BLIND

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

Historical Note: The action in this story takes place after Sense & Sensitivity.

Author's Note: This is the first story concept I came up with. It only took 9 months to return to it. There are a few things that may seem spoiley given the historical framing of this piece. Some of that is from my own speculation in the first outline. Some others? Just call it poetic privilege! ;) e.c. 8 aug 00



PROLOGUE

Belgrade, Serbia--Late Winter, 1899

The stout male hurled his taller opponent the length of the narrow apartment, across the radiant splinters of grey dawn beaming down through spaces left when the high windows of the upper floor flat were first shoddily covered. Between pounding footfall and falling bodies, objections resounded--angry fists slamming against the lower floor's ceiling accompanied by Slavic curses--demanding the commotion cease.

The mismatch continued.

"Orrell! Orrell! Orrell!" the spectators chanted.

Orrell lunged again, pouncing onto his foe while tired floorboards groaned in opposition of the sudden application of weight. Maniacally cackling, Orrell punched downward, breaking one of the termite-gnawed slats, wrenching the wood from its time-worn place. By twisting it just so, the piece was extracted as the desired tine, albeit a little ragged.

With his shoulders secured beneath Orrell's forelegs, the pinned vampire accepted defeat. He tilted the crown of his head to study the positioned instrument, admiring the beauty of its simple and potentially effective shape. For a brief moment everything held, still; focused, sharply; sounded?

No sound. The cheering ceased. And even the squall from underneath had quieted.

The outcast winced in a vain attempt to keep his pressing thoughts at bay, wanting to meet oblivion at some level of good will if that was at all possible. He was tempted to shout a command to get the activity over with, impatient to move on to wherever it was he had been constantly interrupted from getting to during the prior eight months.

But, he remained silent. The audience shifted their uneasy footing within his peripheral vision--they were just as anxious for the final act. Orrell, as was his victor's privilege, took his time in lowering the metaphorical curtain.

The anticipation was deafening and it roared between the loser's ears. He closed his eyes to concentrate, that effort proving as futile as the fight had been-- Or its conclusion when a spray of dust replaced Orrell when the poised stake was bowed into his preening chest.

"Noooooooooooooooooooooo!"

"Three weeks, Neda, and finally your mute speaks something intelligible." Ragno leered contemptuously at the female being, the muscular tone of her taller, leaner figure accented by the simple lines of a woolen dress. He shifted his focus back to the floored vampire to watch it clamber into the ashy residue. "He's absolutely detestable!"

Neda would have preferred to prevent her ward from groveling with the remains of the late vampire Orrell, but decided it best to patronize her Sire. "Please. Ragno--" But the cruel olive eyes peering from beneath the heavy ruff of charcoal-colored brows cut her sentence.

Ragno assigned the same look to six other vampires in the immediate vicinity, causing each to disperse to their various areas. He strutted to the filthy creature and kicked its side once, then again just because he didn't get a reaction the first time. The second kick offered nothing more.

"Your cur returns to his whimpering, Neda." The third punt elicited a scuff on the toe of Ragno's boot.

"Please, Sire!" Her leaping step concluded with a knee-slide into the stricken creature's contorted body. "He's not well. I beg you, do not cause him greater harm!"

"Than what?" Incensed, Ragno crouched to peel her from the unaware being, restraining her with unyielding strength. "He's not well? From what? You've been able to do nothing for him other than feed him. In over four centuries of existence, Neda, I've never seen anything like him. I've seen our kind mad--but this is not our madness."

When she looked away, he pinched the width of her jaw to reclaim her attention. Her delicate cerise-colored pucker was incongruously framed between gnarled fingers and the bristly hair tufting from Ragno's knuckles. "He was cast adrift for a reason, Figlia! Without a name or bloodline, he is unknown to us. He kills our kind--" Ragno's brows furrowed deeply. "If he *is* our kind?"

Neda diverted her glower.

"Hmmmmmmm. So then he is good for something. For you. And you alone. For now. For you, I was willing to stay his departure until the thaw, but now that you've taken to killing us for him, as well..."

Not one to give into human inclinations, Ragno siphoned a deep breath anyway. It had the effect of enhancing the menace in his words. Exhaling slowly, excruciatingly so, a foul odor permeated the air between the two vampires--the smell of deterioration, of something long ago laid to rest even if it was still active. "Of course, you are welcome to stay as long as he goes. Tonight."

"She'll want to go with him," Colin offered, accompanying his Sire to their corner of the apartment. He had weeks ago suggested the transient in his 'sister's' care needed to go, having almost fallen prey himself when she first found the demented creature. Expectant for Ragno's response, he watched Neda tuck the mute onto her straw mat and cover it with one of the two precious blankets the nest owned. Not only Colin, but all of them--from thirteen now down to eight--resented the encroacher, resented being moved by its wounded demeanor.

"Then she'll be gone," Ragno stated matter-of-factly. Turning to his offspring he gently cupped a hand under the curve of the fairer male's jaw. "But better we lose her to the wild than any more of ourselves to her Great Enigma," he concluded before retiring to their mat.

Agreement was more difficult than Colin had imagined it would be. In the shadows, he leaned against the crumbling plaster wall to watch and wait. And after not so long a wait he retired to slumber, saddened when Neda began bundling her possessions in acceptance of the House Decree.

BLINDSIDED
by Evan Como

Kate, leaning back in the guest chair, frowned. "You're looking at me as if I'm doing something wrong every time I laugh, Angel. I just don't get it."

"I--" It was Angel's turn to frown, multi-horizontal lines worried his forehead while he paused to consider Kate's observation. "I guess I just don't get what you're laughing *at*," he replied honestly. "I'm not a funny guy."

The pretty blonde detective held her response to the bare minimum--a pleasant smile that balanced the sparkle of her crystalline blue eyes. "No, Angel. You're not 'a funny guy'. But you do have your moments. And if you'd relax long enough not to turn those moments into such huge ordeals..."

Fidgeting, Cordelia tilted forward in her chair and lifted her chin, straining to see through the louvre window divider between the outer and Angel's offices. When her final efforts proved unproductive, she abandoned discretion and blatantly stood.

"I just don't get them, Doyle," she complained after plopping ungracefully back down. "Has Angel said anything about what he's doing with Kate? What his intentions are? Because I think it's in all our best interests--whole wide world best--to put a damper on his happy plans, if you know what I mean. An Officer and a Vampire? Probably not headed for a fairy tale ending."

Twisting his chair to face his associate, it surprised Doyle he actually did know what Cordelia was talking about. That was rare, indeed, and a thought to polish off a commemorative drink for the occasion crossed his mind. "I'm thinking CNN can hold off, Cordy. I don't believe their acquaintance is headed off into that direction." He thought it best to leave, "anytime soon, I hope" to himself.

Cordy squinted his direction for the briefest of moments before bolting from her seat when the half-glass front door to Angel Investigations crashed open. Unexpectedly a woman burst into the room, hysterical and with her bleeding hand outstretched. The extremity seemed to have a mind all its own, lured directly to Cordelia's excitement.

Rushing to their aid, Doyle intercepted the intruder just in time to avoid having to hear Cordelia spend the rest of the week complaining how an anonymous woman tore into the office to hopelessly stain the shirt he'd recognized as new. (One of his habits, in an effort to get to know everything he could about his potential ladylove, had Doyle memorizing everything in her closet.)

"I'm soooo stupid," the wounded woman wailed. Although in tears, an audience for her predicament seemed a calming influence, but when Cordy reached back to yank a clump of tissues from a box on top of her desk the woman spun away. With pin-ball precision, she glanced off Doyle and pinged smack into Angel who'd finally graced the anteroom with his investigative character.

"What's going--" Angel swerved too late and caught the full impact. His knees buckled slightly before the wall impeded his keel and kept him vertically aligned.

Together, Kate and Doyle ushered the woman back to Cordy's suspended paper blob.

She apologized profusely for ruining Angel's shirt, the initial fear in her voice having waned in deference to the sincerity of her self-effacing comments. "I'll gladly pay for the cleaning bill-- Or even if you need to replace it."

"Don't worry about his shirt, Miss. He has a dozen exactly like it." Doyle's lighthearted Irish brogue continued to soothe the situation. A reassuring smile complemented his voice. "Now let's see that hand...?"

"Nicki. I'm Nicki. From the insurance company down the hall?" She sheepishly chuckled while Cordelia patted at the wound with the tissue pom-pom. "I can't believe how stupid I am! I was opening a box in the office when the cutter slipped..."

"Oh, tell me about it!" Cordelia sympathized. Or at least, in her way, it was on the sympathetic side. "Those box knives are wicked. They can just slip and then suddenly you'll find yourself with a finger--PLOP!--right on the floor. You know, you're *really* lucky you didn't completely whack your finger right off. You'd be practically bleeding to death right now. Not to mention you'd have no place to put an engagement ring."

While Kate sighed away in disbelief, Doyle winced--more from imagining Cordelia lifting her fingers to open a box rather than accidentally loping one off. "Well, since it was just a simple accident, Cordelia here will see to you down the hall, you know. Take you to the restroom down the hall, to get you cleaned up down the hall..."

Following Doyle's lead, Cordy gently pushed the woman ahead. "Yeah. Angel--the guy who's shirt you creamed--gets trippy over blood."

Nicki stumbled from the over-enthusiastic nudge.

Doyle, amused, swallowed his grin and proceeded to calculate the odds on how much Nicki's misery would decrease once the topic of Cordelia's chatter turned morbid, related to her many experiences blood-related. He shook off his wager as the two women wandered further down the corridor, redirecting his concentration towards Kate's attempts to assist a suddenly-ailing Angel.

"I've got to get cleaned off," Angel mumbled, barely audible. He unsteadily spiraled back into his office and into the elevator--not the prettiest of exits, but effective.

Kate eyed the lift's descent warily. "OK. That was weird. He's seriously got to start learning some social skills."

Scrubbing eight nailbeds against his coal-black hairline in confusion, Doyle absently commented to Kate "maybe you should just go," only to find she had already premonitioned his suggestion.

-0-

Kate stepped around the sweater wadded on the floor just beyond the elevator exit. Her instincts, honed from a life surrounded by the family occupation more than from years of her own Los Angeles Police Department background, were piqued. Listening carefully, she sonared Angel before she sighted him standing at the sink in the kitchen area.

"What?" she ventured cynically, "no 'bye, Kate'? You just blew me off, didn't you, Angel?"

In reply, Angel tossed the wet cloth into the basin. Struggling to regain his composure, he corkscrewed against the counter to face her, his expression less than kind. "You've got to leave," he cautioned.

Ignoring the command, Kate raised her hand to his forehead and wound up cradling his face, instead.

"You're freezing! And your equilibrium is screwed up, Angel! What, exactly, did Cordy mean about you getting 'trippy' over blood'? Because I've seen phobias before, but--" She eased him to the sofa, nearly losing their shared balance transversing the short distance.

"Hell of a business you've gotten into if you can't stand the sight of blood."

Angel swallowed, unable to respond--Kate's concern was more touching than her treatment. He reeled against the sofa back, unable to do much more than watch her fingertips extend to the fading scar above his abdomen. When she looked into his face for an explanation, he was unsure of the exact emotion he was displaying; only hoping it wasn't the one he actually felt.

"Does it still hurt?" she asked, fascinated.

"I-- I can't," was all Angel could manage. He pressed against the cushion in a vain attempt to right his position but his consciousness abruptly dispersed, right along with all of his energy.

-0-

"He's sick, Doyle. REALLY sick. Passed-out sick." Kate struggled with the discomfort of watching Doyle administer to Angel. It seemed more than a little strange when the man pressed his lips above Angel's brow until she convinced herself *maybe* it was just an 'Irish' thing to do even though she, being mostly Irish herself, never recalled her father treating anyone that way--her Mom included.

Persuading one of Angel's eyes open, Doyle nodded. "He's cold, alright. Yeah, definitely out." Snapping a jacquard throw off the sofa's arm, he billowed it tenderly over the recumbent vampire.

"I think we need get him to a hospital. If you don't think the two of us can manage him to my car, I can have paramedics here in no time."

Doyle meant to decline the offer--not to just flagrantly ignore Kate's implausible suggestion--but Cordelia diverted the rejection. "Gods, girl! What happened to you?"

Cordy gingerly patted at her cheek while nearing, stepping to Doyle profile-first for inspection.

"I showed *her* what a catfight is all about! This bruise is going to make it impossible for me to audition for at least a week." Suffering, she cupped her cheek. "I don't think the paper towel-hawking people dig hiring the barroom-fighting types. 'Look, girlfriend, Brawny can deflect an uppercut!'"

An air-jab dramatized her delivery.

Kate inspected--nothing, barely detecting pores upon examination of the area. Setting her annoyance aside, she queried what' since she'd already deduced the 'who'.

Cordy glanced briefly at Angel before starting her explanation with "I turned around in the bathroom and our guest bleeder hauls off and tries to knock me out. The stall door saved me from *that* blow. Then I threw a few punches--"

To Kate, she extrapolated, "not that I'm some butch chick who goes around fighting or anything, but I've learned a few ways to defend myself over the years against agresso-chicks who've mistakenly thunk I've stolen their men--"

"CORDY!" Doyle barked, "FOCUS!"

Kate tried to focus past 'thunk' while Cordelia finished "--and I ducked out of her way. That's when Nicki lost her balance so I could throw a few Buffy moves at her, not to mention the trash can. Hey, by the way, whassup with Angel? He should probably be listening to this. Besides, you know, it's not like *we* can take a midday nap. Do you think that's setting a good example for his employees?"

"Cordy? Doyle prompted, "and--?"

"Oh. She ran away."

Kate massaged an ear, professionally concluding Cordelia made horrible eyewitness material--possessing the unique ability to, literally, create a hung jury. "Any idea who Nicki is?"

"I remembered she said she worked down the hall so I figured if she ran back there I was going to find her and finish kicking her ass. Again, not that I go around doing that kind of stuff on a regular basis, but I mean, I can't get a part looking like this and I just bought this top!"

Cordy tugged at the hem of her ruined t-shirt for emphasis, causing the shoulder to split a little wider. "Guy! It's still trendy and now I can't wear it anymore. That really pisses me off!"

"You could just sew it, Cordelia." The rational comment effected a look of incomprehension so blank Kate redirected her inquiry to the pertinent information contained somewhere in the meandering run-down. "But she wasn't there?"

"Right! Not only was she not there, the insurance company that she supposedly works for?"

"Isn't there either?"

"Hey. You're good at this stuff!"

"Thanks. I'd like to think I've chosen a career path I may actually have some talent for." Kate's half-smile over the absurdity of Cordy's comment waned. Doyle's apparent uneasiness disturbed her. "We really should get Angel to a hospital," she reiterated.

"Oh, we can't do that," Cordy explained innocently, glossing with, "I mean, it's not like we have health insurance or anything." Pleased with the quick cover-up, Cordy hoisted her eyebrows at Doyle for reassurance, receiving a worried twist of his lips in reply. Hers followed suit instantly, tugging to one side.

"Look, I've got a doctor friend I can call." Directing the policewoman to the elevator's waiting car, Doyle finished, "so, don't worry. We have this all under control now and I'll have Angel call you later on."

Kate shunted Doyle's maneuvering when Cordelia suddenly shrieked; but he quickly blocked the path back to Angel. Her eyes narrowed in reflex. The subterfuge rankled her senses.

"Tell you what, Doyle. I'll go pick up lunch for us all while you call your doctor. But I'm coming back." The sketchy situation was further exemplified by Cordy's sudden attention deficit. "So do whatever cleanup you think you have to do while I'm gone because if I find anything hinky still happening by the time I return, I'm opening an investigation. Got it?"

"You *had* to scream?" Doyle gently chided Cordelia after Kate exited topside. The question raised was purely rhetorical, however, once Doyle witnessed the increasingly agitated vampire shift into then, as quickly, out of his demonic physiognomy.

-0-

Cordelia stopped pacing long enough to flap Angel's office blinds open and shut a few more times. Her restless activity was less like blinking the sunlight on and off; more like dispatching a distress signal.

"Well you don't think I would have contacted you unless this was something *really* important, do you?" Perturbed, Doyle's shoulders wrestled against the seams of his geometric-patterned knit shirt. While tugging at the outdated-sized collar, he pressed his ear more firmly against the phone's receiver and snapped, "WELL, JUST GET SOMEONE OVER HERE!"

After slamming the phone, he turned. Cordelia ambushed him with an explosion of light. "Bureaucrats!" Doyle cursed, shielding his troubled blue eyes with a forearm. "Everyone wants to be in charge but no one wants to get anything done!"

Her steps hesitant, Cordy approached the desk. She essed a manicured finger across the polished surface. "So does that mean some... thing? Is coming?"

Doyle sighed. It was always under the strangest circumstances he realized how much he adored Cordelia. He gave up stakes to his heart almost from the moment they met--she as the damsel-kinda/sorta-still-in-distress placing a patch upon her rescuer. He detected that same look again on her pretty face and imagined sweeping Cordy into his lap to cuddle her little-girl anxiety away.

It didn't help he never knew the proper things to say in these situations to make them seem less dire. He scolded himself for being so inept with the serious words and phrasing; for always being too hasty to render a sprinkling of wit and a rasher of charm. "By the way, Princess, I'm half-a-demon, meself," he pondered bringing up, knowing she'd immediately think he was joking around at the worst possible time.

"I wonder what Kate's bringing back for lunch," he offered instead.

-0-

The Physician finished examining Angel while Doyle paced. His puttering lips--a nervous condition--visibly annoyed the half-Bracken Messenger, pleasing him considerably. He casually attended his patient while glancing occasionally at the two women in the kitchen area. While eyeing them lasciviously, he noted aloud, "she is on him."

"What?" Doyle asked, bewildered by the cryptic comment. Not one to provoke a fight, he punched his fists into his armpits, positive The Physician's unattractive human attributes were what made him more demonic than whatever he had been born as.

"Her scent." The Physician nodded to his companion after drawing a small drab of blood from an artery in Angel's neck into a fluid-filled vial. He shook the substances vigorously then returned to playing patience. "He reeks of one of them. Which is human?"

Briefly glancing back to verify the two women's vicinity, Doyle felt for the policewoman who looked less than enthused listening to her companion's ramblings, wishing he could trade places with her.

"They both are. What difference does it make?" His jaw clenched, Doyle involuntarily rubbed his sides.

"It answers..." The Physician paused to snicker. "He is lusting for more than a meal, let's say."

The last comment enticed a female from the shadows. She grabbed the syringe to examine while her furious head shook. "And it didn't cross your mind to get rid of them both," she stated contemptuously. With one tug on The Physician's coat, she nearly plucked him completely off the ottoman.

"They know what he is?"

"The *one* does." Doyle bit his lip to avoid elaborating, disturbed by the way she stared at the fluid raised between them. "The Powers That Be *are* behind this, aren't they? You knew exactly what was wrong before you even got here."

"His chemistry is changed, somehow. That won't work." She pitched the hypodermic into the black medical bag. With an indifference to the discovery no less frigid than her inflection, she flatly dictated, "destroy him."

His gapped-tooth grin Jack-O-Lantern merry, The Physician enthusiastically extracted a simple wooden stake from the satchel. "I heard you used to be so much smarter than this, Doyle. No one can believe how easily you were fooled. Although," he paused to leer at the women again, "I have to say the *one* of them gave The Courier quite a challenge."

Doyle revoked the stake. "WAIT!" You can't just 'destroy him'." Lowering the tone of his voice, he petitioned, "if it's my mistake, I'll pay the consequences, but don't take it out on Angel. It's not his fault."

"What's not Angel's fault?" Kate arched a brow when Doyle concealed the object in his hand. "Doyle? What's wrong?"

The Physician backed away, but not before ogling at the female detective and her brunette shadow. "This is no concern of yours, Misses."

Doyle reached for an elbow but Kate expertly deflected the gesture. "Please, Kate. Cordy and me-- We can handle this."

"Look. If it's a matter of money?"

"The female stepped up to Kate rudely, invading her personal space so completely the blonde human nearly jumped the two paces away. "This isn't about money." The heavily accented voice, its resonance slightly duskier than Kate's, reordered, "just get this over with."

A metallic clack preceded the rumble of a truck passing outside the street-level high windows of the basement apartment. Straight-armed, Kate stood behind her police-issue revolver. The corner of her mouth twitched--either from excitement or concentration; she never remembered to ask anyone she pointed at for their speculation.

"Back away from Angel and get the hell out of here!"

Doyle replaced the wooden piece into the bag, slamming it closed and into The Physician's stomach. While he finger-prodded the male to the side door, he mumbled his disbelief of the situation.

The Physician, who had complacently putt-putt-putt the short journey, spread a palm for his female companion. "After you, Neda."

Neda nonchalantly adjusted the hood of the black overcoat she had never removed. Pivoting on the ball of one foot, the graceful movement not only had the effect of placing her face to hairline with Doyle, the coat seductively draped her form.

"One miserable little test, Doyle. We should have never been able to get to him. The instant you saw him struggling for control *you* should have ended his existence. And now? You take a *human's* side? You have no idea what he's capable of but," her demeanor haughty, she looked away from The Messenger after gliding into the corridor, "you'll soon learn what working with a vampire is really all about. Perhaps the Powers That Be will thank you in a few months...

"If he can be contained until then."

Doyle blinked. Neda evaporated. But where she had been standing, there remained a musty odor. Still feeling intimidated by Neda's intensity, Doyle windmilled his arms through the stagnant air, groaning a prayer for even the slimmest chance his efforts would eradicate her haunting prediction.

-0-

"That was touch and go, Angel. I just don't understand how you could be so sick one minute and the next--" The keys in Kate's hand jangled uneasily. "For a while there, I thought I couldn't even feel your pulse."

"I'm fine, Kate. Really. I'll call you in a couple days."

Angel was pretty sure he was exuding reassurance, but Kate's continued reluctance made him wonder. Smiling politely, he nodded again and Kate mimicked the gesture, helping to slide the side door shut from outside to further 'voice' her reservations over his self-diagnosis.

Angel latched the door. Facing it, the familiar feel of his favorite smirk toyed with one corner of his mouth while, out of the corner of one eye, he detected Cordelia's restriction of Doyle's eager approach.

Doyle yanked his sleeve. "Cordy! When I want you to grab all over me--"

Cordelia tugged one final time before she returned her full attention to the sight of the crossbow she had raised at Angel.

"Cordy? What are you--?" Doyle was even more confused when Angel, slow but sure-footed, swaggered directly in front of Cordelia's unwavering aim.

"You can take the girl out of Sunnydale..."

"Oh. Now you want to make fun of me? Because you don't want to make fun of *me*, DustBoy!"

Uncertain to the extreme, Doyle sidled next to Cordelia, analyzing the pair's intense eyeage--scurrilous brown to suspect hazel. "What's happening, Cordy?" he fretted.

In response, her finger fondled the trigger.

Angel, smug, flung his arms wide and took another step closer. Undaunted, he took one more.

Cordy drew a breath, sucking it through her teeth. The skin beneath her eyes drew taut, eclipsing her irises from below. Her index finger, up to the second joint, curled more intensely around the metal spur. The breath remained where she had gathered it.

Angel posed. Doyle froze.

"You had me going on that one, Angel!" Cordy giggled in relief, lowering her weapon after Angel blinked.

"But, you're... OK?" the Irish voice asked, uncharacteristically reedy.

Angel dodged Doyle's extended arm. After taking a couple steps further he paused to speak over his shoulder, the dissatisfaction in his voice barely tempered. "Yeah. I'm 'OK'. But first off, you two, Kate should have been gone the instant I went down and secondly--"

"--what if he wasn't OK?" Cordelia finished in reprimand.

-0-

"I don't know what's wrong with him, Doyle," Cordelia complained for the third time that day. He's so like completely gloomier than usual. Like all this week. For the past week and a half. I don't think he's ever going to recover from the voodoo the PTB worked on him."

Doyle groped his skull, ignoring the wave of nausea that came with his Vision from five minutes prior. Cordelia's incessant chatter didn't help his situation any but he rejected all thoughts his physical distress was being caused by her voice, hoping one day to find his future full of her sounds.

"The Powers That Be don't use voodoo. At least, I haven't known them to. I dunno, Cordelia. Maybe this call'll help get him back into the swing of things. But honestly? To me he seems the same as he's always been--deep down dark and glum-like. How can you tell he's any different?"

She overtly scrutinized Angel's entrance. "Hey, Angel! Doyle's got you a fightin' job! You need a lift?"

"Did either of you get that Shiraz robbery video tape from the Jewelry Exchange yet?" Examining his assignment, Angel spoke without looking up.

Cordy's reply to the vampire's question was as silent as his to hers, except Angel actually supplied an answer when he quickly slipped back downstairs to the garage.

Doyle frowned to the young woman's wide-eyed dispute. "He ignores you half the time anyway, Cordelia. Tell you what. You need someone to talk to you can always talk to me. Any time. Day or night. Whatever you need."

Cordelia tch'd and rolled her eyes to the everyday invitation. Doyle's suggestion only emphasized she was going to have to start finding answers on her own even if she didn't completely understand the whole investigative process.

-0-

Every muscle in his body helped Angel shoulder into the duel, to arc the borrowed weapon up through his opponent. The blade sliced effortlessly from hipbone to armpit and, when the demon finally slid apart diagonally, innards splattered onto the parking lot in one massive drop.

"Thanks," Angel offered before jutting back his elbows into the sword's still-attached holder.

A grunt followed the sound of those cracking ribs. Another grunt assisted Angel in torquing the cutlass free. One last grunt was expelled into the asphalt after the owner's midsection was-- Again, gratefully --skewered.

Another demon challenged before Angel had the opportunity to review his handiwork but proved no match against the more agile vampire. Angel circuited flying kicks; fended off weapon swipes; dropped or, nearly airborne, leapt away from every offensive attack. Experience, almost more than cunning, helped Angel dupe his inferior competitor towards self-defeat.

Until, bored, Angel swung and battered the demon's skull against a cement light post with the broadside of his battle axe.

"VAMPIRE!"

Angel leisurely oscillated his torso in the shout-out's direction, his human appearance openly egotistic. The dawdling response incensed his caller.

"You talking to me?"

The Higgit demon jerked his equine head once. "I was told to come fight a demon tonight," he yelled despite their proximity. "But, lo and behold, I stand in front of an ordinary man."

As a general rule, Angel wouldn't have taken offense at being so deemed, but that wasn't the case on this occasion. The comment infuriated him. Big time.

Impatient, Angel swung his iron weapon in aggravated circles, each rotation's diameter a little wider than its predecessor. "This *man* can kick your ass. Ass," Angel taunted, trying to stifle his panting for emphasis. The truth was he loved to pant, especially when fighting so hard.

He expelled the paradoxical observation.

"Really, now?" The Higgit arched a bumpy brow in amusement. "Well, just so you know, my kind aren't known to have asses that can be kicked. MAAAAAAN!"

Angel's demonic countenance furled into shape without a conscious thought, enhancing his fury. A ragged snarl rode the crest of an inhaling breath, another the exhale. When his tongue visibly raked across his eyeteeth the resulting pain honed his attention.

"Better?"

A cleaving volley said: YES! The Higgit's tomahawk sliced horizontally while his buckler deflected Angel's vertical hacks. Metal met metal; metal met flesh.

Angel, finally faced with a true adversary, was invigorated. Feeling intoxicated by the opportunity to truly exert his prowess, Angel's lithe body responded effortlessly. With his muscles already stretched--even warmed, his extremities obeyed every command without objection. His focus narrowed on his opponent and he concentrated on exacting the perfect method of extermination...

Suddenly sucking backwards, Angel just missed a debilitating swoosh across his abdomen. The Higgit efficiently followed through with a rising side kick into Angel's chest, thrusting the vampire up before onto the pavement for the first time in six bouts. Angel's ego took the brunt of the bruising from the skillful tactic.

"You cut my shirt!" Angel sulked, returning to his feet. He studied the gaping hole, traumatized. "I liked this shirt. Alot. Now you're just going to have to die."

The Higgit roared. "You silly little low-unlife. "Are we in the middle of a tournament, or a style show?"

Angel stopped moping and started sneering.

Smoothing his quilted leather cuirass, the Higgit laughed even harder. "Well then next time wear something more fitting if you're afraid a little tear. Except--" Readying his shield and blade, he finished, "too bad there won't be a next time."

The demonic guise was sloughed off but Angel retained the scowl. With both hands on his axe, he squared his torso for the altercation's finale before rushing the other being.

The Higgit had zero time to react. He barely saw a flash of something bright against the black of Angel's blade before finding himself restrained on the ground under the weight of Angel's foot. The grinding of a boot on his collarbone left him unable to cry out, leaving his collapsing trachea to crackle in objection instead.

His grip secure--all ten fingers interlocked and overlapped--Angel aligned his blade with the demon's neck. Flexing his knees to relax, he swept the weapon high above his shoulder, holding it back momentarily to study his intended's reaction. The Higgit's eyes bulged in terror as Angel's torso began to rotate, his magnificent body uncoiling beautifully as his weight shifted onto his back leg to facilitate the downward swing.

The singular mighty stroke guillotined the Higgit cleanly, Angel's edge so sharp the head remained tee'd above the neck. Just to verify the detachment, however, Angel toed exactly at the chin to send the head top-spinning amongst the other loose impediments.

Dazed, he took inventory of the massacre--of various dead, mostly dismantled demons and their body parts strewn across the battle zone. He swallowed dryly, his panting uncontrollable with his rage still piqued.

And with his bloodlust unconsumated.

The letter 'p' distracted him and he turned blindly towards his car with his weapon at the ready. There, leaning casually, stood The Physician and his female counterpart.

"Reflexes?"

"Good."

"Eye/Hand co-ordination?"

"Excellent."

"Psychology?"

The female cocked her head in careful judgement. "Normal."

"Normal?" The Physician cut his dubious eyes at her. When she returned the look, doubt was hardly in the rendering. "Normal it is," he echoed. He tucked his notebook under his arm and bowed before pup-pupping away.

"I wish I had seven more to send your way. It was suggested these loyalists would be good for at least a few hours."

Angel couldn't determine what disturbed him more--knowing the fight had been staged or that his car's fresh wax was being defiled. Leaning over into the cockpit of the convertible, he snagged the keys from the ignition, ignoring the female. After opening the trunk to get a towel, he began his taciturn wipe-down.

Neda trailed, trying to display a serenity she actually didn't possess--decades-old rage having rekindled itself by his wordless ministrations. Especially after she weighed the idea he might not remember her.

"Pass or fail? Neda."

Her ebony eyes shuttered; that he did remember her made her angrier. "Back on active duty. Angel."

A bitter sound escaped her throat. "Angel. *That's* a name I would have never thought to consider." Using a corner of his towel, she dabbed away a foreign piece of flesh from under his right eye only to have him draw back.

"Sorry. Angel."

He paused to examine his shirt in greater detail before wrapping the filthy axe and dropping the items into the trunk. After slamming the lid, he noticed other smudges then stared into his open palms, at the unfamiliar gashes created from his nails deeply embedding while holding his weapon too tightly.

Neda seized his hands, tapping lightly with her thumbs on top of the wounds. "I could kiss and make them better," she teased.

Detaching himself, Angel growled. His irritation flared when Neda blocked his access to the driver's side door. Nerves running the length of his inner thighs crimped.

"What do you want?"

"What do you think I want? Angel." She laughed. "Seriously. Not in a million years would I have considered such a name for you. Not that it doesn't fit..."

His attempt to shove her aside prompted her to revise the subject. "You're on edge. I watched you fight some damn fierce demons. One by one," she snapped her fingers for emphasis, "rapid timing, pinpoint movements. So quickly. So--"

"--Brutally." She tipped his attention to the carnage, pleased that he allowed the ordinary contact. "So, very-- How should I say? Normal. Interesting for me, of course, since I never knew you-- Normal. Angel."

"That still doesn't tell me what you want."

"I want what you want," Neda leaned up, not far, to speak near his ear, scouring her body against his. "Or more like what you need?"

Although uncomfortable with the situation, he didn't balk while her hand caressed his own against the door handle. "Look," Angel began, "I never asked for your help. I never asked for whatever it is you think you ever did for me."

"You're right. Angel. You never asked. You also never said 'thanks'."

"We're vampires. Manners don't come with the pedigree."

"Then what's with the subtlety?"

Neda smiled slyly, coaxing that stubborn look he was giving her into one she actually wanted to see. "You know, this is all about free will. I don't want you don't do anything you don't absolutely want to do. It's no fun if you're not a hundred percent participatory."

"That didn't damper your enthusiasm in the past," Angel bluffed. Truth was he barely recollected whatever time they had once spent together, only remembering much of her company involved what she was suggesting. That, and how seldom his free will had been encouraged.

She fingercombed wisps of sable hair off the slightly asymmetric structure of her attractive oval face. "Then consider it the conclusion of your examination," Neda stated bluntly. "Your place or mine?"

Her legs encircled his hips as effortlessly as he lifted and carried her to the back of his car. Once there, Angel tactlessly heaved Neda onto the trunk.

"My place happens to be right here at the moment."

Her smile setting the lead, Neda's eyes widened; then, in rabid response, they brightened tawny to eagerly encounter Angel's identical set.

-0-

Cigarette smoke tended to overwhelm Doyle's sense of smell. He hated the stuff and was thrilled when California passed a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars. Too bad demon bars weren't required to comply, however--there were already enough odors in those haunts. So, it was odd to notice smoke in, of all places, the offices of Angel Investigations clinging to the very early morning chill air, still relatively fresh until he caught it wafting up the elevator shaft.

Up from Angel's apartment.

After placing the video tape on Angel's desk, Doyle tested the staircase door. Finding it unlocked he ventured down the unlit steps, drawn to the solitary figure sitting at the Formica-topped dinette table.

"Angel?" Doyle called out, his approach equally judicious.

Seated in front of a lone candle and feverishly scribbling in a ledger, Angel's free hand held the offending smoking matter. That same hand nervously picked at a few front strands of hair. Bloodied, marred, and with the rest of his hair partially matted, the disheveled being simply ignored his guest.

Doyle stood for the longest time just watching. The candlelight wasn't doing much for him, personally--he was much better at smell than sight. The warm-colored flame was barely enough to light another cigarette but Angel's stark flesh glowed almost iridescent, the dark brown of his eyes culling golden before darkening to unanimated discs. Negative shadows augmented the hollows of Angel's face, enhancing his otherworldly aura.

Doyle gasped. Instantly knowing Angel had been deadly, everything in the room reeked to him of fatality.

"Where are all the pens?"

"Th-- The--" Doyle choked. He was that nervous. "The pens?"

Angel swept a broken lead off his page and clapped the binding shut. After taking the last drag on his cigarette--a long, slow intake that shrank the unfiltered smoke to its last half-inch, Angel smutched it out in an overfilled saucer.

"I couldn't find a goddam pen in the entire office so I had to use this thing." To demonstrate, Angel twisted the tip up and down before slamming the yellow pretend-pencil onto the table top. After Doyle aptly jolted, Angel shied from the light to smile.

Leaving the angle of his head undisturbed, his languid eyes rolled to peer into the Irishman's apprehensive face. "I know I was using a pen yesterday. It was right on my desk--"

"I took *that* one." Timidly, Doyle apologized while calculating sunrise was still another long almost-hour away before it would begin to filter into the apartment. An amiable step forward repulsed Angel further from the light.

"Tell Cordelia to buy some decent pencils and to stop hiding the pens."

Doyle nodded in quick agreement, anticipating Angel to say something else. Instead, the vampire mimed an offer for one of the last three cigarettes in the pack before taking another.

Doyle almost accepted.

Slumping into his chair to rest his heels on an opposite seat, Angel bound one arm across his abdomen to rest an elbow on that forearm. He absently combed his brow with a fingernail while the cigarette repeated the side to side movement--laterally radiating red, half-expecting Doyle to reply "by your command, Angel. Sir!"

A thought on how to make that happen briefly filtered through Angel's mind.

"Rough conflict tonight." Meaning to be consoling and to actually formulate a question, Angel's alien disposition distracted Doyle's civility. Candlelight painted the angles of Angel's human appearance, a face seemingly on the verge of disappearing from view. The cigarette seemed natural wedged between long fingers that massaged the tip of Angle's nose after inhaling, fingers that circled Angel's lips while exhaling, fingers that Angel puffed on softly before taking another drag.

"Breathe," Angel suggested.

Doyle raggedly complied.

The two held court in eerie silence until the refrigerator cycled on. Adjoining the humming uneasiness lingered an olde tavern smell--between Angel's chain-smoking and the malt liquor Doyle had consumed before arrival repeating in the back of his throat. The air was fetid with old men smells--old men pungent with secrets, regrets. Words that weren't being expressed.

With Angel looking like a carbon-copy of one of his own bleary-eyed benders, Doyle pictured them as twin fugitives from The Great Last Call.

"I'm back in rotation."

Doyle's eyes creased against the relentless glare being spotlit by steady flame. "T-- Test!" he barely uttered, catching himself from shuddering. "I-- I thought you were tested before we met, Angel. I--"

"You don't even know what I had to do."

Angel politely coughed into his palm. Little squiggles of smoke seeped through his elegant fingers. "Or do you? Why didn't you say something to me?"

"I didn't know, Angel. I *swear* I didn't know--"

Angel's flattened palm put an abrupt end to the apology. "Lemme ask you this, Doyle. If you *had* known, would you have told me?"

Dropping his head, Doyle watched his feet shuffle. "There are rules, Angel."

"So you report on me to them? Is that what you do? And now you're going to report on how weirded out I was after they made me kill seven of the home team in front of a couple of test consultants? I don't appreciate being blindsided."

Angel stroked out the cigarette, coughing again. Harsher. Smokier. He swept from the chair rapidly, movement so unexpected Doyle didn't adjust his sight to follow Angel's disappearance.

Darkness devoured the vampire.

"No one's test is ever the same, Angel," he defended. "The Powers That Be are like the freakin' DMV. None of The Messengers can compare notes. There're no warnings. Nothing! At least believe I don't report on you--"

"Because you don't have to?"

Doyle closed his eyes, shrugging to relax his cramping neck muscles. "Because you've been following the rules," he replied truthfully.

"And if I don't want to follow the rules anymore?"

"Quit?" The Messenger's frightened head responded negatively. "You don't just *quit* the Powers That Be."

With the refrigerator still again, the quiet provoked an uncomfortable chuckle. "You know, man, since it's only been a few months, just wait a bit longer. You'll get used to working with 'em a little more-- Put this behind you, *whatever* you had to do. It's just that-- You know, Angel--"

Another inappropriate chuckle proceeded, "you're a tad on the scary side at the moment."

"Then I guess I better go get civilized for you."

Shoving his hands into his pockets, Doyle bunched the linings within his sweaty palms and waited. He waited for an amusing remark to pop into his head--something that would soothe Angel; waited for Angel to explain he was only kidding around.

The cigarette smoke waited, too. Stationary. Oppressive.

Convinced Angel was elsewhere, Doyle decided to leave; but the will to do so came as a complete loss to him, petrified by accumulated fear when the candle flickered brightly before settling completely out.

-0-

Cordelia studied the back of her associate's head. It was a nicely shaped head, as far as heads went, in dire need of a decent haircut. Although, she observed, the bad haircut actually did wonders to prevent someone from focusing entirely on such poor taste in clothing. She was pretty sure Doyle's voice was the most pleasant aspect about the man.

The one aspect about him she missed the most since it seemed, as of the morning before, he had suddenly lost the will to speak. She could barely hear him tending to a phone call.

"Whassup with you and Angel?"

Busy jotting a note, Doyle had to ask Cordelia to repeat her question while he calculated the best way to avoid answering it. "Nothing," he tried, knowing that once Cordelia noticed something there was no way to pretend around it. He offered his most charming smile, nearly distracting one in return.

Cordy folded her arms and set her jaw to serious.

Crossing his own arms, Doyle slumped in his chair. "Really, Cordy. There's nothing up with me and Angel. He's just moody." He was sure his accent helped pull off a fake laugh. "You mentioned it yourself. He's just moodier than usual."

She looked at him for a moment longer and simply turned her back, venturing into Angel's office. The door to Angel's stairwell slammed back into place before she barely cracked it open.

"Look, Doyle. There's something you're not telling me. I want answers so now I'm going to go ask Angel." Cordelia studied her co-worker's face, at the fountain of worry lines between his eyes. She disliked that look more than his wardrobe.

"Can't a girl just be curious?" she asked sweetly, scrunching her face in that cute way she knew would make him confessional. The answer she got was far from what she expected, and she had no idea what "sometimes a fella just needs his privacy" was supposed to mean or to which 'fella' Doyle was referencing.

-0-

Neda studied her lover's back, the sensual curve of his pale flesh exquisitely draped over trembling muscles, a design on the one shoulder farthest from her touch. She inched under the sheets closer to his unclothed body, pitching up on one elbow to glance over the embellishment.

At that beautiful human face.

"Don't."

The command pierced the early morning quiet of Angel's apartment when she reached out. He scooted to the edge of the bed before rolling onto his back, his smooth chest contradictory beneath the hardened look on his face.

"You are still having those nightmares."

Perturbed by her inspection, his eyes bore into hers defiantly. "You were supposed to be out before dawn," he intoned.

She touched him anyway to playfully scratch at his throat. "You wouldn't tell that to one of your humans, would you?" Relishing the look her callous remark invoked, Neda scratched a little harder and nicked his clavicle. "Do you lie to yourself when you make love to me? That I'm her? Although I still can't figure out which one I'm faking for you. The brunette or the blonde?"

"I've never *made love* to you," Angel seethed. Distracted, he misjudged her touch and cut himself when he pushed to sit up against the iron header. "Get out of my bed. Now."

Acutely, she studied the way he took a little gasp every so often. Counting the pattern she was able to place her fingers against his lips the exact second he exhaled, marveling at the soft cool of his pretend breath. Neda had never met another vampire who could fake being human so well, nor another she desired as fiercely.

"Oh, you don't want me out of your bed. Angel. Without further 'therapy', at least not right now." She convincingly smoothed the sumptuous sheet against his inflexible body to justify her argument without attempting to downplay the lecherous nature of her comment. A quick swipe across his forearm rendered a sanguine trio.

She licked her lips.

"I'm not your human and you're not mine," Angel spat, shuddering demonic in response to her insatiable clinch.

"And we don't make love," Neda lied into his beastly arms.

Cordelia stopped short of entering Angel's bedroom. It wasn't the first time she'd seen his bare back half-covered by his linens--she considered it part of her job to wake him on occasion. It was just the first ocassion she'd noticed it with a fuchsia-fingered female hand scraping across.

Inhuman sounds hastened her flight uprstairs as the young woman fled past the various notes taped all over Angel's apartment--the ones she had placed to remind him of the important client meeting he was too preoccupied to attend.

-0-

"Alright. Here's the deal, Boss." Doyle slouched in front of Angel's desk, prepared to kick his heels onto its edge until a brutish scrape across the page Angel was reading sounded as a warning. "You not talking to me is one thing. I'm getting used to *you* not talking to me. And, don't get me wrong. Your reasons are completely valid. But Cordelia? She hasn't said a word hardly in two days. I ask her why, but she just won't say."

Angel blinked at his page before facing Doyle's uncertainty. He returned to examining the document. "She hasn't said anything to me, either."

After highlighting another section, Angel flipped to the next page. "Were you able to get in touch with the Morris people about that catalogue for their missing coins?"

"Morris? Oh, yeah." Doyle leaned forward, resting his clasped hands between his legs. "Nah. I thought Cordy was going to get that for you," he answered contritely.

"But since she hasn't said anything?" The marker tapped erratically while see-sawing between Angel's fingers. "Cordelia barely gets coffee, Doyle."

"Yeah, but when she does get it, she gets it with some style, don't she?"

After four more deliberate raps, Angel proceeded to ignore Doyle. In the not-so-distant past, he would have been sympathetic to his employee's love-struck attitude. That he could recognize its absence meant the sentiment was probably still there--irretrievable beneath their disintegrated camaraderie, buried deep alongside Angel's violated trust in the half-demon.

The desk drawer squawked in complaint when Angel yanked it open for his phone book and he was momentarily distracted by its contents. There, still rolling, were 6 pens--2 each of black, blue, and red--and a box of environmentally-friendly wooden pencils. Also there, on the top of a neon block of Post-Its, was a hand-written note in Cordelia's bulbous scrawl reminding Angel of the meeting he had blown off two days before.

He disregarded Doyle's exit, focusing on finding the number he needed. After dialing and politely asking for Douglas Morris before being placed on hold, Angel contemplated his overburdened schedule.

And his options to lessen the load.

-0-

Mosc pointed his cigar at each of his companions. "You, and you, and you! I'm telling you guys--well maybe not you so much, Doyle--we're going to be scrounging after this next tournament."

Leopard downed his Corona in one guzzle, sucking the lime wedge straight out of the bottle. "So, it's set then? You have any idea when?"

Pinching his nose when Leopard belched an order for another round of drinks, Danillo leaned across the table conspiratorially. "Gale said a few months. That don't leave us much time to train. Although she's OK. Her guy can take on the lot of the opposition. My guy--" He slumped in the booth and sighed unhappily. "At least he only lost an ear last time."

Doyle swirled his Red Bull cocktail thoughtfully--a wee bit too thoughtfully. "They'll all do OK, guys."

Shaking his head, Mosc flicked the ashy tip of his stogie onto the floor of Elmo's Evil Bar, only to have Elmo turn evil on him. "Alright, alright," he waved in acknowledgment, sitting the cigar into the tin coaster. "Not *all*, Doyle. You're not taking your 'wings' a little too seriously, are you? I don't know how you drink that crap."

"Oh. And the scrod swill you guzzle is any better?" Doyle tossed back the contents of his glass, exchanging the empty for his refill. "And what do you mean by 'not all'?"

Danillo and Leopard locked eyes before Danillo replied, "how far do you think a vampire is going to get, Doyle? Not only that, you're the one on freakin' vampire duty. You've got no where else to go, guy, so you've got the most to lose of all of us."

"Yeah," Leopard continued, "...and after Ogden took that bullet for you last week..."

Doyle frowned. "Quit with the 'Ogden took a bullet for me' because that's not the case. That--"

"Was *no* accident, half-Brack." Mosc puffed his cheeks and raspberried. "You already almost got your vamp and his human killed."

"Cordy's not his human, Mosc. I keep telling you that."

Leopard smiled at the female who scooted into the booth next to him before he added, "you work under him, Doyle. *His* human. Hey, Gale."

"What cha guys talking about?" Gale asked. She leaned over and grabbed Leopard's beer to chug before sliding it back to him. He grinned as if she'd just kissed him, which she leaned over and promptly did to the tip of his pocked nose.

"Taking bullets for Doyle," Danillo answered, leaning over the table to offer his own nose. When Gale left it uncared-for, he glowered back into his seat. "And the next tournament."

"Shhhhhhh! Watch the tourney talk!" After peeking over her shoulder, Gale squinted at each of the four males. She mused how Doyle, a human-appearance half-Bracken demon, looked so out of place next to his assorted demoney-looking fellow Messengers. Given the setting and the fact she was female, she imagined her own human appearance was even more incongruous.

"So, when did you guys start taking bullets for Doyle? That a new charity?"

Mosc, who managed to keep his drink out of Gale's reach, drank 2/3rds of it before spiriting the rest her way. "Ogden took one last week. Right in the head."

"Jeez, Doyle! How many does that make? Didn't Po Roo-Roo take a couple of knee caps for you in August?"

"NO ONE'S TAKING BULLETS FOR ME!" Doyle shouted. He tugged at his pullover shirt's placket for emphasis. "They're just randomly flying and folks are randomly getting hit by 'em."

Gale tsk'd. "So your House of Cards is on a fault line, huh? Well, don't worry about me, Doyle. I'm good at avoiding the stray ones."

Those clear blue eyes of Doyle's radiated sincerity. "Ah, Galey," he pouted, "you being the immortal one of us and all, I'd figure for sure--you know, being you love me so much--you'd be the onlyest I could count on to take a speedy one for me." He chomped an ice cube, then sighed. "Oh, well. 'Tis a true measure of your emotional attachment to me. I should have known to never get involved with one of your kind," he waxed facetiously.

Gale rose and sauntered behind the banquet. Encircling one arm around Doyle's neck while discreetly depositing a matchbook into his pocket, she squeezed him enthusiastically. Her words were spoken with her lips against his cheek, the gesture more for the opportunity to savor Doyle's spicy scent than to work him over.

"You know, Doyley, I adore you to no end. You're *truly* the best, dude. But when they figured out this whole immortality thing? No one had fired projectiles figured into the mix so I think I'll be passing on experimentation. You seriously need to start getting a handle on all these deals you're scheming--not to mention the betting, and the drinking. And, please-- I would suggest you think twice before you go against the PTB again."

"Look, Galey," Doyle mumbled uncomfortably while everyone at the table continued to bob in agreement with her summation, "I'm cleaning up my act, really. I've got incentive now. And this PTB thing? They were going to kill him, for Christ's sake! I couldn't just let them kill him!"

"Since he'll more'n likely end up being the gimme for this next tourney, Doyle, you should have probably let the pro's take him out. Maybe you could have even gotten some brownie points out of it." She inhaled while kissing the top of head, imagining his Mom literally giving birth to him through her oven--he smelled that freshly baked.

Mosc smiled fondly at the notorious flirts. "Look, Doyle, the rest of us are just trying to get through detention. The rest of us are just trying to do our jobs--maybe work our way up or out. Just trying to stay out of trouble and not to get ourselves or anyone killed."

"I was just trying to protect my friend," Doyle reiterated.

Danillo's tone was unkind as he stood to leave. "They're our responsibilities, but they're not our *friends*, Doyle. You're only a Messenger to him, so stop trying to be more. And, for the grace of Umeg, don't let him be more to you."

Shrugging in reply to Doyle's visual request of an explanation for Danillo's sudden harsh tone before the demon stormed from the table, Leopard clarified, "just 'cause it hurts so much when they go down if you get too attached?"

Doyle leaned forward onto his elbows and rubbed at his scruffy cheeks. "It hurts to lose them any way you look at it, Lep. And we *all* know from personal experience it's impossible not to get attached."

-0-

Cordy paid the bill and tipped the delivery guy. After twisting the deadbolt, she lowered the door's shade. It seemed much later than it actually was; the office was so quiet.

"I thought you were downstairs!" she gasped at Angel after turning around.

Surveying the deserted room, his brows knit briefly. "If Doyle left already, how come you're not gone, too?"

"Just--" Cordy held the huge brown paper delivery sack against her thighs, feeling like Alice in Wonderland on the first day of school. "I've got an all night cattle call for a music video to go to at 10PM. It's across from the Staples Center, so I thought I'd just eat here instead of going home and then coming all the way back downtown."

Angel accepted the reasonable excuse. "Just turn off the lights when you leave," he spoke before returning downstairs.

Cordelia followed apprehensively and waited at the bottom step until Angel looked up from the kitchen table where he was working. He extended a silent invitation by clearing a stack of papers from in front of one of the chairs.

Although she unwrapped her meal with considerable restraint, when Cordy lifted the lid from under the lip of the aluminum container the room was instantly filled with its aroma.

She apologized, wincing.

Angel highlighted another block of words before capping the marker. "That smells awful," he commented, rising to fetch a cup of tea for her. Switching Cordy's plastic fork for a proper utensil, Angel nudged the contents onto a stoneware plate. "What's this supposed to be?"

"Gemmeli Primavera?" Cordy pushed a forkful around the plate to display the assorted vegetables and pasta spirals. "It tastes OK. Not the best I've ever had, but since I don't have a Spago budget... Plus, I had to choose from whatever's close and since we don't have the most primo places in delivery range in case you haven't noticed--"

"Which of course you wouldn't notice because you don't nosh al dente."

"Actually," Angel began, thinking to correct her misinterpretation. His second thought left the comment unspoken in favor of continued reading.

Cordy silently ate while watching Angel work. Eventually though, the inverted fork making dainty jabs at her full lower lip, her impatience got the better of her.

"So I guess that means you've got a girlfriend now. I just gotta mention that's one heck of a forgive and let live attitude you're working if one second she can order you dead supreme and the next you're swerving the sheets with her."

The felt tip ground to a chiseled halt.

Cordelia chewed on something for too long. Finally surrendering, she spit it back onto her fork. "I guess that also means Kate is officially out of the picture, huh?"

"Kate was never-- It's not--" Angel left his head bowed. "It's private," he finally spoke after a very pause.

"That's cool, Angel. Really. It's your non-life to do whatever you wanna do, but--" Scraping her tongue against her front teeth, Cordy pushed the half-eaten dinner to the side.

"But why? You know, with *her*? I know you're gonna completely tell me to mind my own business. It's not like *we* have these conversations or anything because that's Doyle's place. It just doesn't make any sense to me. Although, I don't waste my time figuring out what you do down here. Or not. It's just that--" She sighed, her large hazel eyes reduced to slittage when she finally confessed, "I accidentally, you know, *saw*. You know..."

Angel, appalled, met her guileless face. She was either being apologetic or completely disgusted; he wasn't sure which--even after enough experience with Cordelia's version of the latter. "I-- I've got to start locking the door."

"You did, Angel. But you forget me and Doyle have keys. And I would have never bothered, but there was a meeting I left you, like, a bazillion reminders about."

It always amazed Cordy that Angel could blush. He even looked a little sweaty. That made her wonder if he needed to use deodorant to not smell defunct. Although, she figured 'dead' was probably *not* one of those unpleasant odors that could be covered up with an antiperspirant. Although, if he used the baking powder kind...

"Does Doyle know?"

Cordy blinked. "Well, duh! Doyle had to schmooze the client-- OH!" A dry whistle adorned her astonishment. "You mean you haven't told him? I know something about you he doesn't?"

"You haven't told him, either?"

When she shook her head, her brown curls bounced from behind her shoulders. Lifting the mug with both hands before taking a lady-like sip, Cordy murmured across the beverage, "should I?"

Her eyes darted straight into Angel's as she sipped again. "Or do you want to pretend it was your own personal Xander Harris moment and let it Puff it's Magic Dragon self into extinction?"

"She keeps my-- My mind off other things."

"Bullshit."

Her candor caught him off guard and it showed plainly on his face. Or, at least it felt like it did.

"Whatever the PTB tweaked hasn't gone away. You stay down here *all* the time, now. Then there's the raging when you show your face. Wow. You could teach that stuff."

Cordy pushed up Angel's sleeve for her next exhibit. "And you never used to let yourself get all messed up like this when you fight, Angel. Or," she took a closer look and added, "well, maybe these particular scrapes are a bad example. Why would you let her hurt you like this?"

He jerked his arm away defensively, smoothing down his sleeve. "You should just go, Cordelia. I don't owe you an explanation. Besides, you couldn't understand it, anyway."

"Because it's a vampire thing? From what I can tell you may not be the same kind of alive that me or Doyle are, but you're close enough. What's Morticia got on you? 'Cause this reeks of duty booty, Angel. You're way miserable. Way way more miserable than usual, at least. And don't try to pass it off as a relationship because I don't see *her* down here keeping you company."

"I wouldn't exist if it wasn't for her," Angel admitted.

Cordy tch'd. "Puh-leeze! So you owe her your life? Once you owe someone your life, Angel, then it stops being yours. Not only that, but it's the single worst debt you can ever have because you'll *never* be able to pay it off. Every time you think you've made that last payment--whatever it is--there's always going to be a new service charge tacked on you didn't know about. She's got you where she wants you, Angel. And I should know. I've got a Master's in this particular game. And with you being Mr. Guilt the way it is you're probably giving her pointers on how to screw you best!"

He frowned. "Figuratively, right?"

"If the figure fits--"

Angel avoided her unrelenting eye contact by folding his arms across his papers and resting his cheek on top. "I just wanted to come to L.A. to be alone," he whispered.

"Yeah, well, it didn't work out that way, did it?" His silence prompted her to continue, "And what happened that you hate Doyle so much?"

"I don't hate Doyle. Is that what he told you?"

"He doesn't have to tell me, Angel. Your shoulders have been flexing a much bigger chill than usual."

"He-- I can't talk about it," he concluded, burying his eyebrows in the vee of his elbow.

Cordy sighed. "Oh, well. I guess I just have to start preparing to be less, then."

One attentive brown eye peered in her direction. "Less?"

"Yeaaaah! If you break up with Doyle, then the business goes, too. Then I'll be penniless which equals homeless, transportationless, foodless, anxious, clothesless--"

"'Anxious' doesn't fit," Angel interrupted, finding himself being pushed back into his seat by the forehead. It was the strangest feeling in the world and he stared quizzically at Cordelia's retracting fingers.

She beamed at him with pride. "Check you out, Angel! You're actually listening to me for once!"

"I listen to you." His face puckering when she looked like she didn't believe him, he specified, "most of the time."

"Pffffft, right!" Cordy glanced at his watch. "You've got all these really great opportunities to hang with people. There's me. Or Doyle--if you ever decide to speak to him again. And PoliceChick. But now you spend all your time alone and that's just not good. And then you end up not making decisions. You just let stuff happen to you and now you've ended up becoming a non-human doormat in the process."

"You should eat better."

"You're changing the subject. That's another thing you do. You avoid."

"I'll cook for you. Tomorrow. Is tomorrow night good for you?"

Cordy sighed. "You shouldn't spend all night in here, Angel. Why don't you keep me company at this open call?"

"What if I don't want to?"

She considered his question for all of a second before replying, "then go someplace else. But if you stay here, that means you're waiting for Vampyra to show up even if you don't want her to."

"So you'll let me cook for you tomorrow night?"

"Yeah, sure, Angel. You can cook for me tomorrow night. C'mon."

He stared at her offered fingertips. "Just for a couple hours. I'll spend a couple hours with you and then I have to go grocery shopping."

Smiling to herself in triumph, Cordy flitted past the sofa before twirling around excitedly. "Hey! So tell you what, Angel. We have enough time to do groceries before the audition, so let's go do that first and then we'll bring them back so you can drive me."

Holding her plate in his hand, Angel began to protest. But Cordelia managed to finish with, "since you have to go upstairs and get your car keys anyway, get my purse out of my bottom drawer and don't forget to turn off the lights, OK?" before slamming the bathroom door.

-0-

Kate shook her head while the sandy-colored brows above her exotic eyes wriggled.

"Look, Angel. Even though I don't know you very well, I still consider you a friend. You know I know sometimes you work on some creepy cases but I try not to think about that because I don't want to get distracted from what I've got to do on my own job." A comfortable laugh relaxed her face. "And frankly, I don't have enough of a personal life the way it is to start spending my free time trying to figure out your mystery."

She couldn't help but critique his expression--almost the same one a suspect she'd Miranda'd the previous night wore. Actually, she mused, she thought the same thing about the guy she'd arrested--how much his expression mirrored Angel's. Despite her argument, she hated to admit how often the Private Detective did distract her.

"Maybe you shouldn't consider me a friend?"

"Because you don't want to consider *me* one?"

Kate yielded her suspicions when her question seemed to stun him. His focus fell somewhere over his desk while his eyelids rose and fell in slow motion, his thoughtful deliberation moving.

"Look, I've got to go."

Holding onto the Angel Investigations front door after opening it for her, Angel sided his tall frame against its edge. "Thanks, again, Kate. I hate to keep asking you for all these favors."

Before replying, Kate inched over a bit to hide from Cordelia's direct line of sight as the busybody passed behind Angel. "All you owe me, Angel? Just start learning to separate yourself from what it is you do. If you surround yourself with only the creepy, then eventually it's going to rub off. And then who am I going to call on when I need a decoy date?"

After closing the door gently, Angel waited a couple of non-existent heartbeats before turning quickly; but his uninterested employee's heads were busy at work. "Either one of you check on when the rest of those Abernathy depositions are due to arrive?"

Cordy regarded Doyle who returned the blank gaze with his version.

Angel huffed, stormed into his office and slammed the door. Less than a minute later he stood in his doorsill and smacked his palm against the partition hard enough to rattle the windows. "I can't--"

Cordy peered up from her desk. Doyle set the receiver back in place before twisting around. "You say something, Angel?"

"I--" Angel's features went fierce. "I CAN'T DO EVERYTHING ON MY OWN, YOU GUYS! YOU'VE GOTTA START GIVING ME SOME HELP!"

Leaning back, Cordy blinked. "Angel--"

"NO!" Pouncing into the room Angel cast two fingers her way. "YOU! You spend all day on that phone with your personal calls, talking to your Mom or to some high school friend you'll never see again and," swiveling to Doyle he pointed, "YOU! Sit there making arrangements with your bookie, or with your barmates on how you're going to spend your nights."

"IT'S A WASTE!" Angel screamed. "What are either of you doing here?"

Cordelia lifted the manilla envelope from under her magazine and walked it over to Angel, shoving it into his unreceptive grasp. "We've been waiting for you to make up your mind, Angel."

"What?" Opening the envelope, he flipped through the requested Abernathy deposition, bewildered. "Make up?"

Doyle dropped a matchbook on top of Cordy's offering. "I guess Cordy won this one," he commented. "By the way, man, that's not encouragement to pick up another pack. It's a lead on those Morris coins I got from one of my 'bar mates' last night."

The two employees stood facing their boss wearing the same placid body language.

"I don't understand," Angel replied, his anger completely diffused by utter confusion.

Cordy swept the $20 bill from Doyle's hand and balled it in her fist. "I figured one day-- ONE DAY, Angel. You were going to wake up and realize that you want to run this place. That this is what you *really* want to do. But, I wasn't going to invest any of my time or energy into it until you did."

"But, I've been working hard at this," Angel insisted.

"Puh-leeze, Angel! You've been piddley-diddling. Playing private detective when you can burble up out of a funk long enough to actually get something done. Doyle's been managing to work most of the simple cases and the ones he can't, then I've been great with stall tactics. It's a shame because you're good at this, Angel. When you actually *do* it."

Doyle agreed. "Whether you do this, or whatever, man, I'm still your Messenger. Cordy's right, though. I think you've found your calling with this. So, the particulars of *your* message were related very loud and made extremely clear. The two of us'll just start buckling down to help you out more."

"But sometimes you're still going to have to ask."

Cordy poked at Angel's chest to conduct him back into his office. "And you have to learn to delegate. Preferably with a little less ultra-temper, if you please. And stop keeping this stuff all bottled up inside of you, Angel. When we piss you off, just say something. Every expert says it's just not healthy to hold stuff back and--let's face it--you've got enough going on inside without getting any more festery."

-0-

Angel took the leg off with a single whack. The thigh severed as easily, taken precisely at its joint. He sawed along either side of the back, wrenching the spine free before tossing it aside. Another strike divided the torso in half.

Doyle watched Angel skin each piece with his bare hands before dropping them into a bag and shaking them vigorously; also as Angel removed each piece and tenderly laid slid them into the waiting receptacle, hot oil dancing in gleeful reception until the pieces settled into place.

Angel whacked the tops off the carrots with the cleaver, causing Doyle to jump slightly. "You're not giving me much to go on, Doyle, but I'll see what I can do. I have a hard time with demon on demon crime, you know. That whole vampire thing you all keep holding against me..."

A different knife slid through an onion lengthwise, then crosswise before fine dice. *Very* fine dice. And so rapidly Doyle barely followed the motion. "*I* don't hold it against you, Angel. I mean, for a vampire, you're a really great guy. Other than when you go all ridges and glow-eyed, I can even forget you're not--"

"Human." The green, yellow, and red peppers met a fate similar to the onion, their dice slightly larger, but just as exact. Angel leveled the vegetables into a waiting bowl, replacing them with a dozen cloves of garlic. "Forgetting what I am only makes it harder for me, Doyle." His palm came down on the flat side of the knife as he made eye contact with the flinching other male. "Like I have to keep up the perfect man facade for your benefit."

"I don't forget--" Doyle flinched again while he wondered how someone who was supposed to be repelled by garlic could use so much of the substance. "--You're just a great guy most of the time, Angel. You know, classy and smart. Demons aren't a classy or smart lot--especially the fang faction you're a part of. Maybe if more of you had souls."

Angel stopped and studied Doyle. "How much do you understand about my soul?"

"You mean other than what my Supe and Cordy've told me?"

Disgusted, Angel took his aggravation out on a potato, paring it in terse sweeps. "So your answer would be-- Nothing."

"Pretty much. Maybe a skosh more than nothing, but let's call that negligible."

Peel dribbled onto the countertop. "Everyone I've ever killed, maimed, injured, incapacitated..."

"So, pretty much, everyone you've ever run into?" Doyle held his breath, remorseful he hadn't done the same with his smart-ass remark.

Returning to the carrots, Angel proceeded to julienne. "*Everyone* I've ever run into, Doyle. I remember what I did, how I did it." He paused for a moment to consider also setting the carrots into dice but left them in uniform strips. "And how it felt when I did it."

"Wow."

The oil geysered as Angel twisted the chicken to brown another side. After setting his metal tongs into a ceramic cradle, he wrung his hands into the Turkish toweling apron makeshifted to protect his trousers. "Imagine every bad choice you've ever made. Imagine they all came back to you along with the very reasons you made those decisions."

Doyle considered Angel's suggestion, a broad smile yawing his lips over one particular instance that instantly sprang to mind. Then, remembering the dismal topic of conversation, he pushed the memory aside, his pressed lips betraying his embarrassment.

Those brown eyes blinked without condemnation. The vegetables however, after being dumped into the skillet, shhhhhhh'd their opinion.

"Wait." Doyle's dark brows furrowed in consternation while he shook his head vehemently. "You're not trying to say--"

"I'm not trying to say anything, Doyle." The timbre of Angel's voice lost its edge of calm, straddling the chasm between anger and sorrow. "I kill on a regular basis for The Powers That Be. And then they have the nerve to test me. For what? To see if I'm enjoying myself? I enjoy it, Doyle. Along with every crime I've ever committed. And I loathe everything. All at the same time. So I don't get it. Any of it! Now it's OK for me to be what my nature wants to be because I'm killing by decree? Killing my own kind?"

"Well." Doyle sanded his palms together nervously. "Technically, man, they're not--"

"My own kind," Angel finished flatly. After a sprinkling of salt, a grind of pepper, and a splash of white wine, Angel nudged the ingredients about the pan before fitting the lid and setting it into the oven.

The oven door slammed against the conversation.

"I can't undo anything for you, Angel. But Christ knows, if I could, I'd try to make it right."

Angel leaned against the refrigerator door, his arms limp. "I just need to know I'm not making the situation any worse. That's all. I can control *how* I do to a certain extent, but what if one day--"

"What if?" Doyle shrugged. "The Powers, Angel, recruited you for a reason. Just accept it. Maybe one day it'll all make itself clear but the minute you start second-guessing the jobs they hand you, you'll go nuts."

"You hungry?"

His good-humor refusing to be stifled any longer, Doyle admitted, "I didn't believe it when you said you were cooking tonight, Angel. I mean, you're a--" He left the sentence unfinished but the word seemed to pronounce itself.

Angel rolled his head against the icebox door. "I promised Cordelia. I don't think she's eating right," Angel explained solemnly. "You're still welcome to stay. There's plenty."

"Nah, but thanks anyway. I've got some bad examples to tend to tonight." His farewell smile mischievous, Doyle backstepped towards the door, requesting, "assign me a marker?"

-0-

The door didn't go down with the first kick, so Angel kicked it harder. The third time was the charm--with a dash of Doyle's physical finesse--and the two males hurried into the dimly lit apartment to face three astonished figures.

"I thought you said there were only two," Angel commented, twirling his stakes into ready position. "Neda?"

Self-consciously fussing with her collar, Neda stepped clear of the other two vampires.

Colin rose more self-assuredly from where he had been kneeling, the dual marks on his throat clearly visible. "I don't believe it. Neda! You didn't mention anything about your boyfriend still being in the picture. And, he even speaks now!" He approached Angel warily, keeping the shorter raven-haired male in his peripheral line of sight. "I think I disliked you better when you didn't talk."

"Colin."

Angel, sensing Doyle's confusion over the improperly foretold Vision, centered his attention, instead, on the sounded voice. "Ragno," he uttered, the recognition making him stagger when the ancient vampire's appearance--a century's decay clearly visible--exhumed his fettered memories.

"Ragno is ill." Neda meekly stated, compassionate as she approached her lover. Her explanation included nothing more than "he's my Sire."

The apartment, although smaller, was squalidly identical to the one they all shared in Belgrade--including crumbling drywall and a ragged crater in the floor. The ambiance was suffocating--even to one who could not breathe, the situation oppressive as Angel struggled to maintain his autonomy.

He was different, he reminded himself. He had changed, he considered while trying to stow the slaughter of seven faithful beings.

Neda. Ragno. Neda. Colin. Ragno. Ragno.

A dull ache snaked through Angel's rib cage. An incomprehensible taunting grazed the curve of his ears. There were memories of being too weakened to heal; of comforting that was anything but; of torture and exhaustion; remorse without relief. Company without companionship.

Resentment. Angel caught himself breathing--attuned to Doyle's rhythm. Control. He squeezed the stakes in his hands. Duty.

Two stakes. In his two hands. Revenge.

He nodded to assuage Doyle's escalating fear. "What's *he* suffering from?" Angel inquired, feigning concern and egged on by a hunch.

"After we left," Neda explained, "there was trouble. The population's displeasure with the King's rule brought on a riot. Their dwelling was burned and only Colin and Ragno survived."

"And then, lemme guess the next part. They went East?"

Colin leered. "Yes, we went East."

Doyle regarded Angel, his anxiety further dispatched by the sarcastic set of the vampire's bearing. "What's so funny?" he hushed, already amused without knowing the joke.

"...aviary ... been following Neda's trail ... end to it..."

"Gypsies," Angel replied, breaking into a full-blown grin. "They've got the damndest sense of satire."

"How so? He's got a soul, too?"

"Oh, much worse," Angel commented while struggling through Colin's poor narration. "Seems Ragno can only feed on pigeons." He openly laughed, shaking his head. "The gypsy version of slapstick."

"I DON'T FIND THIS FUNNY!!!" Ragno snapped, his instability apparent when he rose too quickly. "You can leave now, VoceNessuno, and let us get on with our family business!"

"Ragno, please." Neda scurried to help him balance. "Angel is family, too. That's his name. Angel. You'll be well and we'll be a family again."

"So, how's he supposed to get well?" Doyle's interest was piqued, especially since the last time he saw the vampiress, she had been a searing biatch. Her groveling demeanor was almost scarier.

"The blood of two offspring." Angel's good humor turned bad. "You don't need to do this, Neda. You don't owe him--"

Despite the situation, Angel couldn't help chuckling. "--service charges," he finished, shaking his head.

"But, I do owe him, Angel." Neda ignored the strange mirth Angel was struggling to control and faced Ragno, drawing the fabric from her offered neck. When her Sire evaporated as his demonic self, horrified, she turned to Colin in time to see him sprinkle onto the floor.

Stunned, Neda stared at Angel.

"It's official," she began softly, seething into, "I HAVE SACRIFICED *EVERYTHING* FOR YOU!"

Angel, brushing her aside, signaled Doyle towards a hallway. "I'm so over this, Neda."

"Oh?" She wheeled him around, her indignation as pointed as her finger against his shoulder. "You have just taken everything away from me. Angel. Everything. The last of my clan. Just to save your sorry existence. And what did you do to repay me? You left. Just disappeared! I searched for you. Wasted a century searching for you. MY century. Angel. Roaming the world; following any stray lead."

"I never asked--"

"You never ASKED!" she bellowed. "I SACRIFICED! Can you even consider my predicament? Changing my diet to suit you. Animals! I feasted on the creme of society in Belgrade. I never consumed the poor or the indigent. And you left me scavenging for animals! A huntress. Angel. Any human I wanted, I took. But that wasn't what you fed. And you never had to tell me because I figured *that* out all on my own. It was so important to keep you alive I succumbed to YOUR diet; YOUR survival. And then you left without even goodbye."

Angel glared at her without compromise. "All I wanted to do was die."

"No you didn't." An aged-hide smell scented the room when she huffed. "Because if you did, you wouldn't have allowed me to rescue you. All those sunrises you faced from the shadows. Those stakes you provoked that never found their way into your heart. You wanted pity, Angel. You wanted someone to feel sorry for you. So *I* did that. I managed your helplessness so that you could derive whatever sick satisfaction you could from it because THAT'S what you wanted."

She shoved him with such force against the wall it plied to his form. Bracing her arms on either side, she riddled, "is that what you play with them? Are your humans rescuing you now, Angel? Do you pout for them? Do you weep for them? The tears always got me. At least they hear your voice--something you never graced my ears with."

"You got my voice." Prying her arms down, he leaned against the wall with his arms confidently barred across his chest--the stakes still in his fists. "You got what you wanted from me. All that I was good for."

Neda straightened. "I CARED for you. Because you needed me to. Because--" She paused, momentarily mesmerized by the soft rise and fall of his chest. Swallowing hard, she continued, "--because you weren't well."

"You took advantage of me," Angel corrected, surprised he voiced the opinion at all. "You knew I wasn't well. You may not have known the exact reason why, but you knew it wasn't right. I wasn't right. You didn't take care of me. You *used* me. Like you've been using me these past weeks. The only difference now is that you know my name."

"Angel." She said it before she could catch herself, looking to the ceiling as he whisked past.

Doyle returned from the back room with a woman probably too frightened to scream even if she wasn't gagged. "Let's get her gone, Angel. You finished here?"

Seemingly in answer, clipped bursts of breath filtered in from the hallway. The Physician nodded his approval, marking in his booklet before clapping it closed. "I'll take her," he calmly stated before sweeping a palm against the hostage's brow and collecting the sedated body into his arms.

Doyle couldn't contain his exasperation. "Don't you guys ever stop! Who's test was it this time? Mine? Because I'm telling you, I only saw TWO vamps and this lady. That's all." Doyle jerked his thumb in Neda's direction. "I dunno where *she* came from."

"It's alright, Doyle," The Physician allayed. "Many things were made apparent and many things were... Detailed." He tenderly readjusted the human. "The two of you partner quite well. Your response time-- Outstanding! Wouldn't you say?"

Doyle, suddenly uncomfortable, hung his head to mumble something in agreement against his lapel.

"Yes, well. Be proud of yourselves." The Physician smiled at his associate and politely stepped aside. "Neda? Will you come?"

"You made my life a waste," she cursed, while elbowing past Angel.

"No." Shaking his head in disagreement, Angel grasped that elbow. "Wasted your life how, Neda? Because you saw the world? You made decisions on your own without a curse at your heels? You've been talented? Helpful? Maybe a waste of your life from holding a grudge, but you could have found Ragno after I left you. He would have taken you back, refined your hunting skills. But you already knew, before we met, you were going to be different. Vampires aren't Healers, Neda. We're Killers. What I am. That, and the excuse you needed to follow your heart's desire."

"We're vampires. Angel. Desire, yes. But the heart holds it not."

His lips were at her cheek before he thought to place them there. "Even though your actions were misguided, Neda, I know you were trying to cure me. The problem is that there's no outside solution for what I've got. But look at what you've got; the life that's found you."

Angel studied her austere profile. "You've found respect among colleagues, Neda." Twisting her chin towards the being waiting patiently at the doorway, Angel kissed the side of her head, adding, "in what world is *that* a waste?"

"Even so. Angel. How could you have taken Ragno from me?"

Dropping his hand, the vampire glanced up and connected with the Physician's apparent sadness. Disappointment was there also; but the heartache was much more recognizable. He fingered the two stakes in his left hand and considered his options.

"Well?" she challenged.

Pity. "I guess the adoption didn't take," he coolly stated over his shoulder.

"C'mon, Partner." Doyle invited Angel into the corridor.

And Angel accepted without hesitation because he and his friend needed to rush if they were going to catch up with their Shiraz jewelry heist snitch.

-0-

"I can't imagine it tasted any better fresh, Angel," Doyle complimented. He contentedly patted his paunch.

"Mmmmmmm. Still nummy! Ohmigod, Doyle, you should have tasted-- There was rice before I ate it all and-- It. Was. Amazing!"

Angel barely contained his pride as sliced the desert into squares. Holding the two plates easily in one hand, he walked them to the table to dress each piece with a generous dollop of Cool-Whip. (He relented to the non-dairy topping because Cordy insisted Cool-Whip was so much tastier than the *real* stuff and their market argument had gotten downright embarrassing).

"I haven't had gingerbread in YEARS, Angel!" Doyle exclaimed, washing a mouthful down with the last of his wine. "What made you think of it?"

"Yeah! So heirloom, huh, Doyle! Like Gramma desert. Gramma Angel." She leaned around to gleam her toothiest smile at Angel's mock-scowl. Whirling her fork at the vampire, she flourished, "just like if you had a big ole bitey-face Grrrrrrrrrramma!"

"You can up the ante on that next piece, can't you, man?" Doyle held his plate and glass up for refills. "Smells great in here. Yeah, definitely Grandmotherly. All you're missing is the roaring hearth, Angel."

"That'd be nice," Cordy agreed. "Too bad it doesn't beat."

Sometimes Doyle just wanted to kiss her so badly. "Hearth, Cordy. Not heart. Fireplace."

"OH! Guess I missed that 'h' in your fractured pronunciation. You ever think about learning English, Doyle? Would it be so hard--if you're going to stay in this country--to learn the proper language?"

Angel dropped another slice of cake on Cordy's plate and slid the remainder of the Cool-Whip her way, entertained by Doyle's enamored, despite having been insulted, state. "This place had everything else going for it... And I didn't have all the time in the world to keep looking. It has its charm."

Gulping, Doyle insisted, "I got a guy who's got a guy, though. If you ever think you might want one. Even be able to bypass building codes and such. Just lemme know."

Angel refrained from seriously considering Doyle's offer as he dried and placed another plate on the shelf above his stove. The apartment was virtually quiet save for the record on his turntable that continued to click in revolution after the symphony he had been listening to concluded.

While steeping tea, Angel mentally tried on his wardrobe to decide what to wear for his second social outing with Kate the next night. It didn't matter what he 'chose' since he'd probably spend an hour placing different combinations of black pants against black shirts; with another fifteen minutes for which black coat and black pair of shoes.

He had to admit Cordy and Doyle were right about his closet.

After flicking on a light in the library alcove, Angel took a seat with the Abernathy deposition in his lap. He sipped from his mug while reading the numbered sentences one by one until, uncapping the highlighter, he drew a single neon yellow line across the document.

And paused.

He lifted his head to study his apartment. Which was considerably effortless since almost every light was still on in the place where, only a few short weeks before, there had only been one candle flame; and where a pleasant smell of garlicky chicken and gingered molasses replaced the acrid leftovers of burnt tobacco.

A few short weeks before, Angel had been tested and his personal results were posted all around him.

He considered his score. Knowing he might never understand the reasons behind his examination, Angel pushed his anger aside. Sometimes, he concluded, a test wasn't so much about what's already inside but about discovering what still needed to be learned.

Returning to the job in hand, Angel flipped a page while contemplating that, maybe, The Powers That Be just needed to know if he was someone They could teach.

-0-

ANGEL'S JOURNAL

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