Scenes 191 – 200


Season of Solace


191: A Construction Site, Central Sunnydale

Willow Rosenberg_2

“Told you it was big and butt ugly.” Faith held out an arm to stop Wesley from moving any closer, his curiosity about the demon outweighing his sense of self-preservation upon seeing it take shape right in front of them.

No need to do the same for Willow, frozen to the spot as she gaped at the monster looming just ahead creating a huge shadow that stretched across the ground, blocking the sun, its glowing gaze fixed upon them. Something from her childhood nightmares now stood directly in front of her no longer hidden in the shadowy corner of her bedroom after the lights went out. Fear chilled her to the bone making it impossible to move or even breathe for a few seconds as its shadow loomed closer.

Gasping suddenly, “It’s a golem,” she thought back to the old folktales Uncle Hershel had read to them at family gatherings when they were little. The boys had eaten it up, but Willow and her cousin Clara never found it funny when they took turns playing the part of the monster coming to get them.

The surprise in Wesley’s voice was clear as he asked, “How did you know?” He had only suspected, of course, wanting more evidence before concluding that Faith’s demon was in actuality a construct of magic. Before she could attempt a response, he tripped ahead to the answer. “Ah, of course, your family name, Rosenberg, suggests your paternal ancestry is of Ashkenazic origin. The first known use of the word golem is found in the Bible. Medieval tales and far more recent mentions have been documented in Yiddish and Slavic histories.”

Golems were first created to perform simple tasks. A mindless helper under its creator’s full control. Animated anthropomorphic beings made of natural resources, commonly fiber, clay, or stone. “They might sweep the floors of a shop,” Wesley described a menial task, followed by those far more serious, “guard a gateway, or the person to whom they are bound.”

“Look out!” Faith gave Wesley a strong shove that knocked him into Willow sending both of them crashing to the ground just before a blast of sand and rock pelted the area where they had been standing. “Ya think it might be a good idea to give the monster your attention, now?”

Wesley brushed himself off after helping Willow back to her feet. This was not exactly a lecture hall at the Watchers Council, he reminded himself. Still, “It is important to know one’s enemy.”

“Are we waiting for an introduction, or can I beat it over the head with one of those pipes?” Not that it had done her any good the last time.

Taking a step back toward the parked bulldozer when Faith nudged her that way, Willow told her in all seriousness, “It won’t have a name. I don’t think this one was ever human.”

“Not looking for a date, Willow, I want to kill it.”

“Just saying—it’s all magic.”

Faith shrugged as she picked up a long steel pipe from a nearby pile. “So you’re ready to give it a whirl? That’s why I brought you.”

Just the thought of facing off against the golem felt intimidating enough. It took tremendous power to create one, so those folktales said, in harnessing elemental forces. “Kalesh made it.” Her words whispered as if the little sound equaled the likelihood of her being the one to counter such powerful magic, but huddled alongside her, Wesley heard her anyway.

Concluding she was correct, he answered, “Very likely. Her powers are drawn from the natural world.”

The high priestess of Amolon had broken through Willow’s defensive spells around the mansion as if they were nothing special, and that had been some of the most complicated magic she had ever tried. How was she supposed to stop a creature that harnessed the earth itself to fight them? Desperately wanting to help out, she had no idea where to begin. Hugging her spell book close to her chest, she asked Wesley, “What do I do?”

Magic was nothing new to Willow. She lived and breathed it when she could. It was almost a palpable thing around her all of the time. Something she had played with at first, watching as things happened on a whim, or sometimes needing focus. Learning about its energy within the natural world and how things like certain herbs or crystals could enhance its power led to trying out riskier spells. That hadn’t always gone so well.

Wesley had trusted her with the spell book. Let her get involved in casting spells and wards around the mansion. Even Giles, overprotective when it came to exposing her to magical knowledge, had agreed to allow it. That’s how important this was to him, to the mission, to the world—no pressure.

The watcher was a bit distracted. The guidance she hoped he would provide did not materialize. The golem seemed to be a source of fascination. One of the many things he had probably studied to some degree, but was for the first time getting to see with his own eyes. Like Willow with her spell book, he had come prepared, too. Wesley had packed weapons and supplies into a large tote, which remained slung over one shoulder.

Peeking out from behind the protective barrier of the large bulldozer, Wesley observed, “The golem remains fixed. No forward movement.” What appeared to be legs formed of rock merged with the ground at its base.

“Told you that, too.” Faith twirled the pipe around getting warmed up for the fight to come, impatiently waiting for the go-ahead.

“It’s important,” he pointed out.

Faith couldn’t care less. Still, she had to wonder, “Why create a monster that can’t move? It just hangs around waiting for some unsuspecting schmuck to stroll by.”

“Like you did?” Willow couldn’t resist piping up feeling a little pressured to do something when she had never actively used magic quite this way.

“Yeah,” Faith agreed bitterly. “Thanks for the reminder.”

Wesley was thinking again—couldn’t help it—analyzing data and strategizing were key strengths. “This golem appears quite unique, using multiple forms of earth to structure itself and seemingly reincorporate again. Most are given a form and remain solid, unlike our foe which appears to be made of shifting sand and rock.”

Sharing an annoyed look with Willow, the slayer said, “That’s why it’s hard to kill.” It was like he had to see it for himself before the details sunk in.

Even as he listened, Wesley was testing out a few theories. He jumped into the open, waved his arms around like a madman to see if the golem would attack, before diving back to the safety of the bulldozer. Half listening, Wes simply agreed, “Oh, indeed. Yes, it would probably be impregnable to most common weapons.”

“Well, I’m not that common.”

Impatiently, Faith decided to give him a demonstration. With a running start she hurled the pipe forward like a javelin. Just like before, it lodged between its rocky cracks, drawing its attention, but acting as more of an irritant than an injury. Bounding up to the exposed end of the pipe, Faith grabbed for it using it like a lever to pry at the point of entry. A raw shout erupted from her throat at the extreme effort she put forth, with the creature also rumbling its complaint as a rock broke off from its side.

The pipe flew free. Faith staggered back, breathing heavily, and yet with a satisfied grin tugging at her lips. “Gotcha that time.”

The broken rock now on the ground at her feet suddenly began to move. It twitched, wobbled, and slid forward an inch or two. Faith kicked it away, but the move only provided more energy propelling it in a U-turn arc into the air straight back to its original spot. Watching it slam into place on the golem’s torso, Faith let out a frustrated grunt, “Not fucking fair.” Backing up fast, she grabbed for the pipe again. “Let’s try that again—with your head.”

Fascinated, Wesley muttered, “Good, good, she’s distracting it.”

Willow thought it looked more like trying to kill it, but who was she to judge? “Yup! Good.”

Wesley’s hand curled around her elbow as he led her out into the open. “Now it’s our turn.”
Swallowing hard, Willow hoped she hadn’t heard that correctly. “It is?”

“Let’s see what happens when an attack comes from multiple directions,” he suggested almost eagerly. “I’ll go over there.”

But what was she supposed to do—twirl a pencil at it? “Okay.”

Before trying to sneak past the ongoing melee where Faith grappled with the golem, her legs around its rocky neck and pulling hard at the pipe held just under its chin, Wesley paused to deliver an afterthought. “One more thing, Willow, stone golems are almost completely impervious to magic.”

The watcher made some interesting moves as he tried to inconspicuously dash across to the other side of the site. Willow’s brows scrunched together, her mouth twisting up into a knot as she held back the obvious question, “Then what am I doing here?” Looking down at her beloved new spell book, she realized it was basically useless now. Snippets from her Uncle Hershel’s stories flashed through her memory. Very few things could kill a golem, depending on the natural form of the construct, one reason for Nightmare City.

A glance at the monstrous creature was enough to confirm for Willow that she had been completely right all along. Golems were scary. Still, a creature created by magic should be able to be destroyed by it. She had no idea why that did not apply to golems. It was made of stone, which could be broken, but as Faith had already found out, its magic simply put it back together again.

Slayer strength couldn’t stop it, pipe spears through its rocky hide couldn’t stop it, Wesley taunting it and tossing rocks its way certainly couldn’t stop it, so now it was her turn even knowing that magic couldn’t stop it, either.

Despite his odd way of doing things, maybe Wesley was onto something, she decided. This was his way of figuring out its weaknesses, although it seemed to Willow that it didn’t really have any.

Putting the spell book away into the large bag slung across one shoulder and hip, Willow tried to steady herself with a long, slow breath. Questioning her abilities—not to mention Wesley’s sanity—she gazed down at her quivering hands. “Stop that,” she mumbled the complaint as if talking it out would do any good.

Self-reproach took a grim swirl inside her. Helping Buffy never caused her to want to run like the wind away from the fight, not most of the time anyway. “You’re shaking like a leaf.” Her jitters had jitters. Seeing the effects of her nerves sparked an idea, “Oh—a leaf!” As it came to her, a breeze started to blow, fallen leaves from the trees surrounding the construction site began to flit past, and suddenly Willow was no longer scared.

This, she could do. One leaf dancing on its way to the ground was not much different from dozens or hundreds swirling in a mad whirlwind around the golem’s face. No, maybe this simple little spell could not destroy the golem, but it could serve as another distraction.

Wesley gave her a shout. “Good one, Willow! Stay with it.” Then instructed his slayer to keep up her offensive.

The golem rumbled in annoyance, the sound reminiscent of an earthquake, as it swiped at the leaves blowing across its line of vision. Faith used the opportunity to hurl multiple pipes into seemingly vulnerable cracks in its shifting body. Suddenly it stopped moving, and for an instant went statue still before its form broke apart falling to the earth like a rain of sifting sand.

Pipes dropped out rolling away haphazardly. Faith dodged out of the way as sand shot out in all directions around her. “What the—?” A favorite expletive cut off when a gush of sand blew into her face.

The leaves no longer had a cohesive place to swirl and fluttered away just as randomly as they had appeared. The breeze dissipated too as Willow stared awestruck at the sandy substance now covering the ground. She inched up a few steps, wanting to touch the sand, amazed that they had done it. Wesley had made it sound much more difficult. Maybe Faith had found just the right spot with one of those pipe spears.

Faith stood her ground, grimly staring at the grains of sand surrounding her on all sides. Her eyes flicked toward her watcher who looked back with more concern than pride. Ever so slowly he raised a hand, cautioning her not to move. The slightest tilt of his head was enough to tell her that the danger was far from over. Normally, her slayer senses would kick in to warn her of the impending trouble, but this golem was different.

Reaching the edge of the sandy area, Willow stretched out her foot to stir the sand with the rubbery tip of her tennis shoe. It looked just like the sand from Sunnydale’s stretch of beach near the bluffs and marina. With a smug little smile, she kicked at the golem’s sandy remnants. “Take that.”

One swirl of the sand suddenly blasted up from the ground engulfing Faith whole before the slayer could even flinch. Willow’s high-pitched shriek made the sand beneath her own feet retract back a few inches. It wasn’t dead! A heavy whomp followed as the force holding Faith in its sandy grip slammed against the ground pulling her down into the pit. The slayer struggled to get back to the top of the shifting sand, but every movement made her sink even deeper.

Faith’s name was the only thing Wes seemed capable of saying as he lunged for one of the pipes, stretching it out across the space between them. Her head was already covered. She couldn’t see that Wes was trying to help, but he managed to reach the tip of her outstretched fingers as he thrust the heavy pipe toward her. Only for a moment. A fingertip brushed against the pipe and then disappeared beneath the sand.

“Please, oh, please.” Willow could see him struggling. The steel pipe might have been easy for a slayer to handle, but it was far more difficult for a man to lift and hold from such an odd angle.

Buffy wasn’t around to come to the rescue, Willow realized with a dawning sense of duty. It was up to her. If she didn’t do something right now, Faith was going to die. Staring at the pipe, Willow tried to think of it as twirling a really big pencil. Faith was too far out of Wesley’s reach. He was dangerously close to the edge trying to slide the pipe closer. As it tugged from his grasp, the momentum nearly sent him into the quicksand, but he scrambled away to a spot where the normal dirt was the only thing beneath him.

Focusing, he looked her way. “Willow? Yes!” Instructions followed when Wes realized she was using telekinetic magic to control it. “Straight into the sand, as close to Faith as you can get it.”

Willow sent the pipe hurtling forward praying that her aim was true and that she did not send it straight through Faith. Killing her while trying to save her would not be good. “Do you think she’ll grab it?”

There was no answer from Wesley who was simply staring at the end of the pipe sticking out above the sand. It was still shifting around, the golem still formless, maybe because it was busy shattering every bone in Faith’s now broken body, or devouring her from inside. Willow couldn’t stop nightmarish thoughts from creeping in. Or—not! The pipe moved. Sand shifted around it. Faith pulled her head above the heavy depths sucking in a gasp of air as she emerged.

Struggling to speak, Faith sounded angry, and just a little bit scared, as she told Wesley, “It—It’s still got me.” It took all of her strength just to hold onto the pipe. The spiraling force working to drag her back down into the pit was making it difficult to keep her head out of the sand.

“Willow, you’ve got to pull her out.” Calling out to her, Wesley urged her to act quickly.

It was strong. Too strong, it seemed. Willow focused—or thought she did—it felt like she did—trying to use her magic to pull Faith free of its grip, but it wasn’t working. The golem was just too powerful.

Sounding a little more desperate, Wesley barked her name, “Willow! You can do this. Remember what you told me.”

Mind spinning, Willow recalled how confident she had been about performing this kind of magic. The simple stuff. Magic 101. Things she could do with her eyes closed. All it took was her will power. She just had to want it enough to make it happen.

Willow tried again, this time telling herself that the golem was not going to win. Faith might not be her favorite slayer—or person right now considering the whole Xander thing—but she wasn’t going to let her die because of it. The little flash of anger caused by that stray thought did some good giving her a boost of energy.

Magic rippled in the air as Willow pulled Faith free, only to send the slayer tumbling into a rough landing several yards away. “Oops!” Willow grimaced as Faith rolled to a stop. Running that way, she saw Wesley dropping to his knees beside her, checking for a pulse, calling out her name.

“Geez, give me some room to breathe,” Faith pushed at his shoulder. “I’m not dead yet.”

Actually, Wes looked worse than she did, Willow noticed as she got closer. He was shockingly pale. “Are you okay?” Running his hands up and down Faith’s arms and legs, he asked, “Anything broken?”

“Only my funny bone—unless you just need an excuse to feel me up. Feel free to check again.” Faith winked at him.

Wesley jerked his hands away. “Knowing what your body can handle is far different from gauging that reality in the field.”

Her cheeks dimpled as Faith listened to him try to make excuses. “I almost think you care.”

Rising to his feet again, Wesley towered over them, huffing a bit as he said, “As your assigned watcher, you are my charge, my duty to train and serve.” Protesting her little quip, he grumbled, “I’m allowed to care.”

Faith shared a little eye roll with Willow and then stretched out her hand to let the witch pull her to her feet. She started to shake the sand out of her hair only to notice that instead of falling back to the ground, it floated on an unseen mystic stream toward the pit where the golem had already begun to reconstruct itself into its original rocky form. “Hold that thought, Wes. I’ve got a score to settle first.”

His hand wrapped around her arm just below the black tribal tattoo holding Faith back. “Wait a moment. I have an idea, but it’s going to take all three of us to pull it off.”

The restraining hand was an irritant. Faith preferred to follow instincts rather than orders. She wasn’t sure how she felt about Wesley having any sort of real feelings for her, especially tangled up by tradition and duty. He was an oddball, and completely raw here in the field, generally an all-around good guy. Not really her type even if she had planned to screw him senseless that one time. It wasn’t really his feelings that irked her, but her own. Shit, she cared about him, too, in the not wanting him dead sort of way.

The master vampire Kakistos had killed her first watcher. A royal screw up on her part because she did what she always did—acted alone. By the time she realized her plan put her watcher at risk, it was already too late to save her. Faith had barely escaped, and Kakistos had eventually tracked her all the way to Sunnydale to finish what he started, too bad for him.

Faith had never really trusted her watcher, and the way she was constantly trying to control her. Never gave her credit for knowing things. Certainly not anything that would alter her own plan of attack. There had never been any kind of friendship between them, or feelings beyond the adversarial habits they formed. Still, Faith felt responsible for her death, not that she would admit that to anyone. Maybe—maybe Wes someday if he ever asked directly.

Unused to the idea of giving a crap about anyone, Faith realized that it was her friendship with Cordelia that first opened her up to trusting people. “I’m listening,” she gave Wesley her full attention. “What’s your plan?”

After quietly listening to Wesley’s expectations of her, Willow reminded him, “I’ve never done that before.” Those memorized spells were all new. Simple little spells she had thought. Nothing to do with fighting demons or golems.

“Most of us can only recite a spell and let its magic take effect. You create it, Willow. Magic is anything you can make of it.” Wesley’s words sparked some hope that she could live up to it. “Though you are new to the art, I can see vast potential. Trust in yourself.” Well, that was the problem. Too much doubt about being counted on to get it done. Giving her something else to think about, he added, “The spells in your Book of Magic merely provide you with a guide, inspiration, but how you choose to wield those ideas is up to you.”

Plastering a smile on her face, Willow tried to look confident, and not gulp too loudly as she swallowed down a lump of nerves. “I can do this. Yup! No worries, none. Nope, not a one. Piece o’ cake.” Hopefully, she wasn’t wrong.

“Right,” Wesley muttered softly, rubbing a hand across his chest in hopes of quieting his own racing heart as it pounded in his ears. “Keep it focused on you, but don’t get too close.”

No worries about that part. Willow wasn’t planning to let it grab her like it had grabbed Faith. The slayer was already putting Wesley’s plan into action. A trailer marked with a Melmon Realty and Development sign was positioned at the roadside end of the construction site. Faith jogged over, darted up the wooden stairs creating a temporary entry point, and kicked open the locked door. She emerged a minute later with a handful of keys.

On the way back to them, Faith picked up the tote bag Wesley had left in the middle of the field, dropping it at his feet as she reached them. “Looks like we’re in business.”

Wesley selected one set of keys and placed them in his trouser pocket. Then slung the tote bag over his shoulder. They all looked toward the golem as it let out a rumbled roar. “That’s our cue.”

Willow’s nervous butterflies started to flutter around as she watched Wesley and Faith walking away leaving her to face the golem. “Hi there! It’s just us now. No need to spit rocks at me or drown me in quicksand.” Did the golem even understand her babbling? Maybe it did. Its brow edged up a notch as if it questioned her. Those red eyes followed her every move as she moved out from behind the safety of the bulldozer.

“Once you begin your attack, keep at it,” Wesley had reiterated the plan to her. “Expect retaliation. The golem won’t get tired or stop trying to kill you. Its most powerful defense is its immunity to your magic.”

Faith gave him a hard knock on the arm. “Been taking pep talk lessons from Giles? Lighten it up a little.”

Ignoring the not insignificant pain, Wesley included Faith in his final words of caution. “If my plan fails we may have to resort to extreme measures.”

“More extreme than this?”

“The golem will only go down when utterly destroyed. Blowing it up may not be enough.”

Willow hoped they would hurry it up with their part of this plan because she did not like the part about the golem trying to kill her. The moment she set foot within the periphery of its range, it waved a heavy rock arm sending out a wave of fine sand and stone flying in her direction. Instinctively raising her hands as a barrier, she cried out, “Protegas me.”

One of the easier phrases to memorize, simply ‘protect me’ in Latin, it filled her with an energy that spread out all around her. The stones bounced off the mystical barrier created by her spell. It faded with the last wisp of sand. Willow stared down at her hands, steady now, not a leafy shake in sight. It tingled. Remnants of magic still coursing through her veins.

“How cool is th—?”

The ground at her feet folded beneath her suddenly as the golem slammed a granite fist against the earth causing a little mini quake. Losing her balance, Willow toppled forward, a shocked cry cut off as she collapsed and fell hard, air whooshing out of her lungs. Another attack came before she could catch her breath, much less attempt another shield spell. Rocky pebbles ripped at her clothes and the exposed bits of her skin.

Willow wrapped her arms around her head and tried to block out the worst of it, but the mix of blunt hits and sharp edges brought tears to her eyes. It hurt so much! Flat on the ground, she scooped up a handful of dirt, focusing on it, thinking about the way the golem had transmuted from stone to sand. If she could do the same to the rocks he was throwing her way—Willow felt only the need to make it happen reaching deep within herself. Suddenly the sharp rain of pebbles lightened into a breeze of blowing sand.

Quickly sitting up, Willow scooted away a few feet to stare at her adversary. The golem was unchanged and completely unimpressed by her ability. It had no mind, only the magic binding it together to complete its mission. “What does Kalesh want you to do?” Willow asked it with intent as if the truth spell from her book would provide the same sort of answers.

The golem opened its rocky maw to emit a rumble. It wasn’t an answer, she realized, reminding herself that it was immune to direct spells, not that she could understand golem-speak anyway. Willow swiped away the icky grime across her face and neck, relieved that it was just regular dirt and not some part of the golem that would suddenly try to choke her to death. She felt a heavy stomp and looked up just as the immobile base of the golem formed itself into a rocky foot.

It wasn’t supposed to do that. The golem was supposed to be stuck there. Not moving from its spot at the edge of the pit. Especially in her direction.

The sound a truck engine closing in caused Willow to look that way. Wesley drove a large white utility vehicle while Faith hung onto the back of a mobile fueling container mounted to its bumper. “Crap! It’s on the move.” Jumping down, she was about to make a run at the golem when Wes called out to stop her.

“Let Willow handle it.” Wesley urged her to stick to the plan. “We have to get this done.”

Faith flashed her a concerned stare, obviously doubting her ability to hold off a creature that she had failed to defeat twice. Frankly, Willow was worried on that score, too. The golem now stood on two legs, free to move wherever it wanted, and its attention was exactly where Wesley had hoped it would remain—directly on her. She wobbled back to her own feet, a lot shakier than the stone giant standing just twenty feet away.

The earth shook with each step. Boom. Boom. Red glowing eyes staring her down. Boom. Boom. Closer and closer it moved toward her. Willow wavered a little at the first few steps and then held her ground. It was a golem. Made by magic. Invulnerable to attack. Boom. Boom. Slow, heavy, clodding steps carried it forward.

Blowing leaves at it wouldn’t work for long, a momentary distraction until it was close enough to crush her. Her trick with the pipe wouldn’t have any greater effect than Faith’s attempts, Willow figured. The energy shield might be good enough to stop a few pebbles, but would it prevent the golem from getting to her if it used its full strength? Urgent whispers prompted her to “Think, think, think.”

Willow couldn’t focus with a giant golem bearing down on her, but somehow one wild idea popped into her head. Heavy things could collapse under their own weight in the right environment. Boom. Boom. Maybe she could not crush it under its own rocky weight by altering its gravity, or do anything to affect it directly, but she could do something to the quickly narrowing space between them.

She could hear Wesley and Faith calling out to each other as they organized their part of the plan, but she could not worry about what they were or were not doing. It wouldn’t work anyway if the golem was capable of walking out of their target zone. Accidents had happened in the past. Magic oopses that went wrong. Things out of her control, or simply witnessed. Things she knew could be done, but had never tried.

A basic natural element, the earth held great power. Kalesh had harnessed it to create the golem. It wielded that energy as a weapon, used it to alter its shape and form. The golem itself had proven to Willow that the earth could be changed through magic, and she had already done it by turning rock to sand just a minute ago. This involved a second element making it trickier. Believing it could work, she summoned up the will power to make it happen.

The earth beneath the golem’s feet softened and grew damp with each step, the mud clinging, and getting deeper, making it more and more difficult to move. It slogged along for a few slow steps before pausing to take a shot at her, sending a small boulder forming its hand hurtling like canon fire toward her. Barely dodging out of the way, she nearly slipped into the mud pit. The golem was still sinking, now waist deep, but it wasn’t done fighting.

“Out of the way, Willow!” Wesley waved her off just before it aimed at her again.

The mud pit filled with diesel as Faith aimed the fuel dispenser in the right direction, its scent overpowering that of the dampened earth. Wesley was on top of the mobile refueler manually adjusting the rate of flow. He hit the off switch when he was satisfied they had done enough. Hopping down to the ground, Wesley steadied himself against the side of the truck for a moment.

Faith shot him a look. “What now MacGyver?”

Ignoring the little dig even if it was tongue-in-cheek, Wesley grabbed his tote again. “We need a light.”

They jogged far enough away from the fuel truck that Wes thought it safe to stop. Willow was on the other side of the mud pit, and the golem between them. Dropping the tote bag, Wesley unzipped it, rummaging around the hodgepodge of weapons and equipment he had brought with him just in case his original assessment had been wrong. If this had been a regular demon, he did not want to be caught without a weapon.

“One moment whilst I search for the lighter.”

Faith mumbled, “We shoulda brought Spike. He’s always got one handy.”

“I have it here somewhere,” Wesley kept sifting through the stuff in his bag looking for the silver flip top lighter he knew to be amongst his equipment.

Willow knew that Wesley planned to set the fuel on fire, but he was taking too long. The golem was still coming. Slowly now, and drenched in diesel, it was moving through the mud nonetheless, and straight for her. It only took one focused thought to summon the fireball to her hand, surprisingly hot, although it did not burn her. She flung it directly at the golem. It hit with a force enhanced by the urgency of her intent to destroy it.

Catching the flash of light as it arced through the air, Wesley and Faith rose up to see what was happening. The golem let out a turbulent roar as fire burst all around it, lighting up the pooling fuel in swift rings of quickly heated flames. Cherry light spread against the dark stone, flickering yellow, turning first to orange, and then into dazzling bright blue-white flames as it spread. In an instant, the fuel reached its flashpoint.

The explosion blew them off their feet. Bits of golem landed in the mud and the solid ground around them spreading sand, dirt, and stone. Faith quickly recovered bounding back up to her feet to shake off the dust. Across the pit Willow lowered the shield she had raised just in time to avoid being hit by flying debris. Wesley took longer to recover having neither magic nor slayer durability. His ears were ringing and his gait unsteady.

Faith grabbed his tote and then his elbow to lead him across to join Willow. “Nice trick. You couldn’t have done that earlier?”

Wesley spoke a little too loudly since his hearing was off. “Fireballs are not in that spell book.” Destructive magic such as that was beyond the moderate levels of spell casting within the book he had given her. Still of an elemental nature it took far greater power to wield fire as a weapon.

“No, I just made that up. It was your idea,” Willow reminded him, a little in awe of herself for managing it. “You said I could create magic, too. Kinda easy, actually, and I feel really great, all tingly. Too bad there’s not another golem. I want to try that again.”

That concerned Wesley far more than he wanted to admit as he reminded himself that Rupert Giles had cautioned him against allowing Willow access to more advanced knowledge before she was ready. Like slayers, witches had to receive proper training to develop their skills and knowledge base if they were to avoid the darker side of their nature. He worried that her newfound confidence might trigger curiosity for even greater power.

The fire was out just as quickly as it flamed to life leaving the ground black and crispy in places. “Did we get it?” Faith had to ask even though the evidence seemed to surround them, half expecting the rocks to start rolling around to form the golem once again.

They stood in silence staring closely at every cracked stone, pile of sand, or pebble that looked like it might be part of the creature. No movement. All was quiet—until suddenly in the distance a siren went off soon followed by others. Their explosion had drawn the attention of the Sunnydale Fire and Police Departments.

“We had best take our leave,” Wesley suggested they get going. “On the side streets rather than the main road.”

Faith handed him his tote, but told him she had to check something out. “I forgot. There was something down in the pit with the golem.”

Having slipped his mind completely after seeing the construct, Wesley had been too focused on its defeat to think about what it might be guarding. It was certain the golem was not rooted to a random construction site to annoy passersby. “The workers must have uncovered the golem.”

“What would a golem want with some kind of treasure?”

“It’s what Kalesh wants that interests me. Sending a golem to seek out and guard something that she cannot find on her own suggests that it is of great importance.”

Willow asked, “Something related to the prophecy?” She knew there were a number of objects directly linked to the Rites of Tavrok, items like the Bone Relic, and the obelisk. The five Varstrae were also requisite, but there were a few other mysterious things they knew little about.

“Something she thought would be safe in the golem’s keeping.” As Wesley spoke to Willow, his attention was divided as he watched Faith drop down into the pit the golem had vacated in order to attack the witch.

Like everything else, the pit was now covered in rubble and dirt from the explosion. Faith had to dig her way down to the original base tossing the heavier rocks to the side or out of the pit. This didn’t look good. The shiny object she had caught sight of during that first fight had no protective box or cover. Chances were that it was crushed by the weight of these fallen rocks.

Spotting it, she let out a surprised laugh and wondered if anything should shock her after today. Rock monsters, Willow throwing fireballs, and Wesley coming up with a plan that actually worked. Not bad for his first time in the field with an actual monster.

Completely intact, the object was metallic, circular in shape, about two inches thick, and covered in carved symbols and colorful paint. A little larger than her palm, it looked both old, and yet still shiny as if the grime of the pit and explosion could not touch it.

Letting out a whoop of triumph, “Found it,” Faith climbed to the top of the pit only to see that Wesley had wasted no time in getting Willow away from the area. They were at the edge of the construction site. It wouldn’t do to get caught by the SDPD right after an explosion.

She was out of sight long before the cops showed up. A quick jog took her down a side alley where they were waiting for her. “Guess I won’t have to hand this over to the mayor.” Faith snorted as she told them it was safe to come out from behind the garbage bin. “No cops chasing me this time.”

“You found something?”

“Nice that you care I wasn’t hauled off to the hoosegow again.”

Wesley’s mouth tugged into a little smile. “Let’s see what you found.”

“Some old thing,” Faith handed it over. Not exactly the jewelry Cor was hoping for. “What do you think it is?”

Staring at the metal talisman, Wesley instantly recognized it from their collected research on Kalesh, his jaw gaping low at the impact it would have on their mission to stop her from bringing Amolon to Earth. Wes’ gaze was a little glassy as he answered Faith’s query, “It’s Cordelia’s salvation.”


192: Fairgrounds, South Central Sunnydale

Rupert Giles

The Citroen’s engine roared to life drowning out the rare expletive that found its way to Rupert Giles’ lips. Hearing it anyway, Buffy’s eyes went wide with shock, before her attention suddenly turned to focus on her manicure. He noted the avoidance tactic realizing that her silence was antithetical to his own reaction, calmness in the face of the storm. No need for the both of them to fly off the handle.

“That man is an utter fool.” Giles gave the open air theater one last glance before stepping on the gas just a tad too hard. He drove straight forward not really caring that they were headed toward the Ocean Drive exit rather than the one on Regency Street. “Leaving his life to the whims of fate rather than doing something to save himself—allowing us to offer protection—might as well be a death warrant.”

Marko Calibresi’s refusal to accompany them to the Crawford Street Mansion had been completely unanticipated. Mild resistance perhaps, nothing more, yet this complete and disdainful reaction floored him. True, Giles could fully comprehend the gypsy’s personal fury in regard to Angel. His own struggles to separate Angel from his soulless counterpart led to turbulent nightmares. Marko’s hatred of the vampire had been clear making the threat against his life insignificant compared to the need to disassociate himself with any who played a part in the deaths of his kinsmen.

Gripping the steering wheel tighter, Giles felt a flash of empathy for Marko. He wished he had the luxury of doing the same. There might be a tiny shard of envy to be found in his outburst, he realized. Nevertheless, he had a duty to perform, and if his discomfiture with Angel or the site of his own torture caused him to lose sleep, he used the time wisely by furthering his research.

The prophecy within the Scroll of Septarius was complex. Far more than just a simple warning of impending doom. As much as they had learned from it by following the leads within cryptic stanzas and cobbled together passages, there were still remaining unknown elements. Things hinted at in riddles that were perhaps all too clear to Kalesh. An instruction manual of sorts, the high priestess would have some version of the prophecy scroll, using it to counter their every move.

Bringing Marko Calibresi to the safety of the mansion—certainly it would be once their plans came to fruition after Xander returned from the Magic Box with the spell components, and Wes directed Willow to perform the requisite enchantments to prevent Kalesh from directly invading their base of operations—would have been a coup. The man she held captive was not a true member of the Varstrae, and his potential inclusion in ritual events might be enough to put a stop to them. All they could hope for was that Marko’s personal fortunes would fair far better than that which had been predicted for him.

“Before my death,” he had revealed one reason their interference was just a waste of time, “I shall look into the eyes of Amolon.”

Giles supposed that would also be Cordelia’s fate if they failed in their efforts to protect her. “We must find some other advantage against Kalesh,” he said aloud.

Next to him, Buffy tried to buck up his spirits. “There are still a couple of others out there. Maybe we’ll find them before the bad guys do.” There were five Varstrae: Karla, Cordelia, and Marko being three identified through key events.

Censuring himself for his own negativity, Giles gave her a nod. Every day led them to a vital new discovery or clue that shed light on something previously shrouded in mystery. “We will find a way, Buffy,” he assured her confident of it. “There is still time.”

One passage translated to a vague timeframe for the culmination of events. A date by which all aspects of the prophecy preparations would be complete. Amolon’s most faithful worshippers would be gathered at the Hellmouth, the five Varstrae secure and prepared for sacrifice. Procurement of relics, ritual objects, and a talisman necessary to the Rites of Tavrok complete. On that day, months from now, near the end of the school year as far as Giles had been told by the Watchers Council, the demonic demigod would make its appearance on Earth.

Surely during the course of time allotted they could gain some advantage over Kalesh and her ever growing collective of followers. Time to prepare their own defenses, to train, research, hunt down the enemy, and to determine how to stop a goddess from fulfilling a thousand year old prophecy. There was so much to do.

“My time this evening may best be put to use conducting research,” he told Buffy deciding that other than provision of the funds to make the payoff he did not need to be present to procure the books.

“No big. I can handle one little demon.” 

Giles felt certain of it, too. However, “There might be several heavy volumes in the series,” he explained that bringing them back might be a challenge on her own.

“I suppose.” Whilst that wasn’t much of an answer, it seemed to be the only one Buffy was going to give him. 

A police barricade stretched across the eastbound lanes of Thousand Oaks Drive blocking his planned route back to the mansion. He slowed down as they passed by hoping to get a look at what was going on. Squinting, all he saw was the distant outline of the red and white fire truck and several police cars, their emergency lights flashing.

“Should I check it out?” Buffy asked him, her hand already moving toward the door handle. “There’s something going on. Not just a car accident or a house fire.”

“Too many people. The danger must be over, whatever it was.” Now that the authorities had shown up, the locals emerged from their homes and offices to see what was going on. No doubt some officer on the mayor’s payroll was putting a boring spin on what might have been an interesting story.

Giles decided they would head back to the mansion as planned although the blocked road meant they would have to detour along Main Street. Even then, they were only fifteen minutes out of their way. He was eager to get back to his research having made some progress just that morning with his latest find.

Buffy bounded up the steps ahead of him only to have the door open up for them before they reached it. “Giles, hi! I’m so glad you’re back,” Cordelia let Buffy slip past into the foyer as the brunette focused on him. 

That brilliant white smile and genuine enthusiasm to see him made him lose his train of thought for a moment until his suspicions caught up with him. It occurred to him that Cordelia wanted something, and for the life of him, he had no idea what that might be. Giles could see Angel standing on the foyer fringes just out of the reach of the light, a stormy expression darkening his face.

Deciding it wouldn’t do to run back to the Citroen and drive away again, he stepped across the threshold onto the parquet floor. Cordelia didn’t seem to be in a hurry to shut the door. Standing directly in the light she grabbed his jacket by the sleeve. “Hey! Weren’t you supposed to come back with one of my Sacrifice Buddies?”

Somehow Giles suspected that had not been the reason for her eager hello. She seemed suddenly distracted by it. Formulating the right words to say to her took too long. Buffy piped up by spouting, “No joy on the gypsy.”

Succinct, but Giles felt they deserved more of an explanation. He had gotten no more than a few words into it when Cordelia cut him off. “We’ve got more important stuff going on now. I found your notes on the crystals!”

“You’ve been through my notes?” It wasn’t an issue of privacy. Cordelia had no sense of organization whatsoever. Even during routine research sessions books were scattered open-faced where she left them, notepads askew, and alpha-numeric systems replaced by order of Interests According to Cordelia. He felt a bit jittery just thinking about what her random search might have done to their stacks.

Quick to defend herself, Cordelia promised that everything was mostly in its place. “I was the careful one,” she said while finally shutting the front door. It sent the foyer back into shadow, the only light beaming in coming through the frosted glass and the edges along the doorframe. 

Although Angel had not moved in all that time, Giles had not forgotten his presence. How could he with the weight of his stare practically knocking him on the back of his head? Unsurprisingly, “We need to talk,” substituted any other form of greeting when Giles turned to meet the vampire’s unrelenting gaze.

Cordelia tugged on his sleeve again. “He’s the one who deserves the lecture. Not me.” If she felt any guilt for ratting out her own boyfriend, it didn’t show on her face. “I was here first,” she smirked at Angel. “You just want to tell Giles to ignore the prophecy, but he’s not gonna do that. It’s all right there in black and white and Latin.”

Trying to follow Cordelia’s thinking sometimes muddled him a bit, but Giles suddenly understood why Angel would want to discuss her findings. “Oh, I see.” Naturally, he took issue with anything that might put her at risk. “You translated it.”

“Only the Varstrae shall find them.” Cordelia quoted the prophetic line. “I’m pretty sure that’s me.”

“Crystals?” asked Buffy.

Giving her an abridged—at least for Cordelia—version of her discovery in the research pile, they talked while Giles decided it would be better not to delay this discussion with Angel. He had not finished his readings on the crystals. The prophecy itself did not specify their appearance or powers, only their association with the five Varstrae. He had some vague recollections about ancient crystals, but could not recall the origins or references. 

He would be able to get nothing else done until hashing this out with Angel, who was not going to like what he had to say on the matter. “First, we will put my research to rights,” Giles said determinedly. “Then we can talk.”

On the verge of heading down the hall, Angel hesitated looking back at his girlfriend as if he was uncertain about leaving her behind. Giles noticed for the first time that he held his sword at his side even though he must have heard the Citroen’s engine as they pulled up in the driveway. 

“Cordy, you can stay with Buffy, or come back to the study.” There was just enough tension to suggest that Angel expected a defiant response. 

“I’ll stay here,” Cordelia answered smiling back rather sweetly. A red flag if ever he saw one.
Giles took another step in the direction of the study, but noticed that Angel did not budge from his spot. Perhaps he was irked that his concern for her safety was thrown back in his face, but it was certainly understandable that Cordelia would feel caged in by these circumstances. No wonder she was so eager to discuss a potential search for the crystals.

“Yeesh!” Buffy seemed to take Cordelia’s side in the matter. “Do you get any breathing room? He’s all over you.” 

“Like peanut butter on jelly—sticky, but delicious.”

“Bossy,” Buffy put another spin on it frowning with disapproval. 

Considering his natural stoicism, the no-holds-barred attitude was surprising to all of them. It was far more like Angelus who let nothing stand in the way of his goals. The attitude, Giles figured, was probably required to keep their strong-willed cheerleader in line. Although he had seen Cordelia bend to the softest kiss, or gentlest caress Angel sometimes gave her, the intimacy of those moments both awesome and eye-opening as he had discovered, their relationship was built on far more than passion.

Giles’ heart ached as he thought about his love for Jenny Calendar. If he had suspected that she was in danger, would his protective instincts and actions be any different from Angel’s? Somehow, he doubted it. Blinking at the salty sting in his eyes, he empathized with his plight. Angel was going to have to do what was best for Cordelia, even if that meant giving up control over her whereabouts.

“You don’t have to leave.” Cordelia held out a hand beckoning Angel to her side. “Buffy can tell us about meeting Marko. Don’t you want to know why he didn’t come back?”

Angel was curious enough to stay, or maybe he couldn’t resist the way her eyes softened, or her fingers threaded through his as they stood side by side. It looked like Giles was going to get a brief reprieve on their pending chat. Although knowing he should probably head down to the study, he was still feeling a bit shaken by the emotional tide that surged up when thinking about Jenny. Remaining where he was, Giles let Buffy take the lead on the story of Marko Calibresi, figuring to chime in if necessary.

The tale wended its way along a descriptive path Giles would have avoided, but the things Buffy found relevant, or at least interesting from her teenage perspective, were more detailed. “So he says he just wants to live his life. Not be locked away like a prisoner here in the mansion.”

Cordelia raised her head from its temporary home while leaning upon Angel’s shoulder. Sarcasm stained her initial, “Oh, really?” Then grinning, “I think I like this Marko. I want the same thing.”

Giles shrugged deeply when Angel flashed him an annoyed glare. It wasn’t his fault if Marko had said precisely the right words to bolster Cordelia’s argument on the subject. 

“You’d really like him if you saw him in person,” Buffy suddenly giggled the way young women sometimes do when oversharing details about men. “He is super hot, tall, black hair, and with gorgeous grey eyes and dark lashes.”

“Sounds yummy, plus he’s an actor,” Cordelia tagged on as if his occupation added a level of delicious appeal.

Even though he could no longer see Angel’s face, Giles could sense his scowl from across the room. He too felt uncomfortable overhearing them, although it was far from the first time conversations had segued from important topics to Hollywood crushes, current fashion, or music trends. This wasn’t simply a random television or movie star only seen on the screen, otherwise distant and inaccessible, but a man right here in Sunnydale.

Angel’s hand tightened on the hilt of his sword, the only outward indication that he might be a little irritated by the girls oohing over another man. Until he opened his mouth. Giles cringed a bit at the vampire’s miserable attempt at pretending not to care. “The Rom can be quite attractive,” he finished with a too casual shrug.

“Angelus certainly thought so,” Giles took a verbal stab he regretted as soon as he said it. 

There was a harsh retort ready to fire when Angel turned sharply to face him, but somehow finding the inner strength to hold it back. The demon within no doubt made it difficult to resist coming back with something cold, cruel and utterly personal. Already on edge today, Giles knew that he could not have handled any mention of Jenny’s name by the vampire.

Cordelia was quick to sense Angel’s annoyance rising to the bait without any need to edit her response as she defended him. “Don’t go pointing fingers, Giles. So do you. Obvious much? Miss Calendar was very pretty.”

It felt as if Cordelia had squeezed a hand around his already crushed heart. “I see your point,” he managed a response although he doubted it to be a steady one. “Angel, perhaps now is a good time for that private word.” All he could do for both of them was try to escape any conversation that involved the Kalderash, and ironically the safest person in the room at that moment was him.

Completely unaware that she had said something that wounded him deeply, Cordelia shooed them off to the study. “I’ll be waiting for the good news.” 

Before joining him, Angel paused long enough to palm her face, cresting his thumb along her cheek. “Try not to be disappointed.”

“Back atcha, buddy!”

As they headed down the hallway toward the study, Giles could hear Cordelia making plans with Buffy that Angel would most assuredly want him to shut down. “Hey, maybe we can start our Crystal Hunt tonight after you guys pay off that demon for the books.”

Sounding less than enthusiastic, or perhaps uncertain that it would happen, Buffy answered, “Um, sure.”


193: A Cavern Somewhere in Sunnydale

Jake Devries_Cavern
“You’re about to meet the most powerful being you’ve ever encountered,” Jake Devries tried to prepare Harry Sims for coming face to face with Kalesh. “Don’t be distracted by outward appearances. There’s a reason she looks like a crazy old hag from those old fairytales—she inspired them.”

Sims chewed over the warning, no doubt wondering why he was still blind to his immediate future. His precognitive abilities had taken a nosedive a short time before his incarceration in Federal Prison. Maybe he suspected that Wolfram & Hart had something to do with that, but he had been promised far too much to care securely believing that his future as a wealthy man was a certainty.

He had been played—hard, and still didn’t know it. Devries felt no empathy despite their mutual interest in money and power. He had a job to perform, a duty to his superiors at the firm. He wasn’t the only one. Even now there were warlocks enhancing the spells that protected Sims’ true nature. His identification as one of the five required a great deal of sacrifice, much of it in blood, masking the presence of the true Varstrae, and providing the firm with a substitute that could disrupt Amolon’s transference to Earth.

The Senior Partners confirmed that the demigod’s arrival would conflict with their own plans for acquiring ultimate control here. Therefore, he had to be stopped, but in a way that kept the firm under the radar. All Sims knew was that he was supposed to play along. Mooney might have tipped him off to the danger, so Jake saw no reason not to frighten him into submission with news of Kalesh’s power. Now was not the time to rock the boat because if she sensed even a whiff of deception—it would be over.

“A witch?” There was a hint of interest in the question, but none of the true awe that Kalesh deserved. Devries might not worship her, but he respected her power.

“Some call her goddess, mother, destroyer. You will not address her directly unless she wishes to engage in conversation. Keep your mouth shut,” Jake emphasized the need for quiet, but it was discretion he really wanted.

They followed along behind Isobel as she led them toward the main chamber where the Altar of Amolon was bathed in an eerie, unholy light. This was it, Jake realized. The moment his success would earn him that promotion he so desperately wanted. It was either him, or that bitch Lilah Morgan. She had her own assignments to deal with back in L.A., other cogs in the great wheel churning, people to manipulate no matter what assets she had to use. As a game player, Lilah was one of the best, but as only one of them would be left standing when this was over, he planned to win.


194: The Crawford Street Mansion, Central Sunnydale

Joyce_Kitchen

Cordelia could tell that Angel felt annoyed by her need to get away from the mansion for this Crystal Hunt. This wasn’t the first time being stuck had driven her to defy his wishes. Sure, he wanted her safe. Understanding his motives didn’t make her any less eager to find some freedom, and hearing Marko Calibresi’s take on the subject only spurred her on.

Poor Giles was going to have to deal with Angel’s naturally intimidating way of glowering until he got what he wanted. That dark stare could bend most people to his will without a word spoken, not that this would be one of those times. There would definitely be words, she guessed, and probably not the kind of quiet, polite conversations found in libraries or British tea rooms. Angel would be insistent, adamantly refusing to let her go anywhere that might compromise her safety, and Giles would listen to his concerns, agree with them—and then lay it on the line.

 Go Giles, Go!

The way Angel was so determined to keep her safe gave her a warm, fuzzy feeling. It was hot watching him get worked up like that, especially over her. Determined or not, Angel already knew what needed to happen from the moment he translated the text. What he really wanted was for Giles to tell him there was some other way to make this happen without putting her in danger.

There was a risk, Cordelia had to acknowledge, but this seemed to be one way to contribute to their efforts. Not to mention do something that could potentially save herself—and the world. She was okay with that, too.

The outcome of Angel’s conversation with Giles was never in doubt as she saw it. Only one major concern kept surfacing. What was she going to wear on this Crystal Hunt? Realizing that she was still standing next to Miss Patrol Gal herself, Cordelia eyed her trendy ensemble knowing every label stitched inside them. Not an appalling effort, but not exactly up to Cordelia’s usual standard, either.

Not that Cordelia could afford anything new that might measure up to her own level these days. No more carte blanche on her shopping trips to L.A., or even the Sunnydale Mall. Goodbye Platinum Visa! Goodbye car! Goodbye parents, for that matter, she added sourly, supposing they were technically on the list of things she still possessed. Her wardrobe had come to her from Bev’s house bundled up in trash bags. Better than not having it at all.

There would be no revamping of her closet on a season by season basis. A horrible thought if there ever was one. Definitely something to fix assuming the whole being sacrificed to a demonic demigod worked out in her favor.

For now, Cordelia could only focus on one outfit at a time. How did one dress for a Crystal Hunt that might take them to parts unknown? It would be just her luck to have to dig up some icky grave in Old Sunnydale Cemetery. Describing the potential for fashion disaster, she asked, “Did you just throw that on this morning, or were you going for Graveyard Chic?”

The front door suddenly burst open giving Buffy only enough time to look offended by her question, while Giles and Angel had barely taken a few steps down the hall. Sunlight beamed in across the wooden floor sending Angel shuffling a little further into the shadows. Giles automatically headed in the opposite direction to see the source of the commotion.

“Ohmygoshwait’llyouhearwhathappened!” Xander made a bulky silhouette as he stumbled over the threshold laden with grocery bags.

Darting to help, Buffy stopped short as another figure climbed up the marble steps to join him. “Mom? What are you doing here?”

“We’ve had a little excitement,” Joyce Summers answered far more calmly than she felt. Her heart was racing, but it wasn’t just about what happened at the Piggly Wiggly. Being here at Angel’s home stirred some unwelcome memories and lingering concerns about Buffy having to see him on a daily basis.

“You’re all scraped up, Mrs Summers,” Cordelia noticed, “and you’ve got a little something in your hair. Is that— blood?”

“Jelly donut,” said Xander as he pushed further into the room trying not to drop any of the bags from his overloaded arms. Why make a few trips back and forth to the car when one would do? “It got kinda wild at the PW.”

Cordelia waved them both inside. “C’mon in, Mrs Summers. My boyfriend’s allergic to sunshine, so I’d like to shut the door.”

Her casual way of reminding Joyce that Angel was a vampire as if it was just another little thing to know? Stained glass and frosted windows kept the light low, but still brightened the foyer. Furnishing were at a minumum, she noted with a quick glance around, but the place was spotless. Not exactly a dusty, haunted mansion full of cobwebs and creatures that go bump in the night. Well, unless she counted Angel in that number. He was standing alone in the hallway, holding a sword as if expecting trouble at any moment. She had not seen him at first, but all it took was following Cordelia’s line of sight after she shut out the dangerous sunlight.

The little look they shared across the space separating them was enough to make Joyce flush. Buffy noticed the splotchy color having been checking her out. “Are you sure you’re okay, Mom? What happened to you? Xander—why is my mom hurt?”

Hearing his name, Cordelia was also on Xander’s case. “We send you out for a few things and you just had to find trouble.”

Surrounded, Xander gulped deeply. “Easy to do—it’s the Hellmouth.”

“Xander was quite heroic,” Joyce defended him. 

Giles gave him a pat on the shoulder as he moved closer to assess Joyce’s wounds. “These appear to be small claw marks.”

“Impy little demons,” explained Xander as he shifted around the heavy bags that seemed to be getting heavier with every passing second. “Uh—“

Taking a closer look, Giles touched her cheek, but withdrew it almost as fast. He still occasionally thought about the incident with the Band Candy that had resulted in their hormonal teenage personalities becoming quite intimate. So inappropriate even if he did feel some lingering attraction. She was Buffy’s mother, and therefore not to be trifled with. “They’re all fairly superficial,” he assured both her and Buffy who was clinging to her mother’s side with a worried expression. “Perhaps a bit of First Aid.”

Cordelia jumped into action at the mention of it, confident that she could do something to help. “I’m totally awesome at that.” Turning, she dashed up the stairs. “Be right back!”

“Cordy does a great impression of Florence Nightingale,” said Angel from his spot in the hallway. He put the sword down by leaning it against the large wooden post at the bottom of the steps before walking over to join them. He looked just as handsome and imposing as he had the last time Joyce had seen him, although far less threatening. “She’s always patching us up.”

“You maybe,” muttered Xander as he tried to get out of the way.

Joyce suddenly realized that Angel’s past could have presented him with an opportunity to come face to face with historical figures. It was one aspect of their existence as vampires that might prove interesting. From what she had seen and Buffy described, there were few benefits. “Oh, did you know Flor—”

Not expecting to be questioned about his past, Angel quickly denied it even if it meant rudely cutting her off. He felt a rush of guilt over it realizing that Joyce Summers was just voicing a general curiosity about an historical figure rather than trying to accuse him of Angelus’ exploits.

 Tempering his response, he explained, “No, I was never in the Crimea during that time.”

“Probably a good thing for Flo,” Xander quipped as he finally made it past the crowd. Catching, Angel’s annoyed glare, he tried to shrug, but was too laden down with grocery bags for it to be effective. Escaping, he told them all, “Going to the kitchen now.”

Muttering down the hallway, “Jobs done—and I even saved the damsel in distress, but do I get any credit? Nope.”

Buffy whispered to Joyce, “Mom, Angel probably doesn’t want any reminders about his time as Angelus.”

True, but he still regretted overreacting. Besides, he was getting used to the constant questions Cordelia randomly pulled out of thin air to ask him. This wasn’t any different. “My history is as dark and bloody as you’ve no doubt heard, Mrs. Summers. I can’t change that, but it wasn’t all bad. I’ve seen a lot of interesting places in my time.”

A little laugh trapped in Buffy’s throat as she held it back. “Spike has another name for them.” Whether she liked it or not, Spike was full of things to say about the good old days, especially if it made Angelus look bad. Listening to the annoying vampire was hardship enough, but every now and then he had a few hilarious tales to tell.

Angel’s jaw dropped open. “I’m sure your mother doesn’t want to hear about those places, Buffy.”

Even if his skin didn’t flush, Joyce knew the topic had embarrassed him. But his response sounded somewhat amused rather than harsh. Knowing the pain and anguish Buffy had experienced because of Angel, it was difficult to see them standing so close. Lighthearted teasing was completely unexpected in the face of what had happened between them. Having expected tension, it surprised her to hear them speaking to each other at all, much less this way.

Angel was not what she expected. He was not like he was when he came to the house, desperate and demanding of her daughter’s attention, with that dangerous threatening undertone lacing every word. Seeing him now, she tried to distinguish what he was—a soulless bloodthirsty creature driven by the most basic of instincts—from the man he was now. Still a vampire, but one who had some sense of control, a moral compass by which he could guide his actions, an understanding of right and wrong.

Knowing all of that made it easier to see why Buffy had fallen for Angel in the first place. Being the epitome of tall, dark, and handsome certainly had given him an advantage. Any woman would have a hard time saying no to him, she imagined, if he turned on the charm. Cordelia Chase certainly had not let his past interfere with pursuing a relationship. She worried for that girl. The potential for a broken heart seemed to be the least of her problems.

Giles harrumphed. “Perhaps we ought to move to the kitchen as well. Joyce and Xander still have details to impart. There are groceries and wounds to attend to.” He stepped away from Joyce Summers realizing that he was still too close, and immediately headed off to join Xander.

“If that’s okay with. . . with. . .,” Joyce found that she still couldn’t say the name quite so casually.

Realizing that he was technically the host here, Angel tried to ease her mind. “You’re welcome in my home, Joyce. While you’re under my roof, you’re under my protection. Cordy and I would want you to feel comfortable here.”

The tension in her shoulders eased a bit. His words did make her feel a little better about inviting herself over. Interesting how he felt it necessary to say she would be under his protection while in the house. From what? The other vampires that were here, she supposed, glancing toward the staircase. Were they still sleeping? If so, she was happy to have missed them.

The notion of vampires occupying the same space where her daughter and friends slept felt disconcerting. Buffy might be able to defend herself, but not everyone here had superior strength on their side. Still, Angel sounded very confident in his promise of safety. What Joyce found curious was the almost unconscious way Angel collectively included his new girlfriend in his promise, as if she had an equal interest in what happened here.

“Thank you, Angel.” Quite proud that she managed to put his name to voice, Joyce held his gaze for a moment finding it impossible to read him. She was not as good at hiding her thoughts or emotions, and guessed that he could see the disapproval in her eyes, concern for her daughter, and the questions she had about his relationship with Cordelia. The latter might not be any of her business except that it had to hurt Buffy to be here to witness it.

“Let me take those grocery bags,” he offered a hand making that simple task sound heroic. Angel held the awkward bundle of heavy bags one-handed as if it weighed nothing. “The kitchen is this way.”

Giles had already begun questioning Xander even though he was still out of sight in the large pantry attached to the kitchen putting grocery items away. “Did you not think to page Buffy?”

There had been a pay phone outside the store, but Xander had not stopped to send out a coded message to the slayer. “Um, no. Saving her mom from the creepy little demons seemed the way to go.”

Buffy called out to him, “You did good,” as she entered the kitchen and took a seat at the table.

Sitting down next to her, Joyce told Giles, “You should’ve seen him batting down those imps with nothing but a baguette. Impressive, I’d say. He saved me, the grocery clerk and two children from that chaos.”

Xander emerged from the pantry with a big smile on his face. “Look at me. Action hero of the day!” He grinned smugly at Angel.

“Glad to hear you’ve learned a thing or two over the past few years, Harris.”

“From Buffy,” emphasized Xander as his grin faded fast, “not you, Dead Boy.”

Frowning at slur, Joyce noticed that Angel ignored it even though that had to sting. The ability to control his temper would be essential for someone like him, she imagined, thinking back again to the barely restrained threats that Angelus had made on her front lawn that night. She had thought him to be a college student, a history tutor giving Buffy a few lessons, not an obsessed seducer of young women.

Angel held back the growl that threatened to erupt when Xander used that annoying nickname. The kid liked to poke the bear, especially when he knew he could get away with it. He chose to address the issue with the demons rather than put him in his place, which was still tempting. “Sounds like these demons were more pesky than dangerous.”

Considering it, Giles nodded, “I believe I may know of the species.”

“Oh, they were dangerous!” Xander paused as he stuffed as many pizzas as possible into the freezer. “Crazy little dudes flying around, dive bombing the customers, throwing things.”

Joyce agreed. “One or two of them might be easily ignored, but there were dozens, a whole swarm of them.”

“So how do we round up these flying imps?” Already strategizing, Buffy had to ask, “Maybe we should just kill them.”

It was still disconcerting for Joyce to hear her daughter casually talk about killing anything, even demons—which were real! Still, she had come to an uneasy understanding of Buffy’s role as the Chosen One, even if she wished it was someone else’s responsibility.

She deliberately tried not to listen distracting herself by glancing around the beautiful kitchen. Like the front entry, frosted stained glass filtered the light that brightened the room, apparently making it safe for Angel. Appliances and fixtures were all modern despite the age of the mansion, half of which was destroyed by fire, the rubble outside overgrown by weeds and vines. It felt like an odd contrast, kind of like Angel himself living in the present, but tied down by his dark past. Somehow it seemed fitting that he would take up residence in this place with such a gloomy history of its own.

Joyce only realized that she was staring directly at Angel when he spoke to her, “Do you have something you want to say to me, Joyce?”

Caught, her heart raced faster, but he had given her an opening. Buffy gave her a nudge, pausing her strategy session long enough to notice that Angel had spoken to her mother, and quickly trying to ixnay what she suspected would be about them. “Let it go, please.”

Joyce was tempted to take the one opportunity she figured Angel would give her. “There’s plenty I want to say, but as my daughter prefers me to forgive and forget, I’ll do my best.” Let it go? How was that possible for her, much less for Buffy?

Angel stared back in broody silence feeling a swell of guilt rise up looking at his ex and her mother. He wanted to be anywhere but there at that moment. Fortunately, Cordelia’s sudden arrival broke the tension rapidly building up in the room. She rushed in with an apology for taking so long. “Drusilla wanted me to see something first.” Putting the First Aid Kit down on the table, she looked toward Angel noting his questioning gaze had fallen to her flushed cheeks and throat. The others were staring, too, as if she had just walked into the middle of something awkward.

Oh, geez! Prompting herself to smooth over the weird vibes, Cordelia went into hostess mode to diffuse some of the tension. “Where’s the tea? Angel, that’s so rude! You should have offered Mrs Summers something to drink.” Turning back to Joyce, she gave her some options. “We have coffee, too, or something icy. I made fresh lemonade this morning.”

Joyce had to smile at her obvious effort to distract them. “Lemonade would be lovely.”
Buffy piped up. “I’ll take one, too.”

“Me, three!” Xander wasn’t about to be excluded. He carried the bags from the Magic Box over to the table and set them down.

“None for me,” Giles wasn’t opposed to the sweet-tart drink, but needed to fortify himself before Angel got around to that discussion he was still going to demand. “I’ll put the kettle on.”

Being dressed down by a teenager for his lack of manners didn’t seem to be an issue for Angel. He only voiced one concern. “What about you, Cordy, do you want anything?” The eye contact between them practically melted Joyce into a puddle of goo. Just a simple little question seemed like it said so much more. Unless she was reading it all wrong. Those two—oh my!—she felt like fanning herself.

“We never made it down here earlier. I’ll take some lemonade, too.”

Angel reached out to touch Cordelia’s face brushing his thumb slowly across her cheek. As if he was off to fulfill some important mission on her behalf and could not leave her side without one last caress. Caught off guard by the depth of feeling conveyed by that one little move, Joyce glanced sideways at Buffy thinking she will be mortified at their open intimacy, but Buffy wasn’t even looking their way. At that moment, she was busy trying to clean the jelly out of Joyce’s hair with a damp napkin.

The moment passed and Angel headed to the other side of the kitchen to gather glasses from the cabinet. Joyce tried not to stare as she watched him carry off his task. “He’s really not so scary when you get to know him,” Cordelia gave her a little smile having caught her staring.

A vampire pouring lemonade, Joyce mused. “Right.” Seemed scary enough to her that he could appear to fit in here like any other man. He wasn’t, really. His humanity was just a mask, and Cordelia was not his young wife dishing out domestic duties. Though, she had to admit that Angel certainly looked at Cordelia with love in his eyes, soft adoration warming those dark depths as she thanked him for bringing their drinks over.

Noticing that there was no glass in front of him, Cordelia asked, “Nothing for you?”

Maybe it was cliche or just something found in the pages of a vampire novel, but Joyce would have guessed blood would be more to his taste than ice cold lemonade. His choice still managed to surprise her. “Rupert is making tea. I’ll have some of that.”

Angel preferred coffee, but the tea would be hot, and if he added enough sugar it slid sweetly enough down his throat making it palatable enough. The others had been here long enough to get used to seeing him drinking blood, but he doubted even Joyce’s curiosity stretched that far.

Sounding a bit impatient, Giles suggested, “Perhaps we could get back to our discussion on the demons,” even as he prepared another cup and saucer.

Cordelia dabbed at Joyce’s injuries, with Buffy watching closely, and joined in on the discussion about Piggly Wiggly’s imp infestation. “More demons. Don’t we have enough in this town already?”

“Likely another manifestation created by the Bone Relic’s activation,” Giles explained. “Followers of Amolon and their underlings will continue to make their way to the Hellmouth until the Day Foretold when the Rites of Tavrok will be initiated.”

Joyce had seen some unusual stories in the Sunnydale Press. Upon first read they sounded plausible enough, but knowing about the supernatural world often made her look at them with a jaded eye. Many of them were coverups for the kind of demonic activity the locals were not ready to believe was real. There was so much of it going on these days she wondered how they could turn a blind eye to what was happening in their quaint little town.

“Sounds to me like you know all you need to know,” Cordelia gave Giles a nod in the direction of the kitchen door. “Don’t you have something else you need to talk about with Angel?”

Telling her the truth, “I was trying to delay that as long as possible.”

Cordelia’s little snort was followed by Angel’s more obvious complaint as he took the tea offered him by the watcher. “I noticed. Let’s go.” The tension in the room ramped up a notch as Giles glanced back and forth between them, expectations already clear before he had an opportunity to say anything on the subject of the crystals.

As soon as Angel left the room, Joyce let out a deep sigh as if she had been holding her breath for a while. Watching the intensity flaring up in Angel’s eyes made her concerned for Rupert’s safety, but Buffy assured her that he would be fine. “No worries, Mom.”

Nothing Cordelia could say seemed to ease those deepening worry lines on Joyce Summers’ forehead. It wasn’t like her own fears about Angel had gone away overnight, she supposed. Patching up the last of her scratches with a large bandaid, Cordelia asked her about the Gallery and its inclusion in the upcoming arts festival. “Do you have anything cool on display?”

Eager for the distraction, Joyce explained that they were opting for festival themed art and items rather than the usual popular antiquities and historical art. “You enjoy the performing arts as I recall,” she remembered Cordelia’s song at the talent show.

“I love the spotlight,” Cordelia grinned at the thought of it.

“As managing director, I have been able to change the Gallery exhibit for the duration of the festival. We’re including both original and replica movie and theater art. Everything from vintage movie posters to ruby slippers,” Joyce revealed quite happy to talk about anything that did not include vampires and demons.

Cordelia promised to stop by. “I won’t be on lockdown much longer.”

“Not if Angel gets his way,” Xander chimed in before gulping down the last of his lemonade.

Buffy explained to her mother, “The Bad Guys need Cordelia for their ritual. Angel wants her here to keep her safe.”

“That sounds reasonable.” Maybe Angel’s intense attitude was justified after all.

“Giles’ research says I have to go on this Crystal Hunt. Only one of the Varstrae can find them, and that’s me! It’s in the prophecy.” Cordelia grinned with excitement. “Finally, I can do something to help.”

Xander wanted to know, “How do you plan to find them?”

It seemed clear that Cordelia’s thinking had not progressed to the actual searching stage. Joyce asked for some details. “What do these crystals look like? Bastien Kostopoulous, who owns the Gallery, sources most of our goods from Europe, Asia, and Africa, but there are also some of Mesoamerican design.”

“No clue about what they look like. Giles will tell me what he knows.”

Joyce wished she could help. “The antiquities collection includes a number of crystalline objects, but they’re all in storage at the gallery or at the house along with the rest of the collection while we participate in the arts festival.”

“Too bad,” Cordelia frowned. Finding the crystals in a window display would be pretty convenient. Not that she wanted this moment of freedom to be over that fast.

“Some of our pieces are quite fragile.” Joyce was hesitant to unpack boxes if there was a chance something would be broken. “I can show you the Gallery inventory book. There are photographs and descriptions. You could review those right here without leaving the building.”

Cordelia thanked her, but felt certain that she would only be able to identify the crystals in person. “I kinda think I need to see and touch them to know if they’re the real deal.”

“I’ve had that thought before, too.” Xander’s wandering imagination instantly took him to perky, curvaceous places he definitely should not be picturing in front of Buffy’s mom.


195: The Crawford Street Mansion, Central Sunnydale

Spike_lecture

Drusilla descended the stairs immediately noticing a new scent in the mansion. Human woman, delicate perfume, and the faintest scent of blood. “Who’s this? Has my Angel brought us a treat?”

“Not ruddy likely.” Spike gave the air a sniff. “Barely lets us slip a little o’ the good stuff into that swill he makes us drink. Might need a night on the town you and me.”

Grabbing his face, Drusilla planted a big kiss at the corner of his mouth leaving a rosy mark behind. “You know what I like.”

“Moonlit stroll, some good ol’ bloodshed, bit o’ mayhem.”

An eager smile spread her lips wide, and she giggled fiendishly at the idea, spinning around into a circle that made her elegant long skirt swirl. “Let’s not tell Daddy.” She held a finger to her lips to shush him into secrecy.

Spike firmly agreed to leave Angel out of it. “Best not distract him from his feisty pet. Must be the best shag ever the way he lets her hold off on giving him his due.”

Disapproval sparked in Drusilla’s dark gaze. “Hmph!” Either she took offense on the chit’s behalf even if her sire was the one getting shafted, or it was jealousy.

“Second best after you,” he quickly tried to fix it.

Unimpressed by his hasty backpedaling, Dru’s chin went up a notch before repeating, “Hmph!”

Cringing inwardly, Spike knew that he was not only too late to avoid setting her off, he managed to earn himself a spot on her naughty list for tonight. “Doesn’t have squat to do with us having a bit o’ fun.”

Being here had been good for her. Except for throwing the watchers’ research into the fire that one time Dru had more good nights than bad. Spike didn’t want to do anything to rock the boat, but thought she would enjoy some time alone with him. He still hadn’t gotten to the bottom that comment she made about him leaving her.

“Miss Edith is still upstairs. Pretty girl, pretty dress, no place to go. She’ll be lonely.” Turning away, Dru darted up the stairs, pausing again on the landing to look back at him with disappointment in her eyes before moving toward the third floor steps.

Spike felt irritated and frustrated with himself and his sire. Trying to do one good thing he still ended up in the doghouse. Should be used to it by now. The need to please Drusilla burned inside him. He wanted to fill her up until her heart had no room for other interests. Not her sire, who denied her any part of himself, which Spike should consider a good thing, but still felt the sting of rejection on her behalf. Not even Miss Edith with her blinking dolly eyes whose special place in Dru’s twisted mind was unshakable.

Always giving, that’s what he did for her. Sometimes he wanted just a little something for himself. Watching his sire depart, Spike decided he was not going to let Drusilla’s changing mood spoil the rest of his day.

Heading across the foyer, Spike focused on the raised voices coming from the study. Sounded like his grandsire was giving the watcher what for about something. A couple of seconds eavesdropping was enough to give him the gist of it. Not an argument he wanted to interrupt—since Angel was already going to be in a rotten mood.

Choosing to ignore them, he sauntered down only as far as the cut off for the kitchen. It was easy to tell who was inside. Every instinct revealed that the slayer was there as his senses tuned in to her voice, scent, even the steady beat of her heart. Buffy got a word in now and then, but Cordelia flitted from talking about crystals to movie heroes to her favorite topic—herself.”

“I’m so excited about tonight. A little change of scenery is just what I need.”

Where did the chit think she was going? The bits and pieces of conversation started to make sense, not to mention the one going on down the hall. Crystal hunting, prophecy, patrol footwear, and destination hotspots all added up to Cordelia gabbing about town. Sounded dangerous, and while that might be fun, it was also not a situation Angel was ever going to let happen.

Anything happened to her, and he could see the crap spiraling downhill from there until it reached him. If Angel went into a tailspin over losing his precious pet, Drusilla would be angry and upset. Then he would have to deal with both of them. Bugger if he’d just keep quiet and let it happen.

“Don’t be daft,” Spike told her as he strode into the kitchen grabbed the edge of her chair and turned Cordelia to face him. “What are you on about, pet? Only change of scene you’ll get is a view o’ the ceiling ‘cause he’ll shackle you to the bed before he lets you out that front door.”

Shock widened her eyes and her normally healthy glow turned pale in the indirect light. He was completely serious, and it was clear that Cordelia knew his scenario wasn’t out of the question. Maybe he didn’t know why she thought this was a done deal, but he knew that Angel wasn’t going to put the woman he loved in danger on a whim. Just the consideration that he might allow her to step outside the mansion right now meant it had to be something significant.

He thought about his planned escape with Dru for a fun night on the town, and his lack of concern over her own safety figuring they could handle whatever came up. Not like the first time when they were unprepared for Isobel and her goon squad. Still, he didn’t know what Nicolau wanted with Drusilla because it was more than just her interest in Cordelia Chase.

“Stop calling me pet,” Cordelia hissed furiously before turning back to the others. She couldn’t deny what he said, so lashing out was her only option.

Forgetting about the no-touching rule, Spike grabbed her by the chin forcing her to focus on him. A chair scraped loudly on the hard tile floor as Buffy stood up, but he ignored her long enough to get his point across. “You want my respect, kitten?”

Cordelia tried digging her fingernails in deep as she tried to pry him away. Anger rose up quickly as she struggled making him enjoy the way she squirmed helplessly against his minimal use of strength. Glinting daggers, she managed to convey contempt for his action. Probably would’ve ripped into him with that sharp little tongue if his hold hadn’t prevented her speaking.

“Get your hand off her, Spike,” warned Buffy almost softly.

Although he felt a little jolt when the slayer focused her attention on him, he chose to ignore her long enough to make certain Cordelia fully understood him. “Stop jerking Angelus around. The soul might curb his instincts, but he’s still a vampire. Want to be something other than a pet show me visible proof you accept all that he is.”

The slayer moved closer, now within reach of him, but holding off on forcing him to release Cordelia. “This stops now.” Through gritted teeth, she demanded he, “Save the creepy advice for later,” reminding him that they had a guest.

Cordelia slapped his hand away as soon as Spike loosened his grip. “You’ve seen plenty.”

Spike wagged out his tongue as if tasting the memory of her arousal when tied up on Angel’s bed. “That’s where you’re wrong, pet. Can’t get enough o’ that. Not the kind o’ proof I mean.”

“We’re waiting—not that it’s any of your business.”

At the other end of the table, Xander was scowling at both of them. “Waiting for what?”

The kid was clueless, but turning that query around, Spike admitted it was good enough for him, too. “Not a bad question. Tall, Dark and Dreary thinks he’s being all noble putting off the inevitable.”

Buffy cut off any answer Cordelia was about to make. “You’re done talking now.”

Stubbornly defiant, neither one of them was quite done. “It’s not that simple,” Cordelia pushed him out of her personal space again when he leaned in close.

“Nothing simpler.”

The woman at the table suddenly spoke up, looking and sounding familiar to Spike. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but it disturbs me. Cordelia, I hope you aren’t being pressured into something before you’re ready.”

“No worries. I’ve got this covered.”

“Odd, but I feel like this is a conversation I should have had with Buffy ages ago.”

Moaning out her complaint, the Slayer turned pink with embarrassment. “Mommmm!”

Realizing who she was, Spike’s interests suddenly shifted. “You’re Buffy’s mum.” He continued to stand next to Cordelia, his left arm casually draped across the back of her chair as he took a good look at the woman he had previously seen only briefly.

“Joyce Summers,” she automatically filled the awkward silence that followed with an introduction.

Cordelia elbowed him in the thigh to force him away, but he didn’t budge. “Just a bit of a family squabble,” he explained to Joyce. “Nothing to concern you. Nice to see you again. Always good to know who’s most important to Buffy.”

“Have we met?”

“Last year. You hit me with an axe.” Mimicking her raising the weapon against him, he quoted, “Get away from my daughter!”

Paling a bit, it seemed clear that she placed him immediately. “Oh. That was you. And now you’re here. . .”

“Living under the very same roof. Must be fate, Joyce.”

Cordelia elbowed him again, this time a little higher, and a lot closer to becoming much more painful. “Stop teasing Mrs Summers.”

This time he growled a bit. “We’re on the same team, aren’t we, Slayer?” His eyebrows twitched higher daring her to deny it.

Putting her mother at ease was obviously Buffy’s priority. “That’s right. Spike’s all about saving the world. He’s so helpful.”

There might have been a sardonic twist to those words, Spike noticed, hoping that her mum did not. “Right.” He sent Xander a nod expecting him to pipe up with a response that showed a bit of manly solidarity.

A snort sounded before Xander played along. “Stirring up trouble—all in the past now. Spike’s practically a model citizen.”

“He’s not all bad, Mrs Summers,” Cordelia surprised him by saying. “Just don’t ever invite him into your house for hot chocolate. He’s the type to eat all the marshmallows.”

Buffy wasn’t amused. “Why would my mom ever invite Spike into our house?”

While Joyce asked nobody in particular, “Vampires drink hot chocolate, too?”

“How’d you know I like marshmallows?”

Cordelia suddenly looked a little rattled. “I don’t know. Sometimes I just say the first thing that pops into my head. Still sounds like good advice to me.” She pushed out of her chair and started gathering up the empty glasses from the table placing them in the kitchen sink.

“Thank you, Cordelia, although I’m sure the situation would never come up.” A crooked little smile lifted one corner of Joyce Summers’ mouth, as if she was partly amused, yet still horrified by the idea.

Spike sat down in the chair Cordelia had vacated slouching comfortably as he waited to see if the slayer would complain about his continued presence there. Instead, Buffy sat down again perching on the edge of her chair as if she might launch herself at him without warning should he do anything to threaten her mother. Gleefully, Spike realized he no longer needed a night on the town to have a little fun. It had come to him.

“The more I hear about this prophecy, the more worried I get, and after our experience at the Piggly Wiggly,” Joyce let out a deep sigh as she spoke directly to him, “I’m so grateful that Buffy has allies she can rely upon.”

Xander started to say something, “Um, I—“ until Spike kicked him in the shin under the cover of the table.

“Bad day?”

The whole story came out again with Spike listening attentively to Joyce’s description of the demon imps wreaking havoc on the local grocery store. “Good on you,” Spike gave Xander a nod at the end that was almost sincere.

“Buffy could use some help rounding them up tonight,” Joyce said still looking his way. “I think she planned to go alone, but I’m sure someone like you can handle that horde.”

“Mom…”

“Buffy, you’ve told me that vampires have supernatural speed and strength. You might as well take advantage of that what Spike has to offer.”

Spike leered across the table at Buffy while her mother was looking at her instead. He was perfectly keen to let Buffy take advantage of him, although his version required far fewer clothes.


196: The Crawford Street Mansion, Central Sunnydale

SoS_196

“Looks like a full house,” Faith observed the three cars parked in the cobblestoned driveway.

Wesley acknowledged that the Citroen and Plymouth’s presence meant the others had already returned from their assignments. “Missions accomplished we can hope.”

“Just like ours!” Willow chirped still brimming with energy and not at all out of breath from the rush to get back to Crawford Street. “We win—and we get to take home the prize. Awesome! So cool the way the golem blew up. Kaplow!”

Faith gave her a soft knock on the back of her head making her already messy hair stick up in odd places. Like the rest of them Willow was encrusted with mud, dust, and sand from head to toe. “You’re ruining my buzz,” she grumbled having heard Willow describe their defeat of the stone golem on a repetitive loop the entire way back from the construction site.

The natural high accompanying a kill usually made her feel like a rock star, but there was some heavy stuff riding on this one if Wes was right about their discovery. This impacted Cordelia’s survival. It wasn’t a trinket they won as a prize at the local carnival. Even if it was just an ugly painted metal thing, somehow it was important shit. Willow’s goofy grin wasn’t right.

Scowling at her as they entered the mansion, Faith saw Willow’s overexcited smile falter into a sad pout. It might have been worthy of a good eye-roll, except that she remembered the witch had saved her from drowning in the golem’s quicksand. She owed her, and Faith did not like it one bit. Begrudgingly, she decided to give her a boost. “That fireball—it was wicked cool.”

Wesley tried to tune out the girls comments about magic being convenient during a battle. He had other priorities for the moment even if that topic was deserving of his time. Adding it to his mental ‘To Do’ list, he took a moment to let his gaze settle on the empty foyer with the grand staircase leading to the two main wings and the upper floors. Would Angel and Cordelia be up there? Not that privacy seemed to be a priority of late. Escalating intimacy was only one of the disturbing signs noted. His stomach soured because he knew that the natural course of things led in a worrisome direction for both of them.

Their relationship was a matter of interest from a number of angles, certainly, and applicable to his duties as a Watcher. As fascinating and disturbing as it might be to observe the direction of their affair, it was the least of his concerns. Nothing could come of it anyway with the portents laid out before them. Until now, Wesley realized. This discovery could change everything.

“Something’s going on down the hall,” Faith jabbed a thumb in that direction calling Wesley’s attention back to the matter at hand. Her superior hearing detected conversations and other noises his had not.

A glow emanated from beneath the study door at the end of the long hallway. “Gather the rest of them,” Wesley instructed Faith before heading in that direction. “Convene in the drawing room.”

Only a footfall away and she stopped him. “Where?”

Willow helped her out. “The place we always meet. Y’know, the living room or lounge or den. The one with the furniture all covered in white just asking for trouble—like a few dirt covered types like us to sit down. Over there.”

“Got it. Too many rooms,” Faith muttered. “Can’t we clean up before the big pow-wow? I’ve got sand stuck in places—”

A gritty sensation rubbed against his skin every move he made. Wes could only imagine that his own appearance was as grimy as the girls’. Faith was covered in a layer of dirt, which had to be inside her clothes, too, as she had been fully buried in the sandpit. Clotted blood and dirt caked the superficial scrapes on Willow’s exposed skin. Understanding their desire for a hot shower, he pointed out the selfishness of such a delay.

Raising his voice abruptly, Wesley snapped at her, “Your discomfort is a minor and temporary one compared to the heavy burden your friend must bear. Cordelia should be informed of our discovery immediately.”

Faith muttered something. Likely something he was better off not hearing. “Yeah, I’m cool with that.”

Giving her a nod of approval, Wesley planned to leave it at that. He was discovering a fine line between pushing Faith to do the right thing and nudging her too far. According to her former watcher’s notes, she was just as likely to go rogue just to prove that she could. Yet, this was hardly one of those moments.

“Forgive my outburst. I am eager to tell her what we found.”

“No kidding!” Faith dimpled as she teased, “I get it. You’re a little hung up on Cor. What’s the word? Smitten. It happens.”

Willow gaped at Wesley making him wonder if she was shocked by Faith’s comment or simply the notion that he might be inappropriately attracted to Cordelia Chase. Now the whole of the household would hear of it, he felt certain. He had not been long exposed to these “Scoobies” before discovering they were all joined at the hip.

“Perhaps so,” he opted for truth in hopes of stifling the subject once and for all. This was not the first time Faith had called him on it. “Quite hopelessly as I am fully aware. I am resolved to be a friend merely watching out for her best interests.”

A sudden giggle from Willow preceded a little warning. “Just don’t watch her too closely.”

“There is no need for concern.” Raising his chin up a notch Wesley headed toward the study feeling confident that his little crush would resolve itself with time.

He rapped a knuckle against the closed door noting a heavy silence fell for several seconds before Angel called out for him to enter. Rupert Giles stood on one side of the oak desk and the vampire on the other. Yellow legal pads of notes and several reference books were spread out before them. Although intrigued as to the subject of their closed-door discussion, Wesley needed to make this the priority.

Both looked startled by his haggard appearance. “Everyone okay?” Angel inquired in the midst of Mr. Giles’ exclaiming at the sight of him, “Good God!”

“We’re a bit rough for wear, but have news of the utmost importance to share.” As expected, they started in with the questions before Wesley had time to draw another breath. Holding off by raising a hand to stop their interrogation, he added, “Everyone should hear this.”

Angel seemed to note something in his tone or expression because he realized it was, “Good news?” cautiously asking for confirmation.

“Bring Cordelia to the drawing room. I shall reveal my theory there.” That got Angel out of the way for the moment. He dashed past so fast he was gone in the space of a blink.

Giles moved around the desk toward him, but watched with interest as he took a book from the research stack. “Something to do with Kalesh?” He knew its contents well from hours of study on the myths and legends surrounding her origins.

“This could change everything,” Wesley answered confidently.

Following him toward the drawing room, Giles sighed, “It’s about time something worked out in our favor.”

Getting everyone settled was far from a smooth process. Wesley’s planned speech was already fading from the forefront of his thoughts as chaos erupted in the room. Buffy and Xander were instantly concerned about Willow’s minor injuries peppering her with questions he would prefer wait for later. Cordelia practically accosted him the moment he appeared asking about the good news, not wanting to wait a moment longer to find out, and making wild guesses on the topic. Spike demanded he say nothing until Drusilla could join them because apparently he felt his sire deserved to hear everything, but warned him that it might take a minute—something about being in the doghouse.

Then there were the formalities to deal with as he realized there was a newcomer to the group. “Mrs. Summers?” His review of Buffy Summers’ file, along with that of his own slayer, included an old family photo of her parents, Hank and Joyce, prior to their recent divorce. “I am Faith’s watcher, Wesley Wyndam-Pryce.”

Distracted by the goings-on, she automatically shook the hand he held out in greeting. “Joyce. Is it okay if I join you?”

“Certainly.” Making a polite inquiry about her apparent injuries caught Xander’s attention. He cut in with details about a demon swarm at the Piggly Wiggly.

Drusilla suddenly appeared at Joyce Summer’s side, her large blue eyes wide and fascinated by what she saw. “Buffy’s mummy?”

Wesley’s shoulders stiffened at the realization that the vampiress had taken an interest in Joyce Summers whatever reason she might have. She was a wild card, and virtually uncontrollable. It was doubtful that either Angel or Spike could curb her actions if she chose to follow instinct instead of their wishes. Fortunately, he wasn’t the only one who noticed Dru sidling up to Joyce to sniff at her hair.

“Yey! Not so close!” Buffy yelled out across the room shouldering her friends out of the way as she ran up to them. “Get away from her, Dru.”

Ignoring the slayer, Drusilla gave Joyce a little smile. “You smell like strawberry jam. Delicious.”

With that, she simply moved toward her usual place on the couch tugging Spike along by the cuff of his sleeve. Wesley couldn’t tell if Dru thought jam was delicious, or if that descriptor was intended for Joyce Summers.” He shuddered a bit as he watch the vampires settle down as if they had no concerns about catching the slayer’s ire.

Spike plopped down stretching his legs out in front of him settling in like he was prepared to stay a while—or take a nap. Still uncertain whether or not the vampire could be trusted, Wesley found it intriguing that he was interested enough in the goings on to comment as Faith passed by, “See you made it back in one piece.”

Stopping at his end of the couch, Faith shrugged it all off. “More or less.”

“How’s the shoulder?”

“It held up.”

Wesley wondered what they were talking about. Eavesdropping was just a part of his training, a skill that had become second nature. Conversations did not always provide clarity.

“Looks like you’ve been mud wrestling.” Xander sidled up next to Faith. “Woulda signed up to watch that.”

Spike quirked a brow and twisted his lips obviously letting his thoughts drift to inappropriate places. Allowing himself no more than a moment or two of the same, Wesley expected Faith to say something scathing, but he had forgotten his slayer’s tendency to tease first. “Just watch?”

Perhaps the boy wasn’t the only one whose jaw went slack at the sudden imagery. Fortunately, Buffy was all business helping him to focus again as she asked the other slayer, “Demon’s dead this time?”

“We got it.”

Taking that as the opening he was looking for, Wesley stepped up to clarify, “It was a golem, not a demon.”

Confused by the unfamiliar term, Cordelia muttered, “Whatever that means. Does that make it any less dead?”

“Nope,” Willow grinned.

“Wes, if this was the big news, I’ve got other stuff I need to talk to you about.” Cordelia nudged him with an elbow. “You still owe me some one-on-one time.”

“Right. No. I-I mean, yes, yes of course, our meeting.”

Angel was standing right there with his arm around Cordelia’s shoulder as she brought it up. He did not seem at all surprised that his girlfriend was arranging to meet with him privately. Either he knew the reason why or he did not see him as any sort of threat to their relationship. Which, he wasn’t, Wesley reminded himself. Although he had to wonder why Angel’s calm expression suddenly intensified.

Perhaps it was simply that he sounded like a bumbling fool whilst everyone was expecting him to divulge something brilliant. “Ah, that will have to wait.”

Giles had taken the smidgeon of information Wesley provided and was well on his way to a working theory. “You suspect that Kalesh created this golem. What form did it take?”

“Stone.”

“It was of the earth,” Willow described out the golem altered its form and fought them with a spray of sand, quakes, pelting pebbles, hurled rocks, and smothering quicksand.

As usual, Angel seemed to know a little on the subject. His extensive reading and remarkable memory appeared to provide him with a vast store of references. “Creating a creature like that takes incredible power. Aren’t they nearly immune to magic?”

Willow piped in. “Yup!”

“We blew it up,” Faith explained with a shrug as if that was an everyday thing.

While Xander commented on the coolness of their efforts to defeat the monster, Angel refused to get sidetracked. Wesley understood his need to stay focused in order to get to the revelation he had yet to make. The vampire’s realization that, “Golems carry out their duties without rest or distraction; Kalesh must have tasked it with something of great importance to her cause,” prompted him to move on.

Although they all seemed interested in knowing the full story about their defeat of the golem, Wesley felt those details could wait. “Yes, I believe she did. Sunnydale, in its proximity to the Hellmouth, has grown atop lands used for untold centuries for ritualistic purposes dating back to the earliest human civilizations. They were not alone. Ritual objects became buried or lost.”

“Like the obelisk?” Cordelia asked him. She seemed a bit anxious, but suddenly her face lit up as she glanced at Angel giving his side a little nudge. “We found that. Go Team Chase!”

Wesley tried not to feel annoyed by the indulgent little smile that tugged at the vampire’s mouth as he looked her way. Subtle though it might be, his response seemed full of meaning as if they had some intimate memory tangled up in that moment of discovery. Not that it was any of his concern, but the notion tugged at his curiosity.

Clearing his throat to gain their attention again, he told them, “Precisely right, Cordelia. As you are aware, the Scroll of Septarius refers to requisite objects to be collected to ensure Amolon’s transference to Earth.”

“Objects and people, too!” Crossing her arms in front of her, Cordelia looked far more stubborn than afraid. “The goon squad is collecting future victims.”

His chest tightened at the thought of it, but Wes was bolstered by the revelation he was about to make. “That will not be your destiny. Not as long as we have this.”

Motioning to Willow, who pulled the object out of her bag, he revealed, “This is the Talisman of Kalesh. Along with the Bone Relic and the Shards of Ahli-Tah, it is described as being vital to the completion of the Rites of Tavrok.”

“What’s it do?”

Wesley struggled for a coherent response. He looked toward Rupert Giles for assistance, but it was apparent his counterpart was equally in the dark. “The texts are a bit sketchy on details. I shall have to study it along with our references before positing a theory.”

“Does it matter? We have it. Demon priestess gal doesn’t.” Buffy figured a win was a win.

Cordelia oohed at the idea. “Ritual cancelled. No need to put the big whammy on me.”

Although he would have phrased it otherwise, Wesley essentially agreed. However, he had to point out, “The, er, whammy, as such, has already been placed upon you. Before you acquired it, the Bone Relic’s activation effectively marked those to be sacrificed.”

“I don’t have any marks.” Cordelia pointed out obviously thinking he meant something physical in form.

A sudden guff escaped Spike’s throat as he smirked up at her, letting his judgmental gaze slide over to Angel. There was tension between them but whenever the other vampire was involved it usually meant walking a fine line. Wesley had no patience for it. “None that are visible,” he explained.

Spike took his words and went off on his own tangent, “My point exactly,” quickly drawing an annoyed response from Cordelia.

Kicking at his shin, she hissed, “That lecture is so over.”

“Oy!” He was poised for a bit of payback, when Angel sounded out his name with a harsh tone.

Instantly quiet, albeit with a militant stare, Spike settled deeper into the couch allowing Wesley to get on with the presentation of their discovery. “Please focus, Cordelia. With the talisman in our possession it is entirely possible that Kalesh may be unable to successfully complete the Rites of Tavrok.”

“If we’ve got her stuff, she won’t need me, right? No ritual means no sacrifices.”

Xander added, “No big bad demon god.”

“World saved,” quipped Buffy.

Wesley felt their excitement mounting quickly as they took this little victory and leapt over the countless other hurdles that lay ahead. He could tell from the tight expression on Angel’s pale face that he was torn between giving Cordelia this moment of celebration and ripping holes in his theory. Yes, there were quite a few, Wes acknowledged silently, considering their lack of evidence on the talisman’s functions during the Rites of Tavrok.

“Perhaps we should study the object before declaring ourselves victorious.” Giles suggested that everyone remain focused on their current plans for upgrading the mansion’s defenses.

The sudden tilt of his head and a meaningful stare told Wesley that the other watcher was not so keen about this immediate disclosure. Perhaps in most circumstances it would have been best to have definitive answers before touting their achievement, but their many setbacks had taken a toll on the group. He felt it important that Cordelia know there was still hope of saving her.

Despite the silent censure, Wesley allowed himself the satisfaction of knowing he had achieved that goal. Cordelia’s brilliant smile mesmerized him a bit as it transformed her already beautiful features. She defended his decision. “Anything that makes it tough on the bad guys is a good thing.” It might have been a statement of fact, but it certainly warmed his heart to hear it.

“Quite right.”

“See, Angel. Told you. Wesley agrees with me, too.”

Answering automatically, “Yes, of course,” he grinned back only faltering as he noted Angel’s annoyed expression. Was his agreement with Cordelia or responding smile the cause? Either way, Wesley realized the others were staring and seemingly awaiting an explanation. Only he needed one, too. He himself had no clue. “To what are you referring?”

“Kalesh’s stuff,” Cordelia told him, adding a, ‘hello!’ as if he had not been paying attention. “If we find the things she needs for the ritual, she’ll have to call it off.”

The vampire next to her let out a discontented growl. “Don’t.”

Ignoring the warning, Cordelia turned to look at Rupert Giles who took a step back as if that might allow him to escape notice. “Giles was on my side. Weren’t you, Giles?”

“Well, ah—“

“There’s no other way. Only one of the Varstrae can locate the crystals. It says so right there in your notes.” Cordelia gestured toward the study.

Wesley finally caught on. “The Shards of Ahli-Tah,” he made the connection between some of his research and what had to be some of Mr. Giles’ latest work. “Crystals imbued with mystical properties are to be used during the Rites of Tavrok.”

“Yes,” the other watcher confirmed. “The text reveals the Varstrae shall bring their power to bear during the ritual.”

Faith’s suggestion echoed his own thinking. “Sounds like we should grab these crystals. Does that mean Cor has to get out there to find them?”

“No.” Angel was quick to snap even as Giles said, “Yes.”

“I’m going on this Crystal Hunt whether you like it or not,” Cordelia stubbornly faced off against Angel. Poking at his chest with a finger might not hurt, but it was an added irritant. The tension between them was all too clear, but Wesley could understand the reason for it upon weighing the risks of Cordelia roaming the streets of Sunnydale in search of the Shards versus allowing Kalesh to find them first.

The others chimed in with their opinions, either for or against. Cordelia brushed off all concerns as if she believed herself invulnerable to harm. “Nicolau promised not to touch me. I’m safe for now.”

Angel argued, “That’s Nico’s word for it, but he cannot speak for Kalesh. The threat is still there, Cordelia. I won’t let you put yourself in harm’s way.”

“This isn’t just about me!”

Buffy snorted, “That’s a new one.”

Even Xander had to point out, “Last time you were in trouble you said, ‘It’s all about me, me, me.’”

Cordelia flashed him a sharp look. “Hey, it is about me. Only it’s also about the other sacrifices, like Karla, the hot gypsy guy, and whoever is next on the list.”

“It’s a short list,” Willow muttered almost to herself as she stared down at the colorful surface of the Talisman of Kalesh.

Putting a hand on her shoulder, Wesley caught her concerned gaze. “Our interpretation of the prophecy scroll reveals we have plenty of time to identify the other targets.” His words were meant to allay any immediate concerns. “We have the talisman. Should Cordelia succeed in locating the Shards of Ahli-Tah, we would almost certainly be able to prevent completion of the Rites of Tavrok, thus trapping Amolon in his dimension.”

Once glance at Angel was enough to note that he did not approve of his suggested course of action. Although Wesley did not care to put Cordelia at risk either, it was clear that the overall goal of saving the world needed to be prioritized. He was almost certain the vampire was about to cut him down with a scathing remark, if not something physically painful, when Joyce Summers’ suddenly spoke up to say, “What are the origins of the crystal shards? The name Ahli-Tah sounds familiar.”

How would the Chosen One’s mother know of such things? Wesley recalled something about her position at a local gallery where rare items of historical interest were often displayed and sold. She might have a passing understanding of cultural references concerning those objects. “I believe it to be another connection to Kalesh. A celestial term of Greek origin, allita, meaning Earth mother goddess.”

Joyce’s brows raised up sharply. “This person you’re up against is Mother Earth?”

“Only in the sense that her powers are elemental, and that many cultures have worshipped or revered her as a nature goddess over the course of human history.”

Willow added, “That’s a yes, but nature has a power of its own. Kalesh can only manipulate its magic. She isn’t the source. It doesn’t come from her.”

“She’s a demon. Not of the good,” Buffy clarified. It didn’t matter where her power originated. “No worries, Mom. We deal with this kind of stuff all of the time. Right, guys?”

It seemed doubtful that Joyce Summers believed it, but the humans in the room dutifully gave her the answer she wanted. “Right,” they all chimed in to provide Buffy’s mother with a small measure of comfort.

“It sounds like you need every advantage you can get.” Joyce was speaking to her daughter, but the inference was clear. She thought Cordelia’s Crystal Hunt was worth the risk.

Buffy told her, “We were hoping Marko would take us up on our offer of protection. That would have kept one more person safe.”

Sounding out his own frustration on the subject of Marko Calibresi, Giles dared to provoke the vampire’s anger. “Since we do not have the added security of a second member of the Varstrae to withhold from Kalesh’s control, or to search for the Shards in lieu of Cordelia, it seems we have no choice but to take this chance. Such an opportunity may not present itself again.”

“That’s why I’m doing this.”

Angel’s hand wrapped around Cordelia’s arm none too gently swinging her around to face him. “No, you’re not. I won’t allow it. You’re staying right here.”

“Can’t make me.”

The restraining hand reached up to palm her face, his thumb cresting across her cheek. “Yes, I can.” Softer, his words were equal parts threat and promise.

Cringing on her behalf, Wesley felt certain that Angel would win that one. If he got it in his head that the only way to protect Cordelia from certain doom was to keep her under lock and key, it would take far more than words to prevent him from doing just that. Considering his response, it seemed almost certain that Angel was already planning physical restraint if necessary. Even if such an outrageous action was out of concern, he had no right to interfere in her wishes.

Despite the audience, with eyes only for him, Cordelia mirrored his caress. “I love you, Angel, but you don’t own me.”

Wesley sucked in a gasp and held his breath half expecting Angel to prove her wrong in a way only a vampire could. The tension of it tightened his chest knotting him up inside over the short space of the seconds that followed. He should do something. The notion hit hard that he should stop this, but it was already too late.

Angel pulled Cordelia closer, his actions raising her up to her tiptoes as he swooped in. The breath Wes had been holding blurted out as a, ‘Gah!” He expected a shift of flesh and bone, a show of fangs quickly piercing Cordelia’s neck branding her with the mark of his claim. True, she had all but pushed him to it. Waved a red flag daring her vampire lover to prove that she belonged to him, a scene straight from the passages of the Watcher’s Diaries. Only Angel kissed her instead, his lips crashing into hers in a sensual onslaught that left Wesley’s heart pounding in his ears.

Dear Lord! They had so much chemistry everyone in the room might catch afire simply from watching. Whatever comments they made went unnoticed by the couple, and Wesley, too, as he stammered his way through some kind of statement of his own. By the time the shock of it wore off, he saw Angel and Cordelia wrapped up in each other’s embrace. The vampire’s forehead dipped low to touch hers followed by the soft press of his lips to the same spot. He touched her with surprising gentility making Wesley marvel at the amount of control Angel was able to maintain over his instincts.

Still, Wesley wondered if the passionate display had changed anything. Had Angel proved his point?

“One night, Cordelia. We go out armed to the teeth. Full backup. If your crystals don’t turn up you’ll promise me not to try again. You’ll stay safe here at home until this is over.”

Cordelia stroked her fingers up and down the nape of his neck as she thought about Angel’s conditions. Would the argument continue? Wesley considered she might not be content with such a promise even if he gave in to her desire to search for the crystal Shards of Ahli-Tah.

She kept her answer simple. “Okay.”

The kiss Angel intended to seal the deal was interrupted by Spike’s noxious response. “What the bleedin’ hell? Not only does she have you by the bollocks, you let her juggle them, too.”

Perhaps Spike was right about Angel allowing Cordelia to manipulate him, but considering the looks of things, it might be worth it. He had a feeling that if he got any sleep tonight his dreams might be a bit risqué.


197: The Crawford Street Mansion, Central Sunnydale

197

Having conceded to Cordelia’s plan to seek out the Shards of Ahli-Tah, Angel tried to work out possible defensive strategies. Nothing seemed adequate to ensure her safety on this quest. Obtaining the crystals was a worthy goal that might provide an advantage over Kalesh, or deter the completion of the Rites of Tavrok. That was the only reason Angel even considered letting her take this risk.

There was no map with a convenient ‘X’ marking the spot, nor clues written into the texts as to their final hiding place. Cordelia’s little treasure hunt was probably going to take them all over town, to the most unlikely places, and keep her away from home for every minute of freedom she could eke out. Angel had no illusions that he could control her. The best he could hope for was to steer her away from trouble.

With the influx of demonic worshippers arriving at the Hellmouth to prepare for Amolon’s arrival, Kalesh had a growing number of spies at her constant disposal. They could be everywhere, be anybody. Nicolau’s promise to leave Cordelia safe in his care until such a time as she was needed for the rituals was no guarantee that the priestess would adhere to it.
According to the Watchers’ Council findings the culmination of events leading up to the main ritual was still weeks or months away. Closer to the time of the end of Cordelia’s school year and the graduation ceremonies. No one had actually discussed her return to classes. The death of her grandmother had been a legitimate excuse to keep her out of the public eye, but Principal Snyder would no doubt expect her return. Angel hoped Giles would assist with that problem when it came up.

Tonight’s excursion would ideally include a bodyguard of three vampires, two slayers, a witch, both Watchers, and one annoyingly loyal ex-boyfriend. The full force of their company would hardly keep things low-key. Probably a bad idea even if it were possible to surround Cordelia with an impenetrable wall of protection. There was too much going on and as much as Angel wanted to argue otherwise, his girlfriend was not the only priority.

If there was trouble, it would have to go through him first. He only wanted some assurances that Cordelia would have someone to get her to safety while he took care of the situation, preferably several someones with more than just good intentions to back it up.

Faith was the first to volunteer her services, “I’ll tag along. Could be fun.” A dimple appeared teasing him because she knew he was painfully aware that Cordelia was going to take every advantage of the situation. “Gotta get in a quick sweep of town later on, but maybe we’ll find those crystals early. Just need to scrub off this sand. Then we can pow-wow. Come up with a plan.”

Since when was Faith the planning type? Angel’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.

“Oh, there’s no plan,” Cordelia waved off the idea. “The whole point is to go wherever it feels right to go. Let my inner mojo do the talking.”

A surgical strike on a known target would be far more preferable, but since the location of the shards was unknown, Angel knew they would have little choice in the matter. “Spike?” He could order him to tag along, he supposed, if he wanted to push it.

“Got things to do.” Nodding his bleached blond head toward Buffy, his mouth twisted up into a gleeful smirk.

Angel curled his fist up into a tight ball at his side holding back the urge to bash it into Spike’s face. He didn’t really care what the other vampire had in mind because he knew Buffy could handle it. Still, he didn’t like it. Saying so only ensured any annoying behavior would be pushed to the limit. “Fine.”

He knew that Buffy was supposed to meet up with a demon. An exchange of money for books that might give them some insight into Mayor Wilkins’ plan. Whatever game the mayor had going on wasn’t Angel’s priority. Nor did he particularly care that a swarm of demon imps had overtaken the local Piggly Wiggly. They were precisely the kind of distractions keeping the slayers busy instead of letting them focus on shutting down Kalesh.

“Busy night ahead. Shady deals. Demon dismemberments. Midnight patrols.” Spike waggled his eyebrows. “Might take a while. Don’t wait up.”

A muscle twitched at the clench of Angel’s teeth. “Don’t get yourself staked.”

“Aww, do you care?” Spike clutched his hands to his chest.

Reaching out fast, Angel curled his fingers into Spike’s shirt and dragged him forward. “Now is not the time for games. We can’t afford any mistakes.”

Knocking his hand away, Spike inched up to growl in protest, “Best you focus on that pretty pet of yours. If anyone’s rolling dice tonight it’s her.”

True enough. Everyone knew it, too.

Xander stepped up beside them. “Hey, uh, the Buffster and me, we’re gonna drive her mom home.”

Before Angel could say he didn’t care, Spike sneered, “Good little boy scout. Be back before sundown, wanker. Slayer’s already got plans for tonight.”

Taking the bait, Xander’s half step forward was halted instantly as Angel put out a hand to stop him. “If you’re going to get yourself slaughtered, at least wait until it’s useful.”

“I will,” Xander huffed obstinately.

Spike snorted, “Plan to take one for the team, do you?”

Unaware that he had said something to amuse the vampire, Xander’s brows crunched together in confusion. “What?”

“Harris, get out. Take Joyce home. If you plan to join Cordelia’s crystal hunt, be back by sunset,” Angel gave him the same deadline Spike had done only with less snark and more like his father issuing a curfew.

After confirming that he planned to tag along, a slow smile spread across his face. “Guess I’ll take the Plymouth.” Jingling the car keys after pulling them out of his pocket, he reminded Angel, “Since I still have these.”

A few dark demonic ideas about torturing Xander by an all new means oozed into his thoughts sticking around far longer than he normally allowed himself to indulge. Carving the kid up slice by slice with those keys might teach him a needed lesson or two. Not that he would. It might ruin the keys, Angel decided, dismissing the idea because the car meant something to Cordelia. Xander remained important to her, too. It annoyed him that he found her ex to be . . . well, annoying.

It did not surprise Angel at all that Xander wanted to take part in Cordelia’s little crosstown adventure tonight. Both of his primary companions already had plans that did not involve him. Buffy and Spike were in for an all-nighter by the sound of it. The kind where they could let loose and get their hands dirty. If he felt any kind of jealousy over those two spending time together it had everything to do with being cooped up in the mansion.

That would change once the new protective spells were in place. Not even Kalesh could get in to threaten Cordelia’s safety. Only then could he chance leaving her side in order to take this on the offensive. The need to get out there and stalk down the enemy had a powerful pull. Fortunately, another night or two would set him free to act.

Their resident witch now possessed everything required to make the spell work, assuming that Willow’s abilities were equal to the task. Wes sounded confident, Giles far more hesitant although it was his nature to be so. This was not the kind of simple magic anyone could invoke with a chant or a verse. The defeat of the priestess’ golem was enough to make Angel take the younger watcher at his word. They could do this. Hearing it helped even if their assurances were just that.

Wesley voiced his disappointment at being unable to accompany them. The Shards of Ahli-Tah were of interest. “Mr Giles will no doubt remain here to focus on our continued research.”

Yes, Angel acknowledged. That was important, too. Getting a full compliment of bodyguards for Cordelia tonight was impractical. He knew that. Hated the consequences. Risking her safety shouldn’t even be an option, and yet this was still happening. Disparate emotions and instincts waged an inner battle for supremacy. Possessive, protective need versus the understanding of her own need for freedom.

The watcher sensed his all-too obvious tension. “Faith will not allow anything to happen to Cordelia tonight. You can count on it.”

A nod was all Angel could manage. It wasn’t that he doubted Faith’s abilities or her desire to keep her friend safe. He worried about himself. Would he be fast enough, strong enough to stop whatever came up against them? He had to be.

Wesley gave his shoulder pat as if to bolster his mood. Reminding him of the win they had secured, he nodded toward the Talisman of Kalesh. “Things are looking up.”

Angel sincerely hoped that was the case.

He scanned the room for Cordelia as the meeting broke up finding her on the couch next to Dru animatedly arguing about clothing. “No, Cordy. Surely not. Miss Edith wouldn’t approve. Velvet and lace all have their place.”

“Right along with corsets,” Cordelia countered swiftly. “Victorian, much?” Her lips pursed plumply into a soft, “Pfft! Not only did it feel like a vice, it took Angel’s help to get me out of it.”

The reminder was distracting. He had all but forgotten Wesley was standing next to him when the watcher called out across the room to Willow. “We can begin in an hour. I believe we could both use some time to wash up.”

Adding a joke about Faith giving the mansion’s water heater a challenge, he drew only a quiet, “Uh huh,” from Willow. Her attention remained focused on the talisman in her hand, admiring their prize.

“No, don’t leave!” Cordelia jumped up from the couch as Wesley headed out. “Me first. You owe me that one-on-one time.”

Angel was glad to hear that his girlfriend wasn’t so distracted by planning an outing—especially since it was potentially dangerous—that she forgot about the important discussion necessary to their future together. Whatever it took to secure Cordelia’s safety, he would end the threat against her life. He had to believe that was possible. Planning for anything except the here and now seemed foolish, but what he wanted did not need elaborate strategies, just her acceptance.

“Now is good.” Angel had to agree. That would give him time to settle things with Cordelia before tonight.

Wesley scratched at his suddenly too-tight collar. “Surely that can wait until I tidy up a bit?”

Scowling, Angel wanted to say no, but Cordelia was quick to tell him, “Okay, scram. One last reprieve.”

Even though she was watching amusedly as Wesley escaped into the hall, Cordelia caught his reaction to the delay. “He’s all singed around the edges. Do you really want me taking advice from someone who looks like burnt toast?”

Honestly, Angel thought she would go to Giles instead, but that was also her choice. “I want you to be comfortable enough to have a conversation, Cordy. This isn’t a decision you can make flippantly.”

She shifted from one foot to the other silently signaling her discomfort with the seriousness of his tone, or maybe the subject itself. The knot in his chest tightened a notch.

Spike cut her off before Cordelia could get out more than a syllable. He had no business offering opinions. “The words ‘bite me’ usually do the trick, pet.”

“Tried that,” Cordelia quipped jumping at the chance to lighten the mood.

Bickering about it would only color Cordelia’s thoughts on the matter. Angel was not in a joking mood. “Maybe I haven’t made myself clear on the subject of staying out of it, Spike.”

“Clear enough. Just don’t care.”

Drusilla leaned in to nip at Spike’s earlobe. “Naughty liar,” she tittered softly. “Envy glows green. Their love speaks to you.”

Quick to deny it, Spike crossed his arms over his chest and looked away for a few seconds before snapping, “Sickens me. Wanting her the way he does. Doing naught about it.”

Tension gathered in Angel’s shoulders. Dammit, he was doing something. He had a plan. Allowing Cordelia to have a say in his decision to claim her might not meet Spike’s approval because it was not the vampiric way to ask permission before marking one’s territory, but he was convinced this was the right thing to do. Consequences be damned, he would abide by her wishes.

Sliding her hand across Spike’s chest, Dru looked deeply into his blue eyes. “Angel follows his heart. Your anger grows because yours also stirs against your wishes.”

Cordelia gasped when Drusilla’s words finally led like a breadcrumb trail to a shocking conclusion. Angel didn’t really want to think about what she meant. As usual, Cordy had no trouble speaking her mind. “Buffy, seriously? I swear that girl is a vampire magnet and not just because she’s the Chosen One.”

Spike’s slack-jawed shocked expression suggested the guess was on-target. The constant teasing and attentions toward the slayer were more than just a way to annoy his grandsire, Angel realized with an odd sense of acceptance. It wasn’t like he could control the younger vampire’s feelings. Make him hurt for it, sure. He still cared about Buffy even if they were no longer together. It made him angry that Spike might try something, but he could not imagine Buffy reacting with anything but disdain.

Whatever Spike was up to with Buffy was not his problem, Angel decided. He had enough to worry about. The others weren’t quite as ready to let it go.

“Shut your mouth, pet.” Spike nodded toward the stone fireplace. Giles and Willow were examining the talisman, but the watcher’s head twitched at the sound of Buffy’s name. He looked over at them clearly wondering what they were talking about.

“Okay,” Cordelia snorted. “Only because you’re insane. It’s your funeral. Do we keep your dust in a jar on the mantle, or send it back to England?”

A little snarl preceded, “Bite me!”

“You wish!”

“Might be fun—mostly for me.” Spike waggled his eyebrows before turning serious again. “No worries both of you about your precious Slayer. Dru’s got it wrong.”

Denial rang like a bell. Angel wasn’t the only one who noticed that Spike was trying a little too hard to resist the idea that he might be attracted to Buffy. Drusilla had allowed him his dalliances in the past, sometimes encouraging them, because they meant nothing in the long run. Ultimately, his loyalty belonged solely to her. Spike also had a penchant for slayers; enjoying the chase, beating them down, finding a weakness to exploit before the kill.

“Be careful how you play this,” Angel warned. “Otherwise, Cordy’s words will be as prophetic as Dru’s.”

“Just havin’ a bit o’ fun with the slayer is all, patrolling, you call it. Places to go, things to kill,” Spike shrugged like it was nothing more than a means of distraction. “A little mayhem and murder.”

Rolling her eyes, Cordelia nudged Angel with her elbow. “Pathetic, much! Is it really just a Buffy thing, or a cry for help? Because you are so in need of a straight-jacket.”

Drusilla’s taloned finger nails curled into the soft cotton of Spike’s t-shirt as she taunted him, “Amuse yourself as you will my naughty boy. Do not forget who made you.”

The scent of blood accompanied Spike’s shout as his sire’s nails tore through shirt and flesh. Responding with a snarl, he grabbed Dru by the neck pulling her close, a show of fangs instantaneous. Excitement not fear brightened her eyes as she glanced toward Angel. He chose to stay put and let her hash this out.

“Hey, cut that out!” Cordelia snapped into action by kicking Spike in the shin.

Incensed, Spike turned his amber gaze her way to noxiously respond, “You’ll be sorry for that, pet.”

Angel stepped forward to physically stop Cordy from doing it again. “Call it a draw. We’ve got more important things to do.”

“Um, speaking of…”

With his arm still around Cordelia’s waist, Angel turned toward the sound of Xander Harris’ voice. He was supposed to be halfway to the Summers’ house by now. “Back so soon?”

Hesitantly, Xander began to explain, “Well, um, I…,” cutting off long enough to glance hopefully in Giles and Willow’s direction. They barely acknowledged his presence being so focused on the colorful trinket that had been guarded by the golem.

“What is it?” Cordelia asked impatiently. “We’re busy with stuff.”

Holding up his hands, Xander indicated he had no interest in knowing more. Angel wanted him gone. Spike and Dru’s little spat gave him enough to deal with. A little family discord was nothing new, nor was the news that Spike might enjoy toying with Buffy a little too much. His continued interference with Cordy was far more irritating bating them both despite being told to stay out of their personal business.

“Spit it out, Harris.”

“Our ride is running on fumes,” Xander thumbed in the general direction of the Plymouth. “I—uh, need gas money.”

As if the word money sent up a smoke signal catching Giles’ attention, he turned swiftly to inquire about the funds he handed Xander just a few hours earlier. “Surely you can’t have spent all of it.”

“Stinky herbs are expensive,” Xander whined a little. “There was also a sale on frozen pizzas. ”

Cordelia rolled her eyes. “Well, don’t look at me.” Mrs Fink had not given her a paycheck since she quit without notice. “Ask Mrs. Summers. She’s the one who needs the ride.”

“Certainly not,” Giles huffed.

Xander admitted that he had already thought of it. “Mrs S dropped her purse at the Piggly Wiggly.”

Before the watcher could pull out his wallet, Angel pulled a twenty out of his pocket. Carrying cash around was necessary even for vampires, but frugality was a choice. It allowed him indulgences like quality leather, tailored Armani pants, and his favorite hair gel. His resources were substantial, but certainly not limitless. Spending often came with a measure of guilt considering the majority of it originated from his time as Angelus.

“The Plymouth is my responsibility,” Angel shut down Giles’ attempt to pay for the gasoline.

Cordelia’s brow arched up. Blithely asking, “You plan to claim my car, too?”

“Th-that’s a figure of speech, I hope,” Giles gulped disapprovingly. Zeroing in on her double-edged meaning, his face went pale. “Are you serious? No, you can’t.”

Biting back a harsh response to the watcher’s obviously negative opinion on his right to claim Cordelia, Angel barely held himself in check. Had he not given her the option to choose, Giles was the watcher he assumed would be a voice of reason for her, unbiased in the information he presented. Clearly, he had been wrong.

The tense moment of silence between them gave Xander an opportunity to chime in. “It’s a great car, Cor. What does a vampire need with a convertible anyway?”

Cordelia winked at Angel before telling her ex, “Moonlit coastal drives sound kind of sexy to me. We can have plenty of those when this is over.”

“Oh! Ugh.” The image of the pair of them parked at Lover’s Lane popped into his head. “I thought you meant worse case scenario. You were gonna give it to him if you, y’know—”

“Does it look like I’m writing a will? I’m planning to live, you moron.”

Angel put a hand on Xander’s shoulder. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”

“Right! Good point. I should get going.” He started to back slowly toward the main hallway hoping that Cordelia would let him go without taking his eager interest in the Plymouth the wrong way. It was a cool car, manly. He liked it. Nothing wrong with that.

He bumped into someone tall and thin, all too familiar. Drusilla leaned close to his ear to ask Xander, “Are you leaving me, too?” His gaze darted to the couch noting with shock that Spike was the only one on it.

The lithe vampiress moved so quickly and quietly he had not noticed until it was too late. “Just running an errand with Buffy.”

“Silly boys,” Drusilla threw Spike a sideways glare to include him. “Can you not find another playmate? The slayer will lead you into trouble.”

“Kinda goes with the territory,” gulped Xander. Like being in the clutches of a soulless, crazy vampire with a jealous streak.

Drusilla harrumphed and slid Spike a side-eyed glance before pulling her former thrall close. Grabbing Xander’s face with both hands, she drew him higher placing a swift kiss across his mouth. He looked wobbly, red-lipped and confused when it ended moments later.

“What just happened?” he asked Angel and Cordelia when Dru pushed him past them toward the couch.

Flouncing onto it, her dress billowing around her, she gave Spike a slow little smile. “I can have fun, too.”

“Not with that one, you can’t.”

Cordelia started to laugh. “Maybe we should wait for Wes by the stairs,” she suggested an escape that Angel was more than willing to make.

Done with him for now, “You can go too,” Drusilla waved Xander off. “Return quickly for you will be my escort tonight.”

Paling at the thought, Xander’s question came out on a whisper, “Ah, I will?”

“Dru’s coming with us,” Cordelia explained to Angel. “There’s no need for her to be cooped up any more. Nicolau already knows she’s here with you, and he was just looking for her to get to me.”

Xander leaned closer to ask, “Am I the only one thinking maybe I should just stay here and help Willow. She might need some fetching and carrying of the stinky herbs. I’m good at that.”

Cordelia knocked him on the shoulder. “Too late. You promised.” A mirthful giggle emerged reminding him, “Faith will be there, too.”

Shaking his head, Angel could only imagine the potential distractions tonight if Drusilla’s little game with the Harris boy turned serious. Faith might have no interest in anything beyond their one-night encounter, but he doubted it was going to be that simple. Having their support on the Crystal Hunt was necessary, but he needed them focused on Cordelia’s safety and not each other.

Angel held out a hand to Cordelia and watched the smile lighting up her face as she threaded her fingers through his. The sensation of warmth was not the only thing he felt at her touch. He felt her love in the gentle squeeze of her hand. It was all going to be okay. “Don’t be such a worrywart.”

“I’m not.”

“Pfft! C’mon, let’s go. Wesley could be waiting for me.”

The odds seemed better that the watcher was avoiding his talk with Cordelia by taking the world’s longest shower. Angel tried not to grin, but the corners of his mouth quirked up.

“No, wait! Don’t go,” Willow rushed toward them. Suddenly babbling, “This is bad, so, so bad. If I’m right. I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong. Oh, gosh.”

Closest to her, Giles stepped up to steady her as she wavered on her feet. “I think you should sit down. You look faint.”

Paler than usual, the natural pink in her cheeks looking grey, Willow denied a need to sit feeling unable to not move until she told them what she had just discovered. “It—It’s just a theory. Hopefully wrong. We messed up.”

More bad news? Now there was something else going on. Charging forward only to remember that Cordy was still holding on when she yelped, “Not so fast! I like my arm attached,” Angel stopped long enough to assure himself that he had done no damage.

“What is it, Will?” asked Xander who never made it out the door. He rushed to her side to stand opposite of Giles as they stared concerned. “Should I get Buffy?”

Breathing hard, Willow shook her head again. “Let me get this out.”

“Yes,” Angel agreed not wanting further delays. “Spit it out.”

Cordelia stepped up next to him instantly calming him down a notch just by sliding her hand across his back to settle on his shoulder. “What’s wrong? I hope nothing that will cancel my plans.”

“I-I need to show you.” Holding up the talisman so they could all see it, she moved her hand over the colorful images painted across its surface. “These represent the elements: earth, air, fire, water.”

That much seemed obvious to Angel. Celtic imagery would make sense as the talisman belonged to Kalesh. After the initial revelations about Amolon’s priestess, he had done some reading about her origins using the watcher’s resources.

Giles reminded the group, “Kalesh is a nature goddess. Her powers derive from the elements.”

“So?” Cordelia was ready to cut ahead to the part where one or all of them had screwed up.

“They’re all connected,” Willow gulped. “To everything we’ve seen.”

Trying to understand, Giles tried to talk his way through it. “Much of what is known of Kalesh originates with the ancient Celtic tales. Their division of the natural elements into four powers mirrors their division of the four seasons Summer, Winter, Spring, and Autumn.”

Willow told them that was part of it. “I’m just learning about all of this. How nature and magic are all intertwined. The things I’ve seen and done are all tied into it.”

“Okay, so what? I’ve got better things to do than watching your breakdown.”

Taking another shaky breath, Willow put a hand over her heart. Not just to convey sincerity, Angel figured, but because her heart was racing fast. This had her scared. “Please listen, Cor. There are four elements . . . four seasons . . . four cardinal directions.”

“Directions,” Xander snapped his fingers, “like north, south, east, west?”

“Exactly.” Willow gave him a proud smile, her closed lips curving higher. He was actually paying attention.

“Good, cuz my other guess was the Hokey Pokey. Put your left foot in, put your left foot ou—”

Angel slapped the back of his head. “That foot is about to be shoved into an uncomfortably tight spot.”

“Ooh, can I watch?” Spike snarked.

Giles cleared his throat to regain their attention. “Countless cultures across the world incorporate these natural themes into their daily lives, their poetry, lore, and history.

Pointing toward the center of the talisman, Willow showed them something else. “There is a fifth element in the middle connecting them all.”

“Wait—I know this movie,” Xander spoke up again in spite of being put on notice to hold his tongue.

Angel growled one last warning, “This is serious.”

“So am I.”

Cordelia’s head quirked as she realized what Xander was talking about. “I’ve seen that movie, too. Bruce Willis, right?”

“Hold on,” Spike pointed at both of them. “Singing blue alien?”

“Badass heroine,” Xander smirked at the memory.

Cordelia summed it all up, “Love saves the world.”

If only it could, Angel thought as he looked at her. Whatever they were talking about, the three of them seemed to be on the same wavelength. “Blue alien?”

“An excellent example of how the symbology has permeated every aspect of our culture,” Giles noted. “The fifth represents spirit, transcendency, and the innate power of the universe. All five create a balanced, unified power that can conceivably be tapped by the human mind.”

Willow gulped audibly. “Right. That’s right.” Her eyes slowly turned towards Cordelia and continued to stare.

“Creepy, much? Just say whatever’s crawling through that spidery web called your brain.”

“Maybe it’s just a coincidence. I hope.”

“Don’t start babbling again.”

Taking a deep breath, Willow finally blurted out, “The Council is wrong about when Amolon is coming.”

Silence fell around their circle as they stared at Willow all wondering how the talisman in her hand caused her to come to such a conclusion.

“Sometime around graduation, right?” Cordelia looked to Giles for answers. He had passed on the estimated dates calculated by the Council. They had confirmed their collective work. The clues laid out in multiple sources were fractal, but pointed toward a major event in the Spring.

“Precisely,” the watcher confirmed. “To the best of our abilities by any rate.”

Angel knew what he meant. “So. . .more like a guess.”

He felt a tug on his sleeve. Drusilla sidled up to him nuzzling his shoulder. “The shadows stir. He who would reign grows impatient.”

Knowing he would get nothing more out of her, Angel reached up to pat her cheek. “We’ll stop this whatever the new timeline.” He said it for Cordelia’s sake as much as Dru’s.

Giles tried to verbally lay out the pieces of their puzzle. The portents leading up to Amolon’s arrival seemed certain. Tasks were to be taken by underlings necessary to open the dimensional divide. Identification of the five Varstrae and the requisite items necessary to invoke the Rites of Tavrok had yet to be completed. It seemed impossible that Kalesh could prepare a ceremony any sooner than originally estimated. “How have you come to this conclusion, Willow?”

“It’s all right here if you look.”

Angel saw nothing except a colorful metal trinket. It had to hold power, but he sensed nothing except his own growing irritation. “Kalesh can’t be ready. We have Cordelia. We have this talisman.”

Her chin wibbled as Willow tried to respond in the midst of Angel’s intensity. “Um, well…”

Giles interjected with a reminder. “The precise requirements remain unclear. Although the Scroll of Septarius is a vital resource, it does not provide all of the answers. Kalesh may be the only one who truly knows it all.”

The prophecy was so old much of it was now in riddle, lost to the centuries, or copied to the extent that original meanings were open to interpretation. Angel knew this from their early research meetings. He could see that it was possible to make errors, but he did not want excuses. “We need to stop this. What more can we do to narrow down the dates?”

Without waiting for the watcher to come up with an idea, Cordelia had one at the ready. “Once we get the crystal shards that’ll be another major setback for Team Evil.”

Caught off guard by the fact that Cordelia obviously thought this revelation made no difference to her plans for the night, Angel could only agree with her logic. “Right.” Obtaining the crystals would indeed knock one item off the list of things Kalesh was supposed to gather.

“We’ve got Cor. No way they’re getting her.” Xander’s stubborn response was a welcome echo in Angel’s head. Finally, one thing they could agree upon.

“What’s with the doom and gloom, Red?” asked Spike no longer lounging on the couch. He prowled over, grabbled the talisman from her hand, gave it a shake, and upon noting nothing rattling within it tossed it back.

Scrambling to catch it, Willow let out a yelp. “Hey!” She clutched it close to her chest while glaring back at the vampire.

“It’s not just the timeline. We’re wrong about the Varstrae.”

Giles was absolutely certain, “There are five.” It was the one fact known about those humans designated to be sacrificed during the ceremony that would somehow allow Amolon’s passage to Earth.

“Yes, but I think we miscounted how many have already been revealed.”

Karla Brewer was the first. By fire and ice shall the first sacrifice be known. They thought she was safe from further harm even if her mind was gone.

Making it sound like an even race, Willow started out with a basic tally of the Varstrae. “Kalesh has Karla, but we’ve got Cor.”

“There’s the prisoner guy,” Xander added. “He makes three.”

Spike crossed him off the list again. “Wrong bloke.”

“What about the hottie Buffy met today?” asked Cordelia. “He’s the real one.”

“Kalesh hasn’t identified Marko Calibresi.” Giles reluctantly added, “As far as we know. He has already accepted that he will look into the eyes of Amolon. If that future has any certainty he will likely volunteer his own capture.”

Cordelia promised she wasn’t going to volunteer anything crazy. “With or without Marko that still makes two sacrifices in Kalesh’s creepy clutches.”

“That leaves two.” Angel left it to Willow to fill in the blanks.

Willow held out the talisman again. “There is symmetry in magic and nature. There are five elements on the talisman, and there are five Varstrae.”

“Sounds coincidental. You think there’s a connection?”

Nodding, Willow gulped before continuing. “Kalesh’s powers are tied to the elements, but the elements are also found in the Signs of the Prophecy, and linked to the sacrifices.”

Giles pulled off his glasses as if letting his vision blur pulled his thoughts into focus. “Good God!”

Still not seeing the big picture, Angel took a step closer to Willow. “How does that add up to Kalesh getting her hands on the other Varstrae?”

His naturally intimidating tendency to loom close and glare did not make it any easier to give Angel the bad news. Willow was not one hundred percent certain that her ideas had merit. More like ninety-eight percent, but it still meant there was a chance she was wrong. Knowing what it might mean for Cordelia, and all of them really, if they had only days or weeks to go instead of the safe cushion of a few more months to get their plans in place to save the world, she hoped one of them would find a big, fat hole in her theory.

“Every major event outlined in the prophecy scroll has included an elemental theme,” informed Willow.

Giles had been witness to the first. “Karla was marked as a sacrifice by Fire when her boyfriend was consumed by it.” Spontaneous combustion burned him from the inside out leaving only a charred corpse.

“The ex-prisoner was marked by the Water sign on the night of the storm.”

Finding fault with that one, Angel said, “Kalesh’s cronies identified him, too. How did they get it wrong?”

“They are led by the prophecy as are we all,” was Giles’ only answer.

Cordelia liked the idea of the bad guys making mistakes, too. “At least we aren’t the only screwups.”

That was the same night the Travelers arrived in town. Their caravan had slipped under everyone’s radar. That did not seem like a coincidence. Nor did the storm. Angel had been preoccupied with Cordelia that night. Their dining experience at Arturo’s had been unique, and then afterward on the beach. If only Isobel hadn’t interrupted.

He should never have given in to Cordy’s need for freedom. Whether it was the pleading eyes, or the threat of an empty bed, he refused to own up to it. The result was the same. Isobel could have taken every advantage of the distraction had she wanted to harm Cordelia, or capture her.

Maybe he should have listened to his gut instinct that night telling him not to bend to Cordelia’s wishes. He had already given his word about tonight, but this changed everything. She didn’t realize it yet because Cordelia would waste no time in telling him otherwise. Too caught up in Willow’s revelation, Cordy had not noticed him contemplating a change of plans.

“What about me?”

Willow doubted she needed a reminder. “You were identified the night of the meteor shower.”

“Duh! What element is that?”

Xander eagerly answered thinking he had it figured out. “Air! That’s a thing, right?”

“Yes, air is one of the five,” Willow gave him credit for listening. “Cor’s sign is actually the heavenly element representing the universe. Meteors come from the stars.”

Gazing at Cordelia from across the breadth of Angel’s chest, Drusilla spoke in hushed tones. “Do you hear them singing? Pretty songs of blood and death and chaos.”

Cordelia sharply indrawn breath was enough to stir Angel away from his own thoughts. “Drusilla,” he practically growled the name. Nudging her off of his shoulder, he asked, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Drusilla simply raised one finger to her lips before pursing them into a silent shush. Giving Cordelia a little smile as if they shared a secret, she turned to leave making her way out of the room as if waltzing to a tune only she could hear.

“Not my kind of music,” Cordelia muttered without further explanation.

As much as Angel wanted answers, he tried to stay focused. One problem at a time. Willow seemed to be just as distracted by Dru’s exit as anyone else. Getting her back on track, he said, “The earth and air signs—who are they?”

“I don’t know who, but maybe when,” Willow told him. “Remember the night of the locusts?”

Countless kisses in Cordelia’s hospital room. Angel could feel her staring and refused to look her way. He would only want another sample of her perfect mouth. Instead, he simply answered, “Yes.”

Cordelia snorted at his attempt to stay on task. “What he said. Plus, it’s hard to forget the way he—”

Before she could say it, Angel swooped in for a swift kiss stopping her from describing what had been a turning point in their relationship. It was private, not for public consumption. He hoped Cordelia would understand. She tasted tart like lemonade, but her response to his kiss was warm and sweet making him linger for a few more seconds.

She pushed him back with a smile. “I think they get the idea.”

“Next time we’ll skip the demo,” Xander said curling his lip.

Willow finally blinked. “So, ah, um, what was I saying? Oh, locusts! A swarm of locusts filled the sky—the air—that night. We couldn’t figure out a specific reason for it.”

“Demon snacks,” Xander reminded them they already had one theory.

Cordelia liked it. “Seems right. Willy was selling chocolate-covered locusts at the bar.”

Taking a leap with her personal theory, Willow asked, “What if those locusts were a Sign of the Air pointing the way to another one of the Varstrae?”

“You’re suggesting that Kalesh already has him—or her.”

Willow shrugged. “Could be.”

“Nobody noticed?” Cordelia asked before answering her own question. “It’s not like people don’t disappear all of the time around Sunnydale.”

Reminding them that the locusts swarmed the night immediately after the meteor shower, Giles thought it too soon after Cordelia’s identification as one of the five for another to be revealed. “The Varstrae are never directly listed in the Scroll of Septarius. The texts do identify numerous signs, but not their meanings.”

Details about the sacrifices were not the only thing missing from the ancient text. Prophecies tended to be vague. “Amolon’s name was never identified in the scroll,” Angel recalled, “yet it foretells his coming. The misdirection with the Varstrae could be purposeful.”

“If there is a more accurate version of the prophecy in existence, it is not in the hands of the Council.” Giles was certain of it. “More than one copy was created, but to my knowledge the others remain undiscovered.”

Xander leaned a little closer to Willow, “Sounds like you could be right.”

“Thought so.”

“Don’t pout about it,” Cordelia rolled her eyes as Willow tried to apologize for the bad news. “We’ll just have to step up our game. This will all be over soon enough and I’ll still get to go to the Spring Fling.”

Willow pulled her lower lip in and pressed her mouth firmly closed. She gave Cordelia a little nod.

No one said anything to burst the bubble Cordelia had created about going to the school dance. Whether it was positivity or sheer denial was a debate none of them wanted to get into. Angel was on the fence about it himself. He wanted to move forward, end the threat against Cordelia’s life, and save the rest of the world in the process. Most importantly, he was ready to move on with their relationship, and they couldn’t do that while this was hanging over their heads. Yet their time together might be cut off abruptly if things did not go their way.

Voices sifted through his crowded thoughts. “With the Air sign revealed, by extension, that leaves only the element of Earth to show its power,” Giles figured grimy.

Cordelia quickly jumped in with, “Like an earthquake?”

Seemingly unaffected by the announcement that her remaining time on this Earth might be cut short far sooner than originally believed, Cordy bounced right back to the conversation. It amazed him that she could do that while he was stuck in his thoughts brooding over every possible scenario.

“We had one the night Angel and I found the obelisk.”

Spike remembered it all too well. “The night you two were canoodling in the cemetery.”

Quick to deny it, Cordelia told him, “We weren’t even dating back then.”

“Call it what you want, pet. Don’t think I’ve ever seen ‘Gelus fight as hard as that for anyone.”

She held her response long enough to flash Angel a little smile pleased with the reminder that he had come to her defense. “Too bad I didn’t get to see Angel kick your ass,” she turned her attention back to Spike.

“Oy! Never happened. I was just holding him off,” Spike explained. “Had to keep him from interrupting Dru’s little tete-à-tete with you.”

Angel crossed his arms over his chest and kept his mouth closed. He couldn’t care less if Spike’s ego was still bruised. However, he enjoyed Cordelia’s jab, “Guess that’s why Dru had to carry you when the church collapsed around us.”

“Don’t remember that.”

“Hello, head injury!”

“As fascinating as this is,” Giles began sardonically, “perhaps we should focus on the here and now.”

Angel understood the big takeaway from Willow’s discovery. “Kalesh already holds three of the five Varstrae captive. She believes she has four. Calibresi may or may not reveal his true status.”

Sucking in a gasp of air, Cordelia held a hand to her chest. “That leaves me. I’m next.”

That meant only one thing. “Nicolau’s truce is over.”


198: The Mansion, Crawford Street, Central Sunnydale

198

 

 

“What’s everyone lookin’ so glum about?” asked Spike shrugging as if the news had been no big deal. “Let’s kill the messenger. Perk up our day.”

Willow already felt bad enough about dishing out bad news. “Make it quick,” she quipped only to pout when it didn’t take the icky feeling away.

Spike looped an arm over her shoulder and hauled her close for a squeeze. “Definitely not what I had in mind, Red,” he winked.

Oddly, the little hug made her feel better even if she wasn’t so sure if Spike was joking about the whole death to the messenger thing. “Thanks, I think.”

Angel ignored Spike’s tendency to stir up trouble with a mix of teasing and threats letting him get away with it. Punishing Willow would change nothing no matter how much he wanted her to decide it was all a mistake. It made too much sense. The pieces of this supernatural puzzle were finally falling into place. Not for them it seemed, and especially not for Cordelia. Kalesh needed her for the ritual, which meant they would be coming for her soon.

Holding out his hand for the talisman, Angel made it clear there was no time to delay. Telling Willow, “You’d better get started.”

The new defensive spell protecting the mansion from Kalesh was a priority. He wanted her focused on that and only that until it was finished. Willow sounded a little shaky. “Right n-now?”

Cordelia jabbed him in the ribs. “Let her shower first. Sheesh! She’s totally of the ewww right now. Look at her hair.”

It was caked with dried blobs of mud and pebbled dirt, like the rest of her. Angel conceded Willow would work more efficiently if she didn’t have to pick crumbled dirt out of her spell components. A sharp nod toward the door was all it took to send her on her way. She shoved the talisman into his hand and exited quickly.

“Am I next?” Giles asked tightening his jaw as he prepared to be the focal point of Angel’s ire. “This miscalculation is wholly my responsibility.”

Angel just stared back wordlessly. Silence weighed heavily between them as his unblinking gaze made his opinion on the matter all too clear. Moments like this reminded Giles just how much restraint the vampire possessed. The soul gave him the capacity for empathy, but that did not guarantee he would feel it. Admittedly, he felt guilty. Words were not necessary to confirm Angel blamed him. Giles concurred. It was his fault. Interpreting the scroll and the signs was ultimately his job. Though the Watchers Council weighed in on his findings, he had failed to discover key details. An impossible job considering the source material, but still his.

“Perhaps I should head back to the study.” Giles took the talisman as Angel held it out for him.

“I’ll make you some tea,” Cordelia gave him a little smile that staved off a bit of the gloom he was feeling.

Despite being the person most affected by his error, she did not seem to be pointing fingers of blame his way. His, “Thank you, Cordelia,” was for more than just the offer of tea.

Xander was on his heels as Giles headed into the hallway. “See ya. Buffy and Mrs S must think I got lost.”

“I’m certain that’s never happened before,” he commented drolly.

Moments after they disappeared from view, Spike plopped back down on the couch next to Drusilla, stretched his legs out onto the coffee table, and gave her a furtive glance. Her mood was ever changing, but he could usually suss it out. Knew when to play along, or back off, riding her mood like a surfer on a wave.

Sometimes she would seem sullen, caught up by the sadness of losing those she loved, old memories drawing her back to the days of her childhood. A bit of TLC was all she needed then. A quick cuddle and all was right with the world. Back to causing mayhem in no time.

Becoming dangerous as she listened to dark whispers of the demon at her core and following whims that left a bloody trail behind her. He so enjoyed those times even when it came back to bite him. So different to the carefree turns that left her flitting place to place like a butterfly on the wind. Best to let her dance to her own little tune in those cases. No harm, no foul.

Dru’s lustful streak had been carefully developed by her sire. No matter how sinful there was nothing she would not do for Angelus enjoying pleasures too numerous to name. Corrupting her purity because he could. As much as he hated it when Angelus put his hands on her, Spike reaped the benefits of his absence. She looked to fill the void left when Angel abandoned them—her—and used him to do it. Fine by him.

Fear overshadowed her many moods at times when visions gloomily hinted to a future that could not be put into words. Things that kept her silent and wary. Drusilla was not naturally secretive often sharing her twisted visions whether or not he wanted to hear them—or cared. He could tell when it happened. It grabbed hold, froze her in place for seconds, or a minute, as images tumbled into her head. Like now. Her pale face stilled into a calm mask, blue eyes unfocused seemingly staring at a point on the wall ahead.

“Oh, bloody hell.”

His muttered words caught Angel’s attention as he followed Cordelia toward the hall. Turning, he caught the wary look in his eyes. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing needs concern you.” Not yet, anyway.

Brow lowered, Angel’s stare suggested that everything concerned him, but he didn’t push for answers. Maybe because he thought his reaction had to do with the witch’s news. “Be ready for tonight,” he counseled. More of a stern order, really. “Don’t get so distracted playing Slayer games with Buffy that you forget to keep an eye out for our real enemies.”

Smirking, Spike said, “Quite a lot of games I could play with the slayer.”

“Priorities,” Angel growled the word not even bothering to warn him off. He simply turned and walked out being the king of dramatic exits.

Staring at the empty doorway, Spike thought about calling out a similar line to his grandsire who was probably halfway to the kitchen by now to watch over Cordelia as she made tea. If anyone needed to get his priorities straight it was Angel. What was so bleedin’ difficult about putting his mark on the chit, officially claiming what he so obviously wanted, and then shagging her into a stupor? Wouldn’t have the energy to traipse all over town after that, would she? Get it out of his system for a bit. Long enough to focus on ending Nicolau and Isobel once and for all.

Next to him, Drusilla shifted on the couch cushion just enough to draw his attention. Spike jerked back to face her asking what was what, but his sire said nothing until she had risen to her feet. Only half glancing at him, she whispered, “I must speak with Miss Edith,” before dashing away.


199: The Mansion on Crawford Street, Central Sunnydale

199

Suitably pressed and dressed, Wesley paused on the landing noting a small gathering awaiting his arrival. Angel, Cordelia, and Spike for some odd reason, were stood at the bottom of the stairs glaring his way. A nervous lump formed in his throat noting their serious, determined, and outright hostile expressions. They appeared to be vexed about something, or perhaps with him. The acquisition of the Amulet of Kalesh should have brightened their moods. A little due deference had been expected instead of scowls.

Cordelia had sought out this private meeting, the subject of which remained unknown. It bolstered his pride knowing that she had chosen him to provide her answers rather than Rupert Giles. The older watcher had more field experience, but could not claim a greater level of understanding of vampire lore, demons, or the prophecy. He had thought this to be an opportunity to channel their relationship from awkward acquaintance into a true friendship while offering her his knowledge—since she had no need of a stiff shoulder to lean on—during these trying times.

Until this moment he never considered the motive for their meeting might be something far more personal. This was not a time for queries and comfort. More like an inquisition with him in the torture chair. A dawning horror fell upon him as Wesley realized it was the worst case scenario. They knew. They all knew.

Faith had not been the only one to deduce his little crush on Cordelia Chase. The time had come to call him out on it. Wesley might have preferred it to hear it straight from Angel, mano-a-mano, but this meeting was to be between himself and Cordelia alone. Receiving his comeuppance directly from her would simply be crushing.

A physical fight against his rival would be a welcome option if Wesley had a say in the matter. Not that he considered himself a true rival for Cordelia’s affections. His was an ill-timed, misplaced one-sided attraction that he had well under control if not under wraps. Assuming that he had revealed it on some recent occasion, it hardly seemed worth pulling him aside for a private lecture.

Addressing Angel, he queried, “Will you be joining us?”

A terse response came with no added explanation, “No.” He crossed his arms over his chest as if warding off further inquiry.

Since Angel was not accompanying Cordelia, it seemed unlikely Spike would tag along. The other vampire seemed fully versed on what lay ahead. Pausing next to him on the stairs, Spike spoke with a biting undercurrent, “Watch yourself, duffer.”

Raising his chin up a notch, Wesley outwardly appeared unintimidated. There was no call for such attitude, especially considering the source. “My conduct is always above board.”

Warning him against ungentlemanly behavior with Cordelia was unnecessary. True, he often blabbered a bit in her presence likely resembling a moon-eyed idiot, but he had never made any overt advances. His fondness for her could have developed into something more under other circumstances, impending apocalypse not withstanding, minus a certain ensouled vampire. Things could have been quite different. However, as they were not, Wesley remained determined that Cordelia’s beauty and vivaciousness would not distract him from his duties.

Whatever Cordelia needed to say to him to put things right, he was willing to listen. “I should be happy to speak with Cordelia about any subject she sees fit to discuss.” No matter how humiliating it might be, Wesley added silently.

Spike clasped his shoulder, his fingers tightening a bit more than necessary. “Ever seen a man without a tongue? Say the wrong thing and you might get the chance next time you look in a mirror.”

“That’s enough, Spike,” Angel warned him off with a stern growl. “Wes gets the picture.”

Cordelia’s lips curled up in disgust. “The really gross picture. What’s up with you two? We’re just having a little one on one time. Nothing to get worked up about.”

Both vampires seemed easily ‘worked up’, as if the smallest action might set them off. Remaining stationary until Spike continued his ascent, Wesley saw that Angel likewise held himself in check withholding any words or actions he might later regret. Stoic by nature, it was generally difficult to assess Angel’s underlying feelings, but right now he looked visibly tense, moody, disturbed by was about to happen.

Vampires were, after all, quite possessive in their relationships no matter how brief, passionate, or destructive they might be. Any other vampire who suspected another man’s interest in his lover, albeit a school-boyish crush, would deal with the threat swiftly in a very physical manner. Wesley had no doubt that Angel was capable of such violence with the right provocation, but since he had done nothing to earn his ire it was doubtful that he intended him harm. Still, something about his intensely dark stare made Wes uneasy as it steadily chipped at the shell of his resolve without Angel saying a word.

A mediator might be necessary, or perhaps by old-fashioned standards, a chaperone. “Perhaps you’d be more comfortable if Mr. Giles—”

“No way!” Cordelia cut him off swiftly holding up a hand to stop the idea before it went further. “Angel put me in charge of this little chat. There is no squirming out of this one.”

A nervous squeak emerged before Wesley could stifle it.

Past lectures had usually come from his father, whose harsh lessons never managed to break him. Yet Cordelia’s instinctive frankness might be too much to handle. Time and distance would have caused his feelings to lose their luster, if fate gave them such opportunity. Disinterest, he could handle, but the unfiltered rejection that lay in store for him would be worse than any punishment ever devised by his stern parent.

Already anticipating the uncomfortable discussion ahead, Wesley resolved to let it play out while hoping it would provide some sort of closure. Gesturing toward the room across the great hall, “Shall we go to my office?”

At least his own personal space—albeit a borrowed one inside Angel’s home—would provide him a smidgeon of control and authority. He might feel less vulnerable about defending his admittedly inappropriate crush.

“Pfft!” Rolling her eyes at the unthinkable plan to use his office, Cordelia asked, “What did they teach you at that Watchers Academy? Were there no lessons on vampire super-senses?”

“Kinda hard to have a private conversation in this place.” She lifted a small battery-operated radio into view as if its function was self-explanatory.

Taking a moment, Wesley’s brows scrunched close as he made the connection. “A sound barrier might work.” There were a number of techniques used in shadowing vampires as was sometimes required for observation. He doubted that Angel would take kindly to the Council’s methods of study in documenting the supernatural abilities of his kind, and so kept quiet about it. “The degree of their enhanced skills differ from vampire to vampire.”

“Do they?” Cordelia’s gaze drifted over to Angel. “Thought so.”

Standing so close it was impossible not to notice the sensual undercurrent that vibrated between them. He could practically feel it in the air. Only a few words, eye contact, and lust flared up between them like an open flame. Somehow, Wesley figured Cordelia was talking about something other than Angel’s superior auditory senses.

“Perhaps we should focus on putting some distance between us.” An ocean would be fantastic, Wesley thought wildly wishing he could be anywhere else at that moment.

Pulling her attention back to him, Cordelia looked a little flushed. “Um, sure.”

“Angel, would you remain upstairs in your room whilst we go to the basement? This level would serve as a buffer between us.”

A single doorway had been distant enough in Angel’s opinion detailing his concerns for Cordelia’s safety. “Kalesh could show up. I might not hear you scream for help. What if I can’t get to you in time?”

“C’mon, what are the odds? I don’t think she’s checking for the exact second you take your eyes off me.” Cordelia’s frustration at the circumstances made her sound a bit flippant. Understandable enough when one was able to look at the situation from a distance. 

Not as easily navigated from the viewpoint of the man—no, vampire—visibly tormented by the all too real threat his lover would be abducted for demonic rituals. Angel scowled over the priestess’ tactics. “Scrying spells are common magic. That’s probably how she knew the mansion was almost empty when she came for Karla.”

Wesley agreed, albeit silently. He preferred to remain as invisible as possible during their little tiff. Once they worked out the details, he would go forward with the meeting, or celebrate his momentary escape.

“Paranoid, much?” Cordelia planted her hands on her hips. “Busy lady taking time out of her evil plans to spy on us with her crystal ball.”

Biting back, “Dammit, Cordelia, don’t blow off my concerns. The danger is real. Kalesh needs you to complete those plans. She’ll do whatever it takes.” Point made, Angel let his words sink in for a moment.

Cordelia stubbornly pressed her lips together refusing to accept that Angel’s words had merit. Certainly, she was fully aware of the danger to herself, and could not deny that he was accurate about the priestess’ goals. Choosing to argue about it here and now only revealed the underlying tension between them.

Wesley narrowed his gaze at Angel. “A postponement seems in order. This meeting can wait until after our defenses are bolstered. Tomorrow, or the day after, perhaps.” A simple enough solution, Wesley expected both would readily accept the idea. By then, if luck was with him, they might think it unnecessary.

“Two days?” gasped Cordelia making it sound like an unbearable wait.

Contemplating it for a moment, Angel at least gave it some thought before nixing the idea. “This can’t wait.”

Perfectly willing to delay what would no doubt be an unpleasant affair—Wes felt the irony—he made another push for it. “Surely we can reschedule.”

“No, Cordelia has something very important to discuss with you.” Resolved to move forward with the plan, Angel moved to the weapons closet across the way. Opening it, he pulled out a crossbow handing it to Wesley. “Take this. If you see anything suspicious, shoot first.” 

Meaning every word, Wesley vowed, “I will defend Cordelia with my life. You can count on me.”

“I hope so,” Angel said meeting his gaze with a weighty stare. “Judge me if you must, but speak to her with the respect this deserves.”

A curt nod was all Wesley could manage. Pulling Angel’s comments into one frame of reference, he sensed he was missing something. There was nothing to judge. How could he fault Angel for wanting to protect Cordelia? Even though Wesley was about to be delivered his comeuppance for unintentional flirting and a mushy emotion or two, he needed no reminders about how to speak to a woman. There might be a bit of babbling involved, but it would most certainly be respectful babbling.

“And where will you be?” Cordelia inquired after Angel somehow knowing he was not going to await their return on the upper level.

Taking up a spot on the stairs, Angel answered evenly, “Right here.” 

Making no further argument about it, Cordelia grinned saying, “We’re good, then. This won’t take long. I already know what I want to say.”

Wesley shuddered at those ominous words thrown about so flippantly. Both of them were thankfully too focused on each other to notice his reaction. It stung a bit, annoying him into making a head start for the basement. 

The door creaked as he opened it, catching Cordelia’s attention. “I’ve got the body you’re supposed to be guarding. Wait up!” 

She hustled after him only to be stopped by Angel calling out, “Don’t rush it, Cordy. Be certain that you understand what I’m asking. Take tonight to think about it.”

Making it sound like an eternity, she gasped, “All night?”

“If you need it.”

Reading between the lines, it took him a moment to realize there was a deeper meaning to their words, one that had nothing to do with him receiving a lecture against any past, current, or future flirtations. There was something going on between the two of them, other than the usual subtext, which was never that difficult to detect or interpret.

“Make a choice, Cordelia, while we still have an option.”

No longer certain he was at the center of the topic at hand, Wesley gulped at the weighty tone of those words. Did Angel’s concerns stem from a prophecy related matter, or was it something even closer to home? Dread of a different sort started to build up inside him. Curiosity piqued questions that he barely held in reserve for the meeting ahead, but he held off. Whereas Angel might shut him out, Cordelia would be far more forthcoming in her responses.

The hidden meaning behind Angel cryptic warning was crystal clear to Cordelia. Giving Angel a smile nothing short of breathtaking for those in the room still requiring air, she tried to allay his fears, “No worries.”

Caught up by its brilliance, Wesley noted Angel’s remarks as if at a distance, the words a fading echo. “Talk to the watcher. Think about it. Once you’re mine it’s forever.”

The apprehension churning in his stomach nearly spewed up as Wesley realized their meaning. Talking the talk had nothing to do with his hopeless twittery feelings. This was a hundred times worse. His very important private meeting with Cordelia Chase was all about her relationship with Angel, the two of them, and whatever future they could steal from the hand of fate. Their togetherness had already progressed to a disturbingly intimate level, but Angel was clearly not satisfied with possessing her affections. He wanted everything.

Wesley’s grip on the crossbow instinctively tightened as he realized that Angel intended to claim Cordelia in ritualistic fashion. He had never been one for apoplectic rage, but anger held him in a vice as he considered swift action. This was not the Angelus of old whom Wesley had studied before coming to Sunnydale. He had a soul, a heart, and apparently some sense of restraint because otherwise Cordelia would already belong to him.

Under normal circumstances–which did not appear to be existent on the Hellmouth—he would not hesitate to act, but Angel was no ordinary vampire. An apocalypse of world-ending proportions was on their doorstep, and Angel would be needed to stop it. The torment in his gaze told Wesley that asking for his counsel was not an easy decision. Every instinct had to be shouting for him to make his claim.

“Do you truly intend to allow Cordelia a choice?” Wesley considered that it might already be too late. “This is madness. We have serious matters–”

Angel cut him off. “This won’t wait.”

“Allowing me to counsel Cordelia shows that you still have some control over it.” Wesley eased up his hold on the crossbow. “A wise decision. Be prepared for the consequences. Know that I will be as frank as the subject requires.”

“Don’t sugarcoat it. Tell her everything.”


200: Crawford Street Mansion, Central Sunnydale

200

“Are you freaking out about this?” 

Cordelia descended the basement steps behind Wesley, the wide flashlight beam brightening the way. He turned to face her once they reached the bottom, eyebrows drawn into a furrow behind the metal rims of his glasses. Shining the light directly in his face, she noted, “You’re looking a little green.”

Still silent, his lips only tightened up either revealing that he didn’t want to admit how freaked out he truly was, or that he was on the verge of a major upchuck. Hanging back a step, she wanted to avoid the spewage if Wes was going to puke. Eew! Was he really that nervous about talking to her or did the idea of Angel claiming her actually make him sick? Either way, he’d need to get over it quick.

“I could have picked Giles, y’know,” Cordelia tried to perk him up, “but I wanted you. He’s got issues with Angel.”

Finding his voice, Wesley pointed out, “Being tortured by Angelus might provide good cause.”

“Well, yeah, that too, but I meant because of Buffy,” she clarified while whispering the slayer’s name almost conspiratorially. They were still within vampire hearing range. 

“Mr. Giles would no doubt hold the same opinion as I on the subject.” Wesley gave his lapels a tug as if his jacket needed straightening, or maybe just his nerves. “I will do my best to tell you everything I know.”

Whatever! Nothing either of them had to say would make her deny Angel anything. “Fine, but It won’t change my mind.”

“Naturally, that is your decision, but I shall make it my duty to ensure it is an informed one.”

Cordelia enjoyed his stiff British mannerisms. Wesley was so formal about everything from his business suit to his stodgy syntax making him adorable in a goofy sort of way. “Giles has that judgmental uncle vibe going on. Guess that makes you a big-brotherly type I can talk to about stuff like this.”

His mouth and shoulders suddenly drooped down a notch. A soft, “Oh?” hung between them. A dash of disappointment sounded that could not be mistaken. Cordelia knew that sound well from the many times she had turned guys down. They just couldn’t help themselves. Mostly, she couldn’t care less what they thought, but not this time. “Well, yeah. You’re a likable guy. I like you.”

Straightening up again, Wesley looked a little less squeamish about talking to her. “That’s quite all right. A good place to begin. Tell me—”

Forestalling him, “Not now!” Cordelia raised the radio as a reminder of her strategy to block out their conversation.

They did not bother lighting the lantern hanging on the wall at the bottom of the steps. Having brought the large flashlight, Cordelia trusted modern technology over the flicker of lantern light. “Too bad they never got around to setting up the electricity down here.”

Wesley agreed. “There would be fewer shadows to contend with.” He aimed the crossbow into the darkened corners of the room directing her to shine the flashlight there.

Rolling her eyes, Cordelia followed instructions. “We’re alone, Wes.”

“That could change, and I have sworn to protect you.”

Snorting softly, she gave him credit for meaning it. She felt far less concerned with a potential attack than inconvenienced by the lack of light. “We might run into some creepy-crawlies. I’ve seen spiders down here.”

Still checking out the area, Wesley commented, “We can use the stairs as our escape route as long as we keep them behind us.”

Laughing at him, Cordelia asked, “You think the spiders will chase us?” He totally set himself up for that one.

He shot a stern look in her direction. “Do be serious.”

“This is just the first stop on our tour. Way too close to certain vampire ears.” Setting the radio down on a small table near the stairs, she gave the power knob a twist. Reception was sketchy in the enclosed basement, but adequate enough to function. 

“Where are we going?” Wesley had done a thorough search of the basement level after Karla Brewer disappeared, but Cordelia had a feeling he never found her favorite spot. Maybe it was a close second to the old antique tub filled to the brim with hot water and bubbles galore—and Angel lounging behind her. Make that third because their bed was also kind of awesome.

Cordelia tried not to get distracted by thoughts of Angel’s gorgeous body wrapped around her. It only made her want to get this lecture over with in order to be with him. She gave Wesley an indulgent little smile. “Somewhere I can see the sky.”

Alarm instantly widened his eyes. “We can’t go outside!” The reasons were obvious. The usual argument applied. Kalesh might be there. Lying in wait. Ready to nab her. There wasn’t much Wes and his crossbow could do about it, Cordelia decided, so she might as well go wherever she wanted.

Cordelia turned the radio dial to select a music station. Hard rock suddenly blasted from the speakers. “Perfect!” she yelled over the noise while increasing the volume to a higher setting. 

Cringing at the noise, a pained expression masked Wesley’s face. “A bit loud,” he shouted. The rest of it was lost on her.

“What?” 

Cordelia saw his mouth moving, but couldn’t hear a thing. She waved the flashlight in front of him and then pointed the light toward the corridor that extended into the far reaches of the mansion. Wesley shook his head apparently nixing her carefully crafted plan. Like that was going to happen? Not. Moving ahead before he could physically stop her, Cordelia followed a familiar path taking the only source of light with her forcing Wesley to trail after her despite his objections. 

During an early training sessions, Angel had given her the full tour of the mansion including its creepier and isolated spots. The basement level ran the full gamut of the mansion. The fire that had ravaged the west wing burned parts of it down to the foundation blocking off the rest with a mountain of charred rubble.

“It would be safer if we remained closer to our exit,” Wesley made another attempt to turn her around. Distance had softened the din of the music enough that it was no longer necessary to shout. 

“Maybe, but these stone walls feel too much like a prison.”

Wesley seemed to sympathize with her situation, but would not compromise. “I am willing to allow you some latitude on your choice of meeting place, but I will not allow you to endanger yourself by leaving the mansion. That is folly of the most dangerous kind.” 

“Relax, Wes.”

When that did not placate him, Wesley tried a different strategy. “Angel won’t like it.”

No, he definitely would not if that was her plan. Even this was pushing it. Being out of his sight was more than Angel was comfortable allowing. “Trust me, Mr Worrywart. Angel knows where I’m taking you.”

He stiffened, thinking about the veracity of her statement, then relaxed. “Very well.”

They turned a corner almost completely hidden behind several stacks of wrapped and stored furniture. Items that might have been intended for use after the mansion’s renovation had the fire not destroyed it. “Over here,” Cordelia called out behind her. “Keep up.”

“Slow down. I am checking for intruders.”

“Yeesh! Pretty sure Kalesh isn’t lurking in the shadows.”

“You cannot be certain.”

“Nope, but I’m not going to let that stop me from doing what I want in my own house.” She harrumphed loudly and kept walking.

Wesley dutifully followed along noting, “Your connection to this place surprises me. You are quick to lay claim to it.”

Bricks and mortar had nothing to do with her feelings about this Crawford Street disaster zone. It wasn’t like she had anywhere else to go even if she wanted. Her childhood home was owned by the IRS while Bev’s place was still a crime zone. “It’s not the house that makes it my home.” 

Trying not to sound sour about it, Wesley simply said his name. “Angel.”

“Well, yeah. Haunted mansions aren’t exactly my style, but I’m kind of stuck on the guy who lives here.”

“Living being the operative word. This is technically a vampire lair. Angel is one of the undead, and not a man you should consider shacking up with on a permanent basis.”

Cordelia stopped short and turned around long enough to laugh in his face. “Judge-y, much?” Becoming serious, she quieted down almost abruptly, raising a hand to his shoulder. “If we’re going to talk about this there’s one thing you need to understand—I love Angel. I’m not afraid of him, or anything involved in being with him, not anymore.”

Turning back down the corridor, she moved ahead again causing Wesley to scurry to catch up. “You were hesitant for a time? You had reservations?”

Giving him the Cliff Notes version of events, she explained, “Drusilla showed me some things I still don’t understand, visions of the future.”

“Dark portents?”

Nearing their destination, Cordelia slowed down. “I suppose so. It was pretty scary. Stuff I can’t figure out, but one theme stands out. Those visions promise me that I still have some kind of future, a future with Angel, and I’m going to fight to make it happen.”

He admired her determination, but that made it no less concerning.

Wesley’s studies had included readings about soothsayers, seers, psychics, and all manner of human beings and supernatural creatures with the ability to predict the future. Like any ability it presented in varying levels from the most subtle hint of an outcome moments away, to a clear picture of any moment ahead. Drusilla’s visions seemed unpredictable rather than controlled foresight, and by nature somewhat unclear giving her glimpses of what was to come. Her own mental state might also affect how those visions presented.

“Our hope for the world hinges on your survival, and so I cannot fault you for clinging to such an outcome. Do these visions reveal the nature of your future relationship with Angel?”

“Clothing seemed kinda optional.”

Stumbling over something in the dark, Wesley made a grab for the wall only to have a cloud of dusty debris fly up. He coughed uncontrollably for a few seconds. 

Cordelia tried patting him on the back, but the poor guy kept gasping. She waved her hand around to disperse some of the dust. “This part of the basement is crumbly in places.”

Once Wesley had recovered, Cordelia led him into an area that had to be part of the west wing. The darkness began to fade. Natural light filtered in somewhere ahead and their flashlight was no longer needed. Turning one last corner they faced the end of the passage. A half-burned door remained fixed on its hinges, the charred edges having long since fallen to ash leaving a wide gap at the top corner where a sunbeam shone through.

“You promised not to go outside.”

A defiant little retort declared otherwise, “No I didn’t. Technically, we’re not going outside.”

Cordelia thought this place was kind of cool. The room had stone walls reaching up from the basement level all the way up to what used to be the third floor, but it was essentially a husk open to the sky. Over the years nature had taken it back. Vines clung to the inner walls. Old leaves covered the stone floor while plants and weeds grew up in the cracks. A fine table and two chairs were at the center of the open space. They looked new, or at least only recently uncovered and moved from the passage where the other furnishings were stored.

“Angel brought me here one night. It’s pretty awesome in moonlight.”

Wesley thought the word might apply in sunlight, too, reminding him of a few places he had visited in Europe as part of his watcher’s training. Long since abandoned most had been in a state of decay for centuries rather than decades. “Did you see your future self in Sunnydale in the vision Drusilla shared with you, here at the mansion, perhaps?”

Explaining that she had only glimpsed familiar places in Los Angeles, Cordelia figured that they were supposed to be living there at some point. “I don’t know when exactly. After graduation, if I catch up with my classes.”

Sounding out a thoughtful hum, Wesley gave her a nod. “The Watcher’s Council has recorded many supernatural phenomena associated with prophecy. Some are fixed occurrences. Things that human intervention cannot alter, whilst others may be prevented entirely if we can disrupt the chain of precursor events leading up to them.”

“That’s what we’re doing.”

After a short nod, Wesley corrected, “That’s what we hope to do.”

“We’ve got that amulet now.”

Wesley gave her an indulgent nod. He believed the amulet was a key win against Kalesh. Its purpose remained unclear, but the loss of the object would have to affect the priestess’ plans. Despite his positive feelings on the matter, he knew this was not the time to make Cordelia feel overconfident about their efforts, or about her future with Angel. “Prophecy has its own way of providing a glimpse of an endgame without revealing exactly how it happens. The Scroll of Septarius is an amalgamation of many individual prophecies gathered from the ages of demons and men. Our interpretation of those portents is the only reason we have a chance at stopping Amolon’s arrival.”

“Dru’s visions are just as true, aren’t they?” Cordelia wanted to focus on the one part of those shared glimpses into the future that was worth holding onto. She had a life with Angel. 

“Every action we take brings us closer to what has been prophesied. The future is not yet set in stone, but the choices we make can lead us directly down one path versus another. Drusilla’s visions seem to provide you an alternate life, one that can only come to pass if we are able to prevent the invocation of the Rites of Tavrok.”

“Right. We’ve got the amulet—check. Me—check. Tonight, we’re going to find those crystals.”

Wesley was wary about allowing Cordelia to search for the Shards of Ahli-Tah. Anything could happen in town. Amolon’s followers were already gathering in greater numbers. He pointed out the safer option. “Should you remain safe in our care, unexposed to rituals experienced by your friend, Karla, I believe Kalesh will be unable to continue.”

With a breezy, carefree tone, Cordelia said, “That’s what I’m counting on, but I’ll feel safer after I find those crystals.”

“Fortunately, we have a few months before the prophecies converge at the time of Amolon’s predicted arrival. Plenty of time to research and strategize.”

Instead of being comforted by that reminder, Cordelia stiffened up realizing that Wesley had not been around when Willow had her little eureka moment. Why was she the one who had to hand out the crappy news? “Oh, um, about that—I think you might want to sit down.”

Cordelia thought Wesley’s jaw might hit the table as he gasped in horror, “How can this be? Those dates were reviewed at the highest level.”

“Someone at WC Central screwed up. Look on the bright side,” she counseled as if that made any difference. “I am. This nightmare will be over in no time. Besides, I’d much rather graduate without an apocalypse ruining my party plans.”

On the cusp of being claimed by a vampire and sacrificed to a demon god, Cordelia’s priorities seemed a bit off. Party plans? Wesley wished that he had the luxury of such denials. “This is disastrous! We have so much to do. Research. Finding a method to defeat Kalesh. We need answers.”

After brushing a stray leaf off the brocade chair cushion, Cordelia sat down directly across from Wes. “Speaking of answers, you’re supposed to be giving me some. Kinda why we’re here.”

Sidetracked by the devastating news that their timeline to stop the forces of darkness had collapsed into a matter of weeks instead of months, it slowly sunk in that they had something marginally important to discuss—Cordelia’s love life. That now? “Claiming rituals.” 

“Let’s get on with it.”

Suddenly, his tie felt like it was constricting his airway cutting off his ability to breath and think. Wesley realized he was holding his breath and let out a heavy sigh. He reached up to adjust the knot. “Right.”

Cordelia gestured toward him. “Go on. Let the lecture commence.” Nothing he said was going to alter her decision. She already knew the basics. Angel was a vampire. She wanted to be with Angel in any way he wanted to be with her, and if that included some kind of vampire bite, she was willing to go for it. The whole thing about consequences confused her, but she was ready to deal with anything as long as it kept them together.

“What has Angel told you happens when a vampire claims a human?”

“Hardly anything except that it involves his fangs and my neck.” An unsteady laugh faded fast when she saw the all-too-serious glint in steady gaze. “It’s the next step in our relationship.”

“A rather permanent one.”

“Because of the scar? I admit I’m a little creeped out by the idea of being bitten.”

“You haven’t been bitten before?” Wesley tilted his head in surprise. He had never seen any visible signs, but had assumed that their intimacy included bloodplay. The femoral vein in the groin was a favored location for many vampires, so Wesley had read.

“No, but I can tell that it’s a big deal for Angel. He wants it. Really wants it like in a big way even if he tries to ignore it.”

“The soul allows Angel to temper his vampiric instincts, but it cannot erase them. The need to bite and feed is basic.”

Cordelia palmed the table, opened her fingers wide and traced the path of the woodgrains in front of her as she thought about it. “That’s not what this is. When he looks at me like he wants to bite me, I can tell he just wants to be even closer.”

“The Watcher’s Council has documented countless cases of intimate acts between vampires and humans. Most are a prelude to death.”

“Angel’s not looking for a late-night snack. He wants me.”

Wesley had no doubts about that. How could he not want Cordelia Chase in every way he could conceive? The fact that Angel had denied himself something so basic to his kind was very surprising. Favored humans were frequently marked by the vampire’s bite, usually the neck so that it would be visible to potential rivals. The relationships lasted only as long as the vampire remained interested, and were mainly about fulfillment of lustful appetites whether that be for blood or sex, usually both.

“Any level of human-vampire intimacy involves biting. Angel must care for you a great deal to ignore the pull of such deeply rooted instincts until now.”

That was something Cordelia agreed with. She was less certain about the reason. “So, what changed?”

Wesley had studied Mr Giles’ reports about Buffy Summers’ relationship with Angel, and despite all of the turmoil it caused, it had been heartfelt for both. This was something else entirely. A whole other level that went beyond the precepts of human love bringing Angel’s vampire nature into play. “That is for Angel to answer, but it is clear that he dotes upon you, and desires you.”

Cordelia looked rather pleased as she responded, “The feeling is totally mutual.”

“Understand that the Watchers Council reports have been written from an observational point of view. What I can tell you stems only from interactions noted over the centuries.” 

“No need for the disclaimer,” she waved it off dismissively. “Angel loves me, I love him. What’s the sitch?”

Pushing ahead despite knowing he was about to say all manner of things Cordelia would not want to hear, Wesley explained, “The Council would classify you as a favored pet chosen to fulfill Angel’s sexual appetites.”

Lurching back in the chair, Cordelia thought it sounded even worse than when Spike used that term. “That’s girlfriend,” she corrected. “I am not a pet.”

“Technicalities,” Wesley shrugged. “Your physical intimacy places you on a dangerous path.”

“Hello, I live on a Hellmouth.” She crossed her arms, glaring sharply.

“You do have a way of deflecting the truth when you don’t want to hear it.”

Shrugging one shoulder, Cordelia did not deny it. One thing needed to be clear. “Being with Angel does not make me the family pet.”

Wesley decided to sidestep that particular landmine for the moment. “What do you know about Darla?”

Hearing the name seemed to surprise her. “Enough to know she was the one who made Angel a vampire.”

“Yes, the term is sired. Darla was the favorite progeny of the Master of Aurelius, and Angelus was hers.”

Cordelia’s lip curled a little. “They’re both dust now.” At some point she had seen the very old daguerreotype photographs of the beautiful vampire and Angelus. 

Recalling the details of the report, Wesley knew about Darla’s sudden end. “Angel staked his sire in order to prevent her from killing Buffy.”

“One less blonde to show up on my doorstep,” Cordelia quipped.

The flippant response suggested that she was unaware of the powerful connection between a vampire and his maker. “Darla and Angel had a long history together. You may have observed the interactions between Drusilla and Angel, or Spike and Drusilla. The sire’s blood creates a bond that is never truly broken.”

“Angel’s past isn’t an issue. No sire. No curse. No problem. We’re thinking about the future.”

Was it denial or could she truly brush aside their obvious differences so easily? “Considering Angel’s feelings for you it is just as well that Darla is no more. No doubt she would take issue with a human usurping her place.”

“Hmph.”

Perhaps it would be Darla struggling to regain the upper-hand, Wesley mused. Angel’s soul created a wedge between them that had driven them apart having presumably altered their perceptions of each other. Did the same apply to the others? “Drusilla’s acceptance of you is puzzling, I must confess. As Angel’s progeny I would have anticipated jealousy.”

“Dru adores me.”

Wesley had a theory. “What pleases her sire, also pleases Drusilla. “Watching her with you—and Spike for that matter—is rather intriguing.”

“Exactly how much have you been watching?”

“My observations are quite innocuous, Cordelia. I am not spying for the Council.”

“So you don’t have a Watcher’s Diary where you’re writing down everything about Angel and me for your future memoirs?”

Tugging at his tie again, Wesley flushed red. Denying it. “Certainly not. If I had to jot down a note every time the two of you, well, ah. . . needless to say I would have no time to conduct research on the prophecy.”

“Why would your stuffy old Council care about my love life anyway?”

“Anglelus never bothered to avoid the Council’s attention as long as it did not interfere with his activities. He cut a bloody path through Europe with his sire and progeny. Unlike many others of his kind he rarely kept humans around beyond his immediate interests. They were prey, not pets.”

“I’m not dating Angelus.”

“You are in a sense. The soul certainly changes things, but underneath the demon is still there influencing everything Angel does. Those instincts remain no matter that his conscience allows him some control over his actions.”

“That still doesn’t answer my question.”

“Angel is simply a fascinating subject. A vampire of such sadistic tendencies now garbed with a soul, possessing a conscience, fighting the forces of darkness at the side of a slayer. He was not just an ally.”

When it seemed that Wes would delve into the whole tragic tale that was Angel and Buffy’s doomed from the start relationship, she groaned in protest. “Not my favorite subject.”

“The discovery of an ensouled vampire was quite a novelty. When we learned of the curse it seemed as though it might be a solution to our age-long problem. Although it was not a cure for vampirism, as some hoped to discover, it might be a method of subduing them. A way to turn them away from their darker instincts.”

Cordelia imagined a slew of watchers roaming around cursing vampires. All they needed was a talented witch or a ticked off gypsy on their side. Angel might get broody now and then, but he seemed a long way from subdued. Still, maybe Nico and Isobel would have a change of heart about letting their demon god wreck havoc on the world if they had souls. She’d love to sign them up. “Sounds like a plan.”

“An impractical one, as it turns out considering Angel lost his soul.”

“Well, it’s superglued now.”

“By unknown means and measure. The circumstances do not appear to be replicable,” Wesley explained. “Nevertheless, Angel’s unique situation makes him a fascinating subject for study, especially considering the nature of his relationship with you.”

Annoyance contorted her face as Cordelia’s palm slapped the table. “Y’see, it’s that whole studying thing I have a problem with. My relationship with Angel is none of their business.”

“On the contrary, it is precisely their business.” 

“Busybody business.”

Wesley’s mouth tightened up feeling personally offended. “To date, I have not shared so much as a word on the subject.”

“Don’t.”

It sounded more like a warning than a plea for cooperation. Wesley had a feeling it would not be a good thing to betray what little trust he had garnered with Cordelia Chase. He opted for the truth. “My duty requires that I report my observations, and yet I have not done so thus far.”

“What—no tittle-tattling?”

“That would be premature. We have far more important issues upon which to focus, and lives to save, including your own. Do not persuade yourself that the acceptance of Angel’s claim is equivalent to any human relationship you know. It is not an offer to. . .to. . .go steady.”

“Oh?” Honestly, Cordelia wasn’t sure what to call it, either. 

They were definitely already there, no matter that certain someones preferred to call her Angel’s pet rather than his girlfriend. Wesley seemed to be trying to tell her that claiming involved more than just a bite. Considering the way Angel had gone all serious by saying that there would be consequences, she figured there was more to it than just a bite and a superficial scar.

Understanding what that meant was still kind of murky. “What is it?”

“Angel wants you as his mate, Cordelia. It is a very rare thing between a vampire and a human that I must caution you against.”

“So it’s more than just a biting thing?”

Wesley strummed his fingers on the table letting his nerves work out their troubles. It kept him otherwise steady. “Most times a bite is simply just that, a method of feeding upon a victim. The scar is ultimately meaningless, and the one who wears it merely lucky to be alive. The vampire rarely returns for another sample unless it is to finish the job.”

“Been there, seen that,” Cordelia urged him on.

“Next are the favored ones chosen to frequent the vampire’s bed and to be used as a source of blood. Singled out, they are marked by a bite imbued with the vampire’s scent and blood. It is traditionally a brand of ownership.”

“Angel might need to rethink that part.”

“Vampires are very possessive creatures, Cordelia. That should be very apparent by now.”

“So what if he’s a little clingy? He’s really good at making up for it.”

“A mark is only the most superficial form of a claim. It is a bond that goes far deeper than the visible nature of a scar, a tying together of emotional and physical needs. The Council always believed the bite was a necessary component preceding the bonding process, but I theorize that may not be the case as you state you remain unbitten.”

Sourly, she huffed, “You think way too much.”

There was plenty of evidence by Wesley’s account. “Despite ongoing distractions the two of you appear quite taken with one another. One of the first affects must be an increased libido.”

Cordelia wasn’t sure that feeling hot for Angel was a sign of anything new and unusual. “That kinda kicked in the first time I saw him.”

“It’s hunger, Cordelia, not just attraction. I was simply stating a fact. Considering the frequent disappearances and the cacophony from your bedroom I think it rather obvious.”

“You’ve been eavesdropping?”

“That would imply I would need to try. The walls aren’t that thick. Do stop glaring at me in that hostile manner. You asked for information. I am trying to provide it.”

“Fine.”

“Claiming a human creates a bond similar to that of sire and progeny. When a vampire is made there is an exchange of blood, an act that continues either through rituals designed to reinforce their power and connections, or by bloodplay during intimate encounters.”

Cordelia squirmed in her chair when he paused to ask, “I expect you already have some idea what that entails.”

“Maybe Drusilla and Spike have told me a thing or two. Not that you’re getting any details.”

Wesley suppressed a shudder. “Thank heavens for that.” He gulped heavily trying to reform his uneasy feelings into cautionary words.

Never one to mull over a thought before speaking it, Cordelia beat him to it. “A bond like that—it’s forever. Angel used that word. I thought maybe he was exaggerating.”

“A claim cannot be dissolved once it is made. Your relationship with Angel has moved along very quickly. Perhaps you should wait a year or two or ten before binding yourself to a vampire. Get through this crisis. Allow yourself the time to consider what this means. He’s giving you a choice.”

Cordelia knew that Wesley meant well, but despite his warning it all seemed very clear. “I want him. That’s my choice.” 

“This has never ended well for the human half of the pair, historically speaking.”

Still, she was curious. “Never?”

“The human is either turned or dies from despair upon realizing the love they feel cannot be returned except with obsession and lust. Are you so certain of Angel’s feelings that you would risk your life for it?”

“He loves me. I feel it.” 

Considering all that he had witnessed, Wesley could not doubt it. “Blood will bind you. Time only increases the effects of the bond. Once claimed every instinct you possess will bend to follow his lead.”

That didn’t sound so fantastic. “Like when Drusilla enthralled Xander? He was all about helping her.”

“There would be no conscious effort required. Feelings, stray thoughts, physical needs would all be communicated through your connection. Free will is not stripped away with the bond, but you would experience a greater satisfaction in meeting his desires. Just as he would in meeting yours.”

“Okay then. Why didn’t you say so? This is a two-way street.”

“More or less,” Wesley frowned at his own admission. He felt it necessary to add, “The vampire usually gets the better end of the bargain. Angel is fully cognizant of how he will benefit from this arrangement. Not only does he gain a beautiful companion, an eager lover, a loyal partner, but also the bloodrights he has thus far denied himself.”

“I’m mostly okay with that.”

“Okay with a vampire consuming your blood, and willingly partaking of his? Evidence enough that a connection already exists between you if you would allow it.”

Cordelia totally expected the whole biting scenario. Kinda went with the territory of being a vampire’s girlfriend, she figured. “Nobody said anything about me drinking blood. That is so not on my diet.”

“I doubt it would be more than a taste, but a mutual claim requires dual exchanges especially if you wish to benefit from the arrangement.”

That sounded promising. “There are actually some pros on this Pros and Cons list?”

“The council has notated several instances of enhanced reflexes and greater endurance.” On a wry note, Wesley added, “The stamina must come in handy considering the increased libido.”

“Definitely a plus. Anything else? Y’know, eternal youth, maybe?”

“The humans in our case studies all died tragically young.” Wesley scowled. “If longevity is a benefit no one has survived to show it.”

Disappointed, Cordelia shrugged it out. “Just checking.”

“There may be other effects, aspects of demon blood emerging that may be unique to your body chemistry.”

Hesitantly, she asked, “Nothing like bat wings or a tail, right?”

Wesley gaped a bit while trying to judge if she was joking or serious about the question. About to answer that anything was possible, a twinge of guilt kept him true to his word. “There is no precedent for such physical transformation with a human-vampire bond. It is usually some extension of the vampire’s own supernatural abilities or an enhancement of those the human already possesses.”

“An even more awesome me?” A smile teased at her lips brightening into an open grin. “I could so make that work.”

Good God, she was so beautiful, and ingenuous, and tragically focused on her feelings instead of the facts. “There are risks, Cordelia. As a bonded pair your life force is tied to his continued existence. Considering the dangers Angel faces here on the Hellmouth the likelihood that he would meet his end is statistically significant.”

Life without Angel? They had gotten so close, so connected, fell in love. She just assumed that when this whole prophecy thing blew over they would figure it all out. How to be together and build a life that was uniquely theirs. 

“Who says we’ll stick around here? Los Angeles doesn’t have a Hellmouth.”

Once again, Cordelia seemed to see a way past the situation. Wesley reminded her that the big city was not without its own dangers. “Drusilla’s shared vision included something more than just a glimpse of your future with Angel.”

“People in trouble.”

“Presumably, Angel is involved in helping them.”

Cordelia thought about it. “Yes, I suppose. I wasn’t sure at first because I didn’t know then that his soul was secure. I thought Angelus might have been free and going after them.”

Wesley shuddered. “Should that ever happen. . .”

Whether it was confidence or sheer stubbornness, Cordelia’s response eased his tension. “It won’t.” That was one worst case scenario he never wanted to have to deal with face to face.

“Let’s hope Angelus is simply part of Angel’s past. He is nearly two and a half centuries old. It is clear that over time he has developed fighting and defensive skills that have allowed him to survive. There are no guarantees that he will succeed if a stronger opponent comes along.”

“Name any life, any relationship that comes stamped with a guarantee. Life with Angel is way better than life without him.”

“That’s just it, Cordelia. You won’t be able to live without him. Allow this claim to proceed and your existence will be tied to his. Angel’s death would trigger yours.”

“So if Angel ever got staked or put his neck in the wrong place. . .”

“Observers describe it as a severe form of withdrawal that none to date have survived, a slow and painful death.”

Well, that sucked. It really, really sucked, but Cordelia thought of something even worse. “Does it work the other way around if I die? What if Kalesh sacrifices me on her evil altar?”

“Once the bonds of a claim are fully formed nothing can sever them. Presumably, Angel would also feel the same kind of withdrawal. I imagine it would be a hollow existence if he chose to continue. There are only a few documented cases. Most chose the stake rather than fight.”

“That’s not fair. Why should he suffer?”

“That is the point of the bond, Cordelia. Everything you feel is his to feel. Everything he feels is yours. It will draw you infinitely closer to your mate, but it can and will end your life should tragedy strike.”

Death happened. Cordelia had seen enough of it to know she wanted no part of that any time soon. Kalesh and her cronies had their plans, but she had hers. If Kalesh won it wouldn’t really matter for her because it would all be over, and Amolon would turn the world into his own little version of Hell on Earth. Angel wouldn’t be there to stop him, though. Angel wouldn’t be there even if the good guys managed to save the day.

“We’re done here, Wesley. I don’t want to hear any more.”

Failure to persuade Cordelia against accepting Angel’s claim was not an option. Perhaps he hadn’t painted a bleak enough picture. Was death not enough to convince her?

“Angel has been very protective of you, Cordelia. He seems to care for you a great deal. I cannot deny that. However, I caution you against any hasty decisions.”

The chair grated against the weather-worn flooring as Cordelia pushed it back and rose to her feet. “Thanks for the 411. We can go now.”

“Do you plan to go forward with the claim? There appears to be an involuntary connection that exists at this stage enhancing your physical encounters. Pure instinct may drive Angel forward to enact the ritual that will bind you, for there is no guarantee he will be able to resist the need. It falls on you to accept or deny him.”

Cordelia raised her chin a notch. “That’s easy, then.”

“Is it?” asked Wesley standing up. She had warned him at the start her mind was already made up. Perhaps it had been a futile effort all along. 

“I love Angel. That makes it easy.”

Wesley sighed, “Very well. You must do as your heart demands. Do not hesitate to call upon me for further guidance should you require it.”

“Awkward, but I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Expect a word of advice now and then. Angel is no ordinary vampire. He is for all intents and purposes the acting leader of the House of Aurelius even though he has yet to accept the title of Master. You’ll be bonded as his mate. That change in status comes with risks, perhaps even expectations, that I do not care to imagine.”

“Don’t worry about it, Wes.”

“Naturally, I worry about it. There is no precedent for this. I am afraid for you.”

“Me, too.” Her admission stunned him, yet it was honest as always. “So you plan to keep an eye on me, right?”

Was Cordelia asking because she knew it was part of the job? He would do so because it was necessary for her sake. “I’ll be watching.”

“Fine. Just don’t say anything about this to Angel until I’m ready. Don’t interfere.”


Scenes 181 – 190        Home       FanFiction Home     Scenes 201 – WiP


To Be Continued . . .

Season of Solace is my current Work-in-Progress.
Last Update: 28 September 2019
New scenes will be added soon. Watch this space.


 

4 Comments »

  1. Thoroughly enjoying your continuation of Season of Solace. GO GIRL. I know how much hard work goes into these stories, even though they are a labor of love. Your efforts are appreciated!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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