Heart-Shaped Void, the preview
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.

Season Two Historical Note: The action in this story begins the day after the events of "The Thin Dead Line".

Author's Note: This started out as a Valentine-flavored ficlet set after "The Thin Dead Line". Wiseblood, doing the Beta for it, got me thinking a bit and I realized that there wasn't just a short story here. (Yeah, yeah, I'm still trying to get a handle on the whole under 40-page thing.) Instead, "Heart-Shaped Void" became the beginning of a much-larger story. Maybe you'll even recognize one of my past OFC's.

Written before "Reprise" aired, in its sneak-preview form this is a story of absence.
e.c. 24 Feb 00

Heart-Shaped Void
By Evan Como

Prologue: Got My Own Hell to Raise

Honest-to-God, they were beating hearts. Clumped like fists in a grove, punching at the dusk-filled sky. Pounding and pounding, a chanting crowd.

Wesley considered the fork in the road and went right. Honest-to-God, he hated the blatantly allegorical.

"Again, you're the one making me do this."

Throbbing and throbbing. Standing tall on sturdy limbs and parallel with the sky, the growing hearts beat upwards. Pulsing and pulsing. Red for as far as Wesley could see.

Red see.

He smiled at the homonym and shot an eye towards the heavens. Lowering his vision -- *his* vision, not THE, Wesley recognized the figure straight ahead and centered in the path. He stopped. Jagged rocks stabbed through the soles of his lace-ups, insulting his feet.

Damn it.

"You're hallucinating," was breathy, too breathy.

Sounds so plausible when *you* say it. Damn you. D.A.M.N. you.

A hurricane of wind shoved Wesley aside. Flapping wildly made no difference; he was still unable to collect his balance. He landed backwards. Hearts pillowed his fall. Still pounding, still pounding. The ones beneath him were wounded yet still achingly alive.

Wesley longed for an antihistamine.

The radar warned of the figure's approach. "I hate you," Wesley said, unable to see anything other than exactly up or the foundations of the hearts in his peripheral vision. The stalks were maroon, the fluid inside their transparencies bubbling in simulation of a mad-scientist's laboratory.

"I know," was artificially rational, mechanical.

Don't just accept it; convince me to do otherwise. You can fight for everyone else, *fight* for me. Too perturbed to respond aloud, Wesley kept his eyes up, straight up.

Into dusk. Hint of moon. Dust of stars.

Eyes closed, he listened. The radar blipped of looming proximity. Wesley boasted, "I see daylight now. I walk in the sun. I dream by myself."

Eyes open, he looked up. Into Angel. Not 'an', 'THE'.

Angel, as ever, bemused. "It's about time."

When Angel stepped closer, one of the fallen hearts went 'squish', squawked, then died. Wesley had hurt it first, though. Unless he had set it up, Angel never would have been able to take it out.

"What have I done?"

That familiar hand, reaching. Reaching and waiting. Wesley stared at it, dumbfounded. "What have I done?" he asked again. Angel would know. It suddenly didn't matter that Angel never had real answers or that, intrinsically, Angel was a bonehead.

In taking his hand away, Angel inadvertently brushed aside one of the stems. The heart above it palpitated, calmed. The outline of a stake planted firmly in its center was finally apparent. Every heart had been staked without a single one dead. Angel stared, transfixed. His index fingernail scratched at the impaling.

Wesley remained planted. Backstroking earth, fertile earth, he watched the heavens darken. The hearts broken under his frame grew weaker.

That hand again. Closer. Wesley leered at it in an attempt to make it shrivel by his Haughty Vision, but his glasses were missing. The Haughty Vision didn't come off as well without his glasses. But he could see perfectly clear, understood every single symbol Scrolling across Angel's palm.

Wesley shuddered, shivered, slobbered. Of himself, but not himself. The who of him that had always been there dormant, lying in wait for purpose. "Oh, God," used to help.

Hyperventilating, Wesley closed his eyes and read every single hieroglyph on the inside of his eyelids.

He heard God turn His back.


The radar confirmed Angel leaning away, chest open. Arms low to his sides, Angel grabbed handfuls of those living impaled hearts -- and squeezed.

Their explosions were deafening.

Purpose stirred. "I HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAATE YOU!" Wesley screamed. Screamed like the man he had finally become. He thrashed uncontrollably, knocking down all nearby.

All, except Angel.

His breath having forsaken him, Wesley waited for the sky to flood with radiance, but it only got darker. Undeniable purpose roared within. On the wisp of a breeze, the hearts standing safe beyond his reach danced in the light of the moon, their centers aglow.

Angel leaned over, tentative, with three fingers on Wesley's forehead to make him still. "WeZley. Stop."

He sucked in, way in. Respired, "God, God, God, God," in futility. Wesley's mouth was too dry. He wanted to swallow but was afraid his throat would cave in.

Reaching up, he took hold of the taciturn wrist and pried Angel's hand from his face. Hurled it away.

Angel regarded his hand, grubby with coronary debris.

It felt as if someone had extracted every muscle from Wesley's body through a hole in his stomach. He howled. Dirt up to his pelvis, was warm, amazingly warm. He felt the hearts thumping in unison, heard them through his flesh.

Relaying. Heartrending.

If soil was so warm, how come the beings that rose from it were so cold?

Warm. Warm. Squinting into awareness. Dawn bright on his face, on his arms, on his legs. Bright open sky and around him, wide open field.

Now that every heart had been decimated, Angel was gone.

I. The Second Hand Just Waved Good-bye

"Just one question first, Sweetcakes. This whole acting bug you've got up your -- " The Host swirled the ice in his cocktail.

Ramón. Icy Ramón. If The Host kept thinking about it, he would eventually get over losing the phenomenal but traitorous Ramón. Being vexed into working a bar at Friday's would not only be a waste of Ramón's bartending talent, it would serve the little... handsome, inventive... *fink* right.

"Anyway," The Host regaled, returning to his impatient patient, "you're not planning on pursuing a career in musical dinner theatre. Right?"

"Puh-leeze! I'm an *act*tress," Cordelia defined. With a toss of her nearing-blond head, a fiery gleam in her hazel eyes, and an impertinent set to her jaw, she specified, "Oscar-*winning*, not Oscar-*Meyer*!"

Unruffled, The Host stretched his nostrils. "Just checking, Hon; I've got to do whatever *I* can to help save humanity, too."

His glass splashed onto the fluorescent-lit bar reminding him how dry Ramón's drinks used to stay with nary an ounce of condensation. Perhaps they went down too quickly to gather any, The Host considered. He glanced down counter, revolted by each soggy cocktail napkin and watery ring along the length of the surface. Shoring his damped spirits, The Host caught the replacement's attention and motioned for another drink.

The compliant young man missed the accompanying spray flung off The Host's articulate fingers.

"So?" The tips of Cordy's nails thrummed on the frosted glass. Wincing, she rolled her eyes at the stage, at the gray-tunic'd creature butchering Britney Spears -- the song, unfortunately, not the singer.

"Well, my Visioness of Loveliness, I don't really know what to tell you. Frankly," he leaned in conspiratorially, anti-Ramónly, "I don't know why you're here."

Cordelia postured up on her barstool and pounded her fist on the bar. "I sang, I want destiny!" she proclaimed. "I *need* destiny!" she demanded -- thump, thump, thump.

The Host took a deep breath that filled out the chest of his favorite blazer. This was the jacket that best complemented his figure, the jacket that had also become a tad baggy around the middle where he'd lost so much weight since coming into contact with a customer named Angel.

Patronage had increased dramatically since the ex-Warrior had first stepped into Caritas and The Host had yet to determine whether that had to do with the tall, dark, drink of vampire or if the overfluxing demonic population of Los Angeles was just a cyclical phenomenon. Cycle or no, business couldn't have been better. First, an extra hour was added to the closing time, then an extra hour to the opening. He finally had to draw a line, at one point -- there would be *no* breakfast hours. Ever!

After all, one certain Host still needed his time for his beauty sleep. The heavens know I do, he lamented after taking a sip of the latest drink in his hand. He fingered the worry entrenched at the corners of his crimson eyes.

"Destiny? my dear, dear raven -- " a glimpse of her over the top of yet another barely-alcoholic beverage, " -- sorry. Ixnay on the avenray. Destiny? my dear, dear whatever-*that*-is-you've-got-going-on-with-your-head-now, Cordelia. You can't *handle* Destiny."

She blinked. Her Juicy-glossed lower lip slid forward.

"Toughie, aren't you? Or was my Nicholson that bad? Although I have to admit, I'm not one for the Jackster; I'm more Caryesque." The Host lovingly stroked his protruding verdant chin. "Tall, suave, aging wonderfully."

He reached over the counter and added a splash of Tesoro to his glass.

"We're here for me. Remember?" Cordelia poked his arm, retracted her finger quickly and stared down at it, mildly repulsed by the shock she'd received.

"Now that me, Wesley, and Gunn are doing fine on our own and we don't need Angel anymore, he's stalking us. If there's one thing Angel can do better than anything else, he can stalk."

"Because he's tall."

Incomprehension gave Cordy's face a squeeze. "What?"

"Stalk. Beanstalk. Usually a metaphor for 'tall'? Tsk. Tsk." The Host shook his disappointed head. "Where is all the traditional imagery in the English language going to for the youth of today? So, so sad. We might as well all start conversing in Ubynese."

Prepared for the contact, Cordelia poked The Host again. Harder. She scowled.

The Host was impressed. Hurting, of course, but impressed. "Angel's not out to kill you, if that's what you're concerned about. He's not out to kill any of you. At least..." even the premium tequila hadn't helped his drink, "...not intentionally."

"Thanks for *not* easing my mind." Cordy twirled The Host's glass for a moment, left a trail as she swiped her fingers dry. "Angel kicked *us* out of *his* life. Why can't he just leave us alone?" She buried her nose into the fabric corsage adorning her shoulder.

The Host felt for her, literally. But there was nothing he could do for her. Also, literally. "Go home, Kiddo," he suggested, figuring the same advice would work as well for the earnest new bartender who probably couldn't mix a clue any better than a Prima Margarita.

He backhanded the glass onto the bartop without watching his placement.

Something felt...

Turning, The Host looked for his hand, the one lost somewhere inside the being standing nearly on top of him. "I take it you're not here to sing," he remarked, glib even while whispering.

Cordelia sighed, grabbed the bag from her lap and slung it over her shoulder.

The tall thin cloaked one watched the despondent young woman. As she walked straight through him, the hardness of his carved features seemed to cave in after her wake. "We need to speak, Fiel."

The Host, retrieving his dripping hand, smiled uncomfortably. He stood up and escorted his visitor towards the stage. "Here? Now, Elder?"

The iridescent weft of The Host's shoulder sparked beneath an ethereal hand cusped over its exaggerating wedge. A smile battled with The Elder's lips.

And won. "Later, perhaps," The Elder sighed, lowering his hand. "In the meantime, I think I'll observe what it is you've been doing with your individuality."

The Host nodded in deference. "Stalking Destiny," he replied under his breath on his way towards the opening mike, waving his arms to rally the unenthusiastic smattering of applause.

II. When Fantasy and Reality Lie Too Far Apart

She was pretty, had always been pretty. She was prettier now, though. She had grown into her added responsibility well. She was... fierce. His long slender fingers combed through her hair, unraveled another blonde snarl. He smiled. He remembered this, the follow-up. He also remembered the lead in -- what they'd been doing during those hours right before dawn. He was still damp behind his knees, in the crease of the elbow he was using to lean on. She was still clinging to him, just more gently.

A stray strand was lifted from across her brow and replaced by his lips. He rarely noticed their contrast; their cores were that similar.

She laughed to herself, unconcerned about sharing what was funny. His bottom lip prowled the curve of her face, skipped along her jaw. His lashes fluttered against her cheek. The perspiration of their breath fevered the air between them and her lips thinned with delight, parting slightly. His nose wandered over the tip of her chin.


"What?" he asked innocently, hoisting himself back up and away from her playful swat.

"You know what." Animated blue eyes reinforced the reprimand. A corner of the sheet was demurely secured above her breasts and, once she sat up, a roll of her head concealed the faded scar on her throat behind unkempt hair. "You do that again..."

"That a threat, Girl? 'Cause that's a sorry-ass one."

Anne struggled to avert a smile.

"All screw-lip and shit, Annie. Whatchoo think I'ma do?" Gunn hoped she would consider his question hypothetical. There was no way to speculate how Anne Steele would answer a question.

"These sleeping bags," Anne shifted her weight, grimacing, "do *nothing* on a comfort level."

Gunn lassoed her with an arm, wrangled her back horizontal. "Not that it ain't comfortable, Girl. Maybe it's just been so long, you've forgotten gettin' down on the floor."

A corner of Anne's mouth conspired with the twinkle in her eyes. "Did you *really* want to bring up how long it's been, G?" She crinkled his nose to soothe his sudden fright.

Vampire-killer extraordinaire, Charles Gunn, scared shitless by 'shippy innuendo. She laughed to herself again.

Anne slid her upper hand down the center of Gunn's chest. Without his oversized clothes, he seemed twice as thin. Still, he was taut under the lean, as muscular as his height allowed. (God! she'd forgotten how tall he was; *that's* how long it had been.)

He could hear the Shelter just outside of Anne's office door and below them. What a difference two nights made -- laughter and good-natured verbal dissin' as opposed to mass-freak by Zombie attack. However she had managed it, Anne had gotten The Eastside Shelter repaired and running smoothly again by dusk the next day. (He'd forgotten how resourceful she was; *that's* why it had been so long.)

"You." She dabbed the tip of his broad nose, traced up and onto his scalp. He may have been a silhouette at the door, but she'd recognized him instantly by the shape of his hairless head. "That look."

Gunn blinked, dropped his eyes, covered his exposure with a grin.

"Don't wear *that* look, Charles Gunn. *This* was just a thing." With his earlobe inviting further exploration, Anne's touch took to its curves.

Eyes closed, lips tucked away, Gunn's features betrayed his bliss. He reached, took her hand, muzzled her palm, seriously fought the urge to have her touch him some place else. "We make love like the next second won't tick, Annie."

His brown eyes meant business. "That ain't just a thing."

She squiggled her nails along his shoulder blades, coaxed loose the smile he always had hidden in reserve. "Wanna test the timing again?" she teased.

His sizeable hand straddled her ribs, fingers nestled into her grooves. His generous mouth devoured hers, siphoned her breath away. "What about the floor?" licked her front teeth. "You ever think about getting a bigger cot?" tickled her ear.

"I'm cool," she mouthed into his bicep. The rhetorical question -- She let that one slide. He felt... good; he felt... strong. Charles Gunn felt... familiar.

III. Locked In Your Hand

"... when Cordelia told me. I still can't believe that Angel had the nerve to show his face around here."

... every right to speculate... Yes, well. The essence of the Vampiric mystique is to see without being seen. Perhaps when I'm back on my feet I'll hunt him down and put an end to that.

"I'm glad he fired you. He's a creep!"

Dear Sirs, please be advised that the vampire, Angel, is currently running amok; however, as of this moment, I am unaware of any further bitings --

No. Revise that.

...running amok; however, as of this moment, the ass is being a booger. A big, fat, ass booger.

"OW! Virginia! What are you doing?"

Virginia remained oblivious to eye contact. "Trying to fix your hair."

Mind the I.V., Wez. "Why on earth -- Did I *feel* that!" Wesley veered his head to the left. "Oooh! Stop!"

Virginia's creamy complexion was dolloped with perplexity. She tossed the black hospital-issue Ace on the bedside tray next to the gelatin Wesley hadn't touched. After watching the fruit-flavored substance sit for three hours without decongealing, she finally had a sound argument for never touching the stuff.

"Guy, Wesley! It doesn't want to comb out."

Sirs: My girlfriend's voice is melodious, yet it abrades my last nerve. Also, in referring to Angel as creepy, she fails to recognize the irony that it was *him* she had originally slept with. "What, dear?" Wesley came out of his blink one eyelid at a time.

"This gunk in your hair."

Gunk? "Dear God! I'm secreting. AM I SECRETING?"

Wesley's overreaction made Virginia laugh, "no, Wesley, you're not secreting." After downgrading to a giggle, she picked up the comb again.

A giant breath helped Wesley calm down. His throat had been dry for hours while the water bottle by his bedside remained empty. Virginia was sweet and pleasant bedside company, but she didn't understand thirst.

Aren't you just precious when you haven't the foggiest idea of what I'm jabbering on about? "Virginia, please don't comb. Didn't Cordelia leave a magazine you can entertain yourself with?"

"I'm not here to read." Virginia unlooped the call device from Wesley's bedrail. "Lemme get the nurse to crank up your drip."

"Perhaps," Wesley had to force his lips to behave, "you shouldn't. After all, we wouldn't want me to develop an addiction to pain assailants."

She pressed the button anyway. "I can send you to Betty Ford for *that*, Wesley. If you need drugs, you should get them."

"Well, I suppose I shouldn't argue with the logic in that, should I?" Lessee, where was I? Dear Alice, Mr. Dodd has yet to bring the pooka 'round...

The nurse was far less cheerful than she was prompt. She immediately took to reading Wesley's monitors and recording their information into the chart she'd lifted from its cradle outside the door.

Virgina Bryce cocked her shoulders and lowered her chin. "Wesley's in pain. His medication needs to be increased."

I'm get-ting some dru-ugs...

Unhurried, the nurse flipped a page. Her brow crossed and she looked down at her patient. "You're in pain, Sir?"

Wesley's brow furrowed as he indicated 'yes' with the sincerest of nods.

"See?" With a commanding toss of her head, Virginia's corkscrewing red curls bounced furiously.

The nurse took a breath, clapped the chart's aluminum cover closed, and hugged it against her hip. "After Wesley's episode early this morning, Dr. Macon wants to decrease the narcotics just to make sure they aren't the reason for his depressed respiration last night. I can get him something else, but the drip stays lowered."

"No more morphine? I *promise* I won't stop breathing again."

The nurse arched a dubious brow at Wesley. "Anything else?"

Dear Sirs, please send opiates, post haste. He looked at his bedside glass with longing.

The nurse snatched the water bottle from off Wesley's tray. His chart clattered back into its bin as she breezed from the room.

"Well, I believe that's the last we'll see of that," Wesley sighed. And, Sirs? Do *not* forget to include water.

With her fingers still scrubbing Wesley's hairline, Virginia twisted towards the door. "Can I help you?" she asked, suspicion cooling the warmth in her smile.

SIRS! Dear Sirs -- What now?

The caller touched his hat. "I'm here to see Wesley. Is he -- "

"WHISTLER! Dear God, man. It's been..." hummina, hummina, "a *very* long while." Keep your hand *down*, Wyndam-Pryce. And you brought flowers. Oh, goody!

Virginia reluctantly accepted the bouquet thrust at her. "Carnations? Um... You're not a very *good* friend, are you?"

My darling is a horticultural snob. Sweet Virginia. But I like carnations, especially if they've been purloined from someone's garden. We can set them down next to -- "Where are my anthuriums?"

Whistler's diminutive build wriggled inside his pleather leisure jacket. "Maybe I came at a bad time. Look, I just wanted -- "

They're missing. Where... "The bouquet you brought me yesterday, Virginia. Did you take them away? I want them. May I have them back? I like them. Did you meet Whistler? This is Whistler. I bet he'd like to see them, too. He's an acquaintance of mine."

"No doubt, another demon," returning from Whistler's direction revealed Virginia's round face still laced with disesteem despite her cheery explanation, "the orderlies took your flowers, Wesley. They got wrecked them when you pulled out your IV last night, so they threw them away."


"Don't look so disappointed. At least you enjoyed them for Valentine's Day, right? *That's* what's important." Holding onto the rail, she tipped over to meet his face. "Here, kiss. I'm going to go grab something to eat while you hang with your friend."

He's ogling my girlfriend's bummmmmmmmmm. Here, here! Stop ogling my girlfriend! "My girlfriend's got very large breasts, wouldn't you agree?" Wesley snickered in the wake of Virginia's ample retreat.

Whistler turned around and shrugged. "Uh, yeah. So you have a *girl*friend, Wes. That's interesting. When did that happen?"

"About..." mu ha ha ha, "a while ago."

Whistler bent to inspect Wesley's forehead. "You secreting?"

"I thought so! That *is* what I'm doing, no? You know, I'm not human."

"Oh yeah?" Rearmed with his usual gruff demeanor, Whistler targeted the medical equipment and proceeded to study each piece in minute detail. "So, when'd you stop being human, Wes?" he asked, distracted by a blipping monitor. "From the amount of blood it's been rumored you'd lost, it would have been pretty hard to pull off not being discovered as non-human when they transfused you."

Wesley blinked. One eye preceded the other again. "Good point," he said, comforted. "I'm so hopped up on narcotics, I'm liable to say anything. I'd just like to warn you."

"No problem, Wes. Thick skin comes with the demonhood." Whistler smiled with his eyes, reached over, and picked a yellow fleck from Wesley's hair. "Although, I was kinda hoping that you'd be coherent enough to do a little explaining about Angel."

IV. I Used to Sail the Deep and Tranquil Sea

Kate fiddled with her necklace; the dainty gold crucifix grated against its chain. She fought back the act of contrition at the threshold of her thoughts. Guilt, instant guilt -- just add water and stir. She'd heard the girls in High School call it 'being Mommatized'. It had taken a decade, but *now* she finally understood.

Somehow, she'd imagined therapy was supposed to be healthier than this.


The disembodied voice sounded digital through the hard line. Kate pictured a wiry woman, unnaturally-yellow hair. Sunken cheeks; those were important. Shiny skin, overly emolliated wrinkles. Hot pink lipstick, clumping black mascara. The way Kate imagined herself in old age -- If she ever made it there.

Exasperation. Then, "Four-four - "

"I'm here."

Silence from the other end of the receiver rephrased the question.

"*He* came to me. I didn't go to him."

"In much the same way that *you* called me?" More silence. More like an accusation.

Kate pictured the unseen mouth, twisted with annoyance, and eyes, dilated with boredom, pitched towards a reproduction of oozing timepieces. The telephone therapist's greasy face began to slide.

She found it increasingly difficult to convince herself that Angel's true identity had ever made her feel worse.

"I thought we agreed that you were going to avoid contact with this man."

Avoid contact, how? When Angel could show up anywhere. She still remembered the earnest -- the *dufus* -- P.I. with his killer smile and amaretto scent. When she swallowed, she could taste him. Just like he'd tasted her.

The one hand shielding her mouth didn't keep Kate's floodgates from bursting.

"Four-four - "

"I miss him," Kate sobbed.

Confusion crackled over the connection. "After everything he's done to you." The voice just stopped. As if... As if its years of professionally snaking confessions out of her patients had never included revelations of the actual truth. "This is, um..."


Kate challenged, "um?"

"You're just making this more difficult on yourself, Four-four-seven-nine-one."

Turning this back around on me. Turning this back around... "He was my friend -- a dependable friend -- before he was ever anything else. He was simple once, before he got complicated."

Anger seared the back of Kate's throat. "He. Was. My. FRIEND!"

"Four-four-seven-nine-one, calm down. Stay calm. Hysterics -- "

"Hysterics? I can't be hysterical? When can I start feeling what I'm feeling? When can I start grieving for everything I miss? For the people and the goddam ordinary? And that includes him. Why can't he be ordinary again?"

Burrowing deeper into the cushions of her sofa, Kate aspired to smother her flare-up. She was tired of crying, tired of missing things -- even Evil Things. Even *evil* Evil Things. Drying tears filmed the area under her eyes. She inhaled too quickly and choked, gagging on phlegm.

"This is the way life is for you now. It's a fairy tale to keep wishing that your father will be there to answer a call, that this... *being* will be anything less than what he has revealed himself to be. Each and every single time you come in contact with him, you relinquish your right to survive, Four-four-seven-nine-one. And you don't want to die, do you?"

Silence. Real silence. A breath being withheld. Breathless and featureless. Non-human. Non-contact.

Angel had been real the day before the day before. "I miss him," Kate declared, remorseless.

The silence was there, just that, nothing more.

The charm hissed along its thin golden chain. Kate inhaled, eyes closed, grip too tight on the plastic held too closely to her ear. The charm stopped, interrupted by the chain's migrating clasp.

In commemoration of the omen, Kate severed the connection.

V. Everywhere I Go You're In My Shadow

"You know, it was Valentine's Day yesterday," Merl griped. "You could be a little less heartless to a fella, observance-wise."

Angel leered.

"Alright. Alright." Merl brushed his shoulder after unhooking himself from Angel's grasp. He rubbed his thumb across his palm. If he owned a tongue, Merl would have licked the substance off his hand; instead, he wiped it back onto his sleeve.

"You look like hell, Angel. And I mean that Hallmark-style. Worse than your old pal, Wesley."

Growling, Angel rifled through one of Merl's boxes, showering papers and clothing over his shoulders.

Merl rummaged through his pockets. "Nope. Still not here. I told you, Angel, I don't have what you're looking for." He examined one of his fingers he'd torn on something. "Everytime I see you, I hurt. You're a pain, Angel. You know that? A real pain."

Angel stopped and faced Merl.

Watching Angel rub his chin with the back of his hand made Merl think of a cat; a grooming cat; a grooming cat with bright yellow claws; a grooming cat with bright yellow claws that would tear him to shreds if the kitty got any angrier. He backed up one step, nearly stumbling into a beanbag chair as Angel crossed his path and proceeded to rip the top off another packed crate.

"Look, Angel," the toady creature carped, "all my resources have been maxxed. And it's not like you're giving me turn-around time. You want everything you want last month."

He rushed to save an object d' sentimentality carelessly lobbed over Angel's head. Once safe in his gnarly hand, Merl rubbed the porcelain coating smudge-free. "You could at least wash your hands before you finish trashing my stuff, Angel. By the way, what is this stuff?"

The vampire profiled his ominous reply of, "you *really* don't want to know."

"Good enough," Merl agreed and, without missing a beat, continued nagging, " but, since we both know I'm the closest thing you've got going for a social outlet, Angel, it would be OK for you to stop abusing me and my stuff." He stomped over to the box, indignantly body-bumping Angel out of the way just in time to rescue his Nikon.

Merl folded the carton's ends closed. "You ever think about therapy? You could use some fury-management. Or some one else in your life. Not only would that be good for my well-being, it might be good for your soul, if you know what I mean."

A deck of CD's was shuffled off a shelf and onto the floor. Angel eyes narrowed to slits. "I know what would make me feel a little bit better right now and that has nothing to do with my soul," the vampire menaced.

Merl reached down and quickly swept the fingerprinted jewel boxes out of Angel's walkway. "Right, Angel. You're not going to kill me," Merl contested, pretty sure Angel would prove him wrong... One day. "Just go back to your Hotel, grab the shut-eye you look like you need, and lemme have time to work on *this* project for you. OK?"

He took one cautious step forward. Then another.

Angel permitted Merl to steer him towards the exit, but he stopped just short of walking out. Instead, he held the door and spoke without turning around, "we have a working relationship here, Merl. And it only works when you keep me happy. Understand?"

"Loud and clear." Merl rubbed at his ear self-consciously and briefly wondered if a happy Angel and a paying employer had the same look, especially since he'd never seen either.

In that instant of reflection, Angel...


Merl glanced both directions down the dimly lit corridor for good measure. He examined the ceiling, too, before closing and deadbolting. He burnished the fleshy edge of his fist on the door.

"I'll be glad when you're out of my life," he griped at the sticky reminder of Angel.

"You're still talking to him... Or to me?"

"OH!" Merl jumped to attention. "I almost forgot you were here. Not you, of course," he replied with an extra serving of smarm.

The visitor pushed his rose-tinted aviator frames up the bridge of his nose, unconvinced. He scratched at the corner of the doorway that Merl had tried to clean. "This hospital you were telling me about," he said, dropping his head to meet Merl face to face, "proceed with giving me that *exact* location."


Music for this piece was inspired by Fiona Apple's "Tidal" CD:
1) Sleep to Dream
2) Sullen Girl
3) Slow Like Honey
Also, The Dixie Chicks' "Fly" from the same-titled CD.

The title for Wesley's hospital segment is from Pat Benetar's "Love is a Battlefield."
The title for Angel's section is from Wynonna's "Tell Me Why".

All song lyrics lifted with deep appreciation and without any permission whatsoever.

My box is always open: evancomo@netscape.net
The website is here: Angel's Journal