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Darkness and Daylight

Cordelia / Angel Fanfiction & Art by Lysa Whitmore

SEASON of SOLACE

BOOK TWO

121:     The Mansion, Crawford Street, Central Sunnydale

We’re dealing with an ancient clan of vampires,” Angel began, his tone serious, his mouth a straight grim line. The weight of this revelation kept his shoulders tense. “A group deep into the occult that will stop at nothing to gain the power they believe has been promised them.”

“Demon-worshipping vampires. How odd.” Giles found it strange indeed. “Your kind tends to be godless. Allegiances are generally made for the purposes of profit and prey rather than submission to a higher power.” 

Cordelia reminded him, “The creepy guy with the bone relic was a vampire.”

“That’s right,” Angel gave her credit for making the connection when it had not even occurred to him until now that there might be one.

“The blood ritual was performed by a vampire?” Wesley looked toward Giles with a look of growing fascination on his face. Excitedly, he ticked off a short list, “Demon worship, strange rituals, prophecy. Good Lord, Mr. Giles, could we be dealing with the Banished Ones?” 

Having quietly been wondering the same thing, Giles shook his head and looked at Wesley as if the idea was ridiculous. Stunned to have considered it himself, he said, “The Council never proved them anything more than a legend.”

Wesley stuttered a bit while voicing opposition. “The—the references are rare, but—”

“Their legend is as real as mine,” Angel ended their posturing.

Giles adjusted his glasses. “Angelus’ legacy is deeply rooted in historical documents, and Watcher’s Council records, eye-witness accounts. Most of what we think we know of the Banished Ones has been based upon conjecture rather than fact. We think they once existed, but there has been no evidence of such in the entirety of the Council’s history.”

Striding closer, Angel challenged him to respond, “Because the Council knows everything there is to know about vampires?” He was not in the mood to argue about it.

Holding up a finger to request a pause in the debate, Wesley skittered toward the study.

Neither Angel nor Giles questioned his departure. “The Council knows more than you might imagine. However, I concede that we do not know everything.”

Angel though the point moot. “Believe me when I tell you that I know who we’re dealing with.”

“You might also tell me that…that Xander is a direct descendant of Beowulf. Am I to believe that as well?”

Sitting at the card table, Xander looked over at Willow. “Who? A werewolf? Did he say I’m related to a werewolf?”

“Shhh!” Calming him down, Willow explained the literary reference.

“So I’m not Oz’ long lost cousin,” he grinned, relaxing again.

Angel and Giles were both annoyed at the interruption, but it gave the others a chance to chime in with their two cents on the matter.

“So what’s the big deal?” asked Buffy. “Banished or not, they’re still vampires.”

Cordelia had to agree. “And, hello, we have two vampire slayers to banish their butts for good.”

Lifting his hand to touch her cheek, Angel thought about the danger she was in, now even greater than he had first feared. His chest ached from the depth of emotions he felt when he looked at her. Demonic rage swelled within him at the thought that they planned to make her a sacrifice. A thread of that anger surfaced gruffly, “It’s not that simple, Cordy.”

“Why not?” Using Spike and Buffy as her examples, she pointed at each of them in turn. “See vampire. See slayer. Watch vampire run. Watch slayer stake vampire.”

“If only…,” Buffy sighed while tapping Mr. Pointy against her thigh.

Spike took offence at her elementary scenario. “Oy! We don’t always run. Some of us like to tussle a bit.”

“That’s why most of you end up clouds of dust,” snorted Faith. “Let me know when you’re up for a tussle. I’ll be happy to have you at the end of my stake.”

“That’s my line, luv,” Spike smirked back. Beside him, still holding him up, Drusilla’s smile suggested she knew it was all in fun. Until his gaze slid back over to Buffy who was standing next to them and he added, “Unless Blondie wants to give it a go first.”

With lightning speed, Buffy jabbed Spike in the ribs with an elbow. He growled in pain and doubled over which instantly caused Drusilla to vamp out and start hissing. Buffy held her trusty stake at the ready. “Try me,” she bated the two of them. “Go on. Just give me an excuse.”

Holding onto his bruised ribs, Spike glared angrily. “What is it with you Slayers and jabbing me in the bloody ribs?”

Angel stepped in to remind Buffy that Spike and Drusilla were not to be harmed. “I asked you to play nice. All of you. Now stand back and shut up. This is important.”

Gasping, Buffy’s mouth clamped closed, her eyes wide with shock at the tone Angel had taken with her. “He started it,” she tilted her head high and turned away.

A bit cowed, Spike gave a curt nod. “Just having a bit o’ fun, mate. While we can,” he added somewhat ominously. 

Drusilla calmly eyed Angel obediently remaining quiet as ordered. She led Spike a few steps back to a safe distance from both slayers, though Faith shifted to keep an eye on them.

“Those you call the Banished Ones belong to the House of Solaris,” Angel revealed to the group once the situation seemed settled. “Their betrayal secluded them from all contact with their own kind. It is forbidden to speak of them.”

“And yet we do,” quipped Xander nervously. After all, anything that made Giles freak out in that Giles-like way of his probably was not a good thing.

Before he got into details, Angel waited for Wesley to reach them. He carried a thin leather-bound volume. “How much do you know?”

“Very little,” admitted Giles, taking the lead. “I believe Wesley has returned with the only known reference in my collection. I recall reading of a division among the great vampire clans. However, there is nothing to indicate why the Banished Ones were, uh, banished. Only that they were believed to pose a threat to all vampires.”

Willow wondered, “Why not just stake them or leave them out for the sun to rise?”

“Evil little thing, aren’t you, Red?” 

“Who, me?” Gulping, Willow shook her head. “No.” She thought it was a legitimate question. “If they were some kind of threat...”

Giles concurred, “Willow is correct. If the master perceived such a threat to his clan, it would have been more prudent to rid himself of it permanently.”

Angel did not have all of the answers, either. He had had other priorities during his time at Darla’s side rather than learn about the past, though he vividly remembered all of the stories she shared.

Jumping back into the conversation upon his return, Wesley handed the book he had retrieved to Angel. “This is the Obscurantist Vampyr, which is a fairly accurate translation from ancient Sumerian scrollwork, compiled and bound by Franciscan friars.”

Angel skimmed over the reference material giving him a picture of just how little the Watcher’s Council knew about their enemy. Quoting passages, he read, “Evil battled evil causing a great division of the clans. The master of all vampires cast out the traitor to wander upon the earth, he and his progeny banished forever.”

Raising his head, Angel asked, “Is that it? Hardly a detailed account considering the House of Solaris has existed for more than a thousand years.”

“Now that name is familiar,” Giles admitted, “but there is nothing to connect them to the legend of the Banished Ones. The Solaris Clan originates in Galicia, I believe, a rare breed not usually found in vast numbers or traveling outside their home territory. Known to be protected by the local human population. The Council was never able to determine why.”

“Because the mountain village where they keep their home lair is populated by other demon-worshippers,” Angel thought that much should be obvious to the Watchers’ Council that seemed to make it their business to know everything.

Anger roiled inside him. He felt torn between protecting his own kind and reviling them. Angel reminded himself that he was on the watchers’ side. It was in Cordelia’s best interest to tell them everything he knew.

“Perhaps this line is important.” Standing next to Angel, though nervous about the close proximity to a vampire, Wesley pointed toward the open page. The entire book was written in Latin. He had been prepared to translate for Angel, but noted that he had no trouble with it. Not entirely surprising, he supposed, but mildly so all the same. “The last reference on the page provides a warning.”

Angel had not skimmed that far. His eyes shifted down the page. The words stirred a few rumors, things that were hinted at even in vampire legends, stories Darla used to tell him. Warnings. Her belief that he could protect her from anything.

Except himself.

Having taken too long to reveal the quote, Wesley told the others, “Beware the light-bringer.”

“Is that warning for us or them?” asked Willow peering at the book in Giles’ hands. Upside down, the words looked even more ominous. Gulp. “Maybe it’s telling us to use the sun against them. If we find their lair we could use mirrors to reflect the light.”

Spike muttered, “Red’s not only evil, she’s a freakin’ firebug.”

“Charred vampire,” Faith gave a thumbs-up to the idea. “Haven’t tried that one in a while. I’m in.”

Buffy agreed. “Sounds doable.”

“Except for the fact that we don’t know where to find their lair,” Xander pointed out the hole in their plans. “Is there a listing for crypt and cavern rentals?” Chuckling at the idea, he held his arms up to indicate their surroundings, adding, “Looks like Dead Boy already cornered the market on haunted mansions.” 

Angel wasn’t amused. The stare he sent Xander’s way shut the boy up instantly. This wasn’t the time for amusement. The enemy was dangerous and Cordelia’s life was at stake— and perhaps the lives of everyone in Sunnydale. With Nico and Isobel at the center of this, he had no doubt things were going to get much worse.

“What makes you so certain the House of Solaris is involved in this?” Wesley shifted from one foot to the other. “You mentioned a name—Nicolau.”

“Nicolau’s childe was the one responsible for Spike’s capture.” Angel told him before getting distracted by Cordelia’s wandering hand. The foyer light revealed bruises and scrapes on his skin that she had not noticed outside and she started looking for other wounds. “Cordy, I’m fine.”

She pressed on a still-damp spot at his side where her fingers came away red with blood. “You call this fine? Pfft. How would you like it if I went around saying I was fine?”

“I suppose I’d believe you.”

Cordelia rolled her eyes, but kept on with her rudimentary examination despite the fact that Giles and Wesley were trying to figure out a way to interrupt and get back to the conversation.

It did not help Angel’s cause when he winced as she poked one of his bruised ribs. “Cor, stop, what are you doing now?”

“Obvious much? I’m taking off your shirt,” Cordelia started unbuttoning. “You’re hurt and I can’t tell how bad it is. Don’t worry, it’s not like I’m in it for the cheap thrills.”

Faith’s dimpled grin appeared. “I am. Don’t stop on my account.”

Sticking her tongue out, Cordelia told Faith as unbuttoned the last button, “Faith, I wouldn’t want you to get side tracked. You’re supposed to be watching Spike.”

“Cordy, this can wait,” Angel stilled her hands. The last thing he needed right now was the distraction of her soft, warm hands sliding across his skin.

With a sigh, she muttered, “Okay, but this isn’t over.”

Angel got lost in her eyes for a moment. He wished he could will everyone else away. Unfortunately, having Cordelia’s hands on him was too much of a distraction. “Later.” The word hung between them with an unspoken promise of more.

“I-I think I’ll handle getting Spike and Dru settled,” Cordelia decided as she backed away. “Come upstairs when you’re done with the pow-wow.”

“Not going anywhere yet, luv,” Spike refused to budge. “I got a right to hear this just as much as anyone else. How else am I gonna know who to kill?”

Cordelia rolled her eyes. “Fine.”

Perturbed, Giles inquired, “May we continue now?”

“Sure,” Cordelia shrugged her permission.

Giles pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. “Go ahead, Angel.”

“Nicolau Cibran,” he explained to them, “is a favored childe of Solaris. Every move he makes is calculated toward achieving his master’s goals. Nico thrives on power.”

“Vamp politics?” Envisioning their big bad with ‘Vote for Me’ signs posted around town for the next election instead of ones for Mayor Wilkins, Cordelia doubted that tree plantings, mall openings and kissing babies were high on any evil guy’s list.

“Territorial power,” Wesley corrected, finding the study of vampire history and their social dynamics fascinating. “Vampires equate power to the possession of lands for hunting prey. The more powerful a clan is perceived to be the greater control they possess over selection of prime hunting grounds.”

Giles nodded throughout, adding, “Individual vampires can travel outside traditional territories to find prey, but they face the risk of poaching on another clan’s claim. Exceptions are made for vampires with more impressive pedigrees who supersede the rights of lesser clans.”

“We go wherever the bloody hell we want,” Spike told them with a growl, “and the locals can either join in the fun or go fuck themselves. We pick our prey whenever we want, and wherever it takes our fancy.”

“Not impressed,” Cordelia gave him a hard state. She was not about to mince words even though her boyfriend was a vampire. She reminded Spike, “You won’t be eating anybody while you’re staying here.

Spike grumbled, “Killjoy.”

Ignoring him, Cordelia thought she figured out Nicolau’s power play. “So, basically, Nic and his buddies plan to turn Sunnydale into their own personal bistro.”

Shaking his head, Angel told her there was something else going on. “No one clan rules Sunnydale. This is the slayers’ territory.”

“Beg to differ,” Spike gruffed and then quickly closed his mouth again.

Though he did not like talking about the subject, Angel knew it had to be done. “Nico being here in Sunnydale has a far more sinister purpose. Back in the earliest days of the clans, Solaris used to be part of the House of Aurelius until the master grew tired of his dealings with demons. He wanted power and made sacrifices to a demon in order to gain it.”

“Perhaps the same demon god of the prophecy?” Giles concluded that the timing was suspect.

Angel nodded, “Nico’s childe confirmed it. The demon promised them something so powerful, so tempting, that Solaris broke away from the House of Aurelius settling for exile in order to attain it.”

Eagerly asking, “What was it?” Wes’ eyes glimmered with interest.

“I don’t know. Isobel didn’t elaborate except to say that the benefits pass on to all of their kinsman.”

“Ah,” Giles caught on. “The old blood ties between the two houses. The Aurelius and Solaris clans are essentially one bloodline.”

While Angel started to provide more details, Cordelia nudged him. “Who’s Isobel?”

“Nicolau’s mate. Didn’t I mention her?”

Cordelia folded her arms across her chest. “No, as a matter of fact, you didn’t.”

“Playing naughty games with my Spike. Tempting our Angel.” Drusilla let out a hiss, making cat claws out of her hands to scratch the air in Buffy’s direction. “Another blonde slut.”

Buffy immediately took offence at the verbal barb. “Hey.”

“Oh, really?” Cordelia’s gaze swept back to Angel who looked like he was suffering from stomach cramps. Instead of demanding to know the details of said temptation, she let out a soft huff. “I take it Isobel is responsible for the two of you looking like chopped liver. Never underestimate the female of the species—especially when it comes to finding stuff out.”

Angel was not entirely certain whether Cordy was jealous or just teasing him about it.  Clearing his throat, he explained, “Nicolau obviously trusts Isobel enough to— ”

“Do what?”

There was that eyebrow again, quirking upward in that I’m-curious-but-you-better-give-me-the-kind-of-answer-I-want-to-hear way. “Run errands. A little kidnapping here. A little torture there.”

“A little seduction on the side,” Spike added causing Cordelia to spin around to look at him.

Snorting, Cordelia looked at Spike’s sad state. “Yeah, I can see she really did a good job of that. Got a little sidetracked with the torture?”

“Still got a lot to learn about what vampires like, pet?”

Torture was sexy? That did not sound right. “What do y—?” Cordelia was interested to know more, but not with Buffy and Xander listening in. “Shut up, Spike.”

Looking her straight in the eye, Spike warned, “Watch out for Isobel, toots. Got the hots for Angelus, she does, and plans to sink her hooks deep.”

“Cor, I’m sure Angel dusted her.” Faith turned expectantly. “Right?”

Angel rubbed at the building pressure at his neck while wishing that he had kept his mouth shut about Isobel. Before he could answer, Spike butted in again. “No, the big poof sent her packing with a message for her sire.”

While Giles and Wesley were formulating questions about Angel’s strategy, Buffy was focused on a more important issue. “Was she pretty?”

Though Cordelia figured it was not Buffy’s business, the question was still legit. “Was she?”

Almost instantly, Angel’s, “No!” emerged as an adamant bark. “I didn’t really notice,” he added with a guilty expression that said otherwise.

Cordelia raised a brow. “So which was it? Either you didn’t notice or she looked like a pug-faced troll.”

When Angel did not immediately answer, feeling like anything he said would get him in hot water, Spike chimed in. “Hot little blonde. Curves in all the right places.”

“Shut up, Spike.” Angel gave him a look that said he was not helping.

“Don’t worry, pet,” Spike winked his good eye at Cordelia. “Next time I see that bitch I’m gonna rip her head off. Won’t be so pretty then.”

Gross, but Cordelia could not find fault with the plan. “Next time Angel won’t be going alone.” She asked Angel, “Did you dust anybody? Sheesh.”

“The minions.”

“Blondie wanted him to sign up. Offered him a nice deal, promised him power and a few perks that included her. Thought he was Angelus. Isobel was too busy creaming in her knickers to notice the soul,” Spike revealed.

Giles focused on the first part. “Isobel wanted Angelus to join them?” 

Still talking to Cordelia, Spike told her, “Back in the day, Angelus would’ve taken her up on her offer. Don’t worry pet. He said no. ‘Course it wasn’t that long ago that he was into feisty blondes.”

A second later Spike hit the floor after Buffy’s fist connected squarely with his jaw. “That’s the last time you say anything about me and Angel.” She wanted to forget about the relationship and did not need some annoying, loud vampire mouthing off at her every chance he got.

Buffy’s petite form towered above him as Spike struggled into a seated position. She glared down as if daring him to get up and fight. This time he did not find it much of a turn-on. Scowling, Spike gave a low grumble, “Try that again when I’m ready to take what you’re dishing out.”

Rubbing at his sore jaw, he looked at Dru who crouched down next to him. He half expected her to go after Buffy for punching him. Instead, she grabbed his right ear into a tight pinch and dragged him to his feet. “Remember that, naughty boy. Leave the nasty slayer alone.”

Tired of dealing with Spike’s runaway mouth, Angel instructed Faith to take the two vampires up to the vacant room on the third floor next to her own. “That way you can keep an eye on them.”

Unenthusiastic over the idea of babysitting them, Faith muttered, “Great.”

“Hope you’re not a light sleeper, luv,” Spike smirked as she helped Drusilla walk him up the stairs. “We’ll try to keep the noise down.”

As planned, Cordelia headed up behind them telling the vampires where they could find clean linen. “I’ll get some stuff for you to take care of those wounds.”

Drusilla paused, “My Spike needs blood to heal, someone young and vigorous.”

“Sorry,” Cordelia reminded her that was a no-no. “You’ll be on Angel’s special diet while you’re here.”

Looking back toward the foyer, she called out, “Xander, get some fresh blood from the fridge and bring it up.”

“Me?” Xander looked around as if he expected to find another Xander Harris in the room.

Angel reminded him, “You said you were in charge of the food.”

Gulping, he grabbed Willow’s wrist and whimpered.

“Are they going to drink that stuff?” asked Willow prying Xander’s fingers from her arm. “Piggy isn’t their usual diet.”

“It’s a problem,” Angel admitted. Giles and Wesley were still against having them in the house. Both voiced their concerns again, but Angel had made up his mind to let them stay. “Normally, I wouldn’t trust them, certainly not Spike. This way I know where they are and what they’re doing.”

Giles didn’t like it one bit. “This is your house, but I’m holding you responsible should anything happen.”

“Fair enough.” There were no guarantees. Vigilance was necessary. Though Drusilla seemed to be playing nice at the moment, she could turn on them quite easily. Once Spike’s injuries healed, his influence over Dru might prove problematic.

Buffy remained in the foyer with Angel and the watchers. Impatient, she wanted to get on with this, come up with a plan, and execute it. She wanted this over with and wanted out of this house. “What next?”

“We finish securing this place against an attack,” Angel glanced around at obvious vulnerabilities that remained.

Wesley reminded him of the spell Willow cast. “Cordelia is the only one able to invite a vampire inside. As we are dealing with a cult of vampires, that should make the mansion secure from attack.”

“From Nico’s minions, perhaps,” conceded Angel, “but they won’t be alone in this.”

“You mentioned the Galician villagers were also demon-worshippers. They, too, are likely to be involved,” Giles agreed. “Who knows how far their influence has spread. And we have already seen they are not above hiring mercenaries to do their dirty work.”

Angel paced across the parquet floor. “We still don’t know a damn thing about the prophecy itself.”

“On the contrary,” Wesley disagreed. “Now that we know the Banished Ones are part of this, we can call for all available resources from the Council. To this point, all our research has been focused in another direction.”

“Now we have a point of reference,” Giles agreed. “With the Galician involvement, I may be able to call in a few favors from nearby resources. Someone local might be able to determine which demon is being worshipped. If a connection is made with the glyphs on the stone obelisk, perhaps then we can determine a way to prevent this prophecy from coming to its fruition.”

Buffy was getting antsy watching Angel pace across the floor. Tapping her stake in a set rhythm against her thigh, she asked, “What can I do?”

Just then, Xander and Willow happened to be making their way toward the stairs from the kitchen. Seeing them, Wesley had an idea. Having already used Willow’s spell casting skills, he felt certain she would be capable of the level of magic required for another bit of witchery.

“Willow!” He called out to her so unexpectedly that she shrieked nearly spilling the plastic container of blood she carried.

Wavering on her feet, Willow stared at him as she recovered from the shock. “Don’t dooooooo that.”

“Sorry,” Wes apologized. He took the blood from Willow, handed it to over to Xander who already held one container. Telling him, “Do go on. I have an important task for Willow.”

Reluctantly, Xander went on with his own job of bringing cold, congealing pig blood to the vampires upstairs. He knew Angel heated his blood. Or, he’d seen Cordelia do that for him. No way was he microwaving this stuff and spicing it up with cinnamon like that.

“What’s the scoop?” Willow asked Wes as they walked back to join the others. “More spell stuff?”

After confirming her guesswork, Wesley asked, “Have you ever cast a location spell?”

“No.”

“With Angel’s help, I believe that you can help us find the Banished Ones.”

Location spells required some method of identification. The one casting the spell was required to possess personal knowledge of the individual being located, a personal object belonging to the one sought, or a photograph. Since Willow had none of these to go by, Angel agreed to create a detailed drawing of Isobel.

Buffy wanted to know, “How does this give me something to do?” She looked to Giles for an answer.

“If Willow’s spell succeeds, you can try a little reconnaissance. With any luck, we can bring this conflict to them.”

“There’s one other name you need to know,” Angel told the watchers. He had almost forgotten hearing it. Back at the warehouse while Spike was being tortured by Isobel and he was up in the rafters, Angel caught a bit of the conversation. Just enough to hear her say the name, “Kalesh.”

Giles and Wesley exchanged looks again in that contemplative way. Admitting, “The name is vaguely familiar,” Giles waited for his younger colleague to say something.

“I, too, have heard the name before.”

“They know nothing,” Buffy told Angel. “That look means they’ll have to research and get back to you tomorrow.” 

Angel knew better than to say anything.

“Can we get on with that find-the-vampires spell?” Buffy sighed. “I’m tired of being cooped up.”

Willow whispered, “You just got back from patrolling.”

A little whine sounded from Buffy’s throat. Seeing her friend’s face contort into a big pout, Willow stammered as she came up with an excuse to get her away from Angel. Being in close proximity to the Cordy and Angel was not making this any easier on her friend.

“W-We’ll need stuff for the spell. Components,” Willow told the guys. “We’ll go get what we need while Angel draws the picture.”

Wesley provided a list of items they could obtain from the local Magic Shop. The shopkeeper was known to keep late hours. Wes wasn’t keen about letting two girls go it alone, but Buffy reminded him that she was a slayer. They headed out on their shopping mission and the two watchers settled in for a long night of research.

Thinking about Isobel with the level of detail required to draw her for this spell was not pleasant. She might be beautiful on the outside, but there was nothing but ice inside. Just a cold-hearted ambition that matched her sire’s. Spike was right about one thing. In many ways, Isobel was a lot like Darla.

Angel climbed the stairs suddenly feeling every bruise and scrape marring his flesh. He pressed his hand against his injured side and held it there against the stickiness where blood clotted against his shirt. He allowed himself a grunt to acknowledge the pain, and then gritted his teeth against it as he made his way up to the bedroom.

When he saw that Cordelia wasn’t there, he glowered toward the third floor realizing she must still be helping Spike and Dru get settled. It was difficult enough to find a few minutes alone with her and now Spike was getting the attention that belonged to him. Realizing it was unreasonable to be disgruntled about it Angel did not bother to push aside the feeling. Spike might be family of sorts, but he was still a vampire.

Before he did anything else, Angel took the sketchpad he kept in his nightstand out to complete his assigned task. Isobel’s image was still fresh in his mind and he did not want to dwell on it any longer than necessary. Opening it to a blank page, he drew two pictures, one of Isobel looking serene in her human beauty and the other as a vampire.

Angel set the sketchpad down on the bed and tossed the pencil beside it when he was done. He looked toward the door again. Still no Cordelia. For a moment, he considered stomping upstairs to find out what was taking so long, but Faith was there to protect her and he did not relish the idea of coming across as a jealous maniac.

Taking off his jacket, Angel carefully draped it across a chair. He would have to check it for rips and holes later. The leather often protected him during fights, but it was not indestructible. Neither was he, apparently. He winced as he peeled his shirt away from his side where it adhered to a wound.

The smaller scrapes and scratches were already starting to close. Some of the deep bruises would take a little longer. This wound needed flushing out. He headed toward the shower turning the water on hot.

Angel emerged fifteen minutes later in a cloud of steam, a towel wrapped around his hips. His gaze immediately went to Cordelia who was lounging on the top of the bed with his sketchbook lying open in front of her.

“So this is the pug-faced troll.”

This was going to one of those conversations. Steeling himself for what was ahead, Angel walked over to the dresser to pick out some clothes. “I never said she looked like a troll.”

“Were you lovers back in the day?” 

Angel denied it immediately. “No. We never met.” He discarded the towel to step into his boxers noting the way Cordelia watched him through her lashes. Even now she remained a little shy about his body.

“But she wants you.”

Stalling, Angel tried to determine how to respond to that. Finally, he opted for the truth. Coming to stand by the edge of the bed, he said, “Isobel wants Angelus. Sounds like a crush of sorts. She does not know about the soul. Angelus’ reputation is pure evil. It’s the thrill of power, the love of torture, the bloodletting.”

Cordelia rolled her eyes. “Yeah, real turn-ons. Oh, and talking about yourself in the third person— don’t think I’m going to fall for that.”

When Angel was not certain what to say next, Cordelia pointed to a mug sitting on the nightstand. “I brought you some blood. Sorry, but that’s the last of it. With three vamps in the house, we’ll have to stock up tomorrow.”

“There’s plenty of night left,” Angel told her after taking a big gulp. “I could swing by Willy’s bar and pick up a fresh supply.”

“No way! You’re still bleeding, you big dork. I’m not letting you go out like that.” She pulled a First Aid Kit from the top of the nightstand and patted the bed.

Glancing down at his side, Angel noted that the wound was still seeping blood. It was almost closed. The blood he was drinking would help fortify him as well as speed the healing process. Angel gulped down the rest and climbed onto the bed taking care not to drip blood onto the covers.

“I thought you weren’t into the Florence Nightingale thing.”

Cordelia bent down to press her lips to a bruise on his shoulder. “For you, I’ll make an exception.”   

122: The Master Bedroom, Crawford Street Mansion

Cordelia never dealt with the scrapes and bruises of her cheerleading squad. When an injury occurred, the school nurse was always around to handle it. Other than the inconvenience of waiting for them to be patched up, she never really thought about the pain. It was her job to make them work through it.

When it was your boyfriend who was injured, priorities were obviously different. In addition to the bruises on his jaw, chest, ribs and shoulder, there were several gross looking skin tears. One on his abdomen was almost as large as the palm of her hand. It was superficial compared to the long ugly gash down his right side. The little rip across his swollen cheekbone looked like someone with a ring on his fist had given him a good wallop.

Gasping at the number of injuries, Cordelia felt the sting of tears in her eyes. She had to take care of this. “Does it hurt?” Angel opened his mouth to deny it and she snapped a warning, “And don’t tell me that it’s fine.”

Lying on his side to give her access to the long gash across his ribs, Angel had to rethink his response. “The pain isn’t bad. They’re just flesh wounds. I’ve had worse.”

Imagining something worse made her head hurt. She felt cold all of a sudden. Angel ran a hand up her arm and she shivered, but focused on his concerned face. Noticing her pallor, “You’re not going to faint on me, are you?”

“Cordelia Chase does not faint.”

Shaking off the woozy feeling, she took a look at the first wound. As Angel said, it was not deep. No bones poking out. No big gouges or pokes. Something sharp had scraped across his shirt cutting jaggedly into the skin by the looks of it.

“Not so bad, really. Patching you up will be a piece of cake,” she lied hoping the woozy feeling would go away. She poked at the edges of the wound to see where the worst of the bleeding was located. It was congealed and gooey, the deepest parts of the wound already filling in with red flesh. “What’s a little blood between friends?”

She peeked at Angel’s face to see if he was buying it. Poker face. No fair. From the way he continued to touch her arm in that soothing way, she had to guess he could see right through her. “The good news is that I don’t think you need stitches.”

Angel told her, “It will probably close on its own. My body can handle a lot.”

“Are you kidding? Vampire mojo or not, I’m not about to let my boyfriend fester and rot.” Cordelia rolled her eyes at him. “Pfft. Now shut up so I can give you some TLC.”

“Is that what this is?” Angel plumped the pillow beneath his head. She had her hands on him. First aid was the last thing on his mind.

The oozing wound looked clean, but there was the issue of that red stuff to deal with. Opening up the First Aid Kit, she removed some 4x4” gauze and held it in place hoping that a little pressure would do the trick. If it did not, Cordelia was not sure what to do next. Maybe she should have paid more attention to technique instead of the doctors during episodes of E.R.

While she was thinking hard about her strategy, Cordelia felt Angel’s hand settle on her hip. Just touching her at first, but then his hand moved and his fingers spread out to follow the curve of her ass. He squeezed lightly and smiled wickedly when she looked up at him again.

“How about you just kiss it better?” Angel’s hand swept up to her shoulder blades where a slight pressure brought her down to his level.

Just above his mouth, muttered, “Perv,” but gave him a quick smooch anyway.

Angel’s hand slipped up to her nape holding her there. Not bothering to respond verbally or deny it, he buried his face against her throat, nuzzled her skin and then kissed his way up toward her mouth.

Indulging him, Cordelia leaned in for another teasing kiss, but lingered longer than intended. His mouth was like an addictive drug. Their lips meshed, a flash of heat burning between them, lips soft, sensual, enticing not controlling. His tongue darted out to tease her lower lip, urging her to open to him.

She almost gave in. Nearly forgot what she was doing. With a moan of regret, she pushed him back. “Behave.” A smile lingered along with the buzz of arousal. “I’m trying to stop the blood flow— though it seems like it’s headed somewhere else.” 

“I noticed,” Angel groaned glancing down to his tented boxers.

Cordelia’s hands shook as she taped up the second wound with fresh gauze. The tape mangled when she tried to do it too fast. “This tape is evil.” Finally, she smoothed the last piece across his skin covering the edge of the gauze. Grinning in triumph, she saw that Angel resembled a gauze-covered patchwork quilt.

“Finished!”

With a little yank, Angel pulled her down into his arms. “No we’re not.” The pain of his injuries forgotten, he flipped her back toward the center of the bed.

His body fell against hers, heavy and male. Before he shifted away, she wrapped her arms and legs around him. “Closer,” she pleaded gruffly against his mouth before it consumed hers in a fiery kiss.   

123:     The Library, Sunnydale High School, Southeast Sunnydale

Normally the library was a sanctuary of sorts, but today it seemed like a prison. Why was it that other watchers were not burdened by secondary jobs? Today was not the day to call in sick. Principal Snyder was in a rotten mood. More so than usual. To be avoided at all costs.

Fighting off a yawn, Giles covered his mouth with the back of his hand. A headache had been hanging around all morning, the result of pulling a research all-nighter with his younger counterpart. Thinking back to his Ripper days when lack of sleep meant little to his energy levels, he realized might have to admit that he wasn’t as young as he used to be.

Most of his books were at the mansion. He had brought a few files with him. They hald split the work. Giles assigned Wesley the research on the obelisk and the Rites of Tavrok. A fresh eye on the subject might provide some new clue that he had missed. They were close to discovering something. He could feel it. But the truth remained just out of reach.

Giles took everything they had on European vampire clans and the Obscurantist Vampyr. There were more references here in the library that had been left behind, thinking them unconnected with the prophecy. He hoped to find out more details about the House of Solaris.

Before leaving for work this morning he made a call to London to request everything the Watcher’s Council possessed on the Banished Ones. He’d gotten the expected reaction and it took three requests before someone actually took him seriously. They started paying attention when he revealed that Angel was the source of information linking the two houses to a single bloodline. It would take several days to produce copies of the original documents. Most were so old they required special handling and storage.

The delay was expected and not bad timing. With Beverly Quinn’s funeral tomorrow, the day, if not the entire weekend, would be difficult for everyone. All signs pointed to the pause in demonic activity continuing for a while, but it was impossible to be certain just how long it would be.

Before the next sign appeared and another victim was selected as a future sacrifice, it was vital to discover who and what they were up against. Now they knew the who: Nicolau Cibran and his childe, Isobel. Likely, the entire House of Solaris. Potentially, their demon-worshipping thralls. It was impossible to know just how pervasive this cult had become.

On the countertop in front of him, Giles opened the Obscurantist Vampyr to the entry on the Banished Ones. He stared at the words until they blurred before him: ‘beware the light-bringer’. Removing his glasses, he pursed his lips, thoughtfully tapping the tip of the ear piece against his lower lip while considering the options.

The library doors pushed open unexpectedly. Giles looked up to see Buffy, Willow and Xander shuffling in from the hall. He glanced at his watch. This was class time. He was not expecting these three for another two hours.

Buffy dropped her notebooks onto the counter and whined, “Will this day ever be over? I can’t believe Troll Man tried to blame me for the missing stuff from the Chem Lab.”

Interpreting ‘Troll Man’ as Principal Snyder, Giles suddenly understood why the gruff man was especially acerbic this morning.

“Anything that goes wrong around here is automatically my fault,” Buffy’s shoulders slumped and her eyes widened in a woeful plea for sympathy. “What would I want with old Buster Burners anyway?”

He did not have the foggiest idea. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask whether there was something he needed to know when Willow slyly pointed out, “Didn’t you burn down the gym at your old school?”

With an offended gasp, Buffy said, “That was slayer stuff.”

Xander was quick to provide some cheer. “Look on the bright side, Buffster. We got out of that boring chemistry experiment and got to come to the library to ‘study’.”

Finally noticing that he was standing there, Willow waved perkily, “Hi Giles!”

Still pouting, Buffy grumbled a greeting and, for once, Xander just nodded a pleasant hello.

“How’s it going, Library Man?”

Correction. Xander had not undergone any personality changes in the past few hours. Certainly not since serving everyone his ‘breakfast extraordinaire’ consisting of Pop Tarts and YooHoo.

Tapping his watch face, he asked why they were there ahead of schedule. “Skipping classes or were you thrown out again?”

Buffy held her hands up and pleaded innocence. “I didn’t do it. 

“Willow?”

“Neither did I,” Willow harrumphed breathily.

Giles popped his glasses back into place. “No, no, I was merely asking why you’re gracing me with your presence at this time of day.” Not to mention causing him to wonder if Principal Snyder would be searching for them.

Explaining the situation, Willow told him that some Bunsen burners and chemicals were missing from the Chem Lab, so their teacher decided to cancel class and sent them all off to study. Chirpily, she added, “So here we are.”

“No doubt your classmates were devastated at the cancellation. Fortunately for us, we can use the time to coordinate our plans for this afternoon,” Giles told them. “We have a lot to accomplish before tomorrow.”

He let it go unspoken, but all three knew he meant the funeral. It was unnecessary to remind them to dress appropriately and be on their best behavior. Despite being young, they had been through more than most adults in a lifetime and living here in Sunnydale ensured that black was a standard part of everyone’s wardrobe.

Before his thoughts drifted to another funeral, one not so long ago, Giles turned back to the business at hand. “At the close of school today, I will drive to the butcher shop for a fresh supply of blood. You three can stop at Willy’s Bar.”

Three groans sounded, but no one refused the assignment.

“It is best that our guests be weaned from their regular diet slowly. An immediate switch,” he explained, “might cause cravings we’d rather avoid.”

Xander nodded vehemently. “Definitely gotta agree with that. My neck always seems to be on someone’s lunch menu.”

“Do you think Spike and Drusilla will do what Angel says?” asked Willow putting one of Giles’ own concerns to voice.

There was every reason to believe that they would not considering they were soulless vampires with a past history of defying authority. Though technically, Angel was sire of their line, he was not their acknowledged master. If Angelus had killed Darla to assume leadership of the House of Aurelius, there would be no question, but the curse changed things. Possessing a soul might make him more than just a vampire, but not in their eyes. To them, he was tainted, and their clan in a state of disarray.

Truthfully, Giles did not know what to expect. He could only hope that Angel retained some influence over their behavior.

Buffy seemed certain of her opinion on the matter. “They’ll behave.”

Taking the opposite stance Xander blurted, “Tell that to the crazy lady with the thrall.” The power of which was something Giles completely understood.

“Okay,” conceded Buffy with a shrug, “I’m not so sure about Dru, but Spike knows what’s at stake.”

“But they’re not like Angel. They’re soulless,” Willow argued against trusting Spike so easily.

Giles was about to agree when Buffy snapped, “Having a soul hasn’t stopped Angel from being a jerk. He’s dating Cordelia. Cordelia! Ugh!”

This was not the time or place for having that conversation again. Even Willow and Xander looked uncomfortable with the subject, a wary silence following the short outburst.

Fortunately, Buffy did not skip a beat and went on with her original opinion of why it was safe to trust Spike. “Don’t forget that Spike tipped me off about Angelus’ plans to suck the world into hell. Anyway, it sounds like he really wants to help out against the Psycho Seductress.”

“Speaking of Isobel,” Giles changed the subject, “have you gathered what you need for the Location Spell?”

Willow nodded. “Yup. Last night. Scary.” Her thin shoulders shuddered.

The girls had been gone for several hours. To be honest, he had been so focused on the research and discussing theories with Wesley that the time had gone by without notice. What should have been a short trip to the Magic Shop took a bit longer than planned.

“We got what we needed,” Buffy left it at that. “She’s good to go as soon as we get back to the mansion.”

“Excellent.”

Xander suddenly got serious, jumping a step ahead. “What happens after we find Isobel? Do we go into attack mode? Search and destroy? Or stick to an undercover op?”

It was too early to determine the appropriate cause of action. He explained, “That depends on the location of the lair. We might find them in a vulnerable position or one that is highly fortified.”

The trio settled into their usual spots at the front table. Giles turned his attention back to the line of text in the Obscurantist Vampyr: ‘beware the light-bringer’. Was it, as Willow had suggested, a warning to the vampires? Was the light-bringer someone, a slayer perhaps, who would bring about their destruction? Or was it intended for any who might oppose the sect of Solaris in their demon-worship? Could the light-bringer be the demon itself? Might it be something else entirely?

Glancing up, he saw his young protégée and her friends looking bored. Xander had his feet up on the table while he balanced himself on the two back chair legs, Willow was pushing a pencil back and forth across the table—without touching it, while Buffy propped her chin in her hand and strummed her fingers against her cheek.

“If you aren’t going to study your chemistry homework, perhaps you three could do something productive,” Giles did not bother to hide the sarcasm.

Neither did Xander. “Chemistry homework or vampire research. Notice we never get to choose between goofing off and taking it easy.”

“We could get our homework out of the way,” Willow suggested and reached for her schoolbooks.

Buffy and Xander gave her the stink eye, overruling her with a dual, “Research!”

Carrying over the stack of books, Giles explained again that their focus was to be the vampire clans. “I left Wesley to review the research on the obelisk.”

Buffy glanced over at Willow, who gave her a look of encouragement suggesting that the two of them had chatted about something. Bolstered, Buffy ventured a question. “Does Wes seem…kind of young to you?”

“Meaning compared to me.” Already feeling less than spry today, Giles suddenly felt like a decrepit old man with one foot in the grave.

A careless shrug followed from Buffy. “For a watcher.”

Willow apparently had some of the same concerns. “Yeah. Shouldn’t watchers be older, mature, know stuff?”

They really had not had an extended opportunity to discuss Wesley’s presence. Things had been moving rather quickly over the past few days. Giles was less concerned about his age and more about his actual experience in the field. From what little he had gathered on the subject, Wesley’s field training included staged scenarios rather than the real thing.

Even that was something they could work with as long as he and his slayer remained in Sunnydale. Tandem training could strengthen them as a team. Considering Faith’s rather strong personality, Wesley was going to need some support. Giles wondered if the Council had truly considered that match before sending him here.

Even Xander could predict the worst. “Faith is going to eat him alive.”

Giles did not want to present a negative picture despite their legitimate concerns, which matches his own. “Ah. Yes, Faith does have an appetite for controversy. Your concerns are noted. I assure you that while he may not be as old and decrepit as I, Wesley Wyndham-Pryce is a qualified watcher and comes highly recommended for our particular cause. As for Faith, he’ll have to learn quickly.”   

124: The Master Bedroom, Crawford Street Mansion

A soft glow lit the edges of the blackout curtains indicating daytime. Cordelia blinked and shut her eyes again, nuzzling her head back into the pillow. The heavy weight of Angel’s arm lay around her waist. It tightened, pulling her closer. He was so warm at this time of day, when they were skin to skin.

Cordelia smiled in her sleepy state, thinking about Angel’s hot body draped across hers and the delicious things he had done last night. There was not a millimeter of skin that had not been licked, sucked or stroked like he could not get enough of her taste.

Half the night was spent tracing patterns on her flesh, with his head buried between her thighs, talented tongue dancing pleasures upon her. The other half filled with an almost desperate need to stay connected, his hard shaft stroking deep inside her, and so slowly that it nearly drove her insane. She wondered how many times she could shatter into a million pieces and still crave his touch.

Sometime near dawn, they had showered together and then crawled back into bed. It was not a hardship at all not having to get up to go to school today. Cordelia knew she was stuck at the mansion for the duration. What better way to pass the time than to spend it in bed with her guy?

If only they could.

The shine suddenly started to wear off her morning after buzz. She remembered that Bev’s funeral was tomorrow. There was stuff she had to do today, including the phone call to Mrs. Finkle, her boss, who surprisingly had turned out to be one of Bev’s bingo buddies. She was kindly acting on Cordelia’s behalf to arrange a few last minute details for the funeral.

Then there was Isobel, whose face Angel had carefully sketched, now staring at her from the pad, which had been tossed on the floor during the night. Did her seduction scheme have anything to do with Angel being so voracious? Cordelia recognized the flash of jealousy for what it was, but Spike’s taunts about the beautiful vampiress being Angel’s type were still fresh in her mind.

Behind her, Angel started to stir, his morning erection pressing against her and his hand sweeping up to pull her closer. Nuzzling her hair aside, he kissed her throat. He stayed there with his mouth pressed to her skin, breathing her in, until Cordelia twisted around in his arms. Her leg hooked over his hip silently asking for what she wanted.

When his cock thrust deep inside her, Cordelia clutched his broad shoulders tight. “Harder,” she urged him when the rhythm slapped too lazily, too teasingly to wipe away all traces of what lay ahead. Pushing her sorrows and fears away, she took solace in the moment, feeling only pleasure and the thrill of possessing him.   

125:     The Study, Crawford Street Mansion, Central Sunnydale

Dressed in her blue tank top and casual black pants, Faith stepped into the study to tell Wesley that she was headed to the basement to work out. “Nice little set up Angel’s got down there.”

“Good, good. Go right ahead,” he muttered barely acknowledging her.

Miffed by the dismissal, Faith figured that Giles might have taken a break to spar with her, but she could see that her newbie watcher was bogged down in research. He looked kind of rough around the edges this morning, blue shirt crumpled, sleeves pushed up to his elbows, and his dorky little polkadot bow tie undone and hanging loose. The shadowy hint of beard stubble darkened his jaw. The man looked positively edible.

A crooked little smile tugged at her lips, cheeks dimpling devilishly. Suddenly, she was not in so much of a hurry to work out. At least, not down in the basement.

Moving a little closer, she checked him out from head to toe while Wesley remained oblivious to it. There were legal pads of notes, rubbings from the obelisk and book lain out in organized piles all around. She skirted around the research and finally reached the desk where he was studying a large map of Sunnydale.

Propping a hip on the edge of the desk, Faith leaned in close to see what he was up to. “Find anything?”

“Gah!”

Wesley jumped back, his arms wavering, colliding with a stack of books that turned topsy-turvy, and finally flopping over the arm of the couch with one leg in the air. It was the most spectacular act of klutziness Faith had ever seen.

Holy shit. This is my new watcher?

“Was that a seizure or are you just happy to see me?” Faith teased and held out a hand to help him back to his feet.

Wesley straightened up, squared his shoulders and cleared his throat. “I was merely testing your reaction time. There was plenty of opportunity for you to prevent that fall, which I staged, naturally.”

“Naturally,” Faith echoed while trying not to laugh.

As Wes scurried around to set his books back into their little pile, she started to head for the door deciding to go ahead with that workout. He was not catching her vibe at all.

“Faith, wait,” he held up a hand to stop her. “You’ve seen the obelisk. Been to that cemetery.”

What was he getting at? “Yeah.”

A funny gleam appeared in his eyes and Wes started gathering pads and paperwork. When his arms were full, he nodded toward the hall. “I think I’m on to something.”

“On something,” Faith muttered as she followed him toward the front door. “Where are you going? I thought we were on lockdown because of the vamps.”

Wesley paused and glanced toward the stairs. “Their status?”

“Sleeping. Most vampires don’t rise until sunset.” Though, she had to acknowledge that Angel kept strange hours for a vampire. Now it looked like Cordelia was also adjusting to his schedule. It was already early afternoon and there had not been a peep out of them.

“Plenty of time to run a little errand,” Wes headed for the door again. “I forgot for a moment that I need not deal with pure research. The obelisk itself is right here in Sunnydale. There is one rubbing that is not quite clear—a symbol that could provide a clue about the Rites of Tavrok.”

Faith was not opposed to the idea of a short jaunt across town, but it did screw with her plans. “So much for my workout.”

“Oh,” Wes glanced at her clothing, noticing for the first time what she was wearing. “I didn’t realize. Perhaps you can train with Buffy later.”

Having told him what her plans were when she first entered the study, Faith realized that Wes tended to focus deeply when he was thinking. “Whatever. Before we go, I had better check in upstairs. Let Cor know we’re heading out.”

With a nod, Wesley headed outside stating that he would meet her out front. Faith took the stairs two at a time. Reaching the second floor landing, she headed down the hall to Angel and Cordy’s room. A random sound alerted her that someone inside was awake. She grabbed the doorknob planning to pop her head inside to give them the news.

Before turning the knob, Faith heard something else. Squeaky springs. She leaned in close, pressing her ear to the door, unabashedly listening to her friends getting it on. From the sound of things, they were having fun.

Grinning, Faith released the doorknob and turned to go back downstairs. No need to bother Angel and Cordy right now. If Wesley did not take too long playing with his obelisk, they might even be back before they were finished. Feeling mildly horny, she wondered when she would find the opportunity to get laid again.

Wes was seated on a motorcycle at the bottom of the front steps. She knew he had purchased it yesterday, something that had surprised her. He seemed more like the moped type. There was a small storage compartment. He put his papers away and removed another helmet.

“All settled?”

“I didn’t bother them,” Faith took the helmet he handed her and swung onto the back of the bike. “They were getting busy.”

“With research? But I have the—,” Wes paused as her meaning sank in. Mortified, he said, “Dear God. Then I suppose we won’t be missed.” 

Dear God is right. What an adorable dweeb. Hopping up behind Wesley, she wrapped her arms around his waist. “Motorcycles are hot. All that power between your thighs.”  Wes’ spine stiffened as she leaned in close and propped her chin on his shoulder. “Kind of a turn on.”   

126: Back in the Master Bedroom...

Each time he took her bound them closer together. Cordelia’s passion and spirit were irresistible and he was too weak to resist taking every advantage to make her fall for him the way he had for her. The love she proclaimed made him happy in a way that proved the curse was broken, but there was something missing. Physical proof. The visible sign that she belonged to him.

Angel could not stop thinking about it last night. Even while they made love, especially then, because it stirred up every instinct he had to claim her. He held back. Kept his urges buried deep. Possessing a permanent soul did not seem to cancel out his demon aspects so much as further integrate them.

As if she sensed his unspoken need, her body responded, movements became frantic, pleading for something more. The alluring pulse of Cordelia’s blood pounded in his ear, the rhythm of her heart, gasping breaths, sounds of pleasure stifled against his shoulder as they moved together, every thrust channeling his feelings deep inside.   

127:     Trinity Baptish Church Ruins/Cemetery, Eastside, Sunnydale

Wesley had not missed the flirtation in Faith’s voice. However, this was not the time to address it. The council's file on her was quite thick and included all manner of activities including a defiance of authority figures, the death of her previous watcher, and tendency to push herself to the limits. He hoped her arrival in Sunnydale was a way of reaching out and seeking help. 


According to the information he had gleaned from Rupert Giles on the subject, Faith remained a wildcard. They were at disparate odds about Faith’s involvement with the town mayor. If the man was half as corrupt as they believed, the danger to her was significant. Her willingness to walk the line combined with her innate recklessness gave him cause for concern.


“Turn here,” Faith called out to him as they reached the turning at State Street and Jefferson Avenue. He had seen the far edge of the cemetery from the road, but its entrance was actually off Jefferson.

He parked the motorbike in the parking lot next to the church ruins. “Quite a lot of damage from the earthquake,” he observed.


“Cor and Angel were here when it happened.” Climbing off, she removed her helmet and shook out her dark hair. “They’re the ones who found the stone.”


“So I understand,” Wes nodded. Removing his own helmet, he took hers and put both of them down on the seat. He opened up the storage compartment taking out a legal pad covered in notes and a rolled up section from the rubbings Giles had done of the obelisk’s symbols.


As they headed toward the cemetery where the earthquake had opened up a trench, Wesley made an attempt to learn something about the relationships that his slayer had formed. “You have been very protective of Cordelia Chase.”


Faith looked like he had punched her, shock apparent at the unexpected question. “Not protective enough. Bev died on my watch. Cor got kidnapped.”


Cringing inwardly, he tried to soothe her ruffled feathers. “I meant to say that you seem to value her friendship.”


“What kind of fucked up friend am I?” she said sourly, kicking at a hunk of dried mud with her boot sending it hurtling across the pavement. The random violence calmed her down. In a steadier voice, “Cor says things for what they are. Cuts through the bullshit, if you get me. I like that.”


Wes nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll keep that in mind.”


They reached the trench and saw a gaping hole in the ground where the obelisk had once been, but had recently been removed. Faith crouched down to pick up the tattered end of a rope, her gaze following the heavy tracks of truck tires leading back toward the road.


“Looks like someone hauled it away.” Faith dropped the rope. “Think the church folks found it and wanted it gone?”


It took a moment for her words to filter through the silent curses going through his head. Wes needed that obelisk. People were not supposed to cart off ancient objects. He suspected that the church pastor had nothing to do with it. Whilst a man of God might not want a strange stone pillar in his cemetery, there was nothing on it that shouted demon-worship to the ordinary layman.


“No, I doubt this was related to the church. Perhaps the local archeological society or museum,” he suggested.


“You don’t really believe that.”


Wesley did not, but wanted to remain hopeful. “We can verify it with a few calls. It would be considered a significant find. If we’re lucky, I could still arrange access.”


“Well, fuck.”


Remembering that Faith preferred to cut to the bottom line, Wesley told her another more likely possibility. “This obelisk is important to the Rites of Tavrok, to the final fulfillment of the prophecy. The ceremony involving the sacrifice of these Pure Ones requires that stone.”


“So you think that banished guy, Nic, had his minions haul it off last night?”


Compared to the other theory, this one made more sense. “The appearance of the obelisk was one of the prophesied signs. We can only assume that Nicolau and the rest of this demon-worshipping sect are doing everything in their power to meet their goals. Chances are that the obelisk is safely hidden in preparation for the rites to be performed.”


They started to walk back to the parking lot. Faith pointed to the mud tracks on the pavement, refusing to give up. “Think we can follow those?”


Back on the motorbike, they turned south along Jefferson Avenue following the muddy trail until it vanished at the crossroads at Thousand Oaks Drive. “Damn.”


Having studied the map of Sunnydale, Wesley realized that the truck hauling the stone pillar could be headed anywhere in town. Since it did not take a northerly route out of the cemetery that ruled out the highway as their destination. Which meant that the obelisk remained in Sunnydale. Unfortunately, Thousand Oaks ran East to West across the entire town. Their destination might be anywhere.


“Does this screw everything up?” Faith’s tone suggested that she already knew the answer.   

128:     Late Afternoon, Crawford Street Mansion

Cordelia had never seen anyone so upset about the disappearance of a rock. Their new watcher guy was pacing and saying things that were supposedly English, but sounded more like gobbledygook. Frankly, she was getting tired of hearing about it.

No one was going to turn her into a sacrifice. End of story.

With the exception of Spike and Drusilla who were still in their room, everybody else had gathered in the study to prepare for Willow’s mojo. Cordy curled up in one of the chairs having kicked her shoes off. She was eating the scrambled eggs and toast that Angel had whipped up for her after they came downstairs.

“Mmm, these are so good,” she smiled up at him as he sat next to her on the arm of the chair. “Want some?”

Angel brushed at his pant leg. “Watch the crumbs.” He smiled, continuing to watch her eat and dividing his attention to listen in on the watchers’ conversation.

Sitting in front of the fireplace, Buffy looked somewhat disgusted at the sight of her shoveling the eggs in. “What? I’m starving.”

“Guess that workout earlier really revved up your appetite.” Faith winked as she walked by. She stopped at Xander’s side where he was sprawled across the couch, sleeping with his mouth hanging open. Stretching, she whined a little jealously, “God, I could use a good workout.”

Cordelia swallowed the bite of toast she had been chewing. Looking back and forth at Faith and Xander, she realized what her friend was suggesting. She was surprised by the lack of possessive feelings about her former boyfriend. There was just a strong sense of weirdness that Faith might actually want him that way.

“Really?”

Faith answered with a frustrated little shrug. “Actually, I think I’ll head downstairs to the basement. It’s the only place I seem to get any action around here.”

“Wait up,” Buffy jumped to her feet. “This could go on forever and Will doesn’t need me for the spell.”

“Just so you know I’m in the mood to kick your ass.”

“What a coincidence. Me too.”

Though sparring with Buffy was not exactly the workout Faith had in mind, both of them would welcome the escape from all of this prophecy talk. Tuning back in to what Wesley was telling Giles, Cordelia saw they had not missed a beat. The two of them were still hunched over the documents scattered across the desk.

“Without the obelisk, it may be impossible to interpret the rest of the symbols,” Wes held up one of the rubbings for Giles’ examination. He pointed to one shaped like a bunch of wavy lines. “This one represents change. Perhaps a change from one state of being into something new.”

Giles had noted that symbol before, he said, but was not certain of the translation. It was a surprise to Cordelia that there was stuff the new guy could figure out that had stumped Giles. His words caught her attention.

Suddenly concerned, she asked, “Who’s changing into what?”

Both watchers turned toward her, staring at length as if searching for an answer that was out of reach. Finally, Giles gave Wes the nod to go ahead. The way he started to stutter made her nervous. It could not be a good sign.

“W-w-well actually…the problem is…we don’t really know.”

“Oh, well, that’s good.”

“It is?”

“Yeah,” Cordelia sighed. “I thought you were going to tell me that all of the potential sacrifices were supposed to change into something weird. Y’know, demony.”

Wesley and Giles did that creepy exchange of glances again where they looked like they were reading each other’s mind. Again, not a good sign. Oh, crap.

Sensing her concerns, Angel squeezed the bare thigh his hand had come to rest upon. More distracting than comforting, his voice seemed a little far away. “There must be a better interpretation.”

“Unfortunately, there are many interpretations,” Wesley scrolled the obelisk rubbings into a single roll and set it down upon the desk. “That last symbol is the key. It is too smudged to be certain. The human sacrifices play a key role in the Rites of Tavrok. A change occurs, but it is unclear whether the people themselves change or they effect some form of change upon something else.”

Cordelia looked up at Angel. “Huh?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Angel assured her that she was safe. His tone darkened as he looked up at Giles and Wesley. “You will figure this out. There are answers out there somewhere. Find them.”

Behind them, Willow cleared her throat. “I’m ready when you are.”

At the sound of her voice, Xander woke up. “What’d I miss?”

“You’re in charge of the stinky herbs,” Cordelia told him and then scooped another bite of scrambled egg into her mouth.

Willow’s spell took more time to set up than it did to cast. She needed the pictures of Isobel, which Angel provided, a map of Sunnydale, a charm that looked like a cheap bauble, and the requisite herbs. Wesley came up with the words for the spell from an old book he brought with him from England.

The spells in that book, he explained, could be performed by anyone knowledgeable enough to interpret and pronounce the words. However, the effectiveness when those with an innate talent for magic cast the spell was significantly increased.

“I’ve been practicing,” Willow assured them. “Some of the words are kind of tricky. I can do this, though. I think. Pretty sure.”

“Hello, show a little confidence.” Cordelia reminded her that she had managed to re-curse Angelus. “This should be a cinch.”

Willow looked more intimidated than inspired. “Everyone gather around the desk. I’ll start the chant, but I need everyone to look at the drawings and think about Isobel. This spell works by focusing our positive energy upon the person or object we seek.”

Think about Isobel? Ugh. Cordelia could not imagine much else that would cause her positive energy to turn negative. Just looking at the drawings made her want to rip them up into tiny shreds.

The chanting went on for a minute while Willow held her charm above the Sunnydale map, a crystal bauble dangling from a thin red string. Cordelia waved her bundle of stinky herbs in the air as instructed, keeping a hand over her nose to block out the scent. Suddenly, the crystal went from its gravity-dependant position to being pulled at an angle as if by an invisible force. The red string snapped, leaving the glowing crystal charm spinning atop one spot on the map.

Leaning in close, they all looked at the place the spell revealed they could find Isobel at that particular moment. “That can’t be right,” Cordelia saw that the crystal was pointing to City Hall.

“The mayor’s office? And in the middle of the day?” Willow gleeped in dismay. “But I did everything I was supposed to do.”

Wesley scratched his head. “I saw nothing wrong with your spell. Did anyone’s focus lapse? Your thoughts stray to something other than Isobel?”

Raising her hand, Cordelia admitted, “Maybe the vibiness of my positive vibes wasn’t as positive as it could be.”

Then, to her surprise, Giles also spoke up. “Perhaps the City Hall connection is my fault. Though I don’t believe I was thinking about it now, I was concerned about Fa—about some outstanding issues that have been left unattended recently.”

“Like what, unpaid parking tickets?” Xander shrugged. “Talk to my Uncle Ernie. He can tell you how to get out of them.”

“No, Xander. More important issues. However, none which concern this situation,” Giles told them.

Cordelia watched the crystal go dark and fall topsy-turvy to the map. “What does that mean?”

“It means that if Isobel was at the mayor’s office, she’s no longer there,” Willow said.

Angel swiped at the papers on the desk sweeping the map, drawings and crystal to the floor. An angry expletive followed. “Can’t any of you get a goddamn thing right?”

“I-I’m sorry, Angel.” Willow was shaking visibly. “I tried.”

“Hey!” Cordelia whacked Angel on the arm. “Stop being an asshole. She did her best. That might not be good enough, but she tried.”

He crowded her against the desk, still looking like he wanted to take someone’s head off. A nasty tone sounded in his voice. “Defending Willow now?”

Placing her hands on his chest, Cordelia moved them in a soothing motion hoping to calm him down. She saw the conflict in his eyes. The hints of gold that glinted amid the brown showing that the demon within him was wrestling for greater control. No matter that his soul was secure, she was learning that those demon aspects were still part of his nature as a vampire.

“We’ll find Isobel and her cronies,” she promised him. “Maybe we’ll have to settle for the old fashioned way instead of the mojo.”

Angel bent forward to rest his forehead against hers, his arms circling around her. “I want this over with. I’ll do whatever it takes to keep you safe.”   

129:     Trinity Baptist Church Cemetery, Eastside, Sunnydale

The funeral was as unorthodox as Beverly Quinn herself: a midday ceremony under the full California sun at the site of a recent earthquake. Attendees came by the dozens, most because they loved Bev. Churchgoers, bingo buddies, and a few silver-haired men who looked crushed by their loss.


Cordelia did not know half of them, but they all seemed to know her. The funeral went by in a blur. The pastor spoke. The parishioners prayed. Wearing in her best black dress, she kept her expression cool and her eyes hidden behind a pair of impenetrably dark sunglasses.


These people didn’t know how much she had come to love her grandmother in the short time she had known her. They were not going to see her cry. Not now. Not ever.


Numb, she never felt the tears falling.


“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” the words spun around in her head.


Draped in white lilies and orchids, the coffin slowly lowered into the ground. Cordelia watched it sink down taking a step forward when it descended beyond her immediate sight. Her grandmother was inside that coffin, and she was never going to see her again. It was not right, or fair. She felt robbed of something precious, in a way that was so far beyond the way she felt when the IRS took possession of her car, her family home, her life of luxury.


Faith and Xander flanked her on each side. He held her hand offering silent comfort and support at a time when his usual jokes were out of place. He did not bother complaining when she squeezed too tight.


Willow did not bother to hide her tears. She carried extra Kleenex in the pocket of her dress and snuck one to Wesley who was trying to make it look like the sun was in his eyes. He had never met Bev when she was alive, but he came to the funeral anyway, not only to support Faith’s friend, but because he knew his slayer carried a load of guilt over Beverly Quinn’s death.


Giles stood next to Willow, dry-eyed, but sad in his countenance. His arm was draped across her shoulder supportively. He was lost in thought wondering what kind of woman she was based on the one occasion he met her, her vivacity, the similarities to Cordelia, the responsibility he felt for her death because of Faith’s involvement and connection with the mayor.


Despite all of the support, the one person Cordelia wanted at her side was not able to be there. The daylight held Angel captive back at the mansion. They had planned it like this in order to keep vampires away knowing that some could linger in daytime shade and withstand indirect light. The earthquake had left the church in ruins. Its crumbling walls could not offer enough shade for any daring interloper.


Knowing that vampires were not the only potential threat to Cordelia, and that everyone would have their attention focused on the funeral rather than defense, Buffy volunteered to patrol the cemetery grounds just in case of a surprise attack. These vampires used a demon mercenary to track Cordelia down at the Quinn residence, so there was no telling what strategy they might try on their next attempt at kidnapping her for their sacrificial ceremony.


Fortunately, all was quiet. The service went smoothly. Buffy noticed nothing too out of place. The Sunnydale Gazette had a reporter and photographer hanging out waiting to snap shots of the funeral and its attendees. Beverly Quinn might have lived on the poor side of town, but she had a Chase family connection. Then, there was the whole crazy conflict with the mayor about the Bingo Parlor that had been making waves in senior citizen circles in town. It was enough for a story in the local paper.


One by one the people scooped up shovels full of dark earth. It hit the coffin lid and scattered, weighing down the flowers that had been so beautifully arranged on top. Cordelia watched them go by, shook their hands as they offered their condolences and responded without really hearing herself speak.


A firm hand took hers and a familiar voice snapped her out of the haze that had seeped inside her. “My dear Miss Chase,” Mayor Wilkins clasped his other hand over hers. “Your grandmother was a fine woman. Such a shame. Such a loss for our fair community.”


Cordelia tried to pull her hand out of his tight grasp, but the mayor held on until the news cameras finished snapping their photos. She had mixed feelings when it came to this man. He was Bev’s enemy, her opponent in the Bingo debate. Yet, when asked, he had gone out of his way to cut through the red tape so the burial could take place here next to her grandfather’s grave.


She supposed that she owed him something. “Thank you.” Maybe that would be enough.


He gave her a charming smile. Too charming. As if he believed he had her in his corner. Smarmy political man thought he was earning her vote now that Bev would not be in the race for the mayor’s office next fall.


Mayor Wilkins hung around, although his attention turned to Faith. He pulled her aside, whispering something into her ear. Cordelia would have tried to eavesdrop but she was too busy staring at the man in the mayor’s entourage who stepped up next.


First impressions suggested wealth and power, someone used to being in control. An inch or so taller than Angel, he was dressed in a hand-stitched black suit accented with silver threads. Ostentatious taste, but stylish even if he looked completely out of place. Curling black hair teased his forehead, being cropped shorter in the back to match his neatly trimmed beard. He was beautiful in a dark exotic kind of way.


Cordelia dragged her sunglasses down looking at the stranger without the barrier of the dark lenses. Her breath hitched when he also removed his sunglasses so that his eyes caught hers, intent, and looking so deeply it felt like a caress. It felt a little too personal, yet it was hard to look away. He was not going to offer a handshake and a mere nod of commiseration before moving on, she realized. He lingered moving closer into her space.


Wondering where on Bev’s list of church members, bingo buddies, activist pals, and very close friends and neighbors this man belonged, Cordelia felt her skin tingle as his hand curled around hers. Smooth skin warmed by the sun slid across her palm as his thumb brushed softly across the flesh between her thumb and forefinger. She wanted him to let go, but the only reaction that came to mind was ‘pardon my drool’ as the corners of his sensual lips curled higher. 


Momentarily, she seemed to lose the ability to form words, and simply gazed into those darkly lashed eyes like he was the only man on Earth. Swirling around in the back of her mind was the fact that she was in love with Angel and therefore should not be drooling over hot, rich, well-dressed strangers at her grandmother’s funeral. No doubt some code of conduct was being broken, but pfft!


“My condolences, Miss Chase,” he spoke formally. The unmistakably foreign accent was unknown to her. Not French or Italian. Something sexy, though, she mused with a little smile, just enjoying the way his mouth formed words.  “Your grandmother had many friends.”


Next to her, Xander challenged him, “Were you one of them?” his voice snapping her out of her study of the stranger’s olive skin and slashing cheek bones. Wait. Xander? It took a moment for Cordelia to realize that Xander had been standing by her side all along. He had asked something about Bev.


Answering by the simple inclination of his head and pursed his lips, told them he had not had the priviledge. “You might say she and I had one common interest.”


His gaze drifted across her skin like crawling spiders, no longer naturally seductive, but almost possessive causing Cordelia to cringe. She quipped, “Bingo?” and tried to take a step back.


Hot he might be, but this was not the time or place for flirtation. Who was this guy? She knew there were no European boy toys in her grandmother’s life, but his words bated her into keeping the conversation going instead of having Faith toss him out on his ass.


Mouth twisting in amusement, he answered, “No. I am but a guest of your mayor. We were conducting business today and he wished to be here to show his respects. I also offer mine.”


“City Hall is a busy place these days,” she said suddenly thinking that Willow’s spell had not gone wrong. Maybe he was a human minion of the Solarian vampires doing their bidding during the daytime hours, although he definitely did not seem like the minion type. “New people coming and going.”


So much for a sunny, midday funeral keeping the bad people away. Sunnydale was not exactly a vacation spot for visiting foreign dignitaries. The odds that he was connected with Nicolau Cibran and Isobel, or at least involved in the plot to sacrifice her to their demon god, seemed fairly good.


Cordelia glanced toward Faith, who was still standing with Mayor Wilkins, expecting her to have pulled a stake or dagger from a hidden leg strap beneath the skirt of her new black dress, but she was too busy staring at the mayor’s European guest. Maybe Faith was close enough to sense the creepy vibes that quickly detracted from his looks and helped Cordelia to fend off the effects of his charismatic charm, but if so, she made no move against him.


Instead, Faith seemed rapt with interest. Eye candy of the tasty variety he might be, but a little attention to her bodyguard duties seemed appropriate. Cordelia nudged Xander with her elbow. He glanced toward Faith, and saw what she did. The slayer looked pale, stunned, and confused. Maybe it had something to do with Mayor Wilkins hand gripping her upper arm as he whispered something in her ear.


Buffy had obviously overlooked the guy on her rounds, although how anyone could miss such a gorgeous man was a mystery. Maybe she had just dismissed him as being a part of the group from City Hall. There was no sight of her at the moment, which meant she was probably on the outskirts of the cemetery during her rounds.


Looking into his eyes made her feel completely at ease. Even though her mind swirled in suspicion that he was only there for her and not as the mayor’s elegantly polite foreign visitor, Cordelia felt no fear. Turned on was more like it. Every word he spoke felt like a little caress.


That was so wrong in so many ways, even if he was a hottie. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong man. Yet, she could not bring herself to make him leave by screeching, “Get out of here, you pretentious bastard!” Not because it was her grandmother’s funeral and the paparazzi hovered nearby, but the feeling that he would not want a scene held her back. 


Giving him what he wanted seemed important. Cordelia felt a buzz of excitement as he said, “I will be here for some time.”


Yeah, but why would she want that? This man was out of place. He did not belong here. A neon sign flashing above his head could not be more obvious. Yet, she wanted to jump for joy, even though she knew the feeling was insane. “Lucky me.” It should have come out as a sarcastic stab, but sounded breathy and flirtatious even to her ears.


Still standing next to her, and gaping throughout the whole exchange, Xander did not bother to tell her she was crazy. “I’m getting Giles.” He stalked past Faith giving her a pissed off stare. Muttering, “Stupid hormones.”


Gathered together in a small group, Giles, Wesley, and Willow idly listened in as several locals talked about their favorite Beverly Quinn memories, or gossiped about the Chase family, wondering about the whereabouts of Cordelia’s parents during this sad occasion. Most had no idea of the connection between the Quinn family and the Chases. A few wondered at the nature of her untimely death, and voiced concerns about the murderer who had apparently escaped police custody.


It was interesting to them to hear the reaction to the mayor’s public spin on demonic activity. Whatever deal he had with the editor of the Gazette kept a tight lid on the truth about the Hellmouth.


Left alone, albeit within Faith’s line of sight, Cordelia felt butterflies swirling around in her stomach. Schizophrenic butterflies at that. Part of her was thrilled to have this man’s full attention, but some other part told her it was wrong. So wrong. She had no business being interested in him. He might be hot, but this was creepy.


Some of the sparkle faded from his eyes. “Luck plays no part in your future, Miss Chase. Your fate is already decided.”


A jolt shot across her nerves at those words. The happy little buzz she had found in his presence vanished instantly. Mortified by her behavior, she demanded answers, “Who are you?”


Those sexy lips curled into a hint of a smile again. “Let that be my secret for today, Miss Chase. You will know soon enough, if indeed you do not already sense the truth.”


There were no other people within hearing distance. “I sense a load of crap when I hear it. Don’t play games with me. I assume you’re supposed to be some kind of threat.”


Amused by her directness, he indulged her with an answer. “On the contrary. You are a most precious commodity.”


This guy’s creep factor was getting creepier by the second. Cordelia did not like his tone as he added, “If I wished you harm, we would have no need for conversation.”


“So you’re not trying to talk me to death?” She crossed her arms, eyes smoldering with anger.


“That would be a waste. There are far more exciting methods to achieve that outcome if I were allowed to indulge myself.” Only her defiance prevented her from flinching as his fingers captured a strand of hair to slide down its silken length. “Alas, you must sacrifice all that you are so that my people will reap the rewards promised us.”


Cordelia enjoyed breaking the bad news. “Maybe you should just tell your boss not to waste his time. I’m no longer a virgin.” He was obviously in on the whole demon ritual plan. From the way he spoke, he was probably Nicolau Cibran’s chief human lackey. She figured she could take the direct approach to avoid becoming a sacrifice by telling him she no longer qualified.


Momentary confusion at her statement gave way to amusement. “With Angelus as your protector I am unsurprised, my beautiful Varstrae. Although I would welcome you both to my bed, I doubt he will accept the invitation. He is so possessive of his playthings.” 


“Don’t get your hopes up,” she quipped, finding it hard to ignore the disturbingly sexy images his words created.


His good humor continued as he confirmed one of Giles’ theories on the matter. “Your virginal state or lack thereof has nothing to do with your status as one of the Pure. I find it quaint that you would think we would require such a sacrifice.”


“Of your sacrifices?” The irony did not escape her notice.


“Precisely,” he nodded her due. Looking at her as though he was trying to determine the reason for his own interest, he commented, “You are quite insightful.”


Cordelia liked to think she had good instincts. Right now, hers were screaming at her to pay attention. Hot Minion Guy was not acting in a minion-like manner. Or, at least, what she imagined that to be, giving deference to his master every sentence or two, invoking Nicolau Cibran’s name like there was no one else on the planet.


No, he was Mister Superior Attitude instead. The extra machismo might be explained by being foreign. If he were not standing in the noonday sun, it would be an easy leap to guess that he was a vampire, not that he was just in cahoots with one.


It was a crazy thought because…hello, sunshine!


Faith had not tackled him to the ground, nor had Buffy appeared out of nowhere to stake him with Mr. Pointy, so it seemed that he was not setting off any Vampire Slayer senses. His weird vampire vibes had to be more like vampire wannabe vibes. Right? Cordelia was not entirely convinced, especially because he would not reveal his identity. She was torn between wanting to find out more, and screaming for backup. The latter was definitely her favorite option, but for some reason she could not seem to remember how to call for help.


“I see no visible marks.” Those dark eyes slid like silk across her skin, focusing on her neck and wrists. The wet tip of his tongue dashed briefly across the seam of his mouth, reminding her of Angel. Asking, “Where does he like to bite you?” as if doing so was a foregone conclusion.


“That is so none of your business, bucko.” It also seemed like a strange question for any man, even one that was a vampire’s minion.


The golden ring on his finger glinted in the sunlight as he pressed his manicured hand against his chest as a sign of his good intentions. “Forgive me. This is not the time to talk of such pleasure, but I look forward to the occasion when we may do more than talk.”


Quivering at the timbre of his voice as he leaned close again, Cordelia was not quite as disturbed by his words as she wanted to be. Not that she would ever want anyone other than Angel. It was just the way he made it sound as natural as breathing, a foregone conclusion. Although, he was confusing her by making it sound like he was going to be dealing with her and Angel directly rather than his master, Nicolau.


Reaching out, he lifted her hand with his fingertips, gave a little bow and briefly pressed his lips to her skin. Once again, Cordelia found it difficult to move away. There was just something about being within a certain proximity that did something to her head. If not for the sunglasses being in her hand, she would have reached up to touch him.


Seeing them, she swiftly slid them back over her eyes. “Enough with the kissing.”


“Your friend returns with reinforcements. I must go.”


Cordelia could see Giles and the others making their way around the gravesite to where they stood. So far, the man had done nothing to cause a scene, and she did not want to create one. Any other time she would be totally up for sending one of the slayers after him for a little information gathering torture session.


Not today. She just wanted him out of there. “Don’t let me stop you.”


Nicolau’s fingers traced her cheek just briefly enough that she had no time to pull away. He tucked his sunglasses back into place covering those mesmerizing black eyes. “Take solace in your lover, Cordelia. When Kalesh is through with you even he will not be able to hold you back from destiny’s reach.”


Long strides carried him across the green lawn toward the corner of the church parking lot where a shiny black BMW was parked. He was already closing the car door behind him when Giles put a hand on her shoulder, nearly giving her a heart attack. “Ack! Giles, you shouldn’t sneak up on a girl that way.”


“We have been standing here for the past twenty seconds trying to get your attention,” he revealed.


Xander stopped snapping his fingers in front of her face, and pulled his hand back to his pants pocket. “What was up with that dude? I didn’t like the way he looked at you.”


“That’s because he was—,” stopping mid-revelation Cordelia’s eyes went wide as her boss appeared right in front of them. “Oh! Hi, Mrs Finkle.”


Giles realized that Cordelia had been about to say something important and he did not want to have to wait to hear the news. He greeted the woman with great brevity, and then suggested the events of the day had been overtiring. “Perhaps it is time we get you home.”


It was too late to come to her rescue now. Shrugging his hand away, she huffed, “Don’t be rude, Giles. I have not even talked to Mrs. Finkle yet.”


“Let me offer my condolences, Cordelia.” Everyone knew Bev, even Mrs Fink. She was part of the whole Bingo Parlour plot against the mayor. If anyone was likely to take up her grandmother’s mantle and continue to fight for her cause, it was probably Mrs Fink. There were real tears in her eyes and just a tinge of anger as her glance slid toward the mayor as he passed by with Faith.


Cordelia had her eye on them, too. They paused near the closest headstone. The mayor tilted Faith’s jaw up a notch with the knuckle of his index finger. “Chin up, Faithy. Keep smiling.”


He made it sound like friendly advice to a young woman whose friend had just lost her grandmother, but there was a hidden message passing between them Cordelia could not interpret. The mayor had been talking to Faith even longer than she had been speaking his guest. She wondered what that was all about and if Faith had any plans to cough up the 411.


Buffy jogged up just as Mrs Finkle strolled away. “The grounds look secure. No signs of trouble.”


“Duh! Because trouble has already had its up close and personal conversation with me before driving away in his car,” Cordelia propped her hands on her hips and waited for an explanation.


Buffy glanced around. “Did I miss something?”


“Creepy guy,” said Xander being helpful. “I think he was hitting on Cordy.”


“Bad timing, but since when is that something new? Guys hit on her all of the time. Even when they’re not supposed to,” Buffy added with a huff getting in that one Angel-related stab as if she could not stop herself from saying it.


“Normally, I would adore gorgeous expensively dressed men with sexy foreign accents flirting with me,” Cordelia readily admitted, “but not this one— or you two, of course.”


Red tinged Wesley’s cheeks as he ventured into the conversation with a query. “What kind of accent?”


“Gali-whatsis, of course.”


“Galician? That man was Galician?” Wesley took a couple of awkward steps toward the parking lot as if he planned to run after him, or fall flat on his face.


Returning just in time, Faith caught him by the arm saving from a nasty fall. “Mayor Wilkins says he’s a foreign dignitary.” Her jaw tightened up afterward as if she wanted to say more, but had to force herself to hold back. 


“Here in Sunnydale?” Buffy was instantly suspicious— about ten minutes too late.


“Great observation skills, Slayers. Zero for two today.” Cordelia was pretty certain that Mr. Tall, Dark and Bearded could have tossed her over his strong shoulder and carried her off before either Buffy or Faith had even noticed. Irked, she let them all put forth their own theories before interjecting.


“Maybe he’s a minion!” Willow seemed excited by the idea.


Xander chuckled as he named the infamous minion of Dracula from the movies, “Was his name Renfield?”


“This is not a joking matter,” Wesley admonished him sending Xander’s happy grin into hiding. “If this foreigner was indeed a Solarian minion, he could easily have been here at his master’s bequest. He might have been here to kidnap her.”


Faith blew off the idea. “In broad daylight with the paparazzi here? That would make a few headlines.”


“Hmm,” Wesley thought about it. “Perhaps today was more about gathering information than taking action. If indeed he is connected to the clan or its cause.”


“Who, him? Nah!” Faith told him he was barking up the wrong tree. “He’s just a nutcase I met at City Hall last week. Delusions of grandeur. No one to worry about.”


Buffy seemed to think it was strange that Faith never mentioned it. “How can you be so sure?”


“The mayor said so.”


Stunned, Buffy had to repeat the words just to be certain that Faith had said them. “The mayor said so. And you believed it?”


Faith shrugged.


Buffy was not finished. “We’re supposed to be keeping tabs on the newbies in town. This guy didn’t seem suspicious? What were you thinking?”


“That he was pretty hot for a nutcase.”


Several groans sounded all around.


“Ahem,” Giles cleared his throat. “Whether or not this man has delusions of grandeur, it does not rule him out as a potential threat. Daring to confront Cordelia directly suggests that he is part of an agenda.”


Willow seemed fascinated by the whole subject, as if she was taking notes in class. “So, you really do think he’s enthralled by the vampires?”


“Let’s not talk about thralls,” Xander muttered dipping his head low and scraping one shoe back and forth across some loose dirt in the grass.


“It is relevant,” countered Wesley. “Very few vampires possess the ability to enthrall humans. Like any other skill, it must be practiced, usually over the course of centuries. Or, in Drusilla’s case, the vampire must possess....”


“The crazy factor?” Buffy cut in with a quip.


“Naturally occurring extrasensory perception,” finished Wesley becoming quite used to being interrupted.


Giles was not completely surprised by the notion that Nicolau Cibran might have that ability, or that the human minion acted out of free will. “The Solarians live in secret due to the support of the local people. The human populace also worships demons. It would seem they have sent a representative, whether or not he is enthralled to the clan.”


“Nice theory, but you’re wrong,” Cordelia said quietly having convinced herself that the impossible was true.


“Go on,” encouraged Wesley.


Cordelia merely shook her head turning her attention back to her grandmother’s grave, where the coffin lay half-covered in dirt, and three groundskeepers hovered at its edge waiting to finish the job. The pastor came over to say a few final words before leaving. Cordelia heard him, but the words did not really sink in.


“But—“


“Give her a minute,” snapped Faith when he would have pressed for more information.


It was all kind of surreal. The drive back to the mansion was the same, mostly a blur. Xander sitting by her side, holding her hand. Willow sitting next to him like always. Giles driving. Buffy riding shotgun. No one talking. Silence.


She got out of the car, anxious to get inside and fall into Angel’s arms, even though her body felt like it was moving in slow motion. Before she could climb the stone steps, the front door opened. Angel was standing there too close to the sliver of sunlight angling in from above, just as anxious to know how things went and whether she was okay. 


Wes’ motorcycle pulled up right behind them. “Stay out of my business,” yelled Faith as she yanked the helmet off her head and dropped it to the ground. They had argued the entire way from the cemetery. She looked around at everyone staring in her direction, “Shit,” then darted up the steps shoving past Angel to get inside making a beeline for the basement.


“On the contrary,” Wesley followed right behind her, walking swiftly, his back as stiff as a board, “as your watcher, every decision you make is my business.”


This time, Angel moved out of the way. When Cordelia finally reached him, he pulled her aside to let the others file past. “What’s going on?”


Cordelia sucked in a deep breath, held it for a moment, letting it out as a heavy sigh. “A whole lot of trouble.”


“Some minion dude was flirting with Cordy,” Xander told him as he walked by.


“What?”


Buffy told him, “No worries. No kidnapping to thwart this time. Just a lot of talking from what I hear.”


Tension twitched in his jaw as Angel clenched his teeth in reminder that he should ask for details before biting her head off. Buffy was supposed to keep Cordy safe.  “You let one of Nicolau’s minions get within talking distance?”


Willow patted his arm reassuringly. He flashed her an annoyed look that made her back away with her hands raised. “Sorry,” she whispered and high-tailed it behind Buffy.


“I was patrolling the grounds,” Buffy told him. “Ask your girlfriend for the scoop because she has all of the juicy details and has been holding out so she can tell you first.”


Angel glanced down at Cordelia who had one hand on his chest as he held her close, and the other soothingly rubbing his back. She tilted her face to his and waited until he gave her a quick kiss, smiling at him after he did so. That was just a nice little pick-me-up after a long, crazy day, and she so deserved it.


Plus, it gave her a little thrill when she realized that for the first time, Buffy Summers verbally acknowledged that Angel was now her boyfriend. Maybe it was a good sign that the day could only get better from here on out. Fingers crossed.


“We should probably all be together,” Cordelia said while threading her fingers through his. “Giles and Wes really need to hear this because I really can’t explain how it is even possible.”


Willow whispered to her, “What about Spike and Dru?”


Without hesitation, Cordelia shook her head. “Let them sleep. Angel will have to figure out how to tell them.”


Walking beside them Willow’s brow creased with her frown. “That sounds ominous,” she gulped.


“Pretty much.”


Cordelia paused at the basement doorway where Xander waited for Willow to catch up. Tapping Angel on the arm, she remembered that she wanted to show them something. “Oh, I need to grab a pen and some paper. I don’t need your sketch pad. Just a scrap.”


Angel apparently had no intention of leaving her side until he heard more of what was going on. He signaled Xander to head to the study to get what she asked for.


While on his way, Xander complained loudly, “Why am I always fetching and carrying around here?”


No one answered him. They were too busy following Cordelia down to the basement where Faith was doing terminal damage to a punching bag despite the fact that she was still dressed for the funeral. This was worse than she thought. Her crazy theory would have to wait a minute.


Faith had been acting weird ever since her little sidebar with Mayor Wilkins. Something was going on with her and it gave Cordelia the wiggins. The slayer was not the only one down there. She realized that Giles had gone straight down, following the slayer and his younger counterpart. He was huddled in a corner with Wesley having a very quiet, and seemingly serious conversation. It stopped the moment they spotted her.


“I hate it when people do that,” Cordelia complained. “Are you talking about me or just keeping secrets in general? No, don’t bother answering. Out of my way. I need to talk to Faith.”


The rhythmic beat of fist against leather stopped as Faith turned around looking pissed off, defiant, and somewhat sweaty. This was not exactly the homecoming Cordelia had planned for today. A relaxing bubble bath and sympathetic snuggling were not on the horizon at the moment.


“Go ahead, Cor, but they should hear this. I am their business, after all, so they say. Did I mention that I fucking hate being played?”


Giles lifted his glasses and rubbed his eyes before responding. “There is no need for that tone, Faith. Let me explain.”


“Explain?” Cordelia huffed. The story they had been spinning never seemed legit. “Then tell me what Faith is doing ‘volunteering’ at City Hall. As far as I know, there’s no future for slayers in politics.”


Carefully choosing his words, Giles pointed out, “You have friends at school. Surely you can’t begrudge Faith other interests.”


“But the mayor’s a snake,” Cordelia argued vehemently, her hair flying wildly around her shoulders as she gestured, hands in the air, “a slimy, two-faced used car salesman. Bev knew what he was like, and I trust her instincts.”


Wes drolly commented, “Yours are certainly spot on.” He turned away, crossing his arms in front of him when Giles gave him a stern stare.


Giles asked her, “Are you just concerned about Faith’s choice of friends, or was there something else?”


“The mayor seems to have a lot of new friends. Kind of coincidental after Willow’s spell showed Isobel was at City Hall yesterday.”


Standing with Buffy at the top of the stairs, Willow squeaked triumphantly, “Hah! It knew it worked.”


Buffy took the steps one by one. “Did you really meet him last week?”


“I said so, didn’t I?” Faith dropped her gaze to her reddened knuckles.


“Who the hell are we talking about?” Angel demanded. He had heard the bit about the suspicious stranger, but now it was someone Faith knew from City Hall.


Ignoring Angel’s question, Cordelia pointed a finger at Faith, accusing her, “You’re lying. I can’t believe you would try to keep this a secret.”


Faith suddenly paled. “You know.”


The others gaped in silence, except for Xander who murmured, “She knows what? What does she know?”


“Your new friend is no minion, Faith. He’s a vampire— Nicolau Cibran.”


Although a jumble of denials sounded in the wake of her eye-opener, Cordelia pressed on. She was looking up at Angel now, whose expression was stormy, yet confused. He was the only silent one in the bunch beside Faith who was suddenly as tight-lipped as a clam.


“That is impossible,” Wesley cautioned her not to get wild with her theorizing. "You were both standing in broad daylight."


Ignoring the nay-sayers, Cordelia asked Angel, “You remember what Nicolau looks like, right?” She received a brief nod before describing him in great detail, not forgetting to mention his charisma. “He even kissed my hand.”


Lifting it, Angel scented her skin mentally prepared to differentiate its subtle fragrances. When he looked into her eyes again, his were filled with rage, having instantly detected the truth. He growled out, “Vampire.”


Angel released his hold on her wrist, curled his hand into a fist, and punched the wooden post holding up the banister. The stairs shook hard enough to cause its three occupants to scream. “How is this possible? He did this to piss me off,” he shouted over the noise.


Wesley and Giles called out for him to calm down, but his anger was suddenly turned on them. “You want me to calm down when you promise me that Cordy will be safe, and yet you let him have a conversation with her, let him touch her?”


“Cordelia appeared to be in no immediate danger,” Giles assured him. “Might I remind you that she has come to no harm. The more important discov—”


Angel was not ready to talk about that, yet. “Nico is playing games with you all. Making you think he is charming and harmless. He’s a killer, and you stood by while he put his hands on Cordelia.” 


"Lips, too," she reminded him of the hand kissing. 


Turning around, Angel moved toward Faith with a sudden burst of speed. He wrapped his hand around her throat and pushed her back against the brick wall, raising her up so that her feet barely touched the ground. He moved in close to pin her down forestalling any attempt at escape.


There were shouts in the background, demands to stop, words of caution, but there was nothing going to prevent Angel from getting the information he wanted. “Faith, I want the truth and I want it right now. The mayor’s dirty hands aren’t a secret in this town.”


Faith could say nothing as his hands squeezed a little tighter, fear jarring her from the numb place she had taken herself during the last hour. Angel pressed into her, his hard body an immovable wall. “Cordy’s right about your ‘volunteer’ work being a load of crap. What’s that all about, Faith? Tell me, do you still slay vampires, or is something else going on with Nicolau that we should know about?”


Trying to pry his hands away, gasping for air, Faith tried to speak.


Cordelia hit Angel on the shoulder, “Hey!” making him loosen his hold just enough to let her answer.


“What? No, I swear. Ask Giles.”


“She’s telling the truth,” Giles did not wait to be asked. He held out his hands in front of him. “The only orders Faith has been following have been mine.”


Buffy gasped, stunned by the revelation. “What orders?”


“The mayor isn’t what he seems. Faith has been feeding him false information and gathering intel on his illegal activities. Something big is coming up, but we haven’t been able to pin anything down yet.”


“Faith is a double agent?” Xander ooohed at the idea. “Cool.”


Slowly, Angel lowered her back to the ground. Faith started coughing the moment he released her, catching her knees with both hands as she doubled over. Standing, she looked him in the eye, “Don’t ever do that again,” and punched him squarely in the jaw.


Angel’s head jerked sideways with the impact, but he took the punch without further retaliation realizing that maybe he deserved it.


“I never actually laid eyes on Nicolau before today.”


“Why lie about it?” Cordelia was confused.


Explaining that Mayor Wilkins asked her to smooth things over between Cordelia and his guest, Faith told them she had no choice other than to do what she was told. “He knows things. There is something going on with him that has nothing to do with the prophecy, and he is just as much in the dark about what’s coming as we are.”


“Then why feed him information?”


“To keep tabs on him. He has a hand in almost every scheme going on in this town. He covers up more stuff every day than you can imagine. I’m not even sure that Wilkins is human.”


Wesley still was not comfortable with the subterfuge. Undercover operations were not part of the Slayer Handbook. They had argued about it on the way back to the mansion from the cemetery. “Faith, a slayer should never be forced to lie to protect a vampire. I am sorry that you were pressed to do so.”


“S’okay, it’s not exactly the worst thing I have been asked to do,” Faith said cryptically without divulging more.


Cordelia sort of understood that Faith was working to undermine the mayor’s dastardly plans, whatever those might be. She was less clear about the slayer’s first impression of the mayor’s well-dressed guest. “Did you know right away that Nicolau was a vampire?”


“I knew that he was with Mayor Wilkins, that the sun was shining, and that I felt like wrestling him to the ground.” Faith shrugged and flashed her trademark dimpled smile. “Vampire or not, he’s smoking hot. I thought I was just getting horny.”


Understanding how the other slayer might get distracted, Buffy admitted, “When I first met Angel, I had no idea he was a vampire, but I've gotten the hang of picking up on it most of the time.”


“Kind of a kick in the gut,” Faith nodded understanding. “Wilkins is schmoozing him for some reason. I don’t know what he’s planning.”


Angel did not care what their reason were, but this business with the mayor allowed Cordelia to be put in harms way. “Sounds like you’d better find out what it is.”


“Don’t give me that shit, Angel,” Faith wasn’t about to let him bark orders at her. It was more than enough to get it from Giles and the mayor. “I did what I had to do. Cordelia is back safe and sound.”


“That wasn’t a villager, or a thrall performing at his master’s bidding,” Angel ground out. “It was Nicolau returning the message I sent with Isobel.”


Cordelia knew the message had been a warning.


Cupping her cheek, Angel softly caressed it with the pad of his thumb. “Nico is making this personal because I threatened the same.”


“Angel, he never threatened me. Actually, he invited us over for lots of hot sex,” she added cheekily. “Before I meet my fate as a sacrificial lamb, that is.”


“I’m going to kill him.”


“Oh, I can totally live with that, and I’d like to, actually. Live, I mean.”


Wrapping her up in his arms, Angel held on tightly with Cordelia squeezing him back just as hard. She wanted to be alone with him right now, but there was one important detail to be discussed that could not wait until later.


“Anyone want to tell me how it is possible for a vampire to walk around in the sunlight?”


Xander’s snarky suggestion of ‘Sunblock SPF 10,000’ drew a few snickers.


Willow asked, “Could it be magic?” That seemed to make a lot of sense.


Even Angel conceded that it was possible. Strong magic. It would have to be almost as powerful as a curse and as difficult to procure. Otherwise, every vampire on the street would be looking for a spell.


“Do you still want this, Cordy?” asked Xander handing her the pen and paper.


“Oh, I almost forgot about it.” She sketched something out as the others looked on. It was rough. Drawing was not her forte. “I saw something when I was talking to Nicolau.”


Cordelia handed the sketch to Giles. “With my eye for expensive jewelry, I couldn’t help but notice his ring.” It was mostly gold, but inlaid with onyx creating a unique design, one that looked more like a symbol.


Giles turned pale as he looked at it. “Are you certain?”


Before Wesley could take it, Angel snagged it out of Giles’ hand. The sketch was very rough, but not what he expected. Every vampire clan had its own markings, a crest that identified its territories and properties to other clans. Still, considering the nature of the Solarian vampires, it was not entirely surprising. 


“This is a demon brand. It symbolizes Nicolau’s allegiance to his demon god.”


“No,” Giles responded stiffly, “I fear it represents something far worse.”   

130:     The Mansion, Crawford Street, Central Sunnydale

Was she supposed to cheer over the fact that Giles had another theory? The sketch Cordelia had made of the insignia ring might be important, but it was still not a way to free her from sacrificial lamb duty. She was more concerned with how Nicolau was able to show up at Bev’s midday funeral. If there was one certain way to kill vampires other than a stake through the heart, it was direct sunlight. This was a whole new level of weirdness. 

Wishing Giles would just get on with his big reveal instead of making with the cryptic, she tapped her foot impatiently. He did something better by announcing his decision to take the conversation up to the study. Perfect. It wasn’t that she was so eager to know what he had to say. She was certain the Cliff Notes version would do, and that could wait until she took care of a more immediate problem.

“Follow me.” Motioning them up the stairs, Giles explained that he wanted to confirm his line of thinking by comparing the sketch to one of his watcher texts.

Wesley squawked impatiently, “What precisely is your thinking?”

Stalling at the bottom of the steps, Cordelia was not interested in Giles’ answer as the two watchers crossed the foyer heading down the main hall. The Scoobies filed up one by one discussing a few theories of their own.

“Maybe the ring protects Nicolau from the sun,” suggested Willow as she headed for the basement door.

Xander preferred his super-sunblock idea. “Five bucks says it’s just an insignia to the Secret Society of Demon-Worshipping Bloodsuckers.”

“You have five bucks?” asked Buffy just before turning the corner out of sight.

Whirling around to face Angel and Faith, who were directly behind her, Cordelia held up a hand to stop their progress. “Not so fast.”

“Cordy, we need to get up there,” Angel moved up another step forcing her to shift over to block his path. He motioned to the basement door, urging her to follow the others. “I think Giles has finally put some of this together.”

Propping her hands on her hips, she let out a soft ‘pfft’ that silently asked if he really thought she was going to change her mind. Giles’ theory was important, but it was not her first concern. Between Faith’s double agent deal and the overly protective wacko Angel was turning into, they still had stuff to resolve—the kind that might result in her three-inch heel being shoved somewhere uncomfortable.

Faith just wanted to know the bottom line. “What’s up?”

“First of all,” Cordelia sounded pissed, “I don’t like being lied to. You’re spying on the mayor, pretending to be on his side. Fine. I get the undercover op thing. I just don’t like being blindsided by smarmy evil guys at my grandmother’s funeral, especially when one of them has plans to turn me into a human sacrifice.”

Turning around, Faith stalked back toward the center of the room, stopped to stare blindly at groove in the concrete floor, and then reversed back to the stairs. Cordy knew that Faith and apologies did not mix well, but she deserved a decent explanation.

“I wasn’t expecting the mayor to show up,” Faith admitted. “He hasn’t said boo to me since the night I was thrown in jail.”

“He’s the reason you got out,” Angel finally understood.

Faith nodded. “I’m his pet project. Wilkins has an agenda. I don’t know what it is yet, but it’s going to be big.”

“I suppose it’s tied in with the prophecy,” Cordelia guessed, “considering he’s playing host to Nicolau.”

Angel did not give a damn about the mayor’s illegal activities or his behind the scenes business with the local demon population. You could find someone like him in every town. But it looked like Mayor Wilkins was branching out. “Whatever business he’s got with Nico is bad news. We need to know what it is and how to stop him.”

“I’m on it,” Faith promised wanting desperately to make this right.

“How could you not know that man was a vampire?” Cordelia threw her arms up in frustration. “I thought you and Buffy had some built-in vampire detector.”

Shaking her head, Faith told her, “Not really. It’s just that some vamps are easier to spot than others. After a while you know what to look for and get a general sense of something being wrong.”

“I guess the sunshine might throw you off your game,” Cordelia conceded.

“It also makes him more dangerous.” Angel’s jaw clenched down as he considered the fact that Nicolau was not restricted to moving about in the shadows. “Contrary to popular belief, vampires have always been able to be awake during the day. There’s just not much point of going out if there’s no shade to protect us from the sun.”

Cordelia imagined Angel being able to go out during the day. Picnics, the beach and walks in the sun suddenly seemed doable. If any vampire deserved to enjoy the sun, it was Angel.

“This guy wore sunglasses, but took them off. There was no shade at all,” Cordelia told him. That got her wondering about Willow’s theory. Maybe that ring was magic. “So what’s the big secret? How’d he pull this off?”

“I don’t know.” Angel looked determined to find out. Reminding her, “Giles could be announcing that right now. We should go. That demon sigil is an important clue.”

Important, yes, but not enough to distract her from the other half of this little talk. Pressing a hand to his chest, Cordelia stopped him from moving past her. “Hold it, Sherlock.”

Angel was the picture of wronged innocence as he stared back. “What?” Completely clueless that he’d done anything wrong to end up in the doghouse, his forehead crinkled with his frown.

“Hello, you practically strangled Faith a few minutes ago. You’ve been barking orders at Xander, and generally making an ass of yourself.”

For a moment, Cordelia thought he was not going to respond except by standing there looking pissed off that she called him on it. “Faith is fine,” he said, glancing her way. The slayer shrugged as if it was no big deal. “Things are moving too damn slowly for my liking. We’re stuck here waiting for an attack instead of tracking these bastards down.”

“I’m all for it,” Faith preferred to go on the offensive.

Angel reached down to take Cordelia’s hand, covering it with both of his. “If I seem a little on edge lately, it’s only because you’re in danger. You’re my…girlfriend, Cordy. I’m not going to stand by while anyone puts you in harms way.”

Noticing the way he had hesitated over the word ‘girlfriend’, Angel hoped Cordelia did not hear the catch in his voice. The way he felt about her was making him crazy. Just the thought of Nicolau putting his hands on her, kissing her hand, made him want to rip his arm off and shove it down his throat.

There was no way for Nico to know that Angel was in love with Cordy, but he was far from stupid. One look at her and he could probably guess that she was far more than just the kind of pet some vampires liked to keep. There were no visible marks to suggest ownership, no sign of a claim, yet the other vampire would know they were lovers.

“Can you please try not to strangle my friends?”

Angel could not quite bring himself to feel guilty about it. Besides, Faith could handle herself. She had belted him in the jaw with a right cross and he could still feel it. “Let’s just call it even,” he suggested wryly and motioned for them to head upstairs.

His ears pricked at a sound from above. Another followed, loud enough for Cordelia to hear shouting. “It’s Wes.”

“We can’t be under attack,” Faith ruled that out only to contradict herself a moment later. “Can we?”

Taking the steps two by two, Angel raced toward the ongoing conflict. Raised voices melded into the noise from the far end of the hall. Arriving at the study, Cordelia and Faith behind him, he saw the others in a defensive posture surrounding the fireplace. Buffy held her stake at the ready. Giles wielded a poker. Xander physically blocked the path between the intruder and the only escape. Willow, for some strange reason, appeared to be racing to and fro with armfuls of legal pads, parchments and books.

Pinned prone to the floor beneath Drusilla’s heeled boot, Wesley flailed out of control like a butterfly in its final death throes. Arms reaching. Legs kicking. “No, no, please. You mustn’t do this.” Begging got him nowhere. “God have mercy! Someone stop her.”

Braced against the edge of the hearth and using her strength to keep Wesley pinned down, Drusilla stood with an armful of scrolls, holding a leather-bound book toward the fire. The struggling watcher was trying to protect a pile of legal pads containing his research notes. His plea brimmed with panic rather than pain as Drusilla fueled the brightly burning fire with books and papers.

“Drusilla,” Angel’s commanding voice boomed above the others.

Startled, her red lips formed a circle. “Oh. Come see the pretty fire, Angel. It dances. I like dancing.” Yellow and orange flames flickered high over charred bookbindings, dark black smoke rising up the chimney. The stench of burning parchment and ink filled the room.

“Put the book down.”

After a glance at the book in her hand, Drusilla defiantly sent it straight into the fire. A painful cry sounded from Wesley as he tried to save it, the flames licking the side of his hand scoring the flesh.

Plunging the poker into the fire, Giles dug the book out before the flames consumed it. Embers sparked across the stone hearth. He stomped them out. “Those are important documents, irreplaceable.” Anger left a tremor in his hand as Giles pointed the brass poker toward Drusilla. “Back away.”

Drusilla grabbed the end of the poker despite that it was still hot from the fire and flung it across the room narrowly missing Willow who yelped while ducking low. She vamped out at the pain, flesh and bone shifting, her fangs bared as she hissed at Giles who slowly reached for the small vial of holy water he had taken to carrying in his jacket pocket.

Before he could act, Buffy decided she was not going to let Drusilla harm anyone else. “That’s it.” Maneuvering into a better position, she had every intention of putting her stake through the vampire’s heart.

A strong arm yanked her back at the last moment. Angel spat out, “I’ll handle it. Stay put.” He pushed her none too gently toward the couch where Buffy collapsed into a sitting position.

Outraged that he would stop her, Buffy yelled back, “She’s dangerous. The next time I see fangs—”

“She’s a vampire,” Cordelia shrugged as she walked past Buffy. “Fangs go with the territory.”

“Cool it, B,” Faith put a hand on her shoulder to keep her seated when Buffy made a move to get up. “Angel’s got it covered.”

Drusilla shrunk back against the stone mantle, removing her foot from Wesley’s back and releasing him as she tried to escape Angel’s stern stare. Hugging the remaining scrolls tightly to her reed thin body, Drusilla’s morphed back into human form. “Why are you angry, my Angel? Don’t be angry.”

Cordelia followed behind Angel as he approached Dru planning to help Giles get Wes out of the way. The fact that he had burnt his hand seemed to be the last thing on his mind as he gathered up the legal pads he had been protecting. She held out a hand to him. “This way, hurry.”

Scuttling out of Angel’s way, Wesley reached back to grab one last pad before letting Cordelia pull him a safe distance away. Considering what Drusilla was like whenever Angel was around, she did not think there would be a fight. It was Wes she was not so sure about. If Dru managed to throw those scrolls into the fire, there was no telling how the new watcher would react.

“What’s going on Dru?” Just because he asked the question did not mean there was a reasonable explanation for her actions. The things she did often made no sense. It might turn out that she was burning the books simply because she liked to look at the fire.

Dru scooted as far back as she could get ignoring the rough stone scraping her skin. The top layer of her cream-colored dress, a thin veil of diaphanous material, clung to the stones closest to the burning embers that hissed and spit from the fire. “Don’t be angry,” her voice quaked like a naughty child expecting punishment from her father.

Displeasure, rage, the urge to channel that anger into a physical response ratcheted up inside him. He had dealt with feelings like this after he was first cursed, unwanted urges and thoughts, demonic instinct and desires influencing his every move. Always there, pressing him to act.

He had gotten adept at suppressing those urges. Ever since returning from Acathla’s hell, it was not as easy to distance himself from his emotions like before. The more he let himself feel, the more difficult it seemed to control the rest. Cordelia’s words were still fresh in his mind as was the memory of grabbing Faith by the throat.

Right now, he did not have time to think about it. Angel knew there was a good chance Dru did not know what the hell she was doing. He struggled to tamp down the urge to bare his fangs and threaten the truth out of her. The hint of a ridged brow smoothed out, though his eyes remained streaked with gold.

Holding out a hand to her, Angel felt the weight of several stares upon him. “You’re too close to the fire. Come to me. I’m not going to hurt you.”

Drusilla took the few steps separating them, a frightened sob escaping, and buried her head against his shoulder. “No,” she knew he would not harm her. Her reed-thin frame trembled against his. “No, but he will.”

“He who…Spike?” asked Cordelia even though that did not seem likely. He was still laid up in bed. “If he’s still being a big baby about drinking the pig blood, I can talk to him again.”

Angel doubted that was the cause of this little book burning session. “I don’t think she means Spike. He’d never intentionally harm her.” And that did not explain what Dru was up to by burning their research.

The scrolls scrunched between them as Dru squirmed closer. Angel tried to maneuver her out of his arms, but she was not budging. Something had frightened the hell out of her. Or someone, by the sound of it, and it did not take much of a guess to figure out whom.

Promising, “Nicolau can’t touch you here,” he quietly wondered whether a vampire immune to the power of the sun was encumbered by any restrictions. Would Willow’s disinvite spell keep him out? That meant the mansion defense plans were a whole lot less secure.

Giles cleared his throat to get Angel’s attention. “Might I take those?” indicating the scrolls.

That was fine with Angel, but getting Drusilla to release them without harming them was not that easy. She glanced toward the flames dancing in shades of red and yellow in the hearth. “I see them burning.”

“Yes, quite,” Wes clipped as he too stared into the fire taking a mental inventory of what was lost.

Drusilla laughed in a spine-chilling way that made their hair stand on end. “Dark secrets cast long shadows when they come into the light.”

Behind them, Cordelia’s brows arched at the insane little sound, a frisson shooting along her nerves. “Melodramatic, much? Next time tell us about your vision before you start burning things.”

Angel turned to face her bringing the still clinging vampiress around with him. “Those scrolls hold the secrets that will help us to stop Nicolau from fulfilling this prophecy.”

“What did you see, Dru?” asked Cordelia knowing that the vision Dru had shared with her contained disjointed flashes of a possible future. It seemed unlikely that anyone could make sense of such a thing. No wonder she was crazy.

Holding out one of the scrolls, Drusilla shared her thoughts in a whisper, “I see them burning.”

So she’d said before. That did not tell them anything new or useful. Cordelia took the rolled parchment. “We need this to find a way to stop the prophecy from happening. No more bonfires, ‘kay? Angel won’t let that creep hurt you.”

“The light brings truth and darkness.”

At her sire’s direction, Drusilla handed over the remaining scrolls to Cordy. Giles and Wes stood by to take them. The musty parchments looked pretty much the same to her, but when she handed over one thick scroll, Giles immediately carried it over to the desk for closer inspection. Relief and a twinge of hope suffused his words, “The prophecy wasn’t destroyed in the fire.”

That was nice, but Cordelia thought they already knew what the prophecy scroll had to say. “Does it matter? I thought you had that thing memorized by now.”

Actually, she was all for setting a torch to that particular parchment if doing so would make the whole thing go away.

“Our translation has been providing us with necessary clues,” Giles reminded her. “It may continue to prove useful as we get closer to the individual events leading up to the Rites of Tavrok. The original text may be important.”

“Particular nuances in the language,” added Wes before turning his attention to the reddened flesh on his left hand. A moment longer and he would have been seriously burned.

Cordelia suggested that she get the First Aid Kit from upstairs. Turning toward the door she saw, “Spike! What are you doing out of bed?” 

Looking a little less like he had been put through a meat grinder, Spike leaned against the doorframe for support. “Thought the bloody mansion was burning down around our ears. Then there was the screeching. Didn’t know we had any five year old girls running around the place.”

“That was Wes,” pointed out Xander when Spike’s accusing gaze drifted his way. “I don’t screech like a girl.”

“Debatable, but unimportant at the moment,” Angel said as he released Drusilla so she could go to Spike. Their silent greeting was a tactile one. A nuzzle of her cheek against his throat, their hands connecting, fingers threading together followed by Dru settling her cheek against Spike’s shoulder.

When Angel explained what had happened Spike did not offer any apologies on Dru’s behalf. Truthfully, Angel did not expect any. They had experienced the aftereffects of her visions for too many years to bother with that.

“Cordelia, please wait,” Wesley called out to her as she was squeezing by the pair hanging out in the doorway. “My hand can forgo treatment for another few minutes. I think you should be present to hear what Mr. Giles has to say about the ring.”

Letting out a soft huff, Cordelia turned around and walked over to join Faith standing by the couch. “So let’s hear it.”

“One moment,” Giles started sifting through the books Willow had managed to save. He wanted to cross-reference the symbol on the drawing with one in the symbology text.

Spike had no idea what they were on about. “What ring?”

Glowering over the reminder that an enemy vampire had actually touched Cordelia, Angel explained, “Nicolau was at the funeral—in broad daylight.”

“That’s ruddy impossible.” Spike’s jaw dropped open at the thought of possessing the ability to survive sunshine. “The ring protected him?”

Willow hopped up on the edge of the desk being careful not to sit on the parchment spread out across it. “That’s my theory.”

“I want one.”

Everyone stared at Spike.

“What?” he shrugged.

“A ring that protects vampires,” muttered Wesley suddenly taking Willow’s theory to heart, “makes them impervious to the sun, invulnerable.” The idea struck a familiar chord. “No, no, there has to be another explanation.”

Giles looked up from the book in his hands, the one he had saved from the fire. Its edges were charred, pages turned brown. He knew exactly where Wes was taking that particular line of thinking. “Yes, there must be another explanation. Wesley, please do restrict your musings to the realm of the possible.”

Bristling at the tone of disbelief, Wesley suddenly felt like defending the conclusion he had been prepared to disregard. “Until recently the stories of the Banished Ones were thought to be outside the ‘realm of the possible’.”

“You’re talking about the Gem of Amara,” realized Angel with a growing sense of dread. If Nicolau had somehow gotten his hands on the gemstone with its purported limitless power, there would be no stopping him.

Cordelia thought about the ring she had seen on Nicolau’s hand. It was gold inlaid with black onyx in an intricate design. Something had given the vampire the ability to go out in the sun. It might be a one-time thing like a spell or something permanent like a magic ring. “I wouldn’t call an onyx a gem—unless it wasn’t really an onyx. Maybe it was a black diamond. What kind of gems do these Amara people have?”

“Nobody knows,” Giles answered. “The Gem of Amara is the vampire equivalent of the Holy Grail. There was a great deal of interest in it back in the, oh, 10th century, as I recall. Questing vampires combed the earth. They found nothing and concluded that it never existed.”

Just as Wesley had reminded him of the origins of the Banished Ones, legends often had a basis in fact. Pursing his lips, Giles thought about it for a moment deciding to be open-minded on the subject. Discovering that the House of Solaris was comprised of the almost-mythic Banished Ones put a new perspective on things. They could take nothing for granted, nor ignore any avenue of possibility in their research.

“I apologize,” he gave Wes a nod. “We should not disregard any theory that might explain the situation. Assuming that we still have the necessary texts,” his glance slid Drusilla’s way, “you should look into it.”

Wes’ chin jutted up another notch. “Very well.”

“For all we know at this point there could be a connection between the gem and the Sect of Solaris.” Giles was less inclined to call it a true clan, as it was apparently a branch of the House of Aurelius.

Angel picked up the sketch Cordelia had made from the floor where someone had dropped it during the chaos. He stared at the sigil trying to remember if there was some other place he had seen it. Nothing. Standing by his original assessment, he reiterated, “This is a demon brand, and not anything recognized by the clans. The House of Solaris has no true vampiric crest of its own. So this sign of their allegiance to a demon god suffices.”

He tossed the paper down on the desk in disgust.

Most days Angel hated who and what he was, a vampire. Angelus had never honored the Master, never seen him as anything but a rival. Back then he had been more interested in indulging Darla’s whims, and his own, to take interest in the politics of their bloodline.

Vampires like Nicolau were anathema to the rest. Deep down inside him, Angel felt it too. Worshipping a demon was wrong from anyone’s perspective, but to a vampire, it was not only disgusting, but also a perversion of the practice of being answerable only to themselves.

“We have a match,” Giles looked up from the book again. He picked up the sketch comparing it to the ink drawing in the book. “Angel was correct in that it is a demon symbol. However, it belongs to a vastly powerful creature: Amolon.”

Though Cordelia figured this was Giles’ big announcement, she had to ask, “A mole on what? Color me underwhelmed. You’d think these Big Bads would have scarier names.”

Sighing deeply, he closed his eyes for a moment of reflection. Then Giles pronounced it again more slowly while enunciating each syllable. “AH-mo-LON.”

The name with its correct pronunciation meant nothing. “Um, really? Wow.” Cordelia tried to sound enthusiastic about the revelation.

“This is important, Cordelia,” defended Giles taking affront that she was not excited or relieved or—anything other than sarcastic about the discovery. “Now we know which demon we are up against and can tailor our defense more precisely.”

“Great. Go defense!”

Having been lost in thought from the moment Giles uttered the name of the demon, Wesley finally realized why it sounded familiar. He was the only person present other than Giles for whom the announcement meant anything.

“Gah! One of the Old Ones? That cannot be. Let me see.” Snatching the sketch out of Giles’ hand, he stared back and forth between it and the charred page of the book. “Oh, dear God. It does match. Perhaps it’s a fluke. Perhaps Cordelia got it wrong. Oh, dear. We…we should call the Watchers’ Council immediately. They should send back up.”

Trying to remain calm about the situation, Giles reminded him, “You are the back up.”

“Someone tell me why the new watcher is having a power-freak?” asked Xander as Wesley dashed over to his legal pads of notes and started flipping through them at a manic pace.

Since Wesley had mentioned that Amolon was considered to be one of the Old Ones, Angel started to understand the reason for his concerns. Though the prophecy itself suggested that they were not dealing with an insignificant threat, this put things on a whole other level.

“If Nicolau’s sect manages to fulfill their part of the prophecy,” Angel warned grimly, “Amolon will be free.” Fragments of memory flashed through his mind of Acathla’s hell dimension. “You’ve never seen a real demon here on Earth or know the power they possess.”

Xander gulped.

“We fight demons all the time,” Faith countered and jutted her thumb in Spike and Dru’s direction. “Vampires are just the tip of that butt-ugly end of the iceberg.”

A growl sounded behind her, but went ignored.

Returning to the desk with his research notes, Wesley said, “Vampires and the other creatures you’ve fought aren’t pure demon. If Amolon makes his way here, the Earth is doomed.”

A feeling of déjà-vu hit Giles like he had had this conversation about the Old Ones at a previous time. Faith hadn’t been there yet, just Buffy and her friends, a time when they were still naïve about the Slayer’s role at the Hellmouth. It took him a moment to recall just when the subject had come up—during the time of the Harvest.

“Long ago demons made the world their hell and they ruled the Earth for eons. Over time, they lost their hold on this reality and were forced into exile making the way for mortal animals, for man.”

An icky sense of dread was churning in Buffy’s stomach. “That sounds familiar.”

“I’ve mentioned it before.”

“Oh. My bad,” she cringed. “Guess I failed the pop quiz.”

Willow did not. “I remember that,” she chirped almost excitedly. “It’s the creation myth for vampires. The last demon leaving Earth fed off a human, mixed their blood. A human infected with a demon who fed off another and another.”

“Vamp central,” nodded Xander. He vaguely remembered the conversation back when he’d learned that Buffy was the Slayer and that vampires really existed. That seemed so long ago now.

Cordelia had not been privy to that conversation. This was all new to her. Every time they discovered something new about this prophecy, it seemed to get worse. “So you are actually saying this Mole Guy can actually back up the gloom and doom stuff.” 

First, a demon-worshipping vampire cult wanted to sacrifice her to their demon god. Now it seemed that the demon was not some puffed up hotshot with more charisma than power. He was the real deal.

“Amolon is gloom and doom.” Wesley told her. “No wonder Solaris and his sect were banished from the House of Aurelius. Most vampires accept the status quo as long as their feeding grounds are plentiful.”

Xander shuddered, his gaze straying to the doorway where Drusilla and Spike wore identical smirks. “Hey, enough with the feeding grounds talk.”

Ditto for Cordelia who was so ready for that bubble bath she had promised herself. She walked over to Angel who immediately sensed the fear beneath her outwardly calm face. He put his arm around her shoulder bringing her closer.

Angel brushed his lips against her forehead and whispering a promise. “It’ll be okay, baby. We’re going to stop this before it happens.”   

131: The Cafeteria, Sunnydale High School, Southeast Sunnydale

Lunchtime was a messy mix of teenagers, gossip, hunger and hormones, but this was the normal part of their world. The parts where headless corpses were found in the freezer and the lunch lady served up the mystery meal of the day were a couple of exceptions. Buffy, Xander, Willow and Oz sat together at one table trying to bring Oz up to speed on everything that had happened.

Looking upset that he had not been around to offer help, Oz told them, “The band is booked pretty solidly over the next few weeks. I don’t know how much I’ll be around for research. Willow, you should definitely call me if you guys ever need the van. Or a werewolf,” he added wryly.

“Thanks, Oz,” Willow squeezed his hand conveying her gratitude. “Maybe it’s better if you don’t get involved.”

Oz’ expression didn’t change as he calmly pointed out, “You’re involved.”

“Awww! That’s so sweet.”

Watching Willow hug her boyfriend and plant a mushy kiss on his cheek, Buffy felt a big void in her heart. She thought about the way Angel had comforted Cordelia after Giles’ big announcement and remembered the gentle strength of those arms. It just wasn’t fair that Angel should be so wrapped up about Cordelia Chase.

Every time she thought about the way she had forced them to patrol together, expecting they would drive each other insane, it made her a little crazy instead. Now Angel was acting differently and Buffy suspected his relationship with Cordy was to blame. Look at the way he had attacked Faith.

He was protective. Okay, so that was not a bad quality in a boyfriend. Still, there were times when Angel reminded her more of Angelus’ possessive, obsessive side. Heaven help anyone who threatened to sneeze in Cordelia’s direction because he acted like he might take off their head for it.

He was verbal. Chatty, much? That was so Cordelia’s influence. Angel had always been the strong silent type. Buffy was not used to him having opinions— unless he had them all along and she just was not listening.

He was totally in command. Bossy. Ordering everyone around like he was the one in charge. She should talk to Giles. It might be Angel’s mansion, but he invited Spike and Drusilla for cripes sake. No way was she ever going to trust those two. Imagine working with Spike to save the world. As if.

Lately, Angel just rubbed her the wrong way.

“Hot enough?” The question startled her out of her Angel-fogged thoughts.

He was definitely hot. Oh yeah. Nothing had changed there.

Buffy blinked slowly into focus as she realized the voice was not asking about Angel’s hotness. “Wh-what?”

Sitting next to her, Xander asked again, “Is your food still hot? You keep pushing it around on your plate.”

“Food…right.” Buffy gulped down several bites in a few seconds. “Mmmm.”

“You scare me.”

Xander returned to the conversation they had been having with Oz when he had noticed that Buffy had zoned out. He lifted a spoonful of green Jell-O to demonstrate what would happen to them if Amolon managed to make it to Earth.

“This is us.” He wiggled the Jell-O around on the spoon. Turning it at an angle, with the green dessert hanging precariously to the side of the spoon, he prepared for a quick demonstration of Amolon’s power.

“This is us after the Big Bad shows up.” Xander bent the spoon back like a catapult. Aiming for a nearby column, he let the Jell-O fly expecting that Oz would be suitably impressed with the splattitude and his use of visual aids.

The wiggly green blob arced through the air.

At the very same moment Principal Snyder stepped up to their table intercepting the Jell-O with his otherwise spotless grey suit. Infuriated, he roared, “Xander Harris!” as they watched the green Jell-O rebound off his lapel and plummet onto his shoe.

In frozen tableau, they watched as the principle’s mouth moved, as his face turned beet red, and the few hairs remaining on the top of his head stood up as if electrified by his fury. The whole cafeteria stopped to listen. More gossip fodder? Noting that it was just Xander Harris up to his usual lowbrow hijinks, they turned their attention back to their own conversations.

“Detention, Mr. Harris,” Snyder doled out the punishment that included scrubbing the graffiti found earlier that day on the school grounds. It did not matter that he was not responsible for it. He would clean it anyway.

Xander gulped and sank down into his chair.

Leaning down to speak to Buffy, Snyder added, “I wasn’t able to trace the Chem Lab heist to you, Summers, but I’m not about to let you walk away scot-free.” His beady gaze circled the table pausing over each of them. A satisfied little smirk tightened his mouth. “Detention for all of you.”   

132:     The Basement, Crawford Street Mansion, Central Sunnydale

Spike opened the basement door and saw Cordelia and Angel going through some Tai Chi moves. “So this is where you two get down and dirty.”

He took a seat on the top step and lit up a cigarette, pocketing his flip-top lighter.

“For your information, we’ve been training.” Cordelia continued the cooling down exercises.

Talking did not distract her from matching Angel’s moves exactly. Her cheerleading drills had instilled a sense of timing, an innate physical memory. Dressed in a tight little outfit that showed every curve, Spike had more to admire than just the way she moved.

No wonder Peaches had dumped the slayer. For the first time since being tortured, Spike felt his cock twitch to life. The wood was a good sign his body was almost recovered. That bloody bitch had weakened him so much he could not even get hard. Isobel was going to pay for that, too.

The swill the watchers were feeding him certainly did not help. Pig blood. Swine. How the bloody hell did Angel survive on that bland stuff? What he would not give for a mouthful of hot, red blood fresh from a ripe woman. The one right in front of him caused his thoughts to shift in a dangerous direction.

If Angel even suspected that he was imagining what it would be like to sink his fangs into his lover’s beautiful neck, Spike knew he would have his bollocks for it. Though Angel had already warned him to stay away from Cordy, he noticed that she was not marked in any way. There was no visible claim.

Spike was not stupid enough to go there. If Angel was dumb enough to let his girl go around without his mark, then that was his problem.

Taking a quick drag, he held the warm smoke in his dead lungs until it burned and then blew it out. “Do you really think Lover Boy will let you anywhere near a fight, pet?”

It did not take a verbal reply for Angel to get his point across. One look told Spike he had better mind his own business. Not that it had any effect. Bloody boring, that.

Cordelia stopped mid motion and turned toward the stairs again. Her skin was shiny and beaded with perspiration. A wet spot had gathered between her breasts drawing Spike’s gaze for an instant before he hastily turned his attention back to her face. 

“I make my own decisions, Blondie,” she crossed her arms defiantly. “Maybe I don’t have natural slaying skills, but I have as much right as anyone else to defend myself and my friends. Angel knows that. Don’t you?”

The pause before he answered lasted a second too long for Cordelia’s liking. Spike had to chuckle over the outrage on her face. “Right,” he glared at Spike over Cordy’s shoulder. “Absolutely. When and if there is an attack on the mansion, you’ll be ready for it.”

“But I want to patrol with you again,” Cordelia turned around to face Angel. “That’s what this training is all about. We're Team Chase. Nothing can stop us. I’m tired of being cooped up like some pathetic little princess in an ivory tower.”

Angel visibly struggled for a response. Looking pained about it, he finally said, “You can’t put yourself at risk that way.”

“What? It’s my life. Do you know how long it has been since I’ve been to the Bronze? And I’m not even asking for that. If I want to go out, then I’m going out.”

“The hell you are.”

Icily, Cordelia said, “Excuse me?”

Oh, ho! Looks like trouble in paradise, thought Spike, biting back a laugh and taking that as his cue to leave. His fag had burned down low so the glowing ash hung at the end. A flick sent it to the top step where he stood and stomped it out with his boot.

Angel argued, “The mansion is the safest place you can be right now.”

Cordelia argued right back. “Your smarmy friend can walk around in sunlight. He might show up here anytime. Who’s to say he can’t just come through the front door invite or no invite?”

“Cordy, for once will you listen to what I’m—”

Spike closed the basement door behind him, blocking out the sounds of the conflict below and went to find Drusilla for a shag.   

133:     The Study, Crawford Street Mansion, Central Sunnydale

 

Charred brown flecks cracked and crumbled as Cordelia turned the pages of the old book. Scarred by the fire, its leather cover was now blackened beyond repair, but the ancient myths of the Old Ones remained preserved inside. Only the outer edges were fried, much like her nerves at the moment. 

Choosing to help Wesley with research rather than going back to the basement for Round Two with Angel was supposed to help her put things into perspective. Keeping her locked up in the mansion for her protection had seemed like a good idea at one time, but that was before she realized what that meant.

No entertainment, no shopping, no hanging out at the Bronze.

Angel just needed to come to his senses. Protection was one thing, but keeping his own girlfriend under lock and key was taking it one step too far. Sure he had her best interests at heart. Why did those interests have to come at the expense of her having a life?

The details of their fight were a little fuzzy. Oh, there was the usual finger pointing and foot stomping. A shriek or two of frustration. Outright anger. And that was just Angel.

Okay. So maybe it was mostly her.

Doing a good impression of a granite slab, Angel wasn’t budging on his decision that the best way to protect her from becoming the next no-longer-a-Virgin Sacrifice was to never let her see the light of day again. Or the dark of night, for that matter. She was virtually under house arrest until this whole prophecy thing blew over. 

The words ‘totally unfair’ came to mind. Where was the fairness to be found when the bad guys had the freedom and she was practically a prisoner? Yeah. Fairness of the UN variety, that’s what it was.

Boyfriends were supposed to do what girlfriends wanted. Someone obviously forgot to tell Angel the rules. Guys generally fought over the right to grant her every wish—or avoided her like terrified two year olds. If she wanted something, one snap of her fingers was all it took. Sometimes she didn’t even have to snap.

Maybe she’d lost her touch.

Nah.

This was Angel, not a geek from the AV club. And it wasn’t like he wasn’t totally into her. Believing it made her insides melt every time she thought about it. There were times when Angel would do anything for her, but this obviously wasn’t once of them. Talking him into giving her a taste of freedom was far different than convincing a few nerds to set up the music system at a party they weren’t invited to attend.

Nothing worked. Honesty and a straight explanation got her nowhere.

“Angel, I’m tired of staring at these walls. I need to get out of here.”

They were halfway through another session of Tai Chi moves when Cordelia broke form to make her point. Angel smoothly continued through the motions. “You’re the one who wanted training. Finish this set and then you can try some hand-to-hand defensive moves.”

“We can do this later. Right now, I want to do something else. Anything that doesn’t involve demons and prophesies.”

Silent during the next movement, Angel completed it before looking her way. “You could read. I have some really good books. Classics.”

Not what she had in mind. “As tempting as joining your book club sounds, I think I’ll pass. I meant going somewhere. As in not here.”

Clearly, Angel saw nothing wrong with seeing the same people day after day. Or the fact that the view never changed. Monotony somehow came across as a positive for him. How wrong was she to think some of that had changed when they formed Team Chase and started expanding his horizons.

Out of pure frustration she elbowed the heavy punching bag hanging down from the ceiling and glared at the peeling paint along the basement walls. “You don’t get it. I want to go outside, to see the sky, to go have a little fun. C’mon, Angel, just you and me. No watchers or slayers or sidekicks around.”

Putting a halt to his routine, Angel shook his head. “We can’t, Cordy. Please try to be patient. It’s just a few more weeks.”

He might as well have said months. “Gah!”

Reeling back, she ran her hands through her hair mussing it up, muttering to herself that it was impossible to live through such torture for one week much less more. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to live in the same place as your boyfriend’s ex?”

Angel cleared his throat as she kept on ranting.

“Oh,” Cordelia paused as she paced past. “I guess you do, but Xander doesn’t count the same as Buffy.”

Angel wisely said nothing.

Leaning in close, Cordelia walked her fingers up one of his arms and laid her head on his shoulder. “I miss doing stuff together.”

“We do stuff.”

It didn’t take Angel’s sexy voice to hint at what he meant. Cordelia snorted, “I meant stuff we can do in public.” She caught the tiny twitch at the corner of his mouth and poked him in the stomach as she moved away. “Not that stuff.”

Eighteen year old girls had basic needs other than hot boyfriends. Angel just didn’t understand that denying her access to the mall was like cutting off his blood supply. She needed it to survive.

“There’s a buzz of energy that made the place hum. The smell of new clothes. Shiny new jewelry. Cash registers making that cha-ching sound.” Cordelia tried to describe some of the things she loved. “Hey, you like those strawberry-kiwi smoothies. Let’s go get one of those tonight.”

“You know we can’t.”

Cordelia wasn’t about to take that for an answer. “It’s easy. I’ll even let you drive.”

Since Angel still had the keys to the Plymouth it wasn’t going to be difficult. “Forget it, Cordy. You know it’s impossible. Nicolau isn’t going to miss any chance you give him. Going out will only put you in danger and I won’t let that happen. It’s for your own good.”

Petulant, she crossed her arms. “I’ll be the judge of what’s good for me. Right now, I want to go out.”

Angel didn’t bother to answer. Growing impatience tightened his jaw.

So the mall was obviously out. Maybe he didn’t like the smoothies as much as she thought. Cordelia figured there had to be something they could do together that would keep them under Nicolau’s radar. Though for the life of her she didn’t get why he thought anyone organizing a demon ritual would have time to go shopping.

A smile lit her face as an alternative came to mind. “What about the movies? We had a great time at the movies. You could take me. That would be safe.”

Not according to Mr. I’ve Been to One Movie in the Last Thirty Years. Annoyed by the suggestion, Angel pointed out, “Theaters are dark. There are distractions. People.”

She tried negotiating. “It doesn’t even have to be Keanu’s new movie.” A forlorn sigh emerged, her shoulders slumping dramatically. “Even if it did sound really great.”

Peeking upward, Cordelia saw that Angel’s expression remained stony. She bristled and muttered, “You don’t want to go because you’re jealous that I like him.”

“I am not.”

“Prove it. Take me to the movie.”

“That’s not going to work.”

Borrowing Buffy’s doe-eyed pouting technique even failed to win him over. “Cordy, it’s not safe. Forget it.” A thread of irritation crept into his response. “I’m tired of talking about it.”

“Well, I’m not.”

“You’re not going out. End of discussion.”

Cordelia’s mouth tightened up realizing that she was dealing with a guy who had no understanding whatsoever of what it was like to be deprived of everything. She had to make it clear that her problems were also his problems. If she was going to be cruelly deprived of the necessities in life, she was going to fall apart physically as well as mentally.

Grabbing a handful of her hair, she lifted it toward him. “Do you see this? I found a split end this morning. My hair is not used to this kind of abuse.”

The basement light made her normally shiny tresses look dull in her opinion helping her make her point. Contrary to what she knew about enhanced vampire vision, the stubborn vampire standing in front of her did not see it.

“Abuse?”

From the look on his face she could tell that he was remembering stocking up on her favorite shampoo and conditioner. “Just one trip to the salon,” she pleaded. “It won’t take long. Just a few hours,” she tagged on as fast as she could hoping he wouldn’t notice. “I need a manicure, too.”

It would probably take what was left of her last paycheck, but it would be worth it. Oh, the glorious pampering of a real salon. Not the cheapo hair chopping shop down the block from April Fools. The one that charged $12.95 for a shampoo, cut and blow dry. Tip not included. The memory of the recent humiliation of digging through her purse for change instead of whipping out a credit card gave her the wiggins.

Angel rocked back on his heels and rubbed a hand across the back of his neck. “No.”

Snapping back to his response, Cordelia could not understand it. “No?”

“I am beginning to wonder if you know the meaning to that word.”

Not when it worked against her. “I’m more of a yes person.”

“Then I’ve got something new for your vocabulary.”

“It’s just a haircut,” Cordelia underplayed the extent of her plans. Maybe he was just terrified of the idea of going with her. “C’mon, I won’t be alone. I’ll take both slayers. We’ll have a Ladies Day Out. God knows Buffy could use a good stylist.”

Either she was slowly wearing him down or he was pissed that she mentioned Buffy. Angel’s nostrils flared, his brows furrowing. “You plan to risk your life over a haircut.” Nope, he was just plain mad.

“Not just any haircut.”

“Ask one of the girls to do it—Faith, maybe.”

Cordelia snorted, “Just because she’s good with sharp objects does not mean I’ll let her anywhere near my hair. You’re being ridiculous, Angel.”

“Me? Last time I checked I wasn’t slated to be a sacrifice at a demon ritual.” Lashing out suddenly, he made her jerk back in surprise. “This is stupid.”

“I’m not being stupid,” Cordelia stormed back and poked him in the chest before she walked off again. Whirling back around, her hair settled wildly around her shoulders. “It’s not like I’m asking you to go to the Bronze.”

Angel denied calling her stupid. She ignored his excuses in favor of saying, “There’s no point. You still can’t dance.”

“This isn’t about me.”

“No, it’s about me,” she countered. In hindsight, there was definitely shrieking. “It’s about me having some shred of a life. Unlike some people around here, I’m not a corpse.”

Angel’s poker face vanished, barely restrained fury suddenly twisting at the edges of his control. He prowled forward, crowding into her space, muscles twitching to let his human mask fall away. Gold-rimmed eyes gleamed for an instant before darkening again as he got it together, balancing his anger on a fine edge.

Right there with him, she stayed in his face too, not giving him an inch that he did not have to earn. He had no idea how stubborn she could be. It was mean of him not to let her go out. She would find a way to convince him—or take matters into her own hand even if she had to face down his demon to do it.

Energy coursed through her spreading out until a million tingles starburst across her skin. Anyone else would find him terrifying. Not her. Not even when he dropped the silent, brooding routine and all that testosterone took over. A moth in front of a flickering flame could not be more willing to be singed. Her heart pounded in her chest, anger and excitement building as he moved one inch closer. So close that she could feel the rasp of his cotton shirt against hers with each ragged breath she took.

She had made a point. He had to get it.

Freedom, even a little, would keep her sane in this den of chaos. “I’m tired of being shut up inside this mausoleum.”

“Tough.”

“What, no plan to tie me to our bed this time?”

Cordelia shivered because the idea sounded almost like a challenge. His hand closed around her jaw tilting her face up to his. Mouth inches from her lips, he growled out a dark promise. “If that’s what it takes. Until the threat is over, you’re staying put.”

He had no right to give her orders. Blood pounded in her ears to the tune of her fury equaling anything he dished out with those vampiric vibes. One hard slap to his wrist loosened his hold. With a jerk of her head and a hard shove to his chest, she gained an inch of space. “Last time I checked there was no ‘Property of Angel’ stamp on my ass.”

“Easily fixed,” quipped Angel cryptically, a ruthless twist to his mouth. “Though that wasn’t exactly the spot I had in mind.”

Momentarily confused, she could not tell if that was some kind of threat or a come on. “Whatever. No, on second thought, you can kiss my ass goodbye because I’m outta here.” 

Calgon, take me away. She opted for a strategic retreat. Not because she was giving up. No way. It was not like she needed his permission to go out.

“Don’t walk out on this conversation, Cordy. It’s not over.”

Halfway to the stairs, she made the mistake of turning back to him again. “Oh, it’s over. Way past over.”

Sunnydale and all the crap it handed her lately suddenly spewed out like an upchuck after a frat part. Inevitable. With his newfound and annoying habit of being there for her whether she wanted it or not, Angel was standing in its direct path. Ground zero.

“Why stop at walking out the door? I should keep going. Just leave town. Go so far nobody in this hellhole will ever find me.”

It did not matter that she meant Sunnydale in general or Nicolau and his cronies. For some reason Angel took it personally. That patented control vanished as the knife-edge he had been teetering on cut it to shreds. Too late, the warning signals started flashing. A distinct, ‘Oh, crap!’ ran through her mind the instant before his mouth crushed hers.

Desperation filled his kiss. Angry and possessive, it felt emotional in ways that Angel never showed on the surface. His fingers tangled tightly in her hair denying escape. Red starbursts filled the darkness as her eyes slammed shut, kissing him back with equal fury. Fighting tooth and nail to make her point she wasn’t going to let him get away with kissing her into submission.

He was a rock wall, holding her to him with only the pressure of that one hand, and impossible to budge. Cordelia grabbed his shoulders, intending to force him to stop, but then just holding on as his lips firmly swiped across hers. Capturing them, again and again, one kiss melded into another.

Barely given the time to breathe, she moaned furiously, the sound smothered by the instant assault of his tongue seeking entry. Caught between anger and wanting him, she clasped his head, nails curling into his scalp, holding on now rather than pushing away, body slamming into his.

Her breasts pushed into his hard chest, hips shifting for their comfort zone, tummy rubbing against him. Melting, she nearly gave into it, opening up to his kiss. His free hand slid the length of her spine stroking a line of heat along with it. Making her wet as her body instantly reacted to his touch. Not now! That pissed her off more than anything. Knowing he would sense her response and give him the completely wrong idea that he was winning.

Without even thinking about it, Cordelia gnashed her teeth together against his lower lip. A grunt sounded from Angel. The coppery taste of blood lashed over her tongue. A spark of triumph filled her followed by the sudden shock of what she had done. They drew apart sharply, staring at each other.

Trembling inwardly from anger and pent up need, she stumbled back out of his arms as he released her. Defiant, there was no apology coming from her. That bite was so totally his fault, even though she did not understand it.

Angel did not touch his lip to wipe away the blood. He did not lick it away. She watched a drop well to the surface quickly congealing to close the wound. He stood dark eyed and staring, shoulders tense, looking at her like he wanted to return the favor. Lust and curiosity made her wonder what it would be like to let him.

It was all she could do to stop herself from jumping his very un-corpse-like bones. He had left her breathless, gasping for air, and unable to remember exactly what she’d said that set him off 

Unlike her, he had no problem speaking. The threatening tone peeled away into raw hurt. “Don’t even think about it. You’re not leaving.”

She sensed rather than heard the ‘me’ at the end. You are not leaving me. Shocked at the thought of it, Cordelia cringed. Where had he even gotten such a crazy idea? She was still ticked off. Mad enough to make him think it was possible.

“You’re my boyfriend, Angel, not my jailor, and I am leaving— but only to take a bath.”

Cordelia distinctly recalled the rubberiness of her legs as she made her exit. Kind of tough to stomp dramatically up the stairs when you could barely stand upright. Angel let her go much to her surprise. She half expected him to come after her and spent most of her bath planning what she would say when he showed up looking all broody and apologetic.

Only Angel never came upstairs. He stayed down in the basement, which was a good thing, she supposed. If he had shown up when she was in the tub, they probably would have ended up having sex. Cordelia spent the rest of her bath time trying to figure out what positions people used when they did it in the tub. When Angel did not show up, it only fueled her frustration with him and the situation.

So, she had bypassed the entrance to the basement upon coming back downstairs in favor of heading for the study where Wesley was holed up to search for clues about the Rites of Tavrok.

“You volunteered for research duty,” Cordelia muttered while wiping traces of ash from her fingertips onto the cloth draped over her lap. Though a little dirt beat demon dismemberment and dumpster duty any day, she conceded, even that might seem preferable to another week of confinement in the mansion.

After staring at an inked sketch of a random demon for five minutes and comparing it to Principal Snyder’s gnomish appearance, only with claws and a seriously wicked set of teeth, Cordelia concluded that, “This totally sucks.” Now she was getting nostalgic for school, a sure sign that she had been cooped up way too long.

“Hmm?” Wesley lifted his head from where it was buried in research. “Do try to focus on the details, Cordelia. It is imperative that we identify the precise set of symbols.”

Now Wes was even starting to sound like Principal Snyder. All work and no play. With the gang at school for the day and Faith off on some assignment, the only other people in the mansion beside Wesley and Angel were Dru and Spike. Things were not quite boring enough to pop upstairs for a spontaneous visit. Tea and crumpets with Dru would not be quite the same with Spike leering and making lewd comments.

“Perhaps you should tell me what ‘sucks’ so we can get on with our studies.” Wesley apparently overheard more than she thought.

Research might not be much fun, but it was better than wallowing in self-pity, and she was not about to share the details of her argument with Angel. Covering quickly, she pointed to the drawing in the book. “This demon,” she held it out for him to see, “it sucks the blood of its victims.”

Wesley’s eyes narrowed behind his glasses. “Yes, I believe that would be a vampire. You might have heard of them,” he added drolly.

“A vampire?” Cordelia glanced back at the carefully inked sketch. All skin and bone, with huge eyes, big fangs and razor sharp claws it wasn’t the least bit familiar, except for reminding her of Principal Snyder. “I’ve seen plenty of vampires and they don’t look like this.” More importantly, “Angel doesn’t look like this.”

She held up the book again. After a moment of study, Wes concluded, “I believe that is either a form of proto-vampire or an ancient one. Old vampires tend to revert to a demonic state over time, their human characteristics fading.”

Cordelia stared at the book again. Angel was pretty old for a vampire, but certainly did not look like the creature in that drawing. She had always assumed that Angel would look young and hot forever. Her stomach turned flip-flops. 

“So how old is old for a vampire, anyway?”

Trying to sound disinterested about it got her nowhere. Wesley dropped his attention back to his research before answering, “Oh, somewhere around two-fifty. The hair is the first to go.”

“What? That’s almost Angel’s age—,” Cordelia gripped the edge of the couch as she imagined her boyfriend withering into a balding old vampire overnight. Then she saw the flush spreading up Wesley’s neck. “That is so not funny!”

She was already laughing at the image stuck in her head: arriving at the prom with a decrepit old Angel on her arm. Wesley chuckled when she shared the idea.

Sobering up, he admitted, “I may have exaggerated the matter a bit. Truly ancient vampires claim nearly a millennium of existence before the years begin to show.”

“That was evil.”

Wesley grinned as if exceedingly pleased with his joke. Getting her back on task, he suggested, “You might want to focus on your assignment if you plan to solve this dilemma before it is too late to attend the dance.”

Her grin faded. Wow. Miss the prom? The man was just full of great news. The idea had never even occurred to her. That was the whole reason for slaving away at the April Fools Dress Shop all those evenings: to afford a decent dress for the prom.

Still…

Why worry about being crowned Prom Queen when she’d already been chosen as the next Miss Sacrificial Lamb at Nicolau’s shindig? Not that she had anything to wear to that, either.

Cordelia let out a big sigh. “Sometimes it sucks to be me.”

Something sounding like a protest coughed from Wesley’s throat. “I very much doubt that. Y-you’re beautiful, funny—and that brilliant smile.”

Momentarily forgetting her gloom, Cordelia smiled radiantly. “You’re not so stuffy or uptight as I thought, Wes. I like you.”

“As do I— like you, too,” he cleared his throat before hunkering back down over his research.

Settling into her comfy spot in the corner of the couch, Cordelia folded her legs up beneath her and readjusted the cover. “Back to the grindstone. Where was I? Oh, yeah. Research is fun. I love my job. Grunge is in.”

She turned to the next page of the book, pausing only briefly to make a face at the ash left behind on her fingertips. “Eww!” Ornate drawings and colorful symbols made it a little less of a bore to study.

Very little.

Despite Wesley’s pep talk, research did not stand a chance of holding her interest for long. Maybe if the book had been written in English instead of an obscure language requiring her to search for a list of key words. Noooo, it was in ancient Frankenstein or something.

Whatever.

Cordelia honestly tried to stay focused, but the words blurred. Angel’s overprotective rant kept running on instant replay in her head. No going out. No danger. No fun. No life. Maybe he had a few good points, but did that have to involve practically holding her hostage?

Being stuck at the mansion for the duration was one thing when it was just nighttime hours they were worried about. Now it was daytime, too, thanks to the rule-breaking vampire mojo that let Nicolau schmooze his way around Sunnydale. So now she was a virtual prisoner in her own home. Well, boyfriend’s home.

No job, no school, no adventure.

So maybe the job was not that big of a deal—except for the total lack of cash. Who needed money when there was nowhere to spend it? She missed the sun, shopping, and dancing at the Bronze.

It was impossible to keep up with the latest school gossip. Buffy was not exactly in on the latest 411. It was all slayer stuff with her. Asking Willow meant sifting through the babble. That left Xander, who was surprisingly, a pretty good source of information.

Angel did not understand that she was not the type of girl he could keep locked away in an ivory tower. She was not some whiny little fraidy cat. It was not as if there were no bodyguards around. Slayers in the daytime. Vampires at night.

When she had stomped upstairs, Angel had stayed in the basement. The expression on his face served to say that he had no intention of letting her endanger herself by going out anytime soon. Training or no training, he did not want her in harm’s way.

Knowing that and wanting to live with it were two separate issues. Cordelia was not so keen on the harm’s way bit either, but she was really starting to hate these walls. There was a big difference between feeling safe and smothered.

Angel had a lot to learn about her if he thought he was going to get away with what he tried to pull today. Okay, so she admitted that there was part of her that adored being protected. Her inner princess loved it. Unfortunately for Angel, her inner bitch possessed that stubborn independent streak.

No kisses, even those of the Angel kind, were going to convince her to give that up. Whatever it was that happened down in that basement freaked her out a little. This was not the first time an argument ended with them in each other’s arms, but this time it felt like neither one of them was in control. She did not want that happening tonight.

Deciding to give Angel a chance to apologize for the behavior that led to her biting him, Cordelia made up her mind that if he chose not to say he was sorry that there would be consequences. He could stay down in that basement, no doubt brooding about it, until she finished helping Wes with the research. After that, if he kept up his stubborn ass vamp routine he would end up sleeping on the couch.

A smirk spread across her face while envisioning Angel all cold and lonely—

Wait a sec!

That meant she would be alone, too.

In that huge bed.

By herself.

Her revenge scheme came to a screeching halt realizing that forcing him to stay on the couch was going to deprive her of her new favorite things. This was supposed to be Angel’s punishment. It should not have to be torture for her, too.

Maybe she would let him off easy—just this one time, only because she was the forgiving type. Throw him for a loop by being nice, not mentioning that power play, and still get to sleep in his arms tonight. Hah! That would show him. Then tomorrow, when he was asleep, she would convince Faith that it was her duty to tag along while she snuck out of the mansion for a little shopping expedition.

It might be mostly window shopping, but the last place the bad guys would be was the Sunnydale mall. Desperate times called for desperate measures and right now they called for a pair of new Choos.

Situation resolved, Cordelia dragged her thoughts away from shopping and got back to the research. Wesley assigned her to search for specific key words and symbols. Now that they knew the demon’s name it was easier to find passages linked to the prophecy. Making sense of her findings was his job.

“Here’s another one, Wes,” she tapped the page upon recognizing the symbol from the ring. Instead of having her bookmark the page for later study like Giles usually did, he walked over to check it out.

The couch cushion shifted under his weight as he sat next to her and pulled the book closer across one thigh. She took a moment to study him. Being stuck here in the mansion with everyone must have made it easier to settle in with the group. Minus the suit jacket with his shirtsleeves rolled up, he looked less formal. Though, she could not say, more relaxed.

She wondered if Faith was really serious about being attracted to him. Cute, brainy guys were not really the slayer’s type according to what she’d told Cordelia. Faith was the hands-on type. But Wes was not just anyone. Being Faith’s new watcher somehow put a kinky little twist into the works.

Cordelia did not know that much about him except that the Watcher’s Council had sent him here. “I didn’t think anyone knew more than Giles when it comes to this stuff.”

It was a compliment, but his shoulders stiffened defensively. Darting a glance toward her, he reminded, “My studies at the academy were extensive.”

“What did you do for fun?” Anyone Faith was remotely interested in would at least have to have a vague sense of the concept, but Wesley’s blank stare suggested that he did not.

His cheeks and throat reddened. “Frankly, fun wasn’t on the agenda. Not the sort I believe you to mean. We had tournaments to test our physical and mental prowess.”

“Oh.” Well that sounded god awful boring. The kind of prowess Faith was interested in would not be tested at a tournament. “What about going clubbing? Y’know, music, dancing—any of this sound familiar?”

Without waiting for him to respond, Cordelia told him, “Sunnydale may not be L.A. or London, but we do have one decent club, The Bronze. We should go sometime.”

“W-we?” Wesley stuttered over the word. He sat back sharply, the book jack-knifing into the narrow space between them.

“After we’ve figured out this prophecy stuff. There’s more to life than demons and vampires, even if you’re a watcher.” Cordelia put a friendly hand on his arm and squeezed it as she added a mesmerizing smile. “I think taking you out would be a great excuse to make Angel—”

“Jealous?”

“—hit the dance floor. He certainly needs the practice.” Cordelia blinked as Wesley’s interjection caught up with her. She leaned back to stare. “What?”

Sputtering over getting it wrong, Wesley looked mortified. He gasped, “What? Oh, dear.”

“You thought I meant—”

“I thought you meant—”

Behind them, Angel stepped out of the shadows. “You thought Cordelia meant what, exactly?”

Wesley launched himself off the couch before she could even turn her head in Angel’s direction. Trying to minimize the situation before it escalated, he shrugged, “Nothing, really, a slight misunderstanding over something hardly worth mentioning.”

The furrowed brow and tight jaw were a dead giveaway that Angel was not buying it. “Cordy?”

Since she was not going to make Angel sleep on the couch tonight, Cordy decided that it might be a good substitute to let him stew over the situation. “Pfft! Relax, Angel. It’s not like I can’t fend off a come-on or two without backup.”

Wesley’s eyes rounded into large saucers as Angel’s cool glance flicked his way and lingered unblinkingly. Was she deliberately trying to get him killed? Getting oneself caught tête-à-tête with a vampire’s girlfriend was not the kind of situation covered at the academy, especially when that vampire was Angelus.

Considering the territorial behavior he had witnessed over the past week, a strategic withdrawal seemed in order. Wesley wiped the sweat away from his upper lip without realizing it left a trail of black ash behind from his smudged fingertips.

When Cordelia caught his gaze, she waved a finger at her closed lips. He gave her a subtle conspiratorial nod. Smart girl. She was aware they should say nothing further that might incite the vampire to action. Good plan.

Trying to remain calm and remember his training for situations that involved facing a hostile enemy, Wesley subtly inched toward the desk where his jacket was draped over the back of a chair. A stake was hidden inside an inner pocket in the event this got out of hand.

Angel stepped away from the threshold coming to stand directly in front of the desk, easily stripping away the thin veneer of false confidence Wes attempted to project with nothing more than a hard, silent stare. Any hasty movement might result in an attack, and from his field training, he knew that vampires possessed enhanced speed.

This needed to be resolved peacefully. Stumbling over the words, he tried to explain, “W-We were working together on the translations. Simply talking. Nothing untoward. I made no advances. None. I would never. That would be…”

“Suicidal,” Angel put in when Wesley paused to search for the right word.

As the vampire reached toward him, his hand slipped closer to the hidden stake. Wes felt a firm clap on his shoulder as Angel gave him a rare grin. A mix of confusion and relief flooded him. “You’re not stupid—and I trust you to treat Cordelia with respect.”

“Absolutely.” Lifting his chin a bit higher while staring back, the truth resoundingly clear in his voice, Wesley privately wondered what depths a souled vampire would go in the defense of his mate.

For it was clear to him that Angel’s attachment to Cordelia Chase was becoming very serious, well beyond simple sexual interest. The consequences of such a relationship nearly always resulted in a bloody, painful end. Obsession and dependency kept the human tied to their vampire lover. Such pairings typically led to the eventual death of the human.

Having observed Angel since his arrival, and read extensively through the Council file on Angelus, he had to wonder if things were not turned around. Cordelia might think herself to be in love, but in this particular case, the obsessive behavior belonged to the vampire. 

Soul or not, that made Angel unpredictable and dangerous. Considering the dubious nature of prophecy, he wondered how the vampire would respond if saving the world meant sacrificing Cordelia. 

134:     The Study, Crawford Street Mansion, Central Sunnydale

Angel, no.

The pressure of his fingers tightened just a fraction as they moved against her skin sliding across smooth angles, bone and sinew in ways that trapped her breath in her throat. Cordelia sank lower into the cushions, pressing against the arm of the couch. Squirming only brought her closer.

Escape was not an option. Not from him.

From the moment Angel sat down on the opposite end of the couch, she knew she was in big trouble. He’d turned at an angle, his wide shoulders taking up space, one arm stretched out across the back, a knee bent toward her making dark shadows in his lap where his pants creased so intriguingly.

Not that she’d intended to check that out. It was impossible not to look, impossible to resist the display.

Like warm honey her gaze moved slowly across his torso, lingering along every line where the dark blue shirt draped his chest, and pausing at the vee of skin exposing his throat. The bump of his Adam’s apple distracted her when the memory of running her warm tongue across it came to mind, and nibbling her way up to his ear.

Cordelia licked her lips, the taste of him still fresh in her memory. She could not think of that now, not in the middle of such torture. It only played into his hands.

Oh, God. Now his fingers moved constantly, thumbs sliding into the crease of a joint and increasing the pressure. A shudder hit, uncontrollable. This was not even close to how she’d envisioned their argument coming to an end. She remembered the wicked smile curling one corner of his mouth and the dark glint of unbreakable will.

That should have warned her.

Or hinted that Angel was not backing down.

Too late, she now knew the expected groveling at her feet wasn’t going to happen. Nor would she be hearing:  I’m so sorry, Cordy. You were right. Just like you’re always right. I’ve been a stubborn, insensitive, over-protective pain-in-the-ass. Tell me what I can do to make up for being such a jerk.

Nope. Those words? Not in her future anytime soon.

Once their eyes met, Cordelia could not look away. He held her with that intense stare as if daring her to say something defiant to force his hand. He was ready for another fight if she would give him one. Oh, she was ready to wipe that smirk off his handsome face.

Maybe she had already decided that he would not be exiled to the couch tonight, but he had no way of knowing that. “I hope you’re comfortable over there,” she said with a singsong threat. Tossing a couch cushion into his lap, “You’ll be here a while.”

Angel’s brow creased and the confident smirk slid away into a firm line. He flicked a glance toward the book she held before searching her eyes for further meaning. She gave him credit for suspecting the truth, but laughed when he asked, “Research?”

Stretching out one leg, Cordelia nudged his knee with her bare foot. “That’s not what I meant,” she gave him a deadpan stare that told him he should know better than to ask.

Before she could slide her leg back into its tucked position Angel’s hand shot out to hold her foot in place, pulling it into his lap and settling it comfortably onto the cushy pillow she’d tossed his way. She was suspicious for a moment and held her breath as she waited for the tickling to begin, but the hand resting on the top of her foot didn’t budge.

Relaxing, Cordelia stretched out her other leg and wiggled her toes as she propped both feet up. Maybe this situation was not going to be as tense as she imagined. The cloth draped over her lap had shifted. She readjusted it propping the book back in the center as she waited for Angel to speak.

No way was she apologizing for any part of what happened downstairs before he said something first. That continual stare of his was driving her crazy. “Argh! Do you have any idea how unfair it is that you don’t need to blink?”

Just as her eyelids fluttered shut, eyes watering, she caught Angel’s mouth quirk at one corner. The hand on her skin stroked soothingly along her lower leg and back down to the top of her foot. Just that slight touch made her temperature jump up a notch, or maybe it was just the cool press of his skin on hers that made it feel like it was on fire.

There was no way he was going to start something here. Not with Wesley here in the room. Besides, she did not want to talk about it. Now that her plans were set, talking about it might spoil them. There was always the chance that Angel had something up his sleeve to talk her out of it. Though his form of convincing her to do anything was usually physical; one touch from him and she was putty.

Angel’s hand moved across the bridge of her foot, thumb sloping down to stroke the arch. Just as she was starting to enjoy it and her eyes were drifting shut, she heard, “We need to settle this, Cordy.”

Whatever happened to the days where he barely said a word and kept his hands to himself? Oh, yeah. She had cured him of that.

Instead of opening her eyes, Cordelia wriggled her toes, encouraging him to keep on rubbing. He did, but annoyingly enough did not drop the conversation. “You’re used to having the freedom to do anything you want. To go anywhere. I’m not trying to take away that independence.”

So why did she feel like a caged bird these days? “That’s easy for you to say when you can skulk around town all you want.”

“I don’t skulk.”

Cordelia gave him a hard stare, but his eyes dropped away to follow the path of his hands as they moved across her feet. Light strokes deepened to gentle rubs, steady and sure across pressure points she didn’t know existed. Nice. Far better than nice. Damn good. Too good to make him stop.

The book fell from her nerveless fingers into her lap as her body shifted deeper into the couch cushions. A sigh erupted shakily from her throat drawing his gaze back to hers. He looked determined, hungry for something more than just her, and she could feel it in his touch.

It might have been intended to relax her, but it did not. Already on edge, her nerves jittered under her skin. Wanting more. Wanting less. It was not really an option. Not when Angel was using every trick in the book to get her to do what he wanted. Fat chance. Besides, there was a limit to what he could try with Wesley still being in the room.

When Angel’s hands moved above her left ankle to curve around her calf, fingertips pressing deeper and sliding upward toward the curve of her knee, she scooted even further down the couch until her head lay upon on the pillowed armrest. The growing urge to touch herself while he was touching her made her fidget. Her teeth clamped down on her lower lip as she bit back a moan.

“This won’t work.” Cordelia bent her free leg and poked him in the side with her toe.

Angel looked hurt by the accusation. “You don’t like it? I’ll stop.” Yet somehow those big hands kept moving of their own accord.

A loud harrumph sounded nearby. Wesley. For a fraction of a second, Angel’s fingers paused on their slow journey north. Hidden by the position of the couch, Cordelia’s eyes darted in the watcher’s general direction before centering on Angel to silently remind him that they were not alone.

“I’m supposed to be helping Wes. You’re distracting me.” Any other day she would love this kind of distraction. Not today. Not when she was determined to find a little freedom.

“By the way, Wesley,” Angel called out without letting his gaze stray from Cordelia’s face, “I noticed that you’ve got a black ash moustache on your face. Careful or you’ll smear those documents. Originals, aren’t they?”

A horrified gasp filled the air. “My word, how did that get there?” Chair legs scraped the floor. There was a scurry of feet in the direction of the door. Ten seconds was all it took to make Wesley vacate the room.

Cordelia nearly called out to stop him, but she was mesmerized by the dark glint of male satisfaction showing in Angel’s eyes. He’d run off the competition. Gotten the girl. Planned to do wicked things with her.

Oh, crap. Angel didn’t fight fair.

Nervous excitement caused her to shudder. “We’re alone.”

“Looks that way.”

The tone of his voice remained deep and even as he stroked both hands along her leg each time inching higher. Cordelia resisted the temptation to part her thighs to him knowing he would take what she offered. He would touch her just how he knew she liked to be touched. Those knowing fingers sliding deep inside, his thumb rubbing at the right angle to drive her wild.

“You think a little massage is going to make me change my mind?” That would have sounded harsher if she had not closed her eyes and moaned afterward.

“No.” At least he was not completely deluded. “You’re like a little dog with a big bone; too stubborn to give it up.”

Cordelia smirked, “Ignoring the fact that you just compared me to a dog, I do love a good bone.”

Fingers paused along their wayward path as her meaning sunk in. Cordelia watched Angel’s eyes go dark, turn hungry and stare back as if that look alone could devour her whole. His gaze flicked toward the door calculating the time they had before Wes returned.

“We should finish this conversation upstairs,” Angel’s voice thickened, his Adam’s apple bobbing when he swallowed reflexively.

Like that would result in any kind of conversation. Not. Flexing into a sitting position, Cordelia shook her head. She picked up the cloth covering her lap and the book with it and walked on her knees across the length of the couch until she reached Angel. He scooted over a bit to allow her to straddle his thighs.

She sat down, still holding the cloth and the book, trying to look serious when all she really wanted to do was kiss and make up. Angel started to move a hand toward her face, but Cordelia reared back just enough to put him off.

“No, don’t touch me.”

The hand moved back to its place on the curved arm of the couch. Angel tossed her own words back at her. “I thought you were more of a yes person.” They came with a hint of a smoldering smile that tempted her to press her lips to the already faded gash her teeth had left across his mouth.

“If you touch me I won’t be able to think straight,” she confessed. “You won’t be able to think at all. So keep your hands to yourself for a minute.”

Unable to deny it, Angel let her talk.

“You got it wrong down in the basement. I never meant for you to believe that I was planning to walk out on you.” Cordelia kept her hands on the book to steady herself. She wanted to be calm about this, to make Angel see reason.

Angel blinked when he did not have to. For an instant, she thought his eyes glistened, but it might have been a trick of the light. His face closed up again returning to that stony state where his emotions were on lockdown.

“This is all too much, Angel. I have been trying to be strong. So much has happened all at once. You and me. The prophecy. Bev. Living here with our exes watching over us like a pair of rabid...clowns,” she struggled for a description. “It’s important to me to have some time away from all this.”

He opened his mouth to speak, but Cordelia’s hand lifted to cup his cheek effectively asking for silence.

“I need time with you. It doesn’t have to be the Bronze or the mall or anywhere that you think is too dangerous to go. Give me a break from this crazy place.”

The dark veil of his lashes closed down over his eyes as Angel shut them. It closed her off from his reaction, his thoughts, and she failed to stop from trembling at the idea that he might once again deny her a taste of freedom. Short of chaining her to the bed like they had joked, a no would only lead to her defiance. Something Cordy knew might be bad for the two of them, but something she had to do.

Either he was with her or she would do this alone.

At the slight shutter of her fingers against his skin, Angel opened his eyes, looking more uncertain than she had ever seen him. He reached up slowly with both hands tangling in her hair, cupping her head gently in contrast to his tight hold during their frantic clutch in the basement. “Yes.”

“Yes?” Squeeing, she threw her arms around him hugging him tight until the edges of the book poked into their ribs. Angel reached in to drag it out tossing it onto the couch beside them. “I love you so much. Where are we going? When can we leave? Do I have to pack?”

“Not so fast,” Angel tried to caution her not to get too excited. “Let me think about it tonight. We’ll do something tomorrow.”

That sounded fair. He was not trying to put her off, just plan something nice. Cordelia knew this was probably a one-shot deal considering the state of things to come. She planned to enjoy every second.

Cordelia loved the feel of his arms around her, but pulled back just enough to see his face. The sight of her fingerprints darkening Angel’s jaw caused a double take, but she was not going to let a little grunge get in the way of her celebration. “Looks like I left my mark on you more than once today.”

“Um, speaking of—,” her kiss cut him off. Whatever he had to say could wait because she no longer saw any reason to resist the urge to taste him.

Right there where her anger had taken its toll she pressed her lips to his. Soft and full of potential like the first raindrop of a summer storm. An uneven spattering of lightning kisses followed wherever her lips landed next. Electrifying. Charged by the energy of triumph and a hint of forgiveness.

Cordelia paused for a breath, stared hungrily at his mouth again, wanting it. Drawn in as Angel whispered her name, she took him open-mouthed in a slow and steamy caress. Spread across his thighs, her hips hitched up closer writhing anxiously in an unintentional lapdance, she shifted against him branding him with her heat. A grunt caught in his throat, his hands snagging her hips to pull her to his cock. The layers of clothing between them were an irritant.

Losing it completely, shaking with need, she plundered his mouth and rubbed against the fast growing bulge, the friction against her mound driving her delirious. Pleasure streaking through every nerve. Making her want more.

Sliding a hand between their tightly knit bodies Cordy palmed him through his jeans. Angel looked at her through half-slitted eyes, watching desire lighting her face. “We don’t have time for this,” he growled warning her that they had to stop.

She whimpered against his mouth. “No.” Not in agreement, but more of a desperate denial that they had to stop.

Even now she could hear Wesley’s shoes clomping loudly at the far end of the hall. It was not fair. They were never alone anymore.

“When I finally get you to myself, Angel, we’re going to pick up right here,” her hand clutched him firmly. It was much better than making him sleep on the couch. Call it a reward for making the right decision.  

135:     Crawford Street Mansion, Central Sunnydale

Walking down the corridor at half the usual pace and loudly throat clearing along the way, Wesley came to a halt just short of the study door. His short acquaintance with Cordelia and Angel made it prudent to be cautious. Despite the brief time he was out of the room, anything might have happened. 

Most people would have had some propriety, but those two couldn’t keep their hands to themselves. They had that new couple in love aura about them that Wesley was in awe and somewhat jealous about. It was something of a mystery to him. Certainly, it never occurred to him that a vampire would be so enamored of a human, though the soul Angel possessed obviously played a role.

Having read reports about it, he had considered Angel’s relationship with Buffy, the vampire slayer, to be something of a fluke. Mortal enemies drawn to each other in spite of their differences.

This was different. This was something more. Perhaps he would discover what that was through further study.

In the meantime, he could only wish for soundproofed walls or that their tendency to mate like a pair of wild rabbits at odd hours of the night would come to an end. Wes knew there was nothing to be found in such sour milk. The girl was beautiful, and he found her intriguing, but she was most definitely taken.

Pushing the door open, Wes cautiously peeked inside. He sighed, relieved to see the two of them no where near each other. From this angle behind the couch, he noted that Angel appeared to be poking at the ashes in the fireplace. Perhaps looking for additional remnants of the documents Drusilla had burned during her little spree. He saw Cordelia studiously pouring over a page in her assigned book. 

All was well. Perhaps now they could get back to the order of the day. Research. This delay was getting them nowhere.

Angel kept his back to him, simply glowering over his shoulder in acknowledgement of his arrival. It made Wesley wonder if the vampire remained suspicious that he had been flirting with Cordelia. Which he had not. No, not at all.

Closer now, Wesley saw that Angel’s normally unruly spiked hair was even more out of whack. It stuck up at odd angles. Further, the cheek turned toward him as Angel glared at him was covered in little black speckles that suspiciously reminded him of smudged fingerprints.

“Good heavens.”

“Something wrong?” Angel asked calmly and without looking Cordelia’s direction.

Wesley adjusted his glasses. Wrong did he ask? It did not take a genius to guess he would find Cordelia Chase in a similar state, but it was impossible not to feel just a bit judgmental and a tinge envious. over the lovers' seemingly irresistible attraction to one another.

Disheveled clothes, unruly hair, dirty faces, a large black handprint across Cordelia’s right ah…chest, and the upside-down book keeping her attention riveted all added up to something.

“Apparently,” Wes’ clipped voice revealed his irritation. It certainly was not research. 

136:     Parkdale Cemetery, State Street, Central Sunnydale

Faith jogged to a halt at the edge of the cemetery stopping to look across the street toward City Hall. It looked different in daylight, a perfect example of everything that was bright, clean and good about Sunnydale. Bullshit. It was all just a pretty façade.

Sunlight glinted off its sparkling windows much like it did from Mayor Wilkins’ too-charming smile. Cobblestones lined the sidewalks. A whitewashed trim surrounding the front doors always looked freshly painted. Even the lawn appeared greener than green, dandelion free and sported a little ‘Do Not Walk On The Grass’ sign.

Crossing the street, Faith took a shortcut across the common knowing that she was probably the only person in town that could get away with it. The mayor cut her a lot of slack. If she was some little old lady whose dog decided to take a crap on the pristine lawn, she’d probably be slapped with a fine or have her senior citizens bridge club shut down like Bev’s bingo parlor. Worse, being the bunch of frickin’ chowderheads they were, he’d make the public love him for it.

If City Hall was a shiny apple, Wilkins would be the worm at its rotten core. Political intrigues barely scratched the surface of what went on inside those graffiti-free walls. Faith planned to uncover every dark, dirty secret starting with the so-called business meeting Nicolau Cibran had with the mayor before yesterday’s funeral.

Pretending to be secret buddies with Wilkins was getting difficult now that it put her real friends at risk.

She wasn’t anything like the Twinkie and her sidekicks. Making friends wasn’t exactly one of her strengths. Until recently, she didn’t give a shit about that. Then the mayor stepped in. He treated her like she mattered. The things he asked for made her feel needed, like her skills counted for something, not just because she was an accidental fill-in for the true slayer in town. 

The mayor might be the real power in Sunnydale, but she no longer saw Wilkins as a sugar daddy or any kind of friend. He was a user and thanks to her real friends, that was something Faith had decided she didn’t want to be.

Real friends.

Just the thought of it brought a dimpled smile to her face. Warm fuzzies squeezed at her heart for a few seconds before Faith shook it off and wondered what the fuck had just happened. It wasn’t a sensation she was used to feeling.

“Must be those leftover chili cheese fries I ate for breakfast.” Getting indigestion was much easier to explain especially when it came to Xander’s cooking. “Trust a vampire who doesn’t eat solid food to put that scrod in charge of the kitchen.”

Letting people get close only made it hurt more when they walked away. So why risk it at all? She was used to taking what she wanted and getting out first. Cordy was a lot like her that way, or used to be. Things weren’t going to be that easy anymore for either of them. This friendship thing was frickin’ hard work.

Faith continued on through the front entrance at a normal pace, blending in with the small crowd milling about inside. No one took notice. They were focused on work or their own troubles. She headed for a back corridor that would lead her to the offices of the mayor.

Giles wanted her to stick with the plan even though it was tempting to forget about the little underworld Wilkins had set up here in Sunnydale. Whatever it was he was up to only proved that he knew everything about the true nature of the town and the kind of creatures that roamed the streets after dark.

From the cops and reporters down to the sanitation crew, everyone who reported to the mayor was part of his scheme to hide the truth from the people of Sunnydale. He liked to call his cover up a way of protecting his constituents.

Fuck that.

It was just the routine business of letting people keep their heads up their collective asses. Too bad it was likely to get them killed.

Until Bev’s funeral yesterday, Faith wouldn’t have guessed the mayor had anything to do with the prophecy. The business with Bev and the bingo parlor seemed more like a front for one of Wilkins’ anti-corruption campaign promises than a way to get closer to Cordelia. How could he know Cor was going to be chosen as one of the five sacrifices? Why would he even care?

Showing up with Nicolau was a big time mistake. Faith knew she should’ve followed her instincts. Instead, she ended up lying about his identity. The mayor told her to smooth things over and she practically fell over herself to do it.

She’d lied for that bastard. Thinking about that made her stomach twist into knots. It wasn’t the chili cheese fries this time.

Supposedly he’d been at City Hall conducting business and just happened to come tagging along for the funeral. Next thing the mayor would be telling her to believe in the Tooth Fairy. No sir. Showing up wasn’t a coincidence.

Somehow, Nicolau knew Cordelia would be there and he used his connection with the mayor to wangle his way into meeting her. Faith felt like kicking herself for mistaking a vampire for some foreign hottie. Hello, this was Sunnydale, not Boston. Not exactly the hub of the universe unless you were a demon.

Still, there was something compelling about the way he looked, darkly handsome, almost beautiful. A lot like Angel. He was the kind of vampire that never went hungry because there would always be a surplus of men and women eager to crawl into his bed—or just find the nearest dark corner. If he was human she could definitely go for some of that. Not that vampires couldn’t be hotties. Most just left her cold, or were more appealing to her as a pile of dust. 

He might be a Pretty Boy, but the rest of Nicolau’s act was a turn off. Too cultured. Too foreign. He was probably the kind that asked permission before he kissed you. Definitely not her type. Except, of course, that she bet he could go all night, and that was kind of appealing. 

Faith shuddered. What was she thinking? Nicolau was a vampire. It had to be the snazzy suit. She thought of her new watcher in his blue suit and bow tie. Guys in suits seemed to be her thing lately.

Maybe it was a good thing she was away from the mansion. Giles would probably be pissed if she seduced the new guy. The last thing she needed was another lecture on controlling her wilder instincts. Oh, he’d made it sound as if he was talking about her sometimes impulsive reactions while in the midst of a fight, but she wasn’t so dumb that she couldn’t read the warning in between the lines.

The air inside City Hall smelled of heavy doses of Lemon Glade and furniture polish. Faith’s nose twitched as she resisted a sneeze. Hiding out behind a tall plant at the edge of the outer office, she waited until the mayor left for an appointment. Giles had given her an assignment that required something other than her usual breaking and entering. It also required that she show up during the day rather than after hours.

The mayor’s inner sanctum wasn’t her target. It was his personal assistant, Mabel Tuttle. Miss Mabel was the deceivingly sweet-little-old-lady type right down to her purple hair and offers of freshly baked cookies, but she kept the mayor’s schedule organized and everyone else in line.

The maintenance crew never questioned the occasional large dust pile or goo-slimed wall that appeared inside the Mayor’s office. This was Sunnydale and strange things happened. When they did, Miss Mabel took care of it by expediting the clean up. She kept the crew on a tight leash.

“Whistle while you work,” Faith had heard her chirp on more than one occasion while ordering the men to scour the floors to her specifications. “Our wonderful mayor likes his people to show that they’re happy with their jobs.”

Frickin’ creepy.

She’d rather go head-to-head with a demon than tussle with Tuttle. Unfortunately, this job couldn’t wait for the middle of the night when there would be fewer people around. Giles needed specific information and there was only one place to get it.

Taking a second to paste a dimpled smile on her face, Faith rounded the corner and walked over to the tidy oak desk. “Well, well, well, it’s a little early to be seeing you, Faith, my girl. I was sure you street walkers roamed around after dark.”

Oh. So it was going to be one of those days.

A fake smile was apparently easily detected on the old woman’s radar. Faith dropped it. “The mayor doesn’t pay me for coming here if that’s what you’re getting at.” She didn’t like the inference that she was some kind of hooker.

“Whatever you say, dear.” Smiling guilelessly, Miss Mabel lifted up a china plate that was patterned with purple violets and decorated by a white doily. Cookies were piled in a neat little arrangement. “Snickerdoodle?” 

Faith knew better than to argue with the woman. She was just trying to rile her up. In a weird kind of way Miss Mabel was a rival for the mayor’s attention. Wilkins had never made any kind of come-on. That had surprised her at first. He wouldn’t have been the first guy his age to try it. They’d built their friendship on mutual respect. Only now she knew that it was actually more of a wobbly house of cards.

The mayor’s real confidant was sitting right there behind the desk. “I need your help with one of the mayor’s projects.” Taking a cookie, Faith nibbled on it. She propped a hip on the edge of Miss Mabel’s tidy desk. The old woman twitched as a few crumbs fell onto the polished desktop.

“Special projects are best discussed directly with the mayor.”

“Oh, no need to bother him. You’re the one with the 411. Can I have another one of those?” Faith reached for another snickerdoodle. “These are the best frickin’ cookies I’ve ever tasted.”

They actually were pretty damn good, but Faith was less interested in baking than she was in getting into Miss Mabel’s good graces. Giles had suggested this forward approach. Faith had been all set to follow the old biddy home, but she supposed it wouldn’t go over very well if she got caught mugging the mayor’s assistant in order to get hold of his personal schedule.

Not that it wasn’t tempting.

Faith spun her carefully woven story. The one where they mayor had asked her for a favor that had to do with Nicolau Cibran. Just the mention of his name caused Mabel Tuttle to titter, “He’s such a handsome man,” and then, lean forward conspiratorially to whisper, “for a vampire. So suave. So debonair,” she sighed.

That settled it. Even though Angel was certain the man at the funeral was actually a vampire, Faith needed to hear it confirmed by other reliable sources. Next to Mayor Wilkins himself, Mabel Tuttle was it.

The old woman’s dreamy smile turned sour when she said, “His girlfriend’s demeanor was quite icy. I didn’t like her at all.”

“Isobel?”

“Yes, that was her name. Cold as the grave in more ways than one.”

Knowing that Willow had identified Isobel as being at City Hall it made sense that she had been here the same time as her sire, but Willow had cast that spell before the day of the funeral. That meant Wilkins had more than one meeting with Nicolau. “My project for the mayor—uh, can I check out his schedule for the days that Nicolau and Isobel were here?”

There was a long silence as Miss Mabel considered her request. “Certainly. Anything that will help our dear mayor. I know he will want your little project to be a success. There were two occasions.”

An expensive-looking leather binder was placed before her on the desk. Faith flipped through the calendar until she got to the appropriate calendar page. It looked like a pretty typical day with meetings and activities scheduled from 9 a.m. through the late evening:

Greet Scouts. Longshore & Warehouse Union Workers—speech rescheduled. Nicolau Cibran. Attend funeral @ Trinity Church /Beverly Quinn. Haircut. Become Invincible. Meeting with PTA. 

There were no other notes surrounding the meeting with Nicolau on the day of the funeral. Just his name. She was annoyed to see Bev’s name scrawled into Wilkins’ schedule. It wasn’t out of respect or a sense of duty, but a chance for publicity that he was there in the first place. She had to wonder whether Nicolau knew the mayor would attend and that Wilkins was his way to crash the funeral or if it was really just a coincidence.

Ticked off, Faith flipped backward in the calendar searching for the first meeting. The words blurred suddenly as something she scanned over on the previous page finally clicked. Turning back to it, she read it again: Become Invincible. It was listed right between a haircut and a meeting with the PTA as if it was something just as routine.

That was yesterday, so if things went as scheduled, Wilkins was now invincible. Faith started to think that the mayor was up to a helluva lot more than she ever imagined. Looking up at Miss Mabel who was watching her every reaction like a hawk eyeing its prey, she asked, “What’s this mean?”

Before she could respond, the mayor made a grand entrance into the room, his arms opening wide as he saw Faith chatting with his personal assistant. “My favorite girls. It’s early for you, Faithy. I didn’t expect to see you today.”

Sliding off the edge of the desk Faith straightened up and smiled instead of saying what she was really thinking. Fuuuuck. What’s he doing back so early? Now she had no choice but to talk directly to the mayor. When he headed for his private office, she followed leaving the ever-watchful Miss Mabel back at her desk.

Plopping down into the cushioned leather chair in front of his desk, Faith stretched out her legs, crisscrossing them at the ankles. Getting comfortable, or at least doing her best to look that way. Since she didn’t normally show up here during office hours it seemed best to cut straight through the bull.

“I was curious about that guy from the funeral. You don’t usually get so worked up about out-of-towners. Must be some important hotshot.”

Wilkins swiveled his chair in order to face her directly. His eyes narrowed slightly as he studied her and Faith fought against the urge to squirm under his gaze. Staring back, she waited him out in silence.

“Do you know what he is?” the mayor finally asked.

“A vampire,” Faith responded without hesitation. Apparently, it wasn’t a secret from Miss Mabel, so she doubted Wilkins planned to keep the truth totally under wraps. “A vampire who doesn’t go up in flames when he stands in the sun. Kinda breaks all the rules, doesn’t it?”

Wilkins looked contemplative for a moment. “I don’t like people who break the rules, Faithy.” It went unsaid that any rule breaking could only be done for his personal benefit. “This vampire is something of a mystery. There is very little information to be found through the usual channels.”

Trying not to look as surprised as she felt, Faith wasn’t very successful. It showed on her face. “You don’t know the guy?” She had started to build up this big expectation that all of Wilkins’ sneaky underhandedness had to do with the prophecy. How could he be involved and not know about the vamp in charge?

Looking troubled, the mayor actually frowned. “No. What little I do know is rather worrisome. A vampire who comes directly to me to help suppress news regarding a demon gathering knows more than he should.”

Guessing he wasn’t completely in the dark, Faith prompted, “Demon gathering?”

“Oh, some little ritual at the Hellmouth.” Now the usually unflappable mayor sounded annoyed. “Cibran was rather evasive when I questioned him. There is something happening in my town that I am not organizing. I don’t like it, Faithy. Not one bit.”

It seemed Mayor Wilkins knew less than she did about Nicolau Cibran. “So why did he tag along to the funeral yesterday?”

“At first I suspected it was something of a power play. To prove he could survive the sunlight. Showing off an ability no other vampire could match.” His theory changed upon arriving at the funeral, Wilkins explained. He saw that the vampire’s attention was focused, not on the two slayers in the crowd as would any mortal enemy, but on Beverly Quinn’s granddaughter. “Then I realized his interests were elsewhere.”

Cordelia.

“Your pretty little friend certainly drew his attention in a way that was beyond a vampire looking for his next meal. He seems to like brunettes.”

Faith recognized the look in his eyes that told her she was not going to like what came out of his mouth. “Don’t even think about it.”

Smiling, Wilkins leaned forward across his desk. “You can do this for me, Faith. It is important for me to know that Cibran’s plans aren’t going to interfere with mine.”

“What exactly are your plans?” Assuming that the mayor hadn’t already noticed that she was looking at his personal schedule, Tuttle would tell anyway. So it didn’t seem like a risk to comment on what she saw there. “This Cibran guy is invulnerable to the sunlight. You’re invincible now, too. What’s up with that?”

Rather than being surprised or irritated, he smiled even wider. “All in good time, my dear. You’ll play an important role in my future success, but first we have to get a handle on the competition.”

Faith wondered what competition he was talking about.

Decision made, Richard Wilkins relaxed back into his chair, drummed his fingers on his desktop and told Faith what he wanted her to do. When he was finished, Faith did not try to hide her annoyance. “For someone who gives speeches about the moral decay of society, you’ve got a pretty damn strange way of showing you believe it.”

He tutted at her use of language, but Faith wasn’t finished. “I’m frickin’ tired of being pimped out to vampires. First it was Angelus and now Nicolau. I’m a slayer.”

“You’ll do whatever and be whatever it takes. That’s what friends do for each other. Right now that means keeping a close eye on Nicolau Cibran.”

“How am I supposed to do that? I’m supposed to be keeping tabs on Buffy and her little slay pals.”

Picking up a pen, the mayor printed out an address. “Miss Summers isn’t interfering with my plans at the moment. Beverly Quinn’s death worked to my advantage in more ways than one."

Guilt still held her in a tight grip. Faith was not exactly the forgiving type even when it came to herself. The part she played in Bev's death would be with her forever. It was not something to be proud of even though it cemented the mayor's belief that she was on his side.

Wilkins put the pen down. "Her granddaughter’s grief splits your friends’ priorities. That will give you the opportunity to focus on Cibran.”

Faith glanced at the small square of stationary pushed to the edge of the desk. “He’s staying at the Avalon?” Luxury apartments on the south side of town. Security 24/7. Ocean view. Ritzy. The kind of place you could not get in the front gate without some kind of appointment.

“Find out everything you can.”

Killing two birds with one stone sounded a lot easier. “I’d rather just stake him.” The minute she told Angel the news she figured Nicolau was going to be dust, one way or another.

Not opposed to that option, Wilkins reminded her, “A vampire with the kind of power he possesses is not easily killed or controlled.”

“Who said anything about wanting it easy?” Faith winked over her shoulder.

Before she made it out the door, he offered, “Do this for me and I’ll see that you get your own place at the Avalon.”

That charming smile spread across his face and Faith felt it reel her in. He'd talked about it before. Getting her out of the snakepit that was the Downtowner Motel and Apartments was something he'd been promising like a proverbial dangling carrot. The Avalon was far beyond anything she imagined he'd be willing to set her up in.

The idea of living in a classy place made her pause in the doorway, the surprise on her face quite genuine. “Really? Me in a place like that.”

“Only the best for my favorite girl.”  

137:     Sunnydale High School, Eastside, Sunnydale

“I can’t believe Snyder gave us detention,” grumbled Buffy as she filled a pail of water from the janitor’s closet. “For once I was just an innocent bystander.”

Oz felt that detention was too harsh a measure in this instance. If only Xander’s little Jell-O demonstration of splatitude had not accidentally involved the principal’s suit they might have gotten out of it. Now they were stuck cleaning graffiti that someone else had sprayed across school grounds.

Still, there was no use fighting about it. The stoic demeanor that normally kept him off Snyder’s radar no longer applied when he was anywhere near Buffy Summers. It was guilt by association pure and simple. Oz accepted this as an unchangeable fact.

Even though Buffy had nothing to do with Xander’s lunchtime Jell-O mishap or, as she had indicated, the theft of items from the school Chemistry Lab, Buffy was under the principal’s constant scrutiny. Having learned from Willow that there was a gym fire at Buffy’s last school, Oz could understand the concern, especially since Buffy tended to be in the thick of things when something went wrong.

Cleaning a little graffiti was a small price to pay compared to what he got out of this business. Considering what might have become of him if the werewolf hunters found him, he was grateful that the slayer found him first.

He listened quietly as Buffy outlined their assigned tasks, inwardly amused that she doled out duties much like she did when organizing patrol. Oz didn’t often join them on their nightly excursions, but Willow extolled their adventures in detail. Sometimes it bothered him that his girlfriend was placed in dangerous situations, but there was pride, too. Her skills and confidence had grown by leaps and bounds since they first met.

Sometimes he felt like he was holding her back. Witches and werewolves belonged to different worlds despite their link to the supernatural.

Catching himself focused on thoughts that were better left to another day, he blinked slowly and then let his mind catch up with the conversation.

“Holy cow, Batman.”

A gleep sounded as Willow rounded the corner leading up the library. “Giles is gonna be the one having the cow.”

Oz took in the dark red splotches covering the walls. Symbols scarred every surface. Paint dripped like blood. This was not the work of disgruntled students marring the walls with the name of their favorite bands. He’d seen the Dingo’s name depicted in artful forms more than once.

The way that Buffy carefully set her full water pail down and moved cautiously down the hall scanning the symbols raised the hairs on the back of his neck. Oz sensed her nervous reaction.

“It looks like blood.”

“Paint,” Oz confirmed. He could smell it.

Buffy glanced at them over her shoulder, her eyes dark, shadowed by something Oz could fully understand, a predator sensing danger. She met Willow’s gaze, and then Xander’s before nodding toward one particular symbol on the library door. “That’s it, right? It’s the one from the ring. Amolon.”

Their nods confirmed it.

Having just learned some of the details, Oz took this to be a very bad sign. Demons were gathering in Sunnydale for a ritual that would bring a powerful god to Earth. It required sacrifices including Cordelia Chase if they were correct about the prophecy scroll’s method of identifying its victims.

There were too many people looking out for Cordelia to ever let that happen. So he hoped. Her old friends, the Cordettes, would have sooner thrown her to the wolves if it meant facing the kind of danger she was in. They were superficial, clueless about the realities of Sunnydale. Oz had to give Cordelia a lot of credit for overcoming that.

Like him, he was at the fringes of the Scooby Gang, an outsider of sorts who didn’t really belong. He wondered if she saw it that way or if her return to their ranks after the rebar accident was the only way she could cling to something meaningful. Or if, given the choice, she didn’t want to go back to the life she had before. Oz supposed that she couldn’t considering her financial circumstances, which Willow had revealed to him.

Buffy didn’t wait to issue orders. She barged through the library doors calling out her watcher’s name. Both Willow and Xander took off next and so Oz followed after them though at a protracted pace. He paused to touch his fingers to the paint. They came away tinted red.

The paint was still fresh.

Snyder had not mentioned the library as being the target of the graffitist. They had been headed for the back exit where the principal had described damage to the outer walls of the school. That was why the students hadn’t been gossiping about it all day long. It was closer to the teachers’ parking lot than any section of the school where the students hung out.

Now it was here in the halls outside the library. Oz pictured the school layout. It was a ring of symbols. A partial one. He was mentally tracking the path of halls someone would have to take to make a complete circle when Giles and the others swept past him through the other door.

As expected, Mr. Giles was stunned by the sight of demonic symbols marking the walls around the entrance to the library. “This is the work of Amolon’s demon cult.”

Obviously.

Oz remained silent for a moment as he waited to hear what else Buffy or Giles had to say on the subject. Having been informed of most of this second hand he felt it was better to hold back and assess the situation before diving into trouble.

“How’d they do this? There are still people around.” Buffy hissed angrily over the fact that her enemies had come and gone while laying waste to her territory.

Gesturing to the scrub brushes in Willow’s hands, Giles commented, “I see that you plan to clean it up. Excellent notion, though I admit something of a surprise.”

“Nah, we’ve got detention,” clarified Xander. “Snyder nabbed us at lunchtime.”

“Ah. That, however, is not.” Giles pursed his lips and stood akimbo as he perused the damage. “I heard nothing.” He explained that he had been conducting research in his office. “This wasn’t here earlier today.”

Choosing that moment, Oz raised his stained fingers so the others could see. Willow caught on right away. “Fresh paint,” she gasped. “It hasn’t been here since lunch.”

“So the culprit could still be around.” Stepping away from the group, Buffy peered back down the hall, her eyes flitting across every diverging corridor. “Maybe we can catch this demony creep and get him to tell us where to find his boss.”

The vampire who could survive sunlight. Oz made the connection based on what was said about Cordelia’s grandmother’s funeral. “If the symbols are here…,” Oz raised a brow as he looked toward Giles who quickly came to the same conclusion.

“The ritual is connected with the Hellmouth.”

Buffy told Giles, “The rest of the graffiti is outside near the back entrance.”

“The beginnings of a circle,” Oz suggested.

“Of course,” Giles turned himself around in a slow circle as he gaze down the corridor and back through the glass portion of the library door toward the back of the room. “If the demon is still on school grounds…,” he began only to see Buffy sprint away in the direction of the trail of symbols before he could finish, “it will be that way.”

The slayer had already vanished around the corridor before any of them managed to break into a run. “Wait up, Buffster!” Xander called out as he and Willow headed in that direction.

Oz and Giles, still standing firm, both sighed over the fact that it would’ve taken a lot less effort if anyone actually listened before dashing into the fray. Glancing up at the watcher, Oz waved a hand in the direction of the library door. “Short cut?”

“Emergency exit,” Giles nodded in confirmation as they headed back into the library.

The afternoon sun glinted into his eyes as he emerged outside. Oz shaded them by raising a hand to block the light. A quick scan of the side of the building showed a lone figure huddled close to the wall. Buffy burst onto the scene. Oz had seen her in action before, but it still stunned him to see how quickly she could move.

Willow and Xander appeared after that, but the Slayer was already halfway to her quarry. It didn’t look like a demon, he noted, though the strong light created more of a silhouette. The creature took no notice of the oncoming danger continuing to brush painted symbols in a large arc across the brick surface.

It was surrounded, Oz realized with a twinge of satisfaction, as he and Giles ran from one direction while Willow and Xander covered the other. Buffy went straight for it. With a flying leap she tackled it to the ground. A feminine screech sounded followed by a flurry of movement as the Slayer rolled across the grass to straddle and pin her opponent down.

Slowing up as he got closer, he saw that it was not a demon, but a girl. Someone he knew. Someone they all knew. Karla Brewer, the first one identified by the signs of the prophecy and taken to be a sacrifice.

She was alive...

And, for some reason, was painting demonic symbols on the school.

Buffy recognized as soon as she had forced her into a position from which she could not break free. “Karla?”

The blank eyes that stared back showed none of Karla’s blue-eyed warmth. Tinted black, they revealed nothing human. “He shall come.” A string of demonic sounds followed before she repeated, “He shall come and only the worthy will embrace his power.”

Letting go one arm, Buffy slapped her across one cheek hard enough to leave a red mark behind. “Snap out of it, Karla.”

There was no effect. Oz hadn’t expected that anything as simple as pain would break the hold over his schoolmate’s mind. “She doesn’t even recognize the sound of her own name.”  

138:  The Basement, Crawford Street Mansion, Central Sunnydale

 “So what are you saying?” Cordelia tried to sound nonchalant about it. “That I’ll end up like her?”

They had no choice but to bring Karla Brewer back to the mansion. Until they found a way to return her to normal, neither the police nor her parents could offer suitable protection. Right now the girl was shackled with a pair of iron cuffs and the matching link chain that Buffy had used to secure Angel when he returned from hell.

Angel put his arm around Cordy’s shoulder squeezing her close as she leaned in. “It won’t happen. They’re never going to get their hands on you. I won’t let it happen.”

He rubbed his cheek against her hair and kissed the top of her head, uncertain if he was comforting her or trying to convince himself. No matter how many times he said it.

“This is actually a rather hopeful sign.” Wesley crouched down to examine the bound girl more closely. She was huddled against the stone wall, legs pulled up close to her chest, and her arms wrapped around them. A low hum sounded from her throat that was interspersed by bouts of unfamiliar words and quite distinguishable phrases that predicted the coming of Amolon.

Giles raised his glasses up a notch to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Hopeful in what way?”

Leaving the cleanup job for later they worked together to get Karla Brewer back to the mansion. Oz volunteered the use of his van. The demented girl struggled against Buffy’s hold and it took Xander’s help to keep her from kicking free. Willow rode up front with her boyfriend while Giles had followed behind them in his own car.

“She’s alive,” Wes pointed out.

“Being dead is a whole lot more fun than what that girl’s going through,” Spike put in his two cents. Having heard the commotion as the slayer and her watcher dragged the girl through the front door, he decided to head downstairs and join the others.

Drusilla wasn’t so keen on him leaving their bed, but he needed a stretch of the legs. He had stepped into his jeans and headed downstairs barefoot and shirtless pausing only long enough to confirm that his sire would follow shortly.

Ignoring Spike’s comment, Wesley explained his rationale. “This may be reversible. If we keep both her and Cordelia out of their hands before the requisite ritual, they will be unable to perform it.”

“Score 2 points for the Scoobies.” Xander and Willow exchanged high fives.

Giles glanced toward the front entrance and then checked his watch. “We have six hours before the signs of the prophecy recommence. According to the scroll the next sacrifice will be revealed tonight.”

“Another virgin sacrifice?” sniggered Xander whose amusement was cut short when Buffy nudged him a little too hard with her elbow.

“Worried you’re on the list, monkey boy?” Spike asked snorted and pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his back pocket.

Groaning, Buffy muttered into Xander’s ear, “Ixnay on the irginvay.” The last thing she wanted was to get into the whole Cordelia-doesn’t-qualify thing again.

Heavy with doubt, Giles told them, “The scroll was rather vague on the matter of the sacrifice’s identity.”

“No, it’s not.” Cordelia snapped out of her temporary gloom to tell them of Wesley’s discovery. His eureka moment had come after she’d gone upstairs with Angel, but he had been eager enough to knock on their door.

Angel wasn’t exactly pleasant about the interruption of their little afternoon ‘nap’ and Cordy had spent most of the time hiding under the covers. It was one thing for Wes to know she slept with Angel, but quite another for him to see proof of it.

She walked across the foyer in the direction of the study. “You’ve got to see this.” If not for the commotion of bringing Karla Brewer back to the mansion, Wes would’ve pounced on Giles and Buffy the moment they arrived. “It’s the scrolls. Wes says we owe it all to Drusilla, dontcha Wes?”

Looking a little miffed that she had gotten to the story before him, Wesley rose to his feet again. “Precisely.”

As if on cue, the vampiress descended the stairs dressed in one of her lace gowns. A knowing smirk tilted the corners of her mouth. She held out her hand for Spike who led her back to the group. Her eyes were focused solely on her sire. “Does it please you, my Angel?”

Spike scowled and dropped Drusilla’s hand.

“It helps,” Angel answered and maneuvered around before she could nuzzle his shoulder. He squeezed her hand instead which made Dru’s little pout disappear.

She turned back to Spike when Angel released her. “Daddy says I did good.”

Still scowling, Spike took a deep drag and blew the smoke in her face. “Well, maybe he’ll give you a little treat and let you tie him up.”

Cordelia stopped on her way down the hall and turned back to glare at Spike. “That’s my vampire. I’m the only one who gets to do that.”

She spun around again so that her hair whipped around nearly catching Wes in the face. Drusilla tittered as she followed behind Cordelia leaving the others gaping in Angel’s direction. Buffy’s eyes were round saucers. Xander looked like he might be sick. The hue of Willow’s face nearly matched her hair and Oz’ ears were a bright shade of pink. Even the two watchers tried to look like they hadn’t heard a thing.

“Hypothetically speaking,” Angel said as he wished for the hundredth time that this was all over and these people would get the hell out of his house. He walked over to Wesley who was standing in the middle of the hall staring into space. “You planned to show us your discovery.”

Blinking back from the naughty corner of his mind where Cordelia had him tied up to a bed, Wesley hurried to the study. When everyone was settled, he asked Cordelia to help him with the scroll. She held one end and he the other. The firelight blazed with a yellow glow behind it.

Slowly, the blank spaces of the parchment began to fill. First came random symbols, and then words that became whole paragraphs of hidden text revealed by the light.

“Drusilla’s vision was spot on even if her action of burning the books,” Wes paused to send her a stern glance, “was uncalled for.”

“Dark secrets cast long shadows when they come into the light.” Giles repeated what Drusilla had revealed to them before. “The light brings truth and darkness.”

“So what does it say?” asked Buffy anxious for news that would let them put a stop to this prophecy once and for all.

Wesley explained that he was still translating the whole of the text. “However, I was able to find a reference to the next sacrifice. Just here,” he pointed to the glowing text for Giles’ benefit. Translating: “Bound by law, granted freedom’s breath, and a momentary respite bringing him into the waiting arms at the maw of Hell.”

“What’s that mean?” Willow whispered and snuggled closer to Oz on the couch.

Having remained quiet until now, Oz made a guess. “It’s a prisoner. Someone bound by law. A man with temporary freedom from jail. Coming here to Sunnydale. Back to the Hellmouth.”

“Is that right?” Xander looked to Wes for answers, to Giles, to Drusilla, to anybody. “That can’t be right. Karla and Cordy…they’re the virg—pure-ish types. Some convict can’t be considered pure, can he?”

Angel had been thinking about that issue from the moment Wesley told him about it earlier that afternoon. They had all made the assumption that deflowering Cordelia might disqualify her for the ritual. The truth was that the prophecy never mentioned virgin sacrifices. It only referred to the Pure Ones, they who would be used to bring the demon god to Earth by sacrificing their purity.

“We may have to rethink that.” Angel hated to admit it because it meant Cordy was not exempt. He’d never truly believed it, but he had wanted to.

“Guess this means we have to talk strategies for tonight.” Buffy was all set. She was ready to kick some demon butt tonight even if it meant saving some ex-con.

The interpretation of the translation seemed sound. The nearest prison was quite a distance away and there were many routes a traveler could take to get to town. “We need to watch the highways, the Bus Depot, the railroad and the marina.”

Cordelia foresaw another night of being locked up for her own safety. “That’s a lot of territory to cover. You’ll need help.”

“I’ve got my van,” Oz reminded them. “Willow and I can cruise the highway.”

“Thanks, but I was thinking about—”

Spike cut in just because she was looking in his general direction. “Me? Bloody hell. Why should I go traipsing all over town looking for some wanker?”

It was Drusilla who answered, lifting a long finger to his lips. “Because Cordy wants you to help.”

Angel’s brow furrowed at the thought of having Spike on the job, but Cordelia was definitely right about them having a lot of town to cover.

Against his better judgment, he consented. “Okay, Spike can help.”

“Me, doofus,” Cordelia smacked his arm. “I’m going with you tonight. Team Chase is back in business.”

Before World War III could break out, Xander asked, “How do we recognize this guy when he shows up? The first time a guy went up in flames and then a meteor shower came down on Cor’s head.”

“Just watch for something out of place,” suggested Wes thinking that the boy was not far off the mark. The prophecy remained rather vague. “We have a better idea what to expect than we did this morning.”

“That’s nice to know, Pollyanna,” Spike puffed on his cigarette as he spoke. “Now tell us what qualifies as out of place in this ruddy town?”

They bantered back and forth while Cordelia and Angel took their own argument into a corner. “This isn’t what I had in mind when I promised to take you out.”

Angel was treading softly and Cordy knew she had him where she wanted him. There was no way she was letting him renege on the promises he’d made just a couple of hours ago. “So what? As dates go, I can think of worse things than a moonlight walk along the marina. At least it’s not Old Sunnydale Cemetery this time.”

The inner battle Angel fought against an outright refusal was settled with a gruff, “I don’t want you hurt.”

“Maybe we’ll get lucky and Team Chase will miss out on all of the excitement tonight. Wanna make me happy?” Cordelia slid her arms around his neck and smiled when he pulled her close.

“Always.”

“Take me to dinner. There’s a restaurant by the marina. It’s open late.” Cordelia was more interested in spending a romantic evening away from the Scoobies than the ex con they were supposed to save from certain sacrifice. “Plenty of time to ourselves before Cinderella’s clock goes off at midnight.”

Across the room, Buffy noticed Giles checking his watch for the third time in as many minutes. “Got somewhere else you need to be?”

It took a second for him to notice she was addressing her question to him. “Ah, no. I was concerned about Faith.”

For the first time since they returned to the mansion with Karla, she noticed that the other slayer was nowhere to be seen. Cocking her head, she stared at Giles’ worried expression. “Why worry? Faith’s a big girl.”

Talking about Faith brought Wesley into the discussion. He knew about Giles’ plans to send Faith to City Hall. Whist he had not fully approved of them, he saw no other choice. “She should have returned hours ago. You mean to tell me that she hasn’t been with you at the school library?”

“Faith doesn’t exactly hang out there by choice,” Xander explained suddenly feeling kinda worried, too. Ever since he learned that she was acting as a double agent of sorts he decided that he really didn’t like the idea of her sneaking around with the mayor. He was not quite sure if that was because he did not fully trust Faith like he did Buffy or if it was because the mayor did. “Some people are lucky and aren’t forced to live a life of suffering anymore.”

Wesley could not imagine what he meant.

“School.”

“I like school,” Willow defended the institution and smiled over at Oz who was far too wise to say anything one way or another.

Having overheard that Faith was overdue from her little secret mission, Cordelia was not about to let the news slip by. “Was she supposed to check in? You don’t think the mayor figured it out she was two-timing him with us, do you?”

Buffy crossed her arms and repeated what she had said to Giles. “Faith knows how to handle herself. She’s not a total idiot. She probably got bored. If I find out she’s at the Bronze…”

Behind them, Faith suddenly stepped out of the shadows of the open door. “You’ll do what, Buff, spank me?”

“It’s about bloody time.” Giles did not give Buffy a chance to respond. He walked up to her prepared to give her a lecture and was stunned into silence when she planted a quick kiss on his cheek.

“Nice to see someone missed me,” she teased him as he fled back behind the desk to wipe away the red lipstick. “Anyone else want a kiss?”

Spike started to move forward when her stare stopped him cold. “Not you.”

Standing with her hands behind her back, Faith grinned until her dimples deepened. “Guess what I’ve been doing?”

“Can I have a go at that one?” Spike raised his scarred brow in a teasing query.

Buffy pulled him back to sit beside her on the couch, closer than she liked, but where she could keep an eye on him. “Shut up, Spike.”

“You gonna let the slayer talk to me like that when I’m a guest in your house?” Spike asked Angel, gesturing widely with one hand while slipping an arm on the back of the couch behind Buffy’s shoulders with the other.

“Yes.” Angel answered curtly and gave him a look that told the other vampire that he saw exactly what he was doing. “If you consider yourself a guest, then you’ll keep to the house rules.”

Spike sighed dramatically. “No toying with the slayers.” He let his fingertips trace a strand of silky blond hair only to feel the sharp jab of an elbow. Grunting, he added, “Whatever you say, Grandpops. Mummy taught me to respect my elders.”

As Spike and Drusilla shared a little laugh, Angel looked over at Cordy who was not doing a very good job of hiding her own amusement. “You and me. Nine o’clock. The marina.”

He finally understood Cordelia’s need to get away from everyone for a while.

“Before you make plans for that big date,” Faith took another step into the room, “I have something to show you.”

She took something from behind her back and held it out to them: a porcelain doll dressed in red velvet and lace with ribbons decorating her dark curly hair.

“Miss Edith,” Drusilla squealed and made a run for the doll. Snatching her out of the slayer’s hand, she hugged her tight to her chest, and rocked her back and forth. “Miss Edith, you’re home. Naughty girl letting the bad man take you away. You’ll have to be punished.”

Wesley walked cautiously around the twirling vampiress as she continued to dance around the room in celebration of her beloved doll’s return. “Where in the world did you get her?” he asked Faith.

“Nicolau’s lair is at the Avalon. Or it was until today. Looks like our vamp has moved somewhere else.” Faith described what she found and ignored the general grumbling that she should have waited for back up. “I was just checking it out. Recon. Nothing dangerous.”

Ticked off that Faith would go off on her own like that, Cordelia was not planning to let it drop. Neither was Angel. “What if you were walking into a trap? Or a full lair? Nico would love to get his hands on you.”

“Feeling’s mutual,” she shrugged.

“That’s not what he meant,” Cordelia snapped impatiently, “and you know it.”

“Save the lecture, Cor. I do not need it. There is something else. It came with the doll. They were the only things left in the place when I got there.” Reaching into her back pocket, she pulled out a long envelope and handed it to Angel. “That’s for you.”

Angel took a long look at the old-fashioned script that spelled out his name: Angelus. 

139:     The Desert, Thirty-Five Miles Northeast of Sunnydale

It was a long walk from the cement walls of the Federal Correctional Complex to the barbwire fences that separated it from the California desert. Only a few had dared to escape. None ever made it. Harry Sims had never even tried.

He knew that he did not need to.

A full six months before he was up for parole again, something already twice denied him, Harry was granted a visitor. The news surprised him. It was late. And it was not a Saturday when his wife showed up for their conjugal visits only to bitch at him over the fact that her BMW was in the shop again. His momma came around on the first and third Monday every month. And his younger brother— hell, the last time Harry saw him was the day he got convicted.

The guard stood outside the room after letting his visitor inside. Harry stayed seated. It worked better that way, being handcuffed and all. His visitor wore Armani. It had been a long time since Harry had worn anything but an orange jumpsuit. He did not know the man from jack, but knew the instant he set his fancy leather briefcase on the table just what he represented.

Freedom.

A smile spread across Harry’s face. Finally, the day had come.

“Mr. Sims, my name is Jake Devries.” He produced a card from a tiny leather holder and slid it across the table. The logo of Wolfram & Hart was emblazoned across it. “I’m your lawyer.”

140:     The Study, Crawford Street Mansion, Central Sunnydale

Blood.


His name was written in blood.


Dark red letters scrawled the name Angelus across the envelope suffusing it with an unmistakable scent. Not the sweet, coppery tang of human blood even in dried form. This was tainted by death.


Vampire blood.


He had noticed the subtle scent upon Faith’s arrival, but it was not until she handed him the envelope that he was hit with the full effect. Nicolau. It was as if a rival vampire had entered the mansion uninvited.


Reacting instantaneously, white-hot anger shot along Angel’s spine building into a latent roar that tangled up in his chest. A rippling sensation raced across his brow as it always did just before the visible traces of his humanity slipped away. The demon within him clawed for release eager to pave the way to hell with the enemy’s body parts, all in a split-second reaction.


Only the startled look on Faith’s face made him realize what was happening before he fully vamped out. For an instant, he was caught halfway between his human mask and vampire features. Golden eyes stripped of the limitations of human sight took in the shadows, the way the firelight danced on the exposed skin of her throat.


The piercing release of fangs had just begun when…


“Down, boy. Don’t kill the messenger.” Trust Cordelia to notice, too. He felt her hand slide up along his back, warm, melting away some of the tension in his tightly corded muscles. “It’s just a letter. Right?”


Somehow, Angel pulled it together. With a reflexive shake of his head, he was human again, at least on the outside.


No one else had noticed his brief struggle. They were all focused on the envelope in his hand trying to guess at the nature of its contents.


Even before opening the envelope, he knew that they would be wrong.


“It’s a challenge,” Buffy sounded almost eager for it. “Setting the time and place for a showdown.”


If only it was.


Letters were safe, easy, civilized. That is what this was even though it was written in Nicolau’s own blood. Well, Angel did not want civilized. He wanted a fight.


He knew he was not going to get one.


Not yet, anyway.


Isobel would have passed on his message to her sire. If Nicolau had any intention of responding in person to his demand for a face-to-face meeting, he would have shown up on his doorstep. This was just supposed to get his attention.


Well, it worked.


This was no ordinary letter. Still, he was tempted to toss it unread into the fire and watch it turn to ash.


“Cheap ink. It’s all crumbly.” Cordelia’s observation included that ‘eew’ tone as if she suspected the truth, but would rather believe otherwise. The lettering flaked in spots across the parchment envelope revealing the ink’s true nature and creating imperfect streaks in the carefully penned letters.


Though standing ten feet away, Spike noticed it as he finally paid attention. He vamped out not bothering to hide his reaction to the enemy’s scent. “Blood.” A growl rumbled in his throat. “Not fooling around, is he?”


Gritting his teeth, Angel managed a curt, “No.” The method in which it was written revealed the letter’s intent. A truce. The idea was beyond belief. Ridiculous.


Cordelia shuddered and ran her hands over her crossed arms as goosebumps appeared. “Could that guy get any creepier?”


Xander did not think so. “Chock-full-o-nuts vamp is just trying to scare us.”


The boy was looking a little green around the gills, Angel decided. “It’s not what you think. This is Blood Script.”


“I’m pretty much thinking,” Xander used air quotes, “‘Psycho Vampire’ covers it.”


Nicolau’s obsession with prophecy notwithstanding, he was not completely psychotic. This was not a crude threat. Blood Script served as an oath between equals. Its use was deeply traditional amongst vampires, considered elegant, and to Angel’s mind, overly dramatic— much like Nicolau himself.


Both watchers confirmed they had heard of it.


Giles tapped his glasses against mouth before commenting. “I was unaware that the clans still used Blood Script to communicate.”


“We don’t,” Spike scoffed loudly.


“Ah, but you do,” countered Wesley. “Or perhaps I should say the more sophisticated vampires do.”


“Oy!”


Still vamped out, Spike leaned closer to Wes who scrambled to clarify his statement. “It’s a very old practice. Not at all popular with the modern minded. Quite outdated now that you mention it.”


Used only by the oldest of the clans and rarely by anyone other than their leaders, it was proof that the letter came from the one writing it. Vital information was shared by spilling what was ultimately vital to oneself. It came with an expectation of trust.


A concept apparently lost on the messenger.


Cracks in the red wax seal on the back of the envelope indicated that Angel would not be the first to examine the contents. Looking to Faith for an explanation he watched as her jaw set and her chin jerked up a notch.


“You opened this.”


Standing cross-armed, she shifted her balance from one leg to the other. Not denying it, she simply shrugged one shoulder.


“Duh, of course she opened it.” Cordelia rolled her eyes at him before asking Faith, “So what’d it say?”


There was no use getting angry at Faith. Even before getting to the letter, Angel had a feeling the slayer’s curiosity had gone unsatisfied. He was right.


“Wish I could tell you, Cor, but it’s written in some kind of vampire code.”


“Well that sucks.” Cordy pouted in an adorable way that had him staring at her lush lips, remembering their softness and the warm depths of her mouth. The memory of their last kiss nearly made him miss the concern weighting down her otherwise airy words. “I guess he didn’t want anyone reading your mail.”


Indulging her with a brief smile for her ability to lighten any situation, Angel met her gaze and held it. The others might not recognize her true feelings, but he did. Worry pooled in those hazel depths as he stared into them. Love and concern for what the letter might reveal, fear for him, for herself.


Were they reflecting his fears instead of hers?


There was no reflection, of course, just the flickering firelight and— impatience. Matching expressions of mild annoyance made him wonder just how long he had been staring. Wesley somehow managed to sneak up on him to get a closer look at the envelope and was craning his neck at an odd angle in order to see the details of the inscription.


Angel glared at him until he backed off a couple of steps.


Pushing up the glasses that had slipped down his nose, Wesley excitedly explained to them, “Coded communiqués between vampire clans were in vogue back in the days when only clergy and certain levels of society could read. There are several popular ciphers. Decoding them is something of a hobby of mine.”


Cordelia rolled her eyes at him. “Eager much? Try not to drool on it.”


“I am merely attempting to offer my expertise,” defended Wes with a harrumph. “I am highly rated by the Council, I’ll have you know.”


Standing to Angel’s immediate right and facing Wes at the opposite side, Cordelia let out a rude snort. “Oh, I think you’ve mentioned it…like a dozen times.”


“Certainly not. You exaggerate.”


“Pfft!”


In the middle of a combat zone where verbal barbs shot back and forth, Angel nearly told them to shut up. Then, realizing that their little tiff allowed him to scan the first paragraph of the letter without interruption, he said nothing and started to read.


There was no code, but he could see why Faith was not able to understand a word of it. He got no further than the opening statement when Willow asked, “Is it written in blood, too?”


Angel was too caught up in the contents of the letter to answer. Her question was apparently enough to make Wesley realize that bantering with Cordy was pointless because he stopped mid sentence to respond. “No doubt. However, it’s the nature of the blood that conveys a particular message to the recipient.”


“You lot got nothing better to do than study vampires?” growled Spike.


Faith did. “Stake ‘em.”


“Know thy enemy,” Wes quoted Sun Tzu applying the art of war to humanity’s long fought battle against demon kind. “The Watcher’s Council has a few samples of Blood Script letters preserved in the special collections section of the archives.”


“Speaking of the enemy,” Xander gulped heavily, “and blood— I’m getting this whole serial killer with fangs vibe. Was that his latest victim?”


Angel felt Cordelia startle at the question. Without taking his eyes off the letter he slipped his hand down to hers and threaded their fingers together. She squeezed his hand when he simply confirmed, “It’s not.”


“The use of human blood is a threat, a taunt or a display of power,” Wesley informed the group that he had studied such details in addition to viewing the sampled letters. “Vampire blood or demon blood have quite different meanings.”


Giles added, “The council uses a special chemical reaction test to determine the type of blood.”


Now muttering, Spike added, “Can’t even mind your own bloody business.”


Ignoring Spike, Buffy came up with a game plan. “We could get what we need from the Chem Lab. I’m already on Snyder’s hit list. He blames me for the last break in, so what the hey.”


Willow was not willing to let Spike’s comment go taking offence on their behalf when neither watcher bothered to respond. “Vampire business is their business.”


Moving closer to Angel now, Spike glanced toward her long enough to smirk. “Well it’s a bloody stupid one, Red. Bunch of grown men letting little girls fight their battles for them.”


“Watch who you’re calling a little girl,” Faith scowled at him beating out Buffy by only a second.


With an irritated huff she reminded Spike, “Then I guess it was a little girl who beat you the last time we crossed paths at the cemetery.”


“That was a standoff, slayer, and it was just a fun tussle. Gotta admit you didn’t feel much like a little girl when I had you—”


A cry of pain suddenly cut him off as Buffy yelled, “Ow!” Reaching for the back of her head and whirling around to face her assailant, she found Dru holding a few strands of blond hair.


Her dark black eyes flashed from Buffy back to the doll in her arms. “Miss Edith, you naughty girl.”


The hand holding the hair whipped behind her back.


Buffy’s skin crawled as she realized she had been so caught up in Spike’s stupid little game that Drusilla had taken the opportunity to sneak up behind her. Next time it might not be a childish hair pulling. The crazy vampiress might have slit her throat as easily as she had Kendra’s.


“Get away from me,” Buffy warned her through gritted teeth. All her instincts told her to reach for Mr. Pointy and put Drusilla to a dusty end. Angel would not like that. He had ordered her to leave Spike and Dru alone. That still grated on her nerves.


Having tuned most of it out Angel glanced up from the pages of the letter only when Cordelia’s fingernails dug into his arm. He was not in the mood to deal with Drusilla—or Buffy for that matter. “Cordy.” An almost imperceptible nod in their direction was all it took to convey concern and his wishes.


Cordelia gave him a ‘who me’ stare before her astonishment was replaced by a look of pure determination. They had shared concerns about Angel’s childe living in close proximity to the slayers. Right now Angel had enough on his plate with decoding the letter.


Though she wanted to stay at Angel’s side to ask him about it, she needed to distract Drusilla before she forced Buffy’s hand and they ended up with vampire dust all over the rugs. It was not like they could pay a housekeeper to come to the Crawford Street Mansion, not with its reputation for being haunted.


No way was she going to be the one to clean up the slayer’s mess. Stepping between them, Cordelia put on a brilliant smile. “Say, wasn’t it great that Faith rescued Miss Edith? Slayers aren’t so bad once you get to know them— even Buffy. And, hey, isn’t that a new dress?”


Drusilla forgot all about her little tiff with Buffy and focused on the fact that someone had gotten quite personal with her favorite doll. Miss Edith’s dress was scarlet velvet with matching silk ribbons at her waist and in her curly-cued hair.


Urging Buffy into a cooperative response, Cordelia hissed at her, “Say something.”


Still irritated, but not stupid, Buffy realized what Cordelia was trying to do. She let go of her grip on the stake tucked into her waistband. “My grandmother once gave me a porcelain doll like that. She had hair like mine.”


“Bottle blonde?” Cordelia’s response came on autopilot before she remembered that she was supposed to be settling things down, not stirring them up.


Drusilla giggled. Buffy did not.


Having a difficult time concentrating on his own more serious thoughts, Giles sternly turned his gaze upon the three of them. “Now, girls, this is hardly the time for hair pulling and trading insults.”


Willow nudged Oz with an elbow as they leaned against the desk side by side. “Like there’s really right time for that?”


“Oh, there is,” Xander propped his head on his hand while leaning over the arm of his chair, “but it usually involves tiny bikinis and a mud pit.”


Drusilla was not impressed. “Hmph!” She and Miss Edith returned to their waltz in the most shadowy corner of the room.


“You wish,” mouthed Cordelia to Xander. He looked a little dejected when Buffy also scowled at him and then shared a look of disgust with Cordy whose mistimed insult was now a thing of the past.


Laughing aloud, Faith ruffled Xander’s dark hair with her fingers as she walked past him. “Sounds like fun to me. I’ll play if Wesley volunteers to referee.”


“Good heavens.”


Angel glanced up after fully scanning the letter twice just in time to see Wes turn an interesting shade of red. The constant distractions and interruptions, not to mention Xander’s inappropriate eyebrow waggling at the girls, was aggravating. “Maybe you two could leave the mud wrestling for another time and pay attention.”


“Guess that makes you the stick in the mud, mate,” Spike guffawed and slapped him on the back.


Turning swiftly he thundered, “Cordelia’s life is at stake. Get your heads on straight. All of you. Either you’re going to help with this or you can get the hell out.”


While his head was spinning from the details of Nicolau’s letter, they were just cracking jokes. He wanted to pound a few skulls together to get their attention, but Angel suddenly had enough.


“The situation is no laughing matter,” Giles spoke with an air of caution. After all, he had asked for an end to the arguments. “However, it can’t hurt to ease the tension a bit now and then.”


Angel did not want them relaxed. He wanted them ready. “The blood isn’t human.” He held up the letter to get their focus back where it needed to be. “It’s vampire blood. Nicolau’s to be precise.”


Pointing out that vampires were hardly known for their morality, Wes recommended, “Considering the source I suggest we take that with a grain of salt. Still, to actually see a blood letter first hand…” his words failed him.


“It serves as an oath of sorts if my understanding is correct,” Giles deferred to Wes who had more extended study on the subject. He remained reservedly subdued in his own interest while his younger counterpart could barely contain his enthusiasm for it. 


The Council had several language experts whose talents extended to interpreting a wide variety of ancient tongues and decoding rare forms of script. Wesley was one of them. That was part of the reason he had been chosen by the council to come here.


The practice of written codes had fallen out of favor over the past century thanks to modern communication devices.


It surprised him that Nicolau would bother.


“It’s not written in code,” Angel commented having scanned the entire document. A groan of disappointment sounded from Wesley who recovered quickly enough to ask why Faith would think that in the first place. “It’s Galician.”


Feeling a little impatient herself, Cordelia huffed, “I don’t care if it’s Galactic, Greek or Gobbledygook. What’s it say?”


“Galician?” Wesley’s enthusiasm suddenly deflated a visible notch. The language was not exactly on top of the Watchers Council syllabus. “Like most European languages its roots stem from the Latin. Though it is a rare dialect, Galician is very similar to Portuguese. I should just manage it.”


Giles’ attention had remained mostly on Angel during the past few minutes. From his observations, he was not certain that Wesley’s assistance was necessary. “Angel, as the letter was written to you in that language might I assume that you can interpret it?”


Staring down at the pages in his hand, Angel decided he needed some time to think about what was written there. Though it had been a while since he read anything in that language, he had not forgotten it. Admitting that would only force him to reveal its contents before he had more time to think about them.


Maybe if he suggested the watcher take the letter away for a detailed translation it would give him time to consider Nicolau’s words without the distraction of so many other opinions. Everyone would have something to say on the Nicolau’s offer when it was ultimately going to be up to him to choose how to respond.


“Angel, how is your Galician?” Wesley looked stunned by the concept that he would know it.


Angel supposed the watcher would be horrified to discover that his knowledge of the language had been obtained in the name of seduction and ultimately led to the death of a beautiful Galician girl. The memory of it flashed in his mind as fresh and vibrant as any he experienced. Some things were better kept to himself.


“Rusty.” That was truth enough for the moment.


Advising that they get an accurate translation, Wesley asked to use Willow’s laptop. “It will take a few minutes to access the translation matrix of the Council database. Unlike some of the more ancient languages Galician is fully documented there.”


Angel held out the letter to Wesley. “Go ahead.” His expression gave away none of the satisfaction he felt at achieving even a minimal delay. By the time the watcher finished his exactingly accurate translation he would have some means of providing Cordelia with some reassurance.


So he hoped.


Spike snatched the letter before Wes could take it. Roaring his name, Angel’s calm mask vanished instantly. He growled, “Read it or give it to Wes. This isn’t a game.”


Moving out of arm’s reach, Spike almost looked hurt that his actions were questioned by his own kind. “No need to bother with that tosser. Dru and me spent a bit of time in Portugal back in the 40’s. Recon that’s close enough.”


Not for Wesley. “Close might mean the difference between a truce and a blood bath.”


Fully aware of the contents, Angel ruefully realized he was not going to get much of a chance to let Nicolau’s words sink in. The truth was going to come out sooner rather than later. Fine. Maybe it was better that way after all.


Taking a seat on the couch, he motioned for Spike to get on with it.


Despite Wesley’s distrustful scowl, Angel decided it would be interesting to find out if Spike would provide an accurate translation or skip over the parts he might not want the watchers—or Angel—to hear.


“What do you think it says?” Cordelia curled up next to him and trustingly leaned her head against his chest, her spreading warmth an instant reminder that her life was the most important thing to consider here.


Her curiosity came with a hint of fear. “I suppose he wants you to hand me over.”


It scared him how accurate Cordy’s instincts could be. Knowing what Nicolau had to say did not provide him with any reassurances. He reached up to tangle his fingers through her hair gently pulling her head back. Forgetting all about their audience for a moment, he placed a soft, lingering kiss across her mouth, a silent promise that he would never let Nicolau’s plans for her come to fruition.


The uncomfortable clearing of Wes’ throat broke them away from the hazy warmth of the kiss. Angel noted the disapproval in the brief glance before he looked away. Wes would have to forgive him his momentary lack of decorum. Apparently embarrassed by what he had seen, he stumbled over the words as he asked Giles, “Do you think it wise to trust Spike with such an important task?”


Giles was not even looking at his younger counterpart or Spike for that matter. It was Buffy whose stillness was so complete it took his other senses to determine she was even there. The rapid beat of her heart was quickly diminishing to its normal rate. It had not been his intention to hurt her while comforting Cordelia.


There were some things Buffy was going to have to work out on her own.


Behind them, as if her attention had been on the ongoing debate all along and not on the kiss, Buffy snorted, “Spike can read?”


Spike dramatically clapped a hand over his heart. “Do I look like an idiot?”


Her answer was lightning-quick. “Yes, now that you mention it.”


Giles finally gave Wesley an answer. “Spike has a vested interest in defeating our mutual enemies. Isobel tortured him at her sire’s behest. They attempted to kidnap Drusilla. I see no reason to deny him the opportunity to contribute.”


Even Spike looked surprised. “What he said. At least somebody around here trusts me.”


The brows arching above Giles’ glasses suggested he would not stretch it quite that far.


“If somebody doesn’t read the letter soon, I’m going out for pizza,” Xander sighed.


Put out by the consensus to let Spike get on with it, Wes sat down on the couch next to Angel and Cordelia looking quite vexed by the decision. “Well don’t blame me if he spins a yarn a mile long.”


“Oh, keep your knickers on. I’m on your bloody side,” Spike reminded him. “After I take a crack at it you can go play with it and your little matrix all you want.”


Warning him, “Bet on it,” Wesley sent Angel a firm nod assuring him of getting an exact translation.


“Now if everyone would shut the hell up so I can read…” Spike eyed Buffy to see if she would say anything further. “Let’s see what this ponce has to say.”


Angel tried to relax, but sensing Cordelia’s tension only increased his own. He knew what the letter revealed. She suspected the truth of it. They both had to wait Spike out as he muddled through Nicolau’s scripted handwriting.


“Says here he thought Angelus was dead. Claims he’s not our enemy.” Spike let out a cough of disbelief. “Bloke’s got a funny way of showing it by letting that icy bitch of his carve me up.”


Giles closed his eyes for a moment and then asked, “Please keep the commentary to a minimum.”


“Read it word for word.” Cordelia told Spike. “Don’t leave anything out.”


Taking a look at the second paragraph, he smirked a bit before agreeing. “If you say so, kitten. Just remember not to kill the messenger—or go after the family jewels.”


“What’s that supposed to mean?”


He smirked. “You’ll see.”


Angel was already starting to regret his decision against tossing the letter into the fire. That would have given him plenty of time to prepare himself for what was to come.

Cousin,

Long years have passed since last I heard the name Angelus—

“Angelus?” yelped Xander the moment he heard the name. Realizing, “The envelope was addressed to Angelus.”


Spike growled for silence. “That’s his name lackbrain.”


“I think Xander’s trying to say that Nicolau thinks Angel is still evil,” Willow offered helpfully. “He doesn’t know about the soul. Um…So, why doesn’t he know?”


She looked toward Oz as if he had the answer to everything. Oz could only shrug.


“The Banished Ones have likely been isolated for some time,” suggested Giles. “It may be that he is unaware of Angel’s curse.”


“Former curse,” Cordelia emphasized that it was not an issue any more.


Angel listened to their theories with quiet interest. As they would discover, Nicolau was far from ignorant on the subject. His influence with the local demon population was already growing. For the moment, he simply did not believe it. Though any face-to-face meeting between them would instantly reveal the truth to Nicolau, who would not be distracted as was his childe into missing the presence of his soul, Angel had to wonder whether he might use their assumptions to his advantage.


Long years have passed since last I heard the name Angelus. Rumors of your final death spread across Europe over a century ago. Perhaps that was wishful thinking on the part of your enemies. Do not count the House of Solaris among them for we are of the same blood and will soon share in the same fate.


Cordelia’s head lifted up from his shoulder. “What fate?”


“A promise tied to the prophecy.” Angel had told them what Isobel revealed to him. Even though he did not know the details he worried that the temptation of such power might tempt Spike into betrayal.


“But—“


“Pet, I’m about to get to the good part.” Spike smirked at her and then got back to reading.


Since Angel couldn’t tell him to skip down a couple of paragraphs without revealing that he had been able to read Galician he closed his eyes and gritted his teeth to await the resulting explosion.

My darling Isobel provided me with news of your encounter at the warehouse. As you know by now, my childe is quite enamored of you and your legend. She has regaled me time and again with a recounting of your fight against our minions. I grow weary of it and so encourage you to bed her soon. It is the only thing that will shut her up.

While the rest of the room was deadly silent Cordelia snorted with laughter. “Pfft! As if.”


To Spike’s apparent disappointment she sounded amused by his potentially jealousy-invoking revelation rather than threatened by it. The bastard should have known better than to leave that line in. Maybe she was laughing now, but what if that was just to hide her true feelings?


One big block of tension as he tilted her face up to his, Angel started to deny that he would ever consider the kind of deal Nicolau was offering. He wanted to assure her of his love. “You know I…” Conscious of the others’ presence he paused before sharing sentiments that were not meant for their ears. Picking up where he left off, he simply said, “I have no interest in Isobel.”


Cordelia pulled his hand into her lap giving it a gentle squeeze as she threaded their fingers together. She believed him. When her laughter faded, there was still a spark of curiosity in her hazel eyes. “So it’s normal for vampires to share their girlfriends?”


“Uh—That’s complicated.” Angel really did not want to have this conversation, but he could see that he was not going to get out of it. “Under certain circumstances it’s… it’s…”


Spike helped him out by finishing up: “Expected. It’s just sex, pet. Told you Izzy was a looker, didn’t I? Wouldn’t mind a go myself if I didn’t plan a little payback.”


Their previous conversation about Isobel had not covered the ins and outs of vampire sex. “So you’re saying that Dru would let you?”


Angel felt Cordelia’s shoulders stiffen with tension. He did not like the direction of the conversation sensing that it was something better left to the two of them behind the privacy of their bedroom door.


But if Spike caught his cautionary glare he ignored it in favor of looking toward his own sire who was busy smoothing the little folds of Miss Edith’s skirt. “Depends on her mood,” he told Cordy truthfully.


“So Nicolau expects me to let Isobel have Angel? Over my dead body.”


Groaning, Angel could see that this was only going to get worse if he did not put a stop to it. Unfortunately, he could not get a word in edgewise.


“Don’t be r—“


Spike said, “I think he’s planning to oblige you, luv.”


“I don’t—“


Not wanting to hear anything more about Nicolau’s plans for her, Cordelia was still focused on Spike. “Urgh! You know what I mean.


“You’re not a vampire. In his eyes, you’re just Angel’s pet. You don’t have the right to object.”


“Says who?” she demanded petulantly.


Finally, Angel blurted, “It’s you I want. Isobel’s fantasies are never going to happen.” He traced the contours of her face and stared soulfully into her eyes.


“Duh!” Cordelia nuzzled his hand with her cheek and pressed her lips into his palm causing Angel to relax instantly as he realized Cordelia was just making a point.


“Perhaps we should move onto the next section,” Giles said before Spike stirred up something else. “Now.”


“Spoilsport,” Spike muttered before reading on.

Join us, Angelus.

“See!” Xander shouted. “I told you.”

Let the lines of Aurelius and Solaris reclaim their true heritage. The offer Isobel made to you was quite genuine. Our bloodline will soon possess that long promised us. With our two Houses united nothing on this Earth can prevent us from claiming what is rightfully ours.

“Does it say what that is?” asked Wesley sitting on the edge of his couch cushion and eagerly hanging on to every word.


Spike stopped translating when he got to the next line and kept reading ahead on his own. “Cheeky bastard! I’ll bloody well show him what to do with his apology. Oy! You lot listen to this.”

It disturbed me to spill Aurelius blood to further our cause, but as you know I will do anything to ensure my master’s plan succeeds. Isobel can be quite vicious when she wants to be. Please convey my sincere apologies to Spike and his lovely sire. We have taken the liberty to provide Drusilla’s beloved Miss Edith with a velvet gown and hair ribbons. Perhaps this will soothe her ire, as I know she remains vexed with me.

Drusilla hissed.

The past two days have led to many interesting discoveries about you, Angelus. The mayor of this backwater American town is quite a knowledgeable host in regards to local resources and history. He was most informative about you. Isobel has sworn to take Wilkins’ head for spreading such dreadful rumors and I would have allowed it if he was not so damned congenial. 

“If we let her it’ll save me a load of trouble,” Faith said as she paced past Giles. “Let one problem solve the other.”


Buffy reminded her sternly, “The mayor is human.”


With a laugh, Faith asked, “Is he? There’s room for doubt. He smiles way too much.”

I found the tale quite amusing. The great Angelus cursed with a soul and in love with a slayer. Where do people get such ridiculous notions? Such a liaison would certainly be doomed from the start.

“This guy should write an advice column,” Buffy muttered sourly.

It was almost as disturbing as the news that you destroyed your sire. I look forward to hearing the truth on these matters. As I now understand it, Master Aurelius, and your sire, Darla, were defeated in a glorious battle by the slayer, thus giving you the sole right to assume leadership over the clan.


Why have you not?

“Because he lost his bollocks when he got his soul.” Spike answered the question and stared straight at Angel while doing it. He was not one to let an opportunity for an insult pass by, especially when he thought it was the truth. “You lost what it takes to be master of our House when you started feeling sorry for having an appetite. You’re a vampire, Angelus.”


Refusing to be bated, Angel remained seated. “I know what I was, Spike. Yes, I’m a vampire, but I’m still finding out who I am.”


“You’d better find out fast, Peaches. Sounds like our boy Nic just figured out that you aren’t in charge.”

Any master worth the illustrious title would have already claimed a foothold here at the Hellmouth. Your minions would be everywhere. Instead, there are none who claim you as their sire. Perhaps your glory days are long over. If you do not wish to claim power that is rightfully yours then perhaps I, in the right of my master, Solaris, will do so. For he is of the same blood and possesses as much right as you, if not more, to lay claim to the House of Aurelius.

Angel growled reflexively. The rumble in his chest caused Cordelia to stir from her comfortable spot. He pressed a kiss against her hair to sooth her. Spike’s words had stirred up something that reading Nicolau’s letter had not. While it was true that he did not want the title or anything that came with it, he was not willing to let anyone else supersede him.


He did not know if it was instinct, demonic aggression or plain old human pride that made him feel that way. “Just so you know your place in the pecking order, Spike.”


“I don’t answer to you anymore.”


“For the moment you do,” Angel reminded him of their deal. If Spike wanted to stay the course and reap revenge on Isobel, he couldn’t do it alone. Drusilla wanted him here. He answered to her, and Dru, when it served her purposes, answered to Angel.


The letter started to crumple in Spike’s hand. His lips pursed. Finally, he said, “For the moment.”


Angel felt the tension in the room dissipate when Spike returned to his task reading the letter.

Come cousin. Do not delay in claiming what is yours. For I assure you that you will want a part of what is promised us. This is the challenge you must face. Those who do not have power in the new regime will be slave to it.


Join us.


One more thing must be made clear. Your beautiful pet must undergo the Rites of Tavrok. Cordelia Chase possesses that which will secure our destiny. Having met her so briefly at the funeral of her grandmother, I see why you would be drawn to such beauty. It is quite easy to picture her in your bed as you take pleasure in her warm golden flesh.

“Um, what’s with the staring?” Cordelia demanded when all eyes focused on her.


Spike smirked before continuing. “Nic’s not the only one with an imagination, pet.”

Considering the passion of your threat against me and mine, I sense the human is important to you and I find it curious that there is no visible mark bearing your claim. If you planned to sire her and keep her at your side as I do my darling Isobel then I grieve for your loss. That future will never be hers.


Accept my offer to join us and I will ensure you the freedom to enjoy your pet for as long as possible. Though our allies will continue to seek out the other Varstrae like your Cordelia it is my duty to bring her before Kalesh so that the Rites of Tavrok may be performed upon her. Give her to me at the rising of the next full moon and I will ensure that my master acknowledges you as the heir of Aurelius.


In the new world Amolon creates, you will have all the power you could ever desire. Surely, the sacrifice of one human, no matter how beautiful, is worth the price.


                                                                            N         

The moment Spike finished, he handed the letter over to Wesley who began to look over it word for word. Having no real need of the Council’s translation matrix, he used this opportunity to determine Spike’s trustworthiness. Surprisingly, the vampire had provided an adequately accurate translation. Wesley had initially intended to test Angel’s veracity on the matter when he questioned his knowledge of Galician, but this worked out even better. Angel might be given the benefit of the doubt in this situation because he prioritized Cordelia’s safety. Spike was something of a loose cannon.


It was a good thing Giles had played along. For if anyone knew the extent of his full resume regarding languages it was he. As casually as possible, he skimmed over the second to last paragraph wherein Nicolau mentioned the Rites of Tavrok.


“Inadvertently, Nicolau may have given us another clue,” Wes let one particular line echo in his head again and again as he made a connection to something the Galician vampire had written with what little he knew of the history of that area.


Since Giles had been focusing on researching the House of Solaris and its connection to the Galician villagers, Wesley figured he would understand. “Tell me if you come to the same conclusion. Galicia was associated with the name of an ancient Celtic tribe known as the Gallaeci. In Latin…”


“That translates to Callaeci.” The moment he spoke the word aloud, Giles started to catch on, pronouncing the word with a hard ‘k’ sound.


Wes nodded and took it one step further. “Kallaikoi in Greek.”


“It’s just Greek to me,” quipped Xander who was unable to follow any of what they were saying as usual.


Next to him, Buffy whispered, “Me too.”


“Me three,” chirped Willow tagging along.


Oz gave them an odd look and remained silent.


Giles reached for the Compendium of Demons and Demigods in one of the piles of books on the study floor as he came to a sudden understanding. He flipped through the book until he reached the page he sought. “We wondered at the ties between the demon-worshipping vampire sect and the human population living in Galicia. Angel revealed the fact that they too worshipped demons which was the reason they have protected the secrets of the Banished Ones.”


“That’s Nicolau and the House of Solaris,” Willow whispered to Oz who was still a bit fuzzy on a few of the facts.


Oz squeezed her hand in silent thanks and listened on.


Using a finger as a bookmark, Giles held the aged book up for them to see. “Their origin goes back to the 5th century B.C. when the Greek historian and researcher Herodotus mentioned the tribes in his writings. They received the name Callaeci because they were identified to worship a Celtic goddess called Cailleach.” 


“Oy, didn’t our boy Nic mention that name in the letter?” Spike held out his hand to Wes who already knew what he would find there. The spelling was different, but the pronunciation was too close to ignore.


Angel searched his memory and found what Spike was looking for: “Kalesh, the one who performs the Rites of Tavrok.”


Next to him, Cordelia shivered in nervous reaction as she realized Kalesh to be the one who was supposed to sacrifice her to Amolon. She huddled closer to Angel. He nuzzled his cheek against her hair as they listened to Giles paraphrase the section of the book dedicated to Kalesh.


“Like many Celtic legends Cailleach is bound to nature. She is the ancient earth, the dying winter, a death goddess in the form of the ugliest of hags, and guardian to the ultimate life force. She stands on the cusp of Life and Death eternally linked to the essential powers of the earth.”


“She’s a demon,” Buffy understood that much.


“Kinda hoping she’ll be a dead demon before the Spring Fling,” Cordelia hinted with a painful smile. “I’m thinking I’ll look much better in my gown alive, breathing and not as a demony sacrifice.”

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