Scenes 131 – 140
131: The Cafeteria, Sunnydale High School, Southeast Sunnydale
Lunchtime was a messy mix of teenagers, gossip, hunger and hormones, but this was the normal part of their world. The parts where headless corpses were found in the freezer and the lunch lady served up the mystery meal of the day were a couple of exceptions. Buffy, Xander, Willow and Oz sat together at one table trying to bring Oz up to speed on everything that had happened.
Looking upset that he had not been around to offer help, Oz told them, “The band is booked pretty solidly over the next few weeks. I don’t know how much I’ll be around for research. Willow, you should definitely call me if you guys ever need the van. Or a werewolf,” he added wryly.
“Thanks, Oz,” Willow squeezed his hand conveying her gratitude. “Maybe it’s better if you don’t get involved.”
Oz’ expression didn’t change as he calmly pointed out, “You’re involved.”
“Awww! That’s so sweet.”
Watching Willow hug her boyfriend and plant a mushy kiss on his cheek, Buffy felt a big void in her heart. She thought about the way Angel had comforted Cordelia after Giles’ big announcement and remembered the gentle strength of those arms. It just wasn’t fair that Angel should be so wrapped up about Cordelia Chase.
Every time she thought about the way she had forced them to patrol together, expecting they would drive each other insane, it made her a little crazy instead. Now Angel was acting differently and Buffy suspected his relationship with Cordy was to blame. Look at the way he had attacked Faith.
He was protective. Okay, so that was not a bad quality in a boyfriend. Still, there were times when Angel reminded her more of Angelus’ possessive, obsessive side. Heaven help anyone who threatened to sneeze in Cordelia’s direction because he acted like he might take off their head for it.
He was verbal. Chatty, much? That was so Cordelia’s influence. Angel had always been the strong silent type. Buffy was not used to him having opinions— unless he had them all along and she just was not listening.
He was totally in command. Bossy. Ordering everyone around like he was the one in charge. She should talk to Giles. It might be Angel’s mansion, but he invited Spike and Drusilla for cripes sake. No way was she ever going to trust those two. Imagine working with Spike to save the world. As if.
Lately, Angel just rubbed her the wrong way.
“Hot enough?” The question startled her out of her Angel-fogged thoughts.
He was definitely hot. Oh yeah. Nothing had changed there.
Buffy blinked slowly into focus as she realized the voice was not asking about Angel’s hotness. “Wh-what?”
Sitting next to her, Xander asked again, “Is your food still hot? You keep pushing it around on your plate.”
“Food…right.” Buffy gulped down several bites in a few seconds. “Mmmm.”
“You scare me.”
Xander returned to the conversation they had been having with Oz when he had noticed that Buffy had zoned out. He lifted a spoonful of green Jell-O to demonstrate what would happen to them if Amolon managed to make it to Earth.
“This is us.” He wiggled the Jell-O around on the spoon. Turning it at an angle, with the green dessert hanging precariously to the side of the spoon, he prepared for a quick demonstration of Amolon’s power.
“This is us after the Big Bad shows up.” Xander bent the spoon back like a catapult. Aiming for a nearby column, he let the Jell-O fly expecting that Oz would be suitably impressed with the splattitude and his use of visual aids.
The wiggly green blob arced through the air.
At the very same moment Principal Snyder stepped up to their table intercepting the Jell-O with his otherwise spotless grey suit. Infuriated, he roared, “Xander Harris!” as they watched the green Jell-O rebound off his lapel and plummet onto his shoe.
In frozen tableau, they watched as the principle’s mouth moved, as his face turned beet red, and the few hairs remaining on the top of his head stood up as if electrified by his fury. The whole cafeteria stopped to listen. More gossip fodder? Noting that it was just Xander Harris up to his usual lowbrow hijinks, they turned their attention back to their own conversations.
“Detention, Mr. Harris,” Snyder doled out the punishment that included scrubbing the graffiti found earlier that day on the school grounds. It did not matter that he was not responsible for it. He would clean it anyway.
Xander gulped and sank down into his chair.
Leaning down to speak to Buffy, Snyder added, “I wasn’t able to trace the Chem Lab heist to you, Summers, but I’m not about to let you walk away scot-free.” His beady gaze circled the table pausing over each of them. A satisfied little smirk tightened his mouth. “Detention for all of you.”
132: The Basement, Crawford Street Mansion, Central Sunnydale
Spike opened the basement door and saw Cordelia and Angel going through some Tai Chi moves. “So this is where you two get down and dirty.”
He took a seat on the top step and lit up a cigarette, pocketing his flip-top lighter.
“For your information, we’ve been training.” Cordelia continued the cooling down exercises.
Talking did not distract her from matching Angel’s moves exactly. Her cheerleading drills had instilled a sense of timing, an innate physical memory. Dressed in a tight little outfit that showed every curve, Spike had more to admire than just the way she moved.
No wonder Peaches had dumped the slayer. For the first time since being tortured, Spike felt his cock twitch to life. The wood was a good sign his body was almost recovered. That bloody bitch had weakened him so much he could not even get hard. Isobel was going to pay for that, too.
The swill the watchers were feeding him certainly did not help. Pig blood. Swine. How the bloody hell did Angel survive on that bland stuff? What he would not give for a mouthful of hot, red blood fresh from a ripe woman. The one right in front of him caused his thoughts to shift in a dangerous direction.
If Angel even suspected that he was imagining what it would be like to sink his fangs into his lover’s beautiful neck, Spike knew he would have his bollocks for it. Though Angel had already warned him to stay away from Cordy, he noticed that she was not marked in any way. There was no visible claim.
Spike was not stupid enough to go there. If Angel was dumb enough to let his girl go around without his mark, then that was his problem.
Taking a quick drag, he held the warm smoke in his dead lungs until it burned and then blew it out. “Do you really think Lover Boy will let you anywhere near a fight, pet?”
It did not take a verbal reply for Angel to get his point across. One look told Spike he had better mind his own business. Not that it had any effect. Bloody boring, that.
Cordelia stopped mid motion and turned toward the stairs again. Her skin was shiny and beaded with perspiration. A wet spot had gathered between her breasts drawing Spike’s gaze for an instant before he hastily turned his attention back to her face.
“I make my own decisions, Blondie,” she crossed her arms defiantly. “Maybe I don’t have natural slaying skills, but I have as much right as anyone else to defend myself and my friends. Angel knows that. Don’t you?”
The pause before he answered lasted a second too long for Cordelia’s liking. Spike had to chuckle over the outrage on her face. “Right,” he glared at Spike over Cordy’s shoulder. “Absolutely. When and if there is an attack on the mansion, you’ll be ready for it.”
“But I want to patrol with you again,” Cordelia turned around to face Angel. “That’s what this training is all about. We’re Team Chase. Nothing can stop us. I’m tired of being cooped up like some pathetic little princess in an ivory tower.”
Angel visibly struggled for a response. Looking pained about it, he finally said, “You can’t put yourself at risk that way.”
“What? It’s my life. Do you know how long it has been since I’ve been to the Bronze? And I’m not even asking for that. If I want to go out, then I’m going out.”
“The hell you are.”
Icily, Cordelia said, “Excuse me?”
Oh, ho! Looks like trouble in paradise, thought Spike, biting back a laugh and taking that as his cue to leave. His fag had burned down low so the glowing ash hung at the end. A flick sent it to the top step where he stood and stomped it out with his boot.
Angel argued, “The mansion is the safest place you can be right now.”
Cordelia argued right back. “Your smarmy friend can walk around in sunlight. He might show up here anytime. Who’s to say he can’t just come through the front door invite or no invite?”
“Cordy, for once will you listen to what I’m—”
Spike closed the basement door behind him, blocking out the sounds of the conflict below and went to find Drusilla for a shag.
133: The Study, Crawford Street Mansion, Central Sunnydale
Charred brown flecks cracked and crumbled as Cordelia turned the pages of the old book. Scarred by the fire, its leather cover was now blackened beyond repair, but the ancient myths of the Old Ones remained preserved inside. Only the outer edges were fried, much like her nerves at the moment.
Choosing to help Wesley with research rather than going back to the basement for Round Two with Angel was supposed to help her put things into perspective. Keeping her locked up in the mansion for her protection had seemed like a good idea at one time, but that was before she realized what that meant.
No entertainment, no shopping, no hanging out at the Bronze.
Angel just needed to come to his senses. Protection was one thing, but keeping his own girlfriend under lock and key was taking it one step too far. Sure he had her best interests at heart. Why did those interests have to come at the expense of her having a life?
The details of their fight were a little fuzzy. Oh, there was the usual finger pointing and foot stomping. A shriek or two of frustration. Outright anger. And that was just Angel.
Okay. So maybe it was mostly her.
Doing a good impression of a granite slab, Angel wasn’t budging on his decision that the best way to protect her from becoming the next no-longer-a-Virgin Sacrifice was to never let her see the light of day again. Or the dark of night, for that matter. She was virtually under house arrest until this whole prophecy thing blew over.
The words ‘totally unfair’ came to mind. Where was the fairness to be found when the bad guys had the freedom and she was practically a prisoner? Yeah. Fairness of the UN variety, that’s what it was.
Boyfriends were supposed to do what girlfriends wanted. Someone obviously forgot to tell Angel the rules. Guys generally fought over the right to grant her every wish—or avoided her like terrified two year olds. If she wanted something, one snap of her fingers was all it took. Sometimes she didn’t even have to snap.
Maybe she’d lost her touch.
This was Angel, not a geek from the AV club. And it wasn’t like he wasn’t totally into her. Believing it made her insides melt every time she thought about it. There were times when Angel would do anything for her, but this obviously wasn’t once of them. Talking him into giving her a taste of freedom was far different than convincing a few nerds to set up the music system at a party they weren’t invited to attend.
Nothing worked. Honesty and a straight explanation got her nowhere.
“Angel, I’m tired of staring at these walls. I need to get out of here.”
They were halfway through another session of Tai Chi moves when Cordelia broke form to make her point. Angel smoothly continued through the motions. “You’re the one who wanted training. Finish this set and then you can try some hand-to-hand defensive moves.”
“We can do this later. Right now, I want to do something else. Anything that doesn’t involve demons and prophesies.”
Silent during the next movement, Angel completed it before looking her way. “You could read. I have some really good books. Classics.”
Not what she had in mind. “As tempting as joining your book club sounds, I think I’ll pass. I meant going somewhere. As in not here.”
Clearly, Angel saw nothing wrong with seeing the same people day after day. Or the fact that the view never changed. Monotony somehow came across as a positive for him. How wrong was she to think some of that had changed when they formed Team Chase and started expanding his horizons.
Out of pure frustration she elbowed the heavy punching bag hanging down from the ceiling and glared at the peeling paint along the basement walls. “You don’t get it. I want to go outside, to see the sky, to go have a little fun. C’mon, Angel, just you and me. No watchers or slayers or sidekicks around.”
Putting a halt to his routine, Angel shook his head. “We can’t, Cordy. Please try to be patient. It’s just a few more weeks.”
He might as well have said months. “Gah!”
Reeling back, she ran her hands through her hair mussing it up, muttering to herself that it was impossible to live through such torture for one week much less more. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to live in the same place as your boyfriend’s ex?”
Angel cleared his throat as she kept on ranting.
“Oh,” Cordelia paused as she paced past. “I guess you do, but Xander doesn’t count the same as Buffy.”
Angel wisely said nothing.
Leaning in close, Cordelia walked her fingers up one of his arms and laid her head on his shoulder. “I miss doing stuff together.”
“We do stuff.”
It didn’t take Angel’s sexy voice to hint at what he meant. Cordelia snorted, “I meant stuff we can do in public.” She caught the tiny twitch at the corner of his mouth and poked him in the stomach as she moved away. “Not that stuff.”
Eighteen year old girls had basic needs other than hot boyfriends. Angel just didn’t understand that denying her access to the mall was like cutting off his blood supply. She needed it to survive.
“There’s a buzz of energy that made the place hum. The smell of new clothes. Shiny new jewelry. Cash registers making that cha-ching sound.” Cordelia tried to describe some of the things she loved. “Hey, you like those strawberry-kiwi smoothies. Let’s go get one of those tonight.”
“You know we can’t.”
Cordelia wasn’t about to take that for an answer. “It’s easy. I’ll even let you drive.”
Since Angel still had the keys to the Plymouth it wasn’t going to be difficult. “Forget it, Cordy. You know it’s impossible. Nicolau isn’t going to miss any chance you give him. Going out will only put you in danger and I won’t let that happen. It’s for your own good.”
Petulant, she crossed her arms. “I’ll be the judge of what’s good for me. Right now, I want to go out.”
Angel didn’t bother to answer. Growing impatience tightened his jaw.
So the mall was obviously out. Maybe he didn’t like the smoothies as much as she thought. Cordelia figured there had to be something they could do together that would keep them under Nicolau’s radar. Though for the life of her she didn’t get why he thought anyone organizing a demon ritual would have time to go shopping.
A smile lit her face as an alternative came to mind. “What about the movies? We had a great time at the movies. You could take me. That would be safe.”
Not according to Mr. I’ve Been to One Movie in the Last Thirty Years. Annoyed by the suggestion, Angel pointed out, “Theaters are dark. There are distractions. People.”
She tried negotiating. “It doesn’t even have to be Keanu’s new movie.” A forlorn sigh emerged, her shoulders slumping dramatically. “Even if it did sound really great.”
Peeking upward, Cordelia saw that Angel’s expression remained stony. She bristled and muttered, “You don’t want to go because you’re jealous that I like him.”
“I am not.”
“Prove it. Take me to the movie.”
“That’s not going to work.”
Borrowing Buffy’s doe-eyed pouting technique even failed to win him over. “Cordy, it’s not safe. Forget it.” A thread of irritation crept into his response. “I’m tired of talking about it.”
“Well, I’m not.”
“You’re not going out. End of discussion.”
Cordelia’s mouth tightened up realizing that she was dealing with a guy who had no understanding whatsoever of what it was like to be deprived of everything. She had to make it clear that her problems were also his problems. If she was going to be cruelly deprived of the necessities in life, she was going to fall apart physically as well as mentally.
Grabbing a handful of her hair, she lifted it toward him. “Do you see this? I found a split end this morning. My hair is not used to this kind of abuse.”
The basement light made her normally shiny tresses look dull in her opinion helping her make her point. Contrary to what she knew about enhanced vampire vision, the stubborn vampire standing in front of her did not see it.
From the look on his face she could tell that he was remembering stocking up on her favorite shampoo and conditioner. “Just one trip to the salon,” she pleaded. “It won’t take long. Just a few hours,” she tagged on as fast as she could hoping he wouldn’t notice. “I need a manicure, too.”
It would probably take what was left of her last paycheck, but it would be worth it. Oh, the glorious pampering of a real salon. Not the cheapo hair chopping shop down the block from April Fools. The one that charged $12.95 for a shampoo, cut and blow dry. Tip not included. The memory of the recent humiliation of digging through her purse for change instead of whipping out a credit card gave her the wiggins.
Angel rocked back on his heels and rubbed a hand across the back of his neck. “No.”
Snapping back to his response, Cordelia could not understand it. “No?”
“I am beginning to wonder if you know the meaning to that word.”
Not when it worked against her. “I’m more of a yes person.”
“Then I’ve got something new for your vocabulary.”
“It’s just a haircut,” Cordelia underplayed the extent of her plans. Maybe he was just terrified of the idea of going with her. “C’mon, I won’t be alone. I’ll take both slayers. We’ll have a Ladies Day Out. God knows Buffy could use a good stylist.”
Either she was slowly wearing him down or he was pissed that she mentioned Buffy. Angel’s nostrils flared, his brows furrowing. “You plan to risk your life over a haircut.” Nope, he was just plain mad.
“Not just any haircut.”
“Ask one of the girls to do it—Faith, maybe.”
Cordelia snorted, “Just because she’s good with sharp objects does not mean I’ll let her anywhere near my hair. You’re being ridiculous, Angel.”
“Me? Last time I checked I wasn’t slated to be a sacrifice at a demon ritual.” Lashing out suddenly, he made her jerk back in surprise. “This is stupid.”
“I’m not being stupid,” Cordelia stormed back and poked him in the chest before she walked off again. Whirling back around, her hair settled wildly around her shoulders. “It’s not like I’m asking you to go to the Bronze.”
Angel denied calling her stupid. She ignored his excuses in favor of saying, “There’s no point. You still can’t dance.”
“This isn’t about me.”
“No, it’s about me,” she countered. In hindsight, there was definitely shrieking. “It’s about me having some shred of a life. Unlike some people around here, I’m not a corpse.”
Angel’s poker face vanished, barely restrained fury suddenly twisting at the edges of his control. He prowled forward, crowding into her space, muscles twitching to let his human mask fall away. Gold-rimmed eyes gleamed for an instant before darkening again as he got it together, balancing his anger on a fine edge.
Right there with him, she stayed in his face too, not giving him an inch that he did not have to earn. He had no idea how stubborn she could be. It was mean of him not to let her go out. She would find a way to convince him—or take matters into her own hand even if she had to face down his demon to do it.
Energy coursed through her spreading out until a million tingles starburst across her skin. Anyone else would find him terrifying. Not her. Not even when he dropped the silent, brooding routine and all that testosterone took over. A moth in front of a flickering flame could not be more willing to be singed. Her heart pounded in her chest, anger and excitement building as he moved one inch closer. So close that she could feel the rasp of his cotton shirt against hers with each ragged breath she took.
She had made a point. He had to get it.
Freedom, even a little, would keep her sane in this den of chaos. “I’m tired of being shut up inside this mausoleum.”
“What, no plan to tie me to our bed this time?”
Cordelia shivered because the idea sounded almost like a challenge. His hand closed around her jaw tilting her face up to his. Mouth inches from her lips, he growled out a dark promise. “If that’s what it takes. Until the threat is over, you’re staying put.”
He had no right to give her orders. Blood pounded in her ears to the tune of her fury equaling anything he dished out with those vampiric vibes. One hard slap to his wrist loosened his hold. With a jerk of her head and a hard shove to his chest, she gained an inch of space. “Last time I checked there was no ‘Property of Angel’ stamp on my ass.”
“Easily fixed,” quipped Angel cryptically, a ruthless twist to his mouth. “Though that wasn’t exactly the spot I had in mind.”
Momentarily confused, she could not tell if that was some kind of threat or a come on. “Whatever. No, on second thought, you can kiss my ass goodbye because I’m outta here.”
Calgon, take me away. She opted for a strategic retreat. Not because she was giving up. No way. It was not like she needed his permission to go out.
“Don’t walk out on this conversation, Cordy. It’s not over.”
Halfway to the stairs, she made the mistake of turning back to him again. “Oh, it’s over. Way past over.”
Sunnydale and all the crap it handed her lately suddenly spewed out like an upchuck after a frat part. Inevitable. With his newfound and annoying habit of being there for her whether she wanted it or not, Angel was standing in its direct path. Ground zero.
“Why stop at walking out the door? I should keep going. Just leave town. Go so far nobody in this hellhole will ever find me.”
It did not matter that she meant Sunnydale in general or Nicolau and his cronies. For some reason Angel took it personally. That patented control vanished as the knife-edge he had been teetering on cut it to shreds. Too late, the warning signals started flashing. A distinct, ‘Oh, crap!’ ran through her mind the instant before his mouth crushed hers.
Desperation filled his kiss. Angry and possessive, it felt emotional in ways that Angel never showed on the surface. His fingers tangled tightly in her hair denying escape. Red starbursts filled the darkness as her eyes slammed shut, kissing him back with equal fury. Fighting tooth and nail to make her point she wasn’t going to let him get away with kissing her into submission.
He was a rock wall, holding her to him with only the pressure of that one hand, and impossible to budge. Cordelia grabbed his shoulders, intending to force him to stop, but then just holding on as his lips firmly swiped across hers. Capturing them, again and again, one kiss melded into another.
Barely given the time to breathe, she moaned furiously, the sound smothered by the instant assault of his tongue seeking entry. Caught between anger and wanting him, she clasped his head, nails curling into his scalp, holding on now rather than pushing away, body slamming into his.
Her breasts pushed into his hard chest, hips shifting for their comfort zone, tummy rubbing against him. Melting, she nearly gave into it, opening up to his kiss. His free hand slid the length of her spine stroking a line of heat along with it. Making her wet as her body instantly reacted to his touch. Not now! That pissed her off more than anything. Knowing he would sense her response and give him the completely wrong idea that he was winning.
Without even thinking about it, Cordelia gnashed her teeth together against his lower lip. A grunt sounded from Angel. The coppery taste of blood lashed over her tongue. A spark of triumph filled her followed by the sudden shock of what she had done. They drew apart sharply, staring at each other.
Trembling inwardly from anger and pent up need, she stumbled back out of his arms as he released her. Defiant, there was no apology coming from her. That bite was so totally his fault, even though she did not understand it.
Angel did not touch his lip to wipe away the blood. He did not lick it away. She watched a drop well to the surface quickly congealing to close the wound. He stood dark eyed and staring, shoulders tense, looking at her like he wanted to return the favor. Lust and curiosity made her wonder what it would be like to let him.
It was all she could do to stop herself from jumping his very un-corpse-like bones. He had left her breathless, gasping for air, and unable to remember exactly what she’d said that set him off
Unlike her, he had no problem speaking. The threatening tone peeled away into raw hurt. “Don’t even think about it. You’re not leaving.”
She sensed rather than heard the ‘me’ at the end. You are not leaving me. Shocked at the thought of it, Cordelia cringed. Where had he even gotten such a crazy idea? She was still ticked off. Mad enough to make him think it was possible.
“You’re my boyfriend, Angel, not my jailor, and I am leaving— but only to take a bath.”
Cordelia distinctly recalled the rubberiness of her legs as she made her exit. Kind of tough to stomp dramatically up the stairs when you could barely stand upright. Angel let her go much to her surprise. She half expected him to come after her and spent most of her bath planning what she would say when he showed up looking all broody and apologetic.
Only Angel never came upstairs. He stayed down in the basement, which was a good thing, she supposed. If he had shown up when she was in the tub, they probably would have ended up having sex. Cordelia spent the rest of her bath time trying to figure out what positions people used when they did it in the tub. When Angel did not show up, it only fueled her frustration with him and the situation.
So, she had bypassed the entrance to the basement upon coming back downstairs in favor of heading for the study where Wesley was holed up to search for clues about the Rites of Tavrok.
“You volunteered for research duty,” Cordelia muttered while wiping traces of ash from her fingertips onto the cloth draped over her lap. Though a little dirt beat demon dismemberment and dumpster duty any day, she conceded, even that might seem preferable to another week of confinement in the mansion.
After staring at an inked sketch of a random demon for five minutes and comparing it to Principal Snyder’s gnomish appearance, only with claws and a seriously wicked set of teeth, Cordelia concluded that, “This totally sucks.” Now she was getting nostalgic for school, a sure sign that she had been cooped up way too long.
“Hmm?” Wesley lifted his head from where it was buried in research. “Do try to focus on the details, Cordelia. It is imperative that we identify the precise set of symbols.”
Now Wes was even starting to sound like Principal Snyder. All work and no play. With the gang at school for the day and Faith off on some assignment, the only other people in the mansion beside Wesley and Angel were Dru and Spike. Things were not quite boring enough to pop upstairs for a spontaneous visit. Tea and crumpets with Dru would not be quite the same with Spike leering and making lewd comments.
“Perhaps you should tell me what ‘sucks’ so we can get on with our studies.” Wesley apparently overheard more than she thought.
Research might not be much fun, but it was better than wallowing in self-pity, and she was not about to share the details of her argument with Angel. Covering quickly, she pointed to the drawing in the book. “This demon,” she held it out for him to see, “it sucks the blood of its victims.”
Wesley’s eyes narrowed behind his glasses. “Yes, I believe that would be a vampire. You might have heard of them,” he added drolly.
“A vampire?” Cordelia glanced back at the carefully inked sketch. All skin and bone, with huge eyes, big fangs and razor sharp claws it wasn’t the least bit familiar, except for reminding her of Principal Snyder. “I’ve seen plenty of vampires and they don’t look like this.” More importantly, “Angel doesn’t look like this.”
She held up the book again. After a moment of study, Wes concluded, “I believe that is either a form of proto-vampire or an ancient one. Old vampires tend to revert to a demonic state over time, their human characteristics fading.”
Cordelia stared at the book again. Angel was pretty old for a vampire, but certainly did not look like the creature in that drawing. She had always assumed that Angel would look young and hot forever. Her stomach turned flip-flops.
“So how old is old for a vampire, anyway?”
Trying to sound disinterested about it got her nowhere. Wesley dropped his attention back to his research before answering, “Oh, somewhere around two-fifty. The hair is the first to go.”
“What? That’s almost Angel’s age—,” Cordelia gripped the edge of the couch as she imagined her boyfriend withering into a balding old vampire overnight. Then she saw the flush spreading up Wesley’s neck. “That is so not funny!”
She was already laughing at the image stuck in her head: arriving at the prom with a decrepit old Angel on her arm. Wesley chuckled when she shared the idea.
Sobering up, he admitted, “I may have exaggerated the matter a bit. Truly ancient vampires claim nearly a millennium of existence before the years begin to show.”
“That was evil.”
Wesley grinned as if exceedingly pleased with his joke. Getting her back on task, he suggested, “You might want to focus on your assignment if you plan to solve this dilemma before it is too late to attend the dance.”
Her grin faded. Wow. Miss the prom? The man was just full of great news. The idea had never even occurred to her. That was the whole reason for slaving away at the April Fools Dress Shop all those evenings: to afford a decent dress for the prom.
Why worry about being crowned Prom Queen when she’d already been chosen as the next Miss Sacrificial Lamb at Nicolau’s shindig? Not that she had anything to wear to that, either.
Cordelia let out a big sigh. “Sometimes it sucks to be me.”
Something sounding like a protest coughed from Wesley’s throat. “I very much doubt that. Y-you’re beautiful, funny—and that brilliant smile.”
Momentarily forgetting her gloom, Cordelia smiled radiantly. “You’re not so stuffy or uptight as I thought, Wes. I like you.”
“As do I— like you, too,” he cleared his throat before hunkering back down over his research.
Settling into her comfy spot in the corner of the couch, Cordelia folded her legs up beneath her and readjusted the cover. “Back to the grindstone. Where was I? Oh, yeah. Research is fun. I love my job. Grunge is in.”
She turned to the next page of the book, pausing only briefly to make a face at the ash left behind on her fingertips. “Eww!” Ornate drawings and colorful symbols made it a little less of a bore to study.
Despite Wesley’s pep talk, research did not stand a chance of holding her interest for long. Maybe if the book had been written in English instead of an obscure language requiring her to search for a list of key words. Noooo, it was in ancient Frankenstein or something.
Cordelia honestly tried to stay focused, but the words blurred. Angel’s overprotective rant kept running on instant replay in her head. No going out. No danger. No fun. No life. Maybe he had a few good points, but did that have to involve practically holding her hostage?
Being stuck at the mansion for the duration was one thing when it was just nighttime hours they were worried about. Now it was daytime, too, thanks to the rule-breaking vampire mojo that let Nicolau schmooze his way around Sunnydale. So now she was a virtual prisoner in her own home. Well, boyfriend’s home.
No job, no school, no adventure.
So maybe the job was not that big of a deal—except for the total lack of cash. Who needed money when there was nowhere to spend it? She missed the sun, shopping, and dancing at the Bronze.
It was impossible to keep up with the latest school gossip. Buffy was not exactly in on the latest 411. It was all slayer stuff with her. Asking Willow meant sifting through the babble. That left Xander, who was surprisingly, a pretty good source of information.
Angel did not understand that she was not the type of girl he could keep locked away in an ivory tower. She was not some whiny little fraidy cat. It was not as if there were no bodyguards around. Slayers in the daytime. Vampires at night.
When she had stomped upstairs, Angel had stayed in the basement. The expression on his face served to say that he had no intention of letting her endanger herself by going out anytime soon. Training or no training, he did not want her in harm’s way.
Knowing that and wanting to live with it were two separate issues. Cordelia was not so keen on the harm’s way bit either, but she was really starting to hate these walls. There was a big difference between feeling safe and smothered.
Angel had a lot to learn about her if he thought he was going to get away with what he tried to pull today. Okay, so she admitted that there was part of her that adored being protected. Her inner princess loved it. Unfortunately for Angel, her inner bitch possessed that stubborn independent streak.
No kisses, even those of the Angel kind, were going to convince her to give that up. Whatever it was that happened down in that basement freaked her out a little. This was not the first time an argument ended with them in each other’s arms, but this time it felt like neither one of them was in control. She did not want that happening tonight.
Deciding to give Angel a chance to apologize for the behavior that led to her biting him, Cordelia made up her mind that if he chose not to say he was sorry that there would be consequences. He could stay down in that basement, no doubt brooding about it, until she finished helping Wes with the research. After that, if he kept up his stubborn ass vamp routine he would end up sleeping on the couch.
A smirk spread across her face while envisioning Angel all cold and lonely—
Wait a sec!
That meant she would be alone, too.
In that huge bed.
Her revenge scheme came to a screeching halt realizing that forcing him to stay on the couch was going to deprive her of her new favorite things. This was supposed to be Angel’s punishment. It should not have to be torture for her, too.
Maybe she would let him off easy—just this one time, only because she was the forgiving type. Throw him for a loop by being nice, not mentioning that power play, and still get to sleep in his arms tonight. Hah! That would show him. Then tomorrow, when he was asleep, she would convince Faith that it was her duty to tag along while she snuck out of the mansion for a little shopping expedition.
It might be mostly window shopping, but the last place the bad guys would be was the Sunnydale mall. Desperate times called for desperate measures and right now they called for a pair of new Choos.
Situation resolved, Cordelia dragged her thoughts away from shopping and got back to the research. Wesley assigned her to search for specific key words and symbols. Now that they knew the demon’s name it was easier to find passages linked to the prophecy. Making sense of her findings was his job.
“Here’s another one, Wes,” she tapped the page upon recognizing the symbol from the ring. Instead of having her bookmark the page for later study like Giles usually did, he walked over to check it out.
The couch cushion shifted under his weight as he sat next to her and pulled the book closer across one thigh. She took a moment to study him. Being stuck here in the mansion with everyone must have made it easier to settle in with the group. Minus the suit jacket with his shirtsleeves rolled up, he looked less formal. Though, she could not say, more relaxed.
She wondered if Faith was really serious about being attracted to him. Cute, brainy guys were not really the slayer’s type according to what she’d told Cordelia. Faith was the hands-on type. But Wes was not just anyone. Being Faith’s new watcher somehow put a kinky little twist into the works.
Cordelia did not know that much about him except that the Watcher’s Council had sent him here. “I didn’t think anyone knew more than Giles when it comes to this stuff.”
It was a compliment, but his shoulders stiffened defensively. Darting a glance toward her, he reminded, “My studies at the academy were extensive.”
“What did you do for fun?” Anyone Faith was remotely interested in would at least have to have a vague sense of the concept, but Wesley’s blank stare suggested that he did not.
His cheeks and throat reddened. “Frankly, fun wasn’t on the agenda. Not the sort I believe you to mean. We had tournaments to test our physical and mental prowess.”
“Oh.” Well that sounded god awful boring. The kind of prowess Faith was interested in would not be tested at a tournament. “What about going clubbing? Y’know, music, dancing—any of this sound familiar?”
Without waiting for him to respond, Cordelia told him, “Sunnydale may not be L.A. or London, but we do have one decent club, The Bronze. We should go sometime.”
“W-we?” Wesley stuttered over the word. He sat back sharply, the book jack-knifing into the narrow space between them.
“After we’ve figured out this prophecy stuff. There’s more to life than demons and vampires, even if you’re a watcher.” Cordelia put a friendly hand on his arm and squeezed it as she added a mesmerizing smile. “I think taking you out would be a great excuse to make Angel—”
“—hit the dance floor. He certainly needs the practice.” Cordelia blinked as Wesley’s interjection caught up with her. She leaned back to stare. “What?”
Sputtering over getting it wrong, Wesley looked mortified. He gasped, “What? Oh, dear.”
“You thought I meant—”
“I thought you meant—”
Behind them, Angel stepped out of the shadows. “You thought Cordelia meant what, exactly?”
Wesley launched himself off the couch before she could even turn her head in Angel’s direction. Trying to minimize the situation before it escalated, he shrugged, “Nothing, really, a slight misunderstanding over something hardly worth mentioning.”
The furrowed brow and tight jaw were a dead giveaway that Angel was not buying it. “Cordy?”
Since she was not going to make Angel sleep on the couch tonight, Cordy decided that it might be a good substitute to let him stew over the situation. “Pfft! Relax, Angel. It’s not like I can’t fend off a come-on or two without backup.”
Wesley’s eyes rounded into large saucers as Angel’s cool glance flicked his way and lingered unblinkingly. Was she deliberately trying to get him killed? Getting oneself caught tête-à-tête with a vampire’s girlfriend was not the kind of situation covered at the academy, especially when that vampire was Angelus.
Considering the territorial behavior he had witnessed over the past week, a strategic withdrawal seemed in order. Wesley wiped the sweat away from his upper lip without realizing it left a trail of black ash behind from his smudged fingertips.
When Cordelia caught his gaze, she waved a finger at her closed lips. He gave her a subtle conspiratorial nod. Smart girl. She was aware they should say nothing further that might incite the vampire to action. Good plan.
Trying to remain calm and remember his training for situations that involved facing a hostile enemy, Wesley subtly inched toward the desk where his jacket was draped over the back of a chair. A stake was hidden inside an inner pocket in the event this got out of hand.
Angel stepped away from the threshold coming to stand directly in front of the desk, easily stripping away the thin veneer of false confidence Wes attempted to project with nothing more than a hard, silent stare. Any hasty movement might result in an attack, and from his field training, he knew that vampires possessed enhanced speed.
This needed to be resolved peacefully. Stumbling over the words, he tried to explain, “W-We were working together on the translations. Simply talking. Nothing untoward. I made no advances. None. I would never. That would be…”
“Suicidal,” Angel put in when Wesley paused to search for the right word.
As the vampire reached toward him, his hand slipped closer to the hidden stake. Wes felt a firm clap on his shoulder as Angel gave him a rare grin. A mix of confusion and relief flooded him. “You’re not stupid—and I trust you to treat Cordelia with respect.”
“Absolutely.” Lifting his chin a bit higher while staring back, the truth resoundingly clear in his voice, Wesley privately wondered what depths a souled vampire would go in the defense of his mate.
For it was clear to him that Angel’s attachment to Cordelia Chase was becoming very serious, well beyond simple sexual interest. The consequences of such a relationship nearly always resulted in a bloody, painful end. Obsession and dependency kept the human tied to their vampire lover. Such pairings typically led to the eventual death of the human.
Having observed Angel since his arrival, and read extensively through the Council file on Angelus, he had to wonder if things were not turned around. Cordelia might think herself to be in love, but in this particular case, the obsessive behavior belonged to the vampire.
Soul or not, that made Angel unpredictable and dangerous. Considering the dubious nature of prophecy, he wondered how the vampire would respond if saving the world meant sacrificing Cordelia.
134: The Study, Crawford Street Mansion, Central Sunnydale
The pressure of his fingers tightened just a fraction as they moved against her skin sliding across smooth angles, bone and sinew in ways that trapped her breath in her throat. Cordelia sank lower into the cushions, pressing against the arm of the couch. Squirming only brought her closer.
Escape was not an option. Not from him.
From the moment Angel sat down on the opposite end of the couch, she knew she was in big trouble. He’d turned at an angle, his wide shoulders taking up space, one arm stretched out across the back, a knee bent toward her making dark shadows in his lap where his pants creased so intriguingly.
Not that she’d intended to check that out. It was impossible not to look, impossible to resist the display.
Like warm honey her gaze moved slowly across his torso, lingering along every line where the dark blue shirt draped his chest, and pausing at the vee of skin exposing his throat. The bump of his Adam’s apple distracted her when the memory of running her warm tongue across it came to mind, and nibbling her way up to his ear.
Cordelia licked her lips, the taste of him still fresh in her memory. She could not think of that now, not in the middle of such torture. It only played into his hands.
Oh, God. Now his fingers moved constantly, thumbs sliding into the crease of a joint and increasing the pressure. A shudder hit, uncontrollable. This was not even close to how she’d envisioned their argument coming to an end. She remembered the wicked smile curling one corner of his mouth and the dark glint of unbreakable will.
That should have warned her.
Or hinted that Angel was not backing down.
Too late, she now knew the expected groveling at her feet wasn’t going to happen. Nor would she be hearing: I’m so sorry, Cordy. You were right. Just like you’re always right. I’ve been a stubborn, insensitive, over-protective pain-in-the-ass. Tell me what I can do to make up for being such a jerk.
Nope. Those words? Not in her future anytime soon.
Once their eyes met, Cordelia could not look away. He held her with that intense stare as if daring her to say something defiant to force his hand. He was ready for another fight if she would give him one. Oh, she was ready to wipe that smirk off his handsome face.
Maybe she had already decided that he would not be exiled to the couch tonight, but he had no way of knowing that. “I hope you’re comfortable over there,” she said with a singsong threat. Tossing a couch cushion into his lap, “You’ll be here a while.”
Angel’s brow creased and the confident smirk slid away into a firm line. He flicked a glance toward the book she held before searching her eyes for further meaning. She gave him credit for suspecting the truth, but laughed when he asked, “Research?”
Stretching out one leg, Cordelia nudged his knee with her bare foot. “That’s not what I meant,” she gave him a deadpan stare that told him he should know better than to ask.
Before she could slide her leg back into its tucked position Angel’s hand shot out to hold her foot in place, pulling it into his lap and settling it comfortably onto the cushy pillow she’d tossed his way. She was suspicious for a moment and held her breath as she waited for the tickling to begin, but the hand resting on the top of her foot didn’t budge.
Relaxing, Cordelia stretched out her other leg and wiggled her toes as she propped both feet up. Maybe this situation was not going to be as tense as she imagined. The cloth draped over her lap had shifted. She readjusted it propping the book back in the center as she waited for Angel to speak.
No way was she apologizing for any part of what happened downstairs before he said something first. That continual stare of his was driving her crazy. “Argh! Do you have any idea how unfair it is that you don’t need to blink?”
Just as her eyelids fluttered shut, eyes watering, she caught Angel’s mouth quirk at one corner. The hand on her skin stroked soothingly along her lower leg and back down to the top of her foot. Just that slight touch made her temperature jump up a notch, or maybe it was just the cool press of his skin on hers that made it feel like it was on fire.
There was no way he was going to start something here. Not with Wesley here in the room. Besides, she did not want to talk about it. Now that her plans were set, talking about it might spoil them. There was always the chance that Angel had something up his sleeve to talk her out of it. Though his form of convincing her to do anything was usually physical; one touch from him and she was putty.
Angel’s hand moved across the bridge of her foot, thumb sloping down to stroke the arch. Just as she was starting to enjoy it and her eyes were drifting shut, she heard, “We need to settle this, Cordy.”
Whatever happened to the days where he barely said a word and kept his hands to himself? Oh, yeah. She had cured him of that.
Instead of opening her eyes, Cordelia wriggled her toes, encouraging him to keep on rubbing. He did, but annoyingly enough did not drop the conversation. “You’re used to having the freedom to do anything you want. To go anywhere. I’m not trying to take away that independence.”
So why did she feel like a caged bird these days? “That’s easy for you to say when you can skulk around town all you want.”
“I don’t skulk.”
Cordelia gave him a hard stare, but his eyes dropped away to follow the path of his hands as they moved across her feet. Light strokes deepened to gentle rubs, steady and sure across pressure points she didn’t know existed. Nice. Far better than nice. Damn good. Too good to make him stop.
The book fell from her nerveless fingers into her lap as her body shifted deeper into the couch cushions. A sigh erupted shakily from her throat drawing his gaze back to hers. He looked determined, hungry for something more than just her, and she could feel it in his touch.
It might have been intended to relax her, but it did not. Already on edge, her nerves jittered under her skin. Wanting more. Wanting less. It was not really an option. Not when Angel was using every trick in the book to get her to do what he wanted. Fat chance. Besides, there was a limit to what he could try with Wesley still being in the room.
When Angel’s hands moved above her left ankle to curve around her calf, fingertips pressing deeper and sliding upward toward the curve of her knee, she scooted even further down the couch until her head lay upon on the pillowed armrest. The growing urge to touch herself while he was touching her made her fidget. Her teeth clamped down on her lower lip as she bit back a moan.
“This won’t work.” Cordelia bent her free leg and poked him in the side with her toe.
Angel looked hurt by the accusation. “You don’t like it? I’ll stop.” Yet somehow those big hands kept moving of their own accord.
A loud harrumph sounded nearby. Wesley. For a fraction of a second, Angel’s fingers paused on their slow journey north. Hidden by the position of the couch, Cordelia’s eyes darted in the watcher’s general direction before centering on Angel to silently remind him that they were not alone.
“I’m supposed to be helping Wes. You’re distracting me.” Any other day she would love this kind of distraction. Not today. Not when she was determined to find a little freedom.
“By the way, Wesley,” Angel called out without letting his gaze stray from Cordelia’s face, “I noticed that you’ve got a black ash moustache on your face. Careful or you’ll smear those documents. Originals, aren’t they?”
A horrified gasp filled the air. “My word, how did that get there?” Chair legs scraped the floor. There was a scurry of feet in the direction of the door. Ten seconds was all it took to make Wesley vacate the room.
Cordelia nearly called out to stop him, but she was mesmerized by the dark glint of male satisfaction showing in Angel’s eyes. He’d run off the competition. Gotten the girl. Planned to do wicked things with her.
Oh, crap. Angel didn’t fight fair.
Nervous excitement caused her to shudder. “We’re alone.”
“Looks that way.”
The tone of his voice remained deep and even as he stroked both hands along her leg each time inching higher. Cordelia resisted the temptation to part her thighs to him knowing he would take what she offered. He would touch her just how he knew she liked to be touched. Those knowing fingers sliding deep inside, his thumb rubbing at the right angle to drive her wild.
“You think a little massage is going to make me change my mind?” That would have sounded harsher if she had not closed her eyes and moaned afterward.
“No.” At least he was not completely deluded. “You’re like a little dog with a big bone; too stubborn to give it up.”
Cordelia smirked, “Ignoring the fact that you just compared me to a dog, I do love a good bone.”
Fingers paused along their wayward path as her meaning sunk in. Cordelia watched Angel’s eyes go dark, turn hungry and stare back as if that look alone could devour her whole. His gaze flicked toward the door calculating the time they had before Wes returned.
“We should finish this conversation upstairs,” Angel’s voice thickened, his Adam’s apple bobbing when he swallowed reflexively.
Like that would result in any kind of conversation. Not. Flexing into a sitting position, Cordelia shook her head. She picked up the cloth covering her lap and the book with it and walked on her knees across the length of the couch until she reached Angel. He scooted over a bit to allow her to straddle his thighs.
She sat down, still holding the cloth and the book, trying to look serious when all she really wanted to do was kiss and make up. Angel started to move a hand toward her face, but Cordelia reared back just enough to put him off.
“No, don’t touch me.”
The hand moved back to its place on the curved arm of the couch. Angel tossed her own words back at her. “I thought you were more of a yes person.” They came with a hint of a smoldering smile that tempted her to press her lips to the already faded gash her teeth had left across his mouth.
“If you touch me I won’t be able to think straight,” she confessed. “You won’t be able to think at all. So keep your hands to yourself for a minute.”
Unable to deny it, Angel let her talk.
“You got it wrong down in the basement. I never meant for you to believe that I was planning to walk out on you.” Cordelia kept her hands on the book to steady herself. She wanted to be calm about this, to make Angel see reason.
Angel blinked when he did not have to. For an instant, she thought his eyes glistened, but it might have been a trick of the light. His face closed up again returning to that stony state where his emotions were on lockdown.
“This is all too much, Angel. I have been trying to be strong. So much has happened all at once. You and me. The prophecy. Bev. Living here with our exes watching over us like a pair of rabid…clowns,” she struggled for a description. “It’s important to me to have some time away from all this.”
He opened his mouth to speak, but Cordelia’s hand lifted to cup his cheek effectively asking for silence.
“I need time with you. It doesn’t have to be the Bronze or the mall or anywhere that you think is too dangerous to go. Give me a break from this crazy place.”
The dark veil of his lashes closed down over his eyes as Angel shut them. It closed her off from his reaction, his thoughts, and she failed to stop from trembling at the idea that he might once again deny her a taste of freedom. Short of chaining her to the bed like they had joked, a no would only lead to her defiance. Something Cordy knew might be bad for the two of them, but something she had to do.
Either he was with her or she would do this alone.
At the slight shutter of her fingers against his skin, Angel opened his eyes, looking more uncertain than she had ever seen him. He reached up slowly with both hands tangling in her hair, cupping her head gently in contrast to his tight hold during their frantic clutch in the basement. “Yes.”
“Yes?” Squeeing, she threw her arms around him hugging him tight until the edges of the book poked into their ribs. Angel reached in to drag it out tossing it onto the couch beside them. “I love you so much. Where are we going? When can we leave? Do I have to pack?”
“Not so fast,” Angel tried to caution her not to get too excited. “Let me think about it tonight. We’ll do something tomorrow.”
That sounded fair. He was not trying to put her off, just plan something nice. Cordelia knew this was probably a one-shot deal considering the state of things to come. She planned to enjoy every second.
Cordelia loved the feel of his arms around her, but pulled back just enough to see his face. The sight of her fingerprints darkening Angel’s jaw caused a double take, but she was not going to let a little grunge get in the way of her celebration. “Looks like I left my mark on you more than once today.”
“Um, speaking of—,” her kiss cut him off. Whatever he had to say could wait because she no longer saw any reason to resist the urge to taste him.
Right there where her anger had taken its toll she pressed her lips to his. Soft and full of potential like the first raindrop of a summer storm. An uneven spattering of lightning kisses followed wherever her lips landed next. Electrifying. Charged by the energy of triumph and a hint of forgiveness.
Cordelia paused for a breath, stared hungrily at his mouth again, wanting it. Drawn in as Angel whispered her name, she took him open-mouthed in a slow and steamy caress. Spread across his thighs, her hips hitched up closer writhing anxiously in an unintentional lapdance, she shifted against him branding him with her heat. A grunt caught in his throat, his hands snagging her hips to pull her to his cock. The layers of clothing between them were an irritant.
Losing it completely, shaking with need, she plundered his mouth and rubbed against the fast growing bulge, the friction against her mound driving her delirious. Pleasure streaking through every nerve. Making her want more.
Sliding a hand between their tightly knit bodies Cordy palmed him through his jeans. Angel looked at her through half-slitted eyes, watching desire lighting her face. “We don’t have time for this,” he growled warning her that they had to stop.
She whimpered against his mouth. “No.” Not in agreement, but more of a desperate denial that they had to stop.
Even now she could hear Wesley’s shoes clomping loudly at the far end of the hall. It was not fair. They were never alone anymore.
“When I finally get you to myself, Angel, we’re going to pick up right here,” her hand clutched him firmly. It was much better than making him sleep on the couch. Call it a reward for making the right decision.
135: Crawford Street Mansion, Central Sunnydale
Walking down the corridor at half the usual pace and loudly throat clearing along the way, Wesley came to a halt just short of the study door. His short acquaintance with Cordelia and Angel made it prudent to be cautious. Despite the brief time he was out of the room, anything might have happened.
Most people would have had some propriety, but those two couldn’t keep their hands to themselves. They had that new couple in love aura about them that Wesley was in awe and somewhat jealous about. It was something of a mystery to him. Certainly, it never occurred to him that a vampire would be so enamored of a human, though the soul Angel possessed obviously played a role.
Having read reports about it, he had considered Angel’s relationship with Buffy, the vampire slayer, to be something of a fluke. Mortal enemies drawn to each other in spite of their differences.
This was different. This was something more. Perhaps he would discover what that was through further study.
In the meantime, he could only wish for soundproofed walls or that their tendency to mate like a pair of wild rabbits at odd hours of the night would come to an end. Wes knew there was nothing to be found in such sour milk. The girl was beautiful, and he found her intriguing, but she was most definitely taken.
Pushing the door open, Wes cautiously peeked inside. He sighed, relieved to see the two of them no where near each other. From this angle behind the couch, he noted that Angel appeared to be poking at the ashes in the fireplace. Perhaps looking for additional remnants of the documents Drusilla had burned during her little spree. He saw Cordelia studiously pouring over a page in her assigned book.
All was well. Perhaps now they could get back to the order of the day. Research. This delay was getting them nowhere.
Angel kept his back to him, simply glowering over his shoulder in acknowledgement of his arrival. It made Wesley wonder if the vampire remained suspicious that he had been flirting with Cordelia. Which he had not. No, not at all.
Closer now, Wesley saw that Angel’s normally unruly spiked hair was even more out of whack. It stuck up at odd angles. Further, the cheek turned toward him as Angel glared at him was covered in little black speckles that suspiciously reminded him of smudged fingerprints.
“Something wrong?” Angel asked calmly and without looking Cordelia’s direction.
Wesley adjusted his glasses. Wrong did he ask? It did not take a genius to guess he would find Cordelia Chase in a similar state, but it was impossible not to feel just a bit judgmental and a tinge envious over the lovers’ seemingly irresistible attraction to one another.
Disheveled clothes, unruly hair, dirty faces, a large black handprint across Cordelia’s right ah…chest, and the upside-down book keeping her attention riveted all added up to something.
“Apparently,” Wes’ clipped voice revealed his irritation. It certainly was not research.
136: Parkdale Cemetery, State Street, Central Sunnydale
Faith jogged to a halt at the edge of the cemetery stopping to look across the street toward City Hall. It looked different in daylight, a perfect example of everything that was bright, clean and good about Sunnydale. Bullshit. It was all just a pretty façade.
Sunlight glinted off its sparkling windows much like it did from Mayor Wilkins’ too-charming smile. Cobblestones lined the sidewalks. A whitewashed trim surrounding the front doors always looked freshly painted. Even the lawn appeared greener than green, dandelion free and sported a little ‘Do Not Walk On The Grass’ sign.
Crossing the street, Faith took a shortcut across the common knowing that she was probably the only person in town that could get away with it. The mayor cut her a lot of slack. If she was some little old lady whose dog decided to take a crap on the pristine lawn, she’d probably be slapped with a fine or have her senior citizens bridge club shut down like Bev’s bingo parlor. Worse, being the bunch of frickin’ chowderheads they were, he’d make the public love him for it.
If City Hall was a shiny apple, Wilkins would be the worm at its rotten core. Political intrigues barely scratched the surface of what went on inside those graffiti-free walls. Faith planned to uncover every dark, dirty secret starting with the so-called business meeting Nicolau Cibran had with the mayor before yesterday’s funeral.
Pretending to be secret buddies with Wilkins was getting difficult now that it put her real friends at risk.
She wasn’t anything like the Twinkie and her sidekicks. Making friends wasn’t exactly one of her strengths. Until recently, she didn’t give a shit about that. Then the mayor stepped in. He treated her like she mattered. The things he asked for made her feel needed, like her skills counted for something, not just because she was an accidental fill-in for the true slayer in town.
The mayor might be the real power in Sunnydale, but she no longer saw Wilkins as a sugar daddy or any kind of friend. He was a user and thanks to her real friends, that was something Faith had decided she didn’t want to be.
Just the thought of it brought a dimpled smile to her face. Warm fuzzies squeezed at her heart for a few seconds before Faith shook it off and wondered what the fuck had just happened. It wasn’t a sensation she was used to feeling.
“Must be those leftover chili cheese fries I ate for breakfast.” Getting indigestion was much easier to explain especially when it came to Xander’s cooking. “Trust a vampire who doesn’t eat solid food to put that scrod in charge of the kitchen.”
Letting people get close only made it hurt more when they walked away. So why risk it at all? She was used to taking what she wanted and getting out first. Cordy was a lot like her that way, or used to be. Things weren’t going to be that easy anymore for either of them. This friendship thing was frickin’ hard work.
Faith continued on through the front entrance at a normal pace, blending in with the small crowd milling about inside. No one took notice. They were focused on work or their own troubles. She headed for a back corridor that would lead her to the offices of the mayor.
Giles wanted her to stick with the plan even though it was tempting to forget about the little underworld Wilkins had set up here in Sunnydale. Whatever it was he was up to only proved that he knew everything about the true nature of the town and the kind of creatures that roamed the streets after dark.
From the cops and reporters down to the sanitation crew, everyone who reported to the mayor was part of his scheme to hide the truth from the people of Sunnydale. He liked to call his cover up a way of protecting his constituents.
It was just the routine business of letting people keep their heads up their collective asses. Too bad it was likely to get them killed.
Until Bev’s funeral yesterday, Faith wouldn’t have guessed the mayor had anything to do with the prophecy. The business with Bev and the bingo parlor seemed more like a front for one of Wilkins’ anti-corruption campaign promises than a way to get closer to Cordelia. How could he know Cor was going to be chosen as one of the five sacrifices? Why would he even care?
Showing up with Nicolau was a big time mistake. Faith knew she should’ve followed her instincts. Instead, she ended up lying about his identity. The mayor told her to smooth things over and she practically fell over herself to do it.
She’d lied for that bastard. Thinking about that made her stomach twist into knots. It wasn’t the chili cheese fries this time.
Supposedly he’d been at City Hall conducting business and just happened to come tagging along for the funeral. Next thing the mayor would be telling her to believe in the Tooth Fairy. No sir. Showing up wasn’t a coincidence.
Somehow, Nicolau knew Cordelia would be there and he used his connection with the mayor to wangle his way into meeting her. Faith felt like kicking herself for mistaking a vampire for some foreign hottie. Hello, this was Sunnydale, not Boston. Not exactly the hub of the universe unless you were a demon.
Still, there was something compelling about the way he looked, darkly handsome, almost beautiful. A lot like Angel. He was the kind of vampire that never went hungry because there would always be a surplus of men and women eager to crawl into his bed—or just find the nearest dark corner. If he was human she could definitely go for some of that. Not that vampires couldn’t be hotties. Most just left her cold, or were more appealing to her as a pile of dust.
He might be a Pretty Boy, but the rest of Nicolau’s act was a turn off. Too cultured. Too foreign. He was probably the kind that asked permission before he kissed you. Definitely not her type. Except, of course, that she bet he could go all night, and that was kind of appealing.
Faith shuddered. What was she thinking? Nicolau was a vampire. It had to be the snazzy suit. She thought of her new watcher in his blue suit and bow tie. Guys in suits seemed to be her thing lately.
Maybe it was a good thing she was away from the mansion. Giles would probably be pissed if she seduced the new guy. The last thing she needed was another lecture on controlling her wilder instincts. Oh, he’d made it sound as if he was talking about her sometimes impulsive reactions while in the midst of a fight, but she wasn’t so dumb that she couldn’t read the warning in between the lines.
The air inside City Hall smelled of heavy doses of Lemon Glade and furniture polish. Faith’s nose twitched as she resisted a sneeze. Hiding out behind a tall plant at the edge of the outer office, she waited until the mayor left for an appointment. Giles had given her an assignment that required something other than her usual breaking and entering. It also required that she show up during the day rather than after hours.
The mayor’s inner sanctum wasn’t her target. It was his personal assistant, Mabel Tuttle. Miss Mabel was the deceivingly sweet-little-old-lady type right down to her purple hair and offers of freshly baked cookies, but she kept the mayor’s schedule organized and everyone else in line.
The maintenance crew never questioned the occasional large dust pile or goo-slimed wall that appeared inside the Mayor’s office. This was Sunnydale and strange things happened. When they did, Miss Mabel took care of it by expediting the clean up. She kept the crew on a tight leash.
“Whistle while you work,” Faith had heard her chirp on more than one occasion while ordering the men to scour the floors to her specifications. “Our wonderful mayor likes his people to show that they’re happy with their jobs.”
She’d rather go head-to-head with a demon than tussle with Tuttle. Unfortunately, this job couldn’t wait for the middle of the night when there would be fewer people around. Giles needed specific information and there was only one place to get it.
Taking a second to paste a dimpled smile on her face, Faith rounded the corner and walked over to the tidy oak desk. “Well, well, well, it’s a little early to be seeing you, Faith, my girl. I was sure you street walkers roamed around after dark.”
Oh. So it was going to be one of those days.
A fake smile was apparently easily detected on the old woman’s radar. Faith dropped it. “The mayor doesn’t pay me for coming here if that’s what you’re getting at.” She didn’t like the inference that she was some kind of hooker.
“Whatever you say, dear.” Smiling guilelessly, Miss Mabel lifted up a china plate that was patterned with purple violets and decorated by a white doily. Cookies were piled in a neat little arrangement. “Snickerdoodle?”
Faith knew better than to argue with the woman. She was just trying to rile her up. In a weird kind of way Miss Mabel was a rival for the mayor’s attention. Wilkins had never made any kind of come-on. That had surprised her at first. He wouldn’t have been the first guy his age to try it. They’d built their friendship on mutual respect. Only now she knew that it was actually more of a wobbly house of cards.
The mayor’s real confidant was sitting right there behind the desk. “I need your help with one of the mayor’s projects.” Taking a cookie, Faith nibbled on it. She propped a hip on the edge of Miss Mabel’s tidy desk. The old woman twitched as a few crumbs fell onto the polished desktop.
“Special projects are best discussed directly with the mayor.”
“Oh, no need to bother him. You’re the one with the 411. Can I have another one of those?” Faith reached for another snickerdoodle. “These are the best frickin’ cookies I’ve ever tasted.”
They actually were pretty damn good, but Faith was less interested in baking than she was in getting into Miss Mabel’s good graces. Giles had suggested this forward approach. Faith had been all set to follow the old biddy home, but she supposed it wouldn’t go over very well if she got caught mugging the mayor’s assistant in order to get hold of his personal schedule.
Not that it wasn’t tempting.
Faith spun her carefully woven story. The one where they mayor had asked her for a favor that had to do with Nicolau Cibran. Just the mention of his name caused Mabel Tuttle to titter, “He’s such a handsome man,” and then, lean forward conspiratorially to whisper, “for a vampire. So suave. So debonair,” she sighed.
That settled it. Even though Angel was certain the man at the funeral was actually a vampire, Faith needed to hear it confirmed by other reliable sources. Next to Mayor Wilkins himself, Mabel Tuttle was it.
The old woman’s dreamy smile turned sour when she said, “His girlfriend’s demeanor was quite icy. I didn’t like her at all.”
“Yes, that was her name. Cold as the grave in more ways than one.”
Knowing that Willow had identified Isobel as being at City Hall it made sense that she had been here the same time as her sire, but Willow had cast that spell before the day of the funeral. That meant Wilkins had more than one meeting with Nicolau. “My project for the mayor—uh, can I check out his schedule for the days that Nicolau and Isobel were here?”
There was a long silence as Miss Mabel considered her request. “Certainly. Anything that will help our dear mayor. I know he will want your little project to be a success. There were two occasions.”
An expensive-looking leather binder was placed before her on the desk. Faith flipped through the calendar until she got to the appropriate calendar page. It looked like a pretty typical day with meetings and activities scheduled from 9 a.m. through the late evening:
Greet Scouts. Longshore & Warehouse Union Workers—speech rescheduled. Nicolau Cibran. Attend funeral @ Trinity Church /Beverly Quinn. Haircut. Become Invincible. Meeting with PTA.
There were no other notes surrounding the meeting with Nicolau on the day of the funeral. Just his name. She was annoyed to see Bev’s name scrawled into Wilkins’ schedule. It wasn’t out of respect or a sense of duty, but a chance for publicity that he was there in the first place. She had to wonder whether Nicolau knew the mayor would attend and that Wilkins was his way to crash the funeral or if it was really just a coincidence.
Ticked off, Faith flipped backward in the calendar searching for the first meeting. The words blurred suddenly as something she scanned over on the previous page finally clicked. Turning back to it, she read it again: Become Invincible. It was listed right between a haircut and a meeting with the PTA as if it was something just as routine.
That was yesterday, so if things went as scheduled, Wilkins was now invincible. Faith started to think that the mayor was up to a helluva lot more than she ever imagined. Looking up at Miss Mabel who was watching her every reaction like a hawk eyeing its prey, she asked, “What’s this mean?”
Before she could respond, the mayor made a grand entrance into the room, his arms opening wide as he saw Faith chatting with his personal assistant. “My favorite girls. It’s early for you, Faithy. I didn’t expect to see you today.”
Sliding off the edge of the desk Faith straightened up and smiled instead of saying what she was really thinking. Fuuuuck. What’s he doing back so early? Now she had no choice but to talk directly to the mayor. When he headed for his private office, she followed leaving the ever-watchful Miss Mabel back at her desk.
Plopping down into the cushioned leather chair in front of his desk, Faith stretched out her legs, crisscrossing them at the ankles. Getting comfortable, or at least doing her best to look that way. Since she didn’t normally show up here during office hours it seemed best to cut straight through the bull.
“I was curious about that guy from the funeral. You don’t usually get so worked up about out-of-towners. Must be some important hotshot.”
Wilkins swiveled his chair in order to face her directly. His eyes narrowed slightly as he studied her and Faith fought against the urge to squirm under his gaze. Staring back, she waited him out in silence.
“Do you know what he is?” the mayor finally asked.
“A vampire,” Faith responded without hesitation. Apparently, it wasn’t a secret from Miss Mabel, so she doubted Wilkins planned to keep the truth totally under wraps. “A vampire who doesn’t go up in flames when he stands in the sun. Kinda breaks all the rules, doesn’t it?”
Wilkins looked contemplative for a moment. “I don’t like people who break the rules, Faithy.” It went unsaid that any rule breaking could only be done for his personal benefit. “This vampire is something of a mystery. There is very little information to be found through the usual channels.”
Trying not to look as surprised as she felt, Faith wasn’t very successful. It showed on her face. “You don’t know the guy?” She had started to build up this big expectation that all of Wilkins’ sneaky underhandedness had to do with the prophecy. How could he be involved and not know about the vamp in charge?
Looking troubled, the mayor actually frowned. “No. What little I do know is rather worrisome. A vampire who comes directly to me to help suppress news regarding a demon gathering knows more than he should.”
Guessing he wasn’t completely in the dark, Faith prompted, “Demon gathering?”
“Oh, some little ritual at the Hellmouth.” Now the usually unflappable mayor sounded annoyed. “Cibran was rather evasive when I questioned him. There is something happening in my town that I am not organizing. I don’t like it, Faithy. Not one bit.”
It seemed Mayor Wilkins knew less than she did about Nicolau Cibran. “So why did he tag along to the funeral yesterday?”
“At first I suspected it was something of a power play. To prove he could survive the sunlight. Showing off an ability no other vampire could match.” His theory changed upon arriving at the funeral, Wilkins explained. He saw that the vampire’s attention was focused, not on the two slayers in the crowd as would any mortal enemy, but on Beverly Quinn’s granddaughter. “Then I realized his interests were elsewhere.”
“Your pretty little friend certainly drew his attention in a way that was beyond a vampire looking for his next meal. He seems to like brunettes.”
Faith recognized the look in his eyes that told her she was not going to like what came out of his mouth. “Don’t even think about it.”
Smiling, Wilkins leaned forward across his desk. “You can do this for me, Faith. It is important for me to know that Cibran’s plans aren’t going to interfere with mine.”
“What exactly are your plans?” Assuming that the mayor hadn’t already noticed that she was looking at his personal schedule, Tuttle would tell anyway. So it didn’t seem like a risk to comment on what she saw there. “This Cibran guy is invulnerable to the sunlight. You’re invincible now, too. What’s up with that?”
Rather than being surprised or irritated, he smiled even wider. “All in good time, my dear. You’ll play an important role in my future success, but first we have to get a handle on the competition.”
Faith wondered what competition he was talking about.
Decision made, Richard Wilkins relaxed back into his chair, drummed his fingers on his desktop and told Faith what he wanted her to do. When he was finished, Faith did not try to hide her annoyance. “For someone who gives speeches about the moral decay of society, you’ve got a pretty damn strange way of showing you believe it.”
He tutted at her use of language, but Faith wasn’t finished. “I’m frickin’ tired of being pimped out to vampires. First it was Angelus and now Nicolau. I’m a slayer.”
“You’ll do whatever and be whatever it takes. That’s what friends do for each other. Right now that means keeping a close eye on Nicolau Cibran.”
“How am I supposed to do that? I’m supposed to be keeping tabs on Buffy and her little slay pals.”
Picking up a pen, the mayor printed out an address. “Miss Summers isn’t interfering with my plans at the moment. Beverly Quinn’s death worked to my advantage in more ways than one.”
Guilt still held her in a tight grip. Faith was not exactly the forgiving type even when it came to herself. The part she played in Bev’s death would be with her forever. It was not something to be proud of even though it cemented the mayor’s belief that she was on his side.
Wilkins put the pen down. “Her granddaughter’s grief splits your friends’ priorities. That will give you the opportunity to focus on Cibran.”
Faith glanced at the small square of stationary pushed to the edge of the desk. “He’s staying at the Avalon?” Luxury apartments on the south side of town. Security 24/7. Ocean view. Ritzy. The kind of place you could not get in the front gate without some kind of appointment.
“Find out everything you can.”
Killing two birds with one stone sounded a lot easier. “I’d rather just stake him.” The minute she told Angel the news she figured Nicolau was going to be dust, one way or another.
Not opposed to that option, Wilkins reminded her, “A vampire with the kind of power he possesses is not easily killed or controlled.”
“Who said anything about wanting it easy?” Faith winked over her shoulder.
Before she made it out the door, he offered, “Do this for me and I’ll see that you get your own place at the Avalon.”
That charming smile spread across his face and Faith felt it reel her in. He’d talked about it before. Getting her out of the snakepit that was the Downtowner Motel and Apartments was something he’d been promising like a proverbial dangling carrot. The Avalon was far beyond anything she imagined he’d be willing to set her up in.
The idea of living in a classy place made her pause in the doorway, the surprise on her face quite genuine. “Really? Me in a place like that.”
“Only the best for my favorite girl.”
137: Sunnydale High School, Eastside, Sunnydale
“I can’t believe Snyder gave us detention,” grumbled Buffy as she filled a pail of water from the janitor’s closet. “For once I was just an innocent bystander.”
Oz felt that detention was too harsh a measure in this instance. If only Xander’s little Jell-O demonstration of splatitude had not accidentally involved the principal’s suit they might have gotten out of it. Now they were stuck cleaning graffiti that someone else had sprayed across school grounds.
Still, there was no use fighting about it. The stoic demeanor that normally kept him off Snyder’s radar no longer applied when he was anywhere near Buffy Summers. It was guilt by association pure and simple. Oz accepted this as an unchangeable fact.
Even though Buffy had nothing to do with Xander’s lunchtime Jell-O mishap or, as she had indicated, the theft of items from the school Chemistry Lab, Buffy was under the principal’s constant scrutiny. Having learned from Willow that there was a gym fire at Buffy’s last school, Oz could understand the concern, especially since Buffy tended to be in the thick of things when something went wrong.
Cleaning a little graffiti was a small price to pay compared to what he got out of this business. Considering what might have become of him if the werewolf hunters found him, he was grateful that the slayer found him first.
He listened quietly as Buffy outlined their assigned tasks, inwardly amused that she doled out duties much like she did when organizing patrol. Oz didn’t often join them on their nightly excursions, but Willow extolled their adventures in detail. Sometimes it bothered him that his girlfriend was placed in dangerous situations, but there was pride, too. Her skills and confidence had grown by leaps and bounds since they first met.
Sometimes he felt like he was holding her back. Witches and werewolves belonged to different worlds despite their link to the supernatural.
Catching himself focused on thoughts that were better left to another day, he blinked slowly and then let his mind catch up with the conversation.
“Holy cow, Batman.”
A gleep sounded as Willow rounded the corner leading up the library. “Giles is gonna be the one having the cow.”
Oz took in the dark red splotches covering the walls. Symbols scarred every surface. Paint dripped like blood. This was not the work of disgruntled students marring the walls with the name of their favorite bands. He’d seen the Dingo’s name depicted in artful forms more than once.
The way that Buffy carefully set her full water pail down and moved cautiously down the hall scanning the symbols raised the hairs on the back of his neck. Oz sensed her nervous reaction.
“It looks like blood.”
“Paint,” Oz confirmed. He could smell it.
Buffy glanced at them over her shoulder, her eyes dark, shadowed by something Oz could fully understand, a predator sensing danger. She met Willow’s gaze, and then Xander’s before nodding toward one particular symbol on the library door. “That’s it, right? It’s the one from the ring. Amolon.”
Their nods confirmed it.
Having just learned some of the details, Oz took this to be a very bad sign. Demons were gathering in Sunnydale for a ritual that would bring a powerful god to Earth. It required sacrifices including Cordelia Chase if they were correct about the prophecy scroll’s method of identifying its victims.
There were too many people looking out for Cordelia to ever let that happen. So he hoped. Her old friends, the Cordettes, would have sooner thrown her to the wolves if it meant facing the kind of danger she was in. They were superficial, clueless about the realities of Sunnydale. Oz had to give Cordelia a lot of credit for overcoming that.
Like him, he was at the fringes of the Scooby Gang, an outsider of sorts who didn’t really belong. He wondered if she saw it that way or if her return to their ranks after the rebar accident was the only way she could cling to something meaningful. Or if, given the choice, she didn’t want to go back to the life she had before. Oz supposed that she couldn’t considering her financial circumstances, which Willow had revealed to him.
Buffy didn’t wait to issue orders. She barged through the library doors calling out her watcher’s name. Both Willow and Xander took off next and so Oz followed after them though at a protracted pace. He paused to touch his fingers to the paint. They came away tinted red.
The paint was still fresh.
Snyder had not mentioned the library as being the target of the graffitist. They had been headed for the back exit where the principal had described damage to the outer walls of the school. That was why the students hadn’t been gossiping about it all day long. It was closer to the teachers’ parking lot than any section of the school where the students hung out.
Now it was here in the halls outside the library. Oz pictured the school layout. It was a ring of symbols. A partial one. He was mentally tracking the path of halls someone would have to take to make a complete circle when Giles and the others swept past him through the other door.
As expected, Mr. Giles was stunned by the sight of demonic symbols marking the walls around the entrance to the library. “This is the work of Amolon’s demon cult.”
Oz remained silent for a moment as he waited to hear what else Buffy or Giles had to say on the subject. Having been informed of most of this second hand he felt it was better to hold back and assess the situation before diving into trouble.
“How’d they do this? There are still people around.” Buffy hissed angrily over the fact that her enemies had come and gone while laying waste to her territory.
Gesturing to the scrub brushes in Willow’s hands, Giles commented, “I see that you plan to clean it up. Excellent notion, though I admit something of a surprise.”
“Nah, we’ve got detention,” clarified Xander. “Snyder nabbed us at lunchtime.”
“Ah. That, however, is not.” Giles pursed his lips and stood akimbo as he perused the damage. “I heard nothing.” He explained that he had been conducting research in his office. “This wasn’t here earlier today.”
Choosing that moment, Oz raised his stained fingers so the others could see. Willow caught on right away. “Fresh paint,” she gasped. “It hasn’t been here since lunch.”
“So the culprit could still be around.” Stepping away from the group, Buffy peered back down the hall, her eyes flitting across every diverging corridor. “Maybe we can catch this demony creep and get him to tell us where to find his boss.”
The vampire who could survive sunlight. Oz made the connection based on what was said about Cordelia’s grandmother’s funeral. “If the symbols are here…,” Oz raised a brow as he looked toward Giles who quickly came to the same conclusion.
“The ritual is connected with the Hellmouth.”
Buffy told Giles, “The rest of the graffiti is outside near the back entrance.”
“The beginnings of a circle,” Oz suggested.
“Of course,” Giles turned himself around in a slow circle as he gaze down the corridor and back through the glass portion of the library door toward the back of the room. “If the demon is still on school grounds…,” he began only to see Buffy sprint away in the direction of the trail of symbols before he could finish, “it will be that way.”
The slayer had already vanished around the corridor before any of them managed to break into a run. “Wait up, Buffster!” Xander called out as he and Willow headed in that direction.
Oz and Giles, still standing firm, both sighed over the fact that it would’ve taken a lot less effort if anyone actually listened before dashing into the fray. Glancing up at the watcher, Oz waved a hand in the direction of the library door. “Short cut?”
“Emergency exit,” Giles nodded in confirmation as they headed back into the library.
The afternoon sun glinted into his eyes as he emerged outside. Oz shaded them by raising a hand to block the light. A quick scan of the side of the building showed a lone figure huddled close to the wall. Buffy burst onto the scene. Oz had seen her in action before, but it still stunned him to see how quickly she could move.
Willow and Xander appeared after that, but the Slayer was already halfway to her quarry. It didn’t look like a demon, he noted, though the strong light created more of a silhouette. The creature took no notice of the oncoming danger continuing to brush painted symbols in a large arc across the brick surface.
It was surrounded, Oz realized with a twinge of satisfaction, as he and Giles ran from one direction while Willow and Xander covered the other. Buffy went straight for it. With a flying leap she tackled it to the ground. A feminine screech sounded followed by a flurry of movement as the Slayer rolled across the grass to straddle and pin her opponent down.
Slowing up as he got closer, he saw that it was not a demon, but a girl. Someone he knew. Someone they all knew. Karla Brewer, the first one identified by the signs of the prophecy and taken to be a sacrifice.
She was alive…
And, for some reason, was painting demonic symbols on the school.
Buffy recognized as soon as she had forced her into a position from which she could not break free. “Karla?”
The blank eyes that stared back showed none of Karla’s blue-eyed warmth. Tinted black, they revealed nothing human. “He shall come.” A string of demonic sounds followed before she repeated, “He shall come and only the worthy will embrace his power.”
Letting go one arm, Buffy slapped her across one cheek hard enough to leave a red mark behind. “Snap out of it, Karla.”
There was no effect. Oz hadn’t expected that anything as simple as pain would break the hold over his schoolmate’s mind. “She doesn’t even recognize the sound of her own name.”
138: The Basement, Crawford Street Mansion, Central Sunnydale
“So what are you saying?” Cordelia tried to sound nonchalant about it. “That I’ll end up like her?”
They had no choice but to bring Karla Brewer back to the mansion. Until they found a way to return her to normal, neither the police nor her parents could offer suitable protection. Right now the girl was shackled with a pair of iron cuffs and the matching link chain that Buffy had used to secure Angel when he returned from hell.
Angel put his arm around Cordy’s shoulder squeezing her close as she leaned in. “It won’t happen. They’re never going to get their hands on you. I won’t let it happen.”
He rubbed his cheek against her hair and kissed the top of her head, uncertain if he was comforting her or trying to convince himself. No matter how many times he said it.
“This is actually a rather hopeful sign.” Wesley crouched down to examine the bound girl more closely. She was huddled against the stone wall, legs pulled up close to her chest, and her arms wrapped around them. A low hum sounded from her throat that was interspersed by bouts of unfamiliar words and quite distinguishable phrases that predicted the coming of Amolon.
Giles raised his glasses up a notch to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Hopeful in what way?”
Leaving the cleanup job for later they worked together to get Karla Brewer back to the mansion. Oz volunteered the use of his van. The demented girl struggled against Buffy’s hold and it took Xander’s help to keep her from kicking free. Willow rode up front with her boyfriend while Giles had followed behind them in his own car.
“She’s alive,” Wes pointed out.
“Being dead is a whole lot more fun than what that girl’s going through,” Spike put in his two cents. Having heard the commotion as the slayer and her watcher dragged the girl through the front door, he decided to head downstairs and join the others.
Drusilla wasn’t so keen on him leaving their bed, but he needed a stretch of the legs. He had stepped into his jeans and headed downstairs barefoot and shirtless pausing only long enough to confirm that his sire would follow shortly.
Ignoring Spike’s comment, Wesley explained his rationale. “This may be reversible. If we keep both her and Cordelia out of their hands before the requisite ritual, they will be unable to perform it.”
“Score 2 points for the Scoobies.” Xander and Willow exchanged high fives.
Giles glanced toward the front entrance and then checked his watch. “We have six hours before the signs of the prophecy recommence. According to the scroll the next sacrifice will be revealed tonight.”
“Another virgin sacrifice?” sniggered Xander whose amusement was cut short when Buffy nudged him a little too hard with her elbow.
“Worried you’re on the list, monkey boy?” Spike asked snorted and pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his back pocket.
Groaning, Buffy muttered into Xander’s ear, “Ixnay on the irginvay.” The last thing she wanted was to get into the whole Cordelia-doesn’t-qualify thing again.
Heavy with doubt, Giles told them, “The scroll was rather vague on the matter of the sacrifice’s identity.”
“No, it’s not.” Cordelia snapped out of her temporary gloom to tell them of Wesley’s discovery. His eureka moment had come after she’d gone upstairs with Angel, but he had been eager enough to knock on their door.
Angel wasn’t exactly pleasant about the interruption of their little afternoon ‘nap’ and Cordy had spent most of the time hiding under the covers. It was one thing for Wes to know she slept with Angel, but quite another for him to see proof of it.
She walked across the foyer in the direction of the study. “You’ve got to see this.” If not for the commotion of bringing Karla Brewer back to the mansion, Wes would’ve pounced on Giles and Buffy the moment they arrived. “It’s the scrolls. Wes says we owe it all to Drusilla, dontcha Wes?”
Looking a little miffed that she had gotten to the story before him, Wesley rose to his feet again. “Precisely.”
As if on cue, the vampiress descended the stairs dressed in one of her lace gowns. A knowing smirk tilted the corners of her mouth. She held out her hand for Spike who led her back to the group. Her eyes were focused solely on her sire. “Does it please you, my Angel?”
Spike scowled and dropped Drusilla’s hand.
“It helps,” Angel answered and maneuvered around before she could nuzzle his shoulder. He squeezed her hand instead which made Dru’s little pout disappear.
She turned back to Spike when Angel released her. “Daddy says I did good.”
Still scowling, Spike took a deep drag and blew the smoke in her face. “Well, maybe he’ll give you a little treat and let you tie him up.”
Cordelia stopped on her way down the hall and turned back to glare at Spike. “That’s my vampire. I’m the only one who gets to do that.”
She spun around again so that her hair whipped around nearly catching Wes in the face. Drusilla tittered as she followed behind Cordelia leaving the others gaping in Angel’s direction. Buffy’s eyes were round saucers. Xander looked like he might be sick. The hue of Willow’s face nearly matched her hair and Oz’ ears were a bright shade of pink. Even the two watchers tried to look like they hadn’t heard a thing.
“Hypothetically speaking,” Angel said as he wished for the hundredth time that this was all over and these people would get the hell out of his house. He walked over to Wesley who was standing in the middle of the hall staring into space. “You planned to show us your discovery.”
Blinking back from the naughty corner of his mind where Cordelia had him tied up to a bed, Wesley hurried to the study. When everyone was settled, he asked Cordelia to help him with the scroll. She held one end and he the other. The firelight blazed with a yellow glow behind it.
Slowly, the blank spaces of the parchment began to fill. First came random symbols, and then words that became whole paragraphs of hidden text revealed by the light.
“Drusilla’s vision was spot on even if her action of burning the books,” Wes paused to send her a stern glance, “was uncalled for.”
“Dark secrets cast long shadows when they come into the light.” Giles repeated what Drusilla had revealed to them before. “The light brings truth and darkness.”
“So what does it say?” asked Buffy anxious for news that would let them put a stop to this prophecy once and for all.
Wesley explained that he was still translating the whole of the text. “However, I was able to find a reference to the next sacrifice. Just here,” he pointed to the glowing text for Giles’ benefit. Translating: “Bound by law, granted freedom’s breath, and a momentary respite bringing him into the waiting arms at the maw of Hell.”
“What’s that mean?” Willow whispered and snuggled closer to Oz on the couch.
Having remained quiet until now, Oz made a guess. “It’s a prisoner. Someone bound by law. A man with temporary freedom from jail. Coming here to Sunnydale. Back to the Hellmouth.”
“Is that right?” Xander looked to Wes for answers, to Giles, to Drusilla, to anybody. “That can’t be right. Karla and Cordy…they’re the virg—pure-ish types. Some convict can’t be considered pure, can he?”
Angel had been thinking about that issue from the moment Wesley told him about it earlier that afternoon. They had all made the assumption that deflowering Cordelia might disqualify her for the ritual. The truth was that the prophecy never mentioned virgin sacrifices. It only referred to the Pure Ones, they who would be used to bring the demon god to Earth by sacrificing their purity.
“We may have to rethink that.” Angel hated to admit it because it meant Cordy was not exempt. He’d never truly believed it, but he had wanted to.
“Guess this means we have to talk strategies for tonight.” Buffy was all set. She was ready to kick some demon butt tonight even if it meant saving some ex-con.
The interpretation of the translation seemed sound. The nearest prison was quite a distance away and there were many routes a traveler could take to get to town. “We need to watch the highways, the Bus Depot, the railroad and the marina.”
Cordelia foresaw another night of being locked up for her own safety. “That’s a lot of territory to cover. You’ll need help.”
“I’ve got my van,” Oz reminded them. “Willow and I can cruise the highway.”
“Thanks, but I was thinking about—”
Spike cut in just because she was looking in his general direction. “Me? Bloody hell. Why should I go traipsing all over town looking for some wanker?”
It was Drusilla who answered, lifting a long finger to his lips. “Because Cordy wants you to help.”
Angel’s brow furrowed at the thought of having Spike on the job, but Cordelia was definitely right about them having a lot of town to cover.
Against his better judgment, he consented. “Okay, Spike can help.”
“Me, doofus,” Cordelia smacked his arm. “I’m going with you tonight. Team Chase is back in business.”
Before World War III could break out, Xander asked, “How do we recognize this guy when he shows up? The first time a guy went up in flames and then a meteor shower came down on Cor’s head.”
“Just watch for something out of place,” suggested Wes thinking that the boy was not far off the mark. The prophecy remained rather vague. “We have a better idea what to expect than we did this morning.”
“That’s nice to know, Pollyanna,” Spike puffed on his cigarette as he spoke. “Now tell us what qualifies as out of place in this ruddy town?”
They bantered back and forth while Cordelia and Angel took their own argument into a corner. “This isn’t what I had in mind when I promised to take you out.”
Angel was treading softly and Cordy knew she had him where she wanted him. There was no way she was letting him renege on the promises he’d made just a couple of hours ago. “So what? As dates go, I can think of worse things than a moonlight walk along the marina. At least it’s not Old Sunnydale Cemetery this time.”
The inner battle Angel fought against an outright refusal was settled with a gruff, “I don’t want you hurt.”
“Maybe we’ll get lucky and Team Chase will miss out on all of the excitement tonight. Wanna make me happy?” Cordelia slid her arms around his neck and smiled when he pulled her close.
“Take me to dinner. There’s a restaurant by the marina. It’s open late.” Cordelia was more interested in spending a romantic evening away from the Scoobies than the ex con they were supposed to save from certain sacrifice. “Plenty of time to ourselves before Cinderella’s clock goes off at midnight.”
Across the room, Buffy noticed Giles checking his watch for the third time in as many minutes. “Got somewhere else you need to be?”
It took a second for him to notice she was addressing her question to him. “Ah, no. I was concerned about Faith.”
For the first time since they returned to the mansion with Karla, she noticed that the other slayer was nowhere to be seen. Cocking her head, she stared at Giles’ worried expression. “Why worry? Faith’s a big girl.”
Talking about Faith brought Wesley into the discussion. He knew about Giles’ plans to send Faith to City Hall. Whist he had not fully approved of them, he saw no other choice. “She should have returned hours ago. You mean to tell me that she hasn’t been with you at the school library?”
“Faith doesn’t exactly hang out there by choice,” Xander explained suddenly feeling kinda worried, too. Ever since he learned that she was acting as a double agent of sorts he decided that he really didn’t like the idea of her sneaking around with the mayor. He was not quite sure if that was because he did not fully trust Faith like he did Buffy or if it was because the mayor did. “Some people are lucky and aren’t forced to live a life of suffering anymore.”
Wesley could not imagine what he meant.
“I like school,” Willow defended the institution and smiled over at Oz who was far too wise to say anything one way or another.
Having overheard that Faith was overdue from her little secret mission, Cordelia was not about to let the news slip by. “Was she supposed to check in? You don’t think the mayor figured it out she was two-timing him with us, do you?”
Buffy crossed her arms and repeated what she had said to Giles. “Faith knows how to handle herself. She’s not a total idiot. She probably got bored. If I find out she’s at the Bronze…”
Behind them, Faith suddenly stepped out of the shadows of the open door. “You’ll do what, Buff, spank me?”
“It’s about bloody time.” Giles did not give Buffy a chance to respond. He walked up to her prepared to give her a lecture and was stunned into silence when she planted a quick kiss on his cheek.
“Nice to see someone missed me,” she teased him as he fled back behind the desk to wipe away the red lipstick. “Anyone else want a kiss?”
Spike started to move forward when her stare stopped him cold. “Not you.”
Standing with her hands behind her back, Faith grinned until her dimples deepened. “Guess what I’ve been doing?”
“Can I have a go at that one?” Spike raised his scarred brow in a teasing query.
Buffy pulled him back to sit beside her on the couch, closer than she liked, but where she could keep an eye on him. “Shut up, Spike.”
“You gonna let the slayer talk to me like that when I’m a guest in your house?” Spike asked Angel, gesturing widely with one hand while slipping an arm on the back of the couch behind Buffy’s shoulders with the other.
“Yes.” Angel answered curtly and gave him a look that told the other vampire that he saw exactly what he was doing. “If you consider yourself a guest, then you’ll keep to the house rules.”
Spike sighed dramatically. “No toying with the slayers.” He let his fingertips trace a strand of silky blond hair only to feel the sharp jab of an elbow. Grunting, he added, “Whatever you say, Grandpops. Mummy taught me to respect my elders.”
As Spike and Drusilla shared a little laugh, Angel looked over at Cordy who was not doing a very good job of hiding her own amusement. “You and me. Nine o’clock. The marina.”
He finally understood Cordelia’s need to get away from everyone for a while.
“Before you make plans for that big date,” Faith took another step into the room, “I have something to show you.”
She took something from behind her back and held it out to them: a porcelain doll dressed in red velvet and lace with ribbons decorating her dark curly hair.
“Miss Edith,” Drusilla squealed and made a run for the doll. Snatching her out of the slayer’s hand, she hugged her tight to her chest, and rocked her back and forth. “Miss Edith, you’re home. Naughty girl letting the bad man take you away. You’ll have to be punished.”
Wesley walked cautiously around the twirling vampiress as she continued to dance around the room in celebration of her beloved doll’s return. “Where in the world did you get her?” he asked Faith.
“Nicolau’s lair is at the Avalon. Or it was until today. Looks like our vamp has moved somewhere else.” Faith described what she found and ignored the general grumbling that she should have waited for back up. “I was just checking it out. Recon. Nothing dangerous.”
Ticked off that Faith would go off on her own like that, Cordelia was not planning to let it drop. Neither was Angel. “What if you were walking into a trap? Or a full lair? Nico would love to get his hands on you.”
“Feeling’s mutual,” she shrugged.
“That’s not what he meant,” Cordelia snapped impatiently, “and you know it.”
“Save the lecture, Cor. I do not need it. There is something else. It came with the doll. They were the only things left in the place when I got there.” Reaching into her back pocket, she pulled out a long envelope and handed it to Angel. “That’s for you.”
Angel took a long look at the old-fashioned script that spelled out his name: Angelus.
139: The Desert, Thirty-Five Miles Northeast of Sunnydale
It was a long walk from the cement walls of the Federal Correctional Complex to the barbwire fences that separated it from the California desert. Only a few had dared to escape. None ever made it. Harry Sims had never even tried.
He knew that he did not need to.
A full six months before he was up for parole again, something already twice denied him, Harry was granted a visitor. The news surprised him. It was late. And it was not a Saturday when his wife showed up for their conjugal visits only to bitch at him over the fact that her BMW was in the shop again. His momma came around on the first and third Monday every month. And his younger brother— hell, the last time Harry saw him was the day he got convicted.
The guard stood outside the room after letting his visitor inside. Harry stayed seated. It worked better that way, being handcuffed and all. His visitor wore Armani. It had been a long time since Harry had worn anything but an orange jumpsuit. He did not know the man from jack, but knew the instant he set his fancy leather briefcase on the table just what he represented.
A smile spread across Harry’s face. Finally, the day had come.
“Mr. Sims, my name is Jake Devries.” He produced a card from a tiny leather holder and slid it across the table. The logo of Wolfram & Hart was emblazoned across it. “I’m your lawyer.”
140: The Study, Crawford Street Mansion, Central Sunnydale
His name was written in blood.
Dark red letters scrawled the name Angelus across the envelope suffusing it with an unmistakable scent. Not the sweet, coppery tang of human blood even in dried form. This was tainted by death.
He had noticed the subtle scent upon Faith’s arrival, but it was not until she handed him the envelope that he was hit with the full effect. Nicolau. It was as if a rival vampire had entered the mansion uninvited.
Reacting instantaneously, white-hot anger shot along Angel’s spine building into a latent roar that tangled up in his chest. A rippling sensation raced across his brow as it always did just before the visible traces of his humanity slipped away. The demon within him clawed for release eager to pave the way to hell with the enemy’s body parts, all in a split-second reaction.
Only the startled look on Faith’s face made him realize what was happening before he fully vamped out. For an instant, he was caught halfway between his human mask and vampire features. Golden eyes stripped of the limitations of human sight took in the shadows, the way the firelight danced on the exposed skin of her throat.
The piercing release of fangs had just begun when…
“Down, boy. Don’t kill the messenger.” Trust Cordelia to notice, too. He felt her hand slide up along his back, warm, melting away some of the tension in his tightly corded muscles. “It’s just a letter. Right?”
Somehow, Angel pulled it together. With a reflexive shake of his head, he was human again, at least on the outside.
No one else had noticed his brief struggle. They were all focused on the envelope in his hand trying to guess at the nature of its contents.
Even before opening the envelope, he knew that they would be wrong.
“It’s a challenge,” Buffy sounded almost eager for it. “Setting the time and place for a showdown.”
If only it was.
Letters were safe, easy, civilized. That is what this was even though it was written in Nicolau’s own blood. Well, Angel did not want civilized. He wanted a fight.
He knew he was not going to get one.
Not yet, anyway.
Isobel would have passed on his message to her sire. If Nicolau had any intention of responding in person to his demand for a face-to-face meeting, he would have shown up on his doorstep. This was just supposed to get his attention.
Well, it worked.
This was no ordinary letter. Still, he was tempted to toss it unread into the fire and watch it turn to ash.
“Cheap ink. It’s all crumbly.” Cordelia’s observation included that ‘eew’ tone as if she suspected the truth, but would rather believe otherwise. The lettering flaked in spots across the parchment envelope revealing the ink’s true nature and creating imperfect streaks in the carefully penned letters.
Though standing ten feet away, Spike noticed it as he finally paid attention. He vamped out not bothering to hide his reaction to the enemy’s scent. “Blood.” A growl rumbled in his throat. “Not fooling around, is he?”
Gritting his teeth, Angel managed a curt, “No.” The method in which it was written revealed the letter’s intent. A truce. The idea was beyond belief. Ridiculous.
Cordelia shuddered and ran her hands over her crossed arms as goosebumps appeared. “Could that guy get any creepier?”
Xander did not think so. “Chock-full-o-nuts vamp is just trying to scare us.”
The boy was looking a little green around the gills, Angel decided. “It’s not what you think. This is Blood Script.”
“I’m pretty much thinking,” Xander used air quotes, “‘Psycho Vampire’ covers it.”
Nicolau’s obsession with prophecy notwithstanding, he was not completely psychotic. This was not a crude threat. Blood Script served as an oath between equals. Its use was deeply traditional amongst vampires, considered elegant, and to Angel’s mind, overly dramatic— much like Nicolau himself.
Both watchers confirmed they had heard of it.
Giles tapped his glasses against mouth before commenting. “I was unaware that the clans still used Blood Script to communicate.”
“We don’t,” Spike scoffed loudly.
“Ah, but you do,” countered Wesley. “Or perhaps I should say the more sophisticated vampires do.”
Still vamped out, Spike leaned closer to Wes who scrambled to clarify his statement. “It’s a very old practice. Not at all popular with the modern minded. Quite outdated now that you mention it.”
Used only by the oldest of the clans and rarely by anyone other than their leaders, it was proof that the letter came from the one writing it. Vital information was shared by spilling what was ultimately vital to oneself. It came with an expectation of trust.
A concept apparently lost on the messenger.
Cracks in the red wax seal on the back of the envelope indicated that Angel would not be the first to examine the contents. Looking to Faith for an explanation he watched as her jaw set and her chin jerked up a notch.
“You opened this.”
Standing cross-armed, she shifted her balance from one leg to the other. Not denying it, she simply shrugged one shoulder.
“Duh, of course she opened it.” Cordelia rolled her eyes at him before asking Faith, “So what’d it say?”
There was no use getting angry at Faith. Even before getting to the letter, Angel had a feeling the slayer’s curiosity had gone unsatisfied. He was right.
“Wish I could tell you, Cor, but it’s written in some kind of vampire code.”
“Well that sucks.” Cordy pouted in an adorable way that had him staring at her lush lips, remembering their softness and the warm depths of her mouth. The memory of their last kiss nearly made him miss the concern weighting down her otherwise airy words. “I guess he didn’t want anyone reading your mail.”
Indulging her with a brief smile for her ability to lighten any situation, Angel met her gaze and held it. The others might not recognize her true feelings, but he did. Worry pooled in those brown depths as he stared into them. Love and concern for what the letter might reveal, fear for him, for herself.
Were they reflecting his fears instead of hers?
There was no reflection, of course, just the flickering firelight and— impatience. Matching expressions of mild annoyance made him wonder just how long he had been staring. Wesley somehow managed to sneak up on him to get a closer look at the envelope and was craning his neck at an odd angle in order to see the details of the inscription.
Angel glared at him until he backed off a couple of steps.
Pushing up the glasses that had slipped down his nose, Wesley excitedly explained to them, “Coded communiqués between vampire clans were in vogue back in the days when only clergy and certain levels of society could read. There are several popular ciphers. Decoding them is something of a hobby of mine.”
Cordelia rolled her eyes at him. “Eager much? Try not to drool on it.”
“I am merely attempting to offer my expertise,” defended Wes with a harrumph. “I am highly rated by the Council, I’ll have you know.”
Standing to Angel’s immediate right and facing Wes at the opposite side, Cordelia let out a rude snort. “Oh, I think you’ve mentioned it…like a dozen times.”
“Certainly not. You exaggerate.”
In the middle of a combat zone where verbal barbs shot back and forth, Angel nearly told them to shut up. Then, realizing that their little tiff allowed him to scan the first paragraph of the letter without interruption, he said nothing and started to read.
There was no code, but he could see why Faith was not able to understand a word of it. He got no further than the opening statement when Willow asked, “Is it written in blood, too?”
Angel was too caught up in the contents of the letter to answer. Her question was apparently enough to make Wesley realize that bantering with Cordy was pointless because he stopped mid sentence to respond. “No doubt. However, it’s the nature of the blood that conveys a particular message to the recipient.”
“You lot got nothing better to do than study vampires?” growled Spike.
Faith did. “Stake ‘em.”
“Know thy enemy,” Wes quoted Sun Tzu applying the art of war to humanity’s long fought battle against demon kind. “The Watcher’s Council has a few samples of Blood Script letters preserved in the special collections section of the archives.”
“Speaking of the enemy,” Xander gulped heavily, “and blood— I’m getting this whole serial killer with fangs vibe. Was that his latest victim?”
Angel felt Cordelia startle at the question. Without taking his eyes off the letter he slipped his hand down to hers and threaded their fingers together. She squeezed his hand when he simply confirmed, “It’s not.”
“The use of human blood is a threat, a taunt or a display of power,” Wesley informed the group that he had studied such details in addition to viewing the sampled letters. “Vampire blood or demon blood have quite different meanings.”
Giles added, “The council uses a special chemical reaction test to determine the type of blood.”
Now muttering, Spike added, “Can’t even mind your own bloody business.”
Ignoring Spike, Buffy came up with a game plan. “We could get what we need from the Chem Lab. I’m already on Snyder’s hit list. He blames me for the last break in, so what the hey.”
Willow was not willing to let Spike’s comment go taking offence on their behalf when neither watcher bothered to respond. “Vampire business is their business.”
Moving closer to Angel now, Spike glanced toward her long enough to smirk. “Well it’s a bloody stupid one, Red. Bunch of grown men letting little girls fight their battles for them.”
“Watch who you’re calling a little girl,” Faith scowled at him beating out Buffy by only a second.
With an irritated huff she reminded Spike, “Then I guess it was a little girl who beat you the last time we crossed paths at the cemetery.”
“That was a standoff, slayer, and it was just a fun tussle. Gotta admit you didn’t feel much like a little girl when I had you—”
A cry of pain suddenly cut him off as Buffy yelled, “Ow!” Reaching for the back of her head and whirling around to face her assailant, she found Dru holding a few strands of blond hair.
Her dark black eyes flashed from Buffy back to the doll in her arms. “Miss Edith, you naughty girl.”
The hand holding the hair whipped behind her back.
Buffy’s skin crawled as she realized she had been so caught up in Spike’s stupid little game that Drusilla had taken the opportunity to sneak up behind her. Next time it might not be a childish hair pulling. The crazy vampiress might have slit her throat as easily as she had Kendra’s.
“Get away from me,” Buffy warned her through gritted teeth. All her instincts told her to reach for Mr. Pointy and put Drusilla to a dusty end. Angel would not like that. He had ordered her to leave Spike and Dru alone. That still grated on her nerves.
Having tuned most of it out Angel glanced up from the pages of the letter only when Cordelia’s fingernails dug into his arm. He was not in the mood to deal with Drusilla—or Buffy for that matter. “Cordy.” An almost imperceptible nod in their direction was all it took to convey concern and his wishes.
Cordelia gave him a ‘who me’ stare before her astonishment was replaced by a look of pure determination. They had shared concerns about Angel’s childe living in close proximity to the slayers. Right now Angel had enough on his plate with decoding the letter.
Though she wanted to stay at Angel’s side to ask him about it, she needed to distract Drusilla before she forced Buffy’s hand and they ended up with vampire dust all over the rugs. It was not like they could pay a housekeeper to come to the Crawford Street Mansion, not with its reputation for being haunted.
No way was she going to be the one to clean up the slayer’s mess. Stepping between them, Cordelia put on a brilliant smile. “Say, wasn’t it great that Faith rescued Miss Edith? Slayers aren’t so bad once you get to know them— even Buffy. And, hey, isn’t that a new dress?”
Drusilla forgot all about her little tiff with Buffy and focused on the fact that someone had gotten quite personal with her favorite doll. Miss Edith’s dress was scarlet velvet with matching silk ribbons at her waist and in her curly-cued hair.
Urging Buffy into a cooperative response, Cordelia hissed at her, “Say something.”
Still irritated, but not stupid, Buffy realized what Cordelia was trying to do. She let go of her grip on the stake tucked into her waistband. “My grandmother once gave me a porcelain doll like that. She had hair like mine.”
“Bottle blonde?” Cordelia’s response came on autopilot before she remembered that she was supposed to be settling things down, not stirring them up.
Drusilla giggled. Buffy did not.
Having a difficult time concentrating on his own more serious thoughts, Giles sternly turned his gaze upon the three of them. “Now, girls, this is hardly the time for hair pulling and trading insults.”
Willow nudged Oz with an elbow as they leaned against the desk side by side. “Like there’s really right time for that?”
“Oh, there is,” Xander propped his head on his hand while leaning over the arm of his chair, “but it usually involves tiny bikinis and a mud pit.”
Drusilla was not impressed. “Hmph!” She and Miss Edith returned to their waltz in the most shadowy corner of the room.
“You wish,” mouthed Cordelia to Xander. He looked a little dejected when Buffy also scowled at him and then shared a look of disgust with Cordy whose mistimed insult was now a thing of the past.
Laughing aloud, Faith ruffled Xander’s dark hair with her fingers as she walked past him. “Sounds like fun to me. I’ll play if Wesley volunteers to referee.”
Angel glanced up after fully scanning the letter twice just in time to see Wes turn an interesting shade of red. The constant distractions and interruptions, not to mention Xander’s inappropriate eyebrow waggling at the girls, was aggravating. “Maybe you two could leave the mud wrestling for another time and pay attention.”
“Guess that makes you the stick in the mud, mate,” Spike guffawed and slapped him on the back.
Turning swiftly he thundered, “Cordelia’s life is at stake. Get your heads on straight. All of you. Either you’re going to help with this or you can get the hell out.”
While his head was spinning from the details of Nicolau’s letter, they were just cracking jokes. He wanted to pound a few skulls together to get their attention, but Angel suddenly had enough.
“The situation is no laughing matter,” Giles spoke with an air of caution. After all, he had asked for an end to the arguments. “However, it can’t hurt to ease the tension a bit now and then.”
Angel did not want them relaxed. He wanted them ready. “The blood isn’t human.” He held up the letter to get their focus back where it needed to be. “It’s vampire blood. Nicolau’s to be precise.”
Pointing out that vampires were hardly known for their morality, Wes recommended, “Considering the source I suggest we take that with a grain of salt. Still, to actually see a blood letter first hand…” his words failed him.
“It serves as an oath of sorts if my understanding is correct,” Giles deferred to Wes who had more extended study on the subject. He remained reservedly subdued in his own interest while his younger counterpart could barely contain his enthusiasm for it.
The Council had several language experts whose talents extended to interpreting a wide variety of ancient tongues and decoding rare forms of script. Wesley was one of them. That was part of the reason he had been chosen by the council to come here.
The practice of written codes had fallen out of favor over the past century thanks to modern communication devices.
It surprised him that Nicolau would bother.
“It’s not written in code,” Angel commented having scanned the entire document. A groan of disappointment sounded from Wesley who recovered quickly enough to ask why Faith would think that in the first place. “It’s Galician.”
Feeling a little impatient herself, Cordelia huffed, “I don’t care if it’s Galactic, Greek or Gobbledygook. What’s it say?”
“Galician?” Wesley’s enthusiasm suddenly deflated a visible notch. The language was not exactly on top of the Watchers Council syllabus. “Like most European languages its roots stem from the Latin. Though it is a rare dialect, Galician is very similar to Portuguese. I should just manage it.”
Giles’ attention had remained mostly on Angel during the past few minutes. From his observations, he was not certain that Wesley’s assistance was necessary. “Angel, as the letter was written to you in that language might I assume that you can interpret it?”
Staring down at the pages in his hand, Angel decided he needed some time to think about what was written there. Though it had been a while since he read anything in that language, he had not forgotten it. Admitting that would only force him to reveal its contents before he had more time to think about them.
Maybe if he suggested the watcher take the letter away for a detailed translation it would give him time to consider Nicolau’s words without the distraction of so many other opinions. Everyone would have something to say on the Nicolau’s offer when it was ultimately going to be up to him to choose how to respond.
“Angel, how is your Galician?” Wesley looked stunned by the concept that he would know it.
Angel supposed the watcher would be horrified to discover that his knowledge of the language had been obtained in the name of seduction and ultimately led to the death of a beautiful Galician girl. The memory of it flashed in his mind as fresh and vibrant as any he experienced. Some things were better kept to himself.
“Rusty.” That was truth enough for the moment.
Advising that they get an accurate translation, Wesley asked to use Willow’s laptop. “It will take a few minutes to access the translation matrix of the Council database. Unlike some of the more ancient languages Galician is fully documented there.”
Angel held out the letter to Wesley. “Go ahead.” His expression gave away none of the satisfaction he felt at achieving even a minimal delay. By the time the watcher finished his exactingly accurate translation he would have some means of providing Cordelia with some reassurance.
So he hoped.
Spike snatched the letter before Wes could take it. Roaring his name, Angel’s calm mask vanished instantly. He growled, “Read it or give it to Wes. This isn’t a game.”
Moving out of arm’s reach, Spike almost looked hurt that his actions were questioned by his own kind. “No need to bother with that tosser. Dru and me spent a bit of time in Portugal back in the 40’s. Recon that’s close enough.”
Not for Wesley. “Close might mean the difference between a truce and a blood bath.”
Fully aware of the contents, Angel ruefully realized he was not going to get much of a chance to let Nicolau’s words sink in. The truth was going to come out sooner rather than later. Fine. Maybe it was better that way after all.
Taking a seat on the couch, he motioned for Spike to get on with it.
Despite Wesley’s distrustful scowl, Angel decided it would be interesting to find out if Spike would provide an accurate translation or skip over the parts he might not want the watchers—or Angel—to hear.
“What do you think it says?” Cordelia curled up next to him and trustingly leaned her head against his chest, her spreading warmth an instant reminder that her life was the most important thing to consider here.
Her curiosity came with a hint of fear. “I suppose he wants you to hand me over.”
It scared him how accurate Cordy’s instincts could be. Knowing what Nicolau had to say did not provide him with any reassurances. He reached up to tangle his fingers through her hair gently pulling her head back. Forgetting all about their audience for a moment, he placed a soft, lingering kiss across her mouth, a silent promise that he would never let Nicolau’s plans for her come to fruition.
The uncomfortable clearing of Wes’ throat broke them away from the hazy warmth of the kiss. Angel noted the disapproval in the brief glance before he looked away. Wes would have to forgive him his momentary lack of decorum. Apparently embarrassed by what he had seen, he stumbled over the words as he asked Giles, “Do you think it wise to trust Spike with such an important task?”
Giles was not even looking at his younger counterpart or Spike for that matter. It was Buffy whose stillness was so complete it took his other senses to determine she was even there. The rapid beat of her heart was quickly diminishing to its normal rate. It had not been his intention to hurt her while comforting Cordelia.
There were some things Buffy was going to have to work out on her own.
Behind them, as if her attention had been on the ongoing debate all along and not on the kiss, Buffy snorted, “Spike can read?”
Spike dramatically clapped a hand over his heart. “Do I look like an idiot?”
Her answer was lightning-quick. “Yes, now that you mention it.”
Giles finally gave Wesley an answer. “Spike has a vested interest in defeating our mutual enemies. Isobel tortured him at her sire’s behest. They attempted to kidnap Drusilla. I see no reason to deny him the opportunity to contribute.”
Even Spike looked surprised. “What he said. At least somebody around here trusts me.”
The brows arching above Giles’ glasses suggested he would not stretch it quite that far.
“If somebody doesn’t read the letter soon, I’m going out for pizza,” Xander sighed.
Put out by the consensus to let Spike get on with it, Wes sat down on the couch next to Angel and Cordelia looking quite vexed by the decision. “Well don’t blame me if he spins a yarn a mile long.”
“Oh, keep your knickers on. I’m on your bloody side,” Spike reminded him. “After I take a crack at it you can go play with it and your little matrix all you want.”
Warning him, “Bet on it,” Wesley sent Angel a firm nod assuring him of getting an exact translation.
“Now if everyone would shut the hell up so I can read…” Spike eyed Buffy to see if she would say anything further. “Let’s see what this ponce has to say.”
Angel tried to relax, but sensing Cordelia’s tension only increased his own. He knew what the letter revealed. She suspected the truth of it. They both had to wait Spike out as he muddled through Nicolau’s scripted handwriting.
“Says here he thought Angelus was dead. Claims he’s not our enemy.” Spike let out a cough of disbelief. “Bloke’s got a funny way of showing it by letting that icy bitch of his carve me up.”
Giles closed his eyes for a moment and then asked, “Please keep the commentary to a minimum.”
“Read it word for word.” Cordelia told Spike. “Don’t leave anything out.”
Taking a look at the second paragraph, he smirked a bit before agreeing. “If you say so, kitten. Just remember not to kill the messenger—or go after the family jewels.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He smirked. “You’ll see.”
Angel was already starting to regret his decision against tossing the letter into the fire. That would have given him plenty of time to prepare himself for what was to come.
“Angelus?” yelped Xander the moment he heard the name. Realizing, “The envelope was addressed to Angelus.”
Spike growled for silence. “That’s his name lackbrain.”
“I think Xander’s trying to say that Nicolau thinks Angel is still evil,” Willow offered helpfully. “He doesn’t know about the soul. Um… So, why doesn’t he know?”
She looked toward Oz as if he had the answer to everything. Oz could only shrug.
“The Banished Ones have likely been isolated for some time,” suggested Giles. “It may be that he is unaware of Angel’s curse.”
“Former curse,” Cordelia emphasized that it was not an issue any more.
Angel listened to their theories with quiet interest. As they would discover, Nicolau was far from ignorant on the subject. His influence with the local demon population was already growing. For the moment, he simply did not believe it. Though any face-to-face meeting between them would instantly reveal the truth to Nicolau, who would not be distracted as was his childe into missing the presence of his soul, Angel had to wonder whether he might use their assumptions to his advantage.
Long years have passed since last I heard the name Angelus. Rumors of your final death spread across Europe over a century ago. Perhaps that was wishful thinking on the part of your enemies. Do not count the House of Solaris among them for we are of the same blood and will soon share in the same fate.
Cordelia’s head lifted up from his shoulder. “What fate?”
“A promise tied to the prophecy.” Angel had told them what Isobel revealed to him. Even though he did not know the details he worried that the temptation of such power might tempt Spike into betrayal.
“Pet, I’m about to get to the good part.” Spike smirked at her and then got back to reading.
Since Angel couldn’t tell him to skip down a couple of paragraphs without revealing that he had been able to read Galician he closed his eyes and gritted his teeth to await the resulting explosion.
To Spike’s apparent disappointment she sounded amused by his potentially jealousy-invoking revelation rather than threatened by it. The bastard should have known better than to leave that line in. Maybe she was laughing now, but what if that was just to hide her true feelings?
One big block of tension as he tilted her face up to his, Angel started to deny that he would ever consider the kind of deal Nicolau was offering. He wanted to assure her of his love. “You know I…” Conscious of the others’ presence he paused before sharing sentiments that were not meant for their ears. Picking up where he left off, he simply said, “I have no interest in Isobel.”
Cordelia pulled his hand into her lap giving it a gentle squeeze as she threaded their fingers together. She believed him. When her laughter faded, there was still a spark of curiosity in her eyes. “So it’s normal for vampires to share their girlfriends?”
“Uh—That’s complicated.” Angel really did not want to have this conversation, but he could see that he was not going to get out of it. “Under certain circumstances it’s… it’s…”
Spike helped him out by finishing up: “Expected. It’s just sex, pet. Told you Izzy was a looker, didn’t I? Wouldn’t mind a go myself if I didn’t plan a little payback.”
Their previous conversation about Isobel had not covered the ins and outs of vampire sex. “So you’re saying that Dru would let you?”
Angel felt Cordelia’s shoulders stiffen with tension. He did not like the direction of the conversation sensing that it was something better left to the two of them behind the privacy of their bedroom door.
But if Spike caught his cautionary glare he ignored it in favor of looking toward his own sire who was busy smoothing the little folds of Miss Edith’s skirt. “Depends on her mood,” he told Cordy truthfully.
“So Nicolau expects me to let Isobel have Angel? Over my dead body.”
Groaning, Angel could see that this was only going to get worse if he did not put a stop to it. Unfortunately, he could not get a word in edgewise.
“Don’t be r—“
Spike said, “I think he’s planning to oblige you, luv.”
Not wanting to hear anything more about Nicolau’s plans for her, Cordelia was still focused on Spike. “Urgh! You know what I mean.
“You’re not a vampire. In his eyes, you’re just Angel’s pet. You don’t have the right to object.”
“Says who?” she demanded petulantly.
Finally, Angel blurted, “It’s you I want. Isobel’s fantasies are never going to happen.” He traced the contours of her face and stared soulfully into her eyes.
“Duh!” Cordelia nuzzled his hand with her cheek and pressed her lips into his palm causing Angel to relax instantly as he realized Cordelia was just making a point.
“Perhaps we should move onto the next section,” Giles said before Spike stirred up something else. “Now.”
“Spoilsport,” Spike muttered before reading on.
“See!” Xander shouted. “I told you.”
“Does it say what that is?” asked Wesley sitting on the edge of his couch cushion and eagerly hanging on to every word.
Spike stopped translating when he got to the next line and kept reading ahead on his own. “Cheeky bastard! I’ll bloody well show him what to do with his apology. Oy! You lot listen to this.”
“If we let her it’ll save me a load of trouble,” Faith said as she paced past Giles. “Let one problem solve the other.”
Buffy reminded her sternly, “The mayor is human.”
With a laugh, Faith asked, “Is he? There’s room for doubt. He smiles way too much.”
“This guy should write an advice column,” Buffy muttered sourly.
“Because he lost his bollocks when he got his soul.” Spike answered the question and stared straight at Angel while doing it. He was not one to let an opportunity for an insult pass by, especially when he thought it was the truth. “You lost what it takes to be master of our House when you started feeling sorry for having an appetite. You’re a vampire, Angelus.”
Refusing to be bated, Angel remained seated. “I know what I was, Spike. Yes, I’m a vampire, but I’m still finding out who I am.”
“You’d better find out fast, Peaches. Sounds like our boy Nic just figured out that you aren’t in charge.”
Angel growled reflexively. The rumble in his chest caused Cordelia to stir from her comfortable spot. He pressed a kiss against her hair to sooth her. Spike’s words had stirred up something that reading Nicolau’s letter had not. While it was true that he did not want the title or anything that came with it, he was not willing to let anyone else supersede him.
He did not know if it was instinct, demonic aggression or plain old human pride that made him feel that way. “Just so you know your place in the pecking order, Spike.”
“I don’t answer to you anymore.”
“For the moment you do,” Angel reminded him of their deal. If Spike wanted to stay the course and reap revenge on Isobel, he couldn’t do it alone. Drusilla wanted him here. He answered to her, and Dru, when it served her purposes, answered to Angel.
The letter started to crumple in Spike’s hand. His lips pursed. Finally, he said, “For the moment.”
Angel felt the tension in the room dissipate when Spike returned to his task reading the letter.
“Um, what’s with the staring?” Cordelia demanded when all eyes focused on her.
Spike smirked before continuing. “Nic’s not the only one with an imagination, pet.”
The moment Spike finished, he handed the letter over to Wesley who began to look over it word for word. Having no real need of the Council’s translation matrix, he used this opportunity to determine Spike’s trustworthiness. Surprisingly, the vampire had provided an adequately accurate translation. Wesley had initially intended to test Angel’s veracity on the matter when he questioned his knowledge of Galician, but this worked out even better. Angel might be given the benefit of the doubt in this situation because he prioritized Cordelia’s safety. Spike was something of a loose cannon.
It was a good thing Giles had played along. For if anyone knew the extent of his full resume regarding languages it was he. As casually as possible, he skimmed over the second to last paragraph wherein Nicolau mentioned the Rites of Tavrok.
“Inadvertently, Nicolau may have given us another clue,” Wes let one particular line echo in his head again and again as he made a connection to something the Galician vampire had written with what little he knew of the history of that area.
Since Giles had been focusing on researching the House of Solaris and its connection to the Galician villagers, Wesley figured he would understand. “Tell me if you come to the same conclusion. Galicia was associated with the name of an ancient Celtic tribe known as the Gallaeci. In Latin…”
“That translates to Callaeci.” The moment he spoke the word aloud, Giles started to catch on, pronouncing the word with a hard ‘k’ sound.
Wes nodded and took it one step further. “Kallaikoi in Greek.”
“It’s just Greek to me,” quipped Xander who was unable to follow any of what they were saying as usual.
Next to him, Buffy whispered, “Me too.”
“Me three,” chirped Willow tagging along.
Oz gave them an odd look and remained silent.
Giles reached for the Compendium of Demons and Demigods in one of the piles of books on the study floor as he came to a sudden understanding. He flipped through the book until he reached the page he sought. “We wondered at the ties between the demon-worshipping vampire sect and the human population living in Galicia. Angel revealed the fact that they too worshipped demons which was the reason they have protected the secrets of the Banished Ones.”
“That’s Nicolau and the House of Solaris,” Willow whispered to Oz who was still a bit fuzzy on a few of the facts.
Oz squeezed her hand in silent thanks and listened on.
Using a finger as a bookmark, Giles held the aged book up for them to see. “Their origin goes back to the 5th century B.C. when the Greek historian and researcher Herodotus mentioned the tribes in his writings. They received the name Callaeci because they were identified to worship a Celtic goddess called Cailleach.”
“Oy, didn’t our boy Nic mention that name in the letter?” Spike held out his hand to Wes who already knew what he would find there. The spelling was different, but the pronunciation was too close to ignore.
Angel searched his memory and found what Spike was looking for: “Kalesh, the one who performs the Rites of Tavrok.”
Next to him, Cordelia shivered in nervous reaction as she realized Kalesh to be the one who was supposed to sacrifice her to Amolon. She huddled closer to Angel. He nuzzled his cheek against her hair as they listened to Giles paraphrase the section of the book dedicated to Kalesh.
“Like many Celtic legends Cailleach is bound to nature. She is the ancient earth, the dying winter, a death goddess in the form of the ugliest of hags, and guardian to the ultimate life force. She stands on the cusp of Life and Death eternally linked to the essential powers of the earth.”
“She’s a demon,” Buffy understood that much.
“Kinda hoping she’ll be a dead demon before the Spring Fling,” Cordelia hinted with a painful smile. “I’m thinking I’ll look much better in my gown alive, breathing and not as a demony sacrifice.”