|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 this original story are the author's.
Historical Note: Season 3: the action in this story takes place after "Lullaby". Take fair warning: There is implied infant murder within this fic. Although not written explicitly, it happens. If you pale with such subject matter...
Author's Note: Outlined and half-written before "Dad" aired, I have to admit that I got a bit Tim'd. Still, I wanted an outing with Holtz and I got one, but, oh how I wish this had written itself as quickly as it came to the imagination. I'd forgotten what writing long fic was like. 'Tis both maddening and fun galore! It will be nice to get my life back.
Tunes: "Walls of Silence" by October Project & "My December" by Linkin Park
Dedications: I used to write dedications all the time, but for whatever reasons, I'd stopped. I think it may be time to begin anew. "Lullaby" was one of the most amazing pieces of dramatic television ever [ignoring the rankness that was going on with Gunn's character, here]. The conversations were real and I came to like Darla. And, it was oh! so fabby to see a smart, conversational Angel -- the guy who'd ceased to exist after "Epiphany", rather than the 'comic book' version.
So, to Tim Minear. It took a while, but now I believe in your godness.
Secondly, this goes out to Keith Szarabajka. What an actor! And what a nemesis! With forceful quiet, he gives Daniel Holtz a true voice. It's difficult to be patient, waiting for the payoff of his arc. All I know is that I do not want him gone; I'm hoping that his fate will be heroic. No matter what becomes of him, I know that within the JossVerse characters do not die.
Unless they're messily obliterated.
A nod also goes to Persia White, the guest actress from "Belonging".
Thanks: to Wiseblood for being the keeper of one angry young man's voice. I have yet to read other than tantalizing tidbits of "Mirabile Dictu", the preamble for this story, yet I already know it's magnificent and I am majorly honored.
e.c. 31 dec 01
JUST ANOTHER CATACLYSMIC DAY
Dark blonde lashes screened his bronze-colored irises from the over bright television screen. Monotonous images assaulted Daniel Holtz while banal prattle, passing for the delivery of local news, insulted his intelligence. A young male reporter -- over-bundled in a jacket making him look like a dandelion puff -- stood with the sun rising over one shoulder while dramatically brandishing one arm at muddy water trickling down a paved slope. From the footage he'd been watching pertaining to the events of the last decade, Holtz had begun to perceive how the everydayness of life was prissied up for the viewer.
It would not have surprised him had an entire olive tree been deposited at the reporter's galoshed feet.
During a sobersided twist of his head, the wavy hair at his nape was ruffed by his collar. Holtz' body, his emotions, were as stiff as his oil-cloth coat, dried now.
For over an hour, the goings-on had been about inclement weather -- pitiful in comparison to the European tempests he'd withstood. Los Angeles was beside herself over the novelty of the crying heavens. In between that overreaction, there were innocuous reports of a war that Holtz nodded at, not in agreement with the incursion, but for want of a region far more recognizable than this Western world into which he'd been quickened. He'd been asleep in the arms of Eternity while the world had devolved.
He could not -- nor did he want to -- relate to men who celebrated whoredom and exalted perjurers to highest office or found the extraordinary mundane. If embracing modern manhood meant supporting demonic concerns or even accepting that septuplets -- born a trimester early when each newborn weighed less than his soggy right stocking -- were not an aberration, he would gladly embrace the day his existence was no longer required.
He anticipated that last dawn on earth. And, more so, completing his chore.
Holtz rose, slogging onto booted feet, and scratched externally at his thoughts. Movements deliberate, footfall considered, he was a man practiced at measuring his opinions, words, and actions. All the better to prevent anyone -- man or demon -- from learning his truths.
"But you knew, bastard," Holtz muttered, gritting his teeth. He knuckled his facial hair. "Or was it merely that you guessed? And guessed much, much too well?"
Cordelia's focus glanced off the rear view mirror and through the Plymouth's steamy rear window. A bandwidth of dawn glared, sandwiched between toothy buildings and the monstrous storm clouds swooping in from the Pacific. Gusts of wind drummed across the vinyl convertible, making it waffle. She drew a worried breath and exhaled, "Wes."
The driver glanced to his right and down. His brows pulled together. "Gunn?" the Brit prompted.
A brown fist led by its index finger jutted past Cordelia's chin. "Left. Up here, past the light," Gunn signified.
Wesley removed his foot from the accelerator. Behind him, Fred adjusted a heavy blanket over Angel's head, tenting the baby in his arms; and, as if Wesley had eyes in the back of his head, after she finished the car was turned as directed.
Cordelia tch'd. "Great. Did we really need another alley?"
Gunn huffed. "Look, y'all'ready tried every motel between birth central and, well, Central for a place to lay low. So, beggars? Ain't no choosin' left."
Gripping the front seat between Cordy and Wesley's shoulders, Fred scooted into the tether of her seat belt. "This will be fine, Gunn," she stage-whispered. "We just need to be in a bad-guy free zone."
Seemingly in agreement, the infant fussed. Angel lowered his face and beheld the entire world, wriggling in his arms. "Shhhhh, Baby," he hushed as two tiny fists boxed out -- at the stuffy interior and an adoring father's nose.
"Just tell me where," Wesley sighed.
Cautiously riding the brakes, he steered the heavy black car through the valley of industrial buildings. At the mercy of both earthquakes and economics, the area lay wasted. With the powerful V8 engine's lower gear ratio sounding off the eroding brick walls, the blackwall tires cut through thin terra cotta ribbons lacing the oily stream created by litter-dammed storm drains.
Gunn looped his long arm behind Cordy and double-tapped Wesley's shoulder. The Plymouth squawked to a stop.
Her hand held by Gunn's, Cordy took her time exiting. She aimed the toe of her boot above the ocean of potholes until she spied a high bar of asphalt. "It better be safe, 'cause it sure isn't pretty," she said, squinting. Below the dim light filtering over the flat roof, run-off darkened the faded, painted words: "Egyptian Knitting Mills".
After a third hardy pull, the door set into the rusted roll-up loading access opened freely. Wesley peered inside. Cordelia's "So, are we innies or outies?" was an articulated variant of his own deliberation.
"It's the one I remember as best," Gunn apologized, sweeping his arm at the more meager real estate.
At Wesley's unspoken approval, Fred reached in towards the back seat. "C'mon, Angel," she coaxed, arms eager to receive the child.
But Angel swept past her without assistance, already a natural at the caregiver thing.
With both thumbs resting on the shores of his sunken eyes, fingerpads -- still to be calloused -- roamed gingerly about Holtz' face, avoiding the recently-acquired scar marring his high forehead. Blind, except to his thoughts, he plodded a course through the room by the heat of blazing torchieres. Senses that had fared his hibernation in tact had become even more acute.
"You came to me and I asked you no questions, Sahjhan." Deliberate impudence sharpened Holtz' usual, blunt delivery.
Coral-brown earth crunched beneath his ponderous steps. He opened his eyes, precisely at the figure slouching against the arched entrance to their underground refuge. "But, now I want answers."
Sahjhan ugh'd impertinently. He moseyed into his Warrior's path. "I should have known you were going to end up being a squelcher and made my pact with Don Raul. Sure he was minus an eye, deaf, and lame, but he was tenacious."
Holtz sidestepped Sahjhan, dropped his hands and halted. "I will not renege. I may not know exactly what I will do, but you are not my master to tell me when to begin."
Three long backstrides brought the demon face-to-face with Holtz. He flourished his hands like a vaudeville magician. "I am master enough to reconsider my operative, though."
In consideration of the comment, Holtz' inhale puffed out his round chest. The laughter rumbling from his diaphragm never escaped his larynx. "No, Sahjhan, the only thing you'll continue to do is to make idle threats. Or, as you've boasted, will you truly traverse the dimensions to entreaty Don Raul? And allow me to finish my sullen drink?"
Holtz, implacable, studied Sahjhan. Even firelight did not color the head-taller being's complexion. He was the gray of spider webs and toadstools, of vampire residue moistened to slime. From the dark cryptic letters freckling his cheeks to the deep, irregular crevices faulting his flesh, Sahjhan characterized inhumanity.
Including his speech patterns, spoken like jest. "OK. You got me. You were always my first choice," the dimensional lord conceded, clasping hand over hand over his abdomen.
Holtz narrowed his focus. Sahjhan feined indifference.
"Flattery will not assuage my curiosity, demon," Holtz seethed. Digging both hands into the pockets of his drover coat, he spurned both the vacillator and the broadcast, each a mockery of morality.
Angel held his son close to his chest as they trampled through Fred's exhalation. "It's too cold in here," he noted.
Cordelia tugged the belt of her fawn-colored leather trench. Crinkling her nose, she elaborated, "Not to mention, schtinky."
"Which, of course, you had to mention," Wesley retorted under his own visible breath. He swiped at the top of his head. "It appears that the roof only leaks here. That's promising."
"And cold," Angel reiterated.
"I know, Angel." Wesley looked away from the grimy skylight and past Angel's insistence. He fingered aside a blanket fold and smiled. Inside the pouch of warmth there was no mistaking to whom this child belonged -- not even old enough to possess muscle coordination and already with those squirmy eyebrows. Staggered by emotion, Wesley grasped for the stability of Angel's shoulder.
But the vampire had already slipped out of reach.
"We could burn these," Cordelia suggested, kicking newspaper across the floor, sweeping up.
Gunn hollered from the loft, "Not after you sop up all that grease from the floor with 'em. And everything else here looks too damp to burn." He clomped across creaking wood planks. "Hey! We got a cat and kittens up here. We cool on the rodent tip, at least."
Wesley tapped the radiator set against one of the iron support beams. Water leakage dribbled onto his eyeglass lenses. He frowned upwards. "Gunn? Any chance there's gas in here?"
Avoiding the stairs by using the handrails of the metal steps he'd climbed, Gunn's half-gloves squealed during his slide to ground level. "WYSIWYG, English," he reported, clapping metallic dust from his palms.
Fred pattered across the concrete floor. "Look, you guys! I found cow chips to burn!"
Cordy's hazel eyes widened. "Those must be some serious kittens, Gunn."
Wesley accepted Fred's find and sniffed at it. "Astonishing! This *is* a cow chip."
"And, oh! so toasty," Cordy drolled. "I'm not even gonna ask how you're a dung expert, Wesley. And don't -- " she tossed her wrist " -- tell me there's mystical writing on it, too."
Fred pinched the hard disc out of Wesley's hand and, after a quick spell-check, offered it to Gunn and another to Cordelia. "You can tell by the size and the shape. And, oh yeah!" Bouncing on her toes, the willowy brunette giggled. "The scent -- "
"Spare me, Prairie Jane?" Cordy waved off Fred's proposal and towards a piece of corrugated tin siding. "Can we fire'm up in that metal box over there?"
Being the recipient of a brusque elbow from Gunn disrupted Wesley's count of Angel's ardent strides. "Um... We'll still need a slight enclosure to trap whatever heat we can generate."
Gunn picked up the rectangular bin's handle and kicked back a heel. "This'll work as a wall up there in the loft. And there's a vent, too."
"Gunn!" Fred shouted. She rushed her oblivious associate and pushed him out of harm's way.
The metal sheet tipped to where Gunn had been standing, warbled on one edge and slammed to the floor. The frigid, moist air barely muffled the resulting thwack.
The baby sputtered once.
And started to bawl.
Angel fretted, "Hey, hey. C'mon. That was your first 'bang'. Your first *outstandingly loud bang that better not ever happen again, you guys*," he scathed to everyone outside of his cradling arms.
But Cordelia, Wesley, Gunn, and Fred missed the pointiness of his decree, their eight eyes having been captivated by another four.
One cow chewed its cud. The other slurped a nostril clean.
Successful at quieting his charge, Angel grinned at Fred. "Cool! So, that means there's more 'pie where those came from, right?"
His gaze fixed on the pebbled stone ceiling, Holtz laid rigid on top of his freshly made bunk. An inability to sleep amplified the sewer system roaring through the walls.
Impulsively, he flung one shoulder up and over the other. Momentum had him onto his feet and proceededing straightaway through the corridor. The mein of his reputation bufferered aside each creature stationed there.
"Sahjhan!" he barked, blocking the human look-alike's final passage down the stairwell.
"Well, Holtz. Good morning to you, too!" Sahjhan said, sardonically cheerful.
Holtz raised his chin.
"That's right!" The demon lord snapped his fingers by his temples. "If you didn't have manners two centuries ago, why would you have them now?"
"I loathe sarcasm," Holtz spat.
"No!" Sahjhan's shoulders dropped and his jaw followed suit. "Who'd of guessed it?"
A cold gale yowled down from the street, making Holtz' graying hair shiver under the wafting torchlight in straw-colored waves. As he stood with his boots one stance apart and both forearms buckled above his waist, his clothes billowed. The open neckline of his oyster-beige blouse rose and fell evenly, expertly tailored by curt, shallow breaths.
Irked, not impressed by the show of imperviousness, Sahjhan cooly breezed through the man. Less than a yard away, he glanced over his shoulder and stalled. The two massive attendants had remained on the staircase, shuffling their feet, reluctant to venture past the average-sized obstruction.
In gradual turns, Sahjhan shed his human face and, with it, all sufferage. "MOVE!" he bellowed.
The water misting his shape receded through his virtuality. Yet, the Grapplars did not budge.
"The humans can't get Angelus either. You're on your own, my man," Sahjhan complied, inclining his head.
Holtz exhaled sharply.
Gouged by Sahjhan's barbarous words.
The truth had assailed his ears as surely as the air had fled his lungs. Layered within the demon's speech patterns were all the subtle clues he'd missed. Sahjahn's statement hadn't been an immortal's toleration for the Angelus predicament; it had been ordinary pessimism. All those hours Holtz had spent in his keeper's company, he now knew had been misspent -- battling intolerable gibes with captious behavior.
Slowly defeating himself.
Within Holtz mind, "The humans can't get Angelus either..." tumbled repeatedly until its subliminal taunt was exposed: nor would he.
Holtz thumbed against the nap of the dense bristle on his chin; resolve tautened the flesh across his cheeks. "If you had listened, you would realize that's not what I asked you," he countered. Inwardly capitulating, he turned towards the being with respect.
After summoning forward the rest of the guards, Sahjhan turned as well. He unzipped his flak jacket. "'Others like her' meaning what? Specifically."
Palms facing forward and fanned from his thighs, Holtz explained, "Humans who will fight beside me. Someone other than these..." He cut his eyes at the looming Grapplar contingent.
They jawed their vicious tusks at him.
"Of course there are humans -- " Sahjhan stilled his tongue and gouged his pockets with his fists. "I've already told you... there are limitations to what assistance I can provide."
"You cannot enlist humanity for your cause, yet you have me," Holtz pondered aloud. Piloted by his observations, his wrist flicked, culling a blade from under his shirttail. He stabbed out. "And, thus far I'm limitless -- "
Spurred by the sight of Holtz' arm pulling out of his body, Sahjhan cackled. "Why would you waste your effort when your weapon -- " But his words fell more quickly than the demon through his chest.
" -- except where you're concerned." Newfound astuteness twitched at the trim of Holtz' beard.
"For the moment," he asided in passing. He tipped his forehead at the open-mouthed demon being mirrored in the lifeless Grapplar's glassy eyes. Dismissively, Holtz off-handed the filthy dagger and it clattered onto the flagging unseen -- veiled by Sahjhan's ethereal form.
Wesley picked at his palm with a fingernail, raising a rusty splinter. By manipulating the metal sheet under foot and by hand, he and Gunn had erected the lean-to upstairs. Unexpectedly, the results of their primitive labors had begun corralling the heat rather well.
"If I had some needles, I could knit you up a sweater real fast with that yarn I found," Fred drawled, index fingers somersaulting enthusiastically while completing another intricate knot for her macramé shawl.
"I'm f- fine," Wesley chittered. He wiped his hands on his thighs, folded his arms, and crammed his fists under an armpit apiece. "But I don't think I've ever seen Angel quite so exhausted."
Gunn puffed into the cove of his fingers. "Angel ain't even here, English."
"He's very much here; just very focused on the child," Wesley was quick to excuse. Punishing his unruly bottom lip with his front teeth, he flexed his fingers, dismayed. "It's not only cold, but it's absolutely filthy in here."
"Could be the barnyard. Ya think?" Cordy flipped up the cap of the baby wipes with both thumbs and tilted the dainty white corner to Wes. "But, if that kid survived Darla, this sludge hovel should seem like a chalet. Besides, it's not like he's going to spend his babyhood fighting off dust bunnies -- not with Angel as his dad."
Thumb and forefinger at the ready, Wesley pecked for the corner of the towelette. And missed. He made another effort. But the plastic container bobbed from under his siege. "Cordelia! I'm too tired to play games," he adjured, poised to trounce; but the instant he struck, the top did, too.
It rebounded off his forearm raised in defense.
Fred froze. "Cordy!" she squeaked.
Casting out an arm, Gunn hooked Cordelia by the shoulders before she swan dove.
She recognized her name. She wanted to answer. But the Vision had already lassoed her from behind. It yanked really, really hard. Besides, once she was in one, there was no getting out. She soared... Backwards, backwards. Farther and farther from everyone she knew. Especially from her own identity.
As always, still airborne, there was a split-moment of nothingness -- No weight. Not a sound. No feeling and then...
Thunder clapped. Cordelia's skull fissured. An endless night arrived, constellation-free except for the stars of immense pain glimmering on the back of her eyelids. Her fingers and toes ballooned; they throbbed and threatened to explode. Every single tooth loosened at the root and rattled inside of her mouth -- a hollow sound like dice inside a cup or a skeleton wanting out of its prison.
Agony electrified her nerves. Ligaments melted. Her elbows and knees ratcheted inside their sockets.
And she put on two tons.
Echoing from out of the vison-stream: a baby's cry. The wailing became louder: hunger, fright. Blood streamed relentlessly until she was tasting it, smelling it. Soaking in it. Gagging. With SurroundSound provided by the squalling infant, the mélange of images overcrowded Cordelia's mental screen.
Innocence met doom. Demons with wrong-side-up saberteeth intimidated a terrified woman -- her identity concealed behind bedraggled, brown hair.
The inarticulate baby shrieked for deliverance.
Her Vision shaded violently. Blood. Too much blood... Too much blood... A vivid red tint to the whirlpool of... Love. Wasted love. Love, neglected. Love, desperately lost. So much love... So much love...
Fred bolted. "I'll get Angel!"
Wesley shouted, "WAIT!" and clutched her denim skirt by its belt loop. Doe-eyes mushrooming, Fred swerved off-balance to break Wesley's hold. He released her too promptly and she stumbled.
Events overlapped without intervals; Wesley's motor skills sped wonkily to hell. He felt detached from the hand he saw grabbing for Fred's gangly upper arm and the horror in his heart duplicated that on her face. He was somewhat relieved that she evaded his assistance -- slender ankles unbuckling, coltishly graceful while scampering to freedom.
Wesley contritely backed away.
"We can probably do this on our own, English. Just like old times, right?" Gunn blithely speculated, his devotion to Cordelia replaced by worry over Fred's disappearance and Wesley's strange distancing.
"Oooh," Cordelia croaked. Neck firm, she held her head still, certain the top of it was about to ski down her nose. "I mean -- Brrrrrrr! It's cold in here."
Leaning a cheek towards Cordy's forehead, Gunn's brown eyes ping-ponged from Wesley to where he could make out Fred in the shadows. "I think Cordy's got a fever."
Wesley gathered his associate's hand, less alarmed by her over-heatedness and more by her dilating pupils. Like coming out of a trance, she blinked lethargically and her face over-relaxed. Her lips vanished for a moment to return, slightly dewed. "Cordelia's not sick, but you are very warm," he swallowed.
Cordelia chuckled humorlessly. "What do you know? I can add immune-to-extreme-freezing-temperatures-just-like-Angel as another perk of the Seer-hood!"
She extracted her hand from Wesley's and fumbled for her pocket. Rolling the tip of her tongue across the back of her teeth verified they were firmly in place without a hint of their smoothness.
She saw Gunn's hand holding her steady by one shoulder; watched the movement of Wesley's as his fingers probed beneath her bangs, along her cheeks, under her jaw. She could see all she wanted to; there was just a teensy problem with sensation --
"How come Angel's baby doesn't cry?" she asked absently, backing from under their check up. Closing both eyes, she turned inward and searched.
Looking to feel anything other than infinitely sad.
And infinitely numb.
The elements detonated and silvered the deep, charcoal sky. Under its concussive response, the tarpaper roof crackled. Unprepossessing of his command, Wesley's knuckles gleamed like ivory marbles rolling on the backs of his hands as he grappled each rung to the loft. He finished ascending just as lightning flared again; its accompanying ruckus sounded several long seconds later.
Angel, oblivious to the fulmination, was motionlessly rounded about his son. "Are you asleep?" Wesley inquired softly. Finally?>> he hoped.
The vampire's head toggled. A finger dented his lips before inviting Wesley near. "Whassup?" he whispered.
Crouching closer, Wesley was careful not to disturb. No smile, no frown, yet the resting babe was a reflection of emotion.
Not excluding his own. "Cordelia had a Vision," he exposited.
No grimace, no excitement, Angel took the news objectively.
The Brit continued, "And, I'm afraid, it was about the baby. We should probably -- " He winced and pursed his lips, appreciative for the shock of light that disguised what had actually been preparation for Angel's outrage.
Angel merely readjusted both haunches and scratched an earlobe.
"Another location would probably provide better cover for our abeyance, Angel." Playing the demon's advocate when it became apparent Angel wasn't going to, he countered, "Or perhaps by moving, we'll actually place ourselves in direct line of danger."
"Whatever you think, Wes."
Wesley scruffed his morning beard. Angel admired his son.
Grey eyes leveling under the top rim of his rectangular glass frames, Wesley challenged, "You're not going to help with this decision, are you?"
It was obvious Angel hadn't heard. Angel had already spent one moment too many away from attending his son. "You're the leader, Wesley. Lead. I'll follow," he finally replied.
Wesley shivered and insisted, "But this is your child's life, Angel. I don't -- I can't --"
The corners of his lips torquing sympathetically, Angel took a handful of the baby's cover and snugged away any last probability of draft. "What is it with us and cows?"
Wesley's sleep-deprived thought processes whiplashed. "What?"
"Downstairs. The cows. Cows again, Wes. And wherever there're cows, there's Prophecy. I don't get it. Especially considering, for at least the last century, I've generally been kind to cattle."
Wesley laughed through his chattering teeth.
Cocking his head, Angel studied Wesley with all seriousness. "Here. You need this more than I do." He shrugged off one sleeve, switched hands without bobbling the baby. The right side of the black leather coat rolled off the cap of his broad shoulder. "It's still kinda damp so you might not wanna get too close to the girls with it on."
"Cordelia and Fred?" Wesley assumed.
"Bessie and Elsie. They might think you're their long lost brother." Molasses-colored irises dripping askance, Angel kept the smirk-worthy addendum to himself.
The residual humidity in the jacket made it comfortable, oddly warm. As an acclimating shiver coincided with another strobe of light, Wesley's memory was imprinted with an image of Angel at peace. He couldn't decide from which of the two faces their shared serenity originated. But, if an ancient could possess the meekness of a newborn, why niggle over sources?
Rifting from the deepest shadows, the feline purred with her family.
Wesley doffed a dimple at Angel and dismissed himself. At Angel's less-than-audible "Wes?" he held off his retreat.
"Moo-ving along?" Angel heh'd.
Wesley shot off his sternest
glare and was willingly disarmed by a brilliant smile. The ex-Watcher
nodded confidently. "Don't worry about having to go anywhere just yet.
We'll trench here a while longer."
Gunn held the ladder steady while Wesley climbed down. "Cordy ain't coming out this Vision like she normally do. She's keeping too much by herself," he hushed. "What'd Angel say?"
Chin stiffly up and both hands dashed into the coat's pockets, Wesley replied, "It wasn't up to Angel. We're staying put."
Pumping his chest out, Gunn revolted, "C'mon, English! We're neck-deep in this -- "
"Gunn!" Wesley snapped.
Swiping a palm across his bald head, Charles Gunn took four strong breaths. Misgivings refusing to raise up, he took four more. "Wes, you can't keep ignoring the 'what if's'. Human babies don't come from vampire tap; otherwise you and I both know there'd be babies everywhere."
Humored, Wesley softened his reproof. "And we both know not every vampire has a role in Prophecy."
"But that's only ever been a good enough excuse for you," Gunn disputed.
Fingers steepled under chin, Wesley appraised the young man -- bright, budding antagonist and dark, ebbing friend. As if to illuminate Gunn's recent inconstancy, the building's ambience altered again -- animating the tacit hostility, dusking the deteriorating spunk. Long, feathered fingers were contrasted by their movement of vising Gunn's oversized jeans around his hips. Eclipsed of their sunny iridescence, those dependable brown eyes paled from recognition.
"'What is' isn't an excuse, Charles," Wesley grieved.
Gunn hurled a fist into his palm and held on. "So, whad'joo say were were gonna do about Cordy?"
His patience frayed, Wesley criticized, "Your obstinance is unbecoming!"
Gunn faked being punched in the gut and came up grinning. "You best check yourself, Wes. Ain't no way to win in direct competition with a baby."
Without warning, Fred materialized out of the cloud of rancor between them. "You guys?" she interrupted, scraping under each fingertip with a thumbnail. She moved onto her hair, to braid and unbraid.
Gunn stilled her hands. "Yeah, Fred?" He smiled kindly.
"If we're going to stay, Cordy needs to eat. And the baby's going to need more formula," she dithered.
Thoughts collected, Wesley opened his mouth to share but was cut off by the bias rain crashing against the building in isochronal waves. A leak in the ceiling skated down his neck. "It's never rained this hard in Los Angeles since I've been here."
Cordelia held her hands above her head like an umbrella. "What about me? Don't forget, SunnyHell was mostly true to its name. Although there was that one freak snow storm that kept me from Christmasing in Vale," she added, melancholic.
Loosely fitted in their frames, every window clattered. Wind slammed into the masonry and pounded on the door. The intermittent rain, falling more constantly, much harder, seeped into the building.
"BUILDING DON'T WANT US HERE!" Gunn shouted over the pandemonium. He stepped on a pushbroom, angling it up. Searching the area while unscrewing it, he sought out another potential weapon. After tossing the stick at Wesley, he picked it a long metal bar and held it up to bat.
The loading door banged countless times in succession and buckled. Prepared for... something, at least ... both men took position in front of the girls.
"She's goin' to blow!" Fred screamed.
By her command, the metal door yawed against its housing until the pedestrian door gave way.
"OHMIGOD!" Cordelia squealed, hugging hold of Fred before the reedy young woman blew away.
Water flumed and debris spewed, bucketed through the narrow entrance by the raging squall. One large object after another and another hurled against the tatty frame, banked access and rolled into the factory. Faces shielded by their free hands, Wesley and Gunn staggered forward to force the door shut with their backs.
The rain diminished to a shower. The sound of the wind was displaced by Wesley's and Gunn's labored panting.
"I am so over being wet!" Cordelia bleated.
"Did you just, 'baaaaaa'?" Gunn asked.
Wesley's broomstick wobbled. He jerked it, then jumped. "Dear God!"
The four followed the line of Wesley's arm down to his staff's metal end and discovered a disheveled goat there, audaciously nibbling.
"Oh, goody. I wonder what that goat means," Gunn deadpanned, full lips thinned. He pushed off of the door, leaving it ajar.
It gradually opened wider and a trashbag on two legs bumbled through. "What you doing in my barn?" the muffled voice interrogated.
Gunn hefted the cutting weight then, at the appearance of another goat, set one end down. Leaning on top, he dropped one booted toe over his arch and waited for a lamb to trot by.
"Your barn? This is our hideout," Cordelia begged to differ.
Wesley peeled the dark green plastic away, revealing the top of an adolescent boy's head.
His shiny black hair fell in four sheets from his crown; a pair of lush eyelashes combed the shaggy fringe in front of his dark eyes. "It was my barn before it was your hideout," he said, more petulant than before.
Fred petted the lamb's nose and fluffed water out of its curly coat. "Golly! She's so cute!"
"Hey!" The boy possessively smacked at her. "I'm not gonna let you steal my animals."
Gunn laughed. "Oh, right. Like you didn't steal 'em first."
He stomped to his accuser and dropped his head back to glower. "I din't steal them. They just showed up!"
"Son..." Wesley guided the boy away while closing the door. Snickering, he crossed his arms and arched an eyebrow. "Yes, of course. It's everyday that livestock magically appears in the inner city."
Mimicking Wesley's stance, the boy shot off, "You got a better explanation, mister?"
Fred intersected the stand off. "C'mon, Wesley, Gunn. It's not like there's chickens, too."
The boy tugged the drawstring neckline of his poncho away from his throat. "The landlord lets me keep the chickens at the apartment building. That way, everyone gets eggs."
"Sounds... Not any more plausible, but, OK," Fred accepted, tickled to hear the baby's gurgling from overhead. "What's your name, by the way? I'm Fred!"
"Javi!" the boy introduced. With the lamb at his heels, he raced to the underside of the loft and stared at it with the intensity of X-ray vision. "Híjole! Those kittens sound just like babies."
Gunn laughed; Wesley joined him. "That is a baby," they said.
Javi shrugged and picked up lamb's rope leash. He shooed the goats towards the cows. "You hiding out because of what happened to that other baby, huh?"
Wesley averted his eyes from Cordelia's. "What *other* baby?"
"That baby they found at some cafeteria downtown," Javi called back.
As if they could shield her feelings, Gunn and Fred double-teamed Cordelia.
She circuited them, dug the keys from Wesley's shirt pocket and planted them into his palm. "Wesley, find out what baby!"
After Gunn and Wesley rolled up the loading door, Gunn drove the Plymouth inside and cut the motor. Ignition on, he unlatched the convertible and hit its automatic control. The top accordion-folded into its boot while he dialed the AM radio for one of the all-news stations.
"... abducted from their nursery approximately two hours after arriving home this morning, the first casualty of the Pritcherd septuplets was found dead in downtown Los Angeles. In the wake of the discovery of the second body in the doorway of an abandoned Echo Park liquor store, the parents -- Lynn and Cyril Pritcherd -- have prepared a statement. According to the FBI and LAPD task forces assigned to the case, there has been no communication from the boys' aunt, Maria Cabott, who is believed to have disappeared with them. Or from the kidnappers, who have yet to issue a set of demands. We go, now, live to our reporter, Mirabelle Brandt..."
"Turn it off," Cordy said, easing into the front seat and performing the task herself. She raised her knees and drew her legs into her chest. "Oh, God," she sobbed. She couldn't get small enough. "I heard it all right, but I saw it all wrong!"
Wesley murmured, "Crying and crying -- " "And crying and crying -- ", Fred duetted.
"Cordelia," Gunn said, his voice honeyed with empathy.
Cordelia shunted from his reach.
Gunn's eyes hardened and he rose up. "Wesley! How much you wanna bet this has sumthin' to do with Angel's devil baby?" One foot on the seat, he clutched the doorsill, prepared to jump out.
Into Wesley, acting barricade.
"You frontin'?" Gunn dared.
"How badly do you want to find out?" Wesley rejoined, eyes reduced to slits.
And that was that. Again. Wesley's steely 'tude piercing his mettle and Gunn eating the disagreement because there was just no throwin' salt on the man's jones for Angel's G.P. And it didn't matter whether the greater purpose blasted outa Cordy's brain or got chicken-scratched from another goddam Scroll, Wesley was its ho. Just going through the motions until he got some. No thang about shot calling them ragged.
Or ignoring Almighty warning signs.
Because Angel was all that, all the time. Evil's solution and, more'n likely, its source.
Choking down with his defeat, Gunn dropped along the back of the driver's seat and twisted the keys.
Fred flipped one end of her shawl across her chest. Gripping the open car door's armrest, she knelt until her chin kissed the top of her wrist. "It's clear that you didn't see Angel's' baby, Cordy. That's good. But now we have to help with this."
Cordelia looked into Fred's brown eyes, unable to see their apology for the reflection of her own dread. "You're asking me to look again?"
"I am *so* sorry, Cordelia, but -- " Wesley left his request in the air, where it clung to the musk and the chill and the gloom.
The Seer nodded and closed her eyes. As she fell back into the remnants of her Vision, her breathing stilled, her pulse slowed. "I don't know what more it means," she said hoarsely, crumpling. Clumsily, her mouth bumped against her kneecap -- something she tasted rather than felt.
Gunn reached into his sweatshirt pocket to get the napkin he pressed against the watery glob of blood.
The storm waged war again. The car's suspension bounced as Gunn exited and faced Wesley. Together, they turned into the chaos, icy mist like artillery assaulting their skin.
Just as the door began lowering, a Cadillac's hood ornament appeared. Gunn and Wesley half-heartedly retrieved their weapons while the Sedan de Ville pulled alongside the GTX. Rainwater shrank from its tan exterior into dollops, like clams on a beach -- if colored of tinted windows and blackening sky.
Its engine expired. A back door, the passenger and driver's sides cracked in unison. One by one by one the occupants sprouted into view. Wearing unhappy faces, the three elderly men surveyed the peculiar environment. The youngest shook his head in wonder. The oldest slapped the hood.
The driver slammed his door. "So," he began, hitching up his pants, "what are you people doing in our mill?"