CHERUB, Part two

-0-

Cordelia inhaled deeply and shifted farther into her covers, trying to ignore the sunrise breaking through the sheer panels of her curtains. As she took another breath, her body eased into a long, sinuous stretch both invigorating and relaxing. Not wanting the last few moments of sleep to disappear completely, she pulled the blanket beneath her chin, readjusting the pockets of warmth within its folds before she sighed.

A deep, long sigh. And then she opened her eyes.

To him.

She held her breath and stared for what seemed like hours until she needed to exhale. He was there, the most beautiful person she knew. Almost sculptured, his profile refined, his complexion smooth and flushed. With his eyes closed in slumber he seemed almost human.

"Angel!" she whispered, barely containing her excitement.

When he didn't move, Cordy resisted the urge to check for his breath, knowing there wouldn't be one. Tentatively, she moved her hand out to touch the edge of his brow, dismayed with his temperature as her fingertips lightly traced his hairline until he finally stirred and sleepily regarded her.

She found it impossible to retract her hand from him, afraid to lose the connection.

"Morning," he whispered so softly it seemed he placed the word directly in her mind.

"When did you get back? I'm so happy to see you, Angel! You had me so worried!" She stumbled through the words. When he didn't reply immediately, she scrunched her face in anticipation of the worst case scenario. "Did we, you know? Are you? Grrrrrrrrr?"

Angel shifted his gaze and focused into the distance of the room, a melancholy smile turning up the corners of his mouth as he shook his head negatively in reply.

"I was lonely." Again, that whisper-a thought.

"Oh."

Angel returned his eyes to Cordy's, his smile betraying his affection. "You don't have to say anything. I just wanted to see you," pausing to appreciate her delight before he finished, "I'm usually gone before you wake up, but..." Then he trailed off and imperceptibly shrugged.

"You've been so lonely."

The words caught Cordy's breath, making her feel as if she would burst. His solitude traveled so deeply within her it was as if he had projected it; a sensation so desolate it couldn't be expressed with words. She imagined he had examined the feelings his absence had created within her as well as she had studied the remnants of his life. Only he was doing a clumsy job of returning hers to her heart.

She moved her hand to his chest and rested it there.

"Mine doesn't work, Cordelia."

Angel related the truth of his existence as if it was a common state that he should be a vampire without breath or pulse, lying on Cordelia's early morning bed. But now she knew him far too well to accept his appearance as something that simple. His despair was evident by the too-still manner of his body; his need for her to understand what needed to be said without the ability to express himself.

Her palm was warm through the thin knit of his pullover and he closed his eyes to concentrate on her touch. "It just doesn't exist,' he finished ruefully.

When she answered, "it does, too, Angel," as barely a whisper, more like a thought, he let the words curl through his mind while her fingertips drummed lightly against his ribs. They filled him with their sound and he believed her, for that moment, his heart was active-that she had willed him life.

He gathered her hand and placed it to his lips. "I miss you," he spoke across her fingertips.

Cordelia's smile betrayed her own affection. She knew that as well as she knew their time apart was the least of his concern. Keeping her voice as soft as his, she started the game. "So, Angel. Shouldn't I be really creeped out by this?"

He pulled her hand to his throat and held it there with his, blinking to focus on her features as the light grew brighter behind her. "Yeah, probably. It's weird. Definitely obsessive of me. I shouldn't do-"

"Obsessive."

"Right."

His eyes never left hers. He studied Cordelia as if he would never see her again and she fought the urge to cry, continuing, "and Dennis let you do it?"

He blinked. Two times. And nodded.

"Just like you dead GUYS to stick together." It hurt her to watch him fail at forcing a laugh; his eyes were so sad. "So, Angel, when did you start sleeping with me? I think that's grounds for a sexual harassment suit, right? I could sue you for everything you're worth but it's not like you have anything I want and I'd rather drive a much better car. Have you seen that Audi TT? Sweet! Although, I guess I'm used to that convertible of yours-"

"Yeah, the Audi's strictly hardtop but you can get it all wheel drive..."

Watching him struggle with his thoughts, Cordelia bit her lip to repress her fear until her hand began to slide away as he rose from the bed, apologizing for his intrusion.

"ANGEL, don't leave me!" she pleaded, lunging forward to hold onto him, dragging his body back to the mattress. She imagined the effort would have been so much more difficult had he actually tried to resist her.

Angel turned into her, returning the depth of her attachment. He nuzzled her neck and she clutched him tightly, trying to still his trembling body, smoothing his hair with her jaw, wiping the perspiration from his brow. He clung to her as she cradled him, squeezing his eyes tightly to focus on her embrace, trying to block the thoughts that threatened to leap from his mouth.

"Talk to me, Angel. Let me in."

He shook his head, pivoting it against her chin. "I can't. Not this. Not any of this-what I am." The words escaped on a low, mournful sigh and he shook his head again brusquely to avoid saying anything else.

"You can. To me. You can talk to me, Angel. You can write it down all you want, but it's not the same as sharing. I won't tell your secrets. I'll keep them all safe." She bore her cheek onto the top of his head, enveloping him with her slender arms. "I'll keep you safe in me."

"Nooooooooo. Horrible." Gasping, he fought to control his emotions, but his resolve weakened considerably more each minute she held onto him. "...So not normal--none of this--and you should have a normal life."

"That's for damn sure. I'm not going to say you're not right about that little point of fact. I do deserve a normal life. But you know what, Angel? What's normal to some people just doesn't seem so normal to me anymore. I live with a ghost and I see all kinds of weird stuff-so much weirder than anything going on in Sunnydale. And, like you sneaking onto my bed at night... That's normal? Hell and no. Not to someone else. But in my world it is. OUR world, Angel, because you're part of MY world. You've been this for, like, ever and you're just now starting to wig? Talk about repression, much!"

She continued, making a conversational note to herself, "I'll have to make sure the new medical plan has psychiatric benefits. Maybe we can get you some under 'midlife crisis', although, you might want to consider talking to me instead to make sure your drama doesn't end up on the cover of Weekly World News."

Angel pushed up to look into Cordelia's face. He studied it, unsure of what he actually saw there, but knew he'd only seen such affection once before. It was an unconditional acceptance of him, no matter who-or what--he was. The recognition of it was frightening and he stared at her disbelieving.

Undeserving.

Cordelia, beaming, spread her arms wide and he lowered slowly to relay his head above her breasts, listening to her heartbeat, allowing the up-and-down motion of the ordinary reflex to comfort him. "Cordelia?"

She finger-combed the fringe of hair on his nape as she rocked him. "Talk to me, Angel," she whispered the thought in his mind and hugged him closer as if he was her most cherished possession, a treasure.

"I didn't want to die alone," he finally confessed sometime later, unsure if he actually vocalized the words until she replied, "who said I'm going to let you die?"

The darkness in her room was oppressive as Cordelia stared across her empty bed at the clock radio's time: 2:17AM. Trying not to hyperventilate, wiping the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand only made the sadness worse-theirs, the separation of their belonging as the ultimate consequence of her negligence-and Cordelia gave into the sorrow and hopelessness that had torn her from her sleep.

Phantom Dennis hovered with the box of tissues, but she waved him away as another minute clicked past. Placing the box on the bedside table, he flicked the lamp off and on to capture Cordelia's attention but she continued ignoring him. With all of his apparitional might, Dennis brought her oversized bag and Angel's coat in from the living room. After dropping the coat at the foot of her bed, he reached into the bag and withdrew the ledger from inside.

He waved it in front of her, but Cordelia refused. "I can't, Dennis. It's private. I can't read his journal."

Undeterred, Dennis placed the journal face down on her lap and leafed through the pages from the back until he reached the first blank one then picked out a pen from her bag to insert between her fingers. Lifting her hand to the book, he nudged the end of the pen to tell her, toggling it continuously until Cordy understood.

"So if he won't do it my way, I have to do it his?" she asked her persistent roommate, taking a tissue before Phantom Dennis redeposited the box by her side. Giving in, Cordy began to write as she sobbed and eventually, over the course of a few pages, her sorrow gave way to exhaustion.

The ghost closed Angel's journal respectfully, withdrawing the pen from its spine, putting them both back into Cordy's bag. He draped Angel's jacket across her shoulders after she rolled into a deep, restful sleep. Before smoothing a tendril of hair from her serene pretty face, the top of the comforter shifted ever so imperceptibly. Then Dennis turned off the light.

-0-

His senses returned slowly as he woke. Angel fought through his pain, the nagging nausea and the unsettling feeling of being in a room with too many other beings, their collective hatred oppressive. Every segment of his being took its time coming to until the familiar taste in his mouth brought him into full consciousness.

Angel wiped the spit from the side of his face, touching the pool of it underneath his cheek. He sat bolt upright and opened his eyes to his hand, covered in blood. There was nothing he could to mask his panic and the population's emotional state changed to that of confusion.

"He's dying," the many-lingual whispered.

"Here, let me get that."

Angel tried to do too many things at once: recognize who had spoken to him, prepare himself defensively, remove his hand from the towel that was cleaning it, fixating on the caring gesture as the towel moved on to his face.

"Straley?" He swallowed hard and realized he'd probably been talking in his sleep. His throat was too parched to utter the name less hoarsely.

The demon in human appearance nodded his head, impressed with the speed of recognition. Dressed in janitorial attire, accompanied by a spray bottle and a bucket of towels, John Straley wiped the drool puddle from the floor. With his duties done, he took a seat next to the vampire.

"You need to feed," he stated frankly. "Can I have them bring you something?"

Angel shook his head slowly, trying not to make himself any dizzier than he already felt. The gallery's murmuring washed over him, their hatred morphing into some other feeling, but he was too disoriented to concentrate on them. He silently endured a spasm before trying to speak again.

"Why... nice... me?"

The Animovic demon snorted in amusement. "Maybe I miss being a restaurateur. Trust me, vampire, this isn't kindness. They don't care if you feed or not. It's all just part of the experiment."

Angel noticed the shackles on his ankles and frowned. He hated confinement and the sudden urge to drive somewhere-like to Oxnard with Cordelia for strawberries--crossed his mind. He realized how often he thought about getting her something special without ever acting on his impulses.

"What's so amusing?" As John studied Angel's strange countenance, he reached into one of his uniform's pockets for a bottle of water. When Angel didn't reply, he continued, "well, here. At least get some water. You look dehydrated-if nothing else."

Angel concentrated on keeping his hand steady as he took the offered bottle, Cordy's favorite brand, and he dropped it between his crossed legs. Knowing he didn't have the strength to twist off its cap he decided to consume it later-half-hoping it was Holy.

"How long?" He pointed at Straley.

Straley pulled out a thin, brown stick and began to light the end of it until he noticed the vampire's change in complexion, returning it to his breast pocket. "They came about a week after Richard's wedding date, early one morning. I was the only one there waiting for a 'special' delivery. They got me and torched the restaurant, started the experiments the second I got here-"

"They?" Angel pointed at the ceiling, for lack of another direction.

"Oh, I couldn't really tell you. I see human. I smell human, but who knows who's really in charge. But whoever they are they do tests; they take samples. Tests and samples. Sometimes just samples."

He reached over and lifted Angel's arm, pushing up the sleeve to bare his forearm, revealing a divot. "Look, they only sampled you once." Pushing up his own sleeve to expose his pockmarked flesh, Straley finished, "they can't seem to get enough of me."

Angel grimaced before nodding his head to the other inmates who huddled in mass, still murmuring amongst themselves. "Them?"

"No one lasts much beyond a month, if that long. The Agenda, they call it, is pretty accelerated. I guess it keeps down the need for extra space. I've seen a lot of us come and go but, I'm a survivor. Must be my species. No matter what they do, I just won't die." He leaned into Angel conspiratorially, "it's making me stronger, if you get my drift."

Trying not to focus on the missing portion of his body, Angel returned to thoughts of driving. He'd take Cordelia to Santa Barbara where he knew of a jazz club with a pleasant college atmosphere and he would watch Cordelia mingle. Her people skills amazed him-how everyone was attracted to her, her ease of being in a crowded room full of strangers, how pretty her smile was when she was the center of attention. He regretted never going out of his way to make Cordelia feel special, knowing he took her for granted even though her company was one of the reasons his quality of life had improved so much-and the only reason he was able to manage after Doyle's death.

John nudged him. "Hey, it's a sad tale, Angel, but you just move on." He laughed.

Angel self-consciously batted the water bottle in-between his hands. "Funny?"

"No, this is really tragic. I was laughing because it struck me funny that if we had never tried to eat Harriet's ex's brains then our family would have been doubly blessed by the fact he was 'The Promised One'. Wow, what if we had actually gone through with the ritual? Do you think he would have killed Richard from the inside out?"

Angel, appalled, scooted away from the still-musing demon. "Morb' sense... humor."

John Straley stopped laughing and looked into Angel's face deliberately, snorting loudly. "Prophecy, huh. You just never know when prophecy is going to strike." He shook his head solemnly. "Who knew? Just like you-The Warrior. Who knew you'd be a doggone vampire?"

"Don't know proph'cy. Don't trust," Angel replied, barely audible.

Ignoring the comment, Straley continued, "but, maybe it's not all truth. Maybe some of it really is myth. Like this t'magne you're supposed to have. You certainly wouldn't be HERE in this condition if you had anything like that."

"Tamagna?"

"Yeah, you know- Oh, prophecy alert! It's some THING that's supposed to keep The Warrior safe from harm. Some kind of magical object, I'm guessing."

Angel shook his head in ignorance.

"Yeah, it's supposed to make you invincible."

"Tal'sman?"

John thought for a moment. "T'magne. Right. A talisman."

Angel's crossed his brows in sudden recognition and laughed bitterly. "Gave it 'way. Didn't know what... was."

The demon leaned forward into Angel, concerned. "You actually HAD it in your possession?" As Angel continued to shake his head in self-reproach, Straley asked, "who'd you give it to? The Seer?"

Angel's intuition cautioned him before his thoughts returned to the conversation. His eyes opened wide in shock as he realized what had been asked. He tried to rise in an attempt to flee, but Straley yanked his shackle's chain and laid him flat on his back before he could get to his knees. Angel cried out sharply when his head smacked the floor, a convulsion twisting his stomach.

As Straley bent over Angel on all four, his demon appearance accentuated the true evil of his personality. "They're so used to working on us normal demons they don't get your kind, Angel." He spit out the words, his voice hushed, but the contempt was more than apparent. "Every vampire they've ever had-just a waste of time because they just don't get it-no matter how evil, you keep those damn human thought processes. I guess the keepers don't want to think about working on 'their own kind'."

He stroked the center of Angel's chest. "A little kindness goes a long way, doesn't it? I thought you'd be much more difficult, especially after the way you beat my family down to save your precious half-breed counterpart. But, you're not so tough, are you? A little confinement, a chain or two and you're ready to call it quits. You know what pisses me off more than your gutlessness? The fact that there's NOTHING to do around here all day long and I figured the fun of extracting information from you would entertain me for a couple DAYS, not minutes."

"She doesn't have it," Angel pleaded.

"Trying to save her life? Pitiful, Angel. You are so pathetic."

"Gave... demon... set.. up. Not... Mess'ger. Don't tell! Don't get her 'volved!"

It was the way Angel kept repeating 'please' that annoyed Straley more than anything else. He hated vampires, hated the way they assimilated into human society, the way his own family had assimilated and what they had lost, more than gained, in the process. They were weak as humans, all of them, and he studied the group of demons watching the proceedings and their 'human' reaction to his place within their captive society. When he stood and looked down at Angel, he did so self-righteously. No simpering vampire was going to do what The Agenda hadn't been able to-break his demonic spirit.

Straley placed his foot on Angel's shoulder and shoved hard, amused by how quickly the body slid to stop half way between him and the others as they all glared at each other vindictively. But Straley was unfazed as he merely sprayed the bloody smear that marked where Angel had traveled, then bent down and wiped it away.

Angel fought against the overwhelming sense of helplessness that overcame him as he watched the general confinement population close in. He wanted to meet his fate bravely--with full awareness, with some sense of dignity--but his body began to shut down. Anguished, he swallowed once more before the darkness reclaimed him, recognizing before it did someone had given him water and the beings around him were taking him in for safekeeping.

-0-

Cataloguing was decidedly boring, Wesley agreed as he prepared for his new duties. He liked the feel of his uniform with the embroidered nametag across its chest. Going 'up' on the elevator helped his self-esteem as much as riding with the group, although he tried not to focus on how their more military-styled garb made him seem as though he should still be shuffling information.

The elevator eased to the fifth floor and paused briefly before lightly bouncing into place. Wesley held his breath in anticipation, reminding himself to stay calm so he wouldn't do anything embarrassingly awkward. With so much concentration directed internally, it took him a few seconds-and jostling from his co-workers exiting from behind-before he realized what the elevator door had opened him to.

Wesley heard it first. Then he felt the collective torment. An acrid taste appeared in his mouth the second he gasped in horror. After his eyes focused, his knees buckled slightly.

"Yeah, the first time takes some getting used to," the supervisor said as she helped Wesley evade being crushed by the closing lift doors. "Go ahead and take a minute. I'd suggest a mask for the smell, but ya're going to have to get used to it sooner or later, so ya might as well just dive in."

Something began a long, plaintive wail before the voice was severed. Wesley gasped again. "I had no idea..." he muttered.

"Ya think ya can do this? It's no problem if ya can't. They wanted ya up here because ya're so quick at identification and categorization. Sometimes we get 'em here and we don't know what to do with 'em for a coupla of days. If we start the wrong Agenda, it screws up R & D." The supervisor's tone was understanding, "take a couple of minutes and I'll be back."

Wesley cleared his throat to catch the younger woman's attention. "You do all kinds of demons up here?" he asked weakly, fascinated by how quickly he was becoming acclimated to the odor.

"Sure, all kinds. Whatever we can find. Does that make a difference for what ya decide?"

"Actually, now that you mention it..." Wesley straightened his posture and moved into lobby as the exiting shift waited for the next elevator. "I was wondering if you ever do vampires?"

The supervisor snorted in amusement. "Yeah. We get 'em up here, but they don't last long. If ya could actually help out on that aspect, I'm sure they'd put ya in charge of the vamp program. How's that sound? I'm not the one in charge, but we have a few that are still hanging on if ya wanna give it a go."

Wesley considered the supervisor's offer and nodded approvingly. "Yes. I'd like to work with the vampires," he said, a pleased smile accompanying his agreement. "I've got a particular penchant for dealing with their kind that I just can't seem to abandon."

-0-

Before Cordelia knocked on the door of the little stucco tract home, she glanced over at Whistler. His nervousness did little to offset hers, but she ignored him and rapped sharply, forging ahead with her plan.

They were late for the appointment and Cordelia was still annoyed with the doctor, who decided he finally wanted to have a conversation with her 5 minutes before it was quitting time. She watched the clock behind him tick with each overtime minute until a delivery finally arrived and he cut off their discussion. Running outside the building, she caught Whistler before he left.

Whistler was nervous for any number of reasons he explained on the way to their destination. He didn't like her plan, her driving, or the fact that he had almost been accosted after leaving the Oracle. (He especially hated to admit the fact his new personal hygiene had probably saved him from that fate.) Still, he wanted to return to hiding as quickly as possible. There were too many disappearances and the rumors were growing uglier. Even his Benefactors were at a loss to explain what was going on-Their lack of knowledge worried him considerably.

"You have the personal item of the person you wish to contact?" the Gypsy woman asked after they joined her at the table.

Cordelia reached into her bag and presented Angel's journal. Before releasing it, she looked deeply into the old woman's eyes. "You don't need to read this, right? Cause if you do, then I've got other stuff-a coat, a car outside on the street..."

The Gypsy considered the young woman's request in earnest. She touched Cordy's hand lightly to ease her discomfort and smiled warmly. "This isn't to read."

"It's just for his presence, Cordy. You know, something to represent him," Whistler explained. "You've never done a séance before?"

"Oh... THIS is a séance. OK. I get it. Yeah, no problem. I guess using the car would be a little difficult, although we could all sit inside of it. It's a little stuffy in here don't you think? If that incense you're burning is supposed to be aromatherapeutic, I think you got gypped. Ow, Whistler! You seriously don't want to start a kicking contest!"

The Medium laughed under her breath and held out her hands to form their circle. She eyed Whistler cautiously. "You don't want to be here," she stated to him.

"Is he going to mess it up?" Cordy asked anxiously. "Because I can have him go outside and wait in the car. We don't need your negative energy here, Woopster-I mean, WHISTLER." She tried to loosen his grasp, but he held on tight.

"Don't be afraid, I know what you are," the Gypsy said to him, ignoring the disappointment that crossed his face after the girl called him something else. "I deal often with those like you because I'm very strong. The one you want to contact is demon, too?" When the pair nodded affirmatively, she smiled again. "Alright then, we'll see what we see."

Angel's journal lay in the center of their circle as the woman began her trance. The lights in the room dimmed on their own as the strength of her mantra increased, the atmosphere cooling degree by degree until the room was extinguished of all light except for the candelabra hanging above the table. The ledger eventually began to rotate from left to right, right to left as the Gypsy chanted louder.

Instead of closing his eyes, Whistler watched the proceedings intently by focusing on Cordelia. She was the most beautiful female he had ever seen in his life with her dark hair glistening by candleglow, the golden light kissing the apples of her cheeks and catching the sparkle within the shadow on her eyelids. Her moist lips were held in a pleasant smile. The intensity of her grip made him recall the design on her back and he imagined touching her waist, how soft she probably was...

Until the old woman abruptly broke the spell she was under and the room seemed to shudder from the disconnection.

"Cordelia!" Whistler rose too quickly from his chair and it crashed backwards against a pedestal, sending its vase against the wall. He rushed to the young woman and shook her violently. "CORDY!" he shouted, shaking her again.

The Gypsy pushed him away from the girl, picking up the journal and shaking it at him disapprovingly. "HOW DARE YOU!" she growled, "LET ME REACH FOR THE UNDEAD!" She tossed the book in Cordy's lap and stepped away. "What manner of demon is SHE?" she demanded to know, "that she would want to touch such a wretched aberration of nature? This one you dare to reach is vile, filthy with doom." She squirmed from disgust.

Whistler motioned to return to Cordy, but the Gypsy held him back with a stern glance. "What's wrong with her?" he asked, trying to move forward, but the Gypsy was too strong. When he felt his heart flutter, he groaned, "what's happening?"

The Gypsy stepped into his face and met him eye to eye. "She is connected to UNDEATH, little demon. By trying to connect to evil at its most sincere, I've been shown that the divide between my world and yours is torn. That chasm acted as a buffer so that neither of us could cross into the other's realm. We were separate for a reason and, perhaps, my own foolish thinking led me to believe it was safe to connect in between; but, our worlds now have direct access to each other through another, more perilous one. Do you understand what I'm saying to you?"

Whistler nodded his head in understanding, unsure if he was more afraid of the importance of the Gypsy's revelation, how unaware They were, or that Cordelia was still someplace else.

-0-

As Wesley pulled up on his motorbike, he noticed the black SUV parked discreetly by the oleander hedges. Cutting off his motor, he coasted to a stop. After parking the bike, he edged along the automobile on its blind side, keeping its occupant in his view.

"Observation going well?" he asked, impressed he had pulled off the stealthy approach.

The man in the vehicle jumped, caught unaware, and struggled to regain his composure until he made the recognition. "Wyndham-Price! Oh, my. I haven't seen you in a month of Sundays! How the hell have you been?" he exclaimed in his matching British accent. Exiting quickly, he extended his hands immediately and clasped Wesley's enthusiastically before finally calming.

Wesley waited until Cordelia stepped into the house before responding. "Paul?"

"Oh, right! Sorry about the false familiarity. Calvin Paulson!" He held out his hand again, then removed it when Wesley crossed his brows. "It's so odd that one day I'm hearing rumours The Council was getting you back and the next thing, here you are! In the flesh. Bloody great to see you! You're here to supervise?"

Wesley returned his attention to the house, noticing as the lights in the side room began to dim until only a flickering glow remained. "Séance," he commented.

Paulson reached inside the car's open window and extracted his umbilicalled laptop. He spoke as quickly as he typed. "This particular Gypsy's specialty. And let me tell you how busy she's been lately. Couldn't tell you why. You know, I'm just an Observer, sitting and collecting the pieces. Still you can't help but hope one day someone will bother to show you what the finished puzzle looks like."

He finished typing and looked up. "You know, Wyndham-Price, even though your Slayers went wrought on you, it's great they let you back on the inside. You know, close to the center. I can only imagine what it's like to work near Augustine. You've seen him, I presume?"

When Wesley ignored him in favor of watching the house, Paulson sighed. Although approximately the same age, the Observer was a victim of male-pattern baldness with fine laugh lines around his eyes, incongruous with a face that looked as if it had never expressed happiness. "I'm talking too much. It's the boredom. Since my co-workers went back to Council, I've been on my own. Makes a man stir crazy. You know, being alone."

"I wouldn't know," Wesley remarked. He heard the cruelty in his voice and caught, in his peripheral vision, its consequence--the wounded expression on Paulson's face. "You're linked with Council now? Mobile modem access?"

Paulson flipped the portable computer's top and eased it across the hood of the car towards Wesley before pressing a hot key. "All ready to go. Anything you need-within reason, of course-since I don't have total access. You don't have yours yet?"

Wesley signaled in the direction of his bike, waiting until Paulson nodded in acknowledgement, before using the computer. He navigated through the familiar database, impressed with the upgraded Watcher's Council browser. Finding the files he wanted, he downloaded them to Paulson's hard drive before closing the link. "You have a different server, Paulson, or do you expressly use The Council for your personal e-mail?"

Paulson, eager to please, opened his account and twisted the laptop back to Wesley, studying the dark-haired man as he worked. His initial excitement over having a new companion faded as he watched the mirrored information scroll across The Watcher's glasses. Realizing he had been wrong to assume their castes could cross, he examined the 'something' that made Wyndham-Price different, still hoping for a glimpse into the inner sanctum and at least one story of what, exactly, went on in there.

-0-

"Am I dreaming?" she asked aloud, surveying the room. The surroundings weren't to her liking, being too neo-something or other. The pillars were in an odd place and the lighting was just all wrong. The aura was more wax museum than cathedral and she scrunched her face, trying to decide if the problem was the room's Feng Shui.

"Dreaming?" a female voice responded, disturbed. "What type of creature are you to breach the portal in this manner?

Cordelia twisted around to the two beings emerging from the void beyond an archway, staring at them intensely as she tried to figure out what, exactly, they were wearing and in what world would those outfits be considered haute couture.

As the female drew her hand to strike the intruder, the male called for her patience. "The Gift. She possesses The Gift. A Messenger." He returned the fervor of Cordelia's examination. Stepping into her personal space, he felt her anxious breath as she exhaled. "Human?" He leaned away in surprise.

His reaction aroused the female's curiosity and she leaned closer to Cordy, ignoring the male's cautiously outstretched arm.

"Oracles?" Cordelia asked. She swatted the intruding hand away and squinted at the man and woman. "I'm trying to find Angel. Do you know where he is?"

The female's eyes grew wide and she turned to the male. They exchanged a silent discussion before returning their attention to Cordy. "You are his human," she stated, shaking her head in astonishment.

"Hey! I'm no ONE'S human, people." Cordy stepped to the male and poked his chest with her index finger. It surprised her he was solid, his flesh tender beneath her prod.

The male glared at her, disapprovingly. "It would only make sense she belongs to him. She obviously didn't bring a token."

The female smiled at his remark, lifting her palms to the ceiling as she spoke. "Every circumstance proves how little control we have over that one's destiny." After the male nodded in agreement, they began to walk away.

"Wait!"

Turning in unison, the Oracle pair watched as Cordelia came at them, taking turns to speak. "What is it you dare to inquire of us, Human? Our world is not yours, and you have no control over us. No more than Warrior Angel."

Cordelia stomped her foot to punctuate her rising anger. "Don't you tell me what you can and can't control! He's dying. I feel it."

Insulted, the female responded to Cordelia arrogantly. "You summon us only to speak of that which is already known. We have no means to rescue him. He will either continue or cease to exist by sheer force of his own will and whether he dies now or in your future, he determined his fate by a selfish decision and now he must endure the consequence of his action."

The male continued, "What is done cannot be undone. The Auguries-"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. The Auguries-WHATEVER! He's dying eventually. I get that. But, he's not dying now because of that stupid disease he's got." She stopped and listened to the silence. "You don't understand what's going on, where he is or what's happening to him. I thought I was out of ideas, but- And, I thought you were supposed to be all-knowing or some crap like that," she finished, unable to mask the disappointment in her voice.

"You hear the Auguries?" the male asked, sharing his concern with the female.

"YOU!" Cordy pointed at him. "Shhhhhh!" She closed her eyes to listen again, shaking her head as she did so. "Angel's not the only one missing. There are others-you're losing The Cause?"

The female touched Cordelia's temple. "Your Gift is remarkable. How are you able to manage such a feat?"

Cordelia shrugged her shoulders, honestly mystified.

And then the Vision hit.

She wailed before falling to the floor the second the misery assaulted the inside of her head. Gasping to breathe, Cordy struggled to pull her concentration from the multitude of images pouring into her mind too quickly for her understanding and, upon doing so, realized the Vision she was guesting was not for her interpretation. A myriad of Voices, of Presences, other than The Auguries and the two Oracle Beings, began to siphon the information directly, leaving her with the presence of her own thoughts to recognize the passion of the communication-the desperation to relate its message.

Cordelia accepted the experience as extremely different, but overall probably normal, and tried not to focus on any one image or concept as they streamed past. That wasn't especially difficult to do since the presentation was similar to remote controlling a cable-equipped TV set, one on which only the smart channels were installed. As she huffed her impatience, the message dwindled, its urgency less severe until it finally ended.

The female Oracle nodded appreciatively as she helped Cordy to her feet. "Your token," she whispered, "was well-received. Perhaps you will be welcome again," she added before sending the young woman, gently, on her way.

Cordelia felt the scenery shift as her return journey began. The Voices followed her a portion of the way and she listened to their comments. She was anxious to return to write Angel about the experience. But, before she got to that, she wanted to ask Whistler for his opinion on what the Voices meant in their discussion about who--or what--had sent the Messenger and her Message.

-0-

Cordelia tried to be nonchalant about sneaking into the office almost two hours late but, as usual, there was no one there to notice. She felt as bad as she knew she looked with her curly hair tossled into a half-ponytail and a swipe of gloss across her lips. Her outfit was slightly wrinkled-Dennis didn't have enough time to press it for her, and it brought an image of being attired like Wesley into her mind.

She called for the cat after placing its filled bowl on the feeding mat, in no mood for the finicky feline this morning, especially after realizing that the stray thought of Wesley kept him in her mind, his betrayal making her angrier by the second.

"Claudia!" she hissed.

The research office door was ajar-just slightly enough for a cat--and Cordy pushed it open gingerly. She saw the animal before she saw the body it was sitting on as it groomed itself contentedly, purring at the top of its lungs. Her resentment for the creature increased as she approached it and snatched it off the body from behind.

Then, three things occurred to her in order: that she didn't think twice about a body being in the room; that she had never heard the cat purr before; and that the body on the table looked a lot like Angel.

EXACTLY like Angel.

"Angel!" Cordy curled the wriggling cat in the crook of her arm as she leaned over to examine him. "What did they do to you? Ohmigod, Angel!" She placed her hand on his chest and shook him roughly. When he flopped instead of rousing, she fought the urge to cry.

"Angel," she called as less like a whisper, more like a thought. She heard him moan ever so softly and bent her ear closer to listen as he spoke in a voice that didn't sound like his own about strawberries going with peanut butter, accepting it as delirium when he referred to her as Kathy.

"What's going on here?" a familiar voice called from the doorway.

Cordelia jumped back and spun around, holding the wriggling cat in front of her. "The cat! The cat was in here. I came to get the cat... Wesley?"

The other man with Wesley walked into the room and took the animal from Cordy's grasp. "I HATE this cat. I don't know why they don't experiment on it." He hooded its head as he walked to toss it into an adjoining room. "What are YOU doing in here?" he asked Cordelia.

"Yes," Wesley added, pulling her to the side. "It's not safe for you, Cordelia. I can do this on my own," he finished, his voice discreetly lowered.

"I knew it, Wesley. You are so evil. You're wickedness incorporated! Did the Watcher's Council put you up to this? Is that what this facility is? I should have known there was something fishy going on that they pay me in cash, you liar. And you thought you could make me a part of your scheme. Look what you've done to Angel. I HATE you!"

"What's going on here?" a familiar voice called from the doorway. "Cordy, what are you doing in here?"

Cordelia broke her arm from Wesley's grasp dramatically. "He was trying to hurt me," she cried, forcing a tear down her cheek as she pointed at Wesley. "He said... things to me. Horrible things to me." Sauntering to the doctor, she wound her arms around his, silently scolding herself for not having any makeup on to ruin. "He's such an awful person. I only came to get the cat."

Wesley watched in disbelief as the doctor wrapped his arm around Cordelia protectively. He glared at Wesley before asking for the other man's explanation. After Cordelia's story was confirmed, he promptly fired Wesley and pushed him out of the door, still holding onto Cordy's clinging torso.

"Now, now," the doctor said to Cordy, trying to calm her down. "Are you sure there wasn't something else that would make you so upset?"

Cordelia took an offered tissue and shook her head as she blew her nose. "You mean the dead body?" The doctor's shock led her to add, "you do research, right? What do I care if you've got a dead body in your lab? For an autopsy, right?"

"Yeah. Autopsy. Bright girl, but you don't look well, Cordy, are you feeling alright? Maybe you'd like to take the rest of the day?"

Cordy blinked her big teary hazel eyes at him, achieving the desired effect. "It's just that, you know. I've been in Los Angeles for almost a year and haven't met a decent guy yet. My date last night and now this..." She waited for him to nod before continuing. "A young woman has needs that only a gentle man can tend to. I mean, ALMOST a year-"

The doctor lifted a strand of hair from Cordy's shoulder as if was the key to winning The Nobel Prize. Making eye contact, her smiled at her, melting when she parted her glossy lips before returning the gesture. "Maybe dinner tonight would help. I'd love to show you there are gentlemen left in this city."

"Excuse me, Doctor Nichols. I need you to authorize someone else to come down here to help me?"

"Dinner tonight would be fine. I'll meet you here, say, eight?" Cordy whispered against Nichols' cheek. She smiled to herself when she heard the orderly comment on the doctor's prowess with women, wondering if all men were so easily handled as the doctor mentioned to just leave the body where it was.

As she exited the office, Cordelia was too busy having a conversation with herself to notice the doctor's predatory grin.

-0-

"I knew I'd find you here!" Wesley bounded down the staircase into Angel's apartment, missing the last step and stumbling half-way across the living room area before regaining his balance. "Who do you think you are to get me fired? You LIED, Cordelia. Frankly, I don't know who you are anymore."

Cordelia ignored Wesley as she reached into Angel's refrigerator for another bag of blood, pouring the contents into a pitcher and stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon. After she pulled the spoon out and examined it, she felt a wave of happiness about Angel's anticipated reaction.

Wesley looked at the mess in the kitchen and the stained utensil Cordelia threw into the sink. "You might as well just throw that away along with all of these plastic cartons. I can't believe you're going to leave the place in a mess like this. Cordelia! I'm speaking to you. Don't pretend you don't hear me!"

"Get away from me, you asshole. I can't believe you're still going through with this. But, I'm onto your game, Wesley Wyndham-Price. You can just let The Council know their plans have been discovered. I bet it's eating you alive how I'm going to pull this off and show them, again, what a terrible Watcher you really are. Wow, fired from two places on the same day-no, wait. Make that THREE! In case you didn't know, trying to kill the owner is grounds for dismissal and your services are no longer required at Angel Investigations!"

"You can't fire me! You don't have the authorization!" When Cordelia turned around and glared at him, he leaned away offensively until he really examined her. "You look beautiful, Cordelia. Where are you going all dressed up with that thermos of blood?"

"I TOLD you. I'm going to go save Angel. So, if you'll step off, I don't want to be late."

"Then I'm going with you. You can't do this on your own."

Cordelia spun around on him and heaved heavily as she spoke, her voice filled with venom. "What is it with you Wesley? Do you think I'm stupid? You've done nothing but try to get me out of the way since Angel disappeared and now you're going to pretend you want to help me rescue him?"

"I was going to rescue him this morning, but you thwarted my plan! Cordelia, I've been trying to find him since day one. I don't know why you've suddenly turned on me and started thinking I want Angel dead. My God, he's the only friend I've got in this city-probably the entire world at this point."

He took Cordelia's shoulders, his grip tense, unrestrained. "That Council you keep pledging my allegiance to-- My entire life, Cordelia, revolved around The Watcher's Council. And, for a fateful mistake-that may not even have even been my fault-I was denounced and disowned. They were my family, Cordelia! What family does that! Angel is a fucking VAMPIRE and he knows more about forgiveness than an entire revered society."

Wesley released her and pulled out a chair. With his elbows on the table and his head between his palms, he was the picture of disconsolation. "You always want HIM to express what's on his mind. Well, maybe he's not the only person around here who needs to speak."

"I don't care about you, Wesley. There. I said it. I don't trust you and I don't like you. Angel is my ONE emotional investment so I'm on my way to get him back right now. And, once he's back, you better not forget that no matter how nice I play with you in front of Angel, you are NOT my friend. You're welcome to be his as long as he wants you, but when he says 'you go', you're an outie!"

Wesley took deep breaths in an effort to regain his emotional control. "And you're not going to let me help you no matter what?"

"Puh-leeze! What is it with you? You keep standing around waiting for an invitation to the fight. Well, the SpunkyGirl Handbook says that 'when the invitation doesn't come in the mail, you go anyway and dazzle everyone so much they forget you weren't invited in the first place'. Look at me! I'm 19 years old, no self-defense training, no academic degree, self-centered as hell. That goes to show you what spunk will do. But, you. You're going to sit there all mopey like if you fail at one more thing, you're just going to die. Well, you don't die, Wesley-- OK, maybe sometimes there's death, but what can you do about that when it happens? Nothing. I'm not The Slayer, but somewhere along the way I started to care and Angel makes me want to keep on caring."

Wesley considered her words and stood to face her. "Then, I guess you'll be needing these," he said as he handed her a set of keys from his pocket. Sitting back against the table as she swiped them from his hand, he bowed his head in shame as she called him 'spineless' beneath her breath and left him behind in the dark.

-0-

Cordelia cautiously stole into the examination room while Nichols finished his meeting, relieved Angel was still there. His condition tore at her heart as she studied how his arms were chained down to the table rail, his ankles held in place by a wide steel band. As she neared, never removing her eyes from him, she counted each tiny tremor of his body. A gentle rattle accompanied the movement, setting the rhythm for her approach.

He panted raggedly, an occasional cry escaping his throat.

"Oh, Angel," she whispered, uncertain if the pain she felt was actually his or her own from seeing him so distressed.

The keys fit easily into their slots as she released his limbs from their restraints. The metal cuffs had torn through his flesh--rips in his skin that couldn't be considered wounds because the areas were dry.

"Angel, wake up!" she pleaded, fighting her worst fears as she struggled to make him coherent. She constantly pushed against his chest until realizing his skin was being scoured beneath the burlap-textured prison shirt. Holding his head between her palms, she jostled him again but he wobbled as if stuffed with rags, limp and unresponsive.

"Oh, God."

She turned to the familiar voice and glared at him as he approached the table. "What are you doing here?" she seethed. Her frustration took control and she swung her arm at him.

Wesley saw the strike coming and accepted it stoically, taking no offense. His eyes welled nonetheless and he dabbed at the cut she created, the salt of his perspiration causing a sting. Punishment rendered; punishment accepted. As Nichols called in the foyer, Wesley signaled for Cordelia to leave.

"I can't just leave him, Wesley."

"Nor can I." He met her eyes sincerely, then motioned with the top of his head, impressed with Cordelia's determination as she prepared herself for completion of her mission.

"Make sure he drinks all of it or we'll never get him out of here." She returned her hands to Angel's face and ran her fingers across his parched lips.

His eyes fluttered and he opened them to her, his expression one of doubt. Angel kissed her finger as she asked if he missed her and he wasn't sure if he was dreaming or not until she walked out of his range of vision.

No dream could be so cruel. "Cor-" he whimpered.

Wesley felt helpless as he listened to Angel sob while mouthing Cordelia's name. "Angel, here. Drink this," he said, trying to keep his voice steady as he reached under Angel's back to raise him slowly, fighting panic when the vampire's lack of substance caught him off guard.

"Wes?" Angel searched Wesley's eyes, trying to fathom some explanation of what was happening. "I thought Cordel-"

"Yes, Angel. She's here, too; in the other room attempting to stall the doctor so that you can get this down." He returned quickly from reaching for the thermos to catch Angel before he toppled over. Shouldering Angel's body into place, he managed to open the container and held it out, disturbed by Angel's reaction. "I'm afraid you're going to-- There's no other way to get you out of here other than on your own volition."

"Where's Cordel-?" Angel grimaced at the thermos as his stomach turned from its aroma. "Bring... back. Have to say before I... Bring her back?"

Wesley kept his tone soft, in an attempt to soothe his friend. "She's not going to leave unless you do, Angel. Please. Drink it." He poofed the fingers of his free hand as he demanded, "TRANSFORM!"

Angel ignored the command. "Doct' will know... He'll hurt her..."

When Angel continued to glare at him, Wesley shook his head against his better moral standards. Although he didn't want Cordelia to use her feminine wiles, he determined it preferable he stay in the room to die with Angel than to face Cordy's further wrath if he foiled her rescue attempt. "Whether or not the doctor figures out her motives..." Wesley paused and shrugged. "You were a man once, Angel. Would it have mattered to you?"

Angel closed his eyes and concentrated, trying to find Cordelia somewhere beyond his suffering. He caught hold of her determination and she pushed him away, unwilling to accept anything less than his safety. No matter what. His transformation came naturally and he felt the thermos touch his lips. Each nourishing gulp soaked deeply into his thirsty tissues to invigorate him as he chanted Cordelia's name in his mind to take it all in despite his body's objections.

He stood unsteadily and Wesley's arm was there to control him. His demonic persona slid away as easily as it had appeared and he turned to Wesley, nodding appreciatively. "She put something in the blood, didn't she?" he asked. The sound his of voice felt good to him, and he growled softly as an internal massage to quiet his stomach.

"You don't think it will help?" Wesley tentatively drew back to allow Angel to regain his equilibrium, pleased with the surprisingly quickening recovery.

Angel stretched his chest, touching his shoulder blades together before removing his prison outfit, replacing it with a lab coat and pair of pants he recognized as his own. Amused, he shook his head while putting on his socks and shoes. "She thought of everything," he remarked, his voice betraying his amazement. Running his fingers through his hair, he was disgusted with the sticky residue on his hand. "Well, now I think we need to find Cordelia."

"My pleasure, sir. And, how would you like to go about that?" Wesley asked, his admiration for their associate unrestrained in his voice.

Angel smoothed the jacket and tweaked the nametag slightly. "If you can find a white coat, too, I was thinking we could go do some doctoring. That sound good to you?"

-0-

Angel swung the door to Nichols' office open boldly and stepped inside, Wesley at flank. The white-coated pair entered agressively in time to see Cordelia drop "Gray's Anatomy" to the floor where it thudded loudly next to the unconscious body of the doctor.

"Hey, Angel. You look a lot better," she commented as she patted her hands together, backing towards him. "You know, I was thinking. You've got that axe, Buffy's got her stake, but no one is as mean as me with a book. I think I've found my weapon of choice. 'Knowledge is a dangerous thing.' What d'ya think?"

Angel reached out and rezipped her dress but a muffled voice caught his attention before he could answer. He turned to the disturbance, finding Wesley holding onto one Paula 'Mac' McNeal, Esquire. The woman struggled fiercely, but the Brit did an admirable job of restraining her.

"YOU! I remember you!" Cordy called out, striding purposefully to the woman. "You wanted my eyes! Hey, Angel. This is the chick who wanted to take my eyes. You nasty Wolfram & Hart evil bitch!"

A shriek sounded in protest caught everyone's attention as Claudia, the cat, leapt from Nichols' desk at Angel, who froze. Before the cat pounced on him, though, Cordelia managed to pluck it out of midair, strangling it by its abdomen.

"I HATE this cat!" She turned back to Mac, holding the cat before her. "Who wants eyes? Does the kitty want eyes?" She started to lurch the pawing feline at the frightened woman until Angel pulled her arm.

"C'mon, Cordelia. Cruelty with animals?" He chided her. Accepting the cat from her begrudging release, he bundled its extremities as he walked it to a door, throwing it into what turned out to be a closet. As the cat's paws swiped under the crack, Angel kicked at it, amazed at the animal's remarkably pronounced anger. "Wow, I think I knew that cat in one of its past lives," he commented absently.

"I was actually thinking of feeding it to you yesterday, Angel. Would that have worked out as a snack?" Cordy asked.

"I've never been fond of longhairs," he replied, "although, there's something about that one..." He paused, wrinkling his mouth. "OK. That was a disgusting conversation to get into, Cordelia."

"Yeah, Angel, it most certainly was. But you shared and it wasn't SO horrible, was it?"

Wesley cleared his throat as Cordelia and Angel exchanged their moment and, by losing his concentration, gave Mac enough leverage to lunge from his grasp. He tried to regain control of the woman, but she elbowed him sharply in the ribs, disabling his attempt.

"I'm so-"

"Sorry. Right. C'mon, Wesley," Angel called as he chased after the woman.

Wesley wasn't sure exactly what Cordelia said to him as she followed Angel out. The explosion that rocked the building didn't give him any time to think about it.

"Not much you can do to save these precious demons, now, Warrior Angel!" Mac taunted as she placed the telephone receiver back in its cradle. "And, no vision from your Powers That Be is going to help any of them out." She sighed mockingly as she glanced at her watch. "Floor five, by the way, just lost Wing A and Wing B," she paused for effect as another explosion occurred, its sound much louder than the first.

"Bye, bye, demons!" As Angel moved towards her, she leered at him over the top of her glasses. "Which one brought it to you? Rathrachemae? At least show me what it looks like."

"Rathrachemae?" Wesley echoed.

"Fine, Angel. At least now we know you're in possession of it-whatever IT is. So now your choice is to have whatever done to me you think can be done to me or you can try to save some demonfolk. Floor four won't go for another hour or so, after the partial burnout of 5. Your choice. Your deal." "Which way?"

"Angel, no!" Cordelia ordered. "I'm not going to go through this with you again! Let's go!"

"I believe this would be the way, Angel," Wesley cooly replied from the open door of a stairwell, sweeping his hand after Angel's entry. As Cordelia followed, stopping to glare at him angrily, he sarcastically replied to her, "my SpinelessBoy handbook told me to refer to your SpunkyGirl one in this instance."

He could have sworn she swallowed a smile before she rolled her eyes at him.

-0-

Cordelia had almost believed Wesley's good intentions until she caught him at a computer terminal on the 3rd floor instead of helping to unlock prisoners. As she held the fire stairwell exit open, she glared at him unmercifully, pleased by Wesley's uncomfortable reaction as he helped shuffle the demon population downstairs. As Angel called into the smoke-filled general confinement area for the escapees to follow the sound of his voice, she refused to buy into Wesley's coordinating efforts of having the stronger demons assist the weaker ones.

"That's all of them, Angel. At least as many as can be saved. Let's go." Wesley studied Angel carefully, unsure if he and Cordelia could manage to get the vampire to safety as he noticed a dip in Angel's stamina.

Two clapping hands appeared from the smoke and caused the last remaining demons to pause. They mumbled something between themselves as they stood to stare.

"Straley." Angel stated.

"Good job, Warrior. Saved the hopeless masses from their deaths and destruction. Not bad for a day's work. I could have used you at the restaurant."

"We don't have time for this. C'mon." Angel's surprise was evident as Straley spit at his outstretched hand, missing. "But, you'll die..."

"Look at them," Straley pointed at the stragglers witnessing the show-down. "They think I'm stupid," he said only loud enough for Angel to hear. "They think I should let you save my life. You. A vampire. Should save me. My culture was one of the originals."

"Whatever, Straley. Let's just go, now! We can have another bar brawl if you want to decide semantics later on." Angel left his hand extended, concentrating on keeping it still as a pain shot across his chest.

"Hmmmmm. Hero 'til' the bitter end. Impressive." He looked at the demons and back to Angel, nodding his approval when Angel dropped his hand. "You see, Angel. Nothing I did here was out of demonic behavior. THIS isn't out of demonic behavior--refusing to let an abnormal human state of existence rescue me. What they're doing-THAT'S abnormal. Did you know The Keepers had to kill 10 of them the other day before they could haul you out of here? That's abnormal. Why are those demons working together over there. I can tell you for a fact I could never have seated them on the same night, let alone the same room together, in my restaurant. Do you get it?"

"Let's just go," Angel insisted as his mouth abruptly went dry.

"Even me. I didn't mention your Seer. We're changing, Angel. The evil in this place backfired and made all these demons challenge their beliefs. If you let these dozen die here with you while you try to get me to change my mind, every lost life will have been wasted and everything will go back to the way it was."

He watched Angel begin to lose grasp of the conversation, dismayed with the brevity of time. "They will think I'm insane because I spit on your species, Angel. I couldn't let go of my cherished beliefs handed down through the eons long enough to let you save my life. They'll see how you didn't care what they were and how much you personally sacrificed to come back here to rescue them from this hellhole. And they'll be alive to spread the word of what went on here and how 'The Promised One' saved their lives."

"I'm not The Promised One'," Angel protested.

As Cordy called Angel's name repeatedly, Straley let a knowing smile cross his unkind features. "Prophecy, Angel. No one knows. Who's to say who The Promised One is and who is actually The Warrior?" When Angel returned his attention after briefly glancing to quiet Cordelia, Straley studied the look on the vampire's face. "She's right, now go. You are the proof of the lesson we've taken too long to learn, Angel. And if you die here, now, the education ends completely."

-0-

"Wait, Angel! You just can't go out there!" Wesley exclaimed. "It's daybreak. You'll combust." Relieved with the stay of their exit, Wesley bent at his waist to reclaim his breath.

"Give him your coat, Wesley!"

Angel smiled at her affectionately and shook his head slowly. "It's white, Cordelia. If we step out into full sun..."

"Oh." She considered his comment. "That's what's with all the black. Wow."

"Besides, Cordelia, you don't have the right to tell me what to do. Remember, you fired me?"

Angel examined the glaring pair quizzically. "I'm gone for, what? 2 weeks and my employees are at each other's throats? You don't have the authorization to fire Wesley-"

"But, he's been trying to kill you, Angel," Cordelia whined.

"Even if that's true, he didn't succeed. Just let it go." He held his hand to Wesley's beginning protest. "We've already gone through this before and it's not the last conversation I ever want to have."

Wesley shuffled his feet, uncomfortable with Angel's conclusion. "Well, Angel-here we stand on the threshold of your existence, no matter what led up to it. This may be..."

Angel, leaning on Cordelia for support, placed his hand on Wesley's shoulder. "I either die out there or in here. But, either way, I won't die alone and that's all I wanted."

"I'm not going to let you die, Angel. I ruined a $200.00 pair of shoes for this escapade and fine fashion footwear refuses to be trashed before its outdated."

Angel was appalled. "How can you afford a $200.00 pair of shoes on what I pay you, Cordelia? Leave that movie nest egg alone. You've really got to start budgeting your money; I don't care how cheap your apartment is."

She tch'd. "I got them on sale, Angel. REALLY on sale, so cheap you wouldn't believe. It's the principal they were ORIGINALLY $200.00, you know. And you're one to talk, Mr. Designer Wardrobe. Here I thought you were wearing knockoffs and those freaking sweaters of yours are the real deal. 'Splain me budgeting THEM."

Wesley began to speak, but his thoughts were cut off by another explosion, extremely close in proximity. "Anyone care to hazard a guess about how to resolve this situation? I, for one, am up for Butch-and-Sundancing it."

Cordelia pushed him from under Angel's hand. "Ew, Wesley! Fine time to express how you REALLY feel about Angel. I could have seriously done without that Hallmark moment."

Angel laughed. "It's a movie, Cordelia. One of Wesley's suck rental picks of the week. Think of his suggestion as Thelma and Louise'ing."

"OK, I get that but why didn't you just say 'let's get the hell out of Dodge' in the first place?"

As another incendiary device exploded, Wesley strained to listen to Cordelia as she spoke directly into Angel's face. He realized when she told Angel, 'I'm not going to let you die,' he didn't actually hear the words, but literally felt her passionate belief Angel was going to safely greet the early morning. A fireball raced at them as Wesley threw open their escape hatch and the three tumbled into the building's side lot.

There was no time to consider whatever lay in wait for him as Angel was thrown clear of the building. In the force of the expulsion, he lost his bearings, as he rolled forward back onto his feet. To panic.

The deafening roar in his ears pulled Angel's focus inward to the flash of a burning sensation. What little moisture was left in his body evaporated instantaneously and he opened his mouth to scream in torment, finding the effort wasted as the flavor of burning ash swelled in the back of his throat. The odor was so overwhelming, he closed his eyes against his last thoughts, that his redemption should be so failed he would be fully cognizant of his own incineration, the awful singular emptiness of dying without hope, of being that unforgivable.

He anticipated his soul's flight from the fiery consummation, one final escape from its fealty. In that moment of pause, she came to him-in the form of her innocent joy, her laughter piercing the white noise. She called out his name repeatedly until he looked away from his horror and saw her dancing in the rain, her wet hair swinging as she pirouetted. And on her face, that expression meant only for him, causing Angel to lift his own to follow her gaze...

Wesley tapped his head to locate his balance and he rose, following the sound of Cordelia's voice. She sang Angel's name as she twirled ecstatically under the canopy of black, pluming smoke and the over spray of a multitude of fire hoses. The explosions were more constant as the building decayed from within to its foundation. Sirens and a helicopter overhead added to the squall but Cordelia, it seemed, was oblivious to it all.

Until she shrieked, causing Wesley's heart to skip a beat. He stood motionless as he watched her hurry to Angel, the vampire slowly falling knees-first with his arms outstretched and his terror-stricken face tilted upwards as he reached out for Cordelia who came to his aid. As she held him, she patted Angel gently on the back while his body was racked with harsh, sooty coughs, until he finally collapsed from exhaustion at her feet.

Even at a distance, through the auditory overload, Wesley heard Cordy's voice reminding Angel that she told him so. And he removed his glasses to wipe them thoughtlessly against his vaguely-white coat, trying not to assign any emotion to having seen the reflection of their ardent embrace mirrored in his water-spotted lenses.

"I'm guessing this probably doesn't have anything to do with the arson murder case I'm working on, right?"

Cordelia looked up from her charge. "I'm guessing probably not, either, Detective Lockley."

Kate Lockley nodded her head in acceptance, not at all surprised by the young woman's response, as she attempted to put her feelings aside long enough to assess the situation in front of her. She took off the dark nylon jacket emblazoned with its yellow LAPD lettering and shoved it at Wesley as he joined them. "Here, Bodyguard," she said, "the smoke is clearing and you'll probably want to get him out of here anyway before someone tries to haul his ass off to the morgue."

Wesley inspected the blonde detective's walk away from them, her body language doing much to express the anger suppressed in her voice. "That was so kind of her, Cordelia. Why do you think she did that?" he asked in complete ignorance.

"Refer back to the handbook, Wes. Where's the sport if Angel dies like this?" Cordy answered, her spirit undiminished despite the situation at hand as she looked beyond Kate, smiling in recognition.

Kate Lockley maneuvered through the catastrophe expertly, too deeply entrenched in her thoughts to notice a smoking cat running amidst the scene's activity or its loss of life after being squashed by an emergency vehicle. Nor did she notice the suspicious little man who jogged passed her, shielded from the overspray by his jaunty hat and pleather jacket, a man way too ecstatic for such a disaster.

-0-

Harriet Doyle took one of the teacups from Wesley as he stood in the doorway to Angel's bedroom. "You've been standing here for a minute, Wes. Why don't you just go in and join them?" When he bowed his head in reply, she led him back to the kitchen table where she motioned for him to sit before she took a chair for herself.

"Which one are you more jealous of?"

Wesley took a sip from his cup. It's tepid temperature spoke volumes on how long he had been spying on the pair. "It's that obvious?"

Understanding his embarrassment, Harry reached across and patted Wesley's hand consolingly. "It was so nice of Angel to have me over. He looks so great, I had no idea that he's in such bad condition. Isn't he?"

"Very bad, yes. Cordelia's been doing wonders, though. Coming up with clever concoctions to help Angel get his strength back. But, I'm afraid all the elixirs in the world aren't going to stave off the inevitable for too much longer."

Harry was visibly saddened by the news. "I thought he had years before the necromongracy set on. Was it what happened when he was in captivity?"

Wesley folded his arms across his chest and leaned back in his chair thoughtfully. "From the information I gathered between the research facility and The Watcher's Council archives, Angel actually inadvertently accelerated this himself."

Her puzzled look urged him to continue. "He doesn't feed human. At least we know that now for a fact. So, his metabolism isn't what it's supposed to be. The Agenda didn't even take into account his diet-so much of what they performed on him increased the condition's onset. But The Council's studies from the mid-1800's on a pair of captive necromongers is what actually proved that fact since there were no circumstances under which The Council was going to provide the mutated vampires with their normal diets. Needless to say, with a substitution, it was a very short study, indeed."

"Well, then, we'll just have to pray over it, won't we?" Harry wrinkled her nose optimistically. "So, Wes, you were obviously in The Watcher's Council archives recently. That must have been strange. What was that like for you?"

Wesley was mortified by her question. "I'm sorry, Harriet, even though I was there without authorization, I still can't breach the secrecy. No way!"

"Oh, I don't care about The Council, Wesley. No, I was asking about you. What was it like for you to be back in the old playground? How'd it make you feel?"

Wesley fought an allergic attack, extremely touched by the pleasant woman's inquiry. "Well, I think, rather like being home for the holidays without going inside-like watching the family's festivities through a window."

His analogy amused her. Harry laughed, her voice tinged with intrigue, "so, Wesley, did you rattle the window to let 'em know you were there before you ran off, leaving them guessing?" But her amusement gave way to concern as she considered the puzzled look on his face, confused by his inquiry over which handbook her suggestion could be found in.

With Cordelia's body curved against his spine and her heart beating against his shoulder, Angel clutched his pillow tightly, clasping his hands together underneath it as he half-buried his face into the satiny texture. Trying to repel the sensations, the misery of his desire caused his soul to wage war on the predator within as her bare arm slid under his. He felt her pulse across his chest, as if she could will him health, and his hunger flared in aversion to the intimacy.

The experience continued to overwhelm his senses and Angel struggled to restrain his very being, the soul vehemently cautioning him against repeating the same mistake. But the torment of his craving only worsened the longer she held onto him and he challenged himself not to take her--that he would offer her nothing in return. The void of his existence left him craving--so much-and he wanted to embrace her life as if it was his to own.

"Ow!" Angel blinked repeatedly, trying to focus after being smacked across the forehead. He rolled onto his back and looked up into Cordelia's face for an explanation, swallowed by her affection.

"You weren't listening to me. Again. If you could stop having an anxiety attack long enough, Angel, we could have a conversation. What were you thinking about this time? Trying to bite me or something?"

"You... You can read my mind?" Angel, ashamed, began to turn away from her, but she wouldn't let him go.

"No, Angel. I can't read your mind. But, please, it's not like I haven't known you long enough to kinda guess these things."

"And it doesn't scare you?" he barely whispered, terrified of himself.

"Yeaaah, DUH! But, I figure at some point your head has got to get in front of those fangs of yours and make you realize that if you bite me, you'd be putting yourself in a major world of hurt. You've got the PTB to contend with-I'm sure they wouldn't be too thrilled you turned your Messenger, not only into a vamp, but into a corpse-aholic one. And then, you have to consider that if you thought YOU were a badass, imagine ME without a soul. Ooooooooh, boy! They'd yank you into hell so fast for siring me your head would spin."

She concerned him. "You spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff, don't you?" Angel was sure that wasn't healthy.

"C'mon, Angel. I wouldn't waste my time thinking. Hey, so anyway. How about you get your mind off your teeth long enough to come up with a book for me?"

"I'm sorry?"

"You know, for my weapon. I was saying I should have a signature book to wield. Nothing too brainy, though-it'd be out of character. Maybe something I could quote from before I actually swing it. That'd be cool, huh? Or maybe pretentious? Hmmmmmm. Could go either way. 'Here, you fiend! Have a thought of the day!' Kabonnnnnnnnnng!"

Angel blinked. Two times. And then shrugged, utterly perplexed. "I'll sleep on it, alright?"

Cordelia, placated, swept her face near his and air-kissed his cheek. "Good enough. See you in the morning!"

Angel nestled under his sheet as Cordelia padded away, counting her steps to keep his mind occupied. As her laughter drifted in from the front room after Harry said something amusing, he felt Cordelia's happiness as much as he heard it and placed it among his memories as something to refer to later on when he needed a nice normal thought to divert his concentration.

-0-