Heat Stroke by Starlet2367
Summary: "Please tell me there's a Kwik-E-Mart next door," Angel said. Cordy slapped him on the arm. "No, dummy. There's nothing but desert. Flat, empty, stupid desert."
Spoilers: To Shanshu In LA, Season One.
Notes: To Psychofilly for the challenge, to the Strangers for being such graceful and generous stalkers, and to swikstr for the desert info and the Fugue soundtrack, to which this story was written. Ebonbird’s insight helped Heat Stroke find its footing. Rachel Caine let me borrow her title. Julie Fortune, littleheaven and Queen Mab kicked my ass in beta. Laurie held the dream portal open to Malibu. Thanks to them all. This story wouldn’t be the same without them.
Radisson, Wilshire Plaza
Earlier that evening
"Hey, David," she said, sipping her champagne. Around them wove the chirp of laughter, the flowing sound of a jazz standard. For some reason, watching men through golden bubbles made even the ugly ones look good.
Not that David didn't look good. After all, he had lots of money to buy a tux that fit...kinda well. She ran her eyes from gleaming, black shoes to his round face. His hair was a nice, nutty brown, except for the part where he'd slicked it back with some kind of shiny gel, and now it looked like....
Oh, who was she kidding. He looked like a pudgy pelican stuffed into a penguin suit.
"C-Cordelia, Wes." He cleared his throat. "Good to see you." His nod to Wes was quick, decisive, but then he giggled, effectively killing any trace of dignity.
"You too," Wes said. He took another sip of his champagne and smiled awkwardly, clearly as flustered by small talk as David. The music shifted, going from upbeat jazz to "They Can't Take That Away From Me."
"Thanks for inviting us," Cordy said, figuring she'd better stop them from committing suicide by geekdom. She glanced around and spotted one well-known producer, a football player, and a country music star.
"There are tons of rich people here-- Think you could introduce me to that one?" She pointed at a trim, gray-haired man who cradled his champagne glass in a manicured hand. He looked very at home in his tux, and considering he'd spoken to nearly half the people in the room since he came in, he was obviously well-connected. Exactly the type of person to get her on the road to her inevitable stardom.
David cleared his throat. "Uh, sure. I mean, yes, absolutely."
Cordy drained the champagne glass and dropped it on a passing tray. "Great." At least David knew to hold out his arm for her to take. She slid her hand through the crook of his elbow and guided him across the room.
"Where's Angel?" David asked. A Strauss waltz floated through the air, light and pretty. In the full hotel ballroom, a few couples twirled like figures in a music box.
"Oh, he's coming. Had a hold-up with the demon thingy I saw in my last vision." She waved her hand in front of her nose. "Talk about stink-o-rama."
They passed the table with canapes; an ice sculpture of a swan floated gracefully above the champagne fountain. Cordy ignored her growling stomach, looking away from the perfect circles of pink shrimp, the golden crab puffs, the miniature blintzes.
This was a fundraiser for one of David's pet charities and L.A.'s biggest and brightest had shown up in their Versaces and St. Laurents to write big checks and tuck them in the pockets of the foundation's board members, who mixed and mingled.
Pictures of smiling children in wheelchairs, or standing with braces on their arms or legs, were set strategically on each table next to the door prizes. Since this year's theme was "Swim into Action," (whatever that meant), the door prizes were things like diamond pins shaped like swim goggles or exotic fish twirling lazily in bowls with plants growing out the top.
Cordy thought it was a really smart way to get lots of dough. People always coughed it up for helpless kids.
"Wow," David said. "You, like, smell them, and everything? That is so cool!"
"Only if you like the smell of demon breath. Hello!" she said, dropping David's arm and stepping into the other man's tractor beam.
"Um, hello." He glanced from Cordy to David. "Mr. Nabbit," he said, sticking out his hand. "It's a lovely party."
David took his hand and smiled like a man who'd had prunes for dinner. "Thanks. Glad you could come. Uh--" He stalled, nosedived.
Cordy sailed into the breach. "I was just saying the same thing! Wasn't I, David?" She stuck her hand out. "Cordelia Chase."
He shook her hand. "Ms. Chase." She waited for him to introduce himself in return, but instead, he said, "Are you a friend of David's?"
She laughed, trying to think of another way to get his name. Something about him just *smelled* important. Or maybe it was just the CKOne. "Not in the sense that-- I mean, yes, but only because--" She stopped, flashing him her biggest smile. "We're best friends, aren't we, David?"
David stuttered out a laugh. "Uh, yeah." He looked like he did that time he thought he lost his PDA at their office.
"So." Cordy sized up the man's tux. "Is that Armani? I only ask because the cut of the lapels--"
He gave her a look that suggested she was seriously deficient, and moved off into the crowd. "Well," Cordy said. "That was rude."
"Was it?" David asked. "I can never tell."
She turned to find Angel in his traditional all-black, covered with an ankle-length leather duster. Long slices slit the leather and he wore a big, purple bruise on his temple.
"Nice to see you dressed for the occasion," she said. "You okay?"
He grunted and scanned the crowd. "I killed the demon. I came to the party. Now, can we go?"
"Just so you know, David," she said, "that was rude, too."
David watched them, wide-eyed.
"Where's Wesley?" Angel looked like he was about to slip over into Broodland at any second.
Cordy pointed. "I'm not sure whether he's seizing or dancing. Thus, I am out of all range of association." She smoothed her dress again. "Aren't you going to tell me how fabulous I look?"
He glanced at her. "Yeah. You look, uh, great." He turned to David. "Since Cordy won’t let us leave—"
"Damn right, I won’t," she said, crossing her arms and shooting him "the brow." "It’s not every night I get to wear a dress like this."
Angel narrowed his eyes at her. "—did the suspect ever show?"
David nodded his head. Or maybe twitched. It was hard to tell. "That one," he said, pointing toward the canapé table.
Cordy followed the line of David’s finger and saw a tall, well-built black man with close-cropped hair. As if he sensed their gaze, he turned, and his eyes met hers.
Gold eyes in a black face. Dangerous. Powerful. Beautiful.
She smiled in a friendly sort of fashion then turned back to David and Angel. "Kinda spooky, if a little obvious. I mean, if Central Casting were going for ‘big, bad sorcerer,’ he’d totally get the part." She mimed a yawn, as if to say, "How boring."
"He’s supposed to be one of the most powerful mages in the city," David said, gaze scooting between the sorcerer and Cordy. "I mean, he stole my Sorcerer’s Stone right out of my safe."
"Anyone with a good set of blueprints, some grease paint, and a decent set of lock picks can do that," she scoffed. "And, hey, at least he’s better than that one we interviewed the other day, right?" She put air quotes around "interview," since it had mostly consisted of Angel threatening to strangle the guy if he didn’t share his information with the class.
"That guy was a lightweight," Angel said, crossing his arms over his chest.
"As you’d know, since you dangled him off the floor by the scruff of his neck," Cordy said. "He was also hygienically challenged. I mean, hello. You’d think if he was such a bigwig in the magic world, he could at least conjure up some shampoo. So," she said to Angel. "What’s the plan?"
She glanced around the room, taking in the crowd of well-dressed, expensive-smelling people, and the loaded trays, balanced on the servers’ arms. Sparkling glasses of champagne, bowls of strawberries, delicately glittering red wine in fat glasses. "You try to take him down in here and you’re just gonna end up ruining somebody’s Balenciaga. Which would not be cool."
Angel pinned the Mage with his eyes. "The plan is, we watch and wait."
"Wait?" David asked, a line forming between his eyebrows. "But I thought—"
"Like Cordy said, no need to ruin a Bal-- Bal--" He waved his hand. "Whatever she said."
Dreams shivered up, brightly colored and contorted.
She shifted in her sleep, breaking their surface, and the projector shifted, leaving her in front of a mirror brushing her hair. The boar-head bristles snagged in a tangle and she pulled and pulled, only to watch the tangle grow, swallowing the brush and coiling into a long, brown snake.
It dropped from her head and wound through the sand over her feet. Her heart dropped right into her stomach and she moved her legs, trying to get away. But no matter how fast she ran, she couldn’t go anywhere.
She could only wait and watch as the snake lifted up on its tail and swayed. As tiny beaded eyes flashed, and long line of its mouth drew back in a, slow, secret smile.
Then it flicked its tongue, bared its fangs, and struck.
Her eyes popped open and the dream faded, leaving her with a vague sense of unease. She unballed her hands and dropped the sheet she’d been clutching. Looked up and found herself staring at Angel's back. He was barefoot and stirring something at the stove. "Please tell me you're brewing coffee."
He turned. "You're awake. Good."
When she sat up, she saw that he'd blown out the candle and put his coat over her. The first rays of sunlight were turning the room a soft gray. The curtains were tight over the windows, leaving just enough light for her to see by. "Why good?"
He turned off the stove. "Because you need to eat."
"You found food?" That had her out of the bed and on her feet. "Really? God, I could *so* use a cheeseburger."
The pot landed on the table in front of her, wooden spoon sticking out an awkward angle. "Well, it *is* meat."
She picked up the spoon and watched as the slop dripped back into the pot. "I can't eat this."
"Sure you can. I did."
A cringe-worthy comment if ever there was one. "Don't tell me you--" She made a fang-face, suggesting that he'd sucked the thing dry.
"Lots easier to clean if they're not full of blood." He wiped his hands on the dishtowel.
"The words ‘gag me with a spoon’ take on new meaning. And how do you know about--" she waved a hand toward the pot— "big-knuckled-farm-women stuff?"
"How do you think we ate meat when I was growing up?"
"Frozen food aisle?" She glanced up at him hopefully. "Red Baron? Mrs. Paul's? This ringing any bells?"
"Eat your soup, Cordelia." Angel pulled another bottle of water from the pantry. "When you're done, I'll boil some more water. Then I'm going to bed."
Cordy took a small bite of the soup-type-food-product. "Ugh." Even though she was starving, she shook her head and dropped the spoon back into the pot. "No way. Tastes like road kill."
It was usually pretty funny when Angel did that thing with his face. Now that she was alone with him in the middle of nowhere, it was a little intimidating. "Okay, fine." She took a big bite, and chewed. "Are you happy now?"
He ran his hands through his hair. "Unfortunately, I didn't see anyone or anything that looked like civilization out there."
Cordy held her nose and took another bite. She swallowed. The information processed; her worst nightmare. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, with no way out.
Between Vocah and the head-splitting visions, nothing surprised her anymore. But she couldn’t stop the helpless spin of terror that gripped her.
"This totally sucks," she said, not even bothering to keep the fear out of her voice. With her fingers pinching her nose shut, though, she sounded all Minnie-Mouse. So she said it again. "This totally sucks!" Then she giggled wildly, a sound that snorted against her closed nostrils. That sense of turning, of falling, of emptiness overwhelmed her, and the laughter bubbled and bubbled, spilling over, taking her with it.
Gasping, clutching her sides, helpless with laughter. Helpless.
"Cordy." Angel put his hands on her shoulders.
"What?" she gasped. The blank, bland look on his face--his "oh-shit" stare--sent her off again.
The feel of Angel's hand cupping her chin morphed the laugher into tears. "I wanna go home!" she wailed.
He pulled her to him, patting her awkwardly on the back. "I know. I'm working on it."
Relaxing into him was difficult, considering the only thing touching her was his shoulders and his hands. Full-body contact freaked him out; she knew this, but right now, his brand of comfort wasn't exactly comforting. She pulled back, sniffling. "You kinda suck at the whole nurturing thing." That was the old her. "But thanks for trying, anyway." And that was the new her.
He wiped her face with his sleeve. "Well, you know. I spent more years scaring people than making them feel better." There was that smile. "You should be glad I'm making you breakfast, instead of having you for breakfast."
Cordy smiled, warmed by the macabre humor. "Did you just make a joke?"
Angel made a "huh" face. "You know, I think I did." He looked pointedly at the pot. "Finish eating, Cordy."
If you pretended it was that soup you got with a meal at La Cantina, it wasn't so bad. A little stringy, and the meat was definitely gamy, but after the first couple of bites, her stomach actually seemed to like it. So she finished the pot and handed it back to Angel. And there was all that water she drank earlier, putting pressure on her bladder. "Must pee." She headed toward the bathroom.
She turned and he pointed toward the front door.
"No way." She threw up her hands. "If I wanted to go camping, I'd have checked in at the Awahnee!"
Angel rummaged under the sink and came up with a roll of paper towels. "Dig a cat hole. Bury everything in it. Cover it so you don't attract animals."
"There’s a perfectly good toilet in there. Why should I go outside to do my business?"
"Because there’s no way of knowing if that toilet works. Until I can check it out—"
She held up a hand, stopping him mid-sentence. "I'm like that lady in that sixties TV show."
His brow wrinkled.
She pantomimed banging a pitchfork on the floor and hummed the theme song.
Angel's confusion cleared. "Green Acres!" His laugh was genuinely amused. "I guess you are. Zsa-Zsa Gabor, camping in a ball gown." He ran a finger over the satin covering her shoulder. "Speaking of, we should probably find you something a little more comfortable to wear."
Cordy snatched the towels from him. "What, a fig leaf?" She made sure she slammed the door behind her.
this is what people did before television, she thought, looking around the dead
silent RV. Absolutely nothing.
She kicked her feet out and reclined on the bench, staring at the ceiling. Angel snored on the bed a few feet away. Her dress was hot, sticky. Her feet didn’t hurt any more but the dirt crawling between her toes was about to gross her out.
She could smell herself. She *never* smelled. Well, except for that one time before she got the apartment with Dennis, but that didn't count any more. Not after almost two whole days in the desert.
Cordy stood up and stared at Angel. Why did he snore if he didn't breathe? She needed to ask him that.
Tempted to poke him to see if he'd wake, she remembered how grumpy he got if he missed his beauty sleep. Instead she wandered to the front of the RV and turned on the taps in the sink.
A loud banging filled the air and she jumped, twisting the taps off frantically, and looking over her shoulder. Thank God, Angel hadn't moved.
She stared at the sink, thinking. Did that banging mean there was something in the pipes that wanted out? Like air? Or water?
Squatting in front of the cabinet, she pulled the door open. It popped free of the magnetic latch and she stared in at the S-curve of the pipes and the two, silver knobs. When she stuck her head in, she noticed that the pipes seemed to go down, through a hole in the floor, outside the camper.
Curious, she went outside, got down on her hands and knees, and peered under the RV's hulking belly. Sure enough, a pipe ran down into the earth. "Well, well, well," she said, then laughed at her pun.
When she stood she noticed something else. An awning on the side of the trailer, carefully rolled and strapped to the side. It seemed like the kind of thing you could unfurl and make shade with. A great way to watch sunsets, if they did happen to get stuck out here forever.
Which they weren't. Because she was going to figure out a way to get them out of there. Then she was gonna let Angel go and do it. Delegating was more her style than actual work, but if she could ace her SATs, then she should be able to find a way to get them out.
She slipped back into the quiet trailer. Angel had flipped over onto his back, with one arm flung across the mattress. His mouth hung open.
She leaned down and peered in at his teeth, surprised to find that his mouth looked exactly like hers, down to the little hangy-thing on the back of his throat. So what happened when he vamped, she wondered, standing back up. She'd have to add that to her list of things to ask when he woke.
He'd taken off his shirt and slept, in his wife-beater and pants. The shirt lay neatly on top of the coat--he was such a freak that way--and the shoes sat in a tidy row on the floor next to the bed.
She eyeballed the shirt. Picked it up and sniffed. She lifted her arm and took a discreet whiff, then ducked away, mouthing, "Yuck!" Either he didn't sweat or his sweat smelled better than hers. She shrugged, draped the shirt over her shoulder, and went to the sink.
There was a stack of dishtowels on the cabinet, and she picked one up with a bottle of water, and went outside. The tarp was too high for her to reach, so she pulled the steps over and used them like a ladder.
Poles, wrapped up in the middle of the tarp, clanged down on her head. "Ow!" They hit the desert floor, shooting flares of reflected sun back at her. The tarp hung limply against the side of the RV.
She waited breathlessly for Angel to open the door or bang on the window. Nothing. It took her a minute to figure out how it all went together, but finally she had the poles inserted into the holes and the little tent-like cover erected.
Sun beat down, making everything white-hot and dazzling. She glanced around, and that vulnerable, exposed feeling came back. But nothing stirred. Not birds, not rodents, not even the breeze.
Before she could lose her nerve, she unzipped the dress and stepped out of it. How standing out here in nothing but her thong was different from standing in St. Tropez in nothing but her bikini bottoms defied explanation. There she felt powerful, sexy, beautiful. Here, she felt intimidated. Afraid. Like the entire world was staring at her, and not in a nice way.
Ignoring the feeling, she skinned out of the thong and rinsed it in the water. She laid it on the steps to dry in the sun then poured a little bit of the water on the towel.
Her hair felt heavy, hot. She pulled out the pins and set them carefully on Angel's shirt. Then she scrubbed her face and neck, feeling layers of grime peel away.
At some point between scrubbing under her arms and behind her knees she started to get comfortable with being naked in the middle of nowhere. Of course, that was when Angel tapped on the window.
"Yaaah!" She grabbed his shirt, scattering pins. "Some privacy, please?"
"You're in the middle of nowhere," he yelled through the glass. The curtains remained tightly in place; no way he was going to risk frying. "How much more privacy do you need?"
"Five more minutes worth," she yelled.
She finished her bath, pulled on his shirt, buttoned it, and started hunting for pins. She got three of them back; the others disappeared into the sand. Maybe Angel's vamp-eye could spot them tonight. Gathering the dress, towel and water, she started toward the stairs, where she saw her thong.
She scooped it on the end of her finger and tapped at the door. "Open up."
Shuffling, muttering, she heard him get behind the door, well into the shade, and pull it open. "Since when can't you work a door knob?"
"Since my hands are full." She strolled past him, dropped the water and the cloth, and turned.
His eyes fell to her thong, still looped around one finger, then worked their way up her body to her face. "My shirt," he said, voice gravelly with sleep. Or irritation. It was hard to tell. "What am I supposed to wear?"
She thrust the dress at him. "Red's definitely your color."
He shook his head. "Cordy...."
"I'll give it back when the sun sets." She wiggled her finger, absently swinging the thong. "What's the difference? It's not like anyone's around to see." Glancing around, she spotted a sunny spot on a shelf, just under the window. She spread the tiny bit of fabric out, carefully smoothing it down, so it'd dry in the right position.
Angel made a noise in the back of his throat.
"What?" She turned, walked past him, and sat on the bench.
Angel grimaced. "Tell me there's something between your skin and that bench."
Cordy shrugged. "Your shirt."
The grimace grew to a look of horror. Then, as if that were too much to take in, he pointed toward the thong. "*That's* what you've been wearing under your clothes for two days?"
"Well, yeah." Her forehead wrinkled. "Why?"
He slapped his forehead. "I am stuck in the desert. No easy way out. With a woman who wears dental floss for underwear." He cast his gaze to the ceiling. "God, can my life *be* any worse?"
"Vampires pray?" Cordy crossed her legs and swung her foot. "You don't, like, burst into flames, or something?"
Angel leveled a look at her. "Those things--" He nodded toward the thong. "They can't be healthy--" His mouth closed and his lips pinched together. "No. Never mind. I don't want to know."
"Well, if you're not gonna ask me a question, can I ask you one?"
It sounded like he was being strangled. She took that as a yes.
"Earlier, when you were asleep, I looked in your mouth--"
"You looked in my mouth."
"Well, it was open. I was bored." She shrugged. "It looks normal."
A muscle twitched in his jaw.
"So, what I want to know is, where do the fangs go? Up in your head? Or do they just disappear--"
"I don't know, Cordelia."
She frowned. "You've been a vamp for two-hundred-some-odd years, and you never got curious?"
"No," he snapped. "What was I gonna do, Google for it?"
Her eyebrow arched. "You know about Google? And here I was feeling sorry for the poor, technologically challenged old guy."
Was that a growl? He ran his fingers through his hair and paced. Then he stopped and stared at her. "Earlier," he said, like a man grabbing for a lifeline. "I heard banging, didn't I?"
"Banging, as in naughty dreams, or as in empty sink pipes? Or what about poles crashing--"
"Sink pipes?" No one loved a project like Angel. He was Mr. Do-It, and he seemed to have found something to occupy him as he dropped in front of the sink and opened the doors.
"Well, what?" She started picking dirt out from under her fingernails. Then she held her hands out in front of her and grimaced. "God, I need a manicure."
"Is there a *well*, Cordelia?"
"Looks like it, doesn't it? Of course, I don't know for sure because I didn't want to wake you up, so after the pipes did the whole big-bang thing, I dropped it." She smiled, making sure her dimples winked. "Aren't you glad I didn't wake you?"
She could tell she was getting to him by how he pretended to ignore her. Shifting to her hands and knees, she stuck her head in next to his. "Not much under here but pipes. But it does go into the ground. I checked while I was out there."
He turned his head and they were nose-to-nose. "Could you tell anything about it? Was there a cover, or was it just the pipe?"
She shrugged and their shoulders brushed. "Just the pipe, but I think it had some kind of knob thingy. Kinda hard to tell in the shade, and I wasn’t about to crawl in the sand." She wrinkled her nose. "Even after rinsing off I hardly feel clean."
Angel pulled out and sat back on his heels. "Huh. So someone must have lived here for awhile, or planned to, anyway. Wonder what happened to them." He glanced over at her, then closed his eyes tightly. "Uh, Cordy, would you mind...." He gestured toward her butt.
She looked down to where he was pointing and realized that the shirt barely covered the necessities and that she was nearly mooning him. "Good thing I’m not modest." She sat on her heels and tucked the shirt around her thighs. "Better?"
He nodded. "Yeah. Thanks." His gaze trailed back down to her thighs and lingered.
Cordy raised her brows. "See something you like?"
Angel’s eyes snapped to hers. "Wh-- What?"
God, he was easy. She laughed and punched his shoulder. "So, you were saying, about the owners?"
"Right. Uh. Yeah." His eyes lost their focus as he seemed to think about something. "I’m trying to figure out why they’d leave a perfectly good trailer out here, with water hook-ups, and just disappear."
"Maybe it’s a vacation home. Not my idea of one, mind you. I prefer a ski lodge in--"
"But it was awfully convenient how I found it. I mean, I almost walked right into it."
"You consider ten miles ‘walking right into it’?"
He glanced at her. "I can move fast when I need to." The shrug was easy, the punctuation on a statement of fact. "It was just weird how it was here."
Cordy thought back to that moment last night when she felt the walls, looking for remnants of magic. "I actually wondered the same thing."
Now he looked very focused. "You did?"
"Yeah. Last night. While you were out killing things." She looked around, taking in the small, plain room. "I even poked around, looking for that--" She motioned, not sure of the word.
She nodded. "Yeah. No...vibe. Not even a smell. And usually you can smell it."
His turn to nod. Then he stood and held out his hand. "Come on."
"You need to go outside, crawl under the trailer, and tell me what you see so I can figure out how to start the well."
Cordelia laughed. "Yeah, right. What part of ‘not crawling around in the sand’ wasn't clear? We have plenty of water. Besides, why are we focusing on the well, when we need to be focusing on getting out of here?"
"Because, Cordelia, if we don’t get out of here, we need a more constant water supply."
She opened the pantry door and pointed at the bottles. "There’s at least twenty bottles in there."
"And how many have we used in the last twenty-four hours?"
Her brow wrinkled. "Oh."
"Yeah. I estimate that we have about ten days’ worth."
"And if we don’t find a way out before then?" She studied his face, looking for answers.
His face didn’t give any. "That’s why I want to get the well started."
The constant quiet leapt between them and hovered, midair. One beat. Two. "Tell me what you need me to do."
Her formal gown offered more coverage than the shirt, and she made Angel turn around while she shimmied into it and did the zip. "Here. Thanks for the loan."
Angel took the shirt from her. "Sure."
Cordy tied her hair in a knot on top of her head. "I want you to look for my pins tonight. I lost them when you banged on the window earlier."
"I can do that." He looked around the room and came up with the big, wooden spoon. "Speaking of banging."
Cordy’s eyebrows flew up.
Angel’s face remained bland, but his eyes sparkled. "Bang this on the bottom of the RV before you crawl under. Things could be hiding in the shade."
Cordy stared at the spoon, then at him. "So I’ll just...what? Spoon them to death?"
"The noise should scare them off."
She took the spoon and tapped it against her palm. "And the minute the sun sets, you’re under there to try to fix this thing."
"Yeah. Hey...." He looked down at his feet, then up at her from under his eyelashes. "How you holding up?"
The spoon, she found, made an excellent pointer. "You want the list of complaints?"
He looked like he’d fallen off the deep end. But he was willing to swim. "Uh.... Sure."
Yeah, he’d listen. And then he’d feel guilty. Which meant she’d not only be stuck in the desert with a vampire, she’d be stuck with a depressed vampire. "I’m fine, Angel. A little hungry--okay, a lot hungry. And in need of a real bath, but otherwise I’m Jim dandy."
She tapped him with the spoon and said, like some sort of wish-granting fairy, "I’m sure we’re gonna get through this. Even if we have to live out here alone together until I die at the ripe old age of a hundred." Her nose wrinkled. "Wait--Can I take that back? ‘Cause I don’t want to live out here--"
Angel laughed. "I’m glad you’re okay, Cordelia. Now would you please go look at that well?"
The spoon made a wimpy little clang against the underside of the RV. Cordy, on her hands and knees, squinted under the chassis to see if anything moved. Nothing did, so she yelled. "Yo! Creepy things! Get out!"
Movement, something shifting, slithering. She backpedaled. "Shit!"
"You okay?" Angel’s voice was dull, tinny, through the walls.
"Yeah." Eventually the sand stopped shifting and she dropped to her stomach. "I can’t believe I’m doing this," she said, as she shimmied under the hitch. The sand was soft, cool, in the shade, while the slit in the skirt left her legs exposed, letting sunlight sting her ankles.
The pipe ran from the open hole under the sink, down into the sand. There was a small wedge of concrete around it, and an engine--a pump?--sticking out the side. She couldn’t see a plug, or batteries. Didn’t pumps have a handle that you, well, pumped?
Nothing like that, not even a place for it, showed up in her inspection. It was just a pipe with a little pump attached. A feeling of panicky frustration washed over her. It’s okay, it’s okay. "Just calm down. You can figure this out." She rolled over on her stomach to peer up into the guts of the RV.
And came face-to-face with a snake, coiled deep in the trailer’s innards.
A napalm blast of terror exploded in her head. Time expanded as her eyes focused like a camera lens on the diamond-shaped head. Her gaze slid along its coils, noticing the distinct markings, the pale beehive of the rattles.
A scream rose from her throat, a pure, animal pulse of terror.
It twitched, a hollow, clattering sound sending out a warning.
"Don’t move!" Angel yelled.
She heard him rushing around in the trailer. The sound added to the snake’s agitation and its long, silver-brown body uncoiled, releasing itself from its nest. The rattles sounded again, a deadly crackle.
Cordy watched, frozen, as she realized that Angel was trapped inside by the sunlight. And she was trapped out here by the rattler.
It slid down, out of the engine, and landed with a soft thud on the sand less than a foot away from her head. She could see it out the corner of her eye and waited for the full-force slam of its teeth in her face.
Nothing but the soft shift of scales on sand and the skin-crawling sound of the rattle. She held her breath, forced her eyes wide open, afraid to blink, to breathe.
Dear God, don’t let it bite me. Please, please, please....
Then something cool and strong wrapped around her legs and yanked. Hard.
Sand rushed under her like water and she was staring into Angel’s face. He held the coat over him, but the sun was frying him through the rips.
Before she could move, he jerked her off the ground and threw her through the open door. She slammed against the far wall and lay there, stunned. The next thing she knew, the trailer was dark again, and Angel was leaning over her, smoothing her hair off her face with blistered, shaking hands.
"Shh, shh, it’s okay, it’s okay...."
The words Dopplered in and out as she lay there struggling for air. Over it all was sharp stench of burning flesh.
Angel turned her head back and forth, skimmed his fingers over her neck and shoulders. "Did it get you?"
Her skin felt like it had been pulled back to expose everything underneath. All she could do was stare at him.
Oh, God. There was-- It was-- She’d nearly been-- Hot tears leaked out of her eyes and slid into the hair at her temples, mixing with sweat and sand.
"Shh, Cordy. Hey. Look at me."
Her lips trembled. "S-s-snnn--"
"I know. I know." He cupped her face in his hands. "I’m sorry."
She closed her eyes and turned her face into his hand, sniffling, feeling her body coming down from the rush of adrenaline. It left her wrung out, queasy.
He picked her up and put her on the bed, then went to the sink and poured water on a towel. "Here," he said, wiping it across her forehead. "Let’s get you cleaned up."
"I want to go home," she said, voice trembling.
The towel smoothed the skin of her eyelids, her temples. He wiped the curve of her neck then picked up her hand and wiped it, front and back, drawing it over and between each finger. "We’ll be home soon. I promise."
She drew a breath that hitched somewhere up high in her chest. "No we won’t. We’re never gonna make it back."
Angel laid one hand down on the mattress and picked up the other. The sheet was rough against her cheek when she turned her head away from him. In her line of site was the empty back end of the RV, with the little, useless bathroom, and the tiny closet where nothing hung but dust motes.
She was stuck in the desert with Angel and a bunch of snakes and they were running out of water. "I’m gonna die."
"You’re not going to die. I promise."
She rolled her head and looked at him. "Real friends don’t lie, Angel."
He lay the towel down on the floor then sat there looking at her, eyes full of things he didn’t know how to say. He ran his hand over her hair again, then hesitated, went still. After a moment he seemed to make some kind of decision. He reached both hands into her hair and began pulling it out of its knot, gently unraveling it and finger combing out the sand. "I’m not lying to you, Cordelia."
She wanted to yell at him. She knew he was only trying to protect her. But he was so gentle, so sure. He wouldn’t hurt her and *that* was the truth, no matter what came out of his mouth. "I know you don’t mean to, Angel. But you have no idea what or how or *anything*."
He listened, eyes on his hands, which were unraveling sprayed, perfumed tangles. The familiar scent reminded her of how she’d misted her hair before she put it up. In her apartment with Dennis looking on, while everything was normal.
"I used to be able to open the freezer and pull out macaroni and cheese," she said. "You know? I mean, I don’t really even *like* macaroni and cheese, but I could eat it if I wanted."
"I know," he said, tilting her head up and pulling her hair around to one side. His face wove into a mask of concentration as he combed through a thick knot, but he didn’t pull too hard, even once.
"And I could turn on the faucet and water came out. No questions asked. Just, bam! Shower? You got it. Wanna brush your teeth?" She ran her tongue around her mouth and grimaced. "Oh, God, don’t even get me started on my teeth."
"Tell me about it."
"Are you saying I have bad breath?" But the words came out without heat.
He shook his head. "Just that I’d love a toothbrush right about now." His eyes lifted toward the ceiling, dreamy and unfocused. "And some tooth paste. Something minty."
The sound she made was somewhere between a laugh and a yawn. "Hey, do you ever vamp out just to brush your fangs?"
His laugh was soft, genuine. "I’ll never tell." His hands slid over her scalp, her temples, the nape of her neck. They tugged gently, breaking up tangles, drawing her hair into a long, dark column.
She lay still, letting the quiet and the motion of his hands soothe away the last rumbles of fear. "Angel?" Her voice was hushed, slurred around the edges.
He ran the flat of his hand down the fall of hair like he was petting a cat. "Mmm?"
"Do you really think we’re gonna make it back?"
He went still, staring off into space. "I have no idea." Silence permeated the twilight-colored room. His eyes slid back to hers. "But if we don’t, I promise I’ll make this life good for you."
Touched, speechless, she linked their fingers together. Squeezed.
He tilted his head and lifted his lips in a sweet smile. "Go to sleep, Cordelia. We’ll worry about it later."
She was weightless, melting into the mattress. Safe. She was safe with his hand in hers, with him watching over her. "Don’t go."
She floated off into the darkness.
Cordy floated back to consciousness. Angel sat in the dinette across from her, head on his folded arms, sleeping.
The trailer was hot, still. Sweat dampened her hair, tickled her back. Her fingers fumbled with her zipper and the dress released, baring a long strip of skin from armpit to hip. It didn’t help.
"Hot," she moaned.
Angel didn’t move.
Cordy rolled off the bed, holding her dress with one hand, and went to the sink. She gazed out the porthole onto the sandy sea outside, noticing that the sun had dropped low in the sky.
It was just now June and the trailer already collected heat like someone baking in a tanning bed. How in the hell were they going to survive it in July? August?
Cordy swallowed, feeling the deep, dry thirst that said she hadn’t had enough to drink today. She opened one of the bottles of water and chugged.
It slid down her throat and hit her empty stomach. Even tepid it felt cool against her desert-dry throat and lips. The bottle made a little pop when she pulled it away from her mouth and she realized she’d just swallowed nearly half of the gallon.
She burped, a little puff of air, then let out a long, windy sigh and dropped the water back on the counter. Slipping past Angel, she went to the door and peeked outside. No snakes in her direct line of vision. She sat on the steps, keeping her feet off of the ground, and wrapped her arms around her knees.
A woozy, cottony feeling came over her. Hunger made her belly throb and a loneliness she'd never come close to feeling enveloped her. She really was the only living person out here. It made her shiver and she hugged her knees tighter.
The sun did its magical thing, painting the sky and then trailing off, leaving behind streamers of darkness. Birds and animals started stirring, something she hadn't noticed the night before on their run to the trailer. Maybe her ears were used to the pulsing silence now.
She put her hand up like a visor over her eyes and followed the path of a black speck high in the sky. It circled lazily like a kite on a string and she wondered what it watched. Whether it could see her, too.
Through the open door she could hear Angel stir, call her name.
"I'm here." Reluctantly she slid the zipper up, pinching herself back into the impossible dress. If they ever made it out of here, she was never wearing satin again.
He hulked just inside the shadow of the door until the sun's final rays disappeared. Then he settled on the floor and dropped his feet to the step beside her. She scooted over to make room, letting her hip rest against his warm skin.
"I'm not used to you being warm."
He yawned. "Me either."
Cordy rested her head on the doorframe and stared out across the sand. The wind picked up with the sun's release, bringing with it strange odors. Herbaceous, dry, animal; she couldn't put a name to any of them, just knew that she'd never smell them again without thinking of this quiet moment.
"Ever eat rattlesnake?"
"Once. At a lodge in Montana. It was way better than I expected."
He stretched. "Good. I'm in the mood to kick some snakey ass."
Cordy laughed and did her fluttery eyelash trick. "My hero."
Angel's face went serious. "You called me that before. I'm not sure it's true."
A line twitched between her eyebrows. "Really? That's stupid."
He went blank-faced then burst out laughing. "You're good for me, you know that?"
"Of course." She shrugged and stood. "Now, go be a good hero and find me something to eat."
came back with a long, limp snake hanging from his hand. "Told you."
She couldn't help but shudder and she stood well back as he cut it into chunks and roasted one on the end of his knife in the open flame. It did smell good--so much like chicken that her mouth watered--and by the time he was finished, she grabbed the first chunk before it was even cool.
Fanning her tongue and sucking in air didn't help much, but she was too hungry to care if she got burned. Angel took the next chunk off the fire and waved it around on the tip of the knife. She went for it, but he pulled it away. "No. It's not cool enough," he said.
Standing on tiptoes, she swung her hand. He moved again, laughing, and held it over his head. Even on her toes she couldn't reach. "Give it!"
"In a minute." He slid his arm around her waist and held her still.
"Don't be such a daddy."
"I'm not. I just don't want to listen to you bitch about your sore tongue." Finally he dropped his hand and tilted the knife toward her. "Don't cut yourself."
She stuck her sore tongue out at him.
The temperature dropped with the sunset and a cool breeze blew in the open door, reviving the stale air in the trailer.
"God, that feels good." She let the zip down an inch or two and lifted her arms.
"Mmm," he said, putting another piece on the fire. "You wanna take over here? I'm gonna climb up on the roof. Have a look around." He handed her the knife handle and traded places with her.
The heat from the flame reminded her of the day, sunlight dancing off the sand like the blue-centered flame off the stove's eye. "Yeah. Let me know if you see any Seven-Elevens up there. I want a Slurpee."
She heard his treads on the ladder, then felt the trailer rock as he landed on the roof. For a minute she panicked, thinking, what if he falls through.
Then his voice cut the twilight. "Hey, come up here!"
He sounded so excited that she immediately cut off the gas and set the speared piece of snake on a kitchen towel. She bolted down the stairs and up the ladder, stopping at the top rung.
Instead of looking out, like she'd expected, he was staring down at something on the roof. She held on to the tops of the rails with both hands and studied the flat panels resting against the top of the RV. "Shit."
His grin was a brilliant flash in the glowing air. "Yeah." He reached down and tugged one until it popped up, sitting at an angle on two struts.
"So that's how it works."
"Probably powers the whole trailer." His forehead wrinkled. "That air conditioner you saw, in the bottom of the back closet?"
"Fits in the window." She laughed. "Woo hoo!" Her voice echoed, and somewhere far off a bird answered. "Solar panels. You're a fricking genius, Angel!"
He beamed. "Hey, I didn't put them up here." Squatting, he started looking more closely at the box next to them, which seemed to be some sort of generator. "But I'll be the one who figures out how they work." His voice rang with promise.
Cordy watched for a few minutes as he tinkered, then climbed the rest of the way up and stood on the roof looking out at the skyline. The crumpled brownbag outline of the mountains grew out of the long, flat expanse of sand. There wasn't a single light glowing, beyond the first flare of moonlight. She turned, gazing out in all directions.
The last light left everything shadowed in sage green, deep lavender, smoky gray. Los Angeles was filled with colors like that, on the houses, in the plants. But she'd only seen it through the press of buildings and reflections of car windows.
Her stomach rumbled and she pressed her hand against it.
Angel glanced up at her. "You okay?"
"Sure. Glad I ate it and not the other way around."
He grunted and went back to tinkering.
"Think I'm gonna go cook the rest before the flies find it." She backed down the ladder. "Maybe if you get that thing working, the fridge will come on."
He was too far into it to reply, so she wandered back into the trailer and went to the stove. Flame on, meat in fire. It was pretty simple but kind of satisfying. Though she'd sure love a salad right about now.
She reached for the bottle of water and swigged while she roasted the meat. Her stomach clenched and grumbled. "Huh," she said, sliding the meat off the knife and picking up another piece.
Just as she put it in the fire, her stomach cramped, a low, deep wrench of pain that left her gasping and queasy. She stood, panting open-mouthed, waiting for it to pass.
Finally it eased off and she went back to grilling. The piece was just getting a nice, golden crust when her stomach gave another lurch. "Oh, God."
The knife hit the floor with a clatter. She stumbled out the door and slammed to the ground on her hands and knees. Her stomach spasmed like a clenching fist and she hurled up everything she'd just eaten, along with the water.
Clammy sweat broke out at her hairline and stung under her arms. Her stomach lunged and she vomited again and again, lost to everything but the feeling of her body, getting rid of something it hated.
At some point she realized Angel was there, talking to her in a panicky voice that he tried to make sound calming. Heroically, he held her hair back, while she crouched like a dog, sweating and coughing.
"Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God." It was a prayer and a lament and it was all she could think to say. Her whole body quivered, arms and legs weak, body covered with a thin sheen of sweat.
She rolled onto her side like a baby and tucked her knees against her chest. Her stomach rolled and cramped. "Make it stop."
Angel's eyes were flat with terror. "What happened?"
The moan was long, ragged. Her stomach lurched and she sat up and vomited again. Nothing but dry heaves now, wracking and painful. The sour taste of stomach acid made her wretch and she spat, trying to get rid of it.
"Water. I need--"
He left her there and came out with the opened, half-drunk bottle. "Did you drink this?"
She moaned. "Hurts."
When she opened her eyes he thrust the bottle at her. "Did you *drink* this?"
Her hand rose. "Give it."
He threw it into the sand. "Fuck! Cordelia, you didn't boil it!"
The whimper that came up sounded like something an animal would make. "Just. Get me. Some...."
Angel slid his arms around her and helped her to her feet. "Can you walk?"
She wavered and her stomach roiled. "Wait." Sweet water pooled on the back of her tongue and she put her hands on her knees and spat in the sand until the need to puke passed.
"Okay," she said. She pushed herself the few steps to the trailer, letting Angel drag her up and inside. "What if I'm sick again?"
His face was grim, his mouth a long, flat line. "I'm sure you will be. Probably out of both ends."
Maybe it was possible to feel paler. But probably not. "No."
He settled her on the edge of the bed. "Yes." His fist banged the mattress and she jolted. "You idiot. You couldn't wait ten minutes for the water to boil?"
Her head drooped. "I didn't think--"
"No, really? Dammit, Cordelia. This is serious!"
She took breath in shallow sips. "Don't yell at me. I'm sick." Her stomach clenched. "Oh--" She flew to the sink and retched, felt Angel move in behind her and support her when her knees went weak.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. The helpless feeling overwhelmed her and her eyes watered. "I didn't mean to...." She rested her head on her arm and felt hot tears trickle over her skin. She hated this feeling, of being sick, dependent. Disconnected.
"Shh, shh. I'm sorry I yelled," he said, voice low and apologetic. He turned her and wiped her face with a damp towel. "Let's get you to bed."
She nodded and leaned on him as he helped her lie down. Sliding down on the mattress, she realized her whole body felt watery, and she was glad to have the support.
Angel stripped off his shirt and underneath his t-shirt was a soft, white glow. He pulled it over his head and put his black shirt back on.
She moaned as he pulled her to a sitting position. With gentle hands he unzipped her dress and slid it down her, leaving her in her thong and nothing else.
"Lift your arms."
The t-shirt settled over her head and smoothed down over her thighs.
The t-shirt smelled like him, like sweat and incense. She turned her face against the mattress and closed her eyes. "Thank you."
"Want the coat?"
She shook her head. "Hot."
A cool hand brushed her forehead. "Okay. This isn't unexpected." But it obviously wasn't something he was comfortable with.
"Fever. Your body's fighting whatever it got in that water."
Her eyes opened and caught his. She could see by the look on his face how serious she was. Everyone knew stories about people who got sick drinking the water in Mexico. "This is bad, isn't it?"
His mouth got thin again. "I refuse to live out here by myself, Cordelia."
"So if I live, it'll be to keep you from being a lonely old vamp?" The laugh trailed off into a groan.
Angel smiled. "Yeah. Shh, be careful. You'll make yourself sick again."
Through a fevered haze she watched him cook the rest of the meat, wrap it carefully in a towel, and set it on the counter. He moved in slow motion, picking up the pot and pouring in a sparkling silver stream of water.
Time dove, a swallow swooping and climbing, breaking free of its earthbound rules. Angel moved around the trailer like a shadow, pausing to light the candle, rushing her to the sink when she got sick, sponging her face and making her drink the water when it boiled.
She heard him climb the ladder and it sounded like she'd stuck her head in a speaker. The booming footfalls made her flinch, moan. Rolling, moving, trying to get comfortable, it was impossible with the dull ache at the base of her skull, the hot pinch at her joints.
Sleep. Just go to sleep. Was that Angel whispering to her? His dark eyes anchors in the night, his hand stroking her face.
A bright, golden light pierced her eyes and she cried out. A low hum rattled through the trailer. She mumbled as it mixed in with a dream. Earthquake. Rattlesnake.
"Cordelia. Come on, wake up."
She blinked awake. Angel sat over her, hair mussed, shadows under his eyes.
"Where am I?"
"In the RV. Here, can you sit up some?" He slid an arm under her and lifted. "Drink this."
She swallowed, gagged. "What *is* that?"
"Gag. No." She pushed it away with a limp, pale hand.
He drove it back toward her mouth. "Drink it. You need it." The pot pressed against her lips. "Don't make me hold your nose."
She drank. Just a few swallows, but it killed the hangover taste in her mouth enough that she felt better for it. "Is this force-Cordy-to-eat-weird-stuff day?"
"Uh huh. Can you drink a little more?" His voice was ragged, tired.
It worried her, and if drinking more would make him feel better, she'd do it. She drank until there were only a few swallows left in the pot. "Enough." Her breath came hard from the effort, but her stomach felt calmer than it had since last night.
"You look pretty tired," she said.
"Not too bad." But when he stood she could see the slumping shoulders, the droop to his head.
"Why don't I get up and give you the bed?" She rolled to her side and tried to sit up.
He was there, supporting her. "Cordy--"
The room spun. "Ooookay." She slid back down onto the cushion. "That was some night."
He squinted at her. "'Some night' times three."
She squinted back. "I was out for three nights?" That didn't make sense. "That doesn't make sense." But then she noticed that his cheeks and chin were dark with razor stubble--far more than one night would have given him.
He walked to the stove and set the pot down. "This is the start of the fourth day, Cordy." His back was to her.
She didn't like not being able to see his face. Not when he used that tone of voice. "Angel."
He didn't turn.
"Angel. Turn around."
He did, slowly.
"You were scared."
Cordy stared at him. "You thought I was gonna die."
Another shrug. Then he put his face in his hands and shuddered. They'd just been through this a few weeks before. The clench of his hand, the way he'd woven their fingers together in the hospital.... She knew the last three nights had cost him more than he wanted to reveal.
Swallowing helped move the lump in her throat down enough that she could speak. "Oh, come on, Angel. If I died, who would make your life hell?" She could feel the tears welling up but she did her best to keep the tone light.
When he looked up, though his eyes were bright, he was smiling. "Good point." That seemed to break down the wall between them and he came to sit next to her on the bed. "I have a surprise for you."
She didn't have the energy to do much more than pull her eyebrows up into her hairline. "Is it a good surprise, or a snakey, bad-watery surprise?"
He held out a round, plastic bottle.
"Doctor Bronner's Peppermint Castille Soap?" Her mouth dropped open. "You found *soap*? Oh, my God!" She threw her arms around him. "I think I love you!"
He hugged her tight against him, a full-body hug, maybe the first she’d ever gotten from him. "Want a shower?"
Cordy pulled away. "You're joking, right?"
That lighting flash of grin lit up his face. "Nope. I got the solar panels working. We've got air conditioning, running water and lights."
A laugh bubbled out of her, pure joy. Yeah, they were stuck in the desert. But, by God, they had amenities! "Help me up!" The broth must have pumped her up because this time she actually sat up and dangled her legs over the side of the bed before she got dizzy. "Hang on. Head rush."
He put a steadying hand on her shoulder. "Easy."
When the room stopped spinning she held up her hands. "Okay. Here we go."
Angel pulled her slowly to her feet, then kept an arm around her while she adjusted to gravity.
"Okay, now it feels like I've been down for nearly five days. My legs are like jell-o."
They stood, tucked together in a parody of an intimate dance. "Want me to carry you?"
She marshaled her breath, concentrated on taking a step. "No thanks. I got it."
It took a long time to get to the bathroom, but Angel seemed content to just hang with her while they did it. "You're being awfully nice to me."
"Don't have much choice."
She raised her eyes, and from the look on his face he was half-kidding, totally serious. "Ohhhh. I get it."
He met her gaze. "Get what?"
"I'm part of your path to redemption, right? Help the helpless, even the ones who barf on you?"
The corners of his eyes crinkled. "Looks like it."
They reached the bathroom. "Well, they oughta give you extra points for this."
Angel slid the door into its recess, reached in, and flipped on the shower. Water ran out of the showerhead, more than a trickle, but not as forcefully as her shower at home. "Sorry it's so slow. I tried to up the pressure, but--"
"Angel, get real. This is amazing. And you did it all while you were taking care of me?"
Cordy laid her head against his chest. "Thank you."
They stood there for a few minutes, listening to the water run. "You should probably get in there before there's no hot water left."
He put the bottle on the ledge next to the sink. "I'll be right out here. Call if you need anything."
She nodded. "Okay." She didn't close the door, figuring he'd seen it all, anyway, and if she fell or something, he could get there faster.
Not that she was gonna do anything as stupid as fall in the shower. She stripped off the t-shirt and thong and stepped under the water. That was for old ladies.
Luckily the shower stall was small, which didn't leave her much room to move. If she leaned against the back wall, there was only about two feet of space between her and the front wall. "It's a Barbie shower," she said with a laugh.
Wedging herself in kept her weak knees from giving out, and she braced her hands next to the knobs and let the water sluice through her hair and over her skin. "Oh, God." It was the best thing she'd ever felt.
A week of accumulated sweat, dirt and who-wanted-to-think what else rolled off her body and down the drain. All those sticky-itchy places, under her arms, between her legs, under her toes, stopped sticking and itching and went back to being normal, pink, and fresh.
She squirted a dollop of the clear, sharp-scented soap into her palm and took a whiff. The peppermint smell ran through her brain and lit up her senses. Her stomach calmed. Her sinuses cleared.
Washing her hair was a revelation. Sand puddled on the floor of the shower as she lathered, rinsed and repeated. Her scalp perked up as she chased the last of the accumulated oil and sweat down the drain.
The bottle said she could use it as toothpaste, and since her teeth felt furry enough to grow something on, she dribbled some on her finger and scrubbed around her gums. "Blech!" It tasted terrible, and there was no way in hell she'd ever swallow the stuff--hello, she'd barfed enough in the last few days--but when she took a mouthful of water, swished, and spat, her mouth felt way better.
By the time she turned off the water, she felt more on top of things than she had since the night of the party. When she wasn't clean, she was at a loss. On the defensive.
She was also about to pass out. "Angel." Her arms and legs trembled; her body felt light, insubstantial. "Angel!"
He appeared in the door with two dishtowels. "I'm here."
"What took you so long?"
His hands were gentle as they brushed one towel over her dripping body. "I was vacuuming the library, madam."
Cordy laughed. "You're seriously denting your cool factor."
Angel shot her a wry smile. "It was all a lie, anyway. Turn around."
She was too tired to be self conscious, though the thought that her boss was so comfortable seeing her naked would probably bear some thinking about later.
He finished drying her off and took her hair, squeezing the water out into the bottom of the shower. The tiny towel wouldn't hold it all, so he draped it over her head and motioned her out into the hall. "Come on."
"I don't think I can move." She raised an eyebrow and nodded toward her arms, which she’d braced on the other side of the shower wall. "They're locked in place."
Angel laughed. "I guess you're stuck there. See ya later." He turned and wandered away.
"Angel! You asshole! Get back here!" But she was laughing with him, and it felt so good to be clean and cool, and to be laughing, that she didn't mind sitting in there for an extra thirty seconds while he hauled butt back in.
"Here." He put his arm around her waist and tugged.
She popped out. "Hey, if that stall's a tight fit for me, how in the world did you get in there?"
"I only showered half of myself at a time."
Cordy giggled as she stumbled toward the bed. Against her skin the air from the AC felt cool, refreshing. "Where'd you find the soap?"
"In a box under the air conditioner. I also found a pair of men's pajamas and a couple of other things." He nodded toward the bed where striped pants and a matching shirt lay. "I figured you might want to change clothes."
Cordy felt her face light up. "This is better than Christmas."
"I doubt that after the holidays you used to have." He settled her on the bed and helped her shimmy into the pants, cuffing the waist three times and tying them off to get them to fit.
"I feel like I'm playing dress-up." She put her hand on his arm. "About Christmas."
"Yeah?" He looked up from turning back the shirtsleeves.
Her gaze caught his. Held. "Don't ever tell anyone I said this." She waited till he nodded. "I never liked those Christmases with my family. All that stuff, sure it was great and I'd love to have it back. But this means way more."
Angel squeezed her shoulder. "It does to me, too."
She arched a brow. "I'll deny it till my dying day."
He blanked his face. "Deny what?"
Cordy grinned. When it faded, she noticed again how shadowed his face looked. "How long has it been since you slept?"
He gave another one of those shrugs.
"Angel. You can't keep pushing yourself. You have to eat. You have to sleep." She blinked up at him, surprised at herself. "Ooookay. Not sure where that Jewish mother came from, but we'll go with it."
"I'm fine, Cordelia."
She lay back against the mattress. "You are not. Now lie down and take a nap. You can't do anything else until sunset, anyway."
His shoulders slumped. "I'll just sleep over there." He pointed at the banquette.
Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Look, I know you're in love with Buffy, and sharing a bed with me is the last thing you want to do." She shook her head. "Which must make you totally deficient, but whatever. You need to sleep. I could use another couple of hours. This is the only bed." She patted the cushion next to her. "So shut up and lie down."
Angel stared at her for a good, long moment. Then he sighed. "You sure this is okay?"
She tugged him down next to her. "You need this, Angel. You just don't realize it." Her smile flared, despite her exhaustion. "That's what you have me for."
He lay down next to her on his back, folding his hands on his stomach. "Okay," he said, closing his eyes. He seemed rigid, tense, but after a minute his body sagged. "I'll stay...for just...a few...."
Cordy watched him drift away and felt an ache in her heart. He was the closest thing to a best friend she had and she owed him her life. Again. Slowly, uncertainly, she twined her fingers with his and squeezed.
Even in sleep he squeezed back.
of the things Angel found in the box was a gun. A snub-nosed black handgun and a
box of shells. He said what kind it was, but she couldn't remember. But it
looked like the ones you always saw in those Film Noir marathons on A&E.
It felt strange in her hand. Crossbows she knew. Stakes, no problem. But a gun? "This is way weird."
He stood behind her, arms parallel to hers, hands cupping her wrists. "You have to get used to it. You need to know how to defend yourself." He adjusted their stances and realigned her grip. "Now, just aim at that cactus and fire."
She blew out a breath and pulled the trigger. The gun kicked her hands into the air, sending the shot wide and high. "Holy shit." Her ears were ringing and the burnt smell of gunpowder wreathed around her head. She coughed.
Angel was laughing. "I told you it had a kick." He snuggled closer and went through the whole line-up again. "Okay, now this time, take a breath and hold it. And keep your eye on the target."
Deep breath. Hold it. Fire.
"That was better."
"What? My ears are ringing."
"Better!" he yelled.
She looked over her shoulder at him. "Yeah, but I still missed."
"But you didn't shoot any birds this time."
Cordy mock-screamed. "I shot a bird?"
He kicked the back of her bare heel, just below the strap of her sandal. "Pay attention." There was a whole thing earlier where he broke the heels off of her shoes and nearly made her cry. But they were tons easier to walk in now, so she'd almost forgiven him.
It was that lavender time between sunset and dark when they could both be outside. Angel made sure their spot was snake-free and then helped her walk out. She was sure that half of the reason he stood so close was to keep her from falling over in the sand.
They went through the whole routine until she was able to hit the cactus.
"Okay, one more time, and let's call it a night."
"Fine by me. My human eyes are losing the ability to see, anyway."
They assumed the position. Something about the way he moved behind her, cupping against her, sheltering her, made time slow down. Crystallize. The darkening sky, the hushed whistle of wind against cactus and scrub, the colors shifting, deepening.... She sighed and leaned into him and they stood quietly together watching the night take over.
Angel's thumb stroked her hand once, twice, and her senses focused there. "You ready?" he whispered, breath fanning against her ear.
She swallowed, surprised at the sweet, hot ache in her belly. "Uh, yeah." Her voice felt rusty; she cleared her throat. Concentrate, concentrate. She closed her eyes and pulled the trigger.
The familiar kick of the gun pushed their bodies together, and she could feel the long, lean plane of his chest and stomach against her back.
When she opened her eyes she saw she'd taken off the top of one of the up-turned arms. "Thanks."
Angel dropped her hands and stepped away. They stood together in awkward silence, the gun hanging at her side, sending silver tendrils of smoke into the cooling air.
"It's okay, Angel. It didn't mean anything."
He tilted his head. "Huh?"
Cordy's eyes swept his face. "Uh--" Okay *that* was embarrassing. "Never mind. What were you gonna say?"
"Just that I think it's time for me to go."
A jolt of panic shot through her. "What? Go where?"
He tucked his hands in his pockets and looked out toward the black outline of the hills. "To try to find help. We've been out here nearly a week, already."
She thought of the silence, the isolation, the fact that there was nothing to do. "I know. But--" Was she saying she wanted to stay?
"You'll be okay. I'll only go as far as I can get back safely in one night."
She could see that he needed to get out. That he was itching to do something. "You promise."
He nodded. "I told you I'd get you home safely, Cordy." His hand lifted, like he was going to cup her face, but then it dropped back to his side.
Dammit, she was missing him already. "No, you're right. You should go." She started the slow walk back to the trailer.
Angel caught up with her about five steps in. "Here, let me help you."
"No, I got it." Her legs felt weak, watery, and exhaustion lingered like a halo. "I'll probably sleep till morning anyway, right?"
He took her elbow and helped her up the steps. "I hope so."
She put the gun and the box of ammo on the floor next to the door. "Plus, I have protection."
Angel stood on the top step, but he didn't come in. "You sure you'll be okay?"
Cordy put on her best smile. "Who would mess with me?"
This time he did caress her face. "I'll be back before dawn. Hopefully with some good news."
"Great." She watched as he skimmed down the steps. Man becoming shadow and dissolving to darkness. She reached out her hand. "Bye."
A skin-crawling shudder went through her as she locked the door behind him. She turned on every light in the trailer and went to the bathroom to rinse out her mouth with some of the boiled water, just to have something to do. Hunger panged, but she ignored it. Keeping food down was still iffy, and even though Angel had left some broth for her to reheat, the idea of eating didn't appeal to her.
When she went back to the main room, she saw his coat draped across one of the benches and she picked it up and put it on over the pajamas. It swallowed her, sleeves hanging several inches below her fingers, hem brushing the floor. She gathered it tight, turning her face into the collar and sniffing deeply.
Angel's scent exploded through her: leather, sweat and spice. She checked the door one more time to make sure it was locked, loaded the gun and laid it next to the bed. When she sat down, she noticed something tucked into the corner of the cushion on her side of the bed.
She skimmed it with the tips of her fingers, trying to understand where it came from, and what it meant. He must have found it in the box and left it here--a gift to keep her company while he was gone.
Picking it up, she thumbed the pages, stroked the cover, held it to her face and felt hot, lonely tears prick her eyes. He was such a good man. Even when he was gone, he left little pieces of himself there to comfort her.
She turned to the first page. "Howard Roark laughed. He stood naked at the edge of a cliff...."
Just like he'd promised, Angel returned before dawn. She woke to find him pulling the book out from under her cheek, where she must have rolled on it.
"Hey," he said, sitting down next to her.
She smiled. "You're back. Where's my good news?"
He shook his head, his mouth drawn into a disappointed line. "I wish I had some to give you. I thought maybe if I went to the mountains I'd be able to climb up and see something."
"And?" She sat up, pushing her hair out of her eyes. All the lights still burned, as if he had come to her the minute he walked in the door.
"I didn't have time to make it there and back in one night."
Cordy clasped his hand. "Now what?"
He squeezed her fingers, then stood and started unbuttoning his shirt. "I'll keep trying. Other directions. Starting earlier." He toed off his shoes. "One night, I'll get lucky. Until then...." Settling on the bed next to her, he let out a long, tired sigh. "I'll take a nap."
She reached out a hand and brushed a streak of dirt off of his face. "You want a shower first?"
But he was already asleep.
The days passed. She rationed the book, wanting it to last for the long nights while she was alone.
Angel typically slept most of the day, so she puttered around in the trailer, dusting and straightening. Sometimes she pulled the stairs under the big cactus next to the trailer, and sat there watching the sun roll across the sky. By mid-afternoon she ate lunch and took a nap. It was too hot to do anything else, even with the AC on full blast.
Around sunset, Angel would rise and hunt, and they'd eat dinner. By the time it was fully dark, he was gone.
That's when it got hard. The silence overwhelmed her at times, leaving her with nothing but her thoughts. Memories surfaced, good and bad, and she'd find herself obsessing about things that had happened years before.
One night when the moon was full, she couldn't sleep, so she climbed up on top of the trailer and sat, watching the dark desert. The moonlight silvered everything, from rocky floor to spearing cacti. Birds flickered in and out of the darkness, and their cheeps and chirps kept her company.
The ballroom glittered with ice and diamonds. Music swirled, carrying dancers across the floor, the sound weaving with the low buzz of conversation and the occasional piccolo-like trill of laughter. Cordy stared across the room at the sorcerer, not bothering to hide her curiosity.
"You know, he really looks a lot like that football player. What's his name?" She snapped her fingers, trying to call the name up from vague memories of Super Bowl parties. Maybe it was the one where she wore the tangerine mini-dress. Or was it the--
"Jerry Rice?" asked Angel.
Cordy tilted her head and studied the amazingly well-built black man with the scary eyes. "That's the one that does, like, karate, and stuff?"
Angel grunted again.
Luckily she was learning to read Angel's Language of Grunts and knew that one meant yes. Or maybe he was hungry. Except she knew he'd eaten before he killed the demon du jour, so it had to be a yes.
"I wish it was Jerry Rice, instead of, you know--" David waggled his eyebrows by way of finishing the sentence.
Cordy, annoyed by his face-pulling, waggled hers back. "You mean a magician guy who's trying to blackmail you?" She crossed her arms over her chest. "What is it with you and blackmail, anyway? Didn't they tell you how to avoid that in the Billionaire's Handbook?"
"There's a handbook for billionaires?" David asked.
Cordy smirked. "I'm sure they meant to give it to you at the first meeting and just forgot."
David looked like a man who finally figured out he'd been the brunt of a joke, and was actually sort of flattered by it. "Ha ha! That's-- You're very funny, you know."
"I try. Not that people ever notice." She glanced at Angel who was watching Not-The-Football-Player with his scary vamp eyes. "You playing the intimidation card, Angel? 'Cause I'm thinking it might work better if he was actually paying attention to you."
Angel glanced at her. "Why don't you let David get you a refill, Cordelia?"
"I don't want a refill, actually. I've already had two and since I didn't ea--"
This whole working-for-a-vamp thing was obviously turning into a bad buddy-cop movie. The kind where the buddy cops had absolutely no chemistry and spent the entire, endless two hours sniping at each other. "Yeah, I'm going." She tugged David by the arm. "C'mon, David. Sheesh. Even Wes is more fun than this."
David moved with her like her mother's Bichon, Lucille. Obedient, easy to lead around, but likely to yap at the most inopportune moments.
"So, what's it like to actually *smell* a vision?"
Like now. She sized him up. "Too bad that whole kissing thing didn't work. Then you could be asking Angel this question."
His finger moved to loosen his collar. "What kissing thing?" he squeaked. Then, "You kissed *Angel*?"
"Only because I was desperate." She waved a hand. "That's how I got the visions. Like an STD, only...I'm not sure what they'd actually be. Demonically transmitted disease?"
David blinked. "Huh?"
"Wes!" she called.
He stopped seizing and joined them. "I think that girl actually danced with me!"
"Um, I think she was trying not to get hit by your--" She did an imitation of his flailing arms.
"Oh." Wes pulled a white handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his brow. "Where's Angel?"
Cordy shrugged. "He's scoping out the dude who looks like Jerry Rice, but isn't." She glanced over her shoulder. "Jerry Rice. Is that right? I mean, I thought maybe something a little less...food-like, you know? Someone on TV as often as he is, you'd think he'd at least consider changing his--"
"Anyone want a canape?" David asked, trailing off behind a passing waiter.
"Well, I think I'll just go see if Angel needs any help." Wes pushed the sleeves of his tux up and puffed out his chest. "One never knows when a Rogue Demon Hunter could be of service."
"Please, Wesley. How many times can you use the words 'rogue,' 'demon,' and 'hunter' in the same night? And put your sleeves down. You look like Don Johnson."
He muttered something under his breath, which Cordy decided to ignore in favor of the band, who had switched to Benny Goodman. Wes smoothed the wrinkles out of his sleeves. "Better?"
Cordy nodded, then followed him to the corner where Angel stood, glaring and lurking. "So, boss. How's that stink eye workin' out for ya?"
He turned the stink eye on her. "I thought I told you to go find some champagne." God, he was like Harmony on a bad hair day.
"I told you I didn't want any." She shrugged. "Look." She pointed at Wes. "I saved Wes from making an even bigger fool of himself than usual."
"For which I am forever grateful, I assure you," Wes said in his stuffiest Brit-speak.
Great. Now she'd annoyed him. He could be so sensitive sometimes. "What do we do now? Continue with the stand-and-wait plan?"
"No," Angel said, breaking away from the wall. "I'm going to go talk to him." He glanced over his shoulder, but she didn't think he really saw them. He was already focused on the task at hand.
For a rabbity guy, David sure did get into lots of trouble. First there was the whole deal with the demon brothel. Now there was this thing with the sorcerer and the threat of the banishing spell and--
God knew, they wanted to cut a deal if they could. After all, it was impossible to run a multi-national corporation from...wherever the mage planned to banish David to if he didn't cough up the Sorcerer's Stone he'd bought from the auction last month.
He'd kept it in a vault, but evidently he just *had* to show off his new toy, and one of the losers at D&D night had let slip that David had it. The demon grapevine traveled faster than Sunnydale's, and that was saying something, considering she could whisper a comment about Willow's latest fashion freak-out to Aura at their lockers between first and second period, and by the time the bell rang, someone would be repeating it back to her.
She and Wes watched--well, she watched and Wes dabbed his face again--as Angel approached the big, dark-skinned man in the black turtleneck and pants. Seemed like the rules of the formal dress code got bent for vampires and sorcerers; she'd have to ask if they also got bent for seers. But then, she wouldn’t have gotten to wear this dress, so maybe she didn’t want them to bend the rules for her.
"What do you think they're talking about?" she whispered.
Wes returned his handkerchief to his pants pocket. "I don't know," he whispered back. "Shall we go find out?"
"Yeah. Angel might need us," she said, cutting through the crowd to resurface about five feet from Angel.
From here, she could see the mage's strange, gold eyes flash. Angel's shoulders got all square and big. "Damn. They're already into it. We've got to get them out of here before--"
The mage flung out his hand, knocking Angel back a couple of steps. Cordelia felt the magic like a wave: one powerful surge, and then undertow. The crowd swayed and a couple of people fell. Someone screamed.
"Too late," Wes said.
The trumpeter bobbled the high note, and it broke in a pig-like squeal. Before the conductor could get them going again, Angel grabbed the sorcerer by the arm and started dragging him toward an exit.
Cordy and Wes followed. This was a good time for security--but instead of waiting, Angel hurled the guy toward the door. The big, black man somersaulted, taking down a couple of partiers in the process.
"Told him he was going to ruin a Balenciaga," Cordy said.
The crowd watched, stunned, as the two, big men—black-and-white negatives of each other—started fighting. A scramble, as the people who went down in the tackle were helped up; the others going into that "Is this for real?" mode that meant most of them stood there with their mouths open, watching.
Cordy and Wes chased Angel toward the doors. "Get them out of here!" Cordy yelled, thinking of the hallway outside, which wouldn’t be nearly so peopled.
"The service hall," Wes yelled back, fighting the rumbling crowd. "Maybe if we can somehow get them back there--"
Cordy nodded as Wes crashed through, sprinting toward a pair of highly-polished wooden doors marked, "Employees Only." He hit the brass crash-bar and went on through, motioning for her to follow. "Angel!" he yelled, trying to get his attention.
The mage had Angel by the lapels. Cordy heard leather rip and watched as Angel vamped. Then he did one of those Angel-y moves and had the other guy by *his* lapels--or he would have if the guy had been wearing them.
"Everyone get back!" a blue-blazered guard shouted. His brass name-badge flashed in the tasteful light from the chandeliers. The crowd widened to give him room but was too mesmerized by the fight to disperse.
"Go back in and find David," Wes shouted at her as she stumbled toward the yawning doors. "Tell him we've got the situation under control."
She turned to do what he said, and there was the mage, flying straight toward her. "Dav--" Cordy's words were cut off as a big, dark hand reached out, faster than she could dodge, and grabbed her hair.
"Hey! Ow!" All she could see was flying feet and carpet speeding by as he rushed her through the room. Concrete floor against her shoes and the sharp edge of the panic bar banging against her hip.
Then she was falling, landing, rolling. She came up, elbows stinging, chin throbbing, tasting blood. Furious. "You son of a--"
Nearly 200 pounds of dead weight--literally--came crashing down on her. Her ribs belted the concrete and all the air in her lungs exited with a "whoosh."
And then all she heard were some strange words and she felt the wave again, picking her up, sucking her under.
Lightning cracked, sending sharp-nailed fingers across the boiling, black sky. "One Mississippi, Two Mississippi—" She curled into a ball and put her hands over her ears as the thunder broke. It rattled her body, teeth to toes, and the electric wind sent shivers skating over her arms and back.
The wave rolled, swirled, spat her high and she landed hard on dry land. She lay there, panting, thinking, "I’m safe," until she looked over her shoulder and saw the clouds, shifting, forming shapes, becoming something familiar, something— Oh, God, they weren’t clouds at all, but a wolf, eyes flashing lightning-gold.
Nowhere to hide. Nothing but flat, flat desert.
And the wolf, mouth sliding back into a secret, hungry smile.
She woke on top of the trailer, chilled, to the slowly lightening dawn. The first thing she realized was that she was alone. "Angel?"
She pushed herself up and peered out into the gloam. "Angel? You there?" He was always back before now. Fear quivered through her.
Getting to her feet, she cupped her hands around her mouth. "ANGEL!" Her voice disappeared on the wind. Where was he? The sun was rising on another hot, deadly day.
Desperate, she shimmied down the ladder and dashed into the RV. Empty. Had he come back while she was asleep, thought she was gone, and panicked? "No, he wouldn't do that. He'd be able to smell me, right? I mean, eww, but that extra sensory stuff is his stock in trade."
She went to the door and yelled for him again. Now the sun was crawling so fast she could nearly see it move. Red ball, to orange to yellow. By the time she went back in, it was a white-hot disk, hanging low over the desert’s head.
Cordy paced. "What should I do? Should I go after him?" She turned, walked to the other side of the room. "There's no way I could find him. But what if he's injured?" She tugged her hair. "What if I got lost?"
She collapsed onto the bed. "Oh, God. I knew this would happen. I knew he'd go off and get killed and I'd be stuck here forever." A bird of panic flapped in her chest. "Damn. Damn!" She heaved herself off of the bed and paced again, from the bathroom to the kitchen.
Finally she sat. She fingered the book absently while her mind blanked out. The thought of being here alone was too much to comprehend. So she wouldn't.
Instead, she cleaned, using a tiny bit of the castille soap on a towel to scrub the trailer. She rinsed out her pajamas and hung them in the bathroom to dry. Taking the knife, she cut the skirt of her dress to mid-thigh-length, then slid it over her head and zipped it up. It hung loose around her hips and under her arms, and she realized she must have lost weight.
"The Desert Diet. How to make it work for you," she muttered, as she sliced a long ribbon of fabric from the skirt. She doubled it, pulled her hair up on top of her head, and tied it into a ponytail.
Just getting it off the back of her neck made it easier to breathe--and think. "You can do this, Cordelia. You just have to figure out a way."
What about lighting a fire? She could burn one of the tires from the trailer, maybe. Or the cushion from the bed. Either would send up a plume of black smoke that might get her noticed. She might even be able to feed the fire with wood from around the trailer.
That was it. She put on her shoes and went outside. The desert floor throbbed with heat, and she knew she had to go slowly and not get too far from the trailer. Most of the big plants were cacti, and she couldn't pick them up because of the spines. But she found a whole bunch of scrubby bushes that she pulled up and dragged back to the trailer.
The wind blew, hot and stinging, sending a spray of sand into her face. Her lips, chapped since the first night, tingled when she spat. She covered her face with her hands and waited for the wind to die.
There in the heat, buffeted by the desert's arid breath, she realized there was no way she could light a fire. It could spread to the trailer, to the rest of the countryside. And there wasn't enough water to do a damn thing about it if it did.
Her eyes teared up and she bit her lips, unwilling to give the desert any more water than it deserved. She screamed, pissed off, frustrated, lost. Alone.
All she got was a mouth full of sand.
Later that afternoon she heard thunder. She'd finished the book and gone back to the first page, starting to read it again, when the rumble sounded off in the distance. Cordy leaned over and looked out the window.
The storm sent out taloned fingers of lightning. Thunder boomed again behind them, dashing sound off the craggy-edged mountains and shooting it across the valley. Over the trailer, the sun still shone, but out there the clouds boiled.
Heart pounding, sick with a sense of déjà vu that she didn’t understand, she climbed on top of the RV and watched, feeling the wind pick up and tear at the short skirt of the satin dress. She'd given up on keeping her hair neat and felt it whip in the wind. Sand lashed her face and she squinted against it.
The power of the storm was enormous. Layers of lightning, cracks of thunder, and a sky so big she could watch it advance.
"One Mississippi, two Mississippi...." The thunder boomed and she hustled down off the trailer and shut the door behind her. Inside the hum of the air conditioner dampened the sound but she tensed as the sharp smell of ozone cut the air. So much like magic--something cut the fog in her mind and she had an image, sharp and clear, of a man's face. Black skin; gold eyes.
She jumped when the thunder rolled, almost over her head. Wrapped her arms around her legs and rocked as rain pecked against the windows. The smell of lightning in the air raised the curtain on her memories, her dreams, and she knew, then, exactly what had happened.
This time she couldn't blame Wolfram & Hart. It was their own, stupid fault, hers, Angel's and Wesley's. They'd pissed off the mage. And he'd banished them, instead of David. No wonder Angel couldn't find civilization.
There was none.
"Come back, Angel," she whispered. "I need you."
As night fell, she rocked, listening to the hiss of rain and the call and response of lightning, thunder.
In the dream, the wolf snarled, following her as she backed up slowly.
"Nice wolfie," she said, taking her eyes off of him only long enough to glance behind her.
There was only a cliff. Nothing below but thin air and sand.
The wolf howled and when she looked back at him, he leapt.
She fell, screaming, into the wind.
Rain on her face, lightning blinding her.
Her face was wet, her hands trembling. She screamed again, flailing, grabbing, looking for something to hang on to.
Her fingers clenched, caught, held. She hung, suspended, feet dangling in mid-air.
"Shh, Cordy, shh."
When she opened her eyes, Angel was the first thing she saw. She sucked in a sobbing breath, feeling the sweat, hot on the nape of her neck, her face, wet with rain or tears. "A-Angel?"
He ran trembling fingers over her face. "I heard you scream. I thought--"
Her breath hitched. "Sorcerer. Banished."
"I know. I remembered, too. Shh." He brushed her hair back, his hands and voice soothing, gentle. "Lie back, come on."
She glanced around the room, surprised to find a candle lit, herself in the bed. "How'd I get here?" The last thing she remembered was sitting in the banquette, huddling against the ferocity of the storm.
"I carried you. You were asleep. I didn't want to wake you." He sat on the mattress beside her, holding her hand. His thumb stroked her palm, the cool, calloused skin reassuring.
"Where were you? Oh, God, Angel, I was so scared." Her eyes watered again and she brushed the tears back impatiently.
"I got to the mountains, but there were men--"
She shook her head, confused. "Men? But we were banished--"
"And he sent guards to make sure we stayed banished."
For the first time, she noticed his appearance. His clothes were ripped, dirty, his face and hands filthy, his eyes nothing but a white spark. "You killed them, though, right?"
He nodded. "But then the sun rose. I had to hide." He squeezed her hand tightly, and she knew what it had cost him not to make it home.
She sat up, mind whirring as she processed it all. "Assassins? To finish what he couldn't?"
Angel's mouth flattened. "I was lucky. If I hadn't been there--"
Silence bloomed between them. The first, companionable silence she’d had since the night he left. "You're exhausted," she said. She could have been talking about herself. The stress of the last two days--his absence, the dreams, the storm--was enough to make her want to lie down and sleep forever. "You should get cleaned up."
He sighed and his shoulders slumped. "Thank God it rained," he said, standing to strip off his shirt. Sand trickled out and puddled on the floor. "I followed the storm. I was sure others had come here--" He lowered his head as he undid the last of the buttons.
Cordy followed him to the shower, picking up discarded clothes as they went. "I was fine. The storm was wild. Talk about a light show." It was so good to have him back that she didn't realize she'd wound up in the bathroom with him.
"Cordy," he said, hands on the button of his dusty, black pants. "Uh—"
The thought of leaving him again, of not being able to see him, was overwhelming. But she caught herself before she said anything. The last thing he needed after the trip he'd had was a whiner. She tossed off a laugh. "Sure. Sorry."
The door slid shut behind her and the water came on. She swept out the sand with one of the towels and stood, watching the last of the night move across the desert. Suddenly she realized that she was silhouetted in the light, and the sense of being watched scuttled across her arms and shoulders.
She shut the door quickly and drew the curtains, dropping the towel and sitting on the bed.
sun rose while Angel slept. She’d left him curled on the mattress, body
perfectly still, eyelids twitching in dreams. Now she watched the sun do its
night-time dance in reverse, lighting the dark, throwing a strip of black lace
shadow over the sand.
Now that he was home and safe, she couldn’t sleep. Too much to think about.
If the mage had sent assassins, did that mean he was dead? Or was he part of a magical Mafia, someone who hired goons to do his dirty work?
If other people could get here, there must be a way to get out. They just had to find it.
She’d lost track of time, she thought, as she squinted toward the sun. How long had they been here? More than one week; less than two?
Her body had slowly adjusted to the heat, the silence. For a hell dimension—or whatever this was—it was incredibly beautiful. She’d have to remember to ask Angel later how this compared to the hell dimension he’d been banished to before. Either the sorcerer sucked, or banishment wasn’t what it used to be.
Cordy leaned against the trailer door, hands on the steps next to her. She stretched her legs out, letting the early-morning sun press its warm hand against her skin. Face up, body relaxed, she thought about her apartment for the first time in days.
Home. Pre-cut, pre-washed bags of carrots. Clean underwear. Dennis.
She cocked her head, thinking back to the last vision, the night of the party. Right before they’d been banished.
Had the mage gotten rid of the visions too, or were they gone because there wasn’t anyone to help out here?
If she closed her eyes, she could see Angel’s small pile of clothes next to the couch, where he’d been sleeping since he moved in with her. What a doofus—he’d refused to take the bed, even after she got up for the day. So she’d clanged around, cleaning the apartment, talking on the phone, cooking meals, while he’d tried to sleep.
After about two days of that, he’d grumped off to the bedroom, slamming the door behind him. Ha, she’d thought, as she threw his clothes in the laundry basket to take downstairs. She might not have been able to move him to a more comfy resting place with words, but actions worked just fine.
Here, though, they shared a bed, which was surprisingly comfortable, since there wasn’t much room in it. Not that they slept at the same time very often, but when they did, there wasn’t any of that tug-of-war they experienced in L.A.
Maybe the desert was changing her, she thought, as she braided her hair over her shoulder. Once you got used to eating things like snake and cactus, once you accepted the heat and the sand and the wind, your mind just…expanded. Maybe it was the silence. Maybe it was the beauty.
She'd never thought about art as anything but something you invested in or that hung on museum walls. But now O'Keefe's paintings made sense. The ladder going up to the roof; the yawning door. The colors.
As the sun rose she realized, for the first time, that the desert was carpeted with flowers.
"Ooooh!" She ran toward the nearest bush and touched the bright pink flowers with the tips of her fingers. The desert smelled pungent, earthy, like hot, wet herbs. Instinctively, she wrinkled her nose, but as she stood, looking at the huge white-and-yellow roses on the cacti, the hot pink flowers on the bush next to them, the bright orange of the sky, the scent changed, becoming something welcoming, something *of* the desert.
She knew--*knew*--they’d get out of this somehow. Because the alternative was too awful to even think about. Cordy gently pulled one of the pink flowers off its stem and raised it to her cheek. "I’d like a grande latte and a cinnamon bun," she whispered into the dry desert air.
The pink flower became her cup, her breakfast. She pretended to drink from it, tipping it up with a flourish and laughing at herself for being stupid. A bird landed on the highest arm of the cactus, dipping its head into the flowers and throwing it back to drink the water collected there.
Cordy tipped one of the flowers toward her and a thimbleful of water splashed on her forehead. She smelled nectar, honey, and as the morning breeze dried the water on her skin, she thought about home.
By mid-afternoon, Cordy had eaten everything in the fridge—which wasn’t much—and was dragging ass. The sun whited everything out, including her ability to think.
She crawled into bed next to Angel in her tattered, satin dress; he felt air-conditioned cool, and she let her arm rest against his. Sleep hit her with a heavy hand and after one, deep breath, pulled her under.
And then she was standing at the door of their old office, looking around at the big, vamp-killer of a window and down the hall into Angel’s dark study. She rode the slow, clanging elevator into his den apartment, the only place she’d ever been in that felt light even without windows.
It was just as she remembered--the old lamps and rich rugs, the leather furniture, worn and comfortable. Angel decorated like a cross between a college boy and an old-money European with orange crates for books and silk tapestries for blankets.
Something inside her unwound, let go. Wanting a nap, wanting to immerse herself in the safety of this quiet, familiar, masculine space, she stripped down to her underwear, reached into his drawer and pulled out a t-shirt.
From the bedroom came a man’s voice. "Angel, you there?"
Her breath caught, held. "Doyle?" A twinge in her heart had her yanking the wife-beater on and going to him.
His eyes widened at her loose hair, her barely-covered legs, but then he turned away, blushing. She laughed. "Oh, come on, Doyle. You were a married man. This is hardly the first time you’ve seen a woman’s legs."
He looked back, green eyes shining boldly. "And fine legs they are." He held up a paper-covered bottle in his hand. "Fancy a drink?"
She took it away and set it on the end-table. "Actually, I’ve been wondering—" And she pulled his head to hers and pressed their lips together.
The kiss took off, carrying them with it like a rocket into space. When she could breathe again, she pulled back and smiled. And instead of Doyle, she saw the wolf. Yelping, she jumped back.
The black-furred animal blinked its yellow eyes, grinning, as she ran into the bedroom and slammed the door. Its nails scratched the wood, and she heard it growl. Frantic, she looked for a place to hide.
The closet. But when she opened the door, it kept filling with clothes. Black shirts, black pants, black coats, growing and growing until they spilled out into the floor.
The door rattled, and she felt the wolf’s teeth on the doorknob, felt the sharp pinch of bone on metal, as if she were the knob, itself. She hit the floor and scrabbled under the four-poster, pushing her way through discarded books and piles of dust.
It was dark and cool and as she shimmied to the middle, she bumped into flesh. She gasped, but when she looked it was only Angel.
"It’s out there," he said, cutting his eyes toward the door. "Teeth and claws. Yellow eyes. Death."
She’d never seen Angel afraid of anything, especially death. Her heart tripped, running frantically in her chest. "Will we be safe here?"
He grabbed her hand and held on tight. "It can’t find us here."
The door gave way and the clack of nails on the wood floor had her entire body tensing. Angel squeezed her hand. "Remember. It can’t find us—"
She opened her eyes, hand linked in his, heart throbbing in her chest. She gasped for air, trying to calm her system, and when she turned her head, they were on top of the bed and Angel was staring at her. The dark bedspread and pillows felt soft, warm, after the floor's hard chill.
"Wolf," she said. "I keep dreaming—"
He turned toward her and drew her close, angling her so they lay face-to-face. His hand stroked down her back and she could feel it trembling. There was a light on at the table, turning the room burnished gold. At the end of the big bed lay one of Angel’s tapestries, covering her feet.
She buried her face in the crook of his neck and held on. The hand on her back slipped to her waist, hovered there delicately as rain on a flower, then slipped lower.
Instead of stopping, he drew the hand around and cupped her hipbone, thumb grazing the curve where her butt met her back. Her hand covered his, trying to slow the forward motion, but he simply pulled her with him, trailing cool fingers over her belly and sinking them to the hem of his soft t-shirt.
"Angel," she groaned.
His eyes drooped as his fingers rose, trailing under the shirt, gliding over thigh and belly, twisting around her belly-button, skimming down, under—
The big bed, four-posters gleaming in the lamplight, felt like a boat or an island. They were alone, completely alone. And she was safe.
She arched against him, lost in the touch. Aching with heat, inside and out, her defenses dropped, and as his fingers slid under the patch of the thong, she let her legs fall open and pressed herself into his hand.
Silent, pure, perfect. Circles of light spread out from between her legs, light and heat expanding her like the touch of the sun.
She whimpered and pressed herself more tightly against him. Juicy, wet, and when his fingers slid inside her, they went in easy. She draped her leg over his hip and held on while he rocked her, slip-sliding in and out of her body until she was pumping against him, breathing hard, feeling the ache, the itch, feeling the pleasure build—
He kissed her, and when his hands found her body and lifted the t-shirt, it felt right. There was no-one here but them. Time’s river pulsed, drawing them deeper into its current, pulling them from home’s shores.
Angel pressed his body to hers and drew a string of kisses across her jawbone, her throat. His hands, big, rough, wrapped around her waist and pulled her across him.
She was so tight, so ready, pulled to the breaking point—and when his hands slid up and cupped her breasts, the flick of his thumbs on her nipples was too much. She cried out, arching against him, hips throbbing against his belly and she rode it out, lost in the pleasure he brought her.
He moaned and his nostrils flared, and she could see that he was as overwhelmed by the perfume of need, the pump of desire, as she.
Her hands slid down his belly, down, down, to the waistband of his pants. Silence, their constant companion, settled beside them as she spread the unzipped placket and touched his skin.
He leapt at her, hard, hot—so hot when the rest of him was so cool—and ready. It was nothing to hook a finger under the edge of the thong and drop down on him.
The shimmering remains of her first orgasm collected, spiraling into a needy, aching point. She bit her lip and gripped his chest and rode, mind blank, heart full, hips crashing into his.
His fingers pinched as he grabbed her hips, as he held on, face contorted into a mask of pleasure. The pain made her yelp and ride him faster, farther, his body bouncing against her clit, setting off fireworks behind her eyes.
Her breath worked itself deep in her body, finding the bottom of her lungs, flaring against her womb. With every pump of her heart the pleasure built on the wings of her breath, surrounding them both, drawing him out.
The orgasm started like a low buzz deep in her belly and as it built she circled him, whipped her hips, grabbed his hands. Held on.
He pumped into her, body going tight, taut, meeting its limits, and the force of his thrust, of his body pushing, *pushing*, lit the buzz like a fuse and exploded.
There was nothing but them, contracting, expanding, heating up like the desert under the sun. Nothing but Angel filling her, holding her, shooting into her.
When she could think again, she opened her eyes and smiled lazily.
Angel’s body, clasped between her thighs, was wet with their come. He was rigid, face a mask of panic.
"What?" she asked, pulling back, still lost in the world of the dream.
He rolled her off and she hit the mattress hard. Then he was on his feet, backing toward the door. His hair was mussed, his eyes wild. "What just happened?"
Cordy looked down at her body, at the hiked-up dress, her breasts spilling out over the neckline. "There was a wolf. Then we were in bed and--" Her brow wrinkled.
"The curse, Cordelia!" His voice rose and his hand hit the doorknob.
On instinct, she leapt out of bed and threw herself in front of the door, stopping him from opening it, from bursting into flame.
Finally, the last of the dream wore off and she saw him clearly, black eyes reflecting the horror of the memories they shared. She sucked in a breath— "Did we just—" She squeezed her eyes together. "Oh, my God!" Every lingering bit of desire fled, and she stuffed herself back into the dress, zipping it tight.
Angel was pacing now, naked, damp, arms wrapped around his waist. "You have to kill me."
She pressed herself against the door, panicking for so many reasons, not the least of which was the threat of being left alone again. "No. There has to be another way." On the other hand: Angelus.
"You promised," he said.
Her mouth pinched together. "I know. I *know*!" She pressed her fingers to her temples and forced herself to think. "I’m not living out here alone, Angel."
"You won’t be living at all when Angelus gets loose." He looked like he was shaking down from the inside out, like the terror of what he could become—what he might do to her—was making him disappear.
"How—" She shook her head, realigned her thoughts. "How long did it take before?"
Cordy thought fast. "We’ll just tie you up and I’ll resoul you—"
He looked like he was going to collapse. "With what?" Trembling hands pushed through his hair. "You have to— Cordy, you can’t let me—"
She closed her eyes and saw the wolf at the door. The two of them under the bed hiding. He couldn’t leave her. Not now.
Angel twined their fingers together. "Cordy. Please."
The touch of his hand, his fingers linking with hers, brought back the dream in full force. The wolf, the two of them huddling under the bed. Angel’s voice. "It can’t get us here," she whispered.
He shook her. "Cordelia! If you don’t do it now, I’ll—"
"No! Angel, stop! It can’t get us here. It can’t hurt us here!" She wasn’t just playing with her own life, she was playing with his. Images flashed in her mind like lightning. The smiling snake. The exploding storm. Those dreams—they hadn’t been wrong so far. They’d warned her about the snake, about the storm. And even though the dreams made her think she was going to die, she hadn’t. She’d been fine—scared, but safe.
He shoved her out of the way and flung the door open, standing naked in the light. She rolled once, got to her feet and tackled him. The smell of burning flesh hit the air. "No!"
His body was burned raw, red welts rising already to blisters. He groaned. "I can’t— Not again."
She locked the door and knelt next to him, running trembling hands through his hair, terrified that she’d done the wrong thing. But the other option, being out here completely alone…. "You won’t have to do it again. I promise." If there was no other way, she’d open the door and push him out, herself.
But if the dream was right….
He trembled, shivered. His eyes were black, begging pools. "Cordelia. Please."
Taking a chance, she dashed to the sink, grabbed some water and a towel. He was too weak to move, thank God, so she dribbled water on the towel and held it against his chest, his arms. His unburned collarbones rested under his skin, the flesh lighter from the pressure there.
She held the damp cloth on him and waited for the dream and the desert to decide their fate.
"You’re an idiot." He was propped up in bed on a pile of clothes, body shiny and pink with the healing burns.
"Says the man who’s being served dinner in bed." She handed the carcass of the rabbit to him. "By the woman who saved your ass."
He took the bullet-riddled bunny and stared at it. "You shot this?"
She nodded proudly. "Who’s the big-knuckled farm woman, now?"
Angel wrapped the towel around the rabbit and cut his eyes at her. "You’re gonna make me pay for this, aren’t you?"
"The rabbit? Nah. It’s old and stringy. I figure it was his time."
"I meant the death wish."
She smirked at him. "Every single day." She patted his thigh and rose. "Now, since I’m not all that interested in watching you vamp out and eat Thumper, I’m gonna go take a shower. I smell like--" She stopped, realizing she was about to say that she smelled like sex.
She turned, suddenly feeling very conscious of what had happened between them. And determined not to show it. "What?"
There was a long beat of silence and he looked like there were a million things he wanted to say. "Don’t use all the soap."
"Talk about a nightmare. The two of us out here with no soap." She shook her head and closed the door behind her.
"I’d brush my teeth," Angel said. "With a whole tube of toothpaste."
She stared out the window next to the dinette, considering. "First thing? I think I’d take a bath. Really hot. Just lay there and soak." The memory of water on her skin was tantalizing. Just out of reach.
Her foot brushed Angel’s under the table and she pulled back, realizing that more than a bath was out of reach, now. Ironic, considering the red haze of razor burn that still throbbed at the curve of her throat.
"For hours," Angel said, not seeming to notice that she’d pulled away. "Keep refilling the tub."
The morning—or the night—after wasn’t her strong suit. She hadn’t done it enough to be cool. Especially not with her boss. And best friend. "You a bubble person, or a non-bubble person?" Her voice came out a little too high. She cleared her throat and tried to pretend she’d meant to sound that way.
He shrugged, fiddling with the pot that held the remains of her dinner. "I’m not picky. There were a lot of years I didn’t take a bath at all."
She leaned back against the bench, forcing herself to focus on the loose, easy flow of her muscles while also ignoring the fact that Angel was the one who’d made her feel that way. One of her greatest strengths, she always thought, was her ability to compartmentalize.
What happened this afternoon…never happened. Simple, really. "Look at you now, Mr. Clean. You spend more time in the shower than I do. Or did. When we had unlimited water." She laughed, noticing with relief that she sounded a little more like herself. "How weird is that, thinking of L.A. as being the land of unlimited water."
He unleashed his killer smile as he rose, sticking the pot into the fridge next to the remains of the skinned rabbit, which Cordy had wrapped in a towel. "When we get back—"
Cordy’s sigh interrupted him. "Angel? How are we gonna get home?" She linked her fingers together and rested her chin on her hands. Watched as, with loose-limbed grace, he tidied the kitchen.
"I think, if we can trace our way back to the place where the assassins got in, we might be able to get out." He ran a damp towel over the stovetop and counter then draped it over the lip of the sink.
"Do you know where they came in?"
He didn’t look at her. Instead he looked out the little window over the sink. "No."
"And magic’s signature disappears over time, so the longer we wait…." Her voice trailed off. Angel didn’t answer and she knew that meant they'd already waited too long.
After a minute, she went to the bathroom and closed the door behind her. Stared in the mirror at her tanned, naked face. At the hair in a sloppy braid over her shoulder. At the ratty, red dress.
They were running out of soap. She didn’t know if she could cope without being clean. It was the only thing separating her from the animals. And God knew—
She pressed her fingers to her eyes and took a deep breath. "Get over it," she whispered. "Spank your inner moppet, Cordelia."
Another deep breath and then she opened the door and found Angel leaning against the wall, watching her. She could reach out and touch him, and part of her, the part that was his friend and needed his comfort, almost did.
But the afternoon stopped her. The dream. The sex. The incredible sex--
"You were right," he said quietly. "The curse doesn’t work here."
Silence hummed in a long, tight line. "Either that, or I didn’t give you a happy." Angel loved Buffy. He was in L.A. because he couldn’t be with her. And if Cordy got lucky—on two counts—because Angel’s heart was taken, well, then, cool. Right?
His eyes laser beamed her. "I don’t think I know what happy is any more," he said. Then he walked out of the trailer and shut the door behind him.
"Ninety-nine…one hundred." Cordy collapsed into a pile on the floor. A hundred push-ups. Her arms sang and burned, but it was a good feeling.
Angel nudged her hip with his foot as he walked by. "Next time try them at full extension."
She pinched his heel as he passed. "Next time, kiss my worshipable ass."
There was a moment of awkward silence, then a quiet chuckle. "You wish."
Boy, did she. It sucked to know exactly what you were missing. And wasn’t that her big lesson for the year? "Yeah right." She rolled over onto her back and stared at the ceiling. "So, you heading out?"
He stared out the window. Shrugged. "Thought I might wait a few days. It’s not like we’re losing time, now."
"Probably any traces of the magic are gone." She leaned up on her elbows. "How did you plan on finding the point of origin, anyway?"
Angel turned to look at her, eyes dark under wavy, ungelled hair. "There were some caves up there. If I were gonna drop someone down in the middle of the desert, I’d give them some shelter."
Cordy crossed her legs at the ankle and drew her feet up. Her ponytail bobbed in its ribbon and the pajamas, cuffed a million times at her hands and feet, hung loose around her body. She felt like Sandra Dee in a pajama party movie. "Like he did us?" She thought about that for a minute. "Why *did* he do that, Angel? I mean, as banishments to the desert go, wouldn’t just dumping us here do the job?"
"Maybe he enjoyed a fair fight."
"Maybe he wasn’t as big and bad as he thought he was."
Angel looked at her, surprised. "Maybe."
She rolled up onto her knees. "See? That’s why I’m good for you." Holding out her hand, she commanded, "Help me up."
He drew her to her feet. They stood, nose-to-nose, for ten buzzing seconds. Then he curled down and away, and slipped around her as if nothing had happened.
night passed. Two. It was odd to think of nights passing, instead of days, but
that was when Angel was up and around, so she altered her schedule. If you were
gonna live in the desert, it didn’t pay to be lonely.
But that didn’t mean she wasn’t bored. While Angel read The Fountainhead, she snooped. Not that she hadn’t seen everything before, but sometimes it helped to pretend like she hadn’t.
She hummed as she opened doors and drawers, as she rearranged the soup spoon next to the rough towels. When she turned, she noticed one of the cushions was lopsided on the dinette. "Huh," she said, and when she leaned down to straighten it, she realized it was loose. When she pried her fingers under, it popped off, revealing a storage space the size of a small cooler. "Cool!"
Angel looked up from his book. "What?"
Her grin felt like it rivaled Julia Roberts’. "Look! Angel! More soap!"
Inside was a case of Dr. Bronner’s, two boxes of ammo, and a deck of cards. "We hit the jackpot!"
He rolled off the bed and ranged in beside her. "Would you look at that." His fingers stroked the case of soap reverently. "Clean for life. Well," he shot her a grin that crinkled the corners of his eyes. "Maybe if you’re not immortal."
Despite his grin her stomach clenched. "Everyone in your life is terminally ill, aren’t they?"
His smile froze. "Kinda. Yeah, I guess." He picked up a bottle of soap and stared down at the tiny writing. "All One," he said, reading a line down toward the bottom of Bronner’s crazy epistle on spirituality.
"Only soap I ever met that tried to clean your soul while it took care of your body," she said.
"Probably makes it good for a man seeking redemption."
She squeezed his hand, then reached in and picked up a box of ammo. "Target practice. You nearly broke your teeth on the bullets when I shot that rabbit." The gun felt familiar in her hand, weighty and cool.
"Don’t waste it."
"Don’t worry. I’ll only shoot till I hit the bulls-eye."
He arched an eyebrow. "Bulls-eye?"
She nodded and pulled the deck of cards up into her hand. Drew out a joker and held it up for him to see.
Twilight’s arms wrapped themselves around her and she stood for a minute, awe-struck, as always, by the colors, the view. Then she paced off a cactus about 50 feet away and, on tiptoe, carefully impaled the card on one of the spikes.
When she went back to the trailer, Angel was leaning in the door in his wife-beater and unbuttoned pants. "All you need’s a cowboy hat. You’d be James Dean."
He laughed under his breath and stuck his hands in his pockets. It pulled the button loose, straining the open zipper. He didn’t seem to notice, so she tried not to. "I liked James Dean. He was lucky."
"Why?" she asked, lining up the card in her sights.
"He died young."
Cordy fired, and the sound echoed, making her ears ring. She missed completely. She lined up and fired again, knocking a chunk out of the base of the cactus.
"Hold up," Angel said, and then he was standing beside her, adjusting her stance. He stepped back. "Try again." He covered his ears and she fired.
A hole blasted through the middle of the cactus, about a foot away from the card. "Nice shot. But you’re pulling up at the last minute." He slid in behind her, cupped his hands over hers. "You just have to relax into it. Bend your knees, hold it steady…."
His chest against her back. His face against hers. His breath in her ear.
They froze. Five seconds. Ten.
Then Angel stripped the gun into the dirt and whipped her around, mouth coming down hard on hers. "God dammit," he said, between kisses. "I wasn’t gonna do this—"
She moaned and grabbed his hair, pulling him closer. "Me either—"
Breaths met, fused. He was warm from the wind, his hands on her face smelled of soap and gun oil. She tasted him, flesh and blood, and when he wrapped his arms around her hips and tugged, she followed him up.
He groaned when she twined her legs around him and arched toward him, hungry, hot. Then her back hit the side of the trailer, knocking the wind out of her lungs and rocking the building on its struts. His hands in her hair, on her breasts, under her hips—
She gasped, searching for breath, for purchase. "Come on, come on," she said, licking his face, his neck, needing salt and skin, wanting connection. She ran her hands under his shirt, pinching and twisting at his nipples, biting his collarbones.
He fumbled with his pants; she lifted away to give him space. He hiked up her dress, hissing when his hands met bare flesh. Then she was turning, dizzy, and they landed on the steps.
She stood, feet on the ground, legs angling over his thighs, as his hands lost themselves in her body. Moaning, her head fell back, braid slipping off her shoulder and landing heavily against her back.
Then he was pulling her down, down, impaling her on him. She bit his ear and when he groaned, she did it again, harder.
His hips pitched against hers. "Cordy—" His voice was fierce, feral. His hand between her thighs felt the place where they joined, got slick with her and him, and his fingers slipped in beside his cock.
Angel’s eyes were wide open and she could see the pure lust, see him lost in the pleasure of feeling their bodies mesh. When he slid his fingers free she groaned, but then he was drawing them around her clit, pressing hard against her.
She cried out and he did it again, so full of him, so hungry for him, she didn’t know what to do except move faster, harder.
Their bodies blurred in the bluing air, the sound of bird calls, of wind rustling the bushes blending with the slap of skin on skin. When he slid the other hand up and crushed her breast between his fingers, the jaws of her body snapped shut. She threw her head back and came.
And then he was pressing his face into her neck, biting hard with blunt teeth, and losing it. The feeling of him shuddering, releasing—even with her eyes closed she could see the energy exploding out from somewhere deep in his soul.
They sat, panting, getting their breath back. She cradled his face against her neck and brushed his hair, scratched his back. He arched into her, shivering, and she knew he was as overloaded as she was.
Then he pulled back and kissed her chin, her mouth. "I don’t want to stop," he whispered.
She smiled and ran her hands through his hair again. "So don’t." Cordy slid off of him, feeling the cool air hit her warm, wet body, feeling exposed, but in a good way. The gun lay in the sand where they’d left it, along with the ammo. In her hands the metal was still warm, bitter-smelling. She carried everything into the trailer and Angel followed her inside.
He unloaded the gun and dropped the bullets into the box, then set it on the cabinet. When he turned to her, half-dressed, eyes already heating, she smiled. "Gonna teach me how to fire *your* weapon?"
Angel laughed, a smoky sound and put his hand in the middle of her chest. Then he pushed her back, hard, and she landed on the mattress, giggling.
Slowly, softly, he unbraided her hair, brushed it free, kissed it from scalp to ends. "Beautiful," he whispered.
She smiled and ran her hands through his, short in the back, longer on the top. "I like yours this way. It’s so soft. And look--you have a beard." Time-softened stubble tickled her cheek.
He ran his tongue along the crease behind her ear and blew. "Razors. And gel. I don't know which I miss more. When we get back—"
She ran her hand over his thigh, loving the feel of his hard muscles. "When we get back, we can’t do this," she whispered.
Angel shook his head. "No." She could see the shadows in his eyes, knew he was already mourning the loss. Just like she was. "So we should do it lots while we’re still here." He fumbled for the zip on the side of her dress, getting caught in the buttons. Lifting her arm over her head, he slid down and came eye-to-eye with the fasteners.
She hummed under her breath as his hands worked the metal clasp down the zipper’s track. "Kind of a pain, huh?"
"This is nothing," he said, laying a row of kisses on the exposed flesh. "Try getting through crinolines and a corset." He hooked his fingers under the bottom edge of the zipper and tugged. "Lift up."
Following orders wasn’t usually her thing, but in this case, she was happy to do it. The dress shimmied down her body, tugging against her nipples, her belly, her thighs.
Angel followed it down. She heard it whisper to the floor, felt him shift, and realized he was stripping too.
"Mmm," she said, as he slid in next to her. "I don’t think I’m a corset girl, except on special occasions."
He laughed, and his bare chest brushed her back, his hands sliding around her waist and palming her belly. "You feel good," he said, breath teasing her ear. His hands rose, cupping her breasts, pinching the nipples.
"So does that," she said, moaning and arching against him.
Silence rose up to meet them, broken only by a whisper or moan. Angel ran his fingers down her thigh to the inside of her knee and pulled her leg back over his hip. She felt him hard against her and arched back, giving him free access.
She was still wet from before and he drove himself home with one, surprising thrust. Cordy gasped and jerked away, then jettisoned back, feeling the hard jut of his hip bones against her body.
He rocked her back and forth on him, then rolled them forward so she lay on her belly. He pulled her to her hands and knees, his legs between hers, spreading her wide.
The contact was deep, intense. She throbbed around him, open and hungry. He banged her once, twice, the wet slap making her high.
She reached behind her, feeling for his balls, found them swinging between their bodies. Angel moaned when she wrapped her hand around him, tightened her fingers. His cock throbbed, got hotter, bigger.
She arched forward, pushed back, maximizing the contact. Her body got tighter and he moaned into her hair. His fingers pushing, pushing, sliding against her, drawing wet lines from her cunt to her nipples, dampening her chest, marking her with the smell of their bodies.
He bit her shoulder, held on with his teeth, and pounded into her. The force collapsed her against the mattress, spreading her legs wide. Then she rolled, hard, and took them off the side of the bed.
They hit the floor and she broke free and turned to straddle him. "Want to see you," she whispered, brushing her hands over his face, through his hair.
He angled his hips, hard cock bobbing into the air, and she settled back down on him. Started rocking slowly, drawing it out, making it last.
The upward thrusts hit just the right spot and her body started to vibrate, the tension building again. He opened his eyes and stroked her lips with his fingers. She opened her mouth and took him in and he lay perfectly still while she rode him.
In her mouth his hands tasted bitter, salty, just right. In her body, his cock was hard, full, hot. She wanted to watch him go crazy, to know she could make him lose it, all that control….
She nudged his hand aside and draped herself over him, pressing her mouth to his ear, his throat. Then she nipped him, not hard, but enough that he shuddered underneath her. The response got her hot, hotter. Her body clenched.
He moaned against her face and his body twitched uncontrollably.
"Gonna come, Angel. Gonna come so hard," she said, knowing what the words would do for him. How they’d trigger that deep, male *thing* that wanted to leave its mark. Then she bit him, sinking her teeth deep into his shoulder, breaking the skin.
He shouted and jerked against her, and the fierce contact was just what she needed. She screamed and imploded, whiting out, feeling only his flesh in her mouth, his cock inside her.
Angel grabbed her hips and thrust once, twice. Grunted into her hair, and she felt him throbbing, felt him coming, felt her womb clenching and drawing him up and in.
Then she collapsed against him and they lay in a tangled heap, panting.
Through the open door the sounds of the night started filtering back in. She wondered if they’d been there the whole time, or if the whole desert held its breath while they made love.
"I’m glad you didn’t leave," she said, trailing her fingers over his shoulder.
He opened sleepy eyes and smiled at her, brushing her hair behind her ears. "At this rate, I may never go anywhere."
She kissed his jaw, ran her tongue over his lips, body throbbing. "Let’s just stay here. No visions. No curse. The best sex ever…."
The laugh rumbled through his chest.
Cordy wasn’t dumb enough to believe she was the best he’d had. But she knew great when she felt it, and that was enough. Especially when they were the only ones out here. "Yeah." She sat up slowly, letting the room spin around her, and realized that they had the entire night ahead of them.
The feeling of freedom, of happiness, shocked her.
"What?" Angel asked, a frown line twitching between his brows.
"I’m just…happy." She smiled blissfully. "Really, really happy."
His hands clenched against her thighs. "I’m glad."
"A good poker player can read his opponent’s tells."
Cordy looked up from her hand. "Tails? Like, wag-wag?"
Angel laughed, a warm, husky sound that Cordy had never heard him make before. So this was what happy Angel was like. It looked good on him. "No, t-e-l-l-s, the little things someone does to give themselves away. It’s all about body language.
"For instance, when you drew the last card, you got that little line between your eyes—the same one you get when I’ve done something to piss you off. So I’m guessing you weren’t too happy with the card you drew, which means at the most, you probably have a pair, or maybe, if you’re lucky, a three of a kind." He glanced down at his hand. "On the other hand, I’ve been careful not to respond to anything I’ve drawn."
The line between Cordy’s eyes deepened. "You’ve obviously got me figured out." She sighed, staring down at her hand. "I was kinda pissed when I drew a 9 instead of an Ace. Screwed me out of a Royal Flush." The cards fanned down on the table. "I’m guessing that’s where the whole line thing came in."
Angel stared down at her cards, his face blank. "You have a straight flush." When he looked back up at her, his eyes were lit with shock, humor and more than a little respect.
"Which probably beats your full house." She tipped his cards down and read his hand. "Yup. I knew it."
Angel huffed. "How’d you know I had a full house?"
"Please. How do you think I won all those strip poker games at Lamda Chi?" She did some figuring in her head. "You now owe me a Sarah McLahlan CD, three cartons of Ho-Ho’s and a year’s supply of the bubble bath of my choice."
He made a face. "I’ll pay you when we get back."
"You keep saying that. I’m starting to think you’d be glad if we never made it back. At least, then, your measly excuse for a bank account might earn enough interest to buy another bottle of hair gel." She started collecting the cards and putting them in the box. "Wanna go for a walk?"
He stretched his arms over his head, pulling the t-shirt tight over his chest. "Sure." His hand reached for hers. "I’m gonna start calling you L.A. Slim."
She followed him down the stairs and out onto the sand. "Who?"
"You know, like Amarillo Slim, the famous poker player?"
She threw him a "whatever" look and turned her attention to the landscape in front of them. The moon was nearly full and it was bright as day, the desert painted an iridescent blue-white. The wind blew chilly and she was glad for the pajamas.
Sticking close to Angel was easy; she couldn't seem to keep her hands off of him and he didn't seem to mind. He led the way, picking through scrub and rocks, making noise as he went to scare off anything in their path.
A scuffle in the bushes off to their right had them stopping, staring. "Mule deer," Angel whispered as the animal scampered off into the shadows.
"Sure thing, Mr. Animal Planet." She twined her fingers with his, enjoying the tickle of excitement that came from being out alone with him at night. "You’re just trying to get your mojo back after letting a girl kick your ass." In L.A. being with him meant she was safe; here, it meant a kind of intimacy she'd never really known.
"Hey, I read a lot. I know things. And I think I’ve proved several times that my mojo is working just fine."
The memory of him underneath her made her shiver. She laughed softly. "Okay I take the mojo comment back. And I’ll even give you a point for having some smarts. You and Wes. The brains to my beauty." The moon skidded behind a small patch of clouds. "I miss him."
His fingers tightened on hers. "Yeah, me too."
They'd shared a loss with Doyle, something that stayed between them, even now, even though they never talked about it.
She'd dreamed about him. About kissing him. And he'd turned into the wolf. She shivered.
"Don't hurt yourself."
Cacti rose out of the desert floor, arms raised like someone offering prayers to an ancient goddess. The moon broke free of the clouds and lit their path. Cordy glanced over her shoulder, worried that they were getting out of site of the trailer, but it was still there, lights glowing.
"I didn't realize you could see it so clearly," she said.
Angel looked over his shoulder. "You wouldn't believe how glad I was to see those lights."
She waited for him to continue, but in typical Angel fashion, he clammed up. Ahead was an outcropping of rock, stacked higher than Angel's head. She followed him around the back of the hill and stepped out onto the rock.
The valley spread before them, a reverse photograph, bushes waving in the wind, the smell of sand and salt and herbs rising to Cordy's nose. She breathed deep. "It's amazing."
They turned, looking in all directions, and in the bare-bulb light she could see everywhere, all the way to the mountains. Stars flickered, diamonds in navy taffeta. The moon, only a tiny bit off-round, sailed through wispy clouds.
Wind blew through the bristles on the cacti, and it hummed, an otherworldly sound that drew up the hair on Cordy's arms. Her back prickled, a warning, and she turned and found Angel vamped.
Her heart dropped then jumped into her throat. "What is it?"
His eyes slanted at her, bright gold, and for a split second, she saw Angelus. "I don't know. Something."
The prickling shimmered over her again. "Get down," she said, suddenly feeling way too exposed.
They dropped to the face of the rock, flattening themselves against the surface. And then she saw it. A light, bobbing, just above ground level. Like a firefly, but bigger.
"Fuck," Angel whispered. "Don't move. Don't even breathe."
She took him seriously and sucked in a breath, held it. The light swerved toward them, beelining for the rock. There was something not right about it; something magical.
Cordy buried her face in her arms, afraid to look in its face.
The wind blew, carrying her loose hair down her back, tickling her skin. Breath tightened in her lungs, burning. She lay perfectly still and waited, stomach clenched, body rigid. Ready to run.
Ready to fight.
Eventually she felt Angel loosen up. "It's gone," he said, voice quiet. "But we need to move. Now."
And then he was up, and she was in his arms, and they were flying over the sand, back to the trailer. The ground it had taken them half an hour to cover took less than five minutes. The desert blurred into something out of a movie, streaks of light and color, a whine of sound.
Her feet hit the steps. "Get inside."
"But what about you?"
"Go inside, Cordelia. Turn out the lights. Lock the door. Don't open it for anyone. Got it?"
She grabbed his shoulder, fingers clawing into his muscle. "What was it?"
"A tracker. You can't let it find you, do you understand?"
"But-- Angel-- Where will you be?"
"Leading it away from here."
He vanished like the moon behind a cloud. She waited, chilled, rubbing her hands over her arms, longer than she should have. Long enough to be seen.
The crawling feeling of being watched sent her back into the trailer, and she shut the door and hit the latch.
Lights out, she loaded the gun by touch. Likely it wouldn't stop anything the Mage sent, but it would stop a human. The stake Angel always carried rested on the tabletop, and she grabbed that too.
Gun in one hand, stake in the other, she waited.
"Not again," she muttered, as the sun began turning the sky dove gray.
Morning, and no Angel. She dropped the weapons to the table and went to the door. "Don't open it for anyone," she repeated. "Screw that."
Just as she whipped it open and started to scream his name, someone dropped off the roof and landed on the steps. Now she did scream.
His hand slapped over her mouth. "Shh. It's just me."
Her eyes felt wide over his palm, her breath short where he'd cut her off.
Angel dropped his hand then slipped inside and closed the door. "Any sign of them?"
She shook her head. "I can't believe you left me alone again."
"I couldn't risk you." He glanced at the table. "You found the gun. Good."
"Angel!" She grabbed his arm, got his attention. "What happened? You were gone all night. I thought--"
"I needed you to think that, in case they were watching." He went to the fridge and took out one of the water bottles, now filled with blood. "I didn't see it again, but I felt it, all night. Someone's trying to track us, Cordy. We have to move." He swallowed several big mouthfuls and put the bottle away.
She shook her head. "We can't! We’ll die out there!"
He shot her one of those intimidating looks. "We'll talk about it later. I need to sleep." For the first time since he got back, he really looked at her. "And so do you. You're exhausted."
Agitated, she wrapped her arms around her waist and started pacing. "I hate this. I hate it! Why can't they just leave us alone?"
His hands on her shoulders did anything but calm her down. She broke his grip and jerked away. "We can't move! I can't lose everything again, Angel, I can't!
He stalked her, pulling her close. "Shh, shh. It's all right. We won't go anywhere if you don't want to. We'll figure something else out, okay?" His hand on her back softened the fire-pulse of her breath, gradually slowed her pounding heart.
"Okay," she whispered. "I just can't--"
"Shh, I know. Come on, lie down." He drew her to the bed, settled her in. Turned and pulled off his boots, slid in beside her. "Come here," he whispered, pulling her back against his chest, spooning against her. His hand lifted, stroking her hair, lulling her into realizing that she really was tired. And it was daylight. He was here now. Everything was okay.
woke up to find Wesley staring down at her, his face gaunt, stubbled. "Oh,
thank God," he said.
Shaking her head didn't help. He was still there. "Wesley?" She reached out to touch him, feeling her stomach do a somersault as her hand went right through his tux to the wall behind him.
He blew out a breath, fluttering the ends of his open collar and loosely hanging tie. "I was so worried. I thought--" He shook his head. "Well, never mind what I thought. The main thing is, I found you."
Cordy sat up, looking around. They were still in the RV, still in bed. The day had started without them. "What’s going on, Wes? And, more importantly, why the hell haven’t you gotten us out of here?"
"Believe me, I’ve tried. Look," he said, glancing around nervously. "I don’t have much time." He started to blur around the edges. "You have to leave."
She whined. "But, Wes—"
"Get to the cave, Cordy. The one near—" He faded, voice going to static like a radio that had jumped stations.
"What?" She slapped the mattress. "Which cave?"
His face appeared again. "—I’ll be there as soon as the mage is—"
And then he was gone, leaving her staring at the paneled walls of the trailer. Crap. Crappity-crap-crap. She turned and shook Angel’s shoulder. "Angel, wake up!"
He moaned. "What?" His arm covered his eyes. "Sleeping. Go ‘way."
She rattled him again. "Not anymore, you’re not. Wesley just called—"
One eye opened and peeked at her from under his bare arm. "Wes called?" His sleep-husky voice wavered with annoyance and disbelief.
She climbed off the bed and started thinking of the things they’d need. Water, clothes, food. Gun. Dammit, they couldn’t carry any food because it would go bad in the heat. Maybe if they took the matches.... "He…appeared, I guess is the best word for it. We have to get out of here. Get to the cave."
Angel sat up, and the sleep-softened look vanished. "Cave?"
"Look, if you’re just gonna repeat everything I say—"
He grabbed her arm and stopped her, mid-step. "Cordelia. Tell me what happened."
She ground her teeth together. "Angel, unless you plan on staying here for the rest of your life, get your ass out of the bed and come *on*." So many feelings pounding inside her, none that she wanted to look at right now besides relief.
Angel had other plans. He yanked her to the bed, forcing her to sit in front of him. "Start at the beginning."
She huffed. "I was asleep. When I woke up, Wes’s face was right in front of me. He looks like crap, by the way."
Angel gave her a little shake. "Cordelia."
"What? He did."
"Tell me what he *said*."
"I would if you’d stop interrupting me."
His teeth clicked together. "Fine."
"We have to meet him in a cave. In the—I don’t know which one, actually, because he faded out. Like Princess Leia, you know?" She waved her hand. "Then he said he’d be there as soon as he—uh—something to do with the mage."
"What about the mage?"
"I don’t know."
He dropped her arm. "What *do* you know, Cordelia?" His voice rose. "And how do you know it was really Wesley?"
"Look, just ‘cause he called me and not you, you don’t have to get all huffy. He said meet him in a cave and he’d be there as soon as the mage did whatever he was gonna do, which could mean right now, so we’d better get trucking, right?"
Angel ran both hands through his hair. It stood up on end. "He could have said anything. And do you have any idea how many caves are in the one part of the mountain I actually saw?"
She got off the bed and went back to pacing. "I don’t care. I’ll go through every one until I find the right one. Even if I have to wait ten years."
The room quieted while she walked from one end to another. Angel sat on the bed staring into space, his face blank. She ignored him while she considered what she should wear for the return trip. Maybe the pajamas, since they gave her the most coverage. Not that they’d protect against snakebite—she shuddered at the memory of the rattler—but at least they’d keep her legs from getting chewed up by the bushes.
She looked down at her feet, calloused from the days away from her pumice stone, and fantasized about sitting in a tubful of water, scrubbing their exile off her heels. When she glanced up, Angel was still sitting there.
"Yo, Angel. Up and at ‘em."
"In case you haven’t noticed, Cordelia, the sun’s out." He sounded frustrated, short-tempered. Not at all like someone who’d just gotten laid *and* gotten the news that he could go home.
"Well, we’ll just get everything ready and go tonight."
"We can’t get to the mountains in one night. We’d do good to get there in two since I can’t travel at my highest speed while I’m with you."
No way was she letting him get her down about this. "Then you just point me in the right direction, and I’ll start now. By the time you catch up with me—"
"And you’ll do what, walk all day *and* all night? Or maybe you’ll just die of heat stroke—" His voice rose until he was as close to yelling as she’d ever heard him.
"What is your *deal*, Angel?" She poked him in the chest with her finger. "We’re getting out of here, and all you can do is harsh my mellow!"
He stared at her, wide-eyed, mouth hanging open. Finally he shut it and lay back down on the bed, with his arm over his eyes. "Wake me when the sun starts to set. We’ll head out then."
She puffed out an annoyed breath then plopped down into the dinette. "Jerk," she mouthed again. What did he expect her to do, get everything together like a good little woman? Her toe banged the bench in front of her, making a satisfying noise.
She added the tap of her fingers to it and sighed once or twice for good measure. Angel lay perfectly still, but she knew he would break eventually.
She didn’t expect him to move so fast when he did, whisking her out of the booth and down onto the bed beside him. One big hand tied both of hers over her head, the other clamped her waist.
"Stop it," he said, staring down at her with hot, dark eyes.
Her lip jutted out. "Make me."
His eyes narrowed. "Don’t tempt me."
"Why are you so pissed? We’re going *home*, Angel." She tugged her hands and he let go, rolling over onto his back.
Cordy waited, but he didn’t say anything. Instead he stared at the ceiling, a scowl on his face.
She propped her cheek on her hand and watched him. He crossed his arms and kept staring. He might be immortal, but he was still a guy. She twisted a piece of hair around her finger and pouted.
His eyes flickered to her face and back to the ceiling so she licked her lips and sighed, making sure her breasts heaved in the process.
Cordy stretched her free arm over her head, leaning forward just enough to widen the vee of the pajama top. Then she went back to hanging out as if nothing was happening.
They sat that way, her staring at him while he scowled at the ceiling, until even Cordelia was reaching her breaking point.
Her eyebrow arched. "Stop what?"
"Trying to get me to talk."
She trailed her finger down the open neck of the shirt. "You think I’m lying here thinking about *you*?"
Angel’s lips thinned. "Yeah, I do. And, no, it’s none of your business."
Cordy lifted the hem of the top and flicked her fingers over her stomach, pretending to scratch an itch, but making sure she gave him a good view. Men had great peripheral vision when it came to things like bare skin. "Okay. Whatever." Beat. "It’s so typical of you, though."
That finally earned her a glance. "What is?"
She made the "duh" face. "Assuming everything’s about you."
Those dark eyes narrowed.
"See? I knew it." She ran her hand under the fold of the shirt and let it rest just under her breasts, not moving, but making him wonder what she was doing under there. "You start having sex with a guy and he thinks he becomes your universe."
Angel turned his head and stared at her. "Give me a break."
Cordy shrugged then slowly, deliberately, slid her hand free. "Tell me you’re not thinking about my breasts."
His eyes flicked down instinctively.
"See? If this wasn’t all about you, you wouldn’t be thinking about my breasts."
Hah. If that wasn't the biggest "what the hell" look she'd ever gotten.
"I wasn’t thinking about your breasts. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to go home. And then I felt like crap because that would mean you—" It hit him, then, what she'd done, and he glared at her. "Dammit."
She collapsed onto the bed, laughing. "You are *so* easy."
He pounced, tickling her, and she squealed and thrashed. Angel, laughing, playing, was one of the most amazing things she'd ever seen. She pressed her smiling mouth to his and the next thing she knew, he'd rolled on top of her and was kissing her for real.
She wove her fingers through the silk of his hair, arching against him. "God, I love this," she murmured against his mouth.
He moaned and slid his hands under her shirt, spanning her ribs, coming to rest under her breasts. "I don't want to give you up."
Arching into him felt like the best thing to do, and when her chest met his, her nipples caught fire. "Mmm.... So don't."
He pulled away, leaning on his elbows. His eyes were dark, sad. "You know we can't. In that world, I'm in love with a woman I can never have. I have to atone for--"
She slid her hands between them, and with one long stroke, he was hard for her.
He moaned and arched against her hand. "Cordy--"
"Shut up," she whispered, moving her hands slowly, surely. God, he had the hottest body ever. How in the hell she'd keep her hands off of him once they got back, she had no idea. But she wouldn't think about it now--and she wouldn't let him, either.
The zipper slid down easily and she worked her hands around inside the waistband until they met at his lower back. His skin there was incredibly soft and she twirled her fingertips right in the center, that sweet little indention that always made him press himself tighter against her. "That feel good?"
He sighed. "Yeah. So good to just let it all go."
Angel's life sucked so hard. "Everyone needs a vacation, right?" She smiled, letting it light her eyes. Her hands moved up his back under his t-shirt and stripped it off. Palming his shoulders, slipping over his gorgeous chest, tracing circles around his nipples.
He moved, then, braceleting her wrists and pulling them over her head, stopping her mid-touch. "Is that all this is? A vacation from reality?"
Her heart stuttered at the look in his eyes. "Isn't that all it can be?"
His hands tightened and pain shot up her arms. Then, as if he realized what he was doing, he relaxed his grip. It looked like he wanted to say something.
She searched his face. "What?" It came out husky, soft. Her heart pounded, shortening her breath.
Finally he shook his head. "You're right. I know you are. I just--" He pressed his face to hers, a sweet, surprising move. "You drive me crazy, Cordelia."
The laugh bubbled out. "Well, that's sexy."
Against her ear his lips were so, so soft. She tilted her head, letting him roam. "I've never known anyone like you," he whispered. His tongue flicked against her lobe then trailed slowly down her neck.
The feel of his mouth, his teeth, on her skin sent a shock-wave through her body. No-one--not even Xander--had this instant effect on her. "You either," she said, and she realized it was true. Angel was a good guy, a hero. And for the rest of the day, she got to be his leading lady. "Let's go really slow," she said, kissing the tender spot under his ear.
He pulled away, raised both hands to her face, and brushed her hair back. His eyes, dark, searching, scanned her face. "Make it last," he said, voice soft, reverent.
She nodded. "As long as we can."
She looked around the trailer one more time. "As I’ll ever be."
Angel nodded and picked up his coat, which he’d made into some sort of pack, filled with bottles of water. He shrugged into it and gestured toward the door.
"You look like a dramedy," she said, sweeping past.
There was a pause as he processed that information. "I think you mean a dromedary."
"Whatever." Her foot hit the first step and the last remnants of the setting sun blinded her. She stood blinking, letting her eyes adjust.
And then something moved to her left—something big, scuffling in the sand. It was just a flash of movement, but enough that she instinctively jerked back into the trailer. There was a glint of light and the slap of air being pushed out like the wake of a boat, and when she looked, an axe handle vibrated, blade stuck in the creaky wood of the steps.
The entire world hung, suspended, for one breathless moment. And then everything uncoiled like a spring.
"Cordy!" Angel threw her onto the bed then shoved past her, leapfrogging the steps, and hitting sand. He whirled, yanked the axe out of the step, and disappeared out of the frame.
"Angel!" Her mind wasn’t processing, but her body was. She immediately went into "fight" mode, hurling herself out of the trailer behind him.
There were two of them, big guys, human-looking except for the horns that protruded from their temples. They double-teamed him, and he dodged one, only to find the other kicking him in the back.
He spun, swung the axe, and missed. One of the assailants backed up close to the steps. Cordy jumped, landed on his back, and clawed his face with her ragged nails. He yelled and grabbed for her hands. She wrapped her legs around his waist and squeezed as hard as she could.
It was like trying to squeeze a brick wall. She gave up and settled for hanging on until he found one of her fingers and yanked it at an odd angle. Pain ran up her arm like a flash-fire, and she retaliated by poking him in the eye with her other hand.
He went down on one knee and shook like a dog, pitching her onto her back. She rolled, ignored the shriek of pain in her finger to grab fistfuls of sand. When he lunged, she threw them in his face.
Spitting, batting at his eyes, he stopped moving long enough for her to strike out for a weapon. Something. Anything.
Her hand hit something sharp and when she opened it, she found two of her hairpins. Well, shit, she thought, remembering her search for them that first morning. Angel never got around to looking for them, and she’d forgotten about them, anyway. Until now.
They were the old-fashioned, v-shaped kind, and she slipped them between her fingers, so the points protruded around her knuckles. A foot hit her, mid-back, knocking the wind out of her. She froze, felt the world slow down. Then it whooshed back into motion when she retched in a mouthful of air.
The boot drove into her ribs and pain exploded again, a red-hot flower blooming across her chest. She shrieked and rolled away, finding her feet even as she felt a hand clamping her shoulder.
Out the corner of her eye, she could see Angel get a face-full of fist and go staggering. The bad guy whirled her, his fist popping her right on the mouth. Her lip broke open like an over-ripe peach, the pain a sharp sting, the taste of blood hot copper. The blow threw her backwards into the sand, head whirling, bells ringing, little cartoon birds circling. And then he was on top of her, trying to pin her to the ground.
Panting, aching, furious, she struck out with the pins, opening four thin, red lines across his already-marked face. He jerked away with a grunt, and whipped back around, eyes lighting with a grim sort of enjoyment. Fast and hard as she could, she drew her hand back and hit him right in the throat.
The pins slid right through his skin, sharp little points digging deep. His eyes widened, and he stared down at her, shocked. Then he roared and slapped her hand away, yanking the pins free and leaving her staring into the eyes of one seriously pissed off demon.
"Angel!" she screamed.
Then he was there, throwing the guy off of her and helping her up. He shoved her toward the trailer. "Get out of here, Cordelia!"
"Behind you!" she screamed.
He whirled to face the demon and the pack shifted, bottles clinking.
She reached up and grabbed the awning, yanking hard and tumbling the poles down on top of them. Angel shook it off, but the demon fell, and Angel leapt on him.
Cordy went for a pole, only to be yanked up short. That was when she felt an arm around her throat, a knife in her ribs. She stiffened.
"Stop!" The voice, right next to her ear, made her wince. "I’ll kill her!"
Cordy’s heart froze in her chest. The knife pinched, the tip digging right into the space under her ribs.
Angel stepped back in slow-motion, axe suspended in mid-air and swung around. "Let her go."
The knife dug deeper. She hissed and clawed at his arm. More pain when her bruised finger got into the act. Dammit, this whole day just sucked. "Get that knife out of my ribs, you jerk."
Instead, the guy’s arm folded tighter across her windpipe, gagging her. "Get up, Louis."
Coughing, bleeding, Louis stood.
"Get the axe," the bigger one commanded.
With a sour look, Louis yanked it from Angel’s hand.
"Now, you, get over here next to her."
Angel moved to stand next to Cordy. He looked at her, eyes lingering on her swelling finger and rapidly-puffing lip. Then something flashed in Angel’s gaze, and he turned slightly, bumping her. She swept her hand toward his coat pocket, going for the gun, but he shook his head and bumped her again. This time with the bottles.
If it were her, she'd have gone for the kill-shot. But Angel had other plans, and he was the boss, especially when they were staring down a couple of assassins.
The guy behind her let her go and shoved her away from the trailer. "Start walking."
When she didn’t take another step, he shoved Angel, bumping him into Cordy. "I *said*, start walking."
They did, slowly, with Cordy up against Angel’s back so she could dig the fingers of her uninjured hand into the pack and slip a bottle free. She passed it to Angel and ducked, and Angel spun. The bottle broke with a crash, spraying water and glass everywhere.
Louis went down on his knees. "Ow! Goddammit!"
And then the big guy had the axe, and he set it in motion again, swinging toward her in one, long arc. Two feet, one foot, six inches and she flinched, already feeling the sting of the blade. Angel caught it right before it hit her temple. He arm-wrestled the guy for it but instead of coming up with it, the axe went flying. Cordy lunged, got her fingers on the handle, and then lost it again as Louis got up just in time to kick it away.
She grunted in frustration, crawling after it, and finally, finally got a hold of it. When she turned, Angel was punching Louis and the other bad-guy was on Angel’s back like a barnacle, scrabbling to hang on around the bottles. Louis took a couple of steps back then ran straight for Angel like a demented line backer.
The force carried all three men into the side of the trailer. There was a low, breathless grunt, and the sound of breaking glass.
Angel shoved Louis and twisted away, and Cordy gasped as she saw the other demon stare down at his body. The bottles had shattered on impact and pieces of glass shredded his shirt, embedding themselves in his body. Water and blood dripped into the sand and as she watched, he picked out one, long shard.
Blood fountained, spraying Angel and Louis, painting the sand an awful, fluorescent red. The demon stared down at it like he was hypnotized. Then he gurgled, gasped, and fell.
When Angel held up his hand, she threw him the axe and turned her head so she didn’t have to watch as he sliced Louis’s head off. It hit with a thud and rolled a few inches. The body twitched and dropped down on top of the other guy’s, leaking blood and silvery spinal fluid in a grisly black and red heap.
"I think I’m gonna be sick," she said, wrapping her arms around her waist. The smell of death hit the hot air, sickly-sweet and raw.
Angel dropped the axe and came to her side. "You’re fine. Just breathe." He looked like Jackson Pollack had painted him with a can of red paint.
She sucked in air, feeling her throat burn and her face throb. Her finger pounded and her stomach rolled.
He slid his fingers to her side, pressing against the stinging wound. "He cut you."
"No, it’s just a scrape." She picked up his hands and looked at his knuckles. "You’re a mess." A thought occurred to her. "Your back. Did you—"
When he turned, she shook her head. "Why am I not surprised? You always do more damage to yourself than the guys you’re fighting." She pulled his coat and shirt away, finding shredded fabric and cut-up skin.
"Hey, but I’m not dead."
"Well, technically, you are." He groaned as she tugged a piece of fabric out of his skin.
"Come on, let’s get cleaned up." She glanced down at the bodies and wrinkled her nose. "Are they like the two that you killed before?"
"Yeah. I’m guessing that Wesley hasn’t stopped the mage."
She led him up the stairs and sat him on the couch. "Which means we still have time." She pushed the curtains open to let in the last of the light. They’d put the solar panels down and folded up the bed before they left, and the trailer looked like it had when they found it. A hermit in the desert, undisturbed.
Angel’s shirt was covered in blood and sand, so she took it off and laid it on the sink. The undershirt was next, and it was almost completely shredded. They worked it over his head, and she picked out glass and wiped him off with a dish towel. "That’s the best I can do." She offered him a bottle of water. "Want to drink?"
She wrinkled her nose. "I’ll rinse your shirt. You can put it back on when I’m done."
He went to the door and shook out his coat. The abused fabric shed drops of blood and grains of sand, but the upper part was still intact enough to wear, so he put it on the couch and then went back to the door. "Looks like they were the only two."
She squeezed water out of the shirt, ignoring the sting of her lip and the throbbing finger, thinking about the walk they still had before them. Her body was already feeling achy, like she’d worked out for way too long. "What if we run into more of those guys?"
"I’ll take the axe. We've got the gun. We’ll be fine." But he didn’t sound so sure.
"Speaking of the gun. Why didn't you use it?"
"Couldn't risk you getting shot."
She ducked her head, the look on his face too intense to take. "Oh."
Finally, the shirt seemed clean—or clean enough to wear. She handed it to him and he put it on wet. Then he rolled several more bottles in the coat, twisted it into a pack, and tied it on her. "I’m sorry you have to carry this." His hand brushed her face, and she saw in his eyes that he was sorry for a whole lot more than that.
"Not your fault," she said, responding to the statement, itself, and the unanswered questions behind it. "Good thing we boiled all that extra water and bottled it up."
He smiled. "You were thinking ahead."
"Hey, it doesn’t happen often."
He squeezed her shoulder. There was a pause, and then he spoke. "Cordy, when we get back—"
Her hand covered his. "Don’t go there, Angel. We can’t waste our energy on worrying about the future." Her forehead wrinkled. "Okay, channeling someone who actually makes sense, and how weird is that?" She pulled her hand away.
Angel smiled, looking relieved and disappointed all at the same time. "You ready?"
"As I’ll ever be."
He took her hand and led her out of the trailer and into the desert.
brought cooler air, and soon they were picking up the pace just so Cordy could
stay warm. Every hour, they stopped to rest, and she drank a swallow of water.
Already her lips were chapping, her skin drying out.
Her mouth throbbed and her finger ached, but it was better than the burn in her legs and feet from trying to walk in broken stilettos. Why couldn’t she have been banished while she was out for a jog, wearing her shorts and cross-trainers?
Angel glided silently across the sand and she did her best to keep up with him. He was dealing with way worse, so she concentrated on walking and kept her mouth shut.
Instead she listened to the night. Animals rustling in the bushes; the wind playing the spines of the cactus behind her. Overhead the shadows of birds, blacker than the black sky, wheeled and spun. She heard a flicker of wings, a high whistle.
Angel used the axe as a walking stick, and the handle hit the ground with a thump at every step, warning off predators. Several times she heard something slither off the path and looked down, making sure she didn’t step on it.
Night, night and more night. "Are we there yet?"
All Angel did was grunt, which she knew meant "Don’t talk; walk." So she pressed her lips together and trudged on.
It all blurred together. The wind on her body, the shadows, the sounds. She felt trapped in a dark room, walking in circles. And she was getting tired, hungry. "Angel—"
He stopped and turned to her. "How you holding up?"
In the moonlight, his face was bone on black, shadows and light. "Can we stop for a minute?" She gestured at the pack. "Kinda heavy."
They sat down on a rock and she leaned back, feeling a sharp twinge in her shoulders as she took the weight off of them. "How’s your back?"
Angel shrugged. "Okay. I could use some blood." He glanced at her. "What about you?"
"Blood? Me? No, thanks."
His teeth flashed white in the moonlight. "Want me to find you something to eat? We could light a fire. Or I could get part of a cactus down."
She shook her head. "No, thanks. But why don’t you get something? You’ll heal faster." When he moved, it looked slow, painful. She could tell he wasn’t getting better at his normal rate. Weeks of eating less, and then the fight and the blood loss, made him sluggish.
He shrugged. "It’d take too long. Once we camp, I’ll sleep. That’ll help."
Cordy looked around at the impenetrable landscape. "Camp?"
"Yeah. You ready to walk again?"
She pulled a bottle from the pack and took a sip, then stuck it back in and stood. Shoulders, calves, feet all let out one, long cry. "Remind me why we’re going back again? Oh, right. Visions. Helpless. Noir festivals."
Angel rubbed her shoulder then leaned down to kiss her forehead. Not her lips, she thought, as he pulled back. He was already becoming that other Angel. She could almost see him skulking around the edges of his big walls.
And then they were walking again and it took all her concentration to put one foot in front of the other.
The sky was turning gray behind them. Angel kept looking over his shoulder and she knew he was feeling it, like something chasing him. They were in a long, flat plain, with nothing in front of them but desert, and nothing behind them but the same.
"We need to stop," he said.
He made his way to one of the huge cacti, which was surrounded by thick vegetation. "Here."
Angel reached into the bushes and pulled out a soft, green cactus leaf. He broke it open and handed it to her. "Eat that."
She took it, smelled its fleshy, green fragrance. "What about you?"
"I’ll dig us some holes to sleep in."
It was easier to bite the leaf than ask the obvious question, so she chewed while he dug, super-fast. One, wide grave appeared in the sand and as she dropped the remains of the leaf, he motioned toward the open ground.
"I’m sleeping *there*?" Yeah, right.
He nodded. "We both are."
Crap. He was giving her that look. "Can I at least pee first?" Anything to keep from facing the fact that she was about to agree to sleep with a vampire—like a vampire.
"Yeah. Probably a good idea."
As she squatted behind a rock, she realized two things. One, that her life with Angel was way freakier than her life in Sunnydale, and that was saying something. The second was that she was so tired she really didn’t care where she slept—as long as she slept.
When she got back to camp, Angel was staring toward the sunrise. "Coming fast. Better get settled." Even through the exhaustion she could hear the instinctive fear in his voice, see the way his body recoiled.
Just one minor issue kept niggling at her. "How am I supposed to breathe?"
He made an impatient noise. "I promise, you’ll be fine. Now, move."
They stared at each other for a few minutes, and then Cordy relented. She’d known this part of the trip was gonna be hard. But she sure wasn’t letting him get away with that tone of voice. "You owe me two years’ worth of bubble bath, pal," she grumbled as she lay down in the sand.
Wriggling helped make the cool earth surprisingly comfortable, like a firm bed, and she watched as Angel lay down next to her.
He draped his coat over them and then started layering on sand. The weight was heavy, cool, like Angel was before he got warm. She lay still, letting him cover her with a sandy blanket, trying to control the prickling feeling of unease that came with being buried alive.
The sky was beginning to get pink as he got to their shoulders. "Close your eyes," he whispered. She did, and felt his lips on her face. "Sleep well." The sand dropped in around her throat and over her chin. Oh, God, he was gonna cover her nose—but then something soft floated over her.
She recognized it as one of the dish towels from the trailer and that prickling feeling stopped. The towel smelled like the trailer—like them, and peppermint soap, and well water.
Then he was lying down next to her, and the shuffling stopped, and she was covered in sand and darkness. Aching muscles dropped heavily into the earth, and her eyes drooped. As the sun rose, turning the towel pink, she slept.
"Make it last," Angel whispered, trailing his fingers over her face.
She slid her arms around his neck and pulled him down. "For as long as we can."
He nipped her mouth, her chin, the tip of her nose. The moment spun out, a lingering note filling the silence. She knew it was a dream, but it was all she had of him now. So she let it play out and out and out….
Her breath trailed out, ruffling his hair, and he closed his eyes and turned his face into it. "Again," he said, so she blew on him, giggling as she did.
"You’re crazy," she said, nibbling his jaw, rubbing her teeth against the light beard he'd grown. As her hands trailed slowly up his back, she looked into his eyes and saw how deep they went. How far back in time.
It was like looking into a long, black tunnel. She felt herself pulled in, seduced and terrified by the darkness. It spiralled around her, filling her, taking her breath--
Then he kissed her, his lips glancing off her forehead, riding the wings of her eyebrows, tickling her eyelashes. No breath, just his mouth, the tip of his tongue.
She ran her feet up his calves and the feeling ran through every cell like a sound wave. Sliding, sliding, up those long, strong muscles, into the crease behind his knees, changing the angle of their bodies and bringing him closer.
They’d never been together this way, with him on top, with her legs around him. God, she felt like she was melting from the inside out—could see redness edging the darkness, like bright sun on closed eyelids. She wriggled against him, blowing out a puff of air against his face.
Impatient, now, to feel him on her. In her.
But when she fumbled with his zipper, his hands covered hers. He knew what she wanted—the look he shot her told her that much. He only smiled and rolled off of her. "Slow, Cordelia," he whispered, right into her ear.
And now she felt his breath, carrying his words straight to her brain. She shivered. "Again," she said, and he spoke into the shell of her ear.
"Slow," he said, turning it into something languorous, sexy.
He made her nipples hard, sent a shot of hot wetness between her legs. Churning her thighs together didn’t help; nothing helped but him. "Angel," she whispered.
His fingers twined with hers, trailing over the palm, tickling the inside of her wrist. He drew her hand up, her arm extending, arcing over her head. The back of her wrist landed on the coarse material of the couch cushion they’d been using as a pillow, a slight sting on sensitive flesh.
Everything was so *much*, the way his mouth felt, his hands, the rasp of fabric on bare skin. She moaned, feeling the sound more than hearing it, as he trailed his mouth from her elbow to the soft underside of her arm, to the light thicket of hair there.
She flinched, slightly freaked, even in the dream, that he’d bury his nose under her arm and sniff her, but he just laughed, such an Angel sound, like she was a silly little American girl, clueless.
And then his lips were there, combing, tugging, dampening already-damp skin, and riding down the concave slope to the rounded out orb of her breast. The pajamas were long gone—nothing now but bare skin and his lips.
Damp, cool tickle of tongue, tripping up the underside, toward her nipple. She arched, crooning, grabbing his head, wanting him *there*, but he dodged, bit her offending hand, a sharp little ouch that had her jerking away, slapping his shoulder, laughing—
And even as she thought he wasn’t going to touch her, his hand landed on her pubic bone, fingers tangling in the coarse patch of hair, sending her hips skyrocketing. Her croon became a panting "Yes, yes," and his eyes lit as he played with her. Not touching anything satisfying, but making the ache worse, just twining his fingers easily.
She swirled her hips, tried to get him to move. Pouted. He lowered his head and breathed on her nipple. No real touch, just breath. And then he extended his long, middle finger, and pushed it over her clit and down, separating her lips, down through the wetness like a mountain climber sliding through a green-humid crevice.
That was all he did, and it tripped the catch, and she exploded.
It echoed through her body, vibrating her lower back, her belly, making her thighs tremble. She clenched his hand, holding him close with her legs, arching against him and yelping as the shocks ran through her. The top of her head tingled, her toes clenched, and she twined against him.
And then she opened her eyes and he was smiling down at her, those knowing eyes full of something ancient, masculine, dark. "One," he said, and an electric thrill shot through her.
He kissed her then, tongue slipping between her lips and teeth and finding hers. The feel of him in her mouth, between her legs, was the best thing she’d ever felt, and she smiled against his mouth and wrapped her arms around him, trying not to think about the coming night.
Couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. She struggled, instinctively thrashing, desperate to get free. Something touched her hand and she sucked in a breath to scream, and gagged. Cloth, in her mouth, over her eyes. Clawing, she came up out of the sand, and flung the fabric as far away from her as she could. She sat, gasping, panting, as the last light of the sun trickled out.
The sand beside her stirred, shifted, and Angel appeared, blinking sleepily and brushing sand out of his face. He looked a hell of a lot calmer than she did. "You okay?" he asked.
"Couldn’t breathe," she said, finally catching enough breath to calm her racing heart.
"I’m sorry. That must have been scary." He stood then reached down to help her up. "Why don’t you go use the bathroom. I’ll get you a bottle of water and something to eat."
The world shifted from horizontal to vertical and her head reeled. Then she lurched off, brain still fuzzy, body stiff and sore.
When she got back to camp, Angel had packed everything up and smoothed his clothes and hair. Except for the stray smudge, he looked pretty normal.
She felt grimy, thirsty, and so far beyond hungry that she’d gone into a perpetual state of light-headed numbness. The water, buried next to them under the sand, was flat but cool. She swallowed half the bottle, then tucked it back into the pack and lifted it.
"I’ve got it," Angel said, taking it from her.
"Better." But when he put the pack on and tied it around his waist, he winced.
"Let me see," she said, reaching for him.
He stepped aside. "It’s okay." He handed her the axe. "Why don’t you lead for awhile?"
She stripped the flesh out of a cactus leaf with her teeth and dropped the woody leftovers onto the sand. Her stomach wobbled, growled. Muscles slowly warmed with the effort of the walk and she started to feel more alert. The sky bled out, leaving behind slashes of color above the darkening earth.
Without the pack, walking was easier, freer. They traveled fast, the sound of clinking bottles and the ring of the axe handle on rock the only sound. Gradually the desert awoke, a night creature, like Angel, and layered its sounds in with theirs.
The outline of the mountains grew steadily larger and after a couple of hours, Cordy stopped to drink and take a break.
"Making good time," Angel said.
"Not as good as you could, but not too bad." The water slid down her throat and hit her empty stomach, setting up a storm of activity. She pressed her hand there, hoping it would cramp. "Need to get some solid food soon."
Angel nodded and slid the pack off, letting it come to rest on a rock. It was already a whole lot lighter than when they started, something Cordelia tried not to notice. If she thought about this as a death march, there was no way she could make it.
"I’m gonna take a pee break," she said, picking up the axe and gesturing toward an outcropping of rocks about 25 feet away.
Angel nodded. "Be careful."
The rocks were different here, as they got closer to the mountains. Higher, more jagged, like teeth cut from stone. She tiptoed through crevices, senses on high alert for snakes or other things hidden in the shadows. The moon was so full it was like near day, everything glossed with a silver sheen.
She knocked the axe handle against the rocks once, twice. It echoed with a dull clunk, loud enough to satisfy her sense of safety. The pajama pants slithered down her legs, but just as she was about to squat, a sound rattled up from the desert floor.
She screamed and bounced away, yanking her pants up as she went. "Snake!"
Angel was there, a big black shadow. "Cordy!"
Pinned against the rock wall, the snake coiled and quivered.
"Move slow," he said, voice quiet, soothing. "I’ll get in front of you, and you walk out, okay?"
She moaned, clutching the pajamas into a hard knot. "Hate snakes."
"I know. It’ll be all right." He moved like one of the shadows, displacing her, putting himself between her and the snake. "Just move real slow…."
Her head spun, leaving her breathless. Every rattle took her back to that moment under the trailer, every zip of the tongue shot her right into the dream. "Oh, God—"
"Shh, just go, it’s all right." Angel crooned under his breath and nodded toward the path out. "I’ve got you."
She crept by him, unable to keep her eyes off the snake’s mesmerizing dance. One move, one sharp noise, and it would strike. A bird cried overhead and she froze, heart in her throat.
Angel went so still he was nearly invisible. When the snake didn’t do anything, Cordy started moving again. One step, two, three, and she was rushing past, toward the path that would lead her out.
She forgot she’d laid the axe down next to the break in the rocks, and she hit the handle hard and went flying. Sand in her face, under her hands, a sonic boom vibrating through her as she landed, face-first in the sand.
Angel yelped and grabbed her and the axe, pulling all three of them out of the rock towers and toward the flats. "Ow," he said, shaking his hand. "Dammit!"
Cordy stumbled to a halt, all need to pee gone in the adrenaline rush. "What? What is it? Oh, my God! Did it get you?" She grabbed his hand and pulled it to her, and there, on the back, just below the wrist, were two, oozing punctures. "No!"
She yanked the ribbon out of her hair and tied it tightly around his wrist. "We have to suck the venom out. Where’s your knife?"
Angel’s face was a flat mask of pain, his eyes dull and throbbing. "Shit, that hurts."
"I know! Give me your knife!" She patted his pockets till she found it and pulled it out. "Oh, God. I’m so sorry. I never should have—"
He covered her hand, stopping her from releasing the blade. "It’s okay, Cordy. I’m dead, remember? No circulation?"
Her eyes rose to his face. "What?"
"Snakebite. Only works if you have a heart that works, right?" His smile was dim, but present.
She dropped her hand to her side, the knife hanging limp in her fingers. "Right." For some reason it didn’t make her feel any better. "But you’re still hurting."
"It’ll be okay." He untied the ribbon around his wrist and handed it back to her. "Put your hair up. We need to be on the road again."
Cordy nodded, trying to calm herself down. This was so not happening. Angel was okay. He was gonna be okay. He wasn’t going to leave her—
"Hey." He turned her chin up with a brush of his fingers. "I’m not going anywhere, okay?"
She nodded. Picked up the pack and tied it around her waist. "Let’s go." Her voice sounded tight, stretched too thin.
"Wait," Angel said, cradling his arm tight to his chest. His hand was swollen like a water balloon and even in the moonlight she could see it was approximately the color of prune juice.
Cordy wrinkled her nose. "Remember that time I said I might faint while barfing?"
He looked up at her with tired eyes. "Yeah?"
"This so has it beat." She put her arm around his waist. "Lean on me. We have to get somewhere safe before sunrise." The problem was, there was nothing out here but desert. "We were beyond stupid to do this," she said under her breath. "I don’t care *what* Wesley said."
"We’ll make it," Angel said, but he didn’t sound so sure.
She ignored him and kept walking. He was heavy and she was tired, and this was so not gonna work. But what choice did they have? "This is way worse than homecoming," she muttered. "At least then I had a spatula."
Angel grunted—or maybe laughed. They walked, kicking sand and rocks, and at this point Cordy wasn’t even thinking about creepy-crawlies—she wasn’t thinking about anything but getting them to shelter. The last thing she wanted was to be stuck out here by herself looking for some stupid caves for the next ever.
The moon inched across the sky, and by the time it was nearly at the end of its circuit, Angel was stumbling like a drunk. "Gotta stop," he said.
She could tell he was hurting, hungry, and fighting both. The landscape spread out around them, slowly rolling toward the mountains, dotted with 20-foot cacti and layers of brush. Ahead she could see a group of dunes that looked strange, not natural. Too round, too perfect.
Maybe they were old adobe houses, or something.
Dragging him along wasn’t hard now that she had a purpose. They limped up a rise, dunes becoming rock piles, and now she was standing in front of a series of strange, rocky mounds.
"Burial ground," Angel said. "Ancient."
"Great. Why do we always end up in a cemetery?" But Sunnydale’s cemetery had some great mausoleums, which was exactly what they could use right now. "Stay here." She settled him against one of the rock outcroppings, and when he didn’t protest, she knew he was done for the night. He needed food and rest, and she needed a little of both, too. Well, okay. A lot.
She took the axe and started beating the handle on the rocks as she went, hoping to scare off any predators. Then she picked her way down through the stones until she was on the sand between the mounds. The wind sounded like voices, whistling, singing. She held the axe tighter and tried not to think of Jason and his face mask, which meant she couldn’t stop thinking about him.
"I’m leavin’, on a jet plane," she warbled, singing the first thing that popped into her head to keep herself company. Slowly she walked through the maze of mounds, stepping over collapsed piles of rocks, looking in crevices for anything big enough to harbor two people.
"Don’t know when I’ll be back again." Nothing. "Dammit." The sky started to lift, the darkness pulling up, away, not actually light yet, but beginning to get close. Angel was gonna be toast if she didn’t hurry.
"All right, Cor, executive decision time." Not a whole lot of options. There would be enough shade to hide in for awhile, but not enough to keep the sun off all day. She could keep looking, or she could start digging.
"Guess this means another day under the sand." She looked around, using the last of the moonlight to find a spot where she could dig. There was an overhang, like an entrance to an old cave in front of one of the closer mounds. Unfortunately it wasn’t more than a narrow arc over her head, but it’d be a good place to start.
She swung the axe and brought it down hard against the sand. It cleaved a hole wider than she could make with her hands alone, so she used it like a pick, then a shovel, to move the sand out of the way. Rocks shifted, tumbled, bounced around her, and started piling into the hole. "Dammit, why me?" she asked as she rolled them out of the way.
Sand exposed again, she dug harder, feeling weak, feeling her muscles burn and tremble, burrowing out a hole just big enough to sit in. Sweat pooled at the base of her spine and under her hair. Her body, dirty from two days on the road, stunk.
"Stupid manual labor," she griped, swinging the axe hard into the sand. "Like Cordelia Chase is supposed to be getting this dirty." She stopped, panting, catching her breath, thinking she should yell at Angel and get him over here to help or at least talk to her.
When she swung again, the axe went deep, popping through the ground like it had broken through a thin membrane. It kept going, half the handle disappearing deep into the sand. She wrinkled her forehead and yanked. "Let *go*," she said, pulling it free.
Out it popped, leaving behind a black mouth, which started eating the sand, like something below was swallowing it. As she watched, the hole grew. She tilted her head, unsure of what was happening—was there something underneath—
And then the sand under her feet collapsed.
She fell in a rain of dust, out of moonlight and into pure darkness. Cool, damp air whooshed by and her stomach felt all floaty—and then she hit the ground hard, crumpling into a ball so her knees jarred her chin. Teeth clacked, rattling her jawbones; blood bloomed in her mouth; ankles and knees sang with the shock.
Her butt hit earth and she sat, stunned, as sand rained down on her.
"Cordy? Cordy!" There was a shuffling noise up top, and then Angel crashed down next to her, landing in an ungainly heap. His body hit the ground with a thud that had him groaning.
"Oh, for fuck’s sake," she said, spitting bloody sand out of her mouth. She swiped at her eyes, got most of the stuff off her face. Shook like a dog and sent a shower out around her, most of which hit Angel.
He didn’t seem to notice. Instead he stood in the pool of light and held out his hand. "Are you all right?" He helped her up, brushed her off, made sure she could stand.
"Dammit," she said, furious and aching and hungry and tired of all of this shit. "If one more thing happens tonight I’m going to scream." She spat again, and the coppery smell of blood rose into the air. "Where are we, anyway?"
His eyes tracked her mouth and he licked his lips. "Cordy—"
"Quit looking at me like I’m the buffet at China Palace and help me get out of here." She squinted, unable to see anything but Angel in the thin trickle of light from the hole above.
Angel blinked, like he just realized what he’d been doing. "Sorry." Then he ducked away, into the shadows. She heard him shuffling, heard his footsteps get softer and then return. When he popped back into the light, he was sort of smiling. "Good news."
"There’s a stairway that leads us into the L.A. subway. ‘Cause that’s about the only thing that’s gonna make me happy right now." Her lip throbbed—dammit, it had just stopped hurting from the hit she took the other day. If they ever got back, they were *so* getting insurance.
He looked down at the floor, like he was apologizing for something. "Just a cave," he said. "Respite from the sun, though."
Okay, maybe it wasn’t the best time for Bitchfest 2000. "Well, at least that’s something." She sucked on her lip, worrying the cut with her tongue. The sweet, metallic taste of blood turned her stomach. It was probably a good thing she hadn’t eaten in awhile.
A thought occurred to her. "You’re hungry," she said.
He shrugged and stepped back into the shadows, like he wanted to look around some more. "It’s no big deal. I’ll be fine."
"How much blood do you need?" No way she was actually considering this. No freaking way.
"None. Really. I’ll just sleep, and this," the snake-bit arm appeared in the funnel of light and disappeared again, "should take care of itself."
"Look, I can’t give you much, but I’m already bleeding. Why don’t you—"
One second he was right there next to her, and the next he was gone. "No." His voice was faint, far-off.
"Angel. This is stupid. You need blood. You’re the strongest. It makes sense that…." Silence. Her skin prickled. "Angel?"
No answer. Tension vibrated the air.
Then something big rushed her in the darkness and she felt everything slow down. Her pupils expanded, her heart thudded, her palms spit sweat. The replay of Angelus’ face, pale and knife-eyed, laughing as he pinned her to the ground next to the tombstone--
And then he was past her, up and up, and the only thing she saw was the bottom of his shoes as he disappeared out of the hole.
She kicked the dirt and screamed, loud and hard.
Even from down here she
could see the sky, pearled with light. The funnel-shaped beam grew, expanding
until she could just make out the edges of a squared-off room, about the size of
the shack they’d landed in that first day. There were darker shadows, strange
shapes, things she’d rather not consider, and was really trying to avoid
She took the axe, brushing the head across the floor in front of her, until she hit wall. Then she slid down and sat with it across her lap, waiting.
For Angel come back. For the sun to rise.
It was cool, musty, earthy-smelling down here. Sweeter than she’d have thought, which made her own sweat more sour, as if she’d ever want to know what her own sweat smelled like. "I thought our job was to help the helpless," she said, pitching her words to the Powers. She let out a frustrated, exhausted huff. "Which in this case, is us, you freaking idiots!"
She let out a little yelp as Angel dropped back down into the cave. He glared at her. "Don’t ever say anything like that again. Got it?"
It was impossible not to tremble when he used that voice, but she covered it as well as she could. "Well, they *are* freaking idiots."
His nostrils flared and his eyes narrowed. "That’s not what I meant, and you know it."
She stared at him in the gray-pearl light, trying not to let him scare the crap out of her, and wondering what to say next. "You look better," she finally decided on. "Hand’s not as swollen." Probably safest not to comment on the wild eyes and shadow of blood on his chin.
He shrugged, then moved into the shadows on the opposite side of the room and sat down. She could barely make him out, one dark lump in a roomful of darkness.
Noise exited, leaving her alone with her thoughts. Angel’s words, and the memory of what she’d done waved at her mockingly from their spot in the loser’s corner of her brain. Oh, God. Had she become that sort of woman who— She closed her eyes and thought about it.
Ugh. She realized with a wince, she had. She’d become Buffy. One bounce—okay, more, but it was the principle of the thing—with Angel, and she’d lost her ability to think rationally.
She fiddled with the handle of the axe, trying to ignore the fact that she’d actually offered to let him drink from her. What was it about him that got girls to act like idiots?
He shifted in the dark, and the sound of the fabric against the wall made a soft rustle, reminding her of the sound those same clothes made when they hit the floor. Well, there was that thing with his tongue—
She sighed. They *so* needed to get back to L.A.
When she opened her eyes, the first thing she thought was, "All I ever do is sleep." The second was, "What the hell is *that*?"
She scrambled to her feet, axe tumbling to the floor with a clatter. "Oh, my God! Angel! Look!"
No answer from the dead boy, so she scurried over to the dim, glowing green light. It was widening like a pool being fed by a stream, and it wasn’t until she was nearly on top of it that she woke up enough to realize she was staring into a portal.
Which was probably a bad, bad thing.
Never wake a sleeping vampire should have been a saying, if it wasn’t already. He had her by the throat and against the wall, and even in the dim light, his eyes glowed freaky gold. The smell of old blood was thick around him.
"Angel! It’s me! Cordy!" She stood very still while he stared at her. Eventually the hand at her throat relaxed and his eyes went back to normal. The fangs stayed around a little while longer, which—like the snake—kept her from moving away too quickly.
Then it was like a light snapped on, and he dropped his hand, and stepped away, apologizing.
"Something’s happening," she whispered, pointing toward the whirling, green hole.
He stopped staring at her and turned to look at the portal. "We have to get out of here," he said, voice dark and chilly as the cave around them. "Now."
"And where, exactly, would we go?"
"Out. Around. I don’t know. Just—"
The portal flickered and they stepped back.
"Too late," she said, ducking behind him as lightning flashed. The glare blinded her and she threw up a hand to block it. A buzz simmered in the air, grew louder as the green intensified. The glow around her arm burned, shimmered, and finally popped.
There was a loud clatter and thump, and when she dropped her hand, Wes stood in the cave, blinking fast in the dim light. "You made it," he said, as if he were speaking to party guests. "Excellent." His tux was rumpled, the tie undone.
Her mouth fell open. Her mind went blank.
Then he stuck his arm in the portal, like he was holding open an elevator door, and said, "Best get a move on. Don’t have all night."
"Wesley?" Cordy shook her head, not believing what she was seeing.
"It is I, Cordelia. And we must hurry." He nodded at Angel, smiled broadly at her, and his face, in that moment, was so beautiful, so welcome, that she rushed forward and hugged him.
"Wesley!" When her arms didn’t go through him, she hugged him harder. "It really *is* you!"
The portal’s flare dimmed. "Go, Cordelia," Angel said, pulling her out of Wes’s arms and pushing her toward the portal. "Now!"
She glanced back over her shoulder. "So I just walk through—"
Angel shoved her and she was falling, floating, dissolving.
Wind whooshed, lights flashed, and she hit the ground with a bone-jarring thud.
And then Wes popped out about two feet away, landing in a tumbling roll. She scooted toward him, hoping to make room for Angel but— Her breath whumped out as nearly 200 pounds of well-muscled vampire landed right on top of her.
There was a moment of humming silence and the green portal closed with a pop. Cordy sucked in a breath, air filling her lungs in one, greedy gulp. "Get. Off. Of. Me!"
Angel slid off and landed on his side, one arm cradled against his chest, mouth open in what looked like total shock.
She rolled over on her back and lay on the floor, panting, staring up at the ceiling.
"Cordelia! Oh, man! You— Oh, wow!"
Her heart bumped in its chest. "David?" His upside-down face stared at her, eyes wide. She sat up and stared at the room around her, the huge ballroom, now empty, still hung with banners and set with tables and ice swans.
David grabbed her arm and hauled her up. "Oh, man! Oh, man! This is so cool!"
Then it clicked—they were back—really, truly back. "Angel! We’re back! We’re—" When she looked down at him, he was staring up at her from his spot on the floor, eyes wide and full of something like…regret? "—back?"
And then it was gone, and his grin broke free. "Dibs on the shower."
"You so wish!" She squatted and scooped Wesley into another hug, her chest filled with a silly, giddy joy. "Oh, my God, Wesley, you did it! You did it!" She pulled back so she could see his face. "What took you so long?"
His mouth fell open. "Long?" He glanced at David, whose face had gone into "huh" mode, then turned back to her. "Cordelia, you’ve only been gone two hours."
Now it was her turn to pull the open-mouthed stare routine. "Two—" Her gaze swiveled to Angel, who was looking at her with the exact, same expression. "No we weren’t. More like two weeks."
"Which would explain the smell," Wes said, under his breath.
She hit him on the shoulder. "Hey, you try living in the desert for two weeks with only one change of clothes and see how *you* smell, Teabag." But he was right. She really did reek.
"The portal." Angel sat up, a look of understanding flashing on his face. "We were in another dimension entirely."
Wes nodded. "The Mage tried to zap you into a hell dimension, but he only got as far as ‘hottest place’ in the chant before I tackled him. Threw him off." He looked down at his oh-so-clean and well-manicured nails and buffed them on his tux sleeve. "Actually, he wasn’t that good a Mage."
Cordy shot Angel a look. "Told you."
He ignored her, reaching out a hand so Wes could help him stand. "Time must have moved differently there," he said, as he pulled up to his feet. He brushed at his clothes and hair, sending sand into a series of little puddles on the floor beneath him.
"Ya think?" she asked. She eyeballed him, taking in the smudged face, the shredded, filthy clothes, the still swollen and discolored hand, the gaunt look around his eyes. "You look like hell."
His eyebrows raised. "Pot, meet kettle." The haughty look lasted for about two seconds, and then started dissolving into a sweet, relieved smile.
By the time he was laughing outright, she’d launched herself at him, squealing, "We’re home! We’re home!" His arms wrapped around her, pulling her close, and she twined her legs around his waist and kissed him, one, bright smack on the lips.
A sizzle ran up her spine and she pulled back, staring at him. He looked pole-axed, as if the realization had hit them simultaneously. No more touching. No more kissing. No more full-body contact of any kind, ever. Because otherwise….
She felt her face soften, felt a surprisingly strong hit of grief, and then she leaned down and kissed him one last time. As he slid her down his body, he lifted his hand and cupped her cheek. "Back to reality," he whispered, the black sparkle in his eyes dimming.
"Vacation’s over," she said, twining her fingers with his. And then she dropped their hands to her side and turned to face Wes and David, who were politely finding other places to look. She squeezed Angel’s hand and then slowly let go and stepped away. "Can we go home, now?"
"You sure you don’t want to go upstairs?" David said. For the first time, he seemed to really notice what she and Angel were wearing. "I can send some clothes up, order room service. I’ve got a suite." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a key card.
Angel glanced at Wes and David. "That sounds great. Why don’t you come up with us and tell us what happened?"
Cordy arched a brow. As fabulous as the idea of a hotel suite, hot food and new clothes sounded, she wasn’t sure that she wanted to hang with David and Wes after two weeks in the desert. The idea of being in her own home, with no one but a ghost and a vampire for company was surprisingly appealing. "But—"
Angel’s look shut her mouth. She cocked her head, surprised at what she was reading on his face. He was afraid to be alone with her, afraid of what would happen in a universe where the curse worked just fine and dandy.
The memory of him leaping over her and out the hole with eerie speed and inhuman grace popped into her head. When Angel wanted to hurt someone, he could hurt someone. And when he wanted to run his hands and mouth all over—
And now that she thought about it, company didn’t seem like such a bad idea. Because Angel, even dirty and disheveled, was still the same person who had fucked her into spinning, happy oblivion, and she probably wasn’t going to be able to forget that any time soon.
"Sounds like a plan," she said, and from the relieved smile on Angel’s face, she knew she’d made the right decision.
The trip through the hotel lobby was, well, a trip. Interested stares weren’t anything new to Cordelia—in fact, she kind of expected them. Disgusted, freaked out, pitying stares—that was entirely different. "Freaks," she said, under her breath, as they passed the doorman and the bellhops.
Angel glanced down at her. "Us or them?"
She wrinkled her nose and held her head high, swaying her hips like a runway model in the loose, grimy pajamas. Somewhere along the way she’d lost one shoe, so she walked with a limp, but there was no way in hell—or the desert—that she was stopping to take the thing off.
Wes and David followed behind and when they got to the elevator, she and Angel stepped aside to let them in first. David hit the penthouse button and put his key card into the slot. The brass doors closed, and they slid up, up, up. Cordy looked at herself in the doors’ reflection, seeing shaggy, knotted hair, chapped skin, and hollow, haunted eyes.
The space where Angel stood was empty, and she could see straight through him to David, who was staring with a fascinated look over what should have been Angel’s shoulder. Then the doors opened and they stepped out into a long, golden-lit hallway.
The swirled carpet was too soft, strangely artificial under her bare foot. She stripped off her shoe and padded down the hall, feeling, suddenly, the shock of going from primitive to luxurious in the blink of an eye.
The walls were too tight, pressing in. There was too much stuff on them—wallpaper, pictures. Carpet, furniture. None of it mattered; nothing but her body and Angel’s, and the basic needs of shelter, water, food and love.
As if he sensed she was beginning to lose it, he brushed his hand against hers. She clung, closing her eyes, blocking it all out. Letting him guide her down the hall like a blind woman, depending on him to get her where she needed to be.
They stopped and when she opened her eyes they were at David’s suite. She flinched when his arm brushed hers to unlock the door. And then they were stepping in to a living room that was bigger than hers, and David was guiding her gently toward a bathroom.
Cool, spare tile and warm, sand-colored marble turned off some of the sensory overload. When the door clicked closed, she dropped her clothes on the floor and sat down in the tub, turning on the taps, too impatient to wait for it to fill.
Water on skin; hot, stinging water. She closed her eyes, leaned her head back, and felt the weight of her body against the cool, plastic surface. Felt the water float her arms, her feet, her calves. Slowly it filled until she was submerged, drifting.
Ears under water let her hear the rush of the tap, the muffled voices outside the door. She shook her head, absorbing the feel of wetness on her face, the smell of antiseptic cleaners and recycled air.
Too strange. Not real. She sat up, water pouring off of her, skinning over her body, leaving chill bumps behind. "Angel?" No answer. "Angel?"
The door opened. "He’s in the other bathroom," Wes said.
"Oh." Pause. Disappointment. "Could you dim the lights for me?"
His hand slid around the door and he felt up and down the wall until he hit the switch. The room eased into shadow, taking the strain off of her senses. "You need anything?" His sweet, British voice, so normal, so…strange.
"No. Thanks. I’m good."
She lay back down in the tub, letting herself drift, mind and body. Letting go of two of the worst—and best—weeks of her life.
She opened her eyes. "Yeah?"
Angel was just inside the door, wrapped in a robe that glimmered in the low light. His hair was fresh, wet. Even from here she could smell the sharp, chemical smell of soap and conditioner. "You coming out?"
The water sluiced off of her, weighting her hair, draping it modestly across her breasts. When she sat up, he didn’t look away. "Maybe."
"Food’s here." His eyes were hooded, hidden in shadow. She didn’t like not being able to see them.
She rose, feeling her body adjust to being vertical, feeling the water fall away like pearls. Her skin tightened as the cool air hit and a faint mist of steam rose off her arms. She watched as he turned away, as his mouth tightened. "Hand me a towel?"
He had to cross the room, had to pass her, pass the high whirlpool tub, pass the mirrored wall. The towel lifted off the shelf less than two feet from her hand, and draped itself over her shoulders. "You know we can’t—"
She wrapped it around herself and squeezed her hair. It dripped into the tub, splashing out puddles in the bathwater around her legs. "I know." When she looked up, he was watching her again. He held up a hand, helped her over the side of the tub and down the steps to the floor.
Now they were themselves again, Angel standing tall above her, Cordy next to him. Vision girl and the Dark Revenger. "Did you eat?" she asked.
"Yeah." He went to the door and pulled a robe off the back. The matching female counterpart to his, navy and tan silk with a navy collar and sash.
She shrugged into it, dropped the damp towel to the floor, and wrapped her hair in a dry, clean towel. The terrycloth scratched her ears and forehead pleasantly, and the silk on her damp skin felt like a second layer of flesh. She shivered.
"You okay?" he asked.
"Just—I don’t know. It’s not like I expected." She glanced at the half-lit room, taking in the double sinks with swanlike faucets, the baskets of expensive soap and shampoo, the plush towels. "It’s like it’s too much, you know?"
Angel leaned against the edge of the vanity. "Reentry is always hard."
"It doesn’t seem to be affecting you." She reached for the lotion and started smoothing it on her arms, her face. Her skin, so dry and chapped, absorbed it, sucked in the moisture and left behind only a light scent of herbs and flowers. There was a small pot of lip gloss in the basket, and she smeared some on, then looked at herself in the mirror.
Clean shaven, moisturized, washed with soap and too much hot water to ever use up. "I miss the trailer." She glanced at Angel to see if he thought she was crazy. She sure felt it.
"I do, too." He lifted a corner of the towel and wiped a trail of water from her temple. "Things were simple there. Nothing to worry about except the basics."
Cordy pulled the little chair out from the vanity and sat, unwrapping the towel and dropping it to the floor. Angel moved behind her and picked up a brush, began smoothing it absently through her hair. It made a wet trail down her back, dampening the robe, hardening her nipples in the air-conditioned air.
Angel tensed—she felt it in his hands—then seemed to force himself to relax. They weren’t supposed to be doing this, but both of them seemed to need the contact. The reminder that they hadn’t lost the link, the friendship, the connection. "How’d you learn to do that?" The brush untangled her hair gently, without pulling, the way Angel’s fingers had back at the trailer.
"Years of practice. You should see me lace a corset." He laughed, quietly.
"You and your corsets," she teased, fiddling with the tray of cosmetics in front of her. She opened a bottle of perfume and sniffed, wrinkled her nose and put it back. "So, what next?"
The room was quiet for a minute while he thought about it. "I don’t know. I guess we just go back to normal."
She turned so she could see his face. "You think that’s possible?" The feel of his fingers on her ear, her neck, made her shiver.
He stopped moving, staring off into space. "Has to be." His eyes met hers. "No choice."
She reached up and took his hand. "Friends?"
His smile was soft, slow, sweet. "Always." The back of the brush made a light click when it landed on the marble counter top. "Let’s get you something to eat. You look like you’ve lost ten pounds you didn’t have to lose."
"Gee, thanks." She let him help her up and guide her out the door. Outside was light and air and the smell of breakfast. Her stomach rocked; her mouth watered; she pounced on the bacon and ate all of it in two bites. When she looked up, all three guys were staring at her. "What? I’m hungry," she said, grabbing the toast.
"So, after the Mage banished you, David knocked him out."
Cordy cut her eyes at David. "David did it?"
He blushed and adjusted the collar of his shirt. "It was nothing. Really."
Angel said, "Takes a lot to knock someone out. Trust me. I know." He leaned forward, resting his arms on the table. "How’d you do it?" David had ordered a couple of outfits sent up, and now Angel wore a pair of black cargo pants and a black, long-sleeved t-shirt. His feet were bare, but his boots, now cleaned and fitted with new laces, sat on the floor behind his chair.
"Well," David said, looking down at his feet. "I just, uh—"
"He hit him over the head with a swan," Wes said. He grinned, eyes sparkling behind his glasses.
Cordy burst out laughing. "With a *swan*? Don’t those things weigh, like, a ton?" She adjusted the collar of the robe and leaned deeper into the propped-up pillows. Wes and David sat on one couch; Angel had the round table in the corner, and Cordy lay on the other couch, lounging against a pile of down pillows from the bed. After the bed at the trailer, the couch felt like the best place in the world to sleep, and she kept drifting off—at least until the part about the swan.
David shrugged. "It had melted some. Pretty slick though. Mostly I just, sorta, you know, fell on him with it."
Wes snorted. "Sorry," he said, covering his mouth.
"No, you’re right. It was pretty funny," David said. "Anyway, after we got him knocked out, we tied him up. The really interesting thing?"
"Yeah?" Cordy asked.
"There was another Mage there—or whatever you’d call the female version."
Angel arched an eyebrow. "You’re kidding. Anyone we know?"
"Yeah," Wes said, nodding. "Adele Norris."
"The first one we questioned?" He laughed. "What was she doing there?"
"Her husband, Jim Norris—"
"—Is only the head of the biggest plastic surgery practice in L.A.," Cordy said. "He did Jennifer Aniston’s nose. I actually thought about going to him for—"
"And Jim Norris was here as a donor," Angel said. He shot Cordy a look that said, "too much information."
David’s eyes watched them like someone’s little brother at a ping-pong match.
She shrugged. She’d never have gone. After all, she was Cordelia Chase. But in L.A., you did give plastic surgery some consideration.
"David?" Angel said.
"Uh, yeah." He pulled his gaze from Cordy’s face and chest, as if he’d been trying to figure out what she would have gotten fixed. "He’s one of our biggest donors. They’d just come in when all this went down, and Adele came over to help."
"Jim got everyone distracted—did you know he can sing, really well?" Wes said. David nodded, eyes lighting. Angel watched them, his expression its normal, blank self. Cordy grinned. God, she loved these people. Well, okay, maybe not loved, loved. But they were her best friends, which was saying something, considering she’d never really had any.
"He did ‘The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia’," David said. "We got the Mage moved to another room for privacy. I was kinda sorry to go. I hear he did Barry Manilow next."
"Barry? Really?" Angel asked.
Cordy shot him a look of total disbelief. "You’re kidding, right?"
There was a beat of silence, then he looked at her mockingly. "Of course I am."
"Oh, thank God. I thought you liked him, or something." She waved a hand at David. "Keep going."
"Right. Long story short, Adele heard enough of the spell on the way in the door to conjure up some shelter for you guys. But we weren’t exactly sure where you were—did you find it?"
Angel and Cordy glanced at each other. "Told you it was magic," she said. He nodded. "Yeah," she said. "We found it. Trailer. Running water. Toilet. Rattlesnakes."
"Snakes?" David’s voice rose. "Sorry about that."
"Hey, it was the desert." She was feeling generous now that there were no snakes in sight.
"We weren’t exactly sure of your location, or how long the Mage would be out, so we just sent it in your general direction. Then we put a protection spell over it. That way, if you found the shelter, you’d be safe until we could track you down."
Angel nodded. "Which is why, when I left, the first set of assassins found me."
"Exactly. The Mage woke up kinda pissed and immediately started to go after you. Adele forced him to stay on this plane, but he sent a couple of teams through to try to kill you. Once you got out, we sent a tracer—you must have seen it, because you disappeared again. Or Cordy did."
Angel snapped his fingers, like something had just occurred to him. "The cave. How did you find us in that cave?"
Wes’s forehead wrinkled. "That was the cave I told you to go to."
"No it wasn’t. You told us to go to—" She tilted her head, remembering. "Actually, that was where you cut out. We just assumed you meant the caves where Angel met the first assassins."
"I was having some trouble staying connected. Adele and the Mage were fighting, breaking her concentration." He shook his head at the memory. "We finally got him distracted. Adele picked up on a burial site, some sort of cemetery, near home base. It was the closest underground spot to open the portal." The wrinkles in his forehead flexed deeper. "You mean, you didn’t intend to go there?"
She shook her head. "I found it by accident." A shiver ran up her spine, as she remembered the way the earth had seemed to suck the axe, and her, down into it. "Or something."
Wes nodded. "Well, either way, you’re back safely now." He glanced toward the window. "Should be getting light soon. You guys should get some rest."
"I’ll stay here," Angel said. "Give Cordy the bed."
She shrugged. "I’m pretty comfortable. This is the best—um—" The fireflies started swarming, and her head tightened. "Vision—I’ve ever—"
Bam! She landed face-first in the sewer, water and things too gross to consider, splashing her face. Footsteps behind her, big, heavy ones. And a growl, loud enough to shake the walls. She screamed.
"It’s okay," Angel said, cradling her against him. "What did you see?"
She pressed her fingers to her forehead, trying to get herself together. Her brain ached and buzzed. The images, the smells, the *feelings* stuck deep in her psyche. "Homeless guy. Sewers." Her eyes pinched closed. "UGH. Sewers."
"Shh," Angel said, patting her hand. "Wes, could you get her—"
She felt a glass pressed into her palm.
"Thanks," Angel said.
Gulping water and pills helped some. Better living through chemicals. "Under the Hollywood Bowl. Go now and you can get back before sunrise."
Angel eased her back against the cushions and glanced up at Wes. "Wes, you’re with me. David, stay here and look after Cordy." Then he was tying his boots and looking around for weapons.
"I have a stake," Wes said, reaching into his tux pocket and holding it out.
"I’ve got my knife," Angel replied. "We’re good to go."
He looked at her one more time. "You’ll be okay?"
Something flashed in his eyes. More than friendship. Less than lust. A warm memory, like heat curling off a fire.
She nodded. "Fine. Go get the bad guys."
They power-walked out the door, heroes going to rid the city of its blight. Then the room was silent and she and David stared at each other.
He smiled shyly. "You look pretty tired." He pulled the soft, dark throw off the back of the couch and handed it to her.
She spread it across her legs and waited for the pumping in her head to fade. "I am pretty tired."
David pulled out his Pilot and flipped the cover, then penned it on with his stylus. "I’ll just get some East Coast trade reports. You sleep."
The room slowly faded, light to dark, noise to silence.
"One," Angel said, sliding his hands up her thighs.
"Thank you, sir, may I have another?" She laughed, still high, still tremoring.
"As many as you want," he whispered against her stomach. Then he rolled, pulling her on top of him. "For as long as you want."
She moaned and slid down his body, feeling him nudge between her legs, hard and hot. Aching, slow, needy, she eased down, taking it slow, feeling every smooth inch fill her. By the time her thighs met his hips she was panting, hot all over again. "God," she said, arching against him.
An electric buzz sizzled up her spine. His fingers followed it, weaving the knot out of her hair, letting it fall around them. Then he rolled her in one strong, easy move, still inside her.
Her knees rose around him and she smiled. "Angel." Her fingers grazed his lips, his cheekbones, the brow she teased him about. Over it his hair was soft, floppy, begging to be touched.
"What," he said, a little gasp of air against her hand.
Down the back of his head, over his neck, around his shoulders. She slipped her arms around his waist and pulled him closer. "Just…Angel."
His lips met hers and he rode her, soft and easy, slow and mellow. The tension spiralled and she found herself greedy again, wanting to feel—
"Ah!" Her voice rose, the open-ended vowel a reflection of the way her body and soul were opening. He thrust against her, a little harder, a little faster, a lazy smile on his face, those eyes, so deep and knowing.
She grabbed his ass and thrust up, hard. Streaks of light, hot and beautiful, behind her eyes. Her body clenching around him, arms, legs, hungrier for him than she’d ever been for anyone. So simple, so easy. Food, water. Sleep. Sex.
Her eyes drifted open and he was smiling at her. "Two," he whispered against her ear.
The laugh bubbled up again. "What about you?"
He leaned down and kissed her, tongue tracing her lips, leaving behind a cool, wet trail. "There’s time," he said. "There’s always time."
Cordy opened her eyes and found herself looking at Angel. She smiled, caressed his cheek. "There’s always time," she said.
His face softened. He was splattered with muck and he smelled awful, but the warrior was gone, and in his place was the man she’d seen during those most intimate, unguarded moments in the desert.
"Always," he whispered. Then he picked her up, blanket and all, and carried her to the bed. She had time to notice David had conked out on the other couch, and to see a flash of Wes’s face as he dropped his tux coat over the back of the chair.
And then she was floating down onto the mattress and being tucked in, and there was a butterfly kiss on each eyelid and….