The rain hammered down, flattening his hair. Cordelia had made jokes about his hair. Cordelia was dead, like Doyle and Fred and Wesley. Gunn would soon join them – even at its best, human stamina could only hold out for minutes in a frenzied fight like this one. Already Gunn lay semiconscious as the others tried to protect him.

Angel parried an axe and sliced through its owner's chest, smelling, hearing, and seeing the next threat as it clumsily mounted a pile of bodies that had begun to choke the alley. The Senior Partners' army pressed forward and the dragon circled overhead, but the impetus of their charge was gone. It occurred to Angel that by sheer luck he'd chosen the best possible place for this confrontation. But no matter how much luck he had and no matter how well he and his comrades fought, there was no hope of victory; he could only postpone the conclusion. As soon as his strength failed, he would be destroyed.

He was aware of Spike springing upright after being thrown against a wall, was aware of Illyria adding to the heap of corpses with brutal punches and kicks. These two would be the ones standing by him at the end. Not his friends; his friends were gone. Memories of the offices of Angel Investigations and the Hyperion Hotel rose within him. Of smiles, laughter, and gentle teasing. Of familiar greetings, morning doughnuts, and ridiculous arguments. How trivial, how wonderful and beautiful it had been. There was sadness and betrayal, too, but that now seemed irrelevant. He thought only of the love and the family he had known here. It was an unkind fate for it all to end in death and this terrible, final alleyway, but it seemed inevitable. All that remained was regret and the hopeless righteous fight. Connor, Buffy, and Nina were safe. The Circle of the Black Thorn had been wiped out. It would have to be enough.

As he thought that, Illyria's voice cut through the battle's din, a shard of ice. "I will not allow this."

A small hand grasped his collar, and he was lifted off the ground, seeing the floor and sky change places. He landed heavily on one shoulder and sat up cursing and dazed. Illyria must have thrown him over the chain-link fence and far down the alley. Spike, he saw, had also been flung out of the battle. What the hell was she up to?

Picking up his sword he ran toward the fence, meaning to launch himself over and into the fray, but Illyria now leapt it easily, Gunn in her arms. She dropped the unconscious man without a glance and rammed a fist into Angel's jaw faster than he would have thought possible. Again, he found himself on the ground.

Spike made a move against her and was kicked in the ribs. He dropped, sprawling, near to Angel. They glanced at one another. Spike's face showed the same emotion Angel was feeling. Illyria stood over them, maddeningly imperious. Beyond her and the fence the army advanced cautiously. She had done violence – the alley was a place of carnage.

Angel attempted to stand. "Illyria," he hissed.

"I will not indulge you with discussion and debate, vampire," she said. "I am ending this."

Spike was on his feet now, bent double and clutching his chest. "Yeah? And what do you plan on doing?"

Illyria turned to face the fence and gripped a metal post in each hand. "I am taking vengeance." She began to chant. "Klyv mat chyvma, klvma chyt." Her hands tightened, fingers sinking into the metal as if it were wet clay. The rain stopped. The demons' battle cries hushed. The world seemed to pause in expectation.

At first there was just quiet. Then tendrils of blue light began to form in the sky somewhere beyond the alley, spinning and coalescing. They spiralled inward, merging to generate a portal vortex. Angel looked at it aghast. It was huge and getting bigger, a widening cataract in the Los Angeles sky. The circling ring of electric blue looked uncomfortably like one of Illyria's eyes gazing wrathfully down from the heavens.

As he watched, Angel saw the rear sections of the army begin to panic, saw weapons, helmets, and finally bodies leave the ground to be sucked inexorably into the portal. The army surged forward to escape, but crushed itself in the bottleneck of the alley. Soon the demons were fighting among themselves. Meanwhile, the portal began to move closer, dragging up those in its path. A breeze started and quickly grew into a wind. Newspapers and other bits of detritus around Angel floated into the air and drifted lazily in the direction of the blue storm.

"Oh bugger," Spike said softly.

Angel turned to look and noticed Spike's duster flapping in the rising gale. Then he glanced upward. "Illyria, make it stop," he said.

Still gripping the fence posts, she shook with effort. There was no sign she intended to close the portal any time soon.

Angel stood up. "Illyria!"

She paused in her chanting long enough to say, "Leave."

He didn't argue. "Come on," he said to Spike. They each took hold of one of Gunn's arms and ran from the approaching portal, the wind's mounting ferocity obliterating the sounds of their footfalls. When they came to a manhole, Angel wrenched off the cover. "In!" he shouted. Spike dropped into the service shaft and Angel bundled Gunn unceremoniously after him before scrambling down the ladder. He stopped to draw the cover across the opening (for all the good that would do), and then jumped from the steps and up to his ankles in the rain-swollen sewer.

Spike was already moving along the pipe, dragging Gunn with him. Angel ploughed through the floodwater to catch them, and then he and Spike wordlessly lifted Gunn and ran as fast as they were able. Behind him, Angel could hear the monstrous wheezing of air being sucked from the sewers though drains and other accesses. He was able to tell that it was loudest at the maintenance shaft they'd just entered. There, the wheezing had become an increasingly hysterical whistle. Angel marked time by the rhythmic splashes of their feet. If they could reach the junction fifty feet or so ahead they would at least have some purchase, something to hang on to.

With a gloomy thud that must have been the cover being ripped from the manhole, their brief moment of shelter was over. An explosion of spray hit Angel as the water flew out of the pipe. Spike lost his footing, and Gunn's prone form slithered from his grasp. Angel caught the man before he was pulled away. They struggled on to the junction. Angel had hoped they'd be far enough from the portal by now, but the hurricane-like winds, magnified in the confined space of the sewers, were growing too powerful. He used all his strength in the attempt to keep moving forward; with Gunn's weight it was all he could do to stop being dragged back.

"Here, grab a hold!" Spike had made it to the junction and was reaching back with one hand while the other wrapped around the right angle in the pipe. Desperately, Angel reached. For a few seconds his fingers danced in the air, and then Spike caught his hand.

They stayed like that for a short while – Spike held onto the junction with one hand and Angel with the other; Angel kept an arm around Gunn's waist. Soon Spike was shouting with the effort of holding all three of them against the force of the portal, and Angel felt the other vampire's grip begin to weaken. But Spike didn't let him go. It was the hand holding onto the pipe that gave way first.

All three of them shot down the sewer as if it were a waterslide in a nightmare, skidding to a halt as the winds abruptly ended. They were almost beneath the service shaft. Angel looked up at the circle of night sky. It seemed calm and free of dragons.

- - -

The first things he noticed as he climbed back out into the alley were the sounds of the city – traffic and the occasional shout; ordinary Los Angeles sounds. He could hear sirens and trouble in various places, but none of it had anything to do with the army of demons or the mystical portal in the sky, as far as he could tell. Had no one noticed what had just happened?

There was little evidence to show anything had taken place. The alley was unusually clean. There were scratch marks running up the walls. The fence was twisted and wrecked, but that was all he could see. The most remarkable thing was a blue woman hanging onto the broken fence and trembling.

"It's really true, then," Spike said. Angel watched him lift Gunn gently out of the sewer and take a few steps toward Illyria, looking at her as if for the first time. "Hell hath no fury."

Maybe. But how? Moving to her side, Angel passed his hand in front of her eyes several times with no response. "Can you hear me, Illyria? What did you do?" For a moment he thought she wouldn't answer; then she began to speak in a tired and defeated voice.

"I opened an inter-dimensional gateway."

"Bit of an understatement." Spike laughed faintly. "I thought your powers were gone, Blue."

She finally opened her fists and turned to look at them both. "My grace is diminished to a feeble shadow, yes."

"So where did the mother of all portals come from?" Angel said.

Illyria began spitting words. "I worked magic, a pitifully simple ritual known to the shell."

Spike glanced at Angel and then back at her. "Wait a minute. You're saying Fred knew how to do that?"

"I was able to enhance it. I still have some power."

Palms out and stepping back, Spike said, "No arguments here, love." He fell silent.

"Those words you used," Angel muttered.

She cocked her head. "They are not words. They are consonant representations of a mathematical transfiguration formula."

That sounded familiar; Fred had said that to him once. But before Angel could think about it she was speaking again.

"Wesley taught it to her." Illyria glanced down. "She intended to use it to avenge herself against the one called Seidel. Charles Gunn broke his neck first." She raised her eyes. "The memory surfaced."

There was no time to digest all that. Perhaps it really wasn't his business, anyway. He looked over his shoulder for a moment. "Spike," he said, "go check on Gunn. We have to get him to a hospital." He focused his attention back on Illyria. "Where's the army? Where's the dragon?"

"The place where the shell sent Seidel."

"And that is?"

Her eyes seemed to darken. "Somewhere painful."

Angel's gaze was locked with hers when Spike appeared at his side. "There's a pulse and he's breathing, but he's going fast."

"He will not last much longer," Illyria said.

"That's obvious. Can you do anything about it?"

"No." She tore what was left of the fence from the walls of the alley and threw it overhead as she had thrown the two vampires only minutes before. "Wesley is gone. Nothing is of any consequence." She began to depart, then halted and turned. "He was no match for the sorcerer," she said to Angel. "You sent him to his death. You wasted a great warrior. I should take vengeance on you also."

He couldn't even raise his voice. "Why don't you?"

She span on her heel and, walking with dignity, left him there.

- - -

Gunn was dying. They had started to move him, hoping that there might be a chance to get him some medical attention, but before they'd left the alley he began to cough up blood. Angel lowered him to a sitting position and propped him against a wall, trying to make him comfortable. The young man's eyes opened for a moment, unfocused and delirious.

"I'll take … I'll take the twenty … on the left … Look at English …" He smiled, lost in memory, Angel supposed. Yet another death was coming, another soldier down.

"You know what that's about?" Spike asked quietly.

"It was a big fight we were in once, Gunn, Wes, and me. We were totally outnumbered." He couldn't help raising a sad smile himself, and Spike answered it.

"You came through it, right?"

Angel felt his smile widen ever so slightly. "We didn't win, exactly, but yeah. We came through it." He placed a hand on Gunn's shoulder. "Didn't we, big guy?" Gunn was unconscious again.

"We didn't do too badly tonight ourselves," Spike said.

"Yeah, well don't kid yourself. This is a temporary reprieve. The Senior Partners won't rest until we're dust." Angel sighed. "Time's almost up for Gunn right now."

A sudden blast of light and sound made him look to his left. An ambulance slid to a stop on the street outside the alley. The rear doors opened and a gang of paramedics emerged, carrying a stretcher. They ran to Gunn's side. "We'll take it from here, Mr Angel," one of them said. Angel watched, stunned, as Gunn was whisked away in a flurry of activity and medical instruments. The ambulance sped off, siren blaring. As the sound receded, he heard a soft clicking on the pavement. It grew louder, approaching them. A woman's heels.

"Lilah," he said as she rounded the corner.

"Angel!" She grinned, walking to within a few feet of him. "And Spike. Hi." She held out a hand to the other vampire. Spike didn't even look at it.

"Don't believe I've had the pleasure," he said.

"Spike, this is Lilah, hell-bitch extraordinaire." In an instant, Angel gripped her upper arm. "What are you doing here? Did they figure they'd have to send a nastier dragon?"

Her smile didn't falter. "And after I just saved your friend's life." She sighed theatrically. "I have a message from the Senior Partners."

"Really? Let me guess – the quarterly review will have some constructive criticism on the way I've been handling things. Or is it worse than that? Am I on my first written warning?"

She breathed a laugh in that genuine and yet utterly humourless way of hers. "The Senior Partners are very pleased."

That fazed him for a moment, but he quickly gathered himself. He wouldn't give her the pleasure of knowing she'd had an effect on him. "What, they're gloating 'cause they lost? The Circle of the Black Thorn has been smashed; I doubt the Senior Partners are celebrating."

The grin notched upward. "Angel, the Circle is eternal. You might think you've created a setback, but the truth is that it's normal for these little power-struggles to go on among the Black Thorn from time to time. It keeps things fresh."

"Little power-struggles? Don't you get it, Lilah? They're all dead. You'll have to start from scratch."

"But they aren't all dead. One survived."

Damn. Who was it? Sebassis was gone, that was definite. So that left Izzy, the Senator, the Fell, Vail… Lilah looked at him pityingly.

"You really are dumb, aren't you? I don't know what they see in you." Taking his face in her hand she shouted, "Hello? One survived?"

"I think she means you," Spike said.

His eyes widening, Angel's hand moved to where they'd burnt the Black Thorn's mark into him. Oh, no.

"Normally a challenger puts together his own army for the final test," Lilah was saying. "The one Sebassis assembled is legend. But you had to be unconventional, using the blue girl. That's why they wanted you, I suppose. You think outside the box."

"Wanted me?" Angel frowned.

"To lead the Circle."

No. This couldn't be. "I'm not buying it, Lilah," he said with a lot more assurance than he felt.

"So modest. Apart from the obvious point that you've won the right to lead, who better to continue the Circle's good work of man's inhumanity to man than the guy responsible for ending universal peace and love?"

Spike's eyebrows went up. "Strange. I never noticed that."

"This isn't a job offer," Lilah went on. "The fact is, Angel, you're already head of the Circle."

It was impossible. Wes had died for this? You mean, you sent Wes to his death for this, a part of his mind said. Leader of the Black Thorn. Well, it wasn't going to happen. They thought he was their toy to play with. They were wrong. "Fine. I'll dust myself. Problem solved."

"I'll do it for you," Spike said, "you know, if you can't face staking yourself. It's nothing to be ashamed of." Angel glanced briefly in his direction to give him a withering look.

Lilah nodded. "You could do that, sure, but then we'd have to fill the position with some truly evil creature. There are so many to choose from. And all that selecting and short-listing and interviewing is a real chore. Think about it, Angel. This isn't like being a CEO for Wolfram & Hart; that would just be your-" she coughed "-day job. As leader of the Black Thorn you're in control of the power. You really could stop evil."

"I'm not falling for that again."

"No? So you'd rather we set up a new Circle with the wickedest beings in this dimension? With you gone they'd have a ball."

No choice, as usual. What had happened to free will? When had that left the universe? Okay, he'd have to work this somehow. After a few seconds thought, he said, "Who would be in the Circle? Would I get to choose?"

Spike snorted. "Oh, you aren't seriously thinking of-"

"Quit it, Spike. Do I choose?"

Lilah smirked. She was so smug he felt like knocking her head back off her shoulders. "The new Circle is usually made from the challenger's trusted lieutenants. So, Gunn would be one." She smiled at Spike.

"What?" he said. Then his lip curled in outrage. "I'm not his bloody lieutenant!"

- - -

Five minutes later, Angel sat with Spike in the ludicrously spacious back of a Wolfram & Hart limousine. Lilah had assured him offhand that the Los Angeles offices were fully restored. Having seen the company's HQ in Rome, Angel guessed that they used a magical template of some kind in lieu of contractors. Very cost-effective.

"Things didn't go quite to plan, then," Spike said.

"Not really, no."

"At least we're still here to fight the good fight. Champions, helping the helpless, all that."

"Yeah. Great." Angel kicked an upholstered door, denting it. He had set out tonight to destroy the Circle of the Black Thorn. Okay, it would have only been a temporary inconvenience for the Senior Partners. Their apocalypse would continue, their evil would continue, and to them the end of the Circle would be no more than a momentary blip. But it would have shown that he still had an option, that he could go against whatever schemes they'd laid down for him. Now, it appeared, he'd played into their hands after all. It was as if some alien force guided his thoughts and decisions. He'd been so sure it was the only choice left open to him that actually was a choice. It had seemed like a way to make Fred's death mean something. He was beginning to wonder how he could have been so brainless. What had he really been trying to achieve?

Spike broke the silence. "Anyway, here we are."

"Here we are. Right."

"Any thoughts on what the man-eater said? Are we going to play at Black Thorns for a while?"

Angel laughed; a bitter laugh. Did they have any alternative? "I can't think about it now. I just want to get drunk and sleep."

Shifting out of his seat, Spike found the alcohol, as he always did. "There's a mini bar right here. A drop of bourbon to whet your whistle?" There was a wicked grin on his face. The son of a bitch was enjoying this.

"Just give me the bottle, Spike," Angel said, snatching it.

The night-time city drifted past the limo's windows. There was violence and misery, desperate people selling themselves, inflicting pain, or just hating one another with a casual scorn for everyone and everything. This was the apocalypse, and now Angel was its motivator and guardian. Could he make a difference, rebel against the path that had been placed before him? He really didn't think so – fate led to nowhere but shadows. Wasn't it about time he accepted that?

Too soon, they pulled up at the Wolfram & Hart building. Inside, it was as if nothing at all out of the ordinary had happened. Not only was there no sign of the fight he'd had with Hamilton, but the night staff that had been absent only an hour earlier were bustling to and fro. He nodded automatically at the occasional, "Good evening, Mr Angel." If any of them were surprised to see their CEO blood-soaked and taking gulps from a bottle of Jim Beam, they gave no indication. They were mostly vampires, anyway. With a sudden ache he remembered Fred laughing, calling them "kinda the graveyard shift."

He noticed that Spike's eyes were darting around. The other vampire, Angel knew, was looking for threats, sizing people up.

"It's weird," Spike said, "like nothing's changed."

"That's because it hasn't. It never will."

"Yeah." Spike wasn't listening. "Look, you don't think this is the bad place with the fires and the pitchforks, do you?"

Swallowing bourbon, Angel gave him a questioning look.

"What I mean is, are we dust and blowing around that alley somewhere? Because I'm feeling-" A horrible, barked laugh made both of them look up the stairs.

"Oh, this is hell. I can assure you of that."

Disbelieving, Angel gaped up at the figure, the one that observed them with flat eyes. "Wes?"

Wesley came toward them down the stairs, moving like a cat with some subtle but terrible form of insanity. "Angel, Spike. Have you had a pleasant evening?"

Angel didn't know how to react. A part of him was overjoyed to see his friend alive; another part was sickened by what he saw now. Never before had he encountered a human so bent under the burden of darkness. "Wes," he said gently, "Illyria told us you were dead."

Wesley stared at him. It was the stare of a damned soul. "Did she? That was very remiss of her, wasn't it?" He looked at his wrist as if for a watch. There wasn't one. He uttered that single, barked laugh again. "Actually, I may have been dead when she told you."

Something sank inside Angel. "What do you mean?"

"Vail killed me, Angel. Can you really be surprised at that?"

"I'm sorry." What else could he say?

Spike moved closer. "You don't look very dead. You don't smell it."

As soon as Wesley turned his eyes on him, Spike froze. Wes began to speak, gesticulating languidly. "Yes, well. Lilah told me I was needed here. That, apparently, is why I woke up naked and shivering in a conference room on the fourth floor. Perhaps a ritual similar to the one which brought Darla back was used."

"We should find out." Angel tried to think and let his mouth move while he did it. "Did you recognise anything about the room, the people who were there, the magical items they were using?"

"Yes, but I'm really not interested. It was some sort of resurrection rite, obviously."

"Resurrection," said Spike. "So when you said this is hell, you didn't mean literally."

That stare again. "You needn't worry, Spike. You're still undead, still in the dimension of the living, still here to enjoy the barrenness and sorrow of this mortal coil. Nevertheless, this is hell."

Surprisingly, Spike became almost tender. "Where were you … before?"

"Don't ever ask me that." Those eyes now looked into Angel's. "I hear congratulations are in order for the boss. Something in the way of a promotion?"

Wait a second. "Lilah told you? But we've only just seen her."

"The dead travel fast. She supervised the ritual that restored me to what we'll laughingly call life. Seemed rather put out that I wasn't delighted to see her. I'm quite important for your new project, it seems."

That was what Vail had said. The Circle (the old Circle) had been very interested in Wesley. And now here he was, automatically a member as one of Angel's lieutenants. "Look, Wes, you've got to believe me. I didn't want this. I know it might look as though I planned it, but you have my word that's not true."

"Angel, I don't care." The haunted eyes shifted. "Ah, Illyria." Angel watched Wesley walk to the main doors where Illyria stood with "his" corpse in her arms.

"Here's an interesting situation," Wes said to her. "Dead Wesley, live Wesley. Confused?"

"Yes." She sounded upset.

"Good." Wesley smirked viciously and then pulled the watch off dead Wesley's wrist and put it on his own. "I don't think he has anymore use for this." Without another word he turned and climbed the stairs.