The changes began a week ago. Changes that had initially been small enough to escape notice, but weren’t small anymore. Oh no.
He claimed he was fine. He claimed his associates were driving him up the wall. He claimed he didn’t need help.
He was wrong. He knew it. They knew it. Nothing, however, could be done. The baby steps were over, the warning phase had passed. Talk of intervention came to a screeching halt because Angel couldn’t be intervened. Not now. Not anymore. He simply didn’t care now and couldn’t pretend otherwise.
He pictured them—Cordelia, Wesley, and Gunn—seated uncomfortably in the Hyperion lobby, flipping through books that did little more than pass the time. Waiting for him. Waiting for an update. Waiting until he broke.
It was slow. It was tedious. And it was doing nothing but mount tension to already-uncomfortable levels.
And the city of Los Angeles slept. The city allowed evil to fester and brew when he could not. The city looked the other way and he could not.
If he allowed himself to act like the city, the city would suffer. And despite all its shortcomings, he couldn’t allow that.
So here he was, smashing through the top story window of the law offices of Wolfram and Hart.
The group of lawyers inside Lindsey McDonald’s office barely blinked. It didn’t matter—surprise wasn’t the objective. Angel saw his query and moved, not interested in the squabbling around him. In two seconds flat, he had Lindsey by the scruff of the collar and was an instant away from tearing off the bastard’s head.
“Dru and Darla,” he hissed. “Where are they?”
There were many men who would have pissed themselves to be on the business end of Angel’s fangs, but Lindsey was not one of them.
Angel found this irritating.
A throat cleared from behind, which he found even more irritating. But Angel refused to drag his eyes away from Lindsey. His grip was firm and uncompromising. Such was a man pushed to the edge. It was time these lawyers learned firsthand who they were dealing with.
“Angel,” the man behind greeted. “I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure. Holland Manners.”
Angel’s mouth twitched. “I’d be careful who you offer that hand to, Mr. Manners. You might lose it.” He broke out into a purely sadistic smile. “Isn’t that right, Lindsey?”
“There are worst things to lose, aren’t there?” Lindsey spat in turn.
That was it. Angel shoved him to the wall, then pivoted to address Holland Manners. “So. You’re the one pulling the strings around here?”
Holland Manners, upon first glance, was hardly a man to strike fear into anyone’s heart. He stood promptly, business-like, with a small smile. The look on his face was pleasantly disarming. “A few of them,” Manners conceded. “I am Division Head of Special Projects.”
There was not one part of that sentence Angel liked. “Special projects like Darla?”
Manners’s smile remained candid—chocolate laced with poison. Had the man been anything but human, he would have found himself absent a head. “Oh, Darla’s just a tool,” he explained good-naturedly. “Means to an end. You’re the project.”
The words were barely off his lips before the office doors opened and the trained personnel who dealt with unwanted vampiric visitors piled inward, complete with rifles equipped with stakes as makeshift bayonets. Angel didn’t move, didn’t flinch. He kept his gaze trained on the self-proclaimed Division Head of Special Projects, daring the other man to blink. “I can crush the life out of you before they even lift a finger.”
Holland simply smiled. “Oh, I’m sure you can. But you won’t.”
“You don’t kill humans.”
Angel bit back a snarl. “You don’t qualify. You set things in motion, play your little games up here in your glass and chrome tower, and people die. Innocent people die.”
Manners’s eyes twinkled as and he leaned forward. “And yet, I just can’t seem to care.” Another blinding smile. “But you do. And while you’re making threats, wasting time, smashing windows, your girls are out painting the town red, red, red.”
“Where?” Not that Angel expected an answer, but it never hurt to ask.
“Well, that would be telling. In any case, you might want to hurry.” Holland’s voice changed just a fraction, at last allowing the first hint of a threat to whisper through. It was near imperceptible, but there nonetheless. “So many lives in the balance, waiting for their champion to save them.”
Angel glanced at one of the bayonets. “Mhmm. As if you’re just gonna let me walk out of here, huh?”
“As a matter of fact, I am,” Holland replied. “You misunderstand us, Angel. We don’t want you dead. Yet. If we did, you wouldn’t be standing here.” He pivoted to the security team, practically bouncing on his feet. “Would you please escort our guest out of the building?” Manners turned back to the vampire. “I would walk you out myself, but I’m running a little late for a wine tasting at my home.
“And,” Manners added after he had turned to leave. “Just so we’re clear on the matter, you’re not invited.”
While Holland didn’t seem to care what happened to Angel after he was out of sight, Lindsey McDonald all but buzzed with excitement. He followed the team down the halls, made inane commentary, and was all but skipping when the familiar flicker of red and blue greeted them on the street.
Angel wanted to rip his spleen out.
“I’ll send you a bill for the window and the shirt,” Lindsey offered with a gesture to the torn fabric resting half-shredded across his chest.
Angel didn’t miss a beat. “Yeah, you do that,” he agreed, not flinching as he was manhandled and cuffed. “And after I stop Darla and Dru, I might come back and pay you in person.”
“Yeah,” Lindsey replied, “go do your little champion thing and then come back and see me…if you make bail.” He turned to one of the men in uniform. “Give him a nice holding cell, officers. With a window. Southern exposure preferred.” He didn’t even look to see if his whimsical request was heard. “The firm might not want you dead…but I’m cool with it.”
And that was it. A matter of time now. Time and cunning. More time wasted while lives tangled in a tantalizing view of what could be as opposed to what was. Darla and Drusilla, destroying everything that crossed their path apart. There was no telling how much damage there would be when all was said and done. Drusilla’s black imagination. Darla’s newly-returned bloodlust. Too much balancing the scales. Wolfram and Hart had all the pieces.
And now Angel’s true family was out there—dancing through the town. Doing something he could not. They were needling him slowly, patching into something darker than either could even begin to imagine.
If they kept asking for Angelus, he feared they might get him.
For now, though, Angel found himself in a patrol car next to an irritated Kate Lockley.
“Perfect,” he murmured.
Time wasting. Darla and Drusilla had all they needed to turn Los Angeles into their personal playground.
Wolfram and Hart. Always back to Wolfram and Hart.
The atmosphere in Lindsey’s office had changed very little in the course of ten minutes, except that Holland Manners was sitting behind the desk.
Lindsey stopped in the doorway, knowing better than to enter uninvited, even if the name on the door was his.
“And how is our friend?”
“The police won’t keep him long,” Lindsey replied.
Manners smiled, motioning for him to enter. “Long enough, let’s hope. Ms. Yuell was kind enough to inform me the mage arrived ten minutes ago.”
Lindsey perked his eyebrows and stepped over the threshold. “Did he?”
“Mages are impeccably punctual.” The man spoke as though he considered it universal knowledge. One never knew with Holland.
“Will he require our presence during the ritual?”
“No, no. Our guest has his own means.” Manners turned sharply, hands crisscrossed behind him. “Are you excited, Lindsey? Surely you can appreciate the leap we are about to take.”
Lindsey’s lips quirked. “Yes sir,” he retorted. “The Order of Aurelius will serve as a very powerful asset.”
“Only Angelus does not make the Order complete.” That came from the doorway, where stood Lilah Morgan. For a woman so on the outs with her status, she portrayed more confidence than Lindsey would ever give her credit for. “According to our files, the youngest member of the Order is still alive… Well, not alive, I suppose, if you’re a purist for terminology.”
Holland smiled. “Lilah. So kind of you to join us.”
She did not even bother to nod—an oddity for someone always on the prowl for advancement. It was nearly criminal to allow a superior such as Holland to go unacknowledged, and she was likely one of the few who could get away with it. “William the Bloody, circa 1880, sired by Drusilla and ‘raised’, so to speak, by our man himself.”
“Ah, yes. William the Bloody.” Manners was still smiling. “Goes by another name now, does he not?”
“Adapted a nickname a brief time following his siring,” Lilah verified. “Took a while to catch, but I managed to dig it out of our more ambiguous files. He’s called himself Spike for over a century now. According to his most recent activities—with the assistance of a few government files that fell into our possession—have centered around his hunting and killing his kind in our neighboring Hellmouth.”
“Sunnydale,” Lindsey supplied unnecessarily.
“Last year, a chip was planted in the subject’s head by a since-allegedly disbanded group of special-ops called the Initiative,” Lilah continued as though Lindsey hadn’t spoken. “There have been rumors to support a restoration of said special-ops in South America, but nothing concrete has reached our intelligence. The subject, known to the Initiative as Hostile Seventeen, works as a sort of demonic neutralizer.”
“Meaning?” Lindsey prodded.
“He can’t attack humans, or harm them in any way without receiving an intense neurological shock.” She paused for effect. “His handicap has rendered him more or less a participant in the Hellmouth’s struggle against their various local scares.”
“What is the less, might I ask?” Holland Manners asked.
“As you can imagine, the demon community hasn’t responded well to the subject’s change of alliance, though his actions can be mostly attributed to monetary compensation.” She stopped again. “William the Bloody would be a powerful benefit to the firm, given what I found in my reading. Aside from completing the remaining and, more importantly, most acknowledged members of the Order, he has also killed two slayers in his time, exhibiting cunning and strength. Recruiting him would give us an unspeakable advantage.”
At that, Lindsey stepped forward. Even though the question sounded insidious on his tongue, he felt the need to ask. “Recruit him to do what? Throw rocks at our adversaries?”
“Wolfram and Hart has the means required to cure the subject of unwanted side-effects.” Lilah smirked, and unlike Holland, it wasn’t pleasant. “I believe you knew that. Besides, our two boys aren’t exactly known for getting along. Should Angelus’s contract with the firm stand on shaky ground, it would be handy to have someone like Spike at our disposal.”
Holland smiled once more, though he now seemed genuinely pleased. “Very good, Lilah,” he commended. “Perhaps after Angelus and Darla have become reacquainted, we can send a team to Sunnydale and collect our commodity.”
Ah, a loophole. Lindsey loved loopholes. “If I may,” he intervened. “I believe that it might be more beneficial in the department of influence if someone he is familiar—even comfortable—with is the one to extend the invitation. According to my reading, he was involved with Drusilla for well over a century. Perhaps she would serve as the greatest means of persuasion.”
“Wow, Lindsey,” Lilah cooed, “no flashcards?”
“I did my homework, too,” he retorted.
“Now children, no squabbling.” Manners clucked his tongue. “I, for one, believe Lindsey made an excellent observation.”
Lindsey smirked. Lilah rolled her eyes.
“Yes,” Holland continued, “I believe we should do that immediately.”
Lindsey nodded, his heart leaping into his throat. “And Darla should go with her.”
A still beat rang through the office.
“Drusilla is a loose cannon,” he hurried to explain. “If this project is as important as Lilah suggests, its success will depend on its players. Drusilla will search for fun, but Darla will be sure that the job is accomplished.”
He didn’t think it would be appropriate to add that he wanted Darla as far from Angelus as possible.
Holland had to know the true motive—he’d lectured Lindsey on the benefit of healthy relationships as a hopeful deterrent to his fascination with Darla. However, in that second, it was as though that conversation had not taken place. There was nothing but the cool, methodical puppeteer of the Special Projects Division. Holland Manners might know Lindsey wanted Darla out of Los Angeles to keep her away from Angelus, even briefly, but he also saw the wisdom behind his reasoning.
“All very well,” Manners said. “Yes. As soon as all is settled, we will send Darla and Drusilla to Sunnydale to collect the last member of the Order. I do wish it could be sooner, but Angelus’s addition to the fold will require a period of adjustment. After we have Spike in our possession, we will see him into neurological surgery to remove his…dilemma.”
Lilah shifted uneasily. “What about the Slayer?”
“According to our research, the subject has been working alongside the Slayer for the length of his condition.”
“Voluntarily?” Lindsey asked. Considering Angel’s sordid past with Buffy Summers, it would positively kill him if another someone—another undead someone—had managed to wheedle his way into the Slayer’s heart. It was a long shot, but those were known on occasion to pay off.
“No. I believe I mentioned that he works in turn for money,” Lilah replied. “But you forget this particular Slayer has a likeness for forming bonds with vampires, our residential soulboy acting as a case in point.”
Holland pursed his lips. “Yes, this does deserve some consideration. Ms. Summers is the longest surviving Slayer in history, am I right?”
“The third,” Lilah said.
“Splendid. This might well work to our benefit. If things with the mage do not proceed as well as hoped, we can resort to more…primal means to extracting Angel’s soul.”
Lindsey fought the temptation to roll his eyes. “What are you going to do?” he muttered. “Lock them naked in a room and play Barry White until they can’t help but screw? Angel might not be a model for self-restraint, but I think he has more control than your average teenager.”
Holland was not amused. “I do not appreciate that sort of humor.”
“Good idea, though,” Lilah added with a smirk.
“Oh, come on. Angel knows his limitations. He wouldn’t dare.”
“I do not anticipate requiring the…shall we say, services of the Slayer in this matter. The mage is highly skilled in such forms of retraction.” Manners’s smile returned easily. “Darla and Drusilla will collect the Slayer on their trip.”
“Are you expecting her to just”—Lindsey gestured—“go along because our girls ask nicely?”
“Don’t be silly. I would never presume to ask the girls to ask nicely.” Holland’s leer intensified. “And certainly a slayer who has survived this long would not be taken of her own will. Oh no. I foresee a great amount of force in obtaining what we want. And as you know, such endeavors have never troubled our firm.”
Lindsey glanced down. There wasn’t much that troubled the firm at all, the murder of children notwithstanding. A familiar sickness churned in his stomach. “Of course.”
“Now then.” Holland’s voice turned chipper. “We best be off. Wouldn’t want to leave our guests waiting.”
“No,” Lindsey agreed. “We wouldn’t want that.”
There were many things he was finding himself not to want.
Not that it mattered, of course. The project was everything.
The pieces were set, and it was time to move.
An hour ago, no one would have seen this coming.
They hadn’t made a move thus far—had done nothing but circle the cellar several times, sprouting threats and working the crowd like the sick buildup to the grand finale. While the two vampires had done nothing more than compliment the ivory of Lilah Morgan’s skin and address Holland’s foolish offering of a massacre, no one could doubt their intention. They were looking for a party, and they had found one.
Darla had stopped in front of Lindsey. Of everyone present, he was the most indifferent. He stood solemnly, watching her through hooded eyes. It was not an exercise of ego. He had resigned himself to his fate the minute they waltzed through the door.
And Darla knew this. He knew she knew. She’d caught sight of him and dismissed whatever she had said to Holland—something about being able to sense the fear clouding the atmosphere. And now she was in front of him. Examining him.
She was so goddamned beautiful. If he had to die, at least he died with a hell of a view.
“But not from you,” Darla told him. “Do you know what I’m getting from you, Lindsey?” She leaned inward, fangs skimming his throat. “Nothing. Why aren’t you afraid?”
How was he supposed to answer? There was nothing to say that she couldn’t figure for herself. Only that looking at her now, even as she bore her true face, he couldn’t think of anywhere that he would rather be. That likely made him either another sap-heart fool in love or out of his mind, but he wasn’t too concerned with either possibility.
“I don’t know,” he replied honestly.
Darla’s brows perked. “You could die here,” she informed him. “Chances are you will.”
“And you don’t care.”
“I care,” he said. But that wasn’t entirely true. “I guess I just don’t mind.”
There was a laugh from behind. Holland, smiling still to his credit, spread his hands diplomatically. “No one is going to die here.” That seemed highly unlikely. “This is just a friendly get-together amongst colleagues. We’re all on the same…” He drifted off when he became aware of the other—Drusilla—dancing behind him. “…side.”
Darla ignored Holland, instead glancing around the chamber with a sigh. “I love this room. Dru, honey, in our new digs…” She turned sharply to join her companion, wrapping one arm around her new sire and another around Holland. “We have to get a people cellar.”
However, Drusilla wasn’t listening. Her eyes had drifted, adapting the same blaze she spurned every time another vision attacked her fragile mind. “Something has changed,” she said, tearing herself away. She crossed her arms and began to sway rhythmically to a song only she could hear. “He’s calling. Oh…Daddy’s home.”
Yes, he was. Lindsey glanced to the doorway, where stood Angel.
Darla did not miss a beat. She twisted and flashed her former lover a smirk. If she noticed his blank expression, she ignored it. Angel had never been one to show much emotion, true, but he now appeared emptier than ever. Hollow. As though the man in his body had jumped ship, taking the demon with him.
“Angelus,” Darla announced. "Here for the tasting?”
“Look what we have for you,” Drusilla said in offering. She received no reaction, however, and her spirits fell on cue. “It’s not Daddy. It’s never Daddy.” She flashed her canines and hissed. “It’s the Angel-beast.”
Then something changed.
And at last, Lindsey’s blood ran cold.
“Precious,” he drawled, stepping inside. “That is where you’re wrong.”
At first, Lindsey didn’t know how to react. He hadn’t anticipated celebrating Angelus’s return, but at the moment, despite the healthy rush of fear now flooding his veins, he wouldn’t have traded anything for the front-row seat he had in viewing Holland’s face.
Complete and utter disbelief.
“Angelus!” Holland greeted hurriedly. “I’m so glad the mage reached you in time. You see, Wolfram and Hart orchestrated your—”
“You’ve only started talking and I’m bored already,” Angelus drawled. His eyes, however, had not abandoned Darla’s. She was standing motionless, absolutely dumbfound. It had to come as a shock, of course. Over a century had passed since she’d last seen him. “What was that you said about a tasting, darling?” he asked with a grin. “I gotta tell you, I don’t think I’ve ever been this hungry.”
Darla just stared.
Then, slowly, she smiled. It was like her. She understood, and she wouldn’t fall at his feet. Her victory was small but powerful, and it rippled through the walls like a roll of thunder.
“Of course,” she said, turning to Holland. “Poor dear’s been living on pig’s blood for far too long. I believe the least you can do is offer him a decent meal.”
Drusilla bounded up and down gleefully. “Daddy!”
But Angelus didn’t reply as he approached Holland Manners. His human features melted away, and he grinned at the old man’s horror before lowering his mouth to his ear.
“Make a wish,” he whispered.
Then bit down.
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