Upstairs in his office, Angel closed the book slowly, blocking the page from view if not from memory. It was one of several books he had about vampires. He'd never bothered to read the entries about himself after all, he knew the story better than any chronicler, and it didn't take much to bring back the memories he'd been cursed to carry with him.
He tried to remember the lone glimpse he'd had of himself as a human, to match it with the face that stared mockingly at him from the page. He picked up the amulet from where he'd laid it on the bookcase and read the fading inscription again. "May evil die a thousand deaths." He had not suspected that the Powers That Be had such a keen sense of irony.
He went back to his desk and opened Wesley's book to the marked page. The entry beside the sketch still raised more questions than it answered. Who had made it in the first place, and why? If its only purpose was to kill demons, surely there were simpler ways to go about it. It bespoke a great deal of personal hatred to conjure a magic that would create such customized nightmares. He wondered if the lawyers at Wolfram and Hart truly understood what they were doing when they sent it.
Suddenly he was aware of someone else in the room. Angelus was leafing through the vampire book, smiling at the memories. "Well, I have to say, I'm impressed. Who would have guessed a bunch of third rate historians could get so much of my story straight?" He smirked. "Still, they seem to have left out a few of the best parts, don't you think?"
Angel sat down behind the desk, grateful for the scant barrier it put between them. "I didn't read it that carefully."
Angelus put the book down and sat on a corner of the desk. "Well of course not. What was I thinking? You remember it all, thanks to those gypsies. Every face, right? Mmmm, so many." He grinned condescendingly. "If only you'd give in and savor the memories, it wouldn't be such torture, you know. You did enjoy it. Part of you still does."
Angel flinched away from Angelus' words. Suddenly a continent didn't seem a safe barrier. "No. I'm still a vampire. But I'm not like you."
Angelus shrugged. "We can't all be perfect." Absently he began rearranging the books on Angel's desk. "Is it really worth it, having a soul? It doesn't look like much fun. All this brooding in the dark, tortured by guilt, trying to atone."
Angel stared at his other self and felt an odd displacement, as if he suddenly saw himself through his victims' eyes. "Better than being a monster."
Angelus laughed. "Why? Everyone's still afraid of you. Every time you show up in Sunnydale, they all think you're evil. Wesley and Cordelia chain you to the bed at the drop of a hat." He chuckled. "It must be such fun for them, never knowing if one night when they show up at the office, instead brooding guilt-stricken Angel they'll be face to face with conscience-free Angel and end up as a midnight snack."
"They can take care of themselves."
"But sooner or later, chains won't be enough. They'll have to kill you. To protect themselves. Like this."
Angelus reached for the cord to the window shade and yanked it hard. A solid block of light fell across Angel. He cried out in pain and tried to get away from the light, but Angelus opened the other shades one after another, and there was nowhere to run. He fell to the floor, writhing in the searing light. He burst into flames that burned him to dust.
Angel awoke sprawled on the floor of his office. He bit back the scream that was still trying to escape his throat and looked up hastily at the windows. The shades were still tightly closed, but there was sunlight behind them. He stumbled to his feet and fled the office.
In his haste he collided with Cordelia at the head of the stairs and nearly sent them both tumbling down the steps. He grabbed her arm to keep her from falling and steadied himself against the railing. "Sorry."
"What's wrong?" she asked. "I mean, besides nightmare deaths and severe eye bags."
He glanced apprehensively at the all of the office windows glowing with restrained sunlight. "It isn't . . . safe for me up here . . . while there's daylight outside."
"Well, then, get down to the bat cave, for goodness sake." She moved out of his way and he started down, but somehow he lost his footing and ended up on his tail bone half way down the first flight.
"Ow," he complained mildly.
Cordelia hurried down to help him up. "OK. Come on." She put an arm around his waist and walked with him down the rest of the stairs. He sank into the sofa.
She stood staring at him for a moment as if wondering whether it was safe to leave him there. He stared back, remembering what Angelus had said. "Cordelia . . . why are you still here?"
She looked down at herself. "What? I know this is going on two days in the same outfit, but "
"No, I mean . . . why are you still . . . I can't pay you very much, and this job is dangerous, not just because of the demons and monsters but . . . any time I could . . ."
"Lose your soul, turn into a class A jerk and eat me and Wesley for breakfast?"
He looked away. "Yeah."
She shrugged. "No job is perfect." He waited, needing more. "Well, there's the whole fighting evil thing. It's good to be on the right team. What other job gives you the chance to rescue people from sea monsters? And then there's . . . well." She stopped, and looked him in the eye. "Angel, I believe in you. Sure, I worry about perfect happiness coming along and turning you into a cruel vicious homicidal psychopath, but . . . he's not you." Her brows inched together. "Which is why we've got to break this spell."
He shook his head. "Cordelia . . . I know this is hard for you and Wesley, too. But you've got to let me go through with it."
Cordelia pursed her lips. "Just because you're meant to have it doesn't mean you're meant to let it do this to you."
He sighed. How could he explain it to her? "Have you ever done something that really hurt somebody? That you couldn't bear to think about afterward?" She nodded slowly. "I live with a thousand memories like that every day. You know what kind of damage I did in just a few months in Sunnydale. Multiply that by a hundred and forty years." He paused. "In a way its almost a relief to finally be punished for it. It means I might someday be forgiven."
She nodded, though she didn't look at all happy about it. She looked around. "So, um where is it?"
It was odd, but he knew without thinking that the amulet was still upstairs in his office. He could probably find it with his eyes closed, as if it were bound to him by some mystical tether. And he didn't feel comfortable with it out of his sight. He gestured back up the stairs.
"It's up in the office. Would you bring it to me? I don't want it to get lost." She accepted that and hurried back up the stairs. The sofa cushions were enormously comfortable. If he didn't move, he was going to fall asleep again. His eyelids weighed a hundred pounds . . . .
He jerked awake and found Cordelia standing in front of him with the amulet in her hand, staring at him anxiously. Did she have a stake as well? He watched her uncertainly.
"Hey! I'm not one of your evil dream people. Here." She handed him the amulet.
He took it from her and laid it on the sofa beside him.
"OK, well, Wesley went out to scour rare book shops for . . . rare books. I guess you don't have any sea dragon counterspell books handy. He should be back any minute, but I need to run a few errands before five. Are you going to be all right here for a minute? You're not going to fall down any more stairs or fry yourself in the sun again?"
He nodded with the best smile he could manage. "I'll be OK. Cordelia . . . don't worry. It'll work out, somehow." But it didn't come out sounding very confident, and she didn't look terribly reassured.
Cordelia held the check from the agency in her hand just a little longer before giving it to the bank teller to deposit. She had dreamed of this moment for so long she supposed it was likely to have been a disappointment in any case, but somehow even the job itself had seemed anticlimactic amidst all the preparations for trying to free the sea dragon. Well, now she had money, at least for a little while. Now she could pay her taxes. And shouldn't it be some consolation to know that if anything happened to Angel, she had a brilliant career ahead of her in the acting business?
Unfortunately all she could think about was how bleak her life would be if Angel Investigations suddenly disappeared from it. How exactly had a vampire with a soul, who she was certainly not in love with, taken such hold of her heart?
She shrugged off the question and considered what to do next. Angel was clearly convinced that this thousand death thing was something he had to do. She liked to tease him now and then about being all brooding and tortured, but obviously the whole guilt thing was very real to him.
But if he was determined to suffer, couldn't there at least be air conditioning? And if things started getting out of hand, was there any way to stop him from harming himself?
If nothing else, at least money did create certain options.
When she entered the office all the lights were on, and the air was blessedly cool and fresh.
"We got the power back," Wesley said unnecessarily. He looked at her. "And since the electric company is not usually very cooperative unless the bill is paid . . ."
She shrugged. "So I floated Angel a small loan. At a very reasonable rate of interest," she added, having just thought of it.
"I take it you got the money from your acting job."
"Yeah. Good thing too, because we're not likely to get paid this week."
Wesley shook his head. "This has gone far beyond a job. This is a friend in trouble. Fortunately, I have a little saved," he added.
She nodded. "Look what else I bought." She pulled her prize from the bag. Wesley inspected it dubiously.
"A tranquilizer gun? Certainly you aren't expecting to take down the sea dragon with this."
"No, no," she said impatiently. "Angel."
He stared at her with a baffled expression. Then the light bulb came on.
"We can't chain him to the bed again," she explained. "He really would go crazy. But if he tries to pull another barbeque stunt "
" we have some way to stop him," he finished. "Good thinking." He unloaded the cartridges expertly, and her worries about figuring out how to operate it vanished. He peered at the label. "We'll probably need something stronger than this, though . . ."
"Did you find what you wanted at the bookstores?" she asked.
He pointed to a new stack of a dozen volumes. "Some promising leads on the sea dragon. A few possibilities on the amulet. And I put in a call to Giles to see if he can find anything that would help."
Cordelia nodded. She stared at the stack and felt her head spin. "We'd better not leave him alone, but one of us has got to get some sleep."
"Right." Wesley considered. "I'll take the first watch. I think I can last a few more hours."
Cordelia nodded and grabbed her purse. "I'll be back soon," she said.
Angel sat hunched on the day bed with his elbows on his knees and his forehead resting on the heels of his hands, letting the soaring notes of desperate hope in Mahler's Resurrection wash over him. He heard Wesley make several trips from the elevator to the kitchen table, but didn't look up.
Then the notes were gone and the needle was scratching at the middle of the record. Finally it stopped. He looked up to see Wesley closing the turntable case. Angel waited to see if he was wearing the amulet.
Wesley must have seen fear in his eyes, because he spread his hands to show that they were empty. "No stakes. I'm not here to kill you. This isn't a dream."
Angel let his shoulders slump. "I can't tell any more," he said. "What's real and what's not." He met Wesley's eyes. "You're pretty handy with a cross bow," he said matter-of-factly.
"I'm sorry," Wesley said. It seemed strange for him to apologize for something he hadn't actually done, but perhaps he didn't know what else to say.
Angel looked past him at the table piled with books and the tranquilizer gun sitting within easy reach beside them. Wesley followed his gaze without comment. There was no need to ask what Wesley's intentions were, or what the gun was for. Angel dropped his head back into his hands.
"Put it on again," he said, and Wesley complied.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." Angel hesitated, trying to recall how long it had been. Days, years . . . centuries? "It has been . . . two hundred years since my last confession," he finished hesitantly.
"Tell me your sins, my son."
He tried to remember. How had he sinned? The answer broke over him like a damn bursting under winter floods. He waded through layer upon layer of memories, helpless to confess so much evil, so much cruelty, so much hatred. Where had it all come from? Where had it all begun? "I wanted to see the world," he said haltingly. "I wanted my father to love me."
No one answered. Suddenly he knew that there was no one listening, no one to hear him, no one to absolve him. The God he had mocked had long since abandoned him. He stumbled blindly from the confessional, pursued by a shadow of his own making. It chased him through the darkened streets, in and out of doorways, barns, and taverns. He staggered, gasping for breath. It cornered him in a dark alley.
The finger knife bit slowly into his cheek, slicing down, then across. Blood welled from the cuts, dripping down his jaw. The hideous face smiled at him. "Too bad your sins will never be forgiven now. You always said, family blood is the sweetest . . . Father." Penn bit deeply into his neck and slowly his life drained away. Discarded like an empty sack, he fell to the earth.
Angel awoke with a cry and his hand flew to his neck. Such a terrible way to die. Poetically just, certainly . . . but . . . always before he had died as a vampire. What was happening?
He stared down at the amulet, but it gave him no answers. If he cried out to the universe, would anyone hear?
He felt Wesley's eyes on him, but this was not Wesley's burden. He wrapped both hands around the amulet and held it to his chest. It was meant for him, it was bound to him, and it felt more real than anything else in the room. No priest could give him penance, but the fates had given him this. And if it took a thousand deaths to earn the barest breath of grace, it would be worth it.
Angel sat on a ledge on the roof of the building with the night breeze softly brushing his face. He looked out over the lights of the city, always moving, slowly pulsing like the heartbeat of some giant creature. Beyond the tallest buildings, the ocean rocked in its ceaseless motion, and in it a sea dragon woke hungry. How many other demons prowled the streets where the lights didn't reach? How many vampires fed on the innocent tonight? And how many humans with souls preyed on each other for money and power?
His meditations were interrupted as Wesley burst through the door. "Angel, I've got it!" He hurried across the roof to where Angel sat. "All we have to do is a simple dissipation spell, and the energy of the amulet will be nullified. It will cease to have any power over you." He shook his head with relief. "It was there all the time. I don't know why I didn't see it sooner."
Angel took a deep breath and looked Wesley in the eye. "No."
Wesley back stared at him. "Angel, you can't be serious."
"I am." Finally committed to this Herculean labor of endurance, he felt a curious sense of peace.
Wesley pointed to the city. "But what about all the people who are dying out there? You have to help them."
"I wish I could. But I can't."
"This is absurd. You're not thinking rationally. After everything you've been through, I can hardly blame you, but this is no time for stoicism. We have got to destroy that amulet." He lifted the tranquilizer gun. "I'm sorry."
Angelus appeared behind him. "Let me take care of this temptation for you, brother." Before Wesley could react, Angelus casually snapped his neck.
Angel stared in horror. Peace and certainty vanished. Angelus stepped over the body, brushing off his hands. "There. Can't have him stealing away your precious penance."
Shock robbed Angel of speech. He stared at Wesley's body.
"Hey, don't worry about it. He was just one more you couldn't save." Angelus paused. "But he was right, you know. It is pretty selfish of you to put your own redemption ahead of people's lives."
He was falling down a long, long hole with no bottom. Angelus lifted a loaded crossbow.
"Well, no matter. If you've made up your mind, who am I to argue? After all, I don't have a soul. What do I know about guilt?" He pulled the trigger and the bolt shot straight through Angels' heart. He returned to dust.
Angel awoke to a sense of quiet despair. The dream was so real it took him a full minute to realize that none of it had actually happened.
The room was silent as a tomb. Angel pushed himself to his feet and went to the kitchen to reassure himself that Wesley was still alive. He was asleep at the table, snoring softly. Angel leaned over to look at the titles of his new books. They looked like sea dragon research for the most part, but there were several Welsh volumes as well.
Angelus' words burned in his heart like acid. Was it selfish to desire redemption? By giving in to the amulet's magic, was he somehow sacrificing other people's lives to save his own soul? If Wesley found some way to free him from this purgatory, could he turn his back on the Powers That Be and give himself up to the darkness as some kind of ultimate sacrifice? But how would he fight evil, how could he save lives without help?
He was empty of answers, shaped like a man but made only of dust. What did the universe want from him? His soul ached worse than his body, struggling with questions that would trouble a saint. Of course, no saint would ever be faced with a dilemma like his. His heart cried out for peace, but he hadn't the faintest idea where to find it.
Finally he went to his bedroom and took a blanket from his bed, then draped it gently over Wesley's sleeping form. He went to the study but found he couldn't sit still lest the confusion of his thoughts overwhelm him. He got up again and walked from the study to the bedroom. Then back again. As long as he kept walking, he didn't have to think.
Finally hearing the door open in the office upstairs, Wesley put down his book and hurried to intercept Cordelia.
She entered shamefaced. "I'm so sorry," she said. "I set my alarm but I must have turned it off in my sleep." She glanced down the stairs. "Is everything OK? How is he holding up?"
Better than I am popped into Wesley's head, but this was no time for them to start snipping at one another. He decided not to mention his own short lapse. "As well as can be expected, I suppose," he said. "I'm exhausted just from watching him pace. Then about three hours ago he started cleaning."
"Dusting, sweeping, scrubbing, polishing and not missing the corners, either. I guess it helps keep him from falling asleep. I'm tempted to let him loose on my place."
"Then . . . he hasn't been dreaming?"
Wesley shook his head. "No, he still succumbs to exhaustion every now and then. But he never sleeps longer than three or four minutes. At least he hasn't tried to harm himself." He shifted the tranquilizer gun in his hand.
She sighed. "How much longer do you think is this going to last?"
"I don't know. A thousand is a much larger number than one would suspect. And none of the books I bought make even the tiniest mention of the amulet. There's one more bookstore I could try if they are open today."
"What about the sea dragon? Have you found a counter spell yet?"
"Yes. That wasn't too difficult, once I knew what to look for. But I'm afraid we have a problem."
"A sea dragon's gold isn't just ordinary treasure. It's cursed. Anyone who touches it will die."
"Oh dear wait. Isn't that good news? Wolfram and Hart could stand to lose a few employees."
"I'm fairly certain they know about the curse and the way to counteract it. It's a pretty complicated spell, though. It takes six days, and it has to be performed before the gold can be removed from the water."
He watched her count backwards in her head. It took her a minute, but then her eyes widened. "They're almost done."
"By tomorrow I think they'll have it. I don't know what they'll do about the sea dragon they won't need it alive anymore. And it's going to be out of its mind with rage. If they don't kill it, it's going to do a lot more than snatch a few people from piers. What's more, I really hate to think about trying to fight Wolfram and Hart once they have all that gold in their coffers."
She looked down the stairs. "What about . . . ?"
"He can't do it," Wesley said, shaking his head. "I haven't even told him."
"Wait a minute. You aren't thinking that we could . . . ?"
"It may be the only alternative."
Suddenly they heard a crash from the basement, followed by a sploosh of water. Wesley bolted down the stairs with Cordelia at his back and found Angel sitting on the kitchen floor next to an overturned chair in a puddle of soapy water, rubbing his shin.
He looked up as they came rushing toward him. "It's OK. I just tripped."
Wesley nodded with relief and lowered the tranquilizer gun. Cordelia was staring at him, shocked. "God, you actually look like a walking undead person. Or, well, a sitting on the floor undead person." He stared back at her miserably. "Which is . . . probably not what you need to hear right now," she added.
Angel retrieved a brush from his half empty bucket and started in on the floor, ignoring the fact that his clothing was soaked. Wesley handed Cordelia the tranquilizer gun, and mouthed her a silent "good luck."
Cordelia righted the chair, then took one look at Wesley's stack of books and sighed. She went to the sink and found another brush, then knelt to join Angel on the floor at the edge of the soapy puddle.
He eyed the brush in her hand. "That one is for dishes," he said raggedly.
"I'll buy you a new
promised, and started scrubbing.
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