Riddle Me This


AUTHOR: HELEN
SUMMARY: This is in response to Kits ‘Charade’ challenge posted in the challenge thread (Page 4). None spoilery background is that Cordy left Sunnydale after ‘Lovers Walk’ and Buffy died fighting the Mayor. Set in the early days of Ats the fic is entirely AU. As for the CURSE, Willow passed out before she got to that particular proviso.
RATING: R/NC17
POSTED: 22 Oct 2004
CATEGORY: CHALLENGE FIC / AU
CONTENT/PAIRING: C/A
WARNINGS: Violene, Scary Stuff, Graphic Smut
FICPIC CREDIT: Zanita (Link Not Working)
AUTHOR NOTES:
1) The basis of the challenge follows Sandra Browns novel, Charade. I’ve not read it myself and won’t be in case it knocks me off stride.
2) Dedication: To Kit for the challenge and letting me start in Ats not BTVS, Also my BETA, Califi for being the pal she is and putting up with me! And also Lysa and Val, for helping my tired grey matter come up with a name.
3) In order to add a level of familiarity I have taken some snippets of dialogue from the show. Also, Kate’s Dad didn’t die so she’s not in hate Angel mode.


PROLOGUE

Water dripped; ploink, ploink, ploink and echoed around the dark, dank stillness. Here was the kind of place where, if you stayed still too long, the hairs on the back of your neck would rise as a soul chilling and nameless terror surged up to swamp you. Down here imagination was superfluous.

“Look, I don’t know who you are, but this has got to be some kind of mistake. If you’ll just explain…tell me what this is all about then we can work it out…please! You can tell me that can’t you?” Ritchie knew he was gibbering, but was well past caring.

Strapped to a table that bore a horrifying resemblance to a hospital operating table, he jerked his bald head from side-to-side desperately trying to penetrate the gloom and locate his kidnappers. Finding nothing but dark shadowy shapes a hoarse sob worked up from his convulsing throat.

He had no idea where he was being held except that it was possibly somewhere underground and windowless with nothing to illuminate his rank smelling prison. Audible under the pounding drum of his heart, the skittering of tiny claws came from all around, adding yet another layer to the hellish ambience. His skin crawled.

Gaining control of the hysterical sobbing and sucking in a breath of fetid air, he tried to inject some fraught reason into his voice, “This is a mistake, that’s all. Just a dumb mistake and if you’ll just talk to me…” The only hope he had left was that if he said it enough, somebody might actually listen to him.

Sweat beaded and prickled all over his shirtless torso, drying over goose-bumped skin until chilled shudders wracked him, causing the leather straps to bite deeper into abused wrists. Legs cramping, he twisted uselessly and groaned when streaks of agony shot up from the ankles they’d already sadistically broken.

All he kept thinking was this couldn’t be happening to him. “Somebody help me, please, please, somebody help me.” Oh God, Oh God, Oh God, Please let this be a dream. I want to wake up now.

“If you’re Richard Stokes, 38 years old, and of Sunnydale, California then there is no mistake.”

That much was true, and unable to deny it Ritchie’s full bladder threatened to erupt, “But…but I’m a nobody. I don’t even own a credit card or owe money to anyone. What have I done to you? Why are you doing this to me?” His voice got higher in pitch, verging on strident as panic escalated hearing that dry booming voice.

“Who you are means nothing to us, just what you are preserving in that frail body.” The voice replied. He couldn’t identify the accent, knowing only that each sibilant sound tap-danced along his spine, leaving an icy trial.

Next, the scrape and shuffle of footsteps hinted at something heavy being dragged along the concrete floor, stopping beside the stolen surgical table. “What are you going to do with me?” he whispered as terror spiked, sensing rather seeing somebody close by.

A match hissed and flared into life and Ritchie recoiled from the flame’s first bright eruption. Blinking to banish the floating spots obscuring his vision, he could only to stare with mounting horror at the face revealed by the flickering match. Simultaneously gagging on the stench as a thick, foul smelling candle was lit.

It wasn’t the long curved knife, gleaming in a gnarled hand that caused his heart to stutter and nearly stop, but the grotesque and ravaged features of the creature holding it. Oh God, warm fluid drained unnoticed to soak his pants and seep up his naked back.

“I’m going to remove the heart they gave to you. You may scream if you wish. Nobody can hear you way down here.”

~

CHAPTER ONE

“My daughter has her prom next week and Lordy can that girl kick up a fuss…”

Hearing that as she was walked past reception, arms piled high with fresh warm towels, Cordelia was unwillingly transported back almost two years, back to Sunnydale High and life as the reigning Queen of all that was hot and popular. Going numb her legs stopped moving.

Mental shutters flipping up allowed old memories to filter back; getting chased by boys because she was beautiful, vampires because she was food, then the big school dances with weeks spent canvassing for votes to be crowned, a social highlight blighted twice, once with having to fight for her life from an invisible girl and then again getting mistaken for a slayer and hunted like an animal.

Just the usual for the town built over a hellmouth. Oblivious to the growing number of surreptitious glances coming her way as she simply stood there, Cordelia was sucked back into reliving how she’d come to leave it.

White walls, white floor, white blinds. White, white and more white. What did it matter when all she could see was the filthy factory caked in grime and spilled blood from its vampire inhabitation? No, that wasn’t quite true. It was the bed she saw being burned in her minds eye… along with the straining pair, lips locked together as if life depended on how deep they could get inside one another.

“Miss Chase, Hi, my name is Dr Steven’s. How are you feeling today, are we treating you well?”

Blinking back into the present, Cordy watched with dulled eyes as the doctor lowered himself into the plastic visitors chair on her left. “Sure, I guess.”

Before she could ask the question burning the forefront of her mind a rotund Hispanic woman entered, too, seemingly out of place in her normal street clothes and lack of a white coat.

Dragging over a second plastic chair she smiled warmly, “Hello, Cordelia, do you remember me, I’m Angela. I visited you the day before last.”

A struggle produced a dim memory of soft hands and a soothingly melodic female voice. Cordy guessed she was some kind of counsellor and all round comforter. Unconsciously clutching the thin bed sheet in nervous hands and licking dry lips, she nodded and asked, “Are my parents here yet?”

Uncomfortable, Dr Steven’s hesitated before answering, “Not yet, but they promise to be here as soon as they can. Problems I understand with travel,” he was hedging she could see it in his eyes. He had a kind face, young and earnest with moss green eyes that managed to convey a compelling mix of intelligence, kindness and sympathy.

She didn’t want his sympathy, Cordelia’s chest tightened. Her parents weren’t coming. Oh God, what does that say about me? Her throat went tight too as unwelcome tears pricked. Latching onto the kindness she asked huskily, “When can I go home? I want to go home,” she couldn’t have held back the pleading note if she’d tried.

Home was somewhere she could cry properly. Not muffle it under sheets draped over heaving shoulders and a damp face; letting the tears of pain, bitter resentment and searing humiliation finally flow and if she was really lucky, rid her body of the awful tightness from having to hold it all in.

Again he hesitated, glancing needlessly down at the flipchart held in square hands before looking towards Angela for support. Catching the by-play between the two of them Cordelia’s belly gave a lurch. She guessed the answer wasn’t going to be what she wanted to hear.

She wasn’t wrong. “I don’t think that’s going to be possible right now, Ms Chase. Look, can I call you Cordelia?” His eyes finally connected with hers.

Trying to read between the lines she simply nodded again not trusting herself to speak, and waiting for a reason that afterwards she’d despairingly think no amount of bracing could have prepared her for.

“Cordelia, I have some news that may come as a shock. Personally, I would’ve preferred waiting until your parents are here, but given the delay and the fact they’ve authorised me to arrange for your transfer. I think its time you were … um…brought up to speed.”

Dreaded circled like a vulture waiting to swoop and for some reason her right arm ached in tandem with the sickly throb of her heart. Inexplicably breathless she stuttered, “Transferred, why?”

Seeing the starkly blue and pinched look about the girl’s mouth it was Angela that answered, butting in gently to the visible relief of her doctor, “Its standard procedure to check certain aspects of patient health when substantial injuries are involved. Those investigations found an…anomaly that needs treating.”

The ceaseless background hum of activity outside the bubble of her room faded. Breathlessness spreading, Cordelia’s vision started to swim, turning the pair blurred, “Anomaly? Is…is that bad?”

It sounded bad- really, really bad to her. Frightened, Cordelia suddenly felt about five-years-old. Oh God, why do I have to be alone? Please, Mom, please I need you! Don’t leave me alone. Lips trembling as that silent wail echoed in her head she tried to hold back the welling tears by scrunching up her face.

The explanation when it haltingly came out dropped all sensation from her belly as the icy snakes of fear solidified. Then survival instincts kicked in and she tuned them out, retreating far away.

Both ears were buzzing and only quieted when Cordy realised she’d stopped breathing altogether. Hauling in a choppy lungful, she was struck with the urge to tell her soft voiced tormentors to shut-up and go away; wait for her parents, or doomsday whichever came sooner. The words got stuck in her throat.

“Cordy, helloooo, Cordy. Are you okay?” Two fingers clicked in front of her glazed eyes.

Drawn back and coming too, she blinked to focus on the face peering worriedly at her. Tall, lithe and pretty with skin the colour of dark chocolate, Lily was the resident beautician and a good friend. Realising what must have happened, Cordy wished the floor would suddenly open up and maybe save her some pride.

Thinking fast she grimaced with embarrassment, laughing, “Sorry, I must have zoned out there for a while.” Her smile was extra wide and laced with apology. “Wow, intense… and boy! Do I need to get more shut-eye or what, only next time, before I go to sleep on my feet, huh?”

Reassured as intended and snagging her elbow, Lily got them both moving, leaning in to whisper, “Um, yeah! You looked like you’d seen a ghost or something. Besides, Hilda is watching you and she looks about ready to explode.”

Shrugging off the funk the memories had left her with and craning her neck around, Cordy aimed a grin at a frowning Hilda standing behind the reception desk. Big boned and white blonde over a wide face, the German woman was framed by the huge glossy white and red, LA fitness sign that managed to make her look even more anal retentive.

“Pfft, let her. Put it this way she has to do something to get that poker out that’s rammed up her ass. Geeze, I’ve never met anyone who needs to get laid so much in all my life. I just pity the poor schmuck who has to climb on, ya know?”

Snorting in agreement and unloading half the towels of her, Lily checked her watch. Her brows climbed, “Are these for sauna? Because if so, girlfriend, you don’t have time to deliver them. As in, don’t you have the graveyard aerobics class to run?”

Cordelia had caught a break getting the class, but only after a lot of hard-work and of course the gym’s manager had risked her only on the last class of the day. It meant working longer hours rather than travel back and forth, except for when she had auditions, but the way she figured it was a girl needs to eat and the cafeteria being free to staff was a big plus.

A quick check of her own watch had Cordy wincing and then aiming a hopeful glance at her friend. Sighing dramatically, the other girl winked a playful brown eye and took the rest of them out of her arms, “Fine I’ll take them over. You go and get ready, then I’ll join you.”

On her way already, that surprise statement had a grateful Cordy turning mid-step, sneakers squeaking a protest on the tiled floor, “I thought you were done for the day?”

Lily didn’t turn or slow as she pounded up the stairs to the next level, just tossed back over one tee-shirt covered shoulder. “I am, but I figured I’d join your class. Even with the discount it’s another fee paying body, right?”

Stunned, Cordy stilled before necessity and lack of time had her shaking off the second funk in as many minutes and jogging towards the staff changing rooms. God, if she wasn’t firmly hetro she’d be in love with that girl. Talk about a world away from Harmony and the other Cordettes. And her, too, if she was honest.

“Hey, I’m working on it aren’t I? Sheesh, who needs enemies when you’ve got yourself?”

~

He kept the outer office lights on and left his own shrouded in darkness. Outside the pitch of traffic lowered to an occasional hum and to any normal person the brooding quiet would have been suffocating. Not so the vampire sitting in silent contemplation.

Two photographs lay on Angel’s desk. Lounging in his worn leather desk chair with an elbow braced and two fingers propping up his forehead, he gazed unblinkingly at the two rectangles of colour. It was a ritual by now and at least once a day he laid them out. He liked to think of it as his homage to the past and a reminder of why getting too close could bring immeasurable pain and grief.

”Are you still my girl?”

”Always.”

”The good fight, yeah? You never know until you’ve been tested- I get that now

Doyle. Doyle. Doyle! Doyle! NO!

Buffy Summers, laughing and full of life shone out from one, while Doyle his one time half-demon sidekick stood resentfully hunched and shadowed as if trying to escape the camera. They were both dead. Buffy a year ago fighting the Mayor and Doyle just last month when he’d saved Angel, Wesley and a boat-load of half-demons from the ‘Scourge’, a battalion of rabid pure-blood demons with a mission to rid the world of human/demon hybrids.

Doyle’s last vision from the PTB’s was still unsolved. A fact that drove Angel crazy thinking he was letting his dead friend down by not being smart enough to work it out. He kept wishing if only they’d had more time, but the vision had come at a stinkingly bad point when they’d been fixated on getting the innocent out of harms way.

All Doyle had told him was that the vision had shown him beating hearts, two pretty girls; one blonde and a brunette, and a gym right here in LA. Not much to go on but neither had realised they wouldn’t have time for a longer debrief later. Doyle, a dark haired and roguish Irishman with a sense of honour that usually bordered on the wayward side had sacrificed himself less than an hour later.

Stricken with the memory of watching him melt into nothing, Angel abruptly sat up, scrubbing his face with both hands as if to wipe it all away. Then sitting back and puffing out his cheeks he couldn’t help repeating the same questions he’d asked a hundred times before now.

“Damn it, Doyle, you were supposed to live. You said you weren’t a hero. Why couldn’t you have just stayed the messenger and then…” realising where he was headed, Angel bit the rest off and shook his head in self-loathing. Then what? He wouldn’t have to have Doyle on his conscience?

The opening of the outer door intruded, heralding the arrival of Wesley Wyndham Pryce. Locking his emotions away again and surging to his feet in one lithe move, Angel swept the photographs up and tapping them once to align the edges properly, slid them into the top drawer of his desk. Some things stayed private, his grief was one of them.

Coming out of his inner office, he met the ex-Watcher halfway and hands resting on lean hips, pinned him with a half hopeful, half expectant look. “Well?”

Dreading the response, Wesley tossed his jacket onto the rackety coat-stand, then spread helpless hands. “I returned to the library and re-checked the archives to see if I’d missed any reports, only to find that, as I expected, I hadn’t.

Angel’s face didn’t so much as flicker; waiting for more. Heaving a sigh, Wes ticked them off on his fingers, “There’s still nothing about hearts, gyms or girls in trouble. I even went along to scout out a few, but they’re full of pretty girls of all hair colours imaginable.”

They both glanced longingly at the computer sitting abandoned on the desk by the window, but Doyle had been the only one proficient with its use. “This is hopeless, we’re hopeless.” Wesley groaned and dropped tiredly onto the small, battered brown couch, just as the phone rang.

Since he was closer and Wesley was wallowing in angry self-castigation, Angel picked it up his frown changing from aggravation to intense interest when the caller identified herself. “Kate…” he greeted simply, casting a speaking glance at Wesley, warning him to pay attention, “…what’s up?”

A few words later, an arrested expression dropped over Angel’s pale, handsome face and abruptly he cut her off, “Kate, hold up a second, I’m putting you on speaker phone. Then can you repeat the last few details?” A press of a button later and Detective Kate Lockley’s voice echoed tinnily about the office.

Sure. Like I said, I have a dead male Caucasian on my hands with his heart cut out. You asked me to let you know if anything came up involving hearts and this is definitely a weird one, which I figured is right up your alley.

Raising a brow at that wry comment, he caught Wesley’s shrug, “Thanks I appreciate this, Kate. Can you say again where he came from?”

Oh yeah, sorry, Richard Stokes is listed as being from Sunnydale, California. According to his records he only moved to LA a few months ago.

Sitting up, Wesley’s disillusion fell away, “Interesting,” he mouthed, thinking that was an understatement of gargantuan proportions.

So, are you coming? I can only get you in for 5 minutes tops and I’m only offering that because I’m hoping your um… extra senses can spot something we haven’t.

Pleasantries and assurances to help without taking action later, Angel disconnected and Wesley, now standing next to him having been thoroughly drawn out of his despondency could wait no longer, “That’s it! That’s our connection. How ironic is it that it goes back to our roots- so to speak?”

Whirling to pace without waiting for a response, Wesley’s brain kicked into high gear, “Do you think the blonde in Doyle’s vision-“

“Buffy,” agreed Angel, perching on the desk with his arms crossed and deep in thought too, hiding the stab of pain at speaking her name out-loud.

“So, that just leaves the brunette. Its imperative we find out who she is and where she lives. After all, it’s likely she’s in a great deal of peril.”

“True, but the only way to find her is via Buffy. Hearts remember?”

That stopped him in his tracks with blue eyes going comically wide behind the wire-framed spectacles, “Oh good Lord, yes, I’d completely forgotten about that. Buffy’s organs were offered for transplant after she erm…” faltering at the wealth of bitter pain crossing the vampire’s hewn features, Wesley wanted to kick himself, cursing his own lack of discretion.

Guessing what had caused the sudden discomfort and pushing away from his comfortable perch, Angel waved it aside, adding as he crossed the office to shrug on a long black coat, “Its okay, Wesley. I admit I hated the idea at the time, but given the kind of person she was, it’s what she would have wanted. All we can do now is find out who got them?”

Relieved beyond measure, Wesley beamed at his rapidly disappearing back then moved to follow having snatched his own tan jacket back off the peg, “Excellent, and all I can say is, it’s about time we had a lead we could actually follow with some hope of eventual success.”

Angel’s voice coming from the corridor halted him before he’d taken two steps, “You stay here and find out what you can about the donor programme. I won’t be long.”

Shoulders slumping, a freshly despondent Wesley turned jaundiced eyes on the strangely menacing computer, sitting innocently atop the outer office desk, “What? How does he honestly expect me to get that information this late, it’s almost 9pm? It’s an impossible task. Herculean even.”

~

The far side of the high-ranking office suite was a wall of glass. Gracing the rest where priceless paintings ranging from modern art depicting mutated human forms, to soft pastels from the height of the impressionist era. Underfoot, carpet thick enough to sink into cushioned approaching feet and preserving the profitable tranquillity. Overall, it was a mixture of stark reality laced with hedonism where even the polish smelt expensive.

“Sir, the report’s back from downstairs and it wasn’t the slayers heart. We need to move onto the next one.” Even impeccably suited there remained an irrepressible energy about the young man who knocked, entered on command then strode unhesitatingly forward to deliver the bad news.

Swinging gently back and forth in his expansive executive chair and gazing dispassionately down at the cityscape below, Holland Manners tapped a finger thoughtfully against his lips, then as if reaching an unpleasant decision, swung about to look directly at his protégé saying, “I think it’s disgraceful, Lindsey.”

“Sir?” Knocked off stride, Lindsey MacDonald experienced a whole new level of unease, looking to recover he stiffened his spine adding, “If I’ve done something-”

Smiling his surprise and as if fazing him hadn’t been his intention Holland, waved a dismissive hand, “No-no, not you, how could I be displeased with my star performer. No, I meant this mess. It’s hard to believe in this day and age that a computer glitch can cause so much mayhem. Do they not have backups?”

“Yes, sir, but limited. Which is why we know only the names and addresses of the recipients from the time-period, not their donor’s.”

“Have a seat, Lindsey” once his subordinate was comfortable Holland carried on, “Meaning we can’t focus on the slayers organs, I know. Still, it’s highly annoying. I’m sure I should complain to someone about it.”

“I can arrange for a letter to be drawn up,” offered Lindsey tongue-in-cheek with an utterly straight face.

“Aah, but that would be indiscreet at best. So, tell me, who do we have left on the list of names?”

Reeling them off from memory, Lindsey saved the mystery one for last, “…and finally we still have little or no information on Mr C Chase. We’ve cross-checked all available records and find no matches in the State of California, at least none that have a medical record indicating heart surgery during the established time-frame.”

“Keep looking, he’ll turn up somewhere. This is important Lindsey and we mustn’t let minor obstacles slow us down.”

Gesturing for Lindsey to rise and join him strolling out of the office, Holland tucked a fatherly arm around the younger mans shoulders, adding in a lowered voice, “The Senior Partners are counting on us being able to procure this slayer heart. A bit of advice, never forget the bottom line and trust me, it doesn’t get more bottom than that.”

~

The apartment looked like it had been ransacked by a bunch of whacked out addicts hunting for valuables, who on finding none, took their frustration out on the furnishings. Or, so that was what Kate was suggesting. It only took a single sniff up for Angel to know they couldn’t be more wrong.

“He didn’t die here and it was demons that did this, not humans.”

They’d already worked out the first, but the second was an unpleasant non-surprise somehow, “Are you sure?” asked Kate, not so much disbelieving as not wanting to believe it.

She may have gotten over the shock of finding out Angel, the man she’d been getting the hots for was in point of fact, a blood sucking fiend, but she still preferred dealing with the scientifically probable. Demons, Christ! As if she didn’t have enough to deal with already.

Seeing his nod and short glare, she raked the fingers of one hand into her hair to drag the blonde mess off her face. “Okay, sorry I just still find it hard to…ya know- deal with that stuff.” Her face was a picture.

Circling the viciously gutted maroon couch gracing the middle of the living space, Angel felt a smile tug at the corners of his mouth and suppressed it, replying easily, “You don’t have too, that’s my job remember and the reason you called me.”

Watching him thoroughly scout the apartment in half the time it would take her just to give it a cursory once-over, Kate heaved an envious sigh and tucked both hands in the back pockets of her tattered, white-kneed Levi’s, “I guess. So, are you getting anything?”

Straightening from his crouched perusal of the mutilated body and bitterly disappointed, Angel shook his head and then clarified it, “Demons don’t always have a distinctive smell, they just smell…wrong. Most of the time I can only tell one from the other if they’re the kind to use a ritual or something that leaves an odour on their bodies. I’m not getting that here, so I can’t narrow it down yet.”

“Exits?” suggested Kate, determined to get her case on track and not add to the depressing long list of unsolved murders.

Vetoing that with another shake of a dark head, Angel explained, “I checked that before we came in here. They entered and left the building the same way we did. Whoever they are, they’re not the shy type.”

~

A quick call from a payphone to Wesley revealed the Englishman was actually getting somewhere with the names, thanks to some assistance from Willow. Content with that and with nothing better to do, Angel decided to really scrape the barrel and recon some of the nearby gyms.

The final one was just closing when he got there. Stepping out of the Plymouth the last thing he expected was to be greeted by a sharply disbelieving and very familiar voice, “My God, Angel, is that you?”

Turning to locate the speaker he was met with a bright-eyed young woman with long dark hair caught up in a ponytail, disbelievingly he asked, “Cordelia?”

Stepping off the curb onto the tarmac, her teeth flashed white in a fleeting grin, “You mean you’re not sure, so much for super vamp powers, huh?”

“Yes, I mean…of course I know who you are. I’m just surprised to see is all”

Embarrassment aside, Angel couldn’t help cataloguing the changes in the former Queen C of Sunnydale High, dazedly concluding that if anything, she’d got even prettier. Carefully shutting the car door car gave him a precious second to gather his wits and say, “You look good, Cordelia. Are you living here now?”

As he’d expected Cordelia took the compliment as her due, inclining her head and giving him a return inspection of her own. “Thanks, your looking pretty good yourself,” more than good if she was willing to admit that about a dead guy. He was still the picture of dark and brooding, but who was she to deny that held a certain appeal all of its own. “And yeah, LA is home sweet home now.”

“We wondered where you’d gone. Worried, too, after-“ The look on her face stopped him from mentioning the day she got impaled while running distraught from the sight of Xander making out with Willow.

Cordelia’s bulging purse was heavy, lifting the strap to stop it biting into her skin under the thin denim jacket, she shrugged, “I know I left suddenly, trust me, it was a surprise to me too, but I can’t say I wasn’t glad to get away from the hellmouth, ya know.”

Wryly agreeing, he leant back against the Plymouths black side, “I can get that. So…”

“So…”

“You first,” suggested Angel, wondering why it should feel good to see her. They hadn’t been exactly friends in Sunnydale, just happened to inhabit the same orbit and sometimes fighting on the same side. She must have been thinking along the same lines.

Miming a monster face she asked, “So, are you still all, ya know, grr face?” the engaging tilt of her head afterwards took the mild sting away.

Angel blinked in disbelief, thinking only Cordelia would ask that, “Yeah, there’s actually no cure for that,” he advised slowly.

Unfazed, she nodded thinking nobody got her humour and besides, you could take the girl out of the hellmouth but not the knowledge out of the girl, “Got it and …bummer, but your not evil, not here to, ya know, bite people or anything?”

Angel couldn’t figure out if she was yanking his tail or not. Giving her an uncertain look, he explained, “No, I’m sort of helping the police solve a murder, not exactly evil’s idea of fun.”

Behind them someone called out a farewell, turning back from a brief wave, Cordy joked, “Unless you’re the murderer, but I’m guessing snapping the cuffs on you would be a bit horse and stable doorish,” then eyes glinting with sly humour, she finished with a shrug, “Besides, you and cuffs- not exactly a picture that sticks.”

Letting an answering grin curve his lips, Angel tried not to recall a few times in his less than stellar past when that statement would have been categorically refuted, and belatedly remembering his manners, pushed away from the car to offer, “Where’s your car? Or, can I give you a ride somewhere?”

“I don’t have a car, too expensive on my salary, but I’m planning to change that ASAP.” Her wry smile acknowledged his disbelieving pause, recalling the days when she’d spent money like it was nothing more than water pouring through her grasping fingers.

To get it over with bluntly she added, “In case you were wondering, my parents hadn’t paid their taxes in say- forever. So, when the IRS caught up with them a couple of years ago there was nothing left, bar a few toothpicks.”

“Oh, sorry,” what else could he say? Angel remembered how much her lifestyle and popularity had meant to her. Used to a life of luxury finding yourself destitute must be twice as hard to adjust to.

“It’s okay. I’m over it and getting on with my life.” Not like she’d had much of a choice and at least the taxman hadn’t been able to touch the health insurance.

Sensing an imminent awkward pause, Angel gestured to his car, “About that ride?”

“Sure, if you don’t mind that is,” as an alternative to catching the bus, vampire chauffeur was a welcome change.

A minute or so later and happily ensconced in the big and noisy convertible’s passenger seat, Cordy slid him a quizzical look, “So why are you helping the cops solve a murder?” Asking why he left Sunnydale at all was what she really wanted to know, but figured that could lead to all kinds of things she didn’t want to discuss.

Navigating the much lighter traffic with ease, Angel smiled wondering how she’d react, “I’m a private detective now. I run an agency right here in LA.”

Cordelia goggled, “Get outta town, really?!” recovering she swiped away loose strands of dark hair blowing over her cheeks and turned to face him more fully, “You, a private detective. God, that is so…” since whatever she could think of saying might be insulting she changed her mind and waved it away, “…nevermind. Do you have a business card or something?”

“Um…no…why?”

Rolling eyes and up-flung hands spoke volumes, “Hello, calling cards. What if tomorrow night I’m walking home and come across something big and creepy lurking in the dark, other than you of course. How do I know how to get in touch? Angel, you need to market- be accessible, ya know?”

Stumped, Angel wondered if there was actually an answer he could make to that, then settled for, “Thanks for the tip.”

“You’re welcome,” settling back, Cordy waited for him to mention mutual acquaintances. When he didn’t she puffed out a sigh and thinking she was doing him a favour, did it for him, “Okay I’ll bite, how’s Buffy? She’s back in LA, too, isn’t she?”

Not that Cordelia was particularly interested, but figured if she didn’t ask Buffy would find out and put it down to old resentments, which was totally untrue. After the surgery she’d picked up the frayed threads of her old life and weaved herself a new one. Go me!

“Cordelia, Buffy is dead. She died after graduation,” that simple statement uttered so low knocked the breath right out of her.

A colossal fender-bender right in front of them couldn’t have dragged her horrified gaze off his averted face just then, “Oh My God. Angel, I’m so sorry, I honestly didn’t know. I’ve been so out of touch. I mean, Buffy seemed so eternal- like you. I just assumed-“

She was practically wringing her hands. Taken back by her reaction given they hadn’t been on good terms and unaware of her own close brush with death, Angel shook his head, “Cordelia, its okay. You didn’t know. Don’t beat yourself up about it.”

Easy for him to say, he hadn’t just put both feet in his mouth and done a pirouette. Still reeling she had to ask, “How did it happen?”

It was comparable to prodding a barely healed over wound, but Angel answered as best he could, “She was mortally wounded stopping the Mayor making his ascension to demon and died a few days later in hospital. We were all there at the end.” He hadn’t left her side hoping that she’d open her eyes and speak to him at least once. She hadn’t.

Skilled at assessing subtleties Cordy saw the splinters of grief buried deep in onyx eyes. Saying sorry again just seemed a waste of time. No words could encompass all of that pain, so she didn’t even try, “Is that why you left Sunnydale to come here?”

Immeasurably grateful she hadn’t showered him with platitudes, Angel nodded a little more enthusiastically than usual, “Yeah, I like it here though. Big city, lots of things to do.” Not to mention people to save, monsters to kill.

Well, she wasn’t going to argue with that, city life suited her better too. “I’m glad,” she said and wisely left it that. Rounding the last corner onto Cordelia’s street she pointed to her building, “This is me, just here will do.”

Pulling up to the curb, he left the engine idling and turned to scan the Spanish style apartment building, “Nice place.”

Getting out, Cordelia shut the door with a pleased smile lighting her face, “It is. Thanks for the ride, Angel. It was weird, but kind of nice seeing you again.”

Pausing due to a poignant stab somewhere in the region of her heart, Cordy took a moment to soak up the darkly handsome face she had, long ago, coveted. That was another life though, so she dismissed it as nostalgia after a moment.

“Maybe I’ll see you around sometime.”

“Maybe,” he agreed with a brief smile and left it at that, certain it was unlikely.

~

When he eventually got back to the office, Wesley was bent over the printer and squinting to read as it spat out letters. Shutting the door behind him, Angel’s expression still bore a bemused stamp as he shrugged out of his coat.

“Do you remember Cordelia Chase? She had her own groupies called the Cordettes and loved being-“ he almost repeated the old phrase, ‘Queen of Mean’, but having just spent a fairly pleasant half hour with her that felt- wrong.

“I just met up with her,” he finished instead, strolling over to the coffee machine to pour a mug of the bitter brew. “She’s training to be a fitness instructor here in LA.” Tipping back his head he took a swig and then scrunched his face up in disgust at the taste, luckily it was the caffeine he was after.

“Photographs only, still it’s strange” Pursing his lips, Wesley’s attention didn’t stray from the printer, only straightening as it came to the end.

Flicking the sheet out to proffer it toward the vampire, he announced, “You’ll be pleased to hear that I’ve managed to obtain a list of Donor recipients, unfortunately none donor specific. Oh, and Willow wanted me to tell you it was distressingly easy to hack into the files.”

Taking the single sheet and scanning it Angel’s brows drew together in a perplexed frown, “Richard Stokes is here, but I don’t recognise…” He came to one and fell abruptly silent.

“What is it?” asked Wesley moving to stand beside him, trying to see over the vampires shoulder.

Silently, Angel pointed to one name about half way down the page, “Mr C Chase.” It couldn’t be, could it? “We’re looking for a pretty brunette,” he muttered, “But Cordelia Chase wasn’t sick when she left Sunnydale, was she?”
CHAPTER TWO

12.30 a.m.

The rotating lights from the squad cars bathed the front of the apartment building with an unearthly blue glow. The paramedic van had already come and gone having uselessly attended a scene where death was not in question. Now a white van labelled starkly with ‘mortuary’ waited in its place.

Angel avoided the gaggles of blue uniforms standing hunched and uneasy in the buildings doorway, using the basement as an entry point instead. Finding Kate was simple; he just followed the sound of voices on the third floor.

Every single bulb in the hallway had been broken and glass crunched underfoot as he manoeuvred his way around white-coated forensics technicians wielding brushes coated with black power.

Kate’s voice drew him and the tight edginess in it was audible halfway down the hall. “I don’t care if you have to fly halfway around the world to find the guy. Just find him. Jesus, we’re racking up the bodies here and personally, I don’t want another one added to the tally.”

He winced picturing the tension on Kate’s face. She was a dedicated law enforcer and this case had to be killing her. There had been twelve names on that donor-recipient list Angel had given Kate. Ten were now dead with eight of the murders already completed before the connection was picked up. Angel felt a flicker of anxiety flare from the knowledge he was keeping the thirteenth a secret; Cordelia Chase. He was losing sleep wondering when the demons would turn their attention on Sunnydale’s once-upon-a-time princess.

The door was open. Kate; blonde haired and pretty with a penchant for mannish clothes was standing beside the covered body. At least five other people were milling around the small, neat apartment.

“Kate” Angel said to announce his presence.

“Angel,” she said crisply, looking up with something akin to desperation gleaming out of sky blue eyes. “Glad you could come at such short notice.”

“No problem. You know I’ll help when I can.”

She missed the inflection in the last three words. “We need all the help we can get and I’m not too proud to say it. This case is a total nightmare. We’re running out of victims and I hate feeling helpless.” Kate dropped wearily to her haunches next to the corpse. Under the fluorescent strip lights the deep shadows on her face seemed etched as she looked up at the vampire. “We should have been able to protect him.”

Her frustration was palpable. Angel didn’t know what else to say, “I’m sorry.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for. We’d still have this pegged as a random killing by a serial killer if it weren’t for you.” She sighed and steeled herself to unzip the gory remains, “I just wish we could stop the bastards.”

It was the same MO as last time, only this woman’s face was fixed along even more terrified lines. Kate’s words gave Angel a chill and he froze, waiting for her to catch his eye. “You can’t stop them; just delay them until I find out whose doing this and end it. Remember, Kate, these killers are not human.”
Unwillingly Kate responded to that quiet demand. Then rallied her wits and rebelled. “It’s my job-“

“It’s your job to protect, not die in vain. We talked about this, don’t welch on me now.” Angel was always uncomfortably aware of her attraction to him, but it was intertwined with her trust in him and he wasn’t willing to try and untangle them. Sometimes it even came in handy, if only subconsciously. He could see he’d won.

2 p.m.

Cordelia gave her best winning smile to the parents of the worst behaved seven-year-olds she’d ever had the misfortune to come across, “Hi, you must be Mr and Mrs Velman. I’m so sorry to drag you away from your shopping like this, but the arcade is clearly signed; under eights must be supervised at all times.”

For very good reasons she didn’t add. Up until the last ten minutes the customer services desk had, thankfully, been quiet today, even though the mall itself was busy with everybody buying last minute treats for night-time when the trick-or-treaters were let loose.

Accepting embarrassed apologies with a serene nod and another smile, Cordelia puffed out a relieved breath when the tow-headed little horrors were pulled away.

Out of hearing she let out what she really thought. “And next time don’t try and offload your responsibilities on the poor unsuspecting public. God, those two need a leash and a cattle prod. Brats!”

Chin cupped in a palm and getting back to her magazine, Cordelia leisurely turned a page. “I am never having kids. Never, ever. There isn’t enough money in the world-“

“Excuse me, Miss?”

Geeze, sneak much? She plastered on another smile and slid the magazine out of sight. “Oh hi. Sorry I was miles away. Can I help you?”

That marked a frenetic hour where it seemed everybody needed something from her; wheelchairs, lost parking tickets, lost children, lost car-keys. Every time she turned there was another harassed and irate customer looking for her to solve their problems. “It’s a conspiracy, that’s what it is. Someone up there has decided to pay me back for refusing to do Saturdays.”

It was a running battle between Cordelia and her boss that she refused to do evenings or weekends. Like she was dumb enough to agree to work during the malls busiest hours. Having two jobs was bad enough she reasoned, and the benefits associated with staff discounts only swayed her so far.

The Starbucks kiosk beckoned and she gave into it rather than return to her station and yet another, dweeb who’d misplaced his spouse, rug-rats, Oldsmobile, sense of direction or colostomy bag.

The beige and forest green uniform was still a draw and she had to skirt around a waterfall to avoid a militant looking woman towing a shrieking child. Reaching Mecca she said feelingly, “I need to win the lottery,” to the guy inside the kiosk.

“You and me both,” was the laconic reply. “The usual?” he asked reaching for a paper cup. His name tag was the same as her, a big smiley face with text in the middle. His name was Bud, a good match for his blonde hair and tanned face.

She liked him better now he‘d given up hitting on her and just kept it low-key and friendly. “Yup, and give me an extra shot of espresso. Something tells me I’m going to need all the energy I can get today.”

“Coming right up.”

Leaning on the counter, Cordelia rolled her neck to relieve tension induced by being friendly when she felt like screaming. A bunch of girls passed them by and caught her attention. Long sleek limbs encased in designed jeans, slinky tops to teasingly expose tanned perfumed arms where perfectly accessorised with Italian shoes and Prada purses. Blonde hair was worn long and glossy. They looked like the pampered princesses she’d been. Today, it stung.

“God, I miss those days.”

“What?”

Wincing, she gave Bud a sheepish smile and took her coffee, “Never mind, and thanks.”

“Sure. Oh and here’s a tip, avoid the demons.”

Choking on a mouthful of foam, Cordelia turned back thinking she couldn’t have heard that right. “Come again?”

“The demons; actors paid to entertain the shoppers. They’re roaming all over, didn’t they tell you?” He could tell by the blank look on her face she hadn’t. Leaning over he explained, “So customers don’t sue they’ve been told to keep any um… antics to the mall staff. We got told we’re expected to take part at the staff meeting this morning.”

She’d overslept and missed it. “You have got to be kidding me?”

“Would I do that to a fellow colleague?” Grinning, Bud shook his head. “Why do you think I haven’t moved out of here once today?”

“Great, where can I get me one of those,” she grumbled and moved off again, warily eyeing the crowds moving between the escalators, fountains and circular gardens. Demons had always been drawn to her, which was why she’d always been lumbered with the role of bait-girl by Buffy. Just because she was a couple of hundred miles away, she didn’t make the mistake of thinking the fake kind would be any different.

As fate would have it, when searching for demons she spotted a familiar dark head on broad-black covered shoulders, or at least thought she had. Angel was here, shopping? As in, willingly being stuck among crowds of people, dodging speeding buggies and painted clowns on stilts selling balloons? For the first time in hours a real smile blossomed. “What, he ran out of crushed velvet long-johns and thought he’d pop into k-mart. This I gotta see.”

Still not certain she wasn’t seeing things, Cordelia made her way though the obstacle course made up of candy, hot-dog and toy vendors towards where she thought she seen the vampire. A glance skyward allayed a sudden stab of fear. Of course there was no direct sunlight, everybody would bake and then who would part the shoppers from their cash, or credit cards.

So, it was possible Angel was here, just not very plausible given what she remembered of the dour and brooding vamp with a soul.

Too intent on her own hunt, Cordelia forgot all about watching out for demon/actors until a heavy hand landed on her shoulder. Jumping like a scalded cat and spinning around, hazel eyes widened seeing a guy who looked like he’d got Frankenstein and big foot mixed up in a bad way. Oh crap.

Back-peddling she lied, “Hey, I’d love to..ya know…help with the holiday mood and all, but I’m running an errand, so-“ She bumped into another of them and groaned. God, could this day get any worse?

A dark blur answered that silent question. Before she could blink Semi-naked and hairy Frank was picked up and thrown bodily to crash into the candy stand, getting himself covered in pink candy-floss; while the cowl-covered monk in a skull mask was picked up by the throat and swung around once before being catapulted through the glass window of an electrical store. Ouch!

Oh-my-God. “Angel” she wailed, “what are you doing?”

In the process of grabbing her up to haul off to safety, Angel paused, “Saving you from demons.”

Cordelia’s jaw dropped in disbelief, “Are you insane?” Thumping him hurt her hand more than him. The dumbass just looked bemused and glanced down at the spot on his chest she’d nearly broken her knuckles on. “Forget I asked, of course your freakin’ insane. Only this time you’ve really out-done yourself.”

“Hey!” Dark brows lowered into a severe frown. Hands on hips, Angel growled low, “They were attacking you-“

“They were actors. It’s Halloween for chrissake. You might know it; it’s the one night in the year you’re actually expected to roam around causing mayhem.” She yelled infuriated.

The penny dropped, well crashed, and not for the first time around this girl, Angel wished the floor would open up and swallow him whole. All around them a crowd of on-lookers stood ogling them and looking fully prepared to bolt if he started tossing people around again.

“I’m sorry I didn’t know-“

She wasn’t having any of it. “What the hell happened to that so-called super vamp sense of smell?” A hand waved wildly in front of his face, nearly smacking him on the nose, “I thought you could tell the difference?” she asked, irritation in every line.

“I can-do…normally…” flustered, Angel stopped and tried again, “what I mean is, normally, yes.”

“So, what? It took a day off today of all days and you decided to pay me a visit and get me fired?”

Fired? Angel gulped realising the mess he’d caused would have repercussions for her. “I’ll explain it wasn’t your fault. You won’t get fired.”

“You think?” she jeered.

Out of the corner of her eye, Cordelia saw the security guards wading through the crowd. She shoved him away, “Get out of here, Angel, before I change my mind and let them drag you off to a padded cell.”

He didn’t want to leave her, but couldn’t think how to smooth this over. Usually he would just punch his way free. “Cordelia…”

“Will you just get going, already. You can’t help me and what the hell do you think they’ll say when they can’t find your pulse?”
9 p.m.

“Those look gruesome,” Lee smirked, “I didn’t know ogling photos of mutilated corpses was one of your peccadillo’s.”

“They’re not. I’m just thinking is all.” Lindsey flicked him a sardonic glance, “You should try it some time.” He was beating his head against a brick wall, but couldn’t stop, no couldn’t afford, to stop trying. Frustration was bitch who unfortunately loved him. Dropped the grisly photos, he rubbed a finger between tense brows, before admitting low, “Holland is getting testy about the thirteenth name.”

“Hmmm, still can’t find the elusive, Mr Chase, huh?” Dropping into the chair opposite, Lee stretched out his legs. “Don’t you just hate it when that happens? It’s just a name, somebody somewhere knows him.”

“Somebody knows, yeah. Its just finding who that is that’s driving me insane.” The swivel chair was one of Lindsay’s favourite things about his office. Turning to survey the cityscape below his expression turned pensive. “Thirteen, unlucky for some,” he murmured without thinking.

Unseen, Lee grinned again, enjoying Lindsay’s tense pre-occupation. “Keep your priorities straight, unlucky for them you mean.”

Lindsey just grunted and wished Holland had given this case to someone else. At the time promotional opportunities had blinded him to the pitfalls. It wasn’t taking human life that bothered him, unless it was his own. No, he could handle that knowing that it would have happened anyway, only giving someone else the kudos if he suffered an attack of conscience. The way he figured it, humans were only tolerated by the senior partners, so what were a few early deaths?

Lee was talking again and reluctantly Lindsay tuned back in, “…why not do one of those radio ads. You know the ones I mean, emergency broadcasts when a family member is dying and nobody knows how to get in touch.”
The idea had merit except for one crucial thing. Swinging back, Lindsay was pleased to shoot him down, “Then what happens when he turns up dead, Lee?” He shook his head in mock admonishment, “What have I told you about thinking and consequences, huh?”

As usual, the barb slid off Lee’s rhinoceros hide. “Pay someone to pay someone to do it. Hell, throw in a reward. What have you got to lose?”
9.30 p.m.

Unaware of the strife she was causing a law firm she’d never heard of, Cordelia Chase was having a crisis of her own. She’d arrived on location expecting a bit part in a romantic drama, only to find she was the lead in a porno. Shocked to the core and speechless for once, she’d been hustled downstairs to get changed before she could work out which screeching objection to get out first.

It looked more like a scrap of black net that a costume, worse the sequins seemed designed to draw the eye, rather than conceal her nipples.

“Will somebody please tell me what I’m doing here? God, I should have guessed from the title. Sugar and Spice, ugh. Tom, you are so dead when I catch up with you… big fat weasel!”

Tom was her soon-to-be-fired-after-maiming agent. Snatching the offending costume off the peg, she gave it a shake as if that action alone would make it a little more substantial and heckova lot less whorish. It didn’t work.
“No way am I wearing that.” Throwing it down in disgust the garment landed in a tangle of sequins and gossamer thin nylon. Whirling to pace, she threw up her hands. “Damn it, I should have smelled a rat when I found out it was a night-time gig. Is the guy deaf? I said drama, comedy and commercials. At no time did I say I’d do porn, eww!”

Hands on hips, both cheeks puffed out as she pondered her latest excruciating embarrassment. She had to get out of here. The only problem was she was surrounded by a film crew that looked like they belonged on the Jolly Roger. Somehow she didn’t think they’d take her leaving well.

“So sneak. You can do sneaking can’t you?” Still pacing as much as her short denim skirt would let her, Cordy shrugged. “How difficult can it be? Porn-kings…not exactly loaded with smarts, ya know?”

Maybe not, but she was in a basement bathroom with the ‘movie’s’ director pacing the hall up top waiting for her to emerge. Rather than deflating her that realisation just got her more irate. Pride had her stilling with a spine ramrod straight. A black scowl creased between perfectly plucked brows. Who the hell did he think he was, stopping her from making a dignified exit when none of this was her fault? She hadn’t had a clue what the project was about until she got here. If they couldn’t film today; it was their own problem, not hers.

Well, there was no point wasting any more time. Snatching up her purse Cordelia stomped towards the stairs and freedom.

“I’m leaving and if he tries to stop me, I’ll kick him hard enough to turn him into a eunuch, then scream until his eardrums burst.”

Rattled and with her aggravation meter squarely in the danger-zone, she didn’t stop with the epithets and diatribe the whole time she was ascending. “…Jerk, loser- scumbag. I mean who the hell does he think he is, patting my ass. Nobody pats my ass unless I give them a certified written invitation.”

Shuddering just thinking of that narrow, leering face, Cordelia faced the fact she’d made a mistake staying. It was too late now, but she should have turned around and walked out the second she laid eyes on him and felt her skin crawl.

What really pissed her off was the fact that normally she was so careful, priding herself on always checking out the details in advance. Today she hadn’t and all because, thanks to Angel’s hero complex, she was now fired and lucky if she didn’t get stuck with a repair bill. Was there such a thing as insurance against idiot vamps?

“Okay, so I’m dumb. Everybody’s allowed to be dumb occasionally. It’s like a cosmic law or something.”

Temper had the door slamming open harder than intended, but Cordelia didn’t slow down. In the hall she didn’t just meet Steve, the scum-bag in question, she barrelled into him. Before he could do more than blink and open his mouth, Steve found a stiff finger jabbing into his chest, scrupulously avoiding gaping areas of canary yellow shirt.

Glaring hazel eyes shot sparks, “You need a shrink if you think I’m gonna wear that thing you call a costume downstairs. You, mister, have just wasted my time.”

Just thinking about the hours she’d spent agonising over her wardrobe and hair had her temper skyrocketing. “Do you have any idea how long it takes to style hair like mine? Forever that’s what.” Tossing aside long glossy dark strands, she continued to rant, “For your information, I am an actress. As in, I’m selling my talent and not my body. Got it, sicko?!”

Steve didn’t even realise he was backing away down the hall, but her single nail felt like a talon digging for blood. Her mouth kept flapping but he didn’t catch any of it, too, caught up by her beautiful and furious face. She was spitting mad, but fucking gorgeous with it. Seeing that flushed face with honey eyes flashing fire, he couldn’t help but get hard thinking about the fun they could have filming. Jesus, she was a wildcat. Saliva pooled in his mouth. Hank had the equipment which was why he was in front of the camera, but hey, that didn’t mean only he was the only one got to sample the goods. Thinking with his gonads and bypassing his brain, he wrapped a hand around a warm, slim arm.

“Sweetheart, why so angry?” She stopped and stared, narrow-eyed. Missing the signals he gave her his best smile, “We can work this out. Just go and put the costume on like a good girl and we-“

“You haven’t heard a word I’ve just said, have you?”

Guilty as charged. “I was captivated by your beauty.”

Could he spell smarmy? “Yeah right. God, you’re so pathetic it’s unreal. I’m outta here.”

Vibrating with angry disgust, Cordelia swept past him and was at the door before it sunk in for Steve that his actress was walking out on him. He lunged, catching her arm just as she pulled open the front door. They weren’t in a studio today, but a private house and once outside there was no security to stop her, or him for that matter. A tingle spread over his scalp at the errant thought. After the last time, he’d sworn he’d never force another one, but today temptation was strong enough to swamp caution.

Wheedling he said, “Look, you can’t go. I’ll never get a replacement actress in time for today’s shoot. C’mon gimme a break.”

Shaking him off like he had a disease, Cordelia raked him with a scornful glance. “Not a chance and besides, you don’t need an actress, you need a prostitute.” A brow arched, “Among other things.”

Her tone was unmistakable. Grabbing hold of her again, Steve’s narrow face became pinched, the thin lips disappearing altogether. “There’s no need to be bitchy. It’s just a job?” He was getting pissed and it showed.

Cordelia didn’t give a crap if he was getting angry. “Beg to differ, asshole. Now…let-me-go!”

Steve’s thoughts whirled like a rat in a maze. Hitting on a solution his expression turned cunning. He knew how to change her mind and afterward it wouldn’t matter, they’d have the tape as evidence she’d been willing. “No.”

Cordelia gaped “What did you say?”

Her threat radar, usually so proficient, had been drowned out by indignation. Now it kicked into overdrive. Oh Crap!
9.37 p.m.

“I don’t like this,” announced Angel into the silence.

Wesley glanced up from his book, penlight in one hand. “It’s a house?” He made it a question. “Besides, do you really want to risk another fiasco like in the mall?”

That’s was true and it looked innocent enough, but over the last two centuries Angel had learned not to question his instincts. Opening the Plymouths door, he left Wes with a simple instruction. “Wait for me here. I’m going to check it out.”

Eyeing the tall, powerful figure loping across the street, Wesley shrugged and lost interest when the vampire disappeared amongst the cars and van parked on the drive.

Back inside, Steve the Weasel was a lot stronger than Cordelia had given him credit for having that irritating wiry strength men had even when they weren’t built big. No matter how she struggled and dug in her heels, she was still dragged down the hall and into the floodlit great room.

Pushed into a black leather armchair; panic forced her to re-evaluate her approach. Shakily she said, “Look, can’t we at least talk about this?”

“No.”

So much for a new approach. Ah well, talking is over-rated anyway.

“Fine, let’s not talk then.”

When Steve came back holding a syringe aloft, Cordelia went as tense as a coiled spring. Thinking it was fear, he was unprepared for the white-out pain when she lunged and grasping his balls in merciless fingers, yanking and twisting until he was yowling in pain. He bent double as Cordelia jack-knifed to her feet. The top of her head met his chin and snapped the head back with tongue crunching power.
Dizzy and seeing spots, Cordy dived for the door and screamed when a hard hand grabbed onto her hair, ruthlessly halting her flight.

Dragged back to the chair, tears stung her eyes from the pain in her scalp.
Hoarsely she said, “Did I mention I’ve got herpes?”

When Angel stepped into the room nobody noticed. They were all, too, caught up in the action being caused by a screeching, scratching and kicking female with shapely legs and curvaceous ass being displayed for all to see. Fighting with all of her might, Cordelia hadn’t realised her skirt was around her waist. Later she’d figure that some things just slip your mind when everything you are is being threatened on a fundamental level.

Lots of things flew through Angel’s head; cracking skulls, breaking limbs or tearing them off, ripping some genitals off bodies and stuffing them in mouths for them to choke on. Violence, an integral part of his make-up thanks to being a demon, was for once welcome. A red mist of rage rose up.

A single glance assured him she hadn’t been stripped, meaning the assault hadn’t got sexual yet. He still wanted to kill them. Any girl being treated this way would cause him to intervene, but he knew Cordelia and that made it personal.

Three men were wrestling with her on the chair, two of them holding her arms and trying to still her legs, while the third was injecting something into her. Wading in, he lifted needle-guy and one of the others by their collars off her and simply knocked their heads together, knocking them senseless, before tossing them into a virtual forest of camera’s and boomers. With the last of the trio, he drew back and drove a fist full into the guys shocked face, sending him spinning away with a spurt of blood and several loose teeth.

They noticed him now. With his back to Cordelia, Angel faced them off and counted a total of seven males in the room. Seven-to-one, it didn’t take much imagination to guess how this would have ended. Given what he was and how he’d been before being resouled, he got the visuals in 3-D, and the resulting urge to vamp-out had ripples running along the skin of his face. Behind him, Cordelia’s thundering pulse and panting breathes filled his ears until he tuned them out to focus.

Dazed and frightened out of her wits, at first Cordelia had thought they’d pulled off her of their own accord; until she’d looked up and saw a darkly murderous face she recognised. Heart leaping, she realised why the attack had ended so abruptly. Still handsome and yet brutal with his teeth gritted and lips drawn back in a snarl, he was literally a sight for sore eyes. Angel had come to save her- again. Second time lucky she thought semi-hysterically.

Oh God, only in her world were the saviour’s vampires. Bizarrely nobody else, not even a room full of cops, could have made her feel safe so quickly. The kicker with that was that as the fear drained her temper soared again.

“Are you okay, Cordelia?” Angel asked a little tersely, something she forgave him for since he was standing between her and them.

“Peachy now you’re here.” The rusty sound of her voice gave away more than the words. She licked her lips and tacked on a heartfelt, “Thanks.”

He had his back to her and didn’t see the building fury. It felt like every muscle in her body was clenched to snapping point. Goose-bumps chased along the skin of her arms and legs. Everything she’d suffered in the last few minutes was nothing more than a taste of what might have been if not for Angel. Growing up on a hell-mouth meant she was used to being saved- from demons. Heck, that was almost natural, but needing to be saved from human beings was more than she could stomach.

Through the thick fog of rage coursing through her, Cordelia heard Angel talking to her attackers, “The only reason you aren’t lying in a pool of your own blood is that Cordelia has been through enough tonight. We’re leaving and if any of you move, I’ll reconsider.”

Leaving, just like that? The words came out of nowhere, “Don’t let me stop you, Angel.”

They were like the ripples following a rock being thrown in a still pond. All eyes swung her way. Standing, Cordelia stepped out from behind the protective shield of Angel’s tall frame with her head high and eyes gleaming. “In fact, forget that. I’m not leaving…”

She made a slow beeline for Steve, “…until I give you all something to think about for the future.”

Stunned by her reckless move, Angel gaped and then went to intervene; halting the attempt when she snapped her head around to pin him with a glare. He didn’t need to hear the words, don’t try and stop me. Every line of her stiffly held body screamed revenge. Cordelia saw his acceptance when his gaze shifted back to the men. Turning her head, she got back to stalking a dazed and uncomprehending Steve. Angel stepped back, content to remain a silent warning of swift reprisal if she didn’t get her way.

A few minutes later, outside with the star-studded and clear sky making the air crisp, Angel watched Cordelia walk stiffly towards the Plymouth. She was careful to keep a few feet between them. Strangely uncomfortable with the silence, he was moved to break it.

“I think you busted his jaw,” he said awkwardly.

Cordelia’s back stiffened at the sound of his voice. Reaching the car she didn’t open the door but instead turned to face him. From her tight expression he could see it coming and was helpless to deflect her.

“Not that I’m not grateful, but do you want to explain to me how you came to be there?” Before he could open his mouth she held up a hand. “And before you say it, I don’t believe in coincidence. Spill, Angel”
PART 3

Taxco, Mexico

Taxco, modest in comparison to the other cities, with its red-roofed, white-walled houses, lay sprawled over a steep hillside. From the moment the sun rose it was a burning yellow disc that hurt to look at. Dogs yapped and barked as they chased breakfast, careering around the narrow streets and awakening residents.

The main street, brimming with silver shops exactly as it has for the last three centuries was abruptly brought to a standstill by a piercingly shrill scream. Immediately all heads turned to search out the unexpected and alien sound; then surged towards an hysterical woman who’d erupted from an alley between the fish-mongers and the Silver-Conchas Taverna.

Babbling and gesticulating wildly she made little sense even to neighbours who had known her from childhood. Stella Gonzalas; a forty three-year-old dressmaker with three daughters and expecting her first grandchild soon, had just stumbled onto a mutilated body in her work-shop, and all of the blessings in her life couldn’t remove it from her sight.

“¡Ayudame, ayudame! Madre Santa, ayudame!” Rocking back and forth on her knees she wailed with worn hands pressed into her eyes and digging deep as if to remove something etched there. “ Es horrible, monstruoso. Pobre alma asesinada. Se an llevado su corazón!” Latching onto one of those trying to comfort her, Stella’s face was a waxen mask and her voice a hushed terrified whisper, “Es el diablo, te digo. ¡Esta aquí!”

At the edge of the crowd and over the hysterical sobbing another voice broke in; drawing the attention of a shop-keeper. “Can you understand her? I don’t speak Spanish. She sure is upset about something.”

Esteban Guierrez turned to find a young blonde americano with a smart blue pinstripe suit and clutching a black briefcase. Still shaken from what he’s heard, he spoke without thinking. “There has been a murder, senor. She says the devil has taken a man’s heart. She says he is here still.”

Then noticing the cold and pitiless blue eyes of his listener, Esteban shook his head and backed away, never taking his eyes off the Wolfram & Hart Lawyer as he made his escape with snakes of terror riding his spine.

~

There was no doubt about it her life had taken a really bizarre twist.

When Angel had first offered her a job two weeks ago, she’d turned him down flat. Standing beside his big black monster of a car with him looking strangely intent after rescuing her from potential rape, Cordelia had been stunned he’d go to so much trouble to track her down and ask. At the time she’d meant it too.

Growing up in a hellmouth meant you had to choose what you were going to be and that choice had nothing to do with careers and benefits packages. Sunnydale turned out three kinds of people; the fighters, the victims and the escapees. She considered herself firmly in the last category and no way was she stepping back into that arena.

His visible disappointment hadn’t penetrated the thick fog of smothering shock buffering her at the time. But she remembered it later on with her head down the toilet while she noisily spewed everything she’d eaten that day. Thinking herself alone the gentle fingers pulling her hair out of the way had came as a complete surprise. Pride and gratitude warred and for once pride lost; especially since the cool hand rubbing along her spine felt so damned good; soothing the over-heated flesh and massaging muscles knotted with tension.

After what seemed an age and knees hurting from kneeling she’d sagged between bouts of heaving. Trembling all over and practically helpless, Cordelia would have slid to the floor then if Angel hadn’t caught her. Lifting her effortlessly to lie draped over his thigh, he supported her weight so she wouldn’t have to and kept her head still within range of the bowl.

It was dumb, but despite feeling like shit and crying like a baby, the memory of that hour made her feel…good. She tried, but Cordelia couldn’t remember the last time someone had taken care of her like that; outside of paid professionals anyway.

The weird thing was Cordelia knew damn well Angel hadn’t even liked her that much back in Sunnydale, and as much as she hated to admit it, she’d hadn’t really given him much to like. Still living the rarefied life of the rich and popular, Angel had been nothing more than a hottie she’d wanted to claim as her own. Back then, it hadn’t occurred to her to look beyond the package of a handsome face and a tall, muscled body.

Worse, when she’d found out her was a bona-fide member of the undead, she’d labelled him as a ‘thing’ and dismissed him from her mind.

Pulling her wits together out of sheer willpower, he’d felt strangely warm under her hands; a miracle for a walking corpse. Bracing herself to face him it was his steady and concerned brown eyes that helped her swimming head focus. Gazes locked the sickening shifting inside her body died down, and in that moment with her defences down he unknowingly breached the walls she’d built around herself.

Kneeling in the shelter of that big body, she finally understood what it was that had kept Buffy enthralled; the quality that had made the blonde slayer melt even after all he’d done as Angelus.

God, Angel really cared.

It scared and thrilled her. Then it made her feel ashamed because even as she did an about-turn and accepted the job, Cordelia knew her reasons had more to with wanting to hold onto that concern; especially coming from someone who’d known her at her worst. Brimming with self-confidence and assuming an assurance bordering on arrogance was more of a habit than reality.

No woman’s an island.

Which was why she was going to be the best damned assistant he’d ever had. By the time she was finished he’d be lost without her, or her name wasn’t Cordelia Chase. She was a different person now. Still a bitch sure, but she saved that for the really deserving. Okay, and maybe the odd occasion when somebody she cared about did something completely dumb, or refused to see reason.

He wasn’t taking her idea seriously. Frustrated by the lack of foresight he was showing, Cordelia planted both hands on her hips, “Hey, it’s not like you’re rolling in it, Mr I’ve-been-alive-and-broke-for-two-centuries. I’ve seen your books and even cooking those babies won’t scramble that bottom line. Did they not have any Fortune 500 for Angelus to target back in the day?”

“Money wasn’t exactly the object at the time,” Seated at his desk, Angel looked insulted. “And I’m two-hundred and forty five.”

You had to be a vampire to be sensitive about losing nearly half a century. Hazel eyes rolled, “Whatever. A costume and an ad in a paper won’t kill you *and* it’ll inject some much needed mullah into this place.”

He had that blank look on his face, like he was watching her lips move without listening to a word. It drove her crazy.

Wearing a sundress that managed to be both sinfully sexy and teasingly demure all at the same time, Cordelia hauled in impatience. One suede covered foot tapped impatiently. Cajoling charm hadn’t worked; back-handed compliments hadn’t worked and to top it off he still appeared infuriatingly impassive after her third attempt. She wasn’t getting anywhere, but since when did a little thing like that stop her?

“Cordelia, just…will you-“ he stopped with a sigh thinking what was the use asking Cordelia not to interfere. It was like asking her not to exist.

Sitting behind his desk with what he was fast concluding was his own personal nemesis standing only two ft away, Angel felt trapped, cornered and powerless. Since she’d come to work for him, Cordelia had ignored or brushed aside every signal, or barrier he’d sent out or built. She was wearing him down and for the life of him he couldn’t figure out a way to stop her.

“I don’t like having my picture taken,” he said finally, reaching for any excuse and praying she’d accept it. “In fact the last time I did I ate the artist afterward.”

Frustration drove him to add the last and he regretted it instantly. Tense, Angel waited for disgust to cross replace the arch ‘I’m waiting one’. As much as they’d loved one another, Buffy had always backed away from him the instant he let any of his past slip out. He hadn’t blamed her for that.

Cordelia didn’t bat a lash. Flipping the magazine to dangle open, she thrust it at him so he could see the attractive blonde in a suit selling accident claims. “Hello! We’re talking a photograph here, not some dumb portrait. Twentieth Century ringing any bells?”

His relief that Cordelia seemed to have missed his slip was short-lived. She wasn’t going to let it go. Angel let the silence lengthen. So far he’d changed how he dressed; wearing lighter colours after she’d complained his black-on- black look ‘sucked the life out of the office’. Then he’d let her re-organise both his desk and the filing all in the name of keeping her occupied, and finally he’d kicked Wes off the outer office desk to give Cordelia her own space.

There were limits and he’d just reached his. Enough was enough. His chair scraped on the floor as he stood.

Glowering from lowered brows Angel rapped his knuckles on the desk and said, “I’m not doing an advertisement in a paper, Cordelia, now drop it.” There he’d used his hardest voice, the one that always guaranteed instant obedience.

“You need more clients.” She shot back, blithely ignoring his unequivocal tone and thrusting out a slim tanned arm pointed toward the outer office. “This place could be swarming with bored, and not to mention rich housewives, all wanting dark and handsome to solve their supernatural problems. Just think of the money…and- my salary.”

Frozen and catapulted back into the past Angel didn’t have a choice but to picture it. Bored housewives in his considerable experience meant heavy perfume and lots of uncovered skin? That nightmare image came all too vividly to mind, bringing a few others along for the ride. When he’d had a taste for upper-class food, Angelus had used his looks to draw in victims, turning their ennui against them. Remembrance had his nostrils flaring as if to catch the elusive scent of warm female skin. The resulting deluge of Cordelia’s fragrance and his unwilling reaction to it had him almost whimpering, and then bolting.

His silence went on too long. “Angel?” Cordelia prodded impatience in every svelte line.

Sometimes escape was the only option. “I have clients. I don’t need to advertise,” Angel tossed over one shoulder and snatching his coat off the peg, he almost knocked Wesley off his feet as he passed him at the door to outside.

From the stairwell Angel’s deep voice floated back to Wesley as he steadied himself against the doorframe, “Don’t leave her alone.”

~

A week later…

“How are things with Angel?” asked Giles.

“Getting there, less strained,” Wesley replied into the phone and sipped at his tea. “He and Cordelia seem to have got past their initial difficulties.”

There was a telling silence before a low chuckle, “Hmm, I can imagine what those where?”

You really can’t. He didn’t say it and the mug stilled in mid-air as loyalty warred with the need to air his growing concerns. Sighing, Wes lowered it to the table and sat back on his sagging couch. “It’s been difficult time for Angel. Lots of memories have been brought back, wounds re-opened. He’s coping and Cordelia is settling in. I suppose on the surface things are working out nicely.”

Rupert Giles was no fool. “Only on the surface?”

Wesley opted not to answer directly. “Do you remember our discussions back in Sunnydale? The ones about Angelus and his…pre-occupation, shall we say, for women?”

“If you mean his tendency to save his most sadistic and inventive games for any female that caught his eye, then yes, I recall them vividly.” Giles went audibly tense, his tone crisp. Wesley could picture the older man as he straightened at his desk. “What about them?” Giles prodded.

“You may not have noticed back then, with his attention so firmly on Buffy, but Angel has a similar focus. Over time I’ve noticed a marked difference between his behaviour with male and female clients.”

“He’s more attentive to women clients?”

“No, it’s not that per se. Angel focuses on what needs to be done. “Wesley searched for a way to explain Angel’s intensity and what was recently bothering him. “Let me put it this way. He takes aggression against women very personally; more so than with a man.”

“The need to atone coming out in a latent fashion, possibly?” suggested Giles before continuing, “I’ve always marvelled at the irony of Angel. It’s a quirk of his that what once made him the most evil of vampires, keeps turning out to be his more useful qualities as a champion for the Powers.”

Obsessive stalking had become untiring body-guarding and a predator’s dedication to gaining his objective. Useful indeed. “I agree, but that focus tends to make the client, particularly the female ones, dependant on him. A circumstance he refuses to see and won’t do anything about.” To Wesley it seemed Angel actively preferred it that way.

Giles was confused, “I’m not sure I understand where you’re going with this. What does this have to do with Cordelia?”

“He’s become almost possessive of her.”

Only when it was physically impossible would Angel let him do any of the watching over of Cordelia and even then it was with reluctance. That was only one of many things bothering Wesley. There was something else growing between the oft-times sparring pair.

“Of Cordelia…” Giles sounded shocked, “and she allows this?”

Not understanding the significance of the last Wesley didn’t address it. “It’s not obvious unless you’ve been working with him long enough to know what is normal and what isn’t. He bends over backwards to keep her happy, but refuses to be honest about what’s going on. Personally, I think he’s got Cordelia, Buffy and Doyle all wrapped in one big, mess of a triangle.”

“Oh dear.”

~

With Cordelia not due for a while, Wesley decided to broach Angel on the topic of their latest case. Matters had become strained between the two of them recently and despite having so far only danced around the subject, he knew Angel was aware of his disapproval. Not that it did him any blasted good. Nobody told Angel what he should and shouldn’t do, although perhaps with the single exception of Cordelia herself.

Nervously certain that he was headed for an unpleasant interview, he took the stairs to go down to the vampire’s apartment rather than use the noisy elevator.

Seated in an armchair with only a few lamps on to provide a dim light, Angel looked normal, even relaxed. His dog-eared photograph of Buffy was laid carefully on the chairs arm, close to hand and spying it, Wesley almost felt foolish enough to leave. Possessive of Cordelia indeed!

Having known the instant Wesley began his descent and without looking up as he slowly turning a page, Angel stopped his retreat. “What did you want, Wesley?”

“I’m concerned about Cordelia.”

The dark head stayed down-bent, “Don’t be. Nothing’s going to happen to Cordelia. I won’t allow it.”

Being brushed off got Wesley irritated enough to push. “That’s all well and good, Angel, and I know you mean it. However…”

A dark basilisk stare sliced into him for the pause. “Spit it out Wesley, you’ve been twitchy for days.”

A deep breath seemed wise. “I think keeping her in the dark is a mistake.” He rushed on before Angel cut him off. “I really don’t see the harm in warning her she’s the target of a group of demons set on removing her heart.”

“That’s because you don’t know her. I made the decision based on what I knew of Cordelia from Sunnydale. Right or wrong, the time for confessions has past.” Angel didn’t let any of his own uncertainties show. At the time he’d done what he thought best.

The expression on that hard face didn’t change. A sure sign he was annoyed in the extreme, and the tone suggested the discussion was over. Refusing to drop his gaze, Wesley ignored the sudden desire to answer natures call. Carefully he said, “I don’t agree.”

In the months since he’d joined Angel in his mission this was the first time he’d ever directly questioned the vampire’s methods.

There was a long pause before Angel set aside his book and got up to walk into the kitchen. Wesley wasn’t sure if his destination being the refrigerator and its gory contents was a subliminal message. Angel was a hero, of that he had no doubt, but being a watcher wouldn’t let him forget there was a villain in there, too.

Keeping his back turned to Wesley, Angel poured and drank from a tall glass. Only when he was finished did he turn and answer. “If Cordelia knew the truth she would never trust me again and probably leave LA.” The memory of a contrite and ashamed Xander had him adding, “She can be unforgiving about being deceived, no matter what the reason.”

The Xander situation was much more extreme, but it still applied.

He’d begun, so he’d finish. “I wouldn’t blame her. Your using her as bait aren’t you?”

The accusation abruptly reminded Angel why he hated being questioned. “Doyle’s last vision was about Cordelia and Buffy; three very good reasons why I won’t let her run away from this. As for being bait, she can’t outrun them anyway. Three of the victims had already left California and they still ended up dead. I can’t protect her if I can’t reach her.”

The slam of the door upstairs and a cheerful, “Hello, anybody here?” was heard before Wes could frame a reply. Pushing away from the counter Angel brushed past him with a low voiced warning, “This conversation is over. Agree with me or not; we’re doing this my way.”

Upstairs Cordelia had already managed to stake a claim on the whole office. Her denim jacket was thrown across her desk, a chiffon scarf that hadn’t been there before hung over the wooden railing dividing the office, and a box of donuts had been dumped beside the coffee maker; with the girl herself rummaging around inside the fragrant container.

Leaning on the doorframe Angel shrugged off his irritation enough to say pleasantly, “You’re early. We weren’t expecting you for another couple of hours?” He wasn’t anywhere near as relaxed as he appeared. Her predictable schedule was one of the bonuses of the case, one of the few.

Triumphantly clutching a white sprinkled confection, she said airily. “My last class got cancelled. So, here I am ready to be Girl Friday to your Dark Knight. Besides, it was here or home since I can’t afford to go shopping until you pay me.” Pausing she arched a brow, “That’s a hint in case you missed it.”

As usual around her, Angel was nonplussed. “Paydays next Friday,” he hazarded and made a mental note only to feel a stab of guilt seeing the fleeting wince that passed over hazel eyes. She was short of cash. Damn.

He followed her with his eyes as she rounded the desk to sit down, “Look, Cordelia, if you need money-“

Between licking sticky icing off her fingers, she brushed him off, “I just bought donuts didn’t I? I’m fine, stop fretting.”

Powerless to stop it, Angel felt a smile curve at the picture she made; so fastidious and yet with a blob of dough and sugar waiting to be devoured. “Would you tell me if you weren’t?” he asked following his instincts and guessing not. He understood pride, and respected it.

Mid bite, Cordelia crinkled her nose and waited to swallow before answering. “I was kidding, Angel. Geeze, don’t take me so seriously. Go have a donut and chill,” thinking about it she added, “If that’s possible for you. For a dead guy you have a habit of getting hot under the collar.”

After the first few days, he’d learned not to take her references to his lack of a pulse personally. In fact their occasional sparring over his vampirism was strangely relaxing. Now he crossed his arms and quirked a brow. “I don’t eat, remember?”

“Like I could forget the liquid lunch.” Her eyes rolled, “Try it and put those fangs to good use on something solid for a change. Besides, I want know what you’re like on a sugar high.”

Dumbstruck, he nearly laughed. In two centuries he’d never met anyone like her. Cordelia’s bluntness, acidic wit and deceptively off-hand concern were entirely hers. Based on the time he’d spent with her Angel accepted he hadn’t known her at all before. For a girl who he’d dismissed as self-absorbed, her curiosity about everyone and everything kept blindsiding him.

That wasn’t the only aspect of Cordelia that knocked him off stride. After a year Wesley still struggled to even mention his food supply, never mind plop a glass of blood on his desk and tell him caustically to drink up because he was making him nervous chewing on a pencil. She was something else and he’d been in a daze for an hour after that.

Realising he was staring Angel reached over to flick up the lid and looking inside it, said dryly, “You don’t want to see me on any kind of a high, Cordelia, trust me.”

Helplessly basking under the undivided attention of someone who had once struggled to say two words to her, that little reminder didn’t sink in straight away

When it did her eyes went wide and Cordelia’s shot out of her chair and made it across the room in record time. Then snatching the box of sugary goodness out of reach, she backed up and grinning gave in to the impulse and taunted. “Good point, so hands-off. No highs of any kind for the boss, or his evil alter ego.”

For just a fraction of a second after seeing Cordelia dance backwards to her desk, Angel was tempted by the idea of giving chase. He even tensed in anticipation of making a move. What stopped him was the knowledge that he wasn’t remotely interested in the box only her reaction if he did. The realisation was as stunning as a douse of icy water.

Cordelia sensed it, too. They both froze and stared with mouths going dry.

So engrossed in their impromptu game and its abrupt close neither noticed the still figure of Wesley. Watching from the inner office and uncomfortable at the by-play, he finally stepped up and spoke to announce his presence. “Does that go for me, too, or can I snaffle one?”

Focused entirely on Angel, Cordelia jerked at the intrusive sound of a new voice and then feeling embarrassed, snapped, “Geeze, sneak much. You’re as bad as he is. Next time cough or something will you?” Wes didn’t seem to be listening, too, busy eyeing both her and Angel. Feeling unaccountably awkward she followed up with a sheepish shrug and slid the box on the desk. “And sure, help yourself.”

Returning to her seat, Cordelia didn’t look back at Angel as she sat down again, pretending instead to have a pressing need to stare fixedly at a blank screen.

Behind the still expression her thoughts whirled. Whoa! What the hell had just happened? Angel had looked ready to pounce and the thrill that had given her suggested she wouldn’t have minded all that much. “I need to get more.”

“You’re going out?!”

They both voiced the question simultaneously and it was only then Cordelia realised she’d spoken out-loud. Scrupulously avoiding Angel, she focused on Wesley, “Is that a problem, because if it is, tough. Nobody mentioned it when I signed on for this gig.”

~

Kate Lockley was punchy from lack of sleep, but the strain shadowing light blue eyes didn’t lessen their sharpness. Blonde hair was scraped back into a ponytail to keep it out of the way and her tee-shirt, jeans and jacket were plain and utilitarian. She was second in line of the cavalcade of unmarked cars. Directly behind her and sandwiched between her and the last sedan was the windowless van ferrying one very nervous Jason C. Richards. He had every reason to be nervous since his was the last name on the list of donee’s and he was the only remaining survivor; a fact that did not make for reassuring reading.

They’d located and contacted him and now they were bringing him back home to Los Angeles at his own request. She had to wonder at that decision, given all the indications so far pointed to the killers working out of LA. Still, he was a free man in a free country and all they could do was protect him. At least he’d agreed to go to a safehouse.

When Kate had told Angel what was going on, he’d offered to shadow them, but knowing how twitchy the whole department was and that a strange car shadowing would be noticed, she’d turned him down. A decision she now sincerely regretted. Being a cop was bred into her bones and instincts honed from experience were screaming a warning. If they reached the safehouse unscathed it would be a miracle. Her hand hovered over the police radio before reluctantly dropping.

The streets showed no unusual or suspicious activity; meaning she had nothing to report other than a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. Not exactly something the other guys would want to hear.

A few miles down the road an old woman was crossing the street at an excruciatingly slow pace. Braking was the last thing Kate wanted to do, but with no choice she did so and watched the tan van follow suit in her rearview mirror.
This close she could see through the lead car without a problem. Staring at the bent figure, she willed her to move faster with her fingers tapping a nervous tattoo on the steering wheel.

Then her eyes went wide and the bottom dropped out of her belly when the ‘old woman’ turned, straightened and whipped off the concealing coat and floppy hat to reveal something that looked anything but human. She got a blurred impression of russet skin and flame red eyes.

“Oh fuck!”

At the same time as the demon leapt onto the roof of the lead car and stabbed a spear-like appendage that had grown out of its ‘hands’ down into the interior, there was a tremendous crash from behind. The sound of metal rending under enormous pressure was followed by an impact strong enough that Kate’s head was slammed onto the steering wheel, leaving her dazed and bleeding.

Something had hit the cavalcade hard enough to send each vehicle ramming into the next. In seconds they’d been reduced to helplessness and crushed together there was no escape. Gunfire rent the air and flashes of hot lead spat out inside the lead car as well as from the front cab of the van behind her.

Through the steam rising from the twisted hood of her car, the demon stood massively tall and powerfully muscled. Staggering only a fraction under the onslaught, it remorselessly returned to its murderous task, and two stabs later the cops in front lay slumped.

Ogodogodogodogod!

Scrambling for the radio and unclipping her firearm, Kate sucked in a deep breath and got ready to pray for a miracle. What good were bullets for Godsake? her brain screamed, but it was either that or…nothing. Before she could bring the receiver to her lips though to put through an emergency call, the demon leapt onto the hood of her car. Guessing what was going to happen next it was only by reaching out and depressing the seats release to throw herself back did Kate avoid being skewered. Glass showered over her and there was a crunch of plastic followed by a sizzling crackle.

Its focus though was the van behind her and it didn’t stop to make certain she was dead. Heart slamming behind her ribs, Kate felt sick as a single dent appeared above her as it leapt from the cars roof; swiftly followed by screams from the van and god knows where else.

Trembling like a leaf, she closed her eyes and gathered her courage before reaching for the car door. The radio was wasted and she still had an innocent man to protect. Unfortunately for Jason C. Richards it had gotten twisted in the double crash and refused to open no matter how much she yanked and sobbed with frustration.

Craning her neck around Kate could only watch helplessly as the demon and two others emerged from the van with a slumped figure slung over one shoulder. Tears of helpless fury filled her eyes and feeling hopeless she crawled through to the back of the car between the seats and felt around for her jacket. She needed the cell-phone inside it. Or, more accurately she needed Angel, fast!
PART 4

Under a leaden sky, Albert Embankment with its cluster of 1950’s office buildings stood gloomily facing the sluggish waters of the Thames. Functional rather than impressive, they’d been built in a rush after the last World War in an effort to cover the scars left by enemy bombers. Now fifty years later the only colour was a red double-decker bus trundling past in a spray of dirty water, its wipers battling with the endless rain. London in November at its dreary best.

Inside No 39 the hustle and bustle of the workers had more to do with keeping moving for warmth rather than a real need to do whatever tasks were assigned. Like the tired old building, the central heating barely chugged along. So, unless you were sat on top of one of the chipped old radiators the cold had a way of numbing ones fingers.

Theodore Georges, bundled up to his ears in a thick Arran roll-neck sweater sloped past the receptionist and over to the stairs. Despite being only two years off retirement, he was still quite nimble on his feet, and his attitude of never taking life too seriously meant his high-boned face was minus the wrinkles old-age and fretting had given his contemporaries. That attitude along with his dislike for formal suits and barbers meant he was considered a character by the newer members of staff, and an irritation to the Watchers Council elite.

Two stories up, fast footsteps thundered down from above and he moved to the side as a young whirl-wind in a boiler suit thumped past. Hand on the rail for extra drag as his legs finally began to tire, the whirlwind’s voice floated back up. “Been betting on the Gee-gee’s again, Teddy? The Fogey’s aren’t going to like that.”

Harrumphing, Teddy finally reached the first floor and growled to himself, “Bloody idiot name for a horse, Gee-Gee’s.” The Fogey’s was a not so affectionate name the younger generation had for the council elders. It was a tradition that went back generations and as a youngster himself, along with the very same men who now held that title, he’d whispered about their own elders in exactly the same way.

Time marches on and his mass of grey hair attested to that unpleasant fact. Worse, being told he had an uncanny resemblance to Peter O’Toole was hardly flattering when the actor in question was dead.

The phone on his desk was ringing insistently when he entered the cubicle someone dared to label an office. Flopping into his tired, grey cushioned old swivel chair he picked it up to silence the commotion. “Its 12.45 and I’m at lunch. Does nobody watch the clock anymore?” To anyone that knew him, such an irreverent greeting was the norm.

His caller wasn’t fazed, “Boo hoo. Its 4 am in the morning over here and I ran out of tea over an hour ago. Hello, Teddy.”

Teddy’s jaw dropped with shock. “Good Lord! Rupert, is that you?”

Voice still clipped and undeniably English, Rupert replied, “Last time I checked, yes. I need your help and it’s rather urgent.”

“With you it always is. How are you, you old sod?”

“Tired, irritable and still ten years younger than you, so less of the old.”

Teddy chuckled at the rancour audible in his friend’s voice, “Still in sunny California are you? I heard a whisper about the place that you were coming back. If I were you I’d hurry before you go native.” He was careful not to mention the young slayers death. Many here were aware of his affection for the unfortunate teenager who’d been his charge. Teddy sympathised in a remote sort of way.

Exasperation replaced the rancour although this time it was tempered with caring. “I already have gone native didn’t they tell you. In fact, I’m surprised the call got put through.” A sigh puffed down the line, “I was going to come home until things got tricky. There’s another young lady here in need of a keeper and until somebody comes along to volunteer I don’t have much choice except to stay.”

“Young lady?” The suggestion was all in the tone.

“Do stop being more of a prat than needs be and get your mind out of the gutter. Willow’s a witch.”

Enjoying the unexpected treat, Teddy lifted moccasined feet to rest on the desk’s corner and couldn’t resist pushing a little more, “Really, Willow the Witch. Why am I getting a picture of a blue apparition, bad fairies and a talking caterpiller?”

It took an embarrassingly long time for that to click. Across the Atlantic in his homey little apartment in Southern California, Rupert Giles scrubbed his whiskered face and wished Theodore Georges to perdition. “You never change do you? Willow is a very powerful young woman; powerful enough that it was she who resouled Angelus, nullifying the happiness clause and making it permanent. All just at seventeen I might add.”

Angelus. His breath caught. That name still had the power to send shivers up even an old dog like him. To some inside these not so hallowed halls it was second only to the Prince of Darkness himself. Chilled, Teddy felt his stomach sink to the floor. “Why do I think that having mentioned that name. You’re about to obliterate my weekend.” Pushing back in his chair to check there was nobody lurking behind the door he’d left open, he complained, “Rupert, I had plans!”

There was, it seemed, to be no mercy. “Well unmake them. At your age I would thought a quiet few days reading would be more appropriate anyway. I need to know why somebody would be willing to kill a dozen people to obtain a Slayers heart. You have resources there I can’t reach and like I said it’s urgent.”

“Resources?! Are you trying to get me sacked?” Voice rising with tension, he lowered it to a hiss before continuing, “You know that details pertaining to the slayers are highly confidential. I’d be found out and kicked out without so much as a hearing.” That was at the very least. Words trembled on the tip of his tongue. He stilled them.

“It’s life or death, Ted. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t necessary. You know that. I-“ stopping with a sigh, Rupert reluctantly laid his trump card, “I’m calling in that favour, sorry, old friend.”

There was a deep pause.

Giles senior, Rupert’s father, had been an influential figure in his time. When a foolish mistake went foul, Rupert had taken the fall to protect his friend knowing he was unlikely to be sent off in disgrace. Despite the evidence to the contrary the cover-up had been believed because Rupert had already had a checkered past. Teddy owed him and they both knew it.

Closing his eyes and looking weary all of a sudden; as if the trip down memory lane had drained him, Teddy nodded very slowly. “I’ll see what I can find out. I’ll start with the authorised archives and work my way up. The keeper of the keys is a doddering old fool, I should be able to whisk them off him for long enough to access the rest if needs be.”

Saying, thank you, was superfluous given the coercion. Giles said simply, “If you find anything let me know immediately. If you can’t reach me, call Wesley Wyndham Pryce at Angel Investigations. I’m sure you have the number.”

“Wesley-!” Teddy lost what little colour he’d managed to retain at the idea of ringing there, “He’s even more-“

“Persona-non-grata than I am, I’m aware of that,” as was Wesley and the reason why Giles was making the call. “Don’t fret and just think of how the excitement will make up for missing the races.”

~

Earlier that night

Angel had to admit it was a classy place for a night-club. After cajoling a grumbling Cordelia out of her apartment to come here, he’d been dreading flashing strobes and a techno beat that would pound his vampire sensitive ears into numbness. Now, following the ebb and flow of the crowd, he was deeply grateful that the Blue Lava Lounge was civilised with its mixture of Mo-town and Jazz rhythm’s, discreet sunken dance floor and multiple levels with plenty of leather armchairs grouped for intimate conversation.

Leading the way through the throng, Angel kept his pace to Cordelia’s, so that she wouldn’t get left behind and used his larger frame as a shield to gently push aside obstacles in the form of bumping, chattering bodies and men leaving the bar with their hands full of precariously balanced beer and spirits. Instinctively looking for a quieter haven, he scanned the upper levels for a less congested area.

Fully attuned to her despite his search, he caught a glimpse out of the corner of his eye of her wide grin and looked down. It was a mistake because he was instantly caught just like when she stepped into her living room earlier. Angel’s eyes dilated and mouth turned dry. She was an incredibly beautiful woman. The clubs dim lighting couldn’t hide the sparkle of excitement lighting hazel eyes, nor the sheen coming off a waterfall of silken brown hair. Relaxing, too, he felt his own lips curve in response; grateful her initial reluctance seemed to have subsided now they were inside.

Angel didn’t blame her for getting irritated. He’d been pushier than he could remember being in over a century. To him it was simple; if she wanted to go out he had to take her. Having tied his own hands by keeping the truth from her, he couldn’t even explain his unusual insistence was purely for her safety.

For every argument against the idea she could come up with he’d countered it, determined that she not put herself out of his reach. If he’d been there to witness it, Wesley’s eyebrows would have been merging with his hairline at the mental gymnastics he’d employed. Not that Angel cared. He would do whatever he had to do to keep her safe; including braving the horrors of LA’s social scene.

Earlier in her apartment, her expression had spoken volumes. She was obviously settling on temporary insanity as the reason for his behaviour when something occurred to her that had caramel eyes going wide and her jaw dropping with amazement. A few stuttered sentences later he understood her shock, realising she’d jumped to the conclusion he was interested in her romantically. Deeply uncomfortable, but still willing to use whatever advantage came his way, he hadn’t said or done anything to disabuse her of that notion.

Oblivious to his machinations, Cordelia’s expressive face revealed rising excitement as the music and buzzing atmosphere of the club worked its magic on her ruffled mood. Catching his smile, hers blossomed further and leaning in she waited for him to drop his head those necessary few inches before issuing a light-hearted warning, “Don’t even think about dragging me up to some dark deserted corner, Angel. I didn’t wear this outfit for the benefit of the upholstery.”

A flicker of guilt was chased off by resignation across a hard face. She’d guessed right. Stunned at his gall, she poked his chest, “Oh, no you don’t. I was in the middle of making plans with friend’s who have an actual pulse until you decided you needed a break from brooding in the bat-cave or tearing heads off.” Turning, she flashed him a ‘take or leave it’ glance over one shoulder, saying, “We’re doing this my way, broody-boy.”

With that she took a detour, squeezing between a trio of men to head for an empty table right in the middle of the action. With no other choice it was a sheepish Angel that followed her. Trailing in her wake now, he had an unobstructed view of long slim legs showcased by a short, tan suede skirt. She had great legs, long and supple enough to wrap around a man and not let go until she was finished with him. Riveted, he didn’t recognise the wrongness of the errant fantasy, and it was the growing heat and heaviness in his groin that brought reality crashing back.

Unfortunately it didn’t crash back hard enough. Jerking his gaze up and away from shapely limbs, he was caught by the swaying emerald ties of her wraparound top as they draped from a knot in the middle of a smooth back. As Angel watched the fringe of the ties brushed against the blazing sun tattoo peeking above the skirts waistband. Inexplicably he had to swallow.

Aware he wasn’t the only male to notice and linger on her, Angel closed the distance thinking these helpless responses were seriously getting on his nerves. They shouldn’t even exist never mind be escalating. After the bloody finale of the Mayor’s ascension, he’d been convinced such needs were dead and buried with Buffy. Only to find he’d been wrong because now it seemed Cordelia could tap into them, too. Unfortunately, admitting that fact didn’t make this case any easier. Particularly given his dead lovers connection to it.

Grief clouding thinking and clinging to the past had enabled Angel to ignore the truth. He might be dead, but he wasn’t dust, meaning all the basic desires he’d thought incinerated had only been waiting to flare to new life. Attraction wasn’t just a human conundrum; vampires feel desire just as, if not more keenly. In the past those dark impulses had come like a thief in the night to steal, maim and corrupt innocence. Buffy had been safe because of his soul and her being a slayer. Cordelia…

He shut that line of thought down as fast as it formed. It doesn’t matter what Cordelia is, or isn’t. This is work not romance. Don’t confuse fantasy with reality, or you’ll end getting everybody killed.Needing the reminder wasn’t exactly reassuring.

Immersed in his self-directed and silent harangue, Angel didn’t notice in time that Cordelia had halted and he bumped right into her. Their collision finished with him snatching her up, powerful hands grasping her upper arms to keep her from falling back. The instant their bodies connected, Cordelia went rigid and her head jerked up so their gazes clashed.

Dropping his hands from warm flesh as if it burned, Angel stepped back. “Sorry, I wasn’t looking.”

It was over in blink of an eye and yet a myriad of impressions remained and the imprint of Angel’s cool hands on her bare arms were the least of them. Smiling a little too widely, Cordelia managed to steady her voice, “That’s okay. If I bruise I’ll just use emotional blackmail for the next however many weeks until they fade.”

The table she picked had a bench seat that ran the length of the wall and on this side was a single armchair. Sliding around to sit on the bench, Cordelia snatched up the cocktail menu with determined enthusiasm and scrutinised it while a finger tapped thoughtfully against glossed lips. “Okay, let’s see…what’s a good pick-me-up…” a brow arched sardonically after scanning it, “…that doesn’t have ‘orgasm’ in the name? Even I’m not evil enough to send you to the bar with that order.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it,” what else could he say? If he was evil he might have said something tacky like ‘your wish is my command’. Grateful for the inability to blush, he stood by and tried not to shift impatiently while she picked. Even a skulking loner like him knew the prices of these places and Angel hid a wince when that slim finger eventually pointed to her choice. Typical, she just had to pick the most expensive drink on there.

As a distraction from other worries, money was infinitely more comfortable. Manfully, he managed to ignore the instinct to cover his wallet with a protective hand. About to suggest wine and soda as an alternative, he gave it up on spotting the sly knowing gleam in her eyes. She didn’t have to say ‘suck it up, buddy, this was your idea, remember’, it was written all over her face. Cordelia was going to milk this for all it was worth. He was done for.

There wasn’t an ounce of mercy anywhere on that beautiful face. “Fine”. Adopting a pleasant expression Angel squared his shoulders and headed back towards the bar. Out of hearing he muttered feelingly, “There has got to be a cheaper way to keep a girl out of trouble than this.”

Watching that broad back disappear and get swallowed in the crowd around the bar, Cordelia kept the half smile in place by dint of effort. Outside she worked hard to maintain the serene and confident front, while inside was a jumble of contradictory emotions. Looking back to check he was following her, she’d caught his glittering fascination with the bare skin of her lower back. The jolt of sensation from recognising lust in those dark eyes still simmered in her belly.

Her palms were clammy so she clasped them together. Sucking in slow breaths to try and get the butterflies fluttering helter-skelter through her lower body to settle down; a single thought kept circling dizzily. Angel was attracted to her! When he’d bumped into her it had been unmissable. Mister Impassive, the moping Maestro of Brood had a boner; a genuine, one hundred percent stiffie. Angel!.

She wasn’t giddy, just stunned and veering between being creeped out and…okay, maybe a little giddy. Mentally wincing at the admission, Cordy’s thoughts turned defensive. Was it her fault? He was a hottie, had a rough kind of charm and a mile-wide noble streak that failed miserably to wipe out the dangerous air he couldn’t hide. Just because her fantasy guys usually looked more like Matthew McConaughey than lurk-in-the-dark vampires with a soul didn’t mean she couldn’t appreciate the appeal.

That sounded great until honesty forced her to admit the truth; which was that against the odds Angel had managed to gate-crash a fantasy or two, or three. The facts were staring her in the face. Undead or not she still wanted him. Hazel eyes slid shut on a moan before snapping open again. “So what if against my better judgement I still find him hot. That doesn’t mean I have to do anything about it. I used to love skiing, but not being able to do that anymore hasn’t killed me.” Satisfied with that logic, she nodded to herself. “Besides, there are lots of cute guys in LA and at least when their blood flows down there it’s their own.”

Harsh but true…

Except….ogodogodogod…Angel wants me. Crap! Definitely giddy. That confession let loose a torrent of insecurities. Sighing, she tucked her hair behind her ears and focused on what was bothering her the most. “Okay, so Angel is horny…it doesn’t mean he cares about me anymore than another woman he happens to know. He’s gallant that way… and what about Buffy? Her being dead doesn’t mean he’s moved on.” That was uncomfortably true and her brow furrowed.

As much as she hated to admit it, back in Sunnydale when Buffy was around Angel had looked straight through her no matter what she’d done to try and snatch his attention, and boy did those memories still sting. The furrows dug deeper and formed a scowl. “Yeah and what does that tell you, other than he has a taste for skinny blondes? Geeze, between his, ‘I’m so tortured’ routine and her, ‘Woe is me’ complex, I’m surprised that managed to cram anything else in.”

The bite in her voice was an echo of old bitterness. Angel had been the first man where she’d actively been the hunter rather than the hunted, for no other reason than he pushed her buttons on a chemical level. She hated failure so much, looking back now she understood why finding out he was a vampire had been a relief. Knowing that, Cordelia had been able to leave him and Buffy to their eternal forbidden love without a qualm.

Until now. Cordelia rejected that, “Nothings changed. He’s still a vampire and who needs phantom Buffy hanging over their heads? Certainly not this girl. Been there, done that, got the tee-shirt. Let him down gently tonight and forget about it. Keep it friendly and nothing more.” A horrible thought had her adding, “And don’t bring up Buffy, he’ll think your jealous. Just use the old ‘I want normal’ schtick. That should do it.”

“Hey, what’s a gorgeous gal like you doing all lonesome and talking to yourself?” The voice was irritating even before the words sank in; made more so when a hand was thrust before her face, “Your rescuers name is Scott by the way. That’s me in case you were wondering.”

Rudely pulled from a crucial conversation with herself that needed finishing before Angel came back, Cordelia flicked the hand a glance but didn’t sully her own by touching it. Shifting her gaze up, she was met by a flushed face and glazed blue eyes staring avidly down at her cleavage. Geeze, the creep didn’t even have the sense to look at her face instead of her breasts. Gross! Staring disdainfully from under lowered brows she said, “Scott, if you think by giving me your name you’re going to get mine, think again. Basically, I wouldn’t be seen dead with a scumbag like you.”

Those eyes finally lifted to her face and he weaved unsteadily on his feet. “Hey!”

Tick-tock, tick-tock. Will you just leave, already?

“Look, you can stand there and act all offended or you can leave and avoid getting your head twisted off by my date. He’s big by the way- takes mean to a whole other level, too, when he gets cranky. Like say when other men hit on me.” Her smile was entirely fake and contained enough mean of it’s own to give Scott the willies without any help.

“Too late,” a deep voice stated silkily from behind him.

Turning to meet that voice’s owner, Scott was struck by the menace coming off the newcomer in waves. Dark hair, black coat, dark shirt and dark pants painted a picture of shadows. Needing to look up quite a way didn’t help and his Adam’s apple bobbled when he swallowed. The stark contrast between a pleasant expression and dead, nearly black eyes holding only the promise of pain was chilling enough to pierce the thickest of drunken fogs. Babbling an apology he backed away until it felt safe enough to actually run.

“Mean?” Angel queried as he sat down and set the tall, umbrella decorated glass before a smirking Cordelia.

Unrepentant, she shrugged, “So, I know you’re kinda cuddly. The point is he didn’t and you do have a dark alley creepy vibe about you- must be that blood and guts past of yours leaking out.” Just because romantically speaking he was a walking tragedy didn’t mean Angel doesn’t have his uses and intimidation was one of them. Not that he was brutish looking, just the opposite in fact with that sweeping jaw and sculpted bone structure. It was vampire mystique she supposed with even the dumbest low-life recognising when a predator was sizing them up.

Angel had dismissed Scott the second he’d scampered off and as for being called cuddly, from anyone else he might have a raised a brow. Frustrated from the long wait to be served, he let the comments slide and gestured to the drinks, saying, “In my day you could have fed a family for a month on what those cost.”

Cordelia arched a brow at the disgruntled tone. “In your day nobody cared what they were drinking. It’s a brave new world with a thing called consumer demand, embrace it.” Then leaning over far enough he unwittingly got an eyeful of the same cleavage that had so enraptured the hapless Scott, she lifted his glass and sniffed at the amber liquid. Wrinkling her nose at the familiar sour smell, she said, “Whiskey man, huh? I’d heard you were Irish.”

The past was never a pleasant place to revisit. “Yeah, well that was a long time ago.” Lifting the glass for sip, he could smell the perfume impressed on the glass from the fingers she’d used to dab it on her pulse points. The whiskey hit the back of his throat and burned its way down. Maybe if he drank a few more these he could stop wondering which pulse points she may have missed.

An hour and several drinks later Cordelia was looking deliciously merry and radiant, cloaked in a fuzzy glow. She also had that relaxed and ever so slightly sassy look of someone who had just about consumed enough alcohol to lower a few defences. As unlikely as it was, Angel was enjoying himself. They were surrounded by a sea of people and yet she held his attention so effortlessly he was able to forget his abhorrence for both crowds and socialising.

If nothing else Cordelia held a unique perspective on the world, not to mention seriously indiscreet with some of the things she came out with. So far he’d heard about the last place she’d lived in and the landlady who’d spent twenty years as a hooker before taking over a boarding house; a neighbour who believed he was Elvis and was constantly frying burgers while belting out tracks and nearly setting the building alight. Then there was the other neighbour, a forty-something blonde having a torrid affair with the same PI the suspicious husband had hired to stalk his wife, who then left him.

“Never a dull moment,” he teased when she took a breath.

“Tell me about it,” she said feelingly. “I’m just glad you guys don’t do divorce cases- sordid or what? Although, I hear the money’s good.”

Not trusting the arrested expression that ghosted over her face, Angel said firmly, “No divorce cases, Cordy.” Picking up and draining his glass, he missed the pleased glance she gave him for shortening her name, “At least not unless the dog they’re fighting over starts spouting two heads and talking in three languages.”

Unexpectedly a gurgle of laughter worked its way up from her belly. Wow, Angel telling funnies. Who knew he had a sense of humour?

They reached a conversational pause. It was okay decided Cordy, it was a comfortable one. Too comfortable she realised and had to drag herself woozily back from the dangers of that comfort zone. She was supposed to be explaining to Angel why he needed to nip any ideas of romance with her in the bud, wasn’t she?

With her chin propped on one palm and gazing into his eyes, Angel was busy trying not to think about how adorable the expression on her face was. Of course her expression had nothing to do with what came out of her mouth. That would be too easy. Without warning she blurted, “When I said I wanted to go out, I was trying to get away from you. Wanna explain how I ended up letting you take me out instead?” Across the table she was regarding him with genuine perplexity.

They’d gone from some gentle reminiscing to this how exactly? Angel frowned nonplussed, “You were trying to get away from me?” Alarmed, he tried to pin down what she may found out so he could circumvent it. Perhaps she’d seen something Wesley had left behind? His temper rose only to run out off steam in the next second.

Cordelia didn’t seem to have heard him and if she noticed the powerful body opposite going taut, she paid it no heed. “After Xander I swore off losers for life.” She held up hand before he could voice a protest, “not saying you’re a loser…just that the whole undead-freak-of-nature stuff weird’s me out. No offence.”

Relief that she hadn’t stumbled upon the truth didn’t last long. So much for banter and this time it rankled. “None taken,” gritted Angel sarcastically. There were times talking to Cordelia when the desire for a map and a compass reared, either that or to reach out and throttle her.

Angel looked royally pissed. This was not playing out the way she’d imagined. Damn, why did I drink so much? Ploughing on anyway, she aimed for placatory, saying, “Don’t get me wrong. I get your one of the good guys now, and that’s good, *great* even.”

“Gee thanks, next time I need a reference I’ll call you.” Was he supposed to be flattered? Aggravated, Angel blinked and sat back, folding his arms over his chest.

“Do that…no, wait…what I mean is you’re a champion for the big guys up top. Uh, what do you call them again, the whoosa whaties?”

Cordelia it seemed was just warming to her theme and nothing short of a gag was stopping her. Angel was tempted. Instead he answered her flatly, “The Powers That Be.”

Two fingers clicked eureka, “Right! The PTB’s that’s the name I was looking for. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, I’m just not sure if I’m ready for a relationship with a guy who y’know…kills things for a living.” Cocking her head, Cordelia looked thoughtful, mulling over what to say, “I guess I’m after normal. Handsome, rich and well endowed are the preferred attributes, but I’ll settle for-“

“well endowed?! He couldn’t contain his stunned disbelief.

That sharply disbelieving exclamation derailed her for a moment and too late full lucidity returned. Hazel eyes went wide. “Oh God! Did I actually say that?” Aghast, Cordelia clapped a hand over her mouth before dropping it to try and recover, “No, no, I meant…um? Humoured- humours good?”

The dark and frankly disbelieving face opposite warned her he wasn’t buying it. Crap, crappity crap, crap. This was the reason she rarely drank spirits because afterward Cordelia had even less control over her runaway mouth. She’d been so flustered though that loosening up had seemed a good idea. It was his fault for having a hard-on, anyway. Wisely she kept that to herself.

Like hell she’d meant humour. Words failed him for a moment until finally, “Cordelia,” Angel growled, sitting forward to brace his elbows on the table and glare, “What does this have to do with you wanting to get away from me?” Once they’d got that cleared up, she was changing to coffee he decided.

It had finally clicked she was letting him down gently, Cordelia style. He’d forgotten she thought he was falling for her. Although, how she’d leap-frogged to that conclusion still escaped him. Pride insisted he burst her bubble, but caution kept the rebuttal sealed behind gritted teeth. Jesus, given the way he felt right now, even that irritating attraction seemed far-fetched. After two hundred and fifty years roaming the earth’s worst hell-holes he’d been sure little could surprise him, until Cordelia.

Until Cordelia, those two words were turning into a mantra.

~

Kate followed the tan van as close as she dared. The Cherokee she’d commandeered off an irate couple was a conspicuously noisy brute though, and she was constantly on the alert for something deadly erupting from the van’s rear doors. After only reaching Angel’s voicemail, she’d made the impulsive decision to follow in the hope of finding out where the demons were taking Richards. Maybe she couldn’t save the man, but she had to at least try.

Angel had her number, and she was hoping against hope he called back before the van pulled in leaving her with a decision to make. Ahead, the van veered sharply around a corner and cursing fluidly, Kate slowed down to give it time to accelerate again before following suit.

Across town, Wesley let himself back into the dark, deserted offices of Angel Investigations. Hampered by yet another pile of books and juggling a Starbucks paper cup at the same time, he wrestled with the lock to regain his key and almost lost the lot before the voracious door gave up. Slamming it shut with a foot hard enough the glass and pull-down blind rattled a protest, he weaved towards the desk that had once been his.

Dropping the mini-tower haphazardly over the clutter-free surface and grateful to be free of the burden, the flashing orange light on the answering machine didn’t register with him straight away. Sitting and sipping from fragrant cup, he flipped through, Alchazars Compendium of Arcane Magicks, trying to find an elusive reference to the slayer he vaguely recalled from his Watchers Academy days.

When the urgently blinking light did catch Wesley’s eye, he absently reached over to push play, assuming it was Angel with some clipped message explaining where he’d gone. He had not expected Kate Lockleys frantic voice to explode from the tiny speakers.

Angel, if you’re there pick up, dammit! She took a breath that was part sobbing frustration before continuing, You were right…they took him. Killed a lot of cops doing it, too. If you hear this call me straight back. I’m going to follow the van to see where it goes.

Immobile with shock for a second, Wesley finally picked up the receiver and dialled Angel’s cell as speedily as he could. It went straight to voicemail and with no other choice, he left a terse message telling him that Kate was in danger and he, Wesley, was going to after her. Then staring blankly at the machine as if it would proffer up the number to return Kate’s call, it finally occurred to him to check the index on Angel’s desk. Almost skidding through the doorway in his urgency, Wesley flipped until he found the card and scribbled down the number.

~

With some verbal manoeuvring that would have done a politician proud, Cordelia managed to tie Angel in a big enough knot of confusion he finally let it go. Declining coffee in favour of filling her stomach to soak up the evils of alcohol, she suggested leaving to find something to eat.

Outside in the still warm night air and thankful for not having to admit she’d been spooked by that flash-fire jolt of awareness over the doughnuts, she asked brightly, “So, why LA and not somewhere with less killer-UV? Was it the bright lights, glitzy glamour, or the name that drew you?”

Muddled still on how she’d outtalked him, Angel managed to rise to the occasion with a sardonic drawl, “Definitely the glitzy glamour,” Then accepting the olive branch, added, “I’ve been here before and it was within driving distance. I’m not big on planes and time zones.”

“I bet. Who wants to be sitting there eating their hash browns and turning crispy kritter when the sun comes up an hour early?”

“Exactly,” full lips tilted wryly at the way she put it. “I probably wouldn’t have stayed long if I hadn’t met Doyle.”

Walking along, tiny purse swinging by its beaded strap in her hand, she shot him a quizzical look, “Doyle? Then her face cleared, “Oh, wait that would be the guy Wesley talks about. Half-demon Vision Guy?”

“The one and only.” For once the memory was nostalgic. “He turned up at the apartment one day and before I know it I’m working for the powers. He was a good guy. A bit tattered around the edges but-” Angel tailed off as the familiar guilt awoke.

“You liked him?”

“I did.” That answer came readily, as did the disclaimer, “So did most people who met him, except the ones he owed money to.”

“Aahh, got it. A gambler, huh?”

And an alcoholic Angel thought as an aside. He didn’t mention it because in the end those two vices made up only a fraction of the whole man. Deciding to give her a better picture rather than leave such a distorted view, he added, “Doyle died a hero and if you’d have told him that a week before he died, he would have fallen over laughing at the idea of it. He didn’t give himself enough credit.”

Like someone else she could mention thought Cordelia. She took a wild guess, “You blame yourself for his dying don’t you?”

Angel didn’t bother denying it. Normally, talking things through wasn’t his strong point. Tonight for some reason the words formed. “I was there. The visions were supposed to be my mission and yet he died to save the rest of us. It should have been me. He didn’t deserve to die.”

The funny thing with other people’s feelings, Cordelia realised was that no matter how you cocooned yourself, if you could relate, you felt the need to offer comfort. Blunt comfort was her speciality and she used it now. “People don’t die because they deserve it, Angel. C’mon, you should know that, you dished it out enough back in your bad old vamp days.”

Flicking her a dark look that bounced straight off, Angel slowed his pace so she wouldn’t struggle to keep in the high heeled shoes. “Maybe” he finally conceded low.

She was having none of his evasion. “Maybe Schmaybe. Just because you miss someone doesn’t mean you have the right to turn yourself in a walking cloud of dark despair. What would Doyle say if he saw you acting all…” searching for a less offensive word, Cordy hit on one and flicked a hand at him, “…mopey instead of moving past it and getting on with life?”

When he didn’t reply and seemed to sink into a dark well of guilt, she rolled her eyes and pushed a little harder, “Or Buffy for that matter.”

That got a response. Angel stopped walking to level a narrow-eyed stare, “What about Buffy?”

Cordelia stopped, too, and turning wagged a finger at him. “You never mention her name.”

Taken aback, Angel’s reply was more automatic than thought through, “I do.”

Decisively, Cordy shook her head. “Nuh huh. You don’t. I’ve been working for you for nineteen days, and boy am I counting them, and so far you’ve never mentioned her once. I knew her, too, for crying out loud. Talk.”

Since she’d started to walk off again he had no choice except to follow her lead again. Warily he asked, “About what?”

“I dunno, just talk. Tell me more about how she died?”

It felt pulled out of him and yet the steely demand in Cordelia’s voice struck a cord. For some obscure reason blowing her off wasn’t an option. Where to begin he wondered? “I mentioned the Mayor, didn’t I?”

She gave a short affirmative nod.

“Well-“ heaving a sigh, Angel shrugged heavy shoulders to relax them, “Apparently, he’d had been spending the last hundred years planning his ascension to demon-hood. The problem was we didn’t find out in time to kill him before he entered the final phase, becoming impervious to physical harm.”

“Nifty trick,” interjected Cordy with a sideways grin.

“Yeah, only it wasn’t nifty at the time.” Having started it got easier. “Then it got a whole lot worse when Faith turned bad and switched sides. In the end we had no choice except to wait for the big day, which turned out to be graduation day, to kill him.”

It sounded so simple and yet from bitter experience Cordelia could guess how it had been anything but. “Go on,” she prodded, interested despite herself.

“Everybody was armed and the plan was that Buffy would lead the mayor, then a big-ass snake demon, into the school building that had been wired with explosives.”

“Snake demons- yuck! So glad I wasn’t there for that party. Nice plan though, it actually has some pizzazz to it. Who thought that one up?”

“Willow found out from some old records that the mayor had a predecessor who’d been destroyed by an earthquake; the same quake that trapped the Master as it turns out. That gave Buffy the idea on how to finally kill the mayor.”

Good ol’ Buff. Cordy just nodded and motioned for him to continue.

“Everything seemed to be going to plan until the end. Buffy got clear of the building and the charges went off bringing the whole place down on the demon. Problem was the force of the explosion threw her onto some railings.” Blinking to clear a sudden film of acid tears, Angel ducked his head to hide them. When he spoke again his voice was thicker, “She had a lot of internal damage. They cut her loose and took her to hospital. The surgeons worked all night but it was no good. She regained consciousness once and died a few days later.”

Just like the first time he’d told her words felt inadequate, although this time at least she was prepared. “Angel, I’m so sorry. I can only imagine how rough that was.”

Moved to do something other than reel off a load of dumb platitudes, she reached out and taking his hand gave it a squeeze, vaguely surprised when he didn’t pull away. In fact he did the opposite and turning his hand in hers so they were palm to palm, they carried on walking with them clasped. Angel, caught up in the past, sighed and let the warmth of her palm soak into his cold skin, “It was rough,” he admitted and shook his head wryly at the understatement, “and my being there just made it harder on the others.”

Friends hold hands. There’s nothing wrong with it and don’t you dare read anything into it. Self counselling over, Cordy concentrated on the bombshell he’d just dropped. “How do you figure that out? You finally had something in common with them; grief over Buffy. Plus, you did a lot of good helping them out-” she’d been about to say before Angelus reared his pretty head, but bit it back. As it turned out she needn’t have bothered being so sensitive.

Shaking his head, Angel met her gaze. “I did a lot of bad things, too,” he reminded her gruffly, adding “Without Buffy to act as their centre and force them to accept me it was obvious I had no place in the gang. I headed out within a month of the funeral.” They’d all been relieved, even Willow, his biggest supporter and the only one of the remaining scoobs who had felt remotely comfortable around him. He didn’t blame them, or regret leaving. It had been the right thing to do.

As if only just realising he held her slim fingers, Angel gave one last grateful squeeze and released her. The loss of that warmth was instant.

The tingles still running over her fingers had nothing to do with vampire strength and she knew that because he’d been gentle. Unknowingly, Cordelia echoed him, “Well, it seems like you made the right move. You have your own business now; not to mention the irony of having your very own watcher. I bet that pisses off a few stuffed shirts back in not-so-sunny-England.”

Slanting him a look she caught his barely suppressed smirk and jumped on the telltale reaction. “Hah! I knew that noble act was just a front. You get a kick out of knowing the Watchers Council has got to be steaming with rage that one of their own is working for the Scourge of Europe, don’t you?”

“Ex- Scourge of Europe.” Tucking his hands into the pockets of his pants, Angel shrugged and admitted, “ And maybe- just a little bit,” then finished with mock-stern warning, “But if you tell that to anyone, I’ll deny it.”

“Don’t worry, boss, I’ll keep it secret and only bring it up when I want a raise.” Usually solemn brown eyes crinkled and instantly melting, her heart squeezed. To cover her reaction she asked a little too brightly, “See isn’t this nice? Actually interacting with the living instead of just skulking around the edges? I knew I could bring you out of that shell”

Dark slashing brows rose, “Um… I think your forgetting whose idea this was and I don’t skulk…well, not all the time,” Angel protested without heat.

It was perhaps the only part of him without heat. Everything about her made him think of the sun; from sun-kissed skin, glowing eyes and most of all the big smile she’d gifted him with a few times during their impromptu date. The night had been wonderful and he was reluctant for it to end. Cordelia was truly something else, maybe even something he’d been missing. He wasn’t quick enough to halt that thought before it flashed across his mind.

“Don’t kid yourself,” she teased in response to his protest. Feeling completely in harmony, it felt right to tuck a hand into the crook of his arm. Liking the feel of hard muscle under the cool leather, she continued lightly, “Anyway, back to the wonderfulness of your life now and the added bonus of having me there to help out. All in all, I’d say its better than being just the muscle in someone else’s operation, right?”

“Hey!” His lips twitched at the back-handed compliment.

Turning to him and close enough her chin almost brushed his shoulder, Cordy looked blank. “What?” realising what she’d said, she grinned and swatted him for taking it the wrong way, “Oh shut-up, you know what I mean.”

“Hmm” Deciding it was her turn to open up, Angel gave her a nudge, “What about you. Why did you leave Sunnydale and come here?”

~

The storeroom holding the Council’s darkest secrets looked ridiculously like an old stationery cupboard. Although, once inside it bore a striking resemblance to the Tardis in that it went back and back until after pushing through a false rear, it finally led to a secret chamber beyond. With shaking hands, Teddy lit the candles and cursed the silly superstitions that banned modern conveniences around such potent artefacts.

The pungent odour of fat and sulphur rose from the squat old candles and wheezing a little, he made his way over to the cupboard marked with a scrolling ‘S’. Thank heavens the filing was alphabetical, he thought and tried to hold onto the positive, scrupulously avoiding the feeling of smothering doom just being in here gave him.

If he was found in here his sentence would be swift and unalterable. Rupert hadn’t even known what he was asking Teddy to do, and why would he when it was a secret. Only a very few men knew exactly what happened to those that dared cross this threshold unauthorised. “Let’s not get found then shall we,” he mumbled and opening the cubbyhole’s cover, reached inside to pull out the first sheaf of velum he came across.

Carefully spreading them over the chambers single table, he got to work. Two hours later and knowing simply by the growing snakes of terror writhing in his gut that time was running out, sweat formed rings of dampness under both Teddy’s arms and across his forehead. “Rupert…there is nothing here!” he complained to the absent ex-watcher, thinking this whole terrifying exercise had been a waste of time. Then tucked between two other heavily embossed animal-skinned wallets, a plain manila file caught his attention. Picking it up, he felt his heart kick with excitement and breathed, “Hello. What’s a common little thing like you do among all these lofty relics?”

Opening it with a hand that was steadier if still trembling, although more now from sensing he was getting somewhere, Teddy gave a hiss of shock when a standard 10×8 black and white photograph leaped out at him. Darkly handsome and wearing a knee length leather duster, the powerful figure of the vampire Angel stared unknowingly at something to the bottom left of the camera.

Underneath it was a single sheet of paper covered on both sides with cuneiform script. By no means an expert, the few phrases he was familiar with had him staggering back and turning paper-white.

Slayer heart, banish this soul, and worst of all a note at the bottom, written in English, stating that this was merely an incomplete copy as the original was missing.

“Oh, good GOD!”
PART 5
PART 5

For the first time in her life, Cordelia noticed how erotic watching a guy drive could be. With the small portion of her brain not engrossed in sneaking covert glances at him, she decided it had to be something to do with the handling of the wheel; firm, masterful and assured. Angel had great hands, too. Square palmed with long fingers they were graceful and completely masculine at the same time. Wondering how they would feel exploring her body, while imagining unpeeling all those dark layers to see if the rest of him was as desirable made Cordelia one very distracted woman.

Unfortunately for her, he noticed. “Cordelia, are you okay?”

Coming up to meet the concern in his eyes, she felt a hum begin low in her throat. Already a half melted puddle of want she managed to turn the “Hmmmm?” into a question.

“I said are you okay?” Careful not to make the mistake of sinking into drowsy hazel while driving, Angel returned his attention to the road and explained with a smile, “You haven’t said a word in ten minutes. I was worried you’d gone sick on me or something.”

It took a moment to sink in. He’s teasing me. God, that is so cute. Lolling back her head and revelling in being wired and bonelessly relaxed at the same time, Cordelia lazily lifted a hand to feel the wind rushing through each finger before answering, “I’m great, better than great, actually.” Rolling to face him, she smiled, “I had a wonderful time, tonight; just thought I’d mention that in case I forget later.”

“We’ll be at your door in five. Think your memory will last that long?”

For a manpire that smiled maybe once in a blue moon he was full of them tonight. Half ones, tip-tilted, wry, quizzical, mischievous and sad, they’d covered the range except for one. The big one he briefly bestowed on her had Cordelia blinking and speechless for a second. Huskily she said, “You should do that more often. You have a really nice smile.” Actually, he had a heartbreaking smile because it transformed his face from sombrely handsome to…wow, just wow.

“Thanks,” he gave that endearing little shuck of his head and eyebrow quirk that replaced an actual blush.

In response, her pulse, already thick and languid kicked up a little as a bewildering mix of mushy affection and squiggly, curling lust rose up to swamp her. It was kind of startling just how little she cared that her defences were down. Nestled inside a cramped booth and sitting on cracked vinyl in some dinky little restaurant, Cordelia had eventually spilled her guts about her little health problem.

Sitting and picking at a plate of food, she’d slowly revealed the nightmare of finding out she was dying with her gone parents off, god knows where, after fleeing from the IRS. Downplaying it out of habit, she’d finally risked looking up and caught him staring steadily at her. His expression warned he wasn’t buying the flippancy, and seeing the quiet bottomless sympathy reflecting back out of warm brown eyes, she’d felt a sensation of weightlessness rise up from her toes.

Okay, so it wasn’t much as revelations go, but it was strangely reassuring to know she could tell him anything; no matter how bad, painful or humiliating, and know it wouldn’t faze him because he’d done or felt a hundred times worse at some point in his long history. Angel would never judge her because what he didn’t know about shame, agony and crap-inducing fear wasn’t worth knowing. And there was still that caring staring straight at her, reaching out like a warm, fluffy comfort blanket.

A big, muscular, sinfully sexy comfort blanket, she confessed silently and wrestled with a crazy urge to laugh at how easy that was to admit. Caught by that direct and knowing gaze, half of her had been embarrassed at being seen through so easily and the rest was thinking, geeze, if he could find a way to bottle that sincerity he’d be a billionaire, cos every woman on the planet would kill for some to sprinkle on their partner’s weeties.

So, a little tipsy, sated with food and relaxed after good and undemanding company with a handsome man, Cordelia had gone and done the unthinkable; given in to both the night and him. Smack bang in the middle of a mini-epiphany, she’d finally stopped denying that against all odds and a rough history, she was half in love with the dork.

Now being chaufferred home a little while later and curled up with her bare feet tucked under her legs; circumstances conspired to lull her further. The gentle vibration of the car’s powerful engine coupled with warm air rushing through and caressing her scalp slowed her thought processes. Vulnerable with normally prickly defences softened to downy fur and inborn scepticism dormant, Cordelia wondered drowsily why her being attracted to Angel was so outrageous when a simple evening out that she hadn’t even wanted had turned out to be a fantasy.

And if she wanted to extend the fantasy into something a little hotter then that was up to her, too, wasn’t it? Every once in a while even the biggest cynic needed to let go and just roll with it. Tonight was her turn.

No more caveats; disclaimers or anything else she’d been using over the last few weeks to keep him at arms length. The rational side of her brain had officially tossed in the towel. I want Angel, and now I have to figure out a way to make him want me the same way. I wonder does ‘The Art of Seduction’ cover vampires?

Irrationally afraid he could read her mind, Cordelia snuck a glance at him and then relaxed with a silent sigh. Concentrating on the road, Angel looked as casual as someone with the weight of guilt he carried ever could. Meaning he was clueless to how she felt about him. Focusing back on the windshield Cordelia couldn’t decide whether to be relieved or pissed about that fact.

Pissed wouldn’t come. Despite the fine tension simmering between them their silence was comfortable, leaving her free to muse as she liked without worrying about chit-chat and being all witty gal. She didn’t feel witty. Wit took effort she couldn’t be bothered extending in her current mood. Worries, consequences and self preservation were a dim memory and now they were nearly back at her place, she wondered a little wistfully if he’d kiss her.

Unfortunately the answer was obvious and put a serious dampener on her good mood. Of course he wouldn’t. A frown creased between perfect brows. That would take actual decisive action and a higher self-esteem than Angel possessed. For a guy that could wade recklessly into battle defending humans against other vampires, Angel was a wuss about relationships. Even from the outside looking in it’d been obvious that Buffy dictated the pace to him and he’d taken it without a fight.

Her heart sunk. That’s it. There’s no way in hell Angel’s going to make a move on me. Fabulous, where’s Angelus when you need him? He doesn’t have a shy bone in his body. “Yikes! Sheesh, I’m not that desperate. I like my body parts where they are.”

“What?”

Sunk deep into mental monologue, she hadn’t been aware of speaking out-loud. Cordelia’s head whipped up to stare blankly. “Nothing,” she denied quickly, adding desperately, “Laundry. I was thinking about Laundry. My um…dryer… it likes to eat my clothes. Seriously, I keep thinking its turning carnivore on me.”

Before she’d even finished she wanted to kick herself. Great topic to bring up with a vampire, Cor, why not just ask flat out, do I look tasty to you? His climbing eyebrow seemed to agree with her. Briefly closing her eyes and slamming the brake on her lips, Cordy pasted on a wide smile and said, “Never mind. It was nothing important.”

Nodding distractedly, Angel got back to pretending a casualness he was far from feeling. After twenty minutes in the car driving with no possible escape, he was jittery and on-edge. Every stroke of her gaze feathering across his profile and neck had only added to that hyper awareness. When that strangely heated gaze had strayed down to his lap earlier, he’d cursed silently and been forced to shift on the seat, praying his coat hid the reaction he couldn’t control.

He couldn’t get her home fast enough despite knowing the same grinding ache of need would torment him relentlessly for the rest of the night.

His teasing had been intended to lower the sizzling tension in the car. Instead it seemed to have only tautened it. She was primed, he was definitely primed and the atmosphere in the Plymouth was thick with it. The lack of conversation didn’t help. Several times during the drive, he’d tried to think of something, anything light-hearted to say and felt like an idiot when his mind stayed stubbornly blank. Irrationally, he was annoyed that she was leaving it up to him. Since when was making conversation his strong point? Where was the usual nonsensical babble that plagued him at work? He needed a distraction, damn it!

That shook him enough he almost overshot a junction. When had she become the only thing he could think about, so much so, that a distraction was necessary? Sitting listening to her shrug off dying, little more than a child and abandoned by her parents? No matter the words coming out of her mouth he’d seen the pained truth bright hazel eyes couldn’t hide. Fingers tight around the wheel, he couldn’t look at her as they sat waiting for the traffic lights to change. It was possible but he doubted it, by then he’d already been captivated, so the question remained. Unfortunately the answer was elusive, buried under a raft of other mysteries all tied into her arrival in his new life. Sifting through the chaos this case was bringing to his emotions would have to wait until he had the time to devote to it. Great, something new to brood about.

Still… Mystified and pulling off again, Angel used needing to check the side-mirror on her side as an excuse to touch and linger on her face. Only instead of answers, he met a soft questioning smile that widened knowingly when his gaze dropped to full lips. Big mistake. Jerking away to stare blindly back at the road, Angel was sure of only one thing, close and confined like this, she consumed his senses.

Swallowing thickly he jerked a thumb at the dashboard, “Do you want the radio on? The tape doesn’t work but the radios, okay, I think.” Going off memory the reception was crap limiting the choice of stations, but at this point, he was desperate enough to suffer through country and western ballads if it would help fill the expectant silence.

She wasn’t co-operating. Her soft, drowsy expression curled around his dead heart. “Leave it off. I’m kind of enjoying the quiet for a change, as hard as that as to believe even for me. Unless you want-”

“No,” he managed a credible shrug, “if you’re okay with it, so am I.” Thwarted, Angel put his foot down on the gas and kept a look out for squad cars.

If he was paranoid enough he might think some pissed off mage had slapped a whammy on him- hell, both of them as revenge. Gee, whatever happened to boiling in oil, skin flaying or even a good old fashioned staking? Angel was only half joking. As much as that explanation appealed he knew better. He’d experienced that kind of external force in the past; knew the differences too well to let himself off the hook that easily.

Ignoring or denying the truth over the last few weeks hadn’t changed the facts. He was attracted to the onetime Queen of Mean, the same girl who’d ruled Sunnydale High’s elite with a steely grip. Back then the Gestapo had, had nothing on her and based on memory she shouldn’t have handled rags to riches so well. But she had, and the changes in her fascinated Angel, compelling him to probe into her life, pick apart both the dramatic and the mundane things that had caused them. As a socialite she’d been stunning and shallow. As a beautiful girl trying to make her way in the world she was wily, courageous and strong with an offbeat sense of humour that kept sneaking under his guard.

It got worse. As much as he didn’t like it, couldn’t afford it and had no idea how to reverse it, for some bizarre reason Cordelia was threatening his self-control. Control was the one constant in his unnaturally long life he’d been able to count on, even when evil. Losing it now could only have catastrophic affects. She needed him to protect her, not fall for her.

Whoa! Love? Desire, lust, attraction, he could admit, but love…

Buffy’s image wasn’t fading from his heart and maybe never would, but the anguish thinking about her usually gave him was diminishing every day. It hurt because he wasn’t ready to accept that even a tiny part of him wanted to move on. Inside Angel resentment burned; at Buffy for dying, Cordelia for resurrecting dead feelings and Wesley for being right. He made a decision. Whatever the cause of the night’s madness, he couldn’t do this again. If she wanted to go out in the future it was too damn bad; he was putting his foot down. What reason he give he’d figure out at the time.

Either way they were headed for some stormy waters. Both hands tightened on the wheel with the knuckles turning white with tension. Doyle, Doyle, Doyle. How could you do this to me? This case was turning out to be a major pain in the ass and since it was Doyle’s last vision that had kick-started it he felt justified in laying some of the blame at his door.

He just wished he could offload some of his guilt over being attracted to Cordelia on somebody else, too. Angel knew he didn’t deserve to move on, certainly not to another innocent human girl unwillingly caught up in his deadly underworld. It wasn’t fair. Unfortunately, his mutinous senses weren’t listening and didn’t give a crap about fair.

Belatedly halting a sigh mid-flow, Angel thought it was lucky he didn’t need oxygen because he didn’t dare take a breath. The last one had been rife with the scent of warm, semi-aroused female and just the teasing memory of it had sweat popping out on his brow. Having recognised the futility of denying he wanted her anymore, he was almost brought to his knees by the knowledge that she wanted him, too.

Almost, but not quite. He could only put it down to the drinking, because there was no way in hell Cordelia knew what she was doing. Either that or she felt safe with him because of the soul and the ragged layer of nobility he shrugged into every dusk. She couldn’t possibly fathom the urges that plagued him, or the horrors he’d inflicted during his existence; no human could. Telling her of the dark hours he spent tussling with his demonic impulses would likely cure her of that dangerous misconception, but Angel was loath to risk losing the friendship he was coming to value more every day.

So, it was up to him to protect her, only what scared him the most was the fact that even as he tried to rationalise her soft, silent invitation a part of him didn’t care about the niceties; such as not taking advantage of someone who was under the influence. Want, take, have had been his motto long enough in the past that he was horribly tempted to ignore the conscience insisting he leave her untouched.

Fortunately for them both, what tipped the scales was the certainty that the guilt afterwards would obliterate any pleasure he could wring out of one night. You live as long as he had and a single night is but a blink of an eye. Something told Angel it would never be enough, and should she be dumb enough *not* to kick him out of her life in the morning, he knew himself enough to be certain there would be no turning back. Obsession was as much a part of the man in him as the demon, perhaps even more so with her because she was human.

It was too dangerous and thanks to his lies and Buffy clouding the issue, Cordelia was forbidden fruit. He had to remember that. With her apartment on the horizon it should have been easy.

“We’re here.”

Pulling up with a practised swing of the car’s heavy front, Angel had turned the engine off and leapt out before Cordelia had risen fully from the anticipation tinged plans running through her head. Adjusting his coat and fastening a button for security, he reached the passenger door side just as she started to unfold herself from her curled up position on the seat. Damn, he envied her that ability to adjust herself cat-like to any place she found herself in and attain the optimum comfort. Reaching for the handle, he added versatile to the lengthening list of things about her that enthralled him.

“Oh goodie. Home comforts. Don’t get me wrong I enjoyed it, but I’m dying for a cup of coffee that hasn’t been reheated about a hundred times already.”

“Old filter coffee sucks doesn’t it?” he agreed, happy to be agreeable now escape was at hand.

Opening the door for her, Angel got an eyeful of scarlet-painted toes before she slipped back on the shoes retrieved from the foot-well. Desire sharpened in his belly. Hissing in a breath between gritted teeth, he thought that if life was fair her feet would have shown some sign of the abuse from wearing ultra fashionable, killer shoes. Life wasn’t fair though and they were perfect; almost dainty for a woman her height with a high in-step that begged to explored, lingeringly, along with the rest of her.

*Shut-up!*

Cordelia had been holding out a hand to be helped out. Now with her big, slightly flirtatious smile slipping, she asked, “Did you say something?”

Realising he’d muttered it out-loud, brown eyes flared wide. Panicking, Angel rushed to deny it, “No, not me…I don’t talk much, remember.” Luckily, the rust in his voice gave that statement some credence.

She seemed to buy it and took his hand so he could pull her up. Rising gracefully and smile back in place, she said, “Like I could forget that. Lucky I’m used to it and can fill in the many gaps.”

Since it was topical, Angel couldn’t resist pulling her up on that one. “Normally- maybe.” Adding with a hint of rebuke, “You’ve been quiet almost the whole way here?” She was close and for some reason his feet forgot how to back up and create distance.

“I have haven’t I? Guess I’m tired after being dragged all over town by Mr Party Animal here. Who knew you can actually be a lot of fun.” The light in her eyes coupled with a playful tap against his chest took away any sting.

His lips moved without conscious thought, “I’m all about fun, it’s my middle name. Didn’t Wes tell you?”

Unselfconsciously tugging the suede skirt down smooth thighs, she grinned, “He must have forgot to pass it along. Remind me to put salt in his tea tomorrow as a punishment for keeping me in the dark, okay.”

The abrupt reminder that he was keeping her in the dark was like a douse of icy water. Scarily it only lasted a moment before receding, leaving a sense of poignancy to the end of their evening together. Waiting for her to precede him, his nostrils flared rebelliously and predictably the jagged, hungry need that had set-up shop in his gut ground that much harder as a result. Recognising just how slim was the thread of decency he had left, Angel held on with the single thought that in just a few more minutes, he’d be out of here and she was safe. So was he for that matter.

Reaching the door of her apartment, Angel restrained himself from acting on the urge to take the keys and open it for her when Cordelia fumbled with the lock in the dim light of the hallway. Hands jammed into his pants pockets and dark head tipped back in a desperate attempt to keep hold of slippery patience, he gritted his teeth and asked, “Do you need any help?” C’mon, c’mon, c’mon. How difficult can it be, insert key and turn. As soon as the door was open he was saying a swift goodnight and disappearing.

“No, no I got it. Keep your panties on.”

As if defying him to the end, she then dropped the keys with a hissing curse that was lost to the roaring in Angel’s ears when her ass brushed down his leg as Cordelia crouched to retrieve them. Reacting to the urgent need to move or else, he sidestepped around her and bent down, too. His fingers wrapped around hers.

Hunkered so that his larger frame loomed next to her their gazes collided. Breathless with nerves, Cordelia blurted, “Um, Angel, I have a confession to make.”

Time stood still, “What?” he asked feeling as if he were perched on a knife edge. From where he was standing either side looked like a long fall.

Neither noticed when they slowly rose back to their feet. Dry-mouthed, Cordelia licked her lips and metaphorically speaking grabbed the bull by the horns. “When we left here tonight I was under the impression you were attracted to me,” heart beating a frantic tattoo she finished carefully, “Was I wrong?”

Anxiously watching for every nuance she caught the flicker of something desperate in his eyes. The pause went on too long, “Was I?” she prodded.

“You’re a beautiful woman,” Angel began warily and winced when she rolled her eyes impatiently. “I…um can see that…, too.”

Conscious of her disappointment with such a lacklustre response, he had no way of preparing for Cordelia’s idea of cutting to the chase. Her muttered, “Forget it,” reached his ears just as smooth, hot lips attached themselves to his.

Lightening could have struck and it wouldn’t have shocked him any less. Stiffening and raising both hands to grasp her upper arms, Angel knew only that she was dragging them both over an abyss she couldn’t see and didn’t know needed avoiding no matter what. It was an unbelievable wrench but he dragged his head up and away.

Heavy lidded hazel eyes slammed a fist of lust directly to his groin. Staggered by it, he could hardly believe it when she went up on tip-toe, grabbing his shirt to pull him back down. Gripping her arms tighter he gave her a slight shake and grated harshly, “Cordelia, stop!”

That got through and woke her up to the unpalatable fact that Angel was rejecting her. Panting hard enough her upper chest brushed his shirt-front and drowning in humiliation, Cordelia swallowed back the sudden bitter words that wanted to leap out and blindly swung back to the door. This time the damn key was going in if it killed her. Throat closing as the night’s bubble burst and wanting only to put something solid between her and him, she ignored him when he hoarsely called her name.

Damn it, her hands were shaking. She had to say something. “Sorry, I don’t know what came over me. Insanity I guess-“

She was as stiff as a board and practically vibrating with shame. Standing behind her, Angel was lost on what to do. No, that wasn’t quite true. He knew what he should do was mutter an apology to go along with hers and leave her. Better she feel this way than fan the flames of an attraction that could only lead to misery and pain later on. He was a vampire and she was human. He’d lied to her almost from the moment they’d met back up in LA, and more, she was a client even if she didn’t know it and he didn’t dare cloud that issue anymore than it already was. The list was endless.

The pained hitch in her breath undid him and all of his resolutions. If there was one positive aspect to his obsessive nature it was the impulse to protect those he cared about. That instinct went into full flood now. Cordelia was hurting because of him and he had the cure. All he had to do was be careful not to take it too far. Decision made, he curved an arm around her waist and clasping her hip, turned her to face him. Before she could grasp what he intended, Angel’s other hand slid under the heavy fall of mahogany hair to lightly grip her nape and pull her in and up for his kiss.

He swallowed her indignant, “Hey!” before it truly escaped.

Finding herself being thoroughly kissed while gently imprisoned against a powerful body thanks to the large hand spread at the small of her back, Cordelia’s humiliation vanished like mist, burnt away as a myriad of sensations swamped her. Skilled and experienced enough not to make it plundering, his kiss was beguiling and teasing in its gentle exploration.

Moulding her lips with his, Angel’s tongue dipped in rhythmic forays and ventured out only enough to leave tingles along the plump flesh of her bottom lip. Shuddering relief and a return of that sweet, draining tension had Cordelia gripping onto broad shoulders for support and mindlessly straining for more.

She was intoxicating. One hand slid up to his nape to sift through dark hair, nails lightly scraping his scalp. Underneath his hand the bare skin of her back burned a siren song. Angel burned, too.

It was only supposed to be a short wade into dangers waters. Aware she was appeased he should have ended the kiss and stepped back. Instead Angel used his thumb to tilt her jaw to deepen the kiss as lost to it as she was. As he’d suspected a small taste of her was nowhere near enough. Man and beast craved more and so more he took. After an eternity of abstinence her mouth was heaven; warm, moist and filled with an honest passion that effortlessly shredded his self-control.

Standing locked together in the deserted hall, existence was limited to the two of them, and all thought other than their kiss was suspended. Sweeping inside the inviting cavern of her mouth, her tongue fluttered tentatively against his; butterfly wings of touch, Angel coaxed to develop into a full mating. It was a mistake because if his senses had been consumed before it was nothing to now. In that moment everything he could want or desire seemed contained within the fragile human body flattened to his aroused one.

Their differences only enthralled Cordelia more. He was hard where she was soft, cool while inside she was so hot molten didn’t come close, and as for the way he tasted- echoes of malt underscored the more familiar and unknowingly missed taste of man, and something else, too, something indescribable that grabbed the desire curling in her belly and sent it shooting through her system.

The door behind her pressed into her shoulder-blades as Angel mindlessly moved her back. Arching to meet his weight the swelling length of him unerringly sought the cradle between her thighs; just as large slightly rough palms shaped the flare of hips and waist before sliding up to wrap around the delicate frame of her ribs.

Needing to feel something other than cloth and leather, Cordelia dropped the hand from his shoulder, and pushing aside the heavy duster burrowed under his shirt to the surprisingly smooth skin of his hip and back. Riding the ridges of muscle and bone to his spine, she clutched him closer by spreading her own fingers wide.

Engrossed, neither noticed the door opening and blithely assigned the sense of falling to the swirling eddies of sensation already buffeting them. Only at the very last second did Angel realise they reallywere falling and managed to twist them both so she landed in a sprawl on top of him instead of the other way around. Stunned a dislodged Cordelia could only lift her head and gape at finding herself draped all over Angel who was craning his neck to stare shocked at her living room.

Dennis. The thought barely formed before an unseen hand pressed play on the answering machine allowing Wesley’s irate voice to finally unleash itself.

Cordelia, if you see or hear from Angel will you tell him to pick up his damned messages. His cell-phone is off and… There was a pause as if the Englishman was biting back some epithets, Tell him to ring me immediately. Life and death, okay?

Looking back down at the missing vampire in question, Cordelia said all that could be in the circumstances, “Where’s your cell, doofus?”

~

Earlier

Wesley found the jeep he assumed was the one Kate had described and followed the road towards the only building within sight. It was a Hindu temple, The Kali Shiva Vishnu Temple, approaching it with caution he carefully hugged the white–washed walls that he guessed by the scent of flowers and shrubs, surrounded lush landscaped gardens. Coming to the large gap in the wall and dropping to a crouch, he darted inside the wrought iron gates and scurried into a nearest bush; only to let out a high-pitched yelp when a hand latched onto his shoulder.

Kate nearly had a heart attack. Digging her fingers in as revenge, she hissed, “Shhushh, you idiot. Are you trying to get us caught? Take it from me, you don’t want these guys getting their claws on you.” Looking around, she asked, “Where’s Angel?”

Biting back a sharp retort of his own Wesley was grateful for the darkness that hid his blush after emitting such a humiliating screech of fear. Settling for a grumpy “You startled me,” he shook off her hand and pulled his biscuit-coloured blazer back into place. “And you can hardly blame a man for being a bit tense in circumstances such as these-“

The light in china blue eyes suggested he shut-up. He took that advice and stopped with a sigh. Deciding getting down to business was an excellent way to force his recalcitrant nerves to settle down, he forced the peevish tone to disappear and whispered, “Angel is unavailable right now, but I’m left a few messages telling him what’s what. I suggest we get the lay of the land while we can, and I need to know what we’re dealing with here. Describe them to me properly.”

Kate tried and failed not to look dismayed at the news of the lack of Angel’s presence. At his question she blinked and looked blank, “They’re big, ugly and vicious. If you want to know more follow me and I’ll show you.”

“Oh well, that might be a bit precipitous…how close exactly?”

She was already working her way towards the temple itself and said over one shoulder, “Just move it, Wesley. I don’t have all night and neither does Mr Richards.”

“Who’s Mr Richards,” asked Wesley following her and wishing he’d thought to change to darker clothing. A blind man could spot him skulking in the shrubbery at fifty paces in his summer light clothes. The light dawned and he grimaced, “Oh, right that would be number twelve, sorry, forget I asked.”
“Already have.”

Rectangular with towers in the middle and on each end, the Hindu temple was fairly new. As where the dead attendants piled beside some trash cans at the rear of the building. Stopping in his tracks, Wesley bobbed his horrified gaze from one bloodied corpse to another. “Good God!”

Impatient as ever, Kate grabbed his arm and dragged him over to the closed door with a ‘no entry’ sign overhead. “Save the exclamations unless you want to join them. I have a guy in there who may still be alive. I can’t waste time on the already dead.”

Heartless but true and deceptive as Kate was anything but heartless. Helplessness was a bitch and she was drowning in it. So many dead over such a short space of time left her breathless and sweating with terror. It was her job to protect and serve, said so on her badge and so far she was doing a suck-ass job of both. This wasn’t her area of expertise and she’d been delighted to let Angel handle any crossovers between the demon and human worlds- until this case had exploded in her face.

Keeping a tight hold of her composure and with her sidearm out and held tight to her chest in a two handed grip, Kate kept her back to the wall next to the door and eyed the gangly Englishman she’d been landed with. “God! I hate this case.”

“A sentiment I entirely empathise with,” agreed Wesley from the opposite side and testing the doors handle as gingerly as possible. There was no reason to announce their presence and every reason to use stealth. The door opened soundlessly when the handle was depressed enough. “Ladies first,” he suggested deadpan with his crossbow held at the ready, too.

Inside would have been pitch-black if not for the moonlight filtering through high arched windows and turning everything grey. The walls were ghostly white barring the golden shrines with what would, in daylight, be colourful cushions and drapes surrounding the ebony multi-armed idols. Leading the way through the atrium with its domed glass ceiling, Kate crabbed her way along the wall, jerking her head to mutely indicate Wesley should follow in her footsteps. The air was redolent with fresh blooms and Kate was no horticulturalist, but she thought she recognised Jasmine. She hated Jasmine it reminded her of her moms funeral when she was ten. Damn, there was another minus to chalk up against the demons, reminding her of her mom.

The floor beneath their feet was plain bleached wood broken only by mats made out of woven rushes. Wesley, focused on the job didn’t smell the flowers held in massive urns beneath the splendid array of arched windows. He smelled sulphur, wax and something unpleasantly reminiscent of burnt hair. That was interesting, but rituals requiring the burning of human hair were numerous and without further information, narrowing it down was impossible.

From up ahead a flickering amber glow led them onwards and toward the rear and left side of the temple. Wherever the light was coming from it wasn’t the main body of the building, but mostly likely some kind of anteroom, Wesley deduced. “We need to get a closer look,” he mouthed to Kate who nodded once. Just as they moved off again a chorus of chanting had them freezing in their tracks.

Eyes wide and standing stiff the pair listened with their hearts in their mouths. However, before they could recover from the sudden shattering of the previous silence; a stream of terrified babbling broke in on the deep litany, rising up as suddenly as the chanting itself. High-pitched and male, the voice begged incoherently for mercy. Mr Richards, assumed Wesley deducing the man had either been unconscious or gagged before now.

“Wait, please, wait. I have a family, daughters and money- I can give you money, all I have, I swear. Just let me leave, please. Please, please just let me leave. I won’t tell anyone. I won’t- Don’t… please put that down. Why are you doing this to me?”

Reacting without thinking and only aware of the terror in the man she’d been supposed to be protecting, Kate shot forward making a beeline for the doorway now visible a few feet away and tucked into an alcove. The babble switched to a screech before she’d taken the first step. “No, No, NO!”

Containing nerves that threatened to cause his self-esteem irreparable damage, Wesley swallowed hard and dived after Kate, crossbow shaking from trembles that refused to be suppressed. He had been perhaps two paces behind her. Reaching the door first, she kicked it open and pistol raised swept inside. Her back was to him as Wesley raced after her. Legs braced apart in the classic firing stance, Kate blocked most of the view. Peering over her shoulder, he saw they were too late to save Mr Richards.

Indeed, they may be too late to save themselves.

~

Flanked on both sides by the same hulking grey brutes that had swept through LA’s finest like a knife through butter; Anton Silverous glared from under bushy grey brows at the two fools interrupting him at work. Raising a hand to stay the lunge of his demons, the elderly and frail looking mage instead held up his other hand, palm imperiously up. “Give me the weapon.” He demanded in a surprising strong, accented voice.

Dumbstruck, a horrified Kate found herself walking towards him. No matter how she tried she couldn’t halt her progress towards the table with its gruesome occupant and the old man who’d commanded her. Behind her Wesley’s shocked voice hissed her name and she couldn’t even look around. Hands, knee’s, thighs even her belly trembled with the effort of battling the unseen force that compelled her to obey. Silently she dropped the pistol into that upraised hand.

Wesley watched Kate cross the small antechamber with a sick fascination that was followed on swift wings with horror. He called her name hoping the sound of it would at least interrupt the thrall she was under, but she didn’t even falter in taking the next step, and then the one after that. After relinquishing the gun she collapsed and finally Wesley’s legs unlocked so he could try and protect the fallen policewoman. Catching Kate with one hand wrapped around her elbow, he raised the crossbow and aimed at the imperiously blank face of the man he assumed was the leader here.

“I know you must be a powerful magician, but be warned I will not hesitate to pull this trigger, and I feel I should warn you I’m an excellent shot. However, if you let us go-“

Powerful muscles twitching, the two demons snarled long and low, the sound as grating as a chainsaw as they edged around their master, fangs dripping with drool at what Wesley guessed was the prospect of additional fresh meat. He ignored them as best he could and maintained eye contact purely with the old man. A scrape of claw on wood behind him along with the fetid and hot breath that washed over the nape of his neck, warned Wesley of at least another one of them hovering directly behind him. His skin crawled with revulsion but the sharp point of the arrow remained steadfast.

“…you’ll what?” Anton asked without much interest. “You might have a stronger willpower than the female but you’re still helpless against us.” Without turning cold blue eyes away from the ex-watcher, he said, “Seize the weapon and hold them, but don’t harm them.”

~

“Okay, who the hell is that guy?” asked, Kate as they watched the new arrivals bow obsequiously before him, adding, “And who are the, flunkies?”

“I can only tell you what I surmise,” replied Wesley in a whisper, “but my best guess would be that they’ve arrived to test the heart they took out of the unfortunate, Mr Richards. As for our elderly friend over there, he’s obviously a mage of some kind.”

“Yeah, well the bastard’s gonna pay for hypnotising me. I could get my ass fired for losing my firearm like that.” Still smarting over that, his first statement didn’t sink in straight away. When it did she turned to him with a frown, “Test the heart?”

They were sat in the corner with chains interlocking them and attached to hooks high up on the wall. They could move perhaps a ft if they tried standing. Uncomfortable and unsure how much Angel had told her, Wesley felt like he was tip-toeing amongst a minefield. “We’re pretty certain the demons, or rather that man over there has been trying to locate the transplanted heart of a deceased vampire slayer. I imagine those people in the cloaks are seers of some kind. If I’m right, they will be able to deduce if they have the right heart.”

“What’s so damn special about a vampire slayers heart? Which by the way I didn’t even know existed, thanks for the heads-up.”

Wesley opted for avoiding that dig by dealing with the question directly. “A vampire slayer is a deeply mystical being whose origins are misted in ancient mystery. What we do know is that they are always female, generally only chosen one at a time and are as strong, or stronger than vampires.”

“Go girl-power. Pity she’s dead.”

“For more reasons than you can know,” agreed Wesley, watching as the still beating heart was carried over in the bizarrely modern and translucent plastic sealed container, “Unfortunately I haven’t been able to narrow down the motive behind such an endeavour. There are a number of spells and potions that call for pieces of a slayer’s heart, but they are dark magic at its very worst, and few practitioners of the dark arts are alive to attempt them.” Pausing, he lowered his voice even further, “There was a purge back in the 1944 during the last world war.”

Kate was unimpressed, “Obviously they missed one, his hold over me felt pretty dark I can tell you.”

“Yes, well I can only imagine what he does intend far exceeds the usual banish-a-wart-spell. The only reason for needing the heart is to tap into the mystical elements that can transform a girl into a creature powerful enough to battle demons. I’m afraid, appallingly potent and not good for us comes to mind.”

She gave him a filthy look, “I got that way back before they killed their second victim. Did you just figure that out?”

Next to her, Wesley wasn’t listening too busy craning his neck to try to see over the table and corpse, wanting to know what was being done with the heart. “At least we know they do need the heart still functioning.” He muttered half under his breath. Given the lack of modern medical technology in the temple’s side room, he imagined the mage had something to do with the heart’s abilities to keep beating outside of its body.

“What difference does that make? Richards is still dead and with him being the last on the list doesn’t that mean this is the slayers heart?”

Not necessarily thought Wesley but kept that to himself. “Let’s wait and see what happens shall we, and hope Angel gets here before this gets any nastier.”

~

None of Anton’s impatience showed on his heavily lined face. Waiting for the seers verdict was excruciating and he could feel the crackle of energy, left-over from the ritual he’d performed to remove a living organ, running between his fingertips. If he’d ever prayed before he hadn’t known to which god, now he felt his lips move releasing only puffs of air as his fervent hopes were dragged from his heart to the earthly plane he stood in. Please, let this be the one!

Time was running out for him and Anton knew it in his bones. At over one hundred years-old, his magic was as potent as ever; more now than when his vendetta had begun over sixty years before. But age was creeping up on him and he was the last of his order. Once he died there would be no-one capable of performing the spell and his revenge would be lost for good. He would not let that happen. The vampire *would* be made to pay for the crimes he’d committed all those years ago. The chain of events he needed where already aligned and all they needed was the right knock to set it all off.

He could feel the accusation glaring out at him from the two captives and wanted to laugh. How young they were to think they could make a difference, and how incredibly foolish.
PART 6

London, England

Frustratingly it was the next day before Teddy could do more than fret about what he’d found in the archives. Fighting the worlds evil didn’t stop for the weekend, but No 36 did run on smaller shifts than during the week. Given the 8 hour time difference between here and California, the few times he had tried to ring Giles, and even heaven forbid, Angel Investigations, he’d only reached answering machines. He left no message believing the information was simply too sensitive.

The time had, however, given him an opportunity to think. “Too, much blasted time if you ask me,” he grumbled, once again climbing the stairs towards the upper offices housed two floors above ground level. As predicted his weekend was turning out to be a disaster and threatened to get worse.

Mumbling dire threats at as yet unknown, idiot receptionists who should have known better to put a call through from a disgraced ex-watcher, he reached the office he was after and entered without even pretending to rap and miss the thin plywood of a door.

“Silas, old boy, we need to talk,” he announced and sat down uninvited.

The bald pate ringed with gunmetal-grey didn’t even rise. “The protocol is: knock first, then enter, then ask if I can spare a minute.”

“I would but you’ll say no.”

“Perceptive still in your old age,” said Silas Young dryly, flicking only the briefest of glances up from the text he was deciphering. The magnifying glass in his hand hadn’t moved from its place over the page. It was a common opinion that he looked more like a one-time rugby player with his large frame showing evidence of once having been beefy and wholesome.

In reply Teddy simple slid a piece of paper across the desk towards the crabby linguist. “Do you remember translating this, perchance?”

Not fooled by the casual tone, so at odds with the piercing look in blue eyes, Silas picked it up and glanced down. That first disinterested glance was swiftly followed by another much longer scrutiny. Dropping it finally, Silas folded his hands over it and said, “I’ve translated thousands of texts in dozens of languages over longer than I like to remember. Why should I recall this one specifically?”

Leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, Teddy opted not to answer directly, “From what I can tell it’s an incantation that forms part of a spell to remove a soul from its body. It also includes reference to the heart of a vampire slayer.”

“I can read,” deadpanned, Silas before pinning his colleague with a speaking look, “Where did you find this?”

There was a pause, “Lets not ask that shall we.”

Silas’ dismayed, “Teddy!” was cut off.

“I’ve been informed of a series of ritual murders taking place in Los Angeles as we speak. Each victim is connected only by being a possible donor recipient of Buffy Summers heart. Somebody is butchering innocents in a terrifyingly determined hunt for a slayers heart. This is real, Silas, and we’re at fault.”

That statement did not go down well. Silas stiffened and ground out in a clipped voice, “How are atrocities in the US our fault?”

“The original scroll and the rest of your notes, incomplete or not, are missing. Somebody has removed them. I’m not a huge believer in co-incidences and from my long friendship with you, I know you aren’t either.”

“They’ve been misplaced, perhaps-“

“Co-incidence,” interrupted Teddy, refusing to let him bog them both down in useless denial.

“This is preposterous. What you’re suggesting would mean we have a traitor in our midst.”

“I’m aware of that and not just anybody knows the location of the archives. Who asked you to translate the original scroll, Silas?”

Silas was shaking his head in disbelief before the question was fully framed, “You’re barking up the wrong tree. There is no way that is the connection.”

“Humour me.”

Sighing deeply Silas shrugged, “Since you insist and just to ally your paranoia. I was asked by Harry…before Sylvestor retired.”

Harry, or Henry Marchingham was the Director General of the Watchers Council. There was nobody higher than him within the hierarchy of the council. He reported only to the Home Office. Teddy was as far from being reassured as it was possible to be. Dear God! His despairing, “Shit!” earned him a reproving glare.

It was a well known fact that Harry had an almost fanatical hatred for a certain vampire, considered him in abomination far worse it seemed than before he’d been cursed with the return of his soul. Sucking in a breath and raising a shaking hand to mop at a brow beaded with sweat, Teddy said, “Did I happen to mention the vampire Angel is also involved. He’s investigating the killings apparently; not to mention his previous and intimate relationship with the slayer.”

Opposite him and behind the desk he’d sat behind for fifteen years, Silas lost every single scrap of colour from his usually ruddy face.

~

“Let me get this straight. You want me to hack into the DG’s email so you can have a good ole’ gander at what the old fart’s been up to?”

“Well, really-“

“Yes, exactly right,” interrupted Teddy, flicking a reproachful Silas a warning look. “I should warm you it’s a dangerous undertaking, young man, so I wouldn’t ask it of you lightly.” Finished, he maintained eye-contact and mentally crossed his fingers, hoping he’d assessed the youngster accurately.

“Danger’s right up my street, mate, no worries about that,” assured T J Ratner, alias Ratty, who then sucked his teeth and looked thoughtful. Behind him a whole rack of computer’s buzzed and pinged busily. This was the IT department of the Watchers Council and predictably it was under-funded and ridiculously short-staffed.

“I could lose me job, if we get found out couldn’t I?”

“That’s a good possibility in those circumstances, yes. However, I understand you’re quite good at um…getting away with such things.”

Ratty grinned. “Heard about my rep have you?” He looked more proud than abashed, “Those were good times. Much better than now I can tell you. Boring as shit this job is. In fact this is the most intriguing thing I’ve had to do all year.” The grin widened to reveal yellow, tobacco stained teeth, “Okay, I guess that means I’m in.”

Swinging back to the nearest monitor, he began tapping importantly and speedily at the keyboard. “Gimme a minute to get up his inbox and then you owe me a crate of Coors. Word of warning don’t get me any of that German shite, hate that stuff. It tastes like icy piss.”

“You can’t tell,” sharing a shudder with Silas, Teddy tried not to crowd too close in the torturously uncomfortable typists chair with its squeaky wheels.

A few moments later and the slight figure of Ratty, lost in his bulky Nike tracksuit and baseball cap, pushed away in his chair to let Silas wheel in and browse, boasting, “There you go; easy as taking candy off a baby.”

There were several pages of emails and going through them all took a while. “There’s nothing here,” Teddy announced, disappointed and leaned back to wipe the accumulation of dampness off his brow with a crisp white square of linen. His hand was shaking.

“I told you-“

“I know I’m not wrong, Silas, and I think whatever you say to the contrary you think so to.” The craving for a cigarette abruptly dug in like talons. He almost asked Ratner for one of his.

“That may be,” Silas conceded, adding pragmatically, “but if we can’t prove it. We have no case to present.”

“What about a personal email account?” asked Ratty, rolling a piece of chewed gum around his mouth. He was sat stretched out, as casual as casual can be, hands up behind his head.

They’d forgotten he was even there. Both men looked over at him in confusion. “Personal email?”

“Personal emails, you know, like hotmail and the rest. You can login to them anywhere with a password.”

Shaking his head to clear it, Teddy said, “Never heard of them. How do we find out if Harry has one?”

Popping a pink bubble, Ratty cocked his head to mull the problem over. “Temporary Internet folders would be the easiest. I don’t figure he knows enough to clear them out. Should be accessible from that. We’d need to go on his PC though. Can’t do that from here.”

If Silas had looked unnerved before, he turned green now. “Are you suggesting sneaking into the Director General’s office and snooping on his actual computer.”

Another bubble popped and slight shoulders shrugged. “What’s the diff from doing it here?”

“If you need me to explain it, then there is really no point,” Silas replied dryly; then turned to Teddy with bleak eyes, “You can’t be seriously considering it?”

~

The Kali Shiva Vishnu Temple, Los Angeles

There was a splatter of blood decorating a toe of the naked corpse. Around the ankle the brown leather cuff holding the foot was still fastened to the gurney, as if the deceased man with the gaping hole in his upper thorax was going to make a sudden, unexpected stab for freedom. Doing his very best not to linger on the man with a family who’d grieve for him, Wesley concentrated on the ones who’d ritualistically murdered him.

Left arm going numb from the chains, he shifted on the hard floor to get some ease and thinking at least he had a clear view from where he sat. Whether that was a plus or not would depend on what happened in the next few minutes. The mage, as he’d labelled him in lieu of a name, was clearly the one with all of the power here. Tall with stooped shoulders and a shock of grey hair, he could have been anybody’s grandpa. If you discounted the blood spattered red vestment-like garments, that is. Too far away to hear much of the conversation, Wesley surmised from the chalk marks being inscribed on the floor that the assessment of Richard’s heart was soon to commence.

Which was all well and good except he still had no clue as to who they were, and why hadn’t they killed him and Detective Lockley? Those questions along with many others circled maddeningly. Alas, those thoughts brought with them the debilitating and familiar terror that had always transfixed him in the past. Rather than succumb to it, Wesley chose instead to consider in as detached a manner as he could fake the reasons for keeping them alive; especially given the merciless modus operandi of the magician and his demon servants.

An unwillingness to kill unless it was the unfortunate donor seemed preposterous. An audience? Hardly, true magic doesn’t require active participants other than the wielder. So, that left him with the unpleasant idea they were Scooby snacks for the demons; a sort of well-done treat. His belly gave a terrified lurch and the urge to jibber a useless round of pleas was fairly overwhelming.

Get a grip on yourself, man, you’ve been in tighter spots than this and lived to fight another day.Bolstered, Wesley drew a long slow breath and got back to gnawing at the facts.

That was another mystery. Demons don’t generally serve men, at least not unless compelled to by supernatural force. Even then it would have to be for the vilest of reasons. You don’t control such bestial creatures by denying their desire to maim and destroy. You feed it and bind them even more strongly to your will. Another gruesome thought given the precarious position they were in.

He didn’t recognise the breed and struggled to even categorise them. Most demons walk on two legs if they even have legs, but these were multi-jointed and appeared to be comfortable upright and on all fours. Covertly he studied one of the pair flanking the mage. They were not a pretty sight. A red crest rose between pointed ears that slanted up on the sides of a scaled head. Below, malformed snouts jutted out from a flattened nose while deep-set burning eyes gave them an almost biblical appearance that was deeply disturbing.

Mired deep in unpleasant thought, it didn’t register immediately that his subject was staring straight back at him until he made the mistake of returning that stare. Connecting with it briefly, Wesley sensed cold, unremitting evil so strong his bowels threatened to empty.

Oh God, they were doomed!

Unluckily, distraction was at hand. At the other end of the room, the conference between mage and seers ended abruptly with the old man violently flinging the container to smash into the wall. With his own heart thudding sickly and guessing Richards heart hadn’t been the right one after all, Wesley didn’t suppose the question of their surviving the night would be left unanswered for much longer.

Beside him, Kate stiffened, too, and when he caught her gaze, he recognised the flash of fear she didn’t stamp out in time. In tandem they tested the chains, stopping when a threatening grunt reminded the pair they had a bigger problem than mere metal. It wasn’t so much the chains that imprisoned them, as the third beast eyeing them hungrily out of blood-red slits from perhaps three ft away.

One of the seers had been sitting inside the ring of chalk symbols. When Anton heard the verdict and snatched up the container with its fragile contents in a towering rage, the walls of the room seemed to shrink back and the air cackled with sinister energy. As they watched fury leeched every vestige of humanity from the old man’s face, turning softly wrinkled skin ravaged and mottled with veins that stood out in grotesque relief. The transformation sent the cloaked seers leaping back to cower back against the wall as if hoping it would magically move out of the way of their retreat. A wise move it turned out as all that rage was for them.

His ranting at them in an arcane language froze the marrow in Wesley’s bones.
Understanding the words wasn’t necessary. Some things were universal. Finally the mage calmed enough to warn hoarsely, “I am at the end of my patience. After sixty years of waiting, planning and sacrificing everything I was before, I am thwarted by imbeciles. I warned your employers what would happen if they failed me. Do they need a lesson on taking me seriously?”

“No, My Lord,” quavered one of the seers, obviously braver than his partner, “there is but one name left on the list. They must have been given the slayer heart you seek.”

Anton was forbiddingly unimpressed, “Hardly reassuring when, so far, you and yours have failed miserably to locate the person who has that name, now is it?”

Hearing that silkily voiced question, sweat broke out all over Wesley’s body as it dawned on him exactly why they’d been allowed to live. It made horrible sense now. Who better to interrogate about that last name, than a pair of interlopers who shouldn’t have been aware of what was going on? Oh God, please let me withstand whatever torture this monster plans, or better yet- Angel will you kindly move your arse and get here!

As if he’d read Wesley’s mind, Anton turned slowly on his heel and gazed steadily and coldly at the bound man and woman. “However, all is not lost. I think we have our breakthrough sitting right in this room.”

Wesley was lost for words, Kate wasn’t and glaring rebelliously, she spoke up, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, or who the hell you are for that matter. I had a list with twelve names and thanks to you they’re all dead. Oh, and just in case I forget to say before you kill me, too. You’re not going to get away with this. You’ll pay one way or another. Bank on it.”

Calm, his face was restored to its previous state. Unmoved by her passion, Anton folded his hands over his middle and deigned to reply, “Who I am is irrelevant and I don’t disagree. Everything has a price and I fully expect to pay mine. If it makes you feel better, I have no doubts it will be far more excruciating than any price your authorities could exact.”

There could be no doubting the man’s zeal or willingness to pay. Something smouldered inside him that transcended both age and knowledge. What terrified Wesley the most as he sat helpless before him was the instinctive realisation that this person was not naturally evil. He’d been driven to it by something. Perhaps the same rage that would not let anything deter him, including the murder of innocents.

Since they were engaged in dialogue of sorts, Wesley asked one of the questions that had been confounding him since walking inside this death chamber. “So why do it? You’re no arrogant dabbler in madjicks ignorant of the consequences of using such forces, but a master at it. What could be so important that you would be willing to pay the price of body and soul?” Even as he asked, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to know the answer.

Anton didn’t get a chance to reply. A splintering crash saw the door violently parting from its frame to fly across the room, smashing into the gurney and sending it on a collision course with the petrified seers.

“Revenge” announced a new voice, one infinitely recognisable. Inside the shattered frame stood a tall, black coated figure with spiked dark hair and a forbidding expression. Angel, sword in hand stepped trough the remains of the door.

Hope soared ridiculously high inside both Wesley and Kate. “About damn time,” they chorused in unison.

Angel ignored them to focus purely on the old man. “Hello, Anton. It’s been a long time.”

Unfreezing and blue eyes now lit with loathing, Anton inclined his grey head, “Angel.” The atmosphere with frigid, brittle enough to shatter, perhaps splintering into a million pieces of hatred. “I told you we would see one another again.”

Taking two slow and very deliberate steps into the room, Angel made a show of inspecting the room. Survey complete he returned to Anton and said grimly, “This is new isn’t it? What happened to bringing balance and abhorring the senseless loss of life?”

If the reminder was supposed to faze, Anton it didn’t work. “I learned the end justifies the means- from you. Did you think I would forget such an important lesson?”

Wesley saw Angel’s flinch even though it barely showed on the surface. “I guess not,” replied the vampire, edging closer to the two bound humans and blocking them with his body. “You’ve been busy. Tell me, do you think Serena would still be proud of her father now?”

This time the barb was right on target. “Do not even say her name, vile monster.” Anton howled, losing control at the softly spoken charge. Breathing heavily the old man advanced, continuing hoarsely, “You do not have that right. My daughter died at your hands, she loved you and you killed her to save your soul!”

For the bound witnesses all thought of rescue faded. Feeling ridiculously like an interloper and mesmerised by the drama being enacted before his eyes, Wesley looked to Angel hoping for a swift denial. It wasn’t forthcoming and the vampire’s profile was, if possible, even more closed off than normal.

The demons who served Anton advanced with him; their thick skin flushing to russet as his wrath stroked their own eruptible natures. With the broad sword raised defensively, a father’s hell seared Angel from 10 ft away. Coming to a standstill savage purpose was audible in every word as the grieving mage revealed his intent. “I will bring down all of the torment and hell I can bring on you, vampire. I am the bringer of your worst nightmares, exactly as you were of mine.”

~

Sacramento – 1942

“Angel, I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t know.” Serena sobbed. “I thought I could do it. I thought I could help you and then you might love me back.” She was kneeling on the dirty floor of the basement, surrounded by the paraphernalia of magic that she’d been brought up with and would now spell her doom. Tears tracked clean lines down a beautiful dirt stained face. Blue eyes identical to Anton Silverous, her powerful father and mentor, pleaded with him for understanding.

Stood over her, Angel couldn’t give her understanding, only horror tinged anger. “How could you?” he asked, stunned. “Do you have the slightest idea what you could have done, messing with my curse like that?” Dumbly shaking his head from side to side, he saw the move and stepped back from the lunged attempt to latch onto his legs. “Stay away from me, Serena,” he warned raggedly, still staggering under the enormity of what might have been.

Her confession still hadn’t sunk in properly and already Angel felt sick. “I thought you were my friend?” he whispered, betrayal ringing out.

Serena folded in on herself as if he’d struck her. “I am your friend. I love you. They tricked me, I swear. Angel, please help me.” A grazed sooty palm was held out to him in blind supplication, terror glazing those eyes. All around them the flickering of candlelight added a surreal aspect to underground room, highlighting the lurking darkness rather than keeping it at bay.

Ignoring the hand, he raked her with a seething glare before turning away to pace off, growling, “I can’t help you, how can I? According to you I can’t even help myself.”

With his back to her bitter self pity added to the mix. Why did this keep happening to him? He hadn’t led her on into believing he could return her feelings. Hell, he’d even asked Anton to intercede rather than hurt the girl he’d watched grow from a gangly twelve-year-old with too big eyes, to a striking woman.

Anton, Oh God! What was he going to say about all of this? Angel stilled with renewed horror at what this would do to Serena’s father.

Anton was his friend, a good man who’d taken a guilt-ridden, unstable vampire into his home and using slow coaxing had taught him how to find some small measure of peace. Angel owed him everything. This house sitting in a valley, surrounded by acres of dense woodland was a haven for balancing magic; owned by an order dedicated to keeping the demon world from infesting the human one and vice versa.

A haven until now. The air of the basement was thick with burnt blood. In the centre of the ravaged circle the small animal she’d sacrificed taunted him. In the time he’d spent under this roof he’d seen nothing like this. The lingering malevolence called to his demon. In attempting a spell to somehow alter his curse, she’d instead opened a gateway for a demon to enter this world. The gateway being her own body. Thanks to the deal she’d struck in ignorance, she had a few hours grace.

Fists clenched and staring blindly, he said, “This can’t be happening. It’s a nightmare.”

Trembling and drowning in shame, Serena sat up, curling her legs under the bedraggled and filthy skirt, “It’s real,” she said hopelessly. “I know what I have to do. I just know I can’t.” She’d tracked his agitated pacing with her heart squeezing in remorse. Every dream she’d carried from a young adolescent had been about him. Now he couldn’t even look at her. Her failure was complete.

Every muscle locked in outrage he spared her only a brief furious glance. “You’re not killing yourself, so don’t even think about it. There’s got be another way. We just have to find it.”

God damn it! Why was it that no matter how hard he tried, he brought destruction to anyone who tried to help him? Dimly, behind the roaring in his ears, Angel heard himself add, “We have to tell your father, maybe he can do something.”

That golden head jerked up, eyes wide with rejection. “No!” she shouted, “No, Angel, please?!” Sucking in a breath, fresh tears welled. Serena lifted a trembling hand to try and bite them back and then got to her feet. Wringing her hands, she pleaded with him, “Please, don’t tell my father about any of this. I’m begging you. I couldn’t bear that.”

A sudden leap of fury had him rounding on her, face hardening to reveal some of the darkness he’d wrought so effortlessly before being cursed with his soul. “You’re begging me,” he rasped.

The sound grated along her spine. Blanching, Serena tried to duck her head. Closing the distance he’d put between them inhumanly fast and grabbing her chin, Angel forced it back up to make her face him and what she’d done. “The curse has got nothing to do with why you and I can’t be together. I don’t feel like that about you.” He snarled, wishing he’d told her that before now, instead of cowardly hoping he wouldn’t have to.

“But they told me-“ she faltered under his blistering glare.

“You mean the demon you’ve let infest your body lied?” Angel bit out, sarcasm rife and let her go with a slight push before he did something he’d regret. “Go figure, its not like demons do that a lot now is it?”

Spinning in his heel he tossed up his hands and then swung back to snarl. “You are so unbelievably stupid. I can’t believe your father let you anywhere near magic.” It was a waste of time and effort, but Angel was helpless to stop the ranting. It helped him not think about what she’d done. So much for his vaunted self-control.

Helplessness drove him nuts, always had and this was no exception. “You’ve never practised the dark arts before in your whole life. It’s forbidden. What the hell made you think of trying it now?”

She opened her lips, but he jumped in and cut her off with a chopping motion of one hand, “Forget it. I don’t want to hear it.”

“You’re right, they lied about a lot of things and I was foolish enough to believe them. As much as I wish otherwise I wasn’t prepared for this and now I have to pay the price.”

It was time to lay it all out. “Angel, if I live past midnight my soul will be wrenched out, leaving my body behind to wreak havoc on the innocent. I think you know better than anyone why I can’t let that happen.” If nothing else, the teachings she’d abided by before love had seduced her held fast on one stark truth. “I must die before that happens.”

The stoic resignation, replacing the terror of a young woman faced with literally with bringing hell on earth pierced Angel’s anger. He mourned it because without that cushion the feelings he did have for her came through. If only she’d been satisfied with what he could offer, affection and caring.

Acid tears stung. Achingly he said, “Serena, I can’t kill you, please don’t ask me that.”

Closing the distance, her palm cupped his cheek and this time he didn’t pull back. “I know what it is I’m asking, but there is simply no-one else. I’d do it myself but they must have foreseen that and I still forfeit if I do. Angel, I must ask you one last time. Please save my soul.”

He still couldn’t accept how this must end. “There’s got to be another way.”

Blonde hair flew around slim shoulders as she shook her head. “This is an ancient entity, driven out back before time began. Somebody planned this well and I strayed into the trap.” Snatching her hand back, Serena let the seeping coldness flow into her face, turning her gaze crystal. “The demon you host is nothing compared to what I’ve let return. If you refuse to do what I ask, then you’ll be as culpable for what follows as I am.”

She could see the moment he began to accept and pushed back her own fears. It wasn’t fair, but she was fiercely glad that if she had to die now it was like this. Stepping away, Serena lifted aside the curtain of tangled golden hair to bare her neck. In the pause she tried to sooth him, “Maybe this is meant to happen. Maybe this was a part of their plan all along that you be the one to kill me. Don’t let them have the satisfaction of failing, or tormenting yourself over things you can’t change.”

Reaching out for his hand, Serena held his gaze unwaveringly and felt sick with relief when Angel took a slow painfully reluctant step towards her. When he reflexively jerked back from what he was considering doing, she refused to let him and pulled him closer. His face hovered inches over her neck. Sliding her eyes shut and taking a deep breath, she quivered and said huskily, “Kill me now, Angel, and if you will give me one thing before I die. Lie and tell me you could have loved me.”

~

As it turned out, the demons who’d destroyed Serena hadn’t entirely lied, but he hadn’t found that out until much later in Sunnydale following his moment of bliss. Thinking about it, Buffy had reminded him very strongly of Serena. Maybe that explained why he’d been almost predisposed to falling in love with the slayer. Not that the guilt had left him. Only with Cordelia did he feel free of guilt. The problem was, finally ready to admit he had deeper feelings for the feisty brunette, Angel had a hunch all of that was about to change, too.

He hadn’t had to drink from Serena to kill her, but knowing she wanted it done that way, Angel hadn’t been able to deny her. Making it as painless as possible he’d bitten and drained her, then cradled the slumped body as he ascended up from the bowels of the building he’d come to call home. Laying her in her bed, he’d left her for Anton to find and then disappeared.

Angel hadn’t left any explanations because he hadn’t had the heart to sully his friend’s memories of his only beloved child. Now, facing him sixty years later and with Wesley and Kate listening in, he lowered the sword so that the tip pointed harmlessly at the floor and said, “I didn’t kill her to save my own soul, Anton, but hers.”

“Lies,” the old man hissed, “I won’t listen to your pitiful excuses, vampire. I took you into my home and you destroyed it. There are no excuses.” Hatred burned with maniacal fire. Jerkily nodding his head, Anton said, “Take your humans and leave. I will see you again when it is time for you to pay.”

“Wait! You don’t understand…” Sensing they were out of time, Angel made a hasty, desperate move for the man he once would have died to protect, “…Let me explain and stop this madness-“

Spinning a complete circle on powerful legs one of the demons ejected its spear, and howling a battle cry, slashed him across the middle before its master could shout an order to desist. Staggering and falling heavily to his knees with an agonised grunt, Angel hugged his abdomen to try and halt the blood leaking from the deep slash. Badly wounded, he couldn’t lift his sword arm even if he wanted to.

Head whirling, he yanked his senses back into a semblance of order and blurrily saw the supernatural entourage were almost gone. Falling onto his side to roll to face the exit, Angel tried one last time. “Anton, wait. It doesn’t have to be with is way,” he groaned, lifting tormented eyes to catch the other mans. “You have to believe me. I swear I never meant her harm.”

From the temple beyond the door, Anton hesitated for a fraction of a second before letting the darkness swallow him whole again. “I see you haven’t lost your touch, Angel; still able to seem so sincere. You sicken me. I will not stop– ever. Besides, I have gone too far down this path to stop even if I wanted to.”

~

PART 7
A ghostly hand dragged the duvet off Cordelia’s shoulders waking her instantly. Rolling over and squinting in annoyance, she said sharply, “Dennis what the hell are you doing? If this is some kind of phantoms revenge for me staying out all night- I’m gonna…”

The slow knocking at the front door halted her before she got snippy enough to warrant an apology. “Oh right, door- thanks.” Still not exactly happy at being pulled out from a deep sleep, she grumbled the whole distance from her bed to the door.

Slapping on lights as she went, she growled, “Whoever you are you’d better have a damned good excuse for getting me up out of a warm bed at 3 frickin’ am in the morning. That’s all I can say. Geeze, between two jobs you’d think a girl would be entitled to some shut-eye once in a while.”

Pulling back the bolts and throwing open the door, her jaw dropped open at finding Angel leaning drunkenly against the outside frame. Before the embarrassment that had kept her awake for a good hour could rear its head, she noticed the pale, stricken cast of his features and realised it wasn’t drink. “Cordy,” he said and raising a blood-stained hand, lost some balance and began to topple.

“Whoa, what happened to you?” she yelped catching him and nearly tumbling back to the floor, only with him on top this time. “Geeze, you weigh a ton,” she complained without thinking, concerned more than it showed. His belly jumped under hand and she felt the stickiness of what could only be blood. His shirt was soaked through. Her white t-shirt wasn’t faring so well either.

“Sorry,” Angel rasped in pain and tried to stiffen up. “I shouldn’t have bothered you-“

“Well you did, so don’t be dumb, Angel. Besides, we’re a team aren’t we? Saying that- where’s Wesley, is he okay?” With his balance restored enough to take some of his own weight, she found it easy to manoeuvre him towards her bedroom. The couch would probably have done, but if for whatever reason it wasn’t, she didn’t fancy trying to move him once he was down.

Biting his lip as every step jarred his wound, Angel reassured her, “Wesley’s fine. He’s escorting Kate home. I was supposed to go back to the apartment…I wasn’t planning to come here, but-“

“But somebody lied and told you I was Florence Nightingale in the flesh.” Hazel eyes rolled, “Forget why, you here now.” Honesty forced her to add, “Word of warning though, this is a first for me and if it’s really bad, I may barf.” The fact that he was stumbling over his words worried Cordelia a lot. With an arm around his back and shoulder jammed under his right side, they made slow progress.

Head swimming with pain, Angel hardly knew what he was saying, “You don’t have to patch me up. I just needed to see you.”

That raised a brow, both of them- high. “Yeah well you can look your fill while I patch you up.” What else could she say? Wondering what the urgency was, insecurities over their kiss swung back into action. Concentrating on keeping them upright, she pushed them back until later.

Alternately pulling and tugging, Cordelia managed to get them through her bedroom door. Dennis turned up the light to full power while she pushed him to sit and knelt between his legs. Grasping a hand to begin pulling off the leather duster, curiosity got the better of her. “So, why the urgent need to see me?”

He was paler than wax, way worse than usual. Heavy lidded dark eyes struggled to focus on her face. “Wanted to I guess,” Angel admitted blurrily and lifted an unsteady hand to clumsily brush back the dark curls obscuring her face. “Do you have any idea how precious you are?” he asked unsteadily.

“Precious?” she repeated taken aback. Wow, if he gets like this every time he’s injured I may have to sharpen some stake knives myself. Forgetting everything for a moment, Cordelia’s delighted smile stretched from ear to ear. “You wanted to see me, in the middle of the night and for no reason at all?”

Just then the sleeve finally gave up and let her tug it off. “Yeah; sorry if I woke you,” he said, hissing in pain when she pulled the heavy coat across his back to peel off the other sleeve.

“If you don’t mention that then I won’t have to ….and Oh my God! Who did this to you?” Crouching back down, she’d finally seen the wound and gaping, wondered at the stubbornness of a vampire who could drive out of his way in this condition. Her mood did a u-turn. “You’re insane for coming out here. What if you’d crashed and the car went up like a skyrocket, huh. Just because your immortal doesn’t mean you can’t get killed. Hello! Fire?”

A gentle finger shushed her before her voice got high enough to crack glass, “I’m fine. Vampire, remember? I heal fast. This’ll be gone by tonight.”

Lips tingling, she was caught by the first truly unguarded expression she’d ever seen on him. Cordelia swallowed a lump, saying, “Yeah right. I have eyes. I can see how *not* okay you are, dumbass.”

Grasping the hand and laying it on her shoulder to keep it out of the way, her gentle unbuttoning and peeling back of his shirt was completely at odds with the harsh words. Seeing just how bad it was helped unruffle her frazzled nerves and she was almost calm. Scowling, she flicked him an impatient look and demanded, “Next time, call me and I’ll come to you, okay.”

“Okay,” agreed Angel, happy enough to agree to anything to wipe the scowl off her face; adding a soft plea, “Don’t be mad.”

Refusing to be caught off guard again, she didn’t meet his eyes. Wadding up the shirt, she mumbled, “Well, don’t you just get all sappy when you’ve lost a little blood?” Then standing with a deep sigh, she pushed him down to lie flat, admitting, “This isn’t mad, trust me, you’d know mad when you saw it. This is me worried about you and since you saved my ass not so long ago, I reckon I’m allowed.”

Examining the wound seemed a lot safer than analysing his action. Wincing at the long gash with its open sides, she told him to scoot up the bed while she dug out some medical supplies from the kitchen.

“Cordy,” Angel calling her name stopped her at the door. Turning a little impatiently she caught his muttered, “We need to talk,” and rolled her eyes in mild exasperation.

“Tell me about it. But it can wait two minutes while I get something to cover that gaping slash in your chest. You might not mind it, but it’s making me want to hurl.”

Coming back less than a minute later, she was half expecting him to not have moved an inch. The big lug had looked pretty darned comfortable just hogging the end of the bed. Why that gave her a thrill she’d examine a lot later. Rounding the door Cordelia stopped in her tracks, shocked at seeing a floating pair of pants being folded in mid-air. Although, not for the usual reasons.

“Dennis!” she hissed mortified, “He’s wounded on his belly…not down there. We didn’t need to take them off. Are you trying to humiliate me here or what?”

Thankfully the overly helpful ghost had also covered the now naked and unconscious vampire with the duvet, carefully tucked as it was to lie just under the drying wound. Toying with the idea of putting them back on, she gave it up over the risk of waking him in the middle of it.

Teeth gritted and reaching for patience, she dumped the bandages on the bed and stalked to her dresser in search of scissors. “Fine, I guess it’s too late now, damn it. Next time wait until I ask though, okay?” Rummaging inside the second to top drawer, she hissed at her ghost, “Geeze, embarrassing much? You are so explaining in the morning even if you have to draw a picture to do it. Clear?”

Then with the supplies gathered, she climbed huffily on the bed and sat back on her heels to study him. Angel was out of it; sunk deep into a vampire sleep she had no idea how to disturb.

Picking up a roll of crepe she got busy snipping, talking to herself as she did. “Like I even want to wake him, especially since he’d naked.” A brief glare was aimed at the ceiling, “This is good. This way I can just get it done and get some sleep of my own.”

The idea of sleeping in the same bed as Angel was disturbing for all kinds of reasons she didn’t want to dwell on. So she didn’t. With long lengths cut and reaching for the bottle she’d snagged as an after-thought, she poured some of the yellow fluid onto a wad of cotton wool and started dabbing the antiseptic fluid on the long open slit, wondering the whole time why the hell she was bothering.

“It’s not like your gonna get an infection or anything, turn green then keel over. I guess being dead does have its advantages, huh?”

Getting the bandages on him was a struggle though. In the end she settled for wrapping a bandage around his abdomen; grateful it wasn’t higher up where she couldn’t push the bandage roll under the small of his back. Finished, surveying her handiwork and trying not to linger with feminine appreciation on the muscled planes of one very impressive masculine chest, Cordelia felt exhaustion drop in the wake of the excitement.

Coming to the crunch the sofa held about as much appeal as a bed of nails. Scrubbing her face to alleviate the tired ache with both hands, she sighed through them and griped, “I knew I should have put you on the sofa. The state you’re in, you wouldn’t have noticed it’s too small.”

It was too late now. As the saying went, she’d made her bed and now she was going to have to lie in it, vampire and all. “Ugh, I don’t care. This is officially the freakiest Friday ever. Meaning, I might as well make a complete night of it.”

Decision made and pulling off fluffy bunny slippers to toss them into the corner of the room, she slid under the duvet next to Angel. There, head resting on the pillow with dark hair fanning across the crisp cotton, she hesitated and then finally laid a hand on the centre of his chest. “Night, Angel.”

~

Angel was dreaming. It started off very familiar, an old recurring one that hadn’t plagued him for a couple of decades. He was back in the Silverous’ basement and Serena was weeping, pleading with him to help her end her life. His dream-self felt every bit as trapped and helpless as Angel had on that terrible night. Foresight doesn’t exist in dreams anymore than in real life. He’d never been given the chance to imagine, even for a second, going back and being able to change what he’d been forced to do.

Hearing her high-pitched, wailing scream through two floors, he found Serena’s crumpled form exactly as he had sixty years previously. Knowing what was coming, he tried battling back the memories unleashed at the temple, but they continued to stream out; only as sometimes happens in dreams the scene warped. It was the very worst part of the dream and she had hold of his hand, pulling him into a deadly embrace. Squeezing his eyes shut for a moment, as if blocking out the sight of her neck with its hammering pulse would halt the call to his demon. Angel opened them again to find instead of tangled blonde hair and glazed blue eyes, he was staring down into Cordelia’s face.

Confused and uneasy, he whispered her name, “Cordelia?”

She showed none of Serena’s defeat. “Should I be pissed you even have to ask?” A perfect brow arched in unison with a teasing sideways smile.

“No…I just…” shaking his head, he tried again, “I didn’t expect you here.” Her hand was warm in his and without intending to he found himself clasping a hip to pull her in.

She came without resistance and his relief was palpable. There was no trembling for this woman, and the air was redolent with perfume rather than fear. “I’m glad you’re here,” he admitted and it was patently true. In fact it was he that was shaking not her.

Coming up on tiptoe she brushed his lips with hers, and said, “Good. I’m reserving judgement until after you kiss me.”

This time there was no hesitation and the invitation was superfluous. Before the last word was out, he was already grasping her neck to keep her in place as he lowered his head to kiss her. It was even sweeter than before. Angel kept as tight hold as he dared afraid she was mirage that would melt away if he didn’t. Seeking some desperately needed reassurance, he deepened the kiss; taking it further, faster than he had before.

Cupping her ear and tracing the delicate line of her jaw with a thumb, he felt it open as he surged inside. She met him and passion ignited, causing his whole body to tighten. Close wasn’t anywhere near close enough. Hooking an arm around her slim waist, he lifted her up so they were flush from the thighs up. Through two layers of clothing he felt the tight points of beaded nipples against his chest. Pure, dumb need battered at him and if he could, Angel would have joined them then and there. Restraining himself was exquisitely agony. Tingles raced wherever they touched and he throbbed with borrowed life as desire roared.

The dream became a time out of time. An oasis from the horror gathering on the horizon. When she breathed he did, too, and hoarded it inside a chest that ached with emotions he couldn’t name. For years now he’d been saving people in an effort to redeem himself, but it had taken Cordelia to save him from himself. Locked away inside his head with her, he felt alive again.

Her panting was choppy and ragged. Reluctantly accepting he had to let Cordelia recover some breath, Angel released her lips and trailed butterfly kisses along the sweep of her jaw. Drawn like a lodestone to the delicate arch of her neck, he suckled the skin shielding the rapid tattoo of her pulse. As he did clutching hands speared into his hair; burrowing through the thickness of it to press his face closer. He was in heaven until tucking her head so he was nestled, caught with that sweet flesh under his tongue, Cordelia asked, “So, is this the part where you kill me?”

The shock of it catapulted him out of the dream and back into wakefulness.

For the second time in a single night, Cordelia was woken from a deep sleep with a start. This time it was with Angel suddenly jack-knifing upright and dislodging her from the perch she’d made for herself on his broad chest. Eyes popping open she blinked and focused on his stark profile, watching uncomprehendingly as he jerked his head around to stare down at her.

He was as tense as a bowstring. “Cordelia?” he asked hoarsely.

“Yeah- what’s up?” Night time or not she had no problem seeing the feverish light in his eyes. It was an hour or so before dawn and the semi gloom turned brown to pure glittering black. Seeing didn’t mean believing, “Angel?!” she queried sharply.

Instead of an answer, Cordelia found herself flattened to the bed with a defensive hand planted to a muscled chest, trying to keep him at bay. “Do you think I could hurt you?” A deep voice asked somewhere above her head.

Staring back with a befuddled frown in place, she replied, “I haven’t given it a thought. Which…kind of answers your question, right?” Lying beneath him she was doing her damndest *not* to think about the fact that he was naked, half straddling her, and deliciously heavy. Oh God! You just had to think of that didn’t you?

His skin was damp with sweat, giving her a clue. Her expression cleared. “Angel, have you just had a nightmare?” That would go a long way toward explaining his weird behaviour. He was shaking, too. She relaxed and her hand unconsciously travelled up smooth skin to his collarbone.

“Everything is a nightmare,” he said cryptically then finished gutturally, “I can’t lose you, too,” and that it seemed was the end of any conversation.

Breathing ceased as her mouth was taken with passionate force. Inside, white fuzz replaced conscious thought as Angel relit the embers doused so abruptly by Wesley’s voicemail. Embarrassment, insecurity and doubts didn’t stand a chance under an onslaught of stunned pleasure, all the more compelling because it was pulled from her reluctantly. Before he’d knocked on her door, Cordelia had been on the verge of retreating back behind her walls, certain she was heading for heartache if she didn’t. Recalling any of that became impossible.

However many mindless minutes later, she gasped in lungful’s of air when the kiss ended and his head dug into the pillow next to hers. Braced, hard hands grasped the neckline of her sleep-shirt to tear the white cotton right down the middle. It should have angered her and would have if it had been anyone else. Cool air washed over her breasts and belly, and then Angel was kissing her again, sweeping invasions so full of desperation her senses spun out of orbit. Being needed was her Achilles heel, carefully hidden from everyone, even herself. His feverish intensity called to the deepest parts of her soul and made her want to weep.

~

London, England

The pub was one of the less salubrious types; lacking any of the modern touches that lift others to trendy and homey. The dark wooden floor was simply grimy and sticky rather than stained. Once white walls were not so artistically streaked with ancient tobacco stains and the bar itself looked more like a carnival reject with bottles instead of skittles on the dust laden shelves.

Supping gingerly at the frothy top of his pint of bitter and trying not to feel guilty about the cigarette perched smoking in the large ashtray, Teddy sat and waited. The entrance doors were in his direct line of sight, and opened a surprising number of times before the man he was to meet entered the dim interior. He raised a discreet hand and saw the nod of acknowledgment before the man approached the bar to order a drink.

A few minutes later and another pint glass joined his on the table. Thumbing back the top of the pack of cigarettes Teddy offered one to the equally grey haired man who lowered himself onto the opposite bench.

“Thanks.” One was taken and then lit from a flaring match, “I’d heard you’d given up the weed, Theo?” said the newcomer with a wary smile behind the curling tendrils of smoke.

Teddy had told him a few times not call him Theo, but this time he had more important things on his mind than pet-hates. “I did. Look, Seb, do you mind if we skip the pleasantries and get to the point. It’s rather important that I’m not missed and perhaps let the cat get out of the bag prematurely.”

Intelligent grey eyes narrowed with interest, “Certainly, let’s skip. I’m intrigued about such clandestine urgency, I must admit.”

Ten minutes later and intrigue had been replaced by cautious alarm and not a small amount of sly calculation. Sebastian Wyevan was the Council’s Director of Overseas Operations, and most importantly had been the Harry’s chief rival for becoming Director General four years previously. A fact Teddy was banking on to aid him.

“Let me see if I have the facts straight,” said Seb, grinding out another cigarette, “You hacked into Harry’s email, personal email I might add and found this,” he waved a printed piece of paper casually in the air, “which was sent to Wolfram & Hart a few weeks ago.”

“Wolfram & Hart are a dubious concern to put it mildly,” added Teddy before draining the dregs from his glass.

“I’m aware of their activities,” advised Seb with a cold smile. “That’s is my business after all. Carrying on, this email suggests that Harry has been involved in a plot to commit several murders all aimed at unsouling a vampire. Is that it?”

“Isn’t that enough? And it’s not just any vampire, but Angelus. A name I’m sure you’re also familiar with.”

An inclination of the head was confirmation enough. Gory details weren’t necessary for one of the most infamous vampires of the last three centuries. “You’ve been busy, Theo. Tell me, what is Harry’s motive in all of this?”

“How would I know?”

“Guess. This is all very circumstantial and if you want me to perform some kind of coup to get rid of Harry, then I need more.”

The word coup was enough to have Teddy feeling sick. They had never had anything like this happen within the Watcher’s Council in seven centuries. “I’m only guessing but the way I see it is this.”

Taking a deep breath he reels off the things that had been circling his head ever since finding out from Silas who had ordered that scroll translated, “Within months of Harry taking the reins Buffy Summers, the latest Slayer takes up with Angel, the souled version of Angelus.” The ricochets of that news still rang clear in his memory even several years later.

“Then, not long after that she and her watcher defies the council during her training, resulting in Rupert Giles being struck off. Worse, Angelus returns and nearly sucks the world into hell. Summers disappears with grief for having to banish him. Comes back swiftly followed by her demon lover and then defies the council yet again once the rogue Slayer Faith, already unstable and jealous over Angel’s attentions to Buffy, poisons him with an arrow. Are you seeing where I’m going with this?”

Face carefully blank, Seb waves him on.

“To top it off, Wesley Wyndham Pryce, who is distantly related to him, is fired for incompetence and promptly takes up with the same vampire. Putting it bluntly, Harry’s whole term has been riddled with controversy and failure and it doesn’t take much of a stretch to see the common denominator.”

“Angelus.”

“I hear he prefers Angel now, but essentially, yes.”

“All supposing you’re right, it still doesn’t explain why Harry would plot to remove the soul, slaying the creature would be better surely.”

“Not if he wants to recoup some of his losses by arranging for Angelus, once he’s committed a few atrocities, to meet a dusty end. That would certainly impress the Governing Board and turn around his track record almost immediately.”

There was a pause. Then Seb grinned and raised his still half full glass in a mocking toast, “You’re a scary fellow, Theo, I’ll give you that.”

~

PART 8

Cordelia had driven them back to the office that morning. Angel tucked under a blanket to protect himself from the 11 am sun had hardly said a word. Gnawing her bottom lip as she navigated the light, post 9am rush, she decided to leave him to his brooding so she could do some of her own. All of the doubts and insecurities that had been melted to nothing by the heat of passion had come roaring back the second she’d opened her eyes.

Great timing, huh? Now, sitting behind her desk she was just grateful Wesley was off doing something else, because she didn’t feel up to pretending all was right in the Cordyverse. Did Angel regret their lovemaking? That was the crux of her problem. Somewhere between their first kiss; waking up to find he’d dragged himself; wounded no less, halfway across town to see her and falling asleep with her arms around him, Cordelia had realized she was in love with him.

“Geeze, is it too much to ask for a little reassurance, or enlightenment about how he feels about me?”

Three things happened at once to jolt her back from her own problems; the phone rang, the door opened and the clear sound of the elevator cage door being thrust back indicated Angel had returned to his office. Dithering for a few beats she finally jabbed the flashing line to answer the call and waved Detective Kate Lockley further inside the dim office.

It was Wesley on the phone. Angel stepped out of his office and she felt his brief look in her direction right down to her toes. Giving Wes half her attention she heard Angel politely ask Kate to come inside his office. It was the ‘where we won’t be disturbed’ part that burned her. What an Asshole!

“Cordelia, are you listening?” Wesley’s irritable voice sounded out of the receiver.

No! “Sure” she lied, glaring daggers at Angel’s closed office door, “You’ve made an appointment to see somebody. They won’t come into the office, because they have a vamp phobia so they’re coming to your place. Did I miss anything?”

“No, no- that’s the lot,” conceded Wesley with a hint of contrition. “You’ll let Angel know where I am?”

“If I see him- yeah,” Sarcasm was so often evident in her voice, Wes missed the new edge. That pissed her off even more. If you couldn’t trust your co-workers to spot when you weren’t happy then who could you? Would it hurt to just ask her if she was okay? “See ya later, Wes,” she finished on a sigh knowing she was being completely unreasonable. Hanging up she cupped her chin to stare glumly at the sun blazing beyond the screen of blinds.

It was Saturday morning. She shouldn’t even be here. Driving Angel safely back home was one thing, but why was she staying? Pensive fingers tapped a tattoo on the desk while the desktop’s screensaver bounced from one corner of the screen to another. Oblivious, Cordelia sat mired in thought.

Kate Lockley was pretty, blonde and blue-eyed, dedicated and earnest. The single time she’d met the detective, Cordy had felt her hackles rise within the space of a minute. She hadn’t bothered analysing why at the time and now she didn’t have to. When Kate walked in the office, she didn’t see anyone other than Angel, and that bugged the crap out of her. Cordelia was used to being noticed even when she didn’t want to be, but this wasn’t wounded vanity it was good ole’ fashioned jealousy. For the second time in her fairly short life, blonde save-the-world-gal was raising a blip on her inner radar.

A red mist rose as ire escalated. A hand slammed on the desk. “Okay, that does it. Ya know what, screw this. I shouldn’t be even worrying about this crap.” Logging off with a scowl and snatching up her purse, she stalked around the desk; tossing his closed door a fulminating glare on the way past.

“Geeze, whatever happened to waking up with a rosy glow and basking in the affections of a new lover. Breakfast in bed would have been nice. He can cook can’t he? Jackass!”

Angel’s door opened just as she yanked the outer office one open. Looking back with a scowl she saw Angel ushering Kate out. Seeing them together like that brought back an unwelcome memory of times past; him being tall and dark and her; short, blonde and badly dressed. The flashback brought with it a sick surge of anger.

She tamped it down. Okay, this is where I hang onto what pride I have left and just go.

Too late. Seeing his gaze bounce from her empty chair, to where she was standing by the door, Cordelia pasted on a fake smile to cover the grinding of her teeth, and said, “I could see you were busy, so thought I’d leave you guys to it. Three’s a crowd, right?”

Angel froze and Kate blinked as if seeing her for the first time. And this is a trained professional supposed to be protecting the community? Geeze, here’s me thinking actual detective work needs actual observation skills.. After hundreds of hours practising for auditions the smile didn’t slip even a tiny bit.

On the other side of the office, dark eyes flared and turned piercing. Cordelia suddenly felt as transparent as glass and she didn’t like it one little bit. Opening her mouth to say more, she thought better of it and went to sail frostily out of the office door.

“Cordelia, wait” demanded Angel firmly.

He may as well have just said Cordelia unload. “What for, you to get chatty and stop treating me like some kind of jackal woman?” She hadn’t meant to say it, she really, really hadn’t. Ah, who the hell cared?

Hip cocked, Cordelia crossed her arms and abandoned the casual façade. Every line of her body; from the top of glossy hair piled haphazardly onto the top of her head, right down to the horribly expensive open-toed sandals, screamed scathing.

Catching her drift, Angel stiffened and his eyes narrowed. “I think you mean Coyote woman and don’t be ridiculous.” His voice was soft with a warning that she let it go until they were alone.

Next to him, Kate was a picture of piggy-in-the-middle and looked ready to bolt with her wary glance ping-ponging between employee and employer. Cordelia almost felt sorry for her. The almost made all the difference. She was a big girl and besides she was just the audience. Angel was the true target.

Leaping to the conclusion Angel didn’t want Kate to know he’d boned his secretary; a bristling Cordelia went on the offensive. Slammed the door shut she let loose with both barrels. “Oh, so I’m being ridiculous now, huh? Pity you didn’t feel that way last night in bed and saved me the grief of quitting this dumb job.”

That scored. As if he’d been punched, Angel’s chin lifted in shock.

She wasn’t finished. Turning to Kate and arching a brow, Cordelia gave her a once over and smirked, “Word of warning, detective, don’t give up your day job to work for this jerk. He’s a typical guy with just enough smarts not to chase a girl around the desk…” Pausing she slid Angel an evil look before adding, “scratch that in fact-“

The hard hand snagging her elbow was unexpected because she hadn’t even seen him move. Hauled away at blurring speed, she heard a dark voice grind out somewhere over her head, “Kate, you’ll have to see yourself out. Close the door will you?”

The one to his office slammed behind them. “Hey!” she protested and yanked loose, massaging her elbow for show.

“You are unbelievable do you know that?” Angel grated.

“Look who’s talking, dumbass?” she retorted and breath quickening, refused to acknowledge the wariness draining her temper. Damn it, she hated it when that happened.

Opting not to push it, Angel perched on the edge of his desk, hands gripping the edge to stop them from wanting to grab hold and shake her. Her threat to quit had catapulted him right to the edge of his temper.

As calmly as possible he asked, “Want to tell what the hell was all that about?”

It would be so much less intimidating if he actually shouted. Angel never shouted and his softest voice could either give her chills or heat her blood. Now was not a good reminder of that. On the spot, she blurted, “You haven’t said ten words to me since we woke up, and then we get here and cop lady arrives all…sickeningly doe-eyed and there you are lapping it up. What do you expect me to think?” Even to her own ears it sounded borderline hysterical.

Taken aback, Angel focused on the last two since he had no excuse for the first. Crossing his arms he said, “Kate isn’t doe-eyed and I don’t lap anything up.”

Mirroring him, Cordelia crossed her arms, too; then replied snippily, “She is too, and it’s gross.”

Was Kate’s attraction so obvious? He hadn’t thought so. Confusion softened his face, but kept the frown in place, “I don’t think of Kate that way. Why would I?”

Arms uncrossing, she tossed up her hands, “Hello! Gung-ho blonde, you’re eternal temptation and don’t even try and deny it, Angel. I’ve seen it before, remember?” Despising the topic as much as she did, keeping still was impossible.

Pacing she sniped, “Thinking about it. I can’t believe you passed up the opportunity. Oh wait don’t tell me. You were mining the angst and thought I’d do as a stop-gap. Well think again, buddy-boy. I am nobody’s fill-in.”

Keeping track of her physically and mentally was dizzying. At a loss the frown dug deeper. “You aren’t a stop-gap and I don’t have a thing for blondes, gung-ho or otherwise.”

Halting, she ticked them off on her fingers, “Darla, Buffy, Kate-“

“Druscilla and a couple of hundred others weren’t. And in case you missed it the first time, I’m not interested in Kate.”

Distracted, Cordelia queried, “Hundreds?”

Angel didn’t bat a lash, “I’m nearly 250 years-old, Cordelia. I bust my cherry a long time ago.” The crudeness was deliberate, aimed at jolting her off her headlong flight towards deeper and sillier waters.

There was a heavy pause. “Great. So now I’m just the latest in a very long line.” Not even a little bit mollified, she growled, “I think I preferred the other idea.”

Angel pinched the bridge of his nose as if he was at the end of his patience. “Cordelia most of those were when I was Angelus and no, I’m not going into details. You’re not the latest in a long line if it’s just been– never mind. Can we move on?”

“Sure.” Flopping into a chair, she tacked on, “Angelus was a man-ho by the way.”

“I’ll let that one pass,” Angel lied, “Are we done with the jealous tantrum?”

Jealous tantrum? Denial was automatic and in the circumstances, jumbled, “Me-jealous? Are you… that’s so not true.” Pulling herself together, she tried again with a bluff, “Excuse me, I’m the one men get jealous over, not the other way around.”

A dark brow quirked, “What else would you call it?”

Cornered by her own sense of honesty, she squired. Crap! Did he have to make such an issue of it? Where was the gentleman when you needed him? “Yeah well,” Triumphantly she batted it back at him. “It’s your fault for giving me the morning after from hell.”

He’d given worse. Wincing, Angel relaxed his shoulders and jammed his hands in his pockets, aiming for laid-back, unthreatening and contrite. “You’re right. I know I did and I’m sorry for that…I just didn’t know what to say. I didn’t exactly plan it you know. My love life has never been the stable and nurturing kind.”

“In case you were wondering.” Cordelia said, “You’re digging the hole deeper.”

It was the disappointment behind the sarcasm that got to him. Every day keeping his lies from her was getting harder and harder. The kiss hadn’t been his worst mistake. Keeping the truth from her got that honour. Pushing away from the desk and dropping his arms, Angel slowly closed the distance and refused to drop her gaze.

When he was stood close enough she had to tip up her chin to see him, he hunkered down and said low, “Not really. Think about it. I don’t normally lose control like that.”

She followed his line of reasoning but it wasn’t nearly enough. “I don’t want…Sorry, rephrasing, I refuse to be an itch you need to scratch. I want more than that, Angel. A lot more.”

“Last night wasn’t about my libido, Cordelia.” Sighing, Angel rose and catching a hand on the way, drew her up with him. “Look I wish I had the words to reassure you right now, but I don’t- not yet. When this case is over I swear I’ll make it up to you. Can you put it on trust until then?” Angel could only hope the intensity he was feeling; willing her to understand and accept, was reflected on his face.

It was and Cordelia was buffeted by conflicting emotions, chief among them was frustration and relief. He had to care about her to look at her like that, didn’t he? Not knowing for sure allowed frustration to edge ahead. Asking flat out if he loved her was tempting, but she discarded thinking it had to come without prompting.

“I might if I understood what the hell was going on here. What’s a case got to do with you and me?” Hazel eyes went wide as she connected the dots, “Is this something to do with last night and you getting all sliced’n’diced?”

A cool finger ghosted over her lips to shush her. “I’ll wrap this up as quickly as I can and then I’ll tell you everything. No holds barred.”

It was the best he could offer. This morning watching her sleep, he’d finally accepted that not telling her straight off had been a colossal mistake. But, confessing he loved her now would be a worse one, because after all the deception she’d throw it back in his face the second she found out about the heart. He’d been at a complete loss on what to say to her from the moment she’d woken.

What he was saying was enough to raise her suspicions anyway. A stiff finger poked him dead centre in the chest. “I don’t like this, Angel, I don’t like being kept in the dark,” she warned and tried not to let his unusually open expression melt her. It was hard, because when he wanted to his eyes turned from bitter brown to warm chocolate, thick enough to drown in.

“Why can’t you just tell me now and get it over with?”

“I would if I could, but I can’t. I have my reasons. Trust me,” he asked huskily.

Cordelia looked so wary and torn the urge to hold her, pull her in and wrap his arms around her was compulsive. So strong that Angel could feel her there already; her head tucked under his chin and dark silky strands tickling his neck. Knowing Cordelia, she’d try to pull away and he’d murmur soothing nothings in her ear until she softened and stopped resisting him. It was a tempting idea, but after last night he couldn’t do that. He couldn’t take her further down that road until everything was out in the open, it wasn’t right.

“Alright, but I still don’t like this and I’m going on record with that,” Cordelia finally conceded, adding with another stabbing finger, “And I better agree with those reasons or you are on my stink-list, buster.”

Angel smiled, he couldn’t help it. Conceding a little to appease both of them, he snagged the finger and after dropping a light kiss on it, ran his hands lightly up her bare arms, “Cordy, all I’m asking for is a few days, and them I’m all about us. You have my word,” Angel said sombrely.

Then tightening his hold a fraction, he moved the conversation on, “And since you brought it up earlier. I’m not letting you quit either, so get that idea out of your head.”

The diversion worked only because she let it. Tipping her chin higher to eye him squarely, she looked more than a little bit stubborn, “Really? I hate to break it to you and ruin your domineering boss act, but going off memory that isn’t actually a decision you can make, Angel.”

“I can be persuasive when I want to be, and if that doesn’t work unremitting stalking would soon wear you down.” His rare grin invited her to return it and hid the real purpose behind the casual warning. After the last 24 hours Angel had come to a simple conclusion. There was no way in hell Cordelia was disappearing out of his life. He was going to make this work.

~

London, England

The phone rang and rang. Just when he was convinced the call was going to be transferred to that blasted answer phone yet again, a woman answered. “Angel Investigations, we help the helpless.”

At bloody last! “Wesley Wyndham Pryce, please.”

“Sorry, he’s out, so’s Angel. I’m Cordelia Chase, can I take a message?”

Perky and approachable or not, if it wasn’t for the fact that time was getting on, he wouldn’t have even considered it. He was still reluctant. “My name is Theodore Georges. I’d like to leave a message for-“

She interrupted him, “Hold on let me grab a pen.” There was some rustling on the other end of the line, “Okay, got it, shoot.”

“Tell him, we’ve had a lot of trouble our end. It appears the murders of the potential Summer’s donor recipients all lead back here to some degree.”

“Donor recipients?” she asked sharply.

“Yes, the ritual removal of the hearts from the victims. The killers are searching for the living heart of a slayer. You have a client who was on the list is what Giles told me.”

Dead silence greeted that explanation. Then she said, “Right, I forgot. Please do go on. Believe me, I’m all ears.”

Fleetingly, he wondered at the new, acid edge to her voice. Pressing on, he said, “After Giles phoned me I searched the Council’s archives and found a copied remnant of a scroll detailing an ancient spell to remove a soul. The original of that scroll was given to Wolfram & Hart by our Director General,” pausing, Teddy sighed, “It’s a long story.”

“I bet.”

“I’m having our experts hear draw up another in English from memory, meaning it will be sketchy and likely inaccurate, but it may help and since we feel partially responsible-“

“I get the picture. We don’t have a fax here.”

He frowned over the distance in her voice; doubting she even know what he was talking about? “I wouldn’t trust a document like this to a facsimile anyway.” Automatically checking his watch, Teddy informed her, “Given the urgency of the situation, I’m bringing it personally. I’ll be on the next flight out of Heathrow. I’ll be getting into LAX early tomorrow morning.” He didn’t mention he wouldn’t be alone.

“I’ll let him know. Thanks for the call, it’s been…enlightening.”

Abruptly the line went dead. It wasn’t that disconnection that had him going stiff though, but the second click that followed almost immediately afterwards. He sat frozen with the receiver still pressed to his ear; realising somebody had been listening into the conversation. The question was why? Not to mention it was eight thirty pm and the building was supposedly empty.

Leaving his office as stealthily as possible, he stood in the main hallway and stopped breathing, straining to listen for any telltale sounds. Only a few lights remained. Nothing triggered his alarms. Taking the stairs, Teddy descended as quickly as he could and thought back to that brief conversation. Worried all of a sudden that he’d inadvertently revealed something?

There were no lights lit on the first floor. Going on a hunch, he carried on down to reception and on the last flight heard a voice that could have been male or female, it was so hushed.

“Make sure you have the name right, its very important. Corr-de-lia Chase.

~

Pulled from unpleasant contemplation of his notes by the knock on his door, Wesley dropped his pen and snatching up the axe left next to his chair as a precaution, silently approached and checked the peep-hole. Expecting some kind of nuisance salesman trying to sell him yet another thigh-master, he was unprepared for an eyeful of irate Cordelia.

Fumbling with the locks, he opened the door wide and said, “Cordelia, I wasn’t expecting you. Is something up?”

“Depends on your definition of up, but yeah, you could say something’s definitely wrong.”

Turning from a brief unimpressed survey of the small sparsely furnished apartment, Cordelia levelled Wesley with a baleful stare. “I have a few questions and I want the truth, Wesley. I’ve had a bellyful of lying, already.”

She’d stumbled across something. Bloody hell now he was in for it. “Questions,” he queried lamely and felt his belly sink even further.

“I just took a call of some British guy. You might know him, Theodore somebody. Sounded like Watchers Council. He said something about a scroll, a spell and my personal favourite, Buffy Summers heart.”

She’d crossed her arms, which was never a good sign. For some reason he was far more unnerved facing this woman in a visibly wrathful mood, than the demons last night. During his short acquaintance with her, Cordelia had impressed him with a lot of things; including the foolishness of raising her ire.

Shutting the door, he quaked at refusing and tried some redirection instead. “Cordelia, you really should be talking to Angel about this. I’m not in a position to-“

“You’re not in a position to turn me down. I’m not leaving until you tell me what I want to know, Wes, so get used to the idea.”

“Angel-“

“Can kiss my ass,” she finished for him. “I want the whole skinny on this heart donor case.” The tone suggested the quicker the better for his health. “And you can start by telling me whether Angel and I meeting up again was one big set-up from the get-go.”

Was that pain? Wesley wondered before the flash of temper buried it in hazel depths. Stupid question, of course it was. He felt worse with the realisation that things had progressed between Cordelia and Angel more that he’d envisaged. Feeling compelled to offer some comfort, he said carefully, “Not initially, no.”

That small admission was the opening of the floodgates. “But soon…before I started working with you? She prodded almost unwillingly like it was an open wound.

Wesley nodded and this time he saw the longer flash of pain at the confirmation. Full lips twisted bitterly, “So, he did know about my heart transplant, and thinks I have Buffy’s?”

The change that knowledge wrought was startling. Face crumpling the grit and pride keeping her back stiff deserted her. When she spun away to stare sightlessly at the overflowing coffee table with its haphazard array of papers, journals and books, Wesley was almost glad to be able to dismiss the uncomfortable urge to offer a more tangible form of comfort. Patting shoulders consolingly was usually his limit. Hugs were an uncouth invasion of privacy in the Wyndham Pryce household. Knowing that was a load of bollocks didn’t make attempting something so alien any easier, unfortunately.

Caught up in a surge of guilt, he almost missed her mumbled, “I guess that explains a lot.”

It didn’t need explaining and very simply that did it. No matter Angel’s reasons for keeping her in the dark, Wesley would no longer stomach the situation. It would not help ease pride or pain, but being armed with the truth was the only thing he could give her.

Catching her elbow with as much solicitous care as he could muster, Wesley waved at an empty spot on the couch and said, “Sit down, Cordelia. I agree its past time you knew the truth. I promise I will tell all. No hold barred. It’s the least I can do.”

~

With the sleeves of his crisp white shirt rolled up and collar loosened under the tie, Lindsay McDonald was the picture of a young executive working hard. The ear piece tucked into his left ear and mouth piece position in front of his lips meant he could prowl as he talked. Lindsay thrived on pressure, particularly when he was able to lift it.

“Yes sir. We have a lead on the name.” There was a pause as he listened, “I’m aware it’s taken a long time, but I guess you just can’t account for the incompetence of the hospital administration. The title was a typing error. C Chase is a woman, not a man. Her name is Cordelia Chase.”

Another pause and Lindsey poured himself some coffee as he listened attentively. The corners of his lips lifted in pleasure. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate your confidence in me. One of my contacts paid off, although I’m sorry to report that avenue has now been compromised. The Council is off limits as of my last conversation.”

Perched against his solid oak and streamlined modern desk, he took a sip of the bitter black brew he preferred, and eyed Lee observing him with detached interest from the chair. He got a kick out knowing this little success was being witnessed by a peer. Peers are rivals at Wolfram & Hart. Smoothly he said, “Oh I agree it’s nice to be able to get back fully into the game. This part is crucial to our long-term plans and I assure you they will come to fruition.”

Kissing ass was an everyday chore at Wolfram & Hart no matter how high up the ladder you scrambled. Lee wasn’t fazed and listened a little enviously as Lindsay happily accepted a few more minutes of praise.

When the phone accessories were tossed on the desk, Lee met Lindsay’s grin and snapped off a zippy salute. “Well, two guesses whose office wonder-boy now.”

Lindsay’s grin twisted into a smirk. Rubbing a finger over his lips to try and disguise it, he aimed for business-like. “Holland wants us to move immediately to seize the girl. We already have a home address and I need you to look into any known contacts.”

“Sure, I’m on it. I love being blood hound. It’s in my blood.” When a star was rising, experience said grab on and use that momentum while it was still in an ascendancy. Lee was more than happy to help. He was the kind of guy that always backed the winning team, usually because he dropped a losing one.

Lindsay pushed away from his perch and got back to being busy again. “We have to move fast. This girl is walking around with the key to banishing Angel’s soul beating inside her chest. If he has a lick of sense he’ll kill her. Either that or the Watchers Council will arrange it. For obvious reasons we don’t want that to happen.”

~

Numb to her core, Cordelia hadn’t been able to face accepting a lift home from a concerned Wesley. Instead she’d taken the bus. Thanks to the route not being direct she’d ended up on three of the noisy and crowded things. The time should have given her a chance to get over the shock, only so far it was still refusing to dissipate. Knowing if it was anger or pain lurking beneath the anaesthetizing layer would have been nice. Give her a chance to prepare.

The pretty, brightly lit entrance to her apartment was the same as always. Knowing sanctuary from prying eyes was at hand, she let her mind return to lick the wounds the day had left. Thinking about Angel and the night before was agonising. So was thinking of Buffy and wondering hysterically if she really did have the slayers heart beating in her chest. The irony of it wasn’t lost on Cordelia. If it was true, then Buffy’s heart was the one driving life-giving blood through her veins.

Climbing the stairs and leaning heavily on the railing, she shook her head in repeated denial. That was the truly unbelievable part. Fate couldn’t be that cruel could it? Why her? Anyone else would have been better. They’d barely managed to declare a ceasefire even when she was dating Xander, one of Buffy’s little Scoobies. They’d all been wary of her, unable to believe the nastiest girl in Sunnydale history was tamed. They hadn’t been wrong.

Being a bitch hadn’t just been fun to her back in the bad old days of high-school, it had been a vocation. Comforting herself with the fact that she’d rarely lied didn’t really help, because from the moment she’d been old enough to understand social structure and her place in it, she’d used the truth as a weapon to hurt. Now faced with the truth of why Angel had seemed so drawn to her, Cordelia was hurting, too, and hated every second of it.

Cheated on and used by the Scoobies, ignored and then abandoned by her parents, homeless, destitute and thinking she was dying, and now this. When was the punishment going to end?

Reaching her door without seeing a single step, Cordelia rummaged in her purse for the keys and slid them in the lock. Twisting and pushing, she was left blankly staring when a desperate force shoved from the other side, closing the door in her face.

“What the…”

Trying again, the same thing happened. “Dennis!” she growled, not in the mood for games. Anger leaked to the surface. “Stop being an asshole and let me in.”

Then before she could try again another force slammed into the door from the other side, hard enough she yelped and stumbled back. The door opened as she fell back and something decidedly inhuman and scaly pushed through the gap, trying to widen the gap.

Heart beating sickeningly fast, Cordelia unfroze as Dennis managed to slam the door shut again, keeping the barrier between the demon and his mistress. Legs trembling, Cordelia didn’t wait to see if she’d been imagining things and took off down the hallway again, nearly falling over the banister as she careened around the corner and raced back down the stairs. Above her a splintering crash warned that her period of grace had run out.
PART NINE

On Sundays the gym was fairly quiet and there were no morning classes scheduled. A few dedicated fitness addicts were working up a sweat on running machines, or half-heartedly pushing up some weights, but that was it. For once, Hilda was absent from behind the reception desk and Cordelia felt some of the tension knotting her shoulders loosen as she headed for the female staff locker room unseen.

After a night spent jumping at every bump and scrape huddled in a cheap motel room that epitomised grunge, she was glad of the small break. Just coming out of that sleazy unit with its leaking tap, lumpy bed and stench of mildew, Cordelia had been shaking with fear; half expecting some ugly great scaly monster to jump out from behind every car and bush. Getting away from whatever that thing had been in her apartment had been easy, thanks to the fact it hadn’t given chase in broad daylight. But not knowing what she was up against had given her a seriously bad night of terrified napping between watching the flimsy door.

She needed her meds though and thanked whatever lucky stars she had left for the habit of keeping a stash at the few locations she frequented a lot. There were some at Angel’s office, but wild horses wouldn’t drag her back there. Not until she’d calmed down enough that she wouldn’t leap at him screaming like a banshee anyway.

Knowing you’re on a demon’s most wanted list is a sure-fire distraction from heartache though. I have to give it that.

Unfortunately it wasn’t a total distraction. Sometime during the endless night the numbness had receded leaving both wrenching pain and a boiling wrath that just begged for release. When she hadn’t been busy watching the knob to see if it turned, she’d fantasised about every grindingly humiliating situation she could put him in. Largely featuring, Angel, begging endlessly and in a great deal of excruciating pain.

The locker room was located at the bottom of a corridor past the now closed cafeteria. Directly outside a pair of soda dispensers stood like sentinels on either side. Showers were at the rear and crossing the tiles and skirting the benches, Cordelia shook off both the scowl and the memories; telling herself she’d wasted enough time and energy on a lost cause. It wasn’t like she didn’t have other things to worry about, like survival.

Inside her locker the colourful pillboxes she’d brought from a craft stall were right where she expected them to be. Cordelia loathed the drugstore brown tubs with a passion and if anyone asked what she was taking, barring a few, she always said they were vitamins. It wasn’t vanity, she just hated dealing with the boringly predictable response when someone found out she’d had a heart transplant. The questions were always the same and she preferred not dwelling on the answers thanks very much.

Like rats caught in a maze that led back to things she was trying not to dwell on. Angel had been different and she’d thought it was because they shared something in common, like a too close association with death, or some other alcohol-induced philosophical crap. Well didn’t she feel like a total fool? The asshole had already known. Pills in her backpack along with a badly needed change of clothes, Cordelia slammed the locker door much harder than she needed, “Bastard?”

“Cordelia.”

Startled, she yelped and dropping her bag, spun with a hand at her throat. It was the last voice she wanted to hear and she didn’t need the expression on his face to tell her his mood matched hers. On top of the night she’d had it was too much.

“Oh for Gods sake!” Cordelia threw up her hands in helpless fury, “unbelievable, my luck is just unfrickin’ believable. I should have known not getting ambushed by Reich-girl when I came in was pushing it.” Glaring, she snatched back up the compact backpack, “Don’t tell me you’ve been skulking around waiting for me. Cos that just…ugh!”

It was a moot question since he was there. Angel ignored the dig. “Where the hell have you been?” he asked instead, “I’ve been searching for you everywhere. Are you trying to get yourself killed?” Judging by the familiar brooding scowl, he wasn’t any happier to be there than she did to see him there. Standing, blocking the exit with his solid bulk, he effortlessly sucked all of the brightness out of the tiled and locker lined space.

Her heart was still thumping although with rising ire now. After everything she’d found out that just took the biscuit. Could he even spell gall? Cordelia goggled, “Me- get myself killed? Hey, I’m not the one coming within staking distance of a woman who’s just dying to see you turn dust-bunny, dumbass.”

Stomping over to meet him they ended up practically toe-to-toe. This close she saw remorse soften impenetrable brown eyes. Reminded of his wrongs the taut line of full sculpted lips relaxed, turning Angel’s face poetically penitent. “Cordy, I understand you’re upset. I know I was wrong to keep it all from you-“

Upset? He thought she was just upset? Was he for real? “Understatement much? And you’re missing the point, asshole.” Accusingly, Cordelia finished, “You set me up; saving me, the job, the date- everything. It was all a big con so you could keep tabs on me, knowing some nutjob wants to cut out my heart.”

“I didn’t…well not exactly. I-” Faltering, dark eyes closed briefly as if he were reaching deep inside for something. Sighing, he tried again, “Look, I’m sorry I lied about everything…and if it helps I’ve been kicking my ass about that for days now.” Apology out, his expression hardened; the fixed gaze unyielding, “but you can’t just up and disappear like that-“

“Oh yeah, watch me.” Obdurate, Cordelia went to slide past him.

Strong fingers wrapping around an elbow stayed her. Instantly, her head snapped up and they locked gazes. Pointedly, Angel said, “I saw your apartment, it’s a mess. They found you didn’t they? You need me-“

“Hah! Like a hole in the head do I need you.” Twisting free, Cordelia retreated a few steps to create some distance rather than risk trying to pass him again. She didn’t want his hands on her for any reason. At a stand-off she sneered, “Why would I need help from a guy who gets off on pretending I’m someone else? If I’m supposed to be impressed by how far you were willing to prostitute yourself, you’re way off base, Angel.”

Her voice cracked like a lash and Angel looked angrily appalled. “That is not true. I already knew you-”

He may as well have kept his mouth shut. Cordelia wasn’t interested in his denials. Quirking a brow, she cut him off coldly, “Wanna know something else? I can’t figure out who’s more pathetic; me for not seeing it before it got that far, or you for being such a sick and twisted jerk.”

It was another direct hit; his jaw hardened enough to crack. It was a double-edged sword though because any satisfaction she felt was tainted with bitter pain. Tension trembled between them and the calm tone when Angel spoke next was obviously forced, “We don’t have time for this. They have your name and can track you here. Get your things, we’re leaving now.”

Only a cold day in hell was less likely at this point. Loose dark waves flew as Cordelia shook her head and vehemently she said, “Forget it. I’m not interested in you or your protection. I’d rather deal with this psycho, alone and buck-naked, than stomach you for another second.” War declared she made another determined beeline for the exit.

“Too bad,” Angel ground out and moved to intercept using his body as a blockade. For once his expression matched his mood and he looked as pissed as he sounded. Visibly clenched fists warned he was reaching the point beyond trying reason. “You may not want to listen to me, but I refuse to let you get hurt. You have my protection whether you want it or not.”

This confrontation coming so soon after their lovemaking was electric. She could see the heated awareness hovering at the back of his eyes just like she was sure it was in hers. There was a pregnant pause while she worked out her chances of diving past a vampire without getting caught. Then decided it didn’t matter. Screw him and his superhuman reflexes!

“I’m not leaving here with you.” Icy as only she could be, Cordelia crossed her arms, “You’ll have to drag me out of here kicking and screaming.”

Blank-faced, Angel said low, “If that’s the way it has to be, so be it.”

~

When she dived to his left, Angel let her go past without trying to stop her and simply spun on his heel and followed. Given the public nature of the gym, the nearer she got to the exit under her own steam the better. He’d figure how to get them to the car in daylight when the time came.

Tracking her required little skill; leaving him with attention to spare to think about the irony of her accusations. She thought he was using her to hold onto Buffy and the opposite was true. Cordelia had done in a few shorts weeks what nobody had been able to do in the time since Buffy had died; helped him put her to rest and move on. The differences between his relationship with Cordelia compared to Buffy where numerous, but none more so than his willingness to let her put herself in danger.

Buffy had been the slayer and his duty had been to assist her. Loving Buffy had made that task both harder and easier. Harder because he’d had to stand back and let her make her own decisions and follow without question regardless of his opinions. Cordelia on the other hand was an ordinary girl. Angel knew he was in the wrong and she had a right to be hurt and outraged, but she was about to find out he wouldn’t stand back and let her waltz into danger.

He’d hoped reason would work, but hadn’t counted on the effect of finding her would have on his temper, especially after a hellish night spent desperately searching. The second Angel had laid eyes on Cordelia, he’d been pulled by the dual urges of shaking her until she rattled for scaring him like that, and kissing her senseless for escaping whatever had ransacked her apartment. Anger, pride and love warred inside him in a potent mix.

Reason had failed. Now, as much as Angel hated the idea of manhandling her, he was willing to do just that. If it kept Cordelia alive then the end justified the means, even if it hurt his own chances of fixing things between them. Besides, who knew better than he that death had a finality very few grievances could match. Not that it stopped him from wanting to punch something- hard, and born out of sheer frustration.

Nearing the end of the corridor lined with sport wear ads, his footfalls were almost silent, drowned out by the click-clack of her sandals on the spotlessly clean floor. Up head, the swing doors between the corridor and the main reception area were closing behind Cordelia’s stiffly held back.

It was time to close in. Using inhuman speed, Angel exited directly behind her and before the door had closed. On the other side though, it was only those selfsame inhuman reflexes that stopped him from barrelling right into her. Cordelia had come to an abrupt halt. Swiftly scanning the previously empty reception area, the reason for that became clear.

While he’d been arguing with Cordelia the ante had just got upped. Half a dozen black-clad men, all wearing military style body armour and holding automatic weapons were dotted around the eerily frozen reception. Frozen until one of the raiders settled his gaze on Cordelia.

“Cordelia Chase,” he said and he wasn’t asking, “Step this way, please.”

Angel clamped a hand on her shoulder and pulled her behind him, “Forget it. She isn’t stepping anywhere with you,” he said, “best advice I can offer- leave the same way you arrived.”

Getting out of here without a serious bloodletting was unlikely, but Angel figured it was worth a shot. These men were human not demon and killing them wasn’t on his to-do list, unless they insisted by putting Cordelia’s life at risk.

“I’m afraid we can’t do that,” the apparent leader replied, “Ms Chase will accompany us and if you don’t want to die today, everybody else will keep out of our way.”

“Ya think? Ms Chase might have something to say about that,” snapped Cordy over his shoulder. The higher than normal tone gave away her tension, “Excuse me for having a thing about *not* getting abducted by creeps waving guns.”

There was no discernible reaction to the gibe. Connecting with the human to judge if he would fire on unarmed civilians, Angel was met with cold indifference. He meant business. So did Angel.

“I may be wrong, Cordy, but I’m guessing negotiating isn’t his strong suit?” quipped Angel trying to delay while he wracked his brain for a feasible plan. He preferred action to thinking and that was fine when it was only his ass on the line. Today he was forced to think about it first.

There were four of them with one having a hold of another woman near the stairs down to the underground parking lot. Young, Afro-American and wearing sky blue shorts and a tee-shirt bearing the gyms logo, she was scared out of her wits and had her gaze locked with Cordelia. They knew each other, Angel realised seeing Cordelia was staring intently back. Not that her having friends here was surprising considering she worked at the gym, too.

Great, just to complicate things the hostage has to be someone she knows. Not that Angel intended to let the girl come to harm, but he didn’t want Cordelia trying any heroics while he worked out how to get them out of here in one piece.

“Make your way over to me with your hands out,” ordered the gunman. “If you make any moves I don’t like, I shoot your boyfriend in the head.”

That concept was painful but not deadly, although it would incapacitate him and allow them to take Cordelia. Lucky he had vampire reflexes, thought Angel. Not that he was going to let it get that far.

Behind him Cordelia hesitated and Angel could feel her expectation like an impatient shove in the centre of his back. He would love nothing more than to oblige her and start swinging. Unfortunately, a swift assessment of the situation and his ability to take out four armed men before they could get off a shot had him cursing silently. With one holding a hostage and another standing in the patch of sunlight before the revolving door, it didn’t look good. That was not good until a face staring grimly through the glass from outside caught his eye.

Angel had never been more pleased to see Wesley than he was at that moment. Their silent communication was brief. They’d take two each.

Given the high risk factor of somebody getting hurt from gunfire, Angel knew they had to move fast. Given their equipment and icy demeanour these men were professionals. Meaning they’d have the sense not to converge on him and narrow down the distance he’d have to close to get from one to another.

This fight had to swift and brutally effective. Hesitancy would end in tragedy. Angel timed his first move to the exact moment Wesley erupted from the glass revolving door and dived onto the man stood guard there. Pushing, Cordelia out of harms way, he dropped to a squat and leaping into the air, flipped over once before landing like a cat directly behind the leader.

The would-be abductors hadn’t been expecting that. To give the leader credit he shook off his shock and reacted quickly. Whirling to face Angel, the human dived to the side and aimed his gun at the vampire’s middle. He still hadn’t figured out what he was up against though, and no matter how quick his reflexes were he was still only human.

Grabbing the gun’s cold barrel with his left hand while it was still in motion, Angel squeezed and gave the metal a sharp twist. Put under tremendous pressure it snapped before a shot was fired. Staring up from a waxen face, blue eyes went wide with incredulity. The sharp stink of fear flared Angel’s nostrils as he bent down and grabbing the straps of the black moulded body armour, lifted the man high the air before launching him to crash into a small grouping of vinyl covered chairs tucked into the corner.

The furniture didn’t survive the experience and the human didn’t so much twitch when he finally came to rest. That was one down leaving three to go. Over by the street exit, Wesley was doing okay by the looks of things so Angel concentrated on his next target.

Wesley had a similar idea to Angel. When he exited the revolving door the gunman was already swinging in his direction. Thankfully, close enough to grab the barrel he pulled it away from the man and then rammed it into his unprotected crotch. Bent double and gasping in pain, Wesley was able to wrench it free from him and aim; then fire at another one of the team before he could get a clear shot. Satisfaction surged, knowing the hostage was at least out of immediate danger with her captor writhing in pain from the bullet in his thigh.

Even though he still had an opponent who was fast recovering, Wesley spared a quick glance to check how Angel was doing. As he watched, the vampire ducked under a wild scattering of shots; then swivelling on one heel whipped up his other leg in a high arcing kick that connected audibly with some vulnerable cartilage.

Good. They were almost done with only limited shots fired and no wounded innocents. Movement to his right warned his first opponent was getting back into action, but a flash of long dark hair caught Wesley’s attention. Cordelia was on the move and his heart flip-flopped in his chest. Why the devil wasn’t she sitting safely tucked under something bulky and protective?

Angel had already disarmed the man and under the now cracked visor of his helmet blood was still flowing freely from that earlier kick. Feeling magnanimous with the ease of victory, Angel asked, “Why not just give up now? You’re leader is out for the count. Face facts, you’ve lost.”

A lip curled under the damaged nose, “Screw you. We were sent for the girl. So, we ain’t leavin’ until she’s in our custody.”

The tenacity of the guy was worrying. Also, his flat statement begged a few questions. Not holding out much hope, Angel tried anyway, “I know you’re not cops. So, who are you working for, Anton?”

As expected the human didn’t bother to answer, but launched an attack that was designed to be blurringly quick and stun an opponent into frozen immobility. Angel deflected the flashing arms with chopping hands easily. Raising his left arm to block one aimed at his neck, he followed through with a hard right that grazed his knuckles and finished off the black helmet. While the human staggered, Angel continued his counter attack with a snappy one-two combination that would have laid a less stubborn opponent out flat.

Pulling his punches was mandatory for a vampire who didn’t want to kill the human he was fighting. Angel did so instinctively knowing using the full power he was capable of would just add another soul to his body count. It made fights longer than they needed to be but normally that wasn’t a problem. Until out of the corner of his eye he saw Cordelia reach the other girl and snatch up the fallen gunman’s rifle.

What the hell was she doing? Angel wondered angrily. Distracted he failed to see the kick that landed on the backs of his knees hard enough he toppled forward. Braced and landing on his hands, Angel refocused back on the fight and forgot about keeping anything back. Snapping out his own foot, he connected with an ankle and heard it crack. Yelping at the searing agony the human collapsed close enough he could roll over once and slam an elbow into the man’s throat.

That was the end of that one. Rising back to his feet in one lithe move, Angel looked to where he’d last seen Cordelia and clashed with wary hazel eyes. Then they disappeared behind the door leading to the basement. Striding after her and the woman he assumed she’d taken with her, Angel’s shoulder hit the door moments later and rebounded back. Trying the handle one more time it moved enough to open, but was caught on something jamming it on the other side.

Frustrated he growled, “Damn it, Cordelia. What the hell are you playing at?”

It was a rhetorical question since she’d already made it plain she didn’t want anything more to do with him. Given his last sight of her reaching for the big black rifle, it didn’t take a genius to guess she’d used it to bar the door so he couldn’t follow. Damn stubborn women who don’t know when they need help!

Cursing fluently, Angel stepped back and aimed a snap kick at the door just above the lock. It held but the sharp crack of something on the other side suggested it wouldn’t hold for long. Wesley, having finally finished off the last of the gunman joined him and it was two thunderous kicks that splintered the makeshift barricade and allowed the chase to begin.

~

They nearly fell down the stairs. “What the hell was all that about? Who were those guys? Why-“

“Lilly, less of the twenty questions and just run, okay?” Ears still ringing from the thunderous gunfire and heart pounding with trepidation, Cordelia dragged her friend around the corner and down the last few steps to reach the parking garage. Half of her wondered why she was running from her best prospect for protection, and the other half was terrified of failing. From above the splintering crash of the door giving way had her pulse leaping and legs breaking into a sprint.

“…you park in your usual place?” she asked breathlessly over one shoulder.

“Yeah, but Cordy-” was the confused reply; cut off when reaching the beat-up blue mustang, Cordelia snatched the keys off her and got the drivers door open herself.

“Sorry,” she apologised, “I’ll explain later, but we have to move, now!”

Pushing a still protesting Lily over to the passenger side and chucking her backpack into the tiny back seat, Cordelia cranked the engine, slammed the door and stomped on the gas all within seconds of reaching the vehicle.

Lily was looking at her like she was insane and Cordelia didn’t blame her. But, all she knew was that for some reason it was imperative for her sanity that she not let Angel catch up with her. She hadn’t been kidding when she’d told him she couldn’t face being around him. Analysing why would have to wait though. The rear wheels squealed as she roared away from the parking space and headed down the lane, aiming for the ramp and sunlight.

In the rear-view mirror she spotted a dark; intent figure appear out of nowhere that soon grew terrifyingly larger. Angel was gaining on them. Her right foot pressed harder on the gas. Wesley was nowhere to be seen and she guessed he’d gone after the Plymouth.

“Crap, crappity crap!” At that thought Cordelia abandoned caution and stomped down on the accelerator, feeling the old car try to respond with a roar and a jerk. God, trust her to have a beat up old wreck as a get-away vehicle. What she wouldn’t give for her Mercedes from back in her high school’n’monied days.

“What the hell is going on, Cordy?” yelled Lilly over the frantic din of the straining engine. She finally managed to snap her seat belt into place and then reached over to do the same for Cordelia.

“I’ll explain when we’ve lost them,” replied Cordelia, “although, trust me when I tell you, you won’t believe a word of it.”

Every second glance was towards the rear-view mirror. She could see Angel’s expression clearly now and it didn’t bode well if he managed to catch up with the racing car, or her. Well, if she needed another reason to make sure he didn’t catch up, he’d just given it to her. Up head the bright glow of sunlight beckoned. Next to her, Cordelia heard Lily whistle and ask, “Who is that guy? He can run.”

Yes, he could…among other things. “I’ll get back to that later,” offered Cordy grimly and tightened sweaty fingers around the steering wheel. It was going to be close. God! I hope we make it, she prayed.

The ramp leading up the exit was only feet away and any sane person would slow down to drive up it. Cordelia didn’t have that option. The car’s rear juddered violently and flashed sparks as the back bumper made contact with the hardened concrete. Fishtailing madly, she still didn’t slow and roared out onto the sun-washed street.

Lily’s terrified screech was almost drowned out by blaring horns. Seconds later and with one hand pressed to her chest, chocolate brown eyes snapped indignant fire as she glared, “Cordelia Chase, you are never driving my car again, ya hear?!”

~

Anton hated motels and hotels were much too public for his needs. The split level rental house in Glendale was the better option, despite being characterless with its ultra-modern moulded furniture, built in cupboards and electrical paraphernalia. Needing little and wanting even less, Anton left no clutter and made no mark on the place. If the realtor who’d shown him round paid a return visit, she would have a hard time finding evidence it was occupied. Not that she would visit since the rent was paid up six months in advance.

It was a costly expense considering he would likely only need it for half that time, but the price was worth it to have no hindrances or interruptions. That being the case the business-like knock at the door was surprising and unwelcome.

Sat in the family room; dwarfed by the massive leather armchair he was sitting in with his grey head resting along the back and eyes staring sightlessly up at the ceiling, Anton waited to hear news on the thirteenth prospect. In the lull, he’d unknowing sunk into memories of his daughter and the too short time he’d had with her. Now the heavy knock pulled him from the almost trance-like state. Closing gritty eyes, Anton exhaled heavily with regret as the intrusion registered.

Rising to answer the summons, he staggered disoriented before steadying himself and as he did so there was another knock, sharper and impatient.

Shaking his head to clear it, he became aware of something damnably familiar. The scent of violets wafted around the room. The problem with delving into the past was the ghosts that tagged along for the ride. As always happened when Anton thought of his dead daughter, he was assailed by an insistent presence that had begun plaguing him the moment his mind had turned to revenge. Wafer-thin and slyly beguiling the infinitesimal presence was like something hovering just on the very edge of his vision. Only when he turned to focus on it, it disappeared.

Another knock echoed through the single storey house, harshly demanding this time. Pulling himself together, Anton made it to the door and composed his expression to appear forbidding as he pulled it open.

Before he could demand they go away a thin square box stinking of grease and cheese was thrust towards him through the gap. “Pizza delivery,” a bored and impatient voice announced.

By the his appearance the unwanted visitor partook of his own product too frequently for his health; rotund with spotty cheeks, lank hair and a round face sporting a vapid expression was what the mage saw when he focused on the intruder.

“I did not order pizza or any type of food,” he said crisply, “I suggest you double-check your delivery address.”

“1223 De Longpre Avenue, right?”

“That is correct, but I-“

“Somebody ordered and paid for pizza from this address.” A shrug of red and white stripped shoulders showed pure indifference, “Just take the box, man. I don’t care what you do with it after I’m gone. I got a schedule to keep to.”

A sudden spasm of deep inner trembles shook, Anton and suspicion had him jerking around to stare at the hall console, horrified to see the phone was off the hook with an open telephone directory next to it. It was all the confirmation he needed and the why of it was something he didn’t want to find out.

He snatched the box with hands that could barely hold it for shaking and snarled, “Get out of here, now!”

The pizza man didn’t hear the pleading under the demand. The urgently closing door rebounded off a scuffed black boot. “Hey man, what about a tip?”

Blanching and falling back a step as his motor control faltered, Anton couldn’t hold it back any longer. The box fell from numb hands with veins that rippled with something unnatural and stood out grotesquely from paper-thin skin. Too late.

“You fool,” Anton howled, helpless to stop the lunge that ended with his hands around the ignorant human’s throat. “You should have left while you could.”

Jubilant and chirpy bird song was drowned out by the harsh, desperate sound of choking. On the hall floor, sunlight dappled the polished hardwood and splashed across red pants that jerked spasmodically along with the legs they covered. The death throes lasted only moments, followed by a dragging sound and a thud against one interior wall.

Coming too, the first thing Anton saw was the blood streaking down the white-washed wall of the hall and pooling next to the skirting board.

Above them the corpse was a gruesome sight. The body had been hooked onto a row of coat hooks that ranged along one wall, the blunt edges sunk deep into the flesh. Most of the uniform had been shredded, revealing the deep gouges and drying rivers of blood that stained the mauled surface. More tellingly, the familiar tracery of engorged veins mapped every visible surface of skin.

The savagery of the brief attack was staggering. His hands were tacky and he dared not look down to see the same gore decorating them. The fact that he’d tried to spare the man was little comfort in light of the results of his failure.

“Why?” he asked it coming up to his knees.

As Anton expected the unkempt head whipped up with impossible strength and locked gazes with him. Gone where the terrified pools of mossy green, replaced by feral yellow lined with black; the pupils hazed with deep red.

“Can’t a demon say hello to a friend?” a deep voice replied thick with taunting innocence. Bluish lips twisted into a semblance of a smile. “Hello, Anton, it’s been too long since we last chatted.”

Sickened, Anton stared at the congested face of his latest victim. “You murdered an innocent being so we could chat?” His voice was hoarse and he was forced to swallow to moisten his parched throat.

“Don’t look at me, I’m in the corpse,” it denied and smirked, “Besides, if my eyes don’t deceive me, its you with his blood on your hands- not to mention spattered all over the rest of you. Tsk Tsk, my friend, what a mess.”

They’d had this debate countless times over the years. Drooping with exhaustion, and looking every one of his hundred plus years, the mage said, “Just tell me why you’re here and let’s get this over with.”

“You’re having another attack of conscience, Anton,” the demon told him, “I don’t like it. You know that.”

Denial was impossible. The thing confronting him resided inside Anton and this little demonstration was little more than a warning. A voice inside his head he could ignore, so for added impact the demon would draw an innocent to be used as a temporary infestation if it felt it was needed.

Guilt was useless since his culpability was hardly in question. Standing, Anton faced it with a ram-rod straight back. “Whatever attacks of conscience I have they do not last and will not change my course,” he grated, forcing himself to not look away from the horror he was conversing with. “When we struck our bargain-”

“-You were wallowing in grief for your murdered daughter. I think you forget how lucky it was I was in the vicinity. Was it not I that offered you a means of getting revenge on the creature that snatched her from you?” The sham sympathy that briefly flickered across demonic eyes disappeared. “And did you really think I would accept a bargain with you and not see that your promises come to pass?”

“I’ve already told you I will keep my promises.”

The demon wasn’t finished. “You abandoned your cause and crossed over without any hesitation. With your eyes wide open, I might add.”

“I’ve never said otherwise.”

“Maybe not, but don’t think I don’t know you…know how much you despise what we do?” the corpse’s head cocked thoughtfully before continuing, “I admit your repugnance does make all of this so much sweeter, but since you’re getting what you want, you can’t complain over me getting some extra little enjoyment out of using you.” With every word spoken from that twisted mouth the more the air turned more fetid and rank.

“Cease this, demon. I already know what I’ve become,” whispered Anton, writhing inside, “I will not falter as you very well know.” Disgusted anger rose up and he waved a hand at the dead man. “This kind of exhibition is unnecessary and don’t think I don’t realise you use any pathetic excuse to manifest yourself and torment me.”

Seeing his anger it turned coy and Anton’s skin crawled, “Oh please, don’t let’s argue when we’re so close to achieving all we’ve worked for.”

Then the thing inhabiting the pizza man looked down with interest at the body it was wearing, remarking idly, “By the way, do you like the change of apparel? I picked him out of consideration for you since you took such exception to the priest in Mexico.” It grinned at the memory, “Now that one had the sort of a delicious irony that makes eternity worthwhile.”

Fists clenched, Anton felt renewed waves of revulsion that required swallowing before he could demand very, very quietly, “Leave him so I may dispose of the body. This discussion is over.”

Across the hall, the smile faded while those dreadful eyes seemed to grow hypnotically larger; thrusting with hot pokers inside Anton’s skull. He’d angered it. When the demon spoke again all traces of humanity had disappeared and the voice was a bowel clenching mixture of high-pitched and grating, “Fail this time and no matter how many innocents you tempt me with… this time it will be your flesh I’ll have. Before I pass you onto my disappointed children that is.”

Anton believed the demon. Its appetite to consume human flesh was only equalled by the need to corrupt it. “I will not fail.”

~

Lindsay was late. With all that was going on in the firm with the Chase riddle solved, he figured he was allowed, but clients still expect you to arrive for an appointment on time. Hurrying wasn’t his style though, so he waited until he was out of the elevator to break into a jog for his car. Couldn’t have the juniors witnessing him rushing around like his tail was on fire; respect from those below you was crucial in a rise towards power. Lindsay didn’t intend to lose any of current momentum this case was giving him.

One of the firm’s security guards was just finishing a sweep and Lindsay slowed to give him a friendly thumbs-up as he passed him, then wrinkled his nose at the sour smell of sweat that lingered in the mans wake. No prizes for guessing why he’s got garage duty, he thought with a smirk.

Approaching his glossy black BMW, Lindsay couldn’t help but admire yet again its gorgeous European lines. Secretly he still preferred the brute power and throaty roar of a good ol’ American truck, but there was nothing like a foreign make for shouting out you were on the up and up. It was a small thing really, but Lindsay always factored in the details when they didn’t cost him anything.

Lilah had parked too damned close again and he had to sidle down the driver’s side. Cursing her, he tossed his leather document wallet onto the roof and reached into his pocket for the keys, forgetting as he always did that it was remote locking and he could have opened it from fifteen ft away. Busy wondering if he could even get in from this side, he looked up with a startled jerk when a metallic scrape came from way too close.

A blurring fist slammed into his face and instantly a curtain of black swallowed him whole.

~

Angel couldn’t recall the last time he’d been so filled with conflicting emotions. Fury, terror, anxiety, guilt, remorse and not a small amount of hurt roiled and surged in crashing waves. Anton and his demons, Wolfram and Hart, the Watchers Council; they all knew who Cordelia was and they all had their reasons for wanting to get hold of her first. She was in terrible danger and…she’d run from him.

He let the hurt spike since it was more bearable than the terror. For the first time since the case began Angel wasn’t sure he could protect her from what was hunting her. If they found her before he could there was little he could do. She’d made it clear she didn’t want his protection. Her words back at the gym came back to haunt him. “I’m not interested in you or your protection. I’d rather deal with this psycho, alone and buck-naked, than stomach you for another second.”

Coming out of there empty-handed, Angel had given into a growing desperate frustration and turned his attention to another angle. With Lindsay MacDonald unconscious in the trunk, the Plymouth was purring along with Wesley driving and him hidden from the sun under a scratchy grey blanket. Thankfully traffic was light and moving along without too many delays as they headed Southwest towards the Bay and the docks.

Twenty minutes later the pervasive scent of saltwater, diesel oil and sand beat back the ever present odour of ozone and Angel knew they’d arrived at their destination. Which was a good thing since the racket coming from the trunk would be audible to anyone they stopped near. Lindsay had awakened about five minutes earlier and hadn’t been pleased with his accommodations.

Blessed shade, felt even through the thick blanket soothed some instinctive tension. An instinct that was hardly surprising for a vampire roaming around in daylight. Then the car came to a gentle halt just as Wesley announced unnecessarily, “We’re here.”

To give Lindsay credit he came out swinging furiously. Angel stepped back out of the way and let gravity do some of the work for him. Over balanced, Lindsay toppled out of the trunk and all it took was a yank of his feet to have the devils advocate sprawling on the dirty concrete floor of the empty dry-dock.

Sinking to his haunches and flipping him over, Angel smiled grimly and said, “Hello, Lindsay. How’s tricks?”

“Screw you, asshole.” Squinting in the muted light after being locked up in the dark so long, Lindsay was still arrogant enough to verbally spit in the face of a vampire.

“I figured you were a few cans short of a six-pack, but this insanity is outstanding even for you,” he said, adding coolly, “And don’t think this abduction won’t get reported to the proper authorities the moment I get free.” He didn’t seem to doubt he would get free, “Assault and kidnapping are serious offences. You’ve crossed the line, bud, and I’ll have a ringside seat while they nail you to the wall- both of you.”

Halfway through the tirade Wesley got up and pulled a lever buried in the ground that was half his size. Instantly there was a boom followed by the sound of mechanical winches pulling something heavy and decidedly metallic.

Hearing the deafening screech of metal on metal, Lindsay’s head swivelled as he belatedly took in his surroundings. “Where the hell are we?”

Angel was happy to enlighten him. “Santa Monica dry-dock. Well one of them anyway. You might want to hold off on those list of charges, Lindsay. At least until we’re done here. I’m just guessing, but we might be adding drowning if you don’t answer some questions to my satisfaction.”

There was a long silence while he digested the news. Then craning his neck to search for Wesley, Lindsay asked straight out. “Fired or not, you’re still a watcher. How can you stand for this?”

“Because you’re an evil son of a bitch who consorts with demons,” he answered coolly; aware of the irony of that statement.

When Lindsay went to sit up, Angel shoved him back down. “I want to know why, after failing miserably to abduct Cordelia Chase; you were calmly going off to a meeting?” Angel asked softly, “what have you guys done that allows you to just sit back and wait?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” replied Lindsay coolly, “Wolfram & Hart is a law firm. We don’t go around abducting the city’s citizens- unlike some I could mention.”

“And of course Wolfram & Hart is too upstanding to be involved in the murder of twelve of those innocent citizens?” queried Angel with heavy irony. “As for our little party, I wouldn’t be pointing any fingers if I were you. I haven’t forgotten who makes up the majority of your clients and in case I failed to mention it before…those goons at the gym,” he paused while Lindsey’s gaze flickered, “…I interrogated one and they admitted they were working for you.”

“Your lies won’t wash with us,” added Wesley, coming over to stand beside the prone man, “Your involvement isn’t in doubt. The best thing you can do is come clean with the truth.”

“Maybe, but I don’t agree.” Giving up, Lindsay licked dry lips, his only sign of nerves. He directed his next words at the vampire looming over him, “You’re wasting your time with this. We both know you won’t kill a human being, even one you think is the scum of the earth. I’m not telling you anything.”

Not so long ago he would have had a point, but not now with Cordelia being hunted down like an animal. If it wasn’t for the urgency, Angel would have been almost glad to spend some time inflicting pain on this human. Pounding the ever livin’ crap out of something was a sure-fire stress reliever. After this case was over and Cordy was safe, he figured he was due some therapeutic rounds with something big and vicious.

Eyes the colour of obsidian narrowed to malevolent slits. “Wrong on both counts,” countered Angel. Then without looking away, instructed tersely, “Wesley, get the rope out of the trunk. I think Lindsey here needs convincing we mean business.”

Drowning had an impact that broken bones couldn’t match. Lindsey might think he could withstand pain, or even black out from it before he revealed anything. What he didn’t realise and couldn’t fathom no matter how he liked to play at being evil was that after decades of sadistic experience, Angel knew that depriving a human of oxygen induced an overwhelming panic faster than any other type of torture. Throttling had a similar effect, but he didn’t trust himself not to squeeze too hard and snap the bastard’s neck.

“You will tell me everything I want to know, Lindsey,” he warned and noted the birth of true terror in deceptively candid blue eyes. “I’m being lenient in thinking you didn’t know Cordelia Chase is mine- in every way. You’re a bright spark, you figure out if your cushy job is worth your life.” Assured he had his full attention, Angel finished softly, “Just for the record, if you delay me enough that I don’t get to Cordelia in time, I’ll be back for you, and your screams will have the real Angel’s weeping for you.”

~

“Your cousin lives here?” Cordelia whispered it since she was pretty sure she didn’t want her consternation to be overheard. The dark, gloomy rooms looked more like caves and they were teeming with people, or more accurately, kids. Very, very tough kids with an edge of mean that screamed ‘don’t mess with me’.

“Second cousin’s,” corrected Lily, “You said this problem of yours involves vampires, and while it might not look much. Gunn and Alonna run a tight operation here. We should be safe…” she paused and grimaced, “…if he’ll take us in.”

That didn’t sound good. “Why wouldn’t he?”

“We don’t exactly fit the profile. No offence but you still have that aura of beauty queen about you and I have a job and a place of my own. Gunn normally only takes homeless street kids in.”

“Great,” retorted Cordelia in a hiss, “You couldn’t have mentioned that before we trekked all the way out to this dump?”

“Sorreee!”

There wasn’t time for more before a deep masculine voice intruded followed by a powerfully built figure striding into view. Tall, black and handsome with a proudly shaved head, he carried himself with an arrogant assurance that would almost have passed for princely if not for the swagger. The way everyone got out of his way suggested he was in charge. Behind him a diminutive girl kept up easily, arguing with him and calling him an arrogant cuss.

“Alonna, quit it. We’re fighting a war here and the vamps are slowly taking us out day by day. If we want to survive we have to take risks.”

“So, your great strategy for survival is to waltz right into their turf and hammer the dinner bell? That’s pure crazy and you know it.”

The man stopped and heaved a sigh before settling a scowl over his face, “Al-onna…” he warned.

“Gu-unn” she shot back and stopped too with her hands on her hips, expression mutinous. “I love you and I don’t want to left behind to collect your body parts after you’ve taken one too many risks.”

Like ice-cream on a hot day his expression melted. “I love you too littl’ sis…” he turned around and walked off before continuing, “which is why I have to do everything I can to protect you and the rest of our people.”

“Ugh!!”

Feeling like an interloper and hating standing about and waiting to be noticed, Cordelia tensed when those liquid dark eyes settled on her then slid to Lily. Recognition lit their depths. “Lily, what brings you down to where the poor folks live?”

It wasn’t the friendliest greeting she’d ever heard. Cordelia felt Lily stiffen and could feel waves of defensiveness emanate from her friend. “I got a job, Gunn. Don’t make me rich though. I wish you’d stop with the accusations of forgetting my roots.”

“Just saying how I see it,” he retorted and then gave Cordelia a once over that was anything but complimentary, “Who’s…this?” The pause suggested he’d been considering something offensive, but couldn’t think of anything bad enough.

Geeze, this guy doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder. He has a goddamned mountain, volcano and all.That metaphor wasn’t exactly comforting since he did appear to have an eruptible quality about him. Cordelia forced herself to offer a hand, smile and say cheerfully. “Hi there. I’m-”

“I was asking, Lily,” he interrupted and ignored the hand.

Lily matched his scowl, “She’s a friend of mine. Cordelia Chase meet Charles Gunn and his sister, Alonna.”

“Hey,” said Alonna warily. Compared to her brother though it was as a good as an enthusiastic hug.

The scowl didn’t budge off Gunn’s face. “I didn’t get the memo about us turning into a tourist attraction. If you’ve seen enough I suggest you get back to the mall, its closing in a few hours and you’d hate to miss-“

“Shut-up, Gunn, and let Lily speak.” Alonna butted in and gave him a speaking glare.

Aware they’d garnered an audience of street kids, Cordelia felt her opinion of the girl sky-rocket. She must have sent have sheen of tears Lily couldn’t blink back, too. Hot scathing words trembled on the edge of tongue and she bit them back for her friend’s sake. What was that saying again? You can pick your friends but not your family. Too true.

“We’re in trouble,” Lily admitted huskier than she would have liked, “We need your help.”

“You pay taxes don’t you?” Gunn replied, although with a lot less sting, “Call the cops they might actually respond to you.” He crossed his arms and refused to look at his sister. His posture screamed defensiveness.

“You ever tried explaining to cops that bumpin’ uglies like vamps and monsters with slice’n’dice claws actually exist,” asked Cordelia, jumping in because she just couldn’t hold back any longer. “If you have I’d like to hear about it, or maybe not because we all know they’d be rolling on the floor laughing their asses off right before calling for a shrink.”

~

“You were pretty rough on them.” Alonna pointed out, one shoulder braced against the arch.

Gunn didn’t look up from his pallet, or stop scribbling on the pad propped up on his pillow. “I’m letting them spend the night against my better judgement, so don’t bug me about this, Alonna. You ain’t my conscience.”

There was a pause. “Okay,” she said and turned to go.

Her giving up so easily poked his suspicions. He looked up, “that’s it?” he called to her departing back.

“Yup, it’s not like I’m your non-existent conscience or anything. I just live here, too.”

Alonna’s tone said it all. She was pissed and was going to make his life miserable for weeks if he didn’t make amends; which meant making amends to their cousin, and her friend. He sighed and scrubbed a hand over his eyes, muttering, “Women were put on the earth to bug men. God hates us; that’s the only explanation.”

Cordelia wanted nothing more than to find Charles Gunn, give him a piece of her mind and then throw his grudging offer back in his face before walking right out of the stinking hovel he called home. She would have done except for the prickly fact that they had nowhere else to go, and no money to find anywhere. It didn’t take a genius to guess that if someone had access to her employment records, they’d have a similar access to her bank card transactions.

After the last thirty-six hours any natural buoyancy she had was totally deflated. As far as she was concerned you couldn’t be called paranoid if someone really was after you, and it had nothing to do with the fact that she’d seen ‘Enemy of the State’ more times than she could count.

“Hey, can we talk?”

The feminine voice intruded on her gloomy musings and made her jump. It took a second for Cordelia to pull herself together and past a wan smile on her face, “Sure, talk away. I’m sick of my own thoughts anyway.”

Lily had gone asleep an hour ago, exhausted by finding herself swept up in supernatural murders. Sat on the floor with her back to a wall with more holes in it than a Swiss cheese, she swept the ‘room’ and said wryly, “I’d say pull up a chair-“

“I’m used to it,” said Alonna with a grin. Squatting down in front of Cordelia she pressed her hands together and flicked her an uncertain look. “Lily told me you’d had a heart transplant, pretty rough, huh?”

As far as unexpected questions go, that one was hard to beat. Tamping down the initial urge to tell the girl to shove her questions up her ass, Cordelia stared at her. Usually a good judge of character, excluding vampires, Cordelia got a definite sense there was a purpose to the probing. Curious to know what that purpose was, she finally answered, “Rough, yes. Pretty, no.”

Alonna nodded and then looked expectant. Irked, Cordelia felt her face harden and irrationally decided what the hell.

“Having your chest cracked open isn’t my idea of fun and that’s just the start of the surgery. After they’ve put somebody else’s heart in place of your own they sew you up with enough wire to stock a hardware store,” she drew a line from her breastbone down to her belly to make sure Alonna got an idea of the size, “and then pump you so full of drugs you send the next few months in a daze. If you’re lucky you have family to help you, I spent my recuperation in a nursing home because my parents walked out one day and never came back, leaving me with the mess of their tax problems to sort out from my hospital bed.”

“Not that life’s not peachy now. I only have to go back to be poked and prodded every six months and take enough drugs to down an elephant every day. Saying all of that, I’m one of the lucky ones who didn’t reject the heart so at least I’m still alive. And if my luck holds I won’t turn up for my check-up one day and find out I have coronary artery disease.”

Running out of steam, Cordelia decided she wanted some answers of her own, “Was there a point to all of this? Or is this your idea of girl-talk?”

“We had a baby brother, Tommy. Gunn loved that kid so much. He was always playing with him and he had this gorgeous laugh. A real belly laugh that started in his toes, ya know?”

Bemused, Cordelia thought back and couldn’t recall every hearing a little kid giving a belly laugh. “Sounds nice,” she offered uncertainly. And this is leading where?

Alonna wore a faraway expression. “He laughed all the time. When he got so sick we had to take him to St Christopher’s, I missed that laugh like it was air I needed to breathe.”

Oh God Cordelia could guess what was coming and felt her heart sink as the memories of small frightened faces in the hospital ward came back to haunt her.

Alonna was lost to her own memories. With arms hugging her knees, Alonna’s voice turned husky, thick with tears. “Of course we barely had a roof over our heads, never mind health insurance. He didn’t stand a chance of a transplant, so they sent him home and we had him back for a while. He was the sweetest kid that never got to live. Sometimes, I still hear him singing lullaby’s to himself when the pains in his chest got bad enough he got scared. Two days after his fourth birthday we woke up one morning and he was curled up in a ball. He looked so normal but he was cold and wasn’t breathing. He’d gone and left us. Gunn didn’t speak a word for a month.”

Her whole body was numb and Cordelia knew it wasn’t due to sitting for so long on the hard bare floor. She had to swallow a few prickly balls of acid stuck in her throat before risking speech. “Okay, I guess that explains the interest. Except I can’t help thinking you had another reason. You don’t know me well enough to have a burning desire to make me feel better, so- care to share.”

“She didn’t tell you about Tommy for your benefit, she told you for mine,” explained Gunn from the door, or what was once a doorway. Brother and sister shared a look, “she was trying to remind me how precious life is.”

Unlike Cordelia, Alonna had known he was there and didn’t bother denying it. Unrepentant, she turned to eye him over one shoulder. Brown eyes identical to his were still filmed with tears. “Did it work,” she asked bluntly.

Instead of replying directly, Gunn pushed away from the bare wood of the frame remains and directed a level look at his houseguest. “You and Lily can stay as long as you need,” he said and manfully ignored his sister’s grin of victory, “And I’ll need to know more about your demon problems, ASAP.”

In place of relief, Cordelia only felt an avalanche of guilt that was incredibly draining. Forcing her body to rise, she dusted off her hands and admitted, “Sure, but I don’t know if what I have to tell you will help much.” Honestly insisted she warn them, “And what I do tell you might make you wish you’d not changed your mind. I’m not exactly healthy to be around right now.”

PART TEN
Wesley shifted his balance restlessly. Leaning against one of the columns in the airport terminal, he was waiting for the Council people to arrive; hoping to God his hazy memory of the man Georges would be sufficient to recognise him. Dusk had fallen and free to roam Angel was racing through LA’s streets towards the area Cordelia had been traced to.

It hadn’t taken as long as he’d feared to persuade the corrupt lawyer to talk and their suspicions over the lack of concern after losing her at the gym had been proven correct. Cordelia was unknowingly carrying around a tracking device attached to the bottom of a pillbox. The fact that the device was on the move proved she hadn’t been saved by fate and left it behind. Knowing that, Wesley was uncomfortably reminded of races he’d seen at the dog-track as a child. As in, just like the mechanical bunny, Cordelia couldn’t hope to outrun or evade her pursuers.

Had he done the right thing? That was a bugger of a question. Wesley still agonised over his decision to reveal the truth in light of her disappearance, and probably would continue to until she was safe. He sighed, puffing out stubbled cheeks and couldn’t help thinking that whether she’d meant to or not, Cordelia arriving at his apartment seemed to have been the catalyst that set everything off.

After he’d lost her and expecting the worst, Wesley had been relieved when Angel brushed the ‘how’ aside in favour of finding her. A benefit, he supposed, of having an obsessive nature that focused on priorities.

The dog-track metaphor was hardly reassuring though. Aware she saw Angel as the problem rather than a solution, Wesley only hoped the vampire’s predatory nature gave him the edge over the rest of the pack and he reached her first. He’d be combing the streets, too, if not for the other information prised from the half-drowned man. As much as they’d tried to prevent it, this deadly drama was coming to its final violent act and little could be done to stop that now. Only the outcome was undecided.

Wesley was here at LAX because, when the time came, they’d need every head they could muster if they were to prevent a catastrophe sixty years in the making. On that front at least luck had not entirely deserted them and fate, it seemed, had stepped in to ensure those heads came together in the same place.

A vaguely familiar figure striding out from the arrival’s tunnel and flanked by three heavyset men pulled Wesley from his musings. Straightening up, he went to meet them. Unwelcome if hardly a shock in the circumstances, Wesley gave each one a brief scrutiny. Unfortunately, he knew the type very well; bulky bodies covered in nondescript clothing, military style short hair and blank faces all screamed council operatives. An irritating bunch of yobs in his opinion.

Striding through the millings crowds and travellers anxiously staring up at electronic boards, Wesley kept his expression wiped free of anything except mild surprise. Reaching the quartet, he stopped and held his hand to the man he did know. “Theodore Georges, welcome to Los Angeles.”

Half expecting the gesture to be ignored given his history, Wesley was relieved when his hand was shaken. Direct blue eyes surveyed him from under bushy brows. “Mr Wyndham-Pryce, good to see you fit and well. California life agrees with you I think.”

“It does indeed,” he said with a polite, reserved smile.

A responding small smile lifting mobile lips suggested his discomfort was noted. “Thank you for meeting us.” Georges said ultra civilised, “I wasn’t sure if you’d be able to get away given the circumstances.”

“I almost didn’t,” said Wesley and turned his attention to the trio openly assessing him from the sidelines. By the look on their faces they didn’t like what they were seeing. Blandly he added, “I wasn’t aware you were bringing anyone else. Why don’t you introduce us while we make our way to the car?”

Without waiting for agreement, he led the way knowing they’d have no choice except to follow.

“We don’t need introducing…just bringing up to date so we know what we’re dealing with.” The tone was cold, uncompromising and exactly what Wesley had been expecting from them. It was meant to rankle and it did.

Blandness slipped. Provoked, Wesley responded in kind, “It’s a bit late in the day for a charge of the light brigade,” he said, “Don’t misunderstand, we’re grateful for any assistance, but to be blunt, I suspect its Mr Georges expertise that will prove more useful than yours.”

The short silence was broken by Teddy whose initially muffled voice suggested strangled laughter, “Call me Teddy, please. Anyone who puts a wrinkled old man over three trained bulls gets to call me by my first name.”

That was the only reaction until the five of them stepped into an elevator. Before the doors had even closed, Wesley found himself grabbed by the front of his shirt and roughly shoved into the back of the cubicle.

“I know all about you, Pryce.” The council man snarled. Aggression and distaste warred on a pitted face. “As far as I’m concerned your very existence brings disgrace to the Council, so don’t push your luck. Tell me what I want to know, when I want to know it and stay out of my way, and if you’re really lucky I may not decide to erase you simply because I can. Got it?”

They were all so distracted they didn’t see a man step into the elevator, sliding nimbly between the closing doors before they shut. Glancing over his attackers shoulder, Wesley saw the salt-and-pepper hair covered by a floppy tan sunhat and reached into his pocket.

“Loud and clear,” said Wesley and lifting his hand, opened it and blew sharply so that the dust gathered inside scattered all over the man’s face.

As he did floppy hat whirled and blew a similar handful into the face of a second, as did Teddy into the third. The three council operatives staggered, looked shocked and then simply dropped into identical heaps on the elevator’s floor just as it came to a gentle stop and the doors slid back.

The floppy hat came off to reveal the craggy face of Rupert Giles. “Well that went quite smoothly I think.”

Having stepped over the bodies, as one they turned to look back inside. Wearing a bemused frown, Teddy asked uncertainly, “Are you sure we won’t need them?”

“No, I agree with, Wesley,” replied Giles, “They only further unstable an already volatile situation. Its better we keep them out of it.”

The elevator doors slid shut. Shrugging fatalistically, Teddy eyed his two ex-colleagues with a sort of resigned acceptance, “You do realise I may get sacked and join you on the disgraced list after this little escapade?”

Deciding it wasn’t his place to get into that, Wesley simply quirked a brow and turned to lead the way to the car. Not denying it, Giles clapped a hand on Teddy’s shoulder and turned him to follow Wesley, “What do you care at your age? Its not like you need the money and most importantly you’ve had one foot on the side of rebellion as long as I’ve known you. So, don’t pretend you aren’t enjoying this…old man.”

As simply and speedily as that the pair got back into their old groove.

“What have I told you about calling me old, Rupe? You’re not exactly a picture of youth and beauty yourself. In fact, leathery comes to mind. It must be all that sun-“

“If you feel out of your depth, you should have turned me down when I suggested it on the phone.”

“I would have turned you down except I had one foot out the door on the way to the airport. You caught me at a low moment and I hate flying.”

“Excuses, excuses.”

“Stop bickering,” chided Wesley, folding himself into the driver’s seat of the Plymouth. “Good God. It’s like being stuck with a pair of school boys.” The engine started with a deliberate and hurrying roar, “Let’s get on shall we? We do have lives to save. Did you bring the Book of Amaharan like I asked?”

Climbing into the back, Teddy looked contrite. “Of course, of course. Apologies, Wesley. May I call you, Wesley?” he asked handing over a heavily wrapped package. He didn’t think it worth mentioning how bloody difficult it had been smuggling it out.

“You may.” A manila folder was tossed into the newest renegade’s lap, “Here’s some general information for you to look at. Having got rid of the unwanted baggage, I can now tell you what we’re up against as we drive.”

“You’ve found out some new information?” asked Giles from the passenger seat.

‘Found’ wasn’t quite the description he would have used thought Wesley with some irony. Smiling grimly he nodded, “Today has been revealing to say the least. Have either of you heard of The Order Aueryun?”

“No- oh, hold on. It does ring a bell.”

Giles was quicker on the uptake, “It wouldn’t have anything to do with a group of spell-casters forming an alliance to keep the balance between light and dark etc etc?”

Navigating his way out and to the surface streets, Wesley nodded, “Yes, and the original alliance dates back further than the Crusades. In fact there is a strong suggestion that it originated in the Middle East before spreading to Europe and later on the new world. The last known activity was just before WWII,” he paused, “Until now.”

There was a moment’s silence. Giles decided to state the obvious, “A dozen murders in a few weeks doesn’t sound much like balancing to me.”

“Anton Silverous was the last in a line of very powerful mages. Following the death of his daughter he went mad with grief. According to our source he allowed himself to become a host to a demon known as Ushkil.”

It was Teddy’s turn to connect the dots. “The Sumerian demon supposedly defeated by the Assyrian god, Ashur? Now I understand why you wanted that particular book.”

“The one and only,” nodded Wesley, “According to legend, Ushkil aroused the wrath of the gods for introducing the concept of cannibalism to the peoples of Mesopotamia. After his defeat and as a punishment for his crimes, Ashur banished him from the physical world.”

“Hmmm, all well and good, except…now he’s back. Is that it?”

“It gets better,” advised, Wesley, shooting Giles a look that had the older man sitting up and bracing himself, “According to my source. The real story on this creature is that Ushkil was once a part of the inner circle of a group of beings we know as the ‘Senior Partners’ of Wolfram & Hart.”

There was yet another silence while that news was digested. Wolfram & Hart’s evil tendrils had spread far and wide and no explanation on who they were was necessary in this company.

Wesley continued, “Apparently he was too much even for them. In the end they kicked him out for causing trouble and getting some kind of penalties slapped on them by the PTB’s. The way it was described reminds me of a chess game. Only Ushkil liked to cheat and would get everyone into hot water.”

“This is all very nice and confusing, but what is his purpose in obtaining a slayers heart and banishing Angel’s soul?” asked Giles, losing a little patience.

“It’s quite simple. Ushkil wants back in and the Senior Partners want Angelus. He cut a deal and has been working towards delivering on it since 1942.”

Having flicked through the folder’s slim contents, Teddy held up a photograph of a beautiful girl grinning widely at the camera. “Is this the girl, Cordelia, you mentioned?”

“Yes,” answered, Giles, “Although heaven only know how we stop this creature from achieving its objective and killing her,” he turned to Wesley, “Unless you’ve managed to haul a god into this mess?”

“I wish, but unfortunately none where available,” replied Wesley, “Still we have to try,” he continued more sombrely. “The deal was that if Silverous manages to bring forth Angelus permanently. Ushkil’s banishment will cease and he will take over the mage’s body completely. Worse, he will be a true immortal- as in unkillable by any means.”

“So,” sighed Giles, pulling out a square of white linen for a nervous polish of his spectacles, “Our usual recipe of unmitigating disaster then?”

~

Hair soaked by the persistent rain drifting down from the night sky, Angel swiped the moisture off his face and dropped down from one roof onto another lower one. Gravel crunched under his feet as he crossed over the asphalt towards the edge. There he squatted on his heels and peered down at the street below.

Directly underneath a trashcan flickered orange and smoked from the fire smouldering inside. Surrounding it were several youths sporting tattoos, bandanas and thick shirts. As dress codes went, he’d seen better decided Angel before dismissing them and searching further afield.

He’d already searched and discounted two blocks and found not a trace of her. Getting more desperate by the second, Angel forced his panic to recede rather than let it hamper him. He had to believe she was safe and sound or go mad. She had to be around here somewhere. Unless of course she’d moved on. Knowing he had no way of finding out if that was the case, Angel refused to consider it.

If he just had an inkling why she’d come to this part of town, he might stand a better of chance of narrowing it down and actually locating her. Unfortunately, Angel didn’t have a single clue. This was definitely not Cordy’s usual scene. The possibility that Lindsey had lied crossed his mind, and it wasn’t until two of the youths looked up his way that Angel realised he’d vamped out.

Calming himself was getting to be impossible. Rising to his feet and backing away, Angel knew only that he had to move and do something. Long strides lengthened further, getting faster and faster until he was speeding blur running full pelt across the roof.

Launching himself high, he leapt between that building and the next; then kept on going onto the next. Arms pumping and neck corded, every sense was on full alert and stretching in every direction. Which was fine except that without a heartbeat, or constant rush of breath there were no sounds to help drown out the name running constantly through Angel’s head. Or the screams that erupted from somewhere further down the street.

As hints went, that one was fairly strong.

By the time he located the building they were coming from they’d reduced to sporadic yells and wailing cries. Luckily, finding a way in was a snip and the few guard stations were now unmanned. The strong smell of fresh blood assailed Angel’s nostrils as he made his way closer to where the sounds of scuffling, weeping and desperate calls were strongest.

Everywhere was in disarray and despite being passed several times, nobody questioned his right to be there. Reaching what looked to be some kind of communal area, he stopped and took stock. The first thing that hit him was the familiar fragrance that was unique to Cordelia.

She was nowhere in sight though. “Who’s in charge here?” Angel shouted urgently over the din.

“That would be Gunn,” said a small voice.

Looking around, Angel sought the voice that had answered him and found her. Behind him and to his right stood a teenage girl. The combat jacket she wore was several sizes too big for her small frame, making her look vulnerable rather than capable. Forced to look up given the difference in their heights, Angel saw the tears streaking down a smudged, dirty face.

She looked too young, scared and freaked to be clutching the throwing axe she had in a death grip. Shakily she said, “He’s at the armoury getting ready to go after the vamps.”

“It was vampires that did this?” asked Angel sharply, dumbfounded. He hadn’t been expecting that. Why it was a shock he didn’t know, perhaps he’d thought the other monsters of the world had stepped out of the ring with Anton’s arrival.

“Vamps and something else,” she shook her head dazedly, “I never seen anything like ‘em before.”

She was in shock as were all of the people he could see here. They were little more than kids and Angel was filled with emotions he couldn’t act on right now. As much as their misery affected him, he had to find out what had happened to Cordelia. Getting distracted now just wasn’t possible. After, if he survived, he would come back Angel vowed.

“Thanks,” he said, flashing the girl a reassuring smile and hoping she wouldn’t realise he was a stranger and clam up. “Where’s the armoury? I’m looking for a girl who was here. Cordelia-”

On the point of turning away, she went still and her gaze sharpened. It wasn’t with suspicion though. “Brunette; big smile and really pretty with a sort of…I dunno…classy air about her?”

His tension soared. Two youngsters dragged a body past him. Side stepping out of the way, Angel nodded. “Sounds like Cordelia. Why, did you see her- see what happened to her?”

There was sympathy on her face now. “Hey sorry, man. I wish I had better news. They took her along with Alonna, Gunn’s sister.”

~

She led the way through a maze of corridors and derelict rooms filled with yet more milling kids. One of the rooms they passed through was filling with dead bodies. Recognising of them, Angel felt sick fury rise up.

Cordelia’s friend from the gym had lived another few hours. Escaping only to die at the place she’d sought refuge. Sudden guilt sucker-punched him. Maybe these kids have been fighting vamps for years he thought, but it was my mistakes with Cordy that racked the stakes up too high.Responsibility weighed heavily.

Oblivious the girl motioned him on and walking through to the next room, she pointed at a tall heavily built young black. She needn’t have bothered, Angel would have guessed he was Gunn. Standing between two trestle tables covered with an arsenal of weaponry, he was passing them out like they were going to war.

He had a wild, reckless air that Angel empathised with. He knew what it felt like to lose a loved one, knew how every second of delay before he went after her was like a hot poker in his soul. Unlike this man however, Angel had learned patience and how not to fall into the trap of thinking determined zeal would win the day. When he remembered that lesson anyway.

Introductions would be superfluous, so Angel didn’t bother with them yet. “Do you have a vampire nest in the area?” he asked loud enough to pierce Gunn’s intense concentration.

”Who wants to know?” asked Gunn fiercely. He conceded only a brief glance from checking a crossbow and handing it over to a plump, cherubic looking Latino roughly half his size.

Feet planted apart and hands loose at his sides, Angel braced himself. “Angel,” he said and took a wild guess, “I’m a friend of Cordelia’s. Although she probably told you otherwise.”

In the middle of testing a wicked looking hunting knife for sharpness, Gunn’s head jerked up with brown eyes narrowed to furious slits, “You the vamp?”

Denying it was useless. “That would be me,” Angel admitted and held up a hand, palm out, “But I don’t mean you or yours any harm. I just want to find Cordy and kill the things responsible for this.” He quirked a brow, “Seems to me we have at least the last thing in common.”

Human and vampire clashed. Finally, turning away, Gunn conceded, “Maybe, but first I want my sister back. After she’s safe I’ll make sure it never happens again. As for you, I don’t need help from no damned vamp to kill your kind- soul or no soul.”

If it wasn’t for the urgency, Angel knew he’d be facing a much more deadly debate than this one. Barely concealed hatred and distrust lay thick in the air. A few of the kids who were close enough to pick up on what was said ranged a semi circle around him. Pale faces were twisted with grieving fury; the staring eyes hot with the urge to kill. It would only take one word for them to converge on him in a stabbing frenzy.

One of the kids got close enough for the spear with the stake on the end to be swatted aside. Angel didn’t twitch so much as a muscle. “If Cordy told you about me, I’m betting she told you we’re on the same side. I can help you.”

“I told you-“

“We don’t have time for a debate,” said Angel cutting him off, “Its not just vamps you’re dealing with here. If you want your sister back as much as I want Cordy then you’ll listen to me.”

~

Cordelia was terrified but she’d figured out one thing. They couldn’t kill her until the time was right. If she was feeling optimistic that meant she had time to cook up an escape plan. Of course having a pair of the ugliest and meanest looking demon’s she’d ever seen flanking her wasn’t great for her chances of escape, no matter how much she racked her brains for inspiration.

It would help if she knew where she was, but it was pitch-black except for the circle of foul-smelling candles surrounding her. Even when her vision had adjusted all she could see was a dirty floor that seemed to go on forever, a few paint chipped columns and one wall with big boards covering what she assumed where windows.

Cordelia was hoarse from yelling and shaking from left-over adrenaline after being snatched and brought to wherever this was. If that wasn’t harrowing enough, watching as Alonna was given over the vampires as soon as they’d got here ranked pretty high in the twist-your-heart-right-out-of-your-chest stakes, too.

Even worse, Alonna’s screams had fallen silent a good long while ago. Cordelia might now have known the girl long, but sometimes a connection can be instant. Her grief over the brave street-fighters fate was almost as sharp as seeing Lily lying in a pool of her own blood. Losing them both; right before her eyes and helpless to do anything to help them was heartbreaking.

Behind the grief, escalating terror and pain, lurked a walloping load of guilt. With both arms clasped around her chilled body in a vain attempt to lessen the shaking, she couldn’t help thinking that if she hadn’t let hurt pride and humiliation prod her into running from Angel, they’d still be alive. In fact if it wasn’t for a stubborn instinct to survive that guilt may have been crippling.

Did that make her a bad person? Cordelia didn’t think so. If she lived to see tomorrow, then would be the time to sit down and workout how the crap had ended up hitting the fan so badly. The only good thing about any of this; if you could call it a good thing, was that these monsters had seriously underestimated Cordelia Chase if they thought she was cowed. Screw that!

Maybe it was vanity, or ego or whatever, but as far as she was concerned it took a lot of grit and stubbornness to have gotten this far in her life. Cordelia wasn’t cowed. She was pissed, royally pissed. The kind of pissed where if she got a chance she was going to be the one ripping some hearts out. She was tired of being a fate’s favourite victim. No more, damn it! I am *not* giving up without a fight. What are they gonna do- kill me?

Seeing a group of people emerge from the deeper darkness interrupted her attempts to shore up her courage. Belly sinking, Cordelia had a feeling she was going to regret thinking that last one. Of the seven or so figures three of them were human. Two of those were dressed in suits and the third was wearing some kind of burgundy silk robe. For some reason, she found the old man in the robes repulsively mesmerising.

Geeze, how’s that for contradictory?

Maybe it was a trick of the light, but as she watched them walk towards her, Cordelia saw a flash of pale at the periphery of her vision. Not sure why, she was certain there had been something furtive about it and hope soared for a moment. Trying not to make it obvious, she attempted to pierce the gloom in all directions and came up with nothing.

“Crap, so much for hope.”

Refusing to give-up on that sliver of hope, she carried on looking until robe-guy suddenly demanding she be ‘brought to the table’ kind of put a damper on her search. Jerking her attention back to the approaching group, the rattling she’d heard was explained as Cordelia spotted what looked like a mobile surgical table- with straps on each corner.

Her reaction was knee-jerk, “Oh, you are so not strapping me to that thing.”

Unfortunately her protests were ignored and in current circumstances brute force wasn’t something she could fight. Dragged, kicking and screeching she glared hotly up at the grinning vampire holding her down on the gurney. “God! I hate vampires,” she hissed up him, “Go eat one of your bosses. They look tasty.”

“I’d rather eat you, doll-face,” he said, topaz eyes gleaming with unholy appreciation, “And they’re not my bosses. We’ve made a mutually beneficial deal is all.”

Her lip curled. “Whatever…just keep you squinty eyes off my neck. I didn’t survive a hellmouth to come here and get snacked on by stinky vagrant-vamp.”

“This one knew the slayer according to our records,” a new voice broke in, “Kind of ironic don’t you think.”

Turning her head to locate him she realised it was one of the suits. Oily dark hair was scraped back, revealing a youthful face with eyes that suggested they’d seen and done things that would have Satan’s crusty toes curling.

“Indeed,” said the other suit, “however, let’s not be rude and introduce ourselves to Ms Chase. After all she did do us a huge favour by running away from Angel and practically right into our clutches.” Grey hair, smooth voice and a softly wrinkled face weren’t enough to hide bone-deep ruthlessness.

That hit home exactly like it was supposed to. There was a roaring in her ears that could have either been anger or panic. Deciding she preferred anger, Cordelia lifted her head off the thin mattress and jeered, “Ya think? Angel’s on his way here right now and getting ready to kick your wrinkly butts,” she prayed she wasn’t lying. “So, thanks for the front row seat. I’d hate to have missed the show.”

“You mean you’ve allowed yourself to get caught as part of an elaborate plan to draw us out?” He looked amused at the idea, “How noble and self-sacrificing of you, my dear. Let’s hope Angel gets here in time to save you.”

“Besides, how can you miss the show? You’re the star,” he continued with his head cocked enquiringly to one side. Then waved it all over as inconsequential, “Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, I’m Holland Manners…”

“I’d say it’s nice to meet you but I’d be lying.”

“…and this is my colleague, Lee from Wolfram & Hart, and finally that gentleman over there is, Anton Silverous.”

One hand was snagged and placed inside a strap. Wrenching it free with surprising strength, Cordelia cried out when the hand was re-captured with crushing force.

“Now, now,” interrupted Manners, “there really is no need to be so rough with her. Lee, perhaps our guest would be less resistant with a gentler, human touch,” he suggested, still all smooth, urbane charm.

“I don’t care who restrains her. Just get it done. My patience is wearing thin,” snapped the old man in the robes. Those were the first words he’d spoken and they didn’t bode well.

Cordelia’s skin crawled. Opening her mouth to disabuse them of the idea that she considered them human, she snapped it closed again, realising this might be the chance she was looking for. Slim but still a chance.

Holding her breath, she waited until he’d begun to slip the end into the buckle and then made her move. Whipping up her legs in a kick high enough to do a head roll, she caught Lee on the side of his face and continued with it until she rolled right off the end of the gurney. The second her feet touched the floor she was off, sprinting away from the circle and the momentarily stunned figures inside it.

Hardly daring to slow enough to see where she was going, Cordelia had no warning of whatever it was she ran into. Rebounding off the obstacle, she fell to the floor winded. Gasping, heart pounding and sickly aware she’d lost her chance, Cordelia blinked to clear the coloured spots floating in her vision and felt her jaw drop open with shock.

“Alonna?” she asked in hoarse disbelief.

“Hey, girlfriend,” grinned the young girl cockily. “What’s your hurry?”

Still trying to figure out why she was scared of the girl, Cordelia was powerless to resist the strong hands that wrapped around her upper arms to lift her up from her sprawl. When she was back on her feet it finally sunk in. “You’re a…a-“

“Vampire, yeah. Ain’t it the greatest?” Morphing with a growl into the horribly familiar face of a vampire, Alonna’s grin widened and winding back a fist, punched Cordelia hard enough that she was sent flying back towards the circle of lights she’d only just escaped.

~

PART ELEVEN

Coming too was a bitch. Her jaw felt like it had been broken. Grinding it and checking for missing teeth with her tongue, Cordelia did her best to ignore the knowledge that she was naked from the waist up. Well, actually she was totally naked except for something smooth and silky that was tucked around her waist and legs. Well, gee, thanks for preserving some of my modesty, guys.

And the humiliations just keep on a comin’ she sighed thinking, I should have just stayed in Sunnydale. At least then I’d have been eaten by now and saved myself this.

Finally the constant and low rumble of somebody chanting caught her attention. Chanting was never good, she knew. Hazel eyes snapped opened wide.

…and saw the most terrifying and butt-ugly face she’d ever laid eyes on. “Gross!”

Veins like blue worms mapped the face of the old man standing over her. It was so bad the rest of his skin looked purplish; which was really not a good colour-match for the yellow eyes. Now real panic took hold. Squirming on the mattress, Cordelia let loose an ear-splitting scream, and then began wrenching violently at the straps in a frenzied attempt to break free.

Stricken, Cordelia whipped her head from side-to-side, searching as far as she could see for someone to appeal to, and found nothing except avidly grinning vampires and worse.

Panting as she squirmed, Cordelia sensed the chanting reached a crescendo. Looking back up at Anton, she saw a knife was now poised over that monstrous head with its gleaming point aimed straight for her chest. Oh God- ogodgodgod

Purely on instinct, she sucked in a deep breath and lifting her chin, screamed as loud as she could, “ANGEL!!

The desperate scream was so loud it almost drowned out the sharp, splintering sound of breaking glass and wood. Almost but not quite. Instantly everyone looked up and to the side, toward where the sounds had come from; catching the crunch of something heavy landing just outside of the encircling candle-light.

Engrossed in his rituals, Anton was the single exception and Cordelia gave a shrill open-mouthed scream as the knife began its decent. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she heard a deep voice, yell, “Anton, NO!” just before there was a meaty thud and something black and solid appeared in the middle of a blood-red robe.

It was only when he staggered back, chin to his chest and staring disbelievingly down at the same object that Cordy recognised what it was. It was a knife handle made of very solid and very modern black plastic. The metallic clatter that followed was Anton’s own knife falling from his open hand.

That signalled all hell breaking loose. Shouts, yells, bangs and running footsteps heralded the sounds of pitch battle. Cordelia couldn’t take it all in. Outside of herself, strapped to the triple damned table, and the gruesome figure of Anton, everything was a mishmash of blurred, writhing shapes and snarling faces.

Beside her, Anton managed to pull the blade out of his body, sagging and gasping with pain as it finally slid free of his flesh. If there was blood it was impossible to see against the robes deep red. He stayed on his feet though and Cordelia wanted to scream at the injustice of it. Is it so much to ask that when a bad guy got stabbed he’d die, or at the very least be crippled with pain?

After flinging the knife at Anton in a desperate bid to save Cordelia, Angel had been forced to defend himself from the mage’s pet hell-beasts. Forewarned by growling breathes that reeked of unimaginable things, he spotted something big moving in fast and turned to meet it.

It was like standing in between the tracks and letting the next freight train run you over. It was all he could do to stand his ground. Grappling with its arms and pinching the elbows between his thumb and fingers to try and prevent its spears from ejecting, Angel saw a second one loping towards them out of the corner of his eye. Rather deal with two of them at once; a super fast way of ending up properly dead in his opinion, he hung on those necessary few second and then swung himself and the first demon around.

It wasn’t easy. The demon weighed a ton and add in the resistance factor and it was an inhuman feat. Vamping out gave him the extra strength he needed at the very last second. Not before time too, he thought when gnashing teeth nearly took off the front of his face. The second demon was unable to change the angle of its attack when suddenly finding its intended victim replaced by one of its own kind.

The twin spears that would have buried themselves in Angel’s back, instead impaled the demon he’d been wresting with. Staggering clear, he heard Anton roar a demand, “Defend me,” and zeroed back in on the mage just in time to see him clumsily swiping the ceremonial knife back off the floor.

“Damn it!” There was about forty ft between Angel and Anton with the third demon standing guard in-between.

All around him, vampires and street kids were battling it out in the derelict building’s ground floor. Somewhere nearby a flamethrower whooshed and the air sizzled followed by an angry roar of demonic pain. Madness ruled and the noise coming from all quarters was deafening.

Angel’s big mistake was getting distracted because it gave the second demon enough time to throw off its dead kindred and gather itself to pounce. In fact he was so distracted, it wasn’t until an axe flew past him and landed with a meaty thwump that he even became aware of the danger. A quick glance in the direction the axe had come from showed Gunn already swinging back into the fray and fighting the vampires.

Gratitude was brief out of necessity. Over by the gurney, Anton was clutching his abdomen with one hugging forearm and re-raising the knife with the other hand. Lunging to close the distance, Angel met the last demon with a leaping kick to the throat and didn’t stop to see where it landed, or for how long.

In that moment nothing else impinged on his mind except getting to Cordelia. Not the sudden arrival of Wesley, Rupert Giles and a third man. Not the vampire that tried to halt his progress only to be thrust aside like so much flotsam. Nothing except perhaps the ethereal sight of a blonde woman floating out of nowhere and …

Skidding to slow his impetus and make sense of it, Angel’s already pale face bleached white as the apparition seemed to sink into and merge with the desperately thrashing Cordelia. As it did the thrashing calmed.

~

Anton’s breath was whistling between teeth gritted against the fiery agony in his abdomen. Letting the sting of sweat drip into his eyes, he forced the arm holding the knife to rise in readiness to be plunge down. Chaos reigned behind him, but he refused to acknowledge the vampire. Other than to feel a distant satisfaction that he would be able to witness first-hand Angel’s horror at feeling the soul wrenched loose.

First things first, he needed the heart to commence the de-souling spell. With Ushkil at the fore, the girl meant nothing to him. He hardly saw her beyond the physical outline of her body and what it contained. Until the unbelievable happened.

Between one blink and the next; hazel eyes became blue and mussed brunette became soft gold. Staggered by the transformation, Anton felt as if he’d somehow driven the knife into his own heart. The hand holding the knife aloft trembled and then lowered slowly.

“Serena?” he whispered achingly.

“Hello, Daddy,” replied the girl on the table.

“It can’t be you?” he shook his head and trembled with a wave of grief that had never lessened, “This is some kind of trick, it has to be.”

“It is me,” replied Serena and those blue eyes turned moist, “I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.” She took in a wobbling breath, “Why did you keep pushing me away. I kept trying to reach you, but you wouldn’t let me.”

“No, I would never-“ he faltered realising the presence he’d been refusing to acknowledge had in fact been his daughter’s spirit. The horror of what she was saying was crippling. Anton didn’t want to believe it. The question was dragged from him, “You’ve seen it all?”

“Yes,” true anguish filled Serena’s expression, “Oh, Daddy how could you do those things? How could you let that thing inside you?”

Anton couldn’t look into that beloved face and see her despair of him. His hand shook as he lifted the silken sheet from his daughter’s waist and raised it until she was decently covered. “I missed you so much, child,” he whispered brokenly, “I went mad and Ushkil offered me revenge. It was the only thing that lessened the pain, knowing I could avenge you-”

“Angel isn’t responsible for my death, Daddy,” Serena interrupted, “Ushkil is. Angel saved my soul from the same fate that awaits yours. Except when he came to me I didn’t have the knowledge to make a deal like you have. I begged Angel to take my life before the few hours I had left were up.”

“No,” Anton was shaking his head before she’d finished, “I don’t believe that. My daughter would never have dabbled with such things. You’re lying. You are not my daughter.” The ravages of his face had receded with her appearance. Now rage re-infused him and the evidence of the demon he was hosting swept any softness and humanity away. Fingers clenched white over the knife’s handle and Anton’s voice turned hard, “This is nothing but a cheap trick to stop me.”

“Ushkil came to me and convinced me with lies to listen to him,” insisted Serena lifting her head to stare him down, “He mixed truth and falsehood to dangle what he knew I wanted most- Angel.”

“Lies,” shouted Anton, although he wasn’t sure if the words came from him.

“Why would Angel have killed me, Father,” she asked losing patience, “Give me a motive that you know to be true and I will leave you in peace.”

Anton repeated what sounded like a mantra, “The demon overrode the paltry soul and reasserted itself. He let it because the soul is as weak and corrupt as any vampire.”

“Who told you that…Ushkil?” she asked. Full lips twisted with irony, “You mean the demon you let infest your body lied? Go figure, its not like demons do that a lot now is it?”

~

Angel started hearing that. He’d said the same thing to Serena all those years ago. After sixty years they’d come full circle. The last demon protecting Anton hadn’t stayed down, and he’d had to split his attention between it and what was going on around the gurney and Cordelia.

Managing not to get slashed or skewered, but still battered and exhausted with arms like lead weights, Angel got back to his feet. Wrapping both hands around the sword’s leather pommel, he yanked the blade free of the dead demon and made a mental note to thank Wesley for his timely intervention. If it hadn’t been for him sliding the sword toward Angel before leaping onto the demon’s back, he’d likely be dust by now. Instead he’d given him time to garner as much strength as he could muster before taking it on in a final deadly round.

“She’s telling you the truth, Anton,” Angel said now, raising his voice to be heard over the din of ongoing battle. Rupert Giles pulled a winded Wesley back to his feet and it was four men that approached the mage with wary caution. “You trusted me then. Trust me now. I would never have hurt Serena, not for any reason-“

Anton whirled, “You did-“

“- except to save her,” finished Angel firmly.

The sword felt solid and reassuring. The weight of it was distributed evenly by the symmetry of a balanced hold. Angel held it casually but ready to swing into action if Cordelia was put under threat. As much as he hated the idea, the knowledge that this nightmare would end only with Anton’s death was rooted firmly in his mind. The only reason he didn’t lunge and finish him now was Serena. The dead girl had a purpose in revealing herself. Maybe she wanted to save her father from one more death, but Angel also felt certain that she was doing this for him, too.

Serena knew he was in love with Cordelia and was trying to help save her. That knowledge gave him peace…and hope.

Anton was visibly struggling with the demon and the revelations. Bent almost double with darker stains spreading over the robes, the knife was clutched by a bloodless hand in a desperate hold. He swung back to Serena, turning his back on the approaching watchers and vampire.

“I’m sorry. I have to finish this. I have to,” he said, a hoarse plea for forgiveness ringing out. “I wish it where otherwise but you’re already dead.” He continued, pleading as if asking for her blessing, “I can’t stop now, he won’t let me.”

“If you kill this girl, you’ll destroy the last vestiges of me still left in this world,” Serena said sadly adding a little desperately, “After sixty years I’ve finally found someone to leave my gift with. It will be like being killed all over again. Don’t do that to me, daddy, please!”

Hearing that, Anton seemed to collapse in on himself. He looked grey and old with the veins still engorged, but his eyes were human. The hand holding the knife trembled as if he were trying to open the fingers and drop it; only something wouldn’t let him. Rivulets of sweat dripped down from grey hair. Head hanging and breathing heavily as if he’d run a marathon, Anton glanced at Angel over his shoulder.

The vampire was standing close enough to intervene if something went wrong. Meeting his sombre gaze, Anton lost his grip on hatred and wanted to weep. As in days of old their communication was silent and accurate. Angel nodded once in acknowledgement of a silent message.

“I wish you’d killed me, too,” Anton admitted roughly and was wracked by spasms of shudders as something took a grip of him. Braced with one hand on the gurney to keep him upright and using every last ounce of willpower, he began to undo the straps binding one ankle.

Behind a column and safely out of the way of any violence, Holland Manners murmured with an anticipatory smile, “Oh, you shouldn’t have done that, my friend.”

~

To Cordelia it was like waking up from a dream. The veil lifted and the memories of the last few minutes rushed into her consciousness. Being possessed by the spirit of a dead girl was something that would under normal circumstances have squicked her out. However, these were anything but normal circumstances.

Lifting her head to see who was unbuckling her wrists the first person she saw was Angel; bruised and grazed with his expression harsh and moody, he was still a sight for sore eyes and her heart leapt. Then she looked down to see Wesley unstrapping her ankles. “Angel, Wes?” She asked confusedly. Their urgency was infectious. “What the hell is going on?”

“No time for questions, Cordelia,” Angel said tensely, sparing only a brief glance over his shoulder at something behind him. Then midnight eyes bored into hers, “When we’ve got you free, you run like hell, okay?”

She didn’t even have to think about it. “Uh no, I’ve done enough running. I’m sticking to you like glue, buddy boy.” Then something caught her eye behind him. Hazel eyes went comically wide. “Oh…crap!” No wonder they were in such a rush. “Hurry up, guys!”

Everywhere else had fallen into a complete hush. All fighting had ceased with both humans and vampires stilling and staring up, transfixed by the horror being enacted over their heads. Charles Gunn looked up, too, drawn back from the hell in his mind at having to dust his baby sister. On his knees, where he’d fallen as she disintegrated, he was pulled back to reality by the sheer absence of noise.

The silence didn’t last long. Swept up by an unseen force a writhing Anton Silverous dangled below the ceiling. Even night seemed to shrink back and the thick candles stuttered and flared. As his audience watched red boils appearing on every visible patch of skin. His mouth was gaping wide and his throat worked as if he was screaming and yet only strangled chokes came out.

When the boils spread and burst the humans started to back away. Adams apple’s bobbing as they tried to resist the urge to retch in reaction to the sight. Then the screams started. Instantly the retreat picked up pace and the two Wolfram & Hart lawyers joined them.

Free, wrapped in red silk and staying safely behind Angel’s reassuringly large frame, Cordelia sucked in a breath to calm her rioting belly and said, “Oh-my-God. That is so gross.” Then added with typical bluntness, “Look, guys, I’m thankful for the rescue, god knows I needed it…but can we just get out of here- like now would be good?”

“We can’t” advised Wesley gruffly, forced to shout over the agonised screams. “Unfortunately, as bad as this, it’s going to get worse for everyone before it gets better.” Having delivered the bad news, he bent to retrieve a book off the floor and made his way over to a pair of humans standing beneath the tormented mage.

“Why does it always have to get worse first? I hate that.” Peering around Angel’s Cordelia averted her eyes from the horror and focussed on the men, “Is that Giles over there?”

“Yeah, and another watcher, too” said Angel heavily. He couldn’t take his eyes off Anton. As much as he’d been willing to kill him tonight, witnessing his death like this was sickening. There was no way to stop it though. Anton had made his deal and welched on it. All they could do was deal with the after affects.

“Armed with books?! Guh, why am I not surprised?” she asked with only mild disbelief. “Y’know this whole supernatural power of the pen thing gets old- fast. Wouldn’t a bazooka or something be *so* much quicker?”

It hit Angel then and vigilance fell by the wayside. He turned his head to look down at her. Feeling his gaze she looked up and blinked a query with her head cocked as if to ask, ‘what did I say?’

Cordelia continuously amazed him. She out of all of them had been through the worst and yet there she stood, not in the least bit fazed and still—Cordelia. In that wholly inappropriate setting and in the face of danger, his mood lifted.

Stood close enough to feel her warmth even through the leather duster, Angel knew they were still facing the possibility of a bloody battle; and yet he just wished it was all over and done. After the frantic worry of the last few days- weeks even- he wanted nothing more than to relax and revel in the fact that she was alive, safe and apparently not so disgusted by him she couldn’t stand the sight of him anymore.

When this was finally all over would she leave straight away, he wondered and his mood plummeted again. Shaking off despair, Angel gave his attention back to the nightmare in front of them.

So did Cordelia before deciding it was something she could do without reliving every time she closed her eyes. “Jeezus! Tell me when it’s all over will you,” she said and ducked behind him. It wasn’t a pretty sight and a part of Angel wished he had someone to hide his head behind.

Anton was being consumed. There was simply no other way of putting it. After the boils and blisters his skin seemed to recede, followed by the flesh until the white gleam of bone showed through. One loafer had fallen off and lay on the floor; leaving a skeletal foot to jerk spasmodically. To the assembled humans, he resembled a Halloween puppet on a string.

The crowd thinned even more. Unlike the street kids, it wasn’t the pain or obvious torment that pulled the vampires from their stunned stupor, but the chanting of the three watchers. Stood with their heads bent attentively to the texts they were reading from, three voices rose and fell in a matching rhythm. Sensing forces gathering of which they didn’t want to be a part; the remaining vampires melted away into the comfort of night.

Whatever it was that had Anton in its grip reacted angrily to the chanting. Pockets of red mist emerged from the mage’s body, merging and roiling to form larger and denser bubbles. Then the bubbles morphed, spreading like bacteria. Growing at a terrifying rate the formation of mist hardened into something much more physical. It also began to form into something resembling a face.

Within seconds a gaping maw had opened and with that came a distant inhuman howl. That howl grew louder and closer as the shape wrapped and rewrapped around itself, forming layer upon layer of what appeared to be a huge body. Meanwhile, in the face a pair of eyes snapped open.

The banishing spells weren’t going to work thought Angel, hefting the sword and bracing himself to dive onto the thing. Then a presence sidling up next to them drew his attention.

With his expression a mixture of sorrow, disgust and revulsion, Charles Gunn pointed at the watchers, asking, “Are they good guys or bad guys?”

“Good guys, they’re doing a banishing spell.”

“Could’a fooled me,” he retorted, sliding him a glance and jerking his chin up at Ushkil, “That looks more like a coming than a going to me.”

Uneasy himself, Angel got his point. He much preferred doing rather than watching, but Wesley had convinced him he had to leave this up to them. “They’re not easy spells to do,” he said, “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see and be ready to kill it if it goes bad.”

Cordelia really didn’t like the way this was going either. The idea of making her escape while she could flitted briefly through her mind before she dismissed it. She felt safer where she was. Instead, she tried to inject some optimism, “Maybe you have to bring the thing here to get rid of it. I mean, how do you banish something that’s only got one foot in this world? It’d be like swatting at something that’s not really there.”

It was feasible thought Angel and then without warning, Wesley began a different chant, so that the two were being intoned at the same time. Hearing it gave Angel a strong case of the heebie-jeebies, a sensation not helped by a swirling hole appearing behind the emerging demon. It took a few seconds for him to realise what it was.

“Okay, that’s it,” announced Gunn noticing it, too, “somebody tell me what that is, or I go swinging in there. Ready or not.”

“It’s a portal,” answered, Angel relaxing now. “My guess is that when he’s fully emerged Ushkil is gonna find himself sucked right back out of our world and into another dimension.”

If that was the plan it went awry. By now the demon was recognisable as human-shaped. He also looked familiar. “Hey, that’s looks like-“

“Hellboy, and I don’t think he’s on the side of the Angel’s,” finished Cordelia, recognising it from the hours she’d indulged Xander’s obsession with comics, “Geeze, whoever said comic books follow real life needs to visit LA.”

Twin horns rose from a rock-hewn magenta face and yellow eyes blazed down at the human’s. Perhaps Ushkil was simply quicker at forming than they’d planned? Whatever the reason the portal wasn’t fully open when the demon was able to make a move. Instead of being sucked inside it, he dropped to the floor hard enough to crack the concrete floor and lunged.

Angel got there just ahead of him and tackled the watcher to get him out of harms way. “Stay back,” he instructed the man he assumed was ‘Teddy’ and rolled to his feet. Giles had managed to pull a still chanting Wesley to a safer distance while Gunn leapt at the demon with his axe raised high over his head. The axe just glanced off the demon’s head; striking sparks off one horn. A swipe of one thickly muscled arm send the hardy young street fighter flying to crash back to the ground some distance away. He lay still.

“Foolish humans,” boomed the demon, “did you imagine I was as easily defeated as a paltry vampire.” That yellow gaze fixed on Angel and a cold smile curved a lipless mouth.

Ushkil gave a mocking bow. “Excluding present company of course. No offence.”

“None taken,” said Angel as he closed the distance, “Excuse me for not giving a crap if you take offence when I say, you’re not welcome here.”

In response, Ushkil’s smirk only grew bigger, “I might if I thought there was a damn thing you could do about it.” He gestured towards Wesley and Giles. “To think I wasted so much time on Anton when all I had to do was get the Watchers Council to being me forth. Thanks for that by the way.”

“You’re welcome never had less meaning,” sniped Cordelia when the demon’s gaze lit on her and swept up and down. The red sheet wrapped sarong style under her arms felt gossamer thin under that searing gaze. “Don’t get too comfortable, cos your ass is out of here as soon as that thing is ready,” she sneered and flicked a glance at the portal.

Ushkil chuckled and said, “It is ready. It just has no effect at this distance and will soon close again.” He pretended to look sorrowful, “I’m afraid your gamble failed.”

“Don’t be so quick to judge,” snarled Angel, angered more by the assessing glance over Cordelia than anything else. “God, loves a tryer.”

Ushkil didn’t even try and duck Angel’s powerful roundhouse punch. He simply caught the fist and yanked the vampire closer. Face-to-face he jeered, “God doesn’t love this one though does he? Do-gooder or not.”

Vamping out, Angel head-butted him and retorted, “With a pretty face like mine, who wouldn’t love me?”

The ridges protected him enough that the blow did knock the demon back a few feet. The fight that followed was brutal in the extreme. Cordelia, Wesley and the rest of them could only stand by and watch as 6ft plus of muscled vampire met and clashed with a being that was older, bigger and a hundred times as vicious.

A few minutes later Angel was tiring and there wasn’t a part of him not aching like a sonovabitch. Slammed onto his front for about the fifth time, he spat out a mouthful of blood and bile and groaning rolled onto his back. Just in time for Ushkil to pick him up the sides of his duster and toss him into a wall. Cinderblocks disintegrated under Angel’s weight and consciousness faded in and out.

Calls of encouragement sounded as if they came from underwater; all except for Cordelia’s. Her angry yells came from close by and somehow Angel managed to jack his eyes open. What he saw had his dead heart squeezing with terror. Ushkil was only a few ft away and a red-faced and furious Cordelia was coming up behind it with something held in her hands. That cleared away the cob-webs and Angel catapulted away from the wall just as Ushkil turned to meet Cordelia’s reckless charge.

Terrified but determined, Cordelia threw the candle directly into the demons face and he roared as the hot wax splattered all over his face and eyes. A look of triumph flooded her gorgeous face and Angel despaired when he saw that look change to, ‘oh shit’, when Ushkil charged her. He was only a step behind when the demon caught up with the fleeing girl.

Cordelia screamed when her hair was caught and cruelly twisted in a fist. A red mist dropped over Angel’s vision and his throaty growl had Ushkil swinging around to face his charge, too. Protective fury gave Angel the incentive he needed and every ache and pain simply disappeared as if they’d never been.

Grabbing the demons wrist nearest to him, Angel used his impetus to twist and pull him off balance and then chopped a hand down on the arm imprisoning Cordelia. It worked and Ushkil turned his attention back where it belonged. Seeing the others come up and usher a resisting Cordy back behind them, Angel concentrated on round two of the fight.

“When you’re dead I’m going to kill your little pets one by one.” Ushkil warned, eyes gleaming and the sockets blackened by the fiery wax, “The girl I’ll save until last. I have plans for her that aren’t quick and definitely not clean.”

Rammed into the same place he’d crashed into before, Angel felt the wall crumble further behind him and bringing up his hands, squeezed between the demons arms to stab his thumbs into this wounded sockets. “You won’t get near them or her,” he returned every bit as savagely; “I’ll see you in hell first.”

Howling, Ushkil released him and backed away from the pain. Following up with a snap kick; and then spinning on his heel to deliver a second arcing one, Angel drove the demon back and nearer to the still spinning portal. Realising he didn’t have much time before the portal closed itself, Angel dug deep and kept up the momentum with a series of hammer punches that left his knuckles raw and bloodied. It didn’t matter because pain couldn’t impinge on him thanks to a consuming rage that demanded this thing be made to pay.

Dropping to a squat, he swept out a foot and sent Uskil crashing to the floor. Ushkil returned the gesture and Angel went down too. Rolling over, Angel lifted his arm and slammed an elbow into the demon’s throat hard enough his head bounced off the unforgiving ground.

Then a shouted warning from Wesley dragged him back from his heedless rage and looking up he saw the portal grow smaller. They were almost out of time and his need for violence had cost them most of it. With that realisation, reason returned and cursing foully, Angel leapt to his feet and grabbed the demons hoofed foot. Gathering his strength, he began to spin, getting faster and faster until the demon was high enough off the ground that he could give one last monumental heave and let go.

With their hearts in their mouths they all watched the demon fly towards the closing portal; hoping and praying that it was still wide enough to suck the demon through. In the blink of any eye it was over. Ushkils last inhuman roar of frustrated rage echoed in the empty building as the portal closed behind him.
~

Fresh from the shower with his hair damp and black shirt warm from the iron, Angel exited the elevator and stepped into his office. The first place his gaze lit on was Cordelia’s empty desk. That was too painful. Jerking away, he sought and found Wesley sitting on the couch with an open book on his khaki covered lap.

“Haven’t you had enough of books?” he asked as a greeting and headed for the coffee percolator.

“Since you ask, no,” replied Wesley dryly, “I happen to find reading relaxing.”

Nodding and smiling wryly, Angel leant against the table and raised the mug to take a sip of coffee, saying “I should have known better than to ask?”

Wesley wasn’t fooled. Tossing the open book aside, he sat forward with his elbows on his knees and levelled a look at the too casual vampire. “Did you go and see her?”

Angel didn’t need to ask who ‘her’ was. “I did,” he said and continued knowing it was the next question, “And yes, I told her what I found out from Joyce.”

“What did she say? It must have been quite a shock finding out this whole thing had been a waste of time and Buffy’s heart was never removed for transplant.”

That was putting it mildly. Angel sighed and grimaced, “I don’t think she took it all in,” he admitted, “I don’t blame her either. A lot went down for what turned out to be nothing more than an administrative error.”

That led onto something else Wesley had been musing over. “I’ve been thinking about that,” he said as an opener. “Doyle never met Buffy. Has it occurred to you that it wasn’t Buffy in his last vision at all, but Serena and Cordelia?”

“No, I haven’t thought about it,” Angel shrugged, “Now you mention it though, it makes sense.”

If Wesley was surprised by his lack of reaction it was too bad. Angel was simply unable to offer more. Two days had passed since that night, and he’d spent every waking moment either thinking about Cordelia, or seeking out any distraction he could find. He kept telling himself that if she wanted to go, then he didn’t have the right to try and stop her. So far only half of him was listening though and the conflict was tearing him apart.

As useless as it was, Angel tried a change of topic as yet another distraction. “Did Rupert and whatshisname get off okay?”

“Rupert and I saw Teddy back on a flight to the UK and Rupert is taking the bus back to Sunnydale.”

Angel nodded his expression distant. “Oh Good.”

“But you’re not really interested in that are you?”

Blinking, Angel saw Wesley was now standing and looking uncomfortably shrewd. “What do you mean?”

“Have you been back to see Cordelia?” Wesley asked, crossing his arms, uncaring about a crisp shirt and cutting to the chase.

There was a pregnant pause before Angel sighed and pushed away from his perch. “Look, Wesley, I know you mean well,” he said over his shoulder, aiming for the safety and sanctity of his office, “And that this all my fault. You warned me and I didn’t listen. Believe me nobody regrets that more than me. But I don’t want to-“

“Hey, guys” breezed Cordelia and slammed the door behind her.

Angel swung around so fast he made himself dizzy, “Cordelia, wha-“

She ignored him until she could plonk her purse and a paper bag on her desk. Then turning around she pointed an accusing finger at him. “I have a bone to pick with you, mister.”

“A bone…?” Confused and befuddled, Angel looked blank, “You do?”

“This gal…um…Serena,” clicking her fingers in triumph, she asked a little too pointedly, “there was more to her than meets the eye, am I right?”

Frowning, Angel tried to think past the mere fact that Cordelia was in the office. Not just in the office either, but looking stunning in a strappy yellow sundress with her hair caught up in an intricate knot that showcased the graceful cuves of her neck and shoulders. It took an embarrassingly long time to answer, “She was a-“

“Seer,” finished Cordelia, “Tell me something I don’t know.” Looking decidedly unhappy about something, she flung herself down on the coach and enlightened the two men. “There I was coming into work on the bus when this thing hits me. And when I say hits me- I mean with a wallop.” A blush stained her cheeks, “I’m not sure but I think there was drooling involved and–”

“You had a vision?” asked Angel numbly.

“Howdy!” Cordelia exclaimed, “That’s what I’ve just been saying. Here I wrote it all down once I’d got done telling everyone I suffer from epilepsy.”

Angel took the note she handed him and couldn’t get his thoughts into order. He kept get stuck on one thing she’d said, “You were coming into work?” he asked and couldn’t disguise the hopeful note in his voice.

“Yeah, I just needed a few days off and don’t even think about docking my pay, Mister Miserly Pants, I needed the R and R.”

She wasn’t leaving! Angel just stood there and let the relief sink into his bones. That meant that plans to give her time and then go after her weren’t needed anymore. He could work on earning her forgiveness with her right next to him…night after night.

“Of course you won’t lose any pay,” Wesley said with a smile and stood up to give her a brief hug, “It’s wonderful to see you back by the way. I don’t mind telling you this place has been like morgue without you to brighten it up.”

“Well, duh” grinned Cordy delighted; and tried not to keep flashing Angel surreptitious glances, “For that you get a doughnut,” she said and returning to her desk, ripped open the paper bag to reveal a familiar box. Handing one over, she turned and this time she let Angel catch her gaze, “You don’t have time for one,” she prodded, “You have some poor defenceless sap to go save- so scoot.

Still he hesitated and she lost patience, “We’re okay here. We’ll talk later, just go, already!”

~

EPILOGUE

Angel stood outside Cordelia’s apartment and composed himself. After four months it was a ritual. First he’d raise his hand to knock and then drop it with a sigh. Realising how tense he was he’d shrug his shoulders to loosen tight muscles, sigh again and finally run a hand over his hair and down his shirt. Then sucking a breath, he’d rap his knuckles on the door.

He wondered if tonight, Cordelia would get there first, or if Dennis would be the one to answer his knock. As usual that thought led to another and Angel’s efforts to relax failed. His ‘courtship’ of Cordelia was being done under the beady eyes of Wesley and Dennis, her ghost. So, the way he figured it, he was allowed to feel some tension and aggravation.

On the few nights they did manage to carve a time-out from death and mayhem, he made sure they went out. Blockbuster movies or old classics and sometimes the theatre- as long as it wasn’t too high-brow. When she got tired of being inside, they’d take leisurely drives out of the city with the Plymouths top down, or stroll along the beach and just talk. For a girl who once gave off the impression that she needed to be constantly entertained, Cordelia could be surprising introspective; yet another facet of her to love and be intrigued by.

Angel’s favourite was when he was able to lure her away from the trendy night-clubs to somewhere just a little smokier and a whole lot slower. There he could hold her in his arms while they danced. Crowds would fade to just the two of them and when he looked into her eyes he could see trust spreading its wings again. Instinct told him that was when he made his biggest inroads in convincing Cordelia he loved her.

Then she opened the door and all of that flew out of his head. Angel struggled not to gape. He’d seen her in every type of feminine apparel and appreciated all of them. Now, the top blew right off his head and he was proud to manage a croaked, “Hi.”

“Hey, Angel” she said with that big smile, “Come in.”

The skirt of the white dress flirted with her knees as she stepped back and gestured him to enter. He swallowed, accepted and tried not to be too obvious with his staring. The dress didn’t cling and the cleavage was almost virginal, but the cut was pure artistry as if conjured up deliberately to tease and tantalise. The waist was fitted to reveal the flare of her hips and Angel had to close his fists to resist the urge to shape them with his palms.

“You look…beautiful,” he said simply. The blaze of pleased satisfaction in hazel depths forestalled his groan of disgust at that lame compliment.

“Thanks” Cordelia said brightly, “You’re looking pretty hot yourself.” Slowly and with complete assurance, she let her eyes wander over his best pants and the new silk shirt she’d gifted him with.

The gleam of appreciation that replaced satisfaction in hazel eyes, hinted at why his words hadn’t really been necessary either. Hand on hips, Cordy gave a self-congratulatory nod, “I knew that colour would look good on you.”

The silk had been dyed to the darkest blue and was so rich it begged to be stroked. Rather than be so obvious, she stepped up and pretended to smooth his collar. When her fingers lingered, Angel didn’t mind in the least. This close her bottom lip plumped out just a little from the upper one and her scent had his eyelids dropping; turning heavy-lidded with desire.

Knowing it was too early in the evening. Angel stepped back to hide his body’s response, and picking up her hand from his shoulder, kissed it softly to distract her from that necessary distance. “Are you ready to go?” he asked.

Her reaction surprised him, revealing nerves that he hadn’t seen since they’d begun dating properly. Backing away, Cordelia tucked her hair behind her ears, went to speak and then puffed out a breath instead. About to ask what was wrong, she got in there first and spoke in a rush, “Would you mind if we stayed in tonight?”

Relieved it was only that, Angel cast a glance around. “Here?”

She knew his problem with staying in her apartment. Holding up a stalling hand, she said, “I’ve made a deal with Dennis. He’s going to stay in the kitchen with the TV pulled over into the corner. He’ll be entertained and we’ll have privacy, I promise.”

“Oh, okay.”Dennis on a TV leash? he thought, Why am I not reassured?Dennis still hadn’t got over Angel upsetting Cordelia, and liked to make that clear every now and then. Deeply sceptical, Angel shrugged out of his jacket and forced a smile, “Sure.”

Her relief was palpable, “Great,” she said, “Toss your coat over there and follow me”.

Coat tossed, she took his hand and led him around the corner. She’d been busy he saw. The couch and side table had been pushed far out of the way. In the very corner was a patio table, covered in spotless white linen and laid with two plates, silver cutlery that gleamed and a matching pair of crystal wine glasses.

In the middle of the snowy cloth, an array of dishes held light nibbles perfect for a vampire’s palate. Tiny slices of rich cheese, salmon cakes the size of a coin, savoury biscuits decorated with pâté and slices of tomato and more. Not much of each and none so filling he’d be left out while she ate.

“You’ve gone to a lot of trouble,” he said, feeling her anxious gaze watching for his reaction. Squeezing her hand in his, Angel met Cordelia’s gaze searchingly and wondered again what could be making her so nervous. “It looks great,” he reassured.

“Not so much trouble and I enjoyed it,” she grinned and pulled away, “I’ll pick the music while you pour the wine. The bottles are next to the candles on the window ledge.”

“I see them,” he said and walking over picked up the red. She’d learned his preferences and picked his favourite. He gave her a pleased smile that she missed, busy flipping through CD’s. The cork had already been removed to let the wine breathe leaving Angel to watch Cordelia fuss over the stereo while he poured.

“Do you want red or white?” he asked, dragging his admiring gaze off slim calves made endless by strappy silver sandals.

“White. If I spill red on this dress, I’ll cry.” As she spoke, music flooded the room. Moody and unobtrusive it was the perfect choice to provide atmosphere and allow for conversation.

Looking at his own glass full of burgundy liquid, Angel was about to pour it back in favour of not risking that under any circumstances, when a hand covered the glass and stopped him, “I’m only kidding, Angel,” Cordelia said amused, “But I’ll still have the white.”

~

With the lights down low and the trio of candles providing a soft glow from the window, they talked. The conversation flowed lightly, desultory even between sips of wine and Cordelia coaxing him to eat a little. They talked about work, with Cordelia being Cordelia and providing lightening insights into client’s peccadillo’s whether they were demon or human. In between, she levelled teasing digs at him and watched through her lashes for his reaction, the quirk of her lips daring him to deny her.

Angel had long ago accepted he couldn’t deny her much and gave her the reaction she wanted. She laughed and he smiled or chuckled every now and then. Enthralled, Angel forgot about Dennis and simply drank her in. Sat opposite a human he was deeply in love with; with her overprotective ghost only a room away, Angel couldn’t remember ever being so relaxed and wound up at the same time. He wanted to sit here and listen to her for as long as he could, while at the same time he wanted to pull her up off the chair, lift her in his arms and carry her to bed and then kiss her all over.

That wasn’t the only thing confusing him. Underneath the banter and laughter, she was still nervous. The pulse in her neck fluttered, both cheeks were flushed and underneath soft and fragrant skin her blood raced a fraction too fast. Angel didn’t blame any of those reactions for his tension though. No, that honour went to the hint of spicy female arousal that hovered between them.

Certain that if he let his thoughts travel too far down that path, he’d do something dumb, Angel wrestled grimly with his libido and won. No hint of his struggle showed on his face.

Until Cordelia put down her glass and held out a hand. “Let’s dance,” she said.

~

It was the look on his face that nearly got Cordelia. The giggle rose up in bubbles of laughter that she only just managed to choke back. The music had changed to something less background-y and more dance-y. Still slow but with throaty lyrics that suggested languid heat, lapping water and slow sinuous moves entwined with a lover.

“C’mon, Angel” she cajoled and fluttered her fingers, “I want to dance. Dance with me.”

Back when they’d begun dating again Angel had surprised her. She’d been convinced nothing short of a stake to his heart would persuade him to dance, and if he ever did it would be painfully hysterical to watch. She’d been wrong, or at least she’d been wrong about the kind of dancing that thanks to him she was now hooked on. There were no techno beats for this vampire of hers. Slow dancing that brought up thoughts of bayous and rumpled sheets was more his style.

Strong cool fingers slid across her palm and then gently gripped. Meeting his gaze across the table, she saw the flicker of something a teensy bit uncivilised in those onyx depths and recognised repressed desire. He wasn’t the easiest guy to read, this vampire of hers, but she was getting there. The dim lighting created shadows that patterned his handsome face, creating valleys where the slopes of his cheeks dipped before meeting that stubborn jaw. Full yet masculine lips held an unconsciously sensual curve.

Needing more oxygen for some reason, Cordelia sucked in a breath. When they rose her heart fluttered and belly flip-flopped with a mixture of nerves, desire and anticipation.

Cordelia had planned this down to what she hoped was the last tiny detail. With everything pushed back, she’d created enough space for the two of them to dance. After more than a few nights spent doing this they came together in a perfect fit; without any fumbling or missed steps.

“Are you enjoying yourself?” she asked him, head tipped back so that her hair fell in a waterfall down her back, just touching his clasping hands at her waist.

Above her those sculpted lips curved while warm brown eyes gave Angel’s answer before he even spoke, “Very much,” he said in a deep velvet voice, “You?”

“Me too,” she sighed and brought her lips to within a whisper of his, “Thanks for agreeing to stay here.” She thought better of bringing up Dennis.

After brief teasing brush kiss later and Angel’s, “My pleasure,” rumbled next to her ear as her arms tightened around his neck and they began to move together.

The music swelled and throbbed around them. Mournful notes melted into blissful brushes of her against him and him against her. Sinking into a familiar blissful daze, Cordelia admitted she loved how big he was. This close the primal thrill of being sheltered against a powerful and undeniably aroused male body was exciting. More, knowing how sensitive Angel was, and that his self-control was being pushed to the limit only added to that excitement.

During low moments, Cordelia would tell herself falling in love with him was the dumbest thing she’d ever done. But she was also honest enough to admit it was too late. She already was in love with him and while his contrasts drove her nuts, they were also what kept her on her toes. Angel had some great qualities; such as being a gentleman most of the time, a hero who wanted nothing more than to save people, and he genuinely wanted to do the right thing.

But then there that other side to him. A side that was a little mean and unprincipled and Cordelia didn’t kid herself that it was all his demon’s fault. If something got in his way, he’d do whatever it took to move it, or go around it and those times when he ignored pesky morals were just added to his brood list. So, Angel was far from perfect. A fact which suited her fine. Who wanted perfection? Knowing he needed reining in every now and then was a plus and as far as Cordelia wasn’t concerned, she was the only woman for the job.

Angel must have sensed her distraction, jostling her to get her attention he asked, “What are you thinking?”

Caught out, Cordelia was sheepish, “You don’t want to know,” she said; then changed her mind, “It’s not important. Forget it.” Going on tiptoe she kissed him as a distraction and managed to distract them both in very short order.

“I love you,” she said, going still, “Do you love me?”

Angel went still, too. “Yes, I do.”

Licking dry lips, Cordelia turned her head to see his face. Swallowing hard, she made a leap of faith, “Make love to me, Angel.”

She half expected him to ask was she sure. He didn’t and she obviously wasn’t going to have to ask twice. Turning her again, Angel took her lips in a sweetly devouring kiss. Head swimming from the passion that rose unchecked between them, Cordelia was only dimly aware of the zipper of her dress being lowered.

It was the waft of cool air along her back brought her out of her daze. Reacting to the moment, Cordelia tried to pull back and cross her arms over her ribs. She’d known it would happen, but now she was stricken with the knowledge that this time he would see her scars. What if he was freaked and couldn’t hide it. She’d be devastated.

Angel wouldn’t let her hide herself. Strong hands lifted her up so high and so startlingly fast that Cordelia instinctively grabbed his head. Her gasp wasn’t anything to do with being startled though, and everything to do with cool lips kissing a trail along the vivid pink that travelled from breastbone to belly.

“You don’t ever have to be ashamed or hide them from me,” he said against her belly. Tears stung and then filmed her eyes. ogodogodogod. Don’t cry Angel lifted his head and gazed solemnly up at her, “Every warrior has scars,” he told her.

Marvelling that his arms weren’t trembling even the tiniest bit, her mouth wobbled into a smile, “Oh yeah, where are yours, smarty pants?”

“They were on the inside.”

Were? He’d said were…

“What do yo-“ lowered enough to be devoured with a kiss, Angel distracted her that easily and the next thing Cordelia knew was the cool slide of fresh sheets under her back.

Later, braced on his arms so he hung over, he demanded hoarsely, “Look at me,” and when she did, he said, “I love you.”

Cordelia’s breath hitched, “I love you, too.”

Satisfied, Angel began to move lazily, “Say it again.”

~

She was everything Angel could want; strong, brave and every bit as beautiful on the inside as on the outside, but she was also human, and having already had two orgasms her tissues would be just as sensitive. She needed slow and gentle and that was what she was going to get.

Lifting back up again, Cordelia tossed back the damp strands of hair that clung to damp and flushed cheeks. Then graced him with the most sensual smile he’d ever seen. Transfixed, Angel raised a hand and brushed aside a few errant strands, letting the tips of his fingers linger and trail down a warm cheek.

“You’re something else, y’know that?”

“Yeah, but I never get tired of hearing it.”

~

Afterwards, exhausted and practically numb, Cordelia sank into her pillow and cuddled closer to the manpire she loved. Accepting soft open-mouthed kisses, she was about to slid into blissful sleep when a stray thought creased her brow into a frown and she said, “The curtains…don’t wanna wake up to crispy vamp.”

“I’ll do them.”

His weight left the bed and then the swishing sound of the curtains along the track had her relaxing back into slumber again. When Angel came back, he turned and tucked her into his body, adjusting them so that he slid inside her again.

Her protest was halted by his voice in her ear, “I know. I’m not planning anything…just getting comfortable.”

Exhausted or not she had to ask, “Are you gonna be like that permanently now.”

His chuckle warned her, “Change the tense to the past,” Angel said, “At least as far back as us meeting up again.”


…THE END…


 

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