we watching this again?" Willow says, peering dubiously at the television. "Don't we get enough of the real thing?"

Faith chucks a handful of popcorn into her mouth. "She's gonna bite it."

"Of course, she's gonna bite it," Willow says. "Everyone dies in these except the plucky comic relief or .…"

Drew's character screams when a chair gets thrown through her window. Willow flinches, but Angel doesn't even blink. His fingers tighten around Buffy's shoulder, though, and he leans forward an inch.

"Not scared," Willow says. She folds her arms across her chest and shivers, her lower lip pushed out in a pout. "Nope. Not gonna be …."

Angel reaches across Buffy's lap to the popcorn bowl in Faith's. He lifts the bowl to his shoulder. Fred pops up from behind the sofa like a gopher and grabs a handful of popped kernels. "These things are so darned scary," she says as Angel gives the bowl back to Faith without word, and Faith shovels another buttered, salty handful into her mouth. "I just love the adrenaline rush. Don't you?"

Angel's silent.

Buffy turns to Fred, frowning. "You don't have to sit back there," she says. Since when had Fred been watching, anyway? "We could make room."

"Oh, that's all right," Fred says. She laughs, and it's a gleeful sound that makes Buffy smile. "It's like camping back here."

Buffy tilts her head to peer behind the couch. Fred's laid out a blanket and some pillows. "Okay, if you're sure," Buffy says.

Fred nods, watching the movie with wide, frightened eyes.

"Buffy would kick that bastard's ass," Xander says as they watch Drew's character and the murderer play cat and mouse in the big house. "And she wouldn't be a moron."

"Why, thank you, kind sir," Buffy says with a nod.

"I don't get this," Angel says, frowning.

Buffy looks at him. "Don't get what?"

"I mean, he's got a great start with the scary phone calls, and the Munch mask," Angel says, gesturing at the man on the television as he runs through the night. "A knife is just … lacking poetry after that."

Xander rolls his eyes. "Only you would critique the murderer while we're picking on the victim."

"But it's just … bad," Angel says, eyebrows knitting.

Faith snorts with laughter and shovels more popcorn. "This is supposed to be a social commentary on the slasher genre, or somethin' like that," she says. "I think you gotta get into the spirit to enjoy it."

"So, everybody in the movie is stupid to show how stupid it all is?" Xander says.

Faith frowns. "Yeah, maybe."

Angel sighs and sinks back against the couch, and Buffy doubts he'll make another comment for the duration, but that's okay. It's nice that he's here. She kisses him on the chin and settles in for a comfortable night off in the hotel.

Cloud nine.

"Go away, Wesley," Angel says in a funny, strained tone, as he lies facedown against Buffy's shoulder, waking her from a recuperative, star-filled doze.

"But it's important!" Wesley says.

Buffy's wrapped in a heavy blanket of sweaty Angel, and both are curled under the bed sheet. Angel's nose is pressed into her neck over the throb of her pulse, and his arms are wrapped around her. HIs grip tightens, and she feels warm, and safe, and she never wants to move.

She's not even sure she could move at this point. Her mind is blown out like an overloaded circuit. She stares fuzzily through her eyelashes at their British coitus almost-Interruptus.

Wesley stands by the bed in a crisp, cleanly pressed suit. He stares at the back wall, his shaky palm and a book he's grabbed from Buffy's nightstand blocking his peripheral vision of the bed's birthday-suited occupants. His face is the shade of a beet, and if Buffy had thoughts left to think, she might giggle. Or yell.

"Wesley," she says. Her throat is hoarse from shouting, and the word sounds more like a honk than speech. "We're … kinda busy."

Wesley swallows. "I …. I do apologize," he stammers. Buffy wonders if he's seen the title of the book he's using as a blinder. I Burn For You. "I need to discuss a pressing matter with you both," he says. "Come down to my office when you're decent, please." His gaze ticks a millimeter south before he can stop it, and in a whiplash bout of compensation, snaps back toward the ceiling, instead. He clears his throat like he accidentally swallowed his handkerchief. "Er … immediately," he croaks. And then he tosses the book back on the nightstand and flees like his shoes are on fire.

The wall clock ticks the seconds down after the door shuts behind Wesley's fleeing figure. One, two, three, four-

"I forgot to lock the door," Angel says against Buffy's ear. He doesn't move.

Buffy does find a laugh, then. A small, breathy snort. "I believe, 'No shit, Sherlock,' might be an appropriate response. But I'm still speechless, so I won't say it."

"You sound speechless," he says.

"Oh, trust me," she replies. She kisses him. "I am. Very speechless. Speechlessness is here."

The moments stretch, and she's almost dozing again when Angel gets up with a reluctant groan. "I suppose we should go see what Wes wants before he busts in here again-"

"-and busts a blood vessel in the process," Buffy grumbles, interrupting.

Angel glances at the clock on his nightstand. "It's noon. This had better be good."

He squints at the door, an irritated expression on his face as he yanks his fingers through his sex-crimped hair. The haphazard spikes he plows over with his palms bounce back to attention in nanoseconds. He bends over, giving her a lovely view of his flexing, sculpted shoulders, the beautiful gryphon tattoo on his back, the lean cords of his many muscles, the curve of his spine, and lower.


She licks her lips as he picks up his robe, which he left wrinkled and forgotten on the floor hours earlier. He stands, slim hip pressed against the mattress, giving her a lovelier view of his … everything.

He stops moving when he sees her watching him. "What?"

She shrugs and grins at him. "Enjoying the scenery. Don't mind me."

A ghost of a smile crosses his face. He seems … better, today. Not great, but better.

She sits up and stretches. Chill air hits her damp skin as the sheet falls away. If she's got one, it's pleasantly numb. She would rather go for round four, but Angel's already at his dresser, slipping on some black sweatpants.

She gets out of bed.

Angel leans against his dresser. He's staring at her, now, not being at all shy about it, and from the desirous look on his face, and the burning embers that have replaced his eyes, he likes what he sees. A lot. He's also a proponent of round four.

Her insides flutter at the thought.

"Sometimes, I really hate that man," she says, frowning at the door to their suite.

Angel drinks her in with a devouring gaze. "Raincheck?" he says in a thick, low voice, almost a purr.

Her lips slide into a smile, and she shows him teeth. She nods. "Raincheck."

Up. Down. Up. Down. Up. Down.

It's enough to give a girl whiplash.

Chapter Text

"Buffy. Angel. Sit d-," is all Wesley has a chance to say before Cordelia skids into the office, a wide-eyed look of urgency pasted on her face.

"Vision!" Cordelia says.

The sound of her racing heart pounds like a drum against Angel's ears, and he can't stop himself from perking up at the enticing song. He can't stop himself from the nanosecond of prey assessment that follows, either.

"Cordelia?" Angel hears Wesley say, but the words sound as though Angel were hearing them through a long tunnel.

"Great. What do I have to kill, now?" Buffy says. Another tunnel sound. "Let me guess. A Kevlar thingy?"

Cordelia's distracted. She would be an easy takedown. Like a wounded gazelle. But that's as far as his thought process goes before he shoves it away and rushes over to help her. Another instinct. One wrought by countless nights spent nursing her through horrible vision hangovers.

She doesn't have vision hangovers anymore, though, and she doesn't need help. She's distracted, yes, but she's not in pain, and after a brief moment to steel herself and sort the kaleidoscope of images in her mind, she says, breathless, "Kreplars." She swallows, looking up at Angel. "Kreplars at a church."

"Knew it!" Buffy says. "I swear, if I had a nickel for every Kevlar .…"

"I daresay you'd have $10.00, at most," Wesley says.

"Hey," Buffy says, frowning, "that's a solid basis for a savings account."

Wesley looks at Cordelia. "How many Kreplars?"

Cordelia shrugs. "A couple of normal ones and one that's like the size of a couple of normal ones pureed together in a demonic blender."

Wesley perks with interest. "Oh, a female! I've been wondering when we'd encounter one."

"Well, that's new, at least," Buffy says.

"Saint Something Blah Blah of the Angels," Cordelia continues, ignoring Buffy. "It's in Long Beach. We have to go, now."

Wesley's eyebrows knit. "Oh, dear," he says, looking at his watch. "We're sure to hit lunch rush traffic."

Cordelia rolls her eyes, "Hence the now."

Buffy sighs. "On a scale of zero to army, how many people do we need?"

Cordelia shakes her head. "No time to get everybody. We should be fine with just us." She gives Angel a discerning glance. "I mean, as long as you're feeling a hundred percent again, and don't mind fighting in a church surrounded by a bunch of crosses and sunlight and holy crap."

"Uh ...," Angel says, frowning. All in all, this sounds like a bad plan.

"Oh!" Cordelia adds. "And there's at least one screaming nun."

"A screaming nun?" he says.

"Well, maybe not a nun," Cordelia says with a shrug. "I only heard her gibbering. I didn't see her."

His frown becomes a scowl. "Cordelia, I'm bad at people." Especially hysterical screaming ones adorned with holy symbols.

"Pfft," she says dismissively as she grabs the hem of his shirt and yanks him toward the door. "I'm sure you'll be fine."


Wesley parks his car by the curb, and he and Cordelia scramble out as soon as the parking brake is engaged, slamming their car doors behind them. Angel huddles in the back seat, covered by a thick blanket to protect him from the blazing sun. A drop of sweat trickles from the nape of his neck to his shirt collar. His head rests on Buffy's lap.

He hates to travel this way. Hates. Even with the blanket covering him, his skin heats like he's sitting on a radiator, and he wants to bolt somewhere - anywhere that's dark - but he has nowhere to go. Nowhere that isn't brighter and hotter than the space around him already is.

He's trapped in a coffin of light, and if he were at all prone to claustrophobia, he'd be a gibbering mess. Instead, nervous tremors tumble through his tense muscles, but that's the only outward sign of his distress. Buffy rests her hand on his shoulder, which also helps. He keeps his eyes closed, and he focuses on listening to Wesley and Cordelia race up the steps to the door of the old church.

After a moment, Buffy says, "They have the door open." She leans over his overheating body to reach for the opposite car door. "Ready in three, two, one ... go!"

She flings open the car door, and Angel launches feet first onto the front walk of the church at the same time that Buffy pushes him from behind. He flies up the long flight of marble steps, trying not to trip as natural panic sets in. He's running through daylight covered only in a blanket, and he's hot, and it burns.

He's burning.

He falters on the threshold, which is thick and sticky like molasses to him, emblazoned with all manner of supernatural stop signs that interfere with his thought processes. Trepidation swells. Back away, back away, back away; you don't belong here, his brain whines at him. The whine overwhelms the panic pushing him forward, out of the light, by pushing him backward, away from the hallowed ground.

He stutters to a halt halfway through the door, caught in the iron grip of warring instincts – go, stay, go, stay – but before his stupor can drag him to his demise, Cordelia and Wesley grab his shirtsleeves, and they yank him into the darkness of the foyer.

He throws off the blanket. Smoke rises off his hurting skin in lazy curls. His retinas don't work for several moments. All he sees is an endless white that reminds him of the place he always meets the dream Oracle. He blinks tears out of his eyes, and the white recedes to blur, which recedes to focus.

Revulsion replaces former panic like a wrecking ball. He backs up against the stone wall, knocking down several boxes of pamphlets, all emblazoned with crosses and psalms and things that make his skin crawl with repugnance. Instinct corrals him into the corner, where he huddles, shoulders curled, body tense. With sheer force of will, he tries to overcome the hammer of, begone, unclean thing! that bangs in his skull. At first, the process has all the futility of pounding stone with a toothpick. But eventually, he replaces the toothpick with a fork, and then a pickaxe, and the stone begins to chip away.

The threshold of a church is always the worst.

A shaft of sunlight cleaves the room in two as Buffy enters, and Angel snaps his eyes shut. She pulls the door closed behind her. Cordelia is grimacing, her nose scrunched, when Angel opens his eyes again.

The shaft of sunlight is gone. The reek of burnt flesh has overwhelmed the small space, instead. The fact that its his own burnt flesh only makes it worse. His lip curls, and his teeth show. He can't curb his look of disgust.

Wesley puts his hand on Angel's shoulder. "Are you quite all right, man?"

Angel takes a deep breath and blows it out. The air does nothing for him, but thinking about breathing gives him something to focus on other than the coiling tangle of distaste thickening his tongue. "Yeah," he says. "Just give me a second."

"We don't have a second," Cordelia snaps.

Buffy sighs. "This was a dumb idea. A church in broad daylight."

"I'll be fine," Angel says, words a croak. "Just give me a second."

"You look like you're going to puke," Cordelia says.

Buffy nods. "Yeah, this is like sending me into a shop that has loaded guns for wallpaper, and the shop is submerged in an acid bath. I think, maybe, the Powers took a crazy pill."

"I'm sure they had a reason," Cordelia interjects. "Like, say, people dying."

"Are you sure you're good for this?" Buffy continues, ignoring Cordelia.

"It's a bit harder to use crosses as projectile weapons than guns, and a cross isn't inherently a weapon like a gun," Angel says. "I think your metaphor needs work."

Buffy folds her arms, and her eyes narrow, but she doesn't complain that he didn't answer her question, which is good, because he doesn't think he can handle the third degree from her right now. His body quivers. Standing in the church foyer is like a being on bad bender. He can't vent the distaste coiling in his gut. All it does is build and build. Worse, he also has things like shame, remorse, and regret rolled into the cocktail, because he kind of agrees with the sentiment of holy wards. He is unclean. He shouldn't be here.

Without his soul, he used these awful feelings like fuel, and churches became sort of a sadomasochistic game to see how many interesting ways he could pervert god's will. He took the revulsion and unleashed it onto the nuns and the priests and the parishioners. He took it, and he glutted himself with a leer on his face and a song in his heart.

When he's soulless, the threshold of a church is a taunt. A holy, "Bet you can't come in, jackass!"

To which the response is, "You really wanna bet?"

But what he hears now? Simply, "Monster."

To which the response is, "Yes."

A high-pitched scream pierces the thick wooden double doors separating the foyer from the church body itself, and the sound of distress is what he needs to get himself into gear. Finally. He grabs his sword from Wesley's outstretched hand and barrels through, only to grind to a halt.

The foyer was bad.

The church is worse.

A huge cross at least twenty-five feet tall towers over the room near the altar at the front of the pews. Angel is a bird before a cobra, staring, wide-eyed, tongue thick in his throat. His revulsion is a solid wall.

You don't belong here, the cross says. Go back. Unclean.

A sharp elbow collides with his back. "Snap out of it," Cordelia says, almost a hiss, and he shakes his head.

A second scream puts him back in the game, albeit still a little cloudy-headed.

He assesses.

Two Kreplars have a trembling priest and a Carmelite nun trapped in the pews. One Kreplar blocks the way in each aisle. Another nun is crumpled in a black-and-white heap by the doorway the A-team just came through. The nun's heartbeat pounds in Angel's ears, and her terror is a drug. A drug he needs. The high of it hits him like heroin, and all the churning badness and the go back, go back, go back song of the church disappears underneath the giddy rush.

"She's alive," Angel says, gesturing at the heap. He smells blood. Human. "She's hurt."

Cordelia slides to the floor to check on the terrified woman. The Kreplars' claws scrape the tile flooring. A hulking third demon appears in the doorway at the other end of the church. Angel's nostrils flare as he scents the new, larger addition. The female, he thinks, from the lack of vinegar smell. Which means the two males in the pews are going to be even more difficult to subdue than usual. They've chosen this church as their battleground for a mate. If Angel and the others can kill the female, maybe the two males - and the other males in the surrounding area - will chill out a little.

"Rock, paper, scissors?" Buffy asks.

"Not a good idea," says Wesley in a harsh whisper. "A female's claws secrete a paralytic venom that's lethal to humans." He glances at Angel, an expectant look on his face.

Right then. Angel nods. "I'll get her."

"Great. I've got right," Buffy says, and she bolts down the righthand aisle without waiting for a reply.

"Er …," Wesley says, frowning. "I shall … go left." He tries to make it declarative, like he didn't just take the last option available.

Angel's quads bunch, and he leaps. Air rushes past his face in a blur. He lands on the railing of the second level and slides into the upper aisle, graceful, soundless, deadly. He stares at the floor as he runs past the upper pews. Sunlight falls through stained glass windows into colored puddles. He dodges the puddles, and he doesn't look at the windows. He doesn't want another unexpected cross to knock him off his game.

Once he's past the snarling male Kreplars scuffling in the lower aisles, he jumps back down to the main level, silent, like a cat. The males don't appear to have heard him, and don't turn around.

"Hey, spiny, your fly's unzipped," Buffy snarks to keep her quarry distracted, and Angel shoots her a thankful nod before proceeding.

The female is gone. He parts his lips, and his nostrils flutter as he scents the air. He hears a distant, bestial snarl through stone and beyond that, an all-too-human gasp of terror. High-pitched. Feminine. Another nun, maybe.

He pushes through the back doorway into an empty hall. He picks up the pace once the door closes behind him, and he's free to make a bit more noise. Another snarl, another gasp, both painting him a more detailed picture. He frowns. The woman is -

"Help me!" she blurts, panicked as she explodes out of the office next to him and grabs at his shirt sleeve like he's the life boat, and she's drowning in shark infested waters. "Please!"

He shrugs her off, not allowing her pounding heart or her delicious hysteria to distract him. "You'll be fine," he says. He gives her a gentle push. "Go back to where you were hiding. Under the desk."

"Okay," she says. "Okay, I can … hide, yes. Yes, I'll hide." She glances downward, and he can see the exact moment she spots his giant sword. "Good heavens, what-?"

"Ma'am-," he begins.

He spares her a glance. His eyes widen. She's a slight woman. Fine-boned. With pale skin. Wispy brown eyebrows and mousy brown hair. She's not a nun. A parishioner, maybe? But what attracts his attention is the cross she wears around her neck. Not just any cross, but a sapphire blue, faceted stone set in pale white gold. The locket is reminiscent of Anyanka's old power source. The stone is rectangular, in this case, to create the illusion of a religious cross, rather than being square, like Anya's was, but ... He blinks. The necklace is exactly like the one he saw hanging around the vengeance demon's neck in Willow's spell-induced vision.

"Sir?" the woman says.

She looks likes she could be Anya's sister or something.

A vision sent him here.

This can't be a coincidence.

"What are you doing here?" he snaps, turning his full attention to her. "Why are you here?"

"I ... I-I ... I work here," she stammers. "What are these ... c-creatures?"

He inhales, but all he can smell is Kreplar pheromones. Wherever she is, the female is dumping them into the space around her like she's taken an ice bucket challenge, and the pheromones are the freezing water. They're filling up the whole building. The snarls of the males Angel left behind in the church crescendo to a fever pitch. The pheromones cloy in the air and make him want to gag. His nose is useless for this, now.

"Is this why Cordelia's vision sent me here?" he demands, crowding the woman against the wall. "To run into you?"

"I-I-I don't know what you mean!" the woman insists, eyes growing wet with tears. He doesn't have time to consider the situation further, though, because her eyes widen, and she shrieks, "Oh, my god!"

The blow doesn't announce its arrival, and whatever happens, it happens hard enough to rob Angel of a few seconds worth of perception. He's not even aware he's been hit until the opposite wall stops his whiplash momentum.

The plaster cracks, lightning streaks across his vision, and the hallway around him flips upside down as he buckles. His sword clatters to the ground. He needs to break his fall. Somewhere in the shower of mental sparks, somewhere in the dread and feelings of unwelcome crushing him from all sides, somewhere in the disconnection of his nerves from his limbs, he knows he needs to break his fall. But all he does is keep collapsing.

His ankles twist under his massive weight. Then his thigh and calf press into the floor. His hip. His shoulder. When his forehead crashes into cold tile with a bone-crunching smack, another streak of lightning blinds him.

The world is tipped on its side. His jaw is slack. His tongue lolls. The floor is wet. He can see the length of his arm in front of his face,- an expanding, slick, red pool creeping out from underneath him - and the sharp edge of his sword cutting into the meat of his bicep.

He doesn't feel the blade. The shallow furrow in his skin doesn't hurt. His fingers twitch like his nerve impulses are mangled.

The sword clanks as it falls flat underneath him, driven by his helpless spasms. He still doesn't feel the wound. The small runnel his sword made in his arm wouldn't account for lake of red he sees underneath him. Something is wrong. His body isn't working. He's awake, but he's not. He's thinking, but he's not.

The Kreplar looms over Angel, its spines spread about its face like a demonic, preening peacock.

The growl it makes is so intense, Angel should feel it underneath his breastbone. Like bass thumping from a subwoofer. But he doesn't. He doesn't feel anything.

The Kreplar's sabertooth fangs flash with drool in the dim light.

All Angel can do is twitch, and then he can't even do that.

The woman is screaming and screaming and screaming.

Just like Cordelia said she would be, he thinks, a tad manic.

What an idiot he'd been, letting himself get distracted by the necklace.

Another growl permeates the tight space.

And then the lights go out.


He opens his eyes to a familiar white void. The endless space should make him feel empty. Hollow. Desperate. Cold. It is a void, after all. But he's safe, and he feels warm. Like he's lying in a field on a sunny day, though there is no sun. He tips his head back, pointing his face toward the invisible heat source. When he inhales, he smells dewy, mountain air. The quiet that surrounds him is a quiet he hasn't really found on earth since cars were invented. It's an idyllic experience he pauses to enjoy for a moment.

"I like it here," he confesses to the woman beside him.

The Oracle peers at him. "I know, Warrior. I am always glad to give you respite."

"Are you ignoring more rules?" he says.

She steps closer. Her azure eyes look troubled. "That is for me to deal with. Not you."

He nods. "So, why am I here this time?"

She puts her hand on his back. Warmth from her body spreads through his shirt, and he feels like the weight of the world has propped him up, for once, rather than weighing down on his shoulders. Nothing will harm him here. He has no troubles. Worry is a thing outside this realm.

"Because you do not listen to me," she says.

He frowns. "Hey, I listen. It's not my fault you talk in riddles."

She sniffs. "Have you considered that it is not I who speaks with too much obfuscation?" She gives him a wry look. "Perhaps it is you who thinks in lines that are too straight."

"Well, I'm not the world's best puzzle solver, okay?" he retorts.

She sighs. "You, always so literal. Can you not think in metaphor?"

"What am I too literal about?"


"Well, that narrows it down," he snarks.

Another sigh. She steps in front of him, meeting his eyes. He loses himself, there, in the fathoms of her gaze. The color reminds him of Van Gogh's painting, Starry Night. "This path you think of forging," she says. She steps closer, until she's millimeters from him. "It is not a right one, though I wish you to take it."

"Well, what's wrong about it?" he says. "And what path am I thinking of forging, exactly? All I know is I just got my bell rung so hard, I might as well be Big Ben."

"I brought you here to find something you lost."

Hope burgeons. "Connor?"

"No," she says, tilting her head, "and … yes."

He grits his teeth. "But that doesn't make any fucking sense."

She sighs. "Straight lines. Always." She shakes her head like she's disappointed in him, but that doesn't make her touch any less comforting when she cups his chin with her hand. "Warrior," she says gently, "sometimes it is more valuable to know where a thing is not. Would you agree?"

"So … I'm here to not find Connor?" Angel says.

"Yes," she says. "And … no." He opens his mouth to retort, but she puts her index finger against his lips. "Hush," she says. "We are solving different problems. You search for Connor, yes. His location is important to you, and therefore to me, but finding him is where I wish you to begin your search, and finding him is where you wish to finish."

Angel blinks. "So … you want me to find something that finding Connor will help me locate?"

She grins. "Yes. Yes, Warrior. This is what I wish. Now, you understand."

"Well … why can't you just tell me what you want me to find?" he says, frowning.

She brushes his face. She's so warm. Like sunshine bound by skin. "If I tell you what I would have you seek, Warrior," she says, "I believe that that would defeat the point of finding it."

Chapter Text

"Shh, I think he's waking up!" Cordelia says.

Buffy frowns. Angel's still sitting there, slumped against the wall, staring at nothing. The Kevlar had come close to disemboweling him, though the ugly gash was healing quickly, now that everything was back where it was supposed to be.

She'd found him in a crumpled heap by the wall in a puddle of blood, the female Kevlar looming over him with its long claws and sharp spikes. Luckily, vampires are very difficult to kill. Angel had been down for the count, but nowhere near dead, and Kevlars aren't anywhere near intelligent enough to know they need to decapitate or stake vampires to win.

Buffy had killed Angel's distracted attacker with an easy sword swipe. Still ...

"He looks the same," Buffy says.

Cordelia shakes her head. "I saw him twitch."

A lump forms in Buffy's throat as she looks at her injured boyfriend. She's seen him incapacitated or scarily reckless far too often in the past few months, and this situation meant both. She'd thought he was mostly working through his death wish crap, but if that were the case, how in the hell had this Kevlar gotten the jump on him? A few stab wounds, she could easily see happening in the heat of an intense fight, but a foot long slash from hip to opposite pec? That would have required Angel not to be protecting his midsection long enough for the hulking, very-not-spry Kevlar to get a swipe in. And Angel's far too combat smart to leave his soft parts unprotected like that. It doesn't make any sense!

Wesley returns through the back door, following the long, messy trail of black blood that streaks the floor tiles. "Right," he says, panting, "all the corpses are in the parking lot. We only need to burn them." He glances at Angel. "Still not awake, yet?"

"I swear, he twitched," Cordelia says.

Wesley crouches by Angel and touches the nearly closed belly wound. Angel doesn't budge. Wesley draws his fingertips toward his face and sniffs. His nose wrinkles. "It's difficult to ascertain how much venom the Kreplar used, but it's no small amount. Very pungent."

"Hey, at least a demonic paralytic is just a bad day for him," Cordelia says. "It'd be a death sentence for us."

"Yes, well," Wesley says, "I suppose that's rather true for a lot of things, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Buffy says. "I mean, is there anything other than sunlight that could kill a vampire, but not a human?" Crosses and holy water, too, maybe, but she considered those more of an irritant to vampires than fatal devices.

"And even then," Wesley chimes in, "there's always porphyria."

Buffy frowns. "Porwhatia?

"Porphyria," Wesley says as he rises off his haunches. "It's a disease that causes sufferers to have an averse reaction to sunlight."

"Oh," she says. "Freaky deaky." This time, when Angel moves, she sees it. He blinks. And he swallows. Nothing else. She scoots closer to him. They'd moved him out of the blood puddle, at least. "Hey," she says, smiling. "Are you back with us, yet?"

A sound rasps in his throat. His leg twitches.

"I'd say it's wearing off," Wesley chimes in.

Cordelia rolls her eyes. "No, really?"

"So, how is the priest?" Buffy says, hand on Angel's shoulder. He's gone still again. "Is he still power freaking?"

"He and the sisters have gone to the rectory to wash up," Wesley answers. "They seem ... calmer, now. I've agreed to join them for tea on Tuesday."

"Yeah, like tea's gonna solve their impending existential crisis," Cordelia snorts.

Wesley sighs. "Yes, for now, I think the best thing we can do is leave them alone."

Another rasping noise draws their attention to their fallen vampire. When Angel finally rises to his feet, he reminds Buffy a bit of a stumbling fawn. She rushes to support him so he doesn't fall on his face again. "Hey, take it easy," she commands, though he doesn't listen.

"Buffy," he says, the word thick and weird-sounding, like he doesn't quite have full use of his tongue, yet.

"Yes," she says with a nod. "Me Buffy. You Angel."

He clutches at her shoulder for balance, hard enough to bruise. "Where ...?"

"I'm right here," she says, wincing. "Maybe, ease up on the grip?"

"No," is all he says in that weird, thick voice, and she can't for the life of her figure out what he's referring to, because his grip does lessen. He stumbles forward a step, and another. He looks down at his feet and gives the floor an intense frown.

"Yeah," Cordelia says. "You are so lucky you didn't ... you know." She makes a gesture that pantomimes throwing up, except the hand motion comes from her belly button, rather than her mouth. She accompanies the gesture with a sploosh sound. "Spill onto the floor."

His frown deepens.

"I mean," Cordelia rushes to say, "talk about the world's grossest jigsaw puzzle." And then she makes a face as if to say, I can't believe my life is a life where I say things like that and, somehow, it's normal.

His lips part, and his nostrils flutter a bit, like he's scenting something. Searching for something. Buffy peers back at the floor, trying to discern what the hell he's looking for. All she sees is drying gore in varying shades of pink, red, and black. She wonders how in the hell the clergy is planning to clean that up. The floor tiles may be salvageable, but blood stains are nearly impossible to lift from grout.

"Angel?" Buffy says.

Whatever he wants to locate, he finds it. He stops sniffing and takes a few stumble steps forward, closer to the back door.

"Hey, where are you going?" Cordelia says.

But he doesn't answer.

Instead, he's off like someone shot him from a gun

"I'll meet you back at the hotel," Buffy calls over her shoulder, though she can't afford the luxury of making sure Wesley and Cordelia heard her.

Angel is crazy fast when he wants to be, and all Buffy can do is try her best to keep up with him.

The sky is rose-hued with the onset of twilight, but the sun itself is already behind the horizon. Angel can be outside without burning to a crisp, even though it's not quite dark, yet. Which is good, because he seems hellbent enough that she's not sure burning to a crisp would have stopped him from trying to get wherever he's going.

"Angel!" Buffy calls, barely keeping pace with him. "Angel, would you slow the hell down? Angel!" She slams her big toe into the sidewalk where tree roots have pushed up the concrete. She stops and hisses, "Ow!"

Her pain is enough to get him to pay attention to her, finally, and he doubles back to check on her. "Are you ... all right?" he says, a slight frown on his face. He still sounds odd.

She glares at him and doesn't dignify that with an answer. "I'm not trying to stop you, you know," she grumbles. "I just want to go with you."

He has the grace to look chastened. A car swishes past them on the street. A dog barks in the distance.

Her toe stops throbbing, and she puts her hands on her hips. "You want to tell me what's going on, yet?"

He swallows. "Buffy ..."

"Yes, Buffy," she says. "That's me. We've established that."

He swallows again and steps closer. He blinks. Whatever the hell that venom did, it still seems to be wreaking havoc with him, because his movements are not normal. He's a big lummox, not a stealthy cat, when he pulls her into his arms. She wraps her arms around his waist, underneath his shirt and sighs. Yay for a return to reason. Maybe, she can get him to stay calm long enough to think this through. Whatever this is.

"A ... woman," he says.

She frowns, looking up at him. "Okay, a woman. Aren't the nuns all back at the church?"

"One left."

"Okay," Buffy says. "But why do we care?"

A rough sound forms in his throat. He seems to be at a loss for words. Or, at the very least, unable to utter the words he hasn't lost. He pats his chest, just between his clavicles.

"Heartbeat?" she guesses.

He shakes his head. Swallows. "Track," he says. "Track demon."

She imagines one of the Kevlars wearing Reeboks and a cute little red sweat band around its spiny head. "We're hunting a track demon?"

He sighs. "I'm tracking," he says roughly.

"And what does that have to do with a nun?" Buffy says. She gapes when it all comes together. "Wait. Wait, the nun is a demon? That's what you're saying?" But ... so, what, if a demon wants to be a nun? She's not sure why this is relevant. Still ... Maybe, that's how Angel got his stomach nearly opened up. One doesn't usually expect a disemboweling from a nun. A demon nun. Who'd have thunk? "Okay, now, I've officially seen everything."

Angel gives her a disbelieving look.

"What?" She pats her head, trying to figure out if something's out of place. "Do I have blood in my hair?"

He opens his mouth. Closes his mouth. Opens it. Closes it. "No," he eventually says, a confused look on his face, like he has no idea how the conversation got to this point.

She gives him a conciliatory pat on shoulder. "Okay, well, let's go find your demon nun, then."

He tries to say something again. She waits while he wrestles with syllables, trying to get them in order. Eventually, though, he thinks better of it, closes his mouth with a clack, and steps in the direction he was originally heading before she got him to stop.

She follows.

She thinks, perhaps, that she'd follow him anywhere, demon nuns notwithstanding.

Angel takes her through several blocks of residential neighborhood. Typical SoCal suburbia, full of houses too big for their small lots, and lawns too green for their dry climate, kept alive only by extensive sprinkler systems. They pass a group of kids playing hockey in the street in the shadow of a towering eucalyptus tree.

The residences gradually change in quality from McMansions to single story buildings. A few blocks after that, she finds herself following Angel into a small community of manufactured housing. When they've gone about a mile and a half from the church, he slows to a stop in front of a small house covered in chipping, yellow paint. There's no vehicle in the driveway. The lawn is brittle and dead.

Makes sense, Buffy thinks. A nun wouldn't be flush. "I didn't know nuns lived in houses," she says.

"Some do, now," Angel says.

She supposes, if anyone would know that other than a nun, Angel would. His alter ego has a thing for convents, after all. Which ... squick. She wrinkles her nose at the unwelcome thought of Angelus doing Angelus-y things.

"So, she's in there?" Buffy says, pointing up the short, crumbling walk to the dilapidated house.

He pauses. Listens. "Yes," he says. His neutral face sinks into a scowl, and he stalks up the walk.

She launches forward to grab his shirt, stopping his forward motion. "Wait just a second, Angel."

"What?" he snaps as she pulls him back.

"What do you think she's going to think when a big scowling angry dude wearing all black knocks on her door? Not to mention, you're even more not with the wordy than usual."

He regards for a moment. "I don't care what she thinks," he says, and he yanks himself out of her grip.

True to his word, he bangs on the nun's front door with so much menace it makes Buffy cringe. But much to Buffy's surprise, the response isn't a shrieking, "Go away!" Rather, the door creaks open to reveal a pale, tear-streaked, wide-eyed face. If she was dressed like a nun at one point, she's not, now. She's wearing an old, ratty, gray robe. "It's you!" the woman says in amazement. "Good heavens, I thought you'd died ... I mean ..."

Buffy frowns. "You don't look like a nun."

The woman frowns back, and the door opens another inch. "I'm not a nun. Who are you?"

Buffy turns to Angel. "You said she was a nun."

"No, you said," he snaps.

Which ... oops. "I'm just an administrative assistant," the woman chimes in.

"Tell me about the wish," Angel says.

"What wish?" the woman says.

Angel glares. "My son."

"I don't know what you're talking about!" responds the woman.

Buffy gapes. Connor? That's what this is about? She doesn't have time to ponder the implications, though, because Angel quickly graduates from looming to trying to force open the door. The woman shrieks and leaps away as door springs back on its hinges. Angel, though, stops. He puts a hand on an invisible wall at the threshold, and he pushes. Nothing happens.

"You're human," he says, tone mystified.

"What else would I be?" the woman demands. "One of those ... those ... those things?" And then she starts to shake. She clutches at the sapphire-colored cross she's wearing around her neck. "What is happening?"

Angel swallows and backs away. "I'm ... I'm sorry. I thought .…"

Buffy is quick to intercede. She grabs him by the arm and pulls him back. She gives an apologetic smile to the traumatized not-nun. "We apologize," Buffy says. "We were looking for a ... fugitive. Uh. A fugitive who's obviously not you. Uh." Crap, crap, crap, how to explain this? "Meth ... Meth heads. In Halloween costumes." She jabs a thumb at Angel and whispers to the woman, "He's a little ... trigger happy, sometimes. Afghanistan and all."

"Oh," says the woman. "But ..."

Buffy fishes out an Angel Investigations business card from her pocket. "Call me if you need to talk. Ask for Buffy. I'm happy to answer your questions, but I need to get him home, now." And with that, she guides Angel back down the steps to the sidewalk, leaving the mystified, traumatized woman behind.

Angel follows, pliant.



There's a small park two blocks west of the not-nun's house. Aside from a group of twenty-something guys playing some pickup basketball on the court in the corner, the park is empty, and Buffy finds a bench near a palm tree for them to sit on. Angel collapses next to her with a gravity that says he's still not a hundred percent. She snuggles next to him, pulling his arm over her shoulder, and resting her cheek against his chest.

"You want to tell me what that was all about?" she says.

He doesn't respond right away, and she thinks, Great, more venom borne silence. But then he sighs, swallows, and manages to say, "I thought she ... Her amulet."

Buffy frowns. "The cross?"

"Looked like Anya's."

"Oh," Buffy says. And then realization sets in. "Oh. You thought she was the vengeance demon who …?"


"Is that how the Kevlar got you? The not-nun distracted you?"

"Yes. And then …." He frowns. "I had another dream, Buffy."

"Of the Oracle?"

He nods. "She made it sound like she sent me here to find …." Connor. The word hangs in the space between them, unspoken. He swallows. "Wishful thinking, I guess."

Buffy kisses him. "Have you thought more about ... taking back the wish?"

He looks at her. "No ... but ..." He slumps. "Buffy, I can't. I can't ask that of ..." Cordelia. Wesley. Gunn. Who knows who else. Angel hasn't really discussed who all was supposed to be dead. Buffy'd merely gleaned the list over the months from conversation with him. "I can't, but ..."

She's reading him like a book, now. She nods. "Seeing that locket and having that dream brought it all back again?"

He slumps. "I'm sorry." Like he's somehow failed her.

"Angel, it's understandable."

"Not to me."

There's a yell across the park, and she looks toward the basketball court. A shorter guy passes the ball to a taller guy, who sends the ball sailing into the basket with a swish. Cheers, high-fives, and friendly back-slaps follow, and the game resumes.

She licks her lips. "Maybe, we should try and find the vengeance demon who did it."

"What's the point?" Angel says in a glum tone.

She shrugs. "I don't know." Sometimes accident victims found healing by talking through what had happened with other survivors. The thing with Connor hadn't been an accident, but ... she imagines the feelings of shock and futility are similar. "You don't have to ask her to take anything back, but, maybe, it would help you. You know. To talk to her." Which meant they should talk to Willow. Stat.

"Maybe," he concedes.

She snuggles closer. "I love you," she says.

He gives her a sad smile. "Still my girl?"

"Always," she says, and she presses her lips to his.

Willow is already in bed by the time Buffy and Angel get back to the hotel. Angel, despite it being dark out, now, heads straight to bed as well, and Buffy's happy to accompany him. "That venom really screwed you up, didn't it?" she says as she rubs lotion onto her legs. The scent of shea and cocoa fills the room.

Angel collapses onto his side of the bed. He looks paler than usual in the soft lamplight. There are dark circles underneath his eyes. "I feel ... sluggish," he says.

She caps the lotion bottle and sets it on her nightstand. Then she scoots across the bed, slides her leg over his hip, and settles into a straddle. "Should I kiss you to make it better?"

He looks nauseated by the mere thought.

"I'm … not in the mood," he admits. He swallows. "I'm not even sure I could."

She frowns. "You look like you feel a whole lot more than just sluggish."

"Like I swallowed ipecac and spent a few days emptying out."


She dips down to kiss him, but she bypasses his lips. "I'm sorry," she murmurs against his forehead. And then she frowns as she pulls away. "How on earth do you know what swallowing ipecac feels like?"

"It induces vomiting. They used to cure certain poisons with it."

She nods. Mom had used ipecac syrup once when Buffy had been little and gotten into the laundry detergent. "I know that, but …."

He gives her a look. "Angelus wasn't popular, and not everybody knew how to kill vampires."

"Oh," she says. The sheets rustle as she shifts to wrap her arms around him. "Well, for once, I'm kinda glad most civvies are incompetent." She grins. "Tomorrow, though, maybe? You owe me a raincheck."

He gives her a small grin.

"What do you mean, you don't think this was vengeance?" Buffy says, goggling. "It sure as hell looked like vengeance to me when we did that blood memory spell."

She and Angel sit side by side across from Wesley in his office the next day. Two old scrolls rest unfurled across the desk, along with a magnifying glass, highlighters, pens, notepads, sticky notes, and a gigantic stack of old, musty books with foreign titles Buffy can't hope to interpret. Sort of an organized chaos, if chaos were put in a blender by a drunken librarian.

"This is what I wished to tell you earlier," Wesley says, steepling his hands. He shifts in his chair, back and forth, fidgety like he's had too much tea, and the caffeine has filled him up to his eyeballs. "As you know," he says, nodding to them, "I've been trying to translate the Nyazian scrolls."

Buffy shrugs. "Yeah, so?"

"A week ago, Buffy, you gave me this," Wesley says. He points to one of the unfurled scrolls, and she notices, under all the miscellaneous clutter, the red script of Angel's signature.

"Again … so?" Buffy says.

"I should thank you, by the way," Wesley says. His lip twitches like he's trying to suppress an excited grin. "This is what helped me make the connection."

Angel leans forward. His chair creaks as his weight shifts. "Could you get to the point, Wesley? This is early for me, and I still feel a bit like a bus hit me."

"Yes, yes, of course," Wesley says. He shifts. Back and forth. And then he points to the two scrolls buried on his desk. "What do these two documents have in common?"

"Umm, they're about Angel?" Buffy says.

Wesley blinks. "Well, yes, but … what else?"

Buffy looks at Angel, who shrugs. They stare at Wesley, silent, eyebrows raised.

Wesley pulls his yellow notepad free from the clutter, and he taps it with his index finger. Neat blue script is written on several lines in all capital letters, underlined for emphasis. The father will kill the son.

Angel stiffens in his chair. "Wes, I told you that's falsified," he says, the words slow, a dangerous, razor edge scraping underneath his tone, and his expression sharpens like a cut diamond. She puts a hand on Angel's forearm. It's a small touch, but he glances at her, and his gaze softens.

Wesley is so excited he seems oblivious. He claps his hands. "Yes! Yes, it's falsified! Exactly!" Wesley beams at them, and Angel blinks like this wasn't where he expected this conversation to go. "You said the demon Sahjhan went back in time to write this into the prophecy, in order to prevent the real prophecy from coming true."

"Which it did anyway ...," Angel says, his dangerous tone shifting to caution.

"Beside the point," Wesley says. He leans across the desk. "Don't you see?"

"See ... what?" Angel says, almost a growl. "Did I mention it's early for me?"

"If Connor wished himself never to be born, why would Sahjhan go through the immense trouble of doctoring this prophecy?" Wesley says, gesturing and animated, and his excitement is infectious. Buffy's heart beats faster, and her throat dries. "Why would this prophecy still exist in the first place?" he continues. "And why, for that matter, would your signature still be here on the Scrolls of Aberjian, when the events that caused you to sign them haven't happened in this version of the world?"

"What …?" Angel says. His eyes narrow, and he stills. "What are you saying, Wes? Small words."

"I'm saying that I don't think a vengeance demon is responsible for this," the ex-watcher says. "These changes weren't due to Connor's wish." He gestures at the room with splayed hands. "None of this is. And I don't think Connor is gone. At least not in the sense that we've assumed."

"But what about the edits Lorne said were missed?" Buffy says, frowning. "Couldn't this just be more of those?"

Wesley nods. "Yes, yes, I'd considered that. But the building collapsing on Crenshaw is only tangentially related to Connor, and easy to miss in the grand scheme of alterations to an entire universe." He stabs at the scrolls with his index finger. "Angel signing this Shanshu prophecy could be construed as tangential, as well. But the Nyazian Scrolls directly concern Connor's birth. They flat out shouldn't exist in this iteration of the universe, let alone be edited by Sahjhan." Wesley inhales and straightens. "Don't you see what I'm saying?"

"But Willow's spell ...," Angel says.

"I don't think the Sanguinis Memoriam spell showed us the truth," Wesley says, the words dropping like a hammer in the small space.

"But why?" Buffy says.

"That, I don't know," Wesley admits, "but, Angel, I think your son might still be alive."

Angel doesn't speak.

Wesley frowns. "Angel, did you hear what I said?"

"Sometimes, it is more valuable to know where a thing is not," Angel says, staring into space.

"Pardon?" says Wesley.

"That's what the Oracle told me," he says, still misty-eyed and distant. "That's …." He blinks and animates like he's been dropkicked into motion. "She wanted me to find that woman with the necklace, so I'd try to find the vengeance demon…." His chair squawks as he shoots to his feet. "Yes, and no. That's what she said. She wasn't obfuscating. She wanted me to find Connor by not finding Connor."

"Um …," Buffy says.

"Don't you get it?" Angel says. He starts to pace. "We had two hypotheses. And this rules one of them out. She's been trying to tell me the Powers did this, only she can't just come out and say it, because They're her bosses. The Powers took my son!"

Buffy sends the slayers out with Spike and Gunn to cut down on the number of bodies in the hotel lobby. They've moved the big couch out of the way to make room for the summoning circle. Willow stands in the middle of the open space, underneath the big chandelier. She clutches a bottle of red powder, the consistency of which reminds Buffy of salt, though she's never heard of red salt before, so ... who knows? Everyone remaining stands in a circle around the room, hands clasped.

"You're quite sure you wish to do this?" Giles says, frowning.

Willow shrugs. "I don't see what choice we have. We have to figure out what the hell is going on, and it's not like we have the Powers on speed dial."

"Maybe, Anya should hide?" Xander says. "I mean ..."

Anya sighs. "I'm not a vengeance demon anymore, Xander."

"Yeah," Xander quips. "That's what I'm worried about."

Anya rolls her eyes. "He won't have any interest in me. I'm the equivalent of an ant to him, now."

"But-," Xander begins, and Anya jabs him with her elbow. He cringes away from her with an affronted, "Ow!"

Anya schools her expression and straightens her posture, like nothing happened. "Willow, please continue with the summoning."

Willow stares back in disbelief. "Right ..." She glances around. "Everybody ready?" When she receives a chorus of affirmations, she sets her feet, unscrewing the cap on the could-be-salt.

Buffy squeezes Angel's hand. Angel squeezes back.

"Beatum sit in nomine D'Hoffrynis," Willow chants as she forms a circle around herself on the floor with the red maybe-salt. "Fiat hoc spatium porta ad mundum Arashmaharris."

The air brightens and heats. Zaps of electricity crackle through the room. A flash of light makes Buffy squint. A robed figure materializes at the epicenter of the disturbance, accompanied by a whiff of brimstone. "Behold, D'Hoffryn," the robed figure booms, arms raised, as he turns to face them. "Lord of Arashmahar. He that turns the air to blood and rains-" He sighs and slumps when he sees exactly who's summoned him. "Oh," he says in a disappointed tone. "It's you people."

"Hey, we're not bugs, y'know," Cordelia says.

D'Hoffryn looks unimpressed. "Really."

"Look," Buffy says, before the two of them can get into a snark match. "We want to know if a vengeance-"

"If Connor's disappearance was a vengeance demon, it was no vengeance demon of mine," D'Hoffryn says before Buffy can even finish her question.

"Oh," she says, frowning.

"Right, then," D'Hoffryn says with a put upon sigh. "Are we done? I have a tight schedule today."

"Aren't you in charge of all of the vengeance demons?" Buffy says.

"Why, yes," he says. He quirks a nonexistent eyebrow. "Your point?"

"He's saying it's not vengeance," Anya chimes in.

Buffy rolls her eyes. "Thank you. I got that part."

D'Hoffryn gives them a pleasant smile and turns to face Anya, as if he's noticed her for the first time. "Anyanka," he says. "I'm surprised to see you here." He frowns. "I could have sworn you were dead."

"Oh, I was," she says. She frowns. "I think most of us were. That's why we called you here."

"Interesting ...," D'Hoffryn says in a suspicious tone. He peers around the room, giving each of them a discerning glance, but he says nothing else.

"So, why did my blood memory spell tell us Connor wished himself out of existence if his disappearance wasn't the result of a vengeance spell?" Willow says, frowning.

D'Hoffryn regards her for a long moment. "Well, I didn't say he never wished himself out of existence, now, did I?"

"But you said it wasn't vengeance!" Cordelia says.

He shrugs. "Not for lack of trying, let me assure you."

"Uh," Buffy says. "Come again?"

D'Hoffryn rolls his eyes. "I mean, Aslaug granted Connor's wish," he says, the words stretched and slow like he thinks he's talking to a developmentally challenged four-year-old. "It's just that there was no one to grant it on by the time she granted it."

"You're saying someone beat you to the punch?" Willow says.

D'Hoffryn nods. "That's exactly what I'm saying, my dear."

When Lorne steps closer with an expectant look, D'Hoffryn rolls his black, fathomless eyes again. "Surely, you must be joking."

Lorne shakes his head. "A verse will do," he says.

A long silence follows as D'Hoffryn merely stares.

Willow steps closer. "Please, D'Hoffryn," she says in a soft tone. "This is important."

"You act as though I care about your petty mortal drama," D'Hoffryn says with a glower. "That's sweet."

Buffy grinds her teeth. "Do you care about not having me cave in your skull with an axe?"

D'Hoffryn snorts. "I'd be gone before you can move your arm." He frowns. "Funny, I thought we'd had this discussion before. Or, at least, one similar."

Lorne clears his throat.

D'Hoffryn shakes his head and looses a put upon sigh. But then he inhales, clears his throat, straightens his robes, and he sings, slightly off key, "I see a red rose, and I want to paint it black."

Buffy snickers. "Rolling Stones fan?"

"No," D'Hoffryn says, "but I did punish them, once. Who do you think inspired Sympathy for the Devil?" He glances at his watch. "I'm afraid I must depart. I have hot yoga." He grins, showing pointed, yellowed teeth. "Emphasis on hot." His fangs click together over the last word.

And then with a flicker of light and another zap of lightning, he's gone. All eyes turn to Lorne.

Lorne shrugs. "Well, he's telling the truth as far as he knows it."

"So, this really wasn't vengeance," Buffy says.

"Looks like you were right, Wes," Faith says. She gives him a back slap that's probably meant to be supportive but instead only looks like it's painful. Wesley winces and rubs his shoulder where the impact happened.

"Yes, good show, man," Giles says. "Good show."

"So, that only leaves us with the cosmic do-over idea," Fred says. "Right? I mean, that's what y'all think?"

"I think that about sums it, yeah," Buffy says.

"So, how do we confirm that the Powers were involved?" Cordelia says. "The Oracles are dead. And like Willow said, it's not like we have them on speed dial."

No one has an immediate answer to that, though, and thoughtful frowns sweep around the human circle like wildfire. "I don't suppose we could use inter-dimensional travel?" Fred says, pondering out loud. "I mean, the PTB must exist somewhere, right? It stands to reason that they have their own pocket of space-time somewhere."

"Look," Cordelia replies, "I don't know about you, but I'd rather not risk ending up in Pylea again."

Lorne raises his hand. "Seconded," he says.

Which meant ... what options were left, exactly? Unless they managed to somehow resurrect the Oracles ... Wait.

"Angel, what about your Oracle dreams?" Buffy says, turning to him.

"Dreams?" Cordelia says, perking up. "What dreams?"

Angel frowns. "I've been having dreams." He turns to Buffy. "What about them?"

"Hello," Cordelia snaps. "The last time Angel had weird dreams, Darla happened."

"It's not like that," Buffy says.

"How would you know?" Cordelia says. "You weren't here last time."

"Well, she clearly wants to help you," Buffy says, ignoring Cordelia. "Maybe, if you hang a vacancy sign in your mental window, she'll visit again."

Angel's eyebrows knit. "What, you want me to go to sleep and see if she comes?"

"It can't hurt," Buffy says with a shrug.

"Yes, it can!" Cordelia insists.

"Cordelia, give it a rest. I'll be watching him the whole time," Buffy says, turning back to Angel. "Maybe, you can get some commentary on current events."

Angel gives her a doubtful look, but he doesn't say no, either. He shrugs. "I guess I'm still kind of tired," he says.

Buffy smiles. "Good. Let's give this a go."

If there's one thing Buffy's had trouble getting used to over the years she's spent with Angel, it's that he sleeps like the literal dead. Like a corpse. When he's not awake to consciously perpetuate the illusion that he's a living, breathing human, all of his habitual motions cease. He doesn't breathe. He has no pulse. He doesn't roll around with restless energy. Combined with the fact that his body doesn't generate any heat ... it's a little weird being awake beside him when he's snoozing.

She sighs and puts her book down on the bedspread beside her hip. She tips her head to the right to peer at him. He's pale, and still, and quiet. She can't help but reach to touch his face.

"My life is so weird sometimes," she confesses with a quirky grin.

She returns to her book. It's a paranormal romance that's not supposed to be a comedy, but to her, because she knows how the real world works, it's nonstop laugh riot. The vampires in this story are good guys. Angel's remorse, and his desire to do good, have become a staple for fictional vampires these days, to the point that it's becoming cliché.

She barely tamps a giggle as she flips the page.

It's been an hour when she hears Angel take a deep breath beside her. She bites her lip and looks up from the page. Angel's staring at the ceiling.

"Anything?" she says.

"No," he says. "I didn't dream at all."

Buffy sighs.

The covers rustle as he sits up. "Look, it's not like these Oracle dreams are pay-per-view. I can't just order them anytime I feel like paying."

"I know," she says.

The phone on the nightstand rings, and Buffy reaches over to grab it. "Hello?" she says.

"Hey, B," Faith says on the other end of the line. "Any luck?"

"No," Buffy says glumly. "Nothing. I guess all we can do is wait. What's up?"

"Cordelia had a vision. Four Kreplars at a gas station. I'm headed out with Wes and a few of the girls. Just figured I'd offer in case you want to hit something."

"Nah, I'm okay," Buffy says. "Have fun."

"Sweet. Talk to you later, B."

Faith doesn't wait for Buffy to answer before she hangs up. When Buffy hears the dial tone, she sets the phone back in its cradle with a sigh. She turns to face Angel.

He's staring over his knees at nothing in particular. "It's too bad we can't reverse engineer Cordelia," he says. And then his eyes widen.

"What is it?" Buffy prods.

"I just thought of something." He gives her an apologetic look. "You might not like it."

"Wait, wait, wait," Buffy says. She, Cordelia, Willow, Angel, and Giles are having a pow wow in the downstairs office. The room smells musty from all the open books and scrolls. "You want to what?"

"Look," Angel says, "just think about it. Cordelia got the visions by kissing Doyle. And she gave the Black Thorn vision to me when she kissed me. Maybe, if I kiss her, now ..."

"Um, Angel," Cordelia says calmly, "you don't have the best track record with interpreting visions." She gestures to the cramped space around them. "Hello, exhibit A for erased Apocalypse."

"A fair point," agrees Giles. "Visions are woefully open to interpretation, given the absence of a formal directive." He takes a sip of tea. "Also, they appear to facilitate one-directional information flow. You wouldn't be able to ask questions."

"It doesn't always work, anyway," Cordelia says. "I've kissed people without giving them visions."

"Also true," Giles says.

Willow takes a deep breath. "But-"

"I do think it's clear that a kiss is a conduit of some sort, when one of the recipients has visions, but there's no way to know what triggers the conduit to open," Giles says, interrupting Willow. "And I'm inclined to agree with Cordelia that attempting to force the conduit open may not be a wise course of action."

Willow tries to interject, "I could-"

"Besides," Cordelia says, "if the Powers wanted to tell you something, don't you think they'd send me a vision about it? But, no." She sighs. "All I've been getting is the Kreplar channel 24/7."

"But that's just it," Angel says. "They don't want to tell me anything."

"But, maybe-," Willow says.

"Hence the cryptic-happy Oracle breaking rules to talk with you," Buffy says, nodding.

"So, how would Angel having visions improve the situation at all?" Cordelia replies incredulously. Her gaze shifts back to Angel, and she looses a disgusted sigh. "This whole moron plan relies on the Powers talking to you voluntarily."

"So, we reverse the visions," Willow shouts. All eyes turn to Willow, who reddens, and her shoulders curl as she hunches under scrutiny. "I mean …," she says in a quieter voice. "Er …."

"Say what?" Buffy says.

Willow bites her lip. "I could try to … maybe … follow the vision link backward to the Powers?"

"You can do that?" Angel says, eyes widening.

"No," Cordelia says, waving her arms like she's trying to convince an oncoming car to screech to a halt. "No way. Veto, veto, veto. Nothing good ever happens when we muck around with visions! Have you people learned nothing?"

"Cordy, this is important," Angel says in a soft voice. "I need to know."

"Yeah," Cordelia says. "And I need my best friend to not be crazy suicide Rambo, and my brain to not be soup!"

"I could use the blood memory spell," Willow says.

"Huh?" Buffy says.

"The Memoriam Sanguinis," Willow says. "I wouldn't have to work with an actual vision. I just need to see how a vision Cordelia had before worked. And once I see where the link goes, maybe, I could duplicate it for Angel in the real world, but in reverse." Cordelia opens her mouth to retort, but Willow rushes to add, "On a temporary, one-time basis, I mean. I don't want crazy Angel, either."

Angel glowers.

"How can this possibly be safe?" Cordelia says, tone getting shrill.

"The Memoriam Sanguinis is like television," Willow says. "You're not involved in it, you're only watching it." She gives Giles an expectant look.

"Quite true," he says, though he appears reluctant to side with her. "The spell itself was ... quite bracing, however ..."

"The world burned to a cinder, and we came out toasty-flesh free," Buffy admits. "I'd say that's pretty strong proof that what you see during the spell won't hurt you."

"I'm not talking about that," Cordelia snaps. "I'm talking about forcing an audience with the Powers. I mean, hello, they're not nice people. They're not people at all. And if they wanted us to be able to pop in and say hi, we wouldn't have to go through all this ridiculous crap just to do it."

Angel gives Cordelia an intense look. "Cordelia, I need to know."

She folds her arms. She sniffs, and tries to look away. And then she slumps. "God, don't look at me like that. You're like a big, broody-faced," she says, gesturing at him weakly, "kicked puppy, and I can't …." She growls and grinds her teeth. "Fine. But you're stupid, and we're all gonna die."

"Thank you," Angel says softly.

Cordelia glowers. "Shut up."

Buffy looks at Willow. "Do we still have all the ingredients?"

Willow nods.

"Why don't you go get them?"

"Can I stress one more time how bad of an idea I think this is?"

"Yes, Cordelia," Buffy says, rolling her eyes. "You've said."

Buffy, Angel, Willow, and Giles sit on the outside of the circle in a ring. In the center, sits Cordelia, legs crossed. The candles are lit. The flames on each wick flicker and dance. The herbs are mixed, and the room smells of incense. Everything is ready. Willow picks up a serrated knife and leans forward.

"I don't want to do this," Cordelia says. "I don't."

"Cordelia ... please?" Angel says in a soft voice. "I just need to know what happened."

Cordelia bites her lip and gives him a pained look. "Grrr, you know that's not fair!"

"I know," he says. "But I need to find my son. Please, Cordelia."

She rolls her eyes and sighs. "Fine. Fine, whatever." She glances at Willow. "Just do it quick, okay?"

Willow nods and scoots an inch closer. "In memoriam sanguinis," she chants as she reaches for Cordelia's wrist. "Memoriam sanguinis. Memoria temporis. Ut sisterent ea praeterita." With a quick swipe, she drags the serrated knife against Cordelia's wrist.

Cordelia hisses in pain.

"Memoriam sanguinis," Willow continues. "In nomine matris."

Blood drips from Cordelia's wrist into the bowl.

"Memoriam sanguinis. Memoriam sanguinis. Memoriam sanguinis."

A flash of light erupts from the bowl, followed by an audible pop. The air crackles with static. Cordelia begins to glow. Buffy frowns. This isn't what happened last time when they cut Angel's wrists. This isn't even remotely ...

"Willow," Buffy says, but Willow's eyes are closed, and her teeth are clenched, like she's already so embroiled in what she's doing that she can't focus on anything else.

"Memoriam sanguinis. Memoriam sanguinis. Nunc est tempus."

Cordelia inhales sharply and arcs backward.

"Willow!" Angel snaps. He sees it, now, too. This isn't right. This spell isn't going the right way.

"Willow, stop," Giles adds. "Willow!"

But it's too late. A column of light explodes around Cordelia. She looks up at the ceiling. Her eyes are white and sightless. Her body is lifted off the ground a full six inches. She writhes in the column. Angel leaps forward to support her, but an unseen wall blocks his path.

Cordelia screams, and screams, and screams.

"Oh, my god," Buffy says, "what the hell is going on?"

But then the light goes out. Cordelia slumps to the ground. Her eyes are a normal color again. She's panting. Willow sinks into her post-magic, smiley stupor.

"Oh, wow," Willow says, and then she giggles like she's high.

"Cordelia," Angel says, rushing forward. "Cordelia are you ..." His voice trails away when he sees Cordelia's wrist. The gash is spilling light into the air like her insides are nothing but sunshine. "... Okay?"

"Oh, dear," says Giles.

Buffy gapes.

Cordelia smiles, and Buffy is filled with instant warmth. Like someone just pulled fresh cinnamon buns out of the oven or something. "Slayer," Cordelia says, giving Buffy a small nod. "Watcher. Warrior," she continues, nodding to Giles and Angel in turn. Finally, her gaze reaches Willow. "Witch," Cordelia says. Then she reaches for Willows hand. Cordelia's body begins to glow. For a moment, she flashes so bright Buffy has to shield her eyes, and Angel hisses with pain. When darkness spreads through the room again, Willow's blinking.

"What ... happened?" Willow says, sounding far from stoned, this time.

Cordelia gives them a regal shrug. "I took the magic's corruption and dispersed it."

"Um …," Buffy says.

Cordelia turns toward Angel and reaches for him. "You seek the higher planes," she says.

"Cordelia, you-," he says.

"Hush," she replies.

She puts her palm flat against his temple. Angel frowns, but doesn't push her away. "Cordelia, what are you-?"

Another blinding flash of light fills the room. Angel makes a funny noise. Not a growl or a groan or a sharp cry of pain, but something that mixes the three together in a blender of badness and portent. By the time Buffy blinks the painful spots out of her eyes and can see again, Angel's collapsed onto the floor, crumpled underneath an unconscious Cordelia, who still has her hand pressed to his face.

"Oh, dear," Giles repeats. "Oh, dear, oh, dear."

Buffy scoots toward the Angel-Cordelia heap. She shakes his protruding shoulder. "Guys," she says. Cordelia slides off Angel to the tiled floor. Her head thumping onto the ground doesn't even wake her. "Guys?" Buffy says, trying to hold back her encroaching panic. "Wake up. Cordelia!" She bites her lip and gives Angel another shove. "Angel?"

But he doesn't budge. Doesn't move. Doesn't breathe.


He looks dead.

Except, this time, he's not asleep.

Chapter Text

Angel wakes up in a place he's never seen before. He can't tell if he's inside or out. The air is dark, and endless, and still. It's neither cold, nor hot, and yet it's freezing and sweltering all at once. He's standing on something, but to his eyes, there's no floor, just a great expanse dotted with stars. A glittering, gossamer web made of countless, delicate strands stretches into the distance, farther than he can see. A swell of nausea overwhelms him, but he manages to tamp it with a few thick swallows.

Several feet away, a robed figure that reminds Angel of an Oracle stands atop a step ladder, reaching forward with a pair of gleaming scissors. With an echoing snip, one of the strands in the web is cut, and the loose end dangles. The Oracle leaves it there, hanging off the larger mass of strings, and climbs down the ladder. Then he takes the ladder, folds it up, and drags it away with him.

"… Hello?" Angel says, stomach still roiling.

The figure stops. The ladder creaks as the Oracle turns and lowers his hood, revealing blond hair and alabaster skin marbled with blue streaks. He smiles. "Warrior," he says. He gives Angel a respectful nod, and then continues on his way - down, not away. Like he's traversing nonexistent steps.

"Wait!" Angel says. "Where-?" A hand clutches his shoulder, and Angel whips around. He gapes. "Doyle."

Angel's old Seer stands before him, wearing a familiar buckskin leather jacket. Doyle grins. "In the flesh," he says. He pats his well-worn coat and looks down at himself with a small frown. "Well, so to speak."

"You're …."

Doyle nods. "Working upstairs, yeah. The hours leave a lot to be desired, and there's no retirement to speak of, but there's no finer work to be done, if you're asking my opinion." He gives Angel an appraising look. "You're looking well. Glad They could clean up that whole you-died situation."


"What the hell is going on?" Angel snaps.

"Ever heard of a come-to-god moment?" Doyle replies. He laughs at his own joke. "I admit, this one is a bit more literal than most." He frowns. "Actually, I guess it's more of a come-to-god's-assistant moment, really. You'd melt if you saw the real deal. Kinda nuclear, those guys."

Angel grabs the lapels of Doyle's coat and drags him into bite range. "What happened to Cordelia? What did you people do to her?"

"You 'people?'" Doyle says, eyebrows raised. "That stings, man. We're all on the same side." This Doyle isn't the same as the Doyle who was Angel's friend. He stands his ground. Doesn't respond an iota to Angel's menace. He merely unlatches Angel's grip like Angel's nothing but an irritating fly, and then straightens his coat with a hurt look. "Nothing happened to Cordelia."

"She was screaming," Angel says, scowling. "And then she was possessed."

"She wasn't possessed, just … unleashed."

Angel blinks. "Come again?"

"It's just that … divinity is a little hard to erase, so They hid it, instead." Doyle shrugs. "They hid it; you found it. Can't say I didn't warn Them that that would happen, but do They listen to me? Of course, not."


Angel gapes. "Cordelia's …?"

"Still batting for the higher planes?" Doyle nods. "Of course, she is. Where did you think she went after she gave you that Apocalypse vision?"

I'm just on a different road, she said. And this is my offramp.

Angel can't think of anything to say to that. He can't think. Period. He feels like his neurons are shutting down one by one. A scissor-wielding Oracle - maybe a different one, maybe the same one Angel saw earlier - stops a few feet away with a ladder, and Angel makes the mistake of shifting his focus away from Doyle.

Endless black. Endless stars. Endless everything and endless nothing.

A fist closes around Angel's heart and squeezes. He's standing on nothing but something. The stars and the chill-but-not and the eternity of space make it seem like he's been dumped somewhere, mid-Milky Way. After nearly three hundred years, living every adventure the earth has to offer, he enjoys the novelty of finding a new experience, but this? He doesn't enjoy this. He's never felt so insignificant and so small.

The universe yaws right in a slow-motion sprawl as he turns his head. Everything blurs. His gut churns.

Doyle sighs. "I told Them seeing this might be a little hard for you to process. Just take deep breaths." He frowns. "Or ... un-breaths. Or whatever it is that you vampires do."

Angel swallows and tries desperately to ignore his squeezing heart. "What ...?" he manages, choking on nothing. He's going to die. He's sure of it. The fist squeezes, and squeezes, and squeezes. He's going to-

"Try counting to ten?" Doyle suggests uselessly.

Angel splutters.

Hey, he imagines Buffy saying. You're okay. Don't wig. Focus on me, not the druggy astronomy class revolving around your head.

He imagines her smile. The curve of her lips. The way her eyes fill with stars. He imagines her laughter, like a warm blanket he can wrap himself up in and use to forget the cold he feels inside. He imagines the way her whole face lights up when she's happy.

Her joy is infectious.

That's it. Focus on me.

He imagines her smiling, and he feels … better. A little.

The fist loosens. Impending doom seems further away. He slumps, exhausted, wavering on his feet like a damaged pylon.

A panic attack. He just had …. He glances-

Don't look at that! Buffy commands. I swear, you really need to brush up on how this whole listening thing works.

He snaps his gaze back to Doyle.

"There you go," Doyle says. He grins.

"Give me back my son," Angel croaks with a bit more agency, this time. "I know you have him."

"Hey, don't lump me in with this scheme," Doyle says, folding his arms. "I'm not the brains of this operation." He frowns. "Wait, that didn't sound right." He sighs. "I'm just the messenger, okay? So, don't shoot me."

Angel glowers. "Well, give me the message, then."

Doyle thinks for a long moment, eyes narrowing, like he's not sure what or how to explain, and what little composure Angel's regained begins to falter. "Look, man …," Doyle says in a reluctant tone that never precedes good news. A hearty pause follows. He clearly thinks this is going to go over about as well as holy water spritzers at a vampire soirée.

"Just tell me," Angel snaps.

Doyle takes a deep breath. "You've gotta stop looking a gift horse in the mouth. They want you to be happy."


There's that fucking "They" again.

That's enough to light a fire inside, at least. "They took my son," Angel says. "How is it 'They' think I'll be happy?" He puts the word They in air quotes.

Doyle shrugs. "You got the girl, the girl Friday, and all your friends. Your soul is bound. I've seen far worse fates. Haven't you?"

"They took," Angel says, advancing a step, "my son."

"They didn't take him, Angel. They saved him," Doyle says. "They pulled him out of the timeline before your signature took effect, so there was nothing for it to take effect on. It was the best they could do on short notice."

Angel frowns. "My signature?"

"You signed your son away."

"... What?"

"What did you think Shanshu was, man?"

"I thought ..." Angel swallows. This can't be happening. This can't be. "I thought I was supposed to become human."

"And you did. Figuratively," Doyle says, nodding. "Your DNA re-entered the mortal gene pool through your son."

"I …"

"That's the thing about prophecies," Doyle says. "They tend to be metaphorical."

Angel can't think. He can't think. His gaze swings to the nonexistent floor at his feet, and his stomach lurches when he sees the nothing holding him up. The star field underneath him blurs as his eyes lose focus. He screws his eyes shut for a moment and imagines himself standing on the grass in a field somewhere earthbound.

His Buffy figment wraps her arms around his waist. Her warmth envelops him. You're okay, she assures him. Everything's okay.

"I know this is a lot to take in," Doyle says in a conciliating tone, and Angel's fantasy Buffy dissolves.

"I ..." Angel keeps his eyes closed. If he can keep his eyes from adding a deluge of upsetting sensory input, he thinks he might be able to function. He's here to find answers. And a solution. And he can't do that if he's too stuck on the fact that he isn't actually standing on anything - and yet not floating and not falling - to think straight. "What about the vision the Powers sent me? The one Cordelia gave me?"

"They agree They shouldn't have sent you such an important message in a way that's so open to interpretation."

"Interpretation?" Angel snaps. He glares. He can't help it. He can see all the stars again, and his stomach flip flops. "Are you fucking kidding me? I leveled the city!"

"That was regrettable," Doyle admits.

"Regrettable," Angel scoffs. For fuck's sake. Regrettable? "Well, what was the vision supposed to tell me, then?"

"It was a roadmap," Doyle explains. "They never expected you to go postal on the entire Black Thorn organization at once."

Angel can't help but gape as a two kicks into another two, and he arrives at a very obvious four. "So, what, you're saying ..." He shakes his head. This is unreal. This can't be real. "You're saying this new universe is the Powers' way of going, 'Oops, our bad?'"

"Well, if the shoe fits .…"

"My son is gone for the sake of an oops?"

Doyle doesn't respond to that except with an apologetic look, and Angel wants nothing more than to wipe the apology off Doyle's face with his fists. But Angel doesn't. He doesn't let himself.

"Did any of you guys - in the middle of your 'magnanimous' gesture - stop to ask Buffy if this is the happily ever after, or whatever you lunatics want to call it, that she wants?" Angel snaps. "For all I know, if she'd had a say, she'd be with Spike right now." As much as it roiled his gut to admit. "And what about all of the other people you fucked with? You didn't just screw with Connor and Buffy."

"Most of them were dead," Doyle replies with a shrug. "This option resulted in the least amount of collateral damage. And, for you and for everyone in your orbit, I'd say this is one of the best outcomes you could hope for." He raises his eyebrows. "Wouldn't you?"

Angel clenches his hands so hard he thinks he might have drawn blood from his palms. Yes. Yes, he did draw blood. A familiar, rusty scent fills the void around them, only made unappetizing by the fact that Angel knows its his own, and the fact that he's stuck in too-much-space while standing on not-a-floor.

"The Powers really piss me off," he says. Meddlesome self-important asshats is what I'd call them, his mental Buffy quips.

"I know," Doyle says in a soft voice. "They know. They know They screwed the pooch. Why do you think They were so reluctant to talk to you?"

"I thought you said I'd melt."

"Well, that, too."

Angel watches another Oracle with a ladder drift past. Another snip. Another string collapses, and the latticework reshapes itself around the newest structural failure. Angel's still not sure what he's looking at. Or why.

"How do I get my son back?" Angel says.

"You can't."

"No," Angel says, shaking his head. "I don't accept that."

"You can't get him back, Angel," Doyle says in that soft, apologetic tone. "He's safe, but he's not accessible to you. He's not. In. The timeline."


"There are rules!" Doyle insists.

Angel can't stop the growl that vibrates in his throat. "What fucking rules?"

"Look, the threads in this room?" Doyle says, gesturing to the mess of gossamer strings behind him. "They're ... I guess you would call this fate."

"What, like this is my whole life, and it's already mapped out?" Angel says. The fist starts to squeeze again. His face shifts as he loses his box, lock, and key to the void.

"Relax," Doyle says. "Angel, relax."

"You relax!" Angel thunders.

"Look, I don't mean fate as in the absence of free will," Doyle says. "They're big on free will. That's how we got into this mess, and that's why prophecies are so few and far between. I mean fate as in the collection of choices available to you at any given moment."

"You're big on free will," Angel parrots flatly through his fangs. His lip splits, and he tastes blood on his tongue.

Doyle nods.

Angel barks with sardonic laughter. "How can you say that with a straight face when you just rewrote years of my life to your whims!"

"Angel, man, this was a unique circumstance brought on by a unique situation. Time travel beyond twenty-four hours is a rule They can't break."

"But rewriting everybody's lives is?" Angel snaps.

Doyle takes a deep breath and blows it out through his mouth like he's frustrated. He gestures at the web. "Think of this as ... an illustration of all the lives you've touched in the past or could touch in the future, based on the choices you've made until this point. And then expand that concept to everyone who exists. There's one of these webs for every point in time: past, present, future. Infinity ... can't even hope to describe it."

Angel frowns. "... Okay."

Doyle pulls a pair of scissors from his coat pocket. The metal gleams, despite Angel being unable to identify any light source in the endless space other than the distant stars. Doyle reaches for the closest cord. "Cutting a string moves things around," he says. "Changes to one web will change all future webs."

"No," Angel says when he realizes what Doyle is going to do, what Doyle is hinting at. "No, no, no don't." Angel reaches for the scissors, but he's too late. The snip echoes in the endless space. "Damn it, why would you do that just to prove a fucking point?"

"I didn't," Doyle says. "She had stage 4 breast cancer. She was in constant pain. She wanted to go. She prayed for it every night. It was her time."


"Sometimes," Doyle continues, cutting Angel off, "changes to the web are for the better. Sometimes, they're for the worse." Doyle tugs on a string that's still intact, and the whole web shifts. "They can't snap Their fingers and make everything fine. A line has to be there, and it has to connect with other lines, for alterations to be possible." The web snaps back into place when Doyle lets go of it. The string he cut earlier dangles, and the web's structure in that area has changed to make up for the loss of that support. He continues, "Connor's line doesn't connect with anything anymore. It doesn't exist. It's not part of fate. Do you understand what I'm saying, now?"

"You cut the string that was Connor's?" Angel says.

"Nobody cut it," Doyle responds. "You demolished it; They just took the string away before you could do any harm."

The panicky feeling returns to Angel's gut. "So, where is my son? He's just gone? Because of what I did, he's ..."

"He's safe, Angel. And he's happy. He was permitted to ascend."

"Well, un-ascend him, then!" Angel snaps.

Doyle gives him a look. "What part of removed from the timeline isn't making sense? He's not obliterated, now, but if They un-ascend him, he will be. You signed away your Shanshu in blood. You signed it away, Angel. A binding agreement like that? That's not a rule They can ever break. His string would have been destroyed by his wish - not just cut - so They pulled it out of the web, instead. The removal had a similar effect on the world at large to what the wish would have done, but, at least, this way, he's alive."

"Well, take me," Angel says. His legs are starting to shake, starting to feel like they've turned to water. There has to be a way to fix this. There has to be ... "Take me, instead. Just take me, and put Connor back. Take my Shanshu that way."

"You're not your offspring."

"So, what?"

"Apples and oranges; antecedents and offspring," Doyle says. "I'm sorry, man, but you can't substitute yourself for your son. What you signed away was very specific. Prophecy is somewhat open to interpretation, but They can't flat out rewrite it. That's verboten."

"And that's your definition of free will?" Angel says, on the edge of hysterics. "Because, I hate to break it to you, but that's fate."

"Think about it," says Doyle. "If there were predestination instead of free will, do you think you'd have been able to sign away your Shanshu in the first place?"

"Well, cut some other string, then," Angel says. He takes a step. Makes a grab for the web.

The moment he touches a strand, he sees everything. A whole life stretched out before him. He's a rancher in Alberta. The winter was difficult, and the economy is flagging. Wolves have scared his cattle doggedly since the season started, and they're not gaining enough weight, because they're too nervous to eat. He can't sell them at a good price. He can't pay his mortgage. His wife is sick. His daughter has college. What will he do? He's-

"Whoa, there," Doyle says, pulling Angel's hand away, and the noose of the rancher's desperation loosens. Angel inhales like he's just come up from nearly drowning. The whole star field is spinning, and it's either sit down or fall down, so he sits. On the ground that isn't. "Mortal hands aren't meant to touch those."

"I'm not mortal," Angel replies, trying to catch his breath. Why does he need to catch his breath?

"Well, you're not truly immortal, either," Doyle replies as he lowers himself to the not-ground beside Angel.

Angel swallows back bile. He makes the mistake of looking down. There's no end to it. Down keeps going into infinity. His ears ring like he has tinnitus. He pinches the bridge of his nose and closes his eyes again. He forces himself to breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.

"Doing okay, man?" Doyle says, sounding like he's far away, through miles of water.

"There's so much," Angel says.

"I know," Doyle says. "I know. I had a hard time with this, too, the first time I came here."

Angel swallows. Shh, his imaginary Buffy says. Don't think about that. Remember why you're here. You have a goal. A purpose. He keeps his eyes closed, and he breathes. He's not sure how long he does that. Time doesn't really seem to be a concept in this place. Remember Connor. Your son.

"Why?" he begins when he's ready.

"The answer to that is even harder to wrap your mind around than looking at all of this," Doyle replies, gesturing at the web.

Angel shakes his head. "No. No, I mean, why can't you tape Connor back into the web and cut out some string that means I don't sign the prophecy?"

"It's not that They can't," Doyle says simply. "They won't."

"Damn it, please!"

"Who would you have Them remove, instead, Angel?" Doyle says. "There aren't that many people in your life who've changed you so much that you altered your course. Buffy's one ..."

"Don't you fucking touch her," Angel says, more of a snarl.

"They didn't, clearly."

"You can just cut my string," Angel insists. "After I had Connor, but before ..." Angel makes a half-hearted gesture at the morass of interleaving strings. "Before this. Just. Take. Me."

"No," Doyle says. "Your fate line is entangled with so many other strings, you're pretty much guaranteed to take someone else with you, if not many someones. I mean, how many people have you saved? How many of your friends have you saved?"

"Yeah, well, how many people have I killed over the years?" Angel snaps.

A long silence follows. Like Doyle's not sure how to answer that.

"What makes me so important that you can't take me, instead?" Angel says.

"They call you Warrior with a capital W for a reason, man. You've actively saved the world more than once, and you'll save it again and again and again in the future. That's billions of people. No evil Angelus has ever done could stand up to that. Despite the horrors you think you've done, the net loss of life that your removal would introduce would be ... cataclysmic."

Angel's chest tightens. A lump forms in his throat. He's not sure what to say.

Doyle sighs beside him. "Cordelia was right when she called this a Catch-22."

The silence stretches, and stretches. Angel hears another line being cut somewhere to the far left. A ladder scraps across the not-ground in the distance.

His mind churns.

He's spent the last several months driving forward, pushing, pushing, pushing. All to find Connor. He tried to work through his grief. He tried to accept things. He couldn't, though. Not without answers. But, now, he has the answers, and he thinks ... the answers may be worse.

Connor didn't even have an active choice in his non-existence.

That was the only saving grace of vengeance. That the result was what Connor wanted.

But what really happened isn't the result of vengeance. Connor's gone, and it's because Angel is reckless as fuck with his own life, and because he's total shit at translating visions, and because he put his faith in beings that didn't ever deserve it.

Connor is gone, and it's Angel's fault.

This whole fucking mess is Angel's fault.

"Angel, I swear to you, Connor is safe," Doyle says, as if he's read Angel's mind. He squeezes Angel's shoulder. Leather squeaks in the quiet. "Your son is safe, and he is happy, and, now, you need to be, too. You've got a lovely girl and a wonderful group of friends waiting for you to wake up. Your happily ever after is waiting for you. You just have to take it!"

All Angel ever wanted was for Connor to be happy.

Except the Connor who Angel remembers isn't happy. He's not happy at all. Happier, lately, as a result of Wolfram & Hart's meddling. More well-adjusted and at peace. But not truly happy. Not in a way that would ever convince Angel his work as a parent is done.

Not in a way that would ever convince Angel he can rest easy.

"I need to see him," Angel says. "Please, just let me see him. I want to see that he's happy."

"I can't let you do that," Doyle replies.


Doyle sighs. "Because that would put him back in the timeline. His wish would obliterate him."

"How the hell am I supposed to believe that he's happy if I can't see him?" Angel says. His voice breaks. "How am I supposed to believe …?" Them.

"Have a little faith, man," Doyle says with a gentle smile. "It goes a long way."

Angel pinches the bridge of his nose. His head is pounding. His eyes burn. "If all of this is true-"

"It is," Doyle interjects.

Angel swallows against the lump in his throat. "How do I even remember him, then? Shouldn't he be gone in my head? Like he is for everyone else?"

Doyle puts his hand on Angel's shoulder and gives it a squeeze. "That was Their gift to you, man. They thought you'd want to remember."

Like the ashes of a loved one. Given back in an urn to be put on a shelf. Cold comfort, but of incalculable value.

"Oh," Angel says.

"Do you want Them to take the memories away?" Doyle says in a gentle tone. "Would that help you?"

"No," Angel's quick to blurt. The lump in his throat expands. He clenches his fists. "No, I want them."

"Okay, then," Doyle says. "They're yours to keep." He glances at his watch. "And, now, it's time for you to go."


"Tell Cordy I said hello, will you?"

Then Doyle snaps his fingers, and the infinite, starry void collapses to a point, on a neuron, somewhere in Angel's head. The much-too-much is made small, and the journey there, a memory.

Chapter Text

The world comes back in fits and starts, at first. His head is pounding. There's an earthquake. Wait. Not an earthquake. Someone is shaking him. "What in the hell happened?" he hears Buffy say, somewhere far away. "Angel?" Earthquake. "Angel, wake up, damn it! Cordelia, what did you do?"

"I don't know!"

But his brain isn't connected to his body, yet, and he's powerless to respond.

"Something must have happened to Cordelia in the other timeline," Willow says.

"Gee, you think?" Cordelia snaps.

"I think we woke someth-"

And then the world fades for a while, and he's left without a care as he floats in a fuzzy, warm void.

"Angel …," a strident voice hisses by his ear. "Angel! Stop sleeping on the job." Cordelia. Maybe. "Can someone please explain to me why I seem to be a closeted flashlight? Like now." Oh. Definitely Cordelia, then.

"Perhaps, ah …," Giles stammers. "Perhaps you could explain what compelled you to do … ah … ah … this … ah."

"Great," Buffy snarks. "You broke our watcher, too."

Cordelia looses a huffy sigh. "I don't even know what I did."


"I said I don't know," Cordelia snaps. "Look, it just felt right at the time. Okay?"

"Yeah, but," Willow says, "are we talking feeling right like how it feels right to take off your clothes when you're freezing to death? Which, you know, would be bad despite feeling good. Or are we talking feeling right like how it feels right when you pull your sweater out the dryer, and put it on, and it's all warm and toasty and-"

"Wills …," Buffy says.

"Right. Sorry."

He feels hungover. Like a jackhammer got loose in his skull. He tries to open his eyes, but all he gets is a too bright blur. The blur reminds him of the endless space he just came from. He makes a noise, deep in his throat. His stomach churns.

"Angel?" Buffy says. "Angel, are you awake?"

"One sec," Cordelia adds. A hand touches his shirt. The warmth seeps through to his skin. "Here we go." And then the space behind his eyelids brightens like a supernova occurred mid-office. His headache recedes. His disorientation wanes. His memory of the place he came from is … distant. Like a dream. And he can think about it without trouble, now.

"What the hell was that?" Buffy says.

Angel can almost hear Cordelia's shrug. "I guess it's a multipurpose glow. Like Windex for souls."

"But how did you know to do … that?"

"I don't know. It just-"

"Felt right at the time?" Buffy says with a growl of frustration. "You said that. It didn't help explain anything."

"This is quite extraordinary," Giles comments.

"But what is this?" Cordelia demands.

"Maybe, you're like the algae that glows in the dark," Willow suggests. "I think it's called a red tide?"

Cordelia scoffs in reply, "I am so not a plant."

"Technically, neither is algae," Giles says.

Angel swallows and blinks. The blur resolves to focus. Buffy, Cordelia, and Willow are crouched beside him, hovering over him. He squints and makes a face. His tongue tastes like sawdust, and the only word he can get his vocal cords to form is, "Ugh."

Buffy looks down. "Angel," she says, slumping with relief, "you're awake." She cups his face. Presses her fingers through his hair. He rests his palm on top of hers, stilling the motion, and gives her a squeeze. "Are you okay? What happened?"

"And why am I suddenly glow-in-the-dark?" Cordelia adds.

He licks his lips. A bottle of Aquafina dangles in his field of view, and he snatches it. Giles takes his seat again while Angel chugs, and chugs, and chugs. The plastic crinkles as the water inside the bottle is replaced by a vacuum. Everyone is staring at him. Everyone. He sets the empty water bottle down on the floor by his hip.

"How long …?" he croaks.

"About twenty minutes," replies Willow.

His eyebrows knit. Twenty minutes. That was all?

"Angel?" Buffy prods.

"I talked with the Powers," he rasps. He scrubs his face with his hands. He doesn't hurt or feel sick anymore, but everything still feels wrong. His body doesn't fit his presence. His skin is … too small. Which … makes no fucking sense. "Well, sort of."

"Good god, man," Giles says from the desk. He whips off his glasses as his eyes widen. "This is unprecedented."

"So," Cordelia says, looking at Angel, "did you get everything straightened out, now?"

"No," Angel replies. "It's over."

Silence stretches as everyone waits for him to continue, but he can't. He swallows. Connor is really gone. He's just … gone.

Cordelia is the one to broach the silence. "Well … what does that mean?"

Angel stumbles to his feet, nearly toppling once he achieves upright, but Buffy catches him. "I mean Connor's gone forever," Angel says. "It's my fault." A lump forms in his throat. "And it's over."

"Angel …," Buffy says, sounding horrified.

But he's had enough, right now. Enough of people. And Powers. And anything that resembles living. He doesn't bother to reply as he shuffles from the room, leaving the stunned foursome behind him.

"This is bad," Buffy says as the door slams shut, leaving them in tense, confused silence. Her first instinct is to chase after Angel, and it's a difficult instinct to tamp, but he was practically radiating the leave-me-alones when he stumbled out of the room, and … Connor is gone? Like … what kind of gone? Her heart aches. "This is .…"

Willow frowns as if she's read Buffy's mind. "Did he mean gone forever as in irreparably dead?"

"Well, I sure hope he doesn't mean irreparably dead," Cordelia says. "Because that means I went through all that trouble just for the Powers to tell him tough luck, and I'm sorry, but that is not cool. And does anyone else find it crazy that we exist in a reality where the word dead has to be quantified with the word irreparable?"

"Quite," says Giles in a wry tone.

"You went through all what trouble?" Buffy replies with a frustrated sigh. "Cordelia, you don't even know what you did."

"But it was something!" Cordelia replies. She holds up her wrist. The bloody slash mark they made is still oozing a little. "I mean, look at my arm!" She peers at the wound for a moment. "Do we have scar cream, or do I need to buy some?"

Buffy paces. "Okay, we need to figure out what happened with Cordelia, and we need to figure it out, like … yesterday."

"Well, the Memoriam Sanguinis isn't going to work," Willow says. "Something about Cordelia blocked me from finishing it, and I somehow doubt Angel's going to let me do that to him again."

"Huh?" Buffy says. She halts her back-and-forth movement to frown at Willow. "It looked like it finished to me .…"

Willow shakes her head. "No, whatever Cordelia did bypassed it entirely."

Buffy's frown deepens. "So, when Angel says he talked to the Powers .…"

"Cordelia gave him the day pass, and I had nothing to do with it," Willow says, nodding. "Yeah, that sums it up."

"But I don't get it," Cordelia says. Her eyebrows knit. "My visions are only one-way. Them to me. I have no idea how to go from me to them."

"Well, clearly you have an idea about it somewhere in your head," Buffy replies.

"Yes, yes, quite," Giles says, nodding. "I … may have a suggestion."

He steps over to one of the cabinets full of scrolls and musty books and creepy artifacts. The door moans on its hinges as it swings backward. Saying things like, "Hmm," and "Ahh," and, "Oh, yes," he roots around through piles and piles of what, to Buffy, appears to be dusty junk that's probably older than England. But eventually, his mutterings conclude with a, "Ah, yes, yes, here it is," as he finds a small black pelican case at the back of the middle shelf. He pulls out the case, sets it down on his overflowing desk, opens the combo lock, and pops the lid.

A pit forms in Buffy's stomach when she sees what he's pulled out: an azure, oblong rock that shines under the desk lamp. The crystal is smaller than the one he used on her, but the memories cut like broken glass. Look for the flaw at its center, she can still hear Giles say, and the words still form a vile pit of betrayal in her stomach.

"A grounding crystal?" Buffy says, stomach twisting.

"Yes, yes, the goal is to achieve a hypnotic state," Giles says. "Cordelia clearly knows what she's doing on a subconscious level. Our goal is to bring her subconscious to the forefront."

"Why do you even still have that?" Buffy snaps.

Giles looks at her with a crumbling expression. "Buffy, grounding crystals have many other uses."

"They're great for certain kinds of spells," Willow chimes in. "Particularly pacification. Like if we had a big snarly demon that we needed to-" She reddens as she seems to realize she's rambling. Her shoulders hunch. "I mean … yeah."

"Yes," says Giles. "I would never-"

"So, you just keep a stone that roofies people in your bookshelf," Buffy says, glowering, "but it's okay, because you would never use it."

"Buffy, it's locked up," Giles replies in a quiet voice. "No one has access but Mr. Pryce and me."

"Yeah," Buffy grumbles. "A lock will totally stop a hotel full of superheroes."

"Okay, hello?" Cordelia says as she intercedes, waving her hands to stop a glaring match. "Can we, maybe, get back to current issues, rather than rehashing ones that were old like four years ago?"

Buffy tamps a nasty reply with all her might, because as much as she hates to admit it, Cordelia is right. Buffy closes her eyes. One, two, three .… She makes it to thirteen before she feels her hackles begin to lower.

"Sorry," Buffy grumbles to her feet.

"Whatever," Cordelia replies. Not in a snotty or a mean way, but rather .… Whatever. Forgiven. Let's talk about me, now.

Buffy sighs. "This just … doesn't make sense," she says. "If humans could install a bat phone direct to the PTB, don't you think it would be wider knowledge by now? I mean, aside from eternal life and resurrection, talking to the PTB and getting an actual answer seems pretty high up on the list of human wants."

"So, maybe Cordelia's not human …?" Willow says.

"Excuse me?" Cordelia scoffs.

Willow frowns. "Well, it stands to reason!"

"In what universe?" Cordelia says.

Willow sighs. "Maybe, we should just ask Angel."

"No, leave him alone right now," Buffy says. She can't imagine he's in the kind of mental place where he could deal with an interrogation right now. "If this doesn't work, I'll try to talk to him." It's over, he said, and her heart squeezes at the thought of it. "Just .…"

Cordelia sighs, yanks a chair from the side of the room, and pulls it up to Giles's hulking desk. Eyeballing the grounding crystal, she plops into the chair, which creaks as her weight sinks into it. "Look, just do it," she says, gesturing flippantly at them. "Hypnotize me up, already. Let's get this over with."

It takes Cordelia only a matter minutes to drop off into a dead-eyed stare as she peers at the grounding crystal. Her muscles slacken, and her posture slumps, and she stills. If it weren't for the subtle rise and fall of her chest, Buffy would think she'd died in the chair. It's almost as weird as when Angel does it. Not quite, but almost.

"Cordelia, can you hear me?" Giles says.

For a moment, nothing. And then a soft, monotone, "Yes," follows.

Giles nods. "Good. That's good. Can you explain what happened when we attempted the Memoriam Sanguinis with you and Angel?"


No explanation follows. Silence stretches, with nothing but the slow tick, tick, tick of the wall clock to fill it. Buffy frowns and folds her arms. "Is she broken?"

"Well, she did answer the whole question," Willow says. "Maybe, be more specific?"

Giles glances at Buffy and Willow and then back to Cordelia. "Cordelia, will you, please, explain what happened when we attempted the Memoriam Sanguinis with you and Angel?"

"The higher planes are impervious to lesser beings," Cordelia says. Her voice is a smooth, liquid almost-monotone that sounds nothing like Cordelia. More like … a stoned yoga instructor. Breathe in. Breathe out. Feel your core. Relaaax. "The Warrior sought answers on the higher planes, so I opened the door, and guided him through."

"Well, how did you open the door?" Willow says.

Cordelia shrugs. "How does one open any door?"

"But you said the higher planes are impervious to lesser beings."

"Yes," Cordelia replies.

Buffy bites her lip. "So, how were you, Cordelia Chase, able to mess around with doors on higher planes?"

"I am ascended," says Cordelia.

Giles's eyes widen. "Beg pardon?"

"I am ascended," Cordelia repeats.

Buffy gapes. "Is she saying she's a freaking god?"

"Yes," Cordelia says. "I am ascended."

"What the hell?" Buffy says.

Cordelia turns to look at Buffy with dead, expressionless eyes. "I know nothing of the lower planes. I do not go there."

Giles leans in. "If you're ascended, then why are you on earth?"

"I don't know."

Buffy sighs. "Well, what happened with Connor?"

"I don't know."

"Why don't you know?" Buffy says.

"I was not made part of these decisions."


"I am ascended, but there are still higher beings," Cordelia says. The sky is blue. Gravity makes you fall. I'm a god, but there are more god-y things up there than me. This is just … surreal.

Willow jumps back into the conversation. "Well, what happened in the other timeline?"

Cordelia turns to face Willow. "Death," she says in that cold, remote monotone.

Buffy rolls her eyes. "You're really not big on specifics, are you?"

Cordelia's eyebrows rise. "Do you quibble over grains of sand?" she says like she's asking about the weather. Her stare is dead, though. Or … maybe, not dead, but … peering through things. Peering beyond. Seeing … more than human eyes should.

Buffy swallows. "Okay, I don't know about you guys, but I am getting the major wiggins, at this point, and she's being singularly unhelpful."

"Yes, let's …," Giles mumbles as he leans toward the desk and tips the crystal on its side. The crystal lands with a resounding thunk.

Cordelia blinks and shakes her head a little, like she's disoriented. "So, what did I say?" she demands. "Anything good?"

He's exhausted, but he can't sleep. His head is still spinning, and the guilt is a weight that crushes worlds. The lump in his throat won't go away. His eyes won't stop stinging. The space in front of his face is nothing but a blur. He feels about two millimeters from emotional collapse.

He hears the door to the suite open and close, followed by soft footsteps pattering across the rug.

"I'm assuming this is a stupid question," Buffy says softly as she slides into bed beside him, "but … do you want to talk about it, now?" The sheets rustle as she settles, lining up along his spine. She wraps her arm over his side and kisses the space between his shoulder blades.

He rolls to face her. "I … don't know what to say," he says in a cracking, quiet voice. "He's gone."

She splays her fingers against his cheek. He tips his head until his nose meets her palm. He sighs. Dewdrops and roses. Her scent. His Buffy. She drops her hand to his shoulder and rubs him down the length of his arm and back again. It's a soothing rhythm, and his eyelids dip.

Exhausted. He's just .…

"Angel, when they told you Connor was gone, did they … specify how?"

He gives her a hopeless look. "Why?"

She shrugs as she strokes his skin. "Because, maybe, there's a way to fix this that you haven't thought of."

"There isn't," he says.

She tightens her embrace. "Tell me?"

"The Shanshu prophecy," he says around the softball in his throat. "When I signed it, I was signing away Connor. And there's nothing I can do to fix it. They won't let me trade myself." He recounts to her what Doyle told him, and Buffy's eyes widen until her eyebrows look like they're trying to give her hairline a handshake.

"You mean, Connor's not dead," she says. "He's outside the whole timeline."

"That's what they told me."

She bites her lip. "But … they said he's happy, right?"

"Yes, but … how am I supposed to believe them, when they've done nothing but fuck with me," he says. "For years."

"I know, I know," she rushes to reply. "I'm just .…" She sighs, like she's frustrated. She wants to help him, but she doesn't know how, and just … damn it all. "Just don't lose hope. Okay?"

Her gaze is a pleading one. And why wouldn't it be? Buffy Summers knows what it's like to exist without hope. Without belief in better things. When Willow brought Buffy back from the grave, it took her over a year to adjust to living, again.

"I'm sorry," he says.

She frowns. "What for?"

"For being a burden."

"Hey, it's not like I'm always sunshine and roses," she replies. "Between my mom dying, me dying twice and the horrendous mood swings that followed, and my sometimes crappy coping skills, I'd say we're even." The covers rustle as she scoots closer. She presses her lips to his. "Besides, isn't that how this works?" She kisses him again. "I'm there for you, and you're there for me? A whole big circle of misery and yay and yikes and sometimes kissing?"

He can't even laugh.

"Wow, tough crowd," she jokes.

His eyes are still burning. He closes them. The lump in his throat is unbearable. "I'm sorry," he repeats.

"Stop saying that."

"I'm sorry," he says, forlorn. He feels sick to his stomach. He's not even sure who he's saying it to, anymore. "I'm sorry."

He didn't mean it.

He didn't.

And the pain in her gaze, looking back at him, makes him feel worse. She shares his suffering. He does nothing but hurt people.

"I'm sorry."

He doesn't think he can say it enough.

She's silent, now. Staring. Her warmth is a furnace. For a long moment, she's motionless beside him.

And then she wraps both arms around him.

"I love you," she says, a soft murmur against his skin.

And she stays with him while he grieves for all his trampled should-have-beens, until he has no grief left to shed, and all he is is numb.

Tall wax candles fill the old stone church like stars fill a galaxy, and the whole room glows with the soft, amber light of the dancing fires. The scent of incense tickles her nose. Angel sits at the end of the aisle, facing her, back presented to a cross the size of a man.

"Angel?" she says, frowning. She takes a step forward, and the sound of her footfall on the tile echoes in the silent, cavernous space.

Angel doesn't acknowledge her presence.

"Why are we here?" she says, but again there is no answer.

She walks up the center aisle, between the pews. The light changes, and she halts, holding her breath. Angel doesn't budge. She turns to peer behind herself. Candles have gone out.

She takes another step, and more flames die. Each step brings her closer to darkness. Her breaths tighten in her chest. When she reaches Angel, the room is nearly dark, save for one little candle remaining. He's crouched over it, protecting the sputtering, dying flame with his hands.

"Angel …," she says.

He swallows.

"Angel, look at me."

He won't. He won't take his eyes from the candle. "I can't keep the fire going, Buffy," he says, forlorn.

"Don't worry," she says, reaching for her purse. "I have matches."

But as her hands brush the matchbox, a cold draft that's far too strong for Angel to block with his palms blows through the church. She shivers as the chilled fingers of air touch the nape of her neck. And the last flame dies out.

"It's okay," she says. "We'll light the candles again."

"You can't," replies Angel.

She frowns. "Why not?"

He shrugs. "Because there's nothing left to burn but me."

She looks around the room, stomach sinking as she realizes ….

All the candles are gone.

Buffy snaps awake, heartbeat thumping in her ears.

God, what time is it? She feels like she just fell asleep, after hours of trying. She lifts her head off Angel's chest with a groan and squints at the clock, but the numbers are a tired blur, and they don't register as readable entities. Angel lies beside her, unmoving, eyes closed, which is … weird, in and of itself. He sleeps lightly. He's never not been there to catch her when she falls out of a nightmare. She supposes it's good, though, in a way, that she hasn't woken him, since he'd probably spent more effort getting to sleep than even she had.

She swallows, trying to resettle against her lover's marble skin.

Because there's nothing left to burn but me.

His voice echoes in her head. She tries to shake off the fear clotting in her heart, but she can't.

I can't keep the fire going, Buffy .…

Damn it.

She sighs and rolls out of bed to head down to the gym.

Buffy is a flurry of thunderous blows. Her fists pound into the punching bag so hard the seams burst, and the chain attaching the bag to the ceiling breaks. Bits of plaster rain around her. The bag itself flies into the opposite wall, exploding into a shower of stuffing on impact. Little beans plink to the floor and scatter like pearls as she yells at nothing. And everything. Her frustration echoes off the cinderblock walls.

A cold hand touches her shoulder. Instinct drills through her anguish, and she spins into the disturbance with a roundhouse kick meant to decimate. She yells her battlecry so loud her throat hurts. Her kick doesn't land, though. There's nothing there for her foot to hit.

He's standing several feet away, just out of striking range, staring at her with hooded, concerned eyes. He's wearing his leather trench coat, and he smells faintly of cologne, like he means to go out. Or meant. Because he's not moving, now.

"What are you doing here?" she snaps.

Spike shrugs. "If you're not careful, Slayer, we'll need to buy another truck full of punching bags."

She pulls her fingers through her sweaty, dusty hair. "I don't care."

He raises his eyebrows and gestures to himself. "You could hit a bloke, instead." He shrugs. "I'm a bit less breakable."

She sighs. "No," she says. She shuffles to the wall to grab the skeleton of the punching bag. More beans spill out as she picks it up. It's definitely ruined. She sighs and drops it again. The hairs on the back of her neck prickle as she feels him try to close the distance between them. "Don't," she says.

And he stops. "Buffy, I …."

She turns to face him.

"I just want to help you," he says.

She laughs. It's not a happy laugh. More of a why me? "No, you don't," she says.

He rolls his eyes. "You think I don't know it's about him?" The way he says the word him makes it seem like him should be Him. Capital H.

A lump forms in her throat. She and Spike have always been …. Well, kind of a mess. They're not good together. They hurt each other. He tried to force her. Before, anyway. Then Spike got a soul, and she had started to get to know the new, amalgamated vampire-William him, started to understand what that meant for him as a person. But then Angel and his team came back to Sunnydale to help with the First, and Spike fell to the wayside, a puzzle piece she still hasn't quite figured out how to fit in her life. He loves her. She knows it. He'll always mean something to her, despite everything. She's not sure how that makes her feel, though, or what that something is, and she's too exhausted right now to try to figure it out.

"Spike …," she says.

He holds up his hands like he means to surrender. "I just want to help. If you need anything, or if you …." He looks at his feet. "I just … know the wanker's no good at multitasking, and you seem …." His voice trails away, and he shrugs.

"Like a mental case?" she snaps to fill the silence.

He shakes his head. "Like someone who's hurting."

Her eyes prickle. Understatement. She pulls her fingers through her hair. "I don't know what I need," she says.

He gives her a small nod. "That's fair," he says in a neutral tone. He regards her for a long, long moment. His expression is a soft one. Like when he sees her, all he sees is a flawless diamond. Not a gross, sweaty, upset mess. "I'll leave you alone, then."

He turns to leave.

"I just …," she says, and he stills. She swallows. And then it all comes pouring out like a waterfall. "I don't like this. I don't. I'm just … I'm not used to fights I can't win. There's always been a way to win before, and I .…" Her lower lip trembles, and the world blurs. "What the hell am I supposed to do when there's nothing to hit?" she says. He's gone, Angel said. But he might as well have said, I'm gone. In a tinier voice, she adds, "I feel like my mom died all over again."

Spike's cool body wraps around her, and she lets herself be embraced. "I'm sorry," is all he says. Not it's okay. He seems to understand that platitudes wouldn't be welcomed.

"I had a dream about him," she confesses.

Spike doesn't speak. Her grip on his coat tightens. Her nails scrape against leather. "I feel like I'm going to lose him, like he's not going to bounce back this time - I just know it - and I-"

Her verbal incontinence is plugged by magic. Or, well, the backlash of magic, at the very least. She doesn't think a spell has been cast on her, just near her. Her heart skips a beat. Static crackles along her skin, and the hairs on the back of her neck stand up on end.

"Did you feel that?" Spike says, frowning as he flinches away from her.

"You mean the mystical defibrillator that just zapped me?" she says.

He rubs his breastbone, wincing. "Almost gave me a bloody jump start."

"Then, yeah, I felt it," she replies. The room is still and quiet, now, and it's as if nothing happened. The silence stretches as she listens for a moment. "Nobody's screaming. It's probably just Willow playing around."

Still … her gut says something's wrong. Since when does Willow play around with magic so strong it causes heartbeats to go wonky? And Willow doesn't really "play" at all, anymore. Not like she used to when Tara was alive.

Buffy glances at the weapon rack that's bolted to the wall. The metal sings as she pulls a sword free. She proceeds with caution toward the steps, and Spike follows after her. The stairs creak as they tiptoe forward.

The lobby is empty and dark. Nothing stirs.

Buffy frowns. "You'd think, in a hotel full of slayers and vampires, somebody else would have woken up? I mean, that wasn't a tiny jolt."

"More like a lightning strike," Spike agrees, also frowning. And then he freezes, still and cold like granite. His face shifts, the blue in his eyes oozing to amber as his brow ridges bulge and his teeth rearrange into lethal weapons. "Did you hear that?" he says around his fangs.

"What is it?" she says.

He looks pointedly toward the hallway.

She frowns. "I don't hear anyth-" Wait.

Music. Distant.

Buffy gestures in that direction, pointing with the tip of her sword. She takes the lead, and Spike sidles behind her. As they slink down the hallway, edging along the walls, the music gets louder, and she can hear separate notes. Someone is singing so off-key that Buffy cringes. Her heartbeat pounds in her ears. Her innards tighten with stress.

"I think it's the piano in the ballroom," Buffy whispers.

Spike concurs with a nod.

They continue onward, picking up the pace.

As they near the ballroom doors, another violent pop of electricity almost knocks her flat, and her heart skips again. Her skin feels like ants are crawling all over it, and she twitches. "Okay, what the hell?" she says, gritting her teeth, and she charges through the doors, only to bring herself up short when she finds, not Willow, and not some crazy suit-wearing Sweet clone, but …. "Cordelia?"

Cordelia stands beside the big Steinway grand piano in the corner of the ballroom. Her right elbow rests on the lid. Lorne looks up from the keys, and the upbeat music ceases. "Oh, hey, sugar plum. Did we wake you? We tried to keep it quiet."

Buffy shakes her head. "Spike and I were in the gym in the basement," she says. Which is right underneath the ballroom. Maybe, that explained by the rest of the hotel's occupants hadn't woken up. Big-ass zap, but small radius?

"The basement?" Cordelia says.

"Yes, we were … um. Sparring." Buffy swallows. "We were sparring. Because … that's … the only thing I would ever do with Spike. Spar."

Spike rubs his jaw. "You've got a mean left hook, Slayer."

Buffy can't help but give him a grateful look.

"Right …," Cordelia says, eyes narrowing. Silence stretches for a moment. Crap, now, what to say?

Lorne frowns. "Are you okay, lemon drop?" he says. "You look like you've been crying."

"No, I had allergies," Buffy rushes to reply. "It's dusty in the basement. Stupid dust. Always jumping at me from out of nowhere. I mean .…" She sighs. Oh, forget it. She's too tired for this. "What are you two doing in here?"

Cordelia folds her arms. "I'm trying to find my destiny. What are you doing in here?"

"We felt a zappy thing," Buffy says. "Or … I guess it would be more accurate to say a zappy thing smacked us. And then there was the piano, and I thought we were about to get stuck in another demonic musical."

"A zappy thing?" Cordelia says. Her eyebrows knit. "What musical?"

"Felt like we got plugged into a light socket," Spike says, drifting across the ugly carpet toward the piano. His game face melts away. "Gave us a bit of a jolt."

"By, 'bit of a,'" Buffy adds, "he means asteroid-sized."

"Oh, that," Lorne replies. "Our Cordy's a bit of a live wire."

Buffy stares. "A live wire .…"

"You could say her personality is electric," Lorne jokes. When no one laughs, he slumps on the piano bench. "Anyway," he says with a pointed glance at the door, "I'd love to chat, Goldilocks, but without consent saying otherwise, my readings are strictly private."

"Consent not given," Cordelia says.

Buffy frowns. "But-"

"C'mon, Slayer," Spike says, clearing his throat. He puts a cool hand on Buffy's shoulder. Buffy doesn't want to go. She wants to stay and find out what the hell kind of reading produces zaps so big they can knock a slayer off her feet and briefly restart a vampire's heart. And what the hell kind of not-quite-a-god Cordelia is. But Cordelia folds her arms and glares at them with arched eyebrows and a not so subtle go away, now, thanks, bye-bye look on her face. "Let's leave them be," Spike adds, and Buffy can see this is a lost battle.

She sighs, and she heads back to the lobby with Spike. When they reach the hallway, he stops, and he turns to her. "Do you want to … talk some more?" he asks her.

"No, I …." She swallows. "No."

I can't keep the fire going, Buffy.

She shudders. She doesn't feel like talking. Talking makes everything real. She doesn't feel like hitting things anymore, either. The adrenaline bath has come and gone, leaving her a cold, aching, exhausted mess.

Spike gives her a sympathetic look. "Give the Pouf a chance. It's only been a few hours, and he's a bloody Cro-magnon when it comes to 'feelings.'" He puts the word feelings in air quotes. "He'll come 'round."

"I …." She can't help the small smile that tugs at her lips. "Bet you never thought you'd say that."

Spike gives her a wry look. "Speak a word of this, and I'll deny it."

"Your secret's safe with me," she swears. She peers at him. "Thanks."

His expression warms. "You're welcome, Slayer," he says in a soft voice.

She turns to go, leaving him standing there. She's already three strides up the steps when she hears, distant and quiet and sad behind her, so soft she thinks she isn't meant to hear it, "Be happy." But when she stops and turns to face him, Spike is gone.

She bites her lip.

Be happy.

"I'm trying," she says, the words soft and strained.

And she continues up the steps.

"So, I suppose that's it, then," Wesley says in a sad tone.

A meeting the next day to catch everybody up to speed. That Connor is gone. Not dead. Just gone.

"What about time travel?" Fred suggests in the ensuing silence. "You could go back and tell yourself not to sign that prophecy."

Cordelia raises her hand. "Um, I hate to state the obvious-"

"Since when?" Spike says with a snort.

Cordelia rolls her eyes. "-But we don't know how to time travel."

"It's also well outside the twenty-four hour limit, anyway," Wesley says.

"But they could just edit it again," Fred continues. "Put Connor back and take something else out?"

"No," Angel says in a flat tone. "They said they wouldn't."

"But not that they can't?"

"Fixing it so I don't sign the prophecy would mean-"

"Somebody else is still dead," Giles says. He removes his glasses to wipe them with his hanky. "And we're back to square one."


"So, as I stated," Wesley says glumly, "I suppose that's it, then."

Angel swallows and looks at the floor. "Yeah. That's it."

Chapter Text

The moon hangs over the ocean horizon like a silver pie plate, turning black water into gray. A wave crashes to shore and oozes up onto the sand underneath Buffy's cheek. She grimaces as the water sweeps over the dismembered Kevlar body in front of her. Her sword is too heavy for Poseidon to lift, but the receding wave does threaten to drag away Mr. Pointy Jr., which fell out of her belt loop in the struggle. She reaches out to grab it. Her fingertips close around wet, smooth wood.

A roar in the distance becomes a death keen, and then silence. Another body falls onto the sand, followed by the squishy squelching sound of a sword being pulled from flesh. "This one's down!" calls Rona.

Buffy's head is spinning. She had the wind knocked out of her mid-fight, and her diaphragm aches. She wants to close her eyes and sleep, but a frigid wave chooses that moment to dunk her. Salt water burns all her bleeding scrapes, and she chokes and splutters and coughs.

"B!" a familiar voice calls, followed by the slop slop slorch sound of a booted slayer trudging through the dark, foamy water. "Hey, B! You okay?"

Buffy shakily pushes herself up onto her elbows, wincing. "Yeah," she grumbles as Faith rushes over.

Playa Del Rey used to be one of Buffy's favorite beaches for lazing. It's just southeast of Santa Monica and Venice, where all the crowds tend to go, and there's no boardwalk. It's the perfect place to get some sun without fighting for every square inch of sand.

Except, now, Buffy's convinced that every square inch of sand from Playa Del Rey is now stuck inside her pants. How the hell it got there, she doesn't know, but .… "Remind me never to slay on a beach again!" Buffy grouses as Faith helps her climb to her feet. Buffy feels like a drowned rat.

"Yeah," Faith says. "I think the only thing less fun to do on a beach is-"

"Please, spare me the sordid tale of sexual conquest before it starts," Buffy says. She makes a face as she finds her balance. No. No, she was wrong. Some of the sand from Playa Del Rey isn't in her pants. It's in her shoes, and it's scraping her toes raw.

Faith laughs. "Do A on a beach, sometime. You'll see what I mean."

"Like I need sand there, too," Buffy scoffs. She squints, surveying the moonlit darkness for bodies. She only sees five. None human, at least. "We got all eight? Please, tell me we got all eight, and I can take a shower and collapse, now?" She shivers as the chilly night air slaps her wet skin. After her shower, there's hot chocolate in her future. Any other timeline is unacceptable.

"Kennedy chased one toward the marina, and Vi and Spike went south with two more. That should be all of them."

"Good," Buffy says, almost a growl. "I need to get out of this … chafing … wet … ugh." She realizes Faith is giving her a weird look. "What?"

"You okay, B?"

Buffy frowns as a wave sweeps over her boots and freezes her toes. "Didn't I just say I was?" She bends down to grab her sword.

Faith shrugs. "You iced over when I mentioned A."

"I'm fine," Buffy says as she rights herself.

Faith's expression remains doubtful. "I haven't seen him."

"He's fine," Buffy says. Well, snaps. Definitely more of a snap.

If Faith's taken aback or insulted by Buffy's sharpness, she doesn't show it. She swipes a wet lock of brown hair out of her eyes, and she glances down the beach. "Hey, Ronny, you good?"

"I'm good!" the younger slayer replies.

"B …," Faith calls after Buffy, who's limping back to the van, sword tip leaving a long runnel in the sand behind her.

Buffy's teeth are starting to chatter, and every cut and scrape is stinging like someone's put a brand to them. Her skin is damp and sticky, and her clothes are pasted to her body like they're glued, thanks to the stupid ocean water. Plus, she thinks she smells like fish.


Buffy sighs and stops. "Faith, I'm wet; I'm cold; I'm tired; I have sand stuck in every pore, Kevlar goo stuck everywhere else, and everything hurts. Can we skip the heart-to-heart, and just go home?"

Faith regards her for a long, long moment. "Sure, B," is all she says in return, though she's frowning. "Whatever you say."

The ocean rumbles and froths behind them like a riotous crowd. Rona slogs toward them through the sand. The three of them head back to the van to wait for Spike, Vi, and Kennedy to rejoin them.

Angel's still sitting in the chair by the balcony window when she returns from oceanside carnage. The room is dark, and she doesn't think he's moved an inch since she last laid eyes on him. She sighs, slogging to her dresser.

"We got all the Kevlars," she says.

He doesn't respond. Doesn't budge. She has dozens of open scrapes and cuts, and he doesn't even seem interested in the scent of slayer blood. Usually, in the past, her blood at least prompts an, "Are you okay?" Not this time.

The new Angel is cold and hard and impenetrable, like permafrost, and Buffy loves him always, but she doesn't like him very much. She sets her stake on the top of the dresser and shimmies out of her wet pleather pants and silk blouse. Clothes form a puddle at her feet.

He doesn't seem to care that his hardwood floor has a salty lake forming in the corner underneath her clothes, one that will surely warp the wood if he doesn't sop it up immediately with a towel. Hell, he doesn't even seem interested in the fact that she's naked. He just sits, caged in a bath of moonlight, unmoving.

"You know, Angel, this stupid beach bonanza would have been a lot easier if you'd come along." She grabs her bathrobe and yanks it on with stilted tugs and grinding teeth. "At least the paralytic won't kill you." The one-strike-you're-out thing was a source of constant stress as she'd been grappling in the sand with Ms. Drool-y and her beau, Joe Snarls. Trying to avoid even a touch by those saber-sized claws had tensed her up more than she should have been during a fight, which had made every face plant into the sand all the more painful. "One of these days - maybe someday soon - one of the girls isn't going to come home." A lump forms in her throat. "Maybe, I won't come home."

When he doesn't reply, she marches to his chair and steps in front of his window view. Her shadow casts a shroud across his pale face. "Angel, you can't do this."

His gaze doesn't shift. "Do what?"

"You can't just sit here and waste." She folds her arms. "I know you're upset - you're allowed to be upset - but .…" Her eyes water. "At least, do something."

He closes his eyes like he's hurting. "Why should I?"

"Why shouldn't you?" she snaps.

Silence stretches, but he's acting like he's aware of her, now, at least. "Buffy …," he says, in that soft, sad tone she's grown to recognize from him. It's the tone that says he's old, and he's tired, and he's jaded, and he doesn't expect someone so young to understand why he's so broodilicious. "Remember how Giles kept trying to tell you that the only way to stop Glory was to kill Dawn?"

Buffy frowns. "Um …. Yes." How could she forget?

"And you knew," Angel continues, "as much as you didn't want to consider killing Dawn as a viable solution, that at least Giles had the best interests of the world in mind, and that he cares deeply for you?"

"What does this have to do with-?"

"Because I don't know that, Buffy," he says. "Not like you did." He peers at her, and she can see it. On his face. Envy. He envies her. "I have a part to play - trusting that Connor is okay, and moving on, so I can get back to being a pivotal Warrior for good. But I don't trust the architects of this Grand Design, and I'm sorry, but I'm not going to prop up their plan for the universe when I can't even believe in it."

This is the most he's said in a week.

The big wingback chair he's appropriated for his brooding is wide enough for two when one of the two is her size. She slides into the gap between his hip and the arm of the chair, forcing him to scoot over. The chill of his attitude extends to his flesh, too. He doesn't welcome her or kiss her or ….

"Angel, who gives a crap about a Grand Design as long it jibes with your design for yourself?" She puts her hand on his chest and pats the space over his heart. "You know what gives you the warm fuzzies and what makes you feel sick." She looks up at him. "So, make with the warm fuzzies, already, and stop worrying about everything else."

He sighs. "Buffy, the last time I tried to do something good while under the umbrella of something evil, the endeavor ended with Los Angeles being incinerated."

"But the Powers aren't evil," she replies. "Jerks, yes. Evil, no."

"How do you know, Buffy?" he says. "They've given you nothing but pain."

The lump in her throat expands, and she can't swallow. Her eyes hurt. "Life is pain!" she says. "That doesn't make it evil. That makes it life."

He has no response for that. Just a dark stare that he directs out the window. Back to the brooding, then. Back to the part where he could be a literal rock sitting beside her, and nothing would be different.

She puts her head on his shoulder.

She wonders if this will be the thing that finally breaks him.

Breaks them.

She can feel their fortress crumbling.

She wakes to the distant sound of bird chatter, and a warm bath of light hitting her cheek. At first, she snuggles into her pillow with a disgruntled moan of why-am-I-awake. But the light turns the whole world a fleshy orange color beyond her eyelids, and she can't fall back to sleep.

That's when it hits her.

"Oh, my god, the light!" she exclaims as snaps upright. "Angel!"

A beam of sunlight cuts across the mattress from the balcony window. Reflexively, she reaches for Angel's side of the bed, but the sheets are cold, and no one is sleeping beside her. Heart pounding, she checks the bed and then the floor by the window for a telltale ash pile.

There is none.

Angel is gone from the room. Not dust at her feet.

She slumps, panic receding, but it doesn't stop the upswell of tears, and it doesn't stop her fingers from shaking or her teeth from chattering. She's so tired.

She doesn't like this. She doesn't like being in a headspace where she's so convinced something bad is going to happen with Angel that waking up with sunshine on her face is terrifying. He's an old vampire. Older than most. It's not like leaving the curtains open by accident one night would kill him before he could fix it, assuming his goal wasn't to fry.

She shakes her head and forces herself to take a few deep breaths. In and out. In an out. Oxygen. Cleansing. She calms down over the course of several minutes.

The dining hall is near full to capacity with breakfast goers when Buffy shuffles into the room, rumpled, robed, and just-woken-up-by-sheer-terror-that-Angel-had-offed-himself. Several slayers are whispering amongst each other. Faith and Wesley are talking about something to do with the Kevlar mating season. Cordelia sips at her coffee, pondering over a notepad with a pen. Xander and Spike hover around the Weetabix box.

"You have to stop doing that," Xander says, gesturing with a dripping spoon at Spike's bowl. "It's disgusting, man."

"I told you," Spike replies. "It gives the blood a good texture."

"Just like I said," Xander says. "It's disgusting." He nods at Buffy as she sits down with a bowl of cereal. "Hey, Buff." He frowns. "Are you feeling okay?"

"Fine," Buffy rasps as she takes a seat next to Willow. "I just need some coffee."

Wesley glances at her. "You do look a touch peaky," he says, concern dripping from his tone. "Are you quite sure you're all right?"

She shrugs. "Bad night is all."

"You want to talk about it?" Willow asks her quietly, eyes wide and concerned.

"Angel's a big broody pile of glower power," Buffy says. "Not much else to say."

"So, business as usual, then," Xander interjects in a wry tone.

Willow glares at him, though, and he shuts up.

Awkward silence ensues until a steaming mug of Buffy's favorite hazelnut blend appears next to her coffee. A small clink announces its arrival as the ceramic hits the wooden table. Xander looks up from his cereal at the noise, only to find Angel sitting in the chair next to him, blocking his line of sight to Buffy. Xander coughs. His spoon clanks into his bowl as he drops it. "Gyaaaah!" he yells like clockwork, almost tipping out of his chair.

Spike chortles. "That'll never get old. Ever." He shakes his head at Xander. "Come on, man. You know the Pouf is going to do it. He does it every bloody morning."

"Every morning that he's here, yeah," Xander snaps. "Which is almost never, what with that whole bloodsucking creature-of-the-night thing."

Angel gives them a humorless glance.

Xander glowers as he rights himself. "I maintain that you need a bell."

Angel doesn't even bother with a retort.

Buffy blinks at her coffee, stupefied. Angel's … socializing? Or, well, existing in a room where other people are socializing? And bringing her coffee? Her favorite coffee? Maybe … their talk last night made a difference, after all.

"Hi," she says, offering him a soft smile. Then she picks up the mug. "Thanks for the cuppa."

"Sure," he says in a flat tone. Which … okay, not the warmest of responses, but she'll take it. He's here. Surrounded by people. And he's bringing her coffee.

"So, Deadboy," Xander comments, scooping up a spoonful of Lucky Charms and stuffing it into his mouth. He continues, "In the midst of all that brooding, have you pondered a lifestyle change?" around bulging chipmunk cheeks. "Smiling wouldn't kill ya."

Angel gives Xander a dispassionate glance. "I bite, you know," is all he says, the beginnings of threat filling his tone.

"Mmm," Faith purrs, jumping into the conversation. "My favorite evil cat. Hey, A. Missed you."

Xander points at Angel and looks beyond to Buffy. "You see?" Xander says. "You see that? He goads me on purpose."

"You started it," Angel says with a shrug.

Xander gapes and gestures to himself with a classic who me? motion. "Since when did I start this? You're the one who sat down and-"

"1997," Angel interjects.

Xander blinks. "Huh?"

"You asked when you started it."

Xander's jaw drops, and his face reddens. He opens his mouth to retort.

"Xan, would it kill you to be civil?" Buffy interjects before he gets a chance to make things even worse.

"I'll be civil if Deadboy will be civil."

Angel bares his teeth, which lengthen into gleaming fangs as everybody watches. "I'll be civil when you stop calling me Deadboy."

"So, never, then," Spike adds with glee.

"I think they like to fight," Faith says, grinning. "It's a total bromance."

"Oh, my god," Xander says, slamming his spoon down onto the table. "Take that back!"

"Enough!" Buffy snaps. "All of you! I've had a lousy week, I'm currently existing without sufficient caffeine to function, and it would be nice if I could eat my breakfast in peace. Preferably in a testosterone-free space."

Xander has the good grace to look chastised, but Angel hardly seems fazed. "Sorry, Buffy," Xander says in a glum tone.

Buffy sighs and takes a sip of her coffee. She gives Angel a sidelong glance. He's just sitting there, hunched in his chair like an unplugged Mr. Doom-and-Gloom. His fangs are gone, at least. No more partial change. She frowns. She hopes he didn't come down here just to pick fights with easy targets because it's simpler than solving his own problems. Maybe, he didn't, but his hold on himself is so tenuous, he can't help it. Xander's stupid nickname has always bothered him.

"So, Cordelia, you're looking uncharacteristically pensive," Xander says. Subject change. Stage left.

Cordelia, who's been chewing on the tip of her pen, looks up from her notepad. "Huh?" she says. Like this is the first time she's noticed that there are other people in the room. "Oh, hi, Angel."

Xander raises his eyebrows. "Pensive. Cordelia. You are."

"Oh," she says. She sighs. "I just don't .…" Another sigh, heavier than the first. "I mean, what am I supposed to do, now? Am I like our secret nuclear demon-killing weapon? Or am I more of a fabulous multi-setting nightlight?"

Xander's eyebrows knit. "Uh .… What, now?"

"Well, I mean, I'm apparently supposed to be a Power That Am. Are?" She frowns. "A Power that Is. But I don't see any Powers That Be rushing to give me an orientation on what that entails. Lorne's been trying to help me figure stuff out, but .…" She frowns. "I do still get visions, so there's that."

"Frankly, I'm too gobsmacked by the part where Vision Girl Barbie is divine to even grapple with the rest," Spike says. "I mean, how in the bloody hell-"

"Wait," Xander says. "Since when is Cordelia divine?"

"Exactly my point, mate," Spike says.

"Did I miss a meeting?" Xander says, frowning.

"Well, she did have a link to the Powers, already," Willow says. "I don't think it's that big of a leap that she is one."

"Cordelia Chase is a Power?" Xander exclaims.

"Just a little one," Buffy says.

Cordelia glowers. "Hey! I'm not little!"

"There's a huge difference between watching movies and being the director, pet," Spike says to Willow. "One doesn't naturally follow the other."

Xander adds, "And again I say, what? Cordelia's a what?"

Angel rises from his chair. "STOP IT," he thunders, teeth extending again, though he doesn't go full game face. A growl catches in his throat. It sounds odd. Half-human, half-vampire. But it still makes Buffy's insides drop.

"Angel," she says softly, trying to get him to calm down.

Everyone in the room is staring at him, now. Gaping. He stiffens under the scrutiny, and his hackles rise. The whole room fills with a sinister, old power that threatens to suffocate, it's so thick in the air.

"Stop making light," Angel snaps. He clenches his fingers. "If you had any idea ..."

"Angel," Buffy says again. She reaches for him, touches his sleeve, but he shrugs her off like she's burned him.

Cordelia's frown deepens. "What happened to me in the other timeline?"

"Nothing good," Angel says.

"Specifics?" Cordelia says.


"But-," Cordelia begins to protest.

"Cordelia, no," he says. His jaw clenches and unclenches and clenches and unclenches, making his temples dance. He glances at Buffy with cold eyes the color of marigolds. "This was a mistake," he says.

And before anyone can ask him about anything else he doesn't want to talk about, he stalks away as fast as he appeared with Buffy's coffee, leaving the room in stunned silence behind him.

"Holy shit," Xander says.

"Bloody unhinged," Spike grumbles. "You'd have put me down if I'd done anything like that."

Buffy frowns. "Spike, that's not tr-"

"Would everybody shut up?" Cordelia snaps. Her chair squawks as she pushes it back with the backs of her thighs and rises. She scoops up her notebook. Her voice is breaking when she adds, "Just … shut up."

And then she flees, a much slower, less violent version of Angel's egress.

The room is silent. Nobody moves. Buffy feels sick to her stomach. She thinks, maybe, if Angel was trying, this whole disaster will nip that in the bud.

Anya picks up a tray from the buffet table. "Would anyone like a scone?"

Angel's been sitting alone in the dark in his suite for less than thirty minutes when Cordelia shows up. She doesn't knock. She doesn't ask permission to come in. Probably because she knows he won't give it. Instead, she barrels in - as always, a force of nature. She flips on the foyer light as she passes by the switch on the wall.

His eyelids snap shut, nanoseconds after the first daggers of light stab his pupils. He can't stop himself from making an irritated face as he rubs his eyes. He's physically equipped to function best in low light or no light, and his eyes take a bit longer to adjust than a human's would.

"Oops, sorry," Cordelia says, though her tone conveys no regret. "I see you're back to practicing your favorite pastime of brooding with a side of brooding."

She flops into the recliner across the coffee table from him, and closer to the bookshelf. Something rumbles a bit like a shaken puzzle box. Leather squeaks as she settles.

After a few moments, he chances a glance at her through a cracked eyelid. Cordelia's peering back at him. Her arms are folded over her chest. His eyes seem to have adjusted, so he opens both and raises his eyebrows expectantly.

"Hey," she says with a too-bright smile. There's a box on the coffee table that wasn't there before. She leans forward to shake it, and all the pieces inside bounce around. "I brought Scrabble."

He sighs. The last thing he wants, right now, is to play a game that requires thought and talking. "Cordelia, I really don't-"

"So, I've had a pretty rough month," she blurts, interrupting him before he can finish. She pulls the lid off the box and takes out the game board. "In addition to the world apparently being rewritten by a bunch of not-quite-omnipotent jerks, and my best friendpire going through a horrible time, it turns out I'm divine. But I have no idea what that means, and said best friendpire clearly does, but he won't tell me."

Angel pinches the bridge of his nose. "Cordelia, please."

"No," she tells him as she takes out two tile racks. "No, you don't get to tell me to go away. I know you have stuff going on right now, and that you're all sad and mope-y and woe-is-me. But this is a big thing for me, too." She shakes the tile bag. "A huge thing. And you know way more than you're letting on."

"Cordelia, I can't-"

"Can't what?" she demands. "You already told me I'm dead in the old universe. What could possibly be worse than that? Should I be worried that I'm suddenly the divine equivalent of a bug zapper? Just tell me!"

Angel doesn't reply.

"What if I have a higher purpose?" Cordelia says, frowning. She pulls out a few tiles and places them on her rack, and then nudges the tile bag across the table, toward him. "What if I have a higher purpose, and you not telling me is keeping me from-"

"You don't have a higher purpose, Cordelia," he snaps.

She slumps back in her chair with a put upon sigh. "Well, what does that mean?"

He glares at her, but she doesn't back down, and she meets his glare with a stern, narrow-eyed, demanding gaze of her own. She'll never back down. He knows it.

"This would be a whole lot faster if you pretend the yes-no-yes-no back-and-forth blah-blah-until-you-finally-give-in-and-tell-me-anyway thing we always do already happened," Cordelia says, as if she's read his mind. "We can be at the stage where you spill your laconic guts in five syllables or less. I'm more than happy to skip ahead."

"Cordelia .…"

It's a half-hearted protest, at best. He knows when he's been strong-armed.

She folds her arms and raises her eyebrows, peering at him without blinking. "Angel?" she says in a dire tone. "Please."

He slumps.

"What do you mean, I don't have a higher purpose?" she prods.

"Exactly what I said." He stares at the grid pattern on the Scrabble board. "They tricked you," he says, watching the star shape in the center of the board clone itself as his eyes lose focus. The two stars wander farther apart as he looks beyond them, into untold space. He swallows, and he clenches his fists. He remembers raising the sword over her neck as she stared at him with rage. "You lost your agency and were turned into an incubator." Angel, Jasmine had said. Her first word. All while Cordelia lay comatose at her feet. And he'd felt nothing but joy and wonder. "You were raped, body and mind, you wasted away in a hospital bed for months, and then you died." I'm just on a different road … and this is my off-ramp. The Powers that Be owed me one, and I didn't waste it. "Okay? So, please, stop asking me about it."

"Oh," is her monosyllabic, stunned reply.

When he looks up, he sees her staring back at him, slack-jawed, wide-eyed. Like he just took her worst assumption and killed it with an axe of reality. Silence stretches. Her heartbeat is a timpani chorus in her chest.

Damn it. Damn it, damn it, damn it. He sighs. Wipes his face with his hands. "I shouldn't have said that."

That seems to snap her out of her speechlessness. She blinks and reanimates. "Yes, you should have."

He clenches his jaw. "Well, I could have said it more gently. It just .…" He stares at his knees. "It hurts."

For a long moment, she stares at him. Then she picks up the tile bag and deals his tiles, placing them onto his rack without looking at the letters. She gestures at the board. "Age before beauty?"

He looks up. "Cordelia .…"

"Hey, you know what I always say about tact," she says with a smile that doesn't reach her eyes. Tact is just not saying true stuff. "Now, take your turn, already."

It's another battle he'll lose, so why bother trying? She's trained him, over the years. With a heavy, depressed sigh, he glances at the letters she put on his rack.


He plays the tiles, and she rolls her eyes. "What does that mean?" she says, though she doesn't challenge him on the word's validity.

"The absence of life."

She frowns. "This isn't some metaphorical commentary of your rapidly deteriorating state of mind, is it?" she says in a wary tone.

He snorts. "It's just what I had letters for."

"You're sure."

He gives her a look.

"Okay, fine," she says, though her eyebrows are scrunched, and she's gazing at him doubtfully. Her eyes narrow as she regards him. Whatever she's thinking about, though, she seems to make up her mind, because her attention wanders back to her tile rack.

She makes S-L-E-E-P off the first S in abiosis. "I guess I get it, now," she says softly as she draws new letters.

He frowns. "Get what?"

She shrugs. "Why you refuse to believe that Connor's happy without proof."

"I want to believe it," he tells her. "I want to, but …."

"You can't." She sighs. "I know." She points at the board. "What's a seven letter word for, 'this sucks?'"

She visits him again. In the warm place full of light.

"You baffle me," says the Oracle.

He frowns.

"I have given you everything," she continues, beginning to pace. "I have led you to your son. I …." The Oracle looses a frustrated sigh. "Why are you not happy?"

"Why do you think I should be happy?" he says.

She blinks. "Because … because your son is saved."

Angel can't think of much to say to that.

"For you, we saved your offspring, and we fixed the world you broke," she says, wrinkles creasing her forehead as her frown deepens. "And, yet, you still have no faith in us."

His insides churn when he realizes what she's trying to say. He snorts with derision. "That's what you wanted me to find by finding out who has Connor? Faithin you?"

The Oracle bites her lip. "Belief. Love. Faith. All of these things." She tries to touch his face, and he yanks away. "We have given you a gift, and you scorn it."

"Oh, for crying out loud," he snaps. "That wasn't a gift. That was backpedaling, because I didn't follow your big plan."

She gives him a miffed look. "We do not backpedal for our sake. The world as it is is always our intent."

"Yeah, right," Angel snaps. "It was totally an accident that in the timeline you erased, evil fucking won. You only fixed it because you didn't want me dead. Right. I'm that important." He glares at her.

Her eyes soften. "Warrior, yes," she says gently. She steps closer, into his space. Her warmth makes it difficult to be angry. Difficult, but not impossible. "You are that important." She tilts her head. "Have we not already shown that we are willing to return you from perdition?"

He blinks. "… What?"

"You were once damned. Were you not?"

He swallows. "But the First …."

"The First can bring only death. It cannot take it away." Another miffed look slides across the Oracle's face. "It is also a braggart, and a liar."

Angel wants to snort. He wants to say, "Pot? Meet kettle." But he doesn't. He holds his tongue and says quietly, politely, instead, "At this point, I have nothing but stories. From either of you." And he can't believe what he can't see. Not anymore. He just can't.

The Oracle frowns. "I … do not understand."

"Welcome to my life," he says with a sigh. "It's a bitch. Isn't it."

He tries to vent the welling frustration by going out with Faith to kill some Kreplars that have burrowed near a school in Compton.

"Left!" Faith shouts as she dives to the right. "Angel, go left!"

He does, meeting the advancing Kreplar like a wrecking ball with teeth. He clocks the female so hard in the jaw that it spits blood. He loses himself in a whorl of rage, ripping, tearing. Faith is off to the right, cursing a blue streak at her quarry. Bones crunch as her boots connects with ribs.

The fight becomes a rhythm. Duck. Kick. Dodge. Snarl. Dodge. Eviscerate. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill.

"Wicked moves, A!" Faith says when she sees the savaged pile of remains at Angel's feet. She smiles at him with gleaming red teeth and a busted lip. "Feeling better?"

He licks his lips. "No," he says around razor-sharp fangs.

A shriek echoes through the earth, down the tunnel to the left. Faith nods. "Good, cuz there's at least one more." Another shriek. "Make that two." She grabs her gore-covered sword and jets off toward the source of the scream.

He follows through damp, root-filled caverns that smell like earth.

Why are you laughing? Don't you feel the cold?

They fight until everything in that tunnel is dead, until they're both too tired to lift their arms and hoist their swords, and they lay on the sandy soil outside the burrow, side by side, trying to recoup some energy. Faith pants beside him while they rest. Nine Kreplars in all. All torn to shreds.

"Thanks, A," Faith says. "That was boss." She stares up at the bleak, purple sky. Most stars aren't visible, thanks to the light pollution, but Orion's belt is bright enough to shine through the ugly haze. "Don't get me wrong," Faith says. "I love B. But she's not into rough-and-tumbles just for fun."

"I wasn't here for fun," Angel says.

Faith rolls onto her side and props her head on her elbow. Her brown hair is wild, tangled with leaves and other refuse. "B's not into blowing off steam, either," Faith says. "Not like this." She frowns. "You know … I get that you've had your worldview kicked out from under you again. I do. Believe me. Been there, done that. But .…"

His eyes narrow. He turns his head to glance at her. "But what?"

She shrugs. "A fight can be just a fight, Angel. Who cares what the big boss upstairs thinks?"

When he doesn't answer, she flops onto her back. Over long, long minutes her breaths even out. She points to the sky above them. "What's that one?"

"Cassiopeia," he says.

He closes his eyes. The fight exhausted him. Nine Kreplars on two fighters, even when one fighter is a slayer and the other a vampire, is not the kind of odds he'd normally consider taking on, and after the week he's had, he didn't have much left to give, even in a fight to the death.

What the hell possessed you to try that, even with Faith as backup? his inner Buffy asks him. I mean, seriously, enough with the death wish already!

"I was playing chicken," he admits.

It's clear to him that the Powers want him up and fighting.

"Yeah," Faith says without even asking him to clarify. "I get that." She sighs. "Been there, done that, too."

Angel, please. Just do it. Just do it. Just kill me.

"I remember," he says.

He wonders, then, if he's the Faith in this scenario.

We're big on free will.

Either that, or he's Pinocchio.

Angel's a walking pile of bruises and scrapes when he shows up, only seconds to spare before predawn becomes full dawn, and he would be in danger of crisping. Buffy glances over the top edge of her book and gapes at him. "What happened to you?" she says.

He shrugs. "Went out with Faith."

"Nobody told me there was a job," Buffy says, frowning.

"Because I didn't tell anyone about it but Faith."

She's not sure what to say to that. She refuses to make a comment about him taking Faith instead of her. She's not a jealous nag. She's never been a jealous nag. She refuses to be a jealous nag, now. But .…

He shrugs out of a black t-shirt that's been torn to ribbons. His pants aren't much better off. His back is a scabbed latticework of scrapes. So is his chest. He looks like he duked out his existential crisis with a paper shredder or something.

"Angel," she says in a low tone, horrified. She puts her book down on the nightstand, slides out of bed, and pads over to him. He flinches away with a hiss when she tries to touch him. "Angel, what is this?"


"This is not nothing," she says.

He doesn't have a response for that. He leans against the dresser, which creaks under his weight. He swallows, like he's holding back a flood. "I'm cold," he says in a soft, broken tone. And then he heads into the bathroom. The faucet squeaks as he turns on the shower. The distant sound of pelting water hitting the shower basin fills their suite.

A lump forms in her throat.

Their fortress isn't crumbling, she thinks. It's crumbled, and she's struggling to keep the keystone from crushing her.

He won't talk to her anymore. She tried for thirty minutes to get a comment from him, but all he did was stand there in the shower, staring at nothing, until she gave up. He's … infuriating when he fixates on something about the universe that doesn't work for him - when his mind breaks - and she feels so helpless watching him not let her help when it happens.

She heads down to the gym for some quality venting time with one of the few remaining punching bags. It's just after sunrise, and the gym should be empty. The gym isn't empty, though.

She finds Cordelia in a green tracksuit, pounding her fists into one of the bags.

"Cordelia," Buffy says, frowning.

Whack. Whack. Whack. Cordelia looks up from her aggression session and sighs. "What, you think only slayers can hit things? Angel taught me to fight."

Buffy shakes her head. "No, sorry. I know he did. I was just surprised. I thought everybody was asleep."

Cordelia leans back on her heels and wipes her damp brow with the back of her palm. She closes her eyes for a second, panting. And then she resumes. "Yeah, well." She punches a bag so hard the impact echoes off the gym walls. "I'm not."

Buffy frowns, daring to step closer. She lines herself up behind the punching bag on the opposite side from Cordelia, and leans against the bag to offer counterweight.

"Thanks," Cordelia says.

"No problem," says Buffy. Whack. Whack. Whack. She frowns. "Cordelia, are you okay?"

"Okay?" Cordelia says, her tone so bright it could power a flashlight. "Why wouldn't I be okay? Of course, I'm okay." Whack. Whack.

Buffy shrugs. "Oh, I don't know." She grimaces as the power of Cordelia's next blow almost makes Buffy lose her footing. She settles her weight into her legs and leans, allowing her slayer strength to do the work instead of her mass. Whack. "You just seem to have a personal vendetta against this poor punching bag."


"It's just .…" Cordelia sighs and leans back, panting. She brushes her wet bangs out of her eyes. And then her everything-is-fine-and-I'm-so-bright-and-happy routine crashes to earth like a bomb that's been dropped. "He's going cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs again, isn't he?"

Buffy bites her lip. "Angel?"

"This is how it happened before, when he fired us. It was a snowball at first, but then it was woosh like an avalanche, and it sucked. You weren't here, but I was, and I .…" Cordelia chokes into silence.

Buffy steps around the punching bag. "I'm here, now," she says. "I'm seeing it, now." She'd, of course, heard stories about Darla's return. When Wolfram and Hart had summoned Angel's sire to drive him bonkers and had almost succeeded. Buffy thinks her imagination may not have done the scenario any justice. "He's .…"

"A real bastard when he's broken," Cordelia finishes for her.

Buffy can't help but laugh, though it's not a happy sound.

"I mean," Cordelia muses, "between a soul being force-crammed into a body that doesn't want it, not once but three times, a zillion years in hell, a billion dollar law firm trying to make him a nut bar, his son being taken, three months in solitary confinement at the bottom of the ocean while starving, me being possessed by Jasmine and dying for my trouble, everybody else dying, having his last act of faith crushed under the foot of a fire breathing dragon, and for his trouble, his son being taken again … I suppose it's a wonder he's lasted this long."

Buffy frowns. "Cordelia … um."

Cordelia sighs. "Look, I know a lot of it didn't happen here, Buffy. But it happened there."


"The timeline that got replaced," Cordelia says. "I remember it. I remember everything. Lorne's been-"

"Helping, you said," Buffy replies, going numb.

"I thought maybe I was just hallucinating or something. I mean suddenly becoming divine again is a big thing. Who knows what the side-effects are?"

Buffy gives Cordelia a doubtful look. "Right .…"

"But Angel corroborated it when I played dumb," Cordelia says, eyes watering to the point of overflow. She scrubs at her face with the backs of her knuckles before continuing, "The vision that convinced him to go suicide commando on Black Thorn? I gave him that." She sighs. "I was trying to get him back on track, but I did the opposite. And the only reason he needed to get back on track in the first place was because of the fallout from the year before. Without that, he never would have accepted Wolfram and Hart's offer. I was going to tell him that I loved him, and then Skip came, and .… All of this was because of me … because I thought I had a purpose."

"Cordelia … we all make choices," Buffy says slowly. "And you can't blame yourself for his."

"They used me, and I .… I don't like it."

"Now, that, I can relate to," Buffy confesses.

Cordelia nods. "It sucks," she says in a weepy, frustrated tone.

And then silence stretches.

"So, you're .…" Buffy's not sure what to say. "You know how to access … erm. The …."

"The holy flashlight thing?" Cordelia leans her head back, and her body begins to glow. "Yeah. It's on-demand, now." The light winks out. "For all the good that does." She sighs. "I don't understand how I can be a freaking Power that Is, and there's still nothing I can do. I feel so-"

"Helpless?" Buffy says.

Cordelia nods.

Buffy sighs, resting her head against the punching bag. "I think it's the worst feeling in the world."

"I miss good old corporeal big bads," Cordelia says.

"Me, too," Buffy admits.

Cordelia hits the punching bag with a soft test jab. Buffy shifts to the back of the bag again and braces it. This time, a real punch follows.


"It's too bad you don't know that universe editing trick," Buffy says, bracing for the next jolt. "Maybe, the PTB missed an option that doesn't kill any of us. I mean, they seem to have some severe deficits in the omniscience department." And other departments, too.


"Yeah, I wish," Cordelia says. "After I'd finished punching the PTB on the nose, I can think of a lot of things I'd change. Like red eyeliner. Who the hell thought that was a good idea?"


Buffy shudders. "Ugh. Definitely not me."

"It's awful,isn't it?"

"Totally," Buffy says. "Makes you look like a zombie."


"I mean, I'd happily fall on the sword if it meant the world didn't have to have red … eye …." And then Cordelia's voice trails away.

Buffy frowns. "Cordelia?"

"Somebody else would be dead. That's what they said," Cordelia says. "That's why they wouldn't fix it. That somebody else .…"

"Yes. So?" Buffy's frown deepens. She peeks around the edge of the punching bag when Cordelia doesn't reply. "So?" she repeats.

Cordelia's standing there like she's been knocked stupid. "I .…" She blinks and turns stunned brown eyes to Buffy. "I just … thought of .…"

"Cordelia, what's wrong?" Buffy says.

"Nothing," Cordelia replies. "Nothing, I .…" She shakes her head like she's trying to clear cobwebs. "Buffy, I have to go," she adds. Then she takes off at a run, designer sneakers squeaking on the gym mat as she flees, leaving a stunned Buffy behind her.

Buffy blinks. "… What the hell just happened?"

Of course, no one answers, and the silence feels ominous. She feels like she just missed something huge. Something monumental. She twitches from foot to foot with nervous energy for several seconds before she manages to tamp the feeling. Unsettled, she resumes where Cordelia left off: with a solid whack that snaps the punching bag in the opposite direction.

Cordelia wouldn't sub in for Connor, would she?

The stray thought hits Buffy like a truck, and she's so stunned by it, she doesn't dodge when the punching bag swings back like a pendulum and smacks her in the shoulder. She rubs her skin where it hit. "Ow," she whines to no one.

And then she snorts.

Cordelia wouldn't sub in for Connor, she thinks with an eye roll. She's Cordelia.

And on that conclusion, she gives the punching bag another good whack, and settles in for a workout.

If there's no undoing it, the only thing that's left to do is live with it.

Live with the fact that Angel's idiocy destroyed his own son.

He prowls the hotel, trying to vent disquiet. The vampire version of pacing, he supposes. There's a strange, static zap, like magic discharging, as he passes by the ballroom. The jolt is so strong, his heart beats twice, and the sudden life where he normally has none makes his innards feel like they're dropping out. The feeling leaves him as fast as it arrived, though, and when he pokes his head into the ballroom see what's going on, Cordelia actually grabs him by the arm and frogmarches him to the sewer entrance in the hotel basement. "Why don't you go for a walk?" she suggests through gritted teeth. "You know. Go do something else."


She grins and waves. Then she shoves him toward the grate. "Bye! Have a nice time!"

He's not quite certain why his forced excursion brings him back to St. Mary's of the Angels. Perhaps it's how lost he feels. Perhaps it's the dream he had. Why are you not happy? Perhaps it's both.

He receives the same foreboding feeling he always does at the threshold, but he pushes past it.

The church isn't having a service right now. There's a man in the front pew kneeling, steepled hands pressed to his forehead as he looks down in the dim light. Candles flicker, the flames like tiny dancers, and Angel can smell the burning wicks.

He sits in the back row.

He hasn't been to church since … ever. Not for personal reflection, anyway.

Supernaturally manufactured revulsion coils in his gut. He tries to keep his eyes off all the crosses. The imagery of the crucifixion. All the psalm books and bibles lining the pews.

This is, quite possibly, one of the stupidest things he's done in recent memory, he decides, which is saying something, given the things he's done recently. A vampire - a former Catholic, no less - who's met real representatives of the PTB, is trying to gain clarity by attending a fucking church.

You don't belong here. Go back. Unclean.

He swallows against the lump in his throat, nauseated.

He's about to stand up and leave when the pew creaks, and a woman sits down beside him. "Sorry to disturb you," she says in a soft murmur. "I just wanted to thank you. For saving my life. I'm not sure I made this very clear when we last spoke, but … your valor was appreciated."

He blinks. Turns to her. It's the woman. The woman he mistook for a vengeance demon.

"Saving your life?" he scoffs. "All I did was get my gut opened right in front of you and scare you."

She gives him a sheepish grin. "Oh, I don't know; I thought you made quite a good distraction for my panicked getaway." She shakes her head. "I left you to die. I'm sorry."

He shrugs. "You did the smart thing."

"The smart thing and the right thing don't always coincide," she replies.

"For what it's worth, I didn't feel owed an apology," he assures her. He looks her over with a long, discerning glance. He doesn't smell any blood, new or old. Still, "Are you …?"

"Oh, I'm fine," she rushes to say. And then her expression grows serious. "As fine as one can be after seeing those … things."

"They were-"

"Meth heads in costumes," the woman says with just a hint of a smile curling her lips. "Your … partner said."

"Oh," Angel says.

"I'm also not a fool."

He can't think of a response to that other than, "No. I didn't think so."

The woman holds out her hand. Her eyes are the color of slate. "Vanessa," she says.

"Angel," he replies, shaking her hand.

Her eyebrows rise, she looses a small laugh, and, with a humor-filled look around the candlelit church, she says, "How appropriate."

"Yeah, I get that a lot," he says.

Silence stretches. At the front of the church, a priest comes out of the rectory and walks across the floor by the altar to the opposite door. His footsteps echo off the walls. He doesn't pay Angel, Vanessa, or the man praying in the front pew any mind. The opposite door creaks as the priest pulls it open and disappears within.

"You're not human, are you?" Vanessa says.

Angel peers at her for a moment before admitting, "No."

"I thought not," she says with a nod. The next question he expects, though, Are you actually an angel? never arrives. She sits in the pew, fingering her sapphire cross pendant, staring into space, saying nothing.

He frowns. "You're not going to ask what I am?"

"You tried to help," she says with a small shrug. "That's all I need to know."

Again, not what he's expecting. His frown deepens. "How do you do that?"

"Do what?"

"Have faith." In him, of all people. Her would-be rescuer turned fellow victim. "Even after seeing what you saw."

She frowns, like she's never thought about the nature of her faith before. Not to the degree he's asking her to, anyway. She considers for a long moment. "I think …," she begins before trailing away into silence. She ponders for another moment. "I think it's, in large part, a decision. Faith isn't something you just have. You have to build it up from nothing."

If I tell you what I would have you seek , Warrior, I believe that that would defeat the point of finding it.

"How do I build it?" he says.


He nods. "How can I believe in something greater, when I've been shown time and time again that the Powers are just as fallible, vain, and clueless as I am?"

She regards him for a moment. "How do you know god is fallible?"

He sighs and runs his fingers through his hair. "You wouldn't ask that if you could see what a mess my life is right now," he says. He looks at his lap. A lump forms in his throat. Different from the lump caused by the church borne nausea. He swallows. "They took my son."

"I'm sorry for your loss," she says.

He shrugs. "I've tried everything I can think of to fix it, but the more I try, the worse it feels, and, now, there's nothing left to do."

The man in the front pew stands up, gathers his things, and puts on his black wind shell. Angel watches him leave. The man nods at Angel and Vanessa as he passes them. Angel nods back.

A warm hand wraps around his wrist and squeezes. A gesture of comfort. His throat hurts. He looks at Vanessa.

"I agree that it's hard, sometimes, to understand the plan that god has for you," Vanessa says, a soft, soothing murmur. "But just because you can't understand what god does, doesn't mean that what he does is wrong. You have to accept that his perspective is broader than yours. He can see things you can't."

Angel sighs. "I wish I could believe that."

"What do you believe?" Vanessa says.

"Nothing, at this point."

She nods. "Nothing is a scary prospect. I can see why you're upset." Her eyebrows rise. "Truly, you believe in nothing?"

We're big on free will, Doyle had said.

The lump in Angel's throat is a hurting, softball-sized mass, at this point. "I don't know," he says. He rubs his eyes. "I don't know anything, anymore."

Things would be different if he could just see his son.

But as much as he wants to find answers, as well-meaning as Vanessa seems to be, he won't find revelation here, he realizes. His perspective on reality is so … entirely different than this woman's. The Kreplars were probably the first time she'd ever seen anything supernatural. And she certainly hadn't spent who knew how long talking directly to one of "god's" direct representatives.

I brought you here to find something you lost.

He feels like he's been grasping at straws, only to have them all yanked away as he flails.

And, now, the last straw? It's gone.

"I'm sorry," he says to Vanessa, almost a croak. "I'm sorry, I …. I have to go."

He's never felt more void of hope.

"Angel?" she calls after him as he scrambles to get out of the pew and away from the loathsome you're not welcome thoughts that pervade each moment he stays in this hallowed place.

He turns back to face her, eyebrows raised askance.

"Perhaps, if you can't put your faith in the divine," Vanessa says slowly, "you can put it somewhere else."

"Like where?" he says.

She shrugs. "I wish I knew."

Chapter Text

A pillow whacks him in the face, sending fluff and little bits of down flying. "Rise and shine!" a faux-cheerful voice commands, followed by a sneeze, followed by a sniff, followed by a, "Jeez, Angel, you should invest in one of those hypoallergenic gel pillows. Real down is so last century."

Angel returns to the world like a man trying desperately to cling to a good dream, though in this case, there was no good dream to keep.

Only bad reality to come back to.

Buffy lies beside him, but there's a cold, empty canyon of space between them. He came home last night, destroyed in mind, and crawled into bed. She watched him with a glower, and she didn't even try to ask what was wrong.

Not that he blames her or wishes she were acting differently. He knows he's sinking, and he doesn't want to pull her under with him, anyway. She doesn't deserve that kind of darkness in her life.

Nothing is a scary prospect. I can see why you're upset. Truly, you believe in nothing?

The pillow hits him again. "I said rise and shine!" Cordelia repeats, and when he peers through his eyelashes at her, he can see her standing there in the crescent-shaped blur, staring at him, arms folded over her chest, like she's scolding a recalcitrant child.

"Oh, my god, what time is it?" Buffy rasps, tone still thick with sleep.

"It's almost dinnertime," Cordelia says. "Way past time for normal humans to be awake."

"I'm not human," Angel grumbles.

"And I'm not normal," Buffy adds with a sigh. She frowns. "How did you get in here, anyway?"

Cordelia's already cracking the blinds, though, and not listening to Buffy one bit. A shaft of sunlight pierces the room, and the space in front of his eyelids brightens from muted black to fleshy peach. The only thing that stops him from panicking is knowing that the sunlight doesn't hit the bed at this hour. Rather, it forms a big, bright puddle by the coffee table that's easily dodged.

Something slaps at his arm. Buffy. "Angel, make it stop," she whines, and she burrows underneath her pillow. The blankets rustle as she settles.

He scrubs his eyes, and he squints at the blur approaching the bed again. "Cordelia …."

"That's me!" Cordelia says, tone so bright it could be the sun. "Get up. I'm taking you out."

He frowns. Now? "I don't want to go out."

"I don't care," she says. "Get dressed."

"But I'll incinerate," he replies.

She rolls her eyes. "Hello, don't you think I'm used to planning around that by now? And I want to spend what's left of my day with my guy."

"Your guy."

"My V-BFF!"

He blinks. Is she speaking English? "... What?"

"My vampire best friend forever?" she says. She rolls her eyes and puts her hands on her hips. "I mean, duh."

He frowns again. "Oh."

"I swear, you're surrounded by a zillion young adults, and you still don't know the lingo. Would it kill you to … I don't know … try to blend in?"

"Yes," he replies without humor.

He tries to roll over, closer to Buffy, away from Cordelia, but she grabs his shoulder, preventing his egress. "Nope," she says as her nails dig into his right deltoid. "Come on. We have somewhere to be."

"… Buffy?" he says, hoping Buffy might provide an excuse for him.

"Nope, not in Buffy," Cordelia says, deliberately misinterpreting him. "Stop stalling. I'm on a schedule. There'll be time for hot monkey sex with Buffy, later."

And, instead of providing an excuse, his lover says, "Bye, have fun," in a dry, unsympathetic tone, from underneath her pillow. The covers rustle again as Buffy burrows even deeper. Away from him.

He supposes he's reaping what he's sown.

"Come on!" adds Cordelia. "We're behind schedule."

He feels like he's a loose piece of seaweed swept up in a tidal force. He's rootless, and unable to resist the overwhelming current. Cordelia barely even gives him time to put clothes on, though at least she does him the courtesy of turning around while he climbs out of bed and slinks to his dresser.

"You know, another thing most people do, now, is sleep with clothes on," she comments.

He rolls his eyes. "So, where are we going?" he says as he pulls on some pants.

"Not telling," she says. "It's a surprise."

"I don't like surprises," he grumbles.

"Well, suck it up, and deal with it."

His shirt gets stuck around his neck and shoulders, and he struggles to untangle himself. He doesn't like surprises, and he doesn't like getting dressed under pressure, and he doesn't like any of this, but. But she's Cordelia, and there's really no room for a but. She eclipses any and all buts. He straightens as the shirt slides down into place, and he turns around to face her.

"Ready," he says in a glum tone.

"Gee," she says, folding her arms, "try not to look too excited."

"I told you; I don't like surprises, and I don't want to go out." He glowers at her, but she's impervious.

"No, you just want to sit and mope and slowly go insane," she replies. "Well, I'm not having it." Her eyebrows knit for a moment. She glances at his feet. "You forgot shoes."

"So, not the beach, then," he says. Small favors, at least. "And I'm not going insane."

"Hello, sunshine?" she says, pointing at the window. "Like I'd try to kill you with surfing lessons."

"That's debatable," he replies with an eye roll.

"Yeah, well, so's the I'm-not-going-insane thing."

He grabs his boots from the corner by the dresser, and sits on the lip of the bed to yank them on. As soon as he's tied the laces on both shoes, she grabs a fistful of his shirt and marches toward the door, barely giving him a chance to find his balance.

He stops on the threshold to say goodbye to Buffy, but thinks better of it when he sees her thoroughly buried under the comforter, breaths rasping evenly as she descends back into the Land of Nod. He sighs, and he closes the door softly behind him.

"We're going out!" Cordelia announces as she drags him through the lobby toward the garage, and they receive a chorus of goodbyes. She turns to him. "You don't mind if I drive, do you?" He opens his mouth to reply, but he doesn't get a chance to utter a sound. "Good," she says. She grabs his keys from the rack in the front office on the way out.

"I don't have my wallet," he says as they approach his Belvedere.

"Doesn't matter," she replies. "It's on me." She gestures to the car. "Now, get in the trunk so you don't fry."

He tries to figure out where they're going based on the motion of the car. A right. A left. Highway. Exit. Highway. Exit. But without any visual cues, he's so turned around that by the time the car pulls to a stop, his mental calculations have them somewhere in Malibu.

The keys jingle. The parking brake squawks as she yanks on it. He listens to her step around to the back of the car, and she pops the trunk, giving him a first glimpse of what the hell they're doing.

It's … not Malibu. "What parking garage is this?" he says, frowning as he climbs out of the trunk.

But all she gives him is a tiny smile. "You're having trouble with this whole surprise concept, aren't you?" she says, and she keeps walking, leaving him to catch up with her.

It's the Staples Center, he realizes, as they're dumped out onto the street. What on earth are they doing at the Staples Center? The sun is low enough, now, that he's able to walk outside as long as he clings to the sides of buildings. Still, he feels like ants are crawling on his exposed skin, and it's hard for him to think straight beyond the urge to get back indoors. He lets Cordelia pull him along without comment.

"A Kings game?" he says, dumbfounded as they move through the turnstiles.

She shrugs. "This is where we have to be."

"Cordelia, we don't have to-"

"Yes. We do," she says, in a tone that doesn't broker argument.

They walk around the stadium's outer hallway, wending through the rumbling crowd. The numbers on the signs climb. Cordelia keeps stopping to compare the tickets she bought to the signs up above.

He's beyond lost. There are people everywhere. Heartbeats thundering in his ears. Kids shrieking. People laughing. The stadium is a writhing ball of life.

He's never been to a Kings game before - he's always watched on television. He doesn't like crowds, and he stays away from them if he can help it. They wreak havoc with his senses, and being surrounded by a crush of humanity is a bit like being thrust into an all-you-can-eat buffet while starving, and yet having no money to buy a meal.

He should have eaten earlier.

"Cordelia," he says, trying to get her to stop. "This is .…" He licks his lips. He can't help it. "This is a lot of people."

Cordelia turns to face him. The moving crowd diverts around them. She frowns, perhaps realizing for the first time that maybe this wasn't such a great idea. Her knuckles whiten as she clutches at her purse straps. "It's not too much for you, is it?"

Yes, he wants to say. He's had a rough few months, and he's too raw for this.

But .…

But when she steps closer, it's like the rest of the world just … goes away, and he doesn't hear anything, anymore, except her. Her eyes are wide and hoping, and just like with Buffy when she's pushing him to step outside his comfort zone, he can't. He can't say anything but, "I'm okay."

Cordelia beams. "Good!"

He's a soft touch for strong women, apparently.

He sighs.

They continue onward, and he marvels at his sudden lack of perception. They pass a middle-aged couple kissing by the wall. He should hear two racing heartbeats. He should see their frantic pulses throb along their jugulars. He should smell lust like fuel at a gas station. Addicting. Mind-altering if he inhales too much.

But, while he can still hear and see and smell, everything is blunted, like he's alive again, not undead. His demon is … comatose.

It's almost like Cordelia's presence is a dampener of some sort.

She stops at a sign and nods with satisfaction. "Here we are!" she says.

The air is chill, and the rink is huge. It takes Cordelia a few minutes to find their seats. Row ten. Center ice.

She glances at the tickets and then the seats, and then she says, "This is where we're supposed to be."

"Why are we supposed to be here?" he says.

Cordelia frowns. "Is it not a good spot?"

He shakes his head. "No, this is great." He looks at the rink. It's … perfect. "You can see everything from here. Even the corners."

"I'm assuming that's a good thing," she says.

"A great thing," he counters, nodding, and they take their seats as players begin to skate out onto the ice to warm up. "Thank you. This was very thoughtful."

"I know," is her reply. "Aren't I an awesome H-BFF?" She nudges him with her elbow and leans toward his ear. "That means human best friend-"

"Forever," he replies with a soft laugh. "Yes, I gathered that."

She gazes at him for a moment, expression soft and warm. "It'll get better, you know. Sooner than you think."


"I know you don't feel like it, now, but it will."

She rests her head on his shoulder, and they settle in to watch the game.

Sensory overload is a non-issue. Comatose demon aside, he gets so involved in the game that he stops listening to everything else. The sounds of humanity are replaced by skates cutting ice and sticks slapping pucks.

He gives Cordelia a rundown on the rules, so she knows what she's looking at, and even she starts to get into it a little. He doubts he's made her a fan for life or anything, but it's hard not to get sucked into the enthusiasm of the crowd. It's a close game, too. Exciting. A constant back and forth. Tied through the first and second periods, and he enjoys the game for what it is.

Time away from all the drama in his life. Time away from guilt and worry and brooding.

It's … nice.

"Hey, Angel?" Cordelia says as the buzzer sounds at the end of the second period. The score is tied 3-3, Kings versus Caps, but she's not looking at the ice. She's fixated on her watch.

"Yeah?" he says.

She gives him a long, unreadable look. "I want you to know, I'm choosing this. This was how it was always supposed to go, anyway. I'll be doing what I signed up for the first time."

He frowns. "What-?"

"You want some popcorn?" she says, interrupting him.

His frown deepens. "I don't eat."

She shrugs. "Well, I want some popcorn. Hold my purse?" She dumps the large tote in his lap before he can say yes or no. She doesn't stand up, though. Instead she wraps her arms around him in a bone-crushing hug. "I'm gonna miss you, you know."

His guts feel like they're sinking through the floor. Wrong. Wrong. This is all wrong. Why is she acting like this is goodbye? He tenses in her arms. "Are you going somewhere?"

"I'm going to get popcorn," is her answer as she lets go and rises to her feet.

"Cordelia, what on earth …?"

He stands up to follow her, but she waves him off. "No. You sit," she says. "This is where you need to be."

"Cordelia," he says, more strident this time. What the hell is going on? "Why do I need to be here?"

She sighs, and she gives him a warm smile that makes her eyes sparkle. "Angel," she says. "Relax, would you?"

"I'm not going to relax when it sounds like you're saying goodbye for no discernible reason!"

She glances at her watch, an intense frown marring her face. "Fine," she says. She sits back down beside him with a sigh. "I remember everything."

"Everything," he parrots uselessly.

She nods. "Everything." She looks up at him. "I was going to tell you, I love you. If you're curious, I mean. If you wanted to know."

Um, Angel, I sort of need to talk to you in person.

Is it something … bad?

No! No, it's something good, I think. Well, it sort of depends how you feel.

He blinks. A lump forms in his throat. "Point Dume?" he says.

She nods. "Yeah."

He can't think of what to say. His vision blurs as he stares over the ice. He hears her sniff beside him. Out of the corner of her eye, he sees her scrubbing her face with her knuckles.

"This whole mess with Connor is because of me," she confesses. "Because I got tricked."

"Cordelia, no …."

She shakes her head. "No, it is. And, now, I'm going to fix it, and you're going to be happy, okay? I love you, and that's what I want for you. To be happy."

"But what about what I want for you?" he says. "Don't I get a say?"

"No," she replies simply. "This is my decision."

"But what is 'this?'" he says, frantic. "What decision?" He grabs her wrist and squeezes like she's a life raft, and he's afraid to let go. "Cordelia, what are you talking about?"

She glances at her watch and sighs. It's almost 9. She bites her lip when she gets a look at the time, and looks back at him with a watery smile. What the hell happens at 9? "I want this," she says. "So, don't be a dumbass and waste it, okay? Don't be a martyr. And don't you dare try to 'fix' it, or I'll smite you. I can do that, now, you know."

"Cordelia, please, tell me-"


He swallows. "What?"

She rests her head on his shoulder. "Shut up."

I don't want my last few minutes to be a fight, she doesn't say, but he hears it all the same.

The buzzer sounds, and the players spill back out onto the ice. She rests with her arm across his chest. He can't peel his eyes from her watch. 8:59. He's running out of time. He can feel it. For what, or why, he doesn't know, but-

"I was going to tell you, too," he rushes to say. He feels like it needs to be said. "At Point Dume." He clears his throat roughly. "If you were curious, I mean."

"Tell me what?" she says, peering up at him.

"That I love you."

"I knew that already, silly," she says, giving him a gentle elbow in the ribs for his trouble. The crowd cheers as the puck is dropped. Her brown eyes soften, and her smile warms him to the bone when she looks up at him. "Don't forget me, okay?"

He shakes his head. "Why do you think I'd forget-?"

Her watch beeps. "I'll be seeing you," she says, the words soft. "But not for a while."

And then there's a brilliant flash, and the world is engulfed in light.

Chapter Text

The world returns with a riotous cheer as the crowd surrounding him stands up, a writhing, living unit. Everything is moving. Everyone is shouting and whooping and clapping.

"Oh, wow, what a play!" the announcer cries, barely audible over the thunderous approval of all the spectators.

Then the buzzer blares, filling with discord the few aural spaces left untouched by the human cacophony. Angel blinks, dazed, as the players skate off the ice. He's still in his seat. The score is 4-5 Kings Bruins. Heartbeats press on him from all sides, and he can't do anything by the noise but be crushed. He claps his hands over his ears, trying to dampen the symphony of life.

"Mmmph? Mmmph? Mmm, mmph?" He hears a muffled voice to his right.

A hand waves in front of his face. Too close. He clenches his teeth so hard his jaw hurts. He bends over his knees. His demon pounds on the box. His fangs press on his gums, less than a nanometer from descending into place. No. He won't change. He won't change, and he won't snap. Not in the middle of-

A warm hand touches his shoulder. "Mmmph?"

No, no, no. No.

He counts backwards in his head. He does math problems. He thinks about paying taxes and subsiding off rats and dumping Buffy in a sewer. Things that do the opposite of exciting his demon. Things that make him feel awful.


The cheering dies a gradual death, now that the players are off the ice. People have left the stands to go to concessions, or the bathroom. The solid clot of humanity has thinned a little.

Angel swallows.

Finally, he has a lid on things. His muscles relax from their stressed gridlock. He lowers his hands from his ears. The noise is still intense, but it isn't torturous anymore, and he can almost think again.

"Dad!" a familiar voice says to his right. A snort of distaste fills the air. "You were thinking about eating everybody again, weren't you? You're disgusting."

Angel turns his head, and he can't stop his mouth from falling open.

Connor's looking back at him, disapproving. "Why are you looking at me like that?" he snaps. "I'm not dinner, either." He grinds his teeth. "I knew this was a mistake the minute you suggested it."

"… Connor," Angel says. It's the only word he can find in his vast lexicon.

Connor's eyebrows knit as his face sinks into an intense, disturbed frown. "I need some air," he says. "Do you want popcorn or not?"

"I … don't eat," Angel replies, dumbfounded.

Connor rolls his eyes. "Not food, anyway. The crowd, though. Sure, why not."

"I don't-," Angel has a chance to snap.

"Whatever," Connor says with a shrug. "I'll be back in a minute." And he bounds out of his seat like the spry teenager that he is, before Angel can connect two thoughts together to make a conclusion.

Cordelia's purse is gone. Nothing smells like her. He can't pick her heartbeat out of the crowd, not that that says much. When he focuses on it, the crowd is a wave against his battered shore, and the water drowns him in moments. He has to do the whole counting thing again.

Taxes. Rats. Dumping Buffy.

Connor returns from the concession stand with a bag of buttery popcorn and a big jug-sized paper cup full of soda. "Where's Cordelia?" Angel says.

Connor's eyes narrow as he puts his cup in the holder. "Why are you being so weird?"

"Where's …? I …." Angel's mind is racing. Too many conflicting thoughts smash together like bumper cars in his head. He takes one look at Connor and pulls him into an embrace. The bag of popcorn smashes between them, spilling everywhere, but Angel doesn't care. "Oh, my god, Connor," he says. "You're …." Here. Connor is here. Now.


"Whoa!" Connor snaps, leaping backward. "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa," he says, gesticulating. "No hugging! We've talked about this! I'll spend time with you, but hands off!"

Angel snaps his hands back. Hell, it's enough just to see Connor, alive and well and in-the-flesh before him. "Connor," is all Angel has to say. Like his mouth is a stuck record.

"Okay, now, you're really freaking me out," Connor says, frowning.

"I'm sorry," Angel says. "I just …. I'm …." What the hell just happened? "Cordelia. She …." I'll be seeing you. But not for a while. He blinks. "And you! You're …."

Connor sighs and grabs Angel's arm. "Okay, that's it," he says. "I'm taking you home. You can be weird there. I have better things to do."

Home is still the hotel, but it's not full of slayers, and it's back to the slightly dilapidated state it had been in when Angel had lived there in the first timeline. The only living scents besides Connor's that are strong enough for Angel to separate from the olfactory noise are Wesley's, Fred's, Gunn's, and Lorne's. Pictures litter the desk in the front office. Pictures of Cordelia. Pictures of Buffy and the Sunnydale crew. Nothing is like he left it when Cordelia had grabbed his car keys that afternoon, and he's trying hard not to panic.

"Well, how'd it go?" Fred asks. She sits in a small chair by the wall, sucking a lollypop that's slowly turning her tongue purple. "Did y'all make any progress?"

"Progress with what?" Angel says, still in a daze.

Fred laughs. "With bonding, silly."

Connor rolls his eyes. "He's evil again or something. He keeps asking about Cordelia."

Wesley frowns. "Cordelia?"

"Honeybun," says Lorne, "if Angel's evil right now, then I'm Aretha."

"Yes, quite," Wesley says. "Angelus is far more .…" He searches for a word. He settles on, "Aggressive."

Gunn gives Angel a doubtful look. "More chatty, too, I hear."

"I'm standing right here, you know," Angel says. "And I'm not evil." He points at the pictures on the desk. "Would somebody please tell me where Cordelia is?" And Buffy. And everyone. "And where did everyone else go? Are they out on patrol, or is this actually different? I mean, clearly they all still exist, since they're in pictures on my desk."

Wesley frowns at him. And then he looks at Connor. "Did he receive a blow to the head?"

"I still think he's just evil," Connor replies.

Angel sighs. "Damn it, I didn't receive a blow to the head!" Not this time, anyway. "And I'm not evil! I was with Cordelia, and Connor was gone, and, now, I'm with Connor, and Cordelia is gone."

"That ain't exactly a convincin' argument against head trauma, man," Gunn says.

"Or being evil," Connor interjects.

Wesley's frown deepens. "Cordelia's been missing for years."

And don't you dare try to fix it, she said.

Angel's stomach sinks out through the floor.

This is what he was afraid of.

Angel spends a good hour trying to explain the rewritten universe thing, and another hour after that explaining what had happened in the past few months in the hunt for Connor. Fred is enthusiastic - a chatterbox about laws and theories and black holes and physics that all sails way over Angel's head. Lorne is on board after a few off-key bars of Copacabana. Wesley writes notes until his wrists hurt, but the look of confusion on his face never wanes. And Gunn? Well, Gunn's commentary on the whole matter stops at, "Naw, for real?"

"So … Connor's back to hating me?" Angel says, pacing like a lion hours later.

Wesley sits at the dinette set table in Angel's suite with a cup of tea. His hands are folded, and his stark, blue-eyed gaze traces every step Angel takes. "Your relationship is … a work in progress," Wesley replies diplomatically.

"But … it's in progress," Angel says. "As in, it's progressing."

"He went to the game with you, didn't he?" Wesley replies, eyebrows raised.

Which is definitely progress compared to where they used to be before Wolfram and Hart hit the magic reset button. Angel finds himself wilting a bit. Relief makes his legs jelly. He doesn't just have Connor back. The whole relationship is salvaged. He can work with bad-but-getting-better. He can work with anything that's not preparing-to-blow-up-a-sporting-goods-store.

"What about my soul?" Angel says as he slides into the seat across from Wesley. "Is it bound?"

Wesley nods. "Willow helped you secure it several months ago."

"And … Wolfram & Hart never offered us jobs."

Wesley almost chokes on his tea. "Goodness, no."

With his gaze, Angel traces the old, angry scar on Wesley's neck. In the dim light of Angel's suite, the pink, raised line of flesh is almost invisible, but it's there. Like a brand. "And you and I are … okay?" he says, peering at Wesley.

The look on Wesley's face says that this is a dangerous topic to broach. "Usually," comes the sardonic reply. Which … isn't a no, so Angel thinks that's good enough for now. Maybe, without Wolfram & Hart's memory wipe regarding Connor, that's as good as he and Wesley will ever be.

Still .…

Don't be a dumbass and waste it, okay? he hears Cordelia say, and he makes a mental note to work on his friendship Wesley, anyway.

"What about Buffy?" Angel says, shifting to a safer subject.

"In Rome," Wesley replies, taking a sip of his steaming tea. "She started a slayer school. I hear they've maxed out enrollment already and are looking to expand."

"And Spike?"

"Also in Rome."

"With Buffy?"

Wesley is silent for a long moment before he says, "If you mean proximity-wise, then yes. If you mean emotionally, then … I don't know. I'm not one to pry."

Angel files that away, but he doesn't allow himself to dwell on hope.

"Anya?" Angel says, continuing his interrogation.

"She left after we destroyed Sunnydale," Wesley says. "We don't keep in touch."

"But she didn't die."

"No, of course not." Wesley grimaces. "She had a close moment, but I was there."

Good. That's … good.

Angel looks at the table. That leaves … one thing left to ask about. The most important thing, really. Given recent events. "And Cordelia's … gone?"

Wesley deflates. "I'm sorry, Angel," he says. "She vanished about two years ago. Her car was found empty by CHP on the PCH. We searched for months, but …." When the silence stretches, he adds, "I have a copy of the investigative report, if you'd like to look at it."

"No," Angel says, swallowing around the lump in his throat. "No, that won't be necessary."

He knows where she went. What she's done. Now that the shock of the transition between timelines has waned, and he's been able to think about it, the signs were all there. Things he hadn't noticed at the time. Or, well, he'd noticed the pieces, but he hadn't assembled the jigsaw until too late.

I want to spend what's left of my day with my guy.

It'll get better, you know. Sooner than you think.

This was how it was always supposed to go, anyway.

Which draws him back to an even older memory. A memory that haunts him.

The Powers that Be owed me one, and I didn't waste it. I got my guy back on track.

"She was going to meet me at Point Dume," Angel says.

But she'd given all that up to ascend.

Wesley says nothing, though his silence doesn't appear born from lack of words, but rather, a choice of forced politeness. Angel swallows against a flood of guilt. Of course, Wesley wouldn't have much nice to say about this time period. Wesley'd essentially been kicked out of the group when this happened.

"I'm sorry," Angel says. "We don't have to talk about …."

Wesley sighs. "It's quite all right. Cordelia was …."


Wesley's lips curve into a tiny grin. "Yes, she was, at that."

Angel folds his hands and looks down at the table. "She's not coming back."

"No, Angel. I don't think she is."

And don't you dare try to fix it, or I'll smite you.

Without Cordelia returning, Jasmine would never have been born. Without the affair with Cordelia, and without Jasmine, Connor wouldn't have been pitted against Angel for any other purpose than teenage rebellion spurred by Holtz. Things wouldn't have devolved to the point that Angel felt he needed magical intervention. Wolfram & Hart wouldn't have smelled blood in the water and wouldn't have offered a Faustian bargain. Angel's entire team would have been free to help Buffy with the fight against the First Evil. And without working for Wolfram & Hart, Buffy's team wouldn't have been convinced he'd gone evil, so they would have been more inclined to help him afterward. Like, say, to bind his soul.

In the absence of Cordelia, the entire course of Angel's life after Wesley rescued him from the ocean would have been different.

There aren't that many people in your life who've changed you so much that you altered course.

And that's what Cordelia had done for him.

Altered his course.

She'd found another string to cut that would mean he didn't sign that prophecy.

Her own.

She'd done that for him. Given that to him.

The gravity of her gift is a black hole, sucking him in.

A lump forms in his throat. "I loved her."

"I know you did," Wesley says. "We all did."

Angel sits in his empty suite in the dark, staring at the Scrabble box sitting on his coffee table. He just noticed the box. He wonders if Cordelia is the one who left it there, years ago, and he's never had the heart to touch it. Or, maybe, he pulled it out in a fit of nostalgia.

A lump forms in his throat.

And don't you dare try to fix it, or I'll smite you, she said.

These words echo in his head, over and over and over.

He clenches his fists.

"I won't," he says to the empty room, and he means it. This time, she'd gone into her choice with eyes wide open. She'd changed his course. As much as he doesn't think he deserves it, she'd done this for him, and for Connor. And he would feel wrong to spit on it. He sighs. "But, damn it, Cordelia, why?"

Well, duh, he can almost hear her say as she rolls her eyes. Wouldn't you have done it for me?

Yes. Yes, he would have.

And why would you have done it? his inner Cordelia says.

To save her life. Figuratively. Literally.


He looks away from the Scrabble box.

C'mon, Angel, she says in a sing-song, know-it-all tone. What do you saaaay?

But instead of saying anything, he shakes his head and pushes his thoughts of her away.

He sleeps alone that night. For the first night in months. Or, well, he tries, anyway.

He's bereft.

Not just of Cordelia.

He hadn't realized he'd gotten used to Buffy's heartbeat lulling him to sleep every night, making all the bad things feel less crushing. He hadn't realized he liked her scent on the pillows. He hadn't realized how much her passion ignites him, or her strength bolsters him, or her love pushes him to be better, much like Cordelia has always pushed him to be better, too. He hadn't realized any of those things until they were all absent again.

He feels like a pauper after spending months in opulence.

He feels like a fire has gone out.

He stares at the ceiling, a newly birthed insomniac.

Angel's surprised to realize Connor lives in the hotel again when he bumps into his son in the hallway. Connor's coming out of the room situated as far away from Angel's suite as possible. Still, it's on the same floor, which is a huge deal. Connor's state of residence was something Angel didn't even think to ask Wesley about when he'd had the opportunity the night before.

"Connor," Angel says. "Hello."

Connor doesn't look at all interested in talking. He's carrying a thick book with a scratched up cover. Something about … mathematics? His shoulders hunch like he's self-conscious, and he shifts so his arm shields the book from Angel's view. "Wes's helping me with my GED," Connor mutters.

The only time Angel had seen Connor achieve anything academically before had been because of the magical reset. This felt more … significant. So much more.

"That's really great," Angel replies, the words thick with emotion. He can't think of anything more intelligent to say.

Connor reddens. "Yeah, well," he says, "I'm late." And then he tromps past Angel. Down the hall. Away.

At first, Angel's voice doesn't work when he opens his mouth. Don't screw this up, he can almost hear Cordelia say, and the pressure mounts. "Connor …?" he manages to call after his son.

Connor stops at the top of the steps and turns back with a put upon sigh. "What?"

"If you … uh." Angel swallows. Don't. Screw. This. Up. "If you need some help with history, I'm … I'm always around."

Connor clutches his book. "I guess you lived through a lot of it, huh."

Angel nods. "Yes."

Connor ponders that for a moment. "Okay, Dad," he says. "I'll let you know."

Dad, he said.

And then he's gone, thumping down the steps with all the grace of a buffalo.

Angel can't help but smile.

He'd sleep, but he's too wired. He wants to tell her about Connor. About the fact that his son is alive and lives in Angel's hotel when he could live anywhere else on this earth, far, far away. Angel wants to tell her everything.

"Buffy, I …."

The words are out of his mouth before he remembers Buffy's not here.

There is no "his side" or "her side" anymore. Just a bed.

He turns to peer at what should have been her pillow. It's cold and untouched and smells like nothing. Still, he pulls it to his chest and presses his nose into the soft down.

He wants to tell her everything, but he spent too long telling her nothing, and, now, here he is.


I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith,
But the faith and the love are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness, the dancing.
Whisper of running-

"Got a lead on a nest," Gunn says as he tromps into the lobby, yanking Angel out of the third section of East Coker, and back into the present. Into reality. "And by lead," Gunn continues, "I mean, 'They almost ate me for dinner, so I tailed 'em to their crib.'" He sets his axe on the counter. "I'ma need some revenge."

"Oh?" says Wesley, looking up from his book. "More Kreplars?"

"Yeah," Gunn replies. His boots are muddy, and his stoplight-red shirt is a disheveled mess hanging on his broad shoulders. Angel smells blood. Not much. "Three," Gunn continues. "One of 'em is like twice the size of the others. I never seen one like that before."

"Oh, a female!" Wesley exclaims. "I've been wondering when we'd encounter one."

Gunn rolls his eyes. "Well, English, it's your lucky day. We gotta clear 'em out before they propagate." Wesley stands with a nod and heads to the weapon rack. He checks his spare clip and his gun, and then selects a mace as backup.

The two of them turn to leave. They make it halfway across the lobby before Gunn stops and turns. He peers at Angel with a perplexed expression. "You coming, man?"

"You're hurt," Angel says.

Gunn blinks. He looks down at his shirt, which isn't torn, and is only visibly stained by sweat, not blood. "Man, I will never not be creeped out by that."

Angel shrugs. "Sorry." He taps his nose. "Vampire. Comes with the territory."

"I'm fine," Gunn replies with a shrug. "So, are you coming, or what?"

Angel licks his lips, eyes grim. He's gotten used to saying no, lately. Used to ignoring the world around him as it goes to hell. Ignoring it is easier than living it.

"We could use you," Wesley says. "The females have-"

"A paralytic," Angel says. "I know."

Don't be a martyr, Cordelia said.

He pets the soft, worn pages of his book. A collection of some of his favorite poems. East Coker is one he revisits often when he's feeling reflective. For some reason, the prose resonates no matter what flavor his mood. He pinches the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger, trying to quiet the noise in his head.

At least, do something, he can hear Buffy shouting at him.

"Angel?" Wesley prods.

Angel glances down at the page he's been reading and rereading for the last few hours.

There is yet faith.

He swallows. He sets his book aside.

The Powers that Be owed me one, and I didn't waste it. I got my guy back on track.

And for the first time in weeks, Angel stands, and he heads to the weapon rack to grab his favorite sword for purposes other than self-destruction.

"You fight for us again," the Oracle says.

"I don't fight for you," he retorts. "Not anymore. Never again."

The Oracle tilts her head. "But you fight for Cordelia. And she is one of us. She is ascended."

He glowers. "That's the only reason you and I are even talking right now."

"It is enough," she replies with a gentle smile.

He swallows. "Will I see her again?"

"When you part the veil, as all mortals must," the Oracle says, her tone warm and comforting. "When that will be, I cannot say. I hope not soon. But your will is your own."

A lump forms in his throat. "Why can't you be her?"

"We all have a purpose, and hers is far greater than mine." She touches his shoulder, suffusing him with light and warmth, and he can't help but relax. "Be well, Warrior."

And then she fades into the mist.

He thinks he might not get another visit.

After the first outing, the fights become easier. Not in the sense that they're any less deadly. Just … the act of getting himself to participate, and feeling like he makes a difference.

"Like riding a bike," Angel mutters as he yanks his sword loose from the hulking corpse of a female. The dark alley reeks of blood - not all of it new - and other bodily fluids, of rotting trash and rats. A police siren wails in the distance. A gunshot, even farther away.

Connor makes a face as he tosses a lit match at the remains, and they obliterate to dust in moments. "Do you even know how to ride a bike?" he says.

Angel blinks. "What?"

Connor's eyebrows knit. "It just doesn't …." He pulls his fingers through his hair. "Really, you learned how to ride a bike?"

Angel shrugs. "You'd be surprised what you get up to when you have a few decades to kill."

Connor regards him for a long moment. Whatever he thinks of Angel's extracurricular hobbies, he doesn't say anything except, "Huh." Like it's something he's surprised to learn, but is actually interested in learning it. Which is a huge step up from sarcasm and thinly or not-at-all veiled insults.

"I learned when I lived in Missoula," Angel adds.

"Where's that?" Connor says.

A work in progress, indeed.

Angel wants to tell her everything.

He makes it through two weeks of not-sleeping alone before he caves and calls her. Buffy. Rome is nine hours ahead of Los Angeles. The time difference is perfect for a West Coast denizen of the night to talk to an Italy-bound slayer. He pulls the phone off the receiver as soon as the digital clock on his nightstand reads 12:00 a.m., wincing as he stretches his arm too far. After the last fight with the Kreplars, he's a walking bruise. Healing, but still hurting.

She picks up on the second ring. "Hello?" she says. She sounds a little breathless. Like he caught her just after a run. Or just after a fight. Or just after sex.

He hopes not just after sex.

Please, please,not after sex.

For a moment, all the words seize in his throat, and he's not sure what to say. Wanting to tell her everything has always been the easy part for him. It's the actual telling part that never is.

"Hello?" she repeats in a sing-song voice. He imagines her settling into a chair. Her hair is loose and curled, her brow is dotted with sweat, and she's twirling the phone cord around her lithe little index finger. She sighs and repeats, "Helloooooo?" in a more irritated tone, snapping him out of his daydream.

"Buffy," he blurts.

A long silence follows. He must call her in this timeline as much as he used to call her in the original one. Which meant … well … almost never, really. In the original timeline, the school had made it clear to him that his Wolfram & Hart affiliation declared him persona non grata for all things slayer, and he'd had too much shit going on to worry about image repair at the time.

"… Angel?" Buffy says in a doubtful tone.


"So, where's the apocalypse this time?"

He frowns. "Huh?"

"Isn't that why you're calling?" she replies.

He shakes his head. Then he remembers she can't see him, so he adds a gruff, "No."

This is a disaster already. He should have wrote what he wanted to say down on a little cue card or something, so he'd have prompts for himself. He rolls his eyes. How can he be this tongue-tied over something so silly? He's nearly three centuries old.

Angel and Buffy, sitting in a tree.
K-I-S-S-I-N-G-hey that's seven letters.
I wish we were playing Scrabble.

His inner Cordelia isn't helping things.

"Is something else wrong?" Buffy says.

"Nothing's wrong," Angel replies. "Nothing at all." Nothing's wrong, except everything is wrong. One would think nearly three centuries of living would engender more eloquence, not less. And people wondered why he was laconic. Damn it. "I just .… I wanted to hear your voice."

"My voice." He can almost hear the frown on her face. It's that loud.

"Yes. I'm sorry," he rushes to say. "Am I bothering you?"

"You're never a bother, Angel," she replies. No pause this time. No pause at all. And her tone is … affectionate. Affectionate is good, he thinks.

He swallows. "It's just … I was reminded. Well. Reminded recently."


"How much I love you," he says, the words blunt and overwrought and spilling and- He thinks about all the changes to the timeline. His soul is bound. Willow bound it. He can be happy. Theoretically. "Why aren't we together? Are you still baking?" Had she used that terrible metaphor in this timeline? Had he just used her terrible metaphor?

Silence stretches to the point of pain.

He yanks at his collar. He feels hot. Should it be hot? He's dead. Dead people are cold. Not hot.

Fuck, he hopes she's not baking with Spike.

She takes a deep breath, and the sound of it blusters through the receiver. "Angel …," she says in a heavy tone that screams of baggage and bygones and boatfuls of drama.

"Sorry," he rushes to say. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked you that." Who the hell just asks that out of the blue?

"It's okay," she replies. The phone rustles, like she's switching it to her other ear. "So, what prompted all this love-life-y introspection?"

He can't help but notice she pointedly isn't addressing a single word he just said. He's not sure if that's good or bad. And how does he even begin to explain his sudden case of nostalgia without the benefit of face-to-face. Vague he thinks. Vague is best.

"I just … saw how things could have been," he says.

She snorts with what he hopes is amusement. "Cryptic as always."

He smiles. "You know me."

"I do," she replies in a soft voice.

And then he's out of things to say. The silence stretches like taffy. He tries to think of something. Some subject. But he's so far removed from her life right now, he's not even sure what her current interests are.

"Uh," he manages. And then he falls silent. Damn it. He grips the phone cord hard enough to make his knuckles hurt.

"Do you want to hear about the work I'm doing?" Buffy offers into the silence. A life preserver.

He grabs the preserver and holds on tight. "Please."

This time, her smile is what he can hear, and he settles into his chair to listen to the words that follow. "So, we're looking for a new campus right now," she says.

He nods. "Wesley told me you were at capacity."

"Yeah," she replies. "We are. We're overstuffed, actually."

And then she launches into a long narrative about her struggles. How can she teach when she's still learning so much? What if she's wrong? Should "Jujitsu 101" come before or after "Hexes and Hoaxes and How to Tell Which is Witch?" And how can she get the Italian government on board with declaring her endeavor a legitimate school?

It's nearly 2:00 a.m. before he looks at the clock again, and when he does, he's dumbfounded that two hours have disappeared in the space of what felt like minutes. He's … really missed her. His Buffy. And his rewritten universe served only to remind him of that like a hammer pounds nails.

"Oh, crap, look at the time," Buffy says with a gasp. "I have to meet Willow for lunch in … err …." A pause. "Fifteen minutes ago."

"Well, I won't keep you," he tells her. "It sounds like you're doing great work, Buffy. I'm proud of you."

A brief silence follows.

He frowns. "Buffy?"

"You could … come and see it," she says. "The school, I mean."

He blinks. "You're inviting me to Rome?"

The phone creaks. "If you'd like to come."

"Just to see the school?"

"That would be the starting point, yes."

"Implying … there might be more?" he says cautiously. "More after the starting point?"

"Well, that would depend," she hedges.

He raises his eyebrows. "On?"

"If you're really serious about .…" She sighs, and her breath blusters into the phone so loudly he has to pull the receiver away from his ear for a moment. "Well, I mean, you did seem like you were hinting … though you never came out and said .… Maybe, I'm just being stup-"

"Of course, I'm serious," he says before she can ramble too far into self-flagellation.

"Then … we'll see," she replies. "We'd … have a lot to talk about first."

"I know," he says. He closes his eyes. "I know we do, but … I really want to. I want to tell you everything. I miss you."

"You know," she replies in a wry tone, "you're not helping to convince me that I'm not dreaming right now."

"You're not," he assures her. "I'm going to buy a plane ticket after I hang up. I'll probably have to make the trip in a coffin in cargo, but I'll be there as soon as I can."

"Just tell us when and where to pick up our dearly departed."

He nods. "Okay."

"So … I'll see you soon, then?" she says, hesitant.

"Yes," he says, the word a relieved exhalation. "And, yet … not soon enough."

She laughs. It's a beautiful sound that makes him feel warm inside. "Hey, Angel?" she says as he's hanging up, and he rushes to mash the receiver against his ear again.


"I love you, too."

A smile pulls at his lips so hard that his cheeks hurt as the soft click of the receiver echoes in his ear. He doesn't have time to react more than that, though, before a knock at the suite's door draws his attention to a familiar heartbeat standing outside in the hall.

"Hey … Dad?" comes his son's muffled voice through the wood. "Another nest. You coming?"

"Yeah!" Angel calls. The plane ticket will have to wait a little. "Just let me get my coat."

C'mon, Angel, his mental Cordelia says as he heads to the closet. So, what do you saaaay?

He looks up at the ceiling, unable to stop the grin exploding across his face. "Thank you, Cordelia," he says, begrudging, and with an eye roll. "Okay? Happy, now?"

Yes, she says with a snort.

He pulls his duster off the coat hanger and shrugs it on as he rushes to meet his son in the hall.

Oh … and you're welcome.

Connor looks at Angel like he's grown horns. "What are you smiling at?" Connor wants to know as he proffers a broadsword to Angel, handle first.

Angel shrugs. "Everything, really," he says as they head to the stairs. "Hey, have you ever been to Italy?"

Chapter Text

She sits in the dark on a stone wall just inside the Roman Forum, facing the Colosseum. She sips a latte that she grabbed at a little Starbucks in Eugene, Oregon. She loves coffee, but Italians don't do lattes except during breakfast, and they really don't do coffee to go, either. They expect people to sit at a table at the shop, sipping out of a ceramic cup for who knows how long, and she just doesn't have time for idly watching the world go by. Not anymore.

She glances at her watch. Five minutes past 3. The Forum is closed, and the place is mostly empty. She only has ten minutes until she's due over Prague.

A big, blue millipede thing with far too many legs skitters past the wall, unaware of its hidden observer. A bestial screech echoes against countless stone columns, followed by a lion-like roar that makes her chest rattle. Angel pops out from behind the Arch of Titus, blocking any further progress. The creature turns abruptly to head up the hill.

"I got it!" Buffy says, stomping past, Mr. Pointy Jr. clutched in her hand. "Angel, go back!"

The millipede thing speeds up. Angel blurs into motion. Slayer and Warrior converge. The thing has no chance, really. Several sword stabs and a few stakings later, cracked chitin and ichorous red goo spread out over the cobbled walk.

"Well, this shirt's ruined," Buffy grumbles, staring down at herself. It's covered in gunk. "I really liked this shirt."

Angel frowns and steps closer to her. His feet make no sound against the stone. His face shifts as he moves. His teeth retract. His eyes turn brown again, stifling the former cat-like glow. "You've got some goop in your … um." He reaches toward Buffy's head. "In your … there."

She makes a face as he touches her temple. "It's in my hair?"

"You're still beautiful to me," Angel replies in an earnest tone as he pulls what looks like an antler out of her ponytail.

Buffy snorts. "You're big with the scoring-points-with-Buffy lately."

He shrugs. "Is it working?"

"Yes," she says, grinning as she sidles closer. She kisses him. "So, does this place look the same as when Angelus passed through?"

He gives her a dubious look. "You know it was ruins even when I was still alive, right? This predates me by about seventeen centuries, give or take. I'm not that old."

She shrugs, eyes sparkling. "Just curious."

They share another intimate moment, noses pressed together as they kiss. And then Angel stills, pulls back, and looks with a frown over Buffy's shoulder at the stone wall.

Buffy frowns. "What is it?"

"I don't know," Angel says, squinting into the darkness. "I just feel like … we're being watched."

"I don't see anyone," she says, turning to follow his gaze.

He shrugs. "I don't either, but …."

Buffy's frown deepens. "Hey, I've learned your spidey-sense isn't something to ignore." She shivers. "And, now, I have the wiggins, when before I had only gross hair goo." Her eyes narrow as she peers into the blackness.

"Oh, it's not wiggins-worthy," Angel says, squeezing her shoulders. "There's no menace, whatever it is." He glances at his watch. "We should get back."

Buffy laughs.

"What?" Angel says.

"You said wiggins." Her grin is nuclear.

He rolls his eyes. "We're late. Connor's probably-"

"We're late, and you said wiggins, Mr. I-Read-Heart-of-Darkness-For-Fun," Buffy retorts. "And Connor's probably too busy sleeping to be worried, yet."

"Hey," Angel replies, "Heart of Darkness has some very compelling-" She cuts him off with a kiss, and whatever he was going to say ends up as a distorted, "Mmmph mmm mmhmm," that she drinks into silence.

"So, they worked it out, eh?" Doyle says as he appears beside Cordelia, materializing from nothing but empty air as Buffy and Angel continue to banter. Doyle's buckskin leather coat squeaks as he shifts and settles into reality.

Cordelia looks up from her latte as Doyle watches Buffy and Angel amble away. Angel's got his arm around Buffy's waist, and he's smiling like he's drunk. Buffy's laughing. Just seeing them happy makes Cordelia feel like she's lifting off the ground, and she has to check to make sure her butt is firmly planted on the wall, given that flying is an actual possibility for her, now. Job well done, she thinks. Go me!

"Good for 'em, I say," Doyle continues. "Took 'em long enough."

Cordelia rolls her eyes. "Howdy, understatement." She points at Buffy and Angel. "That was the fixer-upper to dwarf all fixer-uppers. If fixer-upper were in the dictionary, Buffy and Angel would be the definition. I mean, it needed literal divine intervention."

"Hmm," Doyle rumbles. "Speaking of divine intervention …." He grins at her and leans close to give her a kiss. "How's my favorite higher power today?"

Cordelia sighs. Angel says something. A mumble she can hardly hear at this distance. Buffy responds with a laugh. They bump hips, and he kisses her temple. It's so ooey-gooey, it's nauseating, really. But … if anyone deserves some goop, it's them - and preferably not the buggy kind that comes from big, blue millipede things.

"It was nice playing mortal for a while," Cordelia says. "I missed him." She frowns. "I think I even missed her." She gives Doyle a look. "Which is saying something."

"I remember," says Doyle with a chuckle. He looks down at Cordelia and lowers himself to the wall to sit. "I admit, I'm a wee bit jealous."

His envy draws her attention away from her appointed charges. "Pfft," she says with a dismissive hand-wave. "You got to see him, too!"

"Yeah, as the designated messenger to kill," Doyle counters. "That was great fun, I tell yeh." Cordelia opens her mouth to retort, but Doyle continues, "So's the big guy moving to Rome?" before they can degenerate into the usual sniping.

Cordelia shrugs. "I think they're trading back and forth between here and L.A. until they figure out something more permanent."

"And the kid?"

"Doing better," Cordelia says. "You could almost call him well-adjusted."

"Well, he's alive," Doyle says with a nod. "So, I'd say that's an improvement if ever there was one, regardless." He glances at his watch.

"Time to go?" she says.

He nods. "Ready to kick some extra-planar ass?"

"Of course, I am," she replies, grinning. She stands and tosses her latte into the trashcan next to the wall, where it lands with a sloshing thunk. "Why do you think I took this job? Because it definitely wasn't the benefits. I can barely afford coffee."

Doyle grins. "You know, I heard we might be getting a Starbucks. Might be cheaper, what without inter-dimensional exchange rates and all."

"No way!" Cordelia says. "Really?"

"Really," he replies. "Now, all we need is a bar."

She rolls her eyes. "You would say-"

Their exchange fades to silence as they disappear in a shimmer of white light, leaving the empty Roman Forum behind them.