Hungry Eyes

Author: Misty Flores
Email: mistyjox@hotmail.com
Teaser: When Angel Investigations investigate a murder at a local strip joint, one of the crew gets a little more undercover than they bargained for.
Genre: Family friendship, Angel/Cordelia sexual tension, Gunn/Fred, Wesley/Fred
Rating: R – for sexual and adult situations – it takes place at a STRIP joint, what did you expect?
Spoilers: Billy
Archive: http://www.wolverineandrogue.com/mistiec

--
Chapter One

The newspaper was plopped upon her desk unceremoniously, and Cordelia Chase barely looked at it, too involved in scribbling her name down the last of the hotel bills before finally giving the attention Wesley Wyndham Price wanted.

“What’s this?” she asked curiously, picking up the newspaper, leaning back as her friend and boss leaned over the desk, pointing out the section he had circled.

“There’s something you should see.”

His voice was concerned, a little more than musing, and Cordelia narrowed her eyes, taking in a breath and skimming the passage. The metro section of the Los Angeles Times rarely had articles of merit, but they were worth perusing at times.

Still, this time the Seer was unimpressed. “This looks just like a regular old murder, Wesley.”

“To the untrained eye, yes,” Wesley confirmed, sliding into the chair opposite her desk and leaning forward, face pensive, consumed with thought. “But you’re forgetting the name.”

Cordelia gave him a sigh, but obeyed, highlighted bangs falling forward, obstructing her vision before she pushed them back to peer into the paper. “The victim was identified as Jennifer Suddage. She was found on 6th and Flower, in an alley, a gunshot wound in her head.” Cordelia’s eyes flittered above the line of the paper to regard Wesley, her heart suddenly taking in a pounding. “Wait. Not the Jennifer we once helped?”

Wesley’s gaze was somber as he quietly nodded.

Cordelia closed her eyes, suddenly tired, letting the paper flop down in front of her, memories of the young black woman they had once freed from a vampire flitting through her.

Young, a little misguided. A little wild, but nice. Tired. Cynical.

And hopeful, when they were done with her.

Dead?

Sad resignation caressed her features, and Cordelia Chase, usually not one for emotional outpourings, felt her insides give just a little. Jennifer had been safe… she had been…

Biting her lip, she reached forward, body suddenly feverish with recollection of how that vision had coursed through her.

And there had been so much fear…

“Witnesses report no screaming, Jennifer was on her way home from a party at The Dancehall.”

Her eyebrows knit together as her gaze caught his, still unsure as to his meaning. “The male strip joint?”

“Mmm.” He nodded, taking in a sigh as he leaned back into his chair.

“What’s wrong?” The dark form filled the doorway, and Cordelia gave Angel, the brooding, hulking vampire with a soul, a sad shrug, pushing away from the desk and moving past him, into the other room.

“Wesley will fill you in.”

--

Angel felt nervous as the Seer moved away, leaving him in the office with Wesley.

Her eyes had been sad, cold, and that was never a good sign.

With a set of pursed lips and a grim countenance, he crossed his arms and looked to Wesley to explain.

The Englishman held an expression of equal grimness, as he slumped back in his chair, licking his lips.

“What’s wrong, Wes?”

Wesley took a breath, and began with, “Do you remember Jennifer?”

Angel frowned, trying to place the name, and sorting through Cordelia’s vision aftermaths to figure them out. Finally, the visions shifted, and one came into focus.

“Jennifer- with the slave vampire?”

“The very one. She’s dead.”

The words were so very final, and Angel didn’t like them at all. Swallowing down hard, he only continued to look at Wesley, as if by continuing his stare he would somehow make more meaning out of the last two words.

”Dead.” Wesley indicated to the newspaper, and Angel strode forward, picking it up and skimming the passage.  “Shit.”

“Indeed.”

Angel closed his eyes, shaking his head. She had been a lost soul, who at the end of their mission with her had come away smiling, happy and hopeful for a regular life.

His first curled around the paper, wrinkling it within the confines of his fist.

“We’re looking into this.”

He expected an argument, at least some assertion from Wesley that it was actually Wesley’s call to make.

But instead he got a heavy sigh as an answer, and a nod. “Of course.”

--

It had taken only a few months for Winnifred Burkle to get reacquainted with the wonders that were computers.

With her head for hard science and her love for all things technical and logical, she had taken the wonders of the Internet and the ease of networking like a fish to water, and Cordelia Chase once commented that Fred was coming close to being labeled a junkie.

With her form hunched over the keyboard, punching away, glasses glinting in the monitor and eyes shining as the information passed over them, Gunn couldn’t help but smile.

He had to give the girl her due; he had yet to meet a single person who could quite match the Fredness that was Fred.

“Anything?”

“More than we anticipated,” she remarked, offering him a small smile as he came forward, plopping down the files and settling himself next to her, leaning over her shoulder to get a better look at the screen.

“How so?” Wesley moved into the office, his tone distracted as he held the various articles in his hand, rifling through the pages idly.

“Well for one it’s a sex club,” Cordelia offered a tired smile as she stepped into the room, Angel quickly following behind her.

Wesley found himself distracted at the possessive hand on Cordelia’s shoulder, almost unconscious and certainly noticed by no one.

It had bypassed his notice until little Fred had pointed out the growing affection between the pair.

It was something to be concerned with… but not now.

“A sex club?”

“Oh yeah. Get this, women get their jollies there by hard-bodied, able and willing young men. Escorts. Rich young, and incredibly posh.”

“Male hookers?”

“By the dozen,” Cordelia said to Gunn, as the young man frowned, the increasingly disturbing imagery rifling through his brain making her smile. “Not so much fun when it’s YOUR sex, is it?”

“Male ho’s,” he muttered.

“Jennifer was at a sex club?” The point seemed a little unbelievable to even Wesley.

“It’s legitimately a regular Chippendale type of place,” Angel said, crossing his arms as he leaned against the wall. “But my sources tell me that the real income comes from the high bidding and the watching.”

“I found the website,” Fred announced, turning the monitor carefully, pointing to the image of a highly developed young man smiling. “Regular location information and stuff, right ya’ll? But look, you just find the hot spot,” she reached forward and carefully pressed the mouse so the curser tapped at groin of the man, “And this comes up.”

Gunn’s frown grew deeper. “Uh… Fred? Wanna tell me what you were doin’ clicking on that dude’s nether regions in the first place?”

Fred blushed profusely, pushing her glasses up her face, and stammering, “Lucky guess, Ah… guess. Anyway, here’s what came up.”

The computer whirred as the page downloaded, and Cordelia’s eyes widened, suddenly moving to cover Angel’s eyes with her palm, the other moving to cover her own mouth.

“That guy’s got girth.”

Angel gave her a pained smile as he plucked her hand from her face. “Hookers anonymous.”

“And there’s more.” Fred reached forward, taking a stack of printouts from the computer printer, handing them to Wesley, who was doing his best to avoid the imagery on the computer. Gunn was just as busy shuffling.

“I feel ashamed for my gender,” he announced, burying his face into his folded arms.

Fred caught Cordelia’s smile and smirked herself.

“Jennifer wasn’t the first.”

“She was the first murder,” Fred confirmed, nodding, “But disappearances from the club, lots of them.”

Wesley’s eyes were glinting as he passed the papers to Angel, rifling through them one by one, taking in a breath as the Ex-Watcher and Vampire exchanged gazes.

“More than five unexplained Missing Persons… two strippers and the rest… females…”

“What about income?” Cordelia asked, leaning over Angel’s arm to scan the articles herself.

“It doesn’t make sense…” Gunn lifted his head to view Wesley curiously.

“Men subjecting themselves to that sort of shit- Damn right it don’t make-“

”I mean the randomness of it all. All races, all genders. All recent… ” Wesley moved around the desk, hand settling on Fred’s shoulder, making Gunn frown slightly. “And they all trace back to the club?”

“Yeap. All within the last four months. Jennifer was the only one found though. Gun shot, that’s pretty random.”

”We talked to her friends, they didn’t see her past ten.”

“It doesn’t make sense.”

“We’re going to make sense out of it,” Angel announced, tossing the pile on the table and pushing out an unneeded breath.  “Ideas?”

“I think it’s pretty obvious.” Everyone turned to stare at the Seer, who was seated in one wooden chair, chin resting on her palm.

“Care to tell us how, princess?” Gunn asked dryly.

“Duh. I go undercover, pretend to be a rich elite snob- not exactly stretching that- pick myself up a dancer and you know… investigate.”

The grin was almost sheepish.

Wesley rolled his eyes and Gunn once again looked offended on behalf of his gender.

Angel just crossed his arms and glared. “No.”

”It was a joke. Kinda.” Hazel eyes met dark brown and there was a slight battle of wills between the Vampire in the Seer, before the brunette former cheerleader blushed slightly, looking away.

“Actually, Cordelia has a point.” That was offered by meek Fred, who shrunk back slightly as three hostile male eyes focused on her. “Well, Ah mean… Cordy right, we have ta… investigate and that… well ya’ll don’t have any other plan!”

“Cordelia isn’t going to go in there to pick up a male stripper, you do that on your own time,” Gunn announced.

“Or not at all,” Angel snapped, narrowing his eyes at her.

Wesley was silent, thoughts floating through his head before he finally spoke, “Fred’s right.” Upon Angel’s abrupt whirl, he took a breath, fully preparing to face the vampire’s some times irrational anger when it came to the pretty young Seer. “We know next to nothing, and we can’t very well have Fred do it, can we?”

Cordelia straightened, looking a little more than happy. “So I get to do it?”

“Why can’t I do it?” Fred asked, more curious than offended.

“Because you can’t,” Wesley snapped.

“Not exactly fittin’ rich bitch, Freddie,” Gunn said, patting her hand slightly.

“HEY!” Cordelia huffed.

“She’s NOT doing it!”

“I am too!”

There was almost an imperceptible growl that came from Angel as he whirled on Cordelia, who now stood straight, tall, eyes blazing and completely defiant.

The Seer wasn’t afraid as she crossed her arms and glared at her best friend. “Angel, this is work, okay? STOP with the possessive crap.”

“You’re not going to be ‘soothing’ anyone’s ass off for WORK, Cordelia.” Angel snapped back. Wesley wondered if perhaps he should have reminded the pair others were actually in the room, but when Gunn just slid back into his chair with a resigned expression, he let out a sigh as well. “It’s too dangerous. We don’t know what’s going on in there.”

“Angel, think rationally, okay? Joking aside, we need someone in there, and unless one of you wants to play male stripper-“

“OF COURSE!” Wesley burst, suddenly jolting up out of his chair. “That would be perfect!”

Fred gave him a wide-eyed expression. “You want to be a stripper, Wesley?”

“Oh, he’s had the practice,” Angel muttered, hands on his hips as he gave the Watcher an exasperated glare.

Wesley never stopped to ponder what he meant as he turned, shaking his head. “Not me… but if we had a stripper AND a lady client we’d be covered from both sides. Both circles. You see?”

“So we’ve got both asses covered,” Gunn mused, nodding, and grinning. “I like how you think, English.”

“You really think you could pull it off, Gunn?” Angel asked dryly.

Fred colored at the thought.

“Not him, you.”

“HIM!?” The outburst was Cordelia’s, as she pushed herself in front of Angel and shook her head emphatically. “Not on your life.”

“Cordelia-“

“Stay out of it, Angel.” Cordelia dug her nails into Angel’s forearm, making him wince, but wisely, he kept silent as she sent an icy glare Wesley’s way. “You want Angel to pretend to be a hooker? Have you SEEN him strip?”

“I’m sure they give lessons.”

“Hello! Curse!” Cordelia tugged on Angel’s arm, hands now moving to his chest as she pressed at it emphatically. “He can’t do it? Cause the… girls will… paw and… he’s all eunuch-y –“

“Okay, for the last time, NOT a Eunuch!”  Angel sputtered.

Wesley rolled his eyes, coming forward. “Cordelia, I hardly believe Angel’s curse will come into play with some dancing.”

“Naked dancing!”

“Angel would be dancing naked?” Little Fred looked almost starry eyed. Gunn just sighed and shuffled again.

“Cordelia-“

“I’d like to point out that I haven’t exactly agreed to this,” Angel interjected.

Cordelia pounced on that. “See? Not agreed. Not doing it. No way, no how- besides,” she muttered, slumping into her chair with a wave of her manicured hand. “He’d make a terrible stripper.”

Angel’s head swiveled and Wesley smirked, letting Angel’s wounded pride do the rest.

“What? I could be a stripper!”

“Oh, please. XANDER made a better one.”

“Your ex was a stripper?” Gunn asked, suddenly curious.

“It was a long- that’s not the point-“

“Right. The point is you think I can’t be a stripper! Look, if Xander can- he really was a stripper?” he asked, and finally shook the question off, poking a finger in Cordelia’s direction. “If Xander can be a stripper, I CAN be a great…. Vampire… stripper.”

She gave him a ‘hmmph’ before looking away uncaringly.

Angel growled, turning away from the Seer and almost shouting to Wesley, “When do we start?”

Wesley just gave a contented shrug, and winked at little Fred.

Those two would die if they ever found out how predictable they really were.

--

There was something to be said for the reigning princess’ power over Angel Investigations.

If Cordelia Chase wasn’t happy, NO ONE was happy.

Charles Gunn shook his head, leaning against the truck as he waited outside The Dancehall, the twinkling lights making his head hurt just a little, as the giggles and chirps of all the women flocking into it with their high heels and little skirts filtered out loud and clear along with the crappy music.

Truthfully, Gunn had his doubts. For one, Angel knew nothing about dancing, and what, they were just gonna take one look at the pretty face and say, ‘have the job, the dancing’s on us’? Not likely.

That, and Cordelia had a point. Stiff as a rail rod Angel would make a terrible stripper. He grimaced. And Cordelia’s continuing whining about that fact wasn’t making this any easier.

Thankfully, her particular place in this whole assignment required she keep away until Angel was nice and established, and that meant only he and Wesley, the assigned ‘pimps’ on brigade, had come to try to get Angel the job as the ‘hooker boy’.

He sighed, peering toward the door and shuffling his feet, eyes glancing around the nightspot with the valet parking and velvet covered doors.

This was definitely not your average, mission.

How the hell were they going to make Angel a hooker boy?

--

“They’re not back yet.”

Fred’s eyes were quickly going to go cross from watching Cordelia. The Seer was wearing a path across the lobby, and it wasn’t a nice, sensible pattern either, but incredibly irregular, with circles and shifts, and Fred was getting slightly dizzy from the pacing.

“They’ve only been gone half an hour, Cordelia.”

“This is bad, bad, idea,” Cordelia muttered, rubbing at her head, blowing her breath out. “And you heard it here first, Fred.”

“Ah’ll remember that.” Fred ran her hands through her dark hair, curiously distracted as she pulled the tresses into a ponytail and continued to observe the fidgety Cordelia.

“Cordy.”

The Seer paused, looking at Fred with a tightened glare. “What?”

“It’s not lahk he’s goin’ ta be a stripper for real.”

“That’s not the point!” Cordelia blew her breath out, eyes lolling up to the ceiling. “I just… Angel’s… not exactly the … screw around with women sort…”

“But he’s a vampire, right? From what Ah read, they’re sensual, prolly-“

“He’s not your regular old vampire, Fred!” Cordy snapped, running her hands through the short highlighted bangs. “I just… it’s my fault. I played with his pride. I mean… geez… if I had told him, he’d make a GREAT stripper would he have said no?”

Actually, Fred wondered if Cordelia had said THAT would Angel had offered to give the Seer a private show, but wisely, she kept her mouth shut.

It had been a little disconcerting at first, to view the tumultuous relationship between Angel and Cordelia, to truly ascertain exactly what it was, but then again, she related that was probably because neither knew what it was themselves.

They played these little roles half the time, all under the pretext of ‘family’, but it was clear to everyone in Angel Investigations they held a relationship whose lines were increasingly blurry.

It raised a certain amount of jealousy in Fred, at first, and later it had been replaced with resignation and a bit of sympathy for both. They were each other’s blind spots, and being that kind of confused was never fun.

“Well at least you can keep your eye on him when you go as the rich bitch,” she pointed out.

Cordelia paused, and seemed to take the statement into consideration, before a smile floated upon her face and she turned. “Right!”

Fred nodded.

“I mean, there’s nothing really to worry about because I’ll be there every night… making with the richness and the snobness… it’ll be like coming home,” there was a wistful sigh buried in the statement, as Cordelia flashed another ‘I’m a princess and I damn well know it’ grin. “Besides, we don’t even know if he’s going to get the job!”

“I got the job.” Angel strode into the room, a grim frown on his face as he walked through the lobby and up the stairs.

Cordelia’s eyes widened, and Fred looked curiously to the two men who were shrugging off coats in the lobby.

“Well?”

“Took one look and said ‘Thank you very much, but can you dance?’” Wesley dutifully informed. “And then after one number I realized they were talking about Angel.”

Gunn snorted and Cordelia grinned.

“Anyway,” Wesley cleared his throat. “They say they’re willing to start him off as a floor boy, train him at night, and work his way up with a routine.”

“Floor boy?”

“You know, serving the drinks in the speedos and bowtie,” Gunn said, shaking his hips as he demonstrated. “You know, ladies pinching butts and offering dollars for a brush of the family jewels?”

“I think I’m going to be sick,” Cordelia muttered, turning away and moving for the stairs.

Gunn looked almost hurt, pausing mid step. “Shit. I thought I was doing well.”

“You were,” Fred offered.

Gunn grinned proudly. “Thank you Fred.”

She gave him a nod and turned back to Wesley. “So when does he start?”

Wesley blew out his breath. “Tonight. The owners were… quite adamant about it…”

“You sound suspicious,” Gunn remarked, settling down beside the Texan waif, throwing an arm casually around her shoulders.

“A little,” Wesley admitted, settling down on the other side, and throwing the arm off, leaving Fred sandwiched between the two men.  “Whatever happens, we’ll figure it out soon enough.”

“Yeap.”

“Yeap.”

Wesley gave them both a smile, and a tired sigh. “Yeap.”

--

Cordelia was almost hesitant as she rapped on the door, waiting until she heard the ‘Come in’ before turning the knob and entering Angel’s room.

She found the vampire seated on the bed, hands knit together as he stared up at her, eyes dark and tumultuous.

With a frown, she leaned against the door, studying him, concern for her friend flooding through her.

He was worried.

“So I take it it went.”

He nodded, shifting over when she came forward, sinking down onto the bed next to him, crossing her legs and watching as he licked his lips, trying to find a way to begin.

“I can’t dance, Cordy.”

The admission was told plaintively, in a puppy dog Angel voice that she had found melted her insides into goo.

Her friend really was too adorable at times.

“This really isn’t your thing, I’ll give you that.” He nodded, staring straight ahead.

“You’ll do fine.”

He shrugged. “Well… you’ll be there.”

“Not tonight. I have to… do some research first. But… yeah… in a couple days I’ll be there. Watching you strut your stuff.”

Her tone was friendly, almost placid, and Cordelia wondered why on earth she wasn’t pushing as adamantly against this as she had been.

“You don’t want to do this, do you?” she finally asked.

“No.”

”You don’t have to.”

“Yes I do. Wesley’s right it’s the only way.”

“It’s not the only way.”

He stood abruptly, making her wobble slightly with the shift in weight on the bed, and then turned to her, grabbing her hand and pulling her up, so that she was suddenly pressed tightly against him.

He held her, eyes dark and focused, her breath hitching slightly as he pursed his lips, studying her face, before moving back, and without another word pulling off his shirt.

Cordelia was frozen completely to the floor, unresponsive as he moved back, and then, in all seriousness, asked, “Do I look… okay?”

She gave him a bewildered glance, and he elaborated, “I haven’t really seen myself since… Pylea… so…”

“OH. Oh.” Taking in a breath, Cordelia unbuttoned her sweater, suddenly warm, letting it fall on the bed as she nodded, eyes on his chest. “You’re fine, Angel.”

“I’m not fat.”

An amused smile flitted across the corner of her lips. “No you’re not fat.”

With almost hesitant fingers, Angel pushed his hand into his pocket and came out with what looked like black cloth. “I have to wear this. But eventually… I have to wear… the speedos.”

Cordelia took the items from his hand. A black speedo, and… a bow-tie.

“Boy. That’s original.”  He gave her a shrug, and she sighed, throwing the speedos on the bed and coming forward with the bowtie.

“Come on, I’ll help you with it.” The smile she offered was gentle, and it gave Angel some encouragement, as he came forward, holding still while she slid her fingers around his neck, carefully leaning forward and expertly tying together the bowtie.

“Voila,” she said, her voice husky as she stepped back, nodding.

Angel reached up hesitantly, fingering the tie. “I look okay?”

“Angel you look like a dream boat.” He gave her a curious frown, and she suddenly lit up with a smile, gasping. “Hold that thought!” She darted around him, and he watched, bewildered as she closed the door.

He heard her steps clattering down the hallway, and he sighed, closing his eyes and settling back down on the bed, gathering Cordelia’s sweater into his hands and pressing the cloth into his mouth, breathing in the scent.

Cordelia, with her endlessly frustrating comments and endlessly infuriating smirks and smiles…

He could do this. If she said he could, he could do it.

Her steps came clattering back, and he put the sweater back, looking up as she came into the room again, this time bearing the digital camera. “Smile!”

He blinked when she snapped the picture, and watched, open mouthed, as she settled down next to him, breasts unconsciously swiping his  bare forearm as her fingers manipulated the camera’s controls.

He watched, unsure, as she leaned into him, her warmth seeping into his side, the unmistakable scent of Cordelia making him smile, as he leaned his arm back, letting her lean… almost … but it was the almost that counted… into his side, hair brushing his shoulder as his palm settled on the bed, on the other side of her waist, holding her almost neatly too him.

Almost. But it was the almost that counted.

“Here.” He looked dutifully at the camera, and there he was, bare-chested with the stupid bowtie, blinking at the camera. “See?” she grinned at him, that sparkling smile that made him smile back. “A hunk.”

Her eyes met his, and the gaze was gentle, seeping through him with the sincerity and warmth, a feeling he had come to realize came almost exclusively with his young Seer.

“Right.”

“You don’t sound convinced.”

He gave her a grim smile, and reached forward, carefully pushing her bangs behind her ear in a tender caress. “As long as you believe it. You’ll be picking me up in a few days.”

“Oh, you betcha. You just wait, Mister, when Cordelia Chase wants to be seductive and rich, she can damn well be seductive and rich.”

He couldn’t help but grin at the confident tone.

And despite the doubts of confidence in his own performance, he had a sneaking suspicion that his own reaction to being picked up to Cordelia Chase would not exactly come off as fake.

Wistfully, he wondered how good an actress Cordelia truly had become.

Chapter Two

The Dancehall was not by appearances an intimidating place.

The fact of the matter was, for a strip club, it was damn classy. Valets in red jackets and black boutonnieres stood waiting under the canopy, brilliantly lit with a soft hue of reds and whites; subtle, elegant.

A red carpet greeted the guests who pulled up in their cars, doors opening to reveal women in heels, hair done up, eyes glinting with smiles of expectations as the men took their arms, opening the doors to lead them in.

One of the hotspots of Los Angeles that catered to women exclusively, going to the Dancehall meant you had money, and were willing to spend it.

Cordelia had told him these words as he had waited for her to gently fix his gelled hair just so, leaning forward in front of him, hazel eyes shining with worry, concern and just a little big of anger. She didn’t like that he had to do this, didn’t like any of it, and even her part, she seemed to accept with reluctance.

Every concern and worry had bubbled up to the surface and it was true, a lot was riding on him, and it was true, he didn’t know much of anything when it came to this line of work, but Angel knew that the death of a friend was still unsolved, and that something needed to be done.

But why couldn’t it have been killing someone, or breaking down a window?

Swallowing down the uncharacteristic turmoil that seeped through his body, Angel walked forward, hand clenched into a fist around the bowtie, shoved into the pockets of his trench coat, moving around the valet entrance, into the side alley, knocking on the much less glamorous back door.

Two quick raps made it open a creak, as a young black man peered through the hole, eyes roving over Angel’s body before opening it wider.

“What do you want?” he demanded. “You want to see the show you gotta go up front.”

“What? See the-“ Angel paused, shifting his feet and shaking his head. “I’m not- I’m the new guy.”

The other man paused, and suddenly nodded briskly, opening the door wider to let Angel in. “Sorry, man. Sometimes these guys-“

“These guys?”

“You know- men who like men? Their night is Thursday and well… with the coat-“

Angel looked down at his coat and buried his fists into defensively. “It’s a masculine coat.”

“Whatever.” The bulky young man moved away, picking up a clipboard and eyeing Angel over it. “You’re… Angel, right?”

“Right.”

“Cute name,” he answered dryly. “What’s your real one?”

“Huh?”

“Real name. I need it for the W-2 forms.”

“That is my real name!” Angel answered hotly, eyes narrowing as a small growl slipped from his throat. “What the hell kinda name is…” quickly he scanned the ID tag, “Brian, anyway?”

Brian just raised an eyebrow, and Angel sighed, turning away.

“All right, ANGEL,” he said, scratching on the clipboard with a pen. “What’s your full name? On second thought here,” he came forward, thrusting the pile of papers into Angel’s arms, moving around him, quirking a finger in the process. “Just have them filled out by your next shift. Come on, I’ll show you the dressing room.”

Angel considered letting a fist accidentally slide into Brian’s face, but thought better of it, instead following him through the crowded, narrow doorways as he quickly explained the rules as they went.

“You get here thirty minutes before your shift. You’re a Floor Boy, you guys change in there,” he pointed to a small room. “Black pants, and the bowtie. You keep your tips and that’s it, so shake that booty, boy. Now, over there,” he pointed to a much larger door, amply varnished and with a star on it. “That’s where the strippers are.” Brian paused, turning and eyeing Angel. “Rebecca said you might be in there soon, provided you learn your routine. Angel. Geez. That’s gonna be a pussy run.”

Angel narrowed his eyes, glared, but managed again to say nothing.

“Hey Brian, this the new pretty boy?” A naked man called out, and Angel’s eyes widened as the shaved headed Latino winked in his direction laughing as he opened the door and went inside.

“That’s Rolando- he’s a slut. Don’t mess with him,” Brian said, pulling him by the forearm. “Alright, Rebecca and Donald’s offices are in the corner, don’t go into Donald’s without some padding on your ass, dude likes the pinch, Rebecca at least asks.”

Angel choked, and Brian patted him on the back distractedly. “All right. You’re all done here. Take off your shirt, put on the tie and then meet Rebecca outside in the lounge. She’ll take you through your job.”

Angel was left in the middle of the room with about ten or so well built men staring at him, most half naked, some hostile, some smiling.

He was a vampire with a soul. He could handle this.

Offering a smile and a shrug, he gave a little wave. “Hey. I’m Angel.”

The laughter that erupted made him blush, as he moved to the small dressing room, reaching out and pushing one of the floor boys and making him skid across the floor as he did.

As he closed the door behind him, he noticed with some contentment that the laughter had stopped.

--

“Are you sure this is the place?”

Gunn smoothed his hand over the steering wheel, pursing his lips as he craned his neck, not answering Fred’s question right away.

“Looks like it,” he said after a minute, eyes scanning over the numbers. “Yeap. This is the place.”

“Jennifer’s roommate still lives here,” Fred answered, holding up the small pamplet as Gunn opened the door the truck, waited patiently until he came over and opened her door, holding out her hand and allowing him to guide her out of the truck while she kept reading.

Gunn watched patiently, a smile tugging on the corner of his lips before he came forward, a palm on the small of her back. “Fred, baby. It might be easier if you looked up while we walked up the stairs.”

Her eyes jerked up from the pamphlet, and she blushed, nodding before sliding the papers into her purse.

“I don’t suppose we could have convinced Wesley to come,” she remarked as they slowly walked up the stairs to the apartment.

Gunn only frowned slightly. Honestly, the fact that Wesley was coming to work and allowing himself to take charge at all was considered progress.

His breath hitched slightly as he remembered the terrified face on Winnifred’s face, tripping and falling with horror in the hallways of the Hyperion, running from an ax-wielding Wesley who was attempting to kill her, would have raped her or something much worse-

He shook himself, tried to shake the emotion off, and in a selfish bout of relief, thanked God that it hadn’t been him, that he had been able to keep enough control to get Fred to knock him out before he had done anything.

A possessive hand settled on Fred’s shoulder, and when she gave him a distracted smile, he felt a tug inside of him, making him breathe a little irregularly as they reached the steps of the immaculate townhouse gated place.

“Uh… last name… Sanders, I think,” she said, and Gunn obediently pressed the numbers to the corresponding name on the callbox, waiting until he heard a scratchy, ‘hello’ before he began to speak.

“Ms. Sanders?”

There was a pause.

“Yes?”

“I apologize for intruding. My name is Charles Gunn, I’m here with my associate Winnifred Burkle. We’re here investigating the death of Jennifer Suddage. We were hoping we could ask you some questions?”

When the voice finally answered, it seemed hesitant, almost scared. “Are you with the police?”

“No, ma’am, we’re detectives.”

Again, there was a pause.

“Angel Investigations?”

Gunn and Fred shot each other looks, and Fred quickly spoke into the machine. “Yes, ma’am.”

The door was buzzed open immediately, and Gunn didn’t waste time, opening the gated door and letting Fred through first.

--

Rebecca Hull wore a black pantsuit that was expensively tailored. She wore diamond earrings that appeared deceptively small, and her hair was cropped shoulder length, loose, but never moving an inch.

As she stood in the middle of her domain, a martini in her hand, hazel eyes roving over the as yet empty strip club, she looked very much like a cat.

When Angel entered, her eyes caught his, and she smiled, waving him over.

“You’re on time. That gives you better marks than over half the men here.”

“Hi,” he said, hands clenched to his side, looking down at his bare chested body when he noticed she had yet to meet his eyes.

She frowned, and leaned forward, letting a finger slid over his chest.

When he stiffened, she merely gave him a look, shaking her head. “Don’t worry, this is business. I play for the other team.”

The cough she received only made her roll her eyes, as she smoothed her hand over his chest, walking around and proceeding to do the same to his back.

“Nice, firm tones. You work out?”

“I do a lot of fighting.”

“Martial arts?”

“Something like that.”

“Hmm.” She pursed her lips, crossing her arms, and stepping back, as if to take in the whole package. After a second, she asked, “Do you have a girlfriend, Angel?”

There was hesitancy in the answer, and Angel wasn’t sure why, as the words formed in his mouth, and then carefully came out, “No.”

She waited, another smirk on her lips. “Next time, do yourself a favor, and answer immediately. Women around here don’t like guys with girlfriends. Especially not you. You’re Angel, untouchable.” She came forward, cocking her head. “Angelic face, but something else completely. Wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

He couldn’t help but let a grim smile of irony escape. “That about sums it up.”

“One more question before I get you your tray.”

Angel pursed his lips, crossing his arms as he looked into the woman’s eyes. Cold, calculating, mischievous, he knew the kind. Taking a sniff, he found the results confusing. Completely confusing.

Human…

“Okay.”

“This little hesitancy of yours, the little girl that popped in your head before you answered, that’s not going to be a problem, is it? I pay my men well, Angel. But I need them free and clear.”

The grin that emerged was pure Angelus, and it came almost too easily, as the vampire chuckled, grim and foreboding as he answered, “Don’t worry, you’ve got all of me. I need the money.”

She gave him a long look, and nodded, satisfied.

“Good, then get to work. The bouncers will make sure the girls won’t feel you completely up.” She began to move off, and suddenly turned, arms brushing his as she leaned forward, voice softer, firmer. “One more thing. The ladies with the roses? Look like they have money? You give them anything they want. And I do mean everything. You got it?”

Angel paused, looked at her, slightly startled at the blatant innuendo, but he nodded. “Sure, I got it.”

Her hand reached up and pressed against his face, smiling. “Thank you, Angel. I have a feeling you’ll do just fine here.”

--
 
It was a curious problem.

Cordelia Chase, though she had long since been aware of her own weakness when it came to the new fall collection, and her overwhelming desire to overspend on all of it, simply because she now had free license too, actually had her mind on other matters.

Her hands moved over the catalogues, mind filled with attempting to get back into the rich bitch mode, and instead found it pulled into two different directions.

The first was Angel, and that was no surprise. As her best friend and closest confident, the fact of the matter was that he was always on her mind. Fear of Angelus, and love for her friend, and with grim reluctance even she had to acknowledge that there was a sweet sense of irony in the fact that the one person she trusted above anyone else in the world and the one person she feared above all else were all in one very sweet face.

Angel was a vampire who had faced down hordes, and had done trial by fires by the thousands. He had gone to hell and back, literally, at least twice, and survived.

But when it came to human, social situations, Angel truly sucked.

There was no way around that, and she felt the knot in her stomach that refused to let her concentrate at the thought of him now, in that club, all alone, with no one there to really shelter him, provide the needed buffer that overly, dark and broody had come had come to rely upon.

She sighed.

“Something wrong?”

The voice belonged to the other distraction, one Wesley Wyndham Price, the man who had recently given her own vampire a run for his money in brooding and self blame.

She gave another breath out, and shrugged, turning her eyes back down to the pages. “Just thinking about Angel, is all.”

“Oh?” He came forward, glasses glinting slightly as he lowered himself into the chair, watching her with a crease in his forehead.

Her eyes were frank, begging him to be honest. “Do you really think he’ll be okay?”

Wesley gave a small shrug, eyes dark and pensive as he rested his chin on his forearms, leaning forward as if at a soda fountain. “If I hadn’t believed in him I wouldn’t have allowed him to do this.”

Cordelia frowned, and finally nodded, turning back to the pages. “I guess.” He was quiet, and she waited, patiently, until she finally said, “What?”

“Nothing, I just…”

“She doesn’t blame you, Wesley. And you’re not talking to anyone about it. It’s going to fester. And if it doesn’t get out soon you’ll explode or recede and you’ll lose her completely.” He had gone completely still, as she turned, tone gentle, but firm. “Wesley, get over it. Find a way. If you don’t want to talk to me, that’s fine, talk to Angel, or Gunn, or Fred even, but please. Angel’s enough of a masochist, we don’t need another one.”

That got a small smile, and she leaned forward, her hand a gentle caress on his cheek, disrupted when the door opened and Gunn and Fred walked through the door.

On their faces were grim expressions of worry.

“What happened?”

Fred came forward first, laying down the papers she carried with her, and turning to Gunn as he offered his usual summary.

“This is some serious crap, ya’ll.”

“Perhaps something a little more descriptive?” Wesley suggested, straightening up.

“We talked to her roommate,” Fred said, her accent giving her words a honeyed faded drawl. “She said that before Jennifer died, she was scared… she said she owed all this money and if she pay up… bad things would happen.”

“And homegirl also said Jennifer never said who she owed the money too, but she’s been a regular at the DanceHall for a while, and come to think of it, according to this chick, all these problems started when she started going.”

“So at least we know we’re hitting the right nerve,” Cordelia acknowledged, secretly thankful there had been no vision to pound into her head and incapacitate her completely in order to get that information.

“So Jennifer was in trouble before the murder,” Wesley said. Gunn gave a grim smile as he nodded, and Wesley shook his head, immediately lost in thought. “I just find it odd…”

“Find what odd?” Fred asked.

He was staring at the counter, mind focused completely, “Why on earth wouldn’t she come to us? We had helped her before, we could have helped her again.”

“Maybe she didn’t want our help.”

“Or maybe it wasn’t anything we could help with,” Cordelia interjected. When Gunn gave her a quizzical look, she elaborated, “What I mean is, maybe it’s not supernatural. I mean, don’t you think I would have gotten a vision by now if it were?”

“So homegirl just got in trouble with her bookie?”

“That doesn’t explain the other disappearances.”

Gunn grabbed the file that contained the information on the other missing persons. “Fred and I can look into this tomorrow, right Fred?”

He winked, and she smiled, nodding as she pulled one long bang out of her face, eyes locking with Charles’, moving to take the file to peruse the contents.

Cordelia observed the interaction, and Wesley’s own look of observance and the passing sadness, with a frown.

“Why don’t you go along, Wes?” she asked pointedly.

When both Fred and Gunn looked at him expectantly, he only flushed, and slowly shook his head no. “I would rather- I have some things to do here. Gunn and Fred will do just fine on their own.”

Fred’s smile curled into a frown, but Gunn only nodded, oblivious to the female’s agitation to Wesley’s state. “All right, dude. But get some sleep okay? You look kinda tired.” He gave Fred a grin. “What do you think? Ready to try that new race car game?”

Fred let her eyes slip from Wesley’s gaze, and immediately nodded, taking Charles’ outstretched hand and allowing him to lead her into the game room.

Cordelia was quiet, letting out a soft sigh, as Wesley looked down, pulling off his glasses.

“That’s not going to work.”

“Pardon?”

“The glasses thing isn’t going to work, Wesley. You can see the situation as clearly as I can.”

He was quiet, and his tone was firm as he answered, “Perhaps you might be of better use concentrating on your guise instead of deconstructing me?”

Oooh. Ouch.

Cordelia sighed, and let it go.

“Fine, Wesley,” she muttered, snapping the magazines closed and grabbing her coat, heading towards the door. “Fester. But I’m not going to let it go, as long as you keep holding on to it.”

--

It was late, or early, when he walked through the doors of the Hyperion, and in a true testament to the hours that had become regular, the lights were all on, and voices were still flitting through the halls.

Gunn’s laughter could easily be heard from the foyer, followed by Fred’s chatter, and he paused, almost smiling as he heard it, distracted for just a moment from the utter turmoil in his heart.

Wesley’s office light was on, and he headed that way, finding the Englishman seated as his desk, reading.

“Hey, Wes.”

Wesley looked up, eyes somber, losing that glint that had come and never really returned since Billy.

Billy.

Angel took a breath, leaning against the doorway, pushing away the feelings that had come so easily with the bastard. The look of pain in Cordelia’s eyes had been telling enough to allow him to lie, to say there was no one responsible for Billy, but the truth was it was him, and he would do it again.

If it came between choosing Cordelia and something of that nature, there simply wasn’t a choice.

In the long run, he wondered where that put him on the Powers’ ideals.

And then he realized he no longer cared. He didn’t fight for them.

But what it did to Wesley was something he would carry with him for a long while.

“How’d it go?”

“I survived, but to be I’d rather be back in hell.” Angel offered a wry grin, and Wesley smiled back, removing his glasses. “Have you seen Cordelia?”

“I imagine she’s up in her room.”

“Her room.”

“The one she stays in on late nights. She went shopping today.”

“Oh. Thanks.” Angel turned out of the doorway, and turned back. “You okay, Wes?”

“Fine thank you.”

The tone was dismissive, and Angel frowned, but turned, anxious to see his Seer.

He crossed the lobby, and was suddenly met with Fred and Gunn’s voices, who called to him as they stood in the doorway, smiles on their faces.

“Yo, Angel! How’d it go?”

“Not going to talk about it.”

“Did you get your booty pinched?”

Fred giggled and said something and Gunn smirked as Angel growled at Charles.

“Charles, leave him alone,” Fred said, pulling back into the room, the giggling and laughing making Angel turn his head and shake it in wonder.

Taking the steps two at a time, he was at her door in less than a minute, knocking carefully.

“Who is it?”

“It’s me.”

“Oh, hi! Come in!” Angel carefully uncurled the knob, steps faltering when he saw the bareness of her back as she carefully slid the spaghetti strap over her shoulder. “Can you zip me up?” she asked.

Angel paused, throat suddenly dry, looking behind him to make sure it was he who was getting asked this question.

“What?”

She gave him an impatient look, motioning with her head. “Zip me up! I’m limber and all but…”

“Oh, okay.” With a curiously closed throat, Angel stepped forward, hesitantly reaching for the zipper that rested on the painted tattoo on the small of Cordelia’s back.

She smelled nice, and he found his eyes transfixed on the bare back, smooth and creamy, with out blemish, silken to the touch.

“Angel!”

“Sorry,” he said, reaching forward, hands gentle, a shiver jolting unexpectedly through him as he gathered the soft fabric in his hands and with his large fingers fumbled the zipper up to the top. “There,” he said hastily, stepping back.

“Geez. Barney the dinosaur would have been gentler.”

Stepping back, she turned to inspect herself in the mirror, hands at her sides, adjusting the line of the dress as she walked backwards on the stiletto heels, the red dress slim fitting, reaching down to her calves, arms and shoulders bare save for the little spaghetti straps that Angel suspected would break if he even thought about tugging down-

“So how’d it go?”

He blinked. “What?”

She rolled her eyes, giving him a huff as she moved to the dress, reaching into another box and pulling out a roll of beads.  “The Dancehall, silly. How’d it go?”

“I…uh… Cordy where’d we get the money to pay for all this?”

“Nabbit. Wrote it off as a donation,” she answered flippantly, handing the pearls to him and turning around.

Angel felt almost proud that he knew what to do without being told, gently reaching around her and moving the pearls around the column of her neck. “It was… not good,” he answered. “But I got tips. A lot of them.”

“Oh yeah?”

He grinned at the distracted, but slightly angry tone as he clipped the pearls together. “Yeah.”

“Well don’t get too comfortable, stud muffin,” she grumbled. “It’ll only be a few days before I go in there and break up the little party.”

“Umm… right.” She reached for the jewelry box, this time picking up a gold bracelet and handing it to him.

He frowned, fussing with the clip. What was it about these damn things, just the wrong pressure and the thing would-

*snap*

Angel’s eyes widened, and then looked at Cordelia who was staring in open mouthed horror. “I’m sorry.”

She sighed, huffed and plucked the bracelet with the broken clasp away. “I’ll do that myself,” she said with a forced grin. “Moron.”

“Cordelia.”

“Hmm.”

“I have this routine I have to learn.” From his pocket he produced a video tape cassette.

She whirled, eyes fixed on the cassette. “Already?”

“Rachel thinks I’m hot.”

“Who the hell is Rachel?!”

He opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it at the sight of Cordelia with her hands on her hips, heels tapping, and closed it.

“No one.”

“Oh, no, Mr. Studly who is she?”

“Just a lady… she’s… old. OLD. Really OLD. And-“

“Rich, and snobby and wants to get in your pants?”

“Something like that,” he admitted.

“Have I mentioned I hate you doing this?”

He felt something give inside of him, a warmth that made him smile. “A few times.”

She came forward, shaking her head as she took the cassette from his hands, shifting it between her palms. “So?”

“So… I was… you know… since you… well you danced… and…”

“Angel,” came the impatient huff.

“Yeah?”

“Do you want me to help you learn the routine?”

Damn. He was a bad ass vampire, right? What the hell was wrong with him?

Almost meek, he nodded.

For that, he was blessed with a smile.

“First thing tomorrow morning, what do you say we forgo sword practice and work on ‘pet me I’m a whore’ instead?”

He gave a relieved grin. “Sounds good.”

“Great. Now leave me alone. I have to change.”

“You look… really nice, Cordy.”

“Thanks Angel. Bye.” He backed away, sneaking another look and opened the door. “Angel?”

His head swiveled back. “Yeah?”

“Stay the hell away from this Rachel bitch.”

Her eyes were glinting and he found it much easier to just nod and agree as he closed the door, shaking his head in bewilderment, and finding himself smiling even as he did.

Chapter Three

He was already waiting when she descended the steps, her smile bright and her eyes shining despite the early hour of the day.

Carefully, Angel stretched, avoiding her eyes almost deliberately as she walked over to the CD player, placing the disc inside and closing it.

“Cordelia?”

“I watched the routine. You realize it’s complete and utter crap, right?”

Angel just shrugged, crossing his arms, as she turned, and again his eyes wandered down her frame, the spandex clinging to her body, adhering to every curve in a way that seemed almost sinful.

He closed his eyes, and then opened them again when her smell betrayed her only a few steps away, looking back at the radio and then nodding when the assigned song began to float through the speakers.

“Okay, Angel, let’s work on just a simple beat for now.”

He blinked, slightly confused as she tapped her foot in time with the music.

“Shouldn’t we… the routine-“

“Forget the routine for now, right now you need to find your rhythm,” she said, taking his palms in hers and leading him to the middle of the workspace, hazel eyes on his own as she gathered his large hands in her smaller ones. Upon further study of his face, her half smile turned into a frown. “You look nervous as hell, Angel.”

“I just…”

“Angel, you can move, okay? You have it in you.” She gave him a grin. “Just… call up the inner slut. Think of something blonde.”

His eyes narrowed, and she only smirked, leaving him standing in the middle of the floor and turning up the sound.

Again the sensual beat floated over the room, and she smiled at it, closing her eyes and letting her own body sway with it, before opening her eyes and winking.

“Lose the shirt, bucko.”

He blinked, and looked down self consciously at his sweater. “Why?”

“Because you need to get used to women… you know… groping you… and you’re not going to be wearing almost anything by the time you get into… this… so… might as well start now.”

Her disaffected tone was almost damning, the soft purr of her voice bringing him almost to anger as he realized that Cordelia Chase, with her methodical and no nonsense words, was not affected by the blatant sexuality of this… at all.

Sure, her heartbeat was racing slightly faster than normal, but that was adrenaline, it happened every time they were in this room, and her heightened sense of awareness had even served to make him wonder at times to what she was thinking about it-

But still… her little comments… her jokes and quips…

Did Cordelia really see him as something … not sexual?

She had called him a man, didn’t she? And handsome… and heroic…

But Cordelia wasn’t… she wasn’t allowed-

It didn’t matter. She was his best friend, and his fantasy and it just didn’t matter.

Nothing would ever happen between them.

Because it couldn’t.

Shaking his head, he finally just let the angst slide over him, enjoying what little he had, as he reached for his dark sweater and pulled it off, the smirk on his features making her steps falter as he gave her a genuine vampire grin.

“Damn Angel,” she said after a minute, grabbing a scrunchy and pulling her hair back into a makeshift ponytail, turning away from him. “You’re damn hot with that smirk.”

“Thanks.”

There was a long bout of silence, before she turned, and came forward, hazel eyes locked on his as she clasped his hands once more.

”I want you to do something for me,” she began. Transfixed, he only offered a shaky nod. “Close your eyes.”

Her breath fell on his skin in moist tufts, and it made him shudder, a movement running throughout his body he was almost sure she could feel, but she only instructed him with those low tones of hers.

“Listen, okay? Do you feel the beat?”

He wasn’t sure, shaking his head uncertainly, hands tightening around hers as she opened one palm and suddenly it was outstretched directly against her chest, half on her breast.

He almost yanked it away, but she held it firm. “Listen,” she said. “Feel my breathing pattern.”

He swallowed, biting his lip in grim frustration, but obeyed, counting her heartbeats, senses suddenly overwhelmed as her chest rose and fell under his fingertips.

“I know you can hear my heartbeat, and I know you can feel it, now, feel the beat, it’s in sync, almost perfectly with the beat. Listen to the music, Angel, and you can feel the beat with my beating, with my breathing.”

“My heart doesn’t beat, Cordelia,” he said, eyes opening to find her staring at him curiously.

A long second, and she nodded. “I know. That’s why I’m letting you use mine.”

There was more inferred in that sentence, more he wanted to take from it, than what he was sure she was offering. The closed throat that had come involuntarily made it slightly difficult to breathe, but he did it, as her next order commanded it.

“Breathe in sync with me, okay?” she asked breathlessly, and that in itself made him smile.

Obediently, he filled his dead lungs with air, closing his eyes, and doing nothing but feeling the music flow through him, through her lungs, through her heart.

Quietly, he began to feel the pounding, the pulsing, rhythm that he had once discovered in the poetry of fighting, the beauty of the kill he had known as Angelus.

Dance, it seemed, was not all that different.

Movements were slow as her hands slowly took his, and suddenly her back was pressed against him, the soft swell of her buttocks pressed against his groin, and his eyes opened as she manipulated his fingers, pressing them gently against her hips, pinning her against him.

“I want you to feel my hips, okay?” she said, her voice a tad husky. “You have to move with your hips, that’s where everything else comes from. Keep your back straight, and move from here.”

And she began to move, her body seeping warmth into his fingers as she swayed gently against him.

There was pure beauty in the movement, and he stood, the willing pupil, completely preoccupied as Cordelia moved, swayed, ground against him, a soft smile of wonder sliding over his features, a growl of possession escaping when she turned in his arms, warm hands sliding up his bare chest to palm the side of his neck.

Her face was flushed, her body was warmer than usual, and her tone was feverish, as she continued to move.

“Follow my lead, Angel. Move those hips.”

His hands slid around her waist, pinning her to him, and with that same smile that came so easily with her, he did.

--

Gunn felt the shiver go through him, and he decided he had seen enough, moving back quietly up the stairs, and closing the door, knowing somehow that neither Angel or Cordelia were actually in a position to really care whether he had been there or not.

He leaned against the door, pulling at his collar, when Wesley came into the lobby, sipping his cup of tea.

”Gunn.”

“What up, Wes.”

“What are you doing?”

“Recovering from Dirty Dancing: the sequel,” he remarked, throwing a thumb back toward the door as he walked forward. “It’s about to get X-rated in there.”

Wesley cast the closed door a concerned look, the coffee cup poised at his lips as he finally shook his head. “Cordelia knows better than to let things go too far,” he said.

“Uh… Wesley she’s grinding against Angel in there.” Gunn leaned forward, palms pressed against the counter. “Shouldn’t we be worried? I mean… come to think of it… haven’t those two been a little… close?”

Wesley sighed, putting down the cup and staring thoughtfully at his friend. “Yes. They have. I daresay Angel’s in love with Cordelia.”

Gunn stared at him blankly. “And… warning bells not ringing because??”

“Because like it or not, there isn’t anything we can do about it, Charles,” Wesley finally said, shrugging sadly. “If and when Cordelia decides to reciprocate Angel’s feelings there will… well it won’t be easy for either. Both know it can’t happen. And yet…”

“Can’t choose who you love, is that it?”

“In a nutshell.”

Gunn pursed his lips, looking down at his hands, quiet for a moment. “So… Fred and I-“

“Ah… yes.” Wesley picked up the file and handed it to his compatriot, giving him a grim smile. “Those are the rest of the files on the missing persons from the club. You and Fred can look into them together or separately.”

Gunn took the file, thumbing through it thoughtfully, and took a breath. “Listen… English… I was kinda… I need to ask you for some advice.”

The hesitant, insecure voice made Wesley turn, come forward immediately. “Of course, Gunn. What is it?”

“Uhmm… all right…” Charles shuffled slightly, and took a breath, finally pushing the words out. “I kinda … like Fred.”  There was no answer, and feeling the burn on his cheeks that signaled he was blushing, Gunn didn’t look at Wesley, instead hurrying the rest of the sentence out. “And you being the boss and everything I just want to make sure it’s okay if I maybe… you know… ask her out.”

Again, the silence continued, and finally Charles looked up to find Wesley staring at him looking as if he had been slapped in the face.

Immediately his insides squelched, and Gunn looked down, “Uh… sorry, never mind-“

“No, Gunn… forgive me I just… I had no idea you felt that way.”

He gave an insecure grin, his heart flip flopping slightly. “She’s… cute. In that smart kinda way… just… I don’t know…”

“She’s a remarkable woman.”

Gunn was too busy blushing to detect the faint longing in the voice. “Yeah. So… that’s cool then?”

Wesley was quiet, and finally just gave a grim smile. “You don’t need my permission to ask out Fred, Gunn. That is… your choice.”

“I know… but you said once that the reason you and Cordy never hooked it up was because of interoffice-“

“The reason Cordelia and I never ‘hooked up’ was because of him,” Wesley said, motioning to the closed basement door. “And you know that.”

Gunn gave him a teasing grin. “Yeah, boy, I knew it. Why do you think I never tried to hook it up with Ms. Thing in there? Girl said she was trying to save my life but it was always ‘Angel’s not alone’, and ‘Angel needs to get laid’. Never a word to the wise about my need for some quality time.”

Wesley smiled, chuckling.

“What’s so funny?”  Fred looked bleary-eyed as she made her way to the counter, accepting Wesley’s outstretched cup of coffee with a nod of thanks.

“Nothing in particular. Talkin’ about the Swayze wannabe’s in there,” Gunn said, nodding to the door.

Fred looked puzzled, following their line of vision. “That’s… an interesting song.”

“You should see the routine.”

“Trust me, I plan to,” she answered, blushing slightly when Wesley choked on his tea and Gunn cocked a surprised eyebrow. “So… are we looking for the missing people?” she began hastily, taking the files and using them to cover her rapidly reddening face.

“Yeah, and I think we better go now,” Gunn said, grabbing her hand and leading her to the door. “Come on, we’ll get some breakfast burritos on the way.”

“Why don’t they have breakfast tacos?” she asked, her voice puzzled.

“Dunno. We’ll ask them.”

Wesley watched them go, a curious ache in his chest, the pain rapidly splintering as he leaned against the counter, moist tears flooding in his eyes.

--

One bare palm slid over the glistening chest, as his hand cradled the small of her back, watching as he tangled their fingers, holding it, watching as her muscles tightened, leaning back, slowly moving into the dip, before his shifted, and pulled her up, her face, her eyes, her mouth, inches from his own.

And his body continued to move, hips cradled against hers, gyrating, moving as he saw the beads of perspiration on her upper lip, her forehead, thoughts of tasting the salty drops moving through his mind as she let her pink tongue slide out to moisten her lips.

His body jolted in reaction and she felt it, stiffening immediately, almost alongside of him.

Immediately they both let go, breath gasping on both sides as Angel turned his back, not wanting to see her reaction to his very male reaction.

“Well… I … think we got… the point of this lesson… down,” she stammered, reaching for the towel and water bottle.

He turned to find her gulping it greedily, moving to turn off the stereo, shaking ever so slightly.

“Yeah… I think so…” he agreed, massaging at his neck, reaching for his sweater to pull it on hastily.

“So… then I’ll leave you to… practice and I’ll… run up the stairs-“ She broke into that run almost immediately, and he felt himself wince.

“Cordelia.”

She froze, looking back at him, body tensed and coiled like a spring.

“I’m sorry.”

The plaintive tone did something, because she smiled, shrugging every so slightly. “We’ll pick it up- okay bad choice of words,” and he blushed. “Uhmm… we’ll… keep working on your routine later today. I have to meet Nabbit anyway.”

Angel frowned, moving to the stairs and looking up at her. “You’ve been seeing a lot of him lately.”

She grinned. “Part of my cover, silly.”

“What do you mean?”

“My cover. I’m David Nabbit’s mistress.”

And with that, she ran up the stairs, leaving him to watch open mouthed.

--

Fred sighed, sinking down into the bench, holding the Styrofoam cups as Gunn settled to the side of her, holding the plate of eight foil wrapped tacos from the street vendor.

“I don’t understand it,” she muttered, handing him his drink, careful to make sure he had a free hand to allow it to happen.

“I know what you mean,” the black man muttered, shaking his head, balancing the plate on his lap and opening the foil to squeeze the wedges of lemon over it.

Fred leaned over, taking the little packets of salt and absently distributing the contents over their meal.

“There’s no connection between any of them. No logic. I can’t make heads or tails out of it.”

“And if you can’t, Baby Doll there ain’t no way I can.”

She found herself smiling at the tone, her eyes rising up to meet Charles’ face and finding her gaze locked with his for a second.

A small flush gathered over her body and she looked away again, taking the cilantro and carefully arranging the leafy substance over the tacos.

“You don’t give yourself enough credit, Charles.”

“You said it yourself, I’m the muscle. Not exactly a thinker.” But he took the green salsa, and poured it on his half, and she had to smile at the familiarity, knowing that he wouldn’t put it on hers, knowing he would take the onions and only make sure there were a few in each of her tacos, because that was how she liked them.

“You’re more than the muscle. Hell, Ah’m still tryin’ to figure out what I am.”

He gave her a grin, looking comical with the way his knees were held together, the makeshift table a little wobbly as she gathered one corn tortilla between her fingertips. “You’re Fred. That’s all, girl. And that’s damn special.”

“I’m glad you think so.”

“Oh, I do. Special enough to beat me at that race car game.”

She felt the giggle emerged. “Well, that was just a simple calculation, Gunn-“

“Yeah, just wait until you try Tomb Raider. I kick ass as Lara Croft.”

 “I would like to do that,” she mused, her glasses glinting as she looked a little farther away. “Go around in tombs, fightin’ evil and… reading stuff-“

“Don’t you do that now? I mean, not the tombs, but hey! Sewers!”

She grinned, nodding her acceptance of his statement. They were quiet, eating in silence, and when he shifted closer, she didn’t mind it, instead leaning into his shoulder, happily munching on her taco.

“Hey Fred?”

“Mmmhmm?”

“You think maybe if I ask you out, we could you know… go on a date?”

The taco suddenly seemed to grow in her mouth, and she gasped for breath.

“Fred?”

Coughing, she choked, heart suddenly hammering, lurching forward when Gunn pounded on her back with a none too gentle hand.

“Fred!”

The piece came up, and, finally went down the right tube, and she was finally able to breathe again, taking in gasping breaths, pushing her glasses up and wringing her hands together in distraction.

“I’m okay,” she said, moving back. Gunn looked worried, deep dark eyes boring into hers, and she found herself staring at him with a small smile on her face. “Did you umm… say date?”

The uncertainty made him smile, and Fred realized, it was a very nice smile.

“Yeah. That okay with you?”

“I umm…”

“I mean… I’m no Angel-“

”Charles.”

Her hand rested on his, fingers closed around and squeezed, and he looked down, unable to move because of the tacos in his lap.

His eyes met hers, and she smiled, shrugging slightly. “You don’t have to be.”

When he smiled, her own grin widened, and Fred realized they must have looked like idiots sitting there smiling at each other, but strangely, she didn’t seem to care.

--

“Has Angel left?”

Wesley looked up, feeling oddly like the bellhop when he answered Cordelia. “Yes, he said his shift started at seven.”

“Oh, okay.”

Wesley gave her a nod, and returned to reading his book.

Cordelia paused, looking around the hotel. “And Fred and Gunn?”

“On their date, I imagine.”

“Did you just say date?”

His voice was unresponsive as he answered, “I believe I did, yes.”

Cordelia hesitated, looking toward Wesley, then to the door, and then back at him. “I’m confused.”

“What about?”

“Ummm… weren’t you jonesing for Fred?”

Wesley froze, ever so slightly, and then in a move that seemed almost forced, he turned the page. “That’s hardly common knowledge, is it?”

“So… Gunn didn’t know.”

“I gave him my blessing.”

“But he didn’t know.”

Wesley let out an annoyed breath. “No, Cordelia. He didn’t know.”

The smallest softening came into Cordelia’s eyes as her shoulders slumped, bag dropping on the stool as she came forward. “Wesley-“

“No, Cordelia.”

“It’s not like you to shut me out.”

“I’m fine.”

”Then why are you trembling?”

His fingers clenched around the paper, wrinkling it, but Cordelia didn’t give, coming forward, swallowing hard.

“Gunn needs someone like Fred,” he answered, voice tired, and passive.

“And what about you?”

“Cordelia, I’m in much too much of an emotional abyss to be of any use to Fred,” he said, his eyes fixed on his book. “You and I both know that. Perhaps you were right. Maybe we are meant to be alone.”

Moistness in Cordelia’s eyes hindered her vision slightly, as she found she could say nothing to Wesley about his turmoil. Who was she kidding?

Since when had she been able to help with anyone’s issues?

She could barely handle her own, thanks to her frazzled mind, besieged by visions and headaches.

She let out a breath, closing her eyes, mind flashing to the incident in the basement, and felt herself shiver slightly.

“Fine,” she agreed to the unspoken compromise. “But I’m getting this out of you Wesley.”

“I’ll look forward to it.”

She shook her head, turning, moving away, and suddenly he latched on to her.

Her arms went around him, and she held her friend, felt his trembling body collapsing against hers, and her heart actually HURT for him.

Their stoic leader.

Broken and bitter and it was her fault.

Her damn fault.

“I’m sorry, Wesley,” she whispered into his hair, closing her eyes, and feeling the tears sting her eyes. “I’m so sorry.”

--

Donald wore tight t-shirts that didn’t quite fit over his slightly flabby chest, and Angel wondered if he was the least self conscious about it, the boss who seemed there only to leer at the men and take care of the finances, studying Angel’s paperwork.

The paperwork he had discovered on his desk had seemed suspicious enough, but Cordelia had examined it, taken it to Nabbitt, and it had come out clean.
 
Thanks to an unknown source, Angel had an identity.

“Okay. Looks like we’re good. You’ll get your check on Thursday. How’s the routine going?”

Angel shuffled uncomfortably, but nodded. “Good. Good.”

Donald leaned back into his leather chair, studying Angel with a frown on his face. “I hear you knocked J.T. halfway across the dressing room yesterday.”

“The bastard laughed at me.”

The smirk on Donald’s face made Angel smile back, and the older man chuckled. “Good to know you’re a quick learner. Don’t play the bitch, Angel. You’ll be headlining with Rolando soon with that attitude.”

“Oh, I hope so.”  Angel stood, resisting the urge to roll his eyes, as he rose from his chair.

“One more thing.”

Angel paused, and sat back down.

Donald scribbled on his notebook, eyes narrowing at something, and then looked up. “Rebecca told you about the Red Roses, right?”

Angel nodded. The precarious elite, women who bled money, wore roses just above their cleavage, on their right shoulders.

“Give them anything they want.”

“Within reason.” Donald grinned. “They pay well, Angel. We host a party for them every Saturday at my place. Just a gathering. Some of most able bodied men are invited to keep them company. I would like you to be there.”

Angel narrowed his eyes. “What kind of party?”

“You’re expected to get lucky.”

As the words sunk in, Donald gauged his reaction, watching him carefully.

Angel let out a breath, and suddenly smiled. “Is that a promise?”

Donald was quiet, and then smiled back. “Guaranteed. Demanded.”

“I’m on it.” Angel leaned forward, clasped hands with the older man.

“Donald don’t hit on my new favorite Floor Boy.” Rebecca looked distracted as she entered the office, opening the file cabinet and thumbing through some files. “He likes girls.”

“So do I. Sometimes.”

Rebecca rolled her eyes, turning and smiling at Angel. “How’s the routine coming along?”

“It’s coming.”

“Boys treating you nice?”

“I almost beat up J.T.”

“Good. He deserves it. Just don’t leave bruises. He has a hell of a body. Rachel’s asking for you.”

Donald whistled under his breath. “A Red Rose already?”

Rebecca shot him a distracted smile. “He works fast.”

Angel frowned, crossing his arms. “How do they get those roses anyway?”

Rebecca paused, quiet, eyes narrowing. “Doesn’t matter to you, Angel. Just go.”

She reached forward, and pushed him gently toward the door.

Angel was quiet, not saying a word as he closed the door behind him, but mind already memorized what he had seen hidden on the inside of Rebecca’s arm.

A mystical pagan symbol in the form of a tattoo.

Chapter Four

“Last one,” Gunn muttered, sliding the truck to the curb and yanking the stick to the right, setting it into park.

Fred tossed him a distracted smile as she confirmed the address, breathing out slowly and leaning her head back against the seat.

“Tired?” he asked, watching her for a second.

“A little,” she remarked.

“Yeah, it was kind of a late night last night wasn’t it?”

She gave him a shy, gentle smile, and Gunn grinned back, eyes locking with hers for a second before taking in a ‘work first’ breath, opening the door and hopping down, moving around the side and opening the door for her as well.

He held her hand a little longer than what was absolutely necessary, and when she didn’t complain, he gave her a grin, and kept it there, squeezing her smaller palm and then moving up the steps to the small, modest, but nice house in the modest, but nice neighborhood.

“A stripper lives here?”

Fred gave a short chuckle, shaking her head. “Strippers are people too, Gunn.”

“And I ain’t arguing that. But it does seem kinda… decent for a man who makes his money by shaking his bootie, is all.”

“Women are big tippers.”

“Don’t even wanna ask how you know that.”

Fred shook her head, ignoring the look he gave her as they maintained the happy, awkward silence, knocking on the door.

There was no answer.

“Uh… Gunn?”

“Yeap?”

Fred crossed her arms, leaning into the shadow of the porch, giving her semi-friend-date-from-last-night a quizzical look. “Why are we knockin’? I mean if they were here they wouldn’t be missing, would they?”

The blank stare he gave her seemed almost comical, and she suppressed a smirk when he sighed, scratching as his hairless head.

“Right, okay.”  He looked around the porch, checking around the quiet neighborhood, and finally grabbed a potted plant from the steps. “Step back.”

“What are you doing?!”

“I’m gonna break in the door!”

“Gunn,” Fred looked down, caught a glint of a flash, and then carefully picked up the small key, waving it.

Gunn paused, and then sighed as Fred fitted it into the lock, turning the knob and letting herself in.

“You know, a lot of guys would be intimidated by a girl like you,” he grumbled, shoulders slumping as he followed her in.

“You think?” she whirled, looking almost worried, but the glint in the black man’s eyes made her only narrow her own orbs, blushing as she closed the door behind him.

Once inside, Gunn was suddenly all business, eyes sweeping over the house, hands in his pockets, careful at first not to touch a thing.

“So refresh my memory,” he began. “What do we know about this one?”

“Umm…” Fred looked down at her file, trailing her index finger down to his spot, and began reading. “Jessie Matthews. Age twenty-six. He was employed at The Dancehall for six months before his disappearance.”

“Mmhmm…” Gunn moved to a small table, fingers moving to a stack of pictures still in the Kodak sleeve.

“Disapeared roughly two weeks ago.” Her eyes looked thoughtful as she looked at Gunn. “He was the last before Jennifer.”

“Hmm… Take a look at this.” She came forward, taking the picture Gunn held out to her.

Her eyes grew wide, shooting to Gunn as he nodded grimly.

“So he and Jennifer were…”

“Yeah.”

“Oh.”  She continued to study the picture, turning it over and finding something on the dresser also catching her eye. “Look.”

This time, a much less erotic Jennifer snuggled with Jessie, both smiling happily for the camera.

“Oh.”

Gunn’s face was somber as he fingered the frame, eyes darker. “He cared about her.”

“Looks like it.”

Looking into the picture, into the smiling face of their friend, made something well up into Fred’s throat. The warmth in the picture seemed intrusive somehow, their seeing it a betrayal to something beautiful and sacred that was no longer-

Jennifer was dead.

Jessie was missing.

In this moment in time, how could either of them have known that?

A large, calloused, masculine hand slipped into hers, and Fred leaned thankfully, hands at first hesitant, and then welcoming as his arm slipped around her waist, drawing her closer into his large, muscled frame.

Fred closed her eyes, shuddering against Gunn, when he placed a gentle kiss on her forehead.

“Come on,” he said, after she had regained her composure. “We’ll do this sweep really quickly and get out of here.”

“Good idea.” The shyness had returned, but he didn’t seem to mind it, skimming the side of her face with a gentle thumb as he offered her his own wry grin, before moving off, presumably to check the answering machine.

Fred sank down onto the sofa, rifling through the scattered magazines and notes on the coffee table.

“Weird,” she muttered.

“What?” she heard him call out.

She shrugged, distracted, her thoughts tumbling out of her mouth before she could quite take the time to put them in order.

“It’s like a big game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey. We’ve got these blindfolds and we’ve got this target but we just keep pokin’ with the pins cause we don’t know where the tail is. We’re getting’ somewhere but how do we- we don’t know where we’re getting’.”

“Oh.” Gunn reappeared beside her, his expression a trifle hesitant as he sank down on the couch next to her, hands on his knees. “Well, Fred. I’m not sure where we’re getting either, but I like it.”

Startled, she jerked her head and caught the wispy, gentle expression on his face.

The sunny expression was lost on her until she realized what he meant.

“I meant the case.”

There was a moment his face was completely unreadable, before a dark blush crept over his features, and he looked away, shuffling in that wonderful Gunn way that was beginning to make her a little more than squeamish.

“Right. Me too. ‘Cause umm… I like that we’re getting somewhere, you know, and umm… the not knowing is kinda cool cause-“

Fred startled even herself when she leaned forward compulsively, silencing Gunn’s stammering with a surprisingly well placed kiss on his mouth.

Awkward at first, she had no time to feel embarrassed for her forward action, because Gunn, with his ever quick reflexes, immediately leaned into the caress, taking over, tilting her head to the side with a hand on her chin, caressing her lips gently with his own.

When they parted, her eyes were shining, and Gunn looked slightly dazed, but at the very least, he looked happy.

--

Warm hands sneaked onto his skin, skimming into his pants, and Angel fought the urge to yelp, instead turning and offering the woman with the graying streaks in her hair that was badly covered up by hair dye a smile and a wink, stumbling back as quickly as he could to toss the tray on the bar, getting his ass pinched three more times in the process.

“Two martinis and a strawberry daiquiri,” he growled to the bartender, pulling at the bowtie, thankful when the lights went down and Rolando showed up onstage in his Zorro costume.

Immediately, the screeching pounded into Angel’s sensitive vampire ears, and he winced, moving away from the bar and into the darkness of the backstage hallway, sighing with relief when the noise was considerably lessened.

Leaning against the wall, he allowed a small moment of solitude, before grimacing as he looked down at him.

“Face it,” he remarked to no on in particular. “This is an all time low.”

He rubbed at his face with his hands, moving into the back and found it surprisingly bare.

Checking the time on the clock on the wall, Angel paused, studying the room, and looking toward Rebecca’s office door.

Rebecca’s open office door.

Taking in a breath, Angel began to move quickly, hand on the door knob, pushing the little it was open slightly until he was able to peer into the room.

Only one side of the office was visible, with a long row of videotapes.

Eyes narrowing, he peered into them, until movement from the other side of the room made him jerk backwards, closing the door and turning just as Brian walked through the doorway.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Brian snapped, looking irritated as he came forward, folding his bulky arms, and staring Angel in the eye.

Angel cocked an eyebrow, feeling in no mood to play the blumbering fool as he straightened to his full height, and snapped back, “My butt was bruised. I was taking a breather.”

“You had your break.”

“So I took another one.”

Brian’s eyes narrowed, and there was a glint before he responded, “Get back to work. Rachel and her little group are asking about you.”

“What the hell is so special about those Red Roses anyway?”

“The only thing you need to know is you do whatever they want,” Brian said, looking down at his clipboard. “They pay damn good money to get the goods, and we pay you damn well to make sure you deliver. As far as you’re concerned those bitches are God. You’ll see what I mean at the party. They tell you about it?”

”Yeah.”

“Yeah. You’ll be popular, they haven’t had you yet.”

The flippant remark made Angel’s eyes narrow in disgust, but he swallowed it down, only jerking a nod in Brian’s direction and heading back toward the bar, casting another look toward the closed office door with the wall of unmarked videotapes.

--

The door of Caritas creaked as it opened, and ever observant, Wesley noted that it had never been allowed to that point of rust.

Walking through, the bar was still in shambles, crunches of glass beneath his feet making the sanctuary seem much less than that, and a warzone instead.

The green demon who hosted the bar was standing in the middle of the deserted floor, a broom in one hand, wearing a face that was less than welcoming.

“Well, it’s Mr. Watchful and Sensitive,” Lorne muttered, turning back to his activities, stuffing another broken glass into a plastic bag.

”Bitter as ever, I see. Would you like some help?” Wesley said, reaching for another broom and running it through the debris.

“Don’t bother. I’ve got a clean up crew coming tomorrow.” Lorne shrugged, sighing as he took another look at the deserted Caritas. “Not that this place will ever be the same.”

Wesley cast the place a grim gaze. He couldn’t argue with that. The sanctuary had been permeated, broken. The veil of safety had been lifted.

Nothing would ever be the same again.

“I know why you’re here, and trust me, nothing doing. I’m not reading anyone right now. Just hand the closed sign around my neck and I’m done,” Lorne snapped, turning back to his duties.

“We can pay for the damages,” Wesley said.

“We? Please, Wesley. Don’t blame yourself for something that wasn’t your fault. That little compatriot of yours, Mr. Charles Gunn? Him I would like to have a word with, not you.”

Wesley grimaced, but said nothing.

Lorne sighed, kneeling down, inspecting a broken martini glass. “My favorite one.”

“I’m sorry, Lorne.”

“Again- stop blaming yourself for things you didn’t do? What do you want me to sound like, a record?” Lorne asked, eyes narrowing as he turned.

Wesley was quiet, eyes turning toward the bar. “Would you like some tea?”

“I’m not getting rid of you any time soon, am I?” Lorne asked.

Wesley shook his head, moving through the rubbage and going behind the bar, starting up the small portable stove Lorne had set up temporarily.

Lorne watched him, curious at first.

”How’s that little Fred, Wesley?”

The British Ex-Watcher froze, before slowly returning to his task of putting the kettle on the small stove. “Doing quite well.”

“I see. Found a bit of romance, has she?”

There was a forced, grim smile on Wesley’s face, a false note of cheeriness. “Yes, as a matter of fact. With… Gunn.”

“Ah.”  Lorne moved toward the bar, leaning on the cracked wood as he studied Wesley. “Damn thing I hate about aura’s like yours,” he remarked. “They’re like those little crickets. You know the crickets? Damn things get into the wood and you can’t for the life of you find the thing. It’s not that loud but it’s incessant, chirping it’s way, until you’re listening for it, driving you mad because of one little cricket that you can never find. But it’s in there. Chirping away.”

”You know for once I wish you’d give it to me straight without all these incessant riddles,” Wesley snapped, turning around palms flat on the counter.

Lorne took a glass, taking a sip, eyes leveled on Wesley’s as he answered, “Sorry, but that’s not how it works. Auras are complicated things. All spectrum of colors. Oh sure you have your grays, and your blacks and your whites but it’s those damn colors that will get you. Those colors inside of you that you can never quite figure out.”

Wesley only stared, a stony expression on his face.

Lorne regarded that, and sighed. “Fred was never meant to be yours, Wesley,” he said finally, putting down the glass. “As much as you like the girl, the truth is? Gunn needs her more than you do. He’s going to be tested, and compared to this little incident,” he added angrily, waving his hand over the destroyed Caritas area, “he’s going to need all the grounding force he can get.”

“Fred is Gunn’s stability?” Wesley repeated.

Lorne looked bitter, but he nodded.

“Hmm.”

“Hard to swallow?”

“I just… I always assumed Gunn would be the stability for Fred.”

”Either way, they’ve got a long hard road ahead of them. It’s murky, but-“

“I know I’m meant to be alone, Lorne,” Wesley said, eyes dark and intense as he stared into Lorne’s face almost beseechingly. “But-“

“No one is MEANT to be alone, Wesley.” Lorne looked tired, sighing as he stared into his coffee cup, twirling the murky liquid about. “Hell, even soul-ridden vampires get SEERS- the trouble with you Wesley is you can’t be with anyone because you don’t know yourself. You’ve repressed a part of you because you’re afraid of it.”

“The evil-“

“Are you stupid?” Lorne snapped, shutting Wesley up with an almost growl that was out of place on the bitter demon. “The past, Wesley. Face it. That’s the key to your own personal crisis.”

Wesley frowned, eyes narrowing as Lorne ducked his head back into his coffee cup.

“And yours?”

“Don’t mind me, Wesley,” Lorne said, muttering into his cup. “I’m on my own beige arc. I’ll still be here when push comes to shove.”

“Because?”

”I have no choice,” Lorne said, raising his eyebrow. “Can’t ignore it- anymore than you can.”

Wesley nodded, pouring the tea, making a mental note to talk to Gunn about Lorne.

Apologies and perhaps a bit of groveling were in order.

He shuddered slightly.

Anything but think of his own past.

Of his own failure.

--

The exhaustion seeped through his dead bones as he walked into the lobby, the rising sun on his heels.

Angel paused in the quiet lobby of the Hyperion, eyes roving around the darkened lobby, noting it seemed empty.

Fred, most likely asleep. Gunn and Wesley in their respective apartments.

But the light was on in the basement, and curious, Angel moved his tired feet forward, discarding memories of lecherous women and happy woman with smiles of brightness and hope and fantasy from his mind as the music became audible now.

Opening the door, he walked down the stairs, finding the sight that befell both heartwarming and disconcerting.

Cordelia Chase, utterly unaware of his presence, continued to her dance movements to the music chosen for his piece, body sleek and graceful, and she dipped and twirled, utter lost in her own sense of rhythm and fantasy.

He paused, hand on the rail, rapt in the attention he was giving his Seer, curious, wondering exactly what was going on in her mind, who she was picturing, who she was dancing for.

The dance continued, her body sweaty, her warmth exhuming from her body, her scent alive and so very, very human.

These were the moments when Angel never questioned the reality of his situation with Cordelia, what it was about her that no one else saw, that struck him and had nearly avoided him until he had forced her out and truly began to see her.

It was strength, it was gentleness. It was tenderness. It was beauty hidden in thorns.

When her eyes opened, he jumped in sync with her startled shriek, dreamy expression withering to one of apologetic regret as he stumbled back up the stairs.

“Oh, sorry- I didn’t mean- the music and the door and-“

”Angel!” He paused, looking to her uncertainly, but she only took a breath, grabbing her water bottle and her towel and motioning him down the stairs. “It’s okay, I was waiting for you.”

“Oh.” Coming down the stairs, he paused, eyes roving around the room, looking at her curiously.

“How was work? Learn anything interesting?”

He stood still, hands in his pockets as she moved about the room, rifling through a set of CD’s.

His mind filtered through the events and he immediately began to speak, all business. “The Red Roses.”

“Hmm?”

”The Red Roses- they’re a group- Rebecca’s favorite customers. They hold a party for them. Some sort of orgy or something. Exclusive group. I have to go.”

She was quiet, hazel eyes meeting his. They stayed like that, and he was still, letting her mind process the information, not quite sure what to expect.

“You’re basic high priced orgy?” she flatly asked.

He gave a hesitant nod, and waited for the outburst.

None came. Instead Cordelia only shrugged methodically, and answered, “Well I guess I’ll just have to become a Red Rose. Come here.”

”Cordelia it might be a little harder than-“

“No it won’t, not for me. I’ll take care of it tomorrow. Come here.”

She came forward, grabbing his hand and pulling him into the center of the room, reaching around him and pulling off the heavy leather jacket, tossing it over the railing before moving back to the CD player, opening one jewel case, talking all the while with her back to him.

“I was trying to figure out what was making you so stiff, you know? I mean- okay, not that stiff,” she threw over the shoulder, when he shifted uncomfortably. Blithely, he wondered if they were even going to mention that, but she only added, “I’m female, you’re male, we were making with the sexy dancing, it was going to happen one way or another, and that’s the end of that.”

“Right.”

“Right. I’m talking about body wise,” she said, turning, leaning against the table, crossing her arms. “You know, wondering why some people have the movement, why you… Angel you’re comfortable with your body, right?”

He gave her a blank stare.

“After being Angelus for so many years you have to be. And you’re Mr. Warrior Guy who knows all these nifty sword things so of course you know how to manipulate your body.” She came forward, her hands now on his forearms, looking up at him. “Right?”

Still not quite sure where this was going, Angel once again nodded.

The vampire had learned from experience that Cordelia-logic required a bit of patience, if one was to get anywhere with it.

Thankfully, once she got there, there were occasionally startling bits of clarity that both astounded and befuddled him.

All part of the fascinating puzzle that was his Cordelia Chase.

“Well I know what’s stopping you. You’ve repressed that part of yourself, and that I helped with all the … eunuchy comments – and I’m not saying go and get laid, but-“

”You want me to let that out?” Angel immediately asked, worry creasing his brow. “Cordelia-“

“Angel,” she shook her head slightly. “I mean the part when you enjoy being that … sexual. The part where you… You look good, and you know you do and, you know that other people … WANT_” she trailed off, frustrated, and then came back to him. “Angel, do you know why I’m so comfortable with you?”

“I keep you safe.”

”No! I mean yes, but- the way you look at me sometimes.” She offered an almost nervous smile as his hands skimmed up hers, tangling their fingers unconsciously as his dark, intense eyes focused completely on her face. “You look at me like… there’s no one else, ever. And anything I say or do at that moment… it’s okay. I can… cross my legs and in that movement I KNOW you react. I feel…”

“Cordelia.” His face was gentle, but his smile was almost mischievous, as his fingers traced up her long neck, smoothing over her jawbone, silken smooth under his fingertips. “There IS no one else then.”

It was quiet, as both eyes focused, gazed, feasted on the other’s face.

“Do I… make you feel the same way?”

The voice was nervous, but his husky, “Yes” was all she needed for her smile to return to her face.

Lines were drawn, blurred, and once again the pair managed to work through something without ever saying a word.

Angel knew eventually they would have to talk about it, to discuss what it was that was happening between them, but he also knew that the moment words were spoken, reality would pervade with it.

The reality of a soul with a curse.

The reality of a mortal laden with visions her young body could not handle.

The reality of a future together – and a future apart.

No, there would be no discussion now.

Her fingers squeezed in his, and she whispered, hazel eyes shining brilliant, “Then when you dance, dance for me, Angel. Not any one else. When you’re on the stage, when you’re in this room, know that I’m watching, and nothing, you could do, could not be beautiful, and not be gorgeous, and not fill me with…”

One hand untangled from hers to run through the light blonde highlighted strands. The smile that quirked across the vampire’s lips ran of mischief and hidden joy, but it was the love within it that made her breathless, as he lifted one palm and pressed his lips against it, and moved forward, pushing her back, step by step, until she was seated in a chair.

His hands left hers, but his eyes never moved from her own, as he turned the knob up, until the music was loud and sensual and pulsing.

In her gaze he basked as his body began to move, the sexuality in the room impermeable, as the buttons were removed slowly, tantalizingly slow, for Cordelia’s benefit.

There was no one else in the room, but only the hazel eyes that feasted on him hungrily, blatant need, unconsummated lust, and undeniable love in his Seer’s orbs as the shirt was shrugged off, as he continued to move.

The demon within rejoiced in what little it was given, the sinfulness of the erotic dance, drinking in what the soul allowed with indulgence, and the movements continued, hands at the belt, eyes dark and dangerous and glittering.

A leather belt was dropped on the floor, hands were now at his zipper, and he heard her quick intake of breath, the heavy breathing and her choked breath.

“Stop.”

He froze, self confidence fading to be replaced with insecurity, the unzipped pants suddenly looking foolish, but Cordelia only rushed forward, palms sliding up his sweaty chest to cradle his face, and her body was warm and flushed and so very vibrant and alive.

Arousal colored her cheeks and made her eyes glitter as she gasped, “You can’t finish it here,” she whispered, eyes moving around the basement where there was only then and no one else to stop-

Her hands were shaking as she fumbled with his zipper, carefully pulling up and shakily rebuttoning.

Her eyes looked up and he swallowed, knowing she could feel his own hardening shaft against her belly, but she still buried herself in his arms, taking in a shuddering breath and holding him close.

He closed his eyes, pressing his cheek against the crown of her hair, hands gently smoothing down her back.

She gave a short, grim chuckle.

He managed a smile of his own. “What?”

“You better damn well do a much worse job of that when you do it for real, Angel,” she said shakily, “Or I’ll kick the ass of every one of those women and-“

“You think I got it down?”

Her grin was morose and just a trifle bit proud, albeit a little shaky.

“I’d say so.”

The laughter that coursed through her was infectious, and the chuckle that rumbled through Angel’s was no less shaky, but it was almost peaceful, despite the repercussions of the dance they had been playing finally coming to a somewhat awkward head.

No discussion now, no reality now.

No sex, and no kissing.

Just holding, almost as if this was something they were allowed to do everyday and all day.

Almost. But it was the almost that counted.

 
Chapter Five
--

At times Wesley wondered if he was the only one who regretted the group decision to put him in charge.

Standing around the counter, everyone’s faces contained nothing but pure resolve. There was more function, more cohesiveness since his ascension to power, and Wesley wondered if that was because of his lack of leadership or because of his ‘ability’ to allow the team to rely on their own resourcefulness.

True enough, there was none of the ‘glare and stare’ method that Angel used to prefer during his reign as the head of Angel Investigations, and the group, on large decisions, still accepted the orders from his mouth with out argument.

It seemed almost, however, that the group by and large only granted him his place when… they seemed up to it.

Wesley had come to accept that there were circumstances when Angel took orders from no one, and he allowed that Cordelia took orders from any of them only when she felt like it.

The insecurities of the recent events had given Wesley an edge, he knew that, with his solemn, grim demeanor that made them all look at him as if he were at an abyss, teetering on the edge.

Today he managed only a grim smile, nodding as he gulped down the rest of the tea and set it aside, wiping at his glasses and clearing his throat.

“Well then, shall we catch up? Fred? Gunn?”

Fred immediately looked to the taller man, and Gunn, caught in the middle of munching on a piece of toast, gave Wesley a slightly panicked look, hurriedly reaching for a glass of water to wash it down.

“We found out that Jessie and Jennifer were close,” Fred finally said, taking pity on her co-worker, patting his hand helpfully.

“Close?”

“Lovers,” Gunn managed to choke out, fully prepared to wipe his hand with his mouth until Fred stopped him, handed him a napkin instead.

The look that passed between them twisted something inside Wesley, but he didn’t comment.

“We found these.” Gunn dropped an envelope on the counter, letting Wesley reach over to pick it up, Cordelia and Angel both moving over his shoulder to pick them up.

They were silent as the trio looked.

Cordelia spoke first.

“Wow. Those are almost good enough to be on the internet.”

”They already are,” Gunn muttered. “I checked for research!” he added hastily when everyone looked at him. He blushed further when Wesley cocked an eyebrow and immediately pushed Fred in front of him, as if her smaller body could hide his larger frame. “Ask her.”

Fred just shook her head and continued with her explanation. “He disappeared without a trace. All his clothes, messages unanswered…”

“And nothing suspicious there either,” Gunn added, leaning forward. “There was even a message from Jennifer, asking him if they were meeting up that night like they planned.”

”Did you happen to-“ Gunn placed the cassette into Wesley’s hands.

“There you go, bro.” He winked.

“I can ask about the stripper tonight,” Angel offered, placing his hands on the table.

Wesley nodded, eyes focused on the counter. “Cordelia?”

“Don’t worry, I’m all set on my end. I’ll be making my appearance as the ‘rich bitch’ tonight as well.” Her face defied the chipperness of her voice, looking strained and a little tense. “I’ll keep an eye on this Rebecca girl and of course, try to get into the secret society.”

“Be careful.”

“I’ll be watching her,” Angel assured Wesley.

“Not as much as I’ll be watching him,” Cordelia shot back, and when Angel blinked, she only winked, causing him to smile down at his hands.

“Well,” Wesley began in the silence that followed, suddenly feeling like a mismatched fifth wheel. “We need more information. I’ll look up this symbol that Angel gave me.” He fingered the sketch, eyes narrowing as the turned the tattoo over, “But I can say it looks like nothing I’ve encountered in my books before.”

“Fred and I will keep looking over this whole Jessie/Jennifer connection,” Gunn said.

Wesley smiled as the group all nodded, assignments in place.

“Then let’s be off.”

Cordelia immediately moved to the stairs, followed by Angel, Gunn to the lounge to grab his coat, leaving little Fred, who stared at Wesley with a hesitant, nervous expression on her face.

Wesley sat at his desk, worked for a minute, and finally looked up to find Fred still staring at him.

A small, gentle smile caressed his features and he asked, “Something on your mind?”

”Oh! Am I botherin’ ya! I can go, I mean-“

“Fred, of course you’re not bothering me, please, sit.” He pulled open the chair on the side, and she sat, hands now fidgeting in her lap.

He sat back in his chair, almost amused at the anxiousness had it not been for her eyes.

“Fred? What is it?”

“I umm… well I would talk to Cordelia about this- but you know- and-“

“Fred whatever it is, I’m sure I can help.”

“I wanna get somethin’ fer Gunn.”

Wesley paused, blank shock filling his features for a second before she continued with her fidgety hands, “His birthday’s coming up in a few weeks.”

“It is?!”

Fred nodded, licking her lips and leaning forward. “I just found out… he’s very private.”

“Obviously,” Wesley muttered, shifting in his chair, more bothered than he wanted to admit at not knowing.

Fred was quiet, and her face twisted into a delicate frown as she finally shifted in her seat, and sighed. “I’ve never had a boyfriend like Gunn, Wesley.”

“Boyfriend?” he repeated, eyes jerking up to meet with hers.

Her palm slid to her mouth as her expression turned horrified. “I’m jumping the gun, aren’t I?” she breathed. “There I go all assumin’ things and-“

“Fred-“

“It’s only been a date and a couple of kisses- okay three- four but that’s all and well why would we-“

“Fred-“

“Ah mean Gunn prolly has lotsa girls-“

“FRED!” Wesley reached forward, grabbing her by the shoulders. When she jumped slightly, he flushed, jerking his hands away.

“Yes?”

”Gunn likes you,” Wesley finally said, moving back to the chair, swallowing down the confliction. “All right?”

“Gunn likes you a lot.” Fred squeaked, and whirled around to find the large black man leaning against the doorway, a quirk of a smirk on his lips.

“CHARLES!”

“Hey, baby doll.” He came forward, holding out her coat as she stood shakily, almost quaking in her boots.

“You didn’t happen to hear-“

“Every word,” he confirmed, smiling at her. “And feel free to throw that word ‘boyfriend’ around a lot more.”

She gave a small whimper as he chucked her chin gently, settling her coat around her shoulders and then wrapping his arm around them as well.

Wesley watched them go, and despite the lonely ache in his heart, he couldn’t help but smile, just a little.

--

Male bonding was something Angel never did well.

The vampire had very logical reasons for not getting involved with other members of the human race: that being that he was well… a vampire.

Humans were food.

The demonic impulses that once roared into his ears had now dulled slightly, Angel had come to appreciate that thanks to the friends he had inherited- human friends.

Every day with human bodies had lessened the impulse, the demon still pounding away inside of him, but the resistance had grown stronger, with Cordelia in his arms, Wesley and Gunn’s scent in the air, Fred’s complete obliviousness and determination not to fear him, what he was.

He knew Cordelia and Gunn never forgot what he was.

He never forgot what he was.

He had no choice.

Standing in the room with the half naked men, some who boasted about the conquests they made, others who simply came into the room to change and then went about their business, Angel began to wonder exactly how adapted to this type of reality he really was.

Humans, with their heartbeats and their scents and their male dominance issues.

He sat in the corner, eyes narrowed as his eyes roved over the different floor boys, lesser men than he, he knew, the way they moved away from him, almost as if afraid of his presence.

All except Brian, who came to his side of the mirror, nodded his head indifferently and began to run a comb through his hair.

“Where the hell is the gell?”

“Oh.” Angel jerked, shifted under his ‘tools’ and produced the desired bottle of gel.

Brian plucked the bottle away from Angel and shot him a glare, shaking his head.

“Ever try to be sociable, man?” he muttered.

Angel was quiet, eyes moving around the men. “It’s not my style.”

Brian snorted, burying his face into a towel. “Yeah, man. Whatever.”

Angel considered, eyes locking onto Brian’s frame. “Hey. I used to know a guy that worked here. Jesse.”

Brian froze, hands moving away from his face, expression wary. “How’d you know him?”

“Mutual friends.”

The dark eyes riveted onto Angel’s own, swirling with what seemed a hidden agenda, before the black man pursed his lips and shook his head slightly. “Quit a couple weeks back.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“Wouldn’t happen to know where he went?”

“If you’re such good friends wouldn’t he have told you?” Brian snapped.

Angel sighed, nodding. “Yeah okay.”

“Get to work.”

One of these days Brian was going to find himself impaled to the wall with a pair of Argentinian hunting knives.

Giving a growl so low it was barely perceptible, he shifted off the counter, heading toward the door when Rolando burst through the door.

“Check out the latest mamacita,” he winked and closed the door.

The men all gave a look, and suddenly everyone moved to the entrance.

The vampire followed, eyes narrowed as he pushed past the men, opening the door, letting the loud, pulsing music drift into his ears.

His eyes searched the room, not finding anything out of the ordinary until he sniffed, and a very familiar scent pervaded his nostrils.

His body rigid, Angel pushed the other men out of the way, eyes searching and finally locking on one Cordelia Chase.

His best friend had never looked so much like a sex kitten.

Dressed in blood red, Cordelia’s dressed was long, slinky, and tight.

She took a step forward, and it became apparent that the slit that ran up her left leg was high, too high in his opinion. Angel’s hands clenched into fists as Cordelia cast a sultry glance around the club, eyes darkened with makeup and lipstick red and sexy as sin.

This wasn’t his Cordelia Chase.

In her eyes was a dark glare, in her walk was an authority that presided over the entire room, as she took another step and the slit parted to reveal more of the milky, silken thigh, calves accented by the red high heels, and hair spilling over in tumbling curls.

Curls?!

Angel blinked again, trying to figure out how the hell Cordelia’s hair had grown in the space of half a day.

Every step she took seemed familiar some how, and Angel turned his head, cocking, trying to place when on earth he had seen his Seer work a room like she did now.

When she moved past a group of screaming women, arched an eyebrow at the half naked man dancing and then turned away with ill disguised boredom, the clarity hit Angel in the gut.

Queen Cordelia of Sunnydale High had just entered the building.

Behind him he heard muttering, the usual comments from the men he worked with, and this time he stifled the urge to rip every single head off, reminding himself blatantly that he wasn’t supposed to care about … her.

Not here. Not now.

Even if every fiber in his being screamed for possession.

“New player?”

The feminine voice made him turn, and Angel nodded, not moving from the palm placed on his bare shoulder, looking back to where Cordelia sat, in the darkest corner, looking conspicuous as hell and not giving a damn.

“Showed up in a limo,” he heard behind him. “That’s what Maury said.”

“Hmm.” The wheels in Rebecca’s head were already turning, and she smirked, as her gaze fixed on Cordelia Chase, palm squeezing Angel’s shoulder. “She’s a hottie.”

Angel managed a pained smile and that was all.

“Angel,” she said breezily, “Let’s get her a drink.”  She quirked her finger and he followed behind her, picking up a tray and avoiding more butt pinches as they weaved their way around the circular tables, ending at the table where Cordelia, finally being bothered enough to notice them, only gave Rebecca another trademarked arched eyebrow.

--

She had never realized just how soft she had become until Cordelia had been forced to regress to her former bitch queen self.

Despite the accomplished actress she had become, there had been a little bit of an ache as Cordelia stepped outside of the limousine, taking the hand of the valet and walking forward, the expensive dress sliding effortlessly against her skin, head held high.

It was a state of mind, a lack of utter concern for other’s opinions and the knowledge that you were the best damned looking person in the room.

She had forgotten how… nice feeling like this was. The walls safe and protected, icy exterior that kept everything out.

All the pain, all the emotions- the lust and need for awareness the only fuel one needed.

And when she stepped into the club, alone and tall and untouchable, she realized why she hadn’t missed it that much.

The loneliness that came with it- it was difficult to step into a room and be completely alone.

She had forgotten about that.

But she swallowed down the emotion, absorbed the stares and used them, as she gazed at the crowds of women, allowed herself to feel the disdain for their petty inferiority and moved to her own table – HER table, claimed before she had even entered, because she was royalty.

Her hazel eyes were cold as they moved over the other woman in her room, the other women who were just like her, rivals in bitterness, callous cold longing for any kind of connection.

They were all here for the same reason, weren’t they?

In the other plush chairs, red roses pinned to their cleavage, they were there, eyeing her over glasses of champagne, in Gucchi shoes and Prada purses.

She stared back, knowing the power struggle, savoring it, remembering it well.

Her heart beat inside of her, and when the woman in the dark black suit came forward she was expecting it.

What she was not expecting was Angel right behind her.

Her breath sucked in and Cordelia nearly trembled, but her face revealed nothing, as she only smiled primly,  nodding her head as the woman who was obviously the owner settled down across from her, a curious, overtly friendly smile on her face.

“I haven’t seen you here before.”

“Not surprising considering it’s my first time,” she answered easily, meeting the woman’s hand for a brief, firm, delicate shake. “Victoria Chase.”

“Rebecca Hull. Do you mind?”

“Please.” Rebecca sat, crossing her arms and staring at Cordelia, eyes flecked with unabashed interest. “It’s our custom, first drinks on the house. This is Angel, he’ll take your order.”

Cordelia’s eyes finally shifted to meet the familiar darkness of her friend’s. Angel stood, a smirk that reminded her just a little of Angelus as he cocked his head, the tray in his hands.

”Let me guess,” he drawled, as her eyes raked appreciatively over his body. “Apple martini?”

The intensity in his gaze made her shiver, and Cordelia had to smile, forcing herself to restrain her movement to only a nod, turning back to the hostess.

Rebecca wore a knowing grin.

“Same for me.”

Angel nodded, moving back, weaving his way through the crowd. Cordelia took a breath, swallowing, eyes unconsciously marking every ripple of the muscle of his back, every turn, and every woman that turned to look in his direction.

“Quite a specimen isn’t he?” Rebecca chuckled, turning to watch him go.

Cordelia forced another lazy smile on her face, nodding, almost cursing herself as she felt the heat of her face giving away the blush.

“This is a beautiful place you have, Rebecca. And I don’t just mean the men.”

“Though they are high contenders. How did you hear about us?”

Cordelia let the lie slip easily off her tongue, flippant and almost disinterested. “My boyfriend flew me in, but of course he had a meeting, and I was left to entertain myself. The concierge filled me in.”

“Mmm. What hotel?”

“Le Meridian.”

“Beverly Hills.”

“I wouldn’t stay anywhere else.”  Cordelia smiled, reaching into her purse and extracting a twenty, flipping it on the tray as Angel set the drinks down, again letting their eyes connect.

The thump of her heart was easy to ignore as her mind went to work, knowing that a woman like Rebecca was already filing that information away in her brain, most likely to check up on as soon as she left Cordelia’s presence, and once again Cordelia mentally thanked David Nabbit for his connections.

The lights went down and the music filled the air, distracting Cordelia, and Rebecca smiled. “Well, I’ll leave you to enjoy the show.”

“Thank you Rebecca. Nice meeting you.”

“Likewise, I hope you enjoy your stay.”

Cordelia’s eyes again connected with Angel’s, and this time, she made sure Rebecca heard the breezy, husky tone, the smile that slid on her features almost wolfish as she remarked, “I’ll make a point of it.”

Rebecca noted it, and Cordelia leaned back, raising the martini to her lips, watching Angel as he moved away, dark eyes on her, always on her.

He was concerned, she could catch it, but it was only a split second before he left her to play his own part, moving with Rebecca’s prodding to the group of Red Roses that were seated on the other side.

Cordelia took the moment to study the room.

Dark, it was clear that the feudal layout was not accidental.

The entire place was posh illustrated. Woman wore dresses, the working men all wore bow ties, despite the fact they wore little else.

Woman with less money crowded to the front of the stage, jostling and whistling and laughing with other, waving dollar bills for the men on the stage.

The men took their time, however, for the woman in the elevated platforms, seated in darkened corners, their tables large and luxurious.

The woman who didn’t scream, but watched coolly, almost as if assessing their surroundings as if at an auction.

Cordelia memorized the glances they gave the men, the cool way they looked them up and down, the way they clasped Rebecca’s hands as equals, clients…

It was clear which group she needed to be a part of, and when Rebecca turned and gave her another study, Cordelia just licked her lips and smirked just a little.

She was well on her way.

--

The cool demeanor on the woman who gave him such smiles was amusing to a point.

It also made him ache.

The two encounters with Cordelia, watched closely by Rebecca, had left him shaking with need and a little bit of anger.

Angel gave a slight sigh, and turned away, moving away from Cordelia, and decided to keep away for the rest of the night.

His control was fragile, and the result of this particular mission would be great jeopardized if he continued the flirtation.

He couldn’t go near Cordelia after that, the Red Roses dominated his time, as the women with the roses on their ample cleavage, with their expensive perfumes and gold glittered rings, slid hands over his palms, over his back, whispering in his ear and sliding hands into his pockets.

The urge to jump away at the violations had died the first night, and Angel only moved away, smiling as the pretty young rich married girl kept her hand on his thigh, definitely wanting more than a drink.

And still, his Cordelia did not look. Her eyes were still inspecting the room, fingers curled delicately around the stem of her martini, sipping it with those blood red lips of hers, eyes floating over the men who attended her with mild interest.

To see the look coming from her was disconcerting, twisting something inside of him and again he turned away when the fingernails of Rachel delicately raked up his forearm.

Her palm wrapped around his wrist with surprising force, and suddenly his lips were on hers, her tongue forcing her way inside his mouth.

Stilling the shock, Angel growled slightly, giving her one harsh kiss and then pulling back, grateful when Rebecca appeared, shaking her finger at Rachel.

“Naughty, naughty, Rachel,” she said with a laugh. “That’s not how we do things.”

Angel gave a shrug, plastering a grin on his face before turning, muttering something about a break to the bartender and letting the scowl float over his face as he moved to the side exit.

In the cold, night air, he could finally breathe, and although he had no physical need for it, he did, taking in the cold air into his dead lungs in an attempt to clear his frazzled head.

Her scent was almost immediate, and he turned, eyes catching hazel as she closed the door behind him, on her face confliction and unreadable anger before she suddenly came forward.

Her body pressed against his and her hands cradled his head in a strong grip as she leaned up.

His lips were plundered, soft skin moving against him that hit him with such emotion he trembled, eyes closing and immediately wrapping his hands around Cordelia’s slim waist, pulling her closer to him still, gathering cloth into fist as his lips continued to move possessively on hers.

When she broke away, she was gasping, her eyes were glittering and the intensity in her stare made him burn, harden against her.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, fingers trembling against his face, caressing his lips gently. “I know that- but I just… wanted to be sure… of you-“

He gave her no other time to speak, instead he pulled her up firmly against him, dipping his head again and catching her lips with a low moan, pushing forward until she was pressed against the brick of the building, her body flush against his.

Her kiss was searing, hot liquid that coarsed through him as he kept her pressed against him, legs moving around his waist, leaving his hands free to roam over his best friend’s body, tight and hot and sweet.

Fingers crept around his neck, her lips broke free for one ragged gasp before they were on his again, moving against his with such ferocity, passion and confliction.

“Ahem.”

The outside voice broke their bubble, and Angel froze, burying his face into Cordelia’s shoulder, felt her stiffen against him, knowing she felt the problem, because she kept her hand on the nape of his neck, hiding the ridges of his face in the crook of her neck as she spoke to their interrupter.

“Rebecca.”

The angry moan almost escaped, came out a whimper, as he pushed down the game face, rubbing his face against Cordelia’s shoulder and finally pushing her back, letting her go to regard Rebecca’s angry stony face.

--

SHIT.

Angel’s hands were gentle on Cordelia’s waist as she was let down, and she had no time to bother with shaky knees or her rapidly beating heart as the club owner gave them both a glare.

“Angel. You know the rules.”

Cordelia’s eyes shot to Angel, but he only gave an uncaring shrug, a sheepish smile on his face that said, ‘Can you blame me?’

“The rules?”

Rebecca crossed her arms, her voice cold as she said, “We don’t allow this. This is a business.”

“Oh.” Cordelia smoothed down her dress, licking her lips and leaning against the wall, letting the stone cold face take over.

“She didn’t know,” Angel said quickly.

“But you did.”  Rebecca was quiet, her one no nonsense as she motioned to the door. “Get inside. Rachel’s asking for you.”

He ducked his head, careful not to meet Cordelia’s eyes as he moved around her and to the doorway.

“Angel.”

He paused, and Rebecca didn’t take her eyes of Cordelia as she added, “Another incident like this and you’re fired.”

He nodded, indicated he understood, and when he entered the club, Cordelia was left with the pieces.

She pulled out her compact, checking her hair and reapplying her lipstick as she said flippantly, “I didn’t know, I’m sorry.”

“You’re new, you’re entitled.”

Cordelia’s eyes flickered to Rebecca’s, and a small smirk floated on her lips. “You’ve got a damn hot Floorboy, Rebecca.”

“Mmm. I noticed you eyeing him.”

Cordelia shrugged.

The hostess leaned against the club. “So how’s David Nabbit?”

Cordelia’s head swiveled and when Rebecca smiled, Cordelia only nodded. “I’m impressed.”

“I have good connections.”

“David is just fine. He’s in a meeting again. He doesn’t ask what I do, I don’t complain about the long hours.” Cordelia’s voice was low, husky, but her face betrayed none of her inner turmoil, and Cordelia had to concede, she was a damn good actress.

“How long are you in town?”

“A week,” Cordelia answered breezily. “Just here for a little fun.”

Rebecca nodded, and then pushed away from the building, walking to the door.

She paused, her face clearly indicated that she was thinking, before she turned back to Cordelia.

“How about a little more fun?”  Her cocked eyebrow indicated her curiosity, and Rebecca smiled, white teeth almost gleaming as she pushed a bang out of her face. “An intimate affair at Donald’s.”

“Donald’s?”

“My partner.”
 
“How intimate?”  Cordelia asked.

The grin became clever, stunning almost on Rebecca’s face. “Almost intimate enough for two. The entrance fee is a little steep but, I can guarantee, a slightly more comfortable arrangement with Angel.”

Rebecca didn’t spell it out, and that was part of the test, Cordelia knew. She worked it out for herself, knowing what Rebecca was proposing, and pretending to consider the offer.

“I get a guarantee with Angel?”

“You have my word.”

Cordelia smiled, a prim smile of a cat who had just swallowed a canary. “I’m in.”

“Great. I’ll send the invitation to your hotel.” Rebecca turned back, and once again faltered, before turning back. “One more thing.” Her hand moved to her lapel and she plucked off the red rose, placing it into Cordelia’s hand with a pin.  “You’ll need this. See you inside.”

The door closed behind her, and Cordelia was left in the alley, holding the red rose in her palm.

--

Donald shifted his feet, wincing at the crash as he turned, seeing the ice sculpture now in two pieces on the floor.

The servant gave him a panicked look, and the older man rolled his eyes, breathing out a heavy sigh.

“Pick it up, and it comes out of your paycheck.”

The servant nodded, and motioned to another man, as the two men carried the broken ice sculpture out of the room.

Donald moved into the center of the room, eyeing the couches and the tables that were set up.

Intimate affair his ass…

“Every time she plans these things they get-“ The cellphone rang, and with an almost growl, Donald yanked it out of his pocket. “Hello?”

“Donald.”

“What?”

“How’re the preparations?”

He muffled a curse. “We just lost the ice sculpture.”

“Well, I would worry. It’s not like these women come for the food.”

“Right.” He shook his head.

“Make room for one more. And I want the special room.”

“Oooh. Sounds promising.”

“She’s got potential.” He heard the chuckle, could almost picture his partner leaning back in her office chair.  “And it’ll be Angel’s first time.”

“The new guy? He’s fast.”

“He gets the job done.”

“We’ll see.” He clicked the phone shut, and moved forward, jogging up the stairs, past the row of bedrooms, feet sinking into the lush carpet and moving into the inconspicuous room on the left.

Once inside, he took a breath, and looked over the room.

Flipping on the light, he viewed every monitor, rechecked the wires, and made sure that every monitor had a clear view of every bed in every suite.

He nodded.

Every camera was working.

Rolling his eyes, he turned back to the door, and let himself out, locking the surveillance room behind him.

Chapter Six
--

If his heart could beat, he guessed it would most likely be pounding right about this minute.

Angel leaned against the closed door, eyes drifting closed and reopening as he fought the urge to pull it open and reconfront Rebecca.

Cordelia could handle herself, she could handle the situation and use it to her advantage. He had come to expect that from her.

He had come to trust that in her.

With a deep breath in, he shoved away from the door, pulling at the collar with the bowtie in disgust, steps faltering when he realized where he was.

Rebecca was outside, and Cordelia was keeping her occupied.

And Rebecca’s office was wide open.

Angel paused, morphing into vampire face briefly to take a deep breath in, sniffing the air for intruders.

Finding none, he quickly moved to the office, reaching inside quickly to snatch a tape from the wall and move back to the dressing room.

He didn’t see the camera following his every move.

--

The trouble with details was that there was always so many.

Fred Burkle squinted, taking in a breath and pushing her pencil further into the pencil sharpener, grateful for the mechanical whir that accompanied the grating of the pencil.

Pulling it out, she studied the sharp point, found it to her liking and turned back to her notes, pages and pages that she had written herself.

A computer was a wonderful tool, but there was still the click that Fred searched for, the one nanosecond where everything made sense.

Nothing was right unless it made sense, and this case wasn’t right. Nothing was right with this case.

The details were there, in the writing, the connections, possible and improbable, scrawled out beneath them, and they were all connected within the sheaves, there was a connection and possibility and it was only a matter of time before she found it.

The thump, thump in the next room was tuned out, and it was only when her eyes drifted up because she was living in equations did she realize Gunn was still in the hotel.

Her mind still swimming with possible connections and clicks, she didn’t register the fact right away, instead looking back down at the papers and muttering to herself quietly.

“8:29, he left the club, 9:00 she was shot… he was last seen at 8:45 and she was ten blocks from his house…”

Sitting up, she pushed the chair over to the map on Wesley’s desk, frowning as she took her pencil, and a compass, and carefully drew a circle over the area, pushing a thumbtack into both areas, and another at the club.

Pursing her lips, she stared, pushing up her glasses, trying to find the pattern, the rhythm.

There was something in the other disturbances… a pattern… a switch…

It wafted through her mind as her fingers grazed over each thumbtack, each disappearance…

The club should have been at the center.

But it wasn’t.

The center was-

“OWW!” Jerked out of her click, Fred suddenly pushed away from the table, stumbling to the door and peeking out, panic flitting over her features.

”Gunn?”

Her boyfriend was standing in the middle of the lobby, holding a bloody hand, pain etching on his features.

“Charles! What did you…” Coming forward, she carefully took his fingers in her palm, studying the ragged cut.

“It’s nothin’ Fred,” he insisted, trying to jerk his hand away.

But Fred was already wiping, reaching with her free hand to Cordelia’s desk, finding a Kleenex. “Are you all right?”

“Just got knicked by a dart, it’s stupid.” Charles had a sheepish expression on his face, but Fred caught none of it, too caught up in her own concern.

Frowning, she rubbed at the cut, wincing at his indrawn hiss, and looking up with a frown. “You’re right, it’s not that bad.”

At that, Gunn’s face fell a little. “No, huh?”

She gave him a small smile. “I once had my arm almost severed from my shoulder in Pylea,” she drawled, giving a half shrug.

His face changed immediately. “Oooh. And Ouch.” Her fingers tightened around his palm and she gave him a smile, expression softening slightly when he grazed her cheek and gave her a sincere grin.

“I’ve never met anyone like you, you know that?”

The warmth that came so easily with Gunn flooded through her again, and Fred gave a slight sigh, before suddenly the click came again and her eyes widened.

“OH!”

Moving back, she rushed out of the lobby and into Wesley’s office, sliding back into her chair and shuffling through her papers.

“Fred?”

“Jennifer wasn’t like the others!” she began excitedly. “She wasn’t rich, and well… male obviously, and she wasn’t a stripper, and she was new… the others were rich and had been coming to a club and no bodies had been found!”

She looked up with eyes glittering as Gunn listened, hands in his pockets, but attentive.

“You see she was different than the others, and the key is in that! The key is in this Jesse guy…”  Moving back to the map, she quickly began drawing circles, and then quick, short lines. “Jennifer is the connection… but to what?”

Straightening up, she found herself yawning, hand reaching up to cover her mouth as she closed her eyes in frustration, mind whirling but tired, refusing to want to try and keep up with her rambling thoughts.

Large hands fell on her small shoulders, and Fred leaned back grateful, letting out a soft sigh of contentment as Gunn began to knead into her tired muscles.

“You realize it’s almost three in the morning, right? You’re running without a full tank of gas, Fred.”

She gave a small whine of protest, shaking her head emphatically, “But the click-“

“Will still be there tomorrow,” he said gently, turning her until she was facing him. A soft grin slid over his handsome features and he chucked her chin. “Come on girl, a few hours of sleep won’t kill you. Wes and you and me will figure this whole thing out tomorrow.”

“But-“

”You ain’t alone here anymore, Fred. We’ll figure this out together tomorrow.”

The statement brought a smile to her lips, and she found herself slumping her shoulders in defeat, letting out a sigh and allowing Gunn to lead her out into the lobby.

The door opened, and the couple looked up curiously as Cordelia entered the room.

The hazel eyed ex-princess looked tired in her beautiful dress with beautiful curls, and despite the obvious beauty, for once, Fred did not envy her.

She seemed haggard.

“Hey, Cordelia,” Gunn said. “How’d it go?”

“Being perfect is not all it’s cracked up to be,” she replied, shuffling down the steps and flopping down on the orange couch in the middle of the lobby. “But I got into the exclusives.”

Her curiosity got the better of her and Fred excitedly blurted, “Didja see Angel?”

Cordelia’s expression was amused, Gunn’s- not so much.

Fred blushed, waving to Cordelia to ignore the question.

“Did you guys find anything here?” Cordelia asked instead.

“Fred’s almost got the click.”

Confusion flitted over Cordelia’s features, but Fred only nodded. “It’s almost here.”

“Oh-kay.” Cordelia pushed herself to her feet, and then moved toward the stairs. “Is Angel back?”

“Nope.”

The Seer wavered, head snapping back. “He’s not?”

“No,” Fred said, coming forward, fingers knitting together. “Probably still working…”

”Oh, I BET he’s working,” Cordelia muttered, sliding fingers through her extensions. “Whatever. I’ll be at the hotel.”

“Cor, we’re at the hotel.”

“Fred? Can you explain to the big dumb fighter over there I mean the hotel I’m supposed to be staying at to make sure my cover isn’t blown?”

”I got it,” Gunn said, squeezing Fred’s shoulder when she turned to explain.

Fred obediently closed her mouth.

“I’m beat, so I’ll see you guys in the morning, okay?”

“Bye, Cordelia.”

Fred wondered at the tired reflection in Cordelia’s tone. Her eyes, ever observant, noted the slumped shoulders, the regal walk that seemed weighted with doubt, and even as strong hands led her upstairs, her eyes were still noting, taking in everything.

It was nagging her.

There was still something missing.

--

It was three in the afternoon when Angel stepped into the Lobby to find Wesley seated at his desk, silent, a stern expression on his face as he moved through files and folders.

The vampire noted that the mantle of leadership took its toll on the young Watcher. His tie was loosened, but he still seemed suffocated. Angel wondered blithely when Wesley came to the realization that leadership often became more trouble than it was worth.

A leader didn’t do the job because he wanted to, but because he had to. Inherently it was second nature because there was no one else.

And with each decision the danger of losing the lead was more and more discernable.

Coming forward, he pushed back the chair, meeting Wesley’s gaze with a slight smile as he held the tape in his hands, shifting it between palms as he waited for Wesley to finish with his work.

“Angel,” Wesley muttered, leaning back finally, letting out a sigh as he took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped at his glasses.

Wesley was the only guy he knew who still carried around those things.

“Hey Wes, how’re things coming along?”

“Slowly.” Wesley gave a grim smile. “Unfortunately, this is becoming trying. Gunn and Fred’s investigations, while informative, only seem to add more pieces, and the clues refuse to fit together neatly.”

“Maybe this will shed some light on it,” Angel said, putting the tape on his desk.

Wesley took the videotape, grazing fingers over it before casting curious eyes at his companion.

“From the office?” he asked.

Angel nodded.

“Perhaps it might.” He began to move out of his chair but Angel stopped him with an outstretched hand.

“Actually, Wes, before we go to work…”

Wesley sank back into his chair, dark eyes focused on Angel’s face. “Yes?”

There was something odd about the situation, centuries old vampire shuffling in his seat in front of a former member of a Council whose sole purpose was to rid the world of his kind.

But Wesley was a friend.

“Things got a little out of control with Cordelia last night.”

Wesley seemed neither surprised nor worried. Instead his expression was unreadable, as he leaned back in his chair, pushing out a breath.

When he said nothing, Angel nervously shifted his feet and continued to speak, “She handled it but… it’s not the same anymore.”

“I see.” Wesley’s lips pursed, and the cold eyes focused on him again as he pressed his fingers together. “Angel you’re telling me this because?”

Startled at the brisk statement, Angel licked his lips, leaning back. “Well… I was thinking…”

“Advice? I’m hardly the person to come to for that. The truth? You know that as well as I. There’s a matter of the curse.”

“But Wesley-“

“The fact of the matter is you left Buffy for this very reason, Angel. You know the truth as well I do, there is no need to go through it all again. Nothing can come of it.”

The short answer had not been what Angel had been expecting. Prickles of anger and indignation gave way to hurt, and he found instead of snapping, he merely responded with a small, “I’m not sure I can go back to thinking any way about Cordelia but as mine, Wesley.”

The Watcher was not swayed, but as the stare continued, he softened slightly and said in a more even tone, “Angel, sometimes not everything we want is what is best. I’ve learned that the hard way.”

“Hello?” The voice in the lobby cut the conversation short, as Cordelia placed her bag on the orange couch and came forward, waving to them as she entered the office, brushing errant bangs away from her face.

“Good morning, Cordelia,” Wesley said briskly.

Angel gave her a soft smile, but she only gave him a grim smile back.

The reaction settled something cold in his stomach.

“What’s that?”

“Angel brought it from the club. I was just about to watch it.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Cordelia’s night at the hotel had been a rather sleepless one. The extensions were difficult to work with and messy, the make up that had been caked on required quite a bit of ritual to be removed, and as she sat in front of the mirror in her suite, Cordelia had been allowed time for thought.

And regrets.

The truth was, she was playing with a melodramatic fire, and something far worse.

She was playing with Angel’s feelings.

The stem of her own emotions regarding the vampire were erratic and at times undefinable. The nature of their relationship had never been questioned until it had twisted and turned, moved in such a way that she was watching strip teases and coming to regard him as HERS, and the switch had been so minute that it had slipped over without her catching it.

Things might have been complicated before, but now the only option that was left in Cordelia’s head in a forkless road was to pretend it didn’t happen.

Her eyes met Angel’s and when her heart gave a shudder that seemed to ache, she wondered exactly how easy that was going to be.

She would have to talk to him, she did owe him that much.

In truth she owed him much more.

Five minutes later, Fred had come down the stairs and Gunn had arrived with their breakfast, and seated around the counter, the impromptu meeting had begun with the watching of the tape.

Fred’s face was one of almost interest combined with embarrassed disgust.

Wesley only looked curious, Gunn had his mouth slightly open and Cordelia herself felt the overwhelming fear and dread creep over as the security camera caught every movement that the couple made under the covers.

“This isn’t a snuff film, is it?” Angel asked.

Beside him, Cordelia slowly shook her head, using her finger nail to point out the bowtie and the red rose that lay on the floor, small specks on the screen.

“No, this is an orgy.”

Her eyes locked with his and suddenly his mouth parted in realization, before heat shuddered down Cordelia’s spine and she groaned, fingers tangled in her hair, palms hiding her face.

As her mind roved over possible ways to avoid what was becoming increasingly clear to her and Angel, the others quickly discussed the ramifications of the tape.

“This must have been what Jennifer was talking about,” Fred said, pushing forward and pausing the tape, eyes squinting behind her glasses. “They videotaped the sex.”

“These red roses… Rebecca Hull must have video-taped everything.”

Gunn put it together first, eyes swiveling towards the unusually quiet Angel and Cordelia. “Wait. Cordelia, didn’t you say something about a red rose?”

Panicked, Angel jerked his head to Cordelia.

The Seer gave a muffled whimper and held up a single red rose.

“Crap.” Wesley sighed, sinking into his chair.

Fred’s eyes flitted between Angel and Cordelia, and her face went red.

“You didn’t happen to get an invite to this little orgy, did you?”

Face still buried by one palm, Cordelia reached into her purse and plucked out an invitation.

Angel took it, opening it and reading the contents, before closing his eyes and setting it on the counter.

“Oh. I guess that’s a ‘yes’?” Fred asked, sliding off the counter and staring at the invitation.

“It’ll be all right.”

When everyone gave Angel a look, he valiantly tried to keep the anxious shake out of his voice, making it a point not to stare at Cordelia.

“It will,” he insisted. “We can fake it.”

“With cameras?” Cordelia finally looked up to face Angel, hazel orbs darkened with conflict.

Wesley rubbed at his temples, knowing the implications as well as anyone. “Perhaps it would be… better… “

“Yo, man they can’t skip. This is the one break we’ve gotten.”

“That’s not what I was suggesting,” Wesley said slowly.

“You’ve got another idea?”

Everyone stared at him, and he forced out the suggestion. “Perhaps taking up with … other partners for the night.”

In theory, it was a sound plan. Sex was something Angel and Cordelia could pull off, if it wasn’t with each other.

But Cordelia looked horrified, Angel dismissed the thought immediately and both ground out, “NO.”

“I wasn’t suggest-“

“Wesley I’m not having SEX with a male whore just to get a lead, okay?”

“And what about Angel?” Fred put forth, fingers twisting in her hands. “He … ‘cause the clause-“

“Actually…” Angel began, but let the sentence die when Cordelia shot him a glare. “Cordelia and I can fake.”

“I don’t think that-“

“Wesley it’s the only way.” Cordelia shuddered visibly, cheeks flushed and eyes watery, but her tone was firm. “We can’t afford to pass this… we’ll figure it out. Angel… can I talk to you?”

Immediately the vampire nodded, and together they moved out of the office and into the basement, closing the door behind them.

The quiet in the office was disheartening.

Gunn shifted from foot to foot. “They haven’t figured out they love each other yet, have they?”

“Actually they have,” Wesley mumbled between fingers pressed to his mouth, staring hard at the door.

“Oh.”

Fred stared at the door, feeling her heart sink slightly, looking back at the men. “Do you think they can do it?”

Wesley sighed, rubbing at his scalp before sitting up. “Personally I believe when we miss personal with business, one can never tell.”

“I think they can do it,” Gunn said resolutely.

The faith in their friends warmed Fred, and she offered him a smile.

Wesley gave him a skeptical glare.

”I do,” he said again. “Cordelia and Angel aren’t dumb. They know what’s at stake.”

“Do they?” Wesley asked, crossing his arms. “Perhaps this is the one time we ask what is more important: the mission or…”

“Angel wouldn’t-“

“I don’t know Fred,” he said heavily.

The silence descended again, and all three looked toward the closed door.

--
 

“We’re not going to be able to pull this off, are we?”

Angel and Cordelia were standing on opposite sides of the large room, avoiding eyes until she spoke.

He looked up, saw the grim sadness, and managed his own small protest. “Maybe we can.”

She shook her head, blew out her breath, “Angel, if what happened last night hadn’t happened, if I had been able to control myself then MAYBE, but if I can’t even-“

“Hey.” Coming forward, his touch was gentle, hesitant on her shoulders, until he was sure she would allow it. Offering her a soft smile, his hand cupped her chin, forcing their gazes to lock. “Cordelia there were two pairs of lips.”

“Yeah. And that’s the scary part.”  She pulled away, moving past him, removing her warmth and leaving him feeling cold.

“Cordelia-“

“We have to talk about it but not now, not until this is over.” Her voice was resolute, her tone leaving nothing to argue, as she crossed her arms, barring herself from him, from allowing him to try to hold her again. Her eyes were moist, but strangely hard. “If we’re going to pull this off we’re going to have to stop with the training, stop with the seeing each other anywhere but at this party and at the club.”

“Cordelia-“

“It’s the only way, and you know it.” He pushed out a breath, unclenched his fists, and nodded.

They couldn’t be friends now, not with what it led to. Business only, between friends, because if they had to pretend to be lovers the line couldn’t be blurred.

“You’re right.”

Cordelia swallowed, not looking at him in the silence that followed. “I’ll stay at the hotel, the OTHER hotel, and I’ll get Fred to fill me in, until after the party.”

Again the reality of who he was came back to haunt him, and Angel cringed, oddly grateful for the reminder of the soul, of the danger, and oddly hateful of his very nature that kept him from the reality-

Things would never be easy. Not with her, not with anyone.

But with a Seer to whom he was bound… it was nearly impossible.

“I think we could have done it,” he muttered.

She rose an eyebrow.

“Well you really think I could have performed with camera watching everything?”

Her mouth threatened to tug into a smile with a twitch.

“Never filmed, huh?”

“Never had to.” The grin was almost wolfish, and the awkwardness broken, Cordelia smiled.

The trembling came so quickly that he hardly had time to react before she was on the floor screaming in pain, clutching her head.

In half a second he was next to her, pulling her into his arms as her body writhed under the pain of the vision, her screams sliding through his body and searing his soul.

“Cordelia…”

It was over as quickly as it had become, but it left the formerly erect girl a quivering mass of wounded flesh in his arms, limp as she buried herself in his embrace.

Unseeing, Angel pressed his lips to her hair, pulling her closer, the sounds of feet pounding down the staircase signaling the others had heard the cries as well.

Fred paused, and then muttered an almost silent ‘oh dear’ before she piped up with a panicked, “I’ll get the pills and water!” before clamoring back up the stairs and yanking the door open.

Wesley’s face was gentle as he pulled Cordelia away from Angel’s embrace.

The tightening of his arms and growl came almost instinctively, and when Wesley gave him a look, he realized what he was doing, and hesitantly loosened his hold, letting her breath as her eyes opened.

“Cordelia? Wha’d you see, girl?” Gunn asked, hands on his knees.

“Uh…” her voice was shaken, masked with pain as she leaned back into Angel’s arms, eyes closing as she took several ragged gasps. “A room… a statue… people in hoods… tattoo on the right hand of the lead guy…” She shuddered and Angel tightened his hold again, and she welcomed it, whimpering into him. His right palm stroked her hair softly.

Wesley’s eyes were tinged with moisture, but he pressed, “Cordelia?”

“A woman… they sacrificed a woman to this statue… oh God…” her eyes opened as the tears drifted down her cheeks freely. “She’s got a red rose on her lapel.”

--

“How is she?” Angel asked immediately, coming into the room, pulling on the jacket as Gunn sank into the chair.

“Sleeping. Fred stayed with her,” he said, rubbing at his bald head. “Says the pills were helping. Should be okay for the party tomorrow night.”

“And the headache?” Wesley turned from studying the map, coming to hear what Gunn said with Angel.

“I don’t know.” Gunn bit his lip, shrugging at the question. “She won’t talk to me about it. Fred said she’d try to pry, but the last time she tried to talk to Cordelia about the visions she wound up calling Cordelia Angel’s bitch so-“

“She did?” Angel asked, his voice harsh.

Gunn turned his head, and at the blanched expression, hastily explained. “Lassie. She called Cordelia your Lassie, But you know Cordelia. Female dog- Angel’s bitch.”

“Ah.”

Angel looked slightly uncomfortable.

“Angel shouldn’t you be-“

“Yeah, I’m on it.” He walked toward the door, and paused, turning back. “I’ll keep my cell on. If you hear anything-“

“I’ll give you a ring.”

Angel stepped toward the door, and turned back again. “When I get back you’re teaching me to use my voice mail.”

Gunn gave him a smirk and turned back to Wesley, who was already seated behind the desk.

“Location?”

“Already on it,” Gunn said, sliding the chair forward and watching as Wesley went back to work. “But Cordelia could only sense it was in a big house, I looked up the dude’s Address, Donald Guy’s, it’s pretty mansion like.”

“And no timeframe?”

“She didn’t know.”

“Bloody hell.” Wesley groaned, running fingers through his hair, looking tired and frustrated, and not nearly happy.

Gunn frowned. “Hey Wes? You okay man?”

“Not particularly no,” Wesley responded, looking up. “I can’t find the damn symbol Angel described in any of these books, we’ve got a potential sacrifice but we don’t know where or when it will take place, Cordelia and Angel will have faux sex in a matter of days and-“

“Okay, I get all that,” Gunn said, waving his arm. “But that ain’t what I’m talking about.”

Wesley paused, confused.

“Ever since that bastard Billy you’ve been-“

Interrupted by a heavy sigh, Gunn closed his mouth as Wesley stood, reaching for a book and plopping it into Gunn’s lap. “Look for the symbol here.”

“Damn. Shut me up why don’t you.”

“And before I forget you owe Lorne an apology.”

Gunn’s jaw tensed slightly, as Wesley turned back to his desk and began scribbling away.

“Yo, man. That ain’t gonna work. You don’t gotta be all pissy just because-“

“Gunn, drop it.”

“Fred don’t blame you for-“

“DROP it.” The hands slapped at the table and Gunn jumped, eyes narrowing at the uncharacteristic behavior.

“Wesley… man, this bottling things up ain’t good for you.”

“You’d like the truth, Gunn?” Wesley snapped, eyes flashing. “All right then, since everyone is SO intent on focusing on MY problems when we’re in the middle of the case, out with it then, I don’t understand why someone as horribly conflicted as Angel or yourself can possibly be pivotal for these women and why I’m destined to be alone. I don’t understand the anger in my heart and I don’t understand the fear. What I do understand that had it not been for one night, things might have ended up differently and you wouldn’t have gotten to her first.”

The words came out in a torrent, and Wesley regretted them as soon as they were said.

Gunn was startled, the hurried rush of words taking a minute to process through his friend’s thoughts, but the blank expression did nothing to alleviate the stress.

Slowly, the words sank in, and Wesley swallowed down the guilt as Gunn shifted in his seat.

“Oh.” The younger black man leaned forward, hands tangled together to form on fist as his elbows rested on his knees. “Damn.”

Wesley was quiet, turning away, taking in a breath.

“Shit, Wes,” he heard behind him. “You… damn… you should have told me before. You should have told me.”

Wesley placed a hand on the bookshelf behind him, attempting to steady himself.

“Gunn,” he began heavily.

“I would have stepped aside man, I would have done that for you.”

“Gunn-“

“But it’s too late man. It’s too late. I asked you and you said go for it and I need her now. I need her Wesley.”

Wesley closed his eyes at the implication, at the hurt in Gunn’s voice, at Gunn’s need not to get angry.

“Charles,” he turned, coming forward imploringly. “I have no intention of acting on any of these feelings. I’m sorry-“

“Don’t,” Gunn snapped, the anger finally seeping through, the body tense and tight. “Don’t- she’ll feel guilty and… shit man you should have told me.” He shook his head, body almost trembling. “I think I love her Wesley.”

“Gunn-“

“That’s a fact, man. And I’m gonna make her love me. Don’t get in the way of that.”

There was enough street in the sentence to make Wesley understand completely, and even as the anger clouded Gunn’s eyes, Wesley had to admire the man’s restraint.

“I understand, Gunn.”

Charles swallowed, and then leaned back in his chair, opening his book.

“Where’s the picture of that symbol?”

Wesley handed it to him silently, and Gunn took it, perusing the pages.

As Wesley sat down, Gunn offered one last sentence.

“Get some help, Wesley. No one should carry those issues alone.”

Wesley froze, and closed his eyes, but Gunn said nothing else on the subject, and relieved, Wesley began his work.

When Wesley ventured a request about a certain file, Gunn answered him, and neither spoke about the rift that seemed gruffly apparent.

PART 2



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