Queen Of The Night by Starlet2367
Summary: In order to have a future, Cordy must face Angel's past.
Spoilers: Dad, Season Three.
Notes: Thanks to the Angelfic list for guiding me through Plotland. <g> Also thanks to Kazz, my C/A co-conspirator. For beta, a whole slew of folks: Cat, Marla, Michael, Kazz, Ebonbird. Finally, thanks to the folks at ME who have given me so many hours of viewing pleasure. I promise, I saw "Birthday" *after* I wrote this. Any overlap is pure coincidence.
"Hey, Dennis, I'm home," Cordelia called as she closed the apartment door behind her. "How was your day?" She wandered into the living room, sorting through her mail as she went. It was mostly bills and flyers although there was also a green envelope, addressed in Willow's handwriting.
She ran her finger under the flap and found a Solstice card with a note that said, "Wishing you light and peace." Nothing from Tara, though. She thought back to the funeral and the sweet girl who had been so obviously in love with her friend.
"Hope everything's okay," she said, dropping the letters onto the end table. Dennis rearranged them into a tidy pile. "Thanks," she murmured.
She walked toward the bedroom, shedding clothes as she went. Her blazer came off, exposing a navy, scoop-necked t-shirt streaked with dried formula, remnants of her afternoon feeding session. Connor might still be a tiny baby but, she thought with a smile, he'd certainly inherited his father's perfect aim.
She pulled the shirt over her head, a dreamy look coming over her face as her fingers brushed the formula. Cordy had never considered herself a kid person, but Connor was changing her mind with his intelligent gaze and cherub's mouth. And that brow--just like Angel's.
The t-shirt went into the hamper and the blazer on the pile of dry-cleaning on the bedroom chair. She shucked off her jeans and put them in the drawer, pulling out her oldest sweats. It had been a long week after an incredibly long couple of months, and all she wanted to do was sit down and relax. Maybe watch a movie with her ghost.
She padded barefoot into the kitchen and poured a glass of wine. The Chardonnay, pale and golden, filled the wineglass like sunlight.
"Hey, Dennis, how about a Friday-night movie marathon? I was thinking we could watch...watch...." Her face contorted with agony. "Oh, God! Vision!"
Light struck the back of her eyelids like a boxer's fist. Sound thrashed in her ears. There was panicked breathing, then a scream. The glass slipped unnoticed from her fingers, shattering on the floor and spraying wine in a sticky arc.
She cried out as she saw, through Seer's eyes, the dead-end of an alley. Two vamps, then a third, dropped onto the pavement from somewhere above, grinning like hyenas going in for a kill.
Cordy screamed as the next flash threw her backwards, sending her sprawling on the floor. The girl in the vision struggled frantically, unable to free herself from the unrelenting grip of her captor.
Harsh laughter echoed. The girl whimpered, her muscles going slack with fear as clammy lips pressed into the curve between her neck and shoulder.
Cordy screamed again, her body convulsing as the vision exploded in a blast of light.
She lay on the floor panting, barely conscious of the wine seeping into her clothes and the shards of glass cutting into her skin.
Please, she thought. Someone help me. But it was no use.
Because as soon as that vision ended, another began.
Across town, a phone rang once and stopped. After a moment, it rang again. The machine on the hotel's reception desk picked up, only to record silence.
Wesley locked the door behind him and glanced at his watch. Good God, he was late. Traffic on the freeway had been one long, angry snarl all the way from the Hyperion. He'd only had time to dash upstairs and change his clothes. Now the cab he'd called earlier sat at the curb, its driver honking rudely.
He was due to meet Gunn at the pub in 20 minutes, barely enough time to get there on a normal night, and laughably impossible with traffic like tonight's. If only he'd dodged instead of parrying, he thought with a wry smile. He might not have ended up with a snootful of demon slime.
He dashed out the lobby door, reviewing his mental checklist: Glasses, keys, watch, billfold. Yes, yes, yes.... He felt the breast pocket of his blazer. No. Suddenly he remembered that, in his rush, he'd left the blasted thing on his dresser.
He threw open the cab door. "Could you wait just a moment, sir? I seem to have left my wallet in the flat."
The cab driver snarled. "I ain't got all night."
"No, no, perfectly understandable." Wes agreed, trying to hold his temper in check. "I'll just be a moment."
He opened the security door, ran through the lobby and shoved the key in the lock. Just as he entered the apartment, the phone rang.
Whoever it was could bloody well leave a message, he thought, scooping up his billfold and shoving it into his jacket. The ringing stopped.
"Fine," he muttered locking the door behind him. "Don't leave a message."
The phone rang again, one time. He stood very still, a tingling awareness spreading over him. Wasn't that Dennis's emergency code?
His heart, already beating quickly, seemed to leap into the back of his mouth. He fumbled the keys, dropped them.
"Blast," he muttered, grabbing them off the hallway floor with trembling fingers and finally, finally undoing the latch. The door slammed against the wall in his hurry to get across the room to the now silent phone.
"Please, please, don't be Dennis," he prayed, hitting the callback button as he shoved his glasses up his sweaty nose. The phone rang once, twice, and again. A machine picked up.
"Hi, this is Cordelia. You know what to do."
Wes's forehead creased with worry. "Cordelia, are you there? Cordelia! Dennis, it's Wesley. I got your message. I'll get help!"
Outside, the cabbie honked impatiently. Ignoring him, Wes hit a speed dial button.
"C'mon, c'mon, somebody be there." He could imagine the phone on the hotel desk, knew in his gut it was ringing to an empty room.
"Hi, you've reached Angel Investi..."
He hung up before the message could complete itself and hit another speed dial button. If Angel didn't have that cell phone turned on, Wesley would kill him with his bare hands.
Ringing, ringing, still ringing. Finally, on the other end, "Yeah."
"Angel?" Wesley squeaked.
"Wes?" Angel's voice tensed with worry. "What is it?"
"I got a call from Dennis. The emergency code. No answer at Cordy's. How far are you?"
There was a tiny pause, then Angel's voice, edgy with panic. "I'm close. Fifteen minutes."
"Go. I'll call Gunn," Wes said. "Where's Fred?"
"At the hotel with the baby."
"I'll call her on the way."
He slammed the phone back in its cradle then picked up his cell phone and dialed Gunn as he ran out the door.
"Gunn, it's Wes."
"Where are ya, man? I been waitin'."
"Gunn. Something's wrong with Cordy. Dennis just called me. Angel and I are going straight over."
"I'm right behind y..." Gunn said, disconnecting mid-sentence.
Wes jumped into the back seat. "Silverdale," he told the cab driver breathlessly. The driver grunted, threw the car into gear, and pulled away from the curb.
Wes pulled a bill from his wallet and, with a trembling hand, slapped it through the safety cage between the seats. "Quickly. A friend's life may depend on it."
The driver looked into the rearview mirror. Whatever he saw on Wes's face had him hitting the gas.
Angel rammed the car into low gear and the engine whined through the acceleration. He'd been patrolling, though admittedly without much interest or luck. It was a damp, chilly Friday night, and anyone with sense--human or otherwise--was heading for home.
Of course, it made traffic a bitch. He wove in and out of the lanes, dodging slower cars and running yellow lights. Other drivers honked rudely, though he hardly noticed. All he could think about was Cordy.
Whatever was happening was bad enough that she couldn't get to the phone. Which meant she was injured. Or that she was in the process of being injured.
His hands clenched on the steering wheel. He didn't know yet what was happening to her, but he did know one thing. Whoever or whatever was hurting her would die by his hand, even if he had to hunt them to hell and back.
He wheeled the car around a corner, going so fast the suspension creaked. His watch ticked away the minutes as he sped through the city: five, then ten. But he was almost there. Yeah, he could see her apartment building ahead.
The possibilities were endless: demons, vamps, human predators. There were so many horrific things you could do to a woman's body, so many layers and levels of pain.
He knew them all.
Torture and death had been his art for over a hundred years. But that was then. Now, he had sins to atone for, family to take care of. And Cordy was family, even though they weren't related by blood or marriage. She was his Seer and she was his best friend.
The tires squealed on the asphalt as he yanked the car into a parking space. At this time on a Friday night the apartment's lot was nearly empty.
Angel vaulted the car door, his black duster flying behind him in the chilly breeze. He felt the hard slap of concrete under his boots and the sing of blood in his veins as he pumped his arms. Faster, faster.
He didn't bother with the elevator. The stairs were a blur beneath him, each footfall echoing the mantra in his head: Let. Her. Be. Safe.
He burst through the stairwell door and ran headlong into a couple waiting in the hallway. They looked at him in surprise, and then horror. The woman screamed.
What? Oh. Game face. "Sorry, sorry," he mumbled as he blew past, shaking his head to get rid of the ridges and fangs. He heard the panicked shuffle of feet behind him and a door slamming, but didn't care because he was finally at Cordy's apartment.
No time for keys, just a quick kick. Cheap locks. How many times had he told her to change them? The door ricocheted against the wall, then stood open as he advanced into the room, prepared for anything.
"Cordy!" he yelled. "CORDELIA!"
He could hear her heartbeat, too fast, and her breathing, too shallow. And blood--he could smell it. He hurtled into the kitchen, skidding to a halt when he saw her sprawled on the floor.
"Cordy," he said, falling to his knees next to her. " I'm here."
He let his predator's senses take over, his highly developed hearing and smell scanning the apartment for other beings. Every sound was normal, every scent as it should be. No one was here now, and no one out of the ordinary had been here for some time.
He brought his full attention to Cordy, running his hands gently over her arms and legs, checking for wounds. She was splattered with wine and surrounded by shattered glass. There were several small cuts on her arms and hands, but as far as he could see, that was the worst of it.
The relief that washed over him was palpable.
Until he got a good look at her face.
Her eyes were open but unfocused, her lips moving as if she were speaking to someone only she could see.
"Oh, God, no!"
A wave of queasy terror washed over him as he checked the backs of her hands for Vocah's mark. "Please, not again." He found nothing but smooth, pale skin.
A chill climbed up his spine.
"Cordy? Baby, wake up. It was just a vision." He brushed the hair off her face with trembling fingers. "Come on, it's me. It's Angel. Please, Cordy."
"That's right. Come back to me." He drew her hand to his face, pressing her palm to his cheek. "I'm right here."
She blinked once, twice. Then her eyes focused with a sudden, eerie intensity. "Angel," she said.
"Yeah." His voice cracked. "What happened?"
"Visions. Like before." She grabbed his shoulder. "Can't...stop...them," she whispered, her eyes slipping shut. "So much pain."
And then her body began to thrash.
"NO!" Angel roared. "Oh, God, this can't be happening," he prayed, sliding down next to her and draping his big body over her tiny frame. Beneath him she bucked, her eyes open in pain and terror, her lips moving silently as the visions overtook her mind.
Angel rarely noticed the passage of time. There was only sunrise and sunset in an endless chain.
But as he waited for Wes and Gunn, it was all he could think about. The minutes ticked by, reminding him of their ephemeral nature. Reminding him that with each second he was one beat closer to losing the people he loved.
To losing Cordy.
She had struggled for nearly half an hour before she exhausted herself, and now she lay cradled in his lap, her head on his shoulder. It had started raining again, and the soft, silvery sound wrapped itself around them in the dark kitchen.
He hadn't bothered to turn on the lights. He hardly needed them, and he was worried they would hurt her eyes. At the thought, he glanced down. They were still open, still unfocused. Not lifeless and empty, but the opposite. Too full of other peoples' misery, of their pain, of their fear.
He leaned his head back against the cabinet. Had it only been a few hours ago that she'd been with him at the hotel?
She'd had a vision earlier that afternoon that had sent them running after a Brazilos demon. They left her on the lobby couch, clutching her head in agony and because of that, his mind had only been half on the fight. Luckily, though, Wes and Gunn had been focused, and things had ended badly for the Brazilos.
As usual, things ended just as badly for their clothes. When he returned to the hotel, he was relieved to find the lobby and office empty, because that meant Cordy had gone home to lie down. He wanted to change clothes, then call and check on her, so he dashed upstairs. He stopped short, just as he came through his door, surprise rippling through him.
Cordy sat on the couch feeding Connor. She had taken off her jacket, and the deep blue of her t-shirt was strikingly dark against Connor's newborn skin. They baby lay on her lap, cradled against her breast, and when she turned, it looked almost as if she were nursing him.
Angel drew a breath, awestruck by their timeless beauty.
"That's my sweet boy," Cordy had cooed, drawing her fingertips down his chubby cheek. "You were hungry, weren't you? My goodness, doesn't your daddy ever feed you?" The baby suckled loudly, his tiny fingers fluttering on the bottle. "And look how smart you are, holding the bottle. Your Uncle Gunn will be teaching you to use a battle axe before you know it."
She laughed as the baby reached uncoordinatedly for her hair. "You like that? You like Mama's hair? Just stay away from the earrings, and it's all good," she crooned. She rubbed her hand over his peach-fuzzed head, and her voice descended to a whisper.
"Mama," Angel whispered, the rest of the world forgotten.
Cordy pulled the bottle out of Connor's mouth with a loud pop. "Come on, sweetie," she said, setting the bottle on the couch next to her. "Time to burp you." But before she could raise him to her shoulder, he emitted a loud belch and spat formula all over her chest. "Ewwww, Connor!"
Her exclamation startled Angel from his reverie. "Here, wait!" He stepped into the room, looking around for a towel.
"Oh, hey, Angel. I didn't see you there. It's okay. I've got it." She smiled up at him, young and vibrant, practically radiating light. All the ravages of the vision were gone.
"Just like a guy," she said with a laugh, pulling the cloth diaper from her shoulder and wiping at her shirt. "Went straight for the boobs."
"At least we know he's not gay," Angel deadpanned, leaning over to take Connor from her, letting himself get lost in the scent of baby and woman. Their hands brushed as they made the transfer, and he felt Cordy give his a little squeeze.
"But it'd be okay if he was, wouldn't it, Conner?" she said, pushing to her feet and draping the damp diaper over Angel's shoulder. She patted the baby's bottom. "Whoever you are, is perfect."
Angel looked down at her, awestruck by her spirit and her beauty. The moment spun out, clear and chiming, and etched itself in his memory. "I love you, Cordy," he said, stunned by the revelation.
Her eyes widened. "No way," she teased. "Connor, did your daddy just say what I think he did?" She stretched on her tiptoes and kissed the baby on the cheek. "I love you guys, too," she said. "Hey, listen, I'm heading out. I'll see you tomorrow?"
Angel nodded. "Count on it." He stared at the door for a long time after she left.
"Oh, my God. Angel." Wes rushed into the kitchen, Gunn on his heels.
Gunn reached out for the lightswitch.
"Don't!" Angel said, but the lights flickered on. In his arms, Cordy began moving her head from side to side.
"No, no, no, no," she chanted under her breath.
"Turn them off!" Angel growled, clutching her to him.
"Sorry, sorry. I didn't know," Gunn said, hitting the switch and dropping the room into darkness.
Wes knelt beside them, his hand reaching out to touch Cordy's cheek. The light from the kitchen window was enough that he could see her face. He gasped, his gaze flying up to meet Angel's. "Vocah," he breathed.
Angel shook his head. "No marks. I checked."
Gunn crouched next to Wes. "What's happening?"
"Visions," Wes replied. He looked at Angel, fear, anxiety and concern written on his face. "Did you...were you able to...?"
"Yeah, for a second. She came to right after I got here, told me she was having nonstop visions, like before. Then she went back under." He laid his face against the crown of her head. "She seized for about 30 minutes, then stopped."
"Not this time," Angel said. "She's been quiet, but her lips are moving, like she's trying to talk."
Wes nodded. "I think we should take her to the hospital."
"Do you?" Angel asked, despair thick in his voice. "Why? So they can tell us she's dying? We already know that."
Wes put his hand on Angel's shoulder. "Maybe they can do something to help her. If nothing else, they can do some scans, make sure it's really the visions."
"Man, she told him that's what it was," Gunn said, squinting at Wes in the gloom.
"I still think we should, just to be safe."
Angel looked at Wes, his face set in a tight mask. After a moment he nodded. "Help me get her to the car," he said.
Wes and Gunn stood. "I called Fred," Wes commented.
"Are they okay?"
"Yes. They're going to stay at the hotel. Lorne's there with them. They were telling Pylean jokes when I called," Wes finished with a wan attempt at a smile.
Angel nodded curtly. "As long as they're okay," he said. He looked at Gunn. "I'm going to hand her to you. When I'm up, give her back to me."
Gunn nodded and slipped his arms under Cordy's prone body. "Got her," he said, pulling her out of the way so Angel could stand. Immediately Angel leaned down and scooped her up. The transfer took less than 30 seconds.
"Let's go," Angel said. "The keys are in my left coat pocket."
Wes nodded and fished them out. "Got them."
"Good. Now let's get out of here."
He sat quietly in the dark hospital room, watching Cordy sleep. The sound of her breath whispered around him, both comforting and terrifying.
"Sir? Are you still here?" The nurse stood in the doorway, silhouetted in the light from the hall.
"Yeah," Angel replied.
"I need to check her again," she said.
Angel nodded. "Fine."
The nurse entered the room, snapping on the bedside lamp. Cordy lay in a blue hospital gown, the covers drawn to her shoulders. An IV dripped into the back of her hand, supplying nutrients, liquid and a mild sedative.
Luckily, mild was all she needed right now. Though that could change at any time.
"Ma'am," the nurse said kindly, "can you hear me?" There was no response. She turned to Angel. "She's been the same?" she asked.
He was sitting in a chair right next to the bed, one leg crossed over the other, his fingers steepled against his lips. He shook his head. "No change."
"And you say she's had this kind of experience before?"
Angel nodded. "Yes. About a year-and-a-half ago."
"The doctors couldn't find any reason for it then, either?" she asked.
"No. No reason, but also no damage. Though today's doctor said he could see a lot of neural activity. Like she has a firestorm in her brain." He thought that was, perhaps, the most accurate definition of a vision he'd heard.
He wondered if Cordy would agree.
The nurse nodded. "That's what it seems. Well, we've done all we can. Now we just have to wait and see."
"Yeah," Angel said, watching as the woman turned off the light and left the room. He got up and stood beside the bed.
"Cordy," he whispered. "I know you're in there." He sat down next to her, drawing her hand into his lap. "I promise we're going to figure this out." Her fingers were long and tapered, the nails short but well-tended. Practical and feminine, he thought. Just like her.
He reached up with his other hand and ran his shaking fingers through her dark, silky hair. "I can't lose you again, Cordelia. I need you." He cupped her hand in his and pulled it to his lips. "I need you," he repeated, kissing her fingers gently.
"Angel?" Her voice was soft and slightly slurred.
"Cordy?" He looked up to find her awake, blinking blearily. "Hi," he said, his voice breaking.
She twined her fingers with his and looked around the room. "Where am I?"
A line appeared between her eyebrows. "Oh, yeah." She put her hand up, as if to lay it on her forehead, and winced. "IV?" She looked at her arm. "How long have I been here?" Her voice was rusty, reminding him of the visions just weeks before that had brought boils and burns to her fragile body.
"About six hours."
She nodded, her gaze going soft again.
"Cordy!" he said. "No!"
She blinked. "What?"
He slumped, overcome by hours of worry. "Last time you came to, but then went right back under. I thought...."
"Oh," she said, nodding. "No, just tired. Where's Connor?"
"He's at the hotel. They sent everyone home but me."
She smiled. "Bet they tried to send you home, too."
He still held her hand, and he pressed it to his chest. "They tried. I won."
She chuckled, then coughed. "Thirsty," she said.
He grabbed the glass of water off the tray. "Here, sit up." He slid an arm around her shoulders and guided her up, pressing the cup to her lips.
She drank, then pulled back to catch her breath. "Thanks. Better."
He returned the cup to the tray. "I need to call the nurse," he said. "Let them know you're awake."
Cordy grabbed his hand. "No. Wait." Her eyes were dark and too-large in her pale face.
"I don't know how long I have."
Fear trailed its icy fingers down his spine. "Cordy," he began.
"No. Angel," she said, her gaze intense. "Listen to me. We both know I'm dying."
He clenched his teeth. "No, you're not," he gritted.
"Angel. Stop." She linked her fingers with his. "You're my best friend. I need you to stay honest." She watched him, unflinching.
He thought of a warrior, facing her death fearlessly in battle.
"These visions, they're gone for now. But we all know they're coming back."
He nodded. If she could face it, so could he.
"I don't want to die, Angel. I'm not even 22 years old. I want to be with you guys. I want to watch Connor grow up and...." Her eyes watered and she looked down at their entwined fingers.
He reached up with his free hand and tilted her chin so she met him again, face-to-face. "We're not letting you go without a fight."
She smiled wistfully. "That's what we do best, isn't it?"
If she could face it, so could he. But they would fight it together.
"Yeah. And I promise, Cordy, with everything I have. You'll be around to fight for a long, long time."
She leaned her head against his chest. "Just don't leave me, Angel."
His arms went around her shoulders. "Never."
"Would you please stop fussing? Jeez, I'm fine. How many times do I have to say it?"
Wes set the half-eaten bowl of chicken noodle soup on the bedside table and patted Cordy's thigh. "Scoot over. Let me look at your head."
She scowled, but scooted. "I *said* I'm fine," she huffed.
"I want to see for myself." Wes turned her so he could examine the bump she got when she hit the floor.
Cordy flinched slightly when his fingers brushed the sore spot. When she spoke, though, her voice was laced with exasperation and humor. "I'm not pulling a Scully. If I say I'm fine, I mean it."
Wes rolled his eyes. "That actually looks pretty good. Not nearly as swollen." He grinned at her when she turned to face him. "And if ever there were a Scully at Angel Investigations, it would be you."
"Nuh uh. Fred would be Scully 'cause she's the scientist. Angel, make him leave me alone," Cordy whined as Angel walked into the room.
Wes stood and turned to face the other man. "Head's looking better and she's complaining a lot more."
Angel smiled. "That's a good sign. No one complains like our Cordy."
Cordelia crossed her arms over her chest. "Do not," she pouted. "He won't leave me alone."
"Cordy, eat your soup," Angel remarked mildly. "Wes, come with me."
"Hey! Where are you going?"
Wes reached back and handed the bowl of soup to Cordelia.
"I just need his help with something," Angel said. "No big deal."
The walked down the hall into the living room. "Test results came back from the hospital today. They couldn't find anything."
"It was worth a shot," Wes said, shoving his hands into his pockets. "What now?"
Angel began to prowl, dodging the coffee table that was littered with research books and crossword puzzles. "I don't know," he said frustratedly. "Anything.
Everything." He stopped in front of the mantel and looked at the pictures that Cordy had arranged so artfully.
One of them was of the Scooby Gang. A candid shot in the library, most likely taken by one of the high school yearbook photographers. Off to the side sat Cordy, not quite in the group, but not quite out, either. So different from now, when she was the center of their universe.
He put his hands in his pockets, unconsciously mirroring Wes's stance. "So what's the plan?"
"Angel! I'm done with the soup!" Cordy called from the bedroom.
"Be right there," he called, pinning Wes with his gaze.
"We had some luck with Lorne before. Maybe he can help us again."
"And if he can't?"
"Research. We've never done that for her." His eyes were dark with guilt. "Why have we never done that for her?"
Wes sighed. "I don't know, actually. We should have been doing it all along."
"Yeah. And now it might be too late."
Wes sighed. "You're right. We need help." He looked out the window, thinking. "Giles," he finally said. "He's light years ahead of me in knowledge and experience. If he doesn't have what we need, he'll know where to find it."
"Do it," Angel said. "I'll talk to Lorne."
"I'll call Giles now." He glanced at his watch. "He should be closing the shop."
"Angel!" Cordy called from the bedroom.
A smile whispered over Angel's face. "Gotta go play nursemaid."
Wes smiled, though it didn't erase the worry from his eyes. "I'm glad she's feeling better."
"Yeah. Me too." He disappeared down the hall, leaving Wes standing in the living room, staring blankly at the wall.
Wes had made the mistake of turning the TV on, and was mesmerized by a B-grade horror film when the phone rang. "Hello," he said with some relief.
"Wesley? Is that you? It's Buffy." Her voice came across the line, clear and a little bit breathless.
"Buffy? I wasn't expecting to hear from you."
"I know. You thought I'd be Giles."
"Yes...I.... Is everything all right?" he asked, concern creeping into his voice.
"All is fine. You probably didn't know that Giles went back to England," she said. Her voice was a little too bright.
Wes winced. "No, I didn't. Why, if you don't mind my asking?"
"No, perfectly okay. He went back after the last time I died. I think he realized that he actually had a life there."
Wes could hear the stark pain she was trying to cover. "I'm sorry, Buffy," he said. He pushed his glasses on top of his head and rubbed his eyes. "But how did you know I called?"
"The Magic Box is still open. Anya's running it and she passed your message on to me. So what's up? You need help?"
"I was actually hoping for Giles. We've got a research issue."
The line was silent for a moment. "Yeah, we've been having some difficulty in the research department, ourselves. But we've been doing a ton of reading, so maybe we could help, anyway. Two heads are better and yada yada."
Wes chuckled, though he was unsure whether Angel would want Buffy pulled into the situation. The history between them might make it more difficult than it already was. But Angel had an equally disturbing history with Giles, and he'd been okay with Wes calling him, so.... He made an executive decision. "It's Cordelia."
"Is she okay?"
"No, Buffy, she's not. She's dying."
"What? How?" He knew Buffy and Cordy had never been the best of friends, but in Buffy's voice he could hear real concern. It gave him hope that, if nothing else, Cordy would be supported from all sides as she faced this challenge.
"The visions. They're not made to work in a human body. It's too much for her system to handle."
"Oh, God. What can we do?"
"I was hoping Giles might have some books, or know someone who could help us."
Again, Buffy was silent. "Nothing is ringing any bells in the research department." Wes's spirits sank. "I've got an idea, though. Hang on a minute."
He heard her hand cover the mouthpiece, then her muffled voice calling for Willow. There was a clatter of feet, then voices. The phone changed hands.
"Hello? Wes?" Willow asked, her voice the same, girlish lilt it had always been.
"Yes. Hi," he replied.
"How are you?" she inquired.
"I'm fine, thanks. You?"
"Been better, but thanks for asking. Buffy tells me Cordy needs help." They were so quick to rally around each other in times of need. He'd always admired that about them.
"Yes, that's right." He briefly explained the situation.
"That's awful," Willow said. "I'm so sorry. Tell Cordy I said so, okay?"
Wes nodded. "Any ideas?"
"Yes, actually. But I'll need to call you back."
"All right." His heart started to pound. What if this were a genuine lead? "Shall I wait up?"
"I just need to make a quick phone call."
"Great. Ring me back at Cordy's."
"All right. Hang on. Buffy wants to say goodbye."
The phone changed hands again, and then Buffy's voice returned. "Willow's got some good contacts," she said. "Maybe it'll pan out. How's everyone else? Okay?"
He knew she was asking about Angel. "Just fine," he said. He didn't feel it was his place to bring up Connor, so he didn't elaborate.
"Good. Tell them I said hi."
"Will do. Talk to you guys in a bit?"
He thumbed the off button and laid the phone on the end table. Then he picked up a book and started to read, though his mind was nowhere near the page in front of him.
About 30 minutes later, the phone rang. The bad movie was still playing, and Wes was, again, mesmerized. "Hello." He closed the Grimoire he'd been ignoring and set it on the couch next to him.
"Wes, it's Willow."
"Great. Now tell me what you've got," he said, pulling a pad and pencil off the coffee table and settling on the sofa.
"Okay, you know the apothecary where I get my herbs, right?"
On TV, the ubiquitous blond girl was just about to meet a nasty end. He rolled his eyes. There was no way an intelligent female would run *away* from the parking lot and into the woods. And that wasn't at all what happened to the blood when one's throat was slashed.
"Yes, I remember the place," he said, turning the TV off with a decisive click.
"Well, the woman who owns it sells to lots of people. Witches, acupuncturists, shamans, that sort of thing."
"One stop shopping, I suppose," Wes commented, hoping she'd hurry up and get to the point.
"Yeah, kind of. So, I called and gave her a rundown on Cordy's deal, you know, with the visions."
"Uh huh," Wes said, doodling little shapes on the pad.
"And she said there's the old guy who comes in there sometimes. A Chinese guy who specializes in the sort of thing Cordy's going through."
Wes stopped doodling. "What exactly do you mean?"
"Evidently it's pretty common for the etheric body to wig out. People get all sorts of weird things happening. Can't eat, can't sleep, mudras, which are like involuntary spasms. Sometimes you can even go crazy."
"Oh, I understand. Yes, yes, of course." Wesley nodded and wrote "etheric" and "mudra" on the first line of the note pad.
"So this guy, um, hold on, I've got his name somewhere...."
"Wait, Willow, I don't think you could exactly say that Cordelia is experiencing a spiritual awakening, which is what you're speaking of. Her problem stems directly from the visions."
Wes heard a rustling sound on the other end of the line, then Willow came back on. "Here! I got it! Martin Zhou."
Wes obligingly wrote "Martin Zhou" on the line under "etheric" and "mudra."
"But, Willow..." he began.
"Yeah, yeah, I know. Not a spiritual awakening. That's what I said, too. But evidently, Marcia, that's my lady at the herb shop, says that's okay. 'Cuz it all comes from the same place. And she thinks this Mr. Zhou guy might be just what Cordy needs."
Wes thought through what Willow had said, his mind piecing together the information like he might fit together a puzzle. "All right, Willow, that's good information," he said, finally. "How might we contact this Mr. Zhou?"
Willow sighed. "Well, that's the thing. You can't. I mean, he doesn't have a phone, and he lives in the mountains somewhere. The only time Marcia sees him is when he comes in town for herbs."
Wes leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. "That's not good news at all."
"Well that part isn't. But the part where he's coming into town on Monday for his regular pick-up, that's good news, right?"
Wesley grinned and sat up straight. "That's excellent news."
Willow laughed. "Yeah, I thought so, too. Marcia says she's only seen him take clients a couple of times, and that we shouldn't get our hopes up because he usually turns people away. But she thought, since Cordy's a special case, he might be willing to talk with her at least. So Marcia says for you guys to drive down, and to have Cordy at the shop early on Monday morning."
"Absolutely. First thing," Wes replied.
"Well, hey, why not come down tomorrow and spend the night? Everyone else does and Buffy says it'd be fine. Besides, we haven't seen you since we...since her...."
Wes heard her swallow. Something, maybe pity for the poor girl, drove him to agree. "I think that would be a splendid idea. We'll drive down tomorrow evening. Does that suit?"
"Yeah, yeah, that's perfect," Willow said happily. "I'll tell Buff."
"Thank you. I know it's been an incredibly difficult few months for all of us, but for you especially."
Just the thought of losing Cordy almost doubled him over with grief at times. He couldn't imagine a world without her in it, and he didn't envy what Willow had experienced when Buffy died. Or when she'd been reborn. He'd heard stories of the magic it took to bring someone back from the dead.
Willow said, with a catch in her voice, "Thanks, Wes. That means a lot."
"We'll call you tomorrow and let you know when to expect us. Sleep well."
Willow snorted. "Ha! Sleep? We're just getting up. It's time to go kick some demon booty."
"Well, that can certainly be a satisfying way to spend an evening. Be careful, though, won't you?"
"Oh, we're always careful. Much more careful than, you know, before."
"Yes, us too. Right, see you Monday."
"Cheerio," Willow giggled.
The line went silent then the dial tone engaged. Wes sat looking at the phone for a moment before he hung it up.
Then he walked back to Cordy's room, pushed open the door, and slipped inside. Next to the bed was a chair, with a footrest in front of it. He sat down, propped his feet up, and watched Cordelia breathe evenly in her sleep.
"Sunnydale? Why Sunnydale?" Cordelia asked. She'd just gotten out of bed and was standing on her toes, pulling a coffee mug out of the cabinet. The blinds were closed, blocking out the creeping sunlight, and allowing Angel to sit in the kitchen with her while they waited for the coffee to brew.
The long-sleeved t-shirt she had slept in crept off one shoulder, exposing her collarbone; the plaid boxers were several sizes too big, and hitched up at the waist. She was barefoot, and despite the chill, Angel hadn't been able to talk her into wearing any socks.
Cordy turned. "Willow? Why Willow?" She sat down at the kitchen table, crossing her legs, the mug still clenched in her hand. "What have you guys been up to?" she asked suspiciously.
"Maybe we should wait for Wes," Angel said, trying to ignore the way her bare foot brushed his leg with every swing.
"Maybe you should just tell me now," she said, irritation creeping into her voice.
Wes and Gunn had gone to get take-out from the diner down the street, and everyone else was meeting them at Cordy's in half an hour for breakfast. He'd really hoped to wait for Wes, but then Cordy had mentioned a client meeting which was scheduled for Monday morning, and he knew he had to tell her what was going on.
"Okay, here's the deal," he said quietly, folding his hands on the table. "I was worried about you, and I didn't know what else to do, so don't get mad at me."
Her eyebrows disappeared under her bangs. "You think that pathetic opening is gonna keep me from getting mad?"
"It was worth a try," he said. "Look." He leaned forward, edging into her space. "We got the test results back from the lab yesterday. They didn't turn up anything out of the ordinary."
"And you didn't tell me this because...."
"Because you were hurting, Cordy."
"I still have a monster headache," she said warningly. "And you're only making it worse by keeping stuff from me."
"Okay, fine. Because we wanted a chance to figure out what to do first."
She snorted. "Typical."
"Cordy," he said menacingly.
The coffee maker stopped hissing and she stepped around him to pour her first cup of the day. "If you wanted nice, you should have waited until after I had my coffee."
She slapped a full mug down in front of him and sat, pulling her knees up and taking a sip. "So, go on, you big, undead meddler," she said grouchily. "Tell me what you have planned for me, 'cause, God knows, the little woman can't figure it out for herself."
Angel took a deep breath, his patience obviously nearing its limit. "The plan was to do whatever it took to keep you alive," he said.
Cordy looked at him sharply.
"I was going to talk to Lorne, see if his connection to the Powers could help us. Wes was going to call Giles."
"Giles?" she huffed. She took another sip of her coffee and blinked, as if the room was finally coming into focus.
"Yeah. He's got the books and the knowledge. But, unfortunately, he's not there."
"Where is he?"
"England. He decided Buffy didn't need him anymore."
"That's not like Giles. He'd do anything for Buffy," Cordy said.
Angel nodded. "I know. The point is, Wesley left a message at the shop, which got passed on to Buffy, which eventually made it to Willow. Willow contacted someone she knew, who recommended Mr. Zhou."
"Clear as mud," Cordy replied. She set her cup on her raised knees and rested her forehead against its warmth.
"You okay?" Angel asked, running his finger quickly across the back of her hand.
She looked up at him. "It's just.... Last time you helped me, it unleashed the wonder that was Billy onto the world. I don't want anyone to get hurt for me ever again."
Angel took the mug away from her and set it on the table, then linked his fingers with hers. "I don't think that will happen this time, Cordy. This all seems very straightforward."
Cordy sighed, the last of the tension leaving her shoulders. "Okay," she said quietly. "Anything's gotta be better than tripping over the light fantastic."
Angel gave a relieved smile and squeezed her hand gently.
Gunn and Wes burst through the door, arms full of bags. "Yo, you two gonna stop with the make-out session and get some grub?" Gunn demanded.
Cordy snorted. "Make out session? With *Angel*?" She pushed herself up and went to the cabinet for more mugs.
"Hey," Angel huffed, his eyes following her every move. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Coming back always gave Cordy a touch of the wiggins. It was just too weird, seeing the familiar neighborhoods and shops and knowing that she didn't fit in there anymore. Not that she ever really felt like she did, all appearances to the contrary.
As they passed their old haunts, Wes and Angel grew quiet, too, and by the time they pulled into the Summers's driveway, only the wind and the chime of the radio kept them company.
"Why are we coming here?" Cordy asked.
Angel vaulted over the door and went to the trunk to get their overnight bags.
"It's cheaper than a hotel," Wes said.
"Oh," Cordy replied, exiting the car in a more conventional fashion. "This is one of those times I think we could have managed $19.95 for a Motel 6," she grumbled.
She met Angel and Wes at the trunk. They stood silently for a moment looking at the Slayer's house, each lost in their own memories.
Angel sighed and it startled Cordy into action. "So," she said, running her hands up and down her arms. "Let's go on in."
Wes shouldered Cordy's bag and hefted his own, leaving Angel to bring his small pack. As they walked up the sidewalk the door opened.
And there stood Buffy.
Cordy stopped dead in her tracks, causing Wes and Angel to run right into her.
"Oh, God," she breathed. Behind her she heard a couple of muttered curses and felt a hand, probably Angel's, clamp her arm.
"It's weird, isn't it?" he asked, his fingers clenching her flesh, then dropping away as if he realized what he was doing.
"Yeah. Last time I saw her, she was...."
"In her casket," Wes murmured.
"Are you guys gonna come in?" Buffy asked. "Or are you just gonna stand around talking about the dead girl all night?"
Cordy laughed, then dashed up the porch steps. "Hey." She hit Buffy on the shoulder. "You look pretty good for a dead girl."
Buffy snorted. "Thanks. I think." Then her gaze shifted, and landed on Angel.
"Hi," she said. She stuck her hands in the pockets of her black leather pants.
Cordy cleared her throat. "Well, I'll just go on inside now and leave you two alone. Wes? Wanna join me?"
"Sure," he said. He nodded to Buffy, then stepped inside and dropped the bags on the landing.
"Fine. Great, whatever," Buffy said, her attention obviously not on them.
Cordy glanced over her shoulder as they walked into the kitchen. "Think it's safe to leave them alone?"
"I think Angel can handle himself."
"Cordy!" Willow cried. "You're here!" She pulled Cordy into an enthusiastic hug.
"Yeah," she said, patting Willow's shoulder awkwardly. "You okay?" She pulled back and looked into Willow's eyes.
What she saw there unnerved her. They were empty, sad--nearly barren. But more than that, they were shadowed with a dark kind of power Cordy had rarely seen.
"Just happy to see you," Willow said desperately.
Wes stepped forward and put his left hand on Cordy's shoulder, obviously sensing her discomfort. "Hello," he said, sticking out his other hand.
Willow took it, and Wes's easy gesture seemed to ground her. "Hi, Wes. I'm glad you could make it," she said. Her face relaxed, the line between her eyebrows disappearing. "I've got a bed made for you on the couch. Cordy, you're going to sleep in Dawn's room."
"Where's Dawn sleeping?" Cordy asked.
Willow's face clouded. "With Buffy."
"How is Dawn, anyway?" Wes asked cordially. But he kept his hand on Cordy's shoulder.
She looked up at him, and could see, behind his glasses, that his eyes looked wary. Between the Angel-n-Buffy drama going on out front and whatever was happening with Willow, the night was shaping up to be pretty uncomfortable so far. Sheesh, this was exactly the kind of thing that happened when you let the men handle the logistics.
Willow started pulling mugs out of the cabinet. "Oh, she's fine," she said brightly. "Anyone want tea? I've got herbal. Good for sleeping." She turned, the mugs clutched to her chest. "No magic, just tea, I promise."
Cordy thought she saw her eyes darken, and she shivered. "Tea would be great," she said. "Wes, why don't you help Willow, while I go check on...things...at the hotel?" She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and ducked out the back door before Wes could respond.
She sat on the steps and took a deep breath. Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea. They could have driven down in the morning, even if it did mean getting up before she usually went to bed.
Too late now, though, she thought pragmatically. She'd just have to make the best of it.
The cell phone was cool in her hand, and it reminded her that she had other connections to tend to.
Fred picked up on the second ring. "Hey, it's Cordy!" she said to someone in the background. "How are ya? We're all fine. Connor's sleeping like a baby." She giggled. "Well, of course, he is a baby. How was your trip? Did ya have a good time?"
Cordy smiled. "The trip was fine. We're all here, safe and sound." A tree branch snapped in the woods and Cordy got quickly to her feet. "Yeah, safe and sound." She took a step toward the door. "So, Connor's fine? He took his bottle?"
"Oh, yeah. Ate like a little pig," Fred said happily. "Gunn 'n I are watchin' Pay-Per-View," she continued. "There's a fight on. Those guys can really punch! I'm learning some stuff, just by watchin'." She giggled. "Gunn says I've already got a pretty good right hook."
"Where's Lorne?" Cordy asked. Suddenly she missed them so much her chest ached.
"Oh, he's downstairs somewhere. I think I heard him singin' earlier."
"That's nice," Cordy said as another twig snapped. A chill walked up her spine and her imagination went wild. "I just wanted to check in. We'll call you later, okay?" She started looking around for a weapon.
"Sure thing. Y'all take care," Fred said.
Cordy hung up and slid the phone in her pocket. "Who's there?" she asked in her sternest voice.
Spike materialized from the shadows. "Evenin', cheerleader. Who's Connor?"
Cordy put her hand on her chest to calm her breathing. "None of your business. What are you doing sneaking up on me, anyway?"
"I'm a vampire, luv. That's what we do, is sneak." He strolled up the steps, twirled the stake in his hand. "Came out to take the Slayer for a spin." His grin was lascivious. "Think she's about?"
"She's out front." Cordy waited a beat for dramatic effect. "With Angel."
Spike's grin melted, leaving behind something that looked a whole lot like pain. "Oh." He put the stake in his coat pocket and sat down on the step. "Why d'you suppose she does this to me?" he asked, running his hands through his hair.
"What do you mean?" Cordy asked, being careful to stand a few steps away from him. She watched as he lit a cigarette and stared off into the back yard.
"Torture me like this." He whipped up and pinned Cordy to the porch rail, his game face glowing in the streetlight. "God knows, I could torture her if I had a mind," he said, sniffing Cordy's neck like a wolf. "I'm bad, maybe the baddest of them all." He let go of her shirt and sat back down, his black leather duster settling around him like a cape. He flicked an ash off the end of the cigarette.
"I'm just guessing here, but maybe it's your social skills," Cordy said, collapsing next to him in a weak-kneed heap.
"Scared you, din't I?" he asked, his smile back in place. "Gave you a right good old scare. Oh, don't bother denyin' it, I can 'ear your 'eart beatin' from here, luv."
"I'm not denying it, Spike, you scared me." Cordy kicked her feet out in front of her in an attempt to appear casual. "And you could do it again, but then, that would probably piss off Buffy."
His face fell. "You've got a point." He looked so forlorn, Cordy had to stop herself from comforting him.
"Spike, I told you to stay the hell away from my house!" Buffy shouted, coming through the back door at full throttle.
Angel was on her heels. "Cordy! Are you all right?" He yanked Spike up by the collar, had him dangling six inches off the floor. "If you hurt her," he gritted, giving Spike a shake.
Spike laughed. "Oh, so now he comes at me with the fists and the fangs. About 100 years late, ya great poof." He took a drag off his cigarette and blew smoke at Angel.
Only Spike could look cool hanging by the scruff of his neck, Cordy thought.
"Put him down, Angel," Buffy said quietly. "That's enough."
Spike hit the porch like a cat on its seventh life. "Nice to see you too. Been awhile." His eyes darted between Angel and Buffy. "I see you two are up to your old tricks."
Cordy could hear the jealousy in his voice. Vampires in love, she thought. Spare me. But her heart twisted in her chest. "God, I hope not. I've had enough of the R&J vibe to last me a lifetime." She stood and pushed Spike out of the way. "I'm going in for tea. See you all later."
Angel grabbed her hand as she walked by. "Hey, you all right?"
Her insides were a jumbled mess. "Just tired. Tea, then bed. See you in the morning?"
He nodded and dropped her hand. Over his shoulder, Cordy saw a look pass between Spike and Buffy that could melt glass. She wondered if Angel realized that Buffy's body, if not her heart, was in another's hands.
I so did not need this, she thought, walking into the brightly-lit kitchen. She breathed a sigh of relief when she found it empty. A mug sat on the cabinet, with tea bags arranged next to it. She unwrapped a chamomile, dropped it in the cup, and poured hot water out of the pot.
As she made her way up to Dawn's room, she heard voices in the living room. Ignoring them, she picked up her bag and shuffled into the bathroom to get ready for bed.
She looked up to find herself face-to-face with a stranger.
"Yes," she replied, her eyebrow arching in inquiry.
"I have a message for Angel." He took a step forward.
"Yes?" Cordelia repeated.
He was practically on top of her now. "The Elders are coming for him."
The hair on the back of her neck stood straight up. "You want me to deliver this message to Angel?"
"Well, actually," the man said, vamping out, "I think your dead body will get the message across nicely."
Cordelia woke with a jerk, her heart thundering in her chest.
"Oh, God," she panted. Her eyes darted frantically around the room. "Where am I?"
The door opened. She reacted instinctively, grabbing whatever was on the nightstand and scrambling to her knees.
A hulking shadow slipped in and stopped menacingly at the foot of the bed. Her hand tightened on the weapon. "Don't come any closer," she rasped. "I have a...a...." She looked down at her weapon. Prickles of fear-sweat broke out on her temples.
"Cordy? You okay?"
Through the blood pounding in her ears, the voice sounded tinny. And familiar. "A-Angel?"
"Hey." He sat down on the bed and pulled the bottle of water from her hand. "What happened?"
Her trembling legs gave way. "Some guy." She clutched his shoulders for support. "He said he had a message for you."
"There was someone here?" His voice was flat, deadly. His looked around the room, searching for anyone stupid enough to have entered.
"Yeah. I mean, no. It was a dream."
Angel relaxed visibly. "Sounds like a bad one." He guided her into the bed, pulling the sheets over her shoulders. "Think you can go back to sleep?" His hands felt cool and soothing on her skin.
"I...." She was so tired all of a sudden. Maybe if she just closed her eyes....
"That's right," Angel whispered. He stroked her hair off her forehead, his touch gentle and reassuring. "I'm here. Just go back to sleep."
She felt like she was floating in warm water. "Angel?"
"Who're the Elders?" she slurred.
His body stiffened. "What did you say?"
She could barely keep her eyes open. "The Elders. That was the message. The Elders are coming for you."
He was still as stone. "It's nothing, Cordy. Don't worry about it."
"You sound funny," she said with a blurry giggle.
"You're just tired," he said. "Now, go to sleep."
She snuggled closer, pressing her hip against his leg. "'m glad you're here." She sighed, long and deep. "Elders, schmelders," she mumbled, slipping finally into unconsciousness.
Angel stared at her, his hand frozen against her forehead.
All I want is to see this Fu Man Chu guy and go home, Cordy thought grumpily as she dressed the next morning. The brocade-print Cavelli jeans, usually guaranteed to lift her spirits, weren't working their magic. She brushed her hair, eyes watering when she jerked too hard. Breathe, she reminded herself. It'll all be over soon. One way or the other. She slipped on her spikey, sling-back pumps, then opened the bathroom door.
"How'd you sleep?" Buffy stood in the hall in a pair of black-and-white, cow-print pajamas.
"Um, pretty well, thanks," she lied. This was just too weird, coming face-to-face with Angel's one-true-love after going to sleep with him sitting on her bed last night. "How about you?"
Buffy shrugged. "All right." She looked down at her feet. "Angel and I patrolled. I thought...I hoped he might come back here."
"He did come back here." Great. Mouth, meet foot.
Buffy blinked, obviously surprised and not doing a good job of hiding it. "He told me about Connor."
Perfect, Cordy thought. Just what we needed. A cranky Slayer and a guilty Angel. But she nodded in understanding. "Bet that was a shocker."
Buffy made a valiant attempt at a smile. "You could say that." She fumbled with the button on her pajamas, twisting the little cow back and forth. When she dropped it, it was hanging by a thread. "You're so lucky."
"Well, now there's a term I apply to myself often," Cordy answered dryly.
"You get to see him every day. He obviously...cares about you. I don't even know if he thinks about me anymore."
Cordy found herself in the awkward situation of consoling Angel's lover. Again. "You know that's not true, Buffy. You're the only person he's ever really loved."
"Right." Buffy's eyes were old and tired. She wasn't the innocent girl with bad fashion sense that Cordy once knew. "Haven't you noticed the way he looks at you?"
Cordy snorted. "We're friends, Buffy. That's all we've ever been. That's all we can ever be." But she couldn't get rid of the memory of Angel's hand, soothing her to sleep.
"If two people love each other, there'll be a way. I have to believe that," Buffy said, her voice catching oddly. "Or I'd never take another step."
"Ah, good, I see you've made yourself presentable," Wes said, coming up the stairs with his bag slung over his shoulder. As always, he was the most organized of the group, already packed and ready to go.
"As presentable as I get these days," Cordy answered, grateful for the interruption. "You ready?"
"Mmm hmm. Did you get something to eat?"
"There's fruit and stuff," Buffy said in a close-to-normal tone, as if discussing matters of the heart with Cordy was an every-day occurrence.
"Not really hungry. Thanks, though."
"Willow tells me that Mr. Zhou comes around first thing," Wes said. "Angel's going to meet us there."
The thought of seeing him lifted her spirits in ways the Cavellis hadn't. "By way of the sewers, I presume?"
Wes nodded. "He still knows the system rather well, I take it."
"Well, there's also Spike," Buffy said.
Cordy watched her carefully, noticing the way the color rose in her cheeks at the mention of his name. "Spike's taking Angel to the herb shop? That's priceless." What she wouldn't give to overhear *that* conversation.
Wes smiled. "Just like old times."
"Or not," Buffy said, gazing out the window.
"So, you ever been in the apothecary before?" Cordy asked as they pulled into a parking space right out front. You had to love small towns and their always-available parking.
"Yes, though it has been a few years. Before my rogue demon hunter phase," he said with wink.
Cordy hopped out of the car and slammed the door. "You know, I could never figure out if you were supposed to be the rogue, or if it was the demons who were. 'Cause, you know, all those dangling modifiers."
Wes looked miffed. "Well, obviously, I was the rogue. For heaven's sake, Cordelia, why would a demon be a rogue?" He swung the door open for her and she sailed into the shop.
"I'm just sayin'," she replied, as her eyes adjusted to the dimly lit room.
It was small, about 15 by 20, and covered, head-to-toe with shelves. Behind the counter was an Asian woman of indeterminate age.
She couldn't help but think of the old Chinese couple she'd seen weeks before in her vision, the night Angel freed Billy. Those two people were dead because of her.
"Marcia?" Wes asked, startling Cordy out of her reverie. The woman nodded and Wes stepped forward and extended his hand. "Ni hao ma?" he said in flawless Mandarin.
Marcia threw Wesley a reassessing glance then took his hand in hers and replied, also in Mandarin.
Cordy wandered while they talked in the language's singsong tones, letting the guilt dissipate. She couldn't do anything about it now except live with it.
And make sure it didn't happen again.
On the shelf in front of her was a large jar. She picked it up and stared. That wasn't...ewww, it was. Dead snakes coiled in some kind of gold fluid. She smacked the jar back on the shelf.
"Cordelia," Wesley said.
She turned, linking her fingers behind her back. "Yes?"
"This is Marcia, the proprietor of the shop. She tells me that Mr. Zhou is expected this morning, and that we are to make ourselves at home." He motioned to a door Cordy hadn't noticed before.
"Thank you," Cordelia replied. She stepped into a short hallway. On the right was a door, ajar. Cordy pushed it open and walked through to an efficiency apartment about the same size as the shop. A two-person table was wedged between the kitchen alcove and a window.
Cordy's gaze finally landed on Angel, who was seated in an ancient recliner, his big body so still she thought he was asleep. Then he opened his eyes and smiled.
"Hey," he said.
She went to him and poked him on the shoulder. "Hey," she replied.
He grabbed her hand and squeezed it. She smiled, feeling warm and safe. It was a dangerous and stupid thing to need a vampire. She prided herself on not being stupid.
But she didn't let go of his hand.
"Mr. Wesley?" Marcia called.
Wes went to the door. "Yes, we're here."
He stepped back so Marcia could enter the room with a man even smaller than she was. He had a strong, upright bearing, however, and a headful of silver hair. He wore all black and carried a silver-tipped cane, which he rested in the umbrella stand just inside the door.
"This is Mr. Zhou. He has agreed to speak with you."
Mr. Zhou turned to Marcia and Wes. "Leave us now," he commanded.
Marcia backed respectfully out of the room and disappeared into the shop. Wes arched an eyebrow. "Right," he said, looking from Angel to Cordy. "I'll be at the Magic Box. Call me when you need me." He glanced over his shoulder at them before closing the door with a quiet click.
Mr. Zhou inclined his head and looked at each of them, his gaze intense, direct. His eyes were dark and endless as outer space. When they landed on Cordy, she trembled, feeling raw. Exposed.
The seconds ticked by and the silence grew taut.
The old man finally spoke. "You are the Seer," he said to her. He stepped forward and held out his hand.
She let go of Angel and clasped Zhou's palm. At the contact, every cell in her body filled with red heat and pulsing light.
Visions slammed through her like a wrecking ball. Faces contorted with agony and terror. Knives, guns, bombs. War. They flickered like flames, scorching her soul with their heat.
She couldn't contain it, couldn't stop it. She could only stand helplessly as her world melted away and they took over.
She was a bomb waiting to explode.
But then something shifted. The energy cooled. The faces, once sharp, became blurry and faded away. Around her, the room came back into focus. It looked different somehow, like a net of light had dropped over it. Gossamer strands pulsed with life, connecting everyone and everything like a soft, spidery web.
"Yes," she breathed. He dropped her hand. The ground undulated as the room whooshed back to normal, and she grabbed the back of Angel's chair.
"And this is your warrior."
Angel did not stand to greet him. Instead, he stayed in the recliner, still as a snake waiting to strike.
Mr. Zhou walked slowly across the room and settled into one of the kitchen chairs. He waved his hand again, directing Cordelia to sit.
A wave of anger rose up in her. She forgot that he might very well be the one person who could save her life. She forgot everything except her need to maintain some sense of control.
Angel stared at Zhou like a tiger squaring off over turf. "Please sit down, Cordy," he said quietly. "Cordelia, please," he repeated, when she didn't immediately move.
She finally sat. But she didn't relax.
"So, a vampire and a human," Mr. Zhou said. "It's an interesting combination. Not unheard of, certainly, but rare," he commented, rubbing his chin. His shiny black eyes flicked over Cordelia as if she were a piece of art in a hotel room, decorative, and designed stay in the background.
"How long have you been linked?" he asked, his gaze landing on Angel.
"Linked?" Cordy asked coolly. She despised the feeling of being overlooked.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Angel shake his head as if telling her to back off. It was the only movement he made, not even the rise and fall of his chest, which he usually allowed.
The only time he got that still was when he was pissed. Or threatened. Fear dragged its icy fingers up Cordy's back.
"Yes, my dear," Zhou said disdainfully. "As Seer and Warrior."
"More than two years," Angel replied for her. His voice was placid, controlled, the way it got right before he went into battle.
"And you have fought many battles from her visions, yes?" Mr. Zhou asked.
Angel nodded, his eyes unblinking, his stare as direct, as intense as the Chinese man's.
"How old are you?" Mr. Zhou, his voice soft but very clear.
"Nearly two-hundred-and-fifty," Angel replied. Cordy shifted in her chair. He looked over at her, his eyes sharp and predatory.
"And you have never felt as helpless as you are feeling now," Mr. Zhou stated.
His head whipped around. "What?"
"You are solitary, more by necessity than desire, I see." Suddenly Mr. Zhou smiled. "It must drive you crazy sometimes being hooked up with this one."
"Hey!" The comment snapped her attention back to the old man.
Angel didn't even look at her this time. He simply grabbed her hand and forced her to stay still. He was cool and hard against her skin. Not remotely human.
"She's a pistol, all right," Mr. Zhou said solemnly, as if she wasn't even in the room.
"No one's got quite the firepower that Cordy does, that's true," Angel said, squeezing her fingers tightly.
"Stop it," she growled, jerking her hand free. She looked at Mr. Zhou. "If you want to talk to me, talk to *me*. And Angel, stop with the threatening vamp act. I don't need your protection."
Mr. Zhou laughed out loud. "Well, her mouth is certainly big."
Cordy's anger exploded like a firecracker. "All right. That's *it*," she said, jumping to her feet and heading for the door.
"But her heart is bigger," Mr. Zhou concluded.
The comment stopped Cordy mid-stride.
"A sharp tongue is nothing to be ashamed of, my dear," Mr. Zhou said over his shoulder. "The gods did not give us weapons they did not intend us to use. You have done an excellent job defending your heart up until now. But you must change your methods, or the visions will drop you like a stone."
Angel sat up, his feet landing flat on the floor. "What did you say?"
Cordy turned to look at the old man, her anger popping like an overblown bubble. It left behind a residue of irritation and the frustrating knowledge that she'd just been expertly manipulated.
Zhou motioned for her to sit, and this time she did, though not without a huff. Then he answered Angel's question.
"They will kill her, as surely as she is now breathing," Mr. Zhou said, his voice calm and certain. "I have heard of it before. The visions are given to one with the spiritual heart to do the job, but not the physical capacity."
Cordy's blood pounded in her ears. She knew Angel could hear it, which only made her feel more exposed.
"Will you help us?" Angel pleaded in a tone Cordy had never heard him use.
"You have been through a lot this year," Mr. Zhou replied. "You wonder if you will survive another blow."
He'd lost so much: his faith, Buffy, even Darla. And if she died, whatever happened to him would be her fault. Like the old couple in the apothecary. Cordy made a strangled sound in the back of her throat. "Please," she whispered.
"Two-hundred-and-fifty years it has taken you to love," he said to Angel. "It is your heart that is as much at stake here as hers is, if you'll pardon the pun." Mr. Zhou slapped his leg and laughed heartily.
"What do we need to do?" Cordy asked in a small voice, so unlike her usual confident tone that she almost didn't recognize it.
"You do nothing. I will return to my home, where I will spend time in meditation. This will allow me to determine if we are to work together."
"But...." Cordy interjected.
"You have to do something," Angel said.
"Did you think that I would just take you on without first divining our purpose together?" he asked Angel.
He looked at Cordy, and his gaze sent her spinning again, like a blow to the head. "My dear," he said firmly. "I am not one of your MD's who believes he can heal anyone who walks in the door. These treatments are delicate work. They require a soul-level connection that cannot be determined on sight, but must be considered over time."
"But, the visions." She could feel them like ghosts hovering over her shoulder.
"You haven't seen her after the visions," Angel explained desperately. "She can't go on like this."
"And neither can you, evidently."
Angel stared at the man for a moment, then dropped his gaze. He took a shuddering breath and looked at Cordy. The struggle between fear and hope showed in his eyes. "At least he's not turning us away. Let's give it a chance."
"Cordelia," Mr. Zhou said, drawing her attention to him. "I will give you a remedy which will blunt the pain of the visions. In regard to the other, you must trust whatever gods you believe in to lead you to the right place."
Cordy swallowed. "I guess I don't have any choice."
He stood. "My dear, our lives are ruled by choice."
Cordy looked up at him in confusion. "That's it?"
"Yes, we're finished. For now."
Angel slid off the recliner and held out his hand. "Thanks."
"I will be in touch," Mr. Zhou said, dropping Angel's hand and turning to Cordelia. "I will write down a list of formulas for you, young lady. Get them from Marcia and take them just as she says. You will feel better soon. And after a while we will know if we are destined to work together."
"How long?" she asked. "I mean, what if...?"
"You are very strong." He took her hands in his.
This time when they touched, Cordelia felt the pulse of energy, but her feet stayed firmly on the ground and her head remained clear. "But how long?" she asked desperately.
"One week. Two at the most." His hands were like smooth leather. "Cordelia, do not lose hope. The path you seek, seeks you as well."
"All right," she replied, her spirits sinking. "Two weeks."
"No more." He released her hands. "Angel." He nodded toward the other man. Then he picked up his cane and walked out the door, closing it softly behind him.
Cordy collapsed on her chair. "I thought that was supposed to make me feel better."
Angel watched the door close behind Mr. Zhou. He was silent for a moment. "Typical shaman."
"They have those in China?"
"Oh. When I touched him, I saw...things."
Angel nodded. "He was testing your strength. And mine." He rested his hand on her shoulder. "You okay?"
She looked up at him. "Yeah. Thanks for last night."
Angel nodded then dropped his hand, suddenly looking awkward.
Cordy cleared her throat, at a loss for what to say next. There was a pause and from out front the muffled sounds of commerce. "What now?"
"Let's go back to Buffy's and get your things. Then we'll head back to LA. I need to see Connor."
That silly grin came over her face, the one she always got when she thought of the baby. "God, I miss him."
Angel smiled back, all traces of awkwardness gone. "You're so good with him."
"Hard not to fall head-over-heels for your best friend's kid," she admitted. "He's got me totally wrapped."
"I know the feeling. Now, go call Wes. I'll meet you back at the house. The sooner we get back, the sooner we can see Connor." He made his way toward the door. As he opened it, he looked back at her. "Cordy," he said.
She looked up from collecting her bag. "Yeah?"
"Uh, you're welcome?" she said, unsure of what he was thanking her for.
"You came back. You were there for me. You stand by me, even when I don't deserve it."
She blinked. What in the world was he talking about? "That's what best friends do."
"Girlfriend, you been brewin' that stinky tea again," Gunn said. He strolled down the lobby stairs and leaned his hubcap axe against a chair.
Cordy glanced up from the computer, pulled her mouth into a smile she didn't feel. "Yeah, it smells pretty rank, doesn't it?"
Wes came wandering out of the office, an open book under his nose. "Ah, Cordy, I think I found that demon we were looking for," he said. He glanced up, saw Gunn standing by the hotel's reception desk. "Gunn, hello. I didn't hear you come in."
"Just about to head home after a hard night of vampire slayin,'. What's up with y'all?"
"Research, research and more research," Cordy said, too brightly. "Oh, and did I say, research?" Gunn's upper lip curled, but the careful way he watched Cordelia told her she wasn't faking him out.
"Sounds dee-lightful," he replied. "Me, I'm lucky. Y'all gotta find it. All I gotta do is track it down and kill it." He looked around the room. "Where are the others?"
"Lorne's been over at the club trying to decide whether he's gonna clean it up again or sell it. Fred's taking the first shift with Connor. Angel's downstairs doing God knows what." Cordy picked up a large mug of brownish-red brew. She took a gulp, grimaced. "Gag, that stuff is *awful*."
Wes wrinkled his nose. "If it tastes anything like it smells, I can well imagine."
"At least it's helping the headaches," Cordy said, trying for an optimistic outlook. Must have worked because Wes nodded, his eyes hopeful.
"Yes, that is good news," he replied.
The silence stretched, one beat, two. Wes and Gunn watched her, waiting for her to speak. She rubbed her temple. "Hey, listen, I need a break. You guys want anything from the bakery?"
Wes looked concerned. "I'll be glad to take you."
Cordelia set the mug down with a smack.
"Or, uh, I could just stay here and research," Wes fumbled. "A carrot-raisin muffin and an espresso. That would be wonderful, thank you."
Gunn worked up a sneer. "Carrot-raisin? That's for girly-men. Get me a couple of them chocolate chip muffins and the biggest coffee they got. And don't let 'em skimp, neither. None of that room-for-cream crap," he said, darting looks at Cordelia as she gathered up her purse.
He walked around the desk, making a big show of peering over Wes's shoulder. "So, what evil nasty we lookin' at today?"
"Oh, this? It's a...."
Their voices faded as Cordy walked out the front doors and onto the sidewalk. She slapped on her sunglasses. At the curb was Angel's car, top still down from the night before. She hopped in, started it up, and pulled out into traffic.
Somebody, either Angel or Wes, had left it on KCSN. Classical music poured out the speakers, dark and moody. She reached down to change the station then stopped, as she realized the music suited her disposition just fine.
It had been nearly two weeks since her meeting with Martin Zhou. The medicine dialed down the headaches from migraine to splitting.
But the visions came almost every day.
Every one left her shaken to the bone, stomach roiling with queasy terror, sweaty hair plastered to clammy skin. Because any one of them could be the last.
The music swelled and receded, the wind whipped past her face, and she maneuvered the car deftly through traffic. She knew she was gambling. One vision, one jerk of the wheel, one time through a red light, and she, or someone else would pay for it.
They all knew it, and still, they let her go. Because the alternative was unthinkable. Hole up in her apartment or move into the hotel. Make the team keep watch 24/7. Just in case.
And after that? All those people in her head. Nonstop. Again.
She wouldn't survive it this time.
That was her future. You didn't have to be a Seer to know it.
"Hey, guys, I'm back," Cordy called. Her mood wasn't any better, but at least now they all had something to eat. When all else failed, go for food.
Wes looked up from his book. "Oh, wonderful. I was wondering where you'd got to," he said, taking a bag from her hands.
"I stopped off and got Angel's breakfast, too. Wasn't sure when I'd get back out," she said. "Gunn!" she yelled. "Breakfast!"
"Cordelia, must you do that?" Wes asked, pinching the bridge of his nose.
She shrugged irritatedly. "He's gotta be close. I have his muffins," she set the remaining bag on the desk.
Sure enough, Gunn loped into the reception area. "Finally," he said. "I thought you were gonna be gone all day."
"Nah," she said sarcastically. "Just half of it. I had to stop by the butcher shop."
"Oh," said Gunn, ignoring the sarcasm in favor of a muffin, which he stuffed in his mouth. "Gah, ah luf dese."
"Gunn, must you..."
"...speak with your mouth full?" Cordy mimicked, her tone sharp. "God, Wes, who cast you as Mommy Dearest?"
"Well, someone has to be," he said, priggishly.
Cordy's black cloud threatened to burst. "I'll be back," she said tightly, picking up Angel's blood and stomping upstairs.
One good thing about vampires. They kept their rooms dark and quiet. Maybe she'd just hang out up here, where the doom-and-gloom atmosphere matched her pissy mood. And where she wouldn't risk killing Wes or Gunn.
She knocked on the door, hoping Angel wasn't still awake. There was no answer, so she tiptoed in. The living room was dark, and the French doors to Angel's bedroom door were partially closed. Thank God.
She was setting the container of blood in the mini-fridge when the phone rang. She ignored it, hoping someone downstairs would get it. But the ringing didn't stop.
"Dammit, Wes. Can't you pick up the phone for once?" she whispered, hurrying across the room to pick it up before it woke Angel.
"Angel Investigations," she hissed.
"Miss Chase?" a man's voice asked.
Cordy's brow wrinkled in confusion. "Uh, yeah?"
"This is Martin Zhou, how are you?"
The tension that had coiled mercilessly in her chest for the last two weeks snapped like an overstretched rubber band, leaving her feeling limp and about as useful. She collapsed into the nearest chair. "Um, hi. I'm fine, thanks, how are you?"
There was a rustle behind her, and she turned. Angel stepped out of the bedroom and rubbed his eyes sleepily. "Who is it?" he asked.
"It's Mr. Zhou," Cordelia rasped.
Angel came and stood beside her, his hastily-pulled-on pants still unbuttoned and his chest bare.
"Oh, good, you're both there," Mr. Zhou said.
Cordy nervously jerked one of the roses from the vase on the end table. "Yes, Angel just came in," she replied, not at all comforted by the chill of his presence beside her. She pulled a petal off the rose and dropped it onto the table top. Another followed.
"Good, good. Well, I'm sure you are wondering about my decision," he said.
Cordelia began tapping the flower restlessly. "Getting straight to the point. I like that," she tried to joke, which was difficult to do, considering the situation.
Angel leaned over her, his body brushing hers as he took the rose and set it aside. She could smell smoke and sweat on him, as if he hadn't showered before he went to bed.
Mr. Zhou laughed. "I thought you might. The answer is yes, Cordelia. With several stipulations."
"Oh, my God," she said on a shuddering breath. Relief flooded her system. She glanced up and Angel was watching her intently. She nodded.
A smile bloomed over his face.
"As I said," Mr. Zhou continued, pulling her focus back to the conversation, "there are several stipulations. The first is cost."
Cordy blanched, feeling the tension spiral again. She reached for the rose, but Angel's cool hand covered hers before she could touch it.
"Cost?" It hadn't occurred to her that there would be a charge for the service, though of course, that was stupid. Why wouldn't there be? "Of course," she said, as calmly as she could, feeling Angel's skin warm as it picked up her body heat. "How much?" They barely had the money to pay the bills now.
Mr. Zhou named a figure. Cordy gasped, stunned.
"What?" Angel whispered, squatting beside her. A line appeared between his eyebrows.
Cordelia motioned for a pen and paper.
Angel opened the end table drawer. "Here."
She took them from him and hastily wrote down the figure.
Angel looked at it for a moment then nodded his head.
She gaped, even as Mr. Zhou continued. "The next thing is that you must agree to spend six weeks at my retreat in the mountains. There will be no physical contact with family or friends, and phone calls only to give information about the visions."
"Six *weeks*?" Cordy asked. "No contact?"
"It's not nearly enough time, but I understand that you cannot be pulled away from your family for longer than that."
"A month-and-a-half," Cordy repeated, letting her head flop against the back of the chair.
"And you must agree, for the period that you are in my care, to forego all alcohol and drugs, and to eat only what I prescribe."
"Well, God, what are you going to prescribe?" Cordy asked, remembering the jar in the apothecary.
Mr. Zhou laughed. "Mostly just rice and vegetables, and some herbs. We must cleanse your system."
"Cleanse my system," she repeated numbly, staring off into space.
"I'm sure it's a bit out of the ordinary, my dear. Not what you were expecting. Would you like some time to discuss it?"
"Yes, I think we...." she said dazedly.
Angel took the phone from her and sat down on the couch.
"Hey! We weren't done," Cordy said.
Angel ignored her. "Mr. Zhou? It's Angel. I'll take care of the financial end of things. The rest is up to Cordelia."
"You'll...but..." Cordy spluttered. "Angel," she hissed. "You don't have that kind of money."
Angel, still involved in the conversation with Zhou, picked up the pen and wrote something on the pad. He turned it to Cordelia. "Yes, I do," it said in his elegant scrawl.
"No, you don't," Cordelia muttered, poking her fingertips into her temples and rubbing in tight circles.
Angel stopped talking and handed the phone back to her.
She glared at him, despite the fact that her head was still reeling. "Mr. Zhou, I need to talk to Angel about this."
Angel looked back at her, his face drawn and tired, but more at peace than it had been since their trip to Sunnydale.
Oh, sure, it was easy for him to be all peaceful. He had $250,000 stashed away in some...some *vampire* account. An account he'd never told her about. She knew he didn't tell her everything, but still. A quarter of a million dollars?
"I understand. I will give you this number. It belongs to a neighbor, who can contact me when necessary. If you do decide to accept my invitation, we will make arrangements for your trip when we speak next."
"Thank you, Mr. Zhou," Cordy said between clenched teeth as she wrote down the number he gave her. She didn't recognize the area code, she realized through the red haze. She'd have to look it up on the map.
After she peeled several long strips off of Angel's hide.
"I'll be in touch with you very soon." She disconnected furiously and slapped the phone onto the table. "What are you *thinking*?" she gritted, standing up so she could lean into Angel's space. They were almost nose-to-nose, and if she weren't spoiling for a fight she would have noticed that the peace had drained away, leaving behind a serious lack of tether.
Angel scrubbed his hands over his face and pushed himself to his feet. "Look, Cordy, this has been a long two weeks, and on top of it I had a crappy night. I don't want to fight about this. The money's there. Just take it, okay?"
"No, it is *not* okay! I've seen your bank statements. I know how much money you have, and it's not anywhere near what Mr. Zhou requested."
Angel winced, watching as she paced to the other side of the room.
"You can't do this!" She banged a hand on top of the small fridge with an echoing metal clang. "You can't...just..." she took three quick steps, waved a hand in the air. "You can't just offer me a quarter of a million like it's nothing!" Her voice escalated until it bounced off the ceiling.
Angel grabbed Cordy by the arms, his face inches from hers. "Cordelia," he said, his voice as cool and firm as his fingers.
Good, she thought. She'd pissed him off. The jerk.
"I have the money. Just take it." He let go of her and walked toward the bedroom.
Her flesh tingled where his fingers had clamped. "That's more than I can make in ten years working for you. Besides, I don't want to take your money!" Which was total BS, and they both knew it.
But dammit, he had God knew how much blood money in some hidden account somewhere...and...and that wasn't even the point. The point was, if he gave it to her, she'd have to go. Away from him and Connor and everyone else for longer than she'd ever been separated from them.
And she didn't know if she would make it back alive.
Angel changed directions suddenly, and was standing in front of Cordelia before she realized he'd even moved.
She gasped, slamming her open hand against his bare chest. "Don't *do* that!"
"Cordelia," Angel rasped, leaning into her hand menacingly. "I was the heir to my father's estate. How much do you think it's grown in 250 years?" His face was a stone mask, his eyes dark and cold as obsidian.
Oh, she'd gotten him, all right. Really, really gotten him. The only other time she'd heard that tone was when he'd said, "Don't make me move you."
"Angel, you died before your father did," she said, knowing he could hear her rabbiting heart and trembling voice.
"You're so *naive*" he said, throwing his hands in the air and backing away from her, as if he had suddenly realized what he was doing. "And really, it's none of your business how I spend my money. You need this. And I need you." He turned, glared at her. "It's a fair arrangement."
"Well, but...but...if you do have that much money, it should go to Connor."
"Connor has plenty of money. You don't need to worry about him."
"Then why didn't you use that money when we started Angel Investigations?" She was having trouble letting it go.
"Because, Cordelia, starting this company was never about money," he said primly.
Oh, she bet he loved that. Angel loved being a martyr more than almost anything. "Excuse me, but there were months we practically *starved*," she retorted.
Angel nodded, crossing his arms over his chest, looking impatient. "Yes, there were. But we didn't, so I don't see what the problem is."
"Why now?" she wailed, finally reaching the end of her rope. Her anger was rapidly dissipating, leaving behind an upset stomach and the dawning realization that she'd just taken out two weeks of frustration on him.
Angel stalked over to her and grabbed her shoulders, shaking her roughly. "Because it's family money, Cordelia. And you're family." His eyes were black, his face clenched. "Are we done here?" Angel asked, his voice low, even.
She nodded, silenced, finally, by shame.
"Good." He let her go and she slumped into the chair. "All I want to do is get some sleep. Call Zhou from upstairs. And thanks for the breakfast," he said, glancing at the fridge.
"You're welcome," Cordy whispered, picking up the number and clenching it in her hand.
Angel shut the door behind him and the suite was silent and dark again.
"Do you have everything you need?" Fred asked.
Cordy nodded. "Yeah. I guess." She'd packed and repacked six times already. Last night, she found herself staring listlessly at the black dress she'd pulled out the closet, wondering if she should take it, too. After all, it was the perfect thing to be buried in. And with the visions the way they'd been lately....
How did you pack for eternity?
She shifted Connor in her arms. He blinked up at her, his still-blue eyes as wise as an old man's. Six weeks--maybe forever--without him. She pressed her lips to his silky forehead. "Sweet baby. Don't grow up too fast."
Gunn picked up Cordelia's suitcase and they started down the hall. "C'mon, Barbie," he said gently. He put his hand in the small of her back. "Angel's downstairs waiting."
She glanced at him. "Thanks."
Fred grabbed her overnight bag and her purse, and followed them into the hall.
"Bye, Dennis!" Cordy said. The wind ruffled her hair, and then the apartment door closed slowly. "Thanks for everything," she whispered.
Wes opened the stairwell door and stepped into the hall. "Ready?"
Usually his habit of taking the stairs for health drove her nuts. But today, as she looked up at his familiar face, she realized that little habits like that were what made Wes who he was. And they only made her love him more. "This is freaking me out."
He patted her shoulder. "I know, my dear. It must be a little intimidating."
"What, going off to spend six weeks in the wilderness with Bruce Lee's grandfather?" Fred and Gunn crowded in around them, loaded with Cordy's bags.
Wes chuckled. "Maybe you'll learn some kung fu," he said, punching the elevator button.
"I can kick your butt already," she said, in an attempt a humor. "What would be the point?"
Gunn snickered. "What?" he said at the dark look Wes gave him. "You know it's true."
The elevator dinged.
"True, but I can out-scream you, any day," Wes said. He ushered them all in ahead of him.
Fred hit the button for the ground floor and they started their descent.
"Don't know if I'd be admitting that in public," Cordy said, pressing her cheek to Connor's. "What do you think, baby? You think Uncle Wes should be proclaiming to the world that he screams like a girl?" The baby drooled on her shoulder in response.
"He might scream like a girl," Fred said. "But he's heck on wheels with that flame thrower. Those things aren't a picnic to operate, you know."
Wes smiled at her over Cordy's head. "Thanks, Fred. Everybody's got to have something they're good at." The doors opened and they walked through the courtyard and into the parking lot. "Ah, here's the car," he remarked, popping the trunk so Gunn could stow the suitcase. "Give me her other bag," he said to Fred.
Cordy walked to the passenger's side and looked in the open door. Lorne sat in the seat talking to Angel in a low voice.
"There she is, now," he said, turning his brilliant smile her way. "And look who she's got with her." He reached out and chucked Connor's chin. "Mon petit prince." He slid out of the car. "Hand him over. Uncle Lorne hasn't given him his RDA of Motown yet."
Cordy hugged Connor to her, then nuzzled his neck, breathing his scent deeply. "Take care of your daddy," she whispered. "He needs you more than you know." She looked up at Lorne with tears in her eyes and handed him the baby.
Lorne took Connor then hugged Cordy. The baby was pressed between them and it gave her another second to run her hand over his tiny hands and perfect feet. Another moment to press her fingers to his beating heart and commit his bones to memory.
"I love you," she whispered. She pulled back.
"We love you too, babe," Lorne said. He blinked against the sunset's rays. "Now, get out of here. You're making my mascara run."
Cordy hugged Fred. "Bye. You guys have a good Christmas," she said.
"We won't open gifts till you get back," Fred replied with a watery smile.
"Yeah, dollface, six weeks ain't forever. Heck, that's barely a blink in the cosmic calendar," Gunn said encouragingly. His body was hard and warm, and she pressed her nose into his sweatshirt.
"Keep them safe," she said.
"Always do," he promised.
Cordy settled into the seat, and clicked her seatbelt in place. Wes closed the door behind her with a quiet "thunk," his hands resting in the space left by the open window.
"Hey, Angel," Cordy said, glancing at the shadow behind the wheel.
"Hey. Ready?" he asked, his voice soft.
Cordy nodded. "Ready as I'll ever be."
Wes patted the car door. "You two be careful."
Cordy looked over at him and smiled. "Thanks, Wes. Take lots of pictures. I don't want to miss anything."
Wes grinned and shoved his hands in his pockets. "Just what we need. Another excuse to photograph that baby."
Cordy beamed at him. "We're worse than grandparents."
"That's because we're parents."
Angel cleared his throat.
Wes leaned in and hugged Cordy. "Bye," he whispered, kissing her on the temple.
"Bye," she said.
Wes stepped away from the car. "See you soon."
Cordy nodded and Angel started the car and pulled into traffic.
"According to the directions, we take the 10 toward San Bernadino. You do have the directions, Cordelia?"
Cordy pulled a sheet from her purse and waved it at him. "Right here."
Mr. Zhou lived on private land inside the San Bernadino National Forest above Big Bear Lake. Getting to Fawnskin, the closest town, was easy. Getting to Zhou's house was harder.
Cordy shivered as they passed the one residence, a ranch, within five miles of his driveway. She wondered if it was the neighbor whose phone he'd used to call her.
How did the man survive with no phone? He probably lived in a fricking yurt. She wrapped her arms around her waist trying to quell the creeping sense of unease that had grown ever since her conversation with him two days before.
"You okay?" Angel asked. The inside of the car had taken on the peculiar softness of a night-time drive, and his voice sounded muffled by the darkness.
Cordy could see only the sketchiest outline of his features in the light from the dashboard, and suddenly, she was terrified that he would vanish, leaving her out in the woods all by herself. Her hand darted out and clutched his upper arm. "No," she whispered.
Angel stopped the car and put it in park. He turned in the seat, covering her hand with his. "You don't have to do this, Cordelia."
Cordy took a breath, trying to slow her pounding heart. "I do. You know I do," she said. "It's just so...dark," she murmured, looking out the window. She couldn't remember ever feeling so alone in her life.
Angel sat quietly for a moment. "Cordy, get out of the car," he finally said, unlatching his seatbelt and opening the door. The bell chimed, then stopped when Angel killed the ignition. He climbed out, closing the door softly behind him.
Cordy sat for a moment, staring at his shadow, then unlatched her seatbelt. Prickles of fear darted over her shoulders leaving behind a chill that unnerved her to the bone. Yet because it was Angel waiting for her, she pushed the door open and climbed out, just as he reached through the open window and flipped off the headlights.
"Angel!" Cordy shrieked.
He laughed, but not mockingly. "Come here," he said, walking around the car and resting on the hood.
Cordy looked around her and could see nothing but a darkness so deep it pressed against her eyes like a black cloth. Her teeth chattered as the silence overtook her and she realized how far away from civilization they were. No cars, no TVs, no buses, no people....
She rounded the hood carefully and hopped up next to him, her denim-clad butt sliding easily along the black paint. Angel put his arm around her trembling shoulder and set his feet on the bumper. He pushed them along the hood until their backs rested against the windshield.
Cordy shuddered again as her back made contact with the glass.
"You cold?" Angel asked.
"No, not really."
"Well, yeah," she replied, wrapping her arms around her waist.
"Lots of stars out tonight," Angel commented, pulling Cordy tighter against him. She could feel the press of his body against her, big and strangely cool. It was as if there was nothing living beneath his clothes, but she knew that wasn't true. She'd never met anyone more alive.
"Yeah," she said. Her heart began to slow its gallop.
"It used to be this way all the time," he remarked, crossing one booted foot over another.
Cordy slid her legs over so they rested right against his. Her feet barely reached his calves. "What do you mean?" she asked, blowing out a breath and releasing more tension.
"All the lights, they're a pretty new thing. Up until about 75 years ago, you didn't see them so much. Just in the big cities."
"So it was dark like this every night?" Cordy shivered again. She felt Angel shake gently against her as he laughed.
"Yep. Every night. I miss it."
There was a longing in his voice that startled her. It reminded her that Angel had lived lifetimes she knew nothing about. Lifetimes she didn't want to know anything about. She turned to look at him, but could only sense his presence in the inky darkness. He was starting to get warm, though, from her and from the residual heat of the engine.
"Why?" she asked. "It's so lonely."
Angel turned his head. Their noses bumped. "Is that what you're afraid of, Cordelia? Being alone?"
She nodded, felt the soft slip of his skin against hers. "What's worse?" she asked.
He kissed the tip of her nose. "Not much." He turned his face back to the sky. "When I was a kid, I used to lie in the fields and look at the stars. I dreamed about becoming a sailor so I could follow them. It sounds corny now, but back then, it was the only way a man of my station could see the world." He shrugged. "I guess I did follow them, just not in the way I expected."
Cordy's heart twisted for the boy he must have been and for the hard hand death had dealt him. Off in the woods a bird hooted and another answered. Cordy noticed for the first time the sound of a creek gurgling nearby and the soft soughing of the wind.
"It's not really all that quiet," she said.
Angel shook his head. "No. Some things live their entire lives at night," he said softly.
Cordy reached up and squeezed his hand.
Angel laced their fingers together. "Zhou was right, you know," he said.
"In what way?" Cordy asked.
"I never really loved anyone until I met Buffy."
"Angel..." Cordy started.
"No, let me finish. After I got my soul, I lived on the streets, fed off rats. I was in New York City when Whistler found me and took me to her. I felt like my long, useless life suddenly had a purpose."
Cordy turned over on her side, curling her legs up and over his and slipping her hand across his belly. His arm slid around her back, pulling her closer until her head rested on his chest. The buttons from his shirt pressed into her cheek and she listened hard for a heartbeat that wasn't there.
"When I left Sunnydale and came to L.A., it was because of Buffy.
"We couldn't be together. We knew that. But she was still my reason for being, Cordelia. She was still the reason I didn't just get up one morning and go for a walk in the sunlight."
"Angel," Cordy breathed.
Angel stroked his hand down Cordy's back, his fingers leaving tingling, heat-like imprints. "Then you and Doyle came along. I found, over time, that while I still loved Buffy desperately, and wanted her beyond reason, she wasn't everything anymore." He sighed and Cordy felt the rise and fall of his chest.
"She was still the first thing I thought of when I woke up in the evening. But after I was up, you guys were what kept me going. You and the people we helped."
He stopped, was silent for several long heartbeats. "When Buffy died, I thought I would die too. I know you know that," he said, squeezing her to him. "But when I didn't, I realized then that I'd finally moved on. Not in big steps, but in increments. It happened so gradually, I almost didn't see it."
"And you were there the whole time. Guiding me through it. Being my friend. I need you, Cordy. For the way you get in my face, for the way you keep me from brooding too much, for the way you smooth out the rough edges of my life.
"I know what it's like to be alone. And for what it's worth, you're not."
Cordy hugged him tightly. The creek gurgled and the bushes rustled. She listened for a moment before she spoke. "We have a strange life," she finally said.
Angel chuckled. "Yeah, tell me about it."
Cordy sat up and waited for Angel to do the same. She leaned over and kissed him, her lips resting softly against his cheek. "Thank you. I don't feel so scared, anymore."
"Well, good. That was kind of the point," Angel laughed. He reached up and skimmed her face with his hand, cupping it around her jaw. "You've told me several times that, as long as you're alive, I'll never be alone. I want you to know that works both ways."
"Even if I get married and have 10 kids?" she asked, laughing, leaning her face into his palm.
She felt Angel's grin more than she saw it. "Even then. Though I can't promise to look after the husband. The kids, now...." He said, hopping off the car. He held his hand out and Cordy took it and slid off the hood. Her feet met solid ground and when she hugged him, the feeling of safety extended to her entire body.
"I love you, Angel," she said, pressing her cheek to his chest.
He squeezed her tightly to him, their bodies blending into one, long shadow. "I love you, too, Cordelia," he answered gruffly. "You ready to go?"
Cordy nodded and pulled away. "Yeah. Let's do this thing."
Angel started the car and flipped on the headlights. The darkness jumped away from the knife points of glare.
"Should be the next driveway," she said.
Angel grunted as the car hit a rut. "Next time, I'm renting a four-wheeler," he said.
Cordy laughed. "Just think, I'm going to be stuck up here in four-wheel country for six whole weeks. What the *heck* am I gonna do?"
"Ah, you made it," Mr. Zhou said as they climbed out of the car. He stood in the doorway, haloed in the light from the house.
"Hello," Angel said, extending his hand as the old man came out to meet them.
"It's good to see you." He shook Angel's hand and turned to Cordy. "And it's wonderful to see you, my dear. Are you ready for a little adventure?"
Despite her lingering discomfort, Cordy smiled. "My entire life is an adventure. What's one more?"
The old man laughed. "Just so," he said. "Angel, if you will bring in the bags, I will show both of you to Cordelia's room."
Angel pulled Cordy's bags from the trunk, shouldering the overnight case and hefting the other. "Thank goodness for vampire strength," he teased. "I don't know how Gunn got this thing downstairs."
"Yeah, well you try packing for a month-and-a-half," Cordy retorted.
The house was a large, rambling rancher that opened into a soaring foyer and smelled vaguely of incense. The floor was made of pale, shimmering stone, and to one side a small fountain cascaded into a pond filled with koi.
"Wow," Cordy breathed.
"Yeah," Angel replied.
As they stepped into the common area, Cordy saw two long, low sofas, covered with pillows, and several tall-backed wooden armchairs. A pair of narrow scroll paintings hung on either side of the stone fireplace, long stripes of calligraphy, the ink startlingly black against the white paper. The walls seemed to be mostly window, but because of the darkness, Cordy couldn't see the view.
There was a simple dining table made of dark wood on the far right side of the room, with 12 chairs around it. That's a lot of chairs, Cordy mused, for a mountain retreat.
Her thoughts were interrupted when Mr. Zhou called to them. "This way," he said, and she turned to follow his voice to the hallway on the left. The hall snaked back, jogging around a sleek black bathroom and opening into a sitting area. Off of the sitting area were several doors. Mr. Zhou was in the first room they came to, a large, airy one painted the palest blue.
Cordy caught her breath at the sight of the bed. The intricately carved wood extended up in four posters, and flared out into a wooden roof that gave the effect of a sleeping chamber.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Mr. Zhou asked.
Angel slipped in behind Cordy and set her suitcase and overnight bag on the floor. "A Chinese puzzle bed," he said. "I haven't seen one of those since the Boxer Rebellion."
Cordy turned to look at him. "Geez, Angel, historic much?"
Mr. Zhou laughed. "This one is very old, but very sturdy. Most of my furniture is antique, brought over from China many years ago. But you needn't worry about hurting it; it is virtually indestructible. Much like your friend, here," he said, waving his hand at Angel.
Angel inclined his head.
"Young lady," Mr. Zhou said, claiming Cordelia's attention. "Your closet is here," he pointed to a door behind her. "And your bath is through here." He stepped forward, opening a door to a bathroom with marble floors and a sunken tub.
"It gets chilly at night, but you still might like to sleep with the doors open," he said, gesturing to a set of French doors on the opposite end of the room. "If that is so, you may drop the mosquito netting around the bed.
"Once you are settled in, come to the kitchen, both of you, for some tea. Angel, will you be staying, or do you plan to return to the city?"
Angel glanced at Cordy. "I'm going right back," he said. "I have some work to do."
"Yes, well, that is probably for the best. Cordelia and I have much to accomplish in a short amount of time." He stepped into the hall. "I will see you in the kitchen. Just follow the hall back to the foyer, and you will find the door off the dining area."
"Thank you," Cordelia said, as the old man disappeared. She turned to Angel. "Can you believe this place?"
He arched his eyebrow. "Not so worried about roughing it now, huh?"
"It takes the edge off, that's for sure," she said, opening the closet door and hoisting her suitcase inside. She set the overnight bag on the bed with her purse. "Boxer Rebellion?" she asked.
Angel grimaced. "You don't want to know. Let's just say it wasn't a high point of my long and not-so-illustrious life."
"Ooo-kay," she said. "Sometimes the stuff you know freaks me out," she said.
"You're not the only one," he replied. "Let's go get some tea. I need to get back on the road pretty soon."
"You going patrolling when you get back?" They walked through the sitting room and started down the hall to the kitchen.
"If there's time. Wes and Gunn were going out tonight, so I'm not too worried."
"We never really talked about how we're handling the visions," Cordelia said.
"I figured when you had one, you'd call. I'll keep the cell phone on all the time."
"No, I'm serious. I'll leave it on, and when I'm sleeping I'll give it to Wes. Use that number, or call the hotel. One of us will be there to get the call."
"Well, I guess that about covers it," Cordy said, a hint of sadness coming into her voice.
They stopped at the kitchen door. Cordy could hear water running and the "chink" of pottery hitting the countertop.
Angel put his hand on her shoulder. "It's going to be hard on all of us, being separated this way."
Cordy stared at her feet, unable to face him. "What if this is the last time I see you?"
She kept her head down.
"Cordy, look at me." He slipped his fingers under her chin and turned her face toward him. "If I thought that every time I walked away from you, I'd never leave."
She smiled wistfully. "So, don't go."
"You don't know how much I want to stay. But they're testing me, too. They're seeing if I can let you fight your own fight."
She nodded resignedly. "I might have to make up some visions so we can talk, though."
Angel laughed. "I think Mr. Zhou's a little too smart for that."
Cordy smiled again. "Probably. But what am I gonna do without you guys for six weeks?"
Angel pulled her to him. "I think the question is, what are we going to do without you?"
Cordy felt the tears well up that she'd been holding back all day. "Oh, crap. Not now."
"It's okay," Angel said, resting his chin on her head.
Cordy took a couple of shuddering breaths and pulled away, wiping her face with the backs of her hands. "I'm such a crybaby," she said.
Angel cupped her cheek in his hand and rubbed a thumb under her eye. "That's not a bad thing."
"Maybe not to you," she said, trying for levity. "You don't have to live with the red nose." She turned and pushed open the swinging door. Angel followed her into the kitchen.
"There you are," Mr. Zhou remarked. "The tea is nearly ready." He gestured to barstools sitting around the white-tiled island in the middle of the kitchen. "Please, have a seat."
Cordy pulled a stool out and sat, watching while Angel did the same. He'd left his duster in the car, and wore a long-sleeved charcoal sweater and his black cargo pants. He was a shadow against the tiles, his hands pale smudges at the ends of his sleeves.
"Green tea is okay?" Mr. Zhou asked, pouring a golden-green stream into handleless cups.
"Yes," Cordy replied.
Angel nodded. "Genmaicha?"
Mr. Zhou smiled. "You know your tea, young man."
Angel arched an eyebrow. "I grew up in Ireland."
"And traveled the world, I suspect," Mr. Zhou said. He settled onto a stool and nodded to the mugs. "Help yourself." He pulled a steaming cup into his hands.
"Traveled it more than once," Angel replied, taking his own mug of tea and sipping.
"Yes, me too. But I find California is home now."
Angel nodded and looked at Cordy, who smiled at him. "I know what you mean."
The next morning, Cordy woke at dawn. She wasn't sure what had opened her eyes at such an ungodly hour, but after lying in bed for a moment, she knew she couldn't go back to sleep. She rolled off the mattress and padded to the bathroom to shower.
After pulling on a pair of jeans and a rose-colored lycra turtleneck she hadn't worn since her last skiing trip to Aspen, Cordy walked down the hall to the kitchen. She pressed her hand to her stomach, trying to soothe the butterflies that she couldn't seem to get rid of.
Mr. Zhou looked up from his book and smiled. "So, sleeping beauty awakes."
He looked so normal and unthreatening that Cordy beamed. "Compliments. Now that's a great way to start the day."
"Would you like some breakfast?" He poured her a cup of tea from the iron pot at his elbow.
He set the tea in front of her and then turned to pull a bowl from the cabinet. He filled it with rice porridge and laid it at her place with a spoon.
She looked at it in horror. "I can't eat that."
Mr. Zhou smiled. "You promised to eat what I gave you, remember?"
Cordy grimaced. "Well, that was stupid of me," she muttered, taking a tiny bite and chewing quickly. A look of surprise crossed her face. "Hey, that's good," she said. "You wouldn't think something this gloppy would be good."
Mr. Zhou laughed. "You have such a way with words."
"What you see is what you get," she shrugged, grinning. "So what's on the agenda today?"
"I thought we'd try some t'ai chi."
Cordy looked up from her bowl. "T'ai chi?" she asked. "Angel does t'ai chi."
"Ah," said Mr. Zhou smiled. "Your Angel is a wise man."
Cordy snorted. "Usually, he's more of a dork," she replied, not unkindly.
Mr. Zhou laughed. "Perhaps, but he did not live to his age without being flexible. One must be willing to change in order to survive. Your warrior has had to change many, many times."
Cordy took another bite and chewed thoughtfully. "I guess I never thought of it that way. He's always just been Angel to me. Unless he's Angelus, of course, but let's not go there." She waved her spoon dismissively.
Mr. Zhou inclined his head. "Of course I have heard of Angelus. Who in our line of work hasn't? But Angel seems to have found a successful way to control his demon. Something more humans could stand to learn," he said wryly.
"Tell me about it." She placed the now empty bowl in Mr. Zhou's outstretched hand. "Thanks."
Mr. Zhou rinsed the bowl and spoon and put them in the dishwasher.
"We will hold our practice outside," he said, picking up the thick wool sweater on the back of his stool and slipping it over his head. "You will want something more substantial than that," he said, nodding to Cordy's shirt. "Why don't you find something suitable and meet me on the deck." He pointed toward the back of the house.
"Great." She walked back to her room and found a white fleece pullover, then pushed her feet into her hiking boots. The French doors opened onto the deck, and she walked outside to join Mr. Zhou.
Her breath caught in her lungs. She'd expected a great view, but not this miracle of nature.
The area Mr. Zhou lived in was forested mainly by pines, but down a little farther, and stretching out for miles, there were lacy live oaks and the red-trunked manzanitas that glowed richly in the sun's bright morning rays.
She glimpsed a blue shimmer that must have been Big Bear lake in the distance. As far as she could see there was nothing but trees, water and sky. Even though the month had been warmer and dryer than usual, there was a definite bite to the breeze, and when she breathed, the air was as crisp and pure as a just-picked apple.
Mr. Zhou stood on the lawn below the deck. "It's beautiful, isn't it?"
Cordy nodded. "It's very different in the daylight."
"Yes," he commented. "We think, because we can see them, that only the creatures who move in the day exist." Overhead a bird soared, its call floating on the breeze. Mr. Zhou pointed at it. "That, for example."
Cordy looked up. "What is it?"
"A red-shoulder hawk." He stood silently for a moment tracing the bird's movement with his hands, as if he were dancing with it. Instead of looking foolish, he appeared graceful and fey, otherworldly.
"Its brother is the owl," he said, dropping his hands and plucking his cane from its resting place against the deck. He motioned with his head for her to join him, and she walked down the steps and onto the lawn.
"Both are hunters, both share the same ground. But one works days and the other nights," he said. "You would be familiar with this, being a day-walker who works so closely with a vampire."
"Nature creates a balance," Mr. Zhou continued. "Destroy one, and both die. It is the same with you and your warrior. When one is weak, the other cannot thrive."
"That's why I'm here." Cordy fell into step beside him as they started down a wide path. The forest smelled fresh and piney in the chilly morning air, and their feet left long tracks in the dust.
"You have some things to balance, yes, but Angel does, too. I was not joking when I said that his heart is as much at stake as yours is," he said, planting his silver-headed cane in the ground with each step.
Cordy nodded and stuck her hands in her pockets. "So what do we do?"
"I'm developing a plan. But first, you must build your chi, your energy. You must also learn to work with, not against, the power that is behind your visions. It hammers on your door now because it knows no other way to get in. But leave the door cracked, and its visits will be gentler."
Cordy nodded. "That makes sense. But what about Angel?"
"As I said, Angel is a wise man, one who has endured centuries of change. But his habit is to hole up and think too deeply about things. He believes he protects those he loves by remaining unattached."
"Well, in a way he's right. It was becoming too attached to Buffy that unleashed Angelus. He killed our teacher and stalked Buffy and our friends for months until she sent him to Hell," Cordy said, distinctly uncomfortable.
"If Angel experiences pure happiness, he loses his soul, it's true," Zhou replied. "But there are many shades of happiness one may experience before achieving the kind of bliss it takes for Angel's soul to go free. He must learn how far he can go before he loses it all, or else he will never experience true human connection. And without that connection, he cannot shanshu."
Cordy stopped, gaping at him.
He shrugged. "Like I said, people in our line of work know things."
Cordy puffed out a breath. "Well," she said. "Skipping over the part where you're Miss Cleo's Chinese brother, if Angel's not here, how can he learn what his limits are?"
"You will teach him." The trail passed through a densely wooded area then opened into a clearing.
"*I* will teach him," Cordy said. "You've got to be kidding. I can't teach Angel anything." She followed Mr. Zhou into the clearing.
Mr. Zhou stopped. "My dear, you underestimate your gifts. You think, without your visions, you are worth nothing. But Angel needs you as much as you need him. You are his link to life. You, like his son, are his link to the future."
He rested his cane against a tree trunk and turned to look at her, his black eyes reproachful. "You place too much stock in things that fade. Visions will pass, my dear. But love is eternal."
Cordy realized there was nothing she could say to that. "So my gift is to help Angel become human. How?"
Mr. Zhou laughed. "You are looking for hard answers to a soft question. When the time for things is upon us, we instinctively know what to do." He assumed the first posture of the t'ai chi long form.
"You and Angel. Always with the cryptic," she said, arranging her body in a mimic of his.
Mr. Zhou laughed. "I am an old man. Please allow me my small pleasures."
Wes sat in the office three nights after Cordy's departure. Books lay open all around him, some stacked four or six high. Yellow legal pads were scattered about, half-hidden by books, several with the nubs of pencils still resting where he'd dropped them mid-thought.
It was late--or early for certain types--and the hotel was dark and a little spooky. Even though it looked like Cordy's problems might be solved by this shaman, Wes wasn't going to stop researching.
Not only did he want a back-up plan, he also found the reading fascinating. Unfortunately, it also made him the man who knew too much.
"Hey, Wes." Angel appeared in the doorway, lurking as usual.
Wes started. "Didn't hear you there," he said. He closed the book he'd been reading, marking the page with his finger.
"Kind of late for you, isn't it?" Angel sat down across the desk, being careful not to disturb any of the books.
Wes shrugged. "I'm about done for the night. It's just that I found this passage and I wanted to finish it."
"Oh," Wes replied as casually as possible. "Just a history book on Seers."
Angel grimaced. "We had that? Here? The whole time?"
"No. Got it at the Magic Box."
Angel's shoulders relaxed. "Whew. I was worried there for a minute. So? What does it say?"
Wes wondered whether there was a graceful way to change the subject. "Angel, I really would prefer.... That is, you see, I would rather not...."
Apparently not. He cleared his throat. "Yes. Right. Well, you see, what I've found is that, um, er...."
"Just spit it out," Angel said mildly. "It can't be...."
"The last human girl who had the visions? Her head exploded."
"...that bad," Angel finished.
"So you see, Angel, what we've got here is a difficult situation," Wes rushed on.
"Difficult," Angel repeated. He stood slowly, like an old man. "What do we do?"
"I...we.... Keep researching. I'm sure there's something in here...." Wes looked at all the books, and suddenly he felt wrung out. Hopeless. "I have no idea," he whispered.
Angel shuffled to the door. "Get some rest, Wesley. Take one of the rooms upstairs. I don't want you driving."
Wes nodded. "Yes. Right. I'll just go on up. Angel?"
He turned back, his face shadowed and stark. "Hmmm?"
Angel disappeared soundlessly, leaving Wes alone in the shadowed room.
Cordy and Mr. Zhou practiced t'ai chi, this time in the sitting room. The sun was setting over the mountains, highlighting the storm clouds that gathered darkly on the horizon. The furniture had been pushed to the sides of the room, leaving a large open space in the middle.
"Grasp sparrow's tail to the left; grasp sparrow's tail to the right; push hands," Mr. Zhou said.
Cordy had been practicing tai chi with him for nearly a week. By now, she followed his instructions carefully, trying to remember to keep her hands relaxed, to feel her feet against the earth, and to breathe properly with each pose.
"Very good," he said. "Again."
Mr. Zhou ignored her, used to her complaints. "Ready?" he asked. When she didn't respond, he glanced at her. "Cordelia?"
Cordy groaned again and grabbed her head. "Vision," she rasped, her body jerking forward violently.
This was her first since coming to his retreat. Something about the mountains, or being with him--who knew what the reason was?--had slowed them down. She was grateful for the respite, but each day that passed without a vision only increased her anxiety.
He ran to her side and eased her to the floor, anchoring her legs with his, and cradling her head on his arm.
She writhed beneath him, her breath coming in short bursts, her hands clutching her temples.
"Poor little thing," he crooned, absorbing the aftershocks with his body.
Cordy moaned, terror and pain slicing through her like a scalpel. "Angel." She reached out blindly with one hand.
Mr. Zhou slipped off of Cordy and knelt beside her. He put his fingertips on her temples and rubbed, gently chanting under his breath.
"Angel?" She opened her eyes, startled to find Mr. Zhou. "Oh, it's you."
"Shhh," Mr. Zhou whispered, then went back to his chanting. His eyes flashed silver.
Cordelia cried out, then lay quietly.
"There," said Mr. Zhou. "Is that better?"
Cordy reached a hand to her head. "Sort of," she said, wincing. She sat up. Relief, then realization washed through her. "I have to find a phone," she gasped.
Mr. Zhou put his hands on Cordelia's shoulders. "Wait."
She shoved his hands aside and stood up, listing dizzily. "Are you crazy? She's in danger!"
"Cordelia," Mr. Zhou said, his voice sharp. "Stop."
A week was hardly long enough to trust someone, especially a man as powerful as Zhou. But the command in his tone was enough to at least slow her down.
"Why? I told you, that girl is in danger!"
His eyes flashed. "Do not contradict me!"
Cordy's patience snapped. "Look!" she said, her voice rising in frustration. "I've got a job to do and you're keeping me from doing it!"
Mr. Zhou took a deep breath. "You try my patience."
Cordy stared him down, her body humming with leftover adrenaline.
"If you don't learn to manage these visions, they will kill you. It's entirely possible, that if you *do* learn to manage them, they will still kill you. But if you don't even try, if you just keep on as you are, there is one-hundred percent certainty that you will not survive to see the summer."
Her breath left her body in a whoosh. It took her a moment to catch it. "All right," she said quietly, when she was able to talk. "What do you want me to do?"
"You will need my help," Mr. Zhou responded.
"Give me your hands."
Cordy sat, then reached out her hands. The moment their palms touched, she felt a jolt of power that rocked her like a boat on stormy water.
"That's good," Mr. Zhou soothed. "Now, tell me what you see."
Cordy closed her eyes, fighting the nausea that pounded through her. The vision flashed again.
"I see, um, a girl, about my age. Short hair, red. She's going into a bar. Can't see which one."
"Yes, you can. Look more closely," Mr. Zhou prompted and squeezed her hands.
Cordy felt another jolt, like a stream of pure electricity. "Uh, the Underground," she said around chattering teeth. "On Fairfax. And, oh, God, there's the demon," Cordy cried, yanking her hands from Mr. Zhou's and shaking her head. "I can't stand it," she said, her voice quavering. "It's too much. It's too much."
"Cordelia, give me your hands," Mr. Zhou said calmly. "You can do this. I will show you how."
Cordy shuddered out a breath, looking at him through tear-filled eyes. "Just make it stop hurting," she said.
"Give me your hands," he repeated. "Now breathe deeply and imagine that the jolt you have been feeling is, instead, a river. It will take you where you want to go."
Cordy closed her eyes and placed her hands in his. She felt the surge, but then it smoothed out, becoming something sinuous. It flowed up her arms and pooled in her armpits, then rushed down her torso and out her feet and head.
"That's good. Now tell me what you see."
"The demon is a...I don't know its name. But it's tall and scaly. Long tail, almost looks like a lizard but it stands on two legs. It's gray with glowing yellow eyes and God, look at those teeth. Oh, God, Mr. Zhou, she's so scared, I can feel her heart pounding." She clenched his hands.
"Cordelia, feel what you need to and let go of the rest. You are getting stuck in her pain."
"But that's what I feel the strongest!"
"Of course it is. And you do not need to stop feeling with her, but you must only feel it when it happens. Then you must let it roll away from you. Like this."
Cordy felt the girl's fear like a punch to her gut, and then it was gone, and all that was left was the vision. The demon grabbed her arm with a scaly paw and Cordy felt the rip in her flesh. She grunted at the impact, but the pain did not linger. Instead, she felt strangely clean, as if she'd been washed through with pure light.
"You see?" Mr. Zhou said. "You cannot control the fate of those whom you witness simply by holding on to their pain. They will live or die according to their own destiny. Now, how do you feel?"
Cordy rubbed her arms. "Still got the post-vision hangover. But not as bad as usual."
"Good, good. Now we can go call Angel."
"How'd she sound?" Angel asked as he swung his sword at the Methros demon.
"Fine. She sounded great," Gunn grunted.
The big, gray tail whipped out and knocked him off his feet. He ate alley dirt, spat once, then rolled as the thing swung its tail again. At least this one didn't shoot fire out its butt. Yet.
They'd lured the demon out behind the bar and a crowd of horrified and fascinated onlookers watched from the open door. He wasn't used to working with an audience and it had him off his rhythm. Or could be, it was Angel's constant chatter. He rolled to his feet, his axe still clutched in his hand.
Angel jumped, bending his knees and hurdling the tail like a track star. "I can't believe I missed her call. Of all times to be out...." He twirled toward the demon, his sword coming within inches of its nose. "....getting blood," he finished.
The demon roared and his breath smelled like rotten eggs. "Man, you seriously need a breath mint," Gunn called, distracting the thing long enough for Angel to get in close.
Except Angel didn't move. He just stood there, swinging the sword absentmindedly. "She was okay, though, right? I mean, she didn't fall or anything. And he has those painkillers she likes, the ibuprofen?"
"Angel, man," Gunn panted. He dodged as the Methros came for him, its short arms making a grab for his head. "She was fine. Could you help...." He pivoted and brought his foot up against the lizard's rib. "...Me...." The demon wobbled but didn't fall, like a dang Weebol. "...Out here?"
"Oh, yeah, sure," Angel said, coming up behind the thing and lopping its head off in a graceful arc. Demon goo spurted and the crowd roared. Angel brandished his sword toward them as the demon stumbled in slo-mo and finally fell.
Those things never seemed to just give in gracefully, Gunn thought, wiping ichor out of his eyes. "Thanks," he said.
"So, she was okay?"
Gunn groaned in exasperation. He leaned his axe against the demon's body and went to stand in front of the other man. "How many times I gotta tell ya?" he asked, taking Angel by the shoulders. "She's fine. She was sorry she missed you. She'll have another vision real soon, and you can talk to her then, okay?"
He knew this was hard for Angel. It was hard on all of them. But, dang, the dude had taken it to the limit already. He should just confess his love for the girl. Get it out in the open.
Angel sighed forlornly. He kicked the sword with the toe of his scuffed boot. "It's just.... It was the first time she called since she left, and...." He sighed again.
Gunn bent to pick up his axe. "Look, man, she'll call again. I guarantee it. Until then, we got stuff to do. Like show Connor the new 'Swordfighter' magazine. I saw it came in the mail today."
Angel perked up at that. "Okay," he said. He swung his sword over his shoulder like a farmer with a pitchfork.
"Uh, Angel?" Gunn said, wrapping his axe in its cover. "You might want to sheathe that. Don't wanna alarm the locals."
Angel looked at Gunn, then at his sword. "Oh, yeah. Right." He stuck it in his coat and drew the fabric close. "Thanks."
"Anytime," Gunn said. They turned toward the car and Gunn heard the bar door slam behind them.
One demon down, a million more to go.
"Dreams. They're as important as the visions. You must learn to interpret them properly so you can put them to their best use."
Mr. Zhou sat at the white tiled island in the kitchen, his hands wrapped around a mug of tea. The day was gray and heavy with clouds, and the wind blew through the tops of the trees.
But it wasn't the winter wind that gave her a chill. "How do I know which dreams to pay attention to?" She remembered the one she had the night before she met Zhou. And how she'd woken up, shaking and terrified, and full of the knowledge that she'd just been warned.
Something--or someone--was coming for Angel.
"There are many forms of dreams. There are those that are simply the chatter of the subconscious, letting go of the day. There are waking dreams, or conscious dreams. These are usually communications from your guides. In them, you can interact consciously with the other beings who appear."
"Can I learn to do that?"
"Of course. I will teach you. After that, there are the visions, themselves."
"If the theory I am working on is correct, you will be able to access visions any time, anywhere, without pain. As you begin to understand them, you will see that they always exist, right beneath the surface of your conscious mind. Even in sleep."
She had a sudden thought. "Before, at the apothecary, I saw something."
Zhou nodded. "Yes. You saw the visions."
"But I saw something else, too. Just before you let go of my hand, I saw a net thingy, covering everything. Like light or something." She was having a hard time describing it.
Despite that, Zhou nodded again. "You have studied physics, I'm sure."
She snorted. "Get real."
"You should read about modern physics. It confirms what we students of the Mysteries have always known. There is only one energy field connecting everything. What we see with human eyes is like the tip of an iceberg. Most of our reality is contained below the water."
"That's what being a Seer is?"
"Yes. Being a Seer is rather like using the connection as a phone line. It enables you to see beyond the surface, into what's happening anywhere, at any time."
"And your theory?"
"It's coming. Slowly but surely."
"Right. Just make sure you get it done before my head pops off."
"That's the first time you've joked about your plight, my dear. It's a good sign."
"Humor's a great way to deflect," she countered. "Maybe I was just deflecting."
"Or possibly you were making the best of a bad situation. I admire that trait in you. It's one of your real strengths."
"Thanks. And you know what else?" Her smile was warm and friendly. "Before, I didn't trust you at all. But now? I almost do."
Zhou laughed. "And it only took a week and a half. I must be slipping."
Wes rapped his knuckles against the door.
"Hey," he said, when Angel opened it. He held up a six pack. "Guinness and a couple of cigars. You up for it?"
Angel stepped back, holding the door open. "Sounds good."
Wes ignored the almost pathetic look of relief on Angel's face and followed him into the apartment. "You've been cleaning," he commented, gazing at the polished surfaces. The smell of lemon oil and beeswax filled the air, an odor Wes remembered from his childhood.
"Things got dirty," Angel shrugged, following Wes's glance with his own. The entire suite sparkled. He'd even gotten rid of the cobwebs in the corners.
"Beats nightclubbing," Wes remarked. "Which is what Cordy would have us out doing, if she were here."
"God, yes," Angel said as he trailed Wes to the living area. "Can you imagine? All that noise, all that heat, all those people." His voice trailed off and his eyes glazed over.
Wes cleared his throat. "Yes, exactly," he said, setting the beer on the coffee table and pulling a couple of tall glasses out of the cabinet next to the refrigerator. He began building the Guinness into a chocolate-brown column.
Angel set a heavy, crystal ashtray and a pack of matches on the table then held his hand out for the cigars, which Wes pulled from his shirt pocket.
"Smuggling, now?" Angel asked, eyebrows raised.
Wes shrugged. He began pouring the second beer. "One of Gunn's friends brought them up from Mexico."
"Nothing like a good Cuban," Angel said. "Cigar, Cuban cigar," he added quickly.
Wes glanced over at him. "I thought nothing other," he replied, without a trace of irony.
Angel pulled out a pocketknife, clipped the butts on both cigars then lit one, drawing steadily until the tip glowed red.
"Mmmm," he said. "That's good." He took a beer from Wes and handed him the unlit cigar and the matches in exchange.
"So," Wes said, lighting up and puffing out smoke.
Angel sat down and rocked his chair back on its hind legs. "Kinda quiet," he mused, looking around the apartment. His eyes returned to Wes. "Just the way I like it."
Wes nodded, briskly. "Yes," he said, sipping the Guinness. He wiped his foam off his mouth with the back of his hand. "Quiet. Perfect for research. Just think how much we've accomplished in the last two weeks. Why, I found information I never knew existed on the Quyuaa demon."
"Exactly. And that's the kind of thing that'll come in handy someday when we find one, even though they don't often leave, uh, Fiji. But you never know," Angel agreed emphatically. "They could catch a boat or something. Hey, you know what else? The other day I got in the car, and the radio was still on the classical station. No Kenny Kravitz, no..."
"Lenny," Wes said. He pushed his glasses up his nose.
"Lenny, not Kenny."
Angel waved his hand. "Whatever. No more of that tuneless crap she calls music. No smelly nail polish. No, 'Angel, you're brooding again, Angel you're not eating enough, Angel, did you remember to cut the paychecks,'" he said in a pretty good Cordy-voice.
"Precisely." Wes nodded fiercely and sipped his stout. "Ah, now that's beer."
"Yeah, a man's beer. What do you call that crap she drinks?"
"Rolling Rock," Wes shuddered. "Horse piss."
"Exactly my point," Angel said. He puffed a couple more times. The room was starting to fog with blue haze.
"Hey, where's Gunn?" Wes asked. "He should be down here with us."
"He and Fred are upstairs watching Evita with Lorne." He shrugged. "Connor and I decided we'd rather hang out down here and do manly things. Unfortunately, for Connor that means sleeping."
"Ah. I'd say he's a bit young for a pint, anyway."
Angel nodded. "Give him a few months. We'll wean 'im on stout," he said, his old accent slipping through.
"You're a walking history text, Angel," Wes said dryly.
Angel grunted. "I've heard that somewhere before." He tapped the cigar against the ash tray. "You think Gunn's doing okay since that thing went down with his gang?"
"As well as could be expected. I haven't spoken with him about it. After Billy...." He cleared his throat.
"Yeah." The room was silent for a moment. "Hey, maybe Cordy can talk with him. They have a thing, a connection," he said with a slight frown.
"That's a good idea. She does tend to worry about his safety," Wes replied innocently.
"Uh huh, that's Cordy, always worrying about something," he said, dropping his chair to the floor with a thunk. "Hey, how about some music? I picked up a new CD the other day."
"Sure," Wes shrugged.
Angel went to the stereo and dropped a disk into the CD player. David Gray's "Babylon" wafted through the air.
"Say," Wes said. "That's pretty good. What is it?"
"Some Welshman. Cordy thought I'd like him." He brought the disk cover over, flipped it to Wes.
"Not bad," he mused, studying the cover for a moment, then laying it back down on the table. "So," he said. He took a swallow of beer, tapped his ashes into the glass dish.
"Uh huh," said Angel.
"Well," Wes said. "This is nice."
Angel's face fell into the familiar lines of a brood.
The CD was halfway through the fourth song before Wes finally spoke. "Oh, bugger it," he said.
Angel glanced up at him. "What?"
Wes sighed and took a puff. "I miss her terribly."
There was a beat of silence. "Yeah. Me too," Angel finally admitted. "It's too quiet. No phone calls, no nagging, no stupid Cosmo quizzes. I even miss the nail polish," he said in a pained voice.
"Exactly," Wes sighed again. "It's 11:00 on a Friday night. We could at least be out patrolling. But here we sit, like a couple of lugs. What wankers," he said.
"Yeah. Hey, I've got an idea!"
Wes looked at him curiously.
"How about a drink?" He got up and pulled a bottle of very old Scotch from under the sink.
"But we *are* having a...." Wes got a good look at the bottle. "Oh," he said, mouth watering in anticipation. "But what about Connor?"
"He's asleep. Besides, we can hold our liquor." He set a couple of squat glasses on the table.
"Angel, you have glassware for every purpose," Wes noted with admiration.
"You live long enough, you collect stuff," he said, pouring two fingers in each glass. He sat down, clinked his glass against Wes's. "To uh, what?" he asked, his brow wrinkling.
"To Cordy coming home and relieving us of our miserably boring existences," Wes said. He sipped the Scotch and moaned as it slid down his throat. "Godalmighty," he said reverently.
"Pinched it from Spike," Angel said with an impish smile. "When we were in Sunnydale. One thing you can say about my childe, he knows his drink," he said, nodding. He poured another finger for each of them.
"Ah, Spike. I kind of feel sorry for the guy," Wes said. "Neutered like a puppy."
"Yeah," Angel nodded. "I'd rather have a soul than a chip, any day. But you gotta admit," he said grudgingly, "he does take good care of Dawn."
Wes grimaced. "Never thought I'd see that happen. He must feel something very strong for Buffy to tie himself to a child that way."
Angel's mouth pulled into a flat line. "Spike and Buffy. Now there's a joke. That poor bastard." He paused. "Spike likes to think he knows what love is. He's just a romantic boy," he said, finishing his Scotch and chasing it with beer.
"Now I, on the other hand, know what it means to love. It means giving up the person you love most in the world because you want them to be happy. It means sacrifice," he said, slamming his fist on the table.
Wes jumped. "Sacrifice," he repeated.
Angel opened two more cans of Guinness and began pouring them into the empty glasses.
"I thought I knew everything there was to know about love. I was with Darla for centuries," Angel continued, crumpling the cans and pitching them toward the garbage can. "Of course, that all changed, when Wolfram & Hart brought her back," he grimaced, taking a large swallow of beer. "I'll be forever grateful to her for bearing Connor. But I can't say I miss her. If she were still alive, I'd probably be making it my life's work to stake her."
A slightly tipsy grin crossed Wes's features. "Stake her, as in, with a stake, or stake her as in..."
Angel snorted. "Oh, please. Even if I wanted to, which I don't, Cordy would kill me."
"Seriously, Angel, why did you do it?" Wes leaned forward on the table, balancing his forearms on his knees.
"What, exactly, are you asking?" Angel said cautiously, glancing up at Wes.
"C'mon, Angel." Wes narrowed his eyes. "You can't tell me you didn't make love with Darla. The proof is in your bedroom asleep."
Angel sat quietly, fiddling with his Scotch glass. "That's not really what I'd call it," he admitted.
"What, then?" The furrow in his brow grew deeper.
"I'd actually call it an act of desperation, myself," Angel continued. "The good thing is, it kicked me in the butt. Got me to realize how stupid I was being. You could say that screwing Darla was what started my epiphany." He looked up at Wes. "Imagining what my life would be like if all of you were dead? That's what really made me see the light."
Wes frowned, gulped his beer. "I have to admit, I'm a little pissed right now."
"Pissed, as in drunk, or pissed as in mad?"
"Both, actually," Wes said, anger flaring. This conversation had been a long time in coming. The uproar created by Connor's birth had simply postponed it. "Did you not realize that banging your Sire could very well unleash Angelus?"
Angel scrubbed his hand over his face. "Oh, I knew. I just didn't care."
Wes gasped. "But, but.... *Angel*, if you'd... if he'd..." he spluttered. "How could you compromise us that way?"
Angel barked out a laugh. "Honestly, Wes, my life was so bad at that point that I didn't care. I just wanted to feel...something. I was so cold," he said, shivering at the memory.
"Well, next time you're cold, get a blanket!" Wes yelled, leaping from the couch and pacing agitatedly.
Angel watched him, a sad look on his face. "You think I don't know how lucky I got?"
"Boy, did that come out wrong," Angel apologized. "Look, Wes, I did a stupid thing. I can't lie to you. There was a moment when I really hoped I was going to change," he said quietly. "Because then I would have felt...something. But it didn't happen, and I realized that it wasn't going to. Let's just say that profound gratitude doesn't even begin to describe it."
Wes's mouth opened and closed a couple of times. Then he picked up his glass, splashed more Scotch into it with a shaking hand, and downed it in one gulp. "Your decision-making skills leave a lot to be desired," he snapped. "You *bastard*. When I think about what could have happened to any one of us...."
Angel nodded, looking dejectedly into his glass. "I know. It was stupid," he repeated.
Wes rubbed his hand across his face and slumped back onto the couch. "Well, I for one am pathetically grateful that we didn't have to face your alter ego."
Angel looked up from his glass. "Kill him," he said. "Shanshu, or no shanshu. Kill him. Because if he comes back, he'll go straight for the baby. Or one of you." His jaw clenched.
Wes nodded. "We know that, Angel. And we're prepared to do whatever we have to do. But killing will always be a last resort."
"Make it your first," he said.
"But what about Cordy? The research seems to indicate that if one of you dies, the other will have real difficulty surviving."
Angel stared into the shadows. "We'll just have to make sure it never happens, then, won't we?"
Meditating. Ugh. She hated sitting still and couldn't slow down her mind, no matter how hard she tried.
"Stop trying so hard," Mr. Zhou said, sitting next to her with his eyes closed.
He didn't seem to have any trouble with it, she thought, aggravated. "I can't," she complained.
"Try a mantra," he replied, exhaling deeply.
"I'm not repeating any stupid phrases," she muttered, closing her eyes tighter.
Mr. Zhou chuckled softly. "Well, pick something that's not stupid. Pick something you like."
Cordy opened one eye and looked at him. He was the picture of relaxation. She wrinkled her nose. "I don't know anything."
"What about the 23rd Psalm?" he asked, his voice dreamy. "If not that, something else. You know something positive, surely?"
"The only thing positive I know is shopping. Hey! How about 'Dolce and Gabbana'? I could just repeat that over and over."
"Whatever works, Cordelia," Mr. Zhou said. "Now, be quiet. I'm meditating, even if you're not."
"Sure, rub it in," Cordy said. She gave up and flopped back on the grass so she could look up at the sky. Between storms, clouds floated, high and light, and a few birds glided overhead. If she turned her head slightly to the left she could see the tops of the pine trees. They tiptoed softly in the chilly breeze, and as she watched, she felt her breathing slow and her mind empty out. Open up.
"No. Oh, no," she said, her eyes going wide.
"Vision," she cursed, her body stiffening. She grabbed her forehead as the flashes exploded through her skull.
It was bad. Really bad. More vamps. Only this time they hit the 5:30 a.m. drop-off at a daycare in Silverdale, a couple of miles from her apartment.
From outside the flashes she could hear Mr. Zhou whispering to her. "Cordelia, the river," he suggested, his voice a hypnotic murmur. "Remember to float, to ride the current."
Even as she thrashed with the agony of the vision, Cordy felt the energy change. The pummeling force went from battering ram to tidal wave, from tidal wave to riptide. The seizures became undulations, her body riding the waves like a boat on the sea.
"Yes," he said, stroking her hair off her face. "Let it take you."
The strangely erotic punch of the power hit her full force then, and she moaned as it pounded through her. Her body arched as the energy took off, rocket fast, shooting from toes to hips to scalp. Her fingers clawed the earth, her head turning side-to-side as a white-hot sun built itself within her. She moaned, long and low, the current rippling through every muscle and cell, lighting her up like a klieg light.
Then the vision ended, and Cordy's body went limp. She lay panting, her clenched hands releasing the dirt she'd palmed. She moved her legs, trying to find a more comfortable position. The pleasure arced through her, dimmer than before, but still present. Her eyes opened, blinking against the bright winter sunlight.
"Much better, Cordelia," Mr. Zhou said. "Now take a deep breath."
She pulled in air, long and slow, and the heat dispersed, a fire dampened but not extinguished. She took a few more breaths, and, remarkably, her system leveled. After a moment, she rolled to her side and pushed herself into a sitting position.
"How is your head?" he asked, helping her find her balance.
Cordy frowned and pressed her dirty fingertips to her temples. "Better," she said, looking at him warily. "What was that? The Powers' version of the Playboy Channel?"
He laughed. "As I said, it can be very erotic. As well it should be. After all, you are dancing with power from which all life sprang." He stood, brushed off his pants. "Now, let's go call your warrior."
Mr. Zhou urged her to her feet and she leaned heavily on him as she waited for her head to stop spinning.
"Okay, I've got it now," she said, steadying her legs beneath her. The movement sent hot spear of pain lancing through her chest. Cordy winced and pressed her hand between her breasts. "Ow," she said, looking at Mr. Zhou in confusion. Her features twisted into a grimace. "What was that?"
Mr. Zhou watched her closely as he guided her toward the house. "It is the connection making itself known."
Cordy limped beside him. The ache throbbed angrily, like a toothache or a sprain. "What?" she asked, breathing shallowly against it. "You mean my link with Angel?
Mr. Zhou nodded, helping her slowly down the path. "Part of what causes you pain is the link, itself. As you are learning to channel the visions, so we must also find a way for you to channel the link."
"It didn't seem to bother Doyle." With each minute, the pain in her chest intensified, spreading maliciously to her throat, her belly. Sweat broke out on her forehead even as she tried desperately to concentrate on what Mr. Zhou was saying.
"He was part demon. His body was strong enough to contain the connection. But I'm sure he had difficulty with it as well."
They stopped at the steps leading up to the deck. "Why does it have to hurt so much?" Cordy gasped, bending over and resting her hands on her knees. Her breaths came in shallow pants, and sweat pooled at her hairline. A clammy wave split over her and her mouth watered, the metallic taste nearly overwhelming.
"Oh, no. Gonna be..." she groaned. She fell to her knees and vomited, her dinner coming up in a violent burst. She whimpered, heaved again. Sweat trickled down her temples.
Mr. Zhou knelt next to her, his hand cool and soothing on the back of her neck. "Poor dear," he said, his voice soothing. "I know this must be uncomfortable for you."
Cordy groaned. "Uncomfortable times a hundred," she panted. "Try that and you're getting close."
Mr. Zhou patted her back comfortingly. "This is all very normal, especially for a link as strong as yours. Every day I am getting closer to a way of allowing you to live with this. Until then, simply understanding it will make it easier on you."
"It has to," she whimpered, sitting back on her heels and wrapping her arms around her waist. She leaned her head against the stair rail.
"Are you feeling better?"
She breathed carefully as the nausea subsided, leaving behind a dull throbbing bruise in the center of her chest. The ache pulsed with each beat of her heart.
"Angel," she whispered. "I have to call him," she said, pushing her hair off her sweaty cheeks. "I wish I had my cell phone."
"There's no coverage up here in any case, my dear." He helped her to her feet and through the house.
"Land lines seem to work just fine at your neighbor's, though," she muttered.
"Yes," he agreed. Mr. Zhou opened the Blazer's door and helped her in. He closed the door behind her, then rounded the hood and settled himself behind the steering wheel. Cordy's head lolled against the headrest.
She was silent as he pulled out of the garage, then eased the car down the dirt path and turned onto the gravel road. As her stomach settled, she felt slightly more capable of conversation. "Why *don't* you have a phone, anyway? You obviously don't mind technology," she said, remembering the titanium laptop on the kitchen desk.
"No, I just like my peace and quiet."
They hit a bump and Cordy rubbed her chest and winced. "Don't you ever get lonely? Don't you ever just wanna...reach out and touch someone?"
He glanced at her before returning his attention to the twisting road. "Of course. But it passes. Besides, we're never really alone, you know."
Cordy squinted out the window at the tree trunks, the dark, chilly shadows of the forest undergrowth. "I feel really alone, a lot," she said.
"As you begin to understand the nature of your link, you will see that all is connected. Nothing can exist by itself. We are interdependent creatures, all of us."
"Can't exactly go out for pizza with a pine tree, though," she replied, touching her fingertips to the thin pane of glass separating her from the forest.
"No, but you don't have to drown your loneliness in television or meaningless relationships, either."
Cordy huffed and looked at him. "I like being alone. Just not all the time."
"Of course not," Mr. Zhou scoffed. "Why would you? You think, because I live alone, no phone, no TV, that I am a hermit? Hardly. Why do you think I have a house so big, a table that seats twelve?"
"I wondered about that."
"Besides clients, many people come and stay with me, often for months at a time. I go to Sunnydale monthly to see Marcia. I grocery shop in Fawnskin. I am isolated by choice, Cordelia. And my isolation feeds me, fuels me to do my work. Work like I am doing with you takes an enormous amount of energy, you know."
Cordelia blinked. "So this is your work? Like your job?"
Mr. Zhou nodded. "As you are a Seer, I am what you would call a shaman. Since a child, I have walked between worlds."
"That must be freaky."
"Yes, to some. To others, it is a lifeline. A bridge between life and death."
"But...but...if it's a lifeline, how can you charge for it? I mean, that just feels..." she waved her hand. "I don't know. We charge for what we do, but still. Two-hundred-fifty-thousand dollars?"
He nodded. "I understand. It appears unseemly that I would place so high price on my abilities."
"Unseemly," Cordy repeated. "That's a good word."
"There's a reason I charge the fee I do. Part is self-preservation. I only have a few clients in a decade. But also because asking a fee like mine makes the relationship clean. Any shaman who doesn't ask for money is charging you in some other way. And it is equally costly, and usually not as pleasant."
"What do you mean, not as pleasant? I can think of far more pleasant ways to spend a quarter-mil. If I'd known Angel had that much money, we'd've been racking up points at Chanel months ago."
Mr. Zhou laughed as he steered the car carefully around a rut. "I once met a man whose aura had been, as your computer people would say, hacked into. He had entrusted himself to a shaman with less than honorable methods, and the shaman was extracting his payment by draining the man of energy. The shaman grew more powerful, and the man grew weaker. He was on the verge of death when I met him."
"Oh, my God," Cordelia gasped. "Did you save him?"
"Yes, of course. The shaman was very angry, though," he laughed. "He didn't get his payment in full."
Cordy grinned. "I hate when that happens."
"Is that creep still out there?" She could sic Angel on him, teach the man a real lesson.
"Oh, yes. I run into him at certain functions. We talk shop, compare notes." He shrugged. "Evil is unavoidable. It's how you respond to it that makes living with it possible."
"Angel said the same thing after his epiphany."
"Your Angel keeps getting smarter."
"Yeah, well, he'd better be home. I'd like him to get smart on those vamps."
They turned into the neighbor's driveway and Mr. Zhou tooted the horn.
The door opened and Sally, the rancher's wife, stuck her head out the door. "Oh, Martin, Cordelia. Another vision? My dear, you must come and use the phone," she said, stepping back to let them in.
Sally invited Mr. Zhou in for a drink after directing Cordy to the office for privacy. The late afternoon sunlight slanted through the half-open blinds, striping the large oak desk. Cordy leaned against the edge and reached for the phone, the ache in her chest turning hot.
She had to talk to him. Now.
She dialed the hotel, then fiddled with the fountain pens in the penholder as the phone rang. It was answered quickly.
"Gunn?" Cordy asked, surprised.
"Cordy? Hey, y'all, it's Cordy!" At Gunn's words, she heard Wes call her name in greeting as well, his voice warm and familiar. A smile spread across her face. Oh, God, she missed them.
"What's up?" Gunn asked. Before she could answer, she heard a scuffle and Gunn's voice, abruptly muffled. "No, wait, Angel, give the phone back," Gunn demanded. "We weren't through talkin'."
"Tough," Angel responded. Then, "Cordelia," he said, his voice as clear as if she were sitting right next to him.
"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. Just another vision."
"You're okay, though?" he asked.
His concern made her feel warm, safe. "Yeah. I'm fine. You, however, have a job to do. There's a nasty situation developing out near my apartment," she reported. "Vamp nest. Going after the early morning daycare drop-off tomorrow."
"Thanks for the heads-up," said Angel.
In the background, Cordelia could hear Wes and Gunn talking, the clank of metal on metal. She wished she were there with them, steeped in their presence as they readied for patrol.
"Yeah, if you guys don't get there, it'll be bad. And you need to be extra careful. It'll be close to sunrise," she said. "I don't want to have to worry about you becoming a crispy critter."
"Don't worry about me, Cordelia. Just take care of yourself." There was a pause, more noise in the background, then silence, as if Gunn and Wes had left the room.
She could almost hear Angel's smile. "He's great. He slept through the night for the first time."
"Good for him! I'll bet that was strange for you, though."
"Yeah. He's definitely his own little person."
"I miss him," Cordy said wistfully.
"Yeah," Angel said.
There was a moment of humming silence. "Well, I should go," Cordy said, feeling like a high school girl who didn't want to hang up on her boyfriend. She rolled her eyes at her goofiness, but the feeling didn't go away.
"Yeah, me too," Angel replied, his voice soft and even.
Cordy twisted the cord around her finger, confused by the rush of need that flooded her. "Okay, well," she said. "Be careful."
"Cordy," Angel said, his voice nothing more than a whisper.
"Yeah?" she breathed.
There was a beat of silence. Two. "I miss you," he sighed.
Cordy felt a laugh, hot and joyful bubble up from her throat. "Oh, God, Angel, I miss you too. I thought it was just me."
"No, I mean, we all miss you. But, I don't know, I just..." he trailed off.
Cordy sighed, the golden bubble of joy bursting and leaving behind a soft, happy glow. "I know."
The line went silent again. "Be safe," Angel finally said.
"You too," Cordy replied, the words feeling inadequate. "Talk to you soon?"
"You'd better," Angel declared.
Cordy's smile felt like the sunrise. She hung up the phone and stood, staring across the desk, her eyes unfocused, her body soft.
"Just four more weeks," she whispered.
Cordelia woke sometime deep in the night, her room cloaked in darkness, the mosquito netting rippling softly in the chilly night air. She lay still, listening to the silence, trying to figure out what had wakened her.
Nothing stirred in the house. She wasn't thirsty and she didn't need to pee. But something had nudged her awake.
It was the moon, she realized. It was full and bright, its silver rays casting a slant of light across the floor nearly as bright as a street lamp.
Fascinated, she got out of bed and stuck her foot in it. She'd never seen moonlight like this, a purpled silver haze that illuminated everything it touched from the inside out. It turned her skin an eerie violet, making the tracery of veins stand out against the paled flesh.
She stepped all the way into the silver slant and let it wash over her body, feeling the kiss of the breeze on her skin and imagining that it was actually the moon's cool touch.
Outside the night birds called and the treetops sang their windy song. Ignoring the chill, she padded onto the deck and leaned against the rail. All sleepiness vanished as she saw, for the first time, just what Angel loved about the night.
It was softer, deeper than the day, a place where shadows ruled. She stepped off the porch and onto the grass, feeling the cold tickle beneath her feet, and the dampness that would become frost by morning, collecting on the legs of her pajamas.
She breathed the clean air deep into her lungs, letting it spread through her entire body. Gooseflesh rose, sending a tingle over her skin. It reminded her of brushing against Angel first thing in the morning, before he'd had a chance to collect heat. It was comforting and a little scary.
The woods were so dark, like black velvet, and they pulled her irresistibly to them. She slipped along the trail, kicking up dust. It coiled around her ankles like a gray cat, soft and mysterious.
Trees towered over her now, and as she followed the path, she noticed the different texture of the shadows, the intricate weaving of leaves and branches.
Small animals scuffled in the bushes and somewhere far off an owl hooted.
The forest was lit by silver, stained-glass patches of moonlight, a light so penetrating that it went places even the sun couldn't find. She saw things that she missed during the day, despite the fact that she'd walked the path for nearly three weeks. A rock shaped like a man's face; a tree with limbs that touched the ground like fingertips; a glowing column of light that became the space between two oddly bent trees.
She inhaled, awestruck, as she realized that for the first time since high school she was out at night by herself, with no stake in her pocket and no warrior or Slayer to protect her. And she felt perfectly safe.
As the visions smoothed out and she opened herself to the energy behind them, her sense of being connected to the rest of the world expanded. If there had been anything dangerous out here, she would have known it from the moment she stepped off the deck.
Joy flashed through her and she ran, laughing wildly, meeting the breeze breath for breath. Oh, it was so beautiful, and it made her miss Angel terribly.
Even as she thought it, the link opened, sending its luxurious, sensual spell over her. She exhaled with it, welcoming the erotic throb, courting it now like a surfer courted a wave. Her mind opened with it, and she saw herself as if from above, a small, dark-haired woman, running joyfully through the night.
Then the link opened wider expanding with her desire to see. Angel's suite came into her mind, its quiet masculine atmosphere as comforting as the moonlight. It was empty now, but he would be home in a couple of hours.
She wanted to be there to see him come home that night; she wished she could travel in dreams the way Mr. Zhou could. She would wait for him in his leather chair, sleeping lightly under the lambswool blanket.
Being separated from him was like watching the moon disappear behind clouds. She didn't understand why her feelings for him had changed; she had never needed him like this before. Maybe absence did make the heart grow fonder. She laughed again, rounding a wide curve and coming into a clearing. The moon iced her hands as they pumped with each step, throwing a lavender shadow on the path next to her.
She jogged up the hill toward the house as the moon sailed overhead and the owls sang their call and response. She understood the word holy now, and the word worship. She wanted to take Angel's hand and say, yes, now I understand.
Now I understand how some things live their entire lives at night.
A few evenings later, Cordy sat, bundled in a sweater, on the lawn between the deck and the forest. She was trying to meditate. She hadn't given up on it. Yet.
The words of the 23rd Psalm seemed to be working pretty well at keeping her focused. They were easy to remember and actually sort of comforting once she got past feeling like a dork for meditating in the first place.
"I see you are experiencing more ease with the darkness," Mr. Zhou said, settling next to her on the grass.
Cordy opened her eyes and smiled. "Yeah. It's kinda weird. The Hellmouth holds you hostage after awhile, you know?"
"Not just the Hellmouth," he said, plucking a blade of grass and holding it up to the moonlight to study.
"Nah, everything. Gang-bangers, rapists, jeez, it gets to the point that just going outside takes balls." She snickered. "Sometimes, literally."
"Yes, it is more difficult for women than men in this respect," Mr. Zhou said, dropping the blade of grass and linking his fingers in his lap. "But you will no longer need to worry about that, now that you have discovered the link."
"Of course. Just close your eyes. Let it lead you."
"Use the Force, Luke," she snickered.
"As long as you don't call me Yoda," Zhou responded with a laugh.
"But back to the subject at hand. If what you're saying is true, I should just be able to close my eyes and, what? Walk around without tripping over anything?"
"Night creatures do it all the time, child. They have sonar, night vision, sense of smell," he replied. "One creature will call and another will respond, and in that way they will orient each other. It's not so different than day-walking. Strong light simply plays a smaller part."
"Cool," Cordy said, her curiosity piqued.
Mr. Zhou pushed himself gracefully to his feet. "I am going back to the house, now. I just wanted to check on you."
"I'm great," said Cordy. "Just hangin'."
Mr. Zhou patted her shoulder. "Come in soon, my dear, you need your rest," he commented.
"All right," Cordy called as he disappeared. "I won't be long."
She closed her eyes again and tried to imagine what it would be like to navigate without vision. Her ears began picking up on little sounds: rustlings in the bushes, the flutter of bird wings. Her skin felt like it was blooming, soaking up the atmosphere: a dampness in the air, the brush of the breeze, the individual grass blades tickling her ankles.
She stood, keeping her eyes closed, and took a cautious step. The ground felt different this way, firmer, but she'd have to move really slowly so she didn't throw herself off balance. She put her hands out in front of her and took another step, letting her ears and her skin become her guide.
As she walked, she felt the grass become the soft dirt of the path, then the springy undergrowth of the forest. Twigs snapped beneath her feet and tree roots rose out of the ground like hard ropes.
Deciding to try an experiment, she rubbed her chest and took a breath, concentrating on the link. It opened beautifully, like a window sliding upward, and flooded her with light and warmth. She stopped as it permeated her body, and waited for its deep thrill to subside.
Eyes still closed, she dropped her hands and let the link guide her through the woods.
Through it she could see, not just in front of her, but all around. She felt attached to thousands of silken cords, almost as if she were part of a web. If she stepped one way, the web changed its pattern, and she could sense shapes like one would sense a shift in an energy field.
Trees felt vibrant, alive. The shockwave of their power rippled through her, causing a giggle to rise from her throat. It was almost as if they were flirting with her, their branches tickling and nipping as she walked by.
Rocks were silent, stoic. Their energy was lower, closer to the earth, more solid than the trees. She moved carefully around the larger ones, brushing them with her fingertips as she passed.
Overhead a bird fluttered, its flapping wings startling her heart into a racing gallop. She gasped, then laughed at herself. The bird called, and another answered, and Cordy felt it reorient and fly in a new direction.
"Cool," she whispered, following the bird until she couldn't hear it any more.
Is this what Angel feels, she wondered as she mapped a wandering path back to the house. Connected to everything, open to everything. Able to hear the smallest sound, sense the tiniest movement of the leaves, smell the dirt and the grass and the pine needles?
She knew his senses were far more honed than that, but using the link gave her a new appreciation for what he must feel, what he must know. For nearly 250 years he'd had the highly developed senses of a predator. How could he live with the intensity?
And how could he stand to be around humans, who must seem plodding and dense?
The answer to that was clear: he'd give up eternity to become like her, human and fallible. He'd give up the night vision, the heightened hearing, the crazy-intense ability to smell, just to feel his heart beat. Just to sleep at night.
Just to die.
Cordy sighed and opened her eyes. She was within sight of the house now, and the porch lights beckoned her to her bed. Angel, dead, was a fear she faced every night. Like the Slayer, all he needed was one bad fight, and he was gone.
What would happen to the link, then? Would it flicker, and go out? Or would she be left with visions that had no warrior to fight them?
She stepped onto the deck, her tennis shoes slapping softly against the wood. The bedroom doors were open, and she slipped in through the dark, her eyes adjusting quickly after the glare of the porch lights.
The bathroom floor was cool under her feet as she toed off her shoes. She stripped off her flannel shirt and sweat pants and pulled on her silk pajamas. The water was warm on her chilled skin. She washed her face slowly, carefully, and moisturized. Flossed and brushed. Ran a brush through her hair.
She lay down on the bed, tucking herself under the covers and closed her eyes. Sleep took her down, slowly and easily.
"I love you, Cordy," Angel crooned, running his lips over her neck, her jaw, her temples. His eyes were golden, like a cat's. His hands, so big, were all over her.
He drew her down and kissed her, his tongue finding hers through the fangs. She pulled his tongue deeper into her mouth, swirling hers against it, not caring that his teeth were scraping her raw.
Her eyes closed on a whimper. So big, so hot, so good. He caressed her breasts, pulling heat from her belly like strings of red fire. Her nipples scorched against his open palm, and she cried out when she felt him slip his fingers into her overheated core.
She was slick with desire, her thighs damp against his hand. The scent rose up in the room, warm and heady.
He growled, a sound of pure, male lust. It was like a match dropped in a dry forest, pushing her already aroused system nearly to the breaking point.
"Please," she whimpered. "Angel, please." She rolled them over and wrapped her legs around his waist.
He rammed into her, pinning her hips against the mattress.
"Oh, God," she moaned.
One thrust, two, she was already so close. He found her mouth with his, and the touch of his lips, his teeth, was all she needed.
The orgasm erupted like a volcano, melting the hollow between her legs into a river of fire. "Angel!" she screamed, her body writhing in ecstasy.
"Yes," he hissed. He grabbed her hips, held her steady as he jerked against her. His body was steel-tight, his movements uncontrolled. He buried his face in her neck, and with a sharp cry, emptied himself into her.
They lay, still connected, for several long heartbeats. Then Angel slid his hand up her, caressing her belly, her breasts, her lips. "Amazing." He pulled back, his face sweaty and pinker than she'd ever seen it, almost human. His eyes were as bright as little suns.
"Yeah," she breathed.
Angel scrubbed his hand over his face and it returned to normal. He leaned over and kissed her again, this time gently, his tongue swiping out to soothe the scrapes his fangs had left.
"Hey," she said, a thought occurring to her. "This doesn't mean Angelus is coming out to play does it?"
Angel stared off into space. "Doesn't feel like it," he said after a long moment.
"Thank God," Cordy breathed. "Wait, should I be insulted?"
Angel laughed. "Hardly," he grinned. The look he wore, a seductive mixture of awe, dark thrill and tenderness, made Cordy's insides quiver.
He rolled them onto their sides and took her hand, bringing it to his lips. Cordy's heart turned over in her chest.
"I bought something for you." He reached over and pulled a small wooden box from the bedside table. The inlaid jewels on the lid glinted in the dim light.
"The five most beautiful words on the planet." Cordy sat up and took the box from his hand. Her heart rushed when she saw the tiny, hand-carved silver cross resting on the bed of velvet. It was about the size of her thumbnail, intricate and glowing and utterly feminine. She pulled it out by its chain.
"It'll keep the big, bad vamps away," Angel said with a smile.
"Not all of them, I hope." She put the cross on. It nestled in the hollow of her throat.
Angel put his fingertips on her neck, touching her pulse as it beat next to the charm. "Beautiful," he breathed.
She leaned over and kissed him.
Cordy's eyes opened and the room came into focus. "Oh, God," she groaned, pressing the heels of her hands against her eyelids.
She sat up. "It was a dream, Cordy," she whispered. "Another stupid dream."
But she'd never had a dream like that about Angel in all the years she'd known him. Not one that left her craving him like a drug. That left her knowing how his hands felt, what he tasted like. How it felt to have him inside of her....
She shook her head. "Doesn't matter. He's strictly no-bone, you know that." She scrubbed her hands over her face, trying to get rid of the lingering wisps of desire. "Don't waste your time on something that can never, ever happen."
Her heart gave a painful, grieving twist. She ignored it and closed her eyes, hoping she could go back to sleep.
"Cordelia, how much do you know about Angel?" They had finished lunch and were sitting in the kitchen, watching the rain that had finally descended on the mountain.
Cordy looked over at him. "Uh, you mean, like historically, or everyday stuff?"
"Just that he's a vamp with happiness issues," she said, stretching her arms overhead like a lazy cat. "Why?"
"It's part of the theory I'm working on. Nearly finished with, I should say."
"Oh, well, I know he was sired by that bleached-out ho, Darla. He's..." she tapped her fingernail on her teeth. "Two hundred forty-eight. The Kalderashes, a gypsy family in Rumania, cursed him with a soul for killing their favorite daughter, and in order to shanshu he has to atone for his crimes committed before he was ensouled. And you never want to meet Angelus. He's evil incarnate."
"Not bad," Mr. Zhou said.
"Thanks. And this fits into your theory, how?"
"Because I believe Angel may be the key."
She reached for her mug of tea and sipped, letting the warm, honeyed liquid warm her body. "Again, how?"
"Angel was once human, and he survived the transition."
"Angel's dead. He didn't survive anything."
Mr. Zhou shook his head. "I mean, he has successfully melded demon and soul. It shows that it can be done."
"Are you saying I have to become a demon? A vamp?" Her voice rose.
"No, not at all. But I think, somehow, if we were to bind you to Angel, his demon would strengthen you."
"I'm already bound to him," she said, pointing to her eyes. "Visions? Hello?"
"Yes, but that obviously isn't enough. It has to be something stronger. Something at a soul level."
"Guess that means we gotta do some reading, huh?" Cordy set her mug down on the island. "Oh, boy. Research."
Mr. Zhou laughed. "Research is a fact of life, my dear."
"Speaking of research, what do you know about Angel's past? I mean his way-in-the-past, past?"
He crossed his legs and steepled his fingers, his eyes losing focus as he thought about her question. "Probably quite a bit. What would you like to know?"
"Just.... Sometimes he says things that freak me out. Historic stuff. Then I had this dream and...." She shrugged. "It's just weird, knowing someone, but not really knowing them."
Zhou nodded. "I understand." He sat silently for a moment. "Vampires are a specific breed of demon," he began. "And until recently quite a few lived to be very, very old. In part this was because they lived within very precise social structures."
Cordy arched an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
"Liam, the boy who became your Angel, was born in 1727. His was a world ruled not by freedom as we know it, but by monarchs and religious wars. He was 13 when the famine hit, something that changed Ireland forever.
"His father was a merchant. Not royalty, but wealthy enough that his family was protected from starvation. He probably owned some land, and like the other lords of his time, protected it with everything he had. These men formed alliances, swore oaths. They promised that they would not betray one another, in battle or otherwise.
"In the way of vampires," he continued, "that which was human was taken and distorted. They amassed power by winning territories and increasing the amount of land--and people--under their control. Eventually a handful of very influential vampires dominated most of Europe. Angel's grandsire, the Master, was one."
Cordy sneered. "That creep."
"Yes, I have heard that," Mr. Zhou replied dryly. "These rulers usually would choose a fight over a truce, but there were times when peaceable behavior was necessary. When this was the case, they swore an oath of loyalty to each other, much like their human counterparts."
"Vampires. Loyal," Cordy snorted. "Yeah, right."
"Stand up and I'll show you," Mr. Zhou said.
Cordy pushed her chair back and stood, facing him.
"If you were passing through another vamp's territory and you didn't want a battle," Mr. Zhou explained, "you would bare your throat to him." He gestured and Cordy tilted her head, exposing the long line of her neck.
"He would know, then, that you wished him no harm, but, more importantly that you swore your allegiance to him while you were on his property."
"That's pretty stupid," said Cordy, rolling her eyes. "He could rip your throat out."
"Exactly," said Mr. Zhou. "That's why it was a show of faith. The Master would then press his teeth to the other vamp's jugular. He might also swear an oath, promising to protect him."
He took Cordy's shoulders in his hands, then pressed his mouth to her flesh. As he straightened, he said something in a strange tongue.
"What did you just say?" Cordy asked.
"I said, 'I swear my loyalty to you,' in Angel's mother language, Gaelic," Mr. Zhou said.
"In this way," he continued, releasing her shoulders, "each held something of the other's, creating a balance of power that allows both to thrive."
Cordy nodded and sat back down. "Say that line again."
Mr. Zhou repeated the phrase.
"Cool," Cordy said. "I've never seen Angel do that before, though."
"I am not surprised. Most vampires nowadays are woefully unaware of their history, and the masters who do travel would only come to challenge Angel's turf. I imagine he hasn't used that signal in decades; maybe more than a century.
"But it is good for you to recognize. If you are with him, and you see him make that sign, you will know that the vampire he has greeted will do you no harm. As his Seer, you are considered his property, and you will be respected."
"Property," Cordy snorted. "Hardly."
"Yes, it is hard for a modern-day woman to understand. It seems archaic, demeaning. But truthfully, these vampires would view your relationship like a marriage. You are, after all, linked for life."
She was silent for a moment, considering. "Which brings up a question. What happens if one of us dies?"
"The other might survive, but it would be difficult, especially for the first few years."
"That is why it is of the utmost importance that you keep your health and his as your first priority. If either of you slips, the other suffers. Angel was lucky that you were there to receive the visions from Doyle. He might not have survived the night, otherwise."
Cordy shuddered. "Makes me wanna stay in the house all the time. Not risk anything."
"Ah, but that's the catch. Without human contact, Angel cannot shanshu. And you are his key to human contact. Life is a risk, Cordelia. In that way, every day, every night, is precious."
"Yeah, I've heard that," she said, turning her face toward the windows.
"I have something you might be interested in," Mr. Zhou said the next morning.
Cordy looked up from the pot of bubbling porridge she was stirring. "What's that?"
He set a book on the counter next to her. Vampires Through the Ages glowed in gold lettering against the dark, green cover. "It's a series of history books. You've probably seen others."
Cordy nodded. "We've got the Warriors version back at the office. I didn't realize they had one of these, though." She picked it up and flipped through the pages. "Looks interesting. Oh, my God," she said.
She poured their breakfast into bowls and set the pot in the sink to soak. "Spike's in there. Geez. Like his ego isn't big enough already."
Mr. Zhou laughed. "Yes, well you don't have to tell him." He took the bowls to the island and sat down on one of the stools.
Cordy joined him, resting the book next to her so that the picture of William the Bloody was highlighted in the morning sun. "His ego is hardly the worst of his problems right now," she said taking a bite of rice. "He actually pulled an Angel, if you can believe it."
"What do you mean?"
"He's fallen in love with Buffy."
Mr. Zhou blinked. "I'm sorry, did you say he's in love with the Slayer?"
Cordy nodded and took another bite. "I just saw him. We spent the night before I met you at Buffy's. It was totally wild. Like a trip into the past, only not." Cordy flipped through the pages as she chewed.
"It frightens me that you're starting to make sense, Cordelia," he said wryly, as he sipped his tea.
"Whoa, wait a minute," Cordy said, stopping at a page. "Son of a...."
"What?" Mr. Zhou said, leaning across the island to peer at the page. "Oh, you know them, too?"
She looked up. "What? No. I...man that is so weird." She studied the page carefully. Under the chapter title, "The Elders," was a black-and-white drawing of two vampires, a man and a woman, in game face and old-fashioned clothes. "I had this dream the other night. While I was at Buffy's, actually."
"Really? What about?"
She pointed at the book. "Them."
"You had a dream about the Elders?" he asked in surprise.
"Yeah, this vamp came up to me and said the Elders were coming for Angel. Then he tried to kill me." She shuddered at the memory.
"Did you tell Angel?"
"Yeah. He said it was just a dream and not to worry about it."
Mr. Zhou sat quietly for a moment. "This is all very interesting."
"Having a nightmare is interesting?"
"That's not what I mean. I think there's a bigger theme here." He rested his hand on the book. "History."
"You think the theme is history?"
He nodded. "Yours and Angel's. You share a history together, through your friends in Sunnydale."
"Yeah, so? Lots of people share a history. Big deal."
"In this case, it might be. When was the last time you were in Sunnydale?"
"My point exactly. Not only do you get pulled back in order to meet me but while you're there, you come face-to-face with your past. And Angel's."
"You mean like Buffy and the whole star-crossed lovers thing?"
"Yes, but more than that, someone, somewhere sent you a warning. About vamps Angel once knew."
"Angel knows them?" She pointed at the book. "He didn't say anything to me." She huffed. "That's so like him."
"Angel's got over 200 years of back story that you, the woman most intimately connected to him, know nothing about. I imagine there's some of it he doesn't want to share--or doesn't know how to."
He leaned forward and covered her hand with his. "Cordelia," he said intently, "Angel and the Elders were once very close. The books don't say why they didn't remain so. Most historians assume there was a betrayal of the oath of loyalty, but it is all speculation. That you dreamed about them coming for him could be the truth. And if that is so, you must be on your guard."
"Why? We kill vamps every day."
"Not these vamps. There's a reason they are called The Elders."
"Let me guess. They've lived a long time," Cordy said wryly.
"Not just that, they wield great power in their community. If you are their enemy, you are also the enemy of vampire cadres all over the world."
She took a deep breath in an attempt to calm her nerves. "But it could just have been a dream, right?"
"I suppose it could simply have been a metaphor for you coming to terms with his past. Not just who he is, now, but who he was."
"Angelus? I know he's part of the equation. I do everything I can to protect myself in case he returns. Other than that, what can I do?"
"Maybe nothing," Mr. Zhou said thoughtfully. "Maybe I'm reading more into it than I should."
Cordy shrugged. "I'll keep it in mind. So, what's on the agenda today?" She pushed the lingering discomfort aside and stood to take their bowls to the sink. "I need some exercise. You up for training?"
He nodded. "Sounds good. Then I plan on spending the afternoon researching. Why don't you do the same?"
"Fine with me."
She sat on the back porch watching the stars peek through the last of the clouds. It was cold out, now. The ground had frozen in the night, and snow dusted the ground.
She found herself wondering where Angel was and her longing for him became palpable, an ache deep in her chest. She rubbed her breastbone absently and thought about him gathering weapons for the evening patrol. She breathed a prayer for his safety.
There was a click as the door behind her opened. Mr. Zhou walked onto the deck and handed her a mug of tea, then sat down on the chair next to her and propped his feet up.
"Thanks," Cordy said, slurping the hot brew.
He nodded, leaned back and looked at the sky. "It's a beautiful night."
"The night Angel drove me here," she said quietly, "we stopped and looked at the stars. He told me how he wanted to be a sailor so he could follow them around the world." She sighed, missing him with an intensity that made her entire body hurt.
"You are in love with him," Zhou said.
Cordy laughed, ignoring the way her heart jerked at his words. "Well, of course I am. I mean, he's gorgeous. Who wouldn't be?"
Mr. Zhou smiled and sipped his tea delicately.
"But I'm not in love with him, like a boyfriend, if that's what you mean."
"What do you mean, then?" he asked curiously.
"It's hard to describe." She rubbed her chest again. "It hurts to be apart from him. And not just emotionally, but physically. It's like an ache."
Mr. Zhou nodded. "As if part of you is missing."
"You want to bring him into your body."
Again, her heart lurched. "Not like you're thinking. But it's almost like I want to open up my chest and put him next to my heart. Keep him there so he can never leave." She groaned. "God, that sounds so Angelina Jolie."
Zhou laughed, then, in his way, was quiet for a few moments. "It's nothing to be afraid of, my dear. It is simply the link. It is a sign of a successful connection that you feel this."
Again, he paused and drank his tea. In the woods an owl called to its mate and she replied, a love song to the night.
"You are both part of a long line, whose history you will one day know and understand." He leaned forward, a serious look on his face. "You must always be prepared, Cordelia. With a link as powerful as yours, the Powers will test you many times."
Cordy shivered, as if his words had flung open a window and let in a draft. "Why?"
"It is like the refiner's fire, burning you to your purest essence."
She was floating high above the earth, untethered, and surrounded by space as vast, empty and cold as anything she'd ever felt.
"Cordelia?" He tapped the back of her hand.
She jerked, sloshing tea. "What?" She blinked in confusion.
"Are you feeling okay?"
She set her mug on the table next to her. "Just tired, I guess." She ran her hands over her arms, trying to get warm. "A little cold all of a sudden."
Mr. Zhou slapped his hands briskly against his knees. "You must go to bed then. And I must begin my work for the night."
"Yes," Cordy agreed, the need to sleep suddenly becoming overwhelming. "Good idea."
"Sleep well," Mr. Zhou said, picking up the mugs and heading toward the door.
"You too," Cordy replied. "Whenever it is that you sleep," she whispered as she walked across the deck to her bedroom. She left the doors open and dropped the mosquito netting, then went to the bathroom to get ready for bed.
Wes sat with his feet propped up on the desk, reading a book written by a yogini from India 500 years before. His stomach growled. He glanced at his watch. They'd been at it since morning, and it was now well after two in the afternoon.
I'll just finish this chapter and then we'll take a break, he thought. Probably not going to find anything useful in this book anyway. Then his gaze stumbled across a series of words that had his eyebrows arching. "Oh, my. That's interesting."
"What's interesting?" Fred asked, looking up from her copy of Warriors Through the Ages.
"I may have found something," he said, turning the pages rapidly as he cross-checked a paragraph he'd read earlier. "Yes, it looks like...."
Gunn turned his scythe over and began sharpening the other side of the blade. The smell of honing oil permeated the office. "Yo, man, you gonna clue us in, or what?"
"I don't think you're going to believe this," Wes said. "But it looks like the only way Cordy can be saved is if she has sex."
Gunn shook his head. "Damn, that girl gets all the luck."
Wes paused, his glasses glinting in the desklamp's light. "With Angel."
Lorne walked into the office. "Hello, all," he said cheerily, jiggling Connor against his shoulder. He looked from Fred to Wes to Gunn. "Okay, at first, I thought it was just me," he said to the baby. "Now I realize that this group is the master of the awkward silence."
Wes cleared his throat. "Yes. Well."
"What English is trying to say is that we've had a little epiphany," Gunn replied, his voice laced with disbelief and humor.
"Really." Lorne pulled a chair out with the toe of his shoe and sat down. "Do tell."
Connor began to fuss.
"Here, I'll take him," Fred said, leaning across the table. "I haven't gotten to hold him yet today."
"There, little nipper, go see your Aunt Fred," Lorne said, passing the baby to her and settling back in his chair. "In this bunch, the word epiphany can mean many things. Not all of them good," he said, lacing his fingers together and resting his hands on his chest.
"This might be good. We're not sure yet," Wes said. "Since Cordy left, we've been researching the visions."
"Just a moment ago, I came across something that sounds promising. From what this says, it seems one way she can keep the visions from overpowering her system is to have sex," Wes said, tapping the page.
Lorne's eyebrows raised. "Why is that surprising? She was going to have to com-shuk with Groo to get rid of them. Wouldn't she have to do the opposite in this dimension to keep them?"
"It's not the deed itself, bro," Gunn said. "It's who she has to do it with."
Lorne made a "give it to me" motion with his hand. "Spill it, boys."
"It's Angel," Wes finished.
Lorne burst out laughing. "You've got to be kidding."
Wes shook his head and pushed the book toward the demon. "No, take a look."
Lorne shook his head. "I'm no good with the research mojo. Explain it to me."
"Cordelia's human body is being overpowered by the visions. That we already knew," Wes said.
Lorne nodded in agreement.
"But upon further reading," Wes continued, "it appears that, if Cordy can become demon--or part demon--the visions won't kill her. They'll likely still cause great pain, but she would be able to live with them, much like Angel's previous Seer did."
"Wait. That's not what you said before," Gunn interrupted. "You said she'd have to do the nasty with Angel in order to save herself."
Wes nodded. "Yes. You see, in Cordy's case, there are only two ways she can become a demon. One is simply not an option, as it would involve her being vamped."
"Okay. Definitely not an option. I'm still not getting the love connection, though," Gunn said, shaking his head.
Wes leaned forward, his elbows coming to rest on the open book. "Sex," he said intently. "Tantric sex. It is the fusion of souls by way of the physical."
"Meaning, if they get down and dirty, their spirits are joined," Gunn said.
"Exactly. By performing tantric rituals with Angel, his demon and her human would join on a higher plane."
Lorne nodded thoughtfully. "So they'd do a Sting-and-Trudie, and Cordy would get to keep her visions...and her life."
Wes nodded. "Exactly. Since the Seer-Warrior relationship is rather a mystical marriage of sorts, it actually makes sense."
"But what if his human and her human merged, instead? We'd be back to square one," Gunn interjected.
Wes shook his head. "That's the lovely thing about tantra," Wes said. "It joins the *entire* being, not just a part of it. Since Angel is both human and demon, a hybrid, as it were, everything he is would merge with Cordy--and vice versa."
"Except for the part where Angel loses his soul when he gets blissed. And I gotta say, it'd be hard not to get blissed out with a babe like Cordelia," Gunn said. "So, no dice."
"Angel had sex with Darla and he didn't lose his soul. And from what we saw the night Connor was born, I imagine he had some sort of relations with the Furies," Wes argued.
"Darla. Hardly the kind of woman that would give a man a happy," Lorne said. "And the Furies? Please. Achieving pure bliss with them would be like trying to find nutritional value in a Twinkie."
Fred, who had been rocking Connor, looked up. "Kye-rumption," she said.
"Bless you," Gunn replied.
Lorne leaned forward, his eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "I hadn't thought about that."
"What are you talking about?" Wes asked.
"Kye-rumption," Lorne repeated. "It's a Pylean word. It basically means 'two warriors of equal strength meet each other on the field of battle.' I never thought about them that way, but...."
"I'm still not following," Wes said, shaking his head.
"It's really very simple, actually. And, like any great equation, quite elegant," Fred continued. "I noticed it a few weeks ago when I walked in on Angel and Cordy during a training session. It was like watching a pas a deux of two perfectly matched dancers. Only it was more than physical. Their souls were dancing, too."
Wes blew a breath through pursed lips. "Well."
"Almost like the PTBs had this planned all along, huh?" Gunn said.
"Except we still have that happiness clause," Lorne commented.
Wes nodded. "Yes, that's something to consider."
"Well, there's that good old British understatement," Gunn snorted.
Fred shifted the baby so he lay more comfortably in her lap. "I think we should tell Angel," she said quietly. "I mean, if there's a chance...."
"Tell me what?" Angel asked, coming into the room with a steaming mug. He took a sip and set the mug down on the desk.
"We think we may have discovered a way to keep Cordy from being killed by the visions," Wes said quietly.
"Why would you not tell me that?" Angel looked from person to person, his face registering uncertainty.
"Because we're not sure it will work, and we didn't want you to be disappointed," Wes replied.
"Anything that will save Cordy is worth a shot," Angel said, crossing his arms.
Wes nodded and opened his mouth.
"You have to have sex with Cordy," Fred blurted. "Tantric sex."
Angel's eyes widened. "I'm sorry, did you say I had to have...."
"...sex with *Angel*?" Cordy asked, stunned. "That's how he keeps his soul?"
Mr. Zhou nodded and set a stack of books in front of her.
"I think you've got it backwards," Cordy said, pushing the books aside. "That's how he *loses* his soul." The sitting room was bright with noontime sunlight, though outside snow blanketed the area six inches thick. One of Ben's men had shoveled the path from the house to the clearing, and the black dirt was like a graphite line on pure, white paper.
"With certain people. Not with you. You see, having sex with you actually binds his soul by way of the link. It's all right here." He patted the stack of books, then smiled happily.
"Huh?" Cordy asked, obviously confused.
Mr. Zhou opened the book on top. "See here?" He tapped a page he'd marked with a yellow sticky note. "The gypsies are usually quite visionary, but in this case they were blinded by their desire for revenge. Their only goal was to make Angel suffer for eternity, and in casting their spell, they didn't anticipate the Powers' plan for him."
He set that book aside and reached for another. "Because he has committed his life to fighting the good fight, Angel has become more than an ensouled vampire."
A portrait of Angel looked at her from across time, its classic lines surrounded by ruffles and long, beribboned hair. "Angel is now a man with a divine purpose, one that is directly linked to you. In this way, the Powers have not only created a powerful Warrior-Seer union, they have effectively bypassed the curse."
Cordelia couldn't help it. She laughed. "You have *got* to be kidding. The one thing--the *one* thing--we've feared for the last three years is the thing that *saves* him?"
Mr. Zhou nodded, his eyes glittering with amusement. "The irony of this situation does not escape me."
"So if Angel and I get physical, then his soul is bound forever?"
Cordy's eyes narrowed. "But you just said...."
"In order for Angel's soul to be bound, you must have sexual relations. In order for it to remain bound forever...."
"We have to have sex regularly," Cordy said, catching on. Her heart gave an excited dance. "It's bound only as long as we're in a relationship."
Mr. Zhou nodded. "Exactly."
"But what about me? That solves Angel's problem, but it doesn't solve mine."
"Oh, but it does. Binding you to each other in the physical plane saves Angel. But in the spiritual plane, it unites you with his demon, thus saving you."
"Oh, man," Cordy said, wrapping her arms around her waist. The dream wasn't just a dream, after all. It could actually be real. The thrill spread from her heart to her entire body. "This is so wild."
"You think this is wild? Wait until you see the texts."
"You're going to show me sex manuals?" Her mouth hung open in disbelief.
"Yes, but don't worry. With me, you will simply be reading and asking questions. With Angel, you will be putting your studies to use."
"Whew. Because I'm *so* not into the dirty-old-man thing."
Mr. Zhou laughed. "Except that your warrior is about 230 years older than you are."
"Yeah, but he's always gonna be a hunk of salty goodness." Cordy stopped, an odd look crossing her face. "And I won't be." Her gaze flew to his, every ounce of joy suddenly draining out of her. "Mr. Zhou, what happens when I'm 50 and he's still 26? What happens when I die, and he stays behind?"
Mr. Zhou regarded her solemnly. "That is a problem. But you know, you could die first."
A shiver walked up her spine. "Are you trying to tell me something?"
"No. I'm simply stating a fact." He came back to the table and sat on the stool next to hers. "None of us knows the time of our death," he said quietly. "We only know that one day we will die. It is what I am trying to teach you in meditation. You must live fully in each moment, for the one behind is past, and the one before has not come. This moment is all you have."
He leaned forward, his eyes intense and direct. "If you are able to be awake to the present, then when it is your time, you will be able to take your death with dignity. And so will Angel."
"But that's so...I don't know...." She waved her hand, unable to put into words the sinking feeling in her stomach.
Mr. Zhou's face smile showed nothing but compassion. "The Buddhists have spent eons studying the concept of impermanence." He patted her hand warmly. "If you would like, I will loan you some books on this subject. You might find them useful."
Cordy nodded, feeling slightly less frightened. "I'd like that. But, still...."
"Cordelia, facing loss and death is the very nature of life. Every day when I awaken, I remind myself that I have been given 24 hours in which to live most fully. Except I also know that one day I won't live to see that 24th hour.
"The pain and fear you now experience are no different than what I, or any other sentient being, felt when they realized for the first time that life was not eternal. People die. You know this in your head, you have seen it in your life. But to know it in your heart...."
"But for Angel, life *is* eternal," Cordy interrupted.
Mr. Zhou nodded. "It certainly has the potential to be, but whether it will or not, well that's up to some power besides Angel. He's no different than the rest of us in that respect. And, I imagine, for a man who could live to be thousands of years old, death is both more feared and more desired than it is for the rest of us."
"Okay, all that aside. I'm still reeling at the idea of...you know...with Angel."
"Do you know the story of the frog in the pot?" Mr. Zhou asked with a laugh.
Cordy looked confused. "Talk about your basic non sequitor."
"It's an old story, but one that bears retelling. If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, he will be burned by the heat and jump back out. However, if you drop a frog in cold water and gradually increase the heat, he does not notice, and he will stay in the pot until he boils to death."
Cordy raised her eyebrows. "Lovely. Your point?"
"You and Angel are like the second frog. You have been married on one level since you became linked. But your friendship has also evolved into a matrimonial relationship over the years, something you haven't noticed because it has happened so gradually."
Cordy stared at him.
"When you first met him, you found him attractive."
"Sure, but I was young and stupid. Besides, he was dating Buffy."
"And that didn't bother you because you didn't have feelings for him. But think back to the way you felt when you found out he had sex with Darla. It was a very different story, wasn't it?"
"Well, sure." Cordy shrugged. "But he'd not only lied about it, he'd also risked his soul by doing it in the first place. Why wouldn't I feel pissed off?"
Mr. Zhou nodded. "Of course, but remember a few weeks ago when you woke up in the hospital. When you looked at him, what did you see?"
Cordy swallowed, but this time remained silent.
"You have not allowed yourself to think of Angel as anything but your friend because of the curse. You are too practical and compassionate a woman to risk yourself or your friends by falling in love with him. But that doesn't mean it hasn't happened. We can't choose who we love, Cordelia. Especially when the Powers have chosen us for one another."
"I didn't have a choice?" Well, that was hardly fair, now was it?
"You did. You made it."
She narrowed her eyes. "Funny, I don't remember that."
"You could have gotten rid of the visions," he reminded her. "You didn't. You knowingly allowed yourself to continue receiving them, even at great risk to yourself. Not only was it an act of great self-sacrifice and courage, it allied you permanently with Angel."
Cordy took a deep breath. She knew he was right. She'd felt it in her bones when she left Pylea. "Okay, fine. I chose. But I did it because I needed to feel special, not because I was in love with Angel."
"Methinks the lady doth protest too much," Mr. Zhou teased gently. "You are special, but you were special--and needed--before you had the visions. Even if you had given them up, you and Angel still would have loved each other. You just would have faced a different set of circumstances."
Cordy looked at him intently. "So what you're saying is that Angel is my destiny."
Mr. Zhou nodded. "And you are his."
Cordy stood and looked out at the woods. "I need to take a walk."
"So, explain this to me again," Angel said, drawing out a chair and sitting with as much care as an old man.
"What's to explain?" Gunn asked. "You boink Cordy, she stays alive."
"Yes, but...." Angel started. He ran his hand through his hair nervously, mussing the already spiky 'do.
"You know about tantric sex, don't you?" Wes asked.
Angel shrugged. "Sure. It's not the sort of thing vamps get into--most of us prefer a less life-affirming brand of sexuality. But it's hard to live more than 200 years and not pick up on things."
"Right. So what you need to pick up now is a book. Because it sounds like you have some studying to do," Lorne said. He waggled his eyebrows. "And, boy, talk about a final exam."
Angel looked at Fred, who smiled at him over Connor's sleepy face. "Remember when I came downstairs and saw you and Cordy training?"
Angel nodded, obviously feeling awkward. "Yeah, you said that strange word about warriors."
"Uh huh," she said. "I was right. You two are evenly matched. Your fire, her courage. Your spirit, her heart. The Powers seem to like you together." She smiled. "It's so romantic."
"Uh, right," Angel flinched. He put his forehead in his hand. "But what about the curse?" he asked weakly.
"That's the only thing we're not sure about," Wes said quietly. "Otherwise, it seems like it will work."
"Would bliss be a problem with Cordy?" Gunn asked, his voice serious.
Angel didn't look up. "It already is."
"Ah," Wes said. He cocked his head thoughtfully. "I wonder.... Angel, can you think of a time when you might have experienced bliss that wasn't sexually related? Like, a moment where you felt overwhelmed with happiness or love or joy?"
Angel looked at him strangely. "Why would you ask that?"
"I know that I often experience bliss that has nothing to do with the sexual act. It's one of the best things about being human, don't you think? Those moments where things are suddenly clear, where time stops, where your heart is full?"
"Like the first time I heard Aretha," Lorne said.
"Yeah, or when my sister said her first word," Gunn added.
Fred nodded. "When I landed back in LA after all those years in Pylea." Her eyes filled with tears and she rested her face against Connor's downy head.
Angel cleared his throat. "Okay," he said. "The other day, after we fought that Brazilos demon. I came upstairs to change clothes and Cordy was feeding Connor. It was just...." He breathed a long sigh.
"Exactly," Wes said. "In that moment, you forgot everything but what you were feeling. You experienced bliss, Angel, don't you see?"
His voice rose with excitement. "The meditation and physical training you've been doing with Cordy, it's based on ancient ritual. You are so closely linked already, it was probably enough to start the process of anchoring your soul." He looked around the room. "Now all you have to do is take the next step."
Fred started to laugh.
"What's funny?" Gunn asked, laying the gleamingly sharp scythe carefully aside.
"Well, it's just.... I haven't known you guys for long, but I do know that avoiding sex has been tops on Angel's list for years. Now, not only are you not supposed to avoid it, you actually have to seek it out."
Wes grinned. "As you said, Fred, it is quite elegant."
"Elegant," Angel grunted. Suddenly his eyes widened. "I get to have sex. With Cordy."
Gunn laughed and slapped him on the back. "No, man. You *have* to have sex with Cordy."
Lorne got to his feet. "You wouldn't believe what your aura is doing right now, bro," he said.
Angel glared at him. "Not one more word about this," he said. He looked at each of them, his face fierce. "Thank you for the information. Please keep researching. But as for what happens between me and Cordy from now on, that's our business."
Lorne snorted. "As if. Don't forget, my room's down the hall from yours." He looked at Gunn, "Bet she's a screamer," he said archly.
Gunn nodded sagely as he put the cap on the honing oil. "With that mouth? Count on it."
"Guys," Angel growled.
Ignoring him, Wes closed his book and stretched. "I'm starved. You want a pizza or something?"
"Mmmm, pizza," Fred said. "Here, daddy, take your baby. He wants his crib."
Angel walked around and squatted in front of Fred. "No privacy. No respect," he grumbled, easing the sleepy baby from her arms.
Fred brushed her hand over his shoulder. "They love you both so much," she said. "You're family. Families tease each other. But they also go to the wall for each other." She smiled. "I'm glad you and Cordy are together. It's perfect."
Angel looked down at his sleeping son, now cradled in his arms. "I just want her to be happy."
"Oh, Angel, look at you. You're a hero. It's obvious that you love her. How could she not be happy?"
He glanced up at her, a worry line appearing between his brows. "What if she doesn't want me?"
Fred snorted. "She'd be a fool. And we both know, Cordy is anything but a fool."
"Yeah," Angel breathed. "Okay." He stood and waited for Fred to get to her feet. "I guess she and I need to talk."
Fred grinned. "You want tips on talking to girls, you just let me know."
"I may take you up on that." They walked out into the lobby where Gunn was putting on his jacket.
"They got a wait on deliveries. Gonna go down and pick it up. Anyone want to ride shotgun?"
"I'll go," Lorne said. "I need to pick up some stuff at the convenience store. This hotel just does not stock the right kind of soap," he said, arching his eyebrow at Angel.
"You're lucky it has soap at all."
Lorne rolled his eyes. "Oooo-kay." He straightened his already-perfectly-straight lemon-yellow blazer. "For someone who just got the green light on the hot, monkey love, you sure are cranky."
"Come on, Connor," Angel said. "Let's get you upstairs before your Uncle Lorne says anything else you shouldn't hear."
He glanced at Wes as he started up the stairs. "Thanks," he said, catching the other man's eye.
Wes nodded. "I'll keep researching. But if this is it, Angel, we may have found a way to save her." A smile bloomed over his face. "It's simply wonderful."
"For you, maybe. Makes me nervous as heck."
Wes laughed. "Like falling off a bike, my friend."
"I never learned to ride a bike," Angel said, shaking his head.
"'Bout time you learned, then," Gunn called from the doorway. "Yo, Lorne Green, quit primping and get yourself to the car."
"Coming," Lorne called. "Angelcakes. Don't worry. It'll work out. Always does, you know."
"Right," Angel said, disappearing up the stairs with his sleeping child.
A noise somewhere in the house had Cordelia looking up from the book she'd been reading. Either Mr. Zhou was back from the grocery store or some hungry demon had gotten in through the garage. Probably the former, since the quiet "whump" of full grocery bags hitting the counter was the only sound coming from the other room.
She set the book aside, her fingers tracing the leather cover. It was one of a ten-volume set Zhou had ordered from the Watcher's Council bookstore, which traced Angel's history from birth to just before he came to L.A.
She was relieved to see the next edition wouldn't be published for a few more years. Fame was certainly seductive, but seeing her name in a geeky Watcher's book was hardly the kind of notoriety she was looking for.
She had deliberately skipped the chapters on Darla. Having met her personally, she didn't feel she needed an education on her preferred style of dress (skanky) or her preferred mode of killing (brutal). It was Angel she wanted to know more about.
Now *he* was a brutal killer, she mused, turning the book over to study one of the pencil drawings again. Like the portrait she'd seen earlier, Angel's face peered at her from across time. This picture, however, showed him in full vamp mode. The drawing was incomplete, the copy showing speckles of what she assumed was dried blood on the paper.
One of the passages she had read discussed the fact that, while Darla may had sired Angelus, he was the real star of the family. He'd devised more methods of torture and death than the Council could chronicle, mostly because the people they'd sent to study him had joined his extremely long list of victims.
The last week had stacked up to be one of the most disquieting of her entire life.
Her mornings were devoted to reading the Watcher's texts on Angelus. In them, he came to life before her eyes, her Angel turned dark, dressed in blood-soaked linen and silk.
She learned that he preferred young women, especially virgins, for their untrained responses and honey-like blood. He made death a game, courting them for weeks with beautiful lies and angelic smiles. He was cold and calculated, sensual and erotic. When he finally succeeded in getting them into bed, he gave them hours of pleasure, days of pain, and a humiliating, horrible end.
And after he killed them, he often went after their families. He had decimated entire villages simply by following a bloodline.
Cordy swallowed, remembering the Angelus she had met. He was a terrifying creature, not just for his power, but for his obvious sexual prowess.
He charmed women mercilessly, with his hungry eyes and hard, experienced hands. If she hadn't known who, or what, he was, she would have fallen for him herself. The older man, the college boy, the one who could teach her things about her body that she hadn't even dreamed of.
Add to that her afternoon study of tantric ritual, which was designed to elevate the act of sex into an hours-long, bliss-soaked experience.
Not seconds of bliss, or even minutes. But hours.
She left the sessions feeling frustrated and terrified. If she agreed to do this--and it seemed she really didn't have a choice--then she willingly put herself into the arms of a man who could end her life in seconds. Or turn her last days on earth into the most artful kill of his centuries-long career.
She got up and ambled through the dining room and into the kitchen, pleased to be leaving the grisly thoughts behind.
"Whoa, you feedin' an army?" she asked as Mr. Zhou unloaded the last of about ten bags of groceries onto the counter.
"I thought we might have a little celebration." He pulled several stalks of bok choi out of a bag.
"Celebration?" Cordy asked, trying to get her mind back to the present.
"Yes, your study with me is over at the end of the week. It seems appropriate that we might have a few people over to celebrate."
"A party? Really? Cool!" She took a 10-pound bag of jasmine rice from the grocery bag and set it on the counter. "Who's coming?"
"It's a surprise," he said, eyes twinkling.
"Cool. I love surprises." She shoveled mangos into the produce drawer of the refrigerator. "As long as they don't involve demon goo."
"I certainly hope not," Mr. Zhou replied.
"So, when is this party?" Cordelia asked, grimacing at the raw ground pork and dropping the slimy package in the sink.
"Tomorrow night," Mr. Zhou said. "You and I will prepare the food."
He laughed. "It will be good for you."
Cordy climbed into bed. Her back ached from the hours she'd spent helping Zhou prepare tomorrow night's meal. Who knew it was so much work to cook, she thought. No wonder people just popped a frozen dinner into the microwave.
Her head swirled with details. They'd prepared the appetizers and stored them in the large, industrial refrigerator for reheating tomorrow. She'd restocked the bar and stacked crates of Perrier. The freezer was loaded with bags of ice. Tomorrow they'd cook the main course and put together the desserts.
All of that in addition to cleaning the house, hauling out the china, and putting up the decorations. It hadn't left her much time to think about Angel. Which was actually a good thing, because otherwise she would have slipped into full brood mode.
Sometimes she ached with need for him, and others she wanted to run as far away as she could. The thought of seeing him nearly undid her, the dark thrill and the horror combining into something so powerful she was shaken every time his face flashed before her eyes.
She breathed deeply, trying to relax herself enough to get to sleep. She was so tired, so twisted up inside, like one big knot....
I must be dreaming, she thought, as she found herself in front of the Wolfram & Hart headquarters. She blinked in confusion as the elevator dinged. Why else would I be here?
When the doors slid open she got on. There was only one button. "Home Office," it said. She pushed it.
And then the vision hit, jerking her in her sleep.
Flash: Angel standing just inside his bedroom door, his hands hanging loosely at his sides. His face was like the desert, empty and desolate.
Flash: A ring, falling from his hand like bait. Darla, skittering forward to grab it.
Flash: Angel slamming her against a wall, his hands and mouth moving over hers in a grotesque parody of gentleness. Even as Darla laughed, Cordy could see that Angel's eyes were black, frozen orbs.
Flash: Angel throwing Darla through the French doors in his bedroom. They flew open in a rain of glass and she fell to the floor, fear written across her face.
God, Cordy thought, what would it take to scare *Darla*?
Flash: The two of them on Angel's bed, a writhing, twisting mass.
"No," Cordy moaned. What she saw wasn't love or tenderness or even desire. It was fear, desperation, and domination. "Don't," she whimpered, but it was too late. He shuddered as he came, his face pulled taut with release.
There was another flash as Angel jerked awake, threw himself out of the bed and fell onto the terrace, screaming.
The vision folded in on itself like a collapsing star and Cordy jerked awake, her heart hammering in her chest. She reached for the phone, desperate to warn him, and rammed her hand against the bed's carved rail.
She sat up frantically. Where was the phone?
She leapt out of bed. Have to find Angel, she thought, ignoring the way her sweaty fingers slipped as she pulled on her running shoes.
Then she stopped as the memory of all those other sweaty, headache-filled nights slammed into her full force. The nights when the visions came and she couldn't call him.
Because he was off chasing Darla.
"Oh, my God." Her muscles went rigid and a feeling of dread settled in her gut. She pressed trembling fingers to her lips. He didn't, he wouldn't....
But he had.
She came awake fully, then. She hadn't seen the future, but the past. She had just witnessed the reason for Angel's epiphany.
Anger welled up, thick and hot. How could he? Not only had he risked their lives and his own, he'd lied about it to her face.
He turned his back on his friends and then got off on tormenting them. He locked a room full of people in with two psychotic vamps and walked away. He screwed his sire then acted like it had never happened.
She'd forgiven him for leaving her. He'd made up for that, with the clothes, and the tenderness, and the constancy he'd shown her since he came back. And then there had been Connor, her sweet little baby, who filled her life with light and joy.
And now she knew what had made him. How eager his father had been to gamble so recklessly with their lives.
Cordy grabbed her jacket, ran out the door and disappeared onto the snow-packed path, rage fueling her steps until she was sprinting.
She didn't come back until the sun was painting the dawn sky.
"I think that does it," she said, stepping back to inspect. A long silk runner covered the middle of the table, leaving the edges bare for china plates and chopstick rests. The runner, red silk on one side and yellow on the other, glowed in the light from the dimmed torchieres.
Cordy ignored the sense of unease that had been growing in her since she'd awakened. The dream had only added fuel to the fire, the images of Angel and Darla unnerving her on a level so deep it nearly rattled her bones. On top of the horror and disgust she already felt, all the doubts, the fear, and the anger that had surfaced during Angel's betrayal bubbled to the surface.
She was surprised she hadn't snapped Mr. Zhou's head off.
"It's lovely," he said, bringing out the first plates of appetizers and arranging them on the living room tables. He looked around the room approvingly. "Ready?" he asked, his stare more penetrating than usual.
The doorbell rang.
"Cordelia, would you mind?" Zhou called retreating to the kitchen.
She skimmed to the door, her spiky sandals clicking distinctly on the stone. She adjusted the low waist of the silver snakeskin pants and smoothed the spaghetti straps of the form-fitting black top. She plastered a fake smile on her face, as far from a party mood as she could get.
"Cordelia," Sally said, stepping in and bending down to press her cheek against Cordy's. The cold air blasted in, heralding more snow.
"Hey, Sally, Ben, how are you?" Cordy asked, injecting a note of warmth into her voice.
Ben's blue eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled. "Fair to middlin'," he said in his soft Texas drawl.
"Glad to hear it," Cordy said, her smile warming. "Give me your coats and go on in. Mix yourself a drink."
By the time the doorbell stopped ringing, there were eight people in the room, all clustered around the appetizers, and Cordelia let herself relax a bit.
She went to the kitchen to find Mr. Zhou. "Someone was asking for a martini," she said.
Mr. Zhou looked up from the bar where he was arranging food on a tray. "I'll see to it," he said. His eyes narrowed. "Are you all right, my dear?"
Cordy shrugged. "I've felt strange all day. Maybe it's the party."
"Ah, of course," Mr. Zhou said with a slight smile. "Just the party." He hefted the tray. "Would you mind bringing those bottles in?" he said, tilting his head toward several bottles of Perrier.
The door swished behind her and she was met by the sounds of a party in full swing. Doesn't take these people long to get going, she thought, dropping the bottles on the rosewood sideboard.
A movement from the woods caught her eye and she glanced up. A chill coursed over her skin. Two people stood at the edge of the trees, silhouetted by the sunset's fire. Even though she couldn't see their faces, there was something eerily familiar about them.
"We have visitors," she said quietly. She turned to Mr. Zhou and saw him looking out the window, his skin ashen. "Mr. Zhou? Are you all right?"
He jolted and took a long, deep breath. When he turned to her, his face was composed. "Yes, of course," he said. He opened the door as the couple walked up the stairs.
"Martin," the man said in a French-accented voice. He came forward, shook Zhou's hand.
"Jean-Pierre," Zhou said, his voice quivering. "Cordelia," Zhou continued, clearing his throat. "Please come here. I would like to introduce you."
Cordy walked over, her eyes narrowed. "Hello," she said warily.
Mr. Zhou smiled. "Cordelia, I would like you to meet two, long-time family friends, Jean-Pierre and Savannah."
Jean-Pierre extended a long, pale hand. "Cordelia," he said, bowing low. "I'm charmed." He turned her wrist and before she realized what was happening, pressed his mouth against the throbbing pulse, breathing deeply, as if he were defining her by scent.
Cordy's senses went on high alert as she came into contact with his cold skin. When she looked up, Savannah was watching her with hungry eyes.
Cordelia snatched her hand back and crossed her arms over her chest. "I knew this was a dinner party. I didn't realize we were the ones on the men u."
The vamps laughed, a low hiss.
"No, no, it's not like that at all," Mr. Zhou said quickly.
"Yes, Martin invited us." Jean-Pierre turned to Mr. Zhou. "We got your invitation. Or, rather, it got us," he continued cryptically.
A look of resignation crossed Mr. Zhou's face. "I rarely use that mode of communication. I'm surprised you recognized it."
"Yes, it did take me a moment," Jean-Pierre replied, his accent sliding over the syllables. He shrugged, a Gallic move that fit his dark good looks.
"So, you've known each other a long time?" Cordy asked Mr. Zhou, remembering what he'd said earlier.
He smiled fondly, if a little sadly. "Our families have been united for centuries. Actually, now that they're here, you might like to speak with them."
Cordy arched an eyebrow. "Any particular reason?"
"I think you'll find you have someone in common."
Jean-Pierre ran a hand over Savannah's short cap of chestnut hair. Her green eyes gleamed and she leaned into the stroke like a hungry cat. "Really?" she asked. "Who?"
"Cordelia can explain it. You might want to start by telling them what brought you here," Mr. Zhou said to Cordy. "Can I get you anything?" he asked the vamps. "I have some superior brandy, Jean-Pierre."
"Oh, that would be lovely," he responded. "And a Bloody Mary for Savannah. "
"It's such a cliché, isn't it?" she said with a smile. "But I do like them so. Now, tell us all about what brought you here."
Cordy looked at them warily, distinctly uncomfortable with their thinly disguised veil of dark power. It was like being too close to a cobra: seductive and terrifying. "I'm a Seer," she said. "I came to learn to regulate the visions."
"Ah," Savannah nodded. "I've met a few Seers." She glanced at Jean-Pierre and licked her lips. "I enjoyed them immensely."
Cordy backed up a step. "Yes, well. I have no idea why Mr. Zhou thinks we might have something in common."
Jean-Pierre shook his head. "Not what, who," he said.
Realization dawned. "Oh, no," Cordy said. "Not Angel."
"Angel?" Savannah asked, her voice rising sharply. "Angelus?" She narrowed her eyes. "You know Angelus, and yet you live?"
Cordy blanched. "He's my warrior."
There was a long beat of silence. Then Savannah threw back her head and howled with laughter. The room went silent and everyone looked at her. "How fitting, how lovely," she said, wiping her eyes with her fingertips. She looked at Jean-Pierre, whose pale face had gone smooth as a death mask. "Ah, my darling, it's revenge at its sweetest. The Scourge of Europe tied forever to a human girl. Doomed to help the hopeless."
Mr. Zhou interrupted with drinks. "I see you are getting acquainted," he said. "Cordelia, maybe you would like to take them into the sitting room? It is more conducive to private conversation." He walked away, calling a greeting to another guest.
"That sounds perfect," Savannah said, with a smile. Her teeth glimmered white as bone.
Cordelia flinched. "I think I'll, uh, just go..." she said, taking a step back. She came up against a something hard. "Uh...." She looked over her shoulder and into Jean-Pierre's gray-green eyes. He smiled, a seductive tilt of his lush lips.
"You are lovely," he said. "I can hear your heart pounding like a little bird's." He smiled over her head at Savannah, who slipped her arm through Cordy's and pulled her down the hall. The sun leaked brilliant red over the sky, bleeding out the last light of day.
"Such a beautiful night," Savannah said, sitting gracefully on the leather sofa and pulling a pack of Marlboros from her pocket. She lit one, offered it to Cordelia.
"No, thanks," Cordy said, wrinkling her nose. She sat gingerly on the edge of the big reading chair.
"Smart girl. These things will kill you," she laughed and crossed one leather-clad leg over the other. "Those pants are beautiful," she said. " Do you mind if I ask where you got them?"
Cordelia looked down at the silver snakeskin. "Second-hand store in L.A." she said, brushing her hand over the crackly material. "They're a little difficult to move in, but they look amazing." She hrugged, trying to ignore the prickle at the back of her neck.
"The price we pay for beauty." She tilted her glass and sipped. As she lowered it, she smiled and the blood left red trails on her lips and teeth.
Jean-Pierre stepped behind Savannah and laid his hand on her shoulder, though his eyes were gazing hotly at Cordy. "It's well worth it."
Cordy shuddered and the prickle turned to a sweaty itch.
Savannah placed her pale fingers over his and looked up at him, her eyes glowing. "You have delicious taste, my dear," she purred, following the direction of his gaze.
"I know." He smiled, leaning down to kiss her.
Cordy cleared her throat. The kiss didn't break; instead it went on for several humming seconds.
Finally, Jean-Pierre stood, let go of Savannah's hand, and leaned against the couch. "You must pardon us. We are giddy as children," he said, sipping his brandy. The snifter sat comfortably in his hand. Long and lean, he was the picture of timeless, masculine elegance.
"Yes, it's our anniversary," Savannah said. "Two-hundred-eighteen years ago tonight, we met for the first time."
"Congratulations," Cordy said, with only the slightest trace of irony. She shifted in her seat and glanced over her shoulder toward the rest of the party. They all sounded so safe in there, away from the vamps.
"Thank you," Savannah beamed. "I never thought I could be this happy."
Cordy turned back to them with a polite smile.
"Well, except with that Russian, but I took care of him," Jean-Pierre murmured around his glass.
"That you did, my dear. In one, big bite, no less." She shivered delicately, trailed a fingertip around the rim of her glass and then sucked the red beads into her mouth. "I was never the same after that."
"No, you were mine," Jean-Pierre said, his voice like molten gold.
"So," said Cordelia, desperate to change the subject. "You know Angel."
Jean-Pierre's eyes narrowed at the mention of his name. Savannah simply nodded and took a deep drag, exhaling smoke in a delicate plume. "Oh, my yes. We've known him for ages."
"Far too long," Jean-Pierre murmured, sniffing the caramel-colored liquid and swirling it in his glass. "Where was it was met him, darling? Prague? No, Vienna."
"Vienna," Savannah breathed. "Around 1790? Yes, I think that was it. We'd only been together a few years, Jean-Pierre and I, and we were still in our honeymoon phase." She ran a hand through her beautifully tousled hair and smiled.
"Not that we've ever really gotten out of it," she continued. "But, yes, Vienna. Such a beautiful place. And Angelus, oh, he was a killing machine," she said, her eyes growing soft with memories.
"That was when he marked his victims with the cross," she said, making the sign in the air over her cheek. "He made killing into such an art. I've never seen anything so beautiful as that night at the palace."
She shifted in her chair and looked back at Jean-Pierre. "Do you remember that, my love? All those lovely ladies, all that beautiful fabric, ruined. " Her game face flickered on at the memory, eyes glowing yellow, like a feral cat 's.
And in that second, Cordelia recognized her. "Oh, my God," she whispered.
"Oh, I remember it well," he said tightly. "I especially remember him going after you." He made a visible effort to relax his grip on the delicate glass.
Savannah smiled, sucked in smoke, and blew out another stream. "Yes, he did try to woo me. A still-beating heart, such an extravagant gift," she said, laughing merrily. "But I resisted."
"Of course," Cordelia choked out.
That dream hadn't been about Angel facing his past, it had been about her. This whole thing had been about her from the beginning. The test wasn't whether they could fight together, but whether she could fight alone.
Oh, God. The Elders. She was facing the Elders.
Savannah laughed, pulling her attention back to the conversation. "Dear me. Here I am, talking in front of you as I would any other consort. I forget that your Angel is nearly human now," she sneered. Something seemed to occur to her. "He does exercise his blood rights, doesn't he?" she asked, leaning forward in the chair, a look of sensual urgency on her face.
"Blood rights? You mean, do I let him drink me?" Her head spun crazily. "No," she whispered. "He would never...."
Savannah's cruel laugh rang out across the room. "Oh, Angelus," she said. "How far you've fallen." She stared up at the ceiling for a moment, a look of triumph on her face. "Sometimes we really do get what we deserve," she said, her accent growing stronger with emotion.
Cordy looked from Savannah to Jean-Pierre, who was staring at her with barely restrained dislike. She rubbed her hands over her arms.
"He was Darla's mate," Jean-Pierre said, breaking the silence.
"Yes," Cordy said, looking down at her hands. Angel's face, pulled taut with pleasure, flashed before her eyes.
"Then why are you linked with him?" Savannah asked, shooting a smoldering glance at Jean-Pierre. "The Darla I knew wasn't very good at sharing." She took a drag off her cigarette and blew smoke in Cordy's direction. Behind her, Jean-Pierre snorted into his brandy snifter.
Cordy glanced warily from one to the other. "He killed her," she said quietly.
Savannah recoiled. "He killed his *Sire*?"
"Yes. But she was brought back to life. By a law firm." Cordy sighed. "It's a long story." And no torture in the world was painful enough to reveal Connor's existence to these predators.
The vampires stared until Cordelia began to squirm. "So, where do you guys live?" she asked, hoping to break the tension.
"We have a large home in the Low Country," Jean-Pierre replied. "It's been in Savannah's family for generations. Miles of swamp and shacks. Lovely people there, taste like saltwater," he said dreamily.
Savannah laughed. "Homesick, darling?" she asked, taking another drag. "We like the Low Country, where people recognize us for what we are. Nowadays, you become a vampire, and simply hop up one evening hungry for blood instead of hamburger." She rolled her eyes. "In our home, respect for history is in the blood. Literally."
Savannah leaned back on her chair, crossed an ankle loosely over her knee in a pose that should have looked masculine. Instead it made her hips seem boneless, opening her body in a way that was outrageously sensual. It was both frightening and frankly sexual.
Jean-Pierre touched her shoulder and Savannah glanced up at him. Their gaze met and held, looking like they wanted to rip each others' clothes off.
Cordy cleared her throat uncomfortably and the vamps' attention snapped back to her with an eerie predatory glance.
"Oh, it sounds as if we're getting called in to dinner," Savannah said, glancing down the hall. Cordy hadn't heard anything, but then, she was human.
"I'm so enjoying our little chat," Savannah continued, patting Cordy's knee companionably. "We'll just have to continue it later." She stubbed the cigarette out in a crystal ash tray, then stood. "I'll just see if Martin needs any help," she said, disappearing into the living room.
Cordy, left alone with Jean-Pierre, stood as well. "Dinner?" she asked, hoping she could finally put some distance between them. Mr. Zhou would know what to do. She would just explain everything to him and....
Jean-Pierre put an arm around her. It felt like marble that had set outside all night. "Cordelia, how long will you be here?" he asked, leading her down the hall and toward the kitchen.
"I'm leaving at the end of the week," she said tightly.
"Oh, too bad. I was so hoping to see Angel," he said with a feral twist of his lips.
"Cordelia," Mr. Zhou called as they walked into the room. "Would you mind going down to the wine cellar and bringing up that case of champagne? It needs to start chilling."
"Can I speak with you for a moment?" she asked, as casually as she could.
"Can we do it later? I'm very busy," he replied. His hands flew as he arranged food on a platter.
"Yes, can't you see the man needs help, not distractions?" Jean-Pierre asked silkily. "Let's go down to retrieve what he has asked for, shall we?"
Cordy shook her head. "No way."
"It's all right, Cordelia," Mr. Zhou said, glancing up with a smile. "Take Jean-Pierre. You'll need help carrying it," he said, disappearing into the dining room with Savannah on his heels.
Cordy looked into Jean-Pierre's glinting eyes and her heart rolled uneasily in her chest.
In the dining room someone laughed and the sound jerked her out of her reverie. There were a dozen people out there, any of whom would hear her scream if she needed help. She wasn't going to forget who he was, like she had with Darla. She was simply going to go downstairs and help him carry up a case of champagne. Then she was going to put as much distance between them as possible.
"Lead the way," she finally said.
Jean-Pierre opened the door next to the garage with a flourish. The steps were dark, and he started down.
She cleared her throat, and Jean-Pierre looked up curiously.
"Oh, of course. You need light," he said, reaching out to flip a switch. The stairs, open except for a wooden rail on one side, were flooded with a harsh yellow glow.
Cordy followed him down and through a narrow, low-ceilinged hall with stone walls. It smelled damp and musty. They turned a corner and the room opened up into a cave-like space, lined with shelves. Bottles rested on their sides, their glossy surfaces matted with dust.
She shivered. I'm alone in a cellar with a vampire, she thought, who is older than Angel and has no soul.
And has me cornered against the wall.
He'd moved so quickly that her back was pressed against a row of shelves before she realized what had happened. The wood was raw against her skin, scraping her shoulders where the top left them bare.
She opened her mouth to scream, only to find it covered by the vamp's large palm. She gasped, her knees going liquid with terror.
"So, you're connected to the souled one," he said, his voice a hiss. "I should have known. You have his scent about you." He nuzzled her throat delicately.
"I have a message for Angelus," he said, sliding his free hand up her body and caressing the ends of her hair.
Her heart pounded and she knew he could hear it. And, dammit, that pissed her off.
She scrabbled for a weapon in the shelf behind her. Her fingers hit something long and cool. A bottle. In one quick movement, she grabbed it by the neck and swung it, thrilled when it connected with the side of his face.
His head snapped viciously to one side and Cordy ducked out from under his arm and ran down the hall.
"Oh, good," she heard him say.
She clattered up the stairs, her heels catching on the rough wood. She stumbled, fell, and felt his hands grab her ankles. He yanked, and she flew through the air, landing with a bone-jarring thud against the floor. She ate dirt. Furious, dazed, she struggled against him, unable to find a handhold.
"You're an awful lot of fun," he said, locking his hand on the back of her neck. "Angelus always did like spunky women."
"Get off of me," she shrieked. "Mr. Zhou! Help!" There was no response, no rushing of feet. In fact, upstairs was eerily quiet. Oh, God, what was going on?
"Oh, Martin trusts me," Jean-Pierre drawled. "He knows I would never hurt you." He straddled her hips and twisted her wrists behind her. She shimmied back and forth trying to unseat him.
"Now, we can do this the hard way, or the *hard* way," he said, thrusting himself against her butt. She stopped struggling.
"You tell Angelus...."
The door at the top of the stairs opened. "Why don't you tell him, yourself?"
"Angel?" Cordy said, looking up into the glare.
"Ah, Angelus. Quelle surprise," Jean-Pierre drawled. His weight disappeared off of Cordy's back and she struggled to her knees. He grabbed her hair and hauled her to her feet, pulling her in front of him like a shield.
She cried out in pain as his fingers twisted cruelly against her scalp.
Angel walked slowly down the staircase, one arm clamped around Savannah's throat, the other hand holding a lethal stake to her heart. She spit like a wet cat.
"Jean-Pierre," Angel said, eyes glinting with fury. "I'd say it's been too long, but that would be a lie."
"Yes, and one must always tell the truth, mustn't one?" Jean-Pierre responded. The arm around Cordy's throat tightened, nearly cutting off her air. She choked and clawed, but it was like trying to grip sand-smoothed stone.
"Let her go," Angel said, poking the stake into Savannah's chest. She flinched, her face twisting in fury.
Jean-Pierre sniffed Cordy's throat, laughing cruelly as she struggled against him. "Shall we see who can draw the fastest?" he asked, vamping out and pressing his lips to Cordy's jugular.
"No!" Angel yelled, loosening his grip.
Savannah jerked free and knocked the stake to the ground. She leapt down the stairs in one graceful step, with Angel on her heels.
Jean-Pierre pulled Cordy deeper into the cellar. "Come get her," he said with a mocking laugh.
Cordy heard a thud, then Savannah shrieked. Jean-Pierre's arm loosened at the sound, giving Cordy the chance to twist free.
"Let go!" she rasped, dodging Jean-Pierre's lunge and running for the door. She ran right into Angel, her momentum sending them tumbling. He twisted, taking the fall, and she landed on him in a heap.
"You okay?" he asked.
She shoved herself off of him. "Just get me the hell out of here," she spat.
Savannah laughed and walked nonchalantly across the room, brushing dirt from her pants. Her eyes glittered, diamond points of pleasure. "Looks like trouble in paradise," she said merrily. "But, then, tractable women were never your style, were they, Angelus?"
Cordy reached into the shelves, drew out another bottle and rolled to her feet, just as Angel stood next to her. She pressed her back against his and they circled, waiting for the vamps to get within striking range.
"I seem to remember the one you courted for over a month in Vienna that year. A sweet thing, she wasn't. But I'll bet she was hot in the sack," she laughed.
Cordy snarled. "Would you just shut *up* already?" She brandished the bottle, only slightly comforted when she heard the snick of a knife blade being locked into place behind her.
"Oh, but why, when it's so much fun. And it was fun, wasn't it, Angelus?" Jean-Pierre asked, getting into the groove. "We ruled Vienna that year. Your Darla and my Savannah were the belles of the ball. Of course, that all changed when you sold us to Holtz."
She felt Angel flinch, but when he spoke, his voice was as cool and mocking as theirs. "Oh, you know me. Always looking out for myself."
Jean-Pierre struck, quick as a snake, his reach longer than Cordy had given him credit for. Angel swerved, twisting her awkwardly into the shelf, then danced away. She side-stepped, regaining her balance, only to come face-to-face with Savannah's stake.
"Won't do you much good," Cordy said, glancing down. "Only works on vamps." She swung the bottle, but Savannah danced aside.
"Not if I shove it in your gut, all that soft flesh. Run you right through," Savannah said. She rocked forward, forcing Cordy back. But in doing so, it opened a clear path to the door.
If she could just make it upstairs.... Behind her, she heard a real fight break out between the men. Someone grunted, there was the crack of bone against bone, and the shattering of glass.
A hail of green shards rained down, and when Savannah looked to see what had caused it, Cordy ran. She clattered down the hall, cursing the high heels and the tight pants, and grabbed a bottle on the way. If she made it out of this alive, she was going to drink every drop.
The stairs flew beneath her feet and she stumbled, nearly falling. She grabbed the doorknob, turning it desperately, but her hands were slicked with sweat. Behind her, the fight raged, moving closer and closer to the stairs.
She wiped her hands frantically on her shirt then grabbed the doorknob again. This time it turned.
She crashed into the island, waiting for the vamps to explode out the hallway behind her. Knives on the counter, not good. But wooden spoons were. She set the bottle down with a clatter, grabbed a handful of spoons out of the utensil crock, and turned just as Savannah came screaming up the stairs.
Angel and Jean-Pierre roared out behind her, Angel's coat flapping like a cape.
"Where's Zhou?" she asked, brandishing a spoon at Savannah.
"I locked 'em all in the bathroom," Angel said, dodging Jean-Pierre's fist.
"Oh, that's great," Cordy said snidely. "You're so good at locking people in."
"Yeah, well," he said, delivering a smooth roundhouse kick to the other man's gut. "At least all the vamps are out here this time."
From down the hall she could hear raised voices. She thought about letting them out, then realized it would only be more meat for the vamps. Which they would be, anyway, if she and Angel didn't dust them first.
"Come and get me," she said to Savannah, running down the hall and into the dining room. The vamp followed, laughing wildly.
Angel and Jean-Pierre continued fighting in the kitchen, the Frenchman never allowing Angel to break away and go after Cordy. They slowly worked their way down the hall and into the dining room. Tables tumbled. Chairs broke. Food flew.
Angel grabbed the Ming Dynasty horse off the mantel and crashed it over Jean-Pierre's head. He went down howling.
"Cordelia!" It was Mr. Zhou. She glanced down the hall and almost got punched while she wasn't looking.
"Crap," she said, grabbing a chair and swinging it, hard. It crashed into Savannah's side, knocking her through the doors someone had left open in their haste, and out onto the deck.
Cordy ran down the hall to the bathroom. "Mr. Zhou! I'm here!" she said breathlessly.
"Let us out, Cordelia," he said.
"Can't. Too dangerous," she panted, looking over her shoulder. "Why didn't you tell me they were your friends."
"I didn't want to believe it would come to this."
"What? Come to what?" she asked desperately.
"They're testing us."
"No, the Powers. It's a test, to see how well you've learned. It's customary."
"You knew this was gonna happen?" Cordy asked furiously.
"I just summoned the test, as I always do. I did not believe they would pit my old friends against my new ones." His voice broke. "It seems they are testing me, as well."
"I have to go," Cordy said.
"Open the door, Cordelia," Mr. Zhou commanded. "I'll make sure these people get home safely."
Cordy hesitated, and because she desperately needed to talk with him, she unlocked the door. The crowd filed out, disappearing into the living room to watch the fight.
She faced her teacher. "He betrayed me," she said, combing her hair out of her eyes. "You both did. It's all I can think about."
Mr. Zhou nodded. In the living room, the crowd gasped and muttered. Cordy glanced over her shoulder, unable to see anything.
"In order for the link to work at its fullest capacity, you must forgive him. Both of you must learn to live with his past, in order to make your future."
"Right. He risked my life and the lives of my family," she spat. "He was a brutal, ruthless murderer for generations. I read the books. I got the t-shirt."
"Angel and Angelus. They are two sides of the same coin. To live with one is to live with the other. Cordelia, it's the same with everyone. Shadow and light, they exist in us all. Even you."
Outside, someone howled in pain. Cordy couldn't tell who it was, but the sound raised the hair on the back of her neck.
"You have to decide, is the risk worth it? Is loving someone worth the risk?"
"Do you think so?" She looked into his ancient, black gaze and read there only acceptance and understanding.
"Would I be in here, while my friends are fighting to the death, otherwise?"
Cordy closed her eyes. She saw Angel firing her; threatening her; lying to her. Pounding Darla into the mattress. Breaking Jenny Calendar's neck.
The pictures from the books she'd read flashed against her eyelids like a movie reel: bodies strewn carelessly--or laid out with breathtaking care. Blood spattered, throats ripped, and all of it done with an unholy glee. By an evil that would never cease to exist.
Then she remembered what it was like to have a vision when he wasn't there to catch her. She saw his face, young and hopeful, when she opened the boxes of clothes he bought for her. Felt his arms settle around her as he sobbed in grief after Buffy died. Saw him watching her as she fed Connor, his heart in his eyes.
Felt herself slipping into a world of pain greater than he'd ever dreamed of creating.
"Oh, my God," she said, realization dawning.
"The link," Mr. Zhou called. "Don't forget the link!"
She ran through the dining room and onto the porch. Outside, the vamps fought viciously on the cleared path. But Savannah and Jean-Pierre were backing Angel into the woods, where he could easily lose his footing. God, she needed to be out there. Now.
She grabbed a bottle of Perrier, unscrewing the top as she leapt off the deck. Yanking her cross off, she dropped it into the bottle, trying desperately not to trip or to slosh the water out. Her heels sank into the wet path, but she didn't have time to stop and rip them off.
By the time she made it to the fight, Angel was on his back, and Jean-Pierre and Savannah were pounding him against the dirty snow.
"Lost your weapons, didn't you boy?" Jean-Pierre gloated.
"Hey!" Cordy cried. Both vamps turned.
"Oooh, Angel, call off your kitten," Savannah smirked.
She plugged the bottle with her thumb and shook it, building the fizzy water's pressure to an explosive level. With her free hand, she yanked Savannah's shirt. "Thirsty?" she asked, aiming the bottle and pulling her thumb away.
The water geysered, shooting spray across Savannah's face and chest. She cried out in surprise, then in agony, as the water scorched her fair skin, turning it a mottled, blistered red.
Cordy shook the bottle again and aimed it at Jean-Pierre. "Get off of him," she said.
He looked at the bottle, then at Cordy, and got to his feet. Angel rolled, coughing, and sat up, his coat caked with mud. Cordy went to him, keeping a watch on Jean-Pierre and the writhing Savannah. Her blood was pumping so hard she barely registered the cold.
"Angel," she said, careful not to get him wet. "Come on. Get up."
"Get out of here, Cordy. This is old business. Not your fight."
She grabbed his upper arm and pulled him to his feet.
Jean-Pierre lunged and Cordy shook the bottle and squirted the rest of the water menacingly in his direction. He danced aside, hissing when it hit his arm.
"You're wrong," she said gently, tossing the bottle aside. "It's *our* fight. Now, let's finish it."
She turned to face the vamps, keeping Angel behind her. She reached back and grabbed his hand. "The Lord is my shepherd," she said, her voice clear and firm. "I shall not want."
"Cordelia, we don't have time for..." Angel's voice died away as the link flared open, shooting a spear of heat down Cordy's arm.
She chanted the verse, building the heat and power of the link, feeling it throb through her, lighting her up from the inside out.
Angel held her hand tightly as he followed her lead. She advanced at her own pace, working Jean-Pierre and Savannah down a line of her making.
Savannah stumbled back, a look of pure hatred on her face. "I'll kill you for that," she said, all traces of humanity wiped away.
Jean-Pierre mouth was a taut line, his eyes flat, silver discs. "And when she's finished with you, I will rip you into bite-sized chunks and feed you to my dogs," he intoned.
Cordy ignored them, paying attention, instead, to the words flowing through her. "He restores my soul!" she said, dropping Angel's hand and moving into the first position of the tai chi form. Again, Angel seemed to understand, as he assumed his own fighting stance.
They moved in tandem, like dancers. Angel's routine was a study in masculine power: fierce punches; roundhouse kicks; thrust and parry, retreat and advance. Cordy was like breath or water, flowing gracefully through her form.
Grasping Sparrow's Tail blocked Savannah's kick and sent her rolling across the yard. Touching Heaven, Touching Earth took care of the high punch thrown by Jean-Pierre. As her lips formed the words of the psalm, the power flowed like a downhill river, gaining speed and force.
The vamps were panting now, their eyes glazed and their bodies laboring. Angel fought as he always did, with seemingly endless energy, hopping up each time he fell, and meeting blow for blow.
Then Savannah pulled a knife. Why she hadn't drawn it earlier, Cordy couldn't say. All she knew was, one minute she was dancing with the devil, and the next the devil was dancing with her. The blade flew expertly, sharp and swift and fueled by a dangerous cocktail of anger, pain and pride.
She finished the psalm and started again, hoping it would put them over the top. She muttered the words, slipping in and out of the nighttime shadows.
"Prayers never were a match for steel," Savannah said, and she sent the knife arcing toward Cordy's throat.
Cordy turned, but not fast enough, and the blade sliced, leaving a long trail of fire from shoulder to throat. The copper scent of blood hit the cold air like an angry fist and all three vamps stopped, mid-fight, and turned toward her.
Savannah laughed, high on the blood and the adrenaline. She lunged, taking Cordy down in a rolling tackle. They landed hard against a tree trunk, and Cordy felt the bark tear her clothes and skin.
She twisted, avoiding the knife, and found her hands full of snow and twigs. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil," she whispered. She kicked, catching Savannah's arm, and sending the knife flying into the snow.
Savannah rolled after it and Cordy went the opposite direction. She closed her eyes. "A stake. I need a stake," she said, letting the link be her guide.
Her fingers landed on a sturdy branch, half-hidden by the snow.
"You're mine," Savannah said. Cordy looked up at her, silhouetted in the moonlight, and smiled.
"Not tonight," she said, holding the improvised stake and kicking Savannah's legs out from under her. She fell with a grunt, and Cordy felt her weight, the press of her breasts, and then nothing. Savannah screamed and exploded into dust.
Cordy coughed and spat, rolling to her feet. In the shadows at the edge of the woods she could see Angel and Jean-Pierre still going at it. She picked up Savannah's knife and ran.
"Too bad about your girlfriend," she taunted. Jean-Pierre whirled, leaving himself unprotected. Angel crashed his fist into the man's jaw and watched as he tumbled to the ground. He came up howling.
"No fuss, no muss," Cordy said, wiping dust off her wet clothes. "I'm moving into Slayer territory here." She winked at Jean-Pierre, who rushed her, just as she'd intended. As he made his move, she flipped the knife to Angel.
"Wooden handle," she said, as Jean-Pierre took her down in a flying tackle. God, he was heavy, she thought, seeing stars as she crashed into the path.
"You killed her? You killed Savannah?" Jean-Pierre said, wrapping his hands around her throat.
"Yeah," she gritted, bucking her hips. She couldn't resist one last dig. "Pretty easy, too, considering she was an Elder, and all."
Her eyes widened as she saw the point of the knife appear through his chest, then jerk upward. Angel twisted it, burying the wooden handle to the hilt.
Jean-Pierre screamed, a long, shrill, death-cry, and exploded. Dust rained down on Cordy and she choked, rolling to her side, retching.
"Cordy," Angel said, falling next to her.
She pushed him away, getting to her knees. "Just need to catch my breath," she said, panting and shaking her head.
Adrenaline fueled her as she staggered to her feet. "If I never do that again, it will be too soon." She stumbled toward the house.
"Hey," Angel said, appearing in front of her. He put his hands on her shoulders. "Stop for a minute. We're done."
"We're done?" Cordy asked, looking around dazedly. "Oh, God." She leaned over, putting her hands on her knees. As her heart slowed, she began to feel the pain, not just from the cuts and bruises. But from the betrayal.
"Hey," Angel said, squatting in front of her. "It's all right. You're okay. Cordy, you were amazing," he said, his voice full of awe.
"Don't, Angel. Just...don't," she said, standing. She looked into his face, haloed by what was left of the moonlight, and saw Angelus.
"You killed them," she said.
"Thousands of people. But mostly women. You liked the women, didn't you?"
He looked at her, his confusion and hurt a mirror of her own. "Cordy, please."
"I saw them all, Angel. Every book the Watchers published on you, and let me just say, you're one of their favorite subjects."
"Oh, God," he whispered.
"And to make it worse, you slept with her," she said, her voice sad and broken.
"What?" he asked, from down on his knees.
"Darla. You screwed Darla." She pushed her hair out of her eyes with a trembling hand.
"Yes," he admitted fiercely. "Yes I did. Just like I committed all those other sins I can never atone for."
She waved the old sins away. "That was then. This is now," she growled. "You risked our lives! Because *you* felt empty."
He looked down, unable to meet her eyes.
"So it's true. It wasn't just a dream."
He shook his head. "No, it was a nightmare."
"Don't play for my sympathy," she said harshly.
He looked at her, then. "I wasn't. It was true. It was pure despair."
"But you didn't know that, Angel. It might have.... You might have.... And he would have come after me. First."
He swallowed. "Yeah."
She crossed her arms over her breasts, suddenly aware of the cold on her exposed skin. "You don't live in a vacuum, Angel. What you do affects all of us now. Especially me."
"I know," he whispered. "I know. I'm so sorry. Please forgive me."
She ran her hand through his spiky hair. "Angel, I couldn't have linked with you that way if I hadn't already forgiven you," she said. "Just promise me something."
"Anything," he said.
"If you find yourself in that dark place again, call me. I have a flashlight."
He laughed and let her help him to his feet. "Let's get you inside," he said, wrapping his arm around her shoulders.
She stumbled against the adrenaline crash. "Oh, God," she said, sagging against him.
He picked her up, cradling her against his chest.
"I hurt all over," she whispered. "And it's *freezing* out here."
"Bath first, then bandages."
Cordy nodded. "I have to tell Mr. Zhou. They were his friends." Her voice broke as she realized the magnitude of what had just happened.
Angel's footsteps echoed on the porch, then the door opened.
"Is she all right?" Mr. Zhou asked quietly.
"Angel likes to play the romantic lead," Cordy replied.
The old man looked at her, his eyes sad and soft. "They died honorably."
Cordy nodded. "Very much so."
"That is all one can ask for." He stood silently with his eyes closed for a moment. "Angel," he finally said, "take her to her room. I'll run a bath and you can see that she takes it."
Angel nodded and followed him down the hall. Cordy's head lolled against his shoulder. "You okay?" she asked quietly.
"Not too bad, considering," he said, easing her down on the bed. He settled her against the pillows, then sat at her feet and slid off her sandals. Her toes felt like blocks of ice.
"You fought in these things?" he asked, a look of amazement on his face.
"The shoes weren't as bad as the pants," she said, slapping her hand against her thigh. The snakeskin crackled.
He laughed, then bent over to inspect the cut on her shoulder. "That looks pretty bad," he said, fingering the edges gently.
Cordy flinched. "I've seen worse on you. Once I get a bath, it'll look a ton better."
Mr. Zhou came into the room. "Okay," he said, nodding to Angel.
"You gonna be all right undressing on your own?"
"I think so," Cordy replied. She hauled herself off the bed and padded to the bathroom, starting to shiver as the chill caught up with her. "Why don't you let Martin clean you up?" she asked before closing the door behind her.
She pulled the top off, wincing at the way it had been ripped during the fight. Not wanting see the bruises yet, she turned away from the mirror and unzipped her pants. They slithered down her legs, leaving her bare, except for her panties, which also joined the pile.
The bath was steamy and filled with some sort of fragrant oil. It felt like fire against her feet, and she stood, panting, as she adjusted to the temperature. Finally, she was able to sit, then rest against the back of the tub.
She moaned as she slid under, gasping when the hot water hit the scrapes, and hissing when it covered her shoulder. Her eyes closed and she floated, letting her mind turn off and the heat chase away the bone-deep chill.
There was a knock on the door. "Cordy? You okay?"
"It's been nearly an hour. You wanna come out?"
She shifted, and the now-cool water sloshed against the side of the tub. "Yeah. I'll be right out." It was difficult to stand, and she had to use the soap dish to lever herself up. She let the water out, then wrapped herself in a towel and opened the door.
Angel sat on the bed, clean and bandaged, and wearing fresh clothes.
"You look better," she said.
"You don't," he countered.
She laughed. "Thanks. You got any aspirin?"
He held up a bottle. "And water, and disinfectant, and bandages. Sit down."
She collapsed onto the side of the bed, leaning her head against his shoulder.
"Don't go to sleep," he said. "We'll never get you taken care of." He handed her the aspirin and the glass. She took them gratefully and swallowed almost half the glass of water.
"Much," she rasped.
He turned, sitting sideways on the bed. "Let's take care of this one first," he said, spreading ointment on the gash on her chest. His fingers were gentle and cool, but she still flinched.
"That's gotta hurt," he said.
She nodded. "Not too comfy."
He taped a bandage over it, pressing the tape against her skin. "There. Now let me see your arms." He picked up one hand, examining her entire arm for abrasions, and applying ointment when he found one. "Legs okay?" he asked, glancing down.
Cordy nodded. "Those pants are like armor. But I think my feet..."
He knelt and picked up her foot. "Yeah, these need some work." He was quiet while he doctored her feet, and he rubbed the arches soothingly as he finished.
Her head was nodding against her chest when he slid back up on the bed. "Cordy, turn around," he whispered.
She presented her back and felt his fingers pull the towel aside. He hissed. "What did he do to you?" he asked, running his fingers across the long, horizontal scratches.
"That must be from the shelves. Or maybe it was one of the tackles." She shrugged.
Angel sighed and cleaned the cuts. "You'll have to get the rest," he said, capping the tube of ointment and setting it on the bedside table. "They can wait till tomorrow, though."
He patted her shoulder and handed her a pair of sweat pants and a t-shirt. "Put those on." He turned his back and Cordy slid the clothes over her stinging skin.
"Okay," she said, pulling the covers back and climbing into the bed. Her eyelids drooped and Angel turned out the light.
Her breathing evened out and Angel stood. Cordy reached for him. "No," she breathed.
He took her hand. "No?"
"Stay," she said.
Angel looked around for a chair, but there wasn't one in reach. "Cordy," he whispered. "I've got to go find a chair. I'll be back."
She opened her eyes, blinking owlishly. "Why? It's a big bed." She scooted over. "Come on, Angel, don't be a wuss."
He laughed and climbed in next to her. "I don't think anyone's ever called me that," he said.
She turned on her side and pulled him against her. "I don't know why not," she said. And then she was asleep.
She slept for nearly 24 hours, waking to find it night again.
Cordelia stood in the woods, collecting as much of the night as she could hold. She was saying farewell, for now, though she knew she would never really leave. Some part of her, some wild, primitive part, would always be here.
She remained motionless, feeling the snow beneath her boots, smelling its damp, wintry fragrance. The stars glittered above her, twinkling their good-byes. She watched the trees bend and sway and thought of the city she was returning to. Loud, bright, crowded, smelly.
She smiled and wrapped her arms around her waist. She was going home.
There was a tug on the link then, and she knew Angel was looking for her. A bittersweet wave swept over her. She was going home, yes, but she was also leaving home behind.
A bird called, another answered. She understood, now, how night creatures navigated, and so she waited for him, outside the reach of the porch lights, a shadow among shadows.
He was soundless on the path, but she felt him, and as he approached she turned. He was inseparable from the darkness, nothing more a shift in the energy field. Then he gained an outline, gathered form and became a man.
Out of the darkness he approached, tall and broad and pale as milk, his features a chiaroscuro in the silver light. He flowed to a halt in front of her.
Remembering the ancient greeting, she bared her throat to him.
His face was silvered, fey in the moonlight, half-hidden by shadows. But his eyes glowed, dark and joyful. The smile bloomed across his face like jasmine.
He bowed formally from the waist. When he stood his eyes glowed gold and he wore his game face.
He tilted his head and gently, reverently touched one of his long canines to her jugular. "I offer you my fealty," he said in Gaelic.
Then he slipped his arms around her and nestled his face in the crook of her neck, no longer Angelus the Scourge, but Angel, her beloved. He breathed her in, taking her scent into his body and blanketing himself in it.
She recognized his action, and the knowledge weakened her knees so that she had to clutch his shoulders to remain standing. "Angel," she whispered, leaning into him, feeling the hard planes of his body pressing against her.
"Hey," he said. He lifted her off the ground, held her against him fiercely, pressing his cheek to hers in a move so sweet it brought tears to her eyes.
"I missed you," she whispered into the shell of his ear. She leaned her head on his shoulder and pressed her lips to his neck, opening her mouth and placing a wet kiss to the quiet hollow that rested there. He smelled like soap and turf fires, as if he carried the scent of his homeland in his very cells.
"Oh, I missed you," he breathed, setting her gently down on the ground. "You look better," he said. He drank her in, his eyes warm and happy.
She took his hand and linked her fingers through his. "Come with me," she said, tugging him down the trail. They walked in silence, following the path Cordelia knew by heart. She'd been waiting for him so she could walk it one last time.
"It's beautiful," Angel breathed, as they came into the clearing.
Cordy stopped to let him take it all in. "I know," she said reverently. "I wanted to see it through your eyes."
Angel raised his face to the moon and held up an open palm. "It's like sunbathing, you know. Except the moon's rays wax and wane. The scents, the textures, the way the birds call. They all change according to her whim."
He turned to look at her. "You're not scared," he said, smiling.
Cordelia started walking again, ambling through the clearing and back onto the tree-lined path. "No," she said. "I woke up one night and the moon was full. It was incredibly bright; almost like the sun." She looked at him, and he was watching her, his face curious, intent.
"I went for a walk, by myself. It was the first time in a long time that I walked unprotected." She smiled at the memory, at the feeling of feral power that had rushed through her. "I felt like an animal."
"Or a woman," Angel replied.
Heat rushed through her, loosening her muscles and coiling in her belly. "Yes," she said, shivering. "I understood why you love it."
They listened to the night sounds, then started walking again. They didn't talk until they started up the hill to the house. "It'll be hard for you," he commented, stopping her on a small rise. He turned her toward him.
"Yes. Part of me wants to stay."
He nodded and cupped her face with his hand. "You can come back anytime. I'll come with you."
"You'd better," Cordy said. "You're the only one who gets it."
Angel smiled and shrugged. "Some creatures live their entire lives at night."
He started walking again, and put his arm around her shoulders.
"You balance me, Angel," she said quietly.
"We balance each other, Cordy," he said.
"So you are leaving," Mr. Zhou said, smiling at Cordy. "You must be very happy."
Cordelia smiled. "You know it," she said, snuggling under Angel's arm. "But I'm really gonna miss you. I wasn't expecting that."
Mr. Zhou laughed. "I will miss you, too. You are like a ray of sunshine, my dear. A joy to have around."
"Even when I'm being a pain in the butt?" Cordy asked with a grin.
"Especially then," Mr. Zhou said. "You are a rare combination of heart, brains and beauty. Never let him tell you otherwise," he said, flicking a glance to Angel. "And don't let him brood too much. He might implode."
Cordelia elbowed Angel. "You hear that?" she asked. She leaned over and pulled Mr. Zhou to her, holding him tightly. "I don't know how to thank you," she whispered.
"No thanks are required," he replied. "I am having a party next summer, for several of my friends. There will be other Seers and Warriors there. I hope," he said with a smile, "that you both will come."
"Oh, my God," Cordy said, glancing at Angel. "We are so there!"
Angel nodded. "I'd like to see that," he said, shaking his head. "Other Seers and Warriors. Amazing."
"It doesn't matter how long you live, there are still things to learn," Mr. Zhou smiled. He reached out and shook Angel's hand. "Drive carefully."
Angel nodded and helped Cordy into the Jeep he'd rented. "Thank you," he said, turning back to the old man. "You'll never know what this means to me."
"Oh, I think I understand," Mr. Zhou said, his smile gentle. "Stick with her, she'll see you through," he said, nodding at Cordy.
She blew a kiss and pressed her fingertips to the window.
Angel's face glowed in the soft light from the porch. "You don't have to tell me twice," he said, walking to the driver's side and swinging into the Jeep.
The lobby lights were all on, giving the hotel a warm, golden glow. She walked in from the rainy, L.A. winter and dropped her bags just inside the door.
It smelled the same, like old wood and leaky pipes, overlaid with Fred's perfume and the oil Angel used to sharpen his weapons. It smelled like home.
"Cordy!" Gunn exclaimed, dropping the knife and whetstone with a clatter. He dashed forward, scooping her up in a hug.
Cordelia laughed and squeezed him tightly. "Oh, I missed you," she said, giving him a smacking kiss.
Gunn's smile flared like a sunspot. "So, how was Confucius? You learn any new kung fu?"
"We already established that there was no need for that," Wes said, springing lightly up the stairs. He pulled Cordy to him, swayed her gently and kissed the top of her head.
"You thought I could kick your butt before," she said, "you should see me now." She took a step back and drew her body into a warrior's pose, the fingers of one taut hand aiming for his jugular and the other leg in the air, ready to extend into a powerful kick.
Wes took a step back. "That looks fearsome," he said. "Touch me, and I'll scream."
Angel walked in behind them and set Cordy's suitcase down next to her smaller bags. "Hey, guys," he said. "We're home."
"Cordy!" Fred said, rushing out of the office, her long hair flying behind her. She grabbed her, laughing happily as they embraced. "Oh, you're home! It's so good to see you!"
"You wouldn't believe this crowd of mopers," Lorne said from the staircase, making an entrance, as usual. "They acted like six weeks was a lifetime. And we all know that's not true, don't we boy-o?"
Cordy looked up and saw the green demon walking sedately into the lobby, Connor cradled in his arms. She couldn't get to them fast enough.
Lorne hugged her, the baby pressed between their bodies, just as he had been six weeks before. This time, though, she wasn't leaving.
She was staying.
She took the baby from Lorne, unable to take her eyes off of him. "Connor," she breathed. He looked up at her, his wise eyes and cherub's face so familiar that her eyes filled with tears. "I'm home," she said, her voice breaking. She clutched him to her, pressing her face against his chubby cheek.
"Look, Connor," Angel said, coming up behind her and putting a hand on her shoulder. "Cordy's home. Mommy's home." He bent down and kissed her cheek.
Cordy looked at him, unable to stop the tears from streaming down her face.
"Hey, I thought we were gonna open presents," Gunn said. He pointed to the Christmas tree, which was still up in the lobby. "Angel made us wait," he grumbled.
"It was only fair," Fred said. "We had to wait for Cordy." She went to the tree and picked up a gift. "Here," she said, handing it to Gunn. "You go first."
He laughed like a little boy and ripped into the paper. Wes followed, and he and Fred handed out gifts. The lobby rang with laughter and excited voices.
Cordy watched them open their gifts, a soft smile on her face. "You'd think they'd never had Christmas before," Cordy said to Connor. She'd pulled one of the office chairs out and sat with the baby on her lap, a pile of unopened presents growing at her feet. "Why bother with presents when I've got everything I want already?" She leaned down to kiss him.
"Cordy," Angel called from behind her.
She turned and he smiled, a smile of such pure happiness that it turned her heart in her chest. "What?"
"Come upstairs. I've got something for you."
She smirked. "I've heard that one before," she said. She looked down at Connor. "You'd think, after two and a half centuries, the man could come up with better pick-up lines." The baby grabbed for her hair.
"Fred?" Angel asked.
"Yeah?" She looked up from the microscope Wes had given her.
"Take the baby?"
She looked from Angel to Cordy, her grin growing and her eyes gleaming. "You bet," she said. She handed Wes the slide she'd been holding and whispered something to him. He glanced at Angel, then slipped the slide under the scope, ducking his face to hide his smile.
"See you guys later," Fred said, letting Cordy slip the baby into her arms. "Have fun!"
Angel took Cordy's hand and led her upstairs.
"God, does *everyone* know?" she asked.
"Know what?" he queried, opening his door and pulling her inside.
"About us. With the, you know," she said, nodding toward the bed.
"Oh, yeah." He shrugged. "Not much I could do. Sorry about that." He walked over to the coffee table and picked up a small present, beautifully wrapped.
"I didn't want to give it to you downstairs. I wanted to do it in private."
She took the box, her hand trembling. "What is it?" she asked, looking up at him.
"Open it and see."
She slid her thumbnail under the tape and a jeweler's box fell into her palm. "Oh," she said, pulling off the top.
Inside was a cross, almost the size of her thumbnail. So much like the one she'd dreamed about weeks before that she gasped. "Angel," she said.
"I saw it one day while I was out. I don't know why, but it reminded me of you." He picked up the chain, careful not to touch the cross, itself. "Turn around."
She turned and lifted her hair, waiting while he fastened the clasp. She felt his lips, cool and soft, on her nape, then his hands, pulling hers away and turning her to him.
"Beautiful," he said, pressing his fingertips to her throat.
"Beautiful," she replied, cupping his face with her hand.
"Love you, Cordy," he whispered, just before his lips brushed hers.
The first touch of his lips was like honey, warm and sweet. She pressed her mouth to his, moaning when she felt the sweep of his tongue.
She slipped her hands over his shoulders, acquainting herself with him. A million times she'd touched him, held him, bandaged him. A million times she'd loved him--but not like this.
His collarbones were hard as rebar, the bone ancient and dense. The first time she'd touched him, she'd been shocked by it. By comparison the human men she knew were as soft and elastic as newborns. But now she was comforted by the steel beneath the flesh. Now it was normal--and at this moment thrilling.
God, and his mouth. It was like he'd always known her taste, the shape of her lips, the way she wanted to be kissed. There was no hesitation, no question. He cupped her face in his hands and changed the angle, sending her thoughts spinning away.
She came up for air like a swimmer in the deep end. "Gotta breathe," she gasped.
Angel's laugh rumbled against her cheekbone, where his lips were now trailing butterfly kisses. "Right. I'll try to remember that."
His hands slid from her face to her neck and then slowly down her back. He looked as if he were as dazzled by her as she was by him.
The shift in their relationship had been so sudden, the directive to change its nature so bold and sweeping, that Cordy felt like a cliff-side house in a winter storm: uncertain of her foundation and intimidated by the primal power that was pounding at her walls.
She had been so confident in the research, sure that what the books were telling them was true. That moment during the fight when she'd finally forgiven Angel for his past had been the turning point. Or so she had thought.
Now that she was in his arms, and he was real and solid against her, the little doubts started creeping back. What if, just for a second, the joy overpowered him? What if, in that one fleeting moment, his soul slipped free and she woke up to Angelus's cruel, gleeful smile?
She shuddered against him, a different shiver than the ones his kisses elicited.
He pulled back. "Cordy?" he asked, concern obvious in his tone. "You all right?"
She felt the fear deep in her belly and spreading rapidly. She knew he could see it in her eyes and there was nothing she could do to hide it. "I don't know. I just freaked out all of a sudden."
His face offered no judgment, just understanding. His eyes, centuries old, held memories of the very stories she feared. "I know. What if...?"
She swallowed hard. "Yeah. I don't want to go to bed with you and wake up with Angelus. I mean, I'm pretty good with a stun gun, but...."
He laughed nervously. "Honey, if Angelus gets free again, I think it'll take a lot more than a stun gun to contain him."
"Thanks. I feel much better now," Cordy said wryly.
Angel ran trembling hands up and down her arms. "Okay, here's the thing," he said quietly. "If we do this, we're running a risk."
"Pretty damn big risk. Not just to me, but to Connor and Fred and...."
Angel nodded. "Yeah, but if we don't? You die. Not an option."
Cordy blew out a breath. "Well, when you put it like that...."
Angel rested his forehead against hers. "Not an option," he repeated. His hands squeezed her arms gently. "So, I'll tell you what. Let's play it safe."
"I still have those chains."
She couldn't stop the laugh that bubbled up. "Jeez, Angel, kinky much?"
"Evidently," he said wryly. He ran his hands reassuringly over her arms again before turning to his weapons trunk. The lid squeaked open, revealing an assortment of deadly instruments. In one corner was a large, black velvet bag, which he pulled free. It was bulky and heavy-looking and it rattled metallically as he walked to the bed.
He dropped it on the mattress then untied the cord at the top. A long chain fell with a heavy thump. Attached at each end was a metal, hinged bracelet that locked with an old-fashioned skeleton key, which tumbled out, bouncing against the mattress. Since the bed didn't have a headboard or footboard, he slipped the end of the chain under the metal bed rail and pulled until it was looped completely through.
There was more than enough play in the chain to give him room to move comfortably on the bed, but not so much that he could reach the door.
"One more thing," he said, dropping a kiss to Cordy's head as he brushed past her. He dipped his hand back into the trunk and came up with a gun and a handful of darts. "Tranquilizers," he said. He held out the weapon to her and when she took it, their hands brushed.
Cordy paled. "The chains? Kinda freaking me out, but I could work around that," Cordy said, fingering the weapon nervously. "The gun, though? Pretty much kills the mood."
Angel ran his hand down her arm reassuringly. "It's not the most romantic way to become lovers, is it?"
Cordy looked down at the gun, then back up at Angel. "I don't know if I can do this. It's just too weird."
"Here," Angel said quietly. He took the gun from her and loaded a dart, then set it on the reading chair, close enough for her to grab, but not so close that he could reach it once he was chained. "Now you won't have to think about it unless you need it.
"As for the chains," he said teasingly, obviously trying to lighten the mood, "they can be kind of fun once you get used to them." He walked back to her and slid his arms around her waist.
Cordy laughed softly, then leaned her head against his chest and took a deep breath. "Let's have some fun, then."
When she looked up he was watching her with hooded eyes. His face was unreadable and it frightened her a little. "What?" she asked, her voice quavering.
"I've never met anyone like you," he said. "You face everything life throws you with such courage." Then he smiled, the curve gentling his face and warming his eyes. His hand reached for hers. "Come to bed, Cordy," he urged. "Come lie with me."
Her fingers linked with his and they walked to the bed. They stopped at its edge and Cordy looked down, seeing the familiar comforter and pillows, their softness ready to receive her. On top of them sat the chain, a cold, hard reminder of the possibilities that waited. "The Powers wouldn't lie, right?"
He slid his arms around her waist and pulled her to him. "We're gonna be fine," he promised, running one hand up her spine. "I have to believe that."
He kissed her softly then reached up to cup her face in his hands. "Cordy," he breathed, raining baby kisses over her forehead, her cheekbones, her lips.
She wrapped her arms around him and pulled him closer. The nerves still fired in her belly, but they were slowly being replaced by a warm, relaxing glow. Her lips opened, and his tongue danced against them, as if asking her permission to enter.
She darted out to meet him, loving the silky feel of his mouth, then drew him in. He kissed her reverently and with great joy, like she was the sun he hadn't seen for centuries.
His fingers combed through her hair, tugging gently at the silk and changing the angle of their kiss. The new position brought his open mouth more fully against hers and had her arching against him. Her desire spun upward, a fire he stoked carefully, meticulously.
She wanted to touch him again, to feel the play of his muscles against her hands. Her palms dragged up his back, tangling the sweater, and she met him in a tumble of flesh and fabric. Again and again she caressed him, and in her belly the warm glow of need exploded into flame.
She moaned, and the vibrating puff of air seemed to snap Angel's control.
If the first kiss had been day, then this one was night. He devoured her, taking long drinks and tiny sips, driving her crazy with his tongue. She pressed herself tightly against him, thrilled by the electric shimmer that went through her.
Angel rested one knee on the bed and pulled her into the open cradle of his hips. She heard the chains rattle, but instead of the fear she'd felt only seconds before, she now felt an overriding sense of safety. She laughed softly against Angel's lips.
He pulled back. "What?"
"Simultaneously creeped out and comforted."
Angel grinned, obviously enjoying the memory that the words evoked. "I get that."
His hands ran up and down her back, making ever-widening strokes. Each pass brought him closer to her hips, her lower back, her bottom. Finally, he slipped his hands under her and cupped her to him.
She gasped, stunned by the hard press of his body.
"Stand on your tiptoes," he whispered.
Dizzy, she complied, only to feel a burst of heat and exhilaration when he pressed them center to center.
"God, Angel," she moaned.
He nuzzled her throat, finding the tender hollow under her chin. His tongue darted out and left a trail of liquid fire. Then he slid his hands under her ass and pulled her up.
She wrapped her legs around his waist instinctively, gasping when they collided. "Yes," she moaned, arching against him.
He leaned over the bed, lowering them both gently to the mattress, then unlocking her legs so she lay flat on her back. He slipped down next to her and rested on his side, one big hand splayed over her belly. As he leaned down to kiss her, his eyes closed, making him look as innocent and beautiful as his name implied.
Cordy kissed him tenderly, almost overcome with emotion. "Angel," she whispered, running her fingers over his face, trailing them across his brow, over his nose, to his lips.
He kissed her hand delicately, then opened his mouth and sucked on her fingertips. Cordy gasped at the tingling sensation that spread up her arm. She pulled her fingers away and kissed him again, lapping at his lips and pulling a groan from deep in his body.
Then she wrapped her arms around him and pulled him to her, suddenly desperate for the touch of his flesh against hers. She was starved for him, like a woman who had been in the desert 40 days without food. He was sustenance, nourishment.
And he was burning. She smelled the smoke half a second before he jerked back in surprise.
"Sorry, Angel, sorry," she said, sitting up and unclasping the cross he'd given her. She dropped it to the nightstand then reached out to touch the pinkened flesh of his throat. "You all right?"
He grimaced, but she could tell by the way the mark was already fading that the injury wasn't serious. "You branded me," he said, eyes glinting.
Cordy's face relaxed into a smile. She kissed the tip of his nose. "Guess that makes you mine." Then she leaned in and kissed him softly.
He flicked her lips with his tongue.. "Guess it does."
She slid down on the bed and turned to face him. Her hand found his and she pulled it up and flattened her palm against his. They lay, hand-to-hand, marveling in the difference in size, shape, texture. Against him, her skin looked tawny and golden; against her, his palm was like a snow leopard's paw, huge and blunt and palest white.
She turned her gaze to his. "You're so beautiful," she whispered. She leaned forward and kissed the slash of his cheekbone, the wing of his eyebrow. Beneath her lips he was as cool as ocean-smoothed sand.
She felt him pull her hand around to his back, then there was the rasp of fabric against her palm. After a moment, he slid his hand around her waist. It spanned the width of her ribcage, making her feel small and protected and incredibly beautiful.
The kisses she rained on him must have had an effect because suddenly he was arching against her and his big hands were rushing restlessly over her back. Then he started to retaliate, dropping tiny nips and bites over her face and throat.
His hands grew bolder, finding her hips and cupping her to him. Then, before she could get used to the feel of his body, they skated away, trailing over her shoulders and down her arms.
Impatient, she grabbed his hands. "Please," she gasped pulling his palms over her stomach, craving his touch on her breasts and in that hot place between her legs. "Angel, please."
"Please, what? Please you?" He nuzzled her throat, lipped the soft skin delicately, his hands making teasing circles against her belly.
She moaned and pressed herself against him, her pulse dancing madly against his mouth in rhythm with her pounding heart. Her fingers clawed his shoulders; her hips writhed against his. Against her he was hard as stone and the feel of him nearly drove her out of her mind with anticipation.
His hand slid slowly down her leg, setting her skin on fire. Then he sat and scooted down the bed until he could walk his fingers around her ankle. He slipped them into her shoe, tickling lightly until she twitched.
"Such tiny feet," he breathed. Her shoe hit the floor with a thud and soon the other followed.
Then he disappeared like smoke.
"Angel?" Cordy asked dazedly.
"Hmmm?" He appeared again at the foot of the bed. He knelt before her and cupped her calves in his hands. Her feet came to rest against his chest, the sensitive soles pressing lightly against his sweater.
She shivered as the slightly scratchy wool touched her skin.
"N-no," she chattered. "Just...." She gasped and arched when he lifted a foot to his mouth.
"Just what, Cordy?" he teased. He bit her instep, ran his teeth over the ball of her foot, and kissed the tips of her toes.
"Just...don't stop," she cried as he sucked delicately at the pulse point inside her ankle.
"All that life," he whispered, his fingers following the damp trail his tongue left. "Just below the surface." He looked up at her and his eyes were dark and hot. "You have no idea how intoxicating it is, just to be near you. Just to hear your heart beat."
His teeth rasped against her skin and her insides dissolved to liquid.
"Cordy," he moaned, sliding up her body and resting his head in the cradle of her hips. "Do you want me?"
She laughed desperately. "You have to ask?" She plucked at his sweater, frustrated because it kept her from touching his skin.
He blinked up at her. "I know I can please you, Cordy. That part...anyone can do that." He slid his hand up her thigh until his hand rested over her pubic bone. Not moving, just resting.
She arched against him. "No, they really can't," she rasped. "I've never felt this way about anyone," she said. "Something about you, Angel.... I don't know what it is," she whispered. Her fingers ran restlessly through his hair. "I feel...electric."
He moaned and turned his mouth to her belly. She felt her shirt slip up and then his lips were on her. "I have to taste you," he breathed. His tongue lapped out and found her stomach, her ribs, her belly button.
Cordy gasped as he lapped at the smooth skin of her ribcage. His tongue edged under her bra, leaving the fabric damp and her belly quivering.
Just when she thought he was going to touch her breasts, he stopped. Instead, he slipped up her body until he rested beside her again, his fingers tracing lazy designs on her stomach. Every movement sent a shiver through her, lighting up her skin, hardening her nipples, dampening her thighs.
God, he'd barely touched her, and she was soaking wet.
She grabbed desperately at his sweater, pulling it up and up, until she could get her hands under it. "Ohhh," she said, when her fingers found the cool, pale flesh of his stomach. She pressed her palms against him, sliding up his ribs until she reached his chest.
He shivered. "Your hands are so warm."
"Yeah, well, you seem to have that effect on me," she said, flicking her thumbs across his nipples.
He arched against her. "Tryin' to go slow here, Cordy," he admonished. "You're gonna have to stop."
"Nuh uh," she challenged, leaning up to take him in her mouth. Against her tongue, he felt like cool silk and smelled rich, masculine, mysterious. His nipple was hard as a pebble and she worried him with her teeth.
"Cordy," he hissed, pulling away. "This is gonna go way too fast if you keep doing that."
"I want you. I don't care." She wrapped her arms around his back and pulled him on top of her. He hovered above her, refusing to let go, and the faintest brush of his weight only frustrated her more.
"Well, I do," he said, brushing her hair off her forehead. "We only get one first time."
"Angel," she crooned. Her hands slipped down and cupped his ass. Perfect muscles, perfect shape--he filled her hands like he was made for her. "The whole night is our first time." God, she was gonna die if she didn't feel *all* of him. She bent her knees, pinning him between her thighs.
He moaned and closed his eyes as her hands clasped his backside. The muscles in his arms quivered as he tried to maintain control.
He was close to giving in. She could tell by the lost look on his face, the near desperate grimace. All it would take was.... She reached up and bit his throat.
He collapsed against her and she felt, for the first time, his full weight. A current so sharp it felt like lightning struck her--like a vision almost, but of such pleasure, it literally stole her breath.
The link opened, singing like the turning earth, vibrating through her with a resonance that filled every cell. She cried out, then, feeling more connected to life than she ever had.
Angel arched against her and her legs wrapped instinctively around his waist. Even with layers of clothes between them, she felt every part of him, from his unbeating heart to the hard, hot press of his cock.
Elemental, joyful, complete.
She grabbed his sweater and jerked it up. "Off. Now," she grated.
He sat up and stripped his sweater over his head. It flew across the room and landed softly on the floor. Her shirt flew to meet it, the smaller, lighter piece of fabric landing like yin against yang.
"Cordy," he moaned, filling his hands with her breasts.
"Finally," she hissed.
"I'm not gonna make it, baby," he said, leaning down to suck a satin-covered nipple into his mouth.
She crooned and pressed him closer. "I don't care, I don't care."
"I'm not gonna make it. 'Cause you are," he said, grinning up at her, a mischievous glint in his eye. Then he was sliding down her body, undoing the fasteners and the zipper of her pants, his fingers hard against her soft belly.
They slid away leaving her clad only in her bra, the shimmering black as dark as sin on a virgin's heart. And between her legs, what he was doing was so delicious it should have been outlawed.
"Two-hundred-fifty years," she gasped. "Pretty good at that by now." She arched against him, pressing against his mouth.
His tongue left strings of fire, his mouth puddles of ecstasy. "Let me feel you, baby," he crooned as her body writhed. "Let me feel you come."
He slipped his hands under her hips and pulled her closer. He nuzzled against her, coating himself with her scent, drawing her into him like a drowning man finds air.
Then the softness ended, and it was nothing but teeth and tongue, ravaging her, plunging into her, thrilling her in ways beyond imagining. He was hard as iron one second, soft as cotton the next, never giving her a chance to catch up, to anticipate which way he'd go.
It left her defenseless and taut with pleasure. Behind her eyes, there was red light, little explosions of heat.
And then it all drew to one point, like the universe focusing its immense, primal power at her core. One, spiraling, fiery point...and then expanding flame.
She screamed as she came, her body shuddering with an intensity so layered she felt like she'd been trapped in a web of pure gold. His name was a prayer, a chant.
He rested between her legs, panting. "Cordelia," he breathed reverently.
When she could focus again, she saw tears in his eyes. "What? Angel, what?"
"You." He crawled up her body, his hands trailing over her skin. His mouth consumed her as if she were communion, the flesh and blood that would save him.
"I want you," she pleaded, plucking restlessly at his shoulders.
"There's time," he said quietly, resting his forehead against hers.
"But...but...you...." she whispered, looking into his angelic face.
"This isn't about me," he said, trailing his hand over her hip and into the dip of her waist. "Tonight's all about you. About what you mean to me."
She cupped his face with her hands. "About what we mean to each other."
He closed his eyes. "I...it's hard for me to express myself in words. I thought, if I showed you then...."
"Angel, I know how you feel about me," she reassured him.
His eyes opened, vulnerable in their dark depths.
"It's the same way I feel about you. There's no one else." She searched his face. "There's no room for anyone else."
There was a beat and the air rang with silence. Then Angel's voice, gruff and fierce. "The chains, Cordelia. Now."
He rolled to his back and extended his arms. Cordy sat up, heart beating frantically, and grabbed the restraints. She latched his wrists tightly then pitched the key across the room, out of reach.
"You all right?" he asked.
Cordy took a deep breath. "I'm okay. What about you?"
"This isn't anything new for me, Cordelia," he said, eyes full of memories, dark and sad.
"Maybe after this, you'll think of chains fondly," she said with a soft smile. Then she crawled on top of him, kissing his chest and throat as she went. Finally, she eased down, her bare skin resting easily against his still-clothed body.
He moaned and ran his hands up her back. The chains clanked musically. "I want you," he whispered.
She squirmed against him and the action dragged her breasts across his chest. She closed her eyes at the wash of sensation, letting it guide her through the last remnants of fear.
His fingers tangled in her hair, and he pulled her face up so he could see her eyes. "I love you, Cordy."
She kissed him gently then sat up, trailing her hands over his chest. "Really?"
He nodded seriously.
"Enough to let me take off your pants?" she interrupted teasingly. Her hands crept down his bare chest to his belly.
He laughed, and his eyes glinted. "Maybe."
She popped the button, slid the zipper down with a hiss, and found the boxers beneath. For a guy who was supposed to be cool all the time, he sure was exuding some heat.
"Cordy." He squirmed against her, sending his hips bumping against her already sensitive core.
"Ooooh," she said, closing her eyes and arching against him. "Do that again."
He growled and grabbed her hips. "Cordy. Get off," he gritted.
"What?" she squeaked, a little hurt by his tone.
Then he popped his hips against her again and his cock, hard and smooth as stone, banged her clit. She gasped. "Oh, you mean...."
He grinned up at her. "Yeah. I mean." His hands were big and hot and nearly bruised her soft flesh when he clasped her to him. His hips beat a regular rhythm against her, the fabric of his clothes adding an extra layer of sensation that nearly did her in.
His hands slid toward her center, the thumbs coming to rest over her belly button. The chains dragged against her skin, but she barely noticed them now. Instead, she closed her eyes and pressed herself against him, wanting him desperately, wanting to feel his skin, to feel him inside her, to feel....
Then his hands moved down. His thumb brushed her clit and she moaned, feeling exposed and raw and starving for more. She tensed against him. "Like that," she whispered. "Please. Do that again."
He did. Again, and again, and again, until her head was spinning and her hips were crashing against him. Then he lifted one hand and cupped her breast, pinching the nipple lightly.
She went off like fireworks, like a mortar shell exploding against the stars. Her body arched madly against him, popping against his flesh one last time, and she keened. Her nails dug cruelly into his chest, but she didn't know, didn't realize. She was lost in the ecstasy of his hands and his body, in the physical and spiritual release that he brought her.
She was flushed and panting when she looked down at him, at the man who was the center of her universe. "Mine," she whispered, bending down to kiss him.
His tongue swirled in her mouth, delicately, lovingly. "Mine," he agreed, cupping her head in his hands and pulling her closer.
She slid across him so she lay at his side. The feel of his lips on hers was intoxicating, like champagne or starlight. Like midnight. But, oh, she wanted more. And what she wanted shocked her. "Angel," she whispered uncertainly.
He opened his eyes and looked at her, his face soft and blurry with desire. "What, baby?"
"Vamp out?" Her stomach was churning with nerves and need.
He jerked. "What?"
"Game face. I need to see you. Please," she begged, as taken aback by her request as he was.
He shook his head, confusion and fear shining in his eyes. "Why?"
"I...don't know. I just...need it."
There was a pause, then she felt the change ripple through him and when she looked up, it was into his golden, catlike eyes. Her hands trailed up, finding the ridges that felt like bone against her fingertips. She closed her eyes and memorized him, certain she could identify him by touch alone.
"Kiss me," she whispered, a tremor of anticipation running through her.
"But, Cordy, I'll hurt you." His voice was desperate, shocked, shaky.
"No you won't," she said, pulling him down.
The fangs were like razors, sharp and deadly. But she had to have them, was nearly overwhelmed by her sudden craving for their points and darkness. She kissed him, long and deep, feeling the teeth nick her tongue, tasting her own blood.
He cried out as the copper taste filled his mouth, eyes flaring, lips trembling.
"Taste me," she said. "All of me."
She remembered the horror she felt when Savannah suggested she let Angel feed from her. Realized now that the horror was gone, leaving behind a need almost as strong as the one raging between her legs.
Angel writhed like a butterfly on a pin, sucking desperately, pulling her essence into him.
Suddenly he stopped. "Cordy," he panted. "No. You can't."
"Blood rights, Angel." Realization dawned. "They come with the package."
He flinched. "No. You can't want that."
She smiled ferally, feeling like she had on that first night out in the woods alone. Strong, dark. Female. "You have no idea how much I want that." But she pulled back, sensing his fear and his shame.
Instead, she shimmied down him, trailing her hair, her breasts, her fingertips over his skin. Determined to please him as he'd pleased her.
When she made it to the waistband of his pants, she slipped her hands in, under, caressing him as she tugged and pulled. The pants flowed off like water over a rock and landed with a jangle on the floor below.
He wore dark boxers, soft from washing, and scented with his deep, mysterious man-smell. Her lips rimmed the waistband, finding him warm and hard beneath her lips. He was a forest of bone and flesh, just waiting to be discovered.
Her tongue darted out, ready to taste him, ready to know him--finally--as he knew her. His thigh was hard and quivering beneath her hand, and the first touch of his crackly hair against her palm sent a frisson of pleasure over her body.
In the bra, her breasts felt tight and hot, begging for his touch. She bent forward and rubbed herself against him, desperate to find release.
He moaned as she worked her way slowly toward his center, cried out when she finally touched him through the fabric.
He was huge and hard as stone. Even through the boxers, he filled her hand, spilled over her fingers, too big for her to contain. God, he was going to fill her to the brim. She shuddered, a deeply female response to the pleasure she knew was waiting for her.
Her fingers clenched against him, and she slid her other hand up inside the leg of the boxers to cup his balls. They were tight against his body, already screaming for release. She shuddered again, imagining what it would be like to have him flood her, fill her with his body and blood and come.
Earth. Sky. Water. Air.
And then there was a rattle of chains, a whoosh of air, and she was beneath him. "Enough," he growled. "Enough playing, little girl."
His voice was ripe with desire, his eyes hot gold. He bared his teeth and sniffed her throat like the big, bad wolf.
She called out like a night bird, reoriented herself to being beneath, to being pinned. He kissed her gently, letting his teeth rasp against her lips. Then his hands slid the bra straps off her shoulders, popped the clasp, and her breasts spilled into his hands.
They both whimpered, went still.
"You don't know how long," he whispered, a growling lisp.
She arched against him. "How long, what?" she moaned.
"Your breasts. How long I've wanted to see them, touch them. Kiss them." He leaned down and laid his mouth to her skin, inhaled long and deep. She felt the air shift and shimmer, and she knew he'd changed faces again. His tongue lapped gently at her nipple, his blunt teeth scraping gently at the aureole.
She cried out, the tension so high she thought she might snap and go flying any second.
Then he was suckling, pulling, drawing out her desire. Calling it forth like a witch calls forth the storm. Every tug brought an answering cry in her womb, sent her arching higher and higher against him.
He cupped her other breast in his hand, flicking his thumb across her nipple. The twin sensations flooded her system. She was soaking the sheets with her desire, her legs wet as rain-washed earth. She could smell herself, tangy and rich, and she wondered if it was so evident to her, what it must be like for Angel, with his predator's senses.
For one moment she wished she could be inside him, smelling her, touching her, and the idea of that intimacy was so great that it had another orgasm sneaking up on her, slapping into her with the force of a rogue wave.
She cried out, shocked by her body's response to his touch, his presence.
He moaned as she came. "So sweet," he said. He turned his face to her, kissing her deeply. She was rocked to her core, stunned by the fact that her desire for him was still growing. "Angel, I want you," she whispered urgently. She slipped her fingers under the waistband of his boxers and slid them the rest of the way down. "I need you."
He shimmied out of the shorts and they fell quietly to land in a soft pile on top of his jeans. And then there was nothing between them. No denim, no satin, no cotton.
He rested at her portal, like a monk waiting for unction. He was still as stone. Unmoving. Waiting.
It was the moment of truth. Life or death. Blood or ecstasy.
She met his eye, her gaze fierce and steady. "Whatever happens, I love you," she said. Then she reached down and pressed her hand to the small of his back, urging him forward.
He looked deeply into her eyes, as if saying hello. Or goodbye.
And then he slid home.
"Oh, God!" he cried as he found her. "Cordelia!"
She shivered, her body undulating in ecstasy as he filled her. "Yes," she whispered, her pleasure centers going off like firecrackers. Wrists, ankles, knees. Breasts, temples, womb. She was nothing but pleasure, and she was dissolving beneath him.
He shifted, going deeper, the tip of him edging her cervix. The flash of pure delight had her knees raising higher, had her drawing him closer. And then he moved, one long stroke, like swinging a sword, high and sharp.
She keened and thrust back, meeting him like a warrior on the field of battle.
Their hips moved like lightning, sparking between them an endless lake of fire. Cordy screamed his name as he pounded her against the mattress, hands and mouth and cock rough and demanding.
He cried out as she took him--all of him, body and soul, and ugly death--into her soft heat, wrapping him so tightly he couldn't escape, even if he wanted to.
The tension spiraled like a great tornado, sweeping through them both with its fierce wind and howling sound. He clasped her hips and tucked them toward him, the tip of his cock finding--again, and again--that spot that made starlight fly from her fingers.
She wept as the link expanded to include him, drawing them under like children in a blanket. The room shifted and she saw above her, not the ceiling, but the sky, moon and stars, sun and clouds. There was a sound of rushing traffic, of a million voices speaking, of chattering birds.
And then silence. Pure light. She was flung into space.
She contracted around him like a fist, her body flying to a million pieces, shattering like a dropped glass. He drove into her, faster and faster, filling her hungry core with his heart and his bones and his need.
Then he spilled over, light and heat and fury, exploding into her shuddering body and filling her. Fertile, she took him in, the alchemy of her body taking death and converting it to life. Not as a child, but as love.
She lay trembling beneath him. Felt him above her, still moving like a man hypnotized. Heard him chanting her name. And then he stilled. Stopped, and collapsed against her.
Her hand found the nape of his neck, and she stroked him gently.
And she waited. For the flash. For the fangs. For the mocking mouth and hateful eyes.
Time passed and he lay on her, and she knew he was finding his equilibrium. And that he was waiting, too.
She shifted beneath him and when he tried to move away, she drew him closer. Felt him soften and withdraw from her body. Felt his weight, heavy and hard against her breasts.
And finally, she felt his tears.
"Oh, baby," she whispered, pressing a soft kiss to his cheek. Her hand fluttered down his back, soothing, consoling.
He sobbed against her, his face hot and wet against her throat. His hands clutched her to him desperately as he rode out the storm.
"Shhhh, shhh," she comforted, understanding instinctively what was happening.
No curse. No Angelus.
A hundred years of fear washing away. A hundred years of anguish breaking like sand under a wave. In all that time, he'd experienced one moment of true bliss and the penalty for it had been his life.
He shuddered, wept, the proud warrior defeated. Not by battle, but by heart.
The Powers had done right by him, she thought, sweeping her fingers through his hair. Finally. They had done right.
"I love you, Angel," she whispered.
He raised his face, shining with tears and hope. "I love you, too, Cordelia," he rasped. Then he tucked his face back in the crook of her throat and started suckling. She felt his fangs extend and scrape against her, then slip easily into her vein.
She started, not as surprised by the pain as she was by the strange penetration. But he was gentle and he wasn't drinking. In fact, it felt more like he was simply communing with her, sharing something deeply intimate. Soon she sighed and arched against him. It was such a wonderful feeling, his hard body on top of her, his wet mouth against her skin. She wanted him never to stop.
But in a moment he did, leaving behind stinging, hot flesh, and a mark she knew wouldn't fade. "Who's branding who, now?" she whispered, deeply thrilled.
He raised his head and kissed the tip of her nose. "You wanna unchain me?" He twisted against the restraints, and the chains rattled and thumped.
She smiled and brushed the last of the tears from his cheek. "No way," she smirked.
His eyes widened. "Why not?"
"Old time's sake," she whispered against his ear. Her hand ran suggestively down his back.
There was a pause, then a laugh rumbled through his chest. "Oh, see? I knew you got off on that. Leaving me chained up all day."
She rubbed her breasts against him, shivered when her nipples hardened again. "You deserved it. And more."
"And I suppose now you're gonna make me pay...again?"
"Mmmm hmmmm," she grinned. "With interest." She bucked her hips against him.
He rolled, and in one, smooth motion, she was on top of him. "Bank of Angel. Open for withdrawals."
Cordy giggled and kissed his tear-stained face, almost giddy with relief and release. "We did it," she breathed.
"Yeah, I think we actually did," Angel replied, stroking her face reverently.
"Angel?" She touched his cheekbone, his lips, then she bent down and kissed him.
"Hmmm?" He answered distractedly, more interested in kissing than talking.
"Let's do it again," she said with a breathy laugh.
"Thought you'd never ask."
She padded back from the bathroom, her bare feet making no sound on the bedroom floor. Angel still slept, flat on his back, his arm flung out beside him.
He was a bed hog, no two ways about it.
She slipped under the sheets, glad to find that he was still warm. She hadn't been up long--only enough time to pee and brush her teeth. He'd been warm all night, actually. She brushed her hand over his silky, almost hairless chest. Of course, she smirked, that could have been from all the physical activity.
His skin felt smooth beneath her lips, his nipples hard against her tongue. She suckled one gently, trying not to wake him...yet. She just wanted a few minutes to taste him, without reciprocation.
Not that she minded reciprocation. No sirree. He'd done more than his fair share of reciprocating, as a matter of fact. Five times more than she'd ever had before, and that was after a late start.
Who knew what he could do with an entire evening?
She shuddered, her knees weakening at the thought, and kissed her way down his belly. Her hand crept up his thigh, loving the rough scratch of hair against her palm. It was only one of the many textures she found she loved about him.
And the scents, so earthy, so...male. She slipped her nose into the crease between his belly and thigh and took a deep breath. Her mouth watered.
God, she could just eat him up. Actually, she realized, looking over at his hardening cock, that wasn't a bad idea. She hadn't had the chance to do this last night, and she'd been thinking about it ever since she woke up, cradled in his arms.
Pure, unadulterated Angel, she thought, taking a long swipe of him with her tongue. He moaned in his sleep and she licked him again. He tasted great, salty and tangy, as if he still carried the essence of both of them on his skin.
She cupped the base of his cock in her hand and raised her head to swallow him.
"You're playing with fire, girl," Angel said, jerking her up his body. She was face-to-face with him before she even had a chance to blink.
"Oh, you think so?" She ignored the threat in his voice, and squeezed her fingers around him instead.
"I know so," he growled, flipping her beneath him.
She giggled. "You big faker. How long have you been awake?" She ran her palm up and down, loving the way he arched against her.
"Long enough to know you like to tease."
"Hey," she huffed, running her thumb around the tip. "If you'd let me finish...."
He pressed her against the pillow, his mouth coming down on hers and stopping her mid-sentence. He yanked her hand away, wrapped her legs around his waist, and thrust, once, hard.
She arched against him. "Angel," she panted, her nervous system lighting up like fireworks.
"That's what you get," he said, rocking back and thrusting again. He grunted, his sleepy eyes full of lust and pleasure.
"This is punishment?" she asked.
"Atonement's a bitch," he said, rolling them both so that she now straddled him. "I should know."
She clutched his shoulders, trying to get her balance. "For an old guy, you move pretty fast," she said. "You gotta learn to slow down."
"You want slow?" he asked, cradling her hips with his hands. "I can do slow."
It was like making love with warm molasses. "I think you can do anything," she whispered, running her palms down his sweat-dampened chest.
He thrust against her lazily, spearing her on his body.
She gasped. "Don't stop."
"Never," he said, sliding his hand between them. He found her clit, swollen and throbbing, and pressed it gently with his fingers. "You gonna come for me, baby?"
"Oh, yeah," she groaned, her voice breaking with pleasure.
He thrust against her again, hitting the hive of nerves inside her body like a bulls-eye. She arched against him, feeling the first ripples of pleasure dance through her body.
"That's it," he whispered, circling her clit. "Come on." He thrust against her again, his perfect aim sending her spinning into space.
She cried out, feeling herself clench and shudder. Flares of light sparkled behind her eyes and she forgot everything she'd ever known, everything but the way his body felt against hers.
He lifted his fingers and trailed them up her belly, running them around her nipples and up to her lips. She kissed him and tasted herself, tangy as salt-water.
"I love you," she said, smiling down at him.
He pulled her to him, crushing her against his chest. "I love you," he said. "Forever."
She stilled. "Angel," she whispered, fear sneaking in on cloven feet.
"What if there's no such thing as forever? What if I keep getting old and you don't? What if, despite the last six weeks, I have a vision one day and never wake up?"
He rolled over, pinning her beneath him, and rested his weight on his forearms. "What if I walk outside tomorrow and go up in smoke?"
She shook her head. "You're not taking me seriously."
He stroked her hair off her forehead. "You're so beautiful," he said, kissing her nose. "That's all I know right now. You're the most beautiful woman I've ever known, and you're here in my bed. And when we get up, you'll still be here. And what's even more amazing? I will too."
He rained kisses over her cheeks, her chin, her throat. "This moment is all we have, Cordy. It's all any of us have. Thinking about the next doesn't do anything but keep us from enjoying this one."
He thrust his hips against hers, sending a searing arc of pleasure through her body. "And I'm very much enjoying this moment," he whispered.
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, concentrating on feeling him inside of her, surrounding her. When she opened them, he was smiling, his dark eyes so full of love that all she could do was smile in return.
"Me, too," she said. She reached up to kiss him. "Me, too."