by Victoria P.

"The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

When he picks up his mail, he sees the magazine and it still has the power to cut him.

'Modern Physics'.

If asked, he'd say that it doesn't do to ignore science; it has occasionally produced a solution where magic failed. But there's no one who will ask, and no one he can tell.

And it's true, he's occasionally picked up a copy of 'Science' or 'Nature' in the course of his research, but this subscription came only after she entered his life. A common interest, a common language, one that the others didn't or couldn't share with her.

Now it mocks him. She didn't want him. Doesn't want him. Oh, she'll use him -- they'll all use him, and since he's had a lifetime of it, he lets them. Hell, he wants them to use him. He'll deny it, as he denies so much else, both to himself and to them, but in using him, they prove his worth, his usefulness. He tells himself that it just gives him leverage -- he has what they want, and that gives him the power, the upper hand, which he's never had before, with any of them.

But it's not about that. It's never about power with him; it's always about weakness. His weakness.

He can pretend that he doesn't care. He's almost convinced himself, and really, he's his own worst critic, so once he overcomes his own skepticism, everyone else's should be easy.

Until he sees her name in the magazine's table of contents.

Winifred Burkle.

God, even her name makes him hurt, like the first touch of warmth on icy fingers.

He's reading the article for the fifth time, turning the words over in his head, tasting them on his lips; it's as close as he'll ever get to tasting her, when Lilah shows up.

She's got a gift, a bribe, and he can tell that she's as shaken up as he is by the turn their -- affair -- has taken. His body yearns toward her, even as his mind recoils. She's soiled, evil, a reminder of all that's gone wrong in his life in the past year. He tells himself he's still fighting the good fight, that he hasn't abandoned the mission, but he doesn't quite believe.

But today he's going to see her. Purity and goodness, shining forth like the dawn, and while he'll never get to touch her again, not unless she falls even further than he has, he can still watch. It's what he's been trained to do.

She's just as beautiful, smart, and out of his reach as she ever was.

When the portal opens, he knows he can save her, must save her -- but of course Gunn and Angel are there, and again he feels useless.

Until she arrives at his door.

Just the scent of her perfume, the warmth she radiates as she stands nearby, is enough to set his heart racing, the coldness he's felt since her visit to the hospital begins to thaw.

She comes to him for vengeance, when Angel and Gunn won't help.

This is good. This is power, leverage, usefulness. This is everything he wants from her. Because he will aid her vengeance, knowing it's wrong, and that will tie her to him in ways that all the sex she's having with Gunn never will.

That's another thing he's discovered in his months of exile. Darkness binds the way light never can. Because in the light, it's about what's right, what's good, and always someone else who needs it more than you do. In the dark, there's only you and your sins and the sins of others. And the taste is sweet, so sweet, like the words on his tongue as he agrees to help her. She stands behind him, her body radiating heat and he wonders how she would react if he turned and kissed her. He's learned a lot in his months with Lilah, and he thinks in this mood, she would go with it, with him, widening the gulf between her and them even further. Bringing her to his side.

Because in the end, that's what this is about. He can lie to himself about it, the way he'll lie to Lilah and Angel later, but now, right this very minute, his mind is racing with ways to turn this to his own advantage, to tie Fred to him in ways that cannot be undone.

He makes a half-hearted attempt to dissuade her from the course of vengeance, but they both know it's nothing more than him going through the motions so he can assuage his overactive conscience later.

Not that it will work, because he will hate himself for dragging her down, and her for letting him, if she goes through with this.

But the thought of her companionship, her desire, is honey on his tongue, masking the taste of bile in his throat.

He waits outside until he sees Gunn arrive; he wishes he'd gone in there with her. Gunn will only make her do the right thing. He recalls her words about loving Gunn's goodness and knows that he has never had that, he was born lacking, wanting, useless.

He drives away, on some level glad that Gunn is there to stop her, to hold her up and keep her from falling into the darkness with him.

Lilah is in his apartment when he gets home. She's reading the magazine; she's attempting to look casual, but he knows her body well enough by now to know that she's tense. He feels a stab of satisfaction; she's jealous. That gives him the upper hand again.

The smile crossing his face is one of knowledge, power, triumph. He pulls the magazine from her fingers and tosses it onto the coffee table. She mustn't know how much it bothers him to see her handling it; he would lose any ground he's gained.

He swallows her protests with a savage kiss, his hands already tearing at the buttons on her silk blouse. The taste of her obliterates the hint of Fred's sweetness that lingers in the air, in his mouth, and in his heart.


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