There was a rule about sharp, pointy, wooden things.  They hurt more coming back out than they did going in.  And considering what the stake had felt like slamming into his throat, Angel wasn't looking forward to yanking it back out.

            Then again, he hurt everywhere, so what was a little more pain?  The damned lava beast or whatever it was had beaten the living hell out of him, and being tossed off the building hadn't helped.  He still wasn't sure how he'd managed to land without breaking every bone he owned.  As it was, the pain in his throat was just part of the overall mass of agony.

So buck up and yank the damned thing out. He clenched his fist around the stake and just pulled.  Then for a moment he couldn't do much besides spit blood and whimper, and wait for the weird orange flashes to clear out of his vision.

            But the orange streaks didn't go away.  And as the worst edges of the pain began to dull, he realized there were huge streaks of fire in the sky.

            Slowly, painfully, he pushed himself to a sitting position.  Pain shot down his spine, harshly through his throat.  Even his eyeballs hurt.  The too-bright streaks of orange light make his vision ache.  What was it?  What were they?  Meteors, flaming rocks, burning pigeons?  The sky of Los Angeles had broken open and was vomiting fire.

            And suddenly it hit him.  Connor.  Cordy.  The two people closest to his heart, and he didn't know where they were, if they were okay.  Wes and Gunn, Lorne—somehow he knew they would be all right, that even now they were heading back to the hotel.  He wasn't sure how he knew—something he had heard, he thought, something vague and faint, trembling on the edges of his amplified hearing.  He'd heard their voices, perhaps.

            But Cordy.  There had been a time when he'd been able to sense her no matter where she was, had been able to tell if she was all right, or if she needed him.  It had been like the bond he'd shared with Buffy, but not as strong, not as deep.  But ever since she'd come back, it had been tenuous at best, and lately he seemed to have lost all sense of her.

            It scared him.  Enough to make him force himself shakily to his feet.  Enough to send him out into the fire-streaked sky, toward the warehouse where Connor had set up housekeeping.

            He went as fast as he could.  Normally he would have taken the rooftop route, leaping from building to building, but with the fire in the sky it was just too exposed.  He wouldn't be able to help anyone if he got careless and let himself get dusted by a stray fireball.  So he took a more circuitous route, from sheltered rooftop to alleyway to street to another rooftop and back to the street again.

            The city was going to hell.  He could hear it around him, screaming and sirens, the crackling of fires moving from building to building.  This was going to get worse before it got better, and he had no idea what he was going to be able to do to fix it.

            Finally he made it to the building next to Connor's.  Just another leap, and he could shimmy down the brick to the window—

            But he stopped, there on the rooftop opposite Connor's building.  Because he could smell them now, strong and ripe.

            God, was that what he thought it was?  It was an unmistakable odor.  Cordelia's arousal, thick and sweet.  He'd smelled it before, when she'd been with Groo, and more importantly when she'd been with him, and he'd slid her dress down from her shoulders and buried his face in her breasts and walked his lips soft down the curve of her belly . . .

            And he smelled Connor, too, and suddenly he wished he could smell only what a human could smell, because this was making him physically ill.

            He edged along the rooftop, unable to force himself away.  From his vantage point here he could see down into the next building.  There was a tall window there that opened right into the room Connor had claimed for himself.  There'd been a blanket or something hung over it the last time Angel had been by.

            There was no blanket now.  Angel could see straight down into Connor's room. Connor's bed.

            Connor.  Cordelia.

            For a moment he couldn't see at all, his vision blacked out by the image of himself leaping down, through the tall window, bursting through it, landing in the blue bed and ripping both their throats out.  He could almost taste the thick, hot blood, and for a split second he even felt fangs prick the back of his lip.  But he fought it off, conquered the rising demon.

            How could she do this to him?  He couldn't blame Connor for this—Connor was an eighteen-year-old boy who couldn't possibly work through all the ramifications of his actions, particularly if offered sex.  No, this had to fall on Cordelia.

            So how could she do this?  Just hours ago she had touched his face and told him she loved him.  He could still feel the warm imprint of her fingers if he summoned it.

            She loved him but she couldn't be with him.  So she did this.

            He had become a morass of pain, physical and emotional merging so he could no longer tell one agony from the other. 

            How many times had he imagined himself just there?  Between her legs, buried deep inside her heat?  How many times had he tormented himself with the thought of what he knew he could never have?  It wasn't her fault she had to withhold it from him—but to give it to Connor?

            Only a few months ago, she and Angel had lain in bed with Connor between them arguing over the benefits of a ski condo in Aspen.  He'd gotten a glimpse, in those moments, of what it might feel like to have a family.  He'd thought some part of it had been real.

            And now this.

            With fire hissing from the sky all around him, his heart bleeding as profusely as his throat had been, he made himself turn away.

            He simply couldn't bear it anymore


            Angel trudged up the stairs of the hotel, still not sure how he managed to put one foot in front of the other.  He grunted replies to the others' questions.  The only one he really heard was Fred asking after Connor and Cordy.  And the only reason he heard that was because it hurt so much.

            "They're fine," he mumbled, and Gunn said something that Angel didn't really register.  He kept moving, up the stairs, afraid that if he stopped, he wouldn't be able to get started again.

            He made it to his room, barely, shrugged out of his coat and let it fall to the floor.  Only a few steps to the bed, and he let himself collapse onto it.

            For the first time in a very long time, he felt like the corpse he was.  He just lay there, face smashed into the pillow, and waited for the pain to go away.

            Which, of course, it didn't.

            Some things were mending—he could feel broken bits inside him stitching themselves back together—but the healing hurt as much as the wounding had.  He'd broken a few bones in his hands smashing through the doors of the building on his way down the stairs, and the mending of the bones made a weird, itchy ache in his fingers.

            And nothing was ever going to make that picture go away, the one flashing over and over again in his head.

            Connor.  Cordelia.  He closed his eyes and that just made him see it more clearly.

            Connor and Cordelia.  Shit, the kid didn't even know what he was doing.  And suddenly Angel's mind flashed to all the things he'd wanted to do to her.  All of them.  From the gentle, sweet lovemaking he'd often fantasized about, to the other things he more often than not tried to keep hidden in the back of his mind.  Like sinking his teeth into the fold of her groin, finding the artery there, letting the blood flood his throat.

            It didn't matter anymore if they were man-lusts or demon-lusts.  They were all forbidden.  He felt that now, so deeply he couldn't deny it to himself anymore.

            Slowly, painfully, he rolled over.  His hands ached, the dull, throbbing itch deep in the bones enough to make him want to scream.  He swallowed instead, tasting his own blood in his mouth.  Cold.  Hot blood was better.  Hot and thick, musky with the smell of a woman.

            He never should have let himself think about her that way.  He'd known going in that he could never have her.  Nothing had changed since he'd left Sunnydale.  He still had nothing to offer a woman, especially one he loved.

            But he'd let himself indulge in the fantasy.  It helped sometimes, to imagine he did it all for her.  It was that crazy courtly love thing from all the medieval romances.  Slay the demons for the girl, admire her from afar, but never touch her.  He'd liked to imagine it gave him a purpose, but now, looking back, it was just stupid.

            He sat up in the bed.  Most of his insides felt realigned now.  That was good.  It was never a good idea to leap back into the fray with your spleen hanging out or your liver hacked into three or five pieces.  Something still felt askew in the intestinal area, but that would probably sort itself out over the next hour or two.  If only the bones in his hands would quit itching.  That was going to make him insane if it didn't stop.

            Slowly, cautiously, he eased his way to his feet.  A sharp pain shot through the right side of his abdomen, like something tearing open.  He grimaced.  Either he'd ripped himself a new internal injury, or something had healed wrong and he'd reopened it so it could correct itself.  Either way, it hurt like hell.  He stretched, ever so slowly, to see if anything else popped, but nothing did.

            He gritted his teeth and frowned at nothing, his gaze falling on his closet door.  A few slow, shuffling steps, and he stood in front of it.  He pushed it open.

            She had smelled so good that night, the soft, flowery perfume mingling with the natural odors of her body to make an indescribably exquisite bouquet.  A human man would have missed out on the deeper, better layers that made the smell uniquely Cordelia.  She had a tanginess to her.  Her blood, Angel had often thought, would probably taste a little like oranges.

            Of course, he would never know.  He would never again taste her mouth, or her throat, or the soft skin just under her navel.  Never.  Because she didn't belong to him.  She never had.

            He found the jacket.  Somehow it had survived the gas fire a few months ago—had it only been a few months?  Six, maybe.  Connor had still been a baby then.  Sweet and tiny, with that soft, powdery baby smell.  He didn't smell like that anymore.  He smelled like a man now, but different.  Feral.

            Angel closed his hand over the shoulder of the black tuxedo jacket, grasping the hanger, and pulled it out of the closet.  He looked at it a moment, then lifted it to his nose.

            The smell of her perfume was gone.