Where Dark Things Dwell
Rating: NC17 (The Smutty Version)
Rating: NC17 (The Smutty Version)
Pearson Arms Apartments #212, Silverlake, Los Angeles, California
Boredom’s cure was tucked into Cordelia’s bed—sadly, not anyone named Jude, Brad, or Keanu. An invitation to a party in Malibu remained safely hidden between the mattress and box spring ensuring it would not disappear from her desk like the last one. No way was Angel getting away with that again even if he refused to fess up to it. Considering everything going on recently, they all deserved a little down time, and whether Angel liked it or not, a party would be good for him, great for her, and a break for Wesley, too.
Just what the doctor ordered. Not! Cordelia doubted Doc Evans would approve, but what did he know about a seer’s post-vision recovery needs, anyway? Nada. Besides, he was not the one who needed convincing.
Today marked a week since her release from St. Matthew’s Hospital’s Neuro-Psych Unit. Explaining her traumatic experience as a psychotic break, Evans had settled on diagnosing a rare form of schizophrenia recommending an extended stay, psychotherapy, and a slew of prescriptions. She had to wonder how many of the PTB’s previous seers were labeled as being bat-shit crazy for having demonic hallucinations. A padded cell probably topped a list of treatment options.
Either Evans was completely unaware that the supernatural world was real, or he liked living in total denial. Blissful ignorance was awesome right up to the point that reality took a chomp out of your neck. Ruling the high school masses as Queen C, her life had been perfect until the Harvest when vampires and a certain Slayer butted in. After that, it was all about survival on a Hellmouth. Tragic! Especially when the hottest new guy in town turned out to be a cursed vampire with blonde issues, proving that life sucked, literally.
Reality never stopped her from dreaming, though, or imagining herself at the center of a glitzier world where she would reign as its star. Those dreams were at odds with the one part of her life that had meaning in the here and now. Angel was far more to her than a brooding penny-pinching boss with a pair of fangs. Their friendship felt vital now making it impossible to think about any future world where he played no part. Just more reason to hope he would quickly earn redemption and not require a seer burdened with pesky, migraine-inducing visions. Imagine the awkwardness of having to phone in details on the PTB’s monster of the week from her movie sets.
There was a connection between them beyond friendship, belonging, a feeling of family binding them together. Both went out of their way to disregard the random attraction that flared up unexpectedly now and then downplaying what could not be easily ignored. Cordelia could admit to herself that she was sometimes still hot for Angel, but that was as far as it could go. Besides, she was good for him, and she depended on him in ways that went far beyond a paycheck.
Neither of them understood the strength of the metaphysical ties created by the Powers That Be until Wolfram & Hart brought in Vocah to sever them. Angel’s vow to her as she lay screaming, “I’m gonna fix this. I promise. I’m gonna get you back. I need you back,” reached out to her through the endless stream of visions.
Cordelia had seen herself at the center of it all, surrounded by a sea of faces distorted by fear and pain, their lives in danger. So many threatened by all that was pervasively evil, demonic, or too terrible to name. No respite came between the flashing sights, jarring sounds, disgusting odors, strange tastes, or painful sensations assaulting her. Screams, cuts, bites, crushing blows, singed hair, pooling blood, cloying perfume, rotting flesh, pounding hearts, salty tears, broken bones, gnawing hunger and beastly roars battered every sense. Anything the victims felt resonated with soul-wrenching clarity.
Vision remnants lingered even now constantly reminding her that people needed their help. Creepy Cloak & Mask Guy could not drive her from Angel’s side by showing her just how bad things could be. Quite the opposite, Cordelia suddenly understood her role for the Powers That Be more clearly than ever before, and also recognized that Angel was not the only one in need of redemption. Having gone through hell to realize it, she knew this was her mission, too. Angel might be the chosen champion for the Powers that Be, but she was there to light his way through the darkness.
Out with the old selfish Cordelia, and in with the new! There would be no whining when the visions interfered with her social life. No more grumbling about the scratch-n-sniff visions because they actually provided more clues. Was there a 12-step program for turning over a new leaf? Consider her signed up. This was the perfect time to start fresh considering they no longer had an office. Obliterated, it was toast of the charred variety!
Vocah’s bomb had blasted Angel’s apartment engulfing the office upstairs. Wesley was lucky to survive. He had made a running start for the closest exit, but the detonation knocked him off his feet as a billowing ball of flame burst through the windows on the street level above, fire consuming everything in its path.
Angel had been there, too, heading straight into danger, leaping through the flames to reach Wes. She remembered screaming their names. It was the only thing she could do until her voice gave out responding to fear and unbearable pain as more visions followed each worse than the last. Time stretched out into an eternity of terror as one horrifying experience rolled into another.
The visions stopped just one or two away from leaving her a permanent resident of the local loony bin, but the memory of them remained vivid in that moment. Cordelia was unsurprised to see Angel standing by her side knowing that he had somehow moved heaven and earth to save her. Overwhelming emotion cracked her voice as she said his name feeling so much more than just relief that her pain was dissipating, that her own sense of self was returning, and that he seemed to be unharmed.
When his fingers threaded through hers she held on tight knowing that his greeting held a deeper meaning. “Welcome back.” Visibly relieved that their spell had worked to free her from Vocah’s mark, Angel made a study of her face searching for signs that she was going to be okay.
Normally, Cordelia might be a little concerned after such an ordeal wrecked havoc on her appearance, but that was the last thing on her mind. The aftermath of her visions still resonated, and there was ultimately only one cure. The visions were intended for Angel and she was his conduit to the Powers that Be. As surely as she knew he would save her, just as he always saved her, Cordelia knew she could count on him to save those people, too.
She squeezed his hand to covey a sense of urgency. “Angel, I saw them all. There is so much pain. We’ve got to help them.”
Fat tears dropped down her cheeks. Angel wiped them away, his touch gentle, as if he understood the bond between them had gotten stronger with her full acceptance of her role as his seer. “We will,” he promised while his thumb stroked her cheek. Wolfram & Hart’s plan to sever his connection to the Powers That Be had failed. “We will.”
Whether he knew it or not Angel could count on her even beyond the visions. According to Wesley and that old prophecy scroll, Angel was supposed to become human one day. The visions and their mission were a huge part of that, and Cordelia planned to support him through thick and thin. Including making sure he knew how to live a little instead of constantly brooding about the past.
Angel needed to build connections to the world, do things, and actually want things from life. Kinda ironic considering that everything he owned was now rubble.
There had been no further visions this week as if the PTB knew they all needed time to recover. Angel had dealt with the visions that Cordelia was able to identify from Vocah’s attack. Things were quiet, for once. They deserved a little downtime, and as far as Cordelia was concerned that did not include putting her feet up with an old book or a scroll like some people.
She had almost forgotten about the invitation hidden away for safekeeping until a candy commercial reminded her of the date. Halloween! Her gloomy mood vanished instantly at the thought of a party.
Ever since they set up a temporary office at her place and Angel had moved in, he had shadowed both her and Wesley like a momma bear guarding her cubs. Being waited on hand and foot was nice for the first couple of days until it became annoying. Still, it felt comforting to have the big guy around. There was plenty of space for Angel to hang out now that he was homeless even if Phantom Dennis still seemed to be getting used to the idea.
A party was just the thing to give Angel a little human contact and to take his mind off everything else. Wesley was up for it. He was mostly healed up by now and ready for a break from all of the time he was putting into translating that musty old scroll.
There was just one tough nut to crack.
Having waited for the right moment to strike, Cordelia took the invitation from its hiding place and informed Angel that the three of them were going to attend David Nabbit’s party.
Glancing up from his book, Angel barely raised a brow. He answered a little too calmly, “We can’t go to a party right now,” as if it should be all too obvious that it was out of the question.
Hah! She was so ready for that. Resistance was fully expected. Before he bothered to list all the reasons why it was best that they not go out, she felt the hackles rising up. “We can. In fact, I already said yes."
Round One winner: Cordelia Chase.
Would her old fogey vampire boss get hostile about it or go all remote and silent? Either way she was prepared. A zing of adrenalin slammed into her pumping her heart faster, giving her goosebumps, anticipating his reaction. Truth be told, he had always given her goosebumps. Not something to think about right now. There was a party at stake.
When Angel did not bother close the book he had been reading, she knew which way this little challenge was going to go. Any lenience in those brown eyes hardened into an unyielding shell. He did not budge from his place on the couch and the line of his mouth tightened a fraction telling her he was planning to be mule-headed about it.
An old opening cheer routine steadied her over-excited nerves as it pinged in her head. Ready? Okay!
“David called a few days ago after he read about the explosion in the paper. He was thrilled that we’re all alive—well, those of us who are supposed to be—so he invited us over to celebrate.”
Angel’s gaze slid down to the invitation in her hand.
“Staring at it won’t make it burst into flames.” Cordelia let out a snort. “The last time I checked vampires didn’t have heat vision. Stick with the Dark Avenger routine you know so well.”
Teasing him just came naturally. The look he was giving her suggested that his will was made of steel, impenetrable to any form of coercion. Knowing differently, she smiled at him sweetly. Slowly, the dark stare softened and Angel’s mouth quirked up just for an instant before he licked at his lips and momentarily looked away.
Before she could secretly celebrate that little triumph, Angel closed the hardback book with a loud clap startling her. Uh oh! Not good. He was not backing down. Sternly, he told her, “Find a way to tell him we’re not going.”
Mystified by Angel’s need to avoid people like David Nabbit, whose friendly hero-worship was obviously well meant, Cordelia wanted to shake him. True, he had vampire issues, but those things were not going away any time soon without serious intervention. The whole point of this party was to help him learn to be human—if only a little.
“No way! David’s a really sweet guy for someone who has no life.” Cordelia pointed out that their multi-millionaire client was not someone they wanted to blow off. “He even paid our medical expenses.”
Angel’s eyebrows shot up. “What!”
The fury on his face confused her for a second until she recalled that she had kept that bit to herself. Caught off guard and flustered about screwing up, she blurted, “Well it's not like we can afford it.”
“Cordelia, that’s my responsibility. Nabbit is a client,” he barked back clearly upset, “not your personal banker.”
Letting him bluster, Cordelia crossed her arms in front of her and waited out the storm. No surprise that Angel had issues about it. Hence the not planning to tell him part. Well, too bad!
Ticking the list of expenses off on her fingers, she was not about to back down from that decision. “Two days in the ICU for Wesley, and another three for me at Psycho Central. That’s not exactly cheap, pal.”
An angry half grunt, half growl emerged from his throat making her tingle. It took a lot to rile Angel up. A thundercloud looked less stormy than he did. Maybe she just liked to fight because it was thrilling to watch him come out of that shell just a little, especially when he stared back at her so intently. Ignoring the hot sensation that unfurled inside her when she thought he might leap off the couch to make a grab for that invitation—or her, Cordelia snapped, “We need every penny we’ve got and then some to rent a new office.”
Angel’s book slammed down onto the coffee table rattling the glass candleholders. They chinked together as if in protest. Thundering back, “That’s not David Nabbit’s concern.”
Cordelia’s skin prickled with the need to bite back. Just like a man thinking he had to do everything for himself. Maybe in Angel’s case it was vampire territoriality. Whatever! It was it was stupid. “Dumbass.” Oh, she so went there. “You help everyone, Angel. Can’t you accept a little in return?”
His brow scrunched together, shadowing his eyes. Angel leaned forward, elbows on his knees, hands folded, fingers steepled against his lips like he was stopping himself from saying what he really wanted. There he was closing himself off, getting broody about it. Frankly, Cordelia preferred him pissed off. At least then, he interacted with her, shared his feelings.
Moving closer, she reached out, her fingers brushing his shoulder. “Friends help each other out. You can pay David back if you want to—not that he needs it.”
Angel’s hands unfolded, dropping down to his thighs as he shifted back to look up at her. It was impossible for him to stay mad at her. “Fine. Next time, check with me first.”
Nudging his knee, she grinned playfully. “The next time I nearly get shipped off to the funny farm? Sure, I’ll do that.”
He grasped the side of her leg stopping her teasing nudges and pulled her across to sit beside him, voice low and serious as he started to censure her. “Cordelia…”
“Now about that party. You’re the guest of honor in an unofficial sort of way. We have to go.”
“You don’t think David will want to say anything about his kinky sex games at Madame Dorion’s demon brothel, do you? He hired us to keep things hush-hush.”
Angel’s scowl faded to resolve and broody silence. She figured he was well on his way to accepting the fact that he was not going to get out of going to this party. Until he asked, “What if something comes up? You could have a vision.”
Okay, so, he had her on that one, and she had no problem with the PTB taking priority if someone needed help. That did not mean that it would alter their plans to attend. “David would totally understand that the mission comes first.”
As Angel relaxed into the couch cushions, Cordelia guessed he was calculating the days since her last vision. Not counting Vocah attack, she was overdue and they both knew it. Barring disaster there was no way she would let him get out of this party. Crushing that one little kernel of hope she said, “We can always get there a little late. These parties sometimes go on all night.”
Trying a little encouragement, she said, squeezing his hand, “It’ll be good for you. If it makes you feel better just think of this as a trial to survive on your way to redemption.”
Angel paused against the kitchen threshold watching the way the moonlight shined down through the small window above the sink where Cordelia and Phantom Dennis were tag-teaming the dinner dishes. Soapy water sloshed in the sink as the dish mop swirled over the surface of a plate. Once clean, it floated beneath the running water to be rinsed off.
Standing by with a kitchen towel, Cordelia waited for the handoff.
Much to her delight, Dennis had turned out to be quite domesticated seemingly enjoying the household chores she reviled. Every action contained a little bit of ghostly TLC, going way beyond simple gratitude for being freed from the torment of his murderous mother. Cordelia had accepted Dennis’ presence like any other friend and roommate—with fewer restrictions.
There was just something annoying about the idea that closed doors meant one thing for him, and nothing to an apparition with access to Cordelia’s most private moments. Now that he was living here, too, Angel often felt irritated by the simplest things that Dennis did to please her. Sometimes the way she said, “Thank you, Dennis,” made him grit his teeth. Even the way Cordelia easily understood Dennis’ method of communication using the lights, television, and room temperature to respond bothered him because it was so effortless compared to his own stilted attempts at conversation.
The stupidity of feeling jealous of a ghost was not lost on Angel.
Talking animatedly to Dennis, and Wesley, who was out of sight in the adjoining dining room, Cordelia ripped into a hot topic. “The artists bazaar is over, but that doesn’t mean I can’t track down that vendor. Art supplies aren’t cheap.”
Noting the way light and shadows caressed her golden skin made Angel’s fingers itch to trace her feminine curves. It was just his artistic eye, he reasoned quickly, after catching himself ogling his friend. Cordelia mentioned art, so naturally his mind wandered in that direction, but all too quickly veered away from a mere interest in sketching her lovely form.
Upswept hair left the tempting span of her throat bare to his gaze stirring up forbidden desires that jolted his senses to life. Lusty Cordelia fantasies came far more frequently than Angel wanted to admit, but he tried not to take them too far. He needed her on so many levels, so why did it surprise him to want her that way, too? Yet, it did. He blamed his inner demon for it and anything that went beyond a raw urge to kiss her into silence. That impulse seemed all too human, not that he would act on it.
Some lines could not be crossed. Even this was wrong, he cautioned himself, imagining the softness of her skin to his touch. A short-sleeved top bared delicate shoulders and exposed her arms. The straight line of her back and tiny waist pulled his attention down to the skirt clinging to her slim hips and deliciously taut ass. Not one of those mini skirts she sometimes wore, but longer with side slits letting her toned thighs play peek-a-boo every time she moved.
He had stayed away most of the day going out even when the only way he could move around was in the safety of the sewers. He needed to work off a little aggression after Cordelia cornered him earlier. She meant well, but did she constantly have to push him into things he hated to do? Seeing her again, Angel realized he still felt it, and remained pissed off enough that the sudden heaviness in his groin did not instantly send him on a guilt trip.
On edge, he somehow needed Cordelia to feel it, too. With a panther’s grace, he prowled closer until he was only an inch or two away. Temptations of warm skin and moonlight danced in his head as he instinctively crowded her against the sink, and let her name rumble softly against her ear.
“Aaack!” Cordelia’s hold on the wet plate slipped causing it to plummet fast toward the countertop.
Lightning reflexes yanked Cordelia out of harm’s way pulling her hard against him as his other hand whipped up to grab the plate a moment before it hit the hard tile. He almost dropped it a second later when she squirmed to free herself. He could not deny enjoying the way her movements felt any more than he could the rush he got when the rhythm of her heart skyrocketed. It fluttered frantically like a trapped bird against his chest.
“Goddammit, Angel!” she snapped at him. “The sneaky scare me to death routine needs to stop. Most people say something when they enter a room.”
Angel carefully set down the plate, but despite the lecture was not quite ready to let her go. She relaxed into him with a deep sigh trusting him even when he was not certain he deserved it. His splayed fingers found a tiny patch of bare belly, silky smooth and warm. He stroked it with his thumb while listening to the thump of her heart and the ragged little breaths that escaped her throat. A tiny shudder made him wonder if it was just the chill of his skin, or revulsion at being in his arms.
Randomly, she asked, “Did Buffy call you?” Hearing that name came with an unexpected shock. They usually avoided that topic.
“No,” Angel answered slowly wondering if it was a trick question. “Did she call you? Is something up?”
Maybe an apocalypse was on the horizon. A vampire looking to get out of a party could only hope.
Cordelia snorted, “Yeah, definitely up. Just not in Sunnydale.” Oh, that. His aroused state had not gone unnoticed as it pressed between them. Trust Cordelia not to let anything so obvious go unmentioned. He could not fault her hasty conclusion that his erection had something to do with his ex-girlfriend.
As excuses went, that might be an easy way out. Letting her believe he had gotten hard thinking about Buffy seemed wrong even if it sounded like a plausible explanation. “I’m still ramped up from the fight.” That was truthful enough even if it felt like something he should not admit. “Sometimes it has that effect.”
Not usually to this extent, but he was a vampire. Blood and death turned him on just as much as they sickened him.
“That’s kinda twisted,” Cordelia noted matter-of-factly as if it might be understandable to be aroused by something even when you should not.
He supposed an apology was necessary, but it was difficult to find the words when all he really wanted to do was explore more of her gorgeous skin, for starters. A hundred other forbidden ideas popped into his head in those few seconds of stillness. Intensely intimate ways to make her want him just as passionately, all of which would be dangerous. Their closeness made the curse more of a risk.
The cold reminder forced him to loosen his grasp. Putting some distance between them, Angel took another step back. Struggling to overcome his self-directed anger, he forced it aside, compartmentalizing his feelings in favor of getting back to the subject that had brought him to the kitchen in the first place. A hope that something had come up to put an end to those party plans.
His poker face was firmly in place when he asked, “Have any visions while I was out?”
High-pitched irritation snapped in Cordelia’s voice as if she was expecting something else. “Visions?” Maybe that apology he could still not bring himself to offer.
Better not to say anything at all and just hope it would go away. After touching her so inappropriately, Angel could only imagine that she was planning to flay him alive for it. He could take it. Or so he hoped.
Cordelia leaned against the edge of the sink, gripping the dishtowel tautly as if planning to use it like a garrote. “Vision. Yes! I’m having one right now,” she said gasping. Angel almost moved into position to catch her expecting a sudden fall. “I see me…doing this!”
Whirling around, Cordelia flicked at him with the damp towel. Angel jumped back hardly knowing why, and stood gaping as she wound up the towel to do it again. “Better run,” she warned with a grin.
“Hey!” he gaped at the wet spot on his leather duster. “Not the coat!”
Her peeling laughter as she chased him around the kitchen island signaled the seeming insignificance of his base male response. Either his arousal did not bother her, or she had accepted his excuse. When they reached the corner again, Angel let her catch up not bothering to dodge out of the way.
“Don’t scare me again,” Cordelia flicked the towel one last time.
Angel tried to look sorry about it, but the truth was that he enjoyed sneaking up on her. Most of the time, it was not deliberate. He just found himself watching her go about her daily routine. Sometimes he thought she sensed him coming and just liked to throw him a bone now and then by letting him look his fill. This was not the time to dwell on the reasons he enjoyed stalking her even if his body tried to clarify the matter. He had other pressing concerns.
Cordelia slowly wound up the towel, and him, by dragging out her answer. “Hmm. Let’s see. I’m not writhing on the floor. No killer headaches. Nope. Fresh out of visions at the moment. Tough luck, champ.”
A scowl settled over his face when she added, “No excuses. Looks like you’re not getting out of the party,” knowing exactly why he was so interested.
Wesley, still sitting within earshot, offered up his own opinion. “David Nabbit is a valued client. Attending the event is the least we can do.”
Silently admitting that Wesley might be right, Angel walked out to join him at the table. Fortunately, his dark pants and long coat kept his unwanted indiscretion concealed. Cordelia followed and instantly made him regret that he had brought up the subject of the party. For what must have been the hundredth time, she tried to convince him that he should just give it a chance.
Considering his inability to fit in during the simple party right here at her place, he could not see a fancier one going any better. Angel could still feel the sting of truth when she had spoken to him after the party was over. “You compared me to a giant black hole of boring despair.”
Cringing at the reminder, she gritted her teeth and tried to smile. “Yeesh! That was the old me. The new me thinks you have much more potential. C’mon, Angel, it won’t be so bad rubbing elbows with the rich and—well, richer.”
Sounded like hell.
In fact, he would rather hang out with Acathla in that hell dimension than go to Nabbit’s party. At least he knew what to do there.
“That doesn’t interest me, Cordelia.”
That soft little pfft warned him that his excuse was unacceptable. “Nothing that involves mingling interests you. You’re too cut off from life.”
In his defense, he was a member of the undead, but Angel did not get a chance to point that out before Cordelia swept that tidbit out from under him. “If you’re ever going to be human again you have to start learning to live a little. That’s what Wes says and I totally agree.”
This was Wesley’s idea? It did not even take a death glare in his direction. Angel could hear him squirming in his seat as Cordelia added, “I’ve made it my job to help you with that.”
Wesley cleared his throat twice before they glanced his way. He still looked a little rough around the edges, his skin raw in places, but healing. “Cordelia, perhaps you should not expect—” One sharp glance from her cracked like the harsh sting of a whip achieving an instantaneous change midsentence, “—for me to finish this translation tonight.”
Cordelia definitely had the death glare technique down to a science. He had experienced it himself on more than one occasion.
Not hiding her underlying sarcasm, she scanned Wesley’s legal pad notes from across the table. “Gosh, I was looking forward to knowing if Falafel demons suck your brains out before or after you’re dead.”
Shuddering, she made a creepy connection. “That’s all Silence of the Lambs,” she said suddenly sidetracked. “Do you ever wonder where these writers get their ideas?”
“That was fava beans, not a falafel. And it was the victim’s liver rather than the brain,” corrected Wesley completely distracted by her little tangent. “Though it is quite certain that books the public view as fiction are in actuality based upon—”
Cordelia made a time out sign by crossing her hands into a ‘T’ to stop him. “Whatever. You’re missing the point.”
“Which is what, precisely?” asked Wesley defensively pulling his legal pad a bit closer.
“Brain suckage. Eww!”
Her nose crinkled in disgust, but made her look adorable. Angel pressed his lips tight, but the corners of his mouth curled upward anyway. He waited patiently to resume their argument because he was far from being finished. This might be a good time to escape, but right now Angel was not running away from Cordelia or her good intentions until she accepted the fact that there would be no party.
Wesley smirked evilly as he explained, “Many cultures consider brains to be quite the delicacy.”
Angel let them argue while he strategized a reasonable excuse for keeping everyone at home. He figured that Cordelia probably believed she could steamroll him now that he owed Nabbit money. That was not his choice. Feeling obligated to pay him back did not mean he also felt obligated to hang out with him.
“Lobster is a delicacy. Escargot is a delicacy. Brain is NOT on the menu—or at least it shouldn’t be.”
He was still the boss around here—well, technically this was her place—but he was still in charge of the business. Parties involved dancing, and that might be too much activity for his recently released from the hospital employees. It would be unforgivable if he let them put their health at risk.
“Those things have a similar consistency to brain matter,” Wesley pointed out. “Though I expect the brain is full of more nutrients.”
Angel reasoned there might be no use arguing about it with Cordelia. He was already on shaky ground and sinking fast. There was another way to handle this. An executive like Nabbit would fully understand that the wellbeing of his employees took precedence over a silly party. After pointing that out, Nabbit would happily rescind the invitation.
Feeling smug about it, Angel knew that he had finally come up with the perfect plan. He settled into a chair and listened to his friends banter about demon delicacies.
“Like some brain-snacking cannibal is worried about getting his vitamins?”
“Perhaps they just like the taste.”
Cordelia glanced up to see him sitting there. A little hitch caught her breath. Her eyes widened a fraction showing her surprise. She only thought she had him cornered; that this argument was over. Wrong.
Don’t jump to conclusions, kitten. The thought rolled through him like a tidal wave of anticipation stirring up ideas and emotions he thought were under control. He did not need to say a word because she pounced back on the subject faster than anticipated.
Looking fierce, Cordelia did not miss a beat. “Get used to the idea, bucko. We are going to that party. End of story.”
One step into her dramatic exit he smoothly revealed, “One phone call to Nabbit is all it will take.”
The fire in her eyes as she exclaimed, “Don’t you dare!” should have been enough of a warning, but he was not expecting the damp towel in her hand to be hurled at his face.
Catching it at the last possible second still resulted in watery splats in his eyes, down his face, shirt, and coat. Agitated, he flung it away not bothering to consider where it was headed. Across the table, Wesley squawked, “My research!” as it plopped inches away from his notepad.
Angel barely noticed because Cordelia was right in his face laughing her ass off. “Nice plan, hot shot. Tell me all about how you’re going to accomplish this phone call. I hope you remember his private number because your Rolodex went up in flames!”
He had never dialed Nabbit’s number directly. Cordelia handled the phone calls. “You’ve got it saved in your phone. His assistant called you about the party.”
“Yes, she did. So, yeah, I do.” There was a flaw in this plan and it was a mile wide. He could tell Cordelia had no intention of giving him the number. “Tough luck, champ. I won’t help you weasel out of the party.”
Weasel? No. There was no weaseling involved here. That implied being sneaky about it and he was just about ready to barge into Nabbit’s office to tell him where to shove his invitation. “Cordy, there are other ways I can contact Nabbit.”
“Try face to face. You can do that tomorrow at the party.”
Words had no effect on her determination. Cordelia just kept countering his points until she claimed to have achieved victory.
“Well, um… okay, now that everything’s settled, I’m gonna soak in the tub for a while.”
Promptly calling out to Phantom Dennis to run her a hot bath, Cordelia made a move to brush past him.
Before she could walk by, Angel’s hand shot out closing around her wrist. His hold was gentle, but unbreakable as he drew her back to his side. “Not so fast.”
Angel was not in the mood to let her have her way any more than he could stop himself from touching her. Normally, he was careful to avoid contact, even when she was the one who conveyed so much through a simple touch. It was too much. This had him off balance, and he needed to feel that she was not completely unaffected.
“Everything is settled. My way.” The added clarification seemed necessary because she did not exactly submit to reason, or to anyone, even him, when she wanted something. “You just got out of the hospital. Nabbit will understand if we skip it.”
Cordelia tugged once at the tight grip to get him to release her, and he let go knowing she was too stubborn to walk away. “I don’t want to skip it. We deserve some fun!” Her foot stomped on the hardwood a fraction of an inch away from his. Was that petulance or just bad aim?
The word ‘party’ had nothing to do with his idea of fun, but Angel legitimately had some concerns about his two friends. He also had no intention of letting either one of them go out without him right now.
Trying to sound sympathetic instead of smug at his strategy, Angel told her that there was no real choice in the matter. “What you deserve and what is good for you are two different things. Speaking as your boss, I think it would be best if you two stay home. You’re still fragile.”
The glint in her eyes softened as he said it. She reached out to squeeze his hand and smiled in a way that always drew him in for the sucker punch. “So you’ll be comfortable going alone? David is expecting us. I guess he’ll just have to focus all of that gratitude and attention on you.”
Wait a minute. Go alone? He was not going at all. No one was going anywhere. She had twisted his words all around. “I never said—”
“That you were a stick in the mud? No need to state the obvious. I get it.”
The lighthearted quip made him wonder if she had conveniently forgotten what kind of fun vampires preferred. More than anyone, she had a right to be wary of him stepping out of his comfort zone. “No, you don’t.” Otherwise, she would encourage him to stay at home with a good book. “This isn’t just about me. Over-exerting yourself so soon can’t be good for either of you.”
“We’re really okay. Aren’t we, Wes?”
Chiming in as ordered, “Right as rain,” Wesley said. He had finished cleaning the sloppy mess left on the table by the damp kitchen towel, and just settled back into his chair to wait out the storm.
Cordelia propped her hands on her hips to argue, “You might be our boss, but you’re not our jailor.”
Angel’s thoughts raced as he tried to change his tactics considering the possibility that he could keep a close eye on them from a distance without actually attending the party. Compromise sounded like the only option. They could mingle. He could lurk unseen. “Well, then you two could go after all. By yourselves.”
“The invitation is for all of us,” Cordelia reminded him softly, “and you’re the guest of honor.” The jab at his ego hit home the hardest when she added, “Don’t wimp out now just because you’re too scared to socialize.”
Angel scowled at her choice of words. Wimp out? Scared? No! This was not that.
How was it possible that Cordelia thought he was afraid of a stupid party? He was not a coward.
There was no cowardice involved whatsoever. He was not running away from this. It was just his concern for others. He was simply being considerate.
Going to that party would just set him up to feel—well, exactly like a giant black hole of boring despair. She had certainly hit that nail on its proverbial head. He did not mix well with crowds. Why would he want to make others uncomfortable with his presence when they sensed he would prefer to hang out in a dark alley?
An irascible growl rumbled up as he defended himself. “I’m not wimping out.”
Cordelia’s beautiful face contorted for an instant of eye-rolling disbelief. “Coulda fooled me. I see it, I say it.”
Somewhere on the periphery of his vision, Wesley shifted out of his chair, his voice slow and steady as he said Cordelia’s name to caution her against continuing their argument. Even Wes could sense that she had her finger on some invisible switch that might push him one step too far.
Ignoring the unwanted advice and relishing in the fact that she had rattled him, Cordelia called him on it. “Enough with the excuses. Parties give you the heebie-jeebies. Suck it up! If you’re gonna be a big, fat wuss about it, at least own up to it.”
Sweeping anger swallowed up any rational response. Why the hell couldn’t Cordy just accept his decision for once? He was not scared, wimping out, or being a wuss. Hearing her say that ripped into him like sharp claws. It hurt that she believed he was capable of pure cowardice over something inconsequential when he knew he would face anything if it mean keeping her—and the rest of the world—safe.
Stone faced and furious he bounded out of his chair to stand in front of her statue still. A step or two was all it would take to crowd her against the wall and make her understand that he was not anything of the sort. The demon inside him was fully prepared to come along for the ride.
With one step forward, the temperature in the room dropped rapidly, the lights flickered, and the table legs rattled on the floor signaling a warning. Even Phantom Dennis sensed he was on the edge. Through the red haze crowding out anything but her, Angel barely noted Wesley’s plea for reason as he sounded out their names. “Angel, Cordelia!”
She put up a hand to silence him managing to handle Wesley while continuing to stare him down. Deep down Angel knew he was overreacting to a barb that was ultimately meaningless. He had years of practice controlling his demon instincts. This little spitfire was not going to break that control, but Cordelia’s aim was perfect.
It was his all too human pride she stabbed. “Don’t call me that again.”
Fearless, she quipped, “If the shoe fits. There is only one way to prove it. Come to the party.”
The soft little plea in her voice was a tactic he could see from a mile away much less the inches separating them. Still, he was not backing down. No way was he giving in. There were reasons…good reasons…that made it a bad idea. “I’m not going, Cordelia.”
“Too scared someone might try to talk to you?”
“What’s that buzzing?” Cordelia cocked her head to a sound he could not hear. “Oh, it’s my bullshit detector alarming! The Cowardly Lion has more guts.”
Angel knew there was only a minuscule chance that she really meant it. Teasing him into a response was probably her aim making him feel he had no choice. There was no way she could really believe he was gutless. That and only that saved her from his irrational wrath. What he would do when he reached her was anyone’s guess. Impulse drove him forward with a slowness that contrasted the urgency he felt in wanting to make her take it back.
Her name dropped out like a warning as he fought against the burning urge to put his hands on her, pull her close, and give her something else to think about. His cautionary tone hardened to granite. “Stop bitching about it.”
From the sidelines, Wesley muttered a complaint, “I say…,” but if he said anything else neither one of them noticed.
Too into her little tirade to take offense at his words, Cordelia edged closer grasping the open edges of his leather coat. “Say you’ll come with us. Wes and I are fine. Don’t use us as an excuse because you’re afraid of a little human interaction.”
The words ground out slowly, “I am not afraid.”
The narrowing distance between them had no effect on Cordelia’s sharp tongue. “Then prove to me that you’re not just a big scaredy-cat.”
Cordelia not only pushed buttons, she had a knack for hitting them repeatedly. “You’re like a scared little boy in vampire’s clothing.” Her lip pouted out to emphasize how sad it all seemed. “Boo hoo.”
Jesus! She did not know when to shut up. No matter how strong the instinct to respond physically, Angel knew to keep his hands off in that moment. The temptation to make her eat her words left his cock throbbing more heavily than before. Kissing her into a state of silence was not the only idea filling his head, like sinking his teeth into that full, pouting lip for starters. A sharp swat on that hot little ass might change the subject, too, and he might not want to stop at just one.
There was only one thing he could do to resolve this without further risk. Since Cordelia was not about to back down, and because he seemingly needed to prove himself to her, Angel decided to give her what she wanted. Slowly sounding out the words, “Wesley was right about one thing,” he framed it in a way that sounded less like he was caving in to one of her whims. “Nabbit is a client with connections we don’t want to sever.”
With a silent nod, the first spark of hope lit Cordelia’s expressive eyes. Angel wanted to smother it out, punish her for manipulating him so easily. He would not. No matter how well deserved it might be.
“This is business,” he added listening to the rapid thump of her heart when she realized that she had won. “I don’t have to enjoy it.”
“But you’ll come anyway?”
If she wanted a black hole of despair around, then, “Yes.” She would get one.
“I said I would.”
Hope turned to triumph. He watched the smile tugging at her lips and he knew he was right where she wanted him. “No changing your mind or backing out.”
Angel did not know what was worse, being played—or letting her do it. “I won’t.”
An earsplitting squeal of delight followed. Cordelia threw her arms around his neck and hugged him. The sudden impact forced him to sway back, his hands reaching around to hold her in place in order to maintain his balance. “You’re the best! No matter how much of a dumbass you are when it comes to parties, you’re still the bravest guy I know.”
Insulted and complimented in the same breath, Angel hugged back. He held her close, tenderly pressing his lips to her forehead with a reminder that despite being a pain in the ass, Cordelia was precious to him. No sooner did he let the sensation of her feminine curves and tempting warmth sink in than her hip shifted across his erection causing a low moan to rumble from his throat before he could stop it.
“Good grief! You’re still h—,” Cordelia faltered over the word hard when Wesley suddenly cleared his throat, “wound up from the fight.”
The only fight he cared about was theirs. Her soft hands pressed against his shoulders looking for release making him reluctantly let go.
Wesley’s annoying interruption probably saved him from doing something stupid. “What fight?” he asked as if he had been visiting another dimension for the last few minutes instead of being buried nose-deep in a book. Hopefully, Wes had missed more than just the explanation of where he had been the past few hours.
“A couple of demons. Minor brawl.”
“Doesn’t feel very minor,” Cordelia chortled teasingly drawing a dark stare, which she promptly ignored. Waving off the subject as being inconsequential, she added, “He’s a little tense.”
Asking Angel out of concern, “Did you pull a muscle?” Wesley came up with an obvious solution. “Perhaps Cordelia could handle it for you. She is becoming quite proficient at patching you up when you’re injured.”
Cordelia flushed red and squawked, “What?! That is so not in my job description. I’m not the resident…masseuse.”
“Unfortunate, then. You have talented hands.” Wesley sounded sincere if clueless about the nature of his tension. “I was quite stiff earlier. You took excellent care of me.”
“Of your shoulder!”
“No doubt a massage could have its benefits.”
“Fringe benefits,” Cordelia corrected sourly as her meaning finally sunk in.
Reacting like a light bulb had flashed on, Wesley turned beet red. “Oh. Oh! Oh dear. I-I never intended to suggest that kind of massage.”
Angel would certainly not turn one down if Cordy offered it, but hell did not seem likely to freeze over today. He could not even focus on the illicit thought of her warm hand stroking him to an orgasm because he kept thinking that Wesley enjoyed the excellent care Cordelia provided in more than just a therapeutic way.
Torture techniques rolled around in his head for a couple of seconds until he realized he was being ridiculous. He had no right of possession over Cordelia, no legitimate reason to feel jealous that Wesley had equal privileges when it came to her friendship.
Despite knowing that Wesley’s shoulder had been jarred during the explosion and having heard Cordelia lecturing him about spending so much time stooping over his research, it still irked him to think about her touching someone else. He pictured Cordy’s bare hands smoothing out a knot in Wesley’s shoulder, and felt a growl rising up in his chest at the idea of something intimate developing between them.
Both of them had been taken with each other at one time, a flirtation that apparently went nowhere. Circumstances were different here in L.A., especially now that the office was gone. Wesley might have his own place, but he stuck around Cordelia’s apartment most of the day. The two of them were just friends, he reasoned, feeling bewildered by his sudden resentment.
Trying not to growl out in frustration, he told them, “All I need is a hot shower.”
“Hot? I thought cold worked better. Besides, Dennis already filled the tub,” Cordelia reminded him that she had been planning to take a bath. “I had first dibs.”
Having a stream of new images filling his head was not helping. Cordelia and her bubble baths had been on the fantasy rotation a few times already. Maybe their fight loosened his tongue because he heard himself saying, “Too bad the tub’s not bigger.”
Both Cordelia and Wesley stared back, jaws dropping in near-perfect synchronization at his words. They glanced at each other long enough to turn red, and then looked away as if they could read each other’s minds and were embarrassed by what they found there.
“Shut up, Wes,” snapped Cordelia even before he could comment on the inappropriate direction of his thoughts. Scowling, he turned his attention back to his notes.
Angel expected a similar snip to her voice when Cordelia turned her attention to him. He might as well have invited her to join him. “It’s a small bathtub,” he commented quickly. “I’m not.”
“Oh, right. For a second, I—” Cordelia paused, crossed her arms, and shook her head as if she was trying to decide if her inner bullshit detector was alarming again. “Fine, then, Big Guy. Since you did agree to come to the party, I’ll let you go first. Just don’t hog the bathroom all night, okay?”
Angel was not making any promises. It might take a while to ease… all that tension. He could easily drain the tub and take a cold shower, but it never had quite the same effect as it would on a human. Blood flowed differently as a vampire, and once he got hard, it took longer to subside. The pain of denying himself release sometimes seemed justified considering his past, and the shame of it might normally play its hand.
“Hope you like bubbles,” Cordelia called out as he vanished around the corner.
He had a feeling he would.
They waited until Angel shut the bedroom door behind him before Wesley decided that he could hold his tongue no longer. “You know very well the dangers of winding Angel up that way. Vampires have aggressive tendencies, and despite many years of practice at holding them in check, along with the soul that guides his actions, Angel is ultimately a creature of instincts.”
Cordelia still had a little fight in her, but not enough to snap at him for reminding her that Angel could be dangerous. “Maybe I pushed it a little too far, but now we all get to go to the party.”
Pursing his lips closed, Wes let out an, “Mm,” of agreement. “When you questioned his bravery it must have hit a nerve. Angel’s every action is focused on redeeming himself for past sins acting as a champion to the causes you bring to him through your visions. No doubt you wounded his pride.”
The sun seemed to set in her eyes, a shadow coming to hide the light of her triumph. Hurting Angel was never part of her strategy. “I challenged him to step it up. He is so caught up in brooding about his past that he doesn’t know how to enjoy the present.”
Wesley gave it some thought as he closed his books and organized his legal pad and pencils into a pile. “The prophecy written on the Scroll of Aberjan foretells that Angel will have to survive many apocalypses, fiends, and plagues before he will earn his humanity. Do not expect him to overcome the challenges you place before him with any greater ease.”
“It’s just a party.”
“For the likes of us,” he agreed reminding her that Angel was on a different level. “He walks a fine line, Cordelia. You’ve seen him when he loosens up too much.”
She knew exactly what he meant. Rebecca Lowell’s slutty attempt at seducing Angel by drugging him with Doximal had brought Cordelia face to face with an uninhibited version of the vampire. Technically, he was not Angelus since his soul was still on board, but the blissful state induced by the drug freed that side of him.
“Wes, no one is going to drug Angel at this party. Just because I want him to have fun doesn’t mean I’m going to let some skank get her hands on him.”
Adjusting his glasses, Wesley considered whether or not he should say anything further. On the one hand, speaking up might result in swift reprisal. He did so prefer the family jewels intact. Remaining silent on the matter might be far more dangerous to everyone. Despite his personal discomfort about the subject, he felt it his duty to say something.
“Cordelia, your protective instincts are commendable, if a bit possessive. These past few days, you have truly embraced your role as Angel’s seer.”
He paused just long enough for a look of suspicion to cross her face. “Yeah. It’s the new me. What’s your point?”
“Vocah’s attach affected all of us. We are stronger for it, and I have no doubt that your new outlook will benefit our mission,” he said with confidence. “Angel depends upon the visions to fulfill his duty as champion to the Powers, whilst you depend upon Angel to resolve them.”
Cordelia snapped her fingers, “Oh, we’re…we’re…what’s the word…?”
“No, I was going for, ah…”
More hesitantly, he tried again. “Bonded?”
“When we get to the party, I do plan to stick to him like superglue, but no. I was going to say that we’re kind of like our own mutual benefit society.”
“That’s the word.” Cordelia nodded with a smile.
In the grand scheme of things, together, champion and seer did function in a symbiotic way. That was not precisely the direction he was going. “Um, speaking of benefits…”
Maybe it was the tone in his voice, but Cordelia caught on faster than a lightning bolt striking back just as quickly. “Let’s not speak of them. Subject closed.”
Escaping in to the living room, she plopped down on the couch and then reached for the remote. The television flickered to life set to Phantom Dennis’ favorite cartoon channel. Instead of changing to another show, Cordelia clicked the volume button so that the beeps, crashes, and TNT blasts of the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote were even louder than usual.
Wesley had already committed himself to the subject, so was unwilling to let it go quite so easily. He followed her into the living room to join her on the couch. Leaning in, he framed his words carefully hoping to caution her against bating Angel this way again. No matter that Angel had blamed his aroused condition on an earlier demon fight, Wesley guessed that his argument with Cordelia had far more to do with it.
At first, she pretended not to hear him, cupping a hand to her ear and mouthing, “I can’t hear a thing,” only to roll her eyes and try to look away when he kept on talking.
Finally, she slapped a hand over his mouth, and told him, “Lecture over. I get it, Wesley. I have always gotten it. Besides, the one time we kissed, there was zero spark.”
Wesley’s eyes opened wide at the news. After Sunnydale, he had not imagined Angel to be ready to kiss anyone, at least not until having recently observed him with Cordelia during several fierce arguments. As for lack of a spark, he wondered how any other two people could generate such palpable sexual tension without even trying. “Are you certain that you are not simply recalling our kiss? That was certainly a stinker.”
Curling up her lip, Cordelia cringed at the memory. “No. You are oh-so right about that one, but you weren’t there to see Angel pry me away when I laid one on him.”
Uneasily, Wesley considered, “There might be a number of reasons,” only to be cut off quickly.
“One reason, and I don’t think I need to say her name.”
“Oh. Perhaps so.” Adjusting his glasses, Wesley let out a deep sigh feeling a bit awkward about supporting his friend and cautioning her against letting things progress further with Angel. It could only end badly, either in heartache, or bloodshed.
Cordelia hastily pointed out, “I was only trying to get rid of the visions. It’s not like I was really trying to make him want me.”
“Good. That’s good to hear.”
Annoyed by the whole topic, she pointed out that Angel’s lackluster response would have been a whole other thing if she had actually been trying.
He gently pulled her hand down, and squeezed it gently to convey that he cared. “You mean too much to each other to take that risk. The curse may not be an exact science, but its effects are certain. Don’t make yourself his greatest challenge.”
Clearly annoyed at him, as expected, Cordelia jerked her hand out of his grasp. “Nothing is going on. Angel is my friend, and the two of you are the closest thing I have to family in this town. I have no intention of screwing that up by—”
A loud explosion sounded on the television courteous of Phantom Dennis turning up the volume. He did not want to hear Cordelia say it, either.
As soon as the blast diminished, Wesley suggested, “Perhaps it would be best if Angel stayed at my place until we can make new arrangements.”
“What? No. Your apartment is the size of a matchbox.”
“My couch is as good as yours.”
“No, it’s not.”
Wesley could not really deny it. “Okay, I concede that it’s not, but it might be easier to resist temptation when he doesn’t live with it.”
“Drop it, Wes. I know what this is all about. You’re just trying to distract me.”
She sounded so certain that he had to question his own motives. “I am?”
“You are. So I’ll forgive you for being such a buttinski.”
More confused by the forgiveness factor than the name calling, he asked, “What?”
“A nosey parker. A worrywart. The guy who butts in to other people’s business.”
“Yes, I do see your point, but it could very well be my business.”
“Angel and I are fine. We are not going to throw each other against the nearest wall and have wild monkey sex, so you can relax, then I can relax, and I’m pretty sure that Angel is already relaxing by now, too. So, drop it.”
Wesley cringed at the easy way she seemed to accept what was most likely going on in her own bathroom. “Very well.”
“Let’s talk about the real reason you’re trying to rile me up.” Cordelia shifted around on the couch so that her legs curled up beneath her. “You were hoping I would forget about our bet.”
The smile spreading across her face as she held out her hand, palm upward, told him he would indeed be forgiven his transgressions as long as he paid for it with cash. Wesley should have known better than to bet against her. Angel’s ability to resist Cordelia’s not inconsiderable charms and her button-pushing challenges made for poor odds, although he thought there was an outside chance the vampire might manage to finagle a way out of attending the party.
“Hah! Told you I could get him to agree to go. Time to pay up. You owe me five bucks.”
Wesley gave credit where it was due while adding a word of warning. “Congratulations on winning this round, Cordelia, but I’m afraid the war isn’t quite over yet.”
“Oh, yes it is. Angel promised to go.”
Wesley sank back into the couch cushions and drummed his fingers as if they signaled impending danger. His singed cheek ached when he gave her a half-smile. “I believe you left out a few important details about the party.”
Her glance darted toward the closed bedroom door. “Well, yeah. Duh! Those details can wait until tomorrow afternoon.”
“As late as that? Tomorrow is the 31st.”
Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “Our costumes are arriving by messenger tomorrow afternoon. Until then, your lips are sealed.”
“Certainly. Mum’s the word.”
As if she suspected a trick, her eyes narrowed. “You still owe me five bucks.”
Cordelia knew that the chance of her having a vision today of all days was slim to none. Halloween was just a strange time of year when demons took the night off making it a perfect opportunity for the associates of Angel Investigations to party. Or, as the case might turn out to be, force their killjoy vampire boss to have an inkling of fun.
“I have to wear what?”
Cordelia leaned back an inch or two at the sudden roar. Maybe there was another way to phrase it. “Think of it as a uniform. Only everyone will be wearing something different.”
Angel’s usual scowl looked even scowlier.
Trying another tactic, she shrugged. “Okay, so what? It’s a costume. Get over it.”
“You said nothing about wearing costumes.” Angel made it sound like a deal breaker.
“Obvious, much?” No way was she letting that work. Catching a glance at a newspaper folded up on the coffee table, she grabbed the front page and held it up. “What’s today, Angel?”
He did not have to look, but since Cordelia was making a point, she tapped at the date above the headline. Instead of giving the answer she wanted, he said, “Sunday.”
“The date, doofus.”
Angel knew where she was going with this. The stubborn vampire just did not want to admit it. Cordelia figured she could out-stubborn him any day, so she tapped the paper again and waited for a response.
“And that makes today…?”
“My day off.”
Cordelia’s jaw dropped as he turned and walked away. “Hey!” She darted after him as he headed into the kitchen.
Opening up the refrigerator, he pulled out a pint of chilled blood, lifted the lid and took a swig. He was not as careful as usual and ended up with a blood moustache, but Cordelia did not even bat an eyelash.
As he licked away the thin trail of blood from his upper lip, she demanded, “Show me the vampire rulebook that says you can’t dress up for a party. Besides, you promised me you’d come.”
“Cordy, I never agreed to this.”
“Sure you did. I have a witness.”
“Witnesses can go missing,” he quipped darkly. Angel glared back as he took up a stubborn posture crossing his arms and making his shoulders and biceps look even larger.
“It’s not like you haven’t worn disguises for work. You wore that suit to get into Wolfram and Hart. And when you tracked that mobster you wore that ridiculous Hawaiian shirt of Doyle’s.”
There was a hitch in her voice before she lost her train of thought completely. Angel understood. She could see it in his eyes. He missed Doyle, too. The pain of losing him was still there. Close to the surface. Something they rarely mentioned. It was unusual for either of them to bring up his name.
A thickness closed up her throat. Unshed tears stung her eyes. Cordelia whirled around not wanting to see the sorrow on Angel’s face or the pity or the guilt. She walked back into the living room tasking herself with folding up the paper again, leaving it in a neat little pile.
Cordelia heard the refrigerator door open and close again. There was no other hint of Angel’s movements until the couch springs gave way as he sat down. Another minute passed by before he spoke. No surprise. It was not about Doyle.
“After Sunnydale I’m a little surprised that you’d want to dress up for Halloween. Not after what happened year before last.”
The comment seemed to come from a long way away through the sudden haze in her thoughts. Distractedly, she answered, “Ethan Rayne is not going to be at the party.”
Angel went quiet again.
The fight was not completely out of her, but thinking about Doyle had thrown her off her game. Softly, she accused him, “You’re still trying to weasel out of this.”
“No. I’ll go. I said I would.”
Somehow, her triumph did not feel quite as thrilling this time, but it managed to wind her up enough to grumble about Angel’s dour response.
“Your enthusiasm is overwhelming.”
“Maybe I should tone it down.”
The television suddenly flared to life just long enough to notice Wile E. Coyote being blown up by a case of TNT before it went off again. “Dennis thinks you’re funny,” she offered up a translation.
“So why are you smiling?”
One of those beaming looks that always knocked him for a loop had chased away the shadowy sorrows filling her eyes. He responded likewise unable to resist the way it lightened his own mood even though chances were good that she was about to say something to make fun of him.
Cordelia shrugged. “This is a one-time deal. Good thing for you the PTB don’t consider tights and a cape a mandatory uniform.”
“Good thing,” he shuddered at the thought. “I might prefer being evil. Let’s just skip the costume. I’ll go as myself. Most of the guests will think it’s a mask.”
Angel vamped out and spread his arms over the back of the couch as he relaxed into the cushions. He seemed to think he had it all solved.
“That’s cheating! Not to mention a big fat bore for those of us who see you dressed like that every day. Besides—you can’t.”
The vampire fangs and ridges faded back into his human form. “Why not?”
She supposed Wesley would call this the start of Round Three.
“Um. Did I forget to mention that it’s a theme party? David is providing the costumes,” she explained that it was a done deal. This time she remembered not to point out that they were too short on cash to afford buying or renting.
“A theme party. What kind of costumes?”
“Oh. Well, that’s sort of a surprise.”
Angel scowled again.
“Awesome!” Saved by the bell, Cordelia practically ran toward the door. “We’ll find out together.”
Eying the three sizable boxes made from handcrafted fiber, Cordelia could tell they did not come from the local costume shop. “He bought the good stuff. I knew I liked that little man.”
With the boxes arranged in a line on the dining room table, both Angel and Wesley stood beside her while Cordelia opened up the envelope accompanying their costumes. “It’s a note from David. I recognize the handwriting from his checks.”
Skimming it for the pertinent details, she read aloud, “Dear Friends—blah, blah, blah—enjoy the costumes—can’t wait for you to see my castle—blah, blah—wait…did he say castle? I thought we were going to his house in Malibu.”
Wesley looked at the original invitation again. “We are. The address is the same. It is a rather large house. And they do say a man’s home is his castle.”
“I prefer the term mansion, but if he wants to call it a castle, I can live with that.”
“Still thinking about prostituting yourself in exchange for David’s wealth?” asked Wesley somewhat amused, “I seem to recall you—OW! What’s next, hair pulling?”
Retracting her curled fingernails from Wesley’s forearm, Cordelia hoped he got the point that little lunchtime chat was supposed to be just between them. “Where would you get a lamebrain idea like that?”
Angel figured he did not want to go anywhere near that particular conversation. “What else does the note say?”
Reading, Cordelia skimmed through the chatty part of the note where David wrote about being excited to ‘hang with them’ tonight. He reminded them of the recent evening when he had popped in at by the office and hoped they could do that again soon. The whole heroes fighting evil thing was just awesome.
“Here it is,” she pointed to one paragraph. “He turned the mansion into a castle for the party. It’s part of the theme.”
“Ah!” Wesley nodded and easily guessed, “Dungeons and Dragons.”
That was exactly what the note indicated. Impressed, Cordelia cocked her head, asking, “How’d you know?”
“Certainly you recall his attire included a purple cape and sword,” he reminded her. “The man is clearly obsessed.”
Cordelia shrugged it off. “He can afford to have an obsession or two.”
“You seem to know something about this game,” Angel said to Wesley. “What’s it all about?”
“Dungeons and Dragons is a popular fantasy role-playing game. I am by no means an expert on the subject,” he clarified hastily almost as if he was embarrassed to know any details at all. “My focus has always been on actual supernatural and mystical forces than the fantasy elements.”
Angel was reserving judgment until he got a better explanation, especially considering the one place he already knew Nabbit frequented, and the kinds of ‘games’ played there.
“The Watchers Council has a division,” Wesley revealed to them, “which monitors public awareness of the supernatural world. There was some concern when the game was first published back in the 1970s, if I recall correctly, that it was associated with cultism and demon worship. Those reports were quite unjustified.”
“Role-playing?” Angel prompted him for more information. Invitation or not, he would not bring Cordelia into the sort of party he imagined might involve the games found at Madame Dorion’s brothel.
Cordelia caught on instantly, “Exactly what kind of fantasies are we talking about?” Her gaze narrowed suspiciously in his direction as if she knew exactly what he was thinking.
“Why ask me?” Angel felt almost panicky as he tried to erase one particularly hot image of a private game between the two of them.
“Vampire, hello!” Rolling her eyes at him, Cordelia seemed to think nothing of it. “You might be a eunuch now, but you used to be Angelus. Somehow I doubt anything would shock you.”
Every time she said that word, Angel became swept up by an intense need to prove her wrong. It might be her way of reminding them both that intimacy was definitely off the table, but he hated the accompanying sting. Pissed off, he stepped forward only to edge even closer into her space, “Sex games don’t necessarily qualify as shocking, Cordelia.”
“Even the kinky kind?”
“That depends on the kink,” he parried back thinking he would like to introduce her to a few.
Interrupting them before their conversation could get any more detailed, Wes explained they were way off track. “No, no, not at all. Dungeons and Dragons involves no physical play.”
Unconvinced, Cordelia shot him a look. “Tell that to the guy who took pictures.”
Wesley stuttered over the words as he explained that David Nabbit and the other players who went to Madame Dorian’s Demon Brothel took their unconventional game a step too far. “It involves a set of multi-sided dice and a Dungeon Master, or Gaming Master, who acts as the game’s referee serving as the storyteller for the players’ adventure.”
So far, Angel had not heard anything shocking, although it still sounded more like an S&M scenario with a fantasy twist. “So, the designated Master directs the scenario.”
“Yes,” Wesley nodded completely unaware of Angel’s line of thinking. Fortunately, his next words got him back on track. “D&D originally derived from tactical war games played on a grid with miniature figurines, but it evolved to include players taking on the role of individual characters.”
“War games.” Realizing just how far off base he had been, Angel swiped a hand over his mouth to suppress his grin.
Cordelia’s nose wrinkled as she curled her lips in disdain no longer looking quite so smug about the party idea. “War games? What kind of a Halloween theme is that?”
The hesitation in her voice gave Angel a little buzz. Payback was a bitch. He nudged her with his elbow. “Problem?”
Denying it almost too quietly, she answered, “No problem. I was just curious about our costumes, that’s all.”
Wesley gestured toward the boxes on the table. “I assume that we are intended to wear costumes based on characters typically found in the game.”
“These aren’t traditional Halloween costumes, then?” asked Angel. “No ghosts, goblins, or unrealistic vampires?”
Cordelia smirked back at Angel. “A little sensitive on the subject?”
“They should at least get it right.”
“There are hundreds of possible—uh—'monsters' is actually the gaming term. Players take on the role of fighters, clerics, thieves and magic-users from a variety of races: Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling to name a few.”
Cordelia leaned closer to Angel whispering, “What’s a Ling…and why only half?”
“Halfing is another term for a hobbit,” Wesley explained helpfully when Angel had no answer drawing blank looks from both of his friends.
Testing an Americanized version of what she assumed was a funky British pronunciation, Cordelia tried the word out. “Hobbit…hob…hab…habit. Oh, I’ve got it! Those things nuns wear…habits. Oh, God, I hope he didn’t make me a nun.”
Angel continued to look confused. There were nuns in this game?
“Halflings are very small humanoids,” Wesley started to clear things up only to realize it was not necessary. Sighing, he shook his head. “Never mind. None of us will be getting that costume tonight.”
“So what you’re saying is that people like David pretend to be fighters and nuns any old time. Not just on Halloween.”
“More or less, yes.”
Cordelia was silent for a moment of contemplation before asking, “What’s the point?”
“Unlike those of us who face mortal danger on a daily basis some people yearn for adventure that cannot be found in their own lives. They come to the game only with whatever their imaginations devise. Together they solve dilemmas, engage in battles, and win treasure.”
She perked up. Finally, he had said something worthy of Cordelia’s interest. “Treasure! Now we’re talkin’.”
“It’s not real treasure, Cordelia.”
“Oh. That part actually sounded exciting.”
Angel made a move toward the boxes on the table. “We might as well find out what’s inside these things.”
“Buck up! This is bound to be fun.”
“Define fun,” Cordelia muttered glumly not so certain there was something in that box she wanted to wear.
War game costumes? Pfft! Who was she gonna be… Attila the Nun?
Each box was labeled with a folded white card. Calligraphic lettering spelled out their names: Angel, Cordelia, and Wesley.
They shuffled around so each stood in front of the box with their own name. Cordelia looked at Angel who was standing on her right. They both turned to Wesley since he seemed to be the most enthusiastic about it.
“Very well. I’m certain there is nothing to fear. It is just a game. One we won’t even be playing,” Wesley reminded them dourly. “We are simply attending a party dressed as a common character.”
Flipping the card to view the inside script he read the word: Wizard.
“Apparently I am a human magic-user.”
“Um…how is that diff—”
Angel cut off Cordelia’s unfinished complaint. “Open the box.”
The handcrafted box was packed into layers.
Labeled as Prop 1, the first contained a leather bound book with intricate scrollwork cut into the front cover. A simple Latin phrase across the binding easily translated as ‘Book of Magic’.
Wesley laughed sardonically as he thought of the irreplaceable books burned to a crisp by Vocah. “Perhaps I can use this to start our new collection of references,” he joked.
They had lost so much in the fire. Too bad this one was a toy.
Putting the book aside, he removed the woven fiber separating it from the layer below. It was a very long, grey beard made of realistic-looking hair.
“Oh, dear.” As he held it up to his face, it curled down to his midsection.
The rest of the box included a hat and bright blue wizard robes that could be worn over his pants and shirt. Angel suggested he forego the beard, but Cordelia balked at the idea, obviously enjoying the idea of seeing the full effect. “No way. David handpicked our costumes. You don’t want to offend him, do you?”
“Certainly not. This should be fun playing the part of a full-fledged magic user.” He gave them a good-natured grin.
“Not much of a stretch. You do that now. Though I’ve gotta admit it’s going to be even tougher for you to meet girls with that thing on your face.” Cordelia patted his shoulder conciliatorily way and watched his smile droop.
Turning to Angel, she nudged his costume box a little closer. “Your turn.”
“Why is it my turn?”
Wesley offered, “Age before beauty.”
“That explains why you went first, Scarface” Cordelia snorted, and then softened the jab by assuring him he would heal up soon enough. “Angel is trying to delay the inevitable.”
Angel did not bother to deny it. Without giving him a chance to say anything, Cordelia swooped in to tell Angel why he needed to get on with the box opening. “It’s your turn because that’s the just way it is. Deal with it.”
The old ‘because I say so’ explanation earned her a hard stare. Angel seemed to be in no hurry to move toward the box, which only made Cordelia all the more insistent that he would take his turn before her. After a brusque sigh, she softened her expression as she leaned in close to say, “Because this is my apartment and I am letting you stay here while you are practically destitute.”
“Kind of like how you invited yourself over to my place?”
Cordelia thought about it. “NO, that was completely different. You were obligated to help me. My old apartment was invaded by an army of cockroaches with creepy antlers.” She demonstrated the antlers to Wesley for added effect.
“I gave you the bed.”
“Well, you’re getting a perfectly good couch.”
Having heard none of this before, Wesley listened in for a moment wondering exactly when it was that Cordelia had lived with Angel. Like now, it seemed to have happened under emergency circumstances. That made Angel’s presence in Cordelia’s apartment a simple act of reciprocation and therefore less worrisome. Still, it was interesting knowing the first time occurred before she became his seer. Wesley filed the information away for one of his future lunchtime conversations with Cordelia, assuming that it would not get him into hot water again.
“Angel, might I suggest you proceed. This will all move along faster if you don’t try to argue with Cordelia.”
A little smile crept onto Angel’s face.
“Pfft! Told you he was up to something.” Cordelia reached over and snagged the card off Angel’s costume box. She flipped it open, read the single-word description, and before they could look quickly closed it again.
After a dramatic sigh, she handed over the card. “I’m beginning to think David has no imagination whatsoever. First, he makes Wesley a wizard—hello he may not be Willow, but he already knows about real magic—and then he does this to you.”
Hesitantly, Angel flipped the card open. It read: Warrior.
Reconsidering the possibilities, Cordelia gave him a naughty little smile. “I could be wrong about the boring part. It could be one of those gladiator costumes with the short little skirt and Roman sandals,” she laughed hopefully. “That could definitely be fun.”
His costume box was heavier than the others. The prop displayed in the top section lay diagonally and took up the entire span of the box: a sword and scabbard.
“That looks real,” Cordelia noted. Angel confirmed it as he picked it up, and removed it from the scabbard. He tested its weight and balance walking a couple of steps away to slice and jab at the air. “Cool—as long as you don’t go slicing and dicing David’s guests.”
Everything in the weapons cabinet had been destroyed too. It was fortunate that he had a few things stored in the trunk of the Plymouth; nothing made like this of gleaming steel and laser precision with designs blazing across the upper end of the blade. It was almost too nice to use, which was not going to happen, he reminded himself, since this was just a party and it was just a prop.
Holding up the scabbard, she snorted teasingly, “Does this look Roman to you? I guess David spares no expense with the props. He really does take this game seriously.”
Angel realized that the sword was a standard Roman design and suddenly wondered if Cordy knew more about his costume than she was letting on. He had nothing to hide, but he refused to spend the night with the wind blowing places it should not.
The thought forced Angel’s attention to the rest of his costume. Cordelia discarded the dividing layer before he reached her side. He had to put the sword down somewhere it would not break one of her vases or crystal decorations. Funny how she could be very particular when it came to her place, and yet he vividly remembered her carving up the linoleum on his kitchen floor.
“One leather vest,” she lifted it out only to complain about its weight. “Geez, it’s a good thing you’re stronger than an ox.”
“Leather armor. Nice quality.”
Cordelia reached into the box again. “Damn. No skirt. But on the plus side you do have a nice way of filling out leather pants.”
Behind her, Wesley practically choked on her name.
Guilelessly, she blinked, asking, “What?”
Deciding not to take it further, he walked back to his side of the table and pulled out one of the chairs to sit down.
Giving Angel a look that said it was best to ignore Wesley, she tossed the pants on top of the vest in his arms. He said nothing as she went back to the next layer of the box. He was quite relieved to see a costume that he could wear without feeling like a fool.
That worked for him. Maybe tonight would not be so bad after all. Unless of course this party ended up being all about people socializing, dancing, and eating food like all the rest.
Looking inside she found a pair of boots and leather arm braces. Noting that the boots looked to be his size, he commented, “Nabbit must have a good eye.”
“His assistant called asking for details on all of our measurements.” Cordelia was a far better snooper than guesser. Raising a hand to stop hold off the question she knew was coming her way, she suggested, “Maybe we should just save that story.”
“Another time, then.”
Cordelia tilted her head. “You know by ‘save that story’ I mean forget about it, right?”
That was one thing about Angel. He never forgot a thing. “You have a costume box to open.”
“Since you were in cahoots with the clothier I assume you know what’s on the card.” Wesley reached across before she could get to it.
“No idea. The woman insisted that it was a surprise. Wouldn’t tell me a thing. What’s it say?” she asked Wesley half excited and half scared. She sent a prayer skyward. “God, please don’t make me a nun.”
“There’s very little chance of that ever happening,” Wesley muttered sourly. As far as the costume went, he might be wrong. Seers and soothsayers were in some ways akin to clerics. “Angel and I appear to have costumes suited to our real life roles. Perhaps yours is the same.”
Cordelia felt anxious. “Is there a Dungeons and Dragons version of me—and what does she wear?”
“You’re rather unique,” Wesley provided some reassurance. Besides, “I doubt that you’ll be dressed as a nun. David must know that Angel would find it unpleasant.”
Angel knew the clothes would not bother him. Crosses and rosaries could be powerful in the hands of a true believer, but Angel doubted that a costume would do much harm. He preferred not to test the theory. Nuns stirred up bad memories.
Wesley looked at the card, and as he stared at it his face turned cherry red. He looked up at Cordelia laughing out at he with a loud blast of air. “Angel, I think it’s going to be an enjoyable evening, after all. We should take pictures.”
Without bothering to ask what was on the card, Cordelia reached for the lid of the box and flung it onto the ground. Peering inside she gasped at the carefully placed objects on the first layer. They looked like little bits of skin. “What is that?”
Angel seemed equally clueless. They looked to Wesley for answers. Gleefully he told her, “They’re ears.” He clapped a hand to his chest as though it might burst from the force of retained laughter.
“I’m a pointy-eared nun?”
“Definitely not a nun.”
“But I do have pointy ears.”
“Yes,” his grin split across his still flushed face.
Searching her memory for all things remotely nerdy, Cordelia thought she had it figured out. “I’m a Vulcan—like Dr. Spock.”
Chortling again, Wesley corrected her, “That would be MISTER Spock. I believe Dr. Spock specialized in infant psychoanalysis and would most definitely not be wearing this costume.”
“Give up the card, hyena boy.” She waggled her fingers until he placed it in her hand.
Wesley propped an elbow on the table and tucked his hand under his chin. “Oh, they do say laughter is the best medicine. For future reference there are no Vulcans in Dungeons and Dragons.”
Cordelia concentrated on the card reading the words over three or four times just to be certain. “What’s so funny? According to this I’m a princess.”
Coming down off the high of his laughter Wesley realized he had not bothered to think about Cordelia’s reaction to becoming royalty for the evening. “Yes, an ELF princess.”
“Hmph! Let’s talk again after you put on your ratty old beard,” she said shoving the lid back onto her costume box. “We’ll see who has the last laugh, bucko.”
“Don’t we get to see the rest of it?” Angel felt cheated.
For a moment, it looked like Cordelia was about to snap at him, too. Walking straight past him toward her bedroom, she called out, “You’ll see it when you see me.”
Wesley could not resist one last parting shot. “Call if you need help with the ears!”
The door slammed closed behind her.
Shaking his head, Angel admitted, “I haven’t decided if you’re very brave or have a death wish.”
Cordelia set the box on her bed. Carefully placing the lid to one side, she lifted out the ear prosthetics and the supplies that went with it. “Put these in the bathroom, Dennis. I’ll need the mirror.”
The package floated away.
“What’s so funny about being an elf, anyway? They make Christmas toys for children. That’s kind of noble.”
After kicking off her shoes and climbing onto the center of the bed, Cordelia tried out her character’s title again. “Elf Princess. Hmm. Princess of the Elves.” Positioning the box in front of her, she angled it between her legs.
“Princess Cordy.” That sounded much better than Mother Superior.
When the lights flickered, she knew what Dennis was asking. Suddenly, she felt like a kid on Christmas Day on the verge of opening presents. The others had gotten fancy props to go with their costumes, and she really, really, really hoped that her surprise was not a set of fake elf ears.
The PTB would have to forgive her just this once if a little bit of Old Cordelia took over. This was a party after all, and all part of the New Cordelia’s personal mission of helping Angel be a little more human.
“Let’s talk tiaras, baby.”
Reaching in she grabbed the woven barrier between layers and tossed it aside. Then, holding the sides of the box peered in.
It was a bag.
A tiny little bag made of silk that fit into the palm of her hand.
Looking at it for a few seconds, her mouth made a wry twist. “Pretty small tiara.”
The string loosened when she tugged on the tie. Poking a finger inside she saw that it came away covered in glitter.
“Pointy ears and body glitter. Talk about fashion faux pas.”
Her clock radio blasted for a full second.
“I know, I know. Just a costume.”
Dennis helpfully floated the next woven divider out of the way. The contents of the next layer started to rise out of the box. Light green silk so diaphanous it barely blocked her view was suspended in the air for her inspection.
“That’s too pretty to be packing material.” Cordelia tilted her head to the side to get a better look at it since her ghostly roommate was holding it at an odd angle. “Maybe it’s a shawl.”
She kept on bending over until her head nearly touched the bedspread. Making a swirling motion with her finger, she directed him, “Turn it around the other way.”
The gauzy material billowed in the air close to the ceiling. When Dennis was done, it was perfectly clear to Cordelia that it was not a shawl. It was also perfectly clear that David Nabbit deserved to have his cherubic little cheek slapped.
“Not that kind of fantasy game—pfft!”
Cordelia straightened up and caught the gauzy material in her outstretched arms as the ghost released it. “You think it’s too late to request the nun costume instead?”
The lights dimmed slowly before brightening again. “That’s what I figured.”
Examining the remaining contents of the box, Cordelia found several more scraps of similar fabric though these were slightly less diaphanous than the larger piece. She hoped there were instructions because there was no way either Waldo the Wizard or Fangman the Barbarian were going to see this.
Not if she wanted to go to the party.
Apparently, ‘Elf Princess’ was a nerd term for being way underdressed.
Fortunately, it came with a cloak. Hopping off the bed, she put the floor-length emerald cloak around her shoulders. It had a braided silk tie closure and two slits in the front for her arms. Perfect. Neither Angel or Wesley would have anything to complain about—not that it was any of their business what she chose to wear.
Cordelia gave the cloak a twirl, and when she whirled back around, she saw a blue box floating in mid-air. An uncontainable squeal filled the air. “I told you I liked that little man. Maybe I won’t slap him.”
A sudden knock on her door made her gasp. She grabbed the jewelry box and hid it behind her back. Angel cracked the door open enough to look inside. Cordelia pasted on a wide grin and scooted over toward the end of the bed to block his view.
The drive to David Nabbit’s Malibu mansion was unusually calm. Angel thought it almost eerie. He had expected the usual childish taunts when Wesley and Cordelia came face to face again. Instead, they provided each other with the briefest of compliments before heading toward the car.
Wesley stroked his long grey beard giving Cordelia the opportunity to comment on it. “You look very wizardly.”
“Thank you, Cordelia. That color is very fetching.”
Angel thought so, too. Her long hair had been swept up to show off her elegant neck and the adorable elf ears, but left it long in the back. The finely stitched emerald green cloak flowed almost to the floor covering everything but her matching boots.
Normally he did not pay much attention to Cordelia’s hairstyle or notice her shoes, but wearing a costume was a special circumstance.
Her mouth was another matter. He noticed that quite a lot. How could he not since she was always right there in his face about something? Talking to him, or at him, always on him about random flotsam he did not understand, advice he did not want, bitching about something he screwed up, lecturing when he took too many chances, or just laughing and smiling in a way that lit up the room.
Yes, he had noticed her mouth recalling all too clearly its softness and warmth when she had kissed him. In those few seconds, he had felt too confused by Cordelia’s sudden move to realize that she was not actually making a pass at him. How was he supposed to know she was just trying to rid herself of the visions? Right now, those tempting lips were pink and shiny, drawing his attention, but something looked different.
Cordelia had beautiful skin, smooth and golden, silky beneath his touch, but she had done something to it. She seemed to sparkle in the light. He tried to figure out what it was without staring directly, but just before they stepped outside, Cordelia caught him looking.
Making fun of his confusion, she snorted, “It’s glitter, Dorkula. Elves must have glittery skin. I didn’t overdo it, did I?”
A hint of it sparkled in her hair, across her eyelids, and cheeks. “No, no, it’s…pretty.”
“Wow! Was that a compliment? Don’t strain yourself or anything if it’s so painful for you.”
Angel followed her out to the Plymouth. It was parked on the curb out front. Wesley was already in the back seat waiting for them. Holding the passenger door open for her, he commented, “What I can see is lovely, but you never let us see the rest of the costume.”
“Didn’t I? Guess that will have to wait.” As Cordelia sat down, she carefully kept track of the material of her cloak ensuring that it did not become caught in the door. “It took a little longer than I thought to get ready. We’re already late.”
He turned to walk around the car toward the driver’s side unknowingly giving her an eyeful. “By the way,” she said when he climbed behind the wheel, “nice pants.”
That made him grin. Angel did not particularly care for the stiff leather vest, but it fit close enough to his skin that it would not hinder him in a fight. He had to remind himself that this was just a party. There was going to be no fighting tonight, just drinking, and dancing, and too many people.
Angel brooded about it halfway along their thirty-five minute drive to Malibu until he noticed an uncharacteristic silence in the car. “Everything okay?”
“Yup.” Cordelia’s brevity was a red flag. She was hiding something. He knew her too well not to be suspicious.
Wesley seemed to come out of his own personal fog. “Sorry, was I ignoring everyone? I have been thumbing through this Book of Magic. Nicely done indeed. Quite authentic at first glance. Naturally, it would not fool a scholar like myself under close scrutiny, but it certainly serves its purpose.”
Upon reaching David Nabbit’s mansion, they found that a valet service was provided for the evening. Angel turned over his keys to the parking attendant and then tried to find a place to put the ticket. His tight leather pants did not include pockets.
“Don’t look at me.”
Wesley took the ticket. He tucked it into his Book of Magic as they walked up the drive toward the mansion.
The entire house was lit up. They’d all seen it before, but now the modern glass and steel structure looked like it had been taken over by a Hollywood studio making a medieval adventure movie. “Wow, it really does look like a castle,” Cordelia recalled David’s note.
They found the man himself outside his ‘castle’ greeting the many guests coming up the drive. The familiar purple cape was there, but his casual clothes had been exchanged for a real costume.
Like Angel, he wore a leather vest, although he did not fill it out quite the same way. He had pointy ears like Cordelia. A sheathed dagger was tucked into his belt. A pair of black pants came down just below his knees.
As her gaze drifted downward, Cordelia saw that instead of shoes, David was wearing a pair of hairy fake feet that were twice the normal size. “Who are you supposed to be—Bigfoot?”
They had not even said hello yet.
Their host took care of that. “Hi Cordelia. Hi guys! Wow, it’s really great to see you here. I don’t actually know most of these other people, but they seem to know me and they like parties.”
Angel reached around Cordelia to politely shake his hand. “Thank you for inviting us, Mr. Nabbit,” he said without a hint of his real feelings on the matter.
“Call me David. We’re good friends now, right?”
Before Wesley could finish thanking him for the costumes and the unique props, Cordelia experimentally tapped on one spongy big toe with the tip of her boot. Never one to let something go, she asked, “So, um…what’s with the ginormous feet?”
David grinned causing his reddening cheeks to round out. “I’m a Halfling.” He bowed to them waving his arm with a flourish. Upon standing up, he winked at them. “At your service.”
“These costumes. Are they rentals? I was just wondering out of pure casual interest if we were supposed to return them tomorrow.”
“No, they’re yours.” He explained that they might want to wear them again the next time they came over.
They stared at each other in strained silence until Cordelia caught David staring at her ears. He seemed a little taken aback. “Hey! You’re an elf!”
“Elf Princess,” she countered. “Why are you so surprised? Wasn’t this your idea?”
“Hmm, I told my administrative assistant ‘Warrior Princess’, but I do like the ears.” He tapped at his matching set. “The cloak is a nice touch, but I hope you aren’t too chilly under there.”
It was a typical October evening and Malibu was not experiencing a freak cold spell. Cordelia’s eyes slid toward Angel who regarded her with a glowering expression. His eyes raked down over the cloak lingering in the places where it clung to her curves. For someone without x-ray vision he was doing a pretty good job of noticing places where the thin cloak draped across an underlying material and where it did not.
“Maybe we should head inside,” Cordelia’s constricted throat caused her voice to crack. “See you later, David?”
“Check out the Howling Hall. Great buffet. My favorite is the Dragon's Blood Punch. We’ll hang later.”
Cordelia took off on a power walk for the front entrance. “So that’s a Hobbit.”
The guys caught up with her when she was stopped at the large castle gate that served as the entryway into the house. Security guards doubling as barbarian warriors kept a watchful eye over their boss and the guests who stepped across the threshold. A buxom woman in her late forties wearing a peasant dress and a bouffant cap greeted them as they entered.
“Welcome to Nabbit Castle. I am Miss Matilda. Your invitation please.”
Cordelia pointed a thumb in Wesley’s direction. He plucked it from the Book of Magic. “Right here.”
The woman pulled out a sleek bar scanner from behind her desk and scanned the small code on the back of the invitation. Glancing at the information on her screen, her eyes widened and she looked at them with new respect. “You’re Mr. Nabbit’s special guests.”
Cordelia had made that part up about being David’s guests of honor. Discovering that it was true gave her more leverage to make sure Angel stayed at the party. If he thought she did not know about his plan to try to ditch them in the middle of all of this he was kidding himself.
The woman gestured for them to come inside. “A guide will take you to the Howling Hall. From there, you may wander the castle as you will. Restricted areas are clearly marked. Mr. Nabbit will join you a little later in the dungeon.”
Cordelia leaned closer to Wesley. “She said dungeon, right?”
“I believe she did.”
“Nerd code word for party room?”
Angel tucked his hand under her elbow and led her inside. “Let’s go find out.”
“One moment, Princess,” the woman halted her in her tracks. “I also serve as the cloakroom attendant. Might I take yours for the evening?”
An abrasive little hum rolled around the back of Cordelia’s throat.
“Don’t pressure me. I’m thinking.”
There were other guests lining up behind them, so Miss Matilda ordered one of the security barbarians to show them into a private room down the hall. “Return when you are ready to begin your adventure. The party awaits.”
The moment the door was closed behind them Angel and Wesley had her cornered. “What is going on here, Cordelia?” asked Wesley whose thick grey beard muffled the words. “You’re all out of sorts this evening.”
That was true enough. Cordelia fiddled with the silk tie closure of the cloak. “It’s my costume. I’m a little uncomfortable about you seeing some parts of it.”
“The parts that aren’t there.”
Angel remembered Nabbit commenting on the costume mix-up. Was this modesty—from Cordelia? Though some of her clothes were more revealing than others she had never to his knowledge dressed in an overtly provocative way.
“We’re all grown ups, Cordelia. I doubt that Nabbit’s costumers would knowingly make something for this party that couldn’t be seen in public.”
The hesitation had nothing to do with her appearance. Cordelia knew she looked hot and it did not embarrass her one iota. Male attention was not exactly a bad thing in her book except when the men in question ended up being scrutinized by certain stick-in-the-mud coworkers suffering from a Big Brother Complex.
Overprotective much? Oh, yeah.
“Perhaps it would be better to keep the cloak on,” Wesley suggested as he thought of the graphic fantasy art he had seen. Though his curiosity was tingling, he’d grown quite used to thinking of Cordelia as family rather than a romantic interest, and he certainly did not want to force such temptations upon Angel. “If the elf princess costume makes you uncomfortable why wear it?”
“Because I gave you a hard time about your costumes and I didn’t want to whine about mine.”
“So right now you’re…”
Whining? Cordelia bit her lip to stop herself from doing just that.
“Fine. If you two think you can handle it, so can I.” Flinging back the cloak, she let it fall in a puddle on the floor at her feet.
Diaphanous fabric layered upon itself to form an intricate sarong with a peek-a-boo effect. A strapless top clung to her breasts being secured in place only by the folded material. Her belly was bare except for a smattering of glitter across her skin. A long swath of thin material completed the costume. Wrapped at an angle across her hip it covered a tiny thong bikini bottom, the lightweight material teasing as it whispered across her legs.
Cordelia’s gaze stayed focused on her stylish matching boots while she waited to see which one of them would go ape-shit first.
And she waited.
Avoiding eye contact with Angel, she chose to check out Wesley’s reaction. Somehow, that seemed like the lesser of two evils. His bug-eyed, slack-jawed stupor was kind of flattering even if it did make her want to giggle. Incoherent gibberish bubbled up when he tried to speak until Cordelia snapped her fingers demanding that he make sense.
Wesley gripped his Book of Magic tightly with one hand and slowly stroked his long fake beard with the other. “Well…ah…it’s very…exotic. Perhaps… perhaps it might be wise to avoid catching cold. Rather chilly in here, don’t you think?”
“Not really. You look kinda hot and bothered to me,” she joked.
His cheeks showing above the grey mustache and beard were rosy. “Certainly not.”
Cordelia glanced cautiously over her shoulder toward Angel who had not even moved a muscle or made a sound. Before she turned fully toward him Wesley commented on the necklace she wore. “Nice trinket. Part of the costume?”
“Just like your book and Angel’s sword.” Crafted from gold and inlaid dark green gems it was a genuine original design from Cordelia’s favorite jewelry store. Not that she could afford to shop there until fame and fortune came her way. “It’s supposed to be a magic amulet.”
The circular amulet nestled just above the cleavage created by the costume. Wesley blinked slowly as his gaze wavered from the necklace. He began to babble again only this time in a more constructive way by droning on about the mystical properties of crystals and gems. Instantly bored, Cordelia realized that Angel was still silent. All this time he had probably been working on his sermon about the evils of displaying too much skin in public.
Realizing that she did not want a lecture from Angel, she could sense him staring, and felt her heart tick-tock in tingly anticipation of his reaction. “So what’s the verdict?” she asked as she turned to face him.
The move caused Wesley to let out a strangled gasp as he saw the rest of her costume, but Cordelia barely noticed. She was too focused on Angel to bother thinking about the eyeful Wes was now receiving.
Angel’s raw stare did crazy things to her equilibrium. All at once, he looked incensed, savage, and salacious. He never looked at her that way, eyes dark and penetrating, full of things he could not have, not even yesterday when the only emotion he let her see was anger. Pure lust speared through her in an instant drawing a reaction that Cordelia never expected.
Blood pounded in her ears. Her throat constricted. Nipples tightened almost painfully. A slow burn licked at her belly as his tongue trailed across the seam of his mouth. Her lips swelled for attention, opening on a little gasp as they formed his name. Everything that was hot and forbidden gleamed dangerously in his eyes making her recall the delectable sensation of being held in his arms.
Then she blinked.
In the space of a second, Angel’s heated stare went flat, his face transforming into an aloof mask of indifference. “It’s just a costume, Cordelia,” he said with a hint of a bite.
Bewildered, Cordelia’s head was spinning. “So you think it’s perfectly respectable?”
Angel’s eyes dropped to the traces of glitter along her bare belly following along until they vanished beneath the fabric gathered around her hips. When he met her gaze again, his expression was stone cold. "For an elf princess? I wouldn't know."
Convincing herself that she had imagined the mutual attraction thing, Cordelia opted to keep the cloak on, but open around her shoulders. It kept the chill of off her backside where things were admittedly a little airy.
The Howling Hall continued the castle theme. A gilded throne sat empty on a raised dais overlooking several tall bar tables where costumed guests gathered in small groups. Most looked to be dressed as fighters, clerics, elves or mages while others wore ordinary medieval fashion.
A few exotic costumes were also in the mix. Wesley pointed out a Styrgean demon in the crowd. “Look at the fur, the wide-set fangs.” He carried a large halberd that was clearly made of plastic, not an authentic weapon.
A man dressed as a swashbuckler, wearing a feathered leather hat and carrying a rapier at his side, overheard him. “That, good sir, is a bugbear, a loathsome creature.”
“It doesn’t look like a bug or a bear to me,” Cordelia sighed already growing restless.
“Allow me to introduce myself.” The swashbuckler removed his hat and bowed. “Here you may call me Lord Dexter. The next time we meet, I will be plain old Ralph Walters. I’ll be the one driving David’s limo.”
Cordelia nudged Angel with her elbow and grinned as she mouthed the words ‘limo’, but he spoiled her fun by looking unimpressed.
“Miss Matilda asked me to show you around. Thanks again for what you did for the boss. He’s one of a kind. The best!” They realized that Ralph knew all about David’s exploits at the demon brothel.
“Take care what you say,” he warned them. “Most of the guests tonight are just here for the D&D. They don’t know what’s really out there.”
Beneath the hum of conversation, a dark orchestration played on a hidden speaker, its sound haunting. Puffs of dry ice clung low to the floor billowing around them as they walked toward the large buffet table dominated by a dragon ice sculpture.
The Halloween cuisine looked delicious. It included items labeled: Dragon’s Blood Punch, Mummy’s Eyes, Roast Bugbear, Maggot Stew, and Hobgoblin’s Mud Pie.
“This is the just the common gaming room. Most guests are limited to this area, but others have full access to the dungeon. Whenever you’re ready just take the elevator downstairs.”
He pointed to an elevator at the back of the room. The drape that normally covered it had been swept aside for the evening. Angel asked, “What’s ‘the dungeon’?
Their guide seemed surprised that they did not know. “David’s personal playground. It might be a little tame compared to what you three are used to, so I’m told.”
After explaining that several other rooms had been converted for the party, including one for dancing, he added, “One more thing. Everyone here is in full role-play mode. You should pretend to be what you’re wearing. Act it out. For example, my character Lord Dexter is skilled with the rapier. He’s an Errol Flynn type, both a fighter and a ladies man.”
Angel rubbed at the tension bundling up in his neck. “We’re not here to play games.”
“It’s a party! Loosen up. Have a little fun.”
“Mr. Doom & Gloom here was born without the fun gene,” Cordelia explained with a teasing glint while noting Angel’s offended expression.
Standing close, she squeezed his hand, but instead of mollifying him, her touch riled him up a notch. Angel leaned a little closer to warn her. “Remember what happened the last time I loosened up?”
“I remember chaining you to the bed.”
Ralph’s eyes opened wide. Thinking they were just joking around, he laughed, “You two are hilarious. This is great.”
“Perhaps we will just start with the buffet for now.” Wesley attempted to get rid of him before Ralph said something he would regret.
Begging for just five minutes of their time he pleaded for just a little interaction. “It’ll be a blast.”
“Will you leave after that?” Angel wanted to know.
“Sure,” Ralph promised with a vehement nod of his head. “You can go mingle. Try it out again. Dance. Whatever. Just don’t forget about the dungeon. That’s where the real fun is.”
Cordelia had a sneaking suspicion that she knew why Ralph Walters got the job. He was a carbon copy of his boss. She whined, “This isn’t a party. It’s a convention for nerds.”
The moment she said it a hopeful light glinted in Angel’s eyes. She remembered that attending this party was supposed to be a way to get him to connect with the world. “Oh, to hell with it. This is just improvisation. Acting. I can do that.”
Ralph grinned so that his oily black mustache stretched out across his upper lip. “I figured you for the fun-loving type. Chains, huh? Kinky. Let’s show your friends how it’s done.”
“Just to set the scene,” Ralph told them, “Lord Dexter spots you all at the local inn and decides he likes the looks of the elf wench.”
Before Wesley could suggest a different scenario, Angel had already growled, “I don’t think so.”
“Wait, we haven’t started yet.”
“Yes, we have.”
With a heavy gulp, Ralph nodded and tried to get back into character. Trying to think like a swashbuckling hero, he called upon Lord Dexter’s accent to charm them. “Lucky friends. I see you travel with a beautiful slave girl.”
Ralph didn’t normally touch other players during the game, but he couldn’t resist trailing his index finger down Cordelia’s arm. She slapped his hand away. “Eww! Hey! Did he call me a slave girl?”
Confirming it with a nod, Wesley took a step toward the buffet and helped himself to a small plate of Mummy’s Eyes. He had a feeling it would be better if he sat this one out.
Still looking at the soft skin he had just touched, a lecherous little smile smeared across Ralph’s face. “I want her. Let me buy her for the night.”
Steel-jawed, Angel towered over the smaller man. “She’s not for sale.”
Wesley groaned and squinted his eyes, afraid to look.
Icily, Cordelia asked again, “Slave girl?”
“A hot one,” Ralph’s eyebrows quirked upward. “After one glorious night in my bed, I’ll set you free. You can get away from these chumps.”
The smarmy swashbuckler thought she belonged to Angel. No way. Try the other way around. Wesley the Wiseass and Mr. Muscles were obviously around as her bodyguards. They would be working for her, Princess Cordelia. “Are you blind or just stupid?”
Glowering darkly, Angel stepped even closer. “Go before I get angry.”
“This is you not being angry? I made a fair offer.” Ralph took a shaky step back and bumped into the wall only to be grabbed by the collar. Slowly lifted off the ground, he broke character long enough to admire Angel’s intimidation technique. “Wow! But you gotta wait to see what the dice tells you.”
Dropping the hat in his hand Ralph reached into his pocket to pull out an eight-sided dice. “Maybe it’s a 3 in 8 chance you need cash to get to your next destination. It’s all probabilities and outcomes.”
“There’s a distinct probability you won’t like the outcome if you ever dare lay a finger on Princess Cordelia again.”
Wesley let out a sigh as he realized Angel was actually playing along with the game and not actually considering snapping the swashbuckler’s neck.
“Princess?” Ralph’s eyes flitted over to Cordelia and then back again when Angel’s grip pressed down that much harder. "So...not a slave girl?"
“Obvious to anyone with eyes!” Cordelia huffed and told him he was a dumbass. “Elf royalty here!”
“Yes, it was.” Angel’s lip curled into a sneer.
Cordelia kicked at the whirling fog. Hissing, “I knew I needed a tiara. This costume just screams Dance of the Seven Veils.”
“Only without most of the veils.” Wesley’s passing comment earned a bitter grunt. Then turning serious, he told Angel, “Time to let him go. His five minutes are up.”
Dropping the man back to the floor, Angel could not believe that the time had passed so quickly. “Already? I was just getting into it. This game has potential.”
Wesley gave him the bad news, “Although this particular damsel-in-distress scenario appeals to your champion mentality, D&D does not actually include the torture of the other players.”
But that was the fun part. “Oh. Was I just supposed to let him have her?”
“Certainly not without a roll of the dice,” Wesley said, amused by Cordelia’s outraged expression. Telling Angel, “In future, simply try to restrain yourself.”
He had not used his full strength, vamped out on him, or ripped him limb from limb for touching Cordelia. The man was barely bruised. “I did.”
Decked out as a castle, the ground floor of the mansion was party central, albeit with gaming intermixed with the usual music, dancing, and mingling. They spent most of the first hour in the Howling Hall. Wesley enjoyed nibbling at the buffet even though it was a challenge with the beard. Cordelia helped Angel ‘be mingly’ while he tasked himself with intimidating other leering Lotharios.
“This is great, right?” Cordelia tried to stay positive considering that she had practically forced Angel to come tonight.
Not bothering to answer, he gave her a look that said it all.
“Okay, so I admit it’s not exactly what I thought it was going to be, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a good time.”
The glowering continued.
“Or you can stand around like a hulking mass of muscle and watch other people have a good time.”
Actually, he had been hoping to find a dark, quiet place to sit around and do all of that. Before he could say so, a woman dressed in the plain robes of a cleric approached them. She and two other costumed female guests had just entered the room and taken one of the nearby tables.
Momentary disdain flashed in her eyes upon noting Cordelia, but her expression changed the instant she faced Angel softening into a wide-eyed doe. Addressing him directly, “We have need of a warrior to take us to Vandathia,” she opened in full roll-playing mode. “The road is dangerous. Will you join us?”
Angel looked at Cordelia who grabbed him by the arm and made a move toward their table. “It’ll be good for him. We’ll try it.”
The cleric looked down her beakish nose at Cordelia. Clarifying her offer, she glowered, “Just you. There is no room for the elf wench in our wagon.”
“What!” Incensed at being excluded and for the wench comment, Cordelia forgot all about giving Angel the opportunity to mingle. “Go find your own warrior. This one’s mine.”
Leaving in a huff, the woman returned to her table just as Wesley joined them. Little crumbs clung to the hairs of his grey beard. “What now?”
“We’ve had enough mingling,” Angel sent Cordelia a wry smile. “We should check out the lower level. Nabbit clearly wants us to see it before we leave.”
“Keeping the client happy or are you actually curious? That’s the dungeon for David’s live Dungeons and Dragons scenarios.”
“Let’s go find the dragon.” Angel motioned toward the elevator.
Cordelia felt his hand brush gently along her cloak at the small of her back long enough to move her in that direction and to keep her at his side. “This is starting to sound less and less like a party and more like work.”
A security barbarian guarded the elevator. Only guests with a special pass code were able to enter. Having received it from Miss Matilda at the front gate, they were given permission to continue.
“Beware, travelers,” the guard delivered his lines before the elevator doors closed, “the way ahead is not without danger. A monster has been attacking the villages beyond the castle. It lives in these tunnels. Go forth if you dare.”
“We dare,” quipped Cordelia. “Press the button already.”
The ride down took only a minute and the door opened up into a completely different setting. The décor upstairs included partial sets intermixed with traditional Halloween designs. This was a whole other world.
Every detail of their surroundings looked genuine from the stone walls, mortar, and the mossy plants growing in the cracks to the altered environment itself. An advanced sound system piped in random noises: odd creaks, strange echoes, a distant rumble. Even the temperature was different here, the air hot, thicker, more primordial.
“Creepy.” Cordelia peered ahead into the dimly lit corridor. It came in through cracks in the ceiling behind them mimicking daylight. “David actually spent money on this?”
Wesley touched the wall assessing its appearance. “Excellent workmanship.”
“Agreed.” Angel thought it had potential as an underground training facility, sharing his thoughts with them. He took a blazing torch from a wall sconce to light the darkened passage stretching out before them.
“We already have that. It’s called the sewers.” Cordelia sniffed the air. “At least this doesn’t smell like the sewers.”
After a short distance, they reached a barrier. A door made of thick timber blocked the way ahead. Angel grabbed the handle, but found it would not budge. “It’s locked. We didn’t miss a turn. This is the only way in.”
“Maybe it’s a sign we should go back upstairs. Game over.”
Cordelia’s words got Wesley thinking. “You’ve got it. We’re not thinking like gamers. This obstacle is merely a test of our skills.”
“Let me handle this,” Angel figured he could make quick work of it planning to break the lock. Shouldering the door, he expected it to give way. He heard the beams creaking as he pushed harder, but it barely budged.
Stepping back, Angel looked at the door with new respect and got ready to kick it down. “Wait!” Wesley stopped him. “Those timbers must be reinforced with steel. Let me try.”
“If Angel couldn’t do it, Skin & Bones, how are you going to get in?”
Wesley grinned and tapped the leather binding of his Book of Magic. “You forget that wizards and elves like us posses magical knowledge. We can unlock that door where brute strength cannot.”
Muttering, “Must we?” Cordelia let out a long sigh.
Flipping through the pages of the book, Wesley pretended to look for a spell to allow them to pass through the door. “When I have more time I will have to make a study of this book. It is very well made. The spells appear to be combinations of Latin and old English. Quite amusing.”
The delay as Wesley waffled over the book irked Cordelia whose growing impatience was apparent to both of them. “You should let Angel break it down.”
“Destruction of our client’s property isn’t going to garner us any future referrals.” Wesley countered.
Standing around this warm, dark and creepy dungeon was not exactly her idea of fun. The party rooms upstairs might be full of costumed nerds, but that was preferable to lurking around down here. “Hurry it up. The sooner we get in the sooner we can go back upstairs.”
“Be patient. I am searching for the right spell.”
“Stuff your hocus pocus. I want it OPEN.”
No sooner than the word passed her lips than a heavy ka-chunk sounded and the door creaked open. Wesley pointed toward the red glow beyond the door. “Watch out!”
Angel scented the air. People had passed this way, but there was no sign of anyone there now. “There’s nobody there.” He moved forward beyond the threshold of the door.
Shuddering, Cordelia looked around for cameras. “Now I know this place is creepy. All I did was say ‘open’ and voila! There is someone out there watching us. Pushing buttons. Gotta be.”
“Yes,” Wesley agreed with a clipped tone. “Waiting for that magic word.”
Calling out, “I know you’re out there!” Cordelia’s voice echoed into the darkness without response. Turning to tell Wesley that this was just a waste of their time she found him scowling at her. “What?”
“That wasn’t very sporting.”
“Saying the magic word? I didn’t know OPEN was the magic word. It wasn’t even a hard one.”
Wesley slammed his book closed. “Yes. A simple, but effective spell that I was about to cast—with more panache I might add.”
“Don’t be a baby. We’re in.”
When she moved to follow Angel down the corridor, Wesley made a hop to fall into step beside her. Still complaining, “But I’m the wizard.”
“Elf Princesses trump old fart Wizards any day of the week,” she smirked. “Just leave the doors to me.”
Glowering, Wesley muttered, “Magical knockers?”
The pulse of doom gripped him as she whirled to face him, fury blazing in her eyes, lips pinched together tightly. He shrunk back like a bug about to be squashed, realizing with a horrified gasp that he had just spoken aloud. Red-faced and fumbling over an apology, “C-Cordelia—,” Wesley seized up in preparation for his inevitable death. Certain feminine attributes, no matter how creatively displayed, were most definitely unmentionable.
Avoiding her laser-beam glare, Wesley silently appealed to Angel for rescue. He looked at him like he was insane for asking. Nevertheless, he cleared his throat. “Door’s open. Let’s go!”
Cordelia’s eyes narrowed upon Wesley one last time before sweeping past him with a flare of her cape. Her revenge plans had been interrupted and the responsible party was going to hear about it. Joining Angel, she complained, “Are you serious? I was about to shrink his manly parts to the size of peanuts—and I don’t even need a spell for that.”
The caverns wound around upon themselves creating a maze of stone corridors. Cordelia followed along behind Angel as he took great interest in exploring every nook and cranny. He paused as they reached a diverging path looking in one direction and then the other, brow furrowing.
“Are we lost?”
Cordelia had never known Angel to get lost. He could navigate across Los Angeles above or below ground without losing his way. She hadn’t exactly been paying much attention. Not with the unobstructed view of Angel’s butt in those snug leather pants.
“No, I can follow our trail back when we’re ready,” he said confidently. “Though it might take a while. This maze probably leads to an exit or the way back to the elevator.”
“I was ready ten minutes ago.” So far, they had not found anyone in the tunnels. “If there’s a party down here David hid it well.”
“Perhaps finding it is part of the challenge,” Wesley spoke up for the first time since his gaff back at the dungeon entrance. “The guard mentioned a monster. No doubt we are supposed to vanquish it.”
Cordelia fell into step behind Angel again. “Is it too much to hope that we can vanquish it before I die of boredom?”
Drawing sword from scabbard with a quick motion, he pointed its tip toward a narrow passage of natural limestone. The grid of cut stone continued onward, but Angel took the slightly slippery trail of jagged rock, the torchlight gleaming off the uneven walls.
“There’s something down here,” the mysterious gravel tone to his voice caused a shiver to crawl along her skin. Cordelia knew that his vampire senses were picking something up. “I can hear it… breathing.”
“Surely there are no real demons around.” Wesley did not want to spoil Angel’s fun since that was a rare thing, but neither did he want him to skewer an unsuspecting actor paid to play the role of a dungeon monster.
Since Angel was convinced that there was something up ahead they were inclined to believe him. Cordelia watched him moving ahead of them, checking for danger, sniffing the air, as if he was hunting something real.
“You realize that we’re the only ones down here for you to save.”
Angel just grinned at her over his shoulder. “Now who’s sucking all of the fun out of the party? There’s a monster to kill.”
Mildly amused, Cordelia had to give him some kudos for turning that one around to bite her. “Fine. You keep doing what you’re doing and so will I.” Her eyes strayed back down to the flexing gluts beneath the tight leather. “Um, looking for the way out.”
The torchlight spread out in a flickering red glow across the sand-colored stone. It chased back the shadows a few feet in front of them keeping the darkness at bay. A rustling sound caused them to pause.
“What was that?” Cordelia huddled closer to Angel as he lifted the torch higher giving them another foot or two of visibility.
The torch’s glow lit the way, but interfered with Angel’s vampire vision making it too bright to peer into the darkness beyond the shadows.
They all heard it this time.
A labored sound, muffled and unidentifiable.
Air moving heavily.
“That must be our monster,” Wesley eagerly peered over Angel’s other shoulder trying to get a glimpse of it.
The darkness shifted with movement barely detectable to their eyes. They moved forward together and at their first step something crunched beneath their feet.
Pine needles and stripped tree branches.
It was a nest.
From the deepest black, a pair of eyes opened gleaming yellow and green. A horrible roar sounded causing the ground cover to shift. Angel brandished his sword in a high arc waiting for the attack. The moment it made a move, he knew everything he needed to know about the beast.
“It’s a machine!”
He watched its crested head rising up toward the ceiling. The elongated neck gave away the fact their monster was a dragon, albeit a small one. The bulk of its body lay in an adjoining corridor where the control mechanisms were hidden.
“Do I scream now or wait for it to attack?” snorted Cordelia. She figured she could give the special effects staff a few tips.
“Take this,” Angel told her while handing her the torch. “I need you to lure it out into the open.”
Cordelia glanced doubtfully at the mechanical monster again. Hello, it was just a hunk of very expensive junk. “What if it’s immune to my charms?”
Angel half-mumbled, “Not a chance,” keeping his eyes focused on their foe.
Maybe he had hit his head on a stalactite because it sure sounded like Angel was going to let this entire game scenario play out. Even Wesley looked certifiable as he flipped through pages in the Book of Magic.
“You two hold it off whilst I find an appropriate spell.” Wesley’s head shot up to sternly say, “And, Cordelia, let me do it this time.”
With a disgruntled sigh, Cordelia plodded up to the mechanical beast reluctantly playing along. She waved the torch around to get its attention. Just like the door, she knew that there had to be someone real pulling the strings.
“Delectable elf princess here,” she said with a singsong. “Good for a nice snack.”
Wesley finally found something in the Book of Magic that worked for him. It didn’t sound like Latin. Wesley the Wonderful Wizard was probably pretending to be all magical and cool by giving the words that extra zing. The contents of that book could have been a translation of David Nabbit’s favorite recipe as far as Cordelia knew.
Something went horribly wrong. She felt it the moment Wesley finished his incantation.
The air felt thick, hot, permeated with energy. Quickly turning to look at Wes, she saw a bluish aura surrounding him.
Before she could call out his name, his eyes went wide, realizing then that whatever he had said involved a real spell. Mystical light channeled through his body rapidly pulsing outward.
The beast roared loudly.
It’s mechanical body swayed dangerously close to Cordelia who shrieked as the wave from the energy blast hit. One of the larger branches rolled beneath her feet as she tried to catch her balance sending her tumbling down onto a layer of pine needles. The heavy torch fell from her hand crashing down into the dry ground cover and setting it ablaze.
Angel stumbled back a few steps, but was still on his feet when he saw her hit the floor. Alarm jarred his senses. “Cordelia!”
She wasn't moving.
He felt his legs going numb with each step forward as he rushed to save her from the spreading fire. Every inch was a struggle, his head dizzy, his eyesight blurring, but he was determined to reach her.
The flames caught the edge of her cloak on fire.
Pure fear—of not getting there, of losing her—gave way to rage. It clawed its way to the surface taking Angel’s human visage with it. Feeling a fraction stronger he leapt across the flickering wall of fire dividing them.
Desperation echoed in his ears as he ripped the burning cloak away. Cradling her cheek in his hand as he tried to focus on her face, Angel felt a moment of self-doubt. What if he could not save her? Using every last ounce of strength and coordination he possessed to gather her into his arms, Angel pulled her close and turned away from the blazing fire just as the world started to white out.
One step forward and he was able to shake off the grip of unconsciousness long enough to take another.
Two steps and he could no longer feel the fire licking at his heels.
Three and the ground came up to meet them.
It skittered in the darkness. Pitter-patter. A tiny sound barely detectable, but Angel heard it, focusing on that distant noise as consciousness returned, as it got louder, closer.
A warm body draped across his. Cordelia. He knew her instantly even before he was fully conscious, her breathing slow and even. The satisfaction of saving her unwound itself in his mind enticing him to awaken. Vocah had put her through so much; he could not stand the thought of something else harming her.
Angel opened his eyes. Something had changed. He felt it in his bones. Smelled it. The world around them was different, no longer a construct of artificial stone. Dank earth, vegetation, and an unfamiliar stench permeated the air.
He sensed no immediate danger except for the consistent pitter-pat skittering their way. Time enough to take care of Cordelia and to check on Wesley. He recalled seeing Wes standing at the edge of the nest pretending to cast a spell against their mechanical foe. That’s when something had gone wrong.
The magic turned out to be real.
His hands shifted to support Cordelia’s head and back as he moved her into a supine position beside him. Still unconscious, her lashes brushed her cheeks, her face soft and serene. This was the quietest he had ever seen her.
Lying beside her, Angel tried to waken her by softly patting her cheek, but nothing happened. He assumed whatever knocked them out might affect a human a lot longer than it did a vampire. It was time to let her go for the moment. The skittering sound was getting close now. It was almost upon them.
Pitter-pat, pitter-pitter-pat, pitter-pat.
Footsteps oddly spaced. Someone small.
Angel raised his head to peer into the darkened tunnel ahead. The mechanical beast was nowhere to be seen. An empty corridor stretched out in front of them leading up and out of the caverns. With the light behind him, he was able to focus his vision on the outline of something very small moving in the dark.
Leaving the warmth of Cordelia’s side, he rolled into a crouched position intentionally staying low to the ground to keep his silhouette from standing out against the light. He kept his eyes on the figure ahead.
At first, he thought it was a child. No more than three feet in height, he wore leather and a bright purple cape. Bare feet far too large for the small body accounted for the unusual gait he had heard. The little creature stepped into the light of the chamber. Feeling alarmed, Angel’s eyes widened with recognition of the unmistakable face. This confirmed his fears. Wesley’s spell had gone terribly wrong.
Just to prove he was not seeing things, Angel asked his identity. “David Nabbit?”
“No, no, you have it backwards. Divad Tibban at your service,” said the half-sized being with David’s face.
Unsettled by the odd sight, Angel slowly realized that he was looking at a Halfling. It was not just their surroundings that had changed, but the people, too. A sense of dread curdled in his belly. He looked back at Cordelia with alarm realizing her scent was no longer human. The light floral perfume that she had sprayed on her skin now seemed to blend with the familiar essence he knew to belong to her. Her body had changed too. Those silicone ear tips were real, he saw at a glance. The rest of the changes were far subtler.
Even in the dimly lit cave, her skin seemed iridescent, glittering naturally in a way that made him rub softly at one spot to see if it would come off. The sheen on her lips made him wonder if she would taste different, too. He leaned closer, thinking about sliding his mouth across hers just to find out, just as an experiment, nothing more. Angel felt her breath whisper across his thumb for an instant before moving away leaving his curiosity unsatisfied.
He checked on Wesley and found him to be in a similar condition, unconscious, but okay. Wesley had better hope Cordelia did not notice the permanence of those elf ears before he found a way to fix things.
The tiny barefoot version of David Nabbit tugged on his pant leg to gain his attention. Urgency sounded in his words. “We must awaken our friends before Caeruleus returns.”
Divad nodded. “He is young. Something caused him to flee the caverns and take flight. I knew this was your only chance of escape. Come, come we must hurry!”
There was not a damn thing Angel could do about rousing Cordelia and Wesley. Time itself was their only cure, but he wondered just how much time they needed. Carrying them out at the same time did not seem manageable, nor would he leave one behind in the depths of the cavern with only a Halfling as a safeguard against a dragon attack.
One at a time, Angel brought them back to the narrow formation between the stone corridors knowing the dragon couldn’t physically squeeze in. “They should be safe here until I can deal with the dragon,” he said, unsheathing his sword again.
“That won’t save you from Caeruleus’ foul breath,” Divad warned him. “It is poison to any who encounter it.”
“I’ll take that chance.” Angel instructed Divad to wait with them while he went back to the tunnel entrance.
If the dragon returned he planned to take it out before it became a threat to the others.
Ten minutes passed by while Angel explored the passage leading toward the surface. There was no sign of the dragon. He wondered if this was the only entrance. It was that thought that brought him back down to the chamber below in time to hear Cordelia let out a bloodcurdling shriek.
Sword in hand Angel bolted through the tunnel as fast as he could. Even if the dragon had not heard that scream chances were that any other creatures living in these caverns did.
Another, lower cry sounded from Wesley moments later, but it was followed by a tiny voice that explained it all. “Hello, my friends. Divad Tibban at your service as always. We must flee before the dragon returns.”
Angel arrived just in time to see Cordelia reach out to yank Wesley’s fake beard as she lay the blame squarely on his shoulders. “You did this, didn’t you?”
“OW! Don’t tug on my beard. That…that feels surprisingly attached to my face!” His jaw dropping, Wesley gave it a few experimental tugs. “It won’t come off. Oh, dear God! Do you know what this means?”
Cordelia’s hands flew up to her ears quickly discovering their sensitivity all the way to the tips. “The words ‘I’m gonna strangle you with that beard’ come to mind. How did you do this? Where’s Angel?”
“I’m right here.”
He could see the relief on her face. It was the same thing he felt at seeing her awake and unharmed.
“This Book of Magic appears to have real power.” Wesley took it from Divad who had carried it from the main chamber. “The manuscript is copied, but the contents must be genuine.”
“So say what you said before and fix this.”
Wesley cautioned her, “I’m afraid it’s not that simple, Cordelia.”
Opening the book to the section where he had found the spell, he scanned the text. “These words! I recognize some of them now. If only I had the proper references I could be certain.”
Putting a hold on further conjecture, Angel told them, “Our first priority has to be to get out of this dungeon.”
There was no further hesitation. They followed him out of the narrow fissure and into the main tunnel. Cordelia kept looking back at David Nabbit who was scurrying along just to keep up.
“I don’t suppose this nightmare has an off switch.”
The Halfling guided them out of the tunnels. He told them of a small village on the other side of the woods. “The inn is near. We can find food and a room for the night.”
Wesley liked the idea. “I need time to study and a quiet place to do it.”
Divad shook his head. “Always the studying. Greybeard knows no merriment, or rest. I would not want to be a wizard.”
He hopped along keeping pace with her. She wondered, “How come you don’t remember who you are?”
“I am Divad Tibban,” he said, quirking his head questioningly.
Cordelia rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I got that. So who do you think I am?”
A cherubic little smile rounded out his cheeks, “Princess Cordelia of the sunny dale,” as if she was a favorite topic.
Divad nodded dreamily. “An idyllic spot near the mountains full of forests and rivers—and elves.”
Idyllic was not a word she associated with Hellmouth central. “This little fantasy world sounds perfect—except for the big, freakin’ dragon.”
“No world is perfect, princess,” he said with all seriousness. “There are monsters aplenty among the dales, but there is much to be seen.”
“Y’know, this isn’t the most touristy spot. I think I prefer home.”
Divad chuckled. “Keep that to yourself, Princess. Lord Angel will be vexed. He did not want you to come on this journey.”
Yikes! That sounded familiar. “So what’s their story?”
“Greybeard and Angel?” Another perplexed look appeared. “They protect you. They will not rest until their mission is complete. It is a long journey and they are to convey you safely home.”
“So you’re saying I’m the Damsel in Distress?” Cordelia’s mouth curled up in disgust, commenting sarcastically, “Terrific. Not. What’s your part of this mission?”
Divad skipped beside her. “I am your friend.”
Unlike the empty tunnel system, the village was full of people they recognized from the party, both guests and employees, except now they had become what their costumes designated them to be. Adventurers, clerics, and medieval commoners: everyone was in full character mode.
No one remembered the real world.
Wesley explained their intact memories as close proximity to the event. “This could all be part of a mass hallucination.”
“So we could just snap out of this in a couple of hours?” Cordelia asked with more doubt than hope in her voice.
The details revealed by his preternatural senses led Angel to believe that this place was completely real. It could not be an illusion. Though, he had to admit, this could be any village pulled from a long ago memory, minus the dragon.
Wesley had other theories that were even more unsettling than a mere hallucination. “Alternatively, we could’ve been physically transported to another dimension where the game is quite real. Perhaps our own reality changed.”
All Angel wanted to know was: “Can the spell be reversed?”
A nervous gulp suggested that Wesley was not certain. “Perhaps I should start reading along the way.”
Cordelia quipped, “Ya think?”
At the Sign of the Prancing Pony they rented the last available room. The common room was full of noisy customers drinking ale and talking about the latest dragon sighting or the new visitors in town.
Though he did not like the way everyone was staring at Cordelia, Angel’s first priority was getting Wesley settled for the rest of the evening. There was no way he could concentrate on research in this hullabaloo. What he needed was some peace and quiet.
“Go on upstairs. The innkeeper can send up a meal. I’ll see what I can find out about the dragon.”
Wesley warned him that the odds of failure were high. “Without the proper references I cannot guarantee accurate translations. This book is a hodgepodge of several sources with different root languages.”
“You can do it!” Cordelia gave Wesley a big smile and a pep talk while simultaneously shooing him towards the stairs.
Angel knew how complex magical spells could be. Though he had grown more confident of Wesley’s translation ability, he was not infallible even under ideal circumstances when he had all of his resources at hand.
“Do your best. That’s all we can ask.”
With a determined nod, Wesley headed up to their rented room. Once he disappeared around the corner, Cordelia turned to Angel muttering, “We are so screwed.”
They took a table near the back wall. Angel leaned against it, one booted foot resting on the end of the bench. From there, he had a view of the whole room and his gaze flicked from one person to another in the crowd. Wary of trouble, watching for anything out of the ordinary, his attention remained divided between the inn and the world beyond.
The security guard back at David Nabbit’s mansion had mentioned that a monster from the tunnels was harassing the villages. It was possible that the dragon would bring the hunt to them.
The innkeeper, a rotund bald man with a curling grey moustache, arrived with a plate of meat, bread and cheese setting them on the table in front of Cordelia and Divad. He also provided a bottle of wine and three smooth wooden cups.
Angel asked him about the dragon wanting details about its abilities and weaknesses.
“Is that why you’re here, an adventurer looking for treasure?” The innkeeper dipped his head making his heavy jowls double up. A woeful warning followed, “Caeruleus will be the death of you.”
“I’m hard to kill.”
“So is the dragon. Other warriors have entered the mountain only to be devoured.”
“Angel is not like those other warriors,” Cordelia said confidently. “He’s killed demons way tougher than some scaly lizard. That dragon is as good as dead.”
Although grateful for the endorsement, Angel was not certain that he wanted the whole village depending upon him to kill a dragon. Going after the creature might not be as simple as walking into the tunnels with his sword. Although inwardly, he had to admit he was intrigued. After all, what were the odds of ever fighting a dragon again?
Assuming that doing so was even necessary, he figured. With any luck, Wesley might emerge from his studies with the answer to their problems easily reversing the spell. Then again, considering the kind of luck that got them here in the first place, it seemed more likely that everyone in the village would be eaten before that happened.
“I know little that will help you on your quest. Caeruleus came here nearly ten years ago and built his lair in the deepest dungeon of the old castle ruins. The tunnels once used to travel to the elfin lands beyond the mountain are now overrun with bugbears, orcs and other creatures summoned to his bidding. He hunts in the wildwood near our village and when the hunting there is scarce to be found he turns upon us.”
Cordelia picked at the half loaf of bread pulling off tiny bites as she listened. Back in the dungeon, she had not gotten a good look at the mechanical dragon rigged up for David Nabbit’s amusement. “What’s this dragon look like? Are we talking traditional Puff green, Chinese red, or Barney purple?”
Since Cordelia was making more progress with her questions, Angel kept a tight reign on his desire to pluck out the innkeeper’s wandering eyeballs. From the moment he stepped up to their table, his gaze kept straying down to her cleavage. He felt fairly certain that it was not the amulet that held his interest.
Judging by its name, Angel guessed that Caeruleus was a blue or green dragon. He had read about dragons in a historical context, but this world wasn’t strictly based on Earthly legends. It was in part pure fantasy game. They needed to glean all possible details from the innkeeper. Hopefully, Wesley knew enough to fill in the rest.
“Caeruleus’ scales, crests and wings are the color of the spring leaves. His underbelly is saffron yellow. The eyes—they are like emeralds—cold and merciless.”
Angel found that particular detail interesting. “You’ve looked the dragon in the eye and lived to tell?”
He hung his head in shame. “Only because he came for one of the cows. I saw his fangs dripping red with blood as he tore flesh from bone. Then he turned that evil stare upon me and asked if I wanted to be next. I ran.”
Trying to tune out the mention of fangs and dripping blood, swallowing down his salivary response, Angel realized he had said the dragon could speak. “It talked to you? So, it’s not just a monster. It has intelligence.” Definitely something to tell Wesley.
Talking dragons. Chock that up as something new.
The innkeeper confirmed it. He could offer them no other information, only one final warning. “Think again, friend, before pursuing Caeruleus. It will be your doom.”
Angel kept his eye on him as he walked away. He was stopped by a rowdy bunch of drunkards who had been staring at Cordelia ever since she had walked into the inn. Their whistles and catcalls were annoying, but harmless. He could smell the stench of too much ale on them from across the room.
He felt Cordelia’s soft hand curl around his wrist. “Will you sit down? Stop glaring at everyone. They’ll think you don’t like their little inn.”
“The inn is fine. It’s the locals I have a problem with.” Angel sat down on the bench next to her, but moved into position facing the crowd.
“You’re worried they might come after you with pitchforks?”
Divad interrupted with a loud belch, “Why would they do that, Princess?”
“Nothing to worry your little head over.” Smiling, she poured the three of them some wine. “Divad, just in case I’m stuck in this princess routine forever, why don’t you tell me more about me?”
Angel barely touched his wine wanting to keep a clear head. He listened as Cordelia inundated their Halfling companion with endless questions about her imaginary life as an elf princess. Divad was full of stories. Unfortunately, they drew the attention of the young wastrels nearby. One of them left his chair and wandered closer. Angel sat unmoving in the shadows watching as he drew near. Another followed and a third.
The trio gathered together at the perfect angle to admire Cordelia’s rear view, which in this case was nearly literal. The thong beneath the diaphanous fabric concealed nothing when she was seated. Other than the horizontal fold of fabric that wound around to her breasts and the soft fan of silky hair it was almost as if she was naked.
Knowing that any comment he made directly to her would come back to bite him, Angel kept it to himself. There was nothing he could do about her clothes since that was all she had at the moment.
Part of him really wanted one of them to make a move, to say something he could use as an excuse to rip out their wagging tongues and break their scrawny necks. He waited patiently, knowing exactly where their heads were, having been there far too often once upon a time.
They had been crude all night, making elf jokes, undressing her with their eyes, but they finally made the one mistake he was not going to let go. They said something foul within earshot of Cordelia.
It was a base comment that immediately caught her attention. Normally, Angel would enjoy watching as Cordelia verbally ripped them to shreds. Not tonight. He had enough of those three. As drunk as they were all it took to get them to fight was to stand up. Angel was not out to kill them. It was not even about teaching them a lesson they might not remember come morning.
There was a fight brewing inside him. He did not know what it was about. Maybe it was just this place, or the fact that he had not eaten anything since breakfast, or conflicted feelings about Cordelia causing it. There were a whole slew of maybes to blame.
Didn’t matter why, Angel decided as he felt the first punch connect. The pain arced from his jaw to his neck making him twist his head. He grinned as he turn back just in time to block a second blow. Three against one was not a fair fight—certainly not for them. He took out two by lifting them up at the same time and throwing them onto nearby tables.
“Angel, are you insane?”
He heard the question, but was a little too busy to respond. Wine bottles and cups of ale went sailing. A table leg broke under the sudden weight and toppled everything else. The two men lay unconscious, one on the floor, and the other on top of the other table.
“You bastard!” The third one grabbed a broken bottle from the floor.
“Stop this! Angel!” Cordelia’s anger was surprisingly directed at him. “These people are from the party. You’re beating the crap out of David’s guests!”
The last man did not seem to care that Cordelia had intervened on his behalf. He rushed at Angel only to receive a hard punch to the jaw that knocked him out instantly sending him crashing to the floor.
While Cordelia was pacing back and forth haranguing him for his behavior at what was still technically the party of an important client, Angel apologized to the innkeeper. The man waved it off as inconsequential. Fights were a daily routine and the destruction of property was an underrated event in these parts as long as someone paid the bill.
Divad tugged sharply on the tall man’s pants leg until he looked down at him. “I’m the money! All negotiations go through me.”
He broke out a sack of coins from his vest pocket.
Angel crouched down give Divad one further set of instructions. The two walked off toward the kitchen and he turned back to face Cordelia who immediately demanded, “What the hell was that all about?”
Angel shrugged thinking it was obvious. “You heard them.”
“They were drunk.”
“They shouldn’t have kept their mouths shut.”
Cordelia scoffed and rolled her eyes. “What do I care about some deluded elf fantasy?”
If they stayed here long enough she would have to start caring about it.
“This is no time to pick fights,” she censured him and started to check out his injuries one by one. Soft fingers slid over his skin leaving warmth trailing behind. Angel held perfectly still soaking up the sensations.
There were a few mild bruises scattered around his face and raw knuckles on one hand, but they did not amount to much. He did not feel like fighting anymore, especially with her, not when his gaze kept straying to her lips, or to curves that he itched to explore, and that crass comment left some startlingly vivid images filing his head.
What he wanted…the direction his thoughts were taking him…Angel blamed this place, the fight, Cordelia’s skimpy costume, and his own misplaced desires. Not the demonic ones he curbed every day, but the all too human need for connection.
“I think it’s time you went upstairs.”
An obstinate tilt to her chin served as a warning. “You’re sending me to bed?”
That was not exactly what he meant. Angel planned to patrol the village and do a quick sweep of the woods before sunrise. He did his best to explain his rationale knowing it was not safe for her to be down here on her own.
“Oh. Okay, then. Just be careful out there. It’s not exactly L.A.”
He had been back for nearly half an hour when Cordelia stirred from her sleep to find Angel staring out the window. Having removed the arm braces, heavy vest, and boots, he stood barefoot on the hardwood floor garbed only in those snug leather pants. Her pulse kicked up a notch at the drool-worthy sight.
A sleepy smile curved across her face as she watched him for a few indulgent moments. Angel was gorgeous. Those shoulders were a mile wide, the muscles in his back strong and sleek flexing and stretching as he held back the makeshift curtain. The leather pants were definitely not his usual style, but they clung to him in ways that made it difficult not to stare.
Even though they were living together at her apartment, and the eye-candy was freely available, she had never really taken advantage of it. What would be the point? Sure, she had watched him go through his Tai Chi moves in the living room, but that was only because she was thinking about needing a new workout routine. She was so used to patching up his gaping wounds that seeing him without his shirt on should seem routine. He was not exactly big on modesty having a tendency to walk around in his boxers and robe, but Cordelia could not afford to think about how good he looked because all that salty goodness was off limits.
Being here in this strange world did not change that. Shoving forbidden thoughts aside, she looked past the surface and noted the tension in those shoulders, and realized that he was still standing watch. With his dark eyes fixed on the sky, Angel still managed to notice she was awake. He heard the little catch in her breath, the beat of her heart, and the subtle shift of her skin against the sheets.
“Go back to sleep.”
Intended as advice, his words sounded more like a gruff command. Naturally, she did not listen. “Don’t you think you should get some rest, too? I know the sun’s not up yet, but you should at least relax a little.”
Not likely. Not until they got out of this. “I don’t need it. Not for a while.”
There were only the two beds and four of them sharing a single room. Did she honestly think rest and relaxation was possible spooning next to her for the remaining hours of the night? He need not look any further for proof that Cordelia remained clueless about his changing feelings. It was not just a matter of being from two different worlds, vampire and human, of not recognizing love, because his heart knew that sensation all too well, and ached at its denial, but the real threat of losing his soul was not something to be ignored.
Cordelia did not love him. Not romantically. How could she considering that she saw him for what he was and could be? Sometimes her sensual response to him seemed crystal clear, a remnant of her old crush, a chemical reaction that simply existed needing no other catalyst to spark the sudden flare of heat between them. A contrast of mixed messages, she said things in that raw, tactless way of hers, designed to make him keep his distance, and yet she conveyed so much more through her touch. He wanted more. He wanted her. Every day that need felt more necessary, and less like something he simply fantasized about because it was convenient.
Yes, she was the same pain in the ass who had flippantly called him a eunuch on more than one occasion. Being denied the pleasure of sex certainly did not mean that he did not crave it. Lust he could control. He had an outlet for that—meditation, not only the skilled grip of his own hand. Thankfully, that basic release had not been denied him. No matter how detailed his fantasies, he knew they were not real.
What constituted perfect bliss? He had thought about the intricacies a million times since leaving Sunnydale. Sex seemed to be only part of the equation. Feelings, too, played a major role. Being so absorbed by love that it pushed everything demonic away, allowing him to lose that part of himself completely. Bliss freed his soul and afterward the only part that remained was Angelus.
For all the anger and disgust Angel felt at his own vampirism, he knew that the nature of his needs and desires went beyond raw human lust. Yes, he wanted Cordelia. He loved her, but was he in love, too? Closer now than ever before, Angel felt tied to her in ways that were difficult to define or explain. Whether it was an odd turn of fate or some kind of manipulation by the PTB that brought her back into his world, he only wanted to pull those knots tighter making them unbreakable. Having almost lost her during Vocah’s attack made him see that Cordelia was vital to any hope he held for the future.
Devoid of emotional ties, he lately figured, he could probably screw anyone else in Los Angeles without risking consequences. Not her, though. Cordelia only needed to smile to soften his heart. The depths of his need disturbed him, but it could not be love. Could it? Not that kind of love because this felt new. It was just their friendship muddled up by attraction and loneliness, or a hundred other denials that he used to justify feelings he thought were reserved for someone else.
“Stop brooding and come to bed.” Cordelia slung the sheet aside and patted the empty spot on the mattress beside her.
No doubt, it was more of a simple statement than an invitation, and innocently meant, but Angel found it rousing. Anything she said had that carnal effect, lately, making his gut clench hotly and catapulting his vivid imagination into action. The white nightgown borrowed from the innkeeper’s daughter only fed the flames that much further, hiding her beautiful body away from view unlike the elf costume that showed everything. One small movement caused it to slip down revealing the bare curve of her shoulder teasing him with the promise of more.
An otherworldly shimmer danced in the moonlight caressing her smooth skin. His eyes lingered there longer than necessary knowing that she was watching him as he stared down at her. The cascade of sleep-tossed hair clung to her throat temptingly hiding and revealing the spot he wanted to claim as his own. A need to lick her there, to press his lips to her pulse, suck on it, nibble, and sink his fangs in deep, demanded action.
Reeling back, he turned to look for an alternative means of avoiding her bed. There was the door. He could leave, go downstairs to the tavern, and try not to start another bar fight. The floor was another option being as hard and unyielding as his resolve required him to be. Only Cordelia would think him a fool for opting for the cold, dirty floor instead of a warm bed, and no doubt demand an explanation he was not ready to provide.
He looked to the other side of the room. Wesley was sprawled out across the narrow bed along other wall snoring resonantly as he lay at an odd angle. Having fallen asleep while studying, he was stretched out with the open book still next to him. Their dinner platter took up one corner of the bed. Divad lay curled up in a chair with a large pillow serving as his mattress, his dirty bare feet sticking up over the arm of the chair.
No room over there, either.
“What’s up with you?” Cordelia asked stifling a yawn.
Angel hurriedly voiced his denial, “Nothing!” earning him an odd look.
“You’re jumpy.” Cordelia narrowed her gaze trying to diagnose his mood. “Did you grab something to eat while you were out?”
No subject was sacrosanct around her. Angel answered glibly, “One of the barmaids.”
“Now I know something’s wrong,” she said after a short little pause. “Joking about your food or biting barmaids is not like you.”
The mattress springs squeaked as Cordelia moved to her knees scooting forward to grab his arm. “You’re not fine.” Turning him around to face her, she inspected him head to toe looking for concealed injuries. “I know you, Angel. Something is going on and you’re trying to hide it from me.”
He sounded off with a warning not to push him any further, “Cord—” but could not get a word in before she interrupted.
“You’re upset about something. What’s on your mind?”
The truth popped out like an angry Jack-in-the-Box, “My fangs and your throat!” leaving them both slack-jawed.
Cordelia blinked slowly taking it as confirmation of her suspicions rather than a threat. “So, I was right. You are hungry. Is there a local butcher shop? We could get take out.”
“This is a farming village. I doubt that the local butcher keeps vats of fresh animal blood around for visiting vampires.”
“That’s problematic,” she grumbled, sounding as if she was about to take her complaint to the local magistrate. Worried by more than just the lack of convenience, she pointed out the obvious, “You’ll need to eat, too.”
At least the topic had distracted her from the real reason for his jumpiness. He touched her face running his thumb across the arc of her cheekbone. Reassuring her, “We’ll get out of this before then. I can go a few days without it.”
Cordelia pulled away from his caress not falling for his attempt to placate her. With a defiant plop, she sat down on the mattress again causing a brief squeak as she settled. Facing him, back to the wall, she wrapped her arms around her bent knees managing to look sexy, adorable and defiant all at the same time. The oversized nightgown flared out around her leaving only her toes peaking out beneath the hem.
He took a step closer so that his knees butted up against the edge of the bed. Cordelia reminded him, “What if Wesley can’t find a spell to get us home? You’ll end up fighting that monster the next time it attacks the village. A starving vampire going up against a vicious dragon—Las Vegas won’t be taking those odds.”
Angel could not deny what they both knew was the truth. Caeruleus was a real threat to the villagers, and any death in this fantasy realm might be permanent. He could not risk ignoring any attack even if he was not at full strength. Cordelia had a valid point, but feeding was a subject he did not want to talk to her about right now.
Emptiness already stirred inside him. “I’ll deal with it if I have to.”
“Fine. Go hungry.”
Conscious of their sleeping companions, Angel let out a low snarl. “Cordy, unless you’re volunteering, I suggest you drop the subject.”
“No need to be grumpy about it,” Cordelia scolded him without taking any offense. Once again, she patted the spot next to her encouraging him to sit down. “If you refuse to get some sleep, at least come sit with me. We can talk for a while.”
That was not a good idea, either.
This place seemed to put strange thoughts into his head. Inappropriate desires about Cordelia, his seer, his secretary, his friend. Giving her something else to wear, not so overtly sexy, should have gotten his mind out of the gutter. Strangely producing the opposite effect, the sensible white nightgown seemed far more tantalizing than the elf costume. He wanted to slowly unveil the beautiful body he knew lay beneath it, pull her under him, caress every inch, and make her come undone by his possession one hard thrust at a time.
A soft harrumph sounded followed by a little laugh as Cordelia caught him looking again.
“Not exactly Victoria’s Secret, I know.” She told him that the Halfling also bought some daytime attire, which she pointed out was draped over a small table. “At least they’re clean. No self-respecting elf princess would be caught dead in those clothes, but these are special circumstances.”
The peasant blouse and dark red skirt were quite familiar as standard barmaid clothes. Just like he remembered from the times he frequented inns like this one where he’d get drunk, get into a fight just for the hell of it, and sweet talk some pretty lass into raising her skirt for him.
He had beat up those three idiots tonight for having those same types of thoughts. It was just the old memories, Angel decided, stirring up things that had nothing to do with Cordelia. She held out her hand to him, still expecting him to join her on the bed. Angel knew she was not going to let it go. It would just cause another argument that would end up disturbing their friends, and Wesley needed all the rest he could get in order to be clear-minded for more research.
Taking her hand Angel let her pull him down to the mattress. The springs squeaked woefully at his added weight. Divad snarffled and turned onto his side. “We might wake them.”
Cordelia went silent for a minute as she stared at Wesley’s sleeping form. “We’ve been arguing for the past five minutes,” she reminded him. “I doubt the noise from a howler beast would wake them at this point. That’s assuming you could hear it above David’s snoring.”
Angel could smell the fading remnants of roasted turkey. What Wesley had probably picked at while studying, the Halfling had apparently finished off despite having a belly full of bread and cheese. Flashing a grin, Angel reminded her to pronounce the name correctly, “Divad Tibban.”
Smothering her giggles, Cordelia asked, “Why would anyone want to be a Halfling? I mean, if you’re going to pretend to be a fantasy character, why not a big, strong hero type like you? From what I can tell he spends most of his time eating.”
Angel had no answer to that. He did not know anything about Halflings.
“Do you know what David told me?”
That earned him a sharp stab with her elbow. “Stop it! He told me here in this world I’m the princess of a faraway land full of rivers, forests and mountains.”
She made a face, a rattling protest catching in her throat. “Sounds incredibly boring to me. No wonder my character left home and is stuck out here in some village with you three. Where are the clubs, the shopping malls—the awesome getaway vacations that don’t involve a monster trying to kill you? Being an elf princess isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
The little tease stiffened her spine as he poked fun at that sore spot. Angel lifted a finger to trace the pointed flesh enjoying the little shiver that rippled across her flesh only to have his hand slapped away. He enjoyed the sting, too, and the temporary warmth left by her hand, maybe a little too much because it only made him want to touch her again.
“Cute?” She hissed the word as if there were a hundred other descriptions that popped into her head, none of them flattering. “Don’t get me started.”
That one little touch whispered across her skin as softly as a cool breeze. Cordelia knew Angel felt her reaction. She just hoped he did not notice its lingering effects. Trying for a quick distraction, she launched into the few details Wesley had shared with her about his studies.
“That’s less progress that I had hoped,” Angel frowned at the news and glanced over at Wesley whose steady breathing was the only indication that he remained asleep. He had not twitched, rolled over, or let out a random sound. “He’s usually up half the night with his studies.” This hardly seemed like the best time to get some shut-eye.
Cordelia had to agree that Wesley would normally be burning the midnight oil to solve their little problem. “Um, maybe casting that spell took too much out of him.”
Shifting around so she sat facing him, Cordelia leaned on one hip moving her arm across his outstretched legs to rest her hand on the mattress, a pose that looked more relaxed than she felt. “Don’t bother trying to wake him now. He’ll be good to go in the morning, refreshed and ready to put that brain to work.”
Maybe it was the guilty tone creeping into her voice, or the way she had subconsciously trapped him, but Angel was instantly onto her. “What’s going on, Cordy?”
Argh! Why did he have to ask? Confession time. Resigned to the lecture that would no doubt follow, she puffed out her cheeks and looked away long enough to count to five. “Fine. It’s actually my fault that Wes fell asleep.”
Angel’s brow scrunched subtly, but he said nothing to interrupt.
“I might have been experimenting with my amulet.”
The slow drift of his dark eyes followed the path of the delicate chain holding her trinket in place around her neck. It was hidden beneath the neckline of her nightgown. “Magic.”
His tone suggested that she should know better than to try it. “That’s what got us here in the first place, Cordelia.”
“That door opening spell was so easy! Fake, yes, but I figured it could not hurt to tell the amulet to give Wesley what he needed most. Presto! It did.” A resonant snore sounded from across the room just as Cordelia added, “How was I supposed to know that meant a good night’s sleep?”
“Did you try waking him?”
Nodding, she waved off his attempt to get up. “Trust me when I tell you he’s out for the count.”
Concerned, he asked, “Will he wake up on his own?”
Cordelia glanced back at their snoozing friend, “It’s just a nap,” she snipped defensively, “not the hundred year curse of Sleeping Beauty.” So she hoped.
“What about Divad?”
“Not my fault! He zonked out after finishing off Wesley’s pint of ale.” Exactly how a tiny little person like Divad the Halfling could devour all of that bread, cheese, turkey, wine and ale was a mystery. Maybe he had a magically fast metabolism, or several stomachs. Not her biggest concern right now.
Angel did not seem to be angry with her so much as resigned to act on a lamebrain plan of his design. “I have to kill that dragon.”
Looking alarmed, Cordelia shook her head. “Says who?” That might have seemed like a good idea before, but now that Wesley had told her more about the dragon part of this fantasy game she did not want Angel to go anywhere near Caeruleus.
“It’s a threat to the village.”
“So is lack of hygiene.” Quite a few of the locals at the tavern looked a little rough, not to mention smelled as if they had stopped by after a hard day’s work outside. “There are no running showers in this place, or bathtubs. All we get is that little washbasin.” She waved at the ceramic bowl and pitcher in the far corner.
Staying on the subject, Angel claimed it would be better to go on the offensive when the daylight was not an issue. He glanced toward the window where the moon was still clear in the sky. “Tonight, maybe.”
“So soon? No!” When she had shared the innkeeper’s comments about Caeruleus with Wes, he painted an even deadlier picture describing abilities no vampire could survive. “Why fight the dragon when Wesley could wake up tomorrow with all the answers we need to get home?”
“If he wakes up.”
Cordelia felt certain of it even if she did not know why. “He will.”
“That may just delay the inevitable.”
“Just because there’s a big ass dragon out there does not mean you have to fight it. Not like this.”
Angel seemed determined to go through with his plan. “Taking care of it now gives Wes time to fix this situation without worrying about dragon attacks.”
Anxious to talk him out of this plan, Cordelia tried to make him see reason. “Tell me exactly how you plan to kill this thing because I don’t think you’ve got Dragon Slayer listed on your resume.”
“I’ll figure it out.”
“You should talk to Wes, first,” she advised. “Get the lowdown. Dragon details. Powers, strengths, vulnerabilities, stuff you need to know.”
Angel’s reminder carried a sting. “Wesley is asleep.”
“Exactly,” Cordelia smirked as he made her point for her. “Guess that means you’ll have to wait until he wakes up tomorrow. We can plan everything together. Y’know, getting out of this hellhole without being sliced, diced, or eaten.”
“I already have a plan.”
Cordelia rolled her eyes. “One that sucks! I suppose your plan includes sneaking into the castle ruins by yourself, finding the dragon, and figuring out how to kill it before it kills you.”
“Angel, this is not just your fight anymore. If the village needs saving you don’t need to do it alone. We’re a team. I can—”
Interrupting, Angel vowed intently, “You’re not going anywhere near that creature.”
After the whole Vocah thing, the over-protective vibe was not really surprising, although Cordelia was still getting used to it. One of these days he would learn to respect that she could handle herself, and normally it might not be a stretch to agree that a dragon was a little out of her league, but things were different here. Besides, she did not want to let him risk everything when it might be unnecessary, especially because she had convinced him to come to this party in the first place.
“Since when are you the boss of me in this reality?” Cordelia inched even closer poking a finger at his bare chest. “Never. You’re just the hired flunky in this little adventure, Lord Angel,” she snorted the name. “Elves have magic. Rip Van Winkle over there proves it. I think we should just do the whole sleeping curse thing on the dragon so no one has to fight him.”
A smile tugged at his lips, but Cordelia had difficulty deciding if it was one of admiration, amusement, or simple determination. The silence started to grow heavy as she waited for Angel’s response. No quick answer meant that he was mulling over his choices, none of which she was likely to want to hear. His fingertips threaded through her loose hair as he cupped her neck to guide her into his space, thumb caressing a spot just behind her ear as he slowly leaned in to press a soft kiss against her forehead.
That affectionate little peck normally gave her the warm fuzzies being his way to show her she was special to him. Using it to mollify her because he had no intention of taking her idea seriously was just wrong. Besides, those warm fuzzies lit a few firecrackers this time. Hot sparks had no business in this conversation.
“Don’t.” Cordelia snapped scooting away so fast that she moved one step too far. The bed was far too narrow. One knee caught the edge of the flimsy mattress sending her toppling toward the floor. Her arms flailed like topsy-turvy windmills impossibly trying to find her balance.
Despite being distracted by the rejected kiss, Angel reacted instantly by trying to grab her hand. He missed by millimeters when Cordelia’s wild motions took her out of reach. Her eyes widened into saucers. Gravity pulled her down. Angel lunged forward. Before her heart had time to beat again, strong, capable hands caught her at the last possible second, yanking her toward him.
Momentum propelled them backward. A thud and a hard thunk sounded when Angel’s back and head crashed into the wall, with Cordelia’s body sandwiching him against it. A screech sounded as she raised her hands just in time to avoid a similar fate. The rough surface rubbed at her hands and arms. Smashed against her forearm, the delicate tip of her nose was momentarily flattened.
After wriggling her nose and facial muscles around, and judging everything to be okay, an irresistible chuckle welled up inside until she let it go. Making fun of her klutziness and Angel’s lumbering rescue, she quipped, “Graceful much? We’ll have to work on our timing.”
Angel’s muffled answer was a simple, “Ow.”
Reaching down to soothe his sore head, Cordelia quickly realized the reason for Angel’s barely audible voice. His face was mashed up against her left breast, and while that was probably not an issue for him as he tried to nuzzle his way around it, the friction against the natural fibers of her nightgown rubbed her nipple a into sensitive peak. She hoped her perky response would go unnoticed, but quickly realized that was the least of it.
Cordelia sucked in a deep breath, relieved by the rescue, but feeling awkward because of the sudden intimacy of being plastered against his bare chest, nightgown scrunched up, and thighs splayed wide. With her arms pressed against the wall above him, her knees clenched to his sides holding on to him just as he held on to her. One other little issue made it impossible to relax and simply be grateful that he had saved her from a fall.
Giving Angel the benefit of the doubt, she decided not to freak out at him for having his hands on her ass. Even with vampire reflexes, that rescue had to be difficult to manage. Unfortunately, only one of those hands was on the outside of the thin gown. The other had somehow ended up inside it. Angel’s right hand was curved around her bare bottom. Holding her steady, or not, accident or not, that was definitely not okay.
Shock stiffened her spine scattering goosebumps across her skin, surprise quickly taking a back seat to the illicit thrill that made quiver under that cool touch. As if she had been starved of sensation the need to feel his hands on her bloomed hot spiraling to sensitive spots suddenly aching for contact. Angel might a little obtuse about stuff that appealed to the modern woman, like fashion magazines, designer shoes, and Hollywood scandals, but she was damn sure he could tell when one was getting turned on.
Even though he was probably planning to let go any second, Cordelia could not get away fast enough. Palming the wall, she pushed back a little to give him some breathing room even if he did not need the oxygen. She was the one who sounded out of breath gulping for air to demand, “Down! Put me down,” freaking out in spite of her plan for calm.
Angel warned her against moving so fast, but trying to squirm loose only forced him to grope for a better position to prevent her from falling again. Sliding downward along the frame of his body only made matters worse shifting her nightgown around making them both aware of places there were no barriers between them.
A throaty expletive growled against her ear as she landed in his lap only making matters worse. “Jesus, Cordy! Don’t wriggle around.”
Considering she had lost a couple of pounds while in the hospital, his complaint was not about her weight. Nope. Definitely not, she decided, as Angel’s hips instinctively bucked toward the source of friction. If anything was unexpectedly plump around here, it was definitely hanging out in his pants, not hers—not that she was wearing any. Random horniness during a fight was apparently common for vampires, or so he had suggested the other day. Ditto to that. She would take that explanation any day. It made it easier to put things between her and Angel into perspective.
Every instinct begged her to shimmy across the thickening bulge in those leather pants. She throbbed, swollen, hot, and shockingly wet, desperately needing what he could not give her. Burning with an urge she was determined to control, Cordelia knew denial was probably good for her health.
Excuses were not really her style, preferring straight up truth to deflection, but she gave him an out. “Is that because of the bar brawl, or are you just stoked about your dragon hunt?”
Angel did not answer. Not verbally, anyway. Both of them knew the truth even if it was impossible to admit it. Swirling emotions cluttered his darkening gaze pulling Cordelia in deeper. He did not take his eyes off her, just stared hungrily, as if he wanted to devour her lips and anything else within reach. Transfixed, she secretly hoped he would ignore reason and just go for it.
Plans to dive back into her original spot sitting beside him were forgotten because those big hands of his were no longer idle, thumbs making lazy circles, and fingertips kneading against her skin or the thin layer dividing them creating streaks of pleasure. He seemed to be in no hurry to release her making it hard to think of anything except the placement of his hands, or the undeniable yearning deep in his fervent stare that proved she was not alone in her desire.
“Must be the dragon,” she answered for him letting the idea play out. “Bringing a boner into battle—gotta say—distraction, much? Just like you to rush into a fight.”
His left hand coasted up her spine to tangle in the length of her hair as his hips rolled under hers again making her whimper at the contact. “I’m not rushing anything.” The raw tone left her quivering because it sounded like he meant this…them...and not his plans to fight Caeruleus tonight.
No, he was teasing them both, drawing this out, igniting a smoldering flame that had been dancing between them for ages. Patience was not in her vocabulary. She stroked the back of his neck stimulating rather than soothing the tension between them. It was an incoherent little sound that pulled her closer, drawing her mouth to his like a magnet, impossible to resist despite the tingles shooting down her spine whispering reminders of their disastrous first kiss. Cautionary warnings vanished the moment their lips connected fueled by frustration, temptations, and deeply rooted longing she could no longer ignore.
Cordelia kissed him first despite the inevitability of what was to come. Unable to wait for it, she lunged forward pressing her lips over his, feeling their coolness fading fast under hers. Their mouths moved hotly together greedy for more as if trying to make up for lost opportunities all at once. The dart of his tongue teased against her lips, opening her up to him, causing a low moan at the delicious slide of it across hers. She answered back in a frenzied duel of ardent kisses, eager to discover what turned him on.
It might be madness, but she could not resist this. One of them had to put a stop to it soon, but Cordelia needed to claim more of him before that happened. Rational thought could wait. Right now, there was just the two of them—at least on this side of the room. Definitely not something to worry about because she could not think straight when Angel glided his hands across her skin, or kissed her almost reverently in between smoldering clashes.
God, he could kiss. He made her want so much all at once. The feel of him hard beneath her was driving her insane. Her hands were on him, too, creating trails of fire against bare skin, clutching his face as she claimed another kiss, her fingers digging into those broad shoulders leaving little half-moon marks behind, palms sliding across the corded muscles of his back never wanting to release him—until that annoying belt buckle dug into her belly whenever she got close. The damned thing needed to go.
Distracted from her fervent assault on his mouth Cordelia struggled to unbuckle Angel’s belt. Shaking, she fumbled with it, finally reaching back to grab his wrist moving his hand between them. Not where she really wanted it, she acknowledged, but one step at a time. “Take it off,” she urged before pressing a soft peck against his lips. Following up with a little nip on his lower lip, she sucked at the spot, flicked it with her tongue, and was rewarded with a searing kiss and the metallic jangle of his belt as it hit the floor.
A loud snarffle sounded behind them causing them both to freeze in place for a couple seconds as Divad shifted against his pillow again.
Reality closed in on them with suffocating intensity. What were they doing? She stared down at him, eyes wide and pleading for answers, wondering if it was possible to forget the last few minutes. Angel lifted a hand to her face rubbing his thumb across the curve of her bottom lip still swollen from his kisses as if he was memorizing its softness. Silent and contemplative, he traced her jaw curving his touch up to sweep an errant strand of hair away tucking it behind her ear, fingertips lingering there.
Whispering his name was all it took to spur him on, as if he had been waiting for any excuse to continue just a little longer. This time it was soft, teasing, with kisses landing anywhere except her mouth, misdirection that was maddening as he held her eagerness in check. Cordelia let out a frustrated little mewl as her kisses haphazardly landed on his cheek, his throat, anywhere except the smooth plane of his lips.
Two could play at that game, she decided determinedly, wanting to make him feel just as frantic, taking things up a notch by using her teeth again. Going on instinct, she nipped and nibbled her way from ear to ear getting the hint when he lifted his chin and exposed his throat. The sounds he made revved her excitement even higher wanting to hear it again, to have his mouth back on hers, desperate to find some way of satisfying the searing need that kept building up inside her.
Every touch fed the flame and each kiss made her crave more until neither was enough. Cordelia pulled back, breathing hard, fiery determination glinting between them. Angel swooped forward to push his tongue between her lips plunging inside just as his thumb foraged through her trimmed muff of curls to rub and tease at the sensitive skin around her clit. Doing things that set her on fire it was all she could do to hang on to his broad shoulders, and kiss him back, canting her hips toward each rhythmic thumb stroke.
Maybe they could not have everything, but kissing just was not enough. Now that Angel had changed bases, it put ideas in her head that would not go away. She wanted to see and touch, too. Cordelia’s hands descended to the buttons on his pants, popping them open one by one, causing Angel to pause those delicious little rubs.
“Commando, huh?” No boxers tonight, she discovered gleefully, confirming one theory about those tight leather pants. “Maybe…maybe I can—,” Cordelia’s eyes slammed shut as she started to throb under his renewed ministrations. Each little contact made her burn for more.
A warning rumbled low in his throat emerging as a raw moan the moment her fingers dipped beneath his open waistband. That sound lit her on fire making it impossible to do anything except follow the instinct to move. Flexing her hips up just enough to sway across his thickening erection, she pressed back into his hand, repeating the motion by arching up against his chest.
The combination of his thumb and the steady sway across that hard bulge felt so good. “I want to touch you,” she confessed moving her fingers downward another inch. “No need to go fighting any dragons.” A teasing little laugh chortled around for a moment, before temptation turned it into a carnal plea. “Let me take care of this.”
Cordelia Chase did not offer a handy to just anybody, and in Angel’s case it was just as much for her. She needed to touch him. Before her explorations could go further, Angel kissed her again like wildfire, scorching hot and uncontrolled, and she ate it up, ardently responding to him and her escalating needs.
Torn between encouraging her and begging her to stop, Angel pulled her away from his mouth to warn her, “Cor, this doesn’t change anything.”
The reminder stung. It wasn’t a rejection, but Angel did not look happy about the idea of tempting fate. The curse rearing its ugly head as usual. Damned gypsies.
Cordelia knew that she should stop, but could not force her body to do something so contrary to its own needs, not when those big hands kept touching her, slowly sweeping up and down her spine as if repetitive motions would lull her into a state of compliance. Swaying up and down with each stroke of his hands, the slow grind beneath stimulated every nerve. He had to know what he was doing to her, and that was confusing as much as it excited her.
And made it worse. “I know.”
“You’re still not coming.”
Coming? Well, not yet. What they were doing was hot, but she was not quite ready to burst. Catching her bottom lip between her teeth, she slid across his thumb and bulging erection at just the right angle to make her arch into it. “Gimme a minute.”
Distraction techniques that involved touching were unfair tactics, but he seemed to have no compunction about using them on her. She kissed him again enjoying every aspect of it and this dangerous little lap dance when it occurred to her that Angel had been talking about something other than orgasms.
Just above his lips, she asked, “Wha—huh?”
The fingers circling at the small of her back paused abruptly. His potent gaze held hers until she was forced to blink. “You’re not coming with me to fight the dragon.”
What was his deal with the stupid dragon? Despite other priorities, Cordelia stubbornly snapped back, “I am not letting you go on this crazy mission alone. I’ll sit here all night if that’s what it takes.”
Realizing how that sounded, Cordelia’s lips curved into a wicked little smile. “Maybe that was my plan all along.” She leaned in to kiss his lips, softly exploring the shape of his mouth with tiny little smooches. “Keep you here until morning. With me.” Her fingers curled around the thick column of flesh rooted at his groin unlike anything else she had handled before now. Jerking into her grasp, he muttered her name momentarily forcing her eyes back to his. Seeing them nearly black and rimmed with gold, dangerously intent, told her she was playing with fire. “Doing anything you want.”
Angel’s nostrils flared with lust, her words putting an endless stream of his fantasies on instant replay. “Anything?”
Honestly, Cordelia had no idea what might push her limits when it came to sex, and felt certain Angel had none. “Did that sound slutty?” she laughed self-consciously realizing the answer might be obvious since she had her hand down the front of his pants. “I was aiming for sexy.”
“You succeeded,” he assured her swooping in to claim her mouth again in a wolfish kiss. Hungry, commanding, laced with tongue.
Both of them were forced to let go of each other in order to get Angel’s tight pants off, the only downside to that hot leather look as far as Cordelia could tell. They grappled with them for a minute, snarling and giggling throughout, until Angel finally bounded off the bed with her still hanging on. Cordelia squealed at the swift move smothering the sound against his shoulder.
Unwrapping herself from Angel, she stood beside him, lip caught between her teeth as she eyed him head to toe. Hello, hottie! He was magnificent, beautiful in a hunky male way that made her eager to lick every solid inch head to toe. Her heart was hammering with the urge to pounce on him the moment he was naked.
After his pants dropped in a heap on the floor, Angel straightened up, his body lean, muscular, and fully aroused. Cordelia gaped at the sight he presented, suddenly feeling week-kneed and wobbly. No wonder that bulge felt so huge. Because…duh! It did not lie. One, two, three, four… she started a mental count of how many fingers it would take to reach the tip if both hands were wrapped around him concluding she might need more fingers.
Holy shit. How was it possible to want something so much and be intimidated by it at the same time? She could feel herself tensing up. Angel must have noticed because his aggressive stance softened as he held out a hand to her. She slid her palm across his instantly feeling more confident, her eyes back on his.
He wrapped his fingers around hers pulling her closer as his other hand found the curve of her face. “We don’t have to do anything you don’t want.” That was just it. Cordelia wanted everything. “Or we can stop this right now.” His words tasted bitter even as he kissed her. “You deserve better. Not like this. Something perfect. Private. Romantic. A real bed. Soft sheets. Someone who can—”
“Hey! Perfection is overrated,” she quipped trying to downplay the notion with a simple shrug. If that little lie had to be said to move ahead, so be it. Because there was one truth she could not deny, and hopefully, it did not sound like she was begging. “I want you so much, Angel.”
He touched his forehead to hers, seconds ticking away in silence, and then pressed his lips there for a moment before tilting her face toward his. There was a gravelly tone to his voice when he admitted, “I thought you were changing your mind.”
“What about…?” Angel nodded his head toward the snoozing duo on the other side of the room not really wanting to bring them up by name.
Cordelia was honest. “I don’t care.” The freakin’ dragon could do a fly-by of their window and perch on the roof. Nothing could distract her from this.
Eager to get back to the good stuff, she grabbed two handfuls of her nightgown ready to yank it over her head. Angel deserved a little eye candy, too. She was proud of her body and already knew he liked what he had seen of it. She wanted him to see everything she had, let him touch her everywhere, lick everything, and take…
“No.” Angel’s hands whipped out to close around her wrists stopping her progress and jarring her out of her thoughts.
Confused, Cordelia stared at him for a second. “No?” Maybe he was worried about Divad waking up in the middle of it all for a midnight snack and getting an eyeful.
“Leave your gown on.” Angel instructed as he led her back to bed and settled them into the same position with her straddling his lap.
Maybe it was just Angel being old fashioned, but allowing her to retain a little modesty seemed redundant at this point. Pointing that out made him flash a rare smile. “Afraid you’ll see something you like?” she teased. “Let me take it off.”
Angel shook his head. “Not yet.”
Being denied that one little request made her bristle in response to his touch, but that lasted all of five seconds. His kisses were gloriously distracting and his hands were on her again, the gown’s material acting as an added stimulant skimming across her skin. Still, she wanted it off. He flicked at her earlobe, nipped at her neck leaving it red, but unbroken, and savored her mouth, moaning into it as he palmed one breast, his thumb rubbing in concentric circles around its tender peak.
Grabbing his head, she arched toward him needing his mouth there. Angel dragged the flat of his tongue across the nipple poking tautly against her nightgown leaving it wet and practically transparent. The flick of his nail felt like a lightning strike flashing across her nerves. He teased her with his teeth and the soft suction of his mouth through the fabric. She thought she might die if he did not do that again.
Cordelia only had to say, “Please,” if that was even necessary because Angel instantly transferred his hold to give equal attention to its twin.
Distracted, she barely noticed him shifting her higher, making room between them until she felt his knuckles brushing against her inner thigh guiding himself into her beneath the veil of her gown. Clutching at his shoulders, she gasped as he slid inside feeling herself tighten around him. She could feel her own slickness easing his way in, but it was not effortless. His cock felt just as big and solid as it looked, and she was not used to this by any means. His kisses kept her preoccupied, hands guiding her body, rocking with her and letting gravity ease her down his length until finally he was fully sheathed
Opening her eyes, she could see the tension building on Angel’s face as he gave her a moment to adjust to his size. She was almost scared to move because it kind of hurt to be impaled and this felt shockingly like a sexier version of being skewered by rebar. A burst of panic hit quelled by the soothing stroke of his hand. The sheer realization that Angel was inside her felt even more shocking. He caught her little gasp with his mouth easing away her discomfort with a swipe of his tongue. Kissing her languorously, he built her arousal up again until the thrill of it zipped down her spine to the intimate place their bodies joined together.
“Better?” he asked as if he had sensed her jitters all along.
Oh, yeah. Definitely. Her body throbbed in a good way. A primal impetus urged her on making her move. Cordelia thought she would take it slow, savor every inch of him as she stroked up and down and up and down his hard length. Letting her set the pace, he was gentle, and patient, but she could see the subtle tension tightening Angel’s usually stoic expression. The leash holding him back was stretched to a thin thread.
Cordelia stared back hungrily. He looked hot watching her that way as if he wanted to toss her back on the bed and have his very wicked way with her. Hit with a jolt of pure lust, she flashed him a shameless little smile, and increased her tempo. Angel moaned deep in his chest, moving faster to match her pace, thrusting in a harder rhythm in and out of her warmth.
The mattress started to squeak beneath them and the bed creaked woefully as if it was in danger of falling apart, the clamor simply supplementing Cordelia’s ecstatic babble. “Ungh! God. Yeah. Uh, uhm. Angel. Yes! Ungh, ah, ah!” She rode him a little harder making him groan at the tight heat gripping his cock. He gave her the freedom to move, but thrust in countermoves with hard, sure strokes.
Cordelia was seated deep when she came, crying out with it, a sudden burst of pleasure streaking through her body, making her squeeze her eyes shut and arch into it, writhing her hips in a little circle while trying to hold on. Grabbing onto her hips, Angel pumped into her slowly stretching out that delicious feeling and easing through it before bringing her mind-blowing movements to a halt. He pulled her close, breathing hard in a reflexive need to steady his nerves, and running his palms up and down her back to soothe hers.
The wall that held them up vibrated with the pounding of their neighbor’s fist. He yelled a few well-deserved expletives. “Quiet or I will gut you!” Death threats aside, it was kind of funny.
Coming back to her senses, Cordelia stifled a laugh against his throat realizing just how much noise she had been making. She could not help it. Disturbing the grumpy neighbor fell way down on her list of stuff to think about, and even then thinking seemed way too complicated when realizing that Angel was still hard inside her. Just thinking about it made her quiver with want again.
Angel cupped her face, sliding one hand back to cradle her head, fingers tangling almost desperately in her hair as his mouth sought hers again in a provoking, brief kiss that left her a little delirious. “Think you can be quiet?”
He had to be kidding. “Sure, I can,” she lied and felt certain he knew it. The damn bed could crack into kindling before she would put this to a stop. How was it possible to need so much? To want him so much in spite of everything that could happen? There were no answers, only the need for more. “Let’s go again. You didn’t get to finish.”
“Trust me, I know,” Angel said slowly pushing his hips up into hers moving just enough to make her whimper. He gritted his teeth looking determined. “Maybe we should quit now. Before something happens.”
She palmed his face staring down at him with just as much resolve. “No way. That’s not want you want. Here…now...this might be all we get. You want me. Take me.”
Slowly, she started to rock against him, making tiny little movements that caused Angel to half growl her name and nip at her bottom lip.
“Make love to me,” she whispered encouragements against his mouth. Eyes flaring open wide, she realized the implications of those words, quickly altering her plea. “Let’s get it on, Angel. No more teasing. Fuck me.”
A storm of desires and denials brewed in his eyes as if he was sparring with himself. His hands trailed down to her thighs on a wandering path of tantalizing caresses taking hold of both as they flexed with every bounce. Fingers kneaded her supple flesh their circling motions making her antsy with need as the passing seconds led him to his decision. The spiraling tension building up inside her ramped up another notch when Angel took hold of her wrists detaching her hold on him.
No! No, no, no, no! He could not possibly plan on quitting. Distressed, on the verge of panic, Cordelia could not find her voice, rendered speechless at the thought of being separated. It was too soon. Not enough. It might never be enough. The way his body possessed hers, filling her up, making her crazy, and the masterful touch of his hands igniting wild, unrepentant needs made it impossible to give this up so suddenly.
Angel stretched her arms above her head. One big hand locked around her wrists as the other cupped her neck tracing the curve of her jaw with his thumb. Gently touching his lips to hers, he said, “Don’t move.” He pressed a finger to her lips when she started to argue, which only poked at her stubborn streak, but she did as she was told albeit with a baffled expression.
As soon as Angel’s hands released her, she felt them slip down her torso, tracing the curves of her breasts, traveling down the ladder of her ribs to her waist, and flaring out over her hips. Gathering up the folds of the cotton nightgown pooling over their thighs, he swept it off in a single motion and let it flutter to the floor in a billowing mass. After a surprised gasp, Cordelia instinctively crossed her arms over her suddenly bare breasts covering them up despite the all too intimate position they were still in and everything that had happened.
Hiding away from Angel was not something she wanted to do. Not anymore, emotionally or physically. He was watching her again with that deep stare that promised to lay waste to any barriers remaining between them. That was so hot! So was the slow sweep of his thumb rubbing across one hip making her crave its rhythmic friction somewhere else. A salacious smile tugged at the corners of his lips hinting he knew it.
Cordelia’s willful streak made determined to provoke him, too. Moving, she cupped both breasts, filling her palms, sliding her fingertips teasingly across her hardened nipples as she offered herself to him. “Lick me,” she pleaded with a needy little mewl.
Kneeling up caused her to slide higher along his thick cock, the friction delicious for both of them. Angel’s hands covered hers, caressing skin and plumping her breasts before he complied with her wishes. Each flick of his tongue made her toes curl. He knew precisely how to draw out every long lick, teasing her with the soft, wet suction of his mouth, and the gentle tug of his teeth. He played with her for a while with his mouth at her breasts, lodged deep, rocking them together slowly.
Far too slowly because this pace, as mind-numbing as it was to feel him filling her up, the urge to throw him against the wall and ride him like a bucking bronco was making her muscles twitch. Maybe she would. Cordelia palmed his shoulders and pushed hard nudging him far enough to draw his attention. He raised his eyes to her, darkly intent and brimming with passion, she knew he was holding back for her sake.
It was hard to reason with his need to keep her safe protecting herself from his vampire nature. His supernatural strength, reflexes, aggressive instincts deeply ingrained in his being were controlled by threadbare restraint. “I’m not that fragile,” she promised him recalling the word he had used during yesterday’s argument. “I won’t break.”
“Cordy, you know what I am.” Angel started out to warn her about something she was certain that she did not want to hear right now. Lectures against letting a vampire into her bed, even if he was the man she admired most, wanted more, and fantasized about more than any other, probably ought to be considered fair warning, especially coming from him.
“My broody, culturally retarded, prone to turning evil, roomie? Kinda hard to forget.”
All of Angel’s worries were etched on his handsome face, which only made her want to ease his fears. It was not just the threat of Angelus looming over them if tonight proved to be too blissful despite the imperfect circumstances. He was still a vampire, and there was a line he did not want to cross. “I trust you. I want you. I love…what you do to me,” Cordelia said with a hitch being as honest as she could, “even if that comes with a few kinks.”
Whether it was the trust placed in him, confessing her desires, or openness about taking risks to be with him, she could see the last shreds of doubt fading away. Angel looked like he had a thousand things to say in response, but either could not find the words or needed to withhold them. His eyes were dark, full of emotion, but still conflicted as he gazed possessively into her eyes, as if her words had just promised him dominion over more than just her body. Despite her independent streak, that look, the thought of being his for more than just this one night, made her hot.
Trembling at the power of that stare, Cordelia told him, “I don’t need to pretend you’re someone you’re not. No more distractions, Angel. Don’t make me wait anymore.”
Unwelcome distractions were on his mind, too, as he became sidetracked when tracing his fingers down her throat only to get annoyed by the golden chain holding her amulet. It kept getting in the way of his caresses, and Cordelia had no illusions about why Angel would want that territory all to himself. The thought of being bitten should terrify her, but this was Angel, not his evil alter-ego, and she wanted him to have everything, or do anything that got him off—without making him perfectly happy of course.
“Take that thing off.” Angel flicked at the chain, his thumb stroking beneath her chin to nudge her at the right angle to kiss her just below her ear. “I don’t want anything between us.”
“Now you say that.” Having wanted her nightgown off for all that time, she flashed an a wry look. “Afraid I’ll zap you with a sleeping spell, too?”
Angel murmured something against her shoulder as he pressed little kisses there waiting for her to remove the amulet. She reached back to hook it over the bedpost. “Just in case,” he clarified when questioned.
“Oh, yeah. ‘Spose so. No sleeping on the job. So, um, get busy already.”
Gathering her close in his arms, Angel devoured her mouth as if he was starving for its taste, dizzying in its intensity. She clung to him, equally needy, wild tremors clashing along her nerves at the rush of emotions conveyed by those kisses. Cordelia could not decipher her own feelings much less his, but she felt like she was going to fragment into a thousand pieces. Before that could happen, Angel lifted her away, the drag of his cock making her keen sharply as he pulled out.
The mattress whined in woeful complaint as Cordelia tumbled onto it near the head of the bed. Angel followed rising to his knees above her. Her frustrated stare connected for a couple of seconds before the distraction of his rampant erection pulled her focus. “Not this time,” he groaned his denial when she told him that she wanted him in her mouth.
A nearly impossible task maybe considering his size, but whoever said she wasn’t up for a challenge? Being told no was more than just disappointing. Cordelia wanted tonight to be memorable for both of them. What were the odds of ever being zapped into another magical world where she was a princess and circumstances were less than perfect for the loophole in Angel’s curse to kick in? The odds probably sucked. And, speaking of…
“Why not? I want to.”
Angel moved closer, hands on her thighs, spreading them wide as he made a home for himself there, the hard length of him slipping between. “Because I’d rather do this.” He speared his cock deep bottoming out inside her drawing a ragged moan from her throat.
Pressed together skin to skin, her whole body clenched him close, holding him in place, arms tight on his back, knees hooked over his hips. He was careful not to crush her, but the solid weight of his muscular body felt so good covering hers. Writhing beneath the slow grind of his hips, she urged him on, but he kept to his deliberate pace, leaving her gasping, hissing, and sighing through this exquisite form of torment.
The barest breath of a kiss made her lips swell as he teased her unhurriedly. Gentle, soft smooches that deepened sensually savored her mouth as if Angel was memorizing every nuance of their blended taste. Everywhere he touched, she felt sensitive. The slightest stroke coasting across the outer curve of her breast made her cry out. It was too much and not enough all at the same time.
The slow press of his cock penetrated deep, stretched her open, stimulated places she had no idea existed, and the obvious little nub that set off sparklers ever time Angel rolled his hips just the right way. “So good,” she hissed against his throat. Licking at his Adam’s apple, she nipped at the cord of his neck. “So good.” Her hands grasped at the dense muscles across his back, palms rubbing, fingers kneading his flesh in an almost desperate rhythm as he built her up, up, up until her pleasure crested with an intensity that left an exultant gleam in her eyes.
Cordelia’s orgasm vibrated around his cock making Angel clench his teeth, holding back his own climax. He swooped down to kiss her, no longer patient, claiming her pliant lips.
Angel licked at the curve of her ear toying with that exotic tip making her tremble under that wet velvet swipe of his tongue. Confessing with a throaty moan, “My fantasies are full of you, Cordelia. You have no idea how many times I—”
His voice trailed off as an especially good thrust made him grab her ass, and drive in at a new angle. Cordelia’s eyes rolled back at the sensation, trying to respond to what he was telling her instead of focusing solely on the amazing sensations.
“Yeah. Me too.”
“You’re so damn beautiful,” he growled out hoarsely rising up on his knees and angling her hips for leverage, pounding her in an untiring pace that made it impossible to stay quiet. The bed creaked again, mattress squeaking, Cordelia vocalizing through every enthusiastic thrust. “You drive me insane—not always in a good way, but lately I can’t get you out of my head.”
Cordelia struggled to find a coherent thought. It was hard to do anything except cling to him. Between the oohs and aahs, she eked out fragments of similar sentiments. “So hot. Salty g—uhhhh. Totally off limits.” He might have been relegated to eunuch status for safety’s sake, but that had never stopped her from fantasizing about him, either. Reality was so much better. “Never thought this would happen.”
Shifting his hold slightly, Angel centered his hips again, pushing into her a little harder, a little deeper. “I know,” he understood what she meant, but neither one of them could actually say the word ‘curse’ in that moment.
“Also because you brood too much, and need to get a life.”
“Working on it.”
“Don’t growl. Truth is truth.”
Sharing a steamy kiss, they gave in to instincts too powerful to ignore, tension spiraling to a point where neither one of them could speak. If her earlier orgasms were breaking waves on a rocky shore, this one rolled in like a tsunami rising up to consume her. Little throbbing sensations rippled deliciously with every pivot of Angel’s hips, his hard length thrusting thickly as her body squeezed his. Delighting in each bang as they crashed into one another frantically reaching for climax, Cordelia let out a shriek of pleasure cresting to a high peak before melted into a pool of liquid heat as he hammered into her.
She clasped him tight as Angel finished with an ecstatic shout, her name raw and laced with emotion as he clutched at her hips, jerking in desperate, short thrusts spurting his essence deep inside where she milked him of every drop.
The afterglow was short-lived. A dreadful pounding crashed repeatedly against the wall next to their bed. The angry man with the big fist was awake again. Cordelia’s eyes went wide as she realized it was not just the cranky next-door neighbor they had disturbed. An equally grumpy-faced Halfling was glaring at them disapprovingly.
Cordelia slapped at Angel’s shoulder until he lifted his head from the pillow of her breast. She huddled under the cover of his big body, but made no apology for their actions, only for the disturbance. “Dav—uh, Divad, we were trying to be quiet. Sort of.”
Quirking his tiny brow, Divad sighed and reminded her, “Princess Cordelia, you and Lord Angel are never quiet.” He plumped his pillow, rolled over again, and promptly began to snore.
Angel balanced himself so his weight was not pressing down on her. Gently, he touched his hand to her face, soaking up the warmth of her flushed skin, and rubbing the swell of her lower lip with his thumb. She stared up, eyes bright, too satisfied to be embarrassed by being caught. “Sounds like the elf princess and her warrior already have something going on in this little fantasy world,” he teased. “He wasn’t surprised.”
Cordelia could still feel him buried deep inside her. Moving, letting him leave her, might mean this would all be over. “How about the seer and her champion? We can’t do this back home, can we?”
“I—I don’t know. Tonight is risky enough.”
Licking her lips, she let out a long sigh while trying to ignore the way her heart ached at those words. She wanted to find fault with Angel’s opinion, but knew he was right. “I’m glad I accidently made Wesley fall asleep,” a hint of defiance crept into her voice. “Divad doesn’t seem to care what we do.”
“You’re the princess,” Angel reasoned. Adding provocatively, “You can do anything you want.”
Cordelia smiled brightly. “Well, in that case, I think you’re supposed to be kissing me.”
His lips lightly skimmed across hers. “Only kissing?”
Indirect light filtered through the diaphanous veils of Cordelia’s elf costume hanging over the small window in their room. It glinted off Wesley’s glasses, which were still on his face, in a way that suddenly made his eyes flicker open. Was it morning already? Where was he? This was definitely not his bed. Nor did he have a roommate who snored quite so loudly.
Feeling quite clear-minded, Wesley quickly recalled their circumstances, although he had no clue as to when he had fallen asleep. One moment he had been studying the Book of Magic in an attempt to reverse engineer a way home again, and the next waking up here and now. Quite bizarre, he thought, assuming that he must have been overwrought with the whole ordeal.
Sleep must have done him a world of good for he felt quite invigorated as if his internal batteries had completely recharged overnight. Sitting up, he straightened the long grey beard. It might be quite the status symbol for a wizard of this fantastical realm, but it felt ticklish and hot on his neck. Perhaps the carving knife for last night’s roasted turkey would be sharp enough to shave it off, he mused.
Reconsidering, Wesley decided there was no time to waste with such annoyances. He had to get back to his study of the book. They needed to get home again, and the others were counting on him to come up with a solution.
Resolved to get on with his work, he spared a glance toward the end of his bed. A pillow had been propped across an armchair with Divad the Halfling stretched out upon it. The resonant snores rattled from his throat as he lay upon his back. Arms splayed wide, his belly stretched his little vest so that the buttons strained to maintain their hold, pants gaping loosely at his waist, while his grungy bare feet hung over the arm of the chair. An odd sight to be sure, he stared at their host and wondered what had possessed him to provide them with a prop containing bits and pieces of authentic magical incantations.
There was little point in assigning blame. Sour grapes would not get them home again.
Wesley swung his legs over the side of the bed. Except for removing his boots, which he had apparently taken off at some point despite not recalling the task, he was still fully dressed. He forgot about the boots the moment his eyes settled on the bed tucked into the far corner of the room, a strangled gasp emerging at the tightening of his throat. It had not even crossed his mind last night that there might be difficulties with sleeping arrangements. Two narrow beds were not easily shared between four people simply by dividing the party in half.
Along with his Book of Magic and dinner tray, Wesley had taken up the whole of one bed. Divad had apparently pottered together his own bedspace. That left only one bed. Had he been awake to deal with the matter, Angel could have been quite comfortable with a blanket on the floor, or in the chair, as he did not require sleep during the night hours. Wesley might have suggested Cordelia bunk with him instead seeing no actual impropriety in napping with a young woman who seemed more like a sister than a one-time flirtation.
Honestly, he was not certain either Angel or Cordelia would have gone for that idea no matter how sensible. The advice he had offered to both of them on separate occasions, cautioning them about their almost possessive habits of late, had gone unheeded. Denial was clearly the name of the game they played even if they did not want to see what was staring them—and him—in the face. They had feelings for each other that extended far beyond basic friendship, and if any sort of familial bond applied, it was certainly not that of siblings.
The sight of Cordelia and Angel curled up together in the other bed provided him with a far different picture. It was quite intimate, unsettling, and far more disturbing than it would have been if Angel were not a cursed vampire.
Perfectly at ease with each other in their resting states, Cordelia’s head was tucked into Angel’s shoulder, her cheek pressing against his bare chest, hand splayed out across his belly. She cuddled up against his side with Angel’s arm around her as they shared the one pillow, his face buried in her hair. Her oversized nightgown had slipped low on one shoulder baring it and the crease of her arm. The long white gown had twisted up past Cordelia’s knee, her shapely leg tucked between his.
It was a relief to see that the vampire’s pants were still on, not that Wesley considered anything untoward had happened between them. They were both smarter than that. No doubt his sleep would have been disturbed if they had one of their patented arguments, or done anything that might cause these disturbingly inappropriate thoughts to pop into his head. No, they would not go there— would they? Certainly not without him noticing.
Wesley’s shocked gaze followed the length of Cordelia’s exposed calf right down to her glittering toenails before heading back up again toward their faces. Once there, he saw Angel’s dark eyes focused on him, looking anything but guilty. It was almost territorial, protective, and carried a warning.
Gaping a bit, Wesley slowly rose to his feet, but he had forgotten the book. It tumbled to the floor. The noise startled Divad, who woke up long enough to look around before turning onto his side again, rapidly falling asleep. Cordelia simply shifted around, moving her hand higher on Angel’s chest closer to her face, settling quickly.
“I-I…” Wesley trailed off not quite knowing where to begin.
“Let her sleep, Wes.” Angel's eyes closed again. The conversation was over.
Wesley sat back down on the edge of the bed observing them sleep. Never before had he considered himself to be a heavy sleeper, but that stare convinced him that he had missed something important during the night, a shifting dynamic that would change things forever—not necessarily for the best. It fascinated him the way such an innocent thing such as sleep could draw a torrid picture, but his instincts warned him that it was not just his imagination. His concerns were quite justified.
There was still the matter of getting them out of here. Perhaps, once they were free of this spell, things would return to normal.
Once Cordelia awakened, rosy cheeked and rested, Angel immediately climbed out of the bed. They were not alone, so he ignored the urge to kiss her smiling lips. He realized that during the course of the morning the trust he had built up with Wesley had taken a startling step backward. Wesley may not have been conscious during the night, but his powers of deduction were keen.
When it came to Cordelia they were both protective of her, and they were all aware of the worst that could happen because of the curse. Normally, he would ignore Wesley’s accusatory glances, or just tell him to back the hell off because he was wrong. Only he was not wrong this time. In fact, every line Angel had been warned not to cross, he had obliterated. Giving in to his desires. Making love to Cordelia. Falling for her.
So he forgave Wesley for any thoughts he might have had that led him to stand watch over the two of them the rest of the morning assuming that’s what he was doing. Then again, he might have simply been studying and using that sharpened stake as a place holder.
Angel censured himself for being unreasonably suspicious of his friend’s motivations. He sat on the side of the bed putting on his boots while Cordelia lay back against the pillow. He already missed the warmth of her soft curves.
Another smile followed her lazy yawn. She was in a very good mood despite still being stranded in a dragon-filled fantasy realm. “What time is it?” Propping her head on her elbow, she looked toward the window.
“Just past noon,” Wesley guessed as he glanced out at the position of the sun. His voice dropped as he added, “You slept all morning.”
“We were up really late,” she said and after a thoughtful pause tagged on, “talking.”
Wesley’s gaze slipped across to meet Angel’s. Yes, Angel was a renowned talker. It was impossible to shut him up.
Deciding it was best to keep his mouth shut, he said, “I’m glad you both decided it was time to wake up. I may have an idea.”
“Good news on the going home front?” Cordelia asked perkily.
“Perhaps, but it won’t be easy. On the contrary, most likely quite dangerous.”
“The usual, then.” Angel finished with his boots and braces. Leaning forward, elbows resting on his knees, he focused on what Wesley had to say.
Studying the spellbook had provided no guarantees of returning them to the real world. Wesley still had no evidence to suggest there was a way to reverse the spell by casting another. “On the contrary, I believe the only way to get home again is to fully embrace the challenges this fantasy realm presents.”
“No!” Cordelia sat up sharply, which put her right behind Angel. She put one hand on his bare back as she leaned forward to make her point. “You’re not really saying that Angel has to—”
“Slay the dragon.”
Wesley’s confirmation made her gasp. “Can’t you find some other way?” There was fear in her eyes to a degree he had never noted before any of Angel’s missions. Perhaps the nature of this fight warranted such trepidation, but this was the only solution that made sense to him.
“This entire reality is based on an adventure fantasy,” he reminded them. “Players meet certain goals, triumph over the forces of evil, and they win. The greatest danger in this scenario is Caeruleus. Defeating him should theoretically end the quest.”
“Tonight, then,” Angel agreed to Wesley’s plan. Just the kind he liked: simple, easy, effective. “We win. We go home.”
Angel went into the mountain alone.
There had been protests.
Cordelia planned to rally the villagers having decided that it was time they all stood up to the monster and shared a little responsibility for defeating it. Plus, the more help the merrier.
“That’s just a set up to get somebody killed. The bugbears and orcs holed up in the castle ruins are the same ones from the party. With the villagers in the mix they’d just be slaughtering each other.”
Reminding him of her sleeping curse idea, Cordelia started to say, “My amulet—”
“—Won’t be anywhere near the dragon. You’ll stay safe with the others.” Angel glanced at the glitzy bauble around her neck. Using Cordelia as bait for a mechanical dragon in a fake cavern might have given her the impression she could handle the real thing.
“Tell him we’re going, Wes.“
Wesley had spent part of the day at the local magic shop looking for something with clear directions. He was not about to use the Book of Magic again. Not without further study and a reliable translation tool. Barring that, he planned to borrow a sword.
Even Divad wanted to go and had enthusiastically brandished his dagger-sized sword in a display of fancy footwork. He also claimed to know a few spells.
“No doubt the dragon is dangerous, but our combined magic could help.”
“That’s not going to happen.” Angel made a command decision. “From what you’ve told me Caeruleus’ breath is made of toxic fumes. I’m not putting anyone else at risk while there is still a chance you’ll find another way home.”
His voice gruff, Wesley countered with, “You’re not immune to poisons, Angel. You are just as vulnerable to the dragon’s attack as the rest of us.”
No, he wasn’t.
The statistical information on green dragons that Wesley had provided gave him a fair idea of what to expect. “I’m faster than a human. I can strike before it sees me coming.”
“That’s what it will take. Don’t underestimate it. This creature is very nasty tempered and thoroughly evil. It won’t negotiate terms of surrender.”
Angel figured he and Caeruleus would understand each other just fine.
They accompanied him as far as the mountain entrance to the underground tunnels. “If the dragon gets out,” Angel warned them, “it will go straight for the village.”
The spells Wesley had prepared along with a trap rigged at the entrance might have a slight chance in the event that Angel was not able to slay it.
“Cordelia, Divad and I will stand ready!”
“This is a suicide mission,” Cordelia growled at him. Everything she had discovered made the margin for victory narrow. Every new fact about the dragon ratcheted up her fear another notch.
Angel was brave, strong, and liked the thrill of a good fight, but he was not invulnerable. She didn’t want him going in there alone and the thought that he might not come out again made her stomach twist into queasy knots.
Storming up to him, she held onto his arms, her fingertips curling into his biceps as she tried to get him to see reason. “Maybe Wesley can find another way. That stupid book! He only had one night. You know he’ll find the answer. He always does.”
“Not this time, Cordelia. This is our only way out. I have to go.”
It was driving her crazy, a feeling that Angel should not leave. That something bad was about to happen. It left her shaking.
Angel touched her. A hand on her waist, nothing more, but it sparked her to throw her arms around his neck and squeeze tight. Hesitant hands moved along her back, but he returned the hug and then for a moment seemed like he did not want to let her go.
Holding his head between her hands, Cordelia pulled back just enough for Angel to see the fear he already scented. He could taste her breath she was so close. “Don’t do anything stupid!”
The demand came just when Angel’s gaze dropped to the soft curve of her lips and for an instant contemplated pressing his mouth to hers. Don’t do anything stupid. They were the wrong words at the right time making him hold back on his yearning need to kiss Cordelia goodbye. Now those words echoed harshly. Don’t do anything stupid.
Angel held onto her for another selfish moment with his forehead nuzzling hers. “I won’t,” he made a dual promise to her and to himself.
The soft harrumph coming from Wesley reminded him that it was time to go. Angel extracted himself from Cordelia's arms giving her hand a final squeeze. As he walked into the mountain entrance Angel heard her complaining to the little Halfling.
“This is the last time I ever go to one of your parties!”
Divad replied, “Your words confuse me, princess. Give it time. We will have cause to celebrate soon enough. All will be well.”
“We should be going with him. We could help! I have a lot of experience being the bait.”
For a moment Angel thought he was going to have to go back to stop her until he heard Wesley reminded her of the plan. The familiar sound of bickering carried on the air until he reached the lower chamber.
Somewhere down in the dark was the dragon’s lair.
Now he had to find it.
The caverns were different than the stone corridors laid out on a grid beneath David Nabbit’s mansion. Twists and turns opened up into the enormous space below the mountain. He let scents and sounds guide him deep into the dungeon.
Angel did not bother with a torch. He knew from before that there were places where the light seeped in from above. Scattered around the caverns were hanging braziers of glowing coals. They were not here for the benefit of the dragon.
The stench of soiled fur and rotting flesh gave away the location of the bugbears long before Angel caught sight of them. Old steps cut into the rock led up into what had to be the old castle ruins mentioned by the innkeeper. The bugbears were up there, chanting, beating on drums.
For their sake he hoped they remained where they were.
The cavern opened up from there into a great maw of limestone. He could barely detect the height of the natural ceiling above. Another set of narrow stone steps led down into the deep beyond the reach of his night vision.
The dragon’s scent was strongest there.
Silently, he descended along a hundred steps of stone to reach the bottom. The ever-strengthening scent of the dragon filled his nostrils. Angel could see its huge outline taking up a quarter of the cavern. The rest of the space was piled up with objects—the dragon’s hoard.
Angel tested his grip on the sword. He moved stealthily in ways only a vampire can on a tread as light as the air.
It was not sound that gave his location away.
“Why does one of the undead seek me out?” The words rasped despite the sheer magnitude of the voice.
Refusing to be lured into giving up his position by answering, Angel made a run for the far side of the room. A burst of speed put him in a position behind Caeruleus.
The dragon rose up on its legs, wings expanding upward, a roar designed to terrify filling the space around them. Unfazed, Angel leapt onto the beast’s back, raised his sword above his head, and thrust downward.
The hide was thicker than expected and covered by scales even harder than the steel of his blade. The tip broke off with the force of the attempt to pierce it leaving a jagged edge of metal.
Caeruleus shook him off like a rag doll tossed to the ground. He lashed out with his claws, but missed as Angel somersaulted back to his feet. A gutteral word emerged from the dragon’s throat.
A ball of fire shot upward toward the distant ceiling lighting up limestone columns and the stalactites hanging down like stone daggers. Angel cringed at the blazing light, his arm arcing up to cover his eyes, forehead rippling as his demon emerged.
The fireball dispersed, but the light remained to illuminate the cavern. Angel backed away into the deepest shadow he could find. He could feel the initial heat fading.
Their eyes met across the divide created by Caeruleus’ treasure hoard. The dragon chuckled. “Do you not enjoy the warmth of the SUNFIRE spell, vampire?”
Angel did not enjoy being toyed with. He spotted the broken sword lying on the cavern floor bathed in a pool of light. It was a fifty-fifty chance that the magic light would not burn him. Anything with the word sun in it did not sound like a good bet.
He just needed enough time to reach the sword.
A broken crate lay in pieces amongst the closest pile. Smashed open by the dragon at some time its lid had been knocked asunder. Angel grabbed it. Moving fast, he held it above his head shielding himself from the light. Even so, it beamed through the slats scorching his arm.
Despite its size, the dragon moved just as fast, swiping with one of its front claws as Angel passed into its shadow. It knocked the ragged crate aside rending through the leather vest like it was paper to dig deep into the soft flesh of his abdomen.
Pain and the smell of blood only spurred Angel on. He gripped the sword hilt, looked over his shoulder as Caeruleus reared back its head to strike, and then circled hard and fast. The jagged edged sword arced upward into the dragon’s softer underbelly piercing its heart.
Caeruleus staggered in the throws of death. Its massive body crashed to the floor, torso, arms, wings and head causing the ground to quake with each impact. Knocked off his feet, Angel lay on the ground, fighting for consciousness, and shadowed by the hulking dragon.
As the magical light began to dim at the same rate as the dragon’s fading life force, Angel noticed a cloud of green gas billowing out from its mouth and spreading across the limestone floor. He forced himself to move even though his body wanted to slide into the cold, dark grip of sleep.
The expanding cloud drifted higher, rising as it dispersed through the air.
Angel made it to the stairs, pausing long enough to glance upward at the long spiral of one hundred stone steps. He held a hand against the torn leather vest using it as a splint to hold his flesh together. A little blood loss was not unusual, but this was more than a little and he had not eaten in almost two days.
Higher and higher, he climbed trying to outpace the rising cloud of poisonous gas. He was twenty feet from the top of the stairs when it caught up with him. The poison gas seeped into his skin. Sudden, intense pain whipped through him. He roared with it unable to suppress the agony making his other injuries pale by comparison.
Sprawling forward onto the stone steps, Angel tried to channel the pain, using it to his advantage. Keep him alert long enough to get back to Cordelia and Wesley. There was no telling how long it would take for the poison to reach its full effect.
Technically, it should not matter.
Through the pain and the fog of his thoughts, Angel realized that by now, Caeruleus was dead.
Game over. He had won.
So why had nothing changed? The spell should be broken.
Angel pushed himself to his feet. He headed toward the exit, one step at a time, the tunnel getting darker and darker ahead. Wild chanting and the accompanying drumbeat continued in the castle ruins above. He passed the stone steps leading up to the castle as he walked back the way he came led more by instinct than his senses.
Until he stopped moving.
The way before him suddenly darkened to impenetrable black and the world dropped out from beneath him.
The distant sound of drums echoed in the deep.
A void of darkness surrounded him. He floated there in a sea of suffering.
One thought kept repeating, a single hope that kept him fighting, clinging to a life that had actually ended long ago.
One voice heard above the rhythmic beat and piercing through the fog that clouded his mind.
“Dammit, Wesley, I said I’m fine. It’s not like I’ve never had a vision before.”
Muffled voices. Familiar sounds. Closing in.
Pitter-patter. Pitter-pitter-patter. Pitter-patter.
“No, we’re not going back to the village for reinforcements! Angel’s dying! He’s in pain and he needs me. We have to go to him now!”
Dying? He had done that before. It felt different this time, yet somehow all too familiar.
“There! Over there!”
Angel tried to open his eyes, but his body was not responding.
“Cordelia, please! The bugbears will hear you,” Wesley hissed as they ran together down the shadowy corridor.
Reaching the bottom of the tunnel Cordelia found Angel lying prone in the center of the corridor. Her head pounded. It was only a shadow of what she had felt from him in the vision. Nothing next to her need to get to him before it was too late.
“Help, me turn him over. Oh my god! Angel, can you hear me?”
There was no response. No outward sign of life.
Together they turned Angel onto his back. The extent of his wounds made them both gasp. Cordelia knew she should have expected it. The PTB never pulled any punches and this time was no exception.
“He has not completely desecated,” Wesley gave her their one hopeful sign despite the grey appearance of his skin. “Given enough time Angel might heal. If we can get some blood in him.”
Cordelia’s hands trembled as she unbuckled the leather straps holding his armor in place. Still completely motionless, Angel’s body was covered in burns, bruises and one of the deepest wounds they had seen. It covered a much larger surface area than the one he had gotten from Kate.
Half blinded by her tears Cordelia told Wesley, “The dragon got him just before it died. He has been poisoned. I saw it in the vision.”
Divad caught up with them having followed as fast as his two over-sized feet could carry him. “He is near death, princess. You must hurry.”
The urgency in his voice was completely understandable. Cordelia felt the need to do something, but just what that was remained unclear. One of her tears streaked down her face and felt onto Angel’s mouth leaving a wet droplet on his pale lips. She wiped it away with her thumb, her hand moving up to cup his face.
“You’ve got to live, Angel. Don’t you dare die on me!” Subconsciously dredging up a vow he had made to her not so long ago. “I’m gonna fix this. I promise. I’m gonna get you back. I need you back.”
More tears fell. Cordelia held onto him, bent over, her head pounding, heart breaking for reasons too numerous to count.
Swallowing down the lump of grief gathering in his throat, Wesley started to tell her it was time to prepare for the worst. If her actions were an attempt to get him to feed, it was clear that Angel was too far gone to manage it. Wesley knew that it was unlikely that their blood would cure him.
Nevertheless, Wesley was willing to give it a go. From his crouched position, he saw the Halfling’s dagger and decided it would do nicely for the task.
No sooner had he started to roll up his sleeve than Wesley noticed a glow emanating between Cordelia and Angel. It was coming from the amulet around her neck and spread out to engulf them both in an aura of light.
Wesley jerked to his feet to stare down at them half expecting the light to turn Angel to dust, but it seemed to be healing him instead.
The blackened flesh on his arms became smooth, less red, and then healed completely. When he looked at the stomach wounds, Wesley saw they were closing up at a pace that outdid anything normal for a vampire.
The wounds were gone in moments.
Beneath her, Angel woke with a start. Cordelia was draped across him, her hands on his shoulders. Something was wrong. He felt a heavy tightness, a burning sensation in his chest he had felt once before.
The sound of her name caused Cordelia to pull back just enough for him to see her face. Her eyes were completely white. A glow surrounded them centered on the gold and garnet amulet around her neck, but channeled through the connection of her hands against his skin.
Whatever magic was at work Angel knew it was affecting him. He realized his injuries were gone. She was attempting to heal him.
All of him.
Wesley started to sense something was wrong when Cordelia’s healing hands started to press Angel back to the ground, preventing him in his weakened form from evading her touch. But it was Divad who took action.
“Princess, no! Even you cannot bring him back from the dead.”
The small hobbit rushed forward launching himself at Cordelia with breakneck speed. He knocked her away from Angel severing the mystic connection between them.
It took several seconds for Cordelia to snap out of her trance. Angel was on his feet and looking at her like she had been the one poisoned by the dragon. The details of the last few minutes were sketchy.
“What just happened? And why do I have a Hobbit sitting on my chest?”
Angel grabbed Divad by the collar and quickly set him aside in order to help her. Holding out his hand, he gently pulled to her feet. “I’m not really sure about that myself,” he admitted his confusion. Keeping hold of her hand, he pulled it to his chest, and her along with it. He rubbed at a bloody smear on her cheek where she had swiped at a tear.
“Welcome back!” Beaming up at him with the happiest of smiles, Cordelia felt a deep sense of satisfaction bloom within her knowing that she saved him. “I got you back. You know that makes you mine, right?”
He answered with a little smile only she could see, one full of wicked promises.
“Cordelia cured you,” Wesley explained what he had witnessed. “The amulet activated and she fell into some sort of trace.”
Impressed with the amulet’s potential, Cordelia wondered if the amulet, like Wesley’s spell book, could affect the real world with it’s magic. “Wow! That was a lot easier than patching you up. I wonder if it can cure vision headaches. They’re the worst.”
Wesley realized that she remembered nothing that happened when she was in the trance. “Your efforts continued long after Angel was physically cured. I think you tried to heal him on a spiritual level as well.”
Cordelia’s scrunched expression softened slowly into wonder. “His soul. No more curse?” Her eyes slid back to Angel whose hand had tightened on hers, her tone unsteady. “Did it work?”
Angel rubbed at his chest remembering what he had experienced. Physically, he felt great, but that could just be the amulet’s fancy effects on his injuries. Despite wanting it to be true, he was forced to admit, “I don’t know.”
While they bickered about whether or not Angel should be able to instinctively tell if his curse was still active, it finally occurred to Wesley that they were still down in the castle dungeon.
“Something is wrong. The dragon’s death changed nothing. We are still here. According to my theory, everything should return to normal now that the quest is over.”
Divad grabbed a fistful of Wesley’s long wizard robes and tugged twice. “Our quest is to return Princess Cordelia home safely. Now the dragon is dead we can travel freely to the other side of the mountain.”
Surprisingly, the journey was not a long one. A large wooden door blocked their path at the end of the tunnel. It was locked. Angel did not bother to ask anyone’s permission busting down the door with a powerful kick.
For one brief moment, they saw the forested land of the elves stretching out as far as the eye could see. The sunny dale was indeed a blissfully beautiful place.
The world rushed in upon them, streaming light whirling in a kaleidoscope of colors.
They passed out.
The security barbarian nodded as they bolted out of the elevator, but Angel, Cordelia and Wesley barely noticed. After awakening together in the burnt husk of the dragon nest in David Nabbit’s fake dungeon, they were not going to take any chances.
On the way past the buffet, Angel paused to stare at the dragon ice sculpture displayed on top of the table. Everything that had happened flashed through his head. Was any of it real, or was it just a mass hallucination as Wesley had suggested in one of his trio of theories?
Cordelia was back in her original elf costume, her unburned emerald cloak secured around her shoulders. No sign of dragon claws marked the leather vest he wore. Ears and beard were no longer permanent attachments.
That left Angel to wonder about their experiences. If nothing had changed, were any of the changes produced by Cordelia’s elf magic real? He didn’t have a clue. Hell, he didn’t even know if such magic was capable of affecting the curse, but he was damn sure going to find out.
“C’mon, Dragonslayer!” Cordelia slipped her hand into his and tried to pull him along. “I’m all partied out. Let’s go home.”
They found their host at the front door. He ran up to them immediately. “I remember it all! This was the best Halloween ever! I was really Divad Tibban. How cool is that! With the hobbit feet and everything.”
Wesley commented that he hoped it was the proximity issue that allowed David to remember their adventure. “If the rest of the guests start to remember their fantasy lives as bugbears and village innkeepers, we might have a bit of a problem.”
“You’re leaving now?” David asked gloomily. He instantly perked up and suggested, “We’ll have to hang out again sometime. That’s why I got you the costumes. You had a blast, right?”
Angel smiled. “Actually, I think I did. This was certainly a memorable night.”
“Thanks for the invite, sweetie, but next time you can come to our place,” Cordelia gave him a hug. “Hope you don’t mind, but I’ll be burning this costume.”
“And I’ll be taking this with me for safekeeping,” Wesley tapped a finger to the Book of Magic.
David shrugged. “Sure. I bought a whole trunk of old books from an antique dealer last year. There were some cool stones, too. Tiffany’s added the setting. I thought it would add some authenticity to the game.”
“Guess it did,” Cordelia said grinning still holding out hope for the amulet.
Rooted to the spot, Wesley stuttered, “A whole trunk of books like this?”
Angel clapped him on the shoulder. “It’s time to go home, Wes.”
“Goodnight Divad—uh, David!” Waving with one hand, Cordelia grabbed Wesley’s elbow with the other and helped Angel steer him in the direction of the car.
Rolling up on the balls of his huge fake feet, David called out, “Happy Halloween!”
The Original Challenge by Samsom:
David Nabbit invites the AI gang to a Dungeons and Dragons Halloween party, where all the other costumed guests turn into their characters and the dangers are real. AI must find their way out of the castle, before the dragon finds them, or the other party guests burn them for being witches.
The Smutty Challenge by Tootynfrooty:
Have you ever thought of doing an NC17 version of Where Dark Things Dwell?