JUST ANOTHER CATACLYSMIC DAY
by Evan Como
part three

-0-

The power line bowed above the factory roof arced sporadically, silhouetting the hideous, squat behemoth. A thousand eyeteeth jagged up from a carousel jaw; handless, spindley arms crooked out for no reason other than to model tattered spider web sleeves. Half-decapitated, slightly dismembered, glowing maroon in the pit of its angry belly, it resembled any number of creatures Angel had ever been assigned to whack.

Another dash of light bounced off a wiry cowlick rising like a question mark from the tracery of hair atop Joseph's head and highlighted the line of his sloping, straight nose -- cute, the way it triangled above his wrinkly pooching mouth. His heavy eyebrows twitched nervously, like a clique of insect antennae.

He carried on his inspection like someone looking for something that wasn't where he was supposed to find it.

"What do you see?" Cordelia asked.

Joe jerked in her direction. A friendly grin wiped startlement and a decade off his face. "That we should have razed this building two decades ago." Rubbing his forehead with his fist, his expression switched to ill-ease quicker than Angel could vamp-out. "You don't believe me."

Cordy sat up straight. Knees pressing her palms together, she shrugged. "It's your warehouse, fill it with anything you like. And, after it dries, hire Fred show you what to do with it."

He laughed. "You here by yourself because you want to be, or because they're afraid of you?"

A helicopter buzzed overhead, vibrating the building. Circling twice, it threw a dozen squares of blinding searchlight before flying away. The glass rattled in its retreat.

Cordelia took each breath like the rain fell -- slow and constant.

Joe waved a hand in front of the heater. "This was the only knitting machine we couldn't sell off. She was a real oil-eater." He bent over from the waist and began lowering into a crouch. After a couple of bones creaked, he gripped his hip and plopped his keister next to Cordy instead.

"Now it would make a *great* patio furnace. And what a conversation piece!" he enthused, clicking the soles of his tassled slip-ons.

Cordelia smiled.

Joe smiled, too. He just didn't hold it as long. "You asked what I see? I saw this. Maybe even all of you."

"Some folks call it 'déjà vu'," Cordy replied, pretending to let the warm air bake her eyelids.

"Are you some kind of mind reader?" Joe whispered, fearful.

She leaned over and enunciated, "Confluence."

Without brightness, his worried blue eyes a became darker version of clear. "Well, you seem to be taking this all in stride."

Cordy crossed her ankles and folded her arms. "They keep calling it by different names, but all the words mean the same thing."

"A coming together." Joe nodded.

She gave her head a petite shake. "Try, worldslide."

He shouldered against her, tipped his head, and sighed. "When I was much younger than you -- oh, maybe eighteen or so -- I used to have horrible daydreams. About monsters and the like. But I never told anyone. It didn't feel right to say anything. And then, one day -- POOF! -- they stopped."

Cordy's forehead crinkled. "What did you see?" she asked, super-attentive for his answer.

"Awful creatures." Lightning flooded the gloom and Joe's jumbled features -- rearranged by scattered emotions. Index fingers sticking up on each side of his mouth, he spasmed. "The phantasmagorical."

Cordy pillowed her cheek on the back of her flattented hands. She squinted in like at the skylight.

"And it always began with a flash of light... Rain..." His head tossed and turned. "As many times as I've tried to recollect since I saw it the last time -- "

Twisting around, he was relieved to find all was serene. His brothers were engaged in conversation with Cordelia's girlfriend. The baby was quiet, upstairs with his father. Behind a fence made from police tape, the livestock belonging to the boy who had eaten and left circled for warmth, with the cows lowing amongst themselves.

"Most everything seems to be here, just not in the same way."

Cordy's lips crooked. "It's been a while. Could be your interpretation is rusty," she proposed.

"NO!" Quickly curbing all indignation over the question of his competence, Joe evened his tone of voice. "My dream was very similar -- A factory, a baby, a storm. A girl with brown hair. An incredible burst of light -- "

The three boys blinked.

Holtz stepped from infant to infant. As the room recovered from Nature's outburst, their activity resumed.

"You've made your point, let the rest go," Sahjhan repeated.

Holtz turned his head to the hurricane lamp; and, as he furtively watched, the children's heads turned, also. "Curious," he voiced. Expected, however, when the trio sought out the first notes he sang, "Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take --

"The clouds ye so much dread -- " His audience fidgeted at a break in the melodic baritone -- only long enough to inhale. "Are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head."

Sahjhan cringed. "Yeesh! How cheery is that little ditty? Not! I've never understood where you people expect to find comfort in ecclesiastical music that's so morose. Got clue?"

"*They* don't seem to mind the simple hymn," Holtz chanted, fascinated by the babies' behavior: they had never, once, acknowledged Sahjhan's presence.

The demon fumed. The woman shrilled against her gag. Paying neither any heed, Holtz commanded a Grapplar child-ward.

The room illuminated and the mercenary chose right. He changed his mind and selected the left. While a deafening boom resounded from the foothills to the ocean side, he cocked his head, uncertain.

Incensed, Holtz indicated to harvest the middle child and the outer boys squealed -- an unearthly, piercing siren. Foretelling hackles raised in alarm, Holtz recoiled to shelter his hearing.

The sky burst. Lightning scythed through the window, electrifying its honeycomb. It zephyred through Sahjhan.

And torched the wall.

Clutching her collar to her throat, Cordy scrambled onto her feet. "Where? When?" she shouted over a thunderclap.

"Why?" Joseph shrugged. "Why now, to remember it at all?"

Eyes locked on the base of the knitting machine, the Seer searched her memories for an archived parallel. "What kind of monsters again?"

"I don't know, but they walked and talked just like men." He scoured the back of his head with the finger joints of one liverspotted hand. "Maybe it was just a *dream* dream. A teenage boy's late night overindulgence on blintzes and Doctor Moreau."

"But what if it was more?" Cordy gazed into his eyes, as if her greater experience could see it out of him. "If it was so vivid."

Joe pushed off his knees and stood. He shrugged again. "Today I got a reason for why we never did anything with this building. And now I'm done."

To prevent him from leaving, Cordy snatched his overcoat. She recklessly pulled down on his sleeve and ardently appealed into his face, "But you had a premonition of something bad. You might have answers I don't!"

He patted her hand and sighed, disagreeing. "I don't know what I had, Cordelia. There are wonderments that ordinary men can't fathom." His chin rose to meet her launching objection, one he quickly shot down with, "Nor, are we meant to."

He smiled, dentures rosy in the ruddy light. "And those rules apply to everyone, even to beautiful young women like you."

Sternly, she sighted him, one-eyed. "That's not true."

"Ah, but it is. Take Javi, for example. He has possession of farm animals in the city. And do you know how he feeds them? His father mows lawns for a living. Of all the boys, these animals were led to his door. And, until my brothers and I figure out what to do with this place, they have a roof over their heads, Saul and I have a new gardener, and the animals will continue to eat."

"Confluence," Cordelia murmured, awed.

He pinched her chin affectionately and took a hankie from his pocket. After shaking it open, he dabbed at the corners of her eyes.

Reawakening her sensation.

The skin on his fingers had never known lotion. Between the dampness and the blasting heat, Fred had concocted a sauna. The frozen concrete made her clammy feet hurt so bad that she wanted to dance. Yet, nothing felt like the pleasant irritation of a crisp, cotton wipe.

She threw both arms around the geezer, simple as that. "What's it like, Joe? Not caring about what's weird in the world?" she asked, intrigued with the nubby texture of his lapel.

He refolded her collar correctly, then squeezed her. "It's not that I don't care, sweetheart. But I've got enough to worry about between my family and friends."

He propped her away and winked. "I figure, it's our duty to be right with ourselves and our neighbors. Everything else gets trusted to more qualified hands."

-0-

"Thanks, Ags." Lorne nodded graciously. As he took possession of the cocktail, his long, verdant fingers briefly slipped across the more slender ones belonging to his hostess. While sipping, he deftly rearranged the front of the borrowed chenille robe, grateful for warmth over the glamour of his usual lounge coat -- a vintage rayon kimono, Waikiki, circa 1941. Cleanly clothed and scalding-hot showered, he still smelled like a disaster.

Probably a carrier scent from the first time Caritas got thrashed>> he assumed.

Agnes Belflour slippered across the living room carpet, balancing a teacup and carbonated beverage-filled glass. "All you guys should have stayed when you dropped off Lorne," she said, handing the glass to Gunn. "If you give me the address, I'll go right now and pick everyone else up."

Wesley smiled appreciatively, for both the caffeine and kindness.

"You psychic, can't you just figure out the location on your own?" Gunn slurped, reveling in his funky mood. Spine bent, knees higher than his waist, head held cobra-like over his drink, he filled the overstuffed parlour chair as if he'd been pitched into it.

The Host lunged to the rim of his seat. "Sounds like your smart mouth's been chewing on your brains, Gunn," he grouched

Wesley confronted the opponents with a palm apiece. "Fellows, this isn't productive. There are three -- *hopefully* -- more children out there that need to be found and we've no other resources, Lorne."

"Welcome to the club. Oh, wait! That's right. There's no club to welcome you to -- " Lorne acerbically gestured with his glass and checked Gunn through its pinkish contents. " -- AGAIN!"

Balancing on one thigh, Aggie reposed along the arm of Lorne's chair. She gave his chest a conciliatory push, affectionately chiding, "Lorne. I don't have to remind you, material things come and go."

He huffed and imbibed. "Maybe with a little less going..."

Brows pushed together under a swell of consternation, Aggie eyelashed Lorne's mouth shut. Most times she was a congenial counselor, always available to patiently dole out advice until he came to her conclusion. She didn't look very charitable, though; she looked ready to clobber him and he flinched, prepared for the worst.

That arrived as a playful jiggle of his right horn.

So, humiliation it was; at least, in present company. Lorne frowned. "Wes, the problem is, not being a sanctioned oracle, I don't have the means to connect to these kids. You could bring me to Cordy, but it may already be too late."

Nodding, Aggie added, "And, if she's being as remote as you say she is -- "

"She is," Gunn interrupted, glaring from under his brows while correcting his posture. "But I don't remember us sayin'."

"Hmmmm." Her hooded eyes were cloaked with feistiness. "I must have figured that out on my own."

Lured by hope, Wesley nearly scooted off his cushion. Forearms on either thigh, he opened his hands in earnest supplication. "Perhaps -- "

But her wagging finger curtailed his supposition. "I'm sorry, but I don't do Lorne. And I can't just -- " Temples braced by her fingers, she rolled her eyes to the ceiling.

And relaxed. "What it sounds like is that Angel's baby is interfering with Cordelia's vibe."

The ex-Watcher pinched the bridge of his nose. "I've yet to determine if the baby is a supernatural or not."

Lorne patted the man's knee. "He's alive, Wes. Take that as a confirmation."

Slipping her thumb and forefinger over the rim, Aggie slid Lorne's empty glass from his grip. She rose and reached for Wesley's cup -- forgotten and tepid.

Roused by her proximity, Wesley lifted his head from his calamitous thoughts and, unaware of his actions, snagged a few strands of her hair. He treasured the unfamiliar texture between his fingers -- spun floss under the crisp curls spiraling from her center part like Christmas ribbons.

She was every shade of coffee -- from her café-au-lait complexion to her espresso hair and eyes, her orange-cappuccino lips. "I beg your pardon," he spoke, unable to extricate himself from the personal violation, intoxicated by bergamot, jasmine, anisette.

Aggie leaned, setting Lorne's glass on the coffee table. Her deep-set eyes relaxed, half-closed while being were full of forgiveness. She reacted as though she suffered through several days each month untangling strangers from her hair. With the delicacy of a surgeon, she began to unwind.

As she tipped her head, her high cheeks were partially overshadowed by her mane. A lock, caught between his littlest and ring fingers wouldn't give. "You're scared to touch her," Aggie voiced without judgement. The table lamp glowed apricot across slightly oily eyelids closed for concentration.

"God yes," Wesley replied, engulfed by a comber of isolation more turbulent than his own.

"But... She's so alone."

She searched his face and he obliged the scrutiny. He swallowed, nearly submerging his voice. "I ruined my chance," he confessed.

"Fire," she breathed.

Entranced by the tenderness of her touch, the warmth of her ministrations, the generosity of her lips... Wesley vowed, "Never!"

Face contorting in panic, Aggie snarled her hair. "Smoke!" she gagged. "FIRE!" she yelled.

While Lorne wrapped one arm around her shoulders to subdue his friend, Gunn worked at the disentangling. "Hold up, girl!" he cautioned, doing his best to avoid being under-snagged. "This is already gonna be a hella comb-thru by the time this white boy gets done witchoo."

Wesley sighed. Although her eyes had shuttered him out, he was still adrift in her aura. "How could I fire her when it was all *my* fault?"

Using his free hand, Lorne patted his hip pocket. "If I had a bar rag on me, I'd offer it. WES!" He tagged the introspective man across the shoulder. "Self-absorb on your own time. Aggie's seeing smoke. From a fire."

Wesley wrung his freed hand. He massaged the fingers pained by pins and needles. "Smoke?" he inquired of Gunn, then Lorne.

Thighs crossed, hands clenching her sleeves, Aggie tottered to and fro. "A woman. Gagging. Smoke and a woman with -- Smoke is surrounding a woman with long, brown hair."

Kicked into gear by immediacy, Gunn knelt and grabbed her cheeks. "And the rest of the babies?" he demanded, directing her head.

"Babies aren't -- " Aggie replayed the perceptions inside her mind. "No babies. Was it ever about babies?"

The young man gave up and released her. Just as he bowed his head, a familiar fist landed on his shoulder. "If you were shown the address -- " Gunn heard, words spoken English-style, almost like prayer.

He clubbed Wesley's fist with his own.

Aggie fluffed the curls out of her eyes. She exhaled. "No address, but I recognize those windows. And that building's not too far from here."

Peering in profile through the sheer curtains of her front door, Aggie groped her fingers. The black car had begun pealing away from the curbside before its headlights had fully beamed on. She waited until the rear end faded from view before meeting the two eyes reflecting from behind.

Lorne swirled the refill's ice cubes. "Whatever you do, Ags, make sure it's not done with song."

She smiled wanly. A tear rolled onto her cheek. "She's dying."

Lorne squeegied the sides of his glass with two fingers. "I know," he said, cupping her elbow.

She let her head drop back against his chest and listened to the rainwater spilling over the gutters slop onto the porch steps. "Would you also happen to know when anyone else is going to notice?"

-0-

"Six as decoys," Holtz deduced. Firelight danced across his outraged face.

While illuminating Sahjhan's befuddlement.

The storm had tapered off and the sentinel's bleating had followed suit. Reverting to normalcy, they fussed upon occasion.

And Holtz remained guarded. He circled the demon and the trio, varying the circumference upon each revolution. "Why are you so surprised, Sahjhan? A human face is no evidence that the bearer is human. Even you possess such a mask of deceit."

As Sahjhan waved forward through the murky air, his extremities vanished and reappeared. "And you. Standing at the window earlier -- Were you looking inside or out?" He laughed callously in the woman's direction. "Don't worry, Holtz, you're human. At least, by your strict definition. You must be feeling pretty virtuous right now -- or a tad miffed -- Your actions just got the mondo validation."

Nose to nose with Holtz, he smirked into the chiaroscuro of the man's eyes and, in the midst of their churning emotion, he witnessed a progression --

The door flew across the room. A hooded figure arrived. The flock of wooly hounds that followed him were herded by another figure clothed in an identical mudcloth robe. As with the first, he was covered from crown to sole and carried a similar staff -- nearly two yards in length with a hammered, copper finial topping the gnarled wood.

"What does this mean? Who are they?" Holtz queried.

"Don't be so impatient," Sahjhan chided lightly. Enabling a better vista in the thickening haze, he stepped to the side. Keeping his eyes on Holtz, it took all the lord's willpower to restrain a self-congratulatory huzzah for having chosen so perfectly. This excavated artifact of a mortal man gleamed! Beneath Holtz' disapproving disposition twinkled his most valuable aspects -- intelligence, determination, and intense revulsion for the netherworldly.

"The purposes will ripen fast enough. Won't they?" he gloated.

Baying and snarling, the ferocious beasts bucked their strapping hind legs. Their keeper's staffs rose and fell, rose and fell, and swooshed above their incorrigible heads until, eventually, they were tamed at the feet the babes.

The boys cooed with glee. The fire crackled peaceably and its flames decorated the walls with lively Nouveau swirls.

Sounding like a squabble of geese, a cluster of bells pierced the haze. On the tip of a pole, they poked through the doorway and rose until the banner below them had been revealed. The standard and its bearer were draped in amaryllis and fuchsia, with stark black symbols strewn across their colorful fields.

The two-headed bovine pounded on the floor with the end of the pole, canting, "Ei kai yho."

By carol and thumping rhythm, three creatures entered in single file. Bedecked and bejeweled like royalty, opulent tapestries contrasted their tawny hides and precious gems, plaited throughout their amber manes, speckled their leonine heads. After joining the phalanx of worshipers, they flashed their gilded grins.

Upon the center child.

The leader reached into the embroidered sack slung across his chest and exhumed a crown. Held aloft, smoke wove between fanciful wrought-working, fire danced within its sheen. "Foretold," he snarled and set the ornament above the baby's head.

His companions nodded in approval.

The next took his place. With one shake of his arm, an object fell from the cache of his full sleeve into his meaty paw. Presenting it, nooked behind his yellowed talons, he grunted "Awaited," before inserting the roll into the baby's clenched left hand.

Proudest, the last tipped a saber to his nose. "De -- " he wheezed.

"-- live -- " he hacked.

"De-LI-vered!" he sneezed, doubling over.

Sahjhan applauded, ecstatic.

Holtz reacted. Differently.

Taking advantage of the creature's seizure, he swiped the sword and swept out. Despite eleven score and seven years of inactivity, his limbs had retained the memory of attack. Just as he'd recently dispatched the lawyer's retinue, he hacked, slashed, gutted; he sliced, impaled, beheaded.

The fire sizzled and hissed at the fluids impeding its trenchant progression. The babies wailed, all of them now. Their aunt, concealed within the room's density, choked and sobbed.

Holtz tabulated the body count without conceit. After all, the unclean things had fallen before given the opportunity to anticipate their extinction. "Are the mercenaries still mine to command?" he asked, honing blood off the borrowed blade with one of the empty blankets.

The antsy Grapplars snuffled between the two for instructions.

Nodding unhappily, Sahjhan confirmed reality. "Just promise not to knife any more of them."

Holtz plucked the scroll away from the angry child and, issuing a command, waved it above the three boxes. "I promise. No more knives," he replied mordantly, tucking the parchment tube into a pocket.

-0-

Wesley shielded his nose behind a leather lapel. "Try not to breathe!" he shouted.

Giving a thumb-up, Gunn took one last lungful of the corridor's air. They'd searched the majority of the two-story building already without any luck; but then, the rest of it hadn't been burning like hell.

He followed Wesley, rubbernecking through the opaque orange atmosphere. If he felt retarded walking like Lancelot Link, he figured Wesley -- maybe an inch shorter -- probably felt the same way. He doubted, though, that Wes got the same memories off the smell that crept inside his nostrils. He didn't use to mind the odor of burning hair 'cause of the Saturday morning kitchen memories associated with it -- of his Moms, fighting with Alonna to get the little brat's hair pressed for Sunday morning.

Problem was, that childhood memory of Alonna was the same as his last.

"GUNN!" Wesley snapped his fingers beside the man's ears.

Gunn reeled. "That sweet smell... It's making me dizzy."

Nodding, Wesley tugged the neckline of Gunn's sweatshirt over the other man's nose. "Like almonds. Burning wool -- not good!" he explained.

No sooner had Wesley remasked, Gunn stepped onto a rag. He crouched down to pick it up, figuring to use it as a fan. Only, when he got nearer to the floor and saw into the thinner haze... Clumps, burning clumps -- fleece, flesh... Resisting his stomach's urge to say 'hello', he gulped hard and, grabbing hold of the back of Wesley's coat, pulled himself up unsteadily.

Wesley leant his hearing in every direction. "This way!" he announced into the one he chose.

As anticipated, they found the woman with bedraggled brunette tresses. She was slumped in her chair, deathly still save for a random jitter.

Wesley immediately began unknotting the sisal bindings. "We're here to help," he soothed.

Gunn tenderly unwrapped a long strip of muslin from around her mouth. He flinched -- her lips were so raw, the bruising looked inside out.

A portion of the ceiling cracked and dropped. "We gotta go!" Gunn yelled, eyeing the piece dangling by a string made from a hundred coats of paint.

"This is a nightmare, right?" Maria blubbered. She butted into the younger man as Wesley helped her onto her feet. "Everything is going to be OK when I wake up. Right?"

Wesley rearranged the glasses on his nose.

The petite woman balked. Her clasped hands dropped; becoming a dead weight, they anchored Maria onto the chair. "There were m-m- m-m-monsters with huge teeth coming out of their lips and -- "

The duo draped her slack arms around their necks, took hold of her waist and hoisted. "C'mon. You gotta get some sleep, water, something to eat -- " Gunn cajoled.

"No. No! NO!" Frightened by the blood stains across her sweater, she opposed their assistance. "I WANTED TO PROTECT THEM!" she shrieked.

Gasping in the fresher air, they hauled her down the fire escape. Accidentally glancing to Wes, Gunn didn't have to guess about the other man's thought. It had to be the same as his: they'd just saved the life of someone who'd never recover.

Gunn kept the Plymouth's passenger seat from uprighting and Wesley settled the woman into the back, buckling her down under the duress of the emergency vehicles converging on the front of the building. After Gunn tossed the keys up, Wesley snatched them out of the air. Faster than the water churning through the adjacent flood canal, they assumed their respective positions.

Tires trundling over the rain-slicked asphalt, the GTX fishtailed away.

Gunn clicked the radio off, sat back and bolted both arms across his chest. "Search and rescuin' don't give off the same sense of accomplishment it used to," he said with finality.

Wesley rolled up the window and shifted the car back in to 'Drive' in preparation for the parting of the Abbey gates.

"He knew. He knew what they were," Maria cackled, rocking side to side.

Bending an elbow over the top of the front seat helped Gunn steer around to face her. "What *what* were? Those sheepy things? Or the things you were talkin' 'bout with the teeth?"

"The babies!" The backs of her singed hands flew up to her cheeks. Beneath her wild eyes, they imitated upside down armadillo bugs sunning their legs.

Wesley's focus fell from the rear view mirror. As he pulled through the opening and onto the arbored drive, his eyes briefly made contact with Gunn's. "Obviously, they weren't human," he said.

A song began, mingling with the interior noise. "I still love them, anyway," Maria sighed after a verse. "Wouldn't love have cured what wasn't right with them?"

-0-

Idling side by side, the Plymouth's and Caddy's exhaust-off blustered into the alley.

"It's after midnight already. Let's go, people!" Wesley shook the leather cuff over his watch and closed the driver's side door on Gunn. Two fingers motioned, ushering the Plymouth in reverse.

Cocooning his son, Angel flipped his head at the knitting machine. "I think that's going to stay on eternally."

Saul, tucking his shirttails into his waistband, didn't look back. "I don't hear the cows complaining."

"Ech!" Rube clapped his brother on the back. "This area isn't zoned for cattle. If Allstate ever finds out -- "

Sanding his hands, Joe censured, "Who's calling the insurance people, Rube? You? Stop with all the kvetching and get your toches in the car."

Saul, finagling one last gander at the infant, pursed his lips. "Mazel tov, kaddishel," he puckered.

Patiently, Joe waited for his turn -- until Angel popped back up from picking something off the floor.

"Did someone lose this?" Angel asked.

Mystified, Saul held out his palm. "Mable's charm." He smiled. "Lookit, here, Joe. Mable's charm."

Joe tapped the tarnished golden harp. "She lost that the day you gave it to her."

Rube cleared his throat. "So, Mr. Detective Angel -- " He exaggerated scraping the floor with a sneaker toe, "You think you can spot where we lost that nine hundred, forty-seven thousand dollar knitting business?"

"Rube!" Saul closed his hand and swiped under his nose before hooking his fist at Angel. "Here. Finders keepers."

Under the rounds of all eyes, Angel recoiled. His fingers unfurled, fanning out until the entirety of his hands had swaddled the foundling. Legs apart, chest flaring, his head sheered until -- from hipline to hairline, he'd doubled in breadth. Further effecting the illusion, his brows crimped, imbuing his features with severity.

"Oy, you kids! So easy with the offendage." Rube swiped his brother's hand clean and tucked the charm into Angel's chest pocket. "It's for the boy. For later, when you tell him about this farmisht of a day."

Joe planted a kiss on the blanket with no idea of where it landed. "A keepsake to remind him that his papa never let him down once."

Head tipped towards one shoulder, Wesley vied for Angel's attention. But the sheepish vampire, cuddling his son, had buried his chagrin.

The Plymouth tooted. "THANKS FOR THE EATS!" Gunn called out, waving pointedly from the alley.

Cordelia finished counting the last of the stars visible between the rooftops.

"I bet if it was daytime, we'd see a big ol' rainbow from here instead," Fred gushed. "I remember the skies on Pylea after a monsoon and they were glorious!"

While wriggling her fingertips at the departing Cadillac, Cordy used the last of her smiles. "Fred?"

Like some lame drill team member, Fred didn't acknowledge her -- too busy twirling the ends of her shawl and heel-toe-heeling through the puddles.

"Fred!" Cordelia nipped.

"What Cordy?" Although almost still emaciated enough to do it, Fred couldn't quite hide behind the lank of hair falling over one eye.

"I can't hear myself," Cordy replied. She inhaled and managed to pull one last grin from reserves. Because of the cold, crisp air, her face felt ready to crack.

She beamed.

Patting flushed cheeks, Fred warmed her hands. "See ya in the car," she winked with a skip.

While the loading door raked through its tracks and dropped into place, Angel protected the baby's ears. "So, Wes. Next stop, Hyperion?"

Wesley rattled the door to test it. Turning, he took in the cloudless sky. "I thought we've already gone over the subject of who's making the decisions around here, Angel," he joked, repositioning his glasses by one lens.

Out of the deep, twilight blue, something fell on Wesley's shoulder. Jarred, he looked down and was touched to find Angel's forehead there.

-0-

Wesley rapped on the bedroom door. Lightly, ever so lightly. Since rising from their few hours of sleep, they'd all been behaving differently -- him, Gunn, Cordy, Fred, and Lorne. They'd begun speaking more quietly, treading hesitantly if they even bothered to move at all. The situation was terrifying -- to fear that one misdirected step would chase events that much more quickly towards inevitability.

Yet, with the all of mankind doomed, they had fashioned a safe haven for an unaware child.

"Aggie's got coffee prepared -- " Suffocating, he couldn't remember pausing for the sleepy "It's OK" before nudging the door open. He immediately tended to the thermostat next to the door and dropped it from the roasting ninety degrees to a more manageable -- at least for breathing -- seventy-eight.

"I'm afraid that I've officially become acclimated to Southern California, Angel. These days a sixty degree morning is as unbearable as a blizzard." He winced. "And when did I begin thinking in units of degrees?"

"Too bad, Wes. Now they'll never let you back into England," Angel teased. Standing at the foot of the unrumpled bed, he swayed gently, nuzzling the writhing bundle. "Baby just woke up."

All remnants of the torrents had disappeared except for the sunlight encapsulated on the window behind the vampire and the boy. Wesley bore witness to a father and son at the first true dawn of their relationship. The effect wasn't unlike a stained glass portrait. There was nothing to be seen beyond the figures and each droplet's dioramic depiction of life -- petrified for a heartbeat, before breaking, colliding, and drizzling down the pane.

To liberty or damnation, unbeknown.

Wesley exhibited the bottle in his hand. "I brought -- "

Angel became the picture of perplexity. "But he ate before he went to sleep."

After pressing the door into it's frame, Wesley closed their distance. "It's a biological fact, Angel, that babies need to eat. And eat often," he finished, flubbing the bottle's nipple over the infant's lips. Relief set in when the child agreeably began suckling.

"My miracle baby," Angel said for the millionth time. He reluctantly situated his hungry son into Wesley's hammocked arms.

Wesley's unloosed a half-dimple; the other half had fallen asleep shortly after Darla had gone into labor. "Your mystery baby, you mean," he said, dipping his arm to assure the best natal support.

"Hey, little guy." Angel tutted and timidly poked the pudgy tum with his index finger.

Upon reconciling that Angel was not only father, but big brother and grandfather at the same time, Wesley relegated the disturbing lineage to the back of his mind. "You know, Angel, 'Little Guy' may be fine while he's hand size, but is probably going to give him quite the complex when he's old enough to date."

He'd been anticipating Angel's spoken answer, not the astonishing resemblance that surfaced. Exactly like the baby, Angel wore a guileless, blank face. "He needs a name?" Wesley prompted. "You know... Angel, Junior?"

Brown eyes glinting with enchantment, Angel took stock of his son's appetite. "He needs a real name. One that'll direct him towards who he'll eventually be. A good name. Not like mine."

To avoid laughing, Wesley chewed the inside of one cheek. "Well, if he's to be a child of Prophecy, Angel, he'll need something a bit more -- "

"Scrollish?"

Wesley nodded. "You know, like Grooselug." He held onto his breath.

Eyes rocketing towards the ceiling, Angel lambasted, "OK. You agree with me, right? That is *the* lamest name in the world?"

"As Cordelia has been quick to remind me, I've heard lamer, Angel," Wesley laughed.

Even the baby laughed, or so it seemed. Lifting the bottle away, Wesley uncovered another trait -- a command of attention. He briefly anticipated the lifetime of enjoyment he'd derive from measuring Angel's learning curve of learning to share the limelight.

Angel sawed the back of an index along the cleft in his chin. "Something more like Gunn's. Charles -- that's a king's name."

"I shudder at the unfortunate nickname -- Chuck?"

"Could be the reason Gunn's so good at fighting," Angel quipped, confused by having the rejected bottle pushed into his receptive hand and his towel snapped away.

Wesley redraped the tea towel over his own shoulder and vertically cradled the baby. He began walking while patting the baby's shoulders. "You could research your Irish roots, perhaps. Dillon or Sean?"

Shadowing the pair, Angel strained to hear -- that *necessary* burp! -- the signal he could get his son back...

To Angel's "Uh!" Wesley paused. Comprehending the anxious reach, he sympathized with the mortification plastered across his friend's face. Drawing a breath deeper than any responsibility he'd ever known, Wesley glanced over his shoulder.

His heel had encountered dawn's encroachment.

The sun's intensity boiled his perspiration. "Angel..." Wesley risked brushing his chapped lips across the baby's earlobe. "We won't know how human he actually is -- "

Fingers strumming his thighs, Angel neared in profile. "It's only been one day, Wesley. That's not long enough," he pleaded.

"One day, Angel. And then one week. Shall his first birthday come and go -- "

Wesley fell silent, stunned.

Not by way of genetics nor inborn predilections, this infant would eventually become the product of his greatest influence. Angel's head had tilted, gifting his dark, matte irises a brilliant dimension; his lips had parted with the promise to beseech with that sincere, modulating voice; his expressive hands remained low at his sides, slightly turned in, unnaturally inactive. Following the infant's pace, Angel respired, issuing that air of indefinite obedience with each reassuring breath.

Wesley clenched his eyes and wished away the overwhelming desire to relent.

Another droplet skirted down the window during the baby's phlegmy sigh.

Embosoming the child, Wesley refocused, making mute resolutions while Angel's face neared.

Eyes closed, lips moist, the vampire kissed his son's forehead. And in the imprint of his affection, thumbed two lines. "Now."

Unable to resist the slight pressure, Wesley listed backwards. "Angel, stop! Not before the baby has a name."

Sweeping clear of the boundary's danger, Angel turned his back. The offered portion of his face had been chiseled with resignation. "Unless he can play in the sunlight, Wesley, he doesn't need a name."

-0-

Holtz managed each wide, low step despite his burden -- a tune, heavy upon his heart.

"I shouldn't admit it, but I've just got to share. I *didn't* see that coming," Sahjhan chuckled.

Holtz stopped. And he meditated upon Sahjhan's ignorance.

Sahjhan got to the landing and looked right, left. Checking over his shoulder, he sneered, "Don't you think you've shopped enough in the hijinks department for one day? Come on!"

Tip resting upon stone, Holtz balanced the sword against the wall. After dropping both hands into his coat pockets, he settled back on one heel and peered down his nose. "For whom am I liege?" he inquired.

"That's nothing you need to know to get your job done." Sahjhan frantically directed two of the Grapplars back up the stairs.

"Very well, Sahjhan. But do let me know when you find out?" When Holtz reclaimed the weapon, the burly demons halted in their tracks. He thundered past the Grapplars, gusted through Sahjhan and around the bend. Exhaling, he charged ahead, stepping into the stale scent of his own breath, as yet unsweetened by revenge.

-0-

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