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Title: Kiss Me Deadly
Author: Jennifer-Oksana (jenniferoksana@yahoo.com)
Website: http://www.imjustsayin.net/jennyo
Rating: NC-17
Spoilers: Second Season AtS
Archive: All list archives, others ask permission.
Summary: A late night phone call leads Wesley into a strange case with unpleasant consequences. Wesley/Other with hints of UST all around.
Disclaimer: Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt created the characters. Tim Minear makes them great. I own nothing, and I'm not looking for any of the profits, so please don't sue.


Chapter One

It all began on a hot August night in Los Angeles, city of dreams, city of angels, and city of noirish, hardboiled prose. We were all hanging about in the hotel after hours, mostly because everyone who wasn't Angel lived in a part of the Greater LA area that was subject to the rolling blackouts that made living in California such an adventure.

Oh, well. It was better than hearing about the various diseases of cows.

The phone rang long we'd called it a day. Cordy and Gunn were busy fighting over what to watch during commercials on the cheap thirteen-inch TV I'd brought over from my apartment to appease their attention spans. Fred had a late-night lab, and Angel was off prowling or mourning (we were never sure which), which that left me to answer it.

"Angel Investigations. Wesley Wyndham-Price speaking," I said into the receiver.

"Oh, thank God," a light, breathy voice replied. "I'm so glad to have reached you. I understand y'all handle cases relating to the occult?"

"Why yes, yes we do," I said. "What do you need, miss?"

"I've been cursed with an ungodly demonic specter meant to destroy my peace and take my life," she said. Then she laughed. "Oh, hell, that sounds like I'm from 1857. But I'm not joking. I've been cursed, it's a damned pain in my ass, and I need help or I may end up dead."

She had a cute voice. And she had a real problem--one that was definitely in the expertise of Angel Investigations.

"I would be more than happy to take your case, ma'am. Do you need immediate assistance, or could you wait until tomorrow around, er, two?" I asked.

"Tomorrow would be absolutely fine, Mr. Wyndham-Price," the woman said. "You're located in the Hyperion Hotel, right?"

"Yes, ma'am," I replied. "I'll see you at two, then?"

There was a short pause. "Oh, yes. See you then."

She hung up, and it took me a second to realize that I hadn't gotten her name or any information about her demon.

"Who was that on the phone?" Cordelia asked, wandering into the office.

"A potential client," I replied. "She's been cursed with a demon."

"What kind of demon?" she asked.

"Uh," I equivocated, knowing that I'd failed in my phone duties. "The usual tormenting kind."

"You didn't follow phone procedures, did you?" she asked, arms akimbo. "See, this is why I answer the phone. I know how to get information about potential clients so we're not left hanging."

I tried to look stern and failed.

"Well, you were busy watching television with Gunn," I said, making a serious attempt not to sound half-assed. "She sounds desperate and says she'll be here at two tomorrow."

"That's wonderful. Except for the part where we have an appointment at two tomorrow with that couple who has the demon stalker who talks suspiciously like Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy?" Cordelia asked.

Damn. I had forgotten. No wonder two had seemed such a memorable time.

"Well, you three can go, and I'll stay here and talk to the woman. She said that the curse wasn't immediately deadly, so we can probably work both cases at once," I reasoned. "That way, we can start to diversify our work and increase our profits."

That was the magic sentence. Cordelia started nodding enthusiastically.

"That would be great. We can definitely handle the demon stalker without you. Just make sure to get at least two ways to reach this chick, okay?" she asked.

"Yes, ma'am. And should I chew fifty times with each bite?" I asked.

"Yo! Cordy! The Simpsons is on!" Gunn yelled, happily interrupting the incipient argument.

"I'm going. You do your thing tomorrow and get a deposit," Cordelia said before flouncing out of the room.

I sighed and wiped my forehead. I needed to go home and get some sleep, rolling blackout or not. At least I had a travel alarm clock at home for when the power went out.

Of course, nobody had bothered to leave a fan running when I returned to the office the next morning, so the air was stale and silent and hot. I loosened my tie and went about crossly, turning on a few fans and opening four or five windows.

I finally went into the office and found a book about curses and how to conquer them. Of course, there were as many different ways to defeat a curse as there are to have sex. And, much like sex, it depends on what the circumstances and personalities involved have done and are willing to do.

The front door of the office opened at ten minutes to two while I was engrossed in my fascinating study of curses.

"Hello?" the breathy voice from the previous night called. "Hello, is this Angel Investigations?"

She had the slightest touch of a southern accent, which I'd always found enchanting and romantic. I stood up and hurried into the lobby. I promptly stopped and tried not to stare.

I've seen many beautiful women in my life, but I've rarely seen such a perfect combination of youth, confidence, and luminescent beauty.

The woman before me was remarkably beautiful. She had glossy, dark brown hair that fell sleekly against her head with a saucy little flip up at the bottom. Her skin was pale but warm-toned, not pink and white like most pale women. Her nose was distinctive, but in a good way, not in the way people mean when they say distinctive and mean big. As far as I could tell, her body was similarly flawless, but being neatly encased in a navy blue suit, there was no way to tell without being obvious about staring.

But really, it was her eyes that drew me in. They were blue, almost sapphire blue, with a strange exotic shape to them that looked feline. Besides that, they glowed. I chalked it up to a trick of the light.

"Yes," I said in a voice that sounded like a schoolboy's strangled gasp. "This is Angel Investigations. I'm Wesley Wyndham-Price. I believe we spoke on the phone last night?"

She smiled, revealing perfect white teeth.

"Of course," she said. "I'm Corinne Reidinger, and I am so glad that you were able to meet with me today, Mr. Wyndham-Price."

I nodded hastily.

"Of course, Ms. Reidinger. I'm just sorry the rest of my staff wasn't here today to meet you. They're out on another case, demon stalker, nasty business," I said, hoping I wasn't babbling. "Come, let's sit down in my office. Can I get you something? A coffee, perhaps?"

"Do you have tea, maybe?" she asked. "Or a nice iced water would be fine if you don't have tea."

"I can get you a tea, of course," I said as she glided past me into the back office. I hurried over to the counter with our Mr. Teapot and poured a mug of warm tea for Ms. Reidinger. "Do you take sugar or cream?"

"One lump of sugar," she called back from the other room. I nodded and poured a packet of sugar into the mug and quickly stirred, sloshing a little onto the counter. I wiped off the mug with a napkin and tried to look dashing as I walked into the room.

Of course, I was rather denied that desire when I caught a glimpse of Ms. Reidinger's legs. They were long and shapely, wickedly encased in sheer black stockings. I hoped fervently that my jaw didn't drop. They were simply so--so-- attractive.

"Here's your tea. I hope I didn't use too much sugar for you. We only have the packets, no sugarcubes," I apologized, sitting down behind the desk without stumbling. "So, let's discuss your case, Ms. Reidinger. You've been cursed recently?"

Ms. Reidinger sighed sadly. "Unfortunately, yes," she said, with a half-smile. "I should have seen it coming, but I had tried so hard to prevent this from happening."

"What happened? What was the cause of your curse?" I asked, fumbling around and finding a pen and legal pad to write notes with. Ms. Reidinger waited until I had managed to uncap the pen and open the pad to a clean page before continuing with a deep breath.

"It's all because of my money," she said. "See, I inherited my aunt's estate about six months ago, and my cousins were not happy about it. My Cousin Laura was particularly angry with me, probably because I celebrate my life, while she locks herself in a room in the house and glowers at all the sin in the world. We were in a terrible fight right after the will reading."

"My word," I said sympathetically. "So you believe that your affliction is the work of your cousins?"

"I'm very sure of it," Corinne said, dabbing at the corners of her eyes with a nice white handkerchief.

"I'm not interested in vengeance or a family reunion, Mr. Wyndham-Price. I just need this nightmare to be over so I can get on with my life."

I hastily jotted down some notes about the situation and nodded. There was something about this woman, an aura of confidence, power, and youth that made her intoxicating. I understood immediately why a jealous cousin would attack her.

Lewis, the brother, was strange, too. From what Corinne wasn't saying, it seemed he preferred the company of men, but had refused that because of Laura's interference. Both wildly disapproved of Aunt Veronica, who drank too much brandy and read trashy romance novels Corinne procured for her. The hostilities had not stopped even when Corinne went to college.

Finally, years of polite rage spilled over into open war at Aunt Veronica's funeral eight months ago. Corinne, sure that Laura had helped Aunt Veronica along to her final reward, had gotten into a bitter fight with her cousin at the wake. That had been bad enough, but the final break came when Aunt Veronica's will was read, revealing that the bulk of her possessions and money, including the house, was now Corinne's.

"Laura went insane," Corinne confessed. "She called me every nasty name in the book and then told me that she would do all in her power to make sure I would never enjoy Aunt Veronica's legacy. I knew she would, too, so after that, I discreetly told my lawyer in Alabama to allow Laura and Lewis to stay on my property, and then I took off after securing about a hundred grand in ready cash for myself. I didn't want Laura to find me until she'd cooled off."

"It appears she hasn't cooled off yet," I said astutely.

"No," Corinne said. "Three weeks ago, I discovered a rather ghastly thing following me on a date. I couldn't see its face, but it was wearing a dark brown burlap robe. Also, no visible feet. My date and I thought it was some sort of Tom Green Show type thing, you know? Like they were trying to get a rise out of us. But we tried to ignore it. We got back to my apartment and started, um, fooling around. That's when the thing manifested itself and started getting ugly and pus-covered. It scared my date right out of the house."

"I should imagine," I said quietly.

"Yes," she said with irritation clear in her voice. "I should imagine indeed."

"You seem fairly unfazed by the existence of demons," I commented.

"The Whittiers are all about magic. They're old money in the world of the occult. I got unfazed back when I was thirteen," Corinne replied. "Anyhow."

"Yes, anyhow. These visitations and harassments have continued?"

Corinne nodded mutely. "At first, it was only when I was on a date. Then it became more often. Now I can barely go to the supermarket without the demon following me about, menacing me. He's also made it very clear that if I do something he doesn't approve of--namely, fool around--he will kill me."

"A demon duenna of sorts, then," I said, feeling stupid even as the words came out of my mouth.

"Yes, exactly. Just the sort of petty retribution I'd expect from Laura," Corinne said with a snarl. "You can help me, can't you?"

She looked so sweet and so in need of rescuing that I would have said yes to her if she had asked if I could beat up Angel for her.

"Of course," I said bravely. Then I remembered something. "Where is your demon, anyhow? Shouldn't it be here?"

Corinne glanced over her shoulder casually, apparently also unfazed by being followed around by a hideous demon duenna who disliked her being near men.

"Oh, he's not here," she said lightly. "I think he gets queasy when he smells vamp, and your place reeks of vamp. No offense, of course."

"None taken. One of our employees--the Angel of the firm's name--is a souled vampire," I explained. "He lives in the hotel."

"How very modern and tolerant!" Corinne said with another stunning smile. "You're not afraid he might turn on you?"

"Not at present," I said. "I think we're through here, Ms. Reidinger. I don't want to take up your entire afternoon."

"Corinne," she said. "I insist."

"My apologies, Corinne," I said, trying to smile. "May I show you out?"

"That would be great," Corinne said. I stood up and helped her out of her chair and into the lobby. My heart had sped up for no reason, though I noticed her skin was very, very soft. "It was lovely to meet you. Thank you so much for all that you're doing for me."

"Oh, well, it's part of the burden of being one of the good guys," I said, trying not to blush. "We'll try to get rid of your problem as quickly and discreetly as possible, Corinne."

"I do appreciate that," she said, unhooking herself from my arm and opening the hotel door. "Thank you, Wesley."

She touched my cheek for just a moment, and then left, closing the door after her. I stared after her as she slid into a cherry-red Mazda Miata and drove off, just as Angel, Cordelia and Gunn arrived from the sewers in the middle of a noisy argument.

"I don't want to hear it! You're both macho idiots!" Cordelia shrieked. "You almost got me killed AND you ruined my new pants."

"We did our best," Angel protested.

"Next time, your best needs to include either telling me not to wear my new pants on a job or keeping said pants clean," Cordelia replied witheringly. "What are you staring at, Wesley?"

"Our new client," I said dreamily.

"Oh, that girl with the demon curse?" she asked. "Did you get her name? And maybe a deposit?"

"She gave me five hundred dollars as a retainer," I replied, still staring out the window. Behind me, Cordelia squealed. "Her name is Corinne. She's got a jealous cousin who set a demon duenna on her."

"What's a duenna?" Cordelia and Gunn asked in chorus.

"A chastity belt with teeth," I replied. "Anyway, it's become more menacing lately. She wishes for us to exorcise it from her life."

"For a five hundred dollar deposit, I'll even babysit it for her if she wants," Cordelia said enthusiastically. "What's her name again? Karen?"

"Corinne," I said superciliously.

"She must be a superbabe, whatever her name is," Gunn said casually. "You practically got your nose pressed up against the glass."

He was right and I must have looked ridiculous. I hastily turned around and walked away from the door. Everyone (which is to say, Cordelia and Gunn) was smirking at me, except for Angel, who looked puzzled. Not that this was a new look for Angel, but it looked more like a concerned puzzled than the normal clueless puzzled.

"What's wrong?" I asked, mostly because I was the only one who noticed the thought tooling around in his head before it had a chance to go away.

"That demon duenna thing," he said slowly. "I've heard about that somewhere. I can't remember when. It's bothering me."

"We'll find it when we're researching. Maybe that'll help you remember," I said.

"Maybe," he said dubiously. "So, she gave you a five hundred dollar deposit? Really? Five hundred?"


Chapter Two

The key to defeating any demon, no matter how big or burly, is proper, extensive, and painstakingly thorough research. Failing that, one should find a very large weapon--the deadlier, the better. After fondling Corinne's money extensively, we all got down to the task of trying to prevent use of deadly weapons. It was not going to be particularly easy. The demon sounded like the violent type, as far as we could tell. Of course, what we knew wasn't much. Using Corinne's rather sketchy physical description of the demon, and her more concrete description of its behavior, we started our search.

Cordelia, who was in one of her famous "moods," snapped and swore if anyone got within five feet of her. She immediately took the desk and would not be moved. Thus, after a few delicate attempts at pleasantries, I was driven over to the couch where Gunn was rapidly paging through a seven-hundred-year old demonology carelessly and with dirty fingers. I pretended not to see the dirty fingers.

"I don't know how you did this for a living, man," he said as I sat down next to him. "It's slow and you have to pay attention to every detail."

I decided not to mention that not paying attention to details was far more important in battle, when a missed detail could kill someone, as compared to sloppy research. Besides, he had a point. Research can be painfully boring if you're not interested in the subject.

"There are worse jobs," I said. "Cleaning up demon slime, for instance."

"Word," he agreed. "So, what did this Corinne girl look like?"

Of all people, I had not expected Gunn to be the one interested in my obvious and humiliating infatuation with Corinne. It seemed much more a Cordelia concern, except that Cordelia was in a terrible mood and was much more interested in doing battle than doing gossip.

"Why?" I asked, turning past a section about Norse war demons in my own research tome. That was not what I was looking for at all, unless Cousin Laura had convinced Allfather Odin that Corinne had desecrated one of his shrines. "She was extremely attractive, but she's a client."

"Not forever," he pointed out pragmatically. "And you got it bad, English."

"That's not good," I replied, ignoring the joke I had just made. "There is such a thing as professional behavior--"

"Not when none of us has a PI license," Cordelia called from across the room. "When are you going to get one, Wes?"

She should not have been able to hear us. We had been talking rather quietly and Cordelia was blasting the stereo and forcing us to endure her music, if you could call it that. It was part of our office agreement. Everyone got to inflict their music on everyone else as long as they endured the other three nights without bitching.

"Six months after you do, Cordelia," I replied. I turned back to Gunn, who had a knowing smirk on his face.

"Anyhow, as I was saying--" I began again.

"She was hot."

There was no denying it. Besides, it would annoy Cordelia and I was tired of her mood already.

"Oh, my word, yes."

Cordelia glared. I still had absolutely no idea how she could hear us that far away. Probably her mood enhanced her hearing, though I had no idea how that worked physiologically.

"We love you, Cordy," Gunn called to her.

"Fuck off and die, Gunn," Cordelia replied airily.

"Children, please," Angel said, emerging from the office. "There's no need for insults. How's the research going?"

We all grimaced. Angel sighed. He knew that meant he'd have to start helping with the books very soon.

"Bleh," Cordelia said irritably. "Do you know how many ugly, pus-covered demons there are out there?"

"Are we including Hollywood agents?" Angel asked, trying to sound hip and failing miserably.

Cordelia faked a smile. "No, I don't think so."

"Corinne mentioned that she believed it didn't like vampires," I called over to them.

"Most demons don't," Angel replied. "We rarely win popularity contests. We're too pretty for those ugly lumps."

I sighed and shook my head. I could never tell when Angel was joking.

"This one gets queasy near vamps. At least, that's what she said. Is that narrowing it down any?" I asked hopefully.

Cordelia and Angel both favored me with sour-faced glowers. Apparently not. I shrugged. It had been worth a shot. We all went back to our research for another half an hour before Gunn interrupted us again.

"I think I got it," Gunn said. "Man, that thing is ass-ugly."

"Don't you mean butt-ugly?" Cordelia asked.

"No, I mean ass-ugly. You got to see this thing."

I glanced over his shoulder and shuddered. Ass-ugly was putting it lightly. Not only did the thing drip pus, it was a most unhealthy yellow-green and its face featured long tusks and the most hideous nose I'd ever seen on a demon. It was also floating in its hand-colored rendering. You just can't beat the fourteenth century for craftsmanship.

I adjusted my glasses and started to read the entry. There had been some extremely poor use of Latin, but it wasn't terribly difficult.

"It's a Ayanavi demon," I announced to Cordelia and Angel. "It's historically called up to protect families from illicit couplings."

"Wow, it really is a chastity belt with teeth," Gunn said. "If my date had that following her around, I'd have to discreetly go the other way as fast as I could."

Cordelia was fuming, of course. Can you blame her? With as many demon impregnations and near-impregnations as she'd suffered, the idea of demon intervention in a woman's sex life immediately napalmed her last working nerve.

"I bet it only 'protects' girls," she said. "We can't have daughters doing any illicit coupling, oh, no. But I'm SURE if the sons snuck off for a little illicit couple, there was no Aveda demon waiting with teeth and claws and pus--"

"Ayanavi," Angel corrected her. "And actually, there are a few good reasons to occasionally call them up."

"Name one," Cordelia said angrily. Gunn and I watched from the couch for the impending fireworks. Angel had to have known he was screwed by that point, but he pretended he didn't. It was actually quite brave of him. We were somewhat impressed.

"I was in India when a family was being tormented by an incubus that a rival clan sent to seduce and brutalize their six daughters. The Ayanavi proved plenty useful then," Angel said. "You ever had an incubus after you? Those things--they're just insatiable. So the Ayanavi can be useful."

"Except for the part where female chastity was valued not for itself, but as a male asset that had no respect for women's feelings," Cordelia replied. "See, if those girls were free to discover their own romantic relationships, then the rival clan wouldn't have sent the incubus, and thus, no need for the Ayanavi thing."

It was time to break them up before something was broken.

"In any case, this is what's following Corinne about. We have to stop it," I said. "It's most urgent."

"Agreed," Gunn said. "How do we do that? Kill the Ayanavi, I mean."

"Wait," Angel said. "Before we run around, killing the Ayanavi, we should find out whoever did this to our client. There could be a good reason that she doesn't know about."

"Whatever," Cordelia replied. "Tool of the patriarchy."

"No, he's right," I said. "And perhaps rational discussion can convince Corinne's family to remove the curse of their own free will, requiring us to do less bleeding."

Again, I had the magic words to unlock Cordelia's heart.

"Okay, I'm for that," Cordelia said. "So, do you know where Corinne's family is? The Valley, maybe? Can we go over and talk to them tonight?"

"They live in Birmingham. Alabama," I said.

"So we'll call them," Angel amended tactfully. "If they have a phone."

We all rolled our eyes at that ridiculous stereotype and went to look up the Whittier's number online.

It did not go well. First, I was the one dispatched to make the call, which was nervewracking with everyone watching. Then to make matters worse, a very deaf old woman answered the phone.

"Is Miss Whittier there?" I asked.

"Speak up, sir. I can't hear you," a rusty old voice croaked at me.

"Is Miss Whittier there?" I asked louder.

"Still can't really hear you!" the old woman called. "I'm sorry, I'm a trifle deaf in this ear--let me change ears--"

I paused. Then I gathered all the loud I could gather and poured it into the receiver.

"IS. MISS. WHITTIER. THERE?" I roared.

"Miss Whittier?" the old coot asked.

"Yes? Is she there?" I asked, almost in tears.

"Well, of course," she replied. "But I'm afraid Miss Whittier is not receiving calls at this hour, sir. You should try back tomorrow."

Tomorrow immediately seemed like ten years away. I could not wait that long. After all, Corinne needed help immediately, not tomorrow, not the day after. So I insisted.

"It's about her cousin!" I cried desperately. "Please, ma'am, I must speak with Miss Whittier."

There was a sudden silence on the other end of the line. Thank God. I had won the battle with the deaf old bat.

"Just a moment. But you had best not be lying," a cross voice informed me. I immediately recovered my good sense.

"No, ma'am."

There was another agonizingly long pause as I waited for Laura Whittier to answer the phone. When she finally did, I knew that I was in for it. There was even something antagonistic in her silences.

"Where's Corinne?" she asked without pleasantries. "And who is this calling at this hour?"

I knew for a fact that it was only nine-thirty in Alabama, but I let it slide. I needed to keep this woman in some semblance of a good humor if I had any hope of doing this simply.

"My name is Wesley Wyndham-Price, I'm with a detective agency. Your cousin has hired us to--"

Unsurprisingly, Laura interrupted me in mid-sentence.

"Where's Corinne, Mr. Wyndham-Price?" she asked sharply. There was no chance I was going to get this woman in a good humor during this phone call. "Where is she?"

Inexplicably, I got angry at Laura's questions. Who did this woman think she was, driving a family member to the desperation Corinne was in? What right did she have to tell Corinne how to live her life?

"Far away from you," I hissed angrily. "She is a young woman trying to live a full life, without your petty, bitter interference."

There was an almost amused silence, punctuated by a snort. I got a hold of myself. That was no way to behave if I wanted Laura to remove the curse.

"Ah. Cory's hired you to get rid of her Ayanavi demon. Fat chance," Laura replied derisively. "It's for her own good, but much more importantly, everyone else's own good."

The anger rose again.

"How dare you?" I sputtered.

"Because, young man, I have some knowledge of what Corinne is capable of--and you do not," she said coolly. I struggled for a second with the desire to leap through the phone and strangle her, but then regained control of my emotions.

"I'm asking you, please remove the curse," I said, trying to calm down. "Do the right thing."

"I am doing the right thing, young man."

That was it. It was time to explain to this old cow exactly what the situation was. I did not need her blessing or consent to help Corinne. I was simply giving her a chance to help her cousin.

"I can remove the curse, with or without you, Miss Whittier," I said icily, suddenly furious again. "I'm giving you one last--"

"No, I'm giving you one last chance, Mr. Wyndham-Price," Laura spit back at me. "If you destroy the Ayanavi demon, the consequences will be on your head. Corinne made her bed--let her lie in it."

I was so angry that I slammed the phone down and rather abruptly ended the call. Everyone jumped back a few feet, even Angel. My anger cooled as suddenly as it had come and I didn't know what had come over me.

"I'm sorry," I said immediately. "The family is not cooperating. We have to take the Ayanavi out ourselves."

The conceited fanatic bitch. I didn't need her help anyway. We were quite competent enough to rid Corinne of the Ayanavi demon.

"So how are we going to do that exactly?" Gunn asked. "I didn't see a ready solution in the book."

I ignored him. "It's not going to be difficult at all. We'll simply have to be ready to give it our all."

"All right, then," Gunn said. "So what's the plan?"

I stared at him. "Plan?"

All three of them stared at me like they'd never gone off half-cocked before.

"Wesley, do you think it's possible that you're getting just a little too into this case?" Cordelia asked, trying to sound halfway tactful.

"No," I replied. "Let's go."

The warning signs were definitely there. I just didn't see them. I don't know how I didn't see them, but I most definitely didn't see them.


Chapter Three

In the end, it was Cordelia, with a liberal amount of help from Gunn, who formulated the plan that we used to call out and thus eventually defeat the Ayanavi demon. Angel stayed adamantly opposed to the plan, because he was suspicious of why Laura Whittier had sicced one on her cousin, but the rest of us overruled him for various reasons. Cordelia found the Ayanavi demeaning and sexist, Gunn believed in killing demons on principle, and I was full of righteous rage at Corinne's plight.

"So we all understand the plan?" Cordelia asked us for the sixth time on our way to the restaurant. "Wesley, do you understand the plan?"

"Yes, Cordelia."

"Gunn?"

"I got it."

"Angel?" Cordelia asked. "Do you understand the plan?"

"Of course, Cordelia," Angel replied.

"What is your part in the plan?" she asked, relentless in the pursuit of perfection. Good thing, too, because the rest of us needed that relentlessness.

"I crush the Ayanavi demon's head with a mallet when he appears after Corinne drives Wesley into an uncontrollable lust--which should take about twenty seconds."

"Hey!" I cried.

"He's got a point," Gunn replied.

I sulked the rest of the way to the restaurant. At the time, I thought I was being proud and silent, but I was simply sulking. I was also plotting what I would say to Corinne. She had a script to follow, too, but her part was not nearly as difficult as mine. All she had to do was smile and I would melt. I had to maintain a façade of calm until Angel could crush the slimy Avayayaya (why did demons always have to have such damned ridiculous names?) into distant memory.

Corinne had selected the restaurant, a trendy little place near the beach in Santa Monica. That way, she'd explained to me as I held on to the counter with both hands, we didn't have to be so formal. Besides, the mahi-mahi was to die for.

"Wesley, have you listened to anything I've said for the past six blocks?" Cordelia asked, cutting through my delusions.

"Follow the plan," I said.

"You just guessed that," she accused.

"I was right, though," I said as Angel tried to find parking--not always the easiest proposition in Santa Monica, especially for his gigantic car.

"So?"

The restaurant was surprisingly unproblematic. In another stroke of genius, Corinne had suggested that we have dinner on a weeknight, thus saving us from needing reservations or fighting crowds. The maitre d' was more than glad to seat Cordelia, Gunn, and Angel immediately and to point me to the table where Corinne was waiting.

"Wesley," she said in a voice that was somehow deeper than the last time we'd spoken. "I'm so glad you're here."

She stood up, and I kissed her on the cheek. "You look wonderful," I said. "I love your dress."

I did love the dress. It was vaguely 50's-style, black with white polka dots everywhere. I could take her dancing in that dress and she would look wonderful, and the dress skirt would fly up and--

I had to focus. I was here to save this woman from a hideous demon, not to wine her, dine her, and take her home for dessert.

"You are so sweet," she said. "This is an old rag I've had since before college."

"You look fabulous in it. Have you ordered any wine yet?" I asked, holding out her chair for her. Across the restaurant, Cordelia and Gunn rolled their eyes.

"Yes, they recommended a merlot that I'm very fond of. Do you like merlot?" she asked, the dusky tones of her voice taking on a strange significance. "I've always loved it."

"Yes, merlot is the queen of wines," I said, agreeing with her voice. "Though what sort of fish goes well with merlot? I was always raised to believe one has white wine with fish."

Corinne laughed. "You are too damned civilized. What sort of fish goes with merlot? Hmm. I don't know. We should ask the waiter, shouldn't we?"

"Mais oui," I said, wishing like hell that I hadn't.

"Oh, now you have the advantage of me, Wesley," she said, a devilish grin crossing her face. "The only French I know is voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir."

I immediately started choking. I had to grab the napkin from the plate and cough into it as my face got hot and probably turned the most unappealing shade of red.

"What's wrong?" Corinne asked.

"I swallowed the wrong way," I gasped. "I'm sorry."

I sat up again and tried to smile.

"You look like you could use some wine. There's our waiter, I'll flag him down," she said. Before I could protest, she had pulled the man aside, and given orders for him to bring us a goblet of water and a bottle of wine.

"Thank you," I said after taking a careful drink of water. "I don't know what came over me."

"Call it a momentary lapse," she suggested with a wicked growl catching her voice. "I'll forgive you this time, but next time, I may have to do something."

There was a question I was supposed to ask, but I didn't ask it. It was simply too obvious. Instead I took another long drink of water. Corinne looked at me and if I hadn't known that we were just trying to evoke her demon, I could have sworn she was interested in me.

"I didn't realize you were so quiet," Corinne said at last. "I'm not used to having conversations alone."

"I'm not really quiet. Just trying to make sure that I won't choke to death trying to pay you another compliment," I replied.

We were playing a game, a game that I'd grown very good at during my time in Los Angeles. Except for that extraordinary aura around her, Corinne could have been any one of a dozen or two beautiful women smiling at me over a glass of merlot, or a cosmopolitan, or a pint of Guinness--one gets the picture almost immediately. This was not merely a beautiful woman overwhelming a man. This was two experts playing the most dangerous game.

"Maybe you should stop thinking so hard about compliments and concentrate on breathing," Corinne said, widening her eyes ingeniously. "It's really easy. All you have to do is breathe in--" and her breasts trembled-- "And then out."

She slid her foot against my leg in a slow, ticklish way. I smiled at her. I breathed in. And then out. If she wanted to play, I was definitely not averse to playing.

"In and out, hmm?" I asked, raising an eyebrow. "Seems simple enough. In fact, anyone could do it."

"But there's a finesse to it. If you just wheeze--in out in out, you'll get light headed and hyperventilate. No good at all."

She shoved her foot against my leg hysterically to prove her point. I then decided it was time to retaliate and slowly slid my own (unshod by now) foot against her warm, firm calf.

"But the thing is, one shouldn't have to think about breathing. If you're thinking, you're putting too much effort in it," I said, nonchalantly slipping my foot up to her knee and back down again. Her eyes narrowed and she was completely focused on me. It was extremely gratifying.

"You have to be careful, though. Some of us are true virtuosos when we're natural, but others--"

She left the sentence dangling and I leaned forward, keeping her eyes on me.

"There's nothing wrong with a little practice from time to time, but always thinking about breathing is just as graceless as wheezing and hyperventilating. There's the danger of appearing too practiced. As long as you have certain limits and norms, then it should be all about the unheard breath," I said. I could hear her breathing. It sounded very natural--the slightly tense, warm breathing of arousal.

"I like that," she murmured. "The unheard breath."

Unfortunately, we both started hearing breathing then--the asthmatic rasp of what had to be the Ayanavi demon. I looked up, away from Corinne's hypnotic blue eyes.

And into the face of the most hideous creature I had ever seen. Its picture had truly not done it justice. I truly believe that there could never be a picture of an Ayanavi demon because its ugliness would shatter a camera lens.

"Get away from her, mortal," the demon told me in a phlegm-choked voice. "She is not what she seems."

The entire restaurant, naturally, was now staring at us. Did I mention that besides looking like it did, the Ayanavi stunk? My eyes were running with tears from its stench. Corinne looked frozen with terror.

"Get back, foul demon. You have been used for jealous, unrighteous purposes," I said, standing up and trying not to vomit. I've mentioned it stunk, haven't I?

"You have no idea what you're talking about," the Ayanavi said in its eternally stuffy-nosed voice. "This woman is cursed, not by her family, but by her own foolish choices. I have been called to prevent that curse from coming to pass."

"Laura's lying!" Corinne cried. "The curse is a myth! A lie told to deceive frightened children! You're a liar!"

"And so are you," the Ayanavi said. "Mortal, I suggest you leave her. You seem to have some insight into the situation, and I do not wish to cause any creature harm. But I will if I must."

His arms slithered out from the robe, and claws began to retract. I refused to look for any of the others, afraid that I would ruin the plan.

Then it paused.

"What's that stench?" it asked.

"Wesley, duck!" Cordelia screamed.

Not only did I duck, I leapt out and threw my body over Corinne's as Angel hit the Ayanavi's head with a huge metal hammer at its one weak point--thus dispatching the demon and splattering Ayanavi brains over an entire restaurant of trendy Santa Monica diners.

Everyone screamed. I grabbed Corinne's hand and helped her to her feet and we fled the restaurant, just in case the Ayanavi hadn't gone down with the first blow. She ran alongside me, gasping and clutching on tightly to my hand.

My part of the plan was over. It was time for Cordy, Angel, and Gunn to finish business.

"Wow," Corinne said as we finally stopped at the Third Street Promenade. "Do you think we got him?"

"Well, there's one way to find out," I said, pulling her against me and giving her a long, mostly polite kiss. To my surprise, Corinne kissed back, wrapping her arms around my neck and pressing up close against me.

"I think your team got him," she whispered as she pulled away.

"I think you're right," I replied. Then I realized that my shoe was gone. "Shit. I left my shoe at the restaurant. How did you manage to get yours back on?"

"I put it on when you were challenging the demon," she replied with a shrug. "Do you want to go back for it?"

"No," I said. "I think they might string us up for getting demon brains all over their clientele."

"True," Corinne said. "Well, let me take you over to that shoe store and put a decent pair of shoes on your feet."

"Oh, I couldn't ask you to--"

"It's due compensation," she interrupted me. "Don't argue with me, Wesley. And you look absolutely ridiculous standing there with one shoe."

"All right," I said, quickly following as she led us into an upscale men's shoe store and promptly bought me a two hundred dollar pair of leather shoes. She also handed me a check for four thousand dollars for services rendered as we left the establishment.

Cordelia was going to faint with joy.

"Wesley?" she asked as I put the very attractive and slick shoes on and pocketed the check. "Do you swing dance?"

I actually did--I had taken a class during my utterly wasted time in Sunnydale and had actually gotten quite good at it. In my heart of hearts at the time, I had dreamt of taking Cordelia out for a dance--but that was before we realized that it was the impossible dream.

"Yes, I do. Why?" I asked.

"Come on. We're going dancing," she said, grabbing my hand. "But first, to make up for the dinner that I owe you, we're going to the In'N'Out Burger. And we're going to splurge on chocolate shakes."

"But my friends--"

She started giggling manically and half-dragged me down the crowded street--probably, I figured, toward her car.

"They're grown-ups, Wesley," she said in a tone of mock exasperation. "I think they can handle being without your company for an evening. I can't."

I equivocated a moment--but who was I kidding?

"Of course, Corinne," I said, taking her arm promptly and properly. "Whatever you want."

Most of the rest of the evening was a blur. We did end up at In'N'Out, and Corinne surprised me by ordering a Double-Double with fries and a shake and finishing all of hers and my leftovers.

"I can't stand a girl without an appetite," she said, stealing another French fry from my dinner. "It's nauseating to watch those girls lust over a great piece of meat without touching it just because they've been told some unnatural standard of repression is what they should behave like."

My mother had never been able to get me to eat properly. I simply forgot to do it half the time and never finished large portions. I stared at her and imagined double entendre into her chatter about girls and meat.

Then it was off to some trendy, exclusive, and no doubt expensive swing club in the hills. I didn't catch exactly where we were, or what the name of the club was. Mostly, I remember the drive up, and Corinne singing (very badly, I might add) along to "Blame it on the Bossa Nova" turned up to eleven.

Corinne could dance, too. My God, she could dance. There are several half-remembered moments of the evening where her warm skin brushed against mine before I threw her around my waist for the millionth time. For such an exclusive club, they played a little too much Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and not enough Glen Miller or Royal Crown Revue for my taste. But it didn't matter. Between martinis, I had the most beautiful woman in the world in my arms, and I was intoxicated as much by her as by the gin.

But that is not so much what I remember. What I remember is arriving at her home, a beautiful Spanish-style place on Sunset, and being surprised to be there.

"This isn't my apartment," I said. "I'm in a much less posh part of town where the poor people live."

I laughed a little at my own bad joke. Then I felt Corinne brush against my back.

"I thought you might come in and have a nice cup of coffee or two to sober up a little," she said, and it seemed to me that her accent had gotten much thicker since earlier that evening.

"Good plan," I agreed. "But I don't know where we're going."

"Don't worry," she said, hooking herself around my arm. "You just leave all the details to me."

I realized, stumbling into her custom-designed kitchen, that we were still playing. Only this time, she had the advantage in the game because I thought it was over at the restaurant. I had apparently been wrong, which was just fine with me.

"You're a very good dancer," I said, sitting down on one of the sleek, modernist chairs. The table was glass, which I didn't really like, but it suited her somehow. "Very enthusiastic."

"I don't like to do things by halves," she said, sitting down with two cups of coffee. "And you aren't bad yourself."

"I'm desperately out of practice," I replied self-deprecatingly. My drunken brain was actually managing to speak properly, which was a miracle. "You, however, are an artist. Art in motion."

She smiled at me again (was that the only thing she knew how to do?), and stroked her neck lazily. Then she yawned.

"Do you hear that line all the time?" I asked.

"Not quite every day, but often enough," she said wickedly. "Probably about as often as you hear about how deliciously edible your accent is."

"They rarely call it edible, but I understand," I said, ignoring my coffee and rubbing my temples.

"You all right, Wes?" she asked. "You look like you need to lay down."

I had realized, in a brilliant flash of drunken logic, that if the two of us didn't stop showing off our well-honed seduction skills, we'd be seducing each other until dawn without actually moving one kiss closer to the main event. It was time to be crudely, breathtakingly honest.

"I don't need to lay down," I said, reaching out and grabbing her wrist. "I need to be honest with you. Corinne, I think you're fucking gorgeous and right now, I would like to seduce you without all the clever talk or games."

Her laugh was low and liquid, rippling across the space between us.

"How do you do that?" she asked, shifting a little in her hard, angular chair.

"Start like this," I said, pulling the tip of her index finger into my mouth and caressing it for a moment. Then I leaned over and kissed the palm of her hand, and (seriously straining my gut) then moved down to her wrist and the soft parts of her inner arm. "Then you just keep moving up."

Corinne abruptly pulled her wrist away with a quick gasp.

"Come with me," she whispered, standing up and practically knocking the chair over. I promptly managed to knock a chair over and follow Corinne up a set of impossible long stairs into a dim bedroom. The window was open and there was a slight breeze. The drunken part of my brain marveled at that while the rest of me couldn't think at all.

"I want you so much," she whispered into my ear, gently wrapping her arms around my neck and pulling the earlobe into her mouth and toying with it with her tongue.

My God, she wanted me? I wanted her with every pulsating cell in my body. My arms slid around her waist, trying to figure out a way to get that dress off her skin. I wanted her skin, to feel it, to taste it. And I wanted it now.

I pulled away from her tongue and pulled on her dress like an impatient three-year-old. She laughed and helped me pull it over her head, tossing it aside like a used party favor. We started kissing again, her lips tugging and pulling against mine playfully, her hands fitfully untucking my shirt and then smoothing it against my back. During a short break from the oral warfare, I quickly unbuttoned it and threw it aside to rest with her dress, and then she tugged me onto the waiting bed.

"Wow," I managed to gasp before I began nibbling down her neck to that delicious spot where the neck meets the shoulder. Beneath me, Corinne arched her back and moaned, wriggling purposefully. Her hands were on my ass, trying to put me exactly where she wanted, but I was busy try to get her bra off and was temporarily ignoring her request.

"You're bein' mean," she whimpered as I succeeded in removing the offending article of clothing and tossing it aside. I leaned over and kissed her on the neck.

"Am not," I replied, then proceeding to trace spirals into her breast with my tongue and then down from there. She moaned and started shimmying her hips, her hands digging into my back. Her fingers were so hot that they felt like they were burning and each breath was punctuated by a teensy whine.

"Please," she whispered, pulling me upward again, meeting my hips with a sudden motion from hers. "Oh, God, please."

My fingers fumbled at my belt, realizing that I was still half-dressed and somewhere in all of the tasting, she had lost her last remaining shred of clothing. That was manifestly unfair, I reasoned, trying to get rid of what I was wearing. After watching me fumble about for a moment, Corinne suddenly decided to help, attacking the buttons with her greedy fingers, pulling everything away in one fell swoop.

"Better," she said.

"Much better."

She fell against me then, her hips slamming against mine as her mouth went on another search and destroy mission, working a steady path of devastation from my jaw to my lips. My brain slowly registered the fact that we were on the verge of serious, no-turning-back action, and I pulled away for another second, to Corinne's whimpering displeasure, trying to find my pants.

"What?" she asked.

"My condom is in my pants," I said, trying to find the damn thing before I killed the mood. Corinne whimpered. I frantically grabbed my pants and found the condom, feeling like a character out of a teenage sex comedy.

"Oh, God," she growled, throwing her head back. "Oh, God, now."

I took that to be an order, finished fumbling around, and immediately stopped thinking about any other matter except being inside of her. I slid into her and for a moment, couldn't think about anything except for being there forever. Then I moved back and slammed into her again.

"Harder," she hissed into my ear, her thighs clamped against me, hips meeting mine in a slightly off rhythm. I did exactly what she wanted, and thrust harder, trying to figure out the way she moved, to adjust for that motion. I couldn't think. Didn't need to. She was moving her hips and whatever she was doing, it felt fantastic.

I groaned, and immediately started moving faster, before she could order me to do that, too. She started gasping, quick, high-pitched little sounds that buzzed in my ear. I was going to lose my mind.

"Ooooh," she whimpered. "Oooh, God-- I'm gonna--ooh, God--"

Her fingernails were claws all of a sudden, dragging against my skin, and they hurt, but it was an exquisite kind of hurt. It inspired me--if that's the word. But suddenly, her legs were behind her ears and I was moving like a madman, no thought at all, just her warm body and my warm body and a tiny bit of pain to make the pleasure perfect.

Corinne started wailing, a high-pitched, animal cry. I didn't understand why. Then I realized that she had stopped wailing and started gasping and convulsing around me.

"Ohmygod, oh my God, oh my God, oh Goddddddddddddddddddd--"

I kept thrusting in and out, not knowing who was praying, her or me. All I knew is that I didn't ever want to stop. Not ever. I wanted it to be now, forever and ever now, moving against this body, now--

The earth moved.

I think it literally did, though I was too busy moaning and all of the other business of coming to see if that was the case or if it was just an extraordinarily good orgasm. I managed to get in a long, shuddery gasp before I found my head laying against her warm, sweaty skin.

"Wow," she said softly. "Wow."

"Yeah," I said with a tiny cough. "Definitely."

I needed to stand up for a second.

Dazed, gasping for breath, and dizzy, I staggered to the bathroom and then staggered back to the bed and collapsed on it. Then I immediately fell asleep.

I didn't get to sleep long. I suddenly woke up to find Corinne lying on top of me, idly drumming her fingers on my chest. She was smiling.

"I waited an entire twenty minutes before waking you up," she purred. "Are you up for another go?"

"Good God, Corinne," I gasped. But I wasn't really averse to what she was suggesting. "You're evil."

Her eyes sparkled at me like two naughty candles dancing in a sudden updraft.

"Damn right," she asked, her voice slithering into my ears. "But this time, we should stop being so nice."

She pulled me against her hard mouth again and I was lost, completely and totally lost.

There was not much sleeping done the rest of the evening.


Chapter Four

I only got an hour and a half of sleep before I woke up suddenly, drenched in cold sweat. The air was shockingly cold, and I realized that Corinne was running the air conditioner and that she was not interested in a State of California rebate for conserving energy. Though even for air conditioning, the air was too cold. But perhaps Corinne was worried about it getting Alabama hot today. I didn't know.

I yawned and stretched against the soft bed linens. I was probably late for work. I checked the clock on the elegant little bedside table. Yes, quite late. Then again, with the four thousand dollar check Corinne had given me, I could fail to show up for three days and still be forgiven.

The bed really was extremely comfortable. I sank into it, wondering if Corinne was awake yet or if I should just do the sensible thing and go back to sleep under the warm covers. I turned over to see what she was up to, and discovered that she wasn't there.

I panicked. Where had she gone? Why was she gone? Was she planning to sacrifice me or feed me to her dogs or--

I had to get myself together. Thoughts like that were only my low self-esteem talking. I sternly walked over to a mirror.

"Wesley, you must stop this paranoia. She probably went to get some coffee and as soon as you look around--oh, dear God."

I had caught a glimpse of my eyes in the mirror.

I had to look again. I held on to the slick marble dressing table for support and stared at my reflection in the mirror until I could comprehend what had happened. Oh, dear God, indeed.

They were blue. Not just blue, but that luminous, jewel-toned blue that Corinne's eyes were. They also had the same strange glow to them that hers had, except that on me, the effect was unnatural and almost inhuman.

I stared at them, rubbing my eyes to make sure it was neither the glass nor a trick of the light. No such luck. I was now blessed with baby blues.

"Corinne?" I called, hoping for a second that she was merely in the bathroom. "Corinne?"

No answer. I was hit by a nauseating wave of panic. If I now had blue eyes after my night with Corinne, she had obviously been infected with some sort of curse that the Ayanavi had tried to warn me away from. The curse/virus (because even demons get viruses) was apparently wildly virulent--and what would it hatch into? Was I doomed to some unspeakable fate?

Anxiety attack in full swing, I hastily dressed and fled the now-ominous house without another glance around. I did not want to see Corinne ever again, even though the sensible voice in my head told me that I would have to speak to her some time or other to discuss our problem. But the time needed to be much, much later. Instead, I put on a pair of dark sunglasses I'd borrowed from Angel, flagged down a cab, and told the driver to take me to Caritas.

There are few sights more disturbing than descending into a deserted karaoke bar and seeing its owner doing his accounting while wearing a bright blue satin turban. But that was the sight which confronted me upon entering Caritas. The Host (who I could not think of as Lorne or Krevlornswath or whatever his name was) looked at me and grinned.

"Don't you love the turban? Mekka lekka hi, mekka hidy ho," he said. I looked at him blankly. "Not a big Pee-Wee Herman fan, are you?"

"No."

"Darn. I'm always looking for fellow travelers. And you would make a cute Cowboy Curtis wannabe--even if you don't look a thing like Lawrence Fishburne," the Host said. "So what's your problem? Did she just call you angel in the morning and then slowly turn away?"

"Something like that," I said, sitting down on a barstool and taking off my sunglasses. The Host's jaw dropped. "I need to sing. Immediately."

"No, my friend, you need a doctor to diagnose what she gave to you and get a prescription," he said. "You do know that your eyes--"

I rolled my baby blues expressively.

"Yes," I said crisply. "Obviously."

The Host sighed.

"I'm disappointed in you," he said. "I thought you, of all people, knew the meaning of the words safety first."

I took offense at that. "We were safe. And what do you mean, me of all people?"

The Host fixed me with a knowing glare. "Don't play stupid. You're attractive, polite, and British in Los Angeles. You're seeing more squirrel than a park ranger, or to be more polite, when you're not fighting crime, my friend, you're making time."

Damn. My secret was out. And I had taken such pains to keep it from the others.

"That may be so," I agreed. "But I'm not a fool, man. I think this is something very unusual."

"And not your run of the mill demon STD?" the Host asked.

I needed to clear something up immediately.

"Actually, the demon scene is a little intense for my tastes," I said. "No offense, but it's not my cup of tea. And the lady last night didn't actually appear to be demonic."

"But you still want me to ferret out what happened so that you can discreetly get the blue right out of your eyes before the gang discovers that you've got Casanova tendencies?" the Host asked. "No. If you're still stumped about this girl tonight, bring the gang during business hours, have a drink, have a sing. And let me give you the number for a good doctor. Then, go to work and face the music, though I suggest combing your hair first."

Right, then.

I emerged from Caritas two minutes later, holding a piece of paper for a doctor's office in Orange County ("worse than Hell or the Valley, I know, but he's worth your trouble") and the beginnings of a blinding headache. At least I still had Corinne's check, I thought, feeling about for it and then looking at it just in case it had disappeared or transmogrified.

I needed to call the hotel. Unfortunately, I didn't have any spare change and going back into Caritas seemed like a bad idea. Damn city. Why did it have to sprawl like a Gore Vidal novel? And without any decent public transit, either. I stood there for a second, and just as it occured to me to call collect, Corinne's red Miata sped around the corner and came to a dead stop in front of me.

"Hey!" she said. "Where'd you go? I just went out to get us some Jamba Juice and I thought you needed your sleep."

"Jamba Juice?" I asked, tearing off my sunglasses. Was she mad? "Jamba Juice? When were you going to explain about your little problem that is now MY little problem? After we had an intimate breakfast?"

Her little attitude of friendliness immediately crumbled.

"Oh-kayyy," Corinne said airily. "I see you're grouchy this morning. You probably needed more sleep."

"My eyes are bright BLUE!" I shouted. "They glow! I feel like I'm in the bleeding Dune miniseries! No amount of sleep is going to change that!"

"I like blue eyes," she said, trying to smile again. I glared at her. Realizing I wasn't going to be charmed, she shrugged and dropped into her seat. "Would you please come a little closer? I don't like to shout about my sex life in the street."

I very stiffly walked over to the car door. "Say what you came to say and then leave me alone."

Corinne's face grew sullen and angry. "You're not being very nice," she accused.

"You really expect me to be nice?" I asked incredulously. This woman was absolutely amazing--and not in a good way.

"Maybe after you hear me out," she said. "I realize that you're very upset about your eyes, but it's not what you think."

"You mean I'm not infected with a demon virus that wants to use my body to propagate itself amongst unknowing humans?" I asked acerbically.

Corinne blinked and paused in mid-opening breath.

"OK, it is what you think. But at least it's not some grotesque government bioengineered deal," Corinne said, trying to smile yet again. I got the feeling she'd given the speech before. "Anyway, look, I can maybe help you get uninfected, but I need you to come back and help me."

"Not a chance," I said. "I don't trust you one bit."

"Jerk!" she cried, pouting like a ten year old and jutting her chest out. "I'm not asking you to do anything hard or even unpleasant. And it has to be you."

I knew that whatever she wanted simply could not be good. I began to walk away toward any pay phone to call the hotel and get out of this idiotic situation.

"You know, sooner or later, you're going to come running back," Corinne said, following me. "You'll see when the second part of Asmodeus' curse takes hold. It's not all pretty blue eyes and pouting."

"Go away, Corinne."

"At least let me drop you off at work. I still have your Jamba Juice," she wheedled.

The woman was crazy. I ignored her and kept walking. But she kept on following me. I quietly hoped that she'd get into an accident.

"You're being very immature about this!" Corinne hollered as I turned the corner. I kept ignoring her. We kept up the ridiculous charade of pursuit for two more blocks when I glimpsed salvation in a familiar black convertible. Gunn was waiting in the driver's seat when I ran to meet it.

"What's up, English?" he asked. "The green guy called and said you needed some help. What's wrong with your eyes?"

"We'll discuss it later. For now, let's get out of here as quickly as possible--and please, please lose the girl in the red Miata."

"But your eyes--"

"Gunn!" I shouted. "Later!"

"Right, right," he grumbled. He almost got us killed as he made a noisy U-turn and thundered down the road. I clutched the seat, closed my eyes and forced myself not to look over my shoulder for Corinne's car.

We were on Venice heading for Culver City before I let go of the seats. "Thank you for saving me back there," I said, feeling slightly queasy.

"No problem, Wes. But can you explain why your eyes are blue and you needed saving from that fly rich girl?" he asked.

"She's infected with a demon virus and she--"

Gunn hit the brakes with excessive force and I almost flew through the windshield. He did this mostly because the light had just turned red, but probably also because I had suddenly announced that I was infected with a demon virus. He had the most perturbed look on his face.

"Yo, man--" he began.

"I was safe!" I protested, interrupting violently. Did everyone on earth think I'd slept through personal hygiene courses and ten years of public health news?

"That wasn't what I was asking, but I think you just answered my question," he replied. "So she gave you--glowing blue eyes?"

"And the curse of Asmodeus."

"What's that?" he asked.

"I don't know, but I'm sure it's bad," I said, rubbing my temples. The light turned green and we flew down the road.

"If it makes you feel better, she didn't look like she had a demon virus," he said.

"Not really," I replied. "But thanks for the sentiment."

We drove the rest of the way back to the Hyperion in silence as I tried to remember if I'd ever heard of Asmodeus, his curse, demon sex viruses, or ways to apologize to someone you've insulted with all your being.

There was going to be hell to pay, no matter what I did.

"Man, Cordelia's never going to let you hear the end of this," Gunn added. "Ever."

I smiled a toothy Corinne smile. "A special torture!"

I sank back into the seat and smiled all of the way back to the hotel, thinking of Cordelia's reaction to my little problem. Maybe Corinne would have been a better alternative, after all.


Chapter Five

Cordelia pulled my eyes open for the tenth time. "They're blue!" she exclaimed, still stunned by the discovery.

"I know," I said, trapped in my chair as she prodded away.

"That's so weird," she said, staring at my eyes. "They're really, really blue."

"Yes, I know," I said, almost swatting at her. "It's the sign of the curse of Asmodeus."

"That's not good, is it?" she asked, pulling away from me.

"No," I replied.

"How'd you get it, anyway?" Cordy asked, walking over to the bookshelves and dusting it off with her hand, idly looking for an answer to jump out at her. I was too embarrassed to answer.

"He hooked up with that rich babe from last night," Gunn informed her, breezing into the office. "She apparently has this demon curse that she shared with our boy here."

Cordelia nodded, mouth open. Her hands immediately flew to her hips, ready to tell me how it was. "Now, Wes, I know it's been a while since Virginia, but you know that--"

Not another safe sex lecture. Especially not after being poked and prodded until my eyes watered.

"Look!" I shouted, jumping up from my chair. "I know all about safety! My God, people, I've had more safe sex than either of you! In fact, I've had more sex than everyone in the office combined! I don't really need the lecture about condoms, all right?!"

They gaped at me.

"Wes?" Gunn asked.

"Do you really want me to share my running tally of dates since Virginia and before Corinne?" I asked acidly. "It's a large number. I'm a himbo! I'm a Lothario! I'm a player! I'm a--I'm a--I'm a manwhore!"

Angel and Fred decided to join our little party of Wesley humiliation right at that moment.

"I hope you're charging them properly," Angel said. "There's nothing worse than a rent boy who doesn't know his value."

I had thought Angel was incapable of surprising me. I should have known better.

But that reminded me. I still had Corinne's check for our well-rendered services. I reached in my pocket and pulled out the little piece of paper, slapping it on the desk.

"Speaking of which," I said, trying to sound dignified. "I have the payment. Four thousand dollars."

Everyone stared at me in shock. I realized, belatedly, that I had perhaps been unclear about what the payment had been for.

"For the case," I hissed, turning bright red.

The entire room started breathing again in unison.

"I was going to say," Gunn said.

"Just drop it, okay?" I asked, deciding that it was time to get out of the room before I tried to enchant the floor to open up and swallow me whole. Angel, as per usual, looked confused.

"What's going on?" he asked as I pushed past and slammed the door behind me. I didn't need another round of humiliation, misunderstanding, and more humiliation. Besides, it wasn't necessary. I was sure Cordelia could sum up the situation in a brief, brutal, and degrading way for me. Instead, I found one of the squashy armchairs hidden in a corner and sank into it. Then I buried my head in my hands. I wished I was dead, or still asleep.

It didn't take long for someone to knock on my skull. I looked up, and Fred was kneeling next to me, smiling tentatively.

"Hey, Strange and Wild Girl," I said softly.

"Hey, English," she replied. "Bad morning?"

"Like few I've ever experienced," I said.

She nodded. "You look like you've been through the wringer."

"I didn't get much sleep," I admitted. "And my eyes are Sinatra-colored."

Fred giggled. "You're funny even when you're cursed."

"Thanks. Except I don't feel funny. I feel used."

"Well, she used you and then when you got mad at her, she wouldn't leave you alone," Fred reasoned. "So you should feel used."

That shouldn't have made me feel better, but it did. Just a little bit, but it was enough to calm me down.

"Yeah," I said. "I should probably go home and get some sleep. I have a headache right here--" and I pressed my finger between my eyes. "By the way, you smell really good today."

Where had that come from? Fred looked at me and smiled nervously.

"Okay. Thanks. Accepting that you're tired and the personal comment was Freudian slip or possible curse thing," she said.

"Sorry," I stammered. "I really don't know where that came from. I should go to bed."

Fred nodded quickly. She stood up and patted my head and I smiled at her. She was awfully cute with a great body--maybe someday once she got used to this dimension again, I could take her out for dinn--

Oh. Bloody hell. I realized that I knew what the second part of the curse was. And it wasn't going to be an enjoyable experience, either. Cordelia was going to strangle me. I would probably enjoy it, too, thanks to the curse.

"Fred?" I suddenly asked.

"Yes?" she asked.

"I think I know what the rest of the curse entails," I said, burying my head in my hands again. "I need to go home and go to bed. And perhaps never leave it again."

"Hold that thought," she said, rushing off to get the gang. I shook my head and thought of England. It didn't take everyone long to return to gawk at my misery.

"What's the rest of the curse? Are you going to become a big ugly monster?" Gunn asked. "Like the Ayanavi?"

I rolled my eyes.

"Only symbolically," I said, eyeing the group and hoping that I didn't offend anyone. "You see, while my eyes are the visible manifestation of my infection, the demon virus doesn't propagate through my eyes. It propagates in another manner, and the victim of illness, in this case, me, um--"

"Spit it out," Cordelia snapped. "Some of us have lives."

"It's a demon sex virus," I replied. "I'm going to be under an unholy urge to spread the demon through procreation."

Cordelia immediately moved back five feet. "I'm going home."

"Cordelia," Angel said.

"Oh, no. No no no no no. He said the magic words that Cordy doesn't ever want to hear used together ever ever again. Demon and sex," she babbled. "I will telecommute. I'll find a new job. But he can pass on his demon virus some other way."

"You can't telecommute a vision!" Angel protested.

We all grimaced. Survey said that was a bad answer.

"Watch me!" Cordelia shouted. "Wesley, I can't believe that--you--oh God dammit, Wesley! You dumbass! You know what I mean!"

"Cordelia, I don't think it would come to that," I protested weakly. "And I wouldn't let it, anyway. I'll simply have to stay celibate until we find a way to purge the curse."

She did not look impressed. Of course, she had every right. The situation was uncomfortable, ridiculous, and my fault in every way--well, except for the part where it was all Corinne's fault for not mentioning her demon curse until it was too late. Still, demon-caused or not, a carnal virus was not likely to win me any sympathy from Cordy.

"Great. So you decide to screw another client and this time, you catch a demonic STD that makes you Mr. Lusty. Can we now learn the lesson that we don't screw clients?" Cordy asked acerbically. "Especially the pretty ones?"

"You know, if I couldn't see your nipples in that top, I might take offense at that."

Oh dear God. Cordelia immediately clamped her arms around her chest, which only highlighted her cleavage. "Angel! Can't we chain him to a wall or stick him in a cold shower or something?"

"He's our research guy," Angel replied. "He's probably the only one who can find out why he wants to have lots of sex to propagate this Asmodeus curse."

"Well that's all grins and giggles for you until you're the victim of the demon lust. Because I'm still going home. I've been on the wrong end of one too many demon penetrations to just sit around and take it again," Cordelia replied. "I have NetZero. I can fucking telecommute."

She turned and made for the door. To our surprise, Fred was the one who blocked Cordelia's escape.

"You know, it's not his fault. You know the story. It's not like he did something that was so stupid in advance. And I think that maybe that girl had a--" Fred made an incomprehensible gesture with her fingers-- "Little extra mojo in the Wesley-snagging department."

"You *were* acting like a complete dumbass when it came to her," Cordelia muttered grudgingly. "She probably had you trussed up like a Christmas turkey the minute you laid eyes on her."

That was refreshingly insulting, but at least she wasn't ready to cut my head off with her eyes anymore.

"Thank you for having some sympathy in regard to my awkward and rather humiliating plight," I replied.

"Well, weird demon seductions are my forte. And they suck," Cordelia said. "But I'm warning you. You put one hand on my butt, and I'll knock you on yours."

"Fair enough," I replied. "So, more research, then?"

"And a visit to Caritas," Angel said. "Lorne should know a little something about Asmodean curses, I think. And it'll get the story straight."

"Right," I said, attempting to stand up and failing miserably. "I think I should stay right here for now."

"Maybe you should get some sleep," Fred suggested. "We can research. You look tired."

I was tired, and then I was suddenly so tired I couldn't find the words to speak. I fell asleep almost before I had time to take another breath.

"Damn," Gunn said through the haze. "He's out cold."

"Sounds like he had a rough night," Angel said. "Come on, he needed some sleep anyway."

After that I dreamt, strange, computer-animated dreams where all the sound was turned off. The light streaming around me was blue, and every window I looked out of featured a blue, superfluous sky, which was ridiculous considering that I wasn't inside in my dream. I was walking on a beautiful island that was covered in green grass and ghosts, on a long, winding path.

I saw Corinne about halfway through this dream. She was wearing a black 1940's-style shirtwaist that was covered in red cherries. While I watched her, she reached down and plucked a bunch of cherries from her dress. Then, without provocation, she ate one and popped the stem in her mouth to tie it in a knot.

She was wearing saddle shoes and white bobby socks. It was very becoming. She waved at me and I walked on.

I ended up at the front door of a creaky old mansion. There were rusty nails all over the path and I kept having to dodge them, dancing across the front yard to the dusty porch. I knew, the way one always knows in dreams, that there was something vitally important in that house that I needed to see.

I walked forward, one hand out to open the door, when I was suddenly confronted with--

Cordelia, shaking me awake.

"Come on, Sleeping Beauty, time to comb your hair and sing your heart out," she said, various unsafe parts of her body in my face. Ever since our unfortunate kiss back in Sunnydale, I had considered Cordy like a sister. Now, the demon in me was also pointing out that she was female, and not actually related to me by blood, thus making mine speed up.

"Cordy..."

She looked at our awkward position and jumped back. "I hate your demon. So much. Just for the record."

"I'm not disagreeing," I said.

Caritas was alive with the sound of music when we walked in. The usual Star Wars cantina clientele was busy drinking, and the Host's severed head was as talkative and brash as ever.

"Well look who's here!" he said. "So you're going to sing anyway."

"Yes," I said, sitting down by the box. "Could I get a martini?"

"What does the gang think of your little adventure?" the Host asked as one of the waiters got me a drink.

"He's a complete peckerwood," Cordelia said in passing before sashaying off to our usual table.

"That's about the going consensus," I said glumly. "Anyway, how far back's the line?"

"You'd be third up. How's that sound?" the Host asked.

"Bearable."

"Well, maybe more bearable when you see the girl who's going on right now," the Host said. "Cute as a button. Take a look."

I looked. I waited. I lusted.

A leggy brunette with great hips walked onstage. My jaw dropped for the thousandth time of the day as soon as I recognized her. It was Corinne, and for once she wasn't wearing black. Actually, she was wearing a red plaid skirt and an angora sweater, plus the saddle shoes from the dream. I didn't understand the outfit at all, but I really didn't care.

"Hi," she said shyly into the mike, pretending she wasn't a relentless demon-sex-virus-infected bitch. "This is a song I really like. I hope I don't butcher it too much."

"Cute, hmm?" the Host asked me conversationally. "She says she has boy trouble."

"Yes," I said, setting my drink down on the bar and discovering I'd broken the glass. "I know. See, I'm the boy in trouble."

"Roooooooooooooooooxannnne," Corinne sang shrilly into the microphone. "You don't have to wear that dress tonight--"

She was terrible. Worse than Angel. She could have spoken the song and sounded twenty times better. And she was butchering a Police song. I wondered idly how she knew, in that evil femme fatale way bad dates always know, that I loved the Police.

"Ouch," the Host said. "I'm sorry."

"Rooooooxxxxannnnnnnnnnnnnne!"

We both winced at the disturbingly unmusical cry. Over at the usual table, the rest of the team was making faces and discreetly looking away from Angel. They were all thinking the same thing I was.

"Damn. And here I thought you got a little playful with a cute Liaransvath demon," the Host muttered. "See, when you bite them at--a particular moment, and they release an ink that turns your eyes--among other things--blue for a couple of months if you don't see a doctor. I thought you were just too proud to admit you had a demon thing."

"No, that wasn't it," I said. "At all."

"Apparently not," the Host replied. "At least, not from what I'm getting from your satisfied customer up there."

I shuddered.

"She's actually got a serious crush on you. It would be sweet if she wasn't a serious nutjob out to unleash Asmodeus on the world," the Host said.

I nodded. "That was about my thought. Are you getting anything about Asmodeus?"

"Not much. Sex demon, evil and horny, big on your girl Corinne's list of turn-ons, not really a pleasant guy," the Host said. "Do you still want to sing? Because I've kind of got the story now. Girl meets boy she wants to consecrate to her demon lord, boy and girl hit it off, girl and boy get horizontal, boy discovers new and exciting uses for aromatherapy candles--"

I blanched. I wondered if I could pay the Host not to ever tell any of this to the group. Ever.

"Not unless it's absolutely necessary."

The Host gave me a speculative look. "Not necessary. At all."

"Put on the red light! Roxanne! Put on the red light!" Corinne 'sang.' I've heard car accidents that have sounded more melodic.

"Thank God," I muttered.

"Hey, if it makes you feel any better, I would have done exactly what you did," the Host said.

"Really?" I asked, looking up.

"Well, except for the part with the rubber gloves, but different strokes for different folks, my friend."

I went beet red and quickly excused myself to sit with my friends.

"What are you going to sing? And don't say anything by the Police," Cordelia said. "Cuz, Good Lord, this girl--"

"I don't have to sing," I said.

"Why not?" Gunn asked.

"Because this girl? That's Corinne," I said. Everyone's eyes widened and they nodded seriously.

"Right. Okay," Angel said. "Wesley, why is she dressed like the girl from Twin Peaks?"

"Oh that's who she looks like!" Fred cried. "Yeah, why's she wearing that?"

"To punish me? I don't know," I said.

Finally, Corinne finished her song, and went off to nurse a whiskey sour by her lonesome, if incredibly sexy, little self. I figured that it was as good an opportunity as any to have a little discussion with Miss Reidinger.

"Hello, Corinne," I said. "Cute song."

"Yeah," she said sourly. "So I'm assuming you're not here to offer me a night of unadulterated triple-X passion behind the club. Are you here to lecture me about using you?"

I shrugged, shook my head, and sat down. "I just want to resolve this as painlessly as possible. I don't want to be involved with your demon, Corinne. I don't want any part of what you have in mind. I'd like it and you out of my life."

"All right, then. But is that any reason to treat me like I'm an infestation?" she asked, scowling.

"Well--you gave me a demon virus. Resembling an infestation," I pointed out.

"You don't have to be crude," she snapped.

"Do you know a way to get rid of the curse?" I asked directly.

"Pass it on--in other words, have sex--about six or seven times. Then you either die, become a demon yourself, or you get on with your life. But if you're doing any passing, I want in on that."

I stared at her. "There's no other way?" I asked.

"Not that I've heard. But remember, I like my demon curse, so not really doing much looking."

I stood up. "Fine. Thanks for the help."

I walked back to the others. To my surprise, Corinne followed me. Everyone tried to look natural, but they mostly failed.

"Don't you walk away from me like that!" she screeched. "Wesley!"

"Look, if you don't want to help me, leave me alone," I said. "I don't want to be involved with you or your demon curse."

"But you are involved," she said, trying to grab my hand. Cordelia discreetly stepped on her foot and Corinne squealed. "Ow!"

"Look, lady, we're having a nice evening out with friends. Why don't you go back to your own table and your own friends and leave ours alone?" she asked.

"Why don't you mind your own business?" Corinne asked.

"Because my friends are my business, you demon-virus-carrying person," Cordelia said.

"Corinne," I said, trying to be polite.

"I hope you turn into a giant bird demon and peck her eyes out afterwards," Corinne replied angrily. "If you don't want to help me, fine. But don't expect me to do anything for you otherwise."

The vision in red vintagewear then turned away, walked out, and thundered up the stairs, only pausing long enough to trip over her own two feet and slam the door behind her. Everyone stared at me in silence.

"We need drinks," Fred finally said. "Who's buying?"


Chapter Six

After Corinne's snarling disappearance, everyone was suddenly much more sympathetic to my condition and even how I'd acquired it. The Host in particular looked abashed for all the lecturing he'd given me.

"That was an *unpleasant* run-in," he said while his body handed me another Bloody Mary to take away the shame and pain. "Yeesh. Do the words psycho hose beast ring a bell?"

"Just a little," I said, bolting my drink in one go. "And now I have to call and apologize to her cousin to see if she knows more about the curse of Asmodeus."

"Is her cousin that scary, too?" Cordy asked.

"Worse," I said. "And I've only talked to her on the phone."

Everyone nodded and made faces sympathetically.

"She was a really bad singer," Fred said. "I think she was worse than Angel."

Angel almost said something, but chose to refrain in the interests of group solidarity. I appreciated it.

"I hear that," Gunn agreed. "And she's not really so pretty, once you look at her."

"No, she's still pretty," Cordy disagreed. "But that doesn't matter because she's a total psychotic skank. At least her cousin isn't a skank, right? Just an uber-bitch with serious attitude and a predisposition to hate you."

The sympathy wasn't helping any. I stared at the bottom of my empty drink and wondered if Miss Whittier would laugh in my face, or if she would spit at me, tell me it was my own fault for killing the Ayanavi demon, and then laugh in my face.

"I don't think we're cheering up Wednesday's child here," the Host said. "Don't worry, cowboy. What's the worst that can happen?"

I thought about it for a minute.

"I die a reeking demon shell after tormenting innocent people throughout the city with my unnatural desires?" I asked, not looking up.

"See? That's--oh. Forget I said anything."

I started pounding my head on the table.

"Don't you dare!" Cordelia snapped, grabbing me by the shoulders. "Did I do that during any of my many demon impregnation moments? This is just your first time. At least if the worst happens, you're not going to be split in two by your unholy demon spawn. You're not, are you?"

I pounded my head on the table again.

"Wes, wait. I have an idea. Are you still on friendly terms with Virginia?" Cordelia asked.

"Yes," I said, still pounding away. "Why?"

"Do you think Virginia's family might know these Southern vengeance hicks?"

I stopped pounding. Once again, Cordelia was reminding us that she was smarter than a whip. It was obvious. I could ask Virginia to give me the address of the Whittier home and perhaps a letter of introduction to convince the foreboding Miss Whittier I wasn't always a complete moron--

"Yeah," Gunn said. "Maybe she could curse them back for you."

I let that pass without comment.

Virginia was extremely helpful. It turned out that she and Corinne knew and hated each other dating from their time at a Swiss boarding school together.

"I can't believe that spiteful little whore did that to you!" Virginia cried. "Freaking Corinne Reidinger! I remember when we were fifteen and she tried to get the demon Anyanka to turn my hair into a nest of poisonous asps for stealing her boyfriend. That slut! That evil whore!"

It was extremely difficult being in the same room as Virginia because of the curse. I had to keep smiling and thinking of how to conjugate irregular Greek verbs while she paced back and forth, cursing Corinne's name so that I didn't say something stupid, like, 'Want to shag?' or something similarly embarrassing.

"So how do you want me to help?" she asked at last.

"I need to go to Birmingham and visit Laura Whittier. I could use information, directions--a letter of introduction?"

"Oh, no need," Virginia said. "Laura's in town at a medievalist conference at UCLA. Just got in yesterday. She's really old-fashioned and sort of a prude, but all in all she's a pretty cool lady."

I groaned and looked down. Virginia looked at me curiously.

"What? What's wrong?" she asked. Then it dawned on her. "You insulted her, didn't you?"

"Grossly and egregiously."

"Figures," Virginia said. "Come on, I'll take you to meet her. Maybe she'll be nicer to you with me around."

I gulped. It was a wonderful idea in theory, but in practice, Virginia's cute little car and cute little figure spelled big disaster when it came to me and my curse. I shook my head.

"That might not be a good idea, considering my--condition."

"Condition?" Virginia asked. "Oh, right. Right."

"Yes," I said, wondering if I should just give up and join a monastery.

She smiled. "I miss you, you know. We had fun together," she said. "Maybe someday when you're not cursed, you could come by and we could talk."

It never rains but it pours. I nodded, and quickly got directions to Laura's hotel. Then I said goodbye to Virginia and fled, scared to death that the demon inside would decide to assert itself at the good news. Tonight was not the night to do any talking.

Still, I couldn't help but do a little private cheer when I reached the car. I had missed Virginia, too, and it would be a very good thing to talk.

"Demon virus be damned," I said with a great deal of bravado. "I will enjoy my life to the fullest."

Then I remembered that I had to face Corinne's cousin alone. The cheer faded. At least she wasn't going to challenge my resolve with her stunning good looks or romantic advances, I decided.

The hotel Laura Whittier at was posh enough to make me feel like a feckless ne'er-do-well. I apparently came from the only old magical family in the western world that didn't have enough money to luxuriously finance every last scion to the hilt.

Trying not to look overawed, I found a lobby phone and rang the number Virginia had given me.

"Hello, Laura Whittier," a pleasant voice answered.

"Ms. Whittier?" I asked.

"What?" Laura asked, sounding much more suspicious. She must have recognized my voice.

"I spoke to you the other night and I need to apologize and speak to you about something quite urgent," I said. "Please don't hang up."

"You're that man from last night, aren't you? Where'd you get this number?" she asked. "I'll call the police."

"Please, please don't. I don't have any ulterior motives. I just need to speak with you. I got the number from a friend--Virginia Bryce is a friend of mine."

"Ohhhh," Laura said, audibly pausing to open a mental file. "Oh, so you're that cute ex of hers. And the detective from the other night. Oh. Well. I know a few things about you. Let me come down to the lobby. I'll be wearing khaki jodphurs."

"All right. I'll be the younger fellow in specs, looking grievously out of place," I answered.

"See you down there," she said, hanging up. I put the phone back on the hook and sat down on a round sofa near the elevators. I tried to look for an older lady in jodphurs. Of course, there weren't any. My demon side had a lot of fun, though, ogling any number of attractive patrons of both genders. I was most amused by trying to determine who was and wasn't wearing underwear. That got embarrassing after I was caught openly ogling a twenty-something Fabio wannabe, so I had to keep my eyes low and my mind on non-prurient subjects.

Finally, eyes locked on legs and ankles, I spotted the khaki jodphurs and allowed my eyes to slide upwards in a slow, sensual path--

"Oh, hell," I muttered. Had every last word out of Corinne's mouth been a lie? Laura Whittier could not be more than forty, if that. She looked about thirty-five, and she was handsome and athletic. Her dark hair was pulled back in a simple braid and she was tanned and solid-looking. Most importantly, she had blue eyes, the same fake blue color that mine were. She, too, was cursed, and from the sound of it, had chosen the difficult route of celibacy to contain the problem.

"Ms. Whittier?" I called. Laura saw me and waved. I walked over to her briskly, hands in pockets. The first thing the woman did was throw her arm around my shoulders and pull me toward an exit. I didn't understand what she was doing.

"It's not safe to talk," she said. "Corinne, hmm?"

She reached up with one manicured fingernail and tapped the side of my face so I knew what she meant.

"Unfortunately."

We set off, reaching a parking garage at a near run.

"It's so good of you to visit me while I'm at the conference," she said loudly, eyes darting about. "I'm in the Corolla over there. So tell me, have you heard the new Yo-Yo Ma CD?"

"No, but I'm dying to," I replied, playing along with whatever charade she was perpetrating. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a blurry shape, as Laura led me toward a row of cars that included a Corolla, a Jetta, and a huge burgundy Cadillac. "Aren't gas prices here a horrid shock? I mean, you coming from Birmingham and all--"

"Ye Gods, you're not kidding," she said, subtly nudging me toward the monster Caddy. "Have I mentioned it's really good to see you?"

She pushed a button and the car beeped. We ran for it and practically jumped into the burgundy monster through the windows.

"No, you hadn't!" I shouted, trapped and contorted on the bench seat as Laura locked the doors.

"It's really good to see you," Laura said, starting the ignition. The car roared to life, and I now couldn't miss the hideous thing coming at us. "Want to run it over?"

"It's your rental car deposit."

"Hooray!" Laura cried, putting the car in reverse and revving the engine. I couldn't help but notice a family resemblance between her and Corinne suddenly. We flew down the narrow aisles of the parking garage, the thing in close pursuit.

And then Laura abruptly made for the exit, barreling down the ramp. The thing (in the last glimpse I caught of it) looked surprised as the car zoomed away, bouncing out of the garage exuberantly. We didn't stop until we hit the first red light. Then Laura turned and put out her hand.

"Dr. Laura Whittier at your service," she said. I took her hand and shook it. "So you're Wesley Wyndham-Price, I presume. And aren't you Edmund's boy?"

I stared at her. She knew my father. She knew my bloody dad. My father hated people and rarely spoke to them, but this formerly dastardly cousin knew my dad.

"Yes," I said, in shock.

"I knew it. You look like your mother, though," she said. "Must confess, though--and take no offense, please. Your dad's a prat. Is he always such a soul-sucking little man?"

Not only did she know my father, she knew my father well. I was impressed.

"Yes," I admitted.

"Pity. He's clever enough, but no one can bear to be near him with the apparent exception of your mum," Laura said. "One of his grad students is submitting a piece here, so I was reminded of him."

"Ah," I said. "Look, Laura, I'm sorry about that idiotic phone call the other night."

"Bygones. You've more than redeemed yourself now," she said. "Most of these poor idiots don't even know what's happened to them and do exactly what she says anyway. You have the courage to admit you're in a mess and that you could use some help. Besides, Ginny Bryce adores you, and Ginny has good taste."

Virginia adored me? Hopefully this was a recent conversation and the next bit of intelligence between Virginia and Laura wouldn't be about our breakup, because that could be bad in the Laura helping me department.

"Thank you," I said.

"Corinne is trying to inveigle you back in her clutches for a very specific reason, of course. She is attempting to produce a living vessel for Asmodeus to inhabit. It takes two infected victims and a shitload of ritual, and you're the only one she likes enough to do the rituals with. Plus, she thinks it would be a cute demon baby."

It took me a moment to understand precisely what Laura was getting at.

"You mean she wants me to--oh, God. Is she mad?"

"Oh yes. Crazy as a bedbug," Laura said. She grinned. "So, you must be curious about what to do to end the curse."

"Yes, I am. Very curious."

"So am I," Laura said. She turned the corner. "How'd you get here? Should we get your car before we go to--well, wherever you're based out of?"

"I took the bus," I admitted.

"Good, that saves time. Where are we going now?" she asked.

It took us an hour and a half to get to the hotel and, between cursing at the unholy traffic, Laura was more than happy to explain what was going on with Corinne, herself, and the entire Whittier family.

"See," she said, cutting off another driver who honked noisily, "My family is old and Southern. And we were cursed by one of our former slaves a century or two back. We deserved it, and the one who cursed us had a particularly appropriate sense of humor. My forefathers were not admirable people, and so one of their victims decided to make it known for all time that my family was a bunch of lustful rapists."

She sighed.

"We all reformed fairly quickly after that. Losing your best and brightest to a curse than can kill or transmogrify forces drastic actions."

"What's that mean?" I asked as she jerked back into another lane.

It meant that Great-Great Grandfather Whittier had decided, rather sensibly, that not every member of the family could spread the curse of Asmodeus into the population like overbred rabbits. Only one child per generation was allowed to pass on the family line. The rest stayed celibate or mysteriously died in the middle of the night.

"I don't have a very nice family," Laura said sadly. "Lewis paid the price for that in this generation."

Apparently, as the family had become known for mysterious deaths and dealings with disreputable doctors, they had had to find new and more hygienic ways of preventing the curse from passing on to unauthorized folks. Laura's twin brother, Lewis, had lost the coin toss in their generation (he apparently being less intelligent and beautiful than his sister), and he'd been discreetly castrated.

"He was eight," she said, sounding regretful and oddly guilty about the horrific crime. "I didn't know until I was sixteen what my parents had done, and I tried to kill myself when I discovered what had happened."

After that, Laura had done everything she could to make Lewis' life better. She had also resolved to stay celibate her entire life, thus ending the ancestral line and Asmodeus' curse with it. I was impressed.

"Lewis was always such a good person," she said. "He deserved a life that wasn't hobbled by this curse. I've never stopped regretting that they chose him."

"You didn't try to find any other way to stop the curse?" I asked, almost panicking. If Laura didn't know how to stop the curse, I was going to be very unhappy.

"Of course I did!" she said. "But short of doing what Corinne's doing, which is trying to bring Asmodeus into human form, there wasn't anything I found that would work."

We drove along in silence until I remembered something very important.

"How did Corinne get infected, if she's not really a Whittier?" I asked.

"Another very good question," Laura said. "While the curse is primarily spread through sexual contagion, one can also become infected by drinking a sufficient quantity of a cursed person's blood."

"So whose blood did she drink?" I asked.

"My mother's, I'm assuming. I don't know when. I hadn't seen her in five years when I saw her at the funeral with those eyes," Laura said with a slight shudder. "My mother was a strange woman."

"But it could have been either your mother or Lewis?" I asked.

"Yes, it could have been, but it wasn't. It had to be my mother," she replied. "Lewis was never very fond of Corinne."

"You trust him, then?" I asked.

"Of course!" she cried. "Lewis is my twin brother. More than that, he's my best friend." She pressed her foot into the pedal, her face empty of expression. "Corinne is greedy. She's formed this plan simply because she wants more power and more money and she's sure Asmodeus can give it to her. My God, I wish we'd shown her the power of the stock market instead."

She zoomed off the offramp abruptly.

"Do you think your coworkers will have a problem with me taking charge of this research?" she asked. "I do have a degree in this sort of thing. And I love research."

"Are you kidding?" I asked. "You doing the research for them? They'll worship you."

Laura smiled. "That's what my graduate students all think at first."

She pulled the car to the curb in front of the hotel with a squealing flourish.

"All right, then," she said. "Let's get to some deep researching."

Following her swaying hips, the demon inside thought there were other deep things that were much more interesting than researching that we could be doing.


Chapter Seven

Laura yawned heavily before turning the page of the five-hundred-year-old folio.

"Forgive them, Father," she murmured dryly, "For they knew not how boring and self-important they were in thy service."

"You got that right," Cordelia said, plopping down beside her gracelessly. "Every time I try to read those, I get sleepy."

"Not surprising," Laura said. "You see, there's a spell on them to make anyone reading these lose interest if they're not part of a certain monastic order--or good enough at magic to break the spell."

"So you mean that all of these dusty books ARE interesting?"

"Oh, hell no," Laura said. "Some are, some aren't, but all of them are enspelled to make you think they're dusty yawners."

She yawned again and Cordelia looked impressed. I momentarily felt a little jealous. Cordy wouldn't have been impressed if I'd told her that. Then again, it was two in the morning, and being able to speak in complete sentences was fairly spectacular, I suppose.

"How are we doing?" Angel asked, pacing back into the lobby.

"Bleh," Gunn said.

"That well?" Angel asked. "I haven't been able to find much, either. Most of the demons I talked to think Asmodeus is a has-been, or they've never heard of him. None of them had anything to say about the curse."

I sighed and went back to my book. I was going to die a lonely, pathetic monk with sinful dreams and then I would be eaten by Alsatian dogs. Just like Bridget Jones, but without the cute barrister to save me.

"They're all lying to you," Laura said. "Either that, or they're all extraordinarily stupid. I know for a fact a cell of his worshippers run a disreputable movie studio in West Hollywood."

Angel looked surprised. "You could have mentioned that."

She shrugged. "Meh," she said. "You said you knew what you were doing."

"West Hollywood, hmm? Think they'd still be awake?" he asked.

"At this hour? Probably," she said. "But that's your deal. I have to get back to my hotel."

"Why?" I asked.

"I have a ten-thirty presentation for my conference paper, 'Rethinking Christianity and Magic in 11th Century Benedictine Monasteries' at UCLA. And if Laura doesn't sleep, Laura doesn't speak in the mornings. It's almost embarrassing," she said. "So I'm going to motor. Don't worry, I'll call y'all after the presentation."

She jumped up from her spot, leaving the book on the desk. We all nodded awkwardly. She waved, and before anyone could think of the word goodbye, she was already gone.

"You know how to pick 'em, don't you?" Gunn said.

"It takes a rare eye," I agreed sadly. "In my defense, though, I thought she was going to be much older. And less like Indiana Jones with breasts."

"The paper sounds really interesting, though," Fred piped in. "I bet her students love her."

"People," Cordelia interrupted. "Sorry to break into the We Love Dr. Laura moment, but we either need to pack it up for the night or get back to researching. Wesley's eyes? Not getting any less blue with us standing here."

"I don't think research is going to help us, Cordy," I said. "Every tiny bit of information we get suggests we know everything there is to know about the curse."

"So what does that mean? That you're going to join up with Corinne or become a demon bird-man or die?" she asked. "That's not acceptable."

"No," I said. "It means that unless we find groundbreaking new information at this West Hollywood studio, we need to do what we did to the Ayavani demon--force it to manifest and destroy it. Kill the source and you destroy the curse."

"But this Asmodeus guy, isn't he like, a demon prince?" Gunn asked. "Killing him isn't going to be as easy as having Angel do his Gallagher impersonation."

"Can you think of a better plan?" I asked.

He looked at me, and then shook his head.

"Demon curses suck," he said disgustedly.

We all went home not long after that, feeling a little depressed. Scratch that. I went home feeling utterly dejected. But at least Corinne wasn't waiting for me in my apartment, which I had been half-afraid of. If she had been there, I would not have said no to her.

My apartment was empty and dark. I even checked the bedroom to make sure I was psycho hose beast free. After staring at the phone for ten minutes and allowing a flood of phone numbers from four different (no, make that five, because I had that number from Ashley in OC) area codes to cross my mind, I went to bed. My weariness won out over my curse, and I was asleep ten seconds later.

I woke up at six thirty. The phone was making an incredible racket. I picked up the cordless and yawned.

"Hello?"

"Oh, no, did I wake you?" a familiar voice asked. I didn't know who it was, but I knew I should.

"Yes, but that's all right," I said. "Who is it?"

"It's Mum," my mother said. "I did wake you. I'll ring back later, darling."

"Mum!" I said, instantly awake. "No, don't hang up. It's so good to hear your voice. Hi, Mum!"

"Your dad says hi, too," she said. Of course.

"Hi, Dad," I said with rather less enthusiasm.

"I didn't get to speak with you when you called on Dad's birthday, and I've so much wanted to," she said. "Then last night, I got one of my feelings, and I knew I had to talk to you immediately. Are you all right, dear?"

My mum, for the record, is not psychic or clairvoyant. Every so often, however, she feels impressed to do something or talk to someone that's always right on the money.

"Actually, I'm in a bit of a mess right now, Mum," I confessed. "I--"

"Do you need money? Don't listen to your father on the topic, we just came into a tidy sum. An American chappie bought a rare old book from us," she said.

Normally, I would have moved right along, because I was never going to take another sixpence from my parents again. But the American chap with a rare book was setting off all my bells and whistles.

"From an old magical family, by any chance?" I asked casually.

"Of course, dear. The book was an accurate demonology and spellbook. Your dad doesn't just sell those to anyone," Mum said. "He was a very nice man, a collector. His name was Lewis Whittier, I believe. Yes, Lewis. From Alabama. His sister is a noted historian in the field of occult history. She corresponds with your dad on occasion-- Dr. Laura Whittier. Heard of her?"

It was nice to know that the Powers that Be didn't completely hate me.

"Yes," I said. "I've actually met Laura just recently. Lovely family, for the most part."

"They have a cousin around your age," Mum chattered on obliviously. "Lewis thinks the world of her--Corinne something. He says she lives in Los Angeles. Maybe the two of you could have lunch sometime. She's really quite a lovely girl, I understand."

"Perhaps," I said noncommittally.

"Oh, I didn't call you to set you up on a date," Mum said. "I called to tell you how proud I am of you. Your dad was going on about how you've quit the Watchers and ended up with a motley bunch of nobodies. But you know your dad. He wanted to be a Watcher and didn't cut it. So he's a bit cracked over it, of course."

"Right."

"But I wanted to say that I don't care if you left the Watchers. Bunch of ponces in my book. You sound like you're doing wonderful things with good people, and you're happy. I've never been prouder of you, Wesley. You live your life your way, and tell us to piss off, all right?" she said.

Of course, I was tearing up like a girl. But in my defense, I was under a lot of stress and disapproval, and to hear that I was doing something right made me feel ten thousand times better.

"Yes, mum," I said. "Thank you."

"Are you sure you don't need any money, dear?" Mum asked.

"No, we just made forty-five hundred on our last case," I said.

"Wonderful, dear!" Mum said. "Well, then, I shall leave you alone to get a few more minutes of sleep. I love you!"

"I love you too, Mum."

We said goodbye and hung up. Despite being low on sleep, I couldn't just roll over and crash. Things were starting to connect in my head.

Corinne was not working alone in her quest to find a living vessel for Asmodeus. She couldn't be, no matter what Laura said. She simply was not the research type. But Lewis Whittier, who obviously had a plausible grudge against the family for many viable reasons, was. And it wouldn't be hard, with Laura in the family, to become a "collector of rare books--" especially not if Corinne was bankrolling the operation.

But Laura trusted Lewis. He was her friend, and she felt extremely responsible for the problems in his life. Of course, I was sure that only made it easier for him to orchestrate things. He was the mastermind, and that was not good. Telling Laura that he was Corinne's informant, the one who had probably (A) infected her with Asmodeus' curse, and (B) encouraged her growing mania to bring Asmodeus' avatar into the world, was going to be a grand bitch.

It made perfect sense, though. Even Corinne's half-truths supported it. Her adolescence had been hell, with Lewis and Laura both trying to win her over to their side, with promises of wealth and power. Lewis would have no doubt had to be discreet about it, but that would have made it all the more troubling. The underground war would be enough to set an already depressed girl on edge. Lewis, the stealthy bastard, had been smart enough to realize that adding in fun and sex would be much more attractive than self-denial and patience, and he'd won. Asmodeus had probably promised him complete restoration and all of the usual demon lies.

I had to warn everyone immediately. I got out of bed and hurried into the living room.

Where Lewis was waiting for me with a blunt object.

As I sank into unconsciousness, my last hope was that Cordelia would figure out that I was missing fast, because otherwise I was a dead man.

I don't know how long I was out, but when I woke up, I was chained to a post.

"Wakey-wakey. Come on sweetie, wake up," someone was saying. "Lewis, you better not have broken him. I'll be hella pissed off."

My head hurt like hell.

"Ow," I muttered, trying to open my eyes.

"Ow?" Corinne asked. "You're lucky to be alive."

"He hit me hard," I said, opening my eyes to ascertain my location and then closing them again. "You must realize that having me at your house is simply a bad idea, don't you? Laura's going to have the cops on you in twenty seconds flat."

"You're right. She probably would have," Corinne agreed. "If she wasn't chained to the wall over there."

I turned my head. Damn! Laura was indeed chained to a wall, gagged and glaring at Lewis, who was smirking at his twin sister gleefully. He even waggled his fingers at her in an impish wave.

"So, aren't you going to say it?" Corinne asked. "I was sure it was the first thing you were gonna say."

"What?"

"You won't get away with this! Angel will stop you!" Corinne mock bellowed with a horrid British accent. "You wankers! Okay, not the wankers part, but I just like that word."

"Oh, how about this, then?" I asked. "You are a callow, weak-willed girl whom Lewis and Asmodeus will tear apart as soon as you're unnecessary. If you'd prefer to live, you'll let Laura and me go."

She slapped me across the mouth and then jumped into my lap.

"Feisty. I like that."

Next to us, Laura was swearing her head off at Lewis, but she was incomprehensible through the gag. Corinne giggled.

"Aren't they funny?" she asked. "All they ever do is play games. I was part of their favorite game--Convince Cory to Take Sides."

"Unfortunately, you chose the wrong one," I said through clenched teeth. Corinne was not playing around. My wrists were being rubbed raw by the chains as she pulled us forward and back with her weight.

"Funny thing, though. I don't seem to be chained up," she said, brandishing her wrists at me. "So I'm not really believing you right now."

Oddly enough, I knew that we were also playing a game, the same way we had in Santa Monica, but this was not about seduction. We were matching wits now, locked in the passionate embrace of torturer and victim. I'd already done this game as the victim, and I wasn't going to give Corinne any enjoyment. So I didn't say anything.

"Hey," she finally protested. "Where's my false bravado? Where are the one-liners? I can get pokey things out. I only need one part of you to work, you know. And there's lots of ways to hurt people."

Faith had been much better at this game. She at least knew there was more than one sort of painful object.

"Corinne, now is not the time," Lewis said. "I need you to hold Laura's jaw."

"Ew, Lew-is," Corinne said with distaste. "You're really gonna do it? That's GROSS."

"Cut out the bitch's lying tongue? Yes. With deep pleasure and deeper pride," Lewis said. "Come ON, Cory."

"Okay, okay," she said, giving me a wet, sloppy kiss on the cheek. "To be continued."

She practically skipped to her cousin's side. He had a very sharp-looking silver knife in his fist. I had to do something and do it fast. I tried to remember a spell to dull knives, but I was not really good with that sort of magic spell.

Corinne tore the gag out of Laura's mouth. Laura immediately started swearing and screaming at her knife-brandishing, southern vengeance hick relatives.

"Shut your cakehole, dammit!" Corinne shrieked. "God, don't you ever shut up?"

Once again, I was inspired with a killer shot of adrenaline to boot.

"Laura, close your mouth! Now!" I shouted. Fortunately, she did it without asking why. I immediately hissed the Latin that would lock her jaw and thanked God that someone had done the same to me at school when I was twelve. Her jaw would be sore later, but that was better than not having a tongue.

"Pull her jaws open," Lewis said. "We don't have all night."

"I can't," Corinne said. "They're stuck."

"What?" Lewis asked, dropping his knife and tugging Laura's jaw. It wasn't coming open. "Son of a--"

He wheeled and glared at me. "You! You did this!"

"Me?" I asked innocently.

"I'll kill you," he hissed, advancing on me with sheer rage in his eyes.

"Lewis, can't you just undo the spell?" Corinne asked. I took a quick breath. Damn. I hadn't thought of that. Magic is a lot more complicated when everyone's got some, much like firearms in that sense.

"I can't use magic on Laura, remember?" he asked, still advancing. "Remember? Family curse? She's the heir? No can touch!"

"You can't kill him, Lewis!" Corinne cried shrilly.

"Give me one reason why not!" he yelled, now within reach of my unprotected body.

"Because he's the chosen vessel of Lord Asmodeus' manifestation, dumbass!" Corinne snapped.

Lewis froze. So did I.

"Dammit," he muttered, and turned away.

As for my part?

Well, I'll be honest. I gulped very hard--and then I fainted.


Chapter Eight

After that second embarrassing stint in the realm of the unconscious, I woke up in a very good place. I was unchained and I was laying on a very soft bed. Not to mention that someone with very soft and sweet lips was kissing me. My first, half-conscious thought was that I had been rescued and someone decided they needed to kiss me awake.

"Angel?" my Freudian subconscious asked.

The someone, who was obviously not Angel, put her hand over my mouth. I opened my eyes. It was Laura, her braid undone and eyes bluer than a summer sky. Then she tapped her jaw and looked at me expectantly. Oh, right. She couldn't open her mouth. I quickly muttered the Latin to unlock her jaw.

She started kissing me again, caressing my neck with obvious sexual overtones. Then she leaned over and kissed my earlobe.

"If the cavalry doesn't get here before Asmodeus, we're fucked in ways you've never experienced before," Laura murmured in my ear. "Well, maybe not you personally, but you get the point."

She let her body brush against mine and I started getting alarmed. What was she doing? I wasn't particularly in control of my sexual urges at the moment and more than anything, I wanted to flip her over immediately and have my wicked way with her. Or so I'd say if I were the main character in a romance novel.

"Speaking of Asmodeus," I whispered as Laura started toying with the buttons on my shirt. "How did I go from being the progenitor of Asmodeus' earthly incarnation to being the incarnation?"

Laura, in between long and overwhelming assaults on my neck, sighed. "I'm very sorry. Lewis found this ritual in the demonology he just bought. Before that, we'd been using really bad sources that made the ritual sound totally different."

"So, what's the real ritual?"

She finished unbuttoning my shirt and shrugged. To my eye, she seemed extremely nervous about something.

"Do you think they'd tell me?" she asked, gently teasing my chest. "All I know is that it involves you, me, a cursed circle, some bright light, and a lot of virgin blood."

She proceeded to start kissing me again. My brain, only at about a quarter-power due to head injury and demon lust, still realized this was very wrong.

"What are you doing?" I asked, trying to pull her away from me.

Laura looked at me unhappily. "What do you think? I was trying to be natural about it."

I realized what she was trying to do, and how hard it had to be for her to do it.

"No, it's all right," I whispered. "But I don't want you to--I mean, it's not--you shouldn't have to do this."

"Well, you can't have virgin blood if you don't have a virgin," she said. "I don't want to do this, but I don't want to die."

She put her head on my shoulder and flung her arm across me. I kissed the top of her head.

"This is extraordinarily uncomfortable," I said, using my free arm to rub her back awkwardly.

"It has to be done," she said. "So take off your pants."

"You mean you want to do this now?"

She looked at me tiredly. "No, I don't. But we don't have much choice, do we? Unless you want to be a demon."

"No, of course not," I whispered. "But, Laura--"

"Wesley, I'm so afraid I'm about to cry," Laura said. "Help me out here. Help yourself out."

It was hardly the most romantic proposition I'd ever received, but considering the circumstances, I would simply have to deal with it.

"All right, but if you change your mind, tell me? Please tell me," I said.

"I will," she said, breathing in and out like a frightened child. I took her hand and kissed the back of it and smiled at her. "We've got to be fast, though. They could come back at any time."

I rubbed her cheek with my hand. "All right, all right. I'm just trying not to do anything we'll regret."

She nodded, and then draped herself over me, her lips quivering nervously. I pulled her forward gently and kissed her, slowly warming to the unpleasant idea before us. I could make this okay.

"You're a very good kisser," she whispered, pulling away and quickly taking her top off. "I like kissing you."

"I like kissing you," I said. I meant it. "You okay?"

She nodded. "Kiss me again."

I was happy to oblige, and started covering her neck and collarbone in quick nibbles. She reacted quietly, her cheeks getting a little red. Her hands laid at her side, not moving at all. This was not going to be easy.

"Is there anything you want me to do?" I asked.

"I don't know," she said dubiously. "This is not my forte."

"Well, this isn't anyone's forte," I said.

"I've done so much work denying my demonically enhanced libido that I've actually managed to repress it, except once or twice a month," Laura admitted. "I channeled it into my work. It's worked really well until now, when I need to fuck and run on short notice. So why aren't you going crazy?"

"I don't know," I admitted. "I would like very much to be making love to you right now. Except that it's wrong and I think you're too nice of a person to throw on her back and go at it with like a rabbit, virgin blood or not."

"I'm sorry," she said, eyes tearing up again, hands moving around blindly, looking for her shirt. "I'm sorry, Wesley."

"That's okay," I said. "We'll figure out some other way."

The door flew open. Corinne stood framed before us, her lips held tightly and eyes crackling with energy.

"Shit," Laura said, pulling her shirt on.

"Did I interrupt your attempts not to have sex?" Corinne asked.

"Oh, God, you have this place wired, don't you?" Laura asked, buttoning up her shirt with a blush on her face.

"Me? Come on, Laura, do you even need to ask?" Corinne sneered. Laura and I groaned. "You two were so sweet! But sweet merciful Jesus, kids! You might have actually managed it if you'd shut up and just gotten down. The demon curse thing is great aphrodisiac. You can forget just about anything when you're in the throes of demonic passion."

Laura looked at me, face pale with distress. I smiled back at her, trying to look reassuring and failing miserably.

"Sometimes, the best thing to do is the thing that seems the stupidest option at the time," I said. "You never know."

Laura looked down, but not before mouthing 'thanks' at me. Corinne shook her head in voluptuous disgust. I couldn't believe I'd ever found her attractive. She was so charmless and just plain cruel.

"Sometimes, you know, the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it," Corinne countered boredly. "It's all very deep, like a fortune cookie."

She desperately needed a good-- something. I doubted a slap or a fuck would do the trick. But a good lie might just work. So I decided to go for the oldest play in the gamebook.

"You know, Lewis is going to kill you," I said conversationally, buttoning up my own shirt. "Do you really think he wants to share any rewards Asmodeus will give to him?"

"Lewis needs me," Corinne said.

"Isn't that exactly what Laura thought?" I asked. "And for how long will he keep needing you with his sugar daddy Asmodeus around?"

For a moment, Corinne's face clouded with thought. "Lewis and I are a team," she said stubbornly.

"Correction," I replied. "You were a team. You did the work, and now he'll do the profiting."

It was as neat a job of counterintelligence as I'd ever done. Unfortunately, it didn't work.

"You're just trying to turn me against Lewis to save your own neck," she said. "It won't work, Wesley. Lewis and I are a TEAM."

Still sitting beside me, Laura was staring at the floor, muttering something incomprehensible under her breath. Suddenly, she looked up and yelled, "Vole!" at Corinne.

Corinne laughed as Laura suddenly flew backwards and hit the metal bedpost, falling forward and hitting the floor awkwardly.

"Do you think that I'm stupid?" Corinne asked her unconscious cousin. "Don't you think I knew you'd try that fucking spell? Don't you think I know everything you taught me?"

With a pleased little grunt, Corinne kicked Laura in the side.

"You stupid bitch!" she cried. Then she kicked Laura in the stomach. "I hate you!"

She pulled back her foot with obvious flourish in preparation for another kick.

"Corinne, stop it!" I yelled, standing up. "Don't hurt her!"

She kicked Laura again anyway. Something angry, something inhuman started to boil in the pit of my stomach.

"Make me."

I could feel the demon within me, needing to escape, wanting to hurt this sleek, grinning creature staring at me. I could see the same demon staring back at me, enjoying the game it was playing.

"Corinne, don't make me hurt you."

Her grin turned malicious and sexual. "Oh, you can hurt me, lover. I don't mind."

I had to get her away from Laura. But if I hurt her, it would be a prelude to losing control, and I couldn't risk losing control at the moment. There had to be another way.

"Come on, Wesley, it can't be good for innocent, virginal Laura's internal organs to suffer this repeated trauma!" Corinne said with a laugh, kicking at Laura's shoulder this time. "Come on, do it. Whatever you're thinking, do it."

I did.

I leapt over the bed and covered Laura's body with my own. Corinne howled. I stared up at her defiantly, trying not to crush Laura, who was still breathing.

"Damn you," Corinne said angrily. "Why can't you just do what you're supposed to do? You're just going to need to do it in the end, anyway!"

She withdrew, moving toward the door, while I made sure that there were no vulnerable parts of Laura available for one last petty attack.

"I'm getting Lewis," Corinne announced. "The time draws nigh, the Darth Vader music's a-playing, and you, my delicious heroic British dish, are going to become the demon I always wanted."

She swept out of the room and slammed the door behind her, remembering, of course, to lock it.

I immediately jumped off Laura and gently rolled her onto her back, praying I hadn't hurt her neck doing so. If she had a neck injury, or a concussion, or internal bleeding, we were in a lot of trouble.

"Laura, wake up," I said, trying to rouse her without shaking her. "Come on, Laura, wake up. We're out of time, come on Laura, wake up. Laura!"

Nothing. Just the soft sound of breathing and a slow, steady heartbeat.

"Laura!" I shouted, pushing her limp shoulder a little more roughly. "Don't do this! Come on, I need your help. Don't die, Laura. Don't die on me, here."

She was still unconscious. I was terrified. I was sure that she had a concussion, and I didn't know what to do. I knew that she needed to be conscious. What would I do if she died right now? I had failed her, and I would fail us both if I let her die.

Heart pounding, I leaned down next to her ear and made a last plea to wake her up.

"Laura, I don't know where you are right now, but I'm alone without you. I don't know if I can stop Lewis and Corinne without some help," I whispered. "Please, God, Laura, if you can hear me, I need a little help so that I can do what I can to stop this from happening."

I shut up. There was no answer. I sank onto the ground next to Laura. For a moment, everything was silent and I shut my eyes, giving up.

I heard a long, whimpering moan then, and my heart started again.

"Oooooooooooooooooooo," Laura cried. I raised my head, opened my eyes, and started into a matching pair of baby blues. "My fucking head!"

"Welcome back," I said.

"She had a different protection spell," Laura gasped. "I wasn't expecting that. It hurt."

"No doubt," I agreed. "Lewis is coming now. Apparently, it's time to rock and roll."

"Already?" she whimpered. I realized that her eyes were not quite focussed properly. "Wesley, I really hurt."

"You'll be all right," I said.

"But I'm tired," she whispered. My heart sank. Awake or not, Laura was barely going to be capable of staying alive, let alone helping me.

"You can't go to sleep," I urged her, trying to help her up into a sitting position. "Laura, you have to stay awake with me."

"I won't go to sleep," she said petulantly, laying against my shoulder. "Wesley, you smell good."

"Not now," I said.

"I'm really sleepy," she said.

Shit. Where was everyone? If I had to save Laura and myself and prevent the curse from falling on me, I really needed serious backup, and maybe that demonology.

The door swung open.

"Dum dum dum, dum dah dah, dum dah dah," Corinne sang as Lewis swept in.

"Shut up, Corinne," Laura said weakly.

"Make me," Corinne replied. Laura raised her hand.

"Silence!" Lewis cried on cue. "There's no more time for games. Lord Asmodeus cries out for rebirth."

"Are you sure that he can't take a rain check?" I asked as Corinne marched forward to take the squirming Laura away.

"Afraid not," Corinne replied. Laura and I held on to each other for dear life and glared at Corinne. "LEWIS! He's being a total pain in the ass again!"

"We don't have time for this," Lewis hissed, raising his left hand abruptly.

This time, I was the one who was doing the flying.

"Wesley!" Laura yelled, struggling to her feet. "Lewis, you motherfucking son of a whelp! He's not part of this. He's not a Whittier. Leave him alone and use me instead."

Her face was white with pain, holding herself up by sheer willpower.

"Pretty impressive words," Lewis said. "If I gave a damn about what you say, I might even be persuaded. But guess what, big sister? Nothing you say will change anything I do. Lord Asmodeus wants him, Lord Asmodeus gets him."

He waved his hand and I zoomed toward the floor.

"Too bad you're such a goody-goody, Laura," Corinne jeered. "We would have all been fucked if it weren't for your psychotic sexual hang-ups."

"Corinne," Lewis said disapprovingly. "What have I said about revealing details of the plan?"

He jerked his hand, and I flew to his other waiting hand, where he was holding a pair of handcuffs.

"My God, you are cute," he said. "Even bruised."

"Told you," Corinne said as Laura and I were dragged kicking and howling and swearing out of the bedroom, down the stairs, and into the slightly revamped dining room, now full of magic circles and candles and bright, shiny knives.

Once again, I was chained to a post, and Laura was set in the middle of the largest magic circle. Corinne had put her Crate and Barrel dinnerware to good use and was now traipsing around the dining room anointing things with blood, ashes, and bile.

"Is this the part where we start chanting in Latin, Lewis?" Corinne asked. "Or Hindu or demon or whatever?"

"You know, you're not a cretin, Corinne," Lewis said icily.

Corinne smiled. "You know," she said, taking a gun from a hidden back holster. "You might be right."

She squeezed the trigger twice. She was a good shot. Lewis crumpled to the ground in slow motion, and Laura sank forward onto her hands. Then Corinne swiveled and smiled at me.

"So, Wesley? Was that the expected or unexpected thing to do?" she asked.


Chapter Nine

"I said, was that the expected or unexpected thing to do?" Corinne asked, her left hand place provocatively on her hip, gun still clutched tightly in the right. She looked at her dead cousin's body. "Sorry, Lewis, but Wesley was right. There's not enough Lord Asmodeus for two."

I stared at her in horror.

"You're a homicidal maniac!" I exclaimed.

"Yep," she agreed. "But I'll be rewarded for it once Lord Asmodeus rises."

Laura lifted her head. "If you're not eaten."

"It's always a risk," Corinne said agreeably. "But I've considered the odds and it's an acceptable risk with high levels of payoff."

Her face was shining with zeal and sincerity, as though she were talking about finding God, even though the language she used made me think she considered Asmodeus a particularly good stock tip. Eyes alight, she advanced on Laura, still holding the gun.

"All right, then," she said. "I have to bleed Laura now, and then it's time to prepare the vessel--that's you, sweetheart--and then it's time to call down the spirit of my demon Lord. It's the basic 'bad guy' litany, so just get comfortable. Hey, Laura. How's your brain?"

Angel really needed to make his appearance. Corinne without the feigned ignorance and with the sudden ruthlessness was clearly deadly and sadistic. She stood over Laura with a smug look on her face as she put her gun back in its holster and took out an elaborately curved knife.

"My Lord Asmodeus, I call upon thee," Corinne said in flawless Latin. "Thy servant gives to thee a gift of pure blood, taken from her enemy, and one who has betrayed thee."

With one hand, she lifted Laura's struggling arm, and neatly slashed it diagonally with her knife, but not too deeply (thank God). Then she put the suddenly limp arm over a beautiful silver brazier I hadn't noticed before. I pulled against the chains again, willing to break my wrist if I could just get loose and stop the bleeding.

"Oh, stop rattling your chains," Corinne said wearily. "You're going to chafe and that'll annoy Lord Asmodeus."

"Because I'm interested in pleasing Asmodeus," I said dryly, tugging a little harder on the chains. I was going to be black and blue for a month, but it would hurt less than a gut wound and it was for a good cause.

"Don't be a jerk," Corinne replied, grabbing the brazier and marching over to me. She switched back into Latin. "For thee, O Lord Asmodeus, I anoint the chosen one with pure blood given to thee, and bitter ash."

She dipped her thumb in blood. My heart sank to see that it came up fairly red and drippy. The cut had been deeper than I'd hoped. Laura was going to die if I couldn't get free soon. I stared skyward, frustrated.

The most beautiful sight in the world greeted my eyes.

Corinne's house, being typically Angeleno in style, had a skylight, and staring down through that skylight was Gunn. I tried not to let my relief show, even when he waved.

Corinne dragged her thumb across my forehead. I stared forward, staying as impassive as possible. I was saved. We could get Laura to a hospital in time. I stood still even when she dragged her ash-covered fingernails down my cheeks and covered my lips with blood, which was most unpleasant and reminded me of my ill-fated Angel impersonation.

"He is prepared," Corinne said boredly in Latin, then muttered in English, "And it had better be worth it."

"It won't be. Demons are notoriously bad at fulfilling expectations," I said. "And your soul will eat away at you for the pain you've caused innocent people, and for the wrongful deaths of your cousins."

"Amen," Laura croaked from across the room. Thank God. She was still alive.

"Could you just STOP SPEAKING?" Corinne roared, sweeping away. "Both of you? Just shut up!"

She stomped over to one of her dining room chairs and sat down very heavily on it. She glared at both of us for a moment and then turned away. I used that opportunity to look back up at the skylight. Cordelia was there now, and I grinned at her. She grinned back, and then tapped her wrist like a watch. I nodded vigorously and tried to mouth the word NOW so that she could see me. She shook her head. No comprende, of course. I jerked my head in Laura's direction and Cordelia looked and grimaced. Then she moved out of my line of vision.

"What are you looking at?" Corinne asked. Shit. Busted.

"The stars."

She crooked her head suspiciously.

"You wouldn't be lying to me, would you?"

"No, I wouldn't be."

For whatever reason, Corinne accepted that and looked away again as I cautiously looked up toward the skylight again. Gunn was there again and I could not figure out for the life of me what he was trying to communicate. I shrugged very obviously and he rolled his eyes at me.

Time seemed to be crawling and I worried that between the head injury and the blood loss, Laura wouldn't make it to a hospital, and God knew what the trauma of destroying Asmodeus would entail. Nobody seemed to be moving at all and there was no time to go slow.

Suddenly, Corinne screamed. The room was suddenly awash in blue light that temporarily blinded me.

"I am here," a low, booming voice announced. "Who has called me? And where shall I reside?"

It was Asmodeus. And he was speaking English. For a moment, I thought it might have even been me speaking, but then I realized Asmodeus was the amorphous blue light with the blue tendrils emanating from him and connecting to the three of us. I wasn't demon bait yet.

Corinne sprang up and practically skipped to the light. "It was I, my Lord," she said. "I'm Corinne. I found you a great human form, the anointed one over there. Isn't he great?"

"Ah," Asmodeus rumbled. "You are lucky, little one, that I have embraced the virtue of simplicity, or I might have had to smite your head off for speaking to me so disrespectfully. And yes, he's great. Good pick, Corinne."

My eyes almost bulged out of my head. A sensitive New Age demon prince? Had I fallen into some strange alternate dimension? Or was it just an episode of South Park?

"Sorry, my Lord," she said. "I was getting impatient with the time it took to draw you from the depths of the underworld, so my manners are a little off."

"I'll accept that," Asmodeus said. "So this is to be my new form? Not bad at all. Cute, smart, definitely full of promise. And we'll make a great couple. My ascent into power will be rapid with such a smart and attractive avatar."

"He's got the brains, I've got the looks, and we'll make a lot of money, sir," Corinne said calmly.

Where on bloody earth were my friends? Was it that hard to break a bloody skylight? I started trying to get the chains off in earnest.

"He doesn't look too pleased about the plan, though," Asmodeus rumbled. "Doesn't he want me to actualize myself?"

"No! No! He's fine with this," Corinne said. "He got an injury earlier when the sacrifice kicked him in the head."

"That's a lie," I said, deciding that as long as I had a demon prince who could be reasoned with, I'd try reason before I started screaming like a Hitchcock murder victim. "All of this has taken place without my consent. I do not want to be your incarnation. I want to be free of your curse."

Of course, the glowing blue light didn't look any different. Blue light rarely does.

"Really? You mean that?" Asmodeus asked. "You're not a willing participant?"

"Oh, yes," I said. "So if you could just get Corinne to unchain me, I'm sure I can find--"

The glowing blue light was moving toward me. Shit. I tried to move away, but unfortunately, I was still chained to a ruddy post.

"Why is he doing this?" Asmodeus asked. "It's not very good for my self-esteem."

"Beats me," Corinne said. "Would you like me to do something for you in this moment of triumph, Lord Asmodeus?"

"Yes, young one. Find my incarnation some better clothes. And something to clean off the blood and ashes with. I don't want to look like a scrub in my moment of glory."

There was a slight huffy silence. "All right," she said, walking away.

I closed my eyes. Well, that was it. The fat lady had sung. There was nothing left to do except try not to cry or embarrass myself further before I became a sensitive New Age demon lord.

"Excuse me," Angel said. "But before you possess my friend, I should mention he's really not fit for a demon lord. I mean, look at this guy!"

My eyes flew open. The blue light was hovering about eighteen inches from me, but its attention (if blue light can have attention) was on Angel, who was standing next to Laura, not holding a single weapon.

"He seems acceptable," Asmodeus grumbled.

"That's because you're listening to one of his girlfriends. I work with Wes, and I'm telling you, he's not demon lord material," Angel said. I gaped, and then felt something practically gore me in the ribs. I looked over to find it was Cordy's elbow.

"Shh," she whispered. "Gunn's getting you loose, and then we need you to read some Latin to dispel Asmodeus."

Angel, meanwhile, was cataloguing my faults in painstaking and technically accurate detail.

"Have I told you about the time he tried to be me? He's supposed to protect this girl for her father, and what does he end up doing? Getting it on," Angel said. "I know you're fond of the prurient side of life, but you won't even be able to function when you're in this body."

"I can bend him to my will," Asmodeus said, but he sounded a little worried.

"This is humiliating," I hissed at Cordelia.

"Because the entire adventure has been an exercise in preserving your dignity?" Cordy replied, just as Gunn managed to get the chains undone. "Shut up and let Angel distract the Blue Light Special."

"Where's the book?" I asked, rubbing my aching wrists quickly to get the circulation back into them.

"Uh, there was an accident. It sort of went poof," Cordelia explained. "But we made a copy of the spell. Look!"

She pulled out a cocktail napkin from Caritas. I took it from her and decided not to ask. Or say anything. Fortunately, it was more or less legible and I had time to look it over twice while Angel explained that I was a mindless skirt-chasing prat with little interest in anything besides moldy old books, 1980's David Bowie (a gross misrepresentation), and Bridget Jones' Diary.

"Enough!" Asmodeus bellowed. "Your ploy has at last bored me, though it was amusing at first. I will now take possession of my vessel, as I have been waiting to do for the last fifteen minutes while your minions made a pathetic attempt to stay my hand."

"That was polite of him to listen for so long," Cordy hissed.

"Yes, well, he's a sensitive New Age demon lord!" I replied as the blue light suddenly got much brighter.

"Wesley! Say the spell!" Gunn shouted. I tried to look down at the Latin written on the cocktail napkin, but it was too bright. I couldn't see. Moreover, I couldn't move. I was doomed.

"Foolish humans! No man can defeat Asmodeus!" the demon laughed. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, the blue light began to shrink. "I am powerful! I am might! I am--"

"Shrinking," Cordelia said. "Hey! You guys! He's shrinking!"

"No!" Asmodeus bellowed in a voice that was getting rather squeaky. "I am the all powerful demon prince! Who dares--"

"Oh, get OVER your demon self," a clear female voice said. We all turned our heads to see Corinne standing in the doorway, wearing jeans and a t-shirt and holding an old book. "Vamanos! Shoo! Make like a banana and split!"

"No!" Asmodeus wailed. "This cannot be! I have been betrayed!"

"Sorry," Corinne said, leaning against her doorframe. "I'm not very trustworthy. I think I'm actually quite mad. You probably should have chosen a saner priestess. Anyway, and I've always wanted to say this to a demon--you are the weakest link. G'bye."

She even waved. It was quite frightening. But suddenly she made a lot of sense. Either she was a complete and total genius, and had plotted this since before her aunt's funeral, or she was completely and totally out of her mind and belonged in an institution.

Maybe she was a little of both.

Asmodeus whimpered, flickered, and went out. I sank to my knees and started breathing again.

"Are you okay?" Gunn asked, leaning down and helping me up.

"I'll be all right. But Laura--" I said, stumbling up to my feet. "Laura?"

"I'm very sleepy," she said dreamily from the altar. "And I'm bloody. Aren't I? But I stayed awake--"

"We need to get her to a hospital," I said frantically, hurrying over to the blood-drenched woman. "She's in shock and she has a concussion, and the blood loss--"

Miraculously, I heard the sound of sirens.

"It's been handled," Gunn said, putting his hand on my back to keep me from falling over. "Fred's outside with LAPD. Cordy convinced 'em to stay outside until we gave the signal."

"Signal? Oh, God, the signal!" Cordy cried, running out of the room at top speed. We could hear her hollering across the house. "All clear! All clear! We need paramedics now!"

"Lewis is dead," Laura said dazedly. "Wesley, she killed Lewis. Lewis was working with her and she killed him. Lewis is dead."

I took her filthy, bloody hand and squeezed it. "I know. I'm sorry."

The paramedics rushed in then, swarming around Laura and me like flies. After being hurriedly deposited on a gurney and all sorts of other medically necessary things, Laura squealed.

"Wait a minute!" she said. "Wesley?"

"Yes?" I asked, busy being manhandled by an officious paramedic looking at my wrists and making clucking noises.

"What color are my eyes?"

I leaned down immediately and stared into Laura's eyes, trying to decide what color they were.

"Hazel," I said finally. "Plain, ordinary hazel."

She looked at me, eyes bright--and then burst into tears.

"Oh, thank God," she whispered before collapsing back against the gurney. "OK, we can go now."

We staggered out of the house then, but not before hearing Corinne's surprised cry:

"What do you mean, I'm under arrest? I just saved us all from big trouble, officer, big trouble--oh, right. All that stuff I allegedly did. You mean I'm really culpable for that?"


Epilogue

I spent the rest of the summer in a great deal of pain. It turned out that I had fractured both arms during all my struggling. Gunn and Cordelia took turns eating me out of house and home in the name of taking care of me while Fred temporarily took charge of doing research at Angel Investigations. It was a good arrangement, and one that made me miss work in about three days flat.

Laura was not as well off. She coded once in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, and spent a week in critical condition. Her healing took a long time, partially because of the severity of her injuries, but also because of the pain of losing her twin brother, whom she had really loved despite his premeditated betrayal and cruel misuse of their unstable cousin.

"Lewis didn't deserve this," she said sadly one afternoon when I visited her. "Not the curse, not the things my parents did to try to prevent it, none of it. Not even Corinne deserved what happened to her."

"I know," I said. "But we have to live somehow. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. And more often, good things happen to people who don't deserve it."

"And we have to try to be worthy of the good things, right?" Laura asked with a sarcastic laugh. "Fair enough, I guess. I don't deserve to be the one free of the curse, but I am. So I'm going to stop feeling guilty and live."

It wasn't long after that when Laura finally got to leave California and head home to Birmingham. She had the attitude that even though things weren't perfect, she more than deserved to end her nunnish existence and that was exactly what she intended to do. I was impressed. She definitely was one that took lemons and made lemonade.

Corinne turned out to be the greatest surprise in the entire misadventure, though. The police declared her insane after five minutes of talking with her, but the psychologist wasn't as sure, and insisted I come in and talk with her and see if I could make any sense of what was going on.

"So why did you do all of it?" I asked.

"It's very simple," Corinne said, twisting her hands nervously. "I realized that Lewis hated the hell out of Laura when I first came to live with them, but that Laura had the right idea. However, I had to keep Lewis from killing Laura, so I pretended to side with him. That was before he cut his wrist and stuck it in my mouth one night."

I shuddered.

"Yeah, that sucked. It kind of drove me a little crazy. That's why I'm cool with being in here. Anyhow, after I got infected, I decided that I had to get drastic, because I wanted to have sex again. You know you were the first guy I had sex with in a year? Damn, I was horny. It made get a little overboard."

She smiled one of her crazy smiles, which reminded me that she was a mad genius, not just a genius.

"Right, so then what?"

"So then I had Lewis find me books. And we looked and looked and looked, and then we found the one your dad had lying about, and THAT was the key to everything. Lewis thought we were just going to, you know, call up the crazy evil demon lord. However, the book had the key to banishing Asmodeus for all time, but I couldn't risk trying my plan to banish Asmodeus on a family member, because they're crazy and Southern."

The sanity was almost more terrifying than the craziness. I listened in awe.

"Anyway, to make a long story short, I planned the little fight with Laura at the funeral so that she would get pissy and set an Ayanavi on me, because Laura had the prissy virgin thing going on. That way, I had a legitimate excuse to get to you."

"So I was part of your scheme the whole time?" I asked.

"Well, no, only after I saw you in that article with Virginia Bryce, that snatch," Corinne said. "I realized you would be a very very attractive host for Lord Asmodeus, and so I ran with it. Not bad, hmm?"

"Only a crazy person could have thought of it," I said admiringly.

"That's why I'm in the mental institution," she said cheerfully. "At least until I get over the crazy."

I left the hospital feeling very lucky that I wasn't there next to her.

Then again, Corinne could run the air conditioner all the time in mental institution. And her arms didn't itch like a nasty case of poison ivy.

"Cordy, I itch," I complained, feeling like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window.

"Serves you right," Cordelia said through a mouthful of Ben and Jerry's Concession Obsession. She was completely engrossed in the Sopranos and not paying the least bit of attention to me. "We could have avoided all of this if you'd just been a professional and not boinked a client."

"Said client was a professional nutjob who used dark enchantments to lure me into a compromising position and then got homicidal."

Cordy shrugged. "Yeah, but I bet you would have had sex with her anyway," she said. "You were a drool-puppy the minute you laid eyes on her. Hey, speaking of clients, how's her cousin?"

"She left me her phone number in Birmingham when she paid us," I said. "I'm supposed to look her up sometime. She wants to have lunch."

Cordy snorted derisively. "That's code, isn't it?"

"For what?"

"For come have me for lunch?" she asked, looking sour-lipped and annoyed at the idea for some reason.

"Well, probably, but I don't think I'll be up for trips to Birmingham for a while," I said. "A *very* long while."

"I so don't get it anyway," she groused. "OK, you're cute. But you're also a total dork. No offense, but it's true. So how come you have the harem?"

I wasn't about to tell her that I didn't know. So I made up a few reasons.

"In my defense, I was a bigger dork when I was madly infatuated with you in Sunnydale. And a terrible kisser," I said, joining her on the couch and itching fruitlessly at the skin I could reach under my casts. "You're prejudiced. You knew me when I was a total dolt. It took me a while to become the suave gent you see before you."

She grinned and tossed her head, snorting again. "You were cute for a giant dork. And you weren't Xander," she said. "But you are a terrible kisser. And you're suave like Angel's a good singer."

Oh, so she had asked to get a lot of little digs in. Fine. Great. But I wasn't going to allow myself to be misrepresented.

"I'm a lot better now. Seriously. If you weren't practically my sister, I'd show you just for the sake of argument," I said.

"Are you really that desperate for feminine attention?" Cordy asked.

"No," I replied, deadpan. "I just can't have you ruining my reputation."

Cordelia wrinkled her nose and gave me a disgusted look.

"Fine. OK. You are so on. One kiss, Mr. 'I'm Too Sexy For My Shirt' Pants," she said. "The Sopranos is over, anyway. But this is just for the sake of argument, you understand."

"Of course," I said.

Cordelia leaned back, smirking at me with an air of challenge in her folded arms and every muscle. She half-closed her eyes and puckered up like a ten-year-old girl who's only seen romantic kisses in the movies.

Fine. I leaned over and started with Cordelia's beauty mark, and then kissed my way up, noticing that she was no longer pursing her lips critically. I took that as the opportunity to meet her lips with mine, pressing against them gently, and when Cordy, to my surprise, starting kissing back, well--

Explaining a good kiss is extraordinarily difficult. There are mechanics with tongues, teeth, and lips that sound silly when they're actually quite erotic. Let it just be said that it was a good kiss.

After a good solid minute, I pulled away and smiled at Cordelia. She stared at me with what looked to be appreciation. I hoped it was appreciation anyway.

"Oh my God, where did you learn that?" she asked. "You have to show my next boyfriend how to do that. I'm serious. I'll pay you to teach him that thing with the tongue."

I grinned smugly. Score one for me.

"Well, I might have to charge if you want me to do a physical demonstration for him," I said, but Cordelia was ignoring me. In fact, for some reason, she was picking up the phone and making a call. "Cordy?"

"Gunn? Cordy," she said after a pause. "I win the bet."

"Bet?" I asked. Bloody hell.

"No, he's a REALLY good kisser. If he'd kissed me like that when I was in high school, we would have probably been too busy making out to make graduation. Which, considering that my high school blew up during my graduation, might have been a good thing. But you still owe me five bucks."

"Five dollars?" I squawked. I should have known. Cordelia put her hand over the receiver and looked at me like I was insane.

"I'm sorry I don't have four thousand dollars to spend on your ability to slip me the tongue, but if you don't mind, I'm on the phone with Gunn!" she snapped at me.

I stared at her in horror as she went back to her telephone conversation.

"Okay, yeah, I'll ask him," she said about fifteen seconds later. "Gunn wants to know if you'll show him your suave techniques."

"I'll even put on the Barry White," I said sourly. "And use mouthwash."

"Ooh," Cordelia said, going back to the phone. "I've got to go. Wesley is pouting. Bye, Gunn."

She hung up and started laughing. After a minute, so did I.

"We would have been a very bad match," I said.

"Horrible," she agreed. "I can't even think about it now. You're like my brother, except not really, because then that kiss would have been disgustingly wrong."

"Very wrong."

"We're not going to kiss again, Wesley," she said matter-of-factly.

"Right then. So what was the bet?"

"That you were such a slut that you'd even try to put the moves on me even though we're utterly not suited for each other," Cordelia said.

"It was a informational kiss! There was no sluttage involved," I protested, taking the opportunity to steal the remote back and tune into the History Channel.

"Informational kiss? So what was the tongue part? Just a little extra bonus information?" she asked. "Slut."

"Egotistical bitch."

"Prissy kiss-ass."

"Dimwit."

"Bimbo."

"Unfashionable cow."

"Skanky manwhore."

And so we insulted each other for the rest of the evening, stealing the remote back and forth, bitching about whatever the other put on TV, and generally doing the things we did when things were normal.

Then Angel called us about a saber-toothed Rheinholt beast that was torturing Century City, but that's a story for another time.

THE END


Notes: As per usual, I have not an original idea in my head. The source source of the demon curse was from Tanith Lee's "Book of the Damned" which is pretty good reading. I altered it, but I definitely owe a bit to the book. For once, I don't have to name sixty songs I stole, go me, but I do need to make some thanks, and that is to Christine for doing a good quick beta, and to Jaina and spicedrum for encouraging me along. Thank you guys so much. Anyway, I plead for feedback. jenniferoksana@yahoo.com

Jennifer
************
"I'm blaming it on the bossa nova!"
Visit my domain: http://www.imjustsayin.net


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