Vortex

Author: Swikstr

Author's Notes:
I incorporated a few, tiny references to other vampire mythology in the creation of this story. I suppose it would be safe, if not prudent, to mention them in passing. The reference to absinthe and Angel's sensitivity to it were inspired by Gary Oldman's performance with Winona Ryder in Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula."

No vampires, humans, or TV executive producers were harmed in the writing of this fic.

Love never dies.

Timeline: Post-ep for "Graduation Day 2." A sort of free-floating future scenario after the third season finale.

Summary: A club in West L.A. that only opens after midnight. A fusion of vampire and human sexuality. A promise made. A secret kept.

Welcome to the Vortex. You won't believe your eyes...

Archive: Let me know where it's going, please.

Disclaimer: Nope. I don't own 'em. I read somewhere that this guy Joss Whedon does -- and the swell folks at WB. It could be a lie. Maybe they're real and nobody owns anything. Sarah and David are the heart and soul of Buffy and Angel. Long may they reign. This story is for entertainment purposes only and no infringement is intended.

I am indebted to the wonderful talents of Kelley Walters and Dasha K. -- two great friends in XF ficdom who agreed to look this over and help make it into the story it turned out to be. And to Sara and Mel, who kept me honest with the mythology of the series. Thanks guys!!!

The character Mercury is drawn from Arly Jover's bad-ass blond vamp in the motion picture "Blade," though she bears little resemblance to the movie version. Some similarities abound to "Blade's" breathtaking opening sequence, but I had this vision down pat long before I ever saw the movie. Vortex was once a real club on Chicago's Near North side (minus vampires...I think).

 

**

 

you get me closer to god...
-- nine inch nails

"Whatever you see in here, remember to keep an open mind."

So saying, she opened the door and walked into the cavernous darkness of the entryway. He followed her into a large warehouse-like enclosure, filled with hundreds of people. People...and something else.

A cacophony of sound crashed down from the high ceiling. Angel blinked against the kaleidoscope of lights flickering through the smoky air. He eyed the multitude of writhing bodies -- a primitive blur of movement that packed the dance floor. Men with women. Men with men. Women with women. The brilliant colors of humanity intermingled with the stark, black-and-white visage of the undead.

Unbelievable.

It was a free-for-all of barely repressed sexuality. And, in some cases, not so barely, he noted. A dark eyebrow twitched with curiosity at couples who seemed to be devouring each other in the shadowy places on the outskirts of the room.

Christ. SAT scores, double mocha at the Bronze and the Sunnydale prom may as well have been another fucking planet right now. He could see quite clearly why she was reluctant to bring Giles here.

Was this what Buffy had been doing with her time away from higher learning while they'd been separated? Wandering through the decadent warrens of L.A.'s underground club scene? Dancing like this? Her body moving with someone else's in such a blatantly erotic rhythm?

Angel closed his eyes, letting the pain wash through him. Savoring it. He could see himself with her out there -- every inch of her body molded to his. Breathing the heady perfume of her blood and sweat and desire, tasting the burning sweetness of her mouth, hearing the low sound of his name on her lips...

Buffy caught his confusion, and quickly understood the reason for it. The melee called. It was no different for her. She had been here to this place before, coming with others to be in the dance, to vanish inside the chaos of another human being.

Tonight, it was different though. Tonight, she was with somebody who mattered. Somebody who wasn't even human. Somebody who had the power to evoke far more dangerous feelings than any other ever could.

Focus, she thought. Time to get going on the job they were here to do. No time for fun and games.

Never again.

"Angel!" she shouted, forcing them back to the hot, harsh reality of their surroundings. "Get a grip!"

With a rush, he snapped back, staring at her. Angel took a breath he didn't need and blew it out slowly. Here, now...this place. He remembered. They were looking for the club's benefactor -- Buffy's contact, the enigmatic Mercury. A two-thousand-year-old vampire, she'd said. A new nightmare for him.

Her connection to Buffy was disturbing because of who she was, what she was. And what she claimed to be:

Another vampire, cursed as he was, with the burden of a soul? Or something far more dangerous to the Slayer and her friends?

Every one of Angel's protective instincts screamed that it was the latter, but he couldn't be sure. Which was why he was here with her tonight, to see for himself.

Buffy abruptly snared his wrist, pulling him closer. He glanced down at her, eyes smoldering. The familiar proprietary nature of his gaze shocked her to the core. The swiftness of her response was stunning.

She wanted him. God. Wanted him to touch her, come into her, complete her.

Seconds stretched. Finally, the pressure became too intense and she closed her eyes, breaking the contact.

Almost immediately, Buffy regretted her decision to come here, to bring him with her. It was bad enough that the usual flood of freaky sensation had hit her walking through the door. Keeping her relationship with Angel in its proper context could be next to impossible here.

Great.

Somehow, she found her voice, yelling over the ear-splitting noise.

"Angel, stick close. It'll be better if the stalker gang around here thinks we're together." She laughed sharply. "Otherwise you're likely to get picked up. By somebody. Alive or undead."

Angel gave a quick nod. He clasped her hand but kept a careful distance between them. Buffy's emotions remained as transparent as ever. He had seen her fight just now for control and didn't think he could stand to pull her close if it might mean rejection. The past seemed to close over him like some malevolent spirit.

He had walked away. That was his choice -- the way it was meant to be. The only way.

Wasn't it?

She was moving forward now, tacking through the crowd. Angel followed, grateful that he'd left his overcoat in the car. The heat was incredible. It didn't seem to bother Buffy though. He eyed the shimmer of her trim curves beneath the clinging navy silk of her slip dress. It covered exactly enough flesh to keep her from being arrested out in the street -- and not a single scrap more.

Six months suddenly seemed like an eternity.

Together, they wound their way to the bar. Pushing forward deftly, they finally made it to the edge of the tarnished brass rail. A bartender stood a few feet way, working fast to keep up with the demands of the crowd.

Buffy snapped her fingers. Angel watched as the man's head tilted at the small sound -- caught despite the noise all around them. His eyes narrowed.

The bartender slid over. "What'll you have?" he asked, without looking up.

"Hey, Rez," Buffy said. The sound was punishing, yet she did not raise her voice.

The bartender glanced up, clearly recognizing her. "Buffy?" A smile of pleasure creased his wan, angular face. "Long time no see, Slayer. Where the hell you been, girl?"

"Oh, here and there. You know -- wherever," she replied glibly. "How's tricks?"

He waved his hand and grinned. Blue light glinted off razor-like canines.

Angel tensed. Fuck. The vamp didn't even bother to hide them from her.

"You know the drill," Rez winked.

He turned to Angel, peering at him beneath a shock of sandy-brown hair. Then, his nose twitched, eyes widening. Angel smiled thinly.

The scent of master vampire was distinctive -- even in a stew like this place.

To Angel's surprise, Rez didn't back away. Instead, he eyed him with undisguised curiosity and not a little admiration.

Finally, he asked Buffy, "Are you going to introduce me, or what?"

She looked from one to the other. "Angel, meet Iares." She gave the bartender a warning glance. "Don't get any wrong ideas though. He's not that kind of vamp."

Recognition dawned on Rez's face. He blinked for a second before asking, "Angel? You don't mean...Angelus? The Tormentor? The unholy bane of Europe and parts farther east? The demon who nearly unleashed the doom of Acathla and fifty-six or so other titles that escape me right now? *The* Angelus?"

"Sometimes I cross in the middle of the street, too," Angel hissed, behind her.

Buffy smiled as Rez shut his mouth hurriedly. Angel's ire sparked with implicit threat between them. The notoriety surely pissed him off, but she'd already assumed they would recognize him here. Counted on it, even.

Good news about bad reps traveled fast in the vamp world.

Angelus was here with the Slayer. Her Advocate. Very cool. Rez was an inveterate gossip. Soon, the entire club would know about it.

She inhaled sharply as the thought sent a bolt of pure, unadulterated pleasure through her. Even with the platonic hold wound tight on their relationship, the idea that she belonged to him in some fundamental way was still profoundly exciting.

God, Buffy thought, this place did strange things. Despite her best efforts, control was slipping away by leaps and bounds. She didn't know how to stop it anymore. Maybe she didn't even want to.

Rez spoke to Angel, interrupting her thoughts. "You know, I heard you were here in L.A. I just never expected to see you in this kind of place."

Buffy felt Angel go all rigid. "Seen Mercury lately?" she broke in, changing the subject abruptly.

Rez looked back to her. "Yeah," he nodded. "She's been around the last couple cycles. I don't think you'll see her here tonight, though. She's got a new pet down at some place on Wilshire. And her day's just getting started, so to speak."

Angel's agitation grew with each new casual reference to vampires. As if they were talking about the weather. And it didn't seem to affect Buffy at all.

Scratch that, he thought, as she ran her hand along the bar rail fretfully. But it was *his* tension she was responding to, rather than the signs themselves.

She shook her head and said, "Not gonna work for us, Rez. We have business with her."

Angel sensed her anxiety. He suspected that thoughts of the other ensouled vampire were the cause. Not for the first time, he wondered at the exact nature of Buffy's newfound relationship with this woman. The Slayer had a proven weakness for members of the undead with a conscience in tow. Sometimes, that trust could be a powerful distraction for her.

He moved closer, into her space, drawing on the familiar comfort of her presence. He reminded himself that her connection to the other vampire was superficial at best. That's what she had assured him when he'd agreed to help her out with this.

Besides, Buffy was with him tonight. Safe. Even if it wasn't on the same...intimate level they'd once shared.

"I need you to page her for me," Angel heard her say, noting her forced smile. "And then do me a favor and get us something to drink."

The bartender was watching the interplay between them with the compulsive focus only a vampire could manage. She had come here telling herself that she and Angel were no longer on such familiar terms, but Rez did not appear fooled. Angel's movements, though subtle, were definitely territorial -- marking her as his own. Worse, Buffy knew she didn't seem to mind, or even notice. That usually suggested intimacy on some level, and Rez was an excellent judge of character.

"Okay, Buffy," he said, stepping back and reaching for a phone tucked under the bar. "What can I get you? The usual?"

"Ummm, sure," she said, achingly aware of the icy length of Angel's body pressed up against hers.

A dark current of arousal washed through her. She stood perfectly still, afraid he would pull away with the slightest movement, denying her the delicious sensation of his nearness. Still, there was nothing remotely suggestive in his behavior, she told herself. The club was packed beyond capacity and he simply had no choice but to crowd her.

The bartender poured a glass of Pellegrino and ice with quick efficiency, adding a slice of orange and sliding it before her.

She took a long swallow, welcoming the bite and relaxing for a moment as it tamped down the fiery heat in her stomach.

"Angel?" Rez paused, staring at the other man.

"The same," he answered with a grim look.

Rez dropped his eyes and set the water before Angel, pausing to add a tall shot glass filled with a dark fluid.

"Try it," the bartender urged. "You look like you could use a drink."

Buffy twisted slightly and Angel met the challenge in her gaze head-on, bristling at her air of amusement. "Don't worry," he heard her say, "I think you passed the legal drinking age a little while ago back there."

"And what's your excuse?"

"Oh please," she groaned. "I'm in *college*. But I'll pass tonight. It's not worth offending your delicate sensibilities. Really."

Fuck it, he thought, animosity towards this exercise growing by leaps and bounds. And fuck her for making him look like a fool in front of the other man. If she was anybody else...

Reaching for the shot, he tipped it down his throat in one smooth, swift motion.

The strong licorice-like flavor burned like hell going down, even managing to make his eyes smart -- a rather unusual occurrence for him.

He set the glass down with a loud crack on the bar, feeling her flinch slightly at the sound as it echoed over the music. "Is that...absinthe?"

Rez gave him a calculating look. "Nope. Green's illegal here in the States. But it's close. Something for all good little vamps to drink before they hit the sack at sunrise, dreaming the impossible dream. Didn't Buffy tell you? Strange things happen when you...penetrate the Vortex. You won't believe your eyes."

Angel ignored the innuendo as he swallowed against the bitter taste still lingering on his tongue. Both Buffy and Rez were laughing at his expression.

He composed himself with a narrow smile in response.

"Well, I really gotta get going, guys," Rez suddenly said, waving Buffy off as she began to put some money on the bar. "Nah, don't worry about it. Water's free. And the belt is on the house. Mercury would insist. Good to see you back, Slayer. Place is never the same without you."

Buffy watched him leave, starting slightly when Angel leaned over her, murmuring in her ear, "So this is the kind of company you're hanging out with these days? I'm beginning think this place is a little more dangerous than you want to admit. And it has nothing to do with vampires."

His observation angered her for some reason and she heard herself snap, "Just what would you have to say about it, Mr. Speedy Escape Clause? You know what? I forgot to ask for your permission. You were already long gone by the time I needed it."

He chose not to respond and she turned her attention back to her glass of water, taking another sip and closing her eyes for a moment. The night had been filled with confusing and uncomfortably powerful emotions. Buffy knew that the worst was probably yet to come with him. She concentrated on mastering the tension, willing herself to relax while she still could.

The constant wave of music went into a rare, split-second lull and she turned to face Angel. "Wanna find some place to sit down?"

He stared at her, anger still snapping in his eyes like a flare of broken neon as they roamed across her tight features, finally settling on the full swell of her lower lip.

Buffy let out an involuntary gasp at the leashed frustration hovering in his look, reading his thoughts perfectly. The tip of her tongue inadvertently swiped along the object of his intense stare.

Suddenly, he found he was having trouble breathing.

Wait. He shouldn't even *have* to breathe. What the fuck was going on here?

Then it hit him. The bartender had said the drink was something like...what? Absinthe. Vampires were notoriously susceptible to its intoxicating effects. He'd discovered that once the hard way back on his European tour. And it looked as if it wasn't going to take long to rediscover them tonight.

The raw, industrial beat of the music resumed then -- the driving noise vibrating through the floor, up Angel's legs to his fingertips, settling deep in his gut and rattling the base of his skull.

The throng beckoned -- luring him with the pretext of getting closer to her.

Fuck. He wondered if he was actually high enough to forget his profound lack of ability with any modern groove. This place might just be enough to blow his mind beyond the bounds of all rational restraint. Because the scent of sex and human blood and vampire pheromone was all around him. Calling, wrapping him in its mystical embrace, urging him to do...

Something.

Buffy tensed as Angel bent again to murmur in her ear. The icy-hot touch of his breath sent a slew of aftershocks up and down her spine.

"Dance with me."

The three words seemed to plunge through her head like the blunt cleave of a stake. She nodded mutely. He pulled the glass from her hand and set it back on the bar. Weaving his fingers in with hers, he led her through the crush of bodies onto the dance floor.

Whispers resonated all around them -- words like "Slayer" and "Angelus" drifting in and out of her hearing, reassuring somehow in their awed tones.

She realized this was probably the only place in the world right now where they could command respect from both humans and vampires alike.

Angel faced her. Eyes still ablaze, he dared her to give into the concussive throb of the music. To succumb like the rest, grinding against each other while the limitless sound rolled over their bodies.

Buffy caught her breath as he grasped her waist, sliding his hands around to her backside. He pulled himself into the cradle of her hips.

Oh God, he was ready. Right now. She could feel every inch of his cool heat through the thin material of her dress.

That did it.

Mind blown. Sanity gone.

Angel watched her eyes drift shut. He moved his hands over her body more firmly, driving her to keep time with the ebb and flow of the surrounding horde.

She savored the familiar chill of his body. A reckless longing rose within her -- the unforgettable wish for things she could never have.

Dimly, Buffy realized her legs were completely entangled with his now. With so little room, there was no need for subtlety or skill in their movements. Angel thrust against the soft rise of her belly, bumping her up. His knee slid between her legs, rocking her at her core.

A soft sound slid from her lips, becoming lost in the din of the crowd. Gently, almost imperceptibly at first, her hands went around him. She began to return his movements.

Angel fought the sudden weakness in his limbs -- urging him to forget their public surroundings and abandon his self-control. God, how he wanted to simply lower her to the floor, pin her beneath him, and bury himself inside her until they were both mindless. Lost in the sweet, forbidden bliss that could ultimately lead to their doom.

Instead, his hands went to the small of her back, rubbing gently. His fingers traced the ridges of her spine, lingering in the secret places that made her tremble.

She was completely wrapped in his embrace now; crushed to his chest, belly pressed to his. The relentless pressure of his erection reminded her just how close they really were.

The music fused with the dark buzz of his nearness, dazzling her even more. She couldn't speak, or even think. He was the sole focus of her reality -- the center of her universe. For an instant, Buffy felt his chained spirit reaching out to touch her heart.

Angel hooked his arms beneath hers, bending her back slightly. His hands twined into fistfuls of her bright hair. She was so soft. Every inch of her body seemed connected to his. Their eyes locked, broken only by the occasional desperate blink. Her tongue darted out again to moisten her lips, teeth fastening on the fullness of the lower half.

He lowered his head to hers, never letting go of her eyes. Their brows touched -- her fire to his ice.

The mellow licorice taste of the drink he'd had teased her nose, stirring her deep inside. Memory surfaced -- the feel of his lips pressing against hers, his tongue tracing her teeth, the cool taste of him filling her mouth.

She craved that. Badly.

A groan escaped her. Angel blinked at the distraction.

His head jerked up. Ultra-keen instincts suddenly identified the focused attention of a tall, platinum-haired blond. She was staring at them from the edge of the dance floor. Shocked, he met her gaze and found the ageless orbs of a master -- as cold and black as licked obsidian.

The vampire smiled. Her low laugh lashed across his nerves like a whip. With a slight nod, she seemed to disappear, leaving him with nothing more than an aroused Slayer quivering in his arms.

And then the haze of sound and scent and shadow in the club twisted around him, like the pull of a silken cord on his neck. Angel gasped, struggling. His equilibrium shifted beneath the strangeness of the assault. All at once, he felt the jaws of illusion opening up and swallowing him whole.

He saw the two of them, Buffy and himself, staggering in the direction of the bathroom.

It wouldn't stop. He didn't *want* it to stop. The bodies all around them parted like waves at the urging of a deity he did not know and could not claim as his own.

It was time. He needed to be inside her.

Now.

They burst into the smoky, barren confines of the ladies' room. It was empty, save for them. Black walls were lit with the desultory glow of a single spotlight. The music dulled to a low throb within.

Sweet Jesus, he thought. There was nothing and nobody to stop them.

Buffy hustled them into a stall at the far end of the room. She kicked the door shut with a crash. The rough surface of the cinderblock wall rose up from behind as she dragged him to her, closer. He boosted her up. She braced her arm against the graffiti-strewn surface of the door. Her legs wrapped around him, heels digging into the backs of his thighs.

Angel stared at the play of muscle beneath her flesh, fascinated by the supernatural strength there. She was so alive, so real to him -- so fucking phenomenal it made his vision blur. He tried desperately to stay focused. And then Buffy's hand moved across his chest and began to thumb open the buttons of his shirt.

With a quick move, Angel caught her fingers in his, lacing them between their bodies. He bent to dip his tongue into the heat of her mouth.

Her pulse sang like an otherworldly chorus in his ears; echoing deep inside; rousing instincts he'd spent more than a lifetime trying to suppress.

Angel ended the kiss abruptly and buried his face in the warm fragrance of her hair. He struggled to contain his transformation.

It wasn't easy. The potent mix of arterial blood combined with her jugular was a high-octane speedball for his vampire senses.

He paused, shaken, focusing on the other, more urgent need--

To be one with her.

Angel closed his eyes. He pressed his forehead to hers. God help him, he wanted this. Wanted to be inside her -- to feel her power and heat against his length, making it a part of himself, so that he might be complete.

And fuck the consequences. Gaining the world might not be worth a soul, but losing himself in her this way was. It had to be.

She sucked in a breath as his hands slid beneath the silk of her dress, gliding up her spine and then moving back down to knead the taut curves of her ass. Grinding herself against him, she began to plead his name softly.

"Do it..." Buffy moaned. Her eyes burned with feeling, offering more than he would ever dare ask for.

She pulled his mouth down to hers roughly. Lips and tongue resumed their battle, teeth colliding with raw force of need.

He kissed her without restraint, drawing the air from her lungs until they were both breathless and incoherent.

Staring into her eyes, Angel eased his fingers into the slick heat between her legs, finding her center with his thumb, stroking her there.

Christ, but she was close. He could feel it as she fumbled with the buckle and zipper at his waist. Her hands were shaking with excitement.

Beyond thought, Angel didn't even bother with her clothes. Instead, he drew the skirt up over her hips and hooked a finger into the leg of her panties. Pulling them aside, he sank into her with an urgency that made the stillness in heart echo like nothing else could.

She was so tight. So wet. A low hiss of pleasure slid from his mouth. He moved forcefully, penetrating deeply -- wanting her climax even more than his own.

"Yes," she swallowed. Her head was thrown back, revealing the smooth sweep of her neck. Tears glistened on her lashes. She lunged against him, matching the desperate, animal hunger of each and every one of his thrusts. "Like that..."

A rush of glittering awareness exploded. Buffy's orgasm snuck up on them both, ripping through her body. He let go, tumbling over the edge with her, falling into the wave of sensation and fighting the urge to enhance it with the hot, exquisite tang of her blood.

Gasping, Angel bent his head, tongue playing over the pulse that pounded at her throat. His teeth grazed the salty-sweet surface of her skin. And then he heard her whisper the benediction he craved in a voice as gentle as a summer breeze...

"I love you."

He blinked for a split second, a sickeningly familiar feeling of dread taking hold of him--

--as something slammed into them full-force from behind.

Angel's eyes snapped open to reveal the sight of her face, lit in the unnatural glow of the club. Buffy was gaping at him with confusion. They stumbled from the impact of colliding bodies in the mayhem of the dance floor.

Shocked, he realized that none of it had really happened.

They had never left. He never fucked the two of them within an inch of their lives. She had never said the words that mattered more to him than anything in the world. And his soul...

His soul was still intact.

Their breathtaking climax was nothing more than an illusion. A chimera fueled by his most secret fears and desires; disturbing and yet, thankfully, insulating him from the repercussions of the real deal itself.

Would he really have been that reckless?

Would she?

Buffy was backing off him now, trying to sort out the emotions raging in his eyes. She wondered if he'd just been through the same soul-shattering experience she had.

Oh god, it had felt so real.

With a crushing sense of disappointment, she realized that not even the smallest kiss had happened for them. Instead, the music was rolling to a close. The deflating crush of bodies jarred her, driving the two of them further apart.

Every nerve ending in her body shrieked at his absence.

She saw Angel turn. He steadied the idiot female who'd bumped against him. Then, his eyes widened at the bright trail of blood spilling down her throat.

Damn it, Buffy thought. She reached past him and pulled the twit up to her by the elbow, propelling them both over to a table that some people had just conveniently vacated.

They were interrupted for this kind of foolishness?

Buffy sat the girl down with a bit more force than necessary. She gripped her chin and turned her head from side to side, feeling for a pulse on the undamaged side of her throat.

Angel hovered protectively behind her, wondering what the fuck was going on and just how exactly he should be responding.

But Buffy didn't seem to be all that concerned. Especially when the girl looked up at her with a slightly crazed grin and asked, "Mom?"

"Yeah. Mom. That's right. You've been a very naughty vampire toy. Go to your room," he heard her say, wincing at the sound as Buffy slapped the girl back into focus.

"You know the rules here," she said, shaking her head angrily. "No blood play. Period. You're so high right now, you probably wouldn't know the diff anyway. And now you're busted. Party all done. Time to get you off to bed."

Buffy met Angel's questioning look as the girl giggled drunkenly and slumped against her like a rag doll.

"I have to take care of this," she said, sounding resigned. Rising quickly, she dragged their newfound companion to her feet.

"I can see that," he replied, with a brief hint of his usual sarcasm. "I'll just...wait here for you."

Without another word, Buffy turned and stalked back in the direction from which they'd come in. Angel could hear her continuing to lecture her charge like some kind of overprotective parent as the mob swallowed them up on their way to the entrance.

He was amazed by the sudden change in her demeanor and supposed her rather potent sense of Slayer responsibility was the cause. But he also couldn't help sense that she was running away from him too.

What ever had happened to him out on that dance floor, Angel knew with an uncanny certainty that he hadn't gone on that strange odyssey all by himself -- something he wondered if he could admit to her.

And now Buffy's departure meant that he would have to think straight again. For both of them.

Because the implications of his vision were frightening in the extreme.

Fantasy or no, it seemed that if the conditions were right, his subconscious ego controls might be perfectly willing to ignore the consequences of his actions, unleashing the horror that was Angelus upon the world again.

Never had the unstable impact of their separation been more tangible for him.

Too much remained unsaid. Too much unresolved. Seeing her after all this time only made the potential for a volatile outcome that much more real.

The best thing would be to simply get as far away from this place as inhumanly possible.

But he'd made her a promise for tonight -- a promise he would keep...

And then he would leave her.

As Angel waited for her to return, his eyes scanned restlessly over the crowd, watching the display and assuring himself that no more obvious instances of bloodletting were taking place. In a potentially incendiary environment like this, that was obviously a very bad idea. Which made this club too dangerous and seductive for the people crowding its hollow spaces. Even for him, the place still held a deeply unsettling feel.

Something or somebody had been behind that experience with Buffy. And he had a bad feeling he knew just what it was.

Angel felt a hand touch his shoulder and he glanced up, expecting to see her back at his side.

Instead, he found himself staring into the starkly beautiful features of the master vampire who'd been watching them from the edges of the crowd.

Her skin was deathly pale, blending into the expensive white linen of her jacket and leggings so that he couldn't really tell where the clothing ended and her body began.

She was completely devoid of color. A vision in white. From the brush of her platinum hair to the tips of her iridescent nail polish and everything in between.

Except for the eyes.

They were like pockets of empty space in the wasteland of her expression and Angel found himself being pulled over the event horizon without a second thought.

It was her. Mercury.

"Greetings, Angelus."

Darker senses came alive as she bowed her head a fraction, speaking to him in the archaic dialect of the undead. The ancient greeting of respect from one master vampire to another touched him on a most basic level, sending a tremor through his soul.

Christ.

He'd almost forgotten what that felt like. Modern vamps, especially American ones, rarely paid attention or even knew about the language and protocols of their occult society.

"I'm not...I don't..." he stammered in English as she stared at him, feeling ill-at-ease and letting his irritation take hold immediately. Humility was definitely the exception in his nature when it came to other vampires. It could be lethal when dealing with the profoundly territorial impulses of another master. He would have to get over it. Quickly.

"I haven't used the old language in a long, long time," he admitted, forcing himself to relax.

She nodded, moving around the table and settling herself in the chair across from him before putting down a small ashtray.

"Well...there's no need to get all strung out over it. I'm only here to introduce myself," she said, pulling out a cigarette. "First, I have to tell you that I'm pleased to finally meet you at last. The Slayer speaks of you all the time. I am the one she calls Mercury."

Angel's eyes narrowed as she reached into the pocket of her jacket, drawing out a silver lighter and cupping her hands around her mouth. Light flared and illuminated her features as she lit the cigarette, but her expression remained unreadable.

A touch of fear began creeping through his insides. He reminded himself that her face had been the last thing he'd seen before the delusion of a sexual encounter with Buffy corrupted his senses.

Coincidence? He doubted it. It had to be because of her.

Clicking the lighter closed, Mercury inhaled deeply and returned his stare without blinking.

"What's wrong, Angelus?" she asked, tipping her head to one side as she blew smoke from her nose. "You look like you've seen a ghost or something."

"Or something," he replied, refusing to look away from her. "That was you before, wasn't it? When we were out there? You were playing with the two of us?"

She laughed softly in reply and nodded, turning away from him for a moment to look out at the dancers.

"So beautiful," she murmured. "The two of you. Unique. A virtual symphony of life and death."

Her dreamy expression returned to normal as she glanced back at him after a few moments.

"All I did was show you the door. What happened when you chose to go through it is your business. I didn't get to where I am after all this time without learning how to fuck with people's heads a little."

"Fuck *you*," he spat, voice toxic with accusation. "This isn't a game. Do you have even the smallest clue what your interference might have caused?"

Her eyes became alive suddenly, shining with a glimmer of anger. Anger...and a rush of what appeared to be complete self-assurance. Maybe even pity.

She laid the cigarette in the ashtray, leaning back in her chair.

"What would have happened if what?" she asked, her voice cutting into him like a blade. "If Angelus had come to the fore and refused to play nice with us here at Vortex?"

He nodded tightly.

"I'll tell you what would have happened, Advocate," she said in a deadly soft tone. "Rez and I would have dragged you out into the back alley where I would have vamped out and let my demon kick your ass into next Tuesday. I'm quite sure I could have taken you in hand...with very little effort."

He didn't know why, but Angel found himself instantly convinced that she could and would do exactly as she said. Her movements were quick and agile -- like a Slayer's. And her existence after all these years was proof of her ability to overcome all manner of threats to her survival.

But there was something else involved here. Something more primal than the blunt force of will one encountered in a garden variety vampire. Even a master vampire.

No, whatever it was he sensed hovering at the edges of her personality, it was powerful. *Very* powerful. Unknown, and therefore, unpredictable.

He suspected that Angelus would not have stood a chance against her.

Because he knew now that what Buffy had told him was almost certainly true -- the ethereal bonds of a human soul secured this master. Angel could almost see it in her air of uncanny perception and control.

He wondered idly if he would have to wander the earth as long as she had to adopt a similar mien.

"Don't worry," he heard her say. "If that's all that really disturbs you about this, we would have been able to subdue you. Rez is excellent with spells. He would have been very happy to invoke the customary remedy for your misfortune."

He stared, surprised, as she pulled out an Orb of Thesalah and showed it to him.

"Never underestimate me again, Angelus," she warned, turning the small sphere over and over in her hand. "I *always* come prepared to finish what I start."

An uneasy silence settled between them as Mercury picked up her cigarette and resumed smoking, apparently well at ease within the controlled parameters she'd just established.

She was indeed the master here, in this place. There was little the demon in him could do to deny it. And the man in him had no desire to.

"You know," she finally remarked, watching as he ran a hand through the messy shock of his hair. "If things really turned out the way you fear, it might not be necessary to rework that spell at all. The suffering placed upon you need not define your life to the exclusion of all other things."

"You're joking, right?"

"Not really, no." Mercury shrugged, staring at him in that weird, disconcerting way again. "Believe me, little brother, I've seen enough in my time to know that anything can happen. Including one man's ability to leave behind the curse of his existence without destroying everything he holds dear."

Angel could see that she wasn't kidding. Furthermore, she was completely serious about the scope of her life's wisdom and understanding. What was it exactly that Buffy had told him? Two thousand, three hundred and sixty-two years? Christ, what a journey.

"You must get tired," he observed, unable to escape his sudden insight into the bane of her longevity.

"Sometimes," she confessed. "But that's the thing about immortality. It drains the life right out of you."

Mercury paused to take another drag as their silence clashed once again with the noisy surroundings.

"Of course, she would have to feed you regularly for it to work," the vampire remarked after a while, staring absently at the glowing end of her cigarette.

"I don't think so," Angel replied grimly.

"Why not?" She lifted an eyebrow and contemplated his bleak expression. "I'm sure if you asked she would consider giving you access. Hell, Buffy would welcome the opportunity to make that choice for herself. Some might even say she deserves it."

"Yeah, well..." Angel's laugh was harsh now, derisive. "That's an opportunity she'll never have."

"Why?"

"I won't use her that way."

She stared at him suggestively beneath a veil of lashes. "But you already have...haven't you?"

Angel heard the insinuation in her tone and realized that denying it would be pointless. Somehow, she knew he'd fed off Buffy before. And the look of absolute awareness in her eyes told him she also knew just how affecting the experience had been for him.

"Look," he snapped. "I shouldn't have to explain why it's impossible."

"All things are possible on this plane, Angel. You simply lack the will to find another way. It's far more pleasing to your nature to dwell on the reasons why it can't be done."

She stubbed her cigarette in the ashtray.

"The demon inside you will curl up in the palm of your hand for habitual access to such a gift. Demons are nothing more than preternatural junkies and whores. Slaves to their own nourishment. They are meant to be controlled. Even you may control it if you have her resolve to lead the way."

"I tried that once."

"And?"

"It didn't work out."

"But did you? Did you *really*?" Mercury asked. "Or did the more vulnerable part of your human nature retreat from the deeper feelings you experienced and allow the beast to have the upper hand?"

He turned his head away and swallowed. Once. Twice. Unable to meet her eyes.

"Unless you still subscribe to the myth of mortal narrative which claims that we literally have no humanity left inside us once we are turned?" she said.

Still, Angel said nothing. It was exactly what he believed. Experience had proven that to him time and again.

Hadn't it?

"You do, don't you?" said Mercury, rolling her eyes. "Modern vampires." She shook her head. "None of you ever bother to learn anything about yourselves. Your history.

"Listen," she said gently. "You think I haven't heard your story before? You think I haven't lived it? This happens more than the Watcher councils would like to admit. Hunter and prey are often pulled over the thin line that separates love from hate. The ancient texts are filled with examples of such bonding between our kind. It's one of the reasons why I'm convinced we can bridge the mystical gap between us. Imagine walking in a world with the living that isn't defined by a philosophy of domination and conflict and death. A world where we might find a way to overthrow the curse of immortality and rejoin humanity once and for all."

A tiny glimmer of hope flared brightly for a moment as he considered Mercury's claim about his true character but he found it suddenly crushed beneath a flood of lessons from his past. The sound of Giles's voice echoed in his head:

"the last time you became complacent about your existence, it turned out rather badly"

Angel rubbed at his temple in something very close to pain. He could never forget who and what he was. That was the price for imposing so much destruction and misery on the people who surrounded him.

"I'm sorry," he whispered, knowing she would hear him. "It's a nice dream, but I think it's impossible."

"Is it?" asked Mercury, frustrated with his lack of vision. "Look at them." She swept her arm out in the general direction of the crowd of vampire and human, giving him a burning stare.

"Self-destructive behavior," he said dismissively. "They're too young to know any better. And they get exploited for it."

"Now who's being naive?" she asked. "You think there's not at least fifty mortal males in this room who wouldn't let me drain them near dry if I offered to get down on my knees and suck their cock?" Her expression was dark as she leaned over the table, getting in his face. "So you tell *me* who's doing the exploiting in this relationship."

"Demons kill," he said flatly. "*Vampires* kill."

"Only because that's what they've been taught from the moment they rise," she argued, gesturing for emphasis. "There are other ways. The people who frequent this place know that. The mores of the vampire society have outlived their purpose in this world we share. Worse -- they've become something they were never intended to be. The killer instinct evolved in blacker times when we were far fewer in number and would do anything to survive -- to stay alive. Now, we accept it as our canon. I think that can be changed. And your Slayer does as well."

"You've discussed all this with Buffy?" Angel asked, tensing.

"Only in the abstract." Mercury stared at him. "Don't worry, Angel. For the short time I've known your Slayer, I assure you, I would do nothing to cause her harm. Even to the point of protecting her from herself. She already burns so very brightly -- and I know the price that evil exacts when you disregard its capacity for ruin. Believe me when I say I've paid for mistakes of my own that way..."

She trailed off, her eyes taking on a slightly unfocused cast.

"I loved a man once, a long time ago. Beyond all reason," she admitted finally. "But he was so very young. And I was foolish."

Angel watched as her face suffused with an expression of grief so powerful, it tore at him. He felt the brush of dread that one usually encountered on the verge of hearing something very unpleasant.

"I turned him at his behest," she was saying. "An act of supreme arrogance for all I'd seen and learned about the nature of our existence with mortal beings. Needless to say, it cost me. Marcus rose from the ashes of his birth to become a master in his own right -- so powerful that I ended up a pawn to the very evil I was responsible for creating. In the end, the Powers were merciful. A Dominican Watcher and his Slayer found a way to destroy him. But before it was finally over, the priest gave me the most priceless gift I could ever want...out of a deep, abiding respect for our love. Those were the days when Watchers were still capable of that kind of compassion."

Mercury paused, staring directly into his eyes. "Marc's spirit burns inside of me right now. The wisdom and honor of his conscience are the same as my own. And I love him desperately to this very hour. But he won't ever be here to share in the fire and blood and struggle and glory of real life with me again."

Angel found himself fighting the empathy that rose inside him, sensing that she had absolutely no use for anyone's pity -- least of all his. Rather, she was opening the secrets of her history and her heart in an attempt to make him see something very important.

"So here I am," he heard her say at last. "Hundreds of years later, buried in the bowels of this corrupt society. A society shared fully by both vampires and human beings now. Then, one day, in the midst of all this, a new Slayer walked in through my door. One who shone more brightly than anything I've ever seen. Oddly enough, in spite of all of her gifts, all she could speak of the first time we met was about a vampire. One she says has chosen to walk the rest of his days in a wretched state of self-immolation because he can't stand the idea of his demonic character freeing itself to poison all that he loves now.

"You know who I'm talking about?" she asked.

"Yes," he whispered, closing his eyes.

"I thought so."

Angel groaned low in his throat, as if in pain.

"Stop it," she told him fiercely. "Don't you understand? It's not a simple question of human or demon. We only like to think that to save ourselves from the struggle of finding our own path as the undead. Here -- two thousand, three hundred and sixty-two years later -- I'm *still* like the slave I was in the Athenian marketplace, praying for a better life. But something -- the demon, the soul, whatever it is -- drives me to finally realize my hopes and dreams in the turmoil of this miserable world.

"You think if you lose that pathetic excuse of a Gypsy curse that it means the end of your honor and human decency? Nonsense. Just how much did that spell deliver you before you found her? Look me in the eye and tell me it isn't your connection with her -- with humanity -- and your fear of accepting the mantle of worthiness that keeps you mired in this endless cycle of Angel versus Angelus? Or is it just the constant martyrdom that you find so irresistible?

"Let go of that fear," she insisted. "Quit making the past your present and become a permanent part of her future *and* her cause. You may just find that the conflict ceases to exist. The light in both of you is powerful enough to provide the atonement you so desperately seek."

"You make it sound so fucking easy," Angel finally interrupted, heartache vibrating plaintively in his voice. "It isn't. I've done things -- terrible things. Things I can't ever let myself forget. Ever. Because if I do, I might allow it to happen all over again. And that's a risk I'm not willing to take, no matter how much I love her."

Mercury propped her chin in one hand and stared at him in silence. Her gaze was touched surprisingly with a mixture of understanding and concern. "I see," she said simply. "Of course, you're still very young. Maybe one day you'll understand that we only accomplish the greatest of tasks beneath the burden of greatest risk. I've lost my share of chances, but I won't give up on this one."

She stood suddenly, sweeping the cigarettes back into her pocket and sliding the chair back in its place.

"I've seen you two together. You're strong. *Very* strong. And you have the wretched advantage of learning from past mistakes to keep your perspective. The power of your union could find the way that leads us all back to our humanity. As long as that possibility exists, I had no choice but to try."

Angel said nothing as she looked around for a moment, catching sight of Buffy from far across the club. Stepping aside, Mercury allowed him the vision of his Slayer -- gliding through the vivid medley of living and dead. His heart sang with the beauty of her spirit.

Mercury said, "Take her home. She deserves that." Her night gaze lit on him. "I hope this isn't the last time I'll see the two of you here together."

"It may be," he answered, looking up at her. "I'm afraid it has to be."

"As you say." She turned and somehow managed to ease her way through the crowd without so much as a backward glance, stopping only to greet the Slayer.

And then Buffy herself was there, at his side. She stared down at the blank look on his face.

"Are you okay?"

Angel nodded, refusing to meet her eyes. He rose. "What did she tell you?"

"That we need to go." She searched his features and said, "With her here, they won't have a problem keeping things under control. Rez keeps quite a collection of stakes behind the bar. Handy. Besides, Mercury has that look, you know? That's all she needs to make a vamp cry." Disappointment echoed in her voice. She said, "I guess we can leave."

Angel stared one last time at the shifting bodies on the dance floor, thinking about everything the other master had just told him. Ideas and concepts spun through the hyper-acuity of his mind until he could no longer see the distinct outlines of the truth.

Whether he believed in them or not, Angel knew that the strength of her beliefs would keep him occupied in the dark and lonely hours of night...when his only other task was contemplating whether or not he deserved to see another sunset.

He took Buffy's arm and led her towards the exit, forcing himself to take up the reins of his self-discipline again. Restraint could only be his ally now.

Because in light of all that he'd seen, heard, and felt here tonight, it was going to take everything he had to let her go again.

They stood on the curb, next to his car, bathed in the eerie halo of streetlights. Buffy took a deep breath. The scent of damp asphalt rose in the early morning humidity. A breeze ruffled her hair suddenly, softening the harsh sounds and smells of the city as she turned to face him.

"So?" she said. "What did you think?"

"This place?" He pointed back at the alley containing the secluded entrance to the club.

"Yes."

"I think it's unsafe."

"Why?" She couldn't help a slight scrap of defiance.

Angel ignored it. "Because when you put a mix of human and vampire together in an unstable social environment, sooner or later you get down to basics. Like mayhem. And killing. They can't help themselves. It's their nature."

His voice sounded firm, but his eyes betrayed him. Somehow, they always did...speaking their own language...from the heart and soul.

And they told her now that he was afraid.

Of what though? Their vision of each other together? It had to be.

Buffy was disturbed by it as well. But her fear had more to do with knowing that Angel would surely deny what had happened inside the club, making the experience seem invalid somehow.

He was a pro at that. And she refused to give him the opportunity. At least this way, she could still have the memory of the two of them locked together in that last, earth-shattering embrace...

"It'll be a bloodbath eventually," she heard him say abruptly. "Mark my words."

Buffy couldn't tell if he was trying to convince her or himself.

"And Mercury?" she asked, refusing to let the issue die.

He took a deep breath and let it go slowly for emphasis. "I don't think she would intentionally do anything to hurt you. Or any of the charges under that roof -- living or dead. If she did, believe me, I'd rip her fucking heart out." The words came with more confidence than he felt. "Still, there are limits to what even a two-thousand-year-old Master can handle. I'd say a prayer every night that this thing never gets out of control."

Buffy nodded. There was wisdom in his remarks and she added them to her store of Slayer analysis. She didn't agree with what he said, but it certainly wasn't the first time. For one thing, he'd never seen Mercury in action with Rez and some of the other cohorts she kept on hand. They put some of the Slayers she'd known to shame.

Still, for now, there was no use going on. She backed away from him until the cool surface of the car door brushed against her legs

"So this is it?" she asked, unable to control a flush of regret.

"I guess it is."

"I don't suppose you'd consider coming back here with me?" Buffy gave herself a mental pat on the head for keeping the vulnerability from her voice. "I patrol here occasionally, at the end of the night. You could help me. The way we used to do things. I mean, after all, it's kinda your backyard...the big city and all that."

Angel wiped the emotion from his face before he answered. His determination made him seem even more rigid. "We both know I can't," he said in a low voice - - the one that always seemed to come in her dreams and nightmares.

Buffy felt herself tense with the pride and pain of rejection. She turned away, gripping the door handle.

"Well, at least it was...real."

His eyes snapped up to meet hers.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing," Buffy said, dropping the attitude.

Because she still loved him. Because he thought he was doing the right thing. Because it was better to let it go before things got out of hand.

"It's just this place," she relented. "It sucks you in. Does things to you."

He stared for a moment before getting into the car. "I guess it does."

They drove to her dorm at UC Sunnydale in silence, both of them lost in a sea of conflicting thoughts and emotions.

Angel parked the car and said nothing, staring bleakly out at the night. His entire manner just seemed to shout "get gone", but Buffy didn't care. She reached out, running a finger along the length of his jaw.

"Oh God..." he murmured. She caught her breath as he snagged her wrist and gave her a desperate look. Then, he drew her hand to his lips. The icy heat of his mouth seared her flesh.

"Buffy," he said.

She shivered, trapped in the shadow landscapes of his eyes.

"Do *you* ever wonder what it would be like without this constant struggle? No demons? No curses? No...differences?"

"Yes," she said softly, meaning it. "Every day of my life."

He squeezed her fingers.

"Angel?"

He waited.

"Do you?"

"I...I don't know," he whispered. He let go of her hand and bent to rest his head against the steering wheel.

"I think it's time to say good-bye now."

"No," she countered. "You taught me once already that there's really no point in saying the words."

He did not respond.

Buffy leaned over and pressed a lingering kiss to the side of his face. Then, she got out of the car. Walking quickly up the pathway, she paused for just a moment to look back with a wistful smile.

And then she was gone.

It wasn't until he was three blocks away that Angel pulled to the side of the road and wept the familiar tears of bitterness and regret.

The End

"The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven."
-- John Milton, English poet

 

 


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