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

Historical Note: The action in this story takes place in Los Angeles during "The House Always Wins".

Author's note: Going thru the old stockpile, finishing a story that was first drafted. Getting back into the motions in between the new family life & the fixer-upper. "...Reconciliation" hasn't been forgotten and is still in progress. e.c. 24 Feb Price of Loyalty

By Evan Como

Sal Abernathy had been a much more robust man when he'd taken a seat on one of Wesley's dinette chairs nearly an hour earlier. Suddenly it seemed as though he'd lost a couple ribs from his barrel chest. Eyes squinting, he choked "How much?" and shook his graying head.

The remainder of his daughter's summer tan faded as she gulped. The smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose nearly disappeared, too. "Oh. My. God." She took a dainty drabble of water from the bottle she'd been strangling – the one without the label she'd fretted away during the consultation. "So much for Advanced Chem and Trig this semester."

Wesley Wyndam-Pryce hoisted his jaw haughtily, deliberately, affording the pair a better view of the scar bisecting his jugular. He'd been finding the gesture immensely helpful during fee negotiations. Even if the client was shocked by the price for services they rarely voiced their reticence. They could be shocked as hell, but they never haggled. He could almost give Justine – the double-crossing bitch but weren't all women born to be that way? – a commission for the brand she'd given him: Wesley Wyndam-Price, Rogue Demon Hunter Extraordinaire.

Professional. Experienced. Or, as Gunn would have succinctly put it: I know shit.

Kent Wardlow, one of Wesley's more frequent paid associates, moved to lean against the opposite side of Wesley's kitchen doorsill. Having Wardlow present was almost overkill, Wesley knew, but he wanted this job. Needed this job. There were always unexpected expenditures involved with saving the world and it never hurt to keep the kitty fed.

Unexpectedly, Lilah Morgan's throaty laugh drifted through his consciousness.

Wes made eye contact with Wardlow and got a nod. Of the eight men on the list of mercenaries that Wesley chose from whenever a job entailed more physicality than the ex-Watcher could manage alone, Wardlow was always the first choice. By no means the beefiest man on the list, Wardlow had proven time and again that brains weighed more than brawn in wild situations. Not that the younger man was the brightest, either, but he was rarely scared, made logical decisions quickly, and took orders very, very well.

All attributes he credited to Wardlow's very specialized military background.

Wesley brought his wrist around and blinked at his watch. "Mr. Abernathy, Patricia. Time is money and if money is a factor here…" His steel-blue eyes focused on his potential clients while one eyebrow raised Spockishly. "…might I suggest you inquire into the services of Angel Investigations."

Wardlow rolled off of his post and started for Wesley's front door. Fluid of motion, he retrieved two coats from off the back of the sofa. "Located in Hollywood," he added drolly after opening the door.

0

Thick stripes of Connor Angel's wet hair scored his profile like shards of oily glass. His usually olive-green eyes glinted dark, intense and vigilant. A reedy neck and bony shoulders peeked from holes in his clay-red long sleeve t-shirt -- ripped just under the bull's eye embellishing the chest; the damp jersey fabric shrank-wrapped him like a second skin. Sinewy arms, bolted tight across his chest and kept in check by palms cupping his elbows, swelled with strength contradictory to such youth. Measured breaths puffed his narrow, defined chest slightly in and away.

"You keep starin' at me like that, young blood 'n' you go'n make me leave this earth that much sooner jus' ta get 'way from yo' pryin eyes," Beggar Earl rasped into the cloth he'd been holding at his lower lip. Another thread of blood scrolled through his knurled ebony fingers; a line of watery mucous navigated the fringe of his scruffy beard and trickled onto his lapel. With each violent cough, the black leather coat he wore seemed to devour him more.

Concerned, the dog at Beggar Earl's knees pawed at her master's stomach and nosed the side of his raised hand.

"Peaches, girl. Best dog I ever made the acquaintance of. Good ol' dog," Beggar Earl cooed. His left forearm crept up from his lap but, despite Peaches' encouraging whimper, a full petting never manifested; the dog had to settle for a limp thumb hooked through her bandana collar.

Taut hamstring muscles visibly flinched beneath Connor's faded jeans. "I'll get you something to eat," he stated, springing genie-like from his hour-long crouch.

Beggar Earl's rheumy eyes rolled as far upward as their uncooperative lids would allow. "You done enough gettin' for me, boy. Food ain't go'in t' discourage the inevitable. Dyin's dyin' and it's got t' git done sometime."

"Then I'll find you shelter." The toes of Connor's worn athletic shoes bulged then flattened.

As Peaches nuzzled the collar loser to Beggar Earl's throat, the moisture from her nose mingled with his and the late morning's dew. She patiently waited for another episode of hacking to end before nestling into the old man's side, too dumb to know how worthless she was as any source of warmth. She was a scrawny big dog -- barely more than a skeleton wearing a matted, mottled coat.

Connor knelt. He visually examined his subject's vital signs.

"Good dog, good ol' girl," Beggar Earl droned. He coughed again -- a vicious spasm that sapped what little strength remained to keep his hand held to his mouth. The over-wide shoulders of his coat capsized, tipping the pads nearly vertical.

Frantic now, Peaches dropped her muzzle and slid her nose beneath Beggar Earl's wrist. She stepped across his lap and weighted his back against the cinderblock building.

Earl doubled into her on a phlegmy exhale.

Connor swatted the dog aside to prop up the man with his outthrust fingertips. One finger at a time, he slowly retracted his left hand.

The body of Beggar Earl tilted away. Peaches turned tail and lunged; her teeth snapped at his baggy sleeve and, in desperation, held fast. She tugged and she wailed.

Unfazed, Connor studied the prone body as it swerved right, revealing 'RE', and left, revealing 'ATOR' while swishing atop the corrugated cardboard surface the man and dog had called a mattress. He'd witnessed a goodly amount of death in his less than two decades, especially since he'd been the cause of the majority of it. There was a sameness to all death. Once life vacated the body, that was that -- a corpse was nothing more than a carcass. Beggar Earl's eyes were vacant; his body heat had already begun dissipating. Although the circumstances surrounding their demises had been different, he noted that Holtz had felt no less clammy than this vagrant and that Angel, while drier, had never been warmer.

Peaches conceded and backed away, sighing the way that dogs sigh when they're desperately forlorn and at a loss for action. She turned to the young man that had attended her master for nearly a week -- bringing Beggar Earl companionship of his own kind, food, and the hide that had kept the night chill off of the dying man's tattered clothing.

Certain that Beggar Earl's soul had stolen away unmolested, Connor rose and turned into the alley. His pace quickened with each step he took.

Peaches yelped and raced after Connor, nipping and baying. After he spun to face her, posed to attack, the dog heeled and servilely dropped onto her haunches.

"You dumb mutt," he spat. "Don't think you're with me now."

Her brows took turns hiking and lowering. She nodded once, reared, offered both paws, and barked. One eyebrow rose again, optimistically.

Connor mashed the hair off of his cheeks, slid his hands down the front of his slick jeans. "No," he ordered, turning his back. "There are other someones in this city needing my help -- human someones."

Until they're all gone, he kept unsaid.

0

With one perfect leg crossed over its equally perfect mate, Lilah's toes levered up and down. Her muscles felt lax. The unfortunate result of having an inordinate amount of sex was that it left so little time for personal attention – her work-out time had dropped from six sessions a week with Chad, her personal trainer, to three. She could feel the sleek front of her Jimmy Choo sling-back against her big toe's nail, meaning that a pedicure was several days overdue. And, to top it off, her new responsibilities as head of Special Projects at Wolfram & Hart left her precious little opportunity to get her personal things done during company time.

Gavin Park absently scuffed his black hair away from his temples then drew his hands behind his back into a clasp. "Did you or did you not want to see me, Lilah?" he asked politely, masking his hatred quite well for once. His impatience, however, had gotten the better of him; he fidgeted with the back hem of his impeccably tailored jacket.

"Tomorrow morning, Gavin, I'll have furthered my career at Wolfram & Hart again and you – " she pouted mirthfully -- "will still be clinging to your one lowly rung. When are you going to learn that it's me, not the boys in this club, that you should be pledging your allegiance to?" Tingeing her vile tone and overriding the heavy perfume of her Dior lipstick, was the scent of Wesley's last kiss. He'd taken a bite of onion bagel before smooching her.

Hard.

The top of her foot slipped behind her calf. Both palms slid down the sides of her pencil slim skirt, remaining there. God, her cuticles were raggedy!

Toothing her lower lip, Lilah shifted in her chair and rearranged her smirk, too excited about her upcoming ritual. She longed to share the news with Wesley, to be especially explicit with all of the details. Warming inside, she could almost picture how appalled he'd be. His eyes would probably well a bit at first but then he'd firm right up. And then he'd treat her like the very bad, very evil girl that she so enjoyed being.

Just hours before, he'd been on his back, eyes closed, meeting the new day with an enjoyable stretch when she'd grasped both of his wrists and pinned them against the headboard of his bed. She could see him watching her through the dense screen of his lowered dark lashes. Straddling him, their flesh made an interesting pairing – hers taut, flawless, feminine and his decidedly masculine -- defined muscles riding his slender frame nicely with the scimitar shaped scar on his lower belly both repulsive and sexy.

His back had arched, pushing the healed wound against her tongue as she'd suckled the length of it. Her fingertips had walked down uneven welts on each side of his spine. Her body had slithered up his visible ribs until her lips were just under his jaw.

"Looks like the guy who sutured you up didn't care about you any more than the one who gutted you or the gal that slit your throat," she'd purred.

He'd expelled his breath, clenched his jaw, then, more quickly -- and with more strength than she'd expected, scooped her underneath him. "Call me flawed," he'd rejoined right before crashing his mouth into hers.

She'd unwrangled her hands and pushed his shoulders away. "I can never figure out if you barely know what to do with a woman or if you're just being mean to me," she'd laughed. "So, yeah, you're flawed, lover, but intriguing."

He'd palmed her forearms, pushed his weight against her, gone no further. Panting, he'd just stared down at her.

Which had made her really uncomfortable. She'd squirmed but he wouldn't back off. He wouldn't leer, wouldn't scowl. Calming a fear that had suddenly manifested in her chest, she'd forced a placid smile. "If I didn't know any better, Wes, my guess would be that you're just this side of insane."

He'd blinked; the furrow between his brows had deepened. "I could purify your soul, Lilah," he'd nearly pleaded.

Sensing a slight shift of his weight, she had scooted from under him, sat up quickly, and laughed. "Purify my soul? You're not going to purify my soul, Wes. That would mean wanting to salvage me or..."

Her fingers slipped through the dark outcropping of hair adorning his chest. She gently pulled herself into his mouth. "...more importantly, that would mean your wanting to respect me. And, after last night, we both know that you're not ready to do that just yet."

He'd blinked and broken eye contact.

It was either Lilah's annoying rhetoric or the strangled noise escaping her throat that crawled down Gavin's spine. He smiled anyway, knowing how much his nemesis loathed the way he never took her seriously. "You know as well as I do, Lilah, that there's nothing I can do that'll put me on your good side. You don't trust me; I don't trust you."

Her grille of pearly whites sparkled. "Why Gavin, you've nailed the Wolfram & Hart employee motto! Yay, you!" She clapped sarcastically and picked up her phone, poised to dial. "Lemme see if I can get you another rung."

Gavin dropped his chin and began preening the front of his suit. He picked off a stray spec and dramatically flicked it into the air; it pirouetted towards the office's plush carpeting. "You might want to hold off on that call. You're still missing an element or two for your ritual."

The receiver slammed into its cradle as quickly as Lilah catapulted out of her chair. "What do you mean 'still missing an element or two'?"

"I must mean…" Gavin rolled his eyes hellward in a mental tally. "Um, twelve? No, wait... Minus one equals twelve, minus two equals eleven..."

A pussycat grin spread across the man's face. His almond-shaped eyes widened. "What do you know, Lilah. I can do the math. How about you?"

"Incompetents," Lilah seethed. "There were supposed to be thirteen, dammit!"

When Lilah was angry she was strangely beautiful -- her dark hair took in all the light from the room and gleamed, her eyes assumed the green of a stormy sea -- malevolent and spell-binding; her complexion warmed and even her curves swelled. Gavin despised her too much to be influenced by Lilah's physical attributes but he understood how they could work on an admirer – many of whom belonged to Wolfram & Hart's hierarchy. It wasn't fair how Lilah would be the first to scream 'sexual harassment' when she'd perfected -- probably written -- most of rules of that game.

Gavin's swallow went unnoticed. He took a calming breath. "Guess you'll be needing my help, then, after all, Lilah," he stated, turning on his heel. "In the meantime, you can assume the position for my leg up," he chuckled.

Lilah smoothed her skirt under her buttocks and retook her seat. She waited for the door to click after Gavin had walked out. Picking up her receiver, she pressed one button at the top of her phone, deliberately leaving her finger on it.

"Gabrielle, get me Jaeger." She drew in her bottom lip, sucking it colorless in an instant. "And get my manicurist in here."

0

Pulling the Big Gulp from under his chin, Wardlow motioned with it for Wesley to pull into the second driveway of the large asphalt parking lot. The dew-spotted Jeep Liberty looked right at home rolling past the dirty diesel Dodges and assorted Fords and GMC's of every size, age and condition.

"SUV city," Wardlow commented absently.

After maneuvering the turn, Wesley made a survey through his passenger's window. The irony of the observation was obviously lost on the younger man. Expending all of his concentration on his collapsed straw, Wardlow blew hard through it, causing chartreuse-colored soda to explode against the inside of the cup's lid while, in the background, modern day Conestoga's gleamed in the mote-filled sunlight.

The attendant waving Wesley forward barely waited for a complete stop before opening the driver's door. "Welcome to Casino Arronda, gentlemen. Enjoy your visit and good luck!"

The bronze-skinned man with deep-set black eyes zipped a off a parking stub and presented it to Wesley with a smile to rival Angel's. Momentarily mesmerized, Wesley nearly returned the gesture with one of his own but held off when the attendant, busy slipping the rest of the billet beneath a windshield wiper, turned his back.

Wesley stowed his dimples. "We shant be here long. I'm here to see Calvin Herbert."

"Inside. Ask at the Cashier cage," came the hurried reply. In preparation for his next customer, another parking ticket had already been retrieved from his uniform's vest pocket. His practiced smile slid away and was replaced by a fresh one.

Feeling duped, Wesley stowed his indignation and mirrored Wardlow's brisk pace towards the Casino's main entrance. Obviously, courtesy mustn't be wasted on those unwilling to take a risk.

Calvin Herbert crossed his legs at the ankles and regarded his shoes. Visually, his cordovan cowboy boots had the suppleness of footwear that had been worn for years, the patina of a treasure. The Native American slipped a longish strand of silky espresso-dark hair behind one ear before raising his top foot across the knee of his black jeans. When he grasped his left arm just above the elbow, the diamond 'H' ring he wore on his right pinky finger sparkled against the jewel-tones of his plaid 'Casino Arronda' cowboy shirt.

"Deborah Abernathy knew the rules when she signed her marker, Mr. Wyndam-Pryce."

An impassioned Wesley ignored the knock at the door. Forearms walking up his thighs, hands hacking at the air, he rebutted, "But I very much doubt Mrs. Abernathy knew she would be turned into an animal when her luck ran out!"

Cal, as the cursive-embroidered name on his chest pocket branded him, shrugged before waving at the opening door. "Probably not. Hell's bells, I didn't know."

Wardlow inhaled. The skin between his eyebrows crimped deeply. "Is this a normal occurrence, though? I mean, is it your usual deal to turn losers into dogs?"

"Never," was the ominous reply.

Wardlow looked up into the face of the man who'd walked in and answered his question, the man who'd placed a soothing palm on his shoulder. His face relaxed instantly and he felt calmer than he had in months. The long breath he drew in was reflexive and so enjoyable he felt like holding onto it forever.

Until the hand rose.

Wardlow blinked. "But -- " he cleared his suddenly craggy voice " -- you do do it, right?"

Cal laughed. "Samuel de Anza, meet Wesley Wyndam-Pryce and Kent Wardlow. They're here -- "

"To investigate the disappearances?" de Anza finished. Finding Wardlow reluctant to be engaged, he reached for Wesley's hand instead and shook it briskly before taking a seat on a corner of Cal's large desk.

"'ces?" Wesley inquired, taking to his feet. "There are more victims than just Mrs. Abernathy?"

The two Arronda men exchanged eye contact.

Cal vacated his chair for de Anza. "My office is here for you to use, guys, as long as you need it. And when you're hungry there'll be a comp at the buffet. Lunch is compliments of the house."

Walking back to the car, Wardlow kept a wary distance from Wesley and de Anza. The sun had already dropped behind the Santa Ana Mountains, giving their uneven peaks a sinister silhouette. A pair of hawks screaming overhead circled each other warily. Despite the day's earlier warmth the dusk brought with it an unnatural chill, making Wardlow shiver. He stuffed both hands in his pant's pockets and fingered the retractable blades Wesley had trained him to stow.

Wesley handed his parking ticket to the attendant without regarding him. Instead, his attention remained fixed upon de Anza. "Although I'm not versed in the magick of the Arronda peoples, Sam, I'm sure there are similarities between your cultural rites and those of other Native American tribes. By our next meeting, I will be better informed."

Under the Casino's garish, flicking lights Samuel de Anza appeared less Native-American. His facial bone structure was rounder, his Latin heredity much more pronounced, like the natural, variegated coloring of his very brown eyes. For an instant, Wesley sympathized with de Anza's slight self-consciousness when he realized that his obvious scrutiny was being returned.

de Anza recovered and chuckled. "I'm a college-educated Shaman, Wes. Whatever you can find out is probably what I, myself, have learned. I didn't know the tribe's Shaman, George Buenaobra well enough to guess why he'd taken to performing these transmogrifications. His father and grandfather had taught him and I'd barely begun scratching the surface of his wisdom when he disappeared. You've got to believe me that The Casino in no way sanctioned his actions."

Wesley ambled into his waiting front seat and buckled his safety belt. "But when The Casino learned about them, Sam, they did nothing so they must assume culpability. They called you into this investigation, not I."

Accepting the indictment, de Anza nodded. "And we'll solve it, Wes," he replied, pampering the driver's side door closed.

0

The young man and his canine companion trailed the eastern edge of the Los Angeles River. Just past the Sixth Street Bridge, Connor took a seat on the side of an overturned abandoned chair while Peaches waited about a yard away. A light breeze swept past the two, ruffling their hair and prompting Peaches to muzzle and nip at her back. She briefly nosed up at a light blue Frontier cruising the access road above them until her instincts got the better of her.

Connor opened the brown paper bag in his hand, pulled out a white-wrapped parcel. He pinched a meat patty from between its seeded bun and flung it in Peaches' direction. The happy dog bounded for it then stopped. Abruptly, she dropped back on her right hip, raised her left leg and scratched under her neckerchief with a hind paw. After the annoyance had been attended to, she refocused on the morsel, taking her time nibbling at it.

Connor, roughing the side of his neck with his dirty fingernails, scrunched his face and swallowed a smile.

"Quartoth was like this kinda," he said, mouth full, "lots of rocks, like the ones under those tracks over there." He chewed while a commuter train passed by on one of the two sets of tracks in front of them. "I learned to run on rocks. Sharp rocks. Coming here... Everything's so level. Running on all this smooth ground is really weird."

He eked out a ketchup-smeared pickle chip. Head back, it dangled above his lips while he munched it down. Another pickle was consumed likewise before he methodically picked off each sesame -- some eaten one-by-one, others flicked towards a few birds that had gathered.

Noticing the bougainvillea woven around the bridge's trestle, he confided to his companion, "I like that plant over there. It's like this plant Father called Kabcha. Kabcha was way thornier, though. Sometimes it was the only way to get up a cliff. You have to scale it really fast or it'll cut you all up." His eyes widened; a boyish grin spread from ear to ear. "I could catch anything using that stuff. Taking shortcuts, you know. Everything tried to avoid it and what didn't..."

He snickered. "I could scale the Kabcha faster. And then I'd pounce and slide my prey down. By the time we got to the bottom, I didn't have much killing left to do." Falling silent in reflection, Connor pinched off a piece of bun and popped it in his mouth.

Peaches stopped licking her chops. Her floppy ears, where they met her head, rose slightly while she regarded the storyteller.

"It's bright bright purple, almost glow-in-the-dark. Although... I don't ever remember seeing Kabcha in the brightness. 'Cause Quartoth didn't have a visible sun. It was always steamy, cloudy so there was just bright and then dark. I mostly rested during the bright. Having a sun is weird."

Squinting up, he shivered, adding, "And not always warm."

He polished off the remaining third of his sandwich, licked a dollop of mustard and whisked a dot of onion from his top lip. He washed it down with a bottle of sports drink he'd lifted off the back of a delivery truck, swallowing loudly.

Peaches lapped at a puddle near his foot.

Connor stamped his foot at the canine. "Why are you still here, dog? I swear; this is the last time I'm feeding you. Now go away!"

Peaches sat back and cocked her head to one side. A melodic noise escaped her throat as if to question "Huh?"

Then she charged.

Connor took hold of his attacker's weapon before it crashed down on his head, using it for leverage while he whipped under and punched the man's eye with his bottle's end. Using both hands he pushed the larger man's arms out, then down and around, sending the foot long piece of rebar flying over the tracks and tripping over the concreted bank of the river. Kicking back, he landed a hard foot into his second assailant's stomach.

Peaches yanked on the man's pant leg, which pulled his feet out from under him, landing him flat on his face. The animal mounted her man and barked. Baring her teeth, she growled at another man who'd wisely stayed back.

"What do you want!" Connor demanded. He hadn't let go of his man yet and, finally, the wrist he'd been bending back gave way. "TELL ME!"

The man beneath Peaches moved slightly. The dog barked twice and, when her warning went unheeded, she bit the scruff of his neck.

"OOOOOWWWWWW!" he wailed. Throwing his arms back to swat her off made him look like a flailing fish on a dock.

The third man pushed back his Kangol bucket hat to reveal womanly features. "We don't care about you; just give us the dog," she yelled.

Shoving the broken man aside, Connor pulled back on Peaches' neck scarf, eased the dog off of her prey. They regarded the woman with like wariness. "She's not your dog," Connor said, backing them both away.

Peaches concurred with a bark.

"She's not yours either," the man on the ground said, rising up and away, palming the back of his head.

Her voice rumbling low and throaty, Peaches sidled next to Connor, putting forward tension on the scarf.

Fingertips dancing on his thigh, one side of Connor's face flexed impishly. "Do we have to fight for her? Because, you know, I'll fight. I'll fight you all and win."

The first attacker babied his arm. "Let's go. The kid's a loon and that might not even be the right dog."

Disgusted, the woman side-glanced her partners. Grinding her right-gloved fist into her left palm, she seriously considered Connor's invitation for a moment. "Maybe you better get that dog some tags. Animal Control'll cattle prod your ass if you try picking a fight with them," she laughed.

Stoic, Connor and Peaches waited until the trio scaled the incline and climbed back into their truck. The engine gunned once before the woman threw the car in drive and they pealed off.

Connor picked up his trash, stuffed it into the bag and plopped back onto his chair. "I'm not here to protect dogs," he sighed, blowing his overgrown bangs out of his eyes.

Peaches nosed his thigh until his hand moved away so she could rest her chin. Instead of looking up to see his displeasure she stared out, across the river towards the darkening skyline.

0

It wasn't until they'd put twenty miles between themselves and The Casino Arronda that Wardlow had relaxed enough to speak. "If that Shaman guy's not lying, you probably already know more than he does about this stuff, Wes."

"Thank you for your vote of confidence, Kent." Wesley smiled. "And, you didn't need to come today so I truly appreciate the company."

Wardlow shrugged. "I know I hate driving alone for more than an hour and a half. Besides, I got buffet meal out of it." He grinned broadly, amused with his hick pronunciation: boo fay.

The quantity of rear brake lights became denser as Wesley put more distance between himself and The Casino. Wardlow had already set the heater at a moderate level – not too hot to lure them to sleep -- and slipped in an agreeably peppy CD. The young man's bobbing head had turned away enough to discourage conversation so it was odd when the mercenary gravely pronounced, "You better protect yourself real good on this one, Wes. Find a charm or whatever."

Wes snorted in surprise. "Why, Kent. I didn't know you cared."

Wardlow's head whipped around. "I'm not playing, man, not like the way you play. If you don't wear a charm for the Indian stuff, you seriously need to consider wearing one against your girlfriend."

The traffic ahead braked sharply. Wesley waited until the last moment to follow suit, but Wardlow didn't flinch. "I keep telling you, 'she's not my girlfriend'; we just span time. My personal life – "

Throwing himself back against his seat, Wardlow shook his head. He raised his hand in surrender. "OK, cool. My bad. Your personal life is –"

Even in the dim light shining into the cabin the younger man's consternation was vividly apparent. He dropped his arm and nodded as if agreeing with a silent conversation. "Sorry, Wes. Sorry. This animal crap – Sorry, I guess I got freaked."

Wesley inhaled sharply and accelerated. "No worries, Kent. I probably won't need you much on this case, anyway. But if you're not too freaked, perhaps we can still investigate that nest just before dawn?"

"Yeah, sure," his passenger answered a mile later. "Too bad there aren't enough people out there to pay you enough to do this stuff," he asided to his reflection in the window.

0

As the humidity in the bathroom rose and warmed, Wesley sucked in his stomach muscles and rolled his lower vertebrae back into some sort of alignment. Long drives destroyed him; he'd become convinced that all the cartilage between his discs had actually become gristle, just one more irritation to bear. During the third set of reps he heard a clap louder than the more normal creaks, so he reached over and turned off the shower.

The persistent rapping got more vehement. Wesley's heartbeat began outpacing his stride as he neared the door.

"I didn't expect to see you tonight. I thought you had a shindig of some sort in the morning," Wesley tossed off-handedly, turning his back after opening the door.

He laughed to himself, amused at his own pretense. In the split of the second that he'd taken to look at his visitor, he'd already committed her to memory. Lilah's hair was pulled back into a high ponytail, the rims of her eyes were kohl-free, and the apricot-colored tracksuit skimming her figure suggested nothing lay between its inviting velour texture and her always-silky flesh.

To top it off, she smelled like she'd been rutting in the Hyperion's garden. He remembered one of his educators equating the scent of night-blooming jasmine to that of blood. Haunting memories threatened strangulation.

Perhaps that was her point. He waited for the door to click shut before he swallowed. Two drinks were in his hand when he turned to face her, jugular blemish in the lead. "You smell... 99/100 pure," he complimented, beverage at his lips.

Lilah wasn't in the mood to quip. Her drink went down in one gulp. She tossed her ice cubes into the sink, thwacked the glass on the countertop and sloshed in a large refill. "Seems my ritual ran into a little snafu. Nothing to ritualize with."

"Hmmm mmmmm." Wesley sidled against the wall, tipping the top of his head onto it. He drank and let the amber liquid sear its way down his throat. "So you thought you'd come over, immolate with me instead?"

She downed her second drink and threatened to pitch the glass across the room but her self-restraint engaged. "I'm really irritated right now, Wes, in case you haven't taken the time to notice."

He worked the glass out of her grip, put both of theirs in the sink, and briefly ran the faucet. Without looking, he flicked her three ice cubes into the garbage disposal chute. "Come to think of it, Lilah, I actually don't have the time. I've a sunrise to catch someplace else.

"Make sure the door's secure when you exit," he finished, breezing past her.

Her arm shot out; she latched onto his rolled sleeve. Her locked jaw slid open. "Maybe you're just not getting it that I'm really agitated."

He shook her off. "Or maybe I do and I just don't care," he retorted. Yanking free, he could feel her on his heels right before he shut the bathroom door in her face.

The door buckled behind his back when she slammed both fists into it. "You'll pay for this, Wyndam-Pryce," she growled.

Two deep breaths later, he yanked the door nearly out of its jamb and raced for the living room. Reiterating, "Dear God let me pay", he fumbled with the front lock while the soft tap behind it beckoned him to work quicker.

Apartment 105's door swung open wide, but not as wide as Wesley's immediate disappointment.

"She nearly hit me driving off," Wardlow said. "Unless she coming back? Because I can leave..." Cocking a thumb, he affably turned towards it while keeping an eye on his employer.

Wesley stood still, searching past Wardlow -- nearly through him, a feral intensity in his eyes. With his hair askew, breathing through moist, slightly parted lips, Wesley looked vampire-pale under the efficiency lighting of his apartment complex's corridor. He still wore the clothes he'd had on at the Casino earlier, except now they were disheveled.

"Maybe we should go inside so you can get ready," Kent suggested with a light-heartedness he didn't feel. "Dawn won't wait and it's already three."

At the mention of the hour, Wesley felt deeply weary. Recovering, he studied Wardlow's rested face, overwhelmed with immense jealousy. "Sometimes I feel as though I've outstayed my lifespan," escaped through his lips without traversing any of his thought passages.

0

Thumb and index finger pocketed by the inner corners of his eyes, Wesley pinched the bridge of his nose. Managing to squeeze past the sneeze he'd felt coming on, he held on, pursed his closed eyes once, twice and inhaled deeply. His lungs relaxed more fully with each moment of the ultra-long exhale. It was a version of taking a ten-minute nap and had become the method of his existence as of late.

Wardlow let the binoculars in his right hand fall to his chest -- he'd been paying more attention to Wesley than to his objective anyway. "You know, Wes, if you need some shut-eye, I can call Perkins and we'll report back. The late hours you've been keeping..." he trailed off, letting the innuendo finish itself.

"You work hard, Wes. You're always working," he added.

"We both know that I'm not always working," Wesley retorted. He dropped his hand and opened his eyes, meeting Wardlow's apologetic gaze with his own, more direct.

His companion shrugged uneasily. "It's like in the car this afternoon. I wasn't trying to get into your business, man. Whatever you're doing... Anyway, I do know for sure that you do work a lot."

Wesley's upper lip buckled under the pressure of his lower and reluctantly became a smile.

Wardlow couldn't help himself; he smiled back. He'd been in the after-glum of the Wesley/Lilah dynamic often enough but that didn't mean he wasn't affected by it. "Quit smiling. You're making me feel like a homo, Wes," he joked.

He gave Wesley's shoulder an indifferent shove before going back to the binoculars. "Don't worry, though. If there's one thing that being with the Initiative taught me it's that the supernatural makes you feel all kinds of crazy ways you normally wouldn't."

Fingers interlocked, Wesley palmed his forehead and listened to the night. The dying leaves of the maple trees riffled rhythmically. "So, then normally you wouldn't... be attracted to me?"

"Nah." Wardlow, dropped the binoculars and took a deep breath. "Don't take any of this the wrong way, OK? It's just that... Your not-a-girlfriend's a hottie. But I don't know her; I know you. So that makes you more attractive to me. So, if I just recognize that sometimes I feel weird around you, then I can move on and it doesn't affect me. Does that make sense?"

Wesley cocked his head and cringed. "Yes?"

"Right!" Wardlow beamed. "But you can chill out because you're just regular now. It only really happens after you're with her; she changes you. Makes you – "

Wesley guessed, "Hot?" correctly, judging by the glee that overtook Wardlow's demeanor. He closed his eyes and wondered if summer blonde, Yale-rowing-team good looks not being especially appealing to him was a good thing.

"Speaking of hot, though... How is it that it's mid-November and L.A. has yet to see a day under the mid-70's?"

"It cools down at night, though, huh?" Wardlow said, more surveillance-attentive. "Although, it's really dry tonight compared to last night."

Wesley pulled his light jacket closer to his neck. "'Cool'. That's all it is, though. It's not cold. Not cold enough for these trees to perform their kaleidoscopic magic as the daytime dwindles closer towards winter. Why do Southern Californians even bother to plant deciduous trees if they're unable to change their hues?"

Wardlow laughed. "Wes, you can drop the British Garden chat. I'm not going to jump your bones, OK? Here." He reached into his jacket and tossed out a protein bar. "You're rambling; I bet you haven't eaten since the buffet."

A growling stomach agreed. Wesley spiraled the wrapper off the gooey rectangle and bit down. He started rolling his head about his neck but the casual motion came to an abrupt end when spasm shot down the base of his spine. His tailbone had fallen asleep. Another jolt of pain sparked a memory; he could almost smell the incendiary friction as the dry leaves danced over one another.

"It's 5AM – " He swallowed, tossing the nutrition bar aside to change position. Something to eat wasn't going to satisfy his hunger. "Three days' surveillance is long enough. This nest isn't active anymore."

"Definitely not now," Wardlow agreed, handing the binoculars off. "Who is that? He just tore through ten vamps in record time."

Wesley peered, readjusting his sights. "Connor..."

"That the kid or the dog?" Wardlow asked, reaching for Wesley's discarded snack.

"The kid," the watcher replied, mesmerized.

Reflexively, Connor threw back his left arm for balance, thrusting up his right forearm for protection. The vampire advanced, only to get clobbered across the jaw in passing.

No sooner did he hit the ground, the dog was on him. The snarling in his ear got louder to the point that it hurt; that's when the vampire screamed, "That bitch took my ear!"

"Back, dog," Connor ordered.

Peaches did just that, just in time to avoid being taken out by Connor's flying feet. The teen took his prey down dramatically, in a thunderous clap of dead leaves and a flurry of dust.

Peaches pranced around the conqueror, barking incessantly and waving her tail.

The binoculars went South, Wesley went West. It took him a moment to refocus, in time to witness a set of bared fangs coming down at him. He logrolled from under the fiend just as Wardlow's flashlight crashed into the base of the vampire's skull.

Floundering backwards, Wesley swam through the sea of leaves until a tree trunk halted his retreat. "Get a hold of yourself, man," he cursed at himself, fighting to retake the breath that had been knocked out of him.

A guttural protest drowned out the sound of cracking bone as Wardlow's boot V'd the creature's thigh. The vampire listed left before correcting himself enough to turn on his tormentor. A wallop upside its jawbone came next, then Wardlow brought his right knee to his own chest and thrust his sole into the vampire's gut.

With the broken leg acting as undead weight, it hopped backward, nearly toppling onto Wesley. Fingertips pressing into the earth, Wes hoisted a bent leg and planted his own sole squarely into the vamp's side, pushing him away. But the ground was too spongy beneath him; he didn't end up doing much more than setting the thing upright.

As if having difficulty pushing onto his feet wasn't bad enough, Wesley swooned and fell onto one knee. The vampire misjudged his own inertia and tumbled over one shoulder while Wardlow hurdled over Wesley's other.

The mercenary scissor-kicked the vamp into a tree, swung the flashlight and slammed it into the vamp's cheek. Without bone to support it, that side of the creature's face caved in from temple to jaw. The vamp roared and lunged but Wardlow leaned out of the attack, grabbed its arm and, using its momentum, swung it back around into bark.

The flashlight came down twice more in quick succession, smashing the other side of its face along with the accompanying fangs. But Wardlow hadn't performed that bit of damage. Wesley had stolen the instrument out of his grasp.

"AAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRGH!" Vampire and ex-Watcher collided and dropped.

Wardlow tried reaching in to peel Wesley away, but the flashlight kept rising too erratically to judge. "Wesley! WES!" he called out over plunging sounds, smashing bone and primeval cursing. Finally planting a cautious boot on Wesley's assaulting arm, he pushed the man out of danger.

Before Wesley could remount his attack, a stake swished past him with the dead-on accuracy of a Slayer. "NO!" he protested.

"Your single mindedness could have gotten one or both of us killed, Wes," Wardlow rebuked, in a seasoned tone, decades older. He leaned down, nose pinned to Wesley's. " If there had been another vampire..."

After Wesley got to his feet, he pulled away, panting, "Don't chastise me, young man!" Anger raged through his system. All at once, the flashlight simply left his hand, his knees buckled. "God," he gasped. Wardlow's quick reflexes kept him from a certain face plant, but made him unable to control his seizure.

Wardlow carried Wesley to the car over his shoulder, tossed him in and fastened the passenger seat belt gently. He reached in the back, grabbed a bottle of water and cracked the top before molding Wes' hands around it.

"Low blood sugar," Wesley explained. He started to take a drink but had to stop in order to shake a clump of the vampire's bloody hair -- dandruffed with skull -- from between his fingers.

"Just get some sleep," Wardlow suggested, turning the engine over. "Sometimes dehydration'll destroy your reflexes."

'Deprivation,' Wesley wanted to amend, prompted by Wardlow's sympathetic pat on his leg.

0

Connor, slipping through the high street level window of the abandoned building he called shelter, returned with the spoils of breakfast foraging –- a bag of rice cakes, a half-gallon jug of chocolate milk, and a small bag of kibble. Feet planted firmly, the pleased smile on his face dropped as quickly as his prizes.

"What are you doing, Peaches? Multiplying? I can't take care of two of you!"

At the reprimand, Peaches' proud tail wilted to between her legs. Her head dropped in shame.

But her companion was unfazed. The longhaired Spaniel trotted up to Connor and nosed the packages.

Without thinking, Connor patted the happy dog on its head. "You're awful clean to be a stray," he marveled, kneeling down to check around her neck for identification.

The new dog lapped his face, ecstatic. She barked, ran back to Peaches and barked again. Displeased, she lunged at Connor, pierced the hem of his t-shirt with her eyeteeth and pulled on him.

She let go and barked again.

"Gee, Mom," Connor said, begrudgingly taking direction. He lowered himself near her. "I'm sorry, dog, OK?"

Peaches studied him from under offended brows. She whimpered, edged forward, then plopped her head in his lap.

Tongue hanging out of the side of her mouth, Mom draped herself across his knees.

He reached out, leaning over for the food, and strew kibble across the dirt-grouted floor. Once his legs were free, he was able to cross them lotus-style out of the way. And take his frustration out on the first of the rice cakes. "It's not fair, Peaches, bringing in another dog. Sometimes I can barely take care of myself."

0

Especially at sunset, in Wesley's estimation the term 'Harvest Fair' sounded ominous -- so incongruous to laughing toddlers cradling pumpkins to their chests and couples, hand-in-hand, mastering enormous caramel apples. A dozen rowdy teens bounced by on the hayride, fighting to take turns clanging its bell.

"Too bad we don't have time to enjoy the fun," Samuel lamented.

Wesley sighed, "Unfortunately, even if we did I would have a difficult time ignoring the negative aspects related to my professional background." He shivered; the bell's sound drifted farther away –- an echo of doom.

When de Anza smiled, the lines creasing his cheeks looked like ripples radiating across a peaceful pond. "Be a child, Wes. Find the child within."

For a moment, Wesley tried and was pleasantly surprised that he could dredge up a memory from his youth that wasn't entwined with his Watcher's Society studies. A four-piece combo played rock-n-roll tunes he'd sung as an adolescent. Humming, he inhaled the sugary smells of cotton candy and cinnamony churros. His companion seemed especially enchanted by the candle lit puppet show.

Until the booth for "Carr's Trick's and Magic" appeared in front of them and put and end to their juvenile digression. The proprietor finished holding his audience in thrall with the antics of a furry weasel. "And he can be yours for only $20.00 exactly! Includes tax."

Unsure whether he was entertained more by children's pleas for the toy or by their perplexed parents, Wesley brushed back the tattered quilt cordoning off the display's more magical wares. He held the curtain briefly to get his bearings, settling it into place after Samuel had slipped in.

He gasped.

She gasped. "Wesley!"

"Lilah," he blinked, stupidly struggling for composure. A strong whiff of damp animal fur worked well as a substitute for smelling salts. "What are you – "

Meeting each other's eyes, the familiarity between them took over. They laughed, comfortably.

"You know… Halloween," Lilah said, rolling her eyes.

Wesley turned to make introductions but de Anza had stealthed away.

Their hands met, their fingers twined, heartbeats noticeable despite their leather gloves. On impulse, Wesley leaned over and pecked Lilah's cheek; his lips melted the frost they found there.

"If you'd mentioned you were coming here – " Wesley trailed off.

"If would have seemed like a date. Who's not dating, remember?" Lilah chided. Her hand freed itself from his. Slipping her arm inside his coat with her forearm resting across the small of his back, she marveled at the ferocity of heat smoldering through her heavy boucle' overcoat.

"May I help you?" Carr interrupted. He tossed the wiggle of fur onto a pile of assorted other trickeries for sale, cupped his fingerless-gloved hands and blew into them. "Price or Morgan?"

Lilah smiled, courteous. "Both. On different business."

Whatever." Carr eyed the two, more impatient than interested. "Who wants to go first? I got another show in a minute."

The non-couple uncoupled.

"You were here first, Lilah. Allow me," Wesley conceded. Bowing slightly, he backed out of earshot.

A hen bristled at his approach and squawked, waking the rabbit, causing the various rodents to stir. Wesley bent over and, in the dim light, made out the lone feline -– a pitch-black cat. The yellow eyes beamed like twin moons before eclipsing.

Could a cat's features belie resignation?

"Not the cat. The spirit halo's not right," de Anza whispered, magically hunching into view. He straightened up and peered slightly above Wesley. "Now your halo's –"

"Scuzie –" Carr grabbed hold of the cage and yanked it out of its spot. Grating metal nearly drowned out the cat's unhappy mewl. "Sorry, this one's hers."

"Quite alright," Wesley consented. He tipped the top of his head to his mistress but, by the time he looked up again, she'd disappeared.

"Now what can I do for you guys?" Carr called out over the animal commotion. Before Wesley had a chance to answer, he noticed, "You must be Samuel!"

"That would be me," Samuel smiled, nodding graciously. "You know then – "

Carr reached back, picking over cages. "This rabbit, here... The brown one."

"The brown one," Samuel confirmed just behind Wesley's ear.

Wesley held the animal up and examined it. In turn, the creature hunkered down and hid its face with its paws.

Samuel chuckled. "Ah, yes. Looks like she has the same effect on Wes," he soothed, nodding his head to where Lilah had been standing.

Carr slipped off his glove, waved off Wesley's fifty-dollar bill, and exchanged a hearty handshake with the Native-American. "George told me he'd send someone. Glad it was you. Although, after the second week, I was beginning to wonder if someone was ever going to come."

Wesley carefully reached into the cage and lifted the frightened animal out of the farthest corner. He stroked its back, cooing to it, but it helped very little if at all. After placing it in the middle of his living room, he gingerly lifted his hand, half-expecting it to bolt but the shivering rabbit remained where he placed it.

Sam waved the branch of smoking willow, wafting ash onto it from the tip of its wriggling nose to its fur-ball tail. All the while the Shaman chanted softly, his foreign words sounding more like a hum than a language.

Restless, Wesley shifted on his knees and a burning twinge cut across shoulders.

"You alright?" Samuel asked, hardly missing a beat of his mantra.

"Just stiff," Wesley offered, glad that he actually was only stiff. It had taken a year for his gunshot wound to heal completely and an occasional phantom of pain still lived in his abdominal region -- one he had hoped to excise by rescuing Angel from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Instead, he'd acquired night sweats.

At least Lilah's visits camouflaged those.

Samuel stopped chanting and crumbled the rest of the branch over his subject. The rabbit stilled. A moment later it began shaking convulsively until all four paws shot out. Its limbs became board straight.

"God," Wesley inhaled.

"Not in this case," came Samuel's rueful response.

Stretching, growing in length, the rabbit remained a rabbit, becoming man-sized before Wesley's eyes. Fully extended, it finally began to metamorphose. The tail withdrew into the creature's tailbone, its coat dissolved to reveal tender, pink flesh.

Human flesh.

"Aaaaaaaaaa EEEEEEEE!" it cried, paws becoming palms and soles, toes and fingers.

Dumbfounded, Wesley stared at the heaving human male as Samuel draped a blanket over the prone figure. The Shaman checked for a pulse and, satisfied, sat back against the chair.

"Greg will be asleep for hours, maybe a full day," Samuel said.

Wesley gulped. "Shall we move him onto the sofa? Perhaps he'll be more comfortable."

Sam shook his head. "His body has to remember what it used to be. This is his recovery. Best not to move him. Definitely don't wake him."

Wesley forced himself to stand. "I need some air. Do you want a drink?"

"Fire water?" Samuel smiled broadly in an attempt to put Wesley at ease. "Anything you've got, on ice if you please."

0

The enormous basement apartment glowed unnaturally white from the halogen light bouncing off the concrete walls. A pair of white porcelain cups waited by the side of the gleaming stainless steel stove each complimented by a the yellow-tags of their teabags.

"Are you sure you don't want anything?" she called out over the teakettle's whistle. "I'm not known for my hostessing skills so you better take advantage of me while you can."

Her guest stepped around the kitchen's divider. He ruffled his hair with one hand. "I'm fine, Ms. Morgan. But, thank you. You'll be glad to know Wyndam-Pryce still doesn't consider you his girlfriend."

Barefoot, she padded by Wardlow, shooting him a 'whatever' look while blowing over the steaming liquid. "So, tell me what else you've got for me, Kent." One foot dropped to the red ikat-blanketed sofa and she lowered herself gracefully atop it.

He remained standing in a pose of relaxed attention -- feet slightly apart, hands clasped behind. "I'm not on this particular case, so he won't let me in on it."

Lilah took a thoughtful sip. "Won't let you or you haven't barged in?" Wardlow's shrug was all the answer she needed. "You're friends with him!" she exclaimed, incredulous.

"He's a nice guy, Ms. Morgan. Messed up, but a real nice guy. He's all paranoid about who he can trust – if he can even trust himself half the time – and... I dunno. He can't do what he needs to do by himself so he needs help to do it and... He trusts me."

She set her cup down on the glass top of the iron-framed coffee table, slid out the folded leg and leaned forward on her elbows, placing her chin on her fists. "In case you forgot, Kent, you're working for me. You didn't forget, did you?"

Wardlow's lower half remained as it was while his arms folded over each other. "I haven't forgotten."

"Unbelievable!"

He remained immobile, watched her pace a line in his direct sight. Unlike when she wore her dress shoes, she had a slinky way of carrying herself when she was barefoot. He was convinced he hadn't directly lied; he didn't know the Lilah Morgan that Wesley knew -- only her casual business side. For all he'd been exposed to, Lilah was just an authoritative woman, albeit a pretty one. She could be his bossy big sister.

"Maybe this can work to our advantage," she thought aloud. "If you're delusional enough to think that you're still his friend then he'd be blind enough not to see right through you."

Wardlow frowned. "You don't have to insult me, Ms. Morgan."

"I do. Because I really don't believe that Wesley's that stupid." Lilah strode up to Wardlow, close enough to touch him every time she inhaled. "But, maybe we'll be lucky. Ever had a lucky number, Kent?"

He slouched into his nagging discomfort. He'd never realized how tall she was until her distorted grin was an inch from his face. "Eight. I've always liked the number eight."

Her attention zeroed just past his shoulder. "Get used to the number twelve now, Kent. And Jaeger?"

The henchman looked up, his bathrobed arms poised mid-chokehold... "Yes, Ms. Morgan?"

She swiped her cup from the table and walked it into the bedroom. "He's got to be alive."

0

Sunrise had drifted through Wesley's patio blinds hours earlier. The reborn man lying on the living room carpet had twitched once and remained immobile since.

Still nursing his watery, warm drink, Samuel sighed. "This doesn't reflect kindly on my people, Kimosabe."

Wesley sat his own empty glass on the table next to his divan. He'd lost count how many times he'd refilled it and was more than a little ashamed with how easily he'd retreated into his old 'scary' self. A month ago he'd steeled himself and knowingly set his flesh to a voracious vampire's mouth. Offering oneself to death was a considerably different experience than watching a human re-form.

Would the intensity of magick forever startle him?

Sam slumped, defeated by his own inner battle. "We Arronda – we're not the stereotype of diabetic drunkards who never leave their reservation. Thanks to our savvy with real estate and the cyclical housing booms, my tribe was able to send most of its people, including my father, to college. He graduated from U.C. Riverside with a degree in Agricultural Science. To this day he tends his own citrus and avocado groves not far from The Casino."

Wes removed his glasses, raked his hair with his fingers twice. "This is one man's work, Sam, not a whole tribe's. From what I can tell, if the casino is that busy on a weekday morning, there's no doubt you're a rather affluent people. Hence, the reasoning behind punishing a debtor in this manner makes even less sense."

"It was George. Only George." Shaking his head, Sam reached back and levered himself off the floor and into a chair. "He must have needed to prove how powerful he is. But the days of tribal show-offs are gone. We haven't been at odds with the Robish tribe for nearly a century. Hell, they've got 3 casinos of their own – from San Bernadino to the borders of Arizona and Mexico."

"Perhaps then, it has something to do with the money." Wesley reached towards the ceiling, stretching his tired shoulders.

Contemplative, Sam pinched his nose. Resting his fist against his lips, he exhaled over his knuckles. "Ceremonial. It had to be ceremonial."

Wesley disagreed. "The man lying here on my floor may not be British, but he's obviously as Caucasian as I am. That certainly doesn't make sense."

"He must have felt compelled to keep the magick of my ancestors alive -- by performing the spell on two outsiders. My people were originally farmers, not warriors, Wes, but sometimes they needed to fight. As Europeans came to settle into our valleys, we needed to fight for land and our autonomy. It didn't keep all of us from becoming slaves to the Ranchos and Missions but it did save some of us. Taking on the guise of the native creatures, we could slip from the grasp of our oppressors; our warriors could even retaliate."

Wesley shivered. "You mean to tell me that the man on my floor was conscious of his condition?"

Sam shook his head. "Probably not. Only the warriors remained warriors inside of the host bodies. Most of the ordinary Arronda that were transformed were rarely recovered."

"Rabbits –- "

"And field mice. Skunk, opossum, coyote. When Native Americans speak of being one with the land, with the animals on that land, that's more than just a poetic notion, Wes." Rising, Sam walked to the window and looked out. Hands clasped behind his back, he finished, "It's always been about freedom and when it wasn't an option in one form, sometimes we took on another."

"Perhaps George – " Wesley paused to listen to his theory internally before enunciating it. He got up and joined Sam at the window. "Perhaps George didn't disappear, Sam. Perhaps he found fleeter feet to escape with."

"Let's hope not. That God you called on earlier... Maybe you should consult with Him again because, without George, I'm clueless." Sam winced. "We found one rabbit in a field of men, Wesley, only because Cal knew someone other than Deborah Abernathy had been transformed and that Redd Carr was also a good friend of George's. We still don't know where she is, and she's just as trapped."

The man lying on the floor stirred and sat up. Incoherent, he bunched the blanket tightly about his shoulders.

"He still needs to recover," Sam said.

"But we can move him now obviously," Wesley assumed. To Sam's nod, he smiled. "I know a place and just the caretaker."

Wesley unlocked the door and pushed it open. He stepped in with the cot before inviting in de Anza and their disoriented ward.

Making a visual sweep of the forlorn space, Samuel gave into his confusion. "It's an empty apartment, Wes. That fireplace doesn't look like it works... Doesn't look like anyone's lived here for months."

Wesley wrapped one of Greg's arms around his neck and helped Sam lead the man inside. "Don't let appearances fool you, Sam."

A scented candle atop the mantle flickered to life. The door closed gently behind the men.

de Anza closed his eyes to listen. Something tidied the hair from inside his collar. "A spirit?"

"Dennis," Wesley announced. He's the resident here. After lifting his elbow off of the cot it slipped free and floated in front of the picture window where the daylight poured across the hardwood floors. "Dennis will watch over Greg until we can return him to his family."

Sam chuckled under his breath. "You're friends with a ghost that has his own apartment. How come that sounds stranger than turning a man into a rabbit and back again?"

Wesley drew the dazed man inside and cautioned to him as much as Sam, "You'll want to watch your tone of voice around Dennis. He can be very sensitive and you don't want to make the wrong first impression."

"Uh huh. Then maybe I should go now." Outstretched arm in the lead, Sam backed for the door. "That running shower is no investigation that I want to be a part of. I think I'll wait in the courtyard."

0

"Thanks again, Gabrielle," Lilah said in passing, snuggling her briefcase under her arm. She grabbed hold of both office doorknobs and charged inside.

A smirking Gavin, comfortable in Lilah's chair, fanned himself with a file folder. "I know something you don't know," he came close to singing, very pleased with himself. Gladly relinquishing the chair and before Lilah could snipe at him, he continued, "Angel's stray is a magnet for strays."

She set the Vuitton on the top of her desk and considered his news for a moment while stowing her irritation. "How many?"

"Four." His black irises sparkled. "Four dogs."

"And at least one of them checks out?" Overlooking that he'd slightly pushed the chair out of her way, Lilah took hold of her seat. Most of her concentration, however, went to keeping from smashing her briefcase against his arrogance.

"By description and by mesmerist."

She took a deep breath and regarded her associate. "Lemme ask you this, Gavin..." Suspicion got the better of him when her tone changed; she liked that, knocking him off-balance. "What do you have to gain when I get this done? You're not going anywhere; I'll just be more powerful and an even more vicious bitch towards you."

Before he could reply, a light tap at the door drew away both of their attentions. Gabrielle, Lilah's petite, could-be-a-twin executive assistant interrupted, "Ms. Morgan? Is now a good time?"

Lilah smiled broadly and motioned Gabrielle inward. "Mr. Park has some news..." She plucked the file folder from his grasp and placed it within Gabrielle's reach. "Have everyone rounded up and moved to this location."

Gavin could barely get his words out. "What? You're not transporting them? Lilah! The logistics of what you're asking -- The resources, the security -- It's deranged!"

"Stop sputtering, Gav." She dramatically brushed at her forearm. "Anything that's remotely related to Angel's loins just puts too many variables in the equation. Let's call this the officiant's prerogative: My venue, and nothing else goes wrong."

"Nothing," Gabrielle confidently repeated to Gavin Park.

0

Wesley, his jaw clenched, paused against his front door. The knock repeated itself. He licked his lips.

de Anza blinked. "Is this a bad time, Wes?"

Wesley swallowed and, laughing at himself, waved his guest inside. Involuntarily, he walked to the window and leaned forward, checking up and down the street, squinting at the multiple setting suns glinting in the parked car windshields.

"That was a very pretty woman at the Fair last night." Samuel studied Wesley. "Her coloring matches yours. Both tall... You'd have handsome sons."

Wesley, putting his arm through his coat's other sleeve, choked. "She's... a business associate. Nothing more, Sam. Your car or mine?"

Taking hold of Wesley's wrist, de Anza lifted the other man's hand from his pocket and peeled back his fingers petal-like from around his keys. With the pad of his index finger he seemed to read the deep indentations the keys had caused. After Wesley flinched and yanked his hand away, cradling it defensively to his chest, de Anza spoke. "We take paths we believe we are strong enough to negotiate, only to find that they do not lead us where we want to go."

Wesley scowled. "When I want your tribal bon mots, I'll ask for them. In the meantime, you said something on the phone about a lead."

"Fair enough," Samuel replied, unruffled. "While driving Greg Stanton back to his family, he got quite chatty. After he praised Dennis' efforts for 'being more hospitable than the casino's spa staff', he said George had all of them in one place first and then just let the animals scatter."

"Oh, fabulous. Deborah Abernathy could be anywhere by now." He shrugged off his jacket and swung it into a chair; his keys slid off the leather cushion onto the floor. Wesley ignored picking them up in favor of perusing his bookshelf. "Perhaps I can use elements of George's spell... Thread that with bits of a dowsing incantation... A lost... Something lost. An endearment? A treasure..."

de Anza listened to Wesley while shucking off the Wrangler denim shirt he'd had on over a plain white tee. "Wes," he said several times.

Wesley, arms full of heavy volumes, walked them to the kitchen table and began spreading them out like cards.

Until Samuel, placing two fists down on the table, leaned onto them. "Did you hear me?"

"Of course," Wesley snapped, scraping a chair from under the table. He dropped into it, annoyed. "You said, 'scattered'."

Sam pulled out a chair and scooted next to Wesley, placing his palm on the open page. "I said, 'all of them'."

Wesley pulled the book from under Sam's hand and began flipping the pages more quickly, more adamantly. "I've only been hired to find Deborah Abernathy, no one else. You help me find her and I'll show you how to find the others."

The usually calm de Anza snatched the book from Wesley and slammed it shut. Dust exploded from between the parchment pages and took its time settling. He stared down, heaving in anger.

Wesley shrank into his chair. He couldn't look up. "I only have so many resources..."

de Anza took one very deep breath and, by the time he'd taken his seat, his anger had settled, too. "And you have me."

"You don't understand the expenses," Wesley protested into his chest.

de Anza chuckled. "Well, I'm free and spells are cheap enough. And, by the time you get one going, from what Greg told me we may only need to go to one place." The other man's eyes finally rose to meet his and he smiled warmly.

"Even in his natural human form, Greg felt like he needed to be somewhere. With twelve more. And I think that's why George didn't keep them all together."

Nodding, Wesley reached for the farthest book. "Because he included a unification spell. And what man has joined together – "

0

"This woman's pulled it all together!" Excited, Lilah sanded her hands.

One subordinate fastened her plum-colored robe, another tidied the golden rope swagging her hips while three more readied an altar and the instruments of rite. Another, a more important cleric, fanned at several huge plumes of incense rising from ornate copper vessels.

"Don't look so sour, Gavin. This just couldn't have turned out to be a better place!" Lilah gushed. "Such spectacle on short notice! And we won't have to worry about clean-up."

Gavin Park narrowed his eyes at her. "You haven't pulled it off yet, Lilah," he grumbled.

She placed both hands on the ornate banister overlooking the great, square space. Sure it was filthy, rusted, deteriorating and cold, but in a primitive way, it was beautiful. As the flames rising from the thick, tallow-rich candles danced with the draft, little ribbons of smoke drizzled upward. One gold ewer, three travertine slabs, and thirteen platinum and opal basins had been arranged with precise geometry while five iridescently robed ministers finished consecrating the space with cadence and step.

An interrupting guard cleared his throat. He said nothing, using the teen he jerked in front of his uniform as all the explanation needed.

Gavin grinned.

Lilah pinched Connor's chin and pouted. "You're a handsome one. Dark enough but, unfortunately, just not tall enough yet. Hold him until I'm done, then kick him out," she ordered, regaining her business demeanor.

"C'mon, Lilah," Gavin cajoled. "He'd be a certain thirteenth. You mean, 'I'll sacrifice him', right?"

Lilah nodded to the guard that her original demand be met. "Touch a hair on his head, Gavin, and see if I don't use you instead of the raccoon," she warned.

0

de Anza followed closely, keeping as much of an eye on the leader as on the glass orb in Wesley's hand. "Amazing," he repeated a block later. "It does change as we get closer. And you're sure we're tracking the right animals, right?"

Dawn had begun taking possession of the Eastern skyline; the streetlights blinked off. Wesley stopped. He held the orb out like a compass. As he arced it in each direction its liquid core tinted light to darker turquoise. "This way," he pointed, heading into an industrial alleyway. "We're tracking the right souls – human souls," he whispered. He leaned into a broken window's security grate and listened.

Deep inside, several dogs could be heard barking. The orb glowed deeply cyan.

"Here we go," Sam called from around the corner, waving Wesley to hurry. He finished pushing the last crate into place under a windowless opening just as his partner arrived. "Hi ho," he said, motioning up with a thumb.

Furious, Connor scowled at the guard leading him away. "Got no time for you if I want to watch. You're going now," he heard as he was pushed out of the building.

Connor faked being off balance and then turned in a flash. The guard had been pummeled and dropped before the door had begun swinging shut.

When he got back to the holding pen, Peaches was pacing in front of the other animals, barking orders. The mostly dog population didn't seem to understand her anymore than the pair of raccoons, the coyote or rabbit. The cat, perched precariously on a narrow ledge, seemed more annoyed that the ruckus wasn't letting her sleep.

"Mom!" Connor hissed, catching the Spaniel's attention. But before he could get his escape grate lifted up all the way, the front of the pen was opened. Peaches stamped both front paws, barked three sharp commands and charged.

The stunned handlers got stampeded.

Wesley quickly jumped back around the corner and pressed hard against the plaster corridor. "Damn! They're loose in the opposite direction."

Sam held the orb out. Within the already dim environment, the orb was too dark to be identified as any shade of blue. "I'm guessing that's them, though."

Wesley shook his head and rummaged in his pocket. He raised a tied, leather envelope to eye level. "I'm not close enough to attempt a reversal spell. Even if it'll work."

"Then we'll get close enough to try," Sam stated, grabbing hold of Wesley and taking the animals' cue.

Connor kept low, sometimes using his hands as he slipped through the upper rooms towards the ceremonial chamber. "Why would they do this on my turf?" he wondered aloud. The sound of his own voice made him suddenly aware of how much he'd gotten used to talking to Peaches.

He moved even faster.

Lilah held the largest of the blades at an angle and tried examining her makeup, but a reflected blur caught her attention instead.

Gavin motioned the guards forward, the priests towards the sides, and for Lilah to look at him. "You had to have it here!" he cursed, windmilling his left arm for the wranglers to focus.

"Don't kill any of them!" Her shout sounded shrill even in her own ears. "Control, control," she cautioned herself. "HURRY! Or I'm going to miss my window!" she cried.

Wesley and de Anza stopped just inside of the great room, stunned in place by the mayhem. The swirl of colors and bodies -- both animal and human -- had concentrated on the far side. Wesley glanced right. He tapped Samuel on the arm and directed him towards a piece of scaffolding.

But no sooner had they climbed to the top piece of ply board, the activity came to a halt. A sliver of dawn eked through the broken roof and, one by one, twelve of the animals dropped to the ground. Writhing, screeching, screaming... They began extending. Front limbs became arms; hindquarters, hips and thighs; paws became hands, muzzles shortened to noses until nearly all of them had regained his or her human form.

The black cat casually stepped over a few of the bodies to find an empty spot. She picked up a paw and licked at it, apathetic.

"Wow," Samuel voiced, awed. He turned for Wesley's opinion, but Wesley wasn't there.

Peaches barked at the Wolfram and Hart populace to remain back.

"Oh, no you didn't!" Lilah charged, robes roiling in her wake.

The dog and woman eyed one another, ferocious.

Connor's throat still felt raw from when he'd screamed. He hadn't been able to help Peaches, almost like he couldn't. Peaches had jumped at Lilah too quickly.

The blade had been very accurate.

Gavin wiped it on Lilah's robe and handed it off to one of the security crew, along with the ceremonial dagger that he picked out of Lilah's grip.

"I would have preferred to do that myself," she snapped, turning on her heel, the robe a puddle where she'd been.

Gavin eyed the wranglers who'd stopped to watch. "Now we couldn't have let her have any of the fun, could we have, guys?" He waited until a few of the crew had exchanged amused glances in agreement before he walked away, whistling a cheery tune.

Wesley, on a visual sweep of each room, dashed into the occupied one quickly.

"Kent!" He ignored the bruises on Wardlow's neck in favor of unbridling the young man's wrists. He uncoiled the duct tape carefully. "I'm so sorry. I suppose I can't keep her from disturbing everyone who knows me."

While rubbing the circulation back into his wrists and hands Kent flashed a grateful smile after Wesley had -- very gently -- removed the tape from over his mouth. "Guess not. You know what she was doing here, don't you?"

Wesley blanched. He sat back on his heels. "I don't what anyone was doing here, Kent. And you didn't have to let on that you did, either."

Wardlow's confusion put a crook on his mouth and crossed his brows. "What is it with you man? If you don't know about something, then it's not happening? You know what she is, what she does!"

Satisfied with the tidy ball that he'd made of the tape, Wesley placed it on the floor and eased himself to his feet. He tipped the ball into the corner with the toe of his boot. "You were a good man to use, Wardlow. I appreciated the help and, even though I've always paid you handsomely, it never felt as though you were just a hired hand."

Rising to his feet, Kent placed a conciliatory hand on Wesley's upper arm and nodded. "Yeah. It's always been like we're friends."

Wesley patted Kent's arm in kind, imperceptibly turning them both. With sleight-of-hand he reached into his pocket, past the leather envelope. Right after the short blade he retrieved switched into place, he pierced Kent's flesh, next to his spine with a non-lethal flick.

Wardlow dropped, not sure what had happened, only that his legs had lost the ability to carry his weight. To add injury to the sudden incapacity, Wesley bore all his weight down when he leaned into his ear.

"Consider this a personal dramatization for what a friend should never do to his friend."

0

"Got your cell?" Sam asked casually. He tipped his chin in appreciation to the new day's sun as it warmed his face. Ignoring the string of blood on top of Wesley's thumb as the phone was given, he elaborated, "I'll have the tribe bring blankets and stoves. The gang won't be as attentive as Dennis, but we'll be able to keep everyone safe and warm until they're fully themselves."

"And Deborah Abernathy?" Wesley prompted.

Sam bobbed his head in acknowledgement. "I'll let you know when you can come pick her up. So you can collect the rest of your fee."

Wesley waited until Sam had made his call. When he stowed the returned phone under his jacket's flap his thumb returned clean. "There's another human – a man..."

"That's not George," Sam assumed. His shrug was resigned. "George is dead; the spell ended with his life."

Wesley folded his arms across his chest. "A fail-safe? Reawakening was probably to coincide with the consequent dawn if something happened to him."

The Englishman was visibly troubled, but Sam let him be. What one woman wanted with thirteen human-souled animals wasn't a discussion to be had, however, "I'd love to stand here and hypothesize with you, Wes. It's not often I'll meet someone who knows so much about the supernatural. That spell you did..."

He retrieved the indigo orb from his pocket, enthralled. "Why are you wasting your talent on nickel-and-dime lost and founds when you could be helping more people? Like how you helped these other eleven?"

Wesley picked up the round vial and held it into the sun. The dark blue faded until it was completely clear. "For the nickels and dimes, Samuel. Unfortunately, for the nickels and dimes."

Inside the building, Connor knelt next to Peaches. The dog blinked and gasped, nearly hysterical as a rivulet of blood trickled over her eye. Connor cupped his hand, shielding the eye from the light and Peaches whimpered, relaxing.

"Don't die, please, don't die," he whispered.

Mucous streamed from Peaches' nose. Her 'woof' sounded more like a wheeze.

Connor wiped his grimy face with the back of his sleeve. He picked through her fur, unfastened the rag from around her neck and, after dotting her nose, pressed it against her chest wound. "I'm sorry I was so mean to you, Peaches. I'm sorry. All the people you rescued..." He neared her ear, then hugged her.

Hard.

"I can heal her," Samuel said, peeling the teen back and taking his place. "This is a good dog. A fine dog. What an excellent spirit aura she has!"

He smiled up. "She yours?"

Connor smashed the dampness off his cheeks. "I don't have a dog," he replied defensively. "I was here to help the humans. Take her. Heal her, if you want."

Samuel's gentle stroking continued to calm the wounded dog. "She likes you, but she's OK with coming with me." When he looked up again, the young man had nearly vanished. He raised his voice, "She just wants you to know that 'It was nice not being alone, too'."

0

The fluorescent lighting painted the elderly man's copper-toned skin a sickly shade of green. As absent as the force of his personality was the mantle of power Lilah was to have donned. His inert silence made her even angrier.

Jaeger moved to rezipper the body bag, but stopped when she didn't respond. "Ms. Morgan..." was nearly an apology.

Lilah's eyes narrowed. George Buenaobra had been just as mute the morning before. If only she'd gone to her office first...

Jaeger had thrown a tight, balled fist into Buenaobra's diaphragm. "Answer!" he'd grunted.

Resolved as ever, George had stared at Lilah and shaken his head 'no'. Again and again.

She'd placed her hand on Jaeger's sleeve to get the tall, bald man's attention. The string holding the patch over his right eye had seemed more strained than usual, dangerously close to garroting his skull. The one blue eye that had met her gaze held her in high esteem, as always.

"If you need more assistance, Ms. Morgan. Please." He'd stepped back from the center of the room into its lone shadow.

"You really want to stop pissing me off, old man," Lilah had warned. She'd leaned from behind and spoken next to his cheek. "Look, George, a contract is a contract and you signed the dotted line for thirteen specimens. Granted, we should have specified that all thirteen were supposed to be in one place for pick-up, not for round-up like a bunch of illegals, but who's picking nits?"

"I was wrong," George had rasped. "What I've done is wrong. I made thirteen, I'll make no more."

Lilah had straightened and backed away. After nodding to the two men guarding the room, they'd opened the double doors for her.

Gabrielle had been waiting patiently to deliver, "Mr. Park is in your office. Sitting in your chair."

"George, you've made this way too difficult. Sure you won't change your mind?" Lilah had asked in profile, delighting Gabrielle.

The restrained man had begun rocking his chair, defiant. "No more. The gambling is bad but this is worse. My people, my gods... What have I done?" he had wailed to the ceiling.

"Breached your contract, Georgie-pie. Jaeger, you know what to do," she'd directed, stupidly so in hindsight.

"It wouldn't have mattered anyway," she muttered, teeth clenched. "Decisions aren't made to regret," she could almost hear herself say to Wesley, or he to her. She closed her eyes and snorted in half-amusement.

Hadn't they become the symbionts?

0

Blown out of Wesley's path by the mild evening wind, dust and fichus leaves swirled to one corner of the building's courtyard. Usually meticulously maintained, a chipped tile in the outside staircase was glaringly out of place as was the lone flake of black paint missing from the wrought iron stair rail. The lighting seemed dimmer; there was a hint of mildew blossoming from under one of the landing's planters.

2179 Prospect was a great deal less homey in feel.

Apartment 9.

Wesley used his spare key, the one Cordelia had made for him one summer so very long ago. "I'll have tuna in the fridge," she'd said with a wink and for all the occasions that he'd had to visit her – for Angel-related business or just because they'd become good friends, there had always been tuna, right where she'd promised. (Although, oft times, he had to bring his own bread.)

Since he'd never seen her make the salad after that first day -- the same day he'd understood the word 'Shanshu' -- he'd come to the conclusion that Cordelia's roommate had assumed the chore.

If that were the case, Phantom Dennis made one damn fine tin of fish.

Wesley reached for the switch by the door, flicked it up, then back down. "Not enough to stop the disconnect this time," he muttered, taking stock of the empty room's size by the light drifting in from the streetlamps.

In the distance a car honked its horn, a mother called her children for supper. Inside the apartment he could hear himself breathe. "How did we ever get all of those books and supplies in here?"

Smoothing aside one half of the open draperies, he leaned against the window's sill. Dust. There was dust everywhere. Not quite three days and the cot, folded and propped against the wall, was even dust-laden. "Not that it doesn't fit the resident, Dennis, but the place looks positively ghostly."

Wesley braced himself, half-expecting the reflection of something coming at him for the insult. Nothing appeared. Wind sifted down the fireplace's open flue and stirred a clot of lint that feebly settled into the center of the room.

"Case solved, you'll be pleased to know. That de Anza fellow helped me work it out or I would have been out of my fee so... So we've another month to wait for Cordelia and then... Even with your rent reduction... "

Turning, he shifted all weight to his left foot and crossed his arms above his belt. "I suppose Fred and Gunn could have left you a broom at the very least. Hmmm? How do you keep yourself busy these days?"

One click. A song began playing from another room. Stations scanned. A single voice droned.

"Ah, yes." Wesley smiled. The announcer sounded fuzzy – whether from want of a better reception or because the radio had known newer days. The ex-Watcher followed it into the kitchen. "The news?" he asked, picking up the portable radio, reworking its antenna. "I thought you liked that oldies – " Wesley flicked the dial with his thumb.

The radio was yanked out of his grasp. The dial swerved wildly until it was back on its station.

With a bowed his head, Wes understood. "News. Of course. News of Cordelia?"

The radio died.

"There's no news, Dennis. Angel has been trying..." He hipped up onto the counter, sat slouching under the cabinets. "If anyone would know anything, it would be Angel..."

As quickly as he'd taken a seat, he was back on his feet being hurried along towards the door. "Alright. ALRIGHT! Or my girlfriend."

A comet of dust streaked through the air. Plastic crystals dangling from the room's chandelier clacked together. Curtains swooshed, rings whizzing on their rod, shutting off the light.

"I've paid the rent for another month... But, I'm afraid this is the last month, Dennis." Wesley cringed, expecting a retaliatory move that didn't come. He would have gladly welcomed the retribution. "I'd hoped -- But -- If she's..." He held his breath, barely speaking, "Lost, then..."

The door blasted open. The lint clot rolled into the wall.

"Dismissed," Wesley accepted. He stepped outside, bowing his head as the door slammed shut.

After Wesley settled back into his Liberty, he retrieved a mini-Maglite, pen and a notepad from the glove compartment. "To Buy: broom and batteries," he jotted.

As he underlined the last word a second time, a stray thought of Lilah entered his mind. And he smiled, in spite of willing himself not to.

0