Summer Lovin'
by Deepa D.

He means to have himself a golden summer. He figures that everyone should have one of those in their bank accounts, something to draw on when they're cranky and shivering in an old age home. Not that he thinks he's going to end up in an old age home. He finds it hard to picture himself as old in the first place. Or 'aged'... 'Elderly', the words don't fit, the mental picture of him with wrinkles, and maybe a bald spot like Uncle Frank is as jarring as trying to picture him in, well, a kilt. He just seems to freeze up whenever he thinks of the future, like it's an alternate dimension that he's never going to get into.

Which is silly, because it's not as though he's had morbid thoughts about dying young, like Lance and the other cokeheads who write gloomy poetry for alternative magazines. He's never been morbid, or self-destructive, but he still somehow thinks he's fooling people when they comment on how focused he is, how determined. He cringes when he's held up as an example of a goal-oriented, positive thinking achiever, especially to a bunch of resentful school friends, because he's not. The truth is, the thought of a future is frightening enough to focus tightly on today just to block it out.

He tries explaining this to Tracy, once, when they are sprawled on the summit of a hill, with the forest view draped like a blanket around them. Tracy loves hiking, and her golden summer plans tend to focus more on bird watching trails than the beach. They are lying on a blanket staring at the stars, and she's been talking about how vast it all is, and how it makes her question her place in the universe.

"I mean, the sheer size of it just gets to you, you know?" she waves her arm wonderingly at the sky and then lets it flop back helplessly. "Like, you can almost get why people want to believe that you can tell the future from the sky. So that there's this whole connection between us and them, like we're part of something that big, you know?"

He doesn't really know, and when she turns her face away from the stars and looks into his eyes and asks if he believes in destiny, he shrugs.

"Does it matter?" he says while his fingers idly uproot strands of grass from the edge of the blanket. "I mean, theoretically, there isn't even a tomorrow, right? The only reality is today, and right now..." she's watching him with the small smile on her face that means she's about to make a deep psychological insight into his character, so he does it for her.

"Screw Destiny. I live like there is no tomorrow for me." He proclaims in a deep voice, and then pokes a blade of grass down her shirt. She yelps, and slaps his hand, and the process of taking it out gets detoured a little by way of petulant kisses and mock-apologetic groping.

Afterwards, they fold up the blanket and walk down the trail to their bikes. A car is pulling out as they strap the camping gear on, a long black convertible that he thinks is probably some kind of vintage classic, and that Tracy would call 'polluting gas-guzzler'. He's bent over the bicycle lock when the car passes, so he doesn't see the driver, but Tracy does, and when he turns around, she grins at him.

"That guy was just checking out your ass," she says, and he flushes, even though this is California, and he has gay friends, they've been through this before.

"Yeah yeah," he mutters, "stop casting ass-persions on me." She rolls her eyes, and swings her leg over her seat, and they start pedalling down the bumpy mountain road. Their bikes have done the rugged freefall down the slope often enough, and their skilfully reckless cascade sweeps them past the black car that is cautiously negotiating the potholes.

He glances over his shoulder to see the driver, and then looks away quickly because it seems like the man in the car has been looking at him, though the driver's eyes turn quickly to the road after that first eye-lock. He almost slams the brakes in his sudden confusion, which rattles him even further, because he could have almost broken his neck if he had. Gasping, he adds the weight of his body to gravity's tug, and overtakes Tracy in a manoeuvre of near-skids and jarring bumps.

"Hurry up," he calls out as he looks straight ahead, into the blacked-out horizon, "It looks like it's gonna rain."

It gonnas. Ten minutes after they've hit the highway, the clouds belch out the kind of sudden downpour that looks really fake in movies, but just goes to prove that art imitates nature after all. Tracy grimly ducks her head and ploughs on, but he can't help raising his face and grinning every time the sky lights up. He has a thing for thunderstorms; he holds his breath every time one begins, as though something momentous and important is about to happen.

Nothing ever does, though, and right now he isn't even sheltered by glass to be able to enjoy it without the distraction of a pair of soggy jeans to peddle against. He is about to tell Tracy to pull over and make a run for the trees, when the headlights of a car brush his shoulders. It's the same car, and it slows down in front of them, with the passenger window being fumbled down. Uncertainty flickers in the look the man gives him, before the car stops in front, next to Tracy. He comes beside her in time to hear the man offer, "Can I drop you...both... anywhere? I don't think the rain's going to stop soon."

Tracy looks at the car, and then their bikes, and the man says, "uh, you could put the bikes in the trunk, I think they'd fit..."

"We wouldn't want to get your car wet," Tracy replies, although she's already swung her leg off her bike, and when the man smiles and says, "that's ok, it caught me before I could get the top up anyway," she nods and yanks the camping gear off the carrier. With a shrug of his shoulders, he gets off his own bike. He helps the man open the trunk and cram the bikes inside, and then shove the gear in the back seat, which leaves room only for one person there, and he lets Tracy choose. When she does, he slides into the front seat and rolls up the window before the car smashes into the rain.

"So, where are you going?" Tracy asks directly - it's one of her rules. Find out where the lift-offerer is going before you say where you want to go; it's safer.

When the man names their town, she nods slightly, and introduces herself. The man smiles at her then. "Tracy. Hey. Nice to meet you. I'm Angel." When they both look at him, he says hi and gives his name, watching as Angel repeats it soundlessly a few times. He turns as Tracy shifts uneasily on her seat, and gives her a small, secret smile as she yanks her sodden T-shirt away from her chest. She rolls her eyes at him, and looks pointedly in front. When he turns around he sees Angel politely avoiding looking at their interplay through the mirror.

By the time they turn off the highway into the town, the formalities are out of the way. Angel knows he's finished school, and he knows that Angel works with a law firm in the city. Tracy has started one of her typical 'ice-breaking' debates about politics that has thus far covered Iraq, landmines, plastic surgery, and the death penalty. She and Angel are now engaged in a playfully vehement argument about the right to kill people at all - Tracy takes her pacifism as seriously as she does veganism.

"Suppose there were monsters out there, you wouldn't mind anyone killing them, would you?" Angel ventures, not knowing the perils of a verbal battle with Tracy.

"What makes them monsters" Tracy retorts. "The fact that you don't like them?!"

"They eat people!" Angel laughs, throwing him, for no reason he can understand, a rueful glance. "Well, suppose they did eat people... like, um, vampires? Evil things?"

Tracy shrugs. "That's the logic the anti-alien people use when they want us to develop space missiles. Frankly, I think the whole concept of evil is way too over-simplified and misused. Lions eat people too, when there's nothing else around. A lot of people eat cows. What if the cows decided we were evil and should be wiped out just because we needed to eat them for food?"

Angel frowns. "I know there is something evil that needs fighting in this world, and I know that helping people and protecting them from it is the right thing to do, even if it means killing... things."

"Things?!" Tracy's snort is contemptuous. "Are you referring to short-circuited homicidal robots, by any chance? Cause as far as I know, everything else is a living being, and what I'd like to know is... what gives you the right to call an end to someone's life and sit in judgement of their 'evil'? Who died and made you champion?"

The silence in the car is a little too starched for comfort, so he decides to change the subject by talking about the recent earthquake that ate up a town in southern California, and when Angel seems more interested in the road ahead, he and Tracy share a look and lapse into silence.

When they reach Tracy's house, he starts grabbing his own pack as Angel helps Tracy take her bike out of the trunk. "I could drop you home too, it's not a problem," Angel offers. Tracy shrugs when he looks at her, he knows her crazy obsesso mom will freak if he comes in dripping and messy. "Uh, ok" he replies offhandedly, and Angel smiles and holds out a hand to Tracy. "It was nice meeting you."

When Tracy drops Angel's hand quickly and shivers, he steps closer and proprietarily nudges her quickly towards the shelter of the porch. "Go get dried off," he gives her a quick kiss. "I'll call you tonight."

She nods, still blinking a little doubtfully at the headlights of the car. Angel is standing in the shadows, a barely discernible lump waiting patiently in the rain. "You'll be ok, right?" she asks in that off-handed tone she disguises concern with.

"What, do you think he's some kind of psycho?" he whispers half-laughing.

"No, he seems like a nice guy...." Tracy sighs and rings the doorbell. "I guess I'm just freaking out on my boyfriend being checked out by a sexy, older man."

He laughs warily before grabbing her arm just before she closes the door. "Come on, you're not serious, are you?"

Tracy turns around and waves to the person presumably still standing in the rain behind the headlights as she enunciates under her breath, "Have you seen how hard he's trying not to look at you? He is seriously interested in you."

And then she's safe behind the door, the bike stabled on the porch, and he can either stay there beside it or go get back into a car driven by a strange, stylish, possible-psycho.

He gets into the car, of course, the certain discomforts of a bike ride in the rain overcoming any unease about Angel. Which, granted, is a gay-sounding name, but he doesn't want to stereotype.

The ride back home is anti-climatic in its ordinariness. Maybe Angel sensed his reserve, or Tracy's suspicions, because the conversation, when there is one, is small talk carefully sanitised, local sports, his interest in Medieval European history, tracking wild animals. Never once does Angel bring up anything personal, like family, his or Angel's own. The silences, and there are enough of them for him to notice, feel expectant, yet non-threatening, which is kind of more a third date feeling than a hitchhiking one. He doesn't plan to tell either Angel or Tracy that, though. He had enough problems when Jim decided to come out to the entire high school by telling everyone he had a crush on him. He wonders whether to tell Angel this story, just to make the message clear, but then thinks it's too presumptuous. Angel is a sophisticated man from LA who'd, gay or not, probably laugh at a brush off from a high school kid.

He doesn't remember telling Angel the way to his house, but in all that enthusiastic hand-waving about the Lakers, he supposes he must have, since they are there.

It is only when Angel switches off the engine that he notices the car's been stationary for a while. Embarrassed; he doesn't usually run off his mouth like that, he tells Angel not to bother to come out, and turns to the trunk to get his bike out. Surprisingly, Angel listens - a response he appreciates less as he has to grapple single-handedly with the bike and extract his pack from the back seat.

Clutching the strap of his pack as it slides off his shoulder, his bike leaning against his thigh, he bends down over the driver's side, and shakes Angel's hand. "Thanks for the ride, man," he smiles, and Angel just looks at his hand, holding it as though not knowing what to do with it. As far as he knows, shaking hands isn't some kind of gay come-on, is it?

Angel nods, finally. "Well, goodbye then, I guess. It was nice meeting you..." He's trying to end this, and he doesn't know how, because Angel is staring at him like he's never said goodbye before, like it's a ritual he's never performed.

"Do... would you like to come in for some coffee, or something?" he finally offers, because it seems like there is expectation hanging in the air somewhere, and Angel doesn't seem to want to acknowledge it. Probably the guy is uncomfortable asking a kid for his phone number. Which is a good thing, right? Since he doesn't want to encourage Angel anyway, to which end, he hastily tacks on an antidote for any possible misunderstandings - "... before you hit the LA freeway? My mom makes great coffee..."

Angel's head shakes imperceptibly, and then the negation spreads, shuttering the face and dimming the warmth in the eyes, and in the hand holding his, which is abruptly released. "I really should go..."

He's about to nod and resume the formalities of farewell when the door behind him opens, and his dad peers out into the rain. "Is that you, kiddo? I thought I heard a car, you got a lift with someone?"

"Yeah," he looks over his shoulder, "This is An..." Before he can finish the introductions, he hears Angel muttering something indistinctly. When he turns back from his dad in bewilderment, all he catches is the sound of his name - the engine's revving growls over the rest of the sentence. He can't tell if it was part of some longer phrase of leave-taking, apology, or explanation, and no flavour of emotion lingers about the sound of the word. The car has pulled out of the driveway and Angel seems to have driven off without a backward glance, leaving behind only a factual verbalisation of his name.

Confused, and cross; his irritation at standing in the rain renewed, he shrugs and rolls his bike up to the steps, where his dad is struggling with an umbrella.

"It's ok, he's left, Dad," he says, and his dad puts the obstinate umbrella away and turns to help him get the tarpaulin over the bike. As his father lightly thumps him on his shoulder, and asks about the hike, and if Tracy is alright, and why he got so wet if he was in a car, he has a strange feeling of shifting inside him. When he sees his mum and The Brat waiting for him at the dinner table, there is a second of disorientation, as though he is suddenly watching them from a point of view he has never been in before, like looking at the dining room while standing on the ceiling.

And then when The Brat complains that he's dripping on the carpet and his mother tells him to take off those muddy boots before he takes another step, it all snaps back into perspective. He eats dinner and brushes off the encounter with 'some guy' who gave them a ride, and the whole thing is just one incidental snippet lost in the stacks of dinner-table conversation.

He's home, no longer out-of depth in dramatic downpour scenarios with cinematic strangers supposedly scoping him out. Back to the bright, boring world of his family, with his mom giving him that 'isn't he cute' smile as he comes out of the bathroom scrubbing his hair with a towel. Frowning maturely at that smile, he reacts to the warm comfort of the familial love around him with a normal well-adjusted response - he kicks The Brat out of his room and calls Tracy.

"Yeah, of course he gave me his phone number and invited me to his penthouse in LA," he deadpans when Tracy asks what happened with Angel. And for a moment in his head he is actually roaring down a rainy freeway with the top of the car down, towards the glitter and glare of LA-by-night, spot lit in the attention of a mysterious stranger smiling carefully next to him. Then reality reminds him that he is not the innocent choirboy in a porn movie, and not especially eager to go to a big city, and not gay, to boot.

What he is, is on the phone with his matter-of-fact girlfriend, who says "too bad" with both a smile and a shrug in her voice, and then starts talking about the birds they spotted that evening. That night, he dreams of neon-lit portal-shaped doorways that escort him into dark, subterranean nightclubs where he has to hunt monsters with pickaxes for food, as a green-faced gay man sings a lullaby to Angel.

He spends the next three days on his college paperwork, very ostentatiously filling out a form for the University of Leningrad in front of The Brat, who retaliates by talking loudly on the phone about the cool sleepovers she can have in her new rec room when her stupid brother moves out. Tracy is busy with her summer volunteer job. Neither of them needs to work for college, their grades took care of that, but Tracy has a burning urge to be productive, which she does by marching up and down beaches dipping test tubes in tide pools.

He ambles along beside her once or twice, but the marine biologist supervising the organisation scowls at lazy boyfriends who wear bathing trunks when everyone else is yanking on rubber gloves. Tracy pets him on the head and says he should enjoy his golden summer in peace somewhere, which is what his mom says after the third time she's had to ask him to get out of her way. 'In peace' presumably means 'far away from everyone else', so he sighs, and wishes he could have gone backpacking in Europe with Fred and Caitlin. But he would have been an uncomfortable third wheel without Tracy, and she didn't have the money. His elder sister has escaped to the Rockies, and for a while he thinks being a councillor at a summer camp might be worth it, if the view is good, but then she sends him an email about being thrown up on by an overfed Manhattan brat.

His golden summer is beginning to bleach out a little. After the thunderstorm, the days are so dry they seem to leach the energy out of the air. He becomes nocturnal, spending hours at night reading travelogues and surfing the net before joining Tracy for a pre-breakfast jog. Then he retreats to his room and catnaps to escape the Californian heat that seems to chase him inside his dreams of fiery worlds and stifling, sultry darkness. In the evenings, when the sun has dimmed to bearable, he joins Brad and the guys at the basketball court. He cools off after the game by detouring by way of the beach.

That's where he meets Angel, for the second time.

He is floating on his back watching the velvety blue sky slowly decorate itself with stars. For all his golden summer talk, his favourite time of sky is just after sunset, when the blushing pinks and peaches bruise slowly to purple and black. When he finally turns over and starts stroking back to shore, he sees a figure standing next to the rock where his clothes are folded. For a minute he thinks it's a lifeguard about to chew him out for swimming at an unpatrolled beach, but then a stray wind billows the figure's coat around it, and he recognises it for a standing Angel.


"Hello!" Angel waves out even before he has walked out of the water, and he frowns, acutely aware of the imbalance in being dripping and almost naked in front of a man in ironed trousers and a black overcoat. Really, he decides irritatedly, as he nods noncommittally and grabs his towel; the man must be gay. Why else would anyone care so much about keeping a stylish coat on just because it swirls around imposingly, in the middle of freakin' summer?

Angel takes a deep breath and smiles brightly. The man looks unbelievably ridiculous, standing formally dressed on the edge of a beach, grinning hopefully at a boy in briefs, and it makes him relax his face in a half-smile, in spite of himself. "Angel? Hey. What dimension did you drop in from?"

Angel's mouth opens and shuts experimentally a few times, before saying "the fifth circle of Hell" in a voice that seems to be sounding out the right tone to use.

He decides to get his clothes on before diving into the deep end of conversation, and banters back - "That bad a day at work, huh? There wasn't a single place in LA to unwind at?" There is an absurdly touching sound of hope in Angel's attempts to joke back, and as they both fall in step and stroll back across the beach to the clearing where his bike is parked, he gives in to it, and lets the conversation flow lightly as though there are no unvoiced questions lurking beneath. If Angel has actually come back to look for him, well, it's kind of romantic, that someone would be so smitten by a hitchhiker, and feeling flattered is the laziest and most comfortable reaction to give.

They scramble up the rocks to the clearing, and he sees Angel's car parked next to a sleek, shining limousine. Before he can make some prom night parking joke, he sees Angel's jaw clenched in a dangerous way that makes him suddenly remember all the psycho stalker stories he's heard about. But before Angel has done more than stare at the limousine with crossed arms, the passenger door opens, and a woman steps out, all legs and business chic. She doesn't even glance at him as she reaches out and holds a cellphone out on the palm of her hand. "You forgot your phone, boss!" she drawls at Angel.

Angel's eyes don't even deign to drop to the phone momentarily as they watch the woman with an intensity that makes him uncomfortable. She is obviously used to it, though, because she just adjusts the scarf around her throat deliberately, raises her eyebrows, and waits.

"I left my phone behind because I didn't want to be disturbed. Lilah." Angel says in a tone that is a little too even to be casual. "What are you doing here?"

Lilah continues to hold the phone out as she says, "I brought you your phone because you never know when you could get into some trouble and find it useful, right?" Her lips a perfect crescent, she purrs, "I'm just doing my job, you know."

Angel's eyes narrow fractionally, but that is the only reaction Lilah seems to be getting, so she sighs and turns towards him. "Lilah Morgan, from Wolfram and Hart" she says cheerily and in spite of Angel's glowering, he smiles as he shakes her hand and replies, "Hi, nice to meet you. I'm..."

"Lilah is the psychobitch from Hell." Angel interrupts the introductions tersely. And when he raises his eyebrows and nods to show he gets it, Angel glowers like he doesn't. "No, I mean it. Literally." Lilah just smirks back.

"Ookay..." he raises his hands in a backing-off gesture directed to Angel and Lilah both. Clearly, some very adult, complicated professional shit is going down here, and logic tells him he's safer off away from stuff he doesn't understand. He mutes logic enough to turn to Angel and smile casually, "So, I guess you need to go back to work, huh?" He wants to give him a sympathetic grin and wave, and get his casual goodbye, so that he can end the story properly and get out, but once again, Angel doesn't let him.

"No, as a matter of fact, I don't." Angel replies without even looking at him. He continues to address Lilah. "In fact, I own the company, so they, work for me. I make the rules."

Lilah rolls her eyes. "Well, Angel, as awed as I am by your, well, self-confidence, should we call it, as opposed to something more emotive like, oh, ravaging egotism? I do have to point out that you are not, in fact, a god. At least not in this dimension."

Angel seems to slump just a little then, his shoulders hollowing in a fraction. "Look, Lilah, I told you when you made the deal that you guys would have to compromise..."

That makes Lilah draw herself up even more sharply, and reply silkily, "Oh, I'm sure we both could talk a lot about compromising, Angel. But rules about..." she flickers a cautious glance at him before glaring pointedly back at Angel, "... personnel are not things you just get to play with after you're the one who decided to have them in the first place." And then she seems to get her bitch on as she arches an eyebrow and asks, "you want me to get Wesley to confirm that for you, since you obviously seem to have a problem believing me?"

"Leave Wesley out of this."

"Oh, but I think you've done a great job of that already, haven't you, Angel?" He may not be the world's expert on people, but just listening to the way Angel and Lilah say this Wesley's name, he can tell there is something personal here, more than work. He wants to do this properly, but now Lilah and Angel are arguing in tense undertones that clearly are not meant to be overheard, so he decides that unobtrusively wheeling his bicycle away from the fighting people seems to be the wisest course.

He thinks he's quiet, but obviously not enough, because he hears Angel turn impatiently and say, "dammit, Lilah, this can wait until after I..."

"Say goodbye? Sure Angel, I can stay right here while you say goodbye to your... friend. And then we can finally get out of this suburban swamp and back to the office... that is unless you'd like me to take that file you asked for to Wesley instead? He's a smart guy, actually, you know? I think he'd be able to figure out a lot from it."

He can't help but giggle then, since Angel seems to have growled like a dog, in a really cool way.

"Get in the car, Lilah," he hears Angel snap, and then urgent footsteps are approaching his back.

"Hey Angel, it's getting late, so I was just gonna leave..." he begins, looking over his shoulder and ready to make this as easy for Angel as he can. Something deep and raw looms in Angel's eyes. So... looks like this is goodbye between his mysterious admirer and him, and Angel's lips twitch, as though realising the melodrama infused in the air. Angel reaches out a hand, but before he can discover whether it is a prelude to a handshake, a hug, or a caress, the shrill staccato of a mobile phone interrupts them.

Lilah saunters up with the phone in her hand, and narrowed eyes. "It's Wesley," she says, "and before you decide to choke me to, well, speechlessness again, no, I didn't call him. Which means it's an emergency." Angel grabs the phone with a glare at Lilah, and then fumbles with the buttons to answer it.

"Yeah, Wes?" Angel's voice is brusque but softly cautious when he talks into the phone. 'Wes' must be a close colleague, and when Angel gives a glance at him and Lilah, and then draws away towards the car to finish the conversation, Lilah's minute scowl makes him feel slightly less ridiculous for being miffed.

"So, you and Angel..." he waves a vague hand in the air and leaves the question dangling, but Lilah barely glances at him.

"I work for the company he owns," she says brusquely, clearly not interested in the kid her boss is picking up. He bristles at that, realises that he resents the implication that he is being picked up, and decides that enough is enough.

"Well, good luck with your boss," he says casually, and Lilah looks at him with a certain calculating patience. Finally she nods, and glances at Angel. "If he ever bothers you again, let me know. Here's my card."

He stares doubtfully at the outstretched slice of plasticised paper and glances warily at Angel, who is turned three-fourths away from them, focused intently on the phone. "Why?" he asks, and if Lilah can't get the question, then he is sure as hell not going to hang around waiting for an answer.

She purses up her lips, "Mr..." she waits pointedly for him to supply his last name before stating, "Wolfram and Hart has a greater world philosophy than simply raking in profits narrow-mindedly. Angel is in charge because he had the corporate qualifications, but that doesn't mean he's allowed to do whatever he wants."

Silently, he takes the card, and shoves it into his back pocket. He will google the company on the net, that's for sure, and research Angel as well. He still knows that the friendliness in Angel's eyes was real, though, and for someone who's betraying her boss to warn him off, Lilah's eyes seem remarkably harsh.

"You don't seem too happy about protecting the innocent, Ms. Morgan" he replies in his best smartass drawl, "so maybe you could clarify why exactly you have a problem with me getting close to Angel."

Lilah's raised eyebrow is honestly incredulous. "Get close to Angel?" For the first time, her painted smile seems genuine, more rueful than feline. "Well, actually, feel free to try to your heart's content."

She eyes him amusedly, with a new look of appraisal. "You know, the last person who tried to 'get close' to him ended up in a coma. Actually, I could give a rat's ass what happened to you. Or to Angel, personally, for that matter. I'm a lawyer. Consider this my way of disclaiming liability, should you get hurt."

She gets a really evil smile on her face when she tosses her final sentence over her shoulder, "Also, I want to save the world." It's plainly an exit line, and as Lilah turns around to rejoin Angel, who is still snapping into the ridiculously tiny cellphone, he rolls his bike across the sandy path and leaves. His back is tense with expectancy for a second, but he is let go again abruptly, unfinished without a farewell, and it nags at him.

That night, for the first time, he goes to sleep before midnight, exhausted by tension and excitement. The card lies in a folder on the computer table; he trawled the net for information on Wolfram and Hart, but it seems to be just another big-time, evil-ass capitalist law firm, as Tracy would say. Lilah seems to be almost dead, looking at her remarkable lack of net-presence. And Angel, well, he still hasn't even been able to get a last name. Google helpfully suggests that Angel is a historical action figure, a fruitcake, a saviour of souls, or a goat, among other things.

He gives up and spends the night tossing and turning. The heat prickles against his skin as he drifts in and out of dreams where even the sky is on fire, and a man he calls father hunts for Angel with an ice pick.

The next day is Sunday, and he and Tracy disappear into her mother's cellar, where there are no bikes, no beaches, and no bugs. There is a hard thin mattress against a cool stone floor, and with her mother busy at a church social, there is a whole afternoon to lust in. Mostly though, they yawn and giggle, and when Tracy confesses that she can't stand the thought of someone else's sticky skin rubbing against hers, he is surprised to find himself nodding in equable indifference. He still wants to have sex with her, so he's not gay, and the only reason he thinks of Angel this minute is because he remembers how unsweaty and cool his skin seemed to be. Big city lawyer coming from an air-conditioned car, no doubt. He hugs the secret of his mysterious, evil lawyer-stalker to himself as he lies spread-eagled under the fan, and listens to Tracy humming softly.

Three days later he draws up to the beach and sees a black convertible parked near the steps, he smiles. He's being given a choice, but he's a friendly guy, and he wants to see how Angel will react. So he jogs down the beach and when he spots Angel staring balefully at the water, he raises his eyebrows and asks smilingly, "looking for me?"

Angel turns and shakes his head seriously. "But I just might have been going to," Angel looks a little unhappy saying it, and he takes it to mean that whatever went down between Angel and Lilah didn't end too well. But Angel seems to have chosen to be here anyway, as has he, so they sit down and talk for a while.

Angel isn't there the next day, and the evening after that, the convertible draws up just as he is about to head home. "Rough day at work?" he asks, and Angel fingers a tear in his black shirt and nods broodingly. So he asks brightly, "How's Lilah? Still evil?" and Angel's smile shines like the sun coming out of a cloud. He doesn't tell Angel about the cellphone number on the card that's still safe on his computer table, and he doesn't ask for a last name. It's a fair deal.

He doesn't tell Tracy about meeting Angel because she doesn't ask; because him meeting a guy friend is as irrelevant and inconsequential as her going to the mall with Caitlin or Priya or any girlfriend she might care to have. As for how he would feel about Tracy spending time with a mysterious lesbian who's interested in her but hasn't made any obvious moves... he grins momentarily at girl-on-girl action thoughts before sending the subject into deep freeze. Tracy hasn't had much time for him, anyway; even their morning jogs are becoming sporadic. Luckily, though, he has the anticipation of meeting Angel keeping him on his toes and free from boredom throughout the still, treacle-thick somnolence of the summer days.

On their fifth meeting, before he has stopped keeping a count of them, Angel faux-casually hands him a fancy dagger before attempting to resume their previous conversation about medieval cavalry charges. He's way too whoa-ed out by the coolness of it to listen, though, and finally Angel fumbles through an explanation of finding it lying around the place, and thinking he might be interested in it. As if. The delight of talking to someone who doesn't dismiss his fascination for battle-axes as geekiness helps him ignore the panic signals of getting expensive gifts. He shrugs off the discomfort of being wooed by rationalising - Angel knows he has a girlfriend.

Angel, in fact, seems surprisingly comfortable with Tracy's name popping up in conversations. And it does, because he finds himself talking about all the small, boring minutiae of his non-existent life in a way he hasn't ever before. Even when he gripes about The Brat's latest outrages, Angel just smiles sympathetically and mutters something about being lucky enough to have a sister to gripe about. That's the closest they come to talking about family, though - Angel abruptly changes the subject the one time he starts saying, "my dad just..." He pretends not to notice, the same way he pretends to ignore the care with which Angel avoids mistakenly touching him.

That's probably the one thing that convinces him the most about Angel's safe intentions. Maybe it's just the gay-guy-not-wanting-to-freak-the-straight-kid manoeuvre, but for someone so big, Angel is remarkably self-contained. Angel never makes an unnecessary movement, never brushes against him in accidental flirtation; even his surreptitious glances are tinted with a kind of sorrowful endurance that is a million miles away from lust. It is in reaction to that look that he becomes deliberately casual with his body, letting it lean against Angel's when they are sitting together. He cuffs Angel in affectionate mockery, he yanks on Angel's clothes in indifferent impatience, he even grabs Angel's hand to tug him closer to the water. He does everything to reassure Angel of his physical trust, and if Tracy or any other girl would have considered it flirting, well, Angel is smarter than that. It's kind of cool, seeing how far he can go with Angel, knowing the guy will never freak him out by doing anything weird in return.

Sometimes when he's alone though, the real world slaps him upside his head and demands to know what he's doing. With his dad watching the 9 o'clock news, and his mom and The Brat having A Serious Conversation About Eating Pop Tarts Before Dinner, just picturing Angel jars him. Visualising Angel and his family in the same frame of reference seems to shrink Angel somehow, and warp his family in a way that makes him twitch uneasily. Kind of like the feeling he got when Brad played The Two Towers battle scene on a tiny computer screen, high-speed so that the warriors looked like squeaky Chip and Dale caricatures.

It could be just his guilty conscience, because he's never kept a secret from his family, especially from his dad before, but that's because nothing worth keeping a secret has ever happened to him. He thinks he must have had the most normal childhood in all of existence... he hasn't even broken a bone or come down with chickenpox. And this is the kind of life Angel likes hearing about. So if roughhousing with a kid who's not going to sleep with the guy provides some kind of compensation, why not go ahead with it? Especially since Angel is always so nonchalantly accepting about anything he does.

It kind of lends a glamour to his ordinary life - going about talking on the phone with Tracy, fighting with The Brat, getting out of his mom's chores and talking politics with his dad, all the while aware of a secret identity. A whole world exists in midnight beach talks where he is the magnet of someone's universe, a place made so much the more exciting for the lack of humdrum details like last names and sexual orientations.

Not once does Angel take advantage of the broadening boundaries.

One night, when the cool sea breeze has made him a little more frisky than normal, he tries to persuade Angel into the water. Angel never swims, never even goes voluntarily near the waves, so he hopes to get a reaction with his tugging and teasing. But Angel merely slips out of his grasp with surprising agility, and smiles indulgently at him. In retaliation, he grabs Angel's throat and jokes, "if you won't learn how to swim, how 'bout I teach you how to drown instead?"

Angel seems to coalesce into a statue, holding his breath in such patient expectation that he can't even feel a pulse below his fingers. Hastily, his hands fall apart, lying uneasily on Angel's shoulders. He looks up into Angel's eyes and smiles tentatively. "Dude?"

There is a glint in Angel's eyes that makes his tone half-joking, half-serious as he says, "Do you think I'll really hurt you?"

Angel's head tilts consideringly. Then he feels his hands being grasped firmly off the shoulders they have been hovering uneasily on, and before he knows it, he is caught in a complicated head-grip with his back pressed firmly into Angel's body.

"Do you think I'll let you?" Angel's voice whispers with playful menace into his ear just before he is released and tumbled to the ground. Before he has a chance to catch his breath and wits, Angel has flopped down on the sand next to him, openly smirking. At that display of petty machismo, he can't help but swat Angel and mutter "show-off". Who knew Angel had such moves?

He debates getting up and wrestling Angel, just for the principle of it, but the soft beach is comfortable beneath his back, and Angel seems to have already returned to goofball mode, hiding that edgy violence that looked so... he might as well admit it, hot. He crosses his arms petulantly and stares up at the sky.

"Fine. You win. You can not learn how to swim and stay here on the shore like a big baby and watch me get a cramp and drown without being able to do anything, for all I care," he mumbles.

A soft laugh in his ear is followed by the question; "Do you think I'll ever let you get hurt?" The cool breath tickling his hair tells him that if he turns his head now, he's going to find Angel's face pretty darn close to his own, so he just shrugs and keeps looking at the stars. After a minute, he can feel Angel getting up on his elbows, and something, presumably Angel's forearm, presses into his shoulder. They both stay that way for a while.

That night, he wakes up from a dream with jumbled images of sleeping with a dark-haired girl who smiles at him as she cuts open Angel's heart. He thinks maybe it was Lilah, he shivers because it just might have been Tracy. In his dream, he felt very guilty, quivering with shame and rage as Angel said, "you're mine". Awake, he feels confused, and sweaty, and aroused. But he gets himself off fantasising about Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider, so he's still the same, heterosexual boy who gets turned on by dark, kick-ass chicks and not by men. However dark or kick-ass said hypothetical men might be.

In the privacy of his own mind, he admits he gets a kick out of the sexy, strong guy digging him. He examines the emotion carefully to see if that makes him gay, but really, truly, it doesn't. He's not turned on by Angel; he's just turned on by the thought of turning Angel on. It makes him feel a little powerful, and it's just that rush of adrenaline that makes him feel the way he does around Angel. Adrenaline, not hormones. And not the 'friendly puppy impersonation' Tracy says he uses to charm people into adopting him, either.

He argues about this with her on the phone. He doesn't know how it came up, exactly, but he thinks it was because they somehow got around to talking about Jim, and the difference in turning someone down as a person, and as a 'sexual archetype'. Which are Tracy's words, because for some reason, she seems to think that he was unfair to Jim because if Jim had been a girl, he probably wouldn't have acted the same way. Well, duh. And if Tracy had been a guy, he wouldn't be interested in sleeping with her. Him. Whatever.

"So basically, then, all you're sexually turned on by is my body, right?" Tracy asks way too calmly for comfort. He fumbles with the argument for a while before giving up. If they were face to face, he could tug her hair and tickle her stomach, and she'd smile and swat him away with that little smile that meant she was actually getting turned on... see, he knows these things about her. That's why he loves her. With Angel, he has no clue. That's why, that's the only reason why, he keeps pushing.

The days when Angel doesn't show up, he comes home feeling slightly twitchy. His dad comments on his restlessness after he has flipped through all 48 channels without even pausing momentarily at either the National Geographic birds of prey special, the History Channel's siege enactment, or the Baywatch rerun. He shrugs and mutters something about not really knowing what to do.

"Right now, or in life?" his dad asks, since this is the post-dinner glass of wine stage of the evening, and the air-conditioning is, for a change, actually working. He thinks about what important work Angel must be busy doing now in LA... something that keeps the man up at nights, leaving no time to get tanned, or discover a favourite flavour of ice cream. Or maybe Angel's at a fancy corporate gym, pumping iron to maintain that body to impress the clients. There are a thousand and one things that a hot, rich, guy in LA can do at night, instead of drive for an hour and a half to a small beach town. Even if the guy happens to be gay. Actually, given this is California, especially if the guy happens to be gay. And of course it's not something he would get, since he isn't rich, or metropolitan, or athletic. Or gay.

"I dunno", he shrugs, since it seems his dad actually wants a response. Not knowing is pretty much the safest answer in any circumstances, you'd think. Except when it comes to sexual orientation, which you really should know, right? Especially if you're not a virgin anymore. Great, now he's thinking of sex again. He pats his dad absentmindedly and says, "it's cool, actually. I like not knowing about stuff. Keeps things exciting." Then he goes to his room and calls Tracy, fingering the dagger kept in his desk as he talks to her.

One evening, as the fiery red tomato of a sun drips over the hills, Angel's shuttered, aloof car slides into the parking lot besides the basketball court. He notices it immediately, as does the rest of the team, a big city car in a suburb always stands out, its very discreteness a contrast to the open geniality of the middle class SUVs and sedans. He concentrates on getting past the other team's defence and executing a perfect lay-up. He's shorter than most of the beanpoles who are dedicated enough to play basketball on a sweltering summer evening, but he makes up for it by sheer aggressiveness, weaselling his way through the sea of arms extended to block him. He and Brad hi-five when he scores, and he steals a glance to see if Angel's impressed.

Angel hasn't even cared to come out of the car, assuming, no doubt, that he will come running to meet him, even though it's the middle of the game. Well, he isn't about to indulge the ego of any fat cat lawyer from the city who can't even be bothered to put the top of the car down, so he turns back and focuses on winning the game. Angel is probably parked too far to see the details, but he intends to put on a good showing, nonetheless. His teammates, a little bemused by his manic enthusiasm, tell him to calm down and get a haircut. He ignores them, even though it does get into his eyes when he's tilting forward in a pass.

If a sexy gay man from LA likes him enough to drive down every few days in spite or because of the hair, then it's good enough for him. Not that he cares about what anyone thinks about his looks. Least of all what Angel thinks. People who don't step out of their air-conditioned cars to watch the best game he's played in a long time aren't worth bothering about, especially when he isn't gay.

When the game is over, he initiates another, and then one more, until finally only Brad and he are left practising three-pointers in an empty court. He ignores Brad saying it's getting dark and leaving, even though it's past sunset, normally the time he's on the beach by. He practises his lay-up waiting for the sound of a car door.

Finally, when he turns around, sweaty and sullen, he sees Angel standing on the edge of the court, looking even more pale and remote in the fluorescent light. "Oh, hey. I didn't notice you," he drawls, all the more resentful for it not even being a lie. He grabs his bike and says, "Well, see you round, maybe..."

Angel's face, when he steals a look at it, is almost stupidly blank. "I... uh, ok..." Angel offers, "I'm sorry I was early?"

He shrugs and pretends his shoelace needs re-tying as he brushes off; "S'no big. I guess waiting around for some stupid kids' basketball game isn't something you're used to, right?"

"No, I liked watching you play! You seem really good at it!" Angel's voice jumps in eagerly, but the normally serene hands are skittery, and he snorts.

"Yeah, I'm sure you had a really great view of me from all the way back up here inside your black-tinted windows."

He is about to cycle off, as mad at himself for caring so much that Angel isn't interested in watching his game, as he is with Angel's attention for having made him assume he was interesting. The quiet misery in Angel's voice slaps him a split-second before the words. "I'm really sorry... I can't come out into the sun, I have a problem... a physical thing... I would like to watch you in the sun more than anything else..."

There is a very long, very awkward silence. Angel is presumably biting his tongue for having come on so strong, and he is simultaneously kicking himself for appearing so childish, and cringing for feeling a momentary repulsion about a skin disease. To make up for it, he turns around, gives that brilliant smile that his mom keeps cooing over in his baby pictures, and says matter-of-factly, "I'm an asshole. Can you put my bike in your car? Let's go to the beach."

When he slides into the passenger seat, he almost sits on a cellphone; Angel grabs it and tosses it onto the back seat muttering something uncomplimentary about Lilah.

"She seems kinda worried about you..." he ventures, and relaxes when Angel scowls, "Lilah isn't worried about anything or anyone in any dimension except herself."

"Not even Wesley?" he feels like asking, but he doesn't. It's simple enough, this thing they've got going - hanging together on the beach, him talking about history and school stuff and his fascination for thunderstorms and Angel listening happily, undemanding. There's no need to screw it up with too many unanswerable questions.

A few questions sneak through, sometimes, reminding him it's a tightrope he's walking on and not a painted line he can't fall off of. Tracy calls him over one evening, because the tidal pools let her off early, and plans a night hike. It's been three nights since he's seen Angel; the longest gap between visits so far. He tells Tracy he doesn't really feel up to a hike. She talks about going to see a movie, a marathon-video session at Priya's house, and finally tapers off with, "...or we could just go down to the beach and make out?"

They both laugh in lieu of response. He fidgets with the cord of the phone, and wonders what to say. He knows she doesn't want him coming over and being frowned at by her psycho mom. "Why don't you come over for dinner?" he offers, finally.


When she arrives, his mom smiles at her, and his dad raises his eyebrows and baits her by quoting the latest LA Times edit topic to her. The Brat makes a face and conspicuously asks for 'cow flesh' for dinner. Afterwards they go up to his room, and she talks about how hot it's been, and her boss's weird habit of practising whale mating calls when they are underwater. She looks at his bed. He shoves his dirty socks under the dresser. Then The Brat bangs on the door, asking if they're about to start making out, cause if they are, could they please not make all those gross sounds like last time, since she wants to go to sleep early. Tracy rolls her eyes and slumps against his closet door, looking thoughtfully at the floor while he shuffles restlessly in front of her. Finally he squats down, and tries to kiss her. Things get kind of tangled for a minute, before Tracy sighs, and says, "it's getting late, I should go home."

He offers to walk her home. She shrugs. At her door, he looks at her, and something in her eyes makes him really want to tell her about Angel. But then headlights from a passing car make her blink, and turn away, and all he does is mumble, 'sorry about the rotten date'. He thinks about heading over to the beach on his way back home, just on the off chance that... yeah, well. That's when he notices the headlights on the back of his neck seem to be following him. He glances over his shoulder, and it seems that wasn't a passing car just randomly drifting by. The black convertible, top down presumably to let the fresh LA smog in, sidles up to the curb quietly.

He scuffs his sneakers against the tires twice, before finally opening the passenger door and sliding in. Angel hastily moves a file, the cellphone, an antique-looking talisman-amulet-New Age-thingie, and the ubiquitous black overcoat from the seat, and dumps them unceremoniously in the back.

"Coming straight from work?" he asks in return.

Angel shrugs. Oh, ok. So tonight is apparently laconic guy night. They had one of those back the last time Angel didn't show for a couple of days. "Lilah doing ok?" He figures a little needling might get Angel going. Another shrug, this time accompanied by a glower. Apparently not, then. He sighs.

"So, I was at Tracy's right now. Which I guess you might have realised, seeing as how you just happened to be driving by right at the moment of our fond parting. It's one of our quaint teenage customs, to make a big deal out of the act of saying goodnight." He fidgets irritably while saying this, not really wanting to pick a fight with Angel, but irritated nonetheless. Angel nods carefully. Ok, now he does want to pick a fight. Or, at least, poke the jerk in the ribs. Instead, he asks sweetly, "So where were you heading, Angel?"

Angel's glance flickers uncertainly from the road to him, and back. "I... uh, was at the beach, and when I didn't see you there, I thought..."

"...You'd just drop by my girlfriend's and see what I was up to? I'm sorry I couldn't put on a better show for you, if I'd known you were coming, I'd have planned something." Ok, bad tone, wrong, too sharp, too cutting a tone. He didn't mean it to come out like that. Like he's accusing Angel of spying on him and his girlfriend. Like there is something wrong in Angel being near Tracy. There isn't. And his irritation and discomfort is just because it's been a bad day. Not out of guilt, either for Tracy or for Angel. He hasn't done anything wrong. He hasn't been cheating on Tracy. And if Angel thinks he's going to, then Angel is just delusional. He sneaks a glance at Angel's face, and blinks at the flinty blankness.

It's almost a minute before Angel bites off, in a low, measured tone, "I'm sorry if you thought I was interested in what you were doing with Tracy. What you do with your girlfriend is no business of mine. I didn't mean to interrupt a private moment, I was just... you weren't there, I was worried about you."

Wow. The melodrama seems to have ratcheted up as though Angel's just caught them having sex, or something, and he's broken Angel's heart. He shakes his head bemusedly, his own grouchiness subsiding in the face of Angel's ridiculously out of place angst. Gay men get so emotional sometimes, although, of course, he doesn't plan to stereotype. And Angel isn't a flowery kind of gay, more like, an Antonio-Banderas-in-Philedelphia kind of gay. He frowns. Things would be so much simpler if Angel was just a regular guy he could hang out with. But just then Angel stops the car in front of his house, and reaches out across the wide seat to place a careful hand on top of his head.

"Go home. It's getting late, your don't want your... family to worry about you." Angel says with an intensity totally out of proportion to parental curfews, and the hand on his head slips down his neck, icicle-fingers whisking against his cheek and sending a shiver down his spine. He fumbles with the door handle to avoid looking into eyes the shade this side of black chocolate, and mutters, "so, will you be working late tomorrow too?" And no, he's not asking if he gets to see Angel tomorrow, or trying to make a plan, like it's some kind of pre-arranged date sort of thing. It isn't. He isn't.

Which is why, when Angel's hand grips his shoulder for a second before retreating into a regretful shrug, he can just smile back wryly in return. "Yeah, I guess the Mission comes first, huh?" At Angel's look of chagrined grief, he winces internally. Just what kind of bastard is he, playing with someone's feelings like that, making them so upset about things they can't help? Impulsively, (but purely platonically), he leans forward and half hugs Angel. It's totally the fault of the mechanics involved in car-hugs that tilting forward puts his face somewhere between Angel's shoulder and chest in a way that might look, to the mistaken observer, like a nuzzle.

For just a fraction of a second, because there is no mistaken observer around to misinterpret, he lets himself relax as Angel's chest stops breathing, and a hand cups the base of his head. And when Angel's clasp tightens, he smiles and says, "It's ok. I know you gotta do your job, Angel. We're cool."

Then he gets out quickly, busies himself with his house keys, and nonchalantly steps inside his home, his back to the car parked outside, a dopey grin on his face because he knows he won't hear the sound of it driving off until he's tucked away safe inside where he can't hear it. When he heads up to his room, The Brat pops her head out of her room and accuses, "you were with Tracy for way longer than it takes to get there and back."

He smiles maturely. There is a secret little excitement skipping somewhere between his ribs and his gut at what happened tonight, and it's not totally fear at how close he was to a gay guy. Somehow, even if nothing will ever happen (and it's not going to) this undercurrent makes everything so much more intense than that normal friendship he was thinking would be simpler.

The Brat, disappointed at being ignored, retaliates by ignoring him and turning up the music real loud. But even Britney Spears played on a loop can't quite pull him out of his mood. He knows he should be focusing on getting things back to normal with Tracy, but thinking about tomorrow night is more fun. He plans to ask Angel to let him drive the convertible.

"Over my dead body," is Angel's laconic response to the request. He feigns hurt, and says, "but I thought you trusted me!"

Angel's eyes glint. "I do, but there are some thing I can't let you do. And some things I'm not going to do. Even for you." The Bruce Wayne personality flashes back with a playful grin. "And one of those is letting you touch the car."

He wrinkles his nose and scuffles with Angel in the sand. When he ends up breathless and giggling underneath Angel, he pretends not to notice the tension in Angel's body looming over his. He shoves Angel off quickly, though, and Angel retreats, curling spine over knees, eyes shuttered. When they walk back across the beach, their sleeves brush against each other. He talks in a determinedly casual tone about a night he spent staked out in a tent waiting for a raccoon to come out of its hole, and Angel listens in companionable silence.

A month and a half into the golden summer that's really become more about mysterious moonlit nights, if you want to be poetic about it, wrinkles start to appear. Tracy thinks they should go on a break. She says this one morning looking straight ahead, and when he stops, and asks "why?!" she shrugs and keeps jogging, forcing him to keep up. "We hardly seem to have the time to hang out together, even though it's summer holidays," she points out finally.

This would be the time to point out that he has been free the whole summer, waiting for her, doing nothing except hang out with the guys. And he almost starts saying so, except there's Angel, and all that time on the beach, not that it has anything to do with Tracy and him. He tries saying that, but it gets stuck somewhere in the back of his throat, and he hates himself a lot, and Angel a little, because there is absolutely no reason for him to feel guilty. Then Tracy says, in that same matter-of-fact tone she uses to tell him she thinks he has beautiful hands, "it's probably my fault, I know I've been caught up in my job a lot. I'm sorry about that."

And then he feels like a complete asshole, and hates Angel even more. Angel always puts his stupid job first, always stays away on the nights there's work, knowing he'll be hanging around, waiting. But he, on the other hand, follows meekly like a little puppy being given attention, and now his girlfriend, his girl, the one he wants to be with, is leaving him.

"I still love you," she offers more quietly. And suddenly, his vision clears up and becomes insistently specific. This is not some random girlfriend. It's Tracy, still jogging - not out of callousness, but because if you interrupt a run midway without a warm-down, you increase the risk of muscle spasms. Tracy who he's often thought about using the word 'love' in relation to. Tracy who will refuse to answer if anyone calls her 'Trace', who taught him how to apply Gandhi's principles of non-violent non-cooperation against The Math Teacher from Hell. Tracy whom he's comfortable enough with to admit that showering with Jim after PA class freaked him out, and who lets him grumble about her psycho mom even though he won't let anyone criticise his own. He can't love Angel - he doesn't even know him. Tracy is - she's like family.

When he says so though, she bites her lip, and shakes her head. He'll tell her about Angel, explain everything, just as soon as he meets Angel and talks to him once. Just so everything is clear. He wishes Angel was here now, to talk to.

Tracy's sneakers thump just a little more softly on the ground as she finishes explaining how it's not a huge split up or anything, and how she doesn't plan on seeing anyone else. She gives him a pause to reply in, but he can't figure out what to say. "I wish we weren't doing this", he offers, finally.

Tracy shrugs sadly. "You never used to have a lot to say, but now it seems like you do, but don't want to say it." He watches her ass as she runs ahead. He still likes her ass. He still likes her. He still isn't gay, and he's still just talking to Angel, that's all, dammit. But he still doesn't tell anyone about Angel, either.

That night, he makes himself check out gay porn sites, which gross him out, which reassures him of his heterosexuality. He tosses around uneasily in bed, wondering how to tell Angel that his girlfriend broke up with him, so Angel is free to make advances, which he will then turn down, so that he can sort everything out, and stay friends with Angel, and get back with Tracy. It's not the kind of conversation you have normally. Closing his eyes, he can see Angel in his head, with the amazing ability to listen, really listen, to anything he's saying, without being shocked or disgusted, or bored.

His dream that night is a happy one, with Tracy smiling up at him, pregnant and glowing, as Angel sings them a song, off-key and grinning. For some reason Lilah hovers in the background, smirking. He wakes up from it with the memory of arms wrapped warmly around him, white light filling up his eyesight, and just for a minute, before he remembers that he's an adult, and it's hot summer, he wants to crawl into his mom's bed and snuggle up to her. He wonders if thinking about touching his mom and Angel in quick succession says something Freudian and disturbing about his brain.

Angel picks that time to disappear for a few days, one of the regular unscheduled work-related absences that spice up the uncertainty of the beach meetings. He scowls the third night of solitary beach-stalking, and decides that he doesn't need to talk to anyone to feel better, and manages to slouch about at home for the next two nights.

The Brat has learned about Tracy's 'big break-up' with him from a younger-sibling grapevine, and alternates giggling about her 'pining Romeo brother' with consoling remarks about stupid stuck-up vegans. He overhears his father laugh about 'our brooding teenager gone to earth', to which his mom makes some comment on their share of teenage angst finally catching up.

He might as well play the part all the way through, so he defiantly grabs a six pack of beer from the cellar, and slams the door on his way out. He could go to Brad's house, but it's almost dinnertime. He could, in fact, call Tracy on the phone; he knows better than anyone how easy it will still be to talk to her.

He walks down to the beach.

By the rules of every law in the universe, Angel should be there on the beach, waiting for him, but the parking lot is empty, and his unhappy stalk draws no comment from the seagulls. Sullenly, he curls up with his back to a rock, and fiddles with the beer cans. He opens one, but lukewarm beer isn't his thing even without Tracy's alcohol-tirades swirling in his memory, and he only manages to gulp down three-fourths of the can, in defiance of existence-at-large. Existence shrugs, turns its back on him, and leaves him to his own devices.

He buries the rest of the beer in the sand behind their backrest rock, and heads home.

The night after that, when the beach is relentlessly empty, and the basketball court devoid of parked convertibles, he goes home and picks up the phone. Playfully, he dials the office number on the card, wondering what sort of answering message Lilah will have. If Angel had wanted him to be able to contact him, he would have left a number.

He almost drops the phone in shock when Lilah snaps his name on the other end of the abruptly answered phone, and says, "what is it?"

"How did you know it was me?" he asks stupidly, and the eye roll in her voice as she laconically answers "caller ID" makes him forget to wonder, until after he's hung up, why his name is connected with his parents' number on her caller ID.

"Oh," he says blankly, "so, um, you're working late?"

Lilah sighs. "Yeah, well, no rest for the wicked, that kind of thing..." she continues briskly, "what can I do for you, wonderboy?"

"I... uh, was wondering how Angel was..." he says in a tone that fails miserably at being off-handed.


The flatness in Lilah's voice sends a tremor down his spine. He fidgets with the cord, not knowing what to say without sounding even more stupid than he has already, and Lilah lets the silence stretch out with what, he is sure, is malicious deliberation. "Yeah..." he says lamely, finally, "so."

"Well," Lilah's voice finally trickles over the phone, "I'm currently assigned to a lower... level, so I don't know exactly what Angel is up to, but you can rest assured that I will, in a very short time. In the mean while, if you hear from Angel again, I suggest you tell him that either he shows you the file I gave to him, or else I will show it to Wesley."

He processes this for a minute. "I'm not going to hear from him again, am I?" he says, and Lilah laughs harshly. "Not if I have anything to do with it." Dryly, "not if you're lucky."

That night, he wakes up from a dream in which he was crying, where beautiful mysterious strangers loved him and left him, a brown-haired girl and a blonde woman among them, and where Angel kissed him with a face eaten by worms.

He mopes at home all day, afraid he's blown it, that Angel will get into shit at work, or will just never show up, or is in some trouble already because why else would he not show? At sunset the next evening, the doorbell rings, and when The Brat yells at him to get it, he yells back, and lets his dad answer the door.

"Son, it's for you..." his dad calls out, and then existence jumps out at him from behind an alley and shocks the bejesus out of him, because there, in the hallway, black coat and overhanging forehead and all, is Angel.

"Angel?" he looks at him bewildered, and Angel smiles hesitantly. "Hey, I was just telling your..." Angel clears his throat and says more firmly, "your father.... I was just telling him how I came to say goodbye."

He blinks at both men silently as his father makes a polite joke about not being in the loop about his son's friends since his son keeps him locked in a closet out of embarrassment, while cocking a questioning eyebrow at him. Some vague, inane remark about martial arts coaching comes out of his mouth, he doesn't know if he's protecting his father from the truth about Angel, or Angel from the careful grilling of a teenager's father. Whatever he mumbles seems sufficient, because his father looks curious, but not suspicious.

Then he grabs Angel and pulls him out of the doorway. "I'll be back late, dad," he calls out. "Tell mom not to worry." It's more than he can take, seeing both pieces of the worlds he has kept carefully separate, standing side by side. He starts walking furiously, away from his house, away from Angel's stupid car, parked blatantly in his driveway, away from an Angel left bewildered on the lawn.

The night shadows make interesting patterns to stomp on, and he's worked out most of his confusion by the time they reach the beach. Relief at Angel having followed him is overlaid by resentment at the man's oblivious silence. Well, two can play at the game, so he airily treads through the sand to unearth the beer cans, and nonchalantly begins to down them.

Angel shifts uneasily for a minute before hunkering down next to him, back curved in a solid bow over knees. Angel doesn't ask for a beer, so he sure as hell isn't going to offer one, and mutinously, he opens and noisily gulps down a second one. When he pops open the third, Angel finally speaks. "Are you sure you want all that much?"

"I'm sorry, who are you again?" he snaps silkily. "As far as I remember you aren't my father, to lecture me about my drinking habits." Angel winces, and the tension ratchets up a notch. He can't bear another round of silence, so after a beat, he sneers, "well?" Angel repeats the question in a hesitant counter-question.

"You came to say goodbye? Maybe you want to get on with saying it? Unless you'd rather just talk with my family about your plans instead of me?"

Angel sighs. Any other guy, it would just be melodramatic, but with Angel, it's affecting. Like this is really something he's torn up about. Like vanishing for five days and then showing up at his doorstep is something he feels bad about. Like telling his dad about going away before telling him is...

"...something I feel really bad about." Angel's eyes are worried in the moonlight, but the voice is calm. "I thought I should meet your family before I leave. I... probably won't be able to come back."

He rolls his eyes and turns sideways to stare at Angel. "So, what, you finally decided risking your career to chat me up wasn't worth it? Lilah been reading you the riot act? And you figured letting my parents know their son is safe and sound was the decent thing to do?" He shoves at Angel sullenly. "Well fine then, leave already." Disappointment sharpens his cruelty. "I'm not in love with you, you know, in case you hadn't noticed. I can handle it."

For a while, all he hears is his own breath, and he wonders if that's what being alone feels like. He's never been alone before, no one has ever left him like this.

"I don't want to leave." The pain in Angel's quiet is like a habitual parasite.

"Then don't," he answers dryly, as he starts on his second last can of beer.

"It's for the best."

This time it's his turn to sigh. "How about you fucking let me decide what's best for me by myself, Angel?" All this time, all these conversations, Angel has never let him feel anything but special and important and equal, and now it's like talking to an adult, a stupid person who thinks they get to make the rules just cause their head is filled with more years of having made compromises.

Tired, he leans back against the rock, his legs stretched out in front of him, and closes his eyes. The alcohol has probably got to his head, which accounts for his current indifference. He should be mad at Angel thinking it's all right to meet his family when he hasn't been clued in to even the most basic of reciprocal details like last names, and addresses, and exact relationships with 'Wes'. He should be pragmatic about the fact that this could never work, given Angel's job, and his college, and both their respective sexual orientations. He should be sad, mostly, because the most magical part of his golden summer is being rained on.


But instead he carefully opens the last beer, hands it to Angel and offers, "we could always run away to Vegas, you know." Angel relaxes visibly and takes barely a sip, hands the can back, and inches slowly back to lean against the rock next to him. He slouches lower and continues dreamily, "We could go AWOL in your convertible and drive to the Grand Canyon. Or Yellowstone. There are some pretty places out there besides this beach."

Angel chuckles fondly, stretching arms and shoulders that were probably tense for the whole of the miserable evening. One of Angel's arms rests along the rock right behind him, unintentionally, he's sure, but nonetheless, he carelessly squirms until he's propped up against it, his head lightly resting on a well-padded shoulder.

"Or I could come to LA. Stay at your place. I bet you have a great apartment on the 63rd floor, with a killer view of the bay. It could work."

Very gently, Angel's hand comes up around him, palm hovering butterfly-light over his head. "Would you like that?"

And that's really the big question, isn't it? Laid out in front of him, no pressure, except for the comforting one of Angel's sleeve against his cheek, so why spoil things by rushing in and pointing out the flaws? He shrugs, instead, the movement ensconcing him further in Angel's quasi-embrace and deadpans, "I always go for a good view."

And then Angel seems to melt, because fingers stroke his hair in a strangely habitual gesture, and another arm wraps around him in what can only be described as a hug, and his heart stills for a moment as he strains to hear the words being muffled against his skin. "I know," Angel says so encompassingly, "just like your moth..." Angel smiles the rest of the sentence away and kisses his forehead.

Oh. Like that, it wasn't weird. It was soft, and friendly and so soothing that he wouldn't mind it happening again. Wouldn't mind reaching out for it, even.

When he leans in though, Angel's arms seem hesitantly heavy around him. He pulls back slightly, discomfited. "Um... sorry. I... uh, Tracy seemed to think you liked me...." He trails off at the look of pain that cracks Angel's face open, like lightning on a blind sky. "Ok, if I wasn't drunk, I think I'd be embarrassed enough to kill myself right now."

And then suddenly he is slammed against a cool, leather-smelling surface that he realises belatedly, must be Angel's coat. And now Angel's arms are wrapped around him with surprising strength, given the gentleness of the kisses he feels being dropped on his hair. "Never say that," Angel murmurs, and is that huskiness a bedroom voice? "I like you, I love you, I will never stop loving you. Always remember that. No matter what you do..."

Abruptly, Angel seems to realise the inappropriateness of eternal love declarations on a first and final non-date, and the discomfort in Angel's awkwardly hunched shoulders would be a formidable barrier to come up against if he cared about such things. Fortunately or otherwise, he is a little too inebriated to think about anything much besides the comforting feel of a pair of arms that are stronger and older than his, and he relaxes carefully back into them. Then, because pretty much anything would be better than the taste of leather coat, he lifts his face, and Angel's mouth, very naturally, is positioned right above his own. So he reaches out and tastes it, like picking a fruit hanging from a bough.

Fuzzily, he is taken by surprise at the softness of the lips he is kissing. He would have thought that when everything else was more rugged, rougher than him, that Angel's lips would be... but they are not. They taste different, of course, from the other lips he has kissed; less lip balm and more... secret flavours that he doesn't have the name or categorisation for. But they feel as cool and smooth as any others, these lips of Angel that he is kissing, and then they start kissing him back.

And oh, yes, there is a difference there. He has never really understood why girls would want to spend so much time kissing when there are better things to do (although, he will take what he can get, you understand) but it seems that gay men really know how to kiss. Or maybe it's just Angel, he blinks, as he finally takes a breath and considers what just happened. Maybe it's just Angel who kisses as though he wants to eat you, and holds on to you as though he cannot stand, cannot live, if he lets you go.

Relief and apprehension war briefly in his mind, and, thanks to the alcohol, relief wins out. Kissing a guy, this guy, wasn't bad. He hasn't suddenly turned into a girly wimp. He's still weirded out by the lack of breasts on the chest that his hands seem to have automatically gravitated towards. And somewhere in the back of his mind he is very thankful that Angel decided to shave before coming, so that there is no stubble to remind him he's macking with a man.

Yes, it seems to have definitely moved into the macking territory. He is comfortable with this, he knows how to do it, even if, oh.... He didn't quite know that thing with the tongue touching like that...

After a few minutes though, he gradually starts realising that the action is happening on autopilot, that Angel seems to be automatically kissing him the best he can just to stay close to him. Sure, Angel's hands aren't anywhere where he'd be uncomfortable, but they are gripping and kneading his shoulders, tangling up in his hair, caressing his face like they want to seize him up and... well, do something to him. He isn't quite confident about exactly what. The mechanics of gay sex are foggy to him, being as he isn't gay and being as how he isn't sure he's allowed to start thinking about sex so soon.

But then Angel's yearning arms bring his hips flat against the man's own, and yes, sex is certainly very much in the picture right now. He hears a moan that he realises half a second later is his own, and a second after that, due to Angel's fingers stroking his throat. He thought he'd be ticklish if anyone did that, but no, tickled does not seem to remotely describe the sensations that are making his pulse quicken against Angel's tongue. When Angel closes his mouth over the spot between his neck and shoulder, he relaxes like a kitten. Angel obviously knows what to do, and he is enjoying it so far, so it would be silly to stop Angel from doing it.

'It' begins conventionally enough, with shirts unbuttoned and ridiculous-but-sexy-leather-coats (in a California summer!) shrugged off (and carefully laid over a rock). Then there is a pause, while Angel stares mesmerised at his chest. He fidgets a little, he isn't sure what a man is looking for in a boy, but he isn't hairy, he doesn't have any scars or marks, and if he is a little thin, he's not totally devoid of muscles. Before he can start getting self-conscious about the comparison with Angel's own impressive pectorals, his drunken self-preservation instincts kick in.

"Aren't I perfect?" he smiles, spreading his arms out and posing in a hopefully playfully sarcastic-and-not-at-all-gay manner. His breath catches at the look on Angel's face. He didn't think love could show up, so plain and serious and heavy, written on a face without even a smile as a hint. "You're..."

Ok? Really hot? Beautiful? He isn't sure how gay guys give compliments, and he's really not sure he wants to be told he's pretty. He gets teased enough about that already. But when the word comes, he isn't sure why it's so important, why him being 'alive' is such a big deal, even when it is amended in murmurs of "you're so alive..." It must be some gay slang, he decides, like 'shiny' being the new 'cool', and the awe-struck chocolate gaze on him is something he could bask in forever.

Well, as long as other pressing needs were taken care of. To which end, since teasing doesn't seem to be working, perhaps reassurance will. "I won't break, you can touch me, you know, Angel. If you want to..." he trails off as his mind panicking inside its hormone and alcohol cage reminds him that he is coming on to a guy. Oh god. If he gets turned down now, he's really going to die. And not from sexual frustration either. The uncertainty seems to have flickered across his face, because instantly, remorsefully, Angel is cradling him against a soft, cool, smooth, soft chest, and a litany of "I don't want to hurt you. Never agai... never ever" whispers in his hair.

And this is when he knows he's really crossed the line, because he can feel his apprehensions about gay sex washing over him again, roiled up with warnings about AIDS and panic about being discovered having a gay one night stand on a public beach, and pure simple fear of having sex with a stranger he... someone he...

"I trust you." When Angel blinks a little at his words, he says them again and again, with the simplicity of suddenly realised truth. "It's ok. I trust you. I know you're never going to hurt me. I trust you."

His words melt into whispers that mingle with Angel's barely breathed "I love you," as they both sink into the sand tangled together and then breath stops verbalising as their fingers speak to each other's bodies.

His mind turns into a distant observer at this point, which is ok, since his body seems to know what to do. Or more accurately, what it wants. It wants to hold onto the shoulders rippling over him, and rub a little breathlessly against the trousered leg jammed between his own. It wants to pat the funny, friendly upright spikes of hair that stand away from the half moon of a forehead beneath. It want to lick with affectionate gratitude any part of skin that brushes against his mouth, and it wants to shudder when tremulous, almost penitent lips worship the invisible spot beneath which his heart lies.

He has always tried to be a considerate guy, and sex has been a delightful game he plays where the race to the finish line is run with one eye on staying within the boundaries, and following the rules. It's supposed to be a teamwork thing, he gets this. But Angel, it seems, just wants to touch and hold him with as much strength as he can bear, and if gay sex involves one guy lying back and being stripped of his pants and underpants, and then being lavished by eager caresses, well, he's content to watch and learn the rules. It's only when his hands impatiently reach for Angel's zipper in a conditioned reflex, that he realises that he's navigating very uncharted territory.

"I don't have any condoms!" he blurts, and yes, even a novice like him knows that that's not the most appropriate thing to say when you're confronting a guy's well, thing, but Angel smiles. "It's ok, I don't..." Angel checks himself. "We don't have to do this. We can..." The guilt is back in his face, that strange half-ashamed half-unhappy look that he's been seeing all summer in glances stolen when Angel doesn't know he's being watched. But really, it's gone a bit too far for guilt issues, and if Angel has a problem dealing with his attraction to barely-legal boys, then he can just suck it up and cope. Because now he's wriggling in frustration and anticipation, "No, I want to, Angel... I want you to..."

Honestly, he has no clue what exactly he's asking for, and if Angel asked him to spell it out, he'd rather curl up and die, hard on or no. But instead Angel sighs, and relaxes, and nestles more comfortably against his body. With unhurried, patient, knowing fingers, Angel begins to, well, 'massage' seems to be the wrong word for something so unrelaxing, but nonetheless, soothe him into even more frantic heights of expectancy.

Delight over the pleasure splashes over him, mixed with the exultation of knowing what to do. This is familiar ground; he certainly has enough practise at this under his belt. And the urge to reciprocate, to give this mountainous marble statue of a man beside him the same experience is even more compelling than shuddering helplessly in bliss. He reaches out and strokes softly, then more confidently as the soft groan rumbling from Angel sounds nothing like disapproval.

His face is pressed in the crook of Angel's neck when he comes, and white hot relief and happiness shatters around him as he bites down a moan, probably giving Angel a nasty hickey in the process. Angel shudders, and one hand cups the back of his head. Languidly working the hand trapped between their bodies, he rubs against Angel's fresh, sweat-free body, and nuzzles Angel's neck. They are both totally relaxed, he can sense it, and when Angel's orgasm drifts over him like a distant earthquake, something tight and clenched in the arms about him releases. "Connor," Angel says reverently, absently. "I love you Connor."

There is utter stillness then as the rushing inside his head drowns the sound of the waves. It takes him a full moment of stunned stupor to realise that Angel isn't even with him, that Angel's silence is still one of dreamy bliss. How long were Angel's eyes closed, and at what point was he left behind for some fantasy named Connor?

He shivers as he surfaces from Angel's cool, remote body; it is like emerging from underneath the ocean to discover how cold it is outside. The waves of endorphins have rolled back to reveal all the gritty, messiness of reality. Like so much flotsam on the beach, the residue of gay sex on a sandy beach spattered around them. He makes a face and grabs his underwear to clean up. Now he will have to wear his jeans commando. Yuck.

Angel has rolled onto his back and is staring up at the stars, seemingly untouched by the aftermath of sex. Is it a question of practise - how to have a double hand job and not get messy? Or maybe that's where the spiky hair comes from.... He lapses into sullen, flippant vulgarity, as his brain seems to be returning from its alcohol-sponsored vacation.

He bumps into Angel's foot as he stalks down to the sea to try and wash away the sand. Angel furls back into reality and gets dressed. When he comes back and yanks on his shirt, Angel stares at him, bare-chested and shattered. "Is something wrong?" Angel's hand ventures out to cup his chin tenderly, "I'm so sorry, did I do something..."

He jerks away, grabs his sandals, and marches off without saying a word.

"Where are you going?"

I'm going home, Angel." He says, realising a moment later that he means it, that however 'at home' he may have felt with Angel, it was as transitory as a luxury hotel room, and with as high a price to pay for, too.

Carrying the silence between them like a corpse, they walk uneasily yoked together to the parking lot. There shouldn't be a car there, but there is, a familiar limousine with a familiar pair of legs tapping impatiently besides it.

Lilah looks about as panicked as she is capable of, barely concealed by a brittle exterior. "Angel?" she peers worriedly, and surprisingly, the concern in her face is genuine. Angel's look of miserable fury seems to satisfy her, and he can see her breathing in relief before she turns to him and sardonically says, "so. You couldn't give him a happy then?"

He scowls at Lilah and shrugs contemptuously. "No, I guess he needs Connor for that."

Lilah's eyebrows swoop up like swallows even as Angel breathes out an incredulous, anguished, "what?"

He looks at the two of them, both waiting like crouched cats for his answer, and suddenly he is sick of them both, with their mysteries, and their unanswered questions, and their persistence in making him feel like someone different from what he is.

"You called me Connor. Might want to watch that next time you pick someone up," he says dryly to Angel, too weary of the whole thing to put any real bite into it. Angel blanches, and Lilah bites her lip. He shrugs. Funny how the adults seem to be more rattled than he is. All he wants to do now is slump under a cool shower until every last inch of him is scrubbed clean, and then watch something mindless and violent on Cartoon Network.

He looks around. Angel is still standing there motionless, a big lump of blankness that he doesn't have the energy to react to. Lilah, on the other hand, is looking seriously freaked out. He wonders how many conduct code sub-clauses Angel's broken. Not his problem, not going to think about it.

"Well, night, all!" he smiles too-brightly, and turns around. Angel immediately steps forward, and Lilah just as instantaneously blocks his path.

"This has to stop." Lilah's voice is brusque in its urgency. "Angel, you cannot do this anymore. I told you what the consequences would be..."

"I'm not abandoning him again like that, Lilah." Angel's tone sounds dead, and grey.

He rolls his eyes. "Ok, still here, people. Don't need to be decided about. And I'm fine. Having sex doesn't make the world end, contrary to popular belief." One way of not thinking about something is by talking about it very loudly and flippantly. Jokes drown out the noise inside his head. Angel stiffens up a little more, and Lilah snorts.

"Right. You're fine." She steps away from him and in front of Angel. "The kid's ok, the world, as he points out so observantly, has not ended yet, so we are going back to LA now."

He can tell that Angel wants to talk to him, but Lilah's presence makes dramatic emotional outpourings wither in embarrassment, and he's kind of thankful for that. He's made enough of a fool of himself for tonight, he doesn't need to deal with Angel's explanations, and, really, he'd rather keep the memory of the mystery with him than find out 'Connor' is the boyfriend on the side back in LA, whom Angel will return to after the kinky high-schooler fling.

"My car," Angel says quietly, after he and Lilah stare expectantly for a while. "It's still at... his house."

Lilah's eyes snap in fury. "You are not going back there. You've already come too close to screwing up..." she thinks for a moment. Then a tiny gleam in her eye accompanies - "give me your keys. I'll walk back with him, make sure he reaches home safely, and bring back the Batmobile, like a model employee." But Angel just stands there, arms crossed implacably, and responds flatly, "you don't get to be alone with him, Lilah."

Great. The lawyers are playing corporate politics about his sex life. The sand in his pants is itching him, and when he swallows, his throat seems to have shrunk down a size or two. He refuses to think about it.

"Give me your keys, Angel," he snaps. When Angel stares at him blankly, he sighs impatiently, "your car keys. I need to bring you back your car so it can leave my driveway and take you back to wherever the hell you came from? Lilah and you can stay here and baby-sit each other till I come back." Balking, Angel fumbles in his coat pocket until Lilah briskly snatches the keys and drops them in his outstretched hands.

The whole walk back, he cries. Not loudly, not much, but enough to make his nose blocked and his head ache and the back of his throat hurt. It makes a good substitute for thinking. He doesn't bother cataloguing all the different kinds of hurt inside his brain. Even rolling the car silently out of the driveway and rushing through the empty night-time roads with it leaves him untouched, frozen. He's glad he can't talk with Angel. He doesn't want an explanation for this. He just wants to shove the whole mess under his bed and not notice it, like gym socks.

He bumps his way to the parking lot and pulls up next to the limo where Angel and Lilah stand on opposite sides, plainly having reached a stalemate going by the murderous look on Angel's face, and the mulish one on Lilah's. As he opens the door, a cellphone rings, and he twists over into the back to yank out the phone lying underneath a file. A file with his name on it, he notices, as he hands the phone to a looming Angel. Numbly, he picks it up.

It has 'top secret' typed across it, over his full name, but in the corner, a sharp, pointed scrawl says 'Connor'. He opens it, and begins to flip through it. It is like catching a reflection of himself in a warped mirror. His old school records, class photographs, medical reports, passport applications... even his kindergarten report card. He sees his life encapsulated in dry, precise detail, down to his father's college fraternity, and his mother's benign lumpectomy. There is a copy of his prom photograph, and on its reverse, 'Connor', written in the same cutting handwriting. A charcoal drawing of him sprawled on the beach flutters to the floor.

He feels like throwing up.

The buzzing inside his brain finally subsides enough for him to notice that the buzzing outside has stopped. Lilah has been leaning against the open car door, and now she tilts her head enquiringly, almost solicitously. Angel is still clutching the cellphone to his ear; in the absolute stillness he can hear a faint British accent emanate from it, but Angel's eyes are wholly on him.

"So that was why you never asked about my family," he says finally. "You already knew."

Heartbreak is etched plain and simple on the face before him, but when Angel finally says, "Yes," it is to the voice still impatiently rasping from the phone. "Yes, Wes, I'm still here. No, I'll be there soon. Yeah, I promise."

When Angel looks down long enough to fumble the phone shut, he turns to Lilah, and shoves the file and the car keys at her. "You knew," he says calmly, because really, accusing a self-proclaimed bitch is just too pointless to be ironic.

She shrugs diffidently. "Helped gather together a lot of it. Angel pulled me off the project after a while. I assume there were others."

He doesn't waste emotion looking at Angel for the answers. "Am I the project? Is Connor? Who is Connor?" Lilah twists her lips consideringly even as Angel says softly, "My son. Connor..."

Aghast, heartsore to the very core of him, he finally turns towards the monster of a man standing in front of him. "Just what kind of sick fuck are you?"

Lilah steps forward, trying to bring a businesslike air to the whole situation. Bizarrely, she almost pulls it off. "I can assure you, Mr..." Lilah elaborately consults the file in her hand before filling in his last name, "the firm will make sure you are never bothered by anyone ever again. Don't worry, we'll take good care of Angel, I can promise you that."

He swallows, and says quietly, "Do you think the firm could tell me what's going on? The truth?"

Lilah replies unflinchingly, "I'm sorry, but I'm not authorised to disclose the full details of Angel's... situation. Suffice it to say, he had a son once, called Connor. He ended up... losing custody of him. He has a split personality disorder. And he's one messed up son of a bitch. He won't be disturbing you again. Any more," she adds thoughtfully.

He nods once, because really, it makes sense, that the sweet, friendly guy who beach-sat with him shares the same body as the stalker who has typewritten notes about his family. Then he walks past Angel, flinching at the sight of tears in the chocolate eyes he had been drowning in, half an hour ago. "Connor, I'm so sorry..."

"That's not my name. Stay the fuck away from me and my family." This time he is the one who leaves without a goodbye.

When he lets himself in, everyone seems to be asleep, for which he is truly grateful. Looks like his dad bought the 'martial arts instructor' story about Angel. And anyway, he's never given his parents any reason to mistrust him. If he's out late at night, with a 'friend' they don't know, he must be doing something reasonable, trustworthy, maybe involving owls or astronomy. Obviously. Because he is far too smart and sensible and decent to get mixed up with scary strangers. He clenches his jaw as he crosses the threshold his dad so guilelessly welcomed Angel across.

He bolts the door shut, and then slides the latch across it for good measure. His hands are beginning to shake. By the time he climbs up the stairs to his room, he has goosebumps all over his arms. He needs to stop thinking fast, before the poison of it can spread through his veins and shatter him.

When he opens the door, he sees his reading lamp is on, and The Brat is huddled on his bed, furtively reading something. She squawks when she sees him, and crouches defiantly on the other side.

"What are you doing?" Obviously, dealing with a snooping kid sister is exactly what the doctor ordered after having dealt with spying criminal lawyer stalkers.

"I saw your college letter. It came in the mail and mom didn't know and I put in on your bed but you weren't here..." she waves an envelope in front of him. "It's your college acceptance letter, don't you want to know how far away from us you can go?" Peering at it, he thinks he can make out the foreign stamps on it. Oh. It must be the letter from the Leningrad University that he had applied to. He tries to care. "Give it back."

The Brat shoves it at him and flounces over to a chair. She wails, "I bet you won't even miss me, when you're in Russia? Right? Right?"

"Right," he replies dully, and her face crumples. "I'm gonna tell on you. You're planning to run away to Russia, well, see if I care!" He looks at her, all Powerpuff Girls nightshirt and anxious, defiant scowl, and suddenly, he feels like laughing. It's like a switch has been thrown, bringing him back to a reality that has no room for Angel or related thoughts. Hunkering down next to her by the chair, he says seriously, "You know what, brat?" She shakes her head and narrows her eyes in mute question.

He leans in and whispers, "I have only three weeks of my golden summer left before I have to start worrying about my future, so the next time I catch you prying into my affairs, I'm going to just kill you to save time." She blinks at him once before yelling and slamming the door shut on her way out. The subsequent slam of her own door provokes a sleepy roar from his parents' bedroom to the effect of it being high time the kids were booted out to fend for themselves.

He smiles. Feels just like home.

Tomorrow he'll call up Tracy. Maybe clean out the garage like his mom's been nagging him to do. Before going to bed, he takes Lilah's card and the dagger Angel gave him, and throws them into a shoebox. They can stay in the closet, maybe join the clutter of finger paintings and outgrown Halloween costumes in the cellar, he's not thinking about them. He's really not thinking about anything at all.

There are two cars, one a limousine, one a vintage convertible, driving away from his beach, back to the city where they belong, but the people inside them don't matter, and their problems aren't his concern. Just before he falls asleep, a stray observation escapes the blockade around thinking that his mind has built. He had an adventure, he realises, with his eyes closed and fists curled up. And now he's home safe and sound, and his family didn't get hurt, and neither did he, any more than he deserved to for being so stupid.

As he slips into sleep, he hears thunder in the horizon. The storm that breaks outside his window is a lullaby, and his eyelids don't even flicker.

He sleeps as still as a dead man. Tonight his dreams are his own.


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