Teach Me to Hear the Mermaids Singing - carleton97
still, as he flies, brings increase to her truth,
And gives to her mind what he steals from her youth.
-- Edward Moore
Usually, road trips with Angel are relaxing. For someone who was born before cars were even invented, he's a good driver and the quiet hum of the car is kind of soothing, but tonight I can't seem to settle down. I've been pretending to read for over an hour, but the words aren't making any sense and motion sickness is combining with my nerves to make me feel pukey. Before us, the familiar highway between LA and Sunnydale stretches blindly into the night.
This is so stupid! I hate being nervous. All this anxiety and adrenaline can't be good for my skin. I wasn't even this stressed when I auditioned for the Blair Witch sequel, but seeing the people who bring out the best and the worst in you is kind of nerve wracking.
This will be the first time I've seen everyone since I left and a lot can happen in two years, I guess. It's not like I cut off all contact - I've called Giles and Willow with various research questions, talked to Xander a couple of times, and every few months, when Buffy would get her angst jones on, I'd see her, but that's it. The Sunnydale gang really doesn't know the new me.
I left Sunnydale broke and broken, with nothing but my dreams of international superstardom to keep me warm. I was done with vampires, done with demons, done with fixer-upper men, and done with the eternal struggle between good and evil. The next thing I knew, I was working for Angel, researching apocalypse monsters, mourning a short, half-breed demon, and fighting off brain-numbing visions of pain and terror.
That's another thing; the Sunnydale people don't even know about my little gift from the PTB. After that creepy little loser tried to pluck my eyes out, we decided the fewer people who knew about me being a Seer, the better. It's not like I think they'd sell me down the river to that appallingly cute, yet appallingly evil lawyer Lindsey, but it just never came up. Really, how do you relay that kind of information? 'Did I tell you that, before he died saving humanity from the Scourge, a Irish Brachen demon kissed me and passed along his visions, making me Angel's connection to the Powers That Be? Pass the eye of newt, would you?'
Actually, that's not a bad way of saying it. I must be slipping.
There's more to the new me than just visions, though. I know I'll never be the nicest person on earth, but I've stopped hurting the people I care about, the people who care about me. I even tried to work on the tact thing, but Angel thinks that might be a lost cause. That's OK. He loves me anyway.
My book starts to slide off my lap, but I catch it before it can hit the floor. Shakespeare really was a busy guy, wasn't he? I can't help but smile as I run my fingernail over the embossed edge of the pages. Only Angel would consider The Complete Works of Shakespeare an appropriate twenty-first birthday present. It wasn't just a present, though. It was a recognition.
Last winter, during and especially long evil drought, Wesley and Angel had taken to entertaining each other by reciting entire scenes from 'Hamlet.' At first I didn't say much, just rolled my eyes and went back to my websurfing. They carried on for *days,* moving from 'Hamlet' to 'MacBeth' to 'Henry V.' Somewhere along the way, though, I started to enjoy it. Somehow, their casual game interested me more than the hours of droning lecture in High School.
So I studied.
Wesley had been about to launch into Henry V's St. Crispin's Day speech when I interrupted. I know I was terrible, but I finished the speech, then finished the scene. When I was done, I went back to my filing as if nothing had happened, but it had. From then on, I kept finding lines taped to my monitor and Angel wouldn't leave me alone until I knew the whole scene or poem.
I glance back down at the thick book in my lap and a phrase catches my eye, the irony of it not escaping me. "I may chance have some odd quirks and remnants of wit broken on me..." I know I'm afraid everyone will see me the way I was, wanting nothing more than the adoration of millions, rather than the way I'm trying to be.
And while I haven't exactly given up on my dreams of opening night fame, they lose a little more of their luster with every battle we win and every life we save. For some reason, it's a bit more fulfilling to clear out a nest of vampires than to hear some pretentious hack director tell me I don't grasp the subtleties inherent in his vision of bargain shampoo. If Buffy and her groupies can't understand that, then they can just go to hell.
But not literally.
You can't be too careful around the Hellmouth.
"Remind me again why we're here?" From the sidewalk, Angel stared apprehensively at the shapes moving behinds the shades of Buffy's house.
"Because, Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali, you decided it was time for all of us to disarm and play nice." I pulled at the hem of my shirt one last time, making sure it covered the edge of the puckered scar on my stomach. Wesley snickered under his breath and shifted Giles' present in his arms.
As we watched, the Buffy-shaped silhouette jumped up and locked its arms around the neck of a tall, strong figure, "This is a bad idea." Angel took an unconscious step back towards his car. "A *really* bad idea."
"Oh, no, you don't!" I grabbed his hand and began pulling him towards the front door, Wesley bringing up the rear. "You dragged us here and you're damn well going to be a part of the festivities." I squeezed his hand tightly to take some of the sting from my words.
I rang the doorbell, impatiently twisting a chunk of my hair as we waited for a response. The door swung open without warning and I immediately sized up the hunk of almost-salty goodness filling the doorway - big, innocent looking, loyal, and obviously - judging from Angel's suddenly painful grip on my hand - the mysterious Riley.
"Angel." His voice was nice and deep, but I felt my nose wrinkle at the flat, midwestern accent that one word revealed.
The silence stretched around us as the two alpha males stared each other down. Angel's hand was like steel in mine and a muscle rhythmically clenched and unclenched on the side of Riley's jaw. My eyes rolled as far back in my head as they could go and I not-very-gently jostled Angel aside. "You must be Riley. I'm glad we're finally meeting. I've heard so many good things about you. I'm Cordelia, by the way."
I stuck out my hand and smiled winningly. Riley looked blankly at me for a moment before remembering his manners with a start. "Cordelia, it's a pleasure to finally meet you. And you must be Wesley. Please, come in. We're expecting Giles in about fifteen minutes."
He stepped aside to let us in and I graced him with another smile, thinking how much it must suck to be forever in someone's shadow. Then I caught sight of Willow, Xander, and Buffy huddled around the punch bowl and remembered just how sucky it is.
They were too wrapped up in whatever world saving endeavor they were discussing to notice us right away, so I took a moment to see what kind of changes two years had brought to Sunnydale. Buffy looked as little, blonde, and cute as ever. It kills me how defenseless she always looks. She's the Slayer, why isn't she all Amazony and intimidating? Willow was obviously still bowing to her goddess Salvation Army, but I have to admit with her hair shorter and the Wicca vibe she's got going on, the look worked for her. I knew I shouldn't even bother looking at Xander and his I-let-blind-retarded-monkeys-dress-me wardrobe, but I'm a glutton for punishment. A quick glance didn't sear my retinas, so I let my eyes wander a little over his jeans and t-shirt.
Even back in high school Xander always had a much nicer body than a dorky skate-punk deserved, but now he was firmly on the Russell Crowe end of the hottie spectrum. He'd been working out. A lot. The gray fabric of his shirt was pulled snugly across his shoulders and around his upper arms, showing the workings of his muscles as he shifted.
Angel squeezed my hand lightly, breaking into my momentary gape and, as Wesley drew up to flank my other side, we crossed into the living room together. Willow caught sight of us first and a truly happy smile lit her face. "Cordelia! I was afraid you wouldn't be able to make it."
Before I could react, Willow enveloped me in a tight hug. Releasing Angel's hand, I tentatively raised my arms to return the embrace. "It's good to see you, Willow. Really."
My sincere response seemed to break the ice in the room and within five minutes I was watching as Angel discussed hair products with Riley's friend Graham and Wesley regaled Xander, Buffy, and Riley with tales of Jheira, the space-babe.
Willow and I were comparing notes on the wave of beetle demons that had passed through Southern California last month when Mrs. Summers ushered in the final two guests. Even if I hadn't recognized Anya, the way she sucker-fished onto Xander's side would have given her away. When Xander didn't immediately stop all flow of conversation to pay attention to her, she began to pout, sending the others evil glares. I can't believe he's still with her and, judging from the look on Willow's face, neither can she.
I didn't recognize the other girl Joyce led in, but she headed straight for us and greeted Willow with an absent-minded kiss on the mouth.
What. The. Hell.
When did Willow start playing for the other team?
Or both teams.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Angel grinning like an idiot in my general direction and I assumed from everyone else's non-reaction that this was old news. I threw him a quick look of death for keeping this bit of information from me. I mean, when I asked to be left out of the Sunnydale updates, it was because I was sick to death of 'Buffy killed this demon. Buffy slew this fiend. Buffy averted the apocalypse yet again.'
Is it too much to ask to have important information relayed in a timely manner? He didn't even have to make a production out of it. A simple heads-up would have been sufficient. "The filing is on your desk, Cordelia. By the way, Willow likes girls."
I turned back to Willow and her girlfriend before anyone could notice my silent communication with Angel. She had her head buried in a bag from the antiquarian bookshop and her friend was gazing at me curiously.
"Hi, I'm Cordelia."
"Tara." Her voice was quiet and she had a slight stutter, but her handshake was firm and full of power - magic power. You don't hang around Angel for two years without getting familiar with the feel of magic in a person and this Tara person had it like Ricky Martin had charisma.
I felt Willow tense up beside me and I knew she was remembering every cruel and thoughtless act I ever committed. I resented it for a second, the fear and the judgment, but I couldn't deny the truth. If I had met her five years ago, Tara would already crying. So, instead of focusing on her ill-fitting peasant blouse or the brown shoes she was wearing with her very black pants, I ducked my head to meet her downcast eyes and gave her hand a friendly squeeze before letting go. "It's nice to meet you."
Tara smiled a little then and looked at me more closely, "You look familiar; do we know each other?"
I study her features more closely, "I don't think so. I'd remember you, you're very pretty."
Tara dropped her eyes shyly and Willow just looked at me. "Who are you and what have you done with Cordelia?"
There was humor in her voice, but it still hurt a little to be reminded of the person I was trying to leave behind. I looked away to find most of the room staring at me in slack-jawed amazement. Well, OK, only Xander and Buffy were slack-jawed, but everyone had apparently heard the exchange and it was enough to make me want to loose the inner bitch on all of them. Before I could say something I'd regret, though, Joyce came bustling back into the room and shooed us towards the back of the house.
"Giles just turned onto the street. Everyone get into the kitchen."
We got stuck at the kitchen doorway as everyone tried to squeeze through at once, and Wesley and Angel appeared on either side of me. Wesley brushed his knuckles against mine in that odd way he has and Angel let his hand rest heavily on the small of my back, its weight cool and familiar. I leaned into both of them in turn, feeling some of my tension slide away. They drifted ahead of me as the bottleneck eased and I jumped a little as Buffy fell into step next to me. She didn't say anything, just sort of stared at me with that pouty expression she gets from thinking too hard, and I decided to risk the conversational gambit.
"I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to talk to you when we first got here, but you seemed enthralled with Wesley's rendition of 'The Adventures of Jheria, Queen of All Things Vinyl.'"
Her face got even scrunchier for a second, if that's possible. "I'd like to hear your version of everything that's gone on."
The tone of her voice was odd and it occurred to me that she was jealous. Not of me and Angel as a couple. God, no. Ew. He's *dead*. Besides, he's still kind of Buffy-whipped. No, she was jealous that I got to spend time with him, to see him everyday without worrying about boinking the soul right out of him. Sure, she was moving on with Riley, but Angel would always be a part of her and she wanted to know what his life without her was like.
For a brief shining second, the one thing I used to want more than anything else - power over Buffy - beckoned to me. From the moment she arrived in Sunnydale, it seemed like Buffy and her friends did nothing but slowly chip away at the image it had taken my entire life to build. I know that wasn't actually the truth, but there was enough Queen C left inside of me to get a real thrill at the thought of finally gaining the upper hand over Buffy. Even after two years apart, the way she felt about Angel was still her biggest vulnerability and now I was a part of his life. The possibilities for bitchery were dizzying and I was tempted.
Riley joined us then and dropped one of his unwieldy arms around Buffy's shoulders. Her features relaxed and she leaned into his strength. I was shocked at how happy and normal she looked. She wasn't worried about killing her demon lover to save the world or trying to plan an assault on a giant snake in front of most of the town. She was just a college student enjoying being near her boyfriend and, for the first time in years, I remembered Buffy was just like the rest of us and the life she's had to lead would break even the strongest person.
I really hate buying into the whole Chosen One scene, but Buffy had given up so much to keep evil from winning, more than she even knew, and I was ashamed of myself for even thinking about using Angel against her. Maybe I hadn't changed as much as I thought. So I managed to smile as we all were herded into the small room and nodded at her, "Later."
After some jostling for position, we all managed to pack ourselves into the kitchen and I found myself wedged between Xander and Anya. Great. I don't see him for two years and now I'm plastered against him with his girlfriend glaring holes in my back. I smiled and shrugged a little to cover my discomfort, lowering my eyes to stare at the fabric of his shirt.
I felt, rather than saw him lower his head towards mine and suddenly the familiar scent of him surrounded me. The warm smell of his skin reminded me of quiet fumbling in the janitor's closet and lazy afternoons in my dad's hammock. I wanted to burrow into him until all I could see, all I could feel, all I could remember was him next to me. "So, how-"
Whatever he was going to say was interrupted by Anya as she poked me in the back. "I don't want you here."
She ignored Xander's horrified whisper. "You're in my spot. Move."
Was I ever that bitchy? God. "I'm sorry, Anya. There aren't a lot of options open to me right now. After we 'surprise' Giles into a heart attack, you can re-attach yourself to Xander, but I think you can wait for five minutes."
"Cordelia..." Angel managed to meet my eyes around Xander's shoulder and the tone of warning in his voice was unmistakable, but I was still feeling guilty about before with Buffy and Anya was begging for it.
She furrowed her eyebrows until she had the uni-brow of a Mafia princess and poked me in the back again, "If I hadn't lost my powers -"
"If you hadn't lost your powers, Willow would be covered in monkey hair and Xander would be a monk, so I don't think that's a time anyone really wants to revisit. Now just shut the hell up and celebrate Giles getting old."
With that I managed to wiggle myself around Xander and into Angel's loose embrace. "Delia -"
"I know. I'll apologize later. Let's just surprise Giles and get the hell out of Dodge."
Giles was appropriately surprised by the outpouring of birthday love from everyone. He stuttered and stammered his thanks as he opened his presents, then retired to the couch with Wesley, talking about...something. Armageddon and soccer hooliganism maybe.
As soon as everyone had finished their punch and pie, Buffy sent Riley to talk to Graham and advanced on me like a predator. "So, tell me about life in LA."
Anya's little territorial display had destroyed some of the Goodwill-Towards-Slayer warm fuzzies I had developed, but I had promised Buffy, so I leaned against the windowsill, covertly checking out my surroundings. Testosterone and weapons, the universal constants, had managed to bridge the gap between the boys as Angel, Riley, and Graham were avidly debating the merits of technological innovations versus the old standbys of wood and silver. Willow and Tara were helping Joyce clean up some of the mess in the kitchen and Xander and Anya were fighting quietly in the far corner of the room. I felt an answering twinge in my back when she poked him in the chest a couple of times. She had really pointy fingers.
Satisfied no one would interrupt us, I began to talk about our lives. I didn't mention Doyle because it still hurt to think about and I didn't talk about the whole shanshu prophecy because we didn't know when it would occur and it would be cruel to get her hopes up, but there were dozens of other stories to tell. So I gave her the dirt on Wolfram & Hart. I mocked Kate. I described Gunn and his urban commandos.
Willow and Tara joined us at some point and all three seemed a little amazed at the network of people Angel dealt with on a regular basis. "So Angel actually talks to people?"
I had to smile at Willow's confusion. If I hadn't seen it myself, I wouldn't believe it either, "Well, he's not exactly Rico Suave when it comes to conversing, but he's gotten a lot better. I hardly ever have to jump in when we meet with clients."
Giles interrupted before Willow could say anything else. "Willow? Could you and Tara assist us? Some of these incantations are a bit difficult to decipher."
Ha. I knew Giles wouldn't be able to resist the crusty old book Angel had found for him. I looked more closely and saw that he had already replaced the gold ring in his ear with the new one I had picked out. Excellent. I guess listening to Willow ramble on whenever I called paid off in the long run.
Buffy wandered off to see what sort of magic the former Watchers were brewing and I relaxed a little, enjoying being alone. It looked like Xander and Anya had been unable to resolve their differences in anything resembling an adult fashion. Xander had joined the boys club and seemed to be a key figure in the 'Crossbows: Spring Loaded or Compressed Air' debate. Anya had cornered Joyce near the kitchen and was going through, in gory detail, all of Xander's shortcomings. I knew I should apologize to her for my behavior in the kitchen, but I'd rather have faced down a slime demon than go near her when she was finishing up sentences with "...so I told him that sex had to be the basis of our relationship since it was the only thing he didn't share with his friends."
Seeing I was alone, Xander left Angel to hold down the spring loaded side of the debate and leaned against the wall next to me. "As I started to say earlier, I'm glad you decided to visit good old Sunnyhell."
I smiled a little and decided to get the apology over with. "I'm sorry about the way I behaved earlier. I'd apologize to Anya, but she's...busy right now."
He frowned at his sullen girlfriend, "Anya's still getting the hang of the whole human thing, but you didn't deserve that." He cocked his head a little, as if trying to figure me out. "There's something different about you."
You don't know the half of it, honey. But that really wasn't a road I wanted to go down, so I flipped my hair behind my shoulder and prepared to change the subject. Then the world went black with pain.
Before my little marathon vision last year, I would have said the pain was the worst part of being Angel's personal ouija board, but it's the fear, the despair that really affects me now. The pain was really bad this time, though, and I felt myself sliding towards the floor. Through my haze, I heard a brief scuffle and suddenly Angel was beside me, his hands strong and cool as they smoothed my hair and pressed against my scalp.
"Angel? What happened? Is Cordy all right?" Xander's voice was quiet and worried and it sounded like he was leaning over Angel's shoulder. The final images of the vision faded and I moaned a little as the pain set in.
Angel began massaging my head gently, "Cordelia will be fine. She just sees evil sometimes."
The pain eased a little from Angel's practiced movements and I blindly held out my hand, knowing Wesley was nearby with aspirin and water. He gently placed the aspirin and ice water in my hand, then knelt at my side, taking out his ever-present notebook. I swallowed the pills and pressed the cold glass against my forehead.
"Cordelia, what did you see?" One renegade tear managed to work it's way past my lashes, but Angel caught it before it could land on my shirt.
"Nothing. There was just pain and darkness."
I could *feel* Angel frown at my vague description. "There has to be more than that, Cordelia. Think."
Despite the lingering pain, my eyes snapped open and focused unerringly on his. "Look, if you want to hop on the vision train and leave me the broody mopery, be my guest. Until then, trust me when I say it was dark and there was pain." I frowned as something else occurred to me, "And it was here."
"Here? In Buffy's house?" Wesley's hand paused over his notebook.
"No, just here in Sunnydale and -" The atmosphere of the vision returned to me for a second, "This is just the beginning."
Angel and Wesley exchanged a look before they stood, carefully bringing me up with them. I steadied myself against the wall and shrugged their hands off.
Angel rubbed his forehead as we snapped into research mode. "We don't have a lot to go on this time. Wes, you and I will hit the books and prophecies to see if anything is brewing. Cordelia? You up for some quality internet time?"
Angel and Wesley turned from their protective positions around me and, from the semicircle surrounding us, nine faces stared back with expressions ranging from concerned curiosity to gape-jawed shock. Oopsie. I guess we're not in LA anymore, Toto.
"Did you just say that Cordelia sees evil sometimes?" Buffy was looking at me like I had grown an extra head.
From the guilty look on his face, Angel realized that he spilled the beans about my visions. He sent a contrite look my way before answering. "Yeah. Sometimes she... sees things. Demon things."
There was about a five second pause while everyone tried to process that, then the ambient noise in the room hit about four hundred decibels. Giles and Willow had Wesley pinned against the wall and were peppering him with questions about the source of the visions. Buffy, Riley, and Graham were trying to get details on some sort of battle strategy from Angel. Anya was on the couch filing her nails and Xander and Tara were just *looking* at me.
I wanted get away from everyone and the questions that were coming, but it was Sunnydale and it was dark, so I'd pretty much be dead by the time I'd walked a block. And my head still really hurt. Blocking out as much of the noise as I could, I leaned my head back against the wall and put the icy glass back to my temple.
I felt a soft, electric touch on my arm and opened my eyes to see Tara staring back at me. "Are you okay?"
I'm a psychic sewage processing plant, what do you think? "I'm fine. It just hurts for awhile."
"I could maybe help. If you wanted me to, that is."
I smiled at her hesitancy, at her willingness to help someone she hardly knew. "Thank you for offering. Nothing I try seems to help these stupid headaches."
"It's pretty simple, really. All I need is - "
"Why are you bothering?" Anya's voice cut through all of the various conversations.
"What?" She had a mean look in her eye and Tara moved a little closer to me.
"Please, you believe the psychic hotline act? She's a big faker."
I can't believe she called me a faker. What is she? Eight? What a freak. I mean, I had some hard-core Xander-jealousy going on in my time, but I never would have said anything like that.
Okay, but she's still a freak.
I heard Angel growl and he turned towards Anya. The whole room got *really* quiet and even without seeing his face, I knew he gone all 'grrrr' on Anya. It was a ridiculous accusation and Angel's instinctive defense of me gave me a nice, familial happy, but it had to stop. Joyce and Willow looked supremely wigged and Riley and Graham seemed to be scanning the room for potential weapons. Despite the renewed pounding in my head, I quickly moved to block Angel's path, nearly colliding with Xander as he advanced on Anya.
"Angel, stop." I grabbed his arms, halting his progress. "I'm fine, let it go."
His demon features slowly faded, but he kept his eyes focused over my shoulder, so I turned to watch Xander hustle Anya away. I couldn't hear what he said to her but, from the look on her face as he pushed her out the front door, it must have been bad. I really hope no one took over her position as vengeance demon.
Xander stayed just inside the threshold until her car started. He closed the door and returned to the living room as if nothing out of the ordinary happened. What do I know? Maybe Anya being a horrendous bitch is par for the course here in Sunnydale.
I had to admit, though, she had a rare talent. Everyone in the room was either upset or embarrassed. Since Xander was doing his best to ignore the whole thing, I decided to follow his example. "So, Tara, you were saying?"
And people say I have no tact. My casual question jump started the room and everyone but Angel slowly went back to their conversations.
Tara thought for a moment. "Um...I just need lavender and - oh."
"I need a family member to perform the ritual."
Huh. Dad was still fulfilling his obligation to society and Mom was 'rusticating' with her sister in Ohio, so that left out the family I was born into. "Do you need an actual blood relative or what?"
Tara's mouth moved as she silently recited the beginning of the ritual, "...in the hands of the heart's kin."
'Heart's kin.' I liked that. Angel, Wesley, and I weren't bound by birth or by chance. We were a family because we loved each other. And right now I needed my family to stop this godawful headache. Wesley and Giles were cravat deep in some random tomes that seemed to have appeared from nowhere, but Angel was staring at the floor, working on a king-sized brood. He hated losing control of the demon, especially in front of other people. If I didn't do something immediately, he'd be mopey and sullen for days.
Everyone else seemed to be engrossed in their conversations, so I fished an ice cube out of my abandoned glass and tossed it at his head to get his attention.
Bullseye! Right in the spikes.
He really hates it when I do that, but it guarantees his attention. He stalked over to where we were standing, messing with his hair the whole way. "Cordelia, I'm really not in the mood -"
"I need your help."
That got him. "What? What's wrong?"
Tara surprised both of us by speaking up, "I know a ritual that might help ease the pain caused by the visions."
Angel glanced at me before turning his full attention on Tara. "What do you need me to do?"
She rummaged around in the straw bag she carried around her shoulder and pulled out a little baggie full of dried flowers. "Hold out your hands."
She crushed a handful of the flowers and poured them into Angel's outstretched hands, the scent of lavender drifting around us. Tara cupped her hands under his and began chanting quietly in Latin. I haven't really picked up much of the language, but Angel was smiling slightly so it must have been okay. The air felt heavy with magic and their hands glowed as the lavender started to burn. The smoke plumed towards me in a twisting column of white, crawling in thin tendrils over my face and through my hair. After a second, the vapory cloud disappeared, taking my pain with it.
"Hey, it worked!" Angel shook his head and I knew that came out wrong. "I mean the pain is completely gone. Thank you, Tara."
"I could teach Wesley and Angel, if you wanted."
God, Joan of Arc had nothing on this girl. "That would make my year. Thank you so much."
Tara smiled and wandered off towards Willow and Buffy, pausing to whisper something in Xander's ear. He smiled a little and went back to listening to Riley and Graham. I don't know what kind of freaky wicca gathering Willow found Tara at, but she's terrific.
I didn't know what exactly Angel was thanking me for, but it was always nice to be appreciated, so I squeezed his hand and smiled.
"Cordelia?" Wesley closed our little circle. "Giles is quite curious about your abilities. I've managed to deflect his questions so far, but I'm afraid after your demonstration, he won't be put off forever."
"Well, the cat's pretty much out of the bag on this one, and it's not like we're dealing with national security, so I guess it wouldn't hurt to funnel more knowledge into his enormous skull." I squeezed Angel's hand again, "Are you going to be okay here?"
"Cordelia, I'm two and a half centuries old. I think I can handle mingling."
I just looked at him.
"Fine. Point taken, but I'm okay. Really. Go play guinea pig for Giles."
I wrinkled my nose. "I swear, if he even suggests anything involving needles, you'll need the car to catch up with me."
Angel smiled and pushed me towards Wesley. "If you think I'm kidding, Mr. Broody, just wait until I'm half way back to LA."
I flopped down on the couch and Giles looked up from his book, blinking a little. "Ah, Cordelia. Excellent. Wesley said you might be of some assistance regarding your rather extraordinary visions."
"It's not all that extraordinary. I see evil things. Angel kills them."
"Cordelia..." I hate it when Wesley sounds like that.
"Fine. I don't really know all the details, but the Slayer isn't the only force fighting all the bad things in the world. There are other Warriors in the service of the Powers. Warriors who need direction, hence Seers."
"So you began having visions when you started working with Angel?"
Damn, I knew this was coming. "No, I'm not Angel's original Seer. Doyle was, but he died. Right before he died, he passed the visions on to me."
"You are Angel's link to the Powers and Their conduit to him." His eyes drifted out of focus for a second and his hands unconsciously stroked over the pages of his book. He snapped back Earth and focused on Wesley. "What I find fascinating is the complete absence of any mention of this in any source I've ever read."
"But what about..." And they were off, their barely concealed inner nerds coming out to play.
I tried to pay attention, but they were boring and Xander chose that moment to approach Angel.
Was a new world order put in power when I wasn't looking? Xander held his hand out and, for a moment, Angel looked at it as if it were a fat wooden spike marinated in holy water. Xander was talking, but no matter how much I strained I couldn't hear what he was saying. He had his sincere face on, the one that always got me into the closet in a heartbeat, and he didn't seem to care that his hand was still hanging in the air. He just kept talking as Angel stared at him.
I've gotten pretty good at reading the slight changes in Angel's expression, but I had no idea what was going on over there. Angel looked stunned and Xander was talking a mile a minute, trying to convince Angel of the truth of whatever he was saying. I don't know how Angel could be so unresponsive. If Xander were leaning forward and talking to me with that look on his face, I'd agree to whatever he was saying.
Where did *that* come from?
All of a sudden, Angel smiled, *really* smiled, and shook hands with Xander. He said something and Xander blinked, then laughed. Angel clapped him on the shoulder and they were absorbed back into Riley and Graham's conversation.
"Cordelia, are you paying any attention at all?"
From the tone of Giles' voice, it wasn't the first time he'd tried to get my attention. "Well, duh. Obviously not, or you wouldn't be asking."
Giles took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose, but Wesley just asked the question again. "Has anything else struck you about your vision? Any hint of what is coming?"
I forced myself to review the vision again. Sunnydale, complete darkness, complete pain, and a sense of more to come. "Only more visions, but something just occurred to me. This is really unlike the Powers. It's always been vision of evil, killing of evil. None of this long range stuff."
Giles put his glasses back on and made a strange face, "Cordelia's right. I think it is safe to assume that this latest vision of hers is no garden variety evil. Hopefully, the next vision will reveal more information."
Wesley agreed and they were saved from my wrath by the enormous yawn that paralyzed me. The pain and emotions of a vision usually left me exhausted; it wasn't so bad this time, thanks to Tara, but I was still feeling kind of drained.
"Tired?" Wesley stopped in the middle of picking up another decrepit book and looked at his watch. "It is rather late. If are going to spend tomorrow researching, we should get some sleep tonight."
I nodded my agreement as I yawned again.
"Shall I fetch Angel so we can return to the motel?" I waved him off and rested my head in my hands for a second.
"Well, Cordelia, it certainly has been a surprising night. I'm curious, though, as to why you never saw fit to mention you were so deeply involved in Angel's work." Good old Giles. Always willing to ask the hard questions.
"It just never came up, I guess." The truth is, I really don't know why I insisted on keeping it a secret. There are all sorts of reasons and excuses I could give, but even I wouldn't know which was the truth, if any. And my answer wasn't exactly a lie. It never really came up. I never had a vision about the Sunnydale gang, so I never had to explain it away.
I glanced around the room, checking on Wesley's progress, and my eyes collided with Xander's. It sounds like a lame Harlequin plot device, but for a moment I would have sworn we were the only people in the world. Then Graham claimed his attention again and he turned away as if nothing had happened. Maybe nothing did. I was tired and flashing back to study halls spent in the janitor's closet, so that could explain it. Except - the last time I felt something like that was when Doyle kissed me. Not like 'passing-along-supernatural-gifts' something, but something important. Something significant.
"Yes, well -"
"Giles, look, it's late and I'm tired. I know you have more questions, and I don't have much more information, but I promise I'll give you all I have. Tomorrow. Right now, I just want to get some sleep."
I must have looked like a Springer guest, because Giles took a good look at my face and closed his book. "I'm sorry, Cordelia. The visions must be terribly tiring. Of course we'll talk tomorrow."
I felt Angel and Wesley move up behind me, so I stood and began saying goodbye to everyone. Tara and Willow invited me to brunch on campus and I accepted. While a part of me really wished we were getting in the car and heading back to LA, my vision and its promise of evil had removed all chances for a speedy retreat. But I was kind of glad we were staying. I wanted to renew my friendships. I wanted to get to know the people they had become and I wanted them to get to know me. Xander kissed me on the cheek and I realized I *really* wanted to get to know him again.
Bad, bad Cordelia. He has a girlfriend. She's a bitch and a former demon and 1100 years old, but she was still his girlfriend. Well, tactful I may not be, but after ending up skewered on a piece of building refuse, I had promised myself I would never do that to another person. I was just going to have to keep my renewed interest in Xander to myself. How hard could it be?
"So, Angel. What were you and Xander talking about earlier?"
"He has a girlfriend, Cordelia."
"Angel! I am shocked that you would think such a thing of me. Didn't I end up in the hospital because of infidelity? Do you think I would stoop so low?"
I poked my head around the bathroom door to see if he believed me. He didn't look up, just kept flipping channels from his spot on one of the beds. Angel and I were sharing a room because of the oh-so-ironic undertakers convention in Sunnydale. There were only two rooms left at the motel when we checked in and there was no way either one of us was going to stay with Wesley. He was a regular Vegas act in his sleep. Snoring and talking and, on especially restless nights, walking. The first time we had to stay overnight somewhere on a case, Angel had come knocking on my door in the middle of the night, desperate and exhausted.
I grabbed my brush from my cosmetics bag and flopped on the bed next to him. "I know, all right? I know it doesn't matter that she's mean and thoughtless and would probably go back to being a vengeance demon in a second if she had the chance." I pulled the brush through my hair roughly, not caring I was creating more tangles than I was smoothing. "I know I haven't seen him in two years and I know he doesn't feel the same way about me, but it doesn't matter. Ouch!"
The brush was caught in an especially vicious knot and my frustrated pulling wasn't solving anything. Angel took the brush from my hands and carefully untangled it from my hair. When it was free, he began pulling it heavily through my hair, loosening the tangles just as he did last winter when I sprained my wrist struggling with a smelly Keverek demon.
"What am I going to do?"
"Cordelia, I'm the last person to be handing out advice when it comes to this stuff. You know you're in a tricky situation. All I can tell you is to be careful. I'd hate to have to kill Xander just when he's started to act like a human being."
He continued to brush my hair until it crackled with static and my head was wobbly with fatigue, then tucked me into the one of the beds. "Night, 'Delia."
I really hate the PTB sometimes.
Apparently having me as their psychic circus monkey while I'm awake just wasn't entertaining enough for them. Oh, no. A few days after the whole unending vision thing, they had to start sending me visions in my sleep.
Which I don't see the point of at all. It only happens every couple of months and I don't even wake up, the headache and lingering fear my only clue it's not a standard bad dream. Well, that and the notes I find scrawled on every conceivable surface.
According to Angel and Wesley it could be quite the production.
So when I awoke to the cool weight of Angel pressed tightly against me, I knew before the pain even started that last night's vision had been a bad one. Though the room was dark, I kept my eyes closed and forced myself remember what I had seen.
//Dark. Not just dark, absence of light.//
//Pain everywhere. Hurts to move, hurts to breathe, hurts to think.//
//Voices in the background, chanting. Not chanting, no words.//
Except for the pain, there wasn't anything overtly threatening about what I saw, but it completely freaked me out. I opened my eyes in an attempt to get away from it. Despite the heavy blackout curtains we had covered the motel windows with, the room wasn't completely dark and I was thankful for that tiny bit of pre-dawn illumination. I stared at the thin line of gray light on the opposite wall until I could hear something besides my pulse. I let out the breath I had been holding in a little sigh and Angel tightened his grip on me. I relaxed even more, knowing he'd protect me from whatever was coming.
It was cool and comfortable in bed with Angel, his arm heavy across my waist and his chest unmoving against my back, but the visions were bothering me and I needed to be by myself to think. There was something I couldn't put my finger on, something I felt like I should know.
I eased myself out of Angel's embrace and fumbled into the bathroom to pull on my running clothes and rinse the dried tears off my face. I couldn't see the clock, but I knew the sun was almost up so it would be safe to venture out in Sunnydale. I don't know quite when it happened, but somehow I seem to have developed a certain affinity for the movements of the sun. Maybe it's unavoidable when your best friend is a creature of the night, but it's not a bad talent to have. It's saved Angel's undead ass more than once, I know that.
I left a note taped to the mirror for Angel in case he woke up while I was gone and stepped out onto the narrow walkway leading to the parking lot just as the sun cleared the horizon. Yeah, I'm good. I stretched for a few minutes then took off towards the heart of Sunnydale.
I hate running.
It's boring, hard on my knees, and reminds me of too many nights in too many dark alleys. And yet I just passed mile two, still going strong.
I hate running, but it gives me time to think. I know there are some people in this town who'd get a good laugh out of that, but it's the truth. In LA, I'm never alone. I'm either in the office with Angel and Wesley, at home with Dennis, or at an audition with hundreds of other actors. Running gives me a chance to get away from everyone for a couple of hours to do my own rendition of pensive face.
Topic: What the hell is up with these visions?
I meant what I told Giles. In my limited experience, this was totally out of the ordinary and frankly I was worried. Whenever the Powers start to get cute, bad things happen. Like Angel spending that missing day as a human but having to give it all up. He and I never really talked about that; I don't even know if he knows that I know, but I can't comprehend carrying something like that around. And I wouldn't want to. So I was worried.
And then there was the feeling I was overlooking something important, but I couldn't figure out what that could be. I had reviewed both visions countless times and had absolutely no idea what else I was supposed to see. Much as I hated to say it, I was just going to have to wait until I had another vision to get a grip on what was happening.
I looked around to get my bearings and was struck with a terrible thought.
Sunnydale at dawn wasn't a terrible place to be.
Sure, it was still a one Starbucks kind of town perched on the mouth of Hell, but sun hadn't had a chance to bake away the fog and no one, un-dead or alive, was around to bother me as I ran through the familiar streets. Even though I spent most of my Sunnydale life wishing I were somewhere else, I know I had it pretty easy when I lived here. If you don't count the frat house snake monsters and IRS agents, that is.
It was strange to be back in town after so long. It was almost as if nothing had changed in my absence. I half expected to see Harmony step out of the coffee shop as I ran by, a grande skinny mochachino in one hand and a Snickers in the other. Though she was a hell-beast and all, I was sorry to hear Xander had to stake her last year.
I completed my circuit of downtown and, on impulse headed towards the old high school. Willow told me they built a new school on the other side of town and that no one wanted to go near the shell of the old one. I guess self-preservation runs deeper than denial sometimes.
I hadn't been back to SHS since the night of graduation and my first glimpse of the wreckage stopped me cold. It was sort of awe-inspiring, the damage we wrought. I mean, we *blew up the high school* and no one was punished. There's enough of a rebel hiding inside me to get a real thrill from that. I really wanted to take a little tour of the interior, but there were warning signs up everywhere and I didn't really relish the thought of another close encounter with construction materials, so I stayed outside the cordon, jogging in place and remembering.
"Reliving your glory days, Cordy?" Xander sounded a little winded as I heard him walk up behind me.
"Yeah, because there's nothing glorious like school lunch and civics." I turned to smile at him as I finished my sentence and nearly swallowed my tongue.
Gucci, Prada, and all the saints.
I'd never claim to be immune to the allure of a hottie, but I'm generally not one to gawk either. I live in LA, after all. And I work with *Angel* for God's sake, but none of that prepared me for what I saw when I turned around. Xander had obviously been out running as well. His shorts and tee-shirt were worn and faded and the leather on his shoes was gray and creased, but he practically glowed with good health and exertion. The sun created a bright corona around his whole body and I wanted to bite his arms.
"Cordy?" Whoops, caught staring again.
"Sorry. The sun was in my eyes." A lame excuse, but he bought it and that's all that mattered. "What are you doing out and about at the crack of dawn?"
He shrugged and began to stretch, "Just trying to get some exercise before the day disappears. Care to join me?"
Temptation, thy name is Alexander. As a means to curb my compulsive desire to follow him all the way across Sunnydale, I thought about Anya and the hellish punishments she could devise for both of us. "I'd love to, but I should be getting back to the motel. I need to shower before facing the day."
"You ran all the way from the motel? That's a good three miles, I'm impressed." In unison we started off in the general direction of the motel.
"Well, being in shape really helps in my line of work." It was nice running with Xander. He was in really good shape and he automatically shortened his stride a little so I didn't have to sprint to keep up.
"I suppose all the aspiring young starlets in LA run at least six miles a day."
"Starlets? Oh, I was talking about working with Angel. But yeah, everyone in LA always seems to be working out."
We ran in companionable silence for a few blocks, enjoying the beginning of what looked to be a beautiful day. It was kind of strange, actually. Xander never used to be one to let silence go undisturbed for long. Then again, neither was I. Just when I thought we were going to run all the way back to the motel without another word, Xander reverted into 'ask first, think later' mode. "What *happened* to you?"
I know I should have been offended, and I guess I was a little, but I really was a different person than the one who left two years ago so I couldn't blame him for wondering. It was a long story, though, and I wasn't sure I wanted to get into it while we were jogging through Sunnydale, "I grew up, I guess."
He stopped running and grabbed my arm, bringing me to a halt next to him. "Cordelia, I want to know." His fingers unconsciously caressed the inside of my elbow as he put those damn puppy-dog eyes to work on me, the streets of Sunnydale fading into oblivion around us.
He was serious. I couldn't see any ulterior motive lurking on his face; he simply wanted to know what my life was like. There was something undeniably seductive about his interest, but inviting him into my world like that was begging for trouble, so I stayed with the simple version. "I ran into Angel pretty soon after I got to LA and just sort of fell into working for him."
I saw his frustration at my short answer and added a bit more information, "When his original Seer died, the visions got passed on to me."
I turned and started running again before I let his disappointment sway my resolve, "That's enough about my boring old life, though. What have you been up to?"
He ran in silence for about a block. I risked a look at him and saw he was thinking. Not just thinking, really puzzling something out. "Not a whole lot. I've kinda got a knack for construction, so I've been doing a lot of that. The first year was still rough though, with Buffy and Willow in school. After we hooked up that time, things finally began to fall into place."
I nearly tripped over my own feet, but when he turned and smiled at me, I knew he was up to something. You don't date someone for a year and not learn to recognize that expression. Wasn't he tricky? I give him part of the story, he gives me part of the story. Well, two can play at that game. "Isn't it nice when that happens? It took forever to work out a showering schedule with Angel, but when we finally did, everything went pretty smoothly."
Xander fell back a few steps as we reached the motel steps, digesting that bit of information, but caught up before I reached my door. "Are you going to be at Giles' later for the research party?"
"Of course. I'm meeting Willow and Tara for brunch, but I'll be over after that." I saw the curtain twitch a little in my room and knew Angel was awake and undoubtedly listening avidly.
"Great. I'll see you later, then."
"Bye." I opened the door a crack and squeezed through, careful not to let too much sun into the room. Angel was sitting at the rickety table, reading some musty book Wesley must have brought him.
"Did you have a nice run?" He didn't even look up as I began my cool down stretches.
"Yeah, I was visiting the old high school and I ran into Xander." Might as well get that information out in the open as soon as possible. After all, it's not like I had anything to hide.
"Really? How is Xander this morning?" Angel turned a page casually and finally glanced my way. I met his eyes as best I could when I was contorted like a pretzel.
"That's good. And Anya?" Geez. He went in for the kill early in the game.
"I don't know. She wasn't there." I abandoned my stretching and began gathering everything I'd need to take a shower. "Where's Wesley? I thought he'd be here researching already."
Angel looked like he maybe wanted to continue harassing me, but went along with the new subject. "He stopped by earlier to drop some books off, but was meeting Giles for breakfast."
"Speaking of which, have you eaten yet?" It had taken quite a while, but Angel was finally a little more comfortable discussing his dietary needs with me.
"Yes, Mom. You packed a cooler for me, remember?"
"At least one of us was thinking ahead. What are your plans for this bright and sunny day?" No easy sewer access meant no daytime excursions for Angel, but beggars can't be choosers and we were definitely begging the other night. I pulled my hair out of its loose braid and sat on the edge of one of the beds to take off my shoes and socks.
"Funny. Since I'm stuck here until the sun goes down, I think I'll nap and research."
"Wow. Tough life." I tossed my socks in the general direction of my suitcase and headed towards the bathroom.
When I exited the bathroom in a cloud of steam forty-five minutes later, Angel was in the same position at the table. "I'm having brunch with Willow and Tara, then researching with Giles, so I'll see you at later."
He looked up a little blankly from his book, "I'll be there as soon as the sun goes down. Cordelia? Be careful."
"Always." I put my handy stake into my purse, grabbed his car keys from the table, and blew him a kiss.
It was sort of disconcerting to be around so many people my own age. I didn't see many chipper students working with Angel. The restaurant where I was meeting Willow and Tara was on the edge of campus and was absolutely teeming with my peer group. Everyone was so...collegiate. I caught sight of Tara and Willow in the back corner of the room and skirted around a group of hung-over frat boys to get to their table.
"Hey guys, have you been here long?"
Tara scooted over a little, "No, we just got here a few minutes ago."
The waitress bustled over with coffee and menus and we spent the next few minutes discussing and ordering food. Once things had settled down a little, silence fell over the table. Tara shifted uncomfortably after a couple of minutes and Willow threw out one of her desperate conversational gambits.
"So, Cordelia, I'm surprised you're awake. I remember in high school it would have taken a small explosion to get you out of bed before noon on a Sunday."
Ah, the good old days. "Actually, I've been up since dawn. I went out running and met up with Xander."
Willow and Tara exchanged a look. "What?"
"It's just that Xander started running last year and tried for weeks to get one of us to run with him."
"And no one did?"
"Well, we all tried, but Tara and I weren't really into it."
"And Buffy ran circles around him, so he just started going out by himself." Tara poured more sugar into her coffee.
I pulled the paper ring off my napkin and started folding it. "What about Anya? Why doesn't she go with him."
Willow rolled her eyes. "Oh, yeah, like Anya would exert herself for anything not directly related to her orgasms."
Coffee in the nasal passages is really not a comfortable sensation. I had forgotten about Willow's occasionally perfect comic timing. Tara passed me a handful of napkins and patted me on the back while she argued with Willow. "Anya's helped us out plenty of times."
"And when was that? When she misread the incantation that nearly killed Giles? Or how about the time she 'forgot' to tell us those Lantro demons were impervious to iron weapons? And let's not forget about the time she just up and ran away when those vampires had you cornered."
Oooh. I smelled gossip and knew from experience Willow was always ready to tear into whoever Xander was dating. "It's none of my business, but if she's such a - "
I paused. Tara seemed willing to give Anya the benefit of the doubt, so I didn't want to insult her straight out. Willow didn't have the same qualms, "Rapacious bitch?"
I conceded her point with a slight nod and moved on, "Why does Xander put up with her?"
Willow's guilty face made a sudden appearance. "Things were...confused when Buffy and I first started school and we neglected Xander for awhile. Anya came back to town and they just sort of latched on to each other. Even after things got better, she just kept hanging around."
You know, that is so like Buffy and Willow. For all their possessiveness of Xander, he was always the first thing to fall to the wayside when their lives life got a little hectic. "Well, I can see where Anya's devotion would have appealed to him, then."
Some of my old resentment must have leaked into my voice because Tara cocked her head and studied me as Willow continued. "And since it's kind of his fault she ended up stuck as a human, he took it upon himself to help her adjust. You know Xander, he's never one to leave a damsel in distress."
Wasn't that the truth? Noble Sir Xander, always ready take up arms in defense of a girl, whether she needed the help or not. The waitress arrived and I scooted my glass aside to make room for the plates she was setting down on the table. Once everything was in place, we all dug into our food.
I wasn't quite sure what to make of Xander and Anya now. They'd been together a long time. Did he care about her, or did he just feel guilty? Was it affection or convenience? My musings over pancakes and bacon were disturbed by Wesley's appearance at my elbow.
"Wesley, what are you doing here? I thought you were researching with Giles."
He snitched a piece of bacon off my plate, narrowly avoiding the tines of my fork. "We are, but we need to run back to Los Angeles to gather some research materials and Giles' car is rather…undependable."
Unasked, I pulled the keys to Angel's car keys out of my purse and held them out to Wesley. "So the research party is postponed?"
"We should be back by late afternoon, we'll all rendezvous then. Giles called Buffy and Xander, so they'll let everyone else know."
I slapped his questing hand away from my toast, "Did you call Angel?"
"Not yet. We were going to stop by there on the way out of town."
I waved away his plans. "Don't bother. I'll stop by the motel this afternoon. He was planning on reading and resting most of the day."
"All right then, I'll see you this afternoon. Willow, Tara." And then he was gone, sending me back to my circling thoughts. I halfheartedly listened to Willow and Tara discuss dietary options for 'Miss Kitty Fantastico,' but I kept ending up back at Xander.
I hate desperation, it clings to everything like some sort of stinky cloud, but I couldn't help myself. "I've been meaning to ask, what else is Xander up to these days? We talked some this morning and he mentioned working construction, but beyond that..."
Willow looked so happy and proud I thought she was going to float out of her seat. She opened her mouth, but closed it right away again. "It'll be better if you wait for Xander to tell you. He loves explaining it."
Dammit. If Angel could see this weak display of interrogation techniques, he'd boot me right out of the agency. I felt my patience draining away and knew I was on the edge of becoming a total bitch. "Look, all I -"
"Willow, we -" Tara's quiet voice over-lapped mine, but it was enough to put a stop to my imminent rant. She stopped talking and looked expectantly at me, but I motioned for her to continue. "We better get going if we don't want to be late."
Willow looked at her watch and threw some money on the table. "We're meeting with a local coven to see if they know of anything that's going on."
Tara and I added our money to hers and we all made our way out of the restaurant. The bell on the door jingled merrily as it slammed behind us. "Can we drop you off at the motel on our way out of town?"
"That would be great, thanks." I really wasn't looking forward to that trek in platform mules. I followed them across the parking lot, the early autumn heat making the tar stick to the bottoms of my shoes.
Tara's Civic wasn't the fanciest car on the road, but it was clean and seemed to run pretty well. She was a cautious driver and it was after one by the time we pulled into the motel parking lot. "Do you want us to pick you up on our way back?"
"That's all right. I think I'm going to changes shoes and walk around town for awhile."
I waved goodbye and Tara answered with a little beep of her horn as they headed back towards the road. I swear, she is the nicest person I've ever met. I'm surprised the Buffymonster hasn't eaten her alive. I turned to go up the stairs, but the glare off a windshield reminded me the day was there to enjoy. Despite the lateness of the season, the sun was hot and bright on my skin. I stayed in its light for a long moment, soaking up as much of its warmth and radiance as I could.
My body thoroughly heated, I bounded up the stairs, pulling the key out of my purse as I went. I opened the door a few inches and maneuvered through. Angel was in the middle of the room, just finishing up his Tai Chi routine. It's rare that I get to see this display, but I love catching him at it. There's just something satisfying about witnessing an act done with so much precision. I waited a few seconds until his movements ceased then sprang on him, surrounding him with my embrace, with the lingering warmth of the sun.
I don't think he knows quite what's going on when I do that, but it's my gift to him. A way for him to experience a little of the sun without turning into Angel flambé. His arms came up to capture the embrace and heat, his lungs expanding with a breath he didn't need as he inhaled the scent sun-warmed skin and I thought maybe he did know.
After a few minutes he stepped back and I flopped down on the edge of the bed, kicking my shoes across the room and collapsing back with a sigh.
"What are you doing back here? I thought you were going to research at Giles'."
"He and Wesley had to go to LA to pick up some research materials. They stopped by the diner and picked up your car keys about an hour ago."
He glanced at the completely un-sensible shoes I had tossed into the corner. "Did you walk all the way back here in those?"
"God, no. Willow and Tara gave me a ride on their way to talk to a coven about what's going on."
"How was brunch?" He let loose a gigantic yawn and fell onto the bed beside me. Poor guy, his circadian rhythms are always so messed up.
"It was nice. I really like Tara." I sat up, pushed Angel over onto his stomach, and began working some of the kinks out of his back. There's always a nice big one right between his shoulder blades. I call it Buffy.
He sighed a little and buried his head in the rumpled covers. "And how did your reconnaissance go?"
"Reconnaissance?" Was I supposed to have been doing something for real at brunch? "What was I supposed to have been reconnaissancing?"
"Whatever." I filed that away in the 'Strange Words' drawer.
"I just assumed you'd take advantage of the situation to dig for some intel on Xander and Anya. Maybe drop a few hints, see if you have any allies." He grunted as I dug my fingers into a knot under his tattoo, the truth of his statement hitting home.
"We're in the middle of some ultra-strange goings-on and I'm thinking about wedging myself between my ex-boyfriend and the vengeance demon he's dating. What's wrong with me?"
"In all fairness, she's an ex-vengeance demon." I was glad he could see the humor in the situation.
"It's not funny, Angel. What am I thinking?" I swung my leg over his hips for more leverage and worked out my frustrations on his back. "How can I be so stupid? This is the lamest thing I've ever done. I mean, Xander? I gave up everything for him and he cheated on me. I haven't even seen him in two years. I have a completely new life now, one that he has no part in."
"I can't. My mind just keeps going around and around in circles."
"No, I mean *stop*. You're hurting me." He twisted out from under me and grabbed my hands. Whether to soothe me or stop me from doing any more damage, I wasn't sure. "Cordelia, there's nothing wrong with you and you're not stupid, so stop beating yourself up over this. No matter what happens, no matter what you choose, you know Wesley and I will be there for you."
I felt myself go all soft at the sentiment. "I know, Angel. This whole being-in-Sunnydale thing just has me confused. Between Xander and these visions, I don't know which end is up."
There wasn't much he could say to that, so he didn't say anything. Instead he squeezed my hands and blinked heavily at me from tired eyes.
"You need some more sleep before the circus starts up again tonight."
He shook his head a little. "I'll be fine. A little sleep deprivation won't kill me."
"Okay, you're cracking jokes, now I know you're exhausted."
"Angel, I'm fine. Really." I pushed him towards the head of the bed and pulled the sheet over his shoulders. "I'm going to put on different shoes and walk around town until it's time to meet Giles and Wesley. A couple of hours mingling with the unwashed Sunnydale masses should be enough to cure me of this inconvenient nostalgia."
I sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on better walking shoes while Angel set the alarm clock for two hours before sunset. He settled deeper into the pillows as I picked up my purse and keys and turned off the table lamp.
"Be careful, Cordelia."
"Always, Angel. Sleep well."
Well, it was good to know I wasn't mellowing with age.
All I had wanted to do was kill a couple of hours in downtown Sunnydale, window shopping and sipping a cappuccino. Two hours and three cups of black coffee later, I was ready to kill someone. Every five minutes, my quiet day was interrupted by someone tapping me on the shoulder or whispering when I wasn't quite out of earshot. While it was nice to know I hadn't been forgotten, it made me miss the anonymity of LA. I really liked being able to disappear into a crowd. Not in Sunnydale, though. I was getting ready to head towards Giles' place when Devon sauntered up to me, and by that time any positive changes I had made in my personality had been completely obliterated.
"Cordelia. I thought you were dead."
"Devon. I wished you were." I stalked off, leaving him staring at my back and undoubtedly calling me a hundred different kinds of bitch.
I wasn't very happy with myself; I shouldn't have snapped at Devon like that. I wasn't really mad at him, I was mad at the person I used to be. It's not like I ever forget what I was like, but when people approach me like I'm a rabid dog, it just really drives the point home. It's hard to come to grips with the fact I used to be a heinous bitch, but I'm working on it. Both the coming to grips part and the heinous bitch part. By the time I got to Giles' apartment, I had managed to calm down a little, which was good since Anya answered the door.
She didn't bother to greet me, just went back to watching TV on the couch. What the hell was she doing here without Xander? Giles must be thrilled with that turn of events. I shut the door behind me and both Giles and Wesley looked up from their books, immediately peppering me with questions.
"Cordelia, you said -"
"Have you talked -"
They both stopped and apologized to each other, motioning for the other to continue. Then they both started talking again. Another round of exceedingly British regrets followed. It was like watching the comedy stylings of Stuffy and Stuffier. "Okay, stop. Wesley, what were you saying?"
"I just wondered if you had spoken to Angel lately."
"Not since I left the motel this afternoon. Why?"
"I've been trying to call him, but he's not answering."
"He could be in the shower, you know how long that takes."
Wesley conceded with a nod and went back to whatever he was reading. "Giles?"
"Ah, yes. I've been able to find a few references to the phenomenon you seem to be experiencing. If you would be so kind as to read through the accounts?"
I joined them at the table and took one of the books he pushed my way. The pages were thick and tattered, the ink faded to a mere shadow in places. "Uh, Giles? My universal translator seems to be on the fritz, so I'm going to need the English version."
"Oh, yes of course. I have it here. Somewhere..." From the couch, I heard Anya mutter something I'm sure was nasty.
"Yes, here we are." Giles handed me a sheet of legal paper covered with his tiny handwriting. I put my purse on the floor and settled back in my chair for what I knew was going to be a long night.
I hadn't read more than three sentences when Anya's voice cut through my concentration. "Xander? Xander!"
Next to me, Giles sighed heavily and took his glasses off to rub his eyes. "Anya, I've asked you innumerable times not to shriek for Xander at the top of your lungs."
She ignored him and opened her mouth to yell again when the door to the guest room opened and Xander stepped out. "What, Anya? We're busy."
"How long do we have to stay here?"
From where I was sitting, I could see his hands clench around the banister. He looked away from her and right at me. He saw the books surrounding me and looked back at Anya, shaking his head in disgust. "You can leave whenever you want. Graham and I have to finish what we're working on and then we're researching with everyone else."
He turned and went back into the guest room, completely ignoring her huffy protests. The door closed with a sharp click and Anya turned to glare at me. I quickly slid my eyes back to the page and started reading again. Wow, trouble in paradise.
It took a couple of minutes to refocus on the issue at hand, but the memory of my visions soon took precedence over whatever inappropriate thoughts I may have been entertaining about Xander. Though it seemed Giles transferred every 'thee' and 'thine' into his neat handwriting, the account itself was pretty interesting. Back in the Middle Ages, this guy, Joeptha, had gotten called to be a Seer without ever knowing his Warrior, or anything about what was happening to him. He was basically at the mercy of the visions with no way of doing anything to counteract the pain and despair. Accused of witchcraft by the church, he was burned at the stake.
I handed the pages back to Giles and he looked at me hopefully. I didn't know what he expected me to say, so I said the first thing that sprang to mind. "I'm so glad I have Angel and Wesley."
Wesley looked up from his book and smiled, his eyes tearing up. He can be such a woman sometimes. I rolled my eyes a little, but smiled back. He cleared his throat and tried to recover. "Yes, well, this Joeptha did have an extraordinarily bad time of it."
I nodded my agreement, "I wonder what happened to his Warrior."
"Sadly, Warriors are not always long for this world." There was an unspoken moment of silence for everyone we'd known who'd fallen for the cause. Our quiet reflection was disturbed when Buffy and Riley threw open the front door and pulled a shrouded figure in behind them. Angel carefully peaked out from under his covering as the others moved to close the blinds in the room.
"Angel, what a surprise." Giles stood and joined the others in the living room.
"Buffy and Riley stopped by with transportation and tarps. How could I refuse?" Once the room was darkened sufficiently, Angel shrugged out of the tarp and began gathering it up.
I watched him idly for a few seconds before realizing something strange was going on. With the help of my not-so-gentle prodding, Angel had managed to take some baby steps in the empathy department, but only with me and Wesley, so it wasn't that big a surprise he didn't even notice Anya glaring at me like I was the bringer of the apocalypse. What was surprising was that he didn't notice the tension crawling all over Buffy and Riley. He should have been tipped off when Riley helped him fold up the tarp. They finished and Angel wandered over to where Wesley and I were sitting.
"Were you able to find anything?"
"Nothing specific regarding Cordelia's visions, but Giles and I were able to find what appear to be accounts of other Seers."
Angel looked intrigued and ready to pursue that line of questioning, but even with Buffy and Riley whisper fighting in the living room, there were more important things to think about. "I'm sure those will make for great rainy day reading, but something bad is coming and we have no idea what it is."
The absurdity of me being the voice of reason must have penetrated the research haze surrounding them. They looked at me sheepishly and simultaneously set down the books they had started to open. "Good. Did you tell Wesley -"
An excited shouting from upstairs interrupted me. The door to the guest room burst open, Xander and Graham nearly falling over each other as they thundered down the stairs. I couldn't tell what the hell they were talking about, but they kept hugging each other and yelling, so I assumed it was a good thing. Everyone else seemed to know what they were talking about because soon they were all cheering and congratulating Xander and Graham.
The three of us held back, not really a part of their group. I was dying to know what was going on, but would have dyed my hair blonde and appeared on UPN before asking in front of everyone. Eventually everything settled down and Giles pulled Buffy and Riley aside to fill them in on what he and Wesley had learned, leaving Anya to sulk on the couch behind Graham and Xander.
Angel and Wesley stepped up to offer their congratulations, seeming to know exactly what had been accomplished. I faked it the best I could, but I felt Xander gloating over his apparent victory in our little battle of wills.
Oh, you're far from winning this war, my friend. I poked Angel in the side. "Do you have your cell phone? Mine's dead and I want to call Dennis to remind him to water the plants." I shifted away from Xander a little and winked at Angel. His expression hardly changed, but I knew he'd play along with me for awhile.
Angel fished the phone out of his pocket. "You haven't called him yet? He must be lonely."
"I know, but things got kind of distracted here. Am I still number one on your speed dial?"
"I don't know, you programmed it."
I stuck my tongue out at him as my answering machine picked up on the other end of the line. "Hi, Dennis, it's me. I'm sorry I didn't call sooner, but things have gotten kind of crazy here. I'm not sure when I'll be home, but don't worry, Angel and Wesley are with me. Remember to water the plants in the living room. Oh, and I left some laundry hanging in the bathroom to dry, would you mind putting it away? You're the best. I'll call again in a couple of days. Miss you, bye."
I knew Xander wouldn't ask, even though he had to be dying, but I had seen Buffy perk up while I was on the phone and I knew her well enough to know her curiosity would get the better of her right about -
"Who's Dennis, Cordelia?"
"We live together." It was kind of satisfying to have four sets of eyes bug out at you. Buffy and Anya seemed ecstatic at my revelation, while Xander and, strangely enough, Riley looked sort of crushed.
Buffy beamed in my direction. "How long has this been going on?"
I thought for a moment. "I moved in with him, what? A year and a half ago?"
Angel nodded slightly, his eyes silently chastising me. Buffy didn't notice Angel's disapproval, though. "I'm so happy for you, Cordelia."
"I love having him there when I come home. Living alone can be so depressing."
Xander had managed to mask his feelings a little, but he still looked down. Again, not that Buffy noticed. "Tell us about him. What does he do? Where did you meet? All that good stuff."
Anya hopped off the couch to cuddle up to Xander. "Yeah, what's he like?"
As entertaining as my little game was, the triumph on Anya's face was a bit too much to take. I put on my best 'confused innocent' expression. "Well, he's dead. I live with his ghost. I'm sorry, wasn't I clear on that?"
The Sunnydale people just looked at me and Anya's face fell along with the hand she had wrapped around Xander's arm. "So you're not involved with anyone?"
"Not since Angel and Wesley made my last date cry." I had only agreed to go out with Jordan as a favor to Stacy. I never would have chosen such a baby for myself. He didn't last five minutes before bolting out of Angel's office like those Hellhounds from Senior Prom were after him.
"He didn't actually cry, Cordelia." Wesley still sounded absurdly proud of himself, but I ignored that.
"Whatever. He still takes off in the opposite direction whenever I see him."
"Can you blame us for being a little wary after what happened with Wilson?"
OK, the demon pregnancy? Totally not my fault. And totally not something we were going to discuss with everyone following our conversation like the crowd at a tennis match. "As fascinating a topic my love life is, don't we have more important things to be working on?"
"Cordelia's right." Riley was over whatever issues he'd been having and Buffy sat on the arm of his chair. "Buffy and I weren't able to find out anything today. Whatever is happening is a complete secret to poor old Willy."
I looked closer and realized Riley's clothes were a little dusty, as if he had been in a fight. Buffy must have taught him her version of questioning a snitch. Giles sat back down in his chair at the table to better sort through the jumble of papers. "Wesley and I consulted every book of prophecy we could find, including the rather incoherent ramblings of Nostradamus, but there are no portents of doom which fit Cordelia's vision."
"Well, I -" I was cut off by Willow and Tara's entrance. This was starting to get ridiculous.
"Those witches were a complete waste of time."
"They promised to help, Willow. You're just upset that warlock was hitting on you."
Willow hung her embroidered purse over the coat rack and pulled her laptop out of it's case, somehow managing to boot it up as she sat down on the floor near Angel. "First of all, here's me, liking girls. Secondly, he was disgusting."
Tara joined Willow on the floor, both of them suddenly realizing they had an audience. Tara developed a sudden interest in the hem of her jeans and Willow turned several shades of red. "Sorry we're late. Did we miss anything important?"
"No one seems to have found out anything of use." Giles let a handful of papers drop to the table. "There doesn't seem to be any other clues outside of Cordelia's vision."
"Visions. I had another one last night." Finally, jeez.
"Why didn't you tell us right away?"
I chose to ignore Buffy's outraged question. "I don't know how much help it'll be, though, it's just more of the same."
"At this point, anything could be useful." Giles gestured for me to continue.
I closed my eyes and let it all come back to me. "It isn't just dark, it's like light never existed. And the pain is everywhere, inside and out. There are voices in the background, but no words. It's not chanting either, it's not that rhythmic. It's just voices."
I rubbed at my arms as everyone pondered the new information. "I didn't wake up when it happened, but that's what I remember."
"You have visions in your sleep as well?" Giles seemed fascinated by this. "How do you know your recollection is accurate?"
"I'll wake up to find cryptic notes written on anything I left laying around. The notes generally jog my memory."
"Where are the notes from last night? Perhaps they contain some bit of information you've forgotten."
Huh. I hadn't even thought to look for any notes. "I didn't need them to remember this morning, so I didn't even look for them. Angel?"
He shook his head. "You didn't write anything down. You just sat up in bed and started crying. I thought - " Angel looked kind of self-conscious making that admission in front of everyone. "It reminded me of...before."
Considering every nightmare I had that didn't involve Angelus or a Golden Raspberry Award was about those two days of torture, it was understandable Angel had some bad associations too. I shook my head, though. "It wasn't like that. It's just the pain is worse than anything, even that incubating demon."
Once again, everyone seemed to be completely enthralled by how Angel and I related to each other. Anya especially was giving me a funny look and I was totally sick of it. "What?"
"Angel was in your room last night."
"Well, it's his room too." It was probably not a very nice thing to do to bait her like that.
She nodded as if I had confirmed something she already knew and stood up, walking towards the door. "I guess you had to support yourself some way after your dad lost all his money and went to prison."
Did she just call me a hooker?
Judging from everyone's expressions, I'd have to say yes. Angel didn't even vamp out he was so stunned. And before the initial shock faded, she was gone. The front door slammed shut and everyone turned to look at me in horror. The sheer craziness of her suggestion was mind-boggling. I couldn't even dredge up any real sense of hurt at the implication. "Wow. That was...wow."
Xander looked like he did when I fell through the floor. "I am so sorry, Cordy."
"Why? You didn't imply I was a prostitute." He winced and sat down on the couch, resting his elbows on his knees.
"You know, if she were still a demon, we could just kill her." Something about her casual delivery made me realize Willow had put a lot of thought into that proposal.
Giles cleared his throat. "Yes, well. If we could put aside planning Anya's demise for a moment, we need formulate some sort of plan. Whatever the Powers are trying to tell Cordelia sounds altogether unpleasant."
"Until we have an idea of exactly what it is we're dealing with, I fear our best option is to arm ourselves with as much information as we can find." I was proud of Wesley for the way he was handling himself here. It couldn't be easy being back among the people who were witness to your greatest defeat.
Apparently Buffy hadn't quite forgotten it though. "Wow. Pain and darkness, that'll really narrow down our search through the bad things library."
"That's enough, Buffy." Huh, apparently Farm Boy does have a backbone. "Wesley has a point, until we know more details, we'll have to make do with general information. We can also organize a wide scale patrol for tonight - there are enough discharged Initiative members around to do a good job of it. How does everyone feel about patrolling tonight?"
There were nods all around and Riley motioned for Buffy, Graham and Angel to join him around the breakfast nook. From the sectioned off map of the city he produced, I could tell he was used to planning this sort of mission. Willow and Tara joined Giles and Wesley at the table, turning pages with the ease of long years of practice. I grabbed a couple of books from Giles' shelves and settled in the corner of the couch opposite Xander. I dropped one of the heavy books on the cushions between us, but he didn't even flinch from his ruminations.
Oh, well. After two years of Angel and his moods, Xander's pee-wee pity party was hardly a blip on the radar. I felt bad for him, I really did. Dating Anya couldn't have been all flowers and kittens, but staying with her was ultimately his choice. I know it sounds callous, but I was trying to be strong.
Five minutes later, I couldn't stand it anymore. At least when Angel was miserable you could tell it was a way of life for him. The dark gloom settled over him easily and he accepted it. With Xander, it was kind of unnatural. Not that he didn't have any sort of hidden depths, but they weren't broody, lord of the manor depths. I knew it wasn't my job to cheer him up, but I had to do something.
The A-Team at the breakfast nook were still planning their assault on the demon community of Sunnydale and the four at the table seemed to be discussing the ins and outs of a successful exorcism, so the room wasn't dead silent. I closed my book and reached over to jostle his leg with my foot. "Hey."
He turned to look at me, but then went back to staring a hole in the ground. "Hey."
He may have changed in the last two years, but some things would always be the same. "Did I tell you I'll be appearing in the next Frederick's of Hollywood catalogue?"
I hadn't seen a person move so fast since, well, since never. "What?"
"Not really, but I got your attention." He smiled a little, but looked like he was going to turn back to the floor again. "So I'm dying here, when are you going to tell me what all that excitement was about this afternoon?"
A bit more life crept into his eyes, but he shrugged my question off. "It wasn't anything really."
"Come on, Xander. We can stop playing this little game." He didn't say anything, just looked at me. "I'm completely serious. It was fun while it lasted, but life is too short to waste time dancing around things."
He nodded slowly. "All right, but I expect to hear all the ugly details of Los Angeles in return."
"You got it." It was only fair, after all.
He turned towards me on the couch, all moping forgotten. Leaning forward, he bent one leg and rested his arm along the back of the couch. "Graham and I just finished putting the final touches on our computer game. If everything goes the way we want it to, it should be in stores by the end of the year."
"You and Graham designed a computer game? That is so great." I never would have pictured Xander as a gaming mogul, but he was so excited about it all I couldn't help but get caught up in his enthusiasm.
"Well, Giles helped me with some of the details, but I wrote the story and plotted out the mythology. Graham did most of the computer stuff. Willow helped him out whenever she could, but she was pretty busy this year with school, so it was mostly him."
Never in a million years would I have thought of it, but designing games could very well be what Xander was born to do. "What gave you the idea?"
His eyes kind of glazed over as he remembered something obviously pretty good. I hope it wasn't some terrible, post-quickie flash of brilliance. "One day last winter it was kind of slow around demon central, so Graham and I were just hanging out, having a Tekken Tag tournament on his new Playstation when it hit me."
He paused for dramatic effect, but I couldn't let that opening pass. "The fact that you were 19 and still playing video games, thus making you an enormous nerd?"
He gave me his best 'you're so slow' look. "No. The fact that the adventures of Buffy and her gang of Slayerettes would make a great computer game."
I felt my eyes widen a little. He was a genius.
"Of course, I had to change a lot of the details to protect everyone. And Giles looked through everything to make sure we wouldn't accidentally raise some sort of demon by accident, but I think it'll be a hit."
I started to congratulate him again when he stopped me.
"Wait, you haven't heard the best part yet." He leaned back against the arm of the couch. "We finished a rough version a couple months back and within days we had a call from an investor who wanted to talk to us about product development. He came down to take a look at the game and was really into it. He told us if the finished game was as good as seemed, he'd help us launch it"
I was pretty close to speechless. The amount of thought and effort he put into this was amazing. I just wanted to reach over and give him a big hug, but I managed to hold off. "I'm so proud of you, Xander. I can't imagine how much work you put into this."
He shrugged a little. "It was the hardest thing I've ever done, except for slaying. And David was talking about tee shirts, action figures, Happy Meal tie-ins, the whole deal."
I lost him for a second. "David?"
"David Nabbit, our investor."
"David Nabbit, one of the richest men in California?" I casually looked around the room and caught Angel's eye. He put his finger to his lips in a quick, our-little-secret kind of gesture.
"Yeah. He's really strange. Fabulously wealthy, but strange." Xander didn't seem to notice our exchange.
"That's what I've heard." Xander probably only realized a small percentage of the strangeness. I wonder if Nabbit went back to that demon brothel after the blackmail threat.
"Hey, Cordelia?" Angel waved to get my attention and he had that rarely seen devious look in his eyes. "How long until the sun sets completely?"
"Eight and a half minutes." My answer was automatic and had people looking at me strangely again. Riley pulled out his wallet and handed ten dollars over to Angel.
That's nice, betting on my freakish skills. Well, if that's how he wants to play...I raised my eyebrow at him and held out my hand. "Half."
"Half?" I don't think he sounded this outraged when Wolfram and Hart tried to have Wesley deported. "Who are you? My agent?"
"Fine. I'll remember this the next time *someone* is out tracking some random force of evil and forgets he turns into a crispy critter at daybreak."
"Fine." He dug into his pocket, making change as he walked towards me.
I tucked the five dollar bill into my pants pocket and smiled at him. "Thank you."
"Hey! Play nice." I scooted down on the couch to kick him in the hip as he walked away. I heard him sigh and knew he was rolling his eyes at my cavalier treatment of his gloomy dignity.
Xander looked like he'd just watched aliens land and declare everyday was kilt day. "What? Why does everyone keep looking at me like that?"
He shook his head a little to clear it. "You and I can't get to your turn at full disclosure fast enough."
I guess I keep forgetting everyone in Sunnydale knows Angel only as Buffy's mopey undead boyfriend, one half of the most star-crossed couple ever. They don't know what a goofy dork he can be sometimes. God, they've never even seen him dance. I wish I were so lucky.
"Riley, it's nearly dark. What sort of strategy do you have for tonight's patrol?" At Giles' question, Riley motioned everyone into the living room and had Willow and Tara hold up the map.
"I've mobilized the remaining Initiative members and they have been assigned patrols in the areas of the city generally not plagued by much demon activity." Dear God, he even had a laser pointer. How could Buffy live with this? But she was gazing at him like he was a combination of Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck, so I guess she enjoyed the stodginess.
"I've broken us into three teams. I figure we should be able to cover all the trouble spots that way. Buffy, Giles, and Xander will take the graveyards. Angel, Wesley, and Cordelia can cover the old high school and the Bronze. Graham, Willow, Tara, and I will check out the main sewer access tunnels. Every group has at least one cell phone, so if you find anything, call and we'll all rendezvous back here. Any questions?"
Wow. He was actually pretty good at that command thing. And his plan wasn't half bad, either.
I just hope someone finds something useful.
That was the most useless patrol I'd ever been on.
The old high school was completely deserted and there were only a couple vamps hanging around the Bronze waiting to get dusted. Giles and Willow called to report the same sort of thing in the graveyards and tunnels.
I was starting to think there was something wrong with me. Yeah, I can see myself in my therapist's office right now, "No, I'm only hallucinating *now*. The visions *used* to come true. Yes, I still work for the vampire who's trying to save the world."
I'm almost glad I can't afford to go to therapy anymore.
I followed Angel up the stairs to our room, feeling pretty crabby with the Powers, whatever evil it was I couldn't quite see, and the world in general. So when he unlocked the door, I pushed past him and flopped face down on the bed to feel sorry for myself.
My silent self-pity lasted about three seconds. I heard Angel sit on the other bed and I turned my head towards him. "Well, that was completely lame."
He shrugged off my conclusion. "We killed some demons, you can't ask for much more."
Had he gotten a shipment of crack-addled blood? "Can't ask for more?" I pushed myself up onto my elbows. "How about some sort of clue what my visions are about?"
"I'm not too worried about that. The Powers have never let us down before. We'll get the information in time to act." He studied my face for a second. I hate it when he does that sometimes. It's like he can see inside me. "You were getting pretty cozy with Xander on the couch."
"I tried not to." I could tell he didn't exactly believe me. "Really. I mean, I understand better than anyone else what's going on with Anya, but when he's right there I forget everything. I forget all the reasons we broke up. I forget all the reasons we can't be together. I forget everything but him."
Angel was looking sort of shocked and I was a little ashamed of myself. Who was I to lecture to him on temptation and yearning? "I know it's nothing like it is for you and Buffy, but -"
"No. No, that's exactly what it's like. You're only missing the end of the world overtones."
A heavy silence descended on our crappy motel room as we contemplated that. Our lives really sucked sometimes. There was nothing more frustrating than wanting something you couldn't have and I wasn't all that used to being thwarted, despite my changed circumstances the past couple of years.
Having decades to get used to it, Angel shook off the feeling before I did. "So what were you and Xander talking about anyway?"
"He was just telling me what he's been up to lately, career-wise." I rolled into a sitting position and crossed my arms. "Speaking of which, you have some explaining to do."
Again with the shrugging. "Willow told me what Xander was working on, and I just mentioned it to David."
Whatever sort of funk I had been in dissolved into vaguely warm pride. "You're a good person."
As always, Angel got a vaguely panicked look at that. "I'm not a person, let alone a good one."
"Just shut up and take the compliment, all right? God, some people." I held up my hand, "Sorry. Some not-people."
That got a laugh out of him and he looked at his watch as I dropped back onto the bed and yawned. "Why don't you get some sleep? Buffy and Riley were going to do one last patrol and I think I'll join them."
"Are you sure you want to do that? What if 'patrolling' is their code word for other activities?" OK, that probably wasn't the nicest thing to say, but a valid concern I think.
Apparently, Angel took it the right way. "I hope not. Riley asked me to join them."
I tried not to picture that appalling scenario and threw a pillow at his head. I hauled myself off the bed and dug through the pile of clothes around my suitcase for my pajamas as Angel began restocking his patrolling supplies. He finished before I did and I re-promised myself I'd be neater the next time we traveled.
"Night, Delia. Don't wait up."
"Be careful, Angel."
"Always." And then he was gone.
I temporarily abandoned the search for my pajamas and went into the bathroom to brush my teeth. I closed the door halfway to grab the towel I know I left hanging on the knob, but found my pjs instead. Angel must have picked them up. I honestly don't know how he can stand to stay with me. I'm not this messy at home - Dennis would pitch a complete drama queen fit - but when I'm away, I get a little lazy.
I finished up my whole cleansing/toning/moisturizing process and changed for bed. Even though it was well after midnight and I was exhausted, I wasn't sure I'd be able to sleep. Guilt had a way of doing that to me. I really shouldn't have toyed with Anya the way I did. Despite my complete hatred of her on a personal level, I know what it's like to have to share Xander with Buffy and Willow. I can't imagine what it would have been like if an ex-girlfriend had come on the scene. Jealousy is an ugly, ugly emotion.
Not that it excuses her behavior at all. Calling me a whore in front of everyone probably wasn't the best move she could have made. Willow seemed entirely serious about her re-demoning plan and no one else seemed that opposed to it either. Unless she starts behaving herself, I'm afraid Anya's not long for the Scooby Gang.
I slid under the covers and tried to forget about the whole mess. Angel was going to be back in a couple of hours and would give me Lecture No. 72-A, "A Tired Cordy is a Cranky Cordy," if I were still awake.
Sometimes I miss emotionally detached Angel.
Under the swollen gray sky, the path through the forest was wide and barren. Though it showed signs of use, we hadn't seen another soul the entire time we'd been walking. Dark shapes crashed through the undergrowth, but I knew better than to look away from our path.
The towering branches on either side of us were dark and heavy, but did nothing to shield us from the constant, drenching downpour. Even clad in Angel's coat, my body was cold and tired from fighting the wind and the rain. On my right, Angel kept up a constant pace despite being completely soaked. We had been walking through the forest for what felt like years, but I trusted him to lead us to home.
On my left, Wesley clung stubbornly to the skeleton of his umbrella and pulled his tweed jacket closed at his throat. He caught me looking at him and raised his head proudly, "The day an Englishman needs more than an umbrella and tweed for a piddling rain like this is the day the sun sets on the Empire."
"Look." Angel stopped walking and pointed towards the horizon. In the distance, there was a line in the sky where the storm clouds finally ended. It was far away, but it was the first time there was even the slightest break in the weather.
We started walking towards the glowing strip of blue sky, our pace quickening despite the renewed fury of the storm. Every step we took seemed to increase its strength and power. An especially fierce gust of wind turned Wesley's useless umbrella inside out and tore it out of his grasp. Without a backwards look, he put his head down and forged ahead.
I didn't think it possible, but the sky got even darker and we automatically joined hands to keep track of each other in the gloom. The rain sheeted down and the sky was nearly split in two by the biggest bolt of lightening I've ever seen. The accompanying crash of thunder shook the ground and reverberated through the trees for several long seconds.
I tightened the hold I had on my friends and held my head steady against the storm, my eyes focused on the slowly expanding patch of clear sky. Eventually, the thunder and lightening moved past us, the rain easing and becoming warmer. As the clouds broke up, tiny, distinct shafts of sunlight began to filter through. We turned in a slow circle, looking for someplace safe for Angel, but the forest sunk into the ground as we watched, leaving a lush green meadow in its place.
I struggled with the buttons on Angel's coat to give him some kind of cover, but the material was heavy with rain and my fingers numb with cold. Wesley's hands joined mine, but the buttons wouldn't separate and the patches of sun were slowly creeping towards us. Angel's hand covered ours, stopping our frantic movements. He shook his head slowly and smiled.
"You can't fight fate."
He held out his other hand and one of the shafts of sunlight lifted from the ground to meet him. It slid over his hand like a paintbrush, bringing color to his normally pallid skin. That first touch seemed to trigger a chain reaction within the other beams of light. They became like living things, twining and snaking around as they erased every shadow from the landscape and from us. Their gentle warmth was a relief after the cold of the storm so I raised my face to the sky and closed my eyes.
I came awake gradually, the brightness of my dream slowly giving way to the cool darkness of our motel room. Even though I was facing the drafty wall, I could still feel the warmth of the phantom sun on my face.
I flopped over onto my other side to look at the clock and was shocked to discover it was after eight. I had planned on going running again this morning, and *not* because I thought I might run into Xander, but it was way too late for that now.
I shot a quick check of the other bed and was relieved to see a lump beneath the covers. I hadn't heard Angel come in last night and was glad he made it back okay. I stretched until my feet hung off the end of the bed, then rolled off of it and headed towards the bathroom.
I stumbled a little over the pants Angel had left near the foot of his bed. It must have been a rough night of slaying; he wouldn't leave his clothes on the floor unless he was completely exhausted. I turned on the bathroom light and used the illumination to fold Angel's crumpled clothes and put them on the table next to his pile of research books.
I dug through my suitcase for clean clothes and realized I was going to have to hit the laundromat if we didn't start to discover some useful information. I admit I have a tendency to over-pack, but I had no idea when this vision would resolve itself. I found an acceptable outfit and, despite the noise and glaring fluorescent light coming from the open bathroom door, Angel didn't even stir. Poor guy.
I closed the bathroom door quietly behind me and pushed Angel's various hair products out of the way to set my clothes on the counter. It wasn't until I looked up that I saw the note taped to the mirror, my name written in Angel's distinctive hand.
They must have discovered something on patrol last night - Angel usually doesn't like to leave notes for anyone. I don't know why, it's one of his weird little quirks I haven't figured out yet.
I pulled the note away from the mirror and rubbed the rich paper between my fingers. It was thick and soft, the black ink of my name feathering a little at its edges. There was a name for this kind of paper; Angel told me once and I filed it away in the same place that now held 'reconnoitering.' I thought for a second, tapping the edge against my chin.
Vellum, that's what it was.
I felt absurdly proud of myself for remembering, but I liked learning new things and I liked showing Angel and Wesley I actually listened to them. I flipped open the note, fully expecting to find a demon description or kill count from the previous night.
The sun rising in the distance made me think of you, but I didn't want to wake you. Have a nice day and say hello to Xander for me.
Remember what I said about missing emotionally detached Angel? Well, I lied. Knowing he loved me was the best feeling in the world. I didn't need to look in the mirror to know I had a goofy, watery smile on my face. I sniffled back the tears burning the back of my throat and put the note in the pocket of my pants to protect it.
I turned on the hot water in the shower as I brushed my teeth, savoring the thick cloud of steam that formed around me. Teeth minty clean, I pulled off my pajamas, remembering to fold them this time, and stepped into the shower.
I love showering. I love the steam and the heat and the sensation of being completely clean. That probably says something about me as a person, but I don't really care. I was tempted to linger under the warm spray, but I knew Angel's blood supply had to be getting low, so a little field trip to the butcher shop was in order. I hurried through my shower and pulled on the clothes I brought into the bathroom with me. I didn't feel like bothering with my whole routine, so I settled for pulling my hair back into a thick braid and putting on some mascara and lip gloss.
Satisfied no one would run screaming from my appearance, I left the bathroom and sat down on the edge of my bed to pull on my shoes. I scrawled Angel a quick note, letting him know I'd be back later in the day, turned out the bathroom light, opened the door a crack, and squeezed through into the bright morning. I turned to make sure the door was locked and nearly ran into Wesley.
"Cordelia. I was just coming to see if you wanted to have breakfast."
God bless Wesley and his bottomless stomach. I hooked my hand through his arm and pulled him towards the stairs. "Are you buying?"
Wesley set his fork on the edge of his plate and sat back in his chair, looking at my untouched toast. "Are you going to finish that?"
I swear, he should be as big as a house the way he eats. I pushed the toast towards him and tried to think of something to distract him from his recitation of horrors. Noticing Anya's behavior towards me, he apparently took it upon himself to catalogue some of Anyanka's greatest hits. She wasn't terribly creative, but she was thorough, I had to give her that. "So do you have any plans for today? Besides researching, I mean."
"Giles and I are going to try calling on some old friends. They may very well have sources we are unable to access given our current...estrangement with the Council."
"Do you miss being a Watcher?" Wesley had changed a lot since first coming to Sunnydale, for the better, I thought, but we had never really discussed his separation from the Council.
He got quiet for a long time and I thought maybe tactless Cordy had made an unplanned cameo. "I'm sorry, Wesley. I shouldn't have -"
"Oh, no. Cordelia, I was just thinking. Remembering, really." He put down the unfinished toast and folded his hands on the table.
"I loved being a Watcher, even before I knew exactly what it meant. I loved the security it gave me. When I was called to Sunnydale, it was the happiest moment of my life. I, Wesley Wyndam-Price, was to be Watcher on the Hellmouth."
He didn't have to say anything about his reception from the Slayers and Giles, I was there, I clearly remembered how they treated him. He seemed to have come to terms with it, though. "I thought the Council had prepared me for active duty, but they hadn't. I know for a fact most of them haven't even seen a demon in close to twenty years. And none of them ever trained a Slayer who was called. They have no idea what it's like in the field. What it's like know the fate of the Slayer and the world rests on your shoulders."
He shook his head a little. "I loved being a Watcher, but I'm doing more for the cause with Angel than I ever would have with the Council."
He broke eye contact and began playing with the salt shaker. "And I hold them partially responsible for Faith. If I hadn't been so - "
"Wesley, we went through this last year. There wasn't much you could do once Faith went completely psycho. Besides, Angel and the State of California think there's hope for her." I don't know that I'll ever feel safe around her, but Angel is confident she won't give in to the Dark Side, so we'll have to see.
As always, the topic of Faith pretty much killed the conversation and there was a moment of silence as we tried to switch gears to something a little less issue-laden. The waitress dropped the check on the table, startling both of us. Wesley dropped a handful of money on the table and slid out of the booth. "With Buffy and the rest in class today, would you care to research with me and Giles?"
Not that the researching had done any good so far. "Fun as that sounds, Angel's running low on red liquid goodness, so I was going to restock for him, but I'll stop by when I'm done?"
He nodded his approval and guided me through the restaurant and to the car with a gentle hand on the small of my back.
I really don't mind buying blood for Angel. Once I got over the initial ickiness of the whole process, it was pretty much the same as picking up Thai for Wesley. Sure, I may get the occasional weird look, but in the grand scheme of things, I guess that doesn't matter too much.
The guy behind the counter of 'Mike's Meats and More' didn't even bat an eye at my request. We were in Sunnydale, though, so I suppose a few of pints of blood hardly even registered on the freaky scale. Still, it was nice to engage in a hassle free transaction, so I let him keep the change from the twenty I paid with.
With that sort of karma working for me, it was kind of a surprise when a furry hand shot out of a dark alley and dragged me off the street.
The Moebin demon is covered in ratty black fur and stands well over six feet tall with a thick crystal horn protruding from its heavy brow. Its shifty eyes are pure black and pushed back into its skull. Like most nasty creatures, it has a nearly visible stench wafting off of it. It kind of reminds me of a monkey.
In whatever dead language its name originates from, the word 'moebin' means 'bride killer.' It got the name from its habit of snatching virgins away in broad daylight, usually on their wedding day. And not just any old virgins either, only the purest of the pure can tempt them. According to Wesley, most modern Moebin are found hanging around convents and Star Trek conventions.
So I really don't know why that smelly hand reached out and grabbed me. Again.
The first time it happened was about eight months ago. I had been playing the bait in an operation to flush out a nest of vampires from one of the seedier neighborhoods in LA. I really hate playing that role, but apparently I'm a tastier treat than either Angel or Wesley. That night, though, I was ambushed by something stinky and hairy before I could even get near the nest.
After it had me safely tucked away, the Moebin just looked at me, more baffled than Aura at a Mensa convention. I had *no* idea what its damage was. But I guess if I had grabbed me, thinking I was a virgin, I'd be bewildered too. The demon's confusion gave Angel enough time to find me and kill it.
Luckily, I had been paying attention.
So when the Sunnydale Moebin paused and looked at me stupidly, I reached up, grabbed the short crystal horn protruding from its forehead, and pulled as hard as I could. It came free with a wet pop and the Moebin disappeared in a glittery cloud. I tucked the horn into my purse, assuming Angel or Wesley would know how to dispose of it, and brushed off the sparkly remains as best I could.
Body glitter is *so* 1998.
I looked around, but no one seemed to have noticed my disappearance, so I ducked back out of the alley and rejoined the pedestrians on the sidewalk. Again, thanks to the magic of Sunnydale denial, a woman stepping out of a dark alley wasn't anything to get riled up about.
I was going to have to get Wesley to look into this Moebin thing for me. Considering I wasn't a virgin and hadn't been for quite awhile, two attacks in less than a year was troubling. If this was a side effect from the damn visions, the Powers had some heavy-duty explaining to do.
Stupid supernatural entities.
Distracted by such thoughts, I wasn't exactly paying attention to my surroundings as I walked back to the motel with Angel's dinner. Not the smartest move, I know, but I had just warded off one demonic attack, what were the chances of there being another one?
I have to say this for being Angel's girl Friday, my reflexes have improved quite a bit. When the hand dropped on my shoulder from behind, I didn't even think about what I was doing, I just turned around and took a swing at whatever evil creature was accosting me.
On a busy street.
In the middle of the day.
I tried to pull my punch, I swear I did, but the split second it took me to realize my mistake was a split second too long. Xander stumbled back a couple of steps as I clipped his jaw with my fist.
"What's wrong with you?" I was all set to apologize, but his tone sent me back into the habit of arguing for the sake of arguing.
"Me? What's wrong with you? Don't you know any better than to sneak up on a person?"
He stopped gingerly poking at his jaw to glare at me. "Sneak? I've been trying to get your attention for two blocks."
"And since when are you all T2 Sarah Connor?" He pressed his jaw again and winced.
"LA's a rough town." I reached up to touch his jaw and he flinched away from me. "Don't be such a baby. I hardly hit you at all."
He relented and I turned his face towards the sun so I could see the area better. There wasn't even that much to see, just a small pink splotch that probably wouldn't even bruise. His skin was soft under my hand and despite my best intentions, my assessing touch became a caress.
"Cordelia?" Despite the sun shining in his face, his eyes widened a little and his hand came up to cover mine. All sorts of warning bells began sounding in my head.
I took a step back and slid my hand out from under his. This was no good at all. Anya was going to track me down and feed my liver to a dog. She knew how, she'd done it before. Xander looked confused and a little hurt that I moved back, but there was no way I was going to do that to myself. "So what are you doing this morning?"
He put his hands in his pockets and I could see his shoulders slump as he shrugged. "Not a lot, just driving around. You?"
"I had breakfast with Wesley and ran an errand, now I'm headed back to the motel." There was an awkward pause as he nodded at my answer and I thought maybe he needed a little reminder why there wasn't going to be any funny business between us. "How is Anya this morning?"
He shrugged again, but stood up a bit straighter. "I wouldn't know. She left."
"When I got home last night there was a note on my door saying she left town, was never coming back, and that she hoped I lived a long and senselessly miserable life." He paused for a second. "So, do you need a ride back to the motel?"
"Sure." What the hell, you only live once.
He gestured back towards the way we came and I started down the street. Xander walked next to me in silence, shuffling his feet a little against the sidewalk. We hit the corner just as a funeral procession crossed the intersection and he leaned heavily against the mailbox to wait for the cars to crawl by. Perhaps I misjudged his level of interest in Anya.
"Are you okay? You seem a little..."
He shook his head. "I'm fine. I was just thinking."
I should have left it at that. Digging any further was just asking for trouble. "Because you and Anya were together a long time and - "
He shifted a little and crossed his arms over his chest. "Look, I know Anya's hurt, but - "
"Whoa. Defensive much? I don't care about Anya, I was asking about you."
He dropped his arms and rolled his head back. "I'm sorry. Try to ignore the return of Idiot Jeb." He straightened his neck and met my eyes. "Despite the fact my girlfriend of two years took off, leaving behind a nasty letter, the keys to my apartment, and a pile of burned clothes, I'm doing okay."
"She burned your clothes?"
He finally smiled. "You always said burning was too good for most of what I wore."
Sadly enough, that was true. I said it and I meant it. Xander's always had the fashion sense of a deranged surf-dork. "Look at it as a clean slate. A chance to start over, style-wise."
He watched the motorcade for a few seconds and I thought maybe he got tangled back up in his thoughts, but then he turned back towards me and whatever look was in his eyes, it sure as hell wasn't 'poor me, all my clothes are toast.'
"Once Grant and I sign the deal with David for our game, what would you think about helping me out with a little shopping in LA?"
Visions of my own dress-up Xander danced around my brain and if I ever had any better judgment, it was forever silenced by the possibility of fulfilling a certain little fantasy I had about Xander, leather pants, and white tee shirt. "That would be great."
"You sure?" His question was innocent enough, but something about the way he asked it made me realize we were talking about more than shopping and more than our hormones.
I nodded. "I'm sure."
The final car in the procession passed and Xander pushed away from the mailbox. He rested his hand on my shoulder for a second before sliding it down to the small of my back to guide me across the street.
Hello, frying pan? Meet fire.
I nearly lost my footing and shifted the butcher's bag in my arms. He caught it with his other hand and tucked it under his arm. "What's in here?"
"Dinner for Angel." I watched his face out of the corner of my eye. This was important. I know he talked to Angel the other night, but if he still had his not-completely-irrational hatred thing going on, whatever was happening between the two of us would stop right here.
There was the instinctive look of disgust that he was carrying a bag full of blood, but I expected that. Once that passed, he seemed fine and something relaxed inside me. He tucked the bag in closer to his body as he guided me towards the curb. "You never did fill me in on what happened to you."
He pulled open the car door and I sat down, holding out my hand for the bag. He pushed the door closed and jogged around the front of the car as I secured the bag on the floor. He slid into the car and looked at me expectantly, the keys hovering over the ignition.
"I ran into Angel at a party." He started the car and I leaned back in the seat, remembering. "It was so weird to see him, like he shouldn't have existed outside of Sunnydale, but there he was."
The car pulled forward and I closed my eyes. "I blew him off to talk to someone 'more important.' I didn't think I'd see him after that, but thankfully I did."
I opened my eyes to watch the familiar scenery of Sunnydale pass by. "Some creepy vampire had me in his lair, but Angel and Doyle rescued me. After that I sort of took over his office. At first it was because I really needed a job, but then Doyle died and Wesley showed up and somewhere along the line we all became a family."
Xander pulled into the motel parking lot and found a spot near the stairs. He turned off the car and stared out the windshield at the chipped and peeling paint on the side of the building. "That doesn't really explain how you got to be the Stupendous Yappi or why Angel and Wesley are so protective of you."
"I know." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him look at me a little funny, but I was completely serious. "A lot has happened in the past two years. A lot of really bad things that I don't like to remember."
I looked away from my hands and met his eyes. "But if you buy me a cup of coffee after we drop this off for Angel, I'll give you all the gory details."
"It's a date."
A date? The part of me that wasn't screeching like an eleven year old at an 'N Sync concert could only shake her head. Oh, Cordelia Anne, what are you doing?
I reached down for the bag as Xander jogged around the front of the car to open my door. He took Angel's dinner from me and offered me his hand with a little bow. I put my hand in his and slid off the seat. I kicked the car door closed behind me and let Xander lead me towards the stairs, his hand warm on my back.
The force of the vision knocked me forward onto the pavement.
The rapid-fire images held me suspended in pain for what seemed like days, but I knew it couldn't have been more than a few seconds. Even after the initial images faded, the pain continued to build and the last thing I heard before blacking out was Xander calling my name.
Even before I was fully conscious, I was aware of something cool and damp on my forehead and the scent of lavender in the air. Since my head didn't feel like it was going to fall off my shoulders, I figured Angel had done that ritual thingy Tara taught him. I heard quiet voices, but didn't quite feel up to opening my eyes so I settled for listening.
There was a click as Angel hung up the phone and the end of the bed sagged under his weight. "I can't find Giles and Wesley."
Xander made some kind of grunty noise and I could tell from irregular squeaking of the floor he was pacing around the room. "This sucks."
"Tell me about it." I pulled the cloth off my head and swung my legs over the side of the bed. They both moved towards me, but I held up my hand. "No, I'm fine."
I kicked off my shoes and stood up, only swaying a little. I waited a second and the dizziness passed. I straightened my shoulders and silently dared either one to make another move towards me. Trusting I wasn't going to fall over again, Angel relaxed, but Xander was looking a little rebellious so I added a glare to make sure he stayed put. He gave up and leaned against the dresser.
Satisfied I could move around without my honor guard trailing me, I looked around the room and found my purse and the bag with Angel's blood on the small table. I put the bag into the cooler and rooted around in my purse until I found my water bottle. After I rinsed the taste of stale fear out of my mouth I felt a lot better. "How long was I out?"
"A few minutes. Five tops." Angel was playing it cool, but I could tell he was worried. Except for that whole Vocah demon thing, I had never passed out from a vision. Our eyes met and we both had the same thought: This is very bad.
"Please tell me you saw something besides darkness and pain this time."
I nodded, rubbing at the goosebumps on my arms but before I could say anything I heard footsteps on the stairs and a knock at the door. At Angel's nod, Xander opened the door. Giles and Wesley eased through the door, followed by Willow and Tara.
"Excellent, you're all here." Giles began paging through one of his books. "Cordelia, one of the witches in the coven called Willow with some interesting news."
"She said there was a Moebin demon in town." Willow seemed just as excited as Giles. "We've been researching it all morning, but we don't quite see how it fits into your vision."
Giles mistook Angel's question for disbelief and fiddled with his glasses as I reached for my purse. "They are not, as once believed, extinct, only quite rare. There are accounts of Moebins doing terrible damage during the Middle Ages, but the changing times have been particularly hard on them."
"That Moebin won't be bothering anyone." I tossed the horn to Angel and put my purse back on the table.
Giles looked at the horn in Angel's hands. "Do you mean you killed the Moebin?"
"This morning. It grabbed me off the street." He didn't need to look quite so shocked and neither did anyone else. I had managed to pick up a few tricks in the past couple of years.
"Again?" Wesley and Angel exchanged a look.
"This has happened before?" At my nod Giles put his glasses back on. "Well, considering the Moebin's rather specific...That is to say, you are...Is there any reason the Moebin would be drawn to you?"
"None." I watched Xander make a confused face in Willow's direction. She leaned up to whisper something in his ear and when she moved away, comprehension dawned. I silently dared him to make a comment, but he just leaned back against the wall.
"Which is why the two encounters in the past year are quite troubling." Wesley began polishing his glasses like a mini-Giles.
The glasses came off again, "Well, yes, I can see -"
"Where this has nothing to do with anything important." Okay, maybe that was a bit rude, but there were more important things to be thinking about than why I couldn't escape horny demons. Demons with horns.
"And you know this from your decades of research experience?" Well, I guess Giles woke up on the sarcastic side of the bed this morning.
Xander spoke up. "Cordelia had another vision."
"Let me guess, pain and darkness." Now that was just mean.
"She passed out, Giles."
Giles looked contrite, and Wesley alarmed. "Cordelia, are you all right?"
I nodded. "It was just the pain, I've never felt anything like it."
Wesley found his notebook. "What did you see this time?"
I closed my eyes and began to pick out details. "It's a ritual of some type. In the forest. It's really foggy out. There are men in a circle around a body, I can't see who's on the ground. The men are wearing purple robes with hoods. They have daggers. They look ceremonial, ornate. They're chanting, but with no words, it's just sound.
"This dark, swirling...thing appears and it surrounds the body, sucking something out of it. When it's done, the men take their daggers and destroy it."
A cool hand slid into mine and I squeezed it. "It feels like I'm being torn apart. Not just my body, but *me.* Like whatever makes me Cordelia is being ripped into shreds."
I squared my shoulders and took a deep breath before opening my eyes. Next to me, Angel looked worried and the hand not holding mine was pulling at his bottom lip. Xander had pushed away from the dresser and took a half a step towards me when our eyes met. Willow and Tara had sunk down to the end of a bed and were holding hands. Giles and Wesley had matching horrified expressions. They exchanged a look and Wesley sat down heavily on the side of the bed.
"Wesley?" Angel gave my hand one last squeeze and moved across the room.
Wesley took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. "By all rights, what Cordelia described should not exist."
We all turned to Giles for clarification. "The Rite of Cha'lau."
Angel shook his head. "I've never heard of it."
"It is an ancient magic of indeterminate origin. Supposedly it summons the demon Cha'lau to rend the soul from the victim, making it corporeal and vulnerable. If destroyed in this state, the soul ceases to exist. It does not simply die, it disappears from all planes of existence. Forever."
Wesley stood and put his glasses back on. "There is only one record of the ritual ever being performed. The ritual itself was lost in the third century B.C.E. and all that survives is a general description."
"Or so you thought." Xander looked kind of disgusted.
"At least we know what we're looking for." Tara smiled in my direction. I smiled back, but was a little distracted by the non-verbal exchange Giles and Wesley were having. I don't think anyone else noticed, but there was definitely something going on.
Angel started gathering up the various books and weapons that were spread throughout the room and slipped into field marshal mode. "Willow and Tara, you need to track down Buffy and the others and have them meet us at Giles' as soon as possible. Here, take my car." He tossed them the keys in an easy movement and wrapped himself in a thick tarp.
We were all halfway out the door when Giles finally stopped gaping at Angel's easy command. "If I may, there is something Wesley and I need to attend to this afternoon. If you would all be so kind as to meet us in about two hours?"
Ignoring our gaping, he turned and left, Wesley close on his heels. We shuffled back into the room and I was convinced the two former Watchers were hiding something.
"Odd." Willow finished Tara's sentence. "Do you think they know something?"
"If they do, they'll tell us eventually." Angel set his bag of books and weapons on the floor and sat heavily on one of the chairs. He looked exhausted and I knew he needed the next few hours to rest before a fun filled night of researching. Actually, I was feeling a bit run down myself after that vision. A nap would feel pretty damn good right now.
"So..." An awkward silence started to grow as Willow looked curiously around the room.
"Willow, we need to get back to do that thing before tonight." Tara pulled Willow towards the door.
"What thing?" Tara widened her eyes and pulled at Willow's sleeve again. "Oh! The thing."
I did my best to hold back a smile and caught Xander doing the same thing. Willow had never been very good at the smooth get-away and Tara wasn't that big of a help.
"Xander? Can we catch a ride back to town? We rode here with Giles."
He looked at me and I knew he'd stay if I wanted him to. I was tempted, believe me, but I sent him off with a tiny movement of my head.
The door closed behind them and I dropped onto the bed, taking a moment to enjoy the quiet. I was nearly asleep when Angel flopped down next to me. "Did you see Giles and Wesley?"
"Yeah. They know something." I rolled onto my side and propped my head on my hand. Angel had his eyes closed and his hands resting on his stomach. "I didn't think you were watching them."
"I wasn't, but I could practically smell their panic. This Rite of Cha'lau has them spooked."
"They'll have to take a number." I flopped over onto my back, mimicking his position.
His only answer was a tired little grunt, so I curled up on my side and let sleep claim me.
It was kind of strange how easily we all fell into the familiar rhythms of research.
As if they hadn't loathed each other on sight three years ago, Giles and Wesley had books and papers spread over every inch of the dining room table. They had dragged the phone across the room and had been talking quietly with whoever was on the other end of the line for hours.
Angel and Graham were sitting at the breakfast nook, the fluorescent light glaring strangely off their gelled hair as they steadily turned pages. Willow, Tara, Buffy, and Riley were spread out over the couch and chairs, books and notes propped on their laps. The looks Buffy and Willow kept exchanging when they thought I wasn't looking let me know Anya's departure had already been dissected and analyzed. Xander was sprawled on the floor next to me, seemingly oblivious to it all.
I never thought I'd say this, but I miss the Sunnydale High library.
Sure, it was a library and witness to some of the worst moments of my life, but after three hours of trying to get comfortable on Giles' living room floor, I would have killed for the old table and chairs. I mean, Giles was nice enough to open his home to all of us just because I had a vision of evil, so I guess I shouldn't complain, but with ten of us there, seating was at a premium.
"All right, I need to do something different here." I stood up and stretched, listening to my spine pop and crack.
"Oh, Cordelia, I'm sorry. Do you want the couch for awhile?" Tara was already moving towards the floor.
"Thanks, but I was thinking of something a little more active." I waved her back onto the couch and caught Angel's eye.
"Here?" Angel gestured around the apartment.
"Why not? There's plenty of floor space." Giles had rearranged his furniture since high school.
"Cordelia, now is not the time to subject us to your stirring rendition of 'Our Town.'" Buffy sounded just like Giles.
"Please, Thornton Wilder is so community theater." I dug into my bag and tossed Angel the sparring gloves I found there. I tightened the end of my braid and shrugged out of my sweater.
"You fight now too?" Buffy really didn't need to sound so shocked.
"Not like you do, but I need to know how to protect myself." I skirted around the edge of the couch to join Angel, aware everyone was watching us.
Angel had on his I-hope-you-know-what-you're-doing face and held up his glove-covered hands. "Do you remember what we worked on last?"
I nodded and slowly began going through some of the basic punches and blocks Angel taught me. We went through the same simple patterns over and over again, Angel correcting the flaws in my technique and generally doing his best impression of Mr. Miyagi. After awhile, the others got bored with 'Hand to Hand Combat for Dummies' and went back to reading and researching. I nodded to Angel and we both started moving faster, Angel going on the attack.
He was careful to pull his punches, barely grazing me, but I was free to take my best shots. It was kind of liberating, not having to worry about hurting him at all. He faked a right hook and ducked low to sweep my legs out from under me, but a quick leap foiled his plan.
I hit the ground and landed a solid kick/punch combo that knocked him back a half a step. We both crouched back down, then relaxed from our fighting stances. He grinned at me and pulled off the sparring gloves. "That was a nice move."
I shrugged. "Who says cheerleading is useless?"
He shook his head and started to say something, but was interrupted by the thump and clatter of a book hitting the wall. "Bloody hell!"
Giles tossed his glasses onto the table and pressed his fingers against his eyes. I tried to catch Wesley's attention, but he ignored me and headed up the stairs.
"Giles?" Buffy slid off of Riley's lap and stood in the center of the room. She looked worried and I didn't blame her. Giles was supposed to be the grown-up.
He found his glasses on the table and put them back on. "I'm sorry, I just --"
"What is it? What's wrong?" Riley rested his hands on Buffy's shoulders and she visibly relaxed.
Wesley came down the stairs, a stack of papers in his hand. "It's rather complicated." He handed Giles the papers and began scanning the bookshelves. I took the sparring gloves from Angel and sat on the floor next to my bag, digging for my water bottle.
"As I said earlier, the Rite of Cha'lau was lost several thousand years ago. For nearly as long, the Council has been trying to recover it, but with no success."
Giles looked up from the papers in his hand and took over the lecture. "Julian Barnesworth was the last man in charge of the research effort. He's a brilliant researcher and a talented magician, quite...outspoken with his opinions of the Council's policies.
"Over the course of the last several months, Julian and his entire team resigned from the Council and disappeared, taking their research with them."
"And none of the geniuses in the Council found that the least bit suspicious?" Wow. I haven't heard that tone from Buffy since Faith pulled her Vader routine.
Wesley had his apology face on. "The Council has been rather disorganized since Buffy's defection and Faith's incarceration. And they were glad to be rid of Julian, frankly. He was forever lecturing that Watchers should completely silence every potential threat to the Slayer and her mission."
Willow curled up tighter on the couch. "Isn't that kind of extreme?"
"Well, his particular brand of rhetoric found an audience amid the recent chaos in the Council."
Angel started prowling around the room. "Chaos aside, the Watchers have always been a duty driven group. Why would so many abandon their calling to follow this guy?"
"He is extraordinarily charismatic." Wesley was playing with the binding of a book. "The one time I met him, I found myself agreeing with his message even after he left."
Xander shook his head and closed his book. "So the Council let this Julian guy just walk off with a ritual that rips the soul from someone? What, was Hannibal Lecter too busy to stop by?"
Giles started to answer, but there really wasn't anything he could say. His shoulders slumped a little, like it was somehow his fault this Julian guy was a complete psycho and a heavy silence took over the room. Finding a human face on this kind of badness sucked and knowing a Watcher was planning this sort of thing was pretty depressing. Giles looked older all of a sudden and his disenchantment seemed to touch everyone.
"So shaken as we are, so wan with care,
Find we a time for frighted peace to pant,
And breathe short-winded accents of new broils
To be commenced in stronds afar remote."
I was kind of talking to myself, but Giles heard me and gave me the look he used to reserve for Xander's occasional, surprisingly workable brainstorms.
"You just quoted 'Henry IV Part One'."
"I thought 'Double, double, toil and trouble' would be a bit much." Duh. "So, are we going to stare at our hands all night or what?"
Giles squared his shoulders and gestured to the papers in his hand. "Apparently, one of Julian's followers was a bit sloppy and left behind several pages of notes. After some persuasion, the Council decided to share those pages with us, on the condition we turn Julian and his group back over to them."
"Giles and I need to study them thoroughly, of course, but from what Geoffrey told us, there *are* references to Cha'lau hidden in many of the texts. It's just a matter of knowing what to look for." Wesley's attention was captured by something in the book in front of him and he started making notes on the paper next to him.
Angel and I were used to Wesley's way of doing things, but Willow shifted impatiently and Buffy looked ready to march over and tear his head right off, so I cleared my throat. "Wesley?"
"Hmmm?" He looked up blankly, still making notes.
"We need a bit more information."
"What?" He finally focused on me and I gestured to everyone. "Oh. It's quite fascinating, really. From what the Council has been able to discover, the sound Cordelia described from her vision not only summons Cha'lau, but actually *is* Cha'lau."
"The demon is composed entirely of the sound of pain and death." Wesley said that like it was supposed to clear everything up.
We all looked confused, so Giles handed the papers to Willow and began looking through his bookshelf. "Recent semiotics aside, language is not completely arbitrary. Certain thoughts, certain ideas have a certain sound. They *are* a certain sound. The vocalization of that sound invites the reality of the thought or idea. It's exciting, really, to think about the metaphysical, not to mention quantum, implications of-"
"Hey, Muad'Dib, you can look for the mouse shadow in the second moon later, all right?" Whatever Xander was talking about seemed to break Giles' lecture spell.
"Right. Sorry." He took a stack of books from his shelves and began distributing them to us. "Ancient magicians knew, of course, of the connection between certain sounds and reality, but Cha'lau was so feared, they began to believe even invoking its name could summon the demon. Over time, all mentions of the demon and the ritual have been buried beneath oblique references and imprecise language."
Wesley looked up from the notes he was making. "So, in all probability, Cha'lau and the ritual will be referred to only indirectly."
Ugh. I could see the hours of frustration stretching out in front of me and I shifted on the ground, trying to find a comfortable spot. Buffy sent me an annoyed look from her spot on Riley's lap and I rolled my eyes but stopped squirming. I propped my encyclopedia of horrors in my lap and tried to ignore the dull burning along my spine.
I managed to read for another couple of hours before I got restless again. Book pushed to the side, I stretched my legs out in front of me and reached for my toes, trying to work the kinks out of my back. I rested my chin on my knees, feeling my ribs press against my legs with every breath. It was kind of soothing in a weird way, so I stayed that way for awhile, pushing all thoughts of soul sucking sound demons and Anya to the back of my mind.
I heard Xander moving around behind me and I slowly began to sit up, rolling my head around on my shoulders to loosen my neck. I grabbed my book and pulled it into my lap as I sat up, beginning to read even before I was completely upright. The couch was right behind me, so I scooted back to prop myself against the couch between Willow and Tara.
I nearly jumped out of my skin when my arm brushed against the side of Xander's leg.
He didn't look up from his book, he just moved over to give me some room. Penned in by Willow's knees on one side and Tara's legs on the other, there wasn't a lot of room for either of us, though. Through the layers of clothing separating us, I could feel his warmth drifting over me. It was a strange sensation after two years of the dead guy and the Brit. Not that I don't love Angel and Wesley, but neither one exactly screams smoldering body heat.
This was exciting and comforting at the same time, like watching a lightening storm from the safety of home. I relaxed a little, leaning into his side to see if maybe electricity would dance and crackle over my skin again, and it was like the touch of magic at every point of contact: shoulder, arm, hip, thigh.
And he just sat there like a bump on a frog.
Frog on a log. Or is the bump on the log?
Either way, he just sat there, reading his book and completely unaffected by whatever was zinging around and making me squirrely. Despite all the tingly goodness I was swimming in, his oblivion was starting to tick me off. I mean, I was practically *glowing* with attraction and lust and affection and what maybe felt like love and all he could do was read the same page of DeMarleo's 'Darkness and Light' over and over again.
The same page. Of pictures. For the last 10 minutes.
I am so mentally damaged.
I was thinking about undoing my braid and tossing my hair, but before I could put that plan into action, Graham called Giles over and started showing him pages in about five different books he had spread out on the counter.
Wesley joined Giles and after flipping pages for a couple of minutes, he began pulling more books from the shelves.
Giles patted Graham on the shoulder and began pacing around the room. "It's a bit premature, but it appears as though Graham has discovered the secret to defeating Cha'lau.
"Considering the complexity of the demon, it is remarkably easy to vanquish. Because Cha'lau is sound made flesh, one only needs to interrupt the ritual to suspend its formation. From there, it's a simple matter of binding its energy and banishing it to its native dimension."
I kind of doubted it would be all that easy, but this was just the kind of information we needed. Maybe Buffy's army boys weren't brainless universal soldier-types after all. The good news seemed to break the researching mood and the home team became embroiled in some local demony gossip.
Buffy listened for awhile before jumping up suddenly. "Now that Giles has some idea of how to fight this thing, I feel like some slayage. Riley, Graham, Angel? You think you can keep up?"
Graham looked a little scared and Riley a little excited at Buffy's invitation, but Angel just shook his head and grabbed his coat. He waited patiently by the door while Buffy raided Giles' weapon chest and I took the opportunity to catch his eye and silently mouth, 'Be careful.'
He smiled a little and had time to mouth, 'Always,' before Buffy dragged him off into the night.
In the wake of the warrior caste's exit, Willow and Tara started gathering up their stuff. At Giles' look, Willow shrugged a little, "We have a European history exam tomorrow."
Giles agreed with a nod and started re-shelving some of his books. Xander stood and stretched before offering me his hand, "Do you and Wesley need -"
"Um, Giles?" Tara had her bag on her shoulder and was half raising her hand. "What if Cha'lau already has the soul? What do we do then?"
Giles froze with a handful of books halfway on the shelf. Without looking at any of us, he turned and started making piles on the table again. I let go of Xander's hand and sat back onto the floor. Willow and Tara dropped their bags and started back towards the couch, but Xander stopped them. "You have an exam tomorrow, go study. I can keep the G-man company tonight."
"Are you sure?" Willow looked thrilled at the prospect of more study time as he nodded.
"Do you want a ride back to the motel, Cordelia?" Tara fidgeted with the strap of her bag.
I looked at the pile of books in front of Wesley and Giles and said goodbye to a reasonably early night. "I think I'll stick around and work on my dust allergy."
Willow and Tara waved goodbye as I levered myself up on to the couch and took the stack of books Xander was carrying. He dropped down next to me with a little grunt and slid down until his head was resting on the back of the couch. I tucked my legs under my body and turned a little so my knees were resting against the top of his leg. I handed him a book, then took one for myself and settled in for a long night.
Sometimes, even when I'm in my own bed, I wake up completely panicked. I won't be sure where I am, or if I'm safe. I guess it's just one of the extra perks that goes along with knowing there actually *is* something bad hiding in your closet. With every vision I have and every horror I face, I know, somewhere down the line, I'll wake up screaming.
But not this time.
I woke up slowly, sunlight playing across my eyes and warm breath whispering around my ear. I knew exactly where I was and I felt safe, protected. I shifted a little and the hand Xander had resting on my ribcage tightened slightly, pulling me closer into the curve of his body. I let myself float on the soft cushion of his warmth, mostly asleep, but still aware of my surroundings.
Awhile later, I felt Xander begin to stir behind me. He stretched a little before draping his arm across my waist and hugging me tightly for a few seconds. "What time's it?"
I tugged his wrist towards my face and glanced at his watch before tucking his arm back around my body, "9:15."
Xander grumbled some sort of answer in my ear and snuggled deeper into the cushions, pulling me with him. I started to drift off again, but the rustle of paper under my hip distracted me. I pulled out the offending sheet and read Wesley's brief note.
I tossed the note towards the table by our heads and closed my eyes again. "Giles and Wesley went to UCLA to research something, we've got the day off."
He sort of...hummed his response and I felt the vibration from his chest all the way to my toes. It made me feel all tingly and I shivered a little. Xander wrapped both arms around me and squeezed. Without releasing me, he rolled up and off the couch. He leaned back, stretching out the full length of his body before letting me slide down towards the floor.
Ok, it's not like I'm Large Marge, hulking my way through life, but I'm not exactly Buffy-sized either and lifting me up like that was damn impressive. He stepped away from me and headed towards the kitchen. He rummaged around in a cupboard for a second before I heard the rustle of cellophane. He closed the cupboard door with a flourish and shoved most of a Poptart in his mouth, offering me its twin.
I took it and he smiled before turning towards the refrigerator and pulling out two juice packets. I sat at the counter and took a bite of the Poptart, shuddering as the sugary sweetness assaulted my teeth. I watched him struggle with the plastic-wrapped straw for a few seconds before my desire for juice overrode the entertainment value. I held out my hand, "If you're done questing for fire..."
Xander handed me the foil baggies and crossed his arms over his chest. I opened the straws and punctured the bags without even looking down. I pushed Xander's juice back towards him and drank half of mine in one gulp. I don't know what the big deal was, after dealing with Angel's food supply, opening a thing of juice is a total no-brainer.
Xander shrugged and drank some of his juice. "So, what do you want to do today?"
"Something not demon related." I slapped Xander's hand away from the rest of my Poptart. Between him and Wesley, it's a miracle I get to eat anything at all.
"Fair enough." He drank the rest of his juice and seemed to be lost in thought as I finished my breakfast. "Got it!"
"Got what?" I tossed my juice baggie in the garbage and stood to stretch. I could feel Xander's eyes straying towards all sorts of more than friendly locations and he took a gratifyingly long time answering my question.
"Uh, what we can do today." He refocused on the now and started cleaning up the crumbs on Giles' counter.
I found my bag next to the couch and pulled it over my shoulder as he headed towards the door. "What is it?"
"It's a surprise." I started to argue, but he turned those damn puppy eyes on me. "Trust me?"
Totally not fair and yet, totally effective. I relented and he smiled at me, the corners of his eyes crinkling up and his dimples making a cameo. I'm such a sucker.
I stepped out of Giles' apartment and had to stop for a second in the courtyard. Sometime during the night, it got hot. Really hot. Sauna hot. The steamy air made my air-conditioned skin all clammy and gross and I knew today was going to be brutal. "Ugh."
"What?" Xander opened the passenger door for me and hot, nasty car air passed over my legs.
"I forgot Giles keeps his apartment at approximately eight degrees." I sat down and tried to avoid branding myself with the seatbelt buckle. "Kelvin."
"All the better to tweed you with, my dear."
I couldn't resist returning his goofy smile. He was such a dork sometimes. Adorable, but a dork.
He started up the car and after a few torturous seconds of blistering hot air, the air conditioning kicked on. I leaned my head back against the seat and closed my eyes, the heat and the hours spent on the floor catching up to me. The next thing I was aware of was Xander's soft touch on my face. He pushed a few strands of hair behind my ear and laid his hand against the side of my neck.
"Hey, we're at the motel."
I opened my eyes, squinting a little in the late morning sun and turned towards his voice. His face was inches from mine, resting heavily against the back of my seat. He smiled a little, just with his eyes, and all I wanted to do was lean forward and lose myself in the extravagant swirl of what we've always been together. But I thought maybe it was too soon for anything like that and I was pretty sure the Poptarts and juice had done nothing to fix my morning breath, so I settled for brushing the tip of my nose against his in a gentle Eskimo kiss.
It took him a second to realize what I was doing, but when he did, he laughed and returned the gesture. He moved back a little and shifted until our knees were touching. He grabbed the end of my unraveling braid and tugged on it. "Can you be ready to go in an hour?"
"As long as I don't have to air out my ball gown."
He twirled the end of my braid around his fingers, "I think we can do without the formal wear. It tends to attract Hellmouth-y happenings. Like Buffy dying and the Master rising."
"Or being mistaken for Faith and hunted through the forest by demonic bounty hunters."
He smiled a little. "And we can't forget nearly being attacked by Hellhounds at the Prom."
"No, we can never forget the Prom." It felt nice to joke about our past without the whole cheating and skewering thing being an issue. I'm never really going to forget it, but I guess I kind of understand it. I wasn't exactly the nicest person back then and Willow had been panting after him since before we learned to walk. The two of them hooking up was unavoidable and I got caught in the middle.
He gave my braid one last tug and leaned past me to open the car door. His chest pressed me back into the seat as he fumbled with the door handle and I felt the brush of his lips against my cheek when he moved back. "I'll see you in about an hour."
I pushed myself out of the car and ran up the steps to my room, sluggish in the heat and humidity. I squeezed through the door and closed it quietly behind me, not wanting to disturb Angel. He grunted a little in his sleep and turned over heavily, sprawling across most of the bed. He was really going to have to learn proper bed-sharing technique once he fulfilled that whole prophecy thing.
I grabbed some clean clothes and headed into the bathroom, doing my best to ignore the part of me wanted to wake Angel up. I wanted to see if I was crazy for even considering getting involved in whatever Xander and I were heading towards. I mean, it's not as if I can pick up and move back to Sunnydale. And even if I wanted to, even if I were willing to leave Angel and Wesley, there's the whole Vision Girl, tool of the Powers thing.
This was something we were going to have to discuss.
"Come on, Xander. This is dumb. We're going to fall." As if to illustrate my point, he stumbled over my feet, nearly sending both of us tumbling to the ground. Somehow he managed to hold us both upright and keep his hands pressed gently over my eyes.
I was pretty sure we were at the pier. I could smell the thick, briny scent of the ocean and Sunnydale wasn't all that big, but for as long as I could remember, the pier was completely off limits. It was always dark and scary and kind of dangerous. No one came here except sailors and criminals.
It didn't sound dark and menacing, though. It sounded like -
"Is the circus in town?"
Xander moved his hands away from my eyes and I blinked at the sudden brightness.
What the hell?
Xander rested his hands on my shoulders, his thumbs playing gently over the back of my neck. "The new mayor decided the pier was the perfect place to start her urban renewal program." He slid his hands off my shoulders and started towards the busy strip.
"She turned it into a carnival?"
He turned back towards me, but kept walking, "You coming or does all that ice cream have my name on it?"
I hurried to catch up and hooked my fingers into the back pocket of his khakis to pull him back towards me. He took a couple of big strides and pulled in front again, holding me back with an arm across my stomach. I ducked underneath his arm and took off running down the pier, ignoring the heavy blanket of heat and humidity pressing down on me.
I could almost feel his breath on the back of my neck as I pounded down the pier towards the ice cream stand. I dodged a Boy Scout Troop and almost ran into the stand before I could stop. I looked over my shoulder and saw Xander was stopped dead in the middle of the swarming mass of Boy Scouts. I stuck my tongue out at him before turning back to the ice cream man. "Hi. I'd like a fudgesicle and a grape popsicle, please."
Xander didn't escape the knot of children until I was handing money over to the ice cream man. "I'm pretty sure the UN frowns upon such blatant disregard for international blockade laws." I held out the fudgesicle and he considered it for a second before grabbing it. "Of course, chocolately goodness can make up for a multitude of sins."
He took my free hand and pulled me towards the display booths. We wandered through the tacky merchandise, eating our ice cream and I realized he had never let go of my hand. I figured it was as good a time as any to bring up what had been bothering me. "I'm not moving back to Sunnydale for you."
Xander stopped walking suddenly gave me a look I recognized from Angel and Wesley. It was the 'Cordelia-is-an-alien-lifeform' look. I didn't really see where I needed to give any clarification, but explained anyway. "You're here and I'm there and you broke up with Anya and…and…" His fingers twitched a little where they were twined with mine. I gestured towards our joined hands with the drippy remains of my popsicle. "And then there's this."
He looked from my popsicle, to our hands, then back to my face. "Unless I missed something pretty big, we're just having ice cream, not getting engaged."
Well, when you say it like that, it sounds stupid. "But -"
"Hey, calm down." He shook our arms a little to relax me. "I know you've got a pretty good thing going in LA and I've got my thing here, but if this," he gestured between us with his empty stick, "thing turns out to be something, we'll work something out."
"Those are a lot of things." Since when is Xander the voice of reason?
"Two years is a long time. You're out of practice with your Xanderese." He smiled and tossed his trash into the can next to the boardwalk. "Come on, there are a bunch of games behind the carousel and I sense a giant stuffed stuffed dog in my future."
"I'll believe that one when I see it, Michael Jordan." We headed towards the midway, swinging our clasped hands between us.
"Are you mocking my athletic prowess?"
"Xander, I was in gym class with you for like 12 years." And it was not a pretty sight, let me tell you.
"We'll see who's laughing when I'm in possession of a life size Scooby-Doo."
"Told you." Xander handed over the four Tweety-Birds to the Pop-A-Shot vendor and grinned at the huge Scooby-Doo knock-off in his hands.
"And it only took you an hour and twenty dollars to get it." I had to smile, though. For some reason it made complete sense for Xander to beat the midway odds and walk away with a giant toy.
He shrugged a little. "Riley plays a vicious game of HORSE." He tucked Scooby under his arm and took my hand again, leading me back to the walkway. "Come on. You've got a story to tell me."
The pier was crowded despite the stifling heat. It seemed like everyone in Sunnydale was trying to squeeze everything out of the last weeks of summer. Xander and I walked slowly through the center of it all as I told him about life in LA. I told him about Doyle and the Oracles and Dennis. I told him about Wesley and Faith and my demon pregnancy. I told him about Kate and Lindsey and Gunn. I told him about Wolfram & Hart and the shanshu prophecy and my never-ending vision.
I told him everything.
"Wow." Xander took a drink from my lemonade before handing it back to me. "Angel human?"
"Yeah." It occurred to me Angel might not have wanted some of that to be public knowledge. "Um, Xander -"
"Don't worry. Summer of '98 restrictions are still in place." He got a panicked look on his face. "Those restrictions are still in place, right? You haven't told anyone?"
I shook my head and finished off my lemonade. "That's one secret that will go with me to my grave." Even when I hated him, I was never tempted to tell Buffy or Angel about Xander's little lie. That was our secret, the one thing I held sacred when we sniping at each other senior year. I never really understood why I didn't use it against him. I mean, it was the perfect weapon of mass destruction, but I just...couldn't.
He smiled and bumped my shoulder with his and pointed to a booth surrounded by raucous teenagers. "I bet you dinner you can't dunk me."
I watched for a second as a boy of about 12 took aim at the target and hit it dead center, sending his shocked father into the water. Xander stood up and offered me his hand. "Winner chooses the restaurant."
From his smug grin, he obviously didn't think much of my chances or my arm. Frankly, neither did I. Beyond cheerleading, sports have never really been my thing, so I wasn't too optimistic about getting a free dinner, but I was willing to try. I took his hand and he pulled me down the pier towards the dunking booth.
Xander handed the kid behind the counter some money and bent down to take off his shoes. I looked down at the rather small target and had a sinking feeling I was going to be buying dinner.
He pulled his wallet and keys out of his pocket and set them on his shoes. He took a couple of steps towards the booth, then stopped and pulled his shirt over his head. He turned back towards me and tossed it onto pile with the rest of his stuff before climbing up the little ladder and settling himself on the undoubtedly gross bench. I knew I should just take my turn and get the humiliation over with, but he was a half-naked distraction. A nice little montage of Xander, my apartment, and all the things we never got to do in high school was interrupted by vendor boy handing me the softballs.
"Good luck, ma'am."
Ma'am? When did I become a 'ma'am'? I picked up the first ball and tossed it towards the target. Sort of.
"You might want to try keeping your eyes open this time, Cordy."
"Funny." I tried again, hitting the backstop about four feet from the target.
"See? Closer already." Xander lounged on the grungy bench, the top of the booth hiding most of his body.
"You know, you're enjoying this way too much." I rolled the last softball from hand to hand, enjoying what I could of the obstructed view. "I could still dunk you."
"Please. You throw like a total girl."
"In case you haven't noticed -"
"Cordelia, what are you doing here?" Aura pulled me around and air-kissed my cheeks.
"You look great! Doesn't she look great?" The five women around us nodded enthusiastically.
"Whitney, Clarissa, how are you?" I didn't recognize the other three, but smiled at them anyway.
Aura cut them off before they could do much more than open their mouths. "Never mind them. You are going to have dinner with us tonight. We have so much catching up to do."
"Thanks for the invite, but I've already got plans." I gestured back towards Xander in the dunk tank. There was no way in this lifetime or any other I'd have dinner with this group.
Aura frowned and didn't bother to return his wave. "Xander Harris? Didn't you learn your lesson in high school? If it's possible I think he's even a bigger dork now than he was then. I heard he does *manual labor*."
I shook my head a little and tossed the ball towards the target without turning around. I smiled when I heard the thunk and splash of Xander hitting the water, "I want you to take a good look at that man before you call him a dork again."
Xander had already surfaced and was wiping water out of his eyes when I turned around. He put his hands on the edge of the tank and boosted himself up and out of the water, completely ignoring the ladder on the side. The muscles of his arms and shoulders flexed as he twisted around to sit on the edge and pull his legs up. He twisted again and hopped off the tank to the ground. He ran his hands through his hair to wring out some of the excess moisture and thin rivers of water tracked down his chest and abs to the low-hanging waistband of his pants. Someone behind me let out a little whimper and I knew exactly what she meant.
Suddenly, he was the guy you turn around to get a better look at on the street, the guy you whisper about at a party, the guy everyone wants, but no one has. For a moment, standing tall in the late afternoon sunlight, half naked and dripping wet, he was a god.
Then he did a funny little hop as he tried to pull up his pants and he was more. He was Xander again. He sloshed towards me, smiling a little, "Nice throw." He glanced at the pack of girls behind me and I knew he was dying to know what was going on. "Aura. Minions."
Without even looking behind me, I put my hands on the railing and leaned towards him. "I have my moments."
"Yes, you do." He put his hands on either side of mine and bent his head down to mine. I felt his breath whisper across my lips and watched as his eyes drifted shut. He started to sway towards me, but stopped and opened his eyes. I saw lust and confusion, mixed with a happy affection, but that was nothing new. He looked like that the whole time we were dating. There was something else there now. Something I didn't recognize, but something that made me push up onto my toes and softly press my mouth against his. Beneath the acrid chlorine scent of the dunk tank, I could smell whatever it was that made Xander Xander, and I brought my hand up to his cheek before pulling away.
We stood like that for a second before he grinned and bent over the railing to grab his belongings. He pushed his feet into his shoes and threw his shirt over his shoulder. "I suddenly find myself in desperate need of a shower before dinner. Are you ready to go?"
I nodded and slipped my hand into his.
After the heat of the pier, it was a relief to step into the air-conditioned coolness of my motel room. I closed the door and briefly rested the side of my face against the cool wood grain. Xander was going to pick me up in a couple of hours for dinner, so I didn't have a lot of time to relax, but I was looking forward to a long shower.
After a couple of minutes, I turned around to see Angel slouching in one of the desk chairs, reading a moldy book. "Did you have a nice time?"
"Very." I pressed my back against the wall and rolled my head a little, trying to ease some of the stiffness in my shoulders. "Any word from Wesley and Giles?"
He dragged his eyes away from the text and blinked a couple of times. "They'll be back in about forty five minutes. They want everyone to meet them at Giles'."
Well, crap. Xander would have to owe me dinner. "Did they send up the Batsignal?"
"Wes told me he talked to Buffy and Willow and left messages for everyone else." He finally noticed the giant Scooby-Doo I was holding. "Where did you get that?"
I smiled a little at the absurdity of it. "Xander won it at the pier and gave it to me."
Angel leaned back in his chair and I knew that look on his face. It was the Big Brother from Hell look. The one that has sent dates running for the hills. "So-"
"I think I'm going to jump in the shower. I'm all sweaty and gross." I grabbed my cosmetics bag, not really caring that I totally interrupted him. I slipped into the bathroom and closed the door as he started to laugh. Jerk.
I turned on the shower and let steam fill the room as I brushed my teeth and untangled my hair. I dropped my clothes in a pile on the floor and stepped under the hot spray. I quickly dispensed with the actual technicalities of showering and tried not to think about anything in particular as I let the water pound down on my back and shoulders. I pushed aside thoughts of Xander and Angel. Of the agency and Wolfram & Hart. Of Buffy and the shanshu prophecy. I turned my face up to the water and let it clear my mind of everything.
Except the vision that came bursting into my brain.
I hit the bottom of the tub hard, narrowly missing clocking my head on the faucet.
//Nighttime in the forest.//
//Fog rising and thickening.//
//The moon hanging full and low in the sky.//
//Watchers calling forth the demon.//
//Cha'lau floating in the air, leaving Xander unconscious on the ground.//
Oh, god. Xander.
The water turned off suddenly and strong arms wrapped me in a towel, helping me to my feet. I tried to stand on my own, but my legs wouldn't support me. Angel bent down and carefully scooped me up, carrying me into the other room and laying me on the bed. He pulled half of the bedspread over me and grabbed something off of the table.
He chanted for a few seconds and my headache disappeared on a tendril of lavender scented smoke. I was on my feet before he could finish brushing his hands clean. "Cordelia, what -"
He broke off and spun to face the wall as I dropped my towel and started pulling on clothes. Once that I knew what the renegade Watchers were planning, I had no time for modesty. "They have Xander."
"Who has Xander?"
"The crazy Watchers. Duh! God, don't you listen?" I pulled a shirt over my head and sat on the bed to pull on my jeans. "You can turn around now."
"What did you see?" He started gathering up weapons and putting them in his bag.
"Forest, fog, moon, crazy Watchers, soul-sucking demon, Xander on the ground." I dug through my bag until I found a hair tie and pulled my hair back into a ponytail.
"How do you know they have him already? We have to warn -"
I shook my head and bent down to tie my shoes. "He was wearing the same clothes he had on this afternoon. He was on his way home to shower and change. They must have grabbed him before he could get there." I tossed Angel his tarp and grabbed the car keys from the table.
I'm not all that pious.
I don't go to church. I can't defend my actions by quoting chapter and verse. I don't confess my sins or beg for forgiveness. After all that I've seen, all that I know, I'm not even sure I believe in church-god, but that didn't stop me from sending up a prayer to every deity I could think of as I sped through Sunnydale. Luckily for me and my insurance, the ever-vigilant SPD was making its usual non-presence known.
Giles' apartment was only about ten minutes from the motel, but I swear it took us ten hours to get there. From the cars on the street, it looked like we were the last ones to arrive. I ran up the walk to his apartment and pushed open the door without bothering to knock, pulling Angel in behind me.
"Cordelia, Angel. I was just telling everyone about the marvelous spell we found to bind Cha'lau." Wesley started flipping through the book on his knees.
"Good. We're going to need it."
"Cordelia, what's wrong?" Willow looked at Giles' front door. "Where's Xander? I thought he was with you."
I tried to say something, but could only shake my head. Willow's eyes widened and she groped for Tara's hand. For a moment, I thought she was going to cry, but she pulled herself together and turned towards Giles. "So what's the plan?"
"Can't you go any faster?" The backseat was packed tight with Graham, Willow, and Tara, so I was wedged between Angel and Wesley in the front.
"I'm already going seventy, Cordelia." He sounded annoyed, but I knew he was worried. I think he's starting to like Xander.
"According to the information we have, the spell needs to be cast an hour after sunset. Which gives us fifteen minutes to find the renegades, subdue them, and bind the demon." Wesley turned back to find Giles' headlights behind us in the fog. "The Council's retrieval team will meet us in about 25 minutes."
I braced my hand against the dashboard as Angel sped up. "You're sure we're heading towards the right place?"
"Positive." Wesley had spent hours crouched over topographical maps of Sunnydale with Riley and Graham, trying to figure out where the anti-Watchers were going to cast their spell. I honestly don't know how they did it. The details from my vision were sketchy at best, but they seemed confident.
Angel slowed down as we drove past the clearing near the entrance to the park. Barely visible through the mist, there were four black, PT Cruisers parked there. Wesley just shook his head as we passed them. "Julian and his followers never quite learned the delicate art of subtlety."
We parked a couple of hundred yards past the clearing and waited for Giles to pull in behind us. "Do you remember the plan, Cordelia?"
"I think I can remember to pretend Angel is chasing me through the woods. I'm not an idiot, Wesley." Fear was making me bitchy, but Wesley seemed unfazed. He seemed to be handling this the best out of all of us.
"You need only distract them for a moment. That's all we need to bind Cha'lau."
Giles, Buffy, and Riley finally managed to extract themselves from the piece of crap Giles calls a car. Like Graham, Buffy and Riley were wearing camouflage and face paint and carrying what looked like rayguns. They looked pretty hardcore and Buffy was in full on Command Slayer mode.
"Giles, you need to be perfectly clear when it will be okay for us to move in. I don't want to risk Xander just because we were unclear on our signals."
"Don't worry. It will be obvious if our spell works."
Angel held up his hand for silence then and we all stopped to listen. In the distance, I could hear a faint noise. It wasn't exactly chanting, but it was voices, just like in the visions. I focused my eyes in the direction of the noise and thought I could see a faint dark glow beginning to build through the fog.
Riley made a hand gesture, then he, Buffy, and Graham melted into the woods to surround the renegades. The rest of us crept through the woods until we were about forty yards away from the ritual. The trees and fog blocked our view, but this close the eerie sounds of their ritual seemed deafening. The pitch of their voices rose and the inky glow grew brighter. I didn't know a lot about magic, but I knew we were running out of time.
Giles cast the protective circle on the ground as Willow and Tara prepared the supplies. Angel examined the taser Riley had given him, testing its weight in his hand. It was supposed to have enough current to stun twenty demons, so a dozen British nutcases would be a piece of cake.
"Is everyone ready?"
Wesley sat between Giles and Willow and opened the spell book to the appropriate page. His hands were shaking a little, but his voice was steady as he started the incantation. Angel slid into his game face and mock leered at me. Have I mentioned how much that creeps me out? It's like I can almost see Angelus straining at his leash.
The not-chanting in the clearing increased in pitch and I squared my shoulders, letting loose a scream my drama coach would have been proud of. I took off running, whimpering and crashing through the underbrush like a total loser. I jumped into the clearing just ahead of Angel and crashed into the nearest henchman just as Cha'lau moved away from Xander. Stringy bits of the demon fluttered over his body and looked like they were corralling something sparkly into its body.
Not a good sign.
The other twelve didn't even bother to look at us, but a big scary vampire grabbing a girl was enough to throw off the guy I crashed into. He stopped chanting for a moment and it was enough for Wesley and Giles. I felt the binding spell rush past me to surround Cha'lau. The spell taking hold silenced the demon and knocked all of the bad guys back a step, but in unison they all pulled out their daggers and started towards the center of the circle.
Again, I felt the buzz and crackle of magic as it passed me and an iridescent sphere sprang up around the demon spirit, protecting it from harm. The men turned towards me and Angel, but from the woods, multiple taser blasts took out three of them. Our reinforcements sprang from the underbrush and the brawl began.
I ignored all of it and ducked beneath the hovering ball of magic to check on Xander. He was so still, I thought Cha'lau might have killed him, but when I leaned closer, I felt the warmth of his breath against the side of my face. It was a relief even though I knew his soul was still trapped above us. I slipped my jacket off and bunched it under his head, then sat back on my heels to wait for the battle to end.
The renegade Watchers put up quite a fight, but were really no match for two soldiers, the Slayer, and a vampire. By the time Wesley and the others stumbled through the bushes, everything was under control. Well, except for the big dark mass of evil holding Xander's soul captive.
Tara murmured something and the protective bubble around Cha'lau disappeared. For a second they all just stared at the chunk of black magic vibrating at eye level.
"What now?" Tara craned her head to get a better look.
One of the renegades started laughing and it was completely insane sounding. He tried to break free, but Buffy had a good grip on him. He gave up struggling and started taunting. "Rupert Giles and Wesley Wyndam-Price. The Council's version Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum. You mean to tell me the Chosen Watchers don't know how to return a soul to its body? What a shame."
"Julian, why are you doing this?" Giles and Wesley turned to confront Julian. Willow and Tara followed, but I stayed where I was, not wanting to leave Xander alone.
"You of all people should know, Rupert." Julian glanced at me and Xander and I realized he had crazy eyes. There was absolutely nothing good going on in his head. "This boy dared to use the sacred domain of the Watcher for personal gain. Such an offense will not be allowed."
Buffy shook him a little. "How do we put his soul back?"
"I don't know. I wasn't really interested in that when I was researching the ritual." Julian shrugged and Angel started towards him, but Julian held his ground, meeting Giles' eyes.
"Bloody hell. He doesn't know."
Willow made a distressed noise and grabbed Tara's hand. "There has to be something we can do."
"Short of tracking down an Orb of Thesula and performing the ritual Jenny translated, I haven't any idea where to begin." Giles was going for sarcastic, but the simple genius of his statement left everyone speechless.
For about a second.
Almost before I completely wrapped my mind around Giles' suggestion, the others were loudly debating the implications and logistics of it. I didn't have anything to add to the discussion, so I stayed where I was, holding Xander's hand and listening to his breathing become more and more labored. Giles' idea was a good one, but I wasn't sure Xander would last that long. I don't think his body liked being without its soul very much.
I felt my eyes burn and my vision blurred with tears. I should have recognized Xander in my vision. I should have realized *he* was what was so familiar about the visions. Unheeded, a tear splashed down onto our joined hands, carving a narrow trail through the dust on his.
From above me, a low creaking began to sound from Cha'lau and the binding spell. It wasn't loud enough for the others to hear and they were too busy trying to work out details to pay any attention. The creaking got a little louder and I looked up. Beneath the thin layer of the binding spell, I could see the surface of Cha'lau beginning to crumble, as if it were breaking apart, self-destructing.
I tried to catch Angel's eye, but he had his hands full trying to keep a couple of the renegade Watchers who were still conscious under control. I looked up again and saw Cha'lau degrade even further, the binding spell vibrating from the sound and energy flying around in there. If Cha'lau destroyed itself, Xander would be lost. It's stupid and melodramatic, but just thinking about it hurt. The same way thinking about Doyle hurt, the pain crawling through my stomach and living in my chest. Out of nowhere, something scribbled in the margin of a tenth century text came back to me.
'Even the roaring of the abyss can be bridged by an open hand.'
There was no way I was right.
I had to be right.
If I were wrong, we were both in big trouble.
I let go of Xander's hand and took a breath, sending up a brief prayer to whatever Powers were listening. I moved onto my knees and raised my hands. The binding spell separated at my touch, allowing some of the captured noise to escape, and I carefully worked my hands into Cha'lau.
Touching Cha'lau was horrifying and not just because it was cold and squishy and moist like Jello. I could *feel* the death, the nothingness of it pulling at my soul. Cha'lau didn't seem to like my interference and I felt tiny zaps of energy against my skin as it broke down even further, the sounds of its death nearly deafening me.
The deeper I went, the more I could feel Cha'lau trying to capture my soul, as if it were unsatisfied with having just Xander. I wanted to scream at Cha'lau, to let know it was lucky to have Xander and I knew I was starting to lose it. I refocused and pushed my arms deeper, ignoring both the tugging at my own soul and the complete creepiness of having my hands inside a demon.
Small pieces of Cha'lau began to peel off and I knew my time was up, so I pushed my arms in past my elbows, desperately searching for some sign of Xander's soul. There was nothing but the cold void of the demon and for a brief moment I thought about how easy it would be to stay where I was, to give up and let my soul collapse with the demon. Then I thought about the complete destruction of all I ever was or could be and sent my hands scrambling through demon innards again. I felt something warm and shivery brush against the tips of my fingers and I instinctively cupped my hands.
Warmth pooled in my palms and curled around my arms in long tendrils, clinging tightly against the pull of the demon. Cha'lau threw itself against the binding spell and released another hail of energy, determined to hasten its own disintegration. The binding spell cracked under the impact, unable to contain Cha'lau any longer, and streams of black light and unearthly echoes shot through the eerie fog.
Through the hiss and roar of Cha'lau, I heard the crystal tinkle of the binding spell shattering and suddenly Cha'lau was everywhere, separating me from the world and surrounding me with the void. It was everywhere and I was nowhere, the sound of Cha'lau tearing through me and absorbing everything but the pain.
Just like in my vision.
Just as quickly as it came, Cha'lau disappeared, the ragged strips of the demon floating gently in the air for a moment before falling to dust. I was left kneeling in the thickening fog, holding Xander's soul above my head.
With Cha'lau gone, the warmth swirling in my hands claimed my attention. On the edge of my consciousness, I was aware of quiet noise, almost like the wind moving through the forest, but the night was still. I closed my eyes and all of Xander was right in front of me - the love he had for his friends and family; the determination to protect the people he loved, no matter what the cost; the humor that was his best weapon and often times his only defense; the courage he tried to pass off as dumb luck and a dumber intellect; the spirit that was darker than I would have guessed but still kind and giving.
Slowly, I lowered my arms until my hands were in front of me, then opened my eyes. I guess I've never given much thought to what a soul would look like, but seeing Xander's reminded me of pictures I had seen of the Milky Way. A bright, white-gold glow came from the center, lighting up the strangely solid aura surrounding it. The tendrils that had been wrapped around my arms began moving back into the aura, leaving trails of goosebumps in their wake. Instead of immediately withdrawing, one of the last strands paused and stretched up to caress my face.
It moved over my skin for a long moment, somehow managing to catch the tear that spilled onto my cheek, then receded into the aura. I brought my hands down to Xander's chest and his soul eased out of my grasp, settling back into its home with a nearly inaudible sigh.
The gentle breeze sound disappeared with Xander's soul and the regular sounds of the forest at night returned - crickets, an owl, a scuffle.
"No! I am protecting the sacred duties of the Watchers. That boy and his game will lead to the ruination of the world." Julian struggled against Buffy's hold. "He must be stopped!"
I rearranged the makeshift pillow under Xander's head, listening to his easy breathing, and stood up. I stretched the tight muscles in my back and turned, slowly heading towards Julian. I never really stopped walking towards him as he ranted, I just used my momentum to add some force as I punched him in the throat.
I didn't hit him hard enough to do any permanent damage, but it was enough to shut him up. I could feel everyone watching me with wide eyes and open mouths.
"Cordelia, perhaps you shouldn't - " Wesley tried to step towards me, but Tara caught his arm.
Julian gasped for air and glared at me. I ignored Buffy's scandalized outburst and grabbed his hair, pulling his head down so I could look in his eyes. "Listen to me. The rest of these people have a whole bunch of moral and philosophical reasons not to kill you where you stand.
He grunted at me and tried to pull away, looking at the others. I shook his head roughly. "They couldn't stop me, so don't even look at them."
"Shut up, Giles." I didn't even bother to look at him, keeping my attention focused on Julian. "I have seen *every* horror the world has to offer. I have felt more pain than you can even imagine. I was raised to believe killing is wrong, but if anything happens to him, I don't care where the Watchers have you stashed, I will hunt you down and you will beg for death."
I wanted to hit him again, but I heard Xander groan behind me. I let go of Julian's hair and pushed him back towards Buffy. Xander had managed to roll onto his side and was trying to push himself upright. I knelt back down on the ground and pulled him up until he was half sitting, half leaning against me.
"I like my soul. I would like for them to not try that again." He glared at Julian and his gang as Riley and Graham finished restraining them. Once the crazies were secured, everyone rushed over to Xander. Buffy and Willow immediately dropped to the ground and surrounded both of us in a big group hug.
"OK, what just happened here?" Buffy sat back and let Tara get in on the hugging. "One minute we were tying up fanatics and making plans and the next Cordelia is up to her elbows in screaming demon and threatening people."
I was spared having to explain what I didn't really understand by a rustling in the woods around us. Buffy, Willow, and Tara jumped up and everyone formed a circle around Xander and me. After a second, about 25 black clad figures emerged from the forest. One of them glanced around, then motioned towards Julian and his lackeys who were hustled off into the forest. Xander and I stood up slowly and the rest of our group fanned out to meet the remaining retrieval team.
"Rupert, Wesley." He looked at the rest of us for a second before turning back to Giles and Wesley. "Looks as if you managed to stop Julian before he could invoke Cha'lau."
"Actually, Arthur, we didn't." Giles fiddled with his glasses.
Arthur shrugged. "You stopped it before it could destroy anyone's soul, then."
Wesley shifted a bit uncomfortably. "We were a bit late in arriving. If it hadn't been for Cordelia, Xander would probably - well, there wouldn't be a Xander."
Arthur took out a tape recorder and clicked it on. "Explain."
Willow rolled her eyes at his tone and sat down on the ground, pulling Tara with her. After a moment, we all followed suit, even Arthur. Wesley cleared his throat and began, "It started with Cordelia's vision at Giles' birthday party…"
After a short detour to explain the whole Seer thing, everyone took turns explaining how we got to the forest. After Tara finished explaining which protection spell she used and Buffy gave a blow by blow description of the fight, everyone turned to me.
"I could see Cha'lau disintegrating underneath the binding spell and I knew it would take too long to track down an Orb. Then I remembered something written in the margins of Lucentia's 'Maleficience' and reached in to find Xander. Once I did, Cha'lau seemed to destroy itself, and I put Xander's soul back."
Arthur seemed thrown by this. "Put his soul back? What, you held it in your hands?"
"Well, yeah." I'll admit it was one of the stranger things that has ever happened, but he didn't have to look at me like that.
Tara touched my arm softly, "It was pretty amazing, Cordelia."
"Do you remember any of this?" Arthur gestured towards Xander.
Xander picked his head up off my shoulder and shrugged. "Not really. I remember pain, then it was gone and I woke up." His eyes met mine for a second and I knew he was lying.
"And that's everything?" Arthur reached towards the tape recorder and turned it off. He stood, nodded at all of us and walked into the forest.
Xander put his head on my shoulder and made a tired little grunty noise. Willow reached over and rested her hand on his back, "You should go home and get some sleep."
Everyone stood up and Riley and Graham each slid under one of Xander's arms to support him when I stumbled under his weight. The walk back to the cars was slow, but I didn't mind. It was kind of nice to listen to Willow and Wesley discuss the ins and outs of spellcasting in Latin.
After a bit of maneuvering, we managed to get everyone packed into the cars and I leaned my head next to Xander's on the back of the seat, suddenly exhausted. The next thing I knew, we were stopped in front of Giles' apartment. I shook Xander awake and pulled him across seat. This time Buffy was there when he swayed on his feet. I hung back as everyone headed inside, trying force myself awake.
Angel and Wesley stopped next to me and we watched Xander shuffle towards the apartment. "Do you want to stick around here for a couple of days?"
I had been thinking about the same thing. "I'd like to, but we've already been here a couple of days longer than we planned. I know the agency doesn't exactly run itself, but unless I have a vis - a vi - "
Angel caught me before my legs buckled and supported me until the vision passed. "Delia?"
I blinked a couple of times to clear my head. "A pack of vampires. Bachelorette party. Tomorrow night. Behind that male strip club on Oak Street."
"Do we have to leave tonight or will we have time enough if we leave tomorrow?"
"I'm not sure. I didn't get any sense of the time."
Wesley looked at his watch. "We better get moving. It's after ten."
I sighed. I couldn't help it, "Did you leave anything in Giles' apartment?"
They both shook their heads and I opened the car door and slid inside. "We need to get back to the motel and pack."
Wesley looked towards the light shining from Giles' windows, "But -"
Angel leaned over the frame of the car door. "Do you want to stay? Wes and I can handle a few vampires."
It was tempting to say yes, to let them take care of it, but - "No, we're in this together. Let's go home."
"Cordelia? Are you alright?"
It was all I could do not to heave my laptop at Wesley's head. In the week since we returned from Sunnydale, he's asked me that question sixty-four times.
I've been counting.
At least Angel understands why I left the way I did. Unlike some people who shall remain British, he hasn't been hovering over me and looking concerned at every sigh. Yes, I held the physical manifestation of Xander's soul in my hands and saw, just for a moment, everything he is, everything he keeps hidden, but that doesn't mean I'm going to fall apart just because he hasn't called me.
Or sent a carrier pigeon.
OK, perhaps leaving without saying goodbye wasn't my smartest decision. It seemed right at the time, though. We needed to get back to LA and he needed time to recover from having his soul sucked out of his body. A long, drawn out goodbye wouldn't have been good for anyone.
Besides, I called Giles from the motel and explained about the vision.
A sharp poking in the palm of my hand distracted me from my internal rant and I realized the envelope I had just pulled from the supply cabinet was now a lost, crumpled cause. I tossed it towards the recycling bin in the corner, but wasn't surprised when it bounced off the wall and into the middle of the floor.
"Cordelia, I asked -"
I held up my hand and stuck my head back in the cabinet to find another envelope. "Wesley, if you finish that question I swear by all that's good and holy that I'll take that axe you're cleaning and play Lizzie Borden on your limey butt."
I jumped at the sound of Angel's voice directly behind me and hit my head on the shelf. Damn his lurky ways. He should have to wear bells or something. "Angel, make Wesley leave me alone."
"I've got something that should keep him occupied."
I jerked and hit my head again at the sound of Xander's voice. I pulled my head out of the cabinet just in time to see him hold up a book. "What are you doing here?"
Angel sighed and began cleaning the sword Wesley hadn't gotten to yet. Luckily, Xander didn't seem to be all that offended. He just smiled
"Hello, Cordelia, how are you? 'Xander, what a pleasant surprise! I'm doing fine and you?' I'm holding up, thank you for asking. 'Not that I mind the visit, but what brings you to LA?' Well, I was in town to sign some contracts with David and I thought I'd drop off this book." He gestured towards the book in his arms and for the first time I noticed the cast peeking out from under his sleeve. I looked more closely at him and saw some faint bruises on his face.
"Are those from Julian?"
"The bruises, yes. I got the cast from a Szrat demon the other night." Xander scratched his chin with the cast.
Wesley shook his head. "A Szrat demon? Xander, you just barely survived an encounter with Cha'lau and -"
He held up his cast to stop the impending scolding. "I've already heard the whole lecture series from Buffy, Willow and Giles, but it was unavoidable."
"Xander…" My voiced trailed off when I realized it would be useless to yell at him for rushing into danger. It would be like lecturing Angel for brooding. Or Wesley for thinking.
"Anyway, Giles got a new shipment of stuff the other day and I thought that one looked more LA than Hellmouth." He tossed the book to Wesley who immediately began leafing through it. Xander shook his head and smiled a little. "Well, I hate to enable and run, but Graham is waiting for me."
"What? You're leaving?" Wesley and Angel must have heard something in my voice because they gathered up all the weapons and began putting them back in the storage locker.
"I have to be back in Sunnydale tonight, but we still have a shopping date, right?" He winked at me and it was okay.
"Walk me out to the car?" He held out his good hand and pulled me towards the outside door and out onto the sidewalk. "It's down this way."
We walked in silence for a couple of seconds before I remembered something that had been bothering me. "Why'd you lie to that Watcher guy?"
"I didn't exactly lie. What I remember besides pain and the lack thereof is nothing he needs to know. Besides, you didn't tell him everything either, did you?" He stopped walking and turned so he could look at me.
I thought about the swirling warmth I had held in my hands and the knowledge that every bit of Xander was pooled there. "No, I didn't."
He dropped his arm around my shoulder and started walking down the street again. "Besides, 'lying' is such a harsh word. I prefer to think of it as selective truth."
I laughed and let my arm settle around his waist, leaning into his strength. It was nice, but over too soon. He stopped next to what I assumed was Graham's car and pulled me into a long hug. He pulled back and just looked at me for a few seconds. I don't know what he was searching for, but he must have found it because he kissed me then and for a second it was like being back in the clearing.
Nothing existed except the two of us.
Eventually he pulled away, leaving his hand on my cheek for a moment. "I'll call you when I get home."
He slid into the car and waved once through the open window, and then he was gone.
But we'd work something out.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: The Series are the property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy Productions, Fox Productions, and probably many, many more entities. I'm just playing in their sandbox.
Created and maintained by carleton97.