Disclaimer: the author does not claim ownership to the characters or plot development mentioned from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or "Angel". These properties expressly belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Greenwolf Corporation, 20th Century Fox Television, WB Network, etc. Any other characters contained in the original story are the author's.

Historical Note: The action in this story takes place after "Prodigal".

Author's Note: One day at work, it hit me that I created a story arc somewhere along the road and every single one of my stories kinda tie together. That was wild! So, they're all in here including a couple on the storyboard.

This is the 2nd story in the deliberate trilogy I began with 'Starlet'. There is reference to the Necromonger of my prior story. If you have not read that one, or won't because of its NC-17 rating (it was suggested I rate it R, but I'm overly censor-ive), feel free to E me before reading and I'll bring you up to speed with the referenced condition playing a major role in this story. This puppy is overly long, I know, so I sliced it almost in half for easier reading. I apologize; but, like 'Starlet', it just ran away with my keyboard. Finally, trust me when I say the kitchen sink does not appear-I've saved it for the finale. One 'f' word is included because I think it fits the context of the dialogue. Again, apologies.

Last but not least, there are two songs that fit this piece, although I never wrote with music in mind. "Your Eyes" by Peter Gabriel is the essence of Part One and "Take My Hand" by Dido, Part Two. e.c. 10 March 00 evancomo@netscape.net

Dedicated to Charisma with hopes I've channeled her Cordy 'tiger' spirit.

-0-

Prologue:

Date: Tuesday 21 March 00

From: Harriet Doyle {HDoyle@demonseek.org}

To: Angel {AngelInvestigations@freeE.com}

Re: Notes From Abroad

Angel-

Hi! I know it's been forever since my last check in. Time is blowing past like you wouldn't believe. Although, after reading the news from your last e... :-(

I almost died. Again. Not food poisoning this go round. Put my trust in the wrong guides. No time or need to go into it. I'm OK. Made it through in one piece. Someone watches over me.

The necromonger you slayed? Wasn't the only one left, Angel. I'm on the train from just outside Moravia where I was led on yet another wild-goose-chase in my search for this "Visioner". Anyway, there were reports of the deformed bite you mentioned. The Mobrinicz-a quiet, gentle breed-claim they've slain no less than 4 since the New Year.

Over a century, Angel, and suddenly in the course of a few months reports of 5? Where are they coming from all of a sudden? I dread disembarking in Wroclaw for fear of what horror awaits my arrival. It's almost like my search for this illusive prophecy-keeper is more of an attempt to open my eyes to what's really happening in both of our worlds. You didn't go into detail about the demon disappearances you've been hearing about. Very odd that I should be traveling in this part of the world when such news should appear in my box. Ominous, eh?

I'd much rather think of Spring than the end of days. How can we possibly hope to prepare ourselves against such an ungracious end? My prayers at night are often the only reason I can make it through the day.

I doubt I'll be in contact before returning to Paris for my trip home in a few weeks. It'll be good to see you and Cordy again. This old acquaintance you hired sounds wounded, Angel. Please, be wary of him. Call it farm girl intuition, but a wounded animal is an unpredictable one. Daily world events only serve to remind me how we are all just predators beneath the surface.

Save a plate for me that first Wednesday I'm back. Putting in my request now for short ribs and mashed potatoes since no one in all of Europe understands what beef is supposed to taste like and if I eat another frite, I'll explode! All my love to you and sweet C-

Harry

+++++++++

CHERUB by Evan Como

Angel tried to clear his thoughts by concentrating on the roaring wind surrounding him. Contrition and regret weighed heavily on his mind as he attempted to separate the definition of either, knowing he'd become too familiar with the latter during the previous 6 months. There were too many wrong choices for any one lifetime, let alone three; and the most obvious one refused to unleash his attention.

Listening to the rustling leaves of the pepper trees encircling the base of the knoll he stood upon, Angel lifted his face to the cloudless sky and began to count the stars. But, their timelessness did little to soothe him and he dropped his focus, instead, to the flickering lights of the San Gabriel Valley basin.

Time was so different when there wasn't enough of it--when there was mortality to consider. Especially when it was his own.

He thought of returning to his car to put his coat back on if, for no other reason, to buffer his thoughts against the unseasonably mild evening air--a result of the Santa Ana weather condition. The fabric of his shirt flapped violently as the dry wind tore at it and Angel stretched his arms apart to welcome it, to accept the new possibilities his warming body offered instead of lamenting over his increased internal temperature as the disease within him took deeper root.

The faux exhilaration didn't last, rapidly diminished by thoughts he could no longer keep at bay. The vampire was already in the beginning throes of his decline, two decades too early.

And he wasn't prepared for defeat.

Being productive every waking moment helped to keep him preoccupied, but moments spent idle--like waiting for an informant already a half-hour late--caused Angel to start thinking about the inevitable again. And he knew he would obsess on the subject until something else could be found to divert his concentration.

A nearby brush fire's scent, carried on the gust, led him to consider the earth's ability to renew itself and how, once, it could do nothing to confine him. Now, every aspect of nature served to remind him how soon he would return to its grasp. The trees, the wind, the stars above made him prematurely mourn for his existence.

There was already the silence of his form to remind Angel of what lay in wait. The only sound that proved he had substance at all was the wind's resistance as it whipped around him. "If a tree falls..." he spoke, his voice heavily cynical; and he wondered if anyone would notice when he was gone or what great feat he had managed to accomplish to prove he was even worthy of fond remembrance.

Another wasted half-hour later, a familiar figure approached Angel from the west. The being crept up the incline at a steady pace, leaning into the wind until he stopped just outside the vampire's reach.

"You're late, Lão."

Lão considered the comment. "You're not lying, that's sure. I have things. Tending to countless needs tonight. You are only one of many before and next. Shall we do business or did you only stay to scold me, Angel?"

Forcing himself to focus and steer clear of the antagonistic manner of Lão, a Fowr'Cedcoruder demon, Angel realized he should have anticipated the being was going to be late. It was one type of manipulation their kind had turned into an art form, another type being the use of their appearance. Angel hoped the meeting would be brief, preferring to be on his way home to tend to his depressing thoughts rather than to regard such a hideous creature any longer than necessary.

"You have as requested?"

Angel reached into his barely buttoned shirt and displayed the pendant around his neck. When the snitch reached out for it, Angel leaned away. "Do you have my information?" he asked.

Lão nodded his head, unable to contain his excitement, and held his sweaty palm open as he watched Angel undrape the item. "Hard to believe you would give gem away so easy. How did you get it?" he asked.

Angel teased the demon with the prize, swinging the necklace on its patina chain just out of reach. "Why does it matter how I got it as long as we strike our deal?"

Lão jumped up for possession, smoothing its pearly stone against his cheek ecstatically.

"Now where's my information?" Angel asked impatiently.

"Sometimes a search requires a journey."

Angel reached forward to snatch back the necklace, but Lão, anticipating the reaction, dropped under his swipe. Irritated with the rolling creature, Angel complained, "I didn't pay you for a riddle, demon! We had-"

"A deal. Angel, just like this one."

Intuition cautioned Angel as he pivoted around to Lão's new position, but before he could maneuver defensively, he found himself facing a trio of camouflaged beings. When all of them discharged their tazer weapons into Angel at point-blank range, the metal clips tore through his clothing, attaching to his flesh.

Without an opportunity to protest, fear jolted Angel a mere split-second before the searing electricity did.

Lão watched the legendary vampire's tall frame collapse, then shuffled aside to allow the figures to work on binding the capture. After they finished, one shoved a pencil-marked paper at the Fowr'Cedcoruder. It made no sense to him and he said as much.

The voice, human by sound, was condescending. "Take what you can get, demon. If it's not enough perhaps you'd like to go on a trip with your friend, here. Otherwise, don't you have other deceptions to attend to?"

Stepping further away while bobbing his head, Lão pressed, "what will you do with him?" Although wary, his curiosity was piqued. But that curiosity remained unappeased as the hunters ignored his question while hoisting their prey between them to disappear into the hissing thicket of trees.

-0-

"Well, we've got his car back," Wesley stated as he walked into the offices of Angel Investigations. He waited for his co-worker, who was staring at her computer screen, to acknowledge the information. "Did you hear me, Cordelia?"

Cordelia reread the topics of Angel's e-mail. Most of the senders were unfamiliar to her, but she stared at 'HDoyle's' name in earnest. She wanted to open the file in hopes that Harry knew something of Angel's whereabouts. But, the letter was sent the day before Angel's disappearance eight days before and Cordy respected his privacy. Besides, she always enjoyed when Angel read Harry's mail to her; she liked to listen to him read.

"Go on."

Wesley, disheartened by Cordelia's unenthusiastic response, continued. "Like I said we have his car back. It was in Alta Dena next to an empty field. No signs of anything out of the ordinary. Just as if Angel drove it there, parked, left his coat and walked away."

"His coat?"

"I don't know what else to tell you but it seems as though Angel has vanished into thin air."

A shiver traveled the length of Cordy's spine as she listened to news that even Wesley's British accent couldn't make less dismal-sounding. "Vanished into thin air' was not a good euphemism to describe the disappearance of vampire. The news visibly disturbed her. Angel's safety, rather than his role as her sole means of financial security, seemed at stake.

"I've got to find him."

"If I've already checked every resource at our disposal, Cordelia, and, you haven't had a Vision since before Angel left, maybe-"

Cordelia cut Wesley's comment off with a cutting glance. "Why was his coat in the car?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Angel's coat. Why was it in the car? Isn't that a clue? He always wears his coat. You know, it's his crime-fighting fashion statement-the vampire in his menacing black coat. Oooooh, he's big, he's bad, he'll kick your ass... Why are you looking at me like I'm not speaking English?"

"Oh, my God. You don't know."

"Know what, Wesley?" Agitated she asked, "what did Angel tell YOU? I had a pact with Doyle that maybe I forgot to clue you in on. NO secrets."

"I thought because you two were so close he had already discussed it with you. I never figured he'd talk to me, seeing as I actually have the background to deduce the one plus one-"

"WESLEY!"

Wesley bowed his head against her regard. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "Did I mention that I got us part time jobs? You know, to help out until Angel returns? Actually, I got you a full-time position since you don't really need to be here-"

Cordelia rose and walked to Wesley, raising his chin to stare down into his clear grey eyes as if the answer was streaming across his irises. "What are you not telling me? And why would we need jobs when we have jobs already?"

With her hand on his face and her own so close to his, Wesley considered his best option out of two-to steal a kiss or break Cordy's heart. He fantasized she would throw her arms around him to let him console her. But, experience had taught him Cordelia's behaviour was unpredictable, at best. She didn't see the world the way everyone else did and he envied her that ability.

"Angel's decline. It started. Maybe a couple of weeks ago from what I've been noticing." He thought, for a moment, he would have to explain the situation completely but the crushed look on her face told him 'no'. "That's why his coat was in the car and why I believe he may have gone into that field to meet the sunrise, Cordelia," he added softly.

"Nuh-uh! You're wrong, Wesley. Angel just wouldn't have dusted himself without a note or something. That's not what happened. He's still gotta be his version of alive, somewhere." She walked back to her desk and plopped into her chair, shaking her head deliberately. "I knew I shouldn't have been so mean. I was really trying to do right by Angel because he's been THE BEST! Trying to curb my ugly ways; REALLY trying to be, like, nice and sympathetic and listen to my fellow man wannabe. But, I blew it again and this is payback if he's not OK. You would think I could learn my lesson and the whole cycle would stop, but it just keeps going and going. I wish they would just take it out on me instead of the guys. First my Dad, then Doyle and now Angel. I'm like a curse-a nasty attitude curse, like the Scourge in fake Anna Sui."

Cordelia pushed the file folders from the center of her desk and crossed her arms in front of her. "I'm sorry already!" she called out to the ceiling. "Stop taking it out on everyone else! It's MY fault, not theirs!" She sighed heavily before lowering her head. "He's just gotta be OK."

Wesley was confused. "Cordelia, I hope you're not inferring that you think you're personally responsible for whatever has happened to Angel. Who do you think is holding you accountable? And, for what possible reason?"

Cordy peered up at Wesley through a lock of her dark curly mane and sighed again. "I'm mean, right?"

"You can be argumentative, but you're not deliberately mean. It's your personality trait and I've come to accept it, just like Angel has. In fact, I think that he rather adores your personality. You're just a high-spirited young lady who is used to a certain level of-"

"Put the edit on, Wesley. Basically I'm a bitch who wants everything her way."

"That's not what I was trying to explain."

Cordy sat up and rolled her chair against the window, squinting out of the blind at the bright midday sun. "What if something happened where he got hurt and I wasn't there to get him to safety? What if he burned up because of that? Or if some goony demon staked him in a fight cause I wasn't there to warn him to watch his back? Or he was driving-when I could have been driving-and a semi cut in front of him and he got his head lopped off on impact? There's all kinds of dangerous things out there I could be protecting him from instead of going out with my friends or shopping or going to have yet another cup of coffee. Does anyone need to drink THAT much coffee? Maybe I'd have a sweeter disposition with less caffeine in my system."

Wesley, baffled, stared at Cordy before responding. "You've seem to have given Angel's safety a great deal of consideration."

"Yeah, well, Wesley. He's not The Amazing Indestructo, you know."

Silently agreeing with her assessment, Wesley realized that not of those thoughts had crossed his mind since reconnecting with Angel, falsely assuming his employer's immortality was inclusive. "All that aside, Cordelia, listen to yourself. You accepted all this responsibility for Angel that wasn't yours to take. I certainly don't believe he expected you to give up your entire life to be his nursemaid because, frankly, he didn't need one. Just because you were his Messenger for The Powers That Be didn't mean that every aspect of your life had to revolve around him."

Cordelia, puzzled, looked at Wesley. "Is that what I said?"

Wesley nodded and walked over to her, taking a seat on the edge of her desk before crossing his arms. "I think it would be in your best interests to take this other job-" When Cordelia began to protest, Wesley put up his hand and finished speaking. "Just to distance yourself from this. If Angel is back tomorrow morning, GREAT! But, if he doesn't return for a couple weeks or... Ever. You need to occupy yourself with something else. Maybe you could begin to lead a normal life. You know, demon-free."

"But..." Cordelia reached under her desk and lifted her bag from the floor, begrudgingly taking the paper from Wesley's hand. "So, what about A.I. in the meantime? What happens to the business?"

"Well, I'll keep the doors open part-time and handle the cases I can. The two of us can meet once or twice a week to go over how the business is running. Let's just consider this a partial shutdown until Angel returns. And, in the meantime, we should both start considering our options in case he doesn't. Deal?"

-0-

Angel tried to concentrate, but his mind was reeling. If he had to guess how long he had been in captivity, his body led him to believe it was over a week. Curled in a fetal position on the linoleum floor of his cell, his left arm cuffed to a chain bolted into the concrete wall, he shook uncontrollably. Any number of toxins had been introduced to his system throughout the duration of his imprisonment, the most recent ones charging up to be expelled.

Having been close to death any number of times over his two-plus century existence, Angel knew he wasn't dying. Yet. He couldn't recall ever having been so miserable, though.

He was vaguely aware of the form in the cell with him--human by scent--who tossed a bucket of water over his filthy body. The sudden dowsing caused Angel to convulse and he vomited again. Trying to lean away into a less uncomfortable position, the length of his tether left him little option other than to edge closer to the wall as the attendant swabbed the floor.

"You'll have to feed," the orderly stated. "Do you want it now?"

Angel drew his knees to his chest. When he looked into the face of his captor, the man laughed at him disdainfully. Trying to speak, Angel found himself unable to.

"I don't know what you're trying to say, demon, but all I need is a 'yes' or 'no' and you can do that with a nod of your head. Feed?"

Angel struggled against another wave of nausea, only to fall back into the deep black of unconsciousness that had become his sanctuary.

"He's out again?" a female voice called from the doorway.

The attendant stepped over to Angel and nudged at him with his Vibram-soled boot, causing the vampire to slump over with his neck cradled by the chain's canopy. "Out like a light," he replied, unimpressed with another vampire, before returning his cleaning.

The woman tentatively stepped into the room. Her warm cocoa coloring contrasted against the crisp white of her shirt collar and the severity of her navy skirted suit. Pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose, she regarded the facilities with a great amount of displeasure, her attitude less guarded as her dismay increased and she arched her shoulders before striding towards the prisoner.

Discreetly crouching to study him more closely, she fingered Angel's wet dark hair back from his forehead. The brief contact left an unpleasant residue on her fingertips and she rubbed them together while she spoke. "I want him cleaned up and as of this minute, he's off of The Agenda. The next time he wakes, inform me!" she demanded.

Carefully, she propped Angel into the corner. She rubbed the location on his neck where the chain left its mark--similar to a bruise-intrigued with the slight charge from contacting his bare skin. Unsure of what of make of seeing him a shell of the being witnessed in dynamic fighting form only months prior, even in this deteriorated state she could still detect whatever it was that made him different. That 'something' had yet to diminish.

Deep in thought, she ignored the attendant and the video camera above the door as they watched her leave. She knew she was not above scrutiny, no matter what her demeanor was trying to convey; but, she also knew if negotiations were to be successful, she was well within her rights to have Prisoner Angel treated as she saw fit.

-0-

"You know, Dennis, you'd think Angel would at least drop a postcard if he was going to leave for almost 2 weeks, wouldn't you? I called Sunnydale again last night and no one's seen or heard from him-as if he'd bother going back THERE. I mean there's no reason to, right?"

Cordelia finished her mascara and looked into the bathroom mirror's background. She waited a couple of beats because, after all, it was only polite after asking a question. The ghost, as expected, didn't reply.

"It's like his life is here now. And, I figured he was happy. But, then, that's the whole problem, isn't it? Having to guess what he thinks about." She sighed and capped her eyeliner. "He started going through this without telling me anything, Phantom Dennis. Nothing. You know, he's always been the silent type-you and he have really got the market share on that disorder. But, he's been way more chatless than usual this month. And he knew I knew he's been avoiding me. Even on Dinner Night. Nothing. Like, how do you get more silent than non-communicative? And then, Wesley--the stupid-head, wouldn't shut up long enough to listen to what Angel's wasn't saying. Why wouldn't Angel say anything?"

Cordelia placed her cranberry juice drink box in the kitchen trash and her cereal bowl in the sink. Checking her makeup one last time in the chrome of her toaster, she listened while Dennis ran water in the bowl, appreciative of her tidy poltergeist-just one more 'otherworldly' in her life with a penchant for housekeeping.

She stood by the door waiting as Dennis brought her bag and keys. "I was catching him, you know. He would be writing and I could just tell that something was disturbing him cause he never used to write so much. He was writing and writing. But he just wouldn't share. I could used to send Doyle in to talk to him, at least. You know, cuz Doyle was such a good listener? And Angel would open up to him. Well, kinda sometimes. Writing, he just looked so sad, Dennis. If you saw him you would have seen it in a second and he tried to pass off that dufe grin of his like he was just having a snappy time, but I saw it. I saw he was sad. And I should have cornered him and made him tell me why but now he's gone and I don't know why he just left me like that. You know, wondering? He knows how much I hate to think about stuff."

Wrapping the pashmina consolingly around Cordy's shoulders, Dennis tied it in front, just the way she liked it loosely knotted. She pouted as he opened the door.

"Do you think Angel got tired of me? That I made him leave? But it's his place, so why would he do that. Unless maybe he just didn't want to listen to me complain-like maybe I would get the message on my own and just go away." Feeling the light nudge as Dennis shuffled her out into the hallway didn't help her shake the notion everyone in her life seemed to feel that way about her.

Cordelia didn't like her new job. There was zero responsibility and she was was stuck in a windowless street-level office all day except when she went out to lunch. From what she could tell, the doctor she worked for didn't have patients. He spent a great deal of time with calls on his personal line or in the laboratory with his projects.

Occasionally Cordelia got the chance to exchange an envelope with a delivery person but, otherwise, her job duties merely consisted of caring for the doctor's pampered cat, Claudia. The boredom level was extremely high, even by Cordy standards, in no way lessened by the activities of playing with or feeding the cat and scooping its litter box.

After two days with Claudia, Cordelia realized the feline could give her lessons on a bitchy disposition, leading her to decide ghosts were much easier to live with, especially when they picked up after themselves. Even demons had better social skills, she mused.

Even Angel, she noted sadly.

When Cordy tried to engage the doctor in conversation, he was polite but uninterested in what she had to say. His eyes wandered up and down her frame before they glazed over. He made her feel stupid and uninteresting, so she stopped trying to talk to him and buried her head in the health magazines stacked in piles all over the office.

She missed Angel, whose eyes would glaze over because he never knew what she was talking about (because his mind was always someplace else); and who never seemed to notice she was female (because his mind was always on something else). "Oh, well," she sighed, "this is the normal world now, Cordy, so you just better get used to it." After the cat jumped up on the desk and spread out over her magazine, she asked, "it's been so long, I've forgotten--why is normal supposed to be so great?"

-0-

Wesley closed his folder and took another from his pile before glancing around at his coworkers, feeling more than a little self-conscious he was the only one who actually looked like he belonged in a library. He groaned.

Still, the freelance job helped pass the extra days. Angel Investigations was a lonely place without its namesake and Cordelia. The light workload kept Wesley busy there, but not busy enough to disregard their absences. In such a short span of time, he had grown overly fond of the pair, berating himself for becoming so attached and losing the direction in his life. Again.

As he categorized the work in front of him, Wesley sought to put his life into perspective. Since leaving for Southern California from the safety of The Watcher's Council chambers, his previously sheltered life had taken turns he was never prepared for. He struggled on a daily basis to exact some degree of order in his life, but everyday there was some new obstacle to overcome or another failure to contend with. It was tiring to try to move forward when all he wanted was for things to be the way they used to be. Not that the past was so great, he remembered, but at least it was consistent.

The year's events had taught him two important things. He learned that continuity was now an elusive creature--almost as elusive as home, and he wasn't cut out for the hunt.

-0-

Paula 'Mac' McNeal retrieved a pad from her embossed brief case and eased it across the table to Angel. She could feel the defiance just beneath his quiet demeanor and took a moment to wonder about the thoughts running through his mind, hoping the pad and pen would help convey them.

HOW LONG?

After underscoring the Wolfram & Hart Law Office's logo, he heaved his feelings of contempt and twisted the pad so his perfect lettering could be read even though the simple phrase was legible upside-down.

"Twelve days." She watched him count back as if he was trying to assemble an activity log that would make each day of his captivity more real to him. It made her wonder why vampires were so acutely aware of time-as if to lose any of it would invalidate their immortality.

WOLFRAM & HART IN CHARGE OF THIS PLACE?

Again, he twisted the pad. She came around the table and took a seat down from him. Although obviously weak and with his left arm secured to the metal chair he sat in, she was trying to remain cautious after having read too many reports about careless facility workers that had been injured or worse by other vampires who were quick, even when seemingly disabled. Confinement was abhorrent to the species and they used any opportunity to provoke their captors into rendering a sudden death once escape was determined impossible.

"No, Angel. We're a law firm and only a law firm. Unfortunately, we can be accused of conflict of interests, though. I'm here on behalf of a client who wants to negotiate acquisition of an item you have. Unfortunately, another client got to you first for whatever reasons I'm not at liberty to discuss. I'm hoping you can overlook one in favor of the other; although, the firm is in the process of creating a dialogue between the two parties in order to facilitate a positive outcome for both in relation to you.

WHY?

"Rathrachemae." She watched his features twist in confusion as he tried to make sense of her answer. When he shrugged his shoulders she prompted, "prophecy?"

DON'T KNOW PROPHECY.

"Then that probably works to your benefit. You're supposed to be in possession of an object with some mythological relevance, so if you have it I'd like to make arrangements for my client to purchase it."

Mac waited for his written response, but he merely stared at her.

"Well, maybe something to feed on will help with negotiations. I'll have it brought in for you-any type of human you'd like, any way you'd like." She picked up the receiver of the phone on the table and waited.

JUST COFFEE, THANKS. BLACK, NO SWEETNER.

"You realize starving yourself isn't going to change anyone's mind around here." She tried to control her rising temper. "I would suggest you accept what you've been offered."

He slid the pad to her, accompanied by his brown-eyed glare.

Mac walked across the room to pour the coffee for him. She returned, offering the cup with a glare of her own, silently chiding him to think twice before throwing the steaming liquid at her. His crossed brows made her realize the thought hadn't occurred to him and she placed her hand on his shoulder as he began to sip.

Whispering near his ear, she threatened, "you can't survive on coffee, Angel. The clients aren't in agreement on you yet, so it's in your best interests to placate both." As she leaned across him to retrieve the pad, her neck slid against his jaw. "There. I trusted you. Now it's your turn to exercise a bit of faith in my client."

She replaced the writing implements in front of him with her face still close to his. "Let me know what the asking price is for the item in question and we'll start negotiations. Once we complete our trade, you'll probably be free to go."

Angel jerked his head away from her mouth. Placing the cup on the table, he picked up the pen and wrote:

BURNT COFFEE DOESN'T INSPIRE CONFIDENCE.

The rage within Paula McNeal exploded as she backhanded Angel so swiftly seconds passed before the pain in her hand brought to bear the reality of what she had done. Her nails cut deeply into her palm and her throat hurt, informing her the guttural sound she heard had been her own. She stepped back to examine Angel's bewilderment-either from the blow he didn't expect or the blood seeping from the cut across his lip; she couldn't tell which.

When he recovered, his sign language was perfectly understandable and Mac left the room to avoid his further provocation.

"Ms. McNeal. A word before you go."

Mac tensed. Incensed she hadn't thought to be aware of someone in the anteroom watching her meeting through the one-way glass, she tried to regain her composure. His knowing smile only increased her rage.

"I realize how versed you are in acquisitions, Mac, but I fail to understand how either technique you used was at all helpful. When, exactly, were you expecting the vampire to offer his information-after teasing or clobbering him? Oh, and don't bother trying to find an answer for my query. Just think about your efforts to avoid such mistakes--to improve your skills for the future."

"Yes, Mr. Mercer."

Mac remained in the doorway as her supervisor swept past her, keeping her eyes on Angel. Her anger gave way to concern as she watched him adjust his posture, his movements unsteady and asymmetrical. His attempt to disguise his pain was failing and she moved to the window to stare at him, captivated. The cut she had given him reopened when he grimaced before losing control of his body to rapid convulsions.

Negotiations would have to proceed quickly, she mentally noted, as his consciousness slipped away again. Cursing under her breath about The Agenda, she picked up the phone and dialed for Angel's return to his cell.

-0-

It seemed odd to walk through the corridor of their office building, as if she had never been there before even though its musty odor and poor lighting were so familiar. Her footfall pattered against the linoleum as she traveled. She used to close her eyes sometimes and walk the short distance from the entrance. It was easy to do once she focused on Angel. Even before Doyle's kiss...

Cordy was excited to be back. Even though it wouldn't be the same, she figured she and Wesley could still do Dinner Night. After all, it was Wednesday and she decided Angel would be flattered if they carried on his custom in his absence. As she thought through her list of neighborhood delivery services, her taste buds watered for Thai.

The door was unlocked, but she wasn't alarmed. Wesley was obviously early. Cordy let her curiosity about their office meeting lighten her mood until she walked in and saw him-

Sitting behind Angel's desk.

Wesley finished speaking to a man, rose from Angel's chair and shook the guest's hand politely before waving his palm towards the door as if to invisibly usher him out. When Wesley returned to the chair, his fingertips danced briskly across the polished desktop before he clasped his hands in front of him. A couple seconds later, he noticed Cordelia charging at him from the outer office.

"Cor---" Her glance cut him off.

"What are you doing in HERE?" she screamed. Her blood was boiling; she could feel it percolating between her ears. "You couldn't wait, could you!"

Wesley rose offensively. He had never personally witnessed Cordelia's temper although he knew enough about it from the legendary tales he'd heard back in their Sunnydale days. "I beg your pardon?"

"Yeah, you're going to beg, alright! When I get through with you..." His evasive sidestepping as she approached him made her even angrier. "You just couldn't wait for Angel to disappear so you could take over his life, you worthless-- What'd you do to him, Wesley? Did you finally stake him? From behind, I bet, so he never saw it coming."

Wesley's confusion over the accusation was apparent. "I didn't stake Angel, Cordelia. He... He's my friend. You know that. Why would you think such a thing?"

She swept her hand across the desktop, returning it to rest on her hip, peering at Wesley condescendingly over her nose.

"That was a potential client. Remember how we agreed that this is still a legitimate business and..."

"In case you haven't noticed, HIS name is still on the door." She leaned back to look through the louvre window divider just to verify her statement. "Yep, still there. Guess you didn't have time to scratch it off yet."

Wesley shook his head vehemently. "Cordelia, you've got this all wrong!"

"You're soooooooooo jealous! That little green EnvyGuy just has you by the shorties. You couldn't wait for Angel to be out of the picture. So, when are you moving in downstairs?"

"I'm not moving..."

"DON'T YOU LIE TO MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!"

Wesley, attempting to avoid Cordelia's lunge, lost his footing and caught the full brunt of her take-down. He swatted at her as she straddled him and began pummeling him with her fists.

"I'll have... Ooooof... You know.... Ooooof... That... Ow! That hurts!... I am a martial art--... Hey, no fair! Not my ear!... And I... Ow! Watch the glasses..."

Cordelia, disgusted with her adversary, jumped up and balled her fists at him. "Get up and fight like a girl, you weasle!" Her contempt for him was obvious and he cowered against the floor, pinned there by her scowl.

"What am I missing?"

Wesley swallowed loudly and looked behind Cordelia to the source of the question. The little man, wearing a scuffed pleather jacket and a sportsman's hat considered the situation with arrogant amusement. When the man chuckled, Cordelia stood down long enough for Wesley to bob off the floor and out of her reach.

"Whisper!" she exclaimed. Cordelia's face brightened and she skipped past the him, leaning out into the front room. Her expectation slowly dwindled and she returned her attention to Angel's office, her pretty face creased by grave disappointment.

"He's not here?" Fighting to keep from revealing his own discontent when Cordelia shook her head sadly, he wasn't sure he succeeded.

"Wesley Wyndham-Price! And you would be..."

The unexpected visitor suspiciously glanced at Wesley's offered hand as he replied, "the guy who just watched her kick your ass."

Cordelia pulled Wesley by his extended arm and hurled him out. She slammed the door behind him and yelled, "STAY OUT! THIS ISN'T YOUR OFFICE!"

"Good job," the scruffy male replied calmly, admiration in his voice. He did a double take when he caught a glimpse of the tattoo across the small of Cordy's back and forced a rising thought away. "Angel teach you that?"

Cordelia turned around, a complete one-eighty of the persona who had just existed, smoothing her hair and shrugging her top down as she replied, "nope. Hellmouth Basics, One Oh One." Refusing to be distracted, she asked, "Where's Angel, Whisper?"

He leered. "Whistler."

"Whatever."

"Corky, was it?"

They began the rematch of their stink-eye contest in earnest, holding it for almost a minute before Whistler jerked away. "Hey, you're much better at this than the last time we met. Getting some?"

"Got some. Wrong kind. By the way, you smell much better than I remember. Keeping up with the personal hygiene actually makes you semi-acceptable." Cordelia was serious as she stepped forward. "Angel?"

Whistler backed up a bit, laughing under his breath, "I LIKE you now," but his face was solemn when he finally answered, "we were wondering the same thing. You know, where Angel is."

"Because you can't feel him either?"

"Something like that." Whistler pointed to her head. "The beacon went out?"

Cordelia stepped into his personal space, but he was too close to the desk to back away from her advance. She lowered her voice menacingly, "that's not where WE feel him, PeeWee."

Whistler backed away from the look she was boring into him. She was scary, this one, as if those hazel eyes really could see everything. "I... I don't know what you're talking about."

Placing her palms on his chest, she pushed him back. "It was Sharpie'd all over your face when you found out Angel wasn't here. Don't lie to me..."

"Then he's dead." Whistler stated.

Cordelia shook her head in slow motion. "Is that what YOU feel?"

Whistler, uncomfortable with her proximity and the accusatory tone bowed his head and shook it in quick strokes.

"Take me to the Oracles," she demanded. "I don't know where they are, but I bet you do. If they can speak to me, there should be some way I can speak to them."

"You're just a receiver, Cordy, and The Gift doesn't work like a two-way communication device. Besides, you can't get in the chamber-you're just a Messenger. You're unworthy." When she moved back, he sidestepped the desk and straightened his coat. He could still feel the heat from her touch over the cavity of his chest, trying to fight the emotion threatening to erupt to the surface upon realizing how much he found her and Angel to be so alike. The thought scared him, but not half as much as the look on Cordelia's face after he told her she wasn't worthy.

"Hey, that guy. Who's he?"

Cordelia followed where Whistler nodded the top of his head. Disgusted, she tch'd and replied, "Wesley. Old acquaintance. Ex-WatcherGuy."

Whistler watched over his shoulder as the dejected-looking human exited through the front door. "No such thing as an ex-Watcher, you should know that. You just don't toss off a birthright like that. Once one, always one. You know, like a demon. Once a demon, always-" he paused to remember how many ex-demons he personally knew and conceded his poor choice of words, frowning. "Bad metaphor, I guess."

"Big word for such a small fella. Angel teach you that?"

When the corner of Whistler's mouth twisted in a half-smile of confirmation, Cordy mirrored his expression. Uncomfortable with the moment of remembrance passing between them, they shifted their attention to the floor until Cordy again demanded to be taken to the Oracles.

"I don't think they're going to let you in," he reminded her calmly, "but, I guess you're going to tell me that you still have to try..."

-0-

Wesley waited in the stairwell until Cordelia and the stranger left. Surveillance was an option, but he didn't want to do that unprepared. Instead, he waited a few minutes just to make sure she was really gone before re-entering the office. Locking the door behind him, Wesley pulled down the shade and stopped to take a bottle from the refrigerator.

Sitting down behind Angel's desk, Wesley leaned back in the chair. He studied the menacing shadows created through the blinds by the street lamps as he consumed his beverage in the eerie quiet. Cordelia's attack had come as a complete surprise and he didn't appreciate her sudden suspicion of him or her sudden allegiance to a stranger he knew nothing about and he struggled to put himself at ease while mulling over his best options to remedy the situation.

-0-

The Oracle antechamber was bright enough to see in, but offered little in the way of ambience as the pair's approach reverberated harshly on the stone side walls of the room. Cordelia walked up to the portal door instinctively and waited for Whistler to make the requisite offering.

"It's not going to work, Cordy," Whistler said, his voice filled with regret. "That, and we didn't bring a token." When she glanced back at him impatiently, despite his beliefs, he poured a powder into the sacrificial basin and torched it.

Cordelia heard the muted explosion and waited.

Nothing happened. She waited longer.

Still nothing happened and she abandoned all hope.

Suddenly she screamed before falling as the cacophony of thoughts, concepts, and pieces of visions converged on her mind all at once. Grasping for understanding of something in the midst of the mayhem, she only managed to decipher a whisper.

Whistler ran to her aid and raised her from the concrete pavement, his own anguish matching hers as she grabbed hold of him to bury her face in his jacket. She sobbed uncontrollably and he felt the incalculable depth of her agony as if they were one person. A tear burned the corner of his eye and he fought against it and her, trying to break the empathic connection.

Whistler then felt a flutter within his heart--the ember their immortal one had placed there blazed for a second and almost extinguished itself--and he gasped. When he looked into Cordy's face, he knew she had felt it, too; and that terrified him more than anything he had known in his entire ancient life.

"Don't let him go, Princess," he whispered to her as if the voice he used was not his own. "We can NOT let him go."

-0-

Cordelia struggled with the office door key, cursing at the lock. When she finally got it open, the door crashed against the wall before swinging shut behind her as she ran to the second desk in the front room. She opened every drawer and rummaged around, breathless and near hysteria. Slamming the final one shut angrily, her search unfulfilled, Cordy ran into Angel's office to rifle through his drawers.

"C'mon. It's got to be here, somewhere. Find it Cordy. Where would he keep it? Try to think!"

She tried the combination to the safe, unable to recall the last number and left the dial spinning as she exited into the stairwell leading down into Angel's apartment. When the entire descent was made before she realized she'd done it without the lights on, she flicked a switch at the bottom landing before continuing her search.

Taking Angel's coat from the leather chair it was draped across, Cordelia put it on without thinking. She put her hands in the pockets and stood looking around, fighting her worst fears when her thumb slid into his ring resting in the corner of one of the linings. "I know you didn't," she whispered to the apartment, twisting for some direction on where to search first.

The silence disturbed her, as if the apartment had been deserted. Angel's record player caught her attention and she lifted its lid, unsure of how exactly to make it work; but when she picked up the arm cautiously the turntable began to revolve. Touching the needle to vinyl with extreme care, she waited for the crackle to give way to music before moving on with her search.

Disappointed after ransacking the library alcove, Cordy turned her attention to the kitchen. She pulled the boxes and cans from the shelves, opened each drawer and even checked the refrigerator. Her search slowed to a snail's pace as she attempted to keep herself encouraged. "You kept it, you had to. You're too sentimental, Angel. Think like Angel, Cordy: you can't let stuff go."

Cordelia fought tears as she turned on the light in Angel's bedroom and stood for a moment before advancing, staring at the bed he hadn't crawled into for two weeks, wondering why anyone would want to leave such a really nice bed behind. He had such great taste in linens and really knew how to appreciate a high thread count...

"Focus, Cordy!" She closed her eyes to clear her anxiety, allowing herself to be swept into a song. Taking a deep breath, she turned slowly to the armoire, exhaling as she parted the doors to draw them back. The warm smell of cedar greeted her entry and she smiled, knowing that somewhere in the cabinet was the object of her quest.

Her search slowed as she methodically touched every item in the closet. These were Angel's things, special to him. His favorite sweaters were neatly stacked, with tissue protecting their folds. There were a couple of books in the same language Doyle knew bundled in a piece of antique lace, tied with a faded red ribbon. Cordelia had been in the armoire dozens of times, but she had never taken the time to actually notice what was there or that the essence of Angel was in everything he possessed.

She dropped crosslegged to the floor to open the bottom drawer. There, nestled between his socks was a mahogany box, it's ornate lid comprised of pieces of semi-precious stone held in place by copper solder. Lifting it gently from position, she ran her hand over the cover before opening it.

"Ohmigod," she gasped.

In there, along with the item she had been searching for, were the keepsakes of Angel's life.

Cordelia took inventory of the items displayed before her. The odd pieces of jewelry, a lock of dark brown hair tied with another piece of faded red ribbon, old correspondence. A pair of glasses, a Daguerreotype of a beautiful woman-her hair threaded with silvery strands, a genuine E ticket, tokens from around the world. And under the book Cordelia lifted, were single ticket stubs from cultural events throughout the century and The Sunnydale High School 1999 Senior Class Prom bid entwined with a badly-oxidized silver rosary, a corner of its attached crucifix seemingly torn off.

"OK, Cordy, enough with the walk down Angel's memory lane. Onto what you came for."

Reclining on Angel's bed, she opened Doyle's phone book. Taped on the inside cover was a photograph of Harry, peeking out from under a photo of Cordelia as 'The All-American Girl' clipped from her Zed card. She leafed slowly through the pages, impressed with Doyle's meticulous printing and his perfect alphabetical categorizations. Finally, she found the number she was looking for, next to a doodle of the company logo-actually a much better drawing than the professional one she had used.

Wesley observed Cordelia's phone call. When she finished, he then watched her reposition the phone before replacing everything else the way she first found them. He tried to determine what she removed by reaching between Angel's mattresses, but he couldn't make it out from his vantage, remaining hidden from her view as she closed the turntable and made her rounds to extinguish every light.

He crouched in the darkening apartment, as he listened to Cordy ascend the staircase. Counting her steps across the office floor overhead, he knew when she exited the front door and waited a little while longer to make sure she didn't return. Confident he was secure, Wesley turned on a light by the sofa before walking back into Angel's room for the phone. The 'redial' option connected him to Cordelia's call and he found out, exactly, what she was up to.

-0-

"Have you discovered yet if he knows where the object is?"

Mac studied her subject from the entrance of his cell as he writhed, visibly in abdominal pain. "I don't think he knows what I'm even asking about. As intelligent as he is, he's miserably ignorant about demon lore. He'll mumble something about 'The Promised One' on occasion, but otherwise..."

"And now you are, what? Feeling sorry for him?"

Mac turned sharply around, her features clearly indicating her insult. "Are you mistaking my compassion for something else, Mr. Mercer? I'm not at all pleased with the dismal treatment Angel has received since arriving here. In fact, I still don't understand what he's doing HERE at all. This was supposed to be negotiation, not capture. And, nothing was to occur until I returned from Lyón, anyway. Besides that, knowing his condition beforehand, why he was even placed in The Agenda is a mystery to me. If you had hoped for him to come around, the torturous treatment he has been subjected to has done little to change his allegiance. He is not our ally."

"Nor was he ever going to be, Ms. McNeal." The layers of his roman-style haircut did little to soften Lee Mercer's severe features and his dark eyes were cruel when they regarded the topic of their conversation. "He is quite severely progressed," he finally finished, more a comment than question, an unfeeling observation.

"He's already into the second stage of his decline, if that's what you mean." Her dissatisfaction was undisguised. "What you wanted?"

Mercer's thin lips curled into a sinister smile as he stared at the back of Mac's head. "You seem to keep forgetting I act in the best interests of our client, Mac. I follow their demands, not my own."

"And, so now what? Does the client want him destroyed?"

He noticed when she began to hold her breath. "Actually, both clients have decided to allow Wolfram & Hart to determine Angel's fate from here. He's unusable to one in his present condition and since negotiations have staled for the other... Set him free, if you wish. It's your decision now. Since I have a contract negotiation with a potential consultant to tend to, I trust you can follow through with this?"

"Mr. Mercer, a moment before you leave?" Knowing his impatient nature, Mac paused for effect. "This was a test, wasn't it? If Angel could be captured, held and tortured, it was known he didn't have possession of his prophecy protection. Both clients knew exactly what they were doing."

Her astuteness impressed him and he let it show in his voice. "Very well done, Mac. But, his capture and abuse actually mean very little." When she turned to him, he saw something flash in her eyes, but the emotion was too fleeting to distinguish. "Do I believe he has possession of the object? No. I don't believe he does and the fate that lays in wait for him no matter what you decide to do proves THAT beyond a reasonable doubt."

She watched Mercer leave and even though she despised him-as did most of her co-workers, his approval usually meant the approval of The Senior Partners as well. Mac considered the options for Angel as she approached the delirious being and knelt to study him. When she placed the back of her hand on his forehead, he softly moaned against the contrast of her cool touch to his fevered brow. The contractions of his agonized muscles were almost audible.

"Angel," she whispered. When she wasn't sure if he was cognizant, she said his name again. Calling his name one final time, she smoothed her hand across his cheek affectionately. Soundly unconscious, he finally began to calm and she found herself unable to retract her hand. His unrestrained arm reached up and he pulled her hand to his neck affectionately, holding it there with his until she was finally able to disconnect herself.

Mac stood quickly and sympathetically looked down upon him, fascinated by Angel's vulnerability, as she seriously wondered just what to do with him next.

-0-