Three Days
by Mari

He died as no more than an afterthought, and the loudest sound that he heard was that of his own blood rushing through his ears.

When he lived again, it was to the sound of a language that sounded like Latin but had been stricken from the earth millennia before a pair of brothers began their city among the hills. Lindsey's eyelids flickered upwards long enough to receive a scorching burst of artificial light before he slammed them back down again, and there was a draft in the room that made his entire body shiver. He groaned and splayed his fingers over his face as his long-dormant stomach rolled and pitched acid into his throat with enough force to make him gag. There was a low murmuring and a shuffling of fabric, and someone dimmed the lights enough to allow Lindsey to lower his arm.

Angel stared at him from a post only a few feet away, holding a book so ancient that the spine was frayed like lacerated skin. The room reeked of blood and ash, though the carpet spread out beneath Lindsey's fingers felt dry. Angel was leaner than he remembered, more like the vampire that Lindsey had sparred with verbally on their first encounter years before. The corporate sloth that Wolfram and Hart had layered over him was gone, whittled away to be replaced with muscle and force encased within a deceptive calm. He brought to Lindsey's mind the impression of a storm only waiting for the opportunity to throw the first lightning bolt to the ground. Angel's eyes as he watched Lindsey's first shuddering, painful movements back in the mortal world were devoid of cruelty or compassion both.

Spike, by contrast, was vibrating with such a disapproving energy that it was a wonder he was able to remain fixed to one spot. He hugged his leather coat to himself like a shroud that he did not have the good sense to step out of as his eyes ticked back and forth between the two of them. His gaze left a chill over Lindsey's skin wherever it touched. "This never goes as smoothly as you think," Spike said to Angel in a voice so low that Lindsey had to struggle to hear it. "Trust the voice of experience here." Angel didn't respond and Spike snorted finally, bending over so that he could pick up a bowl of sloshing items that Lindsey did not want to identify. "Right," Spike said. "Well, we're scraping the bottom of the barrel all the same." He moved his stare over Lindsey again. "Don't suppose we should be all that surprised by what we pull out." He did not quite slam the door as he left, but the force was still enough to make flakes of paint fall from the wall and drift down to the floor.

Angel watched Spike go with something that might have been concern moving across his face for the barest of seconds. When he glanced towards Lindsey again, his face had returned to the mask of bland professionalism that would have had Holland offering him a corner office in no time flat. "Welcome back." Angel snapped the book shut hard enough to make the spine give at last, making the leather flutter in the draft.

Lindsey muttered something liquid and rolled over onto his back, sucking great gasps of air into lungs that no longer remembered how to perform their function on reflex alone. He had just enough time to realize that he was entirely nude before he found himself being drawn down a deep tunnel with no comforting light to be seen at the far end, into dreams of the place that he had so recently been pulled from. It was not a restful sleep.


Lindsey lurched awake in an instant, a sound that balanced between a scream and a moan lodging itself in his throat, choking him, before he was able to force it back down. A sheen of sweat had broken out across his body as he slept, and now it turned icy in the comparatively cool air of the room. He had been unconscious. Okay. If sleep was possible, then this place was real, was not that other one. Lindsey closed his eyes again and took several deep breaths through his nose.

"Wakey, wakey, Sleeping Beauty. We haven't got all day." Male, British, annoyed. That left two possibilities from the circle of Lindsey's enemies and acquaintances, and the North London accent ruled out Wesley. Lindsey did not bother to open his eyes.

"But I haven't got a thing to wear to the ball." Lindsey's voice emerged as raspy and ill-used. A lump traveled up into his throat and he gagged, pausing to spit out a mouthful of phlegm that tasted heavily of soot. Spike made a faint sound of disgust. That was pretty funny, given the amount of bodily fluids that Spike had removed from their proper places since his turning, but Lindsey could not find it within himself to laugh.

"Wrong fairytale." Approaching footsteps said that Spike was not going to leave him to brood.

'We don't live in a fairytale.' And for an accomplished liar, Eve could pick the most devastating moments in which to speak the truth. Lindsey gave up and opened his eyes, resigned himself to being chained down to reality for now as he took in the lay of the land. He had been laid out on a pallet in one corner of a cramped, ill-used room that had low ceilings and recent smoke marks crawling up its flaking walls. Outside of a television set that had been pushed into one corner and turned to one action movie or another and the irritated vampire before him, Lindsey was the only thing in the room. Someone had put him into a tee shirt and sweatpants that, while providing little protection against what Lindsey's body continued to insist was cold, obscured the worst of the gooseflesh from view.

Spike paused beneath the room's single fixture and pulled on the chain, filling the room with a flickering light. Even that dim glow forced Lindsey to hiss and turn his eyes away. Spike didn't notice or, much more likely, simply did not care. "Still your feisty self, good for you. I told Angel that you had probably gone soft upstairs after this much time. We've no use for a gibbering idiot."

"I know who I am." The sensory overload diminished enough for Lindsey to turn his head back towards Spike, though his eyes still watered and stung. An afterimage burned like a halo around Spike's head. It was funny, in a way that made Lindsey feel as if he might be sick.

"So good to hear that." Ah, now there was the voice that Lindsey had been waiting to hear. It was nice to know that Nagel had learned to open doors rather than simply kicking through them. And silently, too. Angel stepped further into the room, trailed by the eerie cartoon character that had taken up residence in Fred Burkle's body. The Fred-thing was wearing a disgruntled expression.

"That mode of travel is beneath me," she grumbled.

"The sewers are good for your social skills," Spike responded without ever taking his eyes off of Lindsey. "You meet the most interesting people down there."

Lindsey propped himself up on his elbows, watching Angel watch him. 'This job has become unsavory.' He didn't know whether it was hatred or betrayal that throbbed inside him like a rotten tooth, supposed that the two of them were intertwined too tightly at this point for it to matter. "Angel," he said, surprising even himself with the amount of sneer that he was able to put into the word, "loving the new digs, man. You should have invited me over sooner."

A smile that had nothing to do with amusement and reminded Lindsey of knives touched at the corner of Angel's mouth. "Well, you know. Things kept coming up."

"How long was I dead?"

Angel shrugged in a manner suggesting that the date was not important enough to remember off the top of his head. Hatred shot past betrayal in a masterful play for the lead. "Eighteen months, give or take. Frankly, I'm surprised that you held up this well. I was expecting more drool."

"I'm special." After all, traitors to both sides didn't come along every day. Lindsey clenched his jaw until lances of pain shot through his head.

"Aren't you, though."

Lindsey pushed himself into a sitting position that left him more exhausted than he would have thought possible, bracing his back against the wall to steady himself. He made a face as something skittered beneath the plaster. "You've gone down in the world. The Hyperion revoke your lease or something?"

A flicker that might have been surprise moved across Angel's face for the most illusory of seconds, there and gone again before Lindsey could be sure of what he had seen. That was less than comforting. Angel liked to put on the façade of being an enormous block of wood, but there were tics and signs there if one knew how to read them, tiny windows left open into Angel's mental state through which bystanders could peer. Lindsey had been very good at this task once, and it had made him an apt choice when something had needed to be done. This new Angel, however, glided effortlessly beneath all of his attempts to grab a fingerhold, leaving Lindsey in a freefall. Of all the unnerving things that Lindsey had been witness to or had participated in during his life and during the period beyond that, New and Improved Champion Version 2.0 did not yet fit into the top ten, but he was moving up the ranks fast.

There may have been other emotions following the surprise, but Lindsey did not see them. A coughing fit dropped down on him from nowhere, doubling him over and sending knives arcing through his chest. The tastes of soot and sulphur rose in his throat and gagged him before he was able to force them back down. Black spots danced in the air before Lindsey's eyes by the time he was able to breathe freely again, and he was acutely aware that Angel was not the only one who had betrayed him.

Angel's eyes were narrowed into coffee-dark slits, as if he could not quite believe that this was information that he needed to explain and was waiting for the big twist ending to arrive. "The Hyperion was destroyed."

Lindsey paused, unable to say that he was all that surprised. You butted heads with the ultimate evil, ultimate evil tended to butt heads back. Their methods had a way of making Godzilla on a rampage through Tokyo look discreet by comparison. Much like Angel's own, now that Lindsey paused to think about it.

"That's too bad," he said. It had been a beautiful piece of architecture, even if he could not speak as highly of the intelligence of the occupants much of the time. "But you're here, so I'm guessing that you couldn't have fared too badly." Lindsey ran his eyes deliberately over Spike and the crayon-blue freak as he spoke, noting the empty spaces. "Even if you did suffer a couple of...acceptable losses."

Angel's eyes narrowed a shade further. Much more and he was not going to be able to see. Some of the vertigo eased away from Lindsey's mind, even as the anger was left to pulse all the more neon and brilliant for its absence. Pitch him into hell until his sense of time was shattered to the point of nonexistence-that was survivable. He would hold himself together on nothing more than will and fury, if that was what it took. As long as he could claw his way back and see that Angel was still throwing that unique look at him, a three-way tie between superiority, hostility, and a sick, unwilling recognition, Lindsey would know that the world was still turning on its axis.

"Don't tell me that you didn't know this was going to happen," Angel said. His voice had descended into a growl that nevertheless carried all the way across the room. The Fred-thing perked, sensing violence on the air.

Of all the sentences in the world that could bring absolutely no good along with them, that had to rest in the upper echelons. Lindsey straightened against the wall and felt a few flakes of paint peel off and curl against the nape of his neck, through his hair. His voice was cold, and it glistened with knives as he asked, "Didn't know that what would happen?" A deep silence echoed back at him. "Look, if you're waiting for some kind of secret handshake here, then you might want to settle in and grab yourself some drinks. I didn't know that what would happen?"

It was Spike who finally answered. His face rendered into a mask of careful neutrality, he jutted his chin in the direction of the room's single window. It was heavily curtained, but Lindsey could still see slivers of light peeking through around the edges. "See for yourself."

Every ounce of Lindsey's body said that this was one question that he wasn't going to like once it was answered. Keeping his eyes looked onto Spike's, Lindsey braced his hand against the wall and slowly pushed himself to his feet. His knees wobbled ominously beneath him, not subsiding until Lindsey warned them in a fierce internal whisper that if they failed him now and spilled him out in front of the one person who never believed that he could stand, then he was going to cut them off himself. He had survived without body parts before.

The world swam out of focus and then back in again as Lindsey walked across the room. Lindsey made a mental note to ask anyone else in the room if their resurrections had been like this, or if he was getting the roller coaster treatment because he was just that unique. No one moved towards him with the intent of either helping or hindering, though Angel did step away from the curtains as Lindsey drew close. Resting his hand against the edge of the fabric, Lindsey considered for a brief moment flinging the curtains open entirely, flooding the room with light and ending the dance of recognition and distrust that he and Angel had grown so good at once and for all. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, all that jazz that had been shouted down from pulpits that Lindsey could barely remember. After his cheerful sojourn into the realm of nightmares, he figured that the least the ones who put him there owed him were a few Old Testament indulgences.

But he had not had time to develop any beef with Spike yet, other than a vague sense of guilt by association. Frankly, the idea of being the only person left in the room with the Fred-thing freaked him out. The final piece of the puzzle, the one that would only be admitted in the darkest corners of Lindsey's mind, was that it would be impossible to prove himself as worth more than the smirking, knowing look in Angel's eyes if the vampire was reduced to a scattering of ash.

Lindsey's mouth twisted as his fingers curled around the edge of the curtain, twitched it open far enough to allow in a beam of sunlight scarcely more than a foot wide. The vampires stepped back quickly, while the Fred-thing tilted her head to one side and closed her eyes to bask like a cat on a windowsill. The late afternoon light seared Lindsey's retinas, forced him to avert his gaze down to his bare feet. Hellfire didn't burn nearly as brightly as the stern lectures from back home or cheerful brochures handed out at Wolfram and Hart would have had him believe, and his rods and cones were feeling the strain of the new workload.

"Now," Lindsey said when his eyes had finally ceased watering, "let's see this dastardly deed of mine." He lifted his head and peered out of the grimy window.

Though the window had western exposure and Lindsey was looking directly into the sun as it began its slow descent towards the horizon, he could not look away.

Los Angeles, the city that he had alternated between embracing and despising with an energy that bordered on the bipolar since the first day he had driven past the city limits sign, just wasn't there any longer. Great chunks had been punched out of the skyline, giving it the appearance of a prizefighter's broken and jagged teeth. Lindsey could see whole city blocks that had gone missing, plowed down into careless piles of rubble. Sullen clouds of gray smoke lurked around the remaining skyscrapers, as if fires had been put out but were still promising to return for the sequel. Small dolls that Lindsey presumed were people walked to and fro across the roads; there were no cars. There was also no pattern to the destruction that Lindsey could see, no rhyme or reason. It was only the swirling chaos that was the opposite of creation. Lindsey's hand felt numb as he allowed the curtain to fall back into place, returning the room to a gloom unbroken save for the light bulb's swaying gleam.

"No," Lindsey said, shaking his head and willing himself to believe it. "This isn't right." He didn't see Angel stepping close to his side.

Spike lit a cigarette while Fred-thing watched curiously. "Lots of things out there that aren't right, mate. If you're looking for more than a general 'no shit, Sherlock', then you're going to have to do better than that." Spike dropped the match down to the carpet, where it smoldered for a moment before going out. No one said anything. Spike took a long drag from the cigarette before he noticed the Fred-thing looking and handed it to her. She smelled it, pulled a face, and handed it back.

Lindsey's knees were signaling to him that, threats or not, their duties were done. He leaned back until he was half-sitting against the edge of the windowsill, only then noticing Angel's proximity. Lindsey flicked him a look acidic enough to etch patterns into diamonds and was not surprised when Angel appeared completely unaffected in return. "No," Lindsey said, addressing Spike rather than Angel. "This was not supposed to happen." So low that it was nearly subvocal, Lindsey added, "I was told that this would not happen."

Angel, of course, heard every word. His mouth curved, shaping itself into a parody of a smile that belonged to neither Angel nor Angelus, but some bastard hybrid of them both. "By whom?" he asked. "The Senior Partners? The Black Thorn? Neither of them are particularly well-known for their truth and honesty."

Lindsey levered himself back to his feet, not caring any longer if he fell. He could feel a grin as it stretched across his face and began turning it into something alien and grotesque. This was why he had become a lawyer, this addictive thrill of being in possession of knowledge (of power) while everyone else around him wallowed in their ignorance. "You really are a dumbass, aren't you?" he asked, his tone kept conversational. Angel's shoulders twitched, and that was okay, that was just fine. Lindsey had had every single one of his pillars knocked out from under him, and if he could not get at the ones who had done the knocking themselves then he would accept whatever substitutes he could reach in the meantime. Lindsey flung his arm out to indicate Spike, who was lighting a second cigarette from the embers of the first and watching the proceedings with the same level of interest that he might assign to an interesting soap opera. "You were out of the Champion game, locked behind your big desk and filling out your paperwork, all the while doing everything that you could to pretend that you were still relevant. Do you really think that the Senior Partners or even the members of the Black Thorn wanted an idiot rookie trained up to take your place while you were doing such an excellent job of standing still in it? They would have been thrilled if he had stayed apathetic and incompetent forever."

"Keep that up and you're going to start hurting my feelings," Spike said. His voice carried only a token amount of venom.

Lindsey did not so much as glance in Spike's direction. There was a roaring sound echoing through his ears, adrenaline pounding through his veins, and if he did not get the secret out of himself it was going to poison him. "'Heroes don't accept the world the way it is,'" he quoted himself, turning the words into a tangle of sarcasm that the originals never came close to. "If it had taken you that much longer to pick up the clues, I was afraid that I was going to have to do it and start throwing them at you."

Angel's face had turned the color of whey, and Lindsey could feel it coming even before he said the words, feel it in the way that the air between them practically sent sparks falling to the carpet, but he could not seem to stop himself. The grin on his face had grown large enough to turn him into a Cheshire cat gone off its medication as he said, "I was working for the Powers That Be, Angel. By the time I hopped on board with the rest of the good guys, you were about the only person in the universe who still thought that you were a hero."

The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. Tepid fingers wrapped around Lindsey's throat, pushing him back hard enough to knock his head against the windowpane and send stars jettisoning across his line of sight. Old times all over again, except that then Angel had always left enough room for Lindsey to draw in a few ragged, painful breaths, obtaining the minimum amount of oxygen required to stay conscious. Not so now. Even as black phantoms began to twirl and dance at the edges of his vision, coming closer with every breath that he could not take, Lindsey did not let the grin fall from his face. Angel wanted to kill him? 'Go ahead, buddy,' Lindsey felt like saying. 'I just got the question of predestination answered for me in a rather violent way, so send me straight back to hell if that's what makes you happy. I'll see you there.'

"You're lying," Angel gritted, his teeth gleaming very white in the room's shadow. "I can smell it on you." Big words when Lindsey could see the truth etched all throughout Angel's eyes.

The phantoms edges close enough to send a crackle of panic running down Lindsey's spine and he pushed at Angel's arm, knowing that he wasn't going to move it an inch unless Angel allowed it. Surprisingly, he did.

There was an expression on Angel's face that was beyond hopelessness, showing Lindsey a glimpse of the howling void of discord that could exist even after that point, before Angel closed it off with the same efficiency with which he would cauterize a gushing wound. His face had all the animation of a Halloween mask as he spun and left both room and apartment without another word. Lindsey could hear the front door rebounding off the far wall as Angel hurled it open, followed by a soft flurry of falling plaster. He found himself wondering in a bizarre moment if the neighbors would complain about the noise, if Angel and his merry bunch of...whatever they were even had neighbors, or if they were the only creatures crouched in this silent ghost ship of a building.

Lindsey slid back down until he was once again seated against the windowsill. He lowered his head and rubbed at his throat until drawing a breath was no longer painful, an action which took several moments. The taste of sulphur was slick and omnipresent in his mouth. "Let me guess," Lindsey said when at least he was able to speak. "I'm supposed to know how to stop what's going on out there?" 'Wasn't supposed to be like this.' Song of the ages if there ever was one.

"Bit of a long shot, really." Spike appeared to be considering the wisdom of a third cigarette before he shrugged and shoved the pack back into the pocket of his duster. He found the two smoking butts into the carpet, where they left neat black holes. "But our normal resources are running dry."

"Pain yielded nothing," Fred-thing said in a speculative tone, tilting her head to one side and staring at Lindsey. He made a silent promise to take whatever measures necessary to avoid being left alone with her for any length of time.

"Sorry to be such a disappointment." Lindsey jerked his thumb back over his shoulder. "What...?" He tried to find a noun suitable for the level of destruction beyond the glass and settled for, "It looks like the set of 'Armageddon' out there."

"Too many separate factors to explain all at once." Spike's lips twisted into a smile that did not reach his eyes. "So you're the Powers' boy, pretending to be the big mustache twirler, pretending to be the Powers' boy?"

"Was." Eighteen months. He was thinking that a contract renegotiation might be in order. Lindsey shivered abruptly, rubbing at his upper arms until he had forced the hard knots of gooseflesh there back down. "Does it have to be kept so cold in here?"

Spike's eyebrow quirked upwards, and for a moment he looked as if he might be amused. "It's August," he said, "and we have no air conditioning."

"Oh." Lindsey dropped his hands back to his sides. Silence descended over the room like the tomb that he had never gotten the chance to visit as he tried to come up with the appropriate scathing remark. Fred-thing was still giving him that disturbing hunter's look. "I need air." Lindsey pushed himself back up to his feet, only just stopping himself from sending up a prayer of thanks when his legs agreed to hold him. Neither Spike nor Fred-thing tried to stop him.

Lindsey paused in the hallway to have a quick debate about the merits of the street versus the roof, ultimately choosing the latter. Always upward, hadn't that been his motto once? The taste of soot in his mouth was pushed briefly to the side by the taste of something else. He shook his head and moved towards the stairs.

It was nearly nightfall by the time Lindsey pushed open the door leading to the roof, and his legs had begun to tell him some minutes before that, no, this time they meant it. The western sky had painted itself into a gleaming canvas of reds and golds that made Lindsey's skin itch even as it took his breath away. The light stung his eyes and made him dip his head to avoid taking it head-on, but an army still could not have forced him to go back inside. Not until he had come up with an acceptable answer to the thoughts which swirled, spun away, and then regrouped to attack again within his mind like a swarm of mosquitoes that would not rest until the last drop of blood had been sucked away. Lindsey wracked his mind over the several months that he had spent playing the game, trying to find the place where he could have taken a wrong step, where he could have left the door open for both the chaos occurring on the streets below and for the regions where he had been cast after Angel killed him. No. Lindsey had gotten Angel back to doing the job that he was meant to do. He had fulfilled his end of the bargain. If there had been any failure on the apocalypse front, it had been Angel's.

Which still did not explain why Lindsey had been the one stuck doing the slow roast rather than old Tall, Dark, and Sanctimonious.

"Sixty-four thousand dollar question," Lindsey murmured, running his hands through his hair. It felt sticky, badly in need of a wash, and Lindsey could not imagine that the rest of him was faring much better. He wondered if running water was too much to hope for in this new and improved version of Los Angeles.

"You will come back inside now." Lindsey turned and was dismayed but not particularly surprised to see the Fred-thing standing in the doorway and watching him with a blankness that no mere human could touch, no matter how many years they spent in a courtroom. She had another name, Lindsey knew, one that tickled at the back of his mind but ran away like sand through a sieve every time he tried to grasp for it. Her lips twisted into the barest suggestion of disgust. "It is a necessary precaution. Do not think that it makes me their messenger. Or yours."

The sun. Of course. Lindsey tried to avoid folding his arms over his chest defensively, realized that the gesture was too human to mean anything to Fred-thing, and did it anyway. She tilted her head to one side in interest but otherwise took no notice. From far off, there was the sound of a hawk screaming. "Afraid I'll run?"

"No." For one moment, the Fred-thing's face shifted into an expression of amusement that alarmed Lindsey far more than it reassured him. He remembered his resolution to never be alone with her and swore inwardly. "It is nearly nightfall." She looked him up and down. "There are things which prey on the weak."

Such a charming vixen that she turned out to be. "Hardly a new development, sweetheart," Lindsey said. "There were things which preyed on the weak before, too." He supposed that there was no point in making an argument for his own abilities when it was all that he could do to keep his legs steady and in their proper position beneath him, but the sting was still there.

The hawk sounded again, louder than before. It was probably getting more than its fair share of carrion these days.

"And now they have nothing to fear." All right, that part would have been far less creepy if Fred-thing had not been wearing that eerie suggestion of a smile as she said it, as if Lindsey was a canary in a cage and she was the cat that had been waiting all afternoon for the master to leave. Lindsey considered the wisdom of taking a step back. A faint breeze ruffled his hair, blowing the dirty strands forward and into his eyes. Even if Fred-thing had been twenty feet away and the path to the doorway had been clear, those were not odds that Lindsey wanted to play. Not while he was exhausted and unarmed, maybe not even if he had had an Uzi.

Fred-thing's gaze shifted, coming to rest at a point behind Lindsey's shoulder. The wind picked up further, and a shadow began to move across the setting sun. "You are the weak," Fred-thing said. Her smile widened into a full grin which revealed a deceptively human set of teeth. "And she is the thing which would prey on you."

That was another one of those sentences which had no chance of producing anything good. The hawk screamed again, loudly enough to be deafening, but of course Lindsey now understood that it was nothing so harmless as a bird of prey. It was not the wind that was making his clothing move. Lindsey hunched his shoulders, ducking and spinning to the side as one movement, and felt something very close to gratitude as his knees agreed to give it one more college try. There was a metallic clacking sound from inches behind him in the exact spot where he had been standing a bare second before, and a rush of warm air that spelled similar enough to a family barbeque to make Lindsey's stomach turn over. With his awkward pirouette out of death's immediate reach completed, he risked a glance over his shoulder and felt his jaw draw open like a broken hinge. Of all the times when Excalibur or possibly a rocket launcher might come in useful, Lindsey was thinking that this was one of them.

Fred-thing referred to the creature as 'she', but Lindsey could see nothing feminine about it. Its body was at least the size of a Hummer, its wingspan coming in at about three times that, and the jewel-toned eyes which stared at Lindsey in a way that made him feel very small were set into a head larger than a washing machine. If Fred-thing was right and this monster truly was a member of the fairer sex, then her scales were a rich copper color that caught the fading sun and threw it back in motes of pure fire, dazzling Lindsey's eyes and swallowing the rest of the world in their glare. Her wings beat a rhythm like helicopter blades in the air as she hovered in place; her tail cut angry swishes just above the brick.

"That's a dragon," Lindsey choked out. Somehow, demons never had the same effect, never brought on the same knee-liquefying awareness of one's real place in the universal food chain.

Fred-thing made a huffing noise that reminded Lindsey suddenly and with a nostalgia that torture could not make him admit to of Lilah before her hand came down on his shoulder with a strength that made a mockery of those small fingers. Lindsey's collarbone creaked beneath the pressure as he was dragged backwards with little care for comfort. He knew that there would be deep purple bruises etched into the flesh later that night, but at the moment of rescue itself Lindsey did not figure that this was the point at which to debate niceties. So long, boss, we'll see you after we've caught a little R and R, and his knees went away without making any promises to come back for future engagements. Lindsey landed hard on his ass, caught at least part of his weight onto his elbows, and felt the skin there tear in a brief moment of pain the a rush of blood from the abraded flesh.

If it weren't for the sense of his own impending death looming over his head, Lindsey might even have been embarrassed. As it was, there was the blood, always the blood. Lindsey's elbows tore and left bits of skin and blood behind that gleamed for a few seconds at almost the same color of She-Devil Numero Uno's scales. Her nostrils dilated, offering a further glimpse into the inner workings of her nasal passages than Lindsey really thought that he needed, thanks so much. That massive head swung back around on him, leaving him staring into a face best referred to as the love that dared not speak its name between a pit bull and an anaconda. The dragon hissed, displaying row upon row of serrated teeth and sending out another wave of breath that smelled of roasting meat. Third time's the charm, and her head snaked forward with a speed that blurred the eye and made the pulse double in a span of seconds. Lindsey prepared himself for the end of his short vacation among the mortal coil. Much later, when the adrenaline had drained from his system far enough to leave only the queasy aftermath behind, he would tell himself that the fact of Fred-thing's saving his life did absolutely nothing to alter the horror-show creepiness that filled any room she happened to be standing in.

It was hard not to see Fred Burkle's body in the shape of the thing that had taken over as the Fred-thing dove through the air, catching the dragon about the jaw and twisting it away from Lindsey on body weight alone. It was a marvel that something so small could move with so much force. Fred-thing's weight pulled the dragon's head down and into the concrete, striking with strength to drive a deep divot into the stone. The dragon lurched forward, and her upper jaw came down hard on the arm that Fred-thing still had wrapped around her mouth. There was a crunch that may have been that of breaking bone and a deceptively human cry of pain. Lindsey forced his watery knees to take his weight back.

"Get inside!" That might even have been fear that caught at Fred-thing's voice and drove it into a higher octave, if Lindsey tilted his head to one side and listened just right. Lindsey hesitated for a beat until Fred-thing threw him a look full of sapphire fury to match the deep and glowing green of the dragon's own, and he decided that discretion was the better part of not dying this day. He staggered back, ignoring the stings of protest from his legs and his elbows, and somehow made it over the last twelve feet to the relative safety inside, sinking to the floor as soon as he was able. A scream that could have come from either Fred-thing or the dragon followed him through the open door. As the sound echoed away, it was all that Lindsey could do not to launch himself back out into the fray, self-preservation be damned. He had gone a record-breaking amount of time without it, anyway, even if the final product was less than amazing.

A final scream, a thump which made the entire building rattle to its foundations and set dust floating down from the ceiling, all followed by a silence which echoed and swelled. Lindsey used the wall to push himself back up to his feet as the Fred-thing stalked past, her face lit up with a savage kind of triumph that was worse than the blankness. Blood dripped from her savaged arm as she stalked back down the hallway, gleaming a purple-red not found in any human veins, and it was this sign of mortality that Lindsey used to guide him back to the apartment.


Spike stood in front of the television set, watching the evening news as it kept its continued march towards imitating a low-budget action film when hell's own Barbie doll stalked back in with Kenny in tow. Blood ran from a gash in Illyria's forearm deep enough to expose the white gleam of bone even as her face remained as bland and plastic-lovely as one of Dru's dolls. The blood fell softly down to the carpet, which drank it up like a live thing. Good thing they had not put down a deposit.

Yeah, and Lindsey was not looking so hot, either. He slumped quietly against the wall and watched Spike and Illyria with the bleary, dazed stare of someone who had finally had enough.

"Well, well," Spike said, watching the coils of bright crimson as they wound their way down Lindsey's arms. "Looks like you two had quite the party."

Illyria lowered her head to peer at the jagged wound splitting the skin of her forearm. She flicked away a gobbet of something that looked suspiciously like spittle and made a face, the first sign of discomfort that she had given since striding through the door, before she looked back up at Spike. There were some expressions which could be translated regardless of the species that they rested upon, and that of a pissed off bird was one of them. "I do not exist to fight your battles for you," she hissed at him, baring her teeth in a manner that would have sat equally well on a cat. She spun off towards the bedroom, throwing back over her shoulder, "Next time, I will allow it to die."

Spike stared after her. "She becomes more like a human woman every day." He flicked his gaze back towards Lindsey, who was still leaning against the wall and watching with an expression suggesting a videotape that had already recorded all that it could and was on the verge of overwriting all of the old information to take in the new. Like, say, the ABCs. Hell must have been going through quite the dry spell, if Los Angeles was new and different enough to elicit such a reaction. Lindsey shifted, leaving twin smears of crimson against the wall from his elbows. "Golly, don't you look like you're having the best time ever."

Lindsey lifted his eyes. "I don't know if you're aware of this," he said slowly, "but there's a goddamned dragon out there."

Spike patted down his jacket pockets until he found the cigarettes again. Times like these, he figured that the ones who didn't chain smoke were the freaks. "We call her Charlotte." The cigarettes were located with a triumphant flourish. Only a few left; he would either have to cut back or risk a fight to get more. Damn, and that was going to be such a strain upon his resources.

"Ah." Lindsey steadied himself with his arms, winced, and wobbled like a newborn calf when he tried to stand unaided. "She seems like a charming lady."

"Bit of a bitch, really, until you get to know her." Spike's lighter sputtered on the last few drops of butane before finally going out, and he swore. "And after you get to know her. Still, she does seem to have taken a shine to us."

Lindsey paused and visibly held his breath until his balance returned. "Angel and fire-breathing women. So glad that there's at least one thing I can count on to stay the same." He rubbed his hands over his face, raked them through his hair, and scowled. "Don't suppose you guys have a shower I could use?"

Spike made a face before he crammed both the smokes and the useless lighter back into his jacket. "Sure." He jerked his head in the direction that Illyria had disappeared in. "But you have to brave her to reach it."

Lindsey paled for a moment, and Spike could not control his grin. It was always nice to see his girl making an impression. "I'll risk it." He made his way off, trailing his fingers against the wall for balance. If it were not for the complete amorality and history of Machiavellian manipulations between them, Spike might almost, maybe feel sorry for him. He turned back to the merry visions of the world crawling itself into hell on the television screen.

The click of the door opening was slight, so faint that Spike would have missed it if he had been relying on human ears. He didn't turn away from the set. "Have yourself a good tantrum, did you?"

"Spike." Ah, now there was the warning note curling through Angel's voice that had been so lacking over the intervening months. Spike felt the corners of his lips turn up a shade. And all it took was the resurrection of a mortal enemy. They should start compiling a list. There was a scuffing noise as Angel began to come forward and then halted, presumably at the sight of the blood. "Charlotte?"

"Yep." A truck carrying hundreds of gallons of precious gasoline went up on the small screen, scattering civilians like leaves before a gale, and Spike winced. More precious fuel wasted, and supply companies willing to make the trip into the minefield that the western United States had devolved into were becoming fewer by the day. "Is it just me, or is she getting worse?"

"Not just you." Spike could hear Angel's hand brushing against the plaster where Lindsey's blood was settling into the paint. "We'll have to try again, soon." That was almost animation there if Spike worked on listening for it. "Is Illyria hurt badly?" Still there. Wonders and miracles, and Spike began to wonder if composing that list might not be a good idea after all.

"For her?" Spike sighed and turned the television off before he turned around. "Not badly. She'll be right as rain and ready to start twirling entrails around her head again within a day. We'll just have to find some good entrails tonight to point her at."

Angel nodded, the distant look that had been nearly omnipresent lately settling over his face again. Spike told himself that it was none of his business and he really did not care, except that going through the motions didn't seem to be getting them very far in the universal sweepstakes lately. The distance receded again, just far enough for Angel to sound reluctant, disbelieving, and nearly disgusted in one neat package as he asked, "And Lindsey?" He gestured towards the crimson marks on the wall.

"Ruffled around the edges. I'm guessing that Illyria's mercies weren't all that more tender than Charlotte's." Spike sighed again, crossed his arms over his chest, and wished he had a spare lighter with him so that he would at least have a burst of extra nicotine energy to work with. In the other room, the sound of the shower starting up could be heard. "So, did your pet project in there say anything terribly shocking?"

Angel's lips lifted up, and Spike wished that he would stop it. That same smile, or a friend close enough to share its bed, had once sat with ease upon Angelus's face. They had enough young pups running about out there and trying to fill his shoes without having to contend with the gran pere of them all at the same time. "Anymore? Nothing surprises me." The smile deepened until it gleamed, bringing the hair rising on Spike's neck and a prickle of recognition to go spreading along his limbs. "But Lindsey can speak the truth without actually telling it."

Spike blinked. "Can he now?" This was not, he was coming to realize, a good night for running low on his distracting little addictions.

The smile faded by a shade or two, leaving a saner Angel behind. Spike was glad of it. "He can if you know him well enough." Angel turned away to gather weapons and Spike turned the television back on. He ignored the panicked edge in the newscaster's voice and instead focused on memorizing the locations that she read out in breathy gasps, his lips moving as he cast his eyes across the never-ending ticker tape that ran across the bottom of the screen. The electricity would be going out soon, and they would need to know where to hunt.


Lindsey's legs had promised to go out on him, made good on that threat, and then withdrawn it so many times over the past hour that he felt justified in ignoring their final, piteous pleas for mercy as he staggered into the space that he assumed was meant to be the apartment's bedroom. Aside from a stack of unused pallets similar to the one that Lindsey had been placed upon shoved into one corner, enough ancient weaponry to make Genghis Khan go greenly envious, and-thank whatever gods that had not yet screwed him over in whatever heavens they might rest-a door through which the gleam of chrome and porcelain could be seen, the room was abandoned of furniture. As tempted as he might have been to place Fred-thing within that category before his encounter with the lovely and vivacious Charlotte, the speed with which she had moved and the heat of the glare that she turned on him now made all such thoughts curl up and immediately begin scouting about for a place to hide.

"I do not require your assistance," she sniffed before returning to the bandages that she was awkwardly trying to wrap about the lacerated skin of her forearm. If the splatters of blood that she was leaving in wide arcs around herself every time she made an abrupt movement were anything to go by then Lindsey thought that he could argue with that, but he was strangely not finding himself in the mood to share and care and be an all around Class A kind of guy.

"Wasn't looking to offer it, Blue," he said, and continued on his way towards the bathroom.

"They believed that you were the key to all of this," Fred-thing said to his retreating back, drawing Lindsey to a halt faster than any physical restraint could have hoped to. He turned back far enough to see her face, written up as it was with equal parts disdain and curiosity. "To replacing the veneer upon their world." Fred-thing bared her teeth in what Lindsey supposed had been a smile in a past life. They were startlingly human and white. Lindsey thought that he preferred the blue. "And yet you are human, frail. I see little to be impressed with."

Lindsey split his lips into a smile every bit as vicious as Fred-thing's own. "Haven't you heard, babe?" She blinked, but apparently the endearment was human enough to pass over her head. "Don't believe everything that you're foretold." He went into the bathroom, shutting the door firmly behind him. It was cramped, worn but well-maintained all the same. Lindsey imagined that Angel and his merry band spent a lot of time here, showering off the results of that battles that they won and bandaging those of the ones that they did not. His hand was trembling as he slid the shower door open and reached in to turn on the tap, not so badly that Lindsey could not lie to himself and pretend that he did not notice.

Water poured down from the shower's head on command, bleary-opaque for the first several seconds but gloriously hot all the same. Lindsey did not think that there was another word in the English language or in any other capable of carrying with it such blind, fervent hope. Within moments he had stripped off his clothing and all but fallen beneath the spray. His hand groped blindly until he found the handle marked 'hot' and turned it up as high as it would go, until he was at the brink of scalding. For the first time since he had woken up, the gooseflesh retreated back into his skin. Lindsey opened his eyes long enough to see swirls of ash and soot disappearing down the drain before he sank into a sitting position, using the tile wall at his back as a brace and feeling the pinpricks of water pound his face with nearly enough force to hurt. He didn't move from that position until the water began to grow cold.

The lights buzzed once, twice, as Lindsey was stepping from the shower, and then they went out. Lindsey froze with his borrowed shirt in one hand, feeling beads of water trickling down the nape of his neck and the hard little knots of gooseflesh already beginning their triumphant return in a march down his back. The heat had been nice while it had lasted. "That can't be good." His words hung in the air for far longer than they had a right to in the cramped space of the bathroom. Lindsey dressed quickly and left. The darkness soothed eyes that had already seen more than their anticipated share of light and color for the day, and he only had to hesitate in the doorway and allow his eyes to adjust for a few seconds before he was able to safely navigate around the weaponry scattered about the room.

"Forget to pay the bill?" Lindsey asked as he walked back into the main room. The forms of Angel, Spike, and Fred-thing were moving about the room, felt almost as much as they were seen. He thought he could make out weapons being strapped to limbs.

Angel glanced up. "Power goes out at eight every evening," he said. "Doesn't come back on until six in the morning. Fuel rationing." There was a flat quality to his voice as he spoke, as if Lindsey was rummaging through computer files rather than conversing with a person. It was too dark for Lindsey to see how tightly Angel's fingers were wrapped around the handle of the sword that he carried, or for him to read the expression on Angel's face. He felt adrift in the absence of such cues and only wished that the world would stopping spinning long enough so that he could think.

"Hell of a world you got going here," Lindsey said, finding the pallet and sinking back down onto it. The gleam of teeth the he received in return managed to be equal parts alarming and reassuring. Lindsey shivered beneath the slow spike of fresh adrenaline and wondered how far away that glitter of teeth was from becoming fang.

"If it's too much of an adjustment I could always send you back." The sword sighed as Angel pulled it from the sheath by a few inches before allowing it to fall back.

"Easy there, fella. I might start getting the wrong ideas." Lindsey felt his lips curving into a smile and didn't need to see Angel's face to know that, for the moment at least, he and Angel were back to the status quo. He maintained the expression until Angel had taken his followers and left. As soon as the sound of the door shutting had ceased echoing it fell away, leaving behind a mask blank enough to have been carved from plaster.


It was almost as difficult to get into Los Angeles as it was to get out these days, making supply runs a fool's errand for all but the cunning and the suicidal, and passenger trips unthinkable. There were ways, though, if one was canny and knew how to take advantage of chances as they presented themselves. If one knew how to be persuasive.

The freighter that bumped up gently against the dock was almost too old to be on the water, so ancient that no one could consider it a great loss on the likely event that it did not come back. There were only a few hands on the deck, making it more than a ghost ship on technicality alone, and those that did move about kept a careful eye on the sky above them for things that flew and things that clawed. They paid little mind to the adolescent that slipped among them, heading below decks to the living quarters to collect her belongings and her companions. She had paid her way and that merited her the same consideration that would be given to a pricey piece of cargo, nothing more. The girl had whirled away into the shadows and was lost among them within seconds, forgotten almost as quickly, and when she reappeared with two boy in tow moments later the crew members reacted with a faint shock.

She missed planes more than she missed anything else, the girl decided as she stood at the head of the gangplank with her luggage in her hands. Cars, too, and television that wasn't all focused on twenty-four hour depictions of people being eviscerated, but planes were the big one. She remembered being small and taking plane trips with Alexei, Fideo, and Jonathan to wherever the safe house of the month happen to be located, the smooth, easy power of them, interrupted as they were by sobering little jolts when the plane hit a restless pocket of air. Those moments of turbulence especially, when the clean miracle of flight seemed poised to be thrown right back into impossibility and leave all of the passengers flailing for purchase in the air like Icarus. An had always believed in drawing such cautionary tales from everyday experiences. Jonathan had been fond of ruffling her hair, kissing her forehead, and telling her that she had been born out of her time. The new age of people dominating the planet could not seem to grasp the lesson even as history written on both the large and the small scale doubled and tripled on itself, one big cycle like the snake that ate its own tail, and each failure became more crippling than the last.

It had been nearly six months since An had last spoken to Jonathan. She missed him.

She missed planes, and she missed Jonathan and chocolate, and she missed romantic comedies and the juicy give of citrus fruit being scissored up between her teeth. An figured that she could fill up a legal pad with all of the things that she was already coming to miss (the legal pad itself might be on it) if she was willing to sit down and try, and this was why she threw the notion out of her mind with a physical shiver like a dog shaking water off of its back. When she no longer had a task to perform and the luxury of fantasy was returned to her, then she could indulge. For now, though, the job.

An strode slowly down the gangplank, pausing only to tip the lone young man who had helped her with her luggage and to ensure that he would not remember her when she had passed. Alexei had raced ahead and was already standing on the docks, hands braced into fists against his hips and foot tapping against the cement in a mockery of impatience as he stared up at her. "Yeah, let's pause to enjoy the scenery of a shipping yard!" he shouted up at her. "I'm sure it's the city finest, right here."

An drew in her breath sharply at the noise, darting her eyes about the rest of the dock for signs of dangerous movement. There was little that could pose a serious threat to them. That did not mean that there was nothing, and it would only take one lucky strike to end them before they had a chance to begin.

"He's happy," came the soothing voice at her ear, matching the tempo of the quiet pad of footsteps that she had heard coming up behind.

"He's being a moron," An replied, and did not need to turn her head to see that Fideo was wearing a slight smile.

"That, too."

An hurried down the gangplank, shifting her luggage in her hands and muttering words beneath her breath that no one save for Alexei and Fideo realized that she knew. "Will you shut up already?" she hissed at Alexei as soon as she dared. "Are you trying to let the entire city know that we're here?"

Alexei's smile slipped, turning a little sullen, a little hurt, and was not restored until An laid her hand upon his arm. "Sorry," he said. "Didn't pack my neon sign, had to improvise. We're not going to be going low-profile for long, anyway, so I don't understand what the fuss is."

"Enjoy anonymity while it lasts." An lifted her hand away from Alexei's forearm and gave him her suitcase as his penance, smiling sweetly when he made a face. "Besides, you big doofus, I was thinking of more immediate concerns. Law and order aren't much more than words in a dictionary here."

Alexei was pulling another face and just opening his mouth to fire something back at her when the sound of a car's engine cut through the inky darkness, all the more startling by having no other traffic sounds with which to blend. Alexei shut his mouth with an audible clicking sound. An could feel Fideo coming up protectively on her left while Alexei took two quick steps closer to her on her right, all thoughts of bickering forgotten. They were three, as they had been since before they could count their ages in double digits, and they were mighty, and they were ready. If trouble came, so help them, they were ready.

If trouble was gunning for them on this night, however, then An had soon decided that it was about time someone pulled trouble aside and spoke to it about its lamentable taste in cars. A single beam of light cut through the black as the engine rumbled closer, bouncing wildly, and An had an irrational moment in which she thought of a manic-depressive Cyclops before she realized that one of the car's headlights was out. She disentangled her fingers from Fideo's with no memory of which one of them had reached for the other first as the supposed luxury creaked to a halt and a man stepped out. A battered, beige-colored Chevy for an equally battered, beige-colored owner, and An had to stifle her giggle as she realized that they might even have rolled off the assembly line at the same time. The man pushed back his tan fedora-which matched his tan windbreaker, naturally-and smiled, making An immediately feel bad for her moment of mirth at his expense. "You guys are those Readers?" he asked, still smiling. There was a slightly pained quality to his grin, as if he wanted to believe but still wasn't quite sure that it could be possible.

"In living color," Alexei said. An darted a sharp look at him, but his voice had been bleached of all humor. He was standing closer to the driver than any of them, so close that a good breeze could make their hands touch. "Pop the trunk and I'll toss these bags in."

"Sure, sure." Their driver hopped back into the car with an excited skip in his step that made An vaguely queasy just to watch the small hope that she could see being built up in it, more so by the fact that came from someone so much older than she. 'Do your job,' she told herself. 'Get it done, do it well, and then you never have to peek out from the woodwork again.' An old mantra, and one that didn't fit quite the way that it once had. The trunk creaked when it opened, and Alexei's back was stiff as he walked around to place both his and An's bags inside. A line appearing between his eyes, Fideo moved to do the same with his own, deliberately walking close enough to the driver so that their sleeves brushed against one another as the man moved to slam the trunk shut. An saw Fideo's lip curl, so suddenly and gone again so quickly that anyone who did not know him well would have missed it. He wasted no time in stepping away again. An's stomach clenched itself into a tight ball independent of her control. "God, I can't tell you how glad I am that you kids are here. You're going to be getting that a lot, and I...well..." He seized An's small hand in his meaty one, squeezed it firmly, and said, "Thank you."

An knew. It was everything that she could do not to be ill across her own shoes.

"I'm the same age as your daughter," An said. There was a roaring noise in her ears that made her own voice sound as if it was being delivered to her from down a long well.

Her driver looked surprised and maybe, if An squinted, even a bit anxious. "Yeah, I guess that you are, or close enough. Jenny had a birthday only a few days ago. Did you read that from me? Is that a part of your power?"

"Yes." An pulled her hand away from his and rubbed it against her jeans. She lifted her chin a few inches in defiance when she raised her eyes back to meet his. "Do you want to do to me that same things that you do to her?"

"I don't understand." He was a liar, oh, he was such a good liar, he had almost talked himself into believing it.

"Jenny found blood this morning. She's gone to talk to your wife-to her mother." An could not stop herself from spitting out the final word. "They're both crying now."

"You have no idea what you're talking about." He was barely able to speak above a whisper. "You shouldn't go around making accusations like that if you don't know what you're talking about."

An swiped at the dainty trickle of blood that had begun to run from one nostril, turned, and got into the backseat of the car without another word. Alexei and Fideo were already there, their faces set and stormy with a righteous anger that wanted nothing more than the chance to start throwing lightning bolts about. Fideo's hand was wrapped back around hers before the sound of the slamming door had even had a chance to begin echoing away. After a few more moments of standing alone by the trunk, their driver got in and started up the car. He was no longer tan, but a shade of gray that reminded An of old and unwashed linen. She thought that it suited him.

When word came around a few days later that the driver had hung himself, An was neither surprised nor remorseful. Ammunition was growing harder by the day to come by, and any shot wasted on him was one that wouldn't be spent by someone else in warding off an attack. An did not want to hurt anybody.


In the absence of streetlamps, Los Angeles had all of the charm of a tomb. The only ones who moved comfortably through it after dark were they that had little reason to believe that they would ever see their own. Angel's lips curved into a shadow smile that left his mouth tasting of ashes and pennies, the only kind that he remembered how to wear any longer, as he pulled the broadsword from its sheath. The metal made a faint whisking noise as it was dragged across the leather. Beyond that and the faint crunch of roadway grit beneath his boots, all the world was rendered into silence. Angel told himself it was cleansing rather than empty, this solemn husk left in place of the city that he still swore to protect, and that the fight was not over yet. He could still feel a pulse reverberating through the concrete, in the air between the buildings, faint but unmistakable. It was not until that faded away that they would have to pause and take stock of their remaining options.

"Up here?" Angel asked Spike, more to cut the shroud-like air with the sound of his own voice than out of any real need for confirmation. The orange glow lighting up the sky directly ahead served as a marker more eye-catching than any number of neon signs, unchallenged as it was by the intrusion of artificial lights.

"Yeah. Should be about ten blocks ahead, give or take." Spike's voice floated to him from a place about twenty paces to the right.

Angel inhaled deeply and smelled soot and flesh charred too badly for the species to be recognizable. "Eleven. But who's counting?"

Of the faint indigo light which glowed beyond the flames, soft and so lacy-delicate that the eye would skip over it in the night unless one already knew where to look, neither of them would directly refer.

Spike made a whistling sound through his nose that could have been interpreted as amusement, if Angel had so wished. His hair caught the odd motes of light thrown down by the stars and gleamed briefly silver when he turned his head. "You ready for excitement, Babe?"

A mouse would have made a greater noise dropping down from a tabletop than Illyria did as she jumped down from the rooftop on which she had been perched. Her eyes glowed in the darkness as she said, "I am prepared for bloodshed." Angel saw her lip curl for a moment as she dragged her eyes across the swords that her companions carried. When Illyria's face fell back into its normal, neutral lines without taking the opportunity for a scathing remark as it was offered, Angel felt as if the world had just tilted sideways on him.

"Good to hear." Angel shifted the sword in his hand, accustoming himself once more to the weight of it, and told himself that this was all that his world needed to boil down to.

The one-building fire that Spike had spotted on the all entrails, all the time broadcast had spread to a half dozen other structures by the time that they ran up. Angel could see at a glance that there was going to be no saving the building, even if the appropriate personnel and equipment had been on the scene. The smell of burning meat and hair was much thicker here, so thick that Angel figured even mortal senses would have been able to recognize humanity at this range. He knew even before he had halted his sprint and twirled the sword in his hand that there wasn't a great deal of hope of saving the occupants, either. If something twinged deep within his chest at this admission, then Angel told himself that he did not feel it.

Well, that left them with the demons that had started it. It was fun for the remains of his whole strange family.

Angel swung the broadsword in a wide arc, slicing through the muscle, tendon, and finally spine of a squat, blue-skinned demon who didn't even realize that Angel was there before his body was falling to the cement in two perfect halves. The demon's webbed hands twitched for a few seconds, opening and closing like those of a frog having a seizure, and half-chewed gobbets of the arm that it had been dining on sprayed from its mouth. Whatever emotions Angel felt before he shoved them back down in favor of the next kill, pity did not number among them.

Illyria had returned to her rooftop perch immediately after checking in, disappearing into the gloom so thoroughly that Angel doubted he could have picked her out even if he had tried. She leaped down from her hiding place now, catching a demon across the back with her falling weight and driving them both to the pavement. Illyria had the benefit of being cushioned by the body beneath her. Her victim was not so lucky. The demon's face was driven into the ground hard enough to send a spray of broken teeth flying in a semicircle about its head. Considering what those teeth had been dining on moments before, Angel was not feeling inclined towards sympathy, even when Illyria dragged the demon back up to its feet and tore its head from its shoulders with a smooth roll of her arms and the sound of a jar opening. "I think that one was already dead, actually."

Illyria fixed him with a look.

"Right. You don't tell me how to do my job, I won't tell you how to do yours." Angel twirled the sword in his hand in order to flick the largest amount of gore from the blade. Most of the demons had decided that hauling ass was the better part of valor and were taking themselves away from the scene as fast as their stubby legs would move them, but that was not causing their pursuers any great inconvenience. Angel didn't mind getting his pulse up, figuratively speaking. He had worked too damned hard at keeping the thoughts that wanted to run riot through his head at bay for the past eighteen hours, and he was not about to fail in that battle now. Not even if he had to make the streets of Los Angeles flow with demon blood, exercise in futility or not.

'Mreck demons,' Angel's ever helpful brain supplied for him as he diced his second wannabe predator, into his third and beyond, somehow missing the message that all Angel really wanted for it to do was shut up and let basic instinct take the wheel. 'Known for a taste for human flesh and an aversion to eating their prey raw, but so rare that they rarely pose a threat to large populations.' It was delivered in a crisp, cultured mental voice that reminded Angel suddenly, painfully of Wesley; now he really wished that instinct would hurry its ass up already.

"Not so rare anymore," Angel muttered, and flicked a body part that he preferred not to identify away from the sleeve of his coat. They were not much of a challenge, either. Angel was coming to realize that he would have to aim for quantity over quality if he wanted to halt the buzzing in his head.

'Working for the Powers That Be.' Angel set his teeth together hard enough to make the muscles in his jaw creak as he split a demon's skull with enough force to send Spike glancing his way, eyebrows raised. Angel ignored it, just as he had ignored all of Spike's other stabs at heroics over the previous year and a half. As he had mightily attempted to ignore the slow, sick realization that he had been crawling up on him like the tide since the world had refused to turn to normality after the fight in the alley. The massacre, really; Angel supposed that those lines could afford to be blurred a bit when everyone still standing on the side of the angels had died at least once. He had never realized how powerfully far off course he had been driven, though, that a man such as Lindsey should play a part in taking his place. The city, Angel was beginning to see, had not begun its slide into the irretrievably fucked with one night of blood, sweat, and rain in an alleyway that few people would have found reason to glance into otherwise. Not if the golden boy if evil's most successful experiment with stock options was carrying Angel's old sword. It had only been the final nudge.

Angel cut through the last demon and paused, sucking in air that he did not need to compensate for exertion that he did not feel. The roaring blaze at his back warmed his shoulders through the leather of his jacket, stirring vampire instincts into a wary wakefulness, but Angel did not move to put himself any farther from the flames. The gleam of blood along the edge of his sword was already drying into a reddish-brown crust. He flicked it again, realized that he was performing an entirely futile gesture, and slid the blade back into the scabbard.

There were some instincts which telegraphed themselves equally well regardless of whether the person in question was a human or a vampire, and the bone-prickling sensation of being watched was one of them. Angel returned his hand to the hilt of the sword but hesitated in pulling it out just yet. He twisted around instead to make eye contact with a boy standing some thirty feet away and regarding him with a dark, solemn gaze. Stacks of burning wood and drywall that had once been someone's home split the pavement between them like funeral pyres, so that if Angel wished to read the expression on the boy's face he had to do so through the twisting flames. They cast stark planes of light and shadow across the smooth adolescent flesh, turning into something simultaneously older than its years and ageless. Angel shivered as he felt a disturbing prickle tugging at the back of his mind and opened his mouth to call out and ask the youth if he was all right. Before he could get more than the first syllable out of his mouth, the boy had spun away and was disappearing into the shadows that were all too eager to swallow people whole. If he was hurt in any way, it certainly was not affecting his speed.

Angel considered giving chase anyway to see if the boy had once lived in the inferno and if he needed a place to shelter for the rest of the night. The building at his back decided to give up on its shaky supports at that moment, spraying wood, cement, and embers out in a wide arc as it collapsed. Angel ducked his head and was obliged to lurch away across the parking lot as he felt the flames whispering at his neck. Illyria galloped by covered in gore that blended almost entirely with the hue of her skin. Angel thought that the expression on her face was nearly rapturous. Spike staggered along a few steps behind her, putting out a fire that was trying to start on the shoulder of his jacket. When Spike pulled his hand away, Angel could see fresh blisters rising through the hole burned into the leather.

"Did you notice any others?" Angel asked Spike, ticking his head towards the remains of the building as they continued to burn at a merry bonfire pace. The few skitterings of those people and demons foolish enough to travel openly after the sun had set he ignored, though they remained a constant low-level distraction from the corner of his eye. "When you watched the news?"

Spike stared at him. "Are you kidding me?"

Angel grinned in a way guaranteed to drive all thoughts of mirth from Spike's head. He spread his arms in a broad 'After you' gesture. "Well, then. Lead the way."


The sun was just casting its sleepy fingers over the horizon, turning the sky into a roseate hue broken only by the sulking indigo shadow where the Wolfram and Hart offices had once stood. It marred the skyline like a bruise upon a woman's cheekbone, and as Angel trudged the final few steps towards their sanctuary he noticed that he was not the only one who could not bear to look directly upon it for any extended period of time. Spike's eyes would bounce towards it for a few seconds and then skitter away, only to return again as surely as iron filings being pulled towards a magnet. The humans beginning to peek their heads out of the doorways to take advantage of as much precious daylight as possible would look towards it only in rare moments, even going so far as to turn their faces completely away to protect themselves.

Their very own elephant in the room, Angel thought, if one allowed in this case that it was an elephant frequently given to picking up party guests and eating them. He snorted to himself and held the door open for Spike, who was limping badly and leaving bloody footprints behind him from a deep chunk that had been bitten out of his thigh. Spike lifted his eyebrows in silent acknowledgment, and they slipped in and shut the door behind them just as the first rays of the dawn began to hit against the wood.

A girl of about seven or eight was seated upon the stairs leading to the upper two floors. She folded her arms across the tops of her knees and watched them with eerily calm eyes. "You were out late."

"Nature of the job, short stuff," Spike said, making a belated effort to turn his body sideways so that the wound in his leg was not so glaringly obvious. The girl's eyes followed every move.

"Miss Vasquez says that it's bad to go out after dark now."

"Miss Vasquez is a very smart woman." Angel hoped that his voice was coming across as smoothing. He was at long last too tired to tell. Angel looked across the lobby and saw a harried woman in her early thirties hurrying across the room towards them. A thick band of scar tissue split the skin of what had once been a full, seductive lower lip. Her eyes twitched over Spike's wounded leg and the bruises which tattooed both his and Angel's skin, but she did not comment.

"Come on, Katie," the woman said, taking the girl's hand in her own and tugging her off the stairs. Katie followed obediently, twining a few strands of blond hair around the fingers of her free hand. "I don't want you that close to the door. The sun's not high enough yet for it to be safe." The woman looked towards Angel and Spike again, her lips moving as she took a silent inventory of the wounds. Angel thought that there might be something like worry in her face before it dove beneath the surface again. "The, um, the blue lady. Is she missing?"

"Eating." And having received Illyria's word that humans composed no part of the menu, Angel told himself that it was none of his business.

"Oh. Okay. So...I'm glad the three of you had a good night out, then." The woman turned to go and tugged Katie's along with her, taking them both back to the ground floor apartment where they crouched.

"Can we go by the school later?" Katie asked as the door was opened.

"Maybe when the sun gets higher."

"They might come back to look for me today."

"We can keep trying, sweetie."

"Hell of a world," Spike said when the door had safely shut behind the pair. He emitted soft grunts of pain with each step as he began the laborious task of climbing the stairs.

"Need help?" Angel asked.

Spike flicked a glance over him. "Sure thing, brave knight. Carry my damsel ass up these stairs."

"If that's what you're into." Angel offered his arm anyway, even going so far as to smile back when Spike bared his teeth at him.

"I can manage."

"Suit yourself." The puddle of blood that Spike was leaving in his path would match the numerous others that they had already put down into the carpet over the previous months. Angel preferred to think of it as their last-ditch method of locating home if any of them were ever hit on the head hard enough to bring on amnesia.

The apartment was dark when they entered it save for a small rectangle of light where Lindsey had pulled the curtains open before dragging his pallet in front of the window and falling asleep. Or was pretending to sleep, at any rate; Angel could hear the way that Lindsey's pulse sped up and his breathing quickened the moment that the door's lock turned.

"Paranoid bastard," Spike muttered as he sidestepped the light on his way to the shower and the first aid kit.

Angel thought of the familiar and unfriendly faces that Lindsey must have seen on his sojourn into Angel's old stomping grounds. He was not sure which emotion it was that was trying to crawl into his voice as he said, "Decent reasons for that." He had become so used to the look which Spike cast him with regularity now, the one which said that Angel had misplaced his good sense somewhere far, far down the line and that Spike was beginning to question his own for sticking around for so long, that he did not need to glance over to know that he was on the receiving end of it now.

"You kids play nice now," Spike called over his shoulder as he exited the room to tend to his leg. "One ritual guaranteed to bring down the wrath of heaven in a twenty-four hour period is more than enough."

"I get the feeling that he doesn't like me," Lindsey drawled as soon as Spike was gone. He did not bother to open his eyes. Angel tilted his head to one side and noted that the exposed skin of Lindsey's arms was still raised into hard knots of flesh.

Angel settled himself against the far wall, safely away from the sunlight streaming through the window, and folded his arms over his chest. A thousand small hurts spread out over his body called out for attention, but he had other matters to attend to. "Tell me that's not your revelation for the day."

Lindsey turned his head towards Angel and opened his eyes at last. They were even bluer than Angel remembered, as reflective as mirrors and with about the same amount of warmth. For someone recently escaped from the clutches of hellfire, Lindsey was doing a remarkable job of holding onto his ice. "And I know that you don't like me."

Angel felt the smile as it touched his lips beyond his control, and as he watched Lindsey recoiled just a bit before he could halt himself. "Well, I guess I can't call you stupid, then." Lindsey tensed up by a few more degrees, anger radiating out from his every pore and making the air around him all but shiver. Angel felt the exhaustion slip away from him in favor of something fierce and well worn. Familiarity bred contempt, so they said. Luckily for Angel, that was precisely what he wanted. "That window faces west, Lindsey. You and I both know that tiny bit of sunlight is not going to stop me if I decided to come after you."

Lindsey flicked the wolf's smile from years past at him and pulled his body into a sitting position, using the wall at his back as a brace. "You'll have to forgive me if I go through the motions while I look over my options," he said. The sunlight coming in the window behind him shone through his hair and cast his face into shadow. "And you can imagine how eager I am to find out if one of those options is going to involve you killing me again." Lindsey shrugged with a nonchalance that was too perfect to be real and said, "Or you could hand it off to one of your pals if you To Do list is getting too long. Whatever." There was an edge to his voice that made the corners of Angel's mouth quirk upwards.

Angel shifted, settling into a more comfortable position against the wall. Lindsey tracked his every move. "Wouldn't want to go through the trouble of raising you again the next time that I have a hunch." 'Working for the Powers That Be.' Just as he had a thousand times over the past several hours, Angel shut down the line of thought before it could go any farther. "Calling in that many favors was hard enough the first time."

"Isn't that kind of ritual a little dark for you?" Lindsey flashed a smile suggesting that he either overestimated the strength of the sun at his back or underestimated how eager hell would be to welcome him back.

"The rules have changed." Angel traded in his drawl for a short, clipped tone that made Lindsey blink and killed quickly any notion of a smart-assed reply that he might have been entertaining. Angel sighed on air that he did not need and decided that a swift subject change was in order. "You were working for the Powers that Be." Saying it out loud was not all that much better than thinking it, but Angel saw this as akin to lancing a wound. Once the first incision was made, the rest of the poison would flow out and away that much faster. If Lindsey was smart, Angel told himself, he could choose his next words very carefully.

Lindsey flinched and something chiller still stole over his face for a few seconds. He inclined his head upwards so that he could peer over the window ledge and into the chaos beyond. "Yeah. Guess they have," he said, choosing to ignore Angel's second statement entirely. If there was any emotion beyond exhaustion in his voice, then it was too slight for even Angel's ears to pick up on. There were purple semicircles painted beneath Lindsey's eyes dark enough to make him look as if he had been punched in the face. Angel wondered if Lindsey had slept at all that night. "How?"

Angel had been planning on asking that question himself during this interview, but he could read nothing more than honest curiosity in Lindsey's voice. Curiosity and, just possibly, something that approached sorrow. Why not? There was nothing else to do for the next twelve hours, so they might as well sit down and indulge in a story. Angel unfolded his arms and stared at his hands, memorizing the blood driven into every crease. Very little of it was crimson. "The Senior Partners," he said. Lindsey shifted and made a 'well, of course' gesture with his hand. "They weren't pleased to have some of their biggest clients wiped out in one go." Lindsey made the same gesture again. The dullness was retreating from his eyes, replaced by a keen, searching look that Angel remembered from their first meeting years before.

"They're funny like that." The twitching smile attempting to make its way across Lindsey's face did nothing to chisel the ice away from his eyes, or to unravel the tension that held his shoulders tense and rigid. Lindsey inclined his head upwards to look over the edge of the window again, as if his brain could not quite compute the images that it was being fed and had to return to the stimulus again and again. Angel could sympathize.

"They opened up a portal to bring their army through," Angel said. "When the message had been delivered, they saw no point in closing it again."

Lindsey turned back to look at him. If he was surprised, then he hid it well. "There's a portal to hell out there," he said.

"Right where the Wolfram and Hart offices used to be." It was Angel's turn to display a smile jagged and bitter enough to leave the taste of bile across his tongue. "Your bosses, they have a hell of a sense of humor." Lindsey twitched, and Angel was reminded that this was precisely true, any longer. "Your old bosses, anyway."

"The new ones have a pretty strange way of getting their kicks, too." The thundercloud that drifted across Lindsey's face reminded Angel that they hadn't exactly pulled him out of a suite at the celestial Hilton. He had a few questions that could stand to be answered on that count, too, but not now. Not when he had the sense that he and Lindsey were both trembling up to the edge of a cliff and peeking over the side, looking for an excuse to fall, to fight. "So this," Lindsey said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder to indicate the merry chaos occurring just beyond the glass, "is what I've been missing since my demise?"

"Hope you aren't disappointed."

"Hell, no." Lindsey attempted a light tone, failed miserably, and winced. "Poor choice of words. But I feel right at home."

"Switching sides did wonders for your personality." Angel watched Lindsey closely for the betraying twitch, the shadow of a smirk or the skip in the heartbeat that would let him keep on listening to the voice inside which said that somehow, someway, Lindsey was pulling a fast one in a desperate attempt to avoid his eternal just desserts. He had tried it before, and each time Angel was able to detect the lie almost before the words had exited Lindsey's mouth.

Lindsey's heart rate did not vary by so much as a nanosecond as he said, "Look at that. One more thing that we have in common." The last struggling bits of doubt in Angel's mind died a quick and ignoble death.

Angel pushed himself away from the wall, noting the way that Lindsey's muscles wound themselves into an even tighter network of tension. Cool façade or not, if the things obviously weighing on Lindsey's mind got any heavier he was going to sprain something. "Wonders never cease, do they? If you want to go outside, wait until the sun gets a little higher in the sky. There are some things out there that know how to work the shadows to their advantage."

Lindsey laughed, quick and diamond-sharp. The noise sounded like it hurt. "It was like that before the friendly neighborhood apocalypse, too."

"More than I think any of us realized." Angel turned to go and was stopped by Lindsey calling his name.

Lindsey licked his lips and did not speak for a moment when Angel was facing him again. "Eve," he said at long last. "Not that I really expected her to don a white cowboy hat or anything, but if you've heard from her..."

Angel paused for a beat before he answered. "We never found a body," he said when the air was on the verge of taking on weight. "Eve was wily. She might have gotten out of the city before it really got bad."

Lindsey nodded and muttered a few exhausted obscenities beneath his breath before he bowed his head and rubbed at his eyes. Angel waited for a moment to see if Lindsey had anything else to say. When nothing came, he left the room to tend to his own wounds, leaving Lindsey sitting alone in his small circle of light.


The Fred-thing returned near noon, speaking to no one and rubbing at her mouth in a way that did little for Lindsey's peace of mind. She paused in the doorway for a moment when she caught sight of Lindsey, as if amazed that he had lived this long, before she stalked into the spare room where she, Spike, and Angel all appeared to sleep. Even after she had disappeared from sight, Lindsey could feel her presence filling up the cramped place with tension, adding to the haze that had been steadily building over the past several hours. Lindsey imagined Angel awake in the other room and wondered if he was thinking of Lindsey as Lindsey was thinking of him. Given their long, tangled history together and the lengths to which Angel went to get Lindsey trotting about on the mortal plane again, those were looking to be pretty good odds.

'Wasn't supposed to be like this.' That had been the anthem of the weak mind since time immemorial, and Lindsey could not say that it sounded much better coming from him. He forced his fists to uncurl before he wound up cutting holes in his own palms.

Now that he thought about it, hanging around in the apartment that was the only tomb that he had ever experienced and seemed to be working as a substitute tomb for the other three was perhaps not the best strategy for injecting fresh vitality into his thoughts. Lindsey snorted, braced his hand against the wall, and levered himself back up to his feet. A slow smile twisted at the edges of his mouth when his legs offered up no more than token protest before they agreed to hold him. Then he would have to take up the habit that had lost him nearly fifteen pounds rather than gaining it during his freshman year, and change the scenery. There was a spare pair of shoes placed beside the door. Lindsey could only assume that they were meant for him, in some fit of foresight when Angel had still thought that the key to the apocalypse could be found within Lindsey's brain. With the lengthy history of murder, amputation, and resurrection that existed between them, Lindsey figured that it was the least that he could do in return to refuse, and he did not know where this gut-twisting feeling of regret that he couldn't offer those answers was coming from. He pulled the shoes onto his feet and padded quietly over to the door. Though the soft 'snick' of the lock disengaging had to be echoing as loudly as a gunshot to the preternatural ears in the other room, no one stirred.

The electricity buzzed and went out for several minutes as Lindsey strode down the hallway and did not come back on until he was descending down the final set of steps. It flickered once, twice, and illuminated the small, pale girl who had been sitting on the bottom stair. "Hey," Lindsey said, pausing for a moment before he continued his descent. "Kind of dangerous for you to sit where people can't see you, isn't it? You're liable to get stepped on."

A tiny smile flirted across the girl's face, as if she was stunned by anyone who thought that getting stepped on was a serious threat, given everything else that she had faced. She scooted over so that Lindsey could pass by. "I'm fast." A beat, and then she added, "You look tired."

"Didn't get a great night's sleep." Lindsey rubbed his hand over his face and felt the rasp of stubble against his palms. "Curious, aren't you?"

"Yes," the girl said in a matter of fact tone, earning a faint snort from Lindsey. "Are you staying with the people upstairs?"

Lindsey froze, though he had by that point taken only a few steps. "Which ones?"

"Only one group stays in the upstairs apartments," the girl said. Her tone managed to suggest that this was information that Lindsey should have already known, and she was very disappointed in him for making her relate it back. "Charlotte gets upset sometimes, and it makes living in the higher two floors dangerous." The girl delivered all of this in the same voice that a child a year previously might have used to describe the neighborhood's unfriendly dog, and Lindsey told himself that this leaden feeling was not a misplaced sense of guilt. "They're the only ones brave enough to do it. The rest of us just stay on the ground floor." It might not be bravery so much as insanity and a few latent death wishes, but Lindsey did not think that the girl was likely to be appreciative of that bit of insight. At any rate, it was nice to have heroes. "The blue lady's pretty, but she scares me."

"You're an exceptionally smart girl." Lindsey continued towards the door.

"You're not supposed to go out alone," the girl called to his back.

"Do the people upstairs go out alone?" Lindsey asked, twisting back. The girl nodded. "And I'm staying with them, aren't I? Then I can probably take care of myself just like they can." The girl looked dubious, but she did not speak again or otherwise stir from her post as Lindsey walked out the door.

The bright noon sunlight dazzled Lindsey's eye, temporarily blinding him and giving him the time to prepare his mind for a close-up version of what he had been drinking in at a distance since sunrise. It was warmer out here, at least. Lindsey dipped his head and blinked rapidly until his pupils remembered that this was the point at which they were supposed to contract. He could hear the patter of footfalls on the sidewalk around him but no sounds of traffic, and in this absence Lindsey could feel a shiver running up his spine. His eyes adjusting, he raised his face to confront his brave new world.

There were still people, though not as many as Lindsey had expected and not enough to feel right by any standard of Los Angeles. In a wrongness stretching beyond all the numbers, the people on the street walked with swift scurrying motions, their heads down, their shoulders hunched, and their hands shoved deeply into their pockets. It was as if they expected the very motion of making eye contact with their fellow city dwellers to invite threats to step in their direction. Lindsey could hardly blame them for it, given the high percentage of people on the street who were not in the strictest conservative sense people at all. All that money and all that effort that Wolfram and Hart had put into making sure that the apocalypse happened with no one being the wiser, and the world managed to defy them and slide into anarchy with a bang rather than a whimper all the same. Given the way that his last set of employers had left him to dangle in the wind, Lindsey felt that he was justified in going back to his roots and giving a slight hiss of commiseration between his teeth. A passing Anlak demon gave him a startled look and pulled away before their shoulders could touch, but Lindsey was in a mood to neither notice nor care. He tilted his face up for a moment to drink in the sun and then began walking.

The stores were all shut, which Lindsey could not say surprised him. Several windows had been smashed open so that, once the looting had been completed, people could set themselves up within the darkened rooms to either live in them or conduct a crude barter across the broken glass. Few of the wares being hawked were those that had been displayed behind the glass while it was still whole. Lindsey saw cuts of grilled meat being offered to passers-by from one formerly trendy boutique and told himself that he did not want to know what went into them and sure as hell was not going to buy any. Thick-soled hiking boots were being offered from another, and a third still was being operated by a squat man who reminded Lindsey unpleasantly of the rats that his daddy had used to shoot when they got into the horses' feed, guarded by four beefy Kailiff demons. A glittering rainbow of fresh fruits was spread out in front of him. From the looks that people walking by cast over the display, even the Kailiffs might not be enough for too much longer. Lindsey shrugged his shoulders to dispel the shiver building there and kept walking.

Several blocks further down, Lindsey came across a television set placed on the sidewalk and connected to one of the hollowed-out buildings by a lurid orange extension cord. Lindsey thought of the looters and thieves who inevitably arose in situations like this and waited for someone to sprint along and take it, but after nearly ten minutes of silent watching it had remained unmolested. A gaggle of children both human and not so much were sprawled in front of the set, watching with the openmouthed fascination normally reserved for Saturday morning cartoons. Though an invisible line seemed to have been drawn between where the humans and the demons deemed it acceptable to sit, there was no threat of violence between them. The crowd was large enough to make a few of the stragglers push out into the street, but in the absence of vehicles the worst danger that any of the kids faced was an accidental kick from one of the adult pedestrians hurrying by.

Lindsey's curiosity got the better of him and he drifted closer to the building that the television was receiving power from, squinting so that he could see through the gloom. A man and a woman who had left their childbearing years behind them some time before moved about slowly through the shadows as they first arranged and then rearranged a series of small figurines carved entirely from wood. The figurines themselves still had patches of varnish on them, as if the raw materials themselves had been scavenged from the odds and ends of broken furniture, and shapes they took made up an exotic menagerie of human, animal, and demon figures. The couple moved like slowly to and fro, like statues breathed upon by a god, in accordance to some esoteric system. They worked by the light of a single flashlight which they passed back and forth between them and the sunlight which drifted through the shattered windows. No other electric lights burned, all other power apparently being preserved for the television outside. The bouncing flashlight caught the wrinkles on the backs of their hands and threw every one into harsh detail.

The elderly man sensed Lindsey's presence at last and looked up. He offered a twitching, hesitant smile as he met Lindsey's gaze, as if he could not decide if Lindsey was friend or foe and so wanted to keep his options open. Lindsey arranged his face into what he hoped was a convincing answering smile even as he wondered who could possibly be trading for such meticulously crafted toys when basic food supplies seemed to be a critical issue. He backed away. Two of the human children shifted to make way for him, never once taking their eyes away from the television screen. Curious, Lindsey glanced over to see what they were watching and then froze. What had had previously assumed was some kind of children's programming or even a sitcom was more of the news broadcast that Lindsey was coming to realize must run on a twenty-four hour feed. The kids were watching live carnage in glorious Technicolor and premium Dolby surround sound and lapping up every second of it.

Lindsey liked to flatter himself that there weren't a lot of things left in this world or the next that could still shock him, but he backed away towards the street so quickly that he nearly stumbled over his own feet. A few pairs of eyes lifted to give him curious looks, and then most people returned to the practice of not inviting trouble by pretending that nothing outside of their direct line of sight existed. Lindsey wondered for a moment how it was possible that, in a society which seemed to have rewired itself to run on fear rather than petroleum as a primary fuel source, such a large crowd of children was allowed to sit unattended. Maybe the couple in the hollowed-out building were the only ones available to care.

For the second time that day, Lindsey caught himself twitching to throw off the shiver that threatened to build at the nape of his neck, like a dog hurling water from its back. He had done his part. Let any failures that had built up along the way fall upon the shoulders of the one that had wanted the damned Champion mantle so badly in the first place. Lindsey had only been a guy trying to do a job, and so far as he was concerned there was a fat account of back wages waiting for him for services already rendered before he entered the fray again. Given the cozy handbasket that the world had snuggled itself into in his absence, collecting on that might get interesting.

Lindsey allowed himself the luxury of one more shudder and turned to go, raising his eyes towards the jagged, beaten profile that had once been the Los Angeles skyline as he did so. His eyes sought the shape of the Wolfram and Hart building out of habit so deeply ingrained that Lindsey thought trying to remove it now would be a task akin to trying to perform his own appendectomy, even if the emotions which swirled through him upon sight of it were very different from those that had possessed the hungry young law student of a decade before. A purplish, gleaming haze hovered in the place where the Wolfram and Hart offices had once claimed rank among the other buildings, filling the sky like a bloated and half-dead spider. Lindsey had the conviction, as sudden and immutable as it was irrational, that this portal that Angel had spoken of was even watching the people scuttling through the city below with the same emotionless need of the spider that waited for the fly to draw just an inch or two closer. None of the people rushing by Lindsey seemed to take conscious notice of it, and a speck in the sky that he presumed to be Charlotte ('Please let there not be more than one.') drifted so close to its outer edges that her wings must be brushing through the murk.

The gooseflesh on the back of his neck and across his arms could stay there until the day he died, Lindsey decided, but he would not give in to the weakness of another shiver. Dragging his eyes away from the spectacle of the portal so that he could glance one final time towards the unclaimed children, he began his journey down the sidewalk again. "It's wrong," Lindsey muttered beneath his breath. 'Well, yes,' his brain answered back for him. 'You've mastered the obvious, here's a cookie for you.' There was something else working behind the scenes here, pulling the strings and making the puppets dance, something beyond the 'duh, apocalypse' factor. Lindsey's brow furrowed as his mind's eye brought up footage from a hundred interchangeable action movies and the energetic board meetings that had always taken place before attempt at ending the world or another. There should have been military vehicles flying overhead, martial law. Small girls with hero complexes and pointy sticks standing on every corner. Some attempt, however futile it might have turned out to be, at restoring order beyond the limping catch-as-catch-can system that seemed to have been set up out of necessity. The line between Lindsey's eyes became a little deeper. Unless Angel had spoiled the Senior Partners' fun so thoroughly by his stunt with the Black Thorn that they had decided to flip over the entire profitable house of cards and go global, there were still quite a few pieces missing before Lindsey would be able to put this puzzle together.

He had a feeling that most if not all of those pieces could be found in the hands of the Powers That Be-meet the new boss, same as the old boss-and Lindsey made a pact to be the biggest pain in their non-corporeal asses that he could manage until he received an audience. They owed him that much, and a lot more besides. For now he would make himself be satisfied with a simple why.

Preoccupied as he was with these less than pleasant musings, Lindsey didn't register the sounds of approaching trouble until several seconds had passed or see the people around him cast one another alarmed looks and then make quick moves towards getting themselves out of the street. The older couple leapt over their window with a dexterity that would have made Lindsey's eyebrows crawl up to meet his hairline if he had turned around to see it, ignoring both the protests of the smaller children and the terrified babble of the larger ones as they shepherded the whole lot of them back into the shadows. A demon child paused long enough to grab the television set before he departed for the safety of the shop, the extension cord trailing after him like a cat's tail as his own began to twitch in nervous little circles.

The sound of a human scream, though, that was a sound that Lindsey had heard often enough for it to be tattooed across the inside of his brain for life and imbued with the power to wrench him up from the deepest well of distraction. He whirled around so fast that he nearly upset his balance, and he swore. It would seem that his inner ear was another one of those bodily systems taking its own sweet time in readjusting to the dimensional shift. His heart assured him that it was settling in just fine and was ready to take up the slack for the lazier parts of his anatomy by lurching up into his throat at a speed that he was certain would leave bruises on his larynx later. His adrenal glands joined in the chorus, setting every nerve in his body to tingling and jumping even as he was left trapped in the age-old dilemma of the fight or flight response: knowing that the latter was the wiser path even as every other instinct in his body sang sweet praises to the former. With everything else in his newly reclaimed life that was happening outside of his control, Lindsey very much wanted to get in a fight and prove that there were a few things that he could still claim mastery over.

If he had only been born stupider. Lindsey swore again and craned his neck to check out the odds headed towards him from further down the street. They had set everyone else around him to scrambling out of the way and casting incredulous looks towards the lone idiot who did not have the good sense to move.

Demons, so far as Lindsey could tell above the heads of the rapidly dispersing crowd, and a substantial number of them. The species was one that Lindsey did not recognize, though it did send a faint prickle of recognition up the back of his neck, and he supposed it was possible that he had taken up one of them as a client before. The fact that their very presence was making humans and demons alike scatter away from the streets like leaves before a storm did little to aid any lingering hopes of neutrality that Lindsey may have been entertaining. He shook off the encouraging but ultimately suicidal effects of the adrenaline rush and stepped quickly off the street, bumping into an olive-skinned boy of no more than fourteen or perhaps fifteen as he did so. They boy twitched at the contact and twisted around with far more force than the stumble actually warranted, staring at Lindsey with eyes hidden beneath a large pair of sunglasses that glittered like a beetle's back. Lindsey mumbled an automatic apology and put out a quick hand to steady the youth in case he did fall, but the vast majority of his attention was being siphoned away by events further down the street. By the time that he looked back around the boy had turned his face away and was hurrying off.

Lindsey scarcely even registered that the boy was gone before he had turned back to watch the demons, calculating his options and the amount of trouble that each one would bring. The monsters themselves were squat and green-skinned, possessed of the same number of limbs that one would find on a human being. Lindsey frowned. Yeah, the resemblance to the human race was downright uncanny, if one allowed that a group of humans were fed on a diet of straight steroids, painted the same lurid color as fresh grass clippings, and then thrown into a garbage compactor. Short or not, Lindsey eyeballed the size of the muscles and the battered quality of the armor that covered them all and decided that his adrenal glands had gotten it all wrong. This was not a fight that he wanted to step into, not unarmed and not without the death wish that he had shed off like a snake's skin years before. Lindsey stepped back a few paces further off the sidewalk, hugging against the shadows that reached out to welcome him like an old friend and watching as the group drew closer. He winced as a middle-aged man was knocked out of the way with the same care that a child might give to an inconvenient doll, but did nothing to step forward and help. If anything twinged in Lindsey's chest at this lack of action then it was gone again too quickly to be qualified and measured, salved by the fact that he was hardly the only person on the street choosing to step back against the darkness and live to see another fight on another day. The wind shifted, bringing with it a rush of heat and the sharp, quick tang of sulphur. In spite of the warmth that he had been craving ever since his return, Lindsey felt a wave of revulsion so great that it nearly undid him and sent a surge of bile traveling up the length of his throat. The deep stain of the portal pulsed gently against the afternoon sky.

Lindsey narrowed his eyes into slits and stepped back quickly, not quite running but coming close to it all the same. Anger and fear swirled around one another so tightly as to become one emotion, each indistinguishable from the other in intensity. Fortunately for Lindsey, this was a cocktail that he had learned to run on with optimum efficiency years before, and the skills had not deserted him. His own lack of stupidity, however, was no barrier against the lengths that others would go to in order to indulge in their own.

Lindsey did not realize what she was at first, the small girl that darted across the road and brought herself to a halt directed in the path of the approaching demons. The sheer ridiculous foolishness of such a move made Lindsey sure that he was seeing things, and he had to blink once, twice to even be sure that she was there. When the images did not go away, he let loose a string of explosive oaths that hung in the hushed and expectant air. So ill-advised and suicidal heroic urges were still all the rage, then. He liked to know what things he could count on to remain the same. The girl paused in the middle of the street, panting. Her eyes were masked by a pair of cheap, gawky sunglasses identical to those worn by the boy that Lindsey had run into moments before. Lindsey didn't know if she froze out of fear or some misguided tendencies towards martyrdom, but in the end he supposed the result was going to be the same. She would be lucky if there was anything more left to her than a human paste after they had finished mowing her down.

Lindsey's legs jerked, an impulse that he stilled before it could carry him forward so much as an inch. The days when he had entertained some limping ideal of chivalry were far behind him, and he had the feeling that all the speeches that he had made to Angel about heroism a year and a half previously amounted to all of nothing in the brave new world that had arisen in his absence. Lindsey told himself all of these things in a calm, measured internal voice, barely hearing the faint patter of blood at his feet. It was only be chance that he glanced down a few seconds later and noticed the splatters dotting the pavement. Lindsey's knuckles creaked as he forced them to uncurl, and he stared into the deep cuts that he had opened up in his own palms with something that wanted to be surprise but couldn't quite stick the dismount.

The girl on the street forced her own fists open at exactly the same moment, swatting a few strands of dark hair back from her face and expelling a long stream of air from between her teeth. Even from a distance, Lindsey could see the sweat that was gathering in gleaming beads at her temples and forming a dark line down the back of her shirt. The girl bowed her head, tensed all of the visible muscles in her body into one unbroken line of tension, and began moving her lips. The words being formed were too far away for Lindsey to catch. Her expression was taut, focused, calm.

When absolutely nothing happened, that serenity found itself cracking a bit.

The girl fluttered her eyes open, her lips parting a shade in shock, and took one small step back from the demons who were still approaching without concern for the single small human too stupid to hold her life in any greater esteem. A visible shiver ran through her body and stopped the one step before it could become too or more, or even a full sprint off the scene as the rest of her body language said that she was beginning to view as an attractive option. As Lindsey watched and waited for those last vestiges of what had once been noble instincts to creep back into the ill-used portions of his brain from where they had come, a trickle of blood ran down from the girl's nose and beaded against her upper lip. It gleamed like a strangely placed ruby beneath the cheerful sun.

The demons paused, and the portal hanging in the sky behind them pulsed an ugly bruise purple. Each movement lasted for so short a time that Lindsey could easily convince himself that he had imagined them.

If it even existed, the pause was scarcely more than a ripple in the demons' approach, slowing their progress by not even a full second. Lindsey would even say that they began to speed up at that point, as if they recognized some threat within the tiny figure that the rest of them were remaining oblivious to. The girl wavered and gave in at last to the urge to turn the first step back into a second and then a third, as her mouth shaped words that she was definitely too young to know and an expression of fear began to rewrite her face. A feeling of familiarity twinged within Lindsey's brain, gone too quickly for him to definitively chase it down to its source. When the urge to rush forward returned, he was almost inclined to obey it.

Only 'almost', and in the end the urge proved to be unnecessary. Lindsey was elbowed out of the way hard by the forms of two adolescent boys hell-bent on the same act of suicide as the girl on the street. He caught a brief blur of one head of brown hair and one of black, and was only just realizing that the latter belonged to the same boy that he had stumbled into less than ten minutes earlier before they were both beyond his reach. They were at the girl's side within seconds, the three of them forming a rough triangle as they stood with each other in the street. For a moment Lindsey felt something insistent and familiar tugging deep within his brain. It was gone before he could chase it down and claim it, leaving Lindsey once more in the position of being just one more among the small clusters of people watching and waiting for the first drops of arterial spray to hit the ground.

'They're only kids.' And, damn it, but he really wished that he could find out where the last of those instincts were located, hunt them down, and strangle them once and for all. When his feet began to carry him forward, he made no effort to stop them. The incredulous stares and whispers left behind him rose like a cresting wave.

In the street, the two boys and the girl had joined hands, staring down the demons with an intensity normally reserved for superheroes and saints. Another ripple passed through the approaching demons, large enough this time that it could not be so easily dismissed as the first. A line appeared between Lindsey's eyes, but it did not stay there for long enough to halt him. Well, they already had dragons. He couldn't think of a better excuse to indulge in those parts of himself that still wanted to be a knight.

The ripple that ran through the demon line and made them pause never grew to be larger than that, and the expression on the kids' faces suggested that this was not quite the way that they had been expecting the story to play out. They took a step back as one creature, never releasing the death grip that they maintained on one another's hands. The brown-haired kid's lips began moving to form words that definitely were not going to get him featured on Sesame Street any time soon. Lindsey had to give him points for creativity, and all of them points for nerve. The trio began taking a series of slow, careful steps back, never wavering in the intense, focused expressions upon their faces. Somehow they were missing the fact that the heavily armed and not particularly gregarious looking demons did not even deem them enough of a threat to pick up the pace. Idiots who did not know when to give in and live to fight another day. Lindsey thought he could call them kindred spirits.

It wasn't as if he could say many more flattering things about himself. Lindsey's legs carried him forward into the sunlight and vast, unprotected space of the street without any clear idea of what he was going to do once he got there, outside of a vague sense of getting the kids out of harm's way as soon as possible and dealing with whatever consequences came afterwards as well as he could-familiarity again. There was no time to deal with it at the present time, and Lindsey shoved the thought quickly away into a mental file to be scanned over and analyzed at a time when the potential for dismemberment was not so high.

Whatever nebulous plans might have been trying to come together in Lindsey's mind, he was not fast enough to reach the kids before the demons did. The girl who had been so determined to stop them, though how she planned to accomplish this with the power of her intense glowering Lindsey could not claim to know, merited nothing more than a quick swat across the face from the demon in the lead. A blow that cost him next to nothing in terms of power nevertheless lifted her completely off of the ground. Her body careened back through back through the air in a graceful arc, and if Lindsey had not been there to catch her then that illusion of grace would have ended with a skull-cracking landing upon the pavement. He was able to half save her, the weight of her body carrying them both backwards and to the ground. Lindsey made a surprised noise as the air was momentarily driven from his lungs and felt her hand come down upon his bare arm as she tried to right herself.

Lindsey had been on the move too quickly to pause and think about what the girl's reception to her rescue might have been, but he certainly could never have predicted the one that he got. Her skin had barely made contact with his before she was lurching away in an awkward scramble of limbs, kneeing him once in the gut for his trouble and nearly getting tangled up in her own feet in the process. "Hey!" Lindsey protested, wincing as he struggled to get his breath back. "Easy there." His tone strove to be comforting.

The girl's face was not that of someone who wanted to be comforted. She panted and pushed a few strands of her black hair back from her face, turning her head back and forth quickly to look between Lindsey and the demons. Lindsey did not particularly think that his willingness to protect her from concussion and possible skull fracture warranted the same reaction as the cheerful fellows who had sent her flying through the air in the first place, but as her gaze jumped back and forth between the two of them the shock and disgust written across her face remained the same.


Their driver was understandably uncomfortable with playing host to them as well, though he made no mention again of the brief and furious conversation that had taken place between An and himself. So far as An could see, he was making every effort to pretend that she did not exist at all, addressing his few remarks solely to Alexei and Fideo when he spoke at all. A difficult time for the family, after all. It was selfish when there was so much else at stake, but he wouldn't do it otherwise...

An nodded and folded her hands in front of her, smiling a smile that felt like jagged glass in her mouth as she struggled not to let the civilians see what she had done. Alexei and Fideo knew, of course, but they would say nothing against her in public even if they did disagree. In this instance, she was certain that disagreement was one of the farthest things from their minds. Still, the nosepieces of her glasses were slick with sweat as she bowed her head and murmured that she understood, absolutely, a person had to make sure that their own house was in order before they even thought about tending to anyone else's.

An didn't see Jenny. She would have liked to whisper to her that everything was going to be all right.

The new family had no children and greeted the trio upon their arrival in the manner of people who had spent most of their married lives regretting that fact, with showers of food and affection until An thought that both her head and her stomach would burst beneath the assaults. Affair in '82 always felt badly for it loves her forever that's it third miscarriage give up might be able to get oranges if we play our cards right was the sky really that color yesterday such sweet children please let this work. She caught Fideo wearing a dazed expression within hours and clasped briefly at his hand in commiseration. The basement apartment that the couple shared was built as one large room save for the bathroom, with the kitchen utensils and few rattletrap appliances shoved into one corner and the bedding in another. No place to creep off for secret conferences, then, not unless they wanted to explain to Phillip and Janice why they all needed to slink off to the bathroom at the exact same time. An's lips twisted up at the image independently of her control. No, she thought that they could bide their time and keep their own counsel for little while longer.

There was kindness here. They could make it work. Even without Jonathan; they were smart enough.

Alexei waited until the second morning before he approached An, bearing two bowls of scrambled eggs with what looked like bits of bacon crumbled into them. Eggs and real pork, both of them dear expenses here that An wished Phillip and Janice would not make even as her mouth watered for a return to the food that could still be found beyond the Pacific region's slow-spreading influence. The freighter had been stocked primarily with canned goods, and she was beginning to feel that she would never see anything fresh again. Alexei balanced a smile above the bowls that was about as real as the plastic that he carried in his hands. An's eyes narrowed even as her nose twitched. She sat up from the pallet that had been serving as her bed, pushing the blanket back with one hand and tucking strands of her long black hair behind her ears with her other. And she had forgotten her hairbrush, too, damn. An rubbed the sleep from her eyes as she fumbled about for her sunglasses. When she looked up again, the smile that Alexei always wore when he wanted to be charming was still there. "Good morning."

"It might be," An replied cautiously, taking the bowl that Alexei offered her and swirling the spoon about without actually taking a bite. Alexei, upon seeing the way that An's eyes stayed on his face and away from her bribe, widened his grin even further. An thought, and with no small amount of fondness, that this expression made him look as if he were perpetually two steps away from finding some pigtails to pull. Before she quite paused to realize what she was doing, An had swept her hair back over her shoulders and safely out of reach. "What do you want?"

Rather than seeming hurt by the question, the gleam in Alexei's eyes grew even brighter. "What?" He nudged An's leg out of the way before flopping down beside her on the pallet and taking a bite out of his own breakfast. "I can't bring my sister her share of a lovingly home cooked meal without accusations? Notice please how I didn't mention that said sister seemed determined to sleep all day rather than getting off her butt and doing her job until I, chivalrous and noble young man that I am, offered to wake her."

"You forgot your suit of armor. I think we could find a jester's hat that would fit you, though." The smell was becoming unendurable. An stirred the eggs, took a bite, and nearly moaned. Salt and real butter, too. She could only imagine what this kind of extravagance must be costing. "And we're not siblings."

Someday she was going to learn to keep her mouth shut until she could talk like a civilized person. A vow of silence until about noonish seemed like a good idea. Alexei leaned back a few inches and his body language became noticeably more tense, the hurt that he had failed to register at An's earlier jibe now flashing across his face in bright neon. He placed his spoon back into his bowl, and if An had not already been sitting she would have found a way to kick herself. "Well," Alexei said, flashing An a bright, glittering smile that made him look both older and colder, "maybe not by blood, but I like to think that there's a certain bond between us all the same. I could be long."

An sighed and set her bowl down so that she could rub at the crusts of sleep still clinging to her eyes with one hand and pat at Alexei's leg with the other. He flinched but did not pull away, so An figured that the damage could not be insurmountable. "No, 'Lex, I'm sorry," she said. "You know me. If the numbers on the clock have the letters 'A' and 'M' after them, then I'm not banned from speaking."

A touch of the warmth crept back into Alexei's eyes and into his smile, letting An know that she was forgiven. "Believe me, I know." He picked up his breakfast again, devouring the remainder in three quick bites, and An did the same with her own. From the corner of her eye she saw Fideo hovering near the door and casting Alexei significant looks which grew increasingly irritated when Alexei did not seem inclined to return them. An's lips lifted and she felt some of her early morning temper abate. She loved them, but her boys were so lucky that they weren't considering careers as spies.

"I'm hoping you had some reason for waking me up at this ungodly hour?" An asked, narrowing her eyes in a threat calculated so that Alexei would see right through it. "Please tell me that there's a reason."

Alexei grinned and stole a final piece of bacon from her, poking it into his mouth with his index finger. "It's past ten o' clock."

"Point stands."

Alexei grinned once more before his face turned somber. It didn't look natural on him. He set his bowl to the side and leaned forward, so that their faces were inches apart. If it had been anyone other than Alexei or the boy pacing anxiously across the room trying such a move, An would have leaned back in order to escape the chaotic cinema rushing through her head. With Alexei, though, there was only blessed blankness unless he had something that he wanted her to see. An grinned briefly but decided to let the easy ones go. Alexei threw her a look saying that she was crazy, but it was okay because he loved her anyway. "Look, we've been here for three days already. Phillip and Janice are-" Alexei grimaced and rubbed at his temple. He and An shared a look of commiseration. "Swell, even if they are a little touchy. But we have a job to do, and we're not going to get it done by locking ourselves up in here and eating up all of their food."

An's stomach clenched, working alchemy on those delicious bacon and eggs and turning them into a roiling mess of liquid lead. He would have to spring this on her when it was morning and she was barely awake enough to think. "Jonathan wouldn't want us to rush into anything. 'Recklessness is the greedy cousin of bravery, and only fools or false heroes call it their friend.'" An focused on long ago lessons to push away the voice clamoring for battle rising within her, the one that could scare her sometimes.

The quote brought both a twinge of amusement of amusement and sadness into Alexei's eyes. An could imagine that own were mirroring the expression. "Sweetie," Alexei said in a voice so gentle and different from his ordinary one that it was nearly a weapon, "Jonathan would have wanted us to get a move on."

A line appeared between An's eyes. She was of a mind to ask why this decision was falling to her, why Alexei and Fideo couldn't make it themselves if they were so eager. Ultimately, she sighed and pushed herself to her feet. "Let me grab a shower, and then we can start scoping out the lay of the land."

"Hot water's out," Alexei called cheerfully at her back.

An halted and closed her eyes. "So it will be a very short shower, then." She turned back long enough to pin Alexei with a scrutinizing look. "Why are you the only one telling me this, anyway?" she asked, and gestured to where Fideo was attempting to skulk and not having much luck at it. Single rooms didn't provide much in the way of shadowy corners.

A flash of mirth transformed both Alexei's eyes and his face, making An acutely aware of all the hearts that he was going to break when they put this behind them. They were growing up. Growing apart would not be far behind. An pasted a quick smile on her face so that Alexei could not see the trepidation which rode behind it. If their days as a trio could be coming to an end, then they would just have to go out with the kind of show that was worthy of them. "We made a bet. I lost." An's jaw dropped. "You're not exactly Princess Mary Sunshine when someone wakes you up, okay? I feared dismemberment."

An snapped her mouth closed and tried to gather her dignity back around her. She pointed at Alexei. "You I fully believe would bet on me," she said, making no attempt to sound as if she was seriously angry. The finger swung around to point at Fideo. "But you?"

Fideo grinned and waggled his fingers at her. "Thumb war champion of the universe," he said. "And you can't bust my chops for having a sense of self-preservation, either."

An huffed at them both before turning and stalking off in the direction of the tiny bathroom. She managed not to shriek as the first icy needles of water struck her back, but it was near thing.


The city looked different beneath the bright light of the day. An supposed that she ought to be chalking that under 'the sky is blue' and 'the world is going to hell' as far as obvious observations went, but she couldn't stop her lips from parting or her jaw from falling softly open. The realization that Fideo and Alexei were performing the exact same behaviors on either side of her came as a slight comfort. Seeing the carnage on what news broadcasts were allowed to come through to the outside undoctored-An's paranoid inner liberal had plenty to squawk about on that count-made it seem hazy and far away, like actions taking place on a movie set rather than the wide, wide world. The following reality has been sanitized for your protection. An felt her sense of purpose coming back to her, a cloak that soothed and cooled the sweat gathering at her temples in the heat of the day, and she brought her teeth back together with an audible click. If she ever needed a reminder of what their duties were, all she needed to do as keep her eyes open and drink in the bloodshed.

"I'm going to live here someday," Fideo said. An could not tell from his voice alone whether it was hope or a grim determination that had chosen his words for him. When a quick glance at his face yielded no further answers, An mentally checked the box marked 'all of the above'.

She reached out with her hands, felt her boys each take one and give it a squeeze back in response to her own. There was power and then there was Power, and An figured that when you possessed them both at once there was not a lot that you couldn't do. They were Three, and they had a job to do.

The crowds were somewhat thicker than An would have expected on your average post-apocalypse workday, forcing them to release their grips on each other and shoulder through solo more than once. Too thick, not only forcing them to let go but also to collide shoulders with passers-by more than once. An's head was swimming with stolen images and emotions before even a full hour had gone by, and when she managed to catch Fideo's eye she noticed that he had gone green beneath the normally healthy bronze of his tan.

"Not nice," Fideo muttered beneath his breath on one of the occasions when there was a lull in the people and An was able to sidle close. She wasn't sure if he was referring to the experience of being bombarded in the first place or to the nature of the images themselves. If her own bright and shiny vision broadcast was anything to go by, An was willing to bet that it was both of them and then some. The apocalypse was not agreeing with the strengthening of most people's characters, even less so than the readings that And could pick up on back in the real world when she was careless and allowed someone to come close enough to touch. She placed her hand on Fideo's arm in sympathy, only to jerk it back when his dam broke and the images that he normally would have been able to hold at bay began to shuffle through her own brain. Fideo's smile told her that he had appreciated the gesture all the same.

"Seems to be an ongoing theme," An said, tilting her face up to peer at the deceptively innocent expanse of the sky. She could have sworn that she had seen something massive circling overhead earlier. An could feel Fideo's gaze on her, though by the time she had turned her head back he was already looking away. A demon child scuttled between them, forcing them to step away from one another and brushing against An's hand before she could pull away. She shuddered as images of what the picture of scaly innocence planed to do once his third row of adult fangs grew in filled her mind. It was made worse by the fact that a few of the humans that she had collided with didn't seem to be much better. 'Just do the job.' "Have you seen Alexei?"

Fideo shook his head and stepped around the same demon that had separated them as it settled down with a cluster of others in front of a television that had been placed on the sidewalk. He gave a quick double take towards programming that was either a news bulletin or the most tasteless action movie that An had ever seen. "Nope. Kind of starting to worry about him. When Alexei disappears and there's no path of destruction to mark where he's been..."

"It's usually because he's still lighting the fuses," An finished. She sucked her lower lip into her mouth and worried at it briefly with her teeth as she swiveled her head, seeking the thatch of familiar brown hair in the crowd. The temptation to reach for Fideo's hand again was returning, and stronger than ever. Without their third member they were weak.

"This is like an episode of Hercules," Fideo stepped close and murmured into her ear, causing a startled giggle to erupt from An's throat. He smiled at her, sweet enough to hold even their cancerous surroundings at bay, and An thought that she felt a little better. He gestured towards the crude bartering centers that had been set up in the empty storefronts and which were occasionally spilling over into the street. All that was missing was dirt instead of concrete and some chickens running around between people's legs. Chicken feed was expensive, after all, and the birds themselves even more so. 'But we're going to make it better.'

"Or a bad science fiction movie," An whispered back, still turning her head this way and that as she sought Alexei. No sign of him. An began to feel the first slow threads of worry curling through her annoyance and turning it sour. Now more than ever, they could not afford to be separated from one another. Irritation finished its transformation into first concern and then total fear as a commotion began further down the block, too far away for her to crane her neck and see over the crowd. The taller Fideo swore beneath his breath, and An asked sharply, "What is it?"

"Demons," Fideo said, fear and disgust blending together and turning his voice into one low growl. An sucked her breath in hard. "I'll find Alexei."

An nodded before her brain had managed to catch up with her, and Fideo was gone before she had a chance to call him back. First two and now one, leaving their power divided worse than ever. An chewed at her lip and didn't even feel the pain until the copper-sweet taste of her own blood was threading through her mouth. More than a little disgusted, she dragged her hand across her mouth and spat onto the pavement before raising herself onto the tips of her toes and trying to see over the crowd. Another growth spurt could come along and hit her any time that it wanted.

Someone elbowed An hard in the back as they rushed to clear the area, nearly knocking her over, and she scowled. Her hand curled into a fist before she realized what she was doing; uncurling it was one of the most difficult things that An had ever had to do. Bits of the man himself, all of his hopes and dreams and the nasty little desires that he would never speak out loud, buzzed about the inside of her skull like flies. The wave of anger that swept over her without warning was strong enough to make her vision go dark about the edges. An took several deep breaths through her nose, deliberately forcing her mind away from thoughts of how terribly easy it would be. 'Not now and not ever.' An shivered and frowned.

The portal, an ugly purple-black thing peek from between the remaining buildings, pulsed and reminded An of a beast giving birth to its horrible children. An narrowed her eyes and felt that same rage, black and terrible and at the same time so right, sweeping back over her. She turned her eyes off of it before it could take her breath away, back towards the approaching horde that was finally close enough for her to see. An ignored the stares of the few people who glanced over at her as they rushed past on their way to safety. Yep, just one lonely little girl trying to play at being the hero in a city that was clearly shaking them off like a bad hangover, nothing to pause and look over with any kind of critical mind.

Well. Maybe not so lonely. An squinted across the street, watching as a man darted into the mouth of an alley and then paused there, safely out of the action but still close enough for one hell of a view. An's current outlook on human nature thought that she was giving him too much credit but what the hell: he might even be able to intervene if he so wanted. Something about him tickled at the back of An's mind, bringing to the surface hazy half-memories of cocoa and the metallic taste of raw adrenaline sliding down the back of her throat. The man was too far away and swallowed by shadows before she could pin the memory down. Anyway, she was running out of time to stand about and contemplate the deep secrets of the universe.

Fideo and Alexei were God only knew where and An was alone and with no resources to draw on save for herself. This was very possibly the stupidest thing that she had ever done or, if the slightest part of it went wrong, would ever do again. She could only imagine the look that Jonathan would turn upon her if he only knew, the dry-as-dust stare which said that what she had just done was too foolish to be expressed in actual words, so he was going to take pity on her and say it through a glare instead. An felt her lips quirking up in spite of everything. Nostalgia. God, she missed him.

The demons themselves were covered by a sheen of slime so faint that An could only see it when they turned precisely the right way beneath the sunlight, as if they had just crawled out from some dark birth canal and had not yet dried off. An's eyes flicked towards the portal again for the barest of seconds and then went back to the demons, making special note of the razor-sharp weaponry that they had scattered across themselves. She certainly hoped that the birthing process had hurt that bitch. And then, before her brain could catch up with the rest of her and tell her that this was a suicidal thing to do, that it was very disappointed in her, and that if she didn't stop this nonsense immediately it was going to jump ship and leave her to her fate, An was stepping out into the street.

She thought that she saw a movement in the alleyway where her mystery man was hiding himself, but it was from the corner of her eye and An did not think that it would be wise at the moment to turn her head and look. There was no white knight coming rushing out of the shadows to save her, at any rate. At this realization An actually caught herself breathing a long sigh of relief as she braced her legs wide apart and tried to clear her mind of clutter. Demons, vampires, and various other forms of unspeakable evil were all things that a person could slide into their worldviews without too much trouble once they were confronted with the cold, hard facts of them. Fairytales might be pushing it.

An hoped that Fideo arrived soon with Alexei in tow, because the demons were close enough now for her to see the beads of sweat that rolled out from beneath their armor as they continued at the same sedate pace towards their unknowable destination. One small girl standing in the way was an object worthy of no more notice than a Barbie doll ground beneath the wheels of a Hummer. Soon, An thought again with something that was as close as she ever came to panic, or they would never be Three again. Another deep breath, less calming than she would have liked, and An would be lying if she had said that the thought of turning tail never entered into her mind. But there were people further down the block, huddled little sheep with nowhere to run because of the deals that had been brokered over this city. An stopped the swift and barely perceptible curl of her lip by reminding herself that there was always more work to be done.

An took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and focused. She was clenching her fists, she realized, and would be unsurprised later to find crescent-shaped bruises etched in blue and purple across her own palms. 'Focus.' Even in memory, Jonathan could manage to sound like the snippiest person alive-that was a bad choice of words. An did her best to obey, shutting down every portion of her mind save for the one, glowing and white-hot, that delighted in being let off of its leash. So much easier if she could touch them, but And did not think that that was a course of action which would do great things for her lifespan. The glowing portion of inside of her stretched out as An loosened her hold on it, extending out amorphous fingers that An could see with perfect clarity in her minds eye and was almost convinced would be visible in the real world in only she opened her eyes. They spun along at their own lazy pace towards the sound of approaching feet. The demons were close enough to smell now; An thought that she would have been able to do without that particular enlightenment. It was too late to run now even if she had wanted to. An willed the tendrils to move faster, and they did so with the sullen, sluggish air of teenagers being ordered to get off the phone and clean their rooms. They reached their targets at long last. An could feel the change which rippled through them as they swirled around the demons, sending a host of images careening back to her, and she underwent a brief battle as she struggled not to be sick across her shoes. Bright points of pain flared up from her palms as she curled her fists even tighter. Fine and dandy but still not good enough; An clamped down and pushed for more. The tendrils within her mind's eye had begun to take on a slightly reddish tinge. She could feel beads of sweat breaking out across her temples, running down her face and eventually into the collar of her shirt. An grit her teeth until she could taste flecks of enamel on her tongue as every neuron in her brain began to throb and beg for mercy. The mental tendrils were blazing a strident, primitive scarlet.

When the sounds of the footsteps failed to so much as pause, no one was more surprised than An. Her eyes flashed back open, replacing the mental images of triumph with the far more depressing physical reality of it. An took a small step back before she was able to halt herself, unclenching her fists and feeling wet trails of blood begin to run down her fingers as panic started hovering close and hungry. An had never been more aware of herself as small and alone, and in the end so fragile.

There was nothing that she could do to stop being small and fragile, but the experience of being alone was thankfully brief. From the very alley where An's unknown observer was watching came her salvation in the form of two sweaty, scruffy adolescent boys that she had never in her life been more glad to see. Alexei dug his elbow into the mystery man's side with his customary zeal as he blew past, forcing him briefly into the light. An thought that the man looked uncomfortable there, and a memory battled to rise to the surface before she forced it back down so that she could prioritize.

The rush of relief that surged through An's body was enough to make all of her nerves tingle and her legs forget their purpose. When she grabbed for Alexei's and Fideo's hands it was as much to hold herself up as it was to draw power from them. Alexei's fingers spasmed back briefly in response to her welcoming squeeze, Fideo was on the verge of outright breaking her hand, and they were ready to work. The beginnings of a crazy-cool grin were trying to spread across An's face, while the fresh adrenaline spiking through her blood was rendering the world into a bright, tinny cinema, overloud and suffused with too much detail for her racing brain to ever hope to catch up with. An closed her eyes to shut out the chaos and instead focused on the faint thrumming beginning to take place between her brothers' fingers and her own. When the tendrils burst from her mind, it was with the speed and force of a train. An could feel herself connected to Alexei and Fideo beyond the small, stupid, fragile fragments of skin with which they were grasping at each other. This was deeper, this was power, and even though An was young yet she knew that this was one of the most glorious things that she would ever experience.

The demons paused. An heard it in the break of their step even as she felt the energy being cast between her boys and herself lurch and ripple. A sound bubbled up in her throat, threatening in a treacherous moment to overwhelm her; An realized later that she had been on the verge of laughing. In that moment when the power was at its apex, in the nanosecond before it began its inevitable decline, An thought that she could have fought the world. More to the point, she thought that if only given the chance she even wanted to.

When that pause became only that and nothing more before the advance continued, the opposite number to that elation was a shock and horror so tremendous that An felt it as if she had been physically slapped. Her eyes flashed open and she staggered back a step, only just retaining the presence of mind to keep her hands linked with those of Alexei and Fideo. The rush, the thrum that had run through them was gone, replaced by nothing more sacred than skin and meat. Worse than a mere failure, because now An was more than a single stupid girl standing in the middle of the street, one more thing to be trampled under and perhaps gathered up to snack on later. In making them pause she had established herself as an explicit threat. She saw the fist coming, disconnected her hands quickly from those of the boys before she could drag them along with her, and then the point of impact occurred and she saw nothing at all.

An's head snapped back with a force that made her neck creak like a rusty hinge and would have brought about worries of a broken neck in other moments. Other moments, An would decide, would from that point forward include any in which her cheek had not been split open and the distillation of pure, screaming agony poured into the underlying bone. There was a disturbing sense that the laws of gravity at best no longer applied and at worst had organized and turned against her. An had only enough non-dazed brain cells left under her control to realize that she was flying, and flying far enough that the landing was unlikely to be pleasant, before she had already begun her descent. She did not impact hard cement but instead hard chest, and arms that wrapped around her and prevented her from sliding right back to the ground. The fall continued as An's weight propelled them both back to the pavement. Instinct took over and An kicked out blindly with her legs, seeking purchase on ground that she could not reach. She scrabbled backwards until her hand found her rescuer's bare flesh with a force that must have hurt, but she was still riding too close to the edge of panic to ease her grip.

>From the second after An's skin first made contact with her rescuer's bare skin that line became so whisper-thin as to be nonexistent. Had she the spare breath for it, An thought that she might have cried.

Taste of bile in the back of the throat money makes it better power makes it best slow burn forgetfulness my God they're only kids can't do this show how the world really works blood like rubies show him show him hatred so clear so sharp blond devil in a blue dress not salvation but it'll do open road finally free finally clear the fuck you are no dice I'm done really think you an afford to turn this down-

A thin, strangled sound that may have been an attempt at a scream whistled past An's throat. She scrabbled back from the man on her hands, her eyes wide and her breath coming in short gasps. By some miracle her sunglasses had not fallen from her face. Lindsey, Lindsey, now she remembered that his name was Lindsey-he was more muscular than she remembered, stripped clean of civilized softness and rendered into something feral. An tasted sulphur in the back of her throat and could not say why. Her glimpse had been too brief. It had still been enough.

It didn't matter now, couldn't matter now, as An caught a glimpse of silver from the corner of her eye. She realized with a sick, simultaneous lurching of her heart into her throat and her stomach to about the level of her kneecaps that whatever chance she and her boys might have had at making a difference was gone, if it in fact had ever existed at all. The last part would have been a bitter pill to choke on if An had been forced to swallow it in a moment when her own death wasn't staring so close, when she was not feeling so vulnerable and human.

A hand wrapped itself around An's upper arm and jerked her back so hard that she felt something in her shoulder creak and pop. A clang and a spark, and the sword that had been swinging at her head came down on the cement where An had been a scarce second before. "The hell is wrong with you?" Lindsey was yelling at her, but An was finding it difficult to listen to the words coming out of his mouth while his hand was still wrapped around her upper arm tightly enough to leave deep purple bands etched into the skin.

Fine then give in take the deal know what has to be done wait wait not how-

"Don't touch me!" An screamed at Lindsey. Her voice went into a register higher than any human's was meant to, sending fishhooks into the delicate inner flesh of her throat. She left little bits of herself behind in Lindsey's grip, so fast did she jerk away, and the abraded skin began to sting immediately. Hot droplets of blood came to the surface and then began to crawl across it. If that was all the blood that An shed this day she would call it a good one.

Lindsey's eyes widened at her as he clearly wondered who this crazy, violent girl was and why he had put his own well-being on the line to aid her. He didn't recognize her, An realized. He didn't recognize any of the three of them. So much the better. "All right, okay," he said, holding his hands up in a brief motion of surrender. "Whatever you say." Lindsey shifted his eyes towards the demons, out of reach for a few seconds at best. "But now's really not the time to be getting shy."

Panting, An looked around wildly for Alexei and Fideo, finding them separated from her by a dozen feet and a half-dozen of the short, green uglies, more distance than she could breach even if her pulse was not pounding in her temples like sick cancer. A thick stream of blood that Fideo did not seem to notice was running from his nose and down his lips. His fingers were still twined around Alexei's tightly enough to turn their knuckles into pearls, and An could see the tension that was written in neon letters across their faces. The demons weren't content to passively roll over them any longer, but were actively in the fight now, taking wide swings at the boys that Alexei and Fideo were only barely managing to avoid by scuttling back against the sidewalk. They were swiftly running out of cement. An took a moment to pause and swear inwardly for having never learned how to fight, not even the most basic playground stuff. Their power was supposed to be enough. Bit of a rude awakening, that.

An scrambled back to her feet and cast a wary look at the would-be white knight who had turned out to be a less than inspiring shade of coffee-black before she beelined for her boys. Lindsey was beginning to look as if he were regretting stepping into the whole mess in the first place, and he made no move to halt her or call her back once she was in motion. Her heart jackhammered wildly in her chest, forcing bile up in piston-like bursts as she ran, but the point of no return was several minutes back if it had ever been there at all. An ducked a blade, heard a high, whistling shriek echo past her own lips as it passed so close that she could swear a chunk of her own hair was left behind. Alexei lifted his eyebrows at her as she drew close. An saw the ghost of an approving smile moving across his face before he redirected his attention to the nasties bent on making them hurt. Great, the most reckless of them all was proud of her. Jonathan would be fit to burst. An grabbed at Alexei's hand and felt the blood from her wounded palm squish on the skin between them. Across the street and through the horde, she saw Lindsey duck a sword blow that would have taken his head off with a litheness that said he had done this before, swing his momentum back around, and bring his elbow back into the demon's face with an audible crack. The sword clanged to the ground and glinted in the sun.

An squeezed at Alexei's hand, and even though he returned her grip he could not hide the small gasp of pain. "What's wrong?"

"It's nothing." An did not need to be able to read him. Alexei had lacked the self-control to be a truly accomplished liar even since they were children. "It's not important now." That one, at least, was something that An could not argue with. They staggered back as one unit from a particularly close call that left them all gasping. An's hand spasmed involuntarily around Alexei's hand and he winced.


Alexei shook his head, throwing a few strands of brown hair into his eyes that he did nto bother to brush away. "Not important," he repeated. Alexei glanced towards Fideo, whose chin and neck had by this point been rendered into a crimson mask. When Alexei looked back towards An, it was with worry written across his face. She knew that he was seeing the same thing on her own. "Don't think that we have all that many good blasts left in us, sweetie."

Still breathing hard, An swiveled her head wildly to take stock of their situation. Not good, not good, not good. There was a commotion happening towards the other side of the street, great arcs of crimson spiraling up through the air and coming back down, but An had seen the inside of Lindsey's mind. Heroism wasn't exactly his strong suit. "Don't think we have a choice."

Alexei tightened his grip on An's hand even further even though he gasped in pain. He gave a quick, shaky nod. An's fingers were wrapped around Fideo's tightly enough to make their knuckles creak, but he never said a word. There was a distant look in his eyes that made all of An's internal organs try to rearrange themselves at once, and there was so much blood. 'You're overreacting,' An told herself. 'And he probably has plenty more where that came from.' But she thought that there was a tremble in her shoulders as she squared them back, and she knew that her hands would be shaking badly if she ever released them from those of her boys. 'One more. Only one more.'

An didn't want to think about what Lindsey could be doing at the back of the pack to be giving them such a valuable lull. She was only glad that it was there. An took a deep breath that whistled in her lungs as it exited, closed her eyes, and squeezed out a quick signal to Alexei and Fideo standing on either side of her.

And they pushed.

The only good thing that An could say about the pain was that tore through her head and poured battery acid into every single one of her nerve endings was that it was thankfully, blissfully brief. She heard herself shriek from a great distance off and thought in a dizzy, disjointed way that she sounded a lot like a train whistle, felt the warm gush of blood pouring down her face from her nose and ears. The pavement tore ragged chunks from both her and the boys' knees as they sank bonelessly down onto it. By that point there wasn't a one of them still alert enough to care.

An's eyes drifted open again an indeterminate amount of time later, though the blood on her face still felt tacky when she probed at it with curious fingers. The sun scored burning circles into her brain until she groaned and turned her face away, noticing that Alexei and Fideo were just beginning to stir on either side of her. They were not alone. Lindsey say on the curb a few feet away from her, watching with hooded eyes and an expression that An knew for a fact he had used on juries before: a bland Ken doll look that allowed An to project any emotions that she wished upon its surface. One of the demon's swords was balanced across his knees. An glanced towards the bits and pieces dotting the blade, most of which she could identify, and quickly turned her eyes away again.

Her group was alive, Lindsey was alive, the demons...most them were very much not. Call it a victory. Lindsey made a slight sound, causing An to turn her eyes back up to meet his. The expression there was becoming more shrewd by the second, and the sun was raising a dull glitter along the gore-streaked blade.

"Well, now," Lindsey said. His eyes bored holes all the way through An's skull. "Why am I getting the feeling that you guys aren't exactly normal kids?"


Lindsey watched while the girl that he had just generously sacrificed his own welfare to aid scrambled away from him as if his touch had burned her, her mouth falling open in a gasp of shock. The glasses slid down her nose far enough for Lindsey to see that there was something very wrong with her eyes before she shoved them back up again, but among the collection of scars and half-healed oddities that he had already seen on even a casual walk through the city it was not extreme enough to dwell on. In other situations, her behavior might even have left him feeling insulted. Crazy. The girl was crazy. Unfortunately for her and probably unfortunately for him, as well, she was also about three seconds away from being dead.

Whatever it was that the kids had done while standing in the street like scarecrows, it had made them the focus of all sorts of unwelcome attention. The demons would have passed on their way to their eventual destination without molestation otherwise, Lindsey thought, but that did not seem to be an option now. Now the blades were coming out.

One of the demons looked to be coming to the same conclusion that Lindsey had arrived at several seconds before and was fixating on the black-haired girl as the source of the disruption to what should have been a well-ordered massacre. Lindsey saw a glint of silver and his higher brain functions shut down with no more urging being needed, leaving him with something that was pure, that was instinctive, and that certainly had not been there five years before. He lunged forward, grabbing the girl by her upper arms and dragging her back towards him. She yelped and tried at first to wriggle away. Lindsey thought that he could be forgiven for not giving a great deal of his attention to comfort or social niceties at a time like this, and so he ignored her. He hauled them both back up to their feet in spite of the girl's continued struggling, and the sword clanged down at the place where she had been hard enough to send sparks flying up from the pavement. That got through to her when it seemed that nothing else would. She stood stock still for a few precious seconds, all of the blood drained from her face and her breath coming in short, shallow pants, making Lindsey realize for the first time how very young she actually was. He had still not released her arm.

"What in the hell is wrong with you?" Lindsey yelled at her, loudly enough to make his voice crack. His fingers were digging into the girl's upper arm and sending white lines racing out from the point where their skins met. There would be bruises later.

"Don't touch me!" the girl screamed at him. Her breathing was more rapid than ever, her voice driven up into a register high enough to make dogs wail. Startled, Lindsey did not fight her when she jerked herself away from him hard enough to make his palm tingle. The girl staggered back, panting, and looked around to the place where the boys were stumbling into some trouble of their own. The look that she threw over her shoulder at Lindsey was the purest mingling of disgust and betrayal that he had ever seen, made all the more baffling because he could not remember having ever seen this girl before in his life.

Fine, that was just fine. Lindsey had long since begun to regret casting aside his instinct for self-preservation and getting involved. He watched as the girl scampered around the infuriated demons, darting back and forth with a rodent's speed and defying her own death more than once. Reaching the boys at last, she clamped her hands around theirs as if they were the rescue boats and she was on the verge of drowning. After that, Lindsey figured that it was time he turned his mind to the matter of his own survival.

A sword whistled towards his head and Lindsey ducked, feeling his heart leap into his throat and loving every minute of it. He had been too divorced from his part of himself while he had worked at Wolfram and Hart, this rush and crunch and pure, high adrenaline giddiness of it. There had not been nearly enough time for him to find it again before, well, other things had happened.

The sword passed by closely enough to part Lindsey's hair with its breeze, and Lindsey used the momentum of his dodging to whip back around and go on the offensive. The force of his elbow impacting the demon's nose and jaw sent shock waves reverberating all the way into Lindsey's shoulder, but the crunch of cracking cartilage made it worth it. Lindsey felt his lips curving into something that surely was not pleasant and might even have been a smile. The demon yelled, the sword hit the ground, and they were back in business. Lindsey knelt and scooped up the sword in one fluid motion, doing his best to ignore the stickiness of sweat and blood that covered the hilt and soon enough his fingers. No matter. Lindsey weighed the sword in his hand and felt his smile grow wider.

The last time that he had been engaged in odds like these, the final result had not been one that landed in is favor. Lindsey preferred not to think about that, or the betrayal that had led to that ultimate outcome, directing all of his energy instead into the pure and unbroken physicality of it. Duck, swoop, clang of metal against metal followed by the ever-more satisfying thunk of the blade hitting flesh and the high, spurting arc that meant he had hit an artery. Lindsey jerked the sword free, dodged a blow that would have taken his right arm off at the elbow and the panicky flash of déjà vu that came with it, and looked around for the next opening. His knees were wobbling on him in a way that Lindsey highly suspected was making him look like a newborn colt going up against a pack of pit bulls, but that didn't matter. As long as he was still on his feet he could still come around and surprise them.

Lindsey's lips parted a bit further, until his smile made him difficult to recognize, as he decided that the next person who tried to take him off his feet was going to be in for one hell of a nasty surprise if they thought that he was going down easily.

The kids were grouped together on the opposite side of the street, grabbing at one another's hands as if they were the last life preservers on a sinking ship and staring down an approaching group of demons who were determined to make that ship sink all the faster. Lindsey swung his sword at the wrong angle and received a blow with the flat of an opponent's blade across his knuckles that made his fingers go numb and nearly caused him to drop the sword. He sent up a brief prayer of thinks that he had only been struck by the flat, unsure as he did so whether or not he was also sending up a mental middle finger or even which party he was praying to. Too far away to reach the kids. Lindsey surprised himself with how much he was torn up by not being able to. Some impulses never died, though the urge to be a martyr along with them had long since passed.

Lindsey focused on the clang of blade against blade, on the burning in his muscles and the sweat dripping into his eyes, and forced the flickering coals of his conscience to shut down and go back where they belonged. It had been working for him so far. He cleaved a demon's head from its shoulders with a popping sound that made him think of a watermelon being sliced open with one ferocious blow, leaving his arm burning from fingertips all the way up into his shoulder once the action was done. Getting tired now; time to quite indulging the instinctual and get back to that brain of his, or else he was going to fall just as surely as the rabbit before the hunter.

Yeah, and he would get back to that just as soon as his life stopped being in mortal danger. Lindsey paused to rewind that sentence and its implications that his life was ever not in mortal danger, twitching his head to throw sweat-soaked strands of hair back and out of his eyes. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. And could Lindsey honestly say that he had felt more alive in this moment, right here, than in any other since long before he had died? Not really.

A line of fire opened up along Lindsey's back, startling him even as he was spinning away and keeping an annoying wound from being worsened into a potentially fatal one. Sweat poured into the flesh and mingled with the blood there almost immediately, sending out flares of pain that echoed all the way into the fillings in Lindsey's teeth. He gnashed them together and accepted his punishment for allowing his attention to wander before he meted it right back out again to the demon that had given the original blow. Lindsey made an internal promise not to let his attention wander again and broke it almost immediately by glancing back towards the ones that had kick-started this whole mess in the first place. The olive-skinned boy's face and neck were drenched in blood; his friends were the only things keeping him on his feet. Lindsey had no idea how they were managing to avoid being mowed down outside of the most colossal amounts of luck ever bestowed on any group of human beings since the world had begun.

And then, in a flash, it was all made clear. The demon closest to the kids paused in its assault, turning partway to the side and shuddering beneath a tremor that nearly drove it to its scaly knees. The brown-haired boy stumbled back a step, his legs wobbling, and the girl had to release his hand and grab at his arm before she was able to drag him back to his feet. She pulled her lips back with the effort of the act; Lindsey could see the gleam of blood on her teeth. The girl shoved the boy's shirtsleeve up so that she could grasp quickly at the bare skin of his arm, flicking a swift, worried glance over at her other companion as she did so. The blood that was already rushing from the olive-skinned boy's nose began to pour from the other two's as well.

The staggering demon stumbled further, spinning all the way around and raising his sword over his head. As Lindsey watched, it cleaved one of its companions in two from the top of its head to the point where Lindsey assumed its navel to be. They both collapsed to the pavement without another sound, except for a few faint clankings as the pieces of their armor fell against one another. Lindsey backed away so quickly that he barely remembered to keep his grip on his own sword. Big deal. For a few minutes, at least, it didn't look at if he needed it.

The demons were turning on one another, first one by one and then in huge, heaving packs, so that the only thing required of Lindsey was that he get out of the way. He did so without wasting a second, allowing his sword to drift down until the point of the blade was resting against the pavement. The moment when whatever magic was being cast across the demons also fell across him never came, but Lindsey wasn't finding this to be a great motive to relax. Not when carnage that Quentin Tarantino would have been proud of was unfolding in front of him. The knowledge that it couldn't be happening to a nicer set of...well, people wasn't exactly accurate but was still the best that they had, was small comfort.

They were killing each other and worse: they were still aware enough to realize what they were doing. Lindsey could see it written into their faces, hear it in the short grunts of pain. As he watched, mute and honestly unable to tell if it was satisfaction or even pity that was causing his heart to take up such a strange rhythm within his chest, limbs were hacked away and buckets of blood fell down to paint the street. Within moments, not a one of the demons that had posed such a dire threat was still on its feet. Lindsey could hear a few of the civilians who had stayed to watch from a safe distance lean over and begin to retch. He tilted his head to one side and watched without a change in expression as the three wonder kids sank to the cement with one fluid motion. With their limbs sprawled out and tangled around one another, from a distance it was difficult for Lindsey to tell if he was watching one person or three. He lifted the sword back into a defensive position as he skirted around the bodies in the street, half-expecting them to rise back to life.

"That's not something that you see every day," Lindsey muttered to himself, frowning. For all that he knew, it might very well be, now. Outside of the isolated few whose stomachs had rebelled against them, the people surrounding him seemed remarkably sanguine about the fact that a massacre had taken place in their midst. Heads were poking out of doors, windows, holes in the rubble, as various attempts to return to the new normal started up. The television was dragged out to its old position on the sidewalk and the soft sounds of explosions could be heard coming from it again within moments. A small group of children were already returning to their cluster around the set as Lindsey strode across the street.

The children that he was looking for were not going unnoticed where they had fallen. A group of people was standing in a semicircle around the adolescents, none of them quite daring to venture close enough to touch. Wary looks were cast across Lindsey and the sword that he still carried, but the combination still warranted no other reaction larger than a raised eyebrow. Lindsey filed that away under information that could be useful later. The longer that he went on in this brave new world, the more it seemed to him as if everything about it was stripped down, from the bare bones essentials needed to get from one day to the next to the actual psychology running through the people's heads. The buildings still standing around them seemed like nothing more than a decorative screen used to cover a world that had long since reverted to an earlier and bloodier time.

"Don't suppose calling an ambulance is an option," Lindsey said, crouching onto his heels and balancing the sword across his knees. Long streaks of crimson branded his arms and hands. The looks of mingled disbelief and amusement that his question garnered provided answers without anyone having to say a word. "Didn't think so." His knees were sending out warning messages again, so Lindsey traded his crouch in for settling down against the curb, still keeping the blade balanced across his legs. He paused for a moment to wipe most of the blood from his hands off across the borrowed sweats; traces of stickiness remained on his palms.

Cocking his head to one side, Lindsey surveyed the unconscious adolescents sprawled out in front of him. The girl was beginning to stir, kicking her feet out in slow circles like a person beginning to emerge from the depths of a nightmare. The blood streaming from her nose had formed a dark red bib over her face and throat that was only now beginning to taper off. At least there was none coming from her ears. Lindsey knew from blood, and humans would be amazed by how much they could lose. She would be fine.

He pasted a quick smile onto his face before he looked up at the concerned crowd. Several of them flinched back, and it was not because of the sword that he still had resting on his knees. Lindsey noted the reaction and dialed down the wolf in his grin, so smoothly and subtly that most of them would never realize that anything had changed. "I'm a friend," he said, modulating his tone and injecting it with a warmth that almost convinced even him. "They'll be fine. I can handle it from here." The fact that he was still carrying a weapon and there were bodies piled behind him in the street didn't seem to be winning him any confidence points. Lindsey widened his smile and carefully set the sword to one side. "Really. I know what to do."

They drifted away easily after that. Lindsey did not know if that was a feature of the new world or the old, and he did not care. He settled back against the curb, replaced the sword across his knees as soon as the last of the onlookers was a sufficient distance away, and waited. His heard slowed down until it was once again beating in the rhythm that he would never be able to call customary again, not after spending so much time in which he had possessed no heartbeat at all, and his biceps and shoulders were beginning to ache with the almost-pleasant burn of being overexerted, of being alive. The girl's twitchings gradually grew more pronounced until, just when the sweat that had collected on the nape of Lindsey's neck and down the line of his spine had finished drying away, she opened her eyes. Her face went expressionless as she caught sight of Lindsey, going blank in a way that would have made Angel proud. She betrayed the badass 'tude that that she was trying to convey as soon as she caught sight of Lindsey's smile, and it grew wider still in response. 'Nice try, Little Red Riding Hood, but you won't be convincing anyone that you're the Big Bad Wolf for a few more years yet.' The girl caught her reaction before it could carry her back too far and covered it by throwing a haughty, measuring look across Lindsey's person. She probed at the blood still trickling from her nose and rubbed her fingers against one another, grimacing when they tried to stick together. The boys were only now beginning to stir on either side of her, and the olive-skinned boy in particular looked to be in pretty rough shape. It was going to take more than a glass of juice to bounce back from that kind of blood loss. Lindsey cocked his head to one side, allowing the smile to drop away from his face in favor of an expression of professional blankness as he surveyed the unconscious youth. The nosebleed seemed to be on its way to stopping, at least. Lindsey didn't figure that there was a whole lot that he would be able to do if it wasn't.

He kept his features bland as he turned his face back towards the girl and found her matching him step for step with a stare of her own. There was something in her face that made Lindsey feel as if he were being placed on some kind of mental scale and found irreconcilably wanting, and his eyes narrowed. He didn't notice that he was wrapping his hand more tightly about the handle of the sword and placing the other upon the flat of the blade, as if to restrain himself, or that he was leaning forward. That expression reminded Lindsey of Angel in a lot of ways that weren't bringing out his more heroic side. "Well, now," Lindsey said in a voice that came to him from down a long tunnel and hardly sounded like himself, "why am I getting the feeling that you guys aren't exactly normal kids?"

The girl lifted her chin. "Basic observational skills?" she asked. Lindsey grinned, and again she started to twitch backwards before catching herself. The blood coating her lower face and neck made it difficult to pick out the details, but Lindsey thought that he saw her setting her jaw.

"Those, too." Lindsey removed his hand from the flat of the sword's blade long enough to push a few strands of sweaty-slick hair back from his forehead, noting in a distant way that the bloody stigmata he had managed to put into his own palms were still oozing slightly and leaving crimson streaks across the skin. As the adrenaline began to ease its way out of his bloodstream, the wound in his back began to feel as if angry fire ants were being forced beneath the surface of the skin, and he was very aware that it was not only sweat which was sticking his shirt to his flesh.

The girl followed the movement of his hands with an expression that almost seemed disapproving, though Lindsey could not for the life of him saw why. Something about her-something about all of them-tickled incessantly at the back of Lindsey's mind, dancing away and laughing each time before he could grasp at it. The fact that the three of them were so covered it blood that it was like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle and discovering that half the pieces were missing did not help. "My name's An," the girl said suddenly.

"Lindsey," he returned, unsure of what else to reply with. An was watching him as if she expected her name to mean something to him, somehow, and was disappointed when it did not. "Now back to my original question. What in the hell are you people?"

An's mouth twisted into a smile too old to sit upon her face comfortably, but the brown-haired boy moaned and began to stir before she could offer up a reply. "Easy," the girl said, putting her hand out quickly to brace him as he opened his eyes and tried to sit up. With her face turned away from Lindsey and towards her friend, her features softened until she almost looked her age.

The boy only tolerated An's touch for a few seconds before he swatted her off. He licked his lips, grimaced at their bloody taste, and spat off to one side. "The hangover without the pleasure of getting drunk first," he groused. "Anyone who would take this gig without a gun being held to their head would have to be seriously dis-" The boy cut himself off as he caught sight of Lindsey at last. "Oh, damn."

"He doesn't recognize us," An interjected swiftly.

Call him crazy, but Lindsey was getting the distinct feeling that there was another story taking place behind the scenes which he was being barred from seeing. His eyes narrowed. "And where, if you don't mind enlightening me, would I be recognizing you from?" The tickle in the back of his mind became a full roar, all the more infuriating because he did not know why.

An flicked a look across the brown-haired boy that may have been concern or a warning and in all probability held a measure of both before she replied, "We're here because the Powers That Be want us to be." Her face achieved a moment of curious distance before she continued, "A situation that you're pretty familiar with yourself." There was a frost to her voice that the vibrancy of the blood covering her face and neck did nothing to thaw.

And that right there implied a great deal more about his personal affairs than he was comfortable with her knowing. If Lindsey narrowed his eyes any further, he was going to be unable to see. "You're twelve."

"Fourteen," the brown-haired boy said in such an affronted tone that Lindsey nearly laughed.

"My mistake." Foot traffic was starting up again, and curious looks were being thrown their way. Lindsey did not suppose that there was a police force left to care about the quartet of bloodied people sitting on the curb, but he was beginning to feel jumpy and exposed all the same.

An's jaw clenched. "We were," she said flatly, "regardless of how young we may seem to you." She gave a disdainful sniff that allowed Lindsey a glimpse of the woman that she would someday be. Something about the image made a small ball of ice form at the base of Lindsey's spine. "We did a pretty good job out there, dontcha think?" She jerked her chin in the direction of the carnage on the street. The sudden movement sent a few flecks of dried blood drifting down from her chin and into her lap.

Not a set of new memories that Lindsey figured he was going to get a kick out of revisiting, but it was hard to argue with the results. Lindsey felt a smile begin to grace his face once more, slow and honey-sweet. An watched him warily until her attention was pulled away by the final youth as he at long last began to come to. While she fussed over him like an enthusiastic if not particularly experienced mother hen and the first boy watched with guarded concern, Lindsey had a chance to pause and think.

If the kids were lying then they were doing a very, very good job of it, and Lindsey knew from liars. If they were merely crazy, well, there were always the results lying out in the street behind him, gory and difficult to refute. But if they were telling the truth...oh, if they were telling the truth. Then an avenue had just opened up to a set of people that Lindsey very much wanted to talk to. He figured that there was a great deal of back wages owed to him, and had always been one to aim high.

"An," Lindsey said suddenly. She ceased tending to the final member of her group long enough to look at him with a distrustful expression. Lindsey was beginning to suspect that this was her default look. He braced the sword against the concrete and used it to lever himself back to his feet, wincing as the cut on his back reopened and sent a fresh trickle of blood running down his spine. He extended his hand down to help An to her feet, but she only eyed it for a long moment before shaking her head. Lindsey sighed and retracted the offer. "You said you were sent by the Powers That Be?" he asked, waiting until An nodded before he continued. "Then I know someone that you definitely need to meet."


The boys were named Alexei and Fideo, Lindsey was told when Fideo was first sitting up and then feeling strong enough to walk a distance. Taken together, the three of them made for quite the multicultural bunch. Strange, since Lindsey listened hard but could detect no hint of an accent on any of them, not even the regional ones that he would expect from a group of typical American teenagers. Their voices were so devoid of any kind of cultural stamp that they may as well have been rolled from an assembly line. Lindsey wondered if maybe this was not the reason that the back of his mind was tickling and buzzing so. No, he thought only a second later, wrinkling his brow and tightening his grip upon the sword. It was something else, something that only grew stronger the longer that he was around them. Lindsey glanced towards Alexei and was not particularly surprised to see the kid staring back at him with an intent and unfriendly gaze. Fideo was leaning heavily on An and Alexei by turns and seemed to be suffering from much the same problem with kneecap instability that Lindsey himself was still experiencing bouts of, but the look that he turned onto Lindsey now and again held much of the same air.

For a group of people so bloodied and battered as they were, they attracted surprisingly little attention as they strode down the street. Lindsey led the way, shouldering a path through the thickest portions of the crowd as the sun sank lower towards the horizon and muttering apologies when he jolted people. The sword that he still held worked far great wonders than the apologies, actually, and more often than not the people were scurrying away before the words had fully exited his mouth. Lindsey's lips quirked up into a bitter smile as he watched them go. All that money and time invested in learning charm and in earning the degree, he though, and all that it really took was a big stick.

Once he got down into it, actually, that wasn't all that surprising. Nor was it that funny.

As the crowds grew heavier with the lowering of the sun, people rushing to get indoors before the big league nasties came out to play, it became increasingly difficult for the four of them to stay within sight of each other. Lindsey extended the hand that was not occupied with the sword back towards An, intending to give her something concrete to grasp onto, but he was only met with a cool stare and quick shake of the head. "We can manage."

The concerned glance that she could not stop herself from turning Fideo's way betrayed her. Since Lindsey was feeling generous, he decided not point that out. "Suit yourself." With his head turned partway around to speak to An, he didn't see the distracted woman in front of him and only just avoided running her through with the sword. "Sorry," Lindsey said, lowering the sword into what his rational mind told him was a safer position even as the baser, more lizard-like portion of his brain screamed that danger could still come rushing out from any unwatched shadow. "Sorry, sorry,"

The woman, who had a head full of gingery Shirley Temple curls set above a face and body designed to be forgotten again within seconds, set off another round of desperate and unquantifiable sensations racing through Lindsey's brain. He had had about enough of those in the span of one day to last him the rest of his life, however short that might turn out to be, and the way that his hand tightened around the sword and raised it back into a defensive posture probably wasn't the most comforting gesture that he could have made. The woman paused long enough to turn a wide-eyed stare over Lindsey and his three charges before she was taking an exaggerated step around them and hurrying down the street at a pace that was not quite a run but wanted to be when it grew up. Lindsey watched her as she disappeared, feeling each hair on the back of his neck stand at attention while the crowd resumed its ebb and flow around them.

"Ex-girlfriend?" Alexei inquired at his elbow. The ridiculousness of such a statement coming from Alexei's baby face was somewhat mitigated by the fact that he was still covered in blood.

Only somewhat. Lindsey paused long enough to flash the smartass a grin that took some of the steam out of him, even if was not enough to make him step back. "No. My exes tend to have bigger teeth." Lindsey let a beat go by before he added, "Also, they're not nearly so much with the sunbathing."

It took a second fro the kid to get it, and then his eyes widened. Lindsey thought that there might have been respect and even possibly a bit of envy there. "Really?" Alexei grinned. "Awesome!"

Lindsey could already see the terror that this kid was going to be when he grew into himself and found his stride where the girls were concerned. He snorted, shook his head, and could not stop the faint smile that curled the ends of his mouth upwards. "High maintenance," he said as he led his charges up the steps to Angel's new fortress of almost-solitude. He kept his back turned so that Alexei could not read the lie as he said, "Trust me. In the end, they're not worth it."

The setting sun blazed at his back as Lindsey stepped back into the lobby, giving him reason to pause while his eyes adjusted and letting the kids catch up to him. Fideo halted immediately inside the doorway, tilting his head back against the frame and closing his eyes. Doing so exposed the long, protectionless line of his throat, a move that Lindsey had the feeling was not the wisest one that could be made these days. An and Alexei seemed to feel the same way, because they each took several steps closer to him until the three of them were forming a rough triangle with the wounded member at the back. In the low light, the blood across their faces and necks almost looked black.

"You came back."

Lindsey turned his head. The same little girl was still sitting on the lowest stair and watching the door with the fierceness of an army general. For all Lindsey knew, she had not moved since he had left that morning. They girl swiveled her head towards the trio of adolescents, giving the kind of frank, appraising stare that only young children could get away with without being chastised for rudeness. Something that she saw there drew a faint line of apprehension between her eyes, and it did not go away when she looked back towards Lindsey.

"I said I would, didn't I?" Lindsey asked, giving the little girl half of his attention and keeping the other half fixed on Fideo. Even though his companions were not acting as if they were in the middle of a medical crisis (for all that Lindsey knew, they gave themselves aneurysms in the name of telekinetic vigilantism on a regular basis), the kid was looking rough.

"No, you didn't," the little girl said. She leaned forward, hugging her knees to her chest and thrusting her head out until she resembled nothing so much as a large and extraordinarily blonde turtle. "Sometimes people don't come back. We wait a few weeks, and then we take their stuff."

Lindsey stared at her. "Do you think that Barney would approve of that?" The girl flashed him a winsome smile but said nothing.

The door reopened behind Lindsey, causing him to turn and reflexively raise the sword as a few new drops of adrenaline found room to course through his system. Finding that it was the second time in as many hours that he had nearly run a woman through, Lindsey thought that this was the point when it was all right for him to admit that he was getting just a little bit too jumpy. The woman froze and stared at him with one of her hands still braced against the door to hold it open, her eyes wide and constantly moving back and forth between Lindsey's face and the sword point only a few inches away from her chest. She was in her early thirties, with olive-toned skin and long black hair that looked as if it had been gathered back into a careless braid at least a day previously and then forgotten about altogether. She had been pretty once, Lindsey decided, an effect that was only partially ruined by the pink band of scar tissue that split her lower lip, ran across her chin, and disappeared into the soft flesh of her throat. It made the woman look as if she should have been carrying a machine gun rather than a discarded shopping basket. "Put that away if you're not planning on using it, sailor." The quaver in her voice ruined the attempt at bravado, as did the quick hitches in her breathing which snuck through every few seconds.

"Sorry." Lindsey lowered the sword and stepped back so that the woman could enter the building and thereby escape the approaching dark. "Didn't mean to frighten you."

"Good intentions..." The woman had barely edged around Lindsey and into the relative safety of the lobby before the girl on the stairs had launched herself across the floor in a whirlwind of blonde. Two seconds later her arms were wrapped fiercely around the woman's waist, nearly knocking the shopping basket to the floor, and the girl had her face buried into the woman's midriff.

"Miss Vasquez!" The words were muffled against the woman's stomach, so that Lindsey had to strain in order to hear them. He raised his eyebrows at her.

"Alicia Vasquez," the woman introduced herself, stroking the little girl's hair with her free hand and making soft shushing noises between every other word. There were dark circles beneath her eyes to match the ones that Lindsey knew must still be marking up his own.

"Lindsey McDonald." He didn't offer to shake hands, but neither did Alicia. She nodded and looked over his shoulder to the adolescents still clustered behind him. The lift of Alicia's eyebrows said it all. "Guests."

"Ah." Alicia turned her stare back onto Lindsey, clearly trying to size him up and figure out where he fit within the microcosm of the building.

"He's staying with the people upstairs," the little girl pulled her face out of Alicia's stomach to pipe up helpfully.

"Oh." Alicia's dark eyes widened and her face contracted into something tight and wary as one movement. "Oh."

Lindsey wasn't sure what kind of stories were being told about the new guy upstairs, but he didn't believe his smile was of the sort that would make people doubt the worst of them. "Does my reputation precede me?"

Alicia detached the little girl from around her waist and resettled the basket across her arm. Lindsey saw a box of crackers, a few withered apples, and a couple of cans of chicken placed inside. The girl poked excitedly at the apples before pulling one out and taking a large bite from it. Alicia turned her eyes up towards the ceiling for a moment before looking back towards Lindsey. "Yours doesn't," she said. Another glance at the ceiling. "Theirs do." She took the little girl's hand up in her own free one. "C'mon, Katie. I don't want you that close to the door when it's getting dark."

Katie allowed herself to be led away, still chewing at her apple. "I had to make sure that you were coming back."

Something twisted on Alicia's face, but she ruffled at Katie's hair without saying anything. She nodded towards An, Alexei, and Fideo as she passed them. "Kids. Have a nice night."

Fideo opened his eyes. "You, too, ma'am."

Alicia's eyebrows ticked upwards a notch as she looked over the blood which covered them all. For a moment, Lindsey thought that he saw concern rewriting her face. She shook it off with a visible shrugging motion, leading Kate down the hallway and disappearing into one of the apartments. From behind Lindsey, Alexei said brightly, "She seemed nice."

A troubled expression sat on An's face, different from the one that she normally wore. "Weird kid, though." She turned back to Fideo. "How are you feeling?"

"I'll be all right." Fideo pushed himself away from the wall, pausing for a moment as his brain consulted his legs on whether or not they would hold him and smiling brilliantly when the answer came back yes. Lindsey noticed that he did not decline the arms that his friends offered out to him.

Lindsey inclined his head towards the stairs. "This way." He turned and started climbing without looking around to see if the others were following him, marking their progress by the sound of feet scuffing on the steps behind him. There was the short sound of a stumble about halfway up and Lindsey spun about, certain that he was going to see Fideo going ass over head all the way back down to the bottom. Alexei flashed him a sheepish grin instead as he righted himself from where his toe had caught on a bulge in the carpet. "Sorry. Tripped." Lindsey made a faint noise of exasperation and turned back around. He could fee An's eyes resting against the back of his neck as he did so, could feel the judgment there. Now there was a girl with issues.

Lindsey wondered how far Angel's, Spike's, and maybe even Illyria's hearing extended as the four of them trooped down the hallway and towards the apartment where Angel and his people crouched during the daylight hours. There was no sound from within to greet them as Lindsey reached the doorway and placed his hand upon the knob. Unlocked, of course. The door creaked slightly as it opened, a textbook horror movie sound. Lindsey gestured the kids in ahead of him and noticed that each one hesitated slightly before stepping over the threshold. So on some level they were still normal, at least.

Lindsey was still fumbling along the wall for the switch when an accented voice called out dryly, "The polite thing to do is call and let Mommy know before you bring home guests."

An jumped and made a startled, breathy sound that may have been a scream forced back down into the throat before it could emerge too far. Her jerk carried her backwards into Lindsey, and there was a brief press of flesh on flesh as their arms touched. For all the speed with which she jumped away again, an outside observer would have thought that a stove had somehow been hidden beneath the surface of Lindsey's skin. He found the light switch and flicked it, filling the room with light that still made him hiss and turn his eyes away for a few moments. When he raised them again Spike was lighting a cigarette and looking more amused than anyone had a right to with a group of people soaked in both their blood and the blood of others standing in their living room. Illyria leaned over his shoulder and watched the blood with great interest, while Angel filled the rest of the doorway like a dark cloud behind them. Even half-shrouded by the shadows of the other room, he drew Lindsey's eye right to him.

"Looks like you had a fun day," Angel said, putting his hand on Illyria's shoulder and moving her gently to the side. She bared her teeth at him half-heartedly before she acquiesced, still watching the blood. Spike stepped out of the way without prodding, though he did make a point of flicking the ashes from his cigarette in the direction of Angel's shoes as he did so. Angel only spared him a moment for a dirty look before he said, "Making friends in the sandbox?"

Lindsey smiled and realized that he was still holding the bloodied sword, so tightly that his knuckles had long since begun to ache. He set it down against the nearest wall, where it left a reddish-brown smear on the plaster. The marks left by Lindsey's torn elbows the night before were still there. He added a new one by leaning back against the wall himself, folding his arms across his chest and hearing a faint squelch sound as his shift was pressed up against the paint. In the old days, before he and Angel had turned such a neat one-eighty around each other, the smirk which graced his face would have invited violence. "I had an enlightening day, at any rate." He waited for An to pipe up and tell Angel where her group had come from, why they were here now. She certainly had not been shy about sharing that knowledge before.

But An, and the boys as well, had been struck dumb. The look written across An's face was a mingling of disappointment and disgust, and also...also something a little like reverence that she could not quite force herself to get rid of. Lindsey's eyebrows quirked up. Curiouser and curiouser. He waited a few more seconds for An to get over her bout of surprise, or hero worship, or whatever it was, before he gave up and said, "These guys here are from the Powers That Be, apparently to give you guys a hand with-" He ticked his head in the direction of the window. "Our current situation."

Angel's eyes moved back towards the kids, giving them a real stare rather than the quick, appraising glance that he had flicked over them when they first entered. "Really." The flatness which overtook Angel's voice was entirely different from the one which normally overtook his voice when he was nearing violence, but Lindsey felt a Pavlov's dog reaction straightening out his spine all the same. His blood-sticky shirt made a soft ripping sound as it left the wall. Angel's eyes ghosted over Lindsey before coming to rest on Fideo, where they widened slightly. "You."

An and Alexei swiveled to look at Fideo as one motion. He smiled sheepishly in response and ducked his head, allowing his sunglasses for a moment to slide down his nose. Those definitely were not normal human eyes hidden under there. Lindsey straightened further. He was so damned close- "I wanted to see him," Fideo said.

Alexei rolled his eyes and turned away, muttering, "Moron," beneath his breath while An made an exasperated huffing noise.

"It had to have been at night," she said. Lindsey, feeling very much as if the conversation had moved onto a topic where he had no chance of catching up, shifted against the wall again but said nothing. The cut on his back, disturbed by the motion, opened up wider and sent forth a fresh rivulet of blood. Angel's eyes ticked towards him. "You could have been killed."

Fideo smiled again, less sheepishly and with the kind of bravado that only teenaged boys could manage, or teenaged girls find endearing. Sure enough, Lindsey saw the corners of An's mouth twitch upwards by a millimeter or two. "Wasn't, though."

Alexei repeated his muttering of, "Moron," but with greater conviction and not a small amount of amusement.


Angel had returned to staring at the kids, a slow kind of comprehension dawning across his face that made Lindsey feel as if there was some kind of textbook that he should be consulting. His eyes narrowed and he almost, almost had it, until Angel looked at him again the by doing so made the world contract. "As glad as I am to see that you're playing nicely with the other kids, Lindsey," Angel said, lifting the corners of his mouth slightly in response to Lindsey's bared-teeth smile, "I do have to wonder why you brought them home with you."

An's eyes had narrowed into fierce slits along with Lindsey's at the "kids" reference, but she did not take the invitation into adolescent temper tantrum that Lindsey had been expecting. Her spine straightened, her chin lifted, and in the span of time it took to make those few small adjustments the kid had transformed herself into a regal, if still bloodied and painfully young, queen. "We were sent by the Powers That Be," she said in a flat, even voice, staring Angel straight in the eye. The chill with which she had said the same sentence to Lindsey was gone, but he could not say that there was a hell of a lot of warmth filling up the spaces in between. It was a small ego boost to realize that it was a defect within her rather than something personal.

Or maybe not something entirely personal, at least.

From the trio's point of view, Lindsey imagined that the differences between he and Angel were so small as to be immeasurable. He watched intently from his position by the wall, waiting for the moment, waiting for one of them to say what they must surely know, if they were half as powerful as Lindsey was beginning to suspect that they were. Fideo glanced towards him, his expression unreadable, before he looked away and scrubbed at the dried blood covering his upper lip. No one said anything, and Lindsey slowly eased back into his original position against the wall. The only one who noticed the movement was Illyria, and her expression of slightly disdainful amusement went unaltered.

Angel's eyebrows arched upwards. "You're twelve."

"Fourteen," Fideo muttered without any real rancor.

An turned exasperated looks upon them both in turn. "Be that as it may," she said slowly, giving the impression that every word from her mouth was merely a substitute for the shorter and infinitely more interesting ones running through her mind, "here we are." She parted her lips into a sunny smile. "We're here to help."

"Are you now?" It was the first time that Spike had spoken since addressing them upon entering. He had taken to smoking in the meanwhile, and a long column of ash dangled from the end of the cigarette where he had forgotten about it. "Forgive me for saying so, but the three of you don't look much past solving your problems by giving each other bloody noses on the playground." Spike ran his eyes slowly across their faces and clothes. "Or not at all past it, as the case may be."

An looked towards Lindsey, her eyebrows raised slightly. The implication that it was his turn to speak now was clear. Again Lindsey compared her to a queen within his head, this time not nearly so favorably. "I ran into some demons while I was on the street," he said.

"The neighbors can be surprising if you're not used to them," Spike said, but he looked more interested now. He leaned forward onto the balls of his feet, giving the ash at the end of his cigarette an impatient flick when he realized that it was there.

"I think they came from the portal," Lindsey continued as if Spike had not spoken. Angel nodded and made a 'Go on' gesture with his hand. "Granted, there are a lot of them out there, anyway...but this group didn't seem too eager to mingle and make nice with the humans." Angel's eyes dropped down to the bloodied sword still resting against the wall at Lindsey's side. His expression evolved into the one of mingled disdain and disbelief that Lindsey already had whole worlds of experience with. He could well imagine the thoughts which had to be running through Angel's head, picturing Lindsey playing the hero. Let him keep at it for a few more seconds; Lindsey thought that it suited him. He jerked his thumb in the direction of An, Alexei, and Fideo. "And then these kids jump in front of them on the street." An's eyes narrowed again and the expression of approval that she has assumed vanished at the return of the "kids" reference, but she did not interrupt. Lindsey nodded towards An's jaw and cheekbone, where a bruise could be seen beginning to paint itself in green and indigo across the few patches of clean skin. "The fight was going less than well for them, as you can imagine. I jump in, keep An from cracking her head open on the pavement, and off we went." Angel's face cleared at hearing that Lindsey did not immediately jump in to play the hero but had to be prodded, making it akin to a man learning that the course of gravity was reestablishing itself after a brief hiatus. "I got one of the demons' swords away from them and was doing my part. Admittedly, I was waiting for the moment when I was going to get shot in the chest, but I was there." Sometimes the cheap shots were the only ones that mattered. Lindsey shifted, winced as his muscles reminded him that they had been out of commission for too long to take to swordfighting again without a few grumbles along the way, and continued. "Meanwhile, these guys are pulling a routine that would have put Carrie White to shame. Whatever demons I didn't get, they made kill each other, right down the very last." Lindsey's monotone shifted away from him, slipping open and allowing some of the visceral experience of it to slip back through. He cleared his throat and ran his fingers lightly across the top of the sword, almost as someone would pull a string of rosary beads through their fingers. No one noticed him doing it, as every other pair of eyes in the room was fixed upon An.

She bore out the last part of Lindsey's speech with an expression of blankness too perfect to be real, her hands clasped demurely in front of her. She took no notice of the gore that was still ground into the knuckles. An waited a beat to see if Lindsey was finished before she said, "They weren't exactly marching down the street because they were looking for a new place to found their puppy orphanage, okay? We were using our own talents in the best way that we knew how." An turned her head slightly to include Lindsey back into her field of vision. "Just as you were doing with that sword of yours. The only difference between us is that my group went straight to the source." Her tone was defensive, jarring against the doll-like stillness that dominated the rest of her face. The impression given was that of a distinctly different girl's voice being dubbed over a neutral body. Spike stirred faintly; Angel and Illyria remained as still as statues.

"You couldn't do that before." It was from Angel, and it was not a question. Lindsey cocked his head to one side.

Alexei grinned and actually bounced up onto his toes for a moment before settling back down. "Well, we've grown up some since then."

"Clearly." Angel folded his arms over his chest and looked at each of the kids in turn. Lindsey could not read his face, and as a result felt as if the ground beneath his feet was shifting away from him. "Though I wonder why you're here now."

A line appeared between An's eyebrows. She glanced between Angel and Lindsey and back again, and for the first time since meeting her Lindsey saw that she was genuinely at a loss for words. "We're from the Powers That Be," she said at last, in the same tone that another person might use to explain that, yes, the sun really was shining. "You...we seem to share a certain set of interests, is all."

Angel didn't turn his head to look, but Lindsey got the impression that he was being scrutinized all the same. "So it would seem." His lips lifted into a smile that Lindsey hoped was not meant to come across as cold as it actually was. "We're not really interested in what the Powers That Be-or their opposite number, I might add-" Lindsey knew now that he was not imagining that stare, "have to say these days."

An's jaw dropped open, only to snap shut again a few seconds later with an audible clicking sound. "You..." She drifted off, as if the very thought was too large and possibly too obscene to finish.

"So you're going to spit in the face of the same people who have pulled your ass out of the literal and metaphorical fire more than once. That's nice. Really. It's classy." It was Fideo rather than Alexei who said it, and as far as Lindsey was concerned there as not a worse combination of words that the boy could have chosen. Fideo for his own part did not seem particularly inclined to notice or care about this error. He was leaning forward onto the balls of his feet, his whole body vibrating with an energy that almost needed a physical force to hold it back.

Angel's face remained as bland as a Grecian statue, but the air around him crackled and seemed on the verge of singing with tension. Illyria perked and leaned forward, for the first time looking like a living creature rather than merely a robot gifted with motion. Lindsey caught the way that her nostrils were flaring, as if she was scenting the blood even before it had a chance to be spilled, and wondered what sort of living thing he meant with that statement, after all.

Spike gave Angel a speculative look and was gifted by both an impassive one and a brief shake of the head in return. "Hate to bust your bubble, kiddo," Spike told Fideo in a low voice, "but the spirits in the sky aren't exactly all that you're building them up to be." Fideo took a quick step forward and was only halted when Illyria mirrored him from the other direction. Illyria did not stop until Spike held up his hand and said softly, "It's all right, Babe."

Illyria drifted backwards, an expression on her face suggesting that of a cat that had been dropped unexpectedly into a tub of cold water. "I do not do it for you," she snapped, taking a further step back until she had returned to her position by the far wall. Lindsey would go so far as to say that her body language had become wary, perhaps even a bit sulky.

"I know," Spike assured her, causing the tension in Illyria's spine to ratchet itself up even further, before he turned back to Fideo. "Whoever's been talking to you, filling your head with these tales of the great and noble Powers That Be against the forces of darkness, my guess is that they left out a few details. The Powers and the Forces, whatever you want to call the creepy bastards, the two of them aren't as different as you want to believe, and that?" Spike threw his arm out in a wide arc that included the far window, where the curtains had been thrown open wide to allow views of both the stars and the continually burning city. "Don't think for a single second that it could have been done without the help of both of them."

Fideo had gone the color of old linen beneath the healthy bronze of his tan. An's and Alexei's reactions were not quite so extreme, but Lindsey did not think that the expressions of awe and reverence that they had worn upon first entering the apartment were going to be returning anytime soon. Fideo took another step forward, this time undeterred by Illyria's quick answering step.

"Fideo." An did not raise her voice above a normal speaking tone, but it carried across the distance between them and halted the boy all the same. Though Spike was the one who had spoken, it was Angel that An locked eyes with. "Let it go. It's fine."


"It's fine," An said, swiveling to look at Fideo at last. "We can do it alone." Big words from a little girl still covered in her blood, Lindsey thought. There was still a part of him that wanted to believe it. It was from the small, quiet part of his brain, the one that he had trained himself to ignore, even if he never could make it shut up forever.

"We fight them," Angel told An. His arms were still folded across his chest, the only defensive gesture on an otherwise entirely neutral form. "Don't think that we won't help you in every other way that we can." The pause between those words and Angel's next lasted for so long that it seemed to have no beginning and no end. "But we are never going to fight under that banner again." Angel locked eyes with Lindsey as he said it. Lindsey did not know exactly what message he was supposed to be reading there, except that the glimmers which did manage to come through raised the hair on the back of his neck and caused the beat-beat-beat of war drums to go coursing through his blood once more. By the time he blinked twice Angel had looked away from him and back towards An. "I'm sorry, but there are other forces at work here that you and your bosses cannot understand."

Rods of steel had been slipped into the spines of An, Alexei, and Fideo, turning them into a trio of slighted royals rather than the scared and battered children that should have been in their place. An lifted her chin. "It's your choice," she said in the same tone that Lindsey could attribute to a half-dozen different preachers from his childhood and early adolescence. It was as polite as it could be on the outside, but scratch that surface by so much as a millimeter and the undercoat of, "But you'll burn for it, see if you don't," came shining out bright and bloody from underneath. The frost had returned to An's voice and posture and then spread to the others, making them all seem older than their years. Lindsey thought that he could detect a twinge of disappointment and even sorrow thrown into the mix, though it was gone so quickly that in the end he could not be sure. An raised her hand and waved it around to indicate her own bloodied face. "May we use your facilities to clean ourselves up?" Her attempt at a smile only limped forward by a few paces before falling down flat. "I get the feeling that going out there like this might not be the best idea ever."

"Right that way." Angel lifted his arm to indicate the direction where the bathroom lay, not taking his gaze away from the trio until they had disappeared from sight. He lifted his eyebrows in Spike's direction once they were gone from sight. "Thoughts, opinions, irreverent color commentary?"

"They were puppies," Illyria sniffed. "Weakling. Their influence would be minimal at best, unworthy of our attention." A moment of uncertainty crossed her face as she pronounced the word 'our'.

"They weren't lying, love," Spike said. He gestured back and forth between himself and Angel. "We would know. Even sociopaths can't pull it off without leaving signs."

Illyria lifted her chin and for a moment seemed on the verge of smiling. "They need not be lying," she said. "They that overestimated their own significance were always more amusing than the mere liars, when the battles were done and spoils were divided." Her lips split into a full and decidedly dreamy smile.

"...right." Spike pulled his cigarettes from his pocket and fiddled with them for a moment before shoving one into his mouth and lighting it. The crinkling of the cellophane on the packaging was the loudest sound in the room. "You sure you're doing the right thing here?" he asked Angel, pulling the cigarette from between his lips long enough to allow him to speak. He blew twin streams of smoke from his nostrils.

"Yeah." Angel did not hesitate for more than a second before he spoke. He glanced towards the bathroom for a moment with a line appearing between his eyes, making Lindsey wonder what sort of conversations were taking place beneath the perception of human ears. The mask had fallen back by the time that Angel had turned around again, reminding Lindsey of nothing so much as the weighted-down corporate drone that had greeted him on his triumphant return to Los Angeles some two years before. But then it had been his assignment to straighten Angel's brain space out for him, by force if necessary, kick his ass until his head popped out of it. Even now, when he did not owe his allegiance to anyone that he did not want to give it to and all of his fights with Angel were going to be of the purely extracurricular variety, Lindsey's fingers itched to take Angel by the collar and shake him until something like fire came back into his eyes and lit up the planes of his face, even if it was nothing more than the purely visceral anger of years before. Lindsey took a deep breath, curled his hands into fists, and rested them against the wall behind him as if to hold himself up. His stomach came alive with an abrupt gurgle, reminding him that he had yet to eat anything since his resurrection. The biological drives, at first slow to reassert themselves, were now crashing onto him with greater and greater speed.

"You guys keep any human food around here?" From the briefly startled looks cast his way, Lindsey was willing to bet that the other three had nearly forgotten that he was there. He would have to work on that. "Not that blood isn't the best new fad diet ever, but I'm looking for something a bit more solid."

Angel jerked his head in the direction of the tiny kitchen, a room that Lindsey had had no more than glanced into in passing since his return. It was hard to work up an appetite when the taste of sulphur was still lingering in the back of one's throat, and Lindsey told himself that he did not need to investigate Angel and Spike's blood supply that closely. "There's bread and peanut butter in there. Illyria eats human food sometimes."

"It's sticky," Illyria offered up from the other wall, once more sounding bored with the entire affair.

Lindsey nodded and pushed himself away from the wall, surprising himself when his knees returned to their old habit of wobbling for a second or two before supporting him. 'Thought I was past this, man.' Lindsey waited until his vision had cleared before he headed for the kitchen, knowing without needing to look around that there would be a crimson stain to mark the place on the wall where he had been. One of the consequences of trying to play the hero when one didn't have accelerated healing or powerful patrons on their side.

Angel's hand came down on his shoulder as Lindsey was striding away, and it was the shock more than anything else which brought Lindsey to a halt. When he and Angel were not fighting one another that left a limited pool of other things that they could be doing. "There are no hospitals to run to if that doesn't stop bleeding, and no hole in the wall places nearby," Angel said, his mouth close enough to Lindsey's ear that Lindsey would have been able to feel the heat from his breath if only Angel had been human. "How bad is it?"

Lindsey stepped back so that Angel's hand was forced to leave him. "It'll be all right." He had lived through worse. Hell, he had lived through worse by Angel's own hands. Lindsey was very aware of how empty his words would be if he were to fall on his ass, and he focused very hard on not wobbling as he put one foot in front of the other on his way into the kitchen. After locating the food and a knife, Lindsey had barely made the first sandwich before he was wolfing it down in three quick bites. He lingered more slowly over the second and was just finishing it of when he ambled out of the kitchen again.

The trio had emerged from the bathroom by then, their clothes still splattered with blood mostly their own, but their faces scrubbed shiny and clean. The boys' eyes lit up the second that they saw the food in Lindsey's hands. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder and, as Alexei and Fideo barreled past him, secretly thought that Angel and his merry band would be lucky if there was a scrap of food left in the apartment afterwards. An watched them go with an faintly indulgent expression before she turned back to the conversation that she had been having with Angel. With her face no longer obscured by blood and grime, the green and purple bruise marking up the side of her face was very prominent. Lindsey paused in the doorway and leaned against the frame so that he could finish off the last of his foot and listen in.

"I don't think that you understand," An was saying. "The fact that we look young doesn't mean that we can't take care of ourselves." There was a sulky, pouty quality to her tone that was oddly soothing, as it pulled her out of the realm of the supernatural and back into the land of the teenager. She ruined it a few seconds later by parting her lips into a smile better suited to a reptile than a girl. "There are about three dozen dead demons out there who can stand as proof of that."

Lindsey thought that An was talking to the wrong person if she was looking to impress anyone with the number of heads that she had rolled. Angel looked as if he might even be close to smiling, though Lindsey had serious doubts as to whether it would be a nice one, as he said, "And there are a couple thousand more who would have heard about it by now and would love to make your acquaintance. You think you can take on all of them?" Angel waited a beat before he took An's lip-jutting silence as a negation and went on. "It's dark and you all smell like blood. It would be like throwing a bucket of chum into shark infested waters."

An folded her arms across her chest, pausing to push a few strands of damp hair out of her eyes. "Does this mean that you're offering us a place to stay?"

"For the night," Angel said. "Illyria or Lindsey can get you back safely when the sun rises." Through it all, the dead look never fully exited Angel's eyes. Lindsey thought that it was more than a little ironic that he was using an reanimated corpse as his barometer for liveliness, but a prickle of unease ran up his spine all the same.

"You used to be better than this," An said, undergoing another one of her amazing, mercurial shifts and dropping the sulky teenager routine like she would an unwieldy coat. Lindsey thought that their might even be disappointment in her tone, and if déjà vu didn't stop hitting him about the head with a two by four, he vowed, he was going to hunt it down and kill it.

Angel's expression did not change as he said, "That was a long time ago."

"Guess so." An sniffed, turned on her heel, and stalked away to join the boys in their quest for food. She started to brush against Lindsey as she passed him but jerked away at the last second, before their skins could make contact. Lindsey was starting to wonder if another one of her powers was the ability to detect beginning-stage leprosy. Given where Lindsey had spent the past several months of his...whatever the hell it was that he had now, it wouldn't exactly be surprising, and it would explain a lot.

Lindsey waited until An was gone before he looked back towards Angel and was unsurprised to see that Angel was already looking back at him. Lindsey had spent years trying to read beneath the surface of those eyes with only intermittent success; he supposed it should come as no surprise that he was having about the same amount of luck now. And yet, he couldn't seem to stop himself from trying. "They seem like a great bunch of kids," Lindsey said, settling himself more fully against the doorframe and wincing as his back twinged. Next stop, first aid kit.

"They've been through a lot," Angel said. Blank stare or not, his tone was saying that An's parting words were having a far greater effect on him than Angel himself was willing to admit. Lindsey tilted his head to one side. He was getting more than a little sick of all these impenetrable conversations taking place around him.

"They've been through a lot?" Lindsey echoed, hearing the testiness as it entered his voice and feeling the furrow as it crawled into place between his eyes.

Angel stared at Lindsey for so long that Lindsey was tempted to move up so that he could catch Angel's eyeballs when they inevitably fell out of his head. He could have gone the rest of his life without seeing the return of that look, the one that said that Lindsey had just said something so categorically unbelievable that Angel had to pause and process it before he could even think about going on. Lindsey could feel himself bristling up already. "You don't recognize them?"

Lindsey couldn't keep the snap out of his voice as he said, "That's what I'm saying, isn't it?" He couldn't claim that he was trying all that hard, either. The déjà vu was back, stronger than ever, rapping against his skull nearly hard enough to give him a concussion.

Angel stared at him for a beat longer before he said slowly, in a tone that that unsettled Lindsey all the more because he had no previous reference for it, "They're the kids that we saved six years ago, Lindsey." Lindsey thought that the indecipherable tone might even have been concern, or maybe he was only deluding himself. 'The last time that you tried to go straight,' rested heavy and unspoken on the air between them, just begging for one of them to throw a punch, break the tension, and return to the status quo. Lindsey tasted something thick and sour on the back of his tongue and pushed it down before it could interfere.

"The ones who 'see into the heart of things'," Lindsey said softly, feeling his stomach drop down to the same level as his kneecaps. It was worse than he had thought.

"Yeah." Angel went silent for a moment, though Lindsey could still feel him scrutinizing Lindsey's profile. At long last Angel said, "They've changed a lot since then. Grown up." His tone was...Lindsey thought that it would be a cold day in hell before he would ever call Angel's actions towards him gentle and that was a promise that he would get to keep for a while longer, but there was still something there, some limping, fledgling gesture that might even someday grow up to be respect. He had heard that tone coming form Angel's voice once before, talking about choices on the return journey from a mission in which Angel had been there to save the day and Lindsey had been there only to get answers. And why shouldn't it be turned towards him now? Whether Angel had rejected them in the months since or not, the fact remained that Lindsey had in the recent past been an agent of the Powers That Be. That was not an association that Angel could shake away nearly so easily as he pretended.

Lindsey stared at the wall, avoiding eye contact with Angel and repeating the vampire's words from a few moments before: "That was a long time ago."


The building began to shake in the small hours of the morning. Lindsey lurched from a deep, if unquiet, sleep in the span of time that it would have taken other people to blink once, and for a moment could only stare at the ceiling and wait for the fuzzy fragments of his brain to come back to him. He could smell smoke, the acrid tang of which was nearly enough to convince Lindsey that he was still dreaming. Another tremor rocked the building hard, shattering the glass in the window with a tinkling sound that was almost beautiful. Lindsey rolled off the pallet and up to his feet.

Charlotte screamed outside, though Lindsey could not tell whether it was in outrage or in pain. A long stream of flame outside the window cast the room into shades of orange that made Lindsey's heart rate double in a span of seconds. It was this more than anything else that convinced Lindsey that this was yet another baroque twist in the new state of his universe, rather than some lingering dream state that he could not escape. If there had been dragons in his special second of hell, then they had been much shyer than was Charlotte's usual tendency.

The building shook again, staggering Lindsey and forcing him to brace his hand against the wall in order to avoid falling. In the doorway to the bedroom, Alexei was not so quick and went briefly down to his knees. His sunglasses slid off of his nose and down to the floor, leaving his eyes shining like white marbles. Lindsey wondered how he could have ever thought these kids were normal.

Fideo and An followed so closely behind Alexei that they almost tripped over him. "Is it an earthquake?" Alexei yelled, as his friends pulled him back up to his feet.

Good question. Lindsey wished that every instinct that he had was not screaming that the answer was not going to be nearly so blessedly mundane. He turned back to the window and pressed his hand flat against the remaining glass to keep his balance as the building continued to sway. Lindsey hissed and pulled his hand away from the glass only a few seconds later, because the fire that Charlotte had sent past the building had made the remaining shards blisteringly hot. Lindsey braced his hand against the sill instead and leaned forward to peer at the skyline.

None of the other buildings were shaking. As Lindsey watched, Charlotte hurtled past the window in a red-gold blur, her head snaked forward and her green eyes gleaming with territorial fury. Following in tight pursuit was a pack of smaller winged creatures, not nearly so large as Charlotte herself but using their superior numbers and speed to such an extent that she was being hard-pressed to win her fight. Her pursuers had four wings each beating in frantic tandem to match the powerful strokes of Charlotte's own two, giving them the appearance of being a group of dark, malevolent hummingbirds. Their skins were matte black and covered, Lindsey knew, with a patchwork of tiny scales that would catch and tear flesh like the skin of a shark. Their jaws were small, ringed by a series of backward-sloping spikes that protected their faces from any defensive blows that their victims might try to strike, and designed for stealing flesh in harassing, palm-sized gulps rather than the jugular-shredding wounds of a lion or even of Charlotte herself. That was all right; they did not do their damage by virtue of their teeth. They did it with their claws.

Lindsey's mouth had long since gone dry. He did not realize that he had staggered back from the window until he was bumping into Fideo so hard that he nearly knocked the boy down. Fideo grabbed at Lindsey's arm to steady them both, wincing when their skins came into contact with each other. Even now, knowing what kinds of images must be racing through Fideo's mind, Lindsey did not have a lot of room left in him for sympathy. He would try again later, if they could first manage to live through the night.

"Go," Lindsey said, putting his hand between Fideo's shoulderblades and shoving him back towards the bedroom. "Grab as many weapons as you can."

Fideo, his face bleached almost as white as his eyes, nodded once and raced away. If the images that the kids could up from skin to skin contact had even a rough correspondence with the images going through the individual's mind at that moment, Lindsey could see why. Fideo was moving so quickly as he left the room that Lindsey was almost surprised to see that there were no scorch marks left on the carpet.

Lindsey spun back around when Fideo was gone and saw that An and Alexei were staring at him with identical expressions of goggle-eyed fear. Lindsey did not imagine that they had to use their powers to read the waves of near-panic that were rolling off of his body. He swallowed hard so that he could force his heart back into its appropriate place within his chest. "Go help Fideo," he told them, struggling to keep too much of the strain from showing in his voice. "Stick with the daggers and the swords." He would much prefer guns, rocket launchers, or even a small nuclear bomb as long as the panic continued its slow crawl through his veins, but the had the feeling that Angel was more of a purist than that where his shiny toys were concerned. "Unless either of you knows how to use a bow and arrow?"

Alexei shook his head. An drifted a few steps closer to the window, staring as Charlotte wheeled in the air and fried several of the monsters pursuing her with one powerful burst of flame. They fell from the sky, their screams echoing at a much higher pitch than Charlotte's own. If it weren't for the matter of survival looming large and ugly over their heads, Lindsey would have paused and cheered.

"What are they?" An asked, testing the remaining glass with her fingers before deciding that it had cooled enough to allow her to rest her full hand against it. Her voice was threaded through with a sense of wonder at the same time that it was wary, like a person watching a timber wolf hunt for the first time.

"They're called Guardians," Lindsey said shortly. He seized An's wrist and dragged it away from the glass. An's face went a faint green color and she squirmed backwards hard. Too bad. They had begun to run more than a little short on time, and that meant that Lindsey was not making a high priority out of being gentle. "And you don't want to tangle with them." Enough memory of Lindsey's own experiences with the Guardians leaked through to make An go an even more pronounced shade of green. She ceased struggling as abruptly as a light switch being flicked off. Lindsey waited until she had nodded before he let go of her. "Good girl. Now, go help Fideo." Both she and Alexei obeyed without hesitation this time, though Lindsey saw Alexei bending his head to whisper fiercely into An's ear as they went. An shook her head, still looking as if she would very much like to pause and be sick.

Lindsey turned away from the Guardians before their movements could mesmerize him, pressing his hand quickly to his ribs as they lit up in remembered pain. He took several deep breaths through his nose and forced the memory away with a physical shudder. Lucky him, he already had better than average experience in dealing with phantom pains. The feeling of talons sliding past the ribcage and into the soft give of internal organs was not so different from the feeling of a scythe parting its way through skin, muscle, and bone, not when you got right down to it.

The building shuddered again, throwing Lindsey briefly against the window frame. A faint yelp echoed out from the bedroom to signal that the same had happened to at least one of the kids. Lindsey struggled back to his feet and leaned out of the window so that he could see to the ground. As nightmare inducing as they might be, the Guardians were small. Even if the entire building had been draped with them, their combined weights would not be enough to make the foundations tremble like that.

Lindsey craned his neck until he could see the thing wrapped around the building, and his face paled. The next words from his mouth were a stream of obscenities that wound together so tightly that the individual words were indistinguishable and spoken in a soft voice audible to him alone. He allowed himself only that small second's worth of panic before he took a deep breath and spun around again, back towards the bedroom.

Each of the kids had a sword in their hand when Lindsey stalked through the doorway, and it was obvious at a glance that this was the first time that any of them had ever held one. They would have to save the tutorials until later. Lindsey grabbed a sword for himself in each hand and ticked his head towards the door. "Schedule's changed. We have to move. I don't suppose that your powers involve the magical ability to comprehend weaponry, do they?" He was close enough to panic to bring the twang of Oklahoma flooding back into his voice, and also close enough so that he did not care. The kids shook their heads as one and Lindsey sighed. "It was a long shot." He held up one of the swords so that its blade caught the intermittent flashes of fire from the outside and threw them back in a gleam of gold. "This is the dangerous end. You stick it into the bad guys and try to keep the bad guys from sticking it into you." A high whining noise had begun to throb through Lindsey's ears. He tried to shove it away and took another deep, settling breath.

Some reflection of what he had seen moments before must have shown on his face. An drifted a few steps closer to him, a wrinkle marring her forehead. "What is it? What did you see?"

Lindsey shook his head. "It's not important yet. You'll have plenty of time to worry about it when we get downstairs, trust me."

An's lower lip pushed out and she reached forward, not satisfied with no as an answer and ready to take any information that was not going to be freely offered to her. Lindsey jerked away before her fingers could touch his arm, being careful not to accidentally cut her open with the sword as he did so. If the blade still passed close enough to give her a good scare, that was purely bonus. Lindsey's heart hammered in his chest as he said, "Save the nightmares for when they come looking for you, kid." He turned towards the door and trusted without looking around that the others would be following him. If memory of what had happened the last time they had grouped together to play at heroes was weighing as heavily on their minds as it was on Lindsey's, no one said anything.

The curfew was still in effect as they stepped out into the hallway, rendering the entire exercise into an experience of black and the occasional splash of gray. Lindsey's heart pounded in his ears, broken only by the rasping sounds of his own breathing and the breathing of the children behind him. Another tremor rocked the building and nearly threw Lindsey to ground until he forced the tip of one of the swords deeply into the carpet to keep himself upright. It was not the best of all possible things that he could have done for the blade, but it was certainly better than falling on it. "Everyone all right back there?" he called over his shoulder.

There was a pause that lasted long enough to make him wonder before Fideo finally answered, "We're fine." Another long pause went by before he continued in the tone of someone offering criticism to a teacher for the first time and uncertain of how they were going to be received. "I think we should have brought a flashlight."

Lindsey paused and deliberately scuffed his sword against the wall so that the others would know where he was and avoid running him through. He could feel someone's breath fanning out across the back of his neck a moment later. "No," Lindsey said after a long beat. "The light would only attract it."

"Attract what?" Alexei's voice came from a position directly behind Lindsey's left ear. He was the one who had stepped so close that every breath he expelled warmed the back of Lindsey's neck.

"He doesn't want to say," An responded from a place a few paces further back. Her voice was a blank canvas upon which Lindsey could project any emotion or inflection that he wished. "I don't know why. There's nothing so awful that just speaking about it can make it real."

It was too dark for the kids to see the bright gleam of Lindsey's grin even if his back had not been turned to them. It was not for their benefit that Lindsey did it, for as soon as the action was completed he could feel some of the pent-up poison being released from his body. "An," he said over his shoulder, "no one has said a word about that son of a bitch outside, but I can guarantee you that he's still waiting for us all the same." He resumed walking, letting one sword brush lightly against the wall and the other against the carpet in front of him. When the sound changed, seconds before he would have stumbled into a fall from which he would have been lucky to stand again without broken bones, he called back, "Stairs." The building had continued to rock throughout and now, when Lindsey tilted his head just right, the sound of scales rubbing against brick could be heard. Forcing his heart down from his throat was a torturous exercise from one second to the next.

A beam of light cut across the lobby as Lindsey was stepping away from the final stair, followed by a second and then a third. Lindsey grit his teeth until sparks of pain raced all the way into his temples. "Turn it off, turn it off," he growled, so low that he could barely hear himself, let along be audible to the people in the lobby. "Stay here," Lindsey barked over his shoulder at the kids, not waiting for an answer before he strode away. Between the swift intercutting of the flashlights' beams arcing back and forth and the faint flickerings of fire that were coming with greater frequency through the windows, Lindsey could finally see what was in front of him. A scale the size of his head drifted lazily past the window, attached to a creature that he already knew was going to take far more than a sword to bring down. He had also been a master at squeezing every last possible advantage from the hands that he had been dealt, however, and he did not plan on ceasing now. Lindsey shifted the sword within his sweat-slicked hands until he had a better purchase on it. "Turn the light off!" The lazy pattern of scales paused for a moment at the sound of Lindsey's voice. Too late now. "For God's sake, get those lights off! You're only telling it where you are!"

"What is it?" The man's face was still too far back in shadow for Lindsey to get a good look at his features.

"Soul eater," Lindsey said shortly. "Big damned snake," he clarified when the man presented him with a blank stare as a response. That didn't cover the half of it, but as a working definition it would have to do.

The man didn't flinch upon hearing the news that there was a snake outside roughly the size of three Greyhound buses outside the building. Maybe one the size of four had come through the week previously, for all that Lindsey knew. "Okay, so what do we do?"

"Well, for starters," Lindsey said, gritting his teeth together tightly enough to make his jaw hurt, "you can get that fucking light off before-"

A head the size of a Buick slammed through the front door, reducing it to toothpick-sized shrapnel before Lindsey had a chance to blink twice. He threw his arm up to shield his eyes, forgetting for a moment that he held a sword in either hand and only managing to avoid decapitating the man next to him out of a last minute calculation. In the end, it might have been kinder if he had not bothered.

Lindsey jerked backwards on instinct to protect his eyes as the door exploded inwards. The movement saved his life. The head of the enormous snake-the hazy twilight color that hardly seemed worthy to be called a color at all, the eyes that were really only tawny pits, all designed to make the viewer think of a screaming nothingness-slammed into the place where Lindsey had been standing scarcely more than a second before. It was almost faster than the eye could follow, let alone traveling at a speed that the average human could hope to avoid. The man that Lindsey had been speaking to was gone in a crunch of bone and a whiff of sulphur that nearly made Lindsey double over and be sick with the strength of it. There hadn't even been time for the man to scream, let alone to move. The bite had been meant for him, Lindsey was more sure of this than he had been any other fact for a long, long time, and he was almost bothered by it.

He twisted one of the swords in his hand, darted forward, and plunged it deeply into the cavern where the snake's eye would have been if it had been a real animal rather than a nightmare possessed only of swirling pits. The blade slid through with a sickening ease, the monster screamed and shook its head wildly from side to side. Lindsey jerked the blade free and stepped back quickly before he could follow the same path as the man before him. There was a heavy, golden colored jelly covering the blade that Lindsey knew would burn like acid if he allowed it to touch his skin. While Lindsey watched with bated breath and hoped that, just this once, the laws of causality would take a different path, the gaping wound that he had opened closed again within seconds. Lindsey was left as the recipient of a glare that promised a great many things and, Lindsey knew, could deliver on all of them.

"Damn it," Lindsey muttered, backing up a few more steps and throwing the gore from his sword with a quick flicking gesture. He swore that there was recognition there in the soul eater's unwavering gaze. The monster hissed at him, sending out another wave of sulphuric breath. With nowhere else to go, Lindsey braced himself. The soul eater lunged forward...and then with a great creaking of wood, stopped. The frame of the door that it had lunged through shuddered and moaned, but held. The monster was locked in suspension less than two feet away from Lindsey himself.

"Oh, my God." The burst of relief that cascaded through Lindsey's system was nearly strong enough to knock him down. He leaned over and braced his fists against his knees, leaving the swords jutting out to either side of him like a bizarre set of wings. The smell of sulphur was clinging to the back of his throat and threatening to gag him with every other breath, but Lindsey still parted his lips into a smile. "Not this time, ugly." The soul eater hissed at him, revealing teeth as long as Lindsey's forearm, and Lindsey turned his head away quickly so that he could cough.

"Lindsey!" He did not recognize the owner of the voice immediately, not while her body was still shrouded in blackness. Alicia rushed out of the shadows towards him, carrying a flashlight that transformed her face into something strange and unreal. Lindsey turned his head away as the beam cut across his eyes and threatened to dazzle him. Alicia drifted to a halt, trying to stare at once both at the swords that Lindsey still carried and the head the size of a family car violating what had before been a place of relative sanctuary. "Oh, Jesus." Alicia's hand came up to cover her mouth. Lindsey saw that her lower lip had been split right next to the old scar and was now dribbling a line of blood down her chin, and that a dark bruise was already forming at her hairline. Alicia caught Lindsey looking and said, "From when the building started shaking. I fell down." She was shaking so badly that her teeth were clacking against each other, creating a sound like castanets, and the beam of the flashlight was jerking around in small, anxious circles. The soul eater jerked its head towards her, snarling and making Alicia jump backwards so hard that it was a wonder she didn't fall down a second time. Alicia tried to scream and gag at once as the monster's breath worked its magic on her for the first time and wound up creating a wet, garbled sound that most closely resembled a moan. "Should I turn this off?" Alicia asked when she had recovered, indicating the flashlight.

Lindsey shook his head before he realized that unless she managed to pull her eyes away from the soul eater-unlikely-Alicia wasn't going to be able to see the gesture, anyway. "Too late now." His brain was catching up with the rest of his body and was slowly soothing his heart back into its proper place within his chest by telling him that the thing blocking up the doorway was going to be able to get any further in to threaten them with becoming its second course. Not yet, anyway.

Alicia must have come to the same conclusion, as she was staring at the soul eater with the same level of fear and fascination she might have given to a leopard with its foot caught in a trap. 'More of the first, less of the second,' Lindsey wanted to tell her. "What is it?"

"Long story." Lindsey's tight, grim smile was eaten up by the darkness. He didn't care; it was the type of gesture that he needed to make purely so that he could tighten his grip upon his own sanity. "I'll make sure to tell you over a roaring campfire later, okay?" Another shudder rolled through the building as the soul eater gave a frustrated roar and slammed one of its coils against the exterior wall. Flurries of plaster fell down from the ceiling and drew screams from more than a few. Lindsey decided that a few more cautionary steps backwards were in order.

"How are we going to get out of here?" Alicia asked him. Her eyes darted back and forth between the occupied doorway and the window, where the soul eater's scales were obliterating any possible view of the street.

'How in the hell should I know?' Lindsey wanted to snap back, wishing in a small part of himself that no amount of torture would ever make him admit to that Angel and his merry band had, oh, decided to take their impromptu houseguests a little more seriously and call it quits on their self-appointed vigilante gig for this one night. Lindsey was not cut out for heroism; with every move he made he was aware of how much it chafed. They only thing that prevented him from blurting this out and a lot more besides was the realization that, with the soul eater momentarily contained, the panic was slinking out of the room on little cat feet. The room's remaining people, perhaps a dozen in all, were left staring at Lindsey with expectation in their eyes, as if the fact that he came equipped with weaponry automatically gifted him with the qualities of leadership. 'Might want to crack open a history book and see how often that works out for the best.' But Lindsey had been an old hand in performing for the gullible crowds once, and those skills were not swift in leaving a person. "Do you know how to use this?" Lindsey asked instead, turning one of the swords sideways and attempting to fit the hilt into Alicia's hand.

She stared at him and made no attempt to close her fingers around the weapon. "I was a schoolteacher."

"That's the dangerous end," Fideo said helpfully, leaning around Lindsey to point at the blade. He had crept up behind without making any sound whatsoever.

Lindsey glared at him. "I told you to say on the stairs."

Fideo scowled back for a moment before gesturing over his shoulder. By taking Alicia's flashlight from her and training it, Lindsey could see that Alexei had already crawled over the banister and set down his sword so that he could help An do the same. The soul eater's heavy gray body lay across the foot of the stairs, cutting off a more conventional method of escape. "Being too close to that thing was making us sick." Fideo stared at Lindsey for a long moment, waiting for him to get it, before adding to Alicia and the rest, "The smell." The kid was a good liar.

"Right." Lindsey turned back. An added bonus to taking Alicia's flashlight from her was that, in order to free up one of Lindsey's hands for him, Alicia had been left with no choice but to take the sword that he offered. She held it in front of her in an awkward, two-fisted grip that was only going to be useful if whatever she would up fighting decided to help her by impaling itself directly. "First lesson: Fideo's right." Lindsey pointed to the blade, which still had traces of the soul eater clinging to its surface. "That's the dangerous end. Second lesson: loosen up your shoulders and elbows and be ready to swing." Alicia gave him a boggle-eyed stare. The building rolled again, an ominous shiver that made the entire frame crack and sigh in anticipation of collapse. Lindsey leaned forward until he was speaking almost directly into Alicia's ear. "You are not a schoolteacher any longer." He pointed toward the window as he did so, outside of which shadowy figures cavorted and danced.

Something in Alicia's face tightened, threatening to break apart and crack her into a thousand pieces along with it. She steeled herself after a long moment's worth of hesitation and then nodded. The quaver in her voice was fainter than a whisper as she called out sharply, "Katie!" The girl darted forward out of the shadows with eyes so large that they threatened to gobble up her face. Lindsey nearly swore out loud. The kid, of course he had forgotten about the kid. That made the situation much more complicated, and the stakes that much higher if he failed. Katie came to a stuttering halt a few steps away from her protector and stared at the sword that Alicia still held more like a baseball bat than a weapon of speed and grace. "Go stay with Mr. Johnson. Don't leave his side until I tell you to."

Katie didn't seem to know whom she wanted to stare at more, Alicia or Lindsey, and her eyes were doing a hyperactive dance between the two of them. "But-"

"Katie. I said." The girl dashed off to join an older man who leaned heavily upon a cane to keep himself up. He ruffled her hair before he took up her hand in his own free one. Lindsey chose not to point out that this was not the best guardian that Alicia might have chosen if she wanted to ensure Katie's longterm safety, not while Lindsey was still scrambling for a way to get the able-bodied humans out alive. He did not get the impression that Alicia was of the pragmatic sort who could choose between the individual and the group, which meant that if Lindsey wanted her cooperation he was going to have to be the sort of leader who did not do those things, either.

Still holding the sword in both hands as if she planned on bludgeoning someone to death with it, Alicia turned the blade to one side so that she was not endangering Lindsey as she leaned close to whisper, "I still don't know how to use this."

"I've already told you which end is the important one." Lindsey was dividing his attention into three separate sections: the windows beyond which horrors waited, the trapped monster who still eyed him with an expression of, 'It's all right, son, I can wait all night,' and Alicia herself. Given the gravity and life-ending potential of the other two, he didn't think that it was a mark against his character if Alicia's portion was by far the smallest one.

Alicia's expression remained patient and unwavering. She had probably stared down classrooms of unruly boys with that same look more than once. "For some reason I think it's more complicated than that."

All right, so being flip wasn't going to redirect her long enough to let him think. Lindsey sighed. "Relax." Alicia stared at him. "Yeah, I know. But you'll be useless if you get so worked up that your natural reflexes aren't working any longer. Second, swing from your elbows and your wrists, not your shoulders. You'll be faster that way."

"How to be an expert in two easy steps?" Alicia asked.

"No," Lindsey answered back, "but it might keep you alive." He turned back to the people and their unsettling blend of expectation and respect and raised his voice so that they could all hear him. "So here's how it's going to work. We are all going to leave this building right now, and we are going to do it-" He pointed towards the window. "Right there."


Lindsey was expecting pandemonium as his words echoed away. That was too severe a judgment. It was really more like chaos. Mr. Johnson rapped his can against the floor for silence and then asked Lindsey if he had taken any substances over the last few hours that he would like to share with the class, a sentiment which he did not seem to be the only one to share. Alicia, for her part, said nothing and swiveled her head around to regard Lindsey in pure, goggle-eyed shock.

"What?" she asked at last, swinging the sword around to indicate the window. Lindsey leaned back to put himself safely out of range. "No one goes outside after the sun sets, not unless they've taken up suicide as a career option. There are demons out there after dark."

"Stop gesturing with that, we don't have a doctor," Lindsey snapped. Chagrined, Alicia lowered the sword until the blade was resting against the carpet. "There are demons in here after the sun goes down." He pointed towards the captive soul eater. "And not a few out there during the day, as I recall."

Alicia was still fixing him with a wide-eyed, unhappy stare, but the certainty had been stripped away. She seemed like a smart woman. Lindsey would leave her to figure out the full implications of them trying to crouch inside until the sun rose on her own. He waited until she took a deep breath and relaxed her elbows, following Lindsey's instructions on how to handle the sword, before he turned to face the others. The gathered crowd had returned to giving him that eerie trusting look, making him feel as if there were ants crawling across his skin. He wished that they would stop it.

"All right," Lindsey said, raising his voice towards a yell that ultimately proved unnecessary. He already had their undivided attention, and no one was saying a word. The soul eater lunged forward at the sound of Lindsey's voice all the same, making the shattered doorway and the deteriorating wall creak and crack. He took a few more cautionary steps back and jerked his arm out to indicate the window. Lindsey used the hand that still held the flashlight to do so, panning the light across the rows of pale, frightened faces. 'I am not cut out for this.' "We can't stay here, that much should be clear by now." A wave of murmurings began to start up. Lindsey raised his voice to cut them off before they could become a tide. "I know what's out there, and I know what's in here." Lindsey nodded towards the soul eater and stepped quickly to the side as a broad section of plaster fell down from the ceiling and shattered against the place where he had been standing only a second before. "This building is not going to stand all night. When it goes, that thing is going to be loose." There was no need to elaborate on what "that thing" was; Lindsey could see every eye in the room cut towards their very own elephant in the corner. Let them stare at it, let them think for a good long time about what teeth like that would feel like slicing through human flesh. Lindsey already knew, and it was everything that he could do to remain outwardly unruffled. "We might die if we go outside. We are without question going to die if we stay in here." It wasn't the kind of rallying leader speech that they were looking for, Lindsey could see that much in their faces. That was too bad. This was not the job that he had signed up for. Free agent as he now was, he saw no reason to pretend that his greatest ambition was to put on a big red cape and go save the world every day with the rest of the superheroes.

A blond man in his early forties stepped up from the back of the crowd, looking like the stereotypical representation of a computer tech if Lindsey had ever seen one. He wore the look of someone still coming to terms with how far out of control the world was spiraling from the plastic boxes which he was accustomed to living and working around. The tech's eyes were wide, but his hand and voice were steady as he pointed towards the captive soul eater. The monster unfurled his tongue and gave him a wide, toothy grin in response. "Can't we just kill that and stay where we are?"

"Good question." Lindsey leaned over and stabbed the monster with the sword, driving the blade into the same eye through which he had tried to kill it earlier. It screamed and thrashed as Lindsey pulled the sword free again and jumped quickly out of range. When the wound had healed over and the soul eater was once again glaring at him with the tawny pits that served as its eyes, Lindsey asked, "Any others?"

Silence. Lindsey nodded. "Okay. We're going to go out the window." He pointed towards the darkness beyond which monsters cavorted. "If you want to stay behind and take your chances, be my guest. Those of us with swords will try to protect everyone who comes along as best we can." He did not ask for Alicia's permission before he said it, though he did raise his eyebrows at her in silent question afterwards. Alicia took a deep breath, looked down at the sword in her hands, and nodded. Her skin had long since gone the color of whey, making the scar across her lip and chin stand out in a line of bright coral in the swinging glow of the flashlights. Alexei and Fideo gazed back at Lindsey impassively, and An...An was staring at him with an expression very similar to the one that she had worn upon seeing Angel for the first time. Lindsey could feel An's eyes on the back of his neck long after he had turned away. "So here's how it's going to work. I'll go through the window first." If the shadows that he could see dancing beyond the glass were any indication, the odds out there were going to be steep ones. It would be best if they put the only one of them who actually knew what they were doing out into the fray first. "Half of those of you coming along will follow me." Lindsey paused so that he could point at An, Alexei, and Fideo, who were standing with their swords held in resting positions and looking far more relaxed with weapons in their hands than any group of teenagers ought. "Then these guys will lead the next group out, and Alicia will bring up the rear."

Alicia, if anything, turned an even more pronounced shade of gray. She turned to stare at the soul eater with huge eyes. Lindsey would swear that the soul eater was staring right back. He sidled up alongside her. "Are you going to be okay, being alone with that thing?" Lindsey asked.

Alicia took enough deep breaths to leave her perched on the edge of hyperventilation before she nodded. "As opposed to taking your job? Yeah, I'll be fine." Alicia stared down at the sword in her hands. "It's like a great big steak knife," she muttered.

"Exactly." Lindsey shifted the flashlight so that he could squeeze at Alicia's shoulder before he began scouting about for something with which he could break the window.

"I'm not certain that I can climb over the windowsill," Mr. Johnson said from behind Lindsey.

"I'll help you," came Fideo's soft response.

The building had not been subject to its usual maintenance routine over the past year and a half, and it was beginning to show. Several rungs of the banister had fallen loose and were hanging free from their moorings, like a prize fighter's broken and jagged teeth. Lindsey's eyes lit up as soon as he caught sight of them. He set the sword to one side, called the computer tech over so that he could hand him the flashlight and tell him where to direct its beam, and then began the slow, careful work of inching past the soul eater so that he could reach the banister itself. The monster watched every move that he made with a patient, expectant look, but Lindsey was still too far away for it to make a definitive grab. Lindsey was very glad of the near-total darkness that he was operating under, so that the others could not see how stiffly the hair on his arms and at the back of his neck was standing at attention. He braced his foot against the banister, wrenched one of the dangling rails free, and tested the weight of it in his hand for a moment before returning to the group and reclaiming his sword.

"It might be in poor taste to say this, but all hell is going to break loose as soon as I go through that window. Be ready." Various heads nodded, and the ripple of a dozen people discovering that their world could get even more dangerous ran through the crowd. Alicia broke away to speak to Katie as the kids began to divide the rest of the group into the two sections that would be going through the window. Dangerous though the proposition might be, Lindsey did not see a single person who wanted to stay. "An," he said.

She turned, eyebrows raised, and paused for a moment before she wandered over. "Yes?" An held her sword stiffly at her side, more like she would an unwieldy tennis racket than a weapon that was supposed to be an extension of the body. Lindsey barely opened his mouth to correct her before she was doing the job herself, moving the weapon into a position of self-conscious relaxation that only teenagers seemed able to bring to true perfection. Lindsey caught the rebuke and turned it into a faint smile.

"I don't suppose that the three of you have any mojo that you could work up for when I go out that window?" Lindsey asked. "Some way of getting them to do my job for me?"

An shook her head and for a moment looked genuinely distressed. The beam from the flashlight played havoc with her features and made her appear older than she really was. "A blast like we did this afternoon, takes a lot out of us. The batteries have to recharge." An paused with an embarrassed expression. "I didn't figure that we'd have to do it again so soon. Sorry."

"Thanks. It was a long shot, anyway." Lindsey shifted the length of banister in his hand, told himself that Angel was more than welcome to take this hero gig back any time that he wanted it, and walked over to the window. It only took one good swing with the wood to shatter the glass, as if the whole building was feeling exhausted beneath the assault and was only looking for a good excuse to give up. Lindsey shook tiny shards of glass from his forearms and took up the sword again before he scrambled through. Glass snagged at his hands and his legs as he climbed over the frame, but these were all small pains that Lindsey gathered up and tucked under the mental heading of 'not relevant right now.' The things that were relevant had teeth, too, and theirs were so much larger.

There were no streetlights. As Lindsey's feet touched down on the pavement he paused to curse himself for being a fool and not finding some way to bring that flashlight along with him. It was too late to correct the mistake now, and definitely too late to stand around and ponder how it might have been different. Already the smell of his own fresh blood was drawing barely visible, inkier than black shapes towards him. The dim glow thrown down by the starlight and the nearest fire gave Lindsey just enough visibility so that he stood a chance. Lindsey twirled the sword, felt muscles bunch and coil from his forearm all the way into his back, and even found it within him to smile a little. He had picked the wrong career path all those years ago. There was nothing else in the world that could make him feel more powerfully alive than this. He could even learn to appreciate the irony.

In three whip-fast moves Lindsey had one of his enemies bleeding out across the pavement, and his pulse had not even begun to rise above normal yet. All of the tiny hurts spread out across his body, from the muscle aches to the self-inflicted stigmata pressed into the palms of his hands to the hastily-bandaged cut on his back, became nothing more than background noise to the electric hum of doing violence. Lindsey twisted away from a blow that would have disemboweled him, delivered by what he wanted to say was an elbow blade, before he returned one of his own in kind. Lindsey took advantage of the split-second lull that followed to wonder what the Nepalese monk who had taken charge of Lindsey while he was still angry and chafing beneath the traces of the new deal would think if he saw Lindsey employing his lessons to such violent ends now. Lindsey delivered a decapitating blow to yet another demon, the sword making a smacking sound as it cut through muscle and spine that reminded Lindsey of the seal being broken on a jelly jar. At this point, he would not be surprised if Aastik had known all along how things were going to turn out. That placed him firmly in the ranks of people to whom Lindsey did not owe a damned thing.

Still enmeshed in these thoughts, Lindsey parted a demon's head from its shoulders with more force than he had intended, sending it flying through the air and landing on the pavement with a distinctive thud-plop. He had made his big speeches about bloodshed five years previously, but Lindsey was beginning to see that he had not had the faintest idea what real carnage was. He took several deep breaths through his nose until the anger had drifted out of his system, leaving only the focus that had kept him alive against some of the toughest prosecutors and clients that Los Angeles had to offer.

The soul eater's tail, protruding from the front of the building like the tongue of a particularly obnoxious six year-old, thrashed suddenly, picking up the demon's severed head in its coils and hurling it back at Lindsey in a gruesome game of catch. Lindsey felt splatters of blood coming to rest against the side of his face as he ducked away. Faint screams began to echo from within the building. Lindsey turned the action of ducking away from the flying head into one of ducking away from a far more ambitious blow that would have taken off half of his face if it had connected.

"Bring them out now!" Lindsey yelled back over his shoulder. His heart rate had finally begun to come up to a respectable level, turning his voice breathy and hoarse. Lindsey sidled back towards the window so that he could provide a better defense to the people scrambling out into the night. He twisted to the side and barely managed to avoid a second blow as he did so, wrenching his knee in the process. Shrill sirens of pain cut from his ankle all the way into his thigh, effectively destroying the buzz of endorphins that had kept him focused solely on the fight until that point. Lindsey bit his lip until the taste of copper flooded through his mouth and braced the point of the sword against the ground for a moment to keep himself from falling, but did not make a sound. It did not take a genius to realize that if he went down now he was not going to be getting back up again.

The demons scattered into a wary semicircle around Lindsey as he backed closer to the window, clicking their teeth together to make an eerie sound that reminded Lindsey of acrylic nails being drummed against a tabletop. The noise was familiar enough to make Lindsey wonder if maybe he wasn't even facing down some of his old clients. Their billable hours might even have contributed to the situation that he found himself standing in now, and wasn't that a fine thought.

The first person to scramble through the window was one that Lindsey did not recognize, though it was possible that she had been hiding towards the back. Her foot caught on the windowsill as she jumped down, staggering her, and if Lindsey had not been there to catch her quickly about the waist she would have planted her face into the pavement hard enough to sacrifice some teeth. "My hero," the woman said, shaking strands of thick, honey-blonde hair back from her face to reveal gray eyes that seemed in a second to take in everything and give back nothing. The way that she said the words was lilting and odd enough to draw a frown across Lindsey's face. She had broken away from him and was spinning away into the shadows to fend for herself before Lindsey could reply, and anyway there were so many others to look after.

The computer tech handed Katie out next, so quickly that she was nearly thrown in the haste. Lindsey caught her and set her down by his side, where she clung to his ribs and cried without making a sound. The soul eater's tail thrashed that much harder as the body of the beast dragged itself further into the building by several feet. Wood chips became shrapnel, and Lindsey's innards turned themselves into ice. If that wall gave away completely now... The screaming from within the building grew that much louder, and Lindsey gave Katie a quick, one-armed hug before he twisted around to help the computer tech follow her out. The tech had taken up Lindsey's section of banister and was holding it like a club between his trembling, white-knuckled hands.

"Smart man," Lindsey grunted before he spun away to deflect a blow from a demon who thought that he was going to be clever and attack while Lindsey's attention was divided. It was not nearly so clever with two of its arms severed away at the elbow.

"Did you plan for this?" the tech yelled. He jerked his head back in the direction of the window from which people still spilled. An, Alexei, and Fideo emerged at last. Fideo was supporting Mr. Johnson and his cane heavily across one shoulder. Both their faces were the color of whey, Mr. Johnson's from fear and Fideo's from the rush of unwanted images.

Lindsey's smile was a quicksilver baring of the teeth that he doubted the tech could even see in the gloom. "In case you haven't noticed by now, the leader thing doesn't come naturally to me." He lunged forward, plunged his sword deeply into the abdomen of a demon who had come too close, and issued a primal yell of warning to any others who would do the same thing. The more Lindsey's eyes were allowed to adjust to the darkness, the more like insects the chittering things which surrounded him appeared. Lindsey realized with a jolt that he had hired another member of their species to kill a Slayer, once. If he ever got the chance to sleep tonight, he could count on those nightmares to be both creative and fierce. The demons screamed fury back at him, and from high above there came the faint echo of the Guardians answering. Charlotte sent out a fireball that briefly lit up the sky and highlighted the terror on every human face.

"Get moving!" Lindsey yelled at the kids as the building creaked and swayed. From within he could hear the moan of timber starting to give way. Lindsey disentangled Katie from his side and shoved her, still crying without sound, back in the direction of Mr. Johnson. "I gave you those swords for a reason! Use them!"

The kids all startled hard but then scrambled to obey him, shifting into clumsy imitations of Lindsey's own stance. They fanned out to either side of him like lieutenants around their general. The kids were breathing in a series of high, shrill whistles from pure fear, and Lindsey did not think that he could have been more proud of them under any other circumstances. From behind him he could hear the last of the people scrambling over the window's frame.

The last resistance in the front wall gave way with a long sound like the tearing of flesh, allowing the soul eater to disappear entirely into the building. The scream that echoed back out again was unmistakably Alicia's. Lindsey whirled around again before he quite knew what he was doing, and the kids gave out fearful, startled cries at their sudden abandonment. Lindsey paid them no heed. An, Alexei, and Fideo were all in fear of the demons because they were in fear of their deaths; they were still too young to understand that some things could be so much worse.

Lindsey started towards the window, stopped himself, and doubled back at the monster's rapidly retreating tail. Whatever intelligence that the soul eater possessed, small and mean and always, always hungry though it was, it would want for him to lose his sense of caution and run towards its head. Lindsey had a better idea. He took his sword in a two-handed grip, raised it high above his head, and plunged it deeply into the coils that were still heaving and sliding their way into the building. The soul eater's scream echoed even more loudly than Alicia's own.

There was a tremendous thump and crack from within the building as the beast arched upwards and struck the ceiling. Lindsey twisted the blade as hard as he could and pulled his lips back from his teeth with the strain, feeling ichor splash sour and hot against his shirt as it shot up from the wound that he had made. >From the corner of his eye he could see Alicia scrambling out of the window, sobbing and stumbling and behaving so recklessly with her sword that it as a wonder that she did not slash her own throat. Lindsey wrenched his own sword free of the soul eater's flesh and staggered back. "Get away from the window!" he yelled at the assembled group, feeling something in his throat catch and tear beneath the strain. "You don't know what's about to come through, get away!"

Alicia caught herself in her retreat and spun around, sword raised, as the soul eater reappeared in the window. Lindsey was torn between swearing at her for her damned stupid bravery and half-crazed laughter as he noticed that she had finally relaxed her elbows and gotten her stance right. Alicia screamed a garbled mix of equal parts fury and fear at the soul eater and made a quick stabbing motion at its mouth as it tried to close down on her.

Lindsey leaped forward and wrapped his free arm around her waist. A quick, hard jerk tumbled them both backwards and into a moment of relative safety. Alicia's body landed on top of Lindsey's and temporarily drove all of the air from his lungs. His eyes were full of her hair and his ears with her panicky respirations. Alicia wriggled against him as she tried to find purchase and heave herself back to her feet, but it was probably the least erotic straddling that Lindsey had ever received in his life. Tears and sweat were sticking Alicia's hair to both of their faces in thick, messy tangles. He seized her wrist before she could inadvertently cut him with her sword, tilting his head up to say distinctly into her ear, "Alicia. Calm down."

Alicia was too far gone to be called back by someone reassurances into her ear, but she made an admirable attempt all the same. Lindsey rolled Alicia off of himself and safely to one side before using the rest of the momentum to rock himself back to his feet. Nick of time. The monster's teeth made a noise of nails running down a chalkboard as they grazed along the length of Lindsey's sword, if those nails happened to be owned by Freddy Krueger. Lindsey jerked his arm upward and away and drove the blade deep into the soul eater's palate, making it pull back and scream. Lindsey stepped a few paces away in the lull that followed, shifting the sword in his hand to get a better grip on the sweaty handle.

>From the corner of his eye he could see An, Alexei, and Fideo struggling to hold demons off from the people bunched into a frightened knot behind them. Their lack of skill was working hard against them, a handicap that youthful enthusiasm could not easily compensate for. Lindsey saw An exchange a look with the others, screw up her face briefly in concentration, and then shake her head. A fresh trickle of blood began to run from her nose, very dark in the dim light from the stars. The first slow, insidious coils of despair started to make Lindsey's stomach clenched and dropped ice cubes down his spine.

The soul eater retreated until its head was the only thing still protruding from the crippled building, like a child playing peek-a-boo. Its tongue flicked in and out as it felt of the healing wound at the roof of its mouth and regarded Lindsey with a baleful stare. If Lindsey had had any doubts about his being recognized before, they were swiftly eaten away in the face of that look. 'You always remember the one that got away.'

"Help the others!" Lindsey yelled over his shoulder at Alicia, who was just struggling to her feet and was shoving the damp strands of her long, dark hair away from her face. The panic had not been banished away from her face entirely, but it was being held on a tight leash.

"What if you get into trouble?" she yelled back.

Lindsey's smile, meant to be reassuring, turned into a primal baring of the teeth as the soul eater hissed at him. "Darlin'," he called back to Alicia, "I really don't think this is the kind of trouble that you can help me with."

Alicia looked back at the soul eater, snapped her mouth closed, and nodded. "Like a big steak knife," Lindsey saw her mutter before she spun away to join the fray. She kept her arms relaxed and swung from the elbows and wrists as Lindsey had told her to, and other than that she went forward on enthusiasm alone. Enthusiasm ran straight through one of the demons menacing Katie, so maybe that were not so badly off as Lindsey had originally believed. The blade caught in the demon's chest, nearly bowling Alicia over with the carcass, and she had to brace her foot against the twitching form in order to get her weapon back. An stood quiet guard over Alicia until she was done and they could turn back towards the fray together.

"Hey there, beautiful," Lindsey said in a soft voice as he turned back towards the soul eater. "Bet you didn't think you would see me again." The soul eater gave forth a low, moaning growl from deep within its throat, a sound that made Lindsey think of the ones made by angry cats. "Yeah, you're giving me warm feelings, too." Rivers of sweat were running down from Lindsey's hairline and into his eyes, doubling and tripling his vision.

The soul eater's growl did not cease or even change in pitch before it was lunging forward in attack. The only reason that Lindsey was not swallowed in one gulp as he paused to shake the sweat from his eyes was because the soul eater's scales made a peculiar scraping sound as they ran across the wood of the windowsill. He staggered back, whipping the sword up and into a defensive position. The soul eater slammed into it snout-first with a force that drove Lindsey back even further and nearly forced him to the ground. The blade all but disappeared into the skin and made an ugly sucking sound as Lindsey pulled it free. A tarry black substance ran out from the wound and splattered on the pavement in the few seconds before it healed up, where it glittered like the backs of beetles.

Lindsey backed up a few paces and shook the blood from the sword with a quick flicking motion, hearing his breath whistle in his ears and feeling his muscles burn. So much for any hopes that he had held of making this quick, that he could keep this from being personal. A thick gobbet of the black substance landed on Lindsey's arm, where it began to burn within seconds. Lindsey swore and moved quickly to shake it off. An angry red weal rose on the skin.

The soul eater's growl shifted into something that more closely resembled a coo, as if it knew that victory was close at hand and wanted Lindsey to know how very glad it was that they could arrive at this moment together. Lindsey took a deep breath, shifted the sword to his left hand, and waited. Maybe so, but if he was damned anyway then he had nothing to lose. Might as well make it as hard on that monstrosity as possible.

The soul eater began to slither its leisurely way out of the building, parting brick and plaster with a sound like paper tearing. Given that noise, Lindsey wondered how the apartment building had even managed to remain standing for that long. Several demons and humans alike were driven to pause at the sound of it, and to look over with expressions of fear identical enough to be funny if Lindsey had not been distracted by other matters. The soul eater paid the noise and the destruction no attention whatsoever. Lindsey didn't suppose that death was something one worried about when they were the size of three city buses and had never really been alive in the first place. He stumbled back a few more steps, buying time even as his brain and muscles alike were telling him that this was it, that he had given it a good try but the gig was up. His arms and shoulders were quivering and sweat was pouring down his back. The wound there wasted no time in letting him know in increasingly strident tones that it did not appreciate this treatment at all. Lindsey did not see any further moves that he could make when every injury that he did manage to put on the monster healed itself again within moments. The vacation had been nice, and Lindsey wondered if he was going to be returned to the same old crowd when he died for the second time. 'God, Lilah is going to be insufferable.'

Lindsey continued to back away even though he knew at this point that it was an exercise in futility. He would even go so far as to say that the soul eater's face as it reared back into a strike position carried an expression of smugness. When Lindsey saw how close his slow retreat was taking him to the others, he abruptly switched tactics and began heading in the other direction. Noting left to lose, fine, but he had no permanent quarrel with any of them. The soul eater flicked its tongue out of its mouth and arched backwards as Lindsey raised the sword over his head. He would see if the monster's insides could heal as quickly as the rest of it.

A scream too loud and rough to have been produced by any human throat pierced the air, and a shadow blotted out even the dim light from reaching Lindsey's face. With the stars blocked from shining, both Lindsey and the soul eater paused before Lindsey decided that it might be in his best interest to bound back out of the shadow's way as fast as his legs would take him. As it turned out, that was one of the best ideas that he had had all night.

Charlotte fell to the ground bare feet from the place where Lindsey had been standing, cracking the concrete with the force of her bulk. She emitted another long scream and accompanied this one with a jet of flame. Were it not for the fire, Lindsey doubted that he even would have been able to recognize her. Guardians swarmed over every available inch of her body, so that intermittent flashes of red-gold scales like the unveiling of precious jewels were all that managed to come through. Compared to Charlotte, the Guardians were even smaller and meaner than Lindsey remembered, blacker than black and designed for destroying life wherever they found it. In spite of the fact that Charlotte had put a certain amount of gleeful energy into trying to kill him scarcely more than twenty-four hours before and would probably return to that task with even more vigor as soon as the opportunity presented itself, Lindsey could not stop himself from feeling the smallest bit sorry for her. Watching the lion being brought down by the hyena was never a pleasant experience.


On of the Guardians was jostled off of Charlotte's back by the force with which she landed and tumbled several feet, boasting a wing with at least three joints that had not been there before when it got up again. Its teeth, unfortunately, had not been so much as chipped. When it rolled back to its feet, the first thing that it saw was Lindsey. The Guardian peered at out at him from the fringe of spikes that might have been cute on another animal and hissed, snaking its neck out to its full length and sniffing at the air. Everybody on vacation from hell recognized him tonight.

"I have better equipment now, you son of a bitch," Lindsey muttered. He barely even realized that it was his own voice which spoke the words, so trembling with rage and remembered fear were they. The arms that had been shaking with exhaustion seconds before caught their second wind between one second and the next. The Guardian rushed at him with mouth held open wide and eyes glowing a bright will 'o the wisp green. Lindsey's body had moved before his brain ever had a chance to catch up with him.

The Guardian ran forward for several more feet after its head had slid from its neck before it fell over in a tangle of twitching limbs and spraying blood that smelled strongly of rot. Lindsey paused to catch his breath and raised his gaze so that he could lock eyes with the soul eater across the struggling dervish that was Charlotte. He did not know if there was anything that could be called intelligence within those acid-yellow eyes, but there were promises being written there all the same. Lindsey hoped that he was sending one right back.

Charlotte arched her back and flung her head up towards the sky, hurling even more Guardians away from her and sending out a long stream of flame that briefly turned night into day. Lindsey ducked his head and threw up his arm to shield his eyes, hearing the shrieks of a few unwary Guardians as they failed to scuttle out of the way in time. Even their burning flesh smelled like something that had died and been forgotten about. Charlotte turned her head and caught the wings of another between her teeth as it tried to flee from her, hurling it to the ground with enough force to send the sound of breaking bone echoing in all directions. The Guardian's cry of pain was cut off when Charlotte's great jaws closed around its neck. She gave it a brief, terrier-like shake before she threw it off to one side. She extended her neck out to its full length, emitting a low hissing noise that might have meant anything from joy at victory to a commentary on the taste. Blood ran from jagged wounds in Charlotte's hide and steamed when they hit the night air, but none of them appeared to be serious.

Without wide expanses of empty sky surrounding her, Charlotte looked even larger than when she was in mid-flight. The twin columns of acrid smoke issuing from her nostrils said that she wasn't considering the demotion to land animal to be a happy event. Charlotte roared and fired another stream of fire at the remaining Guardians as they squealed and tried to flee through the air, catching two of them before they made it more than a few feet off the ground and bringing them both back down in flaming, writhing bundles that went still again within seconds. The soul eater watched without moving throughout Charlotte's entire display of power and temper, only wrinkling its lips back from its fangs when she spun around to hiss at it. Not once did it break eye contact with Lindsey.

The soul eater wasn't showing any signs that it was intimidated by Charlotte, but neither was it altogether eager to tangle with her in the mood that she was in and after the display that she had given. Charlotte fluttered her wings, hissed when blood splattered in wide arcs from the membranes, and ultimately settled her gaze on the soul eater as she began to emit a series of low growls from deep within her throat. The expression that the soul eater gave back to her was one of deep and unremitting patience.

Maybe that would be a problem later on-probably that would be a problem later on-but right now Lindsey had a whole wealth of other problems to deal with. He had the luxury now to sneak peaks at the other death match taking place out on the street, and what he saw would not have inspired a betting man to lay odds that any of them would live to see the sunrise. Alicia and the kids were drenched with blood and sweat and were using every ounce of their enthusiasm to hold off the remaining demons from the tight, clustered knot of people behind them. All of the enthusiasm in the world, though, was not going to make up for a lack of experience and basic skill. As Lindsey watched, a demon took a swing at Fideo's head that nearly connected because the boy was too focused on the offensive to remember that the monsters he was cutting up might appreciate the chance to cut him up in return. Only a split-second's worth of recalculation saved him from disfigurement or worse.

Lindsey began muttering a subvocal litany of obscenities beneath his breath, and the sound of it carried him all the way across the thirty feet or so separating him from the melee. He took several deep breaths through his nose as he shifted the sword in his hand and tried to rally his exhausted muscles into one more show. He watched from too far away to intervene as the man who so closely resembled a computer tech stepped out from the cluster that separated the defended from the defenders. He still carried the broken portion of the stairway banister in his hand; between the starlight and the intermittent flames that Charlotte was still sending out behind him, Lindsey could see that the tech was clenching the length of wood hard enough to drive all the blood from his knuckles. Lindsey's throat closed up too tightly for him to yell at the man to give it up, get back, a stick of wood was going to do him about as much good as a stick of butter against the blades that his enemies were sporting. If this was actual concern, then it whipped through him and was gone again too quickly for Lindsey to recognize it.

All it took was one good blow from a demon that had been designed by all the powers of hell for efficient killing and no saving blades that could be whipped up at the last moment. The computer tech slid gently to the ground while the other half of his face fell away from his body. What was left of his mouth fell open into what Lindsey thought might have been a sigh.

An ceased fighting and froze her a moment, her mouth falling open, as the computer tech's blood fell against her face in droplets so fine that they could have been produced by an aerosol. Some of the blood drifted into her mouth and she abruptly snapped it closed again, gagging and looking as if she did not know whether crying or vomiting should be her first priority. The blood on her cheek was so fresh that it must have felt as if it were scalding her and Lindsey could sympathize, oh, how he could sympathize, but now was not the time for the socially niceties one normally observed in the face of death. Not if An wanted to avoid throwing herself on the pyre right alongside the corpse.

"Get moving!" Lindsey screamed at her. He could still feel that tightness in his chest, that feeling which said that this was one of the few deaths which could not be written off as an honest day's work but would instead linger for a long time afterwards. "Unless you want to join him, you'll get your ass in gear!"

An jerked around and stared at Lindsey with an expression suggested that he had just ordered her to levitate. He had gotten through, at least; when a blade whistled at her head, An ducked it with a grace that belied all her other moments of adolescent awkwardness and drove her sword deep into her opponent's stomach. She had to brace her sneakered foot against the demon's abdomen in order to get the sword back again. When Lindsey looked at her face, the only expression that he saw there was an intent look of concentration, of satisfaction.

That was just fine. Lindsey could not say that he was doing so well on the sharing and caring front himself, not when he was rushing headlong towards the edge of exhaustion and had a whole new set of sick realizations coming to rest at the front of his brain. He disposed of the tech's murderer and then another demon besides with swift, easy strokes that made the blade seem as if it were alive in his hands. All it took was a glance around to let Lindsey know that even if he were able to harness every ounce of the not-inconsiderable fury coursing through his system at that moment it would not be enough, not against those numbers. They were losing, and in a few more moments they would be dying, and Lindsey could get as angry as he wanted without being able to do a damned thing to stop it.

'Of all of the nights for Angel to keep his precious routine.'


Lindsey wondered, halfway seriously, if he could figure out a way to make that trick work in reverse.

Angel, as it turned out, could maintain the triumphant hero glower even while moving at a full, ground-eating sprint. Spike followed only a few paces behind. With their coats billowing out behind them on the night air, had Lindsey been a great deal more exhausted he might even have admitted that they looked like the heroes that they were actually supposed to be. Angel was already splattered with blood, little of which looked to be his own, and within seconds of entering the fight he was covered in more. "What happened?" he yelled at Lindsey. There was something in his tone that Lindsey had no previous point of reference for and could not recognize.

"What does it look like, genius?" Lindsey yelled back. Sputtering on the very last drops of his reserves, he managed to forget for a moment that Angel's was a face that he had been glad to see.

"Angel!" Spike barked across the distance between them, curtailing a potentially ugly situation before it had the chance to get started. Whether or not he was only trading it in for another just as ugly could be argued, but Angel spun away towards the sound of the voice all the same. He met the glowing green eyes of Charlotte in doing so, and was only barely able to avoid the furious jet of flame that followed.

Angel jumped back one away, Lindsey in another, and somehow they both managed to avoid being set on fire. Lindsey turned his voice quickly to the side to avoid heat hot enough to blister. He heard Spike say, "Something tells me that she's still carrying that grudge, mate." There was a story there, but as long as Lindsey could still feel a tawny hot stare resting against the back of his neck he didn't think that he was the one to go around throwing stones. He looked up again and was unsurprised to find Angel staring directly at him.

"When did this start?" Angel yelled. There was something in his voice that was not quite suspicion but was still a long stone's throw away from innocent inquiry.

Lindsey cast his mind back, struggling to make a coherent narrative out of the memories that mostly existed as a series of panicky impressions. "Half an hour ago?" Time seemed more elastic than that, somehow. "Forty-five minutes, maybe."

Angel nodded, and if there were questions running through his mind then he had chosen to let them remain unacknowledged for now. He looked over the kids and Alicia, then lifted his eyebrows at Lindsey. Lindsey shrugged his shoulders. "If you have a better idea, I'd love to hear it."

Angel nodded again and smiled the distillation of pure malice at the assembled demons. Between the darkness and their insectile features, reading their expressions was not an easy task, but Lindsey was willing to bet that there was still a strong undercurrent of fear beneath all that bloodlust. The odds were changing, finally turning in their favor. When the soul eater growled from behind him it was all that Lindsey could do not to raise his arm and show the hideous thing his middle finger. He skewered a demon through the abdomen, whipped the sword upwards until it became caught on the collarbone, and called it an acceptable replacement.

Angel appeared at Lindsey's side without a sound, startling him. "That's a new edition," he said, continuing to fight with the ease and grace of the longtime professional. Lindsey supposed that he meant the soul eater, though there was something in the way that Angel looked over the monster that made the back of Lindsey's neck tingle. "Friend of yours?" Angel asked, side-stepping another burst of fire from Charlotte. The pools of congealing blood on the pavement burst into flames, briefly illuminating both Angel's and Lindsey's face into planes and angles that scarcely made them look human, before dwindling down into sullen, scorched circles that glittered like beetles' eyes.

"About as much as that bitch over there is a friend of yours." Lindsey jerked his head in the direction of the sulking hulk that was Charlotte, who appeared torn between waddling after Angel and finishing him off as fast as her bursts of flame would allow and refusing to let the soul eater out of her sight. Lindsey hoped that she would choose the second, as he had the feeling that it was the only thing keeping him planted on the mortal plane. A grimace that may have been commiseration passed across Angel's face. It was gone by the time that Lindsey had blinked twice; he was not sure that it had ever been.

Alicia was stumbling, her strokes growing shorter and wilder and the lack of skill showing more plainly every second as her energy waned. While Lindsey glanced over, a long red line was opened up in her thigh. There was no way of telling how deep it ran at that kind of distance, but the amount of blood that spilled forth and the grimace that crossed Alicia's face suggest that it didn't feel like butterfly kisses. The alarming feeling of giving a damn began to rise in Lindsey's chest again. He swore and leapt forward. If nothing else, he could chase it away by killing something.

Spike got there first, catching Alicia's elbow with one hand and decapitating her attacker with the sword that he held in the other. There was still plenty of fun left to go around. Lindsey thrust and parried, ducked and cut, and it was almost enough to shut down the rising voices in his head. Then he heard the scream.

Katie had somehow managed to get herself separated from the protective throng. Lindsey's heart shoved itself up into his throat and refused to come back down again. The only conscious thought that still had room to sweep through Lindsey's mind was, 'All too far away.' He, Angel, and Spike were all several feet away, while a dark silhouette was sweeping over the child.

A blue streak materialized from the shadows out of seeming nothingness, grabbing the shape from the air and bearing them both down to the ground. Katie shrieked and threw up her arms in an instinctive gesture to protect her head and face. She crumbled down into a tiny huddle on the pavement. Lindsey had a chorus of déjà vu bells screaming through his mind.

Illyria rolled back to her feet in one smooth motion, carrying the head of the Guardian between her hands. Unfortunately for the monster, the rest of its body remained where it had been. The sound of cracking vertebrae could be heard for yards around. At the sight of that, all will to fight bled away from the demons, and they began to flee into the shadows as quickly as if they had never been there at all. The soul eater hissed and retreated further into the building, though Lindsey could still feel it watching him. If his run of good luck was going to hold, Lindsey reflected, now was the time for the building to fall down.

Charlotte slunk closer to the building and snarled into the shadows, fluttering her wings ominously. The blood was congealing quickly; within moments she would be able to take flight.

"Atta girl, Babe," Spike said, lowering his sword and approaching Illyria. His tone was soft and awed. Lindsey thought that most of that could be attributed to the fact that Illyria was still holding the Guardian's head in her hands. The spikes emanating from its snout pierced her hands, sending rivulets of blood running down her forearms. Lindsey wasn't certain that she even knew that she was hurt. Illyria was staring down at her hands and the grisly, lifeless thing held between them with an expression that might have been horror if it had been on any other face. As Spike reached her, she hurled the head down hard enough to split the skull and show the gore inside. Alicia grabbed Katie and turned her face away.

"I know what this thing is," Illyria hissed at Spike, her voice carrying over a shocking distance considering that she hardly seemed to be moving her lips. Her eyes were faint jewels set into her face; her fury caught the light and threw it back. "I would have called it my pet once and perhaps rewarded it with the flesh of such mewling things as this." Illyria stabbed her hand out to indicate Katie, who went an even paler shade of whey and shrank back against Alicia's side. "I would have stroked its head as it licked the marrow from her bones."

Spike took two small steps that placed him between Illyria and the child. "Easy, Babe," he told her in a low voice. "Remember those conversations we had about thinking things without saying them?"

Illyria raised her hands long enough to stare at the blood running from her wounds before she curled her lip and spat off to one side. "I will not be this thing," she snarled at Spike. "Not this weak thing that you wish to make of me." She pivoted her head to stare at the approaching forms of An, Alexei, and Fideo. "They are not worth the resources required to protect them." Illyria spun away and disappeared into the shadows that had been so eager to spit her out moments before.

"That is an angry lady," Alexei said.

"You don't know the half of it," Spike replied before he shifted his attention back to Angel. "That thing in there-" He jerked his thumb in the direction of the building. "Suppose we're going to kill it?"

"No!" It came out louder and more desperate than Lindsey had intended. He paused and gave himself time for several inward obscenities as every head swiveled towards him. "It's called a soul eater," he clarified, giving Angel and Spike each a significant look.

Angel shook his head and took a few steps closer to the building. "Doesn't work like that, Lindsey," he said. He looked towards the soul eater without any surprise written on his face, with something that was only a few small steps away from outright recognition. The prickling feeling on the back of Lindsey's neck grew that much stronger.

"No," Lindsey repeated. A sick spider at the back of his mind, growing steadily ever since Lindsey had first seen the soul eater, opened its mouth and yawned at the prospect of finally being noticed. "It's a trained hunter. It won't damage anything but its intended target unless its provoke." The man that had been eaten would have had something to say about it, but Lindsey still had theories about that. He cleared his throat when he was done, finding that the words were no easier than he had expected, but certainly no harder. "So if you think you can take out something that size before the sun rises..."

Angel stared at the soul eater a few seconds longer with that expression of recognition before he swore and looked skyward. "You're right," he said at long last. "It won't." He didn't even notice when Charlotte, discovering that she could fly again, chose mobility over her grudge and rose back into the air with a tremendous beating of wings that blew all of their hair back from their faces. More than ever now, Lindsey knew that something was wrong. The feeling of not knowing the whole story did not grow any easier with time.

"He is?" Spike asked dryly, a line appearing between his eyes.

"It's our mess, isn't it?" Angel asked, turning away. He looked more like a corpse than Lindsey had ever seen him.

Spike's face cleared, chasing some of the life out of him as well. "Another night, then."

"We need to get off the street," Angel said after a long moment. His voice had returned to a careful neutrality, but Lindsey could see the way that his eyes moved out over Lindsey and An in a continuous loop. There was no need for him to voice the thoughts running through his head, because they had already been doing an energetic tango through Lindsey's mind for close to an hour. There was only one reason that he could think of for Guardians to be wandering about on the mortal plane, and that was for the purpose of reclaiming lost property. 'Dark magic comes with strings attached. Now there's a revelation.'

Angel was stabbing at the body of the Guardian to ensure that it was really dead when An walked over to him. She was once again wearing her royal expression, hardly marred by the fact that she was covered in gore and so exhausted that she could barely keep her knees from buckling. "I think that you're involved now," she said.

Angel stared back at her without expression as the minutes ticked away towards the dawn.


An held a short, whispered conference with Alexei and Fideo before she suggested the basement room where Phillip and Janice crouched as a suitable place to hide from the day. It was a trek of nearly twenty blocks over territory where human beings were no longer at the top of the food chain in order to get there, and every twitch in the shadows or faint scuttling noise as the city's new populace battled it out for food or sex made An jump and catch her breath. They had lost three of their own people in the fight outside of the apartment building: the blond man that Lindsey referred to as 'the tech', Mr. Johnson, and a woman that Lindsey swore vehemently had been there, though her corpse had not been found. Mr. Johnson had been recognizable only by his cane. Katie, who had seen him die, ducked her head and refused without preamble to discuss it. She clung to Alicia so hard that it was a wonder she even allowed herself to be pulled away long enough for a hasty bandage to be put on Alicia's leg.

An told herself that this was not her problem, not with everything else that was at stake now. With enough repetition, she was almost able to believe it. Fideo's hand knocking lightly against hers as they walked side by side was a source of comfort with each bump, as was the sight of Alexei's brown hair a few paces ahead of her. Alicia limped along at An's left, leaning heavily on Spike's shoulder and clinging to Katie with her free hand. An was amazed that Alicia was not breaking the little girl's fingers. Angel had taken off his belt and wound it around Alicia's thigh just above the wound there, further slowing the flow of blood, but as long as she kept moving none of them were going to be able to make it stop entirely. Alicia had rejected Spike's offer to carry her, saying that she did not want to let Katie wander far and that her leg didn't hurt that much, really. An thought that if Alicia bit her lip much hard to get through that lie, then her thigh was not the only bloody mess that they were going to have to deal with. Alicia had not been able to hand her sword back over to Lindsey fast enough, and she scrubbed her hand against her skirt every few moments as if she had touched something filthy.

An thought that it would probably be in poor taste to twirl her own sword in a circle after all the blood that it had already seen, but she caught herself lifting it slightly to catch the light from the stars all the same. With the gore still smeared thickly along the blade, it did not shine very much.

An looked over her shoulder at Lindsey, who was once again carrying a sword in each hand and bringing up the rear of the group of pale, frightened people. He was too far back and the streets were too dark for An to see any more of his face than a set of deep and faintly gleaming hollows where his eyes were located. She built up the rest of his features for him, adding shadows beneath his eyes, skin glossy and pale with exhaustion, and mouth set into a hard, angry line. An dressed the details, adding a nobility that had never been there before, and tried desperately to pretend that the Lindsey walking along the sidewalk now was the same one who had rushed to an eight year-old girl's rescue years before. The riotous images that she had picked up from him upon meeting again the previous day did not make it any easier. 'Hero' was a bad fit on him, anyway.

As An turned away, she caught Fideo scowling. He pulled his hand slowly away from hers.

"Is this it?" Angel's voice cut through An's bewilderment and pulled her away from Fideo, back to the world of the concrete and the present. She looked down at the sword in her hand, twisting it back and forth to make it gleam. It was foolish to allow herself to be distracted. She should know better.

An looked up again, first at Angel and then at the building that he was indicating. "Yes," she said. "This is it. It's the basement apartment." She paused to look around at the bloody, battered pack of them. "It will be a tight fit."

"No one gets left behind," Angel's voice curled back out to her. His expression didn't need to change in order for An to read the anger that rode the air, or that only a fraction of it was directed at her. An wondered if maybe she should have spent more time learning to put her social skills into practice, or maybe into learning what they were in the first place.

"That's not what I said." An was both surprised and embarrassed to hear the hurt that colored her voice. She pressed her lips into a firm line sot that she would not be betrayed again. There was no varnish to Angel, nothing that she had not known from the moment that he had killed the bad lady years before, or that had not been reinforced by Jonathan's lessons to her since then. Angel was a tool, a weapon crafted as finely as the sword that An held in her hand. Beautiful, but made for one specific purpose all the same. The fact that he had walked away from his job meant that he was no longer worthy of An's respect as he had been before, made him only so much detritus in their path as they worked towards their mission.

An wished that the looks Angel flicked over her didn't still have the power to sting.

"They'll probably be sleeping. I should go in first. You'll have to wait in the lobby," An said, pushing past Angel and Alexei and not caring how much she sounded like a petulant child. Alexei gave her a look of commiseration and rolled his eyes good-naturedly as her shoulder bumped into his. The feeling of being a lone soldier in a war where all of the generals had long since grown bored and walked off the field dwindled slightly. A couple more of those and she might even be able to smile. An paused at the door leading into the lobby and the dark honeycomb of apartments beyond. "This isn't your place. I'll have to convince them to invite you in." An pressed the sword in to Angel's hand for safekeeping, smiled sweetly, and spun away. She thought she saw Fideo hiding a grin behind his hand.

An had thought that Phillip and Janice would be sleeping and that she would have to knock for several minutes before rousing them. That turned out not to be the case. She was barely lifting her knuckles from the door when it was flung open and An was lifted into a hug sudden and fierce enough to make her wish that she was still holding the sword. An tolerated it until her mouth had gone dry and the force of the blood pounding through her temples was beginning to make her nauseous before she put her hands against Janice's shoulders and pushed back until she could breathe again. By the time she had regained her feet, An's features were once again schooled back into a mask of impassivity. The skin of her palms tingled and memories many years old danced through her head, but to react any more strongly than that would be impolite. An leaned back and struggled to smile. "I hope that we didn't worry you."

"Didn't worry us-you stupid girl, you-" Janice cut herself off and pressed her lips into a line hard enough to make them disappear. She looked over her shoulder at Phillip, who was leaning in the doorway like a disapproving gargoyle. An had not known her father long enough to go on a date and be caught sneaking home late from it. She could not say that she saw now what the nostalgic frenzy was all about. Only decorum kept her feet still and her face bland. "I suppose that the three of you aren't normal children."

"No," An echoed. "We're not." Something in the way that Janice stiffened told An that it was now safe to drop her hands. "There were some complications today. We had to bring people back with us."

"People," Janice repeated. Her tone asked for explanation, and suggested that An make it good.

"How many?" Phillip asked, stepping forward from his position in the doorway for the first time. He was carrying a flashlight, and as he crossed and uncrossed his arms over his chest the light bobbed across their faces.

"About a dozen," An replied. Phillip and Janice exchanged looks. An knew that they were thinking of the supplies that it would take to feed that many. Three teenagers were a different matter entirely from a dozen people that they did not even know, especially when the teenagers could at the very least claim to have destiny on their side. An didn't flinch from this knowledge or gloat over it as she might have even a day before, just let it gleam quietly in the back of her mind. Like a sword, she thought, and almost smiled. "They're only going to be waiting here until the sun rises," she said before she remembered Spike and Angel. "Or maybe a little longer. But they won't be using up anything other than water. We're all kind of gross."

"We can see that," Phillip said, staring at the blood that covered An's face and clothes. It hadn't occurred to him to doubt that the blood came from fighting for the cause, but An did not like the potential that she saw resting beneath the surface there. "Only a dozen?" he asked at last. There was a flash of humor there, so slight that An almost missed it.

She contorted her mouth into the shape of a smile while her mind drifted to the people waiting for her upstairs. An had enough bruises on her arms and legs to say that lobbies were not always sanctuaries. "Only. Two of them have to be invited in, though." The last half An uttered in the evasive mumble that had never managed to fool Jonathan for more than a moment.

And apparently that skill was not something learned through years of dealing with children, but was instead an instinct. Phillip and Janice exchanged a second look, far more alarmed than the first had been. "Invited in?" Janice repeated. Her voice had gone low and flat, and reminded An of striking her knuckles against a piece of steel. She was already shaking her head. "Oh, no. No, no, no. There's enough of that roaming out there already, we don't need to go inviting it in-"

"They have souls," An interrupted flatly. "It won't be a problem. We need them to do what we came here to do. Small matter of stopping the apocalyptic hemorrhage out there?" Her tone was more snappish than she had intended. An took a deep breath, rearranged her features into an expression of professionalism, and waited for her trump card to take effect.

It could start doing that at any time, actually. Phillip still looked dubious, Janice was already shaking her head, and they did not have time for this bullshit-

An wasn't sure how she pushed; she was not intending to. Phillip's and Janice's eyes went unfocused for a second before the expressions of negation slowly began to morph into ones of reluctant agreement. "If you're certain," Phillip began in a voice that was not quite right, was not quite real. 'They've never met him. They'll never know.'

"I'm certain." An's pulse was a tango against the thin skin of her temples, shattering her concentration when she most needed every scrap of it. "I'll bring them down." She touched her hand to the skin below her nose and did not know if she was surprised when the pads of her fingers came away clean.

The group was still waiting in the lobby where An had left them, a small, pale cluster of people who reminded An suddenly, unexpectedly, of a herd of sheep waiting for someone to tell them where to go. She gulped and tried to slow the rat-atat-tat of her heart.

Angel stared at her as she came into view, long and hard enough to make An feel as if every thought that she had was being scoured out of her head. "You're pale," he said. "And your heart is racing."

"I ran up the stairs," An said. She tried to run her hands through her hair, got her fingers tangled in the gore, and grimaced. Alexei and Fideo were giving her worried looks over Angel's shoulder, looks that she did not dare return yet. "They agreed, but we should probably go down before we bring the neighbors out. The, um, the blue lady? Will she be okay?"

"Illyria needs to have herself a snit," Spike said. "She'll find us when she's gotten over it." An thought that he sounded doubtful. No time to care.

"Okay. Whatever, it's this way." An spun and led the way down the stairs, from the corner of her eye seeing Spike swoop Alicia into his arms in spite of her protests. Lindsey fixed An with a long, shrewd look as she went. All the way down the stairs, An could feel the weight of his stare against the back of her neck.


Lindsey surrendered his swords in favor of a shower and a change of clothes, and now his hair hung in damp tendrils against the back of his neck. One of Phillip's shirts and a pair of his jeans clung to skin that was still beaded here and there with water. So far as Lindsey's body was concerned, sleep was the single best choice that he could be making right about then. It didn't help that virtually every other person in the room had seen the wisdom of that choice save for him. It was his mind that was refusing to turn off and stop spinning.

The beasts that had attacked the apartment building were not the kind who went slithering up out of hell just because they spied an open doorway. Not with the cushy gig that they already had going for them down among the fire and the brimstone.

Lindsey could only think of one reason for that kind of firepower to be amassed on the human plane. His peace of mind would be so much better served if that reason was not him. Lindsey closed his eyes and pinched at the bridge of his nose, tilting his head back until it rested against the cool concrete wall. When he heard the scuff of boots on the floor in front of him, he did not need to open his eyes to know who they belonged to. "Angel. I was wondering when you were going to come wandering in my direction."

"I've come to realize that the two of us don't talk nearly enough." Angel's voice didn't lack the heat that he had possessed when he had been angry at An earlier. He had only buried it deeper. There may even have been a hint of curiosity there, as if Lindsey was an interesting petri dish whose properties Angel could just not figure out. All those years Lindsey had spent trying to convince Angel that maybe he didn't have Lindsey figured out as well as he thought, and all it took in the end was a not so random attack by the denizens of hell. Lindsey could have laughed.

"Not without violence or foreplay being involved, anyway." 'Or both.' Lindsey opened his eyes and squinted against the light that had come back on less than an hour before. Because the irony gods were the only ones who liked to prove that they had not written Earth off as a loss, the bulb was situated almost directly behind Angel, surrounding his head in a glowing corona. Lindsey snorted and thought that Angel might have cocked his eyebrow at him. With his features shrouded in shadow like that it was impossible to be sure. "Every muscle that I have hurts and that light is fucking with my eyes like you would not believe. I'm not going to crane my head up to stare at you all morning."

Oh, and he didn't need to be able to see Angel's face clearly to know that he was getting far more than an arched eyebrow now. He could pick up cues from Angel so subtle that reading them was almost akin to telepathy. Lindsey felt a knot at the base of his spine begin to loosen as he realized that there was once again something there for him to read. The room's resident hero in chief sat down on the floor across from Lindsey without comment a moment later, folding his legs beneath him until he resembled nothing so much as the world's largest and least enthusiastic toddler. His expression remained one of faint amusement, but the rest of his body language told Lindsey that he would not like the results if he pushed further. Lindsey leaned back against the wall and relaxed even more. "Better?" Angel asked.

Lindsey flashed his most brilliant smile. "Yes. Thank you." He received another one of those looks and let it slide right off of his psyche like rain from a sloped roof. Angel had already killed him once. Everything else was kind of anticlimactic after that, and Lindsey was feeling an urge to vent the frustrations and epiphanies swirling around his head on any body that happened to be warm enough, or at the very least close enough. He couldn't think of a single better candidate for that purging to be directed at than the man directly or indirectly responsible for all of the seismic shifts that had taken place in Lindsey's life over the last half-decade and change.

Angel peered at Lindsey with his dark, dark eyes, pinning him to the wall without needing to move a muscle. The faint ridiculousness of his pose fell away as if it had never been, and Lindsey felt the grin slip off of his face in response. So here it came. He had been waiting for his particular moment of truth ever since things had calmed down and dying had once again become a matter of if rather than when.

In a voice pitched so soft and low that Lindsey had to lean forward in order to hear it, Angel asked, "What happened tonight, Lindsey?"


Lindsey blinked. He had been expecting dire accusations to the effect that he had sold his soul right back into the service of one side after his check had bounced with the other. That didn't count as one of them. Lindsey paused for a long moment, waiting for Angel to strike the jugular blow in one form or another. When it never came he said finally, "Woke up because the building was shaking. I thought that it was an earthquake until I looked out the window and saw Charlotte tangling with the Guardians." Lindsey broke himself off and looked at Angel askance. "She doesn't like you much, does she?"

Angel's lips spasmed. Lindsey was not sure if he was tightening them in annoyance or perhaps even building up to a smile. With Angel it could be difficult to tell, and Lindsey had so much more experience with the first than the second. "We'll get to me Q and A session in a minute," he said.

Lindsey took a deep breath and continued, opting for a neutral tone that was soon undone by the fresh sweat that he could feel breaking out along his hairline. Angel only interrupted once, when Lindsey got to the nasty that had been wrapping itself around the building. "The soul eater," he said, his brow furrowing and the look of recognition coming back. Lindsey could not say that he cared for it much more the second time around. He opened his mouth to explain but Angel shook his head and waved his silent. "We can get to the extra details in a minute. For now, just stick to the basics." Lindsey paused for a moment, his brow furrowing, but in the end he did as Angel asked. It sounded smaller when it was spoken out loud and divorced from the adrenaline that had made it so urgent and acid-bright in the first place. He leaned back against the wall when he was finished and felt the cool concrete beginning to soothe away the sweat that had broken out along the line of his back.

Angel remained silent for several minutes after Lindsey had finished, his gaze turned inward. At long last he said, in the same soft voice that made Lindsey feel as if the world was a movie that he was trying to catch up on close to the end, "Back to the soul eater. How does that work?"

'Why don't you tell me?' Lindsey wondered. The smile that crossed his face was small and bitter, but it soon found fertile ground to grow. "What does it sound like it does? It eats souls. It swallows the body, it digests it, and then the mind, the soul, all of that fun crap that gets the Powers, the Forces, and everything in between all hot and bothered over, that goes to a place beyond heaven and hell. Perfect blackness without the slightest speck of light or sound." Lindsey had not smoked since passing the bar years before. He wondered if Spike would be willing to let him bum a cigarette. "You know how long most people last in complete sensory deprivation before their brains go all squishy around the edges. About six hours. Try to imagine doing that for an eternity." Lindsey felt his shirt sticking to his spine as he leaned forward to give Angel a long, speculative look. "Can't really say what it would do to you or Spike, though. What happened to your soul the last time that it came unattached and went roaming around?"

Angel's expression did not change, but the air around him still seemed to swell. "If its prey spends the rest of eternity in some kind of sensory deprivation," he asked, "then how does anyone know what happens next?"

Now there was the question that Lindsey had been waiting for. He leaned forward and grinned like a knife. "Head south," he said, "and concepts like eternity have a way of becoming a little more relative on you. Every once in a while one will turn up again. We put the pieces together out of what's left."

"Did it happen to you?"

That tone again. Lindsey was not sure what to do with it. He leaned back against the wall again so that he could put more space between them, room to breathe and maybe even to think. Lindsey tapped his finger against his temple. "Not quite soft enough up here. Sorry if that disappoints." He paused for a moment. "Just call it a healthy respect from seeing it happen to others." Lindsey broke off for another long moment, fidgeting, before he went on in the same tone that he might use to recite a particularly boring biology fact, "It's attracted to lights. That's why we didn't carry flashlights-I didn't want to draw it towards us." He grimaced and rubbed his hand across the back of his neck. "Light was, ah, scarce in the little patch of hell that I got to call home. You saw lights, and that was a sure sign that there were people around."

Angel was staring at Lindsey with something that might have been pity or might even have been respect. They were both so alien to Lindsey that he was honestly finding it difficult to tell them apart. Only his craving for the latter allowed him to halt his knee-jerk reaction to the former. Two eyeblinks later and the look was gone, replaced by one of deep horror. Lindsey would not have been surprised if Angel had jumped right up and run out of the building, sunlight be damned. "And we left that thing to wander around at will," he said. That fleeting look that Lindsey had seen was no more than a ghost. Angel's tone was accusatory as he said, "You told me that it would only attack what it came up here looking for. It could be destroying people right now."

"Could be," Lindsey agreed, if for no other reason that to put a look back onto Angel's face that he could understand. "Probably not. It had itself a nice meal by going for me and missing, but anything is possible. It's not like you could have killed it before the sun came up, anyway, if you could have killed it at all. Then it would be sliding around and you would be dead, so sorry if I'm not falling down with remorse here." Lindsey shrugged. "You want someone to hold your hand, go talk to your fan club. Yeah, it might have killed people by now. Soul eaters aren't really big on shedding tears over collateral damage." Lindsey paused so that Angel's expression could reach its darkest possible point before he said, "And even if it were full dark outside and there was a complete solar eclipse buying you even more time, there probably would not be a single, solitary thing that you could do about it. That portal's still open, and the soul eater is drawing plenty of energy from the home place. Going up against something like that, you're a gnat. She's the A-bomb."

Lindsey tilted his head towards An, who was crouching in a corner with Alexei and Fideo. The three of them were attempting to look at each other's wounds all at once and were largely reducing themselves to a tangle of limbs. Lindsey dipped his head back down and began to examine his hands with a clinician's detachment. There was still blood embedded beneath his nails and in the creases of his knuckles. The scar that encircled his wrist caught the light and gleamed an eerie shade of red. "There are some things that you can't control and can't save, hero. No matter how much you might want to."

Angel leaned forward and growled, "Do you really think that you're doing me a favor there? Teaching me a lesson?" There was something in his voice that made Lindsey's pulse double in a span of seconds.

Lindsey glanced up, shrugged, and folded his arms back across the tops of his knees. "Sorry. The mission's hard to shake off, even if I'm not collecting the checks any longer." That last bit had been solely to rile Angel, and the swift narrowing of his eyes told Lindsey that he knew it. "And somehow I'm thinking that nine-tenths of that fairytale in the apartment was information that you already knew." Angel did not answer. There was still a surplus of tension pitching and roiling beneath the surface of Lindsey's skin that made him feel as if he was going to explode if he did not get it out soon. He could not think of a single better person with whom to share the wealth. "If you're done, I guess that makes it my turn." When Angel nodded finally, Lindsey went on. "First one's easy. Charlotte. Why so eager to toast you?"

Angel might have worn a whisper-quick attempt at a smile before he took up the robot's expression again. It was gone too quickly for Lindsey to be sure. "On the night that the city changed," Angel began. With his legs crossed and his hands braced upon his knees, he looked like the world's largest and scariest schoolteacher.

'Changed' was a stripped-down, sanitized way of referring to it, Lindsey thought, but any other would keep them there for the entire day and most of the night as well. "When the portal opened, one of the things that flew out was a dragon." Lindsey tilted his head to one side and frowned. The Guardians had been the largest flying predators that he had come across on his vacation. Angel caught the expression. "Yeah, I know. I didn't expect it, either. But there he was, big as a city bus and setting fire to everything that happened to piss him off. That meant a lot of downtown. I saw him, and I thought..." Angel trailed off before he gave himself a hard mental shake and went on. There was a darkness to his face, Lindsey noticed, that never fully went away. "It kept us from realizing what had happened right away. I figured that it had been long enough since I had been a hero, so I might as well get it started off again with a bang."

A faint smile crossed Lindsey's face even as he wondered why Angel was feeling driven to use him as his confessional. The doubts that he had been entertaining even since the apartment building had collapsed began to creep back on quiet cat feet. Yes, he could easily imagine Angel dashing off to be the knight errant and knew from experience that more often than not he could defy the odds to make it work. 'I did my job,' Lindsey growled internally, unsure of which deity he was protesting to. It was possible that he was speaking to no one at all. 'I got him where he needed to be, I kept my promise. You owe me more than this.' Out loud, he said only, "I'm assuming that you killed the Big Ugly. Doesn't explain why the Medium Ugly has such a bone to pick with you."

Angel gave a smile that managed to be bitter and amused at the same moment. Lindsey was once again faced with the impression of a schoolteacher, one who was disappointed that his student was not putting the pieces together as fast as he had hoped. "He had a mate," Angel said.

"Oh." Lindsey leaned back and fought an absurd urge to laugh. "Do angry spouses come after you a lot?"

"There have been more than a few." Angel fixed him with a look. "You said that you had another question."

"Yep. And this one's not so heartwarming." Lindsey unhooked his arms from around his knees and leaned forward. "When I went out earlier I saw demons-everywhere. I saw a city that had been absolutely destroyed. You want to know what I didn't see? Outside of the midnight strolls that your group goes on, there is not a single person out there fighting them. There are thousands of Slayers in the world now. You want to tell me that not even one of them has migrated to your city? That the Golden One herself couldn't even be convinced to lend a hand?"

The smile that remained on Angel's face was no more than a technicality. It had fled from his eyes the moment that Lindsey finished speaking. Those eyes reminded Lindsey more of a shark's than of a man's, and he had to fight down an urge to shiver and lean back. "No Slayers," Angel said. "No seers, no witches, no...Champions of any kind." His voice had taken on a mechanical quality that Lindsey did not like at all, rendering Angel into a computer repeating the same set of stock phrases over and over again. "That was the deal."

"Deal?" Lindsey echoed. He felt cold spreading across his skin, just when he thought that he was learning how to be warm again.

"It was the only way to keep more portals from opening," Angel said. Enough of the liveliness had come back into him so that he spit out each word as if it were acid upon his tongue. "Los Angeles in exchange for the rest of the world."

"So you cut a bargain," Lindsey said slowly. Something was trying to speak up in the back of his mind, but he had crippled it years ago and so had no name for it now.

"Wolfram and Hart made me very good at those." Angel started to get back to his feet.

"Angel," Lindsey said suddenly. "I think I know why the building was attacked." The words tumbled out of his mouth beyond his control and the strange, foreign thing in the back of his mind was doing nothing to stop them.

Angel gave him that look of a teacher struggling with a dense student again. Lindsey thought that his gaze lingered for a moment before he turned away. "I've known that for hours." He got back to his feet.

"Angel." Lindsey almost did not recognize An's voice when she spoke, so soft and nearly hesitant was it. He wondered how long she had been lingering a few paces away from them, how much that she had managed to hear. Lindsey was made acutely aware of how much damage she could do with a few careless words.

Angel did not look surprised to see An standing there. Vampire hearing must have told him that she was coming almost before she had begun to move. He lifted his eyebrows, waiting for her to speak, while his expression remained the picture of polite courtesy. An's face shifted beneath his patient stare and she began to fidget.

"I just wanted to tell you," An began. "I...uh, I wanted your help, but I didn't want it to be like this. I didn't plan for it to be like this, in case you maybe thought-"

"I didn't," Angel interrupted her gently.

"Right." An almost flinched beneath the borderline terrifying courtesy of Angel's tone, but she straightened at the last moment, lifting her chin and once more assuming the posture of young royalty. Lindsey was not sure how much of this was genuine and how much was an act; either way, he mentally applauded her for the effort. "But since you're already involved one way or another, maybe you could see it through to the end." Angel waited without speaking until An went on. "We came to Los Angeles with the intention of closing that portal. We're not going to leave until we're dead or that mission is accomplished."

"You're not the first one to come through saying those exact same words," Angel said. His voice became a shade or two warmer, until it almost resembled that of an older brother imparting his wisdom onto the younger generation. "You wouldn't be the first one to die trying, either."

An lifted her chin by another inch or two. "Yes, but Fideo, Alexei, and I can actually do it."

"And you're definitely not the first one to say that."

The child queen expression was struggling not to give way to one of unfettered exasperation. "We've been prophesied," she said, "as have you. Alexei, Fideo, and I have spent our whole lives preparing for this moment, so when I say that we can do this, that's not just me being a mouthy teenager. The only thing that we aren't going to be able to do is fight off all the hell vomit standing between us and that portal." An stared down at her arms, which were scratched and bruised from all of the miraculous near-misses that she had taken. Her mouth twisted into a wry smile. "And I'm used to being good at everything, too." She looked back up. "But your people seem to have that category taken care of. You could get us there."

When Angel only looked at her, his face expressionless, An exploded into a voice which sounded as if she were near tears, "Damnit, this is not about the Powers That Be, or the forces of darkness, or whoever it is that you're pissed off at right now! It's about fighting the good fight and helping the helpless and all of those things that you used to understand! It's not about your stupid deal!" That answered the question of how much she had heard.

An's voice had gotten progressively louder and more shrill as her tirade had run on, until there was not a head in the room that was not swiveled around to stare at them all by the times she was finished. She took a deep breath and cast her eyes down to the floor as her cheeks reddened. Angel's face may have appeared expressionless to An, but Lindsey knew how to read him, and what he saw bled like an uncauterized wound. Still staring down at the floor, An finished in a low voice, "You were better than this. I don't care how long ago it was or how much life up and decided to suck between now and then: you were better."

Angel stared at An for so long that Lindsey became sure that he was going to refuse her again. He began to wonder if maybe this was why, if maybe he had not completed his assigned task as well as he had believed. Lindsey thought the twisting, boiling feeling of rage would abate back to a manageable level if only someone could give him a why. At long last, Angel said, "We'll have a plan when night falls. Today we're going to rest."

An's knees sagged for a moment. Lindsey thought that she was torn between falling to the floor and racing about the room in pure teenaged glee. An caught herself at the last moment and straightened up. "Thank you," she said in a tone of labored dignity. "Thank you so much." She turned and walked with forced slowness back to the place where Alexei and Fideo were waiting for her, breaking character and all but running across the final few steps. The three fell to whispering among themselves almost immediately.

Lindsey looked up at Angel. "So you're back on the payroll again." Years of experience kept his tone under control, though his heart was hammering so hard in his chest that it must have been audible not only to Angel, but also to everyone else in the room.

Angel stared back at him almost as if he were seeing him for the first time. The experience was not as pleasant as Lindsey would have believed. "It's not about the labels, Lindsey," he said. "It's not about the banners." In a voice so low that it was almost inaudible, Angel said, "There's still a lot that she doesn't know about this game."

Lindsey thought this was a rich sentiment coming from the person who had just admitted to allowing the legions of hell to swallow up Los Angeles, even if it was with the intention of saving the rest of the world, but now did not feel like the best time to say so. Not now, when Angel was giving him that troubling scientist's stare that was still so much better than the looks that he was used to receiving, so much riper. He felt like standing up and screaming down the Powers That Be until they came to take a look at the services that had already been rendered, if they found them so unsatisfactory. His skin tingled as if it had been on the receiving end of an electric shock. "Five minutes ago you were telling me that you were good at cutting bargains."

"Yeah." Angel's eyes flicked over Lindsey again before he turned to scrutinize An as well. "But it looks like I'm good at breaking them, too." The conversation could have been taking place in Angel's office on the first day that he walked through the doors, so different was the tone from the one that Lindsey had come to recognize as Angel's default.

When Lindsey was silent fro a long moment without replying, Angel looked at him strangely and said, "Go and get some sleep, Lindsey. You look like hell."

"We've moved on to bad jokes. You're cracking up." Lindsey's voice sounded as if it was coming to him from down a long distance, all but obliterated by the pounding of his heart. He pushed himself away from the wall and made his way over to where Alicia was dozing in a pile of makeshift bedding on the floor, her arms wrapped around the sleeping Katie. Once inside the building, Alicia had wasted no time in putting as much distance as possible between herself and the swords.

"Hey," Alicia opened her eyes and muttered when she heard Lindsey's shoes on the cement.

"Hey, yourself," Lindsey answered. "Mind if I pull up some floor?"

"We have plenty." Alicia moved over to make room for him, shushing Katie's sleepy protests. When Lindsey had settled in, she asked, "He's going to do it?" in the tone of someone who was afraid to put too much hope into her voice, lest she make the bubble burst then and there.

"I think so," Lindsey whispered back.

"Wow." Alicia fell silent for several minutes. "We might actually get our city back." To Lindsey's horror, she sounded as if she were only a few good nudges away from bursting into joyous tears. Lacking anything useful to say, he chose to stare up at the ceiling until he fell asleep and say nothing at all.


Champions. An's eyes remained wide open in the windowless dark of the room, taking in everything and nothing at all as her mind worked feverishly over what she had heard. Her earlier horror and that terrible uncertainty over what she had done to Phillip and Janice was melting away as swiftly as sugar cubes left out in a steady rain. She, Alexei, and Fideo had spent the better part of the morning arguing fiercely about the best way to proceed from that point, scrawling their plans across scraps of paper to prevent them from being overheard. As to whether or not An had done the right thing, there had been no disagreement. Without the aid of Angel and his people they had no chance of completing their mission, and if they ever wanted to see what kind of normalcy existed on the other side when now more than ever the mission had to be everything. Champions, though...that swept away even the faint, cobwebby traces of doubt that An might have been entertaining. Angel could maintain his issues and his deep well of self-pity for as long as he wanted. 'I know something you don't know,' An's glee was making her want to run around the room and chant.

'Pride goeth before the fall,' Jonathan's voice cautioned in her mind, one of those many quotes from all of the religions that he had used to illustrate his points over the years. An barely even registered the warning before she was already brushing it away. In the darkness, her grin gleamed very white.


An dreams, and even within the dream there is a part of her which knows that none of this can be real. She is swift to shove it away into a corner and ignore it, because it ahs been so very long since she has seen his face.

"The power never lies within the weapon itself, An. It lies with the one who wields it. No matter how beautiful, the weapon itself can never become more than a thing."

An knows that she is dreaming. Dead men do not speak.

Jonathan sits cross-legged apart from her, watching with fond tolerance as An mimics his stance right down to the peculiar way that has of tilting his chin down. This is a lesson that she learned long ago and they both know it. The recitation, the repetition, is only for the sake of internalizing this lesson until she manages to turn cognition into unfettered instinct. 'When you are in a fight for your life, as you are sure to be at some point, you will not have time to think,' is another one of Jonathan's favorites, repeated almost as often as the mantra about weapons. 'You will not even have time to breathe. It must come to you as naturally as the beating of your own heart.' This last part is usually accompanied by a swift touch of his fingers to the pulse point of whichever student he happens to be talking to at the time.

Jonathan is holding a knife in his hands as he speaks, twirling it idly so that it catches the sun in motes of gold along its blade and throws them back to flash in An's eyes. She pushes her sunglasses more firmly upon her face. The knife is not a sword. Not even close.

The small part of An not wholly caught up in the dream began to fret, though she could not say why. She could not remember having ever used a sword in her life, why was she thinking of one now, why was it bothering her so much?

The blade is scarcely larger than a pocketknife, yet in Jonathan's hands it seems to gain a lazy, careless kind of power. An cannot pull her eyes away from it. "I won't be here forever," Jonathan says softly, his voice low and sad and sounding as if it is coming from a place very far away. An does not think that he is watching the blade with even one-tenth of the attention that An is applying towards it. "And when that day comes, the three of you must be ready. You must be able to stand as both the weapon and wielder, and you must know your lessons true. There will be no time for thinking any longer."

"What if we only know how to be one of those things?" An hears herself whisper. A part of herself begins to scream and thrash. This is not the way that the conversation is supposed to go, she does not like it at all, the whole business can halt right here because she wants to get off the bus. "What if we only know how to be the weapons?"

Jonathan stares at her for a very long while, his eyes dark and grave. "Then God help us all." The blade twists in his hands, coming alive like a dog turning on its master, and dives for his throat. An does not scream, does not move or even blink, as the knife opens up a gruesome second smile in the white flesh of Jonathan's throat. The blood that lands across An's face is hot enough to scald, and even after Jonathan should have long since toppled over into death he remains awake and upright, staring at her.


An's eyes flash open in the apartment's artificial gloom, wide and tracking nothing in her first panic-slicked moments of wakefulness. She wiped her hands across her burning face and sucked air that felt like ice down into her lungs. Her entire body was impossibly hot, as if the dream had been poison that she was now having to turn herself into a furnace to burn off. Still tangled up in her own mind, An did not notice at first the pale eyes that stared at her from a few feet away, and for several seconds after even that she thought that they belonged to Alexei and Fideo. When she finally did notice that the body possessed a lithe and chill beauty rather than the awkward adolescence that she expected from the boys, it was all that An could do not to leap backwards. 'You're turning out to be a great weapon here, girl.' The thought should have appalled her, but An found herself being wrapped instead in an icy sort of calm that soothed away the fever of the dream. She lifted her chin and tried to match Illyria in her aristocratic blankness. The tilting of Illyria's head and the faint smirk that crossed her face said that the effort was not going unnoticed.

"You are different from them," Illyria said at long last, tilting her head back to the other side. "Stranger." An got the impression of a cat sitting on a windowsill and letting her know without moving a muscle that An was no more than a mouse.

An's moth had gone dry when she registered that it had been Illyria who was sitting across from her and watching her sleep. She licked at her lips, looking around fro Alexei and Fideo and finding them nowhere. She felt very small and very alone without the boys to flank her and make her part of Three. "Yeah, about that. I don't know if you realize this, but there are a lot of people in this room who could be poster children for Ripley's Believe It Or Not."

Illyria's smile was faint and indulgent. An did not like the way that it sat on her face. It made her feel like a pet being cosseted and fussed over and, just this once, Illyria was not going to rip her throat out. Illyria leaned forward from the eerie, frog-like crouch in which she had been resting. An refused to lean back until she could feel Illyria's breath ghosting across her cheek. "Were I still in power, creatures such as yourself were left to the mercies of the hordes before your treasons were ever allowed to reach adulthood."

"That's not a very good argument for returning you there, Babe." An had never been so glad in her life to see Spike. "Or to let you run a daycare center, for that matter."

Illyria cocked her hand back to bring Spike back into her line of sight and rose to her feet without a sound, in spite of the fact that human knees would have made cracking sounds like guns going off after being frozen in one position for that long. Spike placed his hand in the small of her back and guided her a few feet away from An, who found it much easier to breathe in her absence. Illyria neither pulled away from the contact nor, as An had been expecting, pulled Spike's arm off and beat him over the head with it. "Didn't hear you coming in. How did you find us?"

"There is a beacon attached to this place. To its occupants," Illyria said, looking from An to Lindsey, who was gathering weaponry on the far side of the room. Lindsey's face was set and grim, wearing a deep line like a pencil slash between his eyes, and An would have given almost anything to be close enough to read what he was thinking.

Angel was gathering weaponry with Lindsey and listening to Illyria with half of his attention. He lifted his head at Illyria's final words, so that he and Spike locked eyes for a moment. "Yeah," Spike sighed, turning back to Illyria. "We were afraid of that."

Illyria's lip curled. "You are worried about hybrids," she snapped. The defensive tone put a faint smile onto Spike's face which An did not think was the wisest move to make. "Do not place me within their class."

"Wouldn't dream of it, Babe," Spike said in a low voice.

Illyria blinked and seemed for a moment to pull back into herself in defense, but beyond that her expression did not change. "They hear only a faint chime." Illyria looked around the room and sniffed. "I hear a cacophony. It will take them hours to find this place."

"Good news for us," Spike said. He looked Illyria up and down. "Call me crazy if you want, love, but my guess is that you didn't track us down because you've grown accustomed to my face."

Illyria paused for so long that An was reminded of a computer with some vital parts of its programming erased before she said, "I liked your world better as it was before. Your kind is cluttered and scuttling and weak, yet you still manage to impose order. Chaos is not nearly so pleasing to me when I am forced to view it from the common mob."

"We didn't decide to lend a hand until just this morning," Angel said, coming up behind Spike's shoulder. Lindsey trailed back by only a few paces, his face no less inscrutable up close than it had been at a distance. He had reclaimed his sword, An noticed, and held it like an extension of his body.

Illyria scarcely bothered to glance in Angel's direction. "It was a foregone conclusion that you would, eventually."

Spike's smile broadened into an outright grin. "Turning into quite the judge of character, aren't you?" He didn't wait for Illyria's scowl to dissipate before he threw his arm out in the direction of the weaponry. "Pick your poison, Babe. We're going all-out tonight, so don't feel like you have to shop stingy on our account."

"I do not require a weapon. I am one." But Illyria drifted a few steps closer to the swords all the same, one beautiful, dangerous object automatically being drawn towards another. An was not sure how much of this was influenced by the hand that Spike still had placed in the small of Illyria's back.

"Royalty likes shiny things, right? Choose one just for the hell of it."

Angel waited until Spike had guided Illyria to the other side of the room before he turned back towards An. "You heard the scary lady. There's a tag on this building. It's dark and these people have nowhere to go, so we need to get this done before they get caught in the crossfire." Angel dipped his head in the direction of the dozen or so bystanders that they had brought with them from Angel's building. Right. An had almost forgotten about them. Even after Angel pointed them out it was a struggle to make them register for more than a few seconds' time. She had managed several hours worth of sleep, but An still felt sludgy and exhausted, her thoughts eager to slide away from her at the first available opportunity.

She nodded and fumbled around for her sunglasses so that she could buy herself a few seconds of time. With the cool weight of plastic resting against her nose, An felt more like the real deal as she lifted her head to meet Angel's gaze and less like the little girl stomping around in Mommy's shoes. Champions. Well, An thought, maybe that was begging a little too hard for fate to slap her in the mouth. She downgraded it swiftly to Championettes. Champions-in-training. She would ask Alexei and Fideo what they thought, once she found out where they were.

An glanced towards Lindsey, standing inches beyond Angel's shoulder and cast in shades of gray and shadow by the swinging of the room's single light. She did not like one bit the scrutinizing look that he was throwing her at intervals. An's eyes moved swiftly towards Phillip and Janice, but the movement was obscured by the beetle-black lenses of her glasses and, anyway, Lindsey could not know. No one who had not known the pair before could know. An had done her work well. She could almost tell herself that she did not mind it. It wasn't as if Lindsey could claim lily-whiteness, anyhow; just let him try to match her sin for sin.

"Of course. You should have woken me sooner." An ran her fingers through her hair to work the tangles out and wished that she had had the foresight to bring an elastic with her. There was nothing worse than hair getting into your eyes and then staying there because your face was covered with blood and sweat. An was under no illusions that tonight was going to be a social party.

Angel's lips twisted into a faint smile. "You needed your sleep. That portal is guarded by a lot more than only demons."

He still resented her. An did her best to shove down the stirrings of teenaged petulance that made her want to poke out her lower lip and worse, the faint ache that still trembled in her temples and said that Angel was right. Let him be resentful of her; he had a right to it. An did not believe that she would have done anything differently if she were in Angel's position of thinking that he had escaped to become the wielder only to discover that he had remained the Powers' sword all along.

An liked that thought. It made her feel older than she was and wiser than she ought to be as she pushed herself up to her feet. "We'll be able to handle it," she said. "Where are Alexei and Fideo?"

The apartment door opened on cue and her boys slid in, each of them carrying a weapon in their hands. They were both panting, and Fideo had a long scratch on his cheek from which blood oozed. An's heart jumped before she was able to force it back into its old rhythm.

"Sun's gone down," Alexei said. Beneath the glasses, An could see that his eyes were gleaming.

Angel nodded and mimicked Spike's earlier gesture by showing An where the weapons were stacked against the far wall. "Take your pick."

"I don't know how to use one of these," An said. She looked towards Lindsey, but he had already moved across the room and was speaking to Alicia in a low voice. Katie hovered a few feet away from them, picking at the hem of her shirt and looking as if she had not managed to sleep at all over the course of the entire day. An's heart twinged for a moment as she turned back to Angel. Creepy or not, this was a hellish situation for a child. "Except for which end is the dangerous one."

Angel's lips curved, or maybe An's glasses were putting too much strain on her eyes in the dim light. "Once you have that down, all the rest is really just embellishment." He turned his head and called for the rest of them. Alexei and Fideo were all but bouncing on the tips of their toes in excitement, though after the last fight they had to know that there was no reset button that could be hit to make everything better again when the battle was done. Illyria trailed along more slowly, almost indolently, and An saw that she still had not taken up a weapon. Lindsey was the last one to arrive, parting from his conversation with Alicia with a great visible reluctance. An tried to catch his eye, but Lindsey was interested in Angel alone, staring at him with an intensity that made An feel as if she was intruding upon something private and ought to look away.

An told herself that it was only pragmatic concern, not paranoia or even guilt, that made her want to sidle close to Lindsey so that she could touch him and see what was going on behind those big blue eyes. She gave into the impulse and ignored the startled, wary look which Lindsey threw over her as she drew close. "I'm sorry."

"For this?" Lindsey shook his head and snorted. "Don't be. Angel would be talking himself into the hero gig even if you hadn't come along to give him a nudge in that direction. It's kind of what he does." Lindsey's tone was a little wistful, a little regretful and-oh. An was not touching him, she did not know why she should be able to read this, unless the strength with which he was broadcasting was so great that even a normal person would have been able to feel something prickling along their skin.

"No, not that," An said, struggling to keep her voice level and avoid looking around at the boys to see if they were also receiving this new cacophony. "What I tried to do back in the apartment, that was out of line. I 'm not usually like that. We were taught to never use our powers in the interest of petty power, and I guess for a moment I forgot that. It won't happen again."

For a moment Lindsey appeared startled, before he parted his lips into a smile. "It's already been forgotten about, kiddo."

He was a good liar, but that was okay. An knew for a fact that she was so much better. She reached for Alexei's and Fideo's hands as they walked out the door to the task that they had been made for. After a moment her smile also spread to their faces.


Eighteen months was a very long time to hold onto a memory. Alicia would not have said that when she still lived in Before, but she knew better now. Memories were not images or sounds or mental videos. Those things were all still working just fine, and Alicia figured that they would continue to keep on doing so until she was either struck a hard blow on the head or tipped right over into mental collapse. Memories were emotions. Those were precious, fleeting, and so terrifyingly fragile. Alicia was amazed by how quickly they could slip away.

Alicia's last date had been three days before the world flipped over. His name had been Terry. He had taught fifth grade and had had blue eyes and a sweet, crooked smile. It was the third date and Alicia had let him kiss her for ages before she had finally pulled away and whispered, "Not yet." Her voice had rasped and they both knew that it would only take a few more dates before it became, "Yes, now."

Alicia remembered all of this in an abstract way, like a person watching a video of herself. After all, this was a brave new world, and she had more immediate things to think about. It was hard to have a date by candlelight when you were busy calculating which demons this phase of the moon was going to bring out and whether those candles might not be better used snuffed and shoved in a drawer for curfew, and when women out at night were in so much more danger than men. There were so many more things to worry about than romance or sex. Alicia rarely thought of it and was swift to chastise herself when she did.

Desire, when it came rushing back, did so with the force of a train.

Alicia's stomach jumped as Lindsey walked away from the conversation going on between Angel and An, back towards her. She placed her hand against it and felt her eyes widen. There was no time to react beyond that because Lindsey was there with his huge blue eyes. The jump turned into a sweet warmth that had begun to spread almost before she had time to realize what it was. Memories were quick to flee away, but they were also so quick to return. Alicia pulled her hand away fro her stomach and dropped it back to her side to pick at the fabric of her skirt, remembering the days when she had not had an ugly pink scar bisecting the lower half of her face.

"Feeling all right?" Lindsey asked, tilting his head down so that he could see her better in the dim light.

"Fine." Alicia brushed her hands against her skirt and tried to smile. "Wound up. Feel like there's something big coming over the horizon and it's ready to pop."

"You wouldn't be wrong." Lindsey looked at the same time tired and jumped-up, and if the way that he was gripping his sword was any indication then Alicia thought that he couldn't put it down if he wanted to. "There's a place for you with us, if you want to fight. Beginner or not, you didn't do half-bad earlier, and any extra blade would be able to pull its weight."

Alicia's stomach clenched and her wounded leg twinged as one motion. It was all that she could do to control her wince. "No. I don't think so. It's..." Alicia shrugged for a moment and finally gave in to the shudder that she had been fighting to hold back for most of the day. "I don't like this world."

Lindsey's smile was faint and teasing in spite of their somber surroundings. It did things to his eyes that should have required him to wear a warning label. "That only proves that you're not a sociopath."

"I don't like it," Alicia repeated, deciding that to go on as if he had not spoken was the best way to neutralize the effects of those eyes, "and I want as little to do with it as I can before it's over. If I start fighting in the street like a vigilante-"

"Then you'll be playing by their rules," Lindsey finished for her, nodding as if he understood. A light had gone on behind his eyes that made Alicia think that maybe he even did. She could not shake a faint suspicion that he was disappointed in her, though, as if he expected her to limp into the fray with sword held high. Alicia could not help but wonder what sort of woman had instilled that expectation in him.

Lindsey leaned forward, carefully angling his sword to the side first so that he would not hurt her. "Funny thing about that promise, Alicia. Sometimes that's exactly what the bad guys want, that refusal to get right down into the middle of it and fight them on their own turf. Sometimes that is how you wind up playing by their rules." Lindsey had a curious look on his face by the time he had finished. Alicia thought that it had been a very long time before he had given a pep talk to anybody, and maybe even longer than that since he had believed it.

This revelation did not prevent Alicia from pressing her lips into a line so hard that it was probably a good thing that lipstick was of the distant past, for hers would have been smudged beyond all repair. "I can't." It came out colder than she had planned, the voice that she had used on days when she was forgetting why she liked children and remembering very much why she liked martinis.

It was not a suspicion that told Lindsey was disappointed in her now; it was a fact. Fluttering feelings or not, Alicia could not halt the defensive flush that rose in her cheeks. "Your choice," Lindsey said, and suddenly looked so distressed and tired again that most of Alicia's anger flowed away from her like water. "We'll leave weapons behind for you, anyway, in case the apartment happens again. You should be ready."

"All right." Alicia's pulse was still sounding in her ears, an unpleasant rhythm that stretched the skin of her temples. She resisted the urge to rub her hands over her eyes and wondered where the nearly Zen state of indifference which had propelled her through the past eighteen months had gone. Normal emotions seemed strange and uncomfortable by comparison.

Lindsey rubbed his hand across the back of his neck and seemed in danger of slipping back into the moody silence that had claimed him for most of the day. The memories that were slamming back against the inside of Alicia's skull in greater and greater numbers said that now would be the right time for her to reach out and take Lindsey's hand in her own. Just as she started to move, Angel called Lindsey's name. Lindsey's head swiveled in that direction, and he traded his distant expression immediately for an intent one. If Alicia had had more than a few hours to shake off the numbness that had allowed her to successfully navigate the new city for the last year and a half, she would have understood immediately. As it was, a vague curling of unease unfurled itself within her belly and began to spread, making her blink.

"I'll see you later," Lindsey said. He reached for her hand, squeezed it briefly, and was gone before Alicia could tell him goodbye.

Alicia ran her hands through her hair and wished that the chill would come back over her, so that her worry would at least be muted. Katie was still sitting on the makeshift pile of bedding where they had slept, tugging restlessly at a piece of her own hair and staring about the room with wide, anxious eyes. Alicia could sympathize with the nervousness to a certain degree. Phillip and Janice were two of the nicest people that Alicia had met in a very long time, but the honest truth of it was that they had allowed nearly a dozen hungry, wounded people into their sanctuary without knowing a single thing about any of them. Even dining sparingly, the group had to have used up supplies that would have lasted more than a week otherwise. It would take a pair of saints to look at that kind of loss without suffering so much as a flicker in their smile. This was not a world which looked kindly on saints any longer, and Alicia's skin prickled every time that she had to go within a few feet of them.

Alicia might have been thinking this, but she had also taken great pains to shield Katie from the worse of the changes that Los Angeles had gone through since her student had become her ward. The girl had never shied away from new people before. Alicia sat down beside Katie and put her arm around Katie's shoulders. Katie twitched faintly before she accepted the contact. "You all right there, sweetie? Not getting another one of your headaches, are you?"

Katie folded her arms over the tops of her knees and closed her eyes. "Good people do bad things sometimes," she said. Alicia's blood chilled. She tightened her grip around Katie's shoulders. "And sometimes bad people do good things. Mostly, though, it's just a lot of in-between people doing in-between things and pretending that they belong to one side or the other because that what makes them feel good." Katie's smile was small and almost proud. "Took me a long time to figure that out."

Alicia was afraid that if she tightened her protective grip on Katie's shoulders any further she was going to carve bruises into the skin. "Katie, what are you saying?" She lowered her voice. "Did somebody say something to you? Did somebody hurt you?"

Katie opened her eyes. In the dim light, their pale, solemn blue almost seemed to glow. Alicia could see Katie's face more clearly than she ought to have been able to, but she swatted the thought away before it could come to fruition. Katie gestured for Alicia to bend her head down so that Katie could whisper into her ear. Alicia did so, her heart beginning to pound in her chest. Katie's breath tickled against the side of Alicia's cheek as she whispered, "I have something that I need to tell you."

In the face of everything else, desire was just as swift in running away as it had been in coming back again.


The kids walked without making a sound, each one of them carrying a sword that had been given to them more as a last resort than anything else. If any attackers managed to get through the combined forces of Angel, Spike, Lindsey, and even Illyria, then no one had any confidence that a trio of adolescents with much in the way of enthusiasm but little in the way of appreciable skill would be able to hold them off. Lindsey glanced over his shoulder at the trio whenever his position as one corner of the rough square of protection surrounding them allowed him to do so. An and Fideo were gripping one another's hands so tightly that it was a wonder they were not cracking one another's knuckles. Both of their faces were intent with the weight of the secret conversations taking place between them. Meanwhile, An had solved the problem of maintaining contact with both Alexei and her sword at the same time by looping her arm through Alexei's and holding the sword out stiffly in front of her. It was not the wisest position for her to maintain if all hell should break loose around them, and Lindsey sincerely hoped that it would not come to that.

Lindsey glanced back at Illyria, who was bringing up the rear with Spike and staring at the back of the kids' heads with a fixed expression that was making Lindsey feel as if it was dangerous for him to look away. Every now and again she would glance towards Spike, her expression softening into something that Lindsey would even call confusion, but always her gaze would bounce towards the trio again within seconds. Lindsey reluctantly turned back around before he allowed himself to be blindsided by a demon or ran into a pole or something. He was not sure which of those would be the more embarrassing option.

"Hell of a lady you have there," Lindsey said to Angel in a low voice and swore that he felt Illyria's gaze twitch against the back of his neck.

Angel only glanced over his shoulder for a second, but Lindsey saw the subtle tightening of his face before he could tuck it away again behind the calm marble mask that Lindsey was beginning to hate. "She has her own unique talents," Angel said. "And you didn't know the person who was in the body before."

Lindsey's memories of Winifred Burkle came down to a half-dozen glances and the humorlessly derisive reports carried back to him by Eve, so he supposed that Angel had him on that score. He glanced back once more at the homicidal blue crayon trailing along behind them and wondered at what sort of bond he have to share with a person before he could prefer even that pale ghost to the one who had been there before. Then again, he has also been one of the driving forces behind midwifing Darla's glorious rebirth, so maybe he shouldn't be the one to go casting stones.

"Can you get us to the portal?" Lindsey asked Angel, not daring to raise his voice above a whisper even though the street was as deserted as one in a spaghetti Western just before the bullets began to fly. The moment that he had stepped outside of the apartment building at the site of the last fight, he had been mobbed. Tonight, he had yet to see so much as a stray cat. The city felt changed to Lindsey in a way that he was not certain he could give proper voice to, except that it was making his skin crawl so hard that it was in danger of sliding off and falling in a puddle around his feet. He had spent five years of his life able to pick out the outline of the Wolfram and Hart offices from the horizon at a glance, knew its location in the city by heart. A year and a half before he would have laughed in the face of anyone who would have told him that he could be so deeply unsettled by its absence. But, Lindsey reflected, a year and a half before the world had still been merely changing and not yet changed, and he had still had some scrap of solid ground left under his feet.

Lindsey blinked and swore that the city was pulsing around him, had to be, because there were deep indigo bruises coiling in the air between the buildings that was making them seem to shiver and shake. They should not be there, there was no way that they could be there, unless the city had done some serious restructuring since he had walked about the previous evening. Maybe there was a reason for there being no demons in attendance, as the laws of nature were becoming as elastic and sticky as warm taffy; maybe the demons were onto something.

"Why, Lindsey," Angel finally responded in a drawling voice that Lindsey did not like at all. It made him think that if he were to look over he would see eyes that were blazing gold rather than coffee-dark. "Haven't you figured it out yet? Get this close, and the portal finds you." He made a soft sound that Lindsey hoped was not one of amusement.

"We've got company," Spike said sharply from behind them. Illyria uttered an oath in a language whose prayer books had long since turned to dust. Lindsey thought that he heard something about 'filth' before An's scream overshadowed it. The air was filled with the rushing of wings.

"Get your sword up!" Angel yelled at Lindsey, an unnecessary order. Lindsey was already three steps ahead of him and had been ever since he heard the sound of the wings, those goddamned wings. If they ever got this city back to normal, Lindsey hesitated to think about what he would do at the sound of a flock of pigeons taking off. The sword twisted in his hand as his muscles seemed to take on a life of their own, dipping up and reflecting a sullen orange glare from the remains of a building. A shadow blotted out the glare and sent Lindsey ducking away before his brain had a chance to catch up with him. The instinct saved his life.

A hawk-like black talon closed on the air where Lindsey had been standing less than a breath before, drawing a shudder from him so strong that it nearly threw him down to his knees. The Guardian hissed from its hovering point in the air, four wings beating furiously in tandem and sulphur-yellow eyes glaring at Lindsey in a way that left him with now doubt that he was being recognized. The sound of the monster's fangs rasping against each other was like knives being sharpened as he wheeled around for another try. Lindsey stumbled back and felt his shoulders collide with Angel's own. He could feel the dippings of twistings of Angel's sword reflected in his own blade.

Angel turned his head so that he was speaking directly into Lindsey's ear. "Protect them," Angel ordered, throwing out his free hand to indicate the kids, who were standing and watching the goings-on with stricken expressions. A second Guardian dipped low, aiming for attack, and then wound up coming even lower still as Angel's sword too of two of its wings at one blow and brought it screaming to the ground. A blue streak of motion darted towards, and there was a cracking noise as the Guardian's neck was broken so hard that the head was almost torn from the body. Illyria darted away again.

Lindsey nodded, hoping that Angle would be able to see the gesture from his peripheral vision, and turned to rush across the yards of distance separating him from the kids. How much of the attack was motivated in order to take Lindsey back to his proper place and how much by a desire to protect the necrotic new order of things Lindsey could not say, and he did not have the time to ponder. A dark shadow filled the air over his head and he ducked, thrusting the sword up like he would any other talisman to ward off evil. It was close enough to the truth, as the sudden weight which reverberated down the blade and into his arms told him that he had struck something far more substantial than empty night. The Guardian screamed in a high, shrill voice of dying, thrashing wildly. Blood the color of squid's ink spurted down the blade and onto Lindsey's hands.

The weight of the beast coming down to earth jerked Lindsey off of his feet and very nearly took his arms out of their sockets. He refused to let go of the sword in spite of the scalding-hot stickiness covering both the blade and his hands, allowing himself to be pulled along with the Guardian as it struck the ground with a meaty thwapping sound. Lindsey used his continuing momentum to jerk his sword free and roll back to his feet with an adrenaline-fueled grace that would have left him proud in other circumstances.

Lindsey only paused to survey the corpse of hell's own pit bull for a moment before he spun away to face the next in a long line of threats, twitching away as a set of claws clicked shut close enough to his head to ruffle his hair in the breeze. This explained why the lesser demons were nowhere in attendance, at the very least, though an eerie sense of sliding still crossed across his skin. It was as if the very nature of reality was experiencing a labor pang before ejecting a new and even bloodier version of itself and Lindsey's human sense were only now struggling to catch up. The sight of An, Alexei, and Fideo standing and staring up at the sky with expressions of awe and even rapture did little to banish these thoughts back to the far, dark corners of Lindsey's mind where they belonged. Neither did the sly voice which whispered that Lindsey had felt these birth pangs before, oh, he knew them so very well, and he knew exactly where he was going if they were allowed to keep growing unmolested. This second realization Lindsey forced away for the sake of protecting his own sanity for a little while longer, but the first he dealt with by yelling at the kids in a voice that would have made a drill sergeant proud, "Get your damned sword up!"

Alexei flinched and looked around at Lindsey with wide, unfocused eyes like a person who had just woken up from a deep sleep and was not sure which reality he preferred yet. The other two did not so much as flinch. A Guardian swooped low, screaming out its victory cry, and Alexei's sword moved so fast that Lindsey did not think that the boy was even aware of it. A long line opened up in the Guardian's side, exposing white ribcage and the blue-gray bulge of entrails. The monster screamed and dipped away, but not before its claws had flown out in a move so fast that it made the flick of Alexei's sword look like a child playing soldier.

The boy's sunglasses were knocked away from his face and went skittering across the pavement. For one second Lindsey was horrified to see that the milky-white cast which covered the boy's eyes was actually glowing, and the faint silver light which crept out from beneath An's and Fideo's glasses would suggest that theirs were doing the same. Only for a second and maybe less, as by that point all of Lindsey's capacity for horror was being directed towards the wound which had been opened up on Alexei's face from the corner of his eye to the center of his chin. They boy's shirt was drenched in scarlet within seconds.

Lindsey lunged forward and was unable to remember later if he killed anything along the way, except to note as he reached Alexei that he was covered in more blood than he by rights should have been. He was terrified that he would reach the boy only to find his eye rendered into a mutilated and unrecognizable pulp, as there was so much blood covering Alexei's face that Lindsey could not from a distance tell how much damage had been done. An and Fideo had not moved and continued to stare at the violence around them with moonstruck expressions.

"What in the bloody hell is wrong with them?" Spike had long since given up any pretense of humanity. His voice when he spoke was nearly obliterated beneath the weight of his growl, and when he killed a Guardian his eyes were gleaming as yellow as the monster's own.

"I don't know!" Lindsey yelled back. He did not dare set down his sword but ran his free hand over Alexei's face instead, saying the boy's name over and over again as he wiped away as much of the blood as he was able. Lindsey's hand was encased in a scarlet glove up to his elbow in less than a minute, and he had no idea how Alexei was managing to stay on his feet. "Alexei!" Lindsey was beginning to give serious thought to leaning back and slapping him when Alexei blinked, shuddered, and turned his head to stare at Lindsey with a slow trickle of recognition coming back into his expression.

"I'm bleeding," Alexei said to Lindsey, slowly and as if he were imparting a great truth that he had spent a long time turning over in his mind before he was able to render a judgment on it. His eye had not been destroyed, at least. Lindsey could see its silver glow blazing stronger than ever out of the mess that had been made out of the rest of the boy's face. Lindsey was not sure that this was any better, as he was beginning to get the feeling that Alexei's eye would have continued to shine even if it had been pulled form its socket and crushed into unrecognizability, like the body of a firefly.

"Yeah, kid," Lindsey said cautiously. "You sure are." He paused to deliver a glancing blow to a Guardian who was skirting a little too close in the air above them. "So why don't you just-"

"I really should stop that," Alexei interrupted, and closed his eyes. The air seemed first to dance and then to shiver. Lindsey once again got the impression of reality shuddering, of old giving way before new. When it had settled again, the torrent of blood running down from Alexei's face had become a trickle. As Lindsey watched, the jagged edges of the wound then pressed themselves together, being held by a line of stitches that he could not see. Alexei opened his eyes again and gave Lindsey a beatific smile that made every inch of his body go cold in the span of time between one breath and the next.

"We can hear it singing," An drifted up to his elbow and whispered. She pulled her sunglasses away from her face slowly, as a sleepwalker might. Her eyes were wide and startled; beneath the silvery-white glaze that covered them Lindsey could see that her pupils were dilated to enormous proportions. "Oh, God, it's horrible." An influx of sudden tears choked her voice and made her sound as if she was going to be sick.

"The rest of its tunes aren't much better." Lindsey snapped his mouth closed as the buildings across the street began to shudder and there came the unmistakable sound of scales rubbing against brick. The small hairs on Lindsey's body all stood at attention as one. He did not need to turn to know what color they eyes peering out at him would be.

Angel paused long enough to glance over Lindsey's shoulder for him. His face became set and grim within seconds. When this vampire had come to be called the one with the angelic face, Lindsey thought, the ones who named him had surely meant the avenging kind. "Get the kids to the portal," Angel ordered, making a quick and mostly futile effort to shake blood and bits of flesh off of his blade. He was so covered in gore across the rest of his body that it hardly made a difference. "Illyria!" She paused in the middle of an energetic dismemberment long enough to look at him. "You still holding a grudge about losing your kingdom? The people who replaced it are that way." Angel jerked his thumb in the direction of the bloated purple spider hanging only a short distance away.

A smile broke out across Illyria's face. She dragged her arm across her face to wipe the excess blood away and said, "Excellent." Illyria rose to her feet and was starting forward when Angel cupped her elbow.

"Those kids have a better chance of stopping the chaos than you do."

Illyria pulled her arm out of Angel's grip rather more tolerantly than Lindsey thought she would have before he had died and the world had changed. "I remain my own ruler. Your orders are meaningless to me."

"But you still know that I'm right." Illyria made a sniffing noise that Angel apparently chose to take as assent. He turned back towards Lindsey. "Get them there."

Lindsey gestured towards the waiting hulk behind him. "Soul eater." There was more concern bleeding into his voice than he intended, and Angel and Lindsey both blinked in the wake of it.

Angel's smile was small, taut, and glittering with knives across its entire surface. "I promise I'll kick the entire way down."

Lindsey nodded and leaned over to seize An's free hand in his own. Both sets of fingers were slick with a mixture of blood and sweat. "Let's go meet your destiny, kiddo. I hope you read those tea leaves right." He tugged her over to where an impatient Illyria was waiting for them, and like iron filings to a magnet Alexei and Fideo trailed along behind her.

"Oh!" An kept saying in a startled voice as Lindsey's fingers tightened around her fingers to the point of turning his knuckles white. "Oh! Oh!" It took Lindsey several seconds to realize that she must be reading his memories, and only a second beyond that to realize that he did not care. If it ended this nightmare once and for all then let her have it all, from the moment that he had learned what real deprivation was to his first adolescent fantasy about wealth to the point when he had signed on the dotted line and realized how much of the rest was fueled by pure and unfettered power. Let her have it and damn it all to hell, and him along with it if that's what An really wanted, if that was what it took to bring a halt to all of this.

"I will kill them for you," Illyria said as Lindsey reached her with his homicidal ducklings in tow. Spike was still fighting alongside Angel. Illyria looked over at them with an expression that Lindsey would have interpreted as worry if it had appeared on any other face before she reached up and pulled a Guardian from the sky with the same ease with which Lindsey might have done to the same with a sparrow. The force with which it struck the ground buckled the sidewalk. Lindsey leaped backwards to avoid being splattered. Illyria did not bother to move but touched her stomach briefly afterwards, like a person experiencing nausea. Lindsey wondered if maybe he was giving her too much credit with that one.

"Thanks," Lindsey said to Illyria, who inclined her chin downwards in acknowledgment. An switched to gripping Lindsey's hand fiercely in her own rather than passively allowing herself to be led at that moment. Her eyes had begun to glow with such a bright light that they looked as if they had been plucked out and replaced with silver dollars instead. Lindsey thought that it was even possible that she was feeding off of him. He shocked himself and, if the twitch that ran through her was any indication, An as well by thinking that if it got the world back it might even an acceptable sacrifice. "Lead the way."

An eerie smile passed over Illyria's face. Lindsey thought that there were traces of Fred in that smile. That made it worse as her bright blue replacement turned and loped swiftly away. Lindsey had to break into an sprint in order to keep up, dragging An along with him and hearing Alexei and Fideo clattering along on the sidewalk behind her as they struggled to keep up. He thought that Illyria was probably modulating her pace so as not to leave them completely behind. Lindsey was grateful for it, as his day of rest had left him feeling more or less like a human being again, but within minutes spears were being driven into his side and his lungs were burning as if he were forcing them to breathe gelatin rather than real air.

It was not him, or at the very least it was not only him. The air itself that surrounded him was once again taking on a thick, pregnant feeling, potential only waiting for reality to be torn away so that it could begin to work again. Lindsey knew this feeling well. He had experienced it firsthand in the interminable months and years that ran together in a blur of dreams every time that he had managed to sleep since being pulled out of it. He fought to hold back the gibbering panic that had hooked its claws in at the base of his spine and was struggling now to make its way upwards to take control.

Tethered to him by the iron grip that their hands were maintaining on one another, An made a small moaning sound. If anything, her hold on Lindsey tightened even further afterwards, until his hand began to ache. She sounded like a dog panting beside him, a sound that was echoed by Alexei and Fideo only a few paces behind, and her eyes were now glowing so brightly that they could serve as headlamps in the gloom. The light that she threw off made Lindsey think of nuclear waste. He shivered before he could stop himself and then told himself that he did not need to now what was fueling that glow, any more than he needed to know what caused the faint smile which crossed An's face in its reflected glory.

A scream rolled out from the air above him. Lindsey twitched out of his reverie, stared up at the sky, and swore explosively in the split-second before he was forced to act. He yelled an inarticulate warning at Illyria and watched her spin around before he hurled himself backwards. Lindsey released An and shoved her towards Alexei and Fideo. The three of them went down in a confused tangle of limbs, while the silver glow coming from their eyes never wavered.


Lindsey struck the cement with his back only a few yards away from where the biggest Guardian that he had ever seen came slamming down to the cement. Lindsey put up his arm to prevent himself from being blinded and felt blood running down his biceps from the reopened cuts on his elbows. The Guardian's head snapped around at the fresh scent, its nostrils fluttering and sending out plumes of sulphur every time that it exhaled. It was the pit bull, and with every twitch of its body the monster made it clear that Lindsey was nothing more than a can of Alpo. Lindsey pulled his legs back under him until he had settled into an uneasy crouch and readjusted his sweaty grip on the sword. He kept his movements slow and soft so as not to startle the monster, even though it continued to watch every move that he made. Let the gliding movements be a way to re-center himself, then, and to regain control over a heart that seemed determined to leap into his throat with every beat. The smell of sulphur was thick and rank.

"Illyria!" Lindsey yelled for help as the Guardian lunged forward in a blur of speed that defied the human eye to follow. Oh, but Lindsey already had so much experience in dealing with these monsters. He probably knew their moves better than they did. "Come on, you bastard, come on," Lindsey whispered, and dropped his crouch to roll hard to the left.

The Guardian moved swiftly to cope with its prey's change in direction, its claws scrabbling wildly across the cement and leaving deep grooves in the cement, but it still wound up having to slow its course in order to turn. That was all that Lindsey needed. He scrambled back up to his feet, whipped the sword around in a position that more closely resembled a spear, and let the monster's own momentum impale it through the neck. The clip that the Guardian was moving at drove the blade through the flesh almost to the hilt. The blood that poured forth still steamed.

Lindsey pulled his lips back from his teeth and refused to let his grip on the sword waver, even as the blood scalded his hands and as he was driven back across the street by a beast that had been weaned on death and so refused to give in to its own easily. The Guardian snaked its head out to its full length and thrashed its head from side to side, emitting a high whistling noise that may have been a scream. Lindsey thought that his sword was now resting in the monster's trachea. He set his teeth until the noise of their grinding was the loudest sound in his head and felt himself skidding backwards against the pavement. Lindsey rolled with the Guardian's throes as well as he was able, realizing that to take the stubborn course and hold his ground would at best result in a pair of broken arms and might even end with limbs being ripped from their sockets. Hell would still freeze over, though-and he was willing to admit that this was a distinct possibility-before he let go of that sword.

"Illyria!" Lindsey yelled again, his voice cracking on the last syllable as the air grew thick and slimy in his throat. Magic at its very most tangible, and every bit as deadly and elegant in the right hands as the sword that Lindsey refused to relinquish. There were pragmatic reasons for the darkest rituals being performed by creatures that had long since shed off the need to breathe, if they could properly be said to have it in the first place.

Lindsey did not number among those creatures. He did his best to ignore the growing heaviness in his lungs, the panic that alternately screamed and pleaded that the best thing to do was run while he had the chance. A few struggling breaths helped him to hold onto his calm. He was alive, his heart was still beating in his chest, and as long as those things held true then he could not be claimed. Lindsey tried once more to yell for help and fell into a coughing fit instead as the air became more like struggling to breathe underwater with every passing second.

The Guardian snaked its head out to the full length allowed by the blade that Lindsey was struggling so hard to maintain his grip on. Lindsey was blasted with damp, sulphurous air and was made extremely glad that the ability to breathe fire did not number among the Guardian's talents. He was never again going to doubt anyone who told him that smell was the strongest sense tied to memory, not with the hard knots of gooseflesh which were rising up over every available inch of his skin.

Lindsey's grip slipped in the blood and the sweat covering the handle of his sword, and he came very close to amputating several of his own fingers. No creature could fight forever with three feet of steel slammed through their throat, but the Guardian was giving it a damned good try all the same. It bared its teeth at Lindsey through the ghastly spikes that protected its face from injury.

Lindsey did not have the spare air to yell for Illyria to get her ass back from wherever she had run off to, so he focused instead on struggling to keep enough oxygen circulating through his lungs to maintain consciousness and on his face well enough to remain in the fight. Meanwhile, he swore that if he ever saw Angel again the two of them were going to have to have a chat about what constituted reliable backup. He twisted the sword, hard, and the Guardian screamed. Now it was Lindsey's turn to bare his teeth into something that almost managed to be a smile.

His legs were just beginning to wobble on him when Illyria came back into his field of vision so quickly that Lindsey's eye could barely follow her. There was quite a bit of red and inky-black mixed in among the blue, testament that at the very least she had not been having a picnic while she was missing. Lindsey supposed that he could forgive her, then, especially as Illyria's foot struck against the Guardian's neck with a force so great that it was difficult to believe that it could have come from Fred Burkle's tiny body. All three of them were snapped to the side as one tangled creature. Lindsey was not carried along the whole way, though; the blade caught upon the Guardian's spine and with an audible snapping sound went no further. The noise of the sword breaking was accompanied by a wet gurgle as the Guardian's throat was torn up wide and gaping.

Lindsey staggered to his feet and backed up a few steps with the remains of the sword in his hand, watching as Illyria tumbled to the cement with the finally dying Guardian. She scrambled back quickly to avoid the panicky fluttering of its wings. The Guardian twisted its head around, seeking an enemy that it could at least reach, and if Illyria had not twisted at the last moment one of the spikes protruding from the monster's muzzle would have destroyed her eyes.

Lindsey was not one to argue with sudden inspiration when it came to him. He lunged forward while the Guardian was still caught up in its blue distraction, ducking a blow that would have split his face from chin to hairline, and forced the remainder of the sword past the protective spikes and as deeply into the Guardian's eye as he could manage. Maybe it couldn't exactly be called a sword any longer, but it made a damned fine dagger.

The Guardian wheeled back around on him, screaming, but it was not nearly as fast as it had once been. Lindsey was already leaping out of the way long before the moment came when he would have been in real danger. One good lunge was all that the monster could manage before it fell back down to the street, panting and staring at him with the eye that was left. Illyria used the lull to scramble out from the chaos of rapidly beating wings and came without a word to stand by Lindsey's side. They stood without speaking for several moments, watching as the pool of steaming black blood around the Guardian's head grew larger and its struggles finally ceased. Lindsey noticed that Illyria had a deep, jagged wound across her collarbone that was already beginning to cease bleeding. Not from her tussle with the Guardian less than a minute before, then.

"It grows," Illyria said suddenly. Lindsey knew that she was not referring to the cooling corpse of the Guardian. "It moves."

"And it never did that before?" Lindsey's voice sounded harsh to his own ears, as if he had spent the night drinking whiskey, but it was becoming easier to breathe. After what Illyria had told him, this was only half the comfort that it should have been.

Illyria shook her head. Pieces of her hair swung into the bloody mess that had been made out of her clavicle and stayed there. "Never. Not before they came."

Lindsey was less surprised than he supposed he should have been. The trio had been written in prophecy since before this scheme had been more than a gleam in a Senior Partner's eye. It made sense that whatever forces wrote these things were at least going to aim high.

Lindsey turned towards the place where he had shoved An when the situation had started to turn ugly, intending to rouse her out of her stupor long enough to get to the portal and finish the business that they had started. He replaced her name with a creative bout of swearing when he saw only empty pavement instead.

"They were gone when I returned," Illyria said from behind his shoulder. Lindsey spun on her. Something on his face must have offended her, because a deep and defensive line appeared between her eyes. "It is not my duty to watch over them for you," she snapped.

Arguing with angry former gods did not rank high on Lindsey's list of wise things to do. He ran his hands through his hair and grimaced at the equal-opportunity mess that had been ground all the way into his scalp before he turned back to the place where An, Alexei, and Fideo had last been. A few quarter-sized drops of blood were the only proof that they had been there at all. "They could be anywhere."

Illyria made a huffing noise. Lindsey had the feeling that every human she came into contact with was subject to that 'you are too stupid to live, but I will allow it because I'm feeling generous' stare from her from time to time. He didn't waste time in being offended. "Where would you go, if you were designed for one purpose only and finally found yourself close enough to finish it?"

"Right." Lindsey turned back around to face her. "How do you feel about killing a very large amount of demons in a very small amount of time?"

Illyria stared at him and then, bit by bit, split her lips into a smile.

All around them, the air was growing thick again.


The remainder of the sword was less than a foot long, jagged at the end and so covered in gore that it startled Lindsey in the rare moments when it still managed to gleam. Lindsey had been unable to stop himself from feeling slightly sorry for the Guardian as he had walked up to its corpse to retrieve the weapon, in the same way that he would feel sorry for a rabid dog right before he pulled the trigger. They were both trapped by what they had been designed to be.

Illyria drifted along on the rooftops above Lindsey's head, every few minutes dipping back into sight as a blue gleam beneath the moon before she disappeared again. Lindsey thought that Illyria was doing far more to aid him than her sentinel-like appearance would suggest; he had gone without harassment since leaving the corpse of the Guardian behind, though he could still things cavorting through the darkness just beyond his line of sight. There were a few times when Illyria would reappear on rooftops and for a moment seemed to glow red.

Lindsey knew that Illyria was there in an abstract, distracted way, but he could not force his brain on her for more than a few seconds at a time before his thoughts would flow away again, back towards the looming portal. The air was growing thick again, sticking to the back of Lindsey's throat and nearly strangling him. A jog was the fastest pace at which he could force his body to go. It would have to be good enough.

Lindsey's hand tingled at the place where An had been gripping him before, sending out quick sparks of energy that traveled into his brain and began to bounce gleefully about his skull. There were quiet whispers and faint images that always darted out of reach before he could wrest them under control, singing and almost seeming to taunt him. Lindsey hoped very hard that this did not mean that An's particular form of weirdness was contagious. He did not believe so, for the images themselves made him feel like nothing so much as a short wave radio standing in the shadow of a mammoth broadcast tower. He could only imagine how strong the images echoing through the kids' heads must be. Even the faint forms in Lindsey's own mind tugged him forward like a magnet would pull iron shavings, drawing him ever closer to the surface. He could have told whichever intelligence behind the source that it did not need to bother; he could find the way home himself.

It was not a dramatic thing like the vortex that had drawn him into the Senior Partners' own version of suburbia gone mad. There were no flashing lights, no screams of the damned, and no rushes of air that choked the throat with sulfur. The air began bit by bit to take on an indigo cast like the color of a fresh bruise, as the starts and the flames slowly dwindled until they did not seem to be there at all. The air grew thicker by the second, until Lindsey could drag his hand through it and watch ripples being cast in its wake, but his lungs no longer needed to draw in air. Unless Lindsey struggled very hard he no longer remembered to draw in breath at all. It was not a necessity in the territory that he was entering, and his body was remembering quickly what his mind did not want to. When a tremendous popping sound like being on the world's worst airplane ride reverberated through his ears, Lindsey knew that he had arrived.

He wanted to yell a warning to Illyria wherever she might be in the thick purple nothingness and tell her some of what she could expect, here, but he clamped his lips down around the words before they could escape. And he would tell every ugly thing that lurked in those shadows exactly where they were, sure, that would be a great idea. Illyria could take care of herself better than he could ever hope to, Lindsey told himself. It would have to do. Hell, there was even a chance that she had helped to build this place.

Lindsey shifted the remainder of the sword in his hand and felt the handle twist with a slickness that was neither blood nor sweat but some new foulness, carried on the air. He kept going. The environment surrounding him grew thicker and black, wet like the most poisonous womb that had ever been brought into existence. Lindsey had seen the children that this monster spit out. He could imagine what sort of beacon the smell of his adrenaline must be sending to them.

All round him, the air felt as if it had eyes. Lindsey found himself anxiously tipping his head upwards to scan what served as the sky more than once. How quickly the habits of living returned; he should know by now that the only warning the Guardians would given on their approach would be the sound of their wings.

Lindsey, necessity of breathing be damned, soon found himself beginning to pant from the combination of nerves and thick, oppressive heat. He had worn goosebumps across his skin like a coat for a full day and a half after he had emerged from this place, before. He wondered if he would experience them again, should he manage to do the impossible a second time.

Lindsey shook off the unwelcome introspection with a physical shudder, like a dog throwing water from its back. Instead, he chose to hone in on the trembling, whispering echoes which still bounced at intervals through his mind. When he focused down hard enough, his skin began to feel as if it were being swarmed with maggots.

Maggots crawling swiftly across a cobbled road, jostling against one another and making a sound not unlike that of...scales. Lindsey's entire body came alive with a jolt of adrenaline, and he threw himself to the side.

There was no smell of sulfur. That only occurred when they were trying to cross over into the living world. Or maybe, Lindsey thought cynically, he had only readjusted back to the home turf so quickly that he did not notice. He hit the ground on his shoulder and rolled, feeling the earth sag beneath him for a moment and then seem to hurl him back to his feet in a way that cement never would have done. Lindsey stabbed the remainder of the sword deeply into the ground to control his progress and knew that he was not imagining the shiver which rolled up in response. Not his problem, not now, not with the thing that was eating up the ground behind him.

Lindsey pulled the blade free and rolled further, a move that was short on grace but long on efficiency. Good for him, as he felt a burst of hot air streaming over his leg less than a second later. The air was replaced in even less time than that by teeth that tore a long line through both his jeans and his flesh. Hot blood began to pour forth immediately. There was no pain, though, and Lindsey thought that it must be a first for this place. The virtue of still being in possession of a living human body meant that, even here, he still had the option of going into shock. He wasn't going to complain about the lack of hurting, but that still didn't say a lot of good things about his long-term survival prospects. If there were any worse places in the universe to be dizzy and off of his game while still covered in enough blood to serve as an emergency flare to every predator for miles around, then Lindsey did not care to know about them.

He rolled to his feet again and wrinkled his lips back from his teeth into an expression that a saint still would not have been optimistic enough to call a proper smile. Lindsey's newly injured leg threatened for a second to buckle before agreeing to take him again. Ah, now there was the pain that he had been missing. Flickers of electricity crackled up and down the torn flesh, growing stronger by the minute. He could pause to get reacquainted with his old friend later, after he made sure first that he survived long enough to grant himself that luxury.

The soul eater drew its head back when Lindsey whirled to face it, arching his spine and looking more like a snake than ever. If it was here, then that said some very worrisome things about Angel's own chances of survival. Lindsey shocked himself by being more alarmed by this than he was the gushing wound in his leg. Some obsessions were designed to last forever.

"Hey there, buddy," Lindsey said to the garden snake that had binged itself on steroids, panting slightly as his vision blurred around the edges and his limbs began to feel cold and heavy. There were not yet any phantom swirls of purple or yellow dancing in the edges of his vision, though. He would be all right for a while longer.

Lindsey planned to survive this solely so that he could thank Angel for making him so familiar with the symptoms of blood loss. "You're not so big, are you? Just an overgrown version of what I used to kill all the time with a shovel back home. Cut their heads right off." Lindsey pulled his lips back again into that grimacing smile that felt so natural on his face. The blood was growing sticky across the remainder of the sword, making it easier for him to maintain a steady grip on it. "You might take a little longer, but I'd be willing to give it a try if you would."

The soul eater made a sound that hissed like a train's whistle and convinced Lindsey once and for all that it was capable of human speech before it lunged forward. Lindsey became Jack staring down the giant without the aid of magic beans or a writer's sympathy on hi side, and he lasted for about as long. The soul eater's jaws closed about him with a surprising gentleness before it threw him back into the air and back down its throat with such a light touch that it scarcely left more than a few fresh bruises.

'Of course not,' Lindsey thought dizzily. 'We wouldn't want to damage the merchandise.' Lindsey fought back as he tumbled down an esophagus and goo encased him on all sides, kicking out at whatever he could reach. He twisted the short blade in his hand and plunged it as deeply as he could into the soft inner flesh of the monster's throat. Lindsey's downward motion pulled the sword along with him, turning a stab wound into an eviscerating tear. The great shudder that ran down the soul eater's length and battered him to and fro must have been what it felt like to feel the monster screaming from the inside. 'Heal from that, you son of a bitch.'

There was not the darkness, perfect and screaming, that there should have been, but instead a tremendous sense of blazing and impersonal white that was almost worse. When Lindsey came to, he was flat on his back and staring up at a section of sky that he had hoped never to see again. Guardians swooped and dove in lazy packs as the ground beneath his fingers shivered and rolled.

And leaning over him was none other than Lilah herself. Crude black stitching held her neck together; her heart had been ripped straight out from her chest. Through the remains of her suit Lindsey could still see her aorta throbbing faintly. Beyond that, she was as cold and lovely as always.

"Hello, Lindsey," Lilah said when she realized that she had his attention. A smirk turned her lips as she gestured up towards the sky. A Guardian screamed overhead and dove for something that Lindsey could not see. "Welcome home."


Jonathan smokes cigarettes in an endless cycle, one right after the other, so that his fingers are stained permanently yellow. It is a smell that An will associate with childhood throughout the course of her life. Children cannot grow up in vacuums, however, not even ones who move around as much as they do, and An learns to worry long before she ever sets foot in Los Angeles. She urged him to quit by laying out articles on cessation where he could not hope to miss them, hiding the cigarettes when they were stranded in locations that made obtaining more difficult (an ugly three days and an experience that An has no plans to repeat), even telling him that the least he could do was take up a pipe like a good Englishman and abandon those damned unfiltereds. Jonathan will smile and ruffle her hair and tell her not to be afraid, but to focus instead on the job that she was being prepared for. The protective weight on her head whenever Jonathan does this does not stop An from worrying dark thoughts like cancers.

Jonathan is always right, An thinks now, sinking to the floor and a hearing a series of soft sounds beginning to echo through her ears. It takes several more seconds before she realizes that the sound is coming from her. He was right, and she should not have worried about cancer. From where An is sitting, it looks more than anything else like heart attack.

There is the sound of footsteps on the floor outside of the study before a hard force slams into the space between An's shoulder-blades. A grunt pushes past her lips. A moment later, and she realizes that she's sitting in front of the door. An shivers before she gathers herself back together again enough so that she can move, allowing the boys into the room at last. They freeze and stare.

Jonathan's last cigarette is still resting between the fingers of his left hand. It has burned all the way down to the last half-inch, blistering deep red weals where it has touched his skin. No filters. Stupid. An thinks that she should go and pluck it away. It takes her a few more seconds to realize that the state of Jonathan's fingers probably doesn't matter much to him any longer. She pauses suspended for a moment between the two options, long enough for the rare moment of indecision to seep into her mind like a malignant growth. It's a bad thought; An pushes it away.

Alexei and Fideo are not speaking as they stand there and stare at the body of what used to be their mentor. They do not need to. An can feel their thoughts swirling about the inside of her school as if there is not a barrier of flesh and skull that prevents three bodies from being one. It is a dizzy swarm of confusion and shock that will begin to shade over into grief before much more time has been allowed to pass. They need to take advantage of the calm before it is corroded away.

An pushes herself up to her feet and walks over to the place where the corpse...she shivers and tells herself that she will force herself to refer to it as the corpse from here on out, if that's what will keep her on her feet, and never as Jonathan again. She walks over to where the corpse is staring and rummages about in the large oak desk for the letter opener in the shape of a sword that Jonathan has always kept there. A quick flick with the knife sends the cigarette butt rolling out from between the corpse's fingers and across the carpet. An brings her heel down upon it before a fire can be started, and a dime-sized burn is left behind on the carpet.

An's movement has broken the spell of inaction cast across the boys. They lunge forward swiftly to help her. Fideo places his fingertips on the corpse's eyelids and draws them down, shuddering, so at the very least they are no longer being stared at. Alexei bypasses An and Fideo both and kneels in front of the small television shoved into one corner of the room. Previously, it had been used so rarely that a thick layer of dust often grew over the screen. Alexei's fingers fit almost perfectly into the smudges created by Jonathan's own fingers on the dial hours before. Sound is given to the Technicolor orgy of violence that had before been playing on mute. The images are written in stark shades of orange and red that remind An of watching a Robert Rodriguez film.

Alexei finishes manipulating the set and rocks back onto his heels. For a moment the three of them watch in silence as more "breaking news" rolls out from the city of angels-the city of Angel, they'll never forget that-and the terrified newscasters do their best to avoid admitting that they have no idea what is going on and even less of an idea of how to stop it. Running on loop is the same clip that has been showing for the past several weeks, that of a deep purple sac swelling up over a perfect Los Angeles skyline before bursting apart like the cluster of spider eggs that An had once poked when she was very small.

She had been bitten terribly, An remembers now. The thought comes to her with a surreal clarity that says her shock is not on its way to abating any time soon. An leans against Jon-against the dead thing's desk as her knees begin to wobble. It is not until the bridge of her glasses begins to slide down her nose that she realizes her face is slick with sweat.

The room is choked with three sets of thoughts, three sets of emotions all struggling to reroute themselves onto less painful paths, so that if An thought that it would do any good she would be gasping against the deep sense of claustrophobia that engulfs her. They were never able to do this before, not without maintaining some kind of prolonged physical contact. Even as An is afraid of what this might mean, she can feel her fear performing alchemy to become become power.

An turns her face away, even though it does not do her a bit of good while her thoughts are still on neon display for her adopted brothers to see. She shuffles the papers on the corpse's desk to buy herself time, noting that he has been in furious contact with several sets of people still trapped in the city. It will be some days later before she calms enough to come back to those addresses. An freezes as she catches sight of the prophecy written out in Jonathan's sprawling hand, the one that they have all been able to recite since the age of eight, the one about the Three who could see into the heart of things. There is a new line added to the end, but it has been slashed out so many times in some fit of emotion that An cannot decipher it. Her lips move as she reads over the prophecy, drawing comfort from it as a child would while reciting a nursery rhyme that kept the dark things trapped in their corners. An does not speak aloud at all; there is no need.

The sensation of tremendous and unruly shared power is already beginning to flow away from the room, and will be gone entirely within the day. There is a part of An which will always crave its return, that time when they became Three in far more than ancient words spoken in dusty books.

An looks up at last and sees that Alexei and Fideo are watching her with twin expressions of expectancy. There is a soft, silvery glow echoing from behind their sunglasses which is gone by the time that An blinks twice. Within seconds she has managed to convince herself that it was never there at all. More troubling is that look that they refuse to stop training on her, as if they expect her to pull a solution out of a hat. Even worse is the fact that a part of An, given enough time, could come to like it. She shoves the thoughts away to a far corner of her mind, swears never to think of it again, and within days will convince herself of the sincerity of the utilitarian motives that she cloaks herself in its place.

An moves the papers around on the desk for a few moments longer and doesn't glance up again until she senses that Alexei and Fideo are not going to turn that look off until she gives them a satisfactory answer. "Well, we still have a job to do, don't we?"


Weapon and wielder, An thought to herself. From either side of her she could feel Alexei and Fideo echoing the sentiment right back. They had all learned their lessons well, until the skills themselves had bypassed the brain together and sunk into a place deep inside their bones. They were passing their thoughts back and forth in a way that they hadn't since-'Since Jonathan died, don't hide from it, you're not a child any longer'-and An thought they might even do something bigger this time. The air between them crackled, grew thick and elastic with their wills.

When the space around them reverberated with a tremendous cracking sound like a sonic boom that nearly threw them all to their knees, signaling that they were through, the three of them registered it as scarcely more than an afterthought. An was not sure if this was a piece of prophecy coming to fruition, or if hell was just that eager to welcome anyone stupid enough to actively seek entry. When she got right down to it, she found that she didn't really care, though there was a voice in the back of her mind which said that she really ought to, because she had no idea of knowing whether that distinction might be the key to everything. Three days earlier that voice would have been a shout; tonight An batted it aside as if was nothing at all.

They were Three. An felt her breath quicken in her throat, and her heart began to pick up a more excited dance. Everything that Alexei and Fideo had ever been or ever would be flowed like a river through her mind. An knew that all of her thoughts and emotions had be turning around and flowing right back into them to mingle in the same stream, but this did not cause her to be embarrassed or indignant as it would have a day before. They were Three, and now she realized that they always had been. What they were going through now was just a final technicality.

An wished that the boys would come closer so that she could grab their hands, for once to draw comfort rather than for the sake of enhancing their power. The ground beneath their feet changed after the cracking sound and had gone from cement into something dense and springy. Every step that they took seemed to make it tremble. It was not such a strange leap for An to take from this to the conclusion that it might be alive. She felt her age, fourteen and alone and scared, for the first time that night.

A warm hand reached out from the gloom to grab from An's own. She jumped into the air before she realized that the hand was a warm brown color, soothing and familiar. Even in the dark, Fideo's smile was brilliant. An returned Fideo's squeeze and did not let go as she looked around for Alexei, wondering why he was not answering the same call. She found him only a few paces off, his head cocked to one side as if he were listening to music being played too softly for An and Fideo to quite hear. There was a long wound running down the side of Alexei's face, held together by stitches of the same silvery light that was bursting out of their eyes.

For a few seconds An was run through and through with a fear that made her hand clamp compulsively around Fideo's own and sent a worried, barely coherent stream of thoughts running into his mind. She could not remember how Alexei had gotten that wound. It was hideous and it was fresh, how could An possibly not remember how he had gotten it? When they had been side by side all night?

'When you're supposed to be Three, and an injury to one is supposed to be an injury to all,' the voice from the back of An's mind snapped, grown malicious on its own sense of self-righteousness. An iron magnet had settled into An's brain during that space of time that she could not remember, drawing her ever onwards even though she could not say towards what. For a moment, that pull began to shiver and tremble on its foundation, and she could sense that it was also wavering in the boys.

From very far away, An heard a sound that was like the chiming of bells. She wondered if that was what Alexei had been listening to.

This was not right. It took An several seconds to figure out which one them had "spoken" as the thoughts echoed from mind to mind until it became a cacophony that An ultimately silenced with an impatient mental shake. In the end she thought that it was Alexei, though she could never be quite sure. It may even have come from An herself.

"We don't know what we're doing here," Alexei said, turning his head to stare at An. The heavy indigo fog that refused to abate and let them have any clear view of what it was that they had walked into caught his voice and distorted it as it threw it back. The light glowing from behind the insectile anonymity afforded to him by his glassed dimmed for a moment as his words fell away, and a fresh trickle of blood escaped and ran from the wound in his face. The magnets placed into An's head wavered for a moment along with Alexei only to return a few seconds later, so strongly that they made her stagger. She and Fideo had their fingers wrapped around each other tightly enough to make their bones creak.

"We should back off, regroup," Alexei continued. "Figure out a better way." His voice sounded hesitant, as if he was still trying to convince himself as much as he was them.

If Alexei had sounded a bit more sure of himself, An might even have been driven to agree with him. As it was, his doubts only served to remind An infuriatingly of her own. It was all that she could do not to stomp her foot against the ground, and never mind if the ground decided to stomp back. The mental equivalent still echoed through all of their minds. "And what better way is there?" An asked in a tone that she barely recognized as herself. It was forceful to the point of being icy, and An found herself a little in awe of it. Her previous thoughts about Champions glimmered more strongly than ever. "Tell me one and we'll go back to the real world right now."

Alexei was silent. Fideo was standing very close to An, so close that she did not need to ask which side he would fall on if a division did occur. His skin felt warm where it touched hers.

An kept her eyes locked onto Alexei's face as she leaned forward. That beautiful feeling of unity was beginning to shudder and crack. She thought that she would burst into tears if it was allowed to fall away entirely. "This is what we were made for," An said in a low, steady voice that was as different from her earlier tone as she could make it. "Tell me that you can't feel that." Alexei did not speak, but there was an openness to his face which told An that he was at least listening. "We're standing in the edges of hell, 'Lex, and nothing is coming anywhere near us." An grinned before she could stop herself. The fog left a gritty, bitter taste on her teeth. "We were made for this moment," she repeated softly.

The corner of Alexei's mouth twitched upwards for a second. It was enough to let An know that she had won. "We're going to save the world," Alexei said.

An felt her smile coming back, blooming into a full grin that probably made her look like a lunatic, for all that she cared at this point. She was covered in a half-dozen different fluids that had no business being outside of the body, had no memory of the past hour in a way that would probably terrify her once she had the luxury of calming down and thinking about it, and was about to launch herself forward into the biggest fight of her life. More to the point, it was a fight that An was forced to admit she had no idea how to proceed with. Compared to that, what was looking a little bit crazy? "Damn right we are," An said, feeling the uneasiness flow out of Alexei's mind and the solidarity return.

The magnet was pounding more fiercely than ever at the back of An's brain. It was making her even more irritable and interfering with the flow of her thoughts, and she wished more than anything else that this damned fog would just go away. Alexei was standing less than five feet away from her, but she still could not get a good look at his face unless she squinted.

Well. An had not expected that to happen. She blinked and stared around at the suddenly clear air, pushing hair out of her eyes that she had not realized was there until that point. There were not any bodies within her sight, she supposed that she could be glad of of the ground were winking at her. "Oh, God," An whispered. It was almost enough to make her wish for the return of the mist, except that she had no doubt that to do so would bring it right back again and she was scared that she would be unable to banish it away.

"I think that the mountain over there used to be made of people," Alexei said in the musing voice used by people roughly three feet away from screaming hysterics. "It has arms."

"Yeah." An closed her eyes and found that it did no good while the while the boys' accounts were still being piped into her head. She opened them again a few seconds later. Her breath was coming in shallow pants.

"Do you realize what you just did?" Fideo was looking at her with something approaching awe, making An want to squirm and preen at the same time. The girl she saw through Fideo's eyes bore almost no resemblance to the girl who stared at her in the mirror every morning.

"What we just did," An corrected. The bells were coming back, joining the magnetic tug at the base of her brain and making bright spikes of pain arc through her head. An raised her hand to rub briefly at her eyes and from the corner of her vision saw Alexei doing the same.

'I'm not your goddamned goose,' An thought in a fit of pique, unsure of who she was even addressing the thought towards. 'Stop trying to pull me north.' The tug in her brain subsided enough so that she was no longer in danger of being driven to the ground. It continued as a low-level throbbing echoing through all of her cells. That it should obey her so readily would be far more troubling other under circumstances. "And if we can do this much..."

The grin that Fideo flashed her was not his own. Neither was the one that An gave back. "Then what else can we do?"

'You're in hell,' the crippled voice at the back of An's voice said desperately. 'You're in hell and it's obeying your commands, do you not see something wrong with this?' But it was small and weak, and within seconds An was not sure that she had heard it at all. She wasn't sure that she had heard anything else, ever, except for those godawful, godforsaken bells in her head, overtaking every cell in her body and filling up all of the spaces in between. An twisted around, taking in the lay of land through brand new eyes. Dimly and far-off, like peering out through a dirty window, she could see Los Angeles as it still existed from beyond the dirty veil. She blinked. There was something else that she was here to do.

"We have company," Alexei said softly. An and Fideo turned as one creature to see what he was looking at. 'I'm supposed to be stopping this,' An thought, staggering back enough to see her boys shuddering as the same thought ran through their minds. 'This is our destiny.'

Destiny. A word with power and with purpose, and it chimed in counterpoint to the throbbing going on in her skull. An's head snapped back and blood began to rush from her nose. It hurt, oh, oh, it hurt, in a way that it had not since she was very small and had first begun to get the blinding headaches, each one accompanied by information that she could not possibly know. An did not realize that she had begun to whisper a series of pleas and threats out loud until she tasted blood across her tongue, salty-tangy and oddly sweet in a way that she had never noticed before. An licked her teeth clean, spat to the side, and grinned in a way which she suspected was still gleaming and red.

An turned her head in the direction that Alexei indicated for her and saw that forces headed their way. She grinned even wider, until a bystander would have told her that she looked vulpine and then made steps to leave the area as soon as possible. The silver glow still shone out from behind all of their eyes. An knew that it was still there in her own by the way that the world shivered and shook, like film exposed to the light for a second too long, and meanwhile the magnets were beginning to pulse and throb again.

'Sorry, but I don't think I'll be taking that call any longer.' These were big words for someone who had been so close to falling into that gaping maw only a few seconds before, but An needed all the confidence that she could get.

'You're Champions,' An thought, unsure if she meant for it to be private or shared among the three of them. In the end, she did not guess that it mattered. When An held out her free hand, Alexei dashed over and grabbed it up, squeezing hard enough to make An's knuckles creak. She pulled her lips back from her teeth in reaction to the pain but did not make a sound. Three minds reached out towards one another, swirled around each other until they became a glowing, inseparable mass, and the three of them together pushed harder than they ever had before in their lives.

The pain was brilliant, staggering. An's head rocked back as if she had received a physical blow and she felt something deep inside her brain give way with a wet, fleshy pop. 'Not good,' An thought dizzily, and decided that whomever it had been who discovered that brain cells had no pain receptors might want to chat with her neurons about that. There was enough blood running down her face from her nose and ears to make breathing a task that required her full attention, sending An into a moment of panic when the mission and the basic bodily requirements of survival came to a crossroads and discovered that they could travel together no longer.

Without the mission, they were nothing. An's knees unhinged and she sat down hard on the wriggling, squirming ground, Alexei and Fideo unable to hold her up when their own legs were also staging a revolt. The three of them collapsed against each other in a puppy pile like they had used to when they were small. The magnets were rising in An's head again, so strong that she felt as if she might be dragged forward again at any moment, and once more came the chiming of bells.

An gasped and spit blood from the corners of her mouth, but never once let her grip on the boys' hands waver, never once let the power skirt away from the task for which she had been formed. She closed her eyes when the black spots dancing in front of them began to distract her. An imagined the approaching demons' heads exploding one by one in a spray of blood and bone with a ferocity which surprised and probably should have frightened her. Pop, pop, pop, and they had never displayed this kind of power before. An did not know what kind of instinct was telling her that this time was different, this time they could manage it, but she was terrified of it even as it pulled her forward.

Pop, pop, pop. It was exactly the sound that An had imagined in her mind, and it made her think of a twisted child filling a balloon with rice pudding and then popping it with a pin. She knew before she had ever opened her eyes that she was going to dream in red the next time that she slept. Fideo's hand convulsed around hers until An was finally forced to look. She could not help the smile which then split her lips, any more than she could help the blood that pooled across her tongue. An made no attempt at this point to spit it away. The pain began to fade, or perhaps it was only hidden by the bells.

"Oh, hell yes," Alexei whispered, turning to grin at her. His face had split open again. An could see down into the muscles playing beneath the skin of his cheek and into the gleam of white, bloodied bone, but Alexei did not seem to notice. The fabric of his shirt was stained crimson-dark from the neckline to a point just inches away from the hem. No one could lose that much blood and remain on their feet for long. The part of An that would have been out of her mind with worry only a day before, however, was now overwhelmed by the pure and giddy high of it. She grinned back with teeth that had been stained bright red before shaking her head, wishing that the noises would stop long enough for her to get her bearings back.

"Wonder what else we could do," Fideo repeated in a soft voice. He had lost his sunglasses at some point during the long-distance massacre. His eyes were gleaming silver dollars devoid of pupil, iris, or white.

"Yeah." An dug her nails in the earth's skin as deeply as she could, just so that she could feel it tremble. The sunglasses that had served her well over the past several years were an irritating, unnecessary weight against the bridge of her nose. An clawed them off and tossed them to the side, letting her eyes glow unimpeded. Alexei was quick to do the same before all three of them reached for one another's hands again. Their fingers were sticky with blood as they nuzzled against each other, as they forced their power together and pushed forward one more time without holding anything back. "Let's see what else we can do."

It was wrong, from the second they started An knew that it was wrong and that maybe they had finally pushed themselves farther than they could hope to come back from. An thought that even if she could rend time and step back six years into the past to find herself again it would have been too late.

The magnets roared back into her head in a great rush that sounded almost like a train, seductive in spite of its force. An thought that she might have screamed, but she could not be sure over the sounds of the bells singing inside and all around her. She released her pain by digging her fingers all the way into the ground up to her second knuckle, feeling the earth shudder and try to buck her off. 'I want you gone,' An thought in the direction of the bells, gritting her teeth together until she could taste flecks of enamel on her tongue. 'I want the world back the way it was, and I want to know what my life would have been like if you had never been.' She leaned over and vomited a great gout of blood across the knees of her jeans without bothering to open her eyes and view the mess that she could feel soaking through the knees of her jeans. Too late, too late, and the whole thing was too late, but damned if she was not going to pull the whole temple down with her.

That might have been a bad choice of words. The magnets and the bells changed character, becoming so sweet and lilting that An hardly even noticed when Alexei twitched and jerked so hard that three of her fingers were pulled right out of their sockets. She did not feel it at all when Alexei's hand finally fell away. Yes, they could give her that, of course they could, hadn't she already earned that much through everything that she had sacrificed? And when that gift had been granted, maybe there were other arrangements that could be made. They all wanted to be free.

An grit her teeth and shook her head, pushing with all of the weight afforded to her by prophecy and pure, teenaged bravado. She prayed that one would be able to hold her up even if the other failed.

An, though, had wandered through the minds of others as easily as her own for most of her life. She knew the secrets that could grow wild there, even in the heads of the ones that she once would have called saints or heroes. Even in the ones that she would have called Champions. The magnets finally fell away to leave behind only those sweet and eerie bells, and An found herself far more willing to listen to them now than she would have been an hour before. This was not her mess. She should be praised for cleaning it up, not scolded if she refused. Duties only counted if you first accepted them willingly; otherwise it was only slavery.

She should not have to. An had suspected this for a very long time. It was a sly thought that hid in the corners and the shadowy places, creeping up without sound to catch her in her unwary moments. Like a cockroach, because no matter how often she tried to smash it, it always came back again.

When 'I should not have to' became 'I do not want to', the volume of the bells doubled in one great thunderclap of sound. And doubled over and grit her teeth together against a scream. Fideo slumped against her shoulder as the sound coursed through him as well, but if he spoke she did not hear it. Thick streams of blood and something else ran out of her ears and down the side of her face, and with twin popping sounds the only thing left for her to hear as the noise that she was not sure had ever existed outside of her own head in the first place. 'I think I was still using those,' An thought dizzily. It was hard to force her thoughts to come together and make sense in the way that she was accustomed to.

When the bells reached their sharpest pitch, An threw Fideo's hand away from herself hard enough to break the wrist in three places. She did not bother looking around to see what she had done.


The bad lady is dead, and that makes An happy. It shouldn't, she knows. She should not be glad of death in any form when she already sees so much of it running through her head every day. An can't help it, though, after she saw what the bad lady did to the nice man who fed them and gave them Rubix cubes to play with while they waited, and maybe you cannot be blamed for things that you cannot help.

An rubs at her eyes and wishes more than anything else that she could go sit in a quiet room by herself for a while. She's been crushed against people with hardly any room left to breathe for three days now, and it's no longer taking contact to make fresh images dance through her head. The two strange boys in the car with her might as well be standing under streetlamps. An really wishes that they would just jump out of the car and go away, deciding that since she can't control those thoughts, either, she also can't be blamed for it.

The light-skinned boy rolls his eyes and turns back to stare out the window. His name is Alexei. An thinks that it suits him, as he already acts like he's waiting to be made czar.

"We're almost there," the man in the front seat says suddenly, looking over his shoulder at them. He stopped using the mirror when he realized how badly it was unnerving them to be unable to see him while he could still see them. His name is Angel, but he has yet to tell any of them that. In the chaos of ordering Lindsey out of the house before the police or someone whom An suspects would be even worse showed up, covering their tracks, and then bundling An and the boys into the car, Angel never paused to introduce himself.

Angel. It's a pretty name, a hero's name. Angels are warriors of God, or at the very least of the Powers That Be. It's all the same when you get done diving through the nitty-gritty of it. An learned a long time ago how to separate the surface from the real heart of the story.

The dark-skinned boy catches the direction of her thoughts, scowls, and then quickly tries to rearrange his face to look as if he did no such thing. An shocks them both by reaching out and letting her hand brush against his for a moment before she draws it back.

"Where are we going?" Alexei speaks to the window rather than to Angel, but he is different from Angel in that An can read his expression from his reflection in the glass. His face is taut, his lips pressed into a thin, angry slash that makes An think she is seeing pieces of the man that he will be in years to come. His hands are twisting in the hem of his sweat, the only physical sign of unease that he gives.

Of course, who knows what An would be able to pick up on if she had vampire senses. Angel takes to looking in the rearview mirror again, his expression writ large with a concern that An feels rather than sees. An cannot read him except for brief flickerings of emotion and action; even his name was a fluke. This troubles her more than she would like to admit and in ways that she does not have the vocabulary to articulate.

As if he senses her distress, Fideo lets his knuckles graze against hers again. She decides that she likes it.

"My people were able to get into contact with your mentor," Angel says, putting his eyes back onto the road. "They stopped him from going to the house. He's waiting in a safe place for us."

"Are there going to be more people like that woman looking for us?" An asks from her place in the back seat. Alexei is staring hard at the place where An's and Fideo's fingers intertwine, but An does not so much as glance in his direction.

Angel is looking at her again. An can feel it. His eyes are very dark, to the point that even being indirectly exposed to them is unsettling. An wonders if there is something specially different about vampires that prevents her from reading Angel, or if there are other people in the world who will read as smooth blank walls to her. She struggles to build a profile from the scant pieces that are available to her, because any information is still better than trying to stumble along without lights or handholds.

An's wanderings pick up a tremendous capacity for kindness rolling off of Angel. This does little to soothe her while she can also feel the capacity for cruelty, not quite so large, which lurks close behind. "Probably," Angel says finally. An likes that he does not attempt to lie to her; she likes him. "You kids are very talented. There are people out there who are scared of your talents, and they'll do everything that they can to stop you from using them. They're not very nice people. They like to hurt."

He doesn't mean only physical pain, and he isn't talking only about the people that Wolfram and Hart call their enemies. An tilts her head to one side and feels the beginnings of an 'I want' line start to draw itself between her eyes. She receives a brief flash of a tree limb being twisted horribly out of its original shape and into something grotesque and malformed. A moment later, the image is gone. An tilts her head to the other side, never mind the dim memories that she as of her sister telling her that she looks like a cat when she does that.

"Bad people like Vanessa was bad," Fideo says. His voice is steady and measured, calm in spite of stressors that would have most other people leaping out of their skin. They are all calm.

"Most of them. Some of them are only weak, but in the end that doesn't mean nearly as much as they would like it to." Angel shivers as if he is coming up from a deep sleep. An looks over at Fideo. His face is pale beneath his caramel tan, and there are beads of sweat dotting the skin above his lip. Whatever he just did, An does not think that it is intentional.

"Here we are." Angel pulls the car off the street and into the parking lot of a convenience store, where a car is waiting with three people standing in front of it. The wash of neon hurts An's eyes and makes the rotten-tooth ache in her head throb even more sharply. She ducks and wishes for the dark room again, telling herself that it is only headache and not nervousness that is making her want so badly to hide.

The boys scramble out the car almost before it has rolled to a halt, leaving An's pride with no choice but to race out after them. She thinks that she sees Angel smile as he follows at a more sedate pace.

Two of the people in front of the car are Angel's. Still on overload from the previous three days, An does not need to touch them as she takes a swift, discreet peek in order to discover this. The brunette woman's vapid exterior is no more than a veneer already being worn away by hard use, and the British man is capable of things both great and terrible that he has scarcely begun to contemplate. An has seized all of this within seconds and is moving on the same nonchalance that most people would employ towards sizing up hair or eye color. It is the man standing between them who is different. An slows her pace and feels Alexei and Fideo doing the same, as if they have already begun to merge into one being after only a few hours of contact.

The man is middle-aged and of average height and weight, with neatly kept black hair and eyes of a curious hazel-green color that are the brightest tings in an otherwise unremarkable face. An smells cigarette smoke on him from where she stands and crinkles her nose, but within seconds his eyes have pulled her attention back onto them. They are alive with a stern sort of 'the time for games is done' kindness that An feels drawn to in spite of herself.

An hangs back a few steps and tells herself not to be so foolish. Though she does not notice at the time, Alexei and Fideo are following her lead and also hanging back.

"Hello, children," the man says in a rich, warm voice that reminds An of whiskey without quite knowing why. She has never tasted it firsthand. "My name is Jonathan. I am going to be your mentor." Jonathan. It was a good name, An supposed, but names were only leaves floating across the surface of what she really needed to know. She pushes her headache to the side as well as she is able and nudges forward to take a stealthy peek into Jonathan's mind. She is brought up short, gasping, as what should have been only the slight resistance of a hand through the surface of water is with Jonathan more akin to walking face first into a brick wall. An jerks back hard and only just manages to avoid clutching at her head in pain, feeling her eyes begin to water. Angel glances towards her, his brow furrowing, but whatever he had planned to say is halted by Jonathan. "She'll be fine."

An looks up and glares as Jonathan shakes his head slowly and throws back a patient look in kind. She decides then that she does not like Jonathan half as much as she likes Angel.

"You already know how to use it when you want to, I see," Jonathan says in a soft and reasonable voice. "That's very clever, An. Quite a bit farther along than I thought I would find you."

'Flattery will get you nowhere,' An thinks sourly, because her head still hurts. She wonders if Jonathan can read the thought, or if his powers end at blocking intrusions into his own.

"Do you know how to stop it when you don't want it to happen, though?" Jonathan continues. An's head snaps up to fix him with the most laser stare that she is capable of. Alexei and Fideo do the same thing on either side of her. Jonathan smiles as he notices that he also has the boys' attention. "I'll bet that all three of you have pretty terrible headaches right now, don't you? Information overload. I can help you with that."

Well. Maybe An likes him a little bit.

Cordelia apparently decides that she's bored with conversations going on beyond her grasp and turns towards Angel. Her eyes roam over him, looking for wounds. "Are you all right?"

Angel smiles. "Not a scratch."

Cordelia's mouth twitches, but she still looks concerned. Curling her lip as if the entire question is distasteful and she's having to force herself to even ask, she continues, "And Lindsey?"

The smile on Angel's face falters. An only knows Lindsey now as a pair of arms and a jumble of panicky thoughts, but he tried to protect her all the same even though he got smacked across a room for it. She does not understand. A quick glance in Jonathan's direction, though, convinces her that this is not the best time to go digging. "Battered and confused, but he's alive," Angel says. "He needs time to think. Wanted to be alone."

"Lindsey's a smart man," the British man says. An gives Jonathan a defiant, furtive glance, takes a dip, and discovers that his name is Wesley. "If he's thinking about it, then surely that's hopeful."

Angel shrugs. "Yeah. We can hope." An receives another image of a twisted limb, but she has not gone searching for this one. She shivers to throw off the conflicting emotions which rise from Angel like steam after a long, hot shower and pretends that she does not see Jonathan looking at her. He seems to be giving the same level, scrutinizing stare to all three of them at once, though Angel has never known anyone before who could do that without crossing their eyes. It's a little unnerving.

"Thank you, Angel," Jonathan says, turning his eyes away from her at last. Without quite meaning to, An begins to scoot in Fideo's direction at the same time that Fideo begins to move closer to her. Alexei has started to do the same thing from the other side, until they are forming a rough triangle of protection around each other. "Without your intervention, I imagine that this could have ended quite badly."

Angel's smile has an awkward curve. Even without the extraordinary powers at her disposal, An would still say that his is not a person who smiles often or easily. "It's nothing," he says. "Just what we do."

"And extend my thanks to your informant, as well."

Again there is the slipped smile and the transitory rush of images. An's headache is getting worse rather than better. "My informant is sorting some things out right now," Angel says, "but if I see him again I'll pass on the message."

"Thank you, Angel," An says, her voice low and soft. >From what little she knows of vampires, Angel will still be able to hear the sound as easily as if she were to yell at the top of her lungs. "And thank Lindsey, too, for everything that the two of you have done for us."

Angel looks both gratified and even a bit surprised. Maybe he believes that she should be closer to hysterics after everything that she has been through that night. An would like to think that she is made of stronger stuff than that, but there is a low thrumming occurring beneath her skin which says that Angel might not be far off in his assessment. She makes a silent promise to herself to hold it together until she finds a quiet place to be alone. At that point, she can got into as many separate pieces as she wants.

"You're welcome," Angel says. He's giving her a look that makes An think he's seeing straight into her head and all of the thoughts there. An wonders if the power of that stare manages to unnerve every person that he directs it towards.

"Right, then," Jonathan says. The sound of his voice causes An to expel all of her tension on a quickly-expelled breath that she had not realized she was holding. "I don't expect that your lawyer friends will be altogether thrilled when they discover that their pet assassin has failed."

Angel grimaces. "'Friend' is such a tame alternative to the truth," he says, "but you're right. You guys need to get out of tow before they regroup and start bringing out the heavy artillery."

Jonathan nods and gestures for the children to step closer to him. An finds herself obeying without quite understanding why, except that the feeling of kindness which is the only distinct abut his face grows stronger as she draws closer to it. So does the smell of cigarettes. An wrinkles her nose and swears that she will never get used to that scent. "I've already booked the flight," he says. "There's a safehouse in-"

"Don't tell us," Wesley breaks in. His voice is sharp enough to make Jonathan jump and all of them turn to look at him. Wesley's expression softens a margin, which is still not much, and An is reminded of all of those hidden levels that she saw without trying to. "If these three are so powerful at such a young age, then we have no idea what manner of adult psychics Wolfram and Hart may have on their payroll. Nothing that we say within the city limits can be assumed to be safe."

Jonathan has grown pale. An thinks that maybe he does not have much more experience at this sort of thing than she, Alexei, and Fideo do. It is a comforting thought, and An is given over to a burst of charity in which she decides that if the various evil things in the world do not eat them first then they will be able to learn as a group.

"No," Jonathan says. "No, you're right. That was foolish of me." He waves the children closer to him again. An thinks that this is more for his comfort than her own, but she allows herself to be gathered near all the same. Alexei dips his chin downwards, so that An feels rather than sees his grin. A slow smile curls at the corners of her own mouth that she knows Alexei must also feel rather than see. "We should stop wasting our lead. Kids, get into the car."

The option of the front seat is open, but An crawls into the backseat after the boys instead, forgetting how they had annoyed her twenty minutes before. Alexei lifts himself up so that he can wave at Cordelia laughs and shakes her head when she sees what he is up to. The sullen boy who left the house where Brewer died is long gone. An's headache begins to recede, making her wonder if the sort of person who could tell when a telepath was rummaging through his mind might not also be powerful enough to cast a spell across the car. Whatever the cause, An is not one to argue with results. She sinks back into the seat and rubs at temples that for the first time in hours do not feel as if they have a vice of metal wrapped around them.

Jonathan speaks to Angel and his people for a moment longer before he gets into the car and starts the engine. His eyebrows lift when he spies them huddled into the backseat like a litter of puppies, but he says nothing until they have pulled out of the parking lot and the convenience store is a brightly-lit speck behind them, lost quickly among the many. An tells herself that it is not a flash of fear that makes her take that swift backward glance.

"You've all packed lightly," Jonathan says at last, getting onto the freeway. The airport. An is an expert at airports.

"What you see is what you get," Fideo responds. He sounds wary and hopeful in one chaotic blend, much the way that An imagines she herself would sound if she tried to speak.

Jonathan still smiles. He reaches out and flicks on the radio, keeping it low so that they can still speak to one another. A golden oldies station sweeps through the car. An turns up her lips. She would have bet on classical, had she been forced to chose from her big book of stereotypes, but this is a close second.

"I understand the kind of lives you children have had," Jonathan says. He keeps his eyes on the road so that An cannot even deduce his expression from what little she can read in the rearview mirror. "I understand that you have had to move frequently, that your own families have come not to want you." This was too much like a raw and throbbing tooth being deliberately poked with a stick. An feels her entire body beginning to go rigid by degrees, until her with her hands folded into her lap she looks more like a seventeenth-century painting of a princess than a modern little girl. Flanking her on either side, Alexei and Fideo do the same. Within seconds they have been transformed into a trio of inscrutable toy soldiers.

Jonathan has to have noticed the dramatic shift in mood, but he does not comment on it. "I understand that the three of you have powers which you do not understand and cannot control, and that on most days you would give everything that you have to be rid of them." Though is face is still mostly hidden from her, An gets the impression that Jonathan is smiling. "I cannot promise you that you will never be forced to move again, or that the three of you will ever reach a point where you will fully embrace your powers. It may be that you will always wish to be free of them."

Alexei's snort carries an air of 'finally, the man is making sense.' Jonathan acts as if he does not hear and continues driving. "What I can promise you is that I will teach you to control your powers so that the burden will not be so great...and that your days of being unwanted have come to an end." There's a long a moment in which Jonathan is silent before he adds, "The three of you have a great destiny ahead of you, but we can discuss that at a later date. For now, be children while you can."


It was one of his great character flaws, Lindsey thought from his position on the ground, that he always believed that he was capable of understanding true darkness. Thought that he could step close to it, run his hands over its flanks, make it his own and each time step away again without suffering so much as a mark. It didn't matter that every time he turned out to be wrong, that every time he only got sucked in and tumbled about like a cat in a dryer. He usually counted himself lucky when he was spat back out again, bloodied and shaking and swearing that this time would be the last.

Like the drunk to the bottle. Lindsey turned his head quickly to the side and spat out a mouthful of blood before he resumed glaring at his old enemy, coworker, whatever the hell they happened to be. He could swear that it was the last time, but he would always be back again, and usually before the scars from the last whirling that he had received had a chance to fade away.

Couple to that came Lindsey's second great vice: that he always found a way to make it back home again. If that was a vice when he was working for Wolfram and Hart, then surely the fact that he was now however marginally working against them made it a virtue.

He spit again, dragging his hand across his mouth to remove the excess blood. "Nice suit." The leg of Lindsey's jeans was turning crimson from his thigh down to his ankle, but there was not so much as a drop of blood on Lilah to mar the pressed perfection of her Armani. In spite of this, Lindsey could still see the arteries and veins fluttering through the hole that had been torn in the flesh, as if they were still seeking contact with the missing heart.

Lilah acknowledged the crack with no more than a quirk of her eyebrows and a pressing of her lips into the expression that Lindsey hated more than any other to see on her face. It was the look that said she was barely managing to hold back her smirk, because she had just received information on her enemies that could not only make them wish that they had ever been born, but could actually make it physically come true. She ran the tip of one perfectly lacquered nail around the edge of the hole for a second, shivering almost as if she relished the pain, before she said, "You're closer to the same thing turning around and happening to you than you think, pretty thing." When she grinned at him, her teeth were white and even. Lindsey thought that he would have preferred it if they were filed sharp and stained pink with blood. "Or did you think that you were just going to drop off the radar?"

"No," Lindsey said heavily. "I never thought that." The ground beneath him trembled very faintly. This was home turf, but he had never remembered it doing that before.

Lilah, unbelievably, stuck out her hand to help him to his feet. Lindsey gave it a pointed look and then ignored it, pushing his sword into the ground to haul himself back up to his feet. This time, the shudder reverberated from someplace close. Lilah wobbled on her stilettos for a moment before rolling her eyes and retracting her hand. Lindsey saw her glance over her shoulder and thought for just a moment that he saw her looking worried.

Lilah looked back at him, and whatever unease that Lindsey might have viewed there was replaced by the sarcastic kind of concern that only Lilah could do full justice to. She tilted her head to one side and cast a slow, pointed look over the remains of Lindsey's sword. "Nice metaphor you're toting there, cowboy. Looks a little worse for wear, though."

"It gets the job done." The smirk on Lilah's face said that she was getting more mileage out that remark than she had a right to. The sword made a wet sucking sound as Lindsey pulled it from the ground, causing it to shudder and roll again beneath his feet. Lilah wobbled for a moment in her heels before she found her balance. Lindsey remained steady and sure throughout, and even with an injured leg he moved with a swiftness that would have made most mortal jaws drop.

Lilah, though, had been here for a very long time, and she knew from hardasses that could make Lindsey look like a kitten batting a ball of string. Her eyes barely widened as the point of Lindsey's sword to came rest bare millimeters from the place where her heart had been before it was torn out, because she had still harbored love in it when she had been cast down here. Lindsey's leg felt wobbly and untrustworthy as he forced it to bear his weight, but there was no pain, and off all the unsettling questions that Lindsey had swirling about his brain in that moment he thought this was surely the most unsettling one of all. This place could bring pain, that was one precious bit of knowledge that had been drilled into his brain far too deeply for it ever be cut out again. If it was choosing not to, then that hinted at far worse things lurking over the horizon.

Lindsey understood the appeal of putting the world back the way it had been now. It might not be much better, depending on the place one held in the pecking order, but at least it had been predictable.

Outside of the widening of her eyes, Lilah was remarkably calm for a woman with a sword pointed at an especially vulnerable part of her chest. Her lips curved even further. She didn't seem to have any problems keeping her lipstick perfect, whatever kinds of other havoc being condemned to hell might be wreaking on her. She flicked her hair back from her shoulders and arched her eyebrows. "I'm dead, Lindsey," she snapped. "Fear of falling on a pointy object stopped being a concern of mine a long time ago. You should be familiar with those rules yourself."

"You can still feel pain," Lindsey growled, nudging the sword forward until it touched Lilah's fluttering aorta. Lilah jumped, but her expression changed only slightly, becoming almost indulgent. Maybe she could, but there were people here who were so much more adept at meting it out than Lindsey. Lindsey glanced over his shoulder, looking for yellow eyes that were nowhere to be seen. His skin crawled even in its absence.

Lindsey glanced down at his skin and saw that there was still a faint ooze gleaming, nothing that should have ever been on a human form. His throat closed up for a moment. So he didn't...he didn't imagine his trip to the outside. He really did escape for a while. "What's going on, Lilah?" Lindsey asked in a low voice, terrifyingly steady and under control. More than anything else, it reminded him of another person who wasn't likely to be very popular around these parts. Another rumble rolled out from the ground beneath Lindsey's feet. "I know the rules. Why aren't I-" His throat closed again, so he covered it with a bared-tooth smile. "I'm in the wrong place, it seems."

Lilah closed her hand about the blade and shoved it away from her chest before she answered. A trickle of blood ran down her wrist and disappeared beneath the immaculate wool of her suit. "The rules are being bent, Lindsey," she said. 'Make them play yours,' a faint voice echoed in the back of Lindsey's mind. Now was not the time; he shoved it away. "A situation I'm sure you're familiar with. You were retrieved so that we could have a talk. What happens next is up to you."

"Retrieved," Lindsey echoed. The mountains and the landscape were the same sullen red of bricks and blood, the activities were the same, but something still felt different. Felt like waiting. 'I want you gone,' Lindsey thought, and blinked because it had a flavor to it that didn't belong solely to himself. The world wavered in and out like heat rising off of pavement, and for a moment Lilah looked worried again.

She covered it quickly with one of her razor grins, but this time Lilah was not able to completely erase those lines around her eyes. "You're not free, Lindsey," Lilah said. "Did you ever think that you were?" The grin became sharper. "Did she tell you that you could be?"

Pain was crawling back into Lindsey's leg by degrees, like fire ants being forced beneath the skin. He winced and struggled to hold his ground, glancing down on pure chance to see that the blood from his wounded leg had finally reached the ground. It began to sizzle and seemed almost to shrink away from having to touch it. Lindsey's heart jerked for the first time in what felt like ages. He looked back up to see that Lilah was also scrutinizing the blood. The lines around her eyes had if anything grown deeper. "Yeah, but who to believe now?" Lindsey paused and gave Lilah a slow once-over. "You've moved up in the world since I've seen you last. Less screaming, less blood. I'm impressed."

The illusion of heat waves around them deepened, obliterating even the outlines of the mountains, and Lilah looked even more tired. "The Senior Partners needed a liaison," she said, "and it's not as if the old one turned out to be that reliable."

Lindsey's hand curled into a fist, but that was all. Funny what a cause could do for a person's set of priorities. Not that the last cause he had called his own had done him all that good, Lindsey thought sourly, before the...well, he couldn't exactly call it 'earth', but the term would do in a it began to shake beneath his feet again. "Why am I here, Lilah?" he repeated. 'Make 'em play yours.' Again, it didn't sound entirely like himself, but came across as almost feminine, and cocky in a way that only one woman he knew could do real justice to. An only wished that she could reach this level.

"An offer has been placed on the table," Lilah said, pausing between each word and making a face as if acid was being dripped onto her tongue. "You've impressed certain key parties over the course of the last few days with all that you've accomplished. They'd like to redirect that towards a more positive end and renew your contract."

"Renew..." Wait a minute. Two and two were coming up five here. Lindsey narrowed his eyes. "Well, that has to suck for you, doesn't it?"

Lilah's face went rigid. "It's a state of affairs that I'm used to," she said. "Some things don't change whether you're living or dead."

"And when you say that I've impressed somebody, you mean that I've scared them," Lindsey continued as if Lilah had not spoken. The air had begun to shudder, to waver like an oil painting that had just had turpentine thrown across its surface. He could hear bells ringing from a position that sounded as if it were directly behind his left ear. From far away, a young girl screamed.

'Make 'em play yours.' Oh, he definitely knew that voice now, and the mental stamping of the foot that she gave with her stilettos. Even though he had to be imagining it and wished that he could stop, Lindsey clung to the voice with all his strength.

The combination of grin and glare that Lindsey felt overtaking his face and transforming it into something ugly wasn't meant for Lilah alone. Playing by the rules. Yeah, and his world seemed to get flipped right onto its head every time that he tried that, didn't it? "Serve in heaven or serve in hell," Lindsey snapped. "Doesn't look like I'm being offered much of a choice at all there." Let him do this one thing on his own two feet, even if it wound up being the one and only thing that he would ever do without a powerful patron looming over him. "Whatever it is that I'm doing out there that's got your bosses so shaky and sick, I think I'd like to get back to it. I regretfully decline. Or, since I'm not practicing law anymore, get fucked."

She looked happy for the first time since Lindsey had set eyes on her. "Oh, Lindsey," she all but cooed, "you are in for a much wilder ride than I ever thought about earning." The lovely, lacquered fingers of one hand made a snapping sound that was still overshadowed by all of those bells before it could ride on the air for more than a few seconds. "Back to where you were," Lilah said. "You should have swallowed your pride." The air began to shiver and go black around the edges.

'Not dead yet,' Lindsey thought, glancing back down at the place where his blood was pooling and making the flesh-turned-ground sizzle around his feet. That wasn't exactly the welcoming of a favored son, but Lindsey didn't think that hell received many people whose hearts still thundered in their chests. It could be that he was only setting a precedent, and that bastard thing that wanted to be hope was only that. Overcome by a rage that was as black and terrible as it was fast, Lindsey snarled, "Only if you come along for the ride with me." He lunged for Lilah with his bloodied hand as darkness swarmed up around them. She shrieked and drew back, but not before the blood touched her. There was a crackling sound and a smell like roasting meat. The living should find ways to come here more often, Lindsey thought, because even if an army lost they would find a way to win. He understood now why he hadn't been sent straight to the home office after he had defied the Senior Partners, if this was what the blood from his latest beating at Angel's hands would have done. He had still been alive then.

He was alive again, now, and if that was how good it felt to spit in the face of one side that had screwed him over, he could only imagine how good it would feel to finally do it in the face of the other.

Lilah reeled back, shaking her wrist where Lindsey had made contact, and then stumbled and fell as the hardest tremor of all pitched and rolled the ground beneath their feet. Playing by his own rules at long last Lindsey might be, but he still didn't have the juice inside him to do anything like that. The bells swelled sharply in volume, the scream became a sharp and triumphant laughter, and then-


Blackness, that same old sin that Lindsey always thought he could call his brother. He realized that he still held the sword and that it was still driving a long line down the inner gullet of the beast. The esophagus battered him from all sides, spinning him around and stunning him until he was on the verge of losing his grip entirely. His skin burned as if it were being doused with a diluted acid, and his lungs, remembering back in the real world what they were supposed to be doing, began to struggle and burn as well.

Lindsey wanted to pull his lips back from his teeth with the strain, but he did not dare open his mouth and let that foulness inside. The remains of the sword caught on bone and held, and the first strains of panic began to crawl through the eerie and unnatural calm that had maintained him until then. 'Not dead yet,' Lindsey thought, tightening his grip. 'Still alive, and that's how I'm going to stay. Still have some rules to break.'

>From far away, Lindsey heard a sound like an indignant shout. It made the soul eater tremble, and Lindsey felt himself being buffeted hard from side to side. The blade slipped a notch further, allowing the first hint of fresh air into the cavern. 'Fresh' was probably a relative term, as it was sour and rank and likely would have made Lindsey gag if he had not focusing so hard on keeping his lips pressed together, but it was air.

If this was his miracle, Lindsey knew, then he was not going to get a second chance if he fucked it up. The first one was deliverance enough. He wrapped both hands around the makeshift weapon that he had held onto long after common sense had told him to let it go, twisting it savagely until he heard the monster scream again. With the air now came the first traitorous gleam of light.

Lindsey gathered a last reserve of energy that he had not thought possible and shoved forward, ignoring the burning on his skin and the sibling burning in his lungs. The shudders around him has ceased altogether. Lindsey did not know if this marked the soul eater as alive or dead and did not care, except to wonder for a moment in a savage kind of way if this was a wound that it was going to be able to heal up so well as all the others.

The blade fell from nerveless fingers as Lindsey struck the pavement and rolled over, sucking in great lungfuls of air and not caring in the slightest about the smell. Rain fell down across his body, washing away the gore and most of the stinging sensation that had accompanied it.

Lindsey stayed on his back and focused on nothing more strenuous than breathing until his thoughts were moving in a straight line again. Only after several minutes of this was he capable of noticing the rain that was still rinsing him clean and...wait a minute. At the mouth of the portal, the mist had been too thick to allow much in the way of weather patterns, and there sure as, well, hell hadn't been any where Lilah had been. Lindsey opened his eyes.

He saw sky dotted with stars and entirely devoid of smog, mist, or more than the occasional cloud, so pristine and perfect that for a moment Lindsey had to doubt that what he saw was even real. The rain was warm like tears, while the stars above were sharp and clear enough to remind him of the stares of angry, disappointed parents. Altogether, it was too much like being scrutinized by two sets of people to whom he didn't owe a damned thing for Lindsey's comfort. He rolled back onto his side as relief filled him and spit until the urge to be sick had passed. When he looked up again at the buildings, it was a scene more like paint running from a canvas than any landscape that Lindsey had ever seen before.

The bruise-dark indigo that had shrouded the city's outline from view as if it had never been was being washed away by the rain to reveal buildings that looked cleaner and younger than Lindsey had ever seen them. With every second that passed the rain grew stronger, until Lindsey had to cup his hand over his eyes if he wanted even a hope of being able to see. He could sense the ruins of the soul eater only a few yards away even though he refused to turn his head to look. He propped himself up on one elbow instead, panting and leaving his other hand cupped over his eyes, so that he could watch the world remake itself.

Demons scurried wildly to and from across the pavement, but they paid no mind to Lindsey. They were roaches running from the bright light of a lamp suddenly being flicked on. One prone human who looked as if he had fought three wars too many on that day alone was of no consequence to them.

Lindsey returned the favor by ignoring them and tilting his head back so that the rain could continue to rinse off his face. The clean, blessed, normal rain. As soon as he could stand, Lindsey swore, he was going to track An down and kiss her creepy little face, never mind what personal details the contact may make him lose in the first place.

All of this, of course, was dependent upon An not finding him first. Lindsey heard small footsteps echoing across the pavement and knew without turning his head who it would be. There was a voice in the back of his mind which said that he should not have been able to heard that sound even when the street was completely still, much less alive with the chaos of a world rewriting itself. It was small and weak; for the moment, Lindsey needed to exert little energy in order to push it to the side. He staggered back up to his feet and grabbed at a light pole to steady himself. The pain his leg was returning with the force of a nuclear bomb going off beneath his skin.

All across the city, the fires were disappearing one by one, like eyes being put out. After everything that Lindsey had been through, he thought that he could be forgiven if his similes were running towards the morbid. Maybe if they decided to stay there for the rest of his life. He curled his fingers around the light pole until all of the blood was driven out and they went numb in its absence.

There was enough light from the stars and the fires that were big enough to fight back to cast An in a cold halo as he approached him, turning her hair blue-black and bleaching her skin into the same soulless white as new china. Her expression was solemn as she paused a few steps away and regarded first him, then the cooling corpse of the soul eater. "I already knew that you were the impatient, aggressive type, but man. Color me impressed. Scared, but impressed." The words were right, even the inflection was right, and Lindsey's internal radar still began to scream. Though the rain was beginning to turn cold and An was soaked from the crown of her head down to the soles of her feet, he was not so much as shivering.

After a moment more, Lindsey realized that the silver-white cast which had covered An's eyes since he had met her was gone. He was looking into the eyes of a completely normal teenaged girl, and that was the moment when he knew without any room for doubt that something was wrong.

Lindsey jerked his chin in the direction of the soul eater's body and wished that he was close enough to give it a good kick. "I understand that you had a hand in making all of this possible, so color me grateful." He turned his face up to the rain. "Scared, but grateful."

An regarded him without expression for a long moment before she slowly began to smile. Something of hellfire seemed to gleam in her eyes before they returned to the brown-black that made her nothing more than another girl on the street. "I knew that all I had to do was give you the chance to find the appropriate motivation." Her eyes did not flicker again. Lindsey was almost able to convince himself that he had seen nothing at all, that he was only paranoid because of the fate that he had narrowly avoided by her intervention a few moments before.

"You're a survivor like that," An went on. She tilted her head in the direction of the sword where Lindsey had left it behind on the pavement. His instincts were saying that maybe leaving that behind had not been a great idea.

"Where are Alexei and Fideo?" Lindsey asked. Without the boys book-ending her, An looked strange and almost small.

An turned back around to look at him, and all thoughts of smallness fled away from Lindsey's mind. "I don't know," An said in a musing voice. "We were separated from each other when..." She trailed off and made a fluttering motion with her hand to indicate the city around them, all shiny-new and fresh from its packaging. It had been raining for several minutes now, but Lindsey thought that he could still smell the brimstone. Paint-by-numbers concern dominated An's voice, not the full frenzy of worry which would have transformed the girl of even a few hours before.

Though he was growing uneasier by the second, Lindsey's voice remained normal as he said, "You've outdone yourself." He gestured towards their new surroundings.

The smile that moved across An's face and transformed her into something both older and colder seemed genuine, but Lindsey still thought of a marionette being worked by an expert puppet master just out of sight. "Duh," An said, for one moment looking like herself again. She tucked a few strands of sodden hair back behind her ears. "My finest work."

'My.' Not 'our.' "But you're not bleeding," Lindsey said. He shivered to throw off the cold finger that was tracing patterns along his spine. An tilted her head to one side in a move that made her look eerily like a cat, or like Illyria. "When you controlled the demons before, all three of you were gushing blood by the time it was over. But you're fine now."

An tilted her head back to the other side, making the resemblance to Illyria even stronger. Lindsey spared a moment to wonder where the blue freak had gone, and to hope that she had not been caught in the crossfire of whatever mojo the An-shaped thing had set loose. "I was able to kick it up a notch," An said. Her voice had grown so cold that Lindsey almost expected the air in front of her to frost over. He wondered if he was far enough away from her to protect his thoughts, or if she was reading everything as soon as it occurred to him.

An's slow and no longer sweet smile answered that question and several more besides. "I like you, Lindsey," she said, once again using the voice of a girl much older than fourteen. There was a lot of Darla in that voice. "Even if you can be a little dim sometimes. I want you to stay alive, if I can help it. That means that I require you to stay out of my way."

Lindsey had no doubt that she meant every word of it. Gosh, though, there was something about being threatened by a fourteen year-old in need of an attitude adjustment that brought out the stubborn in him. He bared his teeth into a grin made deliberately bright and wolfish. "And you would not be the first person to threaten me." His smile widened until it hurt his face, until it glittered under its own power they way that An's eyes had when she had still been herself. "Like you said, I'm a survivor."

An's face twitched into something that may have been the beginnings of amusement. It lasted for only a moment, overwhelmed as soon as it began by the purest, blackest expression of rage that Lindsey had ever witnessed. He wondered how he could have ever believed that it was a little girl holding the reins to that body.

"Oh," An hissed, her gaze turning distant. "Oh, no, she will not." She spun around without any further comments of even glances in Lindsey's direction and sprinted off into darkness that welcomed and cocooned her far faster than it would have a normal person. Lindsey leaned against the light post and closed his eyes as he began to feel as if he were trapped inside a kaleidoscope.

"Lindsey!" He had never before heard Angel saying his name in that particular tone, but he was glad of it now. And just when he had lost his chance to see if hell was freezing over. Lindsey laughed to himself, blood loss taking over him in spite of his best efforts to restrain it, and looked up to see Angel's eyebrows rising. Spike was only a few paces behind, a deep line drawn between his eyebrows. Lindsey doubted that all that concern was for him.

"You would have had to be there," Lindsey said to Angel, settling back against the pole as his legs told him that, nope, he was on his own from here on out.

Angel's nostrils flared as he took in the blood that still ran forth, only to be washed away with every moment by the continuing rain. Lindsey imagined that it had been quite some time since Angel had had a full meal. There was a long gash running along Angel's hairline, spilling enough blood into his eyes to blind them if the rain was washing them all clean. Lindsey could also see a further wound in his shoulder where it looked as if a Guardian had torn a chunk from him without waiting for him to die first. All in all, neither of them were going to be winning any beauty contests.

Spike was pacing a short distance off from the two of them, staring at the newly reconstructed buildings as if he could not quite believe that they were more than illusions. Lindsey was not certain that he was above doing the same thing were he not struggling so hard to remain conscious. Spike circled back around, slicing between Angel and Lindsey as if he were the sword, rather than merely carrying one. An ugly burn marked the skin of his throat and his voice rasped as he demanded, "Where is she?"

Lindsey blinked and attempted to lean back until he realized that, being supported by the light post as he was, he had nowhere to go. The rain began to taper off, allowing him to see for the first time how badly he was bleeding. The world started to seesaw around the edges. "An?" Lindsey asked stupidly, and shook his head. "I have no idea, she took off. There was something wrong-"

"Not her," Spike all but shouted. A hint of gold crossed his eyes before they shaded back into their usual dark blue. Lindsey and Angel both blinked. "Illyria. Where is Illyria?"

"Oh." Lindsey shook his head and then splayed his fingers against his temples as the world continued to rock long after he had stopped moving. "I don't know. We were separated in front of the portal. I haven't seen her again since."

It was difficult for vampires to go even paler than was their normal appearance, but Spike managed admirably. He drew in air through his teeth with a sharp hissing sound and looked around at the clean, normal street. Lindsey knew that he was thinking that hell's own Barbie doll might have finally been pulled back to the place that had spawned her. He waited for the explosion, but Angel forestalled it by putting his hand quickly on Spike's shoulder. Spike pulled a face and twitched Angel's hand away before it had been there for more than a few seconds. He did not, however, let the storm clouds rolling through his eyes grow any darker.

"Illyria's tough. She'll make anyone who messes with her very sorry very quickly," Angel said. He jerked his head in the direction of the soul eater, which had started to melt under the cleansing rain like a slug after salt had been poured across it. It lay sprawled across the street in the meantime, a disgusting, half-finished lump of jelly. "This place is still thick with demons. If they didn't get pulled through, chances are that Illyria didn't, either."

Spike paused for a long moment before he gave a grudging nod. Angel turned back towards Lindsey, who was lowering his head and fighting to stay awake. "What was wrong with An?" When Lindsey gave no response, Angel called his name.

Lindsey shivered and raised his head. "Sorry," he muttered.

"Try to stay here for a few more minutes," Angel said. There was something close enough to compassion in his voice to make Lindsey blink and wonder if he hadn't passed out without realizing it. He nodded and shifted his weight, wincing, as Angel repeated, "You said that there was something wrong with An, what did you mean?"

"Her eyes. They were completely normal." Angel and Spike exchanged looks, and Lindsey shook his head. "That girl has not been normal since before she was nine years old. Seems strangely convenient that she would do a one-eighty into Gap teen right after being face to face with a portal into hell."

The deep, ugly line between Spike's eyes had yet to go away. "Might be it drained her batteries," he said. His voice was still gruff, and he winced and brought his hand up to his throat several times as he spoke. He gestured to the street around them. Lindsey could see bobbing pinpoints of light as people put their heads out and realized what had happened, hear joyous shouts as the news spread. "This was a bigger job than the ones she's used to."

Lindsey shook his head again, swearing when his vision began to dance. "She was acting differently, too. An has a streak of brat in her, but this was above and beyond anything that she's said before."

Angel asked, "What did Alexei and Fideo have to say?"

Lindsey lifted his head so that he and Angel could make eye contact. "I have no idea where either of them are," he said. "Neither did An. And from where I was standing, she didn't care."

Angel and Spike shared a quick glance between them, their expressions growing troubled. Angel nodded finally and stepped forward, taking Lindsey's arm from the pole and placing it around his own shoulders so that he could support some of Lindsey's weight. "Your leg needs to be stitched up," Angel said, ignoring the incredulous look that Lindsey was craning his neck to give him.

"Yeah, and are we going to pop down to Los Angeles General and get that taken care of?" Lindsey muttered. Without turning his head, he thought that he could sense Angel's expression shift.

"There's a person near here who knows a little about medicine."

"A little?" Lindsey snapped his head around until his neck creaked and his jaw almost collided with Angel's cheek.

"Just enough to make her dangerous," Spike cut in. He was looking more cheerful in spite of himself. "She used to be a butcher."

"Great," Lindsey muttered, envisioning amputations rather than stitches.

"She'll get the job done," Angel said. He seemed to be fighting back a smile, and the waves of relief rolling off of him were strong enough to be staggering. He wanted to believe that the happy ending was in reach, they all did, and for the first time that he could remember Lindsey felt bad for having to drive a pin into that.

"What about An?" he asked.

The smile vanished without leaving so much as a trace of its existence behind. "We'll deal with that when we know more. You could be wrong." Though Angel said it without malice, Lindsey could still hear that it was what he wanted to be true as much as it was what he actually believed. Lindsey wondered if it was to late for him to be allowed back into the club.

Angel helped Lindsey limp away from the street, ignoring him as he winced and swore. The air all around them still had the thick, heavy feeling of a cloud on the verge of unleashing the rain.


The woman that Angel brought him to was not nearly so creepy as she had been painted. She was small and compact, with short, curly hair that had been clipped back into a bun that morning but had long since begun to escape into energetic rings around her face. She reminded Lindsey of many of the English teachers that he had had throughout high school, and the traces of blood still trapped beneath her nails did nothing to dispel the image.

The metal table that Lindsey was resting on was cold enough to send riots of gooseflesh racing along his skin, while the multiple kerosene lamps that his makeshift doctor worked by cast eerie, twisting patterns on the walls and ceiling. Lindsey focused as much of his attention as he was able upon the dancing shadows in order to distract himself from the rhythmic dip and pinch of the needle entering his flesh, clenching his teeth until his jaws creaked. As far as pain went, he could still compare it to the many others that he had lived through and find it greatly wanting. He would pretend that that did not say something sobering about his life in general.

"You'll have to hold more still than that," the English teacher turned butcher turned amateur surgeon-though she had told him before beginning that she also answered to Madeline-said without taking her eyes from her task. Her words were muffled by the fact that she was speaking around several needles held between her teeth. Each one had been bent into a curved shape so that it resembled a fishhook. Morbid imagery or not, Lindsey was glad that the instruments themselves had come from a hospital even if the stand-in doctor had not. Every few minutes, Madeline would pause in her stitching long enough to pull one of the needles from her mouth, douse both it and her hands liberally with rubbing alcohol, and begin again with scarcely a hitch in stride.

"Are you sure that you should be holding those in your mouth?" Lindsey asked, the first time that he watched her do it.

"Can't afford to lose the needles," Madeline answered crisply, raising her head to flash him a smile from which a needle jutted every few inches. "I'm not going to give you anything."

Back in the present, Lindsey flinched as the needle seemed to go directly through a nerve and was given a curl-framed glare as his punishment. "I know, I know, hold still," he said. "I'm trying."

"My old clients were not nearly so much trouble," Madeline said, adopting for a moment a look of irrepressible nostalgia. Lindsey had the feeling that, had he only been dead, Madeline would have been adopting him as her newest grandson. He wondered if that could explain why she seemed to like Angel so much. He tilted his head back, closed his eyes, and cursed his own lamentable sobriety.

"He's lost a goodish amount of blood," Lindsey heard Madeline speaking over him, presumably to Angel.

Angel, standing silent guard in the corner, confirmed Lindsey's assumption by replying in a low voice, "He's used to it."

Madeline also had the sharp, piercing stare of an English teacher. Lindsey could feel it prickling along his skin as she looked him over, raising knots of gooseflesh that even the chill of the room had not been able to accomplish. Lindsey shrugged his shoulders as if to say, "What am I going to do? He speaks the truth," and did not bother to open his eyes.

A moment later, Madeline went on, "Not enough to be life-threatening, or I would not be so calm-" Anyone with the presence of mind to turn an apocalypse into a novel career change had to be possessed of nerves that would make an army general proud. "But goodish all the same. He won't be useful for any fighting for at least a few days, and these stitches'll pop right out if he does anything too pulse-raising." Lindsey would be more offended at being spoken about as if he was not there if it wasn't also the truth. Madeline finished her work with one final jab and patted at Lindsey's knee in apology when he muttered an oath beneath his breath.

"Hopefully if won't come to that," Angel said, though he sounded doubtful. 'Hopefully' probably wasn't a word that he had used without irony in quite some time. Lindsey opened his eyes to discover that he was not the only one viewing Angel with a dubious expression.

"The portal is really closed?" Madeline asked. Her voice became less muffled with each word as she pulled the needles from her mouth and set them carefully into a dish placed off to one side. Lindsey sat up, wincing as the skin in his thigh pulled, and caught the pair of jeans that Madeline threw at him. "Don't put those on yet," she cautioned. "The stitches will drive you crazy if we don't get a bandage over them first." Lindsey sighed and laid the jeans to the side, resigning himself to being nearly nude for a while longer. At least this time he had boxers.

Angel nodded in response to Madeline's question, but his eyes maintained the hooded, closed-in expression that he had brought to perfection. "Yeah, it's closed." He looked past Madeline to lock eyes with Lindsey. Lindsey wasn't sure what he was supposed to be seeing there or what Angel wanted him to do in return, except that a long moment stretched by in which neither one of them was willing to be the first to look away.

Madeline pressed her lips into a line so thin that they appeared to have fallen off of her face. The rest of her face remained steady and calm; it was her hands, still stained to the wrists with streaks of Lindsey's blood, that betrayed her by clenching and unclenching themselves into an endless series of fists. She was trembling, so slightly that it was only detectable by watching the movements of the curls around her face. "Then why doesn't the city feel any different?" Madeline demanded. "If it's all over now, then why does everything still feel like it's waiting?" Madeline's calm reached its breaking point at long last and then shot past it, driving a shrill note into her voice. She paused, breathing harder, and stared at Angel with a look that demanded he give her an explanation.

Angel looked at Lindsey. Lindsey did not know why he kept doing this or what answers he could possibly be expecting Lindsey to give when he was not even sure what the question was. His puzzlement must have shown on his face, for within the time it took for him to blink Angel had turned back to Madeline.

"I don't know," Angel told Madeline at last, using a tone so gentle that Lindsey at first had trouble believing it. "But we will find out." A certainty had come into Angel's voice that Lindsey had not heard since he came back. Maybe, if he listened hard, he could believe that it was the beginnings of fire. Lindsey felt a quick surge of triumph, his defiant words to Lilah forgotten. If he was willing to be perfectly honest with himself, then that fire had been gone long before Lindsey had died, and his stay in hell had turned him into a creature that craved the heat.

In the moment of silence that followed Angel's words, Lindsey began to feel a whisper of the same sense of waiting that had been wreaking havoc on Madeline's nerves, as if the universe had transformed itself into an amphitheater and the audience was still waiting for the curtain to go up. He sat up a big straighter, cocked his head to one side, and stared at Angel hard. "I promise," Angel finished. The invisible audience sighed and shivered as one.

Madeline let out a breath that she had likely not realized that she was holding, just as Lindsey had not realized that he was holding his own. She nodded. "All right." Madeline looked towards Lindsey again with that eagle-eyed stare that almost made him smell the chalk. "Don't go anywhere." Lindsey stuck out his newly-stitched leg and raised his eyebrows in incredulous inquiry. He received a smile and another pat on the knee. "I'll be back with the bandages." She left, taking one of the lamps with her. The shadows leapt into new shapes to accommodate the loss.

Angel's face was transformed into radiant ripples of light and dark by the movement of the flames. The gleaming coffee-black of his eyes was the only part of his face that did not twist and change. They followed Lindsey's movements with a returning shadow of their old intensity, making Lindsey feel that even if he were on the other side of the city those eyes would still be able to pin him to the nearest wall. Under the power of that stare Lindsey thought that he could be forgiven for not noticing at first that the beginnings of concern and even a flash of respect. "You still smell like brimstone."

"How can you even tell? The whole city reeks of it." Lindsey scratched at the dried blood on his leg and came away with rusty flakes buried beneath his nails. His head continued to insist that vertical was not the smart way to go, making Lindsey hope that Angel did not ask him too many complicated questions in the meanwhile. In his impaired state, there was no telling what the right one would provoke him to say.

Angel snorted so softly that Lindsey would not have noticed if not for the miniscule movement of Angel's shoulders. He could still pick out the smallest twitch that Angel made in any room that they both happened to be in. Lindsey supposed that he should be glad that he had emerged from his mess with his priorities intact. "That bothers me."

"That I smell like brimstone, or that the city still does?" Lindsey was hanging his head between his shoulder-blades in an effort to discourage it from throbbing, so distracted that he almost missed Angel's swiftly muttered, "Both." Snapping his head up was a mistake; by the time that Lindsey's vision cleared, any betraying expression that might have moved across Angel's face was long gone.

"That soul eater wasn't just killed. It was burst out of, like that..." Angel paused and made a hesitant gesture with his hand, as if he were searching for a word. "Movie about the aliens."

"That would be 'Alien'." Lindsey was too tired and dizzy to give the sentence the full sarcasm that it deserved, but he still appreciated the glare that he retrieved for his trouble. "And you're not far off. That thing..." Lindsey could neither suppress his shudder nor ignore the way that Angel's eyes moved to catalogue every move. "I didn't win that fight."

"What happened to the sensory deprivation plan?" Angel's voice was soft. If Lindsey's blood loss had been affecting him just a bit more, he might even have said that they were having a moment. It was both too much like the way that things had been before and not similar enough, and the air was beginning to hum.

Angel's eyebrows lifted. Lindsey jolted back as he realized that Angel was still waiting for an answer. The best that he could do was lift his shoulders into a shrug. "An did something," Lindsey said, deciding that now was not the best time to mention that yet another attempt had been made to barter with him for the contents of his soul. Angel had too many thoughts on that subject as it was. Lindsey made a soft sound of incredulity and jerked his chin in the direction of the window, where shouts echoed and flashlight beams danced and crisscrossed each other. He thought that the yells still sounded uncertain and subdued, as if everyone in the city was still awaiting the final chapter before they began to celebrate in earnest. >From so far away that for a few seconds Lindsey thought he was imagining it, a helicopter could be heard. He finished softly, "It looks as though An did a lot of somethings, doesn't it?"

Angel followed the direction of Lindsey's stare out the window, his face hardening for a moment into the same expression of steel that Lindsey knew well, as it usually ended with blood being shed and body parts being separated from their rightful owners. Seeing it from a position where it was not directed towards him was a novel change of pace. "Yeah," Angel muttered. "Especially when you compare it to what she was able to do before." He looked back towards Lindsey. "But we both know something about making deals with the devil, don't we?"

Before Lindsey could reply, Madeline came hustling back into the room with a stack of bandages in her hands. She paused for a moment in the doorway to scent the room's new tension and give both Angel and Lindsey speculative looks before she came forward. "A few more minutes and you'll be ready to go," Madeline said, sinking into a crouch with a spryness that a woman half her age would have envied and unwinding a roll of gauze around Lindsey's thigh. The chaos of curls wobbled and bobbed as she dipped her head in order to better view her work, obscuring the largest part of her expression from view. Lindsey waited with scarcely veiled impatience until she was done, as the room was not getting any warmer, and then grabbed for his jeans. As Lindsey was pulling them back over his legs, Madeline turned back towards Angel. "Getting on towards dawn."

Angel glanced out the window once more, this time with a more relaxed look on his face. "There's still plenty of time. We won't be going far."

Madeline looked as if she still would have liked to issue an argument or admonishment before she snapped her mouth shut with an audible clicking sound. The look that she shot Lindsey afterwards was heavy with messages even though Madeline herself remained silent. Lindsey nodded and lifted one hand slightly: 'Message received, we'll be careful.' Madeline relaxed and went about gathering up the rest of her supplies. Lindsey wondered if Angel managed to keep up the pretense of a lone hero in spite of how many people cared for him, or if he honestly did not know.

"Ready?" Angel asked as Lindsey was pulling on his shoes.

"Yes." Lindsey hopped down from the table and pulled his lips back from his teeth immediately as all of the muscles in his injured leg seemed to contract as one motion. The world around him began to sway in a manner that was hard enough in its intensity and went on for long enough to make Lindsey wonder why his blood had not yet found a more efficient way of replenishing itself, as he seemed to spend so much of his life losing it. He held out his hand to ward off the designated white knight in the room as his vision cleared. "I don't need any help."

Said white knight had not moved from his position by the window and was watching with Angel's own form of badly concealed amusement. Lindsey had seen it often enough that he could still recognize it at a glance, even with those strange curlings of concern that kept taking his center of balance away and moving it to a new location. Knowing that some things would remain the same no matter how badly the world spun off its axis with a bizarre sense of comfort. "I wasn't going to offer it."

Lindsey tested his leg, easing his weight back upon it gradually until it agreed to take him on a grudging provisional basis. "You're all heart, has anyone ever told you that?" He limped towards the door and could feel Angel following closely behind him.

"The subject has come up." The words curled out from a place almost directly behind Angel's ear, and he had the feeling that even if he were to fall he would not hit the ground.

Spike was sitting on the curb outside of the hole in the wall-nearly literal-which served as Madeline's base of operation when Angel and Lindsey exited, made visible by the glint of the reappearing starlight on his hair and the cherry-red glow of his cigarette. He quirked his eyebrows in greeting, but said nothing immediately. His fingers clenched the cigarette with such force that it was a wonder he didn't snap it in half, while his eyes roamed over the humans as they celebrated in the same place where demons had cavorted hours before. The sounds of the helicopter had come back, louder than ever, and Lindsey wondered what this meant for all of the little backroom deals that they had struck. He noticed that Angel had also tilted his head to listen to the sound with a speculative expression.

The pattern of Spike's eyes as they moved across the crowd was restless, unceasing. Lindsey knew without needing to ask that the figure Spike was searching for came with a killer set of legs and a skin tone that Revlon did not know how to cope with. He was not one for platitudes and knew that Spike would not mind liberating him of what blood he had left if he tried, so he coped with the lingering voice telling him that he should give it a shot all the same by moving his weight back over to his good leg and muttering a series of soft obscenities beneath his breath.

Spike paused to gauge how close his cigarette was to burning his fingers and lit a second with the embers of the first before he rose to his feet. He didn't bother stomping it out after dropping into the gutter, so that it found the debris there and made a few feeble attempts at rising into flame before giving up altogether. Spike never even glanced down, keeping his eyes moving over the crowd as if he expected Illyria to come bounding out like a blue-tinted and bad-tempered puppy at any moment. He said to Angel, "Look at them. Give them two hours and it's like the last year and a half didn't exist."

Angel's expression remained as placid and blank as he watched the same scene. "Scar tissue. It makes the world go around." A touch of the fire came back, refusing to die out as the cigarette had done, so that Lindsey wanted to step closer to him again.

Spike rolled his eyes and flicked ash from the end of his cigarette. "That's deep." He gave Lindsey an once-over. "Surprised not to see you dancing a jig in the middle of them."

"Not one for dancing." To emphasize his point, Lindsey tried to rest more weight onto his bad leg, only to wince and immediately take it off again. "I'm surprised to see this much pessimism, though. This is what you guys have been working for, isn't it? Why aren't you off playing the conquering heroes and getting decorated with laurel leaves?"

"We weren't the ones who ended this," Angel said quietly. Meanwhile, Spike stared at Lindsey as if he was the stupidest life form that he had ever wandered across. He and Illyria were already beginning to resemble each other. Lindsey was sure that they would make a great couple.

"You see any demons out there on that street?" Spike asked Lindsey in a low, hard voice, leaning so close that the tip of his cigarette was only a few inches away from Lindsey's face.

Lindsey narrowed his eyes and refused to lean back from the radiating heat. "They know that they're beaten," he said. "They're trying to cut their losses."

"You're still thinking like a lawyer," Spike said. "Stop doing that." Lindsey rolled his eyes. "Shake off all of that training that Wolfram and Hart put into you all of those years ago so that they could get their obedient little drone."

Lindsey abruptly traded in rolling his eyes for narrowing them into slits so small that it was a wonder he could still see.

"Think instead like someone with their back pressed so closely against that wall that they can feel the brick rubbing through their shirt. You were closer to it last year than you think." Spike took Lindsey's sudden flinch as one of anger rather than apprehension, and that suited Lindsey just fine. "Under those circumstances, what would you do? Would you hide in the shadows and tell yourself that you were only cutting your losses so that you could live to fight another day? Or would you be right out there in the middle doing as much damage as you possibly could before the guillotine came crashing down?"

Lindsey looked over the growing crowd. As Spike's words echoed away, the people seemed more to be operating under the false cheer of a last supper than a mood of real celebration. "The demons know that it's not over."

"They aren't the only ones," Spike finished, shuddering as if his mood was something physical that could be thrown off. While he looked towards Angel, Angel continued to stare back in his best impression of a wall, and the twitch of annoyance that ran through Spike's shoulders said that he liked this state of affairs about as much as Lindsey did.

Lindsey flicked Angel an irritated glance right along with Spike, his happiness at seeing that there was still something of fire beneath Angel's façade being overshadowed by his desire that it would come to life faster already. The whole gig had been far easier when all that had been required of him was that he punch the right buttons on the big panel of Insta-Hatred to get Angel moving. When Angel was pushing past tolerance where Lindsey was concerned and into something that was nearly friendly, the whole mess became much more complicated. He had been released from his fealty to the Powers That Be from the moment that they had failed to come through on their end, he had openly spit upon taking up his old contract with Wolfram and Hart, so he should owe no one anything. Lindsey still felt no urge to start taking himself out of the city as fast as he could, and he paused so that he could spend several seconds cursing himself for being a fool.

"The whole city's waiting," Spike added when Angel did not answer immediately, finishing his second cigarette and looking annoyed when he could not immediately locate a third.

"We'll figure it out," Angel said at long last, looking tired but once again more alive than Lindsey could remember seeing him in quite some time. "We'll find An, we'll find Illyria, and we'll save the day." Angel glanced towards horizon and grimaced. "Or we'll save the night. Getting short on time." To Lindsey, he said, "Can you walk back, or am I going to wind up carrying you?"

Lindsey thought over that question and decided that the best answer that came back was, "Maybe." Contemplating the other option for too long was apt to send blood into places where he could not afford to spare it at the moment. "I think I can manage," he said dryly, for a moment thinking that he could smell the smoke and brimstone that seemed to concern both Angel and Spike so much before deciding that he was imagining things. With such great portions of the city still in a continuous blaze, he would be unsurprised to learn that smoke had been ground all the way into the brick and the earth, and a little extra brimstone was not much when stacked against all of that.

"Yeah, Angel's been all touchy-feely like that lately-" Spike broke off suddenly, snapping his head around in the direction of the apartment building. He was closely mirrored by Angel repeating the gesture on Lindsey's other side. They were right, Lindsey realized as he doubled over without warning, it had been brimstone. The wave of it was so sudden and overpowering that Lindsey wondered how he could have missed it.

"Catch up as fast as you can!" Angel snapped at Lindsey. He scarcely waited for Lindsey to nod his acknowledgement before he and Spike went tearing off down the street, their dusters fluttering in sync too perfectly to have gone unrehearsed. The people on the street barely paused to note their movements or the new scent on the air, so used where they to chaos and death that a small return to the status quo seemed like a small price to pay.

Never let it be said that Lindsey had been one to be satisfied with the status quo. He broke into the fastest run that he was capable of, wincing as a few of the newly placed stitches pulled and blood began to trickle down his leg. He was unharassed in spite of the fact that he still reeked of blood, which to Lindsey's mind was a far more ominous sign than the sulphur that was now almost as familiar to him as the sound of his own heartbeat. More so.

Within blocks of nearing the apartment building, Lindsey realized that he would need no streetlights to guide him the rest of the way. The glow of the sky was more than enough, and he knew that the period of waiting had come to an end.


There had been a building standing in this place when they had left. Lindsey was sure of it.

He skidded to a halt and spit out a few choice words from between his teeth, throwing up his arm to protect his face from the blazing light and the worst of the heat. Wasn't all of this bringing back a series of lovely memories, so loud and screaming that it took Lindsey several seconds to realize that brick should not be burning like that. Vampires could, but though Lindsey craned his head he could see no sign of either Spike or Angel. He shivered in spite of the heat.

There was no apartment building now where they had been one before, not in the proper sense referring to a structure of wood and concrete and glass. In its place stood a vaguely cubed block of solid flames which twisted in the direction of the sky and danced teasingly out towards the street. They licked at the surrounding buildings but could not quite seem to light them, in spite of the fact that all that dry timber had to be aching for so much as a spark. Lindsey knew that he was not possibly viewing a normal fire, not with the way that the air all but shivered and crawled with the scent of brimstone and rot.

Every few seconds the flames would part enough for Lindsey to catch a glimpse of the windows, which were rippling and running in a way that made them seem alive. 'They're melting,' Lindsey thought. He wondered at the force that had to be standing behind a wood fire in order to make it burn that hot. The heat had forced him to stop nearly one hundred feet away and his skin still felt on the verge of blistering.

Christ, Lindsey remembered, there had still been at least one dozen people in that building when they had left. Alicia and Katie had been in that building. The swiftness with which a knot began to grow at the base of his spine shocked him.

The figure that Lindsey had been searching for at long last emerged from the darkness, every inch the avenging angel with smoke rising from the shoulders of his jacket like wings. A line of blisters marked up the side of Angel's jaw, and Lindsey was willing to bet anything he had that at least one unsuccessful rescue attempt could be found in Angel's recent past.

"Is everyone still inside?" Lindsey asked when Angel drew close.

Angel's eyes were dark and glinting. A cold, sparkling rage that Lindsey already knew on an intimate level shone just beneath the surface. "Yes." Angel spit out the word as if by doing so with enough force he could will it into being a weapon. Lindsey knew who the person that Angel would like to turn that weapon on was without needing to ask. In the sheer, blinding shock of what was happening, he found himself agreeing.

Lindsey spun towards the street, looking for a fire hydrant, looking for anything, even as he knew that in the old world the people in that building still would have been beyond saving. He did not know how he managed to hear Angel's growl over the roaring of the flames, except as a sub-vocal vibration that seemed to echo all the way into Lindsey's bones. He turned.

Angel was staring at the conflagration that had once been a sanctuary, his expression etched with a cold, still calm that Lindsey knew well. Lindsey turned further, following Angel's gaze until he found its unfortunate object. He had a certain rage of his own here, and a certain measure of regret if were to pause and face it, but there was not even the smallest hint of surprise to be found in the chaos.

The fire swallowing the building parted at the place where the door had been, only far enough to allow one small figure to step through before it became a solid mass again. Smoke rose up from An's hair and shoulders, while a small trail of blisters marked up her mouth and the side of her nose. Beyond that, she bore no injuries to show that she had just been walking through the inside of a furnace.

An stepped daintily over the embers in the doorway, pausing and looking this way and that across the darkened street. She stopped when she caught sight of Angel and Lindsey and assumed that older expression, that cunning expression that reminded Lindsey of Darla at her most intent. "Where is she?" she yelled at them in a voice made rough with brimstone.

"What are you?" Angel snarled back at her, stalking forward. The wind from the fire blew his coat back from his body as he walked; the smoke rising from his shoulders mingled with that rising from An's and twisted towards the sky. Though Angel pulled his lips back from the teeth, he showed no signs that he was even considering backing away.

"Where is she?" An repeated, raising her voice into a shriek in order to be heard over the crackling of the flames. Her eyes darted back and forth between Angel and Lindsey. He wondered how he could have ever thought that soulless black was better that the old, cloudy white. "They don't get to do this," An retreated into herself for a few seconds in order to mutter. "They don't get to replace me, throw me away..."

Angel grabbed the An-thing by her upper arm, dragging her away from the flames and hurling her back in the direction of the street so hard that she barely kept her balance. An staggered a few more steps before she lost it entirely and went down to one knee. She righted herself quickly and spun around, wrinkling her lisp back from her teeth. Lindsey would not have been surprised then if she had opened her mouth and hissed at both of them. An's jeans were torn and there was a red stain spreading from the place where she had struck the pavement, but she did not seem to notice. "What the hell did you do?" Angel yelled at her again.

An panted and looked back and forth between Lindsey and Angel with eyes wide enough to make her look almost normal. As the moment of panic bled away from her, her lips split into a grin and a giggle flew out of her mouth. "You don't know," she sing-songed. Lindsey shuddered hard as he suddenly felt something go flicking through his mind, like fingers moving over a Rolodex. "Neither of you know." An looked back towards Angel and stopped giggling long enough to whisper, "I can read you now, you know. Everything you've done, everything that you still want to do. Doesn't make the self-righteous act all that appealing."

Angel's eyes flashed and his knuckles dipped out at a speed faster than the human eye could follow. He knocked An to the ground, where she braced herself up on one elbow and grinned at Angel through blood-slicked teeth. "Macho," An tried to purr in that Darla voice, before she had to give it up so that she could spit. It was on the tip of Lindsey's tongue to tell her that she couldn't match Darla on her best day. "Bet you drive all the girls wild."

"You're not An," Angel said. He looked as if he wanted to convince himself so that he could hit her again.

An smiled, showing teeth still streaked with red. "You want to believe that," she said. The grin stretched until it became grotesque, something better suited to a Cheshire cat than a human being. "No, you need to believe that, because otherwise you can't convince yourself to kill me." An's eyes flicked over to Lindsey. "You're good at convincing yourself of what you want to believe, aren't you, Angel?"

Lindsey swore that he heard a whooshing sound at the exact moment that the situation spun out of his control. An's look of triumph might have been directed towards Lindsey, but that did not mean that it was beyond Angel's scope to notice it. A dark line of suspicion drew itself between Angel's eyes and Lindsey began mentally running through a long list of obscenities, knowing that An would be able to pick up on every one. If anything, her grin only grew wider.

"An's still here," she said, lifting her chin in the manner of a queen. The effect was only slightly marred by the fact that there was still blood trickling from her split lip. "We're just bigger now." She tilted her head to one side, going for an innocence that the real An would not have been able to manage on her best day. On the face of the doppelganger who claimed to be her, it rang cheap and hollow.

"What, you've never made a deal with the devil to get something better" An continued, echoing Angel's earlier words back at him. He looked as if he would like nothing better than to hit her again, and perhaps not stop this time.

"There were people in that building," Angel growled, looking as if it were only an extreme force of will which kept him from roaring.

An pushed herself further up on her elbow, dragged her hand across her mouth, and flicked it so that the drops of blood splattered against the ground. Lindsey was surprised when it did not sizzle. "I fixed this city," she said in a low voice that did not sound like An, or Darla, or anything else that had ever been human. "Haven't you ever made a necessary sacrifice before?"

"Funny thing about sacrifices," Lindsey spoke for the first time. "They usually come after you get what you want. You do it afterwards, it's only murder." An cast a long, speculative look over him as something within the building behind them gave way with a tremendous splintering sound. A wave of hot air made them all stumble back. Lindsey refused to break eye contact with her.

"I've been in their heads," An snarled at them both. Something forlorn and nearly fragile entered her voice, making her back into the girl from the previous night. A trace of cloudy white swirled back into her eyes and returned to black before she had the chance to blink twice. "I've seen what I was protecting, and baby? Frankly, I think we can do better."

"And to hell with Alexei and Fideo in the meantime, huh?" Lindsey asked, keeping his voice as low and neutral as he could. Her sniff convinced him more than anything else that An as he knew her no longer existed, and he tired to quickly shove his thought into the back of his mind before the thing in her place could pick up on it.

She looked at him sharply, obviously expecting that something was amiss even as she could not yet put her finger on what it might be. "I already told you that sometimes sacrifices are necessary."

The certainty grew stronger. Lindsey glanced at Angel and saw his eyes grow dark as eh came to the same realization. While Lindsey thought that An might still be rattling in there somewhere as a ghost in her own machine, the girl herself would never have greeted Alexei's and Fideo's deaths with such a cavalier attitude.

An's eyes went dark with fury as she picked up on the current of Lindsey's thoughts. That was all right, that was fine. Angel was already moving. He grabbed An by her elbow and dragged her back up to her feet so quickly that her toes dangled above the ground for several seconds before she was able to find it again. "Is there anything at all of An left in you?" Angel asked. His fingers tightened until An's face blanched. "You might want to think very hard before you give me your answer."

An glared at him. "You're kind of an idiot," she said. "What kind of a future am I going to have if I say, 'Sure, she's long gone'?" Angel began to answer and An cut him off with a sneer before he got further than the first syllable. "An's still here, and she's closer than you would think." An's eyes flared briefly, brilliantly white. "She doesn't think that she likes you very much any longer."

There was a sound like a thunderclap that made Lindsey's ears ring, as if the very air had been punched and, shocked, was now gathering itself to punch back. He turned his head to the side to avoid being blinded by a flash of light which seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. When he turned back, An was still on her feet. Angel was several feet away and definitely not on his.

An pulled her lips back from her teeth and clenched her hands into knuckle-whitening fists as Angel leaped back up. The air around her crackled with electricity; the ends of her hair began first to wave and then to dance. "And you're one to talk about heroism, anyway," she continued in a shrill voice. If An-that-was had not been obliterated entirely, then Lindsey thought that she must be lurking very close to the surface now. "When was the last time that you did any good thing without an eye cast towards your precious fucking redemption?"

Angel's face was dark. Though the sky above them had been clear for the last hour, Lindsey still expected lightning to crash and thunder to roll at any moment. "You're an idiot," he said in a voice that scarcely rose above a whisper but still managed to carry for yards around.

An turned and very deliberately looked at Lindsey. Her eyes sparkled, and Lindsey knew what was going to come next from that glance alone. He took a deep breath and wondered both when he had started to care and what kind of hoops he was going to have to jump through to get that indifference back.

"Oh, I'm an idiot?" An cooed. "That's cute, Angel, it really is." She jerked her head towards Lindsey. Angel's eyes followed the movement, and the invisible storm began building itself in earnest. "Why do you think that he was working for the Powers That Be, Angel? Why do you think that he was buzzing about like such a busy little bee for all those months so that you would take back your leash again? A moral awakening, the goodness of his heart finally springing free?" Angel's expression stayed blank, but his body still hummed with tension.

An's snort of disgust said exactly what she thought about Angel and Lindsey both. "He cut a deal, Angel-babe. He walked away from Wolfram and Hart with a nasty set of strings attached to his soul so that it didn't matter if he was a good boy for all the rest of his days, the outcome when he died was still going to be the same. He wanted that gone, and the Powers That Be knew that, and you have a big, gaping soft spot where he's concerned, and the Powers That Be knew that, too. Quid pro quo." An paused and for a moment took on a reflective expression. "I don't think they foresaw you killing him, though. You can think of that as a victory against determinism, if you want."

Angel's shrug was lazy, indifferent. It was almost enough to make Lindsey believe in it. The dangerous, beetle-black glitter in Angel's eyes betrayed it wall for a show. "So you're telling me that Lindsey will do anything that he has to save his own ass? Thanks, An. You're lifting a major veil from my eyes here." He began stalking forward again, one slinking step after another than transformed all that bulk into something more worthy of a cat.

"I don't want you coming any closer to me," An said sharply. Fear entered her voice before she could banish it, and she took a small step back. The air in front of her face shimmered like glass that had been overheated and then allowed to cool too hastily, so that it was forever caught in a series of ripples. Angel stopped, but the glitter in his eyes did not fade away. Lindsey thought that there was more than a little of Angelus in that look, and the prickle which ran up his spine in response was not based entirely on fear. Angel's eyes ticked towards him as Angel went on, "You can't lie to me anymore about what you'll do. I wouldn't recommend it trying it."

Angel cocked his head to one side and for a moment even seemed to smile as he took a few more gliding steps forward. The ripples in the air grew more pronounced; pain overtook Angel's face, but did not halt his progress. Backlit as he was by the inferno, his namesake was the last thing that he resembled. "But half the fun is in the trying." Something within the building collapsed and sent out a great rush of swirling sparks and blistering air. Angel barely flinched as the embers rained down against the back of his neck, and he never took his eyes away from An. Her look of lazy certainty was beginning to develop cracks in its foundation.

A yell echoed from the far side of the building, snapping Angel's head around and pulling his attention away when the fire alone had not been able to. An took the opportunity to break and run as it presented itself, leaving the air where she had been standing shimmering and dancing in a way that spoke of the inadvisability of following. Angel's eyes were flat, shark-like as he followed her progress, and Lindsey was surprised that he didn't try to follow her all the same. That particular expression said far more pessimistic things about her future than if he had simply pursued her then. The look that Angel passed over Lindsey when he happened to glance his way carried a similar message. Lindsey wished that he could go back to a place where this did not matter to him, as he set his jaw and refused to be the first one to look away.

The source of the yell rounded the far side of the building, and Angel's eyes skittered away from Lindsey as they tracked the source of the movement. Fine, they would call that particular staring match a draw. The distraction had platinum blond hair and a long black duster that was now looking a bit singed around the edges. This came as no great shock to Lindsey. What did surprise him was the blue femme fatale tailing along in Spike's wake, pressing her fingertips to the blood that covered one half of her face and then staring at it in shock. Spike reached back frequently to touch her on the shoulder or the arm as they came forward, as if to reassure himself of her reality, and the looks of shock which Illyria would give him upon each of these occurrences were as great as the ones she was giving her own blood.

"Where were you?" Angel snarled as Spike as soon as he came within earshot.

Spike paused when he heard the blatant invitation to attack written in Angel's tone. He curled his lip for a moment before he could stop himself. "Sorry if I was too busy to rush off to your rescue, Kemosabe," Spike snapped. Lindsey noticed for the first time that, in spite of dark spots of blood staining Spike's jacket, the vampire himself did not seem to bear any serious wounds. "But when our girl slid off the deep end, she decided that it was lonely at the bottom and opted to take some company with her."

"Demons," Angel guessed, some of the anger bleeding out of his voice as he pinched at the bridge of his nose. Lindsey supposed that he ought to have been pleased, except that it made the fire go with it.

Spike snorted his assent as he reached out to touch Illyria on the shoulder yet again. Rather than being annoyed by the attention or receiving it as that which was her due, Illyria was too fascinated by the blood on her fingers to even realize that Spike's hand was there. She stared at it as someone would who had never even seen blood before, which made Lindsey's eyebrows go up. Even all powerful hell gods had to get a paper cut every now and again, and he had seen her shrugging off an injury that had laid her own arm open to the bone not two days before. Meanwhile, Spike glanced back and forth between Angel and Lindsey for a few seconds before he rolled his eyes and began patting at the remaining embers on his jacket.

"Seems like An's finally figured out the knack to making friends." Spike satisfied himself that he was not on the verge of bursting into flames and pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. He muttered an oath beneath his breath as he remembered that he had smoked them all before, crumbling the packaging in his fist before throwing it to the side and going through his pockets for strays. Upon finding two, he lit first one for himself and then the second for Illyria. This time she took it with only the barest hint of hesitation. Spike watched until she had made it through her first inhalation without falling into a coughing fit, observing, "Atta girl," before he turned back to Angel. "Question is, what do we plan to do now that she's gotten herself all turbo charged?"

"I don't know," Angel said, gritting out each word as if it was his personal enemy. He glanced towards the horizon, where the first rosy blushes of pink were beginning to creep across the horizon. "But we don't have time to talk about it here. Our first goal has to be to find shelter." A gentleness that Lindsey was amazed to hear came back into Angel's voice as he called softly, "Illyria." She jerked and almost dropped her cigarette. "It's good to see that you made it out safe."

Illyria returned to her moody contemplation of the cigarette, where a long column of ash was forming at the end. After a moment of careful consideration to observe how Spike dealt with the same problem, she flicked it away. "I was in hell," she groused.

"Welcome to our club, Babe," Spike said, looking nonplussed when Illyria fixed her laser glare onto him. "It's an inclusive one, but we'll still try to get you a jacket."

"That dimension was an annexation of my kingdom," Illyria hissed at him. The glowing ember at the end of her cigarette bobbed as she trembled. "I should have been treated with the respect due to my station. I was instead attacked, as if I am nothing more than-"

"One of us?" Angel asked. Illyria broke off and stared at him. "Might be time that you got used to that feeling.

Illyria threw her half-finished cigarette to the street and ground it out beneath her foot. Her lips twisted in disgust. "Reparations will be made. The seer will realize what a mewling, insignificant thing she is before me."

"It may come to that. Let's see what else we can do first." With some of the rage draining away from him, Angel once again sounded tired. "First things first. Spike, you and Illyria try to find some shelter. Don't worry about luxury, any empty building will do. Lindsey and I will head in the opposite direction to do the same."

"You still want the pleasure of my company after all that? I'm touched." Lindsey was glad to know that in the face of everything else, he still had access to his poison. He did not know where he would be without it.

Angel's soft and deadly-gleaming smile said that he felt exactly the same way. "Or maybe I just want to keep you where I an see you."

Spike looked back and forth between them before he muttered something about them picking a hell of a time for a lover's spat and touched Illyria's elbow. "Come on, Babe. If we get really lucky, maybe we can find something slimy for you to kill." Illyria looked immediately mollified and Spike blinked. "Right. You fit in better with this crowd than you think."

Angel waited until Spike and Illyria had started off before he turned in the other direction, jerking his head once as indication that Lindsey should follow him. Half of the apartment building crashed in on itself with a roaring sound at that moment, sending out a great wave of ash and spark that forced them both to duck away and shield their eyes. The flames still did not so much as cause a matchstick's worth of fire on any of the surrounding buildings. Lindsey wondered if this meant that An still had some half-alive stirrings of conscience in her, or if she only did not want to destroy Los Angeles before she had decided how she was going to remake it.

Angel walked quickly, not caring as Lindsey winced and swore while he struggled to keep up. "Got to tell you, Lindsey, there is one thing that I never fail to appreciate about our relationship," he called back over his shoulder. "Every time that I think that maybe, just maybe, this is the time that you're going to surprise me, you always prove in the end that there's not a damned part of you capable of change. It's nice. Gives me faith in the stability of the universe." Angel paused long enough to snort. "I don't get a lot of that."

So they were actually going to do this, rather than tiptoeing around it with acidic glances and veiled threats. That wasn't so bad, Lindsey decided. Hell, that was great. It had been well over three hours since his last fight, and already his skin was beginning to itch with the need for...something.

Lindsey drew to an immediate halt. Fuck it if Angel thought that he was going to follow him all over the city so that they could have this out. He waited, easing the weight off of his bad leg as it began to throb. Surprisingly, Angel stopped and wheeled around as soon as he heard Lindsey's footsteps cease, so that they were left staring at each other across an expanse of air that crackled and shivered with anticipated violence.

"And you know what I love about you, Angel?" Lindsey asked, letting every ounce of rage that he had allowed to build up inside of him for years to seep into his voice like slow-release cyanide. He was barely recognizable to his own years and could not particularly say that he cared, either. "Every time that I think your stores of hypocritical, self-righteous bullshit must be running low, you dig a little deeper, find a little more." Angel took a small step closer, his eyes flaring briefly gold, but Lindsey was not finished yet. "You want to look down your nose at me for taking the smart road? Fine. But remember that the Powers That Be know why you hopped on the Team Evil bandwagon in the first place, which means that I know, too. It sure as hell didn't have anything to do with the greater good."

The small step became a large one. Before Lindsey could duck away Angel was up in his face, fingers fisting through the collar of his shirt and jerking him close. "You don't know what you're talking about." It was a low, measured tone, a tone which would have reassured most people who did not know Angel as Lindsey did. Cool air ghosted across Lindsey's face when Angel spoke, an illusion of life that was almost perfect until he remembered that the temperature was wrong.

And maybe this was a bad idea, and maybe he should be backing away before the whole situation entered the realm of the deeply and irretrievably fucked, but he had never been able to maintain a cool head when he was standing so close to fire. Lindsey leaned forward even further, so that all he and Angel would have to do would be to incline their heads just so and they would be kissing. Lindsey would have liked to go on a tirade then about Angel and his damned shifting loyalties, about what it was like to use Angel as a stand-in for the moral code that he could not seem to generate on his own, about the sudden feeling of gravity being jerked away when it was revealed to him that Angel had chosen to walk into the same shadows that all the forces of Wolfram and Hart had not been able to force him into.

But all of that would have taken hours if Lindsey would have been able to force the words out at all, and even now he found that he could not pull his thoughts away from the approaching sunrise. "Or we could always talk about your priorities before that." The gold in Lindsey's eyes had long since become a steady glow rather than an intermittent flicker. Lindsey was not afraid. He whispered, almost directly into Angel's mouth, "How's that Shanshu going, big guy?"

Angel growled, and Lindsey braced himself for a return to the violent retaliation of years before. When Angel's mouth came down on his own, hard and crushing and long enough to force all of the air from his lung, Lindsey thought, 'That's not what I meant.' It was still a return, though, and Lindsey did not think for a second about moving away. He opened his mouth to invite Angel further inside even as the force of the kiss propelled them both backwards and across the pavement. His bad leg wobbled and threatened to go out from under him, so that Angel wrapped one of his arms around Lindsey's shoulder to keep him from stumbling too far. Even now, Angel was not entirely willing to let him fall.

Lindsey pulled away long enough to bite hard at Angel's lower lip and thought that he should probably be bothered by the fact that Angel seemed to want him the most when he thought that Lindsey was nothing at all. Should be, sure, Lindsey didn't need to breathe so badly that even now he couldn't realize that, but all it would talk was a look around to realize that their entire lives were troubling like that. Angel palmed the front of Lindsey's jeans, just so, just right, and Lindsey could feel him growl against Lindsey's mouth. Lindsey made a small noise from deep within his throat. The sound of his own pulse thundering in his ears was the sweetest and loudest sound that Lindsey had ever heard. When Angel pulled his mouth away from Lindsey's own and pushed it down again at the place on Lindsey's neck where the blood ran only a millimeter beneath the surface, nipping and then suckling at the small hurt hard enough to be alarming if death was not something that Lindsey already knew his way around with ease, he realized that Angel thought the same thing.

A woman cleared her throat from a few yards off. Lindsey jerked as the spell was not so much broken as shattered as thoroughly as if it had never been, feeling the skin on his neck tingle where Angel had been applying his ministrations seconds before. He stared at Angel, and Angel stared back with eyes every bit as coffee-dark and unreadable as they had ever been. Taking a deep breath to pull his thundering heart back under control, Lindsey cut off the part of his brain which would much rather pause and process what had just happened, including whether or not there would be violence later. Since they were returning to so many other old patterns and all. The darkness hid all of the interesting places that his blood was flowing as he turned back to the person who had been their interruptus before they could even get to the coitus.

Alicia stood only a short distance away, watching them with a pale face and tight, set expression. With that look, she could have caught Angel and Lindsey in the middle of the act itself and it would have been unable to distract her. The braid that had been on its last gasp when Lindsey had left her hours before was now a thing of the past entirely, leaving her hair floating in long, dark waves around her face.

"Sorry if I'm interrupting anything," Alicia said in a voice that shook around the edges. "But I think we have a bigger problem." She tugged Katie closer to her so that the little girl was all but melded into Alicia's side. Their fingers were wrapped around each other so tightly that their knuckles were turning white. It took Lindsey several more seconds to realize that what the was seeing was not an optical illusion.

Two trails of blood ran down Katie's face, making her look oddly, bizarrely, like a cheetah. She raised her first to rub at her eyes, smearing a crimson mess across her cheeks, and Lindsey realized that what had once been cornflower blue was now a perfect, screaming white.


The whirr of a helicopter from elsewhere in the city was louder as Spike reappeared, causing Angel to glance up once at the sky with an unreadable expression. He went to meet Spike halfway, walking at the fastest pace that would allow Alicia and Lindsey to keep up. Well, that would give Alicia a chance to keep up, at any rate, as Lindsey didn't think that he was registering al that highly on Angel's list of considerations at the moment. He glanced towards Alicia once or twice, trying to see the woman whom he had left earlier that night in the strange new creature taking her place, but Alicia only had eyes for the girl that Angel was carrying ahead of them in his arms. Alicia's hands would every few moments clench into fists that then took several seconds of effort to unclench again, leaving Lindsey with no doubt that if it were not for her injury Alicia would rush forward and tear Katie away from Angel's arms without hesitation.

Spike also had his face turned upwards towards the sky, following the sounds of the real world pouring back into the vacuum. "Deal's been broken," he said when Angel had brought the group within earshot. "That makes quite a bit of difference, doesn't it?"

"Yes," Angel said, making a hurry-up gesture at Spike without the need to elaborate any further.

"Right." Spike spoke quickly, tumbling his words together as if he were afraid that he would vanish before he got the chance to get them all out. From over Spike's shoulder, Lindsey saw Illyria throw a glance towards the rapidly lightening sky and then veil her concern before anyone could call her on it. "Found a place," Spike said. "It's not a resort, but it'll fit all..." Spike's eyes ticked to Alicia and the motionless girl that Angel still carried. "Six of us."

"Good." Angel's voice was clipped, tense, a tone that Lindsey knew well. "Let's get going."

Illyria paused and tilted her head to one side, staring hard at Katie. "That is not the same girl," she said, for once sounding neither hostile nor imperious. Lindsey thought that he instead heard curiosity there, like a kid who had found an exciting new bug and could not wait to poke at it with a stick.

"Yes, she is." Angel's voice was enough to make even Illyria blink and draw back. He sped up again. "Lead the way."

Spike looked back and forth between Angel and Illyria, an expression on his face which suggested that he had come to regret his next words before they were even out of his mouth. "And we think that she's a different girl because...?" Katie lifted her face from where she had been pushing it against the side of Angel's neck, revealing her newly white eyes and the bloody streaks on her cheeks. "Never mind, then."

"She's the same girl," Angel snapped, his voice descending further into a growl than Lindsey had ever heard it without violence following along close behind. Katie twisted so that she was able to fix Angel with a piercing look that made her much older than her years. It was an An look, and if the way that Alicia's shoulders went stiff was any indication, then Lindsey was not the only one who was having trouble drawing comfort from it.

"Right." Spike's voice sounded shaken for a moment before he covered it with a cough. "Anyway, I'd suggest we hurry."

They followed Spike over a few blocks that still managed to feel like an eternity when every other step entailed an anxious glance over their shoulders to mark the progress of the sunrise, now a dim pink and gold glow staring over the horizon. In the end they made it with only seconds to spare, and optimistic seconds at that. Lindsey felt the warmth of the first rays hitting his hand as he slid into what had once been a small grocery store. The windows had by some miracle managed to avoid being broken after the building had been abandoned, and the thick blankets tacked over the windows suggested that it had been used as lair at least once since then. Illyria was the last one inside, bumping against Lindsey's shoulder with her own as he stood just inside the doorway and waited for his eyes to adjust.

Lindsey had reached the point where he could make out the outline of the aisles when he heard a soft snickering noise. Spike's lighter came to life, the single point of illumination in the darkness. "Let's see what we have to set fire to," Spike mused, sounding almost eager. The flame became a pinprick as he moved deeper into the store.

"Keep it small," Angel warned. "There's nowhere else to go if we burn this one down." His voice echoed back against the walls, simultaneously large and hollow.

Lindsey felt about until he found the cool metal of one of the aisle shelves and eased himself to the ground with it at his back, stretching his injured leg out in front of him. No longer being asked to bear weight, the shooting pains in the muscle dwindled away into a dull ache that was much easier to handle. Spike returned a few moments later with an armload of broken furniture that had once been part of an office desk and chair. The varnish took the flames from his lighter eagerly, producing a modest fire within minutes. A breeze from a broken window elsewhere in the building prevented the smoke from becoming too oppressive, and at long last the humans could see.

Alicia settled down a few feet away from Lindsey, stretching her injured leg out in a perfect imitation of his own position. Her eyes followed every move that Angel made until he set Katie down to the floor. When the girl ran to Alicia immediately, she extended her arm so that Katie could burrow beneath it and fixed her laser stare onto Lindsey next. There was no doubt in Lindsey's mind that her classroom had been the best-behaved in the school with the power of that look at her disposal, but he was older than eight and his memories included some far uglier characters. "What is it?"

Alicia started at him for a moment longer before shifting her gaze slowly onto Angel and back again. Her face was marble. "I know what you are."

Lindsey always enjoyed this part of his interactions with people. It had given a clientele of demons appeal-it was hard to be judged by creatures who had dragged themselves right out of the fires of hell. Lindsey realized that Angel was giving their conservation close scrutiny and scowled. Yes, always accepting that one. "Good for you. I know what I am, too."

Alicia returned to glaring, and it looked unnatural on her. "Not that," she said, making an impatient, dismissive gesture with her hand. "I know what both of you really are." She jerked her chin in Angel's direction. "The harm that you've done."

Lindsey told himself that the leaden feeling was only annoyance. He had been doing so for so long that by now it was nearly second nature. "And yet you're still hanging out with the kids from the wrong side of the tracks."

Alicia almost smiled. It was a much more flattering look on her, made her pretty again in spite of the dark circles beneath her eyes and the way that the flickering firelight took her face and transformed it. "A little birdie told me that we weren't finished quite yet, and that an ability to kill things without feeling too badly about it might come in useful." Alicia's arm around Katie's shoulders tightened as she spoke. Katie stopped rubbing at her eyes long enough to stare at them all in turn. The white glow made her expression difficult to read.

What Alicia was saying sounded very much like an endorsement for emotional sociopathy, but Lindsey did not think that she was in the mood to hear that. Even if the truth of it was something they could have debated about for several hours. "You're taking orders from eight year-olds now?"

The smile ghosted back across Alicia's face. More natural thought it might be, Lindsey decided that he did not like it very much. "More like suggestions."

"Is she in any pain?" Angel asked. By staring at Angel's expression, Lindsey may as well have been trying to read a message in Sanskrit.

"She can still speak for herself." Difficult as the rest of Katie's expression might be, the line driven between her eyes telegraphed annoyance without any difficulty. Katie paused to rub at the blood on her cheeks, looked at her fingers, and then dragged them across her pants in disgust. "And she doesn't hurt. She just wishes that the rest of you didn't have to be thinking so loud." A moue of distress entered her voice, and Alicia's arm around her shoulders tightened even further. She murmured comfort syllables into Katie's hair until the girl had gone quiet again.

"Has anything like this happened to you before?" Angel asked Katie, his voice dropping a few registers until it became gentle and soothing. Lindsey could imagine him using that same voice to simultaneously comfort and coax information out of clients, back when the road to redemption or damnation had been so much more clearly marked for them both.

Katie shook her head. "I used to get headaches sometimes where I would dream funny stuff." Her voice was still muffled by Alicia's shoulder. "Then I met...that other girl. I could feel something wrong with her before she did."

"I didn't think that becoming a seer was contagious," Lindsey said, tilting his head up to look at Angel where he stood with his arms folded across his chest.

Angel held his gaze until Lindsey was the one to break and look away. "It's not. Someone important knew that An was going to be lost to them soon and wanted to have a replacement ready in time."

"The Powers giveth, and the Powers taketh away," Lindsey muttered. "And just when you think it's over, they kick you down and take some more." Angel snorted, but Lindsey noticed that he wasn't contradicting him.

The sound of Spike's hands coming together was loud in the otherwise hushed air and made them all jump. Even Illyria twitched and looked over at him with a reproving expression. "All right, then," Spike said. "Far be it for me to interrupt an inventory of why the Powers kill kittens, but I think we ought to be switching the focus of our story time." He looked Alicia with raised eyebrows. "Now I know the kid wasn't sporting that look when we left."

Alicia lifted her chin and stared at him for a moment, wearing a cold, calculating expression that Lindsey had never seen on her before. "Katie came to me as soon as the four of you left," she said. Her hand began rubbing up and down Katie's upper arm as she spoke. Lindsey suspected that the gesture was as much to comfort Alicia as the child. "She said that something was wrong with An and the boys, and that we needed to get out of the building as soon as we could." Alicia's mouth twitched into what was probably meant to be a smile, ruined by the fact that she was near tears. "I didn't believe her at first. I thought that someone had said something to her to scare her. But she kept at it, all night long, and I kept saying that there was no way that we were going to go outside the building while the sun was still down. I changed my mind when her eyes began to bleed." Another twitching, tearful smile. "So we left. Took as many people with us as would follow."

Alicia sighed and took her arm away from Katie's shoulders long enough to run her fingers through her hair. Lindsey saw that her hands were trembling. He surprised himself by extending his good leg and nudging it against hers in a gesture of comfort. She nodded once, took a deep breath, and made a visible effort to collect herself before she went on.

"Not that many would follow, even after it became clear that Katie wasn't normal any more. Afraid of the night. separated from the rest soon after we left." Alicia paused and shuddered. Lindsey wondered if she smelled of blood to Angel's and Spike's noses. The uneasy expression on Alicia's face deepened as she went on. "Neither Phillip nor Janice would come with us. I think... I think that An might have done something to them. They both began to act strange after she left. Disoriented."

Alicia shrugged as if she was shaking off a bad dream and looked at them each in turn, her tale completed. Her grip around Katie's shoulders was protective verging on the defiant, that of a mother lion unsure of what changes had been wrought in her cub but still willing to lay down her life for her all the same. "An was looking for Katie when she burned that building down, wasn't she?"

"Probably." Angel's voice had reentered that place of abnormal calm, but at least Lindsey could no longer imagine a computer saying those same words with ease. "If she sensed Katie's presence and realized that the Powers were already moving a replacement for her into place, then she would have wanted to get rid of that competition." Angel sighed. "Frankly, we don't know that that's not exactly what she did to Alexei and Fideo."

"Competition," Lindsey repeated. "It's plausible. Or An might have even have been trying to remove an outright threat."

Alicia jerked away from Lindsey as if he had scalded her. "She's eight years old," Alicia exclaimed. Her grip around Katie's shoulders tightened until the skin grew white beneath her fingers. Katie winced and squirmed and Alicia loosened her grip, but continued to stare at Lindsey with a horrified expression. "She's not a threat to anyone!"

Lindsey glanced towards Angel, saw neither encouragement nor disapproval in the vampire's lack of affect, and swore at himself for needing to look in the first place. He turned to Katie instead. "How far are your powers pushing out right now?"

Katie stared at him for a long moment, ignoring the tightening of Alicia's arm around her shoulders, before she finally said, "There's a couple arguing right now three blocks over. She's pregnant. He thinks that she did something back. She thinks that it was just a mistake." Katie closed her eyes. "I didn't need to know any of that." She sounded tired.

Lindsey looked back at Alicia, who had been growing steadily paler with every word that Katie spoke. "She's eight years old," Alicia repeated, her voice cracking for a moment around the middle.

"She's more powerful after one day than An was after six years. If the Powers that Be really are at work here, then I'd say that they're giving a stronger battery solely for the purpose of taking An out. An's definitely drawing power from something else on her side." Lindsey pulled his lips back from his teeth in a smile designed since its birth to be mechanical and cold. Alicia flinched back before she caught herself and glared. "Now, you want to argue that the Powers are doing a horrible thing here and are generally all-around assholes? Great. You're not going to find a lot of argument with this crowd. It still doesn't change the facts."

"He's right." Lindsey made a mental note to play those words on loop for the rest of his life. He would start as soon as they were no longer putting the world back together.

Angel was staring hard at Katie when Lindsey twisted back around to face him. His expression was one of the saddest and most compassionate that Lindsey had ever seen him wear, but it was also the most determined. "When the first building was attacked." Alicia gave him a look that bordered on the sullen, daring him to offer her something that she could believe in. "An wasn't the Champion that broke the rules by being in the city. Neither was Lindsey. It was Katie all along. She didn't qualify until An slipped off the deep end." Katie stared back at him, shrugged, and raised her hand to scratch at the remaining blood on her face. Her eyes flashed like silver dollars. "I wish that I could just turn it down," she whispered, so soft that if it were not for the close quarters taking her words and bouncing them back again she probably would have been heard at all. "I don't want to be special like this."

"I know, Katie," Angel said back just as softly, at the same time that Lindsey whispered, "It still might have been me."

Angel threw him a mingled look of shock and that same old, festering contempt. It had a soothing effect on Lindsey, because it meant that they were back on familiar ground. "You have got to be kidding me." Angel's tone suggested that even if this were the case, it was in Lindsey's best interests to knock it off quickly.

Lindsey squared his jaw and returned a look that was every bit as ugly as the one that he was being given. "I don't think that I'm a Champion and I never did, dumbass," he snapped. "I know that I'm not any more than you are." Right, so maybe that last one was unnecessary, but Lindsey figured that he had a lifetime's worth of jabs to throw at Angel before the balance sheet was clear between them. The small matter of killing him alone had to be worth a few decades.

Angel's expression darkened. How nice for him. "They still could have been after me," Lindsey repeated, in a louder voice that rang around the room and bordered on the defiant. He tilted his chin up and flashed Angel the nastiest smile that he was capable of, secure in the knowledge that that was still saying quite a lot. The voice of reason wanted him to sit down, shut up, and do his best to ride this out to the end, but he had never been one to listen to the voice of reason once it started to get personal.

There was another voice, one that had not been strong since long before he had signed on Wolfram and Hart's dotted line. Lindsey found that it was still powerfully easy to shove to the side and ignore.

"You guys may as well have made a big list of natural laws and crossed each one out as you broke it when you brought me back," Lindsey said, shrugging and becoming aware that Katie was once again looking at him with that wise beyond her years stare. Since staring contests with eight year-olds had not been what Lindsey had in mind when he had signed up for...whatever the hell it was that he had signed up for by remaining with Team Angel rather than beating it out of town after his glorious resurrection, he did not look in her direction. "I've betrayed every entity that I've ever worked for, and those contracts linger. Can't say that there won't be parties thrown among the fire and brimstone if they ever get me back." And would have been, if An had been a little slower with her mojo and he with his blade. Lindsey considered for a moment telling Angel that he had received another chance to cut a deal and had turned it down, only to cast the idea aside a few seconds later. He couldn't bear yet to turn it under the power of Angel's stare, when he himself still did not know what it meant.

"You mean we could have avoided half of his mess by throwing you back down there from the get-go?" Spike sounded less amused and more like this was something he was actually considering than was comfortable. Lindsey turned that poison-filled smile onto Spike next.

"Whatever would I do without the overwhelming compassion of heroes?"

"We'll think of that as our backup plan." Angel sounded tired, rubbing his hand over his eyes. When he straightened, Lindsey could still see beneath all of that to the man who had walked into a corporate boardroom and thrown a vampire out of a window. Only time would tell if that would be enough. "There's nothing else that we can do while the sun is up. Everyone should sleep now while they can. I doubt that there's going to be time for it later."

"You mean that there's going to be a fight," Alicia said. Lindsey wanted to tell her to loosen up her grip on Katie's shoulders before she wound up hurting the girl.

Angel nodded. "Yeah, and probably a bad one."

"But Katie's only eight," Alicia said, putting a stress on the final world as if it were in a foreign language that she could force them all into understanding by willing it hard enough.

"We know that, love," Spike said. His voice was gentle enough to make Lindsey blink and cause Illyria to tilt her head to one side and look at him askance. "Believe us, we know. We're going to do everything that we can to keep your girl out of the rough and tumble of it, but..." Spike's shoulders lifted into a shrug so slight that if not for the fire playing tricks with the light and making shadows dance they would not have been able to see it at all. "She's not normal anymore. We can't pretend that she is."

Alicia glared at him, all shades of the woman who had flirted with Lindsey a day before gone. Left in her place was the essence of pure, maternal ferocity. "She deserves to be."

"I want to turn it down," Katie repeated suddenly. She wriggled out from under Alicia's arm, quick as a monkey and every bit as agile, and was out of reach before Alicia had a chance to react. "And I'm not too little to understand what you're all thinking." She stomped off to the corner of the room and slumped there, wrapping her hands around the tops of her knees and resting her head there.

Alicia watched her go with her lower lip sucked between her teeth, but she did not try to follow. Her eyes were gleaming when she turned back to Spike. Lindsey was not sure if it was from anger or tears.

"That is an innocent little girl over there," Alicia hissed at them all. "She deserves better than this." She paused for a moment, seemingly realizing for the first time the ridiculousness of arguing about what each person deserved in the current crowd, and then lashed out with, "So far as I know, that young lady who's so very eager to kill us right now was an innocent little girl when she started, too. I don't see that this power has done her a whole lot of good."

"That's beside the point." Angel's voice rose by an octave with the first hints of real anger, and the air crackled. Alicia swallowed back whatever she had been planning on saying next and fell back a few inches, watching him. "It's not Katie's fault that this has happened, it's not your fault, and it's sure as hell not our fault, so maybe you should save your anger for somewhere it will be useful. If you want to scream at the Powers That Be or fate for a while, go ahead. At least then you'll be getting closer to the source."

Angel waited to be sure that Alicia was still listening to him before he continued. "What An did was An's choice. We don't know what's going through her head right now, but it does not mean that Katie has to take the same road. We'll protect her with everything that we have. Meanwhile, you have to understand and accept that she is not normal anymore."

Alicia stared at him for a long moment before she buried her head in her hands, whispering, "I don't think that I can deal with this."

"Learn," Angel said. He turned to disappear into the back room.

Though he was certain that he was going to regret it later, Lindsey pushed himself to his feet and followed Angel into the back room. He could feel every other pair of eyes in the room following him as he exited.

"You know," Angel paused in the middle of the room and said as he heard Lindsey's footsteps and the soft click of the door shutting behind him, "I'm beginning to think that I'll have to kill you all over again if I want to get away from you." There was a small window set high into the far wall, casting down a tiny patch of light which Angel easily avoided.

"And I'm sure that day will be a carnival for everyone involved. My last death sure was."

"Enjoying the view?" Angel turned to face him at last. He had once again turned his face into what for everyone else would have been an unreadable mask, but Lindsey knew the cracks. A little pressure applied to the right places and at the right times, and he might even be able to keep Angel holding it together long enough to turn that rage onto the source the deserving source.

"It's not terrible." Lindsey tilted his head to the side and ignored Angel's look of irritation long enough to have himself a good stare. "Gotta say, if what you did in there is what you're calling a big hero speech now, then I think you're losing your touch. Wasn't an inspiring, rally the team kind of moment, you know?"

Angel flashed him a look so flatly incredulous that it was all Lindsey could do not to laugh. This was why he was willing to follow Angel around and keep up the façade that he had any say in the matter, those moments when he had wedged himself so thoroughly under Angel's skin that they both knew there was going to be no dislodging him ever again. "And you're the one to be giving me advice here? You've never followed a single cause without getting a paycheck at the end."

Lindsey rolled his eyes and made sure that his smile was gleaming and sharp. "Time to get some new material. The varnish is rubbing off." And they both knew that he would have followed Angel there at the end, no carrot or stick necessary, but there was some kind of shaky structure being built here and Lindsey did not want to shake it too much, lest it should fall down before the foundation had a chance to harden. "Besides, you're forgetting that once a very long time ago I was a lawyer." Angel's pointed silence said that he had hardly forgotten, thanks. Any moment that he was shutting up and listening was one that Lindsey was going to consider a victory. "Rousing speeches are my thing. Not yours, obviously." Lindsey unfolded his arms from across his chest, stepped close so that the distance between them was one of inches rather than feet. "Even the crayon in there is feeling ambivalent about snapping skulls after your attempt at getting her blood fired up." He paused for a moment. "So to speak."

Angel watched Lindsey approach with a faint smile on his face that did not quite match his eyes; Lindsey was not sure what look he was seeing there. "You can understand then why I'll have to think over any advice that you have to give."

Lindsey rolled his eyes and swore that if he did it much more he was going to strain something. "Yeah, I'm a bad, mad man, thank you for giving me that memo one more time." He leaned forward further, so that if Angel had been breathing it would have been ghosting across Lindsey's face. "Doesn't mean that I'm not right. You wonder why you haven't been pinging the Champion radar for the last year and a half? Maybe it's time for your to suck it up and decide whether or not you want to be one already."

Angel watched him through heavy-lidded eyes for a long moment without moving or speaking. Finally he said, in a voice so low that Lindsey had to lean forward those final dangerous centimeters in order to even hear him. "Whose payroll are you on right now, Lindsey?"

"I don't know," Lindsey muttered back, because to say 'No one' was still so shiny and new that he could not even make himself believe it, let alone Angel. The words had barely escaped before Angel's mouth was coming down on top of his, hard enough to clack their teeth against one another's. Lindsey was driven backwards a step and once again felt Angel's arm circling around his back, first holding him in place and then pulling him closer. Lindsey wondered which line he would have to cross before Angel would finally be willing to let him fall.

"I really don't like you, Lindsey," Angel murmured, parting his mouth from Lindsey's for a moment. Their forehead remained pressed against one another, a cool expanse of marble as Lindsey felt his own skin growing more heated by the moment.

"Likewise." Lindsey shifted to take some of his weight off of his bad leg. He was both surprised and more than a little discomfited when Angel shifted so that he was now bearing part of the burden. "But we don't have to like each other to do this, do we?" They never had before.

Angel kissed him again, hard enough to draw all the air out of his lungs, and pushed him back against the closed door. Lindsey participated with enthusiasm until his head began to swim and black spots would have been swimming in front of his eyes if they had been open. Hard wood beneath his shoulders, and he bet that they were giving Spike and Illyria one hell of a show in there...shit. "Wait," Lindsey muttered, pulling back the few inches he had left before he was resting his head against the door. Goddamn that final bit of conscience that refused to lie down and die.

Angel gave him an aggravated, incredulous look. Lindsey could count on one hand the number of times that he had told Angel to slow down and give him a chance to catch his breath before. "What?"

"The kid." Lindsey shifted more of his weight back against the door and stared at the ceiling, wishing that the room didn't have to be so goddamned hot. "Katie's already getting more than enough of a show as it is."

"No." Angel grimaced and took a step back. He needed the distance, as the next words to come tumbling out of his mouth surely cost him more than Angel could possibly know. "No, you're right." It didn't sound any less strange the second time than it had been the first. Angel gave Lindsey a long, scrutinizing look. "You're protective of kids. I keep forgetting that."

Lindsey pushed himself away from the door now that Angel had back away enough so that he could. "Yeah, I'm not a complete sociopath. I'll try to round up a puppy to kick later. Wouldn't want to rock your world too much."

Angel stared at him for so long that Lindsey began to feel as if there were insects crawling across his skin before he said, "Sleep while you can, Lindsey. You haven't come this far without paying the price for it, have you?" He stepped further back. Even though it was crazy and he knew that Angel maintained a perfect room temperature, if that, Lindsey still shivered as if had been pulled without warning away from fire.

Lindsey resisted the urge to rub at the place on his neck where Angel had been paying such careful attention earlier, where a bruise was already beginning to form and the skin still tingled. "Right. We have a big night coming up, don't we?"

Angel's smile was a glittering confirmation.


Despite his exhaustion, it was late afternoon before Lindsey was able to slow down his mind enough so that his body could rest. He swore that his eyes had barely drifted closed before small hands were shaking him awake again. Lindsey cracked an eye open at the sullen remains of their fire and came awake at once, trying to roll away from the tiny person who had insisted on waking him up in the first place. She made an irritated huffing noise that immediately put Lindsey more at ease regarding their current situation, because it meant there were still pieces of the little girl he had met on the stairwell floating around in there. Katie scrambled over his body and began shaking him again.

"I know what you're trying to do," she informed him in a tart voice. "You can't keep secrets from me anymore."

Lindsey caught himself smiling at the imperiousness of her tone and sat up, abandoning the game. "You're that good, huh?"

Katie shrugged and played with the hem of her shirt for a moment. If not for the gleaming white of her eyes and the faint pink streaks on her face, Lindsey would have been able to convince himself that nothing had changed. "Does it make your head hurt?" he asked, thinking of An, Alexei, and Fideo and the great gushes of blood that would rush forth whenever their used their powers too extensively.

The smile slipped off of Katie's face as she read the contents of Lindsey's thoughts, becoming a sullen expression that troubled him with its similarity to one that he had seen on another face. "It used to," she replied. "Not anymore. My eyes don't hurt, either. It's only..." Katie paused for the time it took to exchange the sullen look for a puzzled frown. "Cluttered. It's like when you can hear a whole bunch of kids, and you know that they're talking about you, but because it's so loud you can only understand a few words."

Katie broke herself off with a physical shudder and had recovered enough a few moments later to smile at him. "You have a hickey."

Lindsey had to force his head to be still so that he could not rub at his eyes in exasperation. "You did not wake me up to tell me that."

"Nope." Katie leaned forward until her nose was nearly touching Lindsey's. The bright blankness of her eyes became all that he could see. "She's coming."

Lindsey stared at her in shock for several long, precious seconds before he realized with a jolt that he was wasting the very time that she had just told him that they were running out of. Katie grinned at him with an expression that was eerie and almost serene. Lindsey nudged her aside and lunged up to his feet, ignoring the sound of several stitches popping and the sensation of blood trickling down his leg. He looked around for Angel or even Spike, anyone who had been attempting the hero thing for more than two days.

And of course the only heroes that he could claim to know would be nowhere in evidence at the one moment that they were actually needed. Lindsey's oaths were especially creative as he glanced in the direction of the covered-over windows and noticed that the golden glow which had crept along the edges of the blanket over the course of the day was gone. Not dust, then, and that was not relief walking up and down his spine and releasing knots of tension that he had not realized was there.

Lindsey limped over to where Alicia was sleeping curled up against one of the shelves and knelt to put his hand against her shoulder. Her eyes flashed over before he had even had a chance to shake her. Questions were written large on Alicia's face as she glanced back and forth between Lindsey and Katie, but she did not make a sound. Lindsey suspected that she already had some idea of what the answers to her questions would be and so was remaining silent as a means of sparing herself for as long as possible.

"We have to move," Lindsey told Alicia in a low voice, waiting for Alicia to nod. She pulled herself back up to her feet, using the empty shelves as aids and then needing to lean heavily on them for several seconds after she was done. By the time that Alicia had extended her arm, Katie was already half-burrowed beneath it.

"What are you doing?"

Lindsey turned until he met the electric blue gaze of Illyria. She was not the member of the dream team that he would have preferred to see making a miraculous reappearance, but she was certainly better than nothing at all. Illyria tilted her head quizzically to one side as she looked them over, her curiosity untainted by such human weaknesses as fear. It must be nice. Illyria looked back at Lindsey, seemingly designating him as the leader of the escape party, and maintaining an expression which suggested that her patience could be measured in micrometers and to waste it by ignoring her questions was not the wisest move that Lindsey could make.

"An is on her way," Lindsey told her. As he watched, a coldness stole over her face that made her previous imperiousness look as if it belonged on a kindergarten child by comparison. "Where are Angel and Spike?"

"They are reestablishing contact." Lindsey's eyebrows drew together in confusion, but Illyria was staring towards the windows with a hungry expression that suggested further questions would not be wise. "Yes," Illyria said finally. It came out as a hiss, and from the corner of his eye Lindsey saw both Alicia and Katie shiver.

"Got a plan?" Lindsey asked Illyria, since she seemed to be the only person in the room who did not have a doomsday scenario running through their head.

Illyria tilted her head to one side and stared at Lindsey in an eerie version of her 'How do you manage to function?' expression. It was not quite so harsh as the first time that she had turned it upon him, more filled with the sort of tolerant indulgence given to a pet who was not too bright but was friendly all the same. If she kept that up, gee, they might even become friends. "We are going to fight," Illyria said.

Or maybe that indulgence was only coming from the fact that Illyria had gone finally and irreversibly insane. Lindsey did not need to look over to know that Alicia was wearing an expression of pure and naked disbelief to match his own. Only Katie seemed unperturbed, and had begun to fidget beneath Alicia's arm. "Illyria, don't take this the wrong way, but you are right out of your mind," Lindsey said. Illyria cocked her head to the other side, the indulgent expression slowly giving way to a dangerous glower. "For one, two of the three adults here are not exactly combat-ready. For another, I don't see any Uzis lying around."

Though she would never admit it and Lindsey was certain it would not be smart of him to try to make her, Illyria for a moment looked almost embarrassed. She jerked her head around and stared at Katie, who under that gaze looked less like a pint-sized guru and more like a terrified child by the second.

Noticing the direction of Illyria's stare, Alicia pulled Katie even tighter against her body and raised her chin in either defiance or warning. It bore a strong resemblance to a Chihuahua trying to stare down a Great Dane, and Lindsey was tempted to tell Alicia that in this case she did not even have herself pointed at the correct Great Dane.

After sparing a moment to turn a faint sneer in Alicia's direction, Illyria said, "Perhaps not. But neither do I see any other options before us."

Katie chose that moment to break out from beneath Alicia's arm and twitch down the blankets covering the windows before anyone could stop her. She came running back. Lindsey noticed for the first time that she had begun to tremble and was struck all over again by the realization that she was the same age that the other three had been when he and Angel had rescued them. When Alicia struck out her arm to reclaim Katie against her side, it was only because Lindsey did not get there first.

"They're coming," Katie said, fear putting the first hint of a normal child's whine into her voice.

When the ladies were right, they were right. Lindsey sighed and rubbed his hands over his eyes, trying to pretend that the way Illyria was looking at him, as if she actually expected him to be able to do something, was not a direction contradiction of all the laws of the universe. "Okay, fine. If we can haul ass out of here and manage to get some space between us and her-" And if the world would just slow down enough to let him think. He had had days and weeks to prepare court cases, and while there was a small voice which whispered that he had still had to be good at thinking on his feet in order to stay one step ahead of the Senior Partners' capricious whims, he could not help but be struck again by how very long ago those days had been.

Fine. Lindsey had had a very bad several days, with a very bad near-eternity stretching out before that, and maybe he wasn't back on his A game yet. The fact that no one could precisely fault him for this did not mean that people were not going to die for it if he couldn't pull it together and focus.

Illyria had not ceased giving him that look, and at some point while his mind had been wandering a small smile had begun to play with the edges of her mouth. Lindsey barely restrained himself from pointing out that it was not a flattering look on her. "That is not going to work." She was all but sing-songing.

The last thing that Lindsey needed to deal with now was a smug...whatever Illyria was, actually, as he had never been quite clear on that. "Then you'll get to kill a big number of unpleasant things in a big number of unpleasant ways," Lindsey snapped. "That will be like Christmas for you, won't it?" Illyria continued to view him with that smug suggestion of a smile rather than pulling his arm off and feeding it to him. "Let's go."

Lindsey limped towards the door. He could hear Alicia and Katie following so closely behind him that at any moment he would be able to feel their breaths ghosting against the back of his neck. Illyria, with a small sniff of impatience at the limitations of human speed, had darted around him and was out the door almost before he had finished speaking. When her exit was followed by a wet snapping sound from outside on the sidewalk, Lindsey figured that Christmas had come early.

"Good job, Babe," Spike was saying when Lindsey led Alicia and Katie out the door a few seconds later. Spike was crouching down and staring with a cool, clinical detachment at the head of a demon which Illyria had been so kind as to liberate from its body for them. She had even gone the extra distance of scattering it several feet away from the rest of the body, which was still pulsing slightly. Alicia put her hand over Katie's eyes.

Spike glanced over at Lindsey as he emerged with Alicia and Katie in tow, but within seconds he had turned his attention back to the disembodied head. "That could have gotten ugly." He reached out and touched lightly at a fang still glistening with saliva and something else. "Venom."

"See?" Lindsey said brightly to Illyria. "You should believe in Santa Claus."

"I do not understand you," Illyria said, frowning. She appeared mollified by Spike's compliment all the same.

Lindsey had been aware of Angel's eyes fixed on him since he had stepped outside. He was only putting off the moment when, like a planet orbiting its sun, he would be drawn towards it again. Angel continued to watch him without speaking until Lindsey's skin itched and he longed to throw off the gaze as he would a physical weight. He had seen that look on Angel's face a few times before, usually immediately preceding some attempt at either saving Lindsey or killing him. Lindsey was troubled that he could not say which of the options he was more likely to be looking at next.

And because there was no way in hell that Lindsey was going to be the first to look away, no way that he was going to let Angel win at whatever 'this' was, he found himself raising one of his eyebrows and asking, "Contact?"

The look changed subtly, becoming less piercing and in its place almost amused. As Lindsey no longer felt as if he had been first placed into a petri dish and then shoved beneath a microscope without his permission, he would take whatever he could get. "The rules have changed."

"She's coming," Katie said suddenly. Her shaking had grown even worse.

"We know, poppet." Spike straightened from his crouch and gave the demon's head a kick that made it roll across the pavement like a soccer ball, save for the bloody trail that it left behind. He looked at Angel, "And what do you want to bet that Illyria here has given us our very first advance scout?"

"Great. So why are we still standing around?" Lindsey asked.

"We're not." Angel twirled his sword around and held the hilt out to Lindsey. When Lindsey put his palm upon the handle but made no further move to actually accept the weapon, Angel went on, "Get them out of here and protect them as well as you can." Lindsey still did not curl his fingers around the sword, causing Angel's expression to darken. He added, "In case you were wondering, I didn't word that as a request."

Lindsey scowled and tugged the sword out of Angel's grasp. One and probably both of them were still capable of being asses. Proof positive that everything was going to be all right. "I don't have a great history with one of these today."

Angel's expression underwent that damnable shift again, becoming appraising, becoming knowing. When he lifted his hand suddenly and placed it on the back of Lindsey's neck it almost proved to be the latter's undoing. There were raised eyebrows all around and, gosh, Lindsey could not wait to count up all the ways in which he did not care, not while Angel's grips was caught as it was somewhere between a threat and a caress. Fingers which barely managed room temperature on a good day should be also hearken to fire, Lindsey thought as he jerked back and away, even while wondering how he have to appear in Angel's eyes before he would do it again. It was possible that he needed help.

Angel let his hand fall back to his side, but he kept up the look. "Maybe not," Angel said. "You'll still protect a child." Whatever bizarre conversation Angel expected to take place outside of the words themselves apparently over, Angel turned towards Alicia. "Go with him. Fight as hard as you can and kill if you have to." He cut her off when she opened her mouth to protest. "This is not a fairytale. If you're not willing to kill any demon that you have to when the moment presents itself, then she-" Angel pointed towards Katie. "Could wind up dying for it."

If Alicia had been planning on arguing, then Angel managed to kill the words in their infancy. "I know that."

Alicia nodded reluctantly before turning towards Lindsey and looking at him, that terrible, hopeful look that Lindsey knew within a few seconds' exposure to he would happily trade in for a year's worth of Angel and his damned stares. Like Lindsey was a hero, like he was the key to fixing this damned mess, which Lindsey though was pretty rich considering the dressing down that Alicia had given him earlier. She had been closer to the truth then.

'You don't know the half of it,' Lindsey felt like saying to her. 'I spent about five years helping to cause this mess before I spent six months trying to fix it, so don't go looking at me like I'm your savior now.' In spite of this, Lindsey caught himself nodding all the same. "Clock's ticking," he said, as the ground beneath his feet quivered. Lindsey was not nearly optimistic enough to believe that it was an earthquake.

He held out his free hand to Katie and was gratified when she extricated herself from beneath Alicia's arm so that she could take it. Katie gasped when Lindsey's skin made first contact with her own, but Lindsey did not know if it was because she foresaw him dying in his sleep at the age of ninety or within the next ten minutes of his liver being pulled out through his nose. After a few moment's consideration, Lindsey decided that he also did not want to know. In the one direction lay complacency, while in the other...well, if there was one person on this planet who deserved the chance to show destiny his middle finger, it was...fine, it was really Angel, but Lindsey was still willing to take his chances.

"See you on the other side," he said to Angel. Angel nodded back, and Lindsey turned to lead Alicia and Katie away into the darkness. The shadows swallowed them up within seconds so that the only things that Lindsey could see clearly were Katie's eyes, glowing like miniature moons.


"You sure that was a good idea?" Spike asked soon after Lindsey had disappeared from sight.

"Why wouldn't it be?" Angel looked at his hands, flexing and unflexing his fingers until the blood ground into the creases began to flake away. On second thought, giving away the sword was maybe not the smartest move that he could have made, but what was done was done. It was too late in the game to become squeamish about a little blood on his hands.

Spike stared at Angel for a long moment before slowly swiveling his head around to look at Illyria, as if asking for her support. A faint shrug was her only response. Angel thought that even that much was a big concession, considering the source.

Seeing no help coming from that corner, Spike turned back to Angel and said in the careful tone that he might use with a slow and unfortunately dangerous child, "Because he's a power-hungry bastard who would betray us all at the first hint of material gain and that's why you killed him the first time?" Spike's voice rose a notch, transforming into the no-really-just-asking faux innocence that had not been any less irritating when he had first been turned. "And because you've just handed him a gold-plated way to scrounge up a hell of a lot more material gain for a very small amount of effort?"

"He likes kids," Angel said. Spike's eyebrows rose and the rest of his expression suggested that Angel had finally gone irretrievably around the bend and it was now up to Spike and Illyria to humor him in the meanwhile. "He'll protect her. And anyway-" Angel split his lips into the grim smile that he knew made him look more like Angelus than any other. From the sudden tension that entered Spike's and even Illyria's frames, he knew that he had not lost his touch. "He's seen An in action. Lindsey has even less to gain from betraying us than he does by staying loyal."

The ground shivered again, hard enough to rattle all of the remaining panes in the windows and even cause one or two to crack. Angel lifted his chin towards a point further down the street. "Lindsey is not our problem. She is." There was a steady and almost hypnotic rhythm to the way that the ground shuddered, too regular to be considered an earthquake. Angel had recognized it for what it was several minutes before: the trampings of many, many pairs of feet.

Spike followed Angel's gaze and let a long stream obscenity go by under his breath, while Illyria leaned forward onto the balls of her feet in eager, anticipatory interest. The army approaching filled the street, led at its head by a small figure that had once been a girl. Even without the white glow to draw her out and make her distinct in the gloom, Angel could feel her eyes resting on him. Déjà vu might be a bitch, but at least here they had more room to maneuver than they had in that other alley. All that was missing was the rain.

"Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it," Spike muttered, pitching his voice so low that even Angel had to strain in order to hear it. Spike sounded oddly philosophical and Angel, drawing from that energy, wondered what it was that he somehow failed to learn, why it was that he would up teetering on the brink of the void over and over again before he jerked himself back.

In the strange and nearly airless calm that marked the final few seconds before any battle began, Angel glanced towards Spike and thought of the humanity that he still did not know was his for the claiming. He thought of another man who seemed to have an endless well of fight left in him, and he thought that maybe, only maybe, he crept closer to the truth every time that the lesson had to be repeated. Only maybe. To claim anything more substantial than that would be to shatter it when he was finally getting close, and anyway, he had a battle to fight.

An seemed to have assembled every demon remaining in Los Angeles to stand behind her as she walked slowly forwards, her natural eye color gleaming a deep jet. Angel would have traded it in to get the white back in a heartbeat. He had no idea if this new and improved version of An was using her powers to control the demons of it she had only explained to them that she gave them the chance to wreak revenge on the creatures that had been cutting through them like scythes through ripened wheat. As he could count among the assembled throng several species that he, Spike, and Illyria had at the very least been on neutral terms with and a few that they had even helped, he suspected that the former accounted for more than a little.

The pertinent question remaining, then, was whether the same could still be said for the thing that had once been An, if there was still a consciousness either fighting or abetting the thing hovering over her. Angel shoved these thoughts to the side so that he could prepare himself for what the next few seconds would bring. Giving the sword to Lindsey was seeming like a worse idea by the second.

"She was here!" An screamed across the distance between them, coming to a stop at a place roughly a block away. "I know she was, I can feel her!" There was a high and almost whining quality to her voice that Angel had never heard there before. After a beat, he realized that it was pure, human fear.

An maintained her distance for so long a period that the demons to either side of behind her began to exchange uneasy glances. The sound of leather creaking and metal weaponry clanking against itself overtook all of the other nighttime sounds. Angel drew his eyebrows together before glancing towards Spike and seeing that he was also wearing a puzzled look.

"Why don't you come closer, An?" Angel called to her for lack of any more accurate address. An tilted her head to one side and curled her lip at him. It was a good imitation of confidence. Angel took a step forward. "What are you scared of?"

"Where is she?" An shrieked, rather than answering. She didn't seem terribly interested in coming forward, but neither was she backing away.

"Why is it so important to you that you kill Katie?" Angel continued, still walking closer. The demons surrounding the girl and waiting for her signal continued to fidget and fuss. Angel noticed that more than a few were wearing faintly glazed expressions, and furthermore that the expressions were beginning to flicker in and out like reception on a bad television set. His earlier suspicion became certainty while a whole new suspicion began to grow. "So the Powers found themselves a new girl. So what? Whatever's left you in there isn't really interested in being a puppet, anyway. You're bigger than that now."

"You need to be shutting up," An growled, managing to sound both like a petulant teenager and something far older and more dangerous at the same time. "You need to be shutting up right now, or I swear to God when I kill you-"

"Yeah, about that," Angel said. He gave the Angelus grin again. "Why aren't you getting on with it? It's not like Katie took your own power from you when she became the new golden girl." A look of pure, raw terror streaked across An's face before she was able to hide it again, and Angel's second suspicion began to grow and reach towards the sky. 'Katie and Alicia are with Lindsey,' Angel thought deliberately, aware of how tremendous the consequences would be if he was wrong.

A line appeared between An's eyes, even the ghost of triumph wiped away. If anything, she looked as if she were only one or two nudges away from bursting into tears. "Or is it maybe because you're just not the only special one anymore." Something in her face cleared as An became reassured that her secret was safe for a while longer.

'Not quite,' Angel thought. He wondered how long this disintegration had been going on and how long it would be before her control of her army fell away altogether. If they could hang on long enough, maybe they could beat the numbers and prevent the battle from coming like the last one that they had faced against these odds. Angel was made painfully aware of how many others he had already lost, and how few he still had left to lose. "Rejection sucks, doesn't it?"

Angel could sense Spike rolling his eyes without even needing to look over. "Not all about you, drama queen," Spike muttered.

"Not the point, brain trust," Angel muttered back. He beamed at An and felt his fangs sliding down into his lower lip at the gesture. "I'll bet it's all that you can do not to-"

A screech echoed from the sky above. Angel glanced up and felt his jaw drop. "Oh, you have to be fucking kidding me." He jumped backwards, catching Spike and Illyria each about the waist and taking them down to the pavement and safety with him. Spike yelled a garbled mixture of obscenity at him and Illyria yelled out what certainly would have been the same if he had understood the language. All three of them went down in a confusing tangle of limbs. Angel felt a patch of skin tear off his arm and blood that was never going to rush as quickly or as smoothly as a human's pooling down into the crook of his arm, and figured that the apologies could wait.

A lance of flame came down at the place where they had all been standing only a second before, scorching the pavement black and causing even Illyria to shield her eyes from the light and cry out in pain as the wave of heat washed over them. Charlotte was a bronze blur ghosting over the street, so much as a creature larger than a city bus could even be called a ghost, before she wheeled back towards the sky and shrieked back promises at Angel that he didn't need to translate in order to understand.

Spike rolled back up to his feet with the grace of a born warrior and stared up at the sky as Charlotte wheeled around for another try. "I have never seen a woman who can hold a grudge like that bitch can," he said. He eyeballed Angel. "She reminds me of Darla, actually."

"You're not the first one to think that," Angel said, keeping an eye on An as he spoke and expecting to see a grin of pure triumph cross her face. If she was using Charlotte as her windup toy, however, then she was a far better actress than Angel had given her credit for. A mixture of frustration and fear moved across her young face, and Angel even thought that he saw her mouth the words, "Wasn't supposed to be like this."

There was already a long waiting list to get into that club. Angel had discovered that there was a certain kind of beauty in cutting to the chase and stripping it from one's vocabulary altogether. He backed up a step as Charlotte reach a comfortable altitude and crested there for a second before hurtling back down into another stoop. Angel watched carefully as she drew closer and closer, turning from a copper speck into a mess of claw and fang in roughly the span of time that it took Angel to blink twice, but from the corner of his eye he saw the quick, desperate look that Spike threw Illyria's way all the same.

"I have shed enough of my blood for his sake as it is," Angel heard Illyria grouse even as he tuned the rest of the world out so that he could focus solely on his next move. He thought that Illyria might have been rushing to his aid in spite of her words to the contrary and would have been proud of her and told her so if there had been time to communicate. He also would have told her to stand back, there was no time, and he already had the situation well in hand. Given away his only weapon? No problem; he would make his own. Even if that weapon turned out to be a multi-ton widow with a grudge.

An screeched as Angel caught her around the waist and bore them both to the pavement. Her hands wrapped around the bare skin of his wrists as she fell, sending a tingling pain up and down Angel's arms as if he had inadvertently grabbed a live wire rather than a girl. Angel had no idea what she was reading from even that brief contact and could only hope that his mind had been wiped so clean from the immediate need to move that she would be able to pull nothing of import from him. There was one thing more important than any other that was at risk, causing Angel to send up a brief mental prayer to the Powers asking them to do this one more thing for him, one thing that he could be grateful for.

An's shriek of outrage and shock as she tumbled backwards had a galvanizing act on her army, sending them forward as a solid, surging mass, so that when Angel leapt backwards again he had to move quickly to avoid being trampled. The sounds of many feet stomping and An's own screech served to mask Charlotte's battle cry, hiding the warning. An glanced up towards the sky, mouth falling open in a small O of shock. She jumped backwards with a surge of adrenaline that Angel could smell on the air, thick as a teenager's perfume. She barely made it.

Creatures as large as Charlotte were not made for fast or agile turns when they were that close to the ground, and she had so focused on having her prey so close at hand at long last that she did not even try. Charlotte slammed down into the pavement where Angel and An had been only a second before with her legs extended ram-rod straight in front of her, her claws gleaming and eager. The sound of the pavement buckling as her weight came down upon it was almost as loud as that of the sound of breaking bone, and her scream of pain was the loudest one of all.

Angel felt the corners of his mouth turn down in sudden sympathy in spite of himself, even as he saw Charlotte twisting her head wildly back and forth to look for him among the masses. She was ruined, and Angel thought that he didn't have to be an expert on the subject of veterinary medicine or even mythological beasts in order to see that. Three of Charlotte's legs and one of her wings had been broken in her fall to the earth. Bone protruded from the flesh and pools of gleaming, scalding blood pooled out to steam against the pavement. Angel was willing to bet that several of her ribs had been splintered also if her rasping breathing was any indication, and yet she still sought him. There was a part of him that had to admire the lady's tenacity.

An remained sprawled out and propped up on her elbows where she had landed, staring at Angel with widened eyes and a dropped jaw. A fleck of flying cement had cut a deep gauge beneath her left eye, so that blood ran down her face and into the collar of her shirt. She continued to stare Angel in spite of everything that had transpired over the course of the last few moments, as if she were shocked hat he would actually do such a thing.

"You are not An," Angel growled at her. "Don't think for a second that the host is going to protect you."

Charlotte's head whipped around at the sound of his voice, locating Angel at last among the throng. The air moved as if buffeted by helicopter blades as Charlotte beat her remaining wing, struggling to lift herself off of the ground. With only one good wing, however, it was clear to everyone watching that her flying days were done. From high above, Angel could hear the sounds of a few remaining Guardians screaming at one another, making a noise like the laughing of hyenas.

Charlotte settled for glaring at Angel and sending a jet of flame in Angel's direction that did not even come close to striking him. She continued to beat her single good wing slowly, as if refusing to accept the truth. Blood splattered the pavement as she exhaled.

One of the Guardians that Angel had heard above flew down in a stoop of its own, startling Angel with its near-perfect silence; not even a scream. He pulled it down from the air in a move that even Illyria would not have been able to fault, feeling his shoulder groan as the muscles were pushed as far as they could go safely and then farther. Angel rolled the Guardian across the pavement, knocking down a charging demon like a bowling pin and sending both to rest in front of Charlotte. She picked both of them up in her mouth and gave them a series of brisk, terrier-like shakes.

Angel knelt and scooped the fallen demon's sword from the pavement. It felt good to have a weapon in his hand again.

A demon of indeterminate species and gender took advantage of Angel's moment of distraction and rushed up on him from his other side. One blink of the eye's worth of time and one jerking motion of the sword later, and the demon's head continued to sail past while its body dropped to the pavement. Angel flicked the sword to shake the blood from the blade and took note of the momentary hell taking place around them. An's private army was becoming smaller, more and more of those who wore the blank, disturbing look in their eyes drifting away by the second.

"You're not quite the inspirational leader that you thought you were," Angel said, advancing on her while cutting the most vital pieces that he could find off any demon that happened to draw too close. That still left a hell of a lot, and Angel hoped that those allies he and Spike had managed to contact earlier put their personal differences aside and began hauling ass.

Charlotte lowered her head to the pavement and hissed at him as he cut a wide berth around her. Blood had begun to flow freely from both sides of her mouth, from her nose. Angel watched her sides heave and wondered how many of her internal organs had been pierced by broken ribs, how much blood was currently pooling into her abdomen. Her eyes glittered and flashed for a moment with something that Angel did not recognize before she lowered her chin back to the ground and wheezed. Blood and something else sprayed from her mouth.

An took a step back and twisted her mouth into a sneer that Angel thought looked more than a little ragged around the edges. A demon rushed forward to protect her as Angel advanced. He cut through it without even bothering to break stride. Blood began at last to run from An's nose, though only a trickle. From the corner of his eye, Angel could see Spike and Illyria cutting broad, bloody paths through anyone stupid enough to remain in their way. It was the alley battle all over again, except that this time the only human left who was foolish enough to die for him had been sent away.

An jerked and tilted her head to one side, for a moment looking confused. Angel had to remind himself that, while her powers might be fading to make way for the next big thing, they were by no means gone yet. He would still be smart to guard his thoughts.

When it came down to it, that was about as effective as telling someone not to think of elephants. Angel would never know how much An read from him and how much she deduced on her own, and it would be a long time before he was able to cease agonizing over it and decide that either way it had been out of his hands almost immediately.

"Where's Lindsey, Angel?" An asked, her voice pitched so low in the chaos that even with vampire senses Angel was almost able to read her lips. "You and he were all but fucking when I left." The words sounded even worse coming from An's mouth, twisted as it was into a sneer of contempt. She tapped her forefinger contemplatively against her temple. "And you've got such a protective streak when it comes to what you think is yours. Why do I think I know exactly where that little girl is, hmm?"

Angel smiled and thought of scars. "My guess is because you're an arrogant kid with an over-inflated sense of how special you are, and the fact that Katie might just be the one to pop that bubble of hubris for you is driving you wild."

An's sneer faded, turning her expression instead into something that was blank and cold. Whatever flash of real An had risen to the surface for a moment, she was long gone now. "And aren't you the high and mighty one." If the look along had not been enough to convince Angel that there was something else standing at the reins, then the way that her voice now that sounded like gravel being ground together surely would have finished the job.

It was the only warning that Angel received before he felt as if his head were being split open and fingers plunged directly into his brain, so that what was there could be taken out and massaged into any shape that the surgeon wished. "Especially," An finished, "since at the end of the day you're only a demon like any other. You might have a flair for psychobabble, but everyone remembers what's important at the end."

Angel was dimly aware of the fact that An was weaving on her feet as she spoke, that the amount of blood rushing from her nose and ears was far more than any human could lose and hope to live. These were small details, insignificant in front of the battle that Angel was fighting, but it was harder by the second to control what his mind's eye turned onto next in those strange moments. An sent what felt like an invisible tendril cascading through Angel's mind, delicate fingers that examined and plucked at will. In the end, Angel supposed that it might have been something of an overstatement to say that An's powers were fading from her. She had just risen to her second wind with a speed worthy of any sports movie.

And she knew. And she knew.

An's screech of pure adulation echoed through Angel's eyes even as he was driven down to his knees, even as he saw An slowly doing the same across from him, and he knew that if either one of them had been human they would not be surviving this. That, at least, was exactly what Angel needed to know.

An pushed herself back up to her feet, moving as if it pained her, and giggled as she swiped at the sticky-thick blood coating her face and neck. "That's cute, Angel," she said. "Sending the wolf out to guard the lamb. Stupid, but sweet. It's kind of like giving roses, but for sociopaths."

'And you don't know half as much as you think you do.' Angel wondered if she was able to pick up on that transmission, and if so how much.

An twitched her head to one side as if she were shaking away a mosquito and then frowned. The confidence dimmed for a second, leaving her looking like a girl again. If the moment had lasted for any longer than that Angel might even have been able to believe it.

"But I like it, I do," An went on. "It has a kind of symmetry to it." She parted her lips and showed her teeth. Angel thought that he was supposed to interpret the gesture as a smile. "Won't you help me finish the circle, Angel?" She turned her back on him.

It was exactly the moment that Angel had been waiting for. He curled his fingers into a more secure grip on the sword...and realized a beat later that he had only felt them move, not initiated the movement himself. No more could he be said to control the movements that pushed him back up to his feet, that walked him over to An's side, and this was bad on so many levels that he hardly had time to stop and label them all. A glass wall seemed to have been erected between his thoughts and the movements of his body that he could beat his fists against but not penetrate.

A woman with long hair the color of bleached linen, consequence of long contact with elemental magic, entered the battlefield from the other end, moving with a grace that would have made a ballerina seem awkward if they had been forced to walk alongside her. All that hair swirled around her head and made her seem both old and ageless, in spite of the fact that Angel knew her to be only twenty-four. Her timing was fantastic, but Angel was somewhat lacking in ways to direct her attention towards him at that moment.

A dozen young women were clustered tightly around the woman with the long white hair. At a word, they scattered out in all directions like beads of mercury. Spike eyed them warily as they came to fight on either side of him, and they him in return, but all violence remained directed at the ones who had earned it.

That was great, but it didn't go a long way towards helping Angel. An was lucky that he was not in the same position to strike the smugness right away from her face. "Won't you help me?" she repeated in a soft, lilting voice, turning to lead him off of the street and into the eager shadows beyond. Angel's mind continued to struggle, but his feet moved as happily as any pair of puppies following their master. He could guess at this point exactly where An wanted to lead him, and exactly what he would be expected to do when he got there.

A jet of fire shot by Angel's side as he trailed after An, missing igniting his arm by bare millimeters. An was spared being set on fire only by virtue of the fact that her transformation from girl into girl-thing seemed to have also gifted her with the reflexes of a cat. The crackling sound from immediately behind An alerted her and she threw herself to the side without wasting time to look for the source. The fire licked at the brick skin of the building beyond where An had been standing a fraction of a second before, crawling up the side with eager hands and laving long black scorches to mark where it had been. From the sprawl where she had ended up, An gasped and swiveled her head around to look at the beast that had nearly killed her.

Charlotte regarded An with glittering, acid eyes that were no longer entirely her own and which, though Angel hated to say it, even appeared a little smug. Broken and near death as she was, with the new force riding behind her Charlotte still seemed to straighten and regain some of her old, ponderous dignity. She flicked her tongue out to taste the smoke-thickened air before throwing her head back towards the sky and hooting once. The remaining Guardians wheeling overhead screamed back, but maintained their wary distance. Charlotte lowered her head, looking sideways at Angel with eyes that were still alert and hungry even though she made no move to attack. Angel was not sure if this was due to the foreign force, or if she simply no longer had the strength.

An stared at Charlotte with an expression that was naked in its hatred and, for the first time, a reluctant twinge of respect. "You are way too young to be that kind of bitch," she told the dragon. Charlotte wrinkled her lips back from her teeth and hissed before her head began to droop towards the pavement once more. Angel did not think that she would be picking it up again. "And I'll bet you've used up everything you had to get that far, didn't you?" When Charlotte only growled, An smiled and continued. "It's about rationing. If you don't learn to measure it out early, then you wind up using everything that you have on stupid, futile gestures." An looked Angel up and down before she pronounced Lindsey's nickname for Katie with an air of finality. "Kiddo. We'll get to that lesson in a moment or two. Angel, if you would?"

His feet began to follow her in spite of his best efforts to redirect them as his fingers continued to curl around the sword. Angel's increasingly frantic and ferocious efforts to reclaim his own body to no avail. Sharp spikes of fear began to course through him, promising to become panic if only he would let them. It was like being forced to watch his own life moving by on a television screen while the remote and the dials remained just out of his reach. If it went on long enough, Angel thought that it might be even worse than being Angelus. At least then he would not be around to have the terrible feeling that if only he fought a bit harder, was just a little better...

Charlotte issued a throaty sound which sounded like a death warble but which Angel thought might even have been a laugh coming from another throat. A thunderclap rolled through the air hard enough to knock An, Angel, and everyone in the vicinity down to the ground. An screeched. Angel did not know what she was going through, but he thought that if it had anything to do with pain like he was experiencing then he might even be able to sympathize. Grappling hooks were sliding deep into his brain as his mind was pulled in two opposing directions, reducing the world into a red and twitching agony. Angel wanted to scream and could find no voice with which to do so and he wanted it over and he didn't care what the outcome was so long as it ended-

Two seconds later, and it did. Angel slumped to the ground, coughing blood and being reminded anew of all the times when being something other than human was actually a bonus. It was several more seconds of hacking before Angel realized that it had been his own decision to act, that An's invisible fingers were no longer walking through his brain. He opened his eyes and realized that she had backed up to a distance of several yards so that she could stare at him with the most abject expression of horror that Angel had ever seen on her face.

"No," she moaned, and then screamed, "No!" It would have reminded Angel of any other teenager having a tantrum, and for a moment his thoughts did turn towards Connor, except that her yell caused a twitch to run through all of the demons still under her control. Several of them dropped dead on the spot. "It's not going to be like this." Her voice dropped by a few octaves into a register that Angel had never heard before as she intoned, "I'm not going to let it be like this." An turned and was disappearing into the shadows that were a natural part of her now even as Angel was struggling to push himself painfully back up to his feet. There was a certain amount of blood that even vampires could not lose without consequence.

A tired sound echoed from behind him, and Angel turned to see that Charlotte was regarding him through dull eyes. Blood ran from her mouth and both of her nostrils, barely still hot enough to steam. Charlotte pulled her lips back from her teeth as Angel knelt beside her, as he placed his hand on the head that still had enough heat to burn his palm, but she made no attempt to snap at him. "Thank you," Angel said to the traces of the little girl that still remained in eyes as green as an alley cat's, and "I'm sorry," to the great lady herself, before he drew his blade swiftly across her throat and ended her misery.

The woman with the white hair had noticed him at long last and was making her way towards him across the remains of the battlefield. Her charges were both enthusiastic and skilled, and the remaining demons under An's power were like weeds in front of a lawn mower before them. The look of concern on the woman's face in spite of the opposite sides that they had stood on over the course of the last two years was similar enough to the one that she had worn while her hair had still been the color of fire to make Angel wave her off before she could get too close. It wasn't only because he needed to begin pursuit before the trail brew too cold, and the look on Willow's face as she drifted to a halt said that she knew it.

Angel waited for only a second to make sure that An was truly gone before he sprinted off the battlefield. She had been right about one thing, at least: it was time to bring the circle to a close.


They were not making the time that Lindsey had hoped for, but with two of them wounded and one of them a frightened child struggling to swim through waters that she had no business being in, he supposed that he would have to take what he could get. He and Alicia walked on either side of Katie, each of them gripping one of her hands tightly, as Lindsey used the other hand to keep the sword in a perpetual ready position. Maintaining such a tight grip on Katie's hand was surely causing more information than he cared to release to go spinning through her mind; he did not care. Lindsey had an inescapable feeling that this was the most cowardly thing that he had done yet, and that was not something that he could easily dismiss.

He should be a part of that fight. Lindsey knew this. Win or lose, right or wrong, righteous or merely reckless, Lindsey had known for some time now that he was never going to be comfortable with peace. That the fight itself was more important than whichever side he happened to be standing on was the single flaw that he could not eradicate from himself through force of will. Seeing as this was the flaw that had gotten him killed, he supposed that he really ought to be more troubled by it. Lindsey counted himself lucky that there weren't any empaths around to take a peek into how truly scrambled his psyche was, as there were moments when he was still boggled by it himself.

Katie paused, and the worried expression slid off her face long enough for her to beam up at him. Okay, fine, always excepting that one.

Angel had asked him to do this, though. Angel had trusted him to do this, and so far as Lindsey was concerned that meant something. Damned if he knew what, but it still loomed over him, powerful and inescapable.

So that took them right back to the start, didn't it? A scowl crossed Lindsey's face for a moment as he realized this. He was again trailing along in Angel's wake, again allowing himself to be led. Even if the benefits package in this particular contract promised to be more exciting. Lindsey thought of his defiant words to Lilah and almost halted in his tracks.

Katie was still tilting her face up to scrutinize him, her expression now solemn and thoughtful. Lindsey realized that with their hands linked as they were, the girl was probably hearing every thought that echoed through his head even more clearly than he was. As some of these thoughts were not suited for a Disney direct-to-video, Lindsey pulled his hand away and ignored the hurt look that crossed Katie's face. "You shouldn't be listening in on private conversations, kiddo."

"Can't help it." Katie bent her head and used her newly freed hand to fiddle with the hem of her shirt. She looked so young and small, Little Red Riding Hood being forced to walk through the dark woods with only the slimmest of protections on her side, that Lindsey reached out and ruffled her hair in apology before he could stop himself. Katie looked back up and smiled at him with an expression similar enough to the one that she had worn on their first meeting to make Lindsey wonder if she had been not quite normal for some time before the events of the last day had taken place. That required him to take a fairly ruthless view of the Powers That Be, to consider that they would have begun moving the young lady in waiting into position long before the princess had actually begun to fall.

The more he thought about it, the more Lindsey was certain that this was exactly what had happened.

"You're wrong," Katie said. She returned to fiddling with the hem of her shirt. "Wasn't like that."

If she was going to be able to read is thoughts no matter what he did...Lindsey made an irritated huffing noise and reached out to reclaim Katie's hand. She smiled up at him while he made a mental note to keep his thoughts as far away from the subject of Angel as he could. "Kiddo, you don't know the Powers That Be the way that I do," he said. "And I'm sorry, but becoming a midget short-range radio does not make you omniscient. It doesn't mean that you know half of the way that you new buddies can and will fuck you over the second that you let your guard down around them."

Lindsey's attention was pulled away from Katie by a quiet sound that he soon realized was the grinding of Alicia's teeth. She fixed him with a look that would have had him cowering and scrambling for the nearest chair if he had still been in the second grade. Katie was going to pick up his thoughts on the matter regardless of whether he spoke them out loud, and Lindsey anyway did not think this was a subject where he could stand to trade in the truth for the fluffy fairytale where deals were actually honored. He met Alicia's gaze with a level stare of his own.

"You're still wrong," Katie said. For someone whose life was still in terrible danger, she almost sounded cheerful. "You do that a lot, you know. She told me that you're either very smart or very stupid, and that you never learned how to be anything in between. It's not your fault that you were born that way, so we shouldn't be mean to you about it."

"Yeah, and you might want to watch your mouth. Cuteness can only get you so far before..." Wait a minute. Lindsey grabbed Katie's arms and twirled her around. He ignored the pain in his leg so that he could kneel in front of her. "Who? Who told you this?" Alicia's hand coming down on his arm and yanking him away made him realize that he had begun to punctuate each word with a little shake. Lindsey released Katie at once, backing away and running a hand through his disheveled hair. "Sorry, I'm sorry." He knelt back down in front of Katie and held up his hands in surrender when Alicia stepped close. "Who has been talking to you, Katie? Who has been telling you these things?"

"The lady," Katie said, staring at Lindsey with the infuriatingly smug expression of the child who was in the rare position of having one up on the adults and knew it. "The one who knows everything. She called you a doofus."

Lindsey's blood went solid in his veins. He glanced up at Alicia and saw that not a drop of her own remained in her face. "Katie," Lindsey said, turning back. "Trust me when I say that you should really, really not be listening to that girl." The ground trembled beneath their feet. "She's very sick."

"Not An," Katie said. Her face turned hard in a way that made her look much older. "Even An is not quite An anymore. The lady says that we should feel bad for her." Katie lifted her chin and looked at Lindsey in a way that made him think of a young hawk, still covered in fluffy down in spite of the fact that it already had its parent's beak. "She says that we should feel bad for you, too. But mostly she just calls you a doofus."

Lindsey lowered his head and pinched at the bridge of his nose. "Okay," he said, taking a deep breath and hoping that this would prevent his frustration from showing in his voice. "Katie, I need you to tell me everything that you can about his lady, all right? She might be part of-" Lindsey paused in order to give forth a laugh that had absolutely no mirth in it. "A business deal that went kind of south on me." He realized that he had begun spasmodically clenching and unclenching his fists. Alicia was still regarding him with a wary expression, so Lindsey placed his hands on top of his thighs and took another deep breath to calm his racing heart.

Katie said, without looking at him, "She tells the story better than I do."

If Lindsey clenched his teeth together any harder, Alicia was going to have find a crowbar to help him pry them apart again. "Then we'll let her have the goddamned movie rights," he gritted. Alicia made an abrupt movement, as if she were on the verge of stepping between them and ending the conversation once and for all. Lindsey sighed. "Right. I'm sorry. Katie, I need to know where you found this lady when you talked to her."

"I'd like to know that, too," Alicia cut in. When Lindsey looked up at her, her lips were pressed into a tight, bloodless line.

"There are a few things that this lady and I need to discuss," Lindsey said, turning back to Katie.

Katie shook her head and said in a small, solemn voice, "It's not the time for that now."

Lindsey exhaled violently through his nose and was on the verge of telling her that the child mystic crap had been old when he was still reading sword and sorcery novels as a teenager. He bit his tongue to the point of blood to avoid spitting out something scathing and cruel, letting out a long stream of inward invective when Katie still flinched backwards. Right, okay, telepath. As much as Lindsey had come to be fond of this girl, he was going to be delighted when he had the inside of his skull to himself again.

Katie's flinch turned into an outright spasm, as if she had been slapped even though no one had laid a hand on her, and she doubled over. Moaning once, Katie sprayed a tremendous amount of watery vomit across the pavement. Lindsey jerked back to avoid the worst of the mess while Alicia cried, "What did you do to her?" She moved to put her body between Lindsey and Katie, transforming herself into a living shield.

"I didn't touch her," Lindsey said. His eyes widened and Alicia, following his gaze, turned around. Her jaw fell open and stayed that way for several seconds before she remembered to shut it, creating an audible clacking sound.

The glow that had marked Katie's eyes for the past day and An's before she had so cheerfully jumped off the moral cliff had been...not natural, but unobtrusive, a gleam that one could get used to fairly quickly. There was not a chance in hell that Lindsey was ever going to get used to what Katie's eyes were doing now, regardless of how much time he spent in her company. The light that had begun to pour forth of them was brilliant and white on a level that Lindsey could hardly describe and was already sure that eh would never be able to duplicate through paint or ink. It had no goodness, no evil, but was entirely pure in the original sense of the word, free of any and all moral connotations.

Pure what was the question which remained to be answered, though Lindsey thought that it might ultimately come down to power. The remembrance of what that power had done to the last person that it had invested itself in at such a young age was still running through Lindsey's mind on too fresh a rewind to make such a comparison sit comfortably. The blow was strong enough to bathe Lindsey's and Alicia's faces and make them appear alien to one another.

Katie continued to double over, clutching at her temples and saying, "It hurts, it hurts, it hurts," over and over again. A telltale trickle of blood had begun to run from one of her nostrils, turning Lindsey's own blood to ice at such a speed that he was amazed his heart still managed to beat at all. She paused to make a sound that did not seem as though it should come from a human throat, a sound that was familiar to Lindsey though he could not say how or why.

"Katie!" Alicia had crouched down in front of Katie with so little care for her own injuries that Lindsey soon saw a red stain spreading along her skirt from her own leg wound. He was unsurprised when she did not so much as glance at it. Alicia spent several seconds alternating between calling Katie's name and making the soothing sort of shushing sounds that Lindsey could remember his own mother making when he had been very small and either sick or scared. After multiple attempts at pulling Katie's hands down from her temples were met without success, Alicia gave up for the moment and flashed Lindsey a wild-eyed and nearly panicked look. "What do we do now?"

"I don't know." Lindsey turned his face from the halogen lamps that Katie's eyes had turned into so that he could better think.

"What do you mean, you don't know?" Alicia sprang back to her feet so that she could circle around and force him to face her. Her breath was coming in short rasps as panic threatened to overtake her. "This is your world."

The frustration bubbled up inside Lindsey at once, causing him to snap before he was able to stop himself, "It's your world, too, princess." He flung his arm out to indicate Katie, still crouching and repeating the same short sentence over and over again. "Unless you're planning on abandoning her as soon as the fireworks taper off."

Alicia rocked back as if Lindsey had slapped her. "No," she said finally, shaking her head so that her dark hair swirled over her shoulders. "That's started this mess in the first place, isn't it?" Lindsey wasn't sure that was the case at all, but with Alicia calming down and approaching a state of non-panic again he did not think that this was the best of times to mention it. "Okay. So I'll ask again: what do we do now?"

Lindsey looked at the expanse of light being created by Katie's eyes, where moments before there had only been night and shadow. They had been damned lucky this far; most of the demons in Los Angeles had been called to answer An's grudge and were being dealt with by Angel. If Katie kept this up, though, they might as well hang sirens around their necks and douse themselves in blood. "We have to get off the street," Lindsey decided. "We'll come up with something better from there."

He set the sword to the side for the moment and knelt down in front of Katie, trying without success to pull her hands down from her temples. "All right, kiddo, you can keep falling to pieces just as soon as we're safe. Right now we have to move." Lindsey placed his hands on Katie's arms in one final attempt to get her to lower them and stand on her own.

The second that their skins made contact gain, Katie threw back her head and let out a scream so piercing that Lindsey thought he could feel the air itself cringing and trembling in the wake of the sound. Alicia jerked as if she meant to physically put herself between Lindsey and Katie, never mind that he was scarcely even touching her, pausing only when Lindsey pulled away of his own accord with his palms raised in surrender.

"She knows," Katie moaned, and quietly began to cry. The opalescent light from her eyes dimmed and for a moment appeared green.

Alicia looked at Lindsey with wide eyes as she crouched by Katie's side. "That didn't sound good."

"No," Lindsey agreed. "It really didn't." He picked up his sword from the ground and tried to give it over to Alicia so that he could carry Katie.

"Fast," Katie said in an insistent voice, though Lindsey could not be sure that she was addressing either one of them. So far as he knew, maybe her Doofus Lady had come to pay her a visit.

"And that sounded even worse." Alicia refused to take the sword from him, and Lindsey sighed in exasperation. "Alicia, I can't carry her unless you-"

"I'm going to carry her." Alicia's voice brooked no argument.


"I don't-" Alicia took a deep breath, pressed her lips into a firm line for a moment, and continued. "You're a better fighter with it than I am, and I'm going to carry her."

The ground shook beneath their feet, reminding them both that if they wanted to continue this argument it might be wise to hurry it up. Lindsey resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "Fine." He stepped to the side as Alicia gathered Katie up in her arms. A slight wobble on her wounded leg was the only sign of strain that Alicia allowed to show.

Katie turned her face into the side of Alicia's neck as soon as she was lifted from the ground, making a series of sad snuffling noises. At the same time, she was whispering something over and over again that made Alicia's face go rigid before she laid her hand on Katie's head and began stroking the hair back. Off of Lindsey's look, Alicia replied in a tight voice, "She says that it's getting worse." The glow from Katie's eyes was cascading through Alicia's hair, catching the red highlights and making them glow.

Lindsey shifted the sword within his grasp until it felt natural, like coming home. "Come on. We're way too open here." He swiveled his head to look up and down the street, but all of the buildings within sight were boarded up too carefully to allow for quick entry. If Lindsey was willing to admit it to himself, he didn't think that hunkering down and waiting for the battle to pass them by was going to work, not this time. He flicked a fast and almost guilty glance across Katie, who still had her face buried into Alicia's neck and showed no signs of interest in any outside transmissions. That was good, because if Lindsey really wanted to stand firm and be honest with himself, he had to admit that he didn't want to. He might have landed on the right side of the fight purely by accident this time, but he was going to live it up while it lasted and spit straight into the flames of hell when it came to its inevitable conclusion.

Lindsey's lips curved up into a slow, dangerous smile as he spotted a prospect that seemed like the best out of their limited pool. Angel might have denied him his ill-conceived battle to the death the first time around, but the forces of fate were determined to give him a second chance. "Over there." Lindsey led Alicia across the street, feeling her eyes as heavy weights against the back of his neck the entire way. He didn't need to turn his head to see the expectation there, and it was unsettling that he could think of no way to shake it off. 'You might want to rethink that theory before you run too far with it,' Lindsey thought. 'You're not getting a hero in this deal. Best case scenario, you're getting a mercenary who moonlights as an adrenaline junkie. I'll have to see what I can do.'

"Get to the back of the alley," Lindsey ordered Alicia. She complied, crinkling her nose at the small, scurrying things that fled from the sounds of their approach. "Protect Katie with all that you have, and when-" Alicia tilted her head to one side and pinned him with a perceptive stare as Lindsey struggled to switch gears. "If something happens to me, you're going to have to pick up that sword and defend her with it yourself. I don't care how much it makes your skin crawl."

Alicia lifted her chin and regarded Lindsey for a long moment. "I don't like it," she replied. "But that's not why. You're just a better fighter with it than I am." Alicia was silent for a long moment before she finished, "If that other girl comes anywhere near Katie, it won't be a problem."

"Atta girl." Lindsey watched for a moment as Alicia knelt to set Katie back on the ground, shielding the girl's body with her own, and the sense of déjà vu was so great that it forced him to turn away again. He may not be a legitimate hero, but damned if he couldn't fake it with the best of them. Lindsey flicked the sword, getting rid of as much blood and sweat that could affect his grip at a crucial moment as possible, and waited. It wasn't such a very long wait, after all.

The ground did not tremble with the sound of feet to signal An's approach as it had her army, but Lindsey could feel her on her way at the same time. The air crackled, feeling at first as if there was electricity running through it and then becoming solid, only one small nudge away from being alive. Lindsey knew this feeling well. He began to pant.

Alicia gave a shout of mingled surprise and pain from behind him. Lindsey twisted around to see what was wrong and instead saw her backing away from Katie with an expression of horror on her face. Alicia stared down at her palms and forearms, which were rapidly turning the color of lobsters with a brand new burn. And Katie...

Katie's eyes were no longer the only part of her that was glowing.

Lindsey took a deep breath, declared himself to be in so far over his head that there was no point in even trying to see daylight, and decided that he might as well keep swinging the sword until he managed to swim his way to the surface again. From the looks of things behind him, the best that he could hope to do was buy time until Katie let loose with her own private version of Three Mile Island, anyway.

"Where is she?" Fury and strain had driven An's voice into a high and nearly whiny register that scarcely sounded like her at all. The air swirled and danced in response to her approach, so that even the process became a struggle. Lindsey still would have known that she was in the shadows at the mouth of the alley before she stepped forward even if she had not called out, even if she was not carrying a small piece of hell around with her on the air to mark the thing that had infected and replaced her. The glow would have told him.

As much as Lindsey would have liked to believe that there was some fundamental difference between the pearlescent glow, so terrible and so pure, that had begun to swirl about an inch or so above An's skin and the same glow that had overtaken Katie and would not allow Alicia to touch her, but even he was not that good a liar. They were exactly the same, except that one was large where the other was small, and one was in a towering rage while the other was doing her best to make herself invisible behind Alicia's legs. A chill ran down Lindsey's spine and through his blood as he realized that they could have been sisters.

"That was cute, you know," An said, slowing her pace to a leisurely walk as she entered the alley. Her eyes flicked over Lindsey, dismissed him as a non-threat in spite of the sword, and moved on to her real prize. "Feisty. You were the type to burn your Barbie dolls to see what they smelled like when they melted, weren't you?"

Lindsey had no idea what An was talking about, and it didn't seem as though Katie was going to step up and educate him any time soon. Alicia was standing in front of the girl with her arms thrown out to create the maximum possible area out of her human shield, her lips drawn back in pain from the heat. As close as he was standing to An, Lindsey could feel that same heat rising up from its alternate source, and something else besides. There was a heavy, shivering feeling to the air between An and Katie, as if they were two magnets only waiting for Lindsey and Alicia to get out of the way so that they could collide. Lindsey wondered at the wisdom of being in the same city when they finally did manage to make contact and found that he did not care, not even when he knew whose loving arms would be there to catch him when he fell. It wasn't a death wish that he had a problem with, it was being too stubborn to know when to cut his losses and walk away.

"Sounds like something you have personal experience with." The sword felt so damned good in his hand.

An barely glanced at him before rolling her eyes and turning her attention back to Katie. "Please. We both know exactly what you are, don't go trying to put on the hero's cape this late in the game."

The honorable thing for Lindsey to do probably would have been to issue one final warning, just in case there was some part of An still manning the controls who could hope to influence their outcome. It turned out to be lucky for him, then, that honor had never been a particular worry for him. He moved, driving the sword deeply through An's chest until it exited her back and, if Lindsey remembered his anatomy correctly, did a fair job of skewering her heart along the way. The glowing substance dancing along An's skin made an eager beeline up first the blade and then the handle, forcing Lindsey to release the weapon and step back so that he would not be consumed. Didn't matter. Lindsey knew a mortal wound when he had inflicted one, and An's killing days were over.

Or they should have been. An paused to stare at the blade protruding from her chest and then back up at Lindsey. A trickle of scarlet began to run from her mouth, looking almost pink beneath all that surreal pearl and opal. "Oh, you cocky son of a bitch," An whispered.

>From the corner of his eye Lindsey saw a dark figure sprinting onto the scene, distracting him fro that crucial second before a blast of pure energy caught him in the chest, lifted him off of his feet, and at the end of it left him incapable of seeing much of anything. His body struck hard against the brick wall behind him, head rebounding hard enough to bring his jaws together with a sharp clacking sound, and if Lindsey had not been sliding towards unconsciousness he might even have been concerned that he had broken something. Déjà vu hit him hard, that great big circle come around to taunt him again. Lindsey slumped to the cement and closed his eyes.


He was not on fire. Based up that fact alone, this experience was already head and shoulders above the one that he had been expecting. Lindsey rolled over onto his side, coughing and wheezing until his bruised lungs remembered the ins and outs of breathing on their own and he no longer had to intervene every few seconds. The air was fresh and clean, so far from brimstone that to even think of it here seemed wrong. This was not what Lindsey had been expecting, and so he opened his eyes and sat up.

It was an exquisite office with exquisite furniture, complete with a large cherry-wood desk that cam with an exquisite brunette perched onto the corner. She looked at him expectantly as he narrowed his eyes and dug his fingers through carpet deep and soft enough to sleep on. "Instead of a near-death experience, I get you? Thanks lots, but I already knew that I was going to hell."

Cordelia made an exasperated huffing noise and hopped down from the desk, straightening her clothes as she went. She wore corporate chic with a dash of pure Queen C thrown in, including a top that Lindsey swore she had chosen solely to highlight the fact that she had not needed a Wonderbra since the age of fourteen.

"Will you listen to yourself?" Cordelia asked. "And I thought that I could bring the drama queen. You're not dead, Lindsey. Not even close to it. You've just been pegged a good one on the head, jeez."

If Lindsey raised his eyebrows any higher, they were going to give up altogether and crawl directly into his hairline. "Point stands. Sorry, Cordelia, but even my subconscious is not this twisted. I want off the train."

"Sorry, no can do. I'm not a hallucination or a figment of your imagination." Cordelia strode over to him and knelt down so that they were on the same eye level before she extended her forefinger towards the ceiling. "This is the real deal, Lindsey. I'm here as a messenger for the Powers That Be. They figured that you wouldn't listen unless you were a captive audience and had a familiar face to yell at. Your reputation for being thickheaded precedes you."

Lindsey's entire body went rigid at the first mention of the Powers That Be. "That's funny," he snapped. "The last time I listened to the Powers That Be I would up burning in hell, exactly like I would have if I hadn't listened to the Powers That Be. I'm just going to cut out the middleman and tell them to fuck off this time. Is that all right with you?"

Getting that message out was the best thing that Lindsey had done all day, and he hadn't even needed An's connections to the Powers That Be to do it. He pushed himself up to his feet, ignoring the wobbling of various limbs as they told him that he might want to rest a bit longer, and began looking around for the conveniently absent door. "Is there a way out of here, or am I stuck with you until someone splashes water on my face back in the real world?"

Cordelia remained crouched on the carpet, looking up at him with an expression of such sadness and compassion as was terrible in its sincerity. Lindsey thought that he hated her in that moment, and slowly forced his hand to uncurl from its fist. At long last Cordelia sighed and stood, reclaiming her position on the edge of the desk.

"Your butt's going to stay right here until the message has been delivered," she said. "Get mad if you want, but you know those are the rules. What you do afterwards is your choice." Cordelia gestured towards a comfortable-looking chair that Lindsey was certain had not been there before. "Come on, at least sit down. You look like ass, and watching you do laps is making me dizzy." Lindsey paused in his pacing long enough to glare at her. Cordelia sighed and dropped her hand back into her lap. "Fine, have it your way. The message is still going to be delivered whether you like it or not. Lindsey, you can't blame the Powers for what happened to you."

"The hell I can't!" Lindsey exploded, wheeling back around on her. He leaned forward until their faces were almost touching. Cordelia did not move back by so much as an inch. "We had a deal, remember? I get their hero playing nice again and wearing his cape rather than punching a time clock for Wolfram and Hart, and you get me out of my contract." Lindsey took a step back, spread his arms wide, and smiled. He wondered if that smile was as painful to watch as it was for him to make. "Check your scorecard, Cordy. I held up my end of the deal. I held it up so well that I died in the line of duty for it." Lindsey stabbed his finger into Cordelia's face, and she still made no attempt to move away. "Your bosses are the ones who fell short when it was time to start handing out checks."

Except for the small noise of irritation that Cordelia always made when Lindsey called her 'Cordy', she had not moved or changed expression through his entire tirade. Her normal clientele might find that look of gentle concern comforting rather than infuriating, but it put Lindsey in a mind to either flee or fight. "Lindsey, the Powers That Be did exactly what they said they were going to do. Wolfram and Hart has no more claim on your soul that I do."

Lindsey spun around, outrage, but Cordelia held up her hand to stop him. "Hear me out. You have been completely released from your contractual obligation to Wolfram and Hart or any of her sister companies. That was the deal. Body and soul, you are a free man." Cordelia's voice began to rise in volume as the compassionate expression evaporated. She looked almost angry in its place. "What the Powers That Be didn't do-what they couldn't do, I might add-was wipe the slate clean of all the things that you did before, while, and after you were under their loving wing." A touch of the sadness returned to Cordelia's face as Lindsey gaped at her. "You were a terrible person then, Lindsey, and I can't say that a few good whacks with the epiphany stick has turned you into a great one now. I'm sorry, but no amount of legalease or deal-making can protect you from that."

That chair was looking like a better option by the second. Lindsey sank down into it, leaning his head against the backrest and closing his eyes. "So is that it? I have to say, I can see why your friendly bosses didn't mention this sooner. If I had known that I was damned if I did and damned if I didn't, I would have had a lot more fun."

Cordelia sighed. "God, you are such a doofus," she snapped. Upon hearing the familiar term, Lindsey opened his eyes and looked at her. "And you of all people should know this. It's called redemption, dumbass."

While Lindsey stared at her until long after the point when she should have delivered the punch line, Cordelia continued to gaze at him with that hopeful, expectant expression, as if he was an exceptionally slow student that she could still not bear to give up on. "I spent a year fighting the good fight," he said. Cordelia snorted. "By proxy, same thing. I still wound up in hell. Pick another pep talk."

"The two of you are so alike sometimes, I swear it makes me want to run straight into a wall." Lindsey did not need to ask who Cordelia was referring to. He narrowed his eyes into slits. Cordelia did not notice and went on. "This is not something that you can buy, Lindsey. It's not something where you can tally up a nice little row of checks in the plus column and, bam, you've won. In fact, thinking that way in the first place probably means that you're not even within sight of the right track."

Lindsey did not think that he was going to be unnarrowing his eyes at any point during the conversation. "In order to escape hell, I no longer have to care if I escape hell." A wave of dizziness came over him, making him shake his head and rub his eyes as the world went wobbly around the edges. "That's not at all an impossible set of instructions."

Cordelia huffed. "Again with the density. Not instructions. Not a paint by number process here. Just remember, behaving yourself for the sake of material gain or to get into someone's pants...bad. Actual remorse...good." She reached out and gave Lindsey's shoulder a squeeze. If he didn't know better, he would even say that she had grown fond of him. "You're a smart guy. You'll figure it out."

"Remorse. I know the definition of that word, darlin', but that's about the best that you're going to get." Lindsey shrugged with an easiness so practiced that Cordelia might not even have seen through it. Being something like remorseful for his own inability to feel remorse for the things that he had actually done, he was pretty sure that counted as a pathology entirely on its own.

"Which has escaped the attention of no one, believe me. Funny thing about the human race, though. You guys never seem to find a low so deep that you can't scrabble back from it." Lindsey was on the verge of asking Cordelia when the human race had become 'you' rather than 'we' when another wave of dizziness struck him, doubling him over and making the walls shiver and dance. When he looked back up, Cordelia's eyes were solemn.

"Helping that little girl," she continued. "Trying to help both of those little girls, that's on the right track. I might consider forcing me to sound like that 'Touched by an Angel' chick to be an unpardonable sin, but luckily for you that's not on the Powers' list of unforgivable offenses." Cordelia tried to crack a smile, but it faltered before it could touch her eyes. "When you get back, make sure you tell him to stop being a moron and knock off the self-pitying crap already, because neither one of you are alone in this." The smile finally reached Cordelia's eyes as she stepped backwards. "Oh, yeah, you're not a bit player anymore, Lindsey. Eyes are on you." Lindsey thought of the middle-aged Shirley Temple and the woman with the hair the color of flax. His eyes widened, but as his dizziness grew the room was wobbling more by the second. Cordelia pushed some of his hair back from his forehead. "So there. Messages delivered, ball back in your court."

Lindsey forced his focus back onto the woman in front of him, even as it grew harder by the second and caused a ringing to echo through his head. "And working for someone who would move little girls around like chess pieces, that doesn't bother you?"

He was not so dizzy that he could not see the sudden swift way that Cordelia's eyes narrowed or the coldness that entered them, so different from the Cordelia that Lindsey was used to seeing. "Pay attention, Lindsey," she corrected. "One: the Powers That Be can't do everything. It only comforts people to think that they can. Two: choice is everything."

Lindsey nodded as if he understood and tried to grin, gagging for a moment as he was caught straddling one world and the other without really belonging to either. There was still one thing that he needed to say to Cordelia before he left, one thing that he had needed to give vent to for some time. "Getting me sent to a private hell dimension just so you could protect your cover story? You can be a real bitch sometimes, Cordy."

She shrugged. "And you can be a horrible over-actor. We'll call it even." Lindsey thought that her expression looked wistful, but the world was spinning too quickly and he was struggling too hard to stay for a few more seconds to be sure. Cordelia said, "I know it's too much to ask for you to take care of him, but just try not to kill him, okay?"

Lindsey shivered, choked, and opened his eyes.


An moved through the darkness at a speed that no human could hope to keep up with. Luckily for Angel, An was not the only one who was so much more than human. He followed her by sight when it was available and by scent when she pulled too far ahead, finding it at times difficult to keep up but never quite losing the trail entirely.

An made no effort to hide, and the both of them knew that Lindsey had not had the time to take Alicia and Katie far. What happened next seemed in retrospect almost like fate. Angel arrived at the mouth of the alley in time to see Lindsey strike the blow that should have killed An instantly but didn't, as well as the invisible force that she threw at him to hurl him back against the brick. More than anything he saw the way that Lindsey slumped down and did not move, his position eerily similar to the one that they had found his body in after the last major fight between good and evil.

An wobbled on her feet as she watched Lindsey slide down against the brick, a shocking amount of blood falling from her mouth and seeping around the edges of the wound. She did not fall, turning instead with the accuracy of a missile back towards Katie. The glow that danced across her skin had grown to envelop the sword as well, leaving Angel with no doubts as to what would happen if he were to grab for it, not while that same glow was covering Katie. Angel could smell the burned skin on Alicia from where he stood.

Angel's feet wanted to take him over to Lindsey to check his pulse, but this was the very last time for him to worry about what he wanted to do versus what he needed to do. He only hesitated for a moment as he raced past instead, towards An. She was so close to Alicia and Katie that the two lights seemed to rise together and mingle as one. Alicia wore an expression of naked terror even as she refused to give up her ground, fear rolling off of her and making the air sweet, while Katie...Katie smelled like nothing at all.

Angel didn't let his pace hitch even as the revelation alarmed him. He grabbed the end of the sword protruding from An's back, ignoring the burn and the cuts being opened up in his palms as he whirled her back around. "Come on, no one likes a bully," Angel grunted. He drew his fist back.

An took the blow directly upon her chin without even attempting to resist and flew back several feet, landing first on her back and then her side as she slid several more paces before coming to a halt. The sword twisted, drawing a shriek from An's lips and even more blood before she pulled it free and threw it to the side. Angel realized with shock that she was going to get up again, fueled by that dark force that she had either invited in or had overtaken her, even as her legs were trembling like those of a newborn colt.

"Let me finish it!" An screamed at him. Beneath the glow, tears were standing out in their eyes. A tremor ran through her body, coupled with a slight change in her voice that made Angel pause. "For the love of God, let me finish it!"

An invisible hand identical to the one that had knocked Lindsey into the wall collided with Angel's chest a bare second later with all of the force of a wrecking ball. Without anything that eh could see or fight touching him, Angel was thrown off of his feet and nearly out of his head, and sent tumbling through the air. He came back down on the pavement with a bone-rattling force that would have driven all of the air from his lungs if there had been that much there to begin with. Angel grit his teeth and didn't wait for his vision to clear before he scrambled back up to his feet for another try. There was only one directive left that mattered to him: if one child was already past the point of no return then he could damned well save the other, or die trying.

Destroying the one, though, might even put the other beyond saving. Katie stepped around from her hiding place behind Alicia after a long moment of hesitation and walked towards An, shivering. She ignored Alicia's futile attempts, aborted only when first her clothes and then her skin threatened to catch on fire. Alicia was sobbing openly, and Angel thought that she was only working up the nerve to rush after Katie and smother her with her own body if that was what it took, and to hell with the consequences.

While that was an admirable choice, Alicia was not the one in this situation who should be having to make it. Angel rushed forward and struck up against an invisible wall of air at the same time that Alicia did the same thing from the opposite direction. While Alicia shrieked and began pounding her fists against the barrier, Angel swore an oath that would have made paint fall from the bricks if there had been any there to begin with and began feeling for the place where it ended.

As he was doing so, Angel noticed that it was Katie rather than An who glanced his way with an apologetic look, barely visible through the glow, and Katie who had developed a nosebleed over the course of the past several seconds. She rushed across the last few feet of distance between she and An and linked their hands before the oldest girl could pull away.

The laws of nature abruptly rewrote themselves, like water changing course to accommodate a dam placed in its path.

Katie braced her legs far apart, seemingly preparing for a struggle, and wrapped her fingers around An's hands so tightly that even at a distance Angel could see all of the tendons standing out in her forearms. The opalescent light covering both girls seemed to undulate and come alive, until Angel realized that it was actually flowing away from An and into Katie at a rate which grew faster by the second. After another heartbeat of time, An realized this as well. She began first to look angry, and then shocked, and finally outright terrified. By the time it came into An's head to struggle, the light had abandoned them both, rising off of their bodies and swirling around them in a brilliant, self-feeding tornado. Though An had to outweigh her by at least forty pounds, Katie did not budge in the face of her struggles by so much as an inch. Her face held an expression of grim resignation that was terrible to see.

Angel knew what Katie aimed on doing, but just as it had been with Alicia a few moments before, he was determined that this was not a task which would be meant for her. "Katie!" Angel bellowed, hoping that her invisible barrier was not impervious to sound as it was to fists.

It wasn't. She jerked and looked at him, her grip on An's hands weakening and her eyes coming unfocused, as if Angel had yanked her without warning from the depths of a deep slumber. The air in front of Angel weakened until it felt more like punching against sturdy wood rather than solid stone. Well, it was not as if he hadn't crashed through his share of well-made doors over the years. Angel gathered his strength and slammed through the barrier in one mighty burst of effort just as An yanked her hands free from Katie's grasp.

Katie wailed and dropped to the ground, though Angel would never know which action she was responding to. An swelled up in from of her, triumphant, as Angel stepped through light that rocketed around and through him without leaving so much as a mark, and she...split. A small tear opened at the crown of her head and then spread rapidly, letting out a roiling black substance like tar that had within a second had destroyed even the pretense of a girl. It was dark, and it was hulking, and it made the light all around them tremble and draw back in alarm.

Angel thought that if he were afraid of insects he would see a glittering set of mandibles and hear the fluttering of many sets of wings, or scales rubbing against one another if he were afraid of snakes. As it was, it hovered leeringly over Katie and was only the formless black of midnight with no hope of ever meeting the dawn.

It was a destroyer of children. Angel knew exactly what to do with it.

He reached through the back up to his shoulders, ignoring cold so fierce that it burned, until he bypassed illusion and found a neck that he could wrap his hands around. The thing twisted in his grasp, getting a read on him at last, and Angel saw fangs and flashing gold. In his ears came the sweet, seductive ringing of bells.

Angel twitched his hands in a motion that he had performed hundreds of times before and broke the thing's neck. The bells were replaced with a sharp, sudden sound not unlike that of a jelly jar opening.

The light flared back to life, reaching its maximum in a super nova level of brilliance that left no one in the alley capable of seeing anything at all.


Angel was not certain how much time had passed when he struggled back into consciousness, except to note that dawn was still so far away that he could barely smell it on the air. From several yards off, he could hear Katie crying, and he went to her as soon as his head had cleared enough to allow it. Alicia was only beginning to stir; Lindsey was still as motionless as a stone.

Angle noticed that the glow had left Katie's skin, leaving her looking like any other girl until he happened to glance into her eyes. He knelt beside her and gathered her up in his arms without a word. Katie turned towards him immediately, burrowing her face into his neck and crying harder when Angel began to murmur the soothing nonsense that had always quieted baby Connor during the too-brief time when Angel had had him. Connor had also calmed down when he was rocked, Angel remembered. Though it took him a moment to adjust to Katie's larger size, he soon had the gentle, swaying rhythm down just right. The shoulder of his coat was soaked within seconds; no power on that earth or any other could have made him pull away.

"Hey." Angel turned at the sound of Alicia's voice and the feel of her hand coming down on his shoulder. A deep gash marked the skin above her right eyebrow from where she had fallen. "I'll take her."

"You're burned," Angel said, dipping his chin towards her arms.

Alicia looked down and seemed to notice the blisters rising on her skin for the first time. "Still. You should check on your friend. I'll manage."

"All right." Angel hesitated a moment before he passed Katie carefully over to the arms of Alicia, who did not pause or even flinch before she took up the same rocking motion.

Angel did not need to pause by An's body, human once more, and feel for a pulse to know that she was dead. He did it all the same, staying there long enough to brush her eyelids closed with the tips of her fingers. Likewise, he did not need to press his fingers against the crook of Lindsey's neck to know that he was still alive, not while Lindsey's heartbeat had been thundering through his ears every since Angel had woken up, but at the same time he kind of thought he did. Lindsey gasped and lurched into Angel's hand a few seconds later.

Lindsey struggled to sit up at once, as if he expected to be thrown back into the fight before his head had even stopped spinning. Only Angel's hands on his shoulders kept him from immediately lurching off for parts unknown. "Lindsey. Lindsey, easy." Angel thought his voice was more soothing than any he had ever used on Lindsey before. It was probably lucky for them both that Lindsey was not fully conscious yet. "It's over, everyone's fine. Don't try to move yet."

Lindsey shook his head. Even in the dim light, Angel could see that his pupils were not focusing at the same rate. He leaned over Angel's arm and threw up noisily on the pavement. Angel grimaced and turned his head away. "I'll bet you've been waiting for the opportunity to do that for years."

"I have a concussion," Lindsey said, trying to shove Angel away from him. Angel didn't allow it until he saw that Lindsey was going to stay put.

"You can self-diagnose that?"

Lindsey made a face and turned his head to spit before he answered. "I'm familiar with the symptoms." He noticed the huddled figures of Alicia and Katie for the first time, and a few yards away from them the still body of An. "Did she...?"

"No." Angel's voice sounded heavy to his own ears. "We were able to prevent that, at least. I finished it."

"Oh. Good." Lindsey turned back to look at Alicia and Katie again. Even though every thought that Lindsey had was normally broadcast across his face, Angel could not read him now.

"Don't try to move yet," Angel cautioned as he pushed himself back to his feet. He waited until Lindsey sketched out a sarcastic salute that let Angel know he was not too badly injured. He pressed his hand to the back of his head and was scrutinizing the blood on his fingers when Angel left him.

Angel knelt back down in front of Alicia. "I'll carry her back." Though Alicia looked as if she wanted to argue, the pain was pulling all of the blood from her face. She nodded reluctantly. Katie weighed little enough that Angel was able to brace her against his hip and carry her with one arm. She put her head down on his shoulder while Angel walked back over to Lindsey and extended his free hand to help him back up to his feet.

Lindsey stared first at Angel's hand and then his face, as if he wasn't sure at first what was being offered. "No," he said after a long moment. "I'm fine." Lindsey pushed himself to his feet by bracing his hand against the wall and paused there for a moment, swaying. His eyes were closed and there was blood smeared across the back of his neck. "If I manage not to throw up again, I'll be fine."

"Suit yourself." Alicia had walked up on Angel's other side so that she could take Katie's hand in hers. She barely glanced at either Angel or Lindsey.

Angel did not offer his help again, but on the long walk back he made sure that the pace remained slow enough for Lindsey to keep up without struggle. When Lindsey grew dizzy twice and had to grab at Angel's arm to prevent himself from falling he still did not offer aid, though neither did he react to the wary, searching looks that Lindsey would flick over him each time that he had righted himself again.

Angel was unsurprised to see the scattered, dismembered corpses of demons where the battle had been, or the milling, triumphant forms of about a dozen teenaged girls. Every one of them still gleamed with sweat. The heady-sweet Slayer scent that Angel always associated with Buffy filled the air, though he knew at a glance that she was not in attendance. He began to turn Katie's face away from the bodies before remembering that it wouldn't do any good.

Willow walked up to him with a smile that lost none of its sweetness in spite of her looking uncertain as to how it would be received. "Hey, Angel," she said.

"Hello, Willow," Angel said, noticing as Lindsey's swaying grew more pronounced. He put his hand out quickly to catch his elbow and steady him before he could fall. Lindsey's answering look was neither friendly nor hostile.

A lanky brunette Slayer who could have been Fred ten years earlier rushed up to them, obviously still full of extra energy from the fight and unsure of what to do with it. "Is this her?" she asked without waiting to be introduced, craning her head so that she could make eye contact with Katie. "Hi! Don't worry, we're already looking all over the world for telepaths that can help train you. It won't be any time at all before you're able to throw on a pair of shades like any other normal-"

Katie turned her face back into the side of Angel's neck.

"Beth," Willow interrupted the girl gently. "Indoor voice, okay? Pretend we have walls. In fact, you should probably call ahead and let the others know that we're going to need healing spells." She paused and looked over the assembled group. "We're going to need a lot of them."

To her credit, Beth seemed to realize immediately that she had said the wrong thing. "Oh. Um. All right." She cast a sheepish look at Angel. "If you know the name of her parents, we can try to find them for her. Giles has a computer/magic integrated database with Willow that's, like, wow."

"I'm her mother," Alicia responded in a voice that did not speak well of the wisdom of arguing.

"Oh." Beth glanced back and forth between Alicia and Katie, making note of their obviously different heritages. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize."

"In every way that matters," Alicia clarified, "I am her mother now."

"Okay, so if you would just come with me for a minute..." Beth led away a clearly reluctant Alicia, who shot several glances over her shoulder at Katie as she went. Willow spared a final smile for Angel and followed them.

Angle shifted Katie so that she would be more comfortable and looked back at Lindsey, who had yet to reject Angel's hand on his elbow. "Come on," Angel said. "You can meet the old group."

Lindsey followed without argument, though Angel thought that Willow might want to put a rush order on whatever magic she had planned. Otherwise, Lindsey might pass out in the street. "Not afraid I'm going to stab you in the back the minute you turn to make introductions?"

Angel paused and looked at Lindsey until he was clearly struggling not to squirm. "No," he said finally. "If you stab me, you'll do it in the front."

Lindsey staggered, and Angel grabbed his arm again. In return, Lindsey did not shrug him away.


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