Three Months later…
“I can understand people who drink too much. I can understand people who put a note on the parking meter that says it’s broken when it’s not.” Cordelia passed her weapon to Gunn, freeing both hands to swipe at the goo soaked strands clinging to her face. “What I can’t understand are people who worship demons.”
Speckled with squirts of demon slime, their clothes disheveled, they turned into the alley leading to the back entrance of the office.
“Yeah, especially Lu-rite demons.” Gunn agreed scrunching his nose. “What kind of stink was on that thing? If you’re a prince of the underworld…bro, visit the Jacuzzi once in a while.”
“It’s sad actually. The only way some people can find a purpose in life is by becoming obsessed with demons. By the way Gunn, technically that wasn’t a Lu-rite. It was a Mu-rite, a sub-species of the Lu-rite. The male sports a small, tell-tale fin just behind the third shoulder.”
“So glad we’re not the sad people obsessed with demons.”
“We have to be a little obsessed,” Wesley offered in their defense. “We’re detectives that specialize in these things.”
“And we’re not sad. Nope, no sadness with this slaphappy trio.” Cordelia agreed, sarcasm rolling off her tongue.
“Exactly, we’re a happy and rambunctious lot if I ever saw one.” Wesley paused, hoping but not expecting a cheer of agreement. “Not going to humor me even a little, are you?”
“Hu-uh.” Cordelia and Gunn hummed in unity.
“I realize we sacrifice a great deal of our social lives, but we have to. Our work demands it.”
“You got that right. I mean, who has time for love when you’re out there doing it with the demons?” Wesley and Cordelia stopped in their tracks, casting Gunn a leery glare. “Didn’t that come out sad and wrong? Man, I need to get out more.”
“Perhaps that would be wise.” Wesley offered unlocking the back door and pulling it open for his partners to step inside.
“Maybe you shouldn’t have turned the lights on.” Cordelia suggested, rubbing a towel over her face and hair. “We definitely looked better in the dark…well at least I did.”
“Yea, but the dark didn’t cut the stink you’re wearin’ Barbie.”
“That’s true; I don’t think I’ve ever needed a bath as much as-”
A loud clang of snapping metal and the room fell instantly silent. They stood stock still glancing one to the other, three pairs of dark brows raised in anticipation.
“Go check it out.” Cordelia practically barked when the two men remained frozen in their steps.
“Cordelia, we discussed this, and agreed…you would be in charge of this particular project.”
“You guys amaze me. You’ll fight hell-beasts without a second thought, but threatened by a rat you two are the biggest scardies I’ve ever seen.”
“Man, I hate rats. With their little beady eyes…”
“…and let us not forget their beady teeth.”
“Ooo and little tails all swoosh, swoosh.”
Dumbfounded by the men’s fear of small rodents, Cordelia shook her head in apparent surrender. Having accomplished as much clean up as she could with a dry towel, she balled it into a wad dropping it into the trash can beside Wesley’s desk as she headed for the front door.
“I’m dirty, I smell, and I’m tired. If you two want to spend the rest of the night with a rat squished in a trap…fine; I’m going home.”
Cordelia spun around to unlock the front door but released a blood-curdling scream instead when the broad frame lunged through the dark entryway.
“Damn it; what are you doing here,” she hissed, muscles stiffened in a tight clamp threatening to send her tumbling to the floor.
Stilling frazzled nerves, Cordelia spun back around striking with a scolding bluster. “Which one of my brave heroes left the front door unlocked?”
“I wasn’t the last one out.”
“The office was secure when we left.”
Their denial rang out in a collective defense, one’s excuse clamoring over the other’s.
“Well, if that’s the case it begs the question-”
Her eyes drifted to their unexpected visitor. Matthew Ryan was the epitome of tall, dark and handsome; slightly messy waves of short ebony silk sprouted from his head, and cobalt eyes set deep in a perfectly chiseled face.
They had met at a most unlikely place, Caritas; when an informant suddenly turned hostile, he had intervened unaware of the club’s magical protection against violence, offering his own brand of protection.
“Matthew, why are you here?” Cordelia had known the man for barely two months, only recently feeling comfortable with their synthetic-friendly acquaintance.
“I was worried…I couldn’t reach you on your cell phone…” His explanation met with a squint of confusion he continued, “…we were supposed to chaperone Alex and Julia.”
Crap! Remembering their forgotten movie plans, confusion slid into regret. “Did they keep their date anyway?”
“No, Julia’s mother wasn’t comfortable with them going alone.”
“I’m so sorry. It’s just-we had to-”
I take it you had one of those…” He studied her disheveled state, his graze slowing to take in the odd colored splotches on her clothes and skin. “…visions.”
“Yea, it was one of those.” There was a time such an intimately personal embarrassment would have been a devastating blow; but that seemed like a long time ago, and Cordelia wasn’t sure she even remembered the girl that would have jumped through fiery hoops to avoid social humiliation. Matthew Ryan might be the real-life version of a romance novel’s paladin but his introduction in the story had come too late to offer a ride into the sunset.
The cover of night freeing him to travel above ground, he had waited until the office was empty and jimmied the lock restricting his invitation. His unethical search failing to turn up useful information, he quickly picked up their trail in time to witness their surprisingly skillful battle with the demon.
Shadowing their weary retreat, he moved as a predator shrouded in darkness, until her scream threatened to reveal his presence. He had almost jumped, pulling back at the last second as relief and recognition doused the smell of fear.
The building across the street offered a clear view of the dimly lit office, and situated on the rooftop he watched and waited, and contemplated this stranger’s place in the reinvented Angel Investigations.
He jolted upright, the incessant and irritating ring of the buzzer whirring around his head. Throwing back the covers, The Host bounced from the bed, grabbing his robe as he stomped toward the club’s main entrance.
“Alright-alright–Alright already! I’m not deaf, just not open. Come back tonight and I’ll let you in…even give you a drink on the house.”
Determined, the pestiferous intruder chimed a nauseating encore. “Jeez, keep your pants on!” Lorne wailed yanking back the locks and swinging the door open. “Well that bit of caution is about three months too late.”
Of the likely visitors his predawn, befuddled brain could conjure, this one hadn’t even made it on the list. “What do you want Angel?” Lorne asked; gold-socked feet firmly planted, his rigid form blocking the doorway.
“I need advice.” The words, low and gravelly crackled from his throat.
“I warned you for weeks you were taking the wrong path; not that you ever listened to my advice.”
“You’re supposed to help people that have lost their way.”
“You didn’t lose your way Mr. Nobody Knows My Pain. You walked away from your path, threatening anyone that tried to help you. So, I’ll ask you again; why are you here? Not just here, but in LA.”
“Please talk to me.” Angel pleaded, leaning his head against the doorjamb. “I don’t know what to do…and I’m afraid of what I might do.”
His back stiffened a notch tighter hearing the alluded warning, and Lorne relented thinking lives safer with the schizo vampire inside the violence-free sanctuary. “Come on in and take a load off.”
Lorne led the way, patting his hand against the slick surface as he rounded the table. Angel taking his cue lifted the chairs to the floor, taking a seat while his reluctant host busied himself behind the bar.
“I think you mentioned something about a drink on the house.”
“Keep your pan-” Lorne’s head jerked up, his eyes locking with the two bottomless, dark orbs darting in his direction. There was no need for further reference to the fateful event, not just yet anyway.
“I’m working on it, received a little something special with my last order.” The cork twisted from the bottle’s narrow mouth with a loud pop, and the smell of human blood, fresh and intoxicating wafted into the air.
“I don’t normally serve this particular bouquet, but I think you’ll enjoy it.” Lorne offered, plopping the glasses on the table.
Angel studied the dark, crimson liquid, cursing his watering mouth as he reached past his glass picking up Lorne’s and lifting it too his mouth. “Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll pass.”
“So Angel, what’s new with you?”
Angel shoved against the basement door forcing the rickety lock aside. The air smelled stale and dusty, and unused, an invasive stench to unnaturally keen senses. His gaze lifted to the slightly ajar door leading into the hotel, and he trudged up the steps expecting the lobby to offer an equally suffocating welcome.
“Angel Investigations; we help the hopeless.”
“Doyle filled me in on your little mission.”
Exhausted, Angel slumped against the counter as the surge of memories washed over him and closed his eyes surrendering to the frail comfort of happier moments.
“Well, as vampires go, you’re pretty cuddly. Maybe you might want to think about mixing up the black on black look.”
“One of the perks of the job. After an all-nighter of fighting the lurking evil, we get eggs.”
“Astonishing, really. Mhm-mm. Did you say something about toast?”
“However he comes, he’s not gonna get them. These people mean a lot to me.”
“I’m getting that.”
“…The message didn’t come for Angelus; it came for you…Angel. And you have to trust that whoever The Powers That Be…be-are-is…anyway, they know the difference.”
His head swooshed from side to side in a violent shake; some memories too hard to face. Angel pushed from the counter, his eyes traveling to the staircase that would lead him to the hardest memories.
The walk upstairs was a slow surrender to his grief, and Angel wondered if this was the semblance of peace God granted to sinners facing the gallows. Too miserable to fear the next life, too tired to hold on to this one.
“The good fight, yeah? You never know until you’ve been tested. I get that now.”
Angel’s knees buckled and he grabbed the handrail stumbling over the next step. “Doyle sacrificed his life for the mission.” Angel whispered, breaths huffing in heavy pants, his chest heaving as stale air filled and left dead lungs. “His sacrifice was in vain, it only added to failures I’ll never atone for.”
“Cordelia, I’m gonna fix this…Promise. I’m gonna get you back. I need you back”
He had broken his promise, failed her in the worst way, forgotten he couldn’t protect her from himself.
“You’ve made a good choice. She’ll provide a connection to the world. She’s got a very humanizing influence.”
“It wasn’t Doyle’s fault.” Angel rasped, certain no entity of grace or forgiveness would listen to him. “How could he know he was leaving Cordelia in the hands of a monster?”
It looked like any other door, commonplace along side the row of doors lining the hallway; only those who had stood on the other side could understand why it was different. His hand reached for the knob, trembling uncontrollably; and Angel clinched it into a tight fist, pressing it against his chest.
He couldn’t go in, not yet. He was too weak, too alone to face the memories that waited on the other side.
“It’s gonna be a long while until you work your way out, but I know you well enough to know you will. And I’ll be with you until you do.”
“You have to be strong enough for both of us Cordelia.” Angel turned from the closed door and walked to the end of the hall. “You have to love me enough to forgive me…” He opened the last door, “…or hate me enough to kill me,” and walked inside.