Ashes, Ashes
by Mari

"Destruction leads to a very rough road
But it also breeds creation."
-Red Hot Chile Peppers, "Californication"

It was such a silly, stupid illness. A tickle in the back of the throat, an ache behind the eyes. There were rumors, of course, but this was Hollywood. The city thrived on rumors, stories, and if there were none to be had legitimately then the people would begin to invent them.

"Captain Trips," they whispered in the gyms and the restaurants, the bars and the boutiques. By then the hospitals were the most happening places in town and the morgues could not keep up with the dead. "It's called Captain Trips, and there's no cure."

The proper authorities denied that there was any sort of crisis. They always did. Bland assurances did not quiet the whispers.

"Captain Trips is coming to town," they murmured. "Captain Trips, and you had better brace yourself, man, 'cause it's going to be one hell of a ride."

 

It was standing. It had taken two hours, one smashed thumb (Wesley), three broken nails (Cordelia), and a small handful of extra pieces that neither of them knew quite what to do with, but the new case board was up, bright and clean and just waiting for helpless to be helped.

Cordelia tucked a few strands of hair back into her ponytail and grinned. "Ta-da!" She turned to Wesley. "I told you 'Some assembly required' didn't mean the end of the world. Between the two of us, we ought to be qualified to tell the difference."

Wesley paused from nursing his injured thumb long enough to answer, "You came through without injury." But his mouth was twitching as he said it.

Cordelia held up her hand, displaying her ragged nails. "Hey. These are going to take at least three weeks to grow back. Mock not my pain." She turned to gaze in the direction of her bedroom with drawn brows. "I wonder if the racket woke Angel up." After a few seconds of silence seemed to prove her wrong, she turned back, asking, "Do you think we should be louder?"

"You're actually endeavoring to disturb him?"

"You make it sound like such a terrible thing. I'm as giving as the next girl-" A snort from Wesley, to which she replied, "Oh, shut up. You know I am. But I have an audition at three, and I'll die before I show up all sweaty and gross. Besides, when I offered to let Angel crash in my bedroom during the day, I didn't think he was planning on using it for, you know, the whole day."

"Hard to sleep through the day with the noise you two were making out here." Cordelia didn't jump when she heard Angel's voice behind her, and she was proud of herself for that. She offered up a sheepish grin and Angel returned it with one of his rare half-smiles as he walked around her. "A dead man couldn't have slept through it." Cordelia and Wesley restrained themselves from pointing out the obvious-barely-as Angel paused to survey the case board. "Wow," he said. "This looks good."

"You don't have to sound so surprised," Wesley said, his expression turning offended for a moment. "Between Cordelia and myself, we do possess some practical ability."

"We possess the practical ability of a retarded gopher," Cordelia corrected. "But you're right. We done good. Now all we have to do is fill it up with helpless to be helped and Angel can get on with the Shashuing."

"Because that's going to be so much easier than putting together a dry erase board," Angel replied.

"You weren't the one putting it together," was Cordelia's parting shot before disappearing into her room.

Angel raised his eyebrows at Wesley as soon as she was out of sight. "Has she been like that all day?"

"Compared to her earlier mood, what you saw was solemn," Wesley said. "I believe it's her audition. She's decided that nerves are her personal enemy and therefore must be vanquished accordingly."

"So it's a tough one?"

"National broadcast." Wesley smiled slightly. "Be thankful that you weren't awake earlier, or you would have been recruited into helping her rehearse her lines right along with me." Angel's expression changed and Wesley's jaw dropped. "I hate you."

"Can't blame a guy for exercising a little self-protection."

 

Cordelia could hear the guys as they continued to talk in the living room, but with the door closed it was relegated to a distant background hum. She sang under her breath as she searched her closet for the perfect outfit with which to knock the casting people on their collective asses, snatches of a song that she had heard earlier on the radio.

"Baby, can you dig your man? He's a righteous man...baby, can you dig your man?"

At long last she settled on a strappy red number that showed some curves and hinted at a lot more. Cordelia grinned as she shucked her work clothes and pulled the silken fabric over her head, feeling it mold to her body in all the right places. Baby, this one was in the bag.

 

Forty-five minutes until the next pill. The next three-quarters of an hour stretched endlessly before him, a highway disappearing into the horizon and glittering with broken glass; he had no choice but to walk it.

Lindsey lifted his head off the back of the couch long enough to stare at the clock before dropping back with a groan. Forty-four minutes now. His arm throbbed from his elbow to the fingers that that he could almost imagine were still there.

Lindsey swore finally and heaved himself off the couch, carrying his right arm close to his chest. The bandages where his hand used to be were pristine and white, not a speck of blood to be found. Lindsey tried not to look at them too much.

The doctor at the hospital had told Lindsey not to mix his medication with alcohol. He had also told Lindsey that he needed to stay in the hospital for another week when Lindsey had been on the verge of chewing his other arm off to get away. Lindsey found a glass and had a brief and ultimately victorious struggle with the whiskey bottle before he was able to get the lid unscrewed. Panting, he stared at the bottle and debated between the satisfaction of hurling it against the wall and the impossibility of cleaning up such a mess one-handed, not to mention the torture of sitting through the next forty minutes unaided. In the end, alcohol won. Lindsey poured two generous fingers worth of amber liquid into the glass, swearing as his hand shook and slopped it over the rim, and downed it in one go. He scarcely felt the burn.

"We'll have you up and at 'em again in no time, Mr. McDonald," the perky nurse who had come to change his bandages earlier in the day had said. Lindsey didn't know her name; he assumed that Wolfram and Hart hired her and let her do her job without comment. "The bone has to knit and scar tissue has to form before you can be fitted with a prosthetic, but by the end of the summer you should be as good as new."

'As good as new.' Lindsey had clenched his fist very hard to avoid striking the woman in the face. The marks were still visible on his palm.

Lindsey considered pouring himself another drink, but ultimately set the glass in the sink instead. "Doctor's orders," Lindsey said, and laughed. There was an edge of hysteria in his voice. He didn't laugh again.

Lindsey sank back onto the couch and passed a shaking hand over his eyes. His lids felt as if they had been pried open and burning sand forced beneath them. Lindsey couldn't be sure, but he thought the feeling might be encroaching tears.

Thirty-two minutes.

 

The casting office was packed with women of every race and description: blonde, redhead, brunette, curvy and dancer-thin. Cordelia saw several pairs of breasts that hadn't come from good genetics and home cooking. The only common denominator among the women was their overwhelming beauty.

Cordelia faltered at the sight of so many manicures and masses of shining hair. Her smile slipped for only a second before she caught herself, making sure that her lapse in confidence didn't show on her face. Frowning causes wrinkles.

Botox before she was thirty. There was a thought more chilling than any of the women there.

Cordelia ran her hands over her hips, smoothing a few nonexistent wrinkles out of her dress and highlighting the fact that a pretty nice body laid beneath it. The movement earned poisonous glares and not a few interested looks from around the room. Cordelia made a mental note to use it during her audition.

She ambled past the throng in her best Queen C strut, taking the first available seat, which happened to be next to a buxom blonde with legs that could make a supermodel look stumpy. The blonde was ruining her glamorous indifference by shaking so badly that it was a wonder she kept her seat.

"Hi," the blonde whispered to Cordelia as she sat down. Her voice had a whispery, kittenish quality that would have made her sound like Marilyn Monroe if she had not also sounded as if she were coming down with a cold.

'Fresh off the bus,' Cordelia catalogued. 'Small town girl dreaming of making it big.' She felt bad when her next thought was, 'I am so going to kick her ass.' But only a little; this was business.

"Hi," Cordelia said, flashing the magnetic smile that had kept her in free coffee and muffins for years. "I'm Cordelia Chase."

"Alice Lacey." Alice was worrying her script through her fingers so fiercely that it was a wonder she could still read it. She gave the room at large a wary glance, like a soldier who found herself deep in enemy territory without warning. "I didn't think there was going to be so many people here."

"First audition?"

Alice nodded and Cordelia bit the inside of her cheek to keep her smile from growing too large. Okay, now she really couldn't help feeling bad. "It gets easier," Cordelia said. "Never less chaotic, but after a while it's a chaos you'll like."

Relief lit up Alice's face. "Oh, good." She leaned forward. "To be honest, you're the first person I've seen who doesn't look like an outrageous bitch."

Cordelia fought to swallow her startled giggle before it could become a guffaw, and in the end had to settle for an unladylike snort. Alice grinned. "You'll get used to that, too," Cordelia said. "Get most of us away from the casting office and we turn into human beings. I promise."

Alice smiled and looked much more at ease than she had when Cordelia first walked through the door. She had even stopped mangling her poor script. Alice opened her mouth to say more, but her words were overwhelmed by a thundering sneeze. Cordelia leaned back, turning her head quickly to the side. Alice fished through her purse for a tissue and found one just in time to muffle two more sneezes, each as powerful as the first. "Oh, man," she said, wiping at her nose. "I hate summer colds."

Cordelia made sure to look sympathetic without leaning in too close. "I'm afraid we have the same germs in LA as the rest of the world." Alice's nose was looking blotchy, so Cordelia said, "You might want to touch up your makeup before you go in."

"Thanks." Alice swiped at her nose again. There was a pained expression on her face as she passed her hand over her forehead, as if she were battling a headache.

"Cordelia Chase," a smart-looking woman in a suit that shouted of ambition called out. Cordelia stood and smoothed out her dress with much less fanfare than she had the first time.

"Good luck," Alice said. Her voice had begun to take on a foghorn quality.

"Thanks. You, too." If Cordelia wanted to be perfectly honest, Alice was going to need it. Her face had grown more blotchy during the course of their conversation, not less, and sometime during the past few minutes her eyes had begun to water. If Cordelia squinted, she thought she could make out faint swellings rising beneath Alice's jaw.

'Geez, did she look that bad when I sat down?'

Cordelia followed the suited woman into a medium-sized, softly lit room. The woman nodded towards an X marked out on the floor in electrical tape and went to stand against the wall, fiddling absently with her clipboard.

Cordelia took a deep breath, smoothed out her skirt one last time, and mentally congratulated herself on how well she had chosen the outfit. There were two people sitting behind the table on the other side of the room, one male and one female. The woman, who looked as if she could have been an actress herself at some point, gave Cordelia a knowing look.

At the man's nod, Cordelia struck an assertive pose, one leg extended forward slightly to show off its length. She leaned in as if she were about to have an intimate conversation with an invisible partner. "Do I look like the average girl?" Cordelia asked, tilting her head as if she honestly expected an answer before she laughed and flapped her hand. Whoever the person on the other end of the camera was, Cordelia wanted them to feel like they were old friends. "Of course not. None of us are. So why should we settle for average make-up?" Cordelia rolled her eyes; clearly, the audience should see that the answer was obvious. "Luckily, we don't have to. Platinum Cosmetics always uses the finest ingredients, so it goes on smooth and flawless, revealing the better you. After all, who wants to settle for average?"

The grin that Cordelia was using for the imaginary camera grew even wider as she wound down. She had been perfect, even better than when she had been going over the lines with Wesley. There was no way that the casting directors could fail to be impressed.

Except that they were somehow defying the laws of nature and doing exactly that. The man was all but leering at her. The maybe-actress was already peering at the next name on her list. She made a small notation. "Yes, thank you," she said, looking up. "We'll give you a call if we want to see you again. Clarice?"

Clarice, she of the well-tailored and ambitious suit, moved from her position by the wall and held the door open for Cordelia. Cordelia held her head high and resisted the urge to cross her arms over her chest.

"You weren't bad," Clarice said, scanning her clipboard for the next name. "They liked you."

"Thanks," Cordelia said dejectedly. She looked for Alice as she walked towards the exit, but the blonde was nowhere to be seen. 'Probably decided that the whole thing wasn't worth it,' Cordelia thought. 'Good for her.'

Her eyes stung as she stepped outside and she tried to tell herself that it was the sun in her eyes. Cordelia pulled a pair of sunglasses out of her purse and slid behind the wheel of Angel's convertible. It took three tries to get the key into the ignition. By the time she pulled out of the parking space there was a steady stream of moisture running down her cheeks. A horn blared at her. Cordelia stuck her hand out the window and made a gesture that definitely would not have acceptable inside.

"I was good," Cordelia muttered as she maneuvered into to the flow of traffic. "Damnit, I was good." She swiped at her tears, furious with herself for them. There was mascara on her fingers and Cordelia swore, leaning into the rearview mirror to examine the damage. It placed her in the unlikely position of watching her own face react in shock and pain as the vision hit.

Cordelia arched back into the seat as if her spine had been fused with lightning. Her foot convulsed beyond her control, pressing the gas pedal down to the floor. The GTX's engine roared as it shot through traffic. Car horns and squealing brakes filled the air.

The worms, the worms, the worms, so much death, the worms were the only winners here.

Cordelia gasped. Her foot eased off the gas pedal; a pickup truck missed her by inches.

"If you worship me," the dark man whispered, reaching out to cradle her cheek. His skin slid across his bones like taffy.

Cordelia jerked back in her seat and screamed.

People dying, bodies rotting, human race just a slip-slip-sliding right off the face of the planet. Children staggered and clawed at black tubes that had risen on their necks, struggling for air and spitting up phlegm and blood. Their eyes stared into Cordelia's with a hideous dejection that was beyond pleading. Crow feathers twisted on the breeze and the smell of rotting corn was as thick as musk.

Cordelia shrieked as the Powers finally released her mind. "Oh, God," she whispered. "Oh, God, oh, God."

She didn't see the sports car, didn't heard the scream of brakes. A short second later, the pain and the horror of the vision was compressed into a very small corner of her mind.

 

"Maybe someday I'll have the strength to run into the man that I once was
But for now I think I'll walk into a brawl."
Kane, "In The Darkness"

"She's breathing!" someone yelled. Cordelia groaned and tried to turn her head away from the noise and the fingers that were probing into the crook of her neck.

"Worms," she whispered.

"Don't try to move." Same voice, different volume. The fingers moved from her neck to stroke her hair back from her forehead, kind and soft. A tacky substance on her skin was making the strands stick.

'Blood?' Cordelia wondered. Her thoughts were foggy and slow, her brain reduced to a computer struggling to reboot over and over without success. Her eyelids fluttered and she tried to sit up. She was still in Angel's convertible, technically, but there was something horribly wrong with it. The windshield had been reduced to a glittering constellation; the driver's door bent inwards and was pressing painfully into her shoulder. There were shards of glass glittering in her hair. When Cordelia shifted, they fell across her shoulders like diamonds.

"Don't move," the EMT said again. Cordelia wanted to tell him that if it hurt this much while she was sitting still, then she wasn't going to stand up and dance a polka, but her tongue felt thick and stupid.

Cordelia gathered enough saliva to swallow and tried again. "Angel," she moaned. "I have to tell Angel about the birds."

"You can tell her later," the EMT said, his voice pitched low and soothing. Cordelia's eyelids were slipping downwards. The EMT shouted something at her, but she couldn't make out the words through the roaring noise that was echoing through her skull. She gave up after a few seconds and spiraled downward into a long tunnel, towards a darkness that held and comforted.

 

Angel ran his hands through his hair for the thousandth time in the last fifteen minutes, turning it more into an arrangement of so many feathers than an actual style. Wesley took another sip of revolting vending-machine coffee and tried not to think about what might be going on beyond doors that were closed to them.

"She's going to be okay," Angel said, more to himself than to the lounge at large.

"We would have been told if she were in real danger," Wesley agreed. His face was white and his lips were compressed into a thin line, hollowing out the confidence in his voice. Antiseptic lingered in his nose, bringing forth memories of another recent hospital visit, where Cordelia's prognosis had not been nearly so optimistic.

As if he were reading Wesley's mind, Angel said, "We're spending way too much time in this place." He glared at the array of magazines on the waiting room table as if they were the personal cause of his troubles.

Wesley took a final sip of the coffee, grimaced, and set it down on the table as a lost cause. "Cordelia was in a car accident, Angel," he said, standing. His hand hesitated, then came down lightly on Angel's shoulder. "One that could have happened to anyone. It certainly wasn't a consequence of who we are or what we do."

Angel gave him a look of such respect as would have been unheard of even a month ago, and Wesley glowed under its warmth. "I know," he said. "But she's Cordelia."

"I understand." Wesley's lips curved, just for a moment. He removed his hand and Angel took up glaring at the glossy people on the magazine covers again.

A doctor approached them, all white coat and stern dignity, and both men straightened. "How is she?" Angel asked.

"Ms. Chase is going to be fine," the doctor told them. "She has a concussion, a sprained wrist, four broken ribs, and more bruises than she'll probably care to count, but all in all she got out lucky. Car accidents of that magnitude normally have far more serious injuries."

"I'll be sure to let her know that," Angel said in a tight, strained voice. "When can we see her?"

"She's asking for you now," the doctor said. "But we don't normally allow people in who aren't family."

"We are family," Wesley responded.

"That's what Ms. Chase said." The doctor glanced at his stack of charts. "317. A nurse can help you if you get lost." And he was gone without another word.

Cordelia was awake and had the bed reclined up when Angel and Wesley entered her room. She gave them a crooked smile; the newly split lip she was sporting didn't make it easy. "Hey, guys."

Angel tried to smile back, but it was difficult. The Seal of Anatole had by far done her more injury, but its physical evidence had been much less. His hands clenched and unclenched at his sides, independent of his control.

Cordelia watched Angel's face carefully. "Wow." She reached up to touch her hair. The blood and glass had been washed away and it hung in damp, listless strands around her face. "I must be a mess." One eye was swollen nearly shut and was beginning to turn black. A twilight purple bruise stretched across her forehead, a souvenir from her head striking the steering wheel. Nicks and bruises littered her face and arms and her left wrist was engulfed by a heavy Ace bandage.

"You're beautiful," Wesley told her, taking a seat beside the bed.

Cordelia tried to smile again and cringed. "You're a sweet liar."

Angel took Cordelia's hand. "How are you feeling?"

"About as well as I look," Cordelia said. "Definitely non-beautiful." She shifted and winced. "Hey, guys, don't look so glum. I know all the nurses this time around. And, not crazy, which is always a check in the plus column." Cordelia snuck Angel a look around her hair. "I think I killed your car."

Angel made a dismissive gesture. "I have insurance."

"You could get insurance on your car but you couldn't fake enough of a paper trail to insure our office?" The sentence ended in a squeak and Cordelia laid her hand quickly against her side. She waved Wesley off as he reached for the nurses' call button. "I'm fine. Just forgot that broken ribs mean my outdoor voice is not allowed for a while."

Angel squeezed Cordelia's hand. "You're thinking about money. It can't be that bad."

"That only proves that I'm not comatose." Cordelia tried to rub at her eyes with her injured hand, winced, and disentangled her fingers from Angel's long enough to do the job. He was pleased to note that her hand found his again as soon as she was done. "And you haven't heard why I crashed yet."

Wesley leaned forward. "Witnesses are saying you accelerated through traffic suddenly without regard for any of the other cars." He waited a moment before adding in a gentle tone, "There may be reckless driving charges."

Cordelia shrugged off the prospect without any change in expression. Angel and Wesley exchanged a look. "I had a vision while I was driving," she said.

"Nice to know that the Powers That Be care about your safety," Angel said.

Cordelia's lips twitched. "Isn't it, though?"

"What was your vision of?" Wesley asked, leaning forward in his seat. "Something immediate?"

Cordelia's brow furrowed and she shook her head once before closing her eyes in pain. "I don't think so. People aren't dropping like flies on the sidewalk, are they?" Wesley shook his head. "Oh, good. Then no, nothing immediate." Cordelia drifted for a moment, lost in the images in her head. "I saw worms," she said at last. "And crows. Millions and millions of crows, and there was a man who could control them like he was one of them." Cordelia broke off long enough to indulge in a shudder. "He wanted me to worship him. His voice...made me feel filthy. There were all these people around him and...they were dead. Every last one of them. The skin on their necks had swollen up, all black, like tires. I think that's how they died; they couldn't get any air. Some of their hands had hooked into claws and there was blood on their fingers, like..." Cordelia's voice was rising into a whine. She paused and swallowed before she continued. "Like they had clawed at themselves." Cordelia made a soft, wet noise. Angel and Wesley had been too wrapped up in the vision to realize that she had begun to cry.

"Hey." Angel squeezed Cordelia's hand until she looked at him. She couldn't wipe the tears from her cheeks while her fingers were still entwined with Angel's, so he did it for her, the barest moment of skin against skin before he pulled away. Cordelia struggled through a limping version of her famous smile. "Don't worry about it. Wesley and I will figure out who this Bird Man is and stop him."

"All you need to concern yourself with is resting." Wesley cradled Cordelia's cheek for a moment, being mindful of the bruises.

"Thanks, guys." Her tone was light, but the expression in her eyes remained hooded. "I could really use some sleep now."

"We'll let you rest." Angel surprised himself and Cordelia both by leaning forward and kissing her, whisper-soft, on the forehead. He and Wesley left with scarcely another word, promising to be back with good news in the morning.

Cordelia watched them go. Her eyelids felt as though someone had tied barbells to the lashes and her face was wooden, all of her reactions trailing a half step behind her thoughts. The aches in her body were being buried beneath a warm morphine glow. Succumbing to the painkillers being delivered into her bloodstream, Cordelia closed her eyes and dreamed that Death wore feathers in his hair.

 

"Do you have any idea what she saw?" Angel asked Wesley as they walked down the hallway. Doctors and nurses scrambled about them in a sort of ordered chaos that they found themselves having to step around several times.

Wesley's brow furrowed. He pulled his glasses off his nose and worked the earpieces through his hands. "I don't know," he said at last. "There are demons that can resemble birds and demons who feed on birds, but the ability to control them suggests a sorcerer, especially if it wasn't crows that Cordelia actually saw, but ravens. Historically speaking, ravens have long been associated as harbingers of death, particularly among the Celtic mythologies."

"That's less than comforting," Angel said.

Wesley's eyes grew vague as he retreated into his own world. "I'll have to check the books when we get back to Cordelia's, of course, but I don't anticipate any great difficulty. Once you get down to it, you discover that it's nearly always the eve of the rise of the Dark Lord Something-or-other." Wesley came out of his reverie, realizing that Angel was no longer with him. He turned and saw the object of Angel's distraction conversing with a well-groomed doctor further down the hallway.

'Oh, fuck.'

Wesley hurried down the hallway, hoping to intercept Angel before he reached his target. At the same time, he knew that nothing short of a miracle was going to turn that hope into a reality.

"Lindsey." The faux-warm tone in Angel's voice fooled the doctor only. "So good to see you up and about again."

Lindsey jumped, but only for a moment. The look of fright barely had time to register before the mask of the cool, composed Wolfram and Hart slave-just one of the many in Lindsey's repertoire- fell back into place. It was only marginally compromised by the fact that he was dressed in a tee shirt and jeans rather than a suit that cost more than most people's bedroom suites. A bandage stood out in stark relief where his hand had been, ruining the façade. Angel's gaze lingered on the injury one deliberate second too long for politeness, and in response Lindsey favored him with a smile that would have been more at home on a shark.

"Dr. Richardson," Lindsey said in a voice like honey gone rancid, "I'd like you to meet an old acquaintance of mine. Angel made me into the man I am today." Ice chips glittered in his eyes. Angel could smell the faintest twinge of liquor, far too faint for the human nose, every time Lindsey opened his mouth to speak. "Angel, meet Dr. Richardson, my miracle worker. He put me back together again after my unfortunate accident."

"Looks like he missed a piece," Angel said.

Lindsey's smile grew wider, until it was impossible to mistake it for anything other than a snarl. "No fault of his," he said. "Limbs don't tend to regenerate all that well when they're severed from the body. They're funny that way." Dr. Richardson looked as if he wanted nothing more than to slink out of the line of fire.

"I'll see you at your next appointment, Mr. McDonald," he said.

Lindsey nodded, his expression saying that the words were barely registering. His eyes never left Angel's, and Angel stared back with the same infuriating half-smile that he had worn when Lindsey walked into his office for the first time. It said exactly what Angel thought of Lindsey: that he was nothing at all.

Angel may have been going for subdued and enigmatic, but if Lindsey's flush grew any deeper he was going to burst something vital. His gaze flicked over Angel's shoulder, to where Wesley was standing with a disapproving expression on his face. "Who's missing from this picture?" Lindsey asked. "Why, it's the lovely Miss Chase." Lindsey looked at Angel. "It appears she can land herself in the hospital perfectly well without the firm's help."

Angel placed his hand on Lindsey's shoulder and enjoyed the way he jumped, the narrowing of his eyes as he tried to conceal the gesture. Lindsey stiffened as Angel's hand crept closer to his neck. His thumb ran idly over Lindsey's pulse point and monitored the beat-beat-beat as it doubled in a span of seconds. To a casual observer, the gesture looked almost friendly.

Wesley stepped to Angel's side, extending his arm to provide a physical barrier between the two men. Angel gave the arm as much attention as he would an unusually colored rock before he turned his eyes back to Lindsey's face. "We need to go," Wesley said, speaking to Angel but looking at Lindsey.

"Your firm ever interferes with Cordelia again," Angel said in a low voice that forced Lindsey to lean forward in order to hear him, "and your hand will seem like nothing more than a warm-up." The two of them locked eyes until Lindsey was forced to look away. Angel snorted, releasing his grip as if he had touched something filthy. He stalked past Wesley without another word.

Lindsey's lip curled as he watched Wesley trail after Angel like a well-trained dog. The stump was pounding out a slow, sickly rhythm, as a distant roar echoed through his ears. Lindsey was long overdue for his next dose of pain medication, but wouldn't take anything until he was hidden away in the claustrophobic cave that his apartment had become and could pass out in peace. In the meantime, his arm felt as if it had been hollowed out and filled with broken glass.

Biting the inside of his cheek to provide some distraction, however small, from the agony, Lindsey threw a passionate, hate-filled glance down the hallway and turned to go.

At the nurses' station, someone was coughing.

 

"There is a balance between two worlds
One with an arrow and a cross
Regardless of the balance, life has become cumbersome."
-7 Mary 3, "Cumbersome"

The car Wolfram and Hart had so generously sent to take him to appointments while he was 'under the weather', as Holland had put it with a delicate shake of the head and a sympathetic smile that may even have been real, was idling exactly where Lindsey had left it. The driver dozed with his head tilted back on the seat, mouth wide open. Lindsey's lip curled and the angry knot that had settled between his shoulder blades extended stealthy fingers up and down his spine, eager to share the wealth.

Lindsey strode around to the driver's door and rapped his knuckles against the window. No response from the driver within. Lindsey frowned, tried again. Same result.

The first flickers of unease found kindling in Lindsey's stomach, easy to mask but not so easy to ignore. He chose to cover them with ire, mumbling a vague obscenity and jerking on the car door. It came towards him with ease, taking the driver along with it. Lindsey yelped and made a reflexive attempt to catch the body as it tumbled towards him. The man's shoulder struck what was left of his right wrist-exquisite, jagged pain-and Lindsey staggered as the world descended into haze.

When Lindsey came to he was lying on his back, feeling sun-warmed concrete through the fabric of his shirt. The driver's weight was a solid bulk across his chest. His arm was throbbing as if it had been dipped in kerosene and then lit on fire. Lindsey grit his teeth, ignoring old friend pain as well as he was able. More disturbing than pain was the heat-'No,' Lindsey corrected himself, 'the fire.'-that radiated out from the man's skin. Lindsey squirmed from beneath him with ginger care, allowing their bodies to touch as little as possible. He could not escape the idea, irrational though it was, that they would both go up in flames at any second.

"Mister!" a ridiculously young voice called. "Hey, are you all right?" The voice had the rolling vowels of the deep South, and Lindsey's head turned towards it so fast that his neck cracked. He rubbed at it with his good hand, staring.

The man that loped up to him could claim the title by technicality only; Lindsey doubted that he was up to shaving more than three times a week. He skidded to a stop as he caught sight of the full scene, eyeing first the inert man on the pavement, then Lindsey's handless wrist. Lindsey realized belatedly that the man had set his wrist to bleeding again when he had struck it. Crimson roses were blooming across the white bandage.

"I'm fine," Lindsey gritted, turning sideways to hide his disfigurement as well as he could with his hip. He gestured towards the driver. "It's him. He was unconscious when I opened the car door."

The young man knelt with a Good Samaritan enthusiasm that told Lindsey even more surely than the accent that he had not been in the city of Angel for long. He slung one of the driver's arms over his shoulders and heaved him to his feet, wincing away from the fever. The driver's head fell back and Lindsey could see ominous shadows crouching over his glands. His breath rattled in his lungs, a wet sound that Lindsey had already heard far too many times in his life. The flickers of unease had long since turned into a bonfire.

"Gimme a hand here," the young man panted, freezing as he realized what he had said. "Oh, I'm sorry-"

Lindsey would have preferred obliviousness to the pity. "I can help," he said, dragging the driver's free arm across his own shoulders. A thick trickle of mucus ran out of one nostril, which Lindsey did his best not to look at. With a little more glee than was strictly necessary, he left the keys in Wolfram and Hart's car and the engine running.

A nurse jumped to her feet behind the reception desk as she saw Lindsey and the young man enter the emergency room with the driver slung between them like a pig on a spit. Lindsey thought he saw a wariness to her actions, as if this were a scene that she had seen played out many times already. The driver roused into a sludgy semi-consciousness, muttering liquid nonsense as his head lolled against Lindsey's shoulder. Lindsey hissed and jerked away.

A gurney appeared out of nowhere and Lindsey shifted as almost-memories rose into his mind like dead fish across the surface of a stagnant pond. "Lay him down here," the nurse ordered, jerking Lindsey back to the concrete world. He did as he was told and inched back in preparation for his exit.

No such luck. The nurse ran her eyes across the young man, dismissed him as a puppy, and turned to Lindsey in his stead. "What happened?"

Lindsey was hyper-aware of the eyes in the ER and the way they gyrated between him and the body on the gurney. "He's my driver," Lindsey said.

The driver roused enough to yell, "Devil's in the paperwork! Watch 'em!" Lindsey winced, but the comment would mean nothing to anyone who wasn't already deep within Wolfram and Hart's belly.

The nurse didn't disappear with her patient as the gurney was whisked away. "He's your driver," she repeated, drawing his attention back to her. "And?"

"And I went out to the car and he was like that."

"Any earlier symptoms?"

"He sounded as if he had a cold earlier this afternoon, but..." Lindsey shrugged. "It was nothing."

The nurse nodded in time to Lindsey's words, scribbling down everything he said on a clipboard. Her ponytail bobbed and caught the light. "Thank you," she said at last, looking up and capping the pen. She leaned forward, taking Lindsey's wrist and grazing her fingers lightly across the bandage. Her fingers were cool and very gentle; too much. Lindsey jumped and pulled away, eyes narrowing. Too late he realized that the wound had begun to bleed again with enthusiasm, that the people in the ER had been staring at him as much as they had the driver. His lip tried to curl before Lindsey caught himself and forced his face back into bland, anonymous lines.

The nurse either didn't notice the expression or was too professional to comment. Probably the latter. "I'll find someone to redress this," she said. "You should wait until the bleeding stops before you leave."

"It doesn't-" Lindsey stopped, aware of how ridiculous it was to protest that he was fine while dripping blood across the floor. Purple and yellow sprites danced at the edges of his vision. "Thank you."

The nurse's eyes were kind enough to sting. "It's my job." She took Lindsey's elbow-he hadn't realized that he was weaving-and guided him to a chair. "Have a seat and someone will be with you in a moment. If the bleeding doesn't stop, we'll have to readmit you." The nurse sounded doubtful, and Lindsey could see why. He had been back to the hospital several times since Angel's creative rearrangement of his body parts. He didn't think he had seen it in such a state of chaos before. "Anyway, sit tight."

Lindsey tilted his head in the direction that his driver had gone. "What's wrong with him?"

The nurse tried to smile; it only served to accentuate how exhausted she was. "Would you believe the flu?" Another twitching smile, and she was gone.

"The flu?" Lindsey repeated, staring after her. Beside him, the young man who had helped him carry the driver in sneezed twice.

 

Every available space in Cordelia's living room was strewn with books, many of them so ancient that a careless movement could shred them. Amidst the chaos were cups ringed with coffee or bloodstains and discarded plates of food. Dennis, trying hard to be helpful, had continued to bring them out until Wesley and Angel had waved them off.

Wesley paused long enough to rub at his eyes, waiting until his vision had ceased doubling before he began again. Demons up demons upon demons, and not a one of them was interested in ending the world that day, though there were several that they would have to keep their eye on next week. It lent credence to Wesley's theory that they weren't dealing with a demon at all, but a sorcerer, and that made their task all the more difficult.

"Worms," Wesley muttered. Her reclaimed his pen and stared at the legal pad upon which he had been taking notes. The orderly descriptions of evil that crawled, swam, and slithered created a bubble of nausea in his stomach, too sudden to be ignored. He pushed the pad away before he could become ill.

Angel glanced up from his book. A half-congealed cup of blood sat at one elbow; Dennis floated a stack of books at his other. "Problems?"

Wesley snorted. "An understatement." He pinched at the bridge of his nose, hoping to ward off through force of will the headache that was brewing. He had had a tendency towards migraine ever since the explosion, and this felt like one of those storm clouds as it charged over the horizon. With luck aspirin would be able to ward it off before it became incapacitating.

Something cool and smooth bumped against Wesley's forearm and he lowered his hand with great reluctance. A glass of water and a bottle of Cordelia's painkillers floated before him as faithfully as any dog. It was difficult to send a look of thanks to a creature that could not be seen, but Wesley tried. He took four aspirin along with a gulp of water, glanced up to see Angel fixing him with the unnerving look that he normally reserved for uncooperative clients.

"Are you all right?" Angel asked.

"Fine." More of the stare. "A headache. Nothing of consequence."

Doubt lingered on Angel's face, but he returned to his book rather than press further. Several minutes passed in which the turning of the pages was the only sound in the room, until Angel tossed his book aside in frustration. The spine bent and Wesley winced. "There's nothing in here," Angel growled.

"Could it be-" Angel turned on a tableside lamp and Wesley grimaced. Averting his face from the light, he missed the expression of concern in Angel's eyes. "Is it possible that Cordelia may have misread her vision?" Angel fixed him with a look that brought back the old, uncomfortable instincts of not-quite-enough. Wesley shrugged a trifle more defensively than he liked and added, "She's suffered a rather severe head trauma. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that in the stress of impact her mind may have obliterated some details, added others where there weren't before. It's something that we need to consider, isn't it?"

The combative expression went out of Angel's eyes, replaced something close enough to defeat to make Wesley blink. "I was thinking the same thing," Angel said, rubbing at his eyes in much the same way that Wesley had done a few moments before. "But we can't give up, can we? Regardless of whether the concussion confused some of the details, the fact remains that Cordelia had a vision. Something either has happened, or will happen, that the Powers want up to put a stop to."

Wesley picked up his coffee cup and swirled the cold contents, asking himself if it was worth it. Setting the cup back down, he said, "We have to keep working with what we have, then."

The sounds in the room dwindled to the turning of pages and the in-and-out of Wesley's breathing. The knot behind his eyes expanded rather than dissipating, and as the night wore on his skin began to feel tight and feverish. Twice he paused to cough into his hand.

"Damnable cold," Wesley muttered, and turned another page.

 

Cordelia had learned during her earlier stay in LA General that the hospital never really slept. At any time of the night, doctors and nurses could be heard speaking in low voices and gurneys trundling along bearing the sick and injured. During the course of her three-day admittance the sounds had become comforting, proof that the real world still functioned in spite of Wolfram and Hart's attempts to end it.

But now, as she lay in her bed and stared up at the ceiling, Cordelia felt as though spiders were running across her belly and up her spine. Gone was the comfort of rhythm, of routine. In its stead Cordelia listened to the sounds of chaos and pain: people coughing and sobbing, doctors snapping at nurses and nurses snapping back, all at a loss as to how to confront the monster looming over them.

The painkillers being fed into Cordelia's arm rendered her sluggish and confused, so it didn't seem strange immediately when a man's voice began whispering through her mind. The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout. It was a darkly sweet voice, as alluring as it was rancid, and Cordelia's eyes flashed open wide. Her breath began to come in shallow pants.

I can spare you from this, Cordelia. I can spare you from it all...and all you have to do is worship me.

Cordelia's hand twitched towards the nurses' call button. 'Get out of my head,' she thought back, her ferocity driven by terror. 'GetoutgetoutGETOUT!'

A chuckle that made Cordelia think of rotting meat, and the specter obeyed. All of the optimism in the world wouldn't allow Cordelia to think that it was gone for good. She pulled her hand away from the call button, folded it in her lap. It immediately sought out her other hand and they clasped themselves so tightly together that the joints ached.

"Worms," Cordelia whispered to the ceiling, which had nothing to offer back to her. In the hallway, a gurney overturned and someone spit out a stream of obscenity so liquid-fast as to be unintelligible.

 

'Only monsters live in caves.' The thought slid into Lindsey's mind as he stepped into the darkened apartment, unbidden and unwanted. He twitched as if he were shaking off a fly, settling onto the couch and picking up the bottle that was on its way to becoming a permanent fixture of the coffee table. Not nearly so easy to banish was the memory of the driver tumbling out of the car, the sight of glassy eyes and the feel of scalding hot flesh. No one could have a fever that high and live. Lindsey wished he could chase away the memories of cherubic faces streaked with sweat that were crawling up on him. His lips thinned.

"I'll call the hospital in the morning," Lindsey promised the air, before remembering that he didn't even know the driver's name. He would find it, then. Badger every secretary, clerk, and lawyer in Wolfram and Hart until he found out.

Lindsey retrieved a glass and poured enough bourbon into it to put a disapproving frown Dr. Richardson's face, had he only been there to see it. Managing the glass and the bottle at the same time was an experiment that strained his juggling skills, but he would be damned before he sank so low as to drink straight from the bottle. Glass in hand, Lindsey sank back into the couch cushions. Bourbon sloshed across his shirt as he fumbled for the television remote and he swore. Exhaustion and medication robbed the words of any heat.

"-the police asking citizens to consider suspects in tri-state kill spree to be armed and extremely dangerous," a newswoman was saying as Lindsey turned on the television. She glanced down at her notes. "And in our next story, city officials are urging citizens not to panic in the face of a city-wide flu outbreak. Local doctors are calling the virus a new strain only slightly more virulent than the Asian swine flu, and urge anyone concerned to receive a booster injection of flu vaccine at the nearest doctor's or county heath office. As to those of you already finding yourselves under the weather, the old cures are still the best cures: bed rest and plenty of fluids." The anchorwoman flashed her white, trustworthy teeth at the camera.

Lindsey lifted the glass of bourbon to his lips.

So much despair, so much hate, so much rage.

The glass slid from Lindsey's fingers. Alcohol sloshed across the carpet, throwing a stain of amber across the cream. "The hell?" he whispered, most of the air shocked from his lungs. The voice came from everywhere and nowhere, sliding into his brain like oil across the surface of water. It made him feel filthy at the same time that it felt like coming home.

And ambition, yes, and pain, oh, yes, so much pain. Death has kissed you, my boy, and you've kissed back. I can use that, if you worship me. Only if you worship me.

When the phone rang, Lindsey nearly screamed.

 

"Tell me that we belong together
Dress it up with the trappings of love
I'll be captivated, I'll hang from your lips
Instead of the gallows of heartache that hang from above."
-Edwin McCain, "I'll Be"

Lilah thought of herself as a patient woman. Trials could last for weeks, rituals for hours, and it was hazardous to her health to appear bored or annoyed during either. So, yeah, when it came to patience she figured she had more than her fair share stashed away in reserve. Everyone, however, was allowed to have her limits.

Lilah swiped at her hair as she pushed open the glass double doors that parted the way into Wolfram and Hart's main lobby. Her fingers came away damp with sweat from the short walk across the lot. The sun never seemed to give up its hold on Los Angeles without a fight; it was a wonder the city was able to support such a thriving vampire population.

The receptionist recognized both Lilah's face and her towering temper and didn't attempt to greet her as she walked past. The corners of Lilah's mouth tilted for the first time since she had entered the building. They learned fast.

The wing of the building that Lilah sought was set deep in the bowels that most people would just as soon forget existed, safe away from prying eyes and the corrosive influence of the sun. Lilah encountered a few twitchy, harried-looking paralegals as she descended, but no one else. The paralegals gave her nods that didn't include eye contact and scuttled on their ways almost before Lilah could nod back. Wolfram and Hart's own brand of professional courtesy.

The smile slipped as she reached her destination, an anonymous gray door set in a hallway full of them. The other doors didn't have two armed guards standing in front of them, though, or faintly glowing keypads that Lilah had to punch a private sequence of numbers and submit a few drops of blood into before the door swung open and allowed her entrance. The door itself was over three inches thick, belying the hotel-suite opulence of the accommodations it kept sealed off from the rest of the building.

The quarters themselves were every bit as lovely and chill as the woman that they held prisoner. The furniture was brilliantly preserved, expensive enough to feed a family of four for years in addition to sending the kids to college, and every piece of it dated as far back as the sixteenth century. The committee who had designed the room had wanted Darla to feel at home but had been unable to agree upon which time period out of the past four-hundred years qualified as "home", so the result was a hodgepodge, albeit a very elegant one.

The beauty of the rooms went far to disguise the fact that they amounted to high-class jail cells. Lilah's smile, warm and welcoming in a way that would have made most of those who knew her well explode into gales of laughter, went even further. "Hello, Darla," she said. "How are you feeling today?"

Darla was stretched out across an authentic Victorian settee that the decorators had found on Ebay and claimed for three times its actual cost in the expense report (a tidbit that Lilah was keeping to herself until she was in need of entertainment). She had surely heard the door open but didn't raise her herself onto her elbow until Lilah spoke, affecting a look that managed to be both sweet and malicious at once. Her smile was as lovely and as sharp as broken glass, and the hair on the back of Lilah's neck rose. "Lilah," Darla cooed, "how nice of you to visit me." She rolled her neck and rose to her feet, wobbling for only a second before she managed to cover the error. Resurrection could do that to a girl. Darla tried to stalk towards Lilah, and the fact that she was not entirely steady on her feet did little to hamper the effect. "I trust leaving the safety of the shark tank wasn't too taxing for you?"

'The things I could do to you if you weren't worth so much.' Lilah's expression stayed warm and professionally false. "Now, now," she chided. "You called me here. If you wanted someone to be rude to, all you had to do was chat with the guards. At least they're forbidden to shoot you."

Darla's brittle, contemptuous glare made Lilah look like a little girl playing dress up. "You stupid little human," she snapped. Lilah refrained from pointing out that Darla was a mere mortal herself now, perhaps wisely; lingering weakness or not, Darla looked as though she could hook Lilah's eyeballs out of her head and lick the juices off her fingernails without flinching. "I didn't want you." Lilah was willing to bet that Darla had to strain a muscle to make her lip curl like that. "I want the other one. The one who bled to bring me back."

'Because being stupid enough to argue with an angry vampire is a mark of distinction. Naturally.' Lilah's face flamed; only the knowledge that Darla was cataloguing and enjoying it all allowed her to bring her reaction under control. "My mistake," Lilah gritted. Secretaries ran cheap. She had seen employees killed-had ordered employees killed-for far less. "I'll rectify the situation personally."

"You do that." Darla tried to affect a graceful slink as she returned to the settee. Lilah watched the wobble in her knees and thought of the day when Darla's usefulness would be behind her. "Wouldn't want your prisoner in her gilded cage to grow testy, would you?"

Lilah didn't bother with goodbyes as she turned on her heel and strode from the room. She sneezed as she was passing the guards.

"God bless you," one of them said, his mouth lifting into a sardonic smile.

Lilah allowed herself an inelegant snort, but said, "Thanks," all the same. The guard's eyes were rimmed in red and he sniffed as he spoke. A glance towards his partner didn't show him to be looking much better. 'Great,' Lilah thought as she pulled out her cell phone. 'The whole building's coming down with something.'

 

Lindsey stared at the phone almost without comprehension as it completed its third ring and switched over to the answering machine. 'If you worship me.' Worship who? And why? Lindsey had an uncomfortable recollection of the last time that he had been in a church, at his father's funeral years before. Relatives he had not seen since he was a toddler had taken it upon themselves to point and stare, filing away for posterity the memory of the prodigal son who had broken his father's heart. That was when he had still been relatively innocent. Jesus, if he were to walk into a church today the roof would probably fall in on him.

"I know you're there," a female voice issued from the machine's speaker. "Where else could you possibly be? Quit pouting and pick up the phone." On anyone else Lindsey would have called the emotion that marked Lilah's voice worry. Granted, on almost anyone else he also would have called the owner human.

"Why, Lilah," Lindsey said, picking up the receiver and using the professional tone that they both knew didn't mean a damned thing, "you care. I'm touched." Glancing down at his abbreviated arm, Lindsey realized that he was still shaking. He determined not to look at it again.

Lindsey could almost see Lilah baring her teeth. "A lack of desire to see you lying in a pool of your own blood does not constitute concern," she said. "You're an investment. I don't want to be on the same continent if the Senior Partners discover that they've lost an investment." The bitterness of the second-best was heavy in Lilah's voice. On any occasion where he wasn't half-convinced that he was losing his mind, Lindsey would have enjoyed it far more.

As it was, he told himself that he was not bothered by being referred to in the same language as mutual funds. "You're all heart."

"Sacrificed a few." The line crackled as Lilah fell into a coughing fit. It was nearly a full minute before she came to a panting, swearing stop.

"You don't sound well." Lindsey didn't try to fake sincerity, knowing that Lilah would respect him more in its absence.

"I'm fine." Lilah's breath hitched and Lindsey braced himself for another coughing jag. "Just a virus that's going around the office. You're lucky that you aren't here to catch it."

Lindsey's spine went cold. "Yeah. Lucky."

"Oh." Lilah sounded as close to mortified as Lindsey had ever heard her. "I didn't mean it that way." Oddly, Lindsey believed her.

Lilah waited a few seconds before she put forth, hesitant and nearly sincere, "How is it?"

"It's not there anymore, how do you think it is?" Lindsey snapped before he could stop himself. An accusatory silence came from the other end of the line. Lindsey sighed. "Sorry." He wasn't. "Look, you didn't call to inquire about my health, not unless you've figured out a way to bill me for it."

Lilah uttered a low, dark laugh that would have been more seductive had she not sounded as if she were building up to one hell of a head cold. "Her Highness requests your presence."

"Her Highness?"

"Darla."

"Ah." It was, Lindsey thought, amazing how quickly Lilah could radiate between ruthless professional bitch and insulted teenager. "Why?"

"Didn't think to ask." A T that Lilah Morgan had forgotten to cross. She sounded every bit as surprised to discover it as Lindsey felt. "Not that it would have mattered. You know the higher-ups' position. What Darla wants, Darla gets."

"So long as it's not her freedom."

"None of us can have everything," Lilah said. "I'll send a car by to pick you up."

Lindsey's skin turned clammy at the memory of rancid fever sweat and painful, ragged breathing. "I'll take a cab."

"A cab?" Lilah's shock reverberated across the line. "Why?"

"I have issues." Lindsey hung up before Lilah could respond, to the sound of several thundering sneezes. The ache in his bad arm being, if not forgotten, at least tolerable for the moment, he used his good one to swipe at the sheen of icy sweat that had settled along his hairline. Was this what losing his mind felt like? The certainty that the rest of the world was moving ahead while he remained in limbo a half-step behind?

Lindsey prodded at the deepening stain on the carpet with his toe. His mouth twisted into something an optimist might call a smile. If that was the case, then he had been losing his mind for years.

'If you worship me.'

Lindsey jumped and spun, fully expecting to see a shadowy figure standing behind him. The air in his lungs trembled, but he was afraid that if he began laughing he would not be able to stop. "Get out of my head," he gritted.

Whether the giggle that followed came from inside Lindsey's head or not of it he could not tell.

 

The air-conditioning licked at Lindsey's grateful skin as he stepped inside Wolfram and Hart's lobby. The sun had set hours before and the mercury was still standing at nearly record levels. If it was this bad in June, August was going to be murder. Lindsey raised his right arm to push his hair back out of habit, scowled and returned it to his waist as he remembered.

Lilah was leaning against the receptionist's desk, holding the pretence of a friendly conversation even though the girl was clearly terrified. She looked up in time to se Lindsey drop his arm back to his side and a look of vicious triumph crossed her face, turning her as beautiful and as deadly as a sword. Lindsey obliterated the smile before she could see and revel in that, too, making sure that his smile was every bit as welcoming and false as hers. Lilah could afford to be magnanimous over the phone; she had been promoted to Junior Partner after Darla's successful resurrection and, with Lindsey on sick leave, had no competition for Holland's ear.

'I'll be back by September,' Lindsey vowed. 'It'll be a very different story then.' It was by a supreme act of will that he kept the friendliness in his eyes and the exhaustion out as he crossed the lobby.

"Lindsey." Lilah tilted her head at an angle that made her seem chirpy and sincere, an all-American girl whose only desire was to make the world a better place. Lindsey had seen her use it on judges and juries a thousand times. He wondered why she was bothering to use it on him now, outside of possible amusement. "So good to see you up and about."

"I could say the same for you." Lilah's skin was flushed and tendrils of hair had begun clinging to her temples in spite of Wolfram and Hart's efficient climate control. "Are you sure you should be at the office?"

Lilah's apple pie exterior dropped away at the suggestion of weakness, her spin stiffening and her eyes sharpening into flint. Lindsey thought that she was going to be bare her teeth at him, and in response he felt a twinge of satisfaction. 'There's the woman I know and plot against.' "It'll pass," Lilah snapped. "In the meantime..." Miss America came creeping back. "Someone has to keep up with your share of the work, don't they?"

A million retorts danced on the tip of Lindsey's tongue like razors. He swallowed them back, one an all. Lilah's surprise when he failed to rise to her bait was almost as satisfying as her ire would have been, and the entire spectacle was made better when he responded in the mildest of tones, "I believe you called me here for a reason?"

Storm clouds moved across Lilah's eyes and it was by years of training that Lindsey was able to keep his face blank, even courteous. "Yes," Lilah bit out. "I'm afraid Darla's feeling a bit pushy today. Wouldn't take no for an answer."

"It's going around." Lindsey extended his good arm in an 'after you' gesture. "Lead the way." Lilah did so, coughing once into her hand. The receptionist looked glad to see them go.

If anything, the lack of windows and questionable clientele that frequented the bowels of the building led to Wolfram and Hart's lower levels being kept even cooler that the lobby and offices above, but Lilah continued to cough and sweat as the elevator took them down. They were the recipients of curious looks from the other, healthier lawyers, and more than once Lindsey thought he was going to have to grab Lilah's elbow to keep her from falling. 'Wouldn't that be something,' Lindsey thought. 'The cripple saving the TB victim.'

Lilah paused and frowned at the lone guard as she brought them to a stop in front of Darla's door. "Where'd the other one go?" she demanded.

"Home," the guard replied. "Was sneezing so much he couldn't see straight."

"And why hasn't a replacement been sent?"

"Ma'am," the remaining guard, who was more than tinged with green himself, said, "there was no one else to send. Whole office is coming down with this bug."

Lilah didn't look pleased, but it was rather difficult to argue with the logic when she was struggling to stay on her feet herself. Lindsey eyed her with enough concern to surprise himself as she entered the necessary code into the keypad and fed it the required drops of blood. The door whirred softly before the sacrifice was accepted, then sprang open to reveal the elegance hidden within Darla's quarters. It was all very impressive, and Lindsey felt a momentary glow of reverence for this building, for this company and all that it could give to those who were willing to put in the sacrifices.

Darla was lounging once again on her settee as Lilah and Lindsey entered the room, her limbs sprawled as to make her look as lovely and decadent as possible. She glanced up from the magazine that she had been leafing through with a disinterested expression when she heard the lock snick, dismissing Lilah and turning a smile like the moon's purest light onto Lindsey. His heart stuttered and doubled its pace in a span of seconds. Lilah rolled her eyes, but, red-rimmed as they were, the effect fell short of what she had intended.

"My brave knight," Darla breathed, rising from the settee with ageless grace. Her earlier weakness may as well have never been. Darla's voice was kittenish at the same time that it also managed to be very adult, suggesting all manner of things in three little words. Lindsey had to forcibly remind himself that a lady of Darla's past would have long ago learned the knack of promising the world with a look and meaning none of it.

"Darla," he greeted her, inclining his head and striving for a tone of no more than professional courtesy. "I saw you once before, but I doubt if you remember it."

"Ah, yes," Darla intoned. "During my fascinating sojourn in the packing crate. I was trying to forget that, actually." She flicked her gaze over Lindsey's shoulder, to Lilah. "Oh. I didn't realize that you were still here." All of the layers of silk in the world couldn't conceal the knife in Darla's voice. Lindsey bit his tongue until he tasted copper to keep his expression neutral. Lilah's eyes turned to diamonds.

"I can see that you want to be alone. Lindsey, if you can remember that you're here as a civilian?" 'Hands off the merchandise,' Lilah's stare said, and Lindsey felt a flush trying to start on his neck.

"I'll try to control myself," he replied. Darla laughed, a delicate, bell-like sound that Lindsey wanted to hear again.

Lilah made the noise, half-growl and half-huff, that she normally used to tell Lindsey that there was going to be hell to pay later, but exited without saying anything more. Lindsey watched her go, and it was on the tip of his tongue to warn Darla that annoying a woman as clever as Lilah overmuch might not be a wise idea. Darla, however, was also watching the door, and there was a small, conspiratorial smile playing about the edges of her mouth.

It had been so long since Lindsey had laughed that the sound which first emerged from his mouth sounded harsh and unnatural. Darla looked startled for only a second before her smile broadened, turning into a beam of golden radiance that sent warmth cascading across every inch of Lindsey's skin. He told himself that the smile was uncalculated. "You enjoyed that."

Darla crinkled her nose at him in a way that made her look more cute than worldly. It was this version that made Lindsey take the seat that she offered next to her, though it didn't stop him from giving the elegant world traveler an appreciative once-over when she returned. Darla noticed and pushed her hair back from her shoulders. "I have to get my amusements where I can. Do you think that this-" She gestured to the magazine and Lindsey could hear the sneer that she was not allowing to show on her face. "-counts as riveting entertainment?" Her lip curled. "Really, if I was so important your little group of pencil pushers, you would think I'd merit better treatment."

Lindsey extended his arm to indicate the palatiousness of the room and Darla laughed, brittle and flinty and nothing like her earlier girlish sound. "You are young. Power isn't things, Lindsey. It's knowledge. And right now that's flowing distinctly one way." Darla placed her hand over her heart, her expression hard. "To go to all the trouble of bringing me back from the dead, bouncing and healthy and above all controllable, just to use me as a conversation piece? You can see where my reservations are arising from." There were, Lindsey was learning, many shades to Darla's smile. He imagined that she had worn this one in her days as a vampire to frighten the lambs before she drained them dry. A shiver ran up his spine, not quite killing the ardor. "I don't like being kept in the dark." Darla settled back in to her seat.

Lindsey could think of only one reason for Darla to say all of this to him rather than Lilah. He also found that he didn't care that much, and perhaps he should have been disturbed by that. "I'll see what I can do," he promised.

Disappointment and maybe-rage ran across Darla's face like insects, gone as quickly as they had appeared. Lindsey wasn't sure that had seen them at all. Darla's expression became serene and trusting again. "Thank you," she said in a tone which suggested that Lindsey had promised far more than a few scraps of information. Blood suffused his face again. Lindsey was only glad that it was choosing such an innocent location. "It's late. I'm sure you're very tired." Darla glanced towards the bandaged remains of Lindsey's wrist, the first reference, oblique or otherwise, that she had made towards Lindsey's injury since he had stepped through the door. Lindsey schooled his face into bland lines, but Darla's eyes showed no traces of mockery or its far fouler cousin, pity. Lindsey found himself feeling grateful towards her for it.

However, he could still take a hint. Lindsey stood from the couch, carefully ridding his posture of all signs of exhaustion or pain. Darla's gaze strayed back to his wrist, becoming fixed there, and Lindsey tried to tell himself that it was no more than curiosity. He ought to be used to that by now.

"That must have hurt a great deal." Darla made no move to rise from her seat, but the raptness of her expression captured him.

"Yes," Lindsey allowed, not sure where Darla was going with it.

"And my Angel did that to you?"

He could have done without the "my". "Yes," Lindsey said again, trying and failing to keep the rasp out of his voice.

"My, my," Darla purred in a way that made Lindsey's skin grow warm. "I suppose we both have a great deal to pay him back for, then, don't we?"

"Suppose we do." Lindsey turned to leave, but not so quickly that he missed Darla's dark, promising smile.

After the business with Darla was attended to, there was nothing that Lindsey wanted more than to escape the building without seeing another face that he recognized or that recognized him. The shadows of his apartment tugged at him, ill-advised comforts, possible madness, and all. He nodded thanks to the lone guard, who raised a lethargic hand in return, and proceeded towards the elevators that had taken him down in the first place. Lilah was nowhere to be found; either the siren song of billable hours had pulled her off or she had given up and gone home to nurse her head cold. Either way, Lindsey was relieved to find himself in solitude.

Thoughts of relief became the last thing on Lindsey's mind when the elevator doors slid open before he could touch his finger to the button. Lindsey didn't step back when Holland Manner emerged, but it was a near thing.

"Lindsey," Holland said, paternal warmth mingling with the surprise that colored his voice. A clammy, skittering feeling broke out across Lindsey's skin, as if he were being crawled over by rats. "You shouldn't be up and about already, should you?" His eyes wanted to know what Lindsey thought he was doing there."

Lindsey's lips parted. He was aware that his smile would have fooled nobody and even more aware that he did not care. Holland had said it himself: Lindsey's sacrifice had made him the firm's fair-haired boy, at least until the next big thing came along. He liked the feeling that came from that kind of power. "Paying a social call, sir," Lindsey said.

Holland's eyes passed over Lindsey's civilian clothing. "Yes, I can see that. Darla?"

Lindsey nodded.

"Just the woman I was going to see myself." Holland moved to go on his way, clapping Lindsey on the shoulder as he passed. Once, such a fatherly gesture would have pleased Lindsey by assuring him of his place. He wondered at the slow simmering, too soon in its infancy to be called hatred, that rose from his gut in its stead. "Get some rest, Lindsey. You've earned it."

"Yes, sir." Lindsey watched Holland go before he entered the vacated elevator. Confident that he was finally alone, Lindsey leaned back against the wall, letting his eyelids drift downwards. His wrist beat out a sick, torturous tattoo that echoed through the rest of his body; he did not think he had been on his feet for so long in one day since getting out of the hospital. And yet-

'I used to be happy here,' Lindsey thought.

 

Darla let her posture slump as soon as the door closed behind Lindsey, hurling herself back against the seat and digging her nails into the fabric. As a vampire she would have been able to smash the settee into kindling with a small fraction of her strength; as it was, she couldn't even tear a hole in the furniture's covering. It was pathetic. She was pathetic, reduced to a powerless plaything, the one thing that she had sworn she would never be gain.

'If you worship me.'

The voice slid into her head like butter, smoother than the snake, and Darla leapt from her seat as if she had discovered someone setting it on fire while her attention was diverted. "Who's there?" she called, hating the way her voice trembled at the end, hating the humans who had put her in the position to feel such fear. Pathetic.

When the voice spoke again, Darla's eyes widened. Barely rising over a whisper, the words tumbling over each other like water cascading from the edge of a cliff, the voice told her of promises and threats, painted pictures of life and death across the delicate matter of her brain. Of power within her reach if she was only willing to extend her hand and take it. Though her infant soul trembled, in the end Darla was a survivor.

The door behind her opened with a sound whoosh of air, and Holland Manners stepped in.

 

"Please allow me to introduce myself
I'm a man of wealth and taste.
I've been around for a long, long years
Stole many a man's soul and faith."
-Rolling Stones, "Sympathy For The Devil"

Cool fingers shivered across Wesley's cheeks and the bridge of his nose. He grunted and turned over, whining as the small demon that seemed to have taken up residence in his head realized that its victim was awake and ready for more punishment. Wesley swatted at the intruder, only opening his eyes when his hand encountered cool, empty air. The light seized his eyes, gleefully grinding broken glass into his retinas. Wesley hissed and tried to roll back over. An invisible force stopped him from one side; something cool and solid bumped against his shoulder blade from the other. Wesley gave in to the force, whatever it was, and sat up, swearing and shielding his eyes. Cordelia's curtains hadn't seemed nearly so thin when he had lain down for a nap earlier, or her apartment so hot. The light coming through the windows was muted with the blush of twilight, and still it stung him. Wesley dragged his hand across his streaming brow as the cold object bumped against his wrist. He opened his eyes.

"Dennis." The ghost floated a glass of water inches before Wesley's face. Hovering behind it like a docile dog was a large bottle of aspirin. "Thank you." The glass dipped in welcome as Wesley took it. The water felt like heaven's ice as it slid down his scorched throat. Wesley had to stop and remind himself to take the aspirin before he drank it all down. Gel-coated though the capsules were, they still felt like swallowing golf balls. Wesley experienced a dizzying moment of panic in which he wondered if he would be able to get them down at all. It would cause quite a chuckle back at the Council when the news broke that it was not a demon or a sorcerer that killed him, but an over-the-counter analgesic. He forced the pills past his swollen glands with a supreme effort and sank back into the couch cushions, gasping. Cool fingers trailed across his cheeks like tears. "Just a cold." Wesley wondered if he was hallucinating, or if Dennis had found a way to make the very molecules of the air seem reproachful. "I promise."

Whatever reassurance he might have given Dennis was spoiled by an attack of coughing that came on without a breath of warning and drove knives up into his ribcage. Wesley gripped the edge of Cordelia's sofa for support, flinching back from the black spots that danced before his eyes. As the fit wore on, Wesley's lungs began to tighten and burn. His throat was filled with cotton batting, and the panic made its swift reentry back into the room. The rasping noises that worked their way from his throat became more urgent as the dark fairies cavorting before his eyes multiplied instead of abating. "I can't breathe," Wesley realized, and with realization came terror.

The fairies joined forces, becoming an all-encompassing shroud, and Wesley's body was just beginning to go slack when there came a thump to his shoulder blades far stronger than anything a human being could have delivered. Wesley was knocked off the couch and onto his knees by the force of it, and the wad of Jell-O lodged in his throat was jarred loose. Wesley gagged as it entered his mouth, spitting a shocking amount of bright yellow phlegm onto the floor. He could breathe again, in a whistling, painful fashion. How much it had cost Dennis to become that corporeal Wesley did not know, but he was grateful for it.

"Thank you," he rasped.

The empty water glass dipped in acknowledgement, then floated with the aspirin back into the kitchen. A moment later a dampened dishtowel made its way out along the same path. Wesley tried to take the towel away from Dennis and clean up his own mess but was pushed, not unkindly, back among the cushions. The telephone rose from its receiver and stood at attention by his shoulder.

"I don't need to call a doctor." The dishtowel made an abrupt gesture towards the phlegm on the floor. If Dennis had been possessed of eyebrows, Wesley was sure they would have been touching the ceiling. "It's a cold." Wesley scratched at the stubble on his cheeks, winced away as his fingers brushed against the hard lumps that his glands had swollen into. "All right, perhaps something more, but we have larger issues to attend to.

The jerky rise and fall of the telephone could have been intended as either admonishment or assent; Wesley could not tell. "I'll call in the morning," he promised. "Angel will be back with Cordelia soon. One invalid at a time is quite enough."

Dennis' attitude-what Wesley could detect of it-was brightened by several shades at the mention of Cordelia's return, but he bobbed the phone once more before place it back into its cradle. Wesley shook his head, rubbed at his eyes, and reached for another book.

 

Cordelia sat up in her hospital bed, wide-eyed, and listened as chaos reigned outside of the door. In the forty-eight hours since she had been admitted, the noise had gone from a dull roar to a nearly constant freight train. 'I saw this,' Cordelia thought. 'I saw all of it.' She wrapped her arms around herself.

Angel's dark, comforting bulked some of the light from the hallway as he entered the room. "Hey," he said, putting a smile onto his face even as he cast a worried look over his shoulder. Down the hallway, a woman screamed in grief. "How are you feeling?"

"Strangely like I've been in a car wreck." Cordelia forewent Angel's attempt at smiling, fingering her swollen lip. "Where's Wesley?"

"Feeling a little under the weather. He thought he would be more useful organizing the welcome home party with Dennis." Angel was good at a lot of things. Hiding his emotions wasn't one of them.

A dreadful sense of cold stole over Cordelia's body. "Is he going to be all right?"

"He says it's just a cold." Angel kept his tone light for Cordelia's benefit, but she could see the worry in his eyes and knew the same must be reflected in her own. "Are you ready to go?"

The change in subject came too quickly to serve as any kind of comfort. Arguing, however, would only delay her getting home, where she could assess Wesley's condition with her own eyes. "I'm ready." Cordelia swung her legs over the side of the bed, having plucked out her IV and changed back into civilian clothes some hours before. A nurse had stuck his head through the door to scold her, but the others were too busy to bother.

Another shriek erupted from the hallway, followed by a metallic clatter as a gurney tipped over. Cordelia's eyes widened. "It sounds like the end of the world out there."

Face grim, Angel replied, "Wait until you see it."

"I've been sneaking peeks. It's like a bad disaster movie." Angel took her bag from her and wrapped his arm around her shoulders as he led her to the doorway. The view took Cordelia's breath away.

Fro the past two days, Cordelia had allowed morphine to be dripped into her arm and had clung to her bed, emerging only for quick, torturous trips to the bathroom. Under those circumstances it had been easy to tell herself that it was the drugs, it was paranoia, it was the vision and maybe even encroaching insanity ping-ponging around the inside of her skull. It was not as bad as the glimpses that Cordelia had allowed herself; it could not possibly be.

Cordelia was right. It was worse.

Chaos was too kind a word. Gurneys lined the walls and stood in the center of the hallways, people having long since begun to skirt around them rather than move them to the increasingly scarce patches of empty space. Cordelia's stomach lurched as she took in the sheer number of the sick. Some of them appeared to have only the hacking, sniffling symptoms of a nasty flu bug, while others-Cordelia's heart made a committed attempt to crawl down into her ankles-were obviously ringing the bell at death's door. They struggled for breath around black swellings that puffed up their necks like spare tires. Failure, Cordelia discovered, tasted a lot like rising vomit.

"It wasn't like this when I came in," Cordelia managed at last. "It wasn't even like this a few hours ago."

"It's called Captain Trips," Angel said. His voice held a grimness that Cordelia had never heard before. "The whole city is coming down with it, but this...I was shocked when I came in. The rest of Los Angeles still looks almost normal."

"Angel, I saw this." Cordelia pointed to a man moaning on a gurney a few feet away. The black ring around his neck had risen so high that every breath was a marathon. "These swellings. They were a part of my vision."

Angel's eyes could have belonged to a shark. "I know." He gave her elbow a tug gentle enough to belie the expression on his face. "Come on. No sense in exposing you any more than you have been already."

Cordelia, numbed by the sheer mass of the dying, allowed herself to be led. "But I feel fine," she said, her voice only a few octaves above a whisper. "Not even a sniffle."

Angel wasn't paying attention. He pulled Cordelia close to him, as if he would protect her from the virus with the weight of his body. The look in his eyes as he gazed over the sick was distant, and Cordelia knew that in all likelihood he was visiting other places of death from his past, in which his presence had not been nearly so benevolent. She slid her hand into his. The answering pressure that he gave her squeeze was more comforting than any number of words.

"I think we have to sign out," Cordelia said to interrupt Angel's train of thought.

Angel's arm around her shoulders tightened. "I don't think today is a day for following protocol." A threat had entered his voice. Cordelia looked up.

A man in a National Guardsman uniform was conversing with a doctor at the end of the hallway. The soldier's face was blank. The doctor's was furious. Beyond them Cordelia could see several more military personnel standing in a cluster as they awaited orders. Every single one of them was armed.

"Yeah," Cordelia said in a faint voice. "Authority is not our friend."

They made an abrupt U-turn and, moving as swiftly as Cordelia's broken ribs would allow, bolted for the elevators. "Are they setting up a quarantine?" Cordelia whispered.

"Of the hospital? Doubt it. Half of Los Angeles has Captain Trips by now, and the other half knows someone who does. There would be no point." Angel paused to eyeball a passing soldier. "I wouldn't be surprised if they were monitoring the flow of information out of the hospital, though.

Cordelia looked at Angel askance. "You seem to know a lot about this."

Angel's expression was weary. "Seen a lot of plagues."

"Guess so." Cordelia slipped out from under Angel's protective arm as they reached the elevator. She leaned against the wall and closed her eyes as disaster swirled around them. Her temples pulsed.

"Are you going to be all right?" Angel's voice.

Cordelia nodded without opening her eyes. "I just want to go home."

Angel found and squeezed her hand as the elevator dinged open. A swarm of nurses piled out, none of them giving the pair a second glance. Several appeared to be infected themselves.

Angel placed his hand against the small of Cordelia's back to guide her into the elevator, but she twisted away when he tried to take her elbow as well. Off Angel's hurt/confused look, Cordelia said, "I don't like to feel like an invalid.

"It's all right to be injured," Angel chided in a gentle tone, pressing the button that would take them to the ground floor and freedom.

"Still."

"Still," Angel agreed. "I know what you mean."

A silence fell over the elevator, born of two people who knew each other well enough that they did not need to feel the air with hollow words. Cordelia let it wash over her for a few minutes before she asked, "Did you and Wesley find out anything about my vision?"

"Not yet." Angel's words were a promise made for both of them. "But we're not going to give up."

"I saw this sickness, Angel. Everything that's happening right now, the Powers That Be told me about it." 'And about crows, and a man who answers to the name of Death,' Cordelia thought but did not say. 'If you worship me.' Her lips shaped the words as maggots crawled up her spine.

"I know." Angel's hand crept up to pinch at the bridge of his nose. There were dark circles under his eyes. Cordelia felt bad for not realizing sooner that he was teetering against exhaustion so great that it was becoming incapacitating. "Wesley and I scoured every book that we have-nothing. Wesley contacted some of his old colleagues, including Giles, but none of them have gotten back to us yet. The world beneath the streets is as terrified as the world above."

"Wesley." Cordelia's body was enveloped in cold. Wrapping her arms around herself, she asked, "He has the sickness, doesn't he? Captain Trips."

There was a long moment of silence before Angel answered heavily, "I think so."

"God."

"We'll figure it out. We'll stop it."

"Yeah. We will." Cordelia's ribs twinged and she winced. "I'm one huge bruise, aren't I?"

"A very stylish bruise." Cordelia's lips twitched, but that was all. The elevator descended into another silence until Angel said, "The police report came back."

Cordelia winced again, this time from pain internal rather than external. "How much hot water am I in?"

"Do you like taking the bus?"

"Fabulous."

The pocket of calm they created between them evaporated as soon as the elevator came to a halt and the doors slid open. The emergency room was filled to the outer limits of its capacity with feverish, gasping people. The constant influx of new people through the doors was overwhelming the doctors and nurses who were struggling to sort it out in spite of having a high rate of illness among their own ranks. Scores of hostile, frightened eyes turned onto Angel and Cordelia as they exited the elevator. Taken together, the stares were nearly enough to constitute a physical blow.

"This is what you saw when you walked in?" Cordelia asked.

"Yes." Angel's eyes were rendered into unreadable pools and his nostrils flared. Cordelia decided that she didn't want to know.

A doctor rushed past them, heading for a gurney that was being wheeled through the ambulance doors. A middle-aged man was lying on it, moaning and covered in blood. As far as Cordelia could see, the man bore all the signs of having been in an accident and none of having been infected with Captain Trips. He could be helped.

The majority that were beyond help were not pleased by the doctor's diverted attentions. A woman with the telltale swellings already rising on her neck lunged to her feet and grabbed at the doctor's arm as he passed. He shook her off; she tried again. Words were exchanged, and the woman's face contorted into an angry, spitting mask. With her face glowing bright from the fever and her face rapidly being eaten up by a tube of darkening flesh, she barely seemed human. The doctor jerked himself out of her grasp again, speaking rapidly enough to spend spittle flying from between his lips, his own face twitching in exhaustion and frustration. His hand rose from his side with the fingers curling into a fist.

"Angel-" Cordelia began, but Angel was already moving.

Angel grabbed the doctor's wrist before he could swing, lowering his head so that he could whisper into the other man's ear. Second by second, the tension eased out of the doctor's arm as Angel spoke. He nodded to Angel as he was released. Angel helped the sick woman back to her seat before returning to Cordelia.

"I want to leave now," Cordelia said in a small voice. Angel nodded and replaced his hand on her back. It was all that Cordelia could do not to break into a run as they headed for the door. The sickness slipped off of Cordelia's arms like a misplaced shroud as they stepped out into the early night. She wrapped her arms around herself, anyway, just to be certain that she was still alive, and whole, and not one of the walking corpses clustered inside. "Is the rest of the city turning into that?"

"Not yet," Angel said, pulling the keys to Wesley's car from his pocket.

Cordelia exhaled. "Good."

They reached Wesley's car and Angel unlocked the passenger door for Cordelia, holding it open so that she could slide inside. He got into the driver's side after he had assured himself that she was secure, but sat for several seconds without putting the keys into the ignition. "I'm worried."

"We've been worried before," Cordelia said, "and we've always beaten it. Besides, the Powers aren't going to let anything happen to you until you become human, remember? I'd say that implies some pretty heavy confidence in your world-saving abilities." Cordelia flinched and tugged at her seatbelt as it dug into the deep scrape on her collarbone that Angel's car had put there two days before.

"Are you in pain?" Angel asked, apparently choosing to exchange the worries that he could not control at the moment for the ones that he could.

"A little. I have some pills to get me through the next few days, but I didn't want to be loopy for my own homecoming."

"Then we'd better get you home." Angel started the car and backed out of the space with care that said he probably wasn't going to be plowing into any sports cars on the way back to the apartment. Cordelia grimaced. Angel's convertible had been really nice, too.

'You know where this is all going to end, little girl.'

Cordelia's spine became the consistency of mercury and she sucked in her breath. Angel threw her a concerned look. Cordelia forced a pained smile onto her face and gritted, "Bump in the road."

"Sorry. I'll try to be more careful." Angel returned to his driving.

'Don't call me "little girl",' Cordelia snapped back. 'My apologies. You certainly aren't, are you?'

'What do you want?'

'What any human wants, of course. Worship. I didn't think an actress would need to be told that.'

'Go to hell.'

'My memories are a little fuzzy on the subject, but I think I may have created it.' The mercury in Cordelia's spine spread throughout her entire body. 'As I was saying. You know how this will end. I would spare a few, though, if they would let me. It's such a small thing, after all. You pay more attention to your television set than you do the heavens, so what's one more idol to throw into the mix? Especially when the reward is so great.'

'You're evil,' Cordelia thought back with a fury that surprised her. 'You're evil, you're sick, get out of my HEAD-'

"Cordelia?"

She gasped, jerked back to the present like a fish being hauled into a boat. Angel was staring at her closely in concern, his face etched with fresh worry even though it already spoke of two many burdens. In fact, he was watching her so closely-

"Angel, look out!" Cordelia screamed.

Angel tore his eyes back to the road. He swore and slammed on the brakes, working the wheel hard to avoid rear-ending the minivan in front of them. The car jerked to a stop half in the lane, half out of it, and partially blocking traffic. Horns blared and hands stuck out of windows.

"Your insurance company must hate us," Cordelia managed when she could unclench her jaw. She pressed her shaking hands into her lap.

"Sorry." Angel seemed more than a little shaken himself. He didn't take his eyes off the road again as he said, "You muttered the word 'head'. I wasn't sure if you were all right."

"I did?" Cordelia asked. "Um, I have a headache." 'Also, the devil might be talking to me.' Angel would want to know about that teensy detail. But, on the other hand, the voices in Cordelia's head weren't normally known to come with a lack of excruciating pain or glorious Technicolor.

'So, either I'm being communicated with by a being or ultimate evil, or I'm-'

 

"-going crazy." Lindsey dragged his hand through his hair and grimaced. He needed a shower. Hell, at this point he needed a lobotomy.

'If you worship me.'

"Get out," Lindsey muttered, raising the beer can to his lips. Too much of the hard stuff-the good stuff-would usher him straight into the arms of a blackout. The horrors that had been painted across the insides of his eyelids over the past two days were more than enough to convince him that sleep would not be the best of ideas when it came to preserving his long-term health or, for that matter, his sanity.

Beer, though. Back home, if you couldn't put away a twelve pack and still drive yourself home at the end of the night by the time you were a junior, well, you just weren't a man. He could buzz on this redneck shit all night long without passing out. Lindsey licked foam off his upper lip as he turned the can over in his hand. Budweiser, his daddy's old brand. The irony of sitting on his couch with nowhere else to be, drinking his daddy's beer at a rate that wouldn't be much longer in sending him over the line from buzzed into drunk, Oklahoma sensibilities or no, was not lost on Lindsey. At least the surroundings were nicer. "Fuck you, Dad," Lindsey whispered.

The phone rang. Lindsey ignored it. His wrist burned, uneasy reminder that it was time to take another dose of pain medication. He ignored that, too.

Another slow sip of the beer. No warmth of whiskey coiling through his body like a well-fed beast, but that was all right. Heat wasn't something he particularly wanted to think about at the moment.

'It's not as if you get any mileage out of that pesky soul of yours.'

Not with the devil whispering in his ear.

The answering machine clicked on and Holland's paternal 'tell me anything' tones filled the apartment. "Lindsey. I hope you're not already sleeping." There was a faint reproach in his voice. It would appear that even injured employees were still expected to be at Wolfram and Hart's beck and call. Lindsey set the beer can down on the coffee table exaggerated concentration, stretched, and lifted his middle finger in the direction of the answering machine and Holland's plummy small talk. In some alternate universe, he was sure, a wiser version of himself was applauding.

After several minutes, Holland got to the point. "We seem to be running into a problem with the Darla project."

Lindsey leaned forward.

"She's become...very ill. Delirious. She's been asking nonstop to see you." Holland didn't sound so well himself. His voice was nasal and phlegmy, and several times he interrupted himself to sneeze.

Lindsey listened, brow furrowed, but made no attempt to rise from the couch. Darla was nothing more than a bottom line to his superiors. Surely they wouldn't waste time indulging her mercurial moods the way that Lilah was forced to. No matter that-and Lindsey's heart gave the kind of pleasurable jump that he hadn't felt in a long time-Darla seemed to have taken a liking to him.

"She says that you're the key to all this." There was no need for Holland to elaborate on what he meant by 'this'. An ambulance wailed on the street beneath Lindsey's living room window.

For several seconds Lindsey knew what it was like to be a vampire, as his heart stopped beating and showed no signs of starting again. When it finally resubmitted to the will of the rest of his body, Lindsey was in no position to be relieved. He lunged off the couch, weaving at first as his alcohol-addled legs had to pause to remember their function. A crazed-clown giggle resonated through his head. Lindsey couldn't tell if it was coming from himself or that...other thing.

Holland was still speaking. "You can see why this would be of interest to people in certain circles, Lindsey. Stockholders are growing nervous. They don't like all this entropy unless they have a way of profiting from it. So why don't you come down to the office and we can talk it over." 'Fuck you.'

Emotional alchemy turned fear into anger in less time than it would have taken most people to flick a light switch. How dare he...he actually expected Lindsey to show up voluntarily to a 'discussion' that they both knew would end with Lindsey on a dissection table...how dare he...

'That's my boy. Give it all you've got.'

"Fuck you." Out loud this time, and resulting laughter which echoed through his head was enough to make Lindsey jump.

"You had better be the devil himself," Lindsey muttered as he walked into the bedroom. "Because I have worked to damned hard at staying sane to go crazy now." Lindsey felt strangely calm for someone who was contemplating defying the most powerful law firm on the planet-again. If trapped between one destruction or another, he would at least take the one on his own terms.

Lindsey shoved a duffel bag full of clothes and all the money that he had in the apartment, hurrying as much as he was able with only one hand and a sense of nausea that wasn't just the beer talking. Strictly necessities, all of it, until Lindsey stumbled across his guitar while searching for his boots. He hadn't touched it, had barely brought himself to look at it, since the accident. 'No accident,' Lindsey amended. 'Since Angel fucking crippled you. Call it for what it is.' Since the fight. A fuzz of dust was already gathering on the wood that he had taken such meticulous care of. Slowly, as if he were moving underwater, Lindsey reached for it. It wouldn't hurt to take one more thing.

'Do you want to wait here and die?' the voice crackled through his mind. 'Leave it. It's not worth it.'

Lindsey swore and jerked back before his fingers could touch the instrument. "Do that mean you actually have a plan?"

'Run.'

"I'm hooking up with a brilliant strategist." Lindsey fumbled for his keys, remembered that he could hardly be expected to drive one-handed and drunk at once, and let forth a long stream of obscenities. Most of them concerned Angel and what Lindsey was going to do to him as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

'Feel better?'

"Marginally." Lindsey bolted for the door, not bothering to lock or even fully close it behind him. Let thieves take his things. If Wolfram and Hart had their way, possessions were going to be of little use to him, anyway.

'Take the stairs.'

"What?"

'Unless you want to die right here in this hallway, old hoss, you'll do as I say.'

It was delivered in a psychic shout that belied the deadpan tone of the words themselves, nearly driving Lindsey to his knees and setting his ears to ringing as if head been trapped inside the bells of Notre Dame. Nevertheless, as communication tools went it was very effective. Lindsey turned away from the elevators, opening the door to the stairwell and thanking random deities that he had made at least a passing attempt at keeping in shape before Angel had maimed him. His apartment was on the sixth floor.

'I'd hate to have to explain the definition of "run" to you,' the voice said as Lindsey clattered down the stairs.

"I'm moving as fast as I can," Lindsey grunted. What was left of his wrist flared and he swore, nearly losing his balance. "I forgot my medications."

'Forget about them.'

"Easy for you to say."

'Do you think of me as the best of a bad situation, Lindsey?' The voice did not wait for an answer before it continued. 'I'll bet you've even wondered if you were going crazy." And it...tittered, a sound so devoid of humanity or even basic sanity that the hair on Lindsey's arms and the back of his neck stood up as one motion. 'I'm much more than that, though. Do a few simple things for me, a few little chores, and I'll see that you're well taken care of. It's better than what your current bosses are offering you.'

Indignant shouts echoed from the floor immediately above them, Lindsey's floor. Lindsey had barely identified the voice as that of his neighbor across the hall, a retired businessman who always seemed to have an apartment full of grandchildren, when a shot rang out. The gentleman's shout was cut off; his wife's scream replaced it. Lindsey's blood ran as cold as the beer that he had been drinking moments before.

'You may want to move a little faster,' the voice advised. Lindsey could feel the giggle that lurked beneath its surface, like a crocodile wearing a clown's grin. If he was losing his mind, then he was doing it with style.

"He visited me when I came out of the hospital," Lindsey grunted, redoubling his speed though his lungs were beginning to protest. "He didn't deserve that."

'You still think people get what they deserve. That's almost cute enough to be believable. Save your breath; you'll need it.'

Lindsey obeyed, marveling at how little he was protesting the invasion. Holland should have invested in telepathy years ago. It would have done wonders for employee morale when the threat of execution just wasn't getting through.

Lindsey's legs were turning into pillars of Jell-O barely held in place by the barrier of skin when he reached the street. The sudden influx of night air turned his stomach and he doubled over, balancing himself on his knees and scarcely holding onto the beer. He straightened when he was sure that it wasn't going to come up on him, swiping his hand across his mouth anyway. 'You're not out of the woods yet, my boy.' The way it said 'my boy' made Lindsey feel the way a rabbit must when it saw the shadow of the hawk looming overhead. 'There's a motel ten blocks from here called the Sunset. Go there for tonight.'

"You think they won't search every motel within a thirty block radius?"

'They won't search this one. Trust me, Lindsey. All you have to do is trust me.'

The hawk swooped down.

 

"I'm home!" Cordelia called to her apartment as she stepped through the door. She did her best to sound as if she was returning home from two-day jaunt in Acapulco rather than vision-induced mayhem. The words were duly swallowed by the silence that the apartment threw back. A frown marked Cordelia's face.

Angel mirrored her expression. "Wesley couldn't have left."

"Couldn't. Not wouldn't, but couldn't. Feeling the big optimism there." Cordelia forced her tone to stay airy in spite of the worry that was reshaping her shoulders into rigid lines.

Angel nudged her out of the doorway so that he could enter. "Wesley?" he called, his voice tinted with the same worry that Cordelia was fighting to keep out of hers.

"In here," a voice called from the bedroom, sounding sleepy, confused, and not well at all. There was a second of silence, followed by a crash and a muffled curse. Cordelia's stomach clenched as she and Angel rushed forward.

"I'm fine," Wesley rasped, meeting them at the bedroom door. "I laid down to rest my eyes for a bit, but I'm afraid I knocked over the lamp when I woke up. I don't think I've broken it."

Cordelia was aware that she had clapped her hand to her mouth, but only dimly. Her eyes burned. "Oh, Wesley," she whispered.

It seemed against the laws of nature that someone in Wesley's condition could even walk, let alone give protests of health. He looked as if he had lost at least twenty pounds since Cordelia had gone into the hospital. His eyes were hollows, his forehead was obscured by a sick sheen that slicked his hair to his skin. Although his neck showed no signs of the death black markings that the ill at the hospital had worn, his glands were still swollen to nearly the size of golf balls. Cordelia could hear his breath rattling in his chest from where she stood.

"You need to be in bed." Cordelia was the one to say it as both she and Angel moved forward to take Wesley's elbows, herding him back into the bedroom. After a few steps it became apparent that Wesley had used up all his strength in getting to the door. By the time he reached the bed, his friends' hands were the only things keeping him on his feet.

Wesley protested, "No, I need to wait until Giles calls back-"

"Cordelia and I can answer the phone and do the research." Angel's voice was a few octaves deeper than normal. Cordelia thought she could hear something close to panic jigging beneath the everything-is-dandy exterior, which set her own interior panic demon to dancing.

"Exactly," Cordelia piped up. "We can read just as well as the next bunch, you know." Wesley arched his eyebrows at her. The effect was more sad than funny, and Cordelia's voice sounded shrill as she said, "And you can shush with the sarcastic eyebrow talking, too. I'll have you know that I practically have my PhD in research by now."

Wesley offered very little resistance as Cordelia and Angel helped him to get settled in the bed and tugged his shoes off. Cordelia ordered her face blank, but her hands trembled independently of her control and she was afraid that she would drop anything that she tried to hold. Wesley's wheezing was the loudest sound in the room.

He broke into a sudden coughing jag, wet and phlegmy, as Cordelia was setting his shoes beside the bed, and something inside of her broke. "I'm sorry-" She fled the room at a near run, knowing that Angel was staring after her and feeling terrible for it, but unable to stop herself. The air in the kitchen was infinitely sweeter than that which circulated in the bedroom, untinged as it was by what Cordelia's mind was insisting was decay rising off Wesley's skin. Cordelia gripped the edges of the sink until her knuckles flared protest, struggling to breathe around her hammering heart and the taste of vomit in her throat. Dennis' disapproving presence compressed the air around her, nudging her back towards the bedroom with an insistence that was nearly paternal.

"I know," Cordelia muttered. "It's a shitty thing to do." She dragged her hands through her hair and over her eyes, both mortified and unsurprised to feel them welling up. Unseen hands rubbed at her shoulders, easing the gooseflesh that was rising there, and the threat of tears became the reality. Cordelia sniffled, ducked her head, and swore violently. Dennis' "hands" evaporated in shock. Cordelia swiped at her eyes and swore again. "I am not doing this," she declared. Cordelia turned on the faucet and splashed cold water across her tears until no trace of them remained. "Screw this damsel crap."

"Amen to that."

Cordelia spun. Angel was leaning against the door jam, watching her with hooded eyes. "How long were you there?" Cordelia asked.

"Long enough. I didn't know you had that kind of vocabulary."

Cordelia raised her chin. "Before Daddy decided to unleash his inner creativity on his tax returns, my family had this maid, Louisa. Sweet woman. Foulest mouth you ever heard. I can do it in Spanish, too."

A tight, forced smile played with the edges of Angel's mouth. "That's my girl."

Cordelia flushed and, turning her back to him, raised herself onto her toes to retrieve a glass from one of the upper cabinets. Her hands were trembling so badly that she could scarcely close her fingers around it.

"Here, let me." Angel's voice tickled the back of Cordelia's neck, startling her so badly that she did drop the glass and only Angel's preternatural reflexes saved them both from a mess. His arm brushed against hers as he retreated with glass in hand, sending a frisson of heat through Cordelia's skin.

"Thanks." Cordelia's voice was hoarse; she cleared her throat and tried again. "So, um, Wesley's going to need aspirin, and lots of water, and does that chicken soup thing actually work?"

"Cordelia," Angel said in a low voice.

"You need to move back," Cordelia whispered. "I'm getting smooshed against the counter." She didn't turn around until she felt Angel comply. His eyes were impossible to read. "Soup and stuff. I don't know ho much ice I have, do you think we should run to the store for a few bags? In case we need to fill the tub?"

"Cordy," Angel said. The husky note was gone from his voice. "He's going to be all right."

Cordelia paused, caught midway through opening the freezer door to check on the ice. Her eyes were bright as she looked over her shoulder, but not a tear fell. "Of course he is. Don't be silly." She returned to the freezer, emerging victorious with an ice tray a few moments later. Cordelia accepted the dishtowel that Dennis levitated towards her and marched off towards the bedroom. Angel trailed after her, her silent, protective sentinel. Neither one of them so much as glanced towards the books in the living room.

 

The Sunset was an inspiration of cheesy stucco and aging Southwestern décor that reminded Lindsey, oddly endearingly, of all the worst places that he had stayed at since first setting foot in Los Angeles. It was a fading relic of a bygone era, urging its visitors into forgetting or refusing to acknowledge that most of its guests would be too young to remember Hollywood's golden age and, more importantly, not particularly inclined to care. It was the perfect place to hold negotiations.

The night clerk threw only a cursory glance over Lindsey and his belongings before he accepted payment for the room and slid the key across the counter. If battered men who appeared to be holding muttered conversations with themselves were something to be alarmed about, he didn't show it. Within moments, he had forgotten Lindsey's face altogether.

Lindsey found his room without any undue difficulty, set the duffel bag at his feet so that he could insert the key into the lock. 'Terrible handicap you've got there.' Lindsey's mouth twisted and he said nothing as he stepped into the room. 'I can help you with that, if you ask nicely. Repairing the damage...and giving a little of the same back to the one that did it to you.'

Lindsey went rigid. The throb in his wrist was suddenly far more insistent than it had been even a moment before. "That so?" he queried. "And whatever would I owe you for this generosity? My soul, as I am sure you are aware of, is spoken for." Faintest taste of bitterness on his tongue, too slight and familiar to translate into his voice.

'Nothing so dramatic as that. Just a few small errands, and in return I can give you everything that you've ever dreamed of wanting.'

Lindsey's lips pursed and he stared down at the bandages where his hand had once been, where his hand still should be, if it were not for Angel and his boundless hypocrisy. Apparently Slayers who delighted in killing, practically licked the blood from their fingers while it was still warm, were worth putting out an effort for, but heaven have mercy on anyone with a dick or a law degree. Bile rose thick and heavy in the back of Lindsey's throat.

"Okay," he said. "Let's talk."

 

"'Cause maybe you're gonna be the one that saves me."
-Oasis, "Wonderwall"

Cordelia awoke with the smell of corn lingering in her nostrils and the twang of a guitar flirting with the edges of her mind. 'You come see me, Cordelia Chase. Bring that double-talking friend of yours, too. Seems to me that he could do with a bit of straightening out. Just ask anyone around these parts for Mother Abigail and they'll point you at me. One hundred and seven years old-"

"And she still makes her own biscuit," Cordelia finished in a sleepy mutter. She propped herself up on her elbows, mewling as bruised muscles protested the thoughtless treatment. A ringing noise echoed through the house, jangling and discordant. Cordelia preferred the guitar.

Angel reached past her and rummaged beneath a pile of research tomes until he liberated the phone. The ringing noise became much louder.

"Whoops." Cordelia rubbed at her cheeks, which felt like plastic. "I swear I was only resting only my eyes."

"They looked like they needed it." Angel pressed the 'talk' button and brought the phone up to his ear. "Hello? Giles? Good to hear from you. Cordelia and I have hit a wall here, and it's getting worse. Has anyone in Sunnydale-?" If there had been any blood circulating through Angel's face, then Cordelia would have been witness to it draining away. Angel's expression went blank and he sat down on the couch like a puppet tossed away by a bored, careless child. Cordelia pulled her feet out of the way just in time, scattering books to the floor. The spine of an exquisite fifteenth century diary cracked as it struck the floor, but neither person in the room so much as glanced down. Cordelia's eyes were fixed onto Angel's face, and she saw death written there.

"I see," Angel was saying. His tone, slow and overly controlled in the way he adopted when he was on the verge of bad guy induced violence, coupled with the clenching and unclenching of his fists, said that he did not see at all. The stillness on his face Cordelia want to scooch back. "I'll be there as soon as I can." Angel terminated the call and rose from the couch like a sleepwalker.

"What?" Cordelia tried to scramble up from the amongst the couch cushions, yelped in pain, and settled for a slower, even less dignified ascent. "Angel, where are you going?" When he didn't look at her, Cordelia lunged forward and grabbed at the sleeve of his shirt. He shook the fabric out of her grasp as if she were not even there. "Angel!"

Angel didn't stop moving, but he did at least glance her way. "It's Buffy," he said. Short, clipped, macho. Cordelia could only imagine what emotions were running beneath the surface. "She has the virus." Cordelia gasped so hard that she felt dizzy. "Giles doesn't think that she has long. I have to go to her." Cordelia was once again relegated to the status of mayfly as Angel turned towards the bedroom, where he had been keeping a few things until he could find another place of his own.

"Go to her?" Cordelia wanted to shout, but Wesley was sleeping peacefully for the first time that night, so she settled for a stalk and a hiss instead. One part of her, small and mean and just loud enough so that it could not be easily ignored, swore that Angel was counting on this. "Hey, in case you haven't noticed, we have an apocalypse of our own to be dealing with here, and so far we're not batting the greatest average in the stopping it game."

Angel turned long enough to give her an incredulous look. "It's Buffy," he said, as if that should answer every objection.

In its own twisted, codependent way Cordelia supposed that it did. Destiny, tortured love, right, all that bodice ripping stuff, but... "What about me and Wesley? And, while we're at it, the world? Aren't we supposed to matter, too?"

The blankness dropped off Angel's face like a party mask at midnight. With the frightening stranger gone, it was the Angel that Cordelia had come to know and care for over the past year that stepped close and cradled her face between his palms. The energy that sparked from his skin to hers was a long stone's throw away from brotherly. "Hey," Angel said, his voice pitched low. "I am not running out on you guys. I'll see if Giles has any ideas about what's going on, pick up some books that we don't have. I'll do what I need to do," Angel's breath hitched for the barest of seconds, "and then I'll come back. I promise."

Cordelia's gaze ticked towards Wesley, and she knew that she and Angel were sharing a thought. Buffy may not be long for this world, but Wesley's chance weren't looking like the winning horse, either.

"Tomorrow night," Angel said. "I won't be any later than that."

"I'm going to hold you to that." Cordelia's tone tried for light and came to a rest somewhere around 'boulder'.

Angel's mouth twitched into a maybe-smile. He leaned forward and kissed Cordelia near chastely, the barest flicker of his lips against hers before he pulled away. They were cooler and firmer than Cordelia expected, a long way from being unpleasant. She felt her jaw drop.

"I'll be back," Angel promised again.

"Okay." Cordelia struggled to find something self-assured and witty to say, but all of her thoughts seemed to have bled away into Angel's mouth. She watched in silence as Angel gathered his things into a bag, touched Wesley's forehead with the same gentleness with which he had cradled Cordelia's face, and left. Several minutes went by before Cordelia realized that she had forgotten to say goodbye.

Wesley died later that night.

 

Cordelia sat on the couch with her knees pulled as close to her chest as she could manage before agony set in, her eyes closed and the phone pressed against her ear tightly enough to cut grooves into her skin. The steady beep-beep-beep of the busy signal had long since descended into a background noise keeping her tethered to the real world by a thread. Dennis' anxious hovering penetrated not at all.

"We're sorry, all circuits are currently in use...beep-beep-beep...we're sorry..."

'I should just hang up.' The thought struggled through treacle to blossom across the surface of her mind. 'No one's going to answer.' Cordelia wondered if there was anyone left alive who could.

'There's a dead man in your bedroom.' Sly thought that slunk through the back door of Cordelia's consciousness, piercing her haze. Cordelia threw it out whenever she caught it, telling herself that this was absolutely the last time that it was permitted entry, and then settled back to await its inevitable return.

"...beep-beep-beep..."

'He's probably gone stiff by now.'

"Fuck!" The word exploded out of Cordelia's lungs like mustard gas, deadliest poison that she had to expel from her system or risk it tainting every thing. She hurled the phone against the far wall hard enough to make bits of electronics rain down on the carpet. Dennis' suffocating presence vanished, frightened, as Cordelia covered her face with her hands.

Her sobs lasted for longer than fifteen minutes, smearing snot and tears across her face and sending her ribs into a protesting cacophony. Cordelia didn't try to halt them, and when she finally wound down she felt, not better, but sharper. "There's a dead man in my bedroom," Cordelia said aloud, testing the words. They hung in the air. "His name was Wesley Wyndham-Price, and he was my friend." Cordelia took one deep breath, then another, staring at what was left of her phone. How long had she been trying to call 911? The clock said it was nearly ten in the morning. Hours, then. "I'm probably going to have to bury him."

Getting to the toilet meant crossing through the bedroom, where-

-the corpse-

-Wesley lay staring peacefully at the ceiling-

-as peacefully as a person could look with their skin swollen like that, oh God, how painful was it to choke to death?

Cordelia vomited into the kitchen trash can instead. Dennis gave her a damp washcloth when she was done. Cordelia took it gratefully and wiped the tears and mucus from her face before she rose to do a more proper job. She was spitting a mouthful of water down the kitchen drain when the doorbell rang.

Cordelia froze mid-rinse. She could feel Dennis hovering around her shoulders and knew that if he had eyes they would be locking gazes in identical caricatures of shock. "Everyone that I know is dead," Cordelia whispered, not knowing why the prospect of a new face was seizing her so. Dennis rattled the coffee cups and otherwise did a spectacular job of not making himself useful.

The person on her porch grew impatient and switched from ringing the doorbell to beating on the door with their fist, boom-boom-boom, in the exact same tempo as the busy signal. Cordelia clamped her hand over her mouth to stifle either a giggle or a scream and nearly retched again. So the person wasn't going to go away if Cordelia ignored them. Cordelia pulled a steak knife from the knife rack, cradling its weight in her palm with an assurance that would have made Buffy proud, and walked to the door. Cordelia raised the knife into a strike position before she opened the door to let in sunlight and the sounds of the day.

The sun shone directly into Cordelia's eyes as the door swung open, dazzling her, and prevented her from recognizing the figure before her. This probably worked in Lindsey's favor, as he saw the knife before Cordelia saw him and had time to take the necessary steps to put himself out of range. "Cordelia?" he asked.

"Lindsey?" Cordelia's eyes adjusted to the rush of light and she lowered the blade. A little. "What are you doing here?"

If she hadn't been taking lessons from Angel in contemptuous and surly, then Lindsey would swear himself to a life of piety. "Looking for Angel," he said. Always best to keep it simple.

"He's not here," Cordelia said. The way her fingers tightened around the handle of the blade as she spoke made Lindsey feel as if a few feet of distance between them were not enough; several miles might not be enough.

The carefully neutral expression that Lindsey had worn when Cordelia opened the door dissolved into shock. Cordelia's lips twitched and she was glad that she didn't have anything left in her to throw up. "What do you mean, he's not here?" Lindsey demanded.

"I mean," Cordelia enunciated as she would to a mentally deficient child, "that he's gone. As in, somewhere else. Much like you would be right now if we lived in a perfect world." A low ringing sounded through her head and her fingers twined tighter around the knife's handle.

Lindsey winced suddenly and rubbed at his temple, dropping his eyes down to Cordelia's welcome mat. Before Cordelia could ask for explanation or, the more likely option behind Door Number Two, unleash a scathing comment just to see if it would piss him off, the veneer was back, shiny and brittle and about as human as the polish on Cordelia's nails. "Well, I need his help."

Cordelia stared. Her jaw did an interesting little dance before it decided to stay a part of her face rather than making friends with the floor. One, she could throw the knife at him and hope that it hit something painful. Two, she could gather her new personal growth around her and hear him out. A voice somewhere in the middle, still trapped with the cooling meat in the bedroom, suggested that she burst into tears again and be done with it.

Cordelia slammed the door in Lindsey's face and decided to call it a draw.

Great for the morale, not so much for the common sense. Cordelia lowered the knife and turned away from the door, trusting in basic decency to rebuff Lindsey in the face of such obvious refusal. She should have known that that would be giving him too much credit.

Lindsey entered the apartment without bothering to knock again. Cordelia whirled on him. "In case you haven't noticed, the world has a slight case of going to hell in a hand basket out there."

"I've noticed," Cordelia said, her tone stiff. "That's why I want you out in it." Lindsey made a sour face and Cordelia thought she felt better.

"Look, I brought your paper in for you," Lindsey said, holding out the LA Times as if it were the twenty-first century's answer to the olive branch. "There's an article on the front page that you probably want to look at. It pertains to the current situation."

The absurdity of a world in which one of her best friends could die in her bedroom without even the benefit of an ambulance, yet the morning paper could still arrive on time, caused both giggles and bile to crawl up Cordelia's throat. She snorted, pressed the back of her hand to her mouth. Lindsey took a small step backwards, male apprehension of approaching hysterics registering like a neon sign across his face. Cordelia waited until she was certain that she was not going to be sick across her own shoes, realized that she was still holding the steak knife, and allowed Dennis to pluck it from her fingers. Lindsey's eyes widened for the barest of seconds, but he said nothing. Probably had a few ghosts of the evil rather than Casper variety on his client list.

Thoughts of clients led to a sharp reminder of who Lindsey was and what he stood for. Cordelia folded her arms beneath her breasts, lowering her chin and glaring. "I'm not interested in whatever new con you've come up with," she said. "There's the door. I think you already know how the rest of the saying goes."

"Or you'll call the police?" Lindsey offered up the smile of a wolf that has tasted lamb's blood, ensuring that Cordelia would not forget who he worked for again. She wondered if it was too late to have Dennis bring back the knife. "Stick your head out the door. Law and order is becoming a thing of the past."

"I've been in the hospital," Cordelia gritted. "Not a lot of time to catch the evening news."

"Look at that. We have something in common." Lindsey melted a few steps closer and Cordelia was even more sorry that she had given up the knife. For the first time she noticed the bandage that ended Lindsey's right wrist and the way that he kept it tucked against his side, as if in fear of further injury.

Cordelia's pointed stare halted Lindsey faster than the knife would have. "That's where the similarities end." Frost could have risen from her words. "See this?" Cordelia held out her injured wrist, still wrapped in the Ace bandage. "I was in a car accident because I had a vision while I was driving. A vision that was supposed to let me help people, if that's not too foreign a concept. You, on the other hand," Cordelia laid a malicious stress on the word and watched Lindsey's eyes narrow, "got yours while trying to kill me. I'd say that makes us very different."

Something flickered across Lindsey's face, there and gone again too quickly for Cordelia to quantify before it was overtaken by storm clouds. "Right," he said, a suggestion of bared teeth entering his voice as well as his eyes. "You and Angel, your white hats, ya'll-" Cordelia blinked. "-are all saints, nobly standing your ground against us sinners. Never mind that once upon a time ol' Angel could make every vampire in Europe wet himself by the very mention of his name. And you." Lindsey curled his lip in a way that destroyed his face, rendered it into something cold and nearly feral. "Yeah, I know all about you."

"And we all decided to change. What's your excuse?"

"Must be an elite club." Lindsey was already turning away, heaving the duffel bag off his shoulder and setting it down beside the couch. He surveyed the room with a proprietary air that made Cordelia's blood switch from a simmer into a full boil. "When is Angel going to be back?"

"Soon. Can't say he'll be all that happy to see you. I'm always up for entertainment, though, especially when there's nothing good on TV." Cordelia glanced towards the bedroom, wondering how long it would take to get rid of Lindsey; more importantly, how much longer after that before she could muster the strength to do what needed to be done. Lindsey followed her gaze and a look of triumph transformed his face.

"Not here?" he asked, shouldering past her.

"No!" Cordelia cried, grabbing for Lindsey's arm and missing. She hadn't been able to enter the room since she had discovered Wesley dead in it, hadn't been able to do much of anything other than cradle the phone to her ear and wait with stupid faith for civilization to begin putting itself back together again. If Lindsey opened the door then it would have to be real, no pixie dust panacea, and Cordelia didn't think that she could-

"Don't," she said again, and hated herself. Lindsey ignored her.

A violent shudder wracked Lindsey's body as his hand encountered the knob, as if gale-force winds were shoving him back. Cordelia loved Dennis more than she had loved anyone else in her life. Lindsey pressed his fingers to his temple, shivered, and pushed through. The darkness beyond the doorway consumed him like a lost soul. Cordelia pressed her fingers to her mouth and closed her eyes.

She didn't hear Lindsey again for several minutes.

He shut the door behind him with a gentleness that he hadn't so much as hinted at before. If it was possible for a person to express contrition through their very aura, then Lindsey needed no words for his regret; Cordelia didn't need to open her eyes. She felt Dennis settle around her shoulders like a cloak and knew that he had followed Lindsey into the room to ensure that the sanctity of Wesley's body was preserved. "Thank you," Cordelia whispered. The presence about her shoulders tightened in Dennis' non-corporeal version of a hug.

Cordelia opened her eyes to see Lindsey looking embarrassed and genuinely upset, two emotions that she never expecting to see caressing his face with any kind of sincerity. "I'm sorry," Lindsey said. "If I had known I wouldn't have-"

"Come here?" As long as the acid supply to her tongue was still working Cordelia could pretend that she held the reins to her own sanity. "Feel free to correct that at any time."

"Spoken ill of the dead," Lindsey finished.

Cordelia blinked, turned her face away to hide the glitter-sharp sting of tears. "So you know that Angel really is gone," she said in a low voice. "Think you can manage to show yourself out, or would you like all the other rooms for painful personal matters?"

The contrition again. Cordelia really wished he could stop doing that; it was messing with her head. "I-" Lindsey stumbled into the word, ran a frustrated hand through his hair, tried again. "Funny thing. You guys were basically my Plan Z on this. If Angel's not here then I don't know what else to do."

Cordelia raised her head, telling herself that the time for crying was sometime other than when Satan's favorite son was standing right in front of her. "Plan Z?"

Lindsey jerked his head in the direction of the front door. Cordelia could hear someone laying on their car horn. "For fixing that. All of the resources I've been able to find at Wolfram and Hart are tapped out, everyone who hasn't called in sick with Captain Trips is showing symptoms-"

"You aren't," Cordelia interjected quietly.

Lindsey cut himself off to look at her, an appraisal written into his eyes that made Cordelia feel like an uncooperative witness. "Neither are you," he said. "Imagine that. Anyway, I figured that if anyone would have up to date information on why the world wants to end this week, it would be you guys." The shrewd expression did not fade as Lindsey took in the piles of books scattered about the living room. "Though it doesn't seem as though you're having much luck."

"I don't think it's supernatural." As soon as the words were out of Cordelia's mouth she wished that she could take them back, stuff them away in her head again so that they could chase each other in fruitless circles. Supernatural nastiness was something they had a chance of stopping. "There's not so much as a footnote in anything we've looked through here, but crack open a history book. Chock full of plaguey goodness."

"So there's nothing you can do."

"You catch on quick." Cordelia rubbed at her aching eyes and wished that she had some aspirin and a nice, dark place in which to lie down and forget for a while. "There's nothing for you here. You can be on your merry way, sacrifice a few goats to some dark lord, and hope it gets you a primo spot in hell."

The smile didn't enter Lindsey's eyes as he said, "Very little of modern law deals with goat sacrifice. Bad for public relations." Cordelia was still trying to figure out if that had been sarcastic when Lindsey gestured towards the bedroom with his wounded arm, before he tucked it back against his side, as if he were afraid of her stare. "Look, you're going to have to move Wes-the body before too much longer." Lindsey nodded towards the shattered remains of the phone. "And I'm guessin' that means you've already tried to call 911."

Cordelia took her hand away from her eyes. "Stress must have driven one of us crazy. You can't possibly mean what I think you meant."

"It's the middle of June," Lindsey said, not unkindly. "You still have electricity and air-conditioning keeping things cool, but there's no guarantee of how long that will last. You can't leave a body in your bedroom."

"And what am I supposed to do?" Cordelia's voice became shrill. "Dump him in the street?" Lindsey looked at her steadily until Cordelia made a disgusted noise that did little to keep the encroaching hysteria at bay. "You're sick."

"They're dumping bodies in the ocean."

"Who's 'they'?"

"Military. City officials." Lindsey jerked his head towards the newspaper. "In garbage barges." Lindsey tried to smirk and failed. There were dark circles beneath his eyes and an unhealthy waxen look to his skin that all the arrogance in the world could not mask. "Trying to cover up the problem even as it kills them. Good old human nature, huh?"

"Not everyone is like that," Cordelia felt required to point out. "Most people are worth saving."

Lindsey almost flinched, turning it into a sneer at the last possible second. A muscle in his jaw ticked and he looked off for a moment. "Point remains," he said in a low voice, his voice threaded through and through with tension and more than a suggestion of anger, "you can't leave a body to rot in here all summer, not unless you want to make yourself sick, too." Lindsey waited a beat before he added, "It doesn't mean that you loved him any less."

Cordelia could have dealt with sarcasm far better than Lindsey's stuttering attempts at sympathy. She turned away. "He's not a dead goldfish," Cordelia said. Her tone was laced with acid. "And I'm not going to treat him like one." She started to walk away, made it two steps before something drew her to a halt again. "You can stay until Angel gets back," she said. "Whether he hears you out or kills you on the spot, I don't care any more after that."

Lindsey nodded, very serious. "Thank you."

Cordelia snorted and stalked into the kitchen.

Angel didn't come back that night. Cordelia paced until dawn, then threw one of Wesley's books against the dent left by the phone and burst into a tirade of profanity and angry sobs wound together so tightly as to be indistinguishable. Lindsey watched from the couch but made no move to get up and comfort her. Cordelia was grateful for it.

They moved Wesley's body the next morning.

Lindsey disappeared as soon as the sun peaked enough over the horizon to discourage any vampires that might be growing concerned about their dwindling food supply and returned mid-morning at the wheel of a battered red truck. Cordelia didn't know how he managed to drive it without two good hands. She told herself that she didn't care.

Lindsey entered the bedroom first to deal with the body and Cordelia made no move to stop him. The last time that she had seen Wesley's body it had been pliant and warm, practically still breathing. The thought of handling his corpse as it was stiff and bloated and inescapably dead made Cordelia's scant breakfast roil in her stomach. She waited by the door.

Dennis followed Lindsey into the bedroom, presumably to ensure that Lindsey treated Wesley's body with the respect that it deserved. A miasma of ectoplasmic displeasure was left hanging in the air behind him. He didn't like Lindsey being there and was taking every opportunity to ensure that Cordelia and, more importantly, Lindsey knew it.

Bedclothes could be heard rustling for several minutes before Lindsey called out, "All right." His voice was strained.

"I can do this." Cordelia opened her eyes, pushed her hair back from her clammy temples, and stepped inside.

Lindsey had taken the most expedient course of action and wrapped Wesley in the bed sheets for a shroud, obscuring his face. Her closest friend in the world reduced to so much meat in a sack. Cordelia felt the laughter bubbling up in her throat, hot and acidic like the time she had had too much to drink at the frat party that was never to be spoken of again, as she thought of how the employees at Bed, Bath, and Beyond would react if they knew their pricey sheets were being used to hold a corpse. Lindsey didn't look particularly shocked or horrified when the laugh escaped Cordelia's mouth and hung in the air like a burp at a dinner party, and somehow that made it worse.

"Are you going to be able to help with this?" he asked her in a low voice, as if speaking too loudly might offend the dead.

"Yes," Cordelia whispered back, wishing that Lindsey would stop acting so human. It was throwing her off.

Lindsey sucked in a deep breath, nodding, and echoed Cordelia's words as he looked at the bed. "We can do this."

Moving Wesley proved to be one of the easiest and one of the hardest things that Cordelia had ever done. Lindsey stunned her by behaving as the gentleman and taking Wesley's shoulders, hissing as he slid his injured arm beneath the groove of Wesley's neck. Cordelia took several deep breaths before she was able to work herself up to taking Wesley's legs, cringing away so that as little of the sheet was touching her skin as possible. They felt like the legs of the mannequins that Cordelia had been charged with setting up during her brief stint as dress saleswoman, and that was what Cordelia tried to convince herself that they were. It help enough that she was able to bend her knees and hoist at Lindsey's nod. 'I'm so sorry,' she thought in Wesley's direction, wherever he was now.

A grunt escaped Lindsey's lips and he staggered back as they lifted, his face paling to the color of unbleached paper and his lips compressing into a line so thin as to be invisible. "I'm fine," Lindsey responded to the curious (it was not, she told herself, concerned) lift of Cordelia's eyebrow.

The crab-walked the body to the curb, heaving simultaneous gasps of relief as they levered it into the bed of Lindsey's truck. Cordelia rubbed at the hard pebbles of gooseflesh that had risen on her upper arms and wondered if they would ever go down again. Lindsey had managed nearly twice the breakfast that Cordelia had; he looked as though he were regretting it.

Lindsey tried to speak, halted as his gorge rose visibly. After a few seconds he tried again. "That wasn't so bad." He cradled his right arm beneath his opposite armpit as he spoke, but not before Cordelia saw the flush of new crimson.

Cordelia shot Lindsey a look of deepest poison and, unbelievably, he smiled. Cordelia's palm itched to, begging her to smack Lindsey across the face. Only a vague, terrifying sense of civilization slipping away by the minute and the need to hang on to what was left as long as possible stopped her. "Let's just get this over with." She shoved past Lindsey and into the truck's passenger seat. Lindsey was still wearing the faint, infuriating smile as he slid into the driver's seat and, after a bit of fumbling, managed to fit the keys into the ignition.

The answer to how Lindsey managed to drive a standard shift while injured and in possession of only one hand was simple: he was the worst driver that Cordelia had ever seen. Deep read roses first blossomed and then became a field across the bandages on Lindsey's wrist as he laid it across the gearshift, slamming it forward and back with nearly double the force that was actually necessary. Cordelia winced with every change in gears.

"I can drive," she offered after the first block.

"I don't need help," Lindsey's voice was chipped from the same ice that made up his eyes. Cordelia didn't offer again. Privately, she thought it was a good thing that the streets were mostly empty.

Lindsey spun the truck around a corner hard enough to make a driver's ed teacher despair; a thump came from the back. Cordelia tasted bile in her throat. "This is wrong."

Lindsey laughed for the first time in her hearing, and the sound which cavorted through the interior of the truck was worse than any sneer, about as human as the laughter of a robot or a madman. Cordelia could smell the blood from his arm. "Darlin', the whole world has gone wrong," Lindsey said. "Or hadn't you noticed?"

"Don't call me 'darling'," Cordelia snapped. The smile that touched Lindsey's mouth was like the edge of a knife. "Just drive the damned truck."

"I live to serve." There was a snarl to Lindsey's voice that hadn't been there over the past day. Cordelia set her mouth into a thin line and glared out the window.

There was a park near Cordelia's apartment complex, with trees that dangled their branches over the walking paths and offered the perfect blend of sunlight and shade. Wesley had never been there that Cordelia knew of, but it seemed like the kind of place that he would like. She wanted to bury him beneath one of the trees themselves, until Lindsey pointed out gently that the roots would make it too difficult to dig a deep enough grave. His face remained blank and courteous, the perfect courtroom expression, and Cordelia imagined that it would remain that way even if he were proposing murder. They chose a place that was away from the roots, but would still be beneath the shade. "He bitched about sunburn all the time," Cordelia said, tears shining in her eyes. Her mouth trembled.

Cordelia dug the grave itself, using a shovel from the back of Lindsey's truck. Her wrist turned it into agony and Lindsey offered to help, only to be driven away with a pointed inquiry of how he planned to do it with no wrist at all. Lindsey kept a quiet distance after that, on the pretext of making sure that she wasn't disturbed. Cordelia wanted the job kept to herself, anyway, as a gift that only she could give Wesley even when she couldn't give him anything else. She dug until dirt coated her skin like pancake makeup, marked clean only when sweat drove curling little paths through it, and most of her ponytail had escaped into a wild cloud about her face. Her wrist and ribs promised that there would be hell to pay later.

The grave was inches over three feet deep when Cordelia's body declared that it would take no more and she had to retreat, sniffling and clutching her arm to her chest. Lindsey came back and they levered Wesley's body into the whole together, smears of deep crimson standing like exclamation points against the white of the shroud. "I'm sorry, Wesley," Cordelia whispered, a sub vocal litany that only she could understand. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

Lindsey filled in the grave, being able to turn shovels full of loose dirt with one hand far more easily than he could dig new ones. Cordelia watched the first shovel of dirt fall, then walked away to sit down on the grass, fold her arms across the tops of her knees, and cry. Lindsey was long done by the time she had finished.

She took the keys away from him for the drive home, declaring that he had come close to killing them often enough for one day. Lindsey didn't argue.

Without Wesley's fate weighing on her mind, Cordelia had time to appreciate the rot that was overtaking the city, block by block, on the way back that she hadn't before. The caustic tang of smoke coated the air, overlaying a sweeter reek that Cordelia's unconscious mind recognized even if her conscious one did not, and made her want to stand under a shower until the skin was worn off her body. A police siren wailed in the distance, whoop-whoop-whoop, without ever changing location. Cordelia didn't want to think about what that might mean. And laid over if all was the ghost-town emptiness of the streets, so desolate that it hardly seemed real.

They didn't speak again for the entire drive back. Cordelia took the opportunity to sneak glances Lindsey's way, noting the pasty tone of his skin and the convulsive up-and-down of his Adam's apple. His eyes were closed and he winced every time the sunlight struck the closed lids, as if the very presence of something not touched by shadows hurt him. The bandage around his wrist was a bloody mess that left smears of crimson wherever it touched. She wondered what he was thinking.

Cordelia braked the truck in front of her complex and cut the engine. For several seconds the only sound was that of it ticking as it cooled. "Thank you for helping me with Wesley," she cut the silence with, surprised by how easy it was to get the words out. "He deserved better, but you were right. There weren't any other options." Cordelia stared out the windshield. "It was better than letting the military dump him into the ocean." There was something deeply skewed about a world in which she could discuss such a choice in the first place.

"You're...welcome."

Cordelia pulled the keys out of the ignition and handed them back to Lindsey. "I'm grateful. Now get your stuff out of my apartment and don't come back." She pushed the door open and climbed down from the cab without another glance towards him.

Silence reigned for nearly a full minute before Lindsey exploded out of his side of the truck, which Cordelia attributed to shock. "Wait a minute here. I save your ass and you think you can dismiss me?" His voice had lowered into a growl, turning him back into the lawyer stupid and arrogant enough to think that he could stare down an enraged vampire and walk away unscathed.

"That's exactly what I think." Cordelia was still tugging her apartment keys from her pocket when Lindsey was in her face, moving faster and more quietly than Cordelia had thought him capable of. Lindsey was only an inch or so taller than Cordelia, so that she was staring directly into his furious, iceberg eyes.

"We had a deal," Lindsey gritted. "Not to mention that if it weren't for me you would still have a body rotting in your bedroom."

Mention of Wesley made Cordelia's lips pull back from her teeth. "Deal's off. Yesterday was a very bad day for me. I'm amazed that you were the only crappy decision that I made. This morning has put the whole tried-to-kill me business back into Technicolor perspective."

Lindsey shrugged. "That was business. Certainly not pleasure." The nonchalant tone with which he said it did nothing to help his case.

"I see." Cordelia's eyes glittered. "I wouldn't want you to waste your time following around a failed business transaction."

"We need each other," Lindsey said, his voice returning to a cool impartiality, as if they were discussing dinner plans. "Simple as that. As long as two remains safer than one, then we have reason to stay on each other's good sides."

Cordelia glared until the blood pounded in her head and the world swayed in and out of focus. The fact that Lindsey was right did little to soothe her. "If you're still here when Angel gets back, he'll kill you."

"He's had his opportunities before and he's yet to make good on them. Anyway, that's a chance I'm willing to take." An explosion sounded several blocks away, making the glass in the windows rattle. "That sounded like a gas station going up." Lindsey's eyes were hooded, giving nothing back other than Cordelia's own reflection.

Cordelia tilted her head and flashed Lindsey a smile to match his very wickedest. "Angel may be one to pass up opportunities, but I'm not. One wrong move." She unlocked the front door and stepped inside, leaving it open so that Lindsey could stand on the porch or enter as he wished.

"You're quite the hostess." Lindsey stumbled as he walked inside, catching himself on the doorframe with his injured arm and swearing explosively. The princess paused in her haughty stalking away gig long enough to look over her shoulder and inquire, "Don't you have medication for that?"

"Had to leave it." Lindsey straightened, counting beneath his breath until the world stood still again. Twelve seconds. Not good.

For about half a second Cordelia looked as if she might care. "There's aspirin above the bathroom sink." She sniffed at the reddish stain that Lindsey had left on the doorframe, turned, and stomped into the kitchen.

"Thanks for the help," Lindsey muttered to her retreating back. The presence of Cordelia's pet ghost hung heavy around him, clinging like a layer of slime across his skin. "Relax, Casper," Lindsey snapped. "I'm not going to steal the silver." The ghost didn't vanish entirely, but it did pull back so that Lindsey didn't feel as though he were sucking ectoplasm down his throat with every breath. "Thank you." Casper pulled back altogether. A ghost with manners. Wonders and miracles.

As it turned out, Cordelia didn't have one bottle of aspirin in her bathroom cabinet. She had three. Lindsey pulled down the one marked 'Extra Strength', frowning a the remaining two. It would appear that Angel's seer was experiencing more pain from her visions than the firm had realized. Interesting.

Pulling a bottle of aspirin down from a shelf with one hand proved to be far easier than opening it. Lindsey pinned the bottle to his chest with his bad arm, struggled against the cap with his good one. He may as well have been a toddler arguing against a child proof cap for all of the good that it did him. Meanwhile, the nerves in his wrist felt as though they were being ground into a bowl of broken glass. Lindsey swore and only just restrained himself from hurling the bottle into the sink. It was too bad that Angel wasn't here to see him now. That would have been the icing on an extremely bitter cake.

"Fuck you," Lindsey whispered, closing his eyes and seeing Angel's sanctimonious face, hearing heavy, disembodied promised murmured into his ear in a hotel room that had been made for secrets. "You don't get to beat me."

A draft of cool air wafted across Lindsey's face before he felt the aspirin bottle being tugged from his hands. Lindsey opened his eyes to see it floating in mid-air before him, the cap turning of its own accord. "Yeah, thanks," Lindsey muttered as the bottle was returned to him, trying and failing in his attempt at sincere gratitude. He dry-swallowed four pills in quick succession, wincing at their acrid taste.

"You all right?" a feminine lilt from behind him asked. Lindsey turned.

"Oh. You."

A line appeared between Cordelia's eyebrows. "Who else would it be?"

"I didn't recognize your voice when it wasn't either crying or yelling."

The line deepened. "I'm going to pretend that was the pain talking." Cordelia stalked forward, placing a first aid kit nearly as large as a suitcase onto the counter. "Move over. You're in the light." Lindsey stared at her until she sighed. "You're bleeding all over my apartment. It's gross. Now, give me your wrist."

"Look, I can-" Lindsey began.

"Change a complicated set of bandages one-handed? Please. I'll bet Dennis had to open the aspirin bottle for you." Lindsey didn't answer. "It's not a big deal, okay? I've patched Angel up dozens of times after he's gotten the crap beaten out of him from doing the hero thing. Your manhood is safe."

"I am not worried about my manhood." There were better ways he could have phrased that. Lindsey pinched at the bridge of this nose. "I prefer to deal with it myself."

Cordelia lifted her head and gave him a frank, measuring look. Lindsey thought he preferred it when she was spitting fire and brimstone into his face. "I'm only going to say this once," she said, taking his wrist and undoing the bandage in a few brief, efficient movements, "but you're right." Lindsey was too stunned to pull away. "When you said that two were safer than one. I need you. That means you also need me, and we're not going to be any good to one another if you bleed to death or get an infection or something." Cordelia's face blanched as she got her first lengthy look at Angel's handiwork. Lindsey didn't need to look down. He had long since memorized the gruesome riot of half-healed flesh.

Lindsey stared towards the wall, a muscle jumping in his jaw. "Pity, then."

"Practicality, you bonehead," Cordelia corrected, snapping the kit open. Something very close to amusement danced in her voice and, when Lindsey glanced towards her, her eyes. It complimented her, and Lindsey felt a brief sorrow that he was not in the position to see it more often.

Even with the brace restricting her range of motion, Cordelia rebandaged Lindsey's wrist with an expert's ease, her touch so light that he scarcely felt it. Lindsey wondered how often she had bandaged Angel's wounds from the same kit. It was not a thought that comforted.

"That'll do for tonight," Cordelia said at last. "I'll need to borrow your truck in the morning to get more supplies."

"That's fine." Lindsey examined his wrist like it was a recurring nightmare that he would rather forget. "Thank you."

"You're welcome." Cordelia packed everything into its proper place again and snapped the lid closed. As she reached the bathroom doorway, she paused. "I like you better like this."

"Bleeding?"

"Human." Cordelia left, taking Dennis' presence with her.

Lindsey watched her go before he turned to view his reflection in the bathroom mirror. He recognized the face that stared back at him the way some people would recognize a Halloween mask, one they tried to throw away but always wound up taking back again.

 

Sweet strumming a guitar, a sound so pure and good that it made Lindsey's ears ache in anticipated loss just to hear it. Lindsey's hand twitched by his side in memory of the movements required to make such music. His right hand. Lindsey held it up before his face, staring in awe at whole fingers and unblemished, peach-colored skin.

"Impossible," Lindsey whispered, and prayed that he was wrong. He looked around.

He was standing in a field of corn days away from being ready for harvest. It bobbed against Lindsey's shoulders in sleepy waves whenever a breeze passed through it and stretched as far as he could see. Lindsey filled his lungs with as much of the rich, sweet smell as they could hold. It wasn't quite the same as the wheat that he had grown up with, but the proximity to so many living, growing things brought back a pang of homesickness the likes of which he had not felt for years, shocking in its intensity. Lindsey let his fingers trail against the corn's silken heads, settling them all to nodding, and a smile touched his lips.

After a brief pause, the guitar's owner began playing again, and the melody drew Lindsey along as surely as if he had been an amiable puppy on a leash. Lindsey allowed himself to be led with a smile on his face. His granddaddy had been able to pull magic from the notes like that. Old timer's skill, he had called it. "It's no good while it's still green," he had told Lindsey when he was a child, handing him the guitar and allowing him to blink at the strings. "You got to let it sweeten with time."

The corn broke at long last, revealing a clearing with a log cabin, a porch, and the oldest woman that Lindsey had ever seen. She looked like a doll carved from the surface of a walnut, wrinkled and wise and kind. The old woman hummed to herself as she sat in her rocking chair, gnarled old fingers picking out a tune so sweet and graceful that it made Lindsey want to weep. She stopped when she saw Lindsey, setting the guitar down beside her chair and smoothing out her skirts. "Well, now, well, now." When she smiled, Lindsey saw that there wasn't a tooth left in her head. "You should've called out, boy, 'stead of jes letting me ignore you."

"Play on if you want," Lindsey said, sounding more shy than he had since his first school dance. "It's a beautiful sound."

The woman chuckled and Lindsey thought he saw a blush creeping up her leathery cheeks. "Jes a little twanging," she said. "These old fingers don't move like they used to. But, my, don't it feel nice to create music?"

Lindsey's smile was bittersweet. He stared down at his hand, flexing his fingers and curling it into a fist until the tendons popped. "I'm dreaming."

The old woman nodded her head. "I imagine so. But you can't dream forever, boy. Sooner or later you're gonna have to wake up and go about makin' some hard choices. When you get to that point, you come and see me. I imagine the two of us could have one interesting conversation. Abby Freemantle, at Hemingford Home. Just ask anyone around Polk County way for Mother Abigail and they'll get you pointed in the right direction." Mother Abigail was going to say more, but something made her suck in her breath sharply and stare at a point beyond Lindsey's shoulder. The kindly grandmother was gone, leaving something like a human vulture behind. "Weasels in the corn!" she exclaimed, reedy voice quavering with outrage. "On my land!"

The dusky-sweet smell of the corn turned sour and foul, and a chill rose in the air. Lindsey know, using the same terrible certainty which had let him know that there were monsters under the bed when he was a child and let him know now that hell would greet him when he died, that what he would see if he turned around would drive him insane. Fear seized up his insides in a vice. "Don't try to claim what isn't yours, old woman." The voice wasn't deep or rough like those of the demons that Lindsey had dealt with. Instead it was high and shrill...like a weasel's.

Mother Abigail drew back her lips and bared her gums at the specter behind Lindsey, the personification of every wicked witch in every fairy tale ever told. To Lindsey she said sharply, "Don't call him 'Master' if you can't stand to look him in the face, boy."

"Yes...'boy'." The voice sounded terribly amused, and Lindsey was sure that he was going to die. "Look me in the face." A hand came down on Lindsey's shoulder and a dry, wheezing sound exploded from Lindsey's throat. The hand was far too soft to belong to anything alive. He knew just as surely as he knew that there was blood pounding through his veins that it was his hand, his real one, and that it had been claimed by a monster. The dead man's hand spun him around-

The scream lodged in Lindsey's throat, strangling him. He shuddered as he swallowed the sound, opening up his lungs for a deep gasp of air. The smell of corn and death lingered, inescapably intertwined, in his nose. Lindsey shuddered again, drawing his wounded arm close to his chest.

A few feet away, Cordelia twisted and moaned as she slept on the couch. Neither one of them had wanted the bedroom. Cordelia's pretty face was taut, and she made warding-off gestures with her hands hooked into claws. Sweat had slicked her t-shirt to her body. She wasn't wearing a bra, and Lindsey did the gentlemanly thing by averting his eyes.

Cordelia cringed back from her imaginary menacer, letting out a cry so loud that Lindsey wondered how she managed to sleep through it. The shout dwindled away into a choking whimper. Lindsey could imagine what she was dreaming of, and he knew that the kind thing to do would be to wake her up.

"If I worship you," Lindsey murmured. He stayed where he was.

 

"Say a prayer for the pretender
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender."
-Jackson Browne, "The Pretender"

Two weeks later

The power failed at just after two in the morning. The VCR clock flickered and died as Lindsey jolted awake from what was rapidly becoming a rarity, sleep without dreams, and rubbed at his eyes. Lindsey tilted his head to one side, listening for the sound that had woken him to come again; the apartment threw nothing back but silence. With the forces of law and order decimated by Captain Trips, some of the survivors had taken to roaming the streets like animals escaped from a zoo, breaking into the homes turned tombs of plague victims and scurrying away with whatever useful baubles they could find amongst the ruins. Thus far, Cordelia and Lindsey had been powerfully luck in going unmolested.

Adrenaline soaked Lindsey's blood as he continued to listen, making his heartbeat the loudest sound in the room. It was several more minutes before Lindsey realized that it was not sound that had woken him, but the absence of it. The hum of the air-conditioning was such a fixture of modern life that Lindsey hadn't noticed it until it was no longer there.

"What's wrong?" Cordelia asked from the couch. Her voice was breathy, not entirely awake.

"Power's gone out," Lindsey told her.

"Oh. That's all." Cordelia turned back onto her side, fully asleep again within moments.

Lindsey remained sitting up, head cocked, waiting with bated breath for a sound that he already knew would be a long time in being heard again, if ever. The electricity didn't come back on and Lindsey exhaled his breath in a whistling sigh. The hope that civilization might yet find a way to arise, phoenix-like, from its own ashes had been growing weaker by the day, but it still died hard.

Cordelia's breathing had returned to a slow, even rhythm before Lindsey rose to his feet and began struggling into his shoes, muttering barely audible obscenities beneath his breath as he fought with the laces. The skin across his wrist, stretched shiny-pink and scarcely healed, sent road flares up his arm as he accidentally bumped it against the coffee table. Lindsey exhaled and dug the nails of his remaining hand into his palm to prevent himself from making a sound. The jingle of the truck keys as Lindsey snatched them from the coffee table made Cordelia turn over in her sleep, but she did not wake. Lindsey slipped into the night noticed by Dennis alone.

Movement at the end of the block drew Lindsey's eye as he unlocked the truck, but a closer inspection proved it to be nothing more than a forlorn, ill-fed cat. The cat meowed plaintively while Lindsey was at a distance, only to hiss and become one with the darkness when he drew close. Lindsey wondered if the cat had picked up the behavior from watching the few humans that were left, or if it had been the other way around.

Lindsey gave up on the cat and slid behind the wheel of the truck, still smelling the hay and sunshine that bled out of the seats. His fingers trembled, just for a moment, as he slid himself the keys into the ignition. Lindsey told himself to stop being weak and pulled away from the curb.

For a city in which the dead now far outnumbered the living and the smell of rot was fast becoming all pervasive, the streets that Lindsey drove down had remained remarkably clear of corpses, even those of animals. It would seem that in their final moments, most people had preferred the dignity of their homes to the soulless vastness of the sky. The glass glittering on the sidewalk from broken shop windows was the only sign that Lindsey hadn't stepped onto an unused movie set.

He encountered only one other person during the course of his drive, an elderly man who stumbled in front of the truck as though he were not even aware that it was there. Lindsey stood on the brakes and the vehicle screamed to a stop with so little room to spare that the old man could have bent and kissed the metal. He stared at Lindsey with dinner-plate eyes before making a cawing sound not unlike that of a crow and whirling away into the shadows. Lindsey smothered the oath that had risen in his throat and drove on.

The Wolfram and Hart were dark and somehow sad-looking as Lindsey brought the truck to a halt, a fairy-tale villain that had been vanquished and then left to rot. Lindsey jangled the keys in his hand as he climbed down from the cab and approached, feeling very much as Jack must have as he approached the cooling corpse of the giant: mostly sure it was dead, but watching for movement all the same.

The great glass doors that led into the main lobby were securely locked and defied the odds by unbroken by looters. Yet. Lindsey scouted about on the street until he found a broken piece of curb large enough to serve his purpose, hiked his arm back, and released it in a pitch better than anything he had done since high school. The glass shattered as the rock passed through it, sounding much louder than it actually was by contrast to the stillness. Lindsey waited for alarms-who knew what kind of generators the building had supplying it in this dimension or another-but the silence which echoed back was almost worse. Wincing as a few stray bits of glass snagged at his arms, Lindsey shrugged off his nerves and stepped into what was left of the most powerful law firm in Los Angeles.

There were no bodies, and Lindsey could not say that he was surprised. Wolfram and Hart may claim their employees' souls in both this life and the next, but it was a still a painfully lonely place to die. Lindsey's footsteps echoed on the floor like half-remembered voices and he stepped a bit faster, bypassing the sulking, useless hulks of the elevators in favor of the stairs.

Wolfram and Hart had been more familiar to him than in his own apartment over the course of the past five years; he hardly needed light to pick his way through it now. Nevertheless, Lindsey paused by one of the guard's stations long enough to pick up a flashlight before he began his descent, and the thin light dipped and bobbed in front of him, creating as many shadows as it abolished. The air was cool, slightly musty, and utterly without movement. Lindsey had felt air like this while standing inside tombs.

Of the two bodies that Lindsey encountered in Wolfram and Hart's entire building, one of them was slumped in a boneless heap beside the door to Darla's quarters. Lindsey crouched onto his heels in order to view what was left of the guard at a closer range, wondering at the horror that he did not feel. The body was still wearing its uniform, had dark hair, and appeared to have once been a man. Beyond that, everything that Lindsey came up with was based upon guesswork. The guard's face was swollen and black, his flesh rising in a tidal wave above the fabric of his collar. A mess of blood, spit, and snot had run down his face, coagulating into a solid veneer across his lips and chin. Lindsey wiped his hands as he stood up, in spite of the fact that he had not actually touched the body.

There had been so much reliance on electricity and technology to keep Darla inside her lovely cage that the door handle turned easily beneath Lindsey's hand. Or maybe what was left of Wolfram and Hart's movers and shakers had decided that she simply wasn't worth the effort any longer. All the same, Lindsey hesitated a moment before he stepped inside the room, like he would before entering a hospital room, if not a morgue. Fading wards shivered across his skin.

The exquisite furniture that made up the room still glittered in remembrance of better days, in spite of the fact that its mistress was very dead. Lindsey thought that for that reason alone he was going to smash a few pieces before he left. Darla was lying on a bed large enough to sleep four people with ease and was hooked up to so many lifeless, motionless gadgets that she seemed more machine than human. Lindsey half expected her to rise from the bed like a mad scientist's experiment gone berserk as he approached. She had already begun to rot, veins desiccating and collapsing in on themselves with the IV lines still protruding from them, and the horror and despair that Lindsey had failed to feel at the body of the guard began making up for lost time. His kneecaps turned to water. "Oh, Darla." Lindsey sank into one of the chairs beside her bed. The ghastly black swellings that were the telltale sign of the superflu had risen on her neck, but no further. Some power above or below had spared her face, leaving it as porcelain-lovely as it had been the first time that Lindsey had laid eyes on her. Her eyes were closed, faint purple shadows marking the lids. Lindsey extended his arm to run his fingers through the corn silk that fanned out around her head.

'LINDSEYLINDSEYLINDSEY, DEAR LYING LINDSEY.'

Lindsey startled hard and jumped backwards from the body, knocking the chair over in the process. His entire body felt as though it had been hooked up to a car engine with a pair of jumper cables.

'I'M GROWING IMPATIENT, LINDSEY. I GAVE YOU A JOB TO DO, LINDSEY. I DO NOT LIKE DILLY-DALLYERS, LINDSEY, AND YOU DO WANT ME TO LIKE YOU.'

The voice rose into a volume high enough to make speakers explode and drove Lindsey to his knees. He may have moaned, screamed, or even passed out; the passage of time was rendered fluid by the shriek. When he could open his eyes again, it was to see a slow puddle of blood being lapped up by the carpet. Bloodied nose. Lindsey sank back onto his haunches, wiped the blood off his face with the palm of his hand. He had viewed far greater quantities of his own blood. It didn't make sense that he should be so nauseated now.

"You didn't have to do that," Lindsey muttered, knowing how much fire that he was playing with and finding in equal measure that he did not care.

'WE HAVE A DEAL, LINDSEY. YOU DO UNDERSTAND DEALS, DON'T YOU, LINDSEY, WITH YOUR CONTRACTS AND YOUR COURTROOM AND YOUR PRECIOUS RED TAPE?'

"I understand," Lindsey said, slurring his words as through he was half-drunk. The roar in his head was making it difficult to think. "And I understand what the alternatives are. It will be done."

'I WANT IT DONE NOW.'

Lindsey nearly passed out. "Now," he agreed. "All right. Whatever you want."

'I KNEW YOU WERE A MAN OF YOUR WORD, LINDSEY. WE'RE GOING TO HAVE SUCH A PALAVER, YOU AND I, WHEN THE TIME COMES.'

The final echo was louder even than pain and Lindsey did lose his grip on consciousness then, tilting onto his side in a boneless heap. Blood rushed onto the carpet.

 

On the hard-packed dirt of the Mojave, a man was levitating. As his heels drifted back to the earth, he smiled a smile fit to make the damned scream.

 

Cordelia was woken by the fingers of the dawn curling through the living room window. She stretched, wincing with a particular blend of pleasure-pain as her muscles groaned, and glanced over to see that the pallet Lindsey had made for himself on the other side of the coffee table was empty. Neither one of them had been eager to enter the bedroom again except for necessities.

Cordelia sat up and rubbed at her eyes, going from half-slumbering to fully awake in a span of seconds rather than by her old method of degrees. Dimly, she could remember waking in the middle of the night and Lindsey telling her that they had lost the electricity. A tiny snake of unease unfurled its tongue in Cordelia's stomach, one she tried to tell herself was foolish. There were dozens of perfectly legitimate reasons for Lindsey to be gone. It had touched ninety degrees the day before; he may well have driven off in search of battery-powered fans or even a generator. But somehow, Cordelia didn't think so.

'I still don't trust him,' Cordelia admitted to herself, 'and I don't like it when he's out of my sight.' Not entirely correct. They were in the shadowy place between suspicion and trust, where the ground was slick and there were no clear road signs.

"He needs my hands," Cordelia said aloud. "That's enough to make him honor the agreement until Angel gets back." A frown line appeared between her eyes and she swung her legs over the side of the couch, pushing her rumpled hair behind her ears. The little snake became a cobra in the second between one stomach gurgle and the next. Angel would be back. Something dire in the 'Dale was holding him up-Cordelia's mind refused to contemplate the direst possibility of all-and when that was taken care of he would return. They could begin the business of putting the world back together then. Cordelia only hoped that Lindsey wouldn't mouth off too much when he did. Two pretty, angry men determined to roll around like Greeks may seem fun at first, but eventually there was going to be blood. The world had seen enough of that to last for several generations.

The fact that Angel had gone two weeks without a telephone call hung heavy and sour in the back of Cordelia's mind, surprising her from around corners.

Cordelia opened the door to her bedroom and crossed the floor in a few quick strides, taking pains not to glance in the direction of the stripped bed. She threw on the first pair of jeans and top that her fingers came in contact with at record speed and slid out again. If she couldn't give Wesley a memorial, then she could at least respect the sanctity of the room in which he died. Not even Lindsey entered the bedroom without good cause.

Speak of the devil, and he shall appear. Lindsey was walking through the front door as Cordelia was leaving the bedroom. He was jingling the truck keys in his hand in a distracted gesture that Cordelia could not remember seeing him make before, and his face was pale. "Hey," he said, giving her a once-over that made Cordelia doubt if he was really seeing her.

"Lindsey?" Cordelia's nerves warred between taking a step closer or one back. "Are you all right?" That was not worry in her voice, thank you very much.

"Fine." Lindsey dragged his hand over his face, through his hair. The stubble on his cheeks looked very dark in comparison to the bloodlessness of the skin beneath. "Just doing some thinking." A little more of the color and the inborn arrogance came back into Lindsey's face, and Cordelia was glad. That, at least, was the man that she knew how to deal with. "We need to be thinking about leaving Los Angeles, sooner rather than later."

Until he went and said things like that. "Or how about we not. I told Angel I'd wait until he came back. I have a way of keeping promises like that."

Lindsey snorted and spun, a short, choppy movement that made Cordelia take a step back and rendered the past two weeks nonexistent. The softness in his eyes, not precisely kindness, but close enough to be mistaken for it in a dim light, jangled against the abruptness of the gesture. "Oh," he said. "Oh, Cordy." Cordelia started, wishing that he wouldn't. "Angel's not coming back. I thought you knew."

Cordelia twitched, hard, and Lindsey's eyes tracked every movement. Two weeks worth of doubt, denied power through her own voice, came alive with Lindsey's. "I have to give him that chance."

Lindsey made a faint sound that nevertheless managed to convey a monologue's worth of disgust. "The city is dead, Cordelia. We have no electricity, a water supply that's tied to our power, and a limited supply of food. If we stay here we're going to die." He pronounced the last word with a savage kind of triumph.

Cordelia set her teeth, pulled her lips back in a gesture more often seen on dogs than humans. "I can't," she gritted.

Lindsey pinched at the bridge of his nose, a gesture of frustration that Cordelia was sure he wouldn't have stooped to in court. That he was willing to make it with her came accompanied by a strange sense of power. "Have you been having dreams?"

Cordelia's heart stopped in her chest before it began beating again, double-time. 'Smell of corn and the twanging of a guitar mixed always, inescapably, with high, cruel giggling, light and dark married so closely as to be indistinguishable.' Her voice stammered for a moment as she said, "Everyone dreams."

Lindsey nodded, but his gaze had become distant. "Not a normal dream. An old woman and an...other." Lindsey's voice as he pronounced the word 'other' held an impression of slime, and something else that Cordelia couldn't identify. She folded her arms over her chest. "Either way, both voices are saying to head east."

"Why east?"

Lindsey emerged from his reverie long enough to flash her a dazzling smile. It turned him into a different person. "We're running out of west, darlin'." The flash of humor vanished, leaving not even a ripple in its wake. "The plague may have been man-made. Hell, I'm even betting on it. But somehow I'm thinking these dreams aren't."

"Not the most ringing of endorsements." Cordelia already had her arms crossed over her chest; she shifted her weight from one foot to the other and resisted the urge to look at the floor. "Historically speaking, I mean."

Lindsey's mouth curved, just for a moment, and Cordelia decided that she didn't want to know what memories were running through his mind. "The Other." The capitalization was evident in his voice. "How does he make you feel?"

"He scares the living shit out of me." No attempts at varnish.

Lindsey nodded, his face turned towards the window so that Cordelia couldn't immediately see his expression. "Me, too." He shifted to face her. "Frankly, I think we're safer with the old woman than on our own."

He made sense, and that's what made it terrible. Cordelia shook her head. "I have to stay, at least for a little longer," she said. "I have to give Angel that chance."

Lindsey didn't lift his lip into his customary curl whenever Angel's name was mentioned. The tangle of emotions that crossed his face was too complex and fast-moving for Cordelia to decipher. "Whatever you say."

 

They were attacked that night.

Cordelia sat bolt upright, the mingled sounds of glass breaking and Lindsey's cry of anger and alarm making up a soundtrack in her head. Mother Abigail's opposite number, the one with the cowboy boots and the burning eyes, still danced through her mind's eye, slicking her body with sweat and making her veins thrum with adrenaline. In the dim half-light caused by the moon she could see two people struggling, hear Lindsey swearing as he defended himself with the hand that had been left to him.

Cordelia rolled off the couch, dropping into a crouch and cocking her head to listen. No glass fell from her hair or clothing as she moved. Lindsey's attacker must have broken through the window in the bedroom rather than the one behind the couch. Wesley's sacred space. Cordelia blew out her breath through gritted teeth and fumbled for the industrial flashlight that she had placed beside the couch before falling asleep. It made a satisfying weight in her hand, but she hesitated at turning it on. Lindsey's curses were increasing in volume and creativity, but he had yet to call out her name or otherwise give any indication that he was not the only person in the apartment.

They were thinking along the same page. Good.

Cordelia scuttled/crouched in Lindsey's direction, avoiding the coffee table's sharp edges by memory and preserving the advantage the darkness gave her. If she could get in close enough to flick the flashlight on in the intruder's face, she could maybe blind him long enough to swing the flashlight around and get in a few stunning blows. Not bad as far as plans spurred forward by adrenaline went, and it stood a good chance of working until heavy fingers wrapped around Cordelia's neck, jerking her backwards off her feet.

Cordelia tried to scream and could manage only a whisper as the air that she tried to draw into her lungs found itself lodged in her trachea with nowhere to go. Her chest heaved and her lungs began to feel as if someone had tried to pour hydrogen peroxide into them, while she could feel vessels breaking across the skin. She hooked her free hand into a claw and raked it back against her attacker's face, drawing strips of flesh away beneath her fingernails. Cordelia would have gagged if she had had the breath for it. A voice that could have been male, female, or any of the strata in between shrieked pain, but panic was carrying Cordelia away far too swiftly for her to care. If she had been able to see roe than a few inches before her face in the gloom, she would have registered the black spots twirling their own crazy dance before her eyes. Her neck had chafed beneath the intensity of the second person's grip, rivulets of fresh blood making her slippery and difficult to control. Nevertheless, her limbs were growing heavy.

'You're supposed to be here!' Cordelia thought in a haze of panic, barely coherent even to herself. 'You promised!'

Fear and fury roped themselves around each other so tightly that they became one emotion, lending a final burst of strength to Cordelia's oxygen-starved muscles. She surprised even herself by the power with which she swung the flashlight over her shoulder, striking where she thought her attacker's eye sockets would be. There was a shriek, a crunch, and a popping sound like an egg exploding in a microwave that made Cordelia want to be ill. The fingers didn't fall away and Cordelia didn't stop swinging. Twice, three times, more, and she tried to tell herself that it wasn't a dark triumph that kept her moving long after the need for it had passed. Two weeks of grief and worry built into a scream like a lead weight in the center of Cordelia's chest; she scarcely noticed when she had the air capacity to let it out. The sound of glass breaking stopped her as quickly as she had begun.

The only sound in the apartment was that of Lindsey's breathing, coming a shade too quickly to be written off as exertion alone. Cordelia's whistled like a tea kettle in her ears. "I hope you weren't too attached to that lamp," Lindsey said.

"Not particularly." Cordelia frantically rubbed her sticky fingers against the rug. "I think I broke my flashlight."

"I have one." A beam of salvation cut through the darkness. Lindsey flicked the light over Cordelia's shoulder for only a second before he turned it away again, all the confirmation that she needed. She put her head between her knees.

"...out the living room window," Lindsey was saying when Cordelia came back to herself. "Probably won't be coming back for a couple of days after what happened to his friend. Still a risk we don't need to take. Is there anywhere that you and Angel both know of where we could-"

"Angel's not coming back," Cordelia interrupted, her voice low and lusterless, muffled by her hair. The hair she swiped behind her ears, smearing a mixture of blood and silent tears across her cheeks.

"I'm sorry." Lindsey's voice made it impossible to tell if he was sincere.

Cordelia pushed herself to her feet, leaving the gummed over flashlight on the floor. Her throat throbbed and her voice had descended into a husky, blues singer rasp. "There's a hotel not far from here, unoccupied before the plague. Probably no bodies. We can be there in fifteen minutes if we take the truck."

"All right." Lindsey's tone was soft, mindful of sharp edges. "Is there anything from here that you want to take with you?"

"A few pictures." Cordelia thought. "Nothing else." The rest of her possessions meant very little, now. "When can we be out of the city?"

"Tomorrow, if you want."

Cordelia thought of corn, of an old black woman with some of the kindest eyes she had ever seen, and a world that had gone mad. A world where she had just bludgeoned a person to death. "I want."

Cordelia made it outside before being violently ill across the sidewalk.

 

"This world can turn me down
But I won't turn away.
I won't duck and run
'Cause I'm not built that way."
-Three Doors Down, "Duck and Run"

The hotel that Cordelia had in mind was a gorgeous relic of Hollywood's glory days, a quietly aging skeleton that inspired awe rather than sadness. Through the flaking paint and overgrown shrubbery, Lindsey thought he could still see the gleaming smiles of actors on their way to the top. "Nice choice," he said.

"It's been abandoned for ages," Cordelia said, staring past him at the building. "There's always talk floating around about turning it into a historical site or something, but..." Cordelia shrugged. "Funds." Her lips spasmed as she realized what she had said. "Though I guess it doesn't matter now."

"It'll do for tonight," Lindsey said. He almost felt bad as he broke the glass in the front door, and the building seemed to give the faintest of shudders, like a soap bubble popping. Lindsey waited a moment, head cocked to listen, before gesturing Cordelia in behind him. Her expression wavered between blank and nauseated, and Lindsey knew that her mind was still at the apartment.

The sound of their footsteps crunching across the broken glass was very loud in the absence of street noises. Lindsey strode down the steps into the marble floored lobby, playing his flashlight across furniture covered in dust and ravaged by time. It seemed that most of the original fixtures had been left behind by the last occupant, rendering the building into a time capsule.

Lindsey was nearly half way to the registration desk, wanting to get a closer look at a marble countertop that would not have been out of place in the Wolfram and Hart offices in the present day, when he realized that Cordelia was no longer behind him. "Cordy?" he asked-how easily the nickname that he hadn't earned the right to use floated past his lips-, turning to see that she hadn't budged from the top of the stairs. The moon was setting behind her, rendering her features into unreadable shadow. The taut set of her shoulders did for facial expression. "We can't stay here." Her voice was a flat, mechanical tone that Lindsey couldn't remember hearing before.

Lindsey felt his mouth twitch, his face shift into a disbelieving expression. "Cordelia." Her threw his arms out to indicate the lobby in its entirety, forgetting for the moment to tuck his wounded one out of sight against his side. "There's nowhere left in LA that we might not be attacked. We're not going to find a better place to crouch down until we get some supplies together."

"I'm not worried about being attacked," Cordelia said, and because Lindsey was feeling generous he didn't bother to correct the lie. He had used the remaining flashlight to scan over Cordelia's wounds before driving away from the apartment. Her neck was ringed with rising bruises in the shape of fingers, dark as secrets and oozing blood where the skin had been scraped away. Cordelia had frequently taken one of her hands off the wheel on the drive over to touch at her throat, as if forcing herself to acknowledge them as real. The silhouette of Cordelia wrapped her arms around herself for a few seconds before dropping them back to her sides. "Something here...feels wrong."

"It feels wrong." Lindsey didn't laugh at her, but it was a near thing. "Cordelia, I think you need to get some sleep."

Shadows prevented Lindsey from seeing Cordelia's face, but he could feel the look that she was leveling at him. "I'm not sleep deprived," Cordelia snapped, "and I know what I'm talking about when I say there's ick in the air here. Don't tell me you can't feel the evil."

It was on the tip of Lindsey's tongue to tell Cordelia that she was spouting dialogue from a fantasy novel when he could feel it, sleek, insidious darkness that trembled from the air itself. From the far corners of Lindsey's mind, places that he tried not acknowledge, let alone visit, he heard whispers so faint that they may have come from ghosts. When he tried to focus on the words, though, they disappeared into a paranoid whiff. Lindsey exhaled a breath that he didn't know he had been holding. "It's a lovely night," he said at last. "Seems a shame to waste it."

They slept in the courtyard.

Los Angeles had enjoyed a spate of rain a few days before, filling the dormant fountain in the center of the courtyard. Cordelia used it to rinse the blood from her skin without so much as a glance towards Lindsey. She stretched out beneath the jasmine and fell asleep, or appeared to, without another word.

Lindsey wasn't so blessed. He took a seat with his back braced against the stone fountain, watching Cordelia as her breathing became regular and slow. Cordelia turned her head from side to side and issued the occasional moan for the first hour or so, until the Walking Dude was chased away by dreams that left a smile on her face the tugged the worry line off of her brow. Lindsey would have bet anything that she was standing beneath a butter-yellow sun and hearing an old woman's dusky laugh.

"Evil, be thou my good," Lindsey murmured as he watched her sleep. Even devils had to accept what they were eventually, he thought, dragging his hand across his eyes. Nevertheless, sleep was a long time in coming.

Lindsey dreamed of whispers that night, vague mutterings that he could not remember, outside of the impression of scalding hot lips pressed close against the curve of his ear. Promises made and oaths sworn in blood and bile before a man whose face could only be remembered when he wished it so. Lindsey awoke with nausea rising in his throat and a small, hard object clenched in his palm.

He was gripping it so tightly that his nails had begun to cut into his flesh, and Lindsey experienced the curious sensation of having to will his own fingers to open. Unease settled like a cage around his ribs.

The object was a highly polished black stone scarcely larger than Lindsey's thumbnail, with a hole drilled into one end that a silver chain had been passed through. Lindsey stared at the stone for what seemed like an eternity without moving, until the dawn's early light had begun to peek over his shoulders. The Dark Man was issuing both a reward and a leash, and wanted Lindsey to understand the threat implicit in both.

'Not like the point of no return wasn't three exits back, anyway.' But he still didn't feel like eating anything after staring at the stone. Lindsey glanced towards Cordelia, who slept with an easy expression, as if she were in the presence of a trusted friend. "Even devils."

Lindsey slipped the chain over his head and felt the stone glow against his skin.

 

The sun was nearing its zenith when Cordelia awoke, feeling achy and tired in spite of the hours of sleep. She had been dreaming of Mother Abigail, and Abigail had been telling her something very important about Lindsey. In the gleaming light of the day, though, the words evaporated from Cordelia's grasp. Of the dead person she didn't dream at all, and Cordelia didn't know if this was a good thing or a bad.

Nevertheless, she knew where she needed to be.

Cordelia sat up, dragging her fingers through the tangles in her hair and wishing that she had remembered to bring a hairbrush. Jasmine blossoms had fallen into her hair while she slept. Cordelia pulled them out of her hair one by one, setting them carefully to the side, and felt a flicker of a smile pass over her face as she turned to look for Lindsey.

The man was nowhere to be found, though a patch of disturbed dust in front of the fountain suggested that he had slept at some point. Cordelia pulled the last of the flowers from her hair and stood, doing her best to pretend that it wasn't worry that was causing her skin to prickle and the first threads of adrenaline to go spiking through her system. Cordelia turned, staring towards the double doors that led back into the lobby. Surely he wouldn't have...Cordelia remembered the vague, barely-audible sounds of whispers coming from half-rotted throats and shuddered.

He had. Lindsey was in the center of the hotel's lobby, his head tilted back and his arms stiffened at his sides as if he were bracing himself against the very worst kind of pain. His back was turned towards Cordelia so that she couldn't see his expression, but sweat had turned his shirt nearly translucent. Cordelia could count the muscles in his back.

She lunged against the door handle hard enough to send throbbing pain all the way to her elbow and didn't care, knocking the door against the far wall in a flurry of plaster. "Lindsey!" The panic in her voice at first shocked and would later worry her, but at the present there was no time. Lindsey reacted to her voice with a flinch of the shoulders that a casual observer would have missed.

Cordelia sprinted across the lobby fast enough to put her on the track team had she still been in high school, feeling the hair on her arms and the back of her neck stand up the way they would have after being subjected to a low-level electric current. A cacophony of voices rose in her head as she neared Lindsey. 'Killed him without a second thought, didn't you...felt good...murdering bitch.' Cordelia flinched back from Lindsey with a sound that she refused to admit was a yelp rising in her throat.

"Lindsey," she gritted again, pushing through air that felt like pudding to grab at Lindsey's sweat slicked shoulder. His reaction was electric. A wheezing sigh slid past his lips and he spun, instinctively attacking with the right fist that was no longer there. Cordelia doubted that he even saw her. She squeaked from low in her throat, managing to both duck and scramble backwards at the same time. All the dance lessons that she had had as a child still couldn't turn it into a graceful move, but it gave her opportunity to both get out of the way and duck under Lindsey's arm, grabbing his elbow before he could try again. "Lindsey, stop!" she shouted.

A shudder heavy enough to knock Cordelia's hand away ran through Lindsey's body. He blinked once, twice, at least staring at her with something that resembled recognition. The expression in his eyes was not pleasant.

"Well, I've had a lovely stay," Cordelia said.

"Best night of sleep I've had in years." Only the presence of the other kept either of them from running as they exited.

Cordelia lay her head against the sun-warmed metal of the truck and drew in harsh, ragged breaths until the feeling of slime had evaporated from her skin. Behind her, she could hear Lindsey breathing as though he thought all the air in the world was going to be taken away and bottled for sale. As bad as the voices had been for her, she could only imagine what they said to Lindsey. It was not a comforting series of images.

Cordelia lifted her head from the truck and swiped at her face. "I think I understand why that place stood empty for so long."

"Jesus," Lindsey muttered. He dragged his hand over his face. "Nebraska is looking better and better."

Cordelia lifted her thick hair off her neck, allowing a breeze to soothe the fear sweat that had gathered into a puddle at the nape. "How soon can we leave?" Lindsey slid her a sideways look and she said, "Our track record in California is getting worse and worse, and so are the dreams. We'd be better off in Nebraska." With a bitterness that rose out of her before she even realized it was there, Cordelia added, "It's not like there's anything left here."

Lindsey stared back at the hotel with a distant, bleak expression. "Cordelia, as long as it's out of this godforsaken city, I don't care where we go." His face seamed into a shadow of his old, vicious smile. "Don't know how well a city girl is going to do in farm country, though. Boutiques tend to be few and far between."

Though she had known it was only a matter of time before his true colors showed themselves again, Cordelia felt a flush of color blooming over her cheekbones. "Being a city girl isn't much use when all of the cities are dead." She cast a deliberate glance at the gleaming mass of scar tissue that capped Lindsey's wrist and saw his expression darken. "Adaptation, Lindsey. Dealing with what life does to you."

Lindsey's lips twisted, and he turned to look back at the hotel before answering. "So, anyway. We're off to see the wizard." Cordelia didn't think she was imagining the hint of nervousness that underlay Lindsey's voice.

"I don't think Mother Abigail is the judging type," she said, forgetting for the moment that she was supposed to be annoyed with him.

Lindsey's laugh was short and bitter, and hung in the air like an accusation between them. "You'd be surprised," he said. "Even the heroes can fail." Cordelia said nothing, but an uneasy line appeared between her eyes as she climbed into the truck and started the engine. Lindsey turned away so that she wouldn't see him fingering the small lump beneath his shirt, or the sudden deadness in his eyes.

 

"You don't know what you're looking for
Coming right now knocking at your door
Surrender, pretender, bow down now on your knees and pray
You don't know what you're looking for."
-Econoline Crush, "You Don't Know"

The remainder of the morning and the largest portion of the afternoon were spent gathering supplies. Standard trade was long gone, as shop owners became to sick or scared to open the shops themselves, and the fractional remainder of the population simply raided for their needs. Cordelia and Lindsey were only making themselves a part of the overwhelming trend. Outside of a camping store that advertised everything from tents to concentrates, Lindsey scouted about until he found a brick that had already been used in the fine art of breaking and entering at least once. He reared back with a familiarity that made Cordelia think he had surely played baseball in high school or college, hurling the brick forward and shattering the glass, creating a satisfying stain on the stillness. It faded away much too soon.

Lindsey stepped carefully over the remaining glass, extending his hand back to help Cordelia. She gave them both a mild shock by taking it. "What do we need?" she asked, getting herself resettled and peering about at the semi-darkness.

Lindsey stepped further into the store, brow furrowing as his eyes ran across the shelves. "Tents and sleeping bags, unless you want to sleep in the truck." Cordelia made a face and shook her head. "Bottled water, canned food." Lindsey poked at a shelf full of packaged food concentrates; it was his turn to make a face. "We'll save this stuff for emergencies. Penicillin if the pharmacies haven't been gutted already. We're getting a later start than most of the people heading out."

Cordelia ignored the note of reproof in Lindsey's voice and asked, "You think one of us is going to get pneumonia?" She looked over her shoulder as she dragged a pair of sleeping bags off the shelves.

"Infection." Lindsey held up his wrist, allowing scar tissue to gleam angry and pink for the briefest of seconds before he returned it to its proper place tucked self-consciously against his side. "I was terrified that this was going to turn even nastier."

"Oh." Cordelia threw another look over her shoulder, longer and more measuring. "You hid it pretty well." She rejected the original pair of sleeping bags for two with heavy goose down stuffing. Seemed the city girl knew a thing or two about camping, after all. Or maybe she was just taking the two that would have been the most expensive, Lindsey thought, cutting off the respect before it could become too intrusive.

Cordelia was already working down the aisles in search of their next necessity. She paused in front of a stack of K-rations, pursing her lips. "These look nasty, do we actually need any of them?"

"Couldn't hurt," Lindsey said. "I had an uncle who was in the military. He kept a bunch of them in his truck in case it broke down on a back road. You get far enough into the boonies and God only knows when another car will go by. They're edible enough, good quick energy if you can stomach a lot of salt and grease."

Cordelia's face remained doubtful, but her tone was game as she replied. "Are you kidding me? Those are the great American foodstuffs." Cordelia grabbed an armful and dumped them into the pile they were creating. Coming back, she gave Lindsey a look that made him feel for a moment as though she were reading every thought in his head. Her tone, however, held a note of reluctant respect rather than horror as she said, "You're good at this survival thing."

Lindsey shrugged, and the gesture was tighter than he would have liked. "Grew up in the country," he said. "Comes with the territory." Doubly so if you grew up in the country and happened to be piss-poor at the same time.

Cordelia either didn't hear the shortness in his tone or was choosing to ignore it. Lindsey's less charitable instincts, admittedly the majority, were pointing towards the latter. "Really? Where?"

"Oklahoma." Lindsey stalked off towards the tents rather than look Cordelia in the face. "It was a long time ago." Cordelia took the hint, finally, and rustled some packages rather than follow him.

The tents were displayed at the far end of the store, giving him a good amount of time to calm down before he got there. Lindsey paused among the forest of nylon and canvas, resting his forehead against a shelf and feeling his jaw clench and unclench beyond his control. If Cordelia hadn't known where to find all his buttons before, she certainly did now. 'Way to put your weaknesses on parade, Lin.' Lindsey sighed and dragged his hand over his face, feeling the rasp of stubble against his palm. First chance that he got, he was picking up another razor to replace the one abandoned at Cordelia's apartment. Bad enough that eh was behind the wheel of his brother's hand-me-down truck again and watching his wardrobe make its return to t-shirts and jeans, there wasn't a power in the universe that could make him take up the time-honored McDonald tradition of going unshaven for days at a time. Not even an apocalypse.

Lindsey searched amongst the tents until he found one small enough to be set up without too much fuss and large enough to afford some measure of comfort. Finding the tent was easy, wrangling it down another matter entirely. Lindsey curled his remaining fingers into the seams of the cardboard, tugging it from the shelf and attempting to catch it in the crook of his bad arm as it fell. His aim was off and the edge of the box caught against flesh newly healed and unprepared for abuse. Pain like knitting needles being driven into his skin flared all the way into his shoulder. Lindsey jerked back and swore, bringing his box and several others besides onto the floor. The racket echoed through the aisles.

Though Cordelia had to have heard the commotion, she raised no cry of alarm or concern from the front of the store. The gratitude that Lindsey felt towards her for her discretion only made it worse. Frustration s thick it was choking rose in Lindsey's throat and he kicked at one of the boxes, relishing the dent he made and the way it skittered across the floor as though it were running from him. He panted, feeling for a moment as though the walls were trembling and about to fall in, and the vow made weeks before felt more like a noose than a lifeline.

Cordelia was kneeling by the supplies, her lips moving silently as she counted, when Lindsey returned several minutes later, a tent under his arm. She raised her eyes to him. The legitimate concern there nearly set Lindsey off all over again. "Hi." Her voice was so soft that Lindsey had to strain to hear it, threaded through with a terrible kindness.

The blood still pounded hot enough in Lindsey's ears to make reason a tenuous goal. He set the tent box down with exaggerated care. "I don't like to talk about what it was like at home."

Cordelia shrugged and returned her gaze to her counting. "No big deal." She was a better actress than most sources gave her credit for; the only thing that betrayed her was the line of tension in her neck. "When I was a kid, I wished I could run off to live in the country." She glanced up to catch the full force of Lindsey's stare. "No, really. I read Anne of Green Gables when I was, like, twelve. Puberty was much easier when I could fantasize about taking off and hiding whenever I had a fight with my parents." Cordelia flashed him a smile. "Until I discovered the joys of taking off across a mall with Daddy's AmEx, anyway."

Lindsey made a soft sound that was half snort, half reluctant laugh and, unbelievably, felt a measure of the tension bleeding out of him. "Anne was far too girly for me. Huck Finn all the way."

Cordelia's grin was dazzling enough to send an arrow straight into his gut. "Good to know I'm traveling with a frontiersman." She finished her counting. "I'm going to start tossing this stuff into the back of the truck."

"There are a few more things I need to grab, then I'll help you." Cordelia nodded and began to gather supplies into her arms. Lindsey watched for a moment, his nerves tingling with an odd note of anxiety. The old order of things had been swept away; it was the ultimate clean slate. He and Cordelia could simply bypass Lindsey's original plan altogether, head straight for Nebraska without any detours along the way. She could go right on believing in whatever it was she saw in him.

Except that nobody knew the power of a contract better than Lindsey did. He had promised the Dark Man a seer ('Dark Man, Walkin' Dude, Hardcase, he has many names, Lindsey, and you know that the only one which matters is damnation.'), and seer he would deliver to him. Anything that happened afterwards was none of Lindsey's concern.

Survival of the fittest, and Lindsey didn't think he was imagining the gorge that rose in his throat.

Bile wasn't the only thing that rose into Lindsey's esophagus when Cordelia's shriek rose from the front of the store. Lindsey forced his heart back down into his ribcage and sprinted through the aisles. He tried to tell himself that it had been 'Cordelia' and not 'Cordy' that he had mumbled beneath his breath in the first moments between panic and action.

Cordelia was sitting on the sidewalk outside the store, surrounded by glittering shards of glass like diamonds around a queen. Her expression completed the image of furious, injured royalty. Cordelia's breath came in pants and she was clutching the largest portion of glass in her hand. Ruby rivulets trickled, serpentine, down the skin of her wrist. Lindsey didn't think that she noticed. She jumped when she heard Lindsey's footsteps, scrabbling to her feet and dropping the glass as if she had caught herself holding something dead and half-rotted.

Cordelia started to swipe her hair back with her injured hand, grimaced, and dropped it back to her side. The drops of blood that splattered across her jeans gleamed very dark in the sunlight. "Son of a bitch," she spit, and Lindsey realized that emotional alchemy was already turning fear into anger. "Did you see that?"

"I was in the store," Lindsey said, drawing to a halt and giving her an once-over. Physically, the wound to her hand seemed to be the worst of it. Psychologically, he was not so sure, not after what she had done the night before. 'And it's none of your concern, anyway. Focus.'

"Tried to rob me." The sound of her laugh was reedy, bitter, and told Lindsey everything that he needed to know. "As if I have anything that he couldn't break into a store and get on his own." The corner of Cordelia's mouth was bleeding, but Lindsey decided that this would be a bad time to mention it. Cordelia stared at the stains on her jeans as if she had never seen anything like them before. "God, I hate this world." Her voice quavered for only a second before being overtaken by an ice that Lindsey was more familiar with in his own. The bruises on her throat had darkened to the color of twilight.

As soon as the chance presented itself, Lindsey picked up a handgun.

 

Cordelia understood now why there was so little chaos marking the streets.

Acres upon acres of gleaming metal stretched before them, covering the highway from bumper to bumper like steel cockroaches. Cordelia doubted that it was possible to wedge a bicycle between the vehicles, let alone Lindsey's truck. The stench of death that had been largely absent before was overpowering, sickly-sweet like rotting candy. Cordelia rolled down the window in case she needed to vomit.

"Jesus," Lindsey breathed from the driver's seat. His face had gone the color of raw linen.

"He doesn't seem terribly interested in us at the moment, no." Cordelia leaned out the window and craned her neck. "How far do you think it goes?"

Lindsey shrugged. The outburst of anger or disappointment that Cordelia was expecting from him had yet to make its appearance. "Miles, most likely." He imitated Cordelia's gesture in order to better see over the crush. "Looks like our golden boys in the military were doing more than just dealing with bodies. What do you want to bet there's a nice, far roadblock waiting for us up there? Or was?"

Cordelia slid back into the cab. "But that doesn't make any sense," she said. "Captain Trips was all over the national news, never mind how sanitized the stories were. Why go to the bother of enforcing a quarantine that they knew was going to be useless?"

"Sometimes it's not the secret that matters, but the act of keeping it," Lindsey said.

Cordelia pressed her lips into a thin line and didn't look at him. "Not everyone's like that."

Lindsey turned his head and smiled at her. When Lindsey smiled for the act itself rather than to cajole or wound, he was beautiful. Cordelia decided that she hadn't seen him smile that way nearly enough. "No," he said, "not all." There was a raspy note to his voice that made Cordelia's stomach muscles tighten. She looked away.

Silence fell across the cab. Lindsey took his hand off the steering wheel, running it through his hair and letting the breeze that came through the open windows tease the sweat off the back of his neck. Getting long. Holland would not approve. The corners of Lindsey's mouth quirked, threatening to turn into a grin that would destroy the careful picture of affability. Holland was an anonymous corpse moldering in the gutter while he, Lindsey, was alive and calling his own shots. That thought alone was nearly enough to jettison Lindsey's doubts straight into the grave along with the old man.

'I wouldn't call serving the hardcase calling your own shots.' Lindsey had been ignoring that purely interior voice for years. It was amazing how much easier it got with the passage of time.

"Now, what we have here is a problem," Lindsey said, allowing a hint of drawl to curl through his voice like honey through tea. "And I, for one, will choke before I spend another night in this city."

"Amen." Cordelia's face was uncertain as she said it, but a touch to the bruises on her neck smoothed out the wrinkles. She dropped her hand back into her lap.

"So what we need here is a solution." Lindsey remembered making this trip in reverse a decade before, armed with this truck, a scholarship, and a slit-eyed determination not to do it again. One of the few promises that he had managed to keep-to himself or anyone else-since leaving the red dirt behind him. Trips back home since then had been few and far between, made on increasingly plush airlines. Cordelia, still staring over the dead vehicles, missed the flat note in Lindsey's voice, certainly didn't catch the sagging in his face and shoulders. Reading choices or not, Cordelia was still a city girl. She didn't understand that Mother Nature had teeth and, without human wardens to maintain her crisscross muzzle of asphalt, metal, and plastic any longer, she was going to be far more eager to use them.

'He'll have to find another way,' Lindsey thought, not knowing if it was relief, fear, or defiance that straightened his spine. Most likely a combination of all three. 'He'll have to find someone else.' And Lindsey's lips crooked into a smile, far more bitter and real than the one that had charmed Cordelia moments before. Well, now. That changed the power dynamics a bit, didn't it?

The stone hanging beneath Lindsey's shirt, cool no matter how long it lay against his skin, became ice that bit and tore. Lindsey grit his teeth and bent over, clutching at the stone as its temperature dropped so fiercely that it felt as though the surrounding skin was going to slough off. A car horn flared. Lindsey barely heard it, and could not have said if it came from him leaning against the truck's or from somewhere else. Cordelia yelled his name.

'I want what I want what I want what I want.'

Cold became heat quickly enough to pull a hiss, cry of pain smothered too swiftly to escape as anything else, from his lips. It took Lindsey several more seconds to realize that the stone was as cool as it ever was, and only seemed warm now by comparison. Lindsey straightened, twigged to the fact that the car horn was being caused by his own forearm lying across the wheel, and pulled away. His ears rang in the stillness.

Cordelia looked over her shoulder at him, her eyes widened to nearly the size of hubcaps. There was a line between her eyes, a tension to her shoulders that hadn't been there seconds before. She held his gaze for long enough to make Lindsey wonder if he had spoken anything that he would regret before she turned away.

Or, more likely, she was concerned by the lemon yellow Hummer that had pulled up on the other side of the guardrail, the idling of its engine one of the only sounds breaking the afternoon. One of the largest men that Lindsey had ever seen honked the horn and waved at them. The cold that spread from Lindsey's scalp down into his shoes had nothing to do with amulets.

In other words, problem solved.

Cordelia broke off staring at the Hummer long enough to give him another look, her eyes clear and searching. Lindsey could see the questions that buzzed on her tongue, could just as clearly see himself giving her every one of the answers. .

'Do you hear that? I could spoil your party right now.'

If the conduit was still open, then the Dark Man didn't care enough to answer.

The man driving the Hummer, who resembled nothing so much as Santa Claus in late middle age, flung open the driver's door and scrambled down with the joy of a puppy. Cordelia slid out of the truck and went to meet him at a more sedate pace, her back stiff. Lindsey knew that the attacks of the last twenty-four hours had to be weighing heavily on her mind. Lindsey's hand trailed to the revolver, tucked between the seats with the safety on. Not like the hunting rifles that his daddy had taught him how to use by the time he entered middle school, but it didn't require two working hands. Lindsey's fingers lingered on the metal for a moment, then, reluctantly, he left it behind.

Santa Claus was grinning at Cordelia as if the very fact that she was alive and breathing made her the finest thing that he had ever seen. The smile didn't so much as flicker when he caught sight of Lindsey, but there was a shadow in the other man's eyes that Lindsey didn't like. He wondered how much of his movements had been visible before exiting the truck. "No need to be nervous," Santa Claus called. "There's two of you and one of me, ain't there?"

"That implies an interest in fighting fair. You'd be surprised how little that gets you." Lindsey could hear the drawl crawling back into his voice. He took a protective step towards Cordelia.

"Good point." Santa Claus shrugged the threat implicit in the words off like a dog shaking water from its coat. He looked at Lindsey's abrupt wrist and Cordelia's bruised neck in turn, a dry clinician's stare that catalogued rather than pitied. It jangled hard against the rest of him and made Lindsey's adrenal glands tingle. "Though it looks like the two of you have been playing the odds for a while. I'm Whitney Horgan."

"Lindsey McDonald." It wasn't only his injury that kept Lindsey from extending his hand in introduction. He and Cordelia were standing closer to one another than ever. Lindsey was reminded of dogs that he had seen that afternoon, waving their tails in slow, stiff greetings as the truck had driven past but unwilling to approach.

"Excellent!" Whitney wasn't going to take no for an answer on the business of shaking hands, and he only hesitated over the mechanics of it for a moment. Whitney grinned the entire time, while Lindsey had to struggle to do the same. It wasn't until he noticed the small bulge beneath Whitney's shirt that he understood why.

Whitney turned towards Cordelia after he released Lindsey, his smile turning into something that could have fooled the best politician. "Cordelia Chase," Cordelia said in cultured tones, extending her right hand. "Pleased to meet you." Polite formality made it impossible to gauge her emotions.

If Whitney noticed, then he did not care. He glanced back and forth between the two of them, regaining some of his ebullient expression. "From the way the two of you were staring at that interstate as though it was the last drink of water and you came to the party short a glass, I'm guessing you want to head east."

"That's right," Cordelia said. "Nebraska."

Whitney glanced at Lindsey. "Well, Stephanie-Ann and I are only going as far as Las Vegas, but we can certainly take you that far. Who knows, you might decide that it's more to your liking than cornfields."

Cordelia curved her lips into a polite smile. "I think we're pretty dead-set on Nebraska, actually. But if you can get us as least part of the way across the desert..." She glanced towards Lindsey, eyebrow raised. He schooled his face into lines of absolute neutrality. Let his decision, at least, not be left up to him, and he would let it serve him as a sign.

Cordelia turned back to Whitney. "We'd be delighted to."

Whitney's grin turned up another notch; Lindsey thought that he was in danger of hurting himself. "I guess you both know how lonely it's been since this whole thing started," he said, helping them as they began to transfer their belongings from one vehicle to the other. Lindsey pulled the bullets from the gun and shoved it to the bottom of his pack before handing it off. "Outside of meeting Stephanie-Ann last week, you two are the first pair that I've seen to still remember that you're people."

"What do you think caused it?" Cordelia asked.

"The plague, you mean?" Whitney set a duffel bag full of canned goods down at his feet and straightened. The affability bled out of his face, and in its absence Lindsey could see the man who would wear Flagg's stone. He wondered if he appeared the same, what the hell Cordelia was doing with him if that was the case. "God, the Devil, simple evolution, maybe. Hell, the Black Death and the Ebola virus both popped up their nasty little heads without any outside tinkerings. But I'm betting level money on the government." Whitney shielded his eyes with his hand and nodded towards the point on the horizon where the cars converged into a single dot. "Before the press got slapped with a collective muzzle, there were reports coming in of whole cities being quarantined at gunpoint, as if it weren't so far out of control by then that nothing short of massive genetic shift was going to put a halt to it. I'll bet you the Hummer and everything in it that we'll find just that kind of quarantine attempt going on down there. People don't try that hard to keep a secret unless they're the ones that caused it in the first place." Whitney's face darkened further; the expression of grim determination reminded Lindsey of Angel. "Frankly, the think-tank that got careless with their plague jars and managed to think the whole world straight into the bone yard had better be glad that they're dead. 'Cause I'm not in the mood to be nearly so kind as Captain Trips."

Lindsey glanced towards Cordelia, expecting a protest. Her face was troubled, but her eyes were flinty. Cordelia didn't say a word.

The kindness came back into Whitney's face like dawn gliding over the horizon. "Good thing I didn't decide to go into politics, huh?" he asked, helping them carry the last of their things away from the truck. Lindsey's eyes widened as he opened up the Hummer's cargo area. Whitney had paid a visit to a gas station sometime before the electricity had gone: covering every inch of available floor space were cans upon cans of gasoline. He glanced towards Whitney, who said only, "She doesn't run on water, you know." Lindsey nodded and loaded up the last of their gear, trying not to stare too much at the bulge beneath Whitney's shirt. He wondered if Whitney was doing the same to him.

There was a small, fluffy blonde sleeping in the front seat, looking very much like the puppy that Whitney's mannerisms strove so hard to imitate. Whitney lowered his voice to a whisper as they climbed inside, though if Lindsey's honking hadn't woken her earlier, then a normal-pitched conversation wasn't likely to. "Stephanie-Ann. The Hummer was her brother's." Whitney gave the steering wheel a fond pat. Lindsey saw Cordelia lean forward to avoid resting her back against the seats.

 

The deadlocked traffic lasted for more than fifteen miles. It seemed as though every soul that had still been well enough to attempt an escape from the city had done so at one point or another. The reek of death in the air was nearly thick enough to touch, seeping through the air-conditioning and swirling around them like a wraith. There was no way that Cordelia and Lindsey could have made it without abandoning the truck and landing themselves in more trouble than they were walking away from. The Hummer, by virtue of being road-optional, trundled along easily. "Guess someone was really looking out for you guys," Whitney called over his shoulder.

'Someone certainly was,' Lindsey thought. He decided then that he didn't like Lindsey very much.

A coyote jumped eagerly at the open window of one of the cars, getting a few inches closer with each panting effort. The animal threw the Hummer a disinterested glance as it trundled by before renewing its task with vigor. Lindsey looked away to avoid the moment when it succeeded, only to lock eyes with Cordelia. She held Lindsey's gaze for only an instant before she went back to watching the animal, her face a blank marble mask.

Towards the back of the traffic jam, al of the dead were victims of the plague. At its origin the story took a very different turn. Bodies hung halfway out of the car windows and stretched out across the pavement, savaged by both animals and the elements. The damaged was not so severe that it hid the lack of Captain Trip's tell-tale black swellings on many of the corpses. Bullets holes told a tale all their own.

"My God," Cordelia whispered, her voice beginning to quiver. Lindsey turned and saw that what he had mistaken for tears was some of the rawest anger that he had ever seen. Cordelia's face blazed with it. "How could they do such a thing?" Cordelia's voice rose towards a shout, causing Stephanie-Ann to turn over and mumble in her sleep. Whitney glanced at them through the rearview mirror but said nothing. "Half of these people looked like they were immune!"

"Cordelia." Lindsey put his hand on her arm. "You're beginning to yell."

"Maybe someone needs to." Cordelia lowered her voice, but her eyes continued to gleam with emotion. It was like sitting next to a small sun. "They were supposed to be protecting people, not lining up to join in the slaughter." They rolled slowly pas the killers. From the look on Cordelia's face, it was a struggle not to roll down the window and spit. In marked contrast to the civilian corpses, only one or two of the military showed evidence of a violent death. Lindsey surmised that they had been the isolated few who had stood up in favor of their humanity. He struggled to imagine what that was like.

"The world tends to stop being black and white when you stop being a Champion," Lindsey said, watching as a crow fluttered down to land on the body of a young man. The bird cawed and hopped towards the eyes.

"Tell me you're not defending this!" Cordelia's voice was more than shocked; it was betrayed.

Lindsey turned away from the window, leaving behind the corpses and his reflection. "Of course not," he said, adopting the friendly, confident tone that he had worn closer than skin for the past two weeks. "I'm just saying...these men were scared. By the time people began trying to flee the city, the situation up top had probably gotten really bad. Orders coming through intermittently when they came through at all, CO's dropping like flies...they clung to the ones that were the most familiar."

"The fact that shooting civilians was the most familiar doesn't work as a mark in their favor," Cordelia said, flicking a disgusted look over him. It was the same look that she had given him when had showed up on her doorstep, one that he thought he was well on the way to never seeing again. It was kissing cousins to the look of contempt that Angel had worn the first time that Lindsey had walked into his office and every meeting between them since. Lindsey felt the old fury rising in his cheeks and looked away so that Cordelia would not see it in his eyes. Familiarity wrapped him in its comfortless cocoon.

 

"If I could take it all back, think again."
-Nickelback, "Breathe"

Luck was on their side and the group found a town to stop in for the night. The silent cadavers of buildings, quiet soldiers bearing dark gifts, unsettled everyone but Whitney. He went so far as to begin whistling a pop tune as he and Lindsey wandered the town for wood that could be broken up and burned. A low throbbing had set up shop in Lindsey's temples, and he wished that Whitney would stop.

"I've been outside of cities a grand total of five times in my life," Whitney told Lindsey, pausing to test some tree branches before deciding they were too green, "and each time I couldn't pass the minutes fast enough until I was back in one. Country-western singers can keep their wide open spaces."

Lindsey nodded, staring out at the wide expanse of desert that peeked through the holes of civilization. A breeze moved through the forlorn grass almost as it would wheat, and Lindsey felt a wave of homesickness that was as powerful as it was an intrusion.

"So, how much is the woman worth?" There were no words in Lindsey's vocabulary to catalogue how wrong the words sounded coming from Whitney's gentle, you-can-trust-me face. It was like watching a Madonna prepare to devour her own child. Lindsey stared, and Whitney's face split into a grin that suggested a belly laugh would soon be on its way. "Stephanie-Ann and I have been having the dreams, too. If your girl's determined to head towards that black bitch across the mountains then she ain't one of the Walkin' Dude's." Whitney touched the stone lying against the center of his own chest. "And there are quicker ways to get to Nebraska than by going through Vegas."

Lindsey shielded his eyes from the setting sun and stared back in the direction of the vehicle. Back-lit by the disappearing light, Cordelia and Stephanie-Ann were rendered into anonymous silhouettes. "Cordelia has...talents that make her unique," Lindsey said, turning back to Whitney. Secrets. "Beyond that, I don't make a habit of asking questions with irrelevant answers."

Whitney's grin turned salacious and Lindsey's hand curled into a fist. "I'll bet. Guess the Walkin' Dude's not so different from other men, after all."

The house before them had the kind of white picket fence rarely seen outside of Norman Rockwell paintings. The picturesque occupants and their 2.3 kids were likely moldering inside; at any rate, Lindsey didn't see them. The wind or passing vandals had knocked a portion of the fence down, so that pieces lay scattered across the dying lawn like teeth after a barroom brawl. Lindsey turned the pickets into a mental image of Whitney's white, oft-showed teeth, pictured how easily they would explode from his mouth like confetti with one good swing of a fencepost. Lindsey bent over and gathered a few pickets into his arms. He had done worse things.

Lindsey straightened, handing the wood off to Whitney. "You can carry it better than I," he said by way of explanation. He had done better things, too, and none of them involved pissing off a master with the ability to invade minds.

Whitney accepted the wood with no knowledge of how close he had come to being beaten with it. "Man, I thought the plague was bad," he said. "But then the dreams started, of that woman. Old bat was scary as hell. She have that effect on you, too?"

"Yes." The ache had moved from Lindsey's temples to behind his eyes, sharp little ice pick jabs into his brain.

"The Walkin' Dude, though." Whitney's breath made a whistling noise as he sucked it between his teeth. "Going to be a whole 'nother story once we get onto his turf. Not at all like the old bitch. She yelled about weasels every fucking time I dreamed of her, like a goddamned broken record."

'They both scare the hell out of me.' Lindsey flashed Whitney a glitter-diamond smile and said, "Why don't you do me a favor and shut up?"

Whitney's wounded expression came too quickly to be wholly real. The monster that lay beneath was exposed to the light and gone again before Lindsey could be sure that it was real. "Easy there, Lin." Lindsey's eyes narrowed, but he held himself still. "There's no need to work yourself into a fit." Whitney's lips quirked. "We'll be in Vegas tomorrow. Smooth sailing after that."

Lindsey gathered the wood and said nothing.

 

Cordelia listened to Stephanie-Ann with half an ear as the older woman bounced around, picking up cans, scanning the ingredients, and then setting them down again, fretting all the while about the lack of fresh food. Cordelia's offers to help had been rebuffed with a quick, "We all have our coping mechanisms. I'm afraid cooking's mine," and now her primary task was to marvel at a level of domestic energy that made her tired just to watch. Stephanie-Ann had awoken as the Hummer was pulling to a halt for the night and hadn't stopped moving since. She was a lot like Whitney in that regard, and in other, less quantifiable ways. Being in her company made Cordelia's spine go cold at odd moments, all the more troubling because she could not figure out why, much the way Lindsey had when he had first showed up on her doorstep. The way that, if she was going to be perfectly honest with herself, he still could with a careless word or gesture. A line appeared between Cordelia's eyes and something tingled at the edge of her mind, darting away when she tried to grasp for it.

Stephanie-Ann ceased her monologue long enough to pick up a final can, sigh, and say, "Ravioli it is, then."

"Did you guys pack any bowls?" Cordelia asked. "Lindsey and I didn't."

Stephanie-Ann flashed her a smile that nearly succeeded at being charming. Would have succeeded, if it were not for the low-level unease that was escaping its quarantine in Cordelia's spine and spreading through her entire body. "How do you feel about a little breaking and entering?"

'The same way I feel about walking into a tenanted coffin.' "'S not a problem." Cordelia hopped to her feet. "Be right back."

"Thanks." Stephanie-Ann switched from reading cans to organizing supplies, her brisk movements scarcely slowing down. 'Still something off,' Cordelia said. 'And I'd give anything to know what it is.' For the first time since the superflu-since her spectacular failure, if she really wanted to rip the bandage off-Cordelia wished that the Powers That Be would send her a vision.

Whitney and Lindsey approached camp, surrounded by coronas of dying light. The shadows were not so thick, however, that they hid Whitney's customary grin. Cordelia got a bad feeling whenever she saw that monochromatic smile, matched only by her distrust of the man behind it. Mayor Wilkins had often worn a similar expression. Whitney had yet to show any hint of scales, but they didn't have to be on the outside.

Lindsey trailed a few steps behind Whitney, appearing distracted and irritable. A good portion of that was likely self-consciousness about his hand-Whitney was the only one carrying firewood-but there was something else coiled beneath the surface, waiting and running its tongue across its teeth. Something that made the roof of Cordelia's mouth go dry and her heart change rhythms. She hadn't grown up in a town that boasted more vampires, demons, and man eating snakes than a girl could shake a stake at without developing a certain sense for when ugliness was about to erupt across the surface. That sense had begun to do an excited jig in her belly and up and down her spine, complete with the occasional pirouhette.

Stephanie-Ann was speaking, but in her reverie Cordelia missed the words. "I'm sorry, what?"

"I asked if you had any lighter fluid in your pack. Whitney and I were so eager to be out that we completely forgot to bring any."

"I'll get some when I go for bowls," Cordelia said, barely glancing at her. She had begun walking off before Stephanie-Ann could answer. Lindsey halted as she approached, his face becoming marble. She hated it when he did that. Ignoring Whitney completely, Cordelia took Lindsey's arm and pulled him off to the side. "I need to talk to you." A light glance towards Whitney made the implication clear.

"Ah." Lindsey turned back towards Whitney. "I'll catch up with you in a minute."

"Sure." Whitney resumed his walk towards camp.

"What's wrong?" Lindsey waited until Whitney was out of earshot before asking, searching her face with eyes so blue they deserved a warning label. The look was earnest and kind, and if there was ever a moment when Cordelia hoped that her paranoia was way off the mark, it was this one.

"I want to leave," Cordelia told him, giving his face the same searching look that he was giving hers. "Tonight."

Confusion rippled across Lindsey's face, so close to being real. Cordelia began cursing herself for an idiot. "Leave?" he asked. "Why?"

"Call it bad mojo, woman's intuition, whatever," Cordelia said. "But I have a bad feeling about going through Vegas. For the both of us." She told herself that she wasn't throwing Lindsey a lifeline. She told herself that she didn't care one way or another if he took it.

The worry on Lindsey's face became the faux-confident look that made Cordelia want to clench her fists and scream. Anything at all could be going on behind his eyes when he wore that expression.

"Cordy, that's ridiculous," Lindsey said. "What are we going to do, take off with no vehicle and no supplies?"

"Someone's bound to have left their keys lying around," Cordelia argued. "This town's full of cars, and there are plenty of other routes to Nebraska. Faster routes, even." Bingo. A shadow passed over Lindsey's eyes, and what had previously been guesswork based upon gut feeling became ugly fact. "Would you quit lying to me already?"

Was that betrayal that glowed in Lindsey's eyes, white-hot, before being smothered? Cordelia was too busy dealing with her own to tell. "Cordy-" Lindsey began.

"If this is the choice you're going to make," Cordelia said, measuring out each word and injecting it with a malice that surprised her, because she had thought herself beyond it, "then I don't think you should call me 'Cordy'. That's only for people that I trust." Bitter, savage stress upon the word, and it scorched her tongue to say it. "I'm not stupid, Lindsey. I've heard you muttering in your sleep. I was only hoping that you weren't stupid, either. Yay, Dark Man, huh?" Lindsey leaned back, just by a fraction, and Cordelia realized that it was the first time that she had spoken his name (one of them, anyway; Cordelia had the feeling that he was the sort of creature with a moniker for every occasion) out loud. Doing so felt good, like it reclaimed her power over him. Cordelia decided to do so as often as possible from there on out. "I watched how you and Whitney reacted the first time you saw each other, and I noticed that each one of you wears one of these." Cordelia snatched at the chain hanging around Lindsey's neck. He caught her wrist, too slow; the stone hung between them, a black accusation.

"Nice." Lindsey was gripping her wrist hard enough to leave bruises on the skin. Cordelia was riding on emotion too high to notice until later. Her voice sounded as though it were coming to her from a great distance and she had the feeling that if she wasn't yelling yet, she would start soon. "Someone really needs to tell this Dark Man that giving all of his bootlickers identical necklaces? Only slightly smarter than making them get matching tattoos. Does Stephanie-Ann have one, too, or this a boys club?"

"Cordelia, you're talking nonsense." But there was a hollowness to Lindsey's words, as if he knew that she was beyond convincing. He reached out to touch her shoulder, and Cordelia slapped his hand away.

"Nope, I think I'm making sense for the first time since I let you into my apartment instead of kicking your ass all the way back to the curb." Cordelia made her tone casual, sweet enough to cut even though she was so angry that her vision had begun to throb at the edges. "Should've known that you wouldn't waste any time in jumping from one pit of evil into another." Cordelia's snort was as weary as it was disgusted. "Beats taking a stand and thinking for yourself, doesn't it? The saddest thing is, I thought for a while that you might be a better man than that."

Lindsey's eyes were dark and grim, his expression the same one at the end of her tirade as it had been at the beginning. "And that," he said, "is where you made the biggest mistake of all."

 

Lindsey said nothing to anyone as he and Cordelia walked back into camp, taking a seat on the Hummer's bumper and running a hand over his haggard face. His eyes stared out at everything and took in none of it.

Cordelia was thick with the kind of sympathy that wasn't.

She hovered over her bedroll, not trusting herself to look Lindsey in the eye without bringing on a screaming harpy explosion but rating her chances of maintaining her temper with Stephanie-Ann and Whitney even less. Especially Whitney.

Cordelia folded her arms over her breasts, staring through the gaps in the coffin-houses to the desert that lay beyond. The Dark Man was in Las Vegas. The Dark Man wanted her in Las Vegas. No good could come of this. She was outnumbered and, due to her fantastic rant session, the bad guys knew that she was on to them. 'Now that I think about it, maybe not the best plan that I've had today.' Cordelia turned her eyes towards the sky. "Kinda flying blind here," she whispered, unsure if she was speaking to the Powers That Be, and old woman across the mountains, or both. "So any time you want to send a vision my way, I'm all brain cells."

The brain cells were silent. Cordelia sighed and dropped her arms back to her sides. In other words, time for her to take her destiny back into her own hands.

 

The fire had burned down into embers before Lindsey was able to nudge himself over the line into sleep. He tried to tell himself that he was making sure that Cordelia didn't run off, knew it to be a lie even before the sentence completed itself. If she tried, he wasn't sure that he would stop her.

The Dark Man-Randall Flagg, he was named, though Lindsey could not have said how he knew this any more than he could have said how he knew that he was also called the hard case-came to him immediately.

"What do you know. I had my doubts about you, I'll speak plain and honest about that, but you came through in the end."

"Guess I did." The bitterness hung in the air long after the words themselves had faded. Lindsey looked around him, taking in cornstalks that stood high all around them, making a sound not unlike the hissing of snakes as a night breeze moved through them. The plants were dead or dying, corn falling to the ground in rotting clumps. The hot, nearly sweet smell reminded Lindsey of an aging jungle.

"Where are we?" he asked, turning towards Flagg. Discretion made him avert his eyes towards the ground at the last second. His mouth twisted, but it wasn't enough to make him raise his gaze.

Flagg chuckled. The sound was high-pitched, almost a giggle. "We're in the carnival, of course. My carnival, and all the rides are ready to roll." He giggled again, producing a sound like glass on steel. A hand that was too cold and soft to be alive stroked Lindsey's cheek, so gentle and so soft. The skin slid about on the bone like an ill-fitting glove. Lindsey fought an extended battle with his gag reflex and won, barely. "I know you've been dreaming about that nigger bitch, Lindsey. I know the treats she's been trying to lure you away from my party with." Holland's voice had sounded like that, kind and reasonable and above all regretful, before he had ordered Lee killed. Lindsey imagined that he could feel the blood splattering against his cheek all over again.

A second later Lindsey yelled and jumped sideways, because he could feel it, as real as the dying corn and hot enough to blister. The pain was as brief and intense as orgasm, shocking Lindsey into forgetting who he was conversing with. He raised his eyes.

Flagg beamed at him, looking far less like a devil and more like a man than Lindsey would have liked. His hair was brown and wild, framing a face that could be forgotten in seconds at the same time that it would leave an impression for life. When he smiled, he revealed teeth that were very even and very white. "Expecting one of your demons, Lindsey?" he asked.

"It crossed my mind," Lindsey said, scanning Flagg for the trick, the zipper, the red eyes hiding beneath the hazel-colored contacts. "Deals with the devil seem to be my specialty, after all."

Flagg laughed, making the starlight bounce off the dozens of buttons on his jacket. Vertebra by vertebra, the solidity returned to Lindsey's spine. "That's my boy," he said, putting his arm around Lindsey's shoulders, where it burned hotter than blood. It was so easy to forget how cold it had been moments before. "All you have to do is give me the woman, and then I can give you everything else." Flagg took the fingers of Lindsey's hand-his right hand, clean and pink and whole, and with the corn disintegrating around him he had no way if he was imagining the reek that rose from the flesh-and closed them around the stone that hung from Lindsey's neck. When he allowed Lindsey to open his fist again, a small red flaw glittered in the center of the black. "Small price, after all."

Flagg led him away through his decaying carnival, and though Lindsey listened hard, he couldn't hear the faintest twang of a guitar.

 

Lindsey jumped awake, going from flat on his back to sitting up before his eyes had time to fully open. For the first time since the onset of the superflu, there was no sweat slicking his temples. Cordelia twitched in her sleep, rolling over and issuing a liquid murmur of nonsense syllables, and Stephanie-Ann appeared to be having an outright nightmare. Beyond that the camp was silent, even the insects cowed quiet. Lindsey watched Cordelia battle Flagg in her own mind, wondering what kept her from taking the chances for escape that presented themselves, slim though they might be. Meanwhile, the stone around his neck shivered like a live thing. Lindsey pulled it out from beneath his shirt, holding it up to the starlight. There was no red flaw in the center.

But there would be someday, that and so much more if he could just do this one thing, this small thing. All the old religions required sacrifice of one sort or another, and the gesture was often more important than the belief.

Lindsey lay back and stared at the stars.

 

The corn was thick and lush, so close to harvest time that the heads had begun to droop towards the ground. Cordelia took in deep lungfuls of the unique perfume. Her family, she decided, had not taken nearly enough visits to the Midwest while they had the chance.

"Hello, child."

The voice came without any rustle of stalks to mark its owner's approach, and Cordelia jumped. She broke into an embarrassed laugh when she saw that it was only Mother Abigail. "You scared me."

For the first time that Cordelia could remember, no gentle smile graced Mother Abigail's face. The deep, weather beaten lines seemed harsher without gaiety lying beneath them, and they lent Mother Abigail an aura of power that Cordelia couldn't begin to fathom. "It's going to be getting dangerous from here on out, Cordelia Chase," she said.

'It wasn't before?' Cordelia wondered, but thought it wisest to keep her silence.

Her eyes glittering with sorrow and something that may have been the beginnings of anger, Mother Abigail continued, "I had hoped that he would choose better than this. I suppose there's no fool like an old fool."

"Lindsey's fun Stockholm games had me convinced, too," Cordelia said, feeling the hot ball in her stomach being lessened a few inches by commiseration. "He's good at showing people what they want to see."

"A waste of a fine mind." Mother Abigail made a shivering motion, as if she were physically throwing off her disappointment. "But no matter. Whatever vengeance God does not mete out, mankind is always more than willing to provide. Lindsey McDonald is not the reason that we're here." Though none of the kindness faded away, a skewer developed in Mother Abigail's eyes. "We're here about you, Cordelia Chase. You've been floating along, letting the world turn you this way and that 'stead of the other way around. That ain't the woman that you were meant to be."

"Can we talk some more about why Lindsey sucks? 'Cause I think I liked that part better, actually," Cordelia said. Mother Abigail intensified her look. "Okay, point made. With the coasting comes the badness."

"The devils imp wants you, Cordelia." Mother Abigail lifted her hands up, carefully cradling Cordelia's head between them. They felt strong enough to hold up the world, even as the skin over them was stretched as thin as cellophane. "For what you have here. The power."

"My visions," Cordelia whispered. She shook her head until Mother Abigail pulled away. "I haven't had a vision since the plague began-and that one was hardly what I would call an overwhelming success, I might add. The Dark Man's wasting his time on a dead battery. The Powers don't care."

"The ways of God are different from the ways of man, and aren't always for those of us trapped on earth to understand." Mother Abigail ignored Cordelia's arched eyebrow. She leveled her finger at Cordelia's face. "The Imp, now, his desires read loud and clear. Unless you want to get swallowed up by them, you'd best get to standing your ground." Cordelia was silent as Mother Abigail took her elbow, leading her deeper into the forest of corn. The leaves whispered as they passed, masking the sound of Mother Abigail's urgent words.

 

Cordelia awoke with a gasp and a jolt, staring about at the campground. Everyone was asleep save for her, even Lindsey. She lay back down in her bedroll, staring up at stars that for the first time in weeks seemed to be winking at rather than mocking her, and allowed herself a delighted peal of laughter.

 

"Here comes the payoff.
What are you made of?
You're empty,
You're hollow,
You're sinking fast."
-Econoline Crush, "Sinking"

Lindsey's mood was foul enough the next morning to discourage all conversation, though Stephanie-Ann at least gave it an honest attempt. She fell into a sullen silence when her innocent inquiry into how Lindsey had slept earned her a barely human snarl. Whitney and Cordelia did not even bother to try.

Cordelia, by marked contrast, was buoyant to the point that Whitney asked her about it. His manner remained as friendly and slightly suffocating as the day before; Lindsey, apparently, had not told him that Cordelia now understood that she was no more than goods to be delivered. There were implications there, powerful ones, but Cordelia had neither the time nor the inclination to analyze them. She stretched her face into an Oscar-winning smile instead, setting down her coffee cup to hide how badly her fingers were trembling to dump the scalding liquid over Whitney's head.

"What's not to be happy about?" Whitney slanted his eyes to indicate the empty town around them. Cordelia shrugged her shoulders and put on an expression of regret. "And there's not a thing that I can do about that. I'm not going to waste my brain space worrying about the things that I can't change." Lindsey, sitting a few feet away, made the smallest of involuntary movements. Cordelia pursed her lips into a line for a second, the only sign that she gave of noticing. "Besides, I've always wanted to go to Las Vegas. Do you think it lives up to its reputation?"

Something of a death's head flickered through Whitney's eyes, only for a moment. Cordelia got the impression of cockroaches scuttling away from the light. "Lost Wages or Sin City?"

"Both."

Whitney returned her grin. "Baby, I sure hope so." He returned to packing up the gear. Cordelia whished that there was a shower that she could stand under.

"You didn't run." Lindsey's voice was coming from just beyond her shoulder, raspy/dangerous and falsely warm, like whiskey going down the throat. Given the amount of muttering that he had done in his sleep the night before, Cordelia wasn't surprised. She didn't turn her head to look up at him.

"I'm not the running type." Cordelia picked up her coffee mug and drained it before pouring herself a fresh cup. "Besides, there's a nice old lady who would like me to deliver a message for her."

"Cordelia, I'm-"

"You have no idea how much I want to beat your head in with the coffeepot," Cordelia interrupted in a chirpy voice that didn't match the gleam in her eyes. "Might want to think about that before you begin offering up meaningless apologies." She still couldn't look at him. "You are not sorry, Lindsey, and that stone still around your neck is the proof of it. I hope that Flagg," Cordelia spit the name out as though it were a bullet, "gave you your silver in advance, 'cause guys like him? Tend not to be big on the keeping of promises." Cordelia slammed the mug down hard enough to shatter the bottom out, showering the earth with steaming coffee, and stalked off to help Whitney. Lindsey stared down at the half-moons of scarlet that had welled up in his palm.

 

They were in Las Vegas before noon. Whitney and Stephanie-Ann's chatter grew in volume and diminished in content, nervousness that they wouldn't admit to swirling around them thick enough for any outsider to see. How much they actually knew Cordelia was unsure of, but she was willing to bet that it was a significant chunk. Lindsey himself was silent and impassive, staring at her with eyes that reflected back only what Cordelia put there. She pretended that he was nothing more than an ugly lawn statue, one that she would be smashing with a hammer as soon as the opportunity presented itself. The fantasy, welcome distraction through it was, came a little too vividly for the strictest amount of comfort. Cordelia stared at her hands and imagined that she could still see blood there.

And then there was Flagg himself, seeming to fill up the road even though he was physically no different from any other man. Whitney could have run him over with no more than a twitch of his foot on the gas pedal. Gasps of varying volume rang out across the Hummer's interior, and Cordelia told herself that she had only looked away for a moment, that Flagg had a car and people with him and men didn't just appear out of the air. The cold prickle that had broken out along Cordelia's hairline belied rationalizations, telling her that the world had taken a change for the primal several weeks back and it was time that she got with the program if she wanted to survive to see the other side of it. 'Stand on your own two feet, girl. They're all that you can depend on in the end.' It wasn't real, but imagining Mother Abigail's voice was soothing all the same. Cordelia raised her chin and schooled her features into those of a queen as the Hummer rolled to a halt.

Lindsey's hand had barely touched her elbow before Cordelia jerked her arm away. "Cordy," Lindsey began, watching Whitney watching them in the rearview. The mirrored glass over his eyes lifted and then descended again too quickly for Cordelia to be sure of what she saw behind it. She forced her hand, slowly, to uncurl from its fist.

"I thought I told you not to call me that." Cordelia flashed him a politician's smile as she spoke, the kind that was really no more than an excuse to bare her teeth. "What, are you afraid that I'm going to embarrass you in front of your new boss? Don't worry, Lindsey. I'll be a good girl." She stepped down from the Hummer unaided, with the grace of royalty.

Flagg was there before Cordelia's feet had touched the ground, with that eerie sense of both moving and not that he had used when appearing in the middle of the road. Ooh, and from the moment his skin touched hers, Cordelia knew that all the girl power in the world wasn't going to control the deluge of sweat that ran down her spine and into the waistband of her jeans.

"Here's the lady of the hour!" Flagg exclaimed, grabbing her hand before she could gather her wits enough to pull back. He was wearing the sort of expression that was unsafe to leave small children alone with. "The very woman that I've been waiting for! And I hope, I truly, duly hope, that the trip wasn't too difficult for you?"

"Company could have been better." Cordelia's hand was returned to her. She resisted the urge to wipe it against her jeans. "Congratulations on a successful apocalypse, by the way."

Flagg displayed teeth that reminded Cordelia of bleached-out corn. "Not my apocalypse, cutie-pie," he said. If she survived this, Cordelia vowed, the next person to call her 'cutie-pie' was going to be in a world of hurt. Not that they wouldn't be, anyway, but she was retracting her warning shot. "All yours. I would never be so presumptuous as to claim an accomplishment that wasn't mine."

Cordelia took a page from Giles' book and directed her answer in the form of a glare.

Lindsey walked up wordlessly to stand behind Cordelia's shoulder; she only knew that he was there by the nod that Flagg directed towards him. "Down to the very letter of the law," Flagg said. "I always knew the jokes about lawyers weren't true." Cordelia refused to turn around and view Lindsey's satisfaction.

"How long?" she asked Flagg, and didn't need to elaborate in order for both of them to understand.

"The entire time." Lindsey's tone was calm, cultured. He could have been ordering drinks or an execution.

Cordelia turned around at last. If her eyes narrowed any further she wasn't going to be able to see. "You're scum." Lindsey's lips curved into the faintest of smiles. He had brought his jacket out of the vehicle with him, though Cordelia didn't know why. It was already blistering. She took a deep breath and focused very hard on not hitting him instead. Unfortunately, this brought about the immediate problem of keeping herself from hitting Flagg.

The wider Flagg grinned, the less his teeth looked like chips of corn and the more they began to look like the teeth of a rodent, something small and dank that scurried and fed on the flesh of fallen predators. A rat or a ferret...or a weasel. The knot of infant terror that Cordelia was keeping locked away in her stomach contracted, pushed to the side by a dangerous bubble of laughter.

The amusement dropped off Flagg's face like the sun disappearing behind a cloud, leaving behind a petulant almost-child in the negative space that remained. Cordelia had the feeling that she wouldn't like this toddler's tantrums, though. "What is it?" Flagg snapped.

And yet, she just couldn't seem to help herself. "Have you ever been to Nebraska?" Cordelia asked, her voice candy-shop sweet. "There are some people out there who would love to meet you. They have the neatest ways of exterminating vermin."

Flagg's eyes were brittle and cold, promising all measure of payment later on. "Lloyd," he called over his shoulder, "do me a big favor and make sure that Cordy here gets to my office safe and sound. We're going to having ourselves a nice little palaver after I take care of some business here."

A young man, slight of build and the with the sort of lank blond hair that was always going to look as if it were in need of a good shampooing, stepped forward. Around his neck was a stone identical to the ones worn by Whitney and Lindsey, save for the fact that his had a key-shaped flaw set into its center. His fingers as they touched Cordelia's elbow were oily and nearly apologetic. "Ma'am," he said in a voice that had only stopped cracking a few years before, "if you'd come this way." A car with tinted windows idled at the curb. If Cordelia got inside, she knew that her chances of making it out of Las Vegas were going to dwindle so small as to become nonexistent.

A soft weight settled around Cordelia's shoulders. She whirled on Lindsey, raising her hand to knock off the jacket that he had the gall to drape around her shoulders as if they were a couple on a date. Lindsey caught her wrist, ducking his head until his lips were millimeters from her ear. "Just take the fucking jacket, okay?" His breath was hot against her skin and panic twirled through his voice like smoke. The lopsided weight of the jacket, however, was very real.

Cordelia's eyes widened in realization, and oh god Flagg was watching, there was no way that he hadn't seen-Lindsey leaned in closer, blocking Flagg's view of her face. His mouth covered hers before she could pull away.

As far as kisses went, it suffered from being hot and panicky on both sides, and oh yeah, the minor detail of Lindsey turning into her own personal Benedict. For shocking Cordelia back into her senses, though, it worked like a charm. The cracking noise made by Cordelia's hand across Lindsey's face was louder even than the sound of the car's engine, and the second one was even better. Lindsey rocked back, grinning, and the sunlight glinted off the silver chain around his neck. Cordelia dragged her hand across her mouth and spit onto the pavement.

"I have a thing for damsels in distress," Lindsey told Flagg. His tone was cruel. "Going to get me in trouble someday."

"Won't be finding many of those here." Those teeth again, and a shudder ran down Cordelia's spine. Flagg nodded towards Lloyd, who stepped forward again and took Cordelia's arm. Cordelia pulled her jacket closer around her and went, glancing back just once.

Flagg had his arm thrown around Lindsey's shoulder in a brotherly gesture, mouth angled so that he could speak directly into Lindsey's ear. Lindsey had his head dipped to listen, but his eyes flicked up to meet Cordelia's. Of his performance now or the one that he had been playing out over the past few weeks, Cordelia could honestly not say which one was better.

 

"Baby girl, stand up and fight
This is not some paradise
Oh, it's just where we live."
Our Lady Peace, "Story About a Girl"

Lloyd, as it turned out, was not a conversationist. He answered all of Cordelia's rapid-fire questions with grunts, his hands clenched tightly enough on the steering wheel to turn his knuckles into pearls. 'I am ditz, hear me roar,' Cordelia thought, watching a muscle in Lloyd's cheek jump. She only wished that the panic were more feigned on her part.

"So, evil," Cordelia said, injecting a special viciousness into her tone. "That seems to be working well for you guys."

Lloyd took his eyes off of the road long enough to flick a glance over her. Rather than being smug, his expression was tense and even a little pitying. "Lady," he said, "if I were you I'd shut up and save my voice. You're going to be talking your ass off soon enough."

Cordelia slid her hand, hidden from Lloyd's sight by the rest of her body, into the pocket of Lindsey's jacket. The tips of her fingers brushed against cool, slightly oily metal. 'Probably not even loaded,' Cordelia thought, her mouth twisting for a moment before she regained control of herself. It counted for something that Lindsey had given it to her, but after landing her in a mess of life-threatening proportions Cordelia wasn't sure what. Possibly a high-heeled kick to the kneecaps instead of the head.

If Flagg had the ability to sense lies, then Cordelia found that she still had it within her to hope that he killed Lindsey quickly.

She had been silent for too long. Lloyd's guard was going to be going back up. Cordelia cleared her throat, turning in her seat so that she could face Lloyd more fully. Her fingers parted from the gun with great reluctance. "Why are you here?" Cordelia asked, wishing that it was someone else she was asking. "The big evil? Typically not known for being the most stable taskmasters on the planet."

She didn't get a glance this time, but an outright stare that lasted until Lloyd was in danger of driving off the road. He swore and corrected himself. "You gotta be kidding me."

'That hit a nerve. What do you know, he has some.' "Nope, not so much." Cordelia lifted an eyebrow and gave Lloyd a critical once-over. "If the best you can get for your soul out of this guy is a car and a half-way decent suit, then I'd be petitioning for a refund."

A lazy smirk slid across Lloyd's face. He was too young for it. "Flagg's been saying you were part of some kind of truth, justice, and the American way army back in Los Angeles. Is that true?"

'Hardly an army,' Cordelia thought, but nodded anyway. "Yes."

The smirk was chased away, so that Lloyd could replace it with an outright smile. It was like watching a snake twist across his face. "And how's that army doing now?" He didn't wait for an answer before he pushed on. "See, the thing about you white hats is that you get up in your little towers, making self-righteous plans, and forget about everyone who exists in the margins entirely. Now the margins are fighting back."

'You poor homely idiot.' If Cordelia felt any pity for him, then it was swallowed up by anger too quickly to matter. "Great. Your entire defense boils down to 'I'm doing it because the popular kids were mean to me.' Do you have any idea how pathetic that is?"

Lloyd laughed. "And yet, I'm the one driving the car and wearing the half-way decent suit. You really think that old broad in Nebraska is going to be able to take down Flagg?"

"I think that you flinch every time you talk about her, and for now that's good enough for me." Cordelia's hand slid back into the jacket, feeling the gun's weight against her palm. She was soothed by it as much as she was repelled. Cordelia flicked the safety off and coiled her finger around the trigger. "We popular kids might just be in the mood to come down from our tower and start rat hunting." Her voice sounded predatory and cruel to her own ears.

Lloyd appeared more annoyed than threatened. "It'll be quite a show either way, won't it?" He braked the car and cut the engine.

Cordelia, startled out of her thoughts and feeling her skin crawl with just how close she had come to actually shooting, looked out her window. Her lips parted. "Someone has a high opinion of themselves."

"The rent's cheaper than you would think." Lloyd exited the driver's side door, coming around to Cordelia's side and placing his hand beneath her arm to help her emerge. The stone he wore around his neck swung on its silver chain, nearly striking Cordelia in the cheek. It twisted, the flaw beginning to look more like an eye than a key. Something in Cordelia's mind snapped and she wrenched her arm out of Lloyd's grasp, never mind that she had to lose her grip on the weapon in order to do so. More of Flagg's followers were coming out of the building's entrance, watching her curiously. She wondered if Flagg had been making common knowledge of her, if she was quite the Cassandra that they had been expecting.

Lloyd straightened, arching his eyebrows at her, and just for a moment Cordelia glimpsed the man that Flagg saw. The baby-face veneer was already being worn away by hard use, like the gold plating on cheap jewelry.

Cordelia exited the car under her own power, barely deigning to look at Lloyd as he took her arm again. She wondered in Lloyd had a gun. She wondered if she should draw her own, and to hell with the crowd. Of all the things that Cordelia wondered, whether or not she would be able to pull the trigger no longer numbered among them.

Cordelia held her head high as she stepped into the lobby of the MGM Grand, now lowered into serving as headquarters for a creature that couldn't call himself human on a good day. Cool air chased the heat from her skin and Cordelia gasped, swiveling her head up to look at the bright, beautiful, and above all fully functioning fluorescent lights. "Electricity?" she gasped, forgetting for the moment that she was supposed to be doing stony and heroic.

Lloyd made a faint sound of amusement. Cordelia decided that it wasn't worth her energy to twist around and glare. "Generators," he said. "What, Mother Abigail hasn't thought of it?"

There was a fine line between bravery and stupidity, and she was walking tightly enough on it already. "Probably not," Cordelia looked over and at Lloyd and, self-admonishments or not, couldn't resist widening her eyes a bit. "Gosh, do you think if I sell my over my soul like you guys I can get a hot tub?"

"If I were you, I'd be more worried about what I was going to say than what I was going to get." Lloyd directed her to the elevators and Cordelia discovered that Flagg even had the tinny muzak up and running again. A truer evil never walked the earth. The gooseflesh on her arms lessened, just for a moment.

"Here," Lloyd said as the elevator came to a smooth halt at the top floor. Of course.

"Only the best," Cordelia murmured.

"Just tell Mr. Flagg what he wants to know," Lloyd told her before he allowed her to exit. "It'll be easier for you."

Cordelia, her mind already fixated on the world that awaited her ahead, had no time for eloquence. "Bite me." From the corner of her eye she saw an ugly, hungry look cross Lloyd's face. A vampire look. In all of his shades of rage and nastiness, she had never seen that look on Lindsey himself.

Not important now.

Cordelia strode past a lovely secretary's desk with a lovely print of 'Around the Fish' hanging above it. She was sure that the secretary herself was making a lovely corpse wherever her body had been dumped. Cordelia put her hand upon the door to the office beyond, twisted the knob, and came face to face to Randall Flagg himself.

'How the hell did he get up here so quickly?' Cordelia thought, as her eyes widened and her entire body felt as if it had been dipped in dry ice.

Flagg noted the reaction and smiled, his eyes taking on the light of a small child's when they had a big secret that they couldn't wait to tell. "Thank you, Lloyd," he called over Cordelia's shoulder as he took her hand lightly, possessively in his own. Any human with a body temperature that high would have had their brains cooked inside their skulls days before.

Lloyd nodded, his face wiped as clear as a dry erase board of emotion, and disappeared back into the elevator. Cordelia felt more alone with him gone, soulless rat bastard that he was. He, at least, had been definitively of this world.

Flagg was grinning at her when Cordelia turned back to him. She was suddenly sure, by that terrible look alone, that there were maggots squirming and pulsing beneath the surface of his skin. As soon as she thought it she could feel it, and with a squeak of distress Cordelia wrenched her hand away, so fast that she nearly left skin behind. Bile surged hot and sour into her throat.

Flagg made a soft clucking sound from the back of his throat. "Now, now, none of that," he chided. "The time has come for you and I to talk of many things, and it's best if we start out as friends, don't you think?" He moved aside so that Cordelia could step into his office. "Come into my parlor."

"Said the spider to the fly," Cordelia supplied under her breath, loud enough to ensure that they both heard.

She was expecting an office full of decadent, light blocking brocades, deep cherries and mahoganies, furniture designed to impart a sense of awe and power. A lair, in other words. In its stead gleaming metal, crisp blacks and whites, and a breathtaking view of the city beyond greeted her. Shelves of jade figurines lined one wall; Cordelia saw several wolves scattered throughout the menagerie and an entire flock of crows. There was a desk with chair in the room, but it had been shoved back against the wall and, save for a heavy marble paperweight in the shape of a softball, was entirely bare. The whole package seemed strangely refined for a man who wore a denim jacket and dusty cowboy boots.

"Love your interior decorator," Cordelia said as Flagg stepped up beside her.

"It has a certain flair," Flagg said and, seeing the way that Cordelia's eye was being pulled towards the window, asked, "It's lovely, isn't it? And to think, all we had to do to cope with that nasty little pollution problem was shuck off the race that created it."

Spell broken. Cordelia stepped away from him, curling her lip. "Small price, huh?"

"A joke, my dear." Flagg inclined his head. "Perhaps done in poor taste, but well-meaning all the same."

Cordelia turned her eyes back towards the window. They was a sky was a crushing, merciless blue without a single cloud to break it apart. "What do you want from me?"

Flagg bobbed his head, looking pleased. "And now we get into the heart of it." He moved out of Cordelia's line of sight. She could still hear the muted clump of boot heels as he passed behind her, but she refused to turn her head. Flagg's fingers wound their way through her ponytail, across the nape of her neck. They fluttered to a rest at her temples. "You've been talking to that witch and her god," Flagg murmured, his voice barely audible over the air-conditioning's discreet hum. "And what did you talk about, I wonder? What did she tell you?" The butterfly pressure turned cruel, denting the skin downwards. Cordelia cried out and felt tears of pain spring into her eyes. "How long will it take her to pay you another visit?" He worked his fingers even deeper into the delicate hollows above Cordelia's temples.

The pain was blinding, scorching, and Cordelia heard an incredulous shriek of laughter roll out of her lungs, anyway. Cleansing her. The weight in her head ceased as abruptly as it had begun, halted by Flagg's releasing her and stepping away. Cordelia's brain cooed. Her knees sagged and she grabbed at the desk chair, barely saving herself from a fall as it tried to roll away from her.

"What's so funny?" Flagg snarled at her. The mask of geniality had been banished far, far away. Naked in his fury, Flagg was fearsome, yes, but he was also ridiculous, an angry tinpot dictator throwing a fit because no one would play his games any longer. 'That's all he is,' Cordelia thought. 'All this time, and I've been afraid of a wannabe.'

'Still got teeth, girl,' she could imagine Mother Abigail saying. 'You remember that. Just when you think they're down for the count, they always got teeth.'

Cordelia felt the peals of laughter continue to ring out of her, anyway, watching as the stuff of nightmares turned a rather interesting shade of purple. "Answer me, you stupid bitch!" Flagg roared, lunging forward and grabbing Cordelia's ponytail. He twisted her head up with it, and squeaking pain drew Cordelia's jaws together with a clack so hard that she nearly took the tip off of her own tongue. "What's so fucking funny?"

"Oh," Cordelia gasped, giggles still escaping in spite of the tears that ran freely down her face. "Oh, you." Flagg released her hair and Cordelia slumped to the floor. Laughter continued to bubble out of her in dangerous little spurts. "Do you actually think my visions work like that? That I have a nice little chat with the Powers whenever I feel like it? God is one of us?" Cordelia doubled over, braying, and it was several seconds before she could continue. Flagg's rage filled the room like fever.

"You idiot," Cordelia wheezed. She regained control enough to look up into Flagg's face. "I don't control when I receive my visions. I don't have control over what's in my visions. They come whenever the Powers That Be want me to have them, and show me whatever the Powers want me to see." A fresh fit threatened to overcome her. Cordelia pushed it back, but she could not stop her smile. "And I haven't had a single one since the plague started. The Powers The Be don't even care enough about you to put a blip on my radar screen."

"Lying cow!" Flagg roared, striking her across the face with what felt like all his strength. If he had more in store somewhere, then Cordelia did not want to know about it. Her head snapped back until her head squealed at the point of breaking, the rest of her body following in an ungainly arc that deposited her several feet away. The air wheezed out of Cordelia's lungs on impact, leaving her feeling as if a full-grown man had sat down on her chest. She was too stunned to draw more.

Flagg's boot heels as they stalked towards her made the loudest sound in the room.

And, oh, the light, too bright, searing her eyeballs away. Cordelia gasped, turned her head, made a futile attempt to protect herself. The light retreated from retina-dissolving brilliance slowly, resolving itself into the silhouette instantly recognizable to anyone born into the twentieth century: the mushroom cloud. Cordelia's awareness whooshed down into the base of the cloud, forcing her back a few seconds in time. Her ears throbbed with the roar of explosion even as she could still hear Flagg's fury from outside of her head. The Flagg within the vision howled with pain and fury as his attempt at immortality was burned away-not dead, never dead, but he got his ass kicked good this time around-and the Las Vegas skyline dissolved. Cordelia was drawn further in, barreling past disintegrating buildings and melting flesh. To her horror, she could still make out the faces as they screamed and writhed in the split-second before oblivion, caught in an eternal freeze-frame so that she could watch them again and again and again.

The face that she sought more than any other was not there.

Cordelia was thrown out of the vision only to feel a pair of hands grabbing her about the shoulders and shaking her without care for comfort or injury. The back of her skull rebounded off the floor with every jounce. More head traumas on a noggin that had already taken its fair share, not really helping her to get her equilibrium back. Cordelia groaned and rolled over until Flagg released her. Her eyes rolled towards the ceiling. "Your timing sucks," Cordelia croaked.

"What did you see?" Flagg had reverted back to his sociopathic toddler with ADD stage. "Tell me what you saw!" He grabbed Cordelia's shoulder to roll her back over. Cordelia dove her hand into the pocket of her jacket, found the gun.

The corn made a sound like bolts of silk rubbing against one another as Cordelia and Mother Abigail walked through it-even this place was not impervious to violation-but Cordelia heard every word.

"It won't be more than a small window," Mother Abigail said, "but, God willing, it will be enough."

"How will I know?" Cordelia asked.

Mother Abigail shook her head. "I'll be pushing as far as I can go to give you this much. You'll just have to know."

Cordelia exhaled her breath in a huff. "I think you have the wrong girl here," she said. "I'm not the hero. I'm the Gal Friday with occasional seizures to the hero."

Mother Abigail gave her a smile that both the saddest and the kindest that Cordelia had ever seen and took Cordelia's hand in her own. "Child," she said, "there ain't a one of us left who's not in the middle of becoming something that we never thought we could be." She released Cordelia's hand and rubbed at her head a if it pained her. "So little time," she muttered, her eyes growing distant.

"Mother Abigail?" Cordelia ventured.

Mother Abigail startled as if she was surprised to find that Cordelia was still there. "You goan now," she said, "You give the devil his due, and then you come find me in the new place. We'll make our stand together."

"Guess you're not a dead battery, after all," Flagg said, his face lit up into a devil's rictus. "You're going to tell me, oh, you're going to tell me every little thing that you saw."

Cordelia had never fired a gun before. She thought she should be alarmed by how easy it was.

At that close a range it was impossible to miss. The report echoed through the room and Flagg staggered back, staring at the bloodied hole left in the flannel shirt that he wore. Not nearly enough blood as there should have been. He began to grin. "You stupid cow," Flagg said, "haven't you figured out by now-"

"Shut up," Cordelia said, and fired again.

The second shot staggered Flagg back further, and the third threw him off his feet entirely. Flagg fell backwards into the shelves of jade figurines, collapsing them. The statuettes shot off the shelves like animals escaping from a zoo as an unseen wind blew through the room, rocking the remains of the case back and forth. It teetered, seemed to debate with itself for a long moment, and then fell forward onto Flagg's body. Shards of jade flew like knives.

Cordelia flinched backwards both to protect her face and to put herself further away from the source of the dangerous anger that was filling up the room like a burgeoning storm. 'I'm not supposed to be able to hurt him like that,' Cordelia thought. Satisfaction rolled into her fingers and urged her to pull the trigger again. 'I'll bet he didn't even know it was possible.' As far as miracles went, Mother Abigail didn't do half bad.

Cordelia tucked the gun, warm enough to be mistaken for a live thing, back into the pocket of Lindsey's jacket. She had no illusions that she had killed Flagg, not with her head throbbing like a sore tooth and the vision echoing in glorious Technicolor through her brain. She had bought herself a few minutes of time; that would be good enough. Someday soon, someone was going to take Flagg and his whole rotting city back down into the mud they had come from. Cordelia wanted to have something to look forward to.

Cordelia didn't bother with stealth as she blew out of Flagg's office and into the elevator, breaking into a run and not caring who saw her. The angry, wounded god that she had left behind wasn't going to be in the mood to be gentle when Mother Abigail's mojo wore off. Cordelia was grateful enough for one miracle; she didn't expect a second.

A man that Cordelia didn't recognize made to step into the elevator just as she was stepping off. He had the look of security, though, and his hand was diving towards his gun even as the look of startlement was still working across his face. By virtue of an adrenaline rush that was making the entire world seem acidic and fast, Cordelia beat him in the race. The shot echoed and reechoed as the mystery man did a slow slump onto the floor. The hole that Cordelia had opened up in his chest smoked for a second before blood extinguished it.

"Oh, God," Cordelia moaned, nearly dropping the gun. Her conscience gave a short, strangled squawk before it decided that the entire situation was far too much to cope with at once and retreated into a shocked silence to think things over.

He would have died in the nuclear explosion, anyway. Right. That made it so much better.

Cordelia cringed and forced herself to reach beneath the man's jacket to retrieve the weapon that he had been planning to use on her. Lindsey's revolver had only two shots left. If Cordelia had had the luxury of introspection, she would have been appalled by how quickly she was adopting the cold, efficient mechanics of survival. As it was, she was only glad that her heart was still beating.

Cordelia tucked both guns out of sight and slid along the wall until she could blend into the crowd being drawn towards the sound. The first waves of panic carried her out the door.

 

"Come on, now, something's teasing.
Your conscience can't decide.
She kept your will from breaking,
But left you paranoid."
Our Lady Peace, "Potato Girl"

The curb was still warm from the sun as Lindsey sat on it, an open bottle of whiskey taking up the space next to him. Not that the patch of curb was being wildly jostled for, anyway. The people that he had seen had taken one look at the bottle and then turned their eyes away, looks of mingled fear and embarrassment wiggling across their faces like worms before Lindsey became as invisible to them as a homeless person would have been in the old order. Apparently, good old Flagg frowned upon his people hitting the hard stuff.

The fact that they were frowning upon whiskey while people dangled off fucking crosses above their heads only served as proof to Lindsey that he was not nearly drunk enough.

A crow lit atop the freshest one, surely dead no longer than a few hours (God, the poor man had probably still been alive when they had driven into the city), helped itself to a nice filet of bicep. The bird tilted its head back to swallow the morsel, its strangely sentient eyes flickering to rest on Lindsey as it bent its head for more. Well, they were brothers of a sort, after all. Lindsey tilted the whiskey bottle towards the bird in salute and took a healthy swallow. The burn branded his esophagus all the way down, contrasting nicely to Flagg's stone, which was now too cold to be worn inside his shirt. The hum the alcohol was creating in his head was almost enough to make the situation comic rather than macabre.

The crow gave a caw of what sounded like pleased acknowledgment and dipped its beak back towards its meal. Lindsey wanted to tell himself that he was imagining things, but with bodies dangling from crosstrees all around him his imagination was a bit taxed. Small wonder that the Romans had been so fascinated by orgies, Lindsey thought. You'd have to return to something simple, something that boiled down to sweat and lust and skin, in order to cope with this on a daily basis.

And he had lined right up to sign his name on the dotted line. The lower the amber line in the bottle descended, the funnier the joke became.

Tiring of dark meat for the moment, the crow gave up on the man's arm and hopped along the horizontal beam, shiny button eyes fixed upon the victim's neck. Lindsey's stomach twisted, but he didn't allow himself to look away. After fighting so hard to make it to the Walkin' Dude's city, he had no right to turn his eyes to the side.

The crow made a sound that was nearly a coo as it dug its beak into the dead man's jugular, pulling out a long strip of the vein itself. The bird tossed it back the way a man in a bar might a handful of peanuts. Lindsey's stomach clenched again and he set the whiskey bottle back down, lest he should lose what he had already drank across it.

Blood poured from the wound that the crow had created, not dark and sluggish the way a corpse's should flow at all. "Oh, fuck." Lindsey lurched to his feet with all of the speed and less than impressive grace that he was capable of at that point. The blood was bright red and still oxygenated, exiting the wound in thick, ropy spurts. The man wasn't dead, and as soon as the realization hit Lindsey was doubling over. The whiskey felt like battery acid as it clawed its way back up his throat. He knocked the bottle over with his heel, sending its contents running away into the gutter.

Other than the whisper-shush of cloth rubbing together on bodies, the only sound on the street was that of Lindsey retching, without even the patter of footsteps to break it up. Corpses on crucifixes were difficult enough to deal with in the daylight; the trauma doubled at night. Lindsey heaved until his ribs ached and his stomach threatened to turn inside out and come sliding right up his throat after the booze. He braced his hand against his knee when the worst seemed to be over, dragging his hand across his mouth and spitting out as much foulness as he could. Self-disgust tried to cut a hole through the buzz that he had been cultivating for himself, and Lindsey was sorely tempted to let it. He had been sickened by a contract since he was twenty-five, and even that had been conquered by the next bank statement.

That sobered him more than any amount of purging.

The crow pulled out and swallowed another strip of blood vessel, fluttering off a few feet when its feathers were in danger of becoming sodden in the spray. It returned when the blood had slowed to a drip-drip-drip onto the pavement below. Lindsey had never heard a sound that could induce madness so quickly. The bird pulled out a final morsel of meat before fixing Lindsey with a look of avian disapproval and uttering a soft croak, as if it really had expected better of him than this. It ruffled its feathers for a moment, shaking off the droplets of gore that it had been unable to avoid, and launched itself from its perch with a final caw. Backlit against the novelty of electric lights, it looked more like a bat than a bird.

If that had been a test, then it was the first one in his life that Lindsey could remember being glad to fail.

Revelation, as it turned out, hurt a hell of a lot more than the vomiting had. Lindsey turned away, swearing, from the corpses of the other people who had had the misfortune to arrive on Flagg's bad side. The bodies, some of whom still had eyes left to stare, did nothing to stop the shaky, epiphany-shaped thing trying out its newborn legs in Lindsey's mind.

Lindsey's moment of getting metaphysically smacked upside the head was interrupted by a low growl, registered less than a second before a vise-worthy grip came down on the back of his neck and nearly jerked him off his feet. Lindsey stumbled, caught his balance by the barest of margins, and felt his adrenal glands begin making up for lost time as a stream of cool air blew across his cheek. Vampire. Lindsey almost laughed. They had to be feeling the loss in population even more than the remaining humans. That such an attack was happening to him now was proof positive that the Powers That Be did in fact exist, and they were constantly pissed off.

"Lindsey," the vampire's voice drawled into his ear, "it's always nice to see you in good health."

Of course. Lindsey closed his eyes as the feeling of being the center of a universe-wide practical joke intensified. "I'm a survivor." The slur in his voice, he was pleased to note, was only obvious to those people who happened to have the remotest sense of hearing at all.

Angel's thumb explored downward, into the delicate curve where Lindsey's jaw met his neck. When he pressed down, Lindsey's knees sagged. "I'll just bet." Lindsey had never heard a voice that addressed him with such a delicate malice before. "It's ironic, really. There's so much death, and yet a waste like you manages to walk out on the other side."

Lindsey wheezed out a sound that may have been a laugh; the increasing pressure that Angel was putting on his neck was creating a roaring sound in his ears. "It must sting," he said. "'Waste like me'. But I'm higher up on the cosmic food chain that you're precious Slayer, aren't I?" Oh, he was begging for Angel to hit him.

The beautiful thing about Angel and Lindsey's relationship lay in the fact that they rarely surprised each other. Lindsey saw the fist coming with no time to duck, felt an impact that threatened to torque his jaw into new and interesting shapes. Lindsey staggered back, stumbling and catching his head a healthy whack on the building behind them. Swirls of yellow and purple invaded his vision. Angel grabbed the front of his shirt and hauled him close.

"Where is she?" Angel growled. Though his forehead remained smooth, there was a glint of gold in his eyes.

A trickle of blood ran into Lindsey's eyes. He shook his head, trying to rearrange Angel's words into an order in which they made sense. "The Slayer?" he asked, trying to shove Angel away from him. He may as well have been trying to push at a stone wall.

Oh, there were the forehead ridges. Lindsey felt the ground grow more stable beneath his feet. "Not her," Angel said, enunciating carefully. Violence rode on his words. "Cordelia. Where is Cordelia?"

"Wish I knew." Lindsey tried to probe at the cut on his head, only to be shaken hard when his attention wandered.

"You're lying." Angel's voice was slipping into the low, controlled tone that he had used just before cutting off Lindsey's hand. Lindsey experienced a Pavlov's dog reaction of momentous proportions, tension invading his entire body and jump-starting him into a fight or flight response. Option one seemed decidedly unwise, and all of the fountains in Flagg's palatial hell would freeze over before Angel saw the second. Phantom pain tingled beyond the end of Lindsey's stump and he glanced down, nearly expecting to see the regrowth of pink, gleaming flesh. A sneer was twisting Angel's face when he looked back up. "I can smell her on you."

Lindsey watched the crosstrees behind Angels' shoulder, hearing the words exit his mouth before he could pause to weigh how wise or foolish they were, or even if Angel would know who he was talking about. "Flagg has her, but I don't know where." One of the people on the crosses was a woman with long dark hair, dead for so long that Lindsey could only tell her sex from the daisy-yellow dress that she wore. Her head bobbed slowly on the breeze, making all that hair sway.

If the widening of Angel's eyes was any indicator, no explanations as to Flagg's identity were going to be necessary. "She's with who?" His grip tightened to the point of cutting off Lindsey's air supply. "Do you have any idea what kind of monster he is?"

Lindsey managed a smile in spite of the tightness in his chest. Blood trickled down to his lips, flooding his mouth with copper. "Of course I do."

Angel sucked in a gasp of air that he didn't need as Lindsey watched suspicion turn to certainty before his very eyes. Beyond that, he could have been a ghost for all the noise that he made as he drew his fist back. The punch was a hell of a lot more solid than anything that a ghost could have delivered, though, whipping Lindsey's head around and filling his head with a grating noise that he thought might actually be the sound of his jaw cracking. He stumbled back against the wall, dazed and clutching at his mouth. Blood slicked his teeth orange-pink when he spread his lips into a grin. "He's after her visions," Lindsey said. Déję vu rolled over him, and yet he still couldn't stop himself. "Wonder if he'll crack her head open like an egg to get them?"

"Son of a bitch-" Angel drove his boot like a piston into Lindsey's gut, hurling him to the ground, and this time Lindsey knew that the sound filling his head was that of breaking bone. He gagged, managing to avoid vomiting again only by the fact that he had nothing left to lose. 'Come on, you bastard,' he thought as his vision alternately doubled and tripled, 'get going if you're going to finish it.' When no third blow came, Lindsey looked up.

Angel had backed up a few paces, his face tense, his fists clenching and unclenching themselves as if he were imagining Lindsey's neck trapped between them. His expression was that of a man who had just been whispered a secret and, far from knowing how to handle it, wished that he hadn't bent his head to listen in the first place.

"Great," Angel said, staring skyward. "That's fucking lovely." He snorted, returning his gaze to Lindsey. "Lovely. Get up," Angel said, grabbing Lindsey by his bad arm and hauling him to his feet. Pain lit up Lindsey's sides like a carnival ride and he swallowed his gasp behind a slew of obscenity, all of which Angel ignored. Lindsey's kneecaps seemed to have taken themselves elsewhere and his stomach couldn't decide if it wanted to descend to take their place or rise up into his throat and choke him. It was sincere but wounded resistance that Lindsey was able to offer as Angel propelled them both back into their natural element, the thick black shadows.

Lindsey's back impacted brick and he couldn't control his wince as those oh-so-recently broken ribs ratcheted up their performance from a dull roar into a screaming cacophony. Angel's grip softened, sliding down Lindsey's arm until he was holding the remains of Lindsey's right wrist between his fingers, his touch light and gentle enough to make the hair on the back of Lindsey's neck rise. If Angel had wanted his undivided attention, all he had to do was ask. The look of reluctant revelation was gone from Angel's face as if it had never been, and Lindsey was convinced that he had been imagining things as he yanked his arm away. Surprisingly, Angel let him.

"So how did it work, Lindsey?" Angel asked, his eyes coffee-dark and way too close. "How long did it take Cordelia to trust you? Or does she even know?"

Releasing his arm had been the only concession towards Lindsey's comfort that Angel was willing to make; they were standing so close to one another that if Angel had breathed, Lindsey would be drawing the same air into his lungs. It was always better when they stayed close enough to see the mirror images of each other, Lindsey thought, loathe as he was to admit it. It was when they shouted at each other from across crypts, when distance allowed them to view each other as impersonal abstractions, that things went pear-shaped. "She was abandoned," Lindsey spit. "All I had to do was step into the void." A muscle in Angel's jaw ticked, but Lindsey wasn't in the mood to heed warnings. "Cordelia waited for you until the city was rotting. Even then, she nearly had to be killed before she would leave." His smile was tight, glittering; he unleashed more poison through the gleaming of his teeth than he did through his words. "She has you to thank every bit as much as she does me."

Angel's hand flexed and Lindsey was reevaluating his theory of closeness equaling relative safety when that look passed over Angel's face again. He snorted, visibly shaking it off, and replaced it with the glare that put them back onto familiar ground. "C'mon." His hand returning to the back of Lindsey's neck didn't leave him with a tremendous amount of choice in the matter. Lindsey stumbled and Angel threw him a disgusted look even as he moved to support him. "The first fountain we see, I'm throwing you in it," Angel muttered. "See if that sobers you up."

"This is more the head trauma," Lindsey replied, trying out his knees. They agreed to take him back on a trial basis, with no guarantees made for the future.

Angel's eyes and his smile jangled discordantly against one another. "Then I guess it'll just be fun." He dragged/led Lindsey deeper into the shadows, where a Nova sat blanketed in the darkness with its engine turned off. Angel and old cars. Of course. "Get in."

Lindsey braced his hand against the passenger door but remained standing, looking at Angel over the hood. "I already told you that I don't know where Flagg is."

"I do," Angel said. His expression had grown blacker than Lindsey could ever remember seeing it. "You got Cordelia into this, you're going to help me get her back out."

"Like hell." Lindsey started to back away from the car.

"One more step and I'm going to break your other arm." Angel's voice was calm and devoid of any theatrics, coated with a sincerity that made Lindsey still almost immediately.

"I don't know if you happened to notice out there on the street," Lindsey hissed over the top of the car, "but the people who piss Flagg off have a tendency to wind up hanging off crucifixes."

"Then the goodness of your heart will want to keep that from happening to someone else, won't it?" The stare that Angel directed towards him was enough to make Lindsey wish for the days when Angel told him with a look that he was nothing at all. This one was jagged, complex, full of too many possible meanings for Lindsey to possibly dissect them all. "You ever want to start proving me wrong," Angel said, "now's a good place to start."

Lindsey swore and stared off in the direction of the street. Nearly a minute passed before he made a fist of his hand, brought it down on the roof of the car hard enough to send pain all the way into his elbow, and slid into the car. He told himself that it was for no other reason than the look on Angel's face, which Lindsey planned to play on endless mental loop for the rest of his days, and never mind the chunk of lead that had dissolved from his gut the moment his body touched the seat.

Unnoticed against his chest and gone before Angel could glance over, Flagg's stone began to glow.

 

"You thought I was a little girl.,br /> You thought I was a little mouse.
You thought you'd take me by surprise.
Now I'm here burning down your house."
-Garbage, "Not My Idea"

The desert surrendered its blistering heat as soon as the sun went down, dropping at least fifteen degrees in a matter of only a few hours. Lindsey's jacket was transformed from sweltering but necessary hindrance into a valuable barrier against the chill, and Cordelia shivered faintly as she pulled it closer around her. Her hand hovered continually over the pocket where she was keeping the weapons, trying to return to her talismans against the Dark Man's eyes. It was a superstitious, automatic response that Cordelia laughed at even as she couldn't stop herself from doing it, like the caveman clinging continually to his flint as he peered into the shadows. Nine hours and counting since she had escaped from Flagg, and Cordelia was under no illusion that she was avoiding his third eye on luck alone. Seemed that the Powers That Be, Mother Abigail, or some combination of the two were taking a renewed interest in their Gal Friday turned star of the show. Cordelia pulled the jacket a little closer around her, not from cold, and felt her lips pressing into a line. So kind of them to realize that she was still there. Not to mention that the people that the Powers That Be took an extra special interest in tended not to fare so well in the long run.

Cordelia could almost hear Mother Abigail clucking her tongue in disapproval. "Not the thing that you got to be worried about right now, child. You just get on with what you need to do."

"Nope," Cordelia muttered. "It sure isn't." There would be time later, if she was cunning and careful, for all of the metaphysical ponderings that she wanted. She placed hand on the gun, coiling her fingers around it like an old pro, and stepped forth from the shroud of shadows. Her shoes made faint crunching noises on the pavement, but the blonde head didn't turn around until Cordelia cleared her throat. Stephanie-Ann startled so badly that she nearly fell down, and Cordelia felt bad for frightening her. That was, until she saw the gleaming black stone swinging from a chain about Stephanie-Ann's neck. It had not been there that afternoon, and it killed any embryonic reluctance that Cordelia might have felt.

"Well, hello there," she said in a faint voice that carried nonetheless. She gestured towards the stone with the gun in her hand. Stephanie-Ann stiffened as if her spine had been flash-frozen. "And here I thought you might be innocent. Whoops."

"Cordelia! How did you-" Stephanie-Ann's face had gone the color of whey. She swallowed, making a visible effort to pull together the aura of scattered harmlessness that had worked so well earlier. "Cordy, what are you doing? Don't you know that people are worried about you?"

Cordelia's finger spasmed before she could stop herself. The bullet went wild by several feet, tearing a gouge out of the sidewalk. Stephanie-Ann ducked and raised her hands to protect her eyes from any shrapnel that came her way. Her squeal was drowned out by the gun's report. Cordelia winced at how loud and attention-grabbing the sound was in the otherwise hushed air. Working against the clock now. "Rather you didn't call me that," Cordelia said in a voice that she scarcely recognized as her own, low and cold and brittle. "So Flagg's put the word out, huh? I figured him to be more the type to lick his wounds for a while. I guess I should be flattered." Confusion bled through Stephanie-Ann's fear and Cordelia added, "Oh, he didn't tell you about that? Figures. This all-powerful bad guy that you people are climbing all over each other to kiss the ass of? Turns out he isn't nearly as god-like as he wants you to believe. Couple of bullets put him down like a rabid dog."

For the briefest of moments, a deeper sort of uncertainty flickered through the animal fear on Stephanie-Ann's face. Then she sneered, and it was like watching a theater mask fall away. "But he didn't stay down, did he? Can the other one say the same?"

"Don't know," Cordelia said. "Haven't tried to shoot her yet." She held out her free hand, palm up, and waggled her fingers. "The keys to the Hummer, please."

"You don't actually think that you're going to get out of the city," Stephanie-Ann breathed, her jaw dropping.

"Maybe I will and maybe I won't," Cordelia replied, "but if the answer is 'no', then I am going to make sure that you bastards remember me for a long time." She gestured with the gun. "Keys. Now, in case you were thinking that was a request."

"Whitney has them," Stephanie-Ann said, her voice low and sullen, like a child being ordered to clean her room.

"So Whitney left you to watch the valuable vehicle all by your lonesome and didn't even give you a means to move it if you had to? Even though it was your brother's in the first place?" Cordelia cocked her head to the side. "Sweetie, 'actress' is not immediately synonymous with 'stupid'. Try again."

Stephanie-Ann's eyes widened and the ice overtaking her spine spread throughout her entire body. "I'm not lying, I swear! Whitney has the keys, you can track him down and ask him-" She was still going when Cordelia lowered the gun and fired. A split-second recalculation put the bullet into Stephanie-Ann's foot rather than her kneecap, and Cordelia would think later that it was a pretty shitty world when that was something that she could be proud of. After a shocked silence, Stephanie-Ann let out a wail and dropped to the pavement.

"Shut up," Cordelia hissed, dropping to one knee. "I don't want to do it again, but so help me, God, if you don't shut up right now I'll put the next one in your head and find the keys myself."

Stephanie-Ann clicked her teeth together so hard that the sound echoed and nodded, staring at Cordelia with a mixture of fear, anger, and smug respect. 'Not so different from us now, are you?' those eyes said. Cordelia fought back the urge to look away. "I'll ask again," Cordelia said, her voice steady. She might vomit across the pavement until her ribs broke the moment she was outside of Vegas, but for now Cordelia was glad of that focus. "Where. Are. The keys?"

"Back jeans pocket," Stephanie-Ann wheezed. Apparently having one's life threatened brought about a tendency to hyperventilate.

"Imagine that. Pull them out-slowly, or I'll end this now and learn to hotwire the damned thing." Cordelia's hands were sweating so badly that she feared she would slip and pull the trigger without intending to.

Stephanie-Ann did as she was told. Her fingers shook and she dropped the keys almost immediately, making a faint noise of terror. The fact that no gunshot blast followed seemed to offer her scant comfort. She glared at Cordelia as the other woman scooped up the keys and stepped back, looking very small and childlike in spite of the pool of blood that spreading beneath her foot and the ugly expression on her face. Though her skin was the color of unbleached linen and her lips were pressed into a line so thin that they appeared to have fallen off, not another sound escaped her.

Cordelia looked off down the deserted street, mind ticking uncertainly. Flagg might not have a lot of people in his hellish paradise (yet, Cordelia's mind whispered, and it rang of sick truth), but there were still enough that the sound of a gunshot was going to draw them. And did she really want to leave Stephanie-Ann sitting there, bloody and madder than hell, to greet them? So she could say, "Sure, guys, she went thataway. Hummer's the color of lemons, there's no way you can miss it. Put in a good word for me with the Dark Man, will you?" No. Cordelia thought not. She tapped the gun against the palm of her opposite hand for a moment, thinking, before she turned it towards Stephanie-Ann's head.

The sullen look turned to terror as Stephanie-Ann came to realize that this time wasn't merely a threat. "Hey!" she cried, starting to raise her voice towards a yell and choking it back down when Cordelia's finger made a short movement towards the trigger, so the words became a squeal. "I gave you what you wanted! You can't kill me!"

"Why?" Cordelia asked, her tone cool. The tremble in her voice was too faint for Stephanie-Ann to hear. "Because I'm one of the good guys?" The trigger felt very good against her finger.

Tears had begun to glisten in Stephanie-Ann's eyes. "Yes! Yes, goddamn you, yes!"

Cordelia paused, thinking of her earlier words to Lloyd. It was the pragmatic thing to do, the smart, sane, ruthless thing to do. Lindsey would have pulled the trigger without a second thought.

When you got right down to it, the exact opposite of anything that Lindsey would do didn't seem like a terrible course to be taking at the moment.

Cordelia reversed the fun in her hands and brought the barrel down on Stephanie-Ann's temple as hard as she could. Stephanie-Ann expelled her breath on a sigh and toppled over without another sound. Cordelia nudged at her with her toe, thinking that she might have killed her, anyway, until she saw the slow rise and fall of her chest. She didn't analyze the emotions rising in her chest too closely, for fear of what she might find. Cordelia had come down from the tower. Didn't mean that she had to become one of them in the process.

Cordelia jingled the keys in her hand as she walked towards her new vehicle, glancing back once at Stephanie-Ann's prone form. She would survive. Somehow, people like her always did. And they showed up on your doorstep and earned your trust for the sole purpose of screwing you over.

"Not that I'm bitter or anything," Cordelia muttered as she climbed into the front seat and shoved the key into the ignition. Glancing into the rearview mirror, Cordelia was pleased to note that Stephanie-Ann and Whitney had yet to unload most of their supplies. "One man's laziness is another woman's treasure." Cordelia found it within herself to smile a little as she pulled away from the curb. The sound of the engine made her wince, but any heads that had gone diving for cover at the sound of the gunshot didn't deem a car engine to be sufficiently novel to stick them back out again. Flagg's return to normalcy might actually work in her favor.

"I can do this," Cordelia said, hardly recognizing the hope in her own voice as the Hummer picked up speed. "I can really make it of here." Cordelia spared herself a moment to wish that Lindsey wasn't Judas Iscariot in a pair of Levis and that the smarmy bastard routine had actually been a façade for the good man underneath rather than the other way around. She hoped, perversely enough, that he could at least be happy in his native habitat and amongst his own kind, though the look in his eyes as he had placed his jacket around her shoulders had not been that of a happy man.

"He didn't have to do it," Cordelia said aloud, unsure of who she was arguing to. "Any of it." And when you had a man who could do good or evil with equal ease and seemingly take no pleasure from either, what did that mean?

Cordelia muttered an oath and forced her foot down on the accelerator. Not her job to figure him out. Still, she hoped that he was happy.

The Hummer was nearly at fifty when the vision hit, and Cordelia had a precious few seconds to think, 'Damnit, not again,' and slam her foot down on the brake before she was hurled back against the seat. Her head seemed to double, triple in size as it struggled to hold all of the images pouring into her brain. Cordelia gasped and bit her lip until she tasted blood, not noticing as the Hummer veered off the street and sliced through a trash can, careening towards a dormant light pole.

It's him, it's Flagg, oh jesus please don't look at me, oh I can't take it. He's angrier than he was even when I shot him, almost as angry as he will be when his entire house of cards comes falling down around his ears. Lindsey is with him, big shock there, but there's someone else, who is it, and, and-

OH MY GOD.

Hummer met light pole, making metal shriek and sending a shudder running down the entire length of the vehicle. Cordelia's forehead struck the steering wheel with a crack, chasing the vision away in favor of a pain less familiar but every bit as brilliant. She groaned and slumped back into her seat, hanging onto consciousness through will alone. How long she remained in a hazy half-state Cordelia could not tell, beyond the fact that it was still dark when she came to and there were no pleasant-looking men with soulless eyes knocking on her window to tell her that Mr. Flagg would like a word with her.

Cordelia grunted, tried to straighten in her seat, and made it about halfway before her stomach told her that the old position had been just fine, thanks so much. The grunt became a groan as Cordelia raised her hand to probe at the wounded spot on her forehead. A knot the size of her thumb sent out sunbursts of pain whenever her fingers brushed against it, and she could only imagine the colors that she was going to be in the morning. Still, she could remember that two plus two equaled four and who the president was-had been. The Powers might actually have been looking out for her this time.

Cordelia exited the vehicle on shaky legs, leaned against the side to steady herself, and held her head between her legs until the urge to be sick had passed. Feeling much better, she wiped her hand across her mouth and climbed back into the cab, where she pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes until she saw stars. The vision was a misfire. Had to be. Otherwise, things were even more rotten in the state of the entire world than Cordelia had previously thought.

Lindsey had been standing next to Flagg, nothing terribly surprising there. But Angel had been with him, and neither one of them had looked unhappy about the arrangement.

So the vision was wrong. Angel wouldn't do something like that. A voice of doubt whispered that a month previously, when her world had still made some kind of sense, there were a lot of things that Cordelia would have said that Angel would not do.

Cordelia swore again, putting all of her frustration, confusion, and terrible hope into a stream of profanity that lasted for nearly a full minute before it abated. She put the Hummer into reverse, back it slowly off the sidewalk and wincing as the full extent of the damage was revealed. The engine made a squalling noise, but nothing caught on fire as Cordelia nursed the vehicle into a parking lot behind a liquor store that had long since been broken into and picked clean. Out of sight, not necessarily out of mind. Off the street, at least, the bright yellow paint would be hidden from casual passers-by. Cordelia was loathe to give up on those supplies just yet.

Though it made her skin crawl to touch them, Cordelia made sure that she had both guns before she exited the cab. If she was, like an idiot, going to march right back into the belly of the beast, she was at least going to do so fully armed and with eyes wide open.

 

"Hope dangles on a string
Like slow-spinning redemption.
Winding in and winding out,
The shine of it has caught my eye."
-Dashboard Confessional, "Vindicated"

Angel didn't like silent opponents. Silent meant plotting, meant attempts at blindsiding him later on, meant Angel breaking bones, both his and theirs. It was better when they ran their mouths. That was something that Angel could at least get a fix on, swords and battlefields and invective spit out from between clenched teeth. It was better when they were smart-asses; it was better when their long-standing patterns of behavior didn't all but beg Angel to seize their necks and give that fast, satisfying (even now, God help him) twist.

Angel glanced over at Lindsey, hunched into the passenger seat and white-faced with pain and something else. He had not spoken a word since the car had started moving. Forget opponents in general who did not run their mouths, Angel was not used to Lindseys that did not run their mouths. It did little to dissuade the idea solidifying into certainty in the back of Angel's mind, no matter how many times he tried to push it away.

"Does it hurt?"

Lindsey's eyes flicked towards him as the question was asked, but the other man didn't turn his head. "Unfortunate side effect of being kicked in the ribs, yeah."

"Not that." The seats creaked as Lindsey's spine stiffened. "Why do I get the feeling that you're not as onboard with Flagg's little utopia as you would like him to believe? Or me, for that matter?"

Lindsey issued a laugh that was more kin to a bark and, from the look on his face, regretted it immediately. He turned his head to look Angel in the face at long last. Even in the dim light reflected back from the road, his eyes gleamed blue enough to stun. Lindsey smelled of alcohol and more than a touch of purely human fear, all overlaid with a fine, sweet rage. Right at the moment, Angel was mostly picking up on the rage. "Oh, now you care?" Lindsey snarled, and-there! The shake disappeared before Angel could convince himself that he wasn't hearing things. "How very convenient for you." He shifted, throwing light upon the angry wound that ended his wrist. Even now, with the scar tissue slowly beginning to fade from red into pearly pink, it was a difficult sight to look upon directly. Angel made sure to give it a long, slow stare before he turned his eyes back to Lindsey's face.

"You might want to remember how you got that injury," Angel said, and it was anger that put the quiver into his voice. "I'm just trying to decide if there's anything human left in you at all, or if I should give up now and take you into Flagg's headquarters in pieces. I gotta tell you, I'm in a good place with either option."

Lindsey drew his lips back from his teeth and Angel swore that he could still see a tint of blood there. "Fuck you," he snarled.

Angel turned his lips up into a smile rather than throwing a punch. "Where's that razor with of yours?" Lindsey turned away, sullen, and Angel let a few moments glide by before he asked, "I'm guessing that you've been having the dreams?"

Ah, now there was a reaction worth watching. Lindsey went as rigid as if his veins had been pumped full of steel, hissing and putting his hand to his side as he moved too fast. He threw a black look Angel's way, and the vampire fully expected to get another hearty fuck-you for his trouble. The tight, brittle "Yes," that Lindsey finally replied with may as well have been dragged from his throat with fishhooks.

Another minute went by, and when Lindsey said nothing further Angel asked, "Which one called to you the loudest?" He was watching the road and didn't see Lindsey looking at him, his normally vibrant eyes clouded with doubt.

"Both." Lindsey fell silent for long enough to make Angel think that he had said all that he intended to on the matter, before he added in a whisper so low as to be inaudible to human ears, "Equally loudly." Lindsey made a face suggesting that he was regretting saying so much.

Angel was amazed that he had even gone that far. He waited a beat, then, deciding that one confidence deserved another, added, "Same here."

The shocked glance that Lindsey threw Angel's way seemed sincere. His voice, however, was as caustic as ever. "And yet, here you are. I love the smell of hypocrisy in the morning, don't you?"

"I'm here to do whatever I can to stop him," Angel snapped. "In case you hadn't noticed, Lindsey, the world has undergone some significant changes lately, few of which are for the better and none of which leave a lot of room for standing on the fence. Do us all a favor, knock off the self-pitying crap, and chose a side already. You might want to do it quickly."

Lindsey gave him a slit-eyed, measuring look and turned back towards the window, saying nothing. Angel sighed and put his eyes back on the road. When Lindsey finally replied, it was in a voice so low that even Angel had to strain to hear it.

"I'll help you to save Cordelia," he said, "because she deserves better than what I gave her. But that's it, that's all. As far as I'm concerned, redemption is nothing more than a word."

It could very well be that Angel was mistaken in what he thought he had seen. He had been wrong on larger levels before. "What are you planning on doing about Flagg when he finds out that you're betraying him?" Angel asked. "I don't really see him as the forgive and forget type of boss, do you?"

For that, Lindsey had no answer.

 

The distance was eaten up beneath the car's wheels faster than Lindsey could hope to prepare himself for, as Lindsey had known it would be. He rode in silence for as long as he was able, swatting away Angel's few annoying attempts at...what? At saving him? Right when he needed him, too. How very convenient. Lindsey snorted, ignoring the stare that he could feel lying heavy and warm against the back of his neck.

The Nova glided to a stop, the purr of its engine the only sound breaking up the night's stillness. Lindsey wished for at least a radio station's chatter to disturb the morbid train of his thoughts, and he realized with a jolt that even if by some miracle he did make it out of Las Vegas, it was going to be beyond his lifetime before there was another radio station. On the plus side, at least-

"No Howard Stern," Lindsey murmured. Angel stared at him, and Lindsey shook his head. "Nothing. Let's just do this." He got out of the car, wincing. If he wasn't a lot of good in a fight before, he certainly wasn't going to be now. Angel could always make a human shield out of him, Lindsey supposed, and had the disturbing feeling that Angel's thoughts were traveling along the same path.

"For what it's worth," Angel said as he exited the vehicle, moving with the ease of someone who had not been kicked in the side over the past hour, "I'm impressed that you're doing this."

Lindsey shot him a black look. "For what it's worth, I really don't give a damn. Do you even have a plan?"

"Something like that." Angel's smile was tight and glittering in the moonlight.

"So you don't have a clue." What was it about this particular vampire that always disengaged his sense of self-preservation, Lindsey wondered.

If anything, Angel's smile became even more razor-sharp. He stepped close, making sure that there wasn't an inch of Lindsey's personal space that he wasn't filling up. Without body heat, it was like standing in front of a hologram rather than a man. Lindsey watched with slitted eyes, refusing to pull away, as Angel said, "Losing your sense of adventure?"

"Consider it my lack of a death wish talking." Lindsey touched at the cut on his head and came away with dried blood on his fingertips. He rubbed them together, feeling the grit. Could be a lot more where that came from before the night was over.

Angel flicked that probing, speculative look over him again. Whatever he was thinking of saying, he swallowed it, ticking his head to indicate that Angel should follow him.

The whole fearless leader gig. "Right," Lindsey muttered, willing himself to sound convinced. A full decade of fighting, spitting, clawing his way up from nothing, and here he was ready to go straight back to it. If he hadn't believed that fate was a wheel before, he did now.

But that could wait. At the moment, he had a damsel in distress complex to indulge.

 

The first time that Lindsey had come to Angel's office, he had worn every thought flickering through his mind on his face. Baiting him had been so easy that it was painful and Angel, still reeling from Lindsey's earlier courtroom victory, had not been able to stop himself from throwing out the hook. That man had been smug, arrogant, confident that there wasn't a person in the world that he couldn't either threaten or charm over to his way of thinking. He had deserved everything that he had gotten, and so much more besides.

Now that Angel actually wanted to see what Lindsey was thinking he found it impossible. In the months since he had stood in Angel's office, Lindsey had perfected the mask of professional boredom to the point of resembling a mannequin more than he did a living man. He walked by Angel's side without glancing either right or left, with only the stiffness in his movements betraying that he was in any kind of pain. The smell of the corpses still waiting like dark Christmas gifts to be found in many of the buildings overwhelmed any scent of fear that Angel might otherwise have picked up. The impassiveness was an annoyance, as there were many questions that Angel would have liked to ask Lindsey, chief among them being, "What do you hope to gain from this?"

The inner lobby of the grand building itself blazed with light-a generator, Angel was willing to bet. Silhouettes of people moved to and from in front of the doors, too many for Angel to get a definite number. Enough for him to cut through without much trouble, but, injured as he was, Lindsey was going to be worse than useless if something ugly did break out. Angel would still far rather have Lindsey where he could see him than have to divide his attention between his surroundings and wondering what kind of chaos Lindsey was causing behind the scenes. A soft, nearly triumphant smile moved over Lindsey's face as he looked over the same scene, and Angel felt the urge to hit the lawyer come back to life after having lain dormant for a record amount of time, shocking in its intensity. Other things to deal with for now.

A guard stood by the front entrance, looking particularly rattled for someone standing at the home of a near god. Angel whistled softly to get his attention and then, when the man's head turned towards him, punched him hard enough to put him unconscious for several hours. Lindsey watched with an expression caught somewhere between reluctant amusement and resignation as Angel caught the body. "We might have gotten in, anyway," he pointed out.

Angel moved the man into the shadows, where he would neither be a source of danger nor a victim of it. "And now we definitely will."

"Hell of a plan."

"It's a classic for a reason, all right? Come on." Angel straightened and moved towards the door, indicating that Lindsey should follow.

"It doesn't' bother you that Flagg's feeling confident enough to use only one guard?" Lindsey asked in a voice pitched low enough for only Angel to hear. Beneath the lights his injuries were even more obvious. Angel only hoped that he would be able to come up with an excuse convincing enough to deflect the inevitable stares and questions.

"I'm more concerned by the fact that he posted one at all." Angel raised his voice above a murmur only for a moment. "Generally speaking, invincible leaders don't need guards. Something's happened." He would have known it even if a wave of fear so strong that it was nearly a physical mass hadn't crashed into him from the moment he walked through the doors. Angel took a small, involuntary step back, and Lindsey looked at him with his eyebrows lifted. Angel shook his head. "Keep going."

Lindsey shrugged and didn't answer, moving through the sparse crowd as though he had found his natural element. The cut above his eye drew the curious, semi-alarmed looks that Angel had known it would, but one glance at the stone around his neck quickly turned the stares into expressions of mingled awe and envy. If Lindsey noticed the looks, he gave no sign. Angel, though, could not help but make note of the fact that few of the people in the crowd seemed to be wearing similar talismans. He wondered if Flagg was going to release the hooks that he had placed in Lindsey as easily as the other man seemed to think.

Lindsey paused and touched a woman as she passed. His entire face changed when she turned to face him, going from impassivity to an expression of charm that would have made a movie star proud. "I'm sorry," Lindsey said, showing all of his teeth, "but I've only arrived today and I have no idea what's going on. Would you mind helping me out?"

"Oh." The woman's gaze moved from the cut on Lindsey's head to the stone around his neck, her expression growing doubtful.

"Had to deal with a belligerent animal." Lindsey only glanced towards Angel for a second. "I'm afraid that it delayed me more than I would have liked." The gritty twang was bleeding back into his voice, turning him into the consummate good old boy.

At long last, the woman smiled back. "You picked a hell of a day for it," she said. "There was this woman, really high up with the other one across the mountains, you know? And she was crossing through Vegas to go to her, so Mr. Flagg figures he'll clear the air with her, head off any ugliness before it gets too far off the ground. You know?" she asked again, and Lindsey nodded as if he did. "But then she goes and shoots him, right out of nowhere."

'She what?' Angel nearly blurted it aloud before he was able to stop himself. A conspiratorial smile, he noticed, played with the edges of Lindsey's mouth whenever the woman was not looking.

The woman wasn't yet finished. "Completely out of nowhere," she said, "and then she took off. Shot and killed the one guy who tried to stop her, and she took his weapon, too." She shook her head. "I guess we know what kind of form Abigail's hospitality takes, don't we?"

Angel could have pointed out that the presence of a gun on the other man would suggest that Flagg's hospitality as not radically different from Mother Abigail's, but his mind was too busy trying to process the fact that Cordelia-his Cordelia-had shot someone. Lindsey had a persistent smile playing around the edges of his mouth, one that did not create a pleasant expression.

"You're kidding me," Lindsey said, sounding shocked and outraged in equal measure. "What are they going to do to her when they catch her?"

The woman's eyes took on an avaricious glitter. "Have you been downtown yet?" she asked. Lindsey nodded. "Then my guess is that she'll be riding a crosstree with the rest of them before too much longer."

Some of the blood drained from Lindsey's face, but otherwise his expression remained the same. Angel was perversely proud of him for that. "Does Flagg have any idea where she is now?" Lindsey asked.

Doubt crawled across the woman's face for only a second. "Soon," she said. "How long does she think she can hide in a city where everyone wants her head on a platter?"

Angel was wondering the same thing. "So this mystery woman shot Flagg and took off without a single person being able to stop her, huh?" he asked, letting out a mock whistle. "And the word I've been hearing is that Flagg is nearly a god. Can't say that that sounds very god-like to me."

The woman tilted her head up to look at him, exposing Angel, just for a moment, to the person that lurked beneath the surface. "I said she shot him," she replied, tone frigid. "I never said that she killed him." The woman gave Lindsey a pointed look. "You might want to tell your friend to watch his mouth."

Lindsey glared at Angel as the woman walked away. "Yeah, I just might." Angel stared back, his face impassive. "The entire point of subtlety flies right by you, doesn't it?"

"You know what occurs to me, Lindsey?" Angel asked, lowering his voice to avoid eavesdroppers. "You didn't seem all that shocked to discover that Cordelia had a gun."

The violence-inducing smile was lighting up Lindsey's face again. "That would be because I gave it to her." The edges fell off Lindsey's expression, turning it into something soft and proud. "And she did what she had to. Atta girl."

The affectionate, nearly reverent tone in Lindsey's voice made the hair on the back of Angel's neck stand on end. "I wouldn't call turning her into you any kind of accomplishment. Though killing someone is just another day at the office to you, right?"

The smile fell off Lindsey's face, leaving behind the icy sneer that Angel was far more familiar with. "If it saved her life, yes," he answered. "Like it or not, Angel, this is one instance where the ends justifies the means. Or do you hate me so much that you can't even admit that much?"

"The martyr complex is really getting old, Lindsey." Angel didn't lower his voice enough. A few quick, startled looks were thrown their way before people decided it would be a good idea to take themselves elsewhere. "Don't go thinking that you're the innocent victim here."

"Haven't forgotten. Really doubt that Cordelia has, either." Lindsey's expression would have gotten him punched under less crowded circumstances. "But I doubt that she would have been able to handle herself if she was still your girl."

'Your girl' made Angel curl his hand into a fist. "She's not here. Let's go," he said, hoping that somehow all the previous patterns of the universe would find a way to reverse themselves and Lindsey would choose to stay quiet until they were far, far away.

Lindsey didn't appear to have heard him. He was staring past Angel's shoulder, his face gone a dirty, ashen color that even the talk of crucifixion had not been able to put there. "Oh, fuck." His voice barely rose over a hiss. Angel turned.

Randall Flagg strode across the lobby towards them, his grin stretched into a jovial death's head rictus. Flagg's bright Everyman face shone with a mingled glee and fury that made everyone in his path scatter. "Lindsey!" he boomed. "How good it is to see you again! How very, very delightful." As he drew closer, Angel realized that Flagg threw off heat like an open grill.

Flagg ticked his gaze over to Angel, and his grin broadened into something out of a comic book. "And you brought a friend, how very nice of you." Flagg lowered his voice. "We're going to have a nice long palaver, Lindsey, just the two of us. And, oh, we're going to talk of many things, cabbages and kings...and what the fuck I do to people who betray me." His teeth were sharp and very white. "A happy ending all around, wouldn't you say?"

Angel risked a glance towards Lindsey and saw that the stone about the other man's neck had begun to glow as Flagg spoke, twisting and gleaming beneath a light that was nearly sentient. Lindsey's face had grown tight, and there were cords standing out from his neck.

"And you!" Flagg turned his gaze back towards Angel. "I've heard so much about you. The Powers' golden boy together with the person I thought to make one of my lieutenants. How...enlightening." Flagg made a peculiar twisting motion with his hand and the stone flared into even greater brilliance. Lindsey gasped and would have fallen if Angel had not made a quick grab for him. Lindsey's skin felt as if it were tingling with electricity. Angel winced, but did not let go.

Outside the lobby doors, someone shrieked.

 

"I'm going to buy a gun and start a war
If you can tell me something worth fighting for."
-Coldplay, "A Rush of Blood to the Head"

Unease made the crowd ripple as one being, snake-like, as all heads swiveled towards the source of the sound. Flagg didn't so much as blink. His eyes remained fixed on Angel's face as he made another twisting motion with his hand. Lindsey caught the scream before it could make it more than halfway out of his throat, biting down on his lower lip until a trail of crimson ran down his chin. His knees buckled and Angel's hand became the only thing keeping him on his feet. Flagg's smile glowed, magnetic in spite of the eyes above it.

Angel reached for the stone around Lindsey's neck with his free hand, intending to rip it off himself if Lindsey couldn't or even now wouldn't. Flagg chortled, shaking his head at Angel in a way that suggested he was more disappointed in him than anything else. "You don't see me disciplining your people for you."

Angel's fingers had barely brushed against the Flagg's talisman before a terrible, buzzing whiteness was entering his head, eating him away mind and body. Angel's mouth opened and he thought the sound that emerged might have been a scream, but the formless cloud filling up his senses made it too difficult to tell. It was the thick, choking essence of rotting meat and decaying civilization, and Angel didn't get the chance for another scream. The world tilted, vertigo ruled, and then his back was striking something hard. The whiteness vanished and Angel opened his eyes, stunned to find himself on the ground and several feet away. A persistent ringing sound filled his ears.

Lindsey had fallen to his knees, his lips pressed together until they were nearly invisible. The streaks of red along his chin and above his eye were the sole spots of color on his face. He tilted his head up to speak to Flagg, and the clanging in Angel's ears prevented him from hearing what was said. He got the gist of it, however, as Flagg moved faster than any human being would have been capable of, backhanding Lindsey across the face hard enough to lift him straight off the ground. Angel didn't' see if he was conscious when he landed.

The commotion at the front of the lobby was growing rather than abating, and now sounded as if it was working its way inward. More yells followed the first, men and women alike, and there came the shushing, whispery noise of clothing as a large group of people shoved against one another. The majority, though, did not move. They thought that they were untouchable. It was this thought more than any other that got Angel back to his feet. His knees wobbled for a few seconds before they agreed to hold him.

The accumulation of screams distracted Flagg from Lindsey when everything else failed to. He stared in the direction of their origin, a look of pure hatred changing his face into something half-formed and unrecognizable. Angel was loath to take his eyes off Flagg even for a second to bring into view the new player in their little game, but when he did the result stunned him.

Cordelia was sweaty and pale beneath her tan, her hands shaking so badly that it was a wonder the gun she held didn't go off. Her jeans were speckled with something that angel didn't want to believe was blood, and she wore a jean jacket that as about three sizes too large for her, so that the sleeves were slipping down over her hands. While her hair had once been pulled back into a ponytail, most of it had long since escaped into dark tendrils around her face. Angel thought she had never looked lovelier.

"Hey, Angel," Cordelia said in a strained voice. A man approached on her left and she jerked around, leveling her weapon at him. "Unless you really don't think that I've shot enough people tonight, you'll stay right where you are." He froze, and Cordelia shifted her eyes towards Flagg. There was an expression there that Angel thought he would never see. "You, me, and a gun," Cordelia said. "Déję vu loves us."

"Doesn't it, though," Flagg said in a pleasant, musing voice. He stepped forward, pulling open his shirt to reveal an unblemished, entirely hairless chest. "But do you see how well your tricks worked? You should have run to ground while you had the chance."

Cordelia jerked away from the man on her left so that she could cover Flagg instead. He stopped walking forward, though the confident expression never faltered from his face. "I was able to hurt you the last time," Cordelia said, "and that wasn't supposed to happen, was it? Do you think that I could do it again?" The shaking in her hands had dwindled down to more than a tremble. For the first time, a shadow of uneasiness moved across Flagg's face.

If Cordelia had been the only person in the room who had a weapon, the entire situation would have ended in a very different way. As it was, fortune did not favor them nearly so highly. "Cordelia!" Angel roared, and she spun towards him. The bullet intended for her head buzzed over her shoulder, passing close enough to make her hair shift in the breeze, and struck a woman to Angel's side in the throat. Blood struck the side of his face as the woman fell before she even had a chance to scream. She writhed and clutched at her throat as blood spread in a pool around her head, not going still until several seconds later.

Angel didn't wait to see it. The report had scarcely had a chance to echo before he was moving, lunging across the short distance and putting his fist into the gunman's face with a crack that echoed from one end of the lobby to the other. He didn't pause to see if the man was going to be getting up again. Hands tore at him; Angel snapped the arms that they belonged to without looking around. Flagg made no move to stop either one of them, watching the scene instead with a self-satisfied look upon his face. There was very little that Angel would not have done to tear that look from Flagg's face, tear his face off entirely if that was what it took. While he could take anything and everything that an angry mob threw at him, though, Cordelia could not. There were no circumstances in the world in which that would be worth the sacrifice.

The same Cordelia whose life Angel was trying to figure out how to save had no problems with putting it into further danger, twisting back around to bear on the next person who would fire at her. 'If this is what you've taught her, Lindsey,' Angel thought as he jumped forward, 'then I'm sure you're very proud of yourself.' He caught Cordelia around her waist, jerking her out of harm's way as she issued a startled squawk. The bullet struck the floor and ricocheted, throwing up flecks of marble and making everyone duck. Angel felt blood begin to run down his calf as a piece of shrapnel larger than his thumb embedded itself into the skin behind his knee. Cordelia twisted like an eel in his arm, emitting noises caught somewhere between grunts and obscenities and not seeming to recognize his touch.

A bullet whistled close enough to Angel's head to part his hair and another thunked into the meaty part of his shoulder. "Cordelia, stop!" he shouted, and she froze with a speed that was nearly comic. "I think it's time for us to leave."

"Lindsey," Cordelia panted. "I saw the both of you-"

Angel twisted in the direction that he had seen Lindsey fall and saw nothing more than a tangled knot of people, none of which looked wildly on the side of pleased. Humans, but too many for him to cope with and also protect Cordelia. "No time," he said, taking her hand and tugging her along with him. There would be later chances at Flagg.

A second bullet struck Angel's back, near his spine, and staggered him. He released Cordelia long enough to ensure that there were several humans in the room who wouldn't be getting up again for hours. Angel considered them lucky that he was allowing them to get up at all. Bullets struck the walls as they passed, throwing up puffs of plaster. None found flesh.

"Do you have a car?" Cordelia gasped as they hit cool night air paces ahead of the crowd.

"This way." Angel pulled the keys from his pocket with one hand, keeping Cordelia's hand in the other. She pulled away after only a few feet, shaking her head.

"I'm fine." Angel cast her a look and she added, "Not the time, okay?"

"Right." Angel opened the Nova's door, slid into the driver's seat, and inserted the key into the ignition as one movement. Cordelia winced as she hopped into the passenger seat, but said nothing. She flicked the safety on the gun and dropped it between her feet, rubbing her hands against her thighs.

The tires screeched and left long streaks of rubber behind as Angel slammed his foot down on the gas pedal, leaving the hotel behind faster than anyone could hope to jump in a vehicle and follow. Cordelia stared out the windows rather than looking at him, leaving Angel to guess her mood based upon what little he could see of her reflection. The set of her shoulders was not friendly, and Angel could not say that he was surprised. Or particularly undeserving, for that matter.

"Do you have a destination in mind, or are we just going to drive in circles until you run out of gas?" Cordelia didn't turn around, addressing the streetlamps instead.

"I've been crouching in a place for the last few days." A small apartment, tucked as far as possible from Flagg's infant attempts at rebuilding the city. By sheer luck, it had been without corpses.

Cordelia nodded. She craned her head back to look at him, her eyes blank of emotion. "You're shot." When she turned back towards the window, Angel could see a worry line between her eyes.

Angel shifted and felt the seat behind him squelch. "Not badly."

"I'll help you take them out, anyway."

The thought of this Cordelia armed with a blade was not the most comforting that Angel had had that night. "Cordy, I'm-" he began. Cordelia hunched her shoulders until they came close to touching her ears. She shook her head, once, and Angel's words dried up in his throat. The rest of the ride passed by in clinging, oppressive silence.

 

"At least some things don't change," Cordelia said as she stepped inside what currently served as Angel's humble abode. She arched an eyebrow at the black furniture. "Even the end of the known world couldn't cure you of your color allergy." The teasing note that would have been present in Cordelia's voice a month before was marked in its absence now, turning her words jagged.

"I didn't pick it out." Angel shifted his shoulders and winced. His flesh was already knitting itself back together around the wounds, and the bullets burned.

Cordelia set her guns down on the kitchen table and rubbed at the back of her neck, flinching as she touched bruises in the shape of fingers. Angel could only imagine how they had gotten there. "So, what brings you to Vegas? Can't be the gambling, it looks like most of the casinos are going through a dry spell."

"I'm here because of Flagg," Angel said. Cordelia's eyes darted up to his face. "Seeing if there's anything I can do to stop him before he grows too powerful." Angel went through the kitchen drawers until he found a knife of suitable size, marveling at the fact that forceps could now be considered a luxury.

Cordelia snorted, and a measure of the tension ran out of her body. Not as much as Angel would have liked. "Of course. I'm afraid that I can't say the same. I'm only passing through on my way to meet this old lady that I've been carrying around in my head for the past couple of weeks."

"Mother Abigail," Angel said as he stripped off his ruined shirt. "I knew she would be the one who pulled you. But Lindsey?"

Cordelia stared down at her fingers as they gripped the edge of the table. "You left," she said in a low voice that was too even to sound natural. "And I didn't hear anything from you again, even though you promised me that you would come back. Lindsey was there, at least, and he understood. Little rat bastard that he turned out to be, he helped me get this far."

"Exactly," Angel snapped, forgetting for the moment the canyon that stood between them. "Take a look at just how far he's gotten you."

Cordelia yelped softly as her fingers tightened against the table and one of her nails broke, sending a rivulet of blood running from the cuticle. She stuck it into her mouth. "My vision was of both of you," she said at long last, pulling her finger back out and examining it. "Package deal. And...he helped me to get back out again. That's got to count for something, doesn't it?" The anxiety in Cordelia's voice was the closest thing to real emotion that she had shown for the past hour.

'Not if a carbon copy of him is the result.' "I don't know," Angel said.

"And I left him, just like you left me." Cordelia's mouth twisted and she rubbed at her eyes. "That's great."

"Not the same," Angel said, waiting until Cordelia looked up at him. "You didn't deserve to be left."

Cordelia exhaled noisily. "Not big with the making me feel better." She stared down at the knife. "I just want to get it all over with." From the tone of her voice, it wasn't bullet extraction that she was thinking of. The moonlight that spilled through the kitchen windows made the waxen cast to her skin impossible to ignore.

 

"Everyone that I love goes away in the end." -Johnny Cash, "Hurt"

A fresh trickle of blood ran down Angel's back, adding one more sticky-sweet tang to the reek that already filled the room. Angel shivered, and Cordelia said sharply, "Don't move." Her voice was muffled by the small flashlight that she was gripping between her teeth.

"Trying not to," Angel gritted. It was by a measure of will that he avoided asking Cordelia how she expected him to accomplish this with a couple of blades stuck into his back. Cordelia's voice in the few times that she had spoken had been sharper than a handful of rose stems, something less than inviting as far as conversation went. The newly minted Cordelia 2.0 might as well have come from another planet.

Cordelia leaned forward to get a closer look at her work, causing her breath to fan out across his back. Angel gripped the edges of his chair to control his shiver. The escaped pieces of Cordelia's hair glided, silken, across the back of his neck. "I think I see it," Cordelia said, her voice only a few inches away from Angel's ear. She twisted one of the knives and pain flared out from Angel's shoulder. The chair creaked beneath his fingers.

"Well, I feel it," he said, clenching his teeth. "Can you pull it out?"

"Hang on." Cordelia pulled one of the knives out and set it to the side. "Ewww." Angel couldn't control his jump as Cordelia's fingers probed into the wound. He lowered his head and ground his teeth together until the enamel was in danger of chipping away. "I know, I know," Cordelia said. "I'm hurrying."

"I can tell." Angel gasped as Cordelia's fingers widened the wound even further and abused nerves began to stridently lodge their complaints.

"Okay, I got it." There was a squelching noise, a sunburst of pain that had Angel gripping the edges of the chair hard enough to finally make the wood splinter beneath his fingers, and the pressure in his shoulder eased away. His skin itched, already beginning to close around the wound. "Gag me with a spoon," Cordelia muttered, setting the knife and bullet down next to the one from near Angel's spine and turning towards the sink. Angel twisted in time to catch her expression, equal parts dismay and pleasure, as actual water ran from the faucet.

"Will you look at that," Cordelia said. Her voice shook. "All you have to do to get the world back on its feet is be the very definition of soul-sucking evil."

"Flagg's time will come to an end," Angel told her. 'I promise,' lingered in his throat. Their particular unhappy history with that phrase killed it in its infancy.

Cordelia finished washing off her hands, tugged the last of her hair out of its ponytail, and splashed water across her face. She was redoing her hair when she turned to look at Angel again. "You're right." Her voice had retreated into a maddening politeness. Angel would have preferred that she begin yelling if it would at least mean quantifiable emotion. "But it won't be by your hand." Cordelia flashed him a smile as cold and sharp as a handful of diamonds. "Unless you happen to have an A-bomb. Do you?"

"Cordelia," Angel began.

Cordelia shrugged, managing to make even that innocuous gesture seem like a threat. "Didn't think so, but I figured I should ask, anyway. I don't know you quite as well as I used to think."

"Cordelia, I'm sorry," Angel said, believing the words entirely and knowing just as entirely that Cordelia would not believe them.

"You're sorry, Lindsey's sorry, the whole damned world is sorry," Cordelia muttered. She uttered a shaky laugh that was more akin to a wheeze and rubbed her hand over her eyes. Angel noticed that her fingers were trembling and the shadows beneath her eyes were dark enough to be mistaken for bruises. "For all the good that it does any of us. I just want to get out of town while the getting's good, okay?" There was a shake to her voice as she said it, like a woman who was contemplating some great and terrible idea for the first time and was still in awe of the fact that it was her everyday, mundane brain that had given birth to it. Angel thought he had a good idea of whose face flickered behind Cordelia's eyes, and it was not a palatable thought.

"No," Angel said. Cordelia flicked an acid look over him and opened her mouth as if she meant to let more flow off her tongue. That was all right; Angel had seen the pot of hurt simmering beneath her anger and fingered if he had one thing coming, it was that. But first she had to listen. "Not until you understand why I didn't come back."

Angel expected Cordelia to lob a Queen C special right back at him. He was surprised when she instead pressed her lips into a quick, firm line, eyes gleaming with what might have been avarice or tears and was in all likelihood a combination of both, and made a flicking gesture with her fingers. 'Hurry up and spit it out if you're ever going to.' She managed to seem even more imperious in silence than she could in speech. The set of Cordelia's shoulders was as brittle as new-blown glass, letting Angel know that any chance he had of not losing her forever lay rooted in the words he was about to say.

"I was planning to come back," Angel said, letting the words stumble out and lay bare for the weak, twitching things that they were. Cordelia's eyebrows rose, the only part of her expression that changed. "I never, ever meant to abandon you. If I had known what was going to happen..." 'What if?' was a dark and winding road, difficult to turn back from once started upon. Angel gave himself a brisk mental shake before he continued. "Giles called me and said that Buffy was ill with Captain Trips. That much you were there for." Cordelia nodded and made another hurry-up gesture with her fingers.

Angel paused to gather the horror and chaos of Sunnydale into words before he continued. "Giles was right," Angel said, barely aware that his voice had dropped and that Cordelia was having to lean forward to hear him. "And wrong at the same time. Giles told me that Buffy was sick. He didn't mention that the entire town was dying right along with her. Willow died a few hours before I got there, and her girlfriend was refusing to allow anyone near the body."

More than refusing, was outright hexing, huge magickal bursts that knocked bystanders off their feet and sent blood rushing from her nose. It wasn't until much later that Angel learned that her name had been Tara. Willow's body was stiff and cold, her girl next door beauty shattered by the black swellings that had risen on her neck. Her red hair was the only life-like thing left on her body, and it had been rendered into an obscenity. Angel's nose could already pick up the rising smell of decay.

Tara cradled Willow to her body the way that Drusilla cradled her dolls, and the look in her eyes was not far removed from Drusilla's own. It was temporary for now, but Angel had the feeling that it wouldn't take more than a nudge or two in the right direction to make that expression sink its claws in a little deeper and decide that it liked the view.

"Leave her alone," Xander said at last, his own breath rattling like a loose muffler in his chest and bright spots of fever lighting up his cheeks. He swayed as he spoke, and Angel had to put out a quick hand to keep him from falling. The boy that Xander had been would have been quick to shake off any aid that Angel offered, however well-intentioned, just as he would have fought to the death the reclaim Willow's body. The man that Xander had become understood quite a bit more about the business of death. They left Tara to her silent, bloody grief in the dorms of UC Sunnydale and drove on to Giles's apartment instead, where Buffy had taken up residence when it became clear that Captain Trips was not like the annual flu outbreak and the Slayer was not immune.

Angel expected wisecracks or even bleak attempts at gallows humor from Xander. The silent, blank-faced young man who had taken his place and stared at the streetlights as they went by (perhaps wondering, as Angel did, how long they would continue to shine without human beings sitting at their controls) was foreign enough to make Angel wonder if the real Xander was not dumped in an alley somewhere.

"I guess the vampires will starve," Xander said in a musing, far-away tone. "That's good, at least." He glanced back at Angel. "Present company excluded, of course." He even sounded as if he meant it.

Angel focused on driving, eyes straight ahead and knuckles gleaming as his fingers gripped the steering wheel. On occasion he would see an overturned garbage can or a slumped form cast just far enough into the shadows for Angel to tell himself that it was not a body and almost believe it. Beyond that, Sunnydale was almost eerie in its normalcy, save for the fact that not a soul-or creature without-walked the streets.

"Like Mayberry," Angel muttered.

Xander snorted. "Crossed with a Wes Craven movie, maybe." He tilted his head back against the seat, throat working, and Angel could see dark shadows rising beneath his jaw. Xander closed his eyes and didn't open them again until the car was pulling to a stop in front of Giles's complex.

Angel listened to the ticking of the engine and let the seconds pass by as he stared up at the structure. A great many dramas had been played out over the last four years within that courtyard, those stucco walls. Few of the ones that Angel had been present for had been pleasant.

If Giles's phone call had been any indication, this would be the most unpleasant one of all.

"She's waiting for you, man," Xander said. There was a quiet respect to his voice that was definitely not a part of the boy that Angel had last seen.

Angel got out of the car, barely remembering to pull to pull the keys out of the ignition and shut the door behind him. Years of accumulated ghosts pressed against him as he strode up the walk, demanding his attention, and Angel ignored them all. They weren't Buffy.

In the end, it was always going to come down to Buffy.

Giles opened the front door before Angel had time to lift his knuckles away from the wood, as if he had been waiting on the other side for the sound of Angel's knock. His eyes roved over Angel from his boots upwards, and the memories pressed together like sharks after the scent of blood. "She's upstairs," Giles said, dispensing with the pleasantries and stepping aside so that Angel could enter.

Angel's "Thank you" was scarcely more than a puff of air as he darted inside, up the stairs, and into the loft. From the corner of his eye he saw Xander collapse heavily into the nearest chair as Giles handed him a glass of water.

Angel froze as he reached the top step, staring at the slight, ravaged figure being dwarfed by Giles's bed. Buffy was lying so very still, and it took Angel several seconds to pick up the sound of her heartbeat. Were it not for Buffy's pained, whistling breath filling up the room, Angel would have thought he had arrived too late.

Buffy heard Angel's footsteps across the floor and shifted, turning her head towards him. She winced as the movement contorted the swellings on her neck. The fever that Angel could feel from the doorway was making her eyes gleam.

"Hey, beautiful," Angel said softly. Speaking too loudly might break the spell that hung over the room and kept his girl breathing. Angel settled onto the edge of the bed, taking Buffy's hand in his own. Her skin was thin and dry, so hot that it felt as if a steak could be fried in the palm of her hand.

Buffy's lips twisted into what might have been a dehydrated approximation of a smile and opened her mouth, but no sound emerged. There was a pitcher of water and an empty glass sitting on the bedside table. Angel filled the glass and held it up to Buffy's lips, supporting her head with his free hand as she tried to drink. Her throat spasmed, rejecting the liquid, and water ran out both sides of her mouth. She spit out the remainder and shook her head, emitting a low, frustrated cry of pain. Weeks later, that would be the hardest part of the story to recount. The way that Buffy had cried.

Angel began to pull the glass away, but Buffy shook her head again, placing a suddenly tremor free hand upon his arm. Superflu or not, there were still remnants of a Slayer's strength surging beneath her skin. They went in sips, one at a time with long pauses in between. Buffy managed a quarter of a glass before she had to beg off, at which point tears of pain had begun to run down her face.

"Giles didn't tell me that you were coming," Buffy said.

"I think he wanted you to have a pleasant surprise." Angel had smelled the scent that rose off Buffy's skin in waves many times before. There were only a few surprises left in her future, pleasant or otherwise. Angel's throat spasmed. "I came as soon as he called me."

Buffy's chapped lips split as she tried to smile, bringing pinpricks of blood to the surface. Angel tasted the copper on her mouth as he bent his head to kiss her, and felt the sickness rising out of her throat and into his. Buffy's attempt at reciprocation was clumsy, hampered by fever and dehydration, and still one of the sweetest kisses that Angel had ever received.

"I should be letting you sleep," Angel said after they had pulled away from one another.

Buffy shook her head as she tried to push herself up higher in the bed. Angel watched her fail twice before he braved her look and wrapped his arm around her shoulders to assist her. The amount of weight that Buffy had lost was shocking; to Angel she felt no more substantial than a doll. 'My God, there wasn't that much of her to begin with,' he thought.

"Don't wanna," Buffy said when she was resettled against the pillows. The 'I might not wake up' hung unspoken and unacknowledged between them. Buffy cast him a shy look from beneath her lashes, until Angel could almost see her fifteen year-old self lying in the bed instead. "I'm glad you came," she whispered. Angel didn't know if she was capable of speaking much louder. The swellings beneath her jaw looked like brooding gargoyles in the room's half-light.

Angel's hand found its way back into Buffy's, and he squeezed as hard as he dared. "You needed me."

Buffy dipped her head. Her hair, pulled away from her face into a scrunchie, caught the light from Giles's bedside lamp and threw it back in motes of pure gold. She lifted her free hand and used it to trace the planes of Angel's face, leaving scorching trails behind in spite of the fact that her touch was so light that Angel could have been imagining it. The gentleness had fled from her eyes by the time she had dropped her hand, and when she spoke again it was as the Slayer, reminding Angel that there were some places they could not go back to.

"How are things in LA?" Buffy asked. "Is Captain Trips there, too?"

"Not as bad as it is in Sunnydale." Angel ran his thumb across the back of Buffy's hand as he spoke. "But, yeah, there's been an outbreak. I think it's gone global by now."

A frown line appeared between Buffy's eyes. "I think I saw something like that on the news, but..." She shrugged. "Giles won't say for sure, but I think I've been delirious." A guilty look crossed over her face. "I know he didn't get that bruise on his cheek from running into a door."

Angel had seen no such bruise. Either Buffy had been ill for longer than Giles had mentioned, or she was delirious still. Angel kept his grip on Buffy's sweltering hand and said nothing.

The pillowcases rustled as Buffy settled back against them, staring at the ceiling until Angel thought she was drifting away from him. "We're not going to win this one, are we?" Her voice was dreamy, so far from her usual conquer-the-world tone that Angel's grip on her hand tightened beyond her control.

"Then we'll make damned sure that they're still talking about us when it's over," Angel replied.

"Well, it's something, isn't it?" Buffy's eyelids fluttered downwards.

Angel waited until her breathing evened out before he laid his palm against her chest to feel her pulse. He immediately wished that he hadn't. Buffy's breathing echoed and reechoed throughout the room, proof that she was hanging onto life still, but her pulse was erratic and faster than a bird's. Angel brushed a few loose strands of hair away from her forehead before he pressed his lips against the skin, willing four years of emotion into the gesture.

"I love you, Buffy," Angel said as he pulled away-

 

Cordelia twitched, the only sign of emotion that she had made yet.

 

-but Buffy was already too far under to hear him.

Xander was curled into his chair, eyes closed, when Angel descended the stairs. The bruise-dark swellings beneath his jaw were twice as pronounced as they had been an hour before, and Angel hated to look at them for more than a few seconds at a time. The apartment reeked of impending death.

"In here." Angel turned and saw Giles standing in the kitchen, putting the finishing touches on two enormous mugs of tea. 'Finishing touches' meant generous helpings of scotch rather than sugar or milk. Under the circumstances, Angel already considered his blood alcohol level to be too low by half. He accepted the mug that Giles offered with thanks.

"You can see why I called you," Giles said, taking a gulp of his tea without bothering to let it cool. If the scalding liquid caused him any measure of pain, he didn't show it. There were brilliant spots of color rising on Giles's cheeks, and Angel didn't' think that they were a result of alcohol. Not with the heat that he could feel radiating off the other man from feet away.

Angel took a drink from his own mug, savoring the burn that traveled down his esophagus and set up ship in his stomach. "How long has she been sick?" he asked.

It was a bitter expression that tightened the lines around Giles's mouth. "She began to show symptoms ten days ago," he said, "and has been forced to take to bed for the past week. Xander, you see, began to appear ill only yesterday, and I fear that he will be unable to keep to his feet past tomorrow. It's her Slayer power. Every time that she verges on death, it rallies and brings her back. Not enough so that she can beat it, mind you. Being a Slayer only gives her enough strength to...prolong her agony." If Giles gripped his mug any harder, it was going to shatter and send shards of porcelain flying into his fingers. Angel took it from him and set it down on the counter.

"Does the Council understand any of this?" Angel asked.

Mention of the Council rekindled the rage behind Giles's eyes rather than alleviating it. "Oh, no. Rooting out the cause is not nearly so interesting to them as exploiting those who happen to be immune."

Angel thought of Cordelia and the remarkable health that she continued to show, in spite of being in close contact with Captain Trips from all sides. "There are definite cases of immunity, then?"

Giles snorted and reclaimed his drink. Angel suspected that it was neither his first nor his last. "Most likely less than one percent of the total population," he said. "As fast as the disease is spreading, there is no time to create a cure based upon the immune systems of those who do happen to be resistant, and the Council knows it. However, they are taking the same attitude towards the immune that they take towards the Slayers: if they cannot understand it, then they must either control it or destroy it." Giles made a short, bitter sound and swirled the remains of his tea. Angel doubted that such an admission would have come out of him if he had been sober. "They'll be dead and buried soon enough, I suppose." Giles's throat worked as he tilted his head back and drained the last of the tea. "Sad to think that the legacy of the human race comes down to this."

The air in the apartment became amazingly thick from one moment to the next, rising up and threatening to choke Angel even though he needn't inhale. "I need to go for a walk," Angel said, setting his mug down on the counter and heading for the door. The defeat that lined Giles's face did nothing to pull him back. If Angel was willing to be perfectly honest with himself, it might even have spurred him on.

"Mind the dawn," Giles called to his back. Mild concern, but it was more than he would have shown the year before.

The door snicked shut behind Angel just in time to muffle the sound a crash and broken crockery from within the apartment. Unless Angel was mistaken, Giles had hurled his mug against the kitchen wall. Had Angel's hands not been empty, he might have gone back inside and joined him. He walked further into the courtyard, tilting his head back to stare at the sterile sky. "You sons of bitches," Angel said, scarcely aware that he was speaking aloud. "Is this what you had planned all along? Dangle hope in front of me, tell me that someday I could-" Angel cut himself off. "That someday I would make a difference, just to pull it away? Tell me that she was going to die if I stayed human, so that you could kill her, anyway?" Angel stared up at the stars for a long time. His voice was raw when he finally spoke again. "Any fight you want to throw at me, I'm ready. I'll take it. But I can't stop what you won't give me some way of understanding." The stars winked down with malicious cheer until Angel swore and turned away.

Angel walked until the dawn whispered warnings along his skin, making it back to Giles's with moments to spare. Xander had transferred himself from the chair to the couch, his neck beginning to look puffy and unnatural and a steady stream of mucus running from one nostril. Giles had foregone tea altogether and was halfway through the bottle of scotch. And Buffy lay cold and stiffening in the bed upstairs.

The world was enveloped in a soft, dim grayness that lasted for a very long time.

 

"I remember falling.
I remember marching
Like a one man army
Through the blaze.
I remember coughing.
I believe in something.
I don't wanna remember falling
For their lies."
-Our Lady Peace, "One Man Army"

"My memories of anything that happened for about a week afterwards are hazy," Angel said. There had been a moonlit funeral in the cemetery where Buffy had spent far too many of her living hours, with Angel digging the grave and Xander sitting on a tombstone as his strength failed him. Giles had been thoroughly drunk and showed every indication of staying that way. Then there was a break, and the next memory was that of the maggots that crawled through Xander's eyes, turning steadfast brown into a roiling mess of milky white. He had been dead for days. Giles had been gone for only a few hours. "I buried the three of them as well as I was able, then went to the college and buried Willow, too. Her girlfriend might have been immune and wandered off, or she might have gone looking for a more private place to die. I didn't see her, anyway." Angel's voice had descended into a flat, mechanical tone, as if it were a computer relaying the tale rather than a man. "I began having the dreams the next day."

"And here you are," Cordelia said. She was giving Angel a decent run for his money in seeing which one of them could most resemble a machine.

"And here I am." Cordelia wasn't looking at him, instead focusing on her nails with an intensity that suggested that the secrets to cold fusion could be found in her torn cuticle. "I dreamed that you were dead, Cordelia, and it wasn't one of the dreams from Flagg." Her head ratcheted up. "If I could do things over again I would come back and make damned sure for my own eyes that it was true, but it felt so real, and-" She wasn't ready to know the other part. Not if he wanted the slightest chance of getting her out of Las Vegas in one piece. "They felt real."

Cordelia dipped her head but with her hair pulled back and unavailable to hide behind, all of her emotions glittered at the surface like broken bits of glass. "I want to hate you," Cordelia said in a low voice. "God, how I want to hate you. If I could hate you I could be done, and I could leave. It wouldn't hurt like this." She lifted her head, and Angel was unsurprised to see unshed tears gleaming in her eyes. Nor was he surprised when she took several deep breaths and chased them back before a single one could fall.

If it was worth saying once, it was worth saying again. "I'm so sorry, Cordelia." Angel placed his hands on her shoulders, feeling her flinch but not pull away.

"I wish that both of you would quit saying that." Cordelia sighed and very deliberately picked Angel's hands off of her shoulders, giving a squeeze so faint that he wasn't sure if it was real before she released them. Her gaze turned distant. "Both of you." Cordelia's expression cleared, becoming nearly disgusted, and she kicked the table leg hard enough to make it rattle. "Ow!"

Angel's eyebrows went up. "Do you feel violent a lot now?" His tone was not joking.

"We help the helpless," Cordelia said. "That's the whole point of it, right? That's what makes us different from Flagg's bootlickers. We help people even when they can't or won't do anything for us in return. That's the deal...even when helping that person might actually make the ultimate evil realize that you betrayed them and, oh, crap." Cordelia looked as if she wanted to kick the chair again. "My vision was of both of you," she said. "I can't leave Vegas. Not yet."

 

Lindsey wasn't going to ask for, or wish for, death. No matter what Flagg did to him, and if the working over that his guards had given him was any kind of appetizer, Flagg could do quite a lot. Death wishes were no more than Mother Nature's own twisted form of population control, her way of weeding out the herd. Lindsey allowed himself a snort of laughter, painful through his bruised face. Nature didn't need many population control mechanisms now; she had taken the colossal cock-up of the planet by her most destructive children into her own hands and administered a global enema so powerful that it would be centuries before global warning was spoken of again as anything more than a campfire tale.

So, no suicide games for him. He had fucked things up-only now was he beginning to grasp how far back his string of mistakes went-and fucked up so powerfully that he figured his chances of walking out of Las Vegas were on the same level as the chance that Flagg would his hippie song and dance into actual practice. When he exited the stage, though, he was going to do it kicking, screaming, and taking as many of Flagg's people out with him as he could manage.

He had done a fair amount of kicking by now. There had been more than a few head traumas in his recent past, so there were holes in his memory like a video camera that people had repeatedly placed their hands in front of, but he suspected that there had been more than a little of the second, too. That left only option number three unexplored. Lindsey couldn't say that he minded the prospect all that much.

"Lindsey, Lindsey, Lindsey," Flagg said, settling on his haunches in front of the chair where Lindsey had been dumped, in too much pain for much need of restraining. Or maybe Flagg was just getting off on the power of it.

"It's such a shame that things had to end this way," Flagg continued, sounding like a disappointed uncle even as he wore the face of the Big Bad Wolf. It was only a hop, skip, and a jump away from the tone that Holland had used before ordering Lee killed. Lindsey's balls shriveled towards his stomach as he realized the full scope to which he had been played.

A faint smile passed over Flagg's face, as if he were reading Lindsey's thoughts and agreeing that, yes, he truly had FUBARed himself something fierce. He very well might have been; Lindsey had not forgotten how the two of them had come to know each other in the first place and doubted that Flagg had gotten Las Vegas back on its feet again through spit and willpower alone. But, unless he was mistaken on a level comparable to the one he had spent the last month in, there was a twinge of uneasiness on Flagg's face, as well. Flagg wasn't so omniscient as he would like to be, as he felt he should be, and his eyes demanded to know why.

Lindsey didn't like that nervous look, wished that there was something that he could to turn it away from himself. Men who wore that look shot their wives and neighbors and then claimed no memory of the event in court. For some of them it was even true.

Flagg rose into a standing position, placing his hand on Lindsey's shoulder. There was a bruise larger than his fist spreading beneath Lindsey's shirt, souvenir of the impromptu flying lesson that he had been given earlier. Flagg squeezed just so, and the pain that had been hovering like a kind of elevator music in the back of Lindsey's mind became a full on rock concert in less time than it took to breathe. Lindsey hissed air in through his teeth and felt tears of pain springing into his eyes. It took every ounce of will that he had to avoid crying out.

"I don't understand this change of heart," Flagg said, increasing the pressure by increments until black spots were doing a ballet in front of Lindsey's eyes. "Was I in any way unclear when we came to our little arrangement? If you give me what I want, 'if you worship me', and in return I could have given you back everything that had been taken from you." For a moment, Lindsey thought he felt the sensation of fingers returning to him, doubly bitter when his downward glance reflected only the garish scar tissue. "Wasn't that the deal?" Another wave of pressure. Lindsey bit the inside of his cheek and tasted blood bathing his tongue.

"Yes," he managed.

"I thought so." While Flagg's voice had not changed, the ruddy good humor had bled out of his face, leaving a ghastly Dia de los Muertos mask behind. "Now, contrary to what you're thinking right now, I am not the devil. I think, had you given me a chance, you would not have found me to be all that different from the Big Guy himself, except of course for the part where I keep my promises. Neither one of us minds a healthy dollop of fear mixed into our reverence. Hell, if you'll excuse that one small pun, we even welcome it. What makes us different, though, are those few things that we don't tolerate." Flagg's voice dropped into a growl and his fingers spasmed. There was a dry, cracking sound as Lindsey's collarbone snapped, like a wishbone being jerked in half. The pain was immediate, glorious, and Lindsey's scream choked him as it caught in his throat. "What I don't put up with is disobedience. No sirree, Bob. That's where El Hombre and I go our separate ways. This raises an intriguing question, y'see. Now that you've broken my cardinal rule, what am I going to do with you?"

"I figure you'll get around to killing me eventually," Lindsey wheezed. He had been given a good working over before he ever saw the inside of Flagg's office, taking care of whatever ribs Angel hadn't gotten to in the first go around. Full breaths were out of the question; shallow pants were an agony.

Quicksilver flash of weasel's teeth. Lindsey expected Flagg to lean over and bite a chunk out of his face at any moment. "No doubt, no doubt. I only wonder how late we can make it."

'Make your stand, boy.'

Lindsey jerked, the resulting wave of pain bringing his teeth together so sharply that he nearly took off the tip of his own tongue. Flagg, assuming that the movement was made through pain alone, didn't change expression. It was not an unfair assumption, as Lindsey's entire body stood out in sweat and it was only an empty stomach that kept him from throwing up on the carpet. The old woman's voice came from everywhere, nowhere. It echoed through Lindsey's head, simultaneously as loud as a shout and as intimate as a whisper, and carried with it the smell of growing corn and the faint twang of a guitar.

'You've been content to stand at the crossroads with your hat in your hand for too damned long, waiting to see which side holds the most winning cards before you throw your lot in with them. That might have gotten you by before, but the world's stopped playing by those rules. Like it or not, it's time for you to go about picking a side. How's this one working out for you?" Though no more than a twinge of annoyance crossed the old woman's voice, Lindsey had never felt more dressed down in his life.

'Get me out of here,' he dared to think back, unsure if she could hear him, or that Flagg wasn't at that moment listening to them both.

'The Lord helps those that are willing to shuck their buns and help themselves first.' Lindsey's heart sank to the level of his kneecaps. 'But none of us are quite what we used to be, either. Abby Freemantle, she's learned a trick or two. God willing, I'll see what I can do.'

Flagg had realized that Lindsey's attention was divided and stared at him with narrowed, suspicious eyes. The pig that adorned one of his jacket buttons appeared to give Lindsey a conspirator's wink. 'Better fucked together than alone,' the look said. Lindsey turned his eyes away from it.

"So tell me, Lindsey," Flagg said. His voice had gone low and soothing, turning him into the ultimate snake-oil salesman. His grip on Lindsey's shoulder didn't ease up by so much as an inch. "What brought about his shift in loyalty? I know all about your tendency to waver." The feeling that he was about to lose a large chunk of his face came again, stronger than ever. "But you don't expect me to believe that you were led astray by a nice piece of ass, do you?" 'Tell me why,' Flagg's eyes ordered. 'Tell me why I can't read you.' Once the certainty had planted itself into Lindsey's mind, it was inescapable. His lips split.

And he laughed.

It was a weak, pained sound that took as nearly as much from him as it gave, but it echoed and reechoed through the room until it had grown to many times its previous size. As it had with Cordelia before him, the very air seemed to curl around the sound like indignation to an insult. Though he knew that he was going to pay dearly for the outburst, while it lasted it was the purest, most wonderful sound that Lindsey could remember making in years. "I did it for me, you moron," Lindsey said. "Isn't that why you chose me? Because I always look out for Number One? I decided that I'd rather be dead than shackled to one more master.

"I did it for me."

Lindsey's hand closed around the stone about his neck, the one that he had been unable to take off even as he had betrayed Flagg in every way imaginable. It was cool and clammy in the way that the hand of a corpse would have been, and it hummed beneath Lindsey's touch. Lindsey swore that it writhed as he broke the chain binding it to his neck, a death throe. He hurled it to the ground at Flagg's feet before he could be bitten by it. When he died, he was going to do it as his own person and hope that was enough.

The air in the room disappeared as the stone bounced to a halt against the toe of Flagg's boot, sucked into the tornado created by Flagg's towering rage. A red flaw appeared in the stone ever as Lindsey watched, twisting and blinking up at him like a baleful eye. It was matched by the rising red gleam that had begun to swallow Flagg's eyes. It was like watching a storm roll in from the coast and knowing that there was nothing that he could do to stop it even as he was about to be engulfed.

"I see," Flagg said in a robotic voice entirely unlike his normal tone. His fist flicked out, and Lindsey was on the move.

No open-handed slap this time, but a full punch that caught Lindsey square on a jaw that already had a rainbow arcing across the skin. Lindsey's head snapped back and he was lifted over the top of the chair, landing in an ungainly sprawl behind it. Lindsey had no time to soften the landing and wound up taking most of the impact upon his wounded shoulder. A mortar round went off beneath his skin and Lindsey made no attempt to bury his yell as colors the likes of which he had never seen before blossomed in front of his eyes. His face bounced against the floor and a fragment of jade, a forgotten remnant of Cordelia's earlier assault on Flagg in this very office, sliced a three inch long gash into Lindsey's cheek that ran nearly to the bone. The pain from his face was one extra bucket of water poured into an ocean when compared to his collarbone, but the sticky-hot feel of blood rushing across his skin chased the sluggishness from Lindsey's mind. He closed his hand around the tiny weapon as he rolled to his feet to meet Flagg's charge.

"Gonna make such an example out of you." Flagg lifted Lindsey off the ground by his shirt. "You'll be the last one that betrays me, do ye ken? The very last-"

Lindsey swung the jade in a wide arc and plunged it into Flagg's right eye, cutting him off mid-tirade. Flagg made a high-pitched squealing noise, like his customary giggle gone awry or a pig being beaten with a bat, and dropped Lindsey so abruptly that his knees could not keep up with him. Lindsey tumbled to the floor, an excellent vantage point from which to witness the damage that he had done.

He had buried the jade into Flagg's eye until his hand had struck up against the socket. Vitreous fluid ran down Flagg's face in a thick, runny ooze, mingled with blood and what Lindsey had the terrible suspicion might actually be maggots. He vowed then and there to never eat eggs again. The jade gleamed amongst the mess, a newborn, malevolent eye to replace the one that Lindsey had destroyed. Flagg's left eye still glared about the room, glowing more red than ever and passing over Lindsey even though he stood directly in its path. Flagg appeared to be having a screaming conversation with an entity that-Lindsey sincerely hoped-was not even in the room.

"You promised me that it couldn't be like this!" Flagg shrieked, careening sideways until his hip cracked against the desk. A marble paperweight crashed to the floor. "You promised!"

Lindsey watched the undoing of a god with equal parts awe, fear, and pride. "How's that for making a stand?" he murmured, and felt an old woman smile.

The explosion from outside the casino was enough to make every window in the building rattle in its frame.

 

"I don't know how I got this way.
I'll never be all right.
So I'm breaking the habit,
Breaking the habit
Tonight."
-Linkin Park, "Breaking The Habit"

The Nova came to a purring stop in front of the liquor store. Angel paused with his hand on the key, unwilling to turn the car off and commit himself to staying in one place for too long. Neither, however, was he eager to watch Cordelia slip away from him again. The various ways that the plan could go wrong hung sick and heavy in the back of Angel's mind.

Cordelia stared out at the hulk for a moment before she turned back to Angel. "Here's my stop." In the waning moonlight, the shadows beneath her eyes were very dark.

Angel reached out, his hand hovering over Cordelia's shoulder for a moment before he changed course and dragged his fingers through the silky-rough texture of her ponytail. Her posture tightened like the drawing of a bowstring. "Be careful."

The smile that Cordelia flicked towards him was sharper than a sword and fit far too easily on her face. Angel thought it aged her ten years. Realizing that the woman he had left behind was as dead as the corpses of the plague victims didn't stop him from wishing for her return, or make the wanting itself any less painful. "I'll be more than careful," Cordelia said. "I'll be perfect." She twitched her head and tugged her hair out of Angel's grasp; the ends stung his hand as they were pulled away.

Angel returned his hand to the steering wheel and watched as Cordelia gathered her weapons. She pulled the two guns out of Lindsey's jacket and unloaded them, her lips moving without sound as she counted the bullets. Angel wanted to knock the guns from her hands, tear the jacket from her back. Reverse time, if that's what it took to get his Cordelia back.

"It'll have to be enough," Cordelia said, reloading the guns and tucking them out of sight again. She jingled the Hummer keys in her fist. "Wish me luck."

"How about I wish you weren't doing this, instead?" Angel asked.

Whatever warmth had been trying to find its way back into Cordelia's eyes disappeared behind a curtain of ice, dangerous and easy to misstep on. "I'm not leaving Vegas without him," Cordelia said. Her tone was tight and clipped.

"And I'm not leaving without you." The 'Not again' lay unspoken and unacknowledged in the air between them.

The ice thawed by a few degrees, enough to make Angel aware of how much of it there was and might always be. "Then we have an agreement." Cordelia regarded Angel for a moment, her eyes dark and grave, before she leaned across the seat and pressed her lips to his. Though their mouths never parted, the charge that passed from one patch of skin to the other was not of the platonic variety. Angel stared at Cordelia as she pulled away.

"Thought I'd return the favor," Cordelia said solemnly. She had bounded out of the car and was disappearing around the side of the building before Angel could answer. By the time the sound of the slamming car door had ceased echoing, she was gone.

Angel stared after her. "Returning the favor," he said as the put the Nova into gear and pulled away from the curb. "You picked a hell of a time to start practicing irony, Cordy."

 

Cordelia paused by the side of the building, leaning her shoulder against the brick and taking a moment to settle herself as the sound of Angel's car rumbled off into the distance. Her mouth tingled from even the momentary contact with Angel's and her heart insisted that, no, really, now was an excellent time to learn the tango. It was almost enough to make Cordelia wish for the return of that cold, steely focus that alternately terrified and comforted her. Barring that, she would settle for getting good and pissed off.

"Angst later," Cordelia muttered as she approached the Hummer. The door gave a wince-inducing screech as she yanked it open. "Save idiot now." And on the drive over she could decide what she was going to scream at him for first: being a pragmatic imbecile, or trying to make up for it by being a passive-aggressively noble imbecile.

"You're coming to the rescue of Judas Iscariot," Cordelia murmured, running her hand across the warped metal that made up the hood before she hauled herself into the cab. She paused a moment to consider. "To both sides. Welcome to Bizarro World, population: your life." The engine made a choked noise as she started it and Cordelia held her breath, praying that the entire thing would not explode in her face.

Cordelia waited until she was pushing at the timeline that she and Angel had set up, but the Hummer showed no sign of imminent pyrotechnics or increase in angry noises. She popped the clutch and ever-so-slowly eased the vehicle around the side of the liquor store. Even at the inhumanly early hour there were people on the streets, and they threw the Hummer alarmed looks before skittering for the safety of the indoors. Word of her had spread, and it would not be long before reinforcements were on the way. It was easy to place her free hand to the pocket of her jacket and feel the weapons there, hear the answering thump-thud of her heart as her pulse quickened. Let them come.

Cordelia had never liked the color, anyway.

 

It was a nice car. Not quite so nice as the GTX, which Angel had been forced to abandon one hundred miles outside of Las Vegas when traffic became too thick to stay in the same vehicle, but worthy all the same. Angel was going to be sorry to see it go. It would be a long time before Detroit rolled another classic Chevy off the assembly line.

Every light in the MGM Grand was blazing, and people milled in front of the windows and doors like legions of ants. The chink in security that he and Lindsey had slipped through earlier was gone as thoroughly as if it had never been. Angel had a dark moment in which to wonder if maybe Flagg had allowed them to slip through. He might have even known all along that they would be coming. There were whispers floating around the city suggesting that Flagg's powers were much greater than those of the average demon or sorcerer. When coupled with Flagg's tendency to know the very things that he shouldn't be able to, the thoughts were enough to make every muscle in Angel's body thrum with tension.

"You had better be hurting right now, Lindsey," Angel muttered as he braked the Nova in the center of the street. He didn't bother to turn the car off, and the headlights cut swaths into the darkness like accusatory fingers. Already people were rushing towards the vehicle; Angel could see the gleam of starlight off gunmetal. "Or you will be when I catch up with you." Angel reached into the backseat and closed his hand around the sword that lay there. Cordelia had her new ways. He had his, and each to their own selves be true. Nothing more could be asked of them than that.

A man who could have been someone's Little League coach sprinted towards the car, skidding to a halt fast enough to throw up flecks of gravel as he recognized Angel. "You!"

"Me," Angel agreed. He twirled the sword in his hand until it caught the scant light and threw it back in motes of pure silver. "Now, this confrontation can end one of two ways."

The kiddie coach turned his gun around on him and began firing.

"Yeah, I didn't think that was going to work, either." Angel threw himself to the side. Bullets struck the Nova in a line where Angel had been standing, punching holes through the metal and coming within inches of piercing the gas tank. Angel tensed. No fireball yet, but if this idiot was allowed to keep shooting...

Angel dropped into a low crouch, spun, and hooked his legs around the other man's in a move that was deceptive in its elegance. The blow to the temple that he delivered with the sword handle was far less graceful. The man crumpled and did not move again. Angel leapt back to his feet and whirled to face the next opponent. If they were smart, one look a the gleam of the sword and the hungry expression on Angel's face would have them seriously reconsidering the wisdom of their entire 'Go, pit of evil!' philosophy.

Several faltered. One or two even turned back. The rest of the soft, stupid children did not even slow down.

Angel swung the sword and opened up a gash longer than his forearm in a man's thigh, slicing through muscle and tendon and exposing the white-pink gleam of bone. Arterial blood sprayed through the air and made wet plopping sounds as it came back down on the pavement. The feel of blood on their faces, hot and real and not about to disappear into the comfortable fantasy world that allowed them to deal with Flagg on a day-to-day basis, seemed to unnerve more people than even the sound of the man's screams. Angel wondered if Flagg had been telling them tales of the Champion who didn't kill humans. He twirled the sword around and felt a warm trickle of blood run down his thumb. If so, Flagg had neglected to inform them that Champions were a useless breed in a world that had moved on.

The first man to feel Angel's sword was going to be lucky if he ever walked again. The second was going to be lucky if he saw the sunrise.

A bullet tore into Angel's shoulder, another into his thigh. The pain was immediate, invigorating, and Angel did not even attempt to halt the change that rippled across his face. His clothing was sodden by the time he staggered behind the cover of the Nova, wincing as he heard more bullets striking the metal. 'It's not time...'

A second pair of headlights lit up the night, connecting with the Nova's and tangling them together until they were one beam. The Hummer was making a squalling noise like a rabbit caught in its death throes. Angel saw the damage done to the front end and wondered how Cordelia was able to drive it at all, let alone at the bat out of hell-or into it, as their particular case might be-clip that she was going. It was a wonder that she hadn't been hurt worse; it would be a miracle if she wasn't killed outright now.

Angel staggered away from his car seconds before impact. Flagg's followers, lacking the advantage of foreknowledge, were not so lucky. Two of them were still in front of the Nova as the far larger Hummer barreled into it; a second later they were barely human smears. If Angel squinted just right, he thought that Cordelia might even have sped up.

The Nova never stood a chance. It left streaks of rubber behind as it was shoved across the street, colliding with several more people along the way and dragging them beneath its bulk. Fragments of glass and metal were hurled into the air to fall down again like ran with teeth. 'Dying rabbit' was elevated to 'dear lord, someone has set a cat on fire'. The sound of the brakes screaming was nearly buried beneath the rest of the caterwauling as Cordelia finally put her foot down on them, spinning the tangled hybrid around and bringing the entire mess to a shuddering halt.

The possibility of being shot again wasn't so much as a ripple in Angel's mind as he broke back out of the shadows and sprinted for the driver's door. Impact had warped it beyond any human ability to open. Angel nearly ripped it off its hinges in his haste to get at the cargo inside.

They lived in a world that believed in miracles.

Cordelia moaned and put her hands to her forehead as Angel reached into the cab for her. She had been thrown violently against the seatbelt-already Angel could see the fresh bruise that would join her myriad others by morning-but there was no blood or broken bones that he could see. "Angel. Hi," she greeted him as he undid the seatbelt and lifted her out. Cordelia peeked over his shoulder at the havoc that she had wreaked. "Huh. I did good."

"Yes, you did." Angel kissed her temple. "You're insane, but you did very, very good. Now let's get you out of here."

"Oh. Right." Cordelia wrapped her arms around Angel's neck, making it clear to him that she wasn't fully conscious yet. "There's the gas."

"Gas?" Angel peeked into the Hummer's cargo area and swore. Scooping Cordelia more securely into his arms, he took off across the street as if all the fires of hell were after him. A few short seconds later, they were.

The Nova's gas tank went first, a popping sound that ruffled the hair on the back of Angel's neck. Then Hummer's, louder and more ominous. The extra containers of gasoline went up at nearly the same time. The dual explosions created a sound that rattled teeth in their sockets and sent a pillar of flame skyward that was worthy of a Quentin Tarantino movie.

The force of it lifted Angel off of his feet and nearly upended him on a hand of air hot enough to singe the hair from his arms. He staggered and barely caught his balance in time, clutching Cordelia protectively to him. She swore and clapped her hands over her ears. Though her lips moved, Angel could not make out what she was saying. He considered himself lucky to still be in possession of eardrums at all.

There were people still clustered around the haphazard mangling of metal when its gas tanks exploded. Angel could hear their startled screams even through the ringing in his ears, smell the acrid scent of their hair as it lit on fire. Of all the emotions that Angel could muster for the stupid children of the damned city, pity did not number among them.

Angel carried Cordelia far enough away so that the heat was no longer in danger of blistering her skin before he set her back to the pavement, keeping his hand against the small of her back in case her balance failed her. Cordelia's legs wobbled for a moment before they declared her acceptable and she put a hand to her temple. "Fulfilling my destiny through head trauma. It's like a theme."

"Are you going to be able to do the rest of your part?" Angel grabbed Cordelia's elbow as she began to sway.

"Yeah." Cordelia flapped her hand towards the MGM Grand, where streamers of people were rushing out to see the inferno. "Go. Be a hero. I'll be back to meet you." The corners of her lips lifted, and for a moment it almost looked real. "And thank you."

"We help the helpless," Angel said. "Right now Lindsey qualifies."

"Still. Thanks." Cordelia lifted her hand in farewell. "See you soon?"

"Soon." Angel didn't dare let the words 'I promise' pass his lips, but he made one all the same. Giving himself a mental shake, Angel turned back towards the hotel and slid back into the shadows that were always so eager to claim him. The crowd was obvious and awed, too intent on the flames to notice the monster/man that slunk away from them and headed for the hive that they were so generously leaving unprotected.

He had lost his sword somewhere in the explosion, but that was all right. Angel didn't mind getting a little blood on his fists.

 

"Nobody said it was easy.
It's such a shame for us to part.
Nobody said it was easy.
Nobody said it would be so hard."
Coldplay-"The Scientist"

The windows shook as the sound of the explosion rolled up the sound of the building, making a noise like a thousand chattering teeth, but not a one of them broke. Lindsey was willing to bet that extra care was put into the windows of offices this high up so as to block the possibility of black jack inspired high dives. The noise shocked Flagg away from both his invisible companion and his eye, diverting it instead onto the chaos occurring floors below. Good news. Lindsey lurched to his feet and staggered towards the door, making a grab for the wall as the world twisted around him. His fingers left long streaks of red behind on the paint.

Bad news: distracting Flagg's attention from his wound gave it plenty of time to fall back onto the person who put it there.

"Oh, no." Flagg's voice had gone deep and phlegmy, as if his throat was struggling towards a transformation that it couldn't quite complete. "Oh, no, it doesn't get to be that easy."

'This is not what I would call easy.' Flagg's hand came down on the broken shoulder, causing colors the likes of which he had never seen before to flash before Lindsey's eyes. He barely registered the feel of Flagg's fingers around his throat until his larynx was pressed shut with one squeeze and he was lifted off his feet entirely. "Not that easy, no, never that easy," Flagg was muttering, his remaining eye stared at a point quite beyond Lindsey even as the other man kicked and struggled. His lips had pulled back from his teeth and spittle gleamed off his lower lip. As his lungs heaved and burned, setting off a whole new chain reaction of unwelcome sensation through his torso, Lindsey had to wonder how he had ever thought this man could be sane.

Realizing that there weren't going to be any miracles coming his way a second time, Lindsey reached out with his good arm and pushed down on the shard of jade that protruded from Flagg's eye as hard as he could, driving it even further into the unresisting flesh. It made a soft squelching noise, like half-rotted fruit being broken open, as Lindsey shoved the makeshift knife far past the point where it should have impacted brain tissue. Flagg squealed and let Lindsey's feet touch the floor again, dragging them both across the room in a bizarre tango. Lindsey gathered his final strength and wrenched himself free at last, lurching backwards until his back nearly struck the far wall. Flagg had fallen to one knee and let out a sound like the howling of a wolf as Lindsey hobbled out the door.

The elevators still worked. Lindsey didn't realize how afraid he had been that Flagg's will would grind the machinery to a halt and leave him suspended in limbo with his final avenue of escape snatched from him until he felt himself beginning to descend. Lindsey's knees buckled and he slid down against the wall, resting the back of his head against the cool paint. A keening, hysterical laugh or pure relief was rising in Lindsey's throat, and the sound that echoed behind it was far too close to madness to provide a strict level of comfort. Lindsey held it back by the barest of margins.

It was understandable that the sounds of fighting that gathered and swelled in the air as the elevator came to a halt did little to soothe nerves that had been frayed, snapped, and rewoven more times than Lindsey could count over the past several days. His adrenal glands made one sputtering attempt at an alarm reaction before giving up and telling Lindsey that he was on his own. Lindsey used the wall to push himself back to his feet, swearing and weighing together his options, which came to a grand total of two. He could either let the door open and cope with whatever likely unpleasant surprise was waiting for him on the other side, or he could send the elevator back upwards and put himself back into the arms of Flagg's tender mercies. The frying pan paused for a moment to issue warm welcome to the fire.

Just as Lindsey was leveling his finger over the button that would send him back up to play the odds, the door began to slide open, helped in large part by the fact that a very large, very unconscious body had been hurled into it. Lindsey stumbled backwards from the door and stared at the arm that flopped into the elevator with him. It was still attached to the body that it had come from, at least. Much more about the condition of the body could not be said, other than the fact that he was not likely to be pleased if and when he woke up.

He was also, Lindsey noticed, one of Flagg's men. Broken ribs two and four belonged to this guy. Lindsey entertained the thought of returning the favor for a moment or two, but if it was one of Flagg's men...

"Lindsey!" Right, okay. Lindsey could cope with the fact that every major event in his life was going to come back to this vampire so much more easily if Angel didn't always say his name as if it were something that he had caught wriggling across his shoe. "Can you walk?"

Lindsey took his hand away from the wall, wobbled, and put it back again. "Short answer or essay?"

Angel spun away from the angry crowd that swarmed him and snap-kicked a man in the face. The sound of a wishbone cracking echoed and reechoed through the lobby, leaving no doubt that this one would not be getting up. Lindsey noticed no change in the expression on Angel's face. Angel stepped over the body and into the elevator, grabbing Lindsey by his uninjured arm. "C'mon. We don't have much time." Eyeing the cut on Lindsey's cheek, Angel added, "You look like shit."

Angel wasn't cutting the most debonair picture himself. His clothing was soaked in blood, most of which did not look as if it had come from himself. Not the most comforting picture that Lindsey would have chosen, to say the least. "Thanks for noticing," Lindsey said, striving to keep his tone casual even though pain was making it difficult to unclench his teeth. "You're about to get shot, by the way."

Angel whirled them both to the side and the bullet that was intended for his cranium dug into the wall instead. His fist struck the woman who had fired up them before she could shoot again, ensuring that several of her teeth would not see morning. The gun clanged to the floor. Wincing, Lindsey began to bend to pick it up, but Angel was faster.

"You've done enough of that already to last you several lifetimes," Angel murmured, for once with no venom gleaming bright and bloody in his voice. He didn't, Lindsey noticed, have any trouble turning the gun upon the crowd himself. Three well-placed shots were all that it took to make the majority rethink their positions.

There were several comments that Lindsey could have made about hypocrisy while smoke was still rising from the bullet holes, but in the end he decided not to look a gift rescue in the mouth. "Why are you here." Strain was making his tongue loose; it slipped out before he could stop himself.

"Cordelia thinks you've changed," Angel said as he hustled them towards the lobby doors. "She thinks you could change more if you don't die. How fast can you move?"

"I'm not sure that I have a solid rib left, so I'm thinking not very."

Angel glanced at the front of Lindsey's shirt, where the amulet had once hung. "You and Flagg had quite a party."

"Made a stand," Lindsey grunted, swaying as black flies danced in front of his vision. Angel put his arm around Lindsey's waist before he could fall, half-carrying him out the door. Pain lit up Lindsey's torso like a neon sign and he doubled over, gagging on bile and swallowed blood.

They emerged from the hotel to greet the burning conflagration set in the center of the street, still crackling cheerfully in spite of the efforts of at least twenty people to put it out. Every few seconds another minor explosion would roll out from the parent flames, scattering the crowd. In those instances, Lindsey could catch glimpses of abuses yellow paint. He grinned.

"Your idea or Cordelia's?"

"Mine." There was a smirk to Angel's voice as he said it. "Though there were a few details that she failed to mention."

"It's clever." That was easier to admit than he had expected.

Angel, though, wasn't paying attention. His nostrils flared and he darted a look over his shoulder, eyes going dark and fish-cold. The last time that Lindsey had seen that look, he had walked away from the encounter minus a limb. Being in close proximity to it wasn't much better than being its target. "He's coming." Still wearing that disturbing dead look, Angel turned back to the street. "Cordelia, where are you?"

Right on cue, a pair of headlights lit up the night.

 

Finding a truck with the keys in it had been easy. Perhaps fueled by the overall 'consequences can wait' tone of the city, few people had tried to flee. While Flagg had crews working overtime to remove and bury or burn the bodies, the possessions themselves still lay scattered about like a child's forgotten toys. It was enough to make Cordelia wonder what else might be lying around, waiting.

Cordelia banished the thought from her mind with a physical shake, like a dog throwing water off its back, and forced the gas pedal to the floor. She drove straight at the inferno in the center of the street, swerving at the last moment and causing people to scatter like bowling pins to avoid her, though none of them were actually hit. Good. Cordelia had already been in enough crashes to make her want to invest in a bicycle for the rest of her life.

A few people had the presence of mind to chase after the vehicle, crap. It was too late for her to do anything about it other than drive fast and hope that was enough.

The truck's headlights picked Angel out of the shadows in the agreed-upon place, scarcely two blocks away from the MGM Grand itself. Lindsey was sagged against his side like an abused rag doll, and even from a distance Cordelia could see that one side of his face was dark with blood. Her heart crawled into her throat in spite of her best efforts to force it back down.

The brakes screamed as Cordelia threw her full weight on top of them to bring the truck to a sliding, smoking stop that left long streaks of rubber behind on the pavement. She watched the approaching mob through the rearview mirror. Angel took a step back and threw up his arm, shielding both his body and Lindsey's from the worst of the detritus that Cordelia tossed into the air, before glancing over his shoulder at the same scene. The look on his face was almost hungry, and the expression that a month before would have made Cordelia's mouth go dry now brought with it and eerie sense of camaraderie.

Angel opened the truck door and quickly shoved Lindsey inside. Lindsey let out a short, muffled cry and threw Angel an ugly look, but said nothing. A long gash ran down his cheek, spilling blood across his jaw and neck and nearly covering the bruises that tattooed the rest of him. He looked as if he had received the beating of his life. Thinking back over the dreams of Flagg that she had been receiving since the onset of the plague, Cordelia realized that that was probably exactly what had happened.

"Scoot towards the middle as much as you can," Cordelia told Lindsey. "Angel-"

Angel was not getting into the truck.

"Go on," he said, bracing his hands against the door and leaning in. "I'll take care of this, then meet you wherever Mother Abigail is if I can."

Cordelia's heart went from beating so loudly that it drowned out the sound of the truck's engine to not beating at all in the span of seconds. 'Notagainnotagainnotagain.' She had thrown the truck into 'Park' and hopped down from the driver's seat before her brain had time to catch up with her, darting around the front of the truck. Cordelia grabbed at Angel's arm, digging her nails in so hard that her knuckles would ache for hours afterwards. In the moment itself she didn't even feel it. "No," she said. "No, you are not doing this again."

Angel uncurled her fingers from his arm. "Get in the truck and get out of here, Cordelia."

Tears were springing up in Cordelia's eyes and she hated them, hated every goddamned one of them, hated them and Angel at the same time, a little, at last, for putting them there. "So, what?" she asked. You're going to do the big hero thing while I stay safe and hope that you live through it? I can't do that any more."

"You have to." A bullet pinged off the fire hydrant to their right; their window of time was drawing to a close. "Damnit, Cordelia! You've dreamed of Mother Abigail, haven't you? You've dreamed of going to her?" Cordelia nodded, her eyes bright. "I haven't. Not once. Every time that I dream of her, she only tells me to do one thing. Make my stand."

Cordelia startled before a cold look stole across her face, giving her the impression of having been caved from marble rather than flesh. It was a terrible expression, and Angel rejoiced in it because it meant that she understood. "This world sucks," Cordelia said in a low voice. "Every inch of it. If this is our destiny, then I want a refund."

Angel pressed his lips to Cordelia's forehead, was pleased when she did not tense or pull away. "Get in the truck," he said. "Drive out of this city. Don't come back."

Cordelia nodded, the steely look still casting her face into harshly lit angles, and swiped at the few tears that would dare to crawl down her face. She got back into the truck and Lindsey leaned across the seat to say something to her that made her shake her head. Lindsey glanced out the truck window at Angel, frowning, as the vehicle pulled away from the curb. Angel didn't need to look around to know that Cordelia was watching him in the rearview mirror as she disappeared down the street.

When the first member of the mob reached him, Angel didn't both with niceties. Hands at the temple and the jaw, a quick twist, and a sound like a bottle opening. The body fell to his feet, so much cordwood, as Angel dove for the next. If this was not the way that a Champion was meant to behave, then he really could not bring himself to care. Anyone left in this city of hijacked promises was fair game as far as Angel was concerned, up to and including Flagg himself if Angel made it that far.

A woman rushed Angel and he spun, kicked. Her skull made a peculiar cracking sound as it struck the pavement. Didn't matter. Angel had heard the sound made by her neck when his boot struck it.

'Wasn't supposed to be like this,' Angel thought as he moved like a scythe through the crowd. He was supposed to be saving the humans, not killing them, and when it was finally over...but that didn't bear thinking about, any longer.

The itching, tingling feeling started at Angel's bullet wounds and spread outwards, so that Angel at first mistook it for nothing more than blood flaking off his skin. Then it moved beyond the skin and filled up his chest, a squeezing, burning, terribly alive feeling that cut through his righteous rage when nothing else could have. He doubled over and clutched at his chest, gasping, seconds before the pain drove him entirely to his knees. If he had been human, he would have thought that he was having a heart attack.

If he had been human...

"Oh, dear God," Angel choked, catching himself on his hands as the burning feeling, like a thousand ants spitting their ants onto him at the same time, spread across his entire body. He gasped for air, and the sound of his heart beating was a brass band in his ears.

It was almost enough to drown out the sound of the boot heels.

Click, click, click, echoing across the hushed crowd. They parted as one being, the Red Sea before Moses, to allow Randall Flagg through. A mess of blood and fluid had run down Flagg's cheek, matting strands of hair to his face and resembling nothing so much as rancid scrambled eggs, but his eyes gleamed with good cheer. Both of them. "Well, now," he said as Angel levered himself to his feet. "Don't this just beat all. Fate really is a wheel, don't you agree? You can be at the very bottom, and still find yourself at the top again in no time at all." Only Flagg didn't say 'fate'. It was another word, a shorter word, but Angel didn't have time to puzzle it out, because he was drawing his fist back and punching Flagg squarely in the face. Flagg's head snapped back, and he laughed, and his mob of followers laughed along with him. Their god was great, their god was good, and they kept laughing as Flagg placed his hands on either side of Angel's head and gave it that crucial twist that he had delivered to so many of their own moments before.

Angel lived, and then he died.

 

Cordelia slammed on the brakes just outside of Las Vegas, fishtailing the truck wildly in the dirt off the highway. The vision hit a bare second later, lurching her forward and back, and Lindsey kept her head from striking the steering wheel as he thanked whoever had seen fit to give a warning this time. Cordelia came out of the vision and burst into tears before Lindsey could ask her what she had seen. After that there was no need.

Lindsey slid across the seat and held Cordelia as well as he was able with his good arm while she sobbed. He didn't think that she even realized he was there.

 

"'Well of course there is
You're still alive,' she said.
Oh, and do I deserve to be?
Is that the question?
And if so...if so...who answers...who answers..."
-Pearl Jam, "Alive"

It was dawn before Cordelia spoke again, pulling the truck to a halt in front of the first gas station that she saw and throwing it into park hard enough to put the gearshift in danger of breaking off. "Supplies were burned up in the Hummer," she said to Lindsey, her voice flat and calm in spite of the fact that there were still tear tracks gleaming on her cheeks. Unstated: 'We lost them saving your ass.' "Going to be hard enough crossing desert and mountains as it is." She got down from the driver's side of the truck, lifting her eyebrow at Lindsey when she noticed that he was also exiting.

"I'll help you carry," Lindsey said. Cordelia lifted her eyebrow even further, but remained silent.

The first step reduced her body into a screaming cacophony as muscles that had been torqued, wrenched, and generally abused the night before woke up and presented her with the check for her adventures. Cordelia set her teeth, braced her hand against the hood, and focused on nothing more than putting one foot ahead of the other, until the world swayed in and out of a gray haze. Sweat ran into her eyes, and the feeling of salt stinging her was the only thing that she allowed to intrude upon her focus. How much time passed, she was not sure, other than to note that the sun was still not far risen over the eastern horizon. She had gone perhaps twenty steps. Lindsey had been able to manage even less.

"So the bicycle is out, then," Cordelia said, swiping the sweaty tendrils out of her eyes. She flexed her shoulders, rotated her back, and imagined that she wasn't quite as stiff as before. It was a start, anyway. Cordelia limped into the gas station, grabbed a handful of bandanas hanging from a display beside the register and two of the tacky tote bags that always seemed to be sold to tourists in places like these, and began loading up. Bottles of water, of course, and six-pack of Pepsi that chosen for nostalgia every bit as much as it was for sugar. Jerky and Twinkies, the latter of which made Cordelia remember how long it had been since she had last eaten and sent saliva flooding into her mouth. She tore the cellophane off and crammed nuclear-yellow goodness into her mouth in two bites, a move that would have made Xander proud, as she wandered the aisles. Fate decided that she hadn't received quite enough kicks in the head recently and placed the hydrogen peroxide, aspirin, and other rudiments of a medical supply on the lowest shelf. Bending over was an agony, and tears and sweat mingled freely on Cordelia's face by the time she managed it. She sat down in the center of the aisle, panting, to wash down four of the aspirin with a can of Pepsi and a bit of jerky, her appetite turning more towards real food now that the edge had been taken off. Lindsey's jacket was too heavy in the heat that was already curling through the store, sending sweat pouring down her spine and beneath her arms, but Cordelia was loathe to take it off. Not until she had found a better place to put the twin weights that hung from either pocket.

Flagg would have to be a crazy man-a crazier man-to let the people who had beaten him, even marginally, to escape into the east and stand as an example to others who would try the same thing, so they did not have much time. Cordelia didn't wait for the aspirin to take effect before she shoved two more bottles and everything else that she needed into the totes and grabbed the shelves to lever herself back to her feet. The squeal of pain as her nerves lit themselves up like a pinball machine was pulled from her throat before she could stop it. Another moment to pause and pant, and then she was on her way again.

Lindsey was leaning against the truck, his head thrown back to expose the long and suddenly vulnerable line of his throat. His body was taut with pain, and it occurred to Cordelia that she had never seen him fully relaxed. She wondered if she ever would, now that things were so fundamentally different between them. More importantly, she wondered if she should even want to.

Lindsey opened his eyes as he heard Cordelia approach, leveling that opaque blue stare at her. Cordelia could no more read emotion into it now than she could three weeks before. Not a comforting thought. "Hey," he said.

"Hey." They were back to having scintillating conversations, at least. Cordelia set the bags of goodies on the hood. "Move over. We have to do this quick." She pulled a bottle of peroxide and a box of band-aids out of the bag. He needed stitches to close up that cut properly, but they would have to make do with what they had for now. Cordelia poured a little peroxide onto on the bandannas and pushed it against the wound. "Hold still."

"Kinda hurts to do anything else." A muscle in Lindsey's jaw jumped, but it was the only thing on this face that moved. Cordelia cleaned as much of the blood off as she was able and realized that she could see the muscle playing in his cheek. The band-aids were woefully inadequate, more for her benefit than his.

"I think it makes you look like a pirate," Cordelia said as she stepped back. Echoes of the last time that they had been in this position hung sick and heavy in the back of her mind. She didn't know Lindsey any better now than she did then.

And Lindsey's eyes were still following every expression that moved across her face. "Is that a good thing or a bad one?"

"Interesting." Cordelia shook out five aspirin into her hand, opened a can of Pepsi, and handed them both to Lindsey. His face twisted as he accepted them from her. When he didn't argue his own self-sufficiency, Cordelia felt strangely off balance. "How's the shoulder?"

"I can cope." For one second, the impassive expression developed cobweb-fine cracks of pain.

Back on even ground. "You're not as good at that as you used to be." Cordelia threw everything back into the tote bags and set them into the truck's floorboard. "And that's definitely a good thing."

"Cordelia-" The look on his face telegraphed everything that he was about to say, and Cordelia thought she was going to go mad if one more person apologized to her.

"If Flagg comes after us, our head start's the only chance that we have." Cordelia circled around to the driver's side and climbed back in, wincing. She stared in the direction of the rising sun until her retinas began to burn as Lindsey lowered himself back into the passenger's seat.

 

Less than ten words were passed between them that day, until they reached the Eisenhower Tunnel shortly after two in the morning.

"Well, crap," Cordelia said in a musing sort of voice that didn't match the way her knuckles were clenching the steering wheel. The truck's headlights cut out a narrow slice from the darkness, revealing a chaos of smashed cars and mummified limbs. The vehicles were packed together so tightly that they would not be walking through them, but crawling over them. "And what do you want to bet it's LA all over again at the other end?"

"Not odds I want to tangle with, thanks." Lindsey's lips, already bloodless, pressed themselves together a little more tightly. "I can't climb over those right now." He stared out the windshield as he said it, so that Cordelia could not see what expression he wore in his eyes.

"I know." Cordelia rubbed at her temples, where a headache had been building all day.

"You could, though." Lindsey finally turned to look at her. His eyes were grave, and for the first time Cordelia thought that she might be seeing deeper than whatever façade he was projecting for the moment.

Cordelia took her hands off the steering wheel long enough to crack eighteen hours worth of tension from her knuckles. 'Mother would be appalled.' That...was not a comforting thought. "Or you could quit with the self-pitying garbage?" Lindsey blinked at her, looking annoyed that his gesture was not being received properly. "You want to change? Okay, so change. One day at a time, a little bit at a time. That was what made Angel a good man, the working for it. Not...not that last thing." Cordelia's voice lowered and she cleared her throat. "You're a survivor, isn't that what you told me once? So survive."

Lindsey's mouth twisted at the mention of Angel, but he let the opportunity pass. One little bit at a time. "Fine. Point remains. I can't climb over those."

"I don't like my chances that much, either." Cordelia thought about being midway through the tunnel when her muscles finally decided that the person in charge was running a few circuits short and revolted, leaving her stranded in the dark with the corpses and, by now, the rats. She shuddered and shook her head. "We'll find another route." The truck's engine began to sputter and she leaned forward to look at the gas gauge. "In another car, apparently."

"So let's check out the selection." Lindsey grabbed one of the bags of supplies and popped his door open. He hissed as his feet hit the ground, and even without the headlights Cordelia would have been able to locate him by the string of oaths that he was muttering. Her own obscenities were not quite so creative, but her body still began to tell her how very disappointed in her it was as soon as she began moving. Oh, she was going to have fun once they came across a town large enough to have a pharmacy.

Lindsey had wandered far enough away to be nothing more than a dim silhouette beneath the moonlight. He called her name softly, voice lowered to the point that Cordelia had to strain to hear him. The presence of bodies pressing in from all sides was giving the highway the atmosphere of a cemetery. Having grown up in Sunnydale, Cordelia felt qualified to judge, and she kept a sharp eye on the cadavers for signs of movement. "This looks promising."

It was a Volvo that had seen better decades, let alone better days, but as Cordelia leaned in the open window she caught a glimpse of moonlight reflecting off the key chain. Nearly as important, she also saw that there was a full tank of gas. "Good job." There was a small matter of two bodies in the front seat, though. Cordelia's skin made a valiant effort to crawl right off and fall in a puddle at her feet. "If we ignore the megawatt ick factor, that is."

Lindsey glanced over the hood of the car and nearly smiled at the look of disgust on Cordelia's face. It was very easy to forget how young she was when she was stalking around like the twenty-first century's answer to Xena. If she was even old enough to drink, he'd buy her first round. "On three?" he asked.

The look of disgust intensified. "Better than standing here all night. Yeah, okay. One, two..." Cordelia opened the door and the corpse tumbled out without her ever needing to lay hand on it. He squeak as she jumped back brought the grin up to the surface before Lindsey could chase it back down again. It fit his face better than anything else he had felt in days, weeks. For a second, gone too quickly, he could forget why the two of them were even there.

The face that Cordelia pulled at him suggested that she, if not forgetting, was at least managing to shove it to the back of her mind for the sake of making it from one mile to the next. "Just for that, I'm not helping you with yours." Shades of the woman that she had been before they left Los Angeles glittered to the surface, startling against so much of the one that she had become.

"Fair enough. I-" The wolf's howl, so close that Lindsey immediately searched the darkness for the gleam of eyes, made every hair on his body stand up independent of the others. His neck cracked from the speed with which he swiveled it around. "Damnit."

"I thought our daring escape was going just a little too easily." Cordelia's face was pale beneath the moon, the hint of girlishness that had come through gone so thoroughly that it may as well have been made of smoke. "I think we need to be moseying."

"I think you're right." Lindsey wrenched his door open, tossed the bag of supplies into the back seat, and reached for the body that sat in the passenger's. The second howl was close enough to make the air shake, quickly echoed by another animal on the other side of the highway. The cattle industry and urban sprawl had long since cleared any wolves out of Oklahoma by the time that Lindsey had been born there, but coyotes still flourished in abundance in the rural areas. Shy, skulking creatures, they would slide up to barns long enough to make off with the occasional unwary cat clenched between their jaws, but always fled at the hint of human approach. Lindsey could not believe that actual wolves would behave any differently from their smaller cousins.

But then, humans were not the force that they had once been, and Lindsey very much doubted that these were ordinary wolves.

When a crow's caw rode the darkness on the heels of the second howl, suspicion solidified into certainty.

"Crows are day birds," he said, grabbing the body in the passenger seat by its collar and jerking it from the car. The movement sent a wave of pain gliding across his vision, staggering him, and it was only by bracing his hand against the hood that he avoided a fall. The body rolled as it hit the highway, emitting a gassy smell like meat that had been allowed to turn in the sun. It could have been far worse, would have been far worse if the summer had not been so dry, but Lindsey added the scent to the catalogue of death that he had begun keeping weeks before and knew that he would never forget it.

"I know." Cordelia's voice was tight. "We gotta hurry."

A thudding of paws across the grass, the gleaming green of eyes cutting through the darkness. It would occur to Lindsey later as one of the most obscene things that he had ever seen, that alive color worn by animals so thoroughly washed in death. He ignored the pleading of his ribs for mercy and ducked quickly into the car, slamming the door shut behind him. The thudding became a roar; massive, furry weight slammed into the side of the door less than a second later. The entire car shuddered.

Cordelia yelped and grabbed for the ignition, twisting the key as hard as she was able. The engine squawked once and fell into an affronted silence that didn't carry them forward by so much as an inch. "Oh, Jesus fuck," Cordelia nearly screamed, twisting the ignition again with one hand while frantically rolling her window up with the other. A wail fit to make one think of damned souls and dying children echoed from the other side of the highway before a pair of slavering jaws slammed into the small space left open at the top of the window. Spittle ran down the inside of the glass, white and foamy, as the wolf gave another howl to match Cordelia's startled scream. Its eyes gleamed in on them with all of the intelligence and casual malice of its master.

Meanwhile, the animal that had slammed into Lindsey's door was backing off, shaking its head and staring at Lindsey with baleful eyes. Once Lindsey would haves sworn that it was impossible for a dumb animal to show that kind of emotion, but his experiences with Flagg and his crows had broadened his horizons quite a bit. The wolf's look promised the sullen vengeance of the schoolyard bully. It backed away a few more steps, crouched until its dripping jaws hovered inches from the asphalt, and lunged.

Angel had taken the wrong damned hand. Lindsey twisted in the seat, feeling sweat break out across his body as every nerve that he had let out an outraged scream as one, and began rolling up his own window as fast as he could. He made it about halfway before the wolf was there, enormous head snaked as far as it would fit into the interior of the car. Saliva dripped onto Lindsey's thigh and sour breath wafted over his face as he set a new record for how fast a person could scoot backwards. The wolf whined, sounding eerily like a dog that had just received a scolding, as it worked its front paws over the window and scrabbled at the door with its hind. Its jaws clicked shut inches in front of Lindsey's face.

Cordelia's mingled prayers and obscenities turned into a shout of pure exultation as the engine turned over on the third try, sending the Volvo surging forward and very nearly into the back of the Toyota stalled in front of them. The wolf hanging from Cordelia's window screamed in pain as she rolled the glass the rest of the way up, trapping it there. Cordelia spun the Volvo in a wide circle and yanked the animal entirely off the ground.

The wolf dangling from Lindsey's window worked itself a few inches further in, so that its spittle was now falling across his stomach rather than his thighs. The jaws that opened and closed on empty air did so with a new kind of frenzy, as if it could taste victory so close that the actual feel of flesh between its jaws was nothing more than a formality. 'It doesn't get to be that easy,' Lindsey echoed Flagg's words within his mind, surprised by the depth of his own determination. "Cordelia, give me one of the guns!" he yelled.

She released the wolf dangling from her window and it fell into a yipping, tumbling pile by the side of the highway as the their car picked up speed. Lindsey could see the doubt writ large across her face and didn't blame her for a second of it, but this was not he time. "Cordelia!" The wolf snapped its jaws shut close enough for Lindsey to feel the breeze.

The line between Cordelia's eyes deepened, but she dug into the pocket of the jacket and pulled out the revolver that he had slipped to her thirty-six hours before-had it really been that short a time? "There are only two bullets left," she said.

"I'll only need one." Lindsey thumbed the safety off and extended his arm.

The wolf flashed its wide doggy grin at Lindsey, green eyes flashing, and said, "If you worship me, Lindsey. Always if you worship me."

Cordelia jerked so badly that she nearly drove the car off the road.

Lindsey forced the muzzle of the gun among those gleaming teeth, every one of them fit to give Little Red Riding Hood nightmares, and pulled the trigger. Blood and brain tissue sprayed across the dashboard, slicked Lindsey's hand. The wolf made a sound caught somewhere between a howl and a sigh and slumped over the window like the world's most grotesque trophy. Lindsey waited a moment to catch his breath before he raised his foot to kick the animal back out the window. They heard it thump as it struck the ground and rolled away.

Lindsey let a few more moments pass by before he said, "Tell me that I didn't imagine that."

"You didn't." Cordelia's shoulder was pressing against his back; he could feel the movements of her arm as she turned the steering wheel. If he tilted back, their heads would be resting against one another. Cordelia continued, "Glories of nature, my ass."

"I didn't intend for this to happen," Lindsey said, since it seemed to be the closest thing to an apology that she would accept and the was the least that he could offer without going out of his mind.

For several minutes he thought that she had not heard him. Cordelia stared out the windshield and said at last, "It's not over." She sounded nearly eager.

 

"Oh, Life is waiting for you.
It's all messed up, but we're alive.
Oh, Life is waiting for you.
It's all messed up, but we'll survive."
-Our Lady Peace, "Life"

The sun had risen and was riding low on the horizon before they rested again. Cordelia drew the newest vehicle, a Dodge with flaking green paint but an engine that hadn't sputtered once, to a halt in front of a hotel in Green River, Utah. Predictably enough, the faded sign in front of the building told them that they were enjoying the hospitality of the Utah Hotel. The hotel was in the same kind of shape that the Volvo, abandoned miles back when its engine had finally given out, had been. It beat staying in one of the pristine, solemn rows of houses turned coffins, though. Virtually anything would have been better than that.

After the wolves, sleeping out in the open hadn't even been worthy of consideration.

Green River itself had the same derelict feel of all the communities that they had driven through over the course of that day and the last, as if all the citizens had simply walked out their front doors one day to go to work and had forgotten to come back. If it weren't for the gassy smell of decay, Lindsey would have thought that they had somehow wandered onto an abandoned movie set.

Cordelia turned the car off and shoved the keys into the pocket of her jeans, wincing as she stretched. A purple-green band nearly three inches in width ran across her neck and disappeared beneath the collar of her shirt, souvenir from being slammed up against the Hummer's seatbelt.

"Cordelia," Lindsey said before she could exit. She paused with door half open, looking at him from over her shoulder. Lindsey could have gotten more encouragement from looking into the eyes of a doll. "I'm-"

"Sorry," Cordelia cut him off. "I know you are, okay? I knew that when you did it. Do you think that Angel or I would have bothered if you weren't?" Cordelia's mouth twisted. "And frankly, you kind of suck at saying it."

Lindsey had the feeling that Cordelia had been the driving force behind Angel bothering at all, but it didn't seem like the most prudent of times to voice that thought. "Kind of stealing my thunder here," he said. Cordelia shrugged and folded her arms over her chest. One of her nails had been torn off to the quick recently; a thin red crust could still be seen around the cuticle. "I have to say it. I'm sorry, Cordelia. For all of it. No games, no tricks, no lawyer bullshit. If I could do it all over again, we would never go through Vegas at all."

Cordelia nodded, studying her wounded nail. "It's a start," she said at long last, and exited the car without another word.

Lindsey watched her disappear into the hotel before he struck at the dashboard, sending messengers of pain racing through his body. "Fuck," he muttered, only half aloud. The still, sullen air of the town was glad to carry the word and buoy it in the air long after it should have faded away all the same.

 

Cordelia vanished with the Dodge shortly after their meager supplies had been carried inside, reappearing triumphant hours later with painkillers for them both and penicillin for the cut on Lindsey's face. "Aspirin just isn't going to cut it," she said, knocking back two hydrocodones with a gulp of bottled water.

"Amen." Lindsey took three, earning him an arched eyebrow but no comment from Cordelia. The pills did help, tumbling him in short order into a sleep like dying on the floor of the hotel lobby with Cordelia only a few feet away. The same oppressive feeling of dollhouses waiting for the signal to wake them up again that kept them from entering the individual homes had also discouraged exploration into guest rooms for anything other than necessities. Lindsey lay down prepared to dream, ready for nightmares of broken promises and broken bodies, but rather than the standard nighttime visions of the newly redeemable and possibly repentant, he saw-

'-roses. A whole damned field of them, bigger and redder and more beautiful than anything that Lindsey had seen before in his life. He fell to his knees among them and somehow managed not to feel a single prick from their thorns or an ache from his wounds. As Lindsey's jaw fell open, a dim, unwelcome part of his brain, a part that was always on the lookout for the angle or advantage and had not been cast off with Flagg's amulet, whispered that he was dreaming. Lindsey informed this part of his mind that it could fuck right off as he continued to gorge himself on the roses' brilliance. Each flower was a universe unto itself, whole and distinct from its neighbors, and yet they also functioned as the solitary notes that taken together made up a symphony.

Lindsey followed the path of the roses as they tugged the eye ever onward towards the center of the field.

The center, where the Tower stood.

Lindsey added the capitalization without conscious thought, for one glance made it clear that this Tower was different from all the other towers on all the other worlds of the universe, of any universe. Black and looming so far into the clouds that Lindsey had to crane his head back and squint to even catch a glimpse of its spire, it was cold where the roses were warm, forbidding where the roses were continually inviting one to step closer and experience their joy. Lindsey was amazed by it even as he was afraid of it.

"It feels as though it is waiting, does it not?" Lindsey turned his head by a fraction and saw a man standing a few paces off, staring at the Tower with the most naked expression of lust that Lindsey had ever seen or would ever see again. The man was both aged and ageless, with black hair that was rapidly shading into the color of the guns that he wore on his hips and eyes so blue that they made Lindsey's seem like dime-store baubles in comparison. He seethed with a primal sort of charisma; once Lindsey had set eyes on him he couldn't take them off again, and he wondered how the stranger had managed to draw so close to him without drawing attention the way a magnet drew slivers of iron.

As soon as the man who was both fascinating and unnerving in equal measure had mentioned it, Lindsey discovered that he could feel it, a low, belly-deep thrumming that radiated from the Tower like lust, like a princess aching for her prince to come for her. Lindsey didn't think he wanted to meet this maiden on the other side of midnight. She was every bit as likely to eat Prince Charming after his seed had been shot as she was to profess her undying love. The roses seemed to shiver as one; a sound like far-off wind chimes filled Lindsey's ears.

"Did we make any difference," he asked, "Cordelia and I? Any difference at all? Flagg is still alive."

"Alive," the stranger agreed," but now he doubts. Oftentimes that can be enough. You bought time for the others to find their feet, and fulfilled your part." The stranger lifted his hand towards the Tower. "She's still standing, isn't she? You fulfilled your part."

Lindsey swiveled his head back to look at the midnight princess. The more he stared, the more it seemed as if the Tower was holding up the roses rather than the other way around. "Yes."

The stranger nodded, barely seeming to hear Lindsey at all, so intent was his gaze upon his dark lady. There was the kind of hunger in his stare that men wore when they got into bar fights and woke up hours later with blood on their hands and no memory of what had occurred. A dead man's finger trailed up Lindsey's spine and, charismatic or not, he wanted to be away from the-

((broken knight))

-lunatic more he had wanted anything in his life. Whatever it was that this man sought, it had driven him right out of his mind. The gleam in his eyes said it all.

"All we are, in the end, is this place," the man said. From his tone Lindsey got the impression that he wasn't being spoken to at all. The stranger sounded like a man who had been pushed to the very edges of his endurance and beyond, into a world so foreign that he couldn't even fathom how he had gotten there, let alone how to get back. "In blood and bone and a handful of destiny, we serve her." His mouth twisted as he said it, as if he were so unused to such silken turns of phrase that even the one had exhausted him.

But "destiny" was not the word that he had used. It was merely the one that Lindsey's mind had chosen to make sense of a far larger, grander concept, like skipping a rock across the surface of a lake and pretending that this allowed him to see beneath the surface. The word itself was short and brutal, meant to be spit out with as little mercy as it showed. It was-'

"Ka," Lindsey murmured as he opened his eyes. The room seemed different, cheaper, and Lindsey had to stare at the deep red of a lampshade for nearly a full minute before he realized what it was. Compared to the roses, he was setting a street corner whore next to a duchess. Lindsey winced and rubbed at his eyes as the images began fading out of memory like dew in the sunshine. A dangerous man who wore six-shooters slung low on his hips. Eyes only a shade or so bluer than ice and roses red like a fanatic's patriotism, all twined around a word that seemed like destiny on the surface but really meant so much more.

"My compliments to the chef," Lindsey said, sitting up and making it about half-way before every muscle in his body began to scream that this was wrong and bad and, really, wouldn't he like some more pills? "Those meds are great." The third attempt got Lindsey upright, though he immediately reached for the miracle bottle and dry-swallowed one the presents inside. "Hey, Cordelia. If we push it we should be in Colorado by nightfall. I haven't dreamed of Mother Abigail being in Nebraska since Vegas, I think she's on the move..." Lindsey drew to a halt as the last of the spiderwebs blew out of his mind. Cordelia's things were there. Cordelia herself was not.

The hair on the back of Lindsey's neck rose. Memories of the attack that had driven them out of Los Angeles soon had the hair switching from merely standing into doing a tango. Cordelia's possessions were still arranged neatly beside the place where she had been sleeping, no signs that she had fought anyone. Lindsey had the slippery, sluggish thoughts which suggested that he had been sleeping so deeply as to be nearly comatose, but even so...

If a sound had not issued from deeper within the hotel, it might have been dawn before Lindsey found her. He followed the noise until it led him to one of the guest rooms on the first floor, its door shut as firmly as all of the others. The other doors, however, did not have the sounds of thrown furniture and breaking glass echoing from them. It was either Cordelia or a zombie. Considering the world that they lived in, there was an equal chance of either. A tinkle of shattering porcelain bled out into the hallway and Lindsey put his hand upon the doorknob. The low, muffled sound of Cordelia's sob stopped him. It was the sound of a mother who had lost her child, a wife who had lost her husband.

A woman who had lost her dearest friend.

Lindsey's hand hovered over the doorknob for a few seconds more before he turned away, leaving Cordelia to the sanctity of her grief.

 

They followed the back roads, avoiding the worst of the jams and babying the new vehicle-a shiny Taurus that had once been the apple of its owner's eye-through the ones that could not be driven around. Boulder, Colorado arose on the road before them shortly after sunset of the next day. How they knew where they were going, Lindsey could not say, except that he would not be surprised to discover that it was a close cousin to the sense that guided geese across thousands of miles of unmarked sky and dogs home after a decade of separation. It was a constant, insistent nipping at the heels, hurryuphurryuphurryup. More than once Lindsey expected to glance over his shoulder and see a wizened brown face watching him from the back seat.

The city limits came far too soon.

"Not sure I can do this," Lindsey said as they stepped out of the car, joining the steady stream of people walking up the steps of an elegant Victorian home. The woman who was very possibly the most powerful human being left on the planet waited in a rocking chair on the porch to meet them.

The smile that Cordelia flicked him over the hood was distracted. "You'll be fine." She fiddled with the sleeves of her jacket, taking it off and making as if to shove it back into the car before something hard and nearly defiant moved across her face. When Cordelia strode up the walk towards Mother Abigail, it was as the woman that she had become rather than the woman that she had been.

Lindsey took a deep breath and followed more slowly, having to force his unwilling feet into each step. He had a sudden, terrible image of the old woman rising from her chair and pointing a gnarled brown finger down at his face. "Sinner!" she would shriek in a voice like abused guitar strings. "Trying to bring his evil into our midst, just like any other weasel in the corn! Out with him!" While Cordelia walked up the steps, Lindsey hovered down at the foot.

Cordelia grasped Mother Abigail's hands and knelt at her feet like she would in the presence of a venerated grandmother. Mother Abigail stroked Cordelia's hair with a surprising dexterity, the white head bent over the dark in sorrow. Lindsey couldn't catch the question that Cordelia asked, but Mother Abigail's answer carried well enough. "You bought us time. Sweet girl, you gave us the very thing that we needed." A bit of memory surfaced in Lindsey's mind, there and gone again before he could chase it to its source. Cordelia clattered down the steps past him. Lindsey thought that she might be crying.

"I don't see like I used to, son," Mother Abigail called down to him. "You're going to have to come closer than that if you want me to get a good look at you." Lindsey crossed the final few steps of distance between them with cement in his feet.

Mother Abigail sucked in her breath sharply. "Well-a-day," she said, her voice dry and cracked like autumn leaves. "I guess I ain't so old that I can't see what you are." Lindsey tensed until Mother Abigail reached out and took his hand in her own. "It was such a long journey, wasn't it, son?"

"Yes." Mother Abigail's hand was small and warm as a bird in his own, but she didn't feel like the fragile one. Lindsey fell to his knees without feeling even a whisper of the pain.

Mother Abigail cradled his face in her free hand. "Oh, child," she murmured. "You poor child. It's all right now. You've made it."

 

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