Heart Of The Matter - A Winifred Burkle Mystery by Starlet2367


Summary: Nancy Drew and Stephanie Plum walk into a bar....


Spoilers: Billy, Season Three.


Notes: A Stranger Things Secret Valentine for Marcy, who requested a light, fluffy A/C story in which Fred helps get them together. Lucky Charms and Shiner Bocks to my critique group: Julie Fortune, Laurie Andrews, Ebonbird and Queen Mab. Thanks to my valentine, Michael, for getting me out of demon-trouble and for the tip that kept Angel in character.


I jerked awake, heart thudding, sting of terror-sweat under my arms. I ducked and rolled, looking for the nearest hiding place. Then I heard a familiar voice.

"It was broken! Geez, Angel, if we kept everything that was broken around here, we'd have to put `Angel Investigations and Junk Shop' on our cards."

I scanned the area around me. Chair legs, back-issues of Cosmo, a garbage can, a pair of stilettos. That's when I realized I was crouched in the shadows under Cordy's desk.

I crawled out and hauled myself into the chair, surreptitiously wiping the drool off my cheek. I glanced at my watch. It was just after seven in the evening. Must have been catnapping again--another skill I learned in Pylea, where it was never safe to sleep, unless you liked waking up to a search party's torches and a freshly activated head-exploding collar.

I clicked the mouse and the latest online issue of Classical and Quantum Gravity popped back up on screen. Maybe Angel and Cordy would take their tiff somewhere else and I could finish reading the article on canonical quantization of constrained theories on discrete spacetime lattices.

"What were we gonna do, Boy Wonder? Superglue it back together?"

Guess not. I angled my head toward the noise just in time to see Cordy round the corner and start toward the office. She was still dressed for training in blue yoga pants and a red tank top. She'd pulled her hair back into a stubby ponytail and sweat plastered the loose strands to her temples.

Angel grabbed her arm and yanked her around to face him. "That would have been a good place to start." His gray sweatshirt had a dark V of sweat from collar to breastbone. His eyes narrowed into angry slits.

She waved her hand in front of his face. Swear to God, his nostrils flared like a bull that just got the red flag. Cordy didn't even flinch.

"Hello, the handle was shattered. No glue, no matter how super, is gonna hold a bunch of splinters together."

Angel's teeth ground so hard I thought his jaw was gonna crack. "It was my favorite axe, Cordelia! I can't believe you just—just--"

Before he could finish, the front door opened, and I heard someone step inside and call out a hello.

Cordy and Angel whipped around so fast they probably scared the bejeebers out of whoever stood there. I hopped up to do damage control and thanked God for the interruption. Otherwise, Angel might have put Cordy's newly-honed self-defense skills to the test.

I jack-rabbited around them and the next thing I knew, I was shaking hands with whatever the male version of the damsel-in-distress is, a twenty-something guy named Jeremy who had the prettiest eyes I'd seen since I'd gazed dumbstruck into Grayson Wells' baby-browns way back in fifth grade.

Pretty soon we were all settled in Wesley's office.

"Tell us what happened," Angel said. I could still hear wisps of anger in his voice, but he'd done a pretty good job of dialing it back.

Cordy, on the other hand, hadn't been so successful. She perched on the edge of Wesley's desk, all rapidly-tapping toe and hot eyes. "Yes, Jeremy," she said, crossing her arms and shooting Angel a nasty look, "tell us."

"A monster ate her."

Cordy's foot went still. She put her hands on the edge of the desk and leaned closer. "Ate who?"

"M-my fiancé, Katy."

Cordy's posture softened. "I'm so sorry. Can you tell us what happened?"

"It was big…and blue," Jeremy said.

Angel leaned against the doorjamb and crossed his arms, his "take your time" pose. "Why don't you start at the beginning?"

"It was two nights ago," Jeremy said, sniffling into a handful of Kleenex. The light reflected off of Katy's engagement ring, a respectably-sized solitaire, which Jeremy wore on his left pinky. "The Derby had The Johnny Jump-Ups on the bill."

"Everyone knows they're the best undiscovered swing band in town," Cordy said. She eyed Angel. "Well, almost everyone."

"It's how we met," Jeremy said, in a voice strangled with tears. "We were in the same dance class." He twisted her ring around on his finger and sucked in a trembling breath.

My eyes started to sting in sympathy.

"Can you remember anything else?" Angel asked.

"I was, uh, supposed to meet her there but I was running late." He put his head in his hands. "If I'd been there five minutes earlier—"

Cordy slid of the desk to kneel in front of him. "If this thing is as big and scary as he sounds, there probably wasn't anything you could have done." She laid her hand on his knee, a warm, comforting gesture.

I blinked hard, pushing back the tears. The first rule of private investigation: don't become emotionally involved with your client. I scanned the room, looking for something else to pay attention to until I got my wavering emotions under control.

My gaze landed on Wesley's tea set, gathering dust on top of the bookshelf. Not exactly what I needed to calm me down.

"By the time I got there, it was nearly finished." Jeremy looked up at Cordy, grief and horror plain on his face. "He ripped out her heart, man." He jabbed his hand out and made a grabbing motion. "Just like that."

That's how it happens, I thought. Just like that. One minute you're in the library and the next you're in a hell dimension. Or one day you're friends with a guy and the next he's chasing you down the hall with an axe.

When I thought about that night I wavered between guilt, horror and a shameful sort of pride. It was like scarfing down a load of tacos and chasing them with Lucky Charms and a Shiner Bock. You never knew what was gonna come back up or when.

"What'd he do with it?" Cordy asked. She moved back to her perch on the desk.

Jeremy fiddled with the ring, crumpled his Kleenex and pleated his Dockers between his fingers, obviously putting off answering as long as he could. "He ate it," he finally whispered.

Cordy and I cringed, but Angel just nodded. Probably not a big deal for him since he'd eaten his share of hearts. If I hadn't seen Angel's true face in Pylea, this might have disturbed me more. As it was, I figured he was just doing what vampires did, and besides, he didn't eat hearts anymore.

"Did you go to the police?" Angel asked.

"Pfft," Cordy said, with a roll of her eyes. "Of course he didn't, Angel. What would he tell them? A monster ate my girlfriend?"

Jeremy's eyes widened in shock.

I tensed. Angel's stare hardened. There was a long beat of awkward silence.

Cordy didn't even flinch. She just smiled that patented Cordy-smile-- the one that dazzles everyone in a half-mile radius. "Could we get you some water? A soda?" she asked.

Jeremy let out a breath. "Um, a glass of water would be great."

Cordy nodded. "Sure thing. Angel?" She flicked a glance at him and gave him a smile of much lower wattage.

He looked at her like she was speaking Klingon.

"I'll get it," I said, hopping up. This was the same soft spot that earned me stray dogs and crappy shifts at the library.

Angel shook it off. "No, I got it," he said, exiting the office.

I followed on his heels, closing the door behind me with a subtle click. "So," I said, bee-lining for the water cooler. "You really think we can help him?"

He beat me to it and pulled a paper cup off the stack. "If Cordy doesn't scare him off."

"Oh, she wouldn't do that. He really needs our help. Besides," I said, as water hit the cup with a splash. "You're just mad at her about the axe."

Angel cut me a glance that was sharper than his fangs.

"I mean, not that I'm prying," I babbled, "its just that you guys were pretty loud earlier and--" That got me another look so I tried again. "I know she can be tactless, Angel, but she really knows how to draw people out. I mean, look at me. She got me to go to Caritas. Of course that was when Gunn's old gang blew it up, but how could she know--"

Oops. That was my higher brain functions taking a hike, wasn't it?

Angel stood up from the cooler and stared at me until I was afraid I'd turn to a pillar of salt. Then his shoulders relaxed and he handed me the cup of water.

Whew. Crisis averted.

I took the cup into the office. Cordy smiled a thank-you and then went back to her conversation with Jeremy. Angel's absence seemed to calm her down and give her focus, for which I was grateful. Maybe keeping them apart was the right idea. Less time to kill each other and easier on my ears.

Angel was tidying the counter—his idea of cleaning—when I paced back in. He'd sorted the mail into two tight, little piles and had moved on to the magazines, straightening the corners and lining up the stacks.

He picked up right where we left off. "Whatever Cordy's magical people skills may be, I still think we need more help."

I swallowed. "Uh, okay." He stared at me until my mind-reading ability kicked in. "You mean Wes, don't you?"

Angel nodded.

My stomach clenched. "And you want me to call him?" I squeaked like Minnie Mouse on helium, which was stupid because I'd already been to Wes's apartment once, the day after...well, the day after.

He turned around and leaned on the counter. "You okay with that?"

I remembered Wes's haggard face and downcast eyes. How he'd wept against the door when he thought I was gone. I swallowed, concentrating on that better, softer Wes and tried to put his horrible words and hateful, stripping gaze out of my head. "Yeah, I think I can handle that."

"Good." And then he vanished, in that weird, no-sound way he has.

Better to get it over with, I thought, reaching for the phone. I stood there for a minute, thumbing the power button on and off until I found the courage to dial.

It was a gut-relaxing relief when he didn't answer.

I left a message, then paged Gunn because I felt so guilty for being relieved about Wes. Finally I went back to my journal and did what my five years in Pylea trained me to do best: wait.


An hour later, Gunn strolled into the lobby, hubcap axe in hand. "Yo," he said by way of greeting. "What kind of evil nasty lurks in our fair city?" His smile warmed me all the way to my toes. I smiled back, a grin I was pretty sure showed every tooth in my head.

Cordy looked up from the computer where she was researching demons that were big and blue. "Hey, Gunn. How's the head?"

He ran his hand over his smooth dome. "Never better. Where's Wes `n Angel?"

"Angel's somewhere not here," Cordy said, scooting the chair back and going for coffee. "For which we can all be grateful. We're still waiting on Wes."

"Angel in a mood?" Gunn asked.

I cleared my throat. "Uh…."

Cordy plopped back down into her chair. "When is he not?"

"So," I said to Gunn. "How ya doin'?" I stuck my hands in my pockets and rocked onto the toes of my clogs.

He shrugged and shifted the axe to his shoulder. "Can't complain. You?"

I rocked back. "Nope, can't complain."

Just as the silence stretched too thin, Wes came through the door and pulled it even tighter. "Hello," he said, eyes on his shoes. He bolted toward the office and I heard the desk chair squeak as he sat down.

I knew a girl at church once, who, when she got mad at you, wouldn't talk to you till you apologized. I thought that was bad. But Wes could have given her lessons. He raised I'm-not-looking-at-you to new levels.

So we had Wes, hogging the office, the only sign he was alive the squeaking of his chair or the rasp of a book being pulled from the shelves. Gunn lounged on one of the red couches out front with a compendium on his lap, but every time I looked up he was on the same page. In the corner, Angel and Cordy argued in low tones. I couldn't tell if they were still bitching about the axe or if they'd gone onto something else.

Finally, Cordy broke away from Angel and went into the office. She shut the door behind her and I could hear her and Wes talking. A few minutes later, they came out, and Wes said, looking at his feet, "We don't seem to be getting anywhere."

"Tell me something I don't know," Gunn muttered.

Wes cleared his throat and finally looked up, but he still didn't look directly at me. "We need to find everything we can on this demon." He ticked off a list on his fingers. "Known points of attack, number of victims, preferred method of killing, that sort of thing. If you find any other survivors, interview them, as well. I want as complete a picture of this thing as we can get by tomorrow morning."

He nodded at Cordy. "You and Gunn check out known attack sites." He turned to Angel. "You go underground. Maybe we'll get lucky and this thing has a favorite watering hole."

"What about me?" When Wes's gaze finally hit me it was a sharp, blue crackle. I tugged my baggy sweater tighter around me.

He squared his shoulders like Davy Crockett at the Alamo. "We'll stay here and research."

Cordy marched to the cabinet and pulled out some stakes and a crossbow. Gunn hovered behind her, hubcap axe already in hand.

They left through the back door, where Gunn's truck was parked. I heard its engine grab and growl then grow fainter as they turned out onto Wilshire. Angel shrugged into his coat, slipped a broadsword into its folds, and walked out the front door without saying goodbye.

That left me and Wes. We each took a book and went to opposite ends of the room.


About 11:30, I jolted awake to a thudding heart and the distinct impression that something was wrong. When I got my wits about me, I saw Wes, hunched over the phone, talking quietly. He looked tired and worried and as he talked, he scribbled on the yellow notepad at his elbow.

I stayed on my side of the counter. It was the closest I'd been to him since the night I went to his apartment. I wasn't scared he was gonna hurt me—but I was worried about how he felt about me. I didn't want him to think he had to treat me any differently than he ever had, so I decided to act as normal as I could.

I brushed my hair back to get rid of the sleep-rumpled effect and tried to decipher his upside-down hieroglyphics. "Albertson's," was all I had time to make out before he hung up, and when I looked up, he was staring at me. His glasses didn't hide the anger, and even after he dropped his eyes, I felt hot and itchy.

The phone hit the counter with a clatter. "We have to go," he said, grabbing his jacket and shoving his wallet in his pocket.

I grabbed my jean jacket off the coat rack. "Where?" I kept up with him the best I could, but he has long legs and he'd gotten a head start.

We hit the loading dock off the back of the hotel where he'd parked his bike. I took the pink helmet, fastened it under my chin, and then got on behind him. We both froze for a second, but then he revved the engine and I had to hold onto his waist or fall off.

"Where are we going?" I yelled, as we pulled onto Wilshire and started weaving through the sparse traffic.

"An Albertson's store off of La Brea," he called back. "Cordy got attacked by the demon."

My body went cold. "What? Where was Gunn?"

"Checking out another lead."

My breath hitched as the memories washed over me. In Pylea, before I learned to take care of myself, I got attacked a lot. Never raped, thank God, since Pylean anatomies were different than ours. But still, it's not the sort of thing you forget. Especially not since I'd just faced down a deranged version of Wes, who could have done a lot worse than he did.

He hung a hard left onto Crenshaw. The bike leaned into the turn and I stopped talking and held on, praying for Cordy the whole way. By the time we turned into the parking lot, I'd caught my breath and was ready to be the strong one again. I hopped off the bike and took off my helmet.

Three cop cars nosed up to the store, blue lights flashing. An ambulance angled in next to them. The few employees who worked the third shift huddled together in a tight little knot talking to the cops.

We ran toward the front door. One of the cops broke away. "Excuse me," he said, waving us down. "The store is closed."

Wes stepped up. "Our friend, Cordelia Chase, was attacked."

The cop reached for his walkie-talkie just as Gunn ran out of the store. "She's out back," he said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. "The EMTs are checking her out."

"Can we go see her?" I asked, remembering what the after-effects of an attack were like. You were wired for sound; every system on overload.

The cop shook his head. "I'm afraid you'll just be in the way. If you'd like to wait near the ambulance, they'll probably be bringing her out shortly."

I nodded. "Thanks."

We walked toward the ambulance. The back doors were open. The stretcher was there but the medical kits were gone. I peeked inside the cab; it was empty, too.

"What happened?" Wes asked.

"Thing was going for another chick, and Cordy got its attention," Gunn said.

Wes and Gunn went into terse-delivery mode, a type of shorthand they took on in emergencies. I shoved my hands in my pockets and bounced on the toes of my shoes.

"She okay?"

"Scared," Gunn said. "Banged up."

"The other woman?"

"Ran off screaming."


"Phone's off."

"Probably in the sewers," I said. I glanced toward the empty store. What in the heck was taking them so long?

"Maybe," Gunn said.

"Did you find out anything about the demon?" Wes asked.

I left them talking and walked around the side of the building. It went on for nearly a block and behind it I could see the parking lot to the next strip mall. I couldn't tell if it led to the back of the supermarket or not, so I walked back to the ambulance. "I'm gonna see if I can find her."

Wes nodded. "Good idea."

Gunn glanced over at the cops. "You want me to divert their attention? You'll get there faster if you go through produce. She's out back by the loading dock."

"I'll stay here, just in case." Wes said.

I snuck around the ambulance and peeked over the hood at Gunn. He stood next to the cops, arms crossed over his chest, waiting while they finished talking to one of the employees.

I was about 10 feet from the door, but the fluorescent lights obliterated shadows. When I got the signal I'd have to go fast and quiet.

Just then, Gunn caught the cops' attention. I slipped onto the sidewalk, skimming the few feet to the door. My foot hit the mat. Whoosh--the door opened. I stood in the vestibule next to the rows of shopping carts, heart pounding, sure the noise had alerted the cops.

Nothing happened. One more glance over my shoulder showed Gunn deep in conversation. I shot him a wave, and then made my way to produce.

A gray, metal swinging door with an EXIT light over it hung between two coolers. On the other side I found myself in a half-lit warehouse. The refrigerated air was damp and smelled like raw meat and rotting lettuce. Crates, some stacked 20 feet high, lined up to form aisles through the room.

I let my instinct guide me to a dark hall where the only light came from another EXIT sign over the back door. I hit the panic bar and wound up on a loading dock like the one at the hotel. The long ramp sloped to the driveway, and Cordy sat at the bottom of the ramp, leaning against the cinder block wall.

An EMT knelt over her, his yellow kit open and supplies spread out on the sticky concrete. The other EMT stood talking to a guy, who I supposed was the night manager. The night manager wore rumpled khakis and a bloodstained, white golf shirt with Albertson's inscribed on the breast.


She jumped. The three guys looked up at me.

"Yeah, hey, Fred."

She sounded loopy, drunk. I skidded down the ramp and knelt next to her. Cordy's eyes were dilated, the side of her face covered with a bruise going green in the apricot-colored light from the halogen floods. She cradled her right hand carefully against her body.

A pile of bloody gauze filled a small garbage bag next to her. I caught a glimpse of what looked like claw marks on her chest just before the EMT bandaged them.

"How ya doin'?

She took a deep breath. "Peachy."

The EMT patted the last of the over-sized Band-Aids in place. They started somewhere under her tank top and ended at her collarbone. "You need to keep them clean," the EMT said. He pulled something from his kit and looped it over her head. "Peroxide and Neosporin will be fine. Change the bandages once a day." When he pulled back, her right arm was in a sling.

He glanced up at me. "Did she say your name was Fred?"

I nodded.

"You a friend?"

I nodded again and squeezed Cordy's hand.

"Cordelia's got a mild concussion," he said, tying off the garbage bag and setting it next to the kit.

"Coulda been worse, except for my hard head," she said, squeezing me back.

The EMT grinned, a white flash against his chocolate-colored skin. "No comment. Anyway, Fred, she needs to have someone stay with her tonight. Can you do that?"

"You bet."

He handed me a sheet of paper. "What To Do If You Have A Concussion," it said across the top in big, black letters.

I doubted any of us needed reminding about how to take care of a bumped head, so I folded it up and put it in the pocket of my jeans. "I'll make sure she's okay."

"Good." He patted Cordy on the knee. "Take care of that hard head. It was nice to meet you."

"You too."

He picked up his case and tapped his partner on the shoulder. "Ready?"

"Yeah, let's head out."

We watched as the EMTs disappeared up the ramp.

I stood and turned to the night manager. "Can you tell me what happened, here?"

"She was attacked," he said.

No shit, Sherlock. I glanced down at his nametag. "Did you see it, Carlos?"

He shoved his hands in his pockets. "Big, blue. Lots of teeth. Listen, I need to go talk to the cops. Do you mind if I--"

"No, go ahead. Thanks for staying with her," I said.

Carlos nodded. "Sure thing." He started up the ramp, then stopped and looked out at the parking lot. "You think it's coming back?"

God, I hoped not. "No. Not tonight."

He tucked his hands in his pockets and stared down at his shoes, like he was thinking. "Even so," he said, looking up at us. "Maybe you should come back up front with me. I don't like the idea of you sitting out here alone."

"Sounds like a good idea." I glanced at Cordy. "You ready to go?"

"Sure." She put a hand on the concrete and started to leverage herself up. Before she could get to her feet, she swerved like a car on ice, and fell forward on her knees.

My hand shot out to stop her nosedive. "Cordy!"

Carlos rushed back down the ramp. "Whoa, there!" He crouched at her side. "You okay? Should I get the EMTs?"

"Wow," she said, putting her hand on her forehead. "Head rush."


We helped her settle back against the wall. She was looking a little green around the gills. "Maybe you should send Gunn around with the truck," I suggested to Carlos.

"Gunn?" Carlos asked, watching Cordy with a worried frown.

"Charles Gunn," I said. "Tall, bald black man." I waved my hand in the air to indicate height. "Has on a navy sweatshirt and jeans."

He nodded, but lingered, obviously torn.

"Go on, Carlos," I said. "We'll be fine by ourselves for a few minutes."

Finally he nodded. "I'll send Gunn back." He took off for the door, and his footsteps grew softer and disappeared when the door slammed shut.

Cordy closed her eyes and leaned her head against the wall. "Well, that was fun." She drew a shaky breath.

"You almost took a header."

"I guess I got hit harder than I realized."

I pulled up a piece of parking lot next to her. The wall at my back was hard and scratchy even through the oversized sweatshirt.

"What happened?"

She glanced out toward the dumpster. "I was inside talking to Carlos when I heard a girl scream. We ran back here. She works here at the store and had just clocked out." She pointed toward the small back parking lot where a few older-make cars sat. "Going to her car, I guess. By the time we got outside, the demon had her by the throat. I ran for them and tried get him off of her."

She shook her head. "Gotta get Angel to work with me on the hand-to- hand stuff." There was a pause while she seemed to collect her thoughts. "Anyway, that dude was *big*. And the minute I got my hands on him, he dropped the other girl. Took a swipe at me." Her fingers traced the bruise on her face. "Knocked me down." They moved to the bandages on her chest. "Clawed the heck out of me. Carlos found a crowbar in the warehouse and hit him with it till he ran off."

We sat in silence for a few minutes. I smelled dumpster juice and blood, and realized that they were the two most common odors in my life right now. "Do you ever wonder what happened to perfume and clean clothes?"

"You mean, who stole our normal lives?" Trust Cordy to get it right off the bat.

"Pretty much."

Her laugh ended on a groan. "Crap, that hurts."

"You sure you don't wanna go to the hospital?"

She shook her head. "Dennis will take care of me."

We're like an Appalachian family. Only if we can't fix it ourselves do we go to town for the doctor.

She tilted her head and looked toward the building. "You hear that? I thought I heard someone yelling."

I tensed and looked around for Big Blue.

The back door burst open and Angel flew through. "Cordy? Cordy!" He ignored the ramp and leapt off the dock, landing gracefully on the ground six feet below.

And then he was there, right in front of her, and the way he looked at her, my heart just melted. I couldn't take my eyes off of him, even though I could have spontaneously combusted and he wouldn't have noticed.

Angel's hands fluttered around her bruised face, traced the bandage on her chest. "I'm gonna kill it," he said.

"I'm all right," Cordy said, soothing him with her voice. She covered his hand and held it over her heart. "I'm not saying don't kill it." She smiled. "But, hey, just a couple of scrapes and a sprained wrist. No biggie."

I pulled the paper from my pocket. "What about your concussion?"

Cordy rolled her eyes. "Thanks a lot, Fred."

Angel swiped the sheet and unfolded it. His lips compressed. "Why didn't you say something?" He shot me a look. "Is she all right?"

I shrugged.

Cordy huffed. "I didn't want you to worry, that's why."

"I said I'd help her," I said, trying to make up for my blooper. "You could drop us at her apartment. Dennis would watch out for us."

Angel shook his head. "No way. Cordy, you're coming back to the hotel where I can keep an eye on you."

"But, Angel--"

He scooped her into his arms and stood.

Cordy sighed. "Fine, but at least call Dennis and tell him not to worry, okay?" She leaned her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes.

Angel glanced down at me. "Come on," he said. "We're leaving."

I scrambled up and followed like a puppy who'd peed on the floor, three paces behind, with my head down. We passed Carlos on the sidewalk out front, talking to the cops. Angel swooped by, his coat flaring, and gently slid Cordy onto the front seat of the Plymouth.

"Thanks again, Carlos," I said, stopping long enough to hand him a crumpled A.I. card. "If you think of anything else, give us a call."

He nodded. "Like I said, big and blue," he replied, looking down at the card. "But if it comes back, you'll be the first to know."

"The second," said the cop, asserting his authority.

"Sure thing," Carlos said.


Gunn and I followed Wes's taillight down La Brea. The truck rumbled over cracking macadam and Power 106 hummed through the speakers. It was too quiet to make out the artist, but even if it'd been going full bore, I wouldn't have been able to play name that tune. I'd lost track of urban music--heck, any music--back in Pylea and was just finding my way back into the hypnotic light of pop culture.

"We get a description of this thing?"

The light at the intersection turned yellow. Wes shot through and the scream of the bike's engine split the air. Gunn's truck wasn't nearly so nimble. He hit the brakes and it shuddered to a halt. "Produce guy heard the ruckus. He was in the warehouse unpacking pineapple or something. Ran out back and saw the demon pin the girl to the concrete."

A shiver walked up my spine. I knew exactly what it felt like to have something big and deadly sitting on your chest. "What happened?"

"We'd gotten a lead from one of the survivors. Said the demon had attacked in that area before. Figured it was worth checking out. Best I can tell, Cordy heard her scream and ran back there to fight him off."

The light changed and the truck bucked forward. "What about you?"

He shrugged. "I was checking out a lead down the block." He cut his eyes at me. "You're thinking it, too."


"That if I'd been with her--"

"Not true," I said, before he could finish. The words felt funny in my mouth but I kept on going. "Cordy knew the risks. And she's a good fighter--or at least she's getting better."

The cab of the truck went quiet while Gunn merged onto the I-10. "To answer your question, yeah. I think we got a better description. 'Course, anything is better than 'big' and 'blue'."

"You've got a point." I leaned my head against the cracked vinyl headrest and watched the dark scrub scroll by.


The next thing I knew, Gunn was poking me in the side. "Yo, Fred. Wake up."

I blinked. "Oh. Sorry." I pushed my hair out of my eyes. "Musta gone to sleep." I was still tired but felt a little better than I had earlier.

"Hated to wake you up, but it's a little chilly to spend the night in the truck. Plus, Big Blue?"

"Right." We were parked off of Wilshire on one of the residential streets just around the corner from the hotel. I hauled myself through the courtyard and into the lobby. All the lights were on and it took my eyes a minute to adjust.

Cordy lay on one of the red couches, her injured arm propped up on a pillow.

"Hey, Fred. You look awful."

This from the woman who looked like she just went nine rounds with the champ.

"Just tired," I said. I plopped down on the coffee table in front of the couch and my knees bumped the cushions.

Gunn leaned his axe against the weapons cabinet. "Angel and Wes?"

"In the office," Cordy said. She sounded as tired as I felt.

"Why aren't you in bed?" I asked.

"I guess I wasn't ready to leave all the fun."

The guys had sequestered themselves in the office. We sat alone in the silent lobby. I arched a brow at her.

She made a face. "Okay, so it was mostly because I was scared to go to sleep."

I patted her hand. "I know exactly what you mean. I haven't had a decent night's sleep in five years."

The line between her eyebrows deepened. "Really? Fred, that's awful."

I shrugged. "I wasn't looking for the sympathy vote. Just commiserating." She yawned, a real jaw-breaker. "Hey, want me to help you upstairs? Sit with you till you fall asleep?"

"That'd be nice." She sat up slowly and I helped her to her feet.

"Which room?" I asked as we navigated the stairs.


Angel's room is his sanctuary; I never go in without an invitation. But Cordy just walked right in and started shuffling through his closet. She came up with a white dress shirt I didn't even know Angel owned.

With one arm in the sling, she was having a hard time getting undressed. "You gonna need some help with that?"

"I hate feeling helpless," she said, as she sat down on the edge of the bed, the shirt clutched in her left hand.

"I know what you mean." We took the sling off and I helped her out of her clothes and into Angel's shirt. I had to cuff the sleeves four times before I found her wrists. "I'd rather have friends than be helpless by myself, though."

"Good point." She smiled at me as she crawled into bed.

I sat with her until she went to sleep and then stayed an extra few minutes in case she woke up afraid. Her breathing stayed regular, though, so I went back downstairs.

"You guys figure anything out?"

"The description given to us by Cordelia and the employees matches that of a demon called Lunae," Wes said. He sat at the desk, glasses perched on his nose, scanning one of the hundreds of dusty books from our library.

Angel crowded him on one side and Gunn on the other. They'd wanted to find the demon before, but going after Cordy had upped the stakes. No pun intended, of course.

"That's good. You narrowed it to the family. That'll help us understand its feeding and nesting patterns. Maybe we can even figure out a way to take it out." I sounded so professional I couldn't help but grin.

Gunn grinned back. Angel leaned over Wes's shoulder and pointed at something. "This says the Lunae only attacks on full moons. We have about 6 days until then."

Wes blinked, obviously disappointed. "Oh. Well. I thought we'd found it." He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.

Gunn patted Wes's shoulder. "It's okay, man. We'll keep looking."

"Why don't we take a break?" I suggested. "It's nearly dawn."

Angel looked up like he'd just realized I was there. "Where's Cordy?"

"She's asleep in your room."

His mouth softened. "Good."

I felt a tingle in my belly and I couldn't stop looking at Angel's mouth.


It was Gunn.

I yanked myself out of a warm little fantasy. "Yeah." My voice squeaked.

"Can I get by here?"

I scooted out of the doorway, feeling like a fool. "Oh, sure. See you tomorrow?"

Angel slipped out behind him. The back door slammed behind Gunn. I didn't hear Angel's footsteps but I assumed he went up to check on Cordy.

That left me and Wes. He was flipping through the book, a worn look on his face.

"You look tired."

He shrugged. "Maybe a little."

"You gonna rest?"

Instead of answering, he put his glasses back on and picked up another book. I felt guilty for so many things, not the least of which was putting Wes in an uncomfortable situation. So I pulled a book off the shelf and started turning pages.

The glasses hid his eyes again, but I could feel him looking at me. He didn't say anything, though, and after a moment, the only sounds in the room were of our breathing and the shuffling hiss of parchment pages turning.


I felt like I did that time I pulled an all-nighter before my Chem 313 exam.


My eyes were sandpapered into my head. All I could do was nod.

Wes pressed a mug into my hand.

It was so much better than Cordy's brew that I drank half of it in one swallow. The caffeine hit my stomach and propped my eyelids open. "Thanks." I stretched. "What time is it?"

Wes glanced at his watch. "About 3:30."

I hauled myself out of the chair and put Stephenson's Demon Dictionary back onto the shelf. Next was Foucault's Compendium, but it was nearly as heavy as me, so I left it sitting there and went for the Complete List of Daemons, A-Zed.

The book flopped open to the M's, and I turned pages, drank coffee, and consulted my notes. Yes, it was still big and blue. It was also nearly seven feet tall and, between Jeremy's report and the location of Cordy's claw marks, seemed to have a penchant for ripping the hearts out of women's chests.

"It's all about hurting women," I murmured.

"I'm sorry?" Wes glanced up from his book.

"The demon. It only goes after women."

Our eyes locked. A chill ran up my back.

Wes didn't say anything. Instead he got up and hightailed it out of the room and I heard the bathroom door close down the hall.

I stared at the wall listening to the water run. Then I gazed at the book while waiting for my mind to engage. The words blurred; my nose ran. I wiped my face with my sleeve and took a deep, trembling breath.

Just as I turned back to the A's, the toilet flushed and Wes came out, hair damp at the temples. He looked anything but refreshed.

"I don't think we're going to find anything tonight." He shuffled to the desk and leaned on the edge, staring down at the books, papers, half-empty coffee cups and the small hurling axe he used as a paperweight.

"We might want to consider consulting with Lorne." He relieved the coat rack of his jacket. "I think I'll head home now and get some sleep. Thank you for your help."

I nodded and moved my feet out of the way so he could get by. The feeling that I'd done something terrible washed over me. He hated me; I could tell. And if there was one thing in the world I couldn't stand, it was having someone not like me.

It was like being in Pylea all over again. Feeling like the outsider. Being attacked by people you should be able to trust. Not being able to take care of yourself.

A few minutes of sitting in the eerie quiet of the office had me feeling itchy. I decided to head up to my bedroom and lie down. I did some of my best studying in bed—it was amazing what cat naps could do to keep your brain refreshed.

Once I got my shoes off and situated myself under the covers, I opened the book and started at the beginning. I cruised through the A's, the B's and the C's, rearranged the pillows, and went on to the D's. Nothing, nothing and more nothing. The discouraged feeling I'd had all evening grew in direct proportion to my drooping eyelids. I decided to do one more letter then take it up again in the morning.

I flipped haphazardly through the Es, pretty much convinced we were never gonna find this thing—and there it was. Startled, I looked at my notes, looked at the book, and felt excitement start to bubble in my chest.

Not at all tired now, I picked up the phone to call Wes. I immediately dropped it back into the cradle. The last thing Wes wanted to do was to talk to me. Besides, he was probably face-down in the bed by now. Next I considered going to Angel, but hated to risk waking Cordy when she so desperately needed rest.

It would hardly hurt to wait a few more hours and then we could all approach it with a fresh eye. Plus, this would give me more time to research so I could have a complete report.

A warm coal of excitement started to burn in my stomach. I could just see it now--the entire crew, huddled around the desk as I ticked off physical characteristics, feeding grounds, ways to kill the beast.

I could prove to them that I as useful for something besides building Rube Goldberg contraptions and being the Princess Leia of Angel Investigations. (Of course, I mean New Hope Leia, not Empire Strikes Back Leia, because she totally kicked butt in that one.) And maybe Wes would stop looking at me like I was something he'd smushed on the bottom of his shoe.

I went back to the book. Elcsüggedt, I sounded out. Hungarian for "downhearted." I skimmed the description, "This demon, first discovered in Hungary in the 16th century, earned the name 'down- hearted' due to the fact that it eats the hearts of its victims. It wasn't until the 20th century, when one was captured and studied," I wrinkled my nose and tried not to think about what that meant, "that scientists discovered that the Elcsüggedt has an energetic deficiency in its heart chakra and must compensate by consuming the hearts of other beings."

I ran my finger down the page, skimming physical characteristics, and squinted at the picture. The line drawing showed a monster, all right. He looked like Sasquatch on steroids. But what interested me most was this: "By nature, the Elcsüggedt is a peaceful demon, cohabitating easily with members of many different species (including humans). Only when the level of energy drops to a certain point does it attempt to feed, thus becoming violent."

Oh, that poor thing! Here I'd been thinking he was some kind of misogynist monster, when he was really just hungry. I knew all about hungry.

But why focus on young women? I kept reading and found the answer. "Diet evolved over time to include only the hearts of young women experiencing the first stages of romantic love. It was determined by researchers that the powerful, refined energetic vibrations experienced by females in this state offered the Elcsüggedt the best nutritive value."

"Young women in love?" I slapped my forehead. "Of *course*!" How had we missed it? Jeremy and Katy were newly engaged and he was obviously head over heels for her. I'd bet my Grandmama Carter's mad money that all the other victims were in new relationships, too.

But that left Cordy. As far as I knew she wasn't in love with anyone...except maybe Angel. I laughed. No way she was in love with Angel. For one thing, they'd known each other too long. For another, they fought way too much. Sure, I could see him lusting after her, but she treated him like an annoying older brother. She'd probably just ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

That meant that the chances of it attacking her again were pretty slim. And now that I knew it wasn't evil, there was no way I was killing it. I suddenly remembered what Wes said about consulting Lorne.

I stared at the demon's picture, letting my mind connect the dots. What if I went to Lorne for a love spell? I could cast the spell on myself, and then use myself as bait.

My heart started thumping. We could trap the Elcsüggedt, maybe even heal it, and then turn it loose. We'd be like that Crocodile Hunter guy!

The vision of the crew smiling at me turned into them throwing me a huge bash, complete with "Fred solved the case!" banners and chocolate cake. Since it was my fantasy, I added the footnote that, after I captured and dispatched the Elcsüggedt, I slept soundly through the night for the first time in five years.

Hey, a girl could dream, right? Maybe even literally.


I hid the book under my bed, covering it with fast food wrappers and old clothes. The urge to clean must not have been handed down from my mom, who was a neat freak. I was perfectly content to live in a pig sty; always had been. Maybe that's why I was so comfortable in that cave.

As I snuck past Angel's bedroom, I tucked my ear to the wood to listen for sounds of life. All I could hear was the occasional drip of the faucet and somebody's light snores.

I thought about taking the bus, but it'd be way faster to drive. The problem was, the only car here was Angel's. On the other hand, now that I knew what I was up against, time was of the essence. I stared at the second hand, ticking its way around the watch dial.

What the heck, I decided. I'd already caused so much trouble, why not cause a little more?

The keys to the Plymouth lived in the top drawer of Cordy's desk and I lifted them with a trembling hand. I'd never stolen a car before, and though I didn't think this could qualify as grand theft auto, I decided I'd better be safe than sorry, so I scrawled a note saying I was going out to do some research and stuck it to her computer screen.

The Plymouth's big V-8 engine growled like a grizzly as I pulled into nearly nonexistent traffic. I couldn't remember the last time I drove. Los Angeles has extensive public transpo, and even before I got sucked into the portal, I took the bus or cabs.

I spread my fingers wide, sat up tall in the seat. I felt like my horse Jenny must have when I turned her loose in the field.

I'd only been to Caritas once, and the street it sits on is packed with bars, liquor stores, dry cleaners and restaurants. Most were closed for the night, though the lights from the gas station on the corner flared like a Roman candle.

It was the backside of night when I finally found a parking space and knocked on Lorne's door. I was beginning to think he didn't live there any more--until I heard the security door unlatch and saw his red eyes peer out.


I nodded. "Sorry to disturb you at such an ungodly hour. It's just-- Cordy got attacked by a demon last night, and I--"

The door swung open to show Lorne in a black satin robe and bunny slippers. "Is she okay?" He motioned me in then latched the door behind us.

I followed him down the hall. "Yeah. She's banged up. Angel's taking care of her."

We emerged into the bar, still busted up from our last trip. My feet quit working and I stumbled to a halt. "God, Lorne," I said, taking in the damage. "I'm so sorry."

The bar, itself, was still intact and he already stood behind it mixing drinks. He slid something down to me and I caught it on instinct. Bloody Mary. I'm more a beer or daiquiri girl, myself.

"Breakfast of champions," Lorne said, raising his glass to me.

I sipped and grimaced. "Good stuff."

He knocked his back in about three gulps and reached for mine. "I know you're not gonna drink that."

I hiked myself up onto a singed barstool. "I need your help."

"Sorry. Karaoke machine's broken." His mouth pulled down at the corners. "I think it got shot."

I dropped my eyes to the napkin in front of me. "Yeah. That night sucked." I'd been singing Crazy, which seemed appropriate at the time. Still did, actually, which was part of the reason I was here. "I don't need to sing," I said, looking up at him. "I was hoping you could put me in touch with someone who does spells."

That got his attention. "What kind of spells?"

"In this case, a love spell."

He put his hand over mine. "Those things always backfire, sweetie. Besides, I don't know why you think you need a love spell. Anyone who isn't falling in love with you in a heartbeat is a damn fool."

"You're the only Pylean I've ever met who didn't try to kill me," I said, all choked up.

"That's why I left. Just don't have that killer instinct." His gaze traveled over the burnt out room. "Well, except for those guys who torched my shop. I might kill them."

I laughed. "I know what you mean."

We shared a moment.

He walked around the bar and sat down next to me. "Why do you really want a love spell?"

"A demon. An Elcsüggedt."


Lorne's eyes widened. "I've heard of those. Don't they go after young women--"

"Who are in love." I nodded. "Yeah."

I'm not sure how it was possible, but his eyes got wider. He looked like a green Al Jolsen. "And it attacked Cordy?" His cackle rang through the empty bar. "Hot damn, I thought it'd never happen!"

I leaned forward. "What? What did you think would never happen?"

"Cordy and Angel." He cackled some more and slapped his thigh.

I squeaked. "You're kidding, right? I mean, he's kinda got a crush on her--"

"Oy vey, he's way beyond crushed. That boy's got the big love and has since he got back this summer. Cordy, on the other hand, has been her loveably clueless self. But if what you say is true--" Until now, I'd never actually seen someone rub their hands together with glee.

"If that's the case, then maybe I don't need the spell."

The smile flashed away. "You thinking of using Cordy as bait?"

When he put it like that.... "No, I was actually thinking of using me as bait."

He leaned so far back I had to grab his arm to keep him on the barstool. "Nope. Sorry. Shop's closed. No dice."

"Lorne-- Just listen, okay? It's not a stupid plan--I promise."

"Sweetikins, anything that uses you as bait is a stupid plan."

I shook my head. "No, no. Listen. See, here's the deal. This thing doesn't kill people because it's evil. It does it because it has an energetic deficiency in its heart chakra."

He burst out laughing. "Say again, swami?"

I pulled my folded-up notes out of my jacket pocket and put them on the bar in front of him. He skimmed them, then looked at me. "So?"

"So if I can lure it out, maybe I can cure it."

"Now you want to be a demon social worker?"

"It doesn't seem right to kill it just because it's trying to make up for a deficit."

His eyebrow arched and he got that funny look in his eye. "Hum something."


"What you just said-- Hum something."

The best I could come up with was Row, Row, Row Your Boat. After three bars, he held up his hand. "Not bad, sweetie. I just have one question. Who's trying to make up for a deficit?"

I swallowed hard. Busted. "I just wanted to--" I sighed. I couldn't look at him so I stared at the bar, instead. I ran my fingers over a heart someone had carved in it with the letters "MK/KW 4eva."

"I'm tired of not fitting in," I finally admitted. "Tired of everyone overlooking me or being mad at me. " My eyes welled with tears and I wiped them on my sleeve. "And maybe if I'd been able to take care of myself before, I wouldn't have gotten sucked through the portal."

He patted my arm then leaned across the bar and grabbed a pen. The napkin was damp from the glass, so he wrote around the edges.

I slid the napkin down the bar and turned it in a circle, reading as I went. "Anita Reddick, Melbourne Ave., Los Feliz."

He nodded. "Her phone number's on there too. She only takes referrals, so you'll need to call in advance and tell her I sent you."

He reached across the bar again and handed me another napkin. "Dry your eyes," he said. "You take on too much, Fred. Always have." He patted my hand and stood. "What happened to you in Pylea--with Wes-- those things weren't your fault." He led me up the stairs and opened the door. "But that's something no one can tell you, but you."

Sunlight pushed its fingers into my eyes. "Thanks," I said, squinting at him in the peach and aqua light.

"Just be careful." He waved and latched the door closed behind him.

I pointed the Plymouth toward the hotel, too tired now to enjoy anything but the idea of going home. The cool, morning air reached in through the window and wrapped its hand around my neck. I shivered and notched up the heater. Then I thought of how crazy this idea was and how likely I was to get dead. But the alternative--living like half a person--well, that held even less appeal.

The car nosed into its spot behind the hotel like Jenny coming back to the barn. I hopped out, locked the door, and found Angel standing on the dock, arms folded, a frown line between his eyes.

"You find anything?"

I shook my head. "I thought I'd talk to Lorne. He wasn't much help." I handed him the car keys as I slunk past. "I'm sorry about the car."

He glanced down at the key ring. "I wasn't worried about the car."

My heart warmed. "Really?"

For the first time in ages, he smiled at me. "Yeah. Really." He slung his arm across my shoulders and guided me into the hotel. "Cordy woke up hungry so I cooked breakfast. You want some?"

We ate at the big, stainless table in the hotel kitchen. Despite the huge room, I felt cozy and warm as I shoveled in eggs and hash browns.

Angel topped off Cordy's coffee, sipped some blood, and laughed at something she said. For the first time I saw it in his eyes--how much he loved her. And maybe it was the sun arching through the little windows near the ceiling, but she nearly glowed.

As accepted as I felt right then, I realized that there was no way I could use her as bait. She actually had something to lose. I, on the other hand, had everything to gain.


I snuck out to buy the spell that afternoon before Wes and Gunn returned. Cordy had gone home to check on Dennis. Angel was sleeping.

When I got back, the hotel was still quiet. I took the ingredients for the spell to my room, went inside, and closed the door behind me. The book still hid under the bed with the fast food wrappers, and I stuffed the bag under there with them.

Next was a shower, a luxury I hadn't allowed myself until I felt like things were moving down the right path. One thing I loved about the hotel was its never-ending supply of hot water. I lathered, rinsed and repeated, then just stood there, letting the hot spray pound my head and shoulders.

By the time I got out, I was pruney, but substantially more relaxed. One pair of jeans and a sweater later and I felt ready to face the world--or my little corner of it.

I went downstairs to grab a sandwich and make sure the coast was clear. On the way back, I lifted a couple of books from the library.

I ate my PB and J while I read the recipe for the spell. Basically you just mixed a couple of ingredients together, waved a rose quartz over them, and uttered some fancy words. Then, over the course of a few days, you and your beloved fell in love.

Something uncomfortable coiled in my belly and it wasn't the mango preserves. Love had always been something I revered and waited anxiously for, and it felt like cheating to bring it on with a spell, even if the spell was being done for a good purpose.

I set the recipe aside and turned to the books I'd picked up. I hoped they'd lead me to a cure for the Elcsüggedt. It was like solving a proof in geometry, I thought, as I worked steadily to fit the pieces together. Start here, end there, and figure out all the steps in between.

In a couple of hours I had a pretty solid theorem. The Elcsüggedt's heart chakra was like a dry well back home. The only way to fill it was to hook it into a flowing stream.

As I turned pages and slipped into the rhythm of research, I must have lost track of time. A door slammed downstairs and I jumped and looked at my watch. Seven o'clock already?

I went over my notes again. It looked like all I'd need to do was perform an energetic bypass on the thing's heart. The question was-- how?

Someone thumped up the stairs--most likely Cordy, since I never heard Angel's footsteps anywhere. The hotel was filling up for the evening, and I knew we'd be researching and tracking the Elcsüggedt down. I felt sure I was close to figuring out the theory. The question was whether I was close enough that I should perform the spell.

Then I heard Cordy laugh and remembered the claw marks on her chest; the engagement ring Jeremy wore on his pinkie after Katy's death. There was no way I was risking the loss of another life.

I drew the ingredients for the spell out from under the bed. Now or never, I thought, reading over the recipe one last time.

I cast the circle and lit the candles. The powders drifted into the marble mortar. While I chanted, I poured the glass vial of rose-and- honey nectar onto the powders. With the other hand I waved the crystal.

A pink mist rose and formed a cloud over the circle, growing denser as I chanted. I read the words carefully, hoping I was pronouncing it all correctly, and got to the last sentence. The mist grew a pointed tip and aimed itself at my heart. I took a deep breath, spoke the last word...and my bedroom door opened.

"Hey, Fred, you want some dinner?"

I watched in a mouth-open daze as the mist trembled, shifted, and turned its point toward Cordy. Before I could break the circle, it flew at her like a demented bird and shot straight into her chest.

She stumbled back, blinked, and shook her head like someone waking from sleep. "Wow," she said, rubbing her breastbone. "That was...what was that?"

I leapt to my feet and ran to her side. "Oh, my God. Are you okay? I was-- It was--" Oh, crap. How did I explain what was obviously a spell gone wrong?

Before I could answer, Angel appeared at the end of the hall. Our heads swiveled toward him as he bee-lined toward Cordy.

Her smile lit the universe. "Angel, hey," she said. When he got to us, she twined her arms around his neck and leaned into him.

Over her shoulder I could see his look of surprise, then warmth, then heat as he hugged her back. A soft, pink glow engulfed them. Oh, crap. Crappity-crap-crap!

I watched, horrified, as she drew his head to hers and planted a kiss on his lips. Before I knew it, she had him pinned to the wall. He moaned, long and deep, as she whispered something in his ear.

This was turning into a live-action porn show and it was all my fault.

"Uh, guys?" I said, tapping Cordy on the shoulder.

"Go `way," she said, waving her hand. "We're busy."

Crap. I was gonna have to call in the big guns. As I hauled butt downstairs, I remembered what Lorne had said about backfiring spells. He wasn't kidding. Why did they never give you the fine print on these things?

Wes sat in his office, scouring another book. I stopped at the door, red-faced, and folded my hands behind my back. I felt like I did that time I got caught smoking dope in the bathroom at school and had to go to the principal's office.

"Fred," he said distractedly. "What's up?"

Like ripping off a Band-Aid, I decided it was best to get it done fast. "I found the demon while I was researching this morning.

He glanced up, obviously surprised. "Why didn't you say--"

I held up my hand. "It's an Elcsüggedt. It eats the hearts of young women in love."

The surprise faded to comprehension. He slapped the desk. "Of course!" A line appeared between his eyebrows. "But why would it go after Cordy?"

Somewhere upstairs, Cordy cried out, obviously in the throes of passion. I swallowed hard and looked toward the staircase.


I don't think Wes understood quite what he was hearing. "I went to a lady in Los Feliz and got a love spell. I was gonna cast it on myself, then lure the demon out and cure it."

Wes's mouth fell open.

"While I was casting the spell, Cordy came into the room and it went into her. Then Angel walked in and--"

She cried out again and this time Wes got it. He flushed a dull red and looked down at his desk. "Oh, crap."


We listened while Cordy keened Angel's name.

"I don't think it would have happened quite so fast if they weren't already headed in that direction," I said apologetically.

Wes threw the chair back, grabbed a crossbow, and ran for the stairs. "Angelus!" he yelled.

By the time we made it to Angel's bedroom, Cordy's moans were hotter and throatier. I tried to be a professional but I was afraid to open the door and find Angelus getting her off just in time to rip her throat out. On the other hand, I'd often wondered what Angel looked like naked.

Wes leaned against the wall, crossbow pointed up like a gunslinger at a shootout. "Angel? Angel!"

"Not now, Wes," came the muffled response.

"Angel. You have to stop what you're doing. You and Cordy are under a spell."

Cordy cried out again and the sound drowned out Wes's warning. He caught my eye. "We have to go in."

I swallowed hard. "Let's do it."

He counted three off on his fingers and opened the door. We crossed the threshold and my foot hit something soft. I looked down and found myself tangled in Cordy's skirt.

A breadcrumb trail of clothes led to the bed where Angel and Cordy writhed, oblivious to our presence. Angel's pants were unbuttoned and halfway unzipped. His shirt lay on the sheet like a black shadow under Cordy's lacy, maroon bra.

The bedroom is arranged so that the bed sits perpendicular to the door, giving us a great view of the action. They rolled once, twice, and Cordy came out on top. She straddled him, and we got an eyeful of her amazing breasts and maroon thong.

Wes and I watched slack-jawed as Angel freed his hands and looped his thumbs under the slim edge of her panties. She shimmied against him like a lap dancer, flicking her hips back and forth to work the material down.

He moaned. "Don't stop."

She arched against him, and from throat to belly became one long, aching line. "God, you either," she rasped.

Angel tore one hand free and fisted it in her hair. Even from this angle and distance I could see that his eyes were dark, feral, his mouth pulled back in a snarl. "You don't know--" he said, and he yanked her down. "How long--" He kissed her so hard I heard their teeth click.

"Jeez," I whispered. "They're better than the Red Shoe Diaries."

Wes jolted out of his reverie. "Y-yes, um...er.... All right, then!" He widened his stance and pointed the crossbow at Angel. "Stop what you're doing right now!"

Angel turned his head toward the door. "What the hell?"

Cordy stared blankly at us. She was flushed, panting, sweating--jeez, they'd only been at it ten minutes. How many orgasms could she have had?

"I'm sorry," Wes said, trying hard not to look at Cordelia's breasts. "You must stop. You're under a love spell."

"What?" Angel looked as befuddled as Cordy and more than a little pissed.

I stepped forward. "I'm sorry. It's all my fault. I was trying to catch the demon and--" I looked at my shoes.

"A love spell?" I looked up just in time to see her pull his hand to her heart. "That's crazy. Angel and I don't need a spell to know we're in love."

Angel froze.

"Right, Angel?" She kissed his fingers one by one, obviously still lost in whatever wonderland the spell had sent them to.

"Oh, my God," Angel said. "We're under a--?" He shoved her off of him and lurched to his feet. "This is a *spell*?" A look of horror flashed across his face.

"I don't think the spell could have taken her over if she wasn't falling in love with you, Angel," I said, looking to Wes for reassurance, trying to make this awful situation better.

"It's true," Wes said. "The feelings would already have to be there--"

He thrust out his hand to ward us off.

"What's wrong?" Cordy pouted up at him. She grabbed for his hand. "Why don't you come back to bed?"

He jerked away from her. The war going on inside Angel played out on his face. Shock, fear, betrayal, anger, and a hurt so raw it lanced my heart. Then he turned his back on us and wrapped his arms around his waist. "Get out. All of you."

Cordy sat up as comprehension slowly dawned. "Angel?"

He flinched. "Get out, Cordelia. Now."

Wes collected Cordelia, carefully wrapping the sheet around her. Then he picked up her clothes and guided her to the door. "Come on," he said quietly.

The door closed behind us with a final click. Cordy looked over her shoulder. Her eyes were wide huge and dark. "We nearly--" She paled. "Angel and I almost--"

Wes patted her bare shoulder awkwardly. "Why don't you get dressed. We'll talk about this after you've had a minute to collect yourself."


Half an hour later, we all crowded into Wes's office. Angel sat alone in the shadowed corner. Cordy curled into a chair across the room, as far away from him as she could get. She hadn't looked at Angel since she came in, but the look she shot me should have cut me in half.

Wes had updated Gunn on the situation before Angel came down, and Gunn had obviously decided to go the "discretion is the better part of valor" route. Instead of focusing on the spell, he was staring at the stun gun in his hand. "Let me get this straight," he said to me. "You were gonna lure the demon out and cure it--" he waved the stun gun in the air, "with *this*?"

I swallowed hard. "Yeah," I said, and my voice felt sticky and weak.

He shook his head and looked at Wes. "That work?"

Wes folded his hands. "The premise seems to be correct," he said. "The problem is that a stun gun doesn't offer enough volts to fill the demon's heart for any longer than the gun discharges."

"I say we kill it," Angel said.

Cordy glanced up at him, flushed, then looked back down at her hands.

"Cordy, you have a vote?" Wes asked.

She shrugged.

I didn't want to go against Angel, but that soft spot in my heart wouldn't let me stay quiet. "Can't we figure out some other way? It's not evil—it's just trying to make up for something it's missing." I looked at each of them, sure that they'd understand that feeling. Even after what happened today, they were still Champions— and isn't a Champion just an outcast with cooler weapons?

Wes stood and put his hands on the desk. "I think Angel is right. Unfortunately, we don't have time to do any more research. The thing is hungry and it's likely to kill again." He tapped the desk with his fingertips. "We have no idea where it will strike next, so I suggest we go to the known points of attack to begin tracking it from there."

"I'll check out the grocery store," Angel said, pushing to his feet.

Gunn cut him a glance. "Why don't I go with you?" he asked.

"Gunn, you go with Cordy. She's still under the spell, and she'll need your protection." Wes turned to Angel, leveling his eyes at him. "You too, Angel."

"Impossible," Angel said, tight-lipped.

"The Elcsüggedt will go wherever Cordelia is. We'll need you there."

Angel stared at him with cold eyes. Wes, to his credit, didn't back down. If anything, he stood taller, straighter, like the Wes I first met in Pylea. The silence stretched and I started to get restless. Finally, Angel nodded, breaking the tension.

"How about we start here at the hotel and work our way out to the known hot spots," Wes continued, as if the stare-down hadn't happened. "Gunn's team, you take the area around Albertson's. Fred, come with me. We'll go check out The Derby, where Katy was attacked."

We suited up and prepared for action. Angel stayed well away from Cordy, who looked bruised around the edges. She'd taken off her sling, but she carried her injured hand close to her body. The bandages peeked out the gauzy ruffle of her collar, in pale relief next to her skin.

"Should Cordy be doing this?" I whispered to Wes as they collected their weapons.

"We don't have a choice," he said.

Wes and I pulled together a gym bag full of weapons in strained silence. I slung the bag over my shoulder just as the back door slammed behind Gunn, Angel and Cordy. We went out the front door and I straddled the bike behind Wes. We hauled down Wilshire, hung a left on Vermont, and turned onto Los Feliz Boulevard.

The Derby had just opened its doors and we made our way up the stairs where the bouncer sat, collecting cover fees. "Ten bucks each," he said.

Wes popped him a twenty before I could even get my cash out of my pocket.

"I can get it," I said.

He shook his head and led me into the domed front room. It was too early for the band, but they were serving drinks at the bar, and the patrons—dressed for the swing dancing later on—drank Cosmos, Martinis and expensive beers.

We wandered through the bar, checked the bathrooms, and showed the bartender the picture of the Elcsüggedt. After she finished laughing and told us to lay off the crack, we went back down to the parking lot.

"Guess he's not coming back here tonight," I said. I stuck my hands in the pockets of my jeans and rocked back and forth on my clogs.

A valet climbed into a black SUV and nosed it through the driveway. Out of curiosity we followed it around to the back parking lot. Dumpsters, an almost-full lot, another valet smoking a joint. Your normal behind-the-bar visual.

"What next?" I asked.

"I guess we check in with the others and—"

The burglar alarm wailed. Someone in the Derby screamed. We looked at each other and took off for the stairs.

Sure enough, the Elcsüggedt stood on the stage, holding a young woman by the front of her shirt and drooling on her. A fire escape door bobbed open behind it, on the opposite side of the building from where we'd been standing.

The bartender scrabbled for the phone and an instant later, Wes's rang. He didn't bother to answer—just waved at her as we plowed by.

"Hey!" I yelled at the demon. "Drop her!"

The Elcsüggedt turned his big, furry head, and let out a roar that had people backed up 10-deep in the doorway. The guy next to me blubbered and a wet stain appeared on his thigh. Luckily I'd had the pee scared out of me enough in Pylea to have built up a resistance.

Wes pulled the crossbow and lit a bolt. "Get down!" Everyone stared at him like he was speaking Swahili. "On the floor!" he yelled. They fell like bowling pins and Wes took aim and fired.

The ball of flame shot through the air and caught the Elcsüggedt in the shoulder. It shook its victim like a rag doll. She screamed and fainted, going limp in his paws.

Wes shot another bolt that hit the Elcsüggedt in the leg. It spun wildly and dropped the girl. I rounded the bar, hopscotching the bodies on the floor, and grabbed her by the feet. Her petticoats flared out as I dragged her across the stage. I left her in a pile of pink and white lace and went back to grab the bartender by the arm. She yelped.

"Call nine-one-one!"

She stared at me, blank-eyed with terror.

I slapped her. "Get with it!" I shouted, trying not to be distracted by the fact that Wes was running out of bolts. "Pick up the phone and dial nine-one-one. Tell them there's a hostage situation."

I left her dialing the cops and went back to help Wes. Unfortunately, the flood of people going for the exits blocked my path.

At my hip, my cell phone buzzed. I ignored it and did the only thing I could: I tried to get people to their feet and away from the demon. Should have taken Traffic Cop 101, I thought, as I shoved people out the door and directed them to the fire escapes.

Sirens started to wail outside, which only added to the screaming, the deafening klaxon of the burglar alarm, and the roaring of the demon. The smell of burning fur hit the air, and when I looked back, I saw that the Elcsüggedt, hair completely burned off its right arm, was running full-speed toward Wes.

My phone buzzed me again and I yanked it free. Cordy's number flashed on screen. I flipped the mouthpiece down. "HELP! We're at the Derby!"

"We'll be right there!"

I dodged the crowd and ran for Wes, who was being pummeled by the Elcsüggedt. I kicked and screamed and lunged for the sword handle sticking out of the gym bag. I really, really didn't want to kill this thing, but since I'd pretty much gotten us into this mess, I figured it was my responsibility to clean it up.

Wes struggled and I caught a flash of his blue eyes as I raised the sword.


I stopped on the downswing, just in time to see Cordy rush through the door. The Elcsüggedt's blows slowed and then stopped as he caught her scent. She gave him a little wave and disappeared. The thing rolled up on his hind legs and chased her like a cat after a catnip ball.

I dropped the sword. "Wes, are you okay?" I pulled him up and brushed him off. His glasses were cracked and hung off of one ear; blood dripped down his cheek, and his jacket was ripped.

He grabbed the bag, stuffed the sword in it and made for the door. "Come on! We've got to find Cordy!"


The parking lot was packed with police officers, cars with swirling blue lights, and weeping bystanders. We wove through, skirted the cops, and ran around the back of the building. Nothing.

Wes cranked the bike and we roared off in search of Cordy and Big Blue. We caught up with them near the corner of Los Feliz and Vermont. Angel had put the car's top down and Cordy sat on top of the back seat like Miss Sorghum Queen 2001. Angel drove the car about 30 miles an hour, weaving in and out of traffic, while the Elcsüggedt galloped along behind them.

Angel took the turn onto Vermont with a screech of tires and Cordy nearly rolled out the back of the car. He grabbed her ankle and held on while she yelled and waved at the demon to keep him coming behind them. On the other side of the road, cops ran by, lights flashing. I watched over my shoulder as they skidded to a stop, U-turned, and started in pursuit.

"Where is Angel going?" I yelled at Wes.

"I have no idea!"

The Plymouth screeched to a halt at Sunset and Angel leapt out of the car and put himself between Cordy and the Elcsüggedt. We downed the bike and ran like sprinters off the starting block.

Gunn raced into the frame and grabbed Cordy's hand. They ran down into the Metro Rail station, Angel and the demon in hot pursuit.

Wes and I followed. "They must have a plan," Wes shouted.

"To send him to Pacoima?" We followed as best we could, but the way people clumped, screaming like idiots, at the top and bottom of the escalator, it took some doing to make it into the station.

I scanned the crowd for the team. There, over everyone's heads, I could see them moving toward the tracks. Cordy waved her hands at the big blue beast who bellowed like a lovestruck Romeo. Angel and Gunn fanned out, and the three of them herded the Elcsüggedt like a rogue bull.

"Of course!" Wes shouted. "The third rail!"

God, why hadn't I thought of that? It'd be enough electricity to jump-start the thing's heart—if it didn't kill it or one of us in the process.

We surged with the tide of people as Cordy, Angel and Gunn jumped down onto the tracks. I popped loose about 10 feet from them and the smell of greasy metal and dust hit me hard. I jumped onto the gravel and heard the crunch as Wes landed next to me.

Now there were six of us in the danger zone and in the distance I could see the light of an oncoming train.

"Get off the tracks!" I glanced up in time to see one of the cops shoving his way down the escalator and waving his arms. "Get off the tracks, you idiots!"

The people who'd gotten caught in the station watched open-mouthed. If we'd been a reality show, we'd have topped the Nielsen ratings.

Cordy danced as close to the third rail as she could, while Angel dogged the demon like a defensive lineman. Gunn snuck up behind it, the axe held over his head. Plan B, if the third rail failed.

The train whistled and one of the cops busted through the line of couch potatoes and grabbed me by the arm. "You're under arrest," he screamed. I got yanked up so hard my shoulder nearly dislocated. Wes came up right after me, leaving Gunn, Angel and Cordy to save Big Blue.

One of the cops pulled his gun and aimed at the Elcsüggedt.

I shoved his arm down. "Don't! They've got it under control!"

He probably would have cuffed me right then if the crowd hadn't rolled closer. As it was, we were lucky they didn't send us down into the hole. The cop screamed into his walkie and within seconds seven other cops crawled out from between the legs of the onlookers. They formed a line and joined hands, trying to hold back the crowd.

We all watched with morbid fascination as the Elcsüggedt made a final lunge for Cordy. She jumped toward the platform and sent it sprawling, face-first, on the third rail. An electrical discharge, like lighting, smacked the air and turned it blue.

The lights flickered, the Elcsüggedt wailed, and Angel tossed Cordy onto the platform. "Run!"

Cordy rolled to her feet and planted her hands on her hips. "No way in hell!"

Gunn scrambled up next to her, ignoring the cops, but not even trying to hide his axe.

"What the fuck?" yelled the cop next to me as he tried to hold back the crowd.

"Elcsüggedt," I said. "A Hungarian love demon. It's a long story."

We watched, entranced, as the beast seized, body filling and deflating like a balloon until it finally lay there quietly, staring up at the ceiling.

The train blew its horn and its light flashed just outside the tunnel. Thirty feet out; twenty feet….

Cordy screamed, "Angel!" and he looked up just in time to see the train edge into the station. I watched through the window as the driver, alternating between fury and disbelief, jerked the emergency break. The train slid down the tracks, right for Angel and the demon.

A high, grinding whine and the smell of burning brakes filled the air. Time stopped. In my mind I could see the impact, see Angel's body ripped to pieces by the 20-ton rail car. Watch the Elcsüggedt go up in a puff of blue smoke.

Five feet, two feet, then Angel, moving with preternatural speed, grabbed the Elcsüggedt and rolled off the track. The train skidded by and I lost sight of them. Please, God, don't let them be chopped up in a million little bitty pieces, I prayed.

The train shuddered to a halt and a surreal quiet descended. Then the demon roared and shot out from behind the train, running toward the empty tunnel. I swear he looked over his shoulder and smiled before he entered the darkness.

There was a moment of stunned silence then everyone started talking at once. Angel walked out from behind the engine. Blood trickled from a cut on his head and he'd torn the knees of his pants. He scanned the crowd and I knew he was looking for Cordy. When he saw her his whole body relaxed. Then, as if he remembered the spell, he stiffened and turned away.

Gunn snuck out behind the cops, who were trying to restore order to the station.

Cordy walked up behind me. "Guess we should clear out before they start to question us—"

Too late. One of the cops grabbed her, another put his hand on my shoulder, and a third corralled Angel and Wes. When I glanced up at the escalator, Gunn waved, grinned and disappeared into the night.


"So they believed the line about it being a fraternity stunt?" Gunn asked, as he stuffed pancakes into his mouth. "Who thought that one up?"

"Cordy. Who do you think?"

Gunn laughed. "That's so stupid it's almost believable."

"Well, they did fine us a hundred bucks each, and we had to agree never to jump on the tracks again."

"Stiff penalty. At least they didn't search Wes's bag of tricks."

I fiddled with my coffee cup. "Speaking of Wes, I need to go talk to him." I figured I'd start with him then throw myself at Angel and Cordy's feet right after that. "You gonna be okay in here by yourself?"

Gunn looked around at the guilt-breakfast I'd made when we got back. Pancakes, bacon, eggs, hash browns, juice…. I got the thumbs up, a really cute smile, and a nod. "Me and all this food, we'll have a good old time."

I left him with his pancakes and sought Wesley out in the office. He sat, alone, finishing up the file report on the Elcsüggedt case. A long scratch marred his cheekbone, but it looked less livid than it had even an hour before. His glasses were patched with white tape from the first aid kit and he'd changed into a soft, gray Oxford sweatshirt that was frayed at the collar.

I sat down in the chair across from him and waited until he looked up at me. "Hey."

He put down his pen, and closed the file. "You all right?"

I shrugged. "I guess so. We saved the world from the Elcsüggedt, saved the Elcsüggedt from itself, and except for a love spell gone awry, we're all pretty much intact." You couldn't ask for much more than that, I supposed. But it still didn't get rid of the gnawing feeling in my stomach. "You're still mad at me, aren't you?"

He blinked. "What makes you think that?"

I waved my hand. "You know, from before-- This just made it worse, didn't it?" I shrank down in the chair. "You should fire me. Go ahead, I deserve it."

Wes shook his head. "No, I'm not going to fire you. But I am going to ask what the hell you thought you were doing."

I looked down at my hands and realized that sometime in the last couple of days I had started biting my nails again. "I just—" I sighed. "I needed to prove that I could take care of myself. That I was worth something, you know?" When I looked up, he was all blurry. I blinked the tears back and tried to look composed.

"Fred, I've never known a woman more able to take care of herself than you." He leaned forward and put his elbows on the desk. "You survived a hell dimension. You survived—" He swallowed. "You survived Billy's attack."

"But, I didn't stop them from happening. I tried-- I wondered when I was in Pylea what I'd done, what was so terrible about me, that I got stuck in hell." I had to stop talking and take a deep breath before I could go on. "And then you and Angel came and saved me-- And I loved being saved, it's just that you're not always there to do the saving, you know?" I pushed out of the chair and started pacing. "And then the thing with Billy. What if I hadn't worn those dresses, used that shampoo, what if—"

"Fred! No, don't think that!" He stood up abruptly, and came around the desk. "God, don't think that," he said, taking me by the shoulders.

He looked queasy, scared, like he was staring down his worst enemy and didn't think he'd make it out alive.

"Then why do you keep looking at me like that?"

"Like what?"

"Like you hate me, or you're scared of me, or...something."

He swallowed hard and took a deep breath. His hands squeezed my arms and then he let me go and sat on the edge of the desk. It was like watching a flower wilt. "It's not you I hate, Fred. Not you I'm scared of."

"Who, then?" I whispered.

The office was silent for a moment. Wes's throat worked like the words were there but couldn't quite make it out. "Myself."

I stared at him. "You're kidding, right?"

He shook his head. "Afraid not."

The relief was so strong, my legs fell out from under me. Luckily I landed on the chair. "Really?"

He nodded. "This has been the worst few weeks I've had in years. I'd forgotten what torture it is to feel this sort of self-loathing."

I wiped my hand over my face and it came back wet with tears. "Guess we were in the same boat."

"Guess we were."

"So you were never mad at me?"

"Maybe a little, when you first told me about the demon. But that was mostly because I was worried about you."

I digested that. It actually went down pretty smoothly. "So if you're worried about me, does that mean we're friends again?"

His eyes lit up when he smiled. "Yeah. I guess it does."

"What about Angel and Cordy?"

"I called Lorne. He's going to have the spell retracted. Cordy should be out of love by—" He looked at his watch. "About now."

I breathed a huge sigh of relief. "I guess I should go check on them, see if the retraction worked."


Of course, they were fighting again.

"I did not hide the throwing stars. I put them down in the basement with the other dust collectors."

The door to the weapons cabinet stood open. Angel's butt was the only thing I could see as he leaned over, head-first into the small closet. The open door completely hid Cordy from view.

"For the hundredth time, Cordelia, they're not dust catchers!" He stood, slammed the door, and now I could see Cordy glaring at him.

"This from the man who in two hundred and fifty years has never picked up a dust cloth!"

"Oh, please," he said, walking toward the basement door. "I hardly have a maid and my room is perfectly clean."

She stalked after him. "Sure, your room is clean, but when did you ever lend a hand down here? If it weren't for me and Fred—"

The door banged closed behind them. I looked up at Wes. "Looks like the anti-love spell worked."

He nodded. "Uh huh."

I sighed. "That's good, I guess." I stared at the door. "Maybe I should go talk to them. Before they really get going."

He shot me a compassionate look. "No time like the present." Then he moved back into the office and I heard the squeak of his chair as he settled in to do whatever Wes did between cases.

As I headed for the stairs I noticed that Angel had left his broadsword out next to the couch. Cordy was right—we were the ones who usually ended up tidying up behind him. But I didn't really mind because it made me feel like part of the family.

I carried it to the cabinet to put it up while I thought about what to say to them. Resting in its slot was Cordy's practice sword which I knew she liked to keep downstairs. If they planned on training in between arguments, she'd need it. I figured I'd take it down and save her the trip.

It'd either be a peace offering or she'd cut off my head with it.

"I'll be back," I called, as I passed Wes's office.

"Good luck."

I opened the basement door and started down the stairs.

Cordy stood at the table, arranging a bunch of silk flowers. Angel leaned against the wall across the room with his arms folded over his chest. The glower on his face told me they weren't done yet and sure enough, as I watched, Cordy blew like a teakettle.

"I just don't see what the big deal is," she said, whirling around to glare at him. "I mean, it would hardly cost any money at all to hire someone to come in and clean."

"We can barely afford to pay your salary," Angel said. "And you want me to hire a maid?"

She took a step toward him and plopped her fisted hands on her hips. "Either that or you boys start cleaning the Freedom House."

His needle was obviously edging into the red zone. "The Freedom House? What the heck are you--"

"For a fairly enlightened man...pire, you don't get it do you?" She flung her hands in the air and took another step in his direction. "Don't you remember Freedom Houses? The heady days of the 60s? Hippies? Peace rallies? Free love?" She whirled and went back to the flowers.

"Who do you think cleaned the Freedom House?" She jerked a flower and pulled off its head. "The WOMEN, that's who!" She whipped around and shot him a look that raised the danger level to Defcon 3.

Angel walked toward her like he was being pulled by a tractor beam. His feet said one thing, but his face said another. "Well, they were pretty stupid, then, weren't they?"

Cordy short-circuited. "Stupid? Is that what you think?" She looked crazy-eyed and feral. Waves of heat poured off of her and she practically shimmered in the low light. "Fine, then, see if I vacuum your rugs, polish your desks, arrange your flowers!" She threw the flower at him. "And for your information, if it wasn't for that stupid spell, I would never have kissed you!"

He goggled at her. "W-what?"

"What do you think I am? Some sort of—of—low-rent vamp?"

Angel's mouth fell open. "L-low rent-- Who had whose hands up whose—" He made another strangled sound. "If the shoe fits, wear it!"

She stabbed him in the chest with her finger. "I hardly need shoe advice from YOU! Besides, if you hadn't kissed me back, this would never have happened!"

Angel went into motion, throwing his hands in the air and pacing. "Oh, right, this is all my fault! I'll remember that next time you tell me you want to suck my brains out through my—my--!" He gestured toward his crotch.

I gasped and covered my mouth with both hands.

"You think I couldn't?" she asked, getting right up in his face.

"Couldn't what?" Angel shouted, nearly nose-to-nose with her.

"Suck your brains out," Cordy said menacingly.

"With the way you nag? Please, I'm surprised it doesn't fall off every time you walk into a room!" He whirled away, stalking toward the stairs.

I squeaked and got ready to run.

Cordy grabbed his arm and swung him around. "I never wanted you!" she screamed. "It was all the spell's fault!"

"Fine! Let go of my arm and I'll get out of your sight!"

She opened her mouth, obviously too stunned to think of anything else to say. Then she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him.

He struggled, but I think it was more the principle of the thing, because in about five seconds he jerked her to him and kissed her back.

I watched, stunned, as he hauled her up and wrapped her legs around his waist. He didn't even break the kiss as he strode to the table, knocked everything off with one arm, and dropped her on the edge. A vase of silk flowers hit the floor and shattered. Neither of them so much as blinked.

The room smelled like ozone, like lightning had struck.

Cordy pulled back, breathing hard, and stared at him. "I love you," she said. "Dumbass."

He kissed her forehead, her cheeks, her chin. Her hands twined in his hair and she pulled his mouth to hers. He kissed her like a starving man. She arched back, panting, and he ran his lips down her throat.

"Oh, God, Angel. Don't stop. Please, don't stop--"

The words shook him loose. "We can't, Cordy. The curse, remember?"

She stared at him, looking as crushed as he did. But then an odd light came into her eyes.

"What?" he asked.

"A surefire cure for the curse."

He shook his head. "There is no cure, Cordy. You know that."

She stroked his face, cupped his cheek, and grinned. "Sure there is." She leaned up and whispered something in his ear.

He stared at her, struck dumb, for an entire ten seconds. Then he burst out laughing, picked her up, and waltzed her around the room.

I took the sword, tiptoed up the stairs, and closed the door behind me.

"How'd it go?" Wes asked, eying the sword.

"Better than I expected," I said.

He nodded. "I knew they'd come around."

Honey, you don't know the half of it, I thought as I slid the sword back in its holder and closed the doors. "I think I'm gonna go take a nap," I said, feeling like I could sleep for days. "Last night wore me out."

As I climbed the stairs, I couldn't help but grin. So maybe I wasn't getting a party, with banners and cake, but all in all, I was pretty happy. I'd solved the case, saved the demon and even started Angel and Cordy down the rocky road toward romance.

I kicked off my clogs, plopped down on my bed and pulled the covers up. Winifred Burkle, Private Eye, I mused. It didn't have such a bad ring, after all.


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