CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: guardian angels

Mary Briggs hated the dark.

The sparks that erupted as a dark Angel fell from heaven left behind nothing but pitch black.

Around her, cops scuffled, and some even cried out. She stood her ground, hand clutched around the handle of her gun, not daring to move when she stared straight ahead into the nothingness that had overtaken the cargo bay.

Blindly reaching for the cotton cuff of a uniformed officer nearest her, Mary pulled him closer. "Turn on the flashlight you have in your belt, you moron. EVERYONE. FLASH LIGHTS!"

One by one, little beams of light began to burst into the room.

Snatching one, Mary aimed it carefully at the cage.

A red-head blinked away at the glow. Beside her, there was nothing.

Apparently, one of the bastard officers she had been given knew what he was doing, because a metal hiss spread over them, and suddenly, flickering lamps chased away the shadows, leaving behind a cargo bay infiltrated by the police, and three Angels standing together.

The glares she received were bordering on hatred, but they composed themselves well. Mary would have expected nothing less. Natalie seemed largely unscathed, blond hair unruly, but sexy nonetheless. Beside her, Alex Munday held a blood-stained palm to her left arm, shirt torn at the sleeves. Dylan Sanders had taken the brunt of that attack. The red-head had painted black and red streaks across her face, blood clotting a dark splotch on her lower lip and chin.

All three very much alive.

And there was no Anthony in sight.

Shit.

"Good evening," she managed, voice formally polite, forced carelessness in her tone as she snatched off the flashlight, tossing it to a pair of waiting hands and coming forward.

"Hey, Mary," Alex chirped. "You're late." Seemingly oblivious to the guns that were now leveled on them, she seemed perfectly at ease as an officer snapped cuffs on her wrists.

"Traffic," she responded.

"You touch her again, I'll have you arrested," Natalie said sweetly, eyes turning cold on the officer who held Alex. "She's a licensed Private Investigator who was only doing her job."

Mary grinned, shaking her head as she waved the gun around her. "This is your job?"

"It's full service," Dylan explained.

It was a disaster area.

The trembling that made her sweat was almost impossible to hide, and without the smug 'aha' moment she had been anticipating, it left her in an almost impossible situation.

She had expected dead bodies when she had entered.

She had expected no survivors.

Now she had a murderer on the loose, a sniper down, an Irish gangster beheaded, and three witnesses who happened to be private investigators.

Mary took in a short breath.

Okay...

Yes... but they were also under arrest.

"You going to give up your friend, or are you just all planning on going to jail for aiding and abetting?"

"Hey, Mary, I just tripped," Alex said innocently. Glancing back at the officer who still held her, she handed him the handcuffs, miraculously free. Mary blinked. No one had given her the key. "I mean, I was all the way up there, and then I just... tripped and had to grab something – it wasn't my fault the lights went out."

The smiles that floated on her two friends gave her an incredible urge to point her gun and pop off three shots.

Thank God for self control. Stuffing the gun into her holster, she managed a carefree smile, matching the girls' expression with a sarcastic one of her own.

"Oh, really. What about tampering with evidence? Resisting arrest? Assaulting an officer? Reckless driving? Setting your fucking dog on me? Those were accidents too?"

"No," Alex answered sweetly. "Those were just for fun."

Mary nodded back, smile never faltering. "Well I hope it was worth it. Because I know a couple really mean bitches back in the precinct jail who are gonna love playing with that ass."

"No one's going to jail."

The hardened tone took her by surprise. It came from the blonde – who of all three, seemed always the sweetest, the meekest. There was no sweetness now. The gentle expression Mary had seen before now had been replaced with pure steel, eyes glinting at her with distain.

It was enough to make the smile falter, instinct that told her somehow, the game had changed. Around her, officers talked in their walkie-talkies, moved around her, did what they were trained to do.

But a few were listening. It was because of them she kept her smile frozen.

"Excuse me?"

"You're too easy to read, Mary," Dylan said.

"Oh, Dylan. I didn't recognize you with your clothes on."

"It was simple wasn't it?" she continued – never missing a beat despite Mary's dry observation. "You had it all planned out. Seamus, Marlin, Anthony, us – send us all in here. Every mistake you ever made, tossed in a steel trap. You figured it would only be a matter of time before we killed each other."

"And of course, then you'd just come in here with your warrant and your gun, just in time to find all the dead bodies," Alex added. "The celebrity sniper and an Irish mob boss, a hired assassin – it was genius. Save yourself the bullets. Make yourself a hero."

"You were just weren't counting on us living through it," Natalie finished, hands on her hips, eyes a cold glare as she noted, "Which proves you don't really know us very well."

Mary knew that eventually, her luck would run out. She had expected it, waited for it. For the longest time, she had fucked the system and she knew eventually it would fuck her.

She could deal with it.

But not from them. Not these three.

But officers glanced at her, curiosity making them turn into stares, longer, searching looks as guns lowered, whispers began.

She tried to speak, but her throat choked, and she had to swallow before she could sound out anything.

"If you think I'm going to let you-"

"You can still come out the hero, Mary," Dylan said crisply.

"Get out of here," she snapped at the cops. "NOW!"

"Mary-"

"GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE," she snapped. "I'll deal with them-"

"Our orders-"

"I don't CARE!"

The officer no longer held any reverence for her. It shone in his eyes, in his defiant glare. "Five minutes," he said finally, before he motioned to his partner, and they walked backwards, cuffs in pockets.

"Talk," Mary said curtly, broken, hesitant.

"Let Anthony leave. Give him a chance to run. Tell them you saw nothing. You get the credit. You get the Celebrity Sniper and you get the Irish Mob – we'll get out of here and say nothing about it." Alex's voice was flat.

"You come out the hero, the genius. And if you don't like it, you don't have much choice."

"We got some nice evidence that good ole' Nat managed to snap from a certain office," Dylan said, patting her friend helpfully.

"Aren't these little cell phones with the cameras in them the coolest?" Natalie said, mock enthusiasm in her tone as she toyed with the cell phone she now held out. "I mean, thank God for Catherine Zeta Jones and those commercials or I never would have known about them! You can like, email pictures, instantly!"

"Hmmm..." Alex mused. "Boy, you know – if someone, got emailed a certain pictures about... oh, ten minutes ago and sent that over to the justice office if they didn't hear from us in a few minutes then – Mary's friends could help tighten that ass!"

Blackmail. Who knew?

"So... what? You make me a deal? You can send me to jail – no one in here can identify him but me. They've got nothing on you – why not just take me?" They were playing a game – she had to know what it was.

"Are you kidding?" Alex asked, disbelief on her face. "I'm still waiting to kick your ass. I can't do it unless you're out here. At least this way, I'll get the chance."

"I'll go halvsies," Natalie offered.

But Dylan, the red-head who Mary had been the closest to actually shooting, came forward, short and beaten, and still frightening as hell. Mary, to her credit, stood her ground. She came closer, closer, until her breath was on Mary's lips, and her eyes sparkled with glinted anger.

"It's their idea," she said simply. "I'd rather just shoot you. But I don't do that."

"Get away from me," Mary said quietly.

Dylan smiled, and did so, stepping back behind the others.

It was an awkward moment, the change in power that told Mary she wasn't in charge anymore. She had lost to three girls who had played her right into their hands.

Marlin was right.

She was never extraordinary.

"So, what now?" she asked the blonde. "You're free to go – but I imagine you have more requests, now that you have me so neatly in your favor."

"We'll discuss the charges against Alex," Natalie agreed. "But right now, we're just going to kill time."

"Pardon?" Mary replied. Suddenly she blinked, looking around the crowded bay to realize that they were now missing one Angel. "Where's the red-head?"

"Or more importantly," Alex clipped with a smirk, "Where's your lighter?"

The question didn't make sense, until Mary reached self-consciously into her pocket and found it gone.

--

The boatyard was swarming with cop cars, lights blinking over the ships, and officers, some bored, some waiting, others speaking quietly.

The shadows beyond the docks were deserted.

Dylan felt the chill of the ocean air, shrieks of seagulls as the cool breeze hit her sweaty skin filled her senses, and for a moment, just a sliver of a second, this all felt surreal.

It could have been another evening at the beach, not the end of the longest week of her life.

She could almost convince herself it hadn't happened.

But the darkness beckoned, and when she felt something, in that sixth sense that Charlie insisted they develop for survival, she knew he would be there.

Black shoes gleamed when he stepped into the flickering lights of the lamppost above them. Cold blue eyes, steel dark gaze. He looked ready to kill her, just like every other time she had seen him.

On more than one occasion, he had.

Standing before her was a killer. A murderer with an unfeeling heart and ambiguous morals, loyalties that shifted with every fleeting emotion-

A total bastard.

But a bastard in love.

The ability to breathe suddenly decided to abandon her, and left struggling with gasps, Dylan let her frustration mount, emotions surging to the surface-

With a curled first, she caught him across the chin in a full on right hook, not holding anything back.

"YOU son of a bitch!" she managed. Anthony raised a palm to his chin, rubbing ruefully as he stared at her passively. "You ever do that again, and I'll kill you. I mean it. You broke my heart, Anthony, and I don't... I can't... I won't..." And it was too blurry to see. Tears stung her eyes, and when the first wet drop landed over her cheek, she lost the energy to her anger.

In the next instant she was in his arms, mouth covering his in a desperate embrace, lost in his lips, his heat, his entire essence that was destined to bring her alive and kill her the next instant, over and over in a vicious cycle that would remain her absolution.

The tears ran freely, against her will, staining his face with her scent, and curving into their joined mouths, until she tasted salt and bittersweet sadness.

He held her close, never gentle, never caring about her ribs, and never the man she expected to love. He was crazy and insane, and murderous, and yet-

"You have to go," she managed, mumbling words against his mouth when he breathed her in, eyes closed and giving her THAT sigh, rubbing locks of hair between his fingers.

Eyes opened, and inches away, she felt the heat of his breath, the intensity of his gaze.

"Mary's an idiot – she can't be trusted. There were too many witnesses. They'll come after you..."

She wasn't telling him anything he didn't already know. In every instance they had fought with him or for him, he had always known more than them. He had nearly beaten them at every game, and he could have beaten her in this one.

Eyes widened in remembrance, a thought sinking into Dylan's heart that needed to be voiced.

"You know I hated you," she managed. He continued to watch her, fingers locked on her hair, lips moving over her eyes, her lips, her skin with obsessive precision that made her ache. "I hated you. For a few hours." He paused, and she managed a sad smile. "It was then I realized I loved you." It was an admission that should have meant the very world. But she gathered he already knew. Just like always. "It was scary, you know? How much I felt both sides – love and hate, and – the DEPTH..." He stared at her passively, never changing his expression, never moving his fingers. "I guess, you felt a little bit of the same thing. I realize that. It's the closest I ever came to really understanding you."

He never said a word. He didn't have to. When his lips twitched, it was enough expression, enough to make her heart beat faster, breath quicken.

Stepping back, she pulled out of his arms, glancing back at the police and the sirens only a hundred feet away, oblivious to their love scene in the shadows. "I got something for you." From her pocket, she removed a lighter, etched with an American flag. His blue eyes zeroed in on it, like a hawk staring at a rabbit bouncing his way across the ground, pure predator with every motion. Glancing up, his gaze was questioning. "You smoke," she said finally, smile edging on her lips. "Like, a LOT. And with this – you'll have to remember me every time you pull out a cigarette. And considering you always HAVE ONE, you'll be thinking about me a lot."

He stared down at it, watching with narrow focus as she pushed it into his front pocket, snug against his chest.

He had to go. She knew he did.

But there was one last thing she had to do.

Intertwining her fingers between elegant, slender digits, her gaze never left his as she gently placed them at her nape, readying for the pull.

It never came.

He only continued to look at her, before a low shake of her head made her mouth open in bewilderment.

Anthony lips covered hers, a dark, simple kiss, before he stepped back, mouth opened, and suddenly took her by surprise with a sentence that stung her heart.

He spoke with a stutter, dry and raspy, but the meaning so clear as he tried.

"Lo-lo-love me... whe-when I-I'm g-g-g-g-g-"

"Gone," she managed for him, eyes glistening with moisture, palms caressing his face as he nodded.

And just like that, he was gone.

Dylan was alone in the alley, heart pounding, and tears slipping, when two pairs of arms slipped around her, one over her shoulders, and the other about her waist.

Natalie gave her a short, quick squeeze, staring into the darkness with a small, hopeful smile.

"You'll see him again. I mean, it's not we can ever really get rid of him. I mean – we've tried."

"Yeah," Alex agreed. "It's like; he's your own, personal, freaky thin Guardian Angel."

Dylan, broken and yearning, found her heart jump with laughter, eyes crinkling against her tears as she smiled.

"Yeah," she said finally, turning her head to glance at both her friends, her partners, her sisters, her family.

Natalie was gentle as she brushed a bang off her forehead. "You okay?"

Dylan took a breath. Her lip stung, her ribs ached. She was dirty, sweaty, tired, and had just seen her ex-boyfriend get his head chopped off by a guy who was now on the run.

But Alex and Natalie were beside her, for better or for worse.

Hands slipped about their waists, and holding them closer, she grinned.

"I'm perfect. Can we get out of here?"

"Oh, God, I thought you'd never ask."

"I really – SO want a shower."

Someone limped, someone tripped, and someone yelped in pain.

But they were all standing.

And they were all going home.

--

All things considered – they had gotten through this almost a little too easily.

WAY TOO EASILY.

Sitting contritely beside each other on the big, comfy couch, Bosley thought the Angels looked more like Catholic schoolgirls being disciplined for talking dirty in school than women who had run out on their boss and saved the world doing it.

"I want you girls to understand the seriousness of what you've done," Charlie's voice continued to speak sternly. The speakerbox itself now looked imposing and intimidating, and all three women nodded immediately, hands in their laps. "You could have been killed."

"That's right!" Bosley interrupted, nodding like a disgruntled rooster.

"We do, Charlie," Natalie said, nodding sagely. "And Bosley. It was impulsive-"

"And stupid!" Bosley barked.

"Rash," Dylan agreed.

"And stupid!" he said again.

"And a little too emotional," Alex breathed, hand locked with Dylan's.

"And stupid!"

"And amazing," Charlie said finally.

"And stu- say what?!" Eyes widening with surprise, Bosley turned to stutter at the speaker-box. "Charlie!"

"With absolutely no help from me, or Bosley, the three of you managed to pull together, get yourselves through it, work from your mistakes, and get the bad guy."

"Well," Dylan slumped back on the couch, sighing heavily. "Not all the bad guys."

"We'll get Mary," Alex said quickly.

"There's no need," Charlie intoned. "People like that eventually destroy themselves."

"Charlie! There better be some butt-whoopin'!" Bosley sputtered. "After the shit these girls put me through-"

"Actually, Charlie," Natalie said, uncrossing her legs and flashing a beautiful, dazzling smile that always managed to tongue-tie Bosley. "You're giving us a little too much credit."

"I am?"

"Yeah," Alex agreed. "We didn't do it without help."

"That's right," Dylan said, smile creasing across her features as her hazel eyes floated in Bosley's direction. "Bosley helped."

"I... I did?" he began, mouth flapping open, and then shutting in flabbergasted bewilderment.

"He's the one that lured Mary to the ship. We couldn't have done it without him." Natalie pushed off the couch, curling a soft palm around his forearm and bringing him to the couch, where suddenly he had three girls, smelling damned good, rubbing into his shoulders and hands.

"Congratulations, Bosley," Charlie said warmly. "You outdid yourself yet again."

"UH... I ..." Oh, Lord. What the hell. With a Cheshire grin, he relaxed, wrapping an arm around his girls. "I told you they was smart!"

"And now, I'd like to direct your attention to the screen, Angels."

"Another case?" Dylan asked, moving her palm to her ribs in a grimace.

"Not quite."

Turning dutifully, Bosley pushed the remote, finding the channel preset to CNN, where a familiar looking person was waving off cameras, and blubbering a 'no comment' every second as she shouldered her way through the crowd of the courthouse.

Natalie's jaw dropped. "Is that MARY?"

"Briggs is currently under court-martial for a number of illegal acts, which include smuggling, taking bribes, and blackmail. If convicted, the LAPD Sergeant could receive up to four years in jail-"

"Oh my God!" Alex breathed.

"Okay," Dylan said flatly, looking between the girls. "Who snitched?"

"Not me!" Alex said, waving Dylan away. "Natalie?!"

"Uh-uh!"

When they all glanced at Bosley, he looked wide-eyed. "Mary was dirty?!"

"Angels, like I said before, people like Mary will always end up destroying themselves."

There was something about Charlie's voice that was slightly off, as if the person behind it was smirking.

Bosley blinked. Beside him, Natalie gasped, squeezing his hand as she laughed. "Oh my GOD! It was you!"

"Charlie!" Dylan squealed.

"Charlie did what?" Bosley asked.

"You're the snitch?!" Alex asked.

"Angels, people like that destroy themselves," he repeated. "Now, the meetings over. Take a breather. You've earned it."

Bosley was still blinking as Dylan laughed, shaking her head. "A vacation. I've heard that before."

"We love you, Charlie!" Alex said, kissing Bosley on the cheek as she rose. "Bye, Bos!"

"I... uh... huh..." Bosley considered.

"Love you!" Natalie said, waving behind her as she walked to the door.

"Bosley?" Charlie asked as Dylan shut the door behind them.

Bosley continued to sit, until his eyes flew to the screen, and suddenly it made sense.

"You turned in MARY!" he breathed suddenly. "Charlie! You dog!"

Charlie laughed, a deep, wonderful sound.

"Why'd you do it?" Bosley asked.

The laughter stopped, and when Charlie finally answered, his voice was serious.

"Mary Briggs tried to have the Angels killed. She almost succeeded. Bosley, my girls are the best there is. They take care of the world. But I take care of my Angels."

For some reason, those words filled a part of Bosley that made the smile on his face ridiculously big. Bosley never felt more proud of his job, who he worked for.

"Right on, Charlie," he said, settling back on the couch. "Right on."

--

EPILOGUE

In downtown Los Angeles was a penthouse flat that had been deserted.

The wood floorboards were a polished varnish, the nut brown a stark but rich contrast to the pearl white of the walls and ceiling.

Decorations were rosaries and ancient weaponry, and a small photo of a silent boy in a suit and tie, sitting next to a nun with a passive, angry expression on his face.

Dylan plucked the frame off the dresser, lips drifting into a soft smile as she traced the dust off the image.

"Dylan! Where do you want this?"

Turning, she discovered Pete and Jason, sweating as they held a television between them, swaying under its weight in the doorway.

"Um... there, I guess," she answered, putting the frame back and coming forward.

"Okay, I know I said it once," Alex said, moving around the boyfriends with a box of her own, marked 'shoes', "But can we discuss Mink Oil before we tromp around the dirty world in Alex's boots?" Removing a familiar pair, her friend waved them emphatically in Dylan's direction as she plopped the box on the floor. "Because, it's not like they cost six-hundred dollars or anything."

"What are you so bent out of shape for?" Natalie asked, easily toting clothes attached to hangers. "Dylan's big boobs stretched my shirt so out of shape I need to get a boob job just to fill it out-"

"Then I guess I can have it," Dylan said, yanking it out of her fingers and winking.

"Dylan!" Bosley called, almost an echo from the other side of the flat. "You gonna eat this caviar?"

"Take it, Bos," Dylan called out, throwing the shirt on the bed. "That's not mine."

"Nice place," Alex said, surveying the room critically. "So..." coming forward, she managed a hesitant grin. "I just gotta make sure. You moving into Anthony's old place – not some indication that ... theoretically, you're going to be... I don't know... living with him-"

"In spirit?" Dylan asked, wry amusement tilting her lips up.

"Alex-" Natalie began.

"Hey! I'll admit – he saved our lives, okay? But he's you know... still creepy!"

Dylan laughed, wrapping an arm around her friend to bring her in closer. "I don't think so, Alex. He's kinda on the run, and yes, I may have slept with him once, but considering I haven't seen or heard from him in about three months, I'm guessing it's safe to say it's not a relationship."

"But you're moving into his place," Natalie reminded her, rubbing into her back with a small smile. "And you're not changing anything about it."

"Of course not," Dylan said quietly. Dark eyes roved around the apartment. "It's his. I'm just subletting." Blowing out her breath, she surveyed the space, the low, angled ceilings, the spot where months ago she had held Alex and Natalie back by the point of his sword. "I just... I've been in a hotel for years. And it's time I got myself a home. Something that says... Dylan Sanders."

"Creepy White Starkness says Dylan Sanders?" Alex asked flatly.

"Well, it sure as hell doesn't say 'Helen Zaas'," Dylan said with a squeeze.

"I like it," Natalie decided, turning around the room. "And look at the floorspace! Dylan, we won't have to go to the Academy anymore! We can just set up here-"

"OH MY GOD! ALEX!" Jason squealed, nearly hopping up like a rabbit as he motioned emphatically to a hidden corner. "HE'S GOT A HIGH DEFINITION BIGSCREEN TELEVISION WITH SURROUND SOUND! Dylan! You're SO HAVING THE SUPERBOWL PARTY!"

"I think I got Jason's vote," Dylan said wryly.

Pete suddenly yelped, when he fell into a compartment that opened when he pushed a button. There was a sufficient amount of crashing.

"PETE!"

"Oh, wow – check this out!" Voice muffled, he nevertheless didn't sound like he was in any pain. Eyebrow arching, Dylan shrugged, following her friends to Pete's area, when a bar swung out from his hiding place.

Pete beamed at them. "FULLY STOCKED! And – check it out, Nat!" He grinned happily as he shook a jar at them. "Cherries!"

"Oh, wow!" Natalie smiled, grabbing it from him. "I love cherries!"

"Want me to pop it for you?!"

Alex blinked, and Dylan shook her head, shoulders shaking with mirth. "I ... I can't... it's just too easy..."

"There are no words," Alex agreed.

"Dylan! Check this out!" Perched on top of one of the angled walls, Max Bosley gave her a happy wave, one foot on his skateboard. "Watch this!"

"MAXWELL BOSLEY!" came a screech. "I spent all morning cleaning blood off that floor! Don't you dare- GET DOWN FROM THERE!"

"Mrs. Bosley, it's not a proble-" Dylan began.

The elder woman gave her a disgruntled wave. "Please, girl – you don't know nothing. You'll ruin these floors in a week. MAX! DOWN!"

"Awww – Mom!"

"What the hell?!" A pile of boxes attached to a set of legs appeared in the doorway. "Am I the only one still carrying these damned things?! Oh, hell no!" Two boxes fell from the top, revealing Bosley's face peaking through. "Ya'll better get your asses down here to help me!"

Just then, yapping was heard, and more boxes crashed as two streaks, one golden brown, the other a dark black, zig-zagged through Bosley's legs. Their boss yelped, and yet more boxes fell.

Dylan winced. "Oh, God – I hope those weren't breakable."

"Dylan," Alex said automatically. "Your bungalow looked like it belonged to a twelve-year old boy. There was nothing breakable in there."

"No! I had that model of Princess Leia..." It was probably more prudent to stop talking whenever Alex gave her that withering stare.

Luckily, the black blur skidded into focus, and Dylan was saved from Alex's "Let's discuss how to act your age" speech by a miniature Doberman pinscher, pawing at her leg and yodeling slightly. Alex smiled, reaching down to gather the puppy in her arms, just as Spike decided it was a good idea to chew at Dylan's jeans while they were still attached to her legs.

Reaching down, she tugged the dog away, grunting under the big dog's heavy weight, craning her neck to keep away from the seriously long big pink tongue.

Beside her, Alex wiped down her dog's eyes carefully, cleaning them with her finger.

"Having fun?" Dylan asked.

Shoulders shrugging with an over-exaggerated sigh, Alex muttered, "When I got him Jason PROMISED to take care of him, but nooo. I walk him. I bathe him. All Jason likes to do is play with him!"

"I still can't believe you and Jason have a dog!" Dylan said with a smile. "You hate dogs!"

"I still do," Alex said stiffly. "But Mr. Twinkle is not a dog. He's my baby!"

Amusement almost made Dylan burst out laughing. Keeping her lips closed, she managed to venture a simple query. "Mr. Twinkle? I thought Jason said his name was Killer."

"His NAME," Alex said, covering her dog's ears and narrowing her eyes at Dylan, "Is Mr. Twinkle. And stop using that word around him! He's going to start thinking it's his name, and then he'll start to answer to it, and we'll be back where we started."

"KILLER!"

Alex's eyes closed in irritation as Jason came running forward, gathering the little dog into his arms and suddenly delving into baby-talk gibberish. "Killer wanna see the TV? Yes he does! YES he does!"

"MR. TWINKLE!" Alex called after him as he rushed away.

"Wow, Alex," Natalie said, motioning behind her, laughing as Spike suddenly jumped from Dylan's arms to jump at her legs. "You're living with him. You have a dog. You know, you'd almost thing you were... in love with him!"

"Yeah, what's that about?" Dylan asked innocently, teasing grin growing as Alex's face turned pink.

"Shut up, I don't want to talk about it," Alex said, pointing at them both. "He wanted a gesture, so I gave him one."

With that, she walked away, more than likely intent on reigniting the 'Killer vs. Mr. Twinkle' debacle.

"She's probably giving him a 'gesture' every night," Dylan said flatly.

Natalie smiled, slipping a palm around her waist, pulling her in.

"So," she said finally, gazing down at her with beautifully warm blue eyes. "How are you?"

The meaning and annotation had never been clearer.

Dylan sighed, lips twisting into a wry grin as she squeezed back. "Natalie, it's been three months. You can stop asking. I'm fine. I'm perfect." Glancing over the flat, Dylan took it in, filled with Alex and Jason, fighting over names, Pete still enamored with the bar, Max tripping on a stair and stubbing Bosley's toe... "How could I not be?" she asked, looking deep into her friend's eyes. "I'm home."

--

The flat was still piled high with boxes.

"You know it's amazing how much crap you actually had in that little teeny bungalow," Alex remarked, hands on her hips as she surveyed the scene.

"Hey, you know, half that crap was yours," Dylan said, tossing another piles of clothes next to the dresser.

Alex shot her a wide-eyed look. "Because you borrowed them all and never gave them back!"

Dylan arched an eyebrow, shaking her head as she reached down, pulling out another white shirt. Fingers running over the material, she gave Alex a glance. "It's amazing how many pairs of the same shirt this guy had."

Eyes on the shirt, she never saw her friends expression. When Alex spoke, however, she was gentle, soft. "You sure you don't want me to stay longer? I can help you with that."

"No..." Dylan smiled, glancing over the flat, chaotic and messy and everything that the Thin Man was not. "No... I think I want to do this alone."

"Sure," Alex said smoothly. "Well, then I'm gonna take off. I have to take the dog out. Jason will forget and then he pees on the floor-"

"Jason pees on the floor?"

"No, the dog," Alex said, smile forming on her mouth as she began to laugh. "Though I do have my suspicions."

Dylan laughed, a release from the emotion building in her chest that was both exhilarating and welcome. "Then you better go."

"Yeah." Coming forward, Alex spread her touch across the shirt. "He had good taste."

"Yeah," Dylan said. Her friend was silent beside her, but it was not unexpected when Dylan felt the cool press of lips against her temple. Her eyes closed involuntarily at the embrace.

"See you tomorrow," Alex whispered.

"Night," Dylan said, as her partner and friend clicked her way across the floor, opening the door and heading out. "Alex?"

Pausing, Alex glanced back.

Dylan smiled. "I love you."

Alex took that in, and with a smile and a nod, she blew her a kiss. "You have no idea how much, Dylan."

The door closed behind her, and Dylan was alone.

Alone in the flat, she found herself unable to keep emptying drawers. Exhaustion had given way to another emotion, curious and unknown.

Wearing one of his shirts, soft and comfortable against her skin, she found herself walking the flat, glancing at artifacts, mementos, things that made him... him.

In the corner, near the bar, and away from the surround sound, was an antique record player.

Dylan fingered it, running digits along the wood surface, thin layer of dust adding to the ancient feeling.

She smiled. "I bet I knew what you played."

Feeling underneath the player, she found a latch, and opened the compartment below.

Pulling one from the sleeve, she studied the LP, observing the tiny scratches, emoting by touch, fingering the grooves.

Sitting up, she carefully placed the record in the player, setting the power and watching it spin.

When the needle was inserted, scratchy, authentic trumpets began to fill the room, a sound she had come to appreciate.

Fly me to the moon, let me sail among the stars...

From the refrigerator, she removed a Heineken, a housewarming present from Pete, and slowly sank down on the leather couch, a present from Charlie.

Her eyes closed, lost in the music, happily dizzy from the taste of the bear.

A sound that seemed out of place opened her eyes.

Curious, Dylan glanced toward the bed.

A breeze was blowing from the now open window directly above it.

Cocking her head, Dylan pushed off the couch, moving forward to discover a cane, polished and shiny, lying on the stark white of the bed.

It hadn't been there before.

Placing the beer on the dresser, Dylan ignored her inner Alex, chirping about water stains, and ruined antique furniture, and instead fingered the cane, pulling at the tip, finding the silver blade gleaming from an inch above.

Her smile widened. She wasn't surprised.

But she was happy. Unapologetically so.

"You know," she said, loud and clear. "I'm going to keep this one."

She turned, and there he was.

The sideburns were gone, but he still tweezed, still wore a suit, still wore no expression but a passive stare.

"I'm house-sitting," she explained, shrugging at the apartment. "I figured you weren't using it."

He said nothing, staring at her the way he was, bewildered and confused, but not angry.

She kept her grip on the sword, rubbing it between her fingertips.

There were certain truths that Dylan was certain of.

He wasn't going to stay. He couldn't.

She could never ask him to.

Anthony stepped forward, one foot in front of the other, closer and closer to her and a bed.

When she felt her legs buckle, her rump sink into the bed, and she watched him step closer, Dylan understood a few things.

This was more than likely going to be rest of her life. There was no more normal. There was no relationship – but only glimpses and snatches of what as well might be a dream – because he would only come at night, and he wouldn't be here in the morning.

Her eyes closed as he touched her, tangled fingers in her hair, leaning close, smelling of smoke and gel and HIM. When his lips brushed alongside her neck, burying in her hair, she felt THAT SIGH come from him.

Her palm gently rubbed into his hair, soft where she thought it would be hard, bringing him closer.

Her back sank into the mattress, and he was there, above her, silent and never gentle, and always in love.

He wasn't going to stay. This was never going to be normal. Eventually, she would probably hate him for it, because Dylan wanted normal, and all she never wanted was him.

She would not have chosen this.

It wouldn't be enough forever. But it was her life. This was Dylan Sanders' life.

His lips came down, and when he kissed her, she kissed him back, fervently, desperately, whole-heartedly.

This was her life.

And she didn't care if he wouldn't be there in the morning.

She would still love him when he was gone.

FIN

*notes
- the image of Dylan living in the 'rock n' roll' hotel, aka the Chateau in Hollywood - was actually taken from the official website. Considering those bungalows are pretty freaking expensive - it's no wonder the girl is broke. The Angels must get paid very, very well.
- Much love to SlackerUK, Syn, Nightspore, Findle, and Fauxophy for their wonderful encouragement and help with the fic throughout the creation. Many a night were spent on AIM while I pounded this puppy out, and it wouldn't have happened without their listening ears.
- There is a 'behind the scenes' parody that I'm writing that describes the writing process and motivations behind the fic currently being posted at my LJ. (.com/users/mistiec).
- The fiction, once completely beta'd will be presented at Imperfect, my online archive, along with art, and additional author's notes. (/imperfect).
- Once again - thanks for everyone who read this and kept going even as it got freaking LONG. I definitely never expected as many reviews as I got and it was a definite inspiration. Thanks again.

Misty Flores