Reconstruction

Name: Diane
Email: aria5@vt.edu
Synopsis: Post-Epiphany. The A-team struggles to get back on track, but with Angel's soul in jeopardy, things are tense, at best.
Rating: PG-13



"What the Hell is this thing?!" Gunn cried frantically as he took a swing at the gray, bulbous creature, slashing away at it with his homemade battle axe. He wasn't having much of an effect, if any.

Angel grunted as he raised his hand to block a claw with the outside of his forearm. Four of the six demons had instantly picked him out as the most formidable and dangerous of the group. Although relieved that most of the threat was surrounding him instead of his friends, he couldn't help but worry. He was tired, very tired. His running list of bodily damage had mounted from simple impalement to include bludgeoning, falling damage, and worse, all within the last twenty four hours. Vampires had stamina, but he knew he couldn't take much more of what these things were dishing out, especially on his low reserves.

"It's a Baynor! Stab at its solar plexus!" Wesley cried from somewhere behind him, his voice thick with carefully controlled anxiety, and Angel hoped that it wouldn't develop into panic. He doubted that Wesley had been prepared for battle demons of this caliber, let alone six of them in his current state. He and Cordelia were sharing the last remaining demon, and thankfully with Cordelia there Wesley was at least able to keep the thing at bay.

Gunn ducked as the snarling demon lashed out with a scaly foot. "Where the Hell is that?" he asked, dodging more frantic blows.

A pause as Wesley beat at the demon with his cane. "I'm not entirely sure!" was the former watcher's response.

"Jeez, Cordelia, you coulda mentioned that there was going to be more than one of these things, augh..." Gunn groaned as a claw met with his shoulder.

"I didn't KNOW there was going to be more than one," Angel heard Cordelia snap back. "All the PTB told me was Topanga." She sounded annoyed, but under that brave and calm exterior tone, Angel could identify a hint of fear.

This had to end. Now.

Angel snarled as two clubs came down on his back--all his luck that the armed ones had come after him. He kicked out with a booted foot and swept it under one of the large creatures that towered over him. The demon had become unbalanced from Angel's previous rain of blows, and went to the ground with a howl.

Leaping to his feet, Angel swung his claymore high and arched downward--a killing blow meant to decapitate the crippled Baynor. But one of the demons to his side knocked him out of the way with a clawed hand. The sound of tearing flesh filled the air as it opened a large gash across his shoulder blade. Flipping the sword over, he grunted and knocked the demon away with and upward swing of his claymore's hilt.

Angel desperately wanted to spare a glance to his three comrades, hoping that they were faring better than he, but he couldn't afford to. All his senses were devoted to determining his opponents' next moves and dodging the four hulking Baynors that had obviously learned strategy somewhere, as they were not kind enough to attack him one at a time.

He could smell the battle rage bleeding from the demons' scaly hides like sweat. He relished it. He fed off it.

Stabbing outward with his blade, he caught one of the demons in the upper right region of his torso. The thing wailed in agony and fell to the ground, racked with spasms before it grew still and silent. "Upper right shoulder!" Angel yelled hoarsely as the three demons left beset him with bitter fury. One of their comrades had been felled, and they were NOT happy about that.

With a vicious and calculated strike of vengeance, they all slashed out at once. Angel managed to dodge one and block a second, but the third skewered him in the quadriceps with a claw. Defensively, he bared his fangs and hissed, instinct driving him to make himself look as threatening as possible. The hair on the back of his neck bristled, and he ducked just in time as another claw swept past his neck--so close he could feel the disturbed air as it whistled by. Extending his claymore into the gut of one of the Baynor demons out of pure reflex, the demon faltered, but it was too low to have much effect other than to anger the other creature.

He leaned back on his good leg and thrust out again, this time taking out one of the three combatants before throwing himself into a duck and roll. A claw swiped at his back and sent stinging pain roaring down his skin as though a stream of holy water were fleeting across his torso. He shrugged it off as best he could and wobbled to his feet.

Angel's vision was getting dim, and his muscles were starting to feel leaden and sluggish. A scaly fist impacted with his left eye, probably helping along the shiner he already had there from the sledge hammer, but he managed to grab the arm and twist it over him, effectively sending his attacker to the ground as its balance shifted out of its control.

He brought his blade down into the fallen Baynor, directly into the spot that had killed the last one. The thing twitched spasmodically for a few seconds, screamed, and went silent.

Two down. Two to go.

And those remaining two? They were pissed. Anger was guiding their movements more than strategy now. Their blows were more devastating in strength, but more easily avoided because they were telegraphing their moves. Angel was able to take a third out without much issue.

The fourth one went down shortly after, just as Gunn took out his own opponent and he fell to the ground himself. Angel sniffed the air. He could tell from Gunn's breathing rate and heartbeat that he was stunned, but all right. That left Cordelia and Wesley versus one very ugly, very annoyed demon. Wesley could barely walk with the gunshot wound he was nursing, and Cordelia wasn't much of one for combat, even if she did try.

The Baynor had raised its slashing claw and began an arch downward that would surely decapitate Cordelia. The air whistled as the sharp instrument of death began its descent. For Angel, the world started moving in painful slow motion. Cordelia turned towards the blow, her eyes widening as she saw the sharp, scythe-like claw splitting air as it fell towards her. She started to dodge, but Angel could tell that she wasn't going to be fast enough.

Angel lunged forward with a last, adrenaline-powered burst of energy. He knocked her and Wesley to the ground, twisting his body so that he took the claw in his battered gut rather than his neck. Growling, he righted himself and threw his body into the snarling Baynor demon. The jarring blow knocked them both to the ground with a thud, and the claymore flung from his failing, blood-slick grip with an echoing clatter.

He groaned, fighting the sweet urge to stay on the ground and let the darkness take him. With a mighty heave, he flung his feet up in an arch, using the momentum to throw him into a standing position. For a few precious seconds, he wobbled about with precarious balance before he managed to center himself, but the demon was stunned and didn't take advantage of it. Lashing out, he smashed his left foot into the creature's stomach. He had hoped to keep his opponent on the ground as long as possible, but the calculating Baynor grabbed his ankle and yanked, twisting Angel into a tumble followed by a crack as the bone refused give any more.

Angel screamed and gnashed his teeth against the pain. He attempted to gain enough balance to get up despite his waning strength, but he paused when his hand struck something cold. His claymore. With a grunt, he gripped it and rolled around, stabbing upward at his opponent.

His aim was true and the demon twitched as the blade went though his torso. "The Feast of Souls is upon you," the creature hissed painfully.

Angel struggled to his feet, wincing as his left foot was graced with his weight. "What?" he whispered, choking slightly as some blood was brought up from his heaving lungs. He suspected that one of them was punctured.

The Baynor clutched his clawed hand around the blade and its glowing green eyes creased in pain. "Home office..." it whispered and then went silent.

All at once, that familiar sinking feeling set into him, as if he were falling fast and hard towards the ground. Home office. No. Not now...

Angel hissed in agony, keeling over as his weight took him to the cold floor. "Angel? You a'ight, man?" a somewhat fuzzed voice said from somewhere above him. Gunn. Gunn had woken up, he thought deliriously.

A warm hand set itself on his cheek. He blinked, trying to clear his vision as the fleeting touch sent him further into the welcoming embrace of unconsciousness. "Shhh, don't try to move." He felt the whisper more than heard it. Cordelia.

The hand brushed his brow, despite his demonic visage. It almost felt like old times. Almost.

He smiled weakly and let the darkness take him.

*****

When he came to, he immediately wished that he hadn't. Everything hurt, and his gut was riddled with an old and familiar pain--he needed to feed. Badly. Need was tearing at the inside of his torso as if it were a living, breathing mass trying to rip out of his skin.

Gasping, he forced the vicious bloodlust back with every calming exercise he could think of--from deep breathing to counting sheep--until he had convinced himself he was at least mildly safe to be around.

He cracked an eyelid open and took in his surroundings. The sweet scent of old leather and exhaust tingled in his nose as a cool breeze blew over his broken skin like a soft caress. There, in front of him, was pale, worn leather rising up to meet a lightly fingerprinted glass pane of... His convertible. He was in his car, curled up in the back seat.

There was a warm body next to him, a few inches to his left. Cordelia. The faint, musky smell of her perfume couldn't disguise her own, personal scent.

He let his eyes fall shut, knowing he was safe.

"I think maybe we should have put down that drop cloth he keeps in his trunk," Cordelia said. "He's bleeding all over his upholstery..."

For a moment, it registered somewhere in his head that he should respond, or make some general effort to save his sacred car, but Angel was too tired and hurt to protest.

"Hey! I was just saying. No need to get all glare-like," she growled, either to Gunn or Wesley. He didn't really care.

Two simultaneous sighs from up front. Cordelia shifted next to him.

"So," Gunn began after a pregnant silence, "We drop Angel off at the hotel to recover and then we go back to the office and get down to the research stuff, right?" he asked.

That got his attention.

Angel jerked his eyes open, despite his developing headache. "What?" he asked, feeling his stomach start to sink.

Gunn look startled at Angel's sudden wakefulness, but he made no mention of it. "Well," he clarified, "We have to figure out what that stuff Big Ugly said was."

Wesley looked perplexed. "Yes--I've seen references to the Feast of Souls--they've been vague at best, and the Home Office is completely new," he said, his voice growing more and more excited.

Home Office. He'd forgotten about the final confrontation with the Baynor demon until now--partially from the pain, but partially because he had not wanted to think about it. He knew they wouldn't like it, but he would tell them.

Angel grunted as he tried to force enough air out of his lungs to form intelligible words. "Home Office. Wolfram and Hart," he managed to wheeze. He closed his eyes to the angry stares of his three companions.

Damn.

Cordelia's angry face was the worst. "No. Don't you dare start with them again..." she warned, but her voice broke a bit at then end of her sentence. The pain in her tone was almost tangible, and Angel wanted to curl into the seat.

The car stopped abruptly as Gunn pulled up in front of the Hyperion, and Angel winced at the sudden motion. "This doesn't have anything to do with... before... I'm serious," he said as he sat up. "It's Wolfram and Hart. They must be planning something."

Wesley stared at him coldly. "Angel, we will not let you work for us just to get back at them," he stated, his voice strangely calm--disappointed.

"This isn't about revenge," Angel insisted, forcing himself out of the car. None of them made any move to help him, even as he stumbled against the door, a lance of pain shooting up his leg and through his torso. Trying to remain standing was becoming a failing effort.

Cordelia rolled her eyes. "It's probably Darla..." she spat nastily.

Angel cringed at her tone, but something inside him just snapped. He slammed his hand on the door of the car. "Look, Cordelia," he began, "I've been very worthy of all of your bashing lately. I was stupid to let myself get so wrapped up in my Sire. I was even more stupid to think that I could somehow save you all from myself if I fired you, and I am SORRY that I couldn't balance myself on that damned pedestal you had me displayed on."

He took a deep breath to center himself before he continued. "I fell. I fell hard. And I was in a very dark place for a while, a place I don't care to return to. But if you think that I would ever sink low enough to come back to you under the guise of an olive branch just to renew my vengeance spree, you don't know me at all." His voice was cold and angry.

All three of them looked stricken. Gunn was the first to respond. "A dark place? A dark place!? How do you think it felt to be sitting by a hospital bed in ICU, prayin' that the occupant would wake up?"

Angel stared at him. "I wouldn't know. Cordelia kicked me out when I came," he snapped back.

Wesley gasped. "You... you came?"

Angel could tell from the look on the ex-watcher's face that he hadn't been informed of that little detail. Gunn looked surprised as well. "Of course I came," he replied. "You were my friends. And I'll admit, I'm bad at the friends thing, but even after months of trying not to, I still cared about your well-being. I still wondered how you were. I still missed you..." he whispered, his voice breaking as he felt the tears threaten to come.

"Yeah, you showed us that so well by firing us, too," Cordelia said sarcastically.

Silence. Wesley and Gunn just stared in amazement at Cordelia's boldness.

Angel swallowed. "I didn't want you to see me fall."

"Maybe you wouldn't have fallen if you'd kept us around," Wesley suggested hesitantly, but his tone was not condemning like Cordelia's was. He seemed to truly want to understand.

Angel let loose a bitter chuckle, despite his growing dizziness. "I doubt it. I was a walking disaster, and you know it."

Cordelia folded her arms over her chest. "Darla," she growled, her teeth almost visibly gnashing.

"Yes, Darla. But I think it would have happened eventually anyway," Angel added darkly.

Cordelia raised a doubtful eyebrow. "Did you kill her? Is that what brought about this epiphany?"

Angel looked at the ground, unable to meet any of their eyes. They would never understand if he told them that he had let Darla go. "No, I didn't kill her. I couldn't."

"Enlighten us, then," Gunn finally interjected. "What brought about this sudden change of heart? Because I sure would like to know how a stubborn, uncaring bastard can turn back into a caring cuddle-vamp in less than a day..."

Angel took an unnecessary breath. "I tried to lose my soul and it didn't work." The weight of guilt began to pound heavily on his chest. Let them fill in the blanks.

"You..." Cordelia whispered--Angel could almost see the puzzle pieces falling together before her eyes. "How could you be so selfish?" she asked, her voice stricken with sudden offense.

"Because I went to the Home Office."

All three of them looked at him, confused.

<You see, if there wasn't evil in every single one of them out there, why, they wouldn't be people...>

He squeezed his eyes shut against the memory of Holland's cruel speech--everything he had ever hoped for had been stepped on. He had wanted to feel something. Anything. So be it if it was as Angelus--he had needed a connection. And Darla had been there. Holland, through his awful truths, had set him up perfectly for it--that burning need to understand things again.

"You know that light at the end of the tunnel I used to talk about?" he asked.

Cordelia nodded mutely, her eyes flooding with tears, but none fell.

"Let's just say someone blew up the tunnel."

More confusion.

He looked down at the ground, unable to look at them. The hunger was starting to gnaw at him again, and he felt his legs threatening to give out underneath him. "I'm tired. This conversation is finished," he stated sadly and left them staring back at him as he entered his dark sanctuary.

He didn't even make it up the stairs before he collapsed in exhaustion.

*****

Cordelia, Wesley, and Gunn walked sullenly back into the new home of Angel Investigations. "Well, that was fun," Cordelia stated with a sigh as she plopped herself down in the chair behind the desk.

Wesley turned to her. "Did you really send him away?"

She looked up at him, her eyebrows raised in inquiry.

"When I was in the hospital," he clarified.

"Yes. I told him we didn't want him there," Cordelia replied with a shrug.

"He cared. He actually cared," Wesley said with an awed whisper.

"Yeah, so?" Cordelia huffed. She looked like a bird whose feathers had been ruffled. "He never cared that we cared..."

"I think he did, Cordelia..." Wesley whispered, a hint of self-recrimination in his tone. "I think he did."

"Right, which is exactly why he screwed someone into the wall. Because he cared that we cared," she snapped, unwilling to let go of her anger.

Wesley turned to look at her. "Don't you understand? He was trying to kill himself."

Gunn let out a low whistle. "Didn't think of it like that," the he said quietly. Even Cordelia looked stricken, despite her obvious anger.

Wesley winced as he remembered Angel's words.

<I was in very a dark place for a while.>

That was what Angel had meant when he'd said that--that he'd tried to kill himself, or at least, get himself killed. And yet, he hadn't said it, not outright, and certainly not to draw pity from them.

He remembered the countless times Cordelia had ridiculed Angel about Darla, and the few times he had chickened out of talking with the elder man over tea. They had never been really supportive of Angel's decisions in the last year, driven Angel to lying to them in order to escape their nagging. And yet, in all of his rant, Angel had not once put the blame on them.

The bell on the door rang and a small blond head poked through the opening hesitantly before she stepped fully into the office. Wesley's mouth fell open into a gape.

"Detective Lockley..." he said. "What are you doing here?" he added more cautiously.

She stood quietly in the center of the room, her blond hair pulled back into a high pony-tail. Her arms were folded over her chest, but it didn't seem like a gesture meant to make herself seem more intimidating as it was usually. Rather, it appeared like she intended it as a protective motion, as if she were nervous. Something was different about her, and Wesley couldn't quite put a finger on it.

"Angel. He mentioned that he would probably be here for a while before he left earlier... I guess he's at home then? I'll go there..." she explained her voice rushed. She had barely let silence fall over the room before she was turning to leave.

Wesley blocked her path, quickly maneuvering with his cane between her and the door. "Angel's probably sleeping right now. Is there something we can help you with?" he stated cautiously, feeling a strange urge to keep Angel's enemy away from him. The vampire needed time to recover... His friend needed time to recover.

"Sleeping? It's not even light yet," she mumbled to herself before looking him in the eye. "I just... I wanted to talk to him some more, about... what happened. I... I don't know..."

Wesley raised an eyebrow and relaxed his stance somewhat. She didn't look threatening at all, and usually she went out of her way to let the world know she and Angel were not friends. There was none of that now. "Detective?" he prodded.

Kate smiled. "I'm not a detective anymore--Kate will be just fine..."

"Not a detective?" Cordelia interjected, her tone hostile. She had not yet come to the conclusion that Wesley had.

Kate shrugged. "My obsession with Angel and all the strange casework kind of got me fired..."

Wesley was awed. She lacked any form of condemnation--she could have just as easily been talking about the weather. This woman looked like she had finally found some peace. He smiled. Her air of inner-contentment really became her.

"Oh, and you wanted to go blame him for it, is that it?" Wesley suggested, trying to goad her into finally stating her motive.

"No. No, I was actually going to ask him for a job..."

Silence filled the room. Wesley had prepared himself for an unexpected answer, but... Definitely not that. She had changed a lot. That much was clear.

"Why?" Cordelia finally asked, curiosity overcoming her.

Wesley looked at Kate, searching her eyes, trying to find some indication that his conclusions were wrong, but try as he did, he found no deception. She appeared to be entirely serious--her blue eyes were unwavering, her face warm and welcoming. She was an entirely different person than the one who had tried so many times to hurt their former boss.

"Because I understand what he's fighting for now. I want to help him. It's the closest thing to a cop I'll ever be again," she explained, her posture relaxing as her threat assessment finally came back negative.

Gunn rolled his eyes. "Well, isn't the world just full of epiphanies today..." he said as he leaned back to the wall.

Wesley looked at the blond ex-detective again. Epiphany certainly seemed to be the right term, no matter how sarcastic Gunn had been when he'd said it. He was still having difficulties resolving this image with the woman who had stormed the Hyperion without a warrant, and he couldn't help but wonder what could have made her take this one- eighty.

Kate glanced at him and then shifted her gaze around the room. "I'm taking it that the fences aren't entirely mended between you guys..."

Wesley sighed. He briefly wondered if the souled vampire was all right before he forced himself back to the current conversation. "No." Cordelia looked about ready to interject some sarcastic comment, but he continued before she had a chance. "We're working on it, though."

"Some of us are," Cordelia grumbled. Gunn nodded in agreement.

Wesley was infuriated by her words. Angel had admitted he was wrong--something he knew that Angel hardly ever did, let alone to an audience. Angel had saved their lives twice in the last two days alone. He still cared. He had shown up at the hospital. All he wanted was forgiveness... He wasn't pointing fingers or laying blame anywhere but at himself. The least she could do was be civil about it-- agree to disagree until such time as the fences could be mended.

But, then, he also had to force himself to remember that Cordelia wasn't as mature as she looked. At barely twenty, she was bound to fall prey to her emotional conflicts from time to time, and certainly far more often than Angel-- perhaps that was why they had been so unforgiving with him. The contrast between how she and Angel dealt with things of a personal nature such as this made him remember how much older Angel really was.

And to be honest, Wesley really missed the vampire's companionship. If Kate, who had hated Angel far more than he ever could have, could actually bend enough to ask Angel for a job, something really must have happened. Maybe Angel really had had the epiphany he had claimed to have.

Wesley looked at Kate and then back to Cordelia. "Come on," he mumbled to the blond as he turned. Kate looked somewhat confused, but fell into step behind him.

"Hey!" Cordelia cried after them, "Where are you going?"

"To Angel Investigations," Wesley stated calmly as he ushered Kate out the door, leaving Gunn and Cordelia behind in the small office.

He and Kate were in Angel's convertible, driving back to the Hyperion before he could even blink an eye. "What made you forgive him?" Wesley found himself asking the blond woman. He couldn't contain his curiosity any longer.

She looked over at him from her position behind the wheel. She had offered to drive in light of his injury--an offer that he had readily accepted. "He saved me before he even tried to save himself..."

"What?" he asked. Her cryptic reply almost seemed like something Angel would say.

"Do you know of any way a vampire can get in uninvited?" Kate asked, suddenly switching subjects.

Wesley blinked, but took the dodge in stride. She was uncomfortable discussing this, and he assumed that the best way to talk with her would be to let her do the conversational steering. A curious question, coming from her, he thought. But it made him think. He liked questions that did that--another reason why he liked Angel. The vampire was well-read and very intelligent. When Angel could be prodded into casual conversation, or even debate, the result was usually splendid. But, he thought with a weary sigh, back to the question at hand.

"No," he replied after careful consideration, "No magic will ever break that rule. Vampires can never be where they're not wanted, at least when it comes to dwellings."

Kate nodded, her eyes never leaving the road. "That's why."

"Pardon?" he asked.

Kate smiled a wan, knowing grin. "I figure that if someone up there thinks he's important enough to break a natural law for, he's got to be worth a second chance..."

Wesley's mouth fell open slightly before he clamped it back shut again. "Are you saying he got in somewhere, completely uninvited?" That would be... That would be remarkable. What kind of power would that take? He turned to watch her response.

She nodded. "And I'm alive because of it."

Wesley stared at the road. "That's incredible," he whispered. It certainly brought a new meaning to divine intervention. He couldn't help but smile as he imagined the moment. Would Angel have done the gung-ho thing he usually did and not even noticed, or would he have paused in wonder? He would have to ask some day when things were less tense between them.

Kate parked in front of the looming hotel and smiled at him. "Yes, it is."

She got up and walked around to his side of the car, helping him up into a standing position. "So, fill me in," she said. "What happened when Angel came to you?"

Wesley shrugged. He remembered the conversation vividly, and the more he thought about it, the more he wanted to kick himself for his reaction. "We went out on a case, Angel killed all the demons, saved all our lives, again, got attacked by us the moment he tried to share some pertinent information, threw a well-justified tantrum, and left," he summarized with a wince.

Kate raised an eyebrow. "Tantrum?"

"Well, it was more of a 'I'm a terrible person, here's why' speech cleverly disguised as a tantrum," Wesley amended with a reluctant grin. He realized that Angel had done all but slap a giant red sticker on his forehead that read, "I'm wrong. Punish me."

Kate smiled back at him. "Ah," she replied.

"I hope he's all right," Wesley added as they approached the door. He noticed that none of the lights were on and hoped that it was just because Angel had been tired. "He was pretty knackered when he left."

They entered the Hyperion, and Wesley glanced around. It was the first time he had been there since he had been fired. His lips parted in horror. "My lord," he stated at the piles of case files, layers of collecting dust, and the general oppressive darkness of what used to be a bright and welcoming lobby. If the neglect the room had suffered was at all indicative of what Angel had been through...

<I was in a very dark place for a while.>

His stomach clenched when he looked at the floor by the reception counter. There was a pool of congealing blood on the floor, and spatters of red all across the floor--a path of crimson vitae that lead right up to... "Angel," he whispered as his mouth went dry.

The vampire was huddled on the steps, perfectly still and silent. Wesley felt his skin crawl as he stared at the crumpled form--so like a real corpse. He shuddered at the thought of what potentially might have happened if no one had stopped by to check on him.

"Kate?" he asked softly. "Go get some blood from his quarters. Unless he's changed his habits considerably, he keeps it in the refrigerator."

Kate nodded and left him there, cradling the vampire in his arms. "How did we ever let it get this bad?" he sighed. Only silence met his question. The beaten vampire didn't move. "How could we have fallen this far apart?"

Again, only silence.

*****

She glared at the door, but Wesley didn't come back through it. Not after five minutes. Not after ten. Not after an hour either. She glanced at Gunn, who had remained leaning back against the wall, before she returned her stare to the doorway.

How could he have done that? Puppy-eyes. That had to be it. Wesley had fallen for them. "Fine. Be that way," she muttered under her breath, not caring how juvenile it sounded.

Gunn looked at her, his eyes questioning. She sighed, her gaze softening. "Gunn, you don't have to defend me. Just go back to him if you want."

Gunn shook his head and leaned back against the wall, hands cross behind him to pillow his head. "Nah. I can wait," he replied coolly. He seemed almost unaffected by this mess. How could he be so damn strong? Almost like Angel, in that respect.

A spear of pain lanced through her head, and she vaguely heard Gunn say "Vision!" as if it were something she didn't already know. She would have rolled her eyes at him if she weren't already keeling forward. Her head smacked downward, but, luckily, Gunn caught her before she hit the hard wood of the desk.

A weight crushed down on her chest without mercy. Couldn't breathe! She choked and spat. God, oh God, why was it dark? Oppressive. Dark.

She sucked in a breath as if that would help, but the weight was too heavy. Too insurmountable. Despair. She was drowning in despair... Self-loathing.

Despair.

<It's a SON I wished for. Instead, God gave me you -- a terrible disappointment...> a disembodied voice called, deep with age. Anger.

<Disappointment? A more dutiful son you couldn't have asked for. My whole life you told me in word, in glance, what is is you've required of me and I've lived down to your every expectation, now haven't I?>

Cordelia knew that voice.

Heavy breathing. A small drop of water hit her face, a single, salty pool of grief. Sobbing... <No tears.>

That was Angel's voice. An accent, yes, but Cordelia had heard that pop out a few times when he got upset. Angel... Where was he?

<It's a SON I wished for...>

<I'm weak. Just this once, let me be strong...>

Angel. Such weeping in his voice. Such sadness.

<Close your eyes.>

Pain. Grief.

<You kinda left them in the cold...> The Host. Was that the Host?

Confusion.

<It's a lot colder in here!> Angel again.

Despair. Crushing. Death. Pain...

<Why are you laughing, don't you feel the cold?>

Blackness. Pain. Screaming...

A hollow cry of agony.

<See, the world doesn't work in spite of evil, Angel, it works with us, it works because of us. You see, if there wasn't evil in every single one of them out there, why, they wouldn't be people--they'd all be Angels...>

PAIN -- lancing through her chest. She clutched at herself, trying to keep from spilling outwards into the despair.

<I just want to feel something besides the cold.>

She shivered as a sudden frost enveloped her.

<It's a SON I wished for...>

Anger.

<The cold.>

Her teeth chattered.

<Cold.>

Someone screamed. A keening wail. It shattered her.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

There was something in the corner. Naked flesh. Angel. Curled in a ball, repeatedly thumping his head against the cold stone. Blood was streaming down his forehead from the repeated impacts--a river of death, but he didn't seem to notice, so intent was he on mumbling to himself.

"Angel?" she whispered, bending down next to him. His flesh was so cold... so... pale. She touched his temple. Death. She drew her hand back in shock, red and pained with his blood.

Crimson life. Crimson death.

Mumbling. Pain... Such bitter agony. The feeling made her grimace.

Hurt.

"Why? Why? Why?" the broken vampire said with each smack into the wall.

Angel grunted and she backed away. For the first time she noticed the lash marks cris-crossing his back. The griffon straddling the 'A' on his shoulder was shivering right along with him.

"Gee, Cordelia, I always knew you were one to watch..."

She snapped her head around and was greeted with a leering Angel. The smile... She knew that awful, chilling smile. Angelus...

"Angel can't play right now, Cordelia," Angelus said with a toothy grin. He cracked the whip down on the huddled vampire's back. The crumpled form crumpled even further. She wanted to intervene, but she was frozen in place.

Staring.

Angelus laughed and brought down the whip again.

And laughed.

"You know, they tried so hard to let me out, and you just wouldn't let them." CRACK!

Angel whimpered and then went silent as the whip came down again.

"Almost had it that night with Darla..." CRACK!

Angel wasn't moving.

So much like death...

"You're like a fucking cockroach... You just won't go away..." CRACK!

<It's much colder in here...>

"But we'll change that. Soon. The Feast, Angel, The Feast..." CRACK!

She screamed.

"Cordelia?" a voice echoed somewhere to the right of her. "Cordelia?"

She blinked, and straightened herself, peering into Gunn's concerned eyes. "We have to go. Now," she said, still reeling, becoming sick to her stomach. What had all that been?

"What did you see?" Gunn asked as he helped her stand.

Angel.

She had seen Angel. She wanted to scream because the sight had made her want to cry. Damn it...

No! She wanted to be angry... Grrrr, she thought to herself, trying to muster some form of anti-Angel feelings.

But...

Poor Angel... The surrealness of it all, had that been his mind? God, she didn't want to know. The pain and despair had been pouring off the walls in that place like waves. Tidal waves. A very dark place. She clutched her head as the migraine set in and clamped around her head like a metal vice.

<I was in a very dark place for a while...>

The battle was lost.

Before she could stop herself, she was crying. Gunn looked like he wanted to comfort her, but didn't know how. "Hyperion," she managed to blurt as he guided her to his truck. Her balance was precarious, at best, but she was able to stumble her way into shotgun.

The silence as they drove the nighttime L.A. streets was deafening--as if silence itself could be a thunderous roar. Cordelia sighed and leaned her head against the window, tear tracks slowly drying. Damn it, why did Wesley have to be so noble? So forgiving? Angel had hurt them. How could he simply forget? She thumped her clenched fists against the dashboard.

"Do you think he had an epiphany? Do you really think he's changed?" Cordelia asked with a sigh. She wanted so much to believe that Angel was Angel again. She wanted so much to believe that she had her best friend back... And, Angel had looked genuinely shocked when she'd accused him of hooking back up with them to get to Wolfram and Hart.

Gunn shrugged--a careless gesture that seemed to broadcast, 'witness my lack of emotional attachment to this situation.' Cordelia almost found herself believing his Kevlar facade. "It would be nice to believe that..."

"But?" Cordelia prodded, wiping her eyes.

"I... When I see him, I want so much to believe he's not the same thing that killed Alonna. He's just made that hard for me lately." His voice was quiet, barely above the roar of the truck's engine. It held none of the manly bravado that had been present moments before.

Cordelia groaned. The past months, she had been scared. Scared that one night Angel would become too dark and Angelus would be born. Scared that some time when she needed it most, her fear would be gone, and that all she would be able to see was Angel, Defender of Good, rather than the true Dark Avenger that he had become.

And, as much as she professed that no one there had as much experience with Angelus, she knew it wasn't true. While Gunn hadn't met the evil version of Angel, he had been forced to kill something with the same face as someone he loved. He'd been there--looking into cold eyes that had once housed friendship and love. He'd been there.

Her situation seemed to parallel Gunn's more than she would have liked to admit. It was obvious to her that Gunn held a soft spot for the ensouled vampire, and now he was angry at himself for letting one develop. He had gotten used to that anger, fed off of it, and now he was reluctant to let it go. He didn't want to open himself up for future damage...

She propped her head on the window with a sniff. Why did she have such a big problem with apologies, anyway? Why? Was it because that if someone was apologizing to her, it meant she had let them in close enough to her to hurt her? She had thought that in the last year she'd grown into a bigger person than that.

Apparently not.

God, I'm sorry... Cordelia looked at Gunn and then back to the dashboard as he pulled up to the Hyperion.

Sorry. <I'm sorry...>

Angel had tried that already, and it didn't fix things. Not really... What good would it do her?

*****

The first few things that he became aware of were that he could hear, that he felt terrible, and that he wasn't alone.

"Damn!"

"No luck?"

"Let's just say Angel was actually justified when he said we took all the books..."

He blinked and tried to move. A mistake. Lancing pain shot through him as though he were a special conductor for it, but at least his hunger was sated for once. Strange...

"Angel?"

Four blurry shapes were suddenly thrust into his view. No, he corrected. Two. The four shapes coalesced into two. He squinted against the pain. He recognized that voice he had heard earlier, but he didn't want to get his hopes up--he didn't dare.

"W... Wesley?"

Blurry shape number one nodded. "I would ask how you are, but I would suspect the answer is not good..." the ex- watcher said woefully.

He was dreaming. He had to be. Wesley had already made it abundantly clear that he wasn't willing to just forgive and forget...

He blinked. "What?"

Blurry shape number two leaned in towards him. "Are you sure he doesn't have a concussion?"

"Kate?"

"Last time I checked..." number two said.

Angel coughed, sending shoots of pain through his muscles, but at least no blood came up this time. His ribs felt less sore, and the blurry shapes were finally coming into focus... He looked around, gathering his surroundings.

He was draped over the couch in the lobby, stripped down to his black silk boxers and covered with bandages. The lights were on, for once, and a table had been dragged out from one of the offices. The two had obviously set up shop with the idea that they could keep an eye on him at the same time.

But... Why was Wesley here? Kate, he could understand, even if it was a bit odd, but Wesley?

"Let's just say I had an epiphany of my own," the ex-watcher said, reading the expression on Angel's face. "I don't forgive you what you've done, yet, but I'm ready to try."

Angel just stared. "Really?" he asked, trying not to let the hope bleed through his voice, not to let himself start trembling. All he had wanted since that night with Darla was something for him to help him ride out their anger with him, something to keep him up while they put him down. He had thought the knowledge that they were considering his apology would be enough, but that had come crumbling down the moment some tension developed.

He hadn't realized how much he missed them...

The nod he received in return was almost nonexistent, but it was there, and he felt as though a weight were lifting from him. A smile blossomed over his bruised face before he could stop it.

"Anyway," Wesley continued when the silence started to grow uncomfortable, "We've been researching. We've basically found that the Feast of Souls is... well... a feast. And we're assuming that you're well-versed on the Home Office..."

"So basically," Angel groaned as he finally managed to sit up, "We've got nothing."

"Home office!" Wesley protested.

"Here," Angel said glumly.

Wesley quirked an eyebrow. "What?"

"Hello?" a feminine voice called from over by the door.

Angel and Wesley turned to see Cordelia and Gunn, both standing nervously by the door, as if they were afraid to come in any further. He tried to get to his feet, sending shooting pains all through his tortured body, but both Wesley and Kate put their hands down to stop him.

"What do you want?" Wesley snapped at Cordelia, his eyes never leaving her as Gunn marched into the room, undeterred by Wesley's anger.

"Vision," she replied simply, her words tearing through the air. She sounded sad, angry, hopeful--the whole mixed bowl of emotions.

Wesley's glare relaxed into a concerned gaze as he walked partway across the room to meet her. "So soon after the last one?"

Cordelia nodded and then looked at Angel, her eyes filled with horror and pain. He wanted to crumble under that stare. She probably hated him, and forever would continue to do so--a painful thought, but an inevitable one.

But then she raised her hand to point. At him. "It... it was about him," she said, her voice wavering as she carried herself closer to him.

Angel saw from her face that she was close to panicking. Whatever it was had been bad... "Cordelia, it's all right..." he tried to assure her, although he couldn't do that very well from his spot on the couch.

Wesley walked up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. "Cordelia... you must tell us what it was, or we can't hope to do anything to prevent it," he soothed her.

"This wasn't like any of my other visions..."

"Oh?" Wesley cocked his head to the side in inquiry, and Angel's curiosity was spurred.

"Angel..." Cordelia began with a deep breath, "He was... crumpled in a corner being beaten by..." Another deep breath. It was obvious that she was putting most, if not all of her energy into not falling apart.

"By who?" Angel prodded, his voice unobtrusive, but powerful all the same.

"Angelus..."

What? No. No, that was impossible...

Angel shot upwards, standing so quickly he let out a pained gasp as he proceeded to keel over immediately afterwards. Gunn, strangely, was the one who caught him. "Stay cool, man, let her finish," Gunn whispered as he forced Angel back into the chair.

Cordelia started pacing. "He kept saying something about how Angel would finally be taken care of--something called The Feast."

Angel fought hard to keep them from seeing his panic. Did this mean he was going to fail again? He didn't think he could hit lower than the rock bottom he'd already met with. He looked at his hands--a murderer's hands. Gazing at the floor, he started to shake a little bit. Would he get too happy this time? Or would it be like before, when he brushed with the edge and couldn't quite pick himself off it?

No. No. He wouldn't let it... Manacles. Maybe manacles would work...

Wesley looked from Cordelia to Angel and then back to Cordelia. "The Feast of Souls, perhaps?"

Angel looked up at that. Maybe it would be like with Faith, except no one would be acting. One little light show, and bam, he would be evil again. Wards? Maybe a combination of wards and manacles...

"I don't know... there were... there were all these voices..." She was pacing fast now. "There was so much pain..."

"Voices?" Angel bit out, trying to concentrate on the conversation at hand. It wasn't everyday you found you were going to be beaten to death by yourself. How did that work anyway? Maybe the Demon would somehow get split from the Soul? Manacles wouldn't really work for that... Would they?

He tried to remember if he even had a set of manacles that weren't broken. They were always getting broken... Demons that were stuck in them tended to want to get out...

"It's a son I wished for. Instead, God gave me you..." she whispered, her eyes tearing into him with unblinking concern.

Angel froze at the familiar words. They hit at his ears hard, and he felt a familiar guilt constrict around him. "What... who said that?" he asked, closing his eyes to steel himself for the answer. The answer which he already knew.

Cordelia shrugged. "Some old guy with an accent..."

He swallowed, suddenly incapable of speech. Father... He couldn't help but notice Wesley's eyes on him now, glistening with tears. Of course, he had probably put the pieces together. And Wesley could probably relate the best of any of them. Angel wanted to curl away into a ball to get out of that pitying gaze.

"I don't think this was a set of real events, I think... I think it was Angel's mind..." Cordelia hypothesized, her words hesitant.

Wesley frowned, his attention finally diverted. "Why do you say that?"

"It's just... it's just... Well for one, Angel and Angelus were both in the same room--kinda a physical impossibility. And... I kept hearing all these random thought streams--the voices. Like memories or something. Lots of things, like, 'You see, if there wasn't evil in every single one of them out there, why, they wouldn't be people--they'd all be Angels...'"

"Hol... Holland," Angel managed to grunt.

"And... 'I just want to feel something besides the cold'-- Angel said that. 'Why are you laughing? Don't you feel the cold?'" Cordelia related what she had heard, detached.

Angel stood up rod straight--this time even Gunn couldn't stop him. Hearing those words of desperation that he had uttered so shortly before, except this time from his best friend's lips... It was like a spear through his side. "I can't... I can't listen to this, I'm sorry..." He stepped forward, ignoring the screams of pain coming from his collection of wounds.

"Angel?" Kate was calling after him, concerned.

He started moving faster, hindered only by a slight limp.

"Angel!"

Can't listen, can't listen... Through some act of sheer will, because his body wouldn't have let him do it otherwise, he propelled himself up the stairs and into the quiet sanctuary of his room. He collapsed on the bed and just stared.

<I just want to feel something besides the cold.>

The wall seemed to mock him with his own words. That cold... So awful it had driven him into the arms of his worst enemy. He blinked and drew a blanket over himself, curling up into a protective cocoon.

<It's a SON I wished for, a man. Instead, God gave me you, a terrible disappointment.>

He trembled and squeezed his eyes shut.

What would his father think now?

*****

Wesley watched the vampire retreat up the steps and fought the urge to rush after him. Angel was sending a pretty clear signal--leave me alone. He was very stoic, but even Angel had his breaking point, and with recent events, it had obviously been hit. It was probably best to leave him alone.

But... That allusion to a bad familial relationship with his father. It had touched him. Whenever Wesley had mentioned things regarding his own father, Angel had been understanding--one of the most sympathetic set of ears. He wondered, then, how much of that was empathetic instead of sympathetic.

He turned to the others. Cordelia looked stricken, as if someone had just told her that a beloved friend had died.

"Well, ah, I believe we should get down to business while Angel, ah, calms down," Wesley suggested. "Gunn, why don't you take Kate back with you and you can retrieve the books from our office?"

Gunn nodded. "We settin' up shop here again?"

Wesley cleared his throat. Gunn had asked a legitimate question, and it certainly sounded innocent. He hoped that he had misread the implications in Gunn's tone. "Yes, well, this is a nicer office, and now that Angel works for us I doubt that he would mind..." Gunn just gave him a knowing smile and lead Kate out the door without arguing.

"Can I..." Cordelia began, but then she stopped as if someone had hit her mute button.

The former watcher turned to her. "Yes?" he asked.

Her eyes wandered to the stairs, and he understood. "I don't think that he'll be very receptive right now," he cautioned her. He knew what she was planning would be a difficult conversation without the added pressures, and he almost considered forcing her to stay downstairs.

She looked down at her shoes, at the floor, anywhere but him. "Yeah, I know, but..." The emotions her voice was laden with destroyed his doubts. She was going up for the long haul.

Wesley smiled at her. He couldn't remember the last time she'd been this worked up--and he daresay that it was good for her. Maybe she could start to mend the fences as well? He knew that she had been even more crushed by Angel's betrayal than he had. "You never know until you try..."

She looked at him briefly, her silent gaze thanking him for his support more than any heartfelt words ever could, and then she disappeared up the staircase.

He shook his head and peered around at the now empty room. "I shall start calling around," he mumbled, to no one in particular before he let out a sigh. Things were on track. Everyone was working together again, Cordelia was seeking Angel out, and soon, everything would be back to normal--or at least as close as it ever could be again.

He hoped.

*****

Cordelia stared at the door, her hand poised to knock, but something made her pause. The grain of wood was suddenly an object of scrutiny as she tried to reason with herself to go inside. Running her hand along the frame, she just stood there.

What if he hated her for what she had said earlier? What if he hated her for abandoning him before? What if... She ground her teeth together, forcing her careening train of thought to come to a screeching halt. Stop, just stop!

Cordelia growled at herself and finally forced her hand to knock--a soft hollow sound that echoed in her ears like a heartbeat. "Angel?" she whispered.

No response.

Should she intrude if he didn't want her there?

She placed her hand on the knob and tested it, finding that it was open. With a hesitant poke of her finger, the door swung open to reveal the dark maw that was Angel's personal space. The brood zone, as she had often called it. "Angel?" she called again.

She shivered at the silence that greeted her. The least he could do was tell her to get the Hell out.

Stepping across the threshold as if she expected some magical barrier to throw her back, she let her eyes wander across the darkness. She saw no sign of the souled vampire until she swept her gaze across the bed. There, a hand swept gracefully by the siding of the doorway to the bedroom before it disappeared back into the silence.

She covered the distance to the bedroom as silent as she could manage in her stiletto heels. She peered over the threshold. "Angel?" she whispered.

He was standing inside the doorway a moderate distance from the wall, eyes closed. He moved with feline grace. She couldn't describe it--the way his muscles rippled under his supple skin, all in complete silence--like a ballet, but not. He brought his muscular arms in a wide arch above his head before he came to rest.

She had seen him do this a few times before. But, every time she encountered him doing it, it always took her breath away. Tai Chi, if her memory served her. He always did that whenever he was trying to calm himself down or when something serving as a particularly good subject for brooding.

"Cordelia?" he asked, his eyes still closed. Pain etched on his face the moment he said her name--she had ruined his concentration and now he was feeling the brunt of his injuries again.

With a brief pang of guilt, she sat down on the bed, her weight making the old mattress sag like an old man. "Yeah," she replied.

A few hollow footsteps and he was sitting beside her, gaze searching her face. His eyes were creased with angst--it made him look so much older, so tired, and she had to remind herself not to reach out to comfort him. She was still supposed to be mad at him, even if she really wasn't, anymore. Only hurt remained.

Silence.

"What are you doing here?" he finally asked.

"I just wanted to say that I was sorry I snapped at you. I'm really not angry anymore, I'm just..." she inhaled, trying to center herself. He regarded her with his usual understanding patience.

How could this be the same person who had just thrown them out, not even three months ago? She found it hard to resolve the friend version of her Angel and the cold one that he had become under Darla's mental assault. She shook herself back to the situation at hand and plunged onward.

"I was just so hurt when you turned us away. I want to trust you, I really do, but I don't think I could take it if you had another Darlathon," she said, her eyes tearing up despite her constant willing that they remain dry and unindicative of her internal state.

The vampire shifted, a line of pain marring his face for a moment as he moved limbs that didn't want to be moved before he got it under control. He took a deep, unnecessary breath and peered at her eyes--the same way that he always used to, like he was prying her soul apart with his very gaze.

"Cordelia, I'm sorry. You'll never know just how sorry I am, but I can't change what I've already done. I can only say that it won't happen again," he said softly.

She sighed as a warm feeling spread over her. She had wanted to hear that for so long, but, reality crashed into her and made her pause. Angel seemed to sense her doubt.

"Cordelia, I just... I was..." he began, groping for the right words to explain things. "These past few months I've really had the carpet pulled out from under me, and I couldn't handle it, I didn't know how. I had to figure out how to find myself again. I didn't fire you because I was mad at you, or because I was trying to abandon you. I did it because I was afraid of myself--of where I was going. I just... I didn't want you to get hurt. I was falling fast and I didn't want you to be there when I got skewered on the rocks below..."

She forced her gaze to remain stony as he gave his explanation.

"I'm sorry for saying all of this, I didn't want to try and justify my actions because I really don't have any right to justify them. I just want you to see why it won't happen again. I've reasserted what I'm fighting for. I'm not fighting for The Powers, I'm not fighting to kill Darla, I'm not fighting to defeat evil, I'm not fighting for my atonement, I never really was..." he explained.

She watched him as he progressed through his speech, wondering where he was going with it. He'd pretty much ruled out everything. "What for then, Angel?" she whispered, feeling inexplicably drawn to him as she waited for his answer.

He let out a small chuckle, an airy, guiltless thing that made her want to smile back at him--she'd never heard such a carefree sound ever fall from his lips. "I'm not fighting for anything," he said with a quirky grin.

That floored her. "I don't get it," she replied.

"It's not some big plan--not some game with winners and losers. I just want to help for the sake of helping--not because I'll get reward for it, not because it means someone will be defeated, but just because it means something in and of itself. I think that I finally understand that now."

She stared at him, slack-jawed. "This... this is Angel, Dark Avenger, that I'm speaking to, and not some evil shape- shifting demon, right?" she whispered, her tone riddled with disbelief.

He smiled an earth-shattering smile and she wanted to collapse--his happiness was such a beautiful sight, at least as long as it wasn't unfettered bliss, because that meant he was probably evil.

"New and improved," he said.

"Less broody?" she asked, hope in her voice.

His smile faded somewhat. "Unfortunately, no... I can still find lots of things to regret, even if I've had an existential redefinition..."

She smiled at his attempt at humor. "Well, it was worth a try," she replied, a weight lifting off her shoulders as tacit apologies were finally accepted. "What were you brooding about before I came in, anyway?" she asked.

His gaze darkened and she wanted to kick herself. "Nothing," he said flatly.

"It was about the vision?" she prodded, knowing that it was, and knowing that since she'd already broken the mood, that she would run with it. Maybe she could end up helping him.

"Bad memories," he whispered, his voice cracking. "Please, just drop it. You wouldn't want to hear it anyway."

She sighed. He could be so dense. But that, she supposed, was a remnant of pre-existential crisis Angel. Some things just didn't change... "How would you know? As tactless as I am, I can listen well from time to time," she joked.

He held her in a crushing graze. "What, you want to hear about how I screwed Darla into the floor? Didn't we just finish agreeing that I wouldn't obsess over her anymore?"

Cordelia froze for a moment, couldn't help but feel disgust for a fraction of an instant. Darla... He'd alluded to it several times, but it had never really connected, not until he'd said it. "Angel," she began, trying to keep her cool, "It's not the same..."

"Isn't it? Your heart is racing right now, it almost skipped right out of your chest the second I said that..."

She clenched her teeth. Damn vampires and their super- hearing. She tried to come up with a good retort, but Angel was already speaking again.

"I just, it hurt so much... I thought it was going to work, and then it didn't and for a few minutes all I could do was think that I would never win. That I would never escape, and then I saw her standing over me, smirking at me because she thought I was Angelus..."

His voice was soft now, soft and lost and alone. "Angel," she said, but he shook his head.

"No," he replied hoarsely, "No. And you know the sad thing about all this? I'm not sitting here thinking, damn, I can't believe I actually sunk so low as to intentionally TRY and release Angelus. No, I'm sitting here wondering if my father would have thought me more of a disgrace now than he did when I was alive..."

She stared at him. He'd never said anything about his mortal parents except that Angelus had killed them. It was a sore subject with him, she knew, but there was so much pain there, and she wondered exactly what his father had been like. Abusive? Or just less than generous with praise? She suspected she would be guessing for a long while about that one, because no amount of prodding would ever convince him to talk unless he already wanted to on some level--she knew him well enough to at least know that much...

"Angel," she began, even as his head bowed in shame upon hearing his name. "If I were your father, I would be very, very proud," she whispered, placing a hand on his shoulder.

The skin trembled under her warm touch, and he refused to look at her. "You're just saying that because you think you should..."

"No," she replied, "I'm saying that because it's true. Yes, you screwed up. Yes, you hurt me, but you're here now. Anyone else would have walked away. Hell, Angel, anyone else would be dead."

Still, he shook his head, and she briefly had to quell her desire to smack him. He could be so damn stubborn, and when that was coupled with his warped self-concept, things got ugly.

"I'm serious, Angel. Do you think I'd still be trying to convince you otherwise if I wasn't? No, I would have left you in the dust, because I wouldn't have the time or the patience to tolerate such disgusting subject matter as you having sex with Darla in this very same bed and, oh my God, ew..."

She shot up from the bed and she started brushing her pants off. "You did clean these sheets, I hope," she muttered as she danced around in a small circle, trying to get all the naughty images that her small speech had stuck in her head, out of her head.

And then she heard something she didn't think she'd ever heard before and never wished to hear again because it was just plain scary.

Angel.

Roaring with laughter.

She stopped as he collapsed onto the bed, tears streaming down his face as he chortled so hard it looked like his sides were going to burst. Kind of like a hysterical version of Gentle Ben, she thought.

"Jeez, don't have a stroke," she said as he tried to calm himself down.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he said between pants, "It's just... the look on your face..."

"Well excuse me if I find the idea of you having sex just a little barf-worthy..." she pouted. Sex with Darla was double gross, but sex in general... Very bad images produced there...

That sent him into another bout of laughter. Annoyed, she placed her hands on her hips until he finally started to calm down again.

"Well now that I've solved the brooding problem do you want to go and get some research done? Because we basically have squat... at least, that's the impression I got," she said as he sat up again and wiped the tears from his eyes.

He nodded and stood up, limping over to his dresser. On went a pair of black sweats and wife-beater while she politely averted her eyes. She hooked his arm around her waist so he could lean on her a bit as they walked out of the room.

"You know," she said as they approached the staircase, "You never did tell me if those were clean sheets."

He just smirked at her. "And I never will. The mystery is half the fun," he replied.

"Right. You just want to torment me..."

He stopped and glanced at her. "Yup," he said with a curt nod.

She rolled her eyes and lead him down the stairs. Wesley and Kate were at a table with several volumes open, and Gunn was sacked out on the couch.

Gunn set his book down and looked over at them as they approached. "So, you two settled then?" he asked as he stood up to greet them.

Cordelia couldn't help but smile as she unlatched herself from Angel and planted herself at a table, picking up the nearest volume.

Angel watched as Gunn stood before him.

"We're not cool yet, ok?" Gunn asked, his eyebrow raised.

Angel sighed. "I understand," he said, and then sat himself at another table.

*****

"Oh my... oh my, I found it! I think I found it!" Wesley said, smacking his hand down on the table. The hours had gone by quickly, but until now, all they had was that this had something to do with Wolfram and Hart.

Kate raised an eyebrow. "The Feast?"

"Thou shalt smite thy bitter enemy for a trade, the theft of fifty souls equates one repaid. The Band of Blacknil from spawn of Hell, shall forge thy target and forge it well, and when the moon is new and dark, the Feast of Souls shall then embark..." Wesley read from the thick text he had been absorbed in for the last hour, stopping when he finished reading the preliminary explanation of the ritual. He let his eyes wander further down the page, and his stomach sank. This was bad... very, very bad...

"What the heck does that mean?" Cordelia asked as she walked over to the table where Kate and Wesley sat. Wesley was silent, his face a sudden sheet of ashen white. His hands were shaking, but he was too shell-shocked to try and hide it from them.

"Bad news, I'm taking it..." Gunn said as he threw his own book down on the sofa and went to join them.

"They're going to tear open the ethereal plane and steal fifty souls from it. The return force will rip the soul out of the target..." the former watcher whispered. The soul. Angel's soul. They were going to steal Angel's soul...

Kate collapsed back into her chair. "What? How?!"

He briefly wondered if Kate had ever been briefed on Angel's curse before he cleared his throat and began to explain, trying to think of a way to tell them all that Wolfram and Hart was going to try and have Angel's soul obliterated from his body and sling-shot back into the ether. Was there actually a good way to say something like that?

"Based on this text here, they're going to return fifty souls from the ether into vessels, most likely Thesulan Orbs. They could probably stick the souls back into bodies, but it would be hard to get fifty viable vessels, well, harder than it would be to obtain fifty Thesulan orbs..."

"Yeah, so?" Gunn prodded.

Wesley swallowed, trying to get past the stumbling block his own tongue was providing him. "The ether is like... it's a very powerful force--it's where souls return to when their vessels, which in our case would be our bodies, die. Things are only meant to go in, not out."

He could see their blank stares, and tried to simplify it further.

"Think of it like and ever-expanding sheet of fabric. More souls can be added, but if you take them away you get holes. If a hole as wide as fifty souls were ripped into it, the backlash force to patch the gap would be so powerful, it would probably create an earthquake or some other natural disaster. Removing a resident soul from a vessel where it's supposed to be requires a heinous amount of energy... This spell focuses the energy backlash in the ether so that it will rip the target's soul from its body, regardless of whether it was slated for death..."

"So, it'd be like unclogging a vacuum cleaner or something? Mine will suck up a whole pencil when the bag is new..." Cordelia stated innocently.

Wesley looked at her, his eyes unwavering. He wanted to pick her up and shake her--how could she be so callous? Unless, she truly didn't realize... "Yes..."

Gunn clapped his hands together. "Great, so now we know what this Feast thing is. So who's the target, anyway?"

Wesley started to tremble as he stared at Cordelia, Gunn, and Kate, who were all staring back at him expectantly, waiting for an answer. He let his eyes drift to Angel. The vampire was staring off into space, his face passive, but something there made Wesley look again. Anger. There was anger clawing around the corners of the elder man's eyes.

Angel slammed his hand onto the table and stood up. "He lied to me! He said the ring was for passage between dimensions!"

Wesley cleared his throat. "If, by the ring, you mean the Band of Blacknil, then, no, he, whoever that is, didn't lie. It's primary use is passage between dimensions. A spell has to be cast on it before it can be used as a targeting beacon..."

Angel visibly calmed at his explanation, and Wesley wondered how on Earth Angel could possibly be so stoic--he had, probably at this very moment, a powerful mage working to rip his soul from his body and free Angelus for good. This wasn't some temporary thing like the Doximal. This wasn't some curse loophole. This was something basically performing soul-rape.

Cordelia raised her hand. "Excuse me, could you fill us in here, because I know that at least three out of five of us are totally not in the loop..." she requested quietly.

Wesley ignored them. "Angel," he said, turning to the vampire, "You don't need to worry. You have to be targeted first, and..."

"I'm already targeted, Wesley," Angel interrupted, his face a grim picture of defeat.

Wesley felt his mouth fall open before he could catch it? "Excuse me? Please tell me that your sense of humor is making one of its rare appearances and that you're joking?" The look on Angel's face was enough to silence him. The vampire with a soul was definitely not joking. "H... how?" he whispered.

"I heard that," Angel began, his voice cracking slightly, "I heard that Wolfram and Hart was going raise one of the Senior Partners..."

"And?" Wesley prodded.

"A Klaynach demon."

"Oh dear..." Wesley could see where this was headed.

"I killed the demon and took the ring with the intent of going to Hell to kill the others. It didn't work, but..."

"But you put the ring on," Wesley finished for the faltering vampire.

Cordelia raised her hand. "Still not comprehending! Can we try one conversation track please?"

Wesley bit down on a nasty comment. "Wolfram and Hart have targeted Angel. It would appear that they are very interested in having Angelus around."

Cordelia went absolutely still, her eyes darting to Angel. The vampire was still sitting calmly. "When?" she whispered.

Wesley sighed. "The new moon. That's tomorrow night... Wait," he glanced at his watch. "That's tonight."

"So how do we stop it?" asked Kate.

"I'm not sure that we can..."

Cordelia was the first to protest. "Of course we can. There's gotta be a counter spell. Wesley, find a counter spell! Or... or... we could call Buffy! She'll come!"

"There's still the question of time... We wouldn't be able to find the mage in time, unless one of us were practically smited by good luck..." Wesley looked to the brown-haired vampire. Angel obviously didn't seem to think they were in for any particular bout of good luck.

His former boss rose to his feet with the lithe grace of a big cat--so like a predator. "I'll check with my contacts, maybe they'll know something," Angel stated calmly.

Wesley wondered at that--that calm. He admired Angel's propensity for being able to handle stressful situations, but he also knew that Angel tended to internalize things. After a while, that got to be unhealthy, and the vampire would certainly snap. Like he had already.

Wesley quirked his head. "Contacts?" he asked, wondering what contacts Angel had managed to acquire while he'd been working on his own.

"Merle, if he's still around. I think I'll talk to the Host if I can. There are others, as well," Angel replied mysteriously.

Kate stood as well. "I've got a few contacts too. They're not demon experts, but they'd know if something big was going down," she explained and headed for the door.

Gunn turned to Angel. "I'll go with you, man, you'll need some backup."

"I'll be fine," Angel said, offering no other reaction to Gunn's offer but a raised eyebrow.

Gunn just smiled. "There's no way in Hell, I'm gonna let you sing for info. I'll do it for you if it saves some ears..." he joked. "Besides... Unless you wait a few hours anyway, you're going to be dust... Witness the sunlight."

Angel glanced at the door and winced at the light pouring through. "Good point," he said. "Maybe..."

"No maybes. I'm coming with," Gunn interrupted.

Angel granted them all a thin smile before motioning Gunn to wait by stairs. "I'll go change," he said as he turned to walk up the staircase. "We'll take the sewer to Merle's and stop by Caritas after dark."

Wesley turned to Cordelia. "We can stop by the magic shops and try to ascertain if any of them have received heavy demands for Thesulan Orbs. Perhaps, and this is a big perhaps, we can get an address off of some shipping orders."

Cordelia looked doubtful, but a smile managed to push its way onto her features. "Let's do it," she said, grabbing her purse from the table.

Wesley smiled. The well-oiled Angel Investigations machine was falling back into place.

*****

Gunn watched as the vampire walked slightly ahead of him, pacing so smoothly he never would have guessed that he had been skewered several times over the day before. His long black duster trailed out behind him like a morbid version of Superman. The Dark Avenger, as Cordelia so often called him. The Dark Avenger incarnate. "Angel, you are not singing."

Merle had been a bust, the demon was long gone, but they still had the Host, as well as Angel's mysterious other contacts. The sun had disappeared behind the horizon just in time for them to go above ground.

The older man grunted and slowed his pace a bit. "Well, what do you propose?" he asked, an eyebrow raised.

"You could at least do some rap... Then, at least, you don't need a good voice," Gunn said. "Nah, wait, then you'd need a beat," he said with a quirky smile.

Angel stopped at that. "For a guy who hates me, you seem to be doing pretty well the male-bonding insults," he said suspiciously.

Gunn paused. He had assumed that Angel knew how he felt. "I don't hate you, Angel. I just don't trust you. There's a difference."

"Ah," the brown-haired vampire nodded. "Good to know."

"Why is it good to know that I don't trust you?" Gunn was confused. Angel professed to want to rejoin the group, to work for everyone, and he had made a speech about how he wanted to earn their trust, and now he was standing here, actually happy that he wasn't completely trusted?

"Because that means you can stake me if this ritual works," the vampire stated softly, his eyes never leaving Gunn's face. "I don't want Cordelia to have to do it, and I don't want to risk waiting until someone can re-curse me."

The look of fear in the vampire's eyes flashed across his irises quickly enough that someone who wasn't looking for it wouldn't notice. But Gunn saw it. He saw it loud and clear.

"No problem," Gunn mumbled softly. Although, he suddenly found that it really might be a problem. Back when Darla had threatened to drive Angel over the edge, he had said he would stake an evil Angel in no time flat. But it really wouldn't be so easy--he knew. An evil demon wearing the face of Angel. Just like Alonna.

He had killed her, but it had hurt.

Angel seemed to sense his doubt. "It won't be me. Just look at the eyes instead of the face," the vampire said.

Gunn looked at Angel's eyes. They were soft and full of a century's worth of despair and doubt. They were Angel. And he knew how ever much he professed not to trust them, he did.

He always would.

But he would honor the request.

Angel's expression changed slightly, apparently seeing the sudden resolve in Gunn's face. "Thanks," the elder man said, a grim line where a quirky grin used to be.

And that was when all Hell broke loose.

A high whistle shrieked through the air and landed on the back of Angel's shoulder--a small red dart. The vampire stumbled forward, but Gunn caught him as he glanced around wildly, preparing to fight. "Angel, do you see anyone? Angel!"

The dark vampire blinked and looked at him woozily. "Gunn?" he asked, slurred and sounding for all the world like he'd just drowned himself in a few shots of Tequila. Gunn's mind raced--he hadn't thought vampires were really affected by drugs. He'd never even thought to try using them when he was out with his boys, hunting.

Gunn cursed as the heavy vampire began to collapse, unable to support Angel's weight. He dropped into a fighting stance over his fallen friend's body, but there was no hope. Four masked men beset him, and he managed to take one down before he himself was spitting gravel on the pavement.

Angel was being dragged towards a waiting silver van, and Gunn struggled to his feet as the train of masked men released him and disappeared back into the depths of the vehicle.

"Angel!" he cried, but the vampire was staring rather blankly ahead, completely limp as he was dragged inside the van.

The door slammed shut before he could cover the distance, his head still ringing and woozy from his new and familiar acquaintance with the sidewalk. "Damn," he growled as the van began to drive off. MVG-1222. Maybe Kate could pull the license plate number.

His eyes darted to the left and the right. There! He let out a shrill whistle and ran out into the street, waving his arms about like a lunatic.

The taxi stopped and he launched himself into the back seat, saying a line that had had him laughing at many a movie. "Follow that van!"

*****

Cordelia groaned as she stepped back into the dilapidated lobby. "I am never going door to door psychic shopping with you ever again, Wesley!" she snapped as she plopped herself down on a dusty chair. She glanced at her watch, and then around the room.

"Cordelia, it's not my fault that the places I usually frequent were of no help! Really, we..."

Cordelia grabbed his tie and pulled him close. "You're supposed to know which of those shops were legit. You're Watcher Guy!" she exclaimed.

He pushed her off of him and straightened his tie, a indignant look crossing his face. "I'm not a bloody omniscient! We had to cover everything, even the ones I wasn't sure about. How was I to know Madame Marlene was a fraud? Besides, they weren't all psychics," Wesley tried to placate her, but failed dismally.

She rolled her eyes and glanced at her watch. "Whatever. The point is that after all nine magic shops, we came up with only two legitimate ones in addition to your fav hotspots--and they wouldn't hand out shipping orders to civilians."

Wesley sighed, irritated. "At least we know that someone actually ordered the damn Orbs!"

She glanced at her watch. "So now we know for sure that someone is going to rip out Angel's soul, but we can't do anything about it. That really helps..." Where was he? Damn it...

Wesley opened his mouth to protest, but thought better of it. He looked at her with concern. "He'll be fine, Cordelia. We'll stop it..." he tried to assure her. "Maybe the others had better luck..."

She glanced at her watch. "Where is he?" she asked, looking at Wesley as if she expected him to know the answers. Well, why didn't he, anyway? He was intelligent watcher-guy. He always knew stuff...

He sat down beside her. "He said he had several contacts to meet. I'm sure it's nothing. Besides, Gunn is with him. The two of them together aren't really in any danger..."

"No. Not unless Angel goes evil and eats Gunn for breakfast..." she grumbled. She didn't like this. She didn't like this at all. Where was he?

"Cordelia, they can't perform the ritual until midnight..."

The door slammed and the pair looked up. Kate was standing there looking grim. "I have some possible addresses, but there's too many of them to check in the time we have," she said as she strolled over.

Cordelia wanted to punch something. She really wanted to. No targets were available that wouldn't fight back, so she elected to pace, instead.

"So what now?" Kate asked as she sat down next to Wesley.

The ex-watcher sighed. "When Angel and Gunn get back we start checking those addresses."

And Cordelia paced.

And paced.

And paced.

And paced.

"Cordelia, stop! You're making me dizzy!" Kate finally growled.

Cordelia turned and saw Wesley and Kate staring at her, open-mouthed. Wes looked a bit woozy. But something inside her just snapped. "How can you both just sit there while this is happening? How can you both just not care?!"

Kate was the first to respond. "We care, Cordelia. I care. That's why I'm here. But pacing won't fix things. Planning and execution will."

Wesley nodded. "I must say I agree..."

"I know where they're doin' the spell!" Gunn cried as he stumbled into the lobby, panting. Kate and Wesley stood.

Cordelia looked at him and his disheveled state, a familiar dread forming at the pit of her stomach. "Where's Angel?"

"Where they're doin' the spell! They took him. Came out of nowhere. Tailed 'em to an abandoned building. The place is guarded on the outside by about six vamps--nothing too hard. I didn't get a good look at the inside," Gunn explained quickly.

Wesley frowned. "The ritual doesn't require Angel to be present, I wonder why..."

"Jeez, English, debate this later. Weapons cabinet now," Gunn interrupted, and Cordelia was inclined to agree. "You, Police, plan a raid..."

"I was a detective, not S.W.A.T.," she protested.

Wesley looked at her, grim. "Unfortunately, that's better than us. Angel usually made the plans, and his were usually akin to storming the gates and hoping for the best..."

Kate shrugged. "One convoluted plan. Coming up."

Cordelia sighed. "I'll just sit here and try to have a useful vision while you gear up..." She sighed again as everyone started moving about frantically, pretty much ignoring her in the fray.

*****

Angel woke slowly from the sedative. He was aware that he was lying on the ground well before he cared enough to do anything about it. And then, gradually, like a controlled brushfire, his nerve endings started to function, and a dull pain began to spread through him.

He grunted and shot up as if he had been burned, only to nearly rip his shoulders out of their sockets. His wrists, he realized all too belatedly, were manacled--a thick wrought-iron chain about six feet long spilled to the floor from his left wrist cuff, looped through a metal ring that stuck out of the stone floor, and back up to his right wrist cuff.

He was pinned, naked and completely vulnerable, in the center of a ring of unlit candles and Thesulan orbs about thirty feet in diameter. Yanking on the chains with all the strength he could muster, his muscles trembled at the effort, but the metal ring and the chains did nothing but turn his wrists into a bloody mess. He grunted and pulled harder, pulled until he was exhausted.

As he collapsed to the floor, panting, the heavy door at the end of the huge, forty-foot square room, swung open with a pained moan. "Hello, Angel, I see you've made yourself at home," Lindsey's smooth voice vibrated through the air.

Lindsey walked in with a disgusting bounce to his step and a sly grin on his face, followed by Lilah, and someone in long, flowing black robes. The smell of incense stung at his nose as the robed man walked around the circle, lighting the candles.

At the sight of the lawyers, standing off to the sides smirking, he redoubled his efforts. He launched himself at wall, pulling with all his might. "Why?" he grunted as he strained at the heavy manacles. Blood was flowing freely from his wrists now--he had scraped almost to the bone, but the pain didn't register. Had to get out.

"Why? Well, we wanted you in the center of the circle and we didn't think you would be all that cooperative," Lindsey said. "Don't do that, Angel, you'll just tear a tendon... Those are magically reinforced, you know."

Angel didn't listen to the condescending sneer in the man's voice--he just kept pulling. Leaping this way and that, jerking around at the ends of the chains like a crazed animal. "Why me?" he clarified as he ran in a circle round the metal ring.

"Oh..." Lindsay said, as if he hadn't understood the question the first time. "Because Angelus will shift the balance in our favor. I said, stop pulling at those..."

A lighting bolt of agony slipped down his back as he was thrown to the ground by the force of the blow. He groped at the ground for purchase as involuntary tears of pain came to his eyes. Lindsey was standing across the circle, a wood- tipped whip swinging loosely from his good hand.

"Besides," Lindsey continued, "If it causes you pain, then I really don't care why else."

Woozily, he grappled to his feet and resumed his frenzied pulling at the chains until the whip sent him to the floor again. Lindsey stared at him coldly, saying nothing, his whip poised to strike him down should he attempt to get up again. He did. Again, and again, and again, until he couldn't have even hoped to stand, when the pain blurred into one big long searing wail.

He just lay there staring at the door, his naked back and legs on fire from the lashes they had received. He was aware of Lindsey and Lilah's painful smirks--it almost felt as though he was being branded with them, but at least Lilah was humane enough to remain silent.

Lindsey, however, had no compunctions about running his mouth.

"Did you know," Lindsey began, "That the state of your soul pretty much determines the outcome of the End of Days?"

Angel grunted in pain, but didn't move. It was really no use...

"I know," Lindsey continued as if Angel had actually provided a response. "I thought it was interesting too. And, a good promotion-getter if I were to ever instigate your switching sides."

Angel became vaguely aware of three more robed figures, floating in through the door like strange apparitions. He started to shiver as powerful magic flooded the air, almost like a tangible ooze.

"I really must apologize, Angel, for all this uncomfortable ritual, but you really didn't leave us with much choice. We tried Darla..." There was a pause, and through blurred vision, he could see the wince fleet across Lindsey's face, but the man shook it off and continued.

"We did some other spells that you weren't even aware of. Hell, Angel, I heard even they tried to talk your soul away--I don't know who they sent to do that, but I sure would have liked to have seen it... You know, that whole sticks and stones thing working its magic on you. But still, no Angelus. You are a tough one. I don't think, however, that we've tried any of the higher magics like this..."

Lindsey prattled on and on until finally Angel couldn't take it anymore. "Shut up and kill me already," he groaned. The chains clinked as he shifted.

Lindsey looked at him, a gaze of false empathy. "A man of action--I've always admired that..." He turned to the four cloaked figures.

"Prepare him," Lindsey commanded.

The four mysterious mages circled around him, just outside of the diameter of the chains, sprinkling bits of spice and who knew what on top of him. It crawled into his wounds, stinging and burning, and he couldn't help but groan as the stench of it threatened to make him start heaving. "It is the target, let it be seen," they echoed, over and over again.

The lawyers on the outside of the ring were chanting too, but his senses were too muddled to really identify precisely what they were saying. All he could see was the Thesulan Orbs around him were starting to glow, one by one. The one directly in his line of sight was the first to light up-- dimly at first but by the time the second one started to glow, the first was so bright it could have lit a room.

He jerked against the chains as a familiar ache in his chest began--started struggling all over again as his strength was briefly renewed. Someone was screaming in agony. Loud and long--a keening wail. It took him a moment register that it was he who was making that horrible sound. The last pull must've dislocated a shoulder...

After one final thrust towards the door, he fell to the floor, trembling as the bitter agony of his soul being ripped from his body hit at his chest like a sledge-hammer.

<I just want to feel something besides the cold.>

He blinked as his head smacked backwards against the stone. Why was he so powerless to stop this? Why couldn't he stop this... Could one hold on to a soul they knew they were going to lose? Apparently not, because the pain escalated.

<Don't you feel the cold?>

Yes. Yes, it was cold. So cold... The feeling swept up from his toes to his head, and he started to shiver.

<It's a SON I wished for! Instead, God gave me you...>

Please, please. Don't say that...

<Close your eyes.>

No. No. He wasn't ready...

"Angel, NO!!!"

He rolled over and looked blearily towards the sound. Wesley was there at the forefront, followed by Gunn, Cordelia, and Kate, all wielding weapons and looking rather determined.

"IT IS THE TARGET, LET IT BE SEEN!" the mages chanted loudly around him.

He tried to get up. He really did, but the pain was blind- siding him now. His vision dimmed as he heard a tremendous fight breaking out around him. And still the pain mounted.

<I just want to feel something besides the cold...>

No, no, no, no, no, no! He jerked spasmodically, his voice so hoarse now that he couldn't even scream. "I'm sorry, Buffy. I'm sorry, Cordelia, Wesley, Kate, Gunn... I'm sorry..." he tried to whisper, but his words seized up in his mouth and speared backwards through his head like a blade.

It hit him then--the final blow. His body felt like it was being split in two, like every lash-mark had ignited. Starting as a dull hum, the explosion began at his unbeating heart and spread out to the tips of his limbs--all of his muscles clenched into dizzying rigor mortis.

<Close your eyes.>

There was a little girl standing over him--a little brunette with a smile so wide and bright it lit the room, and he felt his pain wane away into nothing. "Come, Liam. Mother is waiting..."

"Kathy?" he whispered, his voice so hoarse and dry that he could barely hear himself.

She smiled again and planted a small kiss on his cheek. "Come, Liam. We can play in the garden... Just like we used to..."

"Kathy... I thought you were dead," he sighed.

"Liam..."

<Close your eyes.>

He simply couldn't hold on anymore.

*****

"Angel, NO!!!" Cordelia screeched as they came upon the room.

Angel was curled in the middle, pain riddled all over his beaten features, but at the sound of her voice, he turned towards them.

The mages surrounding him were saying something weird, so she went for them first, Gunn backing her up, while Wesley and Kate went for the lawyers.

She shoved one of the mages out of the way, taking a hold of his incense burner and tossing it with all her might to the wall. The robed man fled before she could do any more damage. Gunn took out the other three for her, sending them fleeing after the first, and then he went off to help Wesley and Kate dispatch the lawyers.

She fell to the floor next to Angel.

He was writhing mindlessly on the ground, screaming and screaming as though there were holy water shooting through his veins instead of blood. She grabbed at his shoulders. "Shhh, Angel. I've got you, I've got you," she tried to assure him, but he was well beyond hearing. He tore viciously at the manacles, and he just kept screaming. It was a terrible, terrible sound.

"Angel, Angel, please..." she whispered, even though she knew it was fruitless. The vampire's wrists were torn down to the bone, the skin on his back and legs was hanging in shredded, bloody streaks, and his shoulder was jutting out at a funny angle. He was beyond reason--thrashing about as though he were being torn apart, limb-from-limb.

And then, all his muscles seized up without warning. He quieted-his eyes glowed brightly and he stared right at her. For a moment, she thought it looked like he could actually see her, that he had finally exited his frenzied state. She stroked his cheek. "Angel, it's all right. We're here," she whispered.

He took a deep breath, a sort of cleansing sigh. His silence was growing more eerie by the instant. There was a little smile on his face--as though his pain had been wiped away.

"Angel?"

She felt his muscles relax and a look of total peace swept over him. Under any other circumstance, she would've thought it remarkable, but now she found it disturbing. "Angel?" she repeated, giving him a little shake.

No reaction.

The glow went out and his eyes closed. "Angel!" She shook him hard then, no regard for how much it might hurt him. "Wake up!"

"Cordelia, get away from him," Wesley snapped.

Cordelia looked up from her fallen friend and saw Wesley standing at the edge of the circle, digging his axe out of the wall--how it had gotten stuck there was beyond her. Lilah and Lindsey were long gone, and Kate and Gunn were making their way back from the doorway. "Wesley," she cried, "We have to get the keys for these manacles..."

Wesley walked over to her, looking grim. "Cordelia," he said, putting his hand on her arm. "You must step away..." he insisted, yanking at her arm.

"Is it... Is it too late?" Gunn said from somewhere behind her.

"I don't know," Wesley whispered. "All of the Orbs were lit, but I'm not certain if they finished the chanting..." His eyes darted around the room--each of the Orbs was still glowing, and it felt odd to be standing amongst them while they pulsated with light--silent and eerie. Fifty dead souls...

"But," Cordelia protested. She could feel her lips trembling. "No. No, we can't just leave him like this--we have to get the keys!" She stood up, disentangling herself from Angel's limp body. "Where are they?"

She could see that she was at the losing end of the argument. "At least give him your duster, Wesley," she said bitterly.

The watcher looked down at Angel with a pained sigh. "Yes. Yes, of course," he said as he shrugged the black coat off his shoulders and draped it over Angel's naked form. "We'll know, soon enough. When he wakes up," he added.

Cordelia nodded and retreated to the side of the room. "He'll be all right," Kate whispered as she sat down next to Cordelia, her voice confident even in the look on her face wasn't.

"Yes. He will," Cordelia stated resolutely, and she started listing off as many reasons as possible for Angel's inevitable okayness. The PTB had only brought him back three years ago... they'd never let him die that shortly after literally bringing him back from Hell, would they? And, they weren't cruel enough to kill him now that he had finally started getting back on track. Right? Right?

She felt a dim sinking sensation in her gut. The powers had let Doyle die, and he had seemed just as important as Angel, at least to her. She felt her chest constrict at the memory of Doyle, melting into oblivion before their eyes. Her and Angel's eyes.

Angel was supposed to always be there.

Angel was supposed to be the one left behind.

Not her...

The chains clinked in the center of the room, and her head snapped up towards the sound. Angel let out a small stream of moans, but didn't move.

"Angel?" Wesley called as he approached, flanked by a wary Gunn.

"Father?" the vampire moaned and curled up into a little ball. Even from this distance, Cordelia could see the glistening of wet tears streaming down his cheeks. Despite Angel's obvious pain, she felt herself smiling. That had to be Angel. It had to be...

Wesley paused and turned back to the others, confused. Father, he mouthed in question, before he turned back. "No, Angel, it's Wesley..." the ex-watcher said as he inched closer, still just outside the biting radius that the chains provided the restrained vampire.

The chains suddenly jerked and pulled straight as Angel launched himself at Wesley, hissing and snarling like a rabid animal. "Angel can't play right now, Wesley..." the vampire snapped, and to his credit, Wesley said nothing. He just calmly backed away.

The vampire fell to the floor again as if struck and he started to shake. "Father?" Angel repeated, his voice a bare whisper.

Wesley retreated back to them, but Gunn was the first to speak. "Dude looks possessed..." was all he said, but his face evidenced a certain pain Cordelia doubted the man would ever let fully to the surface.

Wesley nodded. "If anything, I would say the transfer was incomplete."

Cordelia took a deep breath. "What if he's really seeing his father?" she asked. A part of her wished it were true, because then maybe Angel could actually get some peace.

Wesley frowned. "Then he's basically being stretched between the ether and reality. No soul, not even one as strong as his, could take that kind of pressure for long."

"Can we help him, at all?" Gunn asked.

"Not really," Wesley said, shaking his head. "Releasing the souls from the Thesulan Orbs might ease some of the pull, but I suspect that that will only buy time, not Angel..."

"But the Curse?" Cordelia protested. "You could get it from Willow, I'm sure she still has a copy of it..."

Wesley looked troubled. "Even if we did have it, I fear the strain on Angel will be too traumatic. Just look at him now if you doubt me... A soul is not meant to be traded back and forth between the ether and here like this. A soul isn't really meant to be traded at all... The Curse is a last resort, and even then it might be more humane to just kill Angelus--I can't imagine the psychological damage that this mess would cause..."

Cordelia's lower lip quivered. "But he's been re-cursed before..."

"Yes, Cordelia, he was. But this isn't a simple re-cursing. His soul isn't being lost through a clause. It's being forcibly ripped out of his body... And because we interrupted the casting, I fear we've made it worse--if he actually manages to acquire some peace by resettling in the ether, ripping him out again would just be..." Wesley paused, his eyes darting towards Angel. He never finished his sentence--the sad look on his face did it for him.

Cordelia looked at Angel's shivering, crumpled form. They wouldn't even let her go to him to offer comfort... "You said that returning the souls in the Orbs would ease... ease some of the p... pain?"

The ex-watcher nodded.

"Then do it," she snapped.

It would have to do for now.

*****

He could feel the warmth of the sun beating down on his face well before he realized what it was. The touch of the heat was inviting, not searing, as though it were the warmth of someone's skin being caressed across his forehead.

He was standing before he even realized he had made the motion to stand. The air was murky, and he couldn't really identify the source of the sunlight, only that it was there, warming him with its touch.

There was no pain. No pain... He looked down and saw that his body, what little of it he could see despite his silk robes, had no blemishes on it, no stinging bloody tendrils of whipped flesh.

"Oh, Liam," a voice whispered from behind him, choked with emotion.

He turned towards the sound.

His father stood there, wizened with age, but the same in appearance as when Angelus had ripped his throat out and adorned in the same silk robes that Angel now found himself in. "Why did yeh go away, boy?" the elder man asked with his particular Irish lilt as he stepped forward.

Angel winced at the sad question. "I wanted to get away from you," he answered truthfully.

His father nodded, accepting his answer without rebuttal. "Yer mother and Kathy were very sad," he began. "I was as well..."

Angel flinched at that. A tiny piece of him wanted to crumble under those words, but he wouldn't let himself. He wouldn't. "What, that I was dead, or that you didn't have a son to blame for everything anymore?" he asked before he could stop himself. The words seemed to fall from his lips of their own volition.

The elder man sighed. "I deserved that, I suppose..."

"All I ever wanted was to please you," Angel whispered, his voice cracking.

His father looked at him, his face stricken. "Ah, but yeh have, Liam. Yeh have. I've been watching yeh, lately, since the gypsies. Yeh do good work..."

Angel couldn't think of anything to say to that. He stared at his father, trying to find condemnation in his sad, blue eyes, but there was nothing of the sort. A sob fell from his lips when he realized that the man he had so desperately wanted approval from was finally giving it.

His father stepped forward and placed a wrinkled hand on his cheek. Angel flinched at the sudden, unexpected contact-- expecting his father to pull away when he felt the coldness there. "I kinna believe how ye've grown, boy," was all the man said as he ran his old, worn fingers down across Angel's cheek and then placed his hand on his son's shoulder.

"But I'm still the same," Angel said, his lip quivering.

The silver-haired man shook his head. "No, yer not. And yeh still have more to do. Yer not supposed to be here..."

"Then, why am I here?"

"Because yeh haven't chosen yet," his father answered softly.

"Chosen?" he asked, his eyebrow raised. His father opened his mouth to answer, but the scenery changed well before he got a chance to hear the reply.

The pain of his recent injuries returned with a vengeance, and suddenly he was aware of each and every nerve ending, each in delicious agony, as if someone were holding a match to them.

"You're a real pain in the ass, you know." Angel heard his own voice mocking him, and he turned. It was dark, and cold, and dank--the stone walls of the small dungeon were dripping with decay and the stench of death.

Angelus stood there, smirking at him. "I'd like to return the favor, if that's all right with you," he said.

Angel had barely enough time to blink before the stronger vampire tackled him and sent him to the floor. "I am tired of watching your weepy, melodramatic guilt. That was well- planned evil--artistic even! You should be proud!" Angelus kicked him hard in the stomach, and Angel choked, bringing up blood.

Angel rolled over and clawed at the floor, trying to propel himself away from Angelus, even as his vision started to fade, but Angelus stomped on his back with a booted foot and held him there before he had gotten more the three inches. The pain was exquisite. He screamed as his other self ground his foot into the already shredded skin.

"Oh, I'm so miserable. Woe, woe is me. Can't you sing a different tune? At least then, watching you self-destruct would be so much more interesting!" the demon cried.

Angel groaned and remained still.

"I have more claim on this body than you ever had, so get out!" the enraged vampire demanded.

The demon, seeing his utter lack of effect, switched tactics.

"I killed her, you know. I ripped Barbie's throat out while you were talking with daddy dearest. Too bad you weren't here--it was fun--she's a screamer."

"Cor... Cordelia?" he grunted, trying to muster the strength to fight back.

"Yeah. Tasty too," Angelus added with a sick grin as the boot came down again.

Sinking. Sinking. He was sinking.

<I just want to feel something besides the cold.>

"Oooh, you feel it now, don't you. It's that despair coming back again." Angelus grabbed his shoulders and pulled him to his feet with a rough jerk.

Drowning.

He blinked back a tear as he hung limply in the demon's arms. Not Cordelia... Not Wesley, not anyone. "No..."

"Choose, Angel. All you have to do is choose to leave and the pain will go away..." His counterpart shook him roughly as if he expected that to force him to leave.

"No..." he whispered.

"Choose to leave, damn it!" Angelus screamed as he threw him to the ground.

"I'm not going," Angel stated with a wheeze as he rolled over and raised himself to his knees. His muscles shook with strain, but he managed to stand and make his way over to a dank wall, leaning on it heavily. Fighting to catch an unnecessary breath, he looked at his demon. He wanted to give up, then and there, to finally put an end to the struggle, despite what he had said, but he knew that if he let himself give up then the others were as good as dead.

And he didn't want that.

<I just want to feel something besides the cold.>

Angelus was staring at him coldly, his dark eyes searing into him like twin spears. "I will make you leave," he said, his voice low and dangerous. The hair on the back of Angel's neck bristled at the menacing growl that followed.

Angelus bared his fangs, long and needle-sharp. Angel growled back at him in defiance, and then, his demon launched himself at him.

Angel tried to block him, tried to defend himself, but he was too weak. He felt like something was pulling at him, and it hurt. The first blow was brutal.

"Cordelia, I'm sorry..."

He couldn't remember much after that.

*****

He had stopped shivering, at least.

Wesley stared at the vampire's crumpled form. It was painful, to know that Angel was dying and to not be able to do anything about it. How many times had Angel saved their lives? How many times?

And he couldn't come through, not even this once.

Kate and Gunn seemed to be taking it well. They were subdued.

Kate looked sad, and lost, but she hadn't really had time to develop a strong bond with Angel--Hell, she had just gotten beyond the point where she wanted him dead. He doubted that she would waste a lot of grief.

Gunn looked like Angel, whenever he had been strongly affected by something and was simply refusing to show it. Like after he had come back from Sunnydale after that mess with Faith. Angel had been a wreck, but no one except his closest friends would have ever guessed it.

Cordelia, was another matter.

She was just staring, her hands clutched into tiny fists, blood trickling down her wrists as her manicured nails broke the skin of her palm.

Staring.

She could profess to be mad at Angel until her face turned blue... she had, in fact. But he doubted that Cordelia had ever really stopped caring. It had to be worse now that she and Angel were back on the right track.

Much worse.

The chains clinked as Angel shifted under Wesley's duster. Every time he had moved out from under it, Gunn, of all people, had put it back. The vampire moaned. They couldn't even comfort him or ease his pain because he was too dangerous to get near.

Wesley had found the keys to the damn chains, and he couldn't use them. Because his best friend was also his worst enemy.

"There has to be something we can do..." Cordelia whispered.

But there wasn't.

There wasn't anything.

*****

Dark. Pain.

Warrior, you are not supposed to be here.

How do I get back?

Choose.

I don't understand.

Choose to fight.

I don't understand.

You will.

Light. Coming closer.

He opened his eyes. It hurt a lot. "Damn it, you're awake again?" Angelus snarled.

Choose to fight.

Angel blinked and brought a shaky hand up to his brow. It came back bloody and stained. Angelus stood over him, a wicked grin plastered across his face. "No," Angel said.

The evil version of himself laughed. "No? I thought we've been through this already!" A fist rained down on Angel's cheek.

He spat blood.

Choose to fight.

Channeling every last drop of energy he had, Angel stood and rammed his knee forward into Angelus's gut. The demon went down easily--Angel almost followed when he became aware of his own dizziness. With difficulty, he recovered himself.

"No. You get out..." he snarled, letting his vampiric visage melt to the surface. He bared his fangs and growled, achieving a fair amount of menace, despite his exhaustion.

Angelus hissed, but didn't move.

And then there was light. Filtering through a hole in the stony ceiling that he hadn't noticed before. He looked at it. It was bright and warm, but it wasn't sunlight.

He reached for it, despite the protest in his muscles.

He reached and reached.

Choose to fight.

The light took hold of him and he was blinded.

*****

The chains clinked, and Gunn's head snapped up towards the sound.

Angel. His eyes were open. "Angel?" he called. Rustled movement followed as Cordelia, Kate, and Wesley all turned to look as well.

The vampire turned his head and blinked. His lips parted-- he was trying to speak. But he couldn't. After so much screaming, Gunn wasn't surprised--that had to warrant a heck of a sore throat.

Gunn turned to Wesley, who shook his head in response to the silent inquiry. No, the ex-watcher mouthed.

Cordelia looked like she wanted to bolt forward, but Wesley kept her back.

Gunn tried to lean back against the wall and relax. But Angel. He was awake, and staring. Not all crazed-like either. He looked awake--really awake.

The chains clinked again, and the vampire lifted an arm, staring at the manacle as it came out from under Wesley's duster. An agonized wince followed and the hand fell.

He couldn't. He couldn't just watch.

Gunn strode over to the vampire and knelt down next to him, careful to be on guard for possible deception. He crouched in such a way that it would be hard for the vampire to get any purchase on him, and it would be easy for him to bolt away. "Angel?" he whispered.

Angel looked at him. His Adam's apple rippled along his throat as he swallowed and attempted speech again. "Gunn?"

A rasp more than speech, but Gunn understood it immediately. He smiled and nodded, vaguely aware that the others were behind him now.

The vampire's eyes closed for a moment, and he worried that maybe there was going to be a personality shift. But his eyelids lifted again and revealed the same, souled gaze, and no other attempt at movement.

Wesley crouched down next to the vampire. "How do you feel, Angel?" he asked, his voice worried.

Gunn wondered. Was this some last moment of clarity before things went to Hell? In the vampire's delirium, he'd seen shades of Angelus. Angel had been right. The eyes were different. It was all in the eyes.

The stake in his back pocket shifted and he grimaced. He didn't want to have to use it.

Angel's mouth opened, and closed. No sound. Didn't Wesley realize the guy wasn't up for much conversation? The look on the his face revealed that he did. So why was he trying to get the felled vampire to talk?

"Angel?" the ex-watcher prodded.

Cordelia collapsed next to Angel on his other side--the three of him had Angel surrounded. He hoped the vampire wasn't claustrophobic.

The manacle raised again, and Gunn could see confusion in Angel's sad, pained eyes. He wondered how much of the last few hours the vampire remembered. Obviously not much.

Wesley grimaced. "We can't... we can't unlock you Angel. Your soul..."

The vampire coughed. "Chose to fight," he whispered, so hoarse that the Wesley had to lean in so that his ear hovered mere inches above Angel's lips.

"I don't understand, Angel..."

Gunn couldn't blame him. He didn't understand either. The fact that the vampire had been cryptic before he had become vocally impaired made way for vague comments.

Angel winced and closed his eyes.

"I say we let him up," Gunn said, before he could stop himself. Where had that come from? Cordelia's eyes got wide and hopeful, but Wesley looked doubtful.

Angel's eyes opened again, slowly, as if he were having trouble lifting the eyelids. "No Angelus," he managed.

Wesley looked visibly shaken. "You mean, you overcame the pull of the spell? But that's impossible!" he cried, but he was excited. Angel seemed too tired to care about what possible feats he may have accomplished--he didn't respond. Wesley's face brightened for a moment as he processed what had happened. And then it fell into a scowl.

"Wait... How do we know this isn't some trick? How do we know you're not Angelus?"

Angel said nothing. He looked at the three of them for a moment. Then his eyes rolled back a bit and his muscles went limp. The vampire was spent--too tired to come to his own defense.

"The eyes, not the face..." Gunn mumbled as he looked at Angel's prone form. He closed his eyes for a moment and he focused on how Angel had looked at them through this whole, mostly one-sided, conversation. There was no dark hatred there, no evil, only the sad, tired eyes of a certain soul- cursed vampire bent on redemption.

"It's Angel. Let him up," he said after a long silence.

Wesley turned to him, shocked. "What? How can you..."

Gunn shrugged. "Just a feelin'."

The rest of the night moved quickly. Angel was unchained and sagging in Gunn's arms before he knew it, Cordelia not far behind, her hand placed on the vampire's cool forehead whenever she could manage. It was as if she were trying to convince herself she wasn't dreaming.

They piled into Angel's convertible. Cordelia, Kate, and Wesley took the back--graciously giving the crippled vampire the sacred shotgun seat, while Gunn took the wheel.

"Angel, you still with us, man?" Gunn asked. The vampire was curled in the seat under Wesley's duster, and he looked, for all intents and purposes, like a corpse.

The vampire's eyes opened blearily and then closed again.

"We really need to bandage the mess they made of his back," Cordelia added softly from the back seat.

"There is no clause..." Wesley mumbled, so quietly that the roar of the convertible's V8 engine nearly drowned it out.

"English, you say somethin'?" Gunn asked, an eyebrow raised. He watched through the rearview mirror. He could see the wheel's turning in Wesley's head. At first there was doubt. Gunn could almost see the progression. Fact one. Fact two. Fact three. Therefore...

The watcher finally smiled. "There is no clause!" he exclaimed.

Cordelia looked appropriately amazed. "You mean Angel can be happy?"

"Well, I wouldn't give him Doximall anytime soon, but yes, I think so!" Wesley replied. He was practically bouncing out of his seat. "Angel's soul is currently stuck in his body because he chose to put it there, at least, that's what I gathered from his monosyllabic account of events..."

"So that overrides the Curse?" Kate asked. She still hadn't been briefed on the exact nature of the Curse, but she had been intelligent enough to gather that while it was there, Angel didn't eat people.

"Yes! The Curse is gone when the soul leaves the body. His soul was technically not there for at least the briefest of moments, because it was being ricocheted back and forth between his body and the ether--the whole Angelus, not Angelus shifting we got to witness..."

Gunn's eyes shifted to Angel. He had remained strangely silent through all of this. "Angel, man..." he said. The vampire didn't move.

He was asleep.

Cordelia started to laugh. "I suppose we can tell him when he's actually conscious enough to care."

The three faces in the back seat were bright with smiles.

"So," Cordelia said. "I guess we're okay then."

Everyone nodded except Angel. His face was starting to slip down the window as it lost conscious neck-muscle support.

Gunn could still feel the stake in his pocket.

He smiled.

"Yeah, we're cool," he said as he pulled the black convertible up in front of the Hyperion.

Cordelia smiled and leapt up out of the vehicle. "I've got dibs on the antiseptic and the gauze... Wesley, you get the vacuum cleaner, and Kate, you can have some fun with our imitation brand Windex."

"What about me?" Gunn asked, curious as to why he'd been left out.

"Well, duh, Gunn, you're the only one out of all of us who can actually lift stuff, namely a two-hundred plus pound vampire currently disguised as a dead-weight... Wesley's guts will fall out if he tries to do manly work..."

"Hey!" the ex-watcher cried.

Gunn laughed. "You wanna help me lug this loser inside, English, be my guest, but I ain't makin' no hospital trips..."

The watcher stared at Cordelia, slightly annoyed. "Thanks Gunn, I'll pass..." he said as he eased himself out of the car.

Cordelia was already racing inside, followed by a more calmly striding Kate. "Say, Kate, has Angel ever discussed wages with you? Cuz I'll tell ya, they're low..." Cordelia was saying as she disappeared inside the building.

Gunn chuckled and walked around to Angel's side of the car and opened the door, careful not to let the vampire spill out onto the pavement. He draped the limp form over his shoulder in a fireman's carry and stood with a grunt. "You're going to owe me for this, vampire," he stated jokingly as he started wobbling towards the door.

Damn, but Angel was heavy...

FIN


 

 

 

 



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