AURORA by Evan Como (part three)

-0-

The District Attorney shook Wesley's hand firmly, deeply appreciative. "Her lawyer wasn't pleased to hear the news, of course. But they've thrown in the towel and she's confessed to all nineteen. Thank you again, SO MUCH, Mr. Wyndham-Price."

"And you'll keep the testimony sealed? And his name sequestered?"

The D.A. glanced at Detective Lockley before nodding her agreement to the witness' chaperone. "Sealed. In fact, this is all so sudden, we may squeak by without any major media leaks," she added before excusing herself to her childrens' soccer match.

Kate alternately squinted at Angel and Wesley. "So, Mr. Dead, you look hellaciously better than the last time I saw you. What's up with that?" When he cut a glare at Wesley instead of answering, she let the question slide; not that she really wanted to care anyway. "So, how is it that less than 20 hours ago, Wesley Wyndham-Price, you were on the most ship-out-able list and now you're a full-fledged American citizen? You all got evil backup in the I.N.S. now, too?"

"Forget it, Kate." Angel flipped his bandaged hand at her as he began to walk away.

"You BASTARD! Don't you think you owe me an explanation? You nearly destroyed my case and now you've saved the day. Why do you keep doing that?"

"Doing what?" Angel asked, too aggravated to turn around after stopping.

"Spooking back in and out of my life. Either stay in or out. Oh, wait. I'm sorry. What was I thinking? From now on I'll be doing my own 'evil verification' because I don't want you anywhere near my life. So help me, one day you're going to be sorry you ever stepped into it."

After Angel avoided his offer of a consoling pat on the back, Wesley huffed and walked past. "Why do I get the feeling you're not the only one who's going to be sorry they ever stepped in it?"

"One of you an 'Angel'?" the bailiff asked upon approach of the uncomfortable duo.

Wesley snorted cynically, pointing. "He is. What do you need him for?"

"Hey, I don't need him," the stocky, balding man retorted. "That serial gal said she has something to say to her family."

Angel stared at the creature named Cynthia Minn. For all his expertise, he would swear she was human. Completely and purely human, or at least that's what he sensed.

She smiled, a seductive grin that set her attractive features aglow. When he leaned away from her defensively, she wondered why her charm didn't work on his associate. "Aren't you going to ask me anything?"

Her voice was rich, melodic. There was a slight accent he detected, but nothing unique enough to place her origins. He had no idea what to ask. His concentration was lost somewhere between her allure and his throbbing hand. "You tell me," he stated, uninterested.

She dramatically placed her palms over hear heart and proclaimed, "I was born. I breathe. Human physiology complete with a beating heart and access to the broad daylight." When he seemed unimpressed, she frowned. "You met my real family, I believe. He dropped off a package to your offices..." That got the reaction she wanted and she smiled again.

"You're demon." He wanted to care, but the truth was he didn't. He wanted to start searching for Cordelia. When he motioned his intentions after stating his need to leave, the speed and strength she used when she rapidly pinned his hand to the table mesmerized him and he stayed put.

"You look like you have all the time in the world again, Angel." Slowly she began unwinding the gauze bandage from around his hand. Mesmerized, as well, she examined the wound in disbelief. Attempting to trace the scar with her fingertip, but couldn't bring herself to actually touch his flesh. "My."

"Look. You killed 19 guys that resembled me. No blood. That makes no sense. No brutality. That makes even less. You're telling me you're human. You're telling me you're vamp." Angel reclaimed his hand to reswathe. "You were born, so obviously you've been a long time coming, not something that just popped into the world overnight so at least I'm not going to be hearing I'm your daddy. Right?"

"I can do blood, but I choose not to. My brother loves the stuff. Can't get enough. Me? I'm still looking for the perfect carnitas taco. I killed those 19 guys all by myself, Angel. I planned it and almost got away with it. Other than picking up your friend by accident, I'm not sorry I did any of it. It felt, really, very good to do it."

"You know, I'm still fuzzy on the part how you confused my friend for me. He actually looks less like me than your victims. Oh, and the beating heart, the breathing, healthy skin tone..."

"Your signature. He reeked of you. Not just your clothing, there was something else that's hard to describe. I don't know. And then this soul of yours... What do I know? I thought maybe that makes you more alive-like. Or truth? I get off on accents. His Irish wasn't bad, but that English voice?" She squirmed in her chair. "Oh, don't tell me that you didn't realize every one of my victims had an accent of some type?"

Somehow it didn't surprise Angel that particular piece of information escaped his attention and he felt his temper flare.

"I confess I made a blatantly stupid error in judgement. In retrospect, I should have just killed him. He wouldn't have been you, but he would have been 20."

The way she sat there without remorse made Angel shudder. The way she casually described making Wesley 'number 20' made him uncomfortable. He tried not to think about the fact 24 hours earlier, he would have brutally attacked her for saying such a thing and now he was so angry at Wesley...

He sighed, wishing it was still 24 hours ago. "So, what were you trying to prove by killing me over and over again?"

"Nothing. It just seemed like it would be a hoot."

He stared at her in disbelief before he recognized the condition. She was--

"Soulless," she whispered as he mouthed the words. "That's right, Angel. I've got no soul."

She wanted to savor that precise moment when he figured it all out, knowing it would be a beautiful thing to see, but she didn't have that long to wait so she continued, "we are the perfect races, Angel. The strength of humanity, the strength of our demon aspects. Without souls we are unrestrained by natural laws. You can't detect me. You believe I'm human. If you can't read me...

"The Powers That Be... A Slayer... They can't detect you either. But my Messenger..."

"Is a threat. She is unique, Angel. Like you--unique and threatening. And destructible." She cracked her knuckles into a stretch. "We are opposites, you and I. I possess a life you do not. You possess a soul I do not. Which one actually makes us more human or less evil?"

There was no reason to attempt to answer her question because nothing about the way she asked it made it answerable. The returned chill to his body seemed to drop several degrees. After he rose to the sound of the opening conference room door, Cynthia Minn smiled lasciviously at him, capturing his eyes before she rushed the door so quickly even he had difficulty anticipating the movement.

The bang jolted him and he turned slowly around. Glancing down, he watched Cynthia Minn release her last mortal breath. Then, studying her lawyer, Angel had never seen Lee Mercer with any expression other than a self-satisfied one--until that moment. Squeezing his eyes together, Angel reopened them slowly to test for a dream as the smell of purely human blood began to permeate the room.

Before Mercer could say whatever was on his mind as he wiped the side of his face with a hanky, Angel simply pushed past the man and Kate Lockley. Kate's unappreciative glare was devastating and Angel knew, even if he was to ask for a fold in time, one day would never be long enough.

-0-

They stared at him, mute while they gazed at his hand. Disgusted by their reactions, Angel re-rolled the bandage, tucking the end it into place. "Alright then, if you have no idea what THIS means, then tell me where Cordelia is."

She blinked. He blinked. They blinked in unison. Still nothing.

"C'mon," Angel pleaded insolently, looking towards the ceiling to study the tips of the room's arched columns. "Aren't you going to listen to The Auguries or something? Can't you be even a little bit helpful?" When they continued to stare, he rudely snapped his fingers in front of their faces.

He really wanted to hit one of them, but couldn't decide which one he disliked more.

The female thoughtfully stepped forward and circled Angel warily. "The Auguries pronounced you dead. Are you an apparition? Have you been recast as other?"

"What the fuck are you talking about? Excuse my French." He raised his hands and pointed at the covered right. "I've been cured. Hello?"

The male tentatively reached out and poked Angel's arm. "You seem solid enough, but magic often takes form. Your presence is... obscured. If you are who you claim to be."

"You can't 'see' me," Angel mumbled under his breath. "What happened to me?"

"Health is what happened to you, Warrior Angel." The female stepped closer and also poked at him, before concentrating on his face. "I believe it may actually BE him," she spoke to the male. "But, like you, your Messenger is hidden from our view."

"But you see her Gift. If you can find the Gift, you can find her."

"The Gift is a means of communication, Warrior Angel. Severed from her Warrior, we have no contact with her. Any aspect of her." The male listened to the silence for a moment as he continued to study The Warrior's hopeful face. "The Auguries are unsure what has occurred--only that you have regained your immortality. Beyond the obvious, much needs to be studied."

Meeting to depart, they nodded to one another. After the male turned, the female paused and allowed a sudden thought to deeply furrow her brow. "Warrior Angel," she called out before the vampire reached the portal entrance," do not look upon this as an unfortunate circumstance. Sometimes that which appears to be stolen, may have only been taken for safekeeping."

When Angel stepped through the portal, Wesley shoved off the wall he was leaning against. He allowed Angel space while the furious Warrior stomped past and, as he followed several paces behind, he wondered what good the Oracles were if Angel was never going to speak to him again.

-0-

"No, Miss Chase. The scar on your scalp had absolutely NOTHING to do with Angel's cure. I cured him. Just that plain and simple."

Gulping her iced tea, Cordelia eyed the old guy like she didn't believe him. The truth was, she really didn't. "So, AugieDoggieDaddy, then what you're saying is you just came in and went 'abracadabra'? Puh-leeze!"

"Ra thrasha ho'ash thrasha ma cha'mae. Not abracadabra. I never understood where that came from, silly nonsense. Although, I suppose if one were to create an incantation around it..."

"Hmmmmm." Over the top of her sunglasses, Cordelia followed the sleek lines of a Daytona Spyder easing past their sidewalk table. "And you're saying that means his disease. And all these eons everyone's been mispronouncing the catch phrase. Wow. THAT'S lame. You know, we've been sitting around for MONTHS trying to figure out something important for it to wind up being nothing."

Augustine's hearty laugh felt so wonderful, he gave into it longer than necessary for the situation. "Hardly 'nothing', Miss Chase. Are you so jaded that pure wizardry means absolutely nothing to you?"

She swung her fork as she spoke between bites of her salad, "oh, I dig magic as much as the next guy. You shoulda been there when our friend Willow restored Angel's soul? Now THAT was cool! She got all gooney and started speaking some language out the top of her head. What you did? Nah. We got gypped. You owe me big time if you think you're gonna impress."

"Alright. I'll owe you. Big time? You're a very tough critic." He mimed a signature in the air before returning his attention to the attractive skeptic. Afterwards, with his cheek resting in his hand, Augustine studied his ward. "So. We've done Rodeo and lunch. What would you like to do now? More shopping? Whatever will make you happy--even though you realize THINGS are only things and, while they may aid in your general contentment, they will never truly make you happy."

"Look, Yoda, I'm young. When you're young, things make you happy. When you're old, growing flowers and doing crossword puzzles make you happy. Like Wesley. He's way old."

Wesley and his word puzzles, Augustine remembered fondly, amazing himself by remembering the young man with any fondness at all. "I'm sure Wyndham-Price won't be pleased to know he's been deemed geriatric. At any rate, what's next on our agenda?"

She stopped mid-bite and set the utensil into her dish while she seemed to mull over his question. "I NEVER thought I'd be the one to ever say this, but I'm SO over shopping right now. Let's blow this taco stand. Flip a couple for the tip so you cruise me back."

Augustine chuckled. He barely comprehended most of her vernacular, but so enjoyed the adorable way she spoke it. He signed the receipt, tucking it and the credit card into his billfold next to the other reminders of Cordelia Chase's extravagant taste.

"Work?" After she nodded, he replied, "oh, no, Miss Chase. I thought I explained this all to you after your abduction. I've stolen you from the vampire for your safety and now I'm just waiting around for a few more aspects of Prophecy to present themselves--or not--and then we'll be going back to England. You'll have a very nice life at Council while we determine how best to remove your Visions--"

He studied the young woman with even less understanding. On her face was absolute terror. "You can trust me on this. We wouldn't do anything to injure you. The Council's directive is to protect life, not harm it..." But his words did not ease her anxiety. "Surely, you don't want to keep them? What on earth would possess a pretty young woman to want to live her life surrounded by demons when she could be living a perfectly normal one?"

"Because Angel needs me," Cordy replied matter-of-factly, with no excuse better than the truth.

-0-

"...and you didn't even try to stop him, Wesley. You just let him take Cordelia out of here like she was NOTHING. And now you can't even look me in the eye, you asshole!" Angel splashed water into the kettle before slamming it down on the stove and turning the flame to high.

"Name calling isn't going to get her back, Angel. And, shouldn't you be watching your language, by the way?"

"Fuck you." Angel pivoted and strode towards Wesley purposefully. Furious, he shoved the bandaged palm within an inch of Wesley's nose. "C'mon, Wes. It's just a minor-- What? Cut. Abrasion. Burn. How would you describe it because the Oracles didn't have a clue."

Wesley backswept Angel's hand and returned the Vampire's gaze without flinching. "You dare to mock a miracle, Angel?"

"Sorcery, Wesley. Council sorcery. If they can't kill me then they'll fuck with my mind?"

Offended, Wesley snorted and turned away. "After everything you've-- Personally, Angel, I don't even want to consider the metaphysical ramifications of your wound. Or it's purpose. Or how Augustine knew exactly what to do. Or WHY to even do it."

"So, you got a literal translation yet? Or you gonna keep me in suspense because you're so fucking superior with your ancient occult languages?"

"I don't have a key for it, Angel." Frustrated, Wesley massaged his temples with every finger, wishing he had a few more to help with the job. "It must be something very ancient. Phoenician? It sounded vaguely like an ancient Nile tongue but I--"

"SHUT UP ALREADY!" Angel took to pacing the apartment but, after a few lengths, he stopped to overturn one of his chairs. "I HATE YOU," he shouted across the room.

Wesley, smirking, reached under a book. "Well, at least you've got your eternity back to carry your grudge don't you?" he pronounced at Angel, striding up to the vampire's position. When Angel nearly swung at him, Wesley leaned back as a spirited 'hah' accompanied his amusement.

"Your vow to The Powers That Be won't let you hit me, will it?" He polished an envelope against Angel's chest before turning his back on the growling being. "You still haven't even figured out her Vision wasn't for you, Angel. It was for Augustine. Perhaps she was a trade. Her life for ours."

"The price was too high."

Wesley wouldn't allow himself to agree with Angel. Instead, he stood there and held Angel's defiance with his own before finally turning away.

Picking up the envelope, Angel frisbee'd it. "You need to be happy I can't kick your ass," he seethed. The sage-colored packet with its navy border and brown button tie nearly hit Wesley in the ear as it sailed past.

Carelessly tossing his glasses onto the kitchen countertop before returning, Wesley answered, "oh, you can kick my ass, Angel. In fact, I'm inviting you to kick my ass! And after you kill me, I'm going to haunt your soul. We'll both be immortal. And the delicious irony of the entire situation is I'll still be in your shadow."

"You don't want to do this," Angel warned, really hoping Wesley did.

"Why not, Angel?" Wesley taunted as he approached. "Why don't I want to do this. Because you're angry? REALLY angry? YOU'RE angry. And you can't blame it on the demonic aspect because, other than your immortality and the supernatural strength you'll be using, the demon has NOTHING to do with this. It's all you."

Angel felt intoxicated as his temper flared and he swallowed hard, trying to maintain some focus on his prey. Wesley dodged the first blow, then another before extending his lead leg to hook his ankle around Angel's. The motion Wesley used was fluid, flawless as he squatted and drove his shoulder into Angel's midsection. Angel fell, hard, to find himself with his face in the flooring as Wesley scrambled to pin him down. His anger fully unleashed, Angel cursed his predicament.

He really hated to wrestle.

The two males flailed at one another, Wesley at the obvious advantage as he used his skill to prevent Angel from taking to his feet. He didn't have the strength to actually hurt the vampire, but more than enough technique to use Angel's unfocused rage as counterbalance. The ground-level combat also prevented Angel from placing any real power behind his blows, causing the vampire--despite his renewed health--to lose his stamina along with the fight.

Angel tried to stand, but Wesley lurched forward and took him out again at the calves. His cheek squeegied when Wesley yanked him backwards and pinned him again. Angel twisted right, then left without any success until he swung his legs up and over to somersault away from his opponent. Before he could vault upwards, Wesley managed to latch around his waist and smack Angel down onto his belly.

Extremely irate, Angel despised his disadvantage. "Stand up!" he groaned, as Wesley pulled his arms behind his back, with Wesley's bony knee grinding uncomfortably into the center of his spine.

"How's it feel to get your ass kicked, Angel? I'm just a puny human being and I'm kicking your ass," he sang.

That was the last straw. Angel hated sing-song, especially coming from an Englishman. He snarled and swiveled his chest, breaking Wesley's hold. And then as he stood, he swept Wesley off the ground in one motion to set him upright. Crimping Wesley firmly at the shoulder Angel's smirk, devious, eased into wicked. As Wesley grimaced from the exacting pain, Angel reached back and let his fist fly but it barely made contact when Wesley swerved his head away from the punch.

"You invited me, Wes. And now you don't wanna dance? You're just a big tease!"

"That's right, Angel. I'm a tease. Well, I'm tired of teasing. Did it ever cross your mind I may have been working for Council all these months while I've been with you? What if my role was to see if the PTB really had found a way to infiltrate humanity? What if? What if I planted the necromonger and all of this was an elaborate set up. And what if, in the end, I was the one who got SC-REWED because my assignment didn't end when Augustine came in here and rescued your wretched existence from oblivion?"

Angel's grasp loosened; he began to exercise the fingers of his free hand.

"That look on your face. What's that, Angel?" Wesley continued, leaning in to mock-study his adversary. "Trying to reject my theory? See, it's all in the pitch. You don't know if I'm lying or not because it all sounds perfectly plausible. You--the master puppeteer as puppet? Where's that rage, now?"

Angel smacked Wesley across the side of the head, spilling him onto the floor. "Why didn't he let me die? Why didn't he kill me?"

"Not his place, Angel. Maybe it's mine. Maybe one day when you least expect it there'll be payback for what you did to me."

"What I did to you? What you did to me! What you're making me do now!"

His ring broke Wesley's cheek after Angel squatted and delivered a brisk slap. Shaking his head negatively, Wesley smeared his backhand against the side of his face without flinching. "What YOU'RE doing because you want to, Angel. Do it. I dare you, you patronizing bastard! You don't think I've been trained for this? But it's harder to PHYSICALLY hurt me, isn't it? But it was, oh, so easy to undermine my authority with your girlfriend!"

"Now the truth comes out!" When Wesley reached up and grabbed him at the shoulders, Angel found himself pinned on the floor again with Wesley's fist glancing across his nose. He was impressed. Annoyed, but impressed before he bucked Wesley over. "Is that why you made me feed on her?" Crawling on hands and knees, he was ready to leap until a surrounding presence distracted him for a moment.

"Don't blame me for your appetite, Angel."

"Then don't blame me for losing your Slayers, Wesley. You're not mad at me. You're mad at Augustine because he took Cordelia instead of you!"

Wesley swung wildly, catching Angel's deflecting wrist. "Well, lookey here. How would you know THAT'S exactly what I'm pissed off about? Revival with intuition?"

Angel sprung forward and pushed Wesley back hard into an erratic slide. Coming to a stop, he raised his open hand, prepared to erase the pomposity from Wesley's face but stopped just short of completion when the hand seemed to pulse its vehement disapproval from underneath the wrapping.

"Not intuition, Wesley," he answered, his anger dissipating into despair. "Intimate knowledge. Because that's why I'm pissed off, too."

Wesley, heaving, squinted at Angel. Angel, also heaving, ignored the examination to draw his legs to his chest and bury his head into the top of his knees. Moaning, Wesley tried not to concentrate on the howling pain from his possibly-dislocated jaw.

"Hey, Angel. How's your hand?" she asked as she reached down to separate the pair. Lifting Wesley's chin, she studied his bruised eye before expressing displeasure over the new scratch. "You guys! Separate. Now, scoot!"

"You're... back!" Squeezing his eyes, Angel reopened them slowly, pleased to discover he wasn't dreaming.

"By the way, Wesley," Cordelia began as she plopped down beside him with a few of her shopping bags, "Angel never kept Buffy from you. She just always liked Giles better. Besides, you were too busy flirting with me half the time to do your job right." When Angel almost laughed, she administered her most stern look at him. "Hey! We don't want to get into your drama, do we?"

Wesley attempted to avoid Augustine's scrutiny when, after the old man deposited the rest of Cordelia's bags by her side, he took his turn to lift Wesley's chin and give the young man a once-over.

"Oh, my God, Cordelia!" Wesley exclaimed, pulling away from the attention as she danced a skirt in mid-air. "Is that shantung? And, don't tell me those are the Manolo's you put your name on the waiting list for! You were number 240! How did--" He looked at Augustine with disbelief as he was handed his glasses and a cup of tea. "Magic! SIR!" He didn't attempt to disguise his abhorrence. "For retail! Really!"

Augustine shrugged.

"No fair! Council wouldn't even allow me one pair of tailor-mades before I came to America. I had to go off the rack at Spenser and Marks, off-price if you please! She must have thousands of dollars in merchandise here--"

"I bought you something, Wesley." Cordelia flashed a huge grin as she tapped Wesley's arm with the designer shopping bag.

"Ooooh, really?" After setting his cup on the floor, Wesley eagerly received his present, carefully extracting it from its tissue wrap. "Is this cashmere? Oh. It's beautiful! Thank you."

"I KNEW you'd like it. I got something for you, too, Angel, but I'll give you it later."

"You'll have to get a nice pair of pants to go with that, Wes," Angel commented. He reached in and out quickly to feel the quality of the fine knit while Wesley unmercifully leered at him.

Augustine chuckled, "yes, please do, Wyndham-Price. I don't know of anyone who wears linen anymore."

"See, Wesley," Cordelia agreed when Wesley approved of another purchase. "I've been trying to hook you up in the style department. So has Angel..."

"Well, I just don't like synthetics. Angel can wear them fine. Microfibers look great clinging to his shoulders but I don't have his bulk. I much prefer natural fibres."

"He does have a point there about his frame, Miss Chase. Although, the retirement community ensemble you've got on there.... When DID you get so old? Tsk. Tsk. Tsk." After Augustine handed Angel a cup, he bent over and took hold of Wesley's elbow. "Enough with your Cotton Incorporated moment. Come, Wyndham-Price, let Miss Chase have a moment with her employer while I tend to those injuries."

The much older man dabbed just inside Wesley's nostril with the cotton swab. "She's quite something," he commented, going about his medical attendance. "No wonder he's so charmed. She's just enchanting!"

Wesley rolled his eyes and pushed Augustine's hand aside as he studied Angel and Cordelia in the center of the room. "It's a good thing you brought her back when you did, I guess..."

"Or what? Hmmmm? You'd be dead?" Augustine pulled a chair and followed Wesley's attention. "He wouldn't have killed you. Maybe broken a limb or something to teach you a lesson. What possessed you to grapple with a vampire?"

"Stupidity."

"Oh, hardly, I'd say." When Wesley turned to him skeptically, Augustine beamed at his former student. "He's taken by her, absolute captivated. Wouldn't say I blame him at all. What do you make of the situation?"

"I try not to make anything of it. And, don't look at me that way. I'm not jealous. She knows how to handle him, I guess." He snorted acrimoniously. "Cordelia, the Vampire Trainer. Has a clever ring to it. Might make a comedic television show."

"I don't know, Wyndham-Price. It sounds like you're jealous to me. But of whom? She's too young for you to be romantically involved with and I'm not seeing anything romantic between them. Odd, whatever it is they've got. No. I think you're jealous of her. He indulges her, but he won't with you. He makes you work for your affection."

Wesley winced. "You make it sound so... licentious. He's just a really good guy and I think she takes advantage of him." He studied the pair very carefully and thought aloud, "I'm afraid he'd quite literally allow her to get away with murder."

Augustine considered the ominous tone in Wesley's voice, ignoring it by tapping the worried young man for attention. "In that fight, you knew what you were doing. Maybe you don't know why. But you made him fight YOUR fight and when he took the upper hand, he was still at YOUR mercy. Funny."

Wesley heaved, "I'm SO pleased to still be able to entertain you with my own comedic situation, Sir. At least some things never change."

Augustine stifled his chortle. "It's FUNNY, Wesley, all those years I had you in training I couldn't do what, within a few months, a vampire has taught you to. Perhaps it's good he doesn't indulge you. You've finally started using your instincts. But don't show him all the tricks up your sleeves. He's still a demon, young man, and you might want to hold onto something in reserve... Just in case."

Cordelia tipped her head left, then right to study Angel's hand. "That's a trippy trip, Angel. And now you feel great?"

"Depending on the definition of 'great'." He grimaced when she prodded the swollen still-tender area. "Did he tell you what it means? Why he did it?"

"Just something about Prophecy." She tried to rewrap the gauze but gave up on her disorderly attempt, balling the bandage before setting it into the center of Angel's palm. "You know, it just hit me. This must really hurt like a mo-fo."

"CORDY!" Angel barked.

The two men looked away from their private conversation and studied Cordelia standing shock-still in the center of the room at Angel's fingertip length, his wounded hand swept far behind his back. After staring her down, his disapproval remained even after he stormed away.

"At least he's beginning to have some idea of what's occurred to him," Wesley remarked quietly as Cordelia inhaled and exhaled deeply before turning to join them.

Augustine disagreed. "He has no concept of what any of this means, Wesley. To him, the wound is merely a logo--no more or less important than a swoosh or a sea shell. His fear is, perhaps, the crucifix means nothing more to her. Are you alright, Miss Chase?"

She smiled wanly as she reached into the refrigerator and extracted a beverage to offer the gentleman. When he declined, she took another out and placed one before Wesley before taking a chair of her own.

Augustine couldn't determine what puzzled him more after that. Whether it was the continued impairment of the young woman's spirits or the onset of one of Wesley's allergy attacks when Miss Chase made a comment about the bad timing of her flippant remark before switching the two drinks, remembering Mango was Wesley's favorite.

-0-

"How much of that did you see?" Angel questioned Augustine. Too much of the late afternoon was streaming in through the office windows but he was too drained to get up and shutter them.

"Almost all of it. Miss Chase decided the two of you 'needed to stop being such girls' and let you have at one another." After accepting the offered chair, Augustine leaned forward with his palm open. He smiled, patient when Angel seemed to think twice before extending his hand for inspection.

Augustine examined his handiwork, touching the symbol pensively. "I figured you'd be no different than the others," he commented cryptically.

When the old man smoothed the wound, the swelling reduced considerably; the throbbing lessened to a sting; the searing fire softened to a comforting warmth. He wanted to ask so many questions, but the only one Angel managed was, "the others?"

"Hmmmmmmm. Very few Warriors survive the initial ritual."

That wasn't especially comforting to know and he pushed away his sudden thoughts. "You have to take Cordelia away. And Wesley. Both of them. Away from here... From me. I'm destroying them." That overwhelming sense of failure swept through his core and he struggled to keep it from his appearance. "I should be doing this on my own, anyway. Do you think you can take the Gift from Cordelia? Make her normal again?"

"First off, Warrior Angel, Miss Chase doesn't want to be whatever 'normal' is. She threatened to 'book me' and escape if I didn't bring her back. I don't understand half of what she says, but I got the feeling I don't ever want to be booked." He acknowledged Angel's slight good humor. "And Wesley? I have no place to take him back to, ultimately. No, their place is here with you for the time being because whatever you're doing, you shouldn't be doing on your own. I won't deliberately avert Prophecy."

"They're part of Prophecy?" he asked hesitantly.

"Perhaps. Or not. A puzzle, Angel. Prophecy is bits and pieces of this and that all swirled together where none of it means anything while most of it is of great import."

"You sound like The Oracles." Augustine's laughter, completely unexpected, troubled Angel. "You're from The Powers That Be? You ARE the Powers That Be? Running the Council of Watchers?"

"Oh, no. I don't run Council. It's been ages since I've had much authority there, even. And I'm not of your Powers That Be. I am a Visioner. Not the only one although there are fewer of us than there used to be, at least on the side of good. And you, dear Angel, may actually be THE Warrior." He frowned slightly at Angel's response. "You look relieved. You were expecting to find out you weren't?"

"I'm just glad you didn't tell me I was The Promised One. You know," he hovered his face-down palm above the desktop.

"Then it's a good thing I haven't told you the spell's meaning. Unless, of course, Wyndham-Price figured it out? He was always the best translator. Anything he could do on his own..." When Angel's face brightened with anticipation, Augustine let the subject drop. Not his place to share a man's secrets, he reminded himself.

"At any rate, you continue to surprise me. Everyone is a Promised One at some point in their lives, Angel. I became one of yours and you'll eventually meet everyone you've been promised to. Your humility, though, is admirable. Despite the fact your cure may have tremendous significance, you have enough respect--or skepticism--to avoid exalting yourself."

"So this means--"

"It doesn't matter what it means. At least for right now. You'll have many more trials during the journey ahead to dwell on the symbolism or spiritual connotations. Or to consider that, perhaps, nature decided to amuse itself and it may actually mean nothing. You have to find your own beliefs, Angel, just like the life you have is only yours to lead. Just keep remembering you don't have to do any of this all by yourself."

"Am I interrupting?" Peeking in from a crack in the door, Wesley waited until Augustine rose and offered his chair before entering the room.

"Where's Cordelia?" Angel asked, worried.

"Talking to Harry. Telling her all about EVERYTHING. I had to escape. I hope you don't mind..." He tried to fight the disappointment he felt when Augustine fled to the outer office.

"Admiration," Angel commented. To Wesley's raised brows, Angel tipped his head and added, "that look in his eyes. He's proud of you." Just as expected, Wesley tucked his chin to blush. "I'm sorry. You know. For beating up on you. I should know better--"

"I provoked you, Angel. I should know better."

"You didn't. I mean... The pact you think I have with The Powers That Be... There isn't one. They've never actually mentioned I could or couldn't beat up or kill humans. Doyle didn't give me a list of do's and don't's when he showed up."

"Oh. I just thought that since Whistler's been keeping Mahoe in line... Perhaps it's the PTB's highest form of compliment, Angel, that you don't need direct supervision."

"Yeah, I guess. But it would be nice to know sometimes if I'm doing my job OK."

"Well, I can identify with that situation." He averted Angel's inspection, rising to close the elevator grate when Cordelia rang for it.

"But thanks for the invitation, anyway." When Wesley's strange expression lightened, so did Angel's anxiety. "So, again. I'm really sorry. I'll try not to ever do it again."

"And that's it?" Wesley retook his seat to watch Angel replay their conversation in his mind. "You're not going to ask me to forgive you?"

"I said I was sorry, Wes. That's all there is to it. You don't need to forgive me."

"Is your existence so singular, Angel, that you require so little from the people around you? By refusing to ask for my forgiveness, your apology means very little other than to let me know I do not participate in your life. That's very one-sided because you're very much a participant in mine."

"Stop being such a girl, WeSley. Sorry is sorry. I am. Sorry. I don't see why you're making such a big deal out of this."

The 's' in his name wasn't lost on Wesley and it, unexpectedly, irritated him. "Because it IS a big deal. To me. It's not my duty to forgive you but my privilege. And if I can't, then it's my loss. But by denying me access to the most basic aspect of my humanity, you're not only hurting yourself--you're hurting me. You're saying--"

"Not much of ANYTHING, Wesley," Cordelia replied with the elevator's grate squealing in harmony. "Did anyone ever tell you that you use way too many words when you talk? Ask him to forgive you, Angel."

"It doesn't count if you tell him to, Cordelia. He has to do it because he wants to."

"You want to, right, Angel? So go ahead and do it or else this guy is NEVER going to shut up."

When Cordelia rolled her eyes at Wesley's sneer, Angel rose. It really didn't matter the two had begun to bicker again because he was able to tune them out. Shifting the blinds a little more open, he was just pleased things were beginning to return to normal.

-0-

Mahoe stormed the office just as Angel concluded his explanation of Cynthia Minn's confession. He ignored the three humans and pushed Whistler aside to take a step directly in front of Angel's desk. Glaring, he placed his knuckles on the desktop and menacingly leaned across to the other demon.

"I can't believe you're still alive!"

Angel, annoyed, huffed, "but I do believe you're still a prick!"

Whistler bumped the subversive Warrior out of the way and retook his stance. "Well, we're all shafted, Angel, because the piece of her puzzle means nothing without the board. We have no what's, when's, where's, or why's." When that only made four fingers up, Whistler balled his fist and threatened the still-looming Mahoe.

Stepping forward, Wesley smoothed a pencil-marked piece of steno paper on Angel's desktop, placing the infamous necklace next to it. "I found this paper on Lão before disposing of the body--a nasty bit of business, might I add, because a Fowr'Cedcorudor is not only horrid to look at on the outside--"

"That pendant. May I see it?" After Angel handed the necklace to him, Augustine rubbed at the pearly stone for a moment before setting it back on the desk. "And that looks like a map of some sort. Do you know the location?"

"I can't believe the bad guys would drop off a body complete with an accurate map of their whereabouts, Elder Augustine," Whistler remarked. "They've been too smart, too discreet. Too long."

"Have they? I found this tucked away in--" After gaining everyone's attention, Wesley reached across to study the map a little closer. "Well, never mind where it was tucked. They obviously didn't search the body. They just wanted to make their point. And they wanted to be very loud about it. Minn's brother didn't need to flash himself when he came."

"True," Augustine nodded. "Sounds as if someone's getting very presumptuous."

Wesley happily accepted the validation. "Precisely!"

"Interjection."

"What, Cordelia?"

"THAT was an interjection."

She genuinely confounded him at times with those unexpected flashes of intelligence. "What does grammar have to do with deciphering what few clues we have?" Wesley asked, trying to maintain his reserve.

"Nothing. But what if they're so proud of themselves they can't wait for the big day without sneaking the surprise?" After all eyes turned to her, Cordelia grinned. "They think they're smarter than everyone else, WESLEY, so they have to show off."

Augustine mentally applauded Miss Chase's humbling expertise. "Of course their overconfidence could be generating carelessness. They must be close to setting their offensive off. Perhaps everything is already in place and the troops are just getting antsy."

"It's just too simple, though," Angel disagreed.

"But is it, Angel? Are you so been-there/done-that, simple won't do ya anymore? Check it out, what if everyone is waiting for some really really HUGE, major, giant, apocalyptic event and it only turns out to be something kinda normal, average, mundane--"

"Enough, Cordelia! I GET it."

"Wait, Wes." When Angel involuntarily raised his right hand, he glanced at it while detecting Cordelia's nodding head in his peripheral vision. "I just don't like it, though," Angel commented, trying to imagine a better idea. Giving up, he opened his top drawer and tossed the Plymouth's keys up to Wesley. "But it looks like we should probably take a look, if nothing else."

"The HUMAN's not coming!" Mahoe objected.

Angel eyed the protesting demon condescendingly. "Maybe YOU'RE not coming, Mahoe. Did that happen to cross your mind? Whistler, I need you to stay in case Cordelia has a Vision. Or to stop Lord Council, here, if he decides he wants to take her out with the plastic again."

"Mahoe's such a loser, Whistler." Seated in Angel's vacated chair, Cordelia studied her nails. "Where'd you get him from?"

"We're getting 'em from wherever we can find 'em, Cordy," Whistler replied. Taking a chair, he kicked his heels up on the edge of the desk. "Wow, Aug. Could you have waited until the LAST possible minute to show up? We almost lost him the other morning. So, when you going back?"

As Cordelia gasped, Augustine considered the question. He remained silent for the entire duration of her Vision before stepping forward to begin the soothing massage remedy. He regarded Whistler. "I'm not sure when I'm going back, old friend" he commented ruefully. "But let's see what the Messenger has to say about that."

-0-

Angel landed softly, perfectly poised, as he dropped from the skylight into the empty office. Stepping out of direct sunlight, he finally dropped his protective covering and waited for the rope and his two companions to follow. Wesley expertly descended and took a place next to Angel while the two of them waited for Mahoe. They shared an unsympathetic, knowing glance when Mahoe lost his foothold and slid the last 10 feet.

"Where'd they get this guy from?" Angel whispered rhetorically in Wesley's ear before rounding back for the door.

He passed Wesley one of his sheathed knives along with a cautious glance and the human, as always, acknowledged the implication. That didn't mean Wesley would actually avoid conflict, of course; but, he was good at humoring Angel's concern.

"Fuerza de la Escogida," Wesley butchered, reading from a piece of stationery on the desk by their exit. After swallowing with some difficulty, he turned to Angel, attempting to subdue his apprehension.

"I still don't get how you can speak all these demon tongues, Wes, but every romance language you touch... Fuerza de la Escogida," Angel repeated correctly, his beautiful pronunciation in marked contrast to Wesley's. After completing the linguistic display, he actually took the time to translate. "Strength of--"

"Force of The Chosen One."

"Furza esco," Mahoe echoed, nodding his head. "Whatever, ladies. Let's get a move on!"

"I don't like this, Angel. I've been trying to avoid reading too much into what's been going on, but now this has gotten very strange."

Angel couldn't help but make light of the irony in Wesley's statement. "Strange is what we do, Wesley. Although, I totally get your point. I say we go tech-y about this--find an accessible terminal and pilfer information." He waited a moment longer and, after a nearby presence faded from his sensory perception, he led the three of them into a vacant hallway.

"Dammit! These longer days," Angel complained, quickly backing against the wall.

Wesley couldn't have agreed more as he looked both ways down the skylighted hallway. He rushed back to retrieve Angel's cloak from their touchdown point, trying to shake the unholy connotations of where they had broken into and why the top floor had been constructed the way it was.

-0-

Whistler squirmed, uncomfortable with his disguise. "You realize this is probably NOT going to work. And what if he's already prepared for you? I say just let Angel and the guys handle it--" But when Augustine rang the delivery door bell anyway, he fell silent.

Cordelia waited until she was given her signal before leaving the safety of the luxury rental. Stepping into the building, she averted her eyes from Augustine and Whistler undressing two unconscious workers. "I take it one of those is going to be for me?" she asked, unthrilled with the prospect of wearing some stranger's uniform.

Whistler held up the jumpsuit and shook his head in dismay. "Too long for me, obviously. Although, Aug, you could..." He wiggled his fingers at the uniform, the suggestion left incomplete when Cordelia whisked it from his hands before smacking him across the arm. "Hey!" he half-complained, wishing he could find some way to get her to touch him again.

"If Walty keeps doing the poofty-do for everything, he's going to get real tired, real fast. He shouldn't be wasting his strength. We can spend a little time working at this, Whistler. Not that I wanna break into a sweat or anything like this guy," she sniffed, unhappy with the condition of her scented apparel.

"Cordy shouldn't even be here," Whistler vented while rolling under the sleeves and hems of his uniform. Feeling only partially dressed without his customary hat, he tousled the wisps of hair on his scalp. "Unless you're waiting for another Vision?" he ventured.

"We'll see." Augustine waved two fingers in reply and his accomplices prudently followed the silent command. "Miss Chase is here because she's supposed to be, Whistler. If for no other reason than the fact Angel will need her."

-0-

Wesley took one deep breath, then another. He knew it wasn't impossible--for him--to spend the rest of the evening suspended behind a corner instead of investigating another corridor. When he reflected on how ridiculous it had been for him to insist they separate at Mahoe's suggestion, he found himself longing for some of the courage that had caused him to initiate the earlier fight with a vampire.

Being with Angel always made him feel more courageous, he knew in his heart, and attempting daring deeds on his own just didn't have the same appeal.

The Saturday evening atmosphere of the building should have relaxed him more, but there were too many concepts running through his mind. He hated being confronted by co-incidence; hated thinking that, perhaps, life really was already formulated and just waiting for the actual performance. A thought of Galina's brief presence in his life made him wince. Was everything that occurred--including all the people or beings he met--only meant to predict the next series of events, or the next individuals?

He struggled to concentrate only on the task directly ahead. But, instead, he could only focus on the fact he was waiting to take another next step in his repetitious life without company. Doom, invisible but genuine, seemed to jeer as it shoved at him and he despised that feeling more than anything. "Stop it, Wez," he whispered to himself, anxiety threating to completely immobilize him. "I can do this," he spoke, willing to accept self-delusion for bravery if that was all he could summon.

"Do what?" she asked with her red fingernails walking across his shoulder blade.

The obnoxious tone of her lower-class accent made Wesley freeze before he felt her presence--a familiar presence. Her smile was sultry when she eased around to face him and he was captured by the recognition of what she was and her pale, strange beauty. When she touched him, he gulped a breath, instantly flustered by the equally familiar chilly contact.

"Look what I found!" she called out as she pushed Wesley beyond the corner.

After taking a worried look around, Mahoe hurried to them. "What are you doing?" he asked, his voice hoarse from trying to restrain his obvious dissatisfaction with the turn of events.

She moaned enthusiastically, her hand idly traveling sideways from her thigh to her earlobe while the human's fear permeated her being. "I'm going to take him," she stated. "Do you want to watch?"

Closing her eyes, she leaned into Wesley and waited for her transformation, disappointed with being far too aroused by the human's emotional state for it to occur. The intensity of her bloodlust diminished somewhat after Mahoe wrenched her away and tossed her against the wall.

Mahoe yanked Wesley aside. "I'll be so happy when things are back to normal," he complained. "Obviously this is the place, but where are the hybrids?"

"All over the place, Mahoe," she replied, amused when the sound of her voice seemed to physically pain him. "I'm having a hell of a time trying to figure them out." Still intrigued by the human, she forked her fingers for Wesley's attention and was unable to hide her insult when he quickly disconnected the optical hold she tried to place on him. "They have no fear, is all. Otherwise, they seem completely human."

"But--"

"GO!" She listened intently and waved them in the opposite direction, disappointed to lose the human. She was still pouting when the guard advanced on her.

"You shouldn't be here," he warned. Lifting one hand to her arm and placing the other on his nightstick, the Fuerza guard made strict eye-contact.

His mistake.

She had no difficulty holding this one's gaze as she sidled up to him. Her glassy fingertips gently lifted the collar away from his oatmeal-colored neck and she savored his reaction--pure fear, purely human. She wanted to say something, then thought the better of it when she considered how, sometimes, even she was annoyed by the quality of her voice. Instead, she studied him silently, pleased as his fear elevated to further sweeten his cache.

The persona eased into place and she bared her fangs. Tipping upwards, she paused briefly to tantalize him with a few rapid strokes of her tongue before discontinuing his mortality. The initial wound was just miniscule enough to allow a droplet of blood to meander across her white tooth. The ever-deepening perforation caused his life to explode within her mouth, almost faster than she could absorb it until she plunged against him more powerfully, almost to the extent of crushing him before she drank the man to death.

When he collapsed on the last exhale of his life, she knelt down in kind. "That's it, luv," she spoke, the lovely structure of her human features returning from their demonic guise. "Off to no-more-a-man land with you!" And, with a simple pop to the side of the head, the ex-guard lopped over.

Giggling profusely, she rose and tidied the corner of her mouth with her pinky. Slowly returning the way she had arrived, she reflected on this latest kill, finding delight over how little her satisfaction had at all to do with feeding her appetite.

She was powerful against these weaker beings, superior to them in every way. Their emotions left them malleable by her mind; their physical natures, vulnerable to her touch. Especially prey to her bite, humans were expendable and the pleasure she derived from consuming their unworthy existences was more exciting than anything she could have ever expected, even from his wildest dream.

-0-

"What happened to him? C'mon Wes, focus!" Duplicating Wesley's breath, Angel kept an attentive eye, attempting to calm the terrified man.

"I saved him from a vamp," Mahoe explained while pacing nervously. "Supposedly these hybrids are all over the place. I guess bringing Wesley along WAS good for something. 'Scared shitless' is one of the greatest signs of being a full-blown human she happened to mention."

"So, I smell fear fine. How about you?" Angel distanced his senses away from Wesley to concentrate. That wasn't fear he smelled and he protectively swept Wesley back.

"Sorry. Not one of MY many talents," Mahoe sarcastically replied as he drew his weapon on the surprised sentry he leapt at.

Angel, faster, reached the encounter before Mahoe's blade and the guard was knocked unconscious before he had a chance to cry out. Looking around and then up, Angel pointed at the ceiling, disgusted. "Thanks alot!"

Mahoe followed the direction and shrugged at the camera. "You know, Angel, it's gonna be tough to take these things out if you're not going to kill them. What's up with that? I though your types got off on the bloodlust."

"He might have been HUMAN," Wesley spat, pointing at the guard. "The two of you were speaking Bur'Turl. Idiot! I've been trying to figure out for DAYS why nothing seems to matter to you--" Preoccupied with his thought, Wesley almost missed the deliberate stab, unaware how he anticipated it to dive for safety.

Angel swung his axe broadside at Mahoe, thwacking the other Warrior across the back to send him stumbling forward. "RUN, Wesley!" he shouted only to realize, once the command left his mouth, how redundant it was, grunting his displeasure while a group of ten circled the three of them.

Angel backed towards Wesley, both their weapons at front. "Don't touch this fight, Wes. You have no way to tell--"

"Whether or not to cross that line? It doesn't matter, Angel. With whatever is going on, there are too many lives at stake."

"And, in this room, yours is the only one that counts." When Wesley stared down his advancing man, Angel shook his head. "WESLEY!" he barked.

"One question, Angel, and then this conversation is over... Are they human or not?"

With Wesley's fear undeniably absent, Angel was horrified when Mahoe sliced two of the guards across their midsections, instantly rendering death with the power behind the swipes. "I don't know, Wesley. That's the problem." Angel killed two as Wesley rendered another immobile, the smell of human blood drowning out all other odors. He decapitated the male Wesley had lunged at and, in one motion, lifted the fallen being's sword to toss at his associate.

Wesley nodded in understanding of the silent command that accompanied the weapon. He tried following it to the best of his abilities, ramming the hilt of the sword between his next attacker's eyes to render the being unconscious.
-0-

Each of the three bobbed their heads in silence until, after losing count again, Whistler looked at his watch and heaved his doubt. "There's too many of them and not enough time, Aug. Let's just find the guys and get out of here and just wait for the next go round of Prophecy."

"Ninety!" Cordelia flipped her ponytail for emphasis and waited for confirmation.

"Ninety, it is, Miss Chase." Turning to Whistler, Augustine placed his hand on the other being's shoulder in consolation. "He's one of the few that has ever survived, Whistler. He may be the only one who might be able to finish the ritual. I've spent too many years waiting for the 'next go 'round of Prophecy' the way it is and now look at this. There's only failure in retreat, not in the attempt. I should have averted all of this years ago."

"I don't know what you're yada-da-ing about, Walty, but ya might wanna think about letting go of the self-absorption and getting on with whatever you've got to do if there's a problem with time." Cordy yawned enthusiastically. When a honking siren sounded, she adjusted her posture more comfortably in their viewing nest. "Big hint, much?"

The transparent doors to each of the cubicles silently drew up and the beings rose to filter out. Each took precise steps onto the holding area decks, shuffling behind one another to wait patiently for their weapons--a sword and a stake.

"Oooooooh. That's probably not a good sign," she innocently surmised.

Augustine eyed the situation and nodded. "That, Miss Chase, is the understatement of the ages."

-0-

Running through another corridor, Angel half-dragged Wesley behind him. Other than knowing, for sure, they had descended another of the complex's five floors, where they were could have been exactly where they had been five minutes prior.

"It's worse than Hong Kong! I don't understand how anyone gets around in this place!" Angel called out. When Wesley didn't answer, he stopped and turned.

Leaning bent against the wall, with his hands on his knees, Wesley gasped for his breath. "It's just like the Olde Estate at Council, Angel. You know where to go because you KNOW."

Angel unfocused his eyes and listened to the approaching footfall, trying to count out the steps to determine how many were coming. Although out of practice as prey, he got a close enough count to know they needed to avoid the encounter. "OK, Wesley. So, if it's like Council, then GUESS. Which way?"

"We were running Angel... And, if there were any visual markers..." He could hear the approaching march, as well, and took Angel's impatience as all the count he needed. "Oh, hell," he replied, bouncing his head against the wall, "how about we just try a door?"

Angel took hold of the handle behind him and eased it down, his surprise probably mirrored by Wesley. "Simplicity is the key," he muttered, reaching across to throw Wesley, before himself, through the door.

-0-

Assured with Cordy's and Whistler's safety, Augustine ventured out into the immense complex. It was a beautifully designed facility, he noted, very physically different than Council. Despite its innovation, though, he could still sense the antiquity of tradition. That it was familiar was no surprise--they would always be joined in some way, no matter how many centuries distanced their separation.

He had always held onto some hope the rift between the two factions would mend but the severance had been absolute. Too much dissent. The anger. Those dismissals and the wounded egos. Augustine still found it difficult to believe that a society's very existence impended on the fateful decision of one young woman.

And it was as much true 500 years ago, as almost-one.

Council had learned very little in either that one year or those 500. Over time, loyalty had become of the utmost importance. Failure was forgivable; but once allegiance was in question the answer was censure. Disobedience was always disciplined. Severely. Often unjustly.

Because the body had become more important than its hearts or its souls.

There was a cost for minding the collective and, for the price paid, Council had become a spiritless organization run by men and women without vision--afraid to dream for fear of being caught at it. Children were taught to follow without question; trained to think for the whole instead of bringing insight or competition. And when One was chosen, she was used according to tradition without regard for personality or innate talent; without regard for relationships forged through honor and trust.

And trust, he realized as he neared his objective, could be called into question over something as simple as one dissenting opinion, one caring decision, or one simple phone call.

As Augustine made his way he wondered if it was the recognition of similarities that drew him, or the repulsion over differences. At any rate, when he stepped into the room, the male who faced him had not changed in the least since their last meeting and that made him sad in more ways than he could imagine.

"The moment they said you left Council..." his Latin accent intoned, devoid of emotion.

Duarte stood to examine the intruder. Her eyes bright with excitement, she stood witness to what had not occurred within generations--father and son, face to face. Rumors did not do justice to the resemblance--the same pale blue eyes; the identical jaw, nose, brow. But the way the features were arranged made them so opposite. With his errant white hair cut at the curve before a ringlet formed, Augustine's composition was kind, moderately bemused while Cort-Pinzón's angular face held his features in rigid formation.

"Sirs," she whispered in reverence, unsure of whom she should actually be more in awe of.

The petite woman appealed to him in a strange way, and Augustine fought the distraction she provided. Her full lips complimented the nearly-flat plane of her face. He detected cheekbones where none seemed to protrude, a brow line that sat barely higher than the soft set of her eyes--her vibrant almond-colored eyes. The almost-ebony hair...

...He closed his eyes and pretended he was dreaming, but when he opened them again she was still there--more beautiful than she had been the mere second before. "Rosalie," he exhaled. She smiled lazily as she traced the curve of his cheek, studying the movements of her slender finger and he shuddered to fend off the arousal.

"Eruwalt," she spoke against his mouth with her own.

"Please," he whispered. "This temptation..." But the fingertip set against his lips cut the protest.

He enveloped her with motion his arms had never practiced before that moment and she seemed to dissolve at his embrace. Movement and flesh, the sensuous sounds of human contact and, seemingly, hours later he lay there spent, his body weakened, his powers--

"God," he spoke with utter presence of mind after opening his eyes to the truth of his empty bed. All that remained of Rosalie Cort was her scent on his linens and he clenched them against his chest with dread...

"Oh."

Cort-Pinzón derived immense pleasure from the heavy discomfiture permeating the room as his protégé approached Augustine. "It took a moment, didn't it? But, she's perfection! And SHE'S entirely human, Father. I present to you, your present--Araceli Duarte."

"But, without a soul..."

"Yes, well. Fuerza's grandest project of all! Still a few aspects that need to be smoothed, but we've made a tremendous amount of progress. Much, much more than Council has. And, by the way, you can drop the holier-than-thou attitude. We're not so different, Council and Fuerza. Same results, just different ways about it."

"NOT the same in any manner. If you continue to lead these modern men into temptation to play God--"

Cort-Pinzón laughed derisively, cutting the older being off with his impertinent glance. "OLD ONE! Modern man IS God! But, because you still hold onto your delusions that The Council of Watchers is good and supreme, upholding the edicts passed down from--" He inhaled his tedium. "Now Who was it that supposedly passed along those edicts?"

"You mock what you have NEVER understood." Augustine studied the young woman named Duarte, feeling his ancient heart twist. Other than the slight imperfection of her hairline and overly curvaceous bottom lip, she could have easily passed for Rosalie Cort and he bit his tongue to keep from reaching out for her...

...She was beautiful, her skin toasted by the warm Palos summer sun and lit from within by motherhood. His heart could have very well been in her hand while she scoffed at him, her ridicule that scathing.

"I cannot allow his birth, Rosalie. It would be an abomination against God and all mankind to bring him into the world."

Her hand remained, impatiently. "Stay or go, Augustine, but the child will not die either way. We possess the True Slayer and now we will possess our Sorcerer."

Without thinking, he placed his hand into hers and those embers he thought extinguished by her betrayal flared, set aglow by his undying affection. When she held him to her swell, he could feel the product of their alliance trembling there, unborn and already alive with fearsome potential.

Rosalie stared at him, confused when she experienced the sudden change; the child growing within seemed to fight for its very existence. "YOU!" she shrieked, stumbling backwards from her chair. Holding her protruding belly, she stared at herself in horror. "WHAT DID YOU DO?"

"You possess the Slayer--for now. But you will never possess a Sorcerer, Rosalie. At least, not with my help. Our business transaction is concluded. Keep your child. But he will never touch magic. They were my powers, Rosalie, that you stole with my seed. While I cannot take back the one, I do not have to provide the other."

"As long as he lives, though, they will be of no use to you. Stay and help raise him, Eruwalt. Train him. But do not take his birthright," she pleaded.

"Better I exist half a magician than to be the fool to trust your pleasant enticements again. I accept the loss as penalty for my fall, the error of my judgement..."

The younger male slid his arm across Duarte's ribs and spoke in her ear before dismissing her. That he nuzzled her as he did it so was a gesture not lost on Augustine and Cort-Pinzón smiled victoriously.

"You'll die today," Augustine stated flatly.

"Not hardly. You didn't have the resolve to do it five centuries ago and you don't have it now."

"Prophecy is in motion, Andres. My resolve has been restored." That statement seemed to give his son at least pause, if not fear. "The vampire Angel might very well be The Warrior of Prophecy."

"But The Warrior is late, Father. The world will be distracted while Fuerza takes her prize and the hybrids are released into society. Like an ordinary fruit-fly, humanity will be diluted to non-existence."

Eruwalt Augustine was not amused, nor was he completely fearful. "Your talented Cynthia Minn... A prime example of what you believe you've achieved?"

"A shining example," Cort-Pinzón replied proudly, allowing himself the slightest amount of sorrow for her passing.

"When I bound your magic, Andres, did I also bind your intelligence? You are expecting your fabulous hybrids to destroy humanity from the inside-out, but have you taken into consideration what humanity will do to your hybrids?"

"Trust me, that's not a concern."

"No?" The older being straightened his bearing and looked down his nose at the younger. "The oldest pathogen in the book, Andres. Imitation. What you're doing. You think you're more original than Council but, in the end, you have your spies in place to guide your decisions. This young woman you've recreated to seduce me... She will never be Rosalie, no matter how well she walks the walk. And then, Cynthia Minn--basing her entire crime on the hopes of meeting the original. THEY know they're imitations, Andres. Just like you know you are. Without my magic, without procreation, you are what? Immortal. Only immortal. But, that does not make you special."

"And, you are? No. You're just an old wizard. Not even of legendary status--no one will remember you as Council's Merlin. No one will remember you at all. Council is old and dying. All of you will be forgotten."

"Yes, Council is old. Dying? No. Weak? Perhaps. But not without hope, Andres. The coming changes will do Council good and wake her up from her nap. And me? Oh, you do not know the half of me."

"Father, in case you've forgotten, I AM the half of you." Cort-Pinzón chuckled at his own wit, taking to the edge of his desk to study Duarte when she returned wearing a revealing bias gown and holding two goblets of red. "And, Araceli will be happy to let you know if I measure up or not."

Duarte sauntered to Augustine with a goblet extended, a pleasant smile upon her face. "Your wish, Sir. I am for you."

Augustine, without thinking, took the glass from her hand. "This is a vile, evil place, Andres. What are you doing here? No morality. Fuerza's principles--whatever they were at one time, adulterated. We were the same. We had purpose. We protected mankind from the likes of what you've become."

Duarte merely smiled as she sipped. Taking a step closer to Augustine, she placed her palm on his chest. "Stay, please. Take your place by your son."

When the goblet dropped from Augustine's hand, he watched the deep red ooze into the taupe carpet fibers, fascinated by the design of the spill. "I never destroyed you, Andres, because I always felt guilty I couldn't love you. I thought Rosalie Cort stole my heart, completely. How odd, through these recent circumstances, to find that what I believed completely gone has been in operation all this time."

"You LOVE me?" Cort-Pinzón asked, dubious.

"No. Never. And I was NEVER your father, merely an ingredient for your conception. And now, with the introduction of this beauty in front of me, you wish me to create your sons? Prophecy, Andres. All of it. To think, I was in the center generating it while I was supposed to its guardian."

Cort-Pinzón heaved his dismay before joining Araceli, taking her glass to drink heavily from it. "You SEE your place is with me. You know it. Holding my powers, my ability to procreate did what, dear Visioner? You could not withhold your Sight. I found a way to have my children and I created a flock. And I will rescue their Shepherd and place her into her honored place. You cannot avert Prophecy. It has its own destiny and will not be denied. We both know your precious Warrior will come along one day, but not today, and he will not be a vampire named Angel."

Araceli nodded her agreement, continuing to offer her hand.

"What is seen cannot be unseen, Andres? I no longer believe that." Augustine extracted a pearly white stone from his pocket and held it within the palm of his hand. He studied its simple beauty for a moment before returning his attention to the beings in front of him. "I have idly stood by and played a role that may or may not have been mine to play. I quit. Starting now."

"Divert Prophecy? Augustine, really. How many of your contemporaries have tried the same and where are they now? You are too honor-bound by your traditions. If you need a little more time, just say so, but stop with the theatrics. You bore me."

"Maybe not all of your 'offspring' will die today, Andres, but enough of them will. HUMANITY is the dominant species--just like it always has been--and they have been tending to my heart all this time. It may take a thousand years to put right what I set into motion, but it will be put right. And I believe that it's time to get started."

The young woman studied the stone in Augustine's hand before turning to her creator, confused. "Andres?" she whispered, reaching out to caress the horror from his features, only to experience the emotion herself as the bones of her fingertips melted away with his face.

-0-

"So, now if you're a double-agent and Walty's a double-agent, does that make me and Angel double-agents by association? Because all I'm saying is it's not like life isn't complicated enough that we need to start trying to figure out who we're actually working for. I'll let you know, though, I'll probably do a pretty good job at SpyGirl but don't you think it would have been at least fair to ask me and Angel first?"

"You're not going to make me blink, no matter how much you talk, Cordy. Just shut up and stare!" Whistler narrowed his eyes a little more to give off his most menacing look, but it only seemed to elate his stink-eye competitor and the toothy smile Cordy rendered almost made him swoon. "And there are NO double-agents. You work for Angel, Angel works for The Powers That Be and Wesley-- By the way, how's he been working out since you kicked his ass?"

Cordy scrunched her nose in an effort to placate an itch. "Oh, he's alright. He's no Doyle, but Angel likes him OK. You blinked!"

"Nuh-uh!" Whistler concentrated on counting her eyelashes. "So, you still miss Doyle? I never knew him, personally, but he didn't have a real good rep. You know, the drinking and debts. That's how he wound up with Angel--vampire duty. Bottom-level assignment."

"Doyle was a really nice guy and Angel was good for him. He cut way down on drinking. Maybe hanging with Angel made him realize his problems weren't so bad after all. What could be worse than being dead and depressed about it?" She rotated her head in an effort to comfort her drying eyes. "Do the PTB still think Angel's, like, the dregs?"

She deliberately blinked and leaned back against the railing, hugging her shoulders. "Cause Angel's really trying. I know it doesn't seem like it, but he likes people. Sure he's anti-social and he's got suck conversational skills, not to mention sometimes he just can't buy clue one--although his attention deficit disorder probably has alot to do with that."

"And you like him, right?"

Cordy smiled past Whistler. "He's the BEST, Whistler. And he's gonna pass this ritual, you'll see, and he's going to be the SuperGuy that everyone needs him to be."

"Well, then, Miss Chase, I believe we need to go about proving your statement, don't we?"

Whistler shrugged consolingly to Augustine, gracing him with a pat on the back before they started their journey. "So, what'll it be, Aug? Another few hundred?"

Augustine sighed, taking a long moment to study Cordelia in the lead. "No. I've been cubbied away for far too long. Look at how much everything has changed!"

"Yeah, I guess I don't even notice anymore. By the way, does she know where we're going?" he whispered about Cordy while wondering if there was anything she could wear that she wouldn't look good in. "Cars. Using plastic for money. Although, I gotta admit, microwave ovens--now THAT was pretty huge. And the cell phone thing. Too bad the PTB can't get with the times, it would make Cordy's life a whole lot easier."

Chuckling, Augustine could identify with the love-struck attitude of his friend. "Not technology, Whistler. Science advances. Unfortunately. That is the rule. No, I'm speaking of them," he motioned with the top of his head at their guide. "Their hearts, their minds. They may actually be ready to encounter what's about to happen to their world."

Whistler stopped in the corridor and glanced around. "So, is this really it? The fulfillment of Prophecy? What we've been waiting for?"

Augustine's forehead crinkled to consider the questions before he answered, "this one, your Angel-- I believe he's THE Warrior. The real one, Whistler. But it still remains to be seen whether he will ever believe it. If he is, then Prophecy will follow his lead because I do not believe Prophecy can ever be his master." Offering his right hand, he clapped Whistler on the shoulder with the left. "Well, let's test the full restoration and get you out of here. Ready?"

Whistler nodded in agreement. "Is there anything I can tell The Lords?" he asked. Beginning to feel the dematerialization, he was almost too busy concentrating on Cordelia's excitement to hear Augustine reply.

"Tell Them it's a very exciting time again to be immortal."

-0-

As Angel tightened the tourniquet around his bicep, Wesley winced. He was exhausted beyond belief and hurt every place he could still feel. No matter how often he spit, he couldn't dispose of the foreign metallic taste from his mouth. "Uh. I guess you have to be undead to appreciate the flavor," he remarked, his usually cheery inflection deadpan.

Angel was grateful Wesley still had enough fight left to make jokes, even unintentionally. "Look, Wes. I've got to get you out of here and then-- What are you doing?"

Wesley took Angel's injured hand and lifted it reverently. "You were willing to face your death, Angel, before Kate's case arrived. I noticed there was a look on your face..."

He peered over the top of his glasses, stupefied by how badly even eyebrows could hurt, before studying the crucifix. The etching seemed drawn with a fine-tipped marker. The simplicity entranced him for a moment and then, with eyes shut, he drew it to his lips passionately, concentrating on its warmth before drawing Angel's hand to his cheek.

"Don't," Angel whispered, disturbed. After Wesley released his hand, he stared at the faint cross upon Wesley's left cheek that remained only for a moment, as if branded there, before it faded away.

"It's odd how you never know what you consist of until you've been faced with the ultimate challenge.

"Noooooooooo." Angel shook his head vehemently while squeezing his eyes. But when he reopened them, Wesley was still battered and bleeding--with a familiar look on his face. "I'm going to get you out of here, Wes. You just have to have some faith."

"But, I DO have faith, Angel. Here," he tapped his the center of his chest for emphasis. "And, I believe, you may have found it too."

"You know, this isn't the time for one of your spiritual discussions--"

"I believe you're born with it, Angel. And throughout your lifetime, you're tested and you falter; you have your doubts; you may even completely lose it; but then something--or someone--happens along that makes you realize you're not just an empty vessel. That you're filled with Promise, and Hope, and Solace and that there's no reason to live--or die--alone."

"Stop it, Wesley," Angel insisted. "You're pissing me off and you really don't wanna piss me off." He sensed the new opponents before he heard them and he rose with his axe drawn.

"No, Angel. I don't want to piss you off because you're an unbelievably suck fighter when you fight mad. Of course, that's just my professional opinion and you can take it or leave it." Wesley strained to yawn, but his jaw wouldn't allow him full freedom. "How many do you think are coming? I might be able to take one, maybe two, but you're going to have to take the brunt of the force if you're not going to let me die. Do you think you can do as good a job with me as Cordelia did with you?"

Angel had to admit how much he admired the guy as he turned towards the direction of their attackers' approach, only to be completely taken off-guard when they came from the opposite direction.

"You know, by the way, Angel--" Oblivious to their situation Wesley continued his thoughts, wincing while inching his back up the wall to regain his footing, "if we get out of this situation, I just may have to take you up on that suggestion you made of going out whoring together."

"Cordelia?"

"Cordelia?" He stared at Angel, completed shocked. "I had NO idea you thought of her in that way. Do you really think that's such a good idea? You know, given your track record of... GRRRRRR?"

"No, Wesley." Angel pointed sharply.

"Ohmigod! Wesley!" Cordelia ran the rest of the distance and skidded stop, barely avoiding barreling into her associate. "You're, like, completely wrecked and some junk! Angel, couldn't you have protected him?"

Too many questions were running through Angel's mind, but the first one that came out was, "what are you doing here?"

Augustine turned after clapping Wesley on the shoulder, missing the thrashed human's woeful expression and Cordy's equally unhelpful attempt to assist. "Working," he answered, glancing at his watch, mentally making calculations.

"5:58, Sir," Wesley prompted as Cordy helped him towards Angel. "And unless we've got a marine layer waiting for us outside, we're going to have a very difficult time getting Angel out of here."

"I'll be fine, Wes. Let's worry about getting you out of here, first." Trying to divert attention from Wesley's concern, Angel hunched the man's exhausted frame against his, keeping his tone low, "and then we'll find a nice cathouse?" When he felt Wesley shrug in amusement, he added, "you know, it's good you're concerned, Wes. You know. About... Me. Everything? But it's not like the next woman I'm even remotely attracted to is gonna turn me evil. I mean, you know..."

Silently agreeing, Wesley got the feeling he DID know but in the end it seemed the less important topic. "How did you manage to find us in this maze?" he asked their companions, grateful Angel's assistance was making his breathing less labored.

He felt that whisper placed within his mind even before Cordelia, without turning, tapped her temple nonchalantly and Angel smiled, a little guilty over feeling possessive when the connotation of her gesture pleased him immeasurably. "Where are we going?" he asked, finally, as their corridor spilled into another identical one.

"NOWHERE!"

Mahoe jumped into their path and brandished his weapon proudly. His left eye had been gouged at some point and many of the tendons of his extremities were hanging in shreds like his clothing. He was wheezing, but still angry enough to fight.

"Oh, I am SO through with you!" Wesley griped. Pushing off Angel's chest, feeling more annoyed than brave, he was willing to take his best shot.

"Hey, Mahoe!"

Wesley was utterly amazed at Mahoe's stupidity when the yellow being turned upon hearing his name, giving Cordelia access to his remaining eye with her index finger. Relieved for their safety, he leaned back comfortably after nodding his respect to his associate for her sense of whimsy as much as her success. With Mahoe disabled on the floor, succumbing to his pain and embarrassment, Wesley could have sworn Cordelia kicked the demon in the head while they all continued past.

"Here we are," Augustine announced at the threshold of the compound's open courtyard.

Angel mentally counted the steps across the sunny expanse. Even without being at a complete standstill, there was no way he was fast enough to make the distance. He glanced in the direction of the approaching din before up and around. Other than outside, there was no where else to move.

"Life sucks, eh Luv?" she cackled. After rising from the bench she had been sleeping upon, she brushed one hand across Wesley's jaw while cleaning a tooth with a nail from the other. "But then, that's what's so good about it." When Wesley broke eye contact again, she frowned.

"Oooooooooh, boy, Angel. What's SHE doing here?" Without a second thought, Cordelia stepped in front of Wesley.

Angel was stunned the way it way, but more so by the shoving match Wesley and Cordelia began in order to determine who was actually going to stand in harm's way. "HEY!" he barked.

Cordy and Wes abruptly stopped and stared at one another before turning their attention on the vampiress. Without warning, they both gave her a shove.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" Angel stepped forward, but stopped himself just shy of the sunbelt, with Cordy and Wes in his way. "Dru?" he called weakly.

Free-falling back into the sunlight, her arms windmilled. Her shrill scream deepened while smoke rose from her skin, the cool blue underhue gradually turning more golden. The fallen female, more amused than anything else, propped up on her elbows and stared back at the four confused spectators as the clothing she wore seemed to scream at its seams with the restoration of her more ample figure from its camouflage of persona.

"Bur'Turl feather demoness," Augustine commented, genuinely concerned. "To take on the complete characteristics of an assumed identity... My. Her kind was supposedly extinct centuries ago."

"Sir," Wesley began as he tried to assist an obviously distressed Angel, "I think that it's pretty safe to presume that NOTHING is as extinct as it should be."

"I take it you were supposed to know her?" Augustine turned to Angel and lifted the vampire's hand to view it approvingly. Afterwards, he examinef Wesley's arm and, with a swipe of his hand, healed the wound.

"One of mine," Angel barely replied, trying to maintain his composure and having a difficult time of it.

"Alright, it's time. Out with you all!" Augustine nudged at Wesley and Cordelia before Angel. "And out with you, too!"

Angel fought backwards when Augustine tugged at him, natural instinct taking over. He reached out for the entry's edge in an attempt to find purchase. "Don't make me burn!" he pleaded, not caring how cowardly he sounded, using every ounce of his strength to sway towards...

No safety.

"Well, I've got work to do then," Augustine replied, pointing to draw Cordelia's return. "We didn't come all this way for your Angel to be consumed by circumstance, Miss Chase," he commented walking past her.

Standing rigid in the archway looking out, Angel listened to the charge of his approaching death. The chameleon cackled again before Wesley's knee conducted her into silence.

"You know, if we stay here, Wesley's gonna be out there all by his lonesome," Cordelia mentioned matter-of-factly.

Angel stared. "He looks scared."

Her face got all tangley in thought. "Nah. I don't think so. I think he looks more like he's seriously wishing he had staked your ass last year when he had the chance." When Angel, resigned, nodded in agreement, she plunked him across the forehead.

"OW!" Cordelia confused him. Always at a really bad time.

"Angel, you dufe! Wesley IS scared. And you know what? I'm scared."

Angel swallowed and then quietly admitted, "me, too," afraid she'd think less of him.

"So, you know what THAT means then, don't you?"

He seriously didn't have a clue. That sun looked especially bright this morning and that crowd just kept getting louder. He realized he had a difficult time hearing her say, "you're not alone" because he was too busy overconcentrating. That, and wondering where the hell a hallucination of Doyle was when he actually needed one.

"Harry said I should have never made such a big promise to you about not letting you die. But, I think I never should have given up on my word. Now, I'm not saying if you step out there you're not gonna become Cinderfella, but I am gonna tell you that if you do, I'm never going to forget you, Angel. Because you saved MY life and all I've been trying to do is return the favor. And sometimes remembering someone really is the best way to never let them die. You know, like you did for Doyle with his monument and here."

Studying that serene face of hers, Angel felt Cordelia touch upon the center of his chest. Backlit by the brightening day, she seemed to glow from within. Her expression never wavered, even after he the arrival of the troops reflected in her eyes.

"Let me fight, Cordelia. Whatever Augustine can do to get you and Wesley out of here, let him do it. But I can't burn. I... I just can't go out that way."

"Like, ew! I really want to see you torch? That's, like, such trauma I don't need to try to get over any more than watching you get destroyed by an army. There's ninety of them, Angel, give or take, and just one little sun. Take your pick."

She took a step backwards and held out her hands to him. And that's where they remained, unwavering, as she met his face with hers. "Just like that Bible guy, Angel, walking on water. What you believe."

He really hated when she used simile. "He almost drowned, Cordelia, because he DIDN'T believe."

"Nuh-uh, Angel. That's where you're wrong. He ALMOST drowned, but he didn't because he believed just enough."

"A little bit goes a long way?" He was pretty sure that wasn't the point of the story, though.

"That's what I'm talkin' 'bout, Angel. A little bit of the real deal."

He laughed in spite of himself at the absurdity of her logic. "Man, we've gotta start getting you to church."

Cordy blinked at him. A couple of times. "We. You said 'we', Angel. C'mon. You know you wanna."

"So, what is it you're asking me to believe, Cordelia? Because I'm seriously thinking I have a better chance up against ninety..."

"That you can do this, Angel. That's all. We've come as far as my promise can take you and now the rest of the test you have to do on your own. Just not by yourself." She motioned backwards with her head and took another step away. With her hands still offered, she lowered her voice and looked at him really honest, with one eye kinda squinty, "we shouldn't leave Wesley hanging, Angel. He needs you."

Wesley studied the two of them, unsure of what to make of the situation, knowing how much he wanted his place to be with them instead of standing next to Augustine. When he began to perspire, he blamed it on the rising sun baking the humidity from the early morning air more than his anxiety. He inhaled, sharply dragging the breath.

After bringing the hoarding beings to a standstill just inside the door, Augustine commented absently, "not one Warrior ever made it this far. You two should be very proud of yourselves."

Trying to ignore the connotations of the entire remark, Wesley simply shook his head. "I am just a bystander, Sir. 'The reason firm, the temperate will'... She'll convince him the talisman will be his protection."

"The talisman? Oh no, Wyndham-Price. The mark on his hand is nothing more than a scab from the healing process. He will continue or cease to exist based upon his core. I cured him because he wanted to live, not for his own purposes, but because he believes he is useful. Perhaps not to himself, but to someone and he is willing to serve. You hold this same conviction. Yours was nurtured, to a great extent, and it will always be a part of who you've become. His? We'll see..."

"Please, Sir?" He admonished himself for that same needy tone, the same phrase. A year, and nothing had changed... "You can do magic," he spoke.

"YOU can do magic, Wyndham-Price. It may not be your strong suit, but what purpose do you think it will hold at this moment? To save Angel from the effects of the sun, only to have him destroyed anyway by what I'm about to do? No, Wesley. I could not allow him the easy way out a year ago, and I will not give it to him now. I have given him all the help I'm going to."

"But..."

Augustine silently ushered the beings into formation around the courtyard while he considered the look on his former pupil's face. "Ra thrasha ho'ash thrasha ma cha'mae. I'm surprised you didn't figure it out, Wesley. The language of Ancient Council. 'His agony heralds his rebirth', approximately."

"But why resurrect him only to let him die! Please, Sir, I BEG you."

"His faith, Wesley. But you don't think he'll find it?" Augustine's heart sank when the young man solemnly shook his lowered head. "Well, then, perhaps this is not so much a matter of his faith as your own."

"Close your eyes." When she looked at him, confused, Angel added, "just in case. So it's not the last way you see me."

The roar of the horde fell away to silence as Angel took hold of her palms. Cordelia closed her fingers gently, one by one, until her grasp was as firm as his and then she pulled him gently forward.

He studied her, the look on her face, hoping she wouldn't make the mistake of peeking. And the sunlight seemed to swallow her whole. Cordelia took one, then another step back. Day highlighted the dark of her hair, the quality of her complexion and then, slowly, slowly it fell at her wrists.

And she held him a little more tightly.

He wanted to step forward, aware, that his last vision should be of Cordelia and her face, so unassuming. But, instinct took over and he stopped. Trying to pull back, his eyes closed, fear unrestrained, stronger than he had ever tried to fight for his existence before--she still wouldn't let go. Her grasp never loosened while she waited for him to believe.

He fought fear as much as anything he had ever battled against in his life and then, he took the deepest breath he ever didn't need to take a look within.

To find Peace. And right along side of it, the teensiest grain of Faith.

When he reclaimed his vision, Angel was in the center of the immense expanse with Cordelia tugging on his wrists. The ninety beings remained hushed while the olive trees encircling the area seemed to speak a language all their own.

"He owes me. Big time," Cordelia whispered, breaking the unearthly silence.

Time seemed to stall and, except for a few errant leaves, very little was moving at all. Not one of the ninety dark grey vertical smudges budged. Angel studied the scene, turning to Augustine only to see another grey smudge holding onto the pearly white stone. When he looked to Cordelia, then Wesley, Angel was awed by their shimmering appearances and, after noticing his reflection in Wesley's lenses, he realized that he shimmered, too.

All of them the same shimmer Doyle had been.

"Angel, what's wrong?" Cordelia asked, worried. She stroked his shoulder tenderly, but it didn't seem to help and she looked to her associate. "Do something, Wesley," she pleaded as she blinked back her tears.

Bending down with them, Wesley reached across and grasped her arms, peering into her face. "He'll be alright, Cordelia," he promised, leaning over Angel and pulling Cordy close. "Just hold on, and he'll be alright."

The sky turned a dark shade of crimson as the approaching roar obstructed all sound from the earth. Sheltered by Cordelia and Wesley, Angel buried his face into the curve of his arms and looked for wherever that sliver of Peace had gone...

After glancing back at the being he had always known as Augustine, Wesley leaned in a little more to hold Cordelia's arms in place. He was pretty sure he was trying to pray despite the combination allergy/panic attack that was setting on, but a chorus of voices kept distracting him...

It was the coolest thing Cordelia had ever seen in her life and she watched every second of it all, thrilled by the spectacle. Augustine stood in the center of the courtyard as a ray of sunlight touched the stone to make it glow in colors she had never seen before, but she was pretty sure she'd love to own. There were too many shards of light to imagine as each began to dance like a spray of bubbles from a wand. They twisted softly at first, gathering momentum until they connected into a spiraling mass of light, of perfect sound, and soothing warmth. Complimenting those was a feeling of beauty--as if something so gorgeous could actually be touched.

The resulting cyclone spread until it reached the first rim of beings, the second, and then the final before gusting in through the open doors of the building, its crystal purity becoming muddy with the destruction of the damned. The beings became aware of their fate just before they lost their existences, their tormented cries drowned out by a syphoning sound--like a straw drawing the last bit out of a white heart-rimmed cup--before their filth swept up and into the Los Angeles morning sky.

The event complete, Cordelia nodded to its co-ordinator. The gem, spent, sparked before it completely disintegrated and Augustine smiled a cute old guy smile before he also sparked completely away, secure with the fact he had genuinely impressed.

Angel was pretty sure they had been there for, like, hours before he noticed the return of silence, then sound--theirs, their hearts whispering in his ears. Cordelia was there, finger-combing the hair at his nape while Wesley softly hummed. And when Angel finally stirred, they broke apart from him.

But only very slightly.

"Are you alright?" Wesley asked tentatively. "Both of you?"

Raising his face in time to see Cordelia smile, her radiance relaxed Angel in a way he had never experienced before. A thousand thoughts converged on his mind all at once but the only one that escaped was, "I think I officially need to freak."

She laughed, that little-girl bubbly, rather obnoxious, laugh of hers and then smacked him across the arm before scooting away. "THAT was soooooo cool, Angel! You should have seen it!"

Angel looked at Cordelia, bewildered. She worried him to no end but he was pretty sure he could do that more effectively once his head was back on straight, at least for him.

The walk through the facilities had been eerie. It was devoid of all life, like there had never been any around to begin with. Wesley shuddered at the remembrance while he uploaded the contents of the mainframe into cyberspace, with hope the connection was secure.

"I don't know," he spoke softly when the last of the files sifted away. "Perhaps it would be best just to destroy all of this. So that it's lost forever, just to be forgotten."

Rolling his head about his shoulders, Angel exhaled sharply then reminded himself he didn't need to breathe. He wasn't in any mental shape to actually get into a moral debate. "It's not like they're the only ones doing this, Wesley. Besides, you don't think this organization's got the information stored in a bunch of databases throughout the world? If Council can create a Slayer, why shouldn't everyone be allowed to try?" He winced; that last comment physically hurt his brain.

"Got one!" Cordelia pointed to her monitor. "Your demon ex, Wesley. That DGal is one prima computer saboteur. She was the only person I could find online at this time in the morning to come up with a virus."

"Saboteur," Angel repronounced.

"Yeah, Angel. Whatever, Mr. LanguageLab."

With the final file uploaded, Wesley huffed and set the virus loose on the system. Following the strange glitches that began to appear he chided, "her name is Gale, Cordelia. Your continued use of these derogatory terms..."

"Relax, Wes," Angel sighed. "That's her chat name--DGal. She left it on the computer at work in case you ever wanted to chat."

Cordy arced her arms with long fluid reaches after she stood up. "And you do realize, Wesley, once you get your hands on all this information, you have a choice to keep it or SmokingMan it. Hey, Angel, remember when I dated Council's WeirdScienceBoy? Gerard was cute. At least The Council was going for good-looking. That ought to count for something, ya think?"

Wesley didn't attempt to hide his contempt. "Seriously, Cordelia. Have you just about dated everyone?" Absently rubbing his arm as they walked to the front of the building, he realized he had never felt so physically great in his life. "Not only was Gerard good-looking--not that I, personally noticed, only what I've been told... You must realize, of course, Angel, Gerard's whole existence was very hushed. It wasn't until you mentioned him to me that I even understood--"

"Wes. You don't have to make excuses for Council. It's the sign of the times. Man creates man. Man recreates man," Angel added, thumbing at himself. "There's no difference who does it, the results are always going to be the same."

"But they're not the same, Angel." Wesley held the door open as they exited into the parking lot, amazed by how easily Angel stepped out into the broad daylight without a second thought. "Council has a very narrow definition of life. VERY narrow. Technically, in their eyes, even you're alive."

"Gerard has a soul?" Bobbing her head approvingly, Cordelia acclaimed, "definitely explains the cute factor..."

"Cordelia! A soul has nothing to do with attractiveness... I mean, yes, on a certain level, I suppose you could argue that beauty comes from within and if there's nothing going on inside..."

"Words, Wesley. Too many words!"

While waiting for his associates to join him in the care, Angel took a moment to study his hand. "So, you guys, how long do you think THIS is going to last?"

Lounging across the back seat, Wesley replied, "I have no idea. Perhaps it's done everything its supposed to do and by tomorrow morning it'll be ineffective."

Angel blinked at Cordelia. "You wanna go to Disneyland?"

Cordy blinked back. "Magic Mountain. Wesley's been wanting to go to Magic Mountain."

Wesley raised his eyebrows expectantly when Angel glanced back. "You realize that I'm still really wigged and probably NOT going to be much fun."

"Well, duh!" Cordy smacked Angel's thight after releasing the parking brake. "But it'll be good for you to do something different before you head deep down under. Since you haven't done the whole dark broody thing in a while, no thanks to Wesley, you'll probably be gone for weeks. Hey! That'll give Wesley time to help me study for my audition."

"No way! I've got just as much meditation to do as Angel. Maybe I'll be gone for weeks, too."

"Nope. Sorry, Wes. You haven't accrued any vacation time yet. You'll have to stay with Cordelia."

"No fair! We don't even have any cases to handle--"

"Pfffffffff! Oh, there're cases, Wesley. Three. You thought I was just going to let you live in Angel's apartment and drive his car and have you hover? I don't think so. You're meeting one of 'em tomorrow at ten and then you'll have all afternoon to help me read."

"Angel!"

He really hated to hear whining. Especially from an Englishman, but Angel let it entertain, more than annoy him. "By the way, Cordelia. That envelope I gave you--"

"The one I refused to look at?" As she pulled out of the parking lot, she knew that would ease Angel's mind. At least, a little. "In your journal. Hey, so check it out! You'll be even less fun with a third degree burn so I'm gonna stop at the drug store and pick up some, like, SPF 2000 if they've got it. You have cash, right, Angel? What am I asking. You always have cash. And you're cool, right. You don't need a snack or anything. You hungry, Wes? I can drive thru. Your choice." When there was no answer from the back seat, she shook her head, disgusted. "I've never known anyone who falls asleep faster in the car. I'm amazed he can even drive..."

Angel ignored her voice while he staring out the window at the very bright spring day, at the seasonal jacaranda trees exploding lavender against the pale blue sky. There was color everywhere--reds, golds, more shades of purple than he could ever remembered, and those thirsty Southern California greens.

Augustine's voice drifted through his memory while Cordelia described her shopping spree. Shortly after referring to them all as 'servants', the ancient being then explained the reasoning behind the education in repetition. Glad to be cured, being near-death again wasn't an experience Angel was looking forward to repeating any time soon. Added to that list was pissing Kate off anymore, meeting anyone else from Council or Wolfram & Hart clientele. Oh yeah, he concluded as he put on the sunglasses Cordelia had given him as a gift, abduction. And he could really do without ever being tortured again.

Given his immortality and previous track record, there was no way he could avoid them all; but at least the odds were in his favor that most weren't bound to happen anytime in the near future.

-0-

Augustine watched her from a distance, her features alight with animation as Cordelia talked up a storm with a sculptured hand perched atop a block of marble. She seemed oblivious to the beings that mulled around the memorial park in the twilight; or perhaps, he realized, she was just giving a performance. At any rate, he continued to study her and, upon his approach, was mildly shocked to discern another shimmering presence separate from hers before it completely disappeared.

"Walty!" she exclaimed, scrunching her crossed legs closer to allow him a place on the bench.

"Miss Chase."

The stars overhead seemed to dance across the depths of her shining hair and her ambient face displayed the wonder of a child. Augustine was in awe, pretty sure he had fallen in love. It took him a moment before he realized he had unconsciously handed her the envelope he had brought.

"For Wesley. See that he receives it, but make it seem 'found'. I'm not sure he's ready to accept everything it contains, but he'll see soon enough after he opens it what it's about. How are they, by the way? Wesley and Angel?"

Cordelia wound and unwound the brown button tie on the back of the envelope while she excitedly gave a run-down on the week passed. She got the lead role in the play she auditioned for, Wesley was busy with a couple of cases, and Angel--so unlike himself--kept coming upstairs to see what was going on instead of hibernating like he was supposed to. She hadn't minded so much, but Angel's interference with his work had driven poor Wesley to the brink of threatening to quit.

Of course, she had to put her foot down and make them behave, but wasn't that what Office Managers were supposed to do?

Augustine had no reply while they gazed at the sky together. When Cordelia's sudden outburst of laughter disturbed the peaceful silence, he eyed her discreetly. She was enchanted, this one, as she batted at the shimmer that had returned from wherever it went and he paused to speculate if Miss Chase would find it a compliment to be told she was the most beautiful old woman he knew.

-0-

Epilogue:

...He felt her presence as She entered his quarters, but he couldn't bring himself to turn 'round to face Her, afraid that failure would be plainly evident upon his face. It was pointless, he considered, to attempt to hide the truth from Her. She was intuitive, this one; and seemed to know his thoughts before he formed them.

The sunset grew more radiant with the sun nestling behind the tree line, making the grove seem as if on fire. "Passion," She commented idly as She approached him. "The sky is alight with passion."

Her voice, dulcet and finely-trained English, surrounded him to provide some comfort. "I--," was all he could manage, his remorse causing his throat to pinch tightly. But, like always, She seemed to know what he meant and Her hand clenched softly on the cap of his arm before She stepped to the edge of the balcony.

"You should have let me go in your stead," She spoke in profile. "In the end, it was what you needed to do--or not. Whatever occurred, Eruwalt, was best for this moment."

"Rosalie begged for his life." When She turned to face him, Her face was serene, understanding. "And then she offered to me her hand," he confessed woefully.

She seemed to consider his words carefully, again without further need for explanation. "And you considered staying," She stated flatly, without accusation in the tone. "I would have missed you terribly."

He smiled wanly before the first of a flood of tears poured from his eyes. "I could not take his life. I failed my Calling. Council. You. The catastrophe I have set into motion--"

"Will be righted one day, my dear friend." She knelt at his side and drew his trembling hands into Her steady ones. Set against the walnut tone of her skin, her green eyes seemed more animated than usual. "I see no failure, Eruwalt, and neither should you. This experience has change you tremendously, not for as wrought as you may believe."

"And my Peers? What do they see?"

She inhaled a deep breath that belied Her age, cupping his face affectionately. "Censure. You will be renounced. They will title you Council Elder, but you will hold no esteem, your Vision will be disregarded and you must hold silent, Eruwalt."

"How? To walk these halls as more than a lesser being--as if mortal--when that is not the case?"

"Then make it the case. You are not without your means. Think of it as thus: an old man who will not die becomes a fixture; a young man that does not age becomes a mystery."

"Your wisdom--"

"Is your wisdom, Eruwalt. What you have taught me. What you will continue to teach these young. We gain insight through our experiences, our decisions, and I refuse to believe the teacher cannot appreciate his own lessons. It will take time, but this all will pass and your heart will mend."

"My heart, Lady, should have never been bared and now it is gone forever."

"Oh," she giggled. "That is where you are wrong. How were you expected to live among the imperfection of humanity without, one day, falling prey to it? Rosalie Cort will always be within you, but she will be far from the last. You now possess the most intimate knowledge of where their human hearts have been and where they will continue to go. Humanity has tainted you, Eruwalt Augustine. Embrace your good fortune and begin to move on..."

Augustine stared at the creature who stared back at him and he checked the apartment number again just to make sure he was in the right place. When the blond being apathetically shrugged before moving along, Augustine accepted the open door as his invitation to stroll in.

He liked the layout of the tidy room with the curving staircase sweeping up to a loft. The burnished browns, warm-toned tile inlays, and oxidized iron trimmings gave the place an overall masculine feeling. The books on the shelves amused him to no end and he picked up the volume from the table in front of him.

"DIANETICS". Augustine refrained from forming an opinion.

"Spike, I thought I told you to get out!" the annoyed British voice called from beyond the hallway, backed by the sound of rushing water. "OH!"

"Rupert." Augustine smiled, eyeing his former pupil from head to toe. "All my boys have gotten so old."

"Yes, well..." Flustered for a moment, Rupert Giles strode to the counter separating his kitchen from the living room to refresh his drink. Miming 'cheers' with his glass, he swallowed the bitter liquid in one gulp before refilling it. He didn't bother with formalities, knowing Augustine wouldn't mind if he continued to drink alone.

"You seemed so surprised to see me. Although, it's not like I told Wyndham-Price I was actually coming to visit. He probably thinks I'm dead, anyway."

"Wyndham-Price?" Swirling the amber liquid, Giles felt his face flush with rage. "You would think he'd have given a ring anyway, wouldn't you? Twit," he added under his breath. "So, you've obviously seen his new living arrangements?"

"Oh, he doesn't live with the vampire. But, yes. I met Angel AND Cordelia. What a lovely girl she is. So charming and vivacious!"

"Among other things." Giles heaved his impatience, tired of standing, but not really wanting the company enough to invite the older-looking man to sit down. "You didn't come all this way to chat about the three Angelenos."

"Actually. I wanted to meet your Slayer. Is she expected?" He was finding it difficult to read the myriad of expressions that swept across Giles' face. Actually, the one. Augustine never fathomed how easily one person could emote so many facets of exasperation. "I take it she's not coming by, then"

"In case senility has set on during the course of your immortality, Eruwalt, I no longer am in possession of a Slayer. She was--"

"Yes, yes, Rupert. Don't get sprung. I just thought that, while I was passing through, it might be nice to meet the other Slayer. Perhaps some other time."

He took the continued display of hostility as his cue to leave and walked himself to the door, noticing the acoustic guitar on its stand. "You know, Rupert, forgiveness is a wonderful thing and rather cathartic. You had a destiny to contend with before you could tackle anything else and I'm done apologizing about preventing you from leading a secular life."

"And, this 'destiny' of mine, SIR... Did you happen to SEE at what point the life I'm leading at this moment begins to improve?" His unforgiving glare accented the unattractive silence. "Just what I thought you'd 'prophesy'. GET. OUT."

"Well... Do ring Wyndham-Price, won't you? Sometimes keeping in touch with an old acquaintance can be rather cathartic, also."

Eruwalt Augustine gently pulled the door closed behind him as he left. He paused in the courtyard of the lovely apartment building for a second to admire the wafting scent of the seasonal jasmine. And then, as if to announce the coming storm, the harsh sound of glass against wood shattered the mood.

-0-

Author 'speaks' again:

Here are a few additional notes: There is a song I found right before the final/final editing: "Resurrection" by Terrence Trent d'Arby off of his "VIBRATOR" CD. Now, mind you, this is a CD that never seems to be in its jewel box when I'm wanting to listen to it, but that particular morning, there it was. I don't write with music in mind, but the energy and wording of the song kinda blew me away and made me think: Angel! 'Aurora's' title, which never wanted to come to me for any reason, finally came to mind with the song. Much thanks to TTD and, dude! When the hell is that next CD coming out?

Other songs: during Angel's vigil with Cordy & Doyle, there is a wonderful song on Afro Celt Sound System's 'Volume 2: Release' by the name of "Éireann" that seems to fit the occasion nicely. It is not so down-tempo as one might expect for the scene, but the words are almost perfectly tailored and I like how it ties in with Angel being a Warrior. Dido's 'Take my Hand', a suggestion from 'Cherub' still fits. Until further notice, consider that one the Angel/Cordy theme song.

I wanted to include Wesley's poem during the body of the piece, but there was no way to add it without bogging down the pace of the story. I had been trying to choose just the right poem for months on end. This is actually the first one I found and I put it aside, thinking, "so, NOT Cordy". But, then 'Necromonger', 'Cherub', and 'Closure' occurred and by the time I finished 'Disruptor', Cordy WAS the poem. She is as precious as her men think she is. Mind you, Wesley is 'channeling' Angel while he's reciting it, which makes the wording all that more poignant:

PHANTOM OF DELIGHT by William Wordsworth

She was a Phantom of delight When first she gleamed upon my sight;

A lovely Apparition, sent To be a moment's ornament;

Her eyes as stars of Twilight fair; Like Twilight's, too, her dusky hair;

But all things else about her drawn From May-time and the cheerful Dawn;

A dancing Shape, an Image gay To haunt, to startle, and way-lay.

I saw her upon nearer view, A Spirit, yet a Woman, too!

Her household motions light and free, And steps of virgin-liberty;

A countenance in which did meet Sweet records, promises as sweet;

A Creature not too bright or good For human nature's daily food;

For transient sorrows, simple wiles, Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles.

And now I see with eye serene The very pulse of the machine;

A Being breathing thoughtful breath, A Traveller between life and death;

The reason firm, the temperate will, Endurance, foresight, strength and skill;

A perfect Woman, nobly planned, To warn, to comfort, and command;

And yet a Spirit still, and bright With something of angelic light.

(totally printed without any permission, whatsoever)


-0-

evancomo@netscape.net