His hands had stilled on the files a good ten minutes ago. He watches them from behind the desk, crouched by the cabinet on his haunches. Not stalking, but close. They are unaware, as they so often were.

The casual touches are continuing before him. An unconscious reassurance between a tightly knit group. Strengthening the bond unintentionally, punishing him indirectly. He needs to be reminded of his place, and it isn't among them. Not yet.

Cordelia saunters across the office space, brushing Gunn on her way, entirely confident and comfortable in the proximity. Neither looks up. Neither notices. If it is entirely for his benefit, they hide it well. It still serves the purpose.

She deposits the papers on top of his ever growing pile, and he resumes the pretence quickly.

The permanent, slight frown that is lately all she has to offer him creases further as he smiles up at her painfully, his permanent, faintly apologetic expression completing his side of the charade. He allows her this game, and he plays his part well. She does not suspect that he knows.

She lingers a second, satisfies herself that he is appropriately repentant and sufficiently submissive, then turns from him without a word. She again moves off to complete another task.

Angel remembers the way her blood tasted.

Gunn casts him an uneasy glance as his gaze follows her movements. He slips the socially inept mask back into place across the stony, predatory monster that had briefly surfaced. He ducks his head and shuffles the files, reorganising the system as he's been instructed.

Gunn grunts quietly to himself and goes back to his computer screen, apparently dismissing the slip.

He mustn't let them know. He came so close to losing his tenuous hold on his nature, it's going to take time before he can go back to quietly deceiving them as successfully as he has done all these years.

His perchance for solitude, his occasional brilliant naivety, his characteristic oddities. Not all of them are entirely enforced, but they go a long way to help him conceal his struggle. His darker side is always there, they just don't see it clearly. Even Wesley, who should know better, has allowed himself to be lulled by the lies.

They often forget that he has lived for more than two centuries, but he allows them their condescension. It helps to build up the disguise.

So he endures this whole ridiculous situation. He'll immerse himself back into their trust and their lives, as slowly as it takes. He's just going to need some time to get the dream out of his mind completely. It unnerves him.

Gunn clears his throat meaningfully, not looking up from his work.

Angel shakes himself and carries on, going back to his role. That was his warning, one of many Gunn will give him. He is not forgiven and not trusted, and Gunn has made it his mission to see to it he does not forget. He can be forceful when he tries, moving to the higher rank without question.

Angel waits for Gunn's concentration to merge back to the screen before he again risks taking up his viewing. His eager and helpful expression fades once more.

He remembers Gunn's dead eyes.

He sees Cordelia, back to him, leaning over the desk in the office and discussing a document with Wesley. Their words are meaningless, and despite the easy ability to hear their conversation, he tunes it out. He's not interested in their case.

Their body language is subtle, but he reads it without effort. He is well aware of the countless times he's feigned ignorance of meaning and been blind to emotion. Some of it was awkwardness, some of it to spare feelings, most of it to hide his dangerously acute awareness of human states.

Genuine instances would often be due to self-denial. There were some things he wouldn't want to admit to himself that he knew. Other times would be because he just wasn't concentrating.

The disturbing fact is that he had always been a master of manipulation, and his extended experience and insight into the workings of human behaviour often left him with far more than he wanted. The less they knew, the better.

Cordelia's foot rises and crosses behind her other ankle, and she leans further forward, bouncing on her heel. Wesley laughs easily at whatever it is she has said and indulges her bright smile. He tolerates her invasion of personal space without even registering its occurrence.

She is on him in an instant, almost before the wince had even become noticeable. She had been watching for it. There is more of the blatant contact and they smile again, relaxed.

She turns to go back out and Angel averts his eyes. He notices her frown descend again as she rediscovers his presence at the cabinet, and she flicks a strand of hair back behind her ear as she remembers to ignore him. Her nonchalant air returns.

Her hand flies up to her temple without warning, and she sways with a grimace. Gunn spins and catches her in time, before Angel can even rise to reach her. She is lowered to the ground gently as Wesley emerges with a glass, lowering himself gingerly to her side.

All Angel can do is stand and observe as their well rehearsed routine sets into motion, and he has to remind himself they this is how things are now. They have readjusted without him, and he needs to assert himself again if he's to be included and noticed.

Once she has calmed, she thanks them both and smiles warmly, and Angel longs to have that directed at him again. He moves in to offer some assistance of his own and receives the cold looks he is beginning to become accustomed to.

Cordelia clutches more tightly to Wesley instead, making it clear the care she needs and wants. He hides the hurt.

Gunn begins to pull her upright and Angel attempts to help Wesley on his side, trying once again to be attentive to their needs. Wesley gives him that look, mirrored by Cordelia's quiet anger where Wesley cannot see, and he sighs and retreats. His assistance is not wanted.

Angel remembers Wesley's pain.

As they turn towards the sofa, he tries one last time to reach them, and asks after Cordelia's well-being. That once accepted connection is no longer allowed, and she replies with a terse and direct answer. Angel then watches as they move away, Cordelia's tone immediately reverted to a pitch more suited to her friends.

It's hard to endure, but he will do it. It will be worth his effort in the end. The irony of not wanting any of this in the first place, for precisely these reasons, is not lost on him now that he needs it so entirely.

So he goes back to his files and takes his orders, all with a smile and a sorry.

Angel remembers his despair.

END 2006