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Deja Vu

by Little Heaven

Disclaimer: The characters described within are property of Mutant Enemy Productions, 20th Century Fox, Joss Whedon, David Greenwalt and associated individuals/companies. They are used without permission, expectation of profit or intent of infringement. Notes: Alternate Universe, set after 'Dead End', Season Two. A huge thank-you to Laurie for the uber-beta and words of encouragement, and to the Angel Fanfic Workshop.

By Little Heaven (


Cordelia sat in her darkened bedroom, her knees pulled up against her chest. The hard wooden back of the chair felt good and solid behind her. The cut on her side still smarted, but she'd been lucky. The others had fared much worse.

She cast a watchful eye over Angel. He still slept, his skin bruised and lacerated, iridescent in the moonlight that slanted through her window, illuminating the bed. She wondered again if he would be okay when he woke. Had he slept for too long? Certainly long enough that she could have cleaned the blood off the couch, and mopped up the worst of the mess in the bathroom. But she couldn't leave his side. Oh God, this was all her fault.

It seemed like a lifetime ago, not forty-eight hours, since they'd all been together in the hotel, laughing and messing around. Okay, so things were a little tense after Angel came back from his big dark-a-thon. But it was exciting to be back in business, the whole team together again, even if the hierarchy was a little different. They were finally getting back on track.

Now their future, and everything she held dear, teetered in the balance. Her mind spun, a ferris-wheel of doubt, wondering if any of them could have done anything different.

Chapter One: The Gypsy

Angel leaned on the balcony railing, looking down into the lobby of the Hyperion Hotel. It had been a quiet night. Come to think of it, it had been a quiet week. Blowing up Wolfram & Hart's 'spare limbs' facility seemed to have initiated a state of limbo in the City of Angels.

He rolled his soccer ball around under his foot, and looked at the people below -- people he was afraid he'd lost for good. Cordelia sat at her desk, casually flicking through a copy of Cosmopolitan. Gunn tapped his pen on the table, staring into the dim recesses of the room. Wesley, as usual, was catching up on his research.

The little sounds they made -- breathing, turning pages, the odd cough -- barely dented the thick silence. The whole hotel seemed to be holding its breath; waiting. Angel often got that impression in this most haunted of places. Maybe that's why he liked it. A building that brooded as much as he did.

"Eeewwwwww!" Cordelia's voice drifted up the stairs, as she wrinkled her pretty nose.

"What?" asked Wesley, looking up from The Compendium of Exoskeletal Demons.

"You wouldn't believe what they suggest doing with a banana! Messy." She shuddered.

"Bananas can actually be used in many different recipes," Wesley began to say, before his eyes flicked towards the cover of the magazine, and an expression of horror washed over his face. "Oh my, good grief." He sank down into his chair and hid behind his book.

Angel's soccer ball sprang over Cordelia's desk, making her jump and sending her pencil pot flying. "Sorry," he said as he ran past, catching the ball on his toe and dribbling it around the couches.

She stared at him. "Since when were you keen on soccer, David Beckham?" Her voice oozed suspicion, and she shot him a few more questioning glances as she knelt to retrieve her pencils and pens from the floor.

"It's the most popular sport in the world," he said, as if that satisfactorily explained everything. It came out sounding less than convincing. Idiot. He stared at the high ceiling. Now she thinks you're even weirder than before.

He looked back, watching her place the resurrected pencils on her desk. She slipped back into her chair, crossing her legs slowly. Did she know how sexy that was? The way she moved drew him in, sucking all his focus to the point in the room where she sat. Was she thinking about him? Did she care that he was trying so hard to make things better? Did she realize that if she moved slightly, he could see her underwear? Just a little to the left, Cordelia...

"Hello, Earth to Angel?" Her voice cut into his trance a second before the eraser she threw bounced off his forehead. He opened his mouth, and shut it again, embarrassed. How long had he been staring at her?

"Good shot, Cordelia." Wesley sounded impressed.

"So much for the super-vamp reactions," Gunn snorted.

"Care to take them on? A little 'match of the day' perhaps?" Angel said, his manhood affronted, and desperate to distract his colleagues from what they must have been thinking.

"Yeah, it's a while since I opened up a can of whoopass," Gunn said, rubbing his hands together. "How d'you play soccer, anyway?"

"Gunn, really. It's football. Take your foot -- kick the ball. It's not rocket science." Wesley rolled his eyes.

"Cordelia?" Angel looked over to her, trying not to sound pathetically hopeful.

"No thanks, whooping ass sounds like sweaty work, and besides -- heels?" She raised her foot, letting the impractical, strappy sandal dangle provocatively from one toe, to illustrate her point.

Okay, now he could see her underwear, a little triangle of white silk peeking out from beneath the hem of her short denim skirt. Angel blinked twice, ripped his gaze away and swallowed hard. Ever since he'd returned from the dark chasm that Darla had dragged him into -- and ultimately released him from -- everything Cordelia did drove him just a little crazy.

He risked another glance at the sandal. Make that a lot crazy.

One moment she was Cordelia, best friend and Seer, the next she was Cordelia, center of his universe, sexy goddess. What should have been a rogue thought, slouching around in the shadows of his mind, had escaped. It was on the loose, running rampant through his head, an out-of-control beast that no amount of willpower could cage. His epiphany had contained more than a few surprise discoveries, and this one had totally thrown him.

Play some soccer. Burn it off. "Whoopass -- right. Wesley?"

"Well, if you think you could use me." Wesley put his book down.

"You're English. Aren't you all good at soccer?" Gunn said, poker-faced.

"I could've been an international football player, actually." Wesley drew himself up proudly, with a glint of mischief in his eye. "But I wasn't a good enough kisser."

"Huh?" Gunn looked alarmed.

"I don't get it," Angel said.

"You haven't had to kiss him," Cordelia sighed. "He's not lying."

"Yes, thank you, Cordelia." Wesley glared at her. He retrieved the ball and began toeing it around the lobby, before passing it back to Angel.

"Humans versus Vampires?" Gunn winked at Angel, who was about to protest at the inequity of two against one. "Seein' as you're stronger than the average bear an' all."

They dragged the furniture around to form two goals, opposite each other. Angel noticed Cordelia lay down her magazine to watch them play. Now was no time to suffer from performance anxiety.

He dribbled right, then left, scooting around Gunn. This was gonna be so easy. Wesley leapt in to tackle him.

"Angel, be gentle, Wesley's stomach!" Cordelia cried, wincing as the two went down in a heap.

"He tackled me," Angel said, trying to prove his innocence from his prone position. Upside-down, Cordelia frowned back, apparently unimpressed.

"Ow." Wesley put a hand to the spot where he'd been shot, grimacing.

"Wes, I'm sorry," Angel gasped, trying to help him sit up.

"I am the man! I am -- aren't I?" Gunn shouted, pointing to the ball, which now sat in Angel's goal.

Wesley leapt up, apparently miraculously feeling better, and rushed at Gunn. He leapt into the bald man's arms, planting a big, wet kiss on his forehead. Gunn's expression turned from delight to panic.

"Hey!" Angel protested, realising he'd been scammed.

Gunn shoved Wesley away, wiping his face in disgust. "Dude! Gross!"

"That's what you do when you score a goal. Honestly," Wesley said, looking embarrassed.

Now that Angel understood the joke, he was even more disappointed that Cordelia wasn't playing.

"Damn, no wonder the sport never caught on here. I ain't playin', if that's the rules," Gunn huffed.

"You're safe Gunn. It's not like you're gonna score another goal." Angel scowled, annoyed at being made to look silly in front of Cordy. Like he wasn't doing a good enough job of that by himself... He launched himself at the ball with renewed vigour.

"Guys..." Cordelia's tone was reproachful. The ball was bouncing all over the lobby. Angel and Gunn were vaulting couches. "You're gonna break something -- or someone." She shook her head in resignation.

There was a loud crash of wood on wall as the doors of the Hyperion flew open. A girl came running in, bloody and crying, staggering to her knees. She looked as if hell itself had opened up behind her. Gasping for air, she clutched at her chest, unable to speak. The men immediately abandoned their game, the ball rolling away, forgotten, as they all spun towards the entrance.

The girl struggled upright, lurched forward, and lost her footing again. She sprawled down the stairs to the lobby floor, where it appeared she just gave up the will to run any further, and lay sobbing. For a second everyone stared at her, startled. Cordelia rose up out of her chair.

Angel felt it again, the sense of waiting. He cocked his head to one side, let his senses sum up the situation. There was something familiar about the girl's smell, her dark hair, the fear that radiated off her in waves. Dj vu.

For a split-second he thought vividly of Darla, wondering why she had suddenly filled his mind, all lace and silk and immaculate blonde curls.

Gunn and Wesley both took a couple of steps towards the crumpled form on the floor, not sure whether to touch her.

There was another crash as the doors burst open a second time. A large grey scaly demon, with spikes down the sides of its face and green eyes, sprang forward, scanning the room. It located the girl in an instant, and launched itself at her, a cruel, jagged blade glinting in its fist.

Angel moved, his reactions lightning fast, blocking the blow as the demon lunged at the girl's trembling body. "Didn't your mother tell you it was rude not to knock?" he said. It turned to him, venom and malice burning in its eyes.

Angel could see Gunn and Wesley behind it, slowly moving for weapons. He punched the monster in the face, making it reel backwards. It regathered its balance, and swiped at Angel's midriff with the knife. Angel shimmied away, the razor-edge swishing through his shirt.

"Aw, now look what you've done," he chastised the beast, as the slashed fabric gaped open. Dammit, he liked that shirt. More importantly, Cordy liked him in that shirt. A low growl rumbled through his chest.

The demon raised its arm again, preparing for another blow. There was a slight 'squelch' as Wesley's throwing axe landed in the back of the creature's skull. For a moment it looked so surprised that Angel nearly laughed. Then the face began to crumple, and the whole monster collapsed in on itself. There was a small puff of acrid smoke as it imploded, and the axe clattered to the floor.

"My man!" Gunn exclaimed, giving Wesley the special 'high five' they'd developed post-gunshot-wound.

"Hey, a demon body that cleans itself up, I like that. Last thing we need in here is more dust," Cordelia said, stepping out from behind her desk, fanning the smell away with her Cosmo.

The whole incident had taken little more than a minute. The girl still lay on the floor, crying. Wesley knelt beside her and touched her arm. She jolted away as if his touch was electric, and heaved herself into a sitting position, pushing backwards and away with her heels. She looked wildly around the room. Her eyes conveyed absolute raw terror.

"It's okay, you're safe here. We won't hurt you," Wesley said in his soft English tone.

"Are you Angel?" she gasped.

"I am." Angel held out a hand to assist her to her feet. She looked so familiar. Dj vu again -- Darla, powdered face and lots of cleavage.

After a few protracted seconds, the girl reached out to accept his help. As their palms touched, a wave of dizziness washed through him. The lobby shimmered, transforming, the walls shrinking and closing in. The room became intensely familiar, and at the same time frightening.

Darla stood before him, a vision in silk and pearls. Her hair was tied on top of her head, small ringlets falling free and bobbing below her ears. This couldn't be happening again. He was awake, he was sure of it.

"Happy Birthday Angelus." Her little-girl voice made him tremble. He looked away, and as he cast his eyes around the room, fear gave way to delight. A girl lay bound and gagged on the hearth. His present. He remembered well.

"She is a gypsy." His voice sounded strange in his ears.

"I looked everywhere." Darla smiled, a smug smirk that meant she was pleased.

"What would I do without you?" He pulled her close, marvelling at how solid she felt in his arms. This couldn't be real...

"Wither and die," she said, kissing him wickedly. "She's not just for you -- I get to watch".

Angel felt the girl rip her hand from his, and as he gasped, the hotel lobby resurrected itself around him. She was on her feet, her eyes huge and wild, flicking between her palm and his face.

"Who are you?" He backed away, aware the rest of them were staring at him.

"I'm Cara." She was trembling, the words gushing out in a panicked rush. "I was sent to you. Something to do with a prophecy -- I don't understand any of it. I just want it over, and my mother said you could help. Please, make it stop!"

The tears spilling onto her cheeks made tracks through the dirt, and dripped onto her soiled clothing.

"We'll help you," Cordelia said reassuringly, raising her eyebrows at Angel. "Why don't we get you cleaned up, and then you can tell us all about it."

Cara cowered from her touch.

"It's all right, really. We won't let anything bad happen to you." Wesley held out his hands, palms up. His body language was a picture of sincerity.

The girl took a few deep breaths, nodded, and let Cordelia take her arm.

Cordy was trying to give Angel some space, and he was grateful. She read him well. "Take her to a guest room," he said. She nodded, and led the bedraggled girl up the stairs.

Gunn turned to Angel as soon as they were out of earshot. "What's going on, man?"

"Huh?" Angel barely glanced at him, his attention still focused on the empty staircase.

"Something's freakin' you."

"That girl -- she looks like... " Angel abandoned his sentence, shaking his head. It was impossible.

"Like what, Angel?" Wesley prodded.

"Like the gypsy girl Darla gave me for my birthday." Angel faced them. "The one whose family cursed me. That girl looks just like her -- she smells just like her." He shot another nervous glance back over his shoulder. "It kinda threw me for a second."

"Understandable," Wesley said, perching on the back of a couch.

An uneasy silence fell over the room, and the three men all looked up the stairs again momentarily, before quietly going back to their stations, deep in thought.

Half an hour later Cordelia returned, feeling like she had started a shelter for waifs and strays. Cara followed at a nervous distance. At least she was clean, her cuts dressed, and now that she was wearing some of Cordelia's spare clothes, she didn't smell quite so funky. In her right hand she carried a small pouch.

Cara seemed to be a quiet girl -- softly spoken, based on their stilted small-talk while she got changed -- but not shy. She was obviously not used to dealing with the kind of trauma that had befallen her tonight, however. Her face bore the same expression Cordelia had seen on most of their human clients -- that of someone who had discovered that everything they'd been told didn't exist, actually was lurking under their bed at night.

As they arrived in the lobby, her eyes were still a little wild with fright, but she looked much calmer than before.

Angel looked up from his makeshift desk. "Better?" He eyed her cautiously.

"Much, thanks. And thanks for before, for fighting that -- thing." Cara's attempt at a smile came out rather crooked. Angel looked uncomfortable, and responded only with a small nod.

Wesley hurried out of his office. "Shall we take a seat?" he said, motioning to the couches, which were now back in their correct positions. They all settled into the plush velvet cushions, Cordelia placing herself protectively between Cara and Angel. By the look on his face, Mt Everest would have created a more adequate barrier.

"Now, you'd better explain what's going on," Wesley said, rather gravely.

"I don't really know." Cara shrugged. "Up until a week ago I was leading a normal life. Then I turned twenty-one and everything went crazy."

"You mentioned a prophecy?" Wesley prompted.

"Yes, something to do with my family history."

"You're a gypsy," Angel said.

Cara gave him a sharp look. "Gypsy's kind of a derogatory term."

"Sorry, go on," he said, leaning back with a small sigh.

She took a deep breath. "I don't know much about my culture. Mom never told me. It was as if she was scared of telling me too much." She shrugged. "I didn't press her either -- I mean what teenage kid wants to be different from her school friends?" Cara looked around the group for a response. Cordelia nodded, remembering only too well how the desire to fit in had made her treat certain people in the past.

Cara continued, sounding a little more confident now. "On the morning of my twenty-first birthday, my mother came into my room and asked to see my legs. That's when we discovered this," she said, pulling up her cotton skirt, revealing her inner thigh. Two red marks adorned the skin -- a birthmark that looked exactly like a vampire bite.

Angel sprang to his feet, almost going over the back of the couch as he recoiled. The look on his face was a portrait of horror. His mouth dropped half open. His expression froze all the blood in Cordelia's veins. She knew that look. She hated that look.

"Oh God," he croaked. Cara stared at him, oozing fear and bewilderment.

"Angel?" Wesley reached up to put a steadying hand on the vampire's arm, but stopped short of actually making contact. Everything about Angel's stance screamed 'leave me alone'.

"What do you want from me?" Angel's eyes flashed amber as he raised his voice at the cowering girl.

"I don't know. I don't know what this means!" Her voice began to rise in pitch as she stabbed her finger repeatedly into the red blemish.

"Damn, Angel," Gunn said under his breath. "It's just a blotchy leg."

"Angel, calm down. Let her finish," Cordelia said evenly, trying to control the thumping of her heart. She wondered if he could hear it quickening -- sense that her calm tone was just a faade.

"My mother freaked too," Cara continued, the words tumbling out. "She started telling me I had to leave, that my life was in danger. She kept babbling about the mark; about the prophecy."

"What do you know of the prophecy Cara?" Wesley asked in a low voice.

"Very little. Mom didn't know the full details. Apparently years and years ago, my ancestors placed a curse on a vampire. At the time, they discovered some ancient prophecy. It said that a Romani girl would inherit his mark, and that she would be somehow significant to him. The ancestors were so vehement that this prophecy not be fulfilled, they decreed that if anyone's daughter developed the mark, she was to be killed," she said bitterly. "It all sounded so bogus. I mean, do vampires really exist?"

"Uh-oh, this is gonna be interesting," Gunn muttered, looking backwards and forwards between Angel and Cara. Cordelia elbowed him in the ribs.

"I -- I'm a vampire," Angel said, sinking back into his seat, his face several shades paler than normal. "I'm that vampire."

"Oh God, so it's all really true." Fresh floods of tears coursed down Cara's cheeks. For a moment Cordelia thought the girl was going to run, her body tensing as she stared at Angel. He stared back.

Wesley fished in his shirt pocket and produced a clean handkerchief. He always reminded Cordelia of a magician doing a trick -- there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply. Maybe it was an English thing.

Cara took the soft cotton square gratefully, wiping her face, the action seeming to calm her a little. "Mom said that the Elders would come, to check me for the mark. She said the only way for me to survive was to fulfill the prophecy, so there would be no point in anyone killing me. I thought she'd lost her marbles, but she seemed so sure of herself. She did a lot of research, and yesterday she found you." She cast another glance at Angel.

"I left straight away, but her questions must have tipped someone off. That thing came after me. I guess I didn't really believe, even then, that any of this was real." Her breath began to hitch again. "But it is. Oh, God, I need you to protect me, and to work out what I have to do," she begged. "I just want to get it over with, and go back to my life."

"Don't worry, we'll work it out," Wesley assured her. "And in the meantime, you'll be safe here."

"Yeah, we won't let nothin' hurt you," Gunn chimed in.

Cara rummaged in her little silk pouch, and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. "I almost forgot -- this might help you."

Wesley took it from her carefully. There was silence for a few moments, broken only by Cara's sniffles, as he studied the meager scrap.

"It's written in some ancient Romani dialect." He peered through his glasses with interest. "It may take some time to translate."

"Meantime, how about you get some rest," Cordelia said.

"That would be great." Cara nodded, pale and tearstained.

Angel sat in his suite, in the dark, slumped in his favourite chair. Why, just when everything seemed like it was coming back together, did he feel like he was about to fall apart again? He could sense the blackness, threatening to pull him under, back to that horrible dark place from which he'd recently returned. He didn't want to go there again. It was lonely, and really, really cold.

She was nearby, just down the hall. Her smell hung thick in the corridor, seeping in under his door. Sweet, strong, exotic -- the same smell as the terrified girl 100 years ago. She was one of them, just like -- Jenny Calendar. Guilt speared upwards through his gut, making his throat constrict painfully.

His chest began to churn, an unwelcome sensation that took him by surprise. Small beads of sweat broke out on his forehead. He gripped the arms of the chair harder, forcing the blood from his fingers, turning them completely white.

He was losing his mind. And next it would be his friends -- Cordy -- for good this time.

Breathe, Angel.

He didn't need to, but did it anyway, because at least it was something to concentrate on, other than the whirlpool of fear trying to suck him down. He closed his eyes, trying to meditate.

Breathe in.

"Can I take off this blindfold yet?"

The sound of his own voice startled him, like it had no business being in his head.

Breathe out.


Breathe in.

"Can I take off something else?"

"After I give you your present."

Breathe out.

"Happy Birthday Angelus."

Breathe in.

Cordelia. Her scent pervaded the room, driving away his darkness. It was like inhaling sunshine, scorching his chest with her warmth. He opened his eyes.

She stood beside him. He wanted to pull her close and never let go; to use her like a shield against the blackness that came to swallow him.

"You okay?" She kneeled on the floor beside him, close enough to lie a comforting hand on his knee. He relished her touch, as she stroked her thumb across his thigh.

No, I'm not.

"Yeah. I just wish I knew what it all meant." He leaned forward and rubbed his face with his hands.

She tipped her head to the side, frowning. "Well, if the whole clan wants to kill her, I'd say whatever she's supposed to do is a good thing, from our point of view. Surely, if she was supposed to harm you, they'd send a cheerleading squad?"

He shook his head, shrugging weary shoulders.

"Ooohh, maybe she's here to shanshu you!" She smiled, looking genuinely excited at the sudden thought.

"I don't know. I've got a really bad feeling about this."

"Of course you do. Gypsy girl turns up with your fang marks on her leg -- it's bound to wig you out." Her blunt statement almost made him smile, despite himself. She always cut through the crap and said it how it was, however inappropriate her choice of words.

Angel jerked upright in his seat. "Caritas."

"Oh, Angel, no. Not with the singing again." Cordelia looked at him in undisguised panic.

"Cordelia." He rolled his eyes. That joke was getting tiresome. "I'm not going to sing, Cara is."

"Thank God -- I mean -- great," she said, perking up immediately.

"I'm not really that bad -- am I?" Angel asked, his nerves beginning to settle as a grin quirked at the edges of Cordelia's mouth.

She patted his knee. "Whatever you need to tell yourself. I'll see you tomorrow".

He grabbed her hand as she stood up. "Cordy?"

"Yeah?" She looked at him, one well-groomed eyebrow arching inquisitively.


"Sure." Her fingers disentangled from his and she gave his shoulder a small encouraging squeeze, before slipping out into the hallway.

Cordelia leaned against the wall of the corridor and took a deep, shaky breath. She recognized that look on his face, the slightly unhinged glint in his eyes. It was there the day he fired them. And now it was back.

She couldn't take it again, that betrayal. She'd given him all she had, and he had still turned her out as if she meant nothing to him. It hurt worse than she wanted to admit, even to Wesley and Gunn.

More than that, she couldn't bear to lose him again. It would break her heart. He was all she had left in the world -- well, there were the guys too, but for some reason, mostly there was Angel.

Squaring her shoulders, she admonished herself for having so little faith in him. He'd promised things would be different, and he was different. He was trying really hard to be a good friend, something he never seemed to do before. That could only be a positive thing.

And he fell all over himself -- around her, mostly -- in an attempt to say or do the right thing. Cool-dark-and-brooding-guy was gone. So now he was -- what? Unable-to-form-a-complete-sentence-guy best summed him up.

At first she'd thought it was just the guilt, but Angel had been coping with guilt for the last hundred years of his existence, and she'd never seen the Keystone Cops version of him before.

Yet, somehow, it was an improvement. She swallowed hard, pushed the worry to the back of her brain, and headed for home.

Chapter Two: Looking For Answers

Angel wandered into the lobby, lured downstairs by the smell of freshly brewed coffee. He'd spent most of the night patrolling the seedy underbelly of the city, keeping himself occupied. There was nothing like beheading half-a-dozen Kralath demons to give you perspective.

Just before dawn he came home, showered, changed, and did some Tai Chi. Now he felt calmer, more centered, and determined not to let last night's events rattle him so much.

He couldn't go to pieces in front of them. He had a second chance, and if he blew it, they'd never trust him again, ever. He could not allow that to happen. He wasn't the guy who yearned to be alone, to sit in the dark and brood any more. He needed them around him. Especially -- her.

Cordelia was already there, breezing around in a bright floral print sundress. Gunn was polishing his beloved hubcap axe. Cara sat, looking self-conscious, on one of the couches, nibbling on a donut.

"Morning." Angel perched on Cordelia's desk. He didn't have to try too hard to smile when he saw her.

"Hey." She smiled back, coming towards him with a cup of warm blood. She was visibly relieved to see him more relaxed.

"Uh... Cordy." He glanced sideways at Cara as he took the mug -- as always, uncomfortable about feeding in front of strangers.

"Don't mind me," Cara said, putting her hands up. "After what's happened to me lately, this is way, way down on my list of disturbing. And I wanted to apologize for last night."

"Apologize?" He cradled the cup gratefully, sipping the warm red liquid. Cordelia had made it just the right temperature, as usual.

"Yeah, for busting in like that," Cara said, looking embarrassed.

"Who could blame you?" Cordelia said, sitting down at her computer. "And besides, we're here to be busted in on. Pretty much used to it."

Cara acted as if she hadn't heard. "And the bawling, God, I'm not normally that pathetic. You must think I'm some stupid hysterical female." She blinked at Angel.

"Used to that, too." Gunn grinned, not glancing up from the blade he was working on. Cordelia stuck her tongue out at him.

"Don't worry about it," Angel said, trying to avoid Cara's dark eyes, and concentrating hard on not inhaling her scent.

He sat there, drinking his breakfast, and banging his heels against Cordelia's desk until she looked up at him, scowling. "Angel!"

He remembered the piece of paper. "How's Wesley getting on?"

"Still at it." Cordelia nodded towards the office door.

"Might get a progress report," he said, swallowing the remaining blood. He dumped the cup on her desk, hurrying into Wesley's office.

"And you couldn't put it in the sink?" she asked the empty space where he'd just been.

"That's really gross," Gunn muttered. "You're gross, man," he called to a retreating Angel.

A small giggle came from the couch. "Men, huh?" Cara smiled wryly.

"He's usually pretty good with his cups." Cordelia picked it up and looked at it with concern.

"So, Angel must be, what, 100 years old?" Cara asked.

"And the rest," Cordelia said, still examining the cup.

"Must be weird having that big an age difference with your -- boyfriend?"

Gunn made a small choking noise, but didn't look up.

"Boyfriend -- uh, no! God no, we're just friends," Cordelia sputtered.

Cara raised her eyebrows. "Oh, I just assumed, the way he looked at you, I thought you were -- y'know?"

"Pffft, not Angel, he's just a friend."

Angel shook the ex-watcher's arm. "Wesley, wake up!"

"Oh, uh, what?" Wesley's head jerked up from the desk. "Oh, Angel, I am sorry, I must have dozed off," he said, trying to straighten his glasses.

"You got a bit of drool." Angel touched the corner of his own mouth to illustrate.

"Oh, heavens," Wesley muttered, wiping his sleeve over his mouth and looking at the books and papers scattered all over his desk.

"How far did you get?" Angel asked, plunging his hands into his pockets and fidgeting from foot to foot.

"Well, it's all rather cryptic, I must say," Wesley sighed. "We know one thing for certain. Cara is directly descended from the sister of the girl that Angelus killed."

Angel grimaced. "Hence the resemblance."

"Indeed. The prophecy itself is less clear." Wesley raised his scribble pad to read aloud from it. "'One and twenty years shall pass. The daughter shall be marked with his sign. She alone can consign to eternity that which is fleeting. By the joining of the temples, so shall it be.' That's all there is, and it doesn't make much sense. Maybe some of the content is missing."

"Well the first part is obvious, she developed the mark at twenty-one, but the rest...?" Angel said, wondering for the hundredth time why prophecies regarding him were so damn non-specific.

"Some of the words could also have more than one meaning," Wesley admitted.

"Like with 'Shanshu'." Angel ran a hand through his hair. "Do you think that's why she's here?"

"Nothing points to that. In fact it seems the opposite. Making you mortal would not consign you to eternity, but prevent you from achieving it," Wesley said. "At this point I still have no real idea what to do to help this girl."

"Great, just wonderful," Angel sighed, realizing he was actually kind of desperate to get rid of her. He could do without the mental anguish right now.

"On the bright side, I don't think she's here to harm you."

"Comforting, Wesley." Angel paced the room for a few seconds. "I think we should go to Caritas tonight."

"Good idea. You want Cara to sing?" Wesley asked, starting to tidy up his books, and looking relieved to be doing so.

Angel decided he liked Wesley more and more these days. "Exactly."

Angel woke from his afternoon nap with a start, loud noises downstairs disturbing his sleep. He dashed for the door, and then ran back to the dresser, wrenching on a pair of sweatpants before resuming his headlong rush.

He sprinted along the corridor and down the stairs, three at once, making a mental note to stop sleeping naked while they had a houseguest. His colleagues shot him a brief glance as he skidded to a halt by the reception desk.

"What's going on?" He looked around, puzzled. A small puff of grey smoke was drifting across the lobby.

"Chill, man. Just another one of those grey spiky things," Gunn said, looking nonplussed.

"You should have called me." Angel shifted uneasily, not understanding their attitude. They were pretty relaxed considering what had just happened.

"Well, since you missed the one at one pm and the other one at three-thirty, we figured why bother calling you for this one?" Cordelia deadpanned, not looking up from the magazine she was buried in.

"They're not too bright," Gunn said. "They come bursting in the front door, all big and growly. It's like shooting fish in a barrel." He waved the crossbow he was holding, to make his point. "Guess them gypsies couldn't afford the more expensive head-hunting demons."

"Where's Cara?"

"Out in the garden. I think our uninvited visitors were making her a little nervous," Wesley said, stifling a yawn.

Cara shivered a little and pulled the borrowed cardigan tight around her shoulders as the sun's last rays disappeared from the little courtyard. She looked small and lost.

"You okay?" Angel asked. She jumped at the sound of his voice. He was used to that. People rarely heard him coming.

"A bit scared," she admitted, "but hey, not freaking out anymore, see?" She forced a smile and held out one hand to show him how steady it was.

"That's good. I'm glad," he said. He sat next to her on the bench, leaning his elbows on his knees, and clasping his hands in front of him. Her scent, drifting away from him on the evening breeze, made him think once more of that fateful night. "I won't lie to you, you make me pretty nervous."

"Me, too." She nodded, eyeing his bare chest. "I mean, you make me nervous. I never met a vampire before." She paused and laughed softly. "God, I never thought I'd come out with that phrase anytime -- well, ever. How did life get so weird, so fast?" she said, her eyes full of unanswered questions.

"I want to get this thing sorted out as much as you." He turned to her, suppressing the urge to shudder as he gazed into her disturbingly familiar face. "Wesley has translated the prophecy and it doesn't make much sense. But there is a way we could find out more."

"How?" she asked.



"I know a place, the guy there is psychic. He can give you a reading, but you have to sing," he explained. "And I should probably warn you, he's green, so don't be alarmed when you meet him. The red horns can be a bit off-putting, but really -- hey, what are you doing?"

Cara was pinching herself, hard, on the forearm. "Just checking." Again her soft laugh filled the air. "Yep, totally not dreaming."

"Sorry." Angel shook his head.

Cordelia watched him through the doorway, worried.

"I don't like this. I haven't seen him this rattled since the whole Darla nightmare," she said, walking back to Wesley and Gunn. She was looking for reassurance, hoping they'd tell her she was over-reacting.

"Seeing Cara will have dredged up a slew of painful memories," Wesley mused. "His dealings with gypsies haven't been happy, I understand?"

"God, Ms Calendar, I hadn't even thought about her," Cordelia gasped. This was so not good. Angel had to be freaking.

Gunn's frown indicated he was catching on fast. "And it's not so many weeks ago he was lockin' people in wine cellars with the fang sisters. You think this'll send him over the edge again?"

"Don't," Cordelia said. So it wasn't just her -- they all thought the same...

"Don't what?" Angel's voice made all them spin around.

Cordelia hoped she didn't look as startled as the other two. "Don't -- forget to, er, scrub behind your ears." She started shaking her finger at Gunn in a matronly fashion. "You don't wanna get that funky toe-jam smell back there."

"Girl, I always smell good," Gunn said, giving her the universal look for 'that was close'.

"Actually, I think I'm picking up a little residual demon goo," Angel said, stepping closer.

"Really?" Gunn sniffed himself, looking genuinely worried.

Cordelia wondered if Gunn actually did smell, or whether Angel was just taking her side. That was happening a lot lately. Another example of the weirdness that was him.

"Why don't we all go and get cleaned up," Wesley said. "After two days in these clothes I must smell worse than a slime demon."

Gunn laughed. "Well, I didn't want to say, dude, but..."

"And then, Caritas." Wesley cut him off, scowling.

"Yo, whoa. Do I gotta sing?" Gunn's panicked expression made Cordelia smile.

"No, none of us have to sing. Come on, it will be nice for us to all go out together for the evening -- however bad we smell." She winked at him.

"That's it, I'm taking a bath in those fru-fru oils you gave me for Christmas," he grumbled.

"Hey!" She slapped his arm. "Sandalwood is very masculine."

"Okay, Gunn, you take the girls to Cordelia's so they can bathe and change. Given the mental capacity of Cara's attackers, it should be safe for you to leave them there while you get -- masculine. Then you can escort them back," Wesley said.

"Gunn's Taxi Cabs -- service with a smile and a handsome driver," Gunn said, bowing low towards the girls.

"Meet back here in two hours. And be careful," Wesley said, picking up his jacket and keys.

Cordelia opened the front door of her apartment, letting Cara go in ahead of her.

"I'll pick you up in an hour," Gunn said, looking around the entrance one last time. "Don't open the door to anyone."

"We'll be fine." Cordelia fingered the small throwing axe in her bag. He nodded and left. "I feel like Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard," she muttered to herself, smiling at the sudden mental image of Kevin Costner coming to her rescue.

The door banged shut, apparently by itself. Cara jumped.

"Oh, sorry, that's just Phantom Dennis," Cordelia said, waving her hand in the general direction of the noise.

Cara plopped down on the couch. "You have a ghost." It came out as a resigned statement. "Of course you do."

"I think he prefers 'non-corporeal citizen'," Cordelia said, then quietly mouthed, "he's very sensitive." She raised her voice to normal volume again. "Dennis, can you guard the door please?" A small rush of air beside her confirmed he'd complied.

"Anything else I should know about?" Cara's tone was exasperated. "Plants that come alive, re-animated pets, possessed kitchen appliances?"

Cordelia rolled her eyes, laughing. "You've been watching too many horror movies."

The girls took turns to bathe and do their hair, and ended up in front of Cordelia's closet in their undergarments, trying to decide what to wear.

"You have some nice clothes," Cara said, her voice full of envy.

"Yeah, Angel bought me these." Cordelia pointed to the section of the wardrobe that had been carefully segregated, as if it were some sort of shrine.

"He buys you clothes?" Cara's eyebrows went up.

"Well -- he gave a bunch of 'em away -- long story. And most of the others have been covered in blood, or slime, or guts," Cordelia sighed. "Demon hunting should come with a uniform. Preferably a scotch-guarded one."

"He's really a nice guy, isn't he?" Cara said, holding a sweater experimentally against her torso.

"Uh, yeah, he has his moments." Cordelia eyed her warily.

"I can't believe you two aren't together." Cara shook her head in amazement. "He's so hot."

"Hey, whoa! He's a no-bone. Don't even think about it." Cordelia's voice was briefly muffled as she yanked a top on over her head. "One boff and goodbye Mr. Nice Guy. Post-coital Angel makes those grey things that are after you look like Care Bears."

"Is that because of the curse Mom mentioned?" Cara sat on the bed, looking horrified and fascinated all at once.

Cordelia shimmied into her low-rise pants, the ones that revealed a peek of her tattoo. "You really don't know anything about it?"

"Remember me, the one who thought the world was normal?" Cara raised her hand as if she were in class. "Anyway, even if Mom had known about it, I wouldn't have listened. I always thought all that old Romani stuff was totally lame."

"Well, now you need to know about it, since you're here because of it." Cordelia handed Cara a pair of jeans she thought would fit. "And it's not a pretty story."

She sat cross-legged on her bed, relating the tale, while Cara got up and began to dress. "About a hundred years ago, Angel was living in Romania. He fed on a gypsy girl who was related to you -- your great-great-great-whatever ancestor."

"That's why he wigged when he saw me, because I look like she did?" Cara asked, frowning.

Cordelia nodded. "I guess."

There was a moment of silence as the realization spread across Cara's face. "Did she -- die?"

"Well, duh!" Cordelia rolled her eyes. "She was his first, second and third course. Anyway, her -- your family got totally pissed, and put a curse on him. They gave him back his soul as a punishment for killing their favourite daughter."

Cara looked puzzled. "And what did that do?"

"It gave him back his conscience," Cordelia said, inhaling sharply as she suddenly wondered what it was like, living every day burdened with that much guilt. She wasn't sure she'd ever really thought hard about that before, or that she wanted to try it right now. "That's why he's working for redemption."

"And the no-bone part?" Cara raised an eyebrow.

"That's the curse's clause. If he experiences perfect happiness, he loses his soul -- turns back into his old evil self. And if you're Angel, perfect happiness apparently comes from getting groiny." Cordelia paused for dramatic effect. If Cara understood nothing else, she needed to get this.

"He says the curse isn't that black and white, but the proof is in the boffing. A while back, he went postal after a night of passion, and ended up being sent to hell for the summer. It was a whole big thing," Cordelia said. "So now sex is just not worth the risk. He's eunuch guy." Her tone was flippant, and only someone who had experienced those dark months would guess at the distress it hid.

Since meeting Angel in L.A., her greatest fear was always that Angelus would return. Knowing how he systematically broke Buffy, along with last year's brief drug-induced reminder, still gave her nightmares. The closer Angel got to someone, the more Angelus wanted to torture them. And Cordelia figured she was probably closer to Angel than anyone else these days. The visions connected her to him, causing their bond to grow stronger. As it did, so did the danger.

"Bummer," Cara said as the full impact of the tale finally dawned on her. "Forced to be sad and celibate forever, that's harsh." The cogs churning in her brain were evident as she paused for a moment. "Can he at least -- kiss?"

"Well, yeah, but what's the point? Can't ever lead to anything. Like I said, not worth the risk," Cordelia said sharply, emphasising the word 'risk'. Cara's line of questioning rang alarm bells in her head.

"Oh, well that sucks. Sounds like he kinda asked for it though. But what did I do to deserve this? That sucks too," Cara grumbled.

"Yeah, considering your family's trying to knock you off and all, I'd say it pretty much does." Cordelia bounced back off the bed, heading for the door, and making it clear the conversation was over. "Better hurry up, Gunn will be back in a minute."

Angel leapt up from his desk as Cordelia and Cara came flying through the hotel doors.

"I gotta stop making entrances like this," Cara muttered, from where she'd fallen onto the floor.

"Dammit, I looked so good before I got pushed over!" Cordelia cursed, trying to fix her hair and examine the graze on her elbow at the same time.

Angel was beside her in a second, concerned. "What happened?"

"Another one of those monster thingys," Cara puffed, half-rising, and leaning her hands on her knees.

"It jumped us when we got out of the truck." Cordelia flicked her head towards the doors. "Gunn's on it."

Angel pulled a handkerchief from his trouser pocket, licked it, and began dabbing at the wound on Cordelia's arm.

"Gross!" She yanked her elbow away.

"I -- I've seen other people do it," he stammered, taken aback. Why couldn't he do anything right around her these days?

"Yuk. Dog lick is cleaner that human spit," Cara said, straightening up and wiping her trembling hands on her jeans.

"But mine's -- vampire spit," he mumbled.

"Not helping, Angel." Cordelia said, shaking her head.

The stink of vaporised demon drifting in from outside heralded the fact that Gunn had been successful. They all turned towards the doors as he came in, looking anxious. "Those things are getting stronger. I don't like it."

"What things?" Wesley came out of his office, newly-clean, polishing his glasses on his shirt.

"Satan's little helpers. Gypsies must have raided their piggy bank, 'cause that one was much better at his job than the others," Gunn said, dusting himself down.

Cara pressed her hand to her mouth, eyes wide. "They won't stop until I'm dead."

"We won't let that happen Cara." Angel's voice was quiet but firm.

Cordelia let Angel usher her and Cara through the metal detector. She liked it when his chivalrous side came out. She wondered if he'd throw his treasured leather coat over a puddle for her... "Oof," she grunted, running smack into Cara, who had stopped abruptly. She gave the gypsy a gentle prod in the back. "Oookay, causing a traffic jam here."

"Sorry -- I feel like I've just arrived in the bar-room scene from Star Wars," Cara said, staring at Mordar the Bentback, who was ordering a drink.

"You think he looks bad, wait til he starts singing," Cordelia said, grimacing.

The Host bustled towards them, beaming all over his green face, and dressed in a criminally bright purple suit. Cordelia gave him points for courage with his color selection.

"Well, if it isn't the Fanged Crusader," he gushed, his smile fading to an expression of concern as his red eyes came to rest on Cara. "And who is this little peach?"

"Cara needs a reading," Angel said, squinting against the purple glare.

"Well, you know the drill, big guy." The Host motioned to an empty table.

"Here, pick something," Angel said, putting the songbook down in front of Cara as they all sat down.

She screwed up her face. "I've never been very good at getting up in front of people."

"Just imagine everyone naked, that's what I do." Cordelia smiled.

"You do?" Angel said, looking up sharply.

"U-huh." Her smile faded as she thought of that dreadful play Angel and Wesley had seen her in. She'd tried it then -- quite an unwise idea on that occasion. Visualising her best friends in the nude was icky. And some people were better left clothed -- especially Wesley. No wonder she forgot half her lines. And then... She shivered, glancing from Angel to Cara.

Cara's eyes flicked back to Mordar again. "Not sure if that would help. I mean, what do any of these guys look like naked?"

"Don't ask me," Gunn chuckled, holding his hands up. "I don't even get to see girls naked, let alone demons."

The waiter deposited a carafe of wine on their table.

"Dutch courage." Wesley poured a glass and placed it in front of Cara.

"Now that will help," she said, gulping down several large mouthfuls.

Cordelia looked pointedly in Angel's direction. "And what about food?"

"You want me to buy dinner?" He looked around as if someone else would materialise and offer to pay.

She enjoyed watching him squirm. "Yes, Uncle Scrooge. It was your idea to come here. Think of it as penance for firing us." She folded her arms across her chest and scowled at him. She knew he had no defense against that look.

"Bro, I think I'm gonna explode," Gunn puffed, leaning back in his chair as he surveyed his empty plates and expanding stomach.

Angel was beginning to regret offering to pay for everyone's meals, despite the huge smile Cordelia had produced when he'd first agreed. "Well, there was no need to have three main courses," he grumbled.

"Yeah, there was! It was free," Gunn said.

"Thank you, Angel, it was very nice." Wesley dabbed his mouth with a napkin. "We really appreciate it -- don't we, Gunn?"

The twinkle in Gunn's eye contradicted his belligerent tone. "Yeah, what English said."

"Okay, I think I've got it," Cara said, slurring and waving the songbook dangerously close to her and Cordelia's drinks.

"Finally," Angel muttered under his breath. "Any longer and I would have gone up there myself."

He felt a sharp pain as Cordelia kicked his shin under the table, provoking a slight growl. She poked her tongue out at him, and he tried to suppress his smile. As usual, he failed.

"Excellent, what did you pick?" Wesley asked.

Cara held the book up, displaying her choice to the group. "I thought I might do something from Saturday Night Fever."

"Oh yes, a splendid movie. John Travolta cut quite a dash in that white suit of his. I always wanted one of those," Wesley said, with an enthusiasm that Angel found rather disturbing.

Gunn nodded, eyeing Wesley's current attire. "That explains a lot."

"Ewww, hello, disco?" Cordelia's distaste was evident.

Angel rubbed his hands over his face, trying to erase the mental image of Wesley in white flares. When he looked up again, Cara was already approaching the stage, weaving across the floor.

"I think I might just have a dance," Wesley said, standing so fast his chair nearly toppled over.

"Oh, man, this I gotta see," Gunn chuckled.

The Host's voice filled the room. "Hey, everybody, give it up for our little disco inferno, Cara!" He handed her the microphone and backed into the shadows.

Angel watched her scan the audience nervously. Her eyes met his and he smiled, trying to look encouraging. Her cheeks flushed. He hoped it was due to the wine, and not because she was imagining him naked. God, he hated Karaoke. She smiled back, and began to sing.

The Host sat down next to Angel. "Thank Aretha, one of your party can hold a tune."

Angel was relieved too. After the Wang Chung incident, he wouldn't blame the Host from banning him or his companions from the bar. "Yeah, she's all right. What are you getting?"

"Patience, Angel cakes, we're not even up to the chorus yet," the green man chastised him.

Wesley was gyrating around in front of the stage, attracting shouts of amusement from the crowd of demons seated nearby.

"Woohoo, Wesley!" Cordelia yelled.

"That dude has no rhythm." Gunn shook with laughter.

The Host looked worried. "Is he dancing or is that a medical condition?"

Cara was warming into the song a bit now, belting out the chorus.

"If I can't have you, I don't want nobody, baby..."

The Host and Angel sat in silence as she completed the rest of the song. It ended with a hearty round of applause, which may have been for the singing, or for Wesley's unconventional dancing, Angel wasn't entirely sure.

As the Host departed to intercept Cara on her way down from the stage, Wesley collapsed into his seat, breathing hard.

"Dude," Gunn said, waving a cocktail umbrella at him. "Just when I think your dancing can't get any scarier, you prove me wrong."

"I thought he was very -- brave," Cordelia giggled. Angel loved that sound. She made it all too infrequently these days.

Wesley leaned forward, patting his brow with a napkin. "Actually, I wasn't just enjoying myself. I've made a bit of a discovery."

"Other than the fact your dancing should come with a health warning?" Gunn grinned.

"It's quite hard to see from this table, but near the stage I had an excellent view of two grey spiky fellows that may not be here just to enjoy the ambience," Wesley said, looking very pleased with himself. "The dancing was just an excuse to get a closer look without being too conspicuous."

"Oh, yeah, nobody noticed you at all," Gunn said, rolling his eyes, and earning a slap from Cordelia.

"Well, good for you, Mr. Sherlock Holmes," she said to Wesley.

Angel twisted his head, trying to find the demons Wesley referred to. Sure enough, there they were, cooling their heels in a booth on the far side of the room. He should have seen them as soon as they arrived. "Damn." He banged his hand down on the table in frustration. Cara had his head all messed up. He felt several pairs of eyes on him, and looked up at Wesley. "I'm sorry, I missed them. I guess I'm a bit -- distracted."

"Hey, man, we're all guilty," Gunn said. "None of us noticed them except Wes."

Wesley nodded. "And in any event, they can't hurt her here, and we can't hurt them. Even if we saw them before -- what could we do?"

"We should try to get Cara out of here without them noticing. The Host would have a cow if we started a slay-fest on his front doorstep," Cordelia said.

"Yes, we should keep a very close eye on them," Wesley agreed.

The Host sat Cara down at a secluded table near the back of the nightclub. She looked tired, nervous, and just a tad pissed off. He sighed. This wasn't going to be easy. "It's confusing, isn't it, honey-bun."

"You can say that again," she grumbled. "Can you tell me what's going on? Because nobody else seems to know." Her eyes flashed with vague annoyance.

"You have a great gift for our broody friend over here -- and it's one he's earned."

"And?" She nodded, waiting for more. The Host shrugged, sorry that was all he had.

Her expression turned from one of expectation to out-and-out anger. "But I don't know what it is, or how to give it to him," she snapped. "And I want to, before someone -- or something, kills me!"

The Host surveyed her in silence. Her aura was infused with magic -- and he wasn't sure it was all the good kind. But her intent was pure, and she spoke the truth. Such a shame she was unlikely to survive the week. "I know this is frustrating, but I don't have an answer for you, muffin. All I can do is set you on your path. And your path lies with the Motley Crue over there."

"That's it? Follow the yellow brick road?" She sagged back in her chair.

"Something like that. Whatever's coming, it's going to be difficult. You need to be strong, and stick close to the big guy. It's the only way this will end well. Your life is in grave danger -- you have to trust them to protect you, however scary things get. Can you do that?"

"Yes," she sighed, her face closing off, any last scraps of hope fading away.

"Good. Now go easy on the happy juice, I see a hangover in your near future, pumpkin. Remember, the body is the temple of the soul. Look after it," he said.

Cordelia looked up from her coffee as Cara staggered over and slid into a chair. She recognized the defeated look on the gypsy's face -- the same look that had stared back out of her own mirror every day between arriving in LA and the day she met up with Angel. She wondered what on earth the Host had said.

"Well?" Angel asked, voicing her question.

Cara shrugged. "Still none the wiser as to what I have to do, or what the result will be. He just said I had a great gift for you, to stick to you guys like glue, and that I was going to be hung over tomorrow -- like I need a psychic to tell me that! I need another drink." She sat down, reaching for the carafe.

"That's it?" Gunn asked, eyes widening in disbelief.

"Don't worry, Wesley will work it out," Cordelia said, in what she hoped was a reassuring tone. She looked to her companions for support, but received none. Their last hope at working out the prophecy was a bust. They looked as depressed as Cara.

"C'mon guys, cheer up." She turned on her biggest smile for them. It was no time to wallow in disappointment. They needed to get Cara out of the club, and back to the hotel in one piece.

"Not good enough," Angel said, pushing his chair back. "There has to be more."

He looked less depressed now, but more freaked. The last thing they needed was for him to lose his temper and get thrown out. If there were more bounty hunters waiting, Cara would need all of them to protect her. Cordelia put out a hand to cover his. "It's okay, Angel."

"No, it's not." He rose, spinning on one heel and striding away.

Chapter Three: Welcome To My Wiggins

After several unsuccessful attempts, Angel cornered the Host by the bar.

"What sort of reading was that?" He gripped a purple arm, restraining the demon.

"Feel the love, Tinkerbell, and watch the creases! I can't read what I can't see. Sometimes I only get the cinematic trailer, not the director's cut with nine extra scenes."

Angel didn't let go. "What did you see?"

"She's not here to hurt you. In fact, she's the one who should be afraid."

Angel nodded. "Yeah, there are assassins after her. I know that."

"They aren't the only ones. She'll be lucky to survive this," the Host said, his face grave. "She's in real danger, bro. Don't leave her side, or it could all be for nothing. Now, Rambo, I'm late for my 'Get' set, so unless you want to come up and sing with me..."

"Sorry." Angel let go.

He sat at the bar and nursed a beer while the Host ripped into 'Get Back' by The Beatles. Staring morosely into the amber liquid, he watched the bubbles rise and burst on the surface, wishing he could taste it like he used to before -- before Darla. He heaved in a reluctant breath, forcing the air back out with a rush. While Cara was here, that ghost was going to keep haunting him.

He wanted to leave. The club was too crowded; warm bodies everywhere, bright lights and too much noise. Too many humans and half-humans milling around, talking, drinking. He just wanted to go to his room, sink into his chair and stare into the dark. Anything to be away from the crowd. The need to get out became overwhelming.

But he couldn't go alone. He had to help the others get Cara out of the club first. And he was supposed to stay with her. However ambiguous the Host's readings were, his advice was usually right. Abandoning his drink, Angel jerked up from the barstool and looked around for his companions.

The Host was now blasting out a creditable version of Billy Ocean's 'Get Out Of My Dreams, Get Into My Car', and several patrons had congregated on the area of bare floor in front of the stage.

Cara bobbed up and down in the centre of the small crowd, apparently no longer bothered by her odd-looking dancing partners. The Angel Investigations team danced around her, glancing repeatedly at the assassin demons in their booth, and forming a human barrier between them and their target.

Angel stood on the edge of the group, trying to make himself heard over the music. "Come on, it's time to leave."

"What?" Wesley put his hand to his ear.

"We should go!" Angel shouted, just as the music stopped, so that the last word filled the gap between the song and the applause.

Everyone turned to stare at him. So much for being inconspicuous. He wanted to shrink into his leather coat and disappear like one of Cara's imploding demons. The Host glared at him disapprovingly.

Thankfully, the mellow tones of a piano drifted from the speakers, Brenda Russell's ballad 'Get Here', prompting the dancers to take a partner and snuggle close.

After two bars, Angel froze. Dj vu again, this time so powerful, it was as if someone had made it solid and smashed it across his face. He knew this song from... It was important that he remembered where.

He dredged around in his memory until he located the dream. The dream where he was dancing while the Host sang this exact song. Why did it seem so vivid, yet so strange? It had been no ordinary dream. He'd been dancing to this song -- with someone. Red dress, pale skin, blonde hair. Darla. He felt a growl rumble through his chest; cold prickles ran across his skin. He closed his eyes, inhaling deeply. Bad move. Cara's smell was close.

"Angel?" Her voice made his head snap up, and her hand touched his sleeve. "You okay?"

She filled his nostrils, and he fought it off a shudder. "Yeah, I, uh, don't like crowds," he said, swallowing hard, looking around, self-conscious.

"Dance with me?" She looked at him through her long, dark, lashes.

His automatic response came out through gritted teeth. "I don't dance."

"Aw, come on, it's easy," she slurred, winding an arm around his waist and pulling him close to her. She began to sway, while he just stood there, jaw clenched.

Now her aroma washed over him in waves. God, she smelled just like her ancestor. He remembered the girl's sweet taste. Cara's head drooped to rest on his chest. Her small fingers ran down his sleeve, fumbled for a moment, and then interlocked with his own.

As soon as their skin touched, the room began to bend, then waver. He looked around, trying to find Cordelia, but all traces of the club were gone. He was back in Borsa, in that house, in front of the crackling fire.

He glanced down at the girl in his arms -- his birthday gift, in all her gypsy glory. Her head was tipped to one side, milky neck exposed to him like an invitation.

Darla stood beside him. "Happy Birthday, Angelus."

His mouth began to water. Somewhere in the back of his brain, something screamed at him to pull away, let go and just run, but the sound of blood roaring under translucent skin drowned it out. She was his for the taking.

Cordelia glanced up from her dance with Gunn. "You see Cara anywhere?" she asked, worried.

"I thought you were watching her."

"I was too busy leading. You mean we lost her?" She looked around in desperation, doing a double-take as she spotted Cara in the last place she ever expected to find her -- in Angel's arms. He was -- dancing? For a moment she bristled with anger as she saw Cara pressed full-length against him. But before she could stop to wonder at her own reaction, her eyes reached his face, and her blood turned to ice.

He wasn't moving, just standing there with his eyes closed, jaw rigid. Cordelia saw him swallow once, then again, his lips moist, nostrils flaring. Then he opened his eyes, and she gasped. They shone pale amber, unfocused, restlessly scanning the room. She could see the battle being waged within, and realized Angel was losing.

Cordelia pulled away from Gunn, and took two swift steps towards the struggling vampire. "I'm cutting in," she said loudly, grabbing Cara's arm and yanking her aside.

Cara's hand broke contact with Angel's as she stumbled back. She was trembling and pale. If Angel looked totally out of it, Cara ran a close second. She drew a few shallow breaths, staring at Angel as if he were the devil himself. Gunn took her shaking hand and led her away.

Angel still stood there, motionless, amber eyes wide but unseeing. He was panting, small shallow breaths, and she could tell he had no idea where he was, or what was going on.

As she watched, his face rippled, ridges emerging, fangs extending. She'd been dreading this for so long. She expected to feel terrified of him, of his demon breaking loose. But to her surprise she felt only sadness, pity, and an irresistible desire to comfort him. He was lost, he needed her, and she was sure she could help.

Instinctively she wound her arms around his rigid body, pulling him to her and putting one hand up to stroke the back of his neck. "Angel, calm down, it's okay," she murmured, her lips against his ear.

A growl vibrated through him, making goosebumps break out on her arms, but she didn't pull away. "Angel, it's Cordelia. I've got you." She repeated the phrase like a mantra, until she could hear his panting subsiding, feel his jaw relaxing against her cheek. "Shhhhh," she whispered, swaying him gently in time to the music.

Angel blinked. The room was changing again. Borsa disappeared, and slowly the Karaoke bar formed around him. The urge to feed subsided, and the smell of gypsy blood no longer drowned his senses.

He felt his face change, and tried desperately to work out what had just happened, why he was in the middle of the dance floor, trembling. He rode out the dizziness, letting reality wash back over him, wondering what had stopped him from doing the unthinkable. One word turned over and over in his jumbled mind.

Cordelia. He smelled her everywhere, and realized it was she who held him in a warm embrace. The ringing in his ears faded, and he could hear her soft voice, soothing him. Whatever just happened, she had rescued him from it.

Of all the scenarios he'd dreamed up for holding her close, this was not one of them. But now, 'how' didn't matter. He just wanted to stay there forever, listening to her whispering in his ear, her impossibly soft cheek brushing his face. Her body heat seeped into him, driving away the cold. She was so warm...

Cordelia felt Angel's arms curl around her, his large cool hands splayed across her back, pulling her harder against him. Her breath hitched, and her heart hammered against her ribs. She wondered if she would feel his fangs against her neck -- but his touch was tender, his thumbs caressing her back through her top.

"Cordelia." Her name came from his lips as a jagged sigh. She leaned away just enough to see his face. His eyes, dark brown again, were moist with tears. "Don't..." He swallowed, his face etched with pain. His voice broke as he spoke. "I don't know what just happened to me."

"It's okay, you're fine now. You want to go home?" she asked, trying to ignore the horrible sinking feeling in her gut. He was losing it. When he nodded, she stepped away and took his hand, leading him to the table.

Wesley was sitting there, keeping an eye on the two head-hunters who now occupied a couple of bar stools, closer to the entrance. Gunn stood, shifting from foot to foot, obviously eager to leave. Beside him, an ashen-faced Cara gulped down a large glass of wine, visibly tensing when she saw Angel approach.

"Cordelia, what happened?" Wesley asked, surveying Angel with concern.

"He's not feeling well," she said in a quiet voice.

"Not feeling well?" he echoed.

"I, uh, had a funny turn." Angel looked at his boots.

"Yeah, close encounter with a dance floor." Cordelia forced a smile. "You know how that makes him. We should get out of here." She dropped to a whisper and leaned in towards Wesley. "And make sure Gunn keeps Cara away from Angel."

"I don't think that will be a problem," he said, glancing at the shaken girl.

They moved to leave, Gunn half comforting, half supporting Cara. She looked a bit green, and Cordelia hoped she didn't barf in Angel's beloved car. If he was upset now, that would send him totally over the edge.

"Uh, Cordelia," Wesley said, his mouth barely moving as he motioned to the bar with his eyes. The demons that wanted Cara were now sitting with their backs to the bar, watching the room. They were only feet from the exit, and would easily be able to tail three unarmed people, one roaring drunk and a freaked vampire into the alley outside. Angel was supposed to be their protector, but he looked in no fit state right now. Getting out of the club would be no simple task.

As the music stopped, inspiration struck. Cordelia climbed onto her chair, stuck her fingers in her mouth, and let fly with a shrill whistle. The majority of the patrons stopped talking and stared at her.

"What the hell?" Gunn muttered.

"Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen and -- things," she shouted. "For the next two minutes, free drinks at the bar." She leapt from the chair, catching Angel's hand in hers again. "Run," she hissed at Wesley.

The result was quite dramatic. As she dragged Angel towards the door, a tide of people and demons swamped the bar, shouting their orders at the horrified staff. She could see the Host, waving his hand at her, his face going an even more vivid shade of green. Cara's demons were pinned against the counter, unable to get off their seats.

"Good thinking, Cordelia!" Wesley yelled over the din as they fled.

As Gunn eased the car through the late night traffic, Cordelia kept a tight hold on Angel's hand. He was silent and unmoving, which wasn't entirely abnormal, but his face was pale and drawn -- more than usual -- and he made no attempt to push her hand away. Something was horribly wrong, and she didn't like it one bit.

By the time they reached the Hyperion, Cara was sound asleep, having nodded off in the front seat sometime between their hasty exit from Caritas, and dropping an exhausted Wesley at his apartment.

Gunn carried her inside. "I'll put her to bed and take the room next to her." He shot a glance at Cordelia. "You two okay?"

She nodded. "Yeah, thanks, Gunn."

Leading Angel up the stairs, she wondered what she would do when they reached his room. Just leave him there to brood? That approach didn't help last time. Oh God, was this 'next time'? Angel wig-out number two?

When they got inside, he finally pulled his hand away, and sank into his chair, slumping down, closing off.

She had to do something -- she couldn't let him retreat to wherever it was he went when life got too hard. "Want to talk about it?"

"No, I want to be alone." He looked up at her, face blank. Just like it had been the day he fired them, expressionless apart from his dark eyes, which betrayed his fear and confusion. This was not going to happen again, she wouldn't let it.

"No, you don't!" she exploded. Stamping her foot, she balled her hands into fists. "Don't you dare do this to me!"

"Cordelia..." he said on a sigh.

He was obviously in no mood to argue -- but she didn't care. "No, you listen to me," she snapped. "I will not let you push me away again. You promised it would be different now, but here you are, going right back into hermit mode."

"You don't want to know what's happening here. If I tell you, you won't trust me anymore..." He lowered his eyes to the floor. "And I can't risk losing you again."

She paced for a few tense seconds. Could he hear her heart, pounding in fear and anger? Could he tell her stomach was in knots with worry? Did he care?

"You just don't get it, do you? Ugh, Angel!" she shouted, stamping her foot again. He looked up, puzzled, and maybe a little frightened. His expression drained all the anger from her; God, Angel was scared. And he really didn't get it -- that much was clear -- so yelling at him probably wouldn't help.

Taking a deep, steadying breath, she walked over to him, and knelt down between his legs. Laying one hand on each of his thighs, she looked up into his face, and locked her eyes on his. Tears threatened, but she forced her voice to stay calm.

"Angel, you don't understand. You think I was mad because of the way you acted over the whole Darla thing?" He nodded, looking uncomfortable, and she sighed again. "Yeah, I was pissed about you firing me, and I was pissed about you giving away my clothes -- okay, a lot pissed about the clothes -- but what hurt most was that you shut me out. I thought you were my best friend. It hurt so much that you didn't trust me enough to ask for help. You should have told me what you were going through, Angel, you should have told all of us."

Her eyes brimmed over, and a tear streaked down each side of her face.

"I wanted to protect you," he whispered, his voice hitching. "You didn't deserve to be dragged down where I was going."

"But did you ever stop to think that I could've held you up?" More tears spilled, she couldn't hold them back. With uncertain fingers he reached up and brushed her cheek, wiping the warm salty drops away. She inhaled sharply, but didn't pull back.

"Angel, I know you feel like you're going crazy again, I can see it in your eyes. Sure that frightens me. But what scares me most is that you're going to close off, put that big wall up between us. Please don't do that anymore. Tell me everything, let me help," she begged, her lower lip wobbling.

He looked away, and she steeled herself for the trademark 'just leave me alone'.

"Promise you won't leave me, however terrible it sounds?" he said. It came out in a rush of desperation, and made her want to cry even more.

Her heart aching for him, she said, "I already promised you that. I'm with you until you live again, remember? As long as you let me stay, we're a team." Putting her hand against his cheek, she brought his gaze back to hers. "You Hero, me Vision Girl. Now, you promise me something."


"No more secrets?" She held her breath, wondering if she'd stepped over the line.

"Okay. I promise." He nodded, looking like he was about to cry as well. He took a deep breath, probably because it helped, and blinked hard.

Cordelia smiled, wiping her face with the back of her hand. "Look at us, you'd think the world was about to end," she laughed. "Of course, not saying it's not a possibility..."

"You're amazing." Angel shook his head, and for a second she was treated to a genuine smile. Her heart lurched, leaping into her throat like it was trying to escape.


"All the time." He reached up and smoothed her hair with his hand. "And I don't tell you enough."

There was an uneasy silence between the two of them for a moment, and then Cordelia stood up, nearly hitting her head on his in her haste. "Where are your glasses?"

"What? I don't wear glasses."

"Drinking glasses, dumbass. We need a drink." She marched into the kitchenette and began opening doors.

He was grateful for the opportunity to compose himself a little, as he watched her ransacking his cupboards with a ferocity that would normally have had him fearing for the safety of his crystal.

She was incredible. He couldn't even think of her as the same spoiled, shallow girl he'd known in Sunnydale. Here she was, forsaking everything she had for him, even in his darkest moments. She knew what he was, what he'd done. Yet she still stood beside him, unwavering in her devotion.

His eyes began to prick again, and he wiped them, glad she wasn't watching. Taking a deep, calming breath, he rose to his feet. Perhaps if he helped her in the kitchen, the contents of his cupboards would make it through the night intact.

"Jeez, Angel, unsociable much?" she said, closing the door on the empty pantry.

"I don't do a lot of entertaining in here," he replied apologetically, scuffing the toe of his boot on the floor.

"Never would have guessed," she muttered, looking into the fridge.

"Sit down, I'll make tea." He pulled out a chair for her, and she sank into it without protest.

Angel puttered around the kitchenette, boiling the kettle, getting cups out, spooning loose English Breakfast into the bone china teapot. He could feel her eyes on him, and he was relieved they weren't making the sort of awkward small talk that usually followed such personal moments.

He set the tray down on the small table, and sat in the chair opposite her. Lifting the ornate pot, he poured her tea. She curled her hands around the cup, sipping slowly.

"So?" she said, looking up through her lashes at him.

"What?" He paused, holding his tea in front of his mouth.

"This is where you tell me what's happening to you." She blew on the hot liquid before drinking some more.

He set his cup down, a tremor in his fingers making it rattle against the saucer. "It's Cara," he said, after a long pause. "It's like, whenever she's close to me, I remember things. Stuff comes back -- from before."

Angel paused, struggling. He wasn't used to articulating such things, especially to Cordy. This was the sort of thing that should be internalised, buried deep where it couldn't hurt anyone else.

"Before?" she prompted.

"The gypsy girl, in Romania, I keep remembering what I did to her. It's so vivid, I can even hear Darla's voice."

Cordelia sucked in a sharp breath. Angel knew his confession alarmed her. He certainly wasn't sounding like the poster boy for mental stability. He stopped and looked at her, uncertain if he should continue.

"It's okay," she said, reaching across the table and putting her hand over his.

"Sometimes it's more than a vivid memory." He shook his head, trying to make sense of what he was saying. "I'm really there. And I'm -- him."

"Angelus," she said quietly.

He hated the sound of his old name on her lips. He knew she dreaded the emergence of his alter-ego on a daily basis. And that she kept a cross and holy water in her purse -- just in case. Now he believed he was going crazy, and that Angelus would emerge as a result. That had to scare her.

She must have sensed his concern, because she smiled and nodded. "Go on."

"At Caritas, I think I was going to bite her. I couldn't stop it. I was reliving the whole thing. The club actually disappeared. I was in Romania." Visualising Cara's throat, he felt the demon stir, and get battered down by a tide of guilt. He hung his head in shame.

"That's happened before -- the virtual reality thing?" Cordelia said, unease creeping into her voice.

"The night she arrived, when I helped her up." He looked up. She was on to something.

"And at Caritas, what were you doing when it happened?" she asked.

"She asked me to dance, she took my hand..."

"It's when she touches you!" she gasped.

Cordy was right. It brought a rush of unexpected relief. When Cara was near, there were memories, voices, but he was still Angel. It was only when she touched him that reality took a complete holiday. And that meant he wasn't going crazy. If there were rules involved, it meant something was being done to him. It wasn't just his mind running amok.

"It must be some sort of mystical link, because of the curse," he said, thinking out loud.

"We should ask Wes about it in the morning," Cordelia said, stifling a yawn.

"How am I supposed to protect Cara if I can't go near her?" he asked.

"Let those things eat her -- how good could this gift of hers really be anyway?"

Startled, Angel raised an eyebrow.

"She's starting to rub me the wrong way." She avoided his gaze. "I don't like her upsetting you."

"She's not doing it on purpose," he began to say, when another huge yawn erupted from Cordelia.

She rubbed her eyes. "I should go."

"Stay?" His voice was so small, he wondered if he'd really said it.


"Please stay here tonight, just in case -- in case I need you?" He forced the words out. It was hard, but he wanted her there so much -- especially with Cara close by.

She rubbed the back of his hand with her fingertips, a simple gesture, but so comforting. "Of course I'll stay."

Angel cleared away the tea things and collected some of the sleepwear Cordy had stored at the hotel, while she showered and dried her hair. He closed his eyes and slipped the small, soft garments through the bathroom door, and then got changed himself before she came out.

"It's a slumber party." She grinned, looking at him in his sweatpants and tank-top.

He wondered if she knew he normally slept naked. "Slumber party?"

"A teenage girl ritual, involving food, talking about boys, and hitting each other with pillows," she explained.

It didn't sound much like fun. "We're not gonna do the pillow thing -- are we?"

"We can leave that off the agenda," she said, laughing.

They stood in the middle of the room for a moment, silent. God, he wanted to grab her and kiss her so hard... "I'll take the couch," he said, trying not to let his gaze slip below her chin.

"Don't be silly. I'm here to protect you, so I'll need to be close. And the bed's big." She took his hand, pulling him through the French doors.

"Okay," he agreed, wondering if she'd be so relaxed if she knew the thoughts running through his mind.

They climbed onto the soft mattress, pulling the comforter up, and lay side by side for a few moments. He could hear her breathing slowing down as she relaxed and slumber beckoned her.

He inhaled deeply, letting her scent envelop him. Under the masculine perfume of his shampoo and soap she was still there, uniquely Cordy. As long as she was with him, the blackness and fear stayed away. He sucked in another lungful of air.

She rolled onto her side, facing him. "You okay?"

"As long as you're here," he said, keeping his voice steady with some effort.

Her fingers brushed his bicep, and she moved closer. "I'm not going anywhere," she said, slipping her hand over his chest, snuggling her body against his.

"Cordelia," he murmured, turning towards her, his arm circling her slim waist, pulling her flush against him. She didn't resist. It was such sweet agony, having her so close, yet unable to tell her how he really felt.

Her nose brushed his cheek, and she sighed before kissing his mouth softly, briefly. Her head drifted back to the pillow, leaving his lips tingling, begging for more. He lay there, shocked, wondering the gesture meant, hoping she didn't notice the way his body reacted to it. "Cordelia?"

"Mmmm, s'okay, I'll look after you," she mumbled, the words thick with sleep. "'Night, Angel."

"Goodnight, Cordy." Cradling her head against his chest, he watched her drift off. It was a long, long time before he was able to join her.

Chapter Four: Revelations

Cordelia woke with a start. She blinked in the half-light, for a moment unsure of where she was. The sheets were heavy with Angel's smell, and as her eyes focussed on the pillow beside her, she realized she was in his room, and that she was alone in the bed.

The events of the previous night came flooding back. Okay, don't freak. Things had gotten a little, well, intimate. Oh God, she'd even kissed him. Just a little bitty peck, but a kiss all the same. And there had been -- touching. His arm around her waist, his cheek against the crown of her head, their bodies curled together.

She waited for the 'ick' factor to set in -- that uncomfortable thing that happened when best friend relationships got touchy-feely. After all the times she'd warned him about her personal bubble -- last night she'd let him climb right into it and go to sleep. Good move, Cordy. There was gonna be big time ick. Any second now.

She waited. Nothing. It wasn't there. Why wasn't it there? Of course, she liked that he'd opened himself up to her, really talked to her about things. God knows she'd been trying for long enough to get him to do that. So, that was of the good. And she liked his admission that he needed her help. But, most of all, she liked falling asleep in his arms.

Today, waking up without him felt empty and wrong. She wished he was still there beside her, holding her close. And that scared her more than any of her other revelations. Oh, crap. Not of the good. Those are not good things to be feeling about a vampire who's barely hanging on to his marbles.

Too much to process pre-coffee. She was thirsty, and she needed to pee. How was that right? Sometimes the human body made no sense.

"Angel?" she called. No reply. Smoothing her hair back from her face, she slipped out of bed, and headed for her own room in the hotel. Perhaps after a change of clothes and a quick wash, she'd feel a bit more like herself.

It was around nine am when Cordelia finally made her way to the lobby. Her colleagues were already there, but somehow she could only look at Angel.

"Ah, hello, sleepyhead. Angel made us breakfast," Wesley said, looking up from the front desk, which was covered in plates and mugs, and several large platters of food.

"How can a dude who doesn't eat be such a good cook?" Gunn marvelled as he shovelled scrambled eggs into his mouth.

"And how can a guy who ate half the menu at Caritas be hungry again so soon?" Angel said, eyeing the mountain of food on Gunn's plate.

Cordelia smiled as he beckoned her to sit beside him. Her cheeks burned as she allowed herself to glance at his lips. The lips she'd kissed... No, don't think about it. Blush any harder and everyone will know. She began to load her plate with bacon and toast. "Where's Cara?"

"Probably driving the porcelain bus," Gunn said.

"Pardon?" Wesley looked up from his food.

"Barfing," Cordelia explained. She wasn't surprised.

"Yes, she did drink rather a lot last night," Wesley said.

"And she was still drunk when I found her wandering the halls at 4am, like the Lady of the Lamp," Gunn added, reaching for more bacon.

Just then, a rather red-eyed Cara appeared at the top of the stairs. She looked at Angel cautiously as she descended, taking a seat as far as possible from him when she reached the makeshift breakfast table.

"We were just wondering where you were. Bacon?" Wesley held the platter towards her.

"Ugh, no thanks," she said, holding up her hands in disgust. "Just coffee please."

"Hung over, are we?" Cordelia asked sweetly. She wasn't sure why, but she hoped the girl was suffering.

"Not too bad actually, it's just -- " Cara wrinkled her nose. "Look at all the grease."

"It's the only cure for a hangover," Gunn said, through a mouthful of toast.

Angel examined the platter, frowning. "My bacon's not greasy."

"All bacon is greasy," Cara insisted. "Hangovers don't kill you, but all that cholesterol will. Like the Host said, the body is the temple of the soul, and I must look after it."

There was a loud clatter as Wesley dropped his fork. "What did you say?"

"Cholesterol will kill you?" Cara replied, puzzled.

"No, no, after that." He rose out of his chair, eyes widening. Cordelia knew that look. He was definitely on to something.

"The body is the temple of the soul..." Cara trailed off as Wesley thumped his fist on the table. They all stared at him as he shoved back his chair and dashed into his office.

His voice rang out triumphantly. "Eureka!"

"He's got it." Angel looked up from inspecting the bacon, a look of hope plastered across his face.

Wesley returned with the crumpled scrap of paper Cara had given him the night she arrived. "Of course, the body is the temple of the soul!" he exclaimed.

Gunn looked confused. "Okay, still not making any sense here."

"The prophecy -- 'She alone can consign to eternity that which is fleeting. By the joining of the temples, so shall it be'. The body is the temple. That which is fleeting must be soul. Oh, my." He looked around the group in awe. "Cara is here to anchor Angel's soul."

Cordelia felt like someone had dropped a dumpster on her. All the air rushed from her lungs, and she could barely inhale to replace it. She gripped the edge of the desk, hoping it would stave off the rush of emotion and confusion. Everyone else was silent for a moment as they digested the implications of what Wesley had said.

"So, no more evil Angel?" Gunn said cautiously.

"Yes, that's right." Wesley sank down into his seat.

"Wow." Gunn added his to the collection of stunned faces. "How?"

Wesley reviewed the piece of paper once more. "By the joining of the temples -- er, bodies."

"Joining?" Cordelia narrowed her eyes. She didn't like the sound of this.

"Oh, yes, I believe it means Cara has to have, er, 'relations' with Angel," Wesley said.

Gunn raised an eyebrow. "Relations? Didn't he already eat one of her relations? Speak English, bro."

"It means he has to make mattress music with Little-Miss-Spooky-Birthmark here," Cordelia said, feeling both alarmed and disgusted. Angel getting horizontal with anyone was a bad idea. Very bad.

She glanced at Cara. The girl looked like all the blood was draining out of her face. Her mouth hung open and she appeared to be frozen in her seat.

"What if it don't work, man? Doesn't the wild thing make Angel -- the wild thing? Can we risk him going all evil on our asses?" Gunn sounded worried.

"No, I don't think that will happen," Wesley said, getting more animated as he warmed to the theory. "I think at the moment of -- consummation, as it were, the magic will be activated, and Angel's soul will be permanently attached. A lot of these prophecies have a risk-reward factor. It all fits perfectly. We'll never have to worry about Angelus again, and Angel can finally experience true happiness. This is huge." He smiled widely, satisfied with his summation.

"Are you all deficient?" Cordelia yelled, rising. "What the hell are you thinking? How do we even know that crusty old prophecy is right? For all we know, Angel could boff Cara, get a bit too happy, and hello, meet Angelus and his big scary fangs! For God's sake, she could've written the damn thing herself!"

"Cordelia, really," Wesley admonished.

"Back off, book boy." She waved her fork angrily at him. "Of all the possible ways this could work out, I can't think of one that's any good. Either he turns into Angelus, and we have to stake him before we all get tortured and killed, or it works, and he goes straight back to Sunnydale to marry Buffy. Either way, we're screwed!" she shouted, slapping her hands down on the desk to emphasize her point. The motion brought her face-to-face with Cara. "Anyway, the likelihood of either of those things ever happening is nil, since he can't get within two feet of you without wanting to eat you."

"What?" Gunn and Wesley both cried.

"Wh... what?" Cara stammered, finding her voice, and turning even paler than before.

"Yeah, sorry, honey. If he touches you, his brain goes bye-bye and he thinks you're a buffet dinner. If I hadn't cut your dance short last night, you'd be minus most of your plasma by now," Cordelia snapped. Okay, so maybe that last part wasn't strictly true -- Caritas being a haven and all, but it had the desired effect.

Everyone swung around to look at Angel. He'd been silent and motionless throughout, his face showing no reaction at all.

"Is it true?" Cara asked, small beads of perspiration breaking out on her top lip.

"Angel?" Wesley surveyed the vampire with concern.

Angel nodded slowly. "I -- I can't touch her, or I end up back in Romania, reliving the moment when I... I can't control it."

"Why didn't you tell us?" Gunn asked.

"I wanted you all to trust me again." Angel looked at the two men with such undisguised pain in his eyes that Wesley appeared quite moved.

"We do trust you Angel. You just have to be honest with us," he said, adjusting his glasses with a trembling finger.

"So, hang on," Cara said, holding up her quivering hand as a 'stop' signal. "You mean there's a chance that if I sleep with him, he'll go mad and kill us all. And there's a better chance that before we even get that far, he'll go mad and just kill me, right?"

"Yup," Cordelia said. Jeez, it took the girl a while to catch on.

"And you were all going to let me go ahead and risk my neck, just so he could have a sex life again?" Cara's voice started to escalate, a mixture of panic and anger.

"It's more complicated than that," Wesley said in his best diplomatic voice.

"Oh, it looks pretty simple from where I'm sitting. I think I'd rather take my chances with those grey things." Cara began to slide her chair backwards.

"Cara, no, we can work this out." Wesley tried again.

"I don't think so. Thanks for all for your help, but no thanks!" In one swift movement, she leapt up and bolted for the door.

"Cara, stop!" he called, moving to go after her.

"Yeah, stop her, she's wearing some of my clothes," Cordelia said, unable to keep the hint of sarcasm from her voice.

Angel stood and grabbed the Englishman's arm, restraining him. "Let her go."

"But, Angel, there goes your one chance at true happiness." Wesley waved his other hand towards the entrance.

"We can't force her to do anything. Just let her leave," Angel snapped. He released Wesley, turned on his heel and stalked out.

Angel slammed his apartment door and paced the room. What had happened to the good old days, when all he had to cope with was guilt? He'd just come gut-wrenchingly close to something he barely dared dream about, and for some sick, twisted reason he couldn't have it because of his inability to escape the past.

How could he keep Cara close, when it would mean her certain death -- at his hands? He should be able to control the urges, shake them off. He hadn't spent over a hundred years suppressing the demon, just to let it pop out and kill his first chance at something close to redemption. Yet there was no way he could restrain it, the bloodlust was too strong. God, he sickened himself.

And then there was Cordelia. Of all of them, he thought she'd be the happiest for him, and particularly at the prospect of getting rid of Angelus forever. Instead she was angry, and on top of that, he could swear she'd deliberately scared Cara off. It was as if she wanted to sabotage the whole thing. He was as furious at her as he was disgusted with himself.

"Dammit!" He kicked the wall, his boot making a neat, round hole in the plaster.

"I left my purse in here." He whipped around at the sound of her voice. "I love what you've done with the place, by the way." She surveyed the hole in the wall, and the shower of plaster chunks on the floor.

"Cordelia." He ran his hand through his hair in exasperation.

"Don't, Angel. Let's just forget about it." She snatched up her bag and turned to leave.

Angel moved. Fast. He slammed his arm across the open doorway, blocking her exit.

"Let me go," she snapped.

"No, not 'til we've discussed this," he growled under his breath. "No secrets, remember?"

"There's nothing to discuss... Ow!" she cried, as he grabbed her wrist. "Angel, you're hurting me!"

He pulled her further into the room, letting go of her arm once the door was firmly closed. "What the hell was that downstairs, Cordy?"

"Well, excuse me for not wanting to get my jugular ripped out any time soon." She tossed her bag on the chair so hard he thought it would fly open.

He snorted. "It's not about the sex. It's about true happiness. You seriously think Cara could give me that?"

"Let's just say I don't think it's worth the risk," she said, planting her hands firmly on her hips, her eyes fixed on his, unwavering. Damn, she was stubborn.

"I don't think that's your decision to make," he snapped, feeling the anger bubbling closer to the surface, taunting the demon within.

"Really! Who do you think Angelus would come after first? I saw what he did to my friends, and I know what he'll do to me!" she yelled, her face flushing. "How do you think I feel -- last night I promised to stay with you forever, and today I'm faced with losing you, just like that." She snapped her fingers in front of his nose.

"You'll never..."

"If you turn evil, we'll have to stake you. And if it works, you'll go back to Buffy, and either way, I'll be all alone."

Her words hung in the air, and they both stared at each other, blinking, frozen. She raised a hand to her mouth, pressing it over her lips. Her eyes were wide with horror, as if she couldn't believe what she'd just said. One after another, tears wet her cheeks. Her shoulders slumped in defeat, and she began to turn away.

Angel reached out and stopped her, putting his arms around her, and pulling her against his chest, the same way he did when she had a vision. "Is that what this is all about?" he asked, his lips against her hair.

She sniffled into his shirt. "I don't want you to go away again."

Of course, she was scared. Everyone left her. Her parents, Xander, Doyle. His heart broke for her. He couldn't bear it when she cried. Most things he could fix by beating something up, but he couldn't fix this with violence -- only with love. He wasn't entirely sure he knew how to go about that.

"Cordy, I'll never leave you," he insisted, hoping it was enough.

"But, Buffy..." she whispered, so close that he could feel her breath on his lips.

He swallowed hard. "Whatever happens, Cordy, I'm staying here. I won't leave -- I promise."

Cordelia felt the room turn upside down. How could this be happening? How could she be here in his arms, enjoying his touch much more than she should? Why was she so afraid of losing him? Why did she not care that everything about this was so wrong? For God's sake, this was Angel. Not good. And too good.

She wished she could tell what was going on behind those dark, shining eyes of his. It seemed whole minutes passed as they stood there, faces almost touching, the electricity of unspoken attraction crackling between them. She should pull away, end whatever this was, now.

"Cordy," he said, breaking the trance first. "I..." And then his lips descended onto hers, and he kissed her, hard. Her knees buckled, but his strong arms were around her, cradling her against his solid frame. God, his mouth was so sweet, so cool. She knew she should refuse, but she couldn't.

Without warning, he broke away, pushing her back to arm's length, a look of ashamed horror on his face. She stood there, speechless, gaping. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, his fingers trembling. She stared at him, her chest heaving with startled breaths.

"I -- I'm sorry. Cordy, I didn't -- I mean, I did, but I shouldn't... Why aren't you slapping me, or yelling at me, or -- running away?" He looked so terrified, so panicked, like a child caught with his hand in the candy jar, mixed with equal portions of bewilderment and hope.

She opened and closed her mouth, unable to reply. God, this was so wrong, but it felt so totally one-hundred-percent right. What was she doing? Where was the double-barrel Cordy one-liner that was supposed to put him in his place? She had nothing.

"Please don't..." He faltered as she stepped towards him, biting her lip, hands reaching up to press against his chest. She hated herself for it, but she had to finish what he started. Grabbing fistfuls of shirt, she yanked his head back down to hers, devouring him, pressing her body to his. This time he didn't break away, his hands roaming down her back, cradling her hips against his. She felt the fires spark and ignite in her stomach. This was dangerous, but so damn good. And if it lasted any longer she was gonna pass out.

Cordelia turned her head away, ending the kiss, resting her face against his chest. It was so strange to feel her own heart pounding, while his body was still and quiet. They stood there, just holding each other. It was -- nice. And weird. And bad.

"I do want this prophecy to work," Angel murmured against her forehead.

She looked up. "Why?"

"Because I want this -- with you."

"Angel, no. I -- I don't know." She stepped back, smoothing her rumpled clothing, as if it would calm her frazzled nerves. Did Angel just say what she thought he did? She didn't want to look up, see his wounded expression. "But, in any case, it's important, not just because of that. If it did work..." she mumbled, thinking aloud.

Angel tipped her chin up with one finger, bringing her eyes back to his. "I don't want to -- with her. Maybe Wes is wrong. Maybe I don't have to..." He pulled a face.

"But if he's right -- hey! You let her go!" She slapped his arm. "You can't do it without her."

He rolled his eyes. "And I can't 'do it' with her, either. She's safer away from me at the moment."

"We so need a clearer translation." She moved to retrieve her purse from the chair. "Shall we go do the stinky book thing?"

Angel looked embarrassed. "Give me a couple of minutes."

"This is no time to be contemplating your navel, and -- oooh, okay," she said, following his eyes downwards. "You better have a cold shower."

"Yeah. Hey, Cordy?" he asked, as she headed for the door.


"Don't tell anyone about what just happened." He put his hands in his pockets.

"Are you kidding? Wesley would probably bite right through his stiff upper lip if he found out." She said it flippantly, but it was true. She could imagine the lecture on stupidity they'd both get. Rather later than sooner.

Chapter Five: Sharp

Cordelia stood on the top stair, listening to the conversation below.

"I hope she didn't stake him or anything," Gunn said.

"Do you really think she would?" Wesley asked, sounding nervous.

Cordelia suppressed a grin, which broke free when Gunn replied, "I never saw her that mad before. She's one scary chick when she gets going."

"Quite a perplexing outburst. I don't think I'll ever understand that girl. Women are hard to read at the best of times. And Cordelia..." Wesley began.

"Should have come with instructions," Gunn finished the sentence.

Okay, she deserved that. You never heard good things about yourself when you eavesdropped. Besides, right now an instruction manual for her addled brain would come in real handy. To turn off unwanted feelings -- pull left earlobe...

She cleared her throat, making the rest of her descent as loud as possible. The voices came to an abrupt halt. Wesley and Gunn looked up at her, guilt written all over their faces.

"When people go quiet as you walk in the room, it's rarely a good sign." She narrowed her eyes at them, wanting to make them squirm.

"Angel okay? He looked pretty mad," Gunn asked, obviously trying to change the subject.

"We kissed and made up," she said lightly. Oh God, did we kiss... No! Bad thoughts.

"Oh, good, that's -- good." Wesley took off his glasses and began to polish them vigorously. "I was a bit worried about him. I know how hard things are for him right now."

"You have no idea," Cordelia deadpanned, shaking her head.

Gunn sat down on Angel's chair, crossing one ankle over the other. "So? Are we gonna go after Cara?"

"She could be on a bus out of town by now," Wesley said.

"I think we should find out as much as we can about that prophecy first. If Cara comes back, we need to know if we can fix things," she said. "If Angel has any hope of getting permanently souly, we have to figure out how he can 'do it' with her without a dinner bell going off in his head."

"But I thought you didn't like that idea," Wesley said, looking confused.

She frowned at him. "That is so not the issue right now. This is about what Angel wants, not what I think."

"Instructions." Gunn tried to disguise the word as a loud cough. Cordelia slapped him, hard.

There was a brief silence as they all racked their brains as to where to begin looking.

"Hey, what about the scroll of linoleum?" Cordelia said, remembering where the prophecy about Angel's Shanshu came from. Surely there was other stuff in that?

"You mean the scroll of Aberjian?" Wesley corrected, drawing out the word for her benefit. "Actually, you might have something there. I do recall mention of gypsies. I just assumed that referred to his past dealings with them, and paid little attention to it. I was so busy trying to work out the Shanshu part, I never went back to that section. I'll look into it immediately." He jumped up, excited, and scuttled into his office.

Cordelia noticed Angel coming down the stairs about ten minutes later. She could barely look at him without her cheeks feeling hot, and ducked her head back to the book she was trying to read.

The men hardly acknowledged his presence. They were deep in research mode -- books and musty old bits of paper strewn over every spare inch of desktop, and parts of the floor. Wesley had the scroll of Aberjian carefully weighted down at each corner, and was poring over it with a looking glass, muttering to himself. "Damn, I know it's here somewhere."

"Hey, man, grab a book," Gunn said, glancing up briefly.

Angel lifted a heavy volume and sat down beside Cordelia. "What are we looking for exactly?"

"We're trying to find a reference to the prophecy, or better still, a full version," Wesley said, not looking up from the ancient scroll.

"You still think Cara's is incomplete?" Angel looked hopeful at the prospect.

"Mmm, possibly," Wesley murmured, his attention still focussed on the parchment.

Cordelia watched Angel set his book on the desk, and begin turning pages. His concentration was obviously shot -- he kept glancing sideways at her, shifting in his seat, moving his feet restlessly. She could guess what he was thinking. She was thinking it too.

Her emotions were still in a mess. She wanted him -- she didn't want him. Everything sensible in her brain told her to forget the kiss, ignore his feelings for her, but now that it was out there, she couldn't stop thinking about it.

She pondered her track record in romance. Shouting at Xander one moment, kissing him passionately the next. Calling Doyle a weasel at breakfast time, accepting his dinner invitation the same evening. Sleeping with a man she barely knew... Was she doomed to follow the same pattern forever - lurching from indifference to infatuation at the drop of a hat? All it had gotten her so far was a broken heart, rebar through the torso, mind-shattering visions and a demon pregnancy.

Concentrate, Cordelia, there are more important things at stake. Regardless of what she did, or didn't feel for Angel, they needed to get this prophecy sorted out -- which they couldn't do unless they miraculously found Cara, and somehow fulfilled it without Angel turning into Cujo in the process.

They were playing with fire here, and Cara's life, for his benefit. No, not just his benefit -- for her own, too. The thought of what Angelus would do to her if he got free scared her more than anything else in the world. She knew it scared him just as much.

But that was only the start of it. Once Angelus was finished with her, countless others would follow. Wesley and Gunn certainly. Their friends in Sunnydale too. Buffy, Willow, and how many others? Hundreds? Thousands perhaps. This was so much bigger that she had ever considered. Shame washed over her as she thought about her selfish outburst. All she'd considered was how it affected her. That was supposed to be the old Cordy.

She glanced at Angel, her pensiveness turning to amusement. He was still away with the fairies, and despite her misgivings, she liked that it was because of her. It was a new and entirely pleasant feeling. The boys at school had only gone out with her because she was popular, and the Xander episode had been sorta twisted and gropey and apparently one-sided.

She'd never really had someone fall for her before, not the way Angel seemed to have. Maybe Doyle had started to, but he died before they ever got to work out their feelings. And until recently, she probably wasn't the sort of person anyone would have wanted to be with anyway.

Cordelia jumped as Angel's hand crept onto her thigh, under the desk, hidden from view. Neither of them was going to get any work done like this -- her fretting, and him copping a feel. Especially since, she noted, his book was upside-down. Reaching over, she turned it one-hundred-and-eighty degrees, so the text was readable. He looked at her sheepishly.

She needed to concentrate, sort this whole mess out in her head, and she couldn't do that with him in such close proximity. "I need more light," she announced, reaching under the desk for her purse.

Wesley and Gunn grunted in unison. Gathering up her cardigan, left behind by the fleeing Cara, Cordelia collected her books and rose from her chair, Angel's hand slipping off her leg. She strode towards the doors to the small courtyard.

"Cordelia, those books are very susceptible to UV light." Wesley was sufficiently distracted now to look up.

"So am I, and I'm gonna absorb as much of it as possible," she called over her shoulder.

She folded the cardigan into a cushion, and placed it on the wall of the dry fountain. Taking her sunglasses out of her bag, she settled down to read.

Sighing comfortably, she hitched her skirt up to reveal her legs, relishing the warmth as the sun tingled on her skin. She saw too little of her old friend these days. She realized that, more and more, she was choosing between it and Angel. Cordelia knew which one would win. She'd live her whole life in the dark to be with him. And there were always sunbeds. Perhaps he'd install one in the basement for her.

Angel watched her through the doors, sitting out in the daylight, where he couldn't follow. It felt wrong -- dangerous. He raised his head, listening, sniffing the air. Something was wrong. Something was -- outside. "Uh, guys, you might want to check out the front," he said uneasily, glancing towards the main entrance.

"You think there's somethin' out there?" Gunn said, rising, tensed for action. Angel nodded. "Back me up, bro." Gunn motioned to Wesley to follow, and they both made their way to the door, weapons in hand.

Angel stood, feeling useless, unable to return to his book. Getting more agitated, he strode towards the courtyard doors. Cordelia was still there, skirt hitched indecently high, thumbing through a musty old tome as if it were the latest Vogue. He smiled despite himself, struck by the bizarre juxtaposition of two disparate worlds, and amazed as always by the way she took life's oddities in hand. The benefit of a Sunnydale childhood, he figured.

A small movement caught his eye. The demon was crouched on the courtyard wall, so still it was almost invisible, its skin the color of sandstone. Long, lethal talons protruded from its fingertips, and it cocked its head, eyeing Cordelia as she sunbathed, oblivious to its presence. Angel's sensitive ears picked up the low clicking sound that emanated from its throat as it stalked its prey. The muscles in its hind legs tensed, ready to spring.

Angel saw everything in slow motion. The demon launched itself from the wall, landing beside Cordelia. She screamed, and to her eternal credit, kept her wits about her enough to bash it across the face with her book. A feral growl ripped from Angel's throat, his demon visage erupting as he flung himself through the doors and out into the blazing LA sunshine.

Cordelia wasn't sure what alarmed her more -- the sight of the huge talons lunging at her, or that of Angel, in full game face, billowing smoke as he slammed into the demon full-force. In a tangle of claws, fangs and limbs, the two combatants tumbled against the wall of the hotel, and mercifully into a sliver of shade.

The smell of burning flesh made her gag for a second. The demon extricated itself from the tackle, and crouched over Angel, who cowered against the wall, holding his burned hands protectively against his chest. Dammit, Angel, stay in the shade. It raised one claw high in the air for the blow that would surely sever Angel's head.

"Hey, Edward Scissorhands!" Cordelia screamed at it, her hand going into her bag. There was no way she was going to stand by and watch Angel be decapitated, whatever the danger to herself. She maneuvered closer. The demon paused, but did not turn around.

"I said, HEY!" She belted it across the back of the head with her handbag, her other hand gripping the small cylinder she had retrieved from its depths. An agitated clicking sound, rising to something akin to a two-stroke engine, reverberated from the animal. It sniffed, taking in her scent.

"Cordelia, run," Angel's voice cracked.

The demon swung around, evil eyes locking onto her. She seized the opportunity and discharged the full can of mace into its face. It began to squeal, the taloned hands flying up to protect its eyes. She jumped backwards just enough to avoid being slashed as they whizzed past her face.

There was a resonant 'thung', followed by a 'whoosh' as an arrow flew past her left shoulder and embedded between the demon's eyes. The two-stroke sound accelerated to a noise more like a chain saw, and the monster lurched around the courtyard, flailing wildly with the deadly blades.

Gunn and Wesley leapt into battle, Gunn's hubcap weapon and Wesley's Bavarian fighting axe clashing with talons and several other parts of the demon's body. Cordelia averted her eyes, but that didn't block out the horrible hacking noise, or the smell.

Finally, it crumpled into a bloody, oozing heap on the pavers. Wesley and Gunn stood over the corpse, breathing hard, and examining the small nicks and cuts that adorned both their bodies.

Now Cordelia could see Angel, huddled against the building, burns marring his face and hands. He shook, whimpering, recoiling from the daylight that illuminated the concrete just inches from his body.

"Oh, God, Angel," she stepped over the body of the demon, falling to her knees beside him.

He began to slump over, his voice barely audible. "Get me inside."

Angel lay, spread semi-naked on his bed. Over the scent of his own charred skin, he smelled his friends, gathered nearby. He could feel weeping blisters on his hands and face, and the sting of the lacerations that covered his body from his tumble with the demon.

"Thank the Lord he was wearing a long-sleeved skivvy," he heard; Wesley's voice, fuzzy, but growing closer. Something cold and wet pressed against his seared forehead. It was Cordelia, tending to him with a washcloth full of ice. He could feel her hand trembling as she moved the soothing coolness to his cheek.

"That feels nice," he whispered. A couple of gasps indicated his comment had startled the onlookers.

Forcing open his swollen eyelids, he squinted up at Cordelia. She looked really mad. He cringed -- it was never a good thing to raise her ire, and especially not when you felt like you'd just been attacked by a blow-torch wielding Cuisinart. He hoped she'd take it easy on him, considering his weakened state.

"That was stupid. What the hell were you doing?" she said angrily.

"It was going to kill you," he sighed. "I had to stop it."

"What were you planning to do, torch boy? Scare it off with fire? You almost ended up as the world's largest shish-kebab!" Her eyes flashed fury -- and pain.

Now he understood. She wasn't just angry -- she was scared. And she was trying valiantly to cover it up. "I had to protect you." He began to cough.

"I was doing fine by myself, what with the not being on fire and all," she said, her face softening, although her voice remained annoyed.

"Yeah, cos being whacked with a handbag is the number one cause of death among demons," Gunn said, dripping sarcasm.

"Actually," Angel rasped, "that bag's full of stuff. It must weigh a ton."

Her scowl returned. "You've been into my handbag?"

"Now you're really in trouble," Gunn laughed.

"You will be, too, if Angel doesn't get some rest. Shoo!" Cordelia flapped her hands at Gunn and Wesley. Angel closed his eyes again, knowing he was in good hands.

Angel stood on the first floor balcony. He'd slept right through sunset, and it was now sometime around midnight. His scarred and blotchy skin was already healing.

Wesley and Gunn were still awake below, in the lobby, looking like they'd cut themselves shaving -- all over. Dressings and bits of surgical tape created a patchwork effect on their arms and faces. They were having an animated discussion with Cordelia, who was surfing the net.

"Cordelia, you're making that up." Wesley's tone was scolding, as if she was a naughty child telling him a bare-faced fib.

"I'm not! Come and look for yourself. Ginsu. Gin-su. That's what it says. I was attacked by a Ginsu demon."

"Like the steak knives?" Gunn asked. Angel could tell he didn't believe her either.

"Yeah, like the steak knives. How do you think they got their name?" Her voice was thick with exasperation.

"I always suspected there was something evil about those infomercials," Wesley said, leaning over her shoulder to inspect the monitor.

Angel came down the stairs, and they only noticed him as he reached the lobby floor.

"The Ginsu, while possessing poor eyesight, have excellent hearing and an advanced sense of smell," Wesley read from the screen.

Angel leaned on the desk with his elbows, avoiding unnecessary pressure on his sore hands. "It was after Cara."

"So why did it attack me?" Cordelia said, indignant. "I don't look like her. My ass is way smaller."

"No, but you sat on the cardigan she wore. It made you smell like her," Angel said. "Not much, but enough to confuse it."

"Ugh, gross!" She shifted in her seat, trying to wipe her hands across her butt.

"You think there's more of those steak knife things out there?" Gunn poked a thumb in the direction of the courtyard, where the body of the slain demon had degenerated into an oily black slick on the concrete.

"Probably. You should wash and change, Cordy," Angel suggested, aware all she was doing was spreading the weak smell around. She'd stirred it up enough that Darla's pretty powdered face flashed though his mind again, and he shook himself mentally. Fight it. Don't let it get to you. Don't inhale.

"I think I may have made some small progress with our little problem," Wesley said, having absorbed all the information on their latest demon.

Cordelia feigned disappointment. "But you didn't say Eureka."

He ignored the remark, adjusting his glasses on his nose. "There is a section of the scroll of Aberjian that mentions the curse. It says the soul will be revoked by true happiness, until after Angel encounters 'the chosen daughter'."

"Cara?" Gunn said.

"One can only assume."

"So is the prophecy mentioned?" Angel leaned forward, his interest piqued.

"Not really. There is one other passage -- it's not a language I'm fluent in. I only recognise two or three words."

"Which are?"

"Uh, there's 'curse', 'Gypsy' and, er -- I believe the last one translates as 'penetration'. Wesley's face went a vivid shade of pink.

"Jeez, obscure much?" Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Now we know where the guys who write instructions for assemble-it-yourself furniture descended from."

"Yeah, bro, why couldn't they just write it in plain English?" Gunn said.

"Well, I don't think English was invented when this was written," Wesley tried to explain, before turning back to Angel. "I have to know, has anything like this ever happened to you before? The hallucinations?"

"Uh, yeah, once." Angel didn't like the line of questioning. It forced him to remember things that were better left buried.

His face had obviously given away more than he intended, because Wesley came towards him and said, "If we're to help you, Angel, you must tell us everything."

"I had hallucinations when I was in Sunnydale. Waking dreams. But that was The First, trying to get me to kill Buffy," he said, trying to get away with as brief a description as possible. "This is different."

"And how did you deal with that?" Wesley asked.

Angel paused for a long time before answering. "I didn't."

"Angel." Wesley's voice held a tone of warning.

"I walked up on the ridge and waited for the sun."

"But you're still here, so something must've stopped you from burning up," Cordelia said.

"It snowed." Angel looked down at his burned hands. "If it hadn't..."

"That was all about you?" she gasped.

"I -- I guess so. I never really stopped to wonder..."

"Typical!" she snorted, banging her hand down on the keyboard. "Damn PTB! You, they give two inches of snow. Me, they give mind-melting, head-cracking, drool-o-vision. Speaking of which..."

Angel made it to her side and wound his arms around her, even before she rocked forward, crying out in agony.

"Cordy," he said, hating that he always felt so useless when this happened. She cannoned back against his chest, her fingers clawing at his forearms. Damn PTB was right. Why couldn't they transfer the visions to him?

Wesley grabbed up a pad and pen. "Cordelia, what can you see?"

"Ginsu," she coughed, struggling to force the word out. "Cara -- she's bleeding."

"It's okay." Angel held her firmly, ignoring his smarting palms.

"The Chinese Theater," she gasped, opening her eyes. Angel thought it was all over, but another lance of pain threw her forward, and he just managed to stop her hitting her head on the computer.

"Angel, no!" she cried, twisting in his grasp, pushing against his chest. Her face contorted in panic and revulsion.

"Cordy, it's okay. You're safe. I've got you," he said, trying to calm her frantic flailing, and wincing as her fingers raked and pummelled the partially healed cuts beneath his shirt. She opened her eyes and grew still, staring at him in horror. He could smell something new on her. Fear, raw and ugly. Fear of him.

"What did you see?" Wesley asked again, as Angel released Cordelia enough so she could sit straight.

"It's Cara -- those slice 'n' dice things are after her," she said, sucking in deep breaths. "She was on the grounds of some big old house, behind Mann's Chinese Theater."

"Yeah, that's a hostel. Maybe she's stayin' there," Gunn said, moving for his axe.

"That's not all. I saw you." She turned to Angel. "You -- you bit someone." Her voice was filled with disgust.

"Cara?" he asked, unnerved. Please, just for once, let Cordy's vision be wrong. Just when I have her back...

She nodded, her whole body straining to move away from him. "I think so."

"When, Cordelia?" Wesley looked grave.

"We have to leave now." She reached for her jacket, struggling to her feet.

"Hey, you should stay here -- rest," Angel said, fishing for his car keys in the pocket of his duster.

Cordelia avoided the hand he put out to restrain her. "I have to come. If you wig, I might be the only one who can bring you back."

She was right. It was her scent, her touch, that had grounded him at Caritas. He was going to need her with him when they found Cara. She had to stop him from killing, not just for Cara's sake, but for his own. She had to keep him away from the darkness.

He pocketed her painkillers, and grabbed her water bottle.

Chapter Six: Showdown

"We're here." Angel's voice cut into Cordelia's nap. She lifted her head from Wesley's shoulder, looking around to gain her bearings. They were pulling up outside the hostel she'd seen in her vision. Several windows were still lit, casting squares of light over the garden. A few people scurried past, heading out to nightclubs, or home after dinner and a movie. Angel pulled the Plymouth over to the curb and parked. They all sat in silence for a moment.

Angel lifted his head, alert, testing the air. "She's coming." She wondered what he could smell. Fear? Sweat? Ugh, gross, he could keep the super-nostrils if that was the case.

Now her footsteps were audible, and Cara appeared out of the darkness, coming along the sidewalk towards the hostel. She appeared not to notice the black car across the road.

As Cara turned up the path towards the hostel door, Cordelia saw a movement in the shadows, between the trees. The Ginsu were waiting. Their sandy colored bodies were dappled in the mix of moonlight and shadow, almost camouflaging them, but the intermittent glint from their long blades gave them away.

"Angel," she whispered, but he'd already seen them, or smelled them. Without warning, he vaulted over the driver's door and sprinted across the road, a short battle sword clenched tightly in his fist. She gripped her knife and followed Wesley and Gunn as they all ran towards the garden, weapons ready. The few passers-by noticed, and scattered.

Cara's scream rent the air. She'd made it most of the way to the hostel door before five talon-waving figures encircled her. They were tightening their circle, cutting off any means of escape for the terrified girl. The blades protruding from their fingers swished through the air, getting closer to Cara's face, her hands, her legs, slicing her skin. The closer they got, the more they cut, and the louder she screamed.

Angel had disappeared. Cordelia tensed with momentary panic. No, she hadn't seen him get injured. He must be hanging back somewhere -- it made sense that he'd keep clear of Cara. Drawing a long breath, she tried to remain calm. She was no use to anyone as a gibbering wreck. Just stay out of the way and try not to get killed.

Gunn moved around to the left, his custom-made axe swinging in a wide arc as he lopped the head clean off the nearest Ginsu. It fell to the ground, bouncing twice and then rolling away like a macabre soccer ball. The rest of the demon stayed upright for a moment, before toppling backwards and slamming full-length onto the grass, black goo gushing from its severed neck.

The other four Ginsu stopped terrorising Cara, wheeling around to look at Gunn. He stood there, bringing the handle of his axe down into one hand, his head tipped on one side, his whole stance a challenge, as he eyed the closest one. "C'mon, Patti la Belle, 'fraid of breakin' a fingernail?" he taunted, his voice icy.

Whether the Ginsu spoke English or not, Gunn's body language certainly provoked them. The remaining four demons began to converge on him, clicking in agitation.

Cara was momentarily unguarded. "Cordelia, get the girl to safety!" Wesley shouted, raising his crossbow.

Cara obviously needed no encouragement to run. She stumbled backwards a few steps, before turning and lurching across the grass to where Cordelia waited. Blood streamed from a gash on her forehead, dripping through her left eyebrow and running down her cheek. Her hands and legs were scored and bleeding, and red drops spattered on the grass as she ran.

Wesley watched just long enough to make sure she was out of the way, then let fly his first arrow. It pierced the arm of one Ginsu, which wheeled angrily in his direction. The chainsaw growling was quite disconcerting. Wesley fumbled for another bolt, his hand coming to rest on one made of wood. No, that was for later -- just in case.

"Wes, look out!" Gunn yelled, and Wesley ducked, moments before a giant blade swished through the air where his neck had been. He dropped and rolled, putting some distance between himself and a really close shave.

From his new position, he could see Angel, crouched in the shrubbery, waiting for Cara to reach the other side of the garden, as far away as possible.

"Angel, any time now would be good," Gunn shouted from where he was fending off three very fractious Ginsu.

Wesley rolled again, avoiding another talon. He hoped Angel was in a fit state to respond. Now was no time for their trump card to be smelling the roses. He glanced over, noticing Angel rise to his feet, advancing hesitantly. He didn't look good, actually, panting hard, his eyes glowing amber, tugging at his hair with trembling hands. Was he losing control? For a second Wesley's heart sank, but Angel shook himself, tightened his grip on his sword, and launched into the fray.

Cordelia made it to the sidewalk. She had her arm around Cara, and could feel the girl sagging, slowing down. Her feet dragged and tripped along the uneven ground. Cara was about to faint. That would kinda ruin the 'getting to safety' part of the plan.

"Come on, we have to hide," she said, dragging Cara into the nearest clump of bushes. They crouched, breathless, watching the fight raging on the lawn.

Two of the Ginsu were down now, and it also looked like Wesley had been injured. Angel was battling hard, leaping in the air to avoid his feet being cut out from under him, and then spinning and kicking his assailant in the face. Cordelia averted her eyes, somehow finding it much harder to watch him fight now -- now that she knew how he felt.

"How did you know?" Cara said, her voice wobbling. "How did you find me? Oh -- God." She looked down at her hands, staring at the blood dripping from her fingers. Big flaps of skin hung open, glistening in the moonlight like ghoulish petals. It was too much, and she fainted.

"Oh, for the love of..." Cordelia muttered, letting Cara slump to the ground. It was impossible to keep the girl sitting up when she was completely limp and all slippery with blood. No big -- she'd wait for the guys to finish their slash-a-palooza, and then call an ambulance. By the look of things, everyone bar her and Angel would need stitches.

She fished in her jacket for her cellphone, breathing a sigh of relief as her hand closed around the small plastic and metal case. Just holding the piece of modern technology made her feel better. But -- it sounded like it was clicking. She pulled it from her pocket and held it up in front of her face. It wasn't even turned on.

Her spine prickled as she saw the reflection in the small screen of the Ginsu hunched behind her. "Of course," she said out loud. "Should have known -- they always come in a set of six."

Sharp pain screamed through her side, just above her hip, followed by the warm trickle of her own blood. Ignoring it, she spun as best she could from her squatting position, falling onto her butt, facing the demon.

One wild kick knocked it back a mere step, and the blood-curdling clicking noise rattled more loudly in its throat. She threw her knife at it, and missed completely. Great, there went her only weapon.

The Ginsu just stood there. Why didn't it attack? It moved its head slowly from Cara to Cordelia, sniffing. It was trying to work out which one of them was the target. She was covered in Cara's blood. Oh God, it would probably give up in a moment and just kill them both.

Panting hard, a habit that never left him, Angel stood over the body of the slain Ginsu. The air was thick with human blood. Cara's was all over the grass at his feet, and he fought off the urge to bury his hand in it, wipe it across his face, over his tongue...

After a moment's intense concentration, he dragged himself away, and looked over to Gunn, who was hacking away at the last of the five demons. "Need help?"

"Nah, go see if English is all right," Gunn said, between blows.

Cordelia's scream ripped through the still air. Angel hesitated. Wherever Cordy was, so was Cara. He couldn't go there, it wasn't safe. Another scream. He looked from the dazed Wesley to the battling Gunn.

"Angel!" She screamed.

There was no choice. Cordelia needed him. He began to run.

Her cries led him around the side of the building, where she was trying to find a door, anywhere she could get to safety. She was moving slowly, too slowly, dragging a semi-conscious Cara with her. The sixth Ginsu was tracking them like a wolf, pacing, waiting for them to fall. It stood between Angel and his Seer, unaware anyone was approaching.

Angel could smell Cara again, stronger now that he had rounded the corner. He hesitated for a moment, unsure if he could trust himself to go on, and then something else pricked in the back of his nose. Cordy's blood. It coated one of the Ginsu's talons. It would die for hurting her.

His game face emerged, and he flew at it, striking out with his sword. The two of them tumbled into a heap and went backwards through a bush.

Angel hit out, rage infusing him with extra strength. "Don't you ever. Go. Near. Her. Again!" He slashed furiously, chopping off lumps of flesh with each livid word. They rolled back, slamming against the wall of the hostel, coating the paintwork with black goo. The Ginsu roared, flashing its fingernails in all directions, trying to survive the onslaught.

When it grew silent, Angel stood up, casting the sword to the ground, and spinning around to see if Cordelia was okay.

"Angel!" She ran towards him, holding out her arms. He caught her in a fierce embrace, clutching her against his chest. She was all right, thank God. Her hands clasped the back of his neck, as if she were holding herself up.

"You okay?" he asked, his demon face buried in her hair. She nodded against his cheek, and he pulled away, dipping his head to kiss her.

Her reaction was immediate, recoiling, avoiding the fangs. "Angel, I can't," she gasped, stumbling backwards, looking down, evading his gaze. She began to tremble. "Oh, God, what have I done? Angel, I'm so sorry."

"What?" He didn't understand.

She held her hands up in front of her, looking at them as if they had betrayed her. They were covered in blood. Cara's blood.

He inhaled. He couldn't help it. Cara's scent covered him. It was creeping all over him like ivy, the tendrils of scent curling into his nostrils, growing up into his brain.

He reached up with a trembling finger and drew it through the moist red patch on his neck. He held it in front of his face, staring at the blood for an endless second, before putting it into his mouth and sucking. It tasted better than anything he could remember. His gut twisted. So hungry...

"Angel, stop it, you're scaring me," Cordelia said, balling her hands into her jacket pockets.

He looked around. The lush drapes, the rich, thick, woollen rugs, the roaring fire. He knew this place. He ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth, cold saliva rushing in anticipation.

"She's not just for you, I get to watch." Darla's breath cooled his ear.

He growled low in his throat and advanced, scenting the air.

"Angel, it's me, Cordy."

What was it saying? Something wasn't right. Didn't smell right. The smell was stronger -- behind it.

Cordelia felt her stomach drop. He didn't even know her anymore. She was covered in gypsy blood and she couldn't help him.

With a snarl, Angel sprang forward. She screamed, expecting him to grasp her shoulders and bite deep. But he shoved her aside, stopping to kneel over Cara, who was on her backside on the grass.

Cordelia watched in horror as he pushed up Cara's skirt, exposing her thigh. He dipped his head, and buried his fangs right into the spot she knew bore the birthmark. The slurping noise was awful, but not as horrible as the noise coming out of Cara's throat -- a scream of pure terror.

Cordelia felt the bile rising. As much as she knew Angel had no control over this, a tide of revulsion still engulfed her. Part of her registered this as her Angel killing Cara.

But through the disgust, another feeling struggled free. A fierce spark, that grew and burned in her chest. He needed her now, just as she had needed him a moment ago. It was her turn to be the strong one. She'd promised him she'd stop him from doing this, and she damn well would, whatever the cost. The spark in her chest burst into flame.

With a scream she threw herself at Angel, landing on his back. Kicking and punching, she pummelled his arms, his back, his head. For a moment, he broke away from Cara, and Cordelia's heart soared. One strong arm reached behind, grabbing her around the bicep. His fingers crushed into her flesh, and then she was tumbling to the ground, falling on her back, all the air jolting from her lungs. She couldn't get up, couldn't breathe. Couldn't block out the noise of fangs sinking into flesh and Cara's thin wails.

"Angel, put her down!" Wesley's voice was thin but menacing, and he used the same expression that one would when scolding a naughty dog. Cordelia rolled onto her knees, dragging air back into her chest. Thank God for Wesley. He would make things better -- he had to.

Angel lifted his head again, distracted. He turned his face to the sky, and Cara's blood trickled from the corner of his mouth.

"Cordelia, do something. You said if he freaked you could bring him back." Gunn reached for Wesley's crossbow, his voice betraying his distress.

"I can't, I'm covered in her blood," Cordelia coughed, holding her shaking hands towards them as evidence. "I got it on Angel and it changed him. He didn't even touch her. And I can't..." She stopped, pressing her sleeve to her mouth, unable to get another word out. It was her fault.

There was a crunching sound as Angel's teeth sank once more into Cara's thigh. She'd stopped struggling now.

"Move aside, Cordelia," Wesley said, his voice cold and determined, though his body wavered.

She looked at them, open-mouthed. "Oh, no, no."

"I gotta do it, Cordy, get out of the way." Gunn raised the crossbow, pointing the wooden bolt at Angel.

He was right. It was what Angel would want. He'd rather be dust than a killer. She hauled herself to her feet, backing away.

Time slowed down. She saw Gunn's finger, squeezing the trigger, Angel hunched over Cara's failing body, Wesley swaying and putting his hands on his knees for support. And in that split second before Gunn fired, her heart broke, and she knew. She finally knew how she really felt. Too late, once again.

In a blur, the world snapped back into real-time. And then everything happened at once.

A pulse of blue light burst from Cara's body.

"Gunn, wait!" Cordelia screamed, but the crossbow fired even as she opened her mouth. The bolt embedded in Angel's back, as the explosion rocketed him into the air.

Cordelia barely had time to register that he was flying towards her, on the crest of a blue shockwave. He landed, knocking her into Gunn and Wesley, and the four of them went down. There was some shouting, a lot of tumbling, and then painful quiet.

Cordelia tried to move. It wasn't easy with Angel, a dead-weight, sprawled across her back. At least that meant he hadn't dissolved into dust. Something sharp jabbed her ribs -- possibly the crossbow, possibly part of Wesley. He was way too bony for a pile-up like this.

Finally, she managed to free one hand and wipe the dirt and grass from her face. It was the only movement in the eerie stillness. Just laying there and waiting for something to happen felt like a good plan.

Wesley's voice, coming from somewhere by her left knee, broke the silence. "Ah, right. Of course. I think I've worked it out."

Chapter Seven: The Test

Angel's eyes snapped open. He could see clouds scudding over the night sky. His limbs buzzed and twitched. He felt warm, like he'd fed recently, and the tang of blood in his mouth told him it was true. Human blood. Cara's blood -- he could taste her essence in it. He sat bolt upright. Oh God, what had he done?

"Hey." Cordelia leaned her elbows against the top of the rear passenger door. "I'm glad you're awake. No way am I strong enough to carry you inside."

He looked around. They were parked outside her apartment building. "What happened?" He tasted the inside of his mouth again with growing terror, shifting in the seat, agitated.

"You don't remember?" she said, raising her eyebrows. He shook his head, puzzled and disoriented. Why wasn't Cordy angry, or frightened? Surely she had seen him...

Reaching up with trembling fingers, he touched the corner of his mouth. They came away smeared with congealed blood. "Cara," he gasped. "I killed her?"

"Don't get all amateur dramatic society on me. Cara's fine. Wes and Gunn are with her at the hospital." Cordelia rolled her eyes, but her voice was soft and reassuring.

"But I fed from her."

"Don't worry, you didn't get past the appetizer," she said.

The car felt like it spun for a moment, and he didn't care what or who had stopped him. Just that he hadn't killed anyone. And that Cordy was still talking to him, which was a miracle after what she'd seen him do. Cara, however...

"I -- I should go, apologise to her." He started struggling to get the door open, frantic. His hands shook and he fumbled the lock.

"I don't think she wants to see you right now. Or anytime, well -- ever," she said, holding out her hand. "Come on, you look like hell."

They made their way inside in silence. "Dennis, hot bath please?" she called, tossing the car keys onto the mantelpiece. The sound of running water drifted from the bathroom.

"Why are we here?" Angel stood in the middle of the room, shuffling his feet, wishing he could get over the adrenaline-like rush that came from drinking human blood. It disgusted him that it felt so good. If only he could stop the trembling...

"I don't know," Cordelia said, shrugging. "After Wes and Gunn threw you in the back seat, I just started driving, and here we are. I didn't want to go back to the hotel."

He sat down on the sofa, and rubbed his face restlessly. "What happened?"

"It's my fault." She sat beside him, close enough so her arm was pressed against his. "I wiped Cara's blood all over you." She held out her hands, still tainted with the offending substance, although it looked like she'd tried to wash them.

"She never touched me?" he said, looking up into her face.

"Well, some of her did," she sighed, flexing her stained fingers. "I'm sorry."

She blamed herself. How was it that every time he tried to protect her, he seemed to end up hurting her? He reached out and touched the side of her face gently. "It wasn't your fault. You're the only thing that's kept me sane these last couple of days."

"You weren't going mad, Angel. It was part of the prophecy," she said.

He shook his head, not understanding. "How?"

"The prophecy didn't mean you had to sleep with her -- it meant you had to feed from her. Wesley finally worked it out. Kinda after the fact, unfortunately."

He frowned. "So -- the hallucinations?"

"Would you have bitten her willingly?" she asked.

Of course not. He would never have fed from Cara, not without a one-hundred-percent guarantee that it was the right thing to do. Even then he couldn't have been sure he'd stop drinking in time. And he wouldn't have risked killing her. "You're sure that was it? That it worked?"

"Well, there was a big explosion. And in the ambulance after, Wesley looked at Cara's birthmark, and it was gone. Not even a hole where you..." She made a biting motion. "I'd say that all adds up to a great big 'duh'," she said, her face softening into a smile. "You're not crazy, Angel, you never were. Everything you were feeling was put there by someone -- or something."

"Not everything," he murmured, cupping her cheek. He leaned in for a kiss, and she shrank away, her face screwing up. Of course, she wouldn't want him now, not after what he'd done. He hung his head. So close, and yet...

"No, Angel, I'm sorry." Cordelia took his hand. "I would, but right now there's a really sick twist on 'you've got something in your teeth' that's grossing me out. You wash up, then perhaps after, there could be -- kissage."

She got up and went to the linen closet, getting towels and washcloths, while he watched her from the sofa.

That's when the relief hit, surging through him, combining with the blood-rush and forcing him to his feet. He'd been to the very brink, the precipice of total darkness, and this time his friends were there to pull him back. Cordelia had been right. Letting them in had saved him. Without them, he would have run from this, Cara would probably be dead, and he'd be alone again.

Last time he'd totally blown it, driven them away. This time, he still had his crew, his soul, and most amazing of all, Cordy still seemed to be considering whatever they had between them.

Pacing, he rubbed a hand over the back of his aching neck, feeling the powdery dried blood coming away beneath his fingers. He could smell it, sharp with iron, and dizziness made him lean on the edge of the sofa, leaving red-brown fingerprints on the upholstery.

Images crammed into his mind, jumbled, yet vivid. The fighting, Cara's thigh, quivering beneath his watering mouth, the blue light that filled his being, the sound of the crossbow firing, and finally, one endless moment where he heard Cordelia's anguished voice. 'Gunn, wait!' It rang over and over in his head.

He was on the floor, on his knees, gasping. "Cordy!"

"What?" She came running from the bathroom.

"Get this stuff off me," he said, his voice desperate and breaking. "Please."

"Okay, it's okay." She reached down and took his arms, pulling him up. "Come on." The look on her face spoke so clearly of the hurt she felt, seeing him like that. He stumbled and lurched, grateful when she wound both arms around his waist and guided him to the bathroom.

He tried in vain to undo his shirt, shaking fingers refusing to obey, and then he felt her tugging at his duster, pulling it down over his arms, and he just gave up, letting her undress him as he leaned against the vanity.

She continued, business-like, unlacing boots, peeling off socks, unbuttoning his pants and easing them down. He stepped out of them and stood before her, naked now apart from his boxers.

Cordelia had seen him like this a thousand times before, yet he felt nervous, his throat dry. She was standing back, waiting to see if he would go that last step by himself. He took the moment to turn away and rinse his mouth out in the sink, erasing the taste of Cara from his tongue.

Leaning on the counter top, he felt her hands on his waist, small and warm, just the lightest of touches, and then her thumbs slipping into the waistband of his boxers.

"You ready?" she asked, her voice husky. He nodded, and she slipped them down, letting him kick them away. He turned back to face her, trembling, afraid if he spoke it would break the spell, and she'd laugh, or make a joke, or worse, shove his clothes back at him and leave.

As soon as his eyes met hers, he knew his fears were groundless. Her face was flushed, a picture of desire. She smiled, not the big flashbulb-going-off that she normally used, just the faintest upward turn at the corners of her lips.

Taking his arm firmly, she guided him to the tub. He sank through the perfumed foam with a short sigh. The dried blood -- his own and Cara's, dissolved and curled away in little eddies as he moved his arms, reaching for the sponge. His fingers were still shaking. He fumbled and dropped it.

"Here, let me." Cordelia leaned in and retrieved the sponge, squeezing body wash onto it. She drew it over his chest, under his silver pendant. With firm movements she soaped his shoulders, then ran the sponge up behind his neck, making sure she removed all traces of blood. It felt so good. He closed his eyes, sighing.

Leaning forward, he let her work the soap over his back. "Ouch," he winced, feeling the sharp sting as she scrubbed over what felt like a deep puncture wound. "What was that?"

"Sorry, sorry." She grimaced. "Uh, Gunn shot you. Don't be mad."

"No, he did the right thing," he said, taking a deep, unnecessary breath. They'd tried to kill him, just like he'd asked them to in the car, while Cordy slept. He'd always wondered -- if it came down to the crunch -- if he could truly rely on them to respect his wishes. Now he knew.

Her eyes were moist. "It was really hard, Angel," she whispered. "I had to step back and let him fire."

He nodded. "I'm so proud of you, Cordy." The words felt inadequate. Reaching up, he slid his hand behind her neck, pulling her face to his. He kissed her softly, delighting when she responded in kind, sighing into his mouth, and leaning into him, her hands pressing against his chest. She slipped her arms around him, fingers playing against his back as he tipped his head to the other side and kissed her again, deeper, harder.

He could hear her heartbeat accelerate, feel the heat coming from her flushed face. He sensed her want -- arousal so keen it almost jumped out and bit him. He wasn't going to make it. He couldn't just sit there while she kissed him like that, when all he really wanted to do was drag her, fully clothed, into the water, press her against the floor of the tub, and ...

"Ow," she winced, breaking away, her hand suddenly going to her side.

"You're hurt," he said. The memory of her blood on the demon's talons emerged from the mental fog.

She shook her head. "It's nothing."

"Let me see."

"I'm okay, Angel, really," she protested, as he reached up and grasped her shoulders.

"Turn around," he insisted, twisting her carefully away from him. His hands made wet prints on her top as she gave up, facing the wall while he lifted her clothing. The scent of her blood wafted out as he tried to peel away the fabric. He removed his hand from her shirt, not wanting to hurt her. "You should have shown this to someone."

"I didn't feel it, truly. I guess I had other things on my mind," she said, shrugging. She looked down at herself and laughed. Grass stains, blood, ripped clothes. "Look at me, I'm a mess."

"Hadn't noticed," he fibbed. She was still the most beautiful woman in the world, regardless. He couldn't stop a huge smile spreading across his face.

"Well, I feel gross." She stood, and for one awful second he thought she was going to leave. But, to his amazement, she began kicking off her shoes instead. She looked down at him, eyes shining. In them, he could see fear, affection, confusion, desire and pain, jumbled together in a look that simultaneously broke and mended his heart.

Never breaking their gaze, she began to remove her clothes, tugging the shirt away from the wound on her side, grimacing, but not stopping. He smelled her fresh blood, and it only served to arouse him more.

Within a minute, she was standing naked beside the tub. Her skin puckered into goosebumps, although the room was warm and steamy. He could not tear his eyes away -- she was so beautiful, and she was -- his. All his. A naked goddess, allowing him to see her in her full glory for the first time.

And then Cordelia stepped into the bath, one long, beautiful leg at a time. She turned her back on Angel, sinking into the water between his legs, and lay back against his chest. He looked down her body, taking in her tanned breasts, and the flat expanse of her stomach angling into the water.

"Oh, Cordy," he whispered, slipping his arms around her, bringing his hands up to cup both breasts, feeling their weight, the nipples pressing like hard little buttons on his palms. He brought his face down to her neck, kissing and nipping at the sensitive spot just below her ear.

She sighed and wriggled in his arms, pressing further back against him. He longed for one more inch of skin against skin, but it was too soon. He let go, smiling at the little noise of protest that escaped from her throat.

Retrieving the sponge, he dabbed at the slash on her side. For a moment, Buffy floated into his mind, damp and shivering, the cut on her back rough beneath his fingers. If only he'd known then how fragile his soul was. The fear of losing it again was still so strong. What if...?

"Angel?" Cordelia's voice brought him back.

"It's all right, just a shallow scratch. You'll be fine," he said quietly.

Angel returned his attention to the sponge, brushing it over the back of her neck, down between her shoulder blades, sneaking around under her arms. He flicked the rough foam on the underside of her breasts, making her gasp and arch upwards. His other hand flattened over her stomach, pressing lightly, sliding lower, and disappearing beneath the bubbles.

Her eyes flew open wide as his fingers slid between her legs. He began to stroke and tease, threatening to enter her, but drawing back at the last moment. She threw her head back against his shoulder with a low moan, and his lips closed over hers, his tongue flicking gently, and then taking possession.

With a splash she turned over, causing a small wave of water to slosh over the side of the bath. "I want you, I want you," she whispered, her lips against his.

Angel swallowed hard as her breasts pressed against his chest. He brought his knees up, cocooning her, keeping her still, while he slid his hands over her perfect, perfect bottom. He squeezed the cheeks gently, cupping them, pulling her pelvis against his hardness.

She reached up and wound her arms around his neck, nipping at his lower lip. With a growl he complied, tasting her warm silky tongue, the kiss deepening, becoming frantic.

She was moaning softly, her hands gripping at his neck, his shoulders, and her stomach rubbed against him. He wanted to claim her right there in the bath, make her his in every way.

"Cordelia," he growled, turning his head away.

"What?" She looked up at him, breathing hard, her eyes smoky.

"We need to -- talk." He moved one hand to her back, running a finger along the dip of her spine.

"Now?" Her voice was heavy with disbelief.

"Are we doing what I think we're doing?" he murmured, nuzzling her cheek with his nose and lips.

"Well, duh! I thought you knew all about the birds and the bees." She rolled her eyes at him, but she was smiling.

"If the prophecy didn't work..."

"It did," she cut him off, planting little, warm kisses along his jaw line.

"Do you have a stake?" he asked quietly, struggling to keep his train of thought.

She stopped abruptly, kneeling back, looking at him with wide, sad eyes. "Yes," she said. "But..."

"If I turn, there'll be a minute or two where I'm weak, in pain, disoriented. You have to do it then." He leaned forward, cupping her face in his hands as her eyes filled with tears.

"No, Angel." She bit her lip. "I've already had to face losing you once tonight, and now you're asking me to do it again? I can't."

He pushed her hair back from her damp face. "You were very brave, and you know it was the right thing to do. I need you to be brave for me again."

"I wasn't brave, I was so scared," she said, the words rushing out. "I was going to lose you, just when I..." She put her hand over her mouth, suppressing a sob.

For a second she was silent, and then she took a deep breath. "The prophecy worked. I saw it. I saw her leg, the mark was gone. But if you think it didn't work..."

"No, I think it worked," he said, and he felt in his unbeating heart that it was true. "I'm sure it worked. I just want to cover all the bases. Which means you have to promise me -- just in case. I don't want to hurt you, ever again."

"I promise," she whispered.

Those two small words set him free. Free to finally feel the happiness she brought to him, free to love her with every fiber of his being, free to totally let go and share everything with her.

Cordelia marvelled at the look on Angel's face -- something lifted from it as she spoke. With a groan he drew his legs up beneath him, sliding his arms around her waist, lowering her back against the foot of the bath, reversing their previous position. She sighed as he pressed down against her. She could feel his anticipation growing, every muscle tensing.

He brushed his lips against hers, just once, before wandering away across her face, stopping at her cheekbone, backtracking, then moving purposefully towards her ear. He tripped down the pathway between jaw and neck, lingered in the valley of her throat, and then rushed joyfully towards her breasts. Everywhere he'd been left tracks of fire on her skin, like he'd planted a trail of tiny candles that burned just for her.

She curled her hands in his hair, holding his head to her as he lapped and sucked, fuelling the desire she felt for him. His teeth nipped playfully, teasingly; his tongue circling, dragging over sensitive skin, drawing gasps from deep within her.

And then he was on the move again, turning his attention to her stomach. His chin dipped into the water as he kissed her belly button, and then his whole face submerged into the bubbles.

His hands slid down to her thighs, gently parting her legs, pushing them against the sides of the bath. He nuzzled his mouth at her entrance, and his tongue found the hard little pebble there, his rough tastebuds caressing her into a frenzy.

Cordelia threw her head back, crying his name over and over. He was relentless, driving her closer to the edge. Oh, God, thank-you for a lover who never had to breathe. She was vibrating, her thighs and stomach quivering, and she let go of his head to grip the sides of the bathtub. Just to hang on to something solid as the rest of her world flew away in a whirlwind of sensation and heat.

He was watching her. She gulped in another lungful of air and looked down at his face, chin resting on her stomach, rivulets of water running down out of his hair. Hello, soapy goodness. And that devastating smile spread from ear to ear. Twice in one night -- that had to be a record on the Angel smile-o-meter.

Slowly, he uncurled himself from the kneeling position, splashing the cooling water, and she shivered, just a little.

"Cold?" he asked. She nodded reluctantly, never wanting to leave the sanctuary of the tub again. But that would lead to pruneyness, which wasn't attractive. Best to get out now.

He was already up, in more ways than one, she noted with a smile. Strong arms grasped hers, pulling her to her feet. Gone were the tremors and trembles of earlier, he was steady, solid, hard -- so hard...

"Cordy," he laughed, as she threw herself into his arms, craving to finish what had been started. "I can't dry you like this."

"Don't care," she murmured.

"Well, I do." He unwound her from his chest, stepping onto the sopping carpet.

He picked up the towel she had fetched, raising an eyebrow as he saw the second one beneath it. Cordelia could feel herself blushing. He knotted his around his waist, raising the other like a matador's cape, sweeping it around her and pulling her close.

Gently his large hands began to rub, making slow, wide circles on her back. She felt like a cat, arching against his touch, purring with pleasure. He reached down, cupping a hand behind her knee, bringing it up to his hip, running the towel over the back of her thigh.

She surrendered completely, leaning her head against his chest, hands clasped behind his neck, pliant in his arms as he caressed the water from her skin.

Heat was radiating off her in waves. She was the sun, shining just for him, filling him with light, with warmth. He remembered a time when he would have done - did do the unthinkable -- just to feel anything besides the cold. And now it was gone.

"Angel?" Her voice was thick as honey, dripping over him, coating him.

"Mmm?" He'd stopped moving. How long had he stood there, oblivious in her embrace?

"Enough with the drying already," she whispered, discarding her towel. It flowed down her body in ripples, pooling around her feet. "Come to bed."

He lifted her in his arms -- a feather -- carried her to the bedroom, and laid her on the bed, standing back to admire her.

"Too beautiful." He shook his head. She had no right to be that perfect.

"Less puppy eyes, more touching." She held out her hand, her hazel eyes dancing in the dim light from the hallway. He curled his fingers with hers, and let her pull him down.

"I love you, Cordelia," he whispered, cradling the side of her face with his hand.

"Angel," she sighed, reaching down, tugging the towel away from around his slim hips.

She gazed at him, stretched beside her, propped on one elbow, his long body a study of shadow and light. His skin pale, criss-crossed with cuts, and dappled with bruises and dew-drops of bathwater that the towel hadn't captured. Muscles, taut and hard. Beautiful, beautiful Angel.

"Cordy?" he whispered, his eyes asking permission to pass the point of no return.

"Follow me," she breathed, taking his hand in hers, drawing his fingers over her breast, thrilled at his touch. Shivering, she raised his palm to her face, licked it, tasting soap and skin, drawing his forefinger and thumb into her mouth, sucking hard. His other arm trembled beneath him, and his eyes flashed with desire.

She took his wet fingers; dragged them down her neck, moistening the hollow of her throat. She ached for him even more, watching her proud warrior submitting, meekly allowing her to guide him where she most needed him to be. He must have known, better than any man, how to touch a woman, yet he let her take the lead.

She pressed his hand to her mouth again, running the pads of his fingers around her lips, her tongue darting out to meet them. Arching upwards, brushing the cool roughness of his hand across her breasts, she painted her own salvia around one nipple. Then the other. They puckered beneath his fingertips.

His strength failed him, bringing his face down into the pillow of her breasts. He took a small nip of the flesh, sending sparks flying. "God, Cordy, you have no idea," he rasped.

"Shhh," she smiled, pulling his hand down, over her stomach. Fire erupted beneath it, her thighs dampening. He shifted, drawing himself up over her, kneeling beside her. His free hand curled into her hair, caressing, cupping her head and tilting her face up as he bent to kiss her.

His lips slid away, down her neck, back to her breasts, taking a nipple into his mouth. She felt herself lifting, pressing against his teeth, needing more. She pushed his hand lower, between her legs, fingers entwined with his, plunging them into her. His head snapped up, eyes locking with hers.

"Think I need lessons, do you?" he said, panting, a half-smile playing across his face.

"I want..." she gasped, pushing his fingers -- her own -- deeper.

"I know what you want, Cordy." He thrust, once, sending her hips flying off the bed.

"I want -- more," she moaned.

"You'll get it," he said, his voice coarse. He placed his other hand over her stomach, caressing, pressing gently downwards on her womb, as if he were trying to absorb the heat through his palm. Holding her still, he began to move, his fingers plundering her, his thumb stroking her clit.

Her own hand slipped away, curling in the sheet. Small tremors shook her thighs, her belly. Sparks of heat crackled in her toes, arcing upwards, seeking release.

He must be coated in her by now, dripping off his fingers and wetting the sheets.

God, she was gonna come again, and he was right there, watching her, his eyes so full of love... And then his face went fuzzy and the room turned upside-down. She could hear her own voice, chanting his name, distant, gasping.

When he came back into focus, he was smiling. "Told you I knew what you wanted."

"You forgot something," she murmured, retrieving him from between her thighs. Twining her fingers with his, still slick with her juices, she reached for his cock. She pulled along his length, squeezing, making him touch himself. He gasped, his eyes rolling back, stomach quivering.

"God, Cordelia," he groaned. The want on his face fuelled her own even more.

"I want that, too," she whispered, stilling their hands.

"Then take it, baby," he said raggedly, sliding his arms around her, rolling her on top. She knelt astride him, the anticipation delicious as she hovered over him.

"Angel, I love you." She bent forward, kissing his scarred chest. His fingers laced in her hair, holding her head to him, as she gently lowered herself down, over him, enveloping him.

He filled her completely, and she gasped as she settled all the way.

"Okay?" he asked, stroking her hair.

"Better than," she said, sitting up, leaning her hands on his chest, feeling his hard nipples under her palms. Slowly, she began to move, getting used to his size, his feel. His hands slid onto her hips, guiding her, urging her on. The air in the room began to hum. "Do you feel that?" she whispered.

He sat up, clasping her to his chest, forcing her to stillness. "I feel..." he brushed the tips of his fingers across her face. She could smell herself on him, and it was intoxicating. She crushed her mouth to his, eating him, lips, teeth, tongue. No more playing.

He must have sensed the shift -- one moment she was in a tender embrace, the next, on her back, Angel above her, hovering between her thighs, barely inside her.

"Angel," she whimpered.

"Shhh, baby, I'm yours," he said, and his body came down on her, driving into her. The tenderness was gone, replaced by fever. She clutched at his back, accepting it, wanting it more than the air that was rushing in and out of her lungs. His hips cannoned against hers, faster, higher, harder. She felt his cool tears raining on her face. Heard the incoherent sounds of pleasure rumbling in his chest. Felt the tempest begin where his body melted into hers.

Her whole world exploded in a shower of brilliant white light, and even as she drifted back down from heaven, she felt him flood into her, gasping her name. She forced her eyes open to watch him come, and his expression made her cry. His face, normally heavy with guilt, with sorrow and regret, looked so different in that one moment of release. Pure happiness, unadulterated bliss.

This was the worst part, Cordelia thought -- the waiting. She pulled her robe tighter around her, and drew her legs up onto the chair. The stake clutched in one hand felt solid against her palm -- but not comforting.

The craziness of what they'd just done took her breath away. Weak, weak, weak, she chastised herself. So much for being his rock -- his safe haven. Dammit, he was vulnerable and shaken, and she should have known better.

Even the tiniest little sliver of doubt about the prophecy's validity should have been one tiny sliver too much. They should have just made the best of what they had. No-bone Angel was better than no Angel at all.

Sure, he believed that the prophecy had worked. She knew there was no way in the world he'd ever have risked any of this otherwise. But earlier he'd also believed that he was powdered-wig-boy and that Cara was a Happy Meal. It didn't exactly make for a sparkling track record in good judgment.

She sighed, trying to get off the mental ferris-wheel. Hugging her knees, she waited.

The moonlight had gone now, and the gentle patter of raindrops against her window was almost comforting. Far away, a weak flicker of lightning lit the sky, just visible through the curtains. A gentle, low rumble shuddered around the heavens. Her spine prickled. This had better not be the Powers getting all metaphorical on her.

"Cordelia!" Angel sat bolt upright, gasping. She jumped, almost falling off the chair.

"Angel?" She gripped the stake tighter. He put a hand up, clutching at his chest, his eyes scanning the room. Sweat beaded on his forehead.

Oh God, she couldn't do this, not again. Not now. "Angel?" she repeated, her voice shaking.

"Cordy." He swallowed hard, getting his bearings, his wild breaths subsiding. "I dreamed -- how long have I been asleep?" he asked, glancing at the window.

Okay, not a particularly evil question. Her heart dropped back out of her throat and resumed its proper place in her chest. "About an hour. You dreamed what?"

"It -- it doesn't matter." He looked heavenwards, his eyes misty. "I'm still..."

"Angel." She breathed the word out in a long sigh. He was still Angel. No more Angelus.

"Oh, God," Angel whispered. The sense of relief was palpable. It was more than that. It was totally overwhelming. He ran a hand through his hair. "Oh, God."

"It worked." Cordelia's eyes were wide as saucers. "Angel, it worked!" she shrieked, leaping onto the bed. "Don't you get it?"

He just sat there staring at his hands. What on earth had made him take such a risk? What had made him so sure that his soul wouldn't be ripped from him again? I think maybe we're not alone in this.

Kate's voice in his head was the last thing he expected right then. But the sudden memory brought clarity. Something had let him into her apartment uninvited that night. Something had tricked him into feeding from Cara. Something had told him it was safe to consummate his love for Cordelia. He didn't know what. He didn't want to know.

"Angel, don't you get it?" Cordelia repeated, her pretty features pulled into a frown.

"Yeah, I get it," he said quietly, and at last, he really felt he did.

Another rumble of thunder made the air vibrate outside. The rain was thick now, enveloping the apartment in a snug cocoon.

"Do you want to celebrate?" Her voice dropped to a low purr, and as she advanced on all fours, her robe slipped open.

He smiled, letting go of all the fear, reaching behind her head and pulling her face down to him. "I think I do."

"I love you, Angel," she said, her mouth against his. He kissed her, lips parting, allowing their tongues to dance together.

His hands entered the tent of her robe, slipping the light, silky garment aside as he cupped her breasts. "Cordy," he moaned into her mouth. Her lithe body descended on his, rubbing against his instant erection through the thin sheet.

"Mmm, dj vu," she murmured, reaching down to push the offending barrier away, curling her hand around him.

"Get used to it," he whispered.

The End.

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