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

Historical Note: Season 3: the action in this story takes place after "Heartthrob"

Author's Note: One of those stories that hit me on the drive home. When Angel speaks, it's difficult not to listen. Muchas gracias a Wiseblood y Ebonbird para las Betas. e.c. 30 Sep 01




SUSTAINING RELATIONS
by Evan Como







Angel rechecked the basement exit leading down into the sewers. Threading his fingers through the grating, he pulled up with all of his supernatural strength. Straightening, he stomped his rubber-soled shoe; the metal clanked inside its reinforced niche. His confidence in its security was merely temporary, however, and he knelt to scrutinize the hinges.

They were as sturdy as they'd been that afternoon; as secure as when he'd checked them a half-hour earlier.

"OK, OK. Stop," he muttered to himself.

Eyes closed and hands raised to shoulder level, he proceeded to push out one palm first then the other, funicular-style. "Just relax. Relax. Everyone's safe."

"Guy, Angel! Was it possible for you to flee the country and come back even *more* anal?" Cordelia had chided during Angel's after-waking inspection. From the top of the basement staircase she'd been peering past the hanging bare-bulb, supervising the rattrap removal. "And, Angel? Have I happened to mention yet that it's seriously gross we didn't have a rodent problem until you bailed town?"

He'd shot a mute, icy "Caution!" from under lowered brows, the swell of his cheeks narrowing his eyes from underneath.

She'd narrowed hers right back then broken into a beatific smile that made him melt. With prescient grace, she'd turned on her heel. "Employee meeting, Angel. Chop, chop!" she'd called from over her shoulder before moseying out of view.

"He down there?" Only Gunn's profile had made an appearance as if whatever Cordy had answered prevented him from looking in while speaking, "Angel, Bruh, Wesley seriously gets his preach on when we make him wait."

The young man hadn't waited for a reply; instead, his fading voice then nagged at Cordy, "I 'on't know, woman! I'm in charge of her breakfast. You tellin' me I gotta start getting this girl lunch and dinner, too? Cuz that's topic one I'm f'sure bringin' up at this meeting."


Each monastery month of Tai Chi and lotus sitting had made Angel far more limber, certainly stronger but, by no means, less tender.

While rolling left, arms elongated beside his head and reaching, Angel spied an ash-colored corner peeking out from under a tower of boxes. Somehow, in his absence, Cordelia, Wesley and Gunn had collected every cardboard box in the greater Los Angeles area and filled the basement with them. The vampire within wouldn't allow Angel the memory of being mortal enough to hoard for no reason -- of possessing the squirreling genome that had manifested in each of his human companions during his absence. Fred had one too, he had to admit, except that she stowed everything on her walls.

Unlike the boxes that had toppled over it, the rattrap was empty.

"Angel? You're down there?" the British-accented voice queried.

The vampire leaned back into full view and smiled expectantly.

Wesley over-duplicated Angel's facial gesture. "Well, then. The three of us are off. See you tomorrow."

"Tomorrow," Angel replied softly, flattered, pleased by the way Wesley had managed to swallow his uncertainty enough to avoid phrasing his salutation as a question.

Wesley raised his hand in 'farewell' and, an awkward moment later, nodded as if in apology for having tarried too long before finally backing out of sight. Or, perhaps the tipping of his head was meant as a blessing -- Wesley sprinkling a summer's accumulated adoration behind like pixie dust.

Forgoing the urge to cup his hands, Angel flipped the trap instead. Its red lettering and metal jaws whirled kaleidoscopically, end-over-end in the air on the way across the room. The flames raging beyond the furnace maw lapped up the throw-away, releasing the sweetish scent of cindering wood once the varnish coating broiled off.

He awoke with a start, surrounded by the scent of a nest burning far too nearby for his personal comfort. Fighting disorientation, he summoned his most useful preternatural senses. With awareness came appreciation for mortared stone walls and fire was extinguished from his worry list.

"I don't -- " His throat contracted, irritated and dry. "I don't remember much, but I do know I've not been at sea. And, from the stench of this flea-ridden bed, I've not been reposing in Morocco."

A solitary oil lamp flickered, casting its weary light upon the seedy room and Darla. Her brocade dress's elaborate floral design took bloom -- silver-edged petals glinting from a satiny celadon field. She primped at the folds of her skirts, smoothing them over the comforter. With a slight arch to her brow and even slighter tip of her head towards one shoulder, she embodied boredom. "If it hadn't taken you forever to come around, Angelus, we might have made the next ship, or the next."

"Two days?" he wondered aloud. His arms and legs felt rubbery. There was a curious flavor on his tongue. And his eyebrows pained him terribly. "Three?"

"Try five." Her blue gaze rested upon his bare chest where The Vampire Killer Holtz' crossbow quiver had entered. "It's downright embarrassing for a vampire your age to have to rest so long from a couple of simple little pokes." She needled each wound with a fingertip.

Angelus cursed her with a look. "Perhaps Holtz is using enchantments now."

Picking his ruined shirt off the foot of the bed, Darla examined it for show. Two rust-stained blotches resembled those of someone who'd bled while alive. She discarded the soiled white cotton with a flick of her wrist, shuttling it across the room. Ghostlike, its sleeves and necktie flapped through the air.

Suddenly, her eyes were half-lidded with exhaustion, as if the two years of eluding Holtz had finally bested her. "We need to stay out of France until that lucky bastard succumbs to his mortality," she sniped. Recollecting her deviousness and, with it, her unnatural beauty, she added less harshly, "Unless my boy gets to him first."

Angelus scooped her hand from the linens and nuzzled her palm. "We'd have to find him first. Turn the hunt 'round on him..."

His lashes tickled her forearm, making Darla giggle. Wresting her fingers away, she dabbed at her décolleté. "If we hound him..."

"Go on," Angelus pressed, rolling onto his stomach to nose her rump. One arm slithered around her cinctured waist and he levered himself closer.

"He's just an av -- " she gasped, driving one knee into the other. The breath she stole was heady with his arousal. " -- average man."

He flopped onto his back. Squirming to get comfortable, he rumpled the fetid sheets with his shoulders, smothered the meager pillow with his unruly brunette tresses. The hand used to clear one side of his throat, he tucked under his nape, enticing her with his exposed left side. "Pity that men are so average, isn't it?" he commented with a swaggering half-grin.

When she lighted upon him, he winced. His eyes threatened to burrow into the top of his skull, but he managed his consciousness. As his calf roped hers, even distanced by the volumes of her skirts, she was affected by the prickle of his fervor. "Careful, Darling," she laughed into his ear, "you wouldn't want to knock yourself out attempting to do what you're obviously barely up to."

He fumbled with the loaf of hair at her crown, weakly wrenching her head back. His mouth opened as if to spout something vile but, instead, tore into hers. Their kiss broke abruptly, finishing with his teeth dragging down her throat. "You've fed." He inhaled the aromas in her pores.

"Simple fare, really," she sighed. "A ragout of journeymen: a butcher, baker -- "

"Any candles?" he inquired, broadly swiping his tongue along her collarbone.

"Angelus! You know I can't tolerate sticks," she replied, fingers meandering under his waistband.

His head slid into her bosom, laying a trail of perspiration. He hadn't fully recovered and she knew that, but Satan-be-damned if he was going to let that stop him. "You should sleep again," she hushed, rearing away, but his fingers in her mouth blocked her advice. Without a second of hesitation, she was devouring him, slavering filth off his torpid arms.

"Ya wicked wench!" he roared, slapping her mouth off his chest.

Something treacherous, it tasted like on her tongue. From the wound in his side, the flavor was a little more concentrated. "You need to get up and go feed before daybreak," she urged, straightening her dress, shifting her cleavage.

He elbowed up feebly. Drained from the exertion, his head dropped into her lap. Fingers hooked onto her plunging neckline, his lips climbed her torso. "But, I'm already up," he whined against her neck.

With the gentlest degree of his weight bearing upon her, she reclined. His panting was ragged, urgent along her flesh; one hand tenderly caressing her jaw, the other rustling her skirts. His hardening desire ravaged her hip.

As one, they cast off all pretense of humanity. Primitive grunting expressed what they were to each other. In the end, there weren't any words he could have used to express his true hunger, nor any words for her lips to form a refusal.

Darla reopened her eyes. Between her hiked knees, she briefly considered the bruja she'd consulted. Again she'd been pretending that the parasitic condition she was in was a hallucination; but no, again that wasn't the case. She reminded herself to breathe -- surely whatever was growing inside of her needed air. Most certainly it would need to suckle.

For something -- and even she had to shudder at that.

"Ese te duele?" the old midwife inquired perfunctorily. Without waiting for a response, her insensitive hands continued to grope Darla's protruding belly.

The vampiress kept wondering when the pregnancy would hurt, if it would hurt. So far, mostly what she'd been was annoyed. Her ankles were swollen; she craved beer -- and lots of it. Recently, even pasta had begun hitting a spot when nothing else could and she had to smirk at the dual irony that she was neither high-tailing it to Italy, that she'd never appreciated the foodstuff while briefly alive -- the latter probably more for spite since that was all Lindsey and his ilk ever seemed to eat.

"Estaré detrás. Consiga vestido," the hunched woman mumbled on her way out of the closet-sized room to answer the two-room shack's only door.

Some phrases didn't need translation; Darla immediately slipped her easy-wear pants and stretchy tee shirt back on. Easing into the rickety chair by the broken window, she absently counted the few lights on in the poverty-ridden village dotting the hillside, wishing she hadn't overindulged on her interpreter.

-0-

Kate polished off the last of her muffin and coffee at the same time she finished reading the morning's paper. She smiled at the last article: an orphaned child had been rescued from a Mall dumpster and placed in a loving home.

There *is* good to balance evil in the world. She knew that in her heart and it gladdened her.

She stacked her dish and plate in the kitchen sink, came back to the table and folded her reading material into shape. The Times went into the recycle bin along with the women's magazines -- those she'd bought in a stupid attempt to use arts and crafts to help her pass time while replanning her future. Nearby, a half-decoupaged terra-cotta planter held the bowed stem of a struggling fern, reinforcing that not being good with her hands not only concerned all things creative, but probably went as far as to include having a lame green thumb.

'Thursday', she reread while neatening the stack. Wash day. Now laundry she was great at.

It wasn't a surprise to meet Angel in the basement sitting on top of one of the empty machines. Even less of a surprise that he'd absconded the *only* empty one.

"Hey," Kate said, striding up with her clothes-basket underarm. She backhanded his thigh and he complied, instantly hopping over one.

"You pre-treat?" he asked offhandedly.

"When I need to," she replied, rearranging towels in the tub. Before she could inch the coins out of the change pocket of her jeans, Angel had the carrier pushed in. She one-eyed him. "It's a misdemeanor -- "

He smiled broadly. "Next round, I'll *buy*."

"You're incorrigible," she teased. After taking a seat on top of the commercial Maytag, she folded both arms and inhaled; fabric softener and premium brand detergents masked the faint scent of chlorine bleach. She glanced sideways at his leg. "I hope you're not sitting in -- "

Angel raised his thigh, cringing. "At least they're not new," he granted, pinching at the streaked fabric. "That's what I get for not watching where I sit."

Her heels thumped irregularly, pacing their silence. "So, why're you here?"

"I'm not overly fond of my laundry facilities and thought I'd check out my options." He greeted the middle-aged man who immediately dashed for the bank of dryers. "From what I've noticed, you all are very serious about your washables in this building. That's good."

"Alrighty." Her pale blue eyes were dewy with concern and more than a drop of indulgence. "That was your jokey answer, now what's your real one?"

He leaned over, closely confiding, "We're having a 'welcome home' party for me tomorrow night. At Casa Alimento. My treat."

Kate spontaneously laughed. "Your treat for your own welcome home party? You realize among us humans, you should be the treatee, not the treator?"

His predicament torqued one corner of his mouth. Resigned, Angel shrugged. "I know that, but every time Cordy explains it to me, she makes it make sense for me to pay."

"Oh. Well all you had to say was 'Cordelia'," Kate conceded. She slid onto her feet, raised the lid of her washer and fussed with the uneven load. "How long've you been back, by the way?"

"Four days."

Arms resting neatly in front of her, she tilted her head to regard him. The florescent lighting cast a greenish tint on his usual creamy pallor, brightening his forced affability. He'd always been a study of mood swings -- angry, unforgiving, playful, sincere -- but never unguarded, never so transparent. Wearing shirtsleeves and repression, a curiosity-satisfying treasure threatened to tumble at Kate's feet, yet she feared freeing those secrets, unprepared to be their trustee.

"You know," she began, the machine's vibration relaxing her unease, "if you delayed your welcome home party longer, like 'til the end of the month, it would coordinate better with you treating yourself."

Breaking off his fixation with the roundness of her face, the exotic slant of her strangely-blue eyes, the natural pink of her cupid's-bow mouth, Angel's gaze followed the fall of her hair. Twin fading scars reproached him from under wheaten-blonde shafts. "I got sidetracked by an old associate stopping by with a grievance."

A timer buzzed, warning Kate from the subject. Inhaling, she kept on, "Is that why you split this summer like you did?"

White-knuckling the edge of the washer, Angel rode its bucking spin cycle. Bobbing his head, he left his chin where it fell.

Kate snatched her basket, resting it on her hip. On a whim she took hold of his forearm and gave it sympathetic squeeze. "Just lemme know what time and I'll meet you guys there," she consoled, brushing her cheek along the side of his face.

Her pace up the staircase was deliberate -- she counted her breaths, timed each step with each blink of her eyes. Halfway up to her apartment, the atmosphere stilled; Kate stopped and looked back, visually confirming the cutoff of his pursuit. Free palm along her throat, she slumped against the banister, relieved.

And, as deeply, confused that he was never as cool as expected.

-0-

The inn was quaint enough -- she'd been in far worse. It was spare, yet tidy despite a thin dusting of the native soil coating every surface. Near the room's only window, a mosquito buzzed angrily and Darla listened to its futile complaint with measured association. Holding her beverage bottle up to the lamp, she swirled its golden contents.

"Poor little insect needs to get its own evil, evil brew," she said before guzzling the last of the beer. Before she spent the rest of the day discovering how next-to-impossible it was to swat a flying insect, using an empty bottle.

Glorious fury filled her darling boy's eyes while he tossed aside another corpse. Sated, he pounced on his Sire, pinning her against floorboards that croaked as loudly in protest as Darla squealed in delight. She craved him strong and virile.

And bursting with fight.

His human features smoothed into place and he spoke against her ankle, using one or several of the many foreign tongues he knew. She never understood half of what he said, even when he was speaking his Irish version of English; there was just something magickal about the tone of his voice. She imagined his words a fantastic incantation, transforming her into a cartouche of his prowess.

Darla stretched out in languid pleasure. Feeling the floor beyond her head, she took possession of an urn and brought it down on his skull.

He faced again, jaundiced eyes glaring while a hairline scar allowed a droplet of blood to escape. Grabbing his jaws, Darla pulled him down. She eagerly drank what she could in strong, steady draughts while he writhed, maneuvering his fangs into position.

She tossed him aside and he roared. Arms open, he leapt and she planted her dainty foot into his gut. He crashed into the wall, cracking loose a piece of plaster.

His entire six foot, broad-shoulder stature charged, eclipsing the gaslighting. Angelus latched onto Darla's throat, hoisted her up and slammed her onto the bar. His half-clothed muscles rippled with unbridled, tenebrous power when he mounted her, pinioning her shoulders.

She arched into his bite and spat out his name.

Later, the flames inside the ceiling globes mimicked the guttering candles, further enhancing the fine damask on the tables. Dark ceiling beams and ornately paneled walls absorbed much of the ambient light, the remainder reflected with darkly aged beauty.

Beyond a heap of despoiled patrons others slouched in their seats, their lifeless eyes bulging above the appetizer courses of their Prix Fixe meals. The two vampires wallowed in their good fortune -- it wasn't every night one happened upon an anniversary celebration and siphoned a family's bloodline down to the fourth generation.

Too stuffed to move, Angelus leaned back in his chair, heels hitched upon the deceased patriarch's lap while he enjoyed an après dinner panatela. "Enjoy yourself, did you?" he asked, puffing out the perfect circle of smoke that hovered above his blissful face.

Darla approached without sound. Wriggling a fist of bejeweled tentacles, she rejoiced, "Our lives are golden!"

Cordy wagged her pendant at Wesley. "I knew you were *so* gonna love that quesadilla I told you to order. The pico de gallo they put on the side was ultra yum!"

Gunn winced. "Guy-oh, Cordelia," he enunciated above his goblet of wine.

Angel reflected upon the one of several appetizers that had been ordered alongside his companion's dinners. "That twelve-fifty quesadilla made from a ten-cent tortilla and fifty cents worth of cheese? I think you're trying to make me start cooking again."

Cordy shamelessly toggled the flat blue stone at Angel's chin.

"Aren't you afraid you're going to break your necklace if you keep playing with it like that?" Kate asked distractedly, more concerned about scooping the right amount of salsa onto her tortilla chip without breaking it.

"Then Angel'll just have to go back to Sri Lanka and complain about the shoddy workmanship," Cordy replied and, with a flick of her wrist, swung the pendant in her right shoulder's direction.

Angel stopped it mid-flight. "How about you don't break it in the first place?" he strongly recommended, setting it back where it belonged.

The reprimanded young woman folded her hands on top of her festive placemat. Her lower lip jutted into her best 6 year-old's pout. "OK, Dad. Whatever you and Mom want."

Overbiting a grin, Angel rolled his eyes away; they fell upon Wesley, then Kate, then Gunn. The trio's snickering prompted a huge eruption of laughter from Cordelia and every patron in the busy restaurant turned their heads in her direction.

Wesley took that as an opportunity to tune the side of his glass with a fork. "Here, here," he summoned cheerfully with a wide, toothy smile. "I should like to make a toast to our guest of honor -- OW! Cordelia!"

Angel tapped Cordelia's arm. "I already get that I'm paying; so you don't have to kick Wesley's skinny leg."

Gunn roared, slamming his hand on the table. "Hoo, Wes! The vamp just dissed you with bird legs. If he'd ever heard you sing, he'd for sure know that ain't true!"

Clearing her throat, Kate called for attention. "It's toast time, you guys, no matter who's picking up the tab. God knows I shouldn't be the person giving one out, but since I've been Talking-Stick free for nearly two years -- thanks to the *guy* of honor -- I think I can handle this."

With everyone's -- including the kid's seated at the next table -- attention focused on her, Kate drew a courageous breath. "OK. Here goes... No matter where you've been, Angel, or why; it's good that you're back."

The ex-Detective exhaled, raised her glass to her lips, held it there; and, while she waited for everyone to join in, Cordy, Wesley and Gunn turned to Angel. Cordy picked up her necklace and waved it again; with the back of his fingers, Wesley brushed an allergic dimple; Gunn inclined the top of his head, his chin weighted by an affectionate grin.

Angel, caught in their sights, slipped a little deeper into his chair. His feet were stopped mid-slump -- one checked by a loafer, one by a work boot. He posed a silent question to Wesley and Gunn.

"She'll kick you, too, if you attempt to disappear," the Brit replied.

"And super-vamp healing or no, her foot *hurts*," Gunn added.

Cordelia's face was a portrait of innocent astonishment. "I don't know what they're talking about, Angel."

Wesley held his water glass in front of his face, inspecting Cordelia through it. "I much rather preferred you throwing books."

"You used to do that too, huh?" Kate quipped, elbowing her newfound comrade.

"You guys -- "

Their focus shifted from the plates being delivered; everyone beckoned to the vampire's call.

Angel, lifting his wine glass, smiled after they'd all done likewise. "Thanks for making me take me to dinner and for coming along."

"To Angel!" Wesley saluted, then slurped. "To Angel!" the rest of the circle responded in kind.

"That's pretty sad when Kate can teach you how to give a better rank toast," Cordy mock-sniped, motioning the dinner plates on with her empty goblet. She gently knocked Angel's knee with her own, furtively monitoring his bashful reaction.

"You are good, Amigo, without having to order?" the discreet waiter asked, a congenial palm on the back of Angel's chair.

"Golden," Angel replied dreamily, enthralled by the Rioja's bouquet.

The waiter nearly lost his balance. "You have changed your mind, Amigo?" he fawned, tugging his bolero's hem out of his customer's grip.

Angel swallowed, nodding. "Just wanted to let you know that, before we're done, I'll need to place an order to go."

-0-

evancomo@netscape.net
Angel's Journal: http://angeljournal.mybravenet.com/index.htm