Bound by Inamorata

 

Summary: Doyle's last vision brings Angel and Cordelia closer in unexpected ways.

 

Spoilers: Hero, Season 1.

 

Notes: This fic is set between the AtS season one episodes "Hero" and "Parting Gifts" -- that is, in that tiny sliver of time after Doyle's death but before Cordelia learns he passed her the visions. I would like to make it clear that it is absolutely not the case that this whole fic exists simply because I thought it would be fun to get Angel and Cordelia to take a shower together. I'm not that cheap. And if you believe that, I've got a timeshare in Marbella I'd like to sell you. Thanks, as always, to Dazzle for beta'ing and encouragement.

 

 

I

"You don't have to help with this," I said for at least the fifth time. "I could do it myself."

"It's okay," Cordelia said. "It really is. Active grieving is healthy. Pass the junk bag."

I handed her the plastic trash bag and watched her sweep a pile of yellowing newspapers into it. "I swear," she said, shaking her head, "if I'd realized Doyle was THIS untidy, I would have made him clean up before he died." She smiled, a tight, defiant smile that might have been painted on, like a kabuki performer's. It was a good act, even if I was the only one left to see it.

I seemed to recall that there had been a time when society automatically granted time and understanding to those who mourned; here, at the tail-end of the twentieth century, time had become too valuable to waste on mere grief. Certainly Doyle's landlord had had no compassion to spare when I'd called to tell him his tenant had broken his lease in a very permanent way. He wanted the apartment ready to rent again by the end of the week, and anything still there by Wednesday night was going in the furnace. And so Cordelia and I were clearing out Doyle's life, less than two days after we'd watched him lose it.

Cordelia held up a battered lamp. "Junk, Goodwill or keep?" she asked.

I looked at the three bags in the middle of the apartment floor. The contents of the junk bag were destined for the dumpster in the alley behind the building. Cordelia was going to leave the second bag at the local Goodwill after we were done. The junk bag was already overflowing, but we were struggling to fill the Goodwill bag. Next to these two hefty bags was a single shoebox, where we'd agreed to put those possessions of Doyle's we intended to save permanently.

I considered the lamp. "Goodwill."

She flicked the on-off switch experimentally. "It doesn't work."

"Junk, then."

"Junk," Cordelia agreed, and pushed the lamp into the bloated garbage bag.

Cordelia set to work on Doyle's bookshelves -- he'd been a more avid reader than he liked people to know -- while I continued sifting through the detritus in the dresser drawers. Most of what I found went straight into the trash: red-inked credit card statements, half a pack of playing cards, a broken digital watch. Only one item made me pause -- a small leather-backed book. I flicked through it, and saw it was filled with names and contact details, all rendered in Doyle's spidery scrawl. His address book. It smelt strongly of him, the leather impregnated irrevocably with his scent after years of handling. I turned it over in my hands, then put it into the shoe- box of things to keep.

On the other side of the room, Cordelia made a small noise that might have been a sob, quickly stifled. "Cordelia?"

She turned around and showed me a scrap of paper. It took me a moment to work out what it was, and when I did I couldn't immediately understand what had upset her. She was holding up a lotto ticket.

Quietly, she said, "It's for tomorrow's drawing."

She looked unhappy and teary and very, very young. I left the dresser and started to go to her, wanting -- some way, any way -- to make this better. But I didn't know how, and I ended up standing awkwardly in front of her, just out of her reach.

Cordelia kept looking at the lotto ticket as if mesmerized. "He always said he'd get lucky someday. He never stopped believing he'd get lucky, if he just waited long enough."

I took one more step toward her, and gently took the ticket from her outstretched hand. "Let's take a break from this," I said.

Cordelia looked around, taking in the chaotic apartment, the strewn belongings which a couple of days earlier had been part of a life but which were now just so much garbage. "Yeah," she said, and sat down on the end of Doyle's battered green sofa. She rubbed her eyes tiredly, and I noticed suddenly that she wasn't wearing makeup, for perhaps the first time since I'd known her. She looked tired -- more than tired, exhausted, as if something was sucking the life and youth out of her.

Something like me.

Cordelia and I had stumbled into each others' existences by accident, and I was starting to see that her life was being made needlessly more painful and dangerous by my presence in it. Doyle, at least, had known what he was getting himself into when he searched me out -- then again, maybe he hadn't, because that had been less than three months earlier, and now he was dead.

I'd come to L.A. because I wanted to start making up for my past. And now I had another death on my conscience. In Sunnydale, I'd learned through bitter experience that I couldn't have a romantic relationship; in L.A., I'd deceived myself into believing that in spite of that, I could still work alongside humans. Have friendships. Now I saw even that was too high an aspiration. Whatever mission or purpose I'd been brought back from Hell to fulfill, it was for me to complete alone. Always alone.

"Cordelia," I said, as gently as I could, "I think maybe you should go."

She looked at me, startled out of some sad reverie, and waved a hand around to indicate the apartment. "I'm not leaving you to finish this all by yourself."

"No," I said. "I mean -- I think you should go. Go home, back to Sunnydale. You belong there."

For the first time since we'd left the ship's hold where Doyle had died, Cordelia's grief and distraction seemed to lift a little. She looked at me with something of the spark I was used to seeing. "Go back to Sunnydale and do what? Get a job in McDonald's so I can watch everyone I went to high school with drive past me on the way to college? Or just hang around and wait to be vampire munchies?" She shook her head emphatically. "No, thanks. Besides, I gotta stay in L.A. now."

"You don't," I said. "Nothing's keeping you here."

"Angel, you need me," Cordelia said, as if I were a little slow and needed things explained carefully and clearly. "The way I see it, I'm not just an employee of Angel's Redemption Inc. anymore. I'm a fully paid up shareholder. I've got a seat on the board. Which means I want voting rights."

Sometimes it amazed me how Cordelia could bludgeon a point to death, and yet I still had no idea what she was talking about. "Voting rights?"

"We're partners now, right? Which means things are going to have to change between you and me." She stood up and started to walk around Doyle's apartment, warming to her theme. "For starters, you can't do that thing you do anymore."

"What thing?"

"That thing where you run off to fight demons or vampires or nasties without saying where you're going or why. Oh, and also that thing where you do something all the time and then say, 'I don't do that' - - that's gonna stop, too."

"I don't --" I started, then caught myself. Cordelia was giving me a 'Come on, I dare you' look. "I don't do that often," I amended.

"And I want to be involved more," she went on. "When you're doing your heroic evil-battling thing, I want to be there too. And I want to learn to fight -- I mean, really fight, not just duck out of the way -- and I think I should --"

" --Think about what you're saying for a second," I interrupted. "Cordelia, these are my fights, my risks, my problems. They weren't meant to be shared."

She looked at me steadily. "Doyle wouldn't have agreed."

"And the fact that Doyle isn't around to say so himself anymore proves my point." Cordelia stared at me, her lips clamped together in a thin line of hurt. I was sorry about that, but I wasn't as sorry as I knew I would be if I got her killed like I'd gotten Doyle killed. I gestured around the cluttered apartment. "Now, let's just get on with what we're supposed to be doing here."

"Angel --"

"Cordelia, we're not talking about this now," I snapped.

But she wasn't looking at me -- she was looking at the lotto ticket I was still holding in my hand. "Angel, look at the ticket."

I held the ticket up to the light, and saw what she was talking about. One side was a normal lotto ticket -- apparently Doyle thought the numbers 14, 27, 76 and 63 were especially lucky, although now we'd never know why -- but the reverse was blank. Or it had been, until he had written on it.

In wobbly capital letters he had scrawled:

DELILAH -- BIG PARTY SANTA MONICA MARINA JAMEELA

The word "Jameela" was double underlined.

"Gimme," Cordelia said, and snatched the ticket from me. She frowned as she read it. "What does 'jameela' mean? And who's Delilah?" Cordelia examined the ticket for a second longer, then looked up at me, her eyes growing wide and excited. "Angel, this is message from those Powers-That-Be Doyle was always talking about. We have to follow it up."

"Cordelia, we don't know when he had this vision. It's probably already too late."

She shook her head. "This ticket is for this week's drawing, Angel -- he couldn't have bought it more than a day before he died. And Doyle ALWAYS told you about the visions, so the only reason he wouldn't have mentioned this one would have been --"

" --Because he didn't have time," I completed, seeing where she was going. "Because of the Scourge."

"Right!" Cordelia smiled, a broad and real smile. "In other words, this baby's so fresh it's practically steaming. C'mon, let's go to Santa Monica."

She tugged me by the sleeve, like a child promised a trip to the circus. I didn't move. "First of all, WE'RE not going anywhere. I will deal with this, by myself, alone, solo, single-handed. We don't know what's waiting for us in Santa Monica."

"A really great party, according to Doyle," Cordelia said.

"Or a party as in a big party of unkillable demons," I countered. "Go home, Cordelia. Get some rest. I'll take care of the vision, and we'll finish this tomorrow." The night was only a couple of hours old; I had plenty of time to do whatever I had to. I started to leave.

I was at the door, and shrugging on my coat, when I heard Cordelia say my name. I stopped and looked back. "Cordelia, for the last time, you are staying."

"Oh, sure," she said, "I'm staying."

"Well -- good." Okay, I hadn't expected to win that argument so easily. Maybe Cordelia was finally starting to listen to me. "That's good. Thank you."

I was half way along the hallway and heading for the elevator when I heard the words, "In L.A.!" float defiantly out from Doyle's apartment behind me.

 
***

As it turned out, what was waiting for me in Santa Monica was a really great party. But I didn't realize straight away that I was supposed to be at it.

I left the car outside the marina and began to explore on foot, not sure exactly what I was looking for -- Doyle's note had been a little short on helpful details. I made my way through a lattice of jetties and walkways surrounded by dinghies and yachts, rich men's expensive weekend toys. Nearly all had engines as well as sails, and were clearly not designed for straying further from shore than a Monday morning 9 o'clock meeting would permit.

One of boats was different.

She dwarfed the yachts moored beside her; she was the real thing, and everything around her just a miniature model. She was the most impressive, opulent craft in the marina, and her owner had gone to some lengths to flaunt it. Fairy lights strung along her length and spotlights trained on the deck made her the brightest object in the water -- and the loudest, as the sounds of music and laughter coming from her packed decks floated out toward the dark horizon.

On board, a party was in full swing. The name of the yacht was emblazoned in stark black letters on her pristine hull.

She was called the Delilah.

I drew closer, keeping out of sight behind the piles of packing crates and coils of rope along the jetty's edge. The clothes and bearing of the party guests milling around on the Delilah's deck marked them out as the city's elite, but they all looked human, and I couldn't see any activity more suspicious than a number of couples slipping away from the gathering into the yacht's interior and, presumably, the cabins below.

As I watched, a well-dressed couple walked up the gangplank and waved invitations at the two thugs dressed in tuxedos who formed the welcoming committee. It was going to be near impossible to get past them without causing a scene; the next best option would be to scale the outside of the yacht and climb over the deck's railings unobserved. I was pretty confident of my climbing abilities, less so about how I would mingle with the crowds and pass myself off as a guest once on board. But I had to get on that boat.

"We HAVE to get on that boat," Cordelia's voice said in my ear.

She was standing right behind me, gazing up at the Delilah with unadulterated awe. I almost jumped.

"Cordelia?"

"Hi, Angel," she said, in much the same tone she used when I walked into the room as she was filing her nails. She pointed at the yacht. "How amazingly cool is that party?"

"What are you doing here? And --" I broke off, and stared at her. "What are you wearing?"

Cordelia smiled, apparently delighted I'd noticed that she'd changed since I last saw her. She was wearing a cocktail dress in crushed velvet and holding a matching clutch bag. She looked as if she belonged with the young, rich and beautiful people up on the Delilah's deck, and not lurking down in the shadows with me. "You like?" she asked, giving me a little twirl. "I decided to come down here and help you out. I went home to change first, of course."

I wondered if Cordelia's eagerness to help me mightn't have something to do with the fact that Doyle's vision had mentioned a party as opposed to, say, a dingy back alley. "Thanks, but I don't need your help."

"Sure you do. How were you planning to get on to that boat? You were probably gonna pull some dumb macho James Bond stunt like climbing up the hull, right?"

Patiently, I said, "Cordelia, demon-killing, evil-fighting is a violent, risky and difficult activity." I folded my arms resolutely across my chest. "I am a 250 year old vampire. You are a 19 year old girl. Which one of us do you think has the appropriate skill set for this situation?"

"You want to see appropriate skills?" she asked, arching an eyebrow. "Watch this."

Before I could stop her, Cordelia had grabbed me by the sleeve and was towing me behind her up the gangplank and toward the smartly- dressed security detail guarding the way on to the Delilah. "Cordelia," I hissed, "what are you --"

"Just let me do the talking," she whispered back. "Okay?"

"No, absolutely not okay --"

That was as far as I got, because suddenly we were at the top of the gangplank and facing the grim-faced security thug who was already eyeing us with suspicion. I readied myself for the inevitable confrontation.

"Hi," Cordelia purred at him, wrapping a strand of hair idly around one finger. The security thug's eyes widened, and I felt a certain sympathy for him -- outclassed and outgunned, he didn't stand a chance.

Two minutes and one extremely flimsy story about a lost invitation later, we were boarding the yacht.

Cordelia smiled widely as we walked on to the Delilah's crowded, noisy deck. Leaning closer to me, she said, "I totally rule. Tell me that wasn't easier than pretending to be Pierce Brosnan."

Who? Never mind. "Sooner or later they'll figure out we're not supposed to be here."

"You worry too much. We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," Cordelia said, and lifted a glass of white wine from a passing waiter's tray. "Oooooh, hors d'oeuvre. Hold this." She thrust the wine into my hand and set off toward the buffet like a canapé- seeking missile, leaving me to hover at the edge of the party and try not to look as out of place as I felt.

And I did feel out of place. All around me, people -- humans -- were laughing and talking and flirting with each other. There'd been a time when I would have been able to join in, picking through the party in much the same way as Cordelia was currently selecting delicacies from the buffet spread. And, as much as I hated what I'd been, I wished gatherings like this one held more for me now than merely a painful awareness of just how far removed from humanity I was. I glanced at Cordelia, who had struck up a conversation with a young man at the buffet table, and envied her easy confidence.

"Trying to work up the nerve to talk to her?"

I turned around. The girl who had joined me was young -- probably not much older than Cordelia -- and, like everyone else at the party, unusually attractive. Her skin was dark, and perfect; she wore a clutch of jewels in her hair. They shimmered as she tipped her head in Cordelia's direction. "Would you like me to introduce you? Technically, I'm the hostess, so I could. That's part of the standard hostessing package, right?"

"Thanks, but I don't need an introduction. I already know her -- we're here together."

"Oh." The girl looked back at Cordelia, and appeared to consider her in a new light. "Then maybe you're thinking about telling that guy who's hitting on her to back off."

The young man talking to Cordelia was smiling a lot, I noticed suddenly, and Cordelia was smiling right back. For a moment, I felt an odd surge of something which wasn't quite possessiveness, but wasn't far from it.

Then I remembered that not only were we here to gather information -- which was exactly what Cordelia appeared to be doing -- but that for the first time in days she looked relaxed and happy.

"I'm glad she's enjoying herself," I said, and meant it.

A look which was not unlike sadness flashed across the girl's face. "You're a nice guy. You should give lessons to my boyfriend." She held out her hand to me. "The Delilah belongs to him. I'm Jameela."

"Angel," I said, and took her hand in mine. Jameela's grip was unexpectedly strong; she held on to my hand tightly, and looked straight into my eyes for a long moment.

Then, abruptly, her manner changed, as if I'd just failed some vital test. "Nice to meet you, Angel," she said flatly, turning away from me. "Enjoy the party."

I watched her walk away, feeling puzzled. Had that encounter been as odd as I thought it had been? Or had I just missed -- again -- some unspoken cue that should have been obvious to me?

"Who was that?" Cordelia asked as she returned to my side. She was carrying a plate laden with a collection of tiny, intricately constructed bundles which weren't immediately recognizable to me as food. "The sushi is to die for. "

"Her name was Jameela. She said this yacht is her boyfriend's."

"Then I guess that's her boyfriend," Cordelia said, taking the glass of wine she'd handed me back again and gesturing with it.

I looked where she was pointing, and saw a unprepossessing middle- aged man who was standing on the upper deck, surveying the party. "Who is he?"

"According to my new friend over there --" she pointed back in the direction of the buffet table -- "His name is Michael Hunter. He made his money out of those little foil tubs of milk substitute you put in coffee. He's, like, the King of Creamer."

I watched Michael Hunter as he looked down on his guests. For a wealthy man and the host of the party, he seemed anxious, as if he were searching for something in the crowd. Or someone, I realized a second later when Jameela came to join him. He wrapped his arm around her in a gesture which was superficially intimate, but I saw her wince as his fingers dug into her shoulder. Then he turned abruptly and walked away, taking Jameela with him.

"I'm going to find out where they're going," I said to Cordelia. "Stay here and wait for me."

"No way," Cordelia protested. She waved a half-eaten piece of sushi at me. "Didn't we talk about this earlier? You always run off and leave me behind."

I ran off, leaving her behind.

The party thinned out toward the stern of the yacht, until the only indication it was going on was a faint, irritating buzz from somewhere behind me. The truth was that if I hadn't had to leave it to follow Jameela, I would probably have invented an excuse. Mingling is not one of my skills. Lurking in the dark is.

I found them behind the wheelhouse, in a secluded area of the deck which was obviously intended for private sunbathing. I stayed in the shadows, and found a vantage point that allowed me to watch and listen without being seen.

"I love you," Hunter was telling Jameela. "I love you and I want you to stay with me. Always. Never leave."

"Sometimes I think you don't trust me."

"I do, baby. I do."

"Then tell me everything."

While I was trying to work out what this exchange meant, I saw Hunter lean closer to Jameela. He wrapped his arms around her in an embrace which would have been loving if I hadn't been able to see the crushing force he was using, etched in lines of pain on Jameela's face.

The direct approach was best, I decided. Doyle's vision had brought me to Jameela so I could protect her from Hunter, and the simplest way to do that was to take her away from him. I moved forward a little, and tensed, ready to leap down on to the deck --

"Angel!"

Once again, my concentration was interrupted by Cordelia unexpectedly popping up beside me. It wasn't getting any less irritating.

"Cordelia, I told you not to move. To STAY PUT. What part of that did you not get?"

"Angel --"

"Would it be so incredibly difficult, just once, to do what I ask you to --"

"Angel!" Cordelia hissed. "I couldn't stay where I was."

I glowered at her. "Give me one good reason why not."

From somewhere in the darkness behind Cordelia, I heard the voice of the thug she'd fooled to get us on the yacht. He sounded about as annoyed as I felt, and he was talking to more than one person.

"It's bridge-crossing time," Cordelia said.

I looked back down at the deck, but both Jameela and Michael Hunter had gone. Great. Just great.

And, by the sound of the security thugs' rapidly approaching footsteps, it was time for us to go, too.

I grabbed Cordelia by the arm and vaulted over the railings down to the lower deck where Hunter and Jameela had been seconds earlier. Cordelia's initial protests rose in pitch and tone to become a wordless yelp of surprise as we fell, arms and legs flailing. I managed to twist around so that I hit the deck first, breaking her fall, although I was distantly aware of a drawn-out ripping sound. As I got to my feet, I saw Cordelia was struggling to disentangle her torn dress from the jutting nail it had caught on. "My dress -- "

The material had ripped almost to her waist, a pale slash of her bare thigh visible through the jagged slit. Above us, I heard the heavy footfalls of the security thugs approaching. I leapt up and headed for the side of the yacht, jerking Cordelia with me but leaving a wad of sequined cloth on the nail. I heard Cordelia start to make a protest which became a yelp as we pitched over the side of the yacht and toward the black water below.

And then we were hanging, swinging gently on the end of the rope I'd grabbed as I'd dived over the side.

I was using one hand to grip the rope; my other arm was holding on to Cordelia, whose eyes were screwed shut. She twisted around, causing one of her shoes to slip off her foot. It plummeted in silence before hitting the water far below with a faint splash. "Oh God," she said. "Oh God. Oh God."

"Be quiet," I told her. "And don't look down."

I should have remembered that the fastest way to get Cordelia to do something is to tell her not to do it. Her eyes popped open; she looked down, and swallowed. There was a faint tremor in her voice as she said, "Technically speaking, the only life that's getting risked here is mine."

"You're not going to fall," I said. "I've got you."

"Fine. Who's got YOU?" Her voice was shaking; I could feel her heart pounding, and her scent was sharp with fear. Her arms were clamped, vise-like, over my shoulders and around my chest and I gripped her waist with every last ounce of strength I possessed. We were hanging on to each other as if the world began and ended with each other.

Above us, I heard the security thugs discussing the ripped section of Cordelia's dress they'd just found. I hushed Cordelia, and we hung for long seconds in the darkness as they stood almost directly over us, discussing loudly where we might have gone. When they finally moved off, I allowed myself to relax a fraction. Below us, the water of the harbor rippled.

"Can you swim?" I asked Cordelia.

"Sure," she said automatically. Then her eyes widened. "Ohhhh no. No way. That is SO not an option."

I was about to point out that it was the only option, when I heard voices from overhead again. They were familiar, and for a second, I thought the security thugs had returned. Then I realized it was Hunter and Jameela.

Cordelia fell silent. She looked upward, then at me. I nodded. We listened.

"Stay, baby." That was Hunter's voice. "Stay, you've got to stay. Always and forever."

"Michael. Michael, stop it, you're hurting me."

Their voices grew fainter -- apparently they'd moved away from the edge of the deck -- until the conversation was too indistinct even for my better-than-mortal hearing. Cordelia was mouthing, What? at me; I shook my head, concentrating on the murmurings from above us. When that didn't work, I tried to pull us back up the rope, just enough to make the voices above audible. One inch; two; three --

And then I felt it -- the impact of an unseen force, like a silent peal of thunder directly overhead, or the blast wave from a noiseless bomb. I felt the hair on my arms and neck rise as the air around us crackled and sparked, suddenly saturated with raw power. I knew this sensation, and every instinct I had screamed at me to get as far away as fast as was humanly -- or inhumanly -- possible.

I didn't think; I acted. I let go of the rope.

We fell, still holding on to each other. The lights of the Delilah's lower decks sped past, like decorations on a fairground ride. The night air howled in my ears as we hurtled downward -- or maybe that was Cordelia yelling, I couldn't tell. The world was noise and acceleration and a sickening, yawning void in the pit of my stomach - -

We hit the water, and kept going.

For the briefest of moments, the sudden silence and darkness came as a relief. Instead of plummeting, we were descending slowly, as gently as leaves falling to the ground on a windless day. I held on to Cordelia, and a strangely peaceful sensation overtook me.

Then I felt her struggle in my arms, and a stream of bubbles escaped her mouth and nose. With a cold jolt of horror, I realized she was about to start drowning.

I let go of her, and watched as she kicked out, feet and arms driving her back up to the surface. Her long hair rippled out behind her, and the fabric of her dress billowed in slow motion. As I continued on my path downward, the last thing I saw was Cordelia, swimming up and away from me, toward the lights of the harbor.

 
***

By the time I made it back to dry land, the party on the Delilah had long since ended, and the deck of the yacht was empty and dark, except for cleaners and waiters scurrying to make the mess vanish by morning. I found Cordelia sitting on the edge of a packing crate some distance from the harbor's edge. She was systematically wringing the water out of her sodden, ripped dress by grabbing the material in handfuls and twisting it.

I sat down beside her, squelching a little.

After a second, Cordelia said, "If I get some kind of disgusting illness from the raw sewage they pump into the sea around here, you are paying ALL my medical bills."

I took off my shoes and tipped them up, one at a time. In open defiance of gravity, most of the murky sludge that filled each one refused to dislodge.

Cordelia was having even less success in extracting the Pacific from her dress. "And what took you so long to get here, anyhow?" she said, giving up and turning her attention back to me. "I figured you should have been swimming right behind me."

I have a lot of secrets; maybe, given my unique history, that's inevitable. There are many things about myself I choose not to reveal, and many more I can only bring myself to share when there is no alternative. This fell into the latter category.

"I can't swim," I said.

"No, seriously," Cordelia said, "what took you so long?"

"I can't swim," I said again, waving one sand-filled shoe for emphasis. "No vampire can. No buoyancy."

"But you don't need to breathe -- you can't drown." Cordelia looked at the shoe I held, and then at the layer of silt that covered me below the knees. Her face broke into a wide smile. "You walked along the harbor floor. Like one of those old fashioned divers, except no diving suit."

She started to laugh. I didn't see the joke.

"C'mon, Angel," Cordelia said, giggling. "It IS pretty funny. And tonight you ruined my best cocktail dress, made me lose a shoe and you -- you got sand in my ears." She put her hand to her face to stifle the snorts of laughter.

"I did all that?" I said. "I don't think so. YOU came down here when I told you not to. It was YOUR lie that put security on to us. And YOU interfered before I got a chance to do anything to help Jameela."

Cordelia stopped laughing, her face becoming darker with every word I said. "Excuse me? I had every right to be here, too."

"Not if you're going to treat this as a game and get yourself killed," I snapped.

Cordelia looked angry, but her voice was steady as she said, "I'm not Doyle."

"You're not," I agreed. Then, harshly, I added, "Doyle knew how to take care of himself."

She blinked once, her face as shocked as if I'd just slapped her. I couldn't have felt much worse if I had. "You weren't kidding today, were you? You really do want me to leave."

I should meet her eye, I knew that much. Somehow I couldn't make myself, and instead I stood up and turned away. "I think it'd be for the best, yes."

Behind me, I heard Cordelia get up. "You want me to go," she said again. For a second, her voice wavered, and then it hardened. "You want to be all alone? Okay, fine. I'm leaving."

There was a moment's silence, as if she was waiting for me to say something, and then I heard her bare feet slap defiantly against the pier's wooden slats as she marched away from me. I didn't allow myself to turn around until her footsteps had become faint echoes. Cordelia was nothing more than a fast-vanishing shadow, disappearing into the nighttime haze that rose off the ocean and shrouded the quayside.

The last time I'd played out this scene, I had been the one walking away. But I had done the right thing when I'd left Buffy in Sunnydale, and I was certain I was doing the right thing now.

But it hurt to watch Cordelia go, far more than I had imagined it would.

And then I realized that instead of making sure Cordelia was safe, I'd just sent her away, alone and upset and probably without enough money for the taxi ride home. The night is home to a lot of evil things. I know because I used to be one of them.

I can be really stupid sometimes.

I headed after her.

 
***

Most humans will tell you that they can sense it when someone is following them. Most humans have no idea at all.

All the way from Santa Monica back to her apartment, I was Cordelia's shadow. I was there as she walked five and a half blocks from the marina, her wet hair and clothes making her look bedraggled and miserable. When she got tired walking and decided to take the bus, I was on the roof of the building opposite, watching over her as she waited at the bus stop. I was there when the bus arrived and she got on it, and I was waiting when she got off it again in Silverlake. When she walked past the group of young men who were drinking on the corner of her street, she didn't know that I was only a few paces away, and ready to harm anyone who so much as looked like he was contemplating doing harm to her.

I watched her from the shadows as she stood outside her apartment door and fumbled in her bag for her keys, and congratulated myself on accomplishing at least one mission that night.

I was more than a little surprised when, instead of her keys, she produced a can of mace, spun around, and emptied most of its contents into my face. As I doubled over, she kicked me squarely in the groin. I may be dead, but I'm still a man. It hurt.

"THAT'S for trying to mug me, buddy -- "

"Cordelia!"

" -- I'm gonna call the cops faster than you can say 'zero tolerance' and you will be SO sorry you ever -- " Cordelia broke off her tirade long enough to blink in surprise. "Angel?"

I could hardly speak; I was still coughing mace out of my throat. If my body had required oxygen, I would have been unconscious by now. "Yes," I croaked.

She looked at me, genuinely confused. "Why are you here?"

I wiped my watering eyes ineffectually on the backs of my hands. "I followed you."

Slowly, Cordelia said, "You followed me." I straightened up, blinked, and my vision started to clear a little. I was greeted by the sight of Cordelia's face, wearing a look of mounting fury. "You," she repeated, "were following me."

"I was making sure you got home safely."

"Safely?" she echoed incredulously. "I thought I had a serial killer stalker -- and now I think about it, hey, not so far off the truth."

"I was just trying to protect you," I said sharply, getting annoyed. "L.A. isn't exactly a safe place."

"And Sunnydale's a regular Sesame Street. Jeez, Angel, make up your mind. First you want me to go away, and when I do you start stalking me." Cordelia still looked furious, but now something else, too. She seemed upset. "Wait, now I get it. You think I can't look out for myself. You think if I stay here you're gonna have to spend all your time making sure I'm okay. That's why you want me to leave."

I thought of Doyle, skin peeling and flesh burning, his face twisted into a rictus of agony as the Scourge's beacon killed him slowly. The truth was, I didn't want Cordelia to leave. But I did want her to be safe. I wanted her never to know first hand the kind of death that had taken Doyle from us. If ensuring her safety meant making her leave -- hell, if it meant making her hate me so much she wanted to leave -- then that seemed a fair price to pay.

Cordelia took a step forward, so that we were standing toe to toe. She jabbed a finger into my chest. "Well, I've got news for you. I can handle being in L.A., and I can handle Doyle dying, and I can handle YOU."

"No, you can't!" I shouted at her. I hadn't meant to raise my voice, and immediately I regretted my outburst. A light in a nearby apartment window snapped on, and I saw the blinds twitch as one of Cordelia's neighbors peered out at us. I tried to force myself to calm down, and failed. "Cordelia, this is about what's best for you!"

"And you're the best person to decide that exactly WHY?"

"Because --" I began. I didn't get any further.

The street, the apartment building, the cars -- everything of the normal world faded and became distant and indistinct, as if Cordelia and I were inside a bubble underwater, alone together. The streetlights' glow took on a strange fluidity, and the night breeze was a wave breaking over us, stirring senses, its draw dragging us under. I didn't want to see the surface again, ever.

When we kissed, it felt like the only thing we could do.

We fumbled for a moment, clumsy in our desperation. Then my mouth found hers, and my hands were on her back, her body fitting against mine as if we had been made for that sole purpose. She tasted of the ocean, salt and sharp and clean, and I followed the taste of the sea from her lips into the welcoming warmth of her mouth. But when I ran my hands down her back, I found her skin, chilled by her still-damp dress, as cool as my own.

All her warmth, all her life, had been compressed into a core deep within her, a well of heat and life I longed to reach.

Cordelia made a tiny sound and exhaled. I took in her breath, savored its sweetness and warmth, and wanted more. Desire made me shudder, and I kissed her harder, pushing her back without really meaning to.

Then Cordelia stumbled, and suddenly she was underneath me on the damp lawn, her scent mixing with the dewy, sweet smell of the soil below. I kissed her again, and shifted my position so that I was on top of her. She was earth and sea; she filled my world, and there was nothing else apart from her.

"Hey, you! You want to screw, don't do it on my goddamn lawn!"

A man wearing an ill-fitting T-shirt and an angry scowl was yelling at us from the lit second floor window, which was now wide open. As I looked up, he fired a another barrage of expletives in our general direction, then slammed the window shut and disappeared.

I looked down at Cordelia, who was lying on her back on the ground beneath me. Then I looked at the straps of her dress, entwined around my fingers.

I didn't know what the hell had just happened, but I knew that if I stayed where I was, it was going to start happening again before very long.

"Umm," I said, and got off her.

Cordelia pushed herself to her feet, paying an inordinate amount of attention to the task of brushing soil off her already salt- encrusted, ripped dress. In a surprisingly even and only slightly strained voice, she said, "People have weird reactions to grief, sometimes. They freak out, do weird stuff, eat nothing but ice cream for a week or vacuum 24 hours a day. It happens, it doesn't mean anything."

"Not a thing," I agreed. I wanted nothing more than to bolt; fortunately we were outdoors, and so every direction except straight up was available to me. I began to back away, toward the sidewalk. "I should, ahh --" I said, making hand signals which I hoped subtly conveyed my intention to leave while at the same time absolving Cordelia from any responsibility for what had just happened. They were pretty vague gestures, and I felt pretty foolish making them, and I pretty quickly gave up. "I should go."

"Yes," she said, too quickly. The door of her apartment opened behind her -- Dennis, providing Cordelia with an escape route of her own.

"And tomorrow we'll --"

"Not talk about this," Cordelia said. "Ever." She walked up the steps, into her apartment, and shut the door behind her.

She was gone.

She was gone and I couldn't see her or touch her and she was GONE --

The world spun around me, lacking any focus or meaning, because she was gone, and I needed her, craved her without reason or logic. She was gone, and I couldn't think except about her, couldn't feel except to want her, couldn't speak a word except her name. A second earlier I had been standing on a normal sidewalk in a normal neighborhood; now I was adrift in a chaotic void, lost in a terrible, empty place I could not hope to navigate without her.

And then -- suddenly, miraculously, wonderfully -- she was there.

For a long time we stayed where we were, on the lawn outside the apartment, clinging on to each other as if we might drown if we let go. When had Cordelia come back out of her apartment? I couldn't remember and I didn't care. All that mattered was that she was back. We didn't kiss, or speak; we barely had the strength to move.

Finally, Cordelia said, "Uhh, Angel? I think we should go inside. Before ALL my neighbors wake up."

I looked around, and saw that the window on the second floor of the building was no longer the only one which was bright with the false glow of electric light. "Good idea."

We got up, arms around each other like drunks offering mutual support, and weaved our way unsteadily into the apartment. Once inside, we didn't make it as far as the sofa; as soon as the door clicked shut behind us -- thank you, again, Dennis -- we sank down together on to the wooden floor.

My arms were wrapped around Cordelia's shoulders; her head pressed against my chest. "This is really uncomfortable," she said, "but I really don't want to move."

I agreed. My arms were beginning to cramp, and yet I couldn't let go of her. Couldn't even think about it.

"What just happened out there?" Cordelia asked me.

"I don't know."

"And what's making us act like this?"

"I don't know."

Cordelia thought for a second. "We're in trouble, aren't we?"

At last, a question I was confident I knew the answer to. "Yes," I said. "We're in trouble."

******************************

II

"Keep going," I said. "It's not much further."

I was standing in the open doorway of Cordelia's apartment, as close to daylight as I could safely get. Cordelia was at the bottom of the steps that led up to the door, and was about to embark on the long trek across the street to where my car was parked.

Cordelia took several more faltering, hesitant steps, as if wading against the tide. She kept looking at the Plymouth, focusing on it like a mountain climber aiming for the summit.

She was at the edge of the sidewalk now. This was okay, I told myself. I could still see her, even if I couldn't touch her, couldn't go to her --

I called her name. I couldn't help it.

That was all it took. Cordelia looked back at me, and then she was running back up the steps, through the apartment door and into my arms.

"That time was totally your fault," she said, her voice muffled because she was talking into my chest.

She was right, although now that she was back and I was able to hold her again, somehow I couldn't feel bad about it. "Next time --" I began.

"No next time," Cordelia interrupted, disengaging herself from me. "We're just gonna have to wait until it gets dark to go anywhere. I'm not going to have another panic attack out on street where all my neighbors can see. Especially after last night."

We went back into the living room, where Cordelia flopped back on to sofa and I sat down next to her. There were four perfectly good chairs positioned around her dining table, but if I sat on any of them, Cordelia would be more than an arm's reach away from me, and right now I didn't feel up to dealing with that.

"It's magic making us act this way," I said. "It has to be."

"Now I know why you decided to become a private detective. You're so fast at putting together those subtle little clues other people miss."

I ignored her and persisted, "Last night, on the Delilah, I felt something -- a kind of magical shockwave. Everything started after that. Nobody knew we were going to be there, and no one knew who we were once we were on the boat. So this wasn't done to us deliberately."

As I was talking, I felt Cordelia interlace her fingers with mine, so that we were holding hands. I glanced at her, but her face was thoughtful, and I doubted she even knew she'd done it. Her skin was warm and smooth, her hands delicate, and although I knew I should let go, I didn't. "So we got zapped by a spell meant for someone else?"

"I'd guess an enchantment rather than a spell."

"What's the difference?" Cordelia asked. I touched her fingers, one by one. They were slender but strong, and each one ended in a nail as smooth as polished ivory.

"Enchantments are more powerful than spells, but more difficult to focus tightly. And they don't just wear off -- they have to be reversed," I said. I moved my hand underneath hers, and touched her palm lightly with my fingertips. Her hand flexed in spasm, her whole arm tensing to the shoulder. "What's affecting us is probably only an echo of the full enchantment."

"So this is the bargain basement version. Someone else got the de luxe edition," Cordelia said. Her voice lowered, and she turned her head toward me, so she could whisper in my ear, "Lucky them."

"I don't think whoever's responsible for this magic intended it for fun." Somehow, my hand was moving along the inside of Cordelia's arm, from the inside of her elbow down. Her skin rose in gooseflesh under my fingertips as I traced a path that followed her pulse to her wrist, that hollow between her arm and her hand where the force of her life was so strong it made her skin tremble. "This is about control, and lack of it. This is about putting someone else in thrall, making them helpless and keeping them that way."

"Helpless," Cordelia echoed. She slid down the sofa beside me, just far enough so that her mouth was at my neck and not my ear. I felt her lips brush my skin, just above the collar. "Like... right... now..."

Suddenly I saw she was right. She was nuzzling my neck; any second now I'd turn around and kiss her, and after that was the point of no return. This time, there'd be no angry neighbor to save us from ourselves. "We have to stop this."

"Mmmm. I know. Oh, God, I don't want to. No, no, we have to stop. Okay. So stop."

"I'm stopping." I lifted my arm, fully intending to push her off me, and somehow found myself pulling her closer instead.

"You're not." Her lips were against my throat, and her breath was warm on my neck when she spoke. It felt incredible.

"You first," I said.

"Wait," Cordelia gasped. "Wait, wait. Dennis! Needing a little help here!"

The vase of flowers sitting in the middle of the dining table suddenly levitated and flew toward the couch. When it was directly overhead, it neatly tipped up, pouring cold water and petunias all over us.

It wasn't pleasant, but it worked. We leaped up and retreated to opposite corners of the living room. The vase floated back to the table. Cordelia looked down at her soaking clothes, then at the water-stained couch. I removed a flower from where it had lodged inside my shirt.

"Thanks, Dennis," Cordelia said. She hugged her arms around herself. "This is worse than when I was dating Xander Harris. At least then I could blame teenage hormones. Angel, how are we gonna snap ourselves out of this?"

I tried to focus on the question, and not on the way Cordelia's wet blouse was clinging to her. "First we have to find out what kind of magic it is, and who cast it. And then we need to work out how to undo it." I sat down at the table, realizing for the first time what a tall order that was. "We're going to need some kind of expert help. These are the kinds of things Watchers spend years studying. Maybe if we called Sunnydale --"

The look on Cordelia's face stopped me. She mimed picking up a telephone and dialing a number. "Hello, Giles? Hi, this is Cordelia. I need your help. You see, Angel and I are suddenly incredibly horny for each other and -- Giles? Giles?" She put down the invisible phone. "Gee, he hung up. I wonder why."

I took the point. But the truth was, apart from our various acquaintances and exes in Sunnydale, Cordelia and I had no one to go to now that Doyle was gone. Almost without our noticing it, our world had narrowed until we were the only people in it.

Wait a second. Doyle.

"Did you bring the box of Doyle's things to keep from his place back here?" I asked Cordelia.

She nodded. "It's on the floor, over there. What do you want from it?"

I got the shoebox and opened it. "This."

"Doyle's address book?" Cordelia asked doubtfully. "Angel, this is not the time to start organizing the wake."

"He knew half the demons and magic users in L.A. He must have known someone who could help us."

"Like who?"

I opened the address book and began to flick through it. "Last month we were clearing out a nest of Velga demons out at the coast. Doyle got bitten by one of them."

"So?"

"Their venom is poisonous. I wanted to take him to a hospital, but he said he never went to regular doctors -- being part demon, he couldn't."

"I get that," Cordelia said. "I mean, if the doctor says 'Sneeze' and spikes grow out of your head, you're probably gonna be in quarantine for the rest of your life."

"He said he knew someone who could help. Her name was --" I tapped the open address book. "Sorcha. Here's the number."

"You think she knows about magic spells, too?"

"If she doesn't, she might be able to give us the name of someone who does." I got the phone, and started to key in the number. As I did so, Cordelia came out of her corner for the first time. We weren't exactly close, but we weren't that far away anymore either. Whatever we did, we were going to have to fix this mess quickly, because I didn't think I could stand much more of this excruciating, exhilarating awareness of her presence.

The phone rang three, four, five times. I was about to give up and end the call when there was a click, and a woman's voice said, "Hello?"

"Sorcha?"

"Who's asking?"

Cordelia came closer to me, until she was standing at my side, her ear pressed to the other side of the phone so she could listen in on the conversation. My arm was bent as I held the phone up, and she put her hand on the inside of my elbow so that she was leaning against me.

"We haven't met. My name is Angel. I'm a friend of Doyle's."

There was a pause. "You're the vampire."

"Yes," I said. "Sorcha, about Doyle --"

Sorcha's voice was heavy as she said, "Yeah. Thanks for calling, Angel, but I heard. L.A.'s supernatural grapevine is faster than CNN and more accurate for breaking news. You're pretty famous right now, you know. There's gonna be a lot of people really pleased that the Scourge are off the radar for a while. For the last couple of months, I haven't been able to make enough protective charms to meet demand."

So Sorcha was a witch. "I need a favor."

She sighed. "Doyle may be gone, but his spirit endures. What gives?"

"I need to undo an enchantment. Urgently."

I heard her draw in her breath sharply. "Enchantments? That's a little out of my league."

Unexpectedly, Cordelia grabbed the phone off me. "Listen up, lady. Unless you help us, I'm either gonna be stuck in the world's worst porn movie forever or wearing a chastity belt for the rest of my life. So, for the love of Pete, help."

I snatched the phone back off her in time to hear Sorcha ask in bemusement, "Who was that and what was she talking about?"

"The magic has to do with, uhh, with sexual attraction."

"Oh," Sorcha said. Then, more knowingly, "Ohhhhh. Those are the worst ones to break. Okay, I'll try, but I'm not promising anything. Look, I don't finish my shift until 11.30pm, so the soonest I can meet you is midnight."

"That's fine," I said, and gave her the address of the office. Then I thanked her and ended the call.

"Midnight," Cordelia groaned. "What are we gonna do until then, tie ourselves to chairs?"

"While we're here, Dennis will step in if we get too..."

"Frisky?" Cordelia suggested. Our ghostly chaperone rattled the vase on the table in confirmation.

"Then it'll get dark around seven, which gives us five hours."

"Five hours to do what?"

"To get some answers," I said.

 
***

Tonight, the deck of the Delilah was empty, and most of her portholes were dark. If we were lucky, Hunter and his guests were at another party somewhere in the city, and wouldn't be back until long after we'd been and gone.

I looked at Cordelia. "Okay. While we're in there, remember --"

"If you're about to tell me to stay with you, that's pretty much a given," she said.

"While we're in there, do what I tell you to. All the time, no exceptions, no arguing back. Understand?"

She nodded, but I still felt uneasy as we trotted up the gangplank and started to make our way around the outside of the Delilah's deck. A little maritime breaking and entering wasn't the most dangerous thing I'd ever done by a long way, but I wasn't used to sharing my risks.

I found an unlocked door, and together we went below deck. Evidently Hunter didn't spend enough time on the Delilah to consider it his home.

Inside, the yacht was as opulent as its exterior suggested. The hallways were carpeted -- a ridiculous impracticality on a seagoing vessel -- and the cabins I looked into were more like bedrooms in a luxury hotel than anything you might expect to find on a boat. The stateroom was a suite, with a bedroom, bathroom and living area. This was where Hunter and Jameela slept, I guessed.

We searched the bedroom first, which was dominated by a huge, circular bed, draped in a fur throw. Cordelia breathed out in awe when she saw it. "Lifestyles of the rich and evil." She ran her hand down the door of a closet which was set into the side of the room. "This is beautiful. What are we looking for, anyhow?"

"Anything that shows what kind of man Hunter really is. And anything that might tell us where he gets his magical power from."

I went to the bookshelves next to the bed and looked through the titles. I didn't see any copies of the Necrocomicon or the Almanac of Demonology. Instead, Hunter had recently been reading "Thriving in the Global Economy" and "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." Plenty of evidence that he was exceptionally dull, then, but nothing that linked him obviously to the black arts. I started to put back the books, but as I moved something fluttered to the floor at my feet. I picked it up, and turned it over in my fingers. It looked like a large fish-scale, shining with an oily mix of colors in the dim light. I'd never seen anything like it, but it smelled distinctly demonic. I put it in my pocket.

"Angel, look at this!" Cordelia said suddenly, a note of excitement in her voice.

"What have you found?"

"LOOK at this wardrobe. Prada, Gucci, Valentino -- these people have serious style. And it goes way deep --" She pushed the hangers apart and waved her arm into the dark space beyond for emphasis.

The closet was deep. It was much, much deeper than it had any right to be.

"Help me take out those clothes," I said.

Cordelia looked momentarily doubtful. "You think? I mean, it wouldn't be right to try them on. But then, it's just WRONG for beautiful clothes not to be worn --"

"No," I said, "just take them out of the closet, Cordelia. I want to see what's behind there."

She looked disappointed, but helped me anyway. When I tapped the back of the closet, it rung hollowly. I felt around until I found a recessed handle, and pulled it. I wasn't at all surprised when the back of the closet swung out. It was a door.

And behind it was shelf upon shelf of small plastic packages filled with white powder.

"Oh, my God," Cordelia said. "What is that? Cocaine?"

I didn't know. I haven't taken drugs since the most potent substance available was opium, and I haven't kept up with developments in the area since. But I could guess that the street value of what we were looking at probably would have bought most of downtown L.A.

I put the door back, and began to replace the clothes on the rails in front of it, hiding the stash. "You're just gonna leave it there?" Cordelia asked.

"Can you think of a better plan? Besides, this isn't what we came here to find."

Cordelia sat down on the edge of the bed. "Angel, this is serious. I mean, you can't go to the cops and say, There's a bad guy casting spells on his girlfriend. But 'drug trafficker' -- to a cop, THAT'S a magic word."

She was pale, and I realized what we'd just found had been more shocking to her than any number of demons or vampires. She ran her fingers over the bed's fur cover, and shook her head. "It's not fair," she said. "Why do evil people get to enjoy the best things in life?"

"Mostly because they don't care how they get them." I sat down next to her. The bedcover was real fur, a rarity in this age of environmentalism and endangered species. It felt warm and silky, an extravagance of sensation under my fingertips, and I found myself stroking it again and again.

Everything in the bedroom, in fact, represented a slice of luxury, from the lustrous wood paneling on the walls to the delicate perfume coming from the bowls of roses arranged on the floor. Whoever had designed this room had intended it to be far more than a place to crash out for eight hours. It was a temple where the physical senses were worshiped and gratified, a place to indulge fantasies.

One of the things Cordelia and I have in common is a weakness for luxury.

"Evil or not," Cordelia said suddenly, "this place is making me a little --"

She didn't finish the sentence, but I guessed the word she was looking for was probably 'frisky'. I raised my hand from the fur throw and ran it instead over and through her hair, losing my fingers in dark, shining waves. I wondered if all her hair was as soft and silken as this.

Cordelia's breathing was getting faster, more shallow. "Oh, no," she said. "Oh, no, not here. Someone could find us --"

"Anyone could walk right in."

She stretched out on top of the bedcover, her hair fanning around her head like a dark halo, in places indistinguishable from the mahogany-colored fur throw. "Someone might hear us."

"Anyone who was listening."

She bit her lip and gave a small moan, as insanely and stupidly turned on by the idea as I was. I started to recline next to her, so that our bodies were side by side. I wanted to feel her skin under my hands, to learn her contours like a diver feeling his way by touch along the ocean's hidden floor to find sunken treasure. All I could think was: No Dennis here --

"What are you doing here?"

I sat up; Cordelia gave a yelp of surprise and rolled away from me. Jameela was standing in the stateroom's doorway. For an instant, the look on her face was one of killing fury. Then, just as quickly, it was gone. "What are you doing here?" she said again, and now her voice was pleading, terrified. "You shouldn't be here."

Cordelia sat up, gasping. "We were just -- uh, I mean we were kind of --"

With all the authority and dignity I could muster, under the circumstances, I said, "We know what your boyfriend's real business is, Jameela. You have to get away from him before you get sucked down, too."

Jameela shook her head. "Oh, God. You don't know how much I want to. But I try to go and I can't. Sometimes I feel like he's put a spell on me..."

"That's because he has," Cordelia said matter-of-factly. She was patting her hair back into place, and was rapidly regaining her composure. "Your boyfriend is the scummiest piece of scum that ever clung to the underside of a rock."

I heard a faint noise from somewhere else in the yacht. Cordelia didn't react, but Jameela gave a start and glanced out of the stateroom's open door and into the corridor. A few seconds later a man's voice called, "Jameela? Are you okay?"

Jameela looked at me. I looked back at her.

"Listen to me," I said in a low voice. "Hunter's using magic to make you stay with him. We're going to figure out how to break it, and then you'll be free. You want that, right?"

"Jameela?" the male voice called again.

Slowly, Jameela nodded. Then she raised her head and, never breaking eye contact with me, called back, "Yes, I'm fine. But -- but I thought I heard noises on the forward deck. Go check it out."

Cordelia breathed a deep sigh of relief. I would have, if I breathed.

Jameela was shaking. "Leave," she said. "Leave now, before he finds you."

I took Cordelia's hand, and we went to the door. Cordelia went through, but had to stop when I held back. I dug into a pocket and found a business card. "This is our phone number. If you get scared - - if you need to get away -- call me. I'll come."

Jameela smiled a faint, fragile smile. "Thank you, Angel."

 
***

"We have to call the cops," Cordelia said as we left the Delilah and started to walk back through the marina.

"Yes, but not right away. They'd impound the yacht, and then we might never figure out what kind of magic Hunter's using, or how to break it."

"You know what the scary part is?" Cordelia said. "Back there, for a couple of seconds I didn't want to break the spell. Angel, the longer this goes on, the harder it's gonna get to --"

She didn't finish the thought, but she didn't need to. If we didn't fix this soon, everything was going to get harder, in every sense.

I heard a shout from behind us, and when I looked around, the Delilah was lit up from stern to prow.

"What does that mean?" Cordelia asked.

"It means we're in trouble," I said, seeing the three -- no, four -- shapes swarming down the yacht's gangplank toward us. "Run."

But running normally was out of the question -- I couldn't concentrate on where I was going without looking back to make sure Cordelia was still close. I grabbed her hand and we ran awkwardly, but faster.

But not fast enough.

The Delilah's security detail was easily catching up with us, and when I looked around I saw why -- they weren't human. The thugs at the previous night's party had been for show -- Hunter's real personal security was demonic.

If they caught up with us, I wasn't certain I could fight them all. Cordelia had the twin advantages of youth and strength, but she couldn't match supernatural speed. We needed inspiration, or a miracle. Preferably both.

Ahead of us, I saw the lights of cars on Venice Boulevard. That was our chance. I pulled Cordelia along faster. "Come on."

"Angel, the way out's in the other direction," she said, gasping. "Where are you GOING?"

There wasn't time to explain. I was guessing that Hunter's demons had strict orders not to leave the marina, or risk being anywhere they might be seen. We'd be safe if we could get to the road.

Cordelia was breathless now. I held on more tightly to her wrist and stopped her from slowing down. Behind us, I could hear the clipclip of hooves -- damn, getting kicked was going to hurt like hell if this came to a fight -- getting closer. But so were the lights of the boulevard.

Thirty yards. Twenty. Fifteen.

That was how far away safety was when I saw the gaping hole in front of us. I nearly didn't stop in time.

Cordelia and I teetered on the edge of a berth which had no vessel in it. The tide was out, and fifteen feet below us there was only black mud. I judged the distance. "We're going to have to jump it."

"Are you crazy? No way!"

"It's not that far. You can do it," I said. Without waiting for a reply, I backed up, ran, stretched and leaped --

-- and for a second or less the darkness was above and below and around me --

-- and then I was on the other side.

I turned around, and saw Cordelia standing on the other side of the gap. She was out of my reach, and the sense of separation was suddenly acute and unbearable. Too late, I realized I'd seriously underestimated the strength of the magic binding us. From the look on Cordelia's face, she was feeling it, too.

Cordelia looked at the gap, then at me. "Oh, God. Oh God," she said. "Angel, I can't --"

I held out my hand to her. "Come on."

"You are SO gonna regret this," Cordelia said.

Then she backed up, ran and jumped --

-- and for a second she seemed to be motionless in the air, suspended and weightless --

-- and then she was falling, falling, falling, and I knew with a sudden and horrible conviction that she had been right, and I might never regret anything as much as what I'd just done ever again.

 
***

When Hunter's demons couldn't find either me or Cordelia, they quickly gave up looking and went back to the yacht. Our hiding place, at the bottom of the empty berth, waist-deep in cold, foul- smelling mud, was an excellent one. If only I'd thought of hiding instead of jumping, I thought as I cradled Cordelia's still body in my arms. If only.

If only I'd realized there was no way a normal human could make the same leap as a vampire, I thought as I carried her, still unconscious, back to my car. If only I'd realized that she wouldn't have a choice, I thought as I drove away. If only I'd thought it through and realized that, once I made the jump, the enchantment and the compulsion to stay close to me would make her attempt it anyway.

If only I wasn't so damn careless with people's lives, maybe I wouldn't have to live with as much guilt as I did.

Cordelia didn't stir as I drove across the city. She was breathing, and her heartbeat was strong and regular -- I drove with one hand on the wheel and one wrapped around her wrist, so I could feel her pulse -- but beyond that I had no measure by which to judge how seriously hurt she was. I wasn't used to dealing with the injuries of anybody who wasn't a vampire or a slayer or half-demon.

I drove without thinking about where I was going. Not to Cordelia's apartment, where I'd have to face Dennis, if 'face' was the right word to use for a poltergeist. Not to a hospital, where they might take her away from me. No, those weren't rational thoughts, but I was way past rational and in no danger of coming back soon.

I went home.

I put the car in the parking garage and carried Cordelia to the elevator and then to my apartment. I had an idea that if I could just put her to bed and watch over her while she slept, then somehow everything would make itself all right.

I was surprised to find a woman I'd never met before waiting for me in my kitchen.

She was in late middle age, dark-skinned and solidly built, verging on a matronly plumpness. She stood up as I walked in, dripping sand and mud and carrying Cordelia in my arms. She blinked once, and otherwise betrayed no surprise at all. "I was expecting a vampire," she said, "but apparently you're the Swamp Thing."

"Who --?"

"I'm Sorcha," the woman said.

The kitchen clock read twenty five minutes to one. Sorcha stood up, and I saw that she was wearing a blue uniform. I remembered her comment about her shift ending. "You're a nurse."

"Twenty years in emergency medicine," Sorcha said. "And it looks like that's just what we got here. What happened?"

"She fell."

Sorcha made a tsk-tsk noise which indicated that, as answers went, that one wasn't nearly good enough. "On to what? How far? How'd she land? And where's there a bed around here?"

Into deep mud -- about fifteen feet -- on her back -- I answered those questions and more while Sorcha made Cordelia comfortable in my bed. Then I stood to one side as she went through a precise set of rituals which was strangely comforting to watch. She opened Cordelia's eyes and shone light into them, felt her pulse and moved her arms and, very gently, her head.

"Well," she announced at last, "She's going to have a headache when she wakes up, but the worst she'll suffer is some bad bruising. You're lucky she fell on to mud and not concrete." Sorcha wrinkled her nose as she smelt the ripe stench which was coming off me, Cordelia and now the bedclothes. "Maybe not that lucky. She just needs to sleep -- come back to the kitchen and I'll make tea."

I slumped down on to the chair at the end of the bed. I couldn't remember ever feeling as guilty, relieved and helpless, all at once. "I can't," I said, rubbing my hands across my eyes tiredly. "I can't leave her."

Sorcha looked at me. "Would this have to do with that enchantment you were telling me about?"

I nodded.

"Now I know why Doyle liked you -- you're even better at finding trouble than he was," Sorcha said. Her voice was still brisk and business-like, but for the first time there was a note of kindness in it, too. "Okay, you'd better tell me from the start."

So I did.

I told her about Doyle's last vision -- it turned out Sorcha had been brewing him headache remedies for years -- and about Jameela and what I suspected Hunter was doing to her. Then, somehow, I found myself telling her why I should have died to stop the Scourge, and not Doyle, and why Cordelia needed to go back to Sunnydale for her own good, and why I needed to stop pretending I had the right to care about any human beings, when all I did was get them hurt. There was something strangely cleansing about spilling everything to someone I didn't know and would probably never see again after tonight. They say confession is good for the soul. Maybe there's some Catholicism left in me, even now.

"Cordelia can't see that she has to go," I finished.

"Sometimes people are stubborn," Sorcha said. "Sometimes they just can't see what's best for them, even when it's staring them right in the face."

"I forgot she wouldn't be able to make the jump," I said.

"Why?"

"Because she's not a vampire. She's human."

"No, I meant -- why did you forget?"

I hesitated. I hadn't really thought about that. "Because -- because I've gotten used to her always being there, right behind me."

"And right beside you, too."

I shrugged, not seeing the difference. "I forgot we're not the same, and she can't follow me everywhere."

"But you wouldn't want her to be like you," Sorcha said.

I looked at Cordelia, lying peacefully in the bed, her chest rising and falling evenly with the simple miracle of living. "No," I said quietly. "I want her to stay just the way she is."

"Well, then," Sorcha said, as if we'd reached some kind of important conclusion. I looked at her, but she just smiled. "That scale you said you found -- can I see it?"

I searched my pockets and found it, encrusted with silt but undamaged. Sorcha wiped it clean and held it up. "Oh," she said. "I think your problem is more serious than a simple enchantment. You know what Sirens are?"

The word was familiar to me, but only from stories so old they'd never been recorded in books. "Sirens lured sailors to their deaths by singing."

Sorcha arched an eyebrow. "Their methods have gotten a little more sophisticated since then."

I looked at her. "Sirens are real?"

"They're just another type of demon," she said. "Very rare, but real. They disguise themselves as humans -- and, believe me, it's a perfect fake. Not even magic can tell a Siren from a real person. Then they make themselves irresistible by sending out bursts of magic that can send a man -- or a woman -- crazy with desire. A human in a Siren's thrall is a pitiful thing -- they'll do anything and think they're doing it for love."

"Wait," I said. "I thought Sirens were female. It's Hunter who's controlling Jameela."

"Sirens are sexless. They can take male or female form," Sorcha said. She held up the scale I'd found. "The disguise is a lot prettier than the real thing."

I gestured at Cordelia. "So what happened to us?"

"I'm guessing you got too close to a Siren while it was using its power. You caught the fall-out, and you've got nowhere to direct it except at each other."

Cordelia stirred a little in the bed, the first movement she'd made. I wanted to touch her and so, not even trying to check the impulse, I did. I took her hand in mine and squeezed it. When her fingers tightened very slightly around mine, I felt better than I had in hours.

"How do we break the enchantment?" I asked Sorcha.

"The only way I know of is to slay the Siren responsible."

The knowledge that I was going to have to kill something almost cheered me. At last, something I was good at. "Sounds simple."

"It is," Sorcha said, standing up. "The tough part is finding the Siren -- there's no way to tell one from a real person unless it drops its disguise. I'm going to make that tea, now."

 
***

Sorcha's 'tea' turned out to be a dark, almost viscous liquid she brewed using a variety of herbs she told me she always kept in her car, "just in case". The potion smelt almost as bad as the now- congealing mud and slime that was still splattered liberally over myself and now over my sheets, too, but Sorcha insisted it would help Cordelia. "Let it cool," she instructed me, "and when she wakes up make her drink a cup every hour until it's gone. It's the best thing I've found for concussion. Doyle swore by it."

I sniffed the liquid, and thought it was more likely that Doyle had sworn AT it, but I thanked her anyway. When, shortly before dawn, Sorcha went, she left me with a list of instructions, a flask of evil-smelling tea, and a deep sense that I had received a great and undeserved kindness.

While Cordelia slept out the morning, I stayed by her side -- I had no choice. Once I was certain she was no longer unconscious, but was truly resting, I was able to relax a little. I even managed to read as I sat with her. It was no different to how I'd waited out the daylight hours a thousand times before, except now I had the need for, and comfort of, Cordelia's sleeping presence.

By midday, she was awake, able to sit up in my bed and pull a face when I made her drink the first cup of Sorcha's tea. "Yechhh! It tastes like chemical waste."

"Sorcha said Doyle used to drink it for the vision headaches."

"Yeah, but Doyle used to drink that bright green lime-flavored liqueur from -- where was it from?"

"Ecuador," I said. "I think he used it to unblock drains, too. Stop talking and finish this."

"You have no compassion for the suffering," Cordelia sniffed, but she finished the cup.

By the middle of the afternoon, Cordelia had drunk all Sorcha's tea. Her headache was gone, and she wanted to get out of bed. I helped her to the couch, where she could sit up, and I could finally relax arm and leg muscles that had grown stiff and sore from hunching forward in the wooden chair beside the bed all day.

"If we were at my place, we could watch TV," Cordelia said, and I gave silent thanks we weren't at her place. She scowled. "I guess we're stuck here until it gets dark again."

"Welcome to my life." I indicated the trap door in the floor: "There's always the sewers."

"Ughh, no thank you." She wrinkled her nose in distaste. "I can smell them from here."

"Actually, I think that smell might be us."

The look on Cordelia's face changed to one of horror as she realized I was right. Neither of us had changed out of the clothes we'd been wearing the previous night. The mud and slime into which Cordelia had fallen and I had followed her had now hardened on our clothes and skin, becoming a sour black scum that smelled almost exactly like rotting fish. For the first time, I registered the damage we'd done to the couch just by sitting on it. It was clear I was going to have to get the upholstery cleaned at the first opportunity. In fact, there was a good chance everything that had come within fifty yards of myself and Cordelia was going to need cleaning. And maybe disinfecting, too.

"I don't think," Cordelia said after a second, "I've ever felt less attractive than I do right now. And that includes the time I was with Buffy and Xander when a big, green sploodge demon attacked us and I got slimed."

Sploodge -- ? Oh.

"You mean a Spluije demon," I said.

"That's what I said, Sploodge demon. It looked like a giant, bloated stomach with a mouth and went 'sploodge' when Buffy stuck a knife into it. She SAID she just stuck it where it was vulnerable, but did any of the goo inside that thing spurt all over HER? Oh, no. And yet, strangely, I was dry cleaning for the next month."

Tactfully, I said nothing.

"That was gross. But this -- THIS is worse. I smell like a tray of cat litter and I've got little bits of seaweed down the front of my blouse. As soon as I get home I am getting straight into the shower - -" Abruptly, she broke off and grabbed my hand. "Oh, God. That's not gonna work. I can't even think about not being in the same room as you."

Cordelia's breathing had quickened; her fingers were locked around mine so tightly it hurt. But I welcomed the pain, because it eased the surge of raw, uncontrollable panic I was feeling at the idea of not being able to see Cordelia, to reach out and touch her, know she was close by and safe. For a minute or more we sat side by side on the couch in silence, our hands tightly gripped together, fingers intertwined.

"I think it's getting worse," Cordelia said at last.

"I know," I said. "Sorcha said the only way to break the enchantment is to slay the demon responsible."

"I meant the smell," Cordelia said. "Angel, I have GOT to wash. So do you, since I can't get away from you any time soon. I HATE this," she finished, and I wondered if she was referring to the smell, our current situation, or both.

She closed her eyes and sighed deeply, and looked as miserable as I'd ever seen her, as if simply not being able to get clean was worse than concussion or demons or magic enchantments by a factor of thousands.

With sudden insight, I realized that, to Cordelia, it probably was worse. Her world -- which had previously been a safe, predictable place where only good things happened to her -- had lately become messy and dangerous. But Cordelia wasn't about to be brought down with it, and suddenly I saw that her obsession with hair and makeup and having just the right pair of shoes was her first line of defense against a disordered, grubby universe. Without the lipstick- and-heels shield she put up around herself every day, she was vulnerable. I didn't like to see her that way.

"We could use the shower here," I suggested.

Cordelia's eyes snapped open. "Back up there. We?"

I nodded and watched as, on Cordelia's face, unease at what I was suggesting warred with a deep, deep need not to have slime in her hair.

Reasonably, I said, "Look, when I was growing up, there wasn't any such thing as hot running water. The whole family washed once a month, in a tin bath we put in front of the fire. Everybody used the same water and everybody saw everything."

"If you're trying to make it sound quaint and theme-park historical, you're missing by a mile."

"I'm just trying to explain that it'd be no different from how people used to live."

"And did people used to live with weird demony enchantments that made them uncontrollably horny for each other?" Cordelia asked. "Because, if not, then you and me getting hot and wet together is a terrible idea."

"I know something about self control," I said.

Cordelia snorted. "Yeah, I bet. You and every other man on the planet."

There was something in the dismissive way she said it that made me snap, "Last time I looked around, there weren't any other men on the planet who couldn't even let themselves touch the woman they loved in case they got carried away and ended up losing their souls AGAIN - -"

I broke off a little too abruptly.

"Sure," Cordelia said, "I know after you came back you couldn't get happy with Buffy, but you could get mostly happy without getting completely, all-the-way happy, right? You must have let yourself get, you know, cheerful sometimes." I looked at her, and the certainty in her face started to waver. "Okay, maybe not. But you could still make out. Although I guess the fun part of making out is what comes after the making out, so that'd get old real quick -- Okay, you could still hold hands. I swear I saw you two holding hands --" She stopped, as if realizing something for the very first time. "Except I never did."

In fact, Buffy and I had allowed ourselves to hold hands sometimes, usually when walking back from patrol together or on one of our increasingly infrequent and strained dates. We'd kissed, too -- dryly and chastely, a goodnight peck on the cheek -- and a couple of times we'd even shared a bed, but only fully dressed and with layers of blankets between us. We'd survived on scraps, knowing that the rest of the world was enjoying the banquet and, of course, in the end it hadn't been enough.

"I guess you couldn't risk going any further than first base with Buffy, after what happened," Cordelia said at last. "I never thought about what that must have been like."

I gave a sour little smile. "I didn't think about much else. But -- nothing happened."

Cordelia's hand tightened around mine. Her skin was warm and soft; I could feel her pulse, beating strongly in her wrist, and for once the incessant thud didn't stimulate my appetite. "I'm sorry," she said. "I know I'm enchanted up to the eyeballs right now, but the idea of being close to someone and not being able to touch them -- it sounds like the worst thing in the world." Then her voice changed, an element of resolve entering her tone. Slowly, she said, "If you can deal, I can, too."

She got up, and pulled me to my feet with her. Still holding hands, we made our way to the bathroom, where I shrugged off my shirt and Cordelia stepped out of her jeans. We had to let go of each other to undress; even though it was necessary, and even though we were standing facing one another, I still felt a stab of discomfort when I lost the reassurance of her touch. I guessed from the reluctance with which Cordelia disentangled her fingers from mine that she felt something similar.

I threw my clothes into the corner, where they landed on top of Cordelia's blouse. Now I was stripped to my boxers and she was down to panties and a coral-colored camisole top edged with lace. The top and panties didn't quite meet, and so a low section of her midriff was bare; she had a small, round scar on her stomach, just above the camisole's lace hem. The top was a snug fit; the material pulled taut across her chest, smoothly hugging the swell of her breasts, except in two places, where the soft skin underneath was hard and puckered. I remembered that the ambient temperature in the apartment was probably a little too cool for a living person. Cordelia hugged her arms around herself and shivered.

"Before we get started," she said, "some rules and boundaries. Because after this magical superglue comes unstuck, we're still gonna have to see each other only every single day, and I'd prefer to avoid the potentially crushing embarrassment, if possible."

I nodded. "Right."

"So -- not wanting to sound prudish -- but you have to keep your eyes shut. And I'll keep mine shut, too."

"Okay."

Cordelia cleared her throat, and pointed at her camisole. "I mean, starting now, Angel."

"Oh. Right. Okay."

Obediently, I closed my eyes. I heard fabric rustling as Cordelia finished undressing, and so I took my cue to shed my boxers.

I felt Cordelia take hold of my wrist. With my other hand, I traced a route along the bathroom's tiled wall until I came to the shower cubicle. I fumbled with the handle until I heard a familiar squeak followed by the gush and splutter of hot water. The air in the bathroom rapidly became warm and moist, and we slipped under the rush of water together.

Cordelia made a small noise of delight, and whatever doubts I'd had about the wisdom of what we were doing evaporated. "Ohmigod, this is JUST what I needed. Au revoir, fishy odors! Where do you keep the soap and shampoo?"

Her voice was almost in my ear, but the only contact between us was her hand on my wrist. The shower cubicle wasn't exactly spacious, and I couldn't figure out where she had positioned herself so that we didn't touch. "There's a shelf," I said, "right above your head -- "

She moved, and I felt the water bouncing off her and on to me change direction. "Got them." She pushed the bar of soap into my hand. "Here, you take this. I'm gonna do my hair."

I rubbed the soap into a lather and set about washing my face and arms. At the same time, I could hear Cordelia massaging shampoo into her scalp. "What kind of shampoo is this? It doesn't smell of anything."

"I have a heightened sense of smell, remember? Artificial perfumes give me a headache. I can tolerate unscented products, although they're not unscented to me."

She held a handful of foamy hair under my nose. "So you can still smell this? What's it like?"

Her hair smelled of the chemicals and additives in the shampoo, tinny and artificial. But, beneath that, I caught the scent of something else. No matter how often humans wash, or how heavily they drench themselves in perfumes and deodorants, nothing masks entirely the unique scent of an individual. I purposefully ignored the stink of shampoo and chemically-purified water, and concentrated on what Cordelia's hair really smelled like: Cordelia.

"The way a garden smells after the rain," I said. "Sharp. Sweet. Cleansing."

"Huh," Cordelia said, taking this in. "And all vampires get to experience the world in smell-o-vision?"

"It varies. Spike's sense of smell was never much better than a human's, but he always claimed he kept his sense of taste."

I doubted Cordelia had developed a sudden interest in vampire biology, but while we were talking this way it was easier not to think about more than the simple mechanics of scrubbing, cleaning, rinsing.

"At least we're being environmentally friendly," Cordelia said. She giggled. "Save water, shower with a friend."

I allowed myself a small chuckle, privately amazed at how relaxed I felt. Being this close to her didn't feel wrong or uncomfortable; it was the most natural thing in the world, as if her body was an extension of my own.

Then Cordelia twisted around, probably to wash shampoo out of her hair, and I felt her hip brush against my thigh. The sensation was so potent, so intense, that I couldn't help what I did next.

I opened my eyes.

Her face was barely inches away from mine, cheeks and lips flushed red. Her skin was golden brown, lustrous with warmth and vitality stolen from the sun I couldn't walk under. She'd raised her arms in order to wash her hair, and so the muscles which ran from her shoulders to her chest were taut, lifting her breasts. Rivulets of water and soap ran down between them, tracing a path down to her belly and, below that --

I snapped my gaze up, and found myself staring right into Cordelia's open eyes. "You were supposed to keep your eyes shut," she said.

"So were you," I said, aware that wasn't much of a defense.

"Turn around," Cordelia said. "I'll wash your back."

She took the cake of soap out of my hand; I turned around on the spot, and placed the flats of my palms against the shower's tiled wall. I felt her hands on my back, at first between my shoulder blades, then moving down along my spine in sweeping motions. I could feel the path traced by each fingertip on my skin, as the blast of hot water from the shower nozzle rained down on us.

"You feel warm," Cordelia said. Her voice was lower than before.

"The water heats me," I said.

Her hands were nearing the base of my spine. "Just the water?"

"Not just the water," I whispered.

She slipped her arms around my chest, so that she was hugging me tightly from behind. Her face was against my neck; I could feel her breasts and stomach pressing on my back. "Just a second," she murmured. "Just a second more like this."

Her hands were on my chest, while I was still pressing mine against the wall of the shower. I took my right hand off the slick tiles and put it over hers. Then I lifted her hand to my mouth and kissed her fingers, one at a time. I felt her pulse quicken, and the rapid thud echoed through me, as if my heart had suddenly begun to beat. I was warm to the core, and right then I could have believed I was alive.

I was also very, very hard.

Water poured on to us, beating against the sides of the cubicle, our bodies, drumming incessantly, making coherent thought impossible. We were pressed against each other, stomach to back, skin to skin.

With an effort, I reached up and turned off the shower. Instantly, the pounding water subsided into a trickle, then stopped completely. "The curse," I said hoarsely. "Remember the curse."

"Right," Cordelia agreed, voice strained. "Plus, the morning after embarrassment factor. Which might even be worse than you turning evil."

"So we get dry and get dressed," I said, "and forget this happened."

"Good idea," Cordelia said.

Neither of us moved.

Cordelia shivered against me. "I'm getting cold," she said.

We still didn't move. We stayed as we were, naked, wet, bodies locked together, but we weren't going to stay that way for long, because any second now I knew I was going to turn around and take her right there, up against the shower tiles --

Then the telephone in the apartment's main room rang.

Cordelia let go of me as if she'd just received an electric shock, and stumbled against the shower's opposite wall.

"We should get that," she said.

I nodded, then edged past her, out of the shower cubicle and into the bathroom. I wrapped a towel around my waist and handed another to Cordelia without looking around. I really didn't know what would happen if I looked at her again. Then we went out into the dryer, cooler atmosphere of the rest of the apartment.

I let the phone ring several more times before I answered it. By the time I picked it up, I was able to congratulate myself on sounding almost composed. "Hello?"

"Angel?" The voice on the other end of the line was female, hesitant, and plainly distressed. "You said I could call you -- You said you could help -- I have to get away. I have to."

"Jameela," I said. "Jameela, it's okay. You're doing the right thing."

Jameela was close to sobbing in relief as she said, "I'm on the yacht. I think maybe I can slip away, but if Michael finds out I'm gone --"

"If he comes after you, then he'll have me to deal with." There was no 'if' about it: by the end of tonight, the Siren disguised as Michael Hunter would have a sword through its chest, and I'd be able to get through more than a minute without thinking about Cordelia, who was standing beside me, damp and wearing only a towel --

With effort, I brought my attention back to conversation.

"There's a boathouse," Jameela was saying, "near the Delilah's berth."

"We'll be there as soon as it gets dark."

 
***

In fact, we were a little later than that, mostly because Cordelia insisted on stopping at her apartment so she could change into clean clothes. I stood facing the wall in her bedroom as I listened to the soft noises coming from behind my back -- buttons being done and undone, zippers purring up and down, studs popping open. I distracted myself by thinking of different ways to kill the Siren pretending to be Michael Hunter. I had forty three by the time Cordelia told me I could turn around.

We didn't talk much as I guided the convertible along the westbound freeway, threading through the nighttime traffic toward the coast. Cordelia seemed uncharacteristically contemplative, and I figured it was best to let her work through the shower incident in her own time. For my part, I felt -- well, the truth was, I was having trouble figuring out just how I was feeling. On the one hand, I felt a deep sense of gratitude mixed with relief that I'd narrowly escaped taking a stupid, extreme risk with my soul, while at the same time permanently damaging the fragile friendship that had begun to grow between myself and Cordelia in the past couple of months. On the other hand, I couldn't stop remembering how warm and soft her moist skin had felt against mine, and how much I had wanted her. How much I still wanted her.

When we reached the Santa Monica exit and Cordelia still hadn't spoken -- thirty minutes' unbroken silence had to be some kind of record for her -- I started to worry that maybe our encounter had left her more upset than I'd realized.

"Cordelia?" I asked hesitantly, "Are you okay?"

She looked away from the lights of the city streaking past us and straight at me with that clear, uncompromising gaze. "Well, yeah. Why wouldn't I be?"

"I thought maybe, after what happened, ah, before, maybe you were feeling awkward, or uncomfortable," I said, awkwardly and uncomfortably. "Because, although we didn't, uh, you know, I know I wanted to, and I know -- I mean I'm assuming -- you wanted to as well, and maybe now it's a little, uh, difficult to be this close and know we can't be, ah, intimate."

I shut up then, thinking that I'd probably have to live another two and a half centuries before I said anything as inarticulate as that again.

But I didn't have long to wish I was better at expressing myself, because right then Cordelia asked, "Why can't we? Be intimate, I mean."

I stared at her, and kept staring for so long that when I finally looked back at the road ahead, I had to pull hard on the wheel in order to avoid clashing hub caps with the car in the next lane. "Well, the curse, for a start --"

"I've been thinking about this," she said matter-of-factly. "You lost your soul when you and Buffy did it because you loved her, right? But you don't love me, and I know I'm not in love with you."

She was using the same assured tone she usually reserved for telling me I ought to apply for a credit card or start investing in the stock market and, rationally, I saw she was right. But instead of feeling relieved that we hadn't taken as great a risk as I'd thought, I only felt a hollow, yawning gap somewhere in the pit of my stomach. It was a moment before I remembered I'd forgotten to feed before we left the apartment.

"So even if we'd really gotten carried away in the shower, the biggest risk we would have been taking was one of us slipping on the wet floor and getting a nasty bruise. Plus," she added breezily, "you're really hot, so if we did have sex, it's not like it'd be a trial."

I wasn't sure how to respond to that. "Well -- thanks. You're very attractive, too."

Cordelia shrugged easily. "I know." Then she looked sideways at me, and smiled. "But it's still nice to hear it, sometimes."

We'd arrived at the marina. I parked the Plymouth, and together we made our way through the network of moored yachts and pleasure-boats to the place where I'd first seen Jameela with Michael Hunter. The Delilah was moored securely nearby; no lights were visible at any of its portholes, and it seemed to have been locked down for the night.

Cordelia peered into the darkness. "I don't see anyone. Are you sure she'll be here?"

"This is the right place. She said she'd meet us here."

"No, I meant -- are you sure she'll BE here," Cordelia said. "'Cause I'm thinking she's chickened out."

I heard -- or, more accurately, sensed -- something move in the shadows behind us. But when I turned around, I saw nothing.

"This isn't right," I said.

"Hell, yeah," Cordelia agreed. "Scum like Michael Hunter picking up some naïve girl like Jameela, thinking he can just use her and throw her away when he's done -- it sucks. And now he's probably terrorized her into staying with him when she'd be --"

"Cordelia, be quiet," I said. "Something's wrong. I think this is a --"

-- Trap, I wanted to finish. But I couldn't say the word, because suddenly I couldn't keep standing. Pain blossomed hotly at the back of my skull, and I fell. The last thing I saw before my vision cut out was Cordelia, backing into a corner as a leering, horned demon bore down on her.

**********************

III

I woke up in hell. I knew it must be hell because Cordelia wasn't there.

She wasn't there, and her absence was a huge, all-consuming void that was about to swallow me whole. She wasn't there, and I needed her presence, her voice, her touch, needed her the way the living need air to breathe. She wasn't there, and every second that passed was more terrible than the one before it. She wasn't there, and there weren't words for the horror of being without her.

I could feel my throat starting to tighten as a scream began to rise in my chest.

Somehow I managed not to cry out. Instead I balled my hands into fists, and lay where I was -- somewhere cold, somewhere hard, I knew that much -- with my eyes shut. No need I'd ever experienced, no hunger or thirst or desire or terror, had ever been this overpowering. I had no thoughts, only the searing, brutal agony of want.

Back at the apartment, I'd told her that whatever we felt wasn't real. I'd barely been able to bring myself to believe it then, and I sure as hell didn't believe it now.

Time -- seconds, minutes, longer -- passed. The crushing sense of loss and need didn't abate, but after a while I managed to focus enough to realize it wasn't getting any worse. When I could think about moving again, I sat up slowly and opened my eyes. I unclenched my fists and looked at my palms, and saw blood oozing sluggishly from the wounds my nails had made in them. The physical pain actually provided some measure of relief; at least this was something I was used to tolerating.

I was in a cramped, metal-floored room which had the unmistakable shape and design of a ship's cabin. The room was barely larger than a closet and -- fortunately -- windowless. But sunlight wasn't going to be a problem for hours yet; I knew it was still dark outside because the buzzing sensation at the top of my spine that heralded each sunrise was barely a hum. Or maybe it was simply being drowned out by every nerve ending in my body screaming for Cordelia.

I wanted to see her face again, to hear her voice, to feel her skin, smooth and warm against mine, to taste her, to inhale the scent of her hair as I'd experienced it in the shower, sweet and unique and crisply clean from washing with my soap --

Wait. I wasn't imagining that. I really could smell her.

Her scent hung on the air. She was somewhere close.

I looked around. Opposite the door, there was a small, circular vent, covered by a metal grille. As I stood still, I could feel the faintest of drafts coming from it.

In a second, I was at the vent, my face pressed so hard against it I could feel the metal wires cutting into my cheek. I listened, and heard a noise I doubted human ears would have picked up -- the sound of ragged, frightened breathing.

"Cordelia?" I called. "Cordy?"

"Angel? Oh, God, Angel? Where are you?"

Her voice echoed down the ventilation system's pipes, hollow and faint. Hearing it filled me with a mixture of insane joy and intense relief, and at the same time increased the torture of not being able to see her. But, like an addict, I couldn't stop now. "Not far from you. Are you okay?"

"Sure, if you zero out the shuddering, icy, heart-palpitating PANIC." She made a noise that was half-way between a gasp and a sigh of misery. "Is it as bad as this for you?"

"No heart palpitations. Otherwise, yeah." I closed my eyes, breathed in her scent, and pretended she was in the room with me. That way, I almost felt normal.

"I woke up and you weren't there," she said. "I couldn't breathe. It felt like there were metal straps around my chest and someone was pulling them tighter and tighter and my heart was thumping so hard I thought it was gonna burst and I was gonna die right then and you weren't there and --"

"Cordelia," I interrupted, "Cordy, it's okay. Listen to me. I'm going to find a way out of here and come and get you. But, in the meantime, I need you to keep talking. Just -- keep talking."

I heard her take a deep, steadying breath. "It's easier when we're talking, isn't it?" she said finally. "I still want to throw up because you're not here, but when I hear your voice, it's not just so terrible."

"Right," I said. "But I pretty much suck at conversation. And I need to figure out how to get out of here."

I started to explore the cabin. It was an effort to move away from the ventilation grille, where her scent was strongest, but as I began to prowl around the confined space, the sound of her voice followed me, calming and comforting me.

"Sure. Keep talking. I can do that. I mean, I talk all the time anyway, right? So, talking now -- that's gotta be a cinch." There was a short silence, then her voice floated uncertainly out of the ventilation grille again. "What should I talk about?"

Under my feet, I could feel the floor rolling gently from side to side, and I realized we were headed out to sea. Since it was still night, we couldn't be more than a few hours' distant from land, but that was far enough to make escape more problematic. And it raised other unsettling questions, too. Such as, where were they taking us?

"Anything," I said. "Anything you like."

There was a second's silence. "Angel?"

"Yeah?"

"Do you really want me to leave L.A. and go back to Sunnydale?"

I put my shoulder to the cabin door and pushed experimentally. It didn't budge. "I want you to be safe."

"Right, and Sunnydale and safety go together like ketchup and ice- cream. Try another line, buddy."

"You could have broken your neck when you fell last night," I said, feeling the familiar stab of guilt as I recalled just how lucky she'd been. "How many other times have you nearly gotten killed just in the last couple of months? If you stay here with me, sooner or later you'll end up dead. Like Doyle. And I don't want your death on my conscience as well as his."

"So, what you're saying is, it's okay if I go back to Sunnydale and get turned into chowder for some vamp or Hellmouth freak -- just so long as I'm nowhere near you when it happens so you don't have to feel guilty about it."

I knelt at the cabin door and began to examine the lock mechanism. It was rusting at the edges, and several screws looked as if they could be removed without too much difficulty. I started to twist them, making them looser. "That's not what I'm saying. I'm saying -- I can't protect you."

"That's right. You can't." There was a note of triumph in Cordelia's voice, as if I'd just conceded an important point. "I figured that out already, Angel. When I was high school, I thought that being pretty and popular would protect me from all the bad stuff, but it didn't, 'cause Xander still cheated on me. And then I thought Daddy being rich would keep me safe -- and then all the money went away. And then, when I came to L.A. and met you and Doyle, I started to think maybe being good was the answer, but it's not, because Doyle was good and he still died." She took a deep breath, and I realized her voice had started to shake a little. But it was steady again when she concluded, "I KNOW you can't protect me from the bad stuff, Angel. I'm not asking you to."

She spoke with a sadness that didn't belong in the voice of a girl as young as she was. It reminded me of the way Buffy had sounded during our last conversations.

"Cordelia," I said at last, "I've been responsible for a lot of bad stuff myself, in my time. Now I'm trying to make up for it. You're not obligated to be part of that. My mission --"

From the other side of the vent, I heard a noise that sounded suspiciously like Cordelia blowing a raspberry. "Mission, shmission! Get over yourself, Angel."

I jiggled the door lock again, and was rewarded by two of the screws falling out. The lock was now definitely loose. Dryly, I said, "It's so nice to know my quest for redemption has your respect and support."

Cordelia laughed. It was the best sound I'd heard in days. "It does. You do. But sometimes you talk as if nothing happens that isn't because of a prophecy or a mission or Doyle's Powers-That-Be. You want to know why I'm still here?" Her voice softened, became gentle. "It's because you're my friend, Angel. The only real friend I've got in this city. I like you, and I'm not gonna stop liking you."

I stopped working on the door's lock mechanism and instead stared down at my hands -- the same hands I'd used to hurt and torture and kill in the years before the gypsies had cursed me. I remembered the long decades during which my existence had consisted of nothing except days of guilt-disturbed, fitful sleep and tortured, empty nights. When Whistler had found me in New York and told me I had a purpose other than to suffer, I had fallen on the idea with the hunger of a starving man. Since then, I had grown so used to the idea that my fate was to fulfill whatever prophecies and missions had been allotted to me as punishment for my litany of sins that I had stopped even considering the possibility that anything could happen to me that wasn't pre-ordained, outside of my control. Even falling in love with Buffy, for all that it had freed me, had sometimes felt like my destiny rather than my choice.

And now Cordelia said she liked me. That we were friends. As if that were the simplest, most natural thing in the world, and not the greatest and most unmerited gift a creature like myself could receive.

"Thanks," I said.

Cordelia didn't reply.

Hesitantly, I added, "I like you, too."

Still no reply. The cabin felt unnaturally silent.

Then I realized why -- I could no longer hear the gentle susurration of Cordelia's breathing coming from the ventilation grille, and her scent was already growing stale on the air.

"Cordelia!" I yelled.

She was gone. She was gone and I didn't know where she was --

Unthinkingly, I began to pound the cabin door, kicking and shoving it until it started to rattle in its frame. It would have made more sense to finish the job I'd started on the lock and make a quiet escape instead of creating enough noise to attract the attention of everyone on board. But I wasn't thinking about anything except the overriding necessity of finding Cordelia.

Lowering my shoulder, I rammed the door. It started to buckle and, ignoring the pain, I backed up and made ready to do it again.

As it turned out, I didn't have to. The door opened.

Two of Hunter's hench-demons were standing in the corridor looking in at me. They were each over seven feet tall, including their curled horns -- they had to stoop in the yacht's low corridor -- and in appearance they most resembled the unwanted by-product of a genetics experiment carried out on a lizard and a goat. I recognized them as Xohotical demons: stupid, vicious and insanely loyal to anyone who gives them fresh raw meat and scratches between their horns.

"Boss wants to see you," growled the first demon.

"Where is she?" I demanded. I wasn't in a position to demand anything, but I figured I had nothing to lose trying.

"Boss wanted to see her," the second demon said, roughly grabbing my arm and pulling me out of the cabin. "Boss wants to see you." It smiled unpleasantly at me and added, "Boss has special job for both of you."

That should have been enough to tell me the bad situation we were in was about to get even worse. Yet, as they dragged me along the yacht's corridor, the only thing I felt clearly was relief that Cordelia was still okay and we were going to be together again soon.

***

Our route to the Delilah's wheelroom took us outside and along the yacht's deck, and I seized the opportunity to try to pick up any clues as to where we were going. In front of the yacht, the sea stretched ahead, ink-black under the clear night sky. Off to starboard, I could see the faint, flickering lights of the city. That, at least, was good news: we weren't headed straight out to sea, but were instead maintaining a course parallel to the shore.

I squinted at the distant lights, trying to judge how far offshore we were, but before I could make a guess, my demon captors hauled me up a set of steps and into the Delilah's wheelhouse. And then every other thought evaporated from my mind, because Cordelia was there.

She was being guarded by two more of the Xohotical demons; she looked frightened and pale, but she didn't seem to be hurt. She looked around as my captors pulled me through the door and tried to come to me, but the demons held her back. So did the two flanking me when I tried to get to her.

For an instant I felt a tide of red rage rise up in me, felt my teeth sharpen into fangs and my face harden. Dimly, I was aware that losing control now was more likely to get both Cordelia and myself killed than solve anything, but that didn't quell the mounting fury I felt at the idea of anyone keeping us apart.

"Let her go," said a man's voice.

The demons holding Cordelia hesitated, then released her. She ran the few paces it took to get to me, and we clung on to each other. Suddenly I wasn't thinking about Hunter or Jameela or the really, really bad situation we'd somehow gotten ourselves into; everything I needed and wanted was in my arms.

"Are you okay?" I asked when I could speak.

"Better now," Cordelia whispered back. I knew exactly what she meant.

We maneuvered ourselves so that we were standing side by side, although we were still holding hands. Our enforced separation hadn't done anything to weaken the enchantment -- if anything, our need to be close to each other had intensified to the point where we couldn't even think straight unless we were in physical contact. Now that we were holding hands, I didn't think either of us was going to be able to let go; we weren't handcuffed together, but we might as well have been.

But at least now I had the reassurance of Cordelia's hand in mine, I could concentrate sufficiently on other things to look around properly. The Delilah's wheelroom was as redolent of money and taste as the rest of the yacht. The instrument panels were finished in dark wood, the antique effect a pointed contrast to the abundance of hi-tech navigation aids which probably had more to do with indulging the owner's love of gadgets than helping to point the boat in the right direction. A sweeping, curved window gave whoever was at the yacht's wheel a comprehensive view of the yacht's prow and the ocean beyond.

Right now, that person was Michael Hunter. He was standing at the Delilah's wheel, wearing the rich man's weekend uniform of chinos and a khaki sweater, and looking urbane and relaxed and very much as if kidnapping and drug-running were part of his normal daily existence. Jameela stood close to him, one hand clutching his sleeve. Her gaze was lowered to the floor.

"We know all about you, Mister," Cordelia said. "We know about the drugs, and the magic, and the -- and the creamer!"

"The creamer isn't actually illegal," I pointed out quietly.

"Yeah, but two things is a pretty lame list," she whispered back. Then she raised her voice again and demanded, "Where are you taking us?"

Hunter didn't reply; he didn't even look around. He turned the wheel a fraction, and adjusted his stance. As he moved, I saw there was a gun sitting on the edge of the Delilah's navigation panel. It was resting where Hunter could reach it easily -- but it was also within Jameela's reach.

I decided to try another approach.

"Jameela," I said.

She didn't look up from the floor, or meet my gaze.

"Jameela, what he's doing is wrong. You know that. What you think you feel for him isn't real -- it's just magic." Jameela still wouldn't look at me, but I saw her glance toward Hunter. Encouraged, I continued, "He's not even a person, Jameela. He's a creature called a Siren, pretending to be a person. He doesn't love you and you don't really love him. Look inside yourself and you'll realize that's true."

Hunter respond to that at all, but Jameela tightened her grip on his arm. But I saw her other hand start to work its way across the Delilah's instrument panel, toward the gun. "Michael," she said quietly. "Michael, you love me, don't you?"

Now Hunter turned and looked at her. "I adore you."

"That's a crock!" Cordelia exclaimed.

"I would do anything for you," Jameela said. "Would you do anything for me?"

"Baby," Hunter whispered, "you know I would." His hands had fallen from the yacht's wheel; he seemed to have forgotten he was supposed to be steering it.

A sudden and unpleasant suspicion formed in my mind.

Jameela's hand tightened around the gun. She lifted it. "I would die for you. Would you die for me?"

"In a second," Hunter said.

A human in a siren's thrall is a pitiful thing, Sorcha had said.

Oh shit.

"Then die for me," Jameela said, and gave Hunter the gun.

He was smiling at her as he blew his brains out.

It happened so fast there was no time to intervene. Cordelia cried out, and there was a horrible, wet splattering sound as most of Michael Hunter's brains exited his skull and hit the inside of the cockpit's window. The air thickened with the scent of blood as his body thudded limply on to the floor.

Jameela straightened up, tossed her hair back and dropped her little- girl-lost act for the first time. Looking at us with a gaze that was as composed as it was utterly malevolent, she said, "I'm impressed you've heard of Sirens. There aren't many of us, and we like to keep a low profile." She nudged Hunter's body with her toe. "For obvious reasons."

Cordelia was still staring in horror at Hunter's body. "You killed him."

Jameela shrugged. "He killed himself. Humans are pathetic -- they take pheromones and biochemistry and they slap the word 'love' on it and pretend it's somehow transcendent. Look at you," she added, waving contemptuously at Cordelia and myself, "a vampire and his lunch, holding hands. Do you have ANY idea how ludicrous you are?"

Regaining some of her composure, Cordelia said, "I am no one's lunch."

The Xohotical demons quietly moved around so that they flanked Jameela, two on either side of her.

"You know, this used to be so much less work," Jameela said wistfully. "Back in the day, all we had to do was sit on a rock singing and wait. The ships practically dashed themselves, you know? And all that lovely gold just washed up around us..." Her eyes grew unfocused as she fell into reverie. "Coins and jewelry and rings. So many beautiful things. Do you know how wealth is stored now? Stocks and bonds and options, little pieces of paper or electronic pulses moving between bank accounts. Money doesn't go clink anymore."

Jameela's eyes were shining as she warmed to her topic, and I realized this was probably the only thing Sirens felt real affection for.

"That's why you targeted Hunter," I said. "You realized his legitimate business was just a cover for the real source of his money."

Jameela shrugged. "No one ever got that rich from creamer. All I had to do was wait until he told me everything I needed to know -- the sources, the contacts, the channels." She glanced disparagingly at the body on the floor. "He was too dumb to realize everything he told me was bringing him closer and closer to permanent retirement."

"Wow," Cordelia said. "I mean, demons are evil. Got that, down with it. But -- drug trafficking demons? You're in a whole new league of evilness."

Jameela smiled. "Why, thank you, my dear."

"Well, now you're sunk," Cordelia said. "Because Angel and I know all about you, and we're gonna go straight to the cops, and, and --" She broke off abruptly, and I felt her hand tighten around mine. "And you're gonna kill us before we can do that, aren't you?"

"That's the plan," Jameela conceded. "But not before you help me."

"I don't think so," I said.

"Oh, but I do." Jameela was smiling again. "Tonight, a sudden and mysterious fire will sink the Delilah. By the time the last charred timber sinks to the bottom of the ocean, I'll be a hundred miles away -- with the real cargo."

"It's not that easy to disappear," I said. "The authorities will expect to find a body."

"And they will." Jameela was looking at Cordelia in a way I didn't like at all.

Nervously, Cordelia said, "You think that'll work? The cops check things like dental records, you know."

"They won't be able to," Jameela said sweetly, "if you don't have any teeth."

She motioned at the nearest demon, which lumbered threateningly toward Cordelia. Raising a clawed hand and smiling unpleasantly, it casually swiped at her face. It was just playing with her, taking the opportunity to cause a little terror before it got down to the serious business of maiming, but Cordelia didn't move back quickly enough, and one claw grazed her cheek. A tiny scratch just below her eye started to well with blood.

She was bleeding. They had hurt her.

Suddenly, everything -- Jameela, the demons, Michael Hunter's dead body, the yacht, the night and the wide Pacific ocean -- faded, became insignificant and inconsequential. My world began and ended with Cordelia; for each drop of her blood that had been spilled, I wanted to wring pints from whoever had hurt her.

I brought the first demon down without difficulty -- nothing could have prepared it for the violence of my attack. The second demon put up more of a struggle, but made a fatal error when it lowered its head to try to ram me with its horns. I grabbed one of them and twisted it until it broke off in my hand, leaving the demon writhing on the floor, clutching the bloody hole in its head where the horn had been. When the third demon charged at me, I threw the horn at it like a missile. The point slammed into the middle of the demon's chest, and it flew backward into the wide window at the front of the cockpit. It hit the window and kept going, sailing out into the night in a shower of shattered glass, before landing on the deck below with a satisfying crunch.

I was only warming up.

"Angel!"

Cordelia's voice. Was she in trouble?

I looked around, and saw with relief she wasn't. But she was glaring angrily at me, and for a moment, I couldn't figure out why.

"Angel, you're gonna dislocate my shoulder!"

I looked down, and realized I was still holding her hand -- gripping it so tightly her fingers were white and bloodless. Somehow I'd made it through the whole fight like that.

"Sorry," I said. I loosened my grip, but didn't let go, and Cordelia didn't ask me to.

"THANK you," she said, rubbing her shoulder with her free hand. "Where'd skanky Siren lady go?"

I looked around the wheelhouse, and saw it was empty. The door was swinging in the breeze blowing in through the shattered window, and I could hear the sound of footsteps, rapidly growing fainter.

"Come on," I said, and together we ran out of the wheelhouse and down the steps, still holding hands.

We raced toward the yacht's stern, following the sound of Jameela running ahead of us. We hadn't gone far when I caught the first scent of smoke in the air. The next porthole we passed glowed with an orange-red, flickering light.

"Great," Cordelia said, gasping a little as she ran next to me. "You know what's worse than being trapped with drug-smuggling demons in the middle of the ocean on a boat? Being trapped with drug-smuggling demons in the middle of the ocean on a boat THAT'S ON FIRE."

"We're not trapped," I said. The Delilah had everything else; it had to have a lifeboat --

We rounded the next corner, and I saw the Delilah did have a lifeboat. Jameela was already in it.

The fourth Xohotical demon was loading small, plastic-wrapped packages into the dinghy while Jameela untied the ropes securing it to the side of the Delilah. She looked up at us as we ran on to the aft deck, the look on her face one of faint annoyance. "The other three were supposed to take care of you." She snapped her fingers and barked a command at the demon.

The demon rushed at us. "Don't move," I said to Cordelia. "And get ready."

"Get ready for what --?"

I didn't have time to answer -- the demon was nearly on us. I put my hand on Cordelia's shoulder, leaped, twisted, and kicked, using her body as leverage. I heard her gasp in surprise, and her shoulder dipped a little, but she didn't move. My foot connected squarely with the demon's throat; the force of the blow knocked it back, and as I landed I saw it skid across the deck and over the side of the yacht.

Cordelia glared at me. "Next time, a little more warning, please." She looked toward the side of the deck. "Do you think it can swim?"

"Oh, yeah, Xohotical demons can swim," I said. From the side of the yacht, we heard a scream, followed by an unpleasant hissing, bubbling sound. "Salt water, on the other hand..."

Jameela looked at the spot where the last of her demon helpers had gone into the sea. Sounding more irritated than anything else, she said, "You people are starting to piss me off."

As she spoke, her voice changed, becoming rougher and more guttural. Then she stood up, her body twisting and warping as she rose. Her hair rose and hardened into poisonous-looking spikes and iridescent scales appeared on her skin, exactly the same as the one I had found in Hunter's bedroom. Her eyes reddened, the pupils shrinking and disappearing, and webbing grew between her fingers, at the same time as they lengthened and sharpened into claws.

Jameela -- in her real and not at all attractive form -- stepped out of the lifeboat and on to the Delilah's deck. With one scaly and powerful arm she -- it? -- broke off a portion of the yacht's boom. Apparently she was much stronger in her true shape.

"Cordelia?" I said.

"Yeah?"

"I think I'm going to need both hands for this."

With effort, we let go of each other. Immediately, I felt worse -- lifeless, like a puppet whose strings had been cut, or a TV with the plug pulled. Just staying on my feet was a struggle.

Jameela wielded the boom like a club, swiping it low through the air. I jumped, and looked around frantically for something I could use as a weapon. I didn't see anything.

Jameela roared, and attacked again. This time, I wasn't fast enough, and the blow glanced off my shoulder. I lost my balance and fell on to the yacht's deck, landing hard on my back. I heard Cordelia yell, and when I looked up I saw Jameela towering above me, making ready to bring the boom down on to my skull.

Suddenly, a thick coil of rope dropped over Jameela, temporarily pinning her arms to her sides. She dropped the boom, and I rolled out of the way. When I got to my feet, I saw Cordelia holding on to the other end of the crude lasso. She wasn't going to be able to hold Jameela for long.

I dived for the boom and retrieved it. Behind me, I heard a snap, and when I turned around I saw Jameela break the rope with a roar. Cordelia staggered backward, losing her balance as the rope went slack. I only had a few seconds. It was all I needed.

Launching myself at Jameela, I knocked her over, and we rolled together across the yacht's deck. When we stopped, I was on top of her. I hefted the boom and made ready to slam the sharp, splintered end into Jameela's chest.

Jameela smiled, mouth twisting back to reveal several rows of teeth. A black tongue flicked over her lips. In a quiet, deceptively soft voice, she said, "When I die, she won't want you anymore."

I hesitated.

Jameela reached up and grabbed the boom out of my hands. Then she threw me off herself with such force that I slammed backward, only stopping when I collided painfully with the main mast. As I picked myself up, I saw Jameela heading back to the lifeboat. And I saw Cordelia running toward her, clearly intent on stopping her reaching it. She was going to get herself killed.

I heard myself shout Cordelia's name. As if in slow motion, I saw her turn around and look at me. And I saw Jameela wielding the boom, knocking Cordelia sideways, across the deck and over the yacht's railings.

I ran across the deck, ignoring Jameela, who was lowering the yacht's lifeboat into the sea. I skidded the last couple of yards on my knees, and looked over the side of the boat with a sick sense of fear.

Cordelia's face was about six inches below mine. She was clinging on to the edge of the deck with both hands. Her knuckles were white and I could see every muscle in her arms was stretched and taut.

"Take my hand," I said, reaching down to her.

Through gritted teeth, she said, "I thought you'd never ask."

I grasped Cordelia's arms and wrists, feeling an intense and almost physical sense of relief as I touched her, and pulled her back up on to the yacht. When she was safely back on the yacht's deck, I enfolded her in my arms, and we stayed that way for several minutes.

Cordelia spoke first. "Did Jameela take the lifeboat?"

I looked around, and saw the dinghy was gone. "Yes."

"Great," Cordelia muttered. "So much for women and vampires first. You know what? The only way this could possibly be worse would be if the boat was on fire." A pall of smoke drifted above us, blocking our view of the night sky. I could hear the crackling of flames. "No, wait, the boat IS on fire, and this situation cannot, officially, get ANY WORSE."

"Maybe there's another lifeboat," I suggested.

A quick tour of the parts of the yacht which weren't yet impassable due to the fire dashed that faint hope. When we returned to the aft deck, Cordelia leaned over the rails and waved at the distant lights of Santa Monica. "Hey!" she yelled, "Hey! Help!"

"We're too far away," I said. "No one will hear."

Cordelia looked desperately toward the shoreline. "It looks so close. We can't be more than a mile or two out. I used to swim in the sea when we spent summer at the beach house. I know we could swim that distance." She turned around, her voice and face alight with sudden hope. "Angel, we could swim to shore."

I looked at her, and knew with cold certainty there was only one way out of this. "You could swim it."

Cordelia stared at me in confusion for a moment, and then her face took on a look of dismay. "Oh -- Angel. Oh, God, I forgot." She shook her head. "This would usually be the point where I would make a nice speech about how I can't leave you behind. Except --" She held up her hand, in the process raising mine, too. Our fingers were entwined tightly around each other. "Except it happens to be literally true. I can't leave you, Angel. I can't."

"You'll have to," I said. "Look, I'm not going to drown. The worst that can happen is I'll sink to the bottom and have to walk back to land."

Caustically, Cordelia said, "Using what -- the map of the ocean floor you always keep handy? There are no signposts at the bottom of the sea, Angel. If you pick the wrong direction, the next stop is Japan." She screwed up her face in something not unlike pain. "Besides, that's not the point. The point is, we'd be apart, and I -- just -- can't --"

I knew exactly what she meant. The idea of being separated from her was making me feel physically ill.

Making my voice deliberately harsh, I said, "If you stay here, with me, you're going to die. You have to swim." I looked around, and saw a lifebelt hanging on hooks on the deck's railings. I pulled Cordelia toward it, took it down, and pushed it into her free hand. "Take this."

"We already had this argument!" Cordelia yelled, and pushed the lifebelt back at me.

"And this is exactly why I was right!" I was shouting back at her, now. I thrust the lifebelt back at her so hard she had to take a step back.

Cordelia looked at the lifebelt, then at me. "No, you're wrong," she said, "and we're gonna prove it."

Then she hugged me, grabbed me with one hand and the lifebelt with the other, and deliberately pulled us both over the deck's railings.

*************

IV

Cordelia and I plummeted off the burning yacht together, and for an instant I was aware of nothing except the feel of her body in my arms and the rush of the wind whistling past my ears. Then we hit the water's surface, and the Pacific swallowed us up.

As I knew I would, I started to sink. I let go of Cordelia -- this time, I wasn't going to drag her down with me -- and let myself start to go under. The water was mild, even warm, but it grew rapidly cooler as I started to descend. I wondered what it would be like at the bottom. At least I wouldn't have to worry about sunlight.

Then I felt Cordelia's hand tighten around my arm. She was pulling me back to the surface, using the lifebelt to give her enough buoyancy to keep us both afloat.

"Let go --" I gasped as soon as my head was above the water.

"Haven't you ever been to vampire life saving class?" Cordelia asked. Her face was set with a determination I hadn't known she possessed. "Kick, dammit!"

"Cordelia --"

"I'm NOT letting go of you," she said. "So you'd better start kicking before you get me drowned."

I kicked. And kicked. And kept kicking.

What we were doing was hardly swimming -- we were barely floating, and sometimes it felt as if the lights of the shore weren't getting any closer, and once or twice I was afraid they were actually becoming more distant. When Cordelia started to tire, I pushed the lifebelt under her chin so her head was above the water, and tried not to drag her under the waves. It was difficult: my limbs were corpse-heavy, and I had to fight the urge simply to give in, to let myself sink to the bottom and settle into dark and silent rest. But I couldn't let go of Cordelia, and I wouldn't allow myself to pull her down with me.

"Did I -- say this -- was a good -- idea?" she spluttered, struggling to speak between desperately snatched breaths. "Really -- stupid --"

"Listen," I said.

"To -- what --?"

"I hear an engine."

We both listened. Somewhere in the darkness, he whining, high- pitched drone of a powerboat was rising above the ocean's dull roar. As it grew louder, I saw the waves near to us shine with reflected light.

Cordelia raised her arm out of the water and waved frantically. "Over here! Hey! Woman and vampire overboard! Hey!"

I shouted, too, and for a second the powerboat's lights seemed to veer toward us. But instead of slowing down, the boat accelerated past us, bouncing through the swell and disappearing rapidly back into the night.

Cordelia shouted until her voice hoarsened and exhaustion forced her to stop waving. I saw her look toward the still-distant lights on the shore, hope draining from her. Her head started to bob lower and lower in the water. "It's too far. We're not gonna make it."

I kicked harder, but even with the lifebelt's buoyancy to help me, I couldn't keep both of us above the water. The truth was, I needed Cordelia. I just hadn't let myself acknowledge how much until now.

I struggled to keep my head above water, so I could speak. "Cordelia," I said. "Cordy, listen to me. I needed you and Doyle, and now Doyle's gone -- I need you. I thought -- when I came to L.A. -- I could make it by myself. I can't. I don't want you to go. I was wrong."

"Well, of COURSE you were wrong," Cordelia said as we bobbed up and down together on the swelling and subsiding waves. "But jeez, Angel, you couldn't have admitted it BEFORE we got enchanted, chased, kidnapped, beaten up and nearly drowned?"

She was trying to look annoyed, but there was something in her voice that told me she wasn't. "I'll keep that in mind for next time," I said.

Cordelia made a snorting sound that was clearly meant to convey her firm intention that there wasn't going to be a next time, and we started swimming again. This time, our progress was significantly easier --- the incoming tide had caught us and was bearing us swiftly toward land. When at last I heard the sound of waves breaking on the shore, I gave one final kick, and felt sand under my feet.

I staggered forward, walking now instead of swimming. Cordelia was near-exhausted, and for once our need for physical closeness actually had a purpose, as she hooked her arm over my shoulders and I put mine around her waist, giving her support. We made our way through the surf toward the beach, the waves reaching first my chest, then my waist, then my knees, until finally Cordelia and I were standing in water that was barely ankle-deep, while tiny wavelets lapped around our feet.

I let the lifebelt drop. It sat for a second on the damp sand, before an advancing wave lifted it and carried it back out to sea.

"We made it," Cordelia said at last. She sounded almost as amazed as I felt.

"We made it," I agreed. "But -- I don't think I'm going to take up swimming any time soon."

Cordelia looked at me, her face serious. "That's a shame. 'Cause, you know, I can just picture you in a pair of little red Speedos --" She broke off, unable to keep a straight face any longer, and started to giggle. Her joy was pure and infectious, and I smiled back at her. Cordelia moved around until she was hugging me with both arms, and I embraced her in turn. We stood that way for some time, the cool ocean stealing the sand from under our feet while the moonlit, empty beach rang with the sound of Cordelia's joyful laughter.

A larger wave broke around our feet, spraying us with seawater. Californian winters are mild, but even L.A. can be cold in November, and the night air was chill and dry. Cordelia hugged herself closer to me, and as welcome as the sensation of her body pressing against mine was, I knew there wasn't much I could do to warm her up -- I was cold to the core, stripped of even minimal warmth by the sea. Cordelia shivered violently in my arms.

"We need to get you warm," I said.

She stammered her agreement through chattering teeth.

The moon was almost full and the sky was cloudless, and there was sufficient light to see some distance in both directions along the beach. Cordelia and I were the only people on it -- not surprising, since it was the middle of the night -- but just above the tide line I saw a small, windowless wooden hut, timbers bleached from long exposure to the sun.

"This way," I said, and helped Cordelia toward it.

The hut's door was padlocked, but the chain it hung on was rusted and brittle, and I was able to break it without difficulty. Inside, the walls of the hut were lined with shelves piled high with towels, and boxes of neatly rolled beach mats on the floor. Stenciled lettering on the sides of the boxes informed us that everything we saw was the property of the Pacific View Hotel, and the management would take an extremely dim view of anyone who wasn't a patron of the hotel using it.

I decided the management of the Pacific View Hotel could take a leap, and lifted down a bundle of towels from the nearest shelf. I handed them to Cordelia, who wrapped them around herself, cloak- like, while I continued to dig through the contents of the boxes. It wasn't long before I found an even better prize -- matches, probably kept down here to light the hotel's beach party barbeques.

I lifted an armful of beach mats and carried them outside. They were made from roughly woven cloth, and lit easily when I put a match to them. Within a couple of minutes, sparks were rising high into the air from the fire I'd made in a hollow in the sand. The flames rose, banishing the darkness and creating a circle of warmth and light with us at its center.

When I looked around, Cordelia was kicking off her wet jeans, letting them fall into the pile on top of her sea-sodden blouse. In place of her clothes, she had draped Pacific View Hotel towels around her waist and shoulders, neatly rolling and tucking them so they stayed in place. She looked like she was wearing a fluffy white kimono.

We sat down together by the fire, leaning against each other and the outside of the beach hut. Here, we had shelter from the cool breeze coming off the ocean, and the hut's timber proved effective at trapping the fire's warmth and reflecting it back on us. It wasn't long before the color started to return to Cordelia's lips and cheeks.

"Warmer now?" I asked.

Cordelia nodded. "Most of me. My hands and feet haven't gotten the memo, yet, though."

I took her hand; her fingers felt cold in mine. Gently, I started to rub them between my palms, hoping to use the friction of the motion to warm her in place of the body heat I didn't have. My reward was a small noise of satisfaction from Cordelia. "Mmmm. That's nice. Keep doing that."

Encouraged, I moved on to her other hand, and then to her wrists and arms. Her skin was porcelain-cool, and as smooth as fine china. The more I touched her, the more I wanted to keep touching her, and it felt natural to keep working my way up her arm until my hands were underneath the towel, caressing her shoulders. It was difficult to reach her other shoulder where I was sitting, and so, without really thinking about what I was doing, I repositioned myself so I was straddling her.

A sudden, loud crashing noise snapped both of us back to our senses.

Cordelia looked up sharply. "What was that?"

"It came from the ocean." I concentrated on listening, but apart from the crackling of the fire and the breaking waves, I couldn't hear anything.

"Maybe it was the noise of the Delilah sinking."

"Maybe," I said doubtfully. The only noise the Delilah would have made as she sunk under the waves would have been a hiss as the water extinguished the fire which had destroyed her, but what I had heard had sounded like the crash of a high-speed impact.

My hands were still on Cordelia's shoulders, her face still close to mine. I was kneeling in the sand, her legs resting in the gap between mine. The only polite way of describing our position was 'compromising'. There were a lot of impolite descriptions for it, too. "I'm sorry --" I began.

Cordelia put her hand lightly on my arm, and suddenly my absolute intention to get off her dissolved like the foam on the waves breaking down the beach. In a quiet voice, she asked, "Angel, what are we gonna do?"

I didn't answer straight away. I'd been hoping to avoid this question at least until we'd both had a chance to rest. But it wasn't going to go away, and we might as well confront it.

Finally, I said, "We have a couple of options. We could go looking for Jameela. Or we could go back to Sorcha and ask her if she knows any other way of undoing the magic." I tried to sound upbeat as I added, "There's usually a ritual for this kind of thing."

"Involving entrails?" Cordelia asked.

"Probably. But not ours. I hope."

Cordelia looked at me. "You don't know how we're gonna fix this, do you?"

"No," I admitted.

I felt a stab of guilt as I remembered that it had been my hesitation back on the yacht which had allowed Jameela to escape. Just for a moment, I'd listened to the selfish inner voice that wanted to keep Cordelia close to me, and in the process I'd only caused her more distress -- and maybe ruined our chances of breaking the enchantment, ever.

"I'm sorry," I said again. "I know how tough it must be for you, being tied to me like this --"

Cordelia made a sound that was more like a moan than a sigh. "It's not that. When we were apart on the yacht I kept thinking it'd just be okay if I could see you and touch you again, but it doesn't matter how close we are, I just want to be closer. It feels like I'm fighting, fighting, fighting all the time -- I don't think I'm gonna be able to stand another five minutes of this, and it might be five days or weeks or even longer --" She broke off. "Being close to you isn't the problem, Angel. The problem is I can't get close enough."

She looked up at me, her face aching with a frustration and longing that perfectly mirrored my own.

In that instant, I knew I would do anything, anything at all, if it would make her happy.

I kissed her.

Her lips were still cold, but the inside of her mouth was warm like the heat radiating on to us from the fire. A faint flavor of seawater still clung to her, but the more deeply we kissed, the purer her taste became, until I felt as if I were kneeling at the clearest spring.

I forced myself to stop kissing her long enough to say, "I don't want to take advantage --"

"You're not," Cordelia whispered, tipping back her head so I could kiss her throat, starting under her chin and working my way down to her breast bone.

"You're not in control of yourself," I murmured into the hollow between her breasts.

"And you are?" When she spoke, the vibrations from her chest tickled my lips. "If you want, we can stop and both sign waivers."

She curled one arm around me, and I felt her index finger tracing a pattern of lines and curves on my shoulder. C, O, R... I realized she was signing her name on my skin.

"I don't want to stop," I said, and lifted my head just enough to look her in the eye. She looked back at me, her gaze a heady mixture of excitement and certainty.

"Me either," she said.

She slid downward, so she was no longer sitting but was instead lying beneath me. She reached up, looping both arms around the back of my neck, and the towel which had been draped around her shoulders slid off her and on to the sand. The second towel she was wearing covered her upper body, tucked so that it stayed in place just below her arms, and the third was rolled around her waist. Slowly, deliberately, I unfolded them, opening out each one in turn. I felt as if I were unwrapping a perfect, priceless gift.

When I had finished, Cordelia was lying naked under me on a soft white bed of hotel towels. I could feel the heat rising off her, see the slow ripple of gooseflesh moving across her as the cold air caressed her skin.

"Touch me," she said. Her voice was low and husky and slightly breathless. I could hear the hunger in it.

"Where?"

She arched her back, lifting her chest toward me. "Everywhere. Oh, God, just -- everywhere."

I put my hands on either side of her waist -- my thumbs almost met just above her belly button -- and slowly brushed my palms upward, marveling at the way her body seemed to hum and tremble under my touch. I cupped her breasts, one in each hand, their cool softness a contrast to the tiny, hard knot at the center of each. I ducked my head and let my lips brush each one in turn; when she cried out in response, I felt something rise within me, a swell of water becoming a wave, starting to move toward the distant shore.

I worked my hands over her body slowly, methodically, thoroughly. I marveled at how every part of her felt slightly different. Just under her breasts was as delicate and yielding as fine silk, but when I put my hand on her hip I could feel the solid resistance of muscle and bone working together as she changed her position. I wanted to know every inch of her, leave nothing unexplored.

When I had visited every other possible destination on her body, I tracked my fingers upward, along the inside of her thigh, burying them in the soft, dark mat I found there. The triangle of hair was as dark against her pale stomach as the hair on her head was as it fanned out against the sand. I worked my way deeper, until I was touching the source of her warmth, the furnace burning at her core.

She gasped and raised her hips, pushing against me, tightening her thighs, squeezing my hand between them.

Then she unhooked her arms from around my neck and started to unbutton my shirt. It was a relief when she tugged it off -- the warmth of the fire and her fingertips on my bare skin were infinitely preferable to clammy, damp material. "I want to touch you," she said, starting to undo my belt.

A second later I felt the fire's heat on the backs of my legs. Then her hands were on me, squeezing and compressing me in exquisite, unbearable tightness. At the same time I could feel her working herself against my trapped hand, chafing against my palm. The growing wave inside me surged forward, threatened to break. I extricated my hand from between her thighs and used it to break her hold on me.

Cordelia gave a moan that was thick with raw need and desperation. The sound of it was almost enough to do what I'd been afraid her touch would. But not quite.

"Not close enough," she said. "Closer."

Her legs parted and slid outward, making ridges in the sand. I planted my hands on either side of her and lowered myself so that we were chest to chest, belly to belly, skin against skin. We were as close as it was possible to get. It still wasn't close enough.

Cordelia slipped her hand between our bodies and took hold of me again, but this time it was to guide me into her. As I entered her, I felt a sense of completion; we fitted each other, two halves of a whole, entire only when joined. It felt so right, so essential, that I took a second to wonder why we'd ever believed we had to fight this.

I slid in and out of her slowly, savoring the intimacy of the touch, the intensity of sensation. As we moved together, the sand underneath the towels shifted to accommodate us, molding to fit our bodies. In this position, I could look down at Cordelia; her eyes were closed, her lips parted, her face tight with arousal and need. I quickened the rhythm of our movement, and saw her bite down on her lower lip in an effort to control her mounting pleasure. The sight of it excited me, made it harder to keep control myself.

Then she opened her eyes and looked up at me. Her gaze was piercing, clear, accepting. My oldest memories tell me that when humans look deeply into another person's eyes, they see themselves reflected there. I didn't reflect in Cordelia's pupils any more than I reflect anywhere else, but when I looked deep into her gaze, I saw something much better than myself. I saw her.

I pushed into her, more deeply than before, as deep as I could go. Finally, we were close enough.

"I'm gonna, I'm gonna --" She broke off, gasped, and then I felt a long, sweet shudder pass up through her body, making her tremble from feet to fingertips. She gasped, then shouted, her voice rising above the distant sound of the waves breaking on the shore. I felt her clench around me, as a dam deep, deep within her burst, releasing a euphoric tide. And I saw the tension in her face dissolve as bliss overtook her.

Her body became liquid against mine, fluid and pliant. As she relaxed, limbs loosening, the last spasms deep inside her carried me onward, a rip-tide I was helpless to resist. I felt the wave breaking inside me, starting at the point where our bodies met and spreading outwards, washing away everything in its path.

When the wave finally subsided, I lay still for a moment, exhausted and grateful, like a shipwrecked man washed up on a welcoming shore after the storm. Somewhere in the distance, I could hear the Pacific breaking on the beach, over and over, the ocean caressing the land with the gentleness of a lover's touch.

I rolled off Cordelia, and made a hollow in the sand beside her. Then I pulled the towels over both of us like blankets, so that we were swaddled together in a cocoon made warm by the fire and her body heat.

"Shoulda done that way sooner," Cordelia said, smiling drowsily at me.

I wanted to agree, but before I could we were both asleep.

***

I was woken up by cold water lapping at my feet.

I sat up. The sky was still dark, although the moon was setting and the buzz at the back of my head told me dawn was not far off.

The fire had gone out, although the ashes of the Hotel Pacific View's beach mats would smolder for some time yet -- if the incoming tide didn't swallow them up first. That was what had woken me; while Cordelia and I had slept, the sea had crept up the beach, and now the most far-reaching of the advancing waves had reached my feet. Cordelia, still wrapped up in the towels, had curled up next to me, fetal-style. She was still dry and warm, and slept on, in blissful ignorance of the advancing ocean.

I put out my hand to wake her up and tell her she needed to move, then thought better of it when I saw the look on her sleeping face. She was smiling faintly, immersed in some pleasant dream -- one, I hoped, where she lived in a world without enchantments or evil demons, where Doyle was alive and there were plenty of shoes. I didn't want to have to bring her back from that place before I absolutely had to.

Very carefully, I got up and lifted her in my arms. Then I carried her to a spot above the tide line, and set her down gently, still swathed in the towels. I pulled on my shirt and pants -- they were dry now, and stiff with salt -- and sat down next to her, bending my legs and resting my arms on my knees and looking out at the ocean. Next to the Pacific's vast and timeless expanse, I felt mortal.

After a while, I noticed that the incoming tide was washing something on to the beach -- some kind of debris. Curious, I got up and walked the short distance down to the water's edge. I found some shattered wood and fiberglass panels, of sufficiently different sizes and shapes to convince me I was looking at the wreckage of not one but two small vessels.

Another wave broke over my feet, carrying more pieces of wreckage. But these were different. When I reached down into the surf and picked up an item at random, I found I was holding a small plastic package. The package had been punctured by the ocean, and was now little more than a shriveled husk, but a small amount of white residue still clung to its interior. It looked like flour-and-water paste and was probably about as valuable.

I turned the package over in my hand -- and froze.

A single, iridescent scale was sticking to the underside of the plastic. It glittered harshly in the moonlight.

The water lapped around my ankles, and I looked down. All around my bare feet floated a collection of empty plastic packages and shimmering, reptilian scales.

I remembered Jameela gloating as she made her escape in the Delilah's tiny dinghy, taking Michael Hunter's shipment of illegal drugs with her. I remembered the powerboat that had sped recklessly past Cordelia and myself as we swam to safety. And I remembered the crashing noise we had heard once we reached the beach.

I held the scale up in the moonlight, hardly daring to believe in the string of coincidences required to make what I thought had happened possible. The scale was sharp, and I cut myself on it as I examined it. Even dead, Jameela was still dangerous.

But she was dead.

I looked to where Cordelia lay sleeping. As an experiment, I walked along the water's edge, away from her. I looked back several times, but I didn't feel a compulsion to return to her. I didn't feel unreasoning panic when I deliberately walked behind a sand dune, blocking her from my sight for a minute or more.

I walked ten yards further along the sand, twenty, forty. I was further away from Cordelia than I had been in days, and I was okay. Jameela was dead; the magic that had bound Cordelia and myself together had been broken.

It was over, I realized with a growing sense of relief. The part of the enchantment that had kept us physically tied to each other had already dispersed; pretty soon I could expect the confusing, conflicting emotions I'd been feeling about Cordelia in the past few days to dissolve away, too.

Pretty soon.

Any time about now, in fact.

Any time.

And then I remembered something else. If the crash we had heard had been the sound of Jameela's dinghy colliding with the powerboat, that meant the Siren had been dead, and the spell broken, for hours. It also meant that when Cordelia and I had made love, we'd already been free of the enchantment.

I recalled Jameela's last words to me: When I die, she won't want you any more. Well, Jameela had been wrong.

And so had I.

I'd told myself it I could make love to Cordelia because I didn't love her. That I was safe from the curse because what I was doing was for her happiness and not my own. That I was acting under the influence of powerful magic, and not on my own desires at all.

In the face of all the available evidence, I'd somehow convinced myself I wasn't in love with Cordelia.

Like I said, I can be really stupid sometimes.

Slowly, like a man in a dream -- or maybe a man waking from one -- I walked back up the beach to where I had left Cordelia. She was still asleep, and I knelt beside her, taking care not to disturb her. There was sand sticking to her cheek, and seaweed in her hair. She was beautiful.

But she wasn't going to stay asleep forever. Sooner or later she'd wake up, and I had to decide what I was going to tell her when she did.

With sudden clarity, I saw a number of possible futures branching out from this moment. There was one future where I told Cordelia how I felt, and she responded in exactly the way you'd expect someone to react to a confession of love from a guy whose last serious relationship resulted in multiple homicides and a near-apocalypse. There was another possible future where she felt the same way about me -- but I already knew how that future turned out, because it was my recent past. I'd played out that story with Buffy, and I knew how it would end -- in bitterness, with me walking out of Cordelia's life before she hated me for everything I couldn't give her.

Then there was another future, one where I couldn't be Cordelia's lover, but I remained her friend. In that future, I saw her every day, shared her problems and her triumphs, and my life was better because she was part of it.

I knew which future I preferred.

Cordelia stirred and blinked sleepily. She sat up and rubbed her eyes. "Hi," I said.

She looked at me suspiciously. "Okay, I gotta ask -- are you evil?"

"No," I said. "Never further from it."

Cordelia gave a relieved sigh. "Oh, good. 'Cause I thought I was gonna have to remind you of something bad if you looked like you were getting too happy. Like death or taxes."

"I'm already dead," I pointed out, "and I don't pay taxes."

Cordelia sat up, pulling one of the towels around herself. She took a deep breath and then exhaled. "Well, I guess we'd better head back to my apartment. We'll get Sorcha's number from Doyle's address book, give her a call and ask if she knows anything else about enchantment breaking."

"No need," I said. "Jameela's dead."

Cordelia stared at me, the look on her face one of almost comical bemusement. "What? When? How?"

"She -- ah, she --" I hesitated, then made a decision. It would be easier on both of us if Cordelia believed, and kept believing, that what had happened between us had been purely the result of magic, and nothing else. "She landed on the beach in the Delilah's dinghy just a little while ago. We fought and -- well, and I won. She's dead."

"You had a fight to the death -- and I slept right through it?" The look on Cordelia's face was a mismatch of hope and skepticism.

"You were pretty exhausted," I said, aware of just how lame my version of events sounded.

Cordelia was silent for a second. Then: "She's really dead?"

"She's really dead," I said, and held up the scale I'd found in the water as proof.

"Then we're -- disenchanted." A wide smile lit Cordelia's face. "Angel, you're my hero!"

She threw her arms around me and hugged me fiercely. The towel she'd pulled around herself slipped down, and I hugged her back stiffly and a little awkwardly, not sure where to put my hands.

Cordelia pulled away from me, and frowned. "What's wrong?"

Unconvincingly, I said, "Nothing. Nothing's wrong."

She eyed me. "You're not gonna go all When Harry Met Sally on me, are you?"

I got up and fetched Cordelia's blouse and jeans. They were wrinkled and salt-stained, but they would do until she could change into clean clothes.

As I handed them to her, she said, "Angel, you're not answering the question."

"I'm still trying to work out what the question is," I said.

"AN-gel. You know -- When Harry Met Sally. Classic romcom, Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, the restaurant scene, 'I'll have what she's having.' Don't tell me you've never heard of When Harry Met Sally."

"I've never heard of it," I said. "Is it a movie?"

"Yes, it's a movie." Cordelia looked at me, her voice and face uncharacteristically serious. "It's about a man and woman who are best friends, then they sleep together and it nearly ruins everything."