Here, Instead of Other Theres

Here, Instead of Other Theres

By LAndrews
Author's Notes

One

By some fluke, Gunn lasted longer than Spike. When Gunn went down, Angel felt such a tearing pain through his chest and gut, he fell to his knees, certain he’d been run through. A puff of air across his neck. He ducked, his bloody shoulder screaming as he rolled across the gritty asphalt of Hyperion Avenue, and swung his sword up at the same time. It cleaved the lumpy, yellow-eyed demon looming over him in midstep and stuck. Angel gave a vicious yank to free it and leapt to his feet. He could see Illyria off to the right, three demons warily circling her. Blood streaked her face and clothes so heavily the rain couldn’t touch it. She looked up as the dragon swooped low, and then, like radar, cocked her head to stare right at him. Angel nodded. He thought maybe she grinned at him.

The courtyard door into the Hyperion lay only fifty yards, eleven demons, and two breaths of dragon fire away. He tugged on the handle, expecting it to be locked, but it opened easily. He fell down the steps, sliding on water and blood. The sudden quiet was deafening. No demons. No humans.

He rolled over on his back, watching the door. Nothing but the shush of the rain. He struggled up, allowing himself a quick inventory of pain. The worst was a hole in his right side that was leaking an alarming amount of blood. He’d feed on dragon blood, that should be a rush. Had to get to the roof to do that. He struggled up and pulled at the remains of his coat until it lay in a black puddle on the floor. The clean floor, he saw, as he surveyed the lobby before crossing it. No burns, no stains. Low recessed security lighting. No weapons in the cabinet either, that was obvious from here.

Looking up the stairs, Angel wondered about the state of his rooms. It was scary the feeling that coursed through him. Home. Maybe he could just drag himself up there and sink into oblivion for awhile. The doors rattled, and firelight flickered into the lobby. As Angel turned, a heavy body hit the door with a loud grunt and the scrape of metal. Flash of Illyria as she hauled the demon up.

The stairs would cost him too much strength. Blood dripped from his fingertips, plinking like a drippy faucet onto his stain-free floors. Hopefully the Wolfram and Hart dollars he’d diverted into the renovation included the elevator. Angel made his feet move, ignoring the protest of his muscles, that odd tingle as he pushed to vamp speed to the doors and hit the button.

A stainless steel wastecan sat neatly to the left, raked black sand in the top, WRH embossed in block letters. Unable to stop himself, he leaned a little to look at the empty space between the can and the wall. No idea what it was he thought he'd see. No grenades. No operatives with a handy nuclear bomb when you needed one. Maybe... but that was a yawning chasm of guilt below, wasn't it? And he knew better. They were watching. He could not have walked in here and set up an arsenal, no matter that maybe Wes and Gunn would be here still. Aside from the impossibility, he did not set one up. End of story. A painful chuckle trembled, sharp as a hooked knife, just below his sternum. End of story. End of his. End of theirs.

Angel closed his eyes, shut out the earthy, sour stench rising from his wounds, and focused on breathing in the reassuring smell of the hotel. His family lingered here under the new. He killed them. (you're fired) He killed them the moment he shut the doors on a basement of lawyers with his sire and his demented offspring. How many regrets? Let me count the ways. His mind skittered over the memory of Cordy pulling the privacy curtain around her deathbed. (Don't make me move you.)

I killed them. The thought echoed in his head. I killed them. I killed them. And used Nina, worse than any whore he'd ever paid for since she bought his act; but the Black Thorns bought it too, hook, line, Angelus bait. And the senior partners got a huge, thorny hook through the paw. (They have a contingent of lawyers trying to drive me crazy. Why is everyone so surprised it's working?) Angel opened his eyes, unable to bear his image of Lorne, the awkward tilt of the gun in his hand as he took it.

Unless I played right into their plans.

The elevator doors opened and Angel, startled, remembered the dragon waiting for him. He glanced once more at the lobby doors; the watery reflection of streaming rain wavered across the lobby floor. Quiet. It could be any night he'd ever sat here with the rain splashing down. Could be that night. The one that looked just like this, the one he spent counting heartbeats as everyone slept upstairs, one, two, three, four,... Lorne's odd ka-thump .... and six, the extra one beating into his palms as he held just-born Connor propped up in front of him, watching his nostrils flare and his eyes roam under paper-tissue lids. Counting heartbeats over and over.

That dragon's heart's still beating, boy-o. Angel straightened at the thought, and an explosion of pain burst anew in his torso with the movement, a burning rush. He lurched, folding double, glad for the support of the wall at his shoulder. The elevator doors dinged and slid and he just got a hand in, wincing as they rebounded off his palm. Staggering in, he sagged against the wall in relief as the doors closed and the elevator hummed into action. A few moments of sure protection. And preparation.

He pushed gingerly away from the wall, allowing himself time to unkink, until he was more or less standing upright. He acknowledged each major complaint his body lodged and then locked each one away, forcibly shut the pain down so he could concentrate on what really mattered. He allowed only the image of himself aboard the dragon, driving his sword down through its shoulder, just below the wing, as he watched the arrow arching above the doors count off floors. At four he hardened his wide stance, rolled and lifted his sword so the point faced the center of the doors, braced his arms, and waited for the little drop at the top, the stillness, the doors to open.

He waited, crouched for action. Blood trickled down his calf. Waiting.

Shit. Angel’s stomach rolled and his chest tightened. The engraved scrolls on his sword grip scraped across his palm as he shifted his hold on it. His boots felt rooted into the floor; heavy, cold, wet. His eyes felt heavy, too. He blinked, willing his exhaustion away, and focused on the narrow shaft of light between the doors. Open. Open. Open, damnit.

Rage flooded him, flowing with tidal force over every hard-won control in him and Angel catapulted forward, thrusting his sword between the doors as he vamped. The sword stuck less than halfway and Angel threw his weight behind it, pushed the hilt to the right, then half a second later pulled hard to the left. His blade broke. An awful moment of unsupported suspension whip-lashed through him before his head hit the sidewall. The blade fell from the doors, an insulting weight across his thighs.

“God damn it!” Angel roared as he scrambled up, the sword's hilt still firmly gripped in both hands. He dashed the jagged blade against the doors; slashed and hacked and beat. The ringing clash of metal on metal hurt his ears and torqued his anger. "Open!"

Stepping in close, he drew his arms up over his head and pounded the hilt into the juncture of the doors in relentless attack before finally kicking it hard with his right foot. “God damn fucking shit! Open!” He dropped the sword and scrabbled his fingers along the tiny crack of light, cursing the slippery slide of the rubber seal.

He backed up and with a running start, threw himself against the doors. Again. Again. Again, feeling something give with a soft pop inside him, sharp pain slicing down through his legs. Momentum carried him hard across the small space. He richochted off the back wall, just managed to keep his feet by stumbling forward, and saved himself a broken nose by getting his hands up in time as he came to rest face-first against the unrelenting doors.

Tears ran across his cheeks, and filled his throat. Half-heartedly, he raised his hands and slapped them against the door again. He swallowed and sniffed. The cold kiss of metal seemed a blessing on his forehead, the blood and sweat and rain spreading from his flattened palms, a benediction. There was no one left to pray to, though. A crooked grin twisted his lips, and he winced as he fought the laugh twisting up from his belly. Skewered on the altar of technology. Fuck. After a moment, he felt his fangs recede, and his head ease closer to the door as his game face released.

Drained, he thumped his foot against the fucking door. He should've taken the stairs. Seeing the spatters and drops and slides of blood on the doors, he followed them to the dark stain at his feet. Or at least tried to take the stairs. No, he should've gone up the outside of the Hyperion, where he could've kept track of Illyria as he climbed. 'Course then he'd have been just so much dragonmeat, and not even good meat at that, since most of his fucking blood lay smeared between here and there. Fuck. Blood everywhere. His side ached. The noble champion, starved to death in a metal box while evil wiped humanity from the face of the earth. Twice entombed in one lifetime had to be setting a record.

Angel turned his head, ear flat to the seam, and tried to hear something, anything, beyond. Was that Illyria screaming? No. She wouldn’t. And she’d probably manage to take that damn dragon out first, too. What was that? Soft, soft… intake of breath and out. Angel concentrated and it just kind of filtered in, the heartbeat; a muted, somewhat rapid thump that slowed even as he found it. The breath and beat and scent now, like it was carried on a breeze. Or... a draft. Faint but there now, not fading away. Fred. His Fred, not Illyria. Just… Fred. And the soft whisper of a page turning. He could imagine her smoothing the page, see her eyes settle on the page, the chestnut in her dark hair reflecting light from her bowed head.

He slid his shoulder across the doors, turning, put his back to them and her, against those hard, unyielding doors, all the while sinking to the floor, his legs tight and shaky and not helpful really, not at all. It felt just like sinking to the bottom of the ocean. He knew that feeling, didn’t he? And this sinking felt the same, except it was inside him, mostly. Grief and relief taking him down. Nothing he could do now. Nothing he could feel but numb. There wasn’t even hunger here, and always, always there had been hunger in him, in Angelus, even back so long ago- when his heart was more than an ache in his chest. Staring across at the blank back wall, Angel listened to Fred's beat and her breath. Maybe- maybe he could just sit here and bleed out and be done.

“I have said that in my dreams I never saw a human being,” Fred read aloud, and Angel became certain it really was her. Somehow. “Of this fact I became aware very early, and felt poignantly the lack of my own kind. As a very small child, even, I had a feeling, in the midst of the horror of my dreaming, that if I could find but one man, only one human, I should be saved from my dreaming, that I should be surrounded no more by haunting terrors. This thought obsessed me every night of my life for years- if only I could find but one human and be saved!”

Fred’s voice seeped clearly through to Angel, low and sure and passionate. His eyes slid closed. Mayhap he was dead already, and this some pleasant form of purgatory. His hand fell from his lap into wetness, and for just a second the smell of old blood overpowered Fred’s scent. Somewhere, lost inside himself, Angel thought to wonder at the fact that the smell meant nothing to him in that moment. Fred filled him.

“I must reiterate that I had this thought in the midst of my dreaming, and I take it as an evidence of the merging of my two personalities, as evidence of a point of contact between the two disassociated parts of me. My dream personality lived in the long ago, before ever man, as we know him, came to be; and my other and wake-a-day personality projected itself, to the extent of the knowledge of man’s existence, into the substance of my dreams.”

Oh. Illyria. But... no, not her, Illyria was still out there, in the rain, fighting the good fight. Nothing left to lose, nothing left to gain. Just because it was right. Just because it spoke to her humanity. The humanity Fred left her. The humanity that confused her, shit, that confused him. Fred had left her humanity imprinted all over her body and Illyria couldn't fight that. Just like he loved a good bourbon and Darla liked a view and Spike always, always had something to say.

Illyria was stuck with Fred. Angel frowned. Fred, who was reading still, just outside the elevator, in the hallway of the Hyperion, turning the page now of his book. A small, leather bound Jack London. Survived the fire in Billings. And ... Cordelia' s madness... that fire, too. Angel slumped over sideways, numbness creeping in tiny, sharp bites from his body into his mind.

“… at college, that I got any clue to the significance of my dreams, and to the cause of them. Up to that time they had been meaningless and without apparent causation.”

College. Impossible dreams. The impossible Connor sitting across from him. Coffee and text books. A hot glow ball of dread ignited low in his belly. Gotta get up. Dragon.

“But at college I discovered evolution and psychology, and learned the explanation of various strange mental states and experiences.”

Oh, shit, he knew this part, didn’t he, by heart, could read it in his mind’s eye while he drove endlessly beneath the city lights? Muscles knotting with effort, Angel kicked his throbbing, tingly legs, out and thrashed his arms up, flailing for support. Rising, his feet tangling together, his boots thumping against the doors. And then he was face-down in his own blood. He pushed his leaden hands into the soaked carpet. His arms wouldn’t support him.

“For instance, there was the falling-through-space dream- ”

“No!" Angel shouted. "Fred! No!” Gotta get up, gotta… Angel could see his feet under him, could see them. Why couldn’t he stand?

“… the commonest dream experience, one practically known…”

“No!”

Angel remembered cutting Connor’s throat, the hot spray of blood across his face. He remembered licking it off his lips.

“… by first hand experience,…”

The elevator shifted, the cable above groaning. “Fred! Stop!” Had Connor fallen into his life as the blade slid across his flesh? Fallen trembling and scarred? Afraid? This afraid? Terrified? Angel vamped and it hurt, it hurt, but he was over now, onto his back, a grunt of air pushed from his lungs, legs splayed and useless, arms thrown wide, the wet seeping through to his scalp.

“… to all men.”

And then he was falling, his gut twisting into a sick knot, body memory of falling face first from the tower of Wolfram and Hart. This was worse, on his back, the elevator dropping into darkness and falling and falling and falling…

Angel woke with a start, smacking the back of his head hard. He rubbed it, vaguely surprised his arm worked, dazed and not awake. He was dry and barefoot and sitting on a hard floor, his back against cold metal and spread out before him was a cage of a room. The window was barred. Shoved against one wall, a mattress with rumpled sheets lay on the bare ply board floor. Chains hung from boards bolted into the ceiling. A large area of crushed drywall, brick and studs peeking through… he remembered that. He'd done that, by slamming his back into the wall… that’s why the chains now hung in the center of the room.

Someone was reading behind him. Outside. In the hallway.

“And now we come to disassociation of personality. We never have this sense of falling when we are awake.”

Fred. Yes. He’d been falling. A god had dropped him.

“Our wake-a-day personality has no experience of it.”

His brain fed him a dozen different streaming memories of ground and sky scapes. Wanta bet?

“Then- and here the argument is irresistible- it must be another and distinct personality that falls when we are asleep, and that has had experience of such falling- that has, in short, a memory of past-day race experiences, just as our wake-a-day personality has a memory of our wake-a-day experiences.”

“Fred?” Angel hadn’t even realized he would speak before he heard his own voice breaking through memories overlapping memories in a cobweb weave. He concentrated on the whiteness of his fingers on his knees, and said “What is today?”

“Angel!” The word rose past and then above him as she stood on the opposite side of the metal door. She must have been sitting on the floor, too. “I’m so glad! That wasn’t long this time. One of these days, you’re just gonna up and be yourself again, all sweet and sane and championey and, of course, still broody, too, I guess, but in a good way.” Delight. That was what he heard in her voice.

“Can you…” But no, she couldn’t, could she? No one was allowed to open the door until Spike came and checked him. His throat closed.

“Angel?”

His head hurt; not where he’d whacked it in the elevator. On the left side, high up, the pain just crouching for now, but ready to bloom into a skull-cracking vise.

“Angel? Does your head hurt?”

“Not yet.” Not yet? “Can you get Spike?”

“I’ll find him, yes.”

As she left, Angel tracked her down the hall, letting the feel of the Hyperion steal over him. There were others here, a confusing mix of scents and pulse, voices and the dim clash of weapons. He was far from them, on the top floor, he thought. Angel remained sitting, trying to catch hold of this reality, sort the memories with lead sinkers on them from the ones trying to float away from him.

“Angel,” Spike said. “I’m coming in.”

The warmed blood he’d brought with him aroused Angel’s hunger, but the ache in his head made it a sluggish, heavy thing.

"Angel? Door." Spike turned the knob and Angel heard it rotate above him.

Door. Right. Angel pushed himself to his feet, breaking out into a cold sweat from the effort. He stepped over to the left just a bit, to put his back into the nearest corner.

The door crept open and Spike eased in on the defensive, his eyes steady and cold. Different. Focused. Angel knew this Spike, but the knowledge was an ugly lump that pushed against the base of his throat. Angel dropped his eyes and slid to the floor again, bracing on the wall to avoid jarring his head.

Spike relaxed. “Here, luv, gimme the mug,” he said, turning back into the doorway. “We’ll be down after a while.”

“Fred,” Angel said.

“Yes. She worries most ‘bout you, I think.” He crouched down in front of Angel and extended the mug. “It’s spiked, no pun intended. It’ll help.”

Angel ignored it, trying to think of what came next, and after a long moment Spike set the mug down between them and closed the door.

“She died.”

Spike shook his head. “No.”

“She died."

"No, Angel. She hasn't." Spike cocked his head, listening. "Can still hear her right now standing there on the staircase." He leaned one shoulder against the wall, crossing his arms and grinned down at Angel. "And so can you."

Damn annoying asshole. It was slow, the thought, climbing over Angel the way sunrise crawled through the tempered glass of his office. Oh. He doesn't know. I have to tell him. "You and I. We saw Rogan. There’s a hole in the world and a god climbed out of it… and she was Fred…” Angel realized as he said it how ridiculous that sounded. If only... he just needed... he should just... focus.

"Angel?"

“Not what I mean.” He pressed on his head, at the hole there, smaller, maybe, than the one in the world, but just barely. He couldn't touch it. “Not what I mean. It infected Fred. Burned,” he swallowed down the guilt. “Burned her right out.”

Spike laughed. “I think Fred’ll have something to say ‘bout that one. Rogan, huh? Now there’s an antique memory. Wonder where that bugger is now?”

Angel frowned. “I drank him.” Powerful, sharp, ancient blood, spiced with that most ambrosial of fears. The kind unique to immortals brought to their knees and convinced they would finally find death. Blood seasoned by centuries of wondering what lay across that mortal border. Terror, really. And pain. And Rogan, he was just plain pissed by the last drop. "He was mad."

Spike only grunted and slid the mug closer with his foot.

“You died," he said, looking sideways at Spike. "Twice. Gunn lasted longer.”

“Killing everyone off this time, huh?” He sounded almost… amused.

Something important nagged at him. Angel could almost see it, a red thread through all the memories, but it made him dizzy-sick to chase it. And there was nothing there, nothing but dark currents and mirrors he didn't show up in. He sighed. “Guess so.” Wes was dead. And Cordy. (Hot skin. Cold water.) Angel groaned and covered his head.

And then Spike was crouching inches from him, a hand on each shoulder, giving

Angel something real to grab onto. He clamped his hands around Spike's wrists; he knew just how the bruises would look in the morning, but couldn't place why. Spike smelled of Fred. And Wes lay underneath. Wes, who wanted help testing a cloaking spell. Angel had promised him a Wolfram and Hart infiltration, a full team assault on the file room as a trial. It'd be a trial run for the slayers as well, their first real taste of trained operation. Gunn had even located a used fifteen person van. But first Angel needed Wesley to figure out that symbol, that ring…

That spot, that hole in his head, that crouching ache, pulsed fierce- a sharp rock gouging into his brain- and Angel jerked forward, falling over onto his knees. When it pulse-crashed over him again, Spike softened, relaxing his elbows without letting go and let Angel slam into him. The distraction was good. Unable to stop himself, Angel tore at Spike, grabbing at his tee shirt with both hands and hit Spike again, driving his forehead against the solid wall of Spike's chest. Spike cupped the back of Angel's head with one hand, and resisting Angel's struggle to free himself again, forced Angel to stillness.

Trapped between Spike's sternum and spayed fingers, the pulse-pain ricocheting inside his skull, Angel panted. (can't move). Hands flattened, he pushed back on Spike as hard as Spike was pulling him in. (let me out, let me out, let me out ). Slowly, Spike bore down with bone-crushing strength.

The pressure eased the pain.

Angel's grip slackened until his hands found the jutting wings of Spike's hips. Memories flickered and flashed and Angel couldn’t follow them, though his body twitched and tightened in response to them.

The pulsing pain gradually morphed into a weighted slosh of swirling ache anchored between Spike's chest and Spike's hands, one still holding Angel's skull together from behind, while the other spread over the top, his fingertips and thumb digging into Angel's temples. Too soon, Spike pushed him away with a gentleness that hurt Angel nearly as much as his head. (..sitting on his bed, smell of smoke in his nose, Cordy warming his side...) Her remembered the way her hair lay on his cheek. She smelled of coconut and the ocean and he hurt all over, like now, but there wasn't any blood.

Spike tapped on Angel's tense fingers. "Let go, man. Hurts."

Molasses. Time thick as syrup. Angel unclenched. Shoulders, biceps. Let his forearms loosen. Watched from far away as his fingers uncurled from Spike's thigh and hip. Spike shifted and reached, and it was just to much effort to turn his head and see why... oh, mug.

“Come on, I’ll help you.” Spike held the mug still long enough for Angel to get his hands wrapped around it, and then placed his own hands over Angel’s. The warmth was divine.

“Hot shower when you can stand up, okay? Then you can have more. Sleep for awhile.”

Angel drew the mug in, Spike helping him steady it. His stomach flopped with an intense pang when the last of the lingering steam hit his nose and he had to close his eyes to fight off the change.

“It’ll pass, Angel, it’s just left over from the box." He pushed up against Angel's downward pull until the mug rested against Angel's lips. "You’re still odd about feeding even at your best. Drink it already.”

Angel tipped the blood into his mouth. It was bitter. He screwed his face up, and his head like, cramped, like a calf cramp, only in his head. Spike slammed him back against the wall, forearm locked across his throat, a knee in his belly and held him there, the mug at a steep angle against his closed lips and clenched teeth. Although Angel wouldn’t drown if he didn't swallow, he couldn't stand the blood oozing down his throat. He couldn't bear it.

He fought back. The blows he landed vibrated back through him like Spike wasn't human, wasn't his, wasn't fucking there to help him stop this and he had no choice but to swallow and gag and swallow again, black rage and pain blinding him.

A hiss of breath in his ear. "Done. It's done."

As Spike backed off, Angel sprang forward, struck out hard and sent Spike sprawling. Reeling backwards, Angel fell. Crumpled over on his chest and knees, forehead to the gritty floor, he sucked in one great breath after another. Stinging rain pelted him and the dragon laid down stripes of fire so close he tingled, ready to combust. A thousand different demons screamed hate at him in a queer rushing roar. “Kill me, already,” Angel whispered. “Kill me, just kill me. Please just kill me…”

Buffy spun, pivoting on one foot while lashing straight out with the other, her heel flexed to keep her leg stiff when it hit the solid mass of the ugly, vamped out, newly risen son of Pineville, Kentucky's resident county sheriff. He fell back in that awkward, newbie shuffle and his sister staked him from behind. Through the drift of dust, Buffy watched her fall to her knees, shaking, her face wet with tears although she was silent.

“I'm sorry,” Buffy. She stepped forward and gripped the wraith-like girl's shoulder.

Her muscles were strung tight and smooth on her jutting bones. Vamps expecting a fragile meal would be totally destroyed by the reality of Melinda's strength. An unexpected surge of pride tightened Buffy's fingers.

“My dad,” Melinda said.

“Never needs to know,” Buffy said.

Melinda stood and brushed grave dirt off her knees. “My Dad already knows,” she said, “He knew that Daniel was drained. People have been getting bitten around here for as long as there's been a here.” Melinda squared her shoulders and put her hands on her hips. Her razor straight dark hair framed her hard face. “He's already headed for Waltham.”

Buffy grabbed her duffel off the grave she tossed it onto and slung it over her shoulder. “Then we better get there first.”

Two

About the time he became aware that Spike was not only not fighting back, but rubbing his back to boot, the pain dropped off, falling away in jagged waves that rocked his stomach. Angel eased down flat and rolled onto his back, stretching his legs out . He rubbed his face roughly and then pressed the heels of his hands against the rise of his brow.

Propped against the wall, Spike sat looking at him, a smoke dangling from the hand resting on his raised knee. He straightened and closed the fingers of his other hand reflexively. He looked calm and aloof, only the tense line of his jaw betraying him. “Better?”

“Yeah." Angel dropped his arms, letting his hands rest heavy on his chest. Maybe he could just lay here for the next hundred years or so. Make like a Rice vampire. "Thanks. What set me off this…”

“Don’t know. You came in from the sewers covered in yellow goop. Tried to take Kennedy’s head off. Took four plus me and Buff to get you up here.”

“Buffy. She’s here?” Even he could hear the strain in his voice. She came and went as she pleased, logging more time contacting slayers than anyone else. He practiced letting go (salt exploding on his tongue from her tears, bloodscent blooming) everyday, but it was hard, and she knew that. She stayed scarce.

“Nope. Gone slayer gathering in the Appalachians,” Spike muttered. “Then to Atlanta, Cologne, and a little place near Prague.”

His headache kept fading, and Angel knew he’d be rid of it after a shower and a nap. The confusion, though, might last for days. He laced his fingers behind his head. “Cordy?”

Spike shook his head. “You ready?”

“I dreamed she came and said goodbye.”

Spike sneered. “Was it good?”

“She died.”

“I think you said. You didn’t drink *her* did you?”

And yeah, he had a definite visceral memory of biting her at Point Dume. But… that was from the box. Just a hallucination. Maybe.

“C'mon.” Spike lurched up, listed sideways before he steadied, and stuck a hand out.

Angel stared up at him, ashamed. Spike helped him. Every time. Even though Angel managed to hurt him, every time. “We fought. Over the shanshu.”

Grinning, Spike nudged him in the side with his foot. “Bugger! That one’s mine. Remember what was in the cup?”

Of course. And he remembered it took nearly two weeks of vamp healing before he walked without a limp. “Mountain Dew. You won.”

“Sundrop. Buffy brought a case home from Kentucky. Lovely stuff.” He nudged harder and bent over, waving his hand for Angel to take.

Knowing he would regret it, Angel let Spike pull him up. Shattered glass tinkled down through his broken brain and he swayed.

“Gotcha," Spike said, as he took hold of Angel's upper arm. "Anyway, I got stuck babysitting you, and I got bored, and very, very drunk on JD and Sundrop. Told you a story.” He tugged a bit so Angel was forced to step forward. “Best fight that week. These girls, you know, they pull their punches.” He snorted. “One time, just one bloody time, I get knocked out and now they think they’ll hurt me.”

Spike baby stepped to the door. Okay, walking not so bad. Angel couldn’t work up the energy for anger, but he’d figure out some sort of revenge on Spike for confusing him further when he could think again. “Sunnydale.”

He shrugged off Spike's hand.

“Why do you always ask about Sunnydale? Damn Andrew.”

“Andrew?”

Spike stopped. “Yeah, Andrew. Funny little fellow? Turned out to be a master organizer? Died seven-eight weeks back.”

Andrew stood up to him over the slayer, called him on being 'evil with good intentions'. Put cinnamon in his blood just like... Wait… “He baked.”

“Yeah, that’s him.” Spike moved on, urging Angel into slow motion down the stairs. “Insisted we repair the kitchen so he could feed the herd.”

“Died?”

“Wasn’t you.”

“I don’t remember.”

Glancing back, Spike gave Angel an assessing look over his shoulder and Angel was struck once more by his calm self-assurance. “You will.”

“You have a soul.”

“Righto. But I did not go up in flaming self-sacrifice when Sunnydale fell. Andrew’s a…” Spike cleared his throat. “Was. Andrew was a born romantic. Fancied himself a story teller. Got himself a dose of reality but could still spin a yarn. That one, though, the one he told you, you took that one to heart. Always stays with you. You always fuckin’ ask.”

Almost there. His room, his bed, his very own darkness. Maybe he could nap first…

“Shower first.” Spike said, reading his mind. “Helps later. I’ll send Fred with more blood, Connor and I pulled duty today.”

Angel stumbled. Spike grabbed his shoulder and propelled him along. “Steady on. You want Connor? Fred can help me.”

He nodded. Connor. Connor saved him from... Angel can't come up with a name, but he can taste the guy's blood in his mouth, its complex layers of flavor, its overwhelming power. Did Connor make it home? Angel had to believe he did; had to believe he'd lived for all of them. “No.”

Finding himself standing in his bathroom, Angel frowned.

Spike’s voice echoed off the bath tiles as he flipped on the shower. “Fred it is.”

“No, that wasn’t real.”

“Connor die, too?” Spike asked absently. He grabbed a towel and slung it over the rod.

“No.”

Showing his first signs of irritation, Spike blew air through his nose, and crossed his arms with a small frown. A small surge of satisfaction wormed through the ice Angel felt encased in.

“Strip. Shower. Eat. Sleep. You want Connor or Fred?”

“Connor,” Angel said, pulling off his sweat-damp tank. He shivered.

Taking Angel's shirt from him, Spike grabbed the door. “Got it from here?”

“Shower. Eat. Sleep.”

Spike shut the door, and Angel shivered again. Not real. Not real.

“Angel,” Spike called from the other side.

Not real. Fire falling, Cordy’s eyes closed (blissed out, dark hair smoothed from the nape of her long neck, she trembled beneath him, around him, when he kissed her there, and sighed his name. Stefan, Stefan) Cordy's face smooth and untroubled. Connor working above her. Cordy's hands stoked his trembling back while the fire fell and Angel bled, but now he was safe. That wasn't real (she was lying there, but not there, gone away and nobody remembered why, nobody but him) not real, Angel repeated to himself again. Not real. Connor was safe and here now with him. Not his son, here with him. Angel had to remember that, cement that truth into his head. Connor is not my son here.

“Angel! Take your pants off. Not leavin’ ‘til you get in.”

Angel forced his feet to move.

Leaning on the bathroom sink, steam still rising from his skin, Angel bowed his wet head and worked on pushing away the lush scent of warmed blood to feel the girl moving restlessly around his room. Why did they persist in torturing him during his most vulnerable moments? They acted almost unconsciously, truly unaware of the power lying unmined within them, the hard, fathomless, glorious depths, the bloody diamond of their womanhood. Life and death as just a casual part of their being in a way no man could ever match, no matter how much blood or seed he spilled.

But no, not her. Not Faith. She knew exactly the price she was extracting from him by her presence here, now, when he most needed to collect himself. She used her power like a blunt sword, bludgeoning even when a swift slice might serve better. Angel gathered himself and ripped the bathroom door open. Bludgeon away, Faith, I've no more care than you tonight. He stalked to his wardrobe, ignoring Faith as she spun to track him, practically quivering with an alertness that only made him ache with weariness.

He yanked open the top drawer. Nothing but sketchpads and charcoals. An old box of pastels. The second drawer yielded the black bottoms he favored. Faith watched him as stripped off his towel and pulled them on. He dried his head carefully, the lingering pain moving away from the pressure like a chased shadow. He dropped like a stone onto the end of the bed, wanting nothing more than to lay back and fade away. "Where's Connor?"

"Off with Gunn. Something came up," Faith said, eyes sparkling. "Maybe I should say out."

She sauntered to him, redolent and ripe, and offered the glass she held. "Here 'ya go, boss, drink up, you're not gonna believe this."

Angel took it, but his stomach looped at the contrasting smells. The herb laced pig's blood, though fresh and heated, held no appeal. Faith's fingers lingered a moment too long on his as she took in the mottled bruises covering the backs and sides of his hands, but then she went back to pacing his room. Angel closed his eyes.

"We were scouting down on Davidson and hear this scream, so we go belting 'round the corner and see this vamp doing... I don't know... like the funky chicken or something."

Funky chicken? Exhaustion stole Angel's smile before it rose. “Fai...”

"He starts singing, Angel! Like church music, only the southern kind, ya 'know? All full of praise gods and hallelujas. Gave me the fuckin' creeps. Conner staked him hard and down falls these bags, one's busted in mid-air, and there's white powder floating everywhere." Faith paused for breath. Angel considered the image she'd painted for him, powder blowing like a mist of snow down a filthy, LA alley.

Hearing her lick her lips, he looked at her, really looked at her. She was strung tight, her taut biceps curving out from under her red baby doll tee and the muscles of her thighs and buttocks rippling beneath her leather skin as she turned away from him.

"Coke, Angel, uncut. They're using vamps as mules now, is that fuckin' genius or what?"

Yeah. Just brilliant. They could only be using fledgelings, turning the stupid and the drunk and the already high, keeping them under a hard thumb so they never learned to hunt on their own. Older vamps would just take the drug and disappear, use it as they saw fit, selling or trading it. That's what he'd do.

"Angel?"

Faith was standing directly in front of him. She took the full glass back from him and when he looked up, she was looking down. A speck of powder rested along the corner of her lip and as he watched, she licked it off.

Angel shuddered and brought his hands up, intending to back her off and stand, but she was moving, placing the glass on the floor even as she came to him. His hands landed on her waist as she straddled him in one smooth motion and he automatically adjusted to accommodate her weight, pulling her in closer. Heat. She kissed him, and without his permission, his tongue swept her mouth. It tingled, absorbing whatever she hadn't, an amount of coke large enough to numb it. Her mouth was hot and Faith flavored, and for a minute, he felt suspended in her, swirling in her vortex.

When his back hit the bed, he surfaced, and pushed her away from him. Grinning, she tossed her hair and ground her pelvis in a tight circle.

"Off, Faith."

She smirked and complied, slipping sideways onto the bed. "I love when you're drugged, Boss, sure you don't wanta work it off?"

He'd like nothing better. He felt muscle-sore, like he'd been cramped up tight for years instead of hours. A long, lazy fuck to stretch everything out, a long nap, another hot shower. No... a bath, a soak. About a thousand years worth should do. He sat up and centered himself by pressing the instep of his feet to the coolness of the wood floor, fixating on feeling the senation in every millimeter of skin. "How much did Connor get?"

"More than he needed," she said, shrugging and bounced off the bed. "That's why I called Gunn. He'll keep him busy for awhile, Wes sent them over to check on a nest of Grochlers, pick a fight."

"And you?"

"I'm cool, Angel, nothing I can't handle." She strode for the door, sensuousness in motion. "Sleep. Everyone's on it already, we should have info by the time you come down." She turned in the doorway, catching the handle to close the door behind her, and nodded at the glass at his feet. "You should drink that. See 'ya in a while."

Angel eyed the drink, knowing he'd regret hard later if he ignored it. Grimacing, he slammed it, grateful his tastebuds remained cocaine numbed. One more task before sleep, he thought, and scooted up the bed to grab the phone. He dialed two numbers, and heard it ring downstairs an instant before the handset echoed it back at him.

"Angel," Wes answered. "Are you okay?"

Angel faltered, no reply forming in his brain. "Um, Faith."

"Yes?"

"Faith came up. Maybe you could, um, find Robin?"

"Ah," Wes said. "She got a bigger hit than she let on. I should have known, I'm sorry."

"It's okay, Wesley." Angel dragged in a breath. "I'm okay, too."

"Did you..."

"Yeah, drank it."

"It helps, Angel. Sleep well."

Wesley's heart hitched as he set the receiver down with exaggerated care. As full as the hotel stayed these days, he still felt like he was marching through the days alone, the sole survivor of Angel Investigations. Of course, that wasn't true; Gunn and Fred remained, but they spent more time under Giles' direction than working on local cases. He still saw them daily, except when they traveled, and he spent more hours beside Fred every week than anyone else on the team, but still... he was alone.

He watched Faith saunter down the staircase, running her hand with studied innocence along the banister. "Faith."

She stopped and flashed him a brilliant smile. "You, Wesley, have a beautiful voice."

"Thank you, Faith. You're high."

She didn't answer, just trotted down the rest of the steps as Wesley came around the reception counter to meet her. She ran one finger down the buttons of his shirt. "Yep."

"Why don't you take the rest of the night off? I'll call Robin to come pick you up."

"Worried I'll knock some... Fred!"

Wesley turned as Fred emerged from the kitchen holding a tray laden with several dark bottles of beer enticingly dotted with condensation and a platter of nachos draped in melted cheese and liberally coated with tomatoes, peppers and salsa. "I thought you might be hungry. I am, after reading to Angel for so long. Seems like supper was hours ago.We finished The Untouchables and started in on Before Adam."

Faith gave Wes a little shove with both hands. "I'm starved! We done here?"

Wes nodded as he grinned at Fred. In fact, she'd come down only two hours ago, right after turning Angel over to Spike, and made omelets for the crew coming in for the midnight shift change. She winked at him and suddenly he didn't feel so alone anymore.

"London's easy to read out loud," Fred continued as she moved towards the conference table that now sat in the lobby near the courtyard steps. "So long's you don't try to understand it at the same time. Come on, eat with me while we wait for Robin, maybe he'll want some, too. Want a beer before you go, Wesley?"

The Sumerian text on the counter was proving unhelpful in his search for the goopy, yellow demon Angel had encountered, his eyes were gritty and dry, and he really, really needed to try and put four or five hours of sleep together all at one time. "Yes, actually, I think I will. Just one." Reaching across the counter, he closed his book and pulled the phone around so he could dial Robin's cell.

Three

A green cove tucked into Heckler's Hill three miles west of Pineville, Waltham was home to Letcher County's vampire population. All of them. They were an open secret to the natives, never spoken of, and the little town had managed for a hundred years or more to suppress rumors from leaking out. Wesley had only noticed it, and found evidence of a slayer there, while tracking down an herb for a cure he wanted to try on Angel. It only grew in Letcher County, and in fact, only grew in the tiny cove of Waltham.

Buffy's first glimpse of it, a daylight sortie to get her bearings, stopped her in her tracks. She was standing above it, a half-mile distant on an upward winding dirt road, a quarter-mile from where she'd left her rental car. While the rest of Heckler's Hill was just leafing out, bare branches still just sketches against the stunning, blue Kentucky sky, Waltham was a lush, green haven, with bright splashes of color from the flowering plants growing out of season.

Now, under the full moon that left them with little cover, Waltham looked entirely unearthly. “I wish that dog would stop barking,” Buffy whispered. She wanted to listen.

“It's a hound,” Melinda whispered back.

“Hell Hound?”

Melinda shot her a look that made it obvious she thought maybe Buffy was crazy. “A hunting hound? It's baying. It's hunting.”

“What does it hunt?”

“Opossum or raccoon.”

“Oh,” Buffy said. “Okay. As long as it's not hunting us.”

Melinda sighed in that teenage girl way that made Buffy want to strangle them all.

The landscape lay undisturbed. Across a meadow tall with thick grass and little white starbursts of flowers, and through a perimeter of hardwoods, rhododendrons in full bloom and barbed holly, there were lights on in the cabins scattered haphazardly around the property, but no movement.

Buffy eased out from under the tree line, and trotted a zig-zag path through the grass as fast as she could to the perimeter trees. She could hear Melinda's light tread swishing along in her wake.

Standing in the heavy shadow, she held her breath and listened for the vampires she knew were there by the twisting of her belly. Melinda tugged at her sleeve and pointed at an old Chevy pick-up truck parked crooked at a fork in the drive between two cabins. Both doors stood open.

'Dad's,' Melinda mouthed. She then pointed to a larger cabin with a long, covered porch to their left; flickers of shadow suggested it was occupied. “Meeting house,” she breathed into Buffy's ear.

Buffy knew the herb that was her main mission grew wild somewhere nearby, maybe right here where she was standing, but the vampires cultivated it as well, and she wanted to be certain of her choice. She hooked her hand over the back of Melinda's neck and put her mouth to the girl's ear. “The herb.”

Melinda pointed in the opposite direction of the meeting house, where Buffy could just make out a weathered barn. Moonlight bounced off the dented tin roof, but the rest lay in darkness. She tipped her head at it.

Melinda glared at her. “My dad,” she hissed.

Buffy shook her head and mouthed, 'after'.

“No,” Melinda said, loud enough that Buffy raised her hand and took a long look at the 'meeting house' before turning her fury on Melinda.

“Your Dad chose to be here. Herbs first,” she spit out in a harsh hush.

“You go, I'll get Dad,” Melinda said. Buffy moved. Melinda's left bicep hard in the palm of her hand, Buffy spun her, grabbing her wrist and twisting her arm up, so it scraped painfully along the curve of her cross-bow.

She spoke in a whisper into Melinda's hair. “You will go with me, or you will sit here with a broken arm and whatever else I have to break to make you stay.”

The girl was crying already, silently. She nodded.

With Melinda standing guard, she hoped, Buffy picked ten different plants blind, stuffed them into six ziplocks, and buried them in her duffel under her dirty socks. She didn't need their pungent odors alerting the vamps to their presence.

Like black oil, Melinda oozed off the barn wall when Buffy stepped back out, her crossbow in hand. Melinda was smart and had tactical sense. Buffy hoped she could get her all the way back to LA unharmed. Seeing her leadership potential, Faith would surely do enough training damage to her after arrival to keep her in line.

Without speaking, they skirted the cabins on the same path they'd used to get in. Near their entry point, Buffy took the lead and zig-zagged them into the other side of the compound. It was so quiet, she could hear her own heartbeat. The vampires might, too, if they were paying attention.

Raucous laughter peeled back Buffy's calm and her skin tried to jump right off her. The meeting house door banged open and vamps spilled out into the cool air, making the rickety front porch groan. She scuttled over to the nearest cabin, just two from the meeting house and flattened herself against the rough-hewn boards. Smoke and sweat and must permeated the air. And then that familiar, metallic tang seeped into her nose and onto her tongue. Blood.

Melinda leaned forward, her nostrils flaring. The hound began baying again, much closer than before. Three of the five vamps stopped hitting each other and laughing, their heads turning.

“Shut up,” one of them said to the other two, who instantly stilled.

They stood in a staggered row, one of them standing down on the short front steps of the shallow porch. “Hey, September,” that one called.

A slender figure came to the doorway. Backlit, her features were in shadow, but Buffy could see that she was built curvy and strong, all her pieces melding in a way that spoke of speed and confidence. Her hair was past her shoulders and fanned out in silky waves.

She crossed her arms and strolled down the steps and into the moonlight. She was fair and blonde, with a face like the cameos Buffy's mother had in her jewelry box.

“Interesting,” she said. “What do you hear?”

The vamp, a roughneck with a stubble beard and dark, greasy hair that hung down onto his cheekbones, lifted his head and looked right at Buffy. He smiled. “Two.” He sniffed the air, like a dog, which made Buffy aware that the baying hound had turned, and was approaching fast. He said, “Your Daddy's dead, girl.”

“Better run,” September suggested. “That hound hasn't eaten in days.”

Melinda clutched at Buffy's hand. Buffy fixed the woman in her mind and then counted the additional vamps who had followed September out of the house while the hound ran closer, his cry echoing now through the hollows of Heckler's Hill. Too many of them. The hound bayed, voice trembling and eager.

They broke cover and ran.

When he woke, the sun was streaming fingers through the shutters. Angel wobbled out of bed, drawn to the window. He caught himself with the shutters half open, the light just hitting his toes and froze. No tempered glass here. Never was, but he could feel the golden, late afternoon light on his face all the same. Not just any light, sunlight, with it's indefinable weight that felt more caress than bright. (Kisses feathered on his cheeks, brush of hair across his eyes, lavender) And that one he couldn't place.

He breathed deep, trying to follow the trace of lavender through his head to the place he'd been, but it got caught up somewhere inside. And his toes weren't thanking him for the sunburn. He edged back, but didn't close the window.

Tracking a spotted hound as it weaved, nose down, along the deserted sidewalk across the street, Angel relaxed and reached out across the hotel. Most everyone seemed gathered downstairs. Not Connor. Not Cordy or Faith or Gunn. Wes's low, reassuring timbre rose and fell in a steady pattern that meant he was reading aloud, though Angel couldn't make out the words. It took him a moment to find Spike, and a moment longer to realize it was Spike he heard singing tonelessly, a rhythmic pant.

Still feeling doped, listening to Spike, Angel watched the hound's tail disappear from the frame of the window and resisted leaning into the light to watch it turn the corner. He turned and left his room, padding down the hall barefoot. Spike's door stood cracked open, which was as good as an invite. Angel nudged the door wide. Spike whirled to face him, dropping into a fighting crouch, his staff held at the ready.

"Oh's you," he said, and swung the staff up into a figure eight, his hands blurring as he found the beat again. He was soaked. Sweat creeped from his hairline, followed the curve of his jaw, and dropped off his chin. "You're staring."

Angel nodded and crossed to the wide-armed chair near Spike's bed, sitting with a deep sigh.

"Gets better."

"You said."

"Meant it," Spike breathed. He watched some distant point through the open door, letting his body work.

After a long absent while, Spike stopped. Angel started, his entrancement broken.

Spike stood regarding him, hands on hips. "Won't lie to you... this time was bad, mate."

Angel looked down at his fists. The stark bruising, after having fed and slept, attested to his level of rage while he was blitzed. But he couldn't catch hold of a single coherent thread of his waking nightmare, could barely articulate a single image, and didn't know if it mattered anyway.

"Do you remember where you were last? That yellow goop was pretty smelly 'til it evaporated. Wes thought maybe Sussken Worm, but Fred disagreed. You remember a big, hairy worm thing?"

"No."

"You remember that odd duck was wearing a leather jumper on the train?"

"No," Angel retorted, but then, yeah. Bald, green eyes, bright pink leather jumper. Gunn had kept up a steady jabberstream of invective aimed at him about just any old demon riding public transportation until an offended old lady sitting in the next aisle over shed her skin and objected by spraying caustic venom at everyone in range while ranting about the cost of city taxes. Spike had reacted first, taking the old lady's head off with one swipe of his blade, and the odd duck, blood dripping down his smoking pink vinyl, applauded like he was front row center at Staples. "Yes."

Spike frowned. "Which is it?"

"Yes, I remember."

"You remember whaling me in the ribs last night?"

Angel smiled.

Spike nodded. "Thought so. I'm showering. Can you handle seeing everyone downstairs?"

No. Not what he wanted. All he wanted was to hole up in his room. "Yes."

"We'll go down together. Dress and come back. Sit right here and wait for me."

As he walked back to his suite to dress, Angel pondered the fact that Spike was ordering him around like a child... and Angel was letting him, needed him to, until the drugs wore off. It meant nothing to him, this ritual. It was just what they did now. A cold seep of adrenaline pooled at his lower back. He needed to find a cure to his... madness. Yesterday.

Downstairs lay chaos. Angel paused on the landing, and Spike stopped two steps down to wait on him. Seven slayers were all talking at the same time. Four were flipping pages in books taken from the twenty or so piled down the length of the conference table. Fred sat frowning at the papers in front of her, her elbows planted on the table, a pencil in her mouth, apparently keeping time by the beat of the forgotten calculator in her hand. Giles and Wesley had their heads together, the harsh tones of an intense conversation passing between them, as they faced a white board covered side to side and top to bottom with arcane symbols. Angel... knew what most of them meant, but couldn't think of the name of the language.

Like kernels of corn warming to his gaze, every single one of the eleven slayers popped a glance his way and dismissed him again without interrupting their work. Except one, a new girl. Anna? Angie? Her predatory glare shifted from him to Spike and back again before she lowered her eyes to her research.

"Right loud lot, they are," Spike said. "C'mon, Peaches."

"Spike..."

"I know, I know, won't say it again."

As they stepped down into the lobby, Wesley saw them, and reached out to touch Giles on the arm. Surlipian, that was it. "Surlipian, right?" Angel said out loud.

"Yes, you know it?" Giles sounded surprised, which irritated Angel, but not enough to react. "We're unsure of this phrase," he said, pointing to three words near the bottom of the board. "We know the next word is "stone", or maybe "rock"."

Spike shrugged. "Beyond me. I'll meet you in the kitchen when you're done, Angel."

Angel still felt zoned, kind of distant, but he remembered the routine. Someone or other with him every moment of the next forty-eight hours, two pints of blood six times a day. He stuck his hands in his pockets. "Okay."

Turning, Spike raised his voice, "Anyone wants debriefing, Anna, Lisbeth, or has some pitiful excuse for a simple overhand axe throw, Gretchen, is welcome to join me."

The table fell silent, except for Fred. In the quiet, Angel could hear her whispering numbers to herself.

"There's no way they're using Garcia for false..." A brunette said and the group discussion broke out in full roar again.

Three of the girls, including the newest, pushed their chairs back and followed Spike. Lisbeth and Gretchen he knew, so the new girl was Anna. Yay, him, for almost knowing that.

Skirting the slayers, Angel joined Wesley and Giles. He studied the white board "Rimtic s'cop... ostem," he read.

"Rimtic is a color, I'm almost certain, maybe yellow." Wesley said.

"Indigo," Angel corrected absently. Ostem was interesting. It wasn't a Surlipian symbol. "S'cop is planet."

Giles scribbled "planet" in red above s'cop.

"Light planet," he added.

"Maybe "star"?" Wesley said.

Giles scribbled in "star".

"The next one..." It just didn't look right, though Angel knew the word.

"Capiyu, we think."

"No, it's ostem. It's not Surlipian. It's... something else." And the girl slamming in through basement door was quite likely to know. Angel smiled.

Giles cocked his head. "Not Surlipian?"

"Nope," Angel said. "Dawn?"

"That one word there? It's Bantoc for September."

"Bantoc?" Wesley said. "That's odd. There's no connection between the two cultures, they existed a thousand years apart and had vastly different calenders." He looked down at the floor, considering.

Dawn grabbed Angel's arm and gave him a half-hug before sliding her hand into his. "It's a mystery," she agreed.

Giles shook his head and wrote in "September". "Indigo, light planet or star, September, stone."

"Megan," Wesley said to the slayers. "Is Chamberlain's over there?"

"No, Mr. Wesley."

Wes turned on his heel, and made for the office.

"What is this?" Angel asked, sweeping a hand at the board.

"It's..." Giles stopped and pulled his glasses off. He patted his shirt pockets before pulling a handkerchief from his pants pocket. He rubbed at the lenses, frowning. "It *might* be related to the vampire mules Faith's patrol ran into last night. Then again, it might not."

"Where did it come from?"

"The mule they dusted gave it to a hooker working the corner two blocks over. She thought it was a poem. Gunn is resourceful. He canvassed the neighborhood." Giles put on his glasses, tucked the handkerchief away, and looked Angel in the eye. "I like him quite a lot. He's a valuable asset."

Unlike an extra souled vampire verging on complete insanity. Angel looked away. "I know, Giles."

"Willow should be back in a minute, Giles," Dawn said. "She walked down the block for rowan and black wax." She tugged on Angel's hand, peering up at him. "I bet you haven't eaten yet, and I'm desperate for a peanut butter sandwich. With bananas. And chocolate chips."

Giles waved them off. "I'll be here."

The Watcher's Council had probably never seen their funds put to a better use than the restoration of the Hyperion's kitchen and two of its floors of rooms. It had worked out so well tas a base and jumping-off point for the army of slayers that were finding their way to them from around the world that Giles had purchased a small hotel in London for the staff there as well.

The Hyperion's long, fully-tiled kitchen sparkled in stainless steel and chrome. Copper pans gleamed under the bright, new lighting. Two mandarian-speaking Skants, Gladys and Marby, did the vast majority of the prep and cooking for the slayers and kept everything spotless.

As Angel and Dawn came in, one of them was standing on a stool, polishing the vent hood above the cooktop. It flipped its fleshy head crown thingy at them and screeched. They both smelled like the kitchen, so Angel couldn't tell them apart unless they spoke English. Spike and the girls, seated at the far end of the kitchen at one of the two big round tables, ignored their entrance.

"Hello to you, too, Marby," Dawn answered the demon. "Can I make myself a sandwich?"

Marby said something in Skantish, and waved at the cooler.

"Okay, peanut butter? With bananas and chips."

Angel raised his brows. "Since when do you speak Skantish?"

"Potato chips?" Gladys said directly behind him.

Angel jumped forward, hit Dawn, and they both went down. Angel's boots hit Marby's stool. It squealed backwards across the slick tiles and Marby crash landed on Angel's back. Dawn squirmed under him just as Marby scrambled on top, digging his fingers between Angel's ribs. Trapped, his legs tangled with Dawn's, Mabry's squeal in his ear, the pounding of feet across the floor. Shouts. Angel's chest went white-light nova, blinding panic.

Drawing his legs up, ignoring the bruising roll of Dawn's calf beneath his knee, her sharp yelp, Marby's scrabbling slide as he fell, Angel shoved his hands down until they met bare, cold concrete and stood...

... up into the dark, moonless night. The tower was cold tonight. Others shifted all around him, but here in his spartan cell, he was alone. His dreams always drove him into motion. Sometimes they seemed the reality and this dank, stinking hole in the London Tower the dream. He roamed the cell in untidy figure-eights, his shoulders brushing his boundaries on every pass. The rippled, broken stone of the cell walls reflected little light from the two slit windows. He wished the moon were full so he could read. Not that he needed the actual book anymore.

How long, since Buffy's last visit? How long before she came again, brought him a new shirt and a different book and news of the States, of Canada and the fall of South America? Did Australia survive? Had the rising in Africa spread through the Middle East? Most of Europe would hold, he thought, and parts of China- Hong Kong and Bejing for sure. Probably Calcutta. Probably Moscow. The largest areas of land mass in Russia and Asia would fall though, he was certain. Not enough people lived in them to eradicate the demons rising from the Earth's crust, some of them tribes which had slept a millennium waiting for the human scourge to burn themselves out. They were hungry. He was hungry.

He scratched at his chest. Three years since he spilled that very first dragon's blood, drenched himself and soaked the still healing brand of the Black Thorn in it. Ever since, it burned and itched and writhed beneath his skin. Welted, furrowed scar tissue rose in long slashes across the skin of his hands. Insensitive and numb, the calloused scars were good only for soothing the constant irritation of the brand.

It was habit, now. Rubbing at it just made it burn worse, but the itch quit, and it chilled him out, let him walk around and around his prison and lose hours, until someone brought bread or cheese or even a thin soup. He rubbed at his brand. Rubbed and rubbed and rubbed...

"Stop it," Spike hissed.

"What?" Angel said to Spike's blurry scowl. He blinked hard and shook his head.

"Stop scratching at it, you'll make it bleed." He was standing, hands flat on the kitchen table, face inches from Angel's.

Angel stopped rubbing at the black scar barely visible under the skin of his left pec. It had faded a bit over the years, the edges gone rough and mottled. He found a mug in his left hand. It was filled with luke-warm blood. He drained it. "Where are the girls?"

"Oh, all back with me, now, huh? That was fuckin' stupid, Angel. God, I hate it when you over react!" Spike spun away from the table. "Scared poor Gladys half to hell and back."

Well, shit. "She scared me!"

"She's got a pulse you can hear, Angel, wake up!"

Angel slammed the mug down. "I can't, Spike! Do you think I'm doing... this..." All his irritation, all his anger swirled into the nausea swamping him. He shoved his chair back, dropped his head between his knees and retched.

silver glint-grass-bright-fear-grass-boulder-fearpain-fingersbruising-snakenotsnake-scales-stinghotrippingwetshoulder

"Shit." Spike muttered above him.

mmmbloodspicysaltysweetsmell-terror-fangs-lightsbright--leapingheartjoy-terror-silvergrassscales

"No, truck. Truck. Headlights. Jeep. '80, '81? Dark. Green? Blue? RPX.RPX32. Not saved. Not saved. Not saved yet. Not yet. Scaled. Definitely scaled. Claws. Four? Five claws right hand."

"Where?"

"Griff... No. No. I don't know. Horses. I could hear them. Smell them. And cars, lots of cars. No cars. Not Griffith Park. Christ."

Wesley's loafers appeared next to Spike's boots. Dizzy, Angel closed his eyes and coughed, the blood he'd just drunk seemed congealed in his stomach. The thin smear of it on the back of his tongue was sour, in sharp contrast to the taste in his vision. He gagged. Someone patted his shoulder.

"Today?" Wesley said.

Angel nodded.

"Tonight?"

Angel felt for the time, the coming dawn, and counted back. "Maybe one or two in the morning? After midnight." He breathed in and a familiar smell hit him. Leather. Leather and raw metal and soap and something astringent. Pungent herbal. "Leather and something herbal. Saddle shop? Greenhouse? Maybe? At Griffith. Not at Griffith. Close." He raised his head and looked up at Wesley and Spike looking down at him. Concern etched lines into their faces. Identical blue eyes, different expressions. Spike's were shuttered, but Wesley's... Angel glanced at the empty mug lying on its side at the edge of the table.

"I'll get it," Spike said. He grabbed the mug and retreated to the cooler.

Wesley tapped the table. Angel turned his head towards him, but kept his eyes on the whorls of the aged wood. He flattened his fingers and rubbed his palms over the pitted surface, feeling the hereness of the Hyperion.

"Can Gunn and I handle it?"

Angel nodded.

"Good." He let his fingers brush over Angel's bowed head as he left.

The girl's dark bob swung across her cheek and the horse in the stall with her threw its head up and snorted as she spun to confront him.

"Cordelia?" Wesley said. He had the strangest sense of deja-vu.

"Yes?" She waited, obviously expecting more from him.

Wesley frowned, grabbing at a sliding thought. Ah. Angel was always asking about a Cordelia after his episodes. They'd never been able to ascertain whether she was strictly delusion or someone from Angel's past. He asked about others on occasion, some they could ID and others they couldn't, but Cordelia was a constant, each and every time.

After the moment passed, and a moment more on top, she raised her eyebrows. "Were you looking for me?"

"I'm sorry, you reminded me of someone else." Wesley cleared his throat. "Yes. Tim? The guy in the office? He said you told him you heard something odd. The other night."

"Yeah, I did. A big cat, like mountain lion big, not a bobcat."

"You'd know the difference?"

"Yes, I would." Without offering further explanation, she frowned at him and turned back to cleaning the stall with a plastic pitchfork. Standing against the back wall, the large, brown horse sighed and shifted, cocking one hip.

Wesley stepped into the stall. “Nice horse.”

"You know horses?"

"Enough to know he's built well," Wesley caged. He'd learned to ride as a child, but he doubted that counted with this girl.

"I need shavings. What did you need me for?"

"I'm with Angel Investigations. A resident nearby is concerned about a missing neighbor and we're checking the park."

Cordelia looked at him. "And I'm the Queen."

She brushed past him, dragging her mucking out bucket with her and then stood ready at the door, waiting for him to follow. When he took the hint, she shut it and slid the latch home before speaking again.

"What..." With her arms crossed over her breasts and her dark, deep-set eyes impenetrable, the only thing open about her was her mouth. Wesley's gaze slid over the cliff of her cheekbones and traced the lines of her full, unadorned lips. " ...did you need me for?"

"Oh,” Wesley said, jerking his gaze up to meet her eyes. “Uh, what direction did you hear the, um, cat..."

She pointed out across Griffith park in an unhelpful sweep of her hand that covered everything east of where they were standing at Sunset Ranch. "Try west of the zoo." She smiled. "You aren't close enough to track it until you hear it cough."

"Cough?" Wesley said, as Cordelia turned and stalked away from him, her heels kicking up little puffs of dust from the sand and sawdust aisle way.

"Making you eat her dust?" Gunn said as he walked up beside Wes.

"Yes. Any luck?"

"They take out dinner rides, that get back here about 10:30, so everyone needs to be careful what they aim their weapons at, if they do. Saddle shop across the park at LA Equestrian closes at 6:30. Fred called and said the biggest nursery and the only greenhouses are at the zoo. You?"

Wesley started back towards the office, where he'd left his Civic, drawing Gunn along with him. "She says she heard a mountain lion."

"Damn. I don't like cats."

Punching the bag felt tremendously like normal. Angel put his head down and let his shoulders roll as he hit it hard, with fast one-two-one jabs.

"Why, it's the little prince, himself," he heard Spike say and when he looked up, Connor was sitting hangdog halfway up the stairs.

"Connor!"

Connor lifted a limp hand in response. "Dad."

A swarm of little winged things took possession of the space behind Angel's breastbone. He leaned heavily into the bag he held and felt Spike push back from the other side. Dad. Angel could've sworn he wasn't Connor's Dad here. "You okay? Son?"

"Feel like I got thrashed by Grochlers. Oh, yeah, I did get thrashed by Grochlers."

Angel straightened, the strength of relieved parenthood pulsing through his veins. Sarcastic Connor meant everything was A-okay in his son's worldview, and that felt fine.

"You?"

"Better than yesterday."

Connor chuckled. "How many of us did you kill off this time?"

"The whole lot," Spike answered for him. "Save you, you rat's whelp. He never does for you."

"'Course not," Connor boasted. "Who else to help him kill the dragon?"

Angel frowned, remembering the thud of a heavy body on the glass lobby doors. Rain-slicked floors. Blood cut a swath across them all the way to the silver elevator doors. The skin of his neck crawled, and his chest itched. "You know? About the dragon?"

Spike swung the bag hard enough to knock him a step back.

"Everyone knows about the dragon, Peaches. I think I hear the cowboys upstairs."

And yes, a wave of greetings built across the room above, lapped the walls, trickled down to them. Chairs slid noisy across the floor, and Angel registered Gunn's distinctive tread as he crossed to the basement door.

"Yo, Spike! You got Angel down there?"

Not so long ago, Angel would have taken Gunn's head as a trophy for making him feel like a dog. Today he just grimaced.

Spike raised his brows as he looked at Angel . "Yep. We'll come up."

As Angel crested the landing into the lobby, Wes saw him become aware of the crowd and hesitate in the doorway. Spike jostled into him, pushing with purpose, and Angel had no choice but to move. Everyone was there but Buffy and Xander. Full LA staff meeting. Twenty six slayers and eight leads, plus Clem and Angel.

Angel sized up the crowd, looking stern. Wes suspected he was trying to recall names.

"Lorne?" Angel asked.

"Said he might swing by next week if we don't make it by the club before then," Connor said behind him.

"Oh. Okay."

"Please, Angel, come sit here," Wes pushed out the chair next to him at the conference table out with his foot. Its back was to the courtyard doors, giving Angel an escape route, should he feel the need. It was a shame he'd suffered a vision while trying to recover from his episode. It seemed to take him longer these days to find his equilibrium.

As Angel crossed to him, Spike, Connor and Gunn fanned out, each taking one side of the room. They all did it so skillfully, saying hi and patting shoulders. Faith was hovering near the front doors. Three years had made them a pack, wolves in sooth mode. Wesley shook his head. A team, that's what he meant of course. Giles was watching, too, narrow-eyed. Wes cleared his throat.

"Now then. We have three separate items of order this evening. Our first case is the drug mules Faith's crew discovered near La Cienega last night. Giles is heading up the investigation. So far, we have no solid leads. The next week or so will be spent in reconnaissance as we chart the area in a ten mile radius. Faith will lead one team, Connor the other. Clem, we need you to ask around. Quietly. Giles will brief you on keywords to pass on to our informants. Teams one and four will report on this case immediately following this meeting." Various nods all around. Good.

"The second case is paying." Everyone stirred. Payment for cases were split equally. Payment meant walking around money and money for personal use, deodorant and CD's, nail polish and lip-stick, new shirts. It was always welcome. "We believe it's a retribution curse. Every nine days, a banshee wails for three nights, apparently audible to family members only, and then one of the family dies. Three have died so far, including a child."

Wes let the small noises of dismay and disgust fade away. It was always good to have confirmation that, as a group, they hadn't lost all touch with their emotions, or forgotten that they were here to help the helpless, even the stupid ones who brought grief and horror down upon themselves and their own innocents. He tapped the file. Of course, it was also prudent to remember that evil took on all guises. "Actually, in reviewing other cases, it's come to my attention that perhaps the children involved are the key. There are several, and they seem not altogether... normal. Willow?"

"Sure, Wes. What night are we on?"

"The banshee is due tonight, if the pattern holds."

"Can I have Dawn?"

He handed the file to the nearest standing slayer and they passed it hand by hand to Willow. "Yes, if you both carry cells and radios and don't turn them off. Team three will report to you tomorrow." He glanced around, for effect, pretending Team Three was hanging on his every word. "Nine AM?" Team Three grinned at him and each other.

"So we've got the night off, boss?" Kennedy clarified.

He looked to Willow, who nodded. Team Three would be headed to Cairo within the month, the start of a new branch. With the talent of a natural born leader, Kennedy was establishing her position with her eight girls. She had already proven herself competent in investigation and research and Wesley spent part of every day teaching her basic management and office skills, quizzing her judgement by giving her hypothetical situations. A Stryker attacks, co-workers fall for each other...

"Yes. The third case," he said quickly, in an attempt to quell their excitement until he could finish.

They settled, probably already planning wardrobe. A new club had opened within walking distance and the slayers had adopted it as their own. The upside was that vampires and demons steered clear, so it was somewhat safe for them. Wesley cleared his throat and glanced at Angel, but Angel was staring at one of the wood-grain whorls of the table top, tracing it with his thumb, over and over.

"The third case involves Angel's last vision. Gunn and I will work it. We need Team Two tonight. We'll be scouting Griffith Park, so wear long sleeves and bring your flashlights and crossbows. We'll brief you in thirty minutes in the side lot. Does anyone have anything else to add?"

Silence and the shifting of feet.

"Let's do it," Gunn said, clapping his hands together.

Everyone moved like oil spreading in water, everywhere at once. Angel's hand fisted. Wes laid his hand on Angel's taut forearm, staying him. As the lobby cleared, leaving only Giles' teams along with Gunn, Faith, and Connor, Angel relaxed. Giles himself stood out in the courtyard with Clem. Clem's big ears flopped with every nod of his head. Everyone found a seat and Faith started talking, laying out the strategy for their search.

Wesley listened, flipping through the file, letting his brain absorb what it might. Angel snagged a photocopy of the scrawled note Gunn had recovered. No easy feat that, since the hooker holding it thought it a sincerely penned French love poem. Wesley watched Angel for a moment, but Angel's brow was furrowed in concentration and a moment later, he pushed his chair back and wandered off to the office.

Hearing Faith's narrative resume, Wes realized that everyone stayed attentive to Angel's every move. It was becoming an issue, like having a dog no one quite trusted move among them. Spike slouched along in Angel's wake and took up a lean against the office door jamb and Wes made an effort to concentrate as Giles joined Faith in the briefing.

Angel skimmed the titles of the books that seemed to proliferate organically in the atmosphere of research that saturated the very air of the hotel these days. Only in the aftermath of a vision that didn't leave much time to spare, did the old method of action first, research later, apply. Patrols were planned now, trouble anticipated, body counts estimated. He felt out-moded sometimes, but always, something came along where he could prove himself. This was one of those times. If only he could remember what he needed.

He reached out and let his fingers drag along the bindings- fabric, leather, canvas, the textures rippled under his touch...

... stone, uneven, pitted, cold. Eyes closed, he paced the confines of his cell, fingertips trailing along the stone, corner, stone, corner, wood, stone, corner, stone...

... leather. Angel took a deep breath and ordered the sick yaw of his stomach to stillness. Scott's Comprehensive Guide to Gemstones. Angel slid the book from its place and flipped through it. When he thought he could walk again, he put it back and retreated to the desk, careful not to look towards Spike. Spike didn't need to know.

He stared down at the photocopy of Gunn's note. It was written in harsh, heavy symbols, with an english, phonetic conversion in an old-fashioned hand below it. Wes and

Giles' hasty, literal translation peppered the page in contrasting inks, with words missing.

on nights darkest segment
meetings must obey among
youngest growth and limbs spread
open
families spring high
tear and bind again
loyalty lives in indigo
(light) planet
September
spiritless rock

Translation wasn't his strongest suite, but Angel did know alternate words for youngest growth and spread. "Offspring" and "branch". And, considering the source, another word for offspring? Fledglings. And although most fledglings were born for sport, those who survived were generally eventually claimed into one family or another. Most didn't have a Darla to save their useless necks.

Spike straightened in the doorway. "Stop scratching at it," he said mildly.

"What?"

"Your shoulder."

The scar burned a bit, as soon as he became aware of scratching it. He rubbed it hard and left off, grabbing a pen instead. He wrote in "offspring" and "branch" and after a moment's hesitation, put "fledgling" in parenthesis.

"You ready? Faith's wrapping up."

At Angel's nod, Spike kicked away from the door in a swirl of black leather, headed in the direction of the weapons cabinet. "I want a sword," Angel called after him.

"Yeah, and I want a supermodel," Spike muttered.

"I can hear you!"

Giles met him in the doorway, and Angel handed over the translation. "I just... had a thought."

"Thank you, Angel," Giles said, taking the sheet without looking at it. "Do be careful out there."

"I will."

"Here 'ya go," Spike said, thrusting a wooden quarterstaff at him.

For God's sake. "Spike, what am I supposed to do with that?"

"All I'm givin' you, take it or leave it."

Giles tilted his head que sera, sera fashion and gave him a sympathetic smile. "Kennedy wasn't very happy when you nearly decapitated her."

Angel thought about the feel of cold stone beneath his fingers and under the bare soles of his feet. He took the staff.

Breathing deep, like Giles had taught her so long ago, Buffy ran. Melinda followed, smart enough to stay in the same track. They started out running away from the direction of the car, winding their way through the trees and underbrush but Buffy hoped that once they were well away, they could bury their scent, go to ground, and double back on deer trails in daylight.

Nearly an hour later, she was losing hope. The Hound seemed always about to catch up, though they had yet to see it. Without warning, she trotted out onto a wide path. Melinda leaped out beside her, stake raised and dusted a vamp Buffy barely had time to register. She spun, jabbing upward and took out another as it tried to wrench her bag from her.

“They know we took the plants,” she panted.

The hound bayed, a second joined it, and then a third. The howls seemed to come from everywhere.

“We're still on Heckler's Hill; there's caves we can hide in, or at least get something solid at our backs.”

“Lead the way,” Buffy said.

Melinda looked up and down the path, made a decision, and trotted off. Buffy prayed the girl had made the right decision. A few minutes on, they veered off the path and back into the brush.

After a steep upward climb, Melinda stopped and crouched down. Buffy knelt beside her. “Okay, the entrance into the caves is nearly hidden by a cracked boulder and a stubby ash tree. We won't be able to tell if there's anyone waiting for us inside until we're in.”

“How do you know about it?” Buffy said.

“It's legendary for being cursed. Most everyone doesn't think it exists, and they're afraid of the vamps, so no one comes to Heckler's Hill anyway, not even the backside.”

“But you did.”

Melinda shrugged. “I needed to know.”

The hounds bayed directly in front of them, from the direction of the cave. Buffy bit her lip. A terrific crashing came from the woods at their back.

“Here,” someone yelled.

“Let's go,” Buffy said and took off. Melinda streaked by and spun left into the narrow entrance. Her eardrums vibrating with the deep braying voices of the hounds, Buffy squeezed through, stake raised. Other hand reaching over her shoulder for her crossbow. The hounds ceased their cacophony and set to snarling, their fangs dripping with saliva. They each stood as high as Buffy's mid-thigh, and seemed to writhe with working muscle as they crouched and plunged, but didn't attack.

“Why aren't they eating us?” Melinda said.

“Keep moving,” Buffy said. She didn't know and she really didn't care right now. “Flashlight in my bag.”

She kept the hounds in her crossbow sights. Melinda fumbled at her back, and unzipped the duffle. The hounds whined and feinted away. The beam popped on and the zip ripped back across again. The hounds steadied. That was interesting, Buffy thought. “Go ahead of me,” she said. “Back to back.”

The hounds pursued, one step for Buffy's every one, staying a good eight feet back. There were voices in the cave at the entrance. The cave narrowed. On the other side, they could see pale light, an exit. “I don't remember this,” Melinda said. “But it must be the other side of the Hill.”

The hounds didn't follow them out. The trees were scrubbier, and the ground seemed barer and dustier than in Waltham Cove, but Buffy only noticed to mark the location in her head. She had no idea where the car was now. They ran down into a low ravine and stopped, checking for pursuit. The hounds were silent.

“There,” Melinda whispered. One, two, four, six shadows emerged and cast about for their scent.

Buffy knew she could take on six, that was a lot less than the thirty-odd she had counted back at Waltham, but she didn't know Melinda. Newbie slayers had cracked under way less pressure than this one had been through just tonight. How much longer would she last? And there was no reason for the vamps to pursue them this hard unless it was for the herbs. Pineville had an agreement with Waltham that had worked a hundred years. If Melinda came to Waltham again to revenge her father's death, they could just kill her.

If she tried to pick these six off, she'd be leaving Melinda to fend for herself, and endangering Angel's possible cure. And the hounds hadn't liked them at all, Wesley and Fred could find out why. It might be useful in the future.

“Let's go,” she whispered. They moved slowly and silently until they'd crossed the next ridge, and then they trotted again, the drier air rasping in their lungs. Buffy wondered where a damn road was, it seemed like they should've crossed one, at least a dirt one. Zig-zagging uphill again, her thighs were burning.

Cordelia Chase had been hearing the unearthly wail for at least three weeks. Standing outside the barn at Sunset Ranch, where she worked more often than she wanted to, she cocked her head and listened for it, sure she had detected a pattern. She glanced at her watch. It was a little early, just before midnight.

She opened her car door and slid in, deciding to ride with her windows down and the radio off, just in case. It was Tuesday night, she had no auditions for tomorrow, like most every other day. Just once, three months ago, her scales had ridden the wave of her emotion to the surface, appearing across her lower back and everyone on set of the indy infomercial had freaked. All seven of them.

She turned the key. The Jeep ground its teeth and choked. She turned it off and tried again. The engine rattled and whined and then caught, sputtering heavily before leveling off to a throaty purr.

Flashing her scales showed the strength of her acting chops, right? She had been immersed in the moment. That cleaner didn't really work, after all, but she had convinced herself it did enough to forget herself when she got all passionate about its strength and ability to strip a toilet bowl. Her agent had dropped her in a one sentence voice mail containing the name of Hollywood's best dermatologist.

She turned onto steep Hollyridge Drive and headed down the canyon. The wailing was a definite itch in her head; it was supernatural. She'd dragged Ramone out back of the turnout paddocks the second night she heard it and he hadn't heard a thing. Her ears were really good, though, so maybe it wasn't like that ghost from last year.

Her spine tingled and then a high pitch whine invaded the car and grew in tone and volume into the wail that made her scalp prickle. The hair on her arms stood up. She slowed down, concentrating. It seemed to be coming from further down the canyon and east. She sped up and zigzagged down as fast as she dared until she ran up on a boxy Volvo.

The second wail began, winding itself up to full cry before she could floor her gas and shoot out and around the slowpoke in front of her. He blew his horn in a long blast. The wail shifted to her left, definitely in the area of the houses tucked into the hills below the Observatory. She hesitated at every street that went left, since none went right, and then felt that indefinable consensus of her senses as the wail began its undulating descent.

Her bald tires squealed against the pavement as she wrestled her Jeep into a sharp turn. The quiet, tree-lined street boasted old, lush landscaping and a combination of imposing, old money homes, and small 1950 era one-story ranches. The area felt solid and unmovable and closed in a way that was rare in LA. No matter what happened, fire, earthquake, crappy politics, grabby developers, a hundred years from now, this neighborhood would look just like it did tonight under the half-moon. As eternal as rock.

The third wail opened, a pitiful sound, and she slowed down, trying to pinpoint it. Finally, she came upon a road that went right. It might take her the rest of the night to find her way out of the maze again, but she was going to locate the damn thing. She crossed a small ridge and turned right again and the left onto something Oak. Another right. There.

An old canyon house, sided in wood, lurked behind two ancient, gnarled Olive trees. Two older men, stocky, European types with wide faces and white hair, stood outside on the drive. They were each holding large, stone bowls across their forearms, from which a thick white smoke rose, clearly visible under the street lights.

Cordy passed them, pulled over to the curb and cut her engine. She cranked her side mirror out to watch them. The wail reached its peak and plateaued. One of the men sunk to his knees, his bowl shaking so hard she was sure he'd drop it. Floodlights on the house flashed on. A redheaded woman darted from the bushes of the side yard and went to his rescue.

“Excuse me,” a woman's voice said from Cordelia's open passenger window.

Cordy's seat belt locked when she jumped. It was just a girl, maybe nineteen or twenty. Her dark hair spilled over a hoodie, like a cowl that framed her flawless face and big eyes. She looked innocent enough. “Yes?” Cordelia said loudly over the wail, which was just starting its descent to its conclusion. Until tomorrow night.

“I noticed your open windows when you drove by, and...” She glanced down and flushed.

“Yes?” Cordy prompted.

“You seemed so intent. Can you hear the banshee?”

Cordy froze.

“I mean, it looked like... I mean... I should just let you go inside.”

“I don't live here,” Cordy said and then bit her tongue.

“Oh,” the girl said.

Cordy couldn't latch onto a lie to give the girl.

She looked down again, digging in her jacket pocket, and then extended a business card. 'Angel Investigations' it said, with an address on Hyperion Avenue. 'Dawn Summers'. “I'm Dawn,” the girl said. “If, you know, you think about it and want to call me, or come by?”

Hadn't the man at the barn said he worked for Angel Investigations? Cordelia took the card and nodded. Praying the engine would for once just start up, Cordelia cranked the key in the ignition. It coughed and started. She patted the dash and pulled away, leaving Dawn Summers standing in the street. The men and the redhead were talking in the drive, the bowls extinguished. A banshee. Well, at least she knew what the hell the noise was now.

It was really scrubby here. The big trees had ended within a few hundred yards of the cave. Buffy stumbled and the brush around her burst open. Melinda screamed, Buffy went all the way down, pummeled from behind. Rolling across the ground, her stake hit nothing but air. She bounced up, ready to fight. The last mule deer in the herd disappeared back into the scrub, but they'd opened a wide trail of battered grass and brush.

“Can we hide in their scent for a couple of minutes?”

Buffy nodded and ran in the deer's wake. Without the hounds to alert them, she felt deaf and blind, expecting the vamps to spring at any second. It'd be a relief.

Cordy drove in what she thought was a circle, one of these would be a road she knew. Beachwood, or maybe Fern Dell was somewhere in here and she could exit by way of Griffith Park and Los Feliz. She turned. The next stop sign brought her back to where she'd been at least twice before, so she turned back again and turned on Live Oak. Verde Oak, Spring Oak, Green Oak. How many Oaks could there be?

The road curved again. And then she was in the dark, literally, when the streetlights ended. She was in Griffith Park proper, she knew, and this road wasn't gated, so far. It should curve up and somewhere loop over to Fern Dell. Or maybe it was Brush Canyon Road and she could hit Mulholland Highway and go out one of the gates across it- unless they were locked.

The pavement grew rougher. Cordelia decided that if she hit dirt, she'd definitely turn around.

Something big hurtled out of the dark. Scrunching her eyes shut, Cordelia stomped on her brakes with both feet. A thudding crunch crumpled her door. She opened her eyes in time to see the another deer's back feet clearing her hood, two of three crossed in front and then they were gone. She remembered to breathe.

Just when she fingered the window toggle, the deer outside her door scrambled up, his hooves scraping on the metal. His head butted up, antlers clunking on the glass. She stared straight into his eye. His nostrils flared. He swayed and struggled up, turning away from her. Suddenly he shied back against the door, franticly bumped along her hood and then leaped away, crossing the road and disappeared into the woods past the side glare of her lights.

Something tapped at her window. She screamed and jumped against her unyielding seatbelt, again. She floored the gas. Her Jeep died.

“Are you okay?”

A woman. Again.

“Hey, are you okay?” the woman yelled through the smeared window.

Cordelia couldn't make her out through whatever that gunk was, not going there. In the light thrown from her headlights and the little bit of moon, all Cordy could tell was that she was blonde. “Yes,” she said nodding.

“Yes?” the woman yelled.

Where was her car? “Where's your car?” Cordelia yelled.

“We were hiking, we got lost.”

Cordy weighed that for a moment. How many was 'we'? She pushed the toggle switch with one finger and lowered the window part way. The woman was young; they were probably about the same age. She had a duffel bag slung over her, the strap crossing between her small breasts. Someone stepped up from behind her, leaning down to see in. A bone thin teenager. A word leapt into her mind. Vampire.

Night, single woman alone in a deserted place....

They didn't look like vampires, just dirty and tired, but then Cordy had never actually been this close to one, so how would she know?

“Our car's over on a fire road off Mill's Stream.”

Cordy shrugged. “I don't know where that is.”

“Could you take...”

“Hurry,” the girl said urgently, looking over her shoulder.

Her intuitive hackles up around her ears, Cordy cranked the engine. It ticked and tsked and fell silent. She tried again to no answer at all. Far off, a dog began to bark in the canyon. Then another.

“Get out,” the woman said said, yanking on the door. It creaked, although it was both smashed and locked. “You're not safe in there.”

“Of course, I am,” Cordy retorted. But then she thought of the little bit she knew of the real LA. There were plenty of things out there that could rip that door right off or grab her right through the safety glass.

“We can't defend you here, get out.”

The authority in her voice gave Cordy pause. She tried the key again. Nothing. When she looked up, they both had their backs to her. The tense, tight lines of the woman's back and the set of her shoulders scared Cordelia into moving. She slid over the gear shift, snagged her purse, and climbed out the other side.

Without turning, the woman said said, “Wait until I tell you, then run like hell a hundred yards into the woods straight ahead.”

“Here they come,” the girl said.

If nothing else, Griffith park was dark at night. And restless. Something at least his size stood frozen to Angel's right. The quiver of its attention whispered prey animal, but the slight, steady breeze in his face shouted zoo, so Angel crouched, undecided. He could see Spike up ahead, also to his right, caught in the act of mid-step. He eased his foot down. The curve of his ear seemed to grow into place as his head canted through the moonshine. He listened.

Angel saw the owl coming, just as it lifted to clear Spike's head and everything exploded at once. Spike leaped, spinning, his legs kicking up leaf mold, his mouth open as his fangs descended and then Angel was hit, tumbling sideways.

He brought the quarterstaff up, but it twisted in his hands, tangled in the assailant's limbs as it pummeled his chest and belly. Angel curled up, covering his head. As the blood-hot, heavy bodies cleared him, a boot slammed into his forearm. Angel rose, grabbing at the leg he could reach and flipped Spike right over, so he landed with a ground shaking thud on his back. His coat settled over them.

"Thanks, Spike," he growled.

"Bugger off, Angel, I didn't know. Damn lions stink up the whole park. What was it?"

"An owl."

"That was no bloody owl runnin' you over," Spike said, spearing his finger through a ragged tear in Angel's shirt. He frowned. "Are you bleeding?"

Angel could smell it now, as the wind faltered, a bloom of odor, the scent redolent as a savory stew. His mouth watered. "Not me."

Spike lifted his head, reminding Angel of the hound he'd seen in front of the Hyperion. The wind gusted, bringing the scent again, just a taste, before it dropped again, but it had been enough. Spike faced the broken trail the deer had burst from when they blundered into Angel.

“She's in Kentucky, Angel. Maybe Atlanta by now.”

Angel scooped up his quarterstaff. “That's Buffy's blood on those deer.”

“Or something wants us to think it's hers.”

They numbered more than six, coming too fast for Buffy to count. She caught the first one square with a bolt and then dropped the bow, and spun, flipping over as she kicked one leg out. The vamp hit the ground on his back. She landed on the balls of her feet, struck out and dusted the vamp rushing her and then knelt and dusted the one she'd laid out. The next landed on her.

She grappled with him, holding her head back. He wrapped his fingers around the strap of her duffle, which let her find his arm above the elbow. She flipped him over, leaning into it, and he dusted almost before he touched down. two had their hands on her, both tugging at the duffel. She snagged her second stake from her waistband and dusted them both with one outward swing of her arms.

A cruel jerk on the bag took her from her feet. She grunted, slung sideways. The vamp stomped on her ribs and jerked again. The strap tore with an abrupt rip. Dropping one stake, she grabbed at it as it fell from her, jerking the vamp down onto herself. She drove her fist up. Blood gouted out when she missed. The vamp screamed in her ear rather than biting her .

“Wuss,” she said. She snapped her hand out, snatched up her dropped stake and drove it into his back. She scissor kicked to her feet, spitting out dust.

Three vamps circled her. She risked a glance to Melinda, who had fought herself too far away for Buffy to help her. She was still on her feet. The first vamp got brave and darted in at Buffy, she spun, leaping and knocked him across the jaw with her foot. Landing on one foot she struck a hard right roundhouse blow and downed the second. the first rushed low and she jumped, but he got one ankle in his icy hand and yanked her down on top of the bag. The third stomped on her wrist and then stood on it. Her fingers went numb. He bent over her. She kicked the first in the face and he let go of her long enough for her to punch both feet up number three.

Smarter than the rest, he simply stood up out of her reach, twisting his foot so the bones in her wrist grated together. Curling up around his leg, she staked him in the foot, leaving the bag exposed. He slapped at the stake as he stole the bag and taking them both with him, he bolted back into the scrub.

She rolled her weight over and crouched, looking for the next. She met the wide eyes and astonished face of the Jeep driver, still holding Buffy's stake in the air. Dust drifted in the headlights. Why did her arms look so green?

“I, uh...” she said and then sneezed.

“Melinda,” Buffy said, jumping up. Nothing. No sound, no movement. She raced past the Jeep. The dark shape crumpled on the road was unmistakeable. Buffy slid down on the broken pavement, seeing the stake buried in her chest, but still reaching for her throat. Her neck was broken.

They slunk through the trees. Although his post-vision urgency still rode him, Angel's sense memories kept wanting to feed him colder air, bigger trees. Plaited through Buffy's scant trace, there was Darla's spicy scent as she ran ahead, Dru's tight, low giggle when they came upon the hastily quenched fire, hot embers still glowing. The prey close enough they could pick out individual heartbeats.

“Angel,” Spike said sharply, and Angel stopped in mid-step. An irregular pulse resolved itself into sounds of flesh on flesh.

“Go,” Angel said, already running. They swerved around bushes, ducked under low-hanging limbs and leaped half-hidden logs and leaf filled holes that would shatter an ankle, their bodies working in ways they didn't even think about anymore. They broke into a shallow clearing above a black stretch of road.

A Jeep sat crooked in the middle of it. Like a black stain, something lay on the road just behind it. Buffy ran past the Jeep. Silvery green scales shone in the moonight, on the demon's neck and arms as it chased her, just like in his vision.

Angel streaked downslope. Buffy slid feet first onto the pavement beside a body. He hit the running demon at full speed and they rolled end over end, into the crackling dry weeds and sage all around them. A rock stopped their free fall tumble, Angel taking the brunt of its jagged face in a wretched burst of pain and blood bloom.

Kicking hard, the demon squealed and raked at his chest with its claws. It scrambled up and away, screaming. He pushed himself up and launched his whole body into the air just as it turned back to see where he was. He went cold. He couldn't get his hands up under her head before they hit, his weight crushing her into the ground full-length.

Angel flattened his hands in either side of her head and carefully raised himself, drawing his knees up beside her legs so that he was on all fours, trying not to hurt her any further. The demon, the part-demon, took an alarming amount of time to breathe in a gasp of air while he stared at her. Her chest hitched again and then her eyes fluttered open.

“Cordy,” he breathed.

Her eyes widened, her pupils as big as marbles. “Angel.”

“Did you get it?” Spike yelled as he forged his way through the smashed weeds from the road. Two excited heartbeats followed him, slayers, but not Buffy.

“She doesn't look dead,” Spike said from over Angel's shoulder. “Or even scary, though pretty's good on evil.”

“Spike,” Angel growled.

The girl closed her eyes. “I can't believe this dream,” she said. “This is just stupid.”

“What's your name, luv?”

Cordy, Angel started to say, but that couldn't be...

“Cordelia Chase,” she said.

“Cordelia, I'm Spike, Angel Investigations, and this big lug is...”

“Angel,” she said.

“You had time for introductions?”

“My dream. I could call him Barney and you Rover, if I wanted. But I never have.”

Spike's lips turned down as his brows went up. “Okay, sis,” he said carefully. “Let's get you back up on the road and checked out.”

No one moved.

“Angel,” Spike said. “Get up.”

Angel stood, and then offered his hand to help her up. Her palm and the skin along the inside of her arm was normal, but overlapping silvery-green scales covered the back of her hand climbed her arm. They felt feathery and dry. He turned their clasped hands over and examined them. “Can you control it?”

“Can you?”

Spike snorted.

He concentrated a moment and felt the familiar change come over him, the return of his human features. Her eyes narrowed as she watched and her fingers tightened on his.

In response, her scales faded under his fingers. She raised her other hand and rubbed at the base of her skull, wincing. “This isn't a dream, is it?”

“Come on,” Spike said.

On the road, two more slayers waited for them, one of them on the phone. She handed it to Spike. Angel could hear Wesley saying, “Buffy?” as he took it.

Without stopping, Angel said, “Stay here,” to Cordelia, and “Watch her,” to a lithe brunette who might be either Maggie or Molly, and went to Buffy, who was standing with her back to all of them.

“Where are we?” Spike demanded.

One of the slayers said, “Brush Canyon Road, Sir.”

Angel stopped listening. She was in his present here, that's all that mattered.

“Los Angeles,” Buffy said.

“Yes,” he agreed.

She didn't turn until he had his arms around her, but then she buried her face in his chest and cried.

Four

Standing in the door way of Angel's office, Buffy watched half of Kennedy's team reach the bottom of the staircase and pass Melinda's washed body, zipped into a black bag, to the remaining four waiting to take her down through the basement into the sewer tunnels. They would take her six miles on foot, taking turns, to an underground demon crematorium that Clem and Angel had helped them locate when they arrived in LA.

It helped that she had no family to notify.

Fred and Giles came to stand beside her. Buffy hated the way his face changed when slayers came to harm. Grim grief made him look old and worn. When they had passed, he drifted back inside. Fred sat down at the counter with the three books she'd brought with her. She opened the back cover of one and started scanning the index.

Buffy scuffed her toe on the immaculate Hyperion floor, listening to Melinda's funeral procession disappear down the basement stairs. How had they run into a cave in Kentucky and run out of it into LA? How was it that Melinda was dead and she was standing here, in the Hyperion, not eight hours after meeting the girl for the very first time? In Kentucky. They were just a bunch of stupid herbs. Maybe one of them Angel's cure, but except for its rarity, what was so special about it? Maybe one of the other plants she stole was special. The hounds surely didn't like something.

A commotion of sound boiled up out front.

“Giles,” Buffy said over her shoulder, where Giles was poring over the books in the office, pulling one and another from the shelf, rapidly flipping the pages and putting them back again. “They're back.”

They came tramping in, six teenage slayers and Gunn and Wesley. It seemed they were all talking at once. Buffy's ears filled with their noise after the quiet mourning and slowed movement of the last ninety minutes but her brain refused to process it into meaningful sound. As they became aware of her, they quieted.

Willow and Dawn pushed through them, Spike and Angel coming in last. They hovered in the back. Angel was rumpled, his jacket torn, dirt streaking his face. He held his arm awkwardly. Her heart missed a beat, but then Dawn reached her and threw her arms around her. Buffy hugged back. Her throat closed. How glad she was that it wasn't Dawn in that black bag, that Dawn would never be a slayer. “Dawnie,” she whispered. Dawn hugged her harder and then let go, so Willow could hug her, too.

Buffy felt stronger with them at her side. Giles stood behind her as she spoke. “Kennedy's team has taken the slayer I brought from Kentucky, Melinda, to be cremated. All of you must always be aware of your surroundings, always aware that as slayers, you are in danger. You're slayers, twenty-four seven. Carry a stake at all times and be prepared to defend yourself. Got it?”

The six girls made noises of agreement.

“Dismissed,” Buffy said.

As they had cleared out, Buffy said, “Dawn? Will you please get a first aid kit for Angel? And ask Marby to mix up his dose of blood?”

Gunn and Wesley placed their weapons bag down on the conference table and set down the collected crossbows slung over their shoulders.

“What happened to him, anyway?” Willow said as they watched Spike attempting to help Angel peel of his jacket, which seemed to be sticking stubbornly to his shoulder and back.

“Just do it,” Angel said.

Buffy said, “He attacked a half-demon who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Where's the owner of the Jeep?” Dawn asked.

Buffy shrugged. “Said half-demon.”

“Really? She stopped at the house where we were working- I think she heard it, even though she's not family-”

“Heard what?”

“The banshee,” Willow said. “Only family can hear it. We couldn't but she could. We think.”

“Maybe not so much the wrong place at the wrong time,” Fred said. “The probability of her being at both events...”

“We need to talk to her.” Dawn said.

Giles hmmmed and wandered over to join Gunn and Wesley, engrossed in the book in his hands.

“There was magic out there, but it's diffuse.” Willow said. “They tried to follow your back trail, but it was too dark, and Wes didn't like not knowing what we were getting into.”

“Stop growling,” Spike yelled.

“Just rip it off already,” Angel yelled back.

”I'm going,” Dawn said and headed for the kitchen.

“I'm going to mix you an herbal poultice for that wrist, Buffy,” Willow said. “I'll be right back.”

Half an hour later, they were convened at the table, listening to Buffy's briefing. Angel stared into his mug, stunned that she had both taken such a risk and sacrificed a civilian in the process just to help him. Maybe.

“The blonde woman's name was September.”

Angel and Wes both said, “What?”

Gile's phone rang. He glanced at the caller ID and got up to answer it.

“September,” Buffy said, frowning at them.

“Figures,” Spike said.

“We met a September tonight,” Gunn said. “I've never heard that as a woman's name until tonight and now there's two?”

“Unlikely,” Wes said. “Ours was tall, but curvy.”

“Five foot ten,” Gunn clarified.

“Roman profile,” Spike added, then held his hands out from his chest. “And built busty. A real looker. Didn't read vamp off her. Didn't she have a heartbeat, Angel?”

Angel shrugged.

Buffy's frown deepened.

“I could draw her,” Angel said.

“No, that sounds like her,” Buffy said. “But ...”

“Please do, Angel,” Giles said, holding his hand over the mouthpiece of his phone. “Someone's just told Connor that he needs to talk to someone named September if he wants in on 'the trade'.”

“Cordelia,” Angel said, pushing his chair back. “We left her with that woman.”

“They were friends, Angel,” Spike reminded him.

Giles hung up his phone. “Faith's on her way back,” he said. He pulled out the chair between Dawn and where Angel was hesitating, and reached across the table for his folders and books. “She told Connor to tell us she'd found another mule. He told her he was supposed to meet his contact at a cave in Griffith Park.” He ripped out the handwritten translation of the poem the hooker had given up. “Dawn,” he said, leaning over to share the paper with her.

“Sit down, Angel, until we figure this out.” Buffy said. “When did you meet September?”

“Cordelia is September's roommate, Buffy,” Wesley said. “She called while we were trying to get the Jeep running, and then came out to get her.”

“Did anyone find out where Cordelia lives?”

Silence. Buffy's eyes met Angel's. She wished she hadn't looked at him.

Fred jumped up. “We'll find her,” she announced. “ We'll find them both. I'll get my laptop.”

Five

Although the sun had risen four hours earlier on a sleepless night, and Angel was both tired and drugged, he couldn't sleep. He rose again from the bed to walk in circles, touching his things, his desk, his pad of paper, his dresser, the textured curtains, the framed photo of Connor and he together, hanging on the wall past the window, the wall, the door, dropping his hand across the bed, the bath door, his desk, his pad...

Wesley would be on his way soon to meet Cordelia and try to establish her motives and intentions regarding both September and her ability to hear the banshee. After Buffy and the live drug mule Faith dragged in at 4AM both affirmed from Angel's drawing that all their Septembers were the same person, Angel had implored Wes to bring Cordy back to the hotel with him. That had gotten him drugged and put to bed.

...wall, door, bed... He paused. Buffy's heartbeat rose as she woke in the room above him.

They would be at Griffith Park again tonight. Off Brush Canyon Road. He had lain half-numb in his bed, but he could hear their progress downstairs. Giles had scratched at the poem, trying to make it spell out some confirmation of spiritless/rock as 'cave', when Dawn stumbled across the first word in the phrase, one they hadn't been able to translate, in a Surlipian sourcebook. It translated as 'womb' and then Clem shuffled in, took a look and said another of the words was 'metal' in Mannis, specifically bronze, if that mattered. Fred had shouted, “Bronson Caves, in the canyon!” and Giles wished out loud that the writer had worked for them.

Angel thought the poem had probably been a race memory spew that the drug mule's brain had regurgitated. He suspected September had been using the cave for a very long time.

Buffy padded to the door of her room. He imagined her listening, to see if she could hear his voice yet, if he was awake.

She walked all the way back across the room, to her tiny, pink bathroom.

It had taken nearly two more hours and looking September up in every language of the penned poem for the team to find her. She was a Maltin God. A nearly immortal being who could cross dimensions at will, and create space-time portals, like the Bronson Caves. Back at the turn of the century, she had purchased the mineral rights on the land in Griffith Park through, surprise, surprise, Wolfram and Hart. And made a mint off quarrying, building the caves while selling the stone to Hollywood. She had a pack of loyal vampire slaves, and although they only found one citation, it was forbidden to speak of her hounds. Those that heard them didn't live to tell the tale.

Buffy's heartbeat settled as she drifted off again. Angel smiled. Until now.

She needed her rest. Angel resumed walking. Ba-boom. Ba-boom. Ba-boom. Ba-boom.

...bath door, desk, pad...

...stone, bed, stone, window, stone, window, stone. Angel stopped, his shoulder brushing stone. His bare feet were cold on the stone floor.

“Angel,” Buffy said from the hallway.

“Buffy.” He covered the distance to his cell door in one short leap. Her footsteps grew louder as she came closer and then she wrapped her fingers through the grille while she undid the lock. He was careful not to touch her, not yet.

She entered, leaving the door open. Her hair was very long. It was clean, hanging like liquid silk. A new scar curved like a comma around the cheek end of her right brow.

She handed him a new book, 'The Funny Tale of Guillume Tome', and a fresh shirt. It was his, the frayed chambray he'd been wearing when they captured him. The fabric was worn thin. It was soft as skin.

As was their custom, they didn't speak. She stripped him of the shirt he was wearing, her palms a balm over the burn of his brand. He longed for her touch, but she tortured him, only skimming his flesh until he stood naked and quivering.

She stood back and assessed him. “Okay,” she said.

He took her. Against the stone. Brutal and hard until her screams echoed off the walls.

Later, he licked the blood from her, though he'd been human nearly seven years, since he fought a Mohra demon in the sewers of LA. He licked her breasts and along her thighs, until she came again, soft and pliant and so slow, her tears dropped one by one onto his shoulders and he felt each one's separate track down his back.

Later still, but before the dawn, he pressed against the narrow stone frame of his cell window, and watched her leave him, not knowing if or when she'd be back. The sentry at the gatehouse past the yard saluted her. A spotted hound ran to greet her and then trotted along at her heels...

...Angel woke, a scream clogging his throat, on his back on the floor. He rolled over, panting to keep it from rising. The hound, the hound, the hound. September's hound. September, his jailer, his madness, retribution for all his many, many sins. Night had fallen. He shut himself up and listened for Buffy above him. She wasn't there.

Six

“Cordelia,” Wesley said, as he took the corner onto Sunset from Silverlake too fast and bumped the rear tire of his Civic onto and off of the curb. The little car slammed down. Wes's teeth clacked together. Fred's fingers, curled over the back of his seat, brushed across the nape of his neck as he turned his head to look at Cordelia. “Are you sure we can't drop you at the Ranch?”

“Hell, no,” Cordelia said. “I've been dreaming of Angel for all my life. Dreams and nightmares. I've seen you, Wesley. In a scraggly beard and torn shirt, but it was you. And you,” she threw back over her shoulder at Fred. “I'm supposed to be here.”

Wesley honked at a VW Bug doing ten miles over the speed limit and tried to wave it over, to hide his affronted reaction. A scraggly beard?

“As an interdimensional-being...” Fred said from the back seat.

“Inter- what?”

Wesley risked a sharp glance at Cordelia, who looked right back.

“You said...”

“She's a Maltin goddess. Hounds do her bidding; that's why I brought the cat food; she has a spectacular green thumb, and occasionally, y'know, but only sometimes...”

The Bug gave way and Wes raced to the intersection he thought he needed to get over to Fern Dell. He knew there was a dilapidated gas station on the corner.

“Sometimes, what?” Fred said.

“Sometimes she gets guys to buy us drinks, or treat us to an expensive meal or let us past the red ropes.”

“Cordelia, her powers go way beyond that,” he spun the wheel and squealed around the next turn. “Fred, can you try Giles again? Buffy'll need to know about the incantation.”

“It's here,” Willow said in Buffy's head.

Buffy nodded. Willow was situated three hundred yards west of Brush Canyon Road, where she would hopefully be out of danger but within spell range if needed. Buffy's bag was somewhere here, in the Bronson Caves. September. What a stupid name.

The east facing rock entrance of the old quarry, was densely overhung with moss and grass. Spike found the spot where she and Melinda had hidden the evening before, and called Giles with the GPS coordinates in case there was damage. Buffy staggered her slayers out at concentric fifty and one hundred yard intervals.

When she was satisfied, she tucked herself under a camo net beneath a flowering tree. “Willow,” she whispered, “Give an all silent. Tell them again that no one moves until you say.”

“Okay,” Willow said, whispering, too.

A few seconds later, Kennedy's torchlight flashed once, inches above the ground, from across the clearing. Spike's flashed off the top of the cave entrance. Message received.

Buffy settled in to wait.

Just how did these things happen? Angel glared at the mangy grey cat scarfing down the wet food Giles told them to leave as an offering to the Maltin "gods". Damned demons just thinking highly of themselves in his opinion. Wesley and Cordelia should've been here already, but he'd covered a square mile searching and they were nowhere. Neither were Buffy and the Slayers. Or Spike.

Gunn slid out of the shadows to his left. "Hey, man. Anything?"

"No." Angel tried to nudge the cat away with his foot, but it growled and hunched itself into a ball of clenched muscle. “Did you try your cell again?”

“Still no signal. It's way past the meeting time, maybe they're gone already?”

“They were never here. Are we at the right cave?”

“GPS says yes.”

The rock faced opening where the offering sat was sheer and ran straight up.

"What if that opensbefore Buffy gets here?" Gunn asked, waving at the cave.

"Like a portal?"

"Yeah."

Angel shrugged.

Gunn peered inside, careful not to let his head stray over the line between out and in. Angel stepped back, really looking at the rock. No fissures to speak of, no conveniently placed larger rocks to block it with.

"You going to help?"

"I am,” Angel said. “Step back."

Frowning, Gunn glanced over his shoulder.

"Look."

Gunn stepped back. After a moment he said, "What?"

"Don't you see it?"

"Obviously not."

"There's words worn into the arch..." Angel ran his fingers over the first shallow indentation. "Here, and here."

"I don't see it, Angel, human eyes, remember? It's damn dark out here.”

"It's not English. It's... I know what it says. I doubt it'll open the cave.”

“So it won't hurt to try.”

Angel thought they were both way to smart to believe that. “The Lord is my shepherd...”

“You're kidding me,” Gunn breathed. He had taken a fighting stance, sword held out in front of him.

“I shall not want; He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house...” A terrible whip crack tore the night and boomed straight through Angel's eardrums and into his feet. In the corner of his eye, he saw Gunn stagger, but he didn't fall. “...of the Lord forever.”

A great baying of hounds filled the air...

Seven

...The cave exhaled with a nearly silent sucking noise. Air rushed past Buffy's head. “Willow,” she said.

“Here.”

“Now,” Buffy yelled. “Now!”

Spike landed in front of the cave in a billowing cloud of dust. They charged into the breech. The cry of hunting hounds filled the air, but the first thing that met her sword was the neck of a vampire. Kennedy plowed into her from behind, swinging at an oncoming horde of vampires in game face. Spike and Kennedy and Buffy pressed forward together.

Buffy could feel the slayers pouring into the cave mouth like extensions of herself.

Where the cave narrowed, the tunnel was six slayers wide and nothing went by them for eighty yards. They stumbled into another the dark cavern at the end. The hounds bounded in, their cries echoing painfully. They leapt into the fray. Their claws and rough footpads bruised and tore bellies and shoulders.

Buffy swung her sword nearly indiscriminately in the dark, relying on her intuition to keep her from hitting her girls. A foot landed across her jaw. Falling, she grabbed at the leg, got the ankle, followed it up with her blade. Blood hit her face as she sprung up again, spun and struck. Fangs scraped past her throat. The fetid breath of the hounds reeked of rotten meat. .

Spike cursed with every step and blow.

One slayer fell. Buffy felt it like a physical blow, she always did. And then another.

Something larger, more horrendous than the hounds or the vamps, lumbered into the far end of the chamber. It breathed, and fire lit the gory scene. Its silvery-green scales flashed in the light of burning vamps. It roared, louder than the wailing, terrified hounds and lit the chamber up again....

...That dragon's heart's still beating, boy-o. Angel straightened at the thought, and an explosion of pain burst anew in his torso with the movement, a burning rush. He lurched, folding double, glad for the support of the wall at his shoulder. The elevator doors dinged and slid and he just got a hand in, wincing as they rebounded off his palm. Staggering in, he sagged against the wall in relief as the doors closed and the elevator hummed into action. A few moments of sure protection. And preparation.

He pushed gingerly away from the wall, allowing himself time to unkink, until he was more or less standing upright. He acknowledged each major complaint his body lodged and then locked each one away, forcibly shut the pain down so he could concentrate on what really mattered. He allowed only the image of himself aboard the dragon, driving his sword down through its shoulder, just below the wing, as he watched the arrow arching above the doors count off floors. At four he hardened his wide stance, rolled and lifted his sword so the point faced the center of the doors, braced his arms, and waited for the little drop at the top, the stillness, the doors to open.

He waited, crouched for action. Blood trickled down his calf. Waiting.

The doors opened with a cheerful ding. Angel stepped into the hall, swinging his sword as he looked in both directions. He ran for the roof door, banged through it and out into the driving rain. Heat engulfed him. Two red, scaly demons with forked tails fell off the parapet, screaming as they burned.

The silvery-green dragon banked over him. The down thrust of wind from its wings rocked him sideways. It directed another burst of flame at the side of the Hyperion, and then disappeared from sight. Something screeched as it fell.

He side stepped to the parapet, his sword in both hands, to peer over onto Hyperion Avenue. The dragon filled his view as it swooped back up towards him, roaring. Angel stepped onto the parapet, and as the dragon swept by, he leapt...

...Crouched together in the tree line, Wesley, Fred, and Cordelia watched the rock and the offering they'd left. There was no movement.

“Buffy,” Wesley hissed as loud as he dared.

No answer. There'd been no cars at the rendezvous spot. He lifted his cell phone again, but no signal bars registered.

“Are you sure this is the right cave?” he whispered to Cordelia.

“Yes, “ she said, standing. She crossed her arms. “She told me all about it.”

Wesley straightened. “You've never been here, yourself?”

“No. Why would I?” She glanced away and back again. “She told me I couldn't come.”

Something crunched nearby. “Shhh.” Wesley crouched, pulling Cordelia with him.

The crunching resolved itself as two men walking in from the road. “How long you been carrying,” one of them said, his voice gravely and harsh.

“Three years,” the other replied.

“Carrying drugs?” Cordelia whispered. “They're mules?”

They stopped, their heads turning. “Food,” the gravely voice said.

“Food?” Cordelia said out loud.

Wesley would've rolled his eyes if he had time. He pulled the cross bow off his back overhand and dusted the one he could see.

“Hey,” the gravely voice said.

Fred stood and shot him. It was too dark to see him dust, but the darker than night bulk that he was suddenly disappeared.

Cordelia had both hands over her mouth, her eyes wide.

“Can you get us inside?” Wesley asked.

She nodded and recited the 23rd Psalm.

The cave issued a windy moan. Wesley felt duly impressed. They eased to it and listened. Far away, Wes could hear a faint sound like wind sweeping across the Kansas plains. It was a very distinct howl.

“Hounds,” Cordy said. She shook, with a very fine tremor, but kept going.

They proceeded with extreme caution. It seemed they'd only walked a few yards in, but when Wesley glanced back, the lighter dark where they had entered was gone. The howl grew louder in the next couple of yards, and then the hounds voices became distinct. There came raised human voices, shouting, screaming. Metal on metal and wood rang and thudded. Underneath, came the dull meat pounding sound of fists on flesh.

With a flicker of movement in Wesley's flashlight beam, a body detached itself from the tunnel wall. “Cordelia,” September said.

She faced them, arms crossed, inches from the point of Wesley's re-loaded cross-bow.

“I could kill you as you stand,” Wesley said, in a voice that came out calmer than he thought it would.

She laughed. “No, you can't,” she said and flickered. She leaned into Wesley's point but he felt nothing there.

A screech from the battle wrapped itself around them and rushed away. A death scream. Wesley fired the bolt.

September waved her arm in a dismissive gesture. “Cordelia. Come, sweets.”

“I'm not your pet, September,” Cordelia said, fire in her voice.

“Hmm, you're right.” She smirked. “You're someone else's. Now, come, let's go see who wins the battle.”

“Who are you,” Cordelia snapped.

September batted Wesley aside. His shoulder folded as he hit the wall, his hand going numb. The cross bow hit him in the head. His vision blurred. Bobbing his head, he tried to follow September's motion.Pushing up with his good hand, and using the wall at his back, Wes sat up.

“I am Angel's keeper," September raged. "I hold you close, because he is yours. His success in one dimension gives him success in all dimensions, and my keepers will not allow that.” She grabbed Cordelia, and pulled her in until they stood toe to toe.

They flickered. Cordelia's arms came up and wrapped around September.

Cordelia began to glow. In seconds, Wesley had to squint his eyes against her brightness. He couldn't see Fred at all.

September tore herself from Cordy's grip. She flickered madly, and then blinked out of the dimension completely. Cordy stared into the space she had occupied for the time it took Wesley to find his feet and stand. He held his hand up to shield his eyes.

She turned to look at him and her eyes were brimming with joy. She smiled at him and then drifted past, towards the fight. He couldn't bring himself to reach out to her as she passed. Fred came and pressed against him.

“I wonder if she knew she could do that,” she said, raising her voice so he could hear her over the battle.

Cordy seemed to grow larger and larger the farther she went from him, elongating and filling the tunnel. She glinted silvery-green, her scales shimmering in her residual glow.

“Is she...” Fred said, wonder deepening her voice. “Is she part dragon?

And then the battlefield lit up. With fire...

Grabbing the back of Angel's coat, Gunn tugged him away from the mouth of the cave and the unceasing howl of god only knows how many hounds. Angel didn't exactly resist Gunn's efforts, but he wasn't helping much either. He tripped over his own feet, and Gunn let go to let him find his own balance.

He didn't. He fell, but rolled with his freaky vampire speed and then stood on the balls of his feet, crouched and waiting for the tree in front of him to make the first move.

"Bloody fuck," said Spike from the cave.

Gunn whirled. The cave entrance was empty. No movement caught his eye as he scanned the clearing and looked to the top of the rock arch. Always look up.

Someone screamed, a hollow sound, deep inside and there came the distinct sound of swords clashing. Once. A crossbow bolt zinged past his ear from behind him. He ducked away from it but heard it hit the cave's rock facing and instinctively looked back as he hit the ground. He saw it falling, but it never hit the ground, it just disappeared.

"Okay," Gunn said out loud. "That's pretty weird."

"Gunn?" Angel said back. He sounded confused.

"Stay," Gunn said, keeping his voice firm. He stood up slowly, waiting for something else to happen. He didn't know if he should watch the cave or his back. It was too damn dark to see much. "See anything, Angel?"

Silence from Angel. Silence from the cave. Silence from the canyon.

"Angel?"

Gunn took his flashlight off his belt. He thumped it into his palm, wondering if he should, but then turned it on. He flicked the beam all around, but Angel was gone. The crickets started back up while he stood undecided, one and then two and then a thousand. A night bird called. Gunn pulled out his cell. It connected faster than he could decide what to say when Giles answered. "Angel blitzed. Hopefully he's headed your way." "I'll put Connor on him," Giles said. "What happened?" "Nothing," Gunn said. He wondered why that sounded wrong. He glanced around. Hadn't he been standing over there, near Angel... He shook his head. "Not a damn thing happened, and no one's here."

As the first fingers of dawn stretched into the LA sky, Buffy stood up and stretched. “Willow,” she said.”

“Here.”

“Call them in, we're going home.”

Spike had been watching her, she guessed, as he thumped down beside her.

“Your bag,” Willow said into Buffy's head. Buffy hated that. She dug out her cell phone and hit speed-dial. “Buffy?” Willow said from the phone.

“Much better,” Buffy said.

“I ran the locator spell at four, Buffy. The bag's still there.”

“Well, then you come over here and find it in the daylight.”

The slayers drifted in to her, and when Willow showed up, she sent two with her, while she waited for the entire group to gather.

Fifteen minutes later, her stomach was growling. “Willow,” she bellowed.

A couple of the other slayers took up her call. She shushed them.

“Want me to go hunting for her?” Kennedy said, with a grin.

“No, then I'll have to hunting for you two.”

“Found it,” Willow called.

Buffy looked up. Willow dropped the charred bag from the top of the cave entrance onto the ground at Buffy's feet.

Buffy scowled at Spike, who'd spent the whole night within yards, if not feet of a charred bag that smelled of her and the stinky herbs.

Spike held up his hands. "Dust me. I'd swear it wasn't there, luv."

Something tickled his face. Wesley jerked, swiping at it. He was on the ground, Fred hanging over him.

“What happened?” he said.

The east facing entrance to Bronson Caves sat behind her, sun burnishing its arched rock opening.

He glared at it. “How did we get here?” he said, crossly.

Fred shrugged.

“I'll tell you all about it on the way to the Hyperion,” Cordelia said. “I can't wait to see it for real.”

Eight

“So, September is Angel's inter-dimensional demon guard?” Buffy clarified. “He's not crazy.”

“Yes,” Cordelia said. “and no, he's not crazy.”

Angel wondered if he'd ever get over missing her, because he still did, could feel the hole in his heart, even though she was sitting right in front of him. This wasn't 'his' Cordy. She was different in ways he had yet to define.

“Wolfram and Hart,” Angel said. Wesley answered, “We think that's most likely.”

“We think your 'madness' has been dimension hopping,” Wesley said. “Cordelia absorbed many of September's memories before September escaped. This plant that Buffy recovered from September's in Kentucky can lock you down, that's why she didn't want you to have it. We also theorize that since Buffy carried the bag through the portal from Kentucky, September couldn't carry it, or its contents, back again.”

Angel thought of his human feet, cold on stone, the fiery, bloody battle in a hell of an LA . The translated poem had been about him, his family being torn apart and rejoined, again and again. “How do you know I'm going to stick here and not any of those other theres?”

“We don't.” Wesley said. “But Giles and I have done what we can to research this and we believe that whatever dimension you receive the cure in is where you'll stay.”

Angel looked around at his room in the Hyperion. He felt the slayers swirling all around him. Buffy held his hand. Spike, propped up against the bedroom door frame, met his eyes and nodded. He had purpose here. “Will it cure the visions?”

Cordy smiled. “No, but I have the cure for that,” she said. She got up from his old leather chair, sat beside him on the end of the bed, and placed her hands on his either side of his face. They were warm.

“Will it hurt? he asked.

“No. I've known since I was six that I was part-demon. My daddy's fault. But I didn't know my purpose in life, or that you existed outside my dreams. Now I do.”

Angel didn't know what she meant.

“Close your eyes.”

He did. She kissed him. Her lips were soft and the tip of her tongue just brushed his own. He snaked his free arm around her, drew her in, and deepened the kiss. She relaxed into him and he ended it, gently. His chest ached.

She sat up, away from him.

“Is that all?”

“That's all,” Cordy said.

Buffy cleared her throat. “Maybe you guys could find a cure for his curse, too.”

Angel turned to look at her and the love he saw there, and the pain, was enough for him.

“Okay,” he said. She nodded, obviously understanding everything he meant in that single word. He squeezed her hand.

Wesley handed him a glass with a turgid stew of gunk sloshing in it. Angel wrinkled his nose.

“Hurry up,” Cordy said. She looked at her watch. “Willow wants me to go listen for the banshee with her and Dawn tonight. I have to get briefed!”

He grinned, amazed all over again that she was here, with all the rest of them. “You said you couldn't hear it,” he reminded her.

“I didn't know you then,” she pointed out. “I do now, and I'm going to be here after you drink that.”

He drank.

A clang woke him up. Angel rolled over in bed and hit Buffy.

“Ow,” she complained.

“Sorry,” he said.

“You shouldn't have given Connor that gong for his birthday,” she said, snuggling into his shoulder.

“You're just sore that you didn't get that Kungtip dagger for yours.”

“You owe me,” she said and claimed his lips. He kissed her back. Thoroughly.

“We promised,” he said, stretching against her.

She groaned.

“...to be on time to the going away dinner. It's the last full staff meal we'll have for awhile.”

“Easy for you to say,” she grumped, pulling at their sheets. “You didn't just fly in from all points east, with three crying slayers.”

“You talked me into it,” he said, rolling her over onto her back and kissing her again.

She wrapped her arms around him and sighed. He kissed lower, paying close attention to her nipples.

“Get up,” Spike bellowed up the stairs. “Cordy's got a job for us and Mabry might die if we're not back in time!”

“Rain check?” Angel whispered into her open mouth.

She licked his lips. He kissed her again, hard.

Angel and Buffy scrambled out of bed and into their day.

The End

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Author's Notes:
Rating: PG
Summary: Angel's madness is destroying him. His family tries to help him.
Disclaimer: Whedon's et al, not for gain
A/N: Canon carryover into comics, but it only would add depth- it doesn't spoil you :-)
For: IWRY- Thank you, Chrislee and thanks to Starlet for the quick beta.

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