UNDERSTANDING

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 directly after Angel's "Sanctuary" and during BtVS's "The Yoko Factor".

Author's Note: After "Closure" (in two parts), I promised myself, no more crossovers. I'm obviously not very straightforward with myself. But I *had* to do this one. It's the second installment of my "On the Road" series.

Hey, Yoyo--all that's missing is the aluminum 7Up-logo cooler filled with cold fried chicken and potato salad. ;) e.c. 24 sep 00

ON THE ROAD TO UNDERSTANDING
by Evan Como

"OW!" Buffy the Vampire Slayer, using her forearm, expertly fended off another projectile.

But just barely.

Her arms, X'd across her chest, deflected a pelting double-volley. She narrowed her alert green eyes in determination, her assessment of the situation she was in making her angrier by the second and preventing her from focusing all her talents on self-protection.

Because Cordelia was good. Too good.

"Hey!" Angel bent over and picked up the most-recently tossed book. "Cordelia! What did I tell you about dishing the post-Elizabethan? Wesley!"

Shrugging, Wesley handed Cordelia another selection. "Sorry, Angel. That one must have gotten past--" He hurriedly reclaimed an about-to-be-hurled one from her wind-up. "There. Got *that* one!"

"Gimme that!"

"This big one?" Wesley mock-weighed the hefty tome, shaking his head. "I don't believe you've enough expertise--"

"Oh, just gimme it!" Cordy sniped, easily snatching the book off his palm. "With... Just… A... Little... More..."

"HEY!"

"Missed me!" Buffy jeered after Angel barely managed avoiding the groin-level fly-by. "You-oo over-threw-oo!" she sang while dancing to her personal tune.

"Damn!"

"What's wrong, Cordelia?" Reaching overhead, Wesley chose four volumes of equal size and age.

"He moved!"

Confused, Angel switched places with Buffy. "Yeah, I moved. You almost hit *me*!" he specified.

"Well, I'm not through giving you payback yet, Angel, for calling me a terrible actress."

"You know, technically, *I* didn't criticize you."

One hazel eye studied Angel extra-carefully. "Puh-leeze! You gotta retire that lame excuse. You are, too, so you."

The two regarded one another in silence until Cordelia turned to reload. Angel reclaimed his original position.

"Angel! I can't be- Ow. Ow. Ow. OW!" Each book hit a different Buffy body-part too rapidly for her to avoid any particular one. She massaged her thigh. "Angel! I can't believe you're letting me get hurt like this!"

"My God." Setting aside pair of more antiquated references, Wesley moved them to the highest shelf. To Cordelia he intimated, "I don't remember her being this whiney. Ooooooh! And I didn't realize Angel had the *entire* collection of the Knowlton Alchemical Digest. From 1709! I'll have--"

"That'll work!" The book secured in her crooked arm, Cordy rotated clockwise three times, then launched. "Check me out!" she beamed. "DISKETTE!"

"Dis*cus*," Wesley corrected.

"Later, Wesley. I'm practicing now. Maybe after we send Buffy home." She flicked another Digest outward, impressed with its maneuverability. "Those kinda hook! Gimme another!"

"ANGEL!" Buffy attempted to backhand the solid chest behind her but the next literary Frisbee took all her attention. And then she still ended up misjudging the rounded pitch.

"STOP IT!" She yelled, smoothing the back of her wavy blonde mane with her palm. She stomped her foot but Angel moved his too quickly. "Are you laughing at this, Angel? I can't believe you're actually laugh-- STOP IT, CORDELIA! Angel, you're letting me get hurt!"

"… and that one was low and outside," a British accent commentated.

"Stop hurting me!" a petulant Buffy demanded. "Angel! ANGEL!"

"ANGEL!"

Even after blinking a couple times, Angel couldn't diminish Cordelia's displeasure; the greenish-black bruise on her right cheek seemed to pulse with wrath. She leaned further across his desk, causing him to sheepishly burrow into his chair.

"Are you back yet, Chicken Boo? I swear, Angel! Do I have to go over all of this again, or was it possible you heard anything I was telling you?" Her brown ponytail whipped around in exclamation after she tch'd and plopped back in her chair. "I should have stayed on my paid vacation!"

"I--" Angel started a sentence that hadn't formed yet, even though he knew it would be a significant statement. That it never manifested was fine by Wesley who produced a set of keys. The breath Angel had taken to finish his sentence, he exhaled in relief.

"Will you be needing company for the drive?"

Rising, he swiped the keys from Wesley's fingers, shaking his head no to Wesley's mimed agreement. The two males exchanged a knowing half-smile, even without fully expressing the situation.

"Wait a sec--" Cordelia's attention flitted back and forth between her boss and associate. "I don't believe you. You're not!"

"He *has* to, Cordelia," Wesley responded, his English attitude supportive.

Huffing, Cordy barred her arms across her chest. "But it's not even close to sunset yet. Angel. Let one of us drive you," she pleaded, unconcerned with how caring she must have sounded.

There were too many thoughts in Angel's mind that Cordelia and Wesley seemed to be able to comprehend without dialogue. Since the three of them had been working in unison, his two human companions had become more aware of Angel's movements and motives in more ways than the vampire was most of the time. It was a little on the annoying side. That, but often more comforting.

He took the few strides to the waiting elevator. At basement-level, he whipped open the grate and stepped forward, pausing only long enough to swipe his great coat from the back of the chair where he had left it. There was still the faint smell of weaponry clinging to the brick pillars where a shoot-out had occurred less than 24 hours prior.

There had been a lot of fighting in the span of less than a day and now there was a lot of making up to do.

"You want to go after her," was what Wesley had known the previous night when Angel had ordered Buffy "home".

After pulling on his coat, Angel examined his hand, clenching and unclenching. It was still sore from slamming the precinct wall, more from frustration than fury, after the quarrel.

"Hey Angel!" Cordelia called down the elevator shaft.

"Yeah?" he replied, counting the handful of cash in his coat's pocket that hadn't been there when he took it off. Cordelia's returned vacation pay--the *exact* amount, he mused while wondering if she'd received a Vision about his departure.

"I checked when I got in and your tank's on E! Think you need a refill before you head on up to Sunnydale!"

-0-

Angel held his hand on the nozzle since the little clippy thing that kept it flowing on its own was broken. The fumes managed to seep into his nostrils even though he wasn't actively breathing, and he could taste the refinery derivatives in the back of his throat. He thought to purchase a pack of gum, but the car that pulled in behind him drove the odd notion from his mind. He leaned quickly against the self-service pump, away from the direct reflection of the not-yet-lowered sun.

"What. A. Classic!"

Angel looked up and in the direction of the voice before lowering his sight. The senior citizen, practically bald except for the long strings of dingy white hair braided low on his nape and finished off with a rawhide cord, didn't make eye contact. Well, not to Angel, at least.

"Mighty fine," he complimented. Paunchy and about Cordelia's height, he lovingly buffed the driver's side front fender with the forearm of his sweater. "I almost bought one these, oh, way back. Full metal, though. The missus didn't think a raggedy top was too practical. In the end, she made me buy a Ford."

At a loss to reply, Angel's forehead went multi-horizontal. Glancing over his shoulder to the pump, he watched the Dollar numbers outpace the Gallons, unable to remember the last time he filled the car himself. As the amount digitized above the $28.00 range, he finally noticed the almost $2.00 per gallon price, pretty sure if he had a circulatory system all the blood would have drained from his complexion.

"Looks good. *Really* good," the elderly gent continued, oblivious to the strange expression on the automobile owner's face. He smiled cordially, and bobbed his head with approval when he leaned over to inspect the grill. Glancing up while still feeling the chrome, he compared owner to vehicle, noticing how handsomely matched both were wearing their smooth solid planes of black.

"'67? Belvedere GTX. You got the Hemi in here?" he asked as if in warning before unlatching and raising the hood.

"UH?" The nozzle clicked 'full'.

"It even looks good under here!" the voiced called out from behind the ebony lacquered wall. "Nah, just the 383, but it's still a beaut. New battery. Great hose job. Wires... Kudos to your mechanic, although," he slammed the hood over-enthusiastically, "it looks like it just came out of the showroom. You got a female connection—about my age--in Pasadena?"

"I don't think I know anyone in Pasadena," Angel replied, bewildered and still pinned in place by the never-ending fill-up at rear. "Uh, sir?"

"Wilbur," Wilbur introduced, spryly crouching down to examine the front wheel well. "And look at this chrome! Not a spec of corrosion on it. No orange peel on that paint, either! Excellent detail job. Whoever did it."

"When I got it, I had to keep myself busy," Angel explained with a smidgen of pride.

Wilbur flashed his gleaming dentures. "And you put it to good use, Son. You don't see many of these around much. At least not outside of shows." He patted Angel's arm as he hurried past to inspect the back end. "Boss! Even with the baby V-8 it still roars like a lion, I bet. When do you suppose she was last put full-throttle?"

"Way back, when you could actually get *leaded* premium?" Angel tried, Jeopardy-style.

"Leaded. Now what would a young fella like you know about leaded supreme?" Unconcerned with a reply to his rhetorical query, Wilbur wistfully polished the trunk's chrome accent before leaning over to smile at his reflection. "If they could only preserve us as good as we can preserve our stuff, eh?"

In the short time it took Angel to slip his ATM receipt from the automated pump, Wilbur had disappeared.

Angel motored up to the bus stop. The car at idle, he leaned across the passenger seat to screw down the window. "I could give you a lift," he offered.

The old guy squinted, more so the further he leaned forward. "OH! CarShine. It's you! A ride you're offering?"

Some days were just more difficult when it came to words, so Angel motioned affirmatively by lifting the door lock and flipping the inside door handle.

"Almost smells new in here," Wilbur sniffed while smoothing his hands along the black vinyl upholstery of his bucket seat.

"That was important."

"Hmmmm? Everyone used to smoke way back. Hard to find a car this age that doesn't smell like an ashtray." Inspector Wilbur bent over to study the original mats, pivoted to examine the spacious back seat with its horizontally-quilted insets. He ran the flat of his palm against the convertible liner, drummed on the ovoid surface of the dashboard with his fingertips.

His approval visible, Wilbur turned to his chauffeur with an offered hand. "Wilbur Walters, in full. Bet you don't meet too many of us double-doubles."

"Double-"

"The two double double-u's. Wilbur Walters. Say *that* three times really fast!"

"W... W... W... Wait. My friend's a double-double."

"You don't say."

"I'm pretty sure that's what I'm saying."

Wilbur laughed. "He's probably a good guy. We double-double's. We're good guys. I think it's the curse of the double-u. You have to be good. Double-u names can be tricky. You wouldn't be one, by the way, would you?"

"Tricky?"

"Double-u."

"Double-"

Wilbur knuckled Angel's forearm consolingly. "You're not too good at driving and chatting at the same time, are you, Son-- Whatever *your* name is."

"Angel." He turned right, and slammed on the brakes unexpectedly. The metered freeway ramp was ten cars deep.

"Funny names you kid's parents come up with."

Three cars forward, Angel turned to his guest and grimaced. "You know, Wilbur... I'm not used to driving during rush hour and... I think..." Two more cars accelerated away. A horn honked, annoyed when Angel lagged a car length behind.

Wilbur was as accommodating as he was friendly and way too thrilled about taking over the wheel.

-0-

"So you were an artist?"

Wilbur knuckled Angel's arm for what seemed like the twentieth time in as many miles. "Not draughting! DRAFTING!"

"What else were we talking about? Oh yeah! ...that's the funny thing about relationships…"

Attempting to look ordinary while hunched into his coat, Angel was pretty sure Wilbur had actually been talking about some petty guy named Richard. Wilbur's cut-off of another car during another unnecessary lane change made without warning proved distracting. Gracious, enthusiastic, but lacking depth-perception, Wilbur never bothered to glance at any one of the mirrors let alone backwards. And, he mostly kept his eyes on his captive listener as opposed to the road.

A horn blared when Wilbur darted in and out of another lane, hopscotching through traffic. Or, maybe Wilbur had been speaking of steeplechase, Angel considered when the phrase 'Grand Nationals' popped back into his head. All the while, the Plymouth sped and slowed at uneven intervals, giving Angel a seasick feeling even though he'd never been seasick in his unlife.

Angel was convinced Wilbur was blind, and the fact they were now only going 45 miles per hour didn't help. "Look, Wilbur?" he interrupted, only to be ignored as the old guy put a lead foot on the accelerator to whiz past a merging Peterbilt double-long that had the right-of-way. "Um, Wilbur?" He abruptly hunkered back into the safety of his coat, not quite sure anymore if he was doing so out of fear of the lowering sun or the crazy driving lack of skills.

"Yep, yep. Don't know who those truckers think they are. You ever notice the way they drive? Like they own the road, that's how! We were talking about--?"

"Um--"

"Right! Relationships. Was married pert near 48 years myself."

Angel's distress gave way to awe. "48 years is remarkable!" he lauded while angling into the cockpit when his immortal enemy was blocked by a row of beach houses.

"Yep. Married some wonderful women."

Angel blinked, repeating the feminine plural in his mind. "Bigamist?"

"Bigamist?" Wilbur laughed with his huge brown eyes closed. "No. I could barely manage one at a time! Between the 6 of 'em I had 48 years of marriage. Just as it went downhill, we made our piece."

"Widower?"

"Piece, Son, not peace. We went our separate ways, is what we did. That way there was no ill-will. I don't spend my time complaining about my ex's I'll tell you that. How about yourself? I bet a lady-killer like you has got to have some ex's."

"Um."

"Yep. Yep. Hey! Well, here's my stop! This was a PLEASURE!" Wilbur's gratitude downshifted to trepidation. "You gonna be OK, Son? No sense driving when you're not up to it. You can come in and rest a bit. Dinner?"

Even though his internal clock wanted to accept, Angel declined. "I'll be alright," he replied, his voice sounding shaky even in his own ears as Wilbur pulled off PCH. Rolling to an even stop, the Plymouth's whitewalls grated atop the sandy pavement. They had pulled straight West behind a row of motorhomes parked to enjoy the sunset.

"You live in one of these?" Angel asked, genuinely interested but wary until they came to a safe in-every-way stop.

Wilbur tossed a 'thanks' before he opened his door, but if he said anything more it was lost when a wave resounded as if it was rushing the vehicle. Low tide-feeding birds cawed in the distance, bleating over the foam-crested Pacific. A pair of children chasing a barking dog screamed after one another, then disappeared into one of the mobile hotels, maybe even the one not so terribly far away where someone was playing a guitar.

Angel remained where he was, immobile. He was, quite frankly, out of practice with more extensive daylight activities, having become accustomed to always having someone around to make everything easier. He liked the idea of driving his car without the windows blackened over, top down. The unfortunate thing was that he just couldn't do it during normal hours.

He hated thinking in terms of normal.

If he had waited until Fall, he could have taken the drive at a leisurely pace, started out earlier and taken longer to get home. But he felt pressed to act on his feelings, knowing that if he waited another day to speak to Buffy he would eventually find another excuse, another way to blame it on bad timing.

Given enough time, one day he'd just forget to make the trip at all.

-0-

The "NO SERVICES FOR NEXT 50 MILES" sign loomed over the Plymouth's squared fender.

He never moved his cell. When he didn't have it in his coat, Angel's mobile phone was always in the glove compartment. He rummaged again.

"Dammit."

Sitting on the passenger side with his feet firmly planted on the highway shoulder, Angel closed his eyes and concentrated in an effort to still his annoyance, failing a little more after he glanced back at his even flatter tire. Elbow on his knee, Angel stroked his chin. He respired once then once again.

Obviously *needing* to breathe was instrumental when using the exercise to thwart a rising temper.

As he studied his watch, a breeze whipped up and about, whirring through his coat. Unable to ignore his intense dislike for the cold, Angel's angry toes warmed considerably. Instead of wasting valuable time wondering who used the car and forgot to have the spare tire repaired, he was up on his feet and into his elongated strides.

At his pace, it didn't take Angel long to return to the filling station at the highway fork some 5 miles back where he'd gassed-up. Unfortunately, his was the only quickened pace.

"For whatever reason, it's been a busy, busy night," replied the obese woman behind the Station-Mart counter. "And we're short-shifted tonight. Gus'll handle your situation as soon as he gets back from a road call." She didn't just look beyond Angel, she looked right through him to shout, "NEXT!"

Angel thought of a couple slurs to throw her way, but kept them to himself. They made him feel toastier.

While he waited outside, he observed the ingress and egress of station traffic while patrons filled-up on fuel, junk food and stale coffee. The same man as during his first visit was still using the public phone, but Angel couldn't think of any reason to call Cordelia or Wesley other than to yell.

And he was tired of raising his voice.

He was also tired of counting blue cars so he switched to counting white. Then changed up to counting F-150's. Despising F-150 drivers, he imagined PayPhoneHog probably owned one.

An almost-hour later, the tow truck finally pulled into to the service bay. Angel strode up to it, brusquely elbowing a couple out of the way.

"I need a tire."

Gus, Angel assumed even though the name-tag said Mark, took a deep breath before answering, "Huh?"

Angel smoothed his coat against his thighs. "A tire. I need one. You got?"

"A tire?"

Expanding his chest, Angel's shoulder blades met. As he glared at Gus (or he glared at Mark), the cowering couple took a few steps farther aside before completely backing away.

"I don't have all night. I need a tire," Angel demanded.

"Got your size?"

"Huh?"

Rage just wasn't as appealing an emotion when Angel had to direct it at himself. He knew he looked stupid, probably looked exactly like Gus until Gus smiled politely and casually scruffed the back of his neck.

"Know your make?"

Back inside, the register line had grown considerably longer. Gus had been congenial and pledged to take Angel back to his car and install the item, no extra charge. Generosity like that was always unexpected.

He wasn't sure why he was suddenly holding an infant unless, perhaps, everyone was in the giving mood. Big teary blue eyes deep-set into a porcelain face stared back at Angel.

"Carter! Carter! C'mere!" The petite woman gripped Carter by the collarbone and wrangled him around. "Where's your sister?"

Obstinate, Carter jutted his lower lip and scowled.

"Samantha!"

When the man at the front of the line had his son go back for another corn dog, the clerk bent behind the counter and completely disappeared.

Angel looked at the baby who's expression changed for the worse. "Carter." Over the doll-faced baby's wails he spoke to the adolescent boy, "where's your Mom?"

Carter flashed tongue and ran away.

"SA-MAN-THAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!" from over near the soft-serve section answered Angel's question. He looked forward and counted one father, one son, one extra corn dog, still minus one checker. The golf-cap wearer ahead of him turned profile to direct an icy glare out of the corner of his eye at the baby.

Once the cashier returned, she proceeded to count the cash in her register.

"Hey!" Angel reached for the mother's shoulder but she shot off in another direction to follow her pig-tailed toddler. "Shhhhhhh?" he hushed to the baby. "Carter!" he called out after the boy slammed into his leg.

Once Samantha scrambled past, Carter followed. The frenzied Mom whizzed by, ignoring the baby's outstretched hands. Angel curled back in pursuit.

"Look," he began, anticipating his quarry's movements. "Lady!" he snatched a corner of her cardigan before it sifted through his fingertips. Samantha, running at top speed was easily scooped when Angel casually stepped into her path. A rounding full-body blocked Carter's path and the boy stared upwards, with his mouth open wide as his eyes.

The baby stopped crying. Samantha, squeezing Angel's neck, schmushed her face into his cheek.

"Oh, my! I want to thank--"

"Don't you EVEN!" Angel seethed, his dark eyes hooded as he leered down at the surprised young woman. "Don't you even stand there and try to thank me!"

"But--"

Despite a severe jostling, Samantha's affectionate attention continued. The baby drooled. Carter, suddenly as frightened as the woman who's features he shared, backed against his Mother's legs.

"Who am I." Angel said, his voice charged with menace. The woman's shocked expression caused him to repeat the question.

She chewed on her lip.

"But, here I am, holding Samantha and--"

"Jo-- Josephine," the Mom barely replied. "Joey."

"I'm holding Josephine and Samampha," Angel's lecture began, not sounding quite as stern as it should have once the baby pulled his lip. "You don't know me. Who I am, but you puph yo' wawy in my arms and walked away."

"I'm sorry, real sorry I did that, Mister, you know. It's just that--"

He pushed the two girls into her, the baby making armfall while Samantha slid off her mother's hip. "There's NO excuse for your carelessness, lady. Don't you DARE throw your children around."

Conflicted, Angel ignored what he heard her mumble under her breath. A multitude of scenarios that would have made her grasp the consequences of her actions replayed through his mind while he waited to pay for his tire.

Gus/Mark, now wearing a jacket that said Walt, was patient fellow.

"You said you're heading to Sunnydale." Gus/Mark/Walt commented, opening the passenger side door of his tow truck for Angel. "I've heard the strangest things about that town."

Waiting for the driver, Angel watched an unattended Samantha throw a kiss at him from across the parking lot. A car shrieked to a stop and revved impatiently while the Mom and her children piled in, a car that Angel couldn't help but commit to memory the license plate of.

"Yeah," he replied solemnly once the mechanic climbed in, "it's definitely not your average place."

"Well, the reason I'm asking-- Although," Gus/Mark/Walt snorted, "I guess I didn't really ask--" He paused while a dispatcher squawked over the scanner. "There's a youngster who's been waiting for a while for a ride that way, you know, if you can spare the seat."

-0-

Gus/Mark/Walt hand-slammed the Plymouth's trunk twice before he waved his farewell. Angel readjusted his rear-view mirror. "Jonathan, right?"

The nervous young man in the passenger seat nodded his head quickly before pulling his jacket up to his ears. "Thank you. I really mean it. I, just--"

"No problem."

Pulling the headlights on, Angel eased onto the road without checking. As often as he'd traveled to Sunnydale, he'd rarely driven in front or behind anyone. No one ever *went* to the Official Home of the Hellmouth; but, from the steady line of oncoming traffic, he knew that they definitely *left* the place. Which made him wonder about his passenger.

"So, what have you been doing since graduation?"

Jonathan's head jerked right.

"I--" Angel winced. "I was at your Prom?"

"Oh."

Jonathan began to smell calmer as Angel read one of the few Northbound billboards.

"A little of this, a little of that."

Caught trying to remember when Sunnydale acquired an Outlet Mall, Angel had to ask Jonathan to repeat himself, then to explain. In between he decided the only thing worse than trying to talk to an inept conversationalist, was pitting two against each other. The thought made him wish Cordelia was in the car to verify that there *was* someone with even worse social skills.

And then he wondered if Jonathan had changed as much as his former classmate.

"You don't live in Sunnydale anymore?"

Angel found he couldn't respond, having never *lived* there in the first place.

"I keep thinking I should leave. Maybe go to Santa Cruz or maybe leave the state? But, I dunno. It's like I'm attached, like I'm vacuum-sealed to the place. It's weird. Really weird. Like I can't leave my friends or something. And I don't even have any friends."

Angel tensed after reading: SUNNYDALE 43 miles. "Friends aren't all they're cracked up to be," he offered.

Jonathan slumped in the seat. Short the way it was, he seemed to disappear. "Spoken like someone's who's got some."

Discreetly, Angel glimpsed at the young adult illuminated by a car passing in the opposite direction on the undivided two-laner. "I guess I've got a couple," he admitted guiltily while estimating the time of a skunk's road demise, able to detect the scent of decay over the former animal's signature scent.

Jonathan sighed loudly. "You mind if I turn on the radio?" he asked a few miles later.

Angel unnecessarily cleared his throat. "Only A.M."

"That's weird," Jonathan began. "It doesn't play at night?"

"A Em, Eff Em?" Angel replied, noting the young man's incomprehension. "It's only an A.M. radio."

"What's on A.M.?"

"I dunno. News. Country music."

"Oh. I like country." Enthused, Jonathan reached for the knob. After having his access denied much too quickly, he sucked back against his seat.

"Um... Uh... Country," he apologized. Over-exaggerating the retraction, Angel's hand hovered back to his thigh. "Not my favorite sound."

"There's an oldies station?" Jonathan proposed, weakly. "Like big bands and stuff. Sinatra? Ella?"

"Just no country, right?"

Nodding, Jonathan darted forward to twist the silvertoned knob. The radio dial lit up. Swerving it a few times left, then right, he settled on a song. "No country. See? Their broken hearts don't twang." He hummed along for a second, before commenting, "it sounds weird."

"Mono." Leaning closer to his own door, Angel sensed another round of fear. "What."

"Th-- That's contagious, right?" Jonathan's brown eyes peered terrorized from his cherubic face.

"Mono. The radio. Not the virus. Not stereo? You know. The sound?"

"Oh." Reassured, Jonathan exhaled. In between sets, he suggested, "you could get it fixed."

"Fixed?"

"The radio."

"There's nothing wrong with the radio."

"But it's sounds weird."

"It's supposed to sound this way." Which, Angel realized, was probably one of the reasons he rarely listened to it.

"Oh." The young man watched a steady flow of insects stream into the car lights with head-on fatality. Others merely pit-a-patted against the windshield, a rhythmic back-up as he sang a few bars of another tune. "But still, you could get it fixed."

He flinched. Noticing the driver's grip on the steering wheel tighten, Jonathan was relieved when it loosened after he stammered, "you went to the Prom with Buffy Summers, didn't you?"

"We met up."

"Right." Jonathan hummed. "Nice night. I gave her an award."

"I must have missed that."

"Or you don't remember. Most people remember the award, but not the guy who gave it out."

"I missed the award. She told me about it, though."

"She told you *I* gave it to her?"

"Well..." Angel trailed off, practically able to hear the enthusiasm slide off Jonathan's expectant features. "You go to college with her now?"

"I don't have any classes with her, if that's what you mean. I see her sometimes. She's cool. Really cool. And her boyfriend is cool, too. Man, he's great! Have you met Riley yet? He's such a *great* guy!"

"So I've heard," Angel answered flatly. His hands wrung the steering wheel during acceleration.

"...chasing rainbows, waiting to find a little blue- HEY!" Jonathan protested after the radio abruptly clicked off.

"Look, Jonathan, you know what? I'm a *really* bad conversationalist and, you know, we don't actually *have* to talk, OK? The radio sounds... Let's just say certain songs just *really* bring up bad memories. So let's just take these last few miles in silence. OK?"

Jonathan, figuring the options weren't really open to discussion, slunk into his seat and checked his safety belt while trying to avoid determining whether the car or the driver was the one doing the growling.

-0-

Even though he was off-schedule, Angel couldn't resist parking his car on Main. Sunnydale was such a puny town compared to the mass of Los Angeles. As he jogged across the street, he couldn't help but glance up at the roof above the lone movie theater.

He should have just driven on, but the painting in the window of the gallery caught his eye. There was something about the colors, the way they blended through the charcoal outline of the free-style piece; the way a jolt of turquoise sang across the canvas. Angel smiled at it for no good reason until torn from his delight.

He realized that he was being watched.

"Mrs. Summers."

"Angel." Joyce Summers, of the Buffy's-Mom Summers, continued to consider him skeptically with green-eyed disapproval.

Angel knew that look far too well.

Quickly pointing at the window, Angel misjudged his distance and ended up slamming his index finger into the plate glass. It undulated, but didn't break, having had too much practice being put under stress. "Looking at the--"

"Painting." Joyce lowered her chin and looked even more parental with her eyes half-rounding below her brows. "Considering your late night shopping habits, I should probably ask if I could be accommodating?"

Her demeanor was really starting to annoy Angel. He shifted his weight to his other foot and slouched a little further into his coat. Wrong position. Hostility gnawed at his neck muscles. "I--" he concentrated on keeping his tone light. Even. Jovial. His lips rolled from the inside out as he unpressed them. "I just happened to see the piece when I was driving past and I thought I would take a closer--"

"Look."

Cocking his head, Angel raised his brows agreeably, forcing his features to relax.

Joyce finally smiled, her tone friendly as she said, "I must just seem-- I dunno--"

Bitchy, Angel thought.

"Rude?" Joyce finished with a fleeting, self-effacing laugh. "It's just such a surprise seeing you here. After everything that Buffy recently went through with Faith… And she's been doing so great in school! Her whole life, Angel, is bright--wide open ahead of her."

Only her enthusiasm diminished somewhat, not her concern. "There's a nice-- Normal--" she paused, "young man in Buffy's life and she sounds so happy. I would just hate for anything to ruin what's finally starting to happen for her. Can you appreciate where I'm coming from?"

"The same place as a year ago?"

With a worried crease dividing her ash-blonde brows, Joyce's youthful face seemed a decade older. She exhaled a held breath. "*Exactly* the same place as a year ago, Angel. And I hope you're not in town to--"

"Ruin her life."

"Right."

They shared a moment of uneasy silence before Angel returned to the painting. Suddenly the turquoise was the wrong shade—out of tonal range for the dusty palette and the overall composition was just off-kilter. It made him angry that Joyce had stripped the simple pleasure from him and he planned to tell her just that when he turned back around.

But she was gone.

Like daughter; like mother.

A live performance coming from the coffee bar down the corner made him consider grabbing a cup to relax. To avoid having to look at the painting again, Angel rotated the opposite way only to plow into a couple walking towards him, their attention divided between each other and their tall take-out java cups.

"Hey!" the attractive auburn-tressed female chided, her pronunciation giving the word an extra syllable. By coddling her cup, she managed to keep it from spilling.

The same couldn't be said for her escort who was sitting on the concrete sidewalk, a dark splatter with a dollop of whipped cream between his legs.

"Parker, honey? You OK?" she asked. The charm bracelet above her offered hand tinkled merrily.

ParkerHoney, who managed to swallow his agitation, grinned up at his date, sliding his palm into hers, nearly pulling her over. "Yeah, Cheryl. Yeah, I am. Thanks for asking." Bobbing upright, he reached forward and kissed her cheek.

Cheryl relinquished her cup. "Aren't you gonna say you're sorry?" she admonished Angel.

"You're giving him your coffee," the accidental attacker huffed.

"Yeah? What's it to *you*?"

Shaking his head in disbelief, Angel stepped back. And then he stepped forward and deliberately--with complete malice aforethought--slammed his shoulder into ParkerHoney's, dousing GenerousCheryl in her previous beverage.

"HEY!" She shouted again.

Angel, swaggering away in backsteps, continued on towards the bar. He glowered at the young man who avoided direct eye contact, amused to no end when Cheryl sharply elbowed her Honey before storming off.

Saved the young damsel from a night with a wolf, he commended himself while pivoting forward. He half-wondered whether to waste a minute with ParkerHoney in order to advise the young man on proper dating etiquette.

But he didn't have the opportunity to give it a second thought once he was pulled off his feet without warning shortly after a Cockney voice shouted, "THAT'S HIM!"

Deep within the sparsely-lit alley, held tightly by two armed men, Angel faced his accuser. "As if it wasn't enough you shot up my apartment. You realize I'll never get my security deposit back."

"In about a minute, I don't think that'll matter," Weatherby boasted while tugging at the lapels of his black leather jacket for emphasis. Everything about the dark-featured man was oily, even his smarmy grin was slick with impatience. "What is it you guys are waiting for," he asked the Initiative officer in charge.

"C'mon, Webber! Where's my I.D.?" the Sergeant called out.

Webber fiddled with his device. "Sorry, Sergeant Ward. But I'm not getting 100% verification. He reads... Too warm?"

Ward turned to the two restraining soldiers. "Well then. Let's get you a better reading. Wallace! Worthington!"

Barely tolerant, Angel closed his eyes to endure having the coat shucked from his shoulders. "You *really* shouldn't undress me," he advised, his level tone disguising his indignation.

"QUIET! If we've got you under false restraint, you can take it up with the D.O.D!"

"Who's Dody?" Weatherby, his avian features pinched in confusion, asked the Sarge.

Annoyed with the informant's presence, Ward brushed him aside. "Webber? I need accuracy! PRONTO!"

"Hey, Worthington, check out this label. Ver. Sase. I been lookin' for a Matrixey coat like this."

"Wallace." Amazed, Worthington nudged his partner before snatching the coat and tossing it aside. "That's Italian, you nimrod. Ver-Sa-Chee."

After insuring his coat made a clean landing, Angel corrected, "actually, Worthington. Wallace was closer. Versus. Versace's secondary line."

"More expensive?" Wallace inquired.

"More expendable," Angel informed.

"Hey, Tommy!" Ward aimed an imaginary gun between the captive brown eyes. "I said shut up!"

"Actually, you said 'quiet'," which is what Angel became the precise moment Ward's nostrils flared at him.

With the device almost point blank, Webber reported, "still not 100%, Sir."

"Then I can go."

Weatherby tugged the technician aside while pulling a stake from his inside pocket. "Look. I *told* you. He's a sodding vampire. And now I'll *show* you."

Angel didn't feel much like show and tell, though. "The lumberjack's got more than a point there, Sergeant. If you guys would rely more on your senses instead of technology..."

Striking back, Angel elbowed the breath from Wallace. Reaching up and around, his arm holstering the soldier's neck, Angel flattened Wallace's ear against his chest. "Hear anything?" he questioned. Grasping hair, Angel hoisted Wallace's face.

"See anything?" he taunted through ragged teeth.

Wallace barely had time to 'ooof' before Angel swung him across and straight into Worthington's midsection. He let go of the two soldiers and, of their own volition, they tumbled over one another and out of the way.

Webber looked up after that barely four seconds. "Uh, Sir? That's a positive, then?"

But Sergeant Ward couldn't answer, being too busy attempting to punch the otherworldly who easily bypassed his fists. He recoiled to throw another right, only to have his arm yanked from behind.

Weatherby assisted Sergeant Ward with a reply to the confused Private Webber.

"So, now just you and me, Vampire," Weatherby sneered. He sidestepped, keeping Angel at front. Suddenly, and without looking, the ridged sole of his Doc Marten sent Worthington careening back into the shadows.

Arms open, Angel welcomed the engagement.

"--Back-up team! Request immediate back-up! Over!-- They're tearing us apart over here! Two men down!-- From out of nowhere! Mayday! Repeat! Mayday!--"

Humor enhanced Angel's unnatural appearance. "Over-exaggeration, much?" he joked to the Council goon.

Weatherby had to give the demon that one. "Well, then. It looks like you'll have to go down even faster than I'd anticipated."

Angel sped forward and scissor-kicked the stake away from the Professional. "Oh, c'mon. Aren't you supposed to be elite, or something like that?" he mocked, circling back around.

Flushed with anger, Weatherby hissed, "you dare to continue mocking The Council of Watchers? You may have Wyndham-Price eating off your arse, but *I've* had enough of you! Do you know what he said? He said, 'don't harm him. He's reformed'," Weatherby mimicked. Not that he did such a poor impression of Wesley's voice, but his unrefined accent was more gutter maid than school girl.

"Friggin Helsinki syndrome is what it is. Now what will poor Wyndham-Price do without his precious vampire?"

"Oh, what's wrong, Weatherby? You jealous?" With his head at a curious angle and the gaze of his ocher eyes unrelenting, Angel sauntered towards his opponent one broad shoulder at a time.

Weatherby pulled out yet another stake while arching a cynical brow. "Don't flatter yourself."

"You know…" One wrist grasped behind his back, Angel toed a step, then leaned in sideways to finish conspiratorially, "someone more understanding of my needs and I could be more… receptive to theirs."

Weatherby's eyes narrowed. "You *can't* be serious."

"What."

"That. That was the *worst* use of innuendo by a former scourge of Europe that I've ever heard."

"HEY!" Angel tilted back, insulted.

"And that actually works for you?"

"Well…" Pausing, Angel's lips skewed in thought. "It *has* been over a century and…" Contemplative, he fondled his chin and concluded, "maybe it's the monster face?"

Weatherby's head bobbed agreeably. "That could make a difference. Human appearance, you probably come off more… What the--?"

Refocusing, he charged the vampire.

And missed.

Wallace pounced, taking Angel down by the waist and the two males flailed on the pavement, Wallace managing to deliver a pair of punches in combination before he was flung to flank. Worthington, his tazer flaring, steadily progressed.

"Back off," Angel warned, trying to keep emotional sights on his five attackers. He squared his torso forward. With his lower body slightly angled, his feet shuffled silently across the asphalt. Once Weatherby clobbered Worthington from behind, Angel changed sights.

"--Requesting immediate back-up! We're in the alley behind the school building!--"

Evading Ward's collision, Angel hinged the eldest soldier under the armpits and whirlagigged him into Worthington's third campaign. This time, though, Worthington stayed down. After decommissioning Ward with a mild chokehold, Angel dragged the C.O. by the chest and draped him at his Lieutenant's feet.

"--Where the hell is-- Fall back! Fall back! It's coming--"

Webber's transmission faded into black.

"Seriously. Webber? Isn't it against regulations to embellish over the radio?" He prodded Webber back against the wall, twisted the hand radio away and promptly smacked him upside the head with it. Wheeling around before Webber succumbed to gravity, Weatherby met the same fate.

The radio bounced once on Weatherby's chest before clattering to the ground.

"Maybe that'll teach you to not to insult me and mine!"

Turning, he faced an unsure--but game--Wallace.

"Look. We got orders--"

"Orders?" Angel took one deliberate step closer to the drawn tazer.

Wallace stood pat. A second later he took one defensive step back.

"Someone ordered you to drag me off the street, strip me and beat the crap out of me?"

Instead of answering, Wallace edged back again. And then, he turned and started running. He managed to get about five yards before he landed face down.

Angel flipped him over easily. And snickered.

"Please..."

He laughed. "Excuse me? You said something?" Angel placed ear to mouth.

"Please... D... D... Don't?" Wallace choked. "I w... w... won't send them after you. You can just g... g..."

"Go? Are *you* telling me I'm free to go?" Angel completed, his lips against Wallace's cheek. Solemn, he prompted, "you don't think you need to check with your Sergeant about that first?"

Angel nuzzled the still-maturing young man, enthralled with the textures of pliant infantine flesh patched with growing whisker as it smoothed against his own. Wallace, pinned to the alley by one long muscular arm, struggled to extricate himself from demonic restraint.

The living body of Private Wallace throbbed beside Angel, the human's fear as palpable as his warmth and Angel found himself absorbing them both, devouring them both. There, mingling against Angel's taste glands were the intoxicating scents of the young man's piquant flavor--sweaty, salty, with stale industrial detergent notes secreting from the uniform's fibers.

Cordelia would've probably named it "Eau de Stank".

Stunned, Angel asked Wallace's to repeat his request.

"Don't bbbb…b… bite me?" the very small voice sobbed.

He took a moment to study the ruddy complexion highlighted in gold then, tenderly, Angel skimmed his fingers through the young man's nape and lifted the frightened head just high enough to render Wallace unconscious when he let go. Rising quickly, Angel mostly stumbled over to where his coat was lumped. He picked it up and hustled it back on.

He felt lightheaded, dizzy.

There had been a serenade in progress, one he had only vaguely been aware of but with his action complete, it became a crescendo of vitality and Angel longed to enjoy the symphony. The chorus in his mind, not to be excluded, participated in verse, enthralled by the savage suite.

Hunger.

In between ragged pants, Angel gasped. He began to sway, incited by the thrumming cadence of the unholy ground beneath his feet. There were five men surrounding him, scattered about, almost perfectly pentagonal and he tried to avoid superimposing any mystical constructs.

Angel swallowed once. Twice. And choked. There was the acrid scent of tazer weaponry surrounding him and he kicked at the unit closest to him, sending it skittering into a deeper shadow. If he'd been able to think straight, he would have searched for it immediately--to keep some child or vagrant from finding it.

But his brain wasn't functioning. Concentrating, he only managed to stop swaying.

Five men. Five men, alive. Five alive men laying helpless, their chanting hearts summoning him. He could do whatever he wanted to them. Kick them, bash in their faces.

Or feed.

A boot skitched a broken piece of bottle into the asphalt and Angel raised his head at the sound alerted to how long he'd been holding Webber. Tossing the soldier aside, instead of bolting, Angel turned in the sound's direction and cringed at the harsh glow that cut through the darkness. Recognition ignited and with it, his temper.

Tall. Blonde. Normal.

Riley Finn, Angel knew. Déjà vu tickled his subconscious. "Riley Finn," Angel pronounced precisely, animosity in his voice.

"I know you?"

Angel watched the young man in the now-familiar fatigues stow his flashlight. "We have a friend in common," he replied to the *really great* guy. Hiding in-between the dark folds of his long coat extending from the knots that had become his hands, Angel's fingers stiffened and coiled.

"Angel."

It impressed Angel, how much emotion Riley managed to squeeze into two syllables and he immediately noticed the instant dislike that seem to border on hatred. The scent of jealousy, Angel mused, pleased that if Riley was jealous it was because he had the full reason to be.

Only the vampiric hunger subsided, not the predatory behavior.

Angel blinked slowly, strolled around his quarry, casually examined the unconscious men who'd dared provoke him; blinked again, set his shoulders back... Slowly. He struggled against instinct by taking his time, enjoying the full arousal of his well-warmed musculature.

He exuded dominance.

"Welcoming committee your idea?" Angel contended, one corner of his mouth aching to twist wickedly when Riley asked after his soul.

"Don't push me, boy," was his next reply, placing extra emphasis on the 'boy'. It just spilled out that way towards the territorial juvenile before him. He would definitely have to get schoolyard with this one.

Educate him some Riley.

Riley made a brief inventory and returned his visuals to Angel. For all he knew, his ex-comrades were dead. For all he knew he could be next, but not without a fight. His serious blue eyes regarded Angel--the Vampire Angel, Buffy's ex-lover--with contempt.

"Now what possibly could've happened with Buffy that would make you lose your soul?" he pressed, the authority in his voice braced by experience.

Angel approached languidly. With each sense heightened, each stride was purposeful. He concentrated on his bearing. "That'd be between me and her," he goaded.

Riley blocked the prowler's path, fearless when training formed rank alongside his unfurled baton. Thy rod and Thy staff, he offered in silent prayer, comforted.

"Where do you think you're going?" Riley dared, keeping his breathing steady despite the fact the slightly less tall, sinister HST in front of him mentioned something about visiting "an old girlfriend."

Hostile Sub Terrestial Angel oozed supernatural superiority while implying that Riley wouldn't be able to stop him from doing just that.

Angel's fist burst straight out, but Riley blocked it cleanly with his asp. In unison they revolved until returning to face one another. Angel reached forward and took the young man's arm as if it had been freely offered. After briefly attempting to break it across his knee, a split-second's notion altered the scenario and Angel knee'd Riley's chest instead.

Riley didn't even grunt. Instead, he glided backwards into a pile of neatly-arranged garbage; a softened touchdown in corrugated and plastic. Barely seated for a second, Riley scrambled over the heap and onto the loading dock.

Angel flew at him; sharp reflexes and preternatural ability engendered him airborne and in the brief, weightless, soaring second he relished the immortality that ridiculed the child who dared challenge him.

Riley Finn, Boy Challenger.

He kicked Riley's phallic metaphor aside. Angel punched hard into Finn's stomach, unaware that the young man had managed to retrieve his metal weapon. For his efforts, Angel got that stupid stick across his leg and a bottle across his head.

Vampire Angel, Suck Competition.

Grasping the tailored layer that made his nemesis appear so regal, Riley's knee piled into Angel's back, Angel's attempt to retaliate being thwarted when Riley managed to block an offensive arm and off another knee into the vampire's gut.

Royally pissed, Angel swerved Riley into the metal siding of the warehouse they battled against. Riley swung out, but was slammed backwards. Hard. Enraged, adrenaline-rushed, Angel used absolute power to drive that boy into the wall and his hands slithered upwards.

You and your *honest* face your *trustworthy* face your *lovable* face your goddam *normal* face...

The cool hands and their strong slender fingers kneaded into place and Riley recognized unearthly strength begin to crush his vocal chords, cause his carotid artery to cease flowing. But his preparation wouldn't allow Riley the luxury of analyzing his eminent demise; instead, his hand instinctively drew his weapon. Flicking it operational, the click-bzzzzzt electrical scent of his tazer provided a momentary blur and then freedom as Angel reeled back and away.

The vampire found a boxed landing of his own until Relentless Riley, all confidence and expertise, rushed him--not even slightly phased when he met Angel's alter-countenance. Despite tawny eyes and white fangs dangerously bared at him, Riley wasn't deterred.

Angel promptly got kicked in the chest and rolled over a tire.

When the blue-lit special lunged towards him, Roaring Angel reached up and twisted Riley's arm rearward and weapon-free. Quickly vertical, the vampire ferociously tugged his opponent along within his forward wake and lifted him effortlessly, airplaning him into the pavement. Gleefully witnessing Riley bowl over some--unfortunately--empty oil drums, a split-second later Angel returned to the human, grasping shoulder and hem to hurl Riley in the opposite direction.

Over the thunder of a lone hapless body crushing a stack of aluminum air-conditioner ducting, Angel heard the advance before he turned to see the headlights of another warring party. Survival senses prevailing, Angel leapt onto the loading dock. While the tail of his coat wagged farewell, he scaled the school building with the agility of an acrobat in one, then a second reach, looping up to the roof and out of danger's way.

Away from the boy. For the moment.

Pitched upwards, he soared again and upon landing, Angel apprised his situation. With the militia below tending to their fallen, he instinctively looked skyward first.

"They do not use airborne support."

Angel did a double-take.

"I wonder how bad the stick looks," he commented, edging back while gawking at his roofmate. He had never encountered anything like the odd collection of formerly-human and -demon parts and he tried to determine exactly what he was facing. Willing to settle for simple 'fiend', Angel sketched a mental picture—something to relate to Wesley later on for classification.

Adam nodded to an internal thought. "You would be referring to the colloquial 'ugly stick'," he deduced, miming a palm across the lower half of his face.

His demonic countenance eroding instantly, Angel continued his scrutiny. "And, from the looks of it, the entire forest."

Uninterested, Adam stated, "I would have had to destroy you had you... Injured. Riley in any way."

"What is it with this Riley? Is *everyone* a member of his fan club?" Angel's hand gestures were passionately obscene. "Hell, if he's such a *great guy*, maybe he should get his own TV show," he stated cynically while maintaining his distance from the advancing monstrosity.

"You are wary of me. Your kind usually does not react to me in this manner."

"Um..." Angel readjusted his coat against a sudden breeze whipping across the rooftop. "Yeah, well, *my kind* usually aren't bright enough to recognize that Polgara demon arm you've got attached right--actually, more to the left, there."

Adam paused to study his extremity. "I would not be able to end your existence with *this*."

"Well, it's still poke-able and pokey still hurts. I've already met my quota of impalements this year, thank you very much. Not to mention I really don't want to ruin the clothes I've got on. Met my quota for that, too."

"You amuse me," he laughed while lowering his arm to slightly behind his leg. "You are not like the other vampires I've met. You are--" Adam's rapid-synaptic thought processes concluded, "intelligent."

"And cold. Er. Look. I gotta go."

Impervious to the elements, Adam noted the vampire's activity with interest. During a more violent gust, the other being turned in such a way his side sliced through the wind instead of his full body blocking it. Fascinated, Adam was immensely entertained by the coat's fluttering elegance.

"You have... Affairs. With the Slayer."

Angel promptly returned.

Sniffing the air, Adam agreed with himself. "You carry a trace of her scent. Faint, yes. But my enhanced olfactory abilities are acutely aware." A milder version of his previous good humor filtered across the rooftop as the vehicles below pulled away. "Even my brother, with his ordinary human sense of smell, must have been aware."

The two regarded one another before Adam added, "you realize that The Slayer is... Involved. With him."

"Riley."

"Yes. Riley."

"Your brother," Angel stated incredulously.

The proud patchwork being stiffly nodded once.

"So... Which parent did you *not* benefit from most?"

Adam assessed the comment. "You seem to place a large emphasis on physical appearance, Vampire. Although, considering the vanity of your species, that does not... Surprise me. As with your species, Riley and I not are precisely related. Unlike your kind, however, our blood does not connect us either."

"But, he's still your brother." Time nagged at Angel but he was captivated by the topic. Plus, the conversation, no matter how strange, was helping him do some much-needed calming.

"We shared a 'mother' until I permanently severed our connection to her."

"Hmmmm," Angel nodded. "Been there. Done that a couple times."

Intrigued, Adam stepped closer and studied the vampire's features. "Your kind. I find it most engrossing how you create your families. Unable to regard your own faces, how do you choose those you sire? In human genetics, your relatives would have shared your dominant trait brown eyes. Perhaps your stature. Some of your facial structure. The Mother I shared with Riley, I have concluded, followed this natural order while I was being configured. Like Mother, we are both tall, light-eyed."

"I'm taking that Riley wears his hardware underneath, though?"

Adam's human hand made incongruous contact with the metallic pectoral housing his ZIP drive. "Riley is not... Yet. Enhanced."

His abdomen begging to differ with that assessment, Angel regarded his scorched shirt. "Look. Seriously..."

"You have... Issues. With Riley."

Angel sighed. It was difficult to ignore how eerily silent the environment had become--even the wind had died. "He just picked a fight with the wrong... Vampire. And he got the ass-kicking he deserved."

"I did not surmise the outcome of your altercation being that Riley lost. If anything, at the interval you were disrupted, I would have to conclude it was a draw."

Shuttering his lids, Angel rolled his eyes in private. Inhaling deliberately, he held the worthless breath. "*I* won," he snorted, outraged when the other being merely arched a pillaged brow.

"You could have killed him. Unless you also do not possess this ability. Perhaps your previous... Altercation. With the Slayer prevented you from using all of your faculties."

"Look. I just really need to get go--"

"And you fought mostly as man."

Angel had turned his back, begun walking away; and he did take at least three steps away before returning to his own defense. "You don't know me," he argued, stepping within a dangerous arm's length. "What I'm capable of. And you can't just lump me together with *my kind*. I'm an individual. Got it? I make my own decisions based on my own free will. My own instincts. I kill who I want to kill when I want to kill them. Got it?"

"You are the boss of you," Adam judged. "And you consider yourself… Unique."

An internal voice reprimanded Angel for lying. "Something like that. Seriously, I'm going now."

"Tell me, Vampire. Do you believe in Fate?"

Rolling his head about his shoulders, Angel's negative reply was spoken to the starless sky; even though, especially after assisting Faith a step further from The Darkness, he had been questioning the notion.

"No," he repeated vehemently, his dark eyes boring through his antagonist.

"'It matters not how strait the gate/How charged with punishments the scroll/I am the master of my Fate/I am the captain of my soul'."

"I can, personally, do without demons reciting poetry at inopportune moments."

"Perhaps the word 'belief' is inappropriate because we are not men." His head erect, Adam inspected his companion. "You are intelligent. You think for yourself and appear to be unafraid to do so. You *are* unique among your kind, Vampire. We share many similarities. The thoughts have fomed within my consciousness that my plans would be better presented if I had a more agreeable face to show the world. *You* could be that face. *You* will join my cause."

"And your cause would be...?"

"Anarchy."

Angel accepted the reply as indifferently as it was spoken. "You know what-- I didn't come all this way to hook up with an iconoclast. The biology was thought-provoking, but now I really am leaving."

Adam recalculated the odds of the Vampire's refusal and diagnosed the error. He was not pleased. "You are not leaving my presence to destroy Riley," he stated in the form of a command.

Stepping onto the ledge of the roof, Angel drew his hand through his hair in exasperation, intensifying the sensation once he realized he'd probably just made himself even more disheveled. "I don't plan on seeing Riley again, but if I do, his 'fate' is up to him." Then, after looking over his shoulder, Angel nodded his intent and simply stepped off.

-0-

The couple hugged the corridor wall as they passed, but Angel was too busy rehearsing to notice. He avoided the boy dancing out from his dorm-room, but not the scent of a hallucinogenic herb carried on the rifts of a rap song.

Angel briefly contemplated a smoke.

"Angel."

She looked... Like Buffy. "Hi." He paused for his emotions to catch up with the recognition. "Can I come in?"

He looked... Like Angel. "I guess," she replied, all sorts of feelings volleying every-which-way throughout her person.

Angel glanced around the hallway while waiting. "I need a little more than that," he reminded her, striking his own nerve that all night he'd been the perfect Vampire and at that particular moment it wasn't such a great state of being.

She pretended not to hesitate, but she was sure he noticed. If he did, it didn't show outwardly and Buffy invited him in. He looked... Like Angel, but with his face kinda messed up. When she made note of it, he pointed at the fierce gash across her forehead, both of them bandaging their real wounds with sarcasm.

"Let me guess," she began, remembering the last time Angel had been 'sarcastic' with her, "you thought of something else really hurtful to say that you couldn't tell me on the phone because the *funniest* part is that look on my face?"

When her face distorted, Buffy's features displayed a tear-strained anger. Angel tried to ignore how well he knew that look while he pleaded for her to hear him out, wayward time the main factor behind the immediacy of his words.

She seemed willing to listen, actually studied him with some degree of interest. But when a gun forged into the room after the door broke open, Buffy's attitude changed.

So did Angel's.

"I told you you weren't coming near her," Riley seethed, sliding the cocking mechanism of the sleek automatic weapon back with his thumb.

"You've got to be kidding me," Buffy accused, mistrust and fury predominant as she examined the other wounded individual. "This is why you came?"

In between trying to stow his own rising anger, Angel attempted to pawn off both of his and Riley's incursions as accidental. He didn't expect Buffy to buy the lame excuse; wasn't surprised in the least when she demanded an explanation.

There was something about having a gun pointed at him that really annoyed Angel. First, there was the bullet-factor: he *really* despised being shot, loathed the whole process of removing the annoying leaden objects from his body before the entry wounds sealed. Secondly, there was the stupidity factor: especially after the person holding the gun already knew that bullets couldn't kill a vampire. And then, lastly: his clothes got ruined.

Riley had already trashed his shirt. "Put that gun down."

The young man eyed Angel malevolently. "It's pretty much all I've got left, so I'm thinking not. He attacked four of my men, Buffy," Riley reported to her. "I think he's up to his old tricks."

Buffy weakly pleaded his case--too weakly—and Angel took a menacing step forward, threatening coolly, "Might. Hurt. You."

Riley, prepared to meet the challenge, suggested Angel "please, try".

Buffy watched them in disbelief--Angel playing SuperVamp and Riley playing CommandoKid, their posturing was as incomprehensible and idiotic as one of Xander's video games. "You actually sleep with this guy?" and the way Angel said it probably riled her more than both of them suddenly punching one another. So, it was only the proper thing to do to use super Slayer strength to separate them.

"OKAY!" she shouted, looking right to left repeatedly. "I see one more display of testosterone poisoning and I will personally put you both in the hospital!" More than one full head shorter than both males who eyed one another viciously, she added, "Anybody think I'm exaggerating?"

"He started--" Angel considered Buffy's inherited 'JoyceLook' and fell silent. Leaning forward with his elbows above his knees, he wore his 'best behavior face' while enjoying Riley's predicament. The boy's too whipped, he concluded, having been in the same situation himself with the same blonde girl one too many times.

Except, he knew from personal experience, Buffy wasn't just some ordinary girl.

The young leader across the room selflessly administered to her one-manned troup. Puncutated by one hush of Riley's name, Buffy's simple body language pacified the young man, encouraged him and reassured him before she stated her need to finish meeting with Angel.

"I'm not leaving this room!" Riley protested. He crossed his arms and stood his ground. Staring down his competitor, he adamantly added, "I mean it."

Instead of following Buffy outside the room and into the hallway after she motioned with her eyes, Angel briefly considered remaining with Riley to instruct the young man in the matters of all things Buffy. Angel couldn't help smirking at the young man's predicament, especially once he remembered that he, himself, had yet to receive a degree in the subject.

"Okay. I come to see you, to help you, and you treat me like I'm just your ex."

Angel was awakened from his reverie by Buffy's unabashed ire. "Well, technically," he began, momentarily left to wonder if he'd missed anything when she viciously cut him off.

"SHUT UP!" Her demeanor superior, she eyed Angel cruelly. "And then you order me out of your city only to come here and start pounding on my boyfriend? I would *really* like to know that the hell you're trying to do!"

Angel answered honestly with "I was trying to make things better," never imagining his delivery would instigate sudden laughter. Relief prompted him to uncharacteristically join in. "It's going pretty good, don't you think?" he added, his boyish grin expressing hope.

Buffy, exhausted, backed against the wall for support. She felt... Nineteen. "Swell." She smiled while trying to recall the last time she used those particular muscles. Or felt her age.

His eagerness dwindled and Angel prepared to complete his mission (in his own way) when it finally dawned on him that the reason he needed to apologize wasn't because of the things he'd said, but the way he had spoken those truths. Angel waited, expecting the heart-wrenching pain that always accompanied his thoughts of an existence without Buffy to crumble his resolve, to leave him crushed beneath unyielding sentiment.

But always didn't seem to be the case in this instance.

His heart… Let go, having already accepted--without his conscious involvement--even before he ordered Buffy from his unlife--that they would probably never again be for one other what they once had been.

"We don't belong to ourselves," he remembered telling Doyle. "We belong in the world, fighting." Now all that remained to be resolved was whether or not they could ever get to the stage of being best of friends; with Angel knowing, by his soul, that he and Buffy must forever remain allies.

Same war. Just different arenas.

He finally told his co-Warrior, "I couldn't leave it like that. The way I spoke to you-- I came to apologize. I had no right," he finished.

Cordelia--like Wesley--would eventually understand, Angel imagined, suddenly wanting very much to be back in *his* city. Buffy seemed to accept the condensed jumped-by-soldiers scenario. When she asked him to put himself in Riley's place about forthrightness, Angel found himself able to do so and he said as much.

"You weren't entirely wrong about what you said in L.A." Buffy's eyes held Angel's with the same honesty he'd granted her. "We *don't* live in each other's worlds any more." She waited for that realization to make her sad or to, at the very least, envelope her with melancholy. But, when neither feeling or any of their relatives bothered to make an appearance, she admitted, "I had no right to barge in on yours and make judgements."

Buffy barely recognized the person who replied, "I'm still sorry." Self-pleased with the person who accepted graciously, she almost missed Angel's joke about apologizing by phone the next time around.

She wondered when Angel had started developing a sense of humor.

"Things are pretty tense around here," he added, noting the bittersweet irony of committing her laughter to memory. She looked... Like Buffy, but not. And it wasn't just her personal style. There was something about the way she agreed with him, establishing an undeniable solidarity despite the polite refusal of his help.

She didn't need him to help win *her* battles any more. Buffy had grown past him, beyond him, in many of the same ways he'd had to grow in order to move forward without her assistance. Angel shook off the surrealism of being told how much it meant that he'd come. Because Buffy looked... Like someone from his past.

Dazed, Angel began walking away until his emotions resurfaced. He stopped and turned back, rousing Buffy from her self-reflection. "Riley?"

Her arms still interlocked across the front of her chunky white sweater, Buffy pushed off the wall to regard Angel with curiosity. "Yeah?"

"I don't like him."

He strolled away, contemplating whether or not to insist how he really didn't like the guy. In the end, it didn't matter, though. He didn't need to physically insinuate himself into their relationship or conjure all his influence to separate them. The truth of the matter was that he didn't want to do that at all.

Angel just really, really, really, wanted to kick Riley Finn's ass. And that had nothing to do with Buffy. It was just an honest-to-goodness, or in their case -badness, guy thing.

Turning over the Plymouth's motor, Angel listened to it rumble into a warm-up while wondering just how much testosterone a dead guy could actually exude, the answer presented in the form of a sudden imposition from outside.

"I have to remember to start locking my doors."

"Oh, Angelus." The clipped British accent was artificially treacle'd. "You hurt me. I thought your car was always open to one of your own."

"Seriously, Spike. I don't have time for this." After shifting on the column from Park, Angel ignored his uninvited passenger to check his reverse. Having curved out of the parking space, he braked, then glared. "I mean it. Bye bye."

"Ooooooooh? Someone's taken up the aspects of a certain brunette vixen." Spike fastened his seat belt before fluttering eight fingers forward. "Speaking of time, let's have off, now. You can drop me at the park on your way out. That is, if you are on your way out of town?"

Disgusted with the situation, Angel pulled forward.

"So..." Spike examined the dashboard for a moment, leaned over to inspect the driver's side of the console before deliberately gawking into Angel's face.

"What. Spike."

The UC Sunnydale campus was inactive. Lights along the drive path illuminated some shrubbery, a few trees. At the fork in the path, Angel studied the map briefly to verify the left access off campus.

"You look... Great! I really mean that. You know, despite the," he motioned with his index to note the nearly healed split of Angel's lip, the blood-dripped cut at his left temple. "Your Little Bit O Honey Blonde give those to you?"

Angel sighed. Loudly.

"Tsk. Tsk. Tsk. Awful long drive, if you ask me, for non-guaranteed nookie. You didn't call first?"

"If you persist, I'm not even going to slow down for you."

"Go on! You were actually going to slow down for me?" He peeled Angel's collar back, impressed by a smudge. "You did get something! Check you out. Once a gal's gone undead, she can't get back to life. Think she'll boot off her MilitaryMan?"

"He was still there when I left."

Shocked nearly speechless, Spike pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. "Well, then. You did a better job with my job than I could have done myself. But don't let the compliment go to that ever-screaming head of yours. Do give details. I hate cliff-hangers."

"I'm not going to let you light up in here." Angel redirected his attention from the red light. "Unless, of course, *I'm* doing the lighting."

"Was that a threat? Oh, that was weak, Angel. Really weak." Spike stowed his smoking material, nonetheless. "Buffy's slayed you retortless. By the way, you realize, there's not a damn person on the streets at this hour and you could just run all these friggin' lights. I don't know why you persist on keeping up with the law."

"Spike! Have you've been hanging around the bad element in this town again?" Ignoring the suggestion, Angel smugly waited through the green light.

"Sod you. What's with the Dad-itude?"

His arm jacknifed against the door, Angel massaged his forehead. "I dunno. Maybe it's just that for over the past 48 hours I think I've worn every personality I own except for that one. You know, now that I'm thinking about it, I just might take the other way out of town. You and me, Spike. We'll drive off into the sunrise."

Angel snapped his fingers for emphasis. "Pffff!"

Spike unlatched his belt, visibly relieved. "You're insane. Did anyone ever mention that you're insane?"

"With what's going on in your head, you getting to know the feeling?"

"HEY! How'd you find out?"

Coming to a near stop, Angel eased onto the park's center road. "That's a story unto itself."

"Rupert!" Spike cursed. "I'm telling you, Angel. The man needs a job. You could lend him a hand, eh? Ex-Watcher on the payroll might help with the Revenging business."

"*A*venging."

"Whatever. Silly old WatcherWas has nothing better to do with his time than gossip… HEY! Here! Lemme out here!"

Angel slammed on the brakes and shoved his peroxide boy's shoulder.

"Alright. Alright. And to think I was going to invite you to spend the day, share a pint for old time's sake. Maybe get your poofty decorating opinions for my new place."

Reaching under his seat, Angel produced a stake. "Either you're out or you're staying in," he commented while toggling the wooden tine between his fingers.

The second the door slammed shut Angel smiled broadly, pleased that not every one of his allusions suffered from inactive duty.

The chrome latches, always in use, flicked back easily. Angel pressed a button, causing the mechanism of the automatic canopy to engage and it slowly shuddereded up and back, collapsing on itself to settle into the compartment behind the back seat.

"Angel"

He fastened the last snap on the boot, unconcerned by the approach since there was only one person could say his name so… Deadpan.

"Oz." He shook the offered hand that was firm, yet slightly jittery. "Going good?"

"Not so. You?"

"Getting better." Angel studied the college Freshman. Even in the dimly lit wooded area, the young man bore the look of someone who hadn't seen sunshine in quite a while. A slight shift of focus, Angel discovered Oz' reknown transportation barely-concealed behind a huge manzanita. "You and Will—"

"Over. You and Buff—"

"Transitional." Angel bowed his head and stepped to the front of the idling vehicle. His arms crossed, he leaned against the hood with the letters M O U tucked comfortably under the curve of his cheek.

Oz bobbed his unkempt red head while he looked like he was contemplating the situation. He replied "transitional's good" not too long afterwards.

"So, how long?" he asked, rummaging his thoughts in an effort to remember if he'd ignored the very important detail from Cordy's weekly Sunnydale report.

"Technically? Fall. Officially? 10 Days."

"Leaving?"

"Left. But, with the price of gas, I figured I'd hang until I got a hankerin' for direction."

Cocking his head, Angel slid his soles forward in an effort to meet Oz at eye-level. "You're more than welcome to hanker South-- My door's always open."

There was a slight visitation of Oz' usual affability before his brow furrowed again. "Be one of your Groovy Ghoulies?"

Angel's face remained blank. "I gotta tell you-- Not even a clue on that obscurity. Although it sounds like you may have just called Cordelia a demon."

When the right side of Oz' face struggled against the left, any glimmer of cheer met defeat. "Nothing, man. Just… Thanks.

The car vibrated contentedly, its exhaust perfuming the air while the moist radiated heat wafted through the grill's slats, tendrilling outward until gaining access through the back vent of Angel's coat to caress his legs with warmth. The Plymouth's timing hiccuped once, then settled down.

Angel got the message. Holding out his hand, he rose behind it. Oz accepted without reservation, his own grip tight. Needy. "Look, Oz. I gotta—"

"Yeah. You better. Or else all the demons'll be out here in a little while sporting their hoopties."

Angel kinda got that one. "But if you need-- You can."

"Don't be surprised." Walking Angel to the driver's side, Oz held onto the door long after he'd closed it. "How'd—"

Angel glanced up.

"—you do it?" Oz finished, but just barely.

"It?"

"Walk away?"

Angel felt his own timing skip a bit. He inhaled and released the breath while gnawing his lip. "One step. One step more. Foot over foot."

Oz nodded again. "Newtonic," he replied, the theory obviously one he'd never considered.

"Go. Go. Goodyear." Angel thumbed back before setting the transmission into drive. He paused. "I'm not going to tell you it gets better, Oz." Looking up with an empathic welling in his eyes he added, "but it does get manageable."

"Manageable… " A display of every emotion Oz had never worn flickered across his face faster than they could be felt. "Good. Promise?" he implored.

Angel blinked rapidly. "I really do," he choked.

"Demon-types," Oz sniffled. "It's not fair we have to feel *this* way on top of everything else."

"Our separation factor." Recognizing the budding stage of the healing process, Angel patted the freckled hand reassuringly. "Reminding us that we're monsters, Oz. Not animals."

Oz continued to wave long after the Plymouth puttered so long.

-0-

Angel leaned back on his elbows between the dual air scoops of his hood and listened to the waves. A slivery moon barely illuminated the rising tide as more slow-speed-bumped than crested. Despite the number of motorhomes, the area was enormously serene, even with the sporadic very-early morning traffic on the highway behind.

"Not good to lay on a car like that. You'll dent the hood."

As Wilbur approached, Angel slid forward to greet him. He scooted over a bit to share a few letters with the senior.

"If you don't get a move on, you'll get caught by daylight," Wilbur commented while handing Angel his cellular phone.

Unsurprised, Angel claimed the device and turned it on before returning it to his coat's pocket. "Wouldn't be the first time I've missed my curfew."

Wilbur chuckled.

"Powers That Be? You smell human enough."

Despite the false teeth, Wilbur managed a very wry smile. "Could be-- Or not." He gladly accepted the keys Angel placed in his open palm.

"I'm hoping you were putting on that act of bad driving to keep me off my guard?" But the old guy's wink hardly inspired trust. "So... I thought I wasn't supposed to do any of this on my own."

Fuzzy brows and a pug nose wrinkled with concern. "Oh, my. I wasn't told you were going to be alone otherwise I may have taken the entire journey with you." Wilbur ignitioned the car, echoing the engine while gunning it. The rear wheels spun for a second on sand before the Plymouth lurched forward. "Are you sure you were alone, Son? Maybe you were just on your own."

"Semantics," Angel replied indifferently. When the old guy shot a mischievous glance his way, Angel looked away.

"What was that you said?" Staying fluidly within the lane, Wilbur reached over and patted Angel's pocket consolingly. "Hmmmm. Well, I think maybe the question to ask here is: How often did you *feel* alone?"

The chirp against Angel's chest needed attention worse than Wilbur did.

"...I-- Misplaced it… Me first. Where're *you* at?… Because the mason's coming at 7:30… Yes, this *morning*!… Is that Wes?… Put him on… Cordelia. Put…"

"… Good… Just 'good' will have to do for now… Wes………………… Wes…………… WES!"

"…OK. I need you to start doing some research on this thing I met. Tall. Body parts--*All* kinds. Demon. Human. And hardware. Like computer components. All kinda stitched or fused or some--… No, not Frankenstein's monster, but *like* him… No, Wes… No, Wes… Not even if Frank had been updated… …… Wes……………………"

"Trust me, WeZley. *NOT* Frankenstein!"

Angel knuckled the old man's arm after he carefully--no, more like expertly-- merged from the freeway ramp in between a compact and van. For some strange reason Angel wanted to call the old guy 'Grampa', but shook off the thought when he heard Wesley squawking for his attention.

"… And have Cordelia call Sunnydale and schmooze someone, see what they know… I'll be there in a couple hours… No, I'll be fine… Even 'driving East'… I know, Wes… I... Know… I--… HEY! *Who's* the vampire that's managed to make it through a century and a half worth of sunrises?… I'll explain it when I get home… Oh! And Wes?… One more thing…

"Find out what a groovy type of ghoul is for me?"

-0-

Author's addendum:

  • This was my first stab at humor. I'm really mortified if you're thinking to yourself, 'this was supposed to be funny?' I'm cringing because I have no idea if I hit or wildly missed.
  • Other than a few voices, I think I managed to write every character between both shows for the season. It helped immensely when E wrote and simply put, "Poor Oz."
  • Season Two, give or take some hours, begins in 2 days. I am thrilled. I am also somewhat anxious because I've still got my last Season One story to complete. It's already mostly blocked-out, so it shouldn't take long to write.
  • Finally… I've never tried to write one of these 'episodic' stories before. You know where I, as the writer, attempt to fill in the gaps of action and dialogue and characterization. I thought this would be a fluffy piece to write. But you know what? It was far from it. Took a lot of research. A LOT of thought.
  • The main thing was that I had to get *my* Angel through the Buffy apology. So, this may not be what you expected. Oh, and I'm not even going to say its comparable to canon. But I think *my* Angel would have handled it this way.


Songs:

"If You Could Read My Mind" by Gordon Lightfoot.

"Wherever U Go, Whatever U Do" by Prince (or whomever he's calling himself these days.)

"I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" by Judy Garland is the song Jonathan was singing when Angel cut the radio off.

Angel's Journal

evancomo@netscape.net