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AS TIME GOES BY (part one)

The Hyperion Hotel is again accepting guests.

So much has changed, these last few years -- the four years since the Venareth -- and not for the better. Wars are being waged and lost, first by humans and now, by demons and vampires as well. Great cities have crumbled, once-mighty nations are falling. Creatures that dare not walk in the light of day threaten to command the world at night. The time of decision is drawing near, but the vast majority of the population (human and inhuman alike) is helpless to affect it, can only stand and watching it coming, and hope not to be drawn down in its wake.

But some things remain the same. People continue about much of the business of life -- eating, drinking, fighting, loving -- with even more intensity than before. Some nations remain safe (Australia, sheltered by wide, bright seas, is best), and people will do anything to travel to these harbors. The natural and supernatural worlds know far more of each other these days, but contact is still largely negotiated through the same mysterious channels.

And the Hyperion is open for business. It looks much as it did when it was first built -- busy, stylish, bustling with energy and false glamour. Instead of movie-star photos, the walls are decorated with weapons from centuries and civilizations long past; now they are as purely ornamental as the movie stars once were. An old grandfather clock sits in one corner, but it has not been wound in a very long time. The chimes would no doubt be lost in the cacophony within, the bustle of human and demonic voices as they laugh and drink and talk and plot and scheme and pray.

Because, in its own unexpected fashion, the Hyperion remains the last help for the hopeless in the vast, violent wasteland of L.A.

**

Nov. 16, 2007

On the crowded, noisy, gray stretch of road still known -- perhaps much more aptly -- as Sunset Boulevard, an angry man said, "Watch it, there!"

The Velga demons didn't watch it -- they shoved their way past the two men on the corner. Four years ago, those men would have run screaming at the very sight of something like a Velga demon; now they were merely annoyed. Compared to the Cuzfau beast that was sleeping in the bus stop (and might awaken any second), the demons were no great worry.

One of the Velga demons barked at the others; those few in the crowd who spoke Velga knew that they were speculating about whether any of their friends or enemies might be a thief. As the demons jumped off the curb, mud splattered all over the skirt of an older woman whose hair was swept up in a bun. She paid the mud no mind as she continued whispering to her companion, a Hevreth demon. "Morgan can be bought. I've heard it said so many times -- it's worth the risk."

The Hevreth shook his head mournfully, chivalrously stepping around her back to shelter her from future splatters of mud. "That one -- she doesn't need money. You can buy her with other things, but as neither of us are young and handsome men, we cannot pay her price."

"But there must be a way," the woman whispered desperately. "There must --"

The Hevreth half-collided with another couple, these both human; everyone briefly nodded apologies at each other before continuing on their ways.

The human man grasped his wife's hand a little harder and whispered, "Remember when everyone in L.A. used to drive?"

"Never thought I'd miss a traffic jam. Then again, I guess these sidewalks count as a traffic jam. But it's worse when you can smell the other commuters." She looked up at her husband, then slowed her steps. "Are you tired, Wesley? We can rest if you need to --"

"I'm quite all right, Fred," Wesley said. He smiled at her, almost convincingly. Fred smiled and kept walking, but she dropped her eyes from his face to stare down at his pale, thin hand in her own.

A vampire came striding past them, in Donna Karan, Prada and full vamp face. Nobody screamed or ran, though a few humans did discreetly move to the far sides of the sidewalk. The vampire took one look at the dozing Cuzfau beast, shook her head and began looking out for a taxi, though cars were few and far between on the streets.

"Make way! Make way!" The Guards running through the streets now weren't cops, though their uniforms were much the same. Their authority was far more absolute. "Prepare to show your identification!"

The stylish vampire groaned and tiredly pulled some papers from her black suit jacket. Other people did much the same, with varying degrees of nervousness -- depending on how much they each had to hide.

Fred held out her papers with a trembling hand, but her fear was not for herself. The Guard who walked up to them glanced at hers, then looked a little more carefully at Wesley's. His face split into a slow, unkind smile. "Nah, we don't have to take you in." He laughed. "I guess we know you're not going very far, don't we?"

Wesley said nothing, just took his papers back and continued on his way. Fred went with him, looking over again to see if he was all right. They passed under a street lamp then, and for a moment she could see the pale, foggy shimmer drifting above him. She turned her eyes away from it.

"Identification!" the Guards yelled, accosting person after person. One of them lifted up a megaphone and said, "Wolfram and Hart has reported a break-in and robbery from one of their vaults. Anyone with information regarding the theft will be rewarded for coming forward. Or punished for not coming forward. And all identification papers will be checked --"

Just out of earshot of the Guards, people whispered:

"What do you think was stolen?"

"Something important, bet your life on it. They wouldn't admit anybody could break in, not if it weren't important --"

"Shut up, shut up, they'll hear you --"

One guard grabbed the Hevreth demon's papers, then scowled. "This ain't updated, buddy. This is, what, four months old?"

"Oh, yes, yes," the Hevreth gabbled, "forgetful of me, I must have tucked the wrong ones into my coat --"

"Well, we'll go find out about that at the station, won't we?" The Guard motioned toward a patrol car (longer than a police car, and solid, gleaming black). "Come on."

The Hevreth took a couple of halting steps toward the car -- then bolted and ran. Hevreth were faster than humans, faster than anyone in that crowd had ever realized before.

But not fast enough.

One Guard lazily pulled out his gun and fired; the Hevreth collapsed in the middle of the street. A couple of people gasped. Nobody screamed.

"Throw that in the car," the Guard yelled, and they continued their sweep down Sunset. People began to relax and move on.

The older woman stepped to the place in the street where the Hevreth had fallen. Her skirt was still damp with mud, and a few strands of grey-white hair had slipped from her bun. She did not cry or scream, but only stared down at the dark pool of blood on the pavement.

Atop the Wolfram and Hart building, suddenly, lights began flashing -- silver and white, flickering in the black night sky. The hordes of beings, human and otherwise, thronging the streets were perhaps as jaded as it is possible to be -- but they all froze in place, stared up at the light show above them.

Fred slipped her arm around Wesley, and they both pretended that he wasn't leaning against her as they gazed upward. "Maybe someday that will be you," Wesley whispered.

"Not without you," Fred replied. They'd had the argument so many times before that they didn't bother repeating it now. Neither of them looked away from the bright blaze of light in the sky.

**

Atop the Wolfram and Hart building, Lilah Morgan turned her face slightly from the blast of wind and energy rushing from the Portal. After a moment, the wind stilled somewhat, and she turned back to face the light; her designer sunglasses were perfect for such occasions.

An Emissary of the Underlords, she thought tiredly. Like we don't file enough paperwork for the Underlords as it is. And now I'm gonna have one of their flunkies double-checking my every move.

Then again, Lilah thought, the independence of the past couple of years was the exception, not the rule. And she'd known it the day she signed on at Wolfram and Hart, so there was no point in getting upset about it now. Just time to grin and bear it. Or, if this Emissary was a man, to grin and bare it; Lilah braved the chill and let her white mink stole slip open and reveal just how low-cut her black satin gown actually was.

Within the Portal, shapes began to form, gray in the light. Then they coalesced, took the shapes of men. Her assistant worked with at the scrying mirror on its pedestal for a moment, and the Portal swirled back up into nothing, its blinding light gone. As she slipped her sunglasses from her face, Lilah could see this Emissary --

She managed to keep her jaw from dropping. "Lindsey."

Lindsey McDonald walked toward her, long dark coat whipping in the remaining breeze. "Well, well, well. Lilah. I imagine you're as happy to see me as I am to see you."

"Whatever you're feeling, double it," Lilah said. "You might get my reaction."

Lindsey smiled at that, the wolfish, know-it-all smile that used to make her want to smack him, hard. It still had that effect, actually. "Still on the payroll at good ol' W&H, I see."

"And you, Lindsey -- well. I'm impressed. I thought you'd traded it all in for a good, virtuous life in a cabin somewhere. Growing your own corn, listening to John Denver, the whole bit."

Again that smile. "I got tired of taking orders. Didn't mean I wouldn't like giving them someday."

"Looks like you've got the chance," she said, glancing over his shoulder at the ogres standing there. "And what pleasant company you get to keep."

"Present company included," he said. "I heard about the break-in. What did they get?"

Lilah forced herself to concentrate on the business at hand. "A Deburchan dagger."

Lindsey whistled, a low sound. "Not good. Especially not now, what with -- well. Sounds like security's a little sloppier at Wolfram and Hart than it used to be."

"Back when you used to break in to steal prophecy scrolls? Not hardly. No, this was quality work. Somebody who knew what he was doing. Somebody who'd done something like this before."

"You've got a suspect already."

Lilah smiled. "Surprised, Lindsey? You shouldn't be."

"I learned not to underestimate you," Lindsey said. "So, how long until you catch this suspect?"

"I'm pretty sure we'll have him in custody tonight. You'll get to watch -- not to mention have yourself a drink, catch up with some old friends."

"Old friends?" Lindsey raised an eyebrow.

"Well, you know what I mean. I'm using the term 'friend' very loosely." Lilah folded the mink stole more securely around her. "Come on. And don't mind the help."

She smiled serenely as they swept past Gavin Park --who had, in Lilah's opinion, found his true level at Wolfram and Hart -- and was enviously watching the door. His glare was hot against her back as they got in the elevator to descend into the great, roiling mass of humanity and inhumanity that was now L.A.

**

The Hyperion was lit up with searchlights that swooped across the street and the sky. Sometimes Anne let herself pretend that they were the same sort of spotlights she used to see, evidence of no more than a movie premiere or awards ceremony.

But most of the time she didn't pretend. Anne had learned the hard way to look straight at the toughest side of life, and it was a lesson she needed now more than ever.

Anne straightened her black skirt before coming through the door; the bouncer, a stately Mendenge troll, looked her up and down in a professional manner before allowing her in. She blinked, getting used to the light -- took in the sight of people and demons and vampires, all huddled around little tables or the bar, sometimes moving up and down a long, sweeping staircase. The place was a little crowded for the nightclub it had become, she decided; then again, it must have been enormous for the hotel it had been. Weapons glinted from the walls, and Anne felt a quick surge of envy and anger. To think, of using stuff like that just for decoration. When her people needed weapons so badly --

Just behind her, she heard someone else come through and pass the troll's brief inspection --

Her eyes lit up. "Gunn!"

Charles Gunn looked different than she'd ever seen him -- hard, in a way he hadn't been even when he was living on the streets. But he clearly wasn't living on the streets now; he was wearing a white dinner jacket and a black bow tie, and looked for all the world as though he were headed to one of those movie premieres. "Anne. Good to see you, girl."

He hugged her, but it wasn't the big, enveloping hug she remembered; one of his arms tightened around her shoulders and dropped away. Anne forced back her disappointment, tried to concentrate on the positive. "I'm glad you're here. I mean it."

"Not everybody in your crew feels the same way."

Anne shrugged. "Not everybody has had to start over again. I have. So I know what it's like."

"Starting over," Gunn said quietly, straightening his tie. "Is that what this is? Don't feel like it."

"What does it feel like?"

"Couldn't tell you. But I know one thing -- it feels better than most of what I've been doin' the past four years."

Anne smiled; this was the Charles Gunn she remembered. "You know, you could -- we could go ahead and --"

"No way," he said. "Buyers only."

"I thought this wasn't about money."

"It ain't. But you oughta know better than anybody that we need to be careful. If anybody ends up taking the fall for this, it shouldn't be you. And it sure as hell shouldn't be me." He gave her a smile that was a shadow of the one she used to love. "Maybe we'll grab us a drink later, okay? I gotta go see the boss."

Anne looked at him in surprise. "You two are still on speaking terms?"

"No grudges held inside these walls," Gunn said with a grin, and headed toward the stairs.

She looked after him, and her eyes lit upon the object on a pedestal in the center of the room. Silver metal twined around a clear, multifaceted jewel that caught the light, glinted in the relative darkness. So, that's it, Anne thought. That's the Eye. She didn't even let herself think about what it was worth -- only reflected for a moment what it would cost her to obtain it. Then she looked away and decided that she needed a drink.

Anne made her way to the bar -- a makeshift thing, something she'd once have seen at a reception, not a fully-operational nightclub. But everyone here was just doing their best, weren't they? Including the owner, as much as Anne hated to admit it. She caught snippets of conversation as she moved --

A handsome young man: "I just want to know if this Lilah keeps her word. I don't care about the rest of it, as long as she follows through --"

Three vampires, huddled over snifters of blood: "And this girl's screaming, right? I mean, they all scream, but the lungs on this one, you could hear her half a mile away, I bet. And that's when Mike jumps out and --"

A demon of a breed Anne didn't recognize, one of the furry ones: "If we don't get the money together before the end of the week, we'll have to go back underground --"

A woman with teased, white-blonde hair: "L.A. usedta be so boring. All anybody could talk about was movies. I got so sick of movies --"

A demon with small horns, well-styled hair and a shiny white suit: "Sorry about the mixup in the kitchen, folks. But, really, the line between Hrunta-demon kill and haggis -- it's a fine one."

"Quite all right, Lorne," trilled the chubby woman who was only now getting her haggis. "I'm thrilled that you serve this at all."

"We try to cater to all tastes here," Lorne said. "Including the exotic, whether that be other-dimensional, extraterrestrial or Scottish."

"And you do such a splendid job!" The woman put her bejeweled hand on Lorne's shoulder. "May I present my compliments to the owner in person?"

"The owner doesn't really mingle with the guests," Lorne said. "No offense, madam, but that's the standing policy."

"But how ridiculous," she said. "To own a nightclub and not even enjoy the company!"

Lorne shrugged. "That might cut into critical brooding time. Whoops -- did I say brooding? Let's call it 'solitary meditation.' Or 'reflection.' Or something." He grinned as he poured the woman a little more champagne. "Besides, that's what I'm here for. To add that little human touch."

The table broke up in laughter. As Anne took her wine to a table in the back, she glanced over her shoulder at them. Fun, she thought. These people are actually having fun.

Then again, that's what most people come to nightclubs for, she reminded herself. For fun.

But her purpose that night was far different. Anne half-turned so that she could keep her eye on the door.

**

Gunn went up the stairs two at a time, trying not to think about the fact that he used to climb these every day. About everything that went down in the room beneath him now. About the way Faith used to come running down these stairs to meet him. No point.

No point in worrying about anything but getting to the next-to-last person he was ever gonna have to speak to in L.A. before getting the hell out.

What was the room number Angel used to have? It would be the same one; Gunn was sure of that much. He went to the door and rapped hard.

A moment of silence. Then -- "Lorne, is that you?"

"Nope," Gunn said easily. "Yet another blast from the past."

Another pause. "Gunn, can't this wait for another time?"

"Actually, it can't. Kinda got a rush on here. But I tell you what -- let me in to talk to you, and I promise that you won't have to deal with me ever again."

"This I have to hear." Apparently that was as close to permission as Gunn was going to get. After a couple more seconds, he opened the door.

Inside was the suite, much as he remembered it -- some new things on the walls, on the shelves. Fewer books. But still the same sitting room, the same shabby-but-elegant furniture, the same windows looking out on the still-bright lights of the city.

And there, silhouetted against those lights, was the dark form of the owner of the Hyperion Hotel. Gunn grinned. "Evening, Cordelia."

She turned to face him, gave him a smile as brilliant as ever, but with none of the warmth he remembered. "Good evening, Gunn."

Continue on to part two...

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