Darkness and Daylight

Cordelia / Angel Fanfiction & Art by Lysa Whitmore

SEASON OF SOLACE

PROLOGUE

The Abyss

At the nexus of the demon realms, only a step beyond the worlds he has ravaged, a god awaits the final days of self-imposed exile. Embraced by darkness. Alone by design. Solely focused on a goal nearly ten thousand years in the making he maintains constant vigil on the barrier separating him from what he wants the most: a world ripe for reaping. 

 

No stars exist in this space between dimensions, yet there is light wrought by raging energies of the abysmal plane. Tiny flickers spark and dim in an instant. Explosive bursts create swirling event horizons in their wake as their colorful auroras brighten all but its blackest depths. Chaos in fiery form consumes anything in its wake except for him. Eons of exposure to the elemental furies toughened his hide to a nearly invulnerable state. Scorching heat merely chases away the frigid cold, a soothing balm to one such as him.


Demons, warlocks and minor demigods pass unhindered portal to portal tapping into the energies of the abyss to create gateways to other worlds. He could stop them if he wished squelching them from existence without stirring. Most are far beneath his notice, but their goals are not dissimilar. Opportunity. Control. Power. His desires are great, his patience greater still. Yet, the waiting vexes him as the final days draw near.


Despite his overwhelming supremacy, these lesser beings have an advantage over their god. A single gate is all they need to access the world of their choosing. Not he who requires the combined power of the abyss to transport all that he is across the dimensional barrier separating him from his destination.

Tethered within this great expanse, he exerts his influence upon those who worship at his altars, countless beings praying for his notice little knowing the ultimate cost of his attention. Psychic links empower him providing sustenance.  


From the mightiest to the lowliest he ushers them along a path of his choosing, granting power, wealth, or knowledge while bending their will to his bidding.


The worthy ones benefit the most. Loyalty pays dividends. They and their own followers will prepare the way for him to cross the dimensional divide eager to be in the presence of their god. To gain all that he has promised.


They may have what they will for it matters naught in the end. He will continue to rule long after their bodies decay and their bones turn to dust.


So too shall this cycle continue.


Since their earliest days when they lived in caves, when they learned the power of words and weapons, and challenged the demons that thought to make them prey, he has been watching for hundreds of centuries of their time. Observing them. Manipulating. Guiding a chosen few toward their inescapable destiny.


Even now, his loyal followers look to the coming days ahead, when the prophecy of his emergence will be fulfilled, awaiting signs that harbinger his freedom.


Sacrifices must be made. Rituals followed. Elements unleashed.


The gates of the abyss will open.


Upon that day, the six billion inhabitants of Earth will embrace the dominion of Amolon.

BOOK ONE

1: Jefferson Avenue, Near the High School, Southeast Sunnydale

 

Raised voices on the wind caught Angel’s attention. Zeroing in on a confrontation ahead, he quickened his pace, the demon within him suddenly eager for a fight. 

Since his return from Acathla’s hell dimension, his darker instincts remained close to the surface. It had always been a struggle to avoid thoughts of violence, blood, and death, ignoring the pleasurable pang in his gut even at the idea of it.

That other place offered freedom from the guilt that always followed such cravings. Self-preservation required action without hesitation. No soul-searching required. Time made it easier to forget what he had left behind in Sunnydale, so much time that he had lost track of the days and years and decades that passed. Until all that remained within him was the struggle to survive. 

Clawing his way back from raw instinct toward a semblance of his old self had come with as much failure as success. Urges he had once readily controlled required far more effort to reign in. Meditation and will power kept his bloodlust and libido in check despite being tempted by the sea of humanity surrounding him again.

The Hellmouth had its own troubles and its share of dark memories, but at least he was home again, cursed soul and all, with only months gone by. How much of his time away was real versus hallucination? While his escape remained a mystery, Angel chose not to dwell on it. Instead, he filled his days by recalling every detail of his time in Sunnydale, sharpening memories, and finding the task surprisingly easy to accomplish. If only it was as easy to suppress the reminders of Acathla’s realm and the specter of his dark desires shadowing him everywhere.

Even as his supernatural hearing picked up the distant clash of familiar voices, he hoped the fight involved something dangerous. Flexing his hands closed he felt the skin stretch over his knuckles anticipating the pain and satisfaction of crashing his fists into whatever demon, vampire or unsuspecting punk had drawn Buffy into battle.

Moving toward the disturbance, Angel quickly realized he was not going to get the fight he wanted. There was a reason Buffy sounded unusually rattled. It took only a moment to realize this was not a physical fight, but boisterous confrontation with Cordelia Chase. Armed with a sharp tongue and a stubborn streak, Cordelia argued over something that had her hackles up. 

Angel knew better than to interfere. The moonlight created a cover of shadows along the brick building. Black clothes and stealthy moves made him blend into the darkness. Long strides slowed to a stop at the corner where he hugged his body against the brick wall to look toward the school’s front lawn where the two faced off.

Usually unfazed by much of anything, Buffy looked frazzled as if she had just gone ten rounds with a M’klar demon that refused to die. Her fingers threaded wildly through her short golden tresses as she paced away and then back to Cordelia who stood her ground with a distinct air of confidence. Not that the cheerleader’s attitude was surprising. 

At one time Cordelia seemed to like to play the part of the vulnerable damsel in distress whenever he was around to be her hero. Although not as soft and weak as she let on, Cordelia remained as vulnerable as any other human living near the Hellmouth.

Tonight she looked dressed for a date rather than battle wearing red head to toe, from those luscious ruby red lips down to the tips of her polished toenails. Angel’s gaze to travel down the length of toned legs exposed by her silk miniskirt. Looking longer than necessary, Angel excused it as admiring beauty the way any artist would. 

Just as quickly, his thoughts took a far less innocent turn, an image flashing in his head of Cordelia aiming that fiery attitude at him instead in a way that gave his hands and her acerbic tongue other uses. Despite the shard of guilt stabbing at him, he let the image play out until a heavy tug at his groin signaled just how arousing he found it.

Angel let out a low growl at the unwanted reaction, irritated at the ease of his body’s betrayal. He knew that it was not just the inappropriate thoughts about Cordelia turning him on. The fight was enough to rev him up a notch, setting his nerves on edge, causing his instincts to color his thoughts.

Seeing Buffy on the defensive, even if it was just a shouting match, gave him a twisted sense of satisfaction. After all, she tried to kill him and then dispatched him to hell. Deep down where his demon prowled his subconscious, Angel wanted payback. Such feelings were contrary to his plans to rekindle their rocky relationship. 

“Even you’re not that much of a blonde,” Cordelia scoffed. The insult was wrapped in a compliment of a sort. “It’s dumb to turn down extra help when it’s offered.”

A little grunt rattled in Buffy’s throat. Sounding confused, “Yours? This has to be a joke because I know you can’t be serious.”

Maybe it had to be done, Angel admitted, still thinking back to that night Buffy needed to stop Angelus from dragging the Earth into Acathla’s realm. Saving the world, even from him, was still her thing. That justified her actions, he supposed, considering the damning things he had said and done without his soul.

“How many times do I have to say it? I’m ready to come back,” Cordelia shouted the words as if the increased volume would help her meaning sink in. It certainly dragged Angel back to the present, her words precisely echoing his sentiments on the subject of his own appearance tonight. 

Cordelia’s defiant body language all but dared Buffy to say no as she stubbornly crossed her arms and tossed her lush brown hair over one shoulder.

Would his return to her circle also require a shouting match? 

Placating the beast he had become in that hellish place was not an easy task, but Buffy had made an effort. He owed her that too. Somewhere along the way, she decided that while he might be worth saving, their relationship was not. Something so damaged was beyond repair, and she deserved something better. 

Angel could not argue with that, but neither could he just let go despite Buffy’s adamant refusal to pick up where they left off. She had moved on, or was still trying to, but he needed her to stop moving, and to see that he was there for her. A fresh start was all he needed. All they needed. 

If only Buffy was in the mood for offering up second chances.

Snapping at Cordelia, “You’re not cut out for it,” suggested that she was not.

“Hey, I’ve earned this!” Cordelia bounded forward when Buffy started to walk away.

Angel felt a jolt of concern when Cordelia grabbed Buffy’s shoulder. The restraining hand was a mistake. Slayer instincts ran deep. She whipped back around dislodging the loose grasp and closing the distance between them with a speed that nearly knocked Cordelia off her feet. 

“Earned it how?” Buffy wanted some kind of explanation. “By breaking Xander’s heart every day you refused to see him?”

“He’s the one who cheated.”

Reminded, Angel realized that this was the first time he had seen Cordelia around since her injury. The rebar accident coincided with her breakup with the Harris boy. Despite dating the most beautiful girl in school, the kid cheated on her, and had been caught kissing Willow Rosenberg. 

Angel never particularly understood Cordelia’s interest in Xander. That had been a very odd pairing that made no sense in retrospect. Yet he supposed that it could hardly be any stranger than a vampire in love with a Slayer. 

Ever the defender of her friends, Buffy snapped back, “Xander won’t want you back.”

“Pfft! Like I’d take him. Not!” 

“I meant here. The meetings. Scoobiage.”

Different story. “Oh, he wants me back,” Cordelia revealed. A little too smugly if Buffy’s sour expression said anything about it. “He begged for it. On his knees. That’s not why I’m here.”

Leaning back against the brick surface, Angel listened to that little reveal enjoying the idea far more than he should, and not only because it included a little humiliation for the whelp.  

“Get to the point, Cor. No one wants you here. It’s too…painful.”

Would those be the same words Buffy used to turn him away again? Clenching his jaw, Angel felt his anger raging to the surface. 

Beyond the fading glimmer of hope that Cordelia’s acceptance back into the fold would signal his own return, a dark corner of his heart wanted to watch Cordelia push Buffy to the ground, claw that unfaithful heart from her chest, and rip her hair out at the roots. Maybe then she would know how it felt to be on the receiving end of rejection. 

Nothing revenge worthy happened, of course, and he really did not want anything of the sort to happen. So, Angel focused on staying out of sight and tried to pull it together. He shook off his rising anger and lingering lust, ignored the inner urge to release his fangs, and to join the fight. 

Reminding himself that Buffy was not the enemy, he reeled his anger back in and stayed put. The last thing he needed was to be caught watching their spat. Experience taught him that the situation would diffuse if he just waited it out. 

Their arguments flew back and forth. They had a way of bringing out the worst in each other. Despite Cordelia’s natural ability to rile people up, even her friends, Angel had no fear about Buffy losing her temper on a scale that might end in bloodshed. She might want to strangle Cordelia into silence, but even she had far more control than that.

Cordelia finally got around to telling her, “Giles invited me.”

“Giles!” Buffy’s jaw dropped as she stared in wide-eyed shock at the news. “No way!” 

“Something about an apocalypse and needing everyone to pitch in to save the world.”

Buffy seemed surprised at the news. Turning suspicious, she asked, “My watcher asked you, Cordelia Chase, to help with next Big Bad? Giles does not joke, so you’ve got to be lying.”

It did seem a little far-fetched, Angel admitted to himself, but it would be easy enough for the Watcher to refute it if her story was untrue. There had been no similar invitation on his doorstep.

Their voices dropped. Fortunately, the grounds were empty and quiet as usual at this time of the evening, and supernatural hearing made it easy to continue listening in.

A short while after his return, and just when Angel thought things were getting back to normal between them, Buffy suddenly started keeping her distance. She went as far as telling him to stay away from her. Their relationship was over and she no longer wanted his help. 

Buffy had been his one reason for crawling his way back toward sanity. Being told that she neither needed nor wanted him was a devastating blow. Hurt and angry about it he had closeted himself away at the mansion like a wounded animal until he realized that he was slipping back into the darkness. 

Knowing he could not give in to that temptation, Angel decided to take action. Whether she wanted him or not, Buffy would have to get used to having him around again. He had come to Sunnydale to help her fight and he planned to do just that. Somehow, he had to get her to understand that his return was inevitable. That she could not afford to refuse his help.

As for their relationship, he was not ready to let that go, either. 

Hoping to find Buffy in a better mood Angel had planned to crash the pre-patrol meeting tonight. Strangely, Cordelia had beaten him to the punch. “I have as much right to help out as anyone else.” Her protest made it sound as if she was signing up for a bake sale, but Angel empathized. The flash of bitter anger he felt was as much on Cordelia’s behalf as his own.

No one liked being denied what they wanted, or told they were not needed.

Buffy looked flustered, her cheeks flushed and blotchy red in the moonlight. “You were skewered by rebar.” 

“Duh!” Sarcasm rolled off Cordelia’s tongue. “I know that. I was there.” 

Even from this distance, he could tell Buffy’s defenses were breaking down. A whine sounded as she tried a logical appeal. “It’s too soon to come back.” 

Angel got Buffy’s point. Having inquired about the extent of the injury, he knew that Cordelia was lucky to be alive. She was also obstinate about not allowing what she called ‘a little accident’ to get in the way of returning. 

“Buffy, you need all the help you can get, and I’m not here to ask your permission. I’m telling you that I’m back.”

Letting her words soak in, Angel fought a smile at the proud tilt of her head. “So get used to seeing me again,” she added with a confidence that he took to heart. Those were his sentiments exactly, and he needed a little bolstering tonight. 

Considering Cordelia’s recent experiences, Angel had mistakenly figured she would have given her friends a wide berth. Like him, she was something of an outsider when it came to the Scooby Gang, and so he suspected there was a reason behind her return to the ranks, assuming Buffy allowed it. Cordelia’s failure or success during this standoff might tell him whether his own arrival would be accepted. 

“Forget it,” Buffy snapped, fists planted on her hips matching Cordelia’s defiant pose. “It’s only been a week since you got out of the hospital.” 

Cordelia’s chin rose up another notch, “It’s not as if you cared then, so why the concern now?” 

The notion that she did not care probably riled Buffy up even more, guessed Angel who knew that she had inquired about Cordelia during her hospitalization. Not that anyone knew much considering Cordelia had barred everyone from visiting. 

“You’ll be a liability,” Buffy tried another tactic playing each argument like a cards one by one. “Your wound is too fresh. Every vampire in town will be after you.” 

Always ready with a swift comeback, “That’s the idea,” Cordelia refused to back down. “Hello, I’m the bait.” 

But Buffy was not budging. “Patrolling is out. It’s too dangerous.” Then she threw out her ace, “Besides, I don’t think Xander would like it.” 

Angel felt a burst of anger on Cordelia’s behalf. The boy deserved to have some sense knocked into him. Too young and stupid to know that he had something worthwhile, he had thrown it away. Playing a risky game, unintentionally hurting a girl who thought she could trust him.

Bitterly, he realized the story sounded too damn familiar. 

He apparently felt more upset about the incident than Cordelia who waved the whole thing off, “Puh-lease,” as if her cheating ex-boyfriend was the least of her worries. “I think he deserves to see what he’s missing.” 

“Like that’s supposed to convince me?” Angel noted the way Buffy quickly sprang to Xander’s defense. His eyes narrowed to slits, his mouth a line of disapproval. 

Cordelia shrugged, casually flipping her hair over her shoulder. “It was your fault that it happened in the first place.” 

“Mine? I wasn’t even there.” 

“Exactly.” 

Explaining that she had time to think about the incident while stuck in bed at Mercy Hospital, Cordelia told her, “You were off macking on your homicidal hottie, while Oz and I were at that demon den. That’s when we found Willow all over Xander.” 

Angel frowned at the ‘homicidal’ comment, but felt a little rush at the follow-up. Hot was good, right? At least outward appearances had not changed, although he felt different inside. Time in hell had seen to that and Buffy knew it, too.

Recently, the way Buffy looked at him reminded him of the way she stared down a demon just before skewering it. He knew when to keep his distance even if it was in a stalkery manner. Now and then he would let her catch him at it, enjoy the thrill as she rushed up to accuse him—rightly—of following her around town, and search her stormy gaze for a sign that she still loved him.

Lust, longing, regret were all too apparent on their most recent encounter. Buffy had rushed away before Angel could act on what he saw there, but he became determined to reclaim his place in her life. For now, that meant showing up at the Scooby meetings whether she wanted him there or not.

Right now Buffy looked horrified that Cordelia would think she was shirking her duty as Slayer, especially since there had been a deliberate avoidance of anything remotely intimate since Angel’s return. His hope for recovering what they had in spite of the ramifications of the curse was quashed abruptly upon discovering that she already had a new boyfriend. 

Scott was no longer an issue, however. They had recently broken up, leaving Angel with another chance. One he planned to take. Things were awkward. Buffy had told him that she could not risk history repeating itself when it came to them. 

“We weren’t macking.” 

A huff followed. “Getting groiny, endangering the world, whatever.” 

Clearly flustered, Buffy stuttered to respond, “W-We weren’t getting, uh— Angel and I were busy slaying the demon that kidnapped them.” 

Cordelia did not exactly seem to believe it. “Busy, right, call it what you want. You owe me, Buffy Summers, so don’t try to stop me from coming back.” 

As a last ditch effort, Buffy pointed out, “This is the last place you ever wanted to be. Why now?” 

“Maybe I like the thrill.” 

Laughing at that one, Buffy scoffed at the idea that anyone who complained so much about the wear and tear of vampire dust on her designer clothes had other issues to deal with. “The thrill of offering unwanted opinions and playing vampire bait— sorry, try again.” 

“Civic duty?” Cordelia suggested after a thoughtful pause, adding a sour note. “I was really hoping to nab that Citizen of the Year award—unless you’ve already bagged it.” 

“I’ll put in a good word with the mayor next time I see him,” Buffy quipped. “I’m not buying, Cor. If you’re coming back just to be a bitch about things, you can save your breath.” 

Angel could tell she had hit a nerve. Cordelia’s brows arched high and she stared back with equal intensity. “Here’s the thing. A bit of rebar is not going to change who I am. If I’m a bitch to you or your friends, you need to ask yourself why.” 

Nothing would convince Buffy that there was not an ulterior motive involved. Even Angel had his doubts having listened to most of their conversation. He watched Cordelia’s face soften slightly, her lashes coming down to shade her eyes. She paused as if to gather her thoughts and then gave Buffy the only argument she had left. 

“I just want to help.” 

Buffy’s answer came faster than either of them expected, “Fine.” 

Almost startled by her acquiescence, Cordelia’s head jerked up. “You won’t regret it.” 

Turning on her heel, Buffy stalked across the school grounds toward the front entrance, muttering, “I already do.” 

Cordelia’s triumphant grin flashed in the moonlight. “Go team.” The quick move into a cheer stance caused a sudden hitch making her grab at her abdomen, something Angel suspected she was glad that Buffy missed seeing.

Maybe Cordelia was coming back too quickly after all, he thought watching her drop her hand back to her side and stroll leisurely in the same direction. He moved out of the shadows as soon as she reached the steps, planning to follow her example by showing up even without an invitation. 

After Buffy suggested that things were too difficult between them to continue seeing each other, he often kept to himself at the mansion. The loneliness was harder than he imagined, different than he remembered. The experiences of his time in hell were fading, replaced by the vivid recollections of his two short years in Sunnydale. Some days it seemed like eons had passed between then and now. Others times like it was just yesterday. 

He had grown used to having these people around and thought he would be able to depend upon Buffy to acclimate him again, that they would resume their relationship despite its challenges. Obviously, he misjudged the level of blame each of them had attributed to the other and the guilt that came with their actions. 

Angel thought it was worth it to try, but listening to Buffy as she showed him that stack of college brochures made him realize she wanted future plans that did not include him.  If she could leave Sunnydale, she had said there would be nothing here to hold her back. 

It was easy to conclude that she meant him, too. 

What he felt for her had been simple, but true. Angel knew now that it fed a need he did not know he had. Because of that, he would have done anything to gain it back. Now it all seemed like a bittersweet dream replaced by a nasty taste of reality, something he was more than familiar with. 

What he did to her and her friends was possibly unforgivable. Even now, the sound of Jenny Calendar’s fragile neck cracking beneath the force of his grip echoed in his head, just as a phantom ache seemed to gnaw at his chest where Buffy’s sword thrust sealed his fate. No matter that the wound itself had long since repaired itself, emotionally, it had left a hole where his heart used to be. 

Angel did not like the idea of being dismissed from Buffy’s life. It was one thing to admit that the feelings between them had changed, but to stay away also meant that he would not be a part of her mission here at the Hellmouth. He reminded himself that he was brought here to protect her, to help her. For now, that needed to be his primary focus. 

The Scooby meeting tonight was likely to be a revelation. 

Maybe Cordelia’s surprise arrival would distract them from the fact that he was also crashing their latest research party. She had a flair for making herself the center of attention and that was fine with him. He had no doubt that the others would accept her back into the fold since she was so determined to be there and also because Xander and Willow regretted their behavior. 

According to Buffy, both seemed to view the incident as a mistake, even though it obviously went beyond something as simple as indiscretion. Oz had apparently forgiven Willow and the two were trying to piece their relationship together again, something Angel admired and hoped to emulate. 

His issues with Buffy aside, Cordelia was in the lucky position of bestowing forgiveness on those who had done her wrong, assuming that was part of her plan. For him, it was the opposite. 

Raised voices on the wind caught Angel’s attention. Zeroing in on a confrontation ahead, he quickened his pace, the demon within him suddenly eager for a fight.

Since his return from Acathla’s hell dimension, his darker instincts remained close to the surface. It had always been a struggle to avoid thoughts of violence, blood, and death, ignoring the pleasurable pang in his gut even at the idea of it. That other place offered freedom from the guilt that always followed such cravings. Self-preservation required action without hesitation. No soul-searching required.

Time made it easier to forget what he had left behind in Sunnydale, so much time that he had lost track of the days and years and decades that passed. Until all that remained within him was the struggle to survive. Clawing his way back from raw instinct toward a semblance of his old self had come with as much failure as success. Urges he had once readily controlled required far more effort to rein in. Meditation and will power kept his bloodlust and libido in check despite being tempted by the sea of humanity surrounding him again.

The Hellmouth had its own troubles and its share of dark memories, but at least he was home again, cursed soul and all, with only months gone by. How much of his time away was real versus hallucination? While his escape remained a mystery, Angel chose not to dwell on it. Instead, he filled his days by recalling every detail of his time in Sunnydale, sharpening memories, and finding the task surprisingly easy to accomplish. If only it was as easy to suppress the reminders of Acathla’s realm and the specter of his dark desires shadowing him everywhere.

Even as his supernatural hearing picked up the distant clash of familiar voices, he hoped the fight involved something dangerous. Flexing his hands closed he felt the skin stretch over his knuckles anticipating the pain and satisfaction of crashing his fists into whatever demon, vampire, or unsuspecting punk had drawn Buffy into battle.

Moving toward the disturbance, Angel quickly realized he was not going to get the fight he wanted. There was a reason Buffy sounded unusually rattled. It took only a moment to realize this was not a physical fight, but a boisterous confrontation with Cordelia Chase. Armed with a sharp tongue and a stubborn streak, Cordelia argued over something that had her hackles up.

Angel knew better than to interfere. The moonlight created a cover of shadows along the brick building. Black clothes and stealthy moves made him blend into the darkness. Long strides slowed to a stop at the corner where he hugged his body against the brick wall to look toward the school’s front lawn where the two faced off.

Usually unfazed by much of anything, Buffy looked frazzled as if she had just gone ten rounds with a M’klar demon that refused to die. Her fingers threaded wildly through her short golden tresses as she paced away and then back to Cordelia who stood her ground with a distinct air of confidence. Not that the cheerleader’s stubborn attitude was surprising.

At one time Cordelia seemed to like to play the part of the vulnerable damsel in distress whenever he was around to be her hero. Although not as soft and weak as she let on, Cordelia remained as vulnerable as any other human living near the Hellmouth.

Tonight she looked dressed for a date rather than battle wearing red head to toe, from those luscious ruby red lips down to the tips of her polished toenails. Angel’s gaze travelled down the length of toned legs exposed by her silk miniskirt. Looking longer than necessary, he excused it as admiring beauty the way any artist would. 

Just as quickly, his thoughts took a far less innocent turn, an image flashing in his head of Cordelia aiming that fiery attitude at him instead in a way that gave his hands and her acerbic tongue other uses. Despite the shard of guilt stabbing at him, he let the image play out until a heavy tug at his groin signaled just how arousing he found it.

Angel let out a low growl at the unwanted reaction, irritated at the ease of his body’s betrayal. He knew that it was not just the inappropriate thoughts about Cordelia turning him on. The fight was enough to rev him up a notch, setting his nerves on edge, causing his instincts to color his thoughts.

Seeing Buffy on the defensive, even if it was just a shouting match, gave him a twisted sense of satisfaction. After all, she tried to kill him and then dispatched him to hell. Deep down where his demon prowled his subconscious, Angel wanted payback. Such feelings were contrary to his plans to rekindle their rocky relationship.

“Even you’re not that much of a blonde,” Cordelia scoffed. The insult was wrapped in a compliment of a sort. “It’s dumb to turn down extra help when it’s offered.”

A little grunt rattled in Buffy’s throat. Sounding confused, “Yours? This has to be a joke because I know you can’t be serious.”

Maybe it had to be done, Angel admitted, still thinking back to that night Buffy needed to stop Angelus from dragging the Earth into Acathla’s realm. Saving the world, even from him, was still her thing. That justified her actions, he supposed, considering the damning things he had said and done without his soul.

“How many times do I have to say it? I’m ready to come back,” Cordelia shouted the words as if the increased volume would help her meaning sink in. It certainly dragged Angel back to the present, her words precisely echoing his sentiments on the subject of his own appearance tonight.

Cordelia’s defiant body language all but dared Buffy to say no as she stubbornly crossed her arms and tossed her lush brown hair over one shoulder.

Would his return to her circle also require a shouting match?

Placating the beast he had become in that hellish place was not an easy task, but Buffy had made an effort. He owed her that too. Somewhere along the way, she decided that while he might be worth saving, their relationship was not. Something so damaged was beyond repair, and she deserved something better.

Angel could not argue with that, but neither could he just let go despite Buffy’s adamant refusal to pick up where they left off. She had moved on, or was still trying to, but he needed her to stop moving, and to see that he was there for her. A fresh start was all he needed. All they needed.

If only Buffy was in the mood for offering up second chances.

Snapping at Cordelia, “You’re not cut out for it,” suggested that she was not.

“Hey, I’ve earned this!” Cordelia bounded forward when Buffy started to walk away.

Angel felt a jolt of concern when Cordelia grabbed Buffy’s shoulder. The restraining hand was a mistake. Slayer instincts ran deep. She whipped back around dislodging the loose grasp and closing the distance between them with a speed that nearly knocked Cordelia off her feet.

“Earned it how?” Buffy wanted some kind of explanation. “By breaking Xander’s heart every day you refused to see him?”

“He’s the one who cheated.”

Reminded, Angel realized that this was the first time he had seen Cordelia around since her injury. The rebar accident coincided with her breakup with the Harris boy. Despite dating the most beautiful girl in school, the kid cheated on her, and had been caught kissing Willow Rosenberg.

Angel never particularly understood Cordelia’s interest in Xander. That had been a very odd pairing that made no sense in retrospect. Yet he supposed that it could hardly be any stranger than a vampire in love with a Slayer.

Ever the defender of her friends, Buffy snapped back, “Xander won’t want you back.”

“Pfft! Like I’d take him. Not!”

“I meant here. The meetings. Scoobiage.”

Different story. “Oh, he wants me back,” Cordelia revealed. A little too smugly if Buffy’s sour expression said anything about it. “He begged for it. On his knees. That’s not why I’m here.”

Leaning back against the brick surface, Angel listened to that little reveal enjoying the idea far more than he should, and not only because it included a little humiliation for the whelp. 

“Get to the point, Cor. No one wants you here. It’s too…painful.”

Would those be the same words Buffy used to turn him away again? Clenching his jaw, Angel felt his anger raging to the surface.

Beyond the fading glimmer of hope that Cordelia’s acceptance back into the fold would signal his own return, a dark corner of his heart wanted to watch Cordelia push Buffy to the ground, claw that unfaithful heart from her chest, and rip her hair out at the roots. Maybe then she would know how it felt to be on the receiving end of rejection.

Nothing revenge worthy happened, of course, and he really did not want anything of the sort to happen. So, Angel focused on staying out of sight and tried to pull it together. He shook off his rising anger and lingering lust, ignored the inner urge to release his fangs, and to join the fight.

Reminding himself that Buffy was not the enemy, he reeled his anger back in and stayed put. The last thing he needed was to be caught watching their spat. Experience taught him that the situation would diffuse if he just waited it out.

Their arguments flew back and forth. They had a way of bringing out the worst in each other. Despite Cordelia’s natural ability to rile people up, even her friends, Angel had no fear about Buffy losing her temper on a scale that might end in bloodshed. She might want to strangle Cordelia into silence, but even she had far more control than that.

Cordelia finally got around to telling her, “Giles invited me.”

“Giles!” Buffy’s jaw dropped as she stared in wide-eyed shock at the news. “No way!”

“Something about an apocalypse and needing everyone to pitch in to save the world.”

Buffy seemed surprised at the news. Turning suspicious, she asked, “My watcher asked you, Cordelia Chase, to help with next Big Bad? Giles does not joke, so you’ve got to be lying.”

It did seem a little far-fetched, Angel admitted to himself, but it would be easy enough for the Watcher to refute it if her story was untrue. There had been no similar invitation on his doorstep.

Their voices dropped. Fortunately, the grounds were empty and quiet as usual at this time of the evening, and supernatural hearing made it easy to continue listening in.

A short while after his return, and just when Angel thought things were getting back to normal between them, Buffy suddenly started keeping her distance. She went as far as telling him to stay away from her. Their relationship was over and she no longer wanted his help.

Buffy had been his one reason for crawling his way back toward sanity. Being told that she neither needed nor wanted him was a devastating blow. Hurt and angry about it he had closeted himself away at the mansion like a wounded animal until he realized that he was slipping back into the darkness.

Knowing he could not give in to that temptation, Angel decided to take action. Whether she wanted him or not, Buffy would have to get used to having him around again. He had come to Sunnydale to help her fight and he planned to do just that. Somehow, he had to get her to understand that his return was inevitable. That she could not afford to refuse his help.

As for their relationship, he was not ready to let that go, either.

Hoping to find Buffy in a better mood Angel had planned to crash the pre-patrol meeting tonight. Strangely, Cordelia had beaten him to the punch. “I have as much right to help out as anyone else.” Her protest made it sound as if she was signing up for a bake sale, but Angel empathized. The flash of bitter anger he felt was as much on Cordelia’s behalf as his own.

No one liked being denied what they wanted, or told they were not needed.

Buffy looked flustered, her cheeks flushed and blotchy red in the moonlight. “You were skewered by rebar.”

“Duh!” Sarcasm rolled off Cordelia’s tongue. “I know that. I was there.”

Even from this distance, he could tell Buffy’s defenses were breaking down. A whine sounded as she tried a logical appeal. “It’s too soon to come back.”

Angel got Buffy’s point. Having inquired about the extent of the injury, he knew that Cordelia was lucky to be alive. She was also obstinate about not allowing what she called ‘a little accident’ to get in the way of returning.

“Buffy, you need all the help you can get, and I’m not here to ask your permission. I’m telling you that I’m back.”

Letting her words soak in, Angel fought a smile at the proud tilt of her head. “So get used to seeing me again,” she added with a confidence that he took to heart. Those were his sentiments exactly, and he needed a little bolstering tonight.

Considering Cordelia’s recent experiences, Angel had mistakenly figured she would have given her friends a wide berth. Like him, she was something of an outsider when it came to the Scooby Gang, and so he suspected there was a reason behind her return to the ranks, assuming Buffy allowed it. Cordelia’s failure or success during this standoff might tell him whether his own arrival would be accepted.

“Forget it,” Buffy snapped, fists planted on her hips matching Cordelia’s defiant pose. “It’s only been a week since you got out of the hospital.”

Cordelia’s chin rose up another notch, “It’s not as if you cared then, so why the concern now?”

The notion that she did not care probably riled Buffy up even more, guessed Angel who knew that she had inquired about Cordelia during her hospitalization. Not that anyone knew much considering Cordelia had barred everyone from visiting.

“You’ll be a liability,” Buffy tried another tactic playing each argument like a cards one by one. “Your wound is too fresh. Every vampire in town will be after you.”

Always ready with a swift comeback, “That’s the idea,” Cordelia refused to back down. “Hello, I’m the bait.”

But Buffy was not budging. “Patrolling is out. It’s too dangerous.” Then she threw out her ace, “Besides, I don’t think Xander would like it.”

Angel felt a burst of anger on Cordelia’s behalf. The boy deserved to have some sense knocked into him. Too young and stupid to know that he had something worthwhile, he had thrown it away. Playing a risky game, unintentionally hurting a girl who thought she could trust him.

Bitterly, he realized the story sounded too damn familiar.

He apparently felt more upset about the incident than Cordelia who waved the whole thing off, “Puh-lease,” as if her cheating ex-boyfriend was the least of her worries. “I think he deserves to see what he’s missing.”

“Like that’s supposed to convince me?” Angel noted the way Buffy quickly sprang to Xander’s defense. His eyes narrowed to slits, his mouth a line of disapproval.

Cordelia shrugged, casually flipping her hair over her shoulder. “It was your fault that it happened in the first place.”

“Mine? I wasn’t even there.”

“Exactly.”

Explaining that she had time to think about the incident while stuck in bed at Mercy Hospital, Cordelia told her, “You were off macking on your homicidal hottie, while Oz and I were at that demon den. That’s when we found Willow all over Xander.”

Angel frowned at the ‘homicidal’ comment, but felt a little rush at the follow-up. Hot was good, right? At least outward appearances had not changed, although he felt different inside. Time in hell had seen to that and Buffy knew it, too.

Recently, the way Buffy looked at him reminded him of the way she stared down a demon just before skewering it. He knew when to keep his distance even if it was in a stalkery manner. Now and then he would let her catch him at it, enjoy the thrill as she rushed up to accuse him—rightly—of following her around town, and search her stormy gaze for a sign that she still loved him.

Lust, longing, regret were all too apparent on their most recent encounter. Buffy had rushed away before Angel could act on what he saw there, but he became determined to reclaim his place in her life. For now, that meant showing up at the Scooby meetings whether she wanted him there or not.

Right now Buffy looked horrified that Cordelia would think she was shirking her duty as Slayer, especially since there had been a deliberate avoidance of anything remotely intimate since Angel’s return. His hope for recovering what they had in spite of the ramifications of the curse was quashed abruptly upon discovering that she already had a new boyfriend.

Scott was no longer an issue, however. They had recently broken up, leaving Angel with another chance. One he planned to take. Things were awkward. Buffy had told him that she could not risk history repeating itself when it came to them.

“We weren’t macking.”

A huff followed. “Getting groiny, endangering the world, whatever.”

Clearly flustered, Buffy stuttered to respond, “W-We weren’t getting, uh— Angel and I were busy slaying the demon that kidnapped them.”

Cordelia did not exactly seem to believe it. “Busy, right, call it what you want. You owe me, Buffy Summers, so don’t try to stop me from coming back.”

As a last ditch effort, Buffy pointed out, “This is the last place you ever wanted to be. Why now?”

“Maybe I like the thrill.”

Laughing at that one, Buffy scoffed at the idea that anyone who complained so much about the wear and tear of vampire dust on her designer clothes had other issues to deal with. “The thrill of offering unwanted opinions and playing vampire bait— sorry, try again.”

“Civic duty?” Cordelia suggested after a thoughtful pause, adding a sour note. “I was really hoping to nab that Citizen of the Year award—unless you’ve already bagged it.”

“I’ll put in a good word with the mayor next time I see him,” Buffy quipped. “I’m not buying, Cor. If you’re coming back just to be a bitch about things, you can save your breath.”

Angel could tell she had hit a nerve. Cordelia’s brows arched high and she stared back with equal intensity. “Here’s the thing. A bit of rebar is not going to change who I am. If I’m a bitch to you or your friends, you need to ask yourself why.”

Nothing would convince Buffy that there was not an ulterior motive involved. Even Angel had his doubts having listened to most of their conversation. He watched Cordelia’s face soften slightly, her lashes coming down to shade her eyes. She paused as if to gather her thoughts and then gave Buffy the only argument she had left.

“I just want to help.”

Buffy’s answer came faster than either of them expected, “Fine.”

Almost startled by her acquiescence, Cordelia’s head jerked up. “You won’t regret it.”

Turning on her heel, Buffy stalked across the school grounds toward the front entrance, muttering, “I already do.”

Cordelia’s triumphant grin flashed in the moonlight. “Go team.” The quick move into a cheer stance caused a sudden hitch making her grab at her abdomen, something Angel suspected she was glad that Buffy missed seeing.

Maybe Cordelia was coming back too quickly after all, he thought watching her drop her hand back to her side and stroll leisurely in the same direction. He moved out of the shadows as soon as she reached the steps, planning to follow her example by showing up even without an invitation.

After Buffy suggested that things were too difficult between them to continue seeing each other, he often kept to himself at the mansion. The loneliness was harder than he imagined, different than he remembered. The experiences of his time in hell were fading, replaced by the vivid recollections of his two short years in Sunnydale. Some days it seemed like eons had passed between then and now. Others times like it was just yesterday.

He had grown used to having these people around and thought he would be able to depend upon Buffy to acclimate him again, that they would resume their relationship despite its challenges. Obviously, he misjudged the level of blame each of them had attributed to the other and the guilt that came with their actions.

Angel thought it was worth it to try, but listening to Buffy as she showed him that stack of college brochures made him realize she wanted future plans that did not include him.  If she could leave Sunnydale, she had said there would be nothing here to hold her back.

It was easy to conclude that she meant him, too.

What he felt for her had been simple, but true. Angel knew now that it fed a need he did not know he had. Because of that, he would have done anything to gain it back. Now it all seemed like a bittersweet dream replaced by a nasty taste of reality, something he was more than familiar with.

What he did to her and her friends was possibly unforgivable. Even now, the sound of Jenny Calendar’s fragile neck cracking beneath the force of his grip echoed in his head, just as a phantom ache seemed to gnaw at his chest where Buffy’s sword thrust sealed his fate. No matter that the wound itself had long since repaired itself, emotionally, it had left a hole where his heart used to be.

Angel did not like the idea of being dismissed from Buffy’s life. It was one thing to admit that the feelings between them had changed, but to stay away also meant that he would not be a part of her mission here at the Hellmouth. He reminded himself that he was brought here to protect her, to help her. For now, that needed to be his primary focus.

The Scooby meeting tonight was likely to be a revelation.

Maybe Cordelia’s surprise arrival would distract them from the fact that he was also crashing their latest research party. She had a flair for making herself the center of attention and that was fine with him. He had no doubt that the others would accept her back into the fold since she was so determined to be there and also because Xander and Willow regretted their behavior.

According to Buffy, both seemed to view the incident as a mistake, even though it obviously went beyond something as simple as indiscretion. Oz had apparently forgiven Willow and the two were trying to piece their relationship together again, something Angel admired and hoped to emulate.

His issues with Buffy aside, Cordelia was in the lucky position of bestowing forgiveness on those who had done her wrong, assuming that was part of her plan. For him, it was the opposite. 

2:     Sunnydale High School, Southeast Sunnydale

“I know you’re out there,” Cordelia shouted toward the shadows. Stopping in her tracks, she reached into her purse for her stake. “Back off, buddy.”


Startled, Angel glanced around for sign of an imminent attack, but saw nothing. He had not made a sound, either. Instinct alone had alerted her to his presence. On the top step, Cordelia whirled around, stake in the air as she backed closer to the door. Seconds away from what he figured would be an ear-piercing scream Angel stepped forward into the light of the closest lamppost, holding his hands up in mock surrender.


The Cordelia he remembered would have screamed first and run for the hills hoping trouble would not follow. It seemed a lot had changed during the summer he missed. Angel said nothing, merely assessing her reaction while suppressing a smile.


Recognizing him, she dropped her arm to her side. “Oh, it’s you.” Her hand kept a firm grip on the stake. “Great,” she added in a non-enthusiastic way that Angel was growing used to. His reception was hardly a welcome one and so far it seemed that his presence here in Sunnydale was merely tolerated for Buffy’s sake.


The unconscious stab at his ego caused his mouth to tighten up. Dropping the pretense of surrender, Angel moved silently up the stairs to stand beside her. Any amusement he had felt at her brave attempt at defending herself faded quickly. He supposed she had a legitimate reason or two not to trust him, although it was hard to suppress the urge to remind her that there was a time he could have had her for the asking.


That was not just his ego talking. No doubt it was a lucky escape on his part considering her constant chatter. It was doubtful Xander had time to make a move despite the length of time those two dated. He could not deny that Cordelia was a stunning beauty, but she possessed no tact whatsoever, and her rather obvious crush on him had made for some awkward moments.


Buffy once told him that Cordelia was the most irritating girl she had ever met. There were times when Angel could understand why, although he had never spent much time around her. Frankly, it was just as well. He rarely knew what to say to her although there were times he was compelled to make an effort, like that one time at the Bronze. Of course, she had done most of the talking, but he enjoyed listening to her ramblings.


Ever since she discovered that he was a vampire, Cordelia tended to ignore his existence unless it involved saving her life. Now that Angelus had attacked her in the cemetery, it was doubtful that behavior would change.


“Sheesh! Are you competing with Oz for stoic of the year award?” Cordelia snapped her fingers in front of his face. “C’mon, Angel, say something. It only takes one syllable to say ‘hi’.”


Opening his mouth, he closed it again, wondering what she expected. “Nice night,” he finally muttered, not knowing what else to say and inwardly cursing himself for sounding like an idiot.


Cordelia snorted. “Guess you left your vocabulary in hell because you weren’t tongue-tied when you were evil.”


She moved toward the door when Angel’s hand closed over her wrist preventing her well-timed exit. A tremor shuddered beneath his unexpected touch.


Even he was surprised by his action. Usually something to be avoided, human contact was not something he had gotten used to, but Cordelia’s way with words irked him into an automatic response. The instant his skin touched hers Angel knew it was a mistake. Temptingly warm. Soft. His fingertips reflexively traced the pulse skipping at her wrist.


Despite her bravado, she was nervous, he realized, listening as her breath hitched in an almost imperceptible way. A part of him liked that a lot, wanted to turn nerves to fear, the way countless others had done upon discovering the man who held them close was a vampire.


They both glanced down at the stake and then up again. He could not tell what she was thinking, but figured it was best not to let go. Opting for a distraction, it occurred to him that he did have something to ask that might qualify in her estimation as a real topic of conversation.


During the early days of her hospitalization, he had made an unprecedented effort to visit her there, having felt sorry for Cordelia, knowing something of the betrayal she felt, and the physical pain it caused. A small measure he had taken to ease her misery, as well as his own, had been forgotten until now.


“I stopped by Mercy General, but the nurse said you couldn’t have visitors,” he revealed his failed attempt at a friendly overture. Angel realized he had shocked her by actually coming up with something to say. “Did you get the flowers?” Making polite conversation was not his thing. Nor did he make a habit of sending bouquets to anyone without some grim purpose at the heart of it.


He was not entirely certain why he had done so this time.


Drawing in a deep breath, Cordelia held it for a second, a hot flush spreading across her skin remembering the conclusions of the nursing staff. The way they had gushed over her tall, handsome boyfriend only to be told that he was no such thing. At the time, she had not wanted to see Angel any more than Xander.


Three days went by before she accepted any visitors into her hospital room. In the end, she had allowed Xander in only to send him away again. Giles stopped by with a stack of homework and a Get Well card, telling her that her teachers wished her a speedy recovery. He was followed by a floating armada of shiny balloons brought in by Willow who made her apologies with stuttered whispers and tears in her eyes.

Apparently, Angel only made the one attempt to see her, which was one more try than Cordelia ever expected. Since returning from that hell dimension, he was even more of a reclusive mystery guy than usual. Not that she would have wanted him to see her like that. Hospital gowns were hardly haute couture.


“Yes, I got the flowers.” Smiling at the memory, she was surprised that Angel brought up his gift. He was asking in a tone that suggested it was not quite appropriate for him to do something so personal. Pfft. Maybe he was scared Buffy would find out her favorite lapdog had done something without her say so.

Truthfully, his was the only offering that seemed remotely genuine. Xander’s huge bouquet bore the stench of guilt despite the color they added the bland walls of her hospital room.


“So, you liked them?”


Admitting, “I did,” she told him with a hint of the same amazement she had felt upon receiving them. Smiling, she said, “They were gorgeous, unique. Thank you.”


“Good.” Warmly, his gaze held hers as his grip shifted, softening and opening up to move down over the back of her hand. Angel tugged loose the stake, holding it up between them. “I think it’s safe to put this away.”


Snatching it out of his hand, “Says you.” Lightly poking his stomach with the end of the stake, Cordelia huffed, “How am I supposed to know if you’ve gone all homicidal maniac on us again?”


All she got that time was a low grunt as he absently rubbed the spot she had poked. Cordelia’s gaze automatically slid down, watching Angel’s hand slide across the dark material of his shirt, fingers splaying over the taut muscles beneath. Her attention darted back up to discover that irritation had replaced his formerly calm demeanor.


“Umm, I guess we should get in there,” she backed toward the door. Angel followed step for step until Cordelia bumped into the metal door handles. Her heart rate sky-rocketed as Angel’s big body loomed close, blocking her in as his hand closed over her hip.


An irrational flash of fear swept over her only to realize seconds later that Angel was simply moving her out of the way in order to get to the door. He held it open for her, motioning her in and quietly reminding Cordelia that there was always going to be one constant between them. “Buffy’s waiting.” 

3:     The Library, Sunnydale High School, Southeast Sunnydale

 

Buffy made her feelings about Cordelia's demand to return to the group very clear leading Giles to confess, “Buffy, I invited her to join us.”

“That’s what she said,” his young charge gasped in disbelief. “Giles, that’s just asking for trouble.”

A not-so-subtle nod toward Xander and Willow suggested that teenage angst might be a distraction. Then again, there was always drama of that sort when one’s Slayer and her friends were high school students.

“Did you not announce a moment ago that you agreed to allow Cordelia to rejoin the group?”

Reminding her that she was arguing against something that she had only just said brought a look of resignation to her face. “Uh, I suppose I did, although she kinda told me I didn’t have a choice.”

Fully understanding Buffy’s concerns about the other girl’s health, Giles had plans that should mesh with any need for further convalescence. “Cordelia could be quite useful in a research capacity.”

They would need more than a fresh set of eyes during the tasking days ahead, he knew. However, the announcement could wait until they were all gathered together. Buffy was regaling them with further details of their encounter when it occurred to him that Cordelia had not yet entered the library.

Glancing down at his watch, he confirmed that nearly ten minutes had passed by. “Buffy, I thought you said she was right behind you.”

Rising from her slouched position on a chair, Buffy considered the worst. After all, this was Cordelia Chase. She could attract trouble like a magnet. Still, there was a shred of hope in her voice, “Maybe she changed her mind.”

Willow sounded doubtful and offered up a more likely scenario. “Maybe she’s in trouble.”

“That’s Cor’s middle name,” quipped Xander worriedly.

Faith didn’t bother to suppress her scorn. “Real smart, B, I thought you knew saving the helpless was part of the job description here at Hellmouth Central.”

“Helpless? You obviously haven’t spent much time with Cordelia,” Buffy scowled at the thought that anyone with stubborn bitch credentials would be considered helpless. Still, Cor wasn’t exactly in top form despite her arguments, no matter that Buffy had given in to them.

Xander and Willow were also on their feet, following along as the Slayer charged to the rescue. They pulled up short when the library doors suddenly swung open to reveal both Cordelia and Angel causing the tension to rise exponentially. After Buffy informed them of their meeting, the group expected Cordelia, never considering the vampire would also appear. 

Giles felt his throat tighten up at seeing Angel again. It did not matter that his soul had been returned to him. The vampire was a constant reminder that Angelus had killed Jenny. 

Seeing them all on their feet and heading for the doors, Cordelia held up a hand to stop them. “Where are you going? We just got here.”

“Saving you,” Willow explained while shrinking a bit at the sharp look she received.

Considering that Willow was probably the last person she wanted saving her from anything, Cordelia’s voice edged on iciness. “I can take care of myself. Besides, I found Angel skulking around outside.”

“‘Trouble’ sounds pretty accurate,” Xander met Angel’s steady gaze for a second before scooting forward to usher Cordelia into the room. It was somewhat gratifying to Giles to note that he was not the only one experiencing a considerable measure of discomfort at the vampire’s presence.

Buffy looked pale, quite ghostly in fact. She’d suggested to him that Angel wouldn’t be around anymore, but had left him without further explanation. The thought had been rather satisfying at the time. He would prefer Angel to stay out of Buffy’s life no matter that his assistance had been valuable in the past. Their relationship was as unnatural as it was destructive.

Now it appeared that Angel had changed his mind about staying away. Immediately walking toward her, Angel cupped her elbow and led her into a far corner. Cordelia and Xander didn’t bother with privacy; they squared off in the center of the room, arguing about her return and whether it was any of his business.

“Are you sure you should be back so soon?” Xander’s question seemed reasonable to Giles, but if there was one thing he had learned from his observations, Cordelia was not likely to be dissuaded from a decision once she made it. “Buffy said you wanted to patrol. It’s too soon.”

“I’m fine.”

This was going to be a long night. Giles sighed deeply and reached up to loosen his tie. Across the room, Buffy and Angel remained in deep conversation, far quieter but no less intense. Faith simply propped her feet on the table and looked on it all with a bored expression while Willow resumed her seat, nibbling at her nails, eyes as big as saucers.

It was times like these that Giles wished he had taken up an interest in paleontology or geology instead of joining the Watcher’s Council. Fossilized bones and rocks never caused such a ruckus. Removing his glasses, he closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose as he tried to suppress his growing irritation.

A loud whistle suddenly pierced the air.

Giles’ eyelids popped open in automatic response to note that Faith was the culprit. The mistress of chaos herself was trying to bring some order to this hullaballoo. Ironic.

Rising from her chair, she loudly clapped her hands together demanding attention. Giles noticed he was not the only one with his mouth hanging open. He clapped it shut when Faith announced, “Jeeves here has something to say.”

Replacing his glasses, Giles sent her a nod, his mouth a bit purse-lipped as he said, “Thank you, Faith. First order of business: welcome back Cordelia. We are pleased to see you have recovered.”

She met his gaze from across the room and though her arms were folded across her abdomen in a somewhat defensive manner, Giles caught the hint of a smile that graced her lips. Moving on before anyone could cut in with further protest about her decision to return, he reminded the group that they were there for a reason.

“The Watcher’s Council has sent word on a new prophecy.” Giles adjusted his glasses and began to explain the situation details. The others slowly filed back across the room.

Keeping a focus on the task at hand was the only thing that allowed Giles to tolerate Angel’s presence. Though he could not bring himself to offer the vampire the welcome he had given Cordelia, for Buffy’s sake, he was determined to maintain his decorum. He watched Angel take a seat on the stairs, quietly settling into the background.

Before he could make a start on the prophecy details and the goals of their research activities, he noticed Cordelia was left standing as Faith now occupied her usual seat next to Xander. Oh dear. The two were staring, no, glaring at each other now.

Giles hastened to fix the situation. “Move over a bit, Willow. Perhaps I can squeeze in another chair.”

Cordelia took one look at Willow’s gobsmacked expression, grabbed an arbitrary book from the table and walked in the direction of the stairs. “No big. I’ll just sit over here.”

Nudging Angel’s knee with her own, she prompted him to move over just enough to let her sit down. It was impossible to determine whether he was irritated or terrified by the intrusion of his space, but he shifted enough to let her sit down beside him.

Pointing at her throat, she warned him all too seriously, “Don’t get ideas. No snacking.” 

4:     Sunnydale High School, One Week Later


Mr. Whitaker’s creative lesson on the modern legal system did not stand a chance of holding Cordelia’s attention today. Using the fictional title character from ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ as the defendant, half of the class was to prosecute Jack for trespassing, theft, destruction of property and murder. The remaining students took the stance that Jack was an innocent victim of his poor station in life and were assigned the task of defending him.

As her head buzzed with thoughts that had nothing to do with school, the chalk on the blackboard simply blurred into a fuzzy abstract. She wondered what new excuse Buffy would come up with tonight.

Nearly a week had gone by since her return to Scoobiage. During that time, Cordelia agreed to go along with Mr. Giles’s suggestion about focusing on their need for research. No one actually questioned her right to be there anymore, not to her face anyway, but Giles expressed the group’s ‘mutual concerns’ about the fragile state of her health and readiness to resume patrols.

Basically, Cordelia was convinced that Buffy did not want her to tag along because it would make Willow uncomfortable. Fine. She was back because she needed to be, not only because she enjoyed seeing the guilt in their eyes every time Willow or Xander looked in her direction.

That was just a perk.

One she was frequently faced with considering that the two of them also stayed in the library to help Giles out on their research project while Angel and the two slayers went out on late night patrols. It made the first couple of nights a little awkward.

Certain lying, two-faced cheaters sat on one side of the table, and she stayed on the other. Giles kept popping out of his office to check on them as if expecting to find all three of them in some girly bitch slapping fight on the floor.

Not that the thought of it wasn’t enjoyable. She was just above displays like that. “Get those hangdog looks off your faces, people. It’s depressing.” When Xander and Willow grinned in hopeful response to her perky tone, she changed her mind. “Forget it. I liked the guilt better. Resume your wallowing.”

Research proceeded despite its rocky start. Cordelia quickly saw that Willow abandoned the books in favor of the computer set up at another table. The usually chatty redhead kept strangely silent as she focused on her task. Giles remained in his office pouring through original documents and copies of ancient texts unless he was checking on their progress.

Cordelia and Xander were left as research buddies. Neither managed to stay silent for more than a couple of minutes. The doofus managed to make her forget that she was supposed to be mad at him. Too bad it caused a stitch in her side when he made her laugh. That reminded her quickly enough.

Yet they managed to fall into a pattern where they could interact without bringing up the reasons for their breakup. The week went by slowly. Despite the fact that Giles seemed pleased that they were piecing together the puzzle that surrounded the prophecy, it was boring as hell. Cordelia was not used to being so idle.

Last night, it was still early in the evening when she decided it was time to revolt. With the whole gang there, she was back on the stairs with Angel. She had dropped another leather-bound volume onto the growing pile at her feet.

“I’ve had enough of these musty old books.”

“You’re quitting?” Buffy sounded almost eager about it.

“No,” Cordelia remembered correcting her. “Duh! I want patrol with you guys tomorrow night. You said it yourself that you need more eyes and ears out there watching for the first signs of the prophecy. I’m tired of sitting here collecting splinters.”

Even though she and Xander had struck up a cease-fire, Cordelia chose not to make a big deal out of reclaiming her usual spot at the table during the larger group meetings. Sitting next to Angel became automatic after the first couple of times. And when she frequently rushed in at the last minute, he simply moved over to make room for her.

He would tell her what she missed, but afterward their conversation tended to be one-sided ninety-nine percent of the time. Every now and then, he would help her out with some extended translation around one of the key words Giles had given them for their search.

Further attempts at conversation tended to result in the odd grunt, irritation, or a blank stare as if she had said something completely alien. She was starting to think that Angel had lived in a cave for the past couple of centuries. For someone who seemed to know so much he was clueless about… everything.

Standing up to rub a hand over the ache, she muttered to Angel, “I don’t know how you handle sitting here every night. Aren’t you stiff?”

A half-turn toward him came just in time to catch him staring at the slide of her fingers over her bottom. He shifted on the stairs, sounding out a soft gruff complaint, raising his eyes to hers. “Sometimes.”

One word and her imagination took off to places it had no business wandering. The hint of innuendo in those rich male tones was not real. Couldn’t be. This was Angel. Mr Stoic himself would not volunteer any details about his sexy bits with her. Admittedly, though, she had reason to suspect that one particular man part was in no way itty bitty.

What was she doing thinking about Angel in that way? And had he just checked her out?

Holy hell.

Talk about letting your imagination run away with you. Her body clenched in reaction, a hot wave gathering force and leaving her tingling. With extreme effort, she tried to turn her curiosity off and her apparently dirty mind toward other subjects.

This was Angel. Mr. Most Likely to Turn Evil if He Gets Some. Not a contender on her list of suitable replacements for anyone else who might happen to be in the room.

The memory of Angelus tackling her to the ground that one night also brought to mind the sensation of his muscular body pressing into hers. Terrifying, yet hot. He had been going to kill her, but took a little too long to toy with his prey before the Slayer showed up to the rescue.

Getting turned on by a vampire who once planned to rip out your throat was all kinds of wrong, Cordelia counseled herself, even while trying to determine if Angel was only talking about leg cramps and back aches. Scrutinizing his calm expression, she decided he was really good at poker faces because she could not tell what he was thinking.

“Dead Boy’s already a stiff,” Xander called out from behind the four-inch thick tome of the Vampyr and putting a different spin on it. Either he completely missed out on the flash of tension between Angel and Cordelia, or he was ingeniously trying to diffuse it.

Just in case anyone had any inkling about the direction of her thoughts, Cordelia gave Angel’s shoulder a pat of mock comfort as she tried to find a way to play off Xander’s bad joke. “That’s right, undead guy. Stiffness just comes naturally for walking corpses.”

“Think so, Cor?” Faith, who was performing stretching exercises in the middle of the floor instead of doing research, paused to glance over her shoulder at Angel. A dimple hollowed both cheeks as she grinned conspiratorially, as she made it perfectly clear that she knew exactly which direction Cordelia’s thoughts had taken. “There’s one way to find out. Check it out for yourself since you seem to be the hands-on type.”

Someone harrumphed in disapproval trying to call their attention back to research, but Cordelia wasted no time telling Faith what she thought of that inflammatory suggestion.

It didn’t matter that her fingers itched to explore Angel’s long, hard frame and anything else long or hard that might happen to find its way into her curious grasp. That was just between her and her almost forgotten Angel fantasies.

Recognizing her meaning came far too quickly and Cordelia could not stop her colorful imagination from adding images of post-mortem rigidity to her previous list of vampire topics to avoid. It did not help that Buffy stood just over there with her face looking like a thundercloud. Cordelia had no real designs on Angel or his stiffness issues. Even if he was a gorgeous hunk of salty goodness, he was still a vampire.

Still, she did not want Faith’s words to give anyone ideas.

“Geez, Faith, you’re such a skank,” she snapped before reminding herself not to capsize the already rocky boat she had found herself in since her return. One slayer frenemy at a time was more than enough. “Does everything have to be about sex?”

Faith only laughed and totally let her get away with it. “Life is short, Cor. Getting laid might make you less uptight.”

“Eww!” and “Gross, Faith!” and “Bleh!” sounded out from the peanut gallery sitting at the table nearby along with a decidedly vexed sigh from Giles who lifted his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose.

Beside her, Angel conspicuously cleared his throat, the rumble drawing her attention. A subtle ripple beneath her hand drew her gaze from the dark mischief glinting in his eyes, as if he was enjoying the idea, too. Then suddenly, Cordelia realized that her simple pat had evolved into a slow massage as her hand rubbed a circle over his soft black sweater smoothing across dense ridges of rock-hard muscle and bone.

Snatching her hand away, Cordelia took a rapid step back, tripping over several books piled up on the floor. A shriek burst to life and withered away just as fast when Angel leapt up from his seated position on the stairs to catch her mid fall. She held onto his arms grasping for purchase, but his big hands quickly set her to rights restoring her balance.

“What are you doing?” Self-preservation made her panic as her softer curves crushed into his hard angles. It felt good, safe, and terrifying all at the same time. God, he even smelled delicious. For a second, Cordelia closed her eyes and breathed him in. “I’m fine. Let go.”

Characteristically, Angel kept his opinions to himself, and merely released her. His eyes were on hers, hooded and dark, his lips tightening up as he resumed his position on the stairs. No comment? Fine. Cordelia really did not need to know what was going on in his head right now.

She stared back at him, angry with herself for feeling embarrassed, foolish, and most of all, frustrated. Angel was so out of bounds that he should not even register on her radar. Pushing all of it aside, she raised her chin a notch, and grunted, “Thanks for the rescue.”

Angel merely handed her a new book and nodded toward the open space beside him. If he had any idea at the oh-so-wrong direction of her thoughts, and thanks to Faith, she guessed that he did, it seemed like he was giving her a pass. Considering the frequent jostling of knees and elbows as they shared the step, Cordelia hoped this was just a sign of momentary insanity and not renewed attraction for yet another guy whose heart was already taken.

The rational part of her mind told Cordelia that Angel would never pounce on her, but it was too easy to picture those fangs flashing white in the darkness as they closed in on her neck. Hello, she liked her neck intact, thank you very much. Fortunately, from what she had seen over the past few days, Angel was not anywhere near being happy enough to lose his soul.

Buffy kept him at a distance and appeared to be just as miserable. If their misery made Cordelia feel safer she was all for sticking with the status quo. No one needed Angelus on the loose again.

When Cordelia took too long to sit beside him, Angel finally spoke up. “You could always squeeze in at the table.” There was just a trace of a challenge in his tone as if he wanted her gone, but also wondered if she had the guts to stay. “Giles could get you a chair. I’m sure it would be more comfortable.”

“No such luck, big guy,” Cordelia snorted while noting that he had actually strung three sentences together. Angel just preferred to be alone despite the fact that, like her, he could not seem to stay away from these Scooby sessions. If it was important enough for him to say something, it could not just be her comfort he was thinking about. Maybe he thought Buffy would not like it if she stayed. “There’s even less room over there. I’ll put up with bumping elbows with you for a while.” 

Cordelia felt anxious to get back into the activity of patrolling again. Being cooped up in the library like some dusty old book was starting to get to her. Now that the prophecy date loomed closer, she planned to be more involved. Nobody here was better bait. Even if it was a lame job, at least it was hers

5:     The Cafeteria, Sunnydale High School, Southeast Sunnydale

 

“Don’t worry about Faith,” urged Buffy as she responded to Willow’s concerns over the other slayer’s predictably rowdy behavior. She pushed her tray down the line and grabbed a carton of milk from the ice-filled bin. “I’ll deal.”

Willow was not sure how. It seemed that Faith was out to cause trouble just for the fun of it. Poor Mr. Giles had his hands full trying to keep the new girl in line. Buffy and Faith were constantly at each other’s throats over everything, especially if it had to do with slaying.

Taking a chocolate milk of her own, Willow set it down on her tray as she followed behind Buffy in the line. “Speaking of dealing…I actually talked to Cordelia during our last class together.”

“How’d that go?”

“She didn’t bite my head off,” Willow’s smile showed her relief. That was progress as far as she was concerned. “I noticed that she was kinda lost in thought when Mr. Whitaker explained the lesson, so I brought her up to speed.”

“Ah, Jack’s trial,” Buffy nodded having already heard what to expect from another student. She had Mr. Whitaker’s government class during fifth period instead of second like Cordelia and Willow.

“Poor Jack. He got twenty to life,” Willow told her. “Nobody gives the good guys any credit.”

Buffy muttered sourly, “Tell me about it,” as she stared at the two main entrée choices. Pointing to option number one, she told the serving lady, “I’ll take the mystery meat.”

Opting for the cheese enchiladas, Willow added her request for the Spanish rice and some green veggies. After putting the plate down on her tray, she asked Buffy, “Does Cordelia seem different after her accident?”

“No. She’s just as loud-mouthed and pushy as ever.” Buffy added truthfully, “With all of the squabbling between her and Xander, you’d think they were still together. It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes.”

“It’s just kinda strange. Did you know that she quit the cheerleading squad?”

Buffy obviously had not, her eyes widening in surprise. “Really? That’s a shocker. Being head cheerleader kept Cor in control of all the pretty people. Maybe she’s still hurting. I told her it was too soon to get back into the physical stuff.”

With a shrug, Willow had to admit that she did not know for sure, but revealed a rumor that suggested Cordelia might simply have other interests.

Slaying never gave her time to get any juicy gossip. “Like what?”

“You’ve noticed that she’s been late coming in to research,” Willow reminded. In fact, Cordelia seemed to show up ten to fifteen minutes late almost every night. They scheduled their meetings right after dinnertime and usually gathered for a couple hours of research before heading out on patrol.

“So?” Ten minutes without Cordelia was not exactly a hardship in Buffy’s line of thinking.

Willow glanced behind her to make sure there was not anyone listening. “I heard it from Brittany who got it from her brother Brandon who’s dating Meg. Y’see, Meg overheard Harmony telling Aura that Cordelia is dating some college guy at Sunnydale University and that’s why she decided to quit the team.”

The woman at the register returned Buffy her meal card after deducting the price of her lunch. Willow handed hers over, waited to get it back, and then picked up the cafeteria tray to follow Buffy toward their usual table.

“So what do you think?” she prompted Buffy who had not said a word about it.

“I think we should just ask Cordelia,” she answered, spotting her standing with her own lunch tray in hand. “She’s over there, talking to Oz.”

Willow’s eyes darted over to her boyfriend who was casually speaking to Cordelia, both of them with smiles on their faces. She felt her stomach churn nervously. It wasn’t that Willow really thought Cordelia would try to put a wedge between her and Oz, especially since she’d managed to do that all on her own. It was just that her own imagination made it easy to think Cordelia might do it just to get her revenge.

“Thinking of having lunch with us today, Cor?” Willow asked rather chirpily, giving herself major kudos for making the offer. Even though Cordelia had resumed her place in the Scooby Gang for their research project, she had not bothered to join them at their table in the cafeteria.

“Why not,” Cordelia shrugged, setting her tray down next to Oz. “There’s no one interesting around at the moment, so I might as well sit with you.”

No sooner were they all seated than Buffy got straight to the point. Willow had to admire her friend for not beating around the bush. “We’ve heard rumors about your latest after-school activities.”

Cordelia stopped sipping from her Capri Sun, the blood rushing out of her face for a moment before she recovered. “What I do is none of your business.”

“C’mon, give a little,” Buffy prompted. “Xander isn’t here to hear about it, so it’s just us girls. Oh, and Oz, but he won’t say anything.”

“What’s Xander got to do with it?” Cordelia looked over her shoulders first one side and then the other glancing around the cafeteria as if she expected everyone to be listening in.

“Duh! You dumped him.” Next to Buffy, Willow squirmed in reaction to the words. Any reminders that the break-up was her fault suddenly made her lose her appetite. “Who’s the rebound guy? Do we know him? I hear he goes to Sunnydale-U.”

After gaping at Buffy, Cordelia quickly recovered and simply confirmed everything they had heard by saying, “I guess there’s no such thing as a secret around this place.”

“Aren’t there enough guys around here to pick from?” asked Willow curiously. It was not like there had ever been a shortage of jocks, geeks, or nerds eager to gain Cordelia’s attention. 

Cordelia sipped at her drink again before answering, “There’s a huge difference when it comes to dating a man instead of a boy. Don’t you think so, Buffy? No offence, Oz.”

Being the only male at the table, Oz kept his opinions to himself, but Willow knew he was just as curious as they were to know more. She was not surprised when he decided to ask Cordelia for the pertinent details.

Occasionally playing gigs for some of the frat parties at the university, Oz knew quite a few of the students. He asked, “What’s his name?”

“Oh look, there’s Harmony.” Cordelia suddenly pushed back her chair, picked up her tray and left without a backward glance. “Gotta run. See you tonight.”

Willow mulled over Cordelia’s disappearing act. It was not like her to back off a simple question, especially when she would normally be rubbing it in their faces. “I think she’s hiding something. Maybe he’s someone famous and she’s protecting his identity.”

A glance at Oz revealed that he had gone back to eating his lunch having already lost interest in the subject. Buffy dug into her own lunch with gusto as if their simple confrontation with Cordelia had worked up an appetite. 

Swallowing down her third bite of mystery meat, Buffy paused to say, “Cordelia can date anyone she wants as long as it’s not anyone I know. Boy slayer or not, she really hurt Xander when she kicked him out of the hospital.” 

6:     Main Hallway, Sunnydale High School

Cordelia heard Buffy call her name just as she was shutting her locker. “I don’t have time to talk.”

“Your new boyfriend can wait a few,” Buffy instinctively positioned herself with her back to the exit as if guessing Cordelia would try to make a break for it.

“Say what you have to say,” Cordelia huffed at the delay as she glanced down at her watch. She would have to haul butt to get there on time even without interruption.

There was no avoiding whatever lecture was coming her way.

“Look, I’m telling you this as a friend,” her words immediately alerted Cordelia’s inner defenses to call for reinforcements. “You’re not giving yourself enough time. Not with wanting to patrol and not with jumping into another relationship.”

“Was Scott just a distraction for you? I seem to recall that you dropped him fast enough once Angel turned up again.”

Buffy felt the impact of those words just as if Cordelia had thrust a stake into her chest. She opened her mouth as if to deny it, but had no time to respond.

“Drooling over Angel is not good for your health,” Cordelia commented. “Think of the tragedy. If I end up with a zit because of the stress, it is so your fault.”

“Say what?” Buffy practically squeaked in reaction. “And that’s a tragedy?”

“I want to look good at my funeral,” Cordelia explained matter-of-factly. “That’s what’ll happen if Angelus shows up again, and I don’t want people seeing a gigantic zit on my chin as they stare into my coffin.”

Looking all scowly-faced, Buffy finally blurted, “Whatever.”

“Just promise not to bone your boyfriend so I can relax a little. Sheesh! Neither one of you knows when to quit.”

After a scary moment when Buffy looked like she might launch an all-out attack, a soft admission sounded, “I did quit.”

“Wha—huh? You quit Angel? I definitely missed that memo,” Cordelia quipped hardly believing it was true. Not for a second. Hell freezing over had more of a chance.

“Angel was supposed to back off,” Buffy revealed her frustration over the fact that he had not exactly followed along with her plan. “You’re right. We can’t keep seeing each other. It’s too dangerous.”

“Duh!”

Unshed tears sparkled in Buffy’s eyes and Cordelia honestly tried to feel sorry for her, but she could not seem to manage it. Though it did shed a little light on why those two had not been quite as demonstrative as they used to be.

“I don’t trust myself when I’m around him.”

“Who am I, Confession Girl?” Cordelia really did not want to hear this. “Tell Angel. He’s your problem, not mine.”

“Yeah.”

Cordelia had enough problems of her own without worrying about Buffy’s failed romance with Angel. Stepping around her while she was distracted, she paused only long enough to point out, “You need him around with this prophecy thing going on. Just find a way to deal.”

7:     Revello Drive, Central Sunnydale

Resurrecting an old habit, Angel followed along from the shadows as Buffy made her way down from her house in the direction of the high school. She walked at a brisk pace aware of everything around her except him. That was easy enough to change. That is, if he had a clue what to say to her. 


The opportunity to speak to Buffy without the ever-present entourage of Scoobies was a rarity. Each day seemed to widen the gap between them. Angel now cursed himself for a fool, grinding up the bitter pill of guilt and longing that seemed to be eternally lodged in his throat. Still, he followed.


Only the times when he caught her staring gave him any hope of reconciliation. It was impossible to turn back the clock and start over again. No words could ever make up for Angelus’ actions. Even if they could, he did not know how to ask for forgiveness and was certain that he did not deserve it.


No profound solution presented itself before Buffy rounded the last corner leading up to the school. Angel caught sight of Willow’s red hair shining under the street light ahead just before Buffy called out her name, waved, and ran to catch up. The boy was there, too. Even now, Xander and Willow remained joined at the hip.


Too much history had passed between them to let their indiscretion ruin their friendship. Angel figured there might be a lesson in that if he sat down to think about it for a while. Plenty of time for contemplation back at the mansion where it was dark and quiet, and without distractions, he figured.


Faith was lounging on the top step, energetically bounding up from her seat when the others appeared. They all moved indoors with Angel trailing behind unseen at a short distance. When he opened the library doors, he saw Rupert Giles unlocking the weapon’s cabinet in preparation for tonight’s patrol.

The hinge on the library door squeaked as it swung shut, instantly alerting the slayers to his presence. Angel had eyes only for Buffy. She stared back like a doe trapped by a predator. He crossed the room without a word, tilted her chin and bent down to press his lips to hers.


He tried not to look smug at her reaction caught somewhere between stirring passion and anger. Sometimes words just got in the way of making your point.


Sputtering for control as Angel casually strolled over, leaning against the balustrade, Buffy recovered enough to say, “Good, everyone’s here.”


Angel’s attention turned to the empty steps at his side; his gaze flicking around the room just to confirm the fact that one member of their team was still missing. Though chronically late, Cordelia always managed to show up. It sounded like Buffy was already counting her out.


“What about Cordelia?” A twinge irritation on her behalf was a curious surprise.


“Not my problem,” Buffy turned away to rummage through a duffel bag full of supplies. “If she really wanted to patrol with us, she would be here instead of breaking in a new boyfriend.”


Looking gut-punched by the news, Xander muttered, “ A new what?”


Buffy gasped in horror at having blurted it out like that. “God, I’m sorry, Xan. I shouldn’t have said anything.”


“Doesn’t matter,” he muttered, but his eyes told a different story. Even Angel felt a little sorry for the kid.


Just then, Cordelia breezed through the door dressed in a slinky top, very short skirt and heeled sandals, her long hair wind-blown and curling around her face. “What a craptastic day! But I’m here now. Ooh, pointy weapons. Which one is mine?”


Buffy could not believe it. Exactly what was it about Cordelia that shifted the world axis to revolve around her? Xander’s heart was crumbling into little pieces and she had the nerve to waltz in, late as usual, looking like she had come straight from a date with her mystery man.


Grabbing the nearest stake, Buffy shoved it into her hand. “Take this.”


Trying to get them focused on the mission at hand, Giles stepped forward to discuss options for patrol. “As you all are aware, we are not dealing with a simple warning of mal intent. The scroll found by the Watchers Council is but one piece of a much more intricate prophecy.”


Quieting down they turned their attention his way eyes following as he circled the room. “Its origins are so old that some of what is written into the scroll appears as familiar as folktales. Other parts translate as an ancient riddle.”


“Two demons walk into a bar…,” quipped Xander nudging Willow with an elbow. He knew from their recent research that this situation was not to be taken lightly, but he could not resist the chance to ease the tension tightening his shoulders. He zipped his mouth upon receiving the watcher’s disapproving stare and tossed the proverbial key over his shoulder.


Taking up a cross bow and a small quiver of bolts, Giles swung them onto his shoulder. “We are to expect several precursor events. Natural phenomena. Human sacrifice. Signs intended to harbinger the last days of freedom on Earth.”


“A new Big Bad is coming to town,” nodded Buffy matter-of-factly as she shifted focus to the task at hand. “Here we go again.”


Giles pursed his lips for a moment as he realized the situation was worse that any Buffy had faced thus far. “Buffy, to use your words, the demon threatening our world is one those other ‘Big Bads’ worship as a god. If we fail to note or intercept the signs laid out in the prophecy, it will be impossible to determine the exact time and location of the final event. We must prevent it at all costs.”


“We’re up against a god and all I get is this crummy stake?” Cordelia complained with a loud, “Pfft!” and moved over to look at the other options.


Unfortunately, considering her role as Bait Girl, it was hard to hide anything other than a stake on her person. She reached for a small dagger with a bronze sheath and considered having to use it. Vampires conveniently turned into clouds of dust when you killed them, but other things had the nasty habit of bleeding.


She was about to put it down when Angel reached in to pull it out of her hand. He stood just behind her, leaning close enough that his cheek brushed her hair as he took the dagger away. “Stick with what you know.”


“Hey, grabby hands, that was mine.” Cordelia’s irritated gaze trailed after him as he stepped back over to his spot in Buffy’s shadow only to connect with the slayer herself.


Buffy really did not want to have to put up with Cordelia tonight. Or any night, for that matter, but for some strange reason she was determined to be here. Pushy ex-cheerleaders had no business taking part in nightly patrol if it was not taken seriously. She idly wondered what it would take to convince her not to bother.


“We have only the clues in the prophecy to guide us,” Giles cut in on Buffy’s thoughts. “Each sign is unique. Some will be nothing more than a visual key, others substantive. Starting tonight over the next few weeks, during the hours immediately before and after the transition of the moon, we must be vigilant in our observations.”


Willow gulped, “Sounds like sleep is a no-go anytime soon.”


Xander squeezed her shoulder, “It’ll be okay, Will. We can nap during first period. Mrs. Tolliver usually 

nods off in the middle of her lecture anyway.”


“Easy for you to say,” Cordelia huffed, trying to ignore the friendly hug, “I’ve got Eagle-eyed Everson in my drama class. It’s all about focus, concentration and emoting”


“So tell her you were emoting with your eyes closed,” Xander shrugged.


“This may be difficult,” Giles agreed, “but it is necessary to cover as much ground as possible. We cannot afford to miss any of the signs. They may provide further clues.”


Buffy understood what he was getting at. “Teams?”


“Teams,” he confirmed with a nod.


“I’ll take GQ,” Faith volunteered all too quickly, her cheeks dimpling in amusement as she grabbed another opportunity to vex Buffy about her questionably ex-boyfriend, “if you really don’t want him anymore, B.”


Only the fact that Angel made no visible reaction kept Buffy from blowing her top. Just how Faith had gotten wind of her decision to break up with Angel took only a short leap of the imagination. Cordelia. Those two were hardly friendly, and rarely spoke a word to each other, yet somehow Cor managed to pass on the news.


While Xander was busily making a wisecrack, Willow sent Buffy a look of hurt and confusion when she realized that Buffy had kept something so important from her. Sucking in a deep breath, Buffy promised details, “Later.”


Giles did not bother trying to figure out what they were talking about. He was still trying to make his point. “Actually, Faith, I’d actually like you to accompany me. We can work on some of those drills we discussed.”


“Whatever you say, boss,” Faith grabbed her jeans jacket from the banister and put it on. “I’m ready to kick some ass whenever you are.”


“Er, yes, but I think the ass kicking will come a bit later,” he pursed his lips with a wry smile. “Cordelia and Xander can also join our group.”


That left Angel and Willow, Buffy realized. That meant that Willow would be the only one there to distract her from Angel. It would also be impossible to talk to her best friend about breaking up with him if he was right there.


“We should try something a little different,” Buffy tried to sound casual about it. “After all, you said we should cover more ground. Why not split into three teams instead of two.”


Giles did not take long to agree. “We have three strong fighters here. One per group. Excellent idea, Buffy.”


She beamed a wide grin at her success. It faded a little when she caught the nearly imperceptible change in Angel’s expression, but she was resolved to avoid any situation that threw them together. It was the only way to avoid temptation.


Besides, if she was right about this, Cordelia would whirl herself into a tizzy and quit before the night was over. “Angel and Cordelia can team up. I’ll take Willow and Xander.”


“What?” Clearly thinking about her encounter with Angelus, she gasped in horror. “Me and him? He’s safe enough here in the library, but the two of us out there… in the dark?”


A glance at Angel suggested he was not too thrilled with the idea himself, but he said nothing. Buffy could tell that he was less mad at Cordelia’s comment than he was at her for suggesting they split up their patrol in the first place.


“Better than Angel and Xander,” shrugged Buffy, drawing immediate scowls from both of them. “See what I mean? Unless you really want to be teamed up with me.”


“Oh.” Cordelia obviously had not thought about that one.


Angel suddenly grasped Buffy’s elbow leading her toward a far corner of the library where the others could not easily overhear.


Demanding softly, “What is this?” he dropped his hold after whirling her to face him.


Buffy stared at the floor, the ceiling, her fingernails, gaze darting from place to place in order to avoid his eyes. They read her too easily, so she admitted the truth, or at least part of it. “I don’t want to patrol with Cordelia.”


“You’re the only one who suggested it,” he pointed out.


“That’s what’ll happen if you don’t agree to team up with her,” she said. “I don’t think Cor and Xander should patrol together right now. It’s just asking for trouble.”


“Then let her go with Giles and Faith. I’ll be more effective on my own.”


Well, that would not get the job done, Buffy realized, as a plan started forming. Faith and Cordelia might not be buddies, but they obviously got along enough to share a secret—hers. Cor might say anything if she really had the time to gossip.


Shaking her head, “Not a good idea,” she explained. “Giles has a hard enough time controlling Faith without the added pressure of Cordelia tagging along.”


“I know that Cordelia has her moments, but is she really so difficult?” Angel asked. He obviously had not had enough firsthand experience to understand what the real Cordelia Chase was like. “Surely a slayer should be able to able to handle her.”


“Think it’s so easy?”


Angel glanced back at Cordelia who stood cross-armed, tapping her toe, waiting for them to make a decision. “Easy enough.”


“Huh. You haven’t got a clue. All you’ve seen is Cordelia-Lite, the version that used to fawn over you.” Buffy suddenly realized that her words were hardly convincing him to take her along. “Look, Angel, the truth is that I don’t think she can handle it. Not to mention the fact that she is not really one of us. She should never have come back after dumping Xander.”


Angel rubbed a hand across his face as understanding hit. “You knew Cordelia would have a problem patrolling with me. You’re setting her up to quit." 


“So what if I am?” Not denying it, she shrugged one shoulder. “It’s for her own good.”


“What if you’re underestimating her?”


Buffy pressed her lips together, trying not to look smug. “No, I don’t think so.”


If things worked out, Cordelia would call it quits. If it didn’t, the match would keep Angel from shadowing her every move. It hurt to be apart, but every time they were in the same room, Buffy wanted to do wild things with that gorgeous body.


That could not happen. It wasn’t fair.


“You’re certain this is what you want?” Angel offered her one more out only to get a brief nod before she walked back to the main group.


Yes, teaming them together was ingenious, Buffy decided, giving herself kudos for the plan. Cordelia would learn to stick with her own crowd. As for Angel, there was a lesson in it for him, too. She laughed inside at the thought of those two on patrol together. If he thought he had a handle on Cordelia Chase, he was in for a surprise.


The idea of letting him suffer just a little bit actually brightened her mood. Buffy barely registered the thought, but it was there.


“You’re with me,” Angel said as he approached Cordelia. He reached out to lead her back toward the area where he had left his jacket.


Cordelia jerked her elbow out of his grasp. “Hey. I don’t need guide dog.”


Dropping his hand to his side, Angel slowly curled his fingers inward until his nails pressed sharply against his palm. Opening up, his fingers flared out again to gesture toward the stairs. “Ladies first.”


She quirked an eyebrow upward and then grinned. “That’s better.”


“Do you want to go home and change clothes before we get started?” Angel eyed the unsuitably breezy top and the expanse of those long legs showing beneath her skirt. Similar to her usual style, it was more suited to the library steps than patrol.


Glancing down, Cordelia saw nothing wrong. “I’m ready.”


“You don’t exactly blend in with the shadows.”


“Bait’s not supposed to blend.”


Angel had heard Cordelia talk about her role as Bait Girl, but it never occurred to him that she would actually want to do such a thing. “You aren’t bait when you’re with me.”


Pfft! I’m not with you. We’re a team. Don’t expect me to do nothing,” Cordelia argued back. “I didn’t sign up for this just to play cheerleader on the sidelines.”


He moved closer reacting automatically to her obstinate stance. Angel’s smooth voice lowered to a low growl. “We have a job to do.”


“Fine.” Cordelia tucked her hair behind her ear exposing the line of her throat to Angel’s view.


In an instant, his demonic instincts flared to life. His eyes darted to the pulse there, fury stirring in his veins, and for a flicker of a moment it was all he could do to tamp down on the urge to grab her by they neck and bury his fangs in that buttery soft flesh.


The thought came and went so fast that he barely had time to acknowledge it was there. Angel was not sure how she had managed to get a rise out of him so quickly.


He was doing this for Buffy’s sake even if a part of him knew that she arranged it to keep them apart. That was a mistake. Patience was a game he knew very well. He could handle anything Buffy threw his way, including Cordelia Chase.

8:     South America, Somewhere East of Brasilia

 

The stench of stale beer, old blood and demons awakened Spike from pleasant dreams of violently putting the Slayer in her proper place. Bright moonlight beamed into his bloodshot eyes as his lids cracked open. Squinting, he raised an arm to block out the light instantly bashing his head with the forgotten beer bottle clutched in his hand. 

“What the—,” a curse followed as it hit his aching head, splashing warm Skol across his black t-shirt. Growling in confusion Spike lay sprawled across a hard surface, thoughts wading through the dullness that seemed to fill his head. “Where the duce am I?”

Getting up seemed like a good way to find out. He willed his reluctant body to move. A slow roll onto his side took him an inch too far. 

Spike took a nasty drop off the Desoto’s hood crashing down to the ground with a thud. The bottle shattered, cutting his hand, blood mixing with the warm liquid as it soaked into the dirt. 

“Bloody hell.”

When he opened his eyes, the lace-trimmed edge of Drusilla’s gown billowed softly in front of him. Spike scrambled to his feet, completely uncoordinated, but sobering a bit when he managed to recall why he’d set himself up to get drunk. 

She had left him. 

Drusilla had actually abandoned him and run off with a Chaos demon. It had not been that hard to find them considering this little watering hole was the only legitimate demon hangout east of Brasilia.

Spotting them at the park next to the cantina, Spike decided to plan his revenge over a few dozen beers. It sounded like a good idea at the time, but now the dull ache was evolving into a thundering jackhammer. He plastered a smile on his face, and hid his bleeding hand behind his back.

“Hello, luv,” Spike leaned forward and then leaned back, wavering in his attempt to hold onto his balance. “Come to kiss and make up now, have we? Gonna tell me you were daft for running off with that sticky-faced idiot?”

Dru looked skyward staring at the moon, an eager smile spreading across her blood red lips. Clasping Spike’s jaw in her slender hand, she held him steady. A dark light shone in her eyes. She spoke with a surety Spike had grown to trust over the years and the false warmth provided by the alcohol faded suddenly as her words chilled him to the bone.

“Daddy’s home.”

He jerked within her grasp. Angelus was supposed to be dust. "World's still here," he drunkenly swept his uninjured hand in a wide arc. "Slayer got him. Your Daddy dearest is dust now. Just dust in the wind."

Clucking her tongue, Drusilla corrected knowingly, "My Angel went to hell. He went and came back again." 

Searching inside himself for some sense that she was right proved nothing. The House of Aurelius and its bloodline were broken now, and the only one he could sense was Drusilla. His muddled senses barely even allowed him that faint twinge acknowledging that a link exited between them. 

"He is weak, but grows stronger.”

Whether she truly sensed him or the preternatural visions had granted her a glimpse of her sire, Spike knew that Dru would not give up the idea. The visions always held a measure of truth, even if they often came mixed up in madness. 

Spike did not want to believe it. He was perfectly happy with a world that did not include Angelus.

Shaking his head only caused him to growl at the wave of nausea that hit. His alcohol-soaked brain provided a more reasonable conclusion. “Maybe the world did end. This is hell. That’s why you left me.” 

Dru pouted looking forlorn for an instant and then her dark eyes glittered coldly. “Not so. You left me first.” 

He was about to protest that he’d done no bloody such thing when Dru grazed her fingertips across his forehead, “Here in your thoughts,” she spoke softly, “and here,” flattening her palm over his unbeating heart. 

Even drunk, Spike knew precisely what she meant. Dru’s touch was cold, but her words burned. “It’s the Slayer who fills your thoughts and stirs your lust. I have to get my pleasures somewhere.” 

Glancing behind her at the broad-shouldered Chaos demon, Spike did not see how she could compare that thing to him. He was in no shape to fight or to defend his confused interest in the Slayer. “So you came over here to jab the stake a little deeper. If you’re planning on introducing me to lover boy, you can save it.” 

The Chaos demon actually had the nerve to step closer, a sappy smile on an even sappier face, antlers dripping with treacle. Spike wobbled into an aggressive stance and glared at the beast. He planned to impale the Dru-stealing demon on its own antlers just as soon as he could figure out which one of the swimming faces was real. 

In the meantime, he had to complain, “These days a bloke can’t even fantasize about a girl without her poofy ex coming back from the dead and getting in the middle of it.” 

The rant was wasted on Drusilla, who was dancing around him, her skirt twirling. Her suitor appeared alarmed by Spike’s sudden show of fangs rushing to explain that he had no idea Dru already had a boyfriend. Spike had a few choice words to say about that. 

“I wasn’t talkin’ ‘bout me,” Spike growled his clarification to the horned demon. “I was talkin’ ‘bout Angelus and his bleedin’ heart soul.” 

Spinning to a stop, Dru lifted Spike’s injured hand, running her tongue along the bloody trail across his palm. “Take me to him.” 

The rush of pleasure at her touch gave him pause, but Spike pulled his hand away. “It’s not my bloody business. Gonna forget Sunnyhell and everyone in it. Plan to stay here and stay drunk until you realize that you’re mine— mine.” 

Enfolding him in her arms, Drusilla held his head against her chest, running her fingers through his soft blond hair and cooing his name. “Do you want me to be happy again, my Spike?” 

“Yes,” he sniveled drunkenly into her shoulder. 

“Then we must find Daddy before he is lost to us forever,” Dru explained gently as if talking to a small child. “One will guide him, but I must point the way.” 

Raising his head, Spike wiped at his face with his sleeve. “The Slayer? The only place she’ll be guiding Angelus is back to hell. Unless he got himself trussed up with another soul and then she’ll just shag it back out again.” 

“Another,” Dru told him and went right on talking. “I will tell her how to please him.” 

“Slayer already knows that little secret.” That brought another scowl to his face. Thinking about Angel and Buffy made him want to drink or hurl, possibly both. 

A little trill of laughter sounded as Dru corrected him. “Not the pesky Slayer, you naughty boy.” She tweaked his nose, which drew a chuckle from the Chaos demon still watching them. “The one like me.” 

It was impossible to think clearly. Spike had no idea what she was talking about. “There’s no one like you my goddess of the night, my pet, my black beauty, my ripe wicked pl—” 

Interrupting, Dru sounded a deadly promise, “Her blood will spill. Death shall bind us.”

Spike tried to concentrate. His head was clearing a bit. It sounded like somebody other than the Slayer was warming Angel’s bed. That cheered him considerably even though he did not want to think about why. “The chit dies?” 

Holding his hand, Drusilla dug her fingertip into the slashed skin that was already half healed. It bled. She swirled the red blood over his pale flesh, staring into it, her dark eyes focused far away, looking inward. Repeating her words, “Her blood will spill. The darkness will come for her.”

“Don’t think I care,” Spike shrugged and then lifted Dru’s bloodied finger to his mouth to lick it clean. “Last time Angelus got properly shagged he went off his bloody rocker.”

Drusilla pressed her finger across his lips to shush him. “We want our Angel happy, don’t we, my Spike?”

Depended on just how happy she meant. His lips pursed under the gentle pressure of her finger, and though his eyes shone with defiance, he realized this was one of those arguments Drusilla had already won. 

“Let us leave this place,” Drusilla’s tone turned soft and pleading. “Come with me. I need you.” 

Like he always did when he was with her, Spike felt like he would stand in blazing sunshine if she asked for it. Quite sure of it, he nodded, “Anything for you.” 

Behind them, the Chaos demon looked a bit forlorn, “Drusilla?” instantly bringing a smug smile to Spike’s face. 

He added, “As long as your friend isn’t planning to tag along. There’s no room in the Desoto for those antlers.” 

The Chaos demon blew Drusilla a parting kiss that she caught and held to her heart. Waving her slender fingers at him in return, she called out a goodbye. Spike groaned disgustedly. Ushering her into the passenger seat, he rounded the car, hopped in and turned on the ignition. 

“Let’s go then.” Screeching tires and a billowing cloud of dust followed in their wake.

The stench of stale beer, old blood and demons awakened Spike from pleasant dreams of violently putting the Slayer in her proper place. Bright moonlight beamed into his bloodshot eyes as his lids cracked open. Squinting, he raised an arm to block out the light instantly bashing his head with the forgotten beer bottle clutched in his hand. 

“What the—,” a curse followed as it hit his aching head, splashing warm Skol across his black t-shirt. Growling in confusion Spike lay sprawled across a hard surface, thoughts wading through the dullness that seemed to fill his head. “Where the deuce am I?”

Getting up seemed like a good way to find out. He willed his reluctant body to move. A slow roll onto his side took him an inch too far.

Spike took a nasty drop off the Desoto’s hood crashing down to the ground with a thud. The bottle shattered, cutting his hand, blood mixing with the warm liquid as it soaked into the dirt.

“Bloody hell.”

When he opened his eyes, the lace-trimmed edge of Drusilla’s gown billowed softly in front of him. Spike scrambled to his feet, completely uncoordinated, but sobering a bit when he managed to recall why he’d set himself up to get drunk.

She had left him.

Drusilla had actually abandoned him and run off with a Chaos demon. It had not been that hard to find them considering this little watering hole was the only legitimate demon hangout east of Brasilia.

Spotting them at the park next to the cantina, Spike decided to plan his revenge over a few dozen beers. It sounded like a good idea at the time, but now the dull ache was evolving into a thundering jackhammer. He plastered a smile on his face, and hid his bleeding hand behind his back.

“Hello, luv,” Spike leaned forward and then leaned back, wavering in his attempt to hold onto his balance. “Come to kiss and make up now, have we? Gonna tell me you were daft for running off with that sticky-faced idiot?”

Dru looked skyward staring at the moon, an eager smile spreading across her blood red lips. Clasping Spike’s jaw in her slender hand, she held him steady. A dark light shone in her eyes. She spoke with a surety Spike had grown to trust over the years and the false warmth provided by the alcohol faded suddenly as her words chilled him to the bone.

“Daddy’s home.”

He jerked within her grasp. Angelus was supposed to be dust. "World's still here," he drunkenly swept his uninjured hand in a wide arc. "Slayer got him. Your Daddy dearest is dust now. Just dust in the wind."

Clucking her tongue, Drusilla corrected knowingly, "My Angel went to hell. He went and came back again."

Searching inside himself for some sense that she was right proved nothing. The House of Aurelius and its bloodline were broken now, and the only one he could sense was Drusilla. His muddled senses barely even allowed him that faint twinge acknowledging that a link exited between them.

"He is weak, but grows stronger.”

Whether she truly sensed him or the preternatural visions had granted her a glimpse of her sire, Spike knew that Dru would not give up the idea. The visions always held a measure of truth, even if they often came mixed up in madness.

Spike did not want to believe it. He was perfectly happy with a world that did not include Angelus.

Shaking his head only caused him to growl at the wave of nausea that hit. His alcohol-soaked brain provided a more reasonable conclusion. “Maybe the world did end. This is hell. That’s why you left me.”

Dru pouted looking forlorn for an instant and then her dark eyes glittered coldly. “Not so. You left me first.”

He was about to protest that he’d done no bloody such thing when Dru grazed her fingertips across his forehead, “Here in your thoughts,” she spoke softly, “and here,” flattening her palm over his unbeating heart.

Even drunk, Spike knew precisely what she meant. Dru’s touch was cold, but her words burned. “It’s the Slayer who fills your thoughts and stirs your lust. I have to get my pleasures somewhere.”

Glancing behind her at the broad-shouldered Chaos demon, Spike did not see how she could compare that thing to him. He was in no shape to fight or to defend his confused interest in the Slayer. “So you came over here to jab the stake a little deeper. If you’re planning on introducing me to lover boy, you can save it.”

The Chaos demon actually had the nerve to step closer, a sappy smile on an even sappier face, antlers dripping with treacle. Spike wobbled into an aggressive stance and glared at the beast. He planned to impale the Dru-stealing demon on its own antlers just as soon as he could figure out which one of the swimming faces was real.

In the meantime, he had to complain, “These days a bloke can’t even fantasize about a girl without her poofy ex coming back from the dead and getting in the middle of it.”

The rant was wasted on Drusilla, who was dancing around him, her skirt twirling. Her suitor appeared alarmed by Spike’s sudden show of fangs rushing to explain that he had no idea Dru already had a boyfriend. Spike had a few choice words to say about that.

“I wasn’t talkin’ ‘bout me,” Spike growled his clarification to the horned demon. “I was talkin’ ‘bout Angelus and his bleedin’ heart soul.”

Spinning to a stop, Dru lifted Spike’s injured hand, running her tongue along the bloody trail across his palm. “Take me to him.”

The rush of pleasure at her touch gave him pause, but Spike pulled his hand away. “It’s not my bloody business. Gonna forget Sunnyhell and everyone in it. Plan to stay here and stay drunk until you realize that you’re mine— mine.”

Enfolding him in her arms, Drusilla held his head against her chest, running her fingers through his soft blond hair and cooing his name. “Do you want me to be happy again, my Spike?”

“Yes,” he sniveled drunkenly into her shoulder.

“Then we must find Daddy before he is lost to us forever,” Dru explained gently as if talking to a small child. “One will guide him, but I must point the way.”

Raising his head, Spike wiped at his face with his sleeve. “The Slayer? The only place she’ll be guiding Angelus is back to hell. Unless he got himself trussed up with another soul and then she’ll just shag it back out again.”

“Another,” Dru told him and went right on talking. “I will tell her how to please him.”

“Slayer already knows that little secret.” That brought another scowl to his face. Thinking about Angel and Buffy made him want to drink or hurl, possibly both.

A little trill of laughter sounded as Dru corrected him. “Not the pesky Slayer, you naughty boy.” She tweaked his nose, which drew a chuckle from the Chaos demon still watching them. “The one like me.”

It was impossible to think clearly. Spike had no idea what she was talking about. “There’s no one like you my goddess of the night, my pet, my black beauty, my ripe wicked pl—”

Interrupting, Dru sounded a deadly promise, “Blood will spill. Death shall bind us.”

Spike tried to concentrate. His head was clearing a bit. It sounded like somebody other than the Slayer was warming Angel’s bed. That cheered him considerably even though he did not want to think about why. “The chit dies?”

Holding his hand, Drusilla dug her fingertip into the slashed skin that was already half healed. It bled. She swirled the red blood over his pale flesh, staring into it, her dark eyes focused far away, looking inward. Repeating her words, “Blood will spill and the darkness will come for her.”

“Don’t think I care,” Spike shrugged and then lifted Dru’s bloodied finger to his mouth to lick it clean. “Last time Angelus got properly shagged he went off his bloody rocker.”

Drusilla pressed her finger across his lips to shush him. “We want our Angel happy, don’t we, my Spike?”

Depended on just how happy she meant. His lips pursed under the gentle pressure of her finger, and though his eyes shone with defiance, he realized this was one of those arguments Drusilla had already won.

“Let us leave this place,” Drusilla’s tone turned soft and pleading. “Come with me. I need you.”

Like he always did when he was with her, Spike felt like he would stand in blazing sunshine if she asked for it. Quite sure of it, he nodded, “Anything for you.”

Behind them, the Chaos demon looked a bit forlorn, “Drusilla?” instantly bringing a smug smile to Spike’s face.

He added, “As long as your friend isn’t planning to tag along. There’s no room in the Desoto for those antlers.”

The Chaos demon blew Drusilla a parting kiss that she caught and held to her heart. Waving her slender fingers at him in return, she called out a goodbye. Spike groaned disgustedly. Ushering her into the passenger seat, he rounded the car, hopped in and turned on the ignition.

“Let’s go then.” Screeching tires and a billowing cloud of dust followed in their wake.

9:     The Library, Sunnydale High School, Southeast Sunnydale

 

Buffy had sent him to hell again. Being teamed him up with Cordelia Chase was only going to hinder the whole mission. This was not a treasure hunt. There would be a fight to the finish against unknown odds in order to follow the signs of this prophecy. Babysitting a talkative cheerleader was not his first priority. 

Being manipulated by Buffy grated Angel’s nerves. Anger welled up like a rising force he had to consciously temper. Patrol was their time together even on the occasions when the others were tagging along. Now she had made a conscious decision to end that by separating the group into teams.

“Is everyone settled on his or her assignments?” Giles’ voice filtered through Angel’s thoughts registering despite his distraction.

If this worked out as Buffy hoped, then Cordelia would quit after the first patrol. By rights, he should make it tough on the girl and force her to change her mind about staying with the Scooby Gang. He would have her out of his hair and win some points with Buffy.

Those bright eyes darted toward him before turning back to her watcher. “Yup, all settled. We’ve got twelve cemeteries to cover tonight. I’ll handle the east side of town with Willow & Xander.”

“We’ve got the west side,” volunteered Faith before Giles could choose.

That left the central part of town and its four cemeteries assigned to him. Those were the closest to the mansion and very familiar ground to Angel, which would make the search easier.

Cordelia had other opinions. She puffed out her cheeks like a blowfish, rolling her eyes as she huffed, “Ugh, it figures I’d get Old Sunnydale Cemetery. It smells and it’s really creepy.”

The hard glare she sent his way made it seem like she expected him to fix that. Cordelia had not stopped staring at him since they had both agreed to Buffy’s plan. There was no hint of the soft, sensual glances she used to send his way before she learned he was a vampire. None of the sweet appealing charm that had been so distracting back then. The truth was that he never knew how to handle that or her fast-talking, no-nonsense chatter.

The language of death was something he understood and he had that in common with Buffy. It did not require talking.

Despite his anger, Angel went along with Buffy’s plan. There was a need to take care of the threat and the suggestion to split into groups actually had some merit. That did not make him like it any better. He would deal with it and Cordelia.

She was the real victim here. Recognizing that was the only thing that made him decide to let her quit of her own accord. He would not make it worse on her just to send her packing. If Cordelia chose to stay, so be it. She would just have to learn to keep up.

“The prophecy contains the clues we need to identify this powerful demon before he reaches our dimension,” Giles’ visible reaction to Cordelia’s comment faded as he gave them all last-minute advice. “Your research has provided us with the key to interpreting each clue.”

Xander quipped, “Now we get to find out if the indigestion was worth it,” referring to their late-night pizza sessions.

“What are we looking for?” Faith wanted to know. She had missed half of the group meetings for reasons she chose not to share. Now that the action was about to begin, she was back on board.

Angel watched Giles struggle for an answer. Truthfully, the prophecy was not very clear, or even complete. There was some doubt that they had been able to identify all of the Signs of the Prophecy leading up to its main event. Tonight, however, was an exception. The eruption of two volcanoes on opposite sides of the world was clearly mentioned in the scroll, a precursor to something far closer to home.

“A discovery will be made,” the watcher suggested this would be less of a sign and more of a physical object. “A bone relic amongst the stones of the dead.”

“Vague much?” Cordelia spoke as she strolled across the room to stand beside him. He just was not sure if she was asking or just being sarcastic. “What are we supposed to do… knock on every crypt to ask if anybody’s into home decorating?”

He was guessing sarcastic. Answering, “That’s a start,” Angel met her gaze long enough to realize he was staring.

“Just look for anything unusual,” Giles told them. “We know for a fact that tonight is the night. The objects described within the prophecy are likely to be vital to its fulfillment. Should you locate the relic let no one interfere in obtaining it.”  

Buffy stood cross-armed next to her watcher visibly mulling over his advice. “So you’re thinking there might be trouble. Demon minions? Bad guys looking for the same signs.”

“Quite certain. The followers of this demon god will be watching for the same signs we have discovered,” Giles readily cautioned. “It was written that an awakening will occur to spread the news of its coming. Once the first sign is noted, the prophecy texts provide a countdown to the final days.”

“Creepy,” Willow shuddered.

“Yeah,” the soft voice next to him was probably not heard by anyone else. Angel glanced down at Cordelia who was staring down at the stake in her hand. 

“Stick close,” Angel advised only to see a flash of anger and defiance in her eyes as her head snapped up.

Cordelia opened her mouth in preparation to respond only to be cut off by Giles giving them one last instruction. “Please gather back here at the library sometime between two and three o’clock to compare notes.”

It wasn’t until Faith called to Cordelia that he realized he escaped from a tongue-lashing. Having witnessed the rapid-fire response Cordelia could dish out during some of her tiffs with Xander, Angel knew it would be hard to avoid.

Watching her move across the floor, following the natural sway of her body as his eyes lingered the line of her back, the curve of her hips and the subtle flexing of her toned calves, he caught himself thinking patrol would be a lot more pleasant if his partner was gagged for the duration of the night.

“Enjoying the view?” Xander’s voice jerked him out of his thoughts, a hint of territoriality laced in the words.

Failure to notice the boy sneaking up on him suggested that Cordelia was going to prove to be a distraction on patrol, too, obviously a bad sign from the start. Angel glared back without bothering to dignify his question with a verbal response. Xander Harris had eyes enough to see that he had been looking at Cordelia. Clearly, any man would like what he saw, but Angel was not just a man.

The insignificant threat Xander posed still managed to irk Angel into glowering at him in a way that would cause most humans to shrink into a shaking mass of flesh and bone. The kid surprised him by standing his ground, but he watched the hard shell weakening as Xander’s dark eyes revealed a sense of pain and loss, something with which Angel was all too familiar.

“Watch out for her,” Xander pleaded with him. “Cordelia really doesn’t know what she’s getting into. We tag-teamed to handle a vamp or two when Buffy was out of town, but this is different.”

Pissed off at the idea, Angel scowled as he concluded. “So you want her out, too.” The subtle growl rumbled in his chest.

“Out?”

The confused look Xander produced told Angel that he knew nothing of Buffy’s plans for ousting Cordelia from the ranks of the Scooby Gang. It was all genuine concern with a measure of guilt on the side.

“N-no,” Xander stuttered. “I just want her safe. She got into this because of me. I don’t know why she’s back.”

Revenge was high on Angel’s list of theories. Show the young fool what he was missing out on. Cordelia was not about to let wounded pride get in the way of what she wanted, whatever that was. Angel could only guess at her motives, but he had to admire the fact that she walked back in with her head held high.

Strange as the feeling was to him, Angel also had to give Xander some credit for facing him now. There wasn’t exactly any trust built up between them. While Xander accepted Buffy’s decision to place his ex-girlfriend with him for the duration of this mission, he stepped forward to ask him to watch over her.

“Y’know, it’s not that Cordelia looks for trouble,” Xander shrugged his confusion as he rambled on. “It’s just that trouble seems to find her.”

“Relax, Harris. She’s my responsibility now,” Angel assured him gruffly and then left him standing there.

Buffy tugged at his coat sleeve, stopping him on his way to the spot Cordelia and Faith had chosen for their little talk. He saw their eyes lingering on him and tried to catch the gist of their conversation. He heard no more than a whispered word or two before the distraction of Buffy’s voice drowned them out.

“Did Xander give you a little pep talk?”

“You could call it that.”

“Um, great.” Buffy seemed to want to say more, but started to hedge away from him. Settling for a peppy smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes, she said, “Guess we oughtta get started.”

Angel stopped her. “Not so fast. I know you’re avoiding me. Don’t think I didn’t notice.”

“Oh.”

“We need to talk, Buffy.” He saw a hint of fear before her gaze darted over to Giles. The watcher was already on his way out the door, holding it open for Faith who pointed at Cordelia as if reminding her of something from their conversation. When Angel’s attention turned back to Buffy, her eyes glistened brightly with unshed tears as if his request to speak to her privately was too much to take. “I just want to spend some time with you.”

She caught her lip between her teeth, nibbling on it before blurting, “I can’t. We can’t. I’m not ready for that. That’s why I asked you to stay away,” her furious whisper crushed any guilt he might have felt for pushing her too fast.

“Maybe I should leave,” Angel dropped his hold on her arm, stepping back to await her reaction. 

Buffy gaped at his words, almost hopefully. She looked almost eager to get rid of him. He realized that was precisely what she was thinking.

“We need to get going, Buffster,” Xander interrupted as he slung his arm around her shoulder. “The clock’s ticking.” 

Angel let her go. She huddled with Xander and Willow at the counter reviewing the status of their weapons and snacks. He had never known Buffy to be afraid of anything, except him, apparently. Maybe not him, he corrected, them. 

10:     Jefferson Avenue Heading North Toward Thousand Oaks Drive

 

The last thing Cordelia needed was Faith’s advice on handling vampires. Though tongue-in-cheek, Faith’s comments on ‘handling’ Angel did not make her feel any better about patrolling with him. There was obviously some tiny spark inside her that still smoldered each time they were in the same room. Insane, but it was true nonetheless, even after the whole Angelus thing.

Going on patrol with Angel was risky business that had nothing to do with her naturally healthy fear of neck-chomping vampires. Nothing in his behavior suggested she would not be able to trust him to keep her safe out there. Or that he would ever intentionally place her in harm’s way. Her fear had more to do with already trusting him more than she should.

Cordelia had no intention of letting the embers of an old crush flame up again. Close quarters on the library steps during research sessions had caused countless accidental touches. It was not like she planned it, but Angel always responded with that stone-faced expression glowering at her until she moved her hand from his arm, shoulder, or thigh.

Maybe he did not trust her, either. This assignment was bogus and she knew it, but she was not about to let Buffy win by refusing it. “Let’s do it, big guy. I hope you can keep up.”

Without waiting for a response, she darted out the door leaving Angel standing in the middle of the library with a scowl on his face. Giggling at his expression would ruin her exit, so Cordelia held it in as she jogged down the hall despite her heels. Reaching the main exit, she pushed open the door and waited for him to follow. He was taking his time about it, she noted as she leaned up against the bricks of the school building.

A twinge of pain caused her to lift a hand to her side, a gasp catching her breath just as Angel emerged. His eyes flicked down just as Cordelia dropped her hand to her side. Though his gaze turned suspicious, he said nothing, stalking off in the general direction of Restfield Cemetery expecting her to follow.

“Hey, can’t you take a joke?” she called out. Angel was already starting to fade into the shadows, his black clothes blending with the night. “I guess you’ve lost your sense of humor, too. If you ever had one.”

Navigating the stairs, she hustled after him, having to walk fast in order to catch up with his long, steady strides. He stayed just far enough ahead to be out of easy conversation range. Cordelia’s clicking heels sounded along the cement sidewalks until she finally stopped in the middle of the crossroads at Jefferson Avenue and Thousand Oaks Drive. Gathering a deep breath, she shrieked his name. 

Angel whirled around and was at her side before the echo faded. “What is it?”

She was breathing heavily, gasping with outrage and just from having to work so hard to follow him. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, you jerk?”

“Testing you,” he answered roughly, making no apology for it.

“This isn’t a tryout,” Cordelia snapped back furiously. “I’ve already made the team and you are my lame-ass partner. Get over it.”

Angel did not budge despite her wild gesturing. Too calmly, he leaned down knowing his height would intimidate her. Pointing out, “My lame ass will be the one saving yours if you’re not ready for this.”

“Pfft. We have no idea what to expect from this prophecy thingie.”

His eyebrow quirked upward giving Cordelia the only answer she needed: that was his point, exactly.

“Oh. I’m ready,” she told him while hoping that was the case. “Besides, I learn fast. Teach me, Obiwan.”

“Teach you what?”

Sigh. “Never mind. Blame me spending too much time with Xander. Just get out of the street,” Cordelia told him while moving back onto the sidewalk. Walking on at a more comfortable pace with Angel now strolling along beside her, Cordelia muttered, “Is it any wonder I have vampire issues. Your fault, of course.”

Angel frowned. “Mine?” 

“Duh! I should have known that anyone so hot who was into Buffy Summers had to have something wrong with him,” she commented as they cut through the grassy open field toward the First Presbyterian Church and neighboring Restfield Cemetery. “Evil alter-ego and all.”

He blanked out on her obvious issues with Angelus, his focus immediately drawn to the only positive note. “Hot?”

Pointing out, “That is a term usually reserved for people with a pulse,” Cordelia patted his back. Angel stopped in his tracks mid-field, clearly about to attempt to make a case for his defense. “You can’t help that you’re dead. Everyone has their own problems, but you have an even bigger one...”

Cordelia poked him in the chest. “You lied to me.”

At his puzzled look, she realized he did not have a clue about which lie she was talking about. Convenient much? What was it about guys that allowed them to forget all about their wrongdoings?

“Hello, you let me think you were human,” she accused bitterly. A gruff little sound left her throat. “Lead a girl on and then wham! The truth comes out. You’re all liars.”

She tried to move on, but Angel captured her face in his palm, turning it up so Cordelia was forced to meet his gaze. “Leave your issues with Xander back home. If you have a problem with me take your own advice and get over it.”

Shoving his hand away, Cordelia told him, “Just when I started to trust you again, you did the horizontal mambo with Buffy and turned evil. So I just want to know: why me? I get that you wanted to tick off Buffy by killing one of her friends, but why did you pick me? Willow was closer.”

Angel hesitated in the face of her fury, answering cautiously, “You looked tastier.”

That had such a ring of truth to it. The brooding look that descended over his face caused Cordelia to grin despite him making her mad. A laugh bubbled up. “Oh. Well, duh!”

“I won’t lie to you,” Angel said, standing close, but no longer touching her. “There are things about me that you should fear. I’m a vampire. A part of me will always wonder what you taste like.”

Cordelia’s eyes widened, but he was actually talking and she would take the truth over his somber stoicism any day.

“As long as I have a soul, I’d never deliberately hurt you,” he promised solemnly.

Gazing up into those deep brown eyes, Cordelia answered softly, “Then I guess you’d better not lose it again.”

She felt Angel’s hand on her hip gliding upward and her already wide-eyed gaze stared unblinkingly into his. Her skin shivered as his fingertips slipped under the loose end of her silk blouse to clasp her waist. Squeezing in just the right spot before Cordelia knew what he was up to Angel put just enough pressure on her healing injury to cause her to wince.

“Ouch! You bastard,” Cordelia jerked out away from his touch, pushing at his chest to put some distance between them. “You just promised that you’d never hurt me.”

Angel shoved his hands in his jacket pockets before replying, “I needed to know your vulnerabilities. You’re not a slayer. You heal differently.”

Rubbing her stomach, Cordelia glowered at him. “You could have just asked.”

“Truth works both ways,” he told her. “I thought it best to find out for myself.”

Forging a tentative truce, they continued on to Restfield Cemetery. The quarter-moon lit the tombstones and left the wooded edges of the grounds swallowed by shadows. It was, in a word, creepy. Cordelia clutched her wooden stake, walking along beside Angel, watching to make sure she was not stepping on anyone’s grave.

Giles had made the big speech about signs and whatnot, but it seemed like a whole lot of watching and waiting for something that was not supposed to happen for another few months. “Some council guy finds an old scroll just in time to warn us that a demon is coming to the Hellmouth. Pfft! Welcome to our week.”

“This isn’t just an ordinary demon,” Angel reminded her. “Whatever it is, the Scroll of Septarius describes it as being nearly unstoppable. If it reaches our dimension it would take an army of slayers to defeat it.”

Cordelia gave him a serious nod. “Guess we better stop it, then.” He might have been impressed if the subject had not immediately changed to her mulling over the fact that she should have worn closed-toed shoes instead of sandals.

Restfield had tiny little pebbles mixed in with some of the dirt. When she stopped to pluck one out of her instep, she caught Angel’s wry stare. “I would’ve been fine if we got to patrol the east side.”

Angel said nothing, just offered her a hand as she balanced herself. They moved on a moment later, but hadn’t gone more than a few feet when Cordelia asked, “Do you see anything, cos I don’t see anything.”

“I see just fine in the dark, Cordelia,” he answered flatly.

“Hello, vampire, I know that. I meant do you see a sign? THE sign. You know, the one we’re looking for?”

They had not seen anything more exciting than the grass moving with the subtle shifting of the night breeze. “Bored?”

“No,” she huffed defensively. “I’m just saying I see no ‘walking dead amongst the stones’ hanging around. Prophecy said there would be walking dead and unless it’s talking about you, we’ve got the wrong place.”

They walked past every headstone before Angel finally conceded that it was time to move on to the next cemetery on their patrol route. “We’ll head to Old Sunnydale next, go up to Shady Hill and then head back down to Parkdale.”

“Ugh. Okay. Might as well get it over with,” agreed Cordelia suddering at the thoughts of Old Sunnydale Cemetery. It had the oldest marked graves in town and contained a large section of broken stones and unmarked plots that dated way back to the town’s earliest settlements.

A fifteen minute walk took them due west closing in on Maple Street. They were near Giles’ house and not so far from the mall, but far enough that the trees blocked her view of the familiar domed roof of her favorite local getaway. With a sigh, she waited as Angel pulled on the heavily rusted iron gate barring their entry into the cemetery.

The hinges squealed and Cordelia cringed at the grating noise because it had to alert anything living or undead inside to their presence. Tucked into a spot that kept it hidden from the traffic, the old cemetery possessed its own personality of sorts. The low ground turned misty when the cooler night air descended lending a haze that deepened shadows as it swirled around the crypts and headstones.

Cordelia knew Angel could tell that this place creeped her out. Her heart had to be playing a bongo beat in his ears by now. She stuck close as ordered. Maybe a little too close. After bumping into him several times when he paused to look at something, she figured she’d better back off a bit.

“What was that?” Cordelia saw movement in the shadows, but Angel was already following the figure as it darted between the trees toward the cover of a large crypt.

“Vampire.”

Gulping, Cordelia nodded, holding her stake at the ready and moving along at a slow pace. Angel gestured for her to hold position. The sound of shuffling leaves drew their attention and before Cordelia could figure out where the danger was coming from the vampire leapt off the top of the large crypt tackling Angel to the ground.

“Oh, crap!” That was not supposed to happen. Cordelia held up her stake and tried to angle around to get at the bad guy. “Hold him steady.”

Angel’s gaze clashed with hers for an instant just before he vamped out. “I told you to stay put,” he counseled her while tossing his scrawnier opponent against one of the marble columns.

“Well excuse me for trying to save you.” Bristling with annoyance, Cordelia stood statue-still as Angel hauled the guy to his feet, wrapped an arm around his neck and twisted. One snap and the vampire was dust.

“There was only one little one,” he pointed out that her involvement only placed her in danger and was hardly necessary. Angel made a little growl of frustration, not even noticing that his game face was still in place as Cordelia reached up to wipe the dust from his jacket.

A search of the crypt and the rest of the cemetery led to no new clues and certainly not anything that looked like a bone relic. Old Sunnydale had nothing to offer. Cordelia was happy to leave it behind and move on to Shady Hill where the hilltop view was actually rather pretty at night when the town lights shone.

Unlike the Restfield cemetery, Shady Hill was a much smaller place, though in aspects no less creepy than Old Sunnydale. It had a history as shady as its name linked to old tales of witchcraft, hangings and ancient burial grounds. They waited there for nearly an hour, spending an equal amount of time here as in the others. Cordelia got the feeling that Angel was also giving her a chance to rest up before they trekked back across town to Parkdale.

“The hour of darkness is at hand,” Angel quoted a line from the prophecy scroll, startling her out of her thoughts.

“Pretty dark,” Cordelia quipped uncertain what he was getting at. “Always is around the Hellmouth.”

His lips quirked into something that was almost a smile. “We shouldn’t overlook that line in the prophecy. It may be vague, but it could also be a clue.”

“If you say so,” Cordelia was not certain about anything except the thought that she actually felt safe sitting here in the dark with the former Scourge of Europe. How weird was that?

This seemed like a good opportunity to get to know Angel a little better. Cordelia figured there was no time like the present. And since he had not told her to shut up or mind her own business so far, he obviously did not mind her asking.

Parkdale was a neatly kempt cemetery directly across from City Hall and several local businesses. It neighbored the city park, hence its name. Approaching from the north end of the grounds, they weaved through the granite headstones, looking for anything that resembled a bone relic or a clue.

Angel was mainly looking for some peace and quiet.

Cordelia was starting on his last nerve. If she asked one more question about his past, he was going to lose it. “No, I never ate any famous Americans. I was ensouled by the gypsies before leaving Europe.”

“Oh, so you only ate Europeans,” she sounded disappointed and settled down into the quiet search pattern he had established. Quiet for about half a minute, that is. “Anybody famous?”

There was one particular royal. “Actually,” Angel started to tell her about one gruesome tale since she seemed so interested in hearing him talk.

Shuddering, Cordelia made a face of disgust, “Eeeew! I don’t want details.”

That left him feeling bad about bringing it up and then he started to think about the torture he had inflicted on that victim before finally killing him. His soul ached at the memory of it. How could he possibly expect Cordelia to understand the ongoing conflict inside him at the memory of his victims’ deaths? The triumph, power, and pleasure he had felt at his domination over those he made his prey warred in an internal battle with his conscience.

What was he doing trying to share one of those moments with her and expecting her to comprehend its power? It was as horrifying as her expression suggested.

The distraction of their conversation brought them halfway across the Parkdale grounds before noticing small gathering at the south end of the cemetery. Four suited figures stood around a fresh grave.

“Kinda late for a funeral, isn’t it?” Cordelia asked Angel when they caught sight of the group.

“Vampires.”

Even at four-to-one, Angel figured he could handle it. Though it was impossible to tell if they were all fledglings from this distance, he knew it would be safer if he took care of things on his own. “Stay here,” Angel ordered sternly. The last thing he needed was Cordelia trying to ‘help’ him again.

“And what happens if you get staked?”

Angel glanced back over his shoulder, “Then run like hell.”

“Pfft.” Her soft complaint was followed by a stubborn agreement. “Fine.”

Approaching stealthily, Angel noticed that they were all staring at the new grave, simply waiting for the vampire within to emerge. There was no mistaking these four for human. Even if he could not already sense it, they made no attempt to disguise their true faces.

The turned earth shifted a bit and they seemed to lean in even closer to watch. Angel stepped right up next to them, positioning himself at the foot of the grave. Taking a page from Cordelia’s book, Angel leaned in to grab their attention as he asked, “Is it somebody famous?” After all, he wanted to give them a sporting chance. 

11:     Pine Grove Cemetery, Eastside, Sunnydale

 

Munching on a handful of potato chips, Willow offered the bag to Buffy. She took a few and passed it down to Xander. They all sat side-by-side on the top of the Roberson family memorial stone, their legs hanging just above the ground. Night birds chirped in the neatly tended trees shadowing the path leading toward the columbarium.

Xander shoveled a few chips into his mouth and commented through the noise of his munching, “Maybe this dead guy is just dead.”

There was a fresh grave in the Roberson plot and they were sticking around to see what would happen. None of the other cemeteries on their route produced anything unexpected. A vamp here or there made it pretty standard fare for the slayer. They had certainly not found anything that resembled a bone relic.

“Could be,” Buffy shrugged while tapping her stake against her leg in a musical rhythm. She would so much rather be at the Bronze.

The club was less than a block away and if she concentrated really hard, Buffy could pick up the beat of the music. That was how quiet it was here at Pine Grove Cemetery.

They continued to stare at the grave, hoping something would happen to make their patrol a little more exciting, but the quiet worked against them. Once the crunch of the potato chips was no longer an issue, they all fell silent, focusing on their own thoughts.

Finally, Xander turned to Buffy and asked, “So what’s up with this new boyfriend? Where did she meet this guy?”

Buffy’s thoughts had not been that far off: Cordelia and her own boyfriend out on patrol. She had been having fun picturing those two at each other’s throats. Well, not literally in Angel’s case. They were probably already back at the library, or with a little luck, maybe Cordelia had already given up and gone home.

Knowing that it was a sore subject, she answered him honestly. “I don’t know. Willow is the one with the 411.”

“No I’m not,” Willow denied quickly while dramatically shaking her head to make her point. “I-I don’t know anything about him.”

Xander knew her far too well not to see right through her denial. “Spill it, Will. I need to know.”

There really was not that much to say. Willow repeated what she told Buffy at school. The news that Cordelia’s mystery guy was in college made any thought of reconciliation seem hopeless. Willow and Oz had managed to get back together, but Xander knew that Cordelia was not that forgiving. He would be happy just to win back her friendship much less anything more.

“I feel bad about it,” he shared his guilt. “We screwed up and Cordelia got hurt. I just want her to be safe and happy.”

Frowning, Buffy said nothing. Sure Cordelia could be happy— elsewhere. Yup, she was all for the happiness. Just imagine all the extra time Cor would have to spend with her new hottie when she quit.

Offering Xander a smile, Buffy assured him, “I’m sure she will be.”

12:     Parkdale Cemetery, Central Sunnydale

 

“Ooh! Look out,” Cordelia’s muttered warning was far too soft for either Angel or his foes to hear as she fell into the familiar role of sideline cheerleader. “Ha! Go Angel! Take him out. Dust him! Dust him!”

There was a fluid grace to his movements despite the fury of the battle. Angel kept moving, forcing the other vampires to adjust their positions. He had dusted one and blocked a punch in one smooth motion of his arms.

The fearful butterflies swirling in her stomach dissipated as Cordelia’s confidence grew with each passing moment. Angel was enjoying this fight. He had them right where he wanted them, at his mercy. Only he had none for them and they knew it.

“Get him. Watch out for the— ouch, that had to hurt,” Cordelia cringed as one of the vampires got in a hard upper cut to Angel’s jaw. What did that guy think he was doing? Now Angel looked pissed. The vampire exploded into a cloud of dust a moment later. “Duh, dead guy. You should’ve run when you had the chance.”

Bass tones sounded a warning in her ear, “Perhaps you should heed your own advice,” just before a hand closed over her shoulder.

Cordelia let out a scream that caused Angel and his two remaining opponents to pause in the middle of their fight to look her way. It was on again in seconds, and as Cordelia was swung around, she could no longer see Angel, only the very evil-looking face of the vampire who had her in his clutches.

He looked huge, as tall as Angel and just as broad-shouldered, though he had nothing on him in the hottie department. There was a green tint to his dead flesh, a sinful sneer on his face as he wrapped his hand around her throat and lifted her up onto her toes.

“Angelus is foolish to leave his pet alone in such a place.” He leaned in close to rub his cheek against her hair and buried his nose into its silken depths to scent her. He used his free hand to squeeze her ass, moving it up before she could do more than squirm against him to test the weight of a breast. “Mmm, you are perfection. My master will be pleased to sire you into our ranks.”

Whether his words or his touch acted to jolt her into action, Cordelia had no idea. She simply reacted. Her knee lifted sharply connecting with the vampire’s groin. Like any human male, he shouted in pain and fury, instantly releasing her as he doubled over. 

Cordelia forgot about the stake in her hand. Instinct took her directly toward Angel despite the fact that he was still grappling with his last two opponents. She looked back over her shoulder expecting the creepy vampire to come after her, but he was not there. Panicking, Cordelia whirled around again, still moving, trying to see where he had gone.

Her foot caught on something. She was falling and the sound of her cry pierced the air. Cordelia heard Angel call out her name, but she could not see him. Dirt and darkness surrounded her as she lay stunned. Horror rose up as déjà vu hit: lying under the stairs in that small dark space.

“Angel?” Her voice was hoarse from where the vampire had held her throat. Oh, God this was not happening.

Cordelia realized she was in a grave. The broken lid of a coffin lay shattered amid the torn satin lining. She moved her hands, somehow knowing that the occupant of the coffin was already gone. Actually relieved by that thought, she stood on the exposed edge of the coffin and struggled to pull herself up out of the grave.

“Are you okay?” Angel moved over to help her up despite the fact that he was still in the middle of the fight.

“Behind you!”

As if he had known the vampire was there all along, Angel whirled, stake in hand, to plunge it deep into his chest with perfect accuracy. It crumbled into dusty ashes that fluttered to the ground. Cordelia waved at the air trying to stop the dust from settling into her hair.

Angel lifted her to her feet and stepped back to check her out for injuries. She was making an awful lot of noise for someone who was not physically hurt.

“Eew! Oh God. Yuck. I’m covered in grave dirt,” Cordelia was close to tears as she held out the corner of her silk blouse for his inspection. There was a dark smudge just below her right breast. “Is that a blood stain?”

Glancing down, he realized she was right. A sick feeling swept over him at the thought that she had been injured and Angel swiftly moved her hands aside, no longer settling for a visual inspection. His fingers slipped beneath the edge of the blouse, spreading out in search of her injury. When the heat of her skin touched him, Angel nearly jerked away. The little gasp in his ear should have told him he was taking his concern too far, but it did not stop him.

“You’re okay,” his relief was apparent, as he found no broken skin. His thumb brushed softly against the edge of her scar before his hands dropped back down to his side.

Cordelia appeared annoyed by rather personal inspection. “I didn’t say the blood was mine, dumbass. That creep touched me. He must’ve had blood on his hands.”

Considering the location of the smudge, it was not hard for Angel to guess what he had been touching. His jaw tightened in anger. He had heard her scream, but been unable to get to her. The bastard must have groped her right before she kneed him in the groin.

“You should’ve staked him,” Angel counseled despite a strange sense of pride in the fact that she had done well to escape him at all.

“If I ever see that guy again, he’s dust,” Cordelia said as she spotted her stake lying on the ground next to the edge of the grave. “He obviously doesn’t know how much it costs to get stains out of clothes like this.”

Angel was not about to go there. He had had a difficult enough time a couple of hours ago trying to change the subject when Cordelia had started talking about Vera Wang’s Fall Collection. Apparently, clothing was a big thing.

Luckily, she changed it herself by focusing in on something the vampire had said to her. “Hey, he recognized you, called you Angelus.”

That did not really surprise him. There were a few loosely formed vampire clans here in Sunnydale, some of which had links back to Europe. Anyone who was still around from a year ago had probably heard all about his soulless stint, and so it was just as likely that rumors of his return were already widespread.

“That suggests he’s been around for a while,” Angel commented as he inspected the grave at their feet. There was no relic inside the open coffin.

Cordelia added sourly, “He called me your pet.”

Angel quickly hid his amusement behind a blank expression and chose to search the gravesite for any sign that it had a link to the prophecy.

“No one ever calls Buffy your pet,” she complained.

Glancing at her from the corner of his eyes, Angel kept silent on the subject. It was probably better not to tell her that most vampires had a very different kind of reaction when faced with the slayer. Finding a beautiful, curvaceous young woman like Cordelia in his company probably led to a few natural assumptions even if they had no basis in reality.

“Try to stay focused,” Angel said when she did not seem to want to drop the subject. “This is the closest we’ve come tonight to meeting the prophecy criteria.”

The translation was pretty rough, or so Giles told them, but the gist of it seemed clear enough.

Walking dead amongst the stones,
the hour of darkness is at hand.

A bloodied relic made of bones;
Awakening followers throughout the land.

Cordelia jumped back on board with a quick comment, “Hey, that new vamp you dusted could be considered an awakening.”

“I never touched him.” Angel realized he had been wrong in assuming that Cordelia’s fall had pushed the rising fledgling against one of the coffin shards. “He must have gotten out before you fell.”

Gripping her stake a little tighter, Cordelia looked around at the edge of the graveyard trying to spot the vampire that got away. The deep gong of the clock tower at City Hall caught their attention as it began to sound out twelve strokes. “There he is!”

Angel turned to see the lone figure opening up the front door to the building to walk inside. City Hall should have been locked up, but it was not. The only lights came from the tower itself. “This is it,” he told Cordelia and grasped her hand to pull her along behind him.

“Too fast! Watch the super-speed,” Cordelia reminded him. He let go, but warned her to stay close. He did not want anything else to happen to her tonight.

They caught up with the fledgling vampire despite his head start. He turned back from his climb up the tower stairs when Angel and Cordelia made their entrance. The call of human blood was too much of a temptation. One strong-armed move was all it took for Angel to smash him face-first into the stone wall.

Demanding answers, Angel questioned him about the relic they were seeking, but he knew nothing. The vampire hissed its fury as it tried to escape, but it had the strength of a spitting kitten compared to Angel. “Upstairs. I am called to the alter of my master.”

“Could that be the creepy guy who grabbed me?” Cordelia asked as Angel ended the struggle permanently. They walked away from the dust cloud and proceeded up the stairs toward the top of the tower.

“Let’s find out.” Then he added, “Just remember to—”

“I know, I know,” Cordelia huffed as her heels clicked on the steps. “Stay out of the way. Let you handle it.”

Angel was glad to hear that she was catching on. To his surprise, Cordelia seemed just as determined to get to the bottom of this, and was actually cooperating with him. She even kept her mouth shut as they crept upstairs, which for her had to take considerable effort.

The stairs opened directly into the space containing the clock mechanism. There was a wooden railing around it leaving an open area along the floor. It was hard to miss the pentagram drawn there or the object at its center. Pieced together with bits of bone and flesh, the carved relic was anointed with blood. From the shadows of the bronze clock face stepped the elder vampire.

Cordelia recognized him immediately. “Whatever you’re doing here is so over.”

“You are mistaken, human. I am but one of many,” the vampire announced far too calmly. “The first rite is already complete. Vampires and demons of all kind will answer its calling. Soon, the time will come to herald the arrival of one who shall rule this Earth for ten thousand years.”

Angel stepped closer, edging the pentagram as he moved forward. “Just who is it you’re summoning?”

“All will be known in time.”

“Cryptic much?” Cordelia planted her knuckles on her hips, still holding onto her stake.

The vampire crouched low as he faced off against Angel. They circled each other for a moment before leaping at each other with a fury that left Cordelia gaping. For one heart-stopping moment, the other vampire had Angel pinned to the wall. Angel kicked back throwing off his opponent. They grappled and punched their way across the room.

The relic went scooting across the floor sliding to a halt near Cordelia’s foot. She yelped as the blood splattered within an inch of her toes.

“Cordelia,” she glanced up to see Angel struggling with the vampire. Now behind him, Angel reached under his arms, pinning his shoulders back. One hand on the back of his neck held him in place while the other twisted his wrist pulling it back up at a painful angle.

“It missed me,” Cordelia told him she was relieved to escape a blood bath. “I’m okay.”

Angel growled in response as the vampire managed to kick his shin. He barely kept his hold. Grinding out her name again, “Cor-de-lia,” he glared meaningfully.

“Oh!” Cordelia finally got it. She darted across the room, held the stake high and aimed carefully.

“Now,” Angel ordered as he felt his hold slipping.

Cordelia plunged the stake home as hard as she could. Before the vampire crumbled to dust, it stared deep into Cordelia’s eyes and promised her, “My master will devour your heart for this.”

“Too bad you won’t be around to tell him,” she smirked as his body crumbled.

The dust had not even cleared before Cordelia thrust herself into Angel’s arms hugging him tight. “Next time just tell me to stake him.”

Angel did not have time to enjoy the warm body pressed against his. Only seconds later, she pushed away and playfully poked at his belly with her stake. “Told you I could help. Hah! I got him. You needed me after all.”

“Watch the shirt,” he complained. Angel yanked the stake out of her grasp when those random pokes started to do more than just set off his pain receptors.

Cordelia just grinned triumphantly. “We did it. And we have the yucky relic to prove it. You are so going to be the one carrying it back to the library.”

13:     The Library, Sunnydale High School, Southeast Sunnydale

 

Buffy, Willow and Xander trailed back into the school after finishing up their patrol of the eastside cemeteries. Overall, it had been a boring night. The town’s vampire population was only down by two by their count, but they had made a considerable job of emptying out their bag of snacks.

When Buffy opened the door, she saw Giles examining something gross spread across a cloth on their research table. Faith stood next to him. “I’m out of here for the night,” she said, “now that the job’s done.”

Oh crud. It looked like Faith found the relic. Nah, it was probably Giles.

That thought perked her up a little until her eyes slid across to the library steps to see Cordelia sitting next to Angel. Buffy’s jaw dropped at the sight of the other girl, who was smudged from head to toe with dirt, grass and blood. Her head was resting on Angel’s shoulder, eyes closed in exhaustion.

Angel was just sitting there watching her sleep. Finally, he reached up to touch her face, gently sounding out her name to rouse her. It soothed Buffy’s ruffled feathers a bit when Cordelia sounded miffed, “Hey, you let me sleep. What’d I miss?”

“The others are here,” Angel told her making Buffy realize that he was already aware of her presence even if he hadn’t looked her way. “Faith says she’s going to go. Maybe you should head home, too.”

Cordelia looked like she was about to argue, but then found herself yawning. With a nod, she agreed. Standing up, she walked up to Faith. “I need someone to walk me home.”

“What does that have to do with me?” asked Faith as she ran a hand through her dark hair. “I’m ready to party for a couple of hours. You need a hot shower and someone to tuck you into bed.”

“No argument,” Cordelia shrugged. “You’re elected. I have dealt with enough vamps tonight. I don’t want to run into any more without backup.”

When Xander started to make an offer, Buffy stepped on his toe. He was easily distracted after that. By the time he recovered, there was already another offer on the table.

Giles suggested Cordelia stick around for an hour or two while he examined the relic. After that, he would be happy to offer her a ride home. Then it occurred to him, “Where is your car, Cordelia?”

Yeah, Buffy wanted to know that, too. She should be driving herself home, not ordering other people to keep her company. Cordelia stared at Giles as if she did not know how to answer the question.

Faith finally stepped in to say, “It’s at the shop. Car trouble.”

Was there anything Faith did not know about Cordelia these days? Buffy had obviously underestimated Cordelia’s skills at ingratiating herself into someone’s life. Not even Faith was immune.

Cordelia actually looked surprised at Faith’s comment, but the hint of anger faded when the slayer said, “Let’s go. I’ll get you home before I scope out the Bronze. Unless Angel wants to take you,” she added while letting her eyes linger on his handsome face.

Standing up, Angel looked back and forth between Faith, Cordelia and Buffy. He was trapped, Buffy thought irritably. Now he would have to do the polite thing and walk her home. Glowering at Faith, Buffy was about to come up with an excuse to make him stay when Cordelia commented, “I think Angel has put up with enough of me tonight. Besides, he and Buffy have been out of lip-locking range for a few hours.”

“Not that it’s any of your business,” Buffy reminded her as she walked over to stand next to Angel. Taking a closer look at her appearance, she asked Cordelia, “What happened to you?”

“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” Cordelia struck a confident pose causing Buffy to wonder just what it was she was handling. There were a lot of ways to get grass and dirt stains on your clothes. If Cor had been patrolling with anyone other than Angel, she might be suspicious. That and the fact that Cordelia looked worse for wear suggested she had just had a bad night and was trying to hide it.

Buffy tried to sound sympathetic. “Too bad you got all dirty and have nothing to show for it.”

Pointing toward the table and the relic made of flesh and bone, Cordelia told her, “That’s too gross to be nothing.”

You found it?” Buffy’s voice sounded almost as high-pitched as Willow’s.

“Duh! Do you think Angel & I were rolling in the dirt for the fun of it?”

A warm flush rising to her cheeks caused Buffy to turn away under the pretense of staring at the relic. “You’re right. It’s pretty gross.”

Cordelia rolled her eyes and said goodnight to Angel & the others before walking out the door. Following, Faith paused long enough to say, “Catch you later.”

Buffy was so glad to see the door swing shut behind them. She wanted to talk to Angel about his patrol with Cordelia. Fortunately, Xander was already preoccupied by the cool grossness of the evil relic. Willow followed him to the table, but seemed more interested in Giles’ assessment. He seemed more than happy to provide her with his preliminary findings.

Because she had Angel to herself for a moment or two, Buffy hinted for details. “Looks like the night was eventful.”

“It was.”

Prompting him for more information, Buffy finally had to be specific. “What about Cor?”

He did not answer for the longest time. Okay, it was only a few seconds, but Buffy was impatient to discover how she handled patrol. Especially if it meant she was planning to quit.

“Cordelia is…,” Angel started to speak and then trailed off again for a moment to gather his thoughts, “completely untrained,” Buffy nodded, “undisciplined…,” to say the least, “unpredictable— and noisy.”

Angel revealed that Cordelia had seemed more interested in the wear and tear on her designer clothes than dressing for protection. That was a point Buffy could not say much about. She actually understood it.

“But Cordelia follows her instincts,” Angel added with a measure of respect, “and she’s not afraid of getting involved in the action.”

“I’m surprised,” admitted Buffy with a frown. “My night was a yawner and it’s Cordelia Chase who gets all the action. Vampire action,” she corrected swiftly only to find that the words still sounded wrong.

“She’s not like you and Faith,” he reminded. “There are things a girl like Cordelia just isn’t built for.”

Staring up at him, curiosity mixed in with a little feministic ire, Buffy wanted clarification on that one. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“She is…” Angel held his hands up in the air as if seconds away from outlining her shape. Buffy’s glare obviously made him reconsider it. Shoving his hands back into his coat pockets, Angel tried to come up with an explanation that would not get him staked. “She wasn’t born to slay vampires.”

He left it at that and seemed unwilling to explain further. Buffy tried to put it into the context that he was agreeing with her that Cordelia did not belong on patrol. It did not matter that neither Willow nor Xander were born into the slaying business, either. That certainly would not help her make her point.

“So is she going to quit?”

“No,” Angel answered with surety. There was a spark of admiration in his brown eyes, a flicker of amusement and a hint of something else that made her squirm uncomfortably before his gaze turned toward the door. “From what I can see, Cordelia’s not a quitter.” 

14:     Heading North, Jefferson Avenue, Eastside Sunnydale

 

Faith listened with genuine interest as Cordelia went over the more exciting parts of her first patrol with Angel. “Sounds like you had a lot more fun than me.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call it fun,” Cordelia returned with a grin. “But it was definitely cool to see Buffy’s face when she found out Angel and I discovered the relic.” 

They had come to the crossroads where Faith automatically made a turn for the ritzier part of town. She had never been to the Chase mansion, which she had been told had a huge swimming pool, tennis courts, and its own small stable. Rubbing elbows with the rich had never been her thing, but it might be fun. Surprisingly, Cordelia did not seem quite as snobby as Buffy made her out to be.

“Why are you standing there?” Faith had to stop and turn around. Waiting, she saw that Cordelia had not moved to follow her toward the west side of town. She was staring in the other direction. Catching on, “I’m not really walking you home, am I?”

Cordelia glumly shook her head. “Do you know how to keep a secret?”

“This isn’t about the ‘boyfriend’, is it?” Faith asked her. “We already made a deal there, Cor. I promised to keep my mouth shut about it if you gave me the scoop about B and Soulboy.”

“No,” Cordelia admitted. This was something else.

Crossing her arms, Faith tapped her fingers against her jeans jacket. “Then it all depends on the secret and who you’re keeping it from.”

Taking in a deep breath, Cordelia released it, licked her lips and then explained, “Mainly Buffy and Xander. Willow, too, since that would automatically mean Buffy would hear about it. Plus Giles, I suppose, considering he’s Buffy’s watcher. He might let something slip.” 

“Whoa!” Faith held up a hand to stop her lengthy laundry list of people. “You had me at Buffy.” 

15:     Westbound Lane, Route 8, Sonora Desert, Arizona

 

“Are we there yet?” Drusilla pouted as she stared out into the night. This desert seemed endless and though it teemed with crawling life none of it interested her as much as seeing Angel again.

Spike stepped a little harder on the gas pedal. She could see for herself they were not likely to reach Sunnydale much before dawn. “We’d bloody be there already if you hadn’t stopped to snack on those border guards.”

Lifting a long finger to her lips, the vampiress shushed him. “You’ll wake Miss Edith.”

16:     Thousand Oaks Drive, Central Sunnydale

 

“Crappity crap,” Cordelia muttered as she hurried along the dark sidewalk toward the high school. The thirty-minute walk she had to make every evening to get back here took her past some of Sunnydale’s creepiest real estate. 

She glanced down Crawford Street as she passed by and caught a glimpse of the old mansion up on the hill. The windows were dark and mostly boarded up, but the moonlight overhead outlined the roof. One wing of the mansion was skeletal and charred from a fire started by pranksters on Halloween five or six years ago.

The entire family had been killed and the heirs to the estate never got around to doing anything about rebuilding. It was not the first time that people had died there. A long history of unexplained events was connected with the place going back to its earliest occupancy in the 1920s.

These days, stories abounded about the lights in the old mansion and the ghosts that inhabited its lonely halls. Cordelia knew it was just Angel, but telling people to chill because a vampire had taken up residence in their favorite haunted mansion was not likely to be taken seriously.

Getting closer, she caught sight of Buffy, Xander and Willow winding their way through Pine Grove Cemetery. They were too far off to bother with, but it was clear that the pre-patrol Scooby meeting had already broken up. That meant she had no idea what tonight’s assignment was supposed to be. There were too many signs written in the prophecy to remember which one was next.

“I so need a car,” Cordelia groaned as she reached the school grounds. Existing without her Corvette the past few weeks equated to major suckage, something not going away anytime soon. She had frequently been forced to take the bus to get from one side of town to the other.

Cordelia slowed down now that she was on the school sidewalk. No need to hurry since Angel was probably halfway across town. He made it clear the assignment of patrolling with her was not his choice. It wasn’t hers either, but they managed to take care of the bad guys and bring back the flesh & bone relic.

Deciding to check out the library just in case Faith and Giles were still there, she headed straight for the main entrance. Her internal monologue on the ickiness of demon worship and the sadness that was Giles’ fascination with the artifact was still playing through her head when a shadow fell across her path.

She let out a scream as a large hand grabbed her arm. “Cordelia.” Despite the sound of her own name on Angel’s lips, her heart was pounding.

“Sheesh! Lurk much?” Cordelia clasped a hand to her chest and let out a sigh of relief. “Are you into scaring your victims to death?”

Releasing his hold on her arm, Angel muttered, “Sorry.”

Having recovered from her little fright, Cordelia decided to get down to business. She was here for patrol and it was not like they had anything better to talk about. Cordelia was not planning to tell him anything about the past four hours of hell and she seriously doubted his day involved anything more exciting than sleeping or brooding about Buffy.

She did have to credit him with one thing. “Hey, thanks for waiting for me. I’m a little late.”

“I noticed,” Angel quirked lips suggested he was laughing at her in his own stoic way. She was not used to seeing him with anything but a blank, broody expression, or maybe a hint of lost puppy dog showing in those deep brown eyes. The latter appeared when he was staring at Buffy.

“So what’s the mission? I suppose we’re going back to cryptville. Please tell me you got dibs on the eastside.” Cordelia had made her preferences clear last night and she hoped he had acted on them.

Hope faded as Angel shook his head, “Midtown again. No cemeteries this time,” he put a positive spin on it. “The target area is a little vague. According to the research, the next sign will be revealed in a place the public gathers.”

Thinking about the possibilities, Cordelia perked up. That sounded better than tramping around graveyards. “So where are we going?”

They started walking while Angel explained the plan. “Since Buffy wanted to stay on this side of town her team is headed to the Bronze.”

“Pfft! That figures,” Cordelia muttered. It made sense considering that she had seen the Scoobies at Pine Grove. It was only a block and a half from the club.

“Giles and Faith are going to Main Street.”

Cordelia could understand that choice. Since it was Friday night all of the shops and bars stayed open later than usual. Even the Doublemeat Palace kept to a twenty-four hour schedule on the weekends and in the summertime. “At least they won’t go hungry.”

Her stomach rumbled as if on cue. Wide-eyed and flushed with embarrassment at the noise, Cordelia explained that she did not have time to stop for dinner. After listening to her hasty excuse, Angel had that sparkle in his eyes again. It irritated her that she was a source of amusement for him.

“We’ll get you something when we get there,” Angel promised.

Noticing that they were walking along Thousand Oaks Drive, which bisected the town running east to west, Cordelia was not sure where they were headed. They were passing Crawford Street, this time at its midpoint much closer to home for Angel, and were coming up on Revello Drive.

“So where are we going?” she asked him again only to come up with an idea that caused her to squeal in delight. “The mall! It’s the mall. That’s even better than the Bronze.”

Angel seemed to speed up a little forcing Cordelia to walk a little faster. “The mall is closing in an hour,” he pointed out. “You know the signs are supposed to show up after that.”

“Meaning we’re not going to the mall,” Cordelia’s happy little bubble burst. “So much for my convenient shop-while-you-patrol scenario.”

Maybe it was mall withdrawal. Between being in the hospital and everything else that followed, she had not seen the inside of the mall in weeks. Cordelia tried to convince him, “Oh, c’mon! If we have a little time to spare, I could sneak in a few minutes of window-shopping while we wait. Plus, they have a food court. I could get one of my favorite fruit swirls and you can have… well, whatever.”

“I don’t think they serve anything to my taste,” he returned flatly.

Cordelia figured there was not exactly a high demand for blood milkshakes. Then again, this being Sunnydale, someone could probably make a few bucks if they catered to its minority population of vampires and demony types. “You’ve never tried a Strawberry-Peach swirl. How would you know?”

He was silent for a moment as if weighing the need to answer. “Blood is the only real food for a vampire.”

“Eew! I really wanted to know that— not,” Cordelia’s nose crinkled at the thought of it.

Looking embarrassed that he had mentioned it, Angel commented, “It’s just that the other stuff has no nutritional value. I don’t feel full afterwards.”

With a sarcastic roll of her eyes, she added, “Nutritional value? Pfft. Neither does chocolate fudge ripple ice cream, but I dare you to try that and not love it. The food court also has a Baskin Robbins if you’re feeling brave.”

“We’re not going to the mall.”

“Sheesh! It’s not like I suggested checking out Victoria’s Secret.” Seeing his brow quirk upward before he turned his gaze forward again, Cordelia giggled. A sudden image of Mr. Dark Ages holding his hand over his eyes so as not to see anything inappropriate popped into her head.

For all she knew, he had a funky fetish: Angel holding up a lacy bra next to his chest and stating, “I like this one.”

After all, she did not know him that well yet. It kept her laughing until she could hardly breathe. “C’mon, we have to stop in for just a few minutes,” she gasped through the suggestion.

Though he was not exactly privy to her thoughts on the subject, Angel obviously was not used to being laughed at. He stopped, facing her as if he planned to shut her up himself, scowled dangerously and then turned back in the direction they were going.

Cordelia held onto her injured side, feeling a twinge of discomfort as she laughed, but it was worth it. The last few hours had been too proper and serious-minded. It felt good to make fun of her somber patrol partner. “Sure you don’t wanna go shopping with me?”

Angel told himself not to respond, but each giggle made it worse grating against that nerve she seemed to know so well. He was managing until her teasing went as far as asking how he would handle wading through a sea of silky undergarments.

“There’s no time for that,” he growled irritably, explaining they needed to be in place before the start of the designated timeframe.

Swallowing her laughter, Cordelia sobered when she thought about the fact that he might not be such a nervous Nellie about handling silky slips of nothing. Angel had been around a long time and considering that he was such a hunk of salty goodness, vampire or not, it suddenly occurred to her that she would be the one blushing in that situation. With Angel standing next to her, holding up a colorful scrap of silk against the curves of her breasts, murmuring, “I like this one.”

Yikes.

“Um, yeah, well it’s not like they have a Tall & Broody section anyway,” Cordelia’s laughter died as she realized it had been a while since she’d imagined Angel doing anything with her underwear.

Suddenly feeling flushed all over Cordelia explained the heat that swamped her as too much laughing. Yes, humor was good for the circulation. Acknowledging the feeling of awkwardness while simultaneously shrugging it off, she fell back into step beside him.

Maybe Angel and malls did not really mix. How depressing for him. That thought kept her occupied for a few blocks until she finally realized that Angel never told her where they were going.

“Hey, are you ever going to tell me where you’re taking me or am I supposed to keep guessing?” Cordelia was fed up with the lack of two-way conversation. She was really going to have to work on that if they were going to be spending more time together on patrol.

Angel’s gaze slid across to meet hers. He said nothing and Cordelia took that as his answer. “So you like guessing games? Fine. I know this town like the back of my hand.”

Considering it a challenge, she tried to come up with other public gathering spots. “The zoo is in the other direction,” she nixed that idea. Besides, it was also closed by this hour and there was another prophecy that hinted at a zoo connection later on.

“There’s the beach,” Cordelia grinned at the thought of walking along the sand in her bare feet. God, she loved the beach even at this time of year. That would certainly make up for the creepy cemeteries from last night. Just one problem, she realized. “Only the beach isn’t exactly a midtown hangout. Especially at night.”

“No,” Angel agreed wryly and let her continue.

“Same thing with the bluffs,” Cordelia frowned as she was quickly running out of ideas. Sunnydale was not exactly known for its hot spots. “And let’s face it; I am so not going to scope out Lover’s Lane with you.”

Finally, they paused at the turn-off into a dimly lit part of the town that Cordelia had never been to before. Angel might have been listening, but his attention had shifted into high alert. His gaze slid from shadow to shadow. Cordelia reached for the stake she had tucked into the waistband of her skirt and whispered, “Do you see something?”

“No. Just checking,” Angel commented. Curling his fingers around her elbow, he led her into the alley. “We’ll cut through here. It’ll save us some time.”

“Going where?” Cordelia could not think of any reason why the public would want to gather around here. The trash-filled alley smelled worse than one of her not so favorite cemeteries.

Angel finally told her their destination. “Willy’s Place.”

“A bar?” Cordelia tugged her elbow out of his loose grasp. “Underage here.”

“Yeah,” Angel muttered. “I know.”

Cordelia huffed, not because it was a bar, but because she was unprepared to come here. Conspiratorially, she whispered, “You should have told me sooner. I would’ve brought my fake ID.”

If Angel was surprised or impressed that she had a fake ID, he hid it well. “That won’t matter. They’ll let you in. You’re with me.”

“Meaning they know you? Oh, crap! This is a demon bar, isn’t it?” Ohhhh, yeah, she had heard about it from Xander. “Buffy’s snitch owns this place.”

“Willy,” Angel confirmed it.

Groaning in complaint, Cordelia gripped his leather sleeve and tugged a couple of times. “We could’ve been at the Bronze instead. You so need to learn to speak up next time Giles hands out the assignments.”

Angel explained that he did not really like the thought of taking her in there, but it was her idea to help out on patrol. “You’re either with me or you stay home.”

“Unfortunately, a skuzzy bar is exactly my karma right now,” Cordelia sounded resigned to deal with it. “Guess that means I’m with you. Let’s go.”

He held her back, turning her to face him. “You need to know what to expect.”

“I’ve seen enough of Sunnydale’s creepy side to guess.”

“Maybe you have,” Angel conceded, but added a warning. “Let me do the talking. I don’t want someone deciding to bite your head off.”

Her jaw dropped a little, “Literally?”

Angel did not deny the possibility. It might make her uncomfortable to be around him, but he explained things might go more smoothly if he was in game face. “It’ll be easier if I don’t go in looking like this.”

“Tall, dark and totally—?” Cordelia’s breath caught in her throat, eyes widening as his human features shifted almost fluidly into a prominent brow and ridged lines. Jagged teeth and fangs appeared in place of his smoothly polished blunt ones.

Seeing what he assumed was shock on her face Angel let his demon visage fade back to human form. “Maybe I should have taken you home. This is too much for you. I know you still remember the night I….”

His voice trailed off. Angel really did not want to remind her of the night he almost killed her. It was obviously an issue with her as their conversation had revealed. Even then, he had admitted that she still looked tasty.

Disgusted with himself, Angel wasn’t certain what to do next. Part of him wanted to tell her, ‘Time to grow up little girl. If you want to patrol with me, learn to deal.’ The other part struggled with shame and the unexpected need for her acceptance.

Not that he thought he had a chance of getting that from Cordelia Chase. She had made her opinion about vampires perfectly clear, and he had certainly never given her much reason to change her mind, although he remembered that she had seen his natural face yesterday and not shirked from it.

“It’s okay, Angel.” When she finally spoke, soft and husky, there was a genuine smile on her face. “Bygones are just gone. My fault for staring. I’ve just never really seen you do that up close.”

“This?” Angel shifted back again testing her reaction. Pleased that Cordelia did not flinch or turn away, he felt himself relax.

There was actually a spark of curiosity in her gaze as she stared directly into his eyes. Angel wondered what she was seeing. The old daguerreotypes that Darla once insisted they have taken gave him a pretty good idea. Demonic eyes, dark and golden: Angelus’ eyes.

Cordelia slowly reached toward his face, her fingers warm against his cool skin as they came into contact. He almost backed away from the sensation, but did not. He allowed the warmth of her palm to seep into his skin. “You’re different from him, even this way. I can see it.”

Dragging her hand away, he let it go. Firmly reminding her, “But it’s still me.” Angel did not want any misconceptions between them. “The demon is just as much a part of me as this soul. Remember that.”

“Pfft! Like I’d forget,” Cordelia acted like it was a non-issue and impatiently asked if they were going into the bar any time this century.

“Cor—,” he started to issue one more reminder about his concerns for her safety. 

“Yadda, yadda, yadda. I know the drill,” she waved him off. “Stick close. Let you do the talking. Got it.”

Angel had a strange feeling it was not going to be that easy.

They arrived at the main entrance where the neon sign flashed Willy’s name. A burly bouncer nodded curtly in acknowledgement and waived them right inside. Loud music blared from a jukebox against the wall and the added din of multiple conversations made it almost uncomfortable. The smoky air mixed with scents of blood, flesh, sweat and alcohol.

He let himself breathe it all in only to catch a whiff of Cordelia’s perfume and the myriad temptations of subtle feminine scents. Despite that he should be assessing the crowd for potential threats, he breathed her in a little deeper focusing on something he could not quite place. New soap? The thought of her sudsy hands moving across the landscape of her golden skin was enough to cause his balls to tighten.

Just that momentary lapse of concentration left them vulnerable to the open scrutiny of the crowd. Instead of pulling Cordelia with him into a shadowy corner where they could look at the activity in the bar and watch for anything that might resemble a sign of the approaching apocalypse, he stood frozen as he watched her. Here in this den of iniquity, a playground for everything that was dark & evil, living or undead, she stood out like a Roman candle.

Framed by the glow of the exit sign and the doorway, Cordelia drew the attention of everyone in the room. A moment was all it took to see her through their eyes, knowing just what they were thinking when they looked at her. Cordelia’s blatant beauty was as much a factor as her rapid pulse and the warmth of her living flesh. Her body held the promise of sinful pleasures in every curve, yet an aura of innocence was apparent to those who looked beyond the surface.

Angel could see all of that and understood the temptation she presented. Bringing her here was a mistake, but it was one he would have to accept now that there was no time to get her out of here. He wondered what the hell Giles was thinking when he did not protest Buffy’s suggestion about staking out Willy’s Place tonight. He knew Buffy’s motives. She probably thought that this experience would scare Cordelia into quitting.

Maybe Giles simply thought Cordelia was not going to show. She had been even later than usual. Angel had only himself to blame. After all, he had waited for her, determined to give her a chance. He just had not considered the bait factor. Cordelia took her role as Bait Girl quite seriously, but Angel had not stopped to think of the reasons she filled that role so well.

Not until his conscience forced him to feel guiltily about the direction of those thoughts, or his dick got so hard that he could not ignore it. Angel wanted to make them all bleed for daring to look at her with even a hint of the lust he was feeling right then. Glaring at the salacious crowd, blaming his demon instincts for kicking into overdrive, he stepped even closer to Cordelia, a menacing growl rumbling low across his chest.

“Are you hungry, too?” Cordelia turned her attention away from the bar as she mistook his growling for something else. “I’m sure Willy will have something disgustingly gory for you.”

Angel led her toward the bar, his hand on the small of her back as he glared at random faces in the crowd, warning them off. The territorial vibe thrumming through him made him want to pummel every one of them. Make them understand that Cordelia was under his protection, and nothing was going to happen to her.

Seemingly clueless as to just how vulnerable she was, Cordelia hopped onto a barstool. She patted the one next to her, glancing up at him expectantly, waiting for him to sit down. “Not here,” Angel told her. He wanted a spot that was a bit more defensible, just in case.

Cordelia took the opportunity to glance down the bar where several customers nursed their drinks. These were not ordinary alcoholic beverages. Thick red blood filled one clear glass. Another looked to be a mixed drink with a blood base that was fancifully decorated with a cute little umbrella. Snacks of questionable origin sat on a plate right next to the expected bowl of peanuts.

“This is where you were going to buy me dinner?” Cordelia had a feeling the menu was probably not to her taste.

Obviously, he had not really thought about it. “There’s probably something you can eat.”

Willy stepped up on the other side of the bar. “Peanuts, nachos, chips & bean dip. That’s about it for munchies, folks, unless you happen to be into beetles, cos I got plenty of those pickled in the back.”

“Eew!”

Willy snorted, “Just kidding.”

“Give me an unopened can of peanuts,” Cordelia ordered. Eyeing the open bowl next to her, she wondered what kind of demon fingers had been dipping into it tonight. “Add a bottled water, a clean glass and some ice.”

Nodding, Willy wiped off a glass with his bar towel. Cordelia narrowed her gaze at him until he set it down and picked up a fresh glass from the back of the bar. “A lady who knows what she wants. What’ll it be Angelus? Something special for ya? Got a new batch in just an hour ago. Just need to pop it into the blood warmer. O-pos, A-neg, even AB-positive tonight.”

Blood was blood, but there were subtle nuances in the taste by type, individual factors like health and diet making each donor unique. Angel’s mouth watered at the thought of it. He could almost taste the rich, warm liquid filling his mouth. Human blood was not something he had since his return to Sunnydale. His diet of pig blood was filling, but not as satisfying.

The thought of indulging himself this one time had him running his tongue across the back of his fangs. Why not? “AB-pos.” He could feel Cordelia’s eyes on him as if she was shocked that she would have to watch him drink blood. A flash of irritation hit knowing he would never do this in front of Buffy, but for reasons unknown to himself felt the need to test Cordelia’s reactions.

“That’s a scary coincidence,” Cordelia commented before saying that was her own blood type.

Angel closed his eyes for a moment realizing that he knew that. Back in the hospital, he had seen the label on the bag the nurse was holding as she blocked him from entering Cordelia’s room, telling him that no visitors were allowed. Just the notion that he might have subconsciously connected that knowledge with his choice of a meal made him sick.

“Forget it,” he practically growled at Willy.

“Go get us a table,” Cordelia shooed him away. “I’ll handle the food.”

He was too upset at himself to consider refusing the idea. Angel just needed a minute away from her to center himself again even if it meant leaving her alone up there. Besides, he could see her perfectly well from over here. He glanced down at the two young vampires seated at the table of his choice. “Find another place to sit,” he ordered flatly.

They looked ready to fight him for it until recognition hit. They scrambled to their feet. “W-whatever you say, Angelus.”

Taking a seat in the corner, Angel kept his gaze trained on Cordelia who had Willy hopping from place to place behind the bar. Finally, she had what she wanted and offered up a bright grin of thanks. Wryly noting that the barkeep seemed overly eager to please her, Angel had to admire Cordelia’s talent for coercing people into following her every whim. 

He watched her weaving her way through the crowd, arms laden. The bottle of water and the peanuts were tucked under her right arm while she held the glass of ice. In her left, she gingerly held a tall glass of dark liquid about as far away from her body as she could get it. There was a tiny purple umbrella leaning against the edge.

Cordelia put the glass down directly in front of him and then examined her fingers for any accidental drops. Then looking pleased at making the effort on his behalf, told him, “Hope you like it. Drink up.”

“What is it?” Angel asked warily as he removed the little paper umbrella and stared at the small particles floating at the top of the glass.

Cordelia took the time to set the peanuts down and put her own glass on the table. She was opening up the bottled water as she told him, “I’m expanding your taste buds tonight. You normally drink pig, right? Buffy told me once. I think she said it to gross me out.”

“You didn’t have to do this.”

“No problem,” Cordelia shrugged matter-of-factly. “As long as it’s not my neck, I don’t mind.”

Angel sniffed at the liquid still trying to determine what was in it. “I meant that you didn’t have to do this,” he clarified.

“It’s lamb’s blood, so I had Willy add in a little cinnamon he keeps behind the bar for cappuccinos,” she grinned. “Just consider it gourmet.”

Sipping at it, Angel thought he might call it something, but doubted she would want to hear. Still, he supposed it was drinkable.

“Oh, Willy said to tell you he’d put it all on your tab.”

Cordelia was about to sit down when one of the gravlock demons from the next table leaned over to speak to Angel. “Cute little thing, Angelus. Your tastes have changed a bit. For the better, I’d say.”

Whirling around to stare back at the leering demon, Cordelia realized he was not talking about Angel’s nifty drink umbrella. She snapped back so fast, his head must’ve been spinning, “Nosy much? Take your pathetic interests and keep them to yourself.”

“Ooh, a feisty one,” chuckled one of the other gravlocks who could have passed for a human except for the silver eyes and too-wide grin that revealed a long row of tiny chiseled teeth.

Shadowed in the corner, his eyes gleamed gold with dangerous intent. Angel gave them one word of warning, “Enough.” His voice dipped to the level where his anger raged and his patience wavered.

“Just having a little fun with your pet,” the first one raised his mug in salutation. It might have been meant as a distraction as Cordelia felt fingers slithering along her leg.

Cordelia slapped his hand away, “Back off!”

Listening to the laughter of his three companions, the grabby gravlock demon reacted instantly to reclaim a little of the respect he was fast losing amongst his peers. “You ever fuck a real demon? Your boyfriend can watch. Rumors say he’s not so tough anymore.”

Angel stood up so fast that his chair teetered against the floor. None too gently, he shoved Cordelia behind him, concerned with her safety first, but feeling the need to crush the crude bastard’s skull.

“Let’s find out.” 

Grabbing the demon by the shirtfront, Angel lifted him up and smashed him back down on the table with enough force to send their cards, poker chips and drinks spilling onto the floor. The other demons launched themselves out of their seats and a raucous cheer went up from the crowd. From behind the bar, Willy yelled out for the bouncer who barreled into the room and held off the other customers from joining in.

Cordelia saw that no one was going to step in to help. Willy was more concerned about the state of his table and chairs while the bouncer appeared to be taking bets. The four gravlock demons were wrestling each other to get at Angel.

Seeing no other choice, Cordelia ran into the fray leaping onto the back of the nearest attacker. “Get off of him, you…you…demon.”

The annoyance was enough for the creature to pull away from the rest of the group attacking Angel narrowing the odds a bit. “Cordelia! What the hell are you doing?” he demanded in between punches.

“Good question,” she groaned when she was tossed back onto a nearby table. “Saving you?”

When the gravlock turned around to face her, she realized it was the grabby-handed one. Her sprawled position gave him an interesting view and he leered openly as he closed the gap between them. “I’d worry about saving yourself, pet.”

Nails digging into the felt top of the poker table, Cordelia scrambled further back. Her ears roared with the rush of blood, adrenalin flowing, and the urge to run taking hold. Reaching out instinctively grabbing at anything she could use to defend herself, her hand connected with the neck of a beer bottle. “I’m nobody’s pet,” she shot back arcing the bottle with a hard swing.

The heavy glass shattered against his head and the demon stood there staring at her too muddled to make a move. Angel was suddenly right there having left his three adversaries in a heap on the barroom floor. Balling his bruised hand into a fist, he sent the gravlock crashing down with a driving punch to his jaw.

All around them, the cheering died down. Apparently, most of the crowd had bet on the demons. The jukebox still played and the sound of Willy’s voice telling his patrons to get back to their drinks made it clear that it was just another routine night at the demon bar.

“You okay?” Angel asked, holding out his hand to help her down from the table.

Nodding, Cordelia smoothed her skirt and tucked her hair behind her ears, “Yeah, I think so.”

The bouncer trudged up to them, scowling at Angel who dug into his pockets and pulled out a couple of folded bills. “Take care of the garbage, would you?”

A grunt of agreement followed much to Cordelia’s amazement as she watched the behemoth tuck the money into his shirt pocket. He grabbed the closest demon by the foot and dragged him to the pile of his unconscious brethren. Then lifting them all at once in an amazing feat of strength carried them toward the exit.

Once they were settled back at their table, amazed to find their drinks still sitting there, Cordelia opened up her bottled water and poured it over the ice. She held the glass up against her flushed cheek and glanced over at Angel half expecting him to look like a thundercloud. She had broken several of his ridiculous little rules as far as she could tell and was waiting for the storm to hit.

Cordelia nibbled on the plump surface of her lower lip, softly catching it between her teeth and releasing it. He just sat there quietly, bruised and battered, looking like he did not care that four— well, three if you did not count the last one— demons had gotten him into a brawl. There was an actual smile tugging at the corners of his split lip.

“Did you get hit in the head?”

Her query caught Angel’s attention. He had been mulling over the way Cordelia handled herself in the middle of the fight. Even before that, he mused, by cowing the demon with her fearless attitude. Unfortunately, his buddies forced him to respond with that foolish threat.

“No,” Angel denied quickly and then ruefully corrected, “not more than once or twice.”

“So what’s with the almost smiling? You never smile,” Cordelia teased, “unless you’re evil.”

There went the smile, replaced by a glum expression that was far more familiar to her. The blood caked at the corner of his mouth was starting to cause her to squirm more than the blood congealing in the glass in front of him. Grabbing a napkin from the metal holder on the table, she dabbed it into her water and then reached out to clean him up.

Angel’s hand curled around her wrist before she could touch him. “Leave it.”

“But—”

“Don’t coddle me, Cordelia,” he rasped in gravelly tones that sent shivers down her skin. “Think about where we are.”

Cordelia sat back as soon as he released her. She supposed that it would not look too good in front of the other demons. A mischievous glint lit her eyes. Teasing him again, “Surely pets are allowed to do a little pampering.”

“That might have been a good front,” Angel pointed out that everyone would have easily accepted it. “Only I seem to recall that you denounced that role rather loudly in front of everyone.”

“Oops?”

Picking up the purple umbrella, Angel twirled it along his thumb and forefinger. Cordelia was far more surprising than he ever imagined. “You’re too independent for that kind of subservience, but I suggest you pretend you’re with me.”

“I am. Duh! Hello, sitting right here,” Cordelia figured his head was still spinning.

Angel leaned closer trying to keep it down so the other bar patrons would not hear. Fortunately, after the fight, there was a space of two tables between them and anyone else.

“I meant with me, Cordelia.” His dark eyes bored into hers with an intensity that defied the softly rasping words until his meaning became quite clear.

“Oh,” she blinked owlishly at the thought. “As long as you don’t expect me to make out with you. A girl’s gotta draw the line of duty somewhere. Unless she happens to be a slayer,” Cordelia tagged on sardonically as soon as the thought hit.

Angel slumped back in his chair. She casually sipped at her ice water until the silence from the other side of the table became too much to bear. “So what’s involved in this pet thing, anyway? I sit here like a meek little mouse and let my big, strong master vampire protect me from the monsters?”

“Pretty much,” he answered ruefully. For their purposes tonight, anyway. Though he had to admit, “I’m beginning to think you do a pretty good job of protecting yourself.”

Cordelia grinned proudly. “I kicked ass tonight. Hah! I’ve been in a bar fight. I can’t wait to tell the others. How long do we have to stay here?”

“Nearly four hours,” he answered after glancing at the clock hanging on the wall behind the bar, “unless we see something sooner.”

“You don’t think those whosiwhatsis demons were the sign we’re looking for, do you?” Cordelia looked toward the exit where the bouncer now stood inside the door keeping an eye out for troublemakers.

Telling her, “No,” he explained that there were specifics written in the scroll that had nothing to do with what happened here. Reminding her, “This is the fire and ice part of the prophecy.”

“Omigod!” Cordelia gasped in sudden horror causing Angel to look around for any sign of danger. She held out her hand for his inspection, showing the chipped nail polish on her fingers. “Ugh! You so owe me a manicure for this one.” 

17:     The Bronze, Eastside Sunnydale

 

After a thorough sweep of the Bronze including the upper level, Buffy concluded there were no obvious prophetic signs to be found. Willow explored the game room and didn’t see anything unusual. Nor did Xander after scoping out the bar area. They met up back at their favorite table and waited for something to happen. 

“I wonder if Cordelia ever showed up,” Xander commented as he fingered through the bowl of peanuts he had acquired from the bar.

Buffy shrugged. “Angel can handle it on his own. I can’t exactly see Cor fitting in at Willy’s place anyway, so it’s probably for the best.”

“We could have let her come with us,” Willow surprised Buffy with the suggestion. “She probably knows the Bronze better than we do.”

Frowning and confused, Buffy fiddled with her drink straw. “Wouldn’t that make you uncomfortable? Her being here, I mean.”

“Maybe a little,” admitted Willow. Shrugging, she glanced over at Xander. A pink tinge brightened her cheeks as she explained, “I just want to put all of this past us.”

Buffy was trying to help with that. She had made the mistake of not being able to say no when Cordelia demanded to come back. Now Plan B was in the works. It was not a sure thing, but Cor’s constant tardiness was working to their advantage tonight. “That would be easier if she wasn’t here. You could just forget about her. Move on.”

“Forget Cordelia?” Xander let out an angsty chuckle. “Impossible even if I wanted to, which I don’t. I screwed up big-time, Buffy. Will and I— I don’t know what we were thinking, but I like having Cordelia around.”

“But you fight all of the time.”

He just grinned. “I know.”

Buffy sipped at her drink for a minute as she thought about everything her two friends had said. Putting it down, she propped her chin against her hand as she leaned against the table. “Would you be mad if she quit?”

It was Willow who spoke up because Xander was too busy sniggering at the idea. “Trust me, Buffy, you’ll quit before she does. After the Homecoming Queen thing, I would’ve thought you’d understand how persistent she can be.”

“True,” Buffy reluctantly conceded, but laughed at the adjoining thought, “and I’ve never seen anyone wield a spatula like she can.”

Maybe they were right, she decided. Cordelia was back and it was not up to her to kick her out again. Especially after being the one who let her come back in the first place. As long as Xander & Willow were happy, she was happy, too.

If only it was that easy to fix things with Angel.

18:     Public Parking, Main Street, Westside Sunnydale

 

“We can cruise the strip or cop a squat and wait to see what happens,” Faith told Giles when he pulled his car into a narrow parking slot along Main Street. “Your call, Mr. G.” 

Giles cringed at the informal shortening of his name, but said nothing. He knew from experience that it would not get him very far. Faith seemed to be a bit of a wildcard, more so than Buffy had ever been. He was in no way certain how to handle her. She did not play by the rules and had a chip on her shoulder.

His reports to the Watcher’s Council had been met with some grumbling and a warning to keep the girl in line. Not bloody likely, but he was going to give it his best shot. The fact that she was cooperating now was a positive sign in itself.

Concerns about Buffy and Angel’s return from Acathla’s hell dimension had sidetracked him for a while from Faith’s training. For a while, everything seemed to be spinning out of his control. Not the least of which was his lack of focus after losing Jenny.

This pending apocalypse and its dark auguries might bring about the end of the world as they know it, but it provided a welcome task at a time when they all seemed to need it the most. He lauded Buffy’s suggestion to a greater number of teams, though he was almost certain there were underlying motives behind it.

Nevertheless, Angel & Cordelia had been successful in retrieving the relic last night. He had taken it home afterward for further study and it now occupied a spot on his dining room table. Some preliminary research was promising in narrowing down the identity of the demonic demigod of the prophecy.

As for the here and now, Giles decided to let Faith follow her instincts. He had a feeling it would not involve waiting around for anything and he was right. Faith opted for stretching their legs a bit. “Main Street is only three miles long. We can check out the hot spots easier if we’re on foot.”

“Agreed,” Giles said as he got out of the car. Reaching into the back seat to pull out the duffel back containing their weapons and supplies, he added, “I suggest we focus on the area beginning at the corner of Main & Thousand Oaks leading toward the university. The campus and its dorms may be a likely spot.”

That would take them from the Doublemeat Palace, past the movie theater, a couple of bars, St. Mary’s Church, and a few other late-night businesses toward the northwest end of town where the university took up a large section of property outside US101.

Faith shut the car door with a slam and stretched her arms above her head, interlacing her fingers, pressing palms upward until her knuckles popped. She flashed a dimpled smile at Giles, “Let’s hope we run into trouble.”

19:     Willy's Place, A Local Demon Bar, Central Sunnydale

 

Now that the bar fight was over and everything had settled down, Cordelia could see that Willy’s was actually a hopping place for a demon hangout. There were several types of demons she could identify right away. Most of the vampires were relaxed and in game face, but others kept to their human features.

“It’s weird,” she told Angel as they sat side by side at their table. “They’re playing pool and poker and some are dancing. The music sucks, but hey, you can’t have everything.”

Angel obviously was not getting her point. He quirked his head questioningly and went back to scanning the room.

“There are so many of them. And it looks like most of them are just hanging out with their buddies.”

“Not all demons are violent,” Angel told her. “Your experience with non-humans hasn’t exactly given you the full picture. Sunnydale tends to attract the worst of the lot.”

Snorting, Cordelia totally agreed. “The grabby-handed creepazoid being a good example of worst. He touched me. Then I jumped on him and now that I think about it….eew! When I get home I’m gonna have to scrub myself all over. Getting felt-up by demons is not my idea of fun and that’s twice in two days.”

Sitting there with Angel in vampire mode lowering his already prominent brow, Cordelia realized that he was thinking about the fact that he had touched her, too. Angel edged his hand away from its spot on the table next to hers as they both held their nearly empty glasses. He dropped it down to his knee and looked in the other direction as if expecting her to miss that little avoidance tactic.

“Not you, dumbass,” Cordelia quipped rolling her eyes. There was a difference between scaly-skinned gravlock demons, relic-invoking vampires, and Angel. “I was talking about the evil demons.”

Angel’s stomach did a strange flip-flop at her words. She made it a little too easy to misinterpret that as giving him permission to touch her, not that that should actually be an issue. Especially when her hand came down to squeeze his. That and her smile made him realize he had been missing a side of Cordelia he didn’t really know existed.

The brief warmth of her touch left a lingering sensation. He normally avoided all human contact. Buffy had been the obvious exception and see where that had gotten them. So, Angel had to ask himself what had changed over the past few days to put Cordelia on that very exclusive list. Drawing a blank, he tried to turn his attention back to their assigned task.

Cordelia did the same for a while, but found that her curiosity about the demons only caused them to grow bolder about staring back at her. They leered at her or looked like they wanted to make her their next meal. Even Angel did not escape their scrutiny. Though most seemed to address him as Angelus, it was clear that some had heard he was working with the slayer again.

Hatred burned in their eyes as they looked at him and Cordelia suddenly realized that Angel was in a unique situation. The other vampires and demons might give him some respect, but they all seemed to hate him. And it was not like there were any humans clamoring for his friendship. She did not count the random chippies at the Bronze who fawned over him from a distance, because he usually avoided them, or managed to scare them away with pure standoffishness.

Other than Buffy, he was not close to anyone. Not that they were ever a perfect couple considering what Buffy had told her. An angsty twinge of familiarity hit causing Cordelia to sigh saying, “Relationships suck.”

When his gaze turned toward her, Cordelia added, “You and Buffy, for instance. I mean talk about being doomed from the start, yet there’s all this… this—”

“Passion.”

The sound of his voice startled Cordelia who had not really expected him to say a word. “Tension,” she corrected, “and I really don’t want any more details about it than I’ve already got. It’s just that it was kinda that way between me and Xander.”

Angel scowled looking like he did not want details either. She rambled on, “One minute we were fighting and the next it was like we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. I suppose some people aren’t meant to be together.”

The casual shrug she added was not enough to convince Angel that she did not care. “Harris is a fool.” Her hazel eyes brightened in response and Cordelia’s smile nearly blew him away. Angel swallowed thickly.

Then the sparkle in her eyes turned serious as she asked, “Do you ever get lonely up in that big mansion? It’s not like you ever have any demon buddies dropping by to watch football games. Not even Buffy these days. She told me why she stopped seeing you.”

“My relationship with Buffy is complex,” Angel ground out the words reluctant to speak at all. He stared down at his folded hands trying to remain calm.

“Yeah, I got that a long time ago,” she said while jiggling the last of the ice in her glass. Crunching on an ice chip, Cordelia revealed, “Whatever reason she’s got for teaming us up, I just don’t want to be caught in the middle of some angsty revenge scheme.”

Looking up, Angel was frowning as he asked, “Revenge?”

“Whatever. Buffy’s mind: scary thing. I try not to go there,” Cordelia shrugged. “I’m just saying you can’t let it get to you. When life throws you lemons make lemonade.”

Angel did not exactly jump at her advice, but then Cordelia figured he had seen a few lemons in his day. She also noticed that he never answered her question about being lonely. “Look, Cordelia—,” he began.

“Cordy.”

“What?”

“My friends call me Cordy,” she offered genuinely. After all, it was always a good idea to befriend those more miserable than you. And besides, when he wasn’t scaring the socks off her, there was just something about the big, broody vampire that made her feel safe and kept her smiling.

That low-browed frown was back again, a sign of confusion she now recognized. Angel finally admitted, “I’ve never heard anyone call you that.”

Cordelia simply stared back letting silence, for once, make her point. If it was lonely up at the Crawford Mansion, it was just one of the things they lately had in common. 

20:     Main Street, Westside Sunnyvale

 

A few hours later, Faith and Giles had doubled back from the university grounds where they found nothing unusual. The problem was that there was no specific time or place for these signs to appear. Just a range of opportunity and educated guesswork based upon their research.

“You up for a little caffeine?” Faith asked as she caught him yawning.

Giles admitted that he’d been up late studying the relic. Though he rarely drank coffee, this seemed like a good time for an exception. “I could use something.”

“Let’s hit the Palace,” she suggested, “then we can hang out at the ice cream parlor for a few. There are some tables set up outside that have a pretty good view of this section of the street.”

Minutes later, they were seated outside on the iron-wrought chairs watching the thin crowd grow sparse. Giles looked at his watch. “Midnight,” he noted.

Just as he idly considered the fact that the first revelation had occurred at that hour the last customer emerged from the ice cream parlor carrying two double-scooped cones. Giles glanced over his should and saw the shop owner turning the latch on the door and flipping the hanging sign from Open to Closed. He sipped his coffee and returned his attention to the young man who was now waiting for a car to pass by before crossing the street. A young blonde, presumably his date, leaned against a small car.

Giles recognized both of them from school. Tony Smithson and Karla Brewer were both seniors this year. He thought it strange that Buffy had not mentioned those two were dating. Whether he wanted it or not, Giles was privy to most of the school gossip. 

“Did you get the chocolate sprinkles?” Karla called out from across the street.

Tony laughed and answered, “Of course I—,” just before he burst into flames in the middle of the street.

“Good God!” Giles dropped his coffee and ripped off his coat. Faith was right beside him as he ran forward hoping to smother the fire. Karla’s screams filled the night air accompanied by the sound of screeching tires and shouts of passersby.

There was nothing but a charred corpse beneath the coat when Giles lifted it away, his own hands covered with reddened flesh and ash.

Faith stared down at the sight. “That gives a whole new meaning to Rocky Road. What the hell was that?”

“Spontaneous combustion,” Giles answered. There were numerous documented cases and there had been an incident at the high school a couple of years ago. That one had been caused by magick. “Sweep the crowd. Look for anyone suspicious who might have cast a spell.”

Without another word, Faith darted off the street into the depths of the gathering crowd.

Karla stumbled forward into the street, sobbing her boyfriend’s name repeatedly. Since he had to do something, Giles dropped his charred coat back over what remained of the boy’s body. Parts were only ash and scorched bone.

Approaching sirens sounded in the distance. Giles knew that it would not take the police and fire departments long to get here. “Come along, my dear,” he helped Karla to her feet and assisted her to walk over to the opposite side of the street.

He sat her down at one of the tables in front of the ice cream parlor, noting that the shopkeeper had his nose pressed against the front window, staring out at them. The rest of the crowd ignored them, focusing on staring at Tony’s covered remains and talking about what they had seen or not seen.

“Mist—,” Karla sobbed and gasped for air. “Mister Giles, omigod! Tony. He…he… the fire came from inside him.”

There was no doubting this event to be anything other than the awaited sign. Giles recalled the specifics of the prophecy: By ice and fire shall the first sacrifice by known.

That poor boy, thought Giles as he dealt with his own emotions, a sacrifice. These were dark magicks indeed and only the beginning. The scroll indicated the events leading up to the arrival of the demigod would only worsen.

It pained him to question Karla when she was so distraught, but it was the only chance he was likely to get. He needed to know if Tony was involved with demon worship, dark magick or cult activity; anything that might suggest why he was targeted, if indeed he even was a target and this was not just some random force at work.

“N-no! No, Mister Giles,” Karla wiped her nose on the handkerchief he had given her. “Tony’s a good guy. WAS a good guy,” she sobbed even harder at her own correction. She was clearly too upset to consider the reasons for such an odd line of questioning.

Faith jogged up beside them just as a Sunnydale police car came to a halt nearby, its emergency lights flashing. “There’s nothing, Mr. G.”

“Very well,” he said resignedly and rose to his feet again.

The police officer approached them immediately. Giles offered his eyewitness report and confirmed the identity of the victim. Backing off into the crowd again, Faith steered clear until the cop finished collecting information.

“We know where to reach you if there are any further questions,” the cop told Giles.

“Shall I be required to sign a statement at police headquarters?” Giles had been in the unfortunate position of doing so on a number of occasions.

The cop shook his head. “Nah. I think we’ve got enough witnesses.”

“Thank you, Officer Clark,” Giles peered at his name badge and shook his hand. “I assume that you’ll be seeing to it Karla gets home safely.”

Nodding, the policeman assured Giles that he would take care of everything from there. “Drive safe,” Officer Clark winked as he left the school librarian behind. He ushered Karla Brewer into the back of his police vehicle just as two other cop cars were pulling up to the scene.

He headed down Main Street and turned off into a dark alley then shut down both the lights and the engine. From the back seat, he heard his passenger’s sobs turn to fearful whines. “W-why are we stopping here?”

Karla screamed when Officer Clark turned around. What had appeared to be his face was melting away to reveal something else underneath, something clearly not human.

“You are the first of the Varstrae,” his golden eyes glittered in the darkness. “My master will be pleased.”

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